The Tower in the Woods
Hardwood Thomas sat at the base of an ancient tree and pulled his cloak over his ears. The rain was deafening but the intertwined branches upon the boughs above him offered surprisingly good protection from the storm. Inevitably however, darkened drops of water began to find their mark upon his shoulders and head. Still, this was preferable to being out in the open dusk where the rain would soak him through in an instant. He would wait for as long as he dared for the storm to pass or the evening light to fail.
Hardwood’s dog snuffled and pushed its head under his arm. The dog looked miserable.
“Never you mind, hound. This is little hardship for the likes of us.”
Hardwood Thomas was a forester by trade, and he had been born in these woods. He knew every path for miles, every silver stream, and every tree.
Or he thought he did.
The pine tree under which Hardwood Thomas sat looked out upon a glade ringed with pine trees, and all around the circumference of the glade rain danced upon the needle leafs, sending shivers through each tree, a thousand tiny ripples on vertical green ponds. The wind lent its weight and the trees swayed and shook.
One tree was motionless, untouched by the elements. It took some time for Hardwood to recognize what he was looking at. It registered in his subconscious first, and then dawned upon his waking mind. Had he been walking through the glade upon a normal day’s business, he would not have noticed. The tree was identical to its fellows. But it simply chose to be unaffected by the wind and water.
“That’s odd, hound,” said Hardwood.
After some time the rain began to ease. The light was fading, so Hardwood made a decision to head for home and hearth. But he approached the tree first, curious as to its aberrant behavior, if a tree can be said to behave in any fashion at all.
The trunk of the tree, and indeed its entire foliage, appeared dry. He reached out to feel some low hanging boughs and his hand passed through the pine needles like light through a window.
The tree disappeared and Hardwood Thomas felt cool, wet stone and soft moss under his fingers. A tower rose among the ancient treetops above him. He quickly withdrew his hand, as if bitten. His dog began to howl.
Hardwood Thomas had walked the woods of Patchberry for fifty-eight years. There simply was no tower, had never been any tower, in this place.
“Magic,” he whispered.
Hardwood and his dog ran.
Deep within the ancient heart of the Eldritch University a bald headed man was hurrying through the candlelit hallways of arcane learning. His shadow at times took upon the aspect of a thief as if crept along behind him on the stone walls, and at other times when his shadow grew so big that it could no longer be contained by the walls alone and spilled across the arched ceilings, it took on an ogreish aspect. But the man was neither thief nor ogre; he was a clerk, an administrator, an engineer oiling the great wheels of the institution, and despite the late hour he had an important message to deliver.
The clerk hurried on and finally came to the private rooms of the man he sought. He rapped at the door.
“Enter,” a gruff voice from within called.
The clerk entered and found the Yellow Wizard at his writing desk. His yellow robes glowed amber in the candlelight, and his pointy hat seemed carved from butter.
The bald headed administrator handed over a folded piece of paper. ‘From the Grand Master,’ he said simply.
The old wizard raised an eyebrow and took the paper.
“Another tower has appeared,” informed the clerk. “This one in a place called Patchberry, directions within. The local residents are mistrustful of magic. The village elders have chosen a local representative to accompany you. The mayor’s son, I believe. His name is Ironwork Gareth. He will assist.”
“Spy on me, more likely; I need no assistance.”
“In times like these the University cannot be seen to alienate the common people. These are your orders.”
“Take care, Bernard. And try not to upset the locals like the last time you were out in the field: the Grand Master’s words, not mine.”
The administrator barely made it out the door before it magically slammed shut behind him.
The old man and the younger stood staring at the stone tower. There appeared to be no entrance.
“So,” said Ironwork. “Why do they call you the Yellow Wizard?”
The old man looked down at his yellow robe and wondered, not for the first time, if the boy were an imbecile.
“Are you blind, boy?”
“Well, it’s more mustard, innit?” said the boy following the old man’s gaze.
“Do you think this is the most opportune time to strike up a conversation? There is work to be done.”
‘Right you are. What’s first then?’
“A way in.”
“Oh, right you are.”
At that moment a young woman appeared through the trees, startling the two men. She was lithe, and yet powerful and confident in the way she cut through the trees. The Yellow Wizard raised his dandelion shaped staff. “Stay back, boy. It looks like some kind of wood imp.”
“Freeman?” said Ironwork. “What are you doing here?”
“I am to take your place. Father’s orders,” she stated. She wore a long brown ponytail, and her features were clear and sharp: the mark of a doubtless youth.
“Who is this person?” asked the Yellow Wizard.
“My sister,” said Ironwork. He returned his attention to the girl. “Take my place? Father never said no such thing.”
“All right, he didn’t, but I’m taking your place. I’m going in that tower.”
“Not bloody likely.”
