The Burning Tower Burns, Part I

“Claire, you’re up,” the boss growled through the intercom.

Taking a deep breath, I carefully closed my book, put it on the table next to my chair, and headed for the Lift. Launching myself from the landing, I flapped to the dispatch office on the roof of the Rookery. I grabbed my bag from its hook in the hallway as I entered the office, and headed to Sal’s desk.

“What’cha got for me, Sals?” I asked her.

“That’s boss to you, Claire,” she replied.

It was our ritual. She adores me.

“Delivery for the Burning Tower. Class IV enchanted parcel.”

I whistled low and long. Class IV was high-level stuff. Someone had put a fortune into protecting this package from magical spying. That seemed odd considering it was going to the Burning Tower, the literal home of some of the most powerful magic users in the city.

Ah well, none of my business. I only deliver. If I started getting nosey about packages, I would be out of a job fast, and this is an easy paycheck for me. I get to spread my wings, put on speed without worrying about the cops, and had plenty of downtime to do my own work. The living arrangements and food aren’t bad either.

After evaluating my reaction at a glance, Sals nodded her head once and held out the address. The pickup was at a small, older apartment building on the south side of town. It was more than a bit run down, and we didn’t usually get deliveries to, or from, that part of town. The delivery name, Simon Dales, wasn’t one I knew, but it didn’t really matter. The Burning Tower had a receiving office. It was only my job to get it there and get a signature showing that I had gotten it that far. It all seemed a bit strange, but it isn’t my job to wonder about such things.

“I’m on it Sals.”

“You’d better be. That’s what I pay you for,” she replied making a shoeing gesture in my direction.

After carefully securing my bag to my body, setting it comfortably around my wings and across my body, I headed for the bay doors at the back of the room. On a beautiful day like today, they were wide open. This was going to be a cakewalk. The sun was out, and the temperatures were warm enough to have created some updrafts. It was always fun to play in city wind currents, and I do love to stretch my wings, but it’s also nice to just get the delivery out of the way so that I can play on my way home.

Snapping my wings open I dropped from the landing of the Rookery. The location of the building was chosen because it is a sea of updrafts. All I needed to do was circle a little and it felt like I would rise into the clouds. I let myself savor the breeze ruffling my feathers before heading for the Burroughs.

These days all buildings had their addresses on the roofs. It used to be that all humans were stuck on the ground walking everywhere, but with the return of magic, flight was a fairly common thing.

I found the pickup location, 567 Shepherd Ln. It was, as I suspected, a rather run-down apartment building in the poor, human section of the city. Without cyberware or magic, it was tough to do more than survive. Still, the building was in good shape and the grounds were well kept. There was even a garden on the roof where I landed.

Despite the nip in the air in the early mornings, autumn hasn’t really set in. This garden was amazingly green and fertile. I could see veggies and flowers everywhere. The tenants really took care of it. I made my way to the door and down to apartment 21C one floor down. I knock three times, and announce myself, “Courier.”

I’m not superstitious, but this can be a dangerous job and we all know three is a magic number. I hear steps and tapping from inside and I take a step back, just in case. The door creaks open, slowly revealing a small, old man. He appears to be of Asian descent. He has white hair to his waist and a fu Manchu mustache that touches his chest. He comes up to about my armpits. Granted, I’m 6’3”, but that’s still pretty short in my book. He is wearing an outfit like one of those you see in old kung fu movies with slippers that have a separate space for your big toe and everything. He takes me in with one glance and I can feel myself squirming uncomfortably. I’ve never experienced it until now, but this must be what it means when they say, ‘he could read my soul with one glance.’

“Ah, welcome. Come in and I will get the package.” He stands aside and gestures me in with the cane he held in his left hand. That was where the sound of tapping had come from it seemed. I politely entered and stayed just inside the door as he shuts it and heads to another room.

I kill time by examining the calligraphy he has all over the walls. I don’t mean in frames, I mean painted right onto the walls. It seems a bit odd, but the overall effect is beautiful and captivating. Symbol flows into symbol. I wish I could read it. I can only imagine that it sounds as beautiful as it looks.

