In the summer between Second and Third Year at Whitehall, Emily accompanies Lady Barb on her rounds of the Cairngorm Mountains, bringing magical help to the locals and searching for new magicians.
But when they stumble across a deadly plot, they discover that the entire country is in grave danger. Book 4 in the Schooled in Magic series.
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The first thing old Mother Holly knew, when she snapped awake, was that she was no longer alone.
The second thing she knew was that the intruder had cast a complex spell on her. She couldn’t move a muscle, apart from her mouth. Even her eyes refused to open.
But she refused to panic. At fifty years of age, most of them spent living in her shack, Holly had little fear of death. It was just a part of life. Besides, the intruder had to be a powerful magician – he’d walked through her wards and protections without triggering any alarms – but it was unlikely that he meant her any real harm. If he had, he could have cut her throat before she ever woke up.
"Good morning," a cultured voice said. It was male, but otherwise unfamiliar. A spell was probably being used to disguise the speaker. "I apologize for casting a spell on you, but I would prefer to remain unknown."
"I am sure of it," Holly said, dryly. "And why, exactly, have you invaded my home?"
"I came to make you an offer," the voice said. There was a clink as something was dumped onto the rickety table. "An offer of power."
Holly snorted. She’d heard such offers before. Hedge Witches lived closer to the untamed wild magic than any of the snooty graduates of Whitehall, Mountaintop or the other magical academies. She’d seen her first demon before she even had her first blood.
And she knew what demons wanted. "And all you want in exchange is my soul?"
"Not at all," the voice assured her. "I merely wish you to use what I bring you."
Holly didn’t believe him. In her experience, nothing was ever given for nothing. There was always something desired in exchange, no matter how many pretty words might be used to hide it. And power always came with a price.
The voice became seductive. "Have you never wished for more power?"
Holly would have nodded, if she had been able to move. She’d been born to a poor family in a poor village. Only a talent for magic had saved her from being sold or married off as soon as she first passed blood. But she had never been powerful enough to go to one of the academies. Instead, she had learned from the local Hedge Witch and, when the elderly woman had died, Holly had taken her place.
But it was a frustrating job. People relied on her and were terrified of her in equal measure. They begged for her help and whispered about her behind her back. And no matter what she did, she knew she couldn’t help all of them. She had dedicated her life to the folk of the mountains, yet it was never enough. And the demons knew how she felt. It was why they kept coming to her, tempting her with dreams of power.
"Yes," she said aloud.
"These are the tools of a magician who garnered power," the voice said. He tapped something that sounded like wood. "A skull of memories. A book of spells. And a knife of power."
"I can’t read," Holly confessed.
There was a chuckle from the darkness. "The New Learning hasn’t spread this far yet, has it?"
He cleared his throat, then pressed on before Holly could ask him what he meant. "Don’t worry," he assured her. There was an easy confidence in his voice that both puzzled and alarmed her. How long had he been spying on her to have such an accurate idea of her capabilities? "The skull will provide all the guidance you need. All I ask in return is that you help the folk of the mountains."
Holly clenched her teeth, pressing against the spell. It refused to break. "Why...why are you doing this?"
"Because someone has to," the voice said. It was a delightfully uninformative answer. "And because the people need help. You know how powerless they are."
He was right, Holly knew. The mountainfolk scrabbled to make a living from the soil. What little they had was taxed, often heavily, by the lords of the high castles. Their sons were pressed into armies, their daughters often forced into effective prostitution; entire families had been broken up because their masters decided that it was necessary. Hedge witch or no, Holly had never been in a position to stop the aristocrats from bullying the common folk. If she’d tried, she knew the aristocrats would have called for a magician from the academies to deal with her. All she could do was watch.
But if she were offered the power to change it, would she?
She had to admit that she probably would. The only reason the aristocrats held power was that they were powerful, not because they had any intrinsic right to rule. If she had more power, she could make them bend to her will. And then she could ensure that the mountainfolk had a chance to live free.
"Good luck," the voice said.
The spell unraveled moments later. Holly’s eyes jerked open, but all she saw was the cramped interior of her shack. Her tutor had told her that a hedge witch shouldn’t crave luxury; the shack was barren, apart from a pile of blankets, a table, a handful of shelves and a small fireplace. The shelves were crammed with potion ingredients Holly had collected herself. She stumbled to her feet and looked around, sharply. Her vast family of cats seemed to have vanished.
Carefully, she tested the wards. As far as she could tell, they were intact. But the intruder had walked right through them.
She looked down at the table and scowled. As the voice had promised, there was a skull, a book...and a knife. The skull glittered with magic of a kind Holly had never seen before – she resolved to be careful when trying to use it – and the book seemed impenetrable. But it was the knife that caught her attention. It was a long dagger, with odd runes carved into the blade...
...And it was made of stone.
The room looked perfectly safe. Emily was suspicious at once.
She stepped into the room, hand raised in a defensive posture. Magic crackled over her fingertips as she glanced around, looking for unexpected surprises. Blackhall was crammed with traps, some magical, some mundane; the merest touch could trigger something that would explode in her face. And, with Emily the only student in the building, the traps could be keyed to her personally.
The room was empty, save for a slender tree that grew out of a pot and climbed up through a hole in the ceiling. Emily eyed it doubtfully, then cast a series of magic-detection spells. The tree was completely out of place, so out of place that she suspected that it was part of a trap. And yet it just seemed to be a perfectly normal tree...
Puzzled, she inched over towards the door on the far side of the room and cast another detection spell. The door itself seemed safe, but there was a powerful spell on the doorknob, one keyed to touch. The moment she touched it, she would unleash...what? So far, Blackhall’s defenses had included everything from stunning spells to immediate eviction from the building. Emily couldn’t count the number of times she’d touched the wrong thing and triggered something.
She glanced behind her and swore under her breath. The door through which she had entered was gone. The only way out was through the sealed door. Absently, she tested the walls – she’d escaped once by blasting through the walls – and discovered that they were held firmly in place by magic. Clearly, Sergeant Miles wasn’t about to allow her to use the same trick twice.
