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Original Work Oathkeeper (Schooled in Magic 20)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, May 15, 2020.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    Oathkeeper is Book 20 of Schooled in Magic, which will both pick up the oath Emily swore all the way back in Schooled in Magic and serve as a game-changer for the entire series. Basically, all you need to know is that Emily swore an oath to pay an unspecified price to the Unseelie Court in exchange for assistance in saving her friends from Shadye’s forces. The time has come for her to repay it.

    I don’t think it can reasonably be described as remotely stand-alone ... and you probably need to have read the others to make sense of it, but I’ll do my best to add context as I go along.

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

    I hope to keep a steady pace, but I’m still trapped at home and going crazy (I’m immunocompromised, so I’m not allowed to leave the house) 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>).

    Or simply follow me here. <grin>

    Thank you very much for your time.

    Chris

    PS - If you read, please comment from time to time. It encourages me.

    PPS - Normal service will start on Monday.
     
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  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue I

    Emily dreams.

    She knows she is dreaming, although she doesn’t know how. The dreams are a blur of visions, of things that happened and things that didn’t happen and things that happened, but happened differently. She sees faces - Alassa, Frieda, Jade, Cat - in places they’d never been, doing things they’d never done. The dreams are so confusing that she can barely follow the thread, if indeed there is a thread. And every time she wakes, the dreams are gone.

    In her dream, she is a firstie again, in a class she shouldn’t have taken. Not yet. She sees herself - and Jade, and Cat, and Aloha - running through the valleys and mountains, trying to escape the orcs. Sergeant Harkin leads them, bellowing encouragement as he fights to buy them time. She sees an orcish blade slice through his neck ...

    She wakes, tears stinging her cheeks. It didn’t go that way!

    And then she dreams again. The orcs are surrounding them, closing in ... each one a shambling parody of the worst of humanity. She wants to run, but there is nowhere to go ... Jade is dead, Cat is dead, Aloha is dead ... Alassa is dead. Alassa wasn’t there ... the alternates buzz through her dreams, each one bringing new horrors. She dies, the last of the team to fall. The orcs take them, doing unspeakable things before they finally die; the orcs hand them over to Shadye, who takes her power and uses it for himself. Whitehall falls, the wards shattered, the walls cracked like eggshells. And a new monster is born.

    But it didn’t go that way!

    She tries to focus, tries to break out of the nightmare. It didn’t go that way! She tries to recall what really happened, how they escaped from the orcs ... some of her memories are missing, her imagination trying to fill in the gaps and failing. Others ... she twists, crying out in her sleep. The dreams haunt her, mock her. Nothing is real. Everything is real. All is real and nothing is real ...

    They’d been on a forced march. She remembers that much, although it’s hard to be sure. Not in the dream. And they’d been attacked by Shadye’s minions. And she’d escaped and ...

    The alternates surge forward, driving her memories - the real memories - away. She dies, and wishes she lives. She lives, and wishes she died. Her friends die, time and time again; her tutors and mentors curse her name, curse her for what she brought to their walls. She lives long enough to see everything broken, to see a dark and hungry god unleashed upon the land. She watches, helplessly, as a nightmare moves north, killing everyone brave enough to stand against it. Brave or coward, it matters not. They die. The world dies.

    But it didn’t go that way!

    The memories surface, briefly. She’d made a deal. She’d made a promise. And she’d sworn an oath to the Unseelie. And she’d saved her friends. And ...

    Emily wakes, to a bed drenched in sweat. The dream overshadows her mind. She isn’t sure if she is awake, or if she still dreams. The waking world seems a fragile place, weak and frail compared to the realm of nightmares. She fears she is losing her mind, she fears she is trapped forever within the dream. She blinks ...

    ... The alarm rings ...

    ... And the dream is gone.
     
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  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue II

    The chamber would have horrified any normal man, Rangka knew. It would have horrified him, in the half-forgotten days before he’d embraced necromancy. It was a barren cave, the walls unmarked by paintings or runes or anything else that would have marked it as the home of an intelligent creature. Servants scurried about, trying not to catch his bright red eyes. They knew he could kill them - or worse - on a whim. There was no point in being loyal if one knew it would never - could never - be recognised, let alone rewarded. Their master was mad.

    Rangka knew it to be true. He was mad. He was the oldest necromancer known to live, a feat he couldn’t have managed if he hadn’t kept some grip on reality, but he felt the madness howling at the back of his mind. It didn’t bother him, even though he knew - on some level - that it should. The person he’d been - the name he’d abandoned long ago - would have been horrified to know what he’d become. That didn’t bother him either. The person he’d been was dead and gone.

    Power throbbed through the air, his awareness reaching out to encompass the approaching armies trudging their way through the ashy mud. Neither of his prospective allies had come alone, knowing - as well as himself - that the rewards of treachery could be great indeed. Thousands of orcs, creatures raised from the depths ... and, behind them, slave-soldiers bound to their master’s will. He drew his awareness back, slightly, as the other two necromancers made their shambling way through the caves, their mere presence sending Rangka’s servants fleeing for their lives. One necromancer was a nightmare beyond comprehension. Three in one spot heralded the end of all things. Reality itself seemed to hang on a knife edge as the necromancers faced each other. The only thing keeping them from trying to kill each other was the certain knowledge that the one who didn’t join the early confrontation would be the winner. And yet ... the chamber hummed with tension. Being together, being so close, felt unnatural. It was the one thing, Rangka acknowledged privately, the necromancers had in common with their enemies. They should not be together.

    He wanted to reach out with a spell to sooth their tempers, to make them listen to him, but he knew such subtle magics were beyond him. He’d paid a price for his power, a price he hadn’t realised until it was too late. He had immensely destructive spells at his fingertips - power burned through his veins, threatening to burst out and consume everything if he lost his grip - but he could no longer cast the simple spells of his childhood. They were beyond him, despite his power. He could no longer shape the spellwork to make them work ... and besides, the others wouldn’t be affected. They were creatures of magic now, not men. They couldn’t be manipulated through magical means.

    Rangka braced himself, trying to shape his arguments. Cold logic told him they should work together, against the common foe, but logic and reason had no control over them. He found the idea of sharing the risk and the reward difficult to comprehend, even though - again - cold logic told him there would be enough rewards for everyone. It wouldn’t last, he knew. They would battle their enemies until they were victorious, then battle each other until there was only one, standing in the midst of a dead world. A dark god, a power beyond imagination ... a hungry creature that would eventually - inevitably - starve.

