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Trial By Fire
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

After a brief visit to the Blighted Lands, Emily returns to Whitehall for her fourth year, bracing herself for the exams that will determine her future. But as she resumes her education, she discovers a teacher who hates her, a boy intending to court her... and a deadly threat from her past that may destroy the entire school.   Book 7 in the Schooled in Magic series.

 

 

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Trial By Fire

fantasy

Christopher G. Nuttall

 

 

Prologue

Caleb stopped outside the stone door to his father's study and paused, feeling his heart pound inside his chest. He had few good memories of his father's study; he and the other children had never been allowed to enter, save for long lectures and punishments when they'd disappointed their parents. Caleb had never dared to try to break the complex network of spells on the lock, knowing it would displease his mother and father.

And both of his parents were formidable indeed.

"Caleb," his mother called. "Come in."

Caleb bit his lip and pushed at the door. The house was small - living space was at a premium in Beneficence - and his mother had had over twenty-five years to weave protective spells and wards into the stone building. She'd always known what her children were doing while they lived in her house. Her children had rapidly learned to keep their misdeeds well away from home if they didn't want to get caught at once. He shivered when he felt another protective ward shimmering over him as he stepped through the door, then bowed formally to his father. His father looked at him for a long moment, and nodded. Beside him, Caleb's mother kept her face impassive.

They made an odd couple, Caleb had often thought, once he'd grown old enough to meet other soldiers and magicians. General Pollock - his father - was short, stubby and muscular, tough enough to march with the younger men instead of riding a horse to battle, while Mediator Sienna was tall, willowy and one of the most experienced combat sorcerers in the Allied Lands. She might not have been classically beautiful, her stern face edged by long black hair, but she was striking, with a trim athletic build even after giving birth to five children. And there were few people who would dare insult her to her face.

"Caleb," his father grunted. He'd never really seen Caleb as anything other than a disappointment, once it became clear that his second son was more interested in theoretical work than fighting. "You wished to speak with us?"

"Yes, father," Caleb said. His parents weren't stuck-up enough to insist that their children make appointments to speak with them, but certain things had to be done formally. The little rituals of politeness, as always, kept civilization going. "I do."

His father waved a hand, impatiently. "Then speak," he ordered.

Caleb took a long breath. Casper - handsome Casper, confident Casper - would have found it easy to speak to their parents, he was sure. But his elder brother had basked in the approval of their father, while even their stern mother could rarely remain angry at him for long. What Casper wanted, Casper got. Their parents hadn't really spoiled Casper, Caleb had to admit, but he'd had advantages none of the younger children shared. He'd set out to walk in their footsteps, after all.

"I ask your permission to open a Courtship," he said, allowing his voice to slip into cool formality. "I ask for your blessings and your wisdom."

His parents exchanged glances. A simple relationship was one thing, but a Courtship was quite another. It implied that Caleb was willing to spend the rest of his life with the girl, if she proved receptive to his advances. And his parents...they might have to welcome the girl into their family, if the Courtship worked out. Caleb was the first of the family to discuss a Courtship. Even Casper had yet to bring a girl home to meet their parents.

His mother spoke first. "Who is this girl?"

Caleb held himself steady, refusing to be swayed by the bite in her tone. "Emily," he said, simply. "Daughter of Void."

"I see," General Pollack said. His voice revealed nothing. "You overreach yourself, do you not? She is a Baroness of Zangaria."

"I am a sorcerer," Caleb countered. He'd known his father would object on those grounds, if nothing else. General Pollack came from aristocratic stock, but his father had been a mere Knight. Grandfather Karuk had been powerful enough to buy his son a commission, yet he'd never been as wealthy and powerful as a baron. "We are social equals."

"And her father is a Lone Power," Mediator Sienna said, slowly. "Do you not fear his thoughts on the matter?"

Caleb hesitated, but pressed on. "That is why I have decided on a formal Courtship," he said. He'd always had the impression that Emily was largely flying free - he didn't think that an experienced sorcerer would have allowed the crisis in Cockatrice to get so badly out of hand - but marriage was quite another issue. "It would allow him a chance to object before matters became serious."

"She may reject you," General Pollack warned. "You are not a wealthy man."

"I know," Caleb said. The family wealth, what little there was of it, would go to Casper, once his parents passed away. General Pollack was a poor man, by the standards of their social equals. But not using his position to enrich himself had made him popular with the troops under his command. "I do, however, have excellent prospects."

His father's face darkened. "But not as a defender of the Allied Lands."

Caleb bit down the response that came to mind. His father had expected his children - his male children, at least - to go into the military, to fight for the Allied Lands. Casper, whatever his flaws, was a halfway decent combat sorcerer. But Caleb? He'd always been more interested in fundamental magic research than fighting. The transfer to Whitehall had been the best thing that had ever happened to him.

"His research may prove useful," Mediator Sienna said.

General Pollack gave her a surprised look.

Caleb couldn't help staring at her in astonishment. His mother might be formidable, but it was rare for her to disagree with her husband in public. Caleb knew they'd had some spectacular rows, yet they'd always been held in private. They'd always put forward a united front.

His mother ignored their surprise. "Do you believe she likes you?"

Caleb swallowed. That was the question, wasn't it? He had never been able to read a girl, to tell if she was interested in him or if she was just being polite. The lads in the barracks had bragged endlessly about how many girls they'd slept with - Caleb was privately sure most of them were lying - but he had never had a serious relationship with anyone. Stronghold had enrolled only a handful of female students, while he'd been too busy at Whitehall to consider the possibilities. He'd never had the nerve to go into a brothel when he'd been on leave.

"I think so," he said, finally. He went on before his mother could start demanding details. "That's why I decided on a formal Courtship. If she thinks otherwise..."

"You can back off without shame," his mother finished. It would be embarrassing to be rejected, Caleb was sure, but better that than getting into a muddle. Courtship, if nothing else, was a ritual intended to ensure that everything was open, without even the merest hint of impropriety. "I would advise you to be careful, though. It is rare for a Lone Power to have a child."

"And one so grossly irresponsible, at that," General Pollack growled. "Inviting both the Ashworths and Ashfalls to the Faire. What was she thinking?"

"She shut them both down," Caleb reminded him.

His mother met his eyes. "Yes, she did," she agreed. "But it was still irresponsible."

"I like her," Caleb said, refusing to look away. "I request your blessing for the Courtship."

General Pollack exchanged a long look with his wife. "We shall discuss it in private," he said, finally. "Wait."

Caleb scowled inwardly as his mother cast a privacy ward, ensuring he couldn't hear a word of what passed between them. It galled him to have to go to his parents, but he knew they would have been furious if he'd approached someone with serious intentions without consulting them first. There were times when he wouldn't have minded being disowned, yet - in truth - he loved his family. Even Casper...

Father has no magic, he reminded himself. And yet he rules the family with a rod of iron.

He looked down at the stone floor, then up as the privacy ward dispelled. His father looked irked, while his mother was smiling coldly to herself. Caleb schooled his face into a dispassionate expression, waiting patiently for their answer. There were strong advantages to the match, he was sure, but there were also dangers. His mother was powerful, yet she was no match for a Lone Power.

"We have considered the matter," General Pollack said. "You may proceed with your Courtship."

Caleb let out a sigh of relief. "Thank you, father-"

"Now we will discuss the practicalities," his mother added, cutting him off. "And precisely how you intend to proceed. You will have to present her with flowers within the month. Choosing the right ones will be important."

"Yes, mother," Caleb said.

He cursed under his breath. It wasn't something he wanted to talk about, not to his blunt, plainspoken mother, but it was clear he wasn't being offered a choice. His father's brief lecture on matters sexual had been bad enough, back when he'd started to realize there was something different about girls, yet this was likely to be worse. He cringed mentally, then steadied himself. At least they hadn't said no.

And now all you have to do is go through with the Courtship, he told himself. And that won't be easy.

 

Chapter One

...Shadye looms above her, his skull-like face crumbling as the power within him threatens to spill out. Emily stumbles backwards, clutching desperately for something - anything - she can use as a weapon, but there is nothing. The necromancer grabs her shirt, hauls her to her feet and draws a stone knife from his belt. Emily feels her entire body go limp as he holds the knife in front of her eyes, then stabs it into her chest...