“Silence!” The old man didn’t appreciate delays to his investigation, and he didn’t much care for family squabbles. “Your town council has chosen this boy. And as much as I dislike the decision, we at the Eldritch University are sworn to follow local law. The matter is decided.”
Freeman Gareth reached up and took a stick from behind her back. “Look,” she said. She passed her hand over the head of the stick, a sort of bulbous onion shape. Nothing happened.
“Impressive,” said her brother snickering.
“There’s a light there. Can’t you see it?”
“Well, it’s daylight, but at night you’d see it.”
The Yellow Wizard peered closer. He passed his hand over his own staff and darkness bled out in tiny streams to encompass the girl’s, and there it was, a small whispering glow.
“Bloody Hell, Freeman! You’ve been messing around with magic?” her brother looked like he’d eaten a slug with his salad.
“I can help, you see?” said the girl staring intently at the old man.
“That’s a parlor trick, girl. Of no use in there,” his staff pointed to the ominous tower looming over them.
“But I have other spells. I understand magic, or the basics. I am an able assistant. I am ready. My brother is a potato.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that, but this is local politics, quite out of my hands.”
“I’ve read all your books!” she enthused.
“Yes, all. They’re marvelous.”
“If your intent is to flatter, you have succeeded magnificently, young lady. But I am saddled with your potato. Brother, I mean.”
Ironwork began to sneer. “Dad chose me, I’m eldest and you’re a girl.”
Freeman changed tack. “Is it going to be dangerous?”
“Possibly,” said the Yellow Wizard.
“Will there be traps?”
“Highly likely,” responded the Yellow Wizard catching on.
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Ironwork’s skull had turned to jelly, and his face drooped. “Right you are,” he said. “Take her then.”
“How are we to get in, Bernard?” Freeman asked when her brother had run off with his tail between his legs.
“I don’t…How did you know my name?”
“I read your books.”
“Oh yes. You are to call me Master Bernard, if you please.”
The oddly matched pair had just circled the base of the tower for the third time. Bernard the Yellow Wizard crossed his left arm across his stomach, rested the elbow of his right arm on the left hand and rubbed his chin, a gesture of thoughtfulness.
“The entrance is hidden magically,” said the girl.
“Don’t assume everything is magic. There’s no energy residue indicating an active spell. This is mechanical. We need to look for a pressure plate of some kind.”
“How do we find it?”
“I’m a wizard not an engineer. Just start pushing things.”
After a fruitless hour of probing and prodding for a hidden door in the base of the tower, Freeman Gareth rested against a nearby tree. She heard a small click followed by a grating sound.
“I think I’ve found it,” she said. “Up there, look”.
A small archway had appeared in the tower about ten feet above the forest floor. Freeman noticed a tree branch that could be used as an elevated path to the hidden door.
“How are wizards at climbing?” she asked.
“Why don’t you just levitate?” Freeman had made the climb and the short leap across to the entrance of the tower and was watching the old man make his way unsteadily along the branch.
Bernard nearly fell off in irritation. He had to steady himself before making a reply. “In any of my books, have you read anything about levitation?”
“Wizards do not levitate. And we do not fly. Take this.”
Freeman grabbed the proffered end of the old man’s staff, being careful to avoid the odd seed-like membranes protruding from the head and pulled the old man across into the tower.
They stood upon a stone floor quilted with straw and dirt. A spiraling staircase devoid of any handrail twisted precariously up into the gloom. The tower itself appeared to be hollow, consisting of an outer wall, inner stairwell and nothing else. Freeman relit her onion staff and this time the glow was apparent, though did little to dispel the darkness. Bernard spoke a word of magic and the flame above Freeman’s staff brightened.
“A little boost,” smiled the Yellow Wizard.
They began to climb, the neophyte leading the way.
After much exhalation of breath, they reached a landing with a plain wooden door set into the wall.
“Won’t this lead outside to a lethal fall?” asked Freeman.
The old wizard did not answer. He pushed the door open.
A blast of cold air almost suffocated them. Three motionless figures sat around a circular table, green polished marble shot through with veins of white. A glass globe containing a miniature snow scene, the kind popular with children, rested on the table. A shake of the globe would set off a flurry of white flakes. Around the room, books rotted in broken shelves, sagging with the weight of age and knowledge.
The seated figures resembled the books in that they too were ancient, bloodless and collapsing in decay. Their dead eyes were fixed on the globe.
The old man entered the room cautiously. His breath rolled from his mouth like dragon crystals. He circled the table, peering intently at each corpse in turn. Freeman followed him a pace behind, with her hands behind her back as if observing an alchemy demonstration by her professor. The Yellow Wizard turned and waved her off irritably.
She backed away and into a bookshelf, which promptly crumbled to the floor. The old wizard sighed.
