The air in the tavern was thick with the stench of fear. To Habreel it was sweeter than any perfume. He smiled at the locals’ unhappiness and sipped his ale, pretending to be just another traveller passing through the town of Glienned.
A few minutes later there was a stir in the crowd as the door opened to admit another visitor. Glancing in the mirror behind the bar Habreel saw a tall woman dressed in black leather armour and matching trousers approach and sit down on the stool next to him. He could admit to himself, if no one else, that she was a striking woman. Her raven- black hair and pale skin were not unusual, but the slight tilt to her green eyes and high cheekbones made it difficult to pinpoint her nationality. Her array of daggers, eight that he could see from an initial count, would draw attention as much as her features.
Akosh smiled at the barman, who turned a little red under the intensity of her stare. “On the house,” he muttered, setting down a mug of ale before scuttling away.
Habreel frowned at her and she raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”
“You’re a little conspicuous,” he said, gesturing at her outfit.
Akosh rolled her eyes and waved at the mirror and their view of the room behind them. “Look again.” The surface of the mirror rippled as if made of water and her image changed, from the leather-clad warrior to a severely dressed woman with a plain face surrounded by a tight bonnet. Every feature of the woman’s face was forgettable. Only the colour of her eyes remained the same dark green, but set in a doughy face they were not enough to draw attention. “They see only what I want them to,” added Akosh.
Habreel grimaced but said nothing. Magic. He took a deep breath and reminded himself she was a necessary evil. For now.
“Why here?” she asked him.
“Because Glienned is the doorway to Zecorria,” explained Habreel, keeping his voice low. It was the first large town any travellers came to when they crossed the border into Zecorria from Yerskania. It was a hub of information and people from all over the world were known to stop here for the night. Anything that happened here would quickly spread across all kingdoms in the west. If they were lucky it would cross the mountains into Seveldrom and perhaps beyond in the desert kingdoms. Tensions between the east and west from the war a decade ago had faded and trade now flourished.
“Is that all?” asked Akosh, running a finger through the foam on the top of her ale. She languidly licked her finger and grimaced at the sour taste.
“And because I’ve been visiting the town on and off for weeks,” added Habreel. “Zecorria is still the most hated nation in the west because of its role in the war. The Chosen and the perversion of the faith. The Warlock. The Mad King,” he said, ticking things off on his fingers. “Now I will turn that into strength and other countries will race to unite behind them. Who doesn’t like a redemption story?” he asked rhetorically.
“I hear a lot of words, but don’t see anything exciting,” said Akosh, in a bored voice. Habreel knew she was baiting him but didn’t let her get a rise out of him.
“Come then. It’s almost time,” he said, draining the last of his ale.
Several people outside the tavern were all walking in the same direction with purpose. Akosh and Habreel joined the flow of bodies and soon became part of a large group that was heading towards the main square. By the time they arrived it was a little before midday. Perhaps three hundred people had already gathered, with more appearing all the time.
The sky was a hazy blue and the air was cold enough for Habreel to see his breath. People were stamping their feet and shuffling about to stay warm but no one complained or suggested going inside. None of them wanted to miss this.
In the centre of the square was a wooden platform normally used for travelling theatre troupes and seasonal festivals. Today the mood of the crowd surrounding it was sullen, like that of a public hanging, although there’d not been one of those for decades. Today there was no gibbet but the Mayor still wore a sour expression. “Everyone is so broody,” said Akosh, grinning at the faces all around her. “It’s delicious.”
Habreel said nothing and tried to remain inconspicuous. A few people recognised him but not enough to start a conversation. Today he wasn’t the only visitor in the crowd. All of the taverns and shops would be empty. It seemed as if most of the town had decided to show up. Habreel buried his smile but was secretly delighted at the size of the crowd.
Half an hour later the square was packed with people and a low rumble of unhappy conversations flowed around Habreel on all sides.
A shiver of excitement ran through him as everyone suddenly fell silent. Despite there being so many people squeezed in, they managed to create enough space for the masked Seeker to walk unobstructed through the crowd. No one wanted to touch the hooded figure.
The bulky robe, long black gloves and stylised golden mask completely obscured the Seeker’s identity. With only a slit for the mouth and holes for the eyes, it was difficult to tell much about the wearer. A line ran down the middle of the mask from forehead to chin and a swirling symbol, that he thought came from the east, was painted on the right cheek. The locals probably found it intimidating and mysterious. Habreel just thought it was ridiculous.
The only indication that the Seeker was a man came from the width of his shoulders and significant height. To Habreel his stiff gait suggested a history in the military. He wondered how such a person had ended up as a servant of the Red Tower, the school of magic in Shael.
Shortly after the war rumours had sprung up that someone was trying to reopen the school. A few years later people across the west reported seeing masked strangers showing up, offering to test children to see if they had a spark of magic.
Seekers used to be common but it had not been that way for over twenty years. No child would voluntarily declare they had magic and many successfully kept it completely hidden. When a community made such a discovery the hard way, often with a magical accident, it would mean exile for the whole family at best, drowning for the child at worst.
