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Tobias  nodded, and did his own assessment of the team.  Shannon had her sword, gems, and sorcery.  He, himself, had his magic, a knife, and the borrowed boltcaster.  Gavin was very obviously well armed, and had his shoto in his hands.  Oifa . . . had a tiny clip knife and her magic.

He looked to Gavin for tactics.

“Tobias, cover me, I’ll take point,” the younger man said.  “Shannon, protect Oifa.  Oifa, do what you can magically, but try to contact someone . . .”

“Ariel,” Tobias said.

“Ariel, if possible,” Gavin agreed.  “Start now and keep trying.  If it were me, I’d try to block communication, but maybe we’ll get lucky.  If not, I’ll give them a distraction.”

Everyone had some training for these situations, the world was a dangerous place with faction conflicts.  But, that was years ago.  Tobias knew he, at least, hadn’t used those skills since a year or so out of school.  He doubted Oifa or Shannon had either.

Still, he drew his wand-sized staff and did his best to hold it along the boltcaster stock.  His magic was more comfortable, but the ‘caster could be more useful.

A glance toward Oifa was returned with a sharp shake of her head.

No luck getting through then.

The signs were pointing more certainly toward hostiles.

Tobias tried to push those thoughts from his mind as he followed Gavin.  He was almost successful, when they reached the camp.

The youngest sorcerer stepped straight over the line of their wards, Tobias a few feet behind him.  The other pair stopped right on the line.

Looking around, Tobias saw nothing amiss, except Cierra standing alone near the campfire.  She had her sword in hand and he felt Gavin tense for a moment before relaxing himself.

Gavin spoke first, “Where’s Alyce, Cierra?”

“In the woods,” the witch shrugged, turning it into a roll of her shoulders to loosen them.

“Where are your friends?  A witch couldn’t have altered sigil and sorcerous wards alone.”

Tobias tried to visually scan the camp while his colleague stalled, or whatever he was doing.  He spotted nothing, until more than a dozen men and women emerged in the camp.  Some came out of the tents, others seems to step out of empty air.  All were armed and bore staves.  Tobias quickly guessed that about half held close in weapons and the rest crossbows, cheaper and more common than boltcasters.  All the arms appeared magical to different degrees, though the ambient auras of so many sorcerers in a small space made details difficult to tell.

Whatever they carried, the result was the same.

They badly outnumbered his team.

Their clothes varied so much, he couldn’t even guess what faction they belonged to.  If they even belonged.  They could be the Free, he thought.

As he rapidly assessed, Tobias missed Gavin saying something.  He only heard Cierra say, “It’s not personal, I’ve been working for months.  The elders, in their infinite wisdom,” she sneered, “decided I’m not suited for high magic.  The Circle disagrees.”

Damn.

The Circle.

No one knew anything useful about them, secretive bastards.  Tobias would have guessed the Order, trying to attack the Coven.  But the Circle . . . their motives were impossible to know.


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Barely above a whisper, Tobias asked, “Something wrong?”

Gavin nodded, “Someone’s messing with the camp wards.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive. Reinforcing them with my blood linked them to me.”

“How are they . . .”

“Can’t tell, it’s not that precise. Or who, either.”

“Right,” Tobias fished out the communication crystal again, “Oifa, Alyce. Station two’s gone. Something’s . . .” he caught Gavin shaking his head. “Meet back at Alpha to discuss.”

“On our way,” Oifa acknowledged.

No response came from Alyce.

Troubling, but it was possible the anomaly could interfere. He didn’t believe it, given Oifa’s reply and the camp, but it was possible.

Alpha was a spot roughly equidistant from the third and fourth spikes. They’d previous agreed to meet there in the event of experiment failure.

As he jogged alongside Gavin, trying to both keep up and avoid deadfall, Tobias asked, “Why’d you . . .?”

“If the camp’s compromised, they could have people out here or listening in somehow. Best to talk in person.”

Tobias decided to save his breath and simply nodded. It made sense, and Gavin was supposed to be their security.