I shake myself free from the beauty and carefully unclip the delivery pack from its harness. I take out the magical sealing strips and the permanent marker. Once a customer uses the strips to seal the bag and writes the name of the recipient on the strip, only that person can break the seal. Most of the time, I never even know what I am carrying, and it’s the reason our services don’t come cheap. We guarantee delivery with no tampering. Most of the time it’s not a big deal, but the job, as I said, comes with some risks.

“Would you care for some tea, Courier?” he calls from the next room. It must be the kitchen.

“No thank you, sir. I appreciate the offer but I must stick to my schedule or the boss gets mad.” I respond. It’s even true. Sals would get really mad at me for goofing off, and if I was going to get Sals mad it would be for doing something more fun than drinking tea.

“As you say, young man.” I hear the tapping again and he shuffles back into the room with a smallish package. It’s about one foot by six inches by two inches. Well within the expected size for my delivery bag. I hold out the bag to him. He takes the bag and carefully inserts the package. He has obviously done this before because he reaches out for a seal, carefully seals the bag, and writes the name of the recipient on it, Thomas Sendon. He hands me back the bag and I secure it to the harness again. He watches me carefully with a little smile. As I finish he gives me a slight bow. For some reason, I return the bow the same way and see his smile get a little broader. No doubt this guy is a kook, but he seems nice enough.

With that out of the way, I head back up to the roof. Next stop, the Burning Tower. Feeling energized by the day, and ready to get this class IV out of my hands, I run to the edge of the roof and leap. My wings snap open and I feel the wind running its fingers through my feathers and hair. Glorious. I start to drop but flap to gain altitude and take to the skyway.

The good news is that with all the magical possibilities out there, there still aren’t so many fliers that the ways are crowded. I dodge in and out keeping my eye out for patrols. They have wings so I don’t understand how they can be so harsh about enforcing the fly lanes, but whatever. All I have to do most of the time is flash them my messenger bag and they cut me some slack.

It’s an easy flight across town. The Burning Tower is in front of me before I know it. It’s a sleek glass creation. At 30 stories it was amazing to buzz. I’d come in fast at floor fifteen and turn up at the last second and run my fingertips along the glass up to the runway on the roof. In a normal building that wouldn’t be fun, but when I say this is a glass creation, I mean it. It’s made of solid glass, completely smooth and polished. Since it’s the home of the Magic Circle, it defies the laws of physics, and it was designed to flaunt that. It curves and twists its way into the sky giving me lots of arcs and twists to follow. And there won’t be fingerprints because nothing leaves a mark on it.

When I get to the top, I fly up another ten feet then come down onto the runway. I guess it’s more like a plank really; you know, the kind pirates use. It juts off the roof of the building. It’s large enough for a griffon to land comfortably and walk through the large doors into the receiving area. Those doors are usually shut. The messenger traffic all enters through a smaller side door.

Actually, thinking about it. The whole thing if approached from the right angle would look like a winking emoji with its tongue stuck out. Huh. Can’t wait to tell Kee about that.

I knock three times on the messenger door. It opens and I pass through. The door frame is inscribed all over with runes. In the past, I have seen them start to glow and once they were so bright I had to close my eyes. On those occasions I was ushered back out, my package was removed and placed in a magic sphere which I assume kept everyone safe from the contents. I really only knew second-hand tales from Kee.

Kee is my best friend. We have known each other since middle school. We were both outcasts. Me for my wings and him for his mad magic skills. By eight he could tell if anyone was using magic, and his honesty had him telling on our magic-wielding, cheating classmates. Needless to say, he did not make many friends that way. Just me. But that was okay because we both enjoyed testing our new skills. I learned to carry him while flying. He learned how to find things using his magic. We made a whole childhood business of finding missing pets. I would fly him up above the houses, and he would scan for the missing critter. Together we had a great success rate.

Now of course, since we graduated high school, we’ve had to find gainful employment. I guess in that regard we got lucky. I got my dream job at The Rookery delivering high-priority items, and Kee is a junior scanner at the Burning Tower.

I wait in the door frame for the full fifteen seconds to ensure the runes won’t go off, and they don’t. With a nod and a wink for Kee at his post near the door, I head for the delivery desk. I remove the package from the harness and show it to K’estra, who’s manning the desk today.