Emily snapped awake, feeling sweat pouring down her back and onto the blanket. For a long moment, she was unsure where and when she was; the nightmare had been so strong that part of her half-wondered if Shadye had killed her and everything she'd experienced had been nothing more than the final flickers of life before she died. And then she forced herself to remember, somehow, that she was in a tent, in the Blighted Lands. She'd had nightmares every night since they'd crossed the Craggy Mountains and started their long walk towards the Dark Fortress.

Just a dream, she told herself, as she wiped her forehead. The prospect of returning to Shadye's fortress, where she'd barely escaped with her life, was terrifying. If there hadn't been a very real possibility she'd inherited Shadye's possessions, she wouldn't have chosen to come within a thousand miles of the place. It was just a nightmare. It wasn't real.

She started as something slithered towards her, but smiled as Aurelius butted his head into her thigh. The Death Viper looked up at her beseechingly, his golden eyes somehow managing to convey a sense of hunger even though she'd fed him only the previous night and he should still be digesting his meal. Emily had been told, when she'd brought the snake back to Whitehall, that Death Vipers could live for weeks without eating, while their last meal was digesting in their bellies, but Aurelius seemed to disagree. Perhaps the familiar bond that tied them together demanded more energy...

Or perhaps he's picking up on my hunger, she thought, as she sat upright and picked up the snake. I could do with something to eat too.

Aurelius slithered forward. She giggled helplessly as the snake crawled up her arm and settled around her neck. She reached into her pack, pulled out a piece of dried meat and offered it to Aurelius, then pulled her trousers on, followed by her shirt. Sleeping without her clothes hadn't been easy, but it had just been too hot inside the tent. She knew several spells to chill the air, but the Grandmaster had forbidden her to use magic unless it was urgent. Thankfully, he'd insisted on keeping watch half the night rather than sharing a tent with her.

She crawled forward and opened the flap, then poked her head out of the tent. The Grandmaster was sitting in front of a fire, his back to her, cooking something that smelled faintly like bacon, although she had no idea if it was. It smelled good, but the stench of the Blighted Lands - a faint hint of burning that seemed to grow stronger with every breath she took - threatened to overpower it.

"Good morning, Emily," the Grandmaster said. "I trust you slept well."

"Well enough," Emily lied. There was no point in complaining about the nightmares. "And yourself?"

"You know I don't sleep," the Grandmaster said.

I assumed it was a metaphor, Emily thought, ruefully. But it was true; the Grandmaster hadn't slept since the day they'd walked through the mountains and into the Blighted Lands. It can't be good for his mental health.

She pushed the thought aside as she stood and looked around. The Blighted Lands were strange, perhaps the strangest place she'd ever seen. Lands that had once been green and verdant were now covered in a thin layer of ash. There wasn't a single living thing in sight, apart from the pair of them. A faint haze shimmered in the air, making it hard to see beyond a few dozen meters. The sky was a dull grey, the sun barely bright enough to burn through the clouds hanging in the sky; the air was unnaturally still, tinted with the faint scent of burning, and wisps of raw magic that danced across her awareness for long seconds before fading away. She could barely force herself to remain calm, even though she knew there was no real threat. The landscape spoke to her on a very primal level.

It looked very much like hell.

"I'm pleased to see your monster is taking things calmly," the Grandmaster said, as she paced around the campsite before looking at him. He was a short, wizened man, with a dirty cloth wrapped around his eyes, but he was surrounded by an aura of power she knew to take seriously. "I was worried, but I would have preferred not to deprive you of your familiar."

Emily nodded. If anyone else had tried to wear a Death Viper as a necklace, she knew all too well, they would have died before they could wrap it around their necks. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that Aurelius was one of the deadliest creatures known to exist, with a venom so poisonous that even a mere touch could prove fatal. Only the familiar bond protected her from the snake, allowing her to keep Aurelius as a secret weapon. He'd already saved her life twice.

"He seems to be happier here than I am," Emily admitted. She squatted down and took the mug he offered her with a nod of thanks. The Kava tasted strong, but she knew from experience that it would jolt her awake. "Is that normal?"

"The Blighted Lands may be where the Death Vipers were spawned," the Grandmaster said, as he ladled food onto two plates. "He may feel like he's home."

Emily looked up, staring at the mountains in the distance. "I hope not," she muttered. "I wouldn't want to live here."

The Grandmaster laughed, and passed her a plate of food. "Eat quickly," he urged, as Emily took it. "I want to get to the Dark Fortress before it gets dark."

Emily swallowed. Years ago - so long ago it seemed almost like another life - Shadye had accidentally brought her to the Nameless World, seeking a Child of Destiny. It had never occurred to him that someone would be named Destiny, or that her child would be a literal Child of Destiny. Shadye had meant to kill her, to sacrifice her to something called the Harrowing, yet in some ways she was almost grateful to the mad necromancer. If she'd stayed on Earth, trapped between her stepfather and her suicidal urges, she was sure she would be dead by now.

"Yes, sir," she said, as she ate her meal. It tasted better than anything she'd cooked back on Earth, although the ever-present scent of burning had worked its way into the food. "How long will it take us to get there?"

"About an hour," the Grandmaster said. "Unless we run into trouble, that is."

They finished their breakfast. Emily wiped the plates and cooking equipment while the Grandmaster answered a call of nature, and started to pack away the tent. He hadn't wanted a tent for himself, something that made her feel vaguely guilty, but he'd dismissed the matter when she'd offered to sleep in the open too. She couldn't help feeling relieved; quite apart from her concerns about sleeping near a man, she wouldn't have cared to sleep in the open, not in the Blighted Lands. The raw magic seemed to grow stronger at night.

That must be why so few people risk entering the Blighted Lands, she thought, as she packed up the rucksack. You could go to sleep in the wrong place and wake up in a very different form.

She shuddered at the thought, then pulled the rucksack on and braced herself against the weight. The Grandmaster nodded to her, checked the campsite for anything they might have left behind, then led the way into the distance. Emily gritted her teeth and forced herself to follow him. The flickers of wild magic in the air were growing stronger the further they moved from the Craggy Mountains that blocked the way to Whitehall. If she'd been alone, she had a feeling she would have turned back a long time before reaching the Dark Fortress.

"There's no need to push yourself too hard," the Grandmaster said, slowing. "If worst comes to worst, we'll set up our tents near the Dark Fortress and wait until sunrise."

Emily glanced up. It was early morning, by her watch, but the sun was already high in the sky. And yet, the light seemed dim, the clouds growing darker as they walked deeper into the Blighted Lands. She'd thought it was night when Shadye had snatched her, but had his lands been buried in permanent darkness? Or was she merely imagining things?

"I thought you said it wasn't safe to lurk too close to the fortress," she said instead.

"It isn't," the Grandmaster confirmed. "But I would prefer not to have to enter the Dark Fortress in darkness."

He said nothing else until they stumbled across the ruins of a village, so hidden within the haze that they practically walked into the ruins before realizing they were there. It was hard to imagine that it had once been a living village, with farmers tending their crops and raising their children; now, it was nothing more than grey stone, all life and light leeched away by the Blighted Lands. The eerie sameness sent chills down her spine.

"Be careful," the Grandmaster warned as she peered into one of the buildings. "You never know what might be lurking here."

Emily nodded, pausing as she caught sight of a child's doll lying on the ground. It looked...normal, surprisingly intact despite the Blighted Lands. But when she reached for the doll and picked it up, it crumbled to dust in her hands. She swallowed hard, trying not to cry for the girl who'd owned the doll, untold centuries ago. Had she died quickly, at the hands of a necromancer, or fled with her family to the untouched lands to the north? There was no way Emily would ever know.

"There has to be something we can do for the Blighted Lands," she said, as she wiped the dust off her fingers. "Can't we...cleanse the lands, or something?"

"The necromancers unleashed wild magic," the Grandmaster said. "Every year, some people try to set up settlements within the edge of the Blighted Lands, in hopes of reclaiming the territory for themselves. And they always come to grief. If the necromancers don't get them, the wild magic does."

He took a long look around the village - Emily was sure he had some way to see, despite having lost his eyes years ago - and then led the way out of it, back to the south. She followed him, feeling an odd urge to stay within the village even though she knew it was suicide. It worried her for a long moment - it could be a sign of subtle magic - and then she realized the village had felt safe, despite being within the Blighted Lands. The urge to turn back and flee grew stronger with every step they took.

"The White Council was quite impressed with you," the Grandmaster said. He spoke in a conversational tone of voice, as if he were trying to keep her mind off the growing urge to just turn and run. "They were not too pleased with the management of the Cockatrice Faire, but...they were relieved at the outcome."

