ZEKE HEARD THE occult door seal shut behind him, and the faint glow of the carved runes signalled the reactivation of the wards. Slipping the silver ring he had used to temporarily deactivate them into his pocket, he started out across the hall, heading toward the spiral staircase near the entrance of the Grand Tower. Warm rays of afternoon sunlight streamed in through the high windows, reflecting off of the smooth marble floor.
Zeke could hear the sound of activity all around, but he paid it little attention. He rolled his shoulders and hooked his thumbs in the loose material of his brown robes, his eyes watching the floor ahead of his feet, his pace uncharacteristically slow.
Time had passed too quickly; Zeke wasn’t ready to move on yet. Time, it seemed, slowed for no one. He had to admit, if he had the choice to fight against the tides of time, to live in an unsatisfactory past – even if it wasn’t an impossible battle – it wouldn’t be healthy. With that in mind, he let out a sigh and increased the length of his strides.
Zeke had been called to the office of the commander of the tower guard, presumably in answer to his application to join their ranks. His studies of the mystic arts – to prove himself as a sorcerer and become recognized as a wizard of Norwich – had come to an end. Stuck, unable to progress, he’d finally had to admit to himself that chapter of his life needed to be closed. He knew it was for the best, but nevertheless his seemingly perpetual disappointment kept his head looking downward.
That was when he saw a pair of shoes, decorated with distinct embroidery, stepping in his direction. Zeke recognized them immediately and glanced up with keen eyes, to see Yvonne gliding elegantly across the marble floor.
The Grand Tower was a product of the greatest craftsmanship and some of the most powerful magic that man had to offer. It was a magnificent building, inside and out, yet it all faded around the statuesque shape of Yvonne. Her glossy, auburn hair was worn in hanging curls, which bounced with each step. She wore a bright red dress featuring lace and vertical folds – perhaps a little too revealing of her lush figure to be considered a robe, but Zeke wasn’t about to complain. Zeke had barely spoken to Yvonne in his time at the Grand Tower and knew little about her – except that she was a woman possessing the kind of beauty which enticed young men into performing displays of strength, or rendered them speechless.
“Hey, Yvonne,” Zeke greeted, putting on the best smile he could manage. He turned his head to track her movement as she passed, trying to catch her hazel eyes. Yvonne afforded him a quick, casual smile in return, before continuing without a word.
As she left his field of view, Zeke caught sight of Grant and Sebastian on the far side of the hall, sneering in amusement. Sebastian’s eyes shifted from Yvonne to Zeke, and he raised both thumbs up in sarcastic encouragement.
Zeke shot him a scowl and turned back to ascend the spiralling steps, toward the upper levels of the tower. The steps were wide enough for three people, but Zeke still found himself having to stop and tuck himself in, for stubborn groups refusing to form a narrower file.
Upon reaching the third floor, Zeke spotted Wizard Crosby, a stout, young woman with a dimpled face and short, brown hair, bustling through the archway into the stairwell, with a box which smelled of burnt parchment. He stopped for her to pass, and she nodded her appreciation, moving swiftly on to the set of stairs, ahead.
“Already?” Zeke asked.
“Oh, yes,” she breathed, in exasperation. “It hasn’t been half an hour, and the overzealous runts have already incinerated half a dozen books.”
Zeke couldn’t help but feel irritated. The chances were that those “overzealous runts”, with power enough to start fires, were going to be wizards in a few years.
Zeke passed Wizard Crosby again, when she exited the stairwell on the fourth floor. After two more turns around the stairwell, he almost bumped into High Wizard Ralf.
Finding the man here wasn’t unusual; Benjamin Ralf’s talents were in high demand and, as such, the stairwell was practically his office. He was a tall, lean man with an athletic build; his chiselled face was flushed with colour.
Zeke had also applied – as he had done for three years, now – for an apprenticeship. Not every sorcerer undertook one or was required to; apprenticeships were primarily a safety measure, used to teach discipline to those with strength enough to be dangerous, if they lost control. On rare occasions, an apprenticeship could be granted to a person who showed signs of magical talent, but was struggling to make anything of it. A person like Zeke. Success, though, hinged on the Wizard Council deciding that the applicant had enough potential to be worth the trouble and resources.
“Hi, Ben,” Zeke greeted.
“Hey,” Ben said, without pausing.
“I don’t suppose you know what became of my application this year?” Zeke asked after him.
Ben sighed, stopping three steps down to look back. “I don’t remember your application specifically, but we’ve already begun taking on new apprentices. I’m afraid if you haven’t heard back by now, it was unsuccessful.”
Zeke had grown adept at confining negative thoughts to his inside voice, but the slow burn over the past few weeks was becoming too much. “This is supposed to be a place to advance knowledge and teach, not keep people down,” he snapped.