    No! He refused to think about their fate. It could not be true.

    He looked from one to the other. Bersuit was a hooded man, his skin blackened and burnt by fires until it was unnaturally charred. He was the most human of the necromancers, yet - perhaps - one of the most dangerous. His body looked humanoid, to the naked eye. Rangka could sense things writhing under the cloak, things that defied even his sensors. Gerombolan was a walking skeleton, wrapped in blue fire. His red eyes were the only hint he so much as had a face. It wasn’t clear how he walked. And Rangka himself was a rotting corpse, animated only by his magic. He’d long since ceased to care.

    “Dua Kepala is dead,” Rangka said, curtly.

    “Good.” Bersuit’s voice was as cracked as his soul, a rasping screech that would have deafened a normal man. “His lands will be ours.”

    “And so is Shadye,” Rangka said. “They were both killed by the same person. A sorceress called Emily.”

    “The Necromancer’s Bane.” Gerombolan’s voice was utterly inhuman. “They say she is our doom.”

    “She has killed two of the most powerful of us, in less than five years,” Rangka said. It was hard to measure time, in the Blighted Lands. “They’re dead and gone.”

    “And so their lands are ours,” Bersuit hissed. His armies were already laying claim to Shadye’s former territories, doing their level best to avoid the Inverse Shadow. “So what?”

    Rangka stared at the hooded man. “How long until she comes for us?”

    “She will not kill me,” Gerombolan said. “I am beyond death.”

    “Shadye thought the same,” Rangka reminded him. “He was wrong.”

    He understood, better than he cared to admit. Necromancers died all the time. A sorcerer who was unable to handle the sudden burst of power would be destroyed by it; a newborn necromancer, a beacon of power to those with eyes to see, could be killed by an older necromancer before he had a chance to establish himself, seizing lands and human livestock to make something of himself. And even the older necromancers weren’t that old. The Blighted Lands were a constantly-shifting morass of endless scrabbling, wars and treacherous backstabbing. They were penned in, held prisoner by the terrain and the ever-watchful guards. There was nowhere to go. Shadye had attacked Whitehall and Dua Kepala had crossed the Desert of Death and neither had returned alive.

    “How long will it be,” he repeated, “before she comes for us?”

    The words hung in the air. It was hard to believe a lone girl could defeat one necromancer, let alone two. The stories he’d heard credited her with killing ten necromancers - or a hundred, or a thousand - and he knew that wasn’t true, but neither Shadye nor Dua Kepala had survived their wars. Rangka had heard enough to believe there was some truth to the story. It was a rare magician who took on a necromancer and lived to tell the tale. A lone girl killing two - or more - necromancers was difficult to believe. And yet it had happened.

    “We will end her, if she comes,” Gerombolan said. “She will feed us ...”

    “If we survive long enough,” Rangka said. “We cannot let her come to us.”

    He pointed towards the walls - and the distant mountains beyond. “We must fight now, before she comes for us. We must get over the mountains and ravage the lands beyond.”

    Gerombolan made a hissing sound. “And how do you intend to achieve this ... wonder?”

    “By working together, we can break through the mountains,” Rangka said. “If we combine our powers, and our forces, we can break into the lands beyond. And then there would be no stopping us.”

    He saw it, a vision on the verge of becoming reality. The Allied Lands had been lucky. They could hide beyond high mountains, impassable oceans and passes guarded by a network of fortresses and walls. They couldn’t match the necromantic forces in hand-to-hand combat, or sheer power, but they could slow them down immensely. If the mountains were to be destroyed, or merely weakened, the armies could advance through the rubble, an endless wave of blood-maddened orcs and monsters and slaves ...

    His rotting mouth fell open in a smile. It was going to be glorious.

    He spoke on, telling his allies his plans ...

    ... And, all the while, preparing to betray them the moment they outlived their usefulness.
     
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  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    “I have grown to hate mirrors.”

    Emily stood in the spellchamber, eying the mirror warily. It was the only object within the chamber, a large freestanding mirror big enough to show her body from tip to toe. There were no magics surrounding it, nothing suggesting it was enchanted - or a gateway to an alien realm - but she didn’t feel any better as her image looked back at her. She looked ... tired, tired and worn. The dreams, the dreams she couldn’t remember, had disturbed her more than she cared to admit.

    She rubbed her eyes, feeling them narrow as she studied her reflection. Was her hair a little darker? Were her eyes a little harder? Her bearing a little stronger? Six months of apprenticeship, six months of everything from magic study to tests that were disguised missions, had changed her, in ways she was only beginning to appreciate. Void was a good teacher, she acknowledged. He knew things she’d never known existed. And yet, she was slowly starting to realise he also had his own agenda. The missions she’d carried out on his behalf had served a greater purpose. She just wished she knew what it was.

    Forget it, for the moment, she thought. Right now, you need to stay focused.

    She studied her reflection thoughtfully. She hadn’t changed that much, had she? It was hard to be sure. Void had kept her hopping, practicing magic daily. She’d grown used to being his student. And yet ... she rested her hands on her hips, studying herself in the mirror. The black apprentice robe was strikingly simplistic, nothing more than a shapeless black dress. Void had given her very clear orders not to wear anything else, even hairpins or the snake-bracelet. She’d let her hair fall down her back and left the transfigured snake in her bedroom. He wouldn’t have told her to wear as little as possible if he hadn’t had a good reason.

    “Emily.” Void stepped into the room, his face calm and composed. “Are you ready?”

    Emily turned to face him, clasping her hands behind her back. Void was inhumanly tall, easily a head taller than himself. His face was oddly timeless, framed by dark hair that seemed to have grown a little longer in the past few months. It was hard to remember, at times, that he was literally old enough to be her great-grandfather. And yet ... she could sense his power, bristling around him like a thunderstorm. He wasn’t making any attempt to mask his power. No magician her age had such a presence.

    “I think so,” she said. They’d gone over the spellwork time and time again, assessing each and every section of the spell. It was easy to see, now, why so few magicians risked casting the spell, even when it would have come in handy. Being in two places at once wasn’t as simple as it sounded. “Are you?”

    “I’m not the one who has to cast the spell,” Void said. He moved past her, peering suspiciously into the mirror. “If you want to back out, now is the time.”

