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(World Wildlife Federation)

He told the others, “The anomaly’s about a twelve hour hike, but they’ll get us there in a couple hours. Then they’ll be dismissed.”

Tobias decided, after a couple minutes, that the ride was surprisingly smooth. They had a gentle, even soporific, rocking motion. And they seemed to need no direction.

After an hour, Gavin drew beside him. A glance ahead showed Samson far beyond them, with Oifa and Ariel. Shannon was in the middle distance.

Barely audible, Marker said, “He had at least three others watching at the border. I think a couple are flanking us.”

“Understandable,” Tobias nodded. Honestly, he’d be surprised if they weren’t paranoid about non-aligned visitors.

He tried to settle back and enjoy the ride as best he could. The others appeared to be getting along well with the situation, at least for the time being.

When Tobias found himself finally adapting to the beast and felling fully comfortable, they drew to a halt. The Coven camp was within sight, through the thin flora.

The group dismounted faster than mounting. Minutes later, most of the shade steeds faded from sight, leaving only Samson’s. Without a word, the Coven mage turned and left the Tower people to enter the camp.

As Ariel had said, it was tiny; only two small tents and a campfire. They had a laundry line strung up near the fire and a small bucket of water. The others were wandering the site, among the trees. He didn’t see anyone outside their company.

“I think they run daily perimeter walks,” Ariel said. “The tens and food are over there. You known how to contact me if you need anything.”

Tobias nodded, “We’ll be fine, we’ll catch up with the Coven when they get back.”

Even for the inexperienced, setting up their part of the camp only took a few minutes. the longest phase was dividing up the supplies. Tobias carried his share into his tent. He ducked, almost crawling, to get inside the blue and grey nylon shelter. Inside, he rose to full height and stretched his back. All his personal effects were quickly stashed in the tent’s front room along with the group supplies. The smaller back room held nothing but a cot, which looked serviceable though not as comfortable as his bed.

Tobias shrugged to himself. It could be worse.

He went back outside, the tent was just a place to sleep and research as needed. The area around the camp was quiet, deciduous forest dense enough to filter the light but not to make the area dark. There were shrubs and bracken, but not within the bounds of the camp. He noticed some marks on trees and the ground in a circle around the camp. The whole encompassed an area a few dozen feet across. the marks weren’t familiar, but he assumed they were standard wards against mundanes, scrying . . . probably insects.

Soft footfalls on the grasses told him Oifa was done inside. She stopped just to his left, quietly looking the same direction.

“The anomaly’s supposed to be nearby,” he mused, “but I’m not seeing anything unusual. You?”

Oifa stared for a few moments and shook her head.

“There is something, but nothing I can see clearly past the wards,” she said. “But the woods don’t feel right. The animals, even with the wards, just aren’t . . . something’s just off.”

“Maybe they’ve moved and the trees are blocking the affected area,” Shannon opined, joining them.

“Shouldn’t something be visible, or something?” Gavin asked.

“Maybe, depends on what the anomaly is,” Oifa said.

“While we’re waiting,” Tobias suggested, “Let’s get a feel for the area. Gavin, could you check the perimeter? Oifa, Shannon, give us a baseline for the immediate area? Something to compare this anomaly to when we get to see it. I’ll look around the current set up, see if we need anything else.”

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(Kennelwood)

He saw the others all seemed about as disoriented as he was. The Tower didn’t have the cardinal directions the same way Earth did. In fact, the direction Ariel started in was what he’d have guessed was northeast, without magic.

A mile didn’t sound too bad. The walk between the Tower and its Preserve was maybe twice that distance. Tobias made that walk occasionally.

About a quarter hour later, he decided he’d been wrong. Walking the flat, manicured grounds of the Tower was nothing like the uneven forest they were hiking through. Looking around, Tobias saw that even Gavin, who was probably in better shape than any of the others, was having some trouble. In a small way, that made him feel better.

Ariel was far ahead of them, and seemed like she was walking along a clear path. The rest were weaving around trees and some underbrush, trying to avoid mud pits and other obstacles.

