Auric waited anxiously on the cold stone bench outside the examination chamber. His thick, calloused fingers ran through his sandy hair. Nine times he had done this, and it never got any easier. This would be his final time under the eyes of the tower masters, one more brutal test before he received the journeyman's brand, and was free to practice magic outside the tower walls. Or not, and never touched the power again.
“Auric? It’s time.”
Auric’s sponsor, Master Rose, led him into the circular chamber. As before, he was seated in a plain chair of solid iron, now far too small for his large frame. It served to make apprentices uncomfortable not only by its construction, but also by its purpose: should an apprentice fail, he would be immediately chained to the chair and subjected to a ritual that would seal him away from magic forever. Beside the chair was a table holding a few basic implements. Against the wall waited a small, cold forge. The masters of the Blue Tower filed in behind the chair, out of sight and offering no clue as to his progress. Auric knew that with them was a White Mask, the dread assassins who enforced Tower law, able to stop a heart with a touch. Magic would be practiced by tower rules, or not at all.
Master Rose spoke for the assembled masters. “As you know by now, apprentice, this examination will cover everything you have learned. We will begin with the most basic lessons, and proceed to the most advanced. From this moment on, everything you do and say will be weighed as we decide whether you are worthy to continue in the service of this tower.” The familiar voice calmed Auric somewhat, he had seen more of the tan, fine-boned face of Master Rose than his own family these past ten years. “Let us begin. First, what is the lowest form of the art?”
“To direct a single element with immediate effect.”
Auric reached out his hand, and brushed the barest glimmer of energy from the aether. Unbeknownst to the masters, he could see the energy if he tried, a gift he had carefully hidden his entire life. Auric drew the magic into himself, and worked it into the desired shape with a quick flick of his hand. A single word of the ancient tongue released the power into the world. A small bird made from flame erupted from his outstretched fingertips. It fluttered into the air, hovered for a moment, and guttered out. If his master had even noticed the dramatic flair, he gave no sign.
“Now, create a permanent rune that may be worked repeatedly by any wizard.”
Auric picked up a small, flat stone from the table. Disdaining the chisel, Auric reached into the aether to shape the air into a cutting tool. With deft, practiced movements, he cut two runes into the stone, removing thin strips of stone with each hammering pass of hardened wind. Instead of releasing the tool when he finished, Auric channeled its energy into one of the runes. The stone hovered several inches above the tabletop. Auric touched the second rune, and the magic faded, released from the pattern that had held it in place. He then channeled the magic back into the stone to demonstrate its permanence. A gaunt, liver spotted hand reached out from behind the iron chair and plucked the stone out of the air. For a moment, there was silence. It felt like an eternity. Auric could feel the cold, reptilian stare of the White Mask on the back of his head. He started to sweat.
“What is the highest form of magic?” Relief.
“To craft permanent magic which may be used by anyone.”
“And why is this practice limited to masters of the tower?”
“Any object infused with too much magic may begin to develop a will of its own. Also, such magic may fall out of tower control, and become a danger to us. It has not been done since the Great War.”
“Now, I believe some of the other masters had some questions for you. Please, step over to the forge, and ignite it.”
Auric reached out, and firmly grasped enough power to ignite the forge. His cheeks flushed, he could feel the fever rise inside him as some of the energy bled off into his body. Stretching out his hand, he directed the power into the waiting charcoal, which immediately ignited. A second, bored voice spoke from behind the chair:
“Good. Now, using the forge, demonstrate the drawing of copper wire suitable for the helm of an airship.”
It was going to be a long afternoon.