Then came the war and with it the Warlock who soured people towards magic even further. Because of him and his twisted apprentices, thousands had died in a pointless war. Nations had been torn apart with civil war breaking out in Morrinow in the north. In the south Shael was reduced to a shattered ruin that was still in disarray. All of it had happened because of the destructive power of magic and the evil it inspired.
It was a curse, not a blessing from the Maker, the Lady of Light or the Blessed Mother. Those who wielded magic thought it put them above everyone else. Mages claimed the power came from the Source, the heart of creation, but he didn’t believe it. History was full of tales where people had been tricked by beings from beyond the Veil, offering them power in return for favours. Habreel could imagine that wielding such power would be intoxicating, but it was an addictive lie that inspired arrogance and destruction. The war had shown people that magic could not be trusted and, until the Seekers had returned, the old ways of dealing with cursed children had been enough.
Exile or death. It was hard and cruel, but it had worked for a long time. Accidents with magic were avoided and people kept safe.
Now there was a royal decree in many countries which permitted Seekers to visit any village, town or city once a month to test children for magic. He believed in the rule of law, but when it stood in opposition of the will of the people, Habreel knew change was needed.
All eyes were drawn to the Seeker as he moved to stand beside the Mayor on the platform. She flinched at being so close but the Seeker didn’t seem to notice. He was looking out at the sea of upturned faces. Habreel thought there was a certain arrogance about his stance.
“Bring them forward,” said the Mayor, as if speaking about the condemned. Instead of a line of chained figures several sets of parents reluctantly came to the front of the crowd with their children in tow. All of the adults looked sick with worry, while most of the children were crying. Their ages varied considerably. Habreel guessed the youngest child was eight or nine years old and the eldest perhaps seventeen. Despite their differences all of them were united by their fear, which pleased him. The good people of Glienned were raising their children to understand that magic was a blight.
“Don’t be scared,” said the Seeker, who remained blissfully unaware of the mood in the town. “This is a time to celebrate.”
The parents stepped forward and many had to shove their child onto the edge of the platform. Even though they were well outside arm’s reach of the Seeker, none of the children were willing to go any closer. A couple of the smaller ones tried to run but were firmly held in place by their parents. Eight children. Eight chances of being cursed.
“How exciting,” whispered Akosh, her eyes twinkling with delight.
“Can you tell?” asked Habreel. “Do any of them have the ability?”
Akosh grinned and gave him a conspiratorial wink. “That would spoil the fun.”
The Seeker started at one end of the line with a slight girl of about ten. She was shaking so badly Habreel expected her to collapse. The masked mage raised one gloved hand towards the child and a few seconds later lowered it.
“No,” he said, shaking his head for emphasis. The girl fell to her knees in a flood of tears. Her parents cradled her, openly weeping in relief.
This gave the Seeker pause and he stared at them with concern. His mask roamed across the many faces in the town square and Habreel saw a noticeable shift in his posture.
“He knows,” he murmured. Akosh showed her teeth in an approximation of a smile.
“Did you see the Seeker arrive?” asked Habreel.
“I wonder if he has a fast horse standing ready. If this continues he’ll need it.”
Moving more quickly now the Seeker went down the line, pausing briefly in front of each child. Every declaration that the child had no talent for magic was met with relief and often tears of joy. At last there were only two left, the eldest boy and a girl who was keening like a wounded animal. When the Seeker raised his hand in front of the girl her wailing increased in pitch, getting higher and higher. Habreel expected the dogs in town to start howling along.
“If nothing else, she has a future with a voice like that,” noted Akosh. The girl’s voice had taken on the pitch of a yowling cat on heat.
The Seeker paused in front of the girl and a horrified silence spread over the crowd. Finally the girl’s voice either gave out or had become so high- pitched only dogs could hear her.
The Seeker tried to say something but nothing happened. He had to clear his throat and try again. “She has the ability.”
At his words the girl’s parents collapsed into a tangled heap as if hamstrung. Their wretched cries seemed to fill the entire square. The girl was sobbing, too, begging her mother to take her home, promising she’d be good from now on. Friends were commiserating with the parents, as if the girl was already dead rather than standing right in front of them.
“This is a good thing,” tried the Seeker, but no one was listening to him. “It’s a gift.”
“You mean a curse,” snarled the Mayor.
When the girl realised her tears were having no effect on her parents, she grabbed hold of her mother’s hand. The reaction was unexpected and surprising. The woman recoiled as if she’d been bitten by a poisonous snake.
“Get away from me!” she shrieked at the girl, staring in horror at her own flesh and blood.
Beside him Akosh was chuckling while doing her best to smother it, but the smile would not stay off her face. She was starting to get some peculiar looks from those around her in the crowd. Habreel elbowed her in the ribs and she tried to turn her laugh into a nasty cough, but it wasn’t fooling anyone.