By the time they’d covered the mile, he felt his heart pounding and heard his raspy breathing. Tobias’s primary comfort was that Shannon seemed to be having trouble as well, though she was better at concealing it. Oifa appeared flushed and Gavin a little winded, only Ariel seemed unaffected.

Once he caught his breath, Tobias looked around their destination.

He could see no difference between the section of woods they stopped at and the part they’d come through. Except for the wizened man the color of mahogany who stood with hands clasped at his waist waiting for them, of course.

The man flipped his grey dreadlocks off his shoulder with a toss of his head as they approached.

“Welcome to the Coven’s protectorate,” he said, his voice rich and deep. “I am Samson, assigned to be your guide, for a brief time.”

Ariel bowed, Tobias and the others following her lead.

“We are honored, Samson,” she intoned, almost chanted, “and thank the elders for passage.”

Even though they asked for us, Tobias caught himself thinking. He noticed Gavin scanning the trees while Oifa’s attention was focused on the Coven man. Shannon was behind him, breathing harder than usual.

Samson nodded, “If you care to follow me, our transportation is this way.”

Tobias heard Shannon breathe, “No portals, gods no portals.”

Within a hundred yards, Tobias guessed, they found a tiny cleared space. At the center was a square marked out by four sticks thrust into the ground as corners. Inside the sticks were six . . .beasts. They looked horse-like, horse shaped, but seemed to flicker in and out of solidity. Shannon’s sigh was barely audible, masked by Oifa’s restrained excitement.

“I haven’t seen shade steeds in years,” she said, then to Tobias and the others, “They’re solid enough beasts and fast. Brightholme says he has some in the Preserve, but I haven’t seen them yet.”

After some looks of askance and uncertainty, the Tower team eventually mounted the ethereal beasts. Samson started the herd moving with a sharp yell.

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(Free Big Pictures.com)

6

Tobias felt an unfamiliar airiness that he assumed meant the ring was doing as it was supposed to. If there had been a clear sense of up or down, he might have thought he’d float away, but the absence of reference points, while frustrating for his senses, probably kept him from losing his breakfast. Then he noticed, for a few heartbeats, that he could not feel Oifa’s hand on his arm, nor could he see any of the others.

He wasn’t certain how much time was passing.

Suddenly, his ears popped, as if the pressure changed dramatically.

A little stumble followed, quickly righted as his inner ears adjusted.

Tobias found himself standing in a clearing. He turned around, late morning sunshine on his face, to see Oifa and Gavin less than a foot behind him. It took a few seconds for him to find Shannon and identify the heaving and wet sounds nearby. He wisely decided to keep his distance and look the other way, trying to find Ariel, who was supposed to meet them.

He spotted the young woman as Shannon joined them, discretely wiping her lips.

As he waved an arm, Tobias slipped the ring into a secure pocket. He absently noticed Gavin starting to walk around the edges of the clearing, while Oifa seemed to be taking deep breaths and smiling. Shannon still looked faintly green around the edges.

Ariel jogged to meet them.

“Sorry,” she said, “The rings don’t always let out in exactly the same place. This one’s usually at the other end of the clearing.”

Tobias shook his head, “No worries. Where do we meet the Coven? And the Rovers?”

“Coven territory starts about a mile north-northwest. They’ll have someone meet us on the edge. The Rovers aren’t sending anyone. From what I’ve been able to get out of them the last couple days, the anomaly’s about a half day’s hike into Coven territory, more or less straight west. They’ve agreed to get you that far.”

Tobias nodded, as Oifa asked, “Are we on our own after that?”

“I’m told the Coven have a couple people watching things, a small camp on the edge of the area. But, I doubt it’s much more than a couple tents. Nothing that would draw undue attention or personnel.”

“So minimal hospitality,” Tobias mused, “Strange, with them coming to us for help.”