    Emily shook her head. She understood the risks. The books he’d given her to read had discussed the risks in graphic detail. They’d even included illustrations that - Void had told her - were surprisingly close to reality. But she also knew she couldn’t step back now. Mastering magic - and using it - had become her cause. She wanted - she needed - to keep going until she reached the top. The possibility - the very serious possibility - that there was no top didn’t deter her.

    And yet, she reflected as Void paced around the mirror, such power came with a price. It was harder and harder to remember, sometimes, that there was an outside world. The missions he’d sent her on, over the past few months, had felt like distractions from her real work. The ever-growing pile of letters from her friends - and others - rested on her desk, largely unopened. It was hard - now - to keep track of what was happening in the outside world. She had to force herself, sometimes, to go outside. Even meeting her friends was difficult.

    She yawned, suddenly. The dreams - the dreams she couldn’t remember - nagged at her mind, tormenting her. She’d wondered if they were a sending, a subtle attack from one of her enemies, but it was hard to imagine a spell that could reach through the wards. Void’s tower was practically invulnerable, even to a magician who operated on the same level. Emily had lived in the tower for months and yet she knew she hadn’t even come close to learning all its secrets. It was bigger on the inside, with chambers and lairs she barely knew existed. She wondered, at times, what might be within the structure she didn’t even imagine existed.

    Void glanced at her. “Are you ready?”

    “Yes.” Emily unclasped her hands, steadying herself. “I’m ready.”

    “Stand in front of the mirror,” Void instructed, as if he hadn’t gone over the details time and time again. It was a measure of how dangerous the spell could be, if the casting went wrong, that he’d practically nagged her into memorising each and every detail. It was so out of character for him that she’d studied the spell and all its variants extensively. “Make sure your entire body is reflected in the mirror.”

    Emily stepped forward until she was standing right in front of the mirror. Her reflection gazed back at her. Emily studied herself again, silently grateful she couldn’t see any differences. The reflection was a reflection, not an alternate vision of herself. Her other self was dead, or trapped on the wrong side of the dimensional barriers. She’d studied every book she could find on mirror magic and none of them had gone any further than shaping a pocket world on the other side of the mirror. The meeting with alternate timelines was - apparently - unprecedented. It was unlikely she’d meet her other self here.

    She looked up and down, from tip to toe. She was encompassed within the mirror. The wall behind her looked utterly bare, sensibly bare. There’d be nothing and no one else to be caught up within the spell. Void had said it was possible to cast the spell with a smaller mirror, or no mirror at all, but it was better to start small. Emily’s lips twitched at the thought. It was rather like learning to juggle and starting with knives and daggers, rather than chainsaws. The danger was only minimised in comparison. It didn’t go away.

    “Start the spell when you’re ready.” Void’s voice was very quiet. He’d masked his power so thoroughly she couldn’t sense his presence. It was hard to remember he was even there, even though he’d told her - time and time again - not to even consider trying the spell without him. “Or step back, if you’re not up to it.”

    Emily lifted her head and looked into her reflection’s eyes. Magic sparkled through her, pervading every cell of her body. She’d grown more and more used to thinking of it as a part of her, as much her as her arms and legs. It was a danger as well as a boon, Void had cautioned her, yet ... it was hard to believe it could be dangerous. And yet, she knew it. The danger of forgotten how she did things - and then losing the ability to improve upon her spells - was very real. And if she fell into that trap, she’d peak. She’d never get any better.

    The spell glimmered in her mind, a remarkably complex piece of magic. She’d seen the spellwork back in her first year, but ... she hadn’t been able to follow it, let alone cast it. Now ... she could see how the different sections interacted, how they worked together to create a duplicate of herself. No, not a duplicate. Two minds in one body. One body in two minds. A balance between the two ... she kept her eyes open, focused on the mirror, as she gingerly brought the spell to life. The magic surged around her. She felt as if she were caught in a hurricane, as if she were being shoved and yanked to one side ... her head spun, unable to cope with the sudden shift in sensation. She felt ...

    She stumbled, the magic sparkling out of existence. “Blast!”

    “Calm,” Void advised. “I didn’t expect you to get it on your first try.”

    Emily felt her cheeks flush, even though she knew he was right. She’d done more, in a few brief seconds, than many other magicians would ever do. It would be a long time before she matched Void, before she was a Lone Power in her own right, but she was already well ahead of many others. She scowled at the thought, reminding herself not to get too conceited. She’d met too many magicians who thought having magic made them little gods to want to go the same way herself. They’d thought ...

    “I know.” Emily put the thought out of her head. She knew better. She wasn’t going to go that way. “I wanted to impress you.”

    “You already have.” Void sounded surprisingly warm. She felt a thrill of pride. “But you have to proceed at your own pace. There’s nothing to be gained by trying to go too fast.”

    Emily nodded as she looked back at her reflection. “I’m going to try again.”

    “Then try,” Void said. “Once more. Just once.”

    Do or do not, there is no try, Emily thought. She had a feeling Void would not have approved of Yoda, if they’d met. Sometimes you try as hard as you can and still fail.

    She took a long breath, then lifted her head and started the spell again. This time, the surge of magic felt stronger, more focused. She felt something pulling at her, but also pushing at her ... she was being pulled in two directions at once. She wanted to resist, to fight the feeling even though she knew that trying would be the worst thing she could do. She had to give into the sensation, somehow keeping control while giving up control ... a year ago, she wouldn’t have had the discipline to make the spell work. She wouldn’t even have been able to believe two contradictory things at once.

    A thoroughly unpleasant - and indescribable - sensation ran through her. She stumbled to the side, her legs quivering uneasily. The world was dark. Her eyes were closed ... when had she closed them? She opened them ... and found herself staring into her own face. The mirror ... no, not the mirror. Her counterpart ... her head spun as she realised she was staring into her own face, her true face. She’d split herself into two bodies ...

    “Do I ...?”

    She stopped. Her voice sounded odd in her ears. Both sets of ears. Of course ... she didn’t normally hear herself talking, not as if she was a different person. She’d read something about it somewhere, although she couldn’t remember the details. Alassa had joked that people who fell in love with the sound of their voices did so because they couldn’t hear themselves ...

    “Incredible,” she - they - said, as one. It was hard to disentangle themselves completely. They were the same person. “Do I really look like that?”

