The War had been over a century ago and yet people still remembered it. Remembered it as worse than it had actually been even, because stories passed down from parent to child in warning tend to have a way of gathering both drama and bloodloss.
Still, even if the stories were exaggerated, there was no questioning that it had been a terrible and frightening thing. Not just wizards were wiped out, but ordinary people in their thousands on both sides. Areas were completely destroyed and nightmares and horrors were left in everyone's minds.
No-one could remember which side had started it, or why, and in the end it didn't really matter. Both sides suffered equally as power was flung until the most powerful wizards were wiped out, and a truce was called simply because there was no-one left with enough power to really fight.
After that, magic became unpopular. The Cities kept their Towers still, but the ruined Towers were never rebuilt and less children were searched out and trained every year. It seemed too much like inviting war again to pour many resources into magic. If no-one had the power, no-one could fight with it and life would be relatively safe and secure.
But then, around a hundred years later, rumours began to leak into Alor about Niuma. Just whispers really, nothing more than that. But they were whispers that sent a chill through the bones of those few Wizards who were left. Niuma was searching out one in ten children for training again, so people said, and had rebuilt its ruined Towers and fitted them with Keepers. Young Keepers of course, children still being trained, but it would not be too many decades before those children became powerful Keepers in their own right.
And then what? What was Niuma preparing for? It could be completely harmless of course. But if it wasn't...
If it wasn't, and Alor had not readied its own magic, then what chance would they have should Niuma choose to attack? And as alarm spread from one Tower to another, and whispers changed to louder murmurs, it was clear that something would have to be done. They could not just sit back and let this potential attack happen. A course of action simply had to be set.
The debate involved Wizards from every Realm, and was fiercely argued. Who, after all, would want to be the man who advocated an action that brought about a second War? And yet the only alternative seemed to be to leave Alor open to attack, and ignore their traditional duties of protection. And if they did that, then how would they be serving their Cities at all?
So, reluctantly, it was agreed. Alor would once more take as many children as they could find with the Power, and train them. If they could train enough to have more power than Niuma, then the other country would be too afraid to ever attack and so the peace would be kept. However strange it might sound, it was not a gesture intended to create war, but one which would ensure peace.
It was the same reasoning that caused a party to be sent to search for likely youngsters for Halley Tower. The place had been abandoned since the War. The Wizards felt too guilty to rebuild it. Without Wizards protection, no Lord would risk trying to rule the City. And without a Lord to establish the laws of trade, and see that things were done fairly, travellers avoided the place. It had once been as full of bustle and industry as any of the other Cities, but left to itself what survived the War dwindled away until there were few left living in the area, and those that did were poor enough that folk were ashamed to speak of it. It was a blot on the prosperous country, and one that people preferred to forget existed. When speaking of Alor, you talked of its fine Cities, and merchants, not of the ruins and wilderness of Halley.
But despite the fact it was ruined, the Tower still had power, strong magic of the type that could ruin a world if it was misused. And abandoned as it was, if an Alor Keeper wasn't installed in there, there was every chance that Niuma could somehow find a Keeper and thus control it. The place was harmless enough as long as everyone ignored it, but if somewhere was going to use it, it had better be Alor.
It was a shame really that they could not simply install one of the Wizards from the other Towers. While the craft was not as strong as it had once been, there were still a few powerful men who could have been picked from and used, men who had long since graduated their training, and whose loyalty to Alor could be in no doubt. Sadly, it didn't work like that. Towers had their own rules, and while humans might want to break them, they had to be obeyed no matter how inconvenient it might be. Imaginative people say that terrible things will happen if a Keeper is placed in a Tower that is not his own - explosions and the like. They don't of course - the magic simply doesn't work.
The Tower produces its own Keepers, leaking the magic into the surrounding population. One in ten children born around a Tower grow up with some magic, even if it's only a trace to lend to a Keeper in times of need. And so, long ago, the Cities were built around the Towers so that more children might be born with the magic. Each Tower's magic had its own distinct flavour, and while Supporters might travel from one Tower to another, they would always be strongest in their home, and a Keeper could only ever work the Tower near which he was born. But the question was, in somewhere as deserted as Halley, could someone strong enough to be Keeper be found? Such power was rare, and with so few people in the area, what if there was no-one at all? Still, for the protection of Alor, the attempt at least had to be made.
So that party was assembled. Shak was to lead the little group of Supporters and we were to seek out any we could find with any power at all, and just... do the best we could with them. I was one of the younger Supporters, and I am afraid that the outlook didn't seem very good at that point. Everyone knew that Keepers were born in the Cities around the Tower. Looking for one in these scattered little rural villages just seemed wrong.