As the last book settled into its new grave, the corpses began to move. Heads first, jerking to and fro, then shoulders and torso; it seemed to Freeman that they were being released from unseen blocks of ice, which melted head to toe.
Freeman was not encouraged by the look of dismay on the face of the Yellow Wizard. “Do something!” she shouted. “Haven’t you seen undead before?”
The old man stamped the base end of his staff on the floor three times, but nothing happened. “My staff,” he said. “It’s inoperable.”
“They’re nearly free!” screamed Freeman. The corpses were standing now, only their feet still immobile.
“There is some kind of dampening spell affecting my staff.”
“Well, un-dampen it! You’re the Yellow Wizard! I’ve read all your books!”
The old man wondered what that had to do with anything, but chose to focus on somehow reigniting his staff.
Freeman Gareth stood frozen, very much unlike the corpses. They were moving now. One of them coming for her, hands outstretched gripping for her throat. For the first time in her life she silently cursed magic and kicked the creature in the teeth. It was a good kick. A kick drilled over and over at Sergeant McAdams Military Academy. From the hips, aim with the knee, hit with the heel. She’d knocked out men much larger than her in practice, most of them accidentally. Complaints had been made and mothers had pulled their sons from school.
“You’re a gifted fighter, Freeman,” Sergeant McAdams had said. “You have a future.”
But she loved magic. After her combat drills she would read and study and practice when she could, the arcane arts: the arts of the wizard.
Right now she was grateful for the time spent at Sergeant McAdams Military Academy. Her well-placed kick had snapped the neck of the undead; its head was attached by only tendons and was lolling against its own shoulder blades. She crouched low and spun her lower leg against the ankles of the undead and it crashed to the ground. Without a firmly attached head to orient it, it was unable to get to its feet.
The old wizard was still unable to activate his staff. Freeman had a desperate idea. “Master Bernard, try mine!” she shouted, throwing her staff at the old man who caught it in his free hand.
Bernard’s first reaction was to scoff at the suggestion of using an amateur’s staff, but as two undead were almost upon him, he had few other options. He knocked it against the floor thrice and felt the familiar warmth of magic pulse in his hand. “Stand back Freeman!” The Yellow Wizard unleashed a powerful shockwave against two shambling undead, but instead of blasting them apart as intended, it merely knocked them backwards a step. Bernard looked at the staff.
“I can’t use this, it’s underpowered,” he complained.
“Again!” shouted Freeman.
The old man cast the spell again, pushing the corpses back a further step.
“Once more,” said Freeman.
The third shockwave pushed the two undead back under a large bookshelf. Freeman grasped the edge of the shelf and pulled, toppling it over and crushing the two corpses beneath a hundred million words. They continued to twitch, but could not stand. They were no longer a threat.
“After this is over,” said Freeman, “you will take me to the Eldritch University. I want to study magic. I want to be your student.”
“I don’t know about student, but you can be my bodyguard,” replied The Yellow Wizard.
Bernard stepped over books and a twitching corpse, placed the two staffs on the table and picked up the snow globe. He threw it to Freeman.
“Break it,” he said. “I believe you have the strength.”
She slammed it against the floor and the globe splintered. The chill in the room began to dissipate and the undead stopped moving.
“Perhaps this would have helped earlier,” said Freeman.
The old man chose to ignore the comment. He seemed rather more interested in the secret doorway that Freeman had unwittingly revealed after toppling the bookcase.
“Through there,” he said and entered with the speed of an arthritic snake.
They passed through a passageway, paper peeling from its walls and entered another room, much the same dimension as the previous one and also containing books around the walls. But in this room sat only one cloaked figure, old and wizened, at a plain wooden table.
“Another undead?” asked Freeman.
“I should hope not, young woman, not yet anyway,” spoke the desiccated figure. Freeman jumped in fright and, despite himself, the Yellow Wizard followed suit.
“Devil take you girl, would you stop jumping around like a startled squirrel!” shouted the Yellow Wizard.
“No no, my entire fault,” said the ancient seated at the table. ‘Allow me to introduce myself. I am Brother Disraeli. I owe you my freedom, and my very life. Bravo!”
“I am the Yellow Wizard.”
“And this young woman is your apprentice?”
Freeman raised her chin proudly and looked at the Yellow Wizard.
Bernard sighed, “It would seem so.”
“Very progressive,” nodded the little old man. “Yes indeed, in my day a female wizard was a rare thing. These are marvelous times we live in.”
“Why were you imprisoned here?” asked Freeman.
“In my research I discovered things, secret things. There is a war coming, a great war of good against evil. The world must be warned! Your masters must be warned. I only hope it is not too late.”
“And this tower, what is it?” asked Bernard.
“It is a beacon of a kind, an advance warning system, if you will. At times of dire need three towers will appear in the farthest reaches of the land. They remain cloaked until they are required.”