“Hey, K’estra. I have a class IV delivery for a Thomas Sendon.” I inform her.

“Hey, Courier. I’ll call him up.”

I hang out at the desk until she contacts Sendon. K’estra is a super nice mage. She loves to talk about her dog, Bethany. I don’t have any pets myself since they aren’t allowed at The Rookery. Growing up, my parents had a cat, so I don’t know too much about dogs really, but I love hearing about Bethany’s exploits. Apparently, she loves to be dressed up; if you can trust K’estra’s word for it.

We both snap to attention as the elevator dings. An older man, at least I assume he’s older because of the gray sprinkled through his hair, steps out, and storms over to the desk. He has an incredibly sour look on his face, his lips twisted in anger, eyes narrowed, and brows drawn down. K’estra instinctively shrinks in on herself. I step forward to interject myself into his narrow focus. His face relaxes into a more neutral pose when he sees that he has an outside audience. I hate people like that.

“K’estra, what is so important that you called me when I had my do not disturb on?” he demands, and I’m sure he’s being far more gentle because I’m there despite the ugly tone of voice.

“Sir, you have a Class IV package and it needs to be delivered to you directly. I apologize for the need to disturb you,” she whispers.

“Mr. Sendon?” I interject.

“Yes, I’m Thomas Sendon.” I extend the package to him. He looks at it and hesitates for a few seconds. Class IV is no joke. If you touch it and you aren’t the messenger or the intended recipient; well, there are consequences. I wonder about his hesitation, but before I can wonder too much [and let my mind go on to a myriad of conspiracy theories] he reaches out and grasps the package.

Despite the hesitation, there are no fireworks. I release the package. He turns around without another word and heads back for the elevator. Jerk. I turn to K’estra and roll my eyes. She gives me a rather wan smile, but at least it’s a smile. I really don’t like this guy, but hey, none of my business.

“Have a great day, K’estra. Give Bethany some extra love from me, and keep posting! I live for her pictures.” I say with my most winning smile. That’s done it, she’s really smiling now. Good. With a wave for Kee, I head out through the side door and take a running leap from the tongue, snapping my wings open.

For a moment I just hover in the sky there. It’s not weightless for me, but it’s got to be close. I dip one wing and I’m off. Dropping below the skyway, I twist and turn between the buildings. Being careful to stay above the second floor so that no one calls the cops on me, I put on the speed and play my favorite game of chicken. It may seem harmless, but unless you know the buildings well it would be easy to hit a sign, or a flag pole, or an awning. I’m good. I don’t hit anything in my mad flight. I even pick up a few pigeons as I enjoy my tour of the city. Before I know it, the buildings start getting shorter and further between.

Leaving the city proper, I head for the suburbs. The community of Lafayette is just outside of town but they have a lot of greenscape; city of trees and all that. The trees aren’t right for a forest run, but without pavement and other city niceties, the air currents have a different flavor and feel to them. I enjoy testing myself against their variety and randomness. Cities are generally pretty predictable in the air.

Since the return of magic, huge strides have been made in cleaning up the environment. Fliers don’t like a faceful of smog, and with the Magical Rights Law, we don’t have to put up with anything which would inhibit our natural gifts. The rivers got cleaned up as well for the Aquas. All cities have a minimum requirement for green space to give the nature dwellers a place to live. Nature is returning to nature.

Eventually, I headed home, back to The Rookery. As my feet hit the roof I hear, “Claire, to the office. NOW!!” bellowed from inside. I sigh then head inside, wondering how I’ve pissed Sals off this time. She eyed me up and down.

“Glad you’re okay,” she grumbled.

“Why wouldn’t I be? You know me Sals, I was just out enjoying the day.”

“Because the Burning Tower is now literally burning and I wasn’t sure if you’d made it out first,” she said, studying my face. “No need to worry, Kee is okay. He reached out to make sure you were okay. You’d better contact him right away. Use the office mirror.” she said. I could feel the shock showing on my face.

I raced to the mirror, closed my eyes, and pictured Kee. When I opened my eyes, he was there in the mirror. “Thank the Maker!” he whispered. “I thought you were already gone, but I wasn’t sure. I’m so glad to see you in one piece.”