Emily nodded. Everyone from Lady Barb to the Grandmaster himself had pointed out that she'd been careless, at the very least, and that her carelessness could easily have resulted in disaster. If the Ashworths and the Ashfalls had gone to war, it would not only have led to the deaths of the leaders of both families, but also to the slaughter of hundreds of other magicians and the devastation of her lands. She knew she'd been lucky, very lucky. If she hadn't managed to get a battery to work...

She touched the ring, hidden within her pocket, and smiled. Lady Barb had urged her to create and charge a second battery while preparing for the trip to the Blighted Lands, and Emily had done as her mentor suggested. Now she had a battery she could use, although without a valve it was useless. And they had a tendency to work once and then burn out. Putting a spare valve together with the help of an enchanter in Dragon's Den had been harder than charging up the battery.

"You showed a staggering amount of power," the Grandmaster added. "They were very impressed."

Thank you, Emily thought, sardonically. Is that actually a good thing?

She eyed the Grandmaster's back, wondering if he knew just what she'd actually done. He hadn't treated her any differently when Lady Barb had returned her to Whitehall after the Faire, but he wouldn't have. Others...had stared at her in awe. In some ways, she was even dreading the day when the rest of the students returned to Whitehall. If they'd stared at her after beating Shadye - and they had - they would be paying far more attention to her now.

"Some of them even considered...insisting...that you take the oaths now," the Grandmaster told her. "Others thought you should be apprenticed at once to someone who could control your power, if necessary."

But I cheated, Emily thought.

It wasn't a reassuring thought. If she'd tried to channel so much power through her mind, it would have killed her or driven her insane. It had been bad enough, years ago, to have people watching her, suspicious of necromancy. Now...they probably thought she was a staggeringly powerful magician instead, a young girl fully on the same level as Void or another Lone Power. The idea that she could match the Grandmaster for raw power was absurd...

...But, to anyone who didn't know about the batteries, it might not seem absurd.

She swallowed. "What are they going to do?"

"Nothing," the Grandmaster said, simply.

Emily blinked. "Nothing?"

"I am Grandmaster of Whitehall School," the Grandmaster said. "I have never had a student forced to take the oaths ahead of time, and I'm not about to start now. If you want an apprenticeship with someone...well, that could be arranged, but you have no obligation to find a master. Or mistress. Still..."

He shrugged. "Have you thought about your career?"

"I don't know," Emily admitted. "I'd like to stay at Whitehall for the rest of my life."

"You'd need much more experience before you could teach," the Grandmaster said. "I like my tutors to have at least ten years of practical experience before they start touching young and impressionable minds. But you could get a slot as a teaching assistant, I suppose, or a research student. We do have a few of them at Whitehall."

He paused, then turned to look at her. "You do need to decide on a major before you enter Fifth Year," he added. "Going by your marks, I'd recommend majoring in charms and perhaps healing, but it depends on what you actually want to do with your life. If you want to be a healer, you'll need alchemy; if you want to be a combat sorceress, you'll need martial magic and history..."

Emily sighed, feeling a little overwhelmed. "Randor expects me to go back to Cockatrice and be the baroness," she said. "I..."

"King Randor," the Grandmaster corrected, quietly.

"But I don't know what I want to do," Emily continued. "There are so many interesting subjects."

"You could probably study them all, if you spread out your years," the Grandmaster mused. "It isn't unknown for students to repeat their last two years at Whitehall. However, most students tend to discover the subject they want to major in while they're in their Fourth Year and stick with it. Your marks in Healing are not bad."

Emily winced. Healing was an interesting class, but she didn't want to spend the rest of her life working with ill people. She'd seen enough of that life during the walk through the Cairngorms to know she didn't want to do it permanently. There had been too many horrors there, hidden in small shacks or behind high stone walls. She had no idea how Lady Barb did it without cursing everyone in sight.

"I think I just want to study," she said. It was a shame there were no universities in the Nameless World. She could have stepped into one quite happily and never come out. "And go into magical research, perhaps."

"That would suit you," the Grandmaster agreed.

He shrugged, then turned back to resume walking. "You need to remember that you're not just any magician," he added, as he walked. "Too many people are already showing an interest in you, not least our friends to the south."

The necromancers, Emily thought.

She'd killed Shadye - and the Allied Lands had declared her the Necromancer's Bane. The other necromancers seemed to believe she could kill them at will, if only because none of them had tried to claim Shadye's lands or attack Whitehall. But that wouldn't last, she was sure. Sooner or later, the necromancers would resume their offensive against the Allied Lands. Their endless need for new victims to sacrifice would ensure it.

And what will happen, she asked herself, when they do?

She kept her thoughts to herself as she followed the Grandmaster, feeling the air grow steadily colder as they made their way to the south. Slowly, the twisted shape of the Dark Fortress - and, beside it, the Inverse Shadow - came into view. They didn't look anything like the half-remembered shapes in her nightmares, but there hadn't really been time to take much note of the scenery the last time she'd visited. She'd been half out of her mind with fear when Shadye's animated skeletons had dragged her into the Inverse Shadow, preparing her for death. If Void hadn't been there, she would have died that day.

The Grandmaster stopped, sharply. "Listen," he said. "Can you hear that?"

Emily paused, listening hard. There was a faint sound in the distance, a howling that seemed to come from many throats. It was growing louder, although she didn't think the source of the sound was actually coming closer. Whatever it was - and there was something about it that touched a memory - it chilled her to the bone.

"I think we'd better go see what that is," the Grandmaster said, after a quick glance at his watch. "Follow me."

 

Chapter Two

The howling grew louder as they walked, but it was still a surprise when the haze parted long enough to reveal a colossal pit in the ashy ground. Emily started, then stumbled back as the soil started to give way under her feet, threatening to send her falling down the side and into the pit. She steadied herself, then peered down as she saw figures swarming at the bottom, fighting each other with a savage intensity that shocked her to the bone. It had been nearly three years since she'd last seen an orc, outside lessons, but they were unmistakable, even though the distance made them look tiny.

"A breeding frenzy," the Grandmaster said, quietly. "That isn't a good sign."

Emily stroked Aurelius as she took in the sight. The orcs were huge, each one easily two meters tall; shambling parodies of humanity. They carried swords that were taller than the Grandmaster, lashing out at one another with more determination than skill, their blades cutting into stone-hard skin. She knew from grim experience that they were far stronger than the average human, although they weren't very bright and could be outrun if someone was prepared to show them their backs and flee. They needed a strong leader to pose anything more than a minor threat to travelers. Shadye had recruited an army through force and led them against Whitehall. She felt the snake's discontent at the presence of the warped monsters and shuddered, before smiling to herself. The orcs would be equally discomfited to see a Death Viper.

"Only one in ten of them will survive - the strongest or the smartest," the Grandmaster commented. "They will go back down into the tunnels and impregnate the women, then wait for the next generation to be born. There will be hundreds of thousands of new orcs soon enough, just looking for a leader."

Emily looked at him. "Why now?"

"Good question," the Grandmaster said. "Shadye would have pushed them into building a new army, but Shadye is dead."

"They might have another leader," Emily said. She looked back at the orcs and grimaced. It wouldn't be easy to beat one in a fight, without magic. Even the greatest swordsman in the land would have problems. Bows and arrows wouldn't make much of an impression on their solid hides...but would bullets? "Someone else intent on forming an army."

"It's a possibility," the Grandmaster acknowledged.

He took one last look into the pit, then turned and led her back towards the Dark Fortress. Emily followed, gritting her teeth as the howling grew louder and louder until it echoed within her very bones. The orcs might have seen them and given chase...she found herself glancing backwards as the haze closed in again, making it impossible to see if anything was climbing out of the pit. She shaped spells in her mind - the only way to win was to knock the orc down and out as quickly as possible - and waited. Nothing seemed to be following them.

Aurelius would sense it if someone came after us, she told herself, firmly. It had been a disappointment to learn that animals couldn't really talk to their human masters, but she was learning how to interpret the sensations Aurelius pushed towards her. There's nothing up here but us chickens.