“And are they required now?” asked Freeman.
“Unfortunately yes, young woman. A great evil is approaching.”
“What great evil?”
“The forces of darkness are gathering.”
Freeman looked at The Yellow Wizard then back at Brother Disraeli. “Could you be more specific?” she asked.
“All in good time, young woman.”
“I don’t mean to be rude Brother Disraeli but we have risked our lives getting here. I want to know what is going on,” insisted Freeman Gareth.
“Freeman,” interjected the Yellow Wizard, “if you are to learn the arts of wizardry you must afford respect to your elders. And you must learn patience.”
“Poppycock. How are we to know who this man is? He says he has been held prisoner in this tower. Is he prisoner or master here?”
“I have no staff as you can see, I am powerless,” said Brother Disraeli.
“Something isn’t right.”
“I apologize for my protégée.”
“Youth is impetuous, there is nothing to forgive,” Brother Disraeli smiled a beatific smile, a smile that grew so big that it extended past the boundaries of his face.
The two watched in astonishment as the Brother’s features morphed into something reptilian.
A tongue shot out and grasped Bernard around the throat.
“Knew it!” shouted Freeman. “I knew it!”
The Yellow Wizard was in trouble. His new pupil was smug, and if there was one thing he despised, it was smugness. And then there was the immediate danger of death at the hands, or tongue, of Brother Disraeli, or whatever was pretending to be Brother Disraeli: right now it resembled a massive purple frog. Bernard was unable to cast any magic, as he could not vocalize anything other than choking sounds.
Freeman Gareth reached for the dagger in her belt and rushed forwards. She cut at the tongue, neatly slicing it in two. Blood sprayed from the dismembered organ. The creature squealed and spat blood and curses at Freeman; and then reverted to the form of Brother Disraeli. While Bernard was struggling to recover his breath; Brother Disraeli took a small red globe from his pocket and threw it against the floor, smashing it. A blood red staff with a head of fire appeared in his hand.
“My Master has a message for you,” he smirked. His tongue had regenerated.
“Oh, and what is that?” asked Bernard tapping his staff upon the floor three times.
The venomous shaft of red flame that vomited forth from Brother Disraeli’s staff was met by a cool blue force field. The Yellow Wizard’s stare was fixed, as was his concentration, upon his opponent. Any lapse in concentration would mean instant death for both he and Freeman. And yet he noticed movement in the periphery of his vision: Freeman, moving fast, dodging and weaving outside the protection of his magic shield.
Madness, he thought. I go to all this effort to protect the girl and she charges headlong into danger.
Brother Disraeli wondered if it were a trick, a move meant to turn his attention from the old man to the young girl. He hesitated for a moment, but still feeling the pain from the apprentice’s blade, he turned the full force of his rage upon the girl.
“No!” shouted Bernard.
Freeman was quick but the distance was too great. She took a full blast of heat and flame from the changeling’s staff, and moved right through it as if it were nothing but a summer shower. She buried the blade of her dagger in the neck of the creature and twisted it.
The flame ceased and Brother Disraeli staggered back.“What are you?” he gurgled clutching at his throat and trying to stem a fountain of blood. Then he dropped dead.
“I have no idea what just happened,” said Freeman. “What was that thing? How was I unharmed by the flame?”
Bernard looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. “It wasn’t flame, it was magic. And I believe you may be invulnerable to magic.”
“Quite simply there is an inverse relationship between one’s ability to use magic, and one’s propensity to be affected by magic. In other words if you possess large quantities of it, you are also in great danger of it.”
“And if you possess little or none?”
“It’s extremely rare.”
Freeman Gareth looked at her staff for a moment. She placed it once again on her back. “And that thing?” she asked looking at the bleeding corpse of old Brother Disraeli.
“A demon from the Charcoal Plane. Brother Disraeli was possessed, no doubt. You have set him free.”
“He was still alive? Could we have saved him?”
“No. Once a demon has taken possession of a mortal frame, there can be no undoing the process. This man is long dead.” The Yellow Wizard looked around him. “We must return to the Eldritch University immediately. I fear the danger is not over. Two other towers have appeared, I must warn my colleagues.”
Freeman Gareth looked at her hands. “I have no magic,” she said. “I won’t go.”
The Yellow Wizard paused a moment. “Come now, this is no time to lose heart. Everyone possesses magic. We just have to dig deep to find yours, that’s all.”
A shadow passed from Freeman’s face, and she smiled.
“I will be a Wizard.”
Cameron Kirk is a writer. Some of his ideas are good. Some are not.
His short story “Desert Stars” was selected in the Best of ATM 2017, Fiction category. http://acrossthemargin.com/best-atm-2017-fiction/
You can find his published works here: