Original Work Mirror Image (Schooled in Magic 18)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jul 7, 2019.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    MIRROR IMAGE is book 18 - yes, 18 - of Schooled in Magic, following on directly from Cursed. Emily has recovered her powers and is now about to embark on the task of turning Heart’s Eye into a university ...

    All comments are welcome; spelling, grammar, continuity problems, moments of dunderheadedness, etc.

    I hope to keep a steady pace, but we’re in Malaysia so there will be a few delays. Sorry.

    If you’re interested in following my writing and hearing news of new releases (and a ton of other goodies), please follow my blog (The Chrishanger) or my mailing list (chrishanger-list Info Page). My Facebook fan page is also online - Christopher G. Nuttall - but Facebook has been playing silly buggers recently, so you’re better to follow either of the first two options (or both <grin>).

    Thank you very much for your time.

    Chris

    PS - check this out!

    The Alchemist's Apprentice
     
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  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue

    “And now we have exhausted all the trivial matters we wished to discuss,” the Chairman said, “we should turn our attention to the news from Heart’s Eye.”

    Grandmaster Gordian of Whitehall let out a sigh as the table came to attention, the attendees straightening up as it dawned on them that the committee was finally going to move on to something important. The Educational Committee rarely had anything useful to do, beyond reaffirming the status quo. The really important decisions were discussed in the backchambers, compromises hashed out and deals struck before the final decision was presented to the White Council as a fait accompli. Gordian himself had been tempted to decline the invitation to the council, even though he was supposed to have a permanent seat at the table. It was ironic that the person who had finally given the council something useful to do was the same girl who had been the bane of his existence, during his first two years as Grandmaster.

    Not a girl, not any longer, he reminded himself. She’s a young woman.

    “Ten years ago, Heart’s Eye was invaded by Dua Kepala, a necromancer,” the Chairman said, as if no one in the room was familiar with the story. “He held Heart’s Eye as his own personal fortress until Lady Emily killed him and reignited the nexus point, claiming Heart’s Eye for herself. By both law and custom, we could not take the building from her. Attempts were made to convince her to gift the school to its former owners, but they were unsuccessful.”

    “Naturally,” Professor Aguirre muttered, brushing his brown hair out of his face. He was a dumpy man who wanted to be more than he was, but never would be. Everyone knew he’d be a disaster, if he were trusted with any position of responsibly. “Who would surrender something so valuable?”

    Gordian nodded, tightly. Heart’s Eye was literally priceless. The school alone was worth more than anyone, even the White Council, could reasonably pay and the nexus point ... no one in their right mind would give it up, not for anything. A source of near-infinite power was beyond price, even if the owner could barely tap into its limited potential. And, given what Gordian knew of Emily’s activities, it was quite likely that she could tap into its potential. Why would she give it up? He found it hard to imagine anyone wanting to give it up.

    “It has since become clear that Lady Emily and her supporters intend to open a university” - the Chairman stumbled over the unfamiliar word - “which will encourage the study of both magic and something she calls science, the source of the New Learning. Heart’s Eye will become the home of this ... establishment. The Old Boys League has apparently accepted her decision and has offered her their assistance, in exchange for a presence at the school ...”

    Professor Aguirre held up a hand. “They’ve conceded defeat?”

    “They’ve conceded that a presence at the school is better than nothing,” Gordian said. It was against tradition, but ... what choice did they have? Heart’s Eye had been ruined and the surrounding region devastated. Even if the Old Boys League had been gifted the school without any quibbling over the price, they might have found it impossible to restore the school to its former glory. “And who can blame them?”

    “I can.” Professor Aguirre glared around the table. “I read the statement, the call to pens and parchment. They’re flying in the face of tradition by denying apprenticeships and ...”

    Gordian kept his face impassive as an argument broke out. Professor Aguirre had a point. Traditionally, students who wanted to gain their masteries apprenticed themselves to masters, serving them in exchange for a formal education. It made a great deal of sense, particularly in the more dangerous fields of magic. An apprentice could be given the kind of one-on-one education that was simply impossible in a school, where each teacher might be responsible for multiple students. It also made it easier to screen out students who couldn’t be trusted with such magics, although Gordian knew it was far from infallible. Despite everything, too many secrets were outside the White Council’s control.

    And yet, it also limits the number of trained masters, he reminded himself. There might be something to be said for expanding the apprenticeship program ...

    He dragged his attention back to the table as the Chairman banged for order. “She is young,” the Chairman said. “But she is in possession of the school.”

    “And possession is nine-tenths of the law,” Gordian reminded them. “She cannot be dislodged by force.”

    That didn’t go down well. Another argument broke out. Gordian sat back and waited, trying to determined who thought what. It was difficult to tell. Gordian had no doubt the White Council would rule against Emily, if pushed. He also had no doubt that the council would find it impossible to enforce its ruling. Emily had a nexus point and enough knowledge to use it. His brow furrowed as a thought struck him. He, perhaps, was the only councillor who knew just how formidable Emily could be, with a nexus point under her control. Everyone else would assume - and they’d be quite right, bearing in mind what they knew - that it would take her time to master the power. And they would be wrong. Devastatingly wrong.

    And the law is clear, he thought, grimly. Anything taken in honest combat becomes the property of the victory.

    He felt his frown deepen as the argument raged on. Taking the former school by force was simply not an option. Lady Emily might not realise it, but she had more allies than she knew - and people who would back her because an attempt to seize the school would also fly in the face of tradition. The Gods alone knew how many fortunes had been built on something taken in combat. They would all be at risk if the White Council set a terrifying precedent by seizing Heart’s Eye.

    The dispute grew darker. Magic flickered through the air. Gordian braced himself, wondering who would cast the first hex. Too many councillors had too much wrapped up in the affair for it to end lightly, from the councillor who’d studied at Heart’s Eye to the councillor whose distant grandfather had won his fortune in a series of carefully-planned duels. Power started to build, a couple of magicians muttering spells to carve protective wards. Things were slipping out of control ...

    “I think we have to admit something, right from the start,” he said, as if he were addressing a bunch of rowdy students. He rather felt that his students would be better behaved. “Lady Emily has possession of the school. And there is no way to take it from her, not legally.”

    “Not legally,” Professor Aguirre repeated.

    “And if we try and fail to take the school illegally,” Gordian asked, “where does that leave us?”

    “She’s lost her powers,” Professor Aguirre snapped. “She may not even be able to get into the school.”

    “Rumour claimed she lost her powers,” the Chairman said. “However, there are over a hundred eyewitness accounts of her defending herself against an assassination attempt at the Faire. I doubt she could have fooled everyone into believing she still had her powers, if she’d really lost them. The reports made it clear that she used a whole string of spells ...”

    “They could have been faked,” Professor Aguirre insisted.

    Gordian snorted. “And the only way to fake such spells would require the magic to cast such spells,” he said, dryly. “It seemed a little pointless, doesn’t it? Why would she bother?”

    He went on before Professor Aguirre could think of another objection. He’d read the reports very carefully, from the first suggestions that Emily might have lost her powers to the final eyewitness accounts. The former were vague, crammed with innuendo and loaded with wishful thinking; the latter were cold, precise, and attested by some of the most respected magicians in the community. Gordian doubted they could all be fooled - and there was no way they could be fooled without magic. Emily might as well pretend to be alive.

    “Furthermore, we have what seems like a workable compromise. Emily will build her university. It will, inevitably, take on the characteristics of a school. She will discover, as many have before her, that it will be difficult to train masters without one-to-one tuition. She may lay the groundwork for their education, but she will be unable to complete it. Her students will seek out masters so they can finish their training. And, in the meantime, the New Learning will continue to spread.”

    Professor Aguirre huffed. “Is that a good thing?”

    “Yes.” Gordian disliked Emily - he admitted as much, at least to himself - but he had to admit that she’d done a lot of good. Who would have thought that something as simple as phonic writing could change the world beyond recognition? The Old Guard might sniff at any change, but Gordian ... he was prepared to embrace anything that would make his life easier. “The New Learning has already done wonders for us.”

    Professor Yael - a tall woman with more interest in theory than actual magic - leaned forward. “We still don’t know what actually happened at Heart’s Eye, when the school was invaded. Do we?”

    “No,” Gordian said. Heart’s Eye should have been able to hold out forever, even against a necromancer. That it had fallen suggested ... what? Treachery? Or ... or what? There had always been strange rumours about Heart’s Eye, rumours suggesting that Schoolmaster Edmund and his staff had spent half their time researching magics rather than teaching students, but none of the stories had ever been proven. If the Old Boys League knew something about what had actually happened, they’d kept it to themselves. “We may never know.”

    Or Emily may be in for a surprise, when she reopens the school. Gordian couldn’t imagine something that could collapse the wards from the inside, not without direct access to the nexus point, but ... he admitted, freely, that imagination wasn’t one of his strong points. He’d never really had the mindset for theoretical magic. Who knows what she may find in there?

    He shook his head. Emily had walked into Heart’s Eye when it had been controlled by a necromancer. If she could handle that - if she had survived something that would have daunted an older and wiser magician - he was sure she could handle whatever surprises might have been left behind by the Schoolmaster. And besides, Dua Kepala himself had lived in the school for nine years. He’d had ample opportunity to remove any booby traps ... if, of course, he’d bothered. Dua Kepala had been surprisingly sane, for a necromancer, but by any reasonable standards he’d still been dangerously irrational. He might simply have sealed up a number of sections and left them alone.

    “We may have to rely on Lady Emily to tell us,” the Chairman said. “If she ever finds out ...”

    “We may never know,” Gordian said. He’d want to know, if there was something that could take down a set of invulnerable wards. Whitehall’s wards weren’t that much stronger. “But it’s also beside the point.”

    He cleared his throat for attention. “I think we have no choice, but to wait and see what happens. Emily will find it harder than she thinks to run a school, let alone a university. It’s possible that someone will find a way to ease her out of her position, or even convince her that she doesn’t want it. And who knows? She may even do a lot of good.”

    “Hah,” Professor Aguirre muttered. “She’s your student.”

    “She was my student,” Gordian confirmed. “And that has given me some ... insight ... into her personality.”

    He kept his face impassive with an effort. There was a great many things around Emily that simply didn’t make sense. She was ... odd, by any reasonable standard. She’d turned the world upside down, time and time again. She was a genius ... and yet, there was something weird about the countless innovations she’d introduced. Gordian couldn’t put his finger on it, but it was there. It didn’t make sense. Emily herself simply didn’t make sense. She wasn’t what he would have expected from the daughter of a Lone Power.

    “We wait and see what happens,” he said. “There’s nothing else we can do.”

    “True,” the Chairman agreed. “And, if she does run into trouble, we can offer her our support.”

    “And she will,” Professor Aguirre predicted. “It ... demeans us to play court to a slip of a girl.”

    “We have no choice,” Gordian said. “And if she learns a few hard lessons through trying to do everything herself, so much the better.”
     
  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    There was magic in the air.

    Emily took a long breath as Frieda led her through the city gates and into Celeste itself. Her senses were almost overwhelmed, almost blinded by the constant surges of magic all around her. Street performers roared and chanted, putting on performances for the city’s children and their families; shopkeepers warded their shops against intrusion while, sneakily, casting spells to entire the curious to inspect their wares. Hundreds of people, almost all either magicians or bonded servants, thronged the streets, wearing everything from wizard robes to flimsy outfits that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Arabian Nights. And yet, the city was oddly muted. Nearly everyone used some privacy spells to keep their conversions to themselves. Emily found it a little disorientating.

    She gritted her teeth as the sense of pressure grew stronger, even though it wasn’t aimed at her. Her senses had sharpened in the last few days, as her body and mind struggled to embrace her magic. She’d lost her magic for a handful of months, barely long enough to come to terms with the prospect of being powerless for the rest of her life, but it felt as if she’d never had magic before. She remembered what that was like, of course, but then she’d been at Whitehall. She’d been allowed to grow into magic at her own pace. Now ...

    I’m the deaf woman who suddenly discovered she could hear, at a rock concert, Emily thought, wryly. And the noise is deafening even if it’s great that I can hear.

    She smiled at the thought as they walked past a series of stalls, each one selling the same potions ingredients. The owners waved at her, trying to convince her to stop and buy something - anything - from their wares. Emily had worried, the first time, that they’d recognised her personally, before realising that they were doing it to everyone. She didn’t stand out in a crowd, not even in Celeste. As far as the shopkeepers were concerned, she was just another potential customer.

    A trio of bondservants walked past her, wearing collars to indicate their servile status. Emily shivered, despite herself. She’d been told that most bondservants sold themselves into slavery, putting themselves in bondage to ensure their families would have a decent life, but she’d never believed it. The collars held more than just obedience spells. It would be very hard for someone to take the collar off, even if they were a trained and experienced magician. She doubted a mundane could do it at all. Someone could be forced to don the collar and then ... she shuddered. They’d be enslaved for the rest of their life.

    And no one would give a damn if their master broke whatever agreement he’d made, she thought, sourly. Who cares about a slave anyway?

    She glanced up, sharply, as a street performer stepped into their path. “Hey, pretty ladies,” he said, with a smile that sent a shiver down her spine. “Come and see what I can do for you?”

    He cast a spell into the air. An image of Emily appeared in front of him. Emily studied it for a moment, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. He was trying to impress her, but honestly ... she’d mastered such spells in her very first year. It wasn’t that hard to find out what she looked like, from the rear. Alassa had taught her the spells when it became clear, to her, that Emily didn’t have the slightest idea how to take care of her appearance. It was something she’d never dared to do before coming to the Nameless World.

    Her image winked at her, then started to change. Brown hair became blonde, then red; her blue dress became green, then thinned out and started to drop until she could see the tops of her breasts. Emily flushed, angrily, as the performer adjusted the size of her breasts until they became truly absurd. A handful of people laughed. They were drawing attention ... unwanted attention. Her magic started to crackle under her skin ...

    “Look what I can do,” the performer said. He waved a hand at the image, which now resembled a bad parody of femininity. “A simple handful of spells and you’ll be a beauty to rival Lucinda herself ...”

    Emily flared her magic. The performer gaped at her, then stumbled backwards in shock. He’d taken her for ... she wasn’t sure what he had taken her for, but it clearly wasn’t a powerful magician. The image shimmered and vanished. Emily allowed her gaze to harden, drawing on lessons she’d learnt from Lady Barb. The performer bowed a hasty apology and looked away. The crowd found something more important to look at and started to disperse, heading away before the fireworks started. Emily didn’t blame them. There were too many horror stories of what happened to people who angered powerful magicians. Being turned into small hopping things were the least of them.

    She nodded to Frieda, who led her further down the street. Emily gritted her teeth, cursing the performer under her breath. He’d put her in a bad humour, all the more so because she dreaded to think of what would happen to someone without her power. The memory of being powerless still haunted her, even though she’d regained her powers. He could do a great deal of damage to a powerless girl. Even if his spells worked correctly - and there was no way to be sure - his victims would have a lot of trouble afterwards. No normal girl could possibly have had a comfortable life if she looked like a Barbie doll.

    The stalls faded away as they made their way into the residential area. There were fewer spells in the air, but those that she could detect were powerful. Very powerful. Magicians liked their privacy, even when they congregated in their communities. She felt a handful of wards prying at her, testing her magic although she hadn’t stepped across the wardlines. The residents had enemies. Some of them might try to attack in broad daylight. It wasn’t as if the city guard would try to intervene.

    There’s no law here, not really, Emily reminded herself. Celeste was an armed society, to all intents and purposes. The people who weren’t armed - who had no magic - didn’t count. They couldn’t defend themselves. It’s a miracle the entire city didn’t tear itself apart a long time ago.

    “Here,” Frieda said. She indicated a little detached house, practically indistinguishable from the rest of the street. A simple number - no name - hung on the wooden door. “Should I wait outside?”

    Emily shook her head. “You’d better come in with me.”

    She took a breath as she walked up the tiny lane, feeling the wards poking and prying at her. There was no point in trying the door, or even knocking. It would have opened if she was on the approved list. Instead, she clasped her hands behind her back and waited. The wards wouldn’t have let her get so close if the occupant hadn’t been at home. And if she did anything they took to be unfriendly, she might not survive long enough to explain herself.

    The door opened, slowly. Mistress Irene stood there, gazing at them. Emily swallowed hard, feeling the years draining away to leave her as an innocent schoolgirl once again, trying to explain to her stern form mistress that she really did have a good excuse for late homework, poor performance or simple tardiness. Mistress Irene had always been intimidating, even though she’d never been anything other than helpful. She’d certainly been a great deal more educational than some of the teachers Emily remembered from Earth. It probably helped that she had both the power and inclination to punish misbehaving students.

    “Emily.” Mistress Irene sounded mildly surprised. “And Frieda. What can I do for you?”

    Emily took a moment to gather herself. She wasn’t a schoolgirl any longer, although - technically - she hadn’t taken her final exams. She didn’t have to. She already had an offer of apprenticeship from Void himself. And she certainly didn’t have to answer to Mistress Irene any longer.

    “I have a proposition I would like to put to you,” she said, carefully. “Please can we come in?”

    Mistress Irene stepped to one side, an invitation that wasn’t - precisely - an invitation. A supernatural creature that required a direct invitation to actually enter a dwelling would have been unable to step inside. Emily was surprised to see it from an experienced and powerful magician, but perhaps she should have expected it. Supernatural vermin would be drawn to the city like moths to the flame. She stepped over the threshold and into the building. Frieda followed her a second later. Mistress Irene nodded and closed the door.

    “This way,” she said.

    Emily looked around, interested, as she followed Mistress Irene down a short corridor and into a sitting room. It was surprisingly elegant, so neat and tidy that she knew it wasn’t where Mistress Irene spent most of her time. Emily had been in Mistress Irene’s office, often enough, but she’d never been invited to her teacher’s private rooms. No student had ever managed to crack those wards. A great many had got in trouble for trying.

    “Please, take a seat.” Mistress Irene sat herself, on an armchair that looked too big for her. “What do you have in mind?”

    Emily sat, never taking her eyes off her former teacher. Mistress Irene looked to be in her sixties, although she knew that could be an illusion. She’d met magicians who looked young, even though they were in their second century, and mundanes who looked two or three decades older than they were. Mistress Irene still looked every inch the prim schoolteacher, although she’d left Whitehall two years ago. Emily wasn’t sure if she’d left of her own free will, or if Gordian had pushed her to go, but it hardly mattered. The point was that she was unattached.

    “Two years ago, I came into possession of Heart’s Eye,” she began. “I killed ...”

    “I am aware of the story,” Mistress Irene said. Her tone gave nothing away. “What is the point?”

    Emily took a breath. “I - I and a few of my friends - intend to turn Heart’s Eye into a university. Ah ... a very different centre of learning, concentrating on science as well as magic. It’s going to be a research institute” - an unfamiliar concept on the Nameless World - “rather than just a school. The people who attend will be trying to find new ways to do things, rather than merely studying magic.”

    “There is nothing mere about studying magic,” Mistress Irene said, tonelessly.

    “No.” Emily had to fight the urge to apologise meekly. “But we will be studying more than just magic.”

    “You are repeating yourself,” Mistress Irene said. It was impossible to tell if she was trying to offer constructive criticism or being sarcastic. “And I think you will find running a ... research institute to be quite difficult.”

    “Yes.” Emily recalled her disastrous tenure as Head Girl with a shudder. “I intended to start earlier, but ... things ... got in the way.”

    “They have a tendency to challenge the less-ordered mind,” Mistress Irene commented. “I heard a rumour you were ... ill.”

    “Rumours of my powerlessness were greatly exaggerated,” Emily said. She didn’t dare lie outright. Everyone said that Mistress Irene could smell lies. A student who tried to claim the dog ate his homework - or his homework ate the dog, which wasn’t impossible - would regret it shortly afterwards. “As you can see” - she cast a lightspell - “I have recovered.”

    “Quite.” Mistress Irene studied her for a long chilling moment. “Let us get to the point. What does this have to do with me?”

    “Heart’s Eye needs a ... a manager,” Emily said. The formal title was Schoolmaster, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to keep it. It had obvious connotations. “The staff and students will need someone to keep them in order. I was wondering if you would like the job.”

    Mistress Irene let out a long breath. It was the first hint of actual emotion Emily had seen from her. “Do you know what you’re asking? Or what you’re offering?”

    “Yes.” Emily met her eyes. “I know.”

    “Really.” Mistress Irene didn’t sound convinced. “If you did, you might want to keep it.”

    Emily frowned. The Nameless World wasn’t Earth. Here, teachers were important. She knew, all too well, that headmasters were respected as well as powerful. Gordian wouldn’t have worked so hard to succeed Hasdrubal if he hadn’t been sure the position was worth the effort. And it was. The mere fact he ruled a school made him one of the most powerful people in the world. She was offering Mistress Irene a pearl beyond price.

    “I don’t like dealing with people,” she admitted. There was no point in trying to hide it, not from someone who’d shepherded her through four years of magical education. “And a lot of older magicians don’t take me seriously, despite everything.”

    “Which they should,” Frieda put in.

    “Indeed.” Mistress Irene’s face was emotionless, again. “And they think they’ll take me seriously?”

    “You spent decades in Whitehall.” Emily took a breath. “Let me tell you what I have in mind.”

    She launched into her prepared speech, explaining - as much as she dared - of the concept behind the university. It was more than just a college of magic; it was something new, something more for adults than immature teenagers. Her students would - hopefully - already be experienced in using magic, having grown out of the urge to sneak up behind an unsuspecting victim and turn him into a frog. The teachers would be researchers as well as teachers ... in many ways, they would be teachers themselves. And mundane craftsmen and magicians would work together as equals.

    “That might be a hard sell,” Mistress Irene pointed out. “They’re not equals.”

    Emily couldn’t hide her irritation. Magicians tended to look down on mundanes, insisting that magic - the gift of the gods - made them superior. There were few magicians who sneered at newborn magicians, magicians born to non-magical families, but there were far too many who wanted to take them from their parents and have them brought up in proper magical families. She’d never shared the disdain - there was no way she could have shared it - yet ... she winced, inwardly. It had been hard to develop her powers, the first few months after she’d gone to Whitehall. How much harder would it be to be powerless at a magic school, to be the butt of everyone’s puerile sense of humour? She didn’t think she would have survived.

    “Mundanes are not stupid,” she said, firmly. “And I expect them to learn to ... tolerate each other, if they are unable to be friends.”

    “That should be interesting,” Mistress Irene said. “What sort of authority do you propose to give me?”

    “Enough.” Emily had given the matter some thought, then discussed it with Caleb before putting pen to paper. “You won’t have absolute authority - and the board will be able to overrule you, if necessary - but you should have enough.”

    “I see.” Mistress Irene didn’t sound happy. “You do realise that anyone I expel for bad behaviour will complain to the board?”

    “I’ll be on the board,” Emily said. “You can hardly be blamed for expelling someone who breaks the rules.”

    Mistress Irene laughed, suddenly. “You little ... innocent.”

    Emily felt her cheeks redden. “I don’t promise it will be easy. It won’t be easy. You’ll be setting a lot of precedents, although I intend to make sure that each case is judged on its merits, rather than what has gone before. There will be a lot of room for controversy. But ... it’s also a chance to get in on the ground floor of something completely new.”

    “People my age don’t like controversy,” Mistress Irene said. Her lips curved into a smile. “But you’re right. It should be interesting.”

    She met Emily’s eyes. “When do you want my answer?”

    “As soon as possible,” Emily told her. “I’m due to meet Caleb and the others at Farrakhan later this evening. We were planning to cross the desert in a day or so, depending on the weather, and set up base at Heart’s Ease before heading to Heart’s Eye the following morning. Ideally, I’d want to know in a couple of days.”

    “Or now, you mean.” Mistress Irene nodded, slowly. “It isn’t as if I have much else to do with my time, so yes. I will come with you.”

    “Thank you,” Emily said.

    Mistress Irene held up a hand. “That said, I have some ... matters to finish first. I won’t be able to join you for at least two weeks, more likely a month. Is that going to be a problem?”

    “We’re not planning to open for students for a while,” Emily said. She would have preferred Mistress Irene to come at once, but that was unfair. The older woman could hardly drop everything on a moment’s notice and move to Heart’s Eye. “As long as you’re established before I have to start my apprenticeship, we should be fine.”

    “Then I accept your offer,” Mistress Irene said. She held out her hand. “Thank you.”

    Emily opened her pouch and removed the paperwork. “There’s an outline of what we have in mind here, along with a draft of the contract. Let us know what you think.”

    “Naturally,” Mistress Irene said. “I’ll be reading them very thoroughly before I sign.”

    “Of course.” Emily stood. Frieda followed. “And thank you for your hospitality.”

    “It was scant enough,” Mistress Irene said. She escorted them to the door, then waved goodbye. “Good luck.”

    “Now what?” Frieda asked. “Dinner?”

    Emily felt her stomach rumble. “Why not? And then, we go to Farrakhan. Again.”
     
  4. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    victor

    entice
     
  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    The heat stuck her as soon as the teleport field snapped out of existence.

    Emily steadied herself, taking a breath as sweat started to prickle down her back. Farrakhan had always been hot - the city sat on the very edge of the Desert of Death - but it was high summer now, so hot that most of the population was probably taking an afternoon nap before the city came alive again at sunset. She cast a handful of cooling and skin protection charms as she turned towards the city gates, even though she knew they wouldn’t be too effective. The sun was just too hot. She could practically feel her skin starting to burn. She’d be tanned before the end of the week.

    Frieda stepped up beside her. “I think we should have worn something else.”

    “True.” Emily nodded, tightly. The blue dress she wore wasn’t suited to the desert. But there was nothing she could do about that, not until she reached the warehouse. “Let’s go.”

    She felt the day grow hotter - as impossible as it seemed - as they made their way towards the gates. The guards eyed them warily, although they made no demands for papers nor attempts to block their way. It had only been a year since the war, since the city had been attacked ... it would be a long time before the city relaxed its guard, if it ever did. The guardsmen were reassuringly professional too, even though Emily knew they wouldn’t stand a chance if another necromancer walked out of the desert and attacked the city. They would merely be the first to die.

    Her dress clung to her, uncomfortably, as they walked through the city streets. They were nearly empty, save for a handful of shops and watering holes kept open by optimistic merchants and innkeepers. Even the beggars were resting, sleeping in alleyways; they, too, would resume their trade at sunset. Emily felt a stab of pity as she saw a small family sleeping under a bridge, deprived of everything save for the rags on their backs. She’d long since come to realise that she couldn’t help everyone - all the money in her purse wouldn’t keep the beggars alive for long - but it still bothered her. She hoped - she prayed - that it would be a long time before it stopped bothering her. The aristocrats of Farrakhan - and the Nameless World in general - normally didn’t care about beggars. They were just part of the scenery.

    “You’d never know there was a war here,” Frieda said. “Where’s all the damage?”

    “It was mostly in the northern side of town,” Emily told her. “But they’ve done a good job of repairing it.”

    She winced inwardly, remembering when the city had been under siege. They’d been luckier than they deserved, in hindsight. The city fathers had made almost no preparations for a siege. Worse, they’d fed themselves and left most of the population to starve. She was mildly surprised the city fathers hadn’t been overthrown, in the wake of the war. But then, perhaps she shouldn’t have been. The allied forces had kept order long enough for the city fathers to resume control, then crush opposition with maximum force. Any rebellious factions were probably keeping their heads down and waiting for better weather.

    They’ll be waiting a long time, Emily thought, as they passed a broadsheet stall. The weather here rarely changes.

    She allowed herself a sigh of relief as the warehouse came into view. To the naked eye, it was no different to any of the other warehouses in the city, but to her there was no mistaking it. The wards surrounding the building were tinged with Caleb’s magic. She felt her heart skip a beat - the last time she’d felt his magic so strongly, they’d been lovers - before she caught herself. Caleb and her were better off as friends. Besides, it hadn’t been that long since she’d been with someone ...

    The thought cost her another pang. She’d heard nothing from Cat, not since he’d departed on his private quest to bring Jacqui to justice. Or kill her. Emily wasn’t sure what he had in mind. She wasn’t sure he knew himself. They’d been lovers, but ... he’d been unable to cope with her loss of power. Or perhaps it had been her, fearful of exposing herself without protection, that had driven him away. She told herself, firmly, that she was being silly. Cat had made it clear, more than once, that he didn’t want a proper relationship. He couldn’t have a proper relationship. She’d had no reason to expect him to stay forever ...

    Frieda poked her. “You’re thinking about Cat again. I can tell.”

    Emily shot her a sharp look. “Have you found a way to read minds?”

    “Your face always goes maudlin when you’re thinking about him.” Frieda squeezed Emily’s hand, affectionately. “Do I look as silly when I think about Hoban?”

    “Of course not,” Emily teased. “You look worse.”

    She smiled, rather wanly, as she pushed against the wards. They parted at once, allowing her to reach the door. It was unlocked. Anyone who could get through the wards wouldn’t be deterred by a simple lock. Emily opened the door and stepped inside, shivering as a sudden wave of cold air struck her. Caleb hadn’t tried to get accustomed to the heat. He’d simply cast cooling spells everywhere until they’d become embedded in the walls. Sergeant Miles would have had a lot of nasty things to say about it, Emily was sure, but she didn’t blame Caleb in the slightest. The heat was wearying even when she was indoors.

    “Emily.” Caleb was standing in the small office, studying a clipboard. He looked taller than Emily remembered, his lanky body finally suiting him ... as if, somewhere over the last year, he’d finally come into his own. “Welcome to Farrakhan!”

    “Thank you.” Emily winced, inwardly. Caleb’s brother had died in the war. He had to have mixed feelings about the city Casper had given his life to defend. And, perhaps, about Heart’s Eye itself. “Mistress Irene said she’d join us, somewhere between two weeks to a month.”

    “And then we’ll all be properly whipped into shape.” Caleb didn’t sound angry, merely amused. “You do realise she won’t be universally popular?”

    “I do.” Emily shrugged as she put down her bag and reached for the water jug. “But she’s also the kind of person we need.”

    Caleb nodded. “You want to inspect the goods?”

    “Give me a moment to rest,” Emily said. She poured herself a glass of water, then a second one for Frieda. It was easy to get dehydrated in the heat. “Were there any real problems?”

    “Not really.” Caleb ran his hand through his brown hair. “Master Highland and his people insisted on meeting us at Heart’s Ease, but other than that ... no real problems. I don’t think the city fathers know what to make of us.”

    Emily sipped her water. “Did they try to impede you?”

    “No.” Caleb shook his head. “The local merchants were quite happy to trade with us. I think the city fathers would have been lynched if they tried to stop them, particularly as the king himself hasn’t issued any statement. Unless you’ve heard something ...?”

    “Nothing.” Emily took a moment to gather herself. “I don’t have any ties to royalty here.”

    “Probably for the best,” Caleb said. “Heart’s Eye was never part of the kingdom, even before it fell. The entire area was completely autonomous. That’s probably going to cause us problems, later on. No one really knows who owns Heart’s Ease.”

    “I suppose,” Emily said. She finished her water and put the glass to one side. “Right now, of course, Heart’s Ease is a complete ruin. There’s little there for anyone.”

    “Some of the merchants were talking about moving out there,” Caleb said. “They remember the days when Heart’s Ease thrummed with life.”

    “A problem for another day.” Emily rubbed her forehead. “Did you manage to get everything?”

    “More or less.” Caleb smiled, wryly. “We’ll be ready to leave in the morning, as planned. We’ve lost a couple of people to the local pleasure dens, I'm afraid, but ... hopefully, they’ll be back tonight. I warned them that anyone who wasn’t back tonight might be left behind.”

    Emily winced. “They’ll have to make the crossing on foot, alone.”

    “Poor bastards.” Caleb shrugged. “Things will get easier when we set up a portal.”

    “Probably.” Emily stood, brushing down her dress. It felt sodden, damp with sweat. She wanted a shower, but she knew she wouldn’t get one. The warehouse and the attached living quarters were primitive. She’d be lucky if there was enough water to wash. “How are you? I mean ...”

    Caleb looked at his scarred hands. They weren’t twitching any longer.

    “I’ve been better,” Caleb said. He let out a faint laugh. “I’ll be happier when we’re on the way, I think. Mother ... wasn’t too pleased that I was accompanying you, instead of seeking my mastery. She’s not your biggest fan.”

    “I know.” Emily tried hard not to take it personally. “I don’t blame her.”

    “And yourself?” Caleb met her eyes. “You weren’t in a good state last time we met ...?”

    “I’m better,” Emily said, flatly. Caleb had helped her, when he could easily have turned his back. She loved him for it. “And I think the entire world knows it.”

    Caleb nodded, then stood and led her through a side door. Frieda followed as they passed through two sets of wards and into a huge warehouse. Emily sucked in her breath as she saw the collection of primitive wagons, just waiting for camels and oxen to pull them, all crammed with gear and supplies. She couldn’t help thinking of the Wild West, of settlers heading into the distance in hopes of finding a good place to homestead. The Desert of Death, thankfully, had no hostile natives. Or, at least, no intelligent hostile natives. The desert itself was a pretty hostile place. She’d been told the desert was receding, since the nexus point had been reignited, but she’d seen no evidence of it.

    “We have twenty carts and seventy people,” Caleb said. “Magicians, craftsmen ... everything we need to start building a community. We’ll need more, of course, but ...”

    He shrugged. Emily understood. Heart’s Eye was in terrible shape, after ten years of neglect and decay. The necromancer hadn’t destroyed the school, but ... she shook her head. They’d have to clear out the debris and repair the damage before they could start moving on to actually shaping the university. In hindsight, they probably didn’t need Mistress Irene just yet. There was a lot of work to be done before the university took shape.

    And we’ll be building from scratch, Emily mused, as a tall figure detached herself from the carts and walked over to them. No one here has any real idea of what a university means.

    Caleb cleared his throat. “Lady Emily,” he said, formally. “Please meet Senior Craftswoman Yvonne of Cockatrice.”

    Emily smiled. She might have met Senior Craftswoman Yvonne at some point - she’d made a habit of visiting the ever-growing factories in Cockatrice - but she didn’t remember. Yvonne’s name had been put forward by her superiors, when Emily had written to them to ask for someone who might like to move to Heart’s Eye and set up shop there. It was mildly surprising to encounter a craftswoman, let alone one in such a high position. Outside the magical community, it was still very much a man’s world.

    She studied Yvonne for a long moment as the older woman dropped a mock curtsey. Yvonne wore long overalls ... trousers, rather than a dress. That would scandalise people, Emily was sure. A woman wearing male clothing ... Emily snorted at the thought. Anyone who tried to work in a crafts shop, let alone a factory, in a dress would probably get it caught in the machinery. And Yvonne looked formidable enough to deal with anyone who made a fuss. Her strong arms, bare to the shoulder, were muscular; her tanned skin, marked and pitted with the remnants of industrial accidents, was a clear sign that she’d earned her position the hard way. Emily nodded to herself. No craftsman - or woman - could ever reach high position without proper experience. The guild had seen to it long ago.

    “Lady Emily.” Yvonne dropped a curtsey, although she looked faintly absurd trying to bob in trousers. Her accent was very definitely common, without even a hint of aristocracy ... or an attempt to mimic her social superiors. Emily liked her on sight. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last.”

    “Likewise,” Emily said. She held out her hand. Yvonne shook it, firmly. “I hope you’ll enjoy working at Heart’s Eye.”

    “I was told it would be a challenge,” Yvonne said. “But I’d have my own factory if I did.”

    “I certainly hope so.” Emily looked past her, at the carts. “What did you bring?”

    “Most of the supplies we’ll need to get started,” Yvonne said. “And a couple of dozen apprentices, each with at least six months of experience. I didn’t want to bring anyone completely new, at least until we were up and running. There’s a few craftsmen back home who will probably never forgive me for stealing their apprentices.”

    Emily frowned. “Are they likely to cause trouble?”

    “I doubt it.” Yvonne shrugged. “It’s a petty nuisance, rather than a real problem. A lot of precedents were set over the last few years. Oh, the apprentices will be in trouble if they decide they want to go back, but it won’t cause us any problems.”

    “No master wants an apprentice who flakes out,” Caleb commented. His voice lightened. “And someone else joined us, a surprise ...”

    Emily looked up ... and smiled. The Gorgon was standing by one of the carts, wearing a short leather jacket and skirt. She looked horrendously out of place - Emily could see two of the apprentices eying her warily - but somehow right ... Emily felt her smile grow wider as she hurried over to her friend. The Gorgon had been born and raised in the desert. She probably felt as if she’d come home.

    “It’s good to see you again,” she said, as she gave the Gorgon a hug. “I didn’t know you were coming.”

    “Caleb wanted it to be a surprise.” The Gorgon hugged her back. Her skin felt ... odd, neither wholly scaly nor human. “He said you’d be pleased.”

    “I am,” Emily said. She promised herself that she’d talk to Caleb about it later. It would have been nice to have some warning. “You know what we’re doing here?”

    The Gorgon looked pained. “I couldn’t get an apprenticeship.”

    Emily winced. The Gorgon was far from stupid - no one reached sixth year, let alone passed the exams, without being very bright indeed - but ... she was a gorgon. There were few masters who would consider taking her as a student, not when there was so much fear and prejudice against her kind. Emily had hoped the Gorgon’s obvious skill - and talent - would make up for her limited humanity. Clearly, prospective masters had disagreed.

    “We’ll try to make sure you get something better here,” Emily promised. “And you are more than welcome to stay.”

    “Thanks.” The Gorgon smiled, wanly. “And I hope you succeed. I mean ...”

    “I understand,” Emily said. What had the Gorgon been doing, since Emily had left Whitehall? “We’ll have to have a proper chat soon, just to catch up.”

    “We will,” the Gorgon agreed. “Cirroc is coming too, by the way. Master Highland took him as an apprentice.”

    “That’s good.” Emily nodded, although she wasn’t sure it was a good thing. Cirroc was a good person - she had no doubt of it - but, as an apprentice, he would be expected to defer to his master until he gained his mastery. “Will he be meeting us tomorrow?”

    “Yeah.” Caleb sounded conflicted. “Hopefully, we won’t have to share rooms again.”

    Emily had to smile. “Was he that bad?”

    “He wasn’t the worst, I suppose.” Caleb grinned. “But he always brought someone back to the room and I had to find something else to do with my time.”

    “How terrible,” Emily said, dryly.

    “It was,” Caleb agreed. “Anyway, do you feel up to eating? It’s early afternoon here.”

    Emily glanced at her watch, then reminded herself about teleport lag. Her body thought it was early evening. “I think so, then Frieda and I had better get an early night. We have to be up early tomorrow.”

    “I’m afraid so.” Caleb looked as if he wanted to say something else, then stopped himself. “We set up a pair of rooms for you and” - he blinked - “where did she go?”

    Emily glanced back. Frieda was gone. A moment later, Emily spotted her talking to Hoban, their bodies just a little too close. Jayson stood next to him, pretending to ignore the couple. Emily felt her heart twist, again. Jayson had tried to kiss her ... no, he had kissed her. But she hadn’t been in the mood to be kissed.

    “Let her have her fun,” Emily said, feeling old. “We did that too, didn’t we?”

    “Yeah.” Caleb hesitated, again. “We did.”

    He shrugged. “I’ll show you to your room. The Gorgon is right next to you Most of the other women are bunking in the nearby warehouse, but I thought you’d want a room to yourself ...”

    “Thank you.” Emily knew it was probably a bad precedent - Sergeant Miles had taught her that it could be dangerous, if one person had special privileges - but she was too tired to care. Much. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

    “You will,” Caleb promised. “Everyone is looking forward to the move.”

    “Me too,” Emily said. She looked down at her hands. “I want to get started too.”
     
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    Emily awoke early in the morning, her head ringing with the jangling of the alarm spell. She gritted her teeth as she cancelled the spell, looking around her blearily as she reached for the water bottle and put it to her lips. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that she was living in the lap of luxury, compared to some unfortunates in Farrakhan. The bed might be itchy, the air might be uncomfortably hot, the water flavourless in the way that only boiled water could be ... but it was still luxury. Her skin itched as she forced herself to stand upright, silently grateful she’d remembered to set wards against insects. No doubt she would have found herself with some unwanted companions if she’d forgotten. One encounter with lice was quite enough for anyone.

    Another little detail they leave out of all the adventure stories, she thought, as she poured some lukewarm water into a bowl. She muttered a couple of spells - one to clean the water, one to warm it - and then undressed, sponging herself down before changing into her desert robes. No one talks about how uncomfortable life was in the bad old days.

    She snorted at the thought as she tied her hair into a braid, then donned a hat before heading for the door. The ward snapped as soon as she touched the doorknob, bringing the outside world crashing in on her with an astonishing force. Someone was shouting on the streets outside, shouting so loudly that she thought - just for a moment - that there was an angry mob gathering outside the warehouse. She remembered herself a moment later and started to make her way down the stairs. It might be early morning, but the city had been awake for hours. The population would be trying to get as much done as possible before the heat grew too oppressive, even for them.

    Caleb met her at the bottom of the stairs. “There’s food in the office,” he said. “Get something to eat before we go.”

    Emily didn’t feel like eating - her stomach felt uncomfortable, the last lingering remnants of the teleport lag confusing her - but she knew better than to wait until she felt hungry. Frieda was already in the office, spooning rice and curry into a bowl. She looked disgustingly happy ... Emily hoped, not for the first time, that she’d remembered to take precautions if she’d gone all the way. Frieda was too young to have children, by magical standards. If she’d remained on the farm, she would probably be married with two kids by now ...

    No, she’d be dead - or wishing she was. Emily corrected herself, brutally. Her family saw her as a burden long before she was sold to Mountaintop.

    She took the bowl Frieda offered her and ate silently. She didn’t want to know what was in the curry. The locals made all sorts of things into food, up to and including maggots and other insects. Emily had been hungry enough in her life to know better than to turn her nose up at something she could eat, no matter how gross it seemed, but there were limits. It was better not to know what she was eating, at least until she knew she liked it. Besides, the locals had no choice. They had to eat what they were given.

    The sounds from outside grew louder, dull thuds echoing through the warehouse as the apprentices pushed the carts into the streets. A portal would have been much more efficient, Emily thought, but there was no way they could put one together on the spot ... she remembered the temporary portal she’d constructed, when they’d been trying to free Alassa from the Tower, before dismissing the thought. It would be far too revealing, to anyone who happened to be watching from a distance. Besides, the portal had been relatively small. It would be difficult to construct one large enough to take a cart and hold it open long enough for all the carts to drive though. She wiped her mouth as she finished her curry, washed her throat with water and headed for the door. Frieda jumped up and followed her as Emily stepped through and onto the streets.

    It was absolute chaos. Hoban and Yvonne were shouting orders - their voices echoing through the streets - but it looked as if no one was listening to them. The carts were jostling about, wildly; Emily thought, just for a second, that one particularly overloaded cart was about to tumble over before it steadied itself. And ... she looked around, puzzled as it slowly dawned on her that something was missing. Where were the camels? Or the oxen that had been born and bred to work in the desert. Where ...?

    Her blood ran cold as she realised what was pulling the wagons. Slaves. Not human slaves, but orcs. She’d known thousands of orcs had been captured, after their necromantic master had been killed, yet ... she swallowed, hard, as she saw the slave collars around their necks. A wave of disgust and revulsion nearly overcame her. Elsewhere, it was possible to pretend that the servants were fairly paid for their work ... although she knew, in her heart, that it wasn’t true. Here ... there was no pretence. Her heart twisted painfully as one of the orcs thudded past her, dull hopelessness clearly evident in its piggish gaze. The stench alone was almost overpowering.

    Caleb came hurrying up to her, carrying a small collection of documents. “Emily, I ...”

    “No.” Emily spoke before she could stop herself. “I won’t use slaves.”

    “We don’t have a choice,” Caleb said. “There weren’t enough camels. Or oxen ...”

    “There’s always a choice,” Emily said, bitterly. She watched an orc-drawn cart moving down the street, the driver snapping orders to his slaves. He showed no fear of the orcs, even though they’d tear him like paper if the slave collars failed. “We can’t do this ...”

    Caleb met her eyes. “We don’t have a choice,” he repeated. “There’s no other way to get the carts across the desert. And Emily ...”

    He took a breath. “You know how dangerous orcs can be, even without a necromancer. If the city fathers didn’t enslave the orcs, they’d have to kill them.”

    Emily swallowed hard. Cold logic told her that Caleb was right. Orcs were dangerous. But emotionally ... she asked herself, tartly, if the slaveowners of the south had ever told themselves that they had to enslave the slaves. Probably they had, when they’d bothered to think about it at all. Anything could be rationalised, given time. And a motive. The economic demand for slaves created more than reason to justify slavery ... at least to themselves. Who cared what the slaves thought?

    “It’s sick,” she said, bitterly.

    “Yeah.” Caleb had the grace to look uncomfortable. But then, he’d been born in a free city. Chattel slavery was banned. “And yet, we don’t have a choice.”

    Emily said nothing as Hoban and Yvonne slowly sorted out the mess and got the carts rolling towards the gates. There was no point in trying to maintain a proper formation, not until they got out of the city. Emily wondered if they’d bother, even after they left. There were no threats in the desert, at least as far as anyone knew. And there were a lot of magicians with the convoy. Any passing bandits would probably go looking for easier targets.

    “This way,” Caleb said. “And I’m sorry.”

    Guilt clawed at Emily’s heart as she clambered into the cart. The orcs at the front looked ... desperately unhappy. She tried to tell herself that it was just an illusion, that orcs possessed nothing more than a brutish intelligence that drove them to bend the knee to the strong, but she couldn’t make herself believe it. Who knew what orcs would do with themselves, if they were left alone? But she knew they would never be left alone. Too many people feared and hated them - with reason - that it was impossible.

    The Gorgon’s face was an unreadable mask as she followed Emily. Emily felt a stab of pity - and grief. The Gorgon wasn’t human too, in the eyes of most of the world. Her people, too, would be wiped out ... if they didn’t confine themselves to regions too desolate and uncomfortable for the vast majority of humans. She had to be wondering, Emily told herself, if she was looking at her future. The Gorgon too could be enslaved, if she fell into the wrong hands. And there would be untold millions of people who would tell themselves - and everyone who cared to listen - that enslavement was for her own good.