Ben paused for a breath, but didn’t look away. “I’ve seen you try, Zeke,” he said; “I’ve seen how hard you push yourself, and how long you’ve been pushing.” He shook his head. “Your dedication is admirable, but you haven’t shown any sign of improvement since you first applied.”
Zeke grimaced. He couldn’t argue; it was true. He checked his temper, but the familiar knot of frustration still twisted in his stomach. Ben must have noticed, because his expression turned sympathetic, and his next words came out solemn.
“You’re not alone, Zeke. With one-to-one guidance, you might eventually be able to develop…” he hesitated, not wanting to offend, but not wanting to lie, either, “…useful talents.”
Ben gestured, raising his palms upward: “The fact of the matter is that, as big as this place is, only a fraction of the people working and studying here are gifted enough to be generally considered a sorcerer, and fewer still are capable of working with enough energy to manage a significant spell on their own; most operate as part of a coven.
“Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for students with modest talents to discontinue their study of the mystic arts, once they have enough control not to be a danger to those around them. Add that all up and you’ll see that there are relatively few of us, and fewer still who are capable and willing to teach.”
“Surely that’s more of a reason to invest more heartedly in those with any sign of potential,” Zeke pressed.
Ben looked away and sighed. When he turned back, he said: “Put bluntly, Zeke, you have some talent, but can’t control it. And, because you’re not powerful enough to be viewed as dangerous, the council won’t be willing to spare a fully-fledged wizard to teach you better control. We are trying to lead our kind into an age where magic is used responsibly and respected throughout Albion – for that, Norwich needs strong and capable sorcerers.”
Zeke’s jaw clenched and his right hand formed into a fist. But, he knew anger wouldn’t do him any good; Ben was only telling him what he already knew. Ben was honest, and that had to be appreciated; giving bad news was difficult. Zeke met Ben’s forced smile with one of his own, and did his best to keep his frustration from showing in his voice: “I understand.”
Ben nodded slowly, and said: “I must be going.” Then, he turned to leave, muttering something about books in need of saving. Zeke acknowledged the truth of this claim, so he turned away, too, and pressed onward.
Zeke exited the stairwell at the ninth and final floor. The entrance to the hallway wasn’t shielded, most likely out of convenience for the recruits who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get through. The hall was plain and business-like, relatively speaking. It still bore its magnificent craftsmanship, from floor to ceiling, and glyphs extruding from columns shaped into the stone walls, but the hallway was less vibrant than other parts. This was the administration level, where the official chambers of the tower guard commander and the high wizards were located. Only one room had its doors open.
“Good afternoon,” came the deep voice of Commander Bates, as Zeke stepped into view.
“Good afternoon, Commander Bates,” Zeke said.
“Have a seat,” the commander gestured to the cushioned wooden chair at his desk. The commander was sat opposite it, with his back to the wall, facing the doorway.
Zeke entered, pulled out the chair and sat down. He rolled his shoulders and glanced around the room. It was cosy, which didn’t fit what he had presumed of a commander’s office.
Sunlight was invited into the room through a modest window. Left of the window, behind the commander, hung a majestic ceremonial sword on a simple, yet elegant mount. The stone floor was mostly covered by a large, deep-red rug, with golden embroidery around the edges. It contrasted well with the vibrant, dark-brown desk, which was covered with parchment, a large, open book and a few bottles of ink.
Zeke brought his hands together in his lap, crossing his fingers, and met the commander’s eyes.
Commander Bates was powerfully built. He had a thick neck, and his imposing arms rested loosely upon the desk. His rugged face was heavily tanned and featured a rough stubble; his head was completely shaved, emphasizing the large, round spectacles, which looked out of place in contrast to his leather armour. The man looked ready to go to war – and take notes.
“Ezekiel Stone?” Commander Bates mused.
“Yes, sir,” Zeke nodded. “I came as soon as I got the message.”
Bates made a clicking sound in his cheek. “I understand that you’re also seeking an apprenticeship in elemental magic.”
Zeke wasn’t well known. In fact, he was barely known at all, but he was likely the only applicant also seeking an apprenticeship, and his robes had no doubt betrayed him. “I was, sir,” Zeke said, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice. “I didn’t get it.”
“I’m sure it’ll be their loss, Ezekiel,” Commander Bates said.
The comment wouldn’t do him any practical good, but it somehow made Zeke feel more at ease, at that moment. Still, he didn’t like being addressed by his full first name. “Zeke,” he corrected.
“Zeke,” the commander repeated, in acknowledgement, “I have your application to join the tower guard here.” He slid his finger across to another sheet of parchment: “It says here that you started combat training with Captain Bowman.” Bates glanced up from the page.