Ariel started to say something before Shannon cut in, “Not really, I think. They’ll be worried about the politics of seeming too close with the Tower. It could look like a threat to others, an alliance. And they’ll be wary of looking like they need help. Politics. Even out here away from the cities, they’ll be concerned about observation, even behind scry wards, especially on the edge of Rover territory.”

Their contact nodded, “Something like that. I’ve secured some tents and supplies though, on the Tower’s tab. The Coven’s already moved everything to their camp.”

Tobias resisted the urge to check in on Shannon’s condition. She’d been Order, the gesture probably wouldn’t be appreciated. Instead, he met Oifa’s eyes and, at her nod, shifted to Gavin, who’d rejoined them. The other man gave his own nod.

“I think we’re all good here, Ariel,” he said, “Which way are we headed?”

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(As usual, mostly unedited, just proofread once or twice; comments and feedback welcome)

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(Red20 Deviant Art)

“I’ve heard of them, obviously,” Tobias said, “but haven’t seen one.” Not that they were rare or even uncommon, but they didn’t come up often in his own specialized studies. This one was clearly made by a fellow cryptomancer, though he’d heard of lithomantic ones as well. The device would launch a bolt of sorcerous energy when activated, then recharge before another bolt, hence its common name.

After another moment, he handed the magical weapon back and watched Gavin smoothly holster it.

Tobias was vaguely aware of Oifa and Donovan conversing somewhere else in the room. He turned to find them leaning against the bar, down at the far end near the blue door. They weren’t speaking loud enough for him to hear anything beyond a low susurration.

Second later, all four heads turned as the blue door opened.

Headmaster Waite led the way in, his brass capped staff thumping softly on the floorboards. He was, Tobias noted, in blue and green today, and pulling off a style of robes that hadn’t been fashionable since the 70s. As soon as he cleared the door, Shannon Riallo followed a couple steps behind.

She had traded her suit and lab coat-robe for something more suited to the woods they were supposed to be visiting. Somehow she’d found brown leather hiking boots that were even more pristine than his own, with khaki cargo trouser tucked into the tops. An off-white tunic style blouse and slightly worn brown leather jacket completed her “travel” change. He noted a matte black canvas messenger bag that had the minute telltale bulges of gems sewn into the lining and the triangular bladed short sword hanging from her hip. Her staff was nowhere in sight, though he spotted more gems peeking from under the edges of her clothes than he was used to seeing on her.

Waite looked around briefly before walking to Tobias.

“Master Jacobs, good luck,” he said, “As the lead master on this field trip, I shall give you this.”

Tobias accepted a plain white gold ring set with a mottled green-black stone. He briefly noticed some markings before the Headmaster was shaking his hand. The ring disappeared into one of his pockets until needed.

“Without further ado,” Waite was saying, “Have off, people. Remember, you represent the Tower to outsiders. Best behavior.”

He smiled and immediately left through the red door before anyone could say anything in response.

Tobias clapped once and looked at the faces surrounding him.

“Well, then,” he said, “Everyone ready?”

Seeing no dissent, he took the ring from his pocket and looked more closely at the markings. They were definitely glyphs of some sort, but not a system or kind with which he was familiar. He held it out toward Shannon.

She shrugged, “Malachite. To reinforce mental powers. Probably concentration in this case.”

“Anyone know how these work?” Tobias, himself, hadn’t left the Tower since he was hired. He’d had no reason to return to Earth, with his teaching schedule and other work. He had no time for his own research and his family wasn’t the call-every-week type. The Brotherhood of Thoth tended to attract and produce very focused individuals.

Oifa nodded, “Put it on and concentrate on Earth. Each is keyed to a specific location. Anyone touching you, even indirectly, will come along.”

“Simple enough,” he allowed, “Anyone need to check anything? All good to go?”

He held out a hand to Oifa, who took Shannon’s hand, who took Gavin’s. Tobias found himself holding a wrist, connected to the hand holding Salovich’s staff. He awkwardly slipped the ring on one handed and closed his eyes. He focused on thoughts of the Brotherhood library he had grown up in long ago.