    She kept her thoughts to herself as the cart rattled into life, the orcs pulling it down the street towards the gates. A handful of pedestrians - men and women in flowing white robes, covering everything below the neckline - scrambled to get out of their way; a couple of children waved and cheered, shouting encouragement to the apprentices as the carts neared the gates. The guards didn’t bother to stop and search the carts, even though it was their legal right. They just waved the convoy through and turned back to checking the tiny cluster of people who wanted to enter the city.

    “The city fathers probably told them to let us through without a fuss,” Caleb commented, dryly. “Or it might have been the king himself.”

    “Maybe,” Emily said. She couldn’t see the city fathers being too pleased with Heart’s Eye - and Heart’s Ease - coming back to life. If nothing else, the latter would be a rival for trade ... if, of course, the old roads were ever reopened. The sand had buried them a long time ago. “They’re probably of two minds about it.”

    She forced herself to watch as the landscape steadily became more and more desolate, from a cluster of well-tended - and green - farms to a multitude of smallholdings that were clearly struggling to eke out a living as the sand slowly choked them to death. Maybe the desert was receding. It would be a long time before the smallholders could relax, if they ever could. Their tiny farms were permanently on the ledge. One bad year and ... and that would be the end. Beyond them, abandoned farms dotted the landscape. She tried not to think about the refugees, the ones who’d fled the army - both armies, really - as war devastated the landscape. There was no way to know if any of them had made it home.

    And how many of them, she asked herself silently, were enslaved? Sold into service as the price of their lives?

    The air steadily grew hotter, despite the wards. Dust hovered in front of her eyes, mocking her. She could taste it on her tongue. The handful of passengers grew querulous, then silent as the convoy continued its slow journey. Sweat trickled down her back, making her uncomfortable. Only the Gorgon seemed unbothered, although she was clearly brooding about something. Emily made a mental note to speak with her, later. She had no idea what she’d say, but she had no choice. The Gorgon deserved to be told that someone cared.

    And what is the point of telling her, Emily asked bitterly, if nothing is actually done about it?

    She shook her head slowly, trying to resist the urge to brood herself. The New Learning was spreading, slowly but surely. There was no way anyone, even the magical community, could stuff the genie back in the bottle. Any king who refused to embrace the innovations she’d brought - and the improvements countless unnamed craftsmen had made - would find his kingdom permanently backwards, if it wasn’t conquered by its neighbours or his rule destroyed by an uprising from the lower orders. And, as the New Learning - and technology - spread, it would eliminate the need for slavery. Things would get better. She just had to hope the changes would come in her lifetime.

    I could live a long time, she reminded herself. Void was in his second century. The Grandmaster had been around the same age, before his untimely death. Who knows how much change I’ll see?

    The desert became featureless, great rolling dunes that shimmered with faint hints of transient magic. Emily peered into the haze, wondering - not for the first time - what it might be hiding. It was odd to think that an entire army could be very near to them, completely invisible until it marched into view. She shivered, remembering the orcs crossing the desert and laying siege to the city. She could understand, more than she cared to admit, why so many people were scared of the orcs, why they’d felt they had to enslave the survivors. But the decision would never sit well with her.

    “Nearly there.” Caleb sounded as tired as she felt. “We could go straight to Heart’s Eye.”

    Emily considered it briefly, then shook her head. She was tired, they were all tired ... and cranky, after hours in the cart. Better to rest and enter the school tomorrow. She couldn’t recall stumbling across any traps, the first two times she’d entered the building, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Heart’s Eye was a school of magic. There would have been traps, secret passageways ... she knew, in her heart, that some of them would still be there. The necromancer wouldn’t have bothered to remove them.

    At least this time I’ll have my magic, she thought. I’ll sense the traps before I trigger them.

    She peered into the distance as Heart’s Eye came into view. The school was a giant fairy-tale castle, seemingly too flimsy to survive the strong desert winds. And yet, it was old. The records weren’t clear on just how old the building actually was - or who had built it in the first place - but it was clear that the building had survived for hundreds of years. She rather suspected the nexus point had had something to do with it. In theory, one could do anything ... if one had enough magic. Keeping a fragile building intact, even after everything bad weather and a necromancer could do to it, wouldn’t be that hard.

    Heart’s Ease was a nightmare. The city had been devastated twice, first by the necromancer and then by the uprising during the war. In the aftermath, the handful of surviving inhabitants had deserted the city, leaving it to the elements. Sand littered the streets, silently promising that, one day, the entire city would be buried under the dunes. Emily wondered if they had come too late, if they’d intended to reinvigorate the city. Too many buildings already looked past repair. Others ...

    The cart rattled to a halt outside a large building that looked like a temple. Emily forced herself to stand, her muscles complaining loudly as she dropped down to the ground. The aches and pains were worse than she’d imagined. She had to bite her lip to keep from screaming. She’d had beatings that had hurt less. She was more out of shape than she cared to admit.

    “Emily!”

    She looked up to see a tall black boy hurrying towards her, his hand raised in greeting. Cirroc hadn’t changed much, in the months since she’d left Whitehall. He looked a little more mature than she remembered, but that might just have been Master Highland’s influence. Emily waved cheerfully as Frieda and the Gorgon dropped down next to her, the former clearly suffering from aches and pains too.

    “Welcome to the pit,” Cirroc said, with cheerful irreverence. “You’ll be pleased to know that himself has been champing at the bit, determined to get into the school. He was even testing the wards.”

    “And they kept him out?” Emily had no doubt of it. Master Highland would have moved into the school immediately if he could. “What happened?”

    “He wasn’t too happy.” Cirroc shrugged. “But he seemed to accept it.”

    He clasped hands with Caleb, then hugged the Gorgon. “It’s good to see you all again,” he added. “You can now all bow and scrape before me.”

    “You’re not Head Boy any longer,” the Gorgon said.

    “Yeah.” Frieda stuck out her tongue, childishly. “We don’t have to do as you say.”

    Cirroc raised his hands in defeat. “They said it would look good on my resume,” he said, in mock self-pity. “They wouldn’t have lied to me, would they?”

    “You sweet innocent child,” Caleb said. “How could they deceive you so?”

    “How could they?” Cirroc echoed. He sobered. “Although I’m not the only one who had that on my resume. What happened to Jacqui?”

    “No one knows,” Emily said, stiffly. “She seems to have completely vanished.”

    “I’m sure someone will bring her to justice, sooner or later.” Cirroc said. “I heard some very odd tales about you, over the last couple of months. Master was biting his fingernails in worry.”

    “All lies.” Emily cast a tiny lightspell, allowing the globe of light to rest in her palm. “And Jacqui was very much mistaken.”

    “Evidently so.” Cirroc didn’t sound convinced. Emily wasn’t surprised. Something had clearly happened, something that had given Jacqui the courage to attack Emily. There were too many holes in the official version for him to accept it without question. “Anyway, you’d better come inside. We’ve been waiting for you.”

    “It’s good to be here,” Emily said. She looked back at the orc-driven carts, then tried to put them out of her mind. “We have a lot of work to do.”

    “Yep.” Cirroc looked past Emily. It took her a moment to realise he was staring at Yvonne. “It’s going to be interesting, isn’t it?”

    “We live in interesting times,” Emily said, dryly. She gathered herself for the coming encounter. “Don’t we?”
     
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    “Lady Emily.” Master Highland rose as Cirroc ushered Emily into the room. “I think you already met my apprentice.”

    “I did.” Emily hesitated, unsure of the social etiquette. It was hard to say which of them was technically the superior. She owned Heart’s Eye, but this was Master Highland’s office ... such as it was. She contented herself with a firm nod. “We knew each other at Whitehall.”

    And he’s not a bad person, for a jock, Emily thought. She’d never liked or trusted sporty boys on Earth, but things were different on the Nameless World. I don’t have to wonder why you chose him for an apprentice.

    “And it is good to see you again, hale and hearty.” Master Highland met her eyes. “I heard strange rumours ...”

    You could just come out and ask me, Emily thought. Master Highland had always made her a little uneasy, although it was hard to say why. He never quite seemed to come out and say things. The closest he’d ever come had been when he’d been trying to trade Heart’s Eye for Frieda’s life - to all intents and purposes - and even that had been masked. What do you want from me now?

    “I was ill, for a time.” She cast another lightspell, allowing the globe to float into the air and brighten the makeshift office. “But I got better.”

    “That’s good to hear.” Master Highland shifted, uncomfortable. “I was ... concerned.”

    Emily had to smile. Master Highland probably didn’t give a damn about her personally - she rather thought he regarded her as a nuisance - but if she’d lost her powers permanently, Heart’s Eye might be lost with them. She was the only one who could enter or leave the school, at least until the wards were reconfigured. And without her magic, she couldn’t even do that ... she thought. Alanson had used her - somehow - to enter the school.

    She took a seat without bothering to ask for permission and met his eyes. “We’ll enter the school tomorrow,” she said. “I assume you’ll want to accompany us?”

    “Yes.” Master Highland sounded very firm. “I also brought along two additional sorcerers, who have some ... experience in such matters.”

    Emily lifted her eyebrows. “Entering abandoned schools?”

    “Entering dangerous places.” Master Highland looked back at her, evenly. “I believe that was why you asked Master Hoban along.”

    “In a manner of speaking.” Emily thought fast. Master Highland hadn’t told her he’d be bringing additional sorcerers. He hadn’t told Caleb either, or Caleb would have told her. “Who are these sorcerers?”

    “Professor Wyle, whom I believe you know, and Alchemist Dram, who I suspect you probably won’t.” Master Highland sounded as if he was ready to argue. “They both have excellent credentials.”

    Emily's eyes narrowed. “Professor Wyle was on the Tribunal,” she said. She didn’t remember much about him, but she remembered that. “He was on Fulvia’s side.”

    “She was his patron,” Master Highland pointed out. “He could hardly do otherwise.”

    That was true, Emily knew. It didn’t make dealing with Professor Wyle any easier. “And you thought he could be trusted?”

    “He currently doesn’t have a patron,” Master Highland said. “House Ashworth has shown no interest in drawing Fulvia’s old clients back into the fold. That leaves him free to work for us, if you’ll accept him. He’ll swear all the standard oaths.”

    “I’m sure.” Emily winced, inwardly. She would have preferred more time to think about it. “As long as he behaves himself, he’s welcome to stay.”

    “He has an excellent record,” Master Highland told her. “I’m sure he will behave himself.”

    Perhaps I’ll ask him to give the Gorgon an apprenticeship, Emily thought. It would be an interesting test, although it wouldn’t tell her that much about him. Most magicians wouldn’t see anything wrong with discriminating against a demihuman. If he says yes, it’ll say something good about him.

    She put the thought aside for later consideration and leaned forward. “Alchemist Dram?”

    “He and Alchemist Thande were rivals, back in the day.” Master Highland sounded amused, as if he thought he’d scored a point. Perhaps he had. “They competed with each other for discoveries, but ... Thande had more resources, before he was snapped up for Whitehall. Dram has a history of less spectacular discoveries, yet ... he’s an inquisitive mind and I think he was quite taken with the idea of a university. He’s not too wedded to the Sorcerer’s Rule, either.”

    “He sounds like a good choice,” Emily mused. “Do you have anyone else in mind?”

    “Not as yet.” Master Highland looked down at his hands. “The Old Boys League offered to supply a list of names, but I told them to send it to you.”

    “I never got it.” Emily sighed, inwardly. Where was her mail going, these days? She’d moved around so much she wasn’t actually sure. “I’ll see where it went, if I can.”

    “Please.” Master Highland shrugged. “I’m sure they won’t mind a delay.”

    He picked up a folder and held it out to her. “My thoughts on how the university should be organised, built off the documents you sent me.”

    Emily opened the folder and glanced at the contents. Master Highland had done a good job, perhaps too good. She was tempted to simply accept it ... she shook her head, firmly. She disliked paperwork, but one thing she’d learnt from Cockatrice was never to let someone else handle it without careful oversight. Master Highland’s plans could wait until Mistress Irene arrived, whereupon she’d provide the supervision. He’d certainly find it harder to argue Mistress Irene into embracing something that had a nasty sting in the tail.

    “We’ll discuss this later.” She held onto the folder, determined to make him ask for it back. If he didn’t ... well, she’d have a chance to discuss it with Caleb before she did anything she couldn’t undo. “We have to clear out the school first.”

    “And find out what happened.” Master Highland’s voice was uncharacteristically grim. “Whatever happened, it could happen to us too.”

    Emily winced. “You still don’t know?”

    “I asked every surviving Old Boy. And Girl.” Master Highland looked irked. “None of them knew anything, beyond the bare facts that everyone knows. The school was attacked, the wards fell ... most of the students were hastily evacuated before it was too late ...”

    “Yes.” Emily looked down at her hands. “But how were the wards taken down?”

    She considered it for a long moment. Whitehall’s wards had been taken down, back in her first year, but Shadye - the necromancer who had attacked the school - had manipulated her to do it. Had Dua Kepala had someone on the inside too? Or had he found a weakness that no one else had spotted, at least until it was too late? Or ... or what? It was unlikely that anyone would drop the wards for maintenance with a necromancer and his army battering on the gates. Had there been a freak failure? It was difficult to imagine. A ward network that had been in existence for years wasn’t going to suddenly snap out of existence. If it had been poorly designed, it would have collapsed at once.

    “There are rumours about experiments,” Master Highland said. “But, if there’s any truth to the rumours, everyone involved must be dead.”

    “Probably.” Emily stood, still carrying the folder. “Do you want to come and meet the others?”

    She opened the door. Cirroc was standing outside, looking bored. He straightened up hastily when he saw Master Highland, as if he feared his master’s reaction. Emily didn’t blame him for being bored. Guard duty was no fun, particularly if there was no point. It wasn’t as if anyone could peek through Master Highland’s wards. Anyone who could wouldn’t be deterred by his apprentice.

    Master Highland followed her as she walked into the sitting room. She had no idea what it had been originally - if the building really was a temple, all of the icons and statues had been removed long ago - but now it was a surprisingly comfortable chamber. There were no actual chairs, beyond a pair of folding chairs that had probably been liberated from the army, yet the apprentices had scattered cushions around to give people a place to sit. Caleb, Frieda and the Gorgon sat on one oversized cushion. Yvonne sat on another, looking oddly amused. A wiry man with almond eyes and pale skin sat next to her.

    “Lady Emily,” Yvonne said. “Please allow me to introduce Enchanter Praxis.”

    “Charmed.” Praxis stood. “Yvonne and I are old friends.”

    Emily thought she heard Master Highland sniff in quiet disapproval, behind her. She ignored it. “It’s good to meet you,” she said. She really should have met everyone yesterday, but she’d just been too tired. “I’ve heard good things about you from Zed.”

    “He was interested in moving out here,” Praxis said. “But he thought he’d moved enough for the next few years.”

    And that was my fault, Emily thought. It hadn’t been entirely her fault that Zed had had to leave Dragon’s Den, but she’d been the one who’d started the ball rolling. He probably doesn’t want to stay close to me.

    “He would be welcome.” She looked at Master Highland. “Master Highland, allow me to introduce you to Senior Craftswoman Yvonne.”

    For a moment, she was sure that Master Highland was about to refuse to show any respect to Yvonne. She was clearly not a magician, even though she had magical friends. That would put the cat amongst the mice ... she braced herself, ready to say something, although she wasn’t sure what. Master Highland didn’t seem the type of person to be thankful when someone told him his behaviour was offensive. He seemed more likely to take it personally.

    “A pleasure.” There was no pleasure in Master Highland’s voice. “You’ll excuse me if I don’t shake hands?”

    “Of course,” Yvonne said, archly. It was clear she knew perfectly well how rude Master Highland was being. “You never know what might be on someone’s hand.”

    “Senior Craftswoman Yvonne will be on the board, representing the craftsmen,” Emily said, before the air could turn any colder. “She will also be in charge of setting up the workshop, the factories and anything else we might happen to need.”

    “I’ve already started looking at ways to build a railway to Farrakhan,” Yvonne said. “Laying tracks on the dunes will be a challenge, but there are ways around the problems if we work at them. Once the railway is in place, we can move people and supplies in and out of the school quicker than carrying them by foot.”

    Or relying on slave labour, Emily thought.

    “And how do you intend to pay for it?” Master Highland sounded as if he’d smelt something disgusting. “How big is our budget?”

    “It will last for a while,” Emily said. She’d put most of her resources into the school’s bank account. Budgeting was going to be a pain, but they could cope. “However, the railway line will have unexpected costs.”

    “Quite.” Master Highland shot her a challenging look. “Didn’t one of them bankrupt an entire city?”

    “Only because some idiot was selling promises he couldn’t keep in a desperate bid to raise money,” Caleb said, quickly. “He lied to everyone and ...”

    “That’s my point,” Master Highland said. “Can we afford to build the line without bankrupting ourselves?”

    “Perhaps,” Emily said. In some respects, it would be easier. They’d be negotiating with the city fathers alone, not a multitude of competing noblemen. “It’s a long-term plan, not something we’ll be doing immediately.”

    “We need to do it quickly,” Yvonne warned. “Bringing supplies into the school is going to be a problem.”

    “That’s why we have portals.” Master Highland sneered. “Once they’re set up, we can bring everything we need into the school.”

    “Maybe,” Emily said. She’d once looked into Whitehall’s logistics. It was astonishing how much food was physically delivered to the school from nearby farms, rather than simply shoved through a portal. “If we can set up a portal.”

    “With a nexus point powering it, we should have no trouble,” Enchanter Praxis said. “But Yvonne is right. A railway would be useful too.”

    “Bah.” Master Highland shook his head. “Who needs it?”

    “The people who don’t have magic,” Emily said, quietly. Railways would change the Nameless World in all kinds of ways. Who knew where that would end up? “And we don’t want to grow used to using slave labour.”

    Master Highland looked at her as if she’d started to speak in tongues. Emily concealed her annoyance with an effort. He probably thought slavery was perfectly normal. Hell, he probably worked his apprentices to death in exchange for their training. Emily hoped Cirroc would have the sense to walk away if his studies weren’t actually going anyway. If he could ... his oaths might not let him. She wondered what she’d do when her time came to swear the oaths.

    “We will see,” Master Highland said. He sat on a cushion, as far from Yvonne as he decently could. “Lady Emily, my apprentices have taken the liberty of preparing a meal. Will you and your companions join us?”

    Treating this house as your own, Emily thought, amused. She wondered, absently, at what point occupation translated into ownership. There wasn’t any authority in Heart’s Ease that could comment, not yet. But if you want a house here ... does it matter?

    “We would be delighted,” she said. “And then we can get an early night’s sleep.”

    “And go to the school in the morning,” Master Highland said. “I’ll inform the others to meet us after breakfast.”

    He nodded to Cirroc, who turned and left the room. Emily felt a flicker of pity. Cirroc was the same age as her, a year younger than Caleb, but he would have to serve them dinner, as his master commanded. He wouldn’t enjoy himself. Emily was surprised Master Highland hadn’t given him permission to relax for a night. It would have been the decent thing to do.

    Cirroc returned, carrying a large tureen on a tray. “Cooking facilities here are somewhat limited,” he commented, as he placed the tureen on the floor and opened it. “I made beef and potato stew.”

    “We will import proper cooks soon enough,” Master Highland said. It was hard to tell if he was trying to reassure his apprentice or take a jab at Yvonne. “They’ll do the cooking for us.”

    “I learnt to cook in Martial Magic,” Cirroc said. “It’s no trouble at all.”

    Caleb snickered. “Oh dear.”

    Emily had to hide a smile as Master Highland scowled at Caleb. She’d been taught to cook in Martial Magic too, but she’d never been very good at it. Sergeant Miles had been ruthlessly practical, teaching his students to put nutritional value ahead of taste. The stew smelled better than she had any right to expect - Cirroc might not have paid that much attention in his lessons - but she doubted it would taste good. She told herself, firmly, that it didn’t matter. She was lucky to be eating at all.

    And eating beef, rather than rabbit or hedgehog, she reminded herself. She’d been taught how to forage for food, how to trap small animals or determine which plants were safe to eat, but she’d never enjoyed it. Killing a hedgehog had left her feeling guilty for days. It could be a great deal worse.

    “It tastes better than I expected,” Caleb said. “Did you actually cook this?”

    “I had it simmering all day.” Cirroc sounded amused, rather than angry. “It’s really just meat, potatoes, some vegetables and a lot of water. And some herbs.”

    Emily nodded. “You weren’t paying attention in class, were you?”

    “Of course not.” Cirroc laughed. “I think the sergeant didn’t grade taste when he sampled our stews. He just muttered something about having to fend for ourselves one day.”

    “And then you did,” Caleb said. “Didn’t you?”

    “A few years ago,” Cirroc said. “They dumped me somewhere and told me to make my way back home. It wasn’t easy.”

    “That never happened to me,” Emily said. “Why not?”

    “I think you had Master Grey at the time,” Cirroc said. “Killing your teacher is probably an instant pass.”

    “I have bad news for you.” Master Highland sounded more human, now he had some food in him. “Killing your tutor will land you in jail. And trying to kill your tutor - unsuccessfully - will land you in hot water.”

    Praxis laughed. “You never wanted to kill your tutor?”

    “Of course not,” Master Highland said. “I wanted to learn from him, not kill him.”

    Emily had to smile. “And afterwards?”

    “He wanted to sail west and see what lay out there,” Master Highland said. “He never came back.”

    “No,” Caleb agreed. “Anyone who sails west is never seen again.”

    There’s something over the waters, Emily thought. She’d seen old maps that hinted at a third continent, on the other side of the world. But no one who goes there ever comes back.

    She leaned back against the cushion as the conversation rolled around the room, everyone talking about what they wanted to do after the university had been opened. Yvonne and Praxis had ideas for combining magic and science, something that Master Highland seemed to find appalling; Emily rather suspected that Yvonne’s teachers would feel the same way too. Caleb chatted about learning everything he could; Jayson talked about the old library and putting it back in shape; Hoban told horror stories about what traps they might encounter, once they stepped off the beaten path. It was a good evening, the best Emily could remember for quite some time. She was almost disappointed when it was time to go to bed.

    “We’ll see you in the morning,” Master Highland said. He stood and nodded to his apprentice, then bowed to Emily. “And then, the school.”

    “The school,” Emily agreed. “Good night.”
     
  8. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    mock?

    either

    anywhere?
     
  9. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Yay! I love the Emily stories the most!!!
     
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    The following day, they rose early and walked to the outer edge of the wards.

    “You did a good job,” Master Highland said. “I couldn’t find a way to enter the school without you.”

    Emily rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she touched the wards gingerly. She hadn’t slept well, even though she’d had a private - and warded - room. The nightmares had been thoroughly unpleasant ... she’d drunk several cups of Kava in the morning, but she still felt half-asleep. She would have suggested waiting until the afternoon if she hadn’t known everyone was impatient to enter the school. Master Highland and his people wouldn’t wait forever.