“And I don’t like Alyce not responding,” Gavin said. “It made sense to send them, I’m not second guessing. But, they’re the weakest team, I’d target them. So, the camp issue could have their crystal.”

Tobias nodded again, keeping most of his attention on not tripping. The woods on the Tower campus were no prep at all for this place. He missed the manicured grass and shrubs beneath well ordered trees. The real forest was a mess of fallen trees, bracken, undergrowth, and sucking mud pits. The Coven hadn’t even worn a path around the anomaly . . . or hadn’t had time to, with it expanding. Damn.

It didn’t help that while Gavin wasn’t entirely at home, he still seemed to glide through the vegetation without an ounce of effort. Two days seemed as good as two years for the younger man’s adaptability.

“One day . . . you’ll have to . . . tell me . . . where you studied,” he panted as they kept on.

Gavin glanced back quickly, “Maybe, but this isn’t the time.” He neatly sidestepped a root and jumped a low long in one fluid motion.

Tobias clambered over the same log, bits crumbling off, disintegrating beneath his fingers.

By the time they reached the rendezvous point, a misty rain started, adding to the day’s chill. Damp and cold, Tobias reflected as they waited for the others, were never a good combination. Unless the day was free for reading by a roaring fire, inside, of course.

Soon, Gavin was filling the others in on his theory and concern.

“It could just be the Coven,” Oifa suggested.

“But why would they mess with the wards?”

“Fair point. What about the Rover?”

Shannon shrugged, “Same problem. If there is a Rover watching, they haven’t done anything so far. Why start by disturbing wards?”

“And not an animal,” Gavin added, “The wards weren’t set off, they were . . . changed, I think. I’d feel the difference.”

“Besides,” Tobias said, “they were designed to steer the local wildlife away from the camp.”

“We have to assume hostiles, and about a hundred yards or so away,” Gavin said. He drew his boltcaster and held it out to Tobias. “Ever used one?” Tobias shook his head, “Hopefully you won’t have to, but push this. Two second recharge, then point and push again.”

He looked around them as Tobias took the unfamiliar weapon.

“It’s a good thing these woods are fairly dense.”

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As always, this is only lightly edited and comments are more than welcome.


Once, Tobias looked askance when the younger man paused.

“Could the devices’ve been sabotaged?”

Tobias shrugged, “I suppose it’s possible, of course. They were experimental and probably fiddly at best. But, who would?”

“That Rover’s still out here somewhere.”

“Why would he want to sabotage? The Rovers were part of the pair who asked us here.”

“Clearly not a unanimous decision,” Gavin said, with his own shrug.

Tobias chuckled, “Good luck with that. There’s never full consensus. Come to a faculty meeting sometime. I swear, if you put three faculty on a committee, they’ll come up with five options and spend months fighting over them.”

“That’s why I don’t go,” Gavin smirked, before continuing on their way.

Tobias smiled, at least he seemed a little more relaxed, or less jumpy. the same thing, really.

As they covered the last hundred yards or so, Tobias accepted enough to start running possible replacements through his head. Containment was key, he thought, because they needed to stabilize the effect before they could thoroughly study it. Considering the energies involved, he fervently hoped Oifa was right about it being natural. That was potentially scary enough, like a volcano or tornado, but the thought of someone controlling or unleashing those forces on purpose . . . did not bear thinking about.

He felt a shudder ripple through his body as they drew up to the second site.

Or, rather, several yards from where it had been.

At least three absorbed, then.

Probably all five. If three were gone, the chances of the other two holding were astronomically slim.

Determined to get some data, at least, Tobias extended his staff. He pressed the end into the ground a mere finger’s width from the anomaly’s edge. Both hands gripping the worn, smooth wood, Tobias concentrated on linking a few spells while Gavin scanned the woods around them.

As relatively minor sorcery, he drew and molded the power from himself, forming it like putty in his head. Once the shapes felt right, Tobias sent the magic through his hands into the old wood, past the glyphs he had painstakingly carved by hand over many years. It balked at the end, perhaps sensing the strange, foreign magic nearby. Some theorized that magic was inherently a living, even possibly sapient, thing.

The mental equivalent of a nudge sent the form into the ground.