Within seconds, the quartet started to fade from Donovan’s sight.

Crossing the gap between the Tower’s demi-plane and Earth took some time.

After about half a minute, the pub proprietor was once again alone with his charge. He let loose a long stifled yawn, locked both doors, and went back upstairs to his bed.

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(James Godfrey)

5

 The sun had just started to peek over the Tower’s northern buildings, Connacht and Dee, as Tobias dressed to leave. He left aside his instructional attire, including the impractical scholar’s robes. Instead, he’d chosen a simple white henley-style shirt with dark trousers and spotless medium brown canvas and leather hiking boots. In deference to the situation, he decided to add a straight, single edged hunting knife from the Tower armory and settled it on his right hip. His knapsack was slung on one shoulder and he chose to keep his staff in its full sized form—nearly six feet of highly polished, medium brown wood painstakingly carved with glyphs of various sorts.

Tobias Jacobs, a master of the Tower, took one final look around his sitting room. He gave a shrug and sigh. If there was anything else he needed or was forgetting, it wasn’t coming to mind at the moment. Better not keep the others waiting.

He strode across the early morning grounds, the unaccustomed weight of the pack shifting on his back a counterpoint to the equally unfamiliar, albeit slight, weight of the knife. The walk to the pub took him south of the class buildings, skirting the woods to his right hand side. It didn’t take long for the one story stone and wood building to come into sight. The red door was closest, the blue was on the other side.

Tobias passed under the weathered wooden sign that bore a indistinguishable head splitting the words “Dean’s Head” above and below. Where the name had come from, no one had been able to tell him. As far as anyone knew, there had never been a dean at the Tower, or anyone historically important named Dean. It was one of the campus’s lesser mysteries.

A dim light was already escaping through the front pair of eastside windows.

Tobias quickened his pace, hoping it was one of his fellow faculty, not the Headmaster.

It wouldn’t bode well to start off his first field project by arriving later than the Headmaster. Waite and the others probably wouldn’t care, but he would.

A sigh of relief escaped his lips once he slipped through the brightly painted door to find Donovan Verner, the proprietor, was the only occupant in sight. The older wizard was starting to go bald, his white hair thinning in the back, but usually showed the energy of a much younger man. Tobias was comforted somehow to find the man still clad in his trademark trousers, t-shirt, and apron ensemble, even though there were no patrons, nor would there be.

Donovan nodded, a silent morning greeting that Tobias returned as he set he knapsack down on a table.

“Anyone else here?”

“Saw Master Riallo heading this way when I came in to open up,” the older man said, already absently cleaning a glass stein, “but she must have gone zerstreut.”

Unfamiliar with the word, Tobias guessed from context. Sometimes the wizard shifted into his native German in mid-sentence. Everyone got used to it eventually.

He started thinking about whether to wait seated or standing when the red door opened again.

Oifa and Gavin walked in, the former’s staff clacking on the stone paving then shifting to thuds as they switched to the wood flooring.

Salovich, Tobias noted, hadn’t changed a thing in her attire. She’d just expanded her staff, as he had, to six feet of a white wood, unadorned except by a pair of feathers that seemed to be tied on with pale leather. And she carried a solid, knit satchel of a kind he associated with mushroom gatherers, a plain steel and silver clip knife attached high on its strap.

She noted his gaze and smiled, “For harvesting, only.”

Marker was, as he always seemed to be, a contrast juxtaposed against Oifa. His traveling attire, apparently, consisted of a tight forest green shirt under a sleeveless jerkin of heavy leather sewn with steel rings and loose black trousers tucked into sturdy boots that reached halfway up his calves. His wide belt supported a pair of wooden shoto, one mahogany and the other a white wood, as well as a hunting knife that could have been the twin of Tobias’s. He carried an incongruously modern grey backpack and over his right shoulder poked the handle of a . . .

“Is that a boltcaster?”

Gavin nodded, “For beasts.”

“May I?”

The man casually reached over his shoulder and drew what appeared to be a shotgun forestock and grip. There was no barrel or shoulder stock. He handed it toward Tobias, who gingerly took it in two hands.

