The Rings of Salammis

     The immortal wizards were the most powerful humans ever to walk the planet Tharia, but the wars between them devastated the planet and the whole world breathed a sigh of relief when the last of them was killed. One of the most powerful of them found a way to cheat death, however, by creating a pair of atifacts of awesome power, and if he succeeds there will be no-one in the world able to stand against him...

Extract from The Rings of Salammis

    He woke several times in the night. He was used to feeling bedsheets against his bare skin, and the unfamiliar feel of his underclothes, which he wore in case of nighttime interruptions, worked against him. Eventually, however, after dreaming of the embryonic reptiles in their glass tanks again, he woke to see warm yellow sunlight streaming in through a gap in the curtains and he rose with a sigh of relief. Crossing to the window, he pulled the curtain aside and gasped in surprise at the sight of the Tower of Sorcery rising above the row of buildings opposite. From his vantage point on the second floor he could plainly see the path they would have to take to reach it. A little further down the road, turn right, turn right again... No more than a ten minute walk! They could have gotten there last night if it hadn't been too dark to see!

     He chuckled to himself as he pulled the bell cord to inform the landlady that he was up, and a couple of minutes later there was a knock on the door, which opened a moment later to admit a young woman, not Tinna this time but a girl who looked enough like her that she might have been her sister. She kept her eyes firmly on the floor as she crossed the room, her frail body trembling nervously. She placed a bowl of hot, soapy water on the dressing table, placed a flannel and a towel next to it and then almost fled the room before the dreadful wizard could put a spell on her. Thomas cursed under his breath as the door slammed behind her. Did the wizards of this age think it was clever to be able to terrify young girls? Were they blind to the inevitable consequences? If the fears and grievances of the people he'd met so far were typical of the population as a whole, then it would only take one tiny spark to trigger the Massacre of the Mages right now!

     He washed and dressed quickly, anxious to get away from there. Collecting his belongings, he left the room and hurried down to the common room, where several conversations stopped instantly. None of his companions had risen yet, but several of the other guests had, all waiting for their breakfasts, and they all stared silently at him as he hesitated in the doorway. He almost fled back to his room, overwhelmed by the mingled curiosity, hostility and fear he felt directed at him, but he had an uncomfortable suspicion that things could get a lot worse if they sensed weakness in him. He remembered from his history lessons that there had been isolated lynchings of lone wizards for centuries before the massacre broke out in earnest, whenever a crowd of angry citizens found an opportunity to vent some of their long pent up anger. Matthew was right, he realised. Far better for him to act tough.

     Gathering his nerve, therefore, he entered the room fully and sat down in an empty chair separated a little from the room's other occupants. Most of the other guests relaxed immediately. He presumably wouldn't have sat if he was planning to turn them all into frogs. A couple of hesitant conversations started up again, the participants occasionally turning a nervous eye in his direction. To relax them further, he pulled his travelling spellbook out of a pocket and began to read.

     Unfortunately, one of the other guests was a young man in his late teens, full of hormones and eager to impress his girlfriend, with whom he was sharing a holiday in the river city. He was a large, powerfully built young man, a healthy, powerful athlete, this being the main attraction for the beautiful young woman sitting beside him, a woman who could have had her pick of any of the young men of her home town. He had been as scared as any of the others when Thomas had entered, however, and his girlfriend had sensed it. Worse, he knew that she had sensed it and it filled him with shame and anger, the anger directed at the wizard who had caused him to lose face in front of her. His pride, driven by the gallons of testosterone sloshing around in his young body, compelled him to challenge the wizard, despite the clamouring of alarm bells sounded by his common sense. Again, his girlfriend sensed it, and her hand tightened with fear on his arm. "Joss, don't!" He ignored her and leaned forward in his chair, his eyes burning aggressively into the slender, blue robed figure sitting opposite him.

     "So you're a wizard," he snarled. "You don't look much."

     Thomas looked up from his spellbook. One look at the angry face staring at him told him that he was in trouble. "Yes I'm a wizard," he said simply. He forced a friendly smile in an attempt to defuse the situation, but it just made the young man angrier. The other conversations in the room stopped again and the guests began fidgeting anxiously.

     "I suppose you think you're better than us," spat Joss viciously. His girlfriend tugged frantically on his arm, he shook her off angrily.

     Thomas felt the words of defensive spells crowding into the forefront of his mind of their own volition and he forced them back again. If he was forced to cast a spell, even in self defence, he would be making things ten times worse for himself. It would be better by far to allow himself to be beaten up. Of course, he'd prefer to avoid that if he could. "No, I don't think that," he said. "I'm just a man, just like you. I was born, I need to eat and drink, one day I will grow old and die..." He knew it was the wrong thing to say the moment the words were out of his mouth and fear clutched at his heart with a fist of ice.

     "Oh, so you're not one of the immortal ones then!" Joss rose from his chair, his hands clenched into tight fists. "Not yet, anyway, but maybe one day, eh? Good, decent folk like us grow old and die, but you just go on and on! You think that's fair? Eh? Do you?" Every instinct screamed at Thomas to stand and defend himself. It took a real effort of will to remain seated, to try to appear harmless. He had no way of knowing how it made him really look. Aloof and indifferent. Confident and secure in his power. Joss's spirit nearly failed him with this demonstration of nonchalant superiority and he almost backed down, but his girlfriend was still watching, her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide with terror. Some of the other guests were hurrying towards the door, while the others simply sat, hypnotised with morbid fascination. What would the wizard do to the brave but foolish youngster?

     "I have no wish to become immortal, even if the opportunity presented itself. I am content to die when my time comes, to leave my wife and son to make a new life without me." He hoped that the mention of his family would make them see him as an ordinary man, no different from them. Maybe it did to some of them, but apparently not Joss. "Your time might come a lot sooner than you think!" he spat. "You've got a lesson coming, you and your kind! You're gonna be put in your place!"

     "I know," said the wizard sadly. "I know." The answer seemed to confuse the angry young man, because the fight abruptly went out of him and he backed away to his own chair, still glaring but now with an element of doubt and uncertainty. His girlfriend grabbed his arm again and beamed adoringly up at him. "Oh Joss! You were wonderful!"

     Matthew and the two junior soldiers chose that moment to enter the room. Better late than never, the wizard thought ruefully. He jumped out of his chair and steered them back out into the corridor. "Come on, we're leaving."

     "But we haven't eaten yet!" protested Matthew in confusion. "What's the hurry?"

     Thomas jabbed a thumb back at the common room. "They don't like wizards. I almost got caught up in a fist fight. If we hang around much longer, we could end up starting a riot." Bakklin and Stone looked distraught. They had clearly been looking forward to a breakfast as hot and filling as last night's dinner had been, and Thomas was upset by the turn of circumstances himself. "Trust me," he said to Matthew imploringly. "We have to go. Now."

     Matthew nodded. "Has anyone left anything in their rooms?" They all shook their heads. "Let's go then. Maybe we'll find something to eat in the tower." They followed the corridor to the front door, slipped quietly through it and out into the street.

     They passed the alley they'd wandered into the night before. In the daylight it seemed harmless, just a narrow passage between buildings littered with junk and rubbish, but thirty feet along it a pair of large rats were lapping at a pool of dark liquid. Blood. Someone must have died there the night before. They paused for a moment, thanking the Gods for the stroke of good luck that had brought them back to a big street, then hurried on.