“What the heck, dude! What’s going on? I go play hooky and it all hits the fan. Spill!” I exclaim.

“Just as you were leaving there was some sort of magical…explosion? Implosion? Incident? It’s hard to describe. Basically, something big happened, and when it was done the Burning Tower was…burning!”

“What?!? That’s crazy!”

“I know. At first, the building went on lockdown. No one was sure what was going on. K’estra and I saw this weird greenish glow around the door. We both tested our skills against it but we couldn’t sense anything. We reported it but security already knew and told us to stay put. About an hour later we were given the all-clear but the glow was still there. We checked it out and it looked like a low burning fire around the building. You could put your hand on it and not feel a thing, but it was totally there! I didn’t feel a thing when I touched it; not physically or magically. That’s when I realized you had left about the same time. I freaked out and tried to reach you, but Sals said you weren’t there. Glad you’re okay, dude.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. How are you guys? Are you still on lockdown?”

“Not entirely. They found out that it’s safe enough to enter and leave the building. Most everyone was sent home. I’m still here though. They want to talk to me about your delivery. If you haven’t heard from them yet, I’d expect to hear soon.”

“They’d have to get through Sals first. She’s really good at standing between us and authority.”

Kee dropped his voice to a whisper, “I don’t think even Sals can stop these guys. They are the black suit type.”

“You okay?”

“I’m not gonna lie, I’m scared. These guys aren’t government; they’re magic counsel. They own my ass. I guess it’s good that they’re letting me call you, but if I disappear, don’t look for me; it’d be too dangerous.”

“Never happen, Bro. You don’t disappear on my watch.”

“Thanks, dude. I think I should go.”

“Understood. I’ll talk to you again. Keep in touch as you can.” With a shaky smile, Kee shut the connection.

My mind was going a million miles a minute. No one wants to mess with the magical counsel. Kee owed them big time because they paid for his advanced magical training. They found a position for him, and he needed to work for them for another ten years at least in order to pay off his debts. Not to mention that as a mage you pretty much had to be a part of the counsel guild. It was hard to get employment if you weren’t. Now he was in their hands, but not in a good way. And if that weren’t enough, they wanted to talk to me! Why? Did this have something to do with the package I delivered? I didn’t know anything about that and the laws around package privacy were almost as tough as client/attorney privilege. You don’t talk about deliveries. The only information you can share is pickup and delivery addresses. We can’t share descriptions of the people on either end or anything like that. They could get everything they need from Sals.

Sals! I bet they’d already contacted her. I headed back to her desk.

“Hear from the Magic Counsel lately?” I drawled.

She raised one eyebrow at me, “Finally up to speed are we, Clarie?”

“I bet you know more than I do.” I sighed.

“Of course,” she said, turning her head back to her computer.

“Oh c’mon, Sals! Dish! Kee is involved.” I wheedled.

“I can’t do much for that troublemaker, but yeah, they reached out. I gave them the addresses and told them to stuff it on the rest. They wanted to talk to you, but that’s a no-go. They know that.” she took a deep breath, “But, Claire, I’m taking you out of service. You need to stay in The Rookery until this blows over. I’m being serious here, kid, these guys are no joke and they really want to talk to you. I don’t want you violating your oath to us intentionally or unintentionally…if you know what I mean.”

My heart dropped. This was serious if Sals was telling me to stay home. She knows I would never violate my oath but she still said that. That meant she thought they would force the issue.

“Okay, Sals. I can catch up on my games.” I said and turned for the inner sanctum.

Gliding down to my room, it all really started to hit me. I was in trouble. Kee was in trouble. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I know it wasn’t going to be sitting around playing games…and Sals knew that too, so I was going to have to be sneaky about it.

Sals went on the PA system. “We will be going on lockdown in sixty minutes, people. If you need out, go now. If you know someone who needs in, they’d better get their butts in here in fifty-nine minutes.”

Lockdown. We’d heard about it in school. The whole building could be magically shielded from the outside. The only communication would be by tech means. This Magic Counsel thing must be even more serious than I thought. I played for a while then hit the sack.

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