She pushed the thought aside as the Inverse Shadow came into view. It was a towering building, but it was impossible to actually get a sense of what it looked like. Her eyes kept slipping over the exterior; one moment, it looked like a towering cathedral, the next it looked like something bent and twisted out of shape. She peered into the open doors, seemingly waiting to see who would walk inside, then shuddered as she sensed the magic - and something else - coiling around the outer walls. If Shadye hadn't been mad before he'd walked into the Inverse Shadow, long exposure to the twisted building would have driven him mad.

Her throat was suddenly dry, but she forced herself to speak. "What is the Inverse Shadow?"

"No one knows," the Grandmaster said. For once, he looked perturbed. "One school of thought suggests it used to be a nexus point, one that was drained by the necromancers, while others think it's something far older."

Emily frowned. "Maybe someone tried to build another school like Whitehall on a nexus point and something went wrong."

"It's a possibility," the Grandmaster agreed. "If there was a nexus point here, it must be dead. Shadye wouldn't have needed to go to Whitehall if he'd had one right next to his fortress. But there is clearly magic, ancient magic, in this place. Perhaps Shadye was too scared to try to tap it for his own use."

"Maybe," Emily said. It didn't seem likely. Shadye hadn't shown any fear, as far as she could recall; in truth, he'd never had any reason to feel fear. What could harm a necromancer with his power? "Why was so much forgotten?"

"They might not have wanted to remember," the Grandmaster said. "Aren't there things in your life you would give a great deal to forget? Or to rewrite?"

Emily nodded, slowly. She'd always had the impression that there was something wrong with the Nameless World's history, at least the version presented to the students, although she'd never been able to put her finger on it. She knew from Earth that history was often a matter of conjecture, of putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle when several of them were missing and then guessing at the final image. And, on the Nameless World, history could be rewritten to suit the people in power. She had a feeling that King Randor's ultimate version of the coup in Zangaria would minimize her role while giving most of the credit to Alassa.

"I suppose," she said, doubtfully. Truth was more important than lies, particularly lies that suited the people in power, but what was truth anyway? "I..."

She stopped as she saw a ghostly image in front of her. A young girl - it took her a moment to realize she was looking at her own face, so thin and emaciated it had become - was standing in front of her, staring at her with hopeless eyes. Emily stared back, unable to tear her gaze away, unable even to blink as her doppelganger fell to her knees, bowing her head in fear. Time seemed to slow down...

...And then everything changed. The broken girl vanished, to be replaced by a taller version of Emily, wearing a long dark dress that exposed the tops of her breasts. There was a thin smile on her face Emily didn't like at all, a smug assertion of superiority over the entire world...and, when her doppelganger looked up, bright red eyes bored deep into Emily's. A necromancer...

She stumbled backwards in shock. The images vanished.

"Emily," a voice said, urgently. It took her a moment to realize it was the Grandmaster. "Are you all right?"

Emily hesitated. "Did you see that?"

The Grandmaster caught her arm and swung her around to face him. "See what?"

"I saw...I saw alternate versions of myself," Emily said. She'd seen something similar in the Dark City, she recalled now. "Didn't you see anything?"

"Nothing," the Grandmaster said. He looked uncertain for a long moment, then shrugged thoughtfully. "It could be a sex-specific charm, perhaps, or...or you may simply be more sensitive to certain types of magic than others."

He cleared his throat as he turned back towards the Dark Fortress. "If nothing else, this is an excellent lesson in the importance of understanding where your talents lie," he added, absently. "If you don't have a gift for certain kinds of magic, you'll never be as good with them as those who do."

Emily rolled her eyes at his retreating back - she'd heard the same thing over and over again, from just about every tutor at Whitehall - and then followed him, feeling a dull unease in her breast she wasn't able to suppress. The visions could have been images of her greatest fears, plucked from her mind, but there had been a reality about them that chilled her to the bone, as if they were real on some level. And yet, she knew they could easily have been enhanced with magic, just to make sure she had the right reaction to them. She pushed the thought aside and clutched the snake tighter, promising herself she wouldn't be either of the doppelgangers. Aurelius shifted around her neck, then relaxed.

The Dark Fortress loomed up in front of them, a brooding mass that dominated the landscape...and yet seemed petty, somehow, compared to the Inverse Shadow. Emily felt the rune on her chest grow warm, warning of the presence of subtle magic, as they walked closer, studying the exterior of the building for a way in. She couldn't help comparing it to a palace, rather than a fortress; it didn't look very secure. Indeed, some of the upper levels were clearly crumbling into ruins. But with a necromancer in residence, very few would dare to enter without permission.

And who in their right mind would want to visit? she asked herself, as the warmth in her chest grew stronger. Shadye would use anyone who visited as a source of power.

"There," the Grandmaster said, pointing at a blank stone wall. "Can you see the doorway?"

Emily peered at the wall, gritting her teeth as the rune grew warmer. Her chest hurt as she forced her eyes to look past the magic, past the aversion wards designed to keep her from seeing something right in front of her, but she kept going. The world seemed to shimmer, then snap back into place, revealing an open door right in front of them. There was a final burst of heat from the rune before it faded so quickly, it almost felt cold.

"I can see it," she said. She rubbed her chest, feeling somewhat frostbitten, then took a step forward. Nothing moved to block her. "Is it safe to enter?"

"Good question," the Grandmaster said. He drew a wand from his belt, and held it in front of him like a divining rod as he walked through the door. "There are a handful of odd wards here, none of them interlocked. I'm surprised they've lasted this long."

Emily nodded as she followed him through the door and into the darkened chamber beyond. Wards could be lodged within stone, but they rarely lasted more than a year without the sorcerer renewing and replenishing them. Shadye had been powerful, staggeringly so, yet he'd lacked the skill and experience of the Grandmaster or Void. His wards might have been crude, rather than subtle. They might well not have lasted long after his death.

She looked at the Grandmaster's back as a thought struck her. "Could someone else have put up the wards?"

"It's possible," the Grandmaster said. "Void might have returned to the Dark Fortress, after Shadye's death. Few others would have dared."

Emily felt a twinge of...something. She hadn't seen Void for over a year; she'd written to him, after the events in Cockatrice, but received no reply. Had he been busy searching Shadye's fortress now he knew she would be visiting, or had he been preoccupied with something else? Or...had he decided she was no longer worthy of his attention? He might have saved her life, but everyone she'd met had warned her, in no uncertain terms, that he couldn't really be trusted. It wasn't something she wanted to consider.

"Cast a light globe," the Grandmaster ordered. "Let's see what we find."

Emily obeyed, casting the spell into the air. The globe took shape and form, casting an eerie light into the chamber, but dimmed rapidly, as if something was draining the magic from the spell. Emily blinked in surprise as the globe started to die, then hastily pushed more magic into her spell. The light brightened, but started to dim again. And then it flickered before it went out completely.

"Unfortunate," the Grandmaster observed. He dug into his pockets and produced a Hand of Glory, which he lit with a spell. Emily shuddered; the severed human hand had had the fingertips removed and replaced with charmed candles, which glowed with an eerie - but stable - light. "Take this and hold it in front of you."

The Hand of Glory felt clammy against her bare skin, but whatever had drained the light globe didn't seem able to drain the Hand of Glory. Emily held it high and looked around, frowning in puzzlement as she had a good look at the chamber. It was bare and barren, as if it had been abandoned long ago; pieces of debris lay where they'd fallen from the roof, while dust lay everywhere. Shadye had never bothered to hire housekeepers, the irreverent part of her mind noted; indeed, he'd clearly not been concerned with his personal comfort. It couldn't have been a very pleasant place to live.

"This way," the Grandmaster said, leading her through the door at the end of the chamber. It led to a cold stone corridor, as dark and silent as the grave. "Keep a sharp eye out for traps."

Emily nodded, feeling ice spread through her body as the darkness rose and fell around them. The walls were bare stone, but the floors were covered in skeletons. Shadye's servants, she asked herself, or the remains of his victims? Some of them looked to have been kneeling, in the last moments before they died, while others had been broken and smashed, pieces of bone lying scattered on the stone ground. How had they decayed so quickly?

She hesitated, then asked the Grandmaster a question. "Why was Shadye expelled from Whitehall?"

"Crimes against his fellow students," the Grandmaster said, shortly. "We caught him torturing First Years and expelled him."

He didn't seem inclined to say anything else, so Emily kept her mouth firmly closed as they walked through another empty chamber, then a third. Shadye hadn't been a packrat, Emily noted, nothing like herself. For all of his power, his life had been consumed by the desperate quest for sustenance. He'd lurked in the Dark Fortress, raided the Allied Lands for people he could drain to keep himself alive and...nothing. If he hadn't been a mass murderer Emily might almost have felt sorry for him.