There was no time for further reflection. Kneeling down beside the door, she started to work on the spell guarding the doorknob. She expected it to be tricky – the sergeants were brilliant at inventing complex puzzles – but the spell unraveled almost as soon as she touched it with her magic. Emily blinked in surprise; that had really been too easy. And then she sensed the second spell coming to life. A second spell had been hidden behind the first, waiting for the first spell to be removed. Emily threw up her hands as a wave of magic surged out at her. But it was too late.
She felt the spell strike her, warping her body. The experience wasn’t painful, but it was thoroughly uncomfortable – and interfered with her own magic. She saw hairs sprouting on her bare arms a moment before her head started to swim, her perspective changing rapidly. Her vision faded, then recovered. The room suddenly seemed a great deal larger...
Dear God, she thought, as she looked down at herself. I’m a cat!
Feline instincts crashed into her mind a moment later. Prank spells provided their victim with protections against losing their minds, but the sergeants had obviously gone for something nastier. Emily found herself leaping across the room before her mind quite caught up with what she was doing. The tree she’d dismissed as unimportant suddenly looked great fun to climb. She looked up, remembering that the tree led out of the room. If Sergeant Miles hadn’t come to get her, she might not have failed...yet.
She climbed up the tree, marveling inwardly at how nimble the cat-form was, then slipped into the crack in the roof. Inside, there was a long low passageway, smelling of something that alarmed her feline side. Emily concentrated – it would be far too easy to lose herself inside the cat’s mind – and forced her way onwards, hoping and praying that the spell wouldn’t wear off while she was in the passageway. If she was lucky, she would end up trapped; if she was unlucky, her human body wouldn’t be able to fit into the passageway...
There was a faint hissing sound – her fur stood on end – and then the snake came into view, sliding towards her with deadly intent. She was probably imagining it, she told herself, but the snake seemed to look malicious. Beady eyes fixed on her as it advanced. Her cat-form shuddered, then went still. Emily remembered The Jungle Book and felt a flash of alarm, realizing just how the snake had caught its dinner. It had hypnotized the animals into walking right into its open mouth. Despite her human mind, she too had almost been hypnotized into waiting patiently to be devoured.
She braced herself – and jumped as soon as the snake lunged at her. There was a dull thud as its head struck the stone floor, followed by an angry hiss. Emily felt the feline side of her mind panic as she ran forward, past the writhing tail and out through another crack. The snake’s hisses seemed to grow louder, but it didn’t follow her out into the room. Emily wondered, absently, if the snake was actually part of the tests, before deciding that it probably was. The wards would have kept it out if the sergeants hadn’t wanted it there.
The cat instincts seemed to grow stronger as she looked around the room, threatening to overwhelm her human mind. Emily mentally gritted her teeth as she struggled to cast the counter-spell; her mind was starting to merge into the cat’s, which meant that she no longer thought that being a cat was odd. Panic howled at the back of her mind as she fought the spell, but it refused to break. Was she doomed to spend the rest of her life as a cat?
"That’s a nasty spell," a masculine voice said.
Emily jumped, then skittered towards the far side of the room. She’d been so caught up in the mental struggle that she hadn’t realized that she was no longer alone.
"Let me help," the voice added.
There was a snapping sound, as if someone had snapped his fingers. Emily closed her eyes hastily as her body twisted, then slowly returned to human form. When she opened them, she found herself kneeling on all-fours. And, standing in the center of the room, was the sorcerer Void.
He looked older than he had the last time Emily had met him, something that bothered her. For a man who claimed to be over a hundred years old, he had a streak of vanity in his character that kept him using rejuvenation spells to appear young. Now, his brown hair was shading to grey and his skin was lined and pitted with wrinkles. He wore a simple black robe, loose enough to cover everything. Emily had the odd impression that he was actually weaker than he looked.
She straightened up, embarrassed. "Void," she said, feeling an odd mixture of emotions. He was her Guardian – and the closest thing she had to a father. And yet he hadn’t visited Whitehall since the Mimic had been destroyed. The other students had been visited by their parents, who had descended on Whitehall en masse, but Emily had been left alone. Part of her resented it. "It’s good to see you again."
"And you," Void said. "I was...gratified to receive your exam results."
Emily found herself blushing. Back on Earth, no one would have given a damn about her grades. Knowing that Void cared pleased and worried her in equal measure. It was strange to have someone looking out for her welfare, yet it made her feel unsteady. The person who should have looked out for her welfare had climbed into a bottle and never come out.
"Thank you," she said. She knew she’d done well. Thanks to Mistress Sun and Lady Barb, her charms were head and shoulders above her classmates. The only class she’d actually failed was Martial Magic, where she simply hadn’t been able to keep up with the more experienced students. She would have to repeat most of the class in Third Year. "Were you pleased?"
"Of course," Void said. "I’m very proud of you."
Emily’s blush deepened. "Do you...do you want to go back to Whitehall?"
"I’d prefer not to speak with the Grandmaster," Void said. He looked around the room, contemplatively. "Besides, this place brings back old memories. I ran through the maze myself too, once upon a time."
When dinosaurs ruled the Earth, Emily thought, snidely. She didn’t say it out loud.
"Besides, I came to talk to you personally," Void added. "There have been interesting developments. A necromancer is dead."
Emily blinked. Necromancers were immensely powerful magicians, feeding on the life and magic of their victims to power their spells. Channeling such power through their minds always drove them insane, eventually. Shadye, who had brought Emily into her new world and then been killed by her, had been utterly barking mad when he’d died. Emily still had nightmares about facing him. She suspected she wasn’t the only one.
She forced her mind to work properly. "Poison?"
"Apparently the necromancer’s throat was slit," Void said. "Necromancer Harrow lived on the far side of the Desert of Death, ruling the remnants of a small kingdom. I...kept an eye on him, worrying about the day he would decide to cross the desert and attack the Allied Lands. And then his wards shivered and collapsed. When I investigated, I discovered he was dead."
Emily considered it. Necromancers did not die easily – and, from what she’d heard, their deaths brought on massive explosions as their stolen magic erupted from their bodies. The only exception to that rule had been Shadye, whom Emily had trapped in a pocket dimension which had then been snapped out of existence. Harrow’s body should have been utterly destroyed, along with a large part of his enslaved kingdom.
"That’s not bad news," she said, slowly. "Is it?"
"We do not know how the necromancer was killed," Void pointed out. "Fingers were pointed in your direction." He quirked an eyebrow at Emily. "Was it your work?"