There, Tobias felt it spread—freely beneath his feet and around, but quickly impeded toward the anomaly. He smiled faintly as the spells flowed toward the edge, then bounced back.

One of his colleagues, Master Coffman, described the technique as being like radar or sonar. She’d been born mundane and grew up among them, a rarity.

But, it was often effective.

Even if the spells didn’t provide the information they were intended to, their reactions and those of their target created something interesting.

He just wasn’t sure how useful, yet.

He would have to compare notes with Oifa later.

Once he was certain he could describe the response to Oifa, Tobias released the spells and turned his attention to Gavin.

The younger man seemed troubled, his brow furrowed and eyes narrowed to mere slits. His hands, Tobias noticed, had also wrapped around the hilts of sword and wand.

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8

After a brief, pre-dawn, breakfast, Tobias divided the team and set out in three groups to check their devices. Since they knew the area best, Alyce and Cierra were told what to look for and sent toward the farthest point. Shannon and Oifa went clockwise while Tobias and Gavin took widdershins from the base, to divide the primary designers. Each team had a small, clear crystal they could use to contact the others a couple times before the spells on them wore out.

If everything worked, reaching the first marker should have taken about ten minutes.

Tobias was, naturally, surprised then when Gavin suddenly pulled him to a stop after about seven or eight minutes.

“Look, the trees,” the younger man said, nodding ahead.

“Damn.”

The spring buds were only a couple feet away, and they were still several yards from where the spike had been planted. Still, Tobias decided, they should try to find the item. It could have something useful to tell them. Maybe the growth hadn’t been circular but come through a gap. They could have placed the devices too far apart.

He motioned forward, keeping one eye on the spring trees.

It took another ten minutes of searching, both by eye and spell, before Tobias admitted that the containment failed. They had not misplaced, forgotten, or otherwise lost the spike. It had been absorbed by the anomaly.

Well, success on the first try would have been amazing. the odds were not in its favor. But, it was too bad they couldn’t recover the device to see what failed. That meant they were still going into round two effectively blind.

Tobias shrugged to himself and took out the comm crystal while Gavin stared into the woods.

“Oifa, Alyce. Station three is gone. No sign, presumed absorbed,” he said, “Any results?”

“Station four’s gone too,” said Oifa’s voice, a little distorted by the crystal. “Instructions?”

“We’ll proceed to two, see if we can confirm. Go ahead to five, though I doubt we’ll have much luck.”

“Understood. Is it us or does the area look bigger than it should?”

Tobias glanced at Gavin, who nodded after a moment’s thought.

“Gavin confirms. Any thoughts?”

“Not yet, maybe a theory. I’ll see after five.”

“Sounds good,” Tobias said, returning the crystal to a pocket. He hadn’t expected any contact from Alyce and Cierra. they shouldn’t have reached the first station yet, but now at least they’d know not to expect much.

The excitement and urgency of seeing if the containment had worked were gone. So, the pair took a more sedate pace toward their second device point.

Tobias allowed himself to enjoy the warmth of the rising sun, slightly tempering the chill morning air. Like the others, he wore an outer layer against the pre-dawn cold, and, later, autumn’s winds. And he carried most of his cryptomancy equipment, in case he needed to adjust anything. That clearly was not needed, a concern for later. For the time being, Tobias lost himself in the brisk day and breeze in the trees.

His companion was certainly less relaxed. Gavin’s tense posture and shifting eyes were obvious even to Tobias, and the conscious attempts, reminders, to relax. The latter, he noticed, manifested in rolled shoulders and the occasional deep breath.

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Which was fine. After all, combined they had at least twenty years of experience with the magic, at near master levels. Not counting Gavin, of course. He was both the youngest and a non-magic specialist, despite his apparent high magic schooling.

Somewhere.

It occurred to Tobias that the younger man still hadn’t said where he was trained. He’d only said what he had trained in.

That little mystery still nagged at his mind, apparently.

What he’d studied . . .

Oh, very nice. If that could work, it would kill two proverbial birds with one stone.

The camp returned to visual focus as Tobias quickly sought Oifa.