While all of this was happening the Seeker quickly turned to the boy, raised his hand and swiftly lowered it.
“He doesn’t have the ability,” he said, much to the relief of everyone around the boy.
The cursed girl had fallen silent. Her face was incredibly pale and she stared at her parents with open- mouthed horror.
“Momma,” said the girl, pleading with her eyes.
“Maybe we could all leave,” suggested the girl’s father. “Start a new life somewhere else.”
“I have no daughter,” hissed the mother, before collapsing against her husband in tears.
When the Seeker tried to lead the girl away she resisted at first but then moved as if in a trance.
“This isn’t right,” said the Seeker, trying to appeal to anyone who would listen. Habreel could see a few sympathised with him, but they were in the minority and wisely kept their mouths shut. The Seeker was only visiting the town but they had to live here.
“You should take the girl and leave, while you still can,” said the Mayor. A low murmur of conversation was starting to flow through the crowd, and the tone wasn’t friendly. All of the anger was directed towards the masked stranger.
“More children will be born with the gift,” he declared.
“We’ll take care of them by ourselves from now on,” said the Mayor.
“You don’t know how,” said the Seeker. “We managed it for years before the war, long before your kind started showing up again. We’ll be just fine.” The Mayor received murmurs of support from the majority of the crowd.
At this the Seeker paused, but not for long. He wasn’t facing one angry woman. The crowd had let him into the square, but now he must have wondered if they would let him leave so easily.
“You can’t do this.”
“I am the Mayor of Glienned. I serve the people’s will. You should take that child away and never come back. Tell all of your kind, they’re not welcome here any more.”
At her declaration every person in the square cheered. The Seeker must have realised that to stay would cost more than his pride. As he approached the first row of people the Seeker cleverly used the girl as a shield in front of his body. Everyone recoiled from her as if she had the plague, creating a clear channel through the press of bodies.
As they passed through the crowd, not far away from where Habreel was standing, he saw the girl suddenly lunge at someone. A moment later there was a terrible screeching sound and people began to move backwards in a panic. Something red sprayed into the air and a familiar coppery smell lodged in the back of his throat.
Akosh’s reaction was immediate. She pushed forward and he followed in her wake until they were standing in the front row.
The girl lay on the ground, a knife lodged in her throat while the Seeker was vainly trying to stem the bleeding. No one moved to help him save the girl.
“What happened?” asked Akosh, nudging a woman beside her.
“Girl grabbed Tull’s knife from his belt,” said the woman. “Stabbed herself rather than be taken away.” There was a hint of pride in her voice.
“Help me!” said the Seeker but everyone just watched. It didn’t take long. The blood pulsing from the jagged wound in the girl’s neck slowed and then stopped. Her eyes glazed over and she let out a final breath.
“Leave her be,” said the girl’s mother, finally stepping forward and taking responsibility. “She doesn’t belong to you.”
At this distance Habreel could see the horror in the Seeker’s eyes. Everywhere he looked in the crowd he was met with the same blank expression. No one was horrified by what the girl had done to herself. The Seeker gently laid the girl down on the street and quickly marched out of sight. Habreel was willing to bet the Seeker wouldn’t stop on the road until he was miles away from Glienned.
Once the Seeker had left, the mood of the whole crowd seemed to lift. People began to disperse, quickly going back to their lives as if nothing had happened. Soon only a few remained in the square, including the dead girl and her weeping parents. Habreel and Akosh followed others back to the tavern.
“Well, that was bracing,” said Akosh, finally able to laugh out loud without it drawing too many stares. “But it will take more than this to change things. One town refusing the Red Tower will not have much of an impact, even with it being the doorway to Zecorria.”
Her tone was mocking but Habreel ignored it. This time it was his turn to grin.
“Did you think I was doing this on my own?” he asked, shaking his head in disappointment. “You have your followers and I have mine. My people are fanning sparks like this all over the west and, any day now, one of them will catch fire.”
“You want one of the tests to turn violent,” said Akosh, suddenly interested again.
Habreel shrugged. “I dislike violence, but understand that sometimes it’s necessary. People are terrified of magic and after what happened during the war, they should be. One mage changed everything. He helped start a war that served no purpose. People lost loved ones and friends in the slaughter and all of it comes back to one mage. In the long run, eliminating all magic from the world will save countless lives. It’s been a blight for too long.”
“And what if it means killing more children to achieve your goal?” asked Akosh. “Could you do it?”
“I will do whatever is necessary, no matter the cost.” He knew what she wanted him to say, but Habreel wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. He sincerely hoped he would never have to get his hands dirty, although a small voice in the back of his mind told him it wasn’t possible. But they couldn’t begin to rebuild without first scouring away those who were already cursed. If it happened, he would find a way to live with it, but in the end it would be worth it to achieve a lasting peace. If a few had to be cleansed to save tens of thousands, then so be it. “Can I count on your support?” he asked.
Akosh’s feral smile made a shiver run down Habreel’s spine. “Oh, yes. I’ve not had this much fun in years.”