He made his choices, a voice in her head said. It sounded very much like Lady Barb. And he had to live with the consequences.

But if he hadn't, Emily answered, mentally, I would never have come to the Nameless World.

She felt a twinge of guilt at the thought, which she pushed aside as they walked into another corridor. This one was long and dark, but at the end there was an eerie green glow. A crystal hung from the ceiling, casting light over the scene. The Grandmaster started to walk towards it, but stopped. Moments later, Emily felt her head swimming and she walked straight into the wall.

"An interesting trick," the Grandmaster observed as she stumbled back. "Not a particularly subtle one, but effective. We can't walk up without having our senses scrambled, which will send us straight into the walls - or worse. And we can't dispel the charm without being a great deal closer."

Emily nodded, and tried to walk up the corridor again. This time, she found herself falling to the ground, so dizzy she could no longer remain upright, before crawling back to the Grandmaster on her hands and knees. She had the feeling she would have been fine, if she'd kept her eyes firmly closed, but she couldn't do that without leaving herself vulnerable. And yet...

"You could destroy the crystal," she said, slowly.

"It would provoke a reaction," the Grandmaster said. "Probably..."

He hesitated, then looked at her. "I could steer you through the charm, if I used your body as a puppet," he said. "I'd be steering you from the outside..."

"No," Emily said, flatly. Shadye had used her as a puppet three years ago, and the experience still gave her nightmares. To have someone moving her arms and legs without her control...she trusted the Grandmaster, but she wasn't about to let him be her puppeteer. "I..."

She stopped as a thought struck her. "I could dispel the charm if I was much closer, right?"

"Standing next to it," the Grandmaster confirmed.

Emily nodded, then - before she could have second thoughts - uncurled Aurelius from her neck and placed the snake on the floor. Aurelius sent a stream of discontented thoughts to her - Death Vipers didn't like dust, it seemed - and then looked at the crystal. The images he sent to Emily were odd, like seeing through warped lenses, but she could see the path to the crystal.

"You need to blind and deafen me," she said, without looking at the Grandmaster. "It's the only way to avoid being overwhelmed."

The Grandmaster gave her a sharp look - such hexes were banned at Whitehall, on pain of severe punishment - but jabbed a finger at her. Emily shuddered as the world went black and silent, then concentrated on the images from the snake. It was hard, so hard, to keep her mind focused with panic yammering at her, screaming that she should cancel his spell, but somehow she held herself together long enough to walk towards the crystal, guided by the snake. As soon as she was standing close to the charm, she cast the dispersal spell. Her eyes snapped back to normal, while the crystal lost its light.

"Well done," the Grandmaster said. "Very well done."

Emily beamed with pride. "I..."

The world went dark. For a moment, she thought the blindness spell had reasserted itself, then she realized she was somewhere else, somewhere both dark and familiar. She opened her mouth to call out to the Grandmaster...

...And then froze as her stepfather walked into the light.

 

Chapter Three

"You worthless girl," he snarled. "Can't you do anything right?"

Emily could only stare at him, feeling her entire body trembling. Her stepfather looked larger than she recalled, his meaty fists pounding the air in front of him as he advanced towards her; no, she was smaller. She looked down at herself and realized she was barely a child of ten, chewing helplessly on her long hair and wearing second-hand clothes she'd bought or begged for herself from the charity shops. But she'd been an adult of nineteen...

Her head swam. She'd been with the Grandmaster, hadn't she? Or had she imagined everything? Her stepfather strode up to her, thrusting his face right into hers and breathing horrendous fumes of alcohol into her mouth. She cringed as he caught her arm, then shoved her to the floor. It felt solid - too solid - under her body.

"Waste of fucking space," he snapped. He loomed over her, glaring down. "Why I adopted you I will never know. You should have been a boy. A boy might have been fun."

Emily swallowed hard to keep from throwing up. He was there. He was always there. There was no point in looking to her mother for protection, not when her mother spent most of her life crashed out on the couch, watching TV and drinking heavily. Her stepfather could do whatever he liked to her and no one would do anything to help. A feeling of pure hopelessness overcame her, forcing her to curl into a ball...

"Get up," her stepfather snarled. He reached out, grabbed the front of her shirt and hauled her to her feet. "Wasting all your time in fantasies when there's real work to do."

He slapped her across the face, hard. "Thinking you're Harry fucking Potter, a magical little princess just waiting for the chance to go to your real parents," he snapped. "Your father abandoned you, princess, and left you here with your worthless piece of trash drunkard of a mother. You're pathetic! You waste your life in fantasy when you have work to do."

Emily staggered, her mind screaming at her. It was real, wasn't it? She was older, much older, than the child she seemed now...and she had all the memories to prove it. But they felt translucent, as if they were nothing more than childish fantasies. She was suddenly unsure of anything beyond the fact that she was trapped in the room with a monster. Desperately, she looked around and saw her old living room, her mother lying on the couch and stoned out of her mind. Empty bottles of cheap wine lay everywhere...

...She'd gathered them up, when she'd been much younger, and taken them back to the shop for a handful of coins...

The memory was so strong it shocked her. No one had raised an eyebrow at a nine-year-old girl handing back empty booze bottles. No one had really given a damn, yet...

Her stepfather slapped her, again. "Get to cleaning up the mess, you worthless bitch," he ordered. The force of the blow sent her staggering back to the floor, tasting blood in her mouth. "I want this room clean by the time I get back from the bar..."

He knew about my dreams, Emily thought. How did he know?

She looked down at her hands. They weren't childish any longer. Her chest was growing - her stepfather leered, but she ignored him - and she felt older. How had he known? She wasn't in the habit of sharing anything with him, certainly not her innermost fantasies. He couldn't have thrown the suggestion that she had magic in her face unless he'd known she had dreams of magic...

"You're not real," she said, as she stood. She looked down at herself again and saw the shirt and trousers she'd worn in the Nameless World. No, the shirt and trousers that she was still wearing in the Nameless World. Her memory clicked and she put two and two together. "You're just a Nightmare Hex."

Her stepfather snarled at her, his eyes moving over her chest and leaving trails of slime over her breasts, then lunged forward. Emily snapped into a fighting crouch automatically, silently thanking Sergeant Harkin for his lessons, then caught his arm as he took a swing at her. He seemed smaller, somehow, as she pushed him aside before she knifed her hand into his eye, where he was vulnerable. She felt something squish under her finger; her stepfather jumped backwards, screaming in pain and rubbing his eyes desperately. Emily watched blood spilling from his eye, too much blood to be real, and she knew, beyond all doubt, that it was an illusion.

"You're definitely a Nightmare Hex," she said. She'd seen one before, in Blackhall, and it had almost killed her. "You're not real."

"Bitch," her stepfather swore at her. "I am real."

Emily smiled. "Then why are you shrinking?"

She forced herself forward as he glared at her. "You're a monster," she said, as coldly and precisely as she could. "You dominated my life ever since you married my mother. You overshadowed my life, you made me scared of everything, you destroyed my hope. You..."

Her stepfather, now the size of a small dog, stumbled backwards. "I'm not scared of you any longer," Emily said. She'd met Shadye, and Mother Holly, and Aurelius's namesake; her stepfather was nothing but a petty bully. Her later enemies had been threats to the entire world. "And I will not allow you to dominate my life any longer."

She lunged forward...and her stepfather vanished in a flash of light. Emily blinked - the light had been bright enough to hurt - and looked around. She was standing in the chamber, looking at the dead crystal; the Grandmaster was standing beside her, his face worried. A twitch from below told her that Aurelius was waiting for her. She bent down and picked up the snake, wrapping it around her wrist. It hadn't been real.

"I wouldn't have expected a Nightmare Hex to last so long without constant renewal," the Grandmaster said. "They're fantastically complex pieces of work."

Emily nodded, then blinked as she realized the Grandmaster had to have seen his greatest fear, too. How else would he have known what she'd encountered?

She looked at him. "What did you see?"

"Whitehall coming apart around me," the Grandmaster said, shortly. There was something in his voice, an edge, that warned her not to ask any more questions. "What did you see?"

Emily shuddered. "My stepfather."

The Grandmaster gave her a long look, then turned to lead the way into the next chamber. "I believe the remaining defenses have been dispelled," he said. "The magic running through the building has twisted. It may or may not have accepted you as its new mistress, but it shouldn't pose a danger any longer."