He spotted her in animated conversation with the two Coven witches a few yards away. In his peripheral vision, Tobias absently noted the others putting together some food for lunch.

Conscious of the young witches, he called, “Master Salovich, could I float an idea by you when you get the chance?”

Tobias mulled over his thought, probing for weaknesses and fleshing it out, as he waited. After a few minutes, when Oifa joined him, he thought he’d looked at every angle. But, he was no theorist and wasn’t well versed in each component.

“What can I help you with, Tobias?”

“Fairaday.”

“What about it?”

“We plan on cryptomancy and lithomancy, so neither can be the buffer.”

“Correct. I fear my alchemy’s no good in this case either, from what Shannon’s explained of the plan.”

Tobias nodded, his brow furrowing, “That’s what I’d thought as well. Perhaps with are-design and lab . . . but never mind.”

“Sorcery, then.”

“I’d thought of that. Considered it. But, we do have another option. A potentially very elegant and efficient option,” Tobias paused to collect his thoughts. “Could blood magic be used to both enhance the power and serve as a buffer?”

Oifa stared into the fire for a time as the business of lunch carried on around the pair. The clatter of plates and scents of a cold meal barely registered on Tobias’s subconscious. He leaned ever so slightly toward his colleague, anticipating a flaw he’d failed to spot.

“In theory,” Oifa finally breathed, “I believe it could be done. But, it would take some careful spellwork and, obviously, a blood mage. Using that magic for more than raw power is always somewhat risky, it isn’t really taught much, I think.”

Tobias sighed, “I’ll leave you to discuss the details with Gavin, then. I plan on weaving in these three sigils,” he sketched a few symbols from two tongues on a scrap of paper, “Check with Shannon regarding the gems. If we can, I’d like to get five placed before nightfall.”

At Oifa’s nod, his own excitement grew. They would be doing something, an original thing in fact. And it should get them out of the woods and back home. After a couple days gathering data, of course.

As soon as the meal was over and cleaned, Tobias was bent over the table in his tent. He very carefully and cautiously painted sigils on Shannon’s prototype. His brush’s hairs barely reached into the double digits, his hands steady from over a decade of training. One of his old teachers had made students write sigils in the most trying circumstances they could imagine, to replicate field conditions. They’d all cursed the old bastard then, Tobias recalled, but thanked him today.

Shannon sat at the other end, adhering her gems and drawing out the appropriate magic, or whatever she did for that art. So far as he knew, Gavin was outside practicing what Oifa’d taught him. Oifa and the witches were out procuring small animals for Gavin. He had said something about needing sources, not wanting to link himself to the devices by using his own blood. Sensible, actually, if aggravating in the time lost.

Fortunately, execution of the plan proved both simple and elegant, relatively speaking.

A few minutes before sunset, Tobias and Shannon placed and activated the fifth containment spike. After a couple moments to ensure it was active and seemed to be working, they started toward the camp with Alyce accompanying them under sorcerously conjured lights.

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Tobias stared into the low fire, watching the flames’ hypnotic dance and occasional swirls of smoke. For a time, he reflected on the universal fascination with fire.

“We plan on natural and dimensional,” he decided, “Have you brought up our idea?”

Shannon shook her head, then proceeded to walk Oifa through her prototype. Tobias watched and listened in despite knowing most of the plan. The details were somewhat interesting and he’d have to consider how her magic would interact with his.

When the description ended, Oifa stared at the device for a few seconds. Then she said, “How will you account for Fairaday’s Law?”

Dammit.

Mixing two high magics generally meant that one would overpower the other. They had to be carefully balanced, often with a buffer.

“Honestly, hadn’t thought that far,” he said, “I’m still figuring the runes, sigils, whatever. Reinforcing protection’s easy, connecting that to land, dimensions . . . is obscure at best. I’m not even certain a strong sigil exists for that.”

Oifa nodded, “I’ve heard adaptation can . . .”

“Adapting is possible, new sigils that work are rare anymore, so we have to adapt some. But, adapting is tricky and often weakens the effect. The question’s whether adapting one or finding an obscure symbol is more dangerous.”