Relieved and exhausted, Auric descended the tower stairs to his chambers. His former chambers, these were the apprentice quarters. Tomorrow, he would be going home. The journeyman’s brand on his forearm glowed with blue fire when he ran his fingers across it, a proud display of authenticity. On Auric’s bed waited fresh robes of rich blue brocade, with gold thread for the double journeyman’s stripes on the arm. There was also a matching blue velvet cloak, with the double stripe on the hem and hood. Mother must have sent them, she was nothing if not status conscious. Auric changed quickly, belting on the new robes along with the heavy, straight sword of office that marked him as a noble and member of the Senate. The sheath covered the nearly unmarked blade; ancient houses would have twenty or more runes, one for each wielder who had represented that line in the Senate. Auric’s bore only three, his family’s title having been recently purchased after the Great War.
There was a knock, and the door was filled by a giant man, his matted blonde hair spilling out from under a helmet that hid much of his face. “Got yer pig sticker on again, I see. Don’t they kill dinner for you lads?”
“Good to see you, too, Gareth. And yes, they tell me they’ll even cook it this time. Is Master Rose coming down?”
“Oh, aye, that’s why I was sent to fetch you. Typical of you lot, you find the greatest warriors the world has ever known, and use them to carry messages up and down the bloody stairs.” Gareth waved his shield dismissively at the tower steps, the giant metal plate seeming like it weighed no more than cloth on his meaty arm. The Blue Tower was legendary for its stairs, the price of having impossible, winding turrets that twisted through each other up to the airship docks at the top. “Master Rose is too frail of constitution to be seeing your sickly body in a state of undress. As I’ve spared him the pain and indignity, I’ll just escort you to him, and we can proceed to dinner.”
Auric had become used to Gareth’s constant barbs, and he was going to miss them. Garreth was one of the Mage Guard, bodyguards drawn from the feared Dragon Corps mercenaries, and for the last five years he had been assigned to Master Rose. It was Garreth who had taught Auric to use his family’s sword, drilling him in the courtyard of the tower, teaching the skills his own father had neglected before his death. After Gareth’s arrival, other apprentices had still been nasty, but they had been quiet about it. The slight, swarthy southerners who made up most of the apprentices didn’t care much for northerners, even here in a northern city.
Except for Master Rose, who had inexplicably sponsored him for membership in the Blue Tower.
“Was the bird really necessary?” he huffed. “I almost strangled you right there in the examination.”
Auric ran his hand over the brand, which glowed through his sleeve. “It seems to have worked.”
“Hmm, yes, always your problem. Not enough attention to the process, only the result. Quintus wanted to have you sealed, you know.” Master Rose smiled in spite of his exasperation. Anything to put one past his old rival.
“Even Quintus doesn’t measure up to Quintus’s standards.”
“That’s still Master Quintus to you, journeyman.”
“Of course, Master Rose. Master Quintus is an ass.”
“I wholeheartedly agree. Come, let’s get down to that feast, before we’re stuck eating nothing but pickles. I want some of those eels the kitchen does so well.”
Official celebration over, it was time for the unofficial celebration to begin. New journeymen from every tower in the city poured into taverns by the docks in the Blue Quarter, many using their powers in public for the first time. Auric, already drunk on wine from dinner, made his way to the Heavenly Hag, a favorite of students looking to avoid drinking with Masters. Two green wizards with a large, spotted cat conspired in the corner. A gold, surrounded by decorative illusions, was tuning up a fiddle. And a red, sporting the ornate armor of a war mage, sat stiff-spined at the bar. This would be his first day outside the walls of the fortress-like Red Tower in ten years, the Reds gave their apprentices no free days. Auric suppressed his jealousy. He had wanted to join the Red Tower himself, but the only sponsorship open to him had been at the blue. Grabbing two mugs of grog from the bar, he worked his way over to where a buxom blonde in plain white linen was waiting for him.
“Auric, you made it! I was beginning to wonder if they’d culled you.”
“Not a chance, Sylvie. I’ve been accepted at the shipyards, with any luck they’ll let me try for pilot in a few years.”
“You’ll have to come visit me at Northgate, once you have a ship. It will be cold without you there.” Still flirting, even on her way out the door to the frontier.
“So you decided not to stay in town and join the white masks. Afraid they’d send you for me and you wouldn’t be up to it?”