Still, we had Shak to lead us so maybe there was hope. I liked Shak - most people did. He wasn't the most powerful of Wizards, but he was experienced, and intelligent, and he did have the power to draw the power from other Supporters to a point. Every team needs someone like him to lead and to control. It does no good to have a body that brims over with power if there is no-one there to draw it from you and use it It is the skill used by Keepers themselves of course - although Shak was not nearly strong enough to become a Keeper.. You need someone who can use it, and what's more it needs to be someone you can trust to use it well. You have to be able to trust them. Once you have lent them your power, you have no control over what they use it for. If your trust is misplaced, it could be your power that kills or destroys. You cannot afford to do that blindly.
Shak was the type of person who it was easy to believe deserved such trust. He could think things through calmly and logically. Children liked him - which was most likely one of the reasons he was chosen for this. His face crinkled when he smiled. That last, perhaps, was not an actual guarantee that someone was trustworthy but... it all added to the overall feel you got from Shak that this was a man you could trust to protect you and not get you killed.
Indeed, one or two more paranoid folk said that he was too nice, that anyone that friendly and laidback had to be secretly planning something nasty. Then again, some people would find reason to fault anyone, and we were all highly suspect in any case just for being sent to retrieve the Tower. Even if you were sent by order, performing the tasks that would strengthen the magic again in Alor was not something that made you any friends.
It turned out to be a good job that we did have Shak with us. We had thought that the people of Halley at least would be happy that their Tower was being rebuilt, even if no-one else was. With the Tower standing, and a Keeper to protect the land, a Lord could have taken control again. People would have been drawn back into the area, knowing it was safew, and Halley could have thrived as it once did. Sury these were all things to be grateful for?
It seemed not. Perhaps the folk of Halley were simply a group of outlaws who enjoyed life without a Lord to keep order, or, more likely, they had forgotten the true duties of both Lords and Wizards. Whichever it was, we were looked at with both fear and loathing on many occasions, and as we did not wish to use magic to hurt our own people, Shak's diplomatic manner was needed more than once to guide us out of trouble. Accusations were flung of us trying to steal their land, or trying to make servants out of them, of stealing their children. It is hard to make sense of such claims. We didn't want to take their land - we simply wanted to encourage it to grow as it once had. While a Tower and a Lord would certainly need people to care for them, we paid such men well, and surely that was better than starving through lack of work? And admittedly, we took their children, but it was for the protection of Alor itself that we did so, and we cared well for them. As long as they are not struck down by an accident or attack, a Wizard lives a longer and healthier life than most. It is not as if we Supporters are mistreated at all. Unused to dealing with such hostilities, we Supporters followed Shak like a little herd of sheep, grateful for his skill in calming situations. If it had not been for him, I believe that there are times when we would have been physically attacked as people attempted to drive us out.
Yet still, even with his soothing words our effort all seemed for nothing. Magic has a taste to it, a feel that leaves a tingle in the air that one properly trained can pick up on. Then you follow that taste, and at the end of the trail find a youngster suitable to be used. Except, in Halley, that didn't happen. Very rarely did we find even a faint trace to follow - in fact there seemed to be a shortage of children with or without magic. The only conclusion I can come to is that the people there were hiding their children away from us. Perhaps they thought that if we did not find any and left then they would be safe.
The truth was somewhat harsher, which is why we kept looking for so long. For power like that of Halley Tower, who knew what Niuma would give? It seemed undoubtable in our minds that they would not hesitate to kill until the people found and surrendered a suitable Keeper. Afterall, we all knew what kind of atrocities they had commited in the last War...
We could not look forever though, espiecially not with people so unwilling to give Wizards a place to stay for the night. We had a choice between sleeping on the road, or paying a price ten times what it should have cost. After five weeks of such unrelenting hostility, we were running low on money and it seemed we were never going to get anywhere no matter how long we searched. Finally, we decided to head home. It seemed the sensible thing to do - we could do more good there than we could working with people who would not let us help them.
We had turned around and were ready to do so when she called.
Only Shak felt her at first, and for a moment we were all sure he was sick. He halted so suddenly, turned his head so quickly, and looked so shocked and delighted that we could not understand it. And then he reached for our minds, and shared what he felt, and we understood.
It was as we had said, we had been searching wrong. Sniffing here and there for scraps of magic when what we needed was a Keeper - what a foolish way to go about it! Magic that strong surely could not be left unused and when it was it would leave more than a faint taste. And what sense was there at all in roaming all Halley as we had? Of course the most power would be near the Tower, not five miles away in a town barely within its reach. It made perfect sense now we knew where she was - enough that I don't know how we'd missed it for so long.