The trio lapsed into silence, each considering their own concerns. Or so Tobias assumed. He knew at least that’s what he was doing. This was not the sort of research that he intended to do. Sitting in a library or some dig somewhere poring over ancient texts or artifacts to decipher sigils or learn lost ones, that was research. This was not the sort of field work he’d trained for. the pressure of the time limit and the possible effects of failure, for two things, were beyond what he’d expected on signing with the Tower.

His reverie was interrupted by Gavin and Cierra returning.

The other sorcerer paused at the wards as the witch passed through. Tobias watched their guardian flip open a clip knife while Cierra spoke to the others. He saw Gavin prick his left thumb and stow the knife, then press the thumb to the middle of Tobias’s sigil. He muttered something before Tobias felt a surge of power flow into the wards. Gavin held that position for a full minute before joining the others.

He sat by Tobias.

“The wards’re reinforced, and tied to me. I’ll know whatever happens to them.”

“Hidden depths.”

“Did a couple years of blood magic, seemed like a good idea. Haven’t had much call to use it since,” Gavin shrugged.

“Anything odd out there?”

“Looks like they said. Nothing I could see, but I’m no specialist.”

“Signs of other watchers?”

“No other Coven, I think. Or Rovers. But, both know the territory and I didn’t have much time to look.”

Tobias watched the other four talk while he and Gavin spoke. He outlined their containment ideas, including the Fairaday snag.

“I’m not much for the theory stuff,” Gavin said with another shrug, “but if there’s anything I can do to help out, I’m game. Looks like it’ll be dull here otherwise.”

Tobias nodded, his eyes focused on something in the middle distance, “Thanks. I’m mostly talking to think. Sometimes hearing the problem again helps.” He drifted off, Gavin out of this mind, muttering, “Fairaday buffer” repeatedly to himself. If he said it enough time, some solution would come to mind.

It would have to be sorcery.

Adding gem or word magic would upset the balance. Alchemy could buffer, but in this application, he couldn’t see a practical way to introduce it. Maybe Oifa could, but assuming not, that left sorcery.

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Oifa stepped in before Gavin could reply.

“Pairs.  Alyce can escort me.  Cierra with Master Marker, and the others in camp.  Compromise?  Perhaps the camp wards can be strengthened, if our hosts acquiesce?”

“Agreed,” both men said at once, Tobias adding, “Let’s get started then.  Sooner we figure this out, the sooner we can go home.”

As most of the group filed off into the woods, after cleaning up, Tobias ducked into his tent to retrieve his bag.  He nodded to Shannon, then toward the perimeter.

“How’re your sorcery wards?”

He got a rueful smile, “Better than this witchcraft.”

“I’ll get some runes up, you take the sorcery?  Save the stone for more important things?”

As he removed a small pot of paint and a brush from his pack, Tobias saw her draw a short wand.  It expanded into a tall staff of dark wood capped with silver on both ends.  the wood appeared to be many pieced twisted together, the top cap was some fanciful design that held a few gemstones.

She planted the butt of the staff in the ground near the camp’s center.  While she closed her eyes and held the staff with both hands, Tobias moved to the trees on the perimeter.

He felt the energy flowing through the staff into and through the ground with a sixth sense possessed by all mages.

Moments later, Tobias was absorbed in drawing a complex sigil on the nearest tree.  His vision narrowed to the six inch square area as he concentrated on getting the symbol just right.  Six other trees followed, each bearing a series of three symbols.  He’d prefer ten, but there weren’t enough conveniently placed trees to make a solid circle.  But, it should do well enough, reinforced by Shannon and the witches’ spells.

Nearly two hours later, he found his fellow instructor sitting by the fire, her staff leaning against her shoulder.

When he joined her, Shannon said, “I’ve been thinking about containment.  Some general protection stones, if combined with appropriate runes?”

“I’ll check.  Maybe a time or space sigil, none come to mind off-hand immediately, but there should be something.  Thoughts on how they’ll interact?”

“I hadn’t gotten that far,” Shannon shrugged, “I thought adhering the stones with sorcery, with the runes drawn on the stones themselves?”