    You could have made them wait, her thoughts mocked her, but you would have paid a price for it.

    “They’re quite impressive,” Master Highland commented. “I was wondering where you learnt to construct them.”

    “Whitehall,” Emily said. It was technically true, although Master Highland wouldn’t catch the double meaning. “They’re based on Whitehall’s wards.”

    Master Highland raised his eyebrows. “I’m surprised the Grandmaster let you make a study of them.”

    “He was always looking for new perspectives.” Emily kept her voice carefully flat. Master Highland wouldn’t believe her, at least at first, if she told him she’d learnt from Lord Whitehall himself. And if he did believe her ... better he thought her a fantasist - or even a liar - than he started to experiment with time travel himself. She didn’t think he’d succeed, even with a nexus point, but she’d been wrong before. “And I learnt a great deal when Whitehall nearly collapsed in on itself.”

    “So I heard,” Master Highland said. “I notice you only picked magicians for this venture.”

    Emily glanced back. Caleb, Cirroc, Hoban and Frieda were standing some distance from the wards, just in case something went wrong. She’d insisted on keeping the first group as small as possible, although it had been impossible to refuse either Master Highland or his apprentice the chance to join the first group. Master Highland, at least, remembered the school in its glory. He’d be able to tell them what had changed, over the years. A necromancer pacing the halls for ten years was bound to leave a mark.

    “Yes.” She kept her voice flat. “I felt it was for the best.”

    “A wise choice,” Master Highland said. “A mundane would be unable to sense any traps until it was too late. The danger to their safety is quite great.”

    Emily scowled. She was tired - she had to be, or she would have noticed what he was driving at earlier. Master Highland had given up trying to convince her that mundanes shouldn’t be allowed in the university because of tradition and had moved on to arguing that they shouldn’t be allowed for their own safety. The hell of it, she conceded ruefully, was that he had a point. Her brief stint of being powerless, in a high-magic environment, had been a grim reminder that mundanes could easily get themselves into trouble and not notice until it was far too late. The prank spells she’d seen used - that she’d seen herself - as a first year were utterly terrifying when used against mundanes.

    “They know the risks,” she said, tartly. “And anyone who comes here will be bound by the rules.”

    Master Highland snorted. “And did you keep the rules when you were at Whitehall? Were there no teachers you would have hexed, if you thought you could get away with it?”

    “I challenged Master Grey to a duel,” Emily reminded him, as her temper began to fray. It wasn’t entirely accurate, but it would do. Besides, it was the official version of the story. No one seemed to believe that she’d been pushed into saying or doing something Master Grey could have taken as a challenge. “And if you don’t mind, I have to think.”

    She took a moment to calm herself before she touched the wards again. Master Highland really did have a point, damn him. She wouldn’t have dared hex a teacher in Whitehall, but ... they’d all had magic. None of them would have any trouble blocking the hex, tracing it back to the caster and caning the idiot in front of the entire class. But if the teacher had no magic ... they’d been teachers on Earth she would have cheerfully hexed, if she’d thought she could get away with it. Yvonne was clever as well as competent, but she couldn’t defend herself against magic. It would only take one student to turn her into a frog.

    And then that student will be expelled, Emily thought. Magic schools were designed, at least in part, to allow students to work their way through their baser instincts in a place where no one could be permanently hurt. Her university was going to be different. I’ll expel the bastard personally, if I have to.

    Her mind brushed against the wards, tentatively. She hadn’t had any trouble bonding with them last time, but now ... the wards responded, silently welcoming her to Heart’s Eye. It didn’t look as if anyone had managed to get into the school, although it was impossible to be completely sure. The wards wouldn’t have recorded anyone who’d somehow managed to bypass them. Emily was fairly sure it was impossible for someone to perform a blood rite without her presence - or at least some of her blood - but there were other possibilities. And there were people who would do whatever it took to gain control of a nexus point.

    She opened her eyes, then beckoned the others forward as she stepped across the wardline. Master Highland looked discomforted - it struck her, suddenly, that he had to be lost in memories - while the others seemed a little disturbed. Emily made a mental note to ask them why, later. Whitehall’s wards were far gentler, but Whitehall had the Warden. She wondered if she should try to construct one for herself, even though generations of students would curse her name. It would be easier - and safer - than letting the Schoolmaster dominate the wards.

    It would be difficult to get permission to construct a homunculus, even one that doesn’t look particularly human, she reminded herself. And we might have to pay a high price for it.

    The air seemed drier, somehow, as they made their way towards the doors. Master Highland said nothing, his expression grim. He’d told stories about Heart’s Eye, back in the day. It had been a vibrant school, he’d claimed; the castle had glowed with life and light. Now ... it was a drab building, as dull as a sandcastle. Emily wondered, suddenly, if the castle had been literally built out of sand. A nexus point would have more than enough power to hold the sand in place indefinitely. The whole school could have been summoned into existence by a single mind.

    She touched the doors lightly. They swung open, revealing darkness ... darkness broken by faint glimmers of light that seemed to flicker and fade at the corner of her eye. She tensed, half-expecting something to jump out of the darkness. It seemed almost a living thing ... she reached out with her senses, trying to tell if there was magic in the air, but ... there was nothing. Except ... there was something, right on the edge of her awareness. Emily couldn’t put her finger on it. She honestly wasn’t sure it was really there. It might have just been her imagination.

    Master Highland muttered a pair of words in a language she didn’t recognise. Nothing happened. The older magician grunted, the sound full of bitter regret. Emily looked a question at him, but he merely looked away. There was something in his posture ... she felt a stab of pity, even though she didn’t like him. She wouldn’t enjoy seeing Whitehall in ruins either.

    Although I would have cheered if someone had blown up my last school, she thought, morbidly. She knew, intellectually, that hundreds of children and teenagers would die in the blast, but ... she’d hated the place so much it was hard to care. I went in with no hope and I would have left with no hope.

    She cast a lightspell instead. The hallway came to life. Things moved in front of her. She tensed, before realising that she was looking at their reflections. The mirrors were still there, still intact ... Master Highland let out a long sigh. Emily stepped forward, looking around with interest. The floor was covered in dust, billowing up around their feet. There should have been footprints, from the last times she’d visited the school, but they were gone. She wondered about that as she beckoned the others into the building. It hadn’t been that long since she’d last visited.

    “It used to be magnificent,” Master Highland said. “The first years would always go up the main staircase, the only time they were allowed to use it. At the top, they would be welcomed by the staff and shown to their dorms. The final years would go down the staircase when it was time to leave, where they would be greeted as equals for the very first time. Some of them would return to the school, from time to time; others ... others would never return. It didn’t matter. We were all one big family.”

    Emily shot him a sharp glance. There were students who saw it that way, she knew, and students who loathed every aspect of the boarding school experience. She’d loved Whitehall, but ... she wasn’t blind to its flaws. It would have been a great deal harder, she thought, if she’d wanted more friends or if she’d been bad at magic or ... Whitehall really had more in common with her old school than she cared to admit. The unwritten rules weren’t that different. If you didn’t fit in - somewhere - you were a social outcast. And a social outcast was always at the bottom of the school.

    Cirroc walked up beside her. “We’re going to be doing a lot of dusting, aren’t we?”

    “There are spells to take out the dust,” Emily said, before Master Highland could suggest putting the mundanes to work. “We used them under Whitehall.”

    “And you came up looking like someone had hexed your clothes,” Cirroc remembered. “Perhaps we should just vent the whole building.”

    Caleb studied one of the mirrors, thoughtfully. His reflection gazed back at him. Emily frowned, her eyes itching. The reflection looked ... she blinked and it was gone. She wasn’t even sure it had been there in the first place. And yet ... she looked at Master Highland. He was lost in his own little world. He wasn’t paying attention to her.

    “Master,” she said, quietly. “Why did they cover the entire building in mirrors?”

    “I don’t know,” Master Highland said. “There were all sorts of stories, but ...”

    “Perhaps someone was very vain,” Cirroc said. He struck a dramatic pose in front of one of the mirrors, flexing his muscles in a manner that made Frieda giggle. “They simply couldn’t bear to be away from their reflection, even for a moment. Do they have mirrors in the toilets?”

    “They used to.” Master Highland shot him a sharp look. “We need to head up.”

    “Let me go first.” Hoban pulled a wand out of his bag and held it in front of him. “Stay at least two steps behind me. If there are any traps, let them snap at me first.”

    Emily glanced at Frieda. She was staring at Hoban, her eyes wide with admiration - and excitement. Emily didn’t begrudge her some happiness, although ... she reminded herself, firmly, that Hoban was more mature than either Cat or Caleb. And yet, he was addicted to risk. No one tried to play tomb raider without a certain willingness to risk everything in the pursuit of knowledge - and treasure. She’d heard stories. Some of the ancient sorcerers had had nasty imaginations ... and the power to turn their concepts into reality. There were some tombs that had never been opened - and anyone who’d tried had wound up dead or worse.

    Hoban kept up a running commentary as he inched up the stairs, waving the wand in front of him. Emily listened, even though he seemed to be babbling about nothing. She knew the drill. If he stopped talking, something was wrong. Master Highland hovered behind Hoban, occasionally offering a comment himself. Emily stayed further back, although she rather suspected she should be taking the lead. The wards might react badly if she wasn’t with them when they reached the top.

    Caleb caught her eye. “There are mirrors inserted into the stairs,” he said, “and ... everywhere.”

    Emily nodded. There had to be a reason, but ... what? She made a mental note to hunt through the books in the library, the ones that had survived, for whatever clues they might hold. She’d written to a couple of libraries, asking for books on mirror magic, but they hadn’t replied. There was no point in asking Gordian for access to Whitehall’s library. The Grandmaster would take perverse pleasure in denying her permission to visit and search the shelves.

    “We’ll figure it out.” She had no doubt they’d work out the solution eventually. “It could be anything.”

    She touched one of the mirrors gingerly, expecting magic to snap at her. There was nothing, but ... there was a faint hint of something. She frowned, seeing her own face staring back at her. There was something faintly distorted about it, although she couldn’t put her finger on what precisely was wrong. She looked away, gritting her teeth as reflections seemed to dance around her. The students had probably managed to get accustomed to being surrounded by mirrors. She’d do so too in time.

    “They might be part of a surveillance system,” Cirroc commented. He sounded irked. “Last year, I caught a boy casting a watching charm on a girl’s mirror. Gods alone know how he got his hands on it, but ... he could look through the mirror any time he liked. He would have gotten away with it too, if his charm hadn’t caused a resonance with the wards on his room and ... well, I caught him. He had to make a formal apology to the girl. That didn’t go well.”

    “I think I’ll be covering the mirrors in my room, if they can’t be removed,” Emily said, after a moment. “And we’d be unwise to remove them until we figure out why they’re actually there.”

    She shuddered. If Cirroc was right ...

    “The dorms are down there,” Master Highland commented. The stairs were growing narrower as they climbed higher. “Heart’s Eye always had fewer students than Whitehall or Mountaintop. There were generally around fifty or sixty students in each year. The older ones were expected to help supervise the younger ones ...”

    “Ouch,” Emily said.

    “It worked better than you might think,” Master Highland said, defensively. “A lot of friendships were made in the dorms.”

    And some of them lasted forever, Emily mused. “Didn’t the students ever get rooms of their own?”

    “The finals - that’s what we called students who were going to leave at the end of the year - were offered private rooms.” Master Highland looked regretful for a long moment. “Not all of them accepted the offer. By then, we were used to sharing rooms. We didn’t want to change.”

    Emily lifted her eyebrows. She wasn’t sure she believed that. There was so little privacy at school, even at Whitehall where younger students slept three to a room instead of ten to a dorm, that students carefully guarded what little privacy they had. A student was perfectly within her rights to hex someone who invaded that privacy, whatever their excuse. She had been glad when she’d moved to a two-person room, then a private room. The dorm she’d shared at Mountaintop had been hellish.

    You can’t miss what you never had, Emily reminded herself. Too many students had grown up with very little privacy. And what little you have, you cling to it.

    They reached the top of the stairs. “One moment,” Hoban said. “There’s something here ...”

    Emily watched as he went to work, fiddling with a spell that seemed to linger on the edge of existence. Whatever it was, it was complex ... and woven firmly into the stone. She was surprised Dua Kepala hadn’t simply ripped it to shreds, even if he’d had to tear the upper levels apart to do it. Very few protective wards would stand up to a necromancer for long, unless they drew on the nexus point. And the nexus point under their feet had been dead until she’d reignited it.

    “Odd,” Hoban commented. “I’ve never seen a ward like it. It ...”

    Master Highland stepped forward. “Do you want me to take a look at it?”

    “Not yet.” Hoban fiddled with his wand. “I think ...”

    Emily felt the spell shimmer into full visibility, then shatter into a shower of sparks. She frowned, silently recalling what little she’d seen of the spell before it was too late. Hoban was right. The spell had been odd. There had been something translucent about it, as if it hadn’t been quite there. And yet, it had been there. Anyone who tried to cross the wardline would regret it.

    And the necromancer must have known it was there, she thought. Why would he have left this part of the building strictly alone?

    “The Schoolmaster’s office is down there,” Master Highland said. He pointed to a pair of ebony doors. “Shall we go?”

    “Let me go first,” Hoban said. He started to inch down the corridor, waving his wand in front of him. “There might be other spells waiting for us.”

    Frieda grinned at Emily. “He’s good, isn’t he?”

    “Don’t distract him,” Emily said. “We need to stay alert.”
     
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    There were more spells on the office door, nastier spells. Emily watched, feeling a twinge of admiration herself, as Hoban dismantled them one by one, all the while keeping up a running commentary about what the spells did and how they were integrated into the wood. The Schoolmaster had been paranoid beyond words, apparently. There were spells woven into his door that daunted adult magicians, let alone children and half-trained teenagers. Emily couldn’t help thinking that he’d been desperate. A couple of the spells were designed to kill.

    And he used them in a school, Emily thought. Teachers were allowed to defend their offices - students certainly tried to break in, for all sorts of reasons - but there were limits. There was no way the Grandmaster - either Grandmaster - would have allowed his teachers to defend their offices with lethal force. Transfiguration or petrification spells were the limit. What was he thinking?

    “I’ve known tombs that weren’t so heavily defended,” Hoban said, as the last of the wards evaporated into mist. “What was he doing in here?”

    “And where did the students go, if they wanted help?” Emily looked at Master Highland. “If they risked death by coming here, where could they go?”

    “There was no risk of death when I was a student,” Master Highland said, stiffly. “The doors weren’t defended with lethal force.”

    “Not that you ever tried to break in,” Cirroc said. “Or did you?”

    Master Highland gave Cirroc a look that promised trouble later. “Every student did, from time to time. But the worst they risked was a public flogging, not ... death.”

    The doors lurched open. Hoban stepped to one side, holding up his hand. “There are some faint traces of magic inside,” he said. “But none of them appear to be deadly.”

    “I hope you’re right,” Emily said, as Master Highland pushed past Hoban and stepped into the office. “Check everything, anyway.”

    She walked forward herself and peered into the office. It was smaller than she’d expected, but still large enough to showcase its occupant’s power and position. Two large windows - both glass, which was rare in old buildings - looked out over the dusty wasteland, one staring directly towards Heart’s Ease. A giant contraption that looked like something out of a steampunk nightmare - gold wire, glowing crystals, strange flickers of magic - sat in the centre of the chamber. Emily made a mental note not to go near it until she could figure out what it actually did. The desk was positioned to one side. She inspected the drawers from a distance, then frowned. They were almost certainly hexed shut. Hoban would have to try to open them. The slightest mistake would incinerate the contents, if it didn’t kill anyone stupid enough to force the lock.

    “He moved the desk,” Master Highland said, thoughtfully. “It used to be in the centre of the room.”

    Caleb looked up. “Making room for” - he waved a hand at the contraption - “that thing?”

    “It looks that way,” Master Highland said. He sounded almost as wary as Emily felt. “It wasn’t here, the last time I was here.”

    Emily glanced at him. “How long ago was that?”

    “Around thirty years.” Master Highland never took his eyes off the contraption. Perhaps he was trying to parse it out. “I came here to ask for a position, after I gained my mastery. The Schoolmaster declined, for whatever reason. Maybe I should be grateful.”

    “I think so,” Emily said. Thirty years ... Master Highland had to be in his early fifties, although she supposed there was some room for flexibility. Jade was the only person she knew who’d completed an apprenticeship in one year, but there had to be others. “If you’d been here, you’d have been killed.”

    “Perhaps,” Master Highland said. “Or perhaps I could have made a difference.”

    “Yes, Master.” Cirroc’s voice was grim. “You would have added another life to the death totals.”

    “Cheeky bugger.” Master Highland sounded more amused than angry. “But I like to think otherwise.”

    Hoban inspected the drawers, then opened the first one. “No real traps,” he said. “Just a simple locking spell.”

    “Curious,” Master Highland said. “Surely there should be something to deal with any prying eyes.”

    “Nothing.” Hoban pulled a handful of parchment rolls out of the drawer and placed them on the desk. “The entire desk feels ... undefended.”

    “Maybe all the protections were on the door,” Caleb said.

    Cirroc nudged him. “You remember when Janet was caught poking through Mistress Irene’s files? She’d been allowed into the office on some pretext and ...”

    “I remember,” Caleb said. “She had so many detentions she’s probably still working them off.”

    “Her grandchildren will be working them off,” Cirroc said.

    Emily ignored the chatter as Hoban carefully opened the first scroll. She’d hoped there would be something - anything - explaining what had happened, but the results were disappointing. The scroll was nothing more than a list of teachers, with a handful of coded notes beside them. Hoban tried a couple of decryption spells, but neither worked. The code was apparently indecipherable. Master Highland tried a spell himself, unsuccessfully. He huffed as he opened the second scroll. It was a list of students who’d been given detention over the final year.

    “Frustrating,” Master Highland said. He opened a third scroll. “A little more interesting, but ... useless.”

    Emily peered over his shoulder. The scroll was written in a language she didn’t recognise, which was curious. There was only one common tongue on the Nameless World, thanks to the Empire. The handful of languages that had survived its rule - and the wars that had ultimately destroyed it - were rarely used outside their homelands. She found it hard to understand why anyone had written the letter - it looked like a letter - in a foreign tongue. It would have made them look unsophisticated.

    “What does it say?” Cirroc leaned forward, interested. “They have to be hiding something.”

    Master Highland shook his head. “It’s a Red Flag,” he said. “If a teacher has concerns about a student, concerns that they might be falling into darkness, they send out a letter stating their concerns. In this case, the student was a prospective student expelled from Mountaintop.”

    Frieda laughed, humourlessly. “What does one have to do to get expelled from Mountaintop?”

    “The student was showing signs of being ... problematic,” Master Highland explained. “Nothing too dramatic, nothing that could be used as grounds for more drastic action, but worrying enough to convince the staff to keep an eye on him. Eventually, they caught the student performing a dark rite and expelled him. He promptly applied to Heart’s Eye. I’d guess the Schoolmaster asked for references and got this.”

    Emily looked at him. “I’m guessing he wasn’t accepted, then?”

    “There’s no way to know,” Master Highland said. “He might have been lucky. Who knows?”

    They flicked through the rest of the scrolls, but none of them were particularly interesting. A report on sports, a detailed invoice for potions ingredients, a political briefing covering events that had been current ten years ago ... Emily put the latter aside for later reading. History had a habit of hanging around like an unwanted guest, even if one paid no attention to it. She knew better than to trust everything she read, but she’d still have to read it. If nothing else, knowing what lies someone wanted you to believe could be quite informative.

    Hoban moved around the room, opening concealed doors and inspecting the contents. Emily followed him with her eyes, noting just how bare the room seemed to be. One compartment held clothes, one held a handful of canes ... she rolled her eyes at the sight before Hoban put them away. Other than that ... the room was almost boring, save for the view. She walked over to the window and peered down at the sand dunes. It looked as if another storm was brewing. She hoped the people in the ruined city would be fine. They should be. The buildings they occupied were heavily warded ...

    Master Highland stepped up and stood next to her. “It used to be a sports field,” he said, softly. “You won’t believe it now, but it was once as green as anyone could have wished. We would play on the fields, casting spells to keep our opponents off balance and ... it’s all gone now, buried beneath the sand.”

    “We’ll bring it back,” Emily said. “Once we get the wards up and running properly, we’ll be able to clear the fields and repair them.”

    If anyone who comes is interested in sport, she added, in the privacy of her own mind. She’d never liked team sports and she was still wary of those who did. They’ll be coming to research, not to ...

    “I think we’ve done all we can here,” Hoban said. “But I still can’t figure out what that contraption actually does.”

    “Me neither.” Emily studied the device for a long moment, but drew a blank. On one hand, it looked as if it was designed to channel power. On the other, it looked too weak to carry power. She’d studied wardcrafting and enchantment, during her final two years of formal education. Putting too much strain on one’s enchantments could lead to a meltdown - or worse. “Caleb?”

    “It might have been a prototype,” Caleb speculated. “But a prototype for what?”

    “We’ll figure it out later,” Emily said. “Right now” - she glanced out of the window and saw the dust storm getting closer - “we’d better go down to the wardchamber.”

    She led the way out of the room and down the stairs, keeping a wary eye open for traps. She didn’t like to think about the Schoolmaster using lethal hexes on his door, but ... if he’d done that, why? If a student had been killed trying to break into his office ... Master Highland had said the wards weren’t lethal, when he’d been a student. If that had changed ... why? Had the Schoolmaster thought he could barricade himself in his office when Dua Kepala attacked the school?

    That would have been cowardly, Emily mused. And, if someone got through the outer wards, almost certainly futile.

    She shuddered at the thought. She’d been scared many times, even after she learnt magic. She’d been so scared at the thought of walking into a necromancer’s fortress that she’d nearly suggested to Casper that they go back to Farrakhan instead. And yet, she’d gone into the wrecked school and emerged victorious. Casper hadn’t come out at all. He’d been scared too, but ...

    “Master Highland,” she said. “What was the Schoolmaster like?”

    “Edmund?” Master Highland thought for a moment. “He was a little scatterbrained, I thought, but it might well have been an act. His deputy was the disciplinarian, which let Edmund play at being the comforter after some poor unfortunate got a well-deserved punishment. I never actually heard of him caning a student, which made him pretty much unique. He was a genuinely nice person, but ... I never really thought he had the well-being of the students at heart.”

    Cirroc snorted. “Because he didn’t beat them enough?”

    “No.” Master Highland frowned, as if he was trying to put his feelings into words. “He was always a little ... disinterested. Oh, he’d offer advice and comfort and sweets to students who came to him - and he had quite a few Old Boys who owed him favours for one thing or another - but he never did anything substantial to improve the school. He always left it to his staff and ... he didn’t even try to claim the credit.”

    “There’s nothing wrong with that,” Emily protested. Edmund sounded nice. She’d been told there were some senior magicians who would happily steal ideas and inventions from their juniors and make their lives difficult if they complained. “If they did the work ...”

    “Yes.” Master Highland looked irked. “And if they kept getting the credit, sooner or later the board would have started asking pointed questions about who should really have the formal authority. They would have done, believe me. What could the reformers have accomplished if they didn’t have to beg for permission to do anything? Edmund didn’t seem remotely concerned with his own position.”