And this magic certainly was strong. Untrained yes, but as we turned to head for the Tower it was strong enough that yu couldn't not feel it, strong enough to leave a taste in your mouth as you rode. We rode as quickly as we could, hurrying back towards the Tower. If we could taste it, so could anyone else in the area with the skill to do so. If it happened that Niuma had already had the same thought as the girl and they got to her first, they could beat her down and make her theirs. For her own sake, as well as Alor's, we had to be quick.
When we arrived, we thought we were already too late. The Tower was already surrounded by a shield of wind and fire. Of course we attacked it. In our minds it could only have been Niuma's doing, and leaving such power to them could have brought about the destruction of our land. There was no sense in leaving the Tower to them - the taste told us that there could only be nine of them. Shak was not the strongest Focus we could have had perhaps, but we were more than twice their number and confident of our success.
Truly, I believe we cannot be blamed for our mistake. The magic felt odd - how were we to know that that was because of horses and not foreigners? And who would have believed that an untrained mind could bind and fight so strongly without experienced Supporters to help her? It might have been wrong, but it was the only logical conclusion we could find.
But our confidence was misplaced. We joined our minds with Shak, and he poured our power out as freely as if it were water, and still it seemed to have barely any effect. The attacks flung at us in return though were frightening it their intensity. I flinched with everry attack, and I do not want to imagine what pain Shak endured as our Focus. We stood and we thought with all we had, until suddenly, and unexpectedly we had no power left. It happens like that sometimes when a Focus needs to use more than he expected, and drained of our energy we Supporters could not even stand, but quite literally fell.
There are those who would have drawn from us even then, who would have pulled energy from us until there was no longer even enough there to keep our hearts beating. Thank all the Gods that Shak was not one of them. He seemed horrified as we crumpled one by one, and held up his hands in surrender suddenly, cutting off his own attack. "Have done." he said quietly, "No more."
Though I have rarely doubted Shak in the past, I must admit I did so then. What kind of men could have fought as strongly as those in the Tower had? More importantly, what would they do with us, powerless and helpless as we now were? Again the stories of the last War rose in my mind - surely it would have been better to fight to the death than risk torture of that type?
But it seemed that Shak's instinct was to prove correct. I expected many nightmares to walk out of that Tower, but I did not expect a girl - barely more than a child - and eight wild horses.
At the time it seemed impossible - too much so to rationalise. Now though, havinng had time to think it over it makes more sense. We had never seen magic in animals before - but then there had been few animals around Towers before. Certainly, there were no wild horses in the Cities. If Towers can give magic to the babies born around them, why shouldn't it also be given to animals like these?
What is more interesting is that there were only eight of them. I had seen how big the wild herds of Halley were - they had to number hundreds, if not thousands of horses. If roughly one in ten horses were born with the magic, as one in ten humans are, that would be many many more than eight. Yet when she called, only eight came...
As I said, you must have a lot of trust in your Focus to give your power up to them. Perhaps even a horse can be wary of that kind of vulnerability.
However, even eight were enough to beat us down under that Keeper. I watched as Shak stepped forward and bowed to her. He alone had the energy left to stand and speak to her, and even he had to be doing so with the kind of headache that crashes and clatters through your head, making thought difficult and psinful.
She wanted us to leave - to go from Halley and not return. We had been sent to secure the Tower, but joined mentally as we were still I could feel the thought as it ran through each of us.
Power like hers antagonised was - is - dangerous Perhaps even more dangerous than the combined magic of Niuma. They would use their power to try and take our land She on the other hand, was not trained enough to control it so well. It was more likely she would turn it to wanton destructtion, and who knew how many would die in that? She was not someone tyou wanted to antagonise.
But left alone - if she would not let us take her Tower and land, nor would she allow anyone else to. She would beat back Niuma should they try to take it no less effectively than she had beatten us back. We could not secure our Tower as we had been ordered, but if we left it to her care and made our peace with her we could at least be sure Niuma could not take it either. We would simply have to hope that she was content with Halley and never thought to try extending her territory.
So, Shak agreed formally - not that we had much choice - and we set off back to our own home Tower to report on what had happened. The other Keepers were not p-leased as you might well imagine, but they did admit reluctantly that this way the Tower was at least harmless.
Shak left Wizarding soon after that. It is rare for a Wizard to go in search of another profession, and rarely still for him to succeed at it, so I still do not understand why he tried. He said something about not liking what it was making of him, and about seeing Niuma around every corner, and went. It seemed an odd thing to say - we could hardly be blamed for being careful when Niuma was so obviously a threat, could we? I have not heard from him since.
And Niuma proved that our paranoia was justified. It was two years later when they accused us of building our power in order to attack them. We replied, pointing out how they had built up their own resources. I do not recall precisely who attacked first - they claim it was us, though I am sure it must have been them. It hardly matters in the end. It hardly matters in the end who started it, what matters is that we win this war and stamp out the threat once and for all. Only then can there be peace.