Determination (Second Draft)

DETERMINATION

Gordon S. McLeod

Beradan looked around nervously, certain that something was wrong. After living for just over a century in the old tower, he was sensitive to almost any change in his environment. He sat at his desk, quietly brooding in his cramped study, surrounded by neatly stacked books he had spent decades obtaining. They were his collected spell books, research tomes, and treatises on arcade lore. The desk took up almost half of the room, and was filled with magical scrying devices, enchanted lenses, and information gathering equipment of every description.

Beradan was quite possibly the most accomplished scholar-mage in the kingdom of Naran. Yet for all his skill in magical divination, and all this extra equipment, he still could not determine the exact nature of the threat approaching his tower, nor could he even guess at it with any accuracy.

Unless it was … no. It was the right time of year, but this time it seemed different from the others … “Master Beradan!” the walls called to him. “Someone’s at the forward sensor field!”

“Yes, I know,” the mage replied in a tired voice. “Can you give me any idea of who it is?”

The tower walls were silent for a moment. Then, “No master, I cannot.” Beradan was silent, thinking. Of course, it wasn’t the actual walls who were speaking; it was a complex system of defensive spells magically tied to an astral servant he had summoned several decades ago. The system was responsible for guarding the entire tower in combination with Beradan’s own powers if need be. The astral servant’s awareness extended to the land surrounding the tower, and was tied to the stone itself.

The tower was built on a tall hill overlooking Nare, a small village on the hilly plains of eastern Naran. It was somewhat squat and built of fieldstone, but the binding of the arcade being into the stone had fused it to form one continuous, supernaturally strong piece of stonework; it was capable of withstanding any natural and almost any unnatural assault. This was a necessary precaution when one dealt with magical research, as one miscast spell could easily level the entire town below. Beradan prided himself on being far too thorough for such carelessness.

By this time the intruder had passed the first sensor field, and was nearing the first of several magical barriers. The various sensors and barriers could be lowered when Beradan wished it, but he had a very strong feeling that he did not wish to speak with this “guest.”

“Master, I am afraid he is past the first barrier ring!” The walls were not exaggerating—they were afraid. That fear was disturbing; it had been a long time since he had encountered anything capable of frightening his counter-intrusion system.

Beradan’s face twisted in anxious thought. It would take a creature—or person—of great strength and skill to get through the defenses he had placed. Perhaps it was only a thief … no. No thief who valued his life would dare to break into a wizard’s tower—especially when the wizard was home. No, it could not be something as simple as a thief. But what, then? The intruder was halfway to the gates of his tower.

A silent alarm went off from outside, but so great was the wizard’s concentration that he did not notice it.

Beradan started searching through his scrolls, looking for something to seal off his study in case the impossible occurred and the intruder broke through all his defenses.

“Master, perhaps you should hurry up? The intruder is almost inside the tower!”

“So do something! You’re the one who’s supposed to stop uninvited guests from entering! You’ve stopped entire armies in their tracks at the first ring!” The mage was still furiously trying to think, his agitation growing.

“If you hadn’t been so cheap, those merchants wouldn’t have sent the armies in the first place!”

“They had no business claiming expenses—I had paid for the merchandise as agreed, and they had been informed of the cost of the trip down here. They should have known better than to attack with common mercenaries. Now, that was over 80 years ago, there’s no use arguing about ancient history. Shut up and let me think!”

“Greedy bastard,” the voice grumbled, but quietly.

Feverishly, he continued to search his scrolls. With a gasp of relief and a thick cloud of dust, he pulled out several scrolls describing magical fire and lightning rune spells. He hurriedly opened the door to his study, concentrated, and felt an explosive rune form upon it. Closing the door, he was just about to start placing the various other runes when a whole series of interior alarms and shouts from his guardian threw him into a panic. The intruder was inside! He had now achieved what whole armies had not. Beradan’s worst fears were confirmed.

Only one entity was capable of handling his defenses this easily—even the wizard himself occasionally had trouble with the most stubborn of his shields. This one was much better than his predecessors; they had often won through, but never this easily!

Fighting down his rising panic, he continued his spell placement. The intruder was almost at the door to his study; he could barely make out the footsteps over his own pounding heart. Just as he was placing the last of his magical traps, the muffled sound of an explosion told him his time was up. The wards failed; the ancient oak and iron door shuddered and burst inward, showering him with debris.

The wizard’s cry of horror echoed in the room as he beheld the form silhouetted in the shattered doorway, one hand extended …

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Looking out one of the few windows in the tower, Beradan watched the intruder leave the tower path, a jingling purse at his belt. “Damn tax collectors,” the wizard growled, seething in rage and frustration as he slammed the window shutters. Then he set about the monumental task of preparing for next year.