With a casual inspection, he spotted a couple glyphs of an unfamiliar nature.

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(Deposit Photos)

When Marker stopped and nodded to him, Tobias returned the gesture.

“The Headmaster’s ready for us to leave tomorrow, early morning.”

“Good,” Marker said, as he ‘sheathed’ his sword.

Tobias took a second look and recognized the signs of a sorcerer’s staff. Interesting for something the man fought with, or at least trained to fight with. Most sorcerers were almost obsessively protective of their staves.

“If you have a moment,” he said, “I’m curious . . . why the combat arts?”

Gavin shrugged, “When you’re born Free, you learn to fight, hide, or both. Fast. Turns out, I’m good at both. Seemed like a good idea to play to my strengths.”

Factionless, but not reputable like the schools. That explained some.

“Fair enough,” he said aloud. “I don’t think I’ve ever come across a sorcerer who came from The Free.”

“Probably because there aren’t many. It’s illegal to self-train, the few who want to teach others can’t, legally, so they keep quiet,” Marker gave another shrug, “When you get a chance to go off-Earth for school, you take it, no matter where it is.”

And that told him something, possibly more than intended. The man came from one of the less reputable schools of sorcery. Interesting.

“Anything else?”

Tobias shook his head, “No, I don’t think so. We’ll meet in the Head at seven.” He’d chosen the campus pub because it would be empty that early. There would be no audience, which there shouldn’t be anyway.

Moments later, Jacobs was outside again.

He stood for a few moments, looking across the manicured lawn at the grey stoned Tower and the red bricks of Wulfstan. The incongruous architecture was the result of numerous building projects and different visions of the institution over the centuries. But, like all the rest of the Tower’s faculty, he had work to get done.

Tobias focused his mind on Oifa first, his right hand sliding unconsciously into the sleeve of his open robe to touch his staff. He typically wore the highly polished, heavily carved artifact in a sort of sheath sewn into his sleeve. In an instant, since she was nearby and not blocking contact, he had a direction and rough distance for the other master. His attention shifted to Shannon, directing his will toward her, to find she was in almost the same place. Back at Drakewell for both.

An hour later, he was in his rooms, having informed the entire team of their schedule. Which brought him back to deciding and packing. Procrastinating, even for something necessary, had done nothing to help with the decision. Lacking better ideas, Tobias eventually snatched up a couple texts on Germanic and Scandinavian cryptomancy and tossed them in the bag. They were swiftly followed by a collection of bright orange, plastic tent stakes he’d gotten the Tower steward, Albert Harker, to scrounge up. At the very least they’d be useful for marking ward edges or something. Two other books and a few necessities rounded out the contents of his bag, aside from the clothes he’d wear and his staff, of course.

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(Barringtons Swords)

4

A couple days passed Tobias by in a blur. He was vaguely aware of junior faculty and senior students rushing around him, the latter usually on errands for faculty, all preparing for the new students’ first classes or their own research and mentorships. He would have been doing the same, a few days before. Even though the Tower conducted instruction year round, there were still occasional weeks of downtime for faculty to get materials in order and decide if students were ready to advance in their studies. And time for students entering their second year to find a mentor, if they so chose.

Instead, Tobias found himself contemplating a pile of books, tools, and clothing spread out around the study of his suite. The central place of honor in the mess was a knapsack sewn with runes and sigils representing Saxon, Celtic, and Sumerian cultures. The symbols had been painstakingly done in thread of various colors over the course of more than a decade by Tobias’s own hand. They served to expand the interior of the bag and protect its contents.

The etching tools and paints were a necessity, and the area they were going to was mid-autumn, so appropriate clothing was obvious. It felt incongruous, given the Tower’s late-spring weather. That left reference materials and whatever they would need for living, since he assumed the Coven wouldn’t be providing anything, even though they might. Even though the knapsack could hold a considerable amount, but there were still limits.

At a loss, he decided to check in with some of the team, starting with the member he found the most enigmatic.