“Ha! Finish your drink, and we can find someplace quiet where you can see exactly what I’m up to.”
Auric needed no more encouragement to take his entire mug in one great gulp. Arm around Sylvie’s shapely waist, he guided her towards the door, and into the cool darkness. Together they walked towards the Black district, the derelict portion of the city that lay mostly in ruins. They had a favorite spot by the Shattered Tower where they were unlikely to be disturbed.
Except tonight. A slender, weathered man was leaning against one of the columns, looking bored.
“Oi, what’s this? You shouldn’t be here, now you need to pay the toll.”
Five thugs stepped out of the shadows of the ruined tower. Dock hands and fishermen from the looks of them, rough men looking for a little extra coin on the side. Auric pulled Sylvie behind him, and drew his sword. Sylvie screamed.
“Hahaha, look at this one! Thinks he’s a knight! Break his legs, then let him watch the girl pay her way.”
Clubs and belaying rods in hand, the thugs advanced in a semicircle. Auric swung at the biggest one, driving him back. Keeping his feet under him, as Gareth had shown him, Auric pressed forward, hoping to put the big man between himself and the other thugs. A thrust found a shoulder, drawing a surprised grunt, and the big man sidestepped away while looking behind Auric.
Turning, Auric saw the others trying to surround him. Reaching into the aether, he drew the air from the leader’s lungs like he was putting out a fire. The man doubled over in agony.
Focused on the magic, Auric was struck from behind. Stumbling, he tried to bring his sword back up to guard. A club caught him across the arm with a sickening crack, and the sword clattered to the ground. Clutching his shattered arm, Auric fell backwards into Sylvie, sending both to the cobblestones.
Gasping for air, the lead thug pulled a long, thin scaling knife. “Let’s make Sir Knight pretty” he hissed, still reeling from the effects of the magic.
A spear head sprouted from the man’s chest. The thug looked down in blank amazement; death took him before he understood. Gareth stepped over the body, placing his massive shield between Auric and the remaining thugs. Planting a foot on the body of the fallen thief, he ripped the spear free, sending blood flying. With a toothy smile, Gareth beckoned the remaining men with his shield. They turned and ran as quickly as their legs could carry them.
“Seems you’ve found more fun than any wizard should.”
Shaking, Auric accepted Gareth’s hand up.
“My arm. I think it’s broken.”
“You’re in luck, there’s a lady in white right here.”
Gareth lifted Sylvie to her feet, and stepped back out of the way. Sylvie took Auric’s arm in her hands, and her clear blue eyes glazed over. Auric winced, and stifled a scream. He could feel the bone knitting itself back together under her touch.
“There, it’s back in one piece, anyway.” Sylvie looked exhausted. Of course, she had just come from her test, too. “Get me back to the tower, please, I think I’ve had enough for one day.” With that, she fell back into Auric, unconscious.
Gareth and Auric propped her between them, Auric carrying Gareth’s spear. They started the long, slow walk to the White district. “Gareth, how did you find us tonight?”
“Oh, I was out for a drink myself, and I heard the lady scream. Good thing I came to check on her.”
Auric was unconvinced, but he let it go. Gareth had saved them both, he could have his secrets.
Finally, they reached the broad streets of the Gold district, and Gareth was able to find a carriage for hire. Relieved, Auric crumpled onto one of the benches, fading in and out of sleep as they bounced along. A short ride later, they had reached the walls of the White Tower, the gates as open and welcoming as they had been since they were built. Gareth lifted Sylvie onto his shoulder and carried her towards the tower door; she came to as he approached the smooth, plain walls. Gareth set her gently on her feet, and helped her inside under the watchful eyes of the White Tower’s Mage Guard.
“Gareth, thank you. I’ll never forget this.”
“Wasn’t nothing, miss. I enjoy a good tumble. Off to bed with you now.”
Sylvie safely home, Gareth and Auric rode back to the Blue Tower in silence. It had been more than enough excitement for one day.