Emily shook her head, hastily. Her method for killing necromancers required a nexus and enough time to set up the trap. She certainly hadn’t left Whitehall to go hunting.
"The Desert of Death," she said, slowly. She’d taken an interest in the geography of the Allied Lands, but map-reading had never been her forte. "Isn’t that near where I’m going?"
"Yes," Void said, tonelessly. "You should be very careful. We do not know what happened to Harrow, which leaves us with a worrying mystery. Whoever killed him may have powers about which we know nothing."
Emily nodded in understanding. The Allied Lands didn’t know what she’d done to kill Shadye, thanks to the Sorcerer’s Rule. It had given her a reputation that made her feared and admired in equal measure. No one had ever taken on a necromancer in single combat and lived to tell the tale – apart from Emily. Some claimed she was naturally powerful, others that she’d cheated in some way...and still others that she must be a necromancer herself. Rumors and innuendos would follow her for the rest of her life, she supposed. If someone else had beaten a necromancer, one on one...
"You think we might encounter the killer?"
"It’s a possibility," Void said.
"Maybe it was another necromancer," Emily pointed out. "They’re not exactly friendly..."
"We don’t know," Void admitted. "Few necromancers would willingly lower their guard when another necromancer was close by. But it is a possibility."
He cleared his throat. "I want you to be very careful when you’re on your roving patrol," he added. "Keep a sharp eye out for trouble. Hell, keep a sharp eye out for trouble anyway. I hear that the mountain lords have been plotting trouble for each other ever since the Empire fell. You might wind up in the midst of another coup."
Emily shook her head. "I very much hope not," she said, primly. The last attempted coup had been nightmarish, with one of her best friends a prisoner and the other very much at risk. "Lady Barb intends for us to stay out of danger."
Void smirked. "Danger will find you," he assured her. "It always does."
Emily nodded, reluctantly.
"I meant to ask," she said. She’d actually written several letters, none of which had been returned. That had hurt, but if Void had been spying on a necromancer, he wouldn’t have had time to reply. "What are you planning to do about Lin and Mountaintop?"
"The Grandmaster has requested that he be allowed to handle it," Void said. His face twisted into a thin smile. "I have agreed to respect his wishes."
Emily lifted her eyebrows. If there was one thing she had learned about Void, who had saved her life and sent her to Whitehall, it was that he had a habit of riding roughshod over everyone else if he felt it was the right thing to do. Lady Barb disliked him, with reason; the Grandmaster seemed to be wary of him. And non-magicians found the thought of Emily being his bastard daughter worrying. Void had quite a reputation.
"And I understand that you have been corresponding with young Jade again," Void said, hastily changing the subject. "Have you made up your mind about him?"
Emily blushed bright red. Jade had proposed to her at the end of her first year at Whitehall – and, by his lights, he’d done her a favor. But Emily had been reluctant to commit herself, not after watching how badly her mother had screwed up her life by marrying the wrong man. And then Emily had been ennobled and Jade’s letters had dried up for months. Now they were talking again, but there was a barrier between them that hadn’t been there before. It wasn’t considered socially acceptable for a commoner, even a combat sorcerer in training, to court a baroness.
"We’re going to meet soon," she said. Jade’s letters had talked endlessly about the Great Faire, which was apparently going to be held near Lady Barb’s home. "I think we’ll talk about it."
"Good luck," Void said. He smirked. "Would you care to know how many requests for your hand I have received?"
"No," Emily said, quickly.
Void laughed. "I’ll see you again soon," he said. He gave her a small wave. "Goodbye."
There was a surge of magic and a flash of light. When it faded, he was gone. Emily felt a flicker of envy – she planned to learn to teleport as soon as possible – and then scowled as the door opened. Ahead of her, she saw a passageway leading out of the building. Sergeant Miles clearly felt that having Void’s help to return to human form was cheating. Gritting her teeth – if the sergeant decided she’d done it deliberately, she wouldn’t be sitting comfortably for a few days – Emily walked through the doors and out into the grounds. Bright sunlight struck her and she lifted a hand to cover her eyes.
"Careful," Sergeant Miles said. "You never know what you might miss."
Emily turned to face him. He was a short, friendly-looking man, the sort of man anyone could trust on sight. And he was trustworthy, Emily knew. He took very good care of his students, including Emily, giving them good advice and encouragement when they needed it. But woe betide the person who tried to take advantage of his good nature.
"That was Void," he said, shortly. "I thought it was him."
"Yes," Emily said. "I didn’t call him..."
"I didn’t say you did," Sergeant Miles pointed out, dryly. "Is it just me or are you being too defensive these days?"
Emily shrugged. Term had ended a week ago; Alassa and Imaiqah had gone home to Zangaria, leaving Emily to wait for Lady Barb. She’d been...encouraged to spend her days practicing with Sergeant Miles, who didn’t seem to have anywhere else to go. But the tests had gotten harder and harder, constantly pushing her to the limit.
"Lady Barb wishes you to meet her in the library," the sergeant added. "Good luck on your patrol."
"Thank you," Emily said. "And thank you for keeping me busy."
It was hard work, she knew, but she didn’t want to think about the tiredness in her mind, or the growing exhaustion with life. Shadye, the Iron Duchess, the Mimic – and exams, of course – had all taken their toll. There had been too many days, as the term came to an end, when she’d seriously considered just trying to stay in bed. If it hadn’t been for her friends, she had a feeling she might well have plunged into complete depression.
As it was, she had failed one subject in the exams – and come far too close to working herself to death
"You’re welcome," Sergeant Miles said.
Emily dropped him a curtsey, then turned and walked through the forest, back towards Whitehall. For once, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky. It was pleasantly warm; she smiled as she caught sight of butterflies flitting about in the air, and bees moving in peaceful purpose from flower to flower. Just breathing the peaceful air made her feel better, for a long moment, despite the tiredness in her limbs.
When Whitehall came into view, she stopped and stared at the castle before resuming her walk. The white walls of the massive building, topped with towers reaching up towards the sky, still had the power to take her breath away. It was a wondrous sight, even after two years. There was nothing like it on Earth.