    Her perspective shifted. She was looking at herself. Her other self. She could see Void standing by the wall, watching them with thoughtful eyes. She understood, suddenly, why he’d insisted she wore as little as possible. It might have been safer to be naked, the first time she’d tried the spell. But she couldn’t have done that, not in front of him. Or anyone, really. She felt her thoughts starting to fracture ... her perspective shifted again, until she was looking away from Void. It felt weird, as if she was in two places at once ... she was in two places at once, one mind in two bodies. She looked down and saw her other self look down too. They hadn’t split completely, then. They were still intermingled at a very primal level.

    “Good,” Void said. His voice was suddenly hard, hard and commanding. “And now, turn away from each other.”

    Emily tried to turn, but it was hard. Invisible ropes seemed to be holding her firmly in place, keeping her and her other self looking at each other. She felt her mind switch bodies time and time again, Void blinking in and out of view with each shift. It felt odd, so odd ... wrong, yet not painful. She found herself taking a step towards herself ... her head spun as she struggled to stay still, to stay in two places at once. Her vision blurred, very slightly, as she forced herself to turn. It felt as if she were doing something fundamentally wrong ...

    “Emily ...”

    She looked at Void. “What?”

    Her master seemed surprised, his eyes going wide as Emily’s legs buckled as she fell to the ground. He hadn’t said anything. It hadn't been his voice. Emily felt her vision start to blur again, growing worse with every passing second. Her other self ... she was suddenly in the other body, staring at herself on the floor. She couldn’t follow what was happening, she couldn’t understand it and ...

    “Emily ...”

    The voice echoed through her mind. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. And yet, she felt her thoughts start to fragment. She was in two places - no, many places. She was already on the floor, yet it came up and hit her ... darkness swallowed her, pain surging through her body. And ...

    Void’s face came into view, hazily. “Emily?”

    “I ...” Emily swallowed hard. Her head hurt. Her memories ... she felt a twinge of pain as she realised she’d literally been in two places at once. It hurt to even think about what had happened and yet she had no choice. “What happened?”

    “You didn’t disentangle yourself correctly.” Void helped her to sit up, then conjured a glass of water from the air and held it out to her. “You split your body into two, but you didn’t quite managed to split your mind.”

    Emily sipped the water, gingerly. It tasted pure, so pure it was practically tasteless. “It felt ... wrong.”

    “It does, yes.” Void sounded pensive for a long moment. “Even trying can feel like committing suicide. The trick is to maintain your mental integrity while tearing it in two.”

    He smiled, humourlessly. “And if you can grasp the contradiction,” he added, “you’ll be one step closer to making it work.”

    “I’ll try,” Emily said. Her memories felt weird, as if she’d collapsed and watched herself collapse ... as if she had two sets of memories. She supposed she had, in a sense. “I thought I heard someone calling my name.”

    Void frowned. “You might have imagined it,” he said, slowly. “Your thoughts were being split in two. You could have been thinking to yourself, hearing your own thoughts.”

    “... Maybe.” Emily wasn’t so sure. The voice hadn’t been hers. What did her thoughts sound like anyway? She knew how to recognise someone else, by their mental voice, but ... what would her own thoughts sound like? She thought she’d know her own thoughts. And yet, it had been oddly familiar. “I don’t know.”

    She passed him the glass, which sparkled into nothingness as soon as he took it, and tried to stand. Her legs felt weak, as if she couldn’t quite stand by herself. Void held out a hand, allowing her to lean on him as she stumbled to her feet. The mirror was a pile of shattered glass, lying on the floor. Emily winced, despite herself. The Heart’s Eye mirrors had shattered too, when they’d broken contact with the alternate dimension ...

    “No more magic today,” Void said, firmly. If he noticed the way her mind was wandering, he said nothing. “Go back to your room and rest. Eat dinner in bed, if you don’t feel up to joining me. Or sleep. We can go through the spell tomorrow before we try again.”

    “Yes, sir,” Emily said. She was suddenly very aware of her own tiredness. Her body felt weak and worn. Her magic felt as if she’d pushed it right to the limit. The concept seemed so simple, but turning it into reality had nearly killed her. She felt a stab of pain in her head and shuddered, trying not to be sick. The simplest concept could be the hardest to make real. “How long did it take you to master the spell?”

    Void gave her a sidelong look. “I’d say it isn’t a spell one can ever truly master,” he said. “It depends on your ability to control magic, true, but also your ability to ... separate your thoughts and then merge yourself back together. My old master made crude jokes to ensure I got the point. I couldn’t afford to think of myself as two people or reintegration would become impossible. You’ll have the same problem.”

    “I see, I think.” Emily wasn’t sure that was true. “And what happens if something happens to me? I mean, to one of me?”

    “It depends on the spell.” Void shook his head. “Go get some rest. We’ll discuss it later, when you’ve had time to consider what happened and then try again. And don’t try it without me. You cannot afford to be alone if something goes wrong.”

    Emily nodded. “I understand.”

    “See that you do,” Void said. “Do you need help to get back to your room?”

    “No,” Emily said. She thought she could walk to her room before she collapsed. “I can make it on my own.”

    “That’s what they all said,” Void told her. She remembered, suddenly, that he’d had students before her. “And they were all wrong.”
     
  5. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    Herself or someone not yet on stage?
     
  6. silentechoes

    silentechoes Monkey+

    The danger of forgotten how she did things

    forgetting?
     
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    “My Lady?”

    Emily sat upright in bed. Silent was standing by the door, her expression as bland and unreadable as always. Emily felt an odd little twinge. The maid might have been with her for six months, doing everything from laying out her clothes to serving her food, but their relationship had never progressed beyond strictly formal. Emily had tried to befriend her, as she’d befriended so many others, yet Silent seemed all too aware of the gulf between them. They could never be equals, never ...

    “Yes?” Emily’s voice sounded raspy, even in her own ears. “What time is it?”

    “Dinnertime,” Silent said. “Should I bring you a tray?”

    “Yes, please,” Emily said. She’d slept, but she didn’t feel particularly rested. The dreams had pervaded her mind, mocking her. And yet, she couldn’t remember them. “I’ll come into the living room.”

    She glanced at the clock as she drew back the covers and clambered out of bed. It was late evening, although it was largely meaningless inside the tower. Void seemed to keep his own hours, sometimes keeping her busy late into the night and allowing her to sleep in the following day. She wondered, sometimes, how the maids coped with a master who never stuck to a regular schedule. She supposed they followed a rota so there’d be someone ready to carry out their master’s orders at all hours of the day.