Tobias nodded, “Logical.  Sounds feasible.  The ‘glue’ spell shouldn’t interfere with either magic.”

“I’ll put together a couple samples while you study.”

Both retired to their tents, leaving the fire banked but easily restored.

Tobias assumed Shannon would be mostly sorting stones.

He quickly sorted through the handful of books he’d brought along.  The Saxon, he knew well.  There were no obvious runes there, although sigel, the sun rune, or eþel, the homeland rune, could potentially be forced or cajoled into use for time or land-space.  The proto-Germanic jera, year, would be better for time, but he’d found the proto-Germanics difficult to use.  Perhaps because they were theoretical roots that had not existed as such.

Finding two books, Tobias took a seat in the front part of the tent.  The chair had nothing on his Tower study, but its plain wood frame and canvas served their purpose.  It was a comfortable enough place to skim through Germanic rune lore and study a more general text on sigils that he hoped might have something more specific to their desired meanings, if in a system he had less familiarity with.  That was always tricky, since each symbol always had multiple meanings and uses, all tied to the culture.  Not understanding the culture had led many cryptomancers to unintended effects and consequences with rune spells.

He emerged a couple hours later with a plan in mind.

At some point while he’d been inside, Oifa and Alyce had returned.  The younger woman seemed to be studying the new wards while the elder sat with Shannon, looking over some small items.

Tobias saw, as he drew closer, that they were stacks of gemstones, about two inches in height.  They should be good for setting up his part of the devices, he decided.

Once he sat, Oifa said, “Good.  I can report once then.  I ran a couple tests, fairly standard sorcery in the theory world.  The results weren’t the most solid I’ve ever seen, but I believe the effect’s natural and not temporal.”

“So . . .?”

“It was not created by anyone,” Oifa clarified, “And I suspect it’s the sign of another world or plane that’s encroaching on ours.  There’s some literature that suggests it’s possible, though I haven’t heard of it happening recently,” she raised a hand to forestall questions, “But, I’m no expert on that branch of theory.  Master Tiorano might be better, but I think he went on leave this year.”

“No chance of contact him?” Shannon asked, though she clearly knew the answer.

“I doubt it, he was going on a dig in . . . Thailand, I think, on a remote island off the coast.”

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7

Dawn found Tobias groaning on his camp bed as a stray beam of light found his closed eyes with laser-like precision.  He had half a mind to roll over and avoid waking, but the knowledge that his tent had a gap would gnaw at his mind and hold sleep at bay.

Besides which, he heard the others moving around outside already.  There were at least two, trying to be quiet.

With a final groan, Tobias rolled to a sitting position, memories of a restrained carouse coming back with a mild headache born of unaccustomed alcohol and the unfamiliar night noises to the woods.  There’d been no excessive drinking, but he wasn’t used to much in the first place.

A simple piece of sorcery took care of the headache.  Most students learned that one, unofficially, during their first term at the Tower.

Then he remembered that the tent lacked a shower.  Fortunately, there were a couple other, simple, spells that had the same effect, even if they were less satisfying.

Clean, if not refreshed, and awake, if only in name, Tobias caught the mingled scents of tea and coffee drifting in with the sun.  The allure of a hot drink and true wakefulness was too strong to resist.

He found both Coven witches and Gavin stirring around the fire.  Apparently they’d decided to fully embrace “roughing it” for the time.  Or maybe the Coven tents weren’t as well equipped as the Tower’s.

That thought stopped as Shannon emerged, looking as grumpy as he felt.  She settled next to Gavin and accepted a cup.  Tobias took his own place and filled a mottled blue and white metal mug with some of the tea.  the steam rising into the brisk morning air promised alertness, or some facsimile thereof.

All passed in silence for a few minutes, at least until the cups were half empty.  The n Gavin said something Tobias didn’t catch.

Shannon shook her head, “The Order enforced an early morning, strict regimen.  Hated it, but old habits are hard to break.”