“That’s right,” Zeke confirmed.
“Quick reflexes,” Bates read; “perhaps a natural fighter, but easily distracted. Undisciplined.”
Zeke felt a twinge of doubt about his prospects. He raked the fingers of his left hand back across his thick, but short, dark-blond hair, and down onto the side of his neck, leaving his elbow sticking outward. Becoming consciously aware of his fidgeting a moment later, he let his hand drop back down.
“You’ve applied at a good age: eighteen,” Bates nodded to himself, still looking at his records. “You have the gift of sorcery, so you likely have a long prime ahead of you. I think you have it in you to be a fine soldier, and we do have several openings in the tower.”
Zeke surreptitiously eased himself into a straighter sitting position. “I won’t let you down, Commander,” he assured the man.
Commander Bates looked up and removed his glasses. “I believe that. It might not be what you hoped for, son, but it is an honourable station,” he said, lifting his chin, slightly. “The tower guard is the first and last line of defence in the Wizard Towers. If it’s a magical threat, the enforcers will come in, but opposing sorcerers often cancel out each side’s spell-fire – when that happens, we’re there. If they don’t, then the tower’s defensive ward is activated, shutting all sorcerers down, and the tower guard apprehends the hostiles with muscle and steel.”
Zeke didn’t have anything to say to that, so he just smiled and nodded.
The commander slid two pieces of parchment forward, spinning them around so that they were oriented for Zeke to read. One was indeed a recruitment slip, and the other an unsigned contract to join the tower guard – “Ezekiel Stone” was written across the top of each. “Sign it, if you accept the position,” the commander offered. “We could use the extra coverage first thing tomorrow.”
Zeke’s stomach did an uncomfortable dance. This wasn’t the path he had wanted to turn down, but what else was there? He quickly hid his hesitation behind curiosity: “May I ask why?”
Commander Bates’s expression slipped from his face, leaving it utterly devoid of emotion. “We received a representative from London, earlier,” he said; “he carried a letter bearing Algovia’s seal, alerting officials within the Imperial Tower that Prince Jordan is sending an ambassador from London, to address the matter of recent attacks by our wizards on their people.”
“Wait; what?” Zeke said, incredulous. “We have wizards attacking London?”
“Not to our knowledge, or by our command,” Bates said. “It is a serious allegation to make, so we have to keep our minds open to the possibility that we may indeed have a warlock problem on our hands.”
“But, if they have gone rogue, can Norwich be held accountable?” Zeke asked. “I mean, their sheriffs fight us at every opportunity, over jurisdiction in their realm. I know we have some influence, but it’s clear that they don’t want us to have any.”
“It’s not so simple where warlocks are concerned,” Bates replied. “Morally, you might have an argument, but it would hurt us politically if we don’t take some responsibility for stopping them. If the warlocks have evaded capture, we will be pressured to send enforcers to hunt them down.”
“Pressure us?” Zeke said. “Enforcing the proper use of magic as decreed by the council is what we want to do, anyway.”
Commander Bates let out a small laugh. “Yes, but that has never stopped an official from fulfilling their innate desire to tell someone else what to do.”
“True, that,” Zeke conceded, through a grin. “But, an increased guard? Do you think they will come with hostile intent?”
“It is doubtful,” the commander admitted, “but, it doesn’t hurt to be too careful. If Mercia believes we attacked them – or, worse, if they believe it was sanctioned – the idea of them arriving with intentions of hostility is not farfetched. The relationship between our states has been tense for as long as Norwich has stood.” Zeke nodded his understanding.
Commander Bates gestured anew at the papers; “So, what do you say?”
With effort, Zeke shut the door on the part of his mind screaming at him that this was not the future he wanted; he reached for the pen and signed the agreement. Bates beamed. Then, Zeke clasped hands with the commander, exchanged parting pleasantries, and took his leave.
Zeke tried to think positively, as he returned to the stairwell. He told himself that it wasn’t a complete loss: at least his work would be in the tower. He wasn’t ready to leave, and it would keep him close to the libraries and resources, during the day. He could still find time to practice and, if he made headway, he could apply for an apprenticeship again.
Alas, despite his efforts, his optimism was shortlived. Zeke knew that it was stubborn of him, but he couldn’t help it; his mood seemed to synchronize with his altitude, spiralling downward with each step he took. By the time he reached the ground floor, he was gritting his teeth.
Snatching the silver ring from his pocket, Zeke brought it up and thrust it at the occult door. The runes on the door flared, then promptly dimmed as it swung open. He stepped through and descended the steps, his feet barely touching them as he went. The staircase terminated on the first level, below, and he stepped out into the dim and musty corridor, heading back to the third chamber on the left.