    And they’re well paid for their time, she mused. She’d made sure of that, months ago. They can go home after a year or so with good references and a nice nest egg.

    She splashed water on her face, then walked into the living room. A tray of food awaited her, held within a suspension spell. Silent dropped a curtsey, then left the room. Emily felt her stomach rumble as she popped the spell, then started to eat. Void’s menu still struck her as surprisingly plebeian, for one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world. She wondered, sometimes, if he was sending her a message. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t enjoy delicacies that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a king’s table.

    Maybe he just doesn’t care, she thought, as she ate the stew. Someone - Silent, probably - had put a pile of letters on the table. He doesn’t need to demand validation from everyone else.

    She snorted at the thought. She’d visited enough royal courts - and aristocratic castles - to know that half of kingship was putting on a display of power. The king must have a table groaning with food, even if it meant going into debt; the king must wear the finest clothes and carry the finest weapons and hire the finest blades ... she rolled her eyes at the sheer absurdity of the notion. Void didn’t need anyone else to acknowledge his power. Kings and princes - and merchants - did. She couldn’t help wondering how many of the aristocrats really liked their food. She’d never really been impressed by what passed for luxury foodstuffs on the Nameless World.

    The price is probably the driving factor, she told herself. And the idea is to prove you can afford it.

    Emily pushed the plate to one side, then reached for the pile of letters. A small note lay on the top, inviting her to the workshop when she was rested. She put it to one side and sorted the letters, separating notes from her friends from missives from strangers. The latter were never very interesting, ranging from requests for patronage to marriage proposals from men she’d never met. She wondered, idly, if the young men were being pressured into approaching her by their families. She’d yet to read a proposal that wasn’t cringingly formal and so impersonal it might as well have been written by a robot.

    She smiled as she started reading the letters from her friends. Caleb updated her on work at Heart’s Eye, inviting her to visit when she had a moment. Alassa and Jade were busy rebuilding Zangaria, putting the kingdom back together as they raised their child. Emily felt a twinge of guilt for not visiting them, even though she knew they were very busy. It would be nice to see her namesake again. And Frieda had invited her to the winter solstice in Dragon’s Den. Emily scowled, wondering where the time had gone. It felt like years since she’d seen her friends.

    You knew you’d be alone for much of your apprenticeship, she reminded herself, as she stood and headed for the door. But you don’t have to be alone for all of it.

    She felt the tower’s wards shift around her as she made her way down the stairs. The building felt odd, as if it wasn’t quite real. The corridors changed regularly, but never when she was watching. She marvelled at the sheer level of magic that had gone into building the tower, a tower passed down from master to student in a chain that led all the way back to the pre-imperial days. Void had hinted she might inherit it, when he died. She hoped that day was a long time away.

    “Emily,” Void called, as she reached the workshop. “Come on in.”

    Emily stepped into the massive chamber, feeling oddly out of place. It looked like a strange combination of a carpenter’s shop, a blacksmith’s forge and an enchanter’s lair. Stacks of wood, metal and rare potions ingredients were piled against the walls or resting on wooden tables, each one scarred by countless failed experiments. The wards seemed to draw back, isolating the chamber from the rest of the tower. They wouldn’t interfere with any of the experiments, for better or worse. Emily felt uncomfortably naked, even though she was wearing her robe. The wards that would have protected her, as a new student, simply didn’t exist here. A single mistake could kill her.

    “Tell me something,” Void said. He didn’t look up from his work. “Do you remember how to make and enchant wands?”

    “I know the theory,” Emily said. She’d never been that good with needlework, let alone carpentry. Her friends might have started learning practically from birth, but she’d never so much as touched a needle until she’d gone to Whitehall. “You carve a strip of wood, sand it down and infuse it with a piece of spellwork ...”

    “It’s a little more complex than that,” Void said. His eyes rested on the wand in his hands, turning it over and over. “But you have the basic idea.”

    He looked up at her, putting the wand to one side. “Someday, you will have to explain to me why your world neglects the basic skills.”

    Emily shrugged. She had no idea how to put it into words. Earth believed adulthood didn’t start until one became an adult. The Nameless World couldn’t allow its kids to be kids. They had to work from the moment they could walk, learning to fight or working in the fields or ... she shook her head. There was no way to explain the sheer gulf between the two worlds. Or how unwise it was to assume the good times would last forever.

    “There are magicians who believe you get different results, depending on what material you use for the wand,” Void said. “And others who argue you get the best results from wands you make yourself. What do you think?”

    “I don’t think I know enough to have an opinion,” Emily said. “I was always under the impression that wands and staffs were quite limited.”

    “Oh, they are.” Void smiled at her. “But they have their uses, as you know.”

    He waved her to a chair, then picked up the wand. “We do know that certain materials carry magic better than others,” he said. “We don’t know why. We also know that trying to make a wand can end badly, alas. It’s more a case of carving the wand. Why might that be?”

    Emily hesitated. “Because the wand would still be a solid piece of wood,” she guessed. “If you were gluing pieces of wood together, it wouldn’t be solid.”

    “That’s the basic theory,” Void agreed. “It might even be true. And yet, there are ways to make wands that work ... for a short period of time.”

    He waved a hand at the piles of wood. “I want you to produce four wands for me,” he told her. “Use any material you like.”

    Emily stood. “What for? I mean, what are we going to do with the wands?”

    “Brew potions,” Void said. “But first, prepare the wands.”

    He watched, his eyes unblinking, as Emily found a piece of wood and started to carve it into a wand. She’d never liked woodwork, even though she had to admit it was neat to create something for herself. The students - mostly the boys - had spent years mastering the art, even before they’d come into their magic. They’d been surprised to note how many holes there were in her education, although they’d blamed it on her supposed father. One couldn’t expect a Lone Power to have a conventional approach to childrearing.

    Emily tested the wand gingerly, then put it to one side and started carving the second. They looked crude and unfinished to her eye, but she knew the only thing that mattered was the ward’s ability to conduct and host magic. She reminded herself, sharply, she didn’t want to do too good a job. Getting too used to using a focus - any kind of focus - would hamper her magical development beyond repair. Very few magicians used wands regularly. It was almost always a sign of weak magic.

    “Good, good,” Void said, when she’d produced all four wands. “What do you make of them?”

    “They’re ready to host the spellwork,” Emily said. “What sort of spellwork do you want me to use?”