He decided to go straight through the stand of trees that separated Taliesin from Drakewell. Marker certainly had a suite in the faculty quarters, but Tobias thought it more likely that he would be found in the salle, from what little he knew. The stand was typical of artificial woods, virtually no underbrush, only well-tended grass with patches of dirt between the widely spaced trunks. The sunlight through the branches created random shadow spots, but it was a peaceful and quiet part of the campus and the light filtered by the leaves had a calming effect on the young instructor.

That part of the walk was, as usual, all too short. The three story, grey stone building came into sight, in all its faux medieval glory. The doors were on the other sides, facing Wulfstan and Satyrane.

A short walk around the narrow windowed building, and passing through the heavy scarred wood door, brought him to a wide, plain corridor. Tobias walked along, passing rooms of older students and, generally, younger faculty. Snatches of instruction reached him as he passed.

“. . . hold it with the thumb and index finger . . .”

“Never have the edge toward you . . .”

“. . . bring her hand to her shoulder . . .”

The commentary was punctuated by the clack of wood on wood, the ring of steel, and the occasional grunts after a weight thudded onto a floor. In a way, it was noisy, but more muted than the sounds he routinely found in the Dee alchemy building. And there weren’t any strangely colored clouds in the corridors, just the lingering, but not unpleasant, smells of linseed oil, metal, and sweat.

After a few moments finding a senior student, Tobias managed to find out where Marker was.

He found the other instructor in a small room on the second floor. The walls were wood paneled up to a foot above head height, with stone to the ceiling. Each had pale green padding to head level that matched the mats on the floor, he counted four mats wide by six or seven long. Light came from a single, thin window and some alchemical spheres embedded in the ceiling.

Marker stood in the middle of the room, holding a short wooden sword in a guard position. As Tobias watched, the other man slid forward, thrusting with the practice sword, flipping it with his wrist into a cut about neck level, and twisting into a block against an imaginary strike at his own head. Unsure whether he’d been noticed, Tobias decided to watch quietly rather than interrupt.

After a few moments, he had to admit that Gavin, he should start thinking about the team by first name, looked impressive. His own background was sparse enough that he couldn’t tell if there was substance beneath the appearance; but since the headmaster assigned Marker, Gavin, there had to be something there.

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(acybermage – Pinterest)

“Sooo, why am I in this?” Gavin asked, looking around the group before settling on Tobias again. “I’m no researcher or scholar.”

“The Headmaster named you specifically. Since we’ll be on Earth, he wanted someone for protection, in case the factions decide to ignore neutrality.”

“Fair enough.”

Oifa spoke after a few silent moments, “What do we know about this anomaly?”

“The messenger we received only said it is big,” Tobias shrugged, “in size, not necessarily effect. Exactly how big or what that means, she didn’t say. But, it’s on a border of Coven and Rover territories and both factions are apparently worried enough about it to jointly ask for help.”

Shannon nodded, “A little tricky, but it could be worse. At least those two haven’t been fighting recently, not in several decades. Still, they’re protective of their territories, oddly in the Rovers’ case. Working completely together isn’t normal for them, and inviting outsiders in certainly isn’t. I think we can assume this anomaly is important, and potentially dangerous.”

“The Rovers will leave someone in the area to observe,” Oifa added. “Most of them will have moved on, but all Rover elders would leave someone behind if it’s that troublesome. They won’t be visible, but they’ll be there.”

Tobias took that under advisement. Salovich had been part of the Company of Rovers in her youth, he recalled.

Still, he figured they would be mostly dealing with the Coven. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to think of anyone who fit the other criteria who had been raised Coven. Except the messenger, who might be a resource. On the other hand, the Coven’s relationship with outsiders was interesting, to say the least.

“Are they likely to intervene? Or is this likely to be a trap, some way to kidnap their way to the Tower?” Marker asked. Paranoid, Tobias thought, but at least he was taking the job seriously.