    “Maybe his staff were too loyal to undermine him,” Caleb speculated.

    “No.” Hoban clearly disagreed. “Even if they weren’t trying to undermine him, a display of competence - and dedication to the school - would have gone a long way towards undermining him anyway. That’s still a problem in my circle.”

    Master Highland nodded. “There was never any way to tell when the board would wake up, remember that it had to do something to earn its pay, and start taking a sharp look at the records from the last few years. They did as little as they could get away with, but ...”

    Emily kept her thoughts to herself. Edmund sounded nice, but ... she’d met enough people to know that someone who looked nice might not have her best interests at heart. Too many people used niceness as a cover for malice that she would almost sooner deal with someone who openly hated her. And yet ... she shook her head. Edmund had probably found it useful to play ‘good cop, bad cop’ with his students. Emily had respected the teachers who were strict disciplinarians, but she’d never really trusted them completely.

    They reached the bottom of the stairwell and made their way down the passageways under the school. The walls seemed to close in, discomforting her even though she knew it was an illusion. The lightspell helped, but ... she caught sight of a multitude of reflections, once again, and shivered. It was easy to imagine that they were something else, in the semi-darkness. She wondered how the students had coped, if there were mirrors everywhere. The entire building was like a crazed funhouse, with the added dangers of real magic if something went badly wrong.

    “They never let me down here,” Master Highland commented. “And now there aren’t even any locks on the door.”

    “There aren’t any doors,” Cirroc pointed out. “Was the nexus point really dead? Or sleeping?”

    “I don’t know.” Emily wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about that. There were other dead nexus points, in the Blighted Lands. If they could be reignited too ... her lips quirked. Those nexus points were guarded by necromancers. Getting there might be a little problematic. “I was never sure, at the time, and afterwards ... I just harnessed it again.”

    “Everyone said it had died,” Master Highland reminded her. “But ... were they using it for something? Or what?”

    Emily shook her head. She’d read the books. More importantly, she’d been there when Whitehall’s nexus point had been tamed. It was like trying to tame a volcano, with the added disadvantage of being turned into something utterly inhuman if something went wrong ... if, of course, you survived at all. She couldn’t imagine anything that might kill a nexus point, or drain it dry. It was far more likely that there would be an eruption of power, tearing through the wards as if they were made of paper and vaporising the entire school. No wonder the Grandmaster had been so worried, when he’d found her in the nexus chamber. Shadye might have been trying to destroy the school rather than capture it.

    “We’ll figure it out,” she said, again. They had imagination as well as talent. She refused to believe the puzzle couldn’t be solved eventually. “I don’t think they would have taken too many risks with a necromancer breathing down their necks.”

    “They might have been trying to turn the nexus point against the invader,” Cirroc offered. “Is that even possible?”

    “In theory, yes.” Emily shook her head. “In practice, no.”

    It would be like using a nuke to smash an ant, Emily thought. Necromancers were powerful, but the nexus points represented virtually unlimited power. They wouldn’t have been able to aim ... and if they’d tried, they might have blown themselves up as well.

    She glanced at them as they slowly walked into the nexus chamber itself. Her sense of spatial awareness turned upside down, making it suddenly difficult to stand upright. The entire chamber was twisted - she knew, from experience, that if she fell off the bridge she’d find herself falling down towards the bridge - and treacherous beyond words. The damaged bridges probably didn’t help. Between them, Dua Kepala, Casper, Alanson and herself had smashed a lot of bridges.

    The nexus point glowed beneath her, a spinning point of light that twisted in and out of reality. She’d always found it hypnotic, but this time ... she had to fight to keep it from luring her off the bridge. Her magic, her boosted magic, was being called. She gritted her teeth as she knelt on the stone, reaching out with her mind. The wards were clearly visible - she didn’t even have to reach very far to make the connection - but, behind her, she could sense the rolling power. She knew, all too well, what the nuclear technicians at Chernobyl must have felt when they’d gazed into the blazing heart of the reactor. Suddenly, the wards seemed very fragile indeed.

    And there’s radiation here too, she reminded herself. There was so much raw magic in the chamber that the slightest mistake could mean death - or worse. If this goes wrong ...

    “Caleb.” Emily pulled back her mind, gingerly. “Sit beside me. Hold me. If I start to slip.”

    She felt an odd little shiver as Caleb wrapped his arms around her. His touch was firm, muscular ... it was odd how that had never bothered her, when they’d been lovers. But then, she knew the mind inside the body. Caleb was very definitely a nerd. And he was trained enough to fight, with or without magic.

    Shaking her head, she reached out with her mind once again.
     
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    The maelstrom was almost a living thing.

    Emily felt tiny - an ant caught in a thunderstorm - as she pushed her mind further into the wards. The nexus point surged under her touch, raging against the wards with a power that terrified her almost as much as it enticed her. She wanted to reach out and take control, to surf the waves of power to wherever they would lead her ... and, at the same time, she knew just how dangerous it would be to try. She could be burnt up in a second - less than a second, perhaps - and that would be the end. Shadye had thought he could cope, but he’d been an eldritch abomination at the end. She knew she couldn’t handle it ...

    ... And yet, the temptation was almost overpowering anyway.

    She gritted her teeth, fighting the urge to either hurl herself forward or lean back into Caleb’s arms. God knew there were times, over the last year, when she’d missed them. Cat had never seen her as someone who might need comforting, or reassurance, or even a simple hug. And she’d never dared show him weakness, not when he would start thinking of her as someone who needed to be protected ... someone who could never be an equal. It wasn’t fair, somehow. She could never relax around him.

    Stop woolgathering, she told herself, sharply. Get to work.

    The wards glowed stronger as she touched them. They were living things, almost; they’d grown out of the seeds she’d shown, the first time she’d visited Heart’s Eye. She allowed her mind to wander, just for a moment, silently noting the number of times someone had tried to gain access to the school. Master Highland wasn’t the only one, apparently. Hundreds of people had tried their luck. She wondered, idly, what they would have done if they’d succeeded. How would they have explained how they’d come to rule the school? Or would they have claimed right of conquest? It might have worked.

    She smiled at the thought, then started to work. It was easy enough to convince the wards to recognise Caleb, through magic and blood. She added the latter after a moment’s thought. If she’d lost her powers - and only regained them through luck - Caleb might have the same problem. But if he could touch the nexus point via blood, he might be able to regain them without the trouble she’d had. She wondered what that would do, then turned her attention to Master Highland. His presence glowed, through the wards. She thought she detected a hint of trepidation, but it was probably her own fears being reflected back to her. The wards weren’t really alive, not in any sense a human would recognise. They weren’t intelligent.

    The wards brushed him lightly, touching his magical signature. She gave him the same access rights she’d given Caleb. Hopefully, he wouldn’t realise there was a layer below them. There wasn’t, in most sets of wards. But here ... they had administrator rights; she had super-user rights. She could override them, if necessary. She reminded herself, sharply, not to use it unless she had no choice. Master Highland would certainly see it as a betrayal, even though she hadn’t promised him everything. He’d say she was violating the spirit of the agreement and he’d have a point.

    But I can’t let him unseat me, she mused. There would be nine seats at the table, when all was said and done. And he might, if he had unlimited rights.

    She started to pull out of the wards, then stopped herself. Something wasn’t quite right. She looked around mentally, trying to see what was wrong, but ... there was nothing. Or ... there was an absence of something. A flurry of impressions assaulted her mind, vanishing too quickly for her to be sure what she’d sensed. The maelstrom boiled its fury, seething with rage ... it didn’t seem to be aimed at her, but ... she thought it was aimed at something. She thought she heard voices ...

    Emily jerked against strong arms. For a moment, she almost panicked. She was being held in place, held by someone whose arms were too close to her breasts ... Caleb, she reminded herself, sharply. He’s holding me.

    She looked up. Caleb was staring down at her, his brown eyes worried. “Emily?”

    Emily swallowed. Her mouth was so dry that swallowing was almost painful. “What ... what happened?”

    “You started to lurch forward,” Caleb said. “What happened to you?”

    “I’m not sure.” Emily motioned for water as she tried to think. The impressions were already receding from her mind, leaving only faint shadows behind. It was easy to believe she might have imagined everything. A bad dream ... they weren’t real. “The nexus point was calling to me.”

    “That’s been known to happen.” Master Highland looked impatient. “Nexus points have called to people before, but when they go in” - he shrugged - “we never see them again.”

    Perhaps they get spat out in another era, Emily mused. She hadn’t moved through space as well as time, when she’d been knocked back a thousand years, but someone else might have been dispatched to the far side of the world. Who knew what they would encounter? They might not survive long enough to find a way back. There are all those stories of people who find themselves sleeping in a high-magic zone and waking up to discover a century passed while they were asleep.

    She drank the water greedily, despite an odd taste that worried her, then forced herself to stand. Caleb held her arm as they walked off the bridge and back into the corridor, leaving the nexus point behind. Emily was tempted to lean against him, even though she knew what kind of trouble it could cause. They had no future together, not any longer. A thought struck her and she scowled. It had been over a year. Caleb might have another partner by now. She couldn’t ask.

    “You should have access to the wards,” she said, as she stood upright. “Try it and see.”

    Master Highland frowned. “These are very sharp wards,” he said. “I see ... I see everything.”

    “Something is going to be have to done about that,” Emily said, firmly. The wards would let Master Highland see into a student’s bedroom. She didn’t think he would spy on his students, but ... better not to put temptation in someone’s path. She’d heard enough stories from Mountaintop and Stronghold to know that some teachers simply couldn’t be trusted, oaths or no oaths. “Can you muster the defences?”

    “I think so,” Master Highland said. “And allow people to enter the school.”

    “Right now, it takes all three of us to add a newcomer to the board.” Emily hoped Master Highland couldn’t tell she was lying. “Once we have all nine, a simple majority will suffice.”

    “I see.” Master Highland sounded distant. He was exploring the school with his mind’s eye. “Clever.”

    Caleb cleared his throat. “Right now, we need to get back upstairs and have a rest. Emily’s exhausted and the rest of us aren’t much better.”

    “Someone has to clear the dorms,” Hoban said. “I’ll see to it, if Frieda doesn’t mind coming with me.”

    Emily shot him a warning look. Don’t spend all your time cuddling.

    Hoban nodded, as if he’d heard her thoughts. “Frieda?”

    “Coming,” Frieda said.

    Emily watched them hurry up the stairs, torn between amusement and concern. She understood, better than she cared to admit, how they were feeling. She’d found it hard to keep her hands off Caleb, once she’d got over her reluctant to touch - and be touched. But Hoban was in his early twenties ... she hoped he’d have the maturity not to push Frieda too far. She was a skilled magician, but that wouldn’t be enough to keep her from getting hurt.

    She looked at Caleb and saw him looking back, his face curiously wistful. Her cheeks heated as she realised he’d been having similar thoughts. They’d been good together, once. But ...

    “I can touch the wards,” Caleb said. It wasn’t what he wanted to say and she knew it. “It shouldn’t be a problem to handle them.”

    “Practice anyway,” Emily suggested. It was more of an order. “You don’t want to be caught by surprise if we have to do something unexpected.”

    Caleb grinned, weakly. “But, if we were caught by surprise, wouldn’t it be unexpected by definition?”

    “Probably.” Emily couldn’t help smiling back. “Shall we go?”

    Master Highland was still lost in his own thoughts as they made their slow way back to the Great Hall. Footsteps in the dust showed that Hoban and Frieda had already hurried up the stairs to the dorms. Emily wondered, idly, what they’d find. The beds might still be intact - they’d been designed to take the worst children and teenagers could hurl at them - but the bedding itself would have decayed long ago. And ... she wondered, suddenly, if they’d find any bodies. There hadn’t been any bodies, anywhere. That was ... odd.

    “Caleb,” she said slowly, “how long would a body last? In here?”

    Caleb frowned. Perhaps he’d been having the same thought. “I’m not sure. In the desert, it might last for a long time, but inside ... maybe the necromancer ate them.”

    “Perhaps.” Emily shook her head, slowly. “He might have been a cannibal, but ...”

    She found it hard to imagine. Did necromancers even need to eat? There was so much magic running through their veins that they might be able to feed on it, yet ... they must eat. Poisoning a necromancer was sometimes the simplest way to kill one, although it didn’t always work. She wasn’t sure why. She made a mental note to ask King Randor’s closest companions if they’d seen their king eat, after he’d become a necromancer. He, at least, had been surrounded by the living. Shadye and the others had lived alone. Coming to think of it, there hadn’t been anything resembling proper living quarters in the Inverse Shadow either, just endless barren passageways and chambers. Shadye had been more animal - and eldritch abomination - than man.

    A low whistling sound echoed through the air as Cirroc opened the door and peered outside. The storm was in full swing, sand crashing against the wards even as the wind that carried it was allowed to pass through. Great piles of sand were forming along the edge of the wards, each one lasting only a few seconds before gusts of wind picked up the sand and hurled it in all directions. It looked as if the school was going to be buried, although Emily was sure that wasn’t going to happen. There would have been regular dust storms over the past two years.

    “I think we’re trapped,” Cirroc said. He half-closed the door. “Which of us will volunteer to be eaten first?”

    “Go boil your head,” Caleb said, without heat. “We’ll wait until the dust storm dies down, then make our way back to Heart’s Ease.”

    “What a good idea,” Cirroc said, with suspicious affability. “And then we get caught by the next storm halfway to the city.”

    “That’s what magic is for,” Caleb countered. “If we get caught in the open, we make a run for it.”

    “You know as well as I do that directional magic isn’t reliable in a storm,” Caleb said. “Particularly here. They don’t call it the Desert of Death because they want to lure the tourists ...”

    Master Highland snapped out of his thoughts. “That will do, both of you.”

    Caleb flushed. “I’m not your apprentice.”

    “For which you and I are both grateful.” Master Highland turned to look at the door, clasping his hands behind his back. “I suggest you sit down, have something to eat and wait. The storm will be gone soon.”

    “Hah.” Caleb made a rude sign at his back, then started casting spells to move the dust to the far corner. “What about the others?”

    “They have common sense and magic.” Master Highland paused to consider. “Magic, anyway. They’ll be fine as long as they keep their heads down and wait, just as you should be doing.”

    Caleb scowled, his face darkening as he looked at Emily. “How long do you think we’ll be trapped here?”

    “A few hours at most,” Emily said. She remembered Sergeant Miles’s lectures. Being caught in a storm wasn’t fun. In most cases, it was better to wait for the storm to pass before continuing. One could go out in a howling blizzard and get hopelessly lost within seconds. “We can wait.”

    She sat on the stairs and watched as Caleb and Cirroc cleared the floor. Great billowing clouds of dust rose into the air, only to be directed towards the door. The desert could absorb the dust and barely notice. Underneath, the floor was covered in tiles, each one marked with a single rune. She recognised a couple - protection, integrity - but the remainder were unknown to her. Whatever power they’d had was long-gone. Dua Kepala wouldn’t have left them in place if they’d still been active.

    But he missed the spells protecting the office upstairs, she reminded herself. What else did he miss?

    She heard someone coming down the stairs and looked up. Frieda and Hoban were descending, hand in hand. Frieda looked slightly mussed, her lips puffy ... Emily saw her blush and looked away. She’d have to straighten herself out before Master Highland saw her, if she didn’t want sardonic comments. It wasn’t any of the older man’s business - neither Frieda nor Hoban were apprenticed to him - but he probably wouldn’t see it that way. She’d met too many people who made a habit of minding someone else’s business to like it.

    “There were some ... interesting spells on one of the dorms,” Hoban said. “I took them down before we tried to open the door. They were lethal. Anyone who touched them would be dead within seconds.”

    Emily blinked. “On a school dorm?”

    “Yeah.” Hoban’s voice was very grim. “The whole place was weird. It felt as if it had been locked, barred and hexed from the inside, but there were no bodies or secret passageways or anything. No way out.”

    “No bodies,” Emily repeated. She looked at the mirrors, thoughtfully. “Were there mirrors?”

    “There was nothing magical about them,” Hoban said. “I checked.”

    “But there were a lot of them.” Frieda let go of Hoban’s hand. “There were even mirrors on the ceiling. Anyone lying in bed could look up and see themselves.”

    “Weird,” Emily said. She could think of one use for mirrors on the ceiling, but ... not in a school. “And they were perfectly normal mirrors?”

    “I checked,” Hoban repeated. “They were just ... mirrors.”

    “The two other dorms were checked were both open,” Frieda said. “One of them looked to have been forced open, the other was probably open when ... whatever happened.”

    “The former looked to have been pushed open,” Hoban said. “It wasn’t blasted down, as far as I could tell. Something very strong leaned against it and smash, down it came.”

    “A dragon?” Cirroc wandered over to join the conversation. “Or a bunch of drunken soldiers? Or ...”

    “Don’t let Sergeant Miles catch you saying something like that,” Emily warned. “He won’t find it very funny.”

    “The doors were strong, even without magic,” Hoban said. “A dozen men might have pushed them down, but they’d have difficulty bringing all their strength to bear on the door. I thought about a modified force punch ... maybe that’s what happened. But there were no traces of magic, no burn marks on the wood ... I don’t know.”

    “The entire room was devastated,” Frieda put in. “Beds ripped to pieces, cabinets shattered, showers and toilets smashed ... there was a fight there, I’m sure.”

    “Probably.” Emily was suddenly very aware of just how grimy she was. The first thing she’d install, she promised herself, was a proper shower. She’d probably have to take multiple showers before she managed to remove all the layers of dust. And then she’d get dusty again, the moment she stepped out of the room. “But who were they fighting?”

    “It was a little messy for a schoolgirl spat,” Hoban said.

    Frieda made a face. “Don’t bet on it. Back at Mountaintop ...”

    She stopped herself. Emily nodded, remembering when she’d clashed with some of her dormmates during her unwilling visit. She’d torn a dorm apart and there had been rumours of worse fights, duels that had ended with one or both participants being sent for medical attention. Frieda had seen the worst of it, back when she’d been a Shadow. She’d been very lucky to be assigned to someone who’d actually cared.

    Eventually, she reminded herself. She felt a pang of guilt. It took far too long to realise that Frieda needed help.

    “They would have been in real trouble, if any of them had survived.” Hoban shook his head, firmly. “The kind of forces they’d have had to unleash might not have let them live long enough to be expelled. No, the dorm was broken into ... either by the necromancer or something else. We just don’t know what.”

    “We’ll find out,” Emily said. She looked at the door. The storm was still raging outside, clouds of dust pressing against the wards. Sparks of tainted magic were flaring through the air, irritating her ... irritating all of them. If she hadn’t been so tired, she might have felt angry ... or worse. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

    “There will be time,” Master Highland agreed. He turned away from the door, his dark eyes glittering in the half-light. “Not all puzzles are solved at once.”

    “Yes.” Hoban sounded tired. He’d worked hardest, save perhaps for Emily herself. “And some of them are never solved at all.”
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    It was nearly an hour before the storm began to fade away.

    Emily sat up and stretched as bright sunlight started to make its way through the wards and into the castle. It hadn’t been a pleasant time. They’d all been irritable, snapping at each other before finally separating to prevent personality conflicts turning to outright violence. She wasn’t sure if it was the dust, the sense of claustrophobia that came from being unable to leave the building or simple tiredness, but it hardly mattered. Her scalp itched. It was difficult to believe it was only dust in her hair.

    “I’ll go fetch the others,” Cirroc said. “Or do we want to go down to Heart’s Ease instead?”

    “Bring them here,” Emily said, shortly. It wasn’t as if Heart’s Ease offered them anything, certainly not anything she wanted. A shower, a bath ... she seriously considered teleporting back to Dragon’s Den or Zangaria, just to wash herself. She’d even go to a public bathhouse if there was no other choice. “As long as we have a clear route to the dorms, they should be safe enough.”

    “They’ll go wandering,” Master Highland predicted, darkly. Dust stained his beard as well as his robes. “They won’t even be able to see the danger until it’s too late.”

    “They’re not children,” Emily reproved him, mildly. Children might not believe in a danger they couldn’t see, but adults knew better. Mostly. “They know the dangers.”

    She rubbed her eyes as Cirroc hurried out of the school. She was tempted to go with him, if only to stretch her legs. Frieda and Hoban had disappeared again, perhaps to the dorms ... Emily felt oddly abandoned, even though Caleb was sitting in the far corner. She should have invited the Gorgon to come. If she’d known they’d be stranded for several hours, she would have done. She could talk to the Gorgon without feeling as though she was walking on eggshells.

    It felt like an eternity - another eternity - before she heard the carts pulling up outside the school. She winced, inwardly, as she stepped outside and saw the orcish slaves being unhitched from the carts and commanded to unload their contents into the hall. The drivers looked surprisingly normal, for men who profited from the labour of others ... she shook her head in irritation, feeling dust tickling down her backside. The slavedrivers saw nothing wrong with their conduct. They were probably more concerned about spending a few days away from the city than the well-being of their slaves. It wasn’t as if the orcs were human.

    That’s what they always say about slaves, Emily thought, morbidly. The Romans had allowed slaves to work themselves out of bondage. By and large, they’d accepted the slaves who’d freed themselves as citizens. But other slave societies hadn’t been anything like so kind. The slaves are not considered human and therefore they can be mistreated at will.

    Yvonne appeared, looking tired and harassed. “My Lady?”

    Emily nodded, feeling her cheeks heat. It had been six years and she still felt odd being addressed as nobility. Yvonne was older than her and more accomplished and yet ... Emily reminded herself that she was accomplished too. Yvonne wasn’t fawning over a royal brat who had no real achievements to her name, save for having the right parents. Who knew what would have happened to her if Emily hadn’t changed the world?

    “We’ve been clearing the dorms, so we have a place to sleep,” she said, putting her thoughts aside. “Tell your people to stay on the beaten track. We’ve discovered several nasty surprises already.”

    Yvonne looked pinched. “As long as the dorms are safe ...”

    “They should be.” Emily made a mental note to check them herself, just to be sure. Hoban and Frieda made a pretty good team - Frieda knew where girls might hide hexes to catch their enemies - but they’d been distracted. “But some of the traps we’ve discovered were lethal.”

    “We’ll be careful.” Yvonne didn’t sound pleased. Emily didn’t blame her. Heart’s Eye was unsettling to her, even though she controlled the wards. It had to be a great deal worse for someone who couldn’t sense magic. “When do you want us to start work?”

    “Tomorrow, I think.” Emily glanced at her watch. “We probably need a day or two to settle in.”

    “Probably longer,” Yvonne said. “How big is this place?”

    Emily shrugged. Heart’s Eye wasn’t bigger on the inside, like Whitehall, but ... the fairytale castle was still a pretty big building. And the interior seemed designed to confuse any intruders, just like most of the other castles she’d seen. She wondered, again, who’d built it and why. Lord Whitehall hadn’t built Whitehall Castle. The original builders had been long gone by the time he’d stumbled across the nexus point. No one knew what had happened to them.