Tobias caught both young women glance her way, distrust suddenly clear in two pairs of eyes.  It faded in a second, hidden, but that was the moment Tobias’s foggy brain needed for understanding.  As the caffeine kicked in, he recalled the Coven and Order were philosophical opposites.  They’d fought for centuries.  He’d been cloistered long enough to almost forget what was otherwise common knowledge.  At the Tower, there were no factions.  Joining the faculty or staff meant severing all faction ties, though the early programming of youth obviously survived to some degree.

Silence prevailed as Oifa joined them and everyone dug into a quick breakfast.

Tobias nodded to Oifa as everyone wrapped up.  She returned the gesture and took Cierra aside.  they’d talked the previous night, and agreed Gavin should join the locals on their patrol.  He decided Oifa would be better to ask them, given the Coven’s mostly female membership.

Once she was done, Tobias’s attention turned to Alyce.

“We’d like to have as little impact as possible,” he said.  “If you’d like to continue your usual routine, we’ll try to stay out of the way.”

“We really don’t have much to do, just a daily hike around the perimeter,” Alyce said, “and reports to the elders of our coven.  It’s, honestly, been really boring.”

Tobias let out a small chuckle, “I can imagine.  Before I left for the Tower, my master had me spend weeks staring at two copies of a book, looking for minute differences.  Nearly drove me mad.  That might have been the point, come to think of it.”

When no response came, he figured it was a generational thing and turned back to the Tower people.

Oifa shrugged, “I don’t think alchemy’s going to be much use here, not without a forge or furnace, so I’ll be the theory person.  I think some sorcery tests should help figure out a couple things.”

Tobias nodded, “I couldn’t see any obvious signs of cryptomancy, but there could be something near the center.”

“No obvious gems either,” Shannon said, “But it would be easy to bury some and still get the effect.  A few things come to mind.”

“So figure out what, first,” he said, “Oifa’s on that.  We can start drawing up some kind of containment plan.  Gavin, see about a feel for the lay of the land, unless you have any other ideas.”

“I think it would be best to stick together,” Gavin opined, “at least until I’ve had time to assess the situation and possible threats.”

“Granted,” Tobias said, “But, I’d like to have something to report when, if, the Headmaster gets in touch so he doesn’t think we’re just messing around out here.”

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(Spring Forest)

Shannon and Alyce nodded, the former absently, though neither made a move to leave. Oifa just muttered something about “planes, not time” that he couldn’t fully make out. Truthfully, he didn’t feel like leaving either. The site had a sort of hypnotic appeal, a draw that he couldn’t define.

At a loss, Tobias looked as closely as he could for symbols or the glint of light on a stone. Remaining conscious of the dividing line took some work, it was easy to get focused on searching and forget.

Nothing stood out to him, nothing obvious in his line of sight anyway. There could be something in the center, but going in before they knew what it was would not be a good plan. He’d spent enough time at the Tower to know better than to mess with strange, possibly rogue, magic. Master Thomlin was still in recovery, a month after his incident.

With a sharp, dog-like, shake of his head, Tobias broke the proverbial spell to see the falling angle of the sun’s light.

He shook Oifa and Shannon by the shoulder. As Oifa collected Alyce, he said, “Let’s go eat, or Gavin’s likely to come after us swords first.”

Alyce flashed her first smile, “He’d have to outrun Cierra, and even a wolf with a burning tail couldn’t beat her.”

They were halfway back when they all caught the scent of frying onions and an undercurrent of cooking meat. The combination drove out all concerns about the anomaly and quickened their pace.

Alyce led Tobias by a few paces. He found the fire built up to a modest level in one part of the pit. The other contained glowing coals and a couple black frying pans. Cierra was turning a haunch of something masked by the onion drifting on the breeze. Gavin seemed to be manning the skillets and a couple coffee pots. When he spotted the team, he waved.

“”Fried potatoes, pork, and mixed greens,” Marker said, “And boiled coffee, hot water for anything else.”

Tobias looked askance at both.

Gavin shrugged, “We got to talking while you were busy. She convinced me to cook out here tonight.”

Tobias’s stomach growl was echoed by Oifa’s and Shannon’s. All three fell onto log seats by the fire, their eyes locked on the meal-to-be.