Inside, she blinked in surprise as she saw two boys cleaning the Grand Hall, an eagle familiar hovering over their heads. Both of them had been held back after a prank had gone wrong – Emily didn’t know the full details, although the rumors had ranged from possible to the completely absurd – and had been set to cleaning the castle. Given Whitehall’s multidimensional nature, Emily rather doubted they would be finished before the holidays were over and schooling resumed. There were literally miles of corridor in the building.
She walked past them and headed up the stairs to the library. Whitehall felt strange to her without most of its students, although at least there wouldn’t be a crowd in the library. Lady Aylia was sitting behind her desk, carefully marking and tagging the new books from various printers. Emily couldn’t help a flicker of pride at seeing books produced by her printing presses. Given a few years, they were likely to revolutionize education in the Allied Lands.
"She said to take a seat and wait," Lady Aylia said. She barely looked up from her work. "I believe the Grandmaster wished to speak with her."
Emily nodded, unsurprised. They had planned to leave two days ago, but something had popped up and Emily had been told to stay at Whitehall. The Allied Lands didn’t believe in precise schedules, something that amused and irked her in equal measure. Sitting down at one of the desks, she pulled her notebook out of her pocket and started to write down ideas and thoughts she’d devised in her spare time. There were spells she wanted to develop, spells that might help the Allied Lands when the necromancers finally came over the mountains...
She’d faced Shadye and won – by cheating. The next necromancer she faced might be far harder to defeat.
And she knew precisely what they would do to the world she had come to love.
"Ahem," a quiet voice said.
Emily jumped. She’d been so wrapped up in her work that she hadn’t heard Lady Barb come into the library and walk up behind her. She glanced at her watch and discovered that she’d been sitting at the table for over an hour, scribbling down possible ways to make the spell she’d invented work properly. But, no matter how she worked the variables, there didn’t seem to be any way to use the spell safely.
She turned and looked up at Lady Barb. The older woman smiled, although there was something in her expression that suggested she was deeply worried. As always, Lady Barb looked formidable. Her long blonde hair cascaded down over stout shoulders and a muscular body. She might not have the porcelain-doll features Alassa enjoyed, but she had attracted the attention of dozens of male students. Emily rather suspected that the students were the ones who didn’t take her class. Lady Barb was a hard taskmaster.
"You have to be more careful," Lady Barb warned, dryly. "You never know who might be sneaking up on you."
Emily smiled. "In the library?"
"Most of the spells used to keep students quiet have been deactivated for the summer," Lady Barb pointed out. "If there were more students here..."
Emily shrugged, her mind filling in the blanks. Students were allowed – even encouraged – to prank one another, in the belief that it taught them how to react to unexpected situations and learn how to defend themselves. But, right now, there were only a handful of students left in Whitehall. Even the Gorgon, who was one of the most studious students in Second Year, had gone home. Emily was the only student of her age to remain in Whitehall.
Lady Barb nodded towards Emily’s notebook. "Are you keeping up with your security spells?"
Emily gritted her teeth, then nodded. After Lin had stolen her notes and vanished from Whitehall, Lady Barb had given her a crash course in security spells that were normally untaught until the student took on an apprenticeship. Making them work was different, but no one apart from Emily herself should be able to read her notes. Lady Barb had warned her that she would be testing the notebook on a regular basis and Emily would regret it if she managed to crack the protections hiding her work. Part of Emily resented it, but she understood just how dangerous it would be if her notes fell into the wrong hands.
More of my notes, she told herself, as she closed the notebook and felt the spells slide into place. They were based on her blood, rather than anything else; Lady Barb had told her that her unique blood – she had no relatives in the new world – would be the strongest protection she could hope to provide. She didn’t have to worry about a brother or sister accidentally cracking her protections. But there was no such thing as a completely unbreakable spell...
She passed the notebook to Lady Barb and settled back to watch, hoping and praying that the spells remained unbreakable. Some of the spells she’d designed were harmless – or at least not particularly innovative – but some of them were revolutionary. She’d used memory charms to write down as much of the Mimic’s spell-structure as she could, knowing that whoever had created the mobile spells was a genius as well as a monster...and she dreaded to think what use an evil magician would make of them. The Mimic had been based on necromancy...somehow, the creator had managed to make necromancy practical. There was just too much room for abuse.
But it wasn’t the worst of the spells.
She caught her breath as Lady Barb broke the first ward. Shadye had died through luck, she had to admit, and there were other necromancers out there. One day, Emily knew, they would come over the mountains and attack the Allied Lands in force...and, on that day, they might prove unstoppable. She’d devised the nuclear spell to repel that offensive, but it refused to work properly. If triggered, it would detonate within seconds...taking out the caster as well as its target. And splitting atoms didn’t seem to require a very powerful magician. There were times when Emily suspected that this world’s industrial revolution would lead to complete and total disaster.
Good thing it wasn’t a computer wizard who came here, she thought. He’d be a God-Mode Sue by now.
Lady Barb muttered an oath as her hands jerked back, shocked. "Not bad," she said, drawing Emily’s mind out of her thoughts. "And the first ward was well-placed to distract attention."
Emily smiled, feeling a flicker of pride. Lady Barb rarely gave praise, but when it was given it was always deserved. The heavy security wards she’d wrapped around the notebook would almost certainly attract attention, so she’d crafted the first ward to resemble a normal privacy ward and the second one to conceal the others. Anyone who had seen the wards without that cover would have known that there was something inside worth concealing. No one, with the possible exception of Alassa, would conceal their personal journal with so much determination.
She took the notebook back and dropped it into her bag. "Are we ready to go?"
"More or less," Lady Barb agreed. She gave Emily a reproving look. "Do you have your bag packed?"
"It’s in my room," Emily confirmed. "Most of my stuff is going to be stored at Whitehall."
"It should be safe enough," Lady Barb agreed.
Emily had her doubts. Whitehall was supposed to be invulnerable, but Shadye had broken into the school in her first year and the Mimic had killed dozens of students in her second year. There were times when she wondered if the Grandmaster blamed her for the series of disasters, even though he’d shown no sign of it. Her arrival at the school had triggered off the series of events that led to Shadye’s invasion.
She stood up. "Where should I meet you?"
"In the Entrance Hall," Lady Barb said. "I hope you have packed everything I told you to pack...?"
Emily nodded. Lady Barb had told her that she would have to carry everything herself, without benefit of magic. She was stronger than she’d ever been on Earth, but she knew there were still limits to how much she could carry. During Martial Magic, it had taken her months to build up the muscles the boys had taken for granted.