    “We have time,” she said, although she knew it wasn’t true. Void would call her, sooner or later, and she’d have to go to him. Frieda would have to go back to Whitehall in a few weeks too, unless she intended to take her exam results and leave. Emily hoped Mistress Irene would have arrived by the time Emily had to go. “Better to start slowly then make mistakes through haste.”

    A ghost of a smile crossed Yvonne’s face. “I say that to all my apprentices,” she said. “The smart ones are the ones who listen.”

    Emily nodded, then turned as Jayson hurried up. “Emily,” he said, awkwardly. “Can I see the library?”

    “One moment,” Emily said. “I’ll take you there.”

    Jayson looked ... worried ... as they slowly made their way up the stairs and down the corridor. Emily was fairly certain there were no booby traps waiting for them - Alanson had marched Frieda and her down the corridor, without running into anything nasty - but she took precautions anyway. She had the nasty feeling that lowering her guard would be the last thing she’d ever do, if she walked into the wrong place. Heart’s Eye would have to be searched from top to bottom before they started accepting hexes. A single death could derail the entire project.

    “Emily,” Jayson said. “I ... we have to talk.”

    “Not now.” Emily shook her head. Jayson had kissed her ... partly because his family had asked him to court her. She wasn’t sure if she should be horrified, amused or ... or what? It said a great deal, both good and bad, about Jayson that he’d tried to court a powerless girl ... although it hadn’t been his idea. “Perhaps later.”

    Jayson reddened. “Yes, but ...”

    “Later,” Emily repeated. She cleared her throat. “The library is just down here.”

    She heard Jayson inhale in shock as they stepped through the remains of the door. Jayson loved libraries, almost as much as she did. The sight before them was enough to break her heart. Hundreds of books and scrolls lay on the floor, some torn to shreds by the necromancer ... she shuddered, imagining just how hard it would be to put them back in some semblance of order. She glanced at Jayson, feeling a flicker of pity. He’d volunteered to be the librarian. It was going to take months, if not years, to get the library ready for students ...

    “We’re going to have to be careful,” Jayson said. He reached for a book, lying on the floor, and stopped before his fingers touched the cover. “There’s a hex on that book.”

    Emily nodded. “How many books do you think will be hexed?”

    “Perhaps all of them.” Jayson sounded worried. “The older magicians really wanted to keep knowledge out of the wrong hands.”

    The people who don’t have magic, Emily thought. Most protective hexes could be dispelled with a simple counterspell ... if, of course, the reader had magic. It struck her as a little pointless. A mundane could roar and chant until they were blue in the face and nothing would happen. Knowledge wasn’t always power, as she had good reason to know. We’re going to have to keep this room sealed.

    Jayson didn’t look daunted by the scale of the task before him. “I’ll get started at once,” he said. “If we’re lucky, the books were arranged by subject anyway.”

    “True.” Emily didn’t know if they really had been that lucky. The Nameless World’s cataloguing system left something to be desired. “If not, you might have to re-catalogue the entire library.”

    “Or start a new library somewhere else.” Jayson grinned. “How much floor space can I claim?”

    Emily had to smile. She wouldn’t have cared if he wanted to clear the sports pitches and replace them with a whole new library block, but she rather suspected that everyone else would disagree. Loudly, even though the pitches were buried under the sand. She looked back at the door, reminding herself that there would be abandoned dining halls and spellchambers that could be repurposed. Heart’s Eye was huge. They should be able to find room for a second library while they repaired the first.

    “We’ll see.” She looked around the room. “I need to find a map of the place. A simple floor diagram would do.”

    “They normally keep those separate,” Jayson said. “I wonder ...”

    He headed towards a door, set behind the librarian’s desk. Emily followed at a distance, ready to intervene if he walked into a trap. Some librarians had very nasty senses of humour, which they demonstrated to anyone who dared to keep an overdue book. Emily’s lips twitched at the memory, then flattered as she looked at the broken stacks. The necromancer had hunted through them wildly, throwing books in all directions as he searched for something. If a student had tried that, she’d be lucky not to be unceremoniously turned into a book.

    Jayson touched the door, gingerly. It swung open, revealing a surprisingly neat office crammed with filing cabinets. Emily felt a little claustrophobic - again - as she looked around. The librarian - she couldn’t tell if the librarian had been male or female - had had surprisingly little room for himself. The walls were so covered in cabinets that there weren’t even any mirrors. She looked up, somehow unsurprised to see a mirror fixed to the ceiling. Her reflection looked back at her archly.

    “There has to be something on mirror magic in here,” Emily said, as Jayson started to fiddle with one of the cabinets. “I ...”

    She jumped back as the cabinet opened in a shower of sparks. “Nasty little trap,” Jayson commented. “But perfectly normal, for a librarian.”

    Emily eyed him. “She couldn’t just lock the cabinet?”

    Jayson grinned. “How many people do you know who would consider that a challenge?”

    Emily said nothing as Jayson worked his way through the contents. It seemed to be nothing more than a collection of notes on which students could be trusted to borrow the rarer books from the library and which ones had to read them in the library themselves, under supervision. Emily was surprised to discover that some students had been allowed to take the rarer books out of the library in the first place. The tomes were effectively irreplaceable, at least until she’d introduced the printing press. Yvonne would be setting one of those up, sooner or later. The apprentices could start churning out cheap copies of the rarer textbooks when she was done.

    “It might be worth coming back later,” Jayson said, as he shut the cabinet. “If nothing else, it will tell us a great deal about what was happening before the school fell.”

    He looked up at her, his eyes dark. “You noticed the dates?”

    “No.” Emily shook her head, impatiently. “Why?”

    “The school was invaded ten years ago,” Jayson said. “But the records actually stop a couple of weeks before then.”

    Emily frowned. “So things weren’t normal even before the necromancer attacked?”

    “Apparently so.” Jayson turned his attention to the next filing cabinet, swearing as a cluster of nasty-looking boils appeared on his hands. “They certainly weren’t keeping very good records.”

    Emily nodded, watching as he worked his way through the cabinets one by one. The librarians she’d known - all the librarians she’d known - had been obsessed with keeping order. They had no choice. The slightest mistake could cause all sorts of problems, particularly when it snowballed out of control. They had to know where the books were going and when they were supposed to be returned. But this librarian had stopped keeping records, which meant ... what? Had the library been closed? Or had they been busy elsewhere?

    And a librarian who worked here would be a very competent magician, Emily reminded herself. Lady Aliya of Whitehall was no slouch. Emily had seriously considered asking Whitehall’s librarian for an apprenticeship, once upon a time. She might be needed elsewhere if an army was marching on the gates.

    “Hah.” Jayson snapped open another cabinet, ignoring the scars that appeared on his hands. “Come and look at this, carefully.”

    Emily leaned forward as he pulled a large scroll out of the cabinet. Magic snapped and crackled around his fingertips, trying to hex him into ... something. Jayson countered the spells, muttering countercharms under his breath as he carried the scroll back into the main room and placed it on the librarian's desk. There were nearly a dozen spells on the parchment that needed to be removed before it could be opened. Emily was morbidly impressed. Whoever had written the parchment really didn’t want unfriendly eyes to read it.

    “A couple of the spells are already outdated,” Jayson commented, as he unfurled the parchment. “The readers found ways to counter them, five years ago. Whoever ran this library wouldn’t know it, of course.”

    “They would have died before the charms were countered,” Emily agreed. “What were they hiding?”

    She frowned as she studied the giant parchment. It was a diagram of the school, starting with the ground level and proceeding all the way up to the tallest spire. It didn’t show the nexus point chamber, or the catacombs under the school. And ... her frown deepened as she tried to parse out the notation. Someone had been scribbling notes on the parchment, in a language she didn’t recognise. There was a strange logic to it, something that nagged at her mind, but ... she couldn’t work out what they were trying to say. What was it?

    “That must be the library here,” Jayson said. He looked around, puzzled. “But it says the chamber is larger than it is.”

    “It may not be drawn to scale.” Emily peered over his shoulder. The Great Hall looked smaller than the Schoolmaster’s office, even though she knew for a fact that wasn’t remotely true. “This could be just a rough map of the school, rather than ...”

    “Maybe.” Jayson didn’t sound convinced. “But they’ve been really careless, if so.”

    He met her eyes. “And why would they try to hide it?”

    Emily studied the map for a long moment. There were no secret passageways, not even servant corridors ... she didn’t believe for a second they weren’t there. Magic schools always had secret passageways, hidden chambers that students could discover ... it encouraged, she’d been told, the development of inquisitive minds. And even if there were no outright secret passageways, there would be servant corridors. It wouldn’t do for the servants to share corridors with the students. That would never do.

    “I don’t know.” Emily shook her head, slowly. There were people who would happily classify everything, just to assert their power, but it had always struck her as a little pointless. Unless, of course, the object was to doubly hide anything important by burying it under a mountain of irrelevant nonsense. “What did they have to hide? None of this is remotely secret.”

    “Maybe.” Jayson tapped the map. “Or maybe we’re missing something.”

    “It could have been confiscated from one of the students,” Emily mused. She didn’t believe it. The parchment was too expensive - and the drawing too professional - to belong to a student. “But ...”

    “I don’t recognise the language either,” Jayson added. “Would you mind if I made a copy and sent it to my father? He might have better luck.”

    “Please.” Emily couldn’t think of any reasonable objection, beyond a vague concern about what the unreadable words might say. “If we can figure out what the language actually is, we can start deciphering the rest of it.”

    “They wanted to hide something,” Jayson said. “And the fact they were trying to hide this map tells us something too.”

    “Yes,” Emily said. The map had to be important. The mere fact that it had been locked away, after being heavily charmed, was proof it was important. But how? “See if you can sketch out a couple of copies of the map too.”

    “Yes, My Lady.” Jayson grinned at her. “Do you want me to do that? Or keep looking for more books?”

    “Both,” Emily said. She considered, briefly. “Look for books first - anything to do with mirror magic, or Heart’s Eye itself. Whatever you find, put it aside for me. Don’t let anyone else into the library, even other magicians ...”

    “As you wish,” Jayson said. He let out a long breath. “I’m going to need to recruit help, eventually. Magical help.”

    Emily nodded, sourly. “Perhaps we can hire students from Whitehall,” she said, although she knew it would be chancy. They’d have to learn how to remove dangerous hexes ... if they know didn’t already. That wouldn’t make them popular with Whitehall’s librarian. “Or perhaps someone from another library.”

    “We can try.” Jayson grinned. “Some of them will see it as a challenge. Others ... well, we don’t want them anyway.”

    “No,” Emily agreed. She wanted librarians who loved the job. Thankfully, very few people studied library magic unless they intended to go into the field. “We certainly don’t.”
     
  14. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing? ;)

    they didn't know
     
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    “I think this will be your bedroom,” Hoban said, later in the day. “If, of course, we can get the door open.”

    Emily frowned. Hoban was standing in front of the door, his wand touching the wood as he cast a series of complex detection and curse-removal charms. Frieda was leaning against the wall some distance away, watching him warily. There were scorch marks on her shirt and trousers, a grim reminder that some of the traps were nasty. Emily hoped she was alright. Frieda had so much experience with pain - physical and mental - that she wouldn’t complain, let alone seek help, unless it was serious.

    “This is meant to be the Schoolmaster’s bedroom,” Hoban continued. A green light flared over the door, then faded away as he muttered a countercharm. “His body might be inside.”

    There was a flash of light. The door fell off its hinges and crashed to the ground. “Oops.”

    Emily had to smile. “Oops?”

    “There was magic wrapped up in the hinges,” Hoban explained. “I accidentally cancelled those charms as well as the protective spells.”

    “No worries,” Emily said, as he led the way into the bedroom. “I don’t have to sleep her.”

    “It’s a status thing,” Hoban commented. “The biggest bedroom goes to the most powerful person in the school.”

    Emily shrugged. “Mistress Irene will have it, then,” she said. “When she comes.”

    Hoban looked up at her, his face suddenly serious. “You have to make a good showing, whatever you feel inside. If you don’t take the biggest room, people will start wondering why ... and you won’t like some of their answers. Better to leave the room empty when you’re not here, rather than let people start thinking that Mistress Irene outranks you.”

    “I’ll discuss it with her,” Emily said, stiffly.

    She looked around the room with interest. It was smaller than she’d expected, although quite respectable compared to the student bedrooms in Whitehall. A large wooden bed sat in one corner, the sheets and mattress long-since decayed into dust. Mirrors hung from three of the four walls; the fourth, not entirely to her surprise, was covered in bookshelves. She felt a flash of hope, which faded as she realised that only one of the shelves held books. The remainder were crammed with trinkets and strange devices she didn’t recognise.

    Frieda chanted spells to remove the dust as Emily, feeling vaguely guilty for prying, peered into the bathroom. The Schoolmaster had a private bath as well as a shower, a luxury beyond words for the vast majority of the population. There was no sign of anything personal in the room, just another pair of mirrors. Emily saw her reflection and frowned. The reflection frowned back. She looked worse than she felt.

    She tested the taps, more out of optimism than any hope they’d actually work. Nothing happened, not even a dribble of water. She wondered, as she turned the taps back off, just where the water had actually come from. An underground reservoir? There weren’t any rivers close to Heart’s Eye, according to the maps. There hadn’t been any rivers anywhere nearby even before the desert had overwhelmed the region. She made a mental note to check before they started to run short on water. The school would be untenable if they had to transport water hundreds of miles just to keep themselves alive.

    Although we could set up a water tank, she mused. They could ship in enough water to live, if they used magic to purify it after every use. And perhaps a reservoir ourselves.

    “We’re going to have to find the source of water,” she said, as she walked back into the bedroom. “It must have come from somewhere.”

    “Probably an underground lake,” Hoban said, echoing her thoughts. “That’s what they do at Stronghold. Too many enemies who might try to cut the school off from the rivers.”

    Emily gave him a sidelong look. “You went to Stronghold?”

    “I was never interested in a military career,” Hoban said. He gave her a twisted smile. “But I leant a great deal there, starting with the fact I wasn’t interested in a military career.”

    “I bet some of the training comes in handy,” Emily said. Hoban wasn’t her cup of tea, but he was still handsome ... in a rugged kind of way. Frieda was quite lucky. Hoban would probably have no trouble keeping up with her. “How much of it do you use?”

    “Dismantling traps was part of my training,” Hoban said. “And running for my life, when something went wrong. I once had to jump out of a window because someone had rigged an entire house to blow up when I cut the wrong wardline.”

    “Ouch,” Emily said.

    She looked around the room. “I won’t be sleeping here tonight,” she said. “I’ll bed down in the dorms.”

    “We’ll have to find a new mattress,” Hoban agreed.

    “I’ll make a note of it.” Frieda took a notebook from her pocket and suited action to words. “We’ll have to bring them in from somewhere.”

    “Once we set up a portal, we can bring in anything we want.” Hoban winked at her. “And go anywhere, too.”

    “I wish that were true,” Emily said. She’d seen the equations. In theory, portals could be expanded to any size. In practice, the power demands would rapidly become impossible to surmount. It would be difficult to channel enough power from the nexus point without overloading the containment spells and destroying the portal spellware. “But we can bring in most of what we need, once we get organised.”

    She inspected the books quickly, frowning in displeasure as she realised they were just old text books and a couple of manuscripts. Perhaps they’d belonged to Edmund, back when he’d been a schoolboy himself. They would have been outdated ten years ago. Or maybe he’d been studying them for purposes of his own. She’d learnt the hard way that some of the older books included information that wasn’t offered in modern textbooks. She had no idea why.

    I’ll have to go through them later, she thought. She was starting to wonder if the necromancer had stripped the school of useful tomes, although the library was in such a mess that it was impossible to be sure. There might be something hidden within their pages.

    “We’d better go down,” she said. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten for hours. “We need to eat.”

    “Good idea.” Hoban grinned. “I must say, all this hunger does give one an appetite.”

    Emily smiled at the weak joke, then turned to lead the way back down the stairs. Master Highland seemed to have claimed a smaller bedroom for himself, judging by the way he was steadily dismantling the protective wards. It looked as through all the rooms had been sealed from the inside, but ... there were no bodies. Emily shook her head, slowly. It was possible, she supposed, that the bodies had turned to dust ... it didn’t seem likely. They should have found skeletons, if nothing else. The necromancer hadn’t even opened half the bedrooms.

    Master Highland joined her as they walked downstairs. “You’ll be taking the master bedroom?”

    “Tonight, I’ll be sleeping in the dorms,” Emily said. She knew what he’d think of that, but she didn’t really care. “I want to give all the private rooms a thorough inspection before we start handing them out like candy.”

    And we might be better off staying together, she added, privately. They were in no danger, as far as she could tell, but she felt vaguely uneasy at the thought of being alone. If someone goes wandering off, we might never find them until it’s too late.

    The dining hall reminded her of Whitehall’s, although it was considerably smaller. The students had eaten in shifts, she guessed, rather than sharing a single large dinner. A couple of apprentices were bent over a fire, stirring a giant cauldron of stew; Yvonne was standing behind them, issuing orders. Emily was surprised she could cook, although she knew she shouldn’t have been. Yvonne’s mother would have taught Yvonne how to cook before she rebelled against her gender - and the expectations society placed on her - and became a craftswomen. She was probably a better cook than Emily herself. She could hardly be a worse one.

    Yvonne looked up as they entered. “It’s ready, more or less,” she said. “Can we leave the fire going overnight?”

    “For Constant Stew?” Emily tried to hide her grimace. Constant Stew was economical, and very healthy, but it started to take foul very quickly. “Yes, if you like. Just check the flames can’t go any further.”

    “Yes, My Lady.” Yvonne managed to give the impression of being sarcastic, without actually saying anything Emily could reasonably find offensive. “I’ll see to it personally.”

    “We’re going to need proper cooks,” Master Highland said. “And an entire staff to see to our needs.”

    “They’ll have to be hired, once we clear the school of traps,” Emily said. She tested the wooden chairs carefully, then decided she was better sitting on the floor. Some of the chairs felt flimsy, as if they’d break under her weight. “Put together a list. We can start making enquires once we’re ready to go.”

    Yvonne stepped through the door, carrying a giant pot. “Ready to eat?”

    Emily’s stomach rumbled at the smell. “Yes, please.”

    “It smells ... funny.” Master Highland sounded concerned. “What is it?”

    “It’s an old family recipe,” Yvonne said. “The ingredients are a secret.”

    “Really?” Master Highland glared at her. “And why, precisely, is it a secret?”

    Yvonne gave him a sweet smile as she started to ladle the stew into bowls. “Why, they all died when the stew was first served. Eat up?”

    Emily had to smile. “I’m sure it will be fine,” she said. The smell was better than she’d expected. “And we have to go to bed immediately afterwards.”

    “We also have to set up a bathroom,” Yvonne said. “We can’t keep using buckets.”

    “No,” Emily agreed. “We’ll have to fix the plumbing. And find where the water came from, originally.”

    “Good question,” Master Highland said. “I never thought about it.”

    “Well, of course.” Yvonne sounded amused as she took a bowl for herself and sat on the blanket. “The water has to come from somewhere, doesn’t it?”

    “You can inspect the plumbing tomorrow,” Emily said, hastily. “Do you have any other concerns?”

    “Not as yet.” Yvonne shrugged. “I dare say we’ll have plenty of concerns tomorrow.”

    Emily nodded and started to eat. The chicken stew - with potatoes, vegetables and spices - tasted better than she’d expected too, but it wouldn’t be long before it started dissolving into overcooked mush. Constant Stew became soup, eventually. She reminded herself, sharply, that she should be glad to have it. There were beggars in the streets who would sell themselves into slavery for one solid meal a day.

    “Just keep yourself and your apprentices out of trouble,” Master Highland grunted. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

    “My apprentices know to be careful,” Yvonne said. “Do yours?”

    “Yes,” Master Highland said, flatly. “They also sense magic before they actually run into it.”

    Emily tuned out the discussion as she finished her stew and stood. “I’ll be going to the dorms now,” she said, nodding to Frieda. “Don’t go wandering the school after dark.”

    “That’s quite late here,” Master Highland observed. He waved a hand around the windowless room. “And how could you tell, anyway?”

    “See you tomorrow,” Emily said. She hoped Yvonne would have the sense to go back to the dorm herself, before the lights started going out, but ... as long as she was with a magician, she should be fine. She just hoped the constant sniping between Yvonne and Master Highland wouldn’t get out of hand. “We can start opening up the workshops after breakfast.”

    Frieda followed Emily as she headed to the stairs. “We opened two of the dorms and checked them, thoroughly,” she said. “They should be safe enough.”

    “One for the girls and one for the boys, then,” Emily said. “It won’t be fun, but we’ll survive.”

    “Somehow.” Frieda looked downcast. “Did you bring any potion? I mean ...”

    Emily could guess. “The rest of my supply is in my trunk,” she said. She wasn’t sure where it had gone, in all the confusion. It was probably still in the Great Hall, if someone hadn’t carried it up to the dorms. “You’ll have to start buying your own. Or get him to buy it for you.”

    “I can make it,” Frieda said. “All I need is the right ingredients.”

    “You’ll have to order them,” Emily warned. She touched Frieda’s hand, gently. “Be careful, alright?”

    “I shouldn’t have given you a hard time, when you were with Caleb,” Frieda said. “I didn’t understand how you felt.”

    Emily coloured. “We all make mistakes.”

    She put the thought aside as they walked down the corridor and into the opened dorm. Someone had already drawn a sketch of a female figure, then cast a ward intended to keep the men from entering by accident. The Gorgon, Emily guessed. Gorgons liked their privacy and had no qualms about petrifying people who violated it. The Gorgon hadn’t found it easy to adapt to Whitehall, even though she’d wanted to study. Emily understood. She hadn’t found sharing a room easy too.

    The dorm itself reminded her of Mountaintop, although it was actually larger than the dorm she remembered. There were twenty metal beds in the chamber, all lacking mattresses and blankets. They looked uncomfortable, Emily thought, even though she knew that meant nothing. A skilled or desperate student could use all sorts of spells to make their rest more comfortable. She stepped through the rear door and peered around the bathroom. A line of showers sat at the front, a handful of toilet cubicles behind them. Someone had helpfully curtained off a pair of buckets, surrounding them with privacy spells. Emily felt her stomach churn at the thought of using them. It was funny how those details were left out of the adventure stories too.

    “The blankets are in the corner,” Frieda said, as Emily walked back into the dorm. “Just get one and claim a space.”

    “Don’t go sneaking out in the middle of the night,” Emily warned. She hadn’t sneaked out to be with Caleb, but ... it was just the sort of thing Frieda would do. “You never know what you might encounter.”

    “Perhaps someone should stay awake,” Frieda said. She picked up a blanket and tossed it to Emily. “You want to take first watch?”

    Emily shook her head. “Just set up the wards,” she said, as she laid the blanket on the ground and took another. “They should wake us if something happens.”

    She lay on the ground, shifting uncomfortably. She’d slept in worse places, but ... it was hard to remember that when she was so uncomfortable. She reached out with her senses, touching the wards gingerly. Master Highland had been trying to experiment, setting up a handful of subroutines to monitor magic use within the castle and ... she frowned as she realised that one of his subroutines kept an eye on mundanes, tracking them wherever they went. It might be a good idea, but it didn’t sit well with her. They might not even know they were being tracked.