Emily followed him, casting a new light globe as she moved. This time, the globe behaved normally. She puzzled over it for a moment, and looked around. The room was barren, save for a throne perched in the exact center of the chamber. It was made of cold iron, she saw as she walked closer, and decorated with runes that looked scorched and broken. She touched the rune at her chest, in anticipation of pain, but felt nothing. Whatever magic had been stored within the throne had faded long ago.

"Shadye would have used it to help control his powers," the Grandmaster said, studying the throne. "I don't think it would have done much, though. He held too much power within his wards to be easily controlled."

"I thought runes only worked with subtle magic," Emily said. "Can a necromancer use runes?"

"They would have bolstered his ability to resist the madness, I expect," the Grandmaster said. He pointed to a handful of broken runes, then gave her a sharp look. "Those runes enhance feelings of stubbornness and determination. Shadye was literally manipulating his own mind."

Emily shook her head as the Grandmaster stepped into the next chamber. There were spells, countless spells, to help someone change their behavior, but she had been warned - in no uncertain terms - that they tended to have nasty side effects. Shadye might have kept his stolen power under control, yet they might have cost him his reasoning abilities or stolen his free will. And something self-inflicted - she touched the rune between her breasts again - was far harder to remove than something imposed by an outsider.

But it kept him going, she thought, grimly. He never stopped. Every little mistake was worked into his plan.

"Emily," the Grandmaster called. "Come and look at these."

Aurelius sniffed uncomfortably as Emily entered the next chamber. It was smaller than the throne room, but almost as bare. A large stone table, covered with books and a handful of items she didn't recognize, dominated the room. Several other books lay on the floor, next to the stone walls. She could practically imagine Shadye tearing his way through the manuscripts, then throwing them aside once he was done. He'd been growing increasingly desperate towards the end of his life...

She pushed the thought to one side and looked at the books. A couple were familiar - she knew them to be textbooks that hadn't changed in over a hundred years - but others were new to her. One of them discussed basic charms, at length; another talked about blood magic and how best to use it. And Shadye had used it against her...he'd been here, she realized suddenly, when he'd laid his plans against her. She glanced down at the book and cringed, inwardly, as she realized the control spell lay in front of her. A little blood, obtained through cunning or simple violence, and she could make someone - anyone - do whatever she wished.

"I would advise you not to touch that book," the Grandmaster said, "but in your case it's probably futile."

Emily blushed. She'd grown into the habit of collecting books, now that she actually had the money to buy them. And she'd even kept a book she knew to be dark, just because it was hers. If she had any claim to Shadye's properties at all, and no one was quite sure if she did or didn't, she would assert it over the books. They were hers.

"I'm sorry, sir," she said.

"No, you're not," the Grandmaster said. He gave her a humorless smile. "Just remember that actually using some of those spells will get you in very real trouble."

He looked down at the small collection of objects and shook his head. "The stone knife will have to be destroyed, of course," he said. He picked up a necklace with a single white crystal, then frowned. "The others...if you wish, they can be brought back to Whitehall for study. A couple of these things are new to me."

Emily peered at the necklace as the Grandmaster put it back down on the table. "What is that?"

"A heartstone," the Grandmaster said. He shook his head again. "Shadye must have stolen it from someone, years ago. I can't imagine him ever having one himself."

He smiled, seeing the puzzled expression on her face. "A heartstone always comes with a twin," he said. "If you and your partner are deeply in love, or have strong feelings for one another, you can create a pair of stones and use them to be aware of the other at all times. I believe that your friend used some of the linking spells to create her chat parchments. Unlike those...a heartstone requires genuine feeling between the couple, as well as a strong level of trust. Relationships have been destroyed because of them."

Emily frowned. "Why?"

The Grandmaster snorted. "You would know when your partner looked at another girl and felt a flicker of attraction, or vice versa," he said. "There would be no white lies, no selective presentations of the truth; there would be nowhere to hide, if your feelings changed. I don't think I've seen someone use one for years."

"No privacy," Emily mused. She couldn't imagine being willing to share so much of herself with someone else, even if she loved him. "One bad thought could destroy the relationship."

"There's a twisted version used by slavers," the Grandmaster added. He peered at Shadye's necklace for a long moment. "Maybe that was what Shadye had in mind."

Emily swallowed. Had she been the intended recipient?

The Grandmaster opened his pouch, carefully inserting the books and objects while Emily picked the books off the floor. One reminded her of the books Aurelius had shown her at Mountaintop, the Book of Pacts between demons and their human masters; another seemed to be a book of stories, although she knew better than to dismiss it out of hand. A third bore Whitehall's crest on the cover, but the pages inside were completely blank, save for a handful of scribbles in the margin. She carried it back to the Grandmaster and held it up for his inspection.

"That would have been his personal spellbook, if he'd stayed at Whitehall," the Grandmaster said. "They changed the design before you arrived. I'm surprised he kept that, Emily."

"Maybe he was sentimental," Emily muttered. It would have surprised her if that were true, but she'd seen stranger things on her travels. "Or wanted something to remind him of his plans."

"Or maybe he intended to use the crest to slip into the school," the Grandmaster said. "It might have been possible, if the wards had been weakened in some way. If the Warden had died in First Year, he might have been able to force his way inside."

Emily shuddered.

They paused for a quick bite to eat, then searched the remainder of the fortress. Emily couldn't help feeling disappointed, both by how little there was to find and how poorly the building had been maintained. It looked like a ruined castle from Europe, not a place for someone to live and work. But Shadye hadn't been in any real danger from falling chunks of stone and he'd never entertained guests. He'd lived in a charnel house and he'd never given a damn.

"I think he must have been doing something here," the Grandmaster said, as they stepped into yet another room. "There are traces of magic in the air..."

Emily hesitated, feeling with her mind, then nodded. There was something in the air, something oddly familiar. She paused, thinking hard. Could it be...? She saw a doorway, set within the wall, and opened it carefully. A small prison cell lay inside, dark and empty - and familiar. There had been nowhere to sit, let alone sleep.

"That's where I arrived," she said, softly. "I appeared in that cell."

"He must have wanted to make sure you were contained," the Grandmaster said. He glanced into the cell, then back at Emily. "If he thought you were dangerous..."

He broke off as a low rattling echoed through the chamber. Something was coming towards them. Emily jumped back, lifting a hand to cast a spell, glancing around to see what was coming their way. Something moved in the darkened corridor beyond, then advanced into the light. A skeleton. She shuddered in remembered horror as the skeleton kept moving forward, followed by three others. Shadye's magic had animated them, but Shadye was dead. How had they survived three years without falling back into dust?

"Don't do anything," the Grandmaster said. "Wait."

Emily nodded, holding her hand at the ready. The skeletons didn't look dangerous, but they'd been strong enough to drag her through the halls at Shadye's command. She fought down the urge to step backwards as the leader walked up to her, stopping barely a meter from where she stood, then bowed deeply. Magic danced around them as the other three followed suit, then rose, awaiting orders.

"They recognize you as their mistress," the Grandmaster said. "Command them to show us where Shadye hid his treasures."

Emily swallowed, then looked at the lead skeleton. "Show us where Shadye hid his treasures."

The skeleton did nothing for long seconds, just long enough for her to think she didn't really have any right to command them, then turned and led them back through the dark corridors towards a barren room. Emily followed, uneasily aware that the other three were bringing up the rear. They might not have been dangerous, at least to her, but they still gave her the creeps. The leader stopped in the center of the room and pointed to a stone slab.

"Powerful protections here," the Grandmaster observed, opening the slab carefully. "And look at this!"

Emily followed his gaze. There were a handful of books and several dozen objects, all stored under the slab. A hammer-like artifact, a set of iron knives, a piece of chalk and a ring made of dull metal. The Grandmaster carefully checked the objects for unpleasant surprises - a handful had lethal curses attached - before placing them in his pouch. Emily took the books, after checking them herself, and examined their covers. None of them looked familiar.

"I'd like to have a look at those, when we get back to the school," the Grandmaster said. "And I suggest you find a safe place to keep them."

"Yes, sir," Emily said.

The Grandmaster nodded, and stood. "Ask them if there is anything else," he ordered. "I want to make as clean a sweep as possible."