"Go on then," Lady Barb ordered with a smile. "But there’s no real hurry."
Emily waved goodbye to Lady Aylia, then walked out of the library and down towards the dorms. The school was quiet, too quiet. She found herself looking around warily as she passed a line of statues – famous magicians through the ages – and stopped in front of a painting one of the older students had produced. Every time she looked at it, she couldn’t help feeling embarrassed. It purported to show her battle with Shadye, but she knew all-too-well that the battle had been very different. She’d certainly not been a match for the maddened necromancer in raw power.
She’d protested to Lady Barb when the painting had first been hung on the walls, but the older woman had pointed out that the painting helped reassure the younger students and their parents that Whitehall was safe. Emily hadn’t been convinced – magic could be very dangerous, even without a necromancer or a dangerous monster running loose in the school – yet further argument seemed futile. She looked up at her figure in the painting and shook her head, running her hands through her long brown hair. Painting-Emily stood tall, practically glowing with light, her long hair spinning around her as she cast a spell. She’d never been so beautiful in her entire life. Hardly anyone could recognize her from the painting.
Snorting, she pressed her hand against the stone and watched as the door slid open, revealing a darkened corridor leading towards Madame Razz’s office. The stout housemother was nowhere to be seen, thankfully. Most of the First Years had gone home, but the handful who hadn’t were driving the housemother slowly insane. Emily smiled as she walked down the corridor and stepped through the door leading to her room. She rather liked Madam Razz, but the older woman could be quite strict.
Inside, Emily couldn’t help wincing at how bare the room seemed. Emily and the Gorgon had shared it for the rest of the year, after Lin had made her escape, but the Gorgon was gone and there would be another room next year. The Gorgon’s bed had been stripped down to the mattress, leaving her side of the room looking mournful. Emily felt an odd lump in her throat as she walked over to the mirror and looked at her reflection. Once, she’d had problems growing used to the idea of sharing her room with anyone. Now...she found she missed the Gorgon. And the rest of her friends.
The Emily she saw in the mirror was no longer the girl she expected to see. Her once-underfed face was filled out and healthy, the outdoor exercise giving her pale face at least a little healthy color. Her brown hair was thicker and with a little shine, an effect of better food. She had muscles she had never dreamed possible, even if she was still worryingly thin, and other developments she hadn’t expected either. It was chilling to realize she would never have developed into a grown woman on Earth.
Shaking her head, she glanced into her bag. There was one set of dress robes, carefully tailored for her at Dragon’s Den, one standard student set of robes and four walking outfits. She’d also been warned not to bring more than a handful of books, something that bothered her more than the prospect of wearing dress robes. Her collection of books was small, but growing rapidly. Being separated from them bothered her, even though she knew it wasn’t logical.
Emily picked up the white envelope from the cabinet and opened it, pulling out the single sheet of creamy white parchment inside. She’d never really cared about her grades on Earth, not when they were meaningless to her. No matter how well she did at school, it wouldn’t help her get out of poverty. But in Whitehall, grades were important. The exams she’d taken a month ago would help to shape her future, at least the part of it she would spend at Whitehall. She skimmed through the parchment, noting – again – that she’d done very well. Martial Magic was the only course she’d failed outright, and then only because the other students had had four extra years of schooling.
I would have had to retake parts of it anyway, Emily consoled herself. Sergeant Miles wouldn’t let me waste time.
Shaking her head, Emily undressed, removing the uniform she’d worn in Blackhall, and jumped into the shower for a quick wash, then dried herself with a spell and pulled on the first walking outfit. Lady Barb hadn’t told her what she should wear for the trip, but Emily was already dreading the passage through the portal. If nothing else, she could clean one of the walking outfits easily. The garments were already charmed to keep dust and mud from sticking permanently.
Once she was dressed, she took one last look at her trunk, feeling oddly upset at the thought of leaving it behind. The first trunk was long gone, but it had been the first thing she’d bought with money she’d earned at Whitehall, while the second was actually an improvement. Yodel had done very good work, she had to admit, even if he’d helped Emily get into real trouble. But it hadn’t really been his fault...she picked up the trunk, marveling at the charm that made it almost weightless for its rightful owner, and carried it out of her room. Down the corridor, she could hear Madame Razz telling off one of the first years. Emily rolled her eyes as she walked into the storeroom and carefully placed the trunk in a sealed compartment. It should be safe for three months.
"Your parents paid for you to stay for extra tuition," Madame Razz’s voice proclaimed, as Emily stepped back into the corridor. "I don’t think they meant for you to try to rig the beds with itching spells. Or were they just trying to get rid of you for a few more weeks?"
Emily winced as the two came into view, Madame Razz dragging the unruly First Year by her ear. Parents of magical children who weren’t magical themselves were often unsure of the way to treat their gifted children. Emily had heard horror stories about children – teenagers, really – using their magic to lord it over their parents, relatives and childhood friends. Imaiqah had been lucky, she knew. Other parents tended to allow their children to fade away into the magical community.
She wondered absently if the First Year knew how lucky she was to have decent parents. Emily’s father had left his family when his daughter had been very young, her mother had been steadily drinking herself to death and her stepfather...Emily shuddered as the memory rose up to torment her, before she forced it back into the darkness of her mind. She was no longer on Earth and she would never see him again. Stepping back into her room, she glanced around to make sure that she hadn’t left anything behind. The dirty uniform would be picked up by the servants and washed; there was nothing else in the room that belonged to her. It looked almost as if she’d never lived there at all.
Emily picked up her bag, slung it over her shoulder and walked out of the room, refusing to look back. There was no sign of Madame Razz now. Emily hesitated, wondering if she should find her to say goodbye, then decided against it and walked out of the compartment and down towards the Entrance Hall. The two pranksters were still cleaning the Great Hall thoroughly, supervised by a grim-faced Master Tor. Emily scowled at his back – Master Tor had made his intention of leaving Whitehall quite clear, but he had yet to actually leave – and walked around the Great Hall. She didn’t really want to talk to a teacher who’d disliked her long before he’d actually met her.