Shannon shrugged, “Unlikely. There’s no benefit for the Coven or Rovers in any attempt, at least on a political level. The Coven already effectively, indirectly, controls the Henge, through influence, which is more in line with their philosophies. Attempting to take the Tower too would be . . . ill-advised on their part. And I don’t see the Rovers ever wanting to control any of the schools.” She glanced at Oifa, who shook her head in agreement. “It could be possible that the Order or the Circles could try to take advantage of the situation, or some minor player, but given the remote region, also unlikely.”

It was Tobias’s turn to nod, “The Headmaster believed the biggest possible threat would be local wildlife. Depending, of course, on what this anomaly is.”

The quartet was silent, each studying the other three or lost in private thoughts.

For his part, Tobias weighed the others and decided that he’d put together the best group that he could. Given the circumstances, the lack of information, and the limits imposed by Waite, they were his best options.

After a time that felt like hours, but was probably a handful of minutes, Oifa cleared her throat and spoke, “We should probably retire, decide what we need to take and prepare. Unless anyone has anything else to add?”

Tobias nodded, “Echoing my own thoughts. My apologies for the lack of data, everyone.”

He perched on a convenient desk and watched as the others left the room. Oifa had drifted out like she just happened to be headed toward the door, while Gavin moved with purpose and seemed to be aware of everything around him. That was subtly different from the situational awareness he’d seen in students who’d trained in combat arts, or the minimal level that he himself had learned long ago in the same classes. What was the difference? Fear wasn’t the right word, nor was paranoia; Marker didn’t seem jumpy, more wary. Shannon was last, as she had been to arrive. She moved with a purpose born of having a definite direction and goal in the walking.

Tobias remained in the empty room for a few minutes that felt akin to an hour, mulling over the wisdom of his choices.

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3

              Morning found Tobias canceling a simple weather shield spell, that kept off the moderate rain, as he entered Wulfstan. The red brick building was darkened by the water running down its sides from gutters that had started overflowing an hour before. He ignored the familiar corridors as he strode toward the empty classroom that the Headmaster had set aside.

              There were already two occupants when he opened the door. Both stood up near the front of the room, a few feet from the instructor’s lectern. A momentary glance identified the room as one of the small lecture rooms, better for this purpose than one of the craft rooms. There wouldn’t be any heavy equipment in the way. Tobias’s eyes went back to the pair at the front. Both were about his age, as most of the junior faculty were. The woman had dark hair in a braid that ended around her waist. She was trim in build, but buried in layers of brightly colored skirts and blouses. Even at the closing distance, Tobias noted the green and black stains about her finger tips that indicated an herbalist and alchemist. Oifa Salovich, he recalled, trained at the Henge, a self-described neo-druid. She looked more like a neo-hippie than his mental picture of druids. The man next to her was her complete opposite. Clad in blacks and dull grays contrasting with her rainbow, his light hair was cut short, almost in a buzz cut. He had the slim, strong build of a professional athlete. Even within the confines of the Tower, and Wulfstan, Tobias spotted at least two dagger hilts and the ray-skin wrapped long hilt of a short, he thought Asian, sword. Gavin Marker, the relatively new combat arts instructor, he thought, their protector. He had no idea where the man had trained in sorcery, or swordsmanship.

Both turned toward him by the time he was halfway across the room.

Tobias held up a hand to forestall the expected questions.

“Let’s wait until Master Riallo gets here,” he said, “I’d rather only explain things once, if that’s alright?”

Salovich nodded and found a chair that she folded into without a word. Marker seemed about to speak, then thought better of it. He took a position between the lectern and the wall, seemingly both relaxed and alert.

They only had to wait a couple minutes before another woman joined them.

Tobias nodded to himself, Shannon Riallo was the member of the group that he knew best. She’d started as a wizard, like him, and they’d both attended the Tower, although she was two years ahead of him. Even though she had been out of the Order of Hermes for a decade or more, she maintained the control and appearance they instilled. Her light brown hair was, as usual, done in a tight bun. Unlike many faculty, she also favored suits, this time a slate grey with thin pinstripes under a set of white robes than managed to give the impression of being a lab coat instead. Tobias guessed that she had a collection of gemstones that would outclass a modest jeweler on her person, probably at least three hidden away for every one she displayed.