    “Nothing, yet.” Void waved a hand at a table. A cauldron sat on top. “Give me a moment to heat the brew.”

    Emily watched as Void used a firelighter, rather than magic, to ignite the flame. “You want to brew a potion with wands?”

    “In a manner of speaking,” Void said. “You’ve used wands in brewing before, have you not?”

    “Only a couple of times,” Emily said. “It was never encouraged.”

    “No.” Void glanced at her, sharply. “There are two significant dangers involving wands in alchemical work. The first lies in accidentally triggering a surge of magic that will, in turn, trigger an explosion. The second lies in altering the potion beyond repair, without being entirely sure what you did. And, of course, it’s quite easy to lose the ability to brew properly if you come to rely on wands. That’s why we won’t be doing this that often.”

    He looked back at the cauldron. Pink smoke was starting to rise into the air. “Done properly, one can use this technique to help mundanes brew potions,” he said. “But it requires a considerable commitment from a magician.”

    Emily nodded, slowly. “Because someone has to prepare and charge the wands.”

    “Yes.” Void produced a set of parchments and held them out to her. “Prepare the wands, as directed. And then put them in the cauldron.”

    “Understood,” Emily said. She scanned the parchments quickly, then went to work. The instructions were deceptively simple. On one hand, she had to insert the spellwork into the wands; on the other, she had to avoid even a tiny fragment of magic leaking out. It wasn’t anything like as easy as it sounded. “If I couldn’t sense magic, this would be impossible.”

    “Yes,” Void agreed. His eyes never left her as she worked on the wands. “There are ways to help a mundane sense magic. But not, I’m afraid, to channel magic.”

    Unless they owned a battery of magic, Emily thought, as she finished preparing the wands. But even then, they’d have to get the battery charged somehow.

    She considered it, thoughtfully. Theoretically, one could use a nexus point to charge a battery. Practically, she wasn’t sure anyone would let her try. The risk of accidentally causing an explosion would be far too high. She could do it at Heart’s Eye, but there would be hundreds of lives at risk if something went wrong ... she put the last of the wands on the table, then walked around to peer into the cauldron. The liquid looked like melted candyfloss, with a sickly-sweet smell that made her stomach heave. She’d never smelled anything like it.

    “The wards have to be charged, then used in a particular order,” Void said. “Place them within the liquid.”

    Emily tensed as she picked up the first wand and lowered it into the brew. Alchemy had never been her strongest subject, if only because it was dangerously unpredictable. It was governed by laws that never quite made sense, directed by factors neither she nor the alchemical masters truly understood. There were times when even a well-understood potion would go badly wrong, either fizzling out or exploding with disconcerting force. She resisted the urge to jump backwards, the moment the wand touched the liquid. The magic field surrounding the cauldron shifted ...

    “Good,” Void said. “Now the second, if you please.”

    Emily felt sweat trickling down her back as she inserted the second wand into the liquid. The potion started to bubble, the magic field changing time and time again. There was no time to hesitate, not now. She inserted the third wand, then the fourth. The magic field seemed to steady, then - suddenly - grew vastly more powerful. Emily threw herself backwards, rolling over in midair as the potion exploded. Pieces of debris crashed down around her, droplets of hot liquid striking her back. She gritted her teeth against the pain, muttering a spell to cool the droplets down. The experiment had failed.

    “It could have been worse,” Void opinioned. He seemed unmoved by the devastation. She wasn’t sure he’d so much as raised a shield to protect himself. “It proves that something was working.”

    “Something,” Emily repeated. “What went wrong?”

    “I think there was a tiny leak of magic,” Void said. He cocked his head, thoughtfully. “But I may be wrong.”

    Emily frowned. “What were we trying to brew?”

    “One of the more complex potions,” Void said, vaguely. “One that only a master can brew, without wands. It’s quite rare, as you will understand.”

    “And what does it do?” Emily knew she sounded like a brat, but she couldn’t help herself. “What is it for?”

    “Work it out.” Void gave her a stern look. “And, while you’re considering it, tell me why I didn’t tell you.”

    “Because you thought my preconceptions would interfere with the spell,” Emily said. “The spellwork wouldn’t be so ... so generalised?”

    “In a way,” Void agreed. “It’s not safe to cast spells, or brew potions, without knowing what you’re trying to do. It does, however, give you insight into how certain levels of magic actually work.”

    “At the risk of being hurt, or hurting someone else,” Emily said. The idea of discarding a safety precaution that had been drilled into her years ago didn’t sit well with her. Alchemy could be incredibly dangerous. “It doesn’t always make sense.”

    “No,” Void agreed. “There’s a lot we don’t understand about how magic works. A lot of things that should be possible, but aren’t. And a lot of things that shouldn’t be possible ...”

    Including magic itself, Emily thought. She’d been a magician for over six years and she still had problems, sometimes, believing it was real. Why are some of the hardest things so easy and some of the easiest things so hard?

    Void turned away. “Give the mess time to cool, then clear it up,” he said. “And then you can go back to bed.”

    “After a shower,” Emily said. Her back still ached. She hoped the liquid had burned through all the magic before it hit her. “I ...”

    She paused. “Can I make a request?”

    “You can ask for anything you like,” Void said. “I make no promises about actually giving it to you.”

    “No,” Emily agreed. She couldn’t expect him to promise her anything without knowing what it was. “Frieda invited me to Dragon’s Den, next week. Can I go?”

    “You mean ... you want to take a different day off?” Void smiled, wryly. “How terrible. I’m sure Jan will be very upset.”

    Emily blushed. Her relationship was Jan was ... slow. It simply wasn’t easy for them to coordinate their days off, let alone meet up somewhere they both knew. It was a long-distance relationship in the truest possible sense. And Void hadn’t been too eager to make the relationship any easier for either of them. She’d always had the feeling he wasn’t too keen on her having any kind of relationship during her apprenticeship.

    “I haven’t seen Frieda for months,” Emily said. “And I’m sure Jan will understand.”

    “If you say so.” Void didn’t seem convinced. “Of course, I’ll be working you very hard over the next few days. You may want to spend the day in bed instead.”

    “I won’t have a chance to see her for a while,” Emily reminded him. She felt another pang of guilt. They’d both been very busy, but ... she should have made the time. It wasn’t as if she’d need to spend hours in transit to reach Whitehall. An hour or two out of her apprenticeship wouldn’t have made any difference. “She’ll be ramping up to take her exams before going into sixth year.”