Lady Barb was waiting in the Entrance Hall, a small bag slung around her shoulder. Emily caught the look in her eye and wordlessly handed over her own bag for the older woman to search. It was irritating not to be trusted to pack her own bag, but Lady Barb had made it clear that it would be hard to replace anything she’d missed once they were on their way.
"Good," Lady Barb said, finally. "But you probably shouldn’t carry so many books. You will be busy."
Emily nodded, but made no move to remove the books.
Lady Barb smiled and passed the bag back to her. "Just remember you have to carry them," she warned, as Emily took the bag. She’d said the same thing time and time again. "I won’t be carrying them for you."
"I know," Emily said quietly.
She looked up as the Grandmaster stepped into the hall. He looked older, somehow, the lines on his face clearer than ever. His eyes, hidden behind a cloth, seemed to twitch in Emily’s direction. Lady Barb dropped him a long sweeping bow, which Emily followed a moment later. The Grandmaster bowed in return, then smiled tiredly.
"You should take great care," the Grandmaster said. He looked directly at Emily. "I do not believe that your guardian came on a whim."
Emily blinked – she hadn’t told anyone what Void had said – and then recalled that Blackhall was as closely monitored as Whitehall. The Grandmaster had probably known that Void was there the moment he’d passed through the outer protective wards.
"We’ll talk about it soon enough," Lady Barb promised. There was a hint of irritation in her voice. "And I thank you for your patience with me."
"You’re welcome," the Grandmaster said. Emily glanced from one to the other in bemusement. What were they talking about? "And I wish you a safe and educational trip, Lady Emily."
"Thank you, sir," Emily said.
"And I will expect regular reports," the Grandmaster added. "In triplicate."
Lady Barb snorted. "Only if you write them yourself," she said. "I don’t think either of us will have the time."
Emily nodded, quickly.
Lady Barb caught her arm and pulled her towards the door. Outside, the sun was high in the sky, casting rays of light towards the ground. Emily looked behind her as they walked down towards the edge of the wards surrounding the castle, catching sight of the two pranksters as they were marched into the Entrance Hall. Neither of them looked even remotely happy.
The woebegone look on their faces piqued her curiosity. "What," she asked, "did they do?"
"They came up with an ingenious scheme for sneaking into the girls changing room," Lady Barb told her. Unlike most of the other teachers, she never withheld anything from her charges. "It really was quite clever...but they were caught. The Grandmaster assigned them to clean the school in hopes of deterring others from trying the same trick."
Emily shuddered. She had enough problems undressing in front of her fellow girls, let alone boys. The thought of someone spying on her as she undressed...she shuddered again, remembering just how many spells there were protecting the changing rooms. If one of the boys had managed to bypass them...
She opened her mouth to ask how they did it, but Lady Barb caught hold of her arm before Emily could say a word. "Close your eyes," Lady Barb instructed. "And don’t open them until I say so."
Emily blinked in surprise. "We’re not going to the portal?"
"No," Lady Barb said. She wrapped her arms around Emily in a gentle, but firm hug. "Close your eyes."
A moment later, she felt a surge of magic surround her.
Emily forced her eyes to stay closed as the world shuddered around her, then the magic faded to nothingness. There was a long moment of complete disorientation – Emily realized, suddenly, that they were teleporting – and then Lady Barb slowly let her go.
"Open your eyes," she ordered.
Emily did so and immediately looked around. It was twilight, the last traces of sunlight falling behind the mountains in the distance. High overhead, the stars were coming out, twinkling madly in the darkness. They had to have teleported over half the continent, she deduced, because it had been early afternoon at Whitehall. Her head spun, but she managed to keep her footing.
At least, she thought wryly, teleporting isn’t anything like as bad as stepping through a portal without proper precautions.
"This is my family’s land," Lady Barb informed her. "And that’s my home, over there."
Emily followed her gaze. A wall, almost two meters high, was broken by a pair of wrought-iron gates, allowing her to see the garden and the manor house beyond. It looked like an Edwardian building, Emily decided, with at least three floors. She followed Lady Barb towards the house, feeling the outer edges of the wards as they brushed lightly against her magic. The building looked indefensible, but as long as Lady Barb had magic it wouldn’t be a problem. It was simple to construct wards to keep non-magical thieves out.
The gates creaked open as they approached, allowing them to walk up the path towards the house. Emily couldn’t help admiring the garden, even though it looked like someone had scattered seeds at random just to see what would happen. The bushes and trees looked natural, while – in the undergrowth – small animals scuttled for cover. Lady Barb stopped in front of the heavy wooden front door, then pressed her hand against a stone set in the wood. There was a flare of magic before the wards protecting the door unlocked, piece by piece. Emily stepped backwards as the magic flared again, looking up at the house. Up close, it had a vaguely sinister appearance that bothered her.
The door opened, allowing Lady Barb to step inside. "Come," she ordered, as Emily hesitated. "I bid you welcome to my home."
Emily had to think to remember her etiquette. "I thank you for welcoming me," she said, after a moment. "I pledge to hold my hand in your house."
Lady Barb clicked her fingers. The corridor flared with light, bright enough to make Emily cover her eyes before it dimmed to a more manageable level. She looked around, fascinated, but only saw bare wooden walls...no, the walls were carved into elaborate patterns and runes. There were no paintings or other decorations, but there wouldn’t be. The runes were almost certainly part of the house’s defenses against intruders.
"You need to practice your etiquette," Lady Barb warned. "The last place you want to accidentally insult another magician is his own house."
Emily swallowed. She hadn’t yet started to study wards, but she did know that a magician who owned a house and crafted the wards himself was almost impossible to defeat on his home territory. Etiquette was important for magicians, if only to prevent accidental insults, but she had to study aristocratic etiquette as well as magical etiquette. Something that would insult Alassa’s father would be ignored by a magician. But this was the first time she’d set foot in a magician’s house, at least since entering Whitehall.
She looked up at Lady Barb. "What did I do wrong?"
"Nothing," Lady Barb said. "But you have to pledge to respect your host quicker, in future."
Lady Barb led her into a large kitchen. Emily couldn’t help admiring the structure, although she had no idea how the two of them could cook anything by themselves. It looked as though at least four cooks were required, but they were alone. The house felt empty. Lady Barb grinned, then motioned for Emily to put her bag down on the table.
"Take a seat," she ordered, as she used a spell to light the fire. "I’ll make some chocolate for us both."