He flashed the newcomer a small, familiar smile, before clapping his hands once.

“Ok,” Tobias said, turning to take in the entire trio, “Now that we’re all here, I’ll try to shed some light on what the Headmaster wants, as little as I can right now.” He proceeded to related the messenger’s arrival and their meeting with the Headmaster. “For his own reasons, the Headmaster has decided to accept the Coven’s and Rover’s request. He wanted a small team, and you’re it, to cover as much as possible, since we have no idea what sort of anomaly this is.” He shrugged, adding his own mental assessment of the messenger who didn’t get necessary details. Maybe the Coven wasn’t ready to say much, they were secretive where other factions were concerned.

Untitled (2.2) (2016)

Martial_Arts_Club_Nov16

(Yandere Simulator)

Tobias took the dismissal and rose, not without a little shake in his knees, and turned toward the door. The meeting, he decided as he left, had gone about like every one of the other handful he’d had with the Headmaster: short, to the point, and mildly confusing in a vaguely indefinable way.

He exited the Tower facing the Dee School of Alchemy, and walked clockwise around the circular building. His feet took over and followed the familiar path as his bemused mind reviewed the last several hours. Tobias went around nearly half the Tower before striking out across a quad toward the Taliesin Salle. Somehow he’d gone from preparing classes for the term to leading a team for fieldwork. The last time he’d done fieldwork had been a couple years before the Headmaster hired him.

Past Taliesin was a stand of woods that separated the class buildings, both the gym and the Satyrane School, from the faculty and staff living quarters. The trees provided a degree of privacy for the residents, kept the students from invading the housing too often. They also kept down the noise from the main part of the campus. Then he was past the quasi-medieval salle building and headed through the trees toward Drakewell Hall, the white brick home of the faculty suites.

A small smile turned Tobias’s lips.

The senior faculty would throw a fit. They were probably in Waite’s office at that moment hemming and hawing. More likely huffing, actually. Most of them had not taught an intro level class in several years. The majority mentored a handful of senior students each, leaving the more basic, group, instruction to the junior faculty. Even then, he knew some spent more time avoiding their students than they did actually instructing, the better to focus on their personal research projects.

For a moment, he wanted to sit invisibly in the Headmaster’s office for that meeting.

But only for a moment.

Then the reality of his situation hit him again, just as he reached the heavy, brass bound oak door of Drakewell. A moment later, Tobias passed through the blue-gold carpeted, off-white painted first floor corridor to his own suite. Eventually, he might move up to the second or even third floor, as his standing increased.

His eyes roamed over the familiar sitting room without seeing anything. He collapsed in a convenient comfortable reading chair near the room’s fireplace. Tobias continued scanning the room without actually seeing anything, ostensibly looking for anything he should pack, but really dreading what he knew would come next. Riallo, Salovich, or Marker would knock on his door sometime in the next few hours. Maybe all three of them. Once the Headmaster told them about the major change of plans, they would want to know what was going on immediately.

Damnit.

Why hadn’t he just kept on walking, instead of pausing to listen to the lecture he’d heard many times before?

If he’d just kept on walking, he wouldn’t be in this mess. He wouldn’t be leading a team. He wouldn’t be leading a team to investigate an anomaly they knew literally nothing about, in a political situation he knew nothing about. A political situation that he had applied to teach at the apolitical Tower in order to avoid for the rest of his life.

The Brotherhood was excellent at acquiring knowledge, and preserving it, but they were, he had to admit, pretty piss poor at dissemination and access for outsiders. Politics, again. Unlike most of those he’d been raised with, he’d always felt that the information and research his elders collected was a waste if no one ever used it.

With a mental shrug, Tobias turned his attention from possible problems to his half-read copy of Critias Flavinius’s Principles of Gallic Sigils.