    “Then she should probably spend the day in bed,” Void commented. He shook his head. “You go, if you wish. I’m sure I’ll find something to do around the tower.”

    Emily blinked, then realised she was being teased. “I’m sure you’ll need the time to devise an even harder test for me.”

    “Be careful what you wish for,” Void said. “You might just get it.”
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    Emily ...

    Emily doubled over as the teleport field snapped out of existence. Her vision blurred, as if she’d been hit with a blinding curse or a confusion hex. For a moment, she honestly wasn’t sure where she was. The cold struck her like a physical blow, despite the cloak she’d donned and charmed before leaving the tower. She forced herself to straighten up, unsure what had happened. She’d heard someone calling her name ... hadn’t she? She wasn’t sure if she’d heard anything or if she’d simply imagined it. It was impossible to be certain of anything.

    She rubbed her forehead as she stumbled off the teleport pad and peered down at Dragon’s Den. The town was covered by a layer of snow, the grimy streets and rough houses looking almost charming in their white overcoat. A dozen children were playing just outside the town, running between the boundary markers and the edge of the forest. Emily felt a twinge of envy as she started to walk into the town, half-wishing she’d grown up in the town. It wouldn’t have been easy or safe, but ... she might have had friends. She might have had a family that cared for her. She might ...

    There’s no point in thinking about what might have been, she told herself, as the cold started to ooze through her cloak. You just have to make do with what you have.

    She chanted a pair of warming spells as she kept moving, heading down the street towards the inn. Students from Whitehall thronged the streets, laughing and joking as they enjoyed a day away from the school. She spotted a line of upper-class students outside a tailor, clearly hoping the school robes could be carved into something a little more individualistic. Emily smiled, remembering when Alassa and Imaiqah had taken her shopping for clothes. She hadn’t really enjoyed the shopping, but she’d enjoyed spending time with her friends. And she still had the dresses in her trunk. She hadn’t been able to bear the thought of giving them away.

    Frieda was waiting for her outside the inn, looking surprisingly comfortable in the cold winter air. Emily frowned, then remembered that Frieda had been born in the Cairngorms, where it wasn’t unknown for villages to be cut off or suffocated under the snow. The winter wasn’t that cold, not for her. Emily ran forward, giving her friend a hug. Frieda seemed to have grown taller, in the last few months. She was nearly Emily’s height.

    “Emily,” Frieda said. “You’re looking pale.”

    “I think it’s the cold.” Emily pushed open the door, leading the way into the inn. The heat was a welcome change from the cold outside. “How are you?”

    “You look as if you haven’t slept for a week,” Frieda said, sternly. “Is he keeping you awake?”

    “I haven’t been sleeping very well,” Emily confessed, as the innkeeper’s daughter directed them to a table near the fire. “How about you?”

    “I’ve been working too hard,” Frieda said. “Do you know, this is the first time I’ve been to Dragon’s Den for a month?”

    Emily raised her eyebrows. “Hoban didn’t come to see you?”

    “He’s off on another dig,” Frieda said. “Apparently, they dug up something dangerous and want it buried again. Or something like that. The letter they sent him wasn’t that clear.”

    “Ouch,” Emily said. “Are you still going with him this summer?”

    “If I pass my exams,” Frieda said. “If not ... I’ll have to spend the summer revising instead.”

    “Good luck,” Emily said. She let out a breath as the landlord’s daughter returned with a pair of menus. “My treat. I insist.”

    “As long as you let me do something for you later,” Frieda said. “Can I order a burger and chips? Or is that too expensive?”

    “Order it,” Emily said. It still amused her that burgers - and a few other dishes she’d imported - were regarded as high-class fare. She ordered a curry for herself, then sat back in her chair. “I can pay.”

    “I’ll pay next time,” Frieda said, firmly. “Now, are you being worked to death or not?”

    “I’m working hard,” Emily said. That was true. Void was a harsh taskmaster. “But I’m not being worked to death.”

    “You look wretched,” Frieda said. “Did he black your eyes? Because you look like a raccoon.”

    “I just haven’t been sleeping well,” Emily said. “Bad dreams.”

    Frieda looked sympathetic. “I know the feeling,” she said. “Do more exercise before you go to bed?”

    Emily shook her head. “How are you coping in fifth year? How are you getting on with your charges?”

    “I’m trying to teach them all the things you taught me,” Frieda said, slowly. “It seems to be working.”

    She kept talking, outlining everything that had happened to her since she started her fifth year at Whitehall. It sounded less eventful than Emily’s fifth year, although Frieda was smart enough to understand that wasn’t a bad thing. Whitehall had nearly collapsed in on itself two years ago, then thrown Emily into the past to meet Lord Whitehall. Emily felt an odd little twang as she thought about the ancient magician, the man who really had done everything - almost everything - the legends said he’d done ...

    “Emily!”

    Emily blinked. Her food was in front of her. She stared at it blankly, then looked up at Frieda. Her friend was watching her, concerned. Emily thought fast, trying to understand what had happened. She’d zoned out, just for a moment. She’d zoned out and .. and what? Something was nagging at her mind, but it seemed to fade into nothingness every time she reached for it. It didn’t feel wrong - it didn’t feel as if she was under attack - and yet, she couldn’t place it either. What was wrong?

    “Emily?” Frieda sounded concerned. “Are you alright?”

    “Yes.” Emily reached for her fork. “I’m fine.”

    “You looked as if you were about to fall into your food,” Frieda said. “Are you sure you’re ...”

    “I’m fine,” Emily said, a little sharper than she’d intended. “I’ve just not been sleeping well.”

    “We could find a room in the town, if you don’t want to go to your house,” Frieda said. “And you could have a nap.”

    Emily had to laugh, even as she shook her head. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “I just need some food and a rest.”

    Frieda didn’t seem convinced. “Emily, you’re dropping asleep on your feet,” she said. “I kicked you twice and you didn’t even react.”

    “I felt nothing,” Emily said. She didn’t feel any pain, not even a dull ache. “Are you sure you didn’t kick the chair leg?”

    “I’m sure.” Frieda pointed to Emily’s plate. “Eat.”

    Emily forced herself to eat. The food tasted good - the inn wouldn’t have lasted long, in Dragon’s Den, if the food wasn’t good - but she found it hard to eat. Her vision seemed to be blurring, again and again. She blinked, feeling dizzy. Frieda’s eyes followed her, filled with concern. Emily knew she should be concerned, but it was hard to muster the energy to care in the slightest. The blurriness seemed to creep up on her, only to jump away when she concentrated. Her fork slipped from her hand and fell to the floor.