Emily looked at the skeletons and repeated the question. The skeletons stood there for long seconds, then collapsed into piles of bones. Emily blinked, feeling the magic running through the building start to fade. Had Shadye's magic finally reached its limit? Or had dispelling the Nightmare Hex started a slow process of collapse?

"Time to take our leave," the Grandmaster said, sharply. Something crashed to the ground, not too far away. "The entire building might be about to fall down around our heads."

He caught Emily's arm. "Brace yourself," he ordered. "Here we go."

Emily gritted her teeth as the teleportation field caught them both. Teleporting into the Blighted Lands was dangerous, she'd been told, but getting out...it could be done, if one had the power. She closed her eyes as the world went white...

...And, when she opened them again, she was staring at Whitehall School.

 

Chapter Four

"Not a bad haul, all things considered," the Grandmaster said, as he held Emily steady. She leaned on his arm, reluctantly, until her feet felt able to support her weight. The air felt cool, but blessedly alive compared to the tainted deadness of the Blighted Lands. "And much safer in our hands than in others'."

"I suppose," Emily said. She felt sick to her stomach. "What are you going to do with the objects we found?"

"Study them," the Grandmaster said. "Do you want them?"

Emily shook her head. "Just the books," she said. "What do we do about the fortress?"

"I'll arrange for someone to take another look, in a week or so," the Grandmaster said, as he gently let go of her arm. "If the Dark Fortress is completely drained of Shadye's magic, someone else may move in...or it may be left abandoned. It takes a strong-minded person to live next to the Inverse Shadow."

He shrugged. "The orcs worry me," he added. "Either they have a new leader or they've found a new chieftain. They might do a little raiding on their own account once the new generation grows to maturity."

"In a couple of years," Emily said. Orcs grew fast. A baby might become an adult within a couple of years, ready to go into combat or start competing for mates of his own. "Will you strike first?"

"We might," the Grandmaster said. He turned and started to walk towards Whitehall. "Your friends will be arriving later this evening, Emily. I suggest you pack your bags, and wait in the library until they arrive."

Emily nodded, reluctantly. For some arcane reason, she hadn't been allowed to move straight into the room she would occupy during term, even though she wouldn't have slept there while she'd been in the Blighted Lands. Perhaps other students staked their claims to the best of everything, if they got there first, but she wouldn't have done that, would she? Didn't the Grandmaster know her better than that? She shrugged at the thought, wondering just who she'd get as roommates this time, and followed the Grandmaster back to Whitehall. It was funny just how much the school felt like home.

"If you have time, write out a detailed report of everything you saw in the Blighted Lands," the Grandmaster said, as they reached the doors. "And return that little monster to its normal form."

"Yes, sir," Emily said, as Aurelius slithered off her neck and wrapped himself around her arm. She cast the spell and watched as the snake became a seemingly-harmless bangle, surrounded by anti-thief jinxes and runes designed to make it hard to see. "My friends do know about him..."

"The last thing I need is someone deciding to save you from a Death Viper," the Grandmaster said, dryly. "Or fainting when they see one wrapped around your neck."

Emily smiled at the thought, bowed to him and hurried up the stairs, back to her temporary room. It was small, with a bed, a desk, a set of bookshelves and not much else, but she was fond of it. In Sixth Year, she'd been told, she would have a room of her own; until then, she had to share with two roommates during term. At least she didn't have to sleep in dorms, she reminded herself as she placed the bag of books on the desk. Mountaintop hadn't been a very pleasant place to sleep, even when people weren't hanging hexes on the drapes or practicing nasty spells. She'd been lucky, she suspected. If she'd gone to Mountaintop as a newcomer, she would have been as badly abused as Frieda.

She sat down, glancing at the small pile of letters awaiting her. Caleb had written twice - she felt an unaccustomed warm sensation in her chest as she saw his handwriting - and Alassa had written several more times, probably to discuss her impending wedding. She opened her sealed drawer, picked up the chat parchment from where she'd hidden it and scribbled a brief note to say she was fine. Her friends would reply when they saw the message.

Shaking her head, she opened the letters and read them one by one, making sure there wasn't anything urgent she might have missed while she was in the Blighted Lands. Caleb's letters were friendly, apart from a handful of thoughts on their joint project; she surprised herself by smiling after she'd finished reading them both. Alassa was definitely worried about her wedding; Emily hadn't objected, but some of the other barons had grumbled about their future Prince Consort being of such low birth. Emily would have thought they'd be relieved - Jade couldn't rule the country in his own right - yet it seemed snobbery had trumped common sense. Beside it, the notes on other political developments in Zangaria were almost welcome.

"Fools," she muttered, as she read through the latest attempt to block the spread of her innovations. "You can't bottleneck something a person can get from anywhere."

She put the letters aside for later contemplation, rose to her feet, undressed rapidly and stepped into the shower. The memory of her stepfather mocked her as water ran down her body, reminding her of the times she'd showered at school or gone without, just to avoid his gaze. She'd felt so helpless back then. And yet, the fear that had gripped her, holding her firmly in place, was gone. He was just another person to leave in the past, someone so far away it was certain she would never see him again. Unless she did find a way to go back to Earth...

No, she told herself firmly, as she stopped the shower and reached for a towel, slowly wiping the water droplets off her body. I'll never go back.

Outside, she dressed rapidly, donning her favorite blue dress. It felt soft and unrestricting against her skin, contrasting neatly with her brown hair without showing off too much of her body. She would need to wear shapeless robes again tomorrow, or something lighter when she didn't have class, but for the moment she might as well enjoy the dress. The thought made her smile as she checked her appearance in the mirror, pulled her hair back into a long ponytail and turned to pack her trunk. It wasn't hard to make sure that all of Shadye's books were stored within a specific compartment, accessible only to her. There would be time to study them later.

She jumped as she heard someone rap on the door, and opened it without checking the wards. Only one person rapped like that; she smiled broadly as Lady Barb stepped into the room, wearing the black robes of a combat sorcerer and carrying a small sheaf of papers in one hand. Her long blonde hair shimmered in the light as she passed the papers to Emily, then nodded to her.

"I hear you had a good trip," she said, briskly.

"We did," Emily said. She'd talk about what she'd seen when the Nightmare Hex had gripped her later, when she'd had a chance to think about it properly. "We found quite a few books."

"I expect you to be very careful with them," Lady Barb said. Her blue eyes met Emily's and held them. "You could be held responsible if they fall into the wrong hands."

"Yeah," Emily said. "I have them sealed in my trunk."

"I'll be trying to break into it later," Lady Barb warned. "Make sure you have it as secure as possible, or else."

Emily nodded and hastily changed the subject, holding up the papers. "What are these?"

"Background information on potential career choices," Lady Barb said. "At some point within the first month, Emily, you will sit down with someone from the White Council and discuss your future career. You won't be expected to follow it slavishly, but they will give you useful advice and perhaps a few contacts. I suggest" - her tone indicated that it was actually an order - "that you go through the papers over the next few days, then make up your mind."

"Oh," Emily said. She wasn't sure she wanted to discuss her future with strangers. "What if I don't want to talk to them?"

"It's mandatory, unless you have a legitimate reason to refuse," Lady Barb said. "Alassa has one, Emily, but you don't."

She shrugged. "Pick a handful of possible careers, and talk to them about the prerequisites for apprenticeships or training programs," she added. "You'll find them quite useful, if you ask the right questions. They won't expect you to be certain of what you want to do in life."

"I want to be a researcher," Emily said. "Or a tutor..."

"I wouldn't put you in front of a class," Lady Barb said. "You'd have to maintain control of a whole crowd of louts, brats, snobs, and ignorers without turning them into toads...it isn't easy."

"You make it look easy," Emily said.

"A one-on-one tutoring job would probably suit you better," Lady Barb added, slowly. "You did a good job with Frieda, although you might have done better to curb her more...rebellious instincts."

Emily had to smile. Frieda had invented Freeze Tag, gleefully taught it to the other First Year students and played it through Whitehall's corridors. It might have worked out fine, she thought, if they hadn't accidentally caught a pair of tutors in the game. Weeks of detention hadn't curbed Frieda's sense of playfulness in the slightest.

"I'll be discussing prerequisites for Healing in class," Lady Barb said. "The other tutors will be doing the same. Take their words to heart, consider them carefully, then choose wisely."

"The Grandmaster said I would have to choose a major," Emily said.

"He was right," Lady Barb said. "I know you're interested in everything, Emily, but you do have to choose a major for your final two years at Whitehall."