    And they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, if they did, Emily mused. There were plenty of spells a magician could use to confuse watching eyes, even powerful wards, but they relied on magic. What will they say when they find out?

    She gritted her teeth, silently promising herself that she wouldn’t let it get out of hand. The wards would not be abused, even by her. Once the school had been searched from top to bottom, she would ensure that only the staff could use the wards to monitor people. And even they would only be able to access the records if there was an emergency. It would not be abused.

    Sure, her own thoughts mocked her. And do you think the mundanes will believe it?

    Emily looked at the mirrors, seeing her own reflections looking back. She looked terrible ... it was a wonder that no one, not even Frieda, had said anything. She felt another twinge of unease as she studied the mirrors, even though they weren’t magical. They didn’t have to be magic to worry her. There was just something about them that set her teeth on edge.

    “Goodnight,” Frieda said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

    Emily closed her eyes. Her body ached and her skin felt grimy. Perhaps she would go to Dragon’s Den tomorrow, just to get a shower ... no, it wasn’t fair to those who couldn’t teleport. She started to put together a portal diagram in her head, working out the spellware piece by piece, then realised it would take time to use the wards to start channelling power into the portal. She wondered how Lord Whitehall’s successors had done it. Portals had been invented well after his time.

    There must be a book on it, somewhere in the library, she told herself, as she drifted off to sleep. But Gordian won’t let me read it ...

    She jerked awake, unsure of when she’d actually gone to sleep. The room was dim, barely illuminated by magic. She sat upright and looked around. Frieda was sleeping soundly, her lips moving as she breathed in and out. The Gorgon was visible on the other side of the room, wrapped in the faint haze of a privacy ward. Yvonne was sleeping on the bare floor, snoring loudly. The mirrors scattered their reflections everywhere.

    Emily frowned. Something had disturbed her, but what? There was nothing there.

    She lay back and closed her eyes, but it was a long time before she managed to go back to sleep.
     
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten

    Emily felt terrible the following morning, when she opened her eyes. Her body felt as though it had been brutally beaten, every last muscle screaming in protest when she tried to stand upright. She nearly fell before she managed to stagger to her feet, drawing on all her strength to keep from screaming in pain. The blanket hadn’t provided anything like enough comfort and protection. She gritted her teeth as dust billowed around her. Sergeant Miles would not be impressed.

    She grunted something - she wasn’t sure what - to Frieda’s morning greeting and stumbled into the bathroom. Someone - probably Yvonne - had put a large tub of water in the centre of the room, along with a set of sponges, a pile of towels and a strict note reminding users to purify the water after they washed themselves. It was hard, very hard, to undress and sponge herself down, let alone charm the water back into the tub. Her fingers refused to cooperate properly. She was surprised her entire body wasn’t black and blue.

    Frieda joined her, carrying a spare robe. “They brought your trunk up this morning,” she said. “Do you want to fetch you anything?”

    “I’ll get it myself,” Emily said. Her towel was covered in dust. It would need to be cleaned before she could use it again. “Have a wash yourself, then get dressed.”

    And put showers right at the top of the list, she told herself, as she donned the robe and headed back into the dorm. Otherwise we’ll all go mad.

    There was no sign of Yvonne in the dorm. Emily wasn’t surprised. The craftswoman would be used to rising with the dawn. She put the thought out of her head as she walked back to the blanket. Her trunk was waiting for her, as Frieda had promised. She opened it, removed a handful of clothes and closed it again. No one would care - except Master Highland, perhaps - if she wore a shirt and trousers instead of robes or a dress. Besides, the shirt and trousers were charmed to stay clean. It was probably a losing battle against the dust, but it might offer some relief. Her skin still felt grimy. It was hard to believe she’d ever feel clean again.

    A proper bath might help, she thought. She’d learnt to swim at Whitehall. If there wasn’t a pool at Heart’s Eye, she could make one. And then we might feel a little cleaner.

    She dressed quickly, altered the spells in the hope they’d become slightly more resistant to dust, then waited for Frieda to join her before they went down to breakfast. The Great Hall was open, a handful of apprentices unloading the boxes and cataloguing their contents while they waited for the workshops to be opened. A pair of young men glanced at her, realised who she was and bowed hastily. Emily nodded back, trying not to roll her eyes as she walked into the dining hall. She would never be comfortable with people bowing and scraping to her. She didn’t deserve that much respect.

    “Praxis and I traced back the plumbing this morning,” Yvonne said. She was sitting at one of the tables, daring the chair to do its worst. “There’s a giant lake under the school. Someone closed the pipes, ten years ago, but it was fairly simple to fix. No real magic in the pumping at all.”

    Emily allowed herself a moment of relief. “That’s very good news.”

    “They certainly spent a lot of money on the plumbing,” Yvonne continued. “I’ve seen worse jobs. We’ll have to continue tracing out the system, if only so we can repair broken pipes, before we actually start to use it. It looks to be a decentralised model, but ... we’re not sure yet.”

    “Do it,” Emily said. “We need those showers.”

    Yvonne didn’t look so concerned. Emily reminded herself that Yvonne had probably grown up in a house without pumping. Mundane - magic-less - pumping was a relatively new invention, even though it had predated her by several centuries. King Randor had been one of the richest kings in the world, before his descent into madness and death, and his plumbing had been terrible. Yvonne understood the importance of washing regularly, but it wasn’t such an emotional issue for her. Emily had never really appreciated modern plumbing until she’d ended up in a world without it.

    “I’ll see to it,” Yvonne said. “We do have to open the workshops too, of course.”

    “Hoban and I will do that,” Frieda said. “Emily ...?”

    “I’ll come too,” Emily said. They really didn’t want to leave any active traps in the workshops. “And then we can get started.”

    “This place has a lot of potential,” Yvonne said. “I look forward to it.”

    Emily nodded, slowly. “Did you have any ... troubles ... last night?”

    “I slept like a log,” Yvonne assured her. “A couple of my apprentices went sneaking out, but fortunately they got chased back to bed instead of being caught by something deadly.”

    “Tell them to be careful,” Emily said. “Really.”

    “I drilled it into them this morning,” Yvonne said. “But nothing happened to them.”

    As far as we know, Emily thought. We really are going to have to search the school from top to bottom.

    She finished her breakfast, spoke quickly to Master Highland about bringing more supplies from the city, then joined Hoban and Frieda as they headed down to the workshops. The doors they passed on the way led to classrooms, most of which were open and seemingly undisturbed. Emily felt cold as she inspected a charms classroom, which looked as if the class and teacher had simply popped outside a few minutes ago. But the room was cold and silent, without any bodies. They didn’t find anything interesting until they peered into an alchemy classroom. The stench of decay - of rotting potions ingredients - was so strong that it drove them back into the corridor.

    “The preservation wards must have failed,” Hoban said. “I’ll have to get a team together and clean the entire room.”

    “Please do.” Emily wrinkled her nose, casting spells to remove the smell. Dua Kepala must have been experimenting with potions. Or ... someone had been in the midst of brewing something when the wards fell. “And make sure it doesn’t pose any danger to the rest of us.”

    “Will do.” Hoban shot her a jaunty salute. “They didn’t have so much time to booby trap this section.”

    Emily frowned as they passed a mirror. “I hope you’re right,” she said. “I really hope you’re right.”

    The workshop doors were solid stone, held in place by magic. Emily could feel charms woven into the stone, keeping them closed despite everything Dua Kepala could do. She frowned as she watched Hoban go to work, wondering why Dua Kepala hadn’t managed to blast down the doors. He’d certainly tried. She could feel traces of his magic pervading the corridor, faint hints that suggested he’d brought most of his power to bear on the doors. It was a surprise he hadn’t managed to open the workshops.

    “Interesting hex on the lock,” Hoban commented. “I’d say it was put together by an experienced sorcerer, not just a schoolteacher.”

    He paused. “And it was locked from the outside too,” he added. “There wasn’t anyone inside - I hope - when the doors were closed.”

    Emily frowned. “The teachers here weren’t experienced?”

    “Oh, they would have been.” Hoban didn’t look up from his work. “But anyone who teaches, who demonstrates spells in a classroom, tends to develop a style that lacks ... individuality. It’s the difference between theory and practice. Here ... I’d say the person who barred the door hadn’t been teaching long, if they’d been teaching at all. There’s a certain flair to his work that you don’t normally find in a school.”

    “I’ve never heard that before,” Emily said. “Does it cause problems?”

    “It can.” Hoban looked up long enough to give her a wintery smile. “A sorcerer who uses common spells, spells that everyone knows and understands, is one who will have his spellwork hacked and taken apart from the inside. A sorcerer who develops his own style will be a harder target, but ... he’ll find it harder to teach, because of the variants he’s inserted in his spells. And once you get out of the habit of using such variants, it’s quite hard to get back into it.”

    The door clicked and opened. “Ah.”

    Emily stepped past him and peered into the workshop. It hadn’t been torn apart, like some of the other chambers, but it looked as if someone had ransacked it in a tearing hurry. Tools were clearly missing, along with pieces of wood, metal and gemstones. Doors leading further into the workshop sat open, revealing offices and private workrooms that would normally be sealed. She sniffed the air and tasted a strange mixture of sawdust, metal and the sink of human fear. The people who’d abandoned the chamber had feared for their lives.

    “I can’t sense much magic,” Hoban commented. “But go carefully anyway ...”

    “You stay here,” Emily said. She pretended not to see the look Frieda and Hoban exchanged. “I’ll check the room.”

    She ignored the sounds from behind her as she slowly swept the outer workshop. The chamber was immense ... and there were three more just like it, their doors gaping invitingly. She kept her senses open, spotting a pair of traps - both surprisingly non-lethal - as she peered through the doors. One workshop was completely empty, looking more like an abandoned gym than a place someone had lived and worked while crafting wonders from raw materials; the other two had clearly been ransacked, just like the first. She inspected the wooden tables without touching them, trying to determine what was missing, but it was impossible. If she hadn’t known how careful artificers and enchanters were with their tools, she wouldn’t have been so certain that tools were missing too.

    And they went somewhere, she mused. She found another door, barred and hexed shut from the outside. It looked as if there was more than one entrance to the workshops. That was odd, but perhaps understandable. Where did they go?

    She peered around, feeling a vague sense that something was missing, something right in front of her. It should have jumped out at her, but it took her several minutes to place it. There were few mirrors. The walls were bare, where they weren’t covered with spell diagrams or bookshelves. The ceiling was solid stone, completely bare save for a handful of crystals that - once upon a time - had probably illuminated the entire room. She felt her eyes narrow as she looked around. There was only one mirror in the third room, positioned against the far wall. Her reflection seemed to gaze back at her, forebodingly, when she tested it for magic.

    “Nothing,” she said, out loud.

    Frieda called from the first room. “Emily?”

    “Just woolgathering,” Emily called back. She turned and paced back through the chamber. There was a mirror in each of the rooms, even the offices, but just one. She found it something of a relief, even though it puzzled her. Why the change? Why here? “Why ...?”

    She forced herself to think. Mirrors were fragile, no matter how carefully they were charmed. It was possible that the mirrors had been broken - or simply removed to keep them from breaking. Or ... someone had made a deliberate decision to keep the workshops largely free of mirrors. That wouldn’t have puzzled her so much if she hadn’t seen the rest of the school. There were so many mirrors that the workshop stood out for having so few.

    And for having less lethal traps, she mused, as she carefully removed a handful of concealed hexes. There was something more ... playful about their positioning, as if they were designed to give unwary students a fright rather than actually hurt them. They’ll still be dangerous to the mundanes, if we leave them in place.

    She made sure to tap her feet as she walked back to the first room, giving Hoban and Frieda time to separate before she saw them. They looked mussed, as always; she smiled at them both, then indicated the room. Hoban went to work, sweeping for charms she’d missed; Frieda shot her a sharp look before checking the next room. Emily felt a hint of pity, mingled with amusement. Frieda had never liked either of her boyfriends. She’d given Caleb quite a hard time.

    “It’s surprisingly clear,” Hoban called. “I don’t think they expected to fight here.”

    “I think so,” Emily agreed. There were at least four ways into the workshops. It would be difficult to defend the chamber, even with powerful magic. The occupants might have decamped for somewhere safer. She wondered why none of them had tried to leave the school. Or, if they had, why they hadn’t made it. “What do you make of the workshop itself?”

    “Pretty high-quality tools and shit,” Hoban said. “I’d want it for myself if I swung that way.”

    Emily rolled her eyes. “Finish clearing the floors, then seal the classrooms between here and the Great Hall until we can clear them too,” she ordered. The alchemy classroom was going to require special attention. She’d have to see what Dram said about it, when he finally showed his face. He hadn’t made an appearance at breakfast. “Then they can start bringing stuff down here.”

    Hoban emerged. “I think it’s clear already, but I’ll give it one final sweep.”

    “Good,” Emily said. She heard voices from the corridor and looked up. Yvonne and Enchanter Praxis were walking down towards her. “We’re just finishing.”

    Yvonne looked impressed as she walked into the workshop. “This is pretty good, for a castle.”

    “It was a school, first and foremost,” Emily reminded her. Most castles were relatively small, compared to Whitehall or Heart’s Eye. “There had to be enough space for everyone.”

    “I’ll seal the doors,” Hoban said. “And then you can start bringing stuff down here.”

    “I’d like to take out the mirrors,” Yvonne said. “They’ll be broken if they stay here.”

    “That’s probably a good idea,” Praxis said. “I’ll see to it.”

    Emily watched as he went to work, trying to remove the mirror from the wall. But it refused to come free, no matter what he did. Emily’s eyes narrowed as a series of charms, one powerful enough to dent the stone wall, failed to budge the mirror. There was no magic in the mirror, as far as she could tell, yet ... it remained firmly in place. She stepped forward and ran her fingers down the edge. She couldn’t even feel the seam where the mirror met the wall. It felt as if the mirror had been merged into the wall at a molecular level.

    “Curious,” Praxis said. He rapped the mirror with his bare hands. “It feels normal, but I just can’t get it free.”

    “Cover it up,” Yvonne suggested. “We can put a bookcase in front of it.”

    “We might have no choice,” Praxis said. “What is this?”

    He looked at Emily. “Is it anchored to the wards?”

    “The wards were gone, when I first entered the school,” Emily reminded him. “The necromancer never bothered to protect his home, merely himself.”

    She reached out with her senses, probing the mirror. There was no magic, as far as she could tell. There was no hint there was anything supernatural at work. And yet, there was something. The mirror was practically part of the wall. On impulse, she leaned forward and put her ear to the mirror. She heard nothing, beyond the dull thudding of her heartbeat.

    Hoban snorted. “What are you doing?”

    “Good question.” Emily felt her cheeks heat as she pulled away from the mirror. Her reflection seemed to be laughing at her. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

    “Most things do,” Praxis said. “I’ll put a bookcase in front of the mirror. If we can’t move any of the others, we’ll just have to do the same to them.”

    Emily nodded. “We’ll seal off the rest of the classrooms,” she said. “Yvonne, tell your people to leave them alone - particularly the alchemy classroom - until we’ve had a chance to inspect them.”

    “Will do.” Yvonne gave her a tired smile. “You’ll be pleased to know we managed to draw water from the lake. The pipes appear to be largely intact, but ... right now, I’ve isolated most of the school from the plumbing network. We’ll have to inspect it, piece by piece, until we’re sure there aren’t any leaks.”

    “As long as we have water in the showers,” Emily said, firmly. She was starting to feel grimy again. She’d almost forgotten while she’d been busy. “And then we have some more work to do.”

    “It won’t ever end,” Yvonne predicted. She sounded tired too. “But that isn’t a bad thing, is it?”

    “Perhaps not.” Emily shrugged as she turned to look back at the mirror. “We have to get this place ready for students.”

    She watched as Praxis detached a bookcase from the wall and carried it over to the mirror, carefully placing it so the bookcase concealed the mirror from view. Emily frowned. The air had changed, although ... she wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it or not. She reached out with her senses once again, but sensed nothing. Even the vague feeling that something was there had gone. It was a relief, except she didn’t know what it was. Perhaps it was just her imagination.

    Or subtle magic, she reminded herself. The rune she’d carved into her chest hadn’t worked quite right, ever since she’d lost and regained her magic. She wasn’t sure why. The rune should have worked with or without magic. We’ll have to check for that too.
     
    Srchdawg-again and Sapper John like this.
  17. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    here

    Taste? Or turn?

    floor. (Thinking about the sarge?) (There is at least one other instance for "ground" that sorta looks like the same intent.)

    stink
     
  18. KrisP

    KrisP Monkey

    Hmmm.. if I remeber correctly, Emily used nexus point agianst Dua Kepala directly at the end of SA.

    students

    flattened
     
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven

    “The classroom is empty, as far as I can tell.” The Gorgon was standing just inside the room, looking tired. Her skin had taken on an odd greyish pallor that worried Emily more than she cared to admit. She didn’t know that much about Gorgons - no one did, save for the Gorgons themselves - but she doubted it was a good sign. “No traps or tricks at all.”

    “How suspicious,” Emily said. She stepped into the room and closed the door behind her, reaching out with her senses. There was no magic there, save for the two of them - the Gorgon had always had a strong presence - and the background hum of the wards. The mirrors were just ... mirrors. “Something is bound to be wrong.”

    The Gorgon eyed her, then nodded. “I heard some weird rumours about you, Emily.”

    “Which ones?” Emily tried to sound as though the concept didn’t bother her. “I hope it wasn’t the one about me defeating Shadye with the power of love, sweet love.”

    “No.” The Gorgon met her eyes. Emily found it hard to keep eye contact. “The rumours said you’d lost your magic.”

    Emily smiled, rather weakly. “Do I look insane?”

    “There are also people who say you are insane.” The Gorgon didn’t look away. “What happened?”

    “I was cursed,” Emily said, bluntly. “King Randor - Alassa’s father - cursed me in the last moments of his life. I lost my powers, very briefly. And that’s pretty much all there is to the story.”

    “I’m glad you recovered them,” the Gorgon said. “And that you invited me here.”

    Emily caught a hint of wistfulness in her friend’s voice and leaned forward. “Are you alright? I mean ...”

    The Gorgon laughed, humourlessly. “I’ll be fine.”

    “Really.” Emily sat down on one of the desks. “Do you want to talk about it?”

    “Not particularly.” The Gorgon sniffed, then sat facing her. “I just hoped ... I’d have an apprenticeship, just like everyone else.”

    Emily felt a twinge of sympathy. “You couldn’t find anyone?”

    “No one reputable,” the Gorgon said. “I had a couple of offers from dubious magicians, including one who specialised in creature magic, but neither of them were particularly good. I’d probably find myself being skinned alive if I went to them. Literally.”

    “I’m sorry to hear that,” Emily said. She’d never been very good at listening when someone poured out their troubles in front of her. “Didn’t you do well in your exams?”

    “I did very well.” The Gorgon’s bitterness shone through her flat tone. “But it wasn’t enough to get a good offer.”

    “You could try talking to Melissa,” Emily suggested. “Or Cabiria. They might know someone who’d be happy to take you on.”

    The Gorgon shook her head. Her snakes shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t want charity.”

    “I’m sure they’d be happy to make you pay through the nose for it,” Emily said. The thought caused her a twinge of unease. What would Void want, in exchange for taking her as an apprentice? They’d never discussed a price. “You’d be working for them, wouldn’t you?”

    “I couldn’t offer them anything unique,” the Gorgon pointed out. “Or anything they couldn’t get elsewhere, without the ... problems ... of taking me as a student.”

    “You’re a good student,” Emily said. “You wouldn’t have survived Whitehall if you hadn’t been.”

    “Yeah.” The Gorgon rubbed her snakes. “But I’m also a Gorgon.”

    Emily nodded, reluctantly. “What did your people have to say about it?”

    “Roughly translated, we told you so.” The Gorgon smiled. “There are some subtle points of what they said I can’t share with you, but ... that’s pretty much what it means. Quite a few of my tribe argued that I shouldn’t go, even if I did have a talent for magic. They thought I should study under the tribal shamans instead.”

    “I’d love to know more about them,” Emily said, honestly. “What would they teach you?”

    “I don’t know.” The Gorgon shrugged. “They don’t share their secrets with outsiders. And anyone who tries to spy on them winds up with a stony personality.”

    “I can imagine,” Emily said. Her one brush with gorgon magic had nearly killed her. “You will find a place here, I promise.”

    “I hope you’re right,” the Gorgon said. “But ...”

    She met Emily’s eyes, then indicated the mirror in the corner of the room. “Do you notice that, sometimes, the images in the mirror shift when you’re not looking?”

    Emily frowned. “... Sometimes. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it or ... or if there was something else there.”

    “This is a creepy building,” the Gorgon said. “It reminds me of some of the old places, near the heartlands. There are traces of magic there too, old magic. We’re not supposed to go anywhere near them.”

    “And you did?” Emily knew her friend. “What did you see?”

    “They found me wandering along the borderline, dazed and lost.” The Gorgon shuddered. “I don’t remember what I saw, if I saw anything. My” - she said a hissing word no human could have pronounced - “my ... ah, my great aunt told me I was lucky, that some people walked in and never came out again. And then she made sure I never went there again.”

    She shook her head, slowly. “She was very frightened, although ... I’m not sure what she was frightened of.”

    “Some old places can be very dangerous,” Emily noted. “The raw magic alone can be lethal.”

    “Yeah.” The Gorgon let out a hissing sigh. “And some others can be very informative, if approached correctly.”

    She gazed at the mirror, her reflection looking back at her evenly. “I think we need to figure out what actually happened here,” she said. “And quickly.”

    “We will.” Emily was sure of that, although she had no way to know how long it would take before they found answers. “Something must be written down somewhere.”

    “Don’t count on it,” the Gorgon grumbled. “My tribe never writes anything down. They’d kill anyone who suggested it. Better to rely on one’s memory than parchment and paper.”

    “Why?” Emily found it difficult to believe. “Who knows what might be forgotten over the years?”

    “The memory singers are very good,” the Gorgon told her. “Believe me, they never forget anything. But ...”

    She shook her head. “You know as well as I do that some secrets are never written down, or shared beyond a small circle. If everyone who knew the truth died when the school was invaded, then ... the secret would have died with them.”

    “We’ll figure it out,” Emily said. She made a deliberate decision to change the subject. “What else is new with you?”

    “Nothing good.” The Gorgon hesitated, noticeably. “My” - she made another hissing sound - “sent me a letter. Our marriage has been cancelled.”

    Emily blinked. “I didn’t know you were engaged.”

    “It was arranged, since birth.” The Gorgon looked down at her scaly hands. “He and I grew up together, knowing we would be married one day. The tribes arranged it for us. Now ... they tell us we won’t be getting married. His family has doubts about me.”

    “About you?” Emily stared in disbelief. “What sort of doubts?”

    “My magic,” the Gorgon said. “I told you. They would have preferred me to become a shaman.”

    Emily shook her head, slowly. She found it hard to believe that anyone would casually accept a marriage being arranged for them, certainly not one that had been arranged well before either party was old enough to give informed consent. It was easy to imagine two families pushing a reluctant bride and groom to tie the knot, even if they’d grown to hate each other. Even King Randor had been unwilling to betroth his daughter before she grew into adulthood. But ... she could also see why the Gorgon might have accepted it. If she’d grown up with her future partner, knowing they would be partners ...

    She frowned. “What did he have to say about it?”

    “Oh, nothing.” The Gorgon sniffed. “It wouldn’t be right for him to say anything about it.”

    “I don’t understand,” Emily said. “Why ...?”

    “Marriages are arranged by the adults,” the Gorgon said. “It can’t be left to the children. He simply accepted their decision, as was his duty.”

    “But ...” Emily thought, fast. “If everyone is married off, or at least paired off, will he ever find someone else?”

    “Probably,” the Gorgon said. “Some matches are never consummated. One of the partners dies or ... something happens to invalidate the match. And I’ve really said too much.”

    “I won’t tell anyone, not without your permission,” Emily assured her. “And you will always have a place here.”

    The Gorgon indicated her snakes. “Do you think everyone will accept me?”

    “They’d be fools not to,” Emily said, although she had to admit the Gorgon had a point. It was hard to look her in the eye, even if most of the horror stories about gorgons and their magic were nothing more than wild exaggerations. A thought struck her. “What do you want to study?”

    “Charms, perhaps,” the Gorgon said. “Or Alchemy.”

    “Why don’t you ask Mistress Irene for an apprenticeship, once she’s settled in?” Emily leaned forward. “She’ll need an assistant to run the university, someone who isn’t wedded to the old way of doing things. You might be ideal.”

    “If she’d take me.” The Gorgon shrugged. “She was always good to me.”

    Emily nodded. The Gorgon had always placed a high value on truthfulness and brutal honesty, even when it might be more diplomatic to be tactful. Emily rather suspected it was a tribal trait. The desert had little room for nuance, let alone anything that might pass for political correctness. Mistress Irene’s strictness - and dedication to her art - would have pleased the Gorgon, perhaps even reminded her of home. And Mistress Irene was always fair. She’d never given the Gorgon a hard time for being a gorgon.

    The Gorgon smirked. “Should I be asking you about Cat? Rumour linked your name with his ...”

    “We split up.” Emily tried to keep from blushing. “We had problems, when I was cursed, and ... it ended.”

    “That’s a pity.” The Gorgon grinned. “And Caleb is right here, right beside you.”

    Emily felt her cheeks heat. “We split up too.”

    “I’m sure he’s still interested in you,” the Gorgon teased. “Of course, at his age, he’d be interested in a hole in the wall ...”

    “Oh, shut up.” Emily tried to gather herself. “You could always send Gavin a note ...”

    The Gorgon sighed. “He wanted more than I could offer, back then. Now ... I don’t know what I want, let alone what he wants.”

    There was a tap on the door. Emily reached out, peering through the wards. “Caleb.”

    “He must have overheard us talking about him,” the Gorgon said. “Better look innocent.”

    Emily gave her a sharp look as Caleb opened the door and peered inside. “Emily?”

    “We were just talking about you,” the Gorgon said. She stood and swept towards the door. “Your ears must have been burning.”

    She walked out of the room closing the door behind her. Emily felt herself blush, again, as Caleb turned to face her. God alone knew what was going through his mind. Emily hoped he’d think the Gorgon had been teasing him. She could be quite playful at times, although her sense of the appropriate was somewhat lacking. Emily rather suspected that her society - and upbringing - had been more restrictive than she was prepared to admit.

    “Do I want to know?” Caleb sat down on a rickety chair. “Or should I just leave it to my imagination?”

    “We were just discussing the possibility of her being apprenticed to Mistress Irene,” Emily said. “If, of course, Mistress Irene wants her.”

    “And if she has time to take on an apprentice,” Caleb pointed out. “You’d have to ask her. No, maybe it shouldn’t be you who asks her. She won’t be happy if she feels she’s being pushed into taking an apprentice she doesn’t want.”

    Emily frowned. “Then what?”

    “Normally, prospective apprentices write to masters.” Caleb stroked his chin. “If the Gorgon wrote a formal letter, asking for an apprenticeship in exchange for service ... it might work. But, at the same time, Mistress Irene might be reluctant. Schools have had problems, in the past, when teachers and deputies were bound too closely to their master. No one would expect an apprentice to go against their master, whatever the master was doing.”

    “The Gorgon wouldn’t hesitate to tell Mistress Irene if she thought Mistress Irene was making a mistake,” Emily pointed out. “And Mistress Irene would listen.”

    “They wouldn’t be in a classroom,” Caleb countered. “The relationship between a master and an apprentice is always more ... intimate than a classroom with a dozen students and a single teacher. People are going to talk about you and Void, even if they think he’s your father.”

    “I know.” Emily nodded, stiffly. “Do they have reason to be concerned?”

    “They think he’s your father,” Caleb reminded her, dryly. “They’ll assume he went easy on you, instead of giving you the training you need. And if they knew the truth, they’d be even more concerned.”

    “Some people have too much time on their hands,” Emily said, tartly. “Do you think I should decline the apprenticeship?”

    “No.” Caleb gave her a faint smile. “Unless Lady Barb offers you an apprenticeship, of course. She would probably make a better teacher.”

    Emily had to smile. “She doesn’t feel that way,” she said. “She told me that, a few years ago.”

    “I hope you told her otherwise,” Caleb said. “I enjoyed learning from her, in Whitehall.”

    “Me too.” Emily felt her smile grow wider. “One of the better teachers, definitely. I’m hoping she’ll come teach here, when we’re up and running.”

    “That would be good,” Caleb said. “Mother wasn’t so impressed by the concept. I had to argue for hours before she’d agree to let me go.”

    Emily frowned. “I thought you were an adult.”

    Caleb coloured. “I am, but ... family.”

    “Yeah.” Emily felt ... she wasn’t sure how she felt. Pity and contempt and ... grim understanding. She couldn’t keep her irritation out of her voice. “Did your mother suggest any girls to you?”

    “A couple.” Caleb shook his head. “I ... I don’t want to talk about it. Or do you want to talk about Cat?”

    Emily groaned. “And there I was, thinking we were being discreet.”

    “People talk,” Caleb pointed out. “You should know that, by now.”

    “I know,” Emily said, waspishly. “What sort of rumours are there?”

    “A handful.” Caleb looked away. “Some say you were courting back during the war - the war here, I mean. Others ... that you had a brief relationship in Zangaria that neither of you expected to last.”

    Emily felt a hot flash of anger. She’d been dating Caleb, back during the Farrakhan War. She certainly hadn’t cheated on him, with Cat or anyone. And people were suggesting she had ... she wanted to find the person who was spreading that rumour, all of the rumours, and tear him apart with her bare hands. There was a blatant double standard about female sexuality, even amongst sorceresses, that never failed to grate. No one would have said anything if she’d been a man.

    “I didn’t start a relationship with him until after I left Whitehall,” she said, truthfully. Caleb might have done something stupid if he’d thought otherwise. “And then he ditched me, when I lost my powers.”

    “Idiot,” Caleb commented. “Didn’t he have faith you’d get them back?”

    “I think he got bored awfully easily,” Emily said. “And things were boring ...”

    Caleb met her eyes. “Don’t make excuses for him,” he said, sharply. “He should have stayed with you. It wasn’t as if he had somewhere else to go.”

    “I know.” Emily shook her head. “But ... in some ways, it was a relief.”

    She looked down at her hands, unsure of her feelings. It had been nice to be able to have a relationship without worrying about the future. And yet, as the relationship had grown, she had worried about the future. Cat had told her, openly, that they couldn’t last. She’d had no way to predict how the relationship would end, but she’d known it would end. She just wished she’d ended it on her terms.

    And talking to Caleb about it doesn’t help, she thought, as she stood and smoothed out her dress. It’s too awkward to talk to him about relationships ...

    “You should find someone,” she said, tiredly. “Perhaps you should try Aloha.”

    “She’s in the middle of a brilliant apprenticeship,” Caleb said. “And she wouldn’t look twice at me, in any case.”

    “She will, when she sees what you can do.” Emily smiled. “And there are others.”

    “Yes,” Caleb said. “Mother says the same.”

    “If we agree, we have to be right.” Emily winked at him. “I’m sure you’ll be beating them off with sticks, soon enough.”

    “Perhaps.” Caleb let out a sigh. “But whoever I choose has to be acceptable to my family.”

    “Or you could just get married first, then tell them to put up and shut up,” Emily said, remembering how Caleb’s family hadn’t been sure how to treat her. “Melissa followed her heart.”

    “Yes.” Caleb nodded, stiffly. “And just look at what it cost her. She was exiled, kicked out of her family. She was lucky her parents didn’t send assassins after her.”

    He cleared his throat. “In any case, we have other things to worry about right now. I came to tell you that the next convoy has arrived.”

    “Oh, good.” Emily accepted the change in subject without demur. “That will make some people very happy.”

    “And then we can get down to some real work,” Caleb agreed. “I’m quite looking forward to it.”
     
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve

    The rest of the week passed smoothly, somewhat to Emily’s surprise. A dozen convoys arrived from Farrakhan, bringing everything from new apprentices for the craftsmen to the supplies they’d need to turn their dreams into reality. Emily watched a small mountain of equipment - including a printing press and a forge - being unloaded, then steadily transferred into the storerooms beside the workshops. There was no shortage of magical supplies either, from potions ingredients to tools and equipment enchanters used to craft their work. It was costly - she knew she was spending more than she should, although it wasn’t as if the money was that useful sitting in a bank - but necessary. The university needed supplies to function.

    She spent most of her time exploring the school, steadily clearing corridors and chambers for occupation while watching over Jayson’s shoulder as he struggled to put the library into some semblance of order. It wasn’t easy. The books had apparently been poorly organised even before the school had been attacked, forcing him to start again from scratch. Emily was more mystified than she cared to admit by the shortage of information about mirror magic, beyond the very basics. There should have been something, even though it was a largely discredited branch of magic. But there was hardly anything ...

    “We still don’t know where the necromancer slept,” Caleb pointed out, one evening. “Did he sleep in the nexus chamber?”

    Emily shrugged. She still didn’t know if necromancers even needed to sleep, let alone where they slept. But it was odd that they hadn’t found something. Where had the necromancer spent most of his time? The library? The nexus chamber? Or had he practically abandoned the school, himself, after discovering the nexus point was dead? Emily found it hard to believe - she would never have left the school, if she’d taken it by force - but she had to admit it was possible. The necromancer might not have been that interested in a dead nexus point and an empty building. There was no way to know.

    On Saturday, she called the first meeting of the university board.

    Emily wasn’t sure what the conference room had actually been, before it had been converted into a place for the board to meet. It looked like a study, just like the rooms she’d used at Whitehall, but it was considerably larger than any reserved for mere students. The round table was stone, not wood; the chairs were surprisingly elegant, for a school in a country where wood was relatively rare. Emily suspected they’d been imported, in the years before Heart’s Eye was invaded and occupied. There would have been no trouble shipping them to the school through the portals. It might not even have cost very much either.

    She would have preferred something a little more informal, but Caleb had impressed upon her - when they’d planned the session - that the first meeting of the university board had to be as formal as possible. The others had to enter the room first, with her entry - as the chair - serving as the signal that the meeting was in session. It felt a little silly to Emily - and pointless, too - but she knew that some magicians and aristocrats took formality very seriously. It was bad enough that Master Highland had wanted to replace the round table with a rectangle, something that would have suggested a hierarchy even amongst the board members. She’d had to overrule him on that one.

    We’re meant to be equals, she thought, as she walked into the room. Master Highland and Senior Craftswoman Yvonne sat at opposite sides, both clearly pretending to ignore the other; Cirroc stood behind his master, holding a pen and a pad of paper. Alchemist Dram and Caleb sat together, the former looking mildly displeased; Professor Wyle sat alone, seemingly unbothered by his isolation. And I’m going to have to have a talk with him, sooner or later.

    She took her place at the de facto head of the table and looked around. Master Highland and Yvonne seemed grimly determined, while the others were masking their thoughts and feelings very well. She thought Caleb seemed nervous, but it was hard to be sure. They’d planned the session as best as they could, yet ... there were limits to how much they could plan, without knowing what everyone else could do. Sergeant Miles had drilled it into her head, time and time again, that no battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy. She supposed that was true of social planning too.

    “Mistress Irene will not be here for another three weeks,” Emily said. It wasn’t much of an opening, but it would have to do. “When she arrives, she will be the chair. Until then, it will be me.”

    Silence, broken only by the scratching of Cirroc’s pen. Emily felt her lips twitch. Master Highland had offered to chair the meetings, correctly guessing - no doubt - that Emily wouldn’t want the job herself, but she’d turned him down. It would have put altogether too much power into his hands. Stalin had been a secretary, she recalled. It was hard to understand how he’d turned that post into the most powerful - and feared - dictatorship in human history, but he’d clearly done it somehow. The power to decide who should speak - and who should be heard - was not to be sniffed at. She wondered, morbidly, if she should keep an eye on Cirroc’s ambitions. He hadn’t raised any protest at being forced to take the minutes.

    And he’d probably sooner be flogged than do women’s work, Emily thought, although she didn’t think that personal assistants had to be female. King Randor’s assistants and secretaries had all been male. I wonder if he realises just how much power he could claim if he tries.

    She dismissed the thought and continued. “It’s been a week,” she said. “Before we start, does anyone have any concerns they wish to raise?”

    Master Highland leaned forward. “Two mundanes entered the sorcerer’s dorm yesterday,” he said. “They could have been hurt.”

    “They were invited into the dorm by a friend, who happened to be a magician,” Yvonne countered. “You can hardly blame them for taking up the invitation.”

    “They shouldn’t have been invited into the dorm at all,” Master Highland snapped. “Their friend should have known better.”

    “Then discuss the issue with him,” Yvonne said. “Unless, of course, you’re scared he might abandon you for us.”

    Emily winced, inwardly. She’d never really liked it when her roommates - and dormmates - had invited strangers into the room. She had always felt exposed, even though she was perfectly safe. And, traditionally, a stranger couldn’t enter without permission. But ... she shook her head. Permission had been granted. And no one had complained that the visitors had overstepped their bounds.

    “I don’t think we can bar people from inviting friends to their rooms,” she said, calmly. “And the dangers can be handled.”

    “That brings us neatly to the first item on the agenda,” Caleb put in. “The rules.”

    “Yes,” Emily said. “Open the folder.”

    Caleb produced a leather folder and opened it to reveal a set of papers, which he placed on the table. “Given that most of our staff and students are supposed to be mature” - he ignored a handful of snorts - “we felt it was proper to minimise the number of rules. The ones we wrote are very basic, ranging from clear guidelines on social interaction to more specific rules regarding experiments, credit and patents. We welcome your input.”

    Master Highland took a paper and scanned it. “You intend to ban students from practicing magic on each other?”

    “Without consent,” Caleb said. “We don’t want someone walking down the corridor one moment and finding themselves a frog the next.”

    “Students testing their powers on their fellows is a long-standing tradition,” Master Highland insisted. “And one that will significantly weaken our students, if abandoned.”

    Emily felt a flash of angry, mingled with irritation. “Most of our students will be in their twenties,” she said. “Many of them will have already spent time at Whitehall or one of the other schools. They will already have had the advantages of learning magic in a place where they can - and perhaps will - be hexed without warning.”

    She gritted her teeth. She understood the logic, but she hated it. Some students might thrive, in an environment that demanded they sink ... or swim. Others wouldn’t do so well. The ones with less talent, the ones with less power ... they’d suffer. Emily remembered some of the pranks that had been played on her, during her first few years at Whitehall. She’d been one of the lucky ones. Her reputation had provided some degree of protection. Others had been far less fortunate. She knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that toughening someone up could easily become bullying.

    “And others do not have any magic,” she added, after a moment. “It would be unfair to ask them to compete in a game they couldn’t win.”

    “We could tell the students not to practice their magic on mundanes,” Master Highland pointed out, coolly. “It would be simple enough.”

    “But it would draw lines between magical and mundane students,” Emily countered. She wondered if he understood what it would really do. One group would looked favoured - and perhaps not the obvious one. People resented having to watch as others were given special treatment, even if - in an objective sense - they needed it. “Better to put a flat ban on magical mistreatment than try to pick and choose who gets to play.”

    Master Highland scowled. “You run the risk of hampering their education.”

    “They will have plenty of time to learn,” Emily said, reassuringly. “And they will learn other things too.”

    “True.” Yvonne smiled, primly. “Praxis and I have already made strides by combining magical and mundane techniques to produce something new.”

    “Good,” Emily said. She ignored Master Highland’s snort. “Do you have any objection to the rules, as stated?”

    “Nothing in particular,” Yvonne said. “And I look forward to getting to work.”

    Emily looked at Dram. “Alchemist?”

    “It will not be easy to expand the alchemist apprentice program,” Dram said, curtly. “I can and I will lecture an entire group of students, but I would prefer one-to-one training for actual brewing. My apprentices and I have some ideas - I admit that - yet the risks are quite considerable and effectively impossible to surmount. Indeed, some potions must be brewed in complete isolation. We dare not let them be contaminated by others.”

    “We may need to hire additional tutors,” Caleb said. “Can we not hire brewers, rather than full-fledged alchemists?”

    “There are dangers in hiring brewers,” Dram said. “No brewer is ever aware of the subtleties of alchemy - if they were, they would be alchemical masters themselves. Their techniques are often lacking becuase they have no core understanding of what they’re doing. They might be able to teach individual potions, particularly the truly complex brews, but not the theory behind them.”

    “We might trade,” Emily suggested. “They instruct our students in brewing; we teach them to become masters in their own right.”

    “You misunderstand.” Master Highland’s voice was heavy with foreboding - and a hint of satisfaction. “A brewer would not be able to talk a student through the process, underlining what is actually happening as they worked. They would certainly be unable to relate what they’re doing to other potions, pointing out the similarities and differences. You would be hampering the students in the long term.”

    “But if the students already understood, perhaps through reading, it wouldn’t matter,” Caleb said.

    “Any fool can read a book,” Master Highland said. “But experience? That comes through doing - and it isn’t something that can be taught.”

    “We will certainly be doing a lot of experimenting,” Dram said. He shot Master Highland a sharp look. “Given time, we will be able to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

    “We already know what works and what doesn’t,” Master Highland snapped.

    “The whole point of this project is to figure out newer and better ways to do things,” Emily said. She kept her voice calm, somehow. “Not all of our ideas will work. Of course not - we’ll have a list of failures longer than my arm by the end of the year. But some of them will and we will build on them.”

    “Which brings us to the Sorcerer’s Rule,” Master Highland said. “You intend to overthrow it?”

    “I intend to rewrite it, at least for people who do their research here.” Emily met his eyes, evenly. “You know as well as I do that expense is one of the great limiting factors in research, mundane as well as magical. If we underwrite a researcher’s expenses, we should have a right to share in the proceeds.”

    “More than just a right to claim the profit,” Master Highland stated. He picked up one of the papers and waved it at her. “You intend to share what they discover with other researchers.”

    “Yes.” Emily didn’t look away. “Every discovery, magical and mundane, is based on a previous discovery. The researchers didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, every time they wanted to invent something new. They worked on what they already had and improved it. I understand the Sorcerer’s Rule - and yes, I have benefited from it - but it is also a barrier to innovation. If someone works here - if we fund their work - we want the right to share their work with others, who may improve upon it.”

    “And how do we prove,” Master Highland asked. “who made the first discovery?”

    “There are spells to detect lies,” Caleb said. “And anyone who tried to claim a new discovery could surely show their work.”

    “Perhaps.” Master Highland didn’t sound convinced. “It won’t sit well with the traditionalists.”

    Including you, Emily thought. And the hell of it is that you might have a point.

    She put the thought to one side and leaned forward. “We’re not trying to stop the traditionalists from being traditional,” she said. “We’re just trying to find newer and better ways to do things.”

    “And we do have a model for how the system works,” Yvonne inserted. “The Patent Office in Cockatrice works surprisingly smoothly. People who make discoveries have to share what they’ve discovered, true, but they also profit from their inventions. Quite a few craft shops and factories are based on a single discovery - and the profit that resulted.”

    “We shall see,” Master Highland said. “I submit that many traditionalists will not join.”

    “Then they will be left behind,” Emily said. “A thousand minds are better than one.”

    “If only that were true,” Master Highland muttered.

    Emily shrugged. He’d see the truth of it soon enough. The innovations she’d introduced had been very basic, by earthly standards, but the locals had take the ideas she’d given them and run with them. She hadn’t predicted just how quickly steam engines would make their appearance, or muskets and blunderbusses. It was just a matter of time before steamboats started appearing on the rivers and heading down to the open seas. None of the locals had come up with the ideas for themselves, but once they’d been gifted the concept ... she smiled to herself. It was astonishing just how much could be done if one crowd-sourced one’s ideas.

    Master Highland cleared his throat. “I will look for brewers - and masters - who might be able to help,” he said. “But I don’t know how many will come, or on what terms.”

    “We won’t make any special offers,” Emily said, firmly. “Mistress Irene might have other ideas, but ...”

    She shrugged. “Does anyone have any other concerns?”

    Yvonne looked embarrassed. “Something that should have been pointed out earlier,” she said, grimly. “There’s both too much and too little decay.”

    Emily blinked. “Too much and too little?”

    “Yes.” Yvonne met her eyes, evenly. “I’ve been told that the mattresses shouldn’t have decayed completely, not in a mere ten years. And yet, most of the books in the library have remained intact and readable ...”

    “They will have been charmed to survive the worst students could do to them,” Master Highland injected. “That’s no surprise. I would be more astonished if the books were dust.”

    “Perhaps.” Yvonne’s face went curiously blank. “So what happened to the mattresses? And clothes. Where have they gone? Or did the students attend their lessons in the buff?”

    “I assure you we wore robes,” Master Highland snapped.

    “Perhaps the necromancer took them,” Caleb said. “Or close proximity to his power caused them to decay into dust.”

    “I’ve never heard of a necromancer literally causing decay,” Master Highland said. He glanced sharply at Emily. “Emily?”

    “Never.” Emily shook her head. She’d read everything she could on necromancy, but there simply hadn’t been much. “I never thought to check Shadye’s fortress for mattresses.”

    “And some of my people are seeing things,” Yvonne continued. “They’re seeing things in the mirrors, or out of the corners of their eyes ...”

    “A common reaction, when mundanes enter a high-magic environment” Master Highland rumbled. “It’s nothing to be scared of.”

    “Perhaps,” Emily mused. She’d seen things too, hadn’t she? And she wasn’t the only one. “We still don’t know why they covered the school in mirrors.”

    “Perhaps the mundanes should remain in Heart’s Ease,” Master Highland said. He sounded suspiciously reasonable. “They can work there and ...”

    “No,” Emily said. It was bad enough that they’d have to set up the powder mill and factories outside the school, if not outside the wards. “We have to work together.”

    “If you say so,” Master Highland said. He produced a folder of his own. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have some thoughts about class structure and organisation.”

    Emily sighed, inwardly, and settled down to some hard bargaining.
     
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