Emily nodded. Hot chocolate – or something that passed for it – would help her to sleep, particularly if she combined it with a small dose of a sleeping potion. Jet lag wasn’t a problem in the new world, but teleport lag might well be...her body insisted that it was early afternoon, even though it was dark and cold outside. She sat down on a wooden stool and watched as the older woman moved around her kitchen with easy competence. It was barely five minutes before they both had a steaming cup of chocolate in front of them.
"There are some matters we need to discuss," Lady Barb said, once she had taken a sip of her drink. "For a start, you do realize that you are both famous and notorious?"
"I might just have noticed," Emily said, sardonically. "It’s hard to avoid being aware of it."
They shared a smile. Most of the ballads about the Necromancer’s Bane bore little resemblance to reality, but that didn’t stop the bards from singing and spreading her fame everywhere. Some were so outrageous that Emily had actually considered trying to sue for libel, only to discover that she would have to invent the legal framework first before doing so.
It wasn’t something she found comfortable – and not just because people were judging her by the ballads, rather than anything she’d actually done. Fame had never really been one of her ambitions, particularly not when it brought worse enemies than depraved stalkers. The innovations she’d introduced to the new world, starting in Zangaria, were slowly turning it upside down. Her long list of enemies might have started with the necromancers, but it didn’t end there.
Lady Barb reached into her bag and produced a small pendant. "This is a glamor-stone," she said, dropping it on the table. "It will disguise you from anyone who doesn’t actually know you personally. The fact you’re wearing it will be obvious, but no one will be so gauche as to try to take it from you. And you won’t have to expend any energy to maintain the glamor."
Emily nodded. Almost all of the girls at Whitehall – and quite a few of the boys – used glamors to hide tiny imperfections in their bodies. The only girl she knew who didn’t use glamors was Alassa – and she had been engineered to be stunningly beautiful. Even Emily herself had been tempted, although in the end she had chosen to stick with her natural appearance. If nothing else, she didn’t have to expend energy maintaining it.
"Emily is also not a common name," Lady Barb added, as Emily picked up the stone and examined it carefully. She’d been warned, more than once, to be careful with anything someone else provided for her, no matter who it was. Sergeant Miles had demonstrated several of the simplest traps for his students, leaving them all more than a little paranoid about their fellows. "I’m going to call you Millie when we’re in public. Make sure you cast a privacy ward if you want to talk to someone who knows your identity."
"I understand," Emily said. It seemed embarrassing to have to hide her identity, but she knew Lady Barb was right. "Will I have to talk to others?"
"I thought you wanted to talk to your young friend," Lady Barb said. "But he would recognize you at once, naturally. A glamor won’t fool someone who actually knows you."
Emily felt her cheeks heat up. It would be the first time she’d seen Jade in over a year, a year of somewhat strained correspondence...she pushed the thought aside, firmly. She couldn’t hide behind email – or letters – at Whitehall, not indefinitely. Hell, she couldn’t use email at all. She had only a faint idea of how to start generating electricity.
If it works in this universe, she told herself. She was fairly sure it would – there were electrical currents in human brains, after all – but she didn’t know for sure.
"We are going to be here for three days," Lady Barb said. "Your mornings will be spent brewing specific potions, which you should have no problems with" – she ignored Emily’s groan of dismay - "and doing some private studies. You may spend the afternoon at the Faire, if you wish. As my apprentice, at least for the summer, you will not be expected to mingle with the great and the good. They won’t know who you are."
Emily nodded, relieved. She knew enough about the politics of the magical families to want to avoid them as long as possible. The deluge of messages asking for her hand in marriage had taught her that she would have to be careful. They knew her as someone who could give her children powerful magic, not as a person in her own right. In some ways, it was just as bad as the arranged marriage Alassa had been raised to accept.
"Thank you," she said, and meant it. "I don’t like crowds."
Lady Barb shrugged. "Most magicians tend to become unsociable as they grow older," she said, softly. "I...forced myself to overcome it."
She finished her chocolate and stood up, forcing Emily to take her last sip. At least it was sweeter than the chocolate served in Whitehall, she told herself. Normally, she had to add at least a spoonful of sugar to drink it properly. Lady Barb waved a hand, banishing both cups to the sink, and then led Emily out of the kitchen and up a flight of stairs. There was a musty atmosphere in the upper levels that suggested that no one had entered the house for a very long time.
"This is the library," Lady Barb said, as she opened a door. Inside, the walls were lined with books, old books. It was tiny compared to a library on Earth, but Emily knew that she was staring at thousands of gold coins worth of books. Before she’d introduced the printing press, books had been written and bound manually. The various Scribes Guilds had made fortunes copying rare and important books for their clients. "Do you like it?"
Emily nodded. She’d always loved libraries.
"You can read anything, apart from the books on the top shelf," Lady Barb said. She gave Emily a warning look. "Some of them are too advanced for you, as of yet, while some of them are specific to my family. Reading them would be very dangerous for your health, Emily. Don’t try to open them."
Emily felt a flicker of resentment. She’d always hated being told that something was too advanced – or too adult – for her to read. The librarians back on Earth had sometimes questioned her when she’d taken adult books out of the library, demanding to know if her mother knew she was reading them. But her mother had been too drunk to care.
She shook her head. These books weren’t adult fiction, but books of magic, keyed to a specific family line. Lady Barb was right. Reading them could be very bad for her health.
"I won’t," she promised. She hesitated, then asked the question that had come to mind. "Could your brother’s wife read them?"
Lady Barb shook her head. "Only someone who shared the family’s bloodline could open the books safely," she said. "A wife wouldn’t count, no matter how close she was to her husband."
Emily shivered, remembering the offers of marriage. They’d been made to Imaiqah, too...and, before she’d been ennobled herself, Imaiqah might well have been tempted. A place in a magical family, adding her wild magic to the family’s bloodline...it was a better match than she could have hoped for as a merchant’s daughter. But she would never truly be one of the family. She would never be able to read their books.
Lady Barb placed a hand on Emily’s shoulder. "I know how you feel," she said, quietly. "But you have to understand the dangers. Don’t touch the books."
"I won’t," Emily repeated.
Lady Barb strode over to the bookshelves and pulled a book off the shelf, followed by three more. "These are for you to study, when you’re not brewing potions," she said. "Be warned; I shall expect you to be perfect with the potions. The people we will be visiting will have no other sources, but us. A mistake could have lethal consequences."
Emily gritted her teeth. Alchemy – which included potions – was not her best subject, despite a handful of private lessons with Professor Thande. She knew she could brew most of the First Year potions in controlled conditions, but she’d come alarmingly close to flunking the exam completely. If Lady Barb hadn’t forced her to take advantage of being a Second Year to use one of the private rooms to practice, she suspected she wouldn’t be able to make the potions she wanted now.
Lady Barb smiled at her expression. "I think you’ll do fine," she said, placing the books on the table. "Consider this your reward."
Emily glanced down at the covers. One of them was a guide to the Cairngorm Mountains, where they would be travelling, but the others...all three of them were on enchantment. She recognized one of the titles and winced, remembering the book she’d borrowed from Yodel that Master Tor had confiscated. But why did Lady Barb have a copy?
"You can read these books," Lady Barb said, "but no experimenting without my agreement and supervision. I expect you to study them carefully, write out whatever you have in mind and then discuss it with me thoroughly before we actually try any experiments. Do you understand me?"
"Yes," Emily said, flinching under Lady Barb’s gaze. The last time she had tried an unauthorized experiment, it had nearly got her expelled from Whitehall. If the Mimic hadn’t started its murder spree at the same time, she knew it would have been a great deal worse. "I won’t try anything without your presence."
"Good," Lady Barb said. She tapped the table. "You can take the books to your room, if you like, but don’t try to remove them from the house. The wards will take exception to it."
She turned and marched out of the library. "There are three floors to this house," she said, as Emily hurried after. "Don’t try to enter any locked doors; they’re rooms belonging to other members of my family and I can’t vouch for any wards or other unpleasant surprises they might have left behind. Your room is safe, but feel free to erect wards of your own – just remember to dismantle them before we leave the house for good."
Emily followed her into a smaller room. "This is the guestroom," Lady Barb said, by way of explanation. She dismantled a set of stasis wards surrounding the bed, which was larger than Whitehall’s standardized beds but smaller than the beds Emily had enjoyed in Zangaria. "There’s a bathtub in the next room, beside the toilet. You’ll have to use magic to heat the water, I’m afraid."
"Ouch," Emily said. Sergeant Miles had taught her a whole series of spells that would be useful on camping trips, starting with a simple spell to boil water, but he’d also warned her of the dangers. Making the spell too powerful was a good way to get burned. "No hot running water?"
Lady Barb snorted. "This isn’t Whitehall, you know," she said. "And everyone who lives here has magic."
Emily nodded. Running water was rare outside Whitehall and various aristocratic castles – and hot running water was even rarer. Imaiqah had told her once that she had fallen in love with Whitehall’s showers, even though they were weaker than showers on Earth. But, in many ways, Emily was the only student at Whitehall whose living conditions had actually worsened since coming to the school. Hot and cold running water was one of the things taken for granted on Earth.
"Get a good night’s sleep," Lady Barb said, as she turned and headed towards the door. "My room’s at the bottom of the corridor, but don’t disturb me unless it is truly urgent. I don’t like being disturbed at night."
"Me neither," Emily said. She’d had to disturb Madame Razz more than once, when she’d had nightmares after the Mimic had been destroyed. The housemother had not been pleased at all. "And thank you."
Lady Barb smiled, rather coldly. "This is the easy part," she said. "It will get harder – much harder – once we’re on our way."
She was right – again. Emily had done enough forced marches with the sergeants to know just how difficult it could be to walk from place to place carrying a bag. There were no cars in this world, no helicopters or airplanes. There was nothing more advanced than a horse and cart for the average non-magical citizen. And she still hadn’t learned how to teleport.
Pity no one flies broomsticks here, she thought, ruefully. But it would be way too easy to knock them out of the sky.
Emily watched Lady Barb go, closing the door behind her, before she turned to look around the room. It was bare, no more decorated than any of the other rooms, but there was a simplicity about it that appealed to her. She opened the door and walked down to the kitchen to pick up her bag, then walked back to the room, feeling the wards pressing in around her as she moved. The house felt far less friendly than Whitehall, no matter how much its mistress liked her guest. But the effect faded as soon as she was back in the guestroom.
She undressed rapidly, then opened her bag and produced the nightgown. She’d never been able to sleep naked in her life, certainly not since her mother had remarried. The house was empty, apart from Lady Barb, but Emily still couldn’t relax. She pulled the gown over her head, used a simple spell to clean her teeth and then reached back into the bag for a phial of sleeping potion. Placing it by the bedside, she climbed into bed and took a sip. As always, it tasted unpleasant. But it did its job.
And then the nightmares started.
Christopher G. Nuttall is thirty-two years old and has been reading science fiction since he was five, when someone introduced him to children’s SF. Born in Scotland, Chris attended schools in Edinburgh, Fife and University in Manchester ... before moving to Malaysia to live with his wife Aisha.
Chris has been involved in the online Alternate History community since 1998; in particular, he was the original founder of Changing The Times, an online alternate history website that brought in submissions from all over the community. Later, Chris took up writing and eventually became a full-time writer.
Chris has produced The Empire’s Corps series, the Outside Context Problem series and many others. He is also responsible for two fan-made Posleen novels, both set in John Ringo’s famous Posleen universe. They can both be downloaded from his site.
Schooled in Magic fantasy series
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Work Experience Copyright © 2014. Christopher Nuttall. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.
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"When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?"
"When did you decide you wanted to become an author?"
Character interview with Princess Alassa on Beyond the Books
"Deconstructing Emily" blog post
"Schooled in Magic is a fantasy book, but it draws extensively from real history."
"The Inspiration behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
"The Story behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
"I was asked, at Ravencon, just what makes an indie writer successful. "No matter how well you write, you will get bad reviews."
Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book
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"When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?"
"When did you decide you wanted to become an author?"
Character interview with Princess Alassa on Beyond the Books
"Deconstructing Emily" blog post
"The Inspiration behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
"The Story behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book
Back to the Featured books
Back to Twilight Times Books main page
Web site copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2014. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved.
Cover art © 2014 Brad Fraunfelter. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 10-22-14.
Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.