She looked at the trunk. "Have you packed everything?"

"Just about," Emily said. "I haven't moved my letters yet."

"Do that now," Lady Barb ordered. "You're in Room 4-01. I'll take your trunk down; you can go down later, at five bells. Your roommates should have arrived by then."

Emily hurried to obey. "I can take my trunk myself," she said, as she hastily stuffed the letters into the trunk and the chat parchment into her pocket. "You don't have to do it..."

"Tradition must be upheld," Lady Barb said, sternly. Her blue eyes twinkled with amusement as she hefted the trunk with one hand. "Go to the library, Emily, or wander around the school. You shouldn't get an edge on your roommates."

She left, closing the door behind her. Emily sighed, made sure her dirty clothes were clearly marked for the maids, then stepped out the door herself. A handful of early arrivals - all boys - were walking down the corridor; they stared at her as she appeared, some with fear in their eyes, others with frank speculation. Not sexual, she knew, but something else, something hungry. Using the battery had made her a far more desirable match for anyone who wanted to infuse power into their families.

And it's a trick, she thought, as she walked past them towards the library. I couldn't muster that sort of power on my own.

She pushed the thought aside as she entered the library. It was open, but almost completely empty. Lady Aliya was standing behind her desk, looking through a colossal pile of newly-printed books, while a pair of younger students were standing in the stacks, frantically looking for reference material they'd need for their projects. Emily didn't blame them for wanting to get ahead, not when she'd had to work through the holidays to get up to speed. It hadn't been easy.

"Emily," Lady Aliya said. "Have you come to help?"

"I could," Emily said. She hadn't had time to help in the library last year, when she'd been trying desperately to catch up with her friends, but now...she had time. "What would you like me to do?"

"These new textbooks all need to be charmed," Lady Aliya said. "They're going on the shelves for the First Years."

Printed on my printing presses, Emily thought. What would it do to Whitehall when books were no longer scarce? Each and every one of the First Years could have their own copy, if they wished.

She worked her way through the pile of books, charming them one by one and then adding them to the trolleys to be put on the shelves. There was still no real order to the library, beyond a basic division by subject; it had always astonished her that someone, anyone, could actually find anything amid the chaos. But redesigning the library to use a modified version of the Library of Congress System would be impossible. It would be easier to start with a whole new library and catalogue the books as they came in.

I wonder if I could work as a librarian, she thought. Would I need experience for that?

She asked Lady Aliya, who frowned. "You'd have to work for the guild," she said, after a moment. "I think they'd be glad to have you, but they would still insist on you taking the oaths. On the other hand...you could work for me, as an apprentice, for a year without sealing anything. That would let you decide if you wanted the job."

Emily hesitated. "Is it a good job?"

"It would probably suit you, in some ways," Lady Aliya said. "You like books, you're good with them and you actually respect them. On the other hand, you wouldn't have the option of saying no if you worked at a library and someone demanded knowledge. That isn't a problem here, but in the White City...Emily, the librarians there have to share their knowledge with everyone."

"So they might wind up giving knowledge to a Dark Wizard," Emily mused.

"Among other things," Lady Aliya said. "There are places where the librarians are sworn not to actually read the books, merely to tend to them. And other places where the librarians are practically chained to the bookshelves. We're not meant to get involved in matters political - and you are a very political person."

She picked up a stack of books and carried them over to the shelves. "Think about it, apprentice with me if you wish, then make up your mind," she called back. "If you don't like what you do, you won't have to take the final step. But once you do take that step, you're committed."

Emily nodded, and turned her attention back to the new books. It hadn't been easy, back when she'd been working as a library assistant, to put interesting books on the shelves when her brain had been demanding she sit down and start reading. She'd known it would have cost her the job, if she'd been caught, yet there had been days when she'd opened the books and allowed them to suck her in. At least Lady Aliya had allowed her to put some books aside to read when she wasn't on the desk or shelving books. She doubted she would be allowed to do that if she was a library apprentice.

Or maybe I could, she thought. Had Lady Aliya ever held back a book so she could read it first? She didn't know - but she wouldn't, not if the Head Librarian chose to keep it from her. Lady Aliya knew far more than anyone else about hiding books within the stacks, or in her office. Maybe I should ask her about that, too...

She glanced at Lady Aliya, who was telling off a Third Year for some offense, and decided it would be better to ask later. Instead, she kept charming and shelving the books until her watch told her it was five bells, an hour before dinner was served in the Great Hall. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she hadn't eaten anything since before Shadye's fortress had started to collapse, but she did her best to ignore it. She needed to see who her roommates were instead of eating dinner...

"That's me," she called. "Should I come back and finish the rest later?"

"Don't worry about it," Lady Aliya said. "Just enjoy yourself."

Emily left the room, feeling a leaden weight in her stomach. The first set of roommates she'd had had been picked at random, but she'd requested her friends for the second set and been denied. And she'd shared a room with Frieda for her Third Year...who would she have this time? She walked through the corridors, doing her best to ignore the glances and stares, until she found the entrance to the Third Year dorms. Madame Beauregard was standing outside, looking strict; Emily knew, from bitter experience, that the pinched-face woman made Lady Barb look soft.

"Room 4-01," she snapped at Emily. "Your roommates are already there."

"Thank you," Emily said.

She stepped into the dorm corridor - it looked identical to the ones she'd used earlier, although the common room was larger and there were paintings hanging from the walls - and pressed her hand against the wooden door marked 4-01. It clicked open at her touch, revealing a room with three beds, three desks, three chairs, three wardrobes and a door at the rear leading to the bathroom and shower compartment. Emily hesitated, then stepped inside...

...And smiled as she saw her friends.

"Emily," Alassa called, from where she was unpacking her trunk. "Welcome back!"

She stood and gave Emily a hug. Imaiqah sat up on her bed and waved, then stood to welcome Emily too. Emily felt tears pricking at her eyes as she hugged both of her friends, and glanced at her bed. It looked bare, as always, just waiting for her to make her bed and unpack her trunk.

"So," Alassa said. "How was your trip?"

"Complex," Emily said, finally. She couldn't keep the smile off her face. "But I'll tell you all about it tonight."

 

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Author Bio

Christopher G. Nuttall is thirty-two years old and has been reading science fiction since he was five, when someone introduced him to childrenís 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 Empireís Corps series, the Outside Context Problem series and many others. He is also responsible for two fan-made Posleen novels, both set in John Ringoís famous Posleen universe. They can both be downloaded from his site.

Website: http://www.chrishanger.net/
Blog: http://chrishanger.wordpress.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChristopherGNuttall
Discussion Forum http://thewritersclub.prophpbb.com/

TTB titles:

Schooled in Magic fantasy series
  Schooled in Magic  book 1
  Lessons in Etiquette  book 2
  Study in Slaughter  book 3
  Work Experience  book 4
  The School of Hard Knocks  book 5
  Love's Labor's Won  book 6
  Trial By Fire  book 7
  Wedding Hells  book 8
  Infinite Regress  book 9
  Past Tense  book 10
  The Sergeant's Apprentice  book 11
  Fists of Justice  book 12
  The Gordian Knot  book 13

The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire military SF series
  Barbarians at the Gates  book 1
  The Shadow of Cincinnatus  book 2
  The Barbarian Bride  book 3

Author web site.

 

###

 

Trial By Fire Copyright © 2015. Christopher Nuttall. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

To order this book:
Format: ePub, PDF, HTML, Kindle/Mobi
    Payment Method
PayPal -or- credit card -or- via Amazon Kindle; Amazon.co.uk; Apple iBookstore; BN.com Nook; Kobo Books
List Price: $6.50 USD

 

  Author News

Christopher Nuttall, author of the bestselling Schooled in Magic series, has a number of recent interviews up.

"When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?"
Author interview on
Blogcritics

"When did you decide you wanted to become an author?"
Author interview on Blogger News

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."
Guest post on As the Page Turns

"The Inspiration behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Guest post on Review From Here

"The Story behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Guest post on The Story Behind the Book

"I was asked, at Ravencon, just what makes an indie writer successful.
I think they were hoping I'd know some great secret to success that I could tell them."
Guest post on The Writer's Life eMagazine

"No matter how well you write, you will get bad reviews."
Author Christopher G. Nuttall discusses The Decline & Fall
of the Galactic Empire novels in an interview with Edinburgh49

Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book

 

  Reviews
 




 


 

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