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An hour later, Gavin had completed his circuit and was sitting on a log by the campfire. Sunlight, filtered through the trees, glinted off a small collection of steel at his feet. Tobias had finished surveying the tiny camp a while back and joined him to talk over any safety concerns. the others were huddled together a few yards away, occasionally shifting stones and other items Tobias couldn’t see. For a wizard and witch by early training, he thought they were working together quite well.

All four were engrossed in their activities when two young women walked into the camp.

Gavin was on his feet before Tobias had even processed the arrivals. After a second taking in both women, he waves a finger and Gavin sat, taking an oil cloth to the long dagger he held.

Tobias took a moment before speaking, assessing both as he was sure they were assessing his people. Both were young, probably in their last year of low magic training. They’d be the youngest who were trustworthy, the most expendable from other duties. And they were almost in a uniform of worn hiking boots, loose jeans, and different colored flannel shirts against the mid-autumn chill. The one on the left had a wide bladed short sword on her belt and the other a long knife, both radiating low level magic.

He guessed both were witches, a fair assumption with the Coven.

After exchanging wary looks, he decided to break the silence.

“I’m guessing you’re the Coven people Samson said would be here,” he bowed very slightly, “I’m Master Jacobs of the Tower. My colleagues, Masters Riallo, Salovich, and Marker.” Each nodded in turn.

The right hand woman, who was also the darker of the two, Tobias guessed some Iberian lineage, nodded, “Cierra and Alyce. Senior witches of the Coven.” He noticed that both bowed lower to Oifa and Shannon, before he remembered that the Coven was effectively matriarchal.

Waite knew that. Should know it, and still put him in charge instead of one of the others.

“Master Salovich,” he said, “would you be our liaison with the Coven, if needed?”

At her nod, Tobias turned back to the young witches. Probably “senior” meant senior students, he thought.

Aloud, he asked, “What can you tell us about the anomaly? How long has it been here and how big is it?”

Cierra went to sit by the fire as Alyce spoke.

“Our people sensed it nine days ago,” she said, standing near the three magic instructors. “Then it was small, but it grew before the elders decided to get aid.”

“What do you mean ‘grew’?” Shannon asked, “What are we looking at?”

Alyce shrugged, “If we knew, we wouldn’t need help. But, it’s probably easier to show you.” She glanced to the sword bearing Cierra, who nodded. “I can take the three of you to see it. It’s only about fifty yards that way . . . today. Yesterday, it was a few yards further off.”

“Sounds good,” Tobias said. “So, it’s growing a few yards a day?”

“That’s our guess. If you’ll follow me . . . it’ll only take a few minutes to get to the edge. But, don’t cross.”

After a brief walk, Alyce raised a hand to bring the trio to a halt. She pointed ahead toward another part of the woods.

“What are we looking at?” Shannon asked.

“The anomaly.”

“More detail, please.”

“Look at the trees.”

A second later, Oifa broke the silence.

“Oh . . . yes. Look at the woods around us. Leaves are changing, it’s mid-autumn,” she said, then pointed, “Look at the ones over there . . . they’re budding. Early spring?”

Alyce nodded, “The are is the anomaly seems to be four or five months ahead of us, or six behind.”

“How big an area’s affected?” came from Tobias.

“About a two mile diameter circle. But, it has been growing slowly.”

“Has anything been done to contain it?”

“No, we haven’t had any ideas how to.”

Tobias turned to Oifa, “Temporal effect?”

The woman shrugged, “Possibly, but they’re exceedingly rare and take tremendous energy to affect a small area. This is comparatively huge, exponentially larger than any temporal effect I’ve heard of.”

All four stared at the trees for a few minutes. Tobias reflected that the contrast would be more obvious in a couple months, but the affected area would be at least another half mile in diameter by then. Assuming it grew at a constant rate.

“I think we’ve seen what we can for now,” Oifa said, her eyes locked on the incongruously new buds.

Tobias nodded, “Agreed. Let’s get some sleep and work on containing this thing tomorrow. Somehow, I think the Headmaster’s time estimate is going to prove wrong.”