    “I think I need to have a word with your master,” Frieda said. “He’s working you to death.”

    “I’m fine,” Emily insisted. She had no idea what Void would say, if Frieda questioned his teaching skills, but she doubted it would be polite. He’d be within his rights to send her back to Whitehall with a flea in her ear. Or worse. “I’ve been drained before.”

    “I’ve never known you to be this drained, even last summer,” Frieda said. “Let me talk to him. Let me tell him ...”

    “I’m fine,” Emily repeated. “It isn’t his fault.”

    “You have to tell him you’re reaching the limit of what you can do,” Frieda insisted. “He’s not going to disown you for reaching your limits, let alone kick you out. You don’t have to finish your apprenticeship in a year or two. Jade nearly killed himself trying ...”

    “I’m fine!” Emily felt her vision blur, again. “I’m fine.”

    “I think I’d better get you home,” Frieda said. She summoned the landlord’s daughter and ordered her to collect the dishes. “I’ll take you to Whitehall. We can go through the portals there.”

    “I can teleport,” Emily insisted. She knew it was a bad idea, but she didn’t want Frieda babying her. “I know how to teleport.”

    “And if you teleport right now, you’ll probably jump right into a mountain,” Frieda said, bluntly. She paid for the dinner, heedless of Emily’s protests, then helped Emily to stand. “Are you sure you’re not being drained?”

    Emily didn’t have the strength to object as Frieda cast a handful of detection charms. Her wards twitched uncomfortably, pushing back against the spells. She knew she should feel annoyed at the presumption, but ... it was growing increasingly hard to focus. Her legs felt wobbly, as if she was on the verge of collapsing to the ground. Frieda led her outside, back into the cold. It slapped against her face, but failed to rouse her. She wondered, suddenly, if she was drunk. She might have drunk something alcoholic without noticing ...

    The thought terrified her. She loathed alcohol. She’d seen the demon drink make monsters out of men and women alike. Her mother had been well on the way to drinking herself to death before Emily had been yanked into the Nameless World. Emily knew what it could do. And yet, she also knew she hadn’t drunk any alcohol. Void didn’t allow it in his tower, although ... she supposed it was possible the maids had some alcohol in their rooms. They wouldn’t have been fool enough to serve it to her though, or to their master. Void would have killed them. Literally.

    She looked from side to side, her head suddenly very heavy. The town seemed to split in two, as if there was a second town overlaying the first. The first town appeared unchanged, just as she remembered; the second was an alien realm, lined with strange buildings and streets that went in directions no human mind could comprehend. She shuddered as she saw things moving at the corner of her eye, somehow never quite there when she looked directly at them. There were things she knew no human should ever see, yet ... voices were whispering, voices calling her name. And she listened.

    “Emily!” Frieda was shaking her. “Emily, wake up!”

    Emily started. They were on the outskirts of town, heading towards Whitehall ... she had no clear memory of how they’d gotten there. They’d walked ... they had to have walked. Right? She wasn’t sure. They were walking towards the teleport pad, even though they didn’t need to use them when teleporting out of the town. The kids she’d seen earlier were gone. They’d left a handful of weird-looking snowmen behind. She blinked hard, unsure what was real and what wasn’t. It felt as if everything was real. The thicket ahead of them was both a small corpse of trees and a gateway to something greater. She could feel it.

    “Emily,” Frieda said. She seemed ... translucent somehow, as if she was part of only one world. Her voice sounded panicked, but ... “Emily, we have to go back!”

    “Go where?” Emily tried to focus, but it was hard. She felt as if she were drifting outside her body, watching from above as she stumbled forward. “I can’t ...”

    Frieda caught her arm and yanked her around. Emily looked back at the town - both towns. A series of visions assailed her mind. Dragons flew overhead, unseen and unremarked; creatures that looked like children, until she saw their eyes, whispered nasty secrets as they looked back at her. She couldn’t hear them, but ... she recoiled as she saw the snowmen growing into monsters that threatened the other town. Frieda said something, something Emily didn’t hear. The world was changing around her. She found herself stumbling towards the woods, towards something that waited for her. Frieda grabbed her arm again, but her grip felt as insubstantial as fog. Emily didn’t have to shrug her off. She just kept walking into the wood.

    “Emily!” Frieda got in front of her as they reached the edge of the woods. She raised a hand, as if she intended to slap Emily. “Emily! Wake up!”

    Her eyes went wide with surprise as she started to change. Emily watched, feeling nothing, as Frieda’s legs became wood, her arms becoming branches, her face ... Emily knew, at some level, that she should be horrified, but she felt nothing. It was ... natural, something that should happen. She walked past Frieda and deeper into the woods, knowing - on some level - that she was walking into an alien realm. The thicket had never been that big, if she recalled correctly, but she felt as if she’d been walking for hours, travelling for miles. Wild magic blossomed around her as she found the path, walking on and on and on ...

    Visions flared around her, each one strange and different. She was a helpless slave, held captive by a monster. She was a servant, a soldier, a teacher, a mother ... the visions tore at her mind, reminding her of what she could have been. A surge of feelings ran through her as she held her child in her arms, tears dripping from her eyes - a moment later - as the child vanished back into nothingness. She didn’t have a child. She’d never had a child. And yet, for a moment, the child had been real. She wanted to scream and rage at the visions, but it was pointless. The visions weren’t real.

    The path came to a stop. Emily stopped too, staring into a lake of crystalline water. The moon hung low, seemingly close enough to touch. Wild magic boiled through the air, spinning around her without ever touching her. She felt, in a strange sense, as if she’d come home. The water glowed, calling to her. She almost reached for it, intending to take a sip, before it dawned on her that taking anything from the alien realm would be a very bad idea indeed. She might never make it home.

    A light darted on the far side of the lake. And another. And another ... she watched as a cluster of tiny fairies materialised, a swarm of glowing creatures gliding towards her. She sucked in her breath, awareness suddenly returning as she remembered exactly where she was. The fairies were the Unseelie - or so the Grandmaster had called them - and she’d made a deal with them ... a wave of coldness ran down her spine as she remembered what she’d promised them. Anything, anything at all. She raised her head and saw ... herself, standing on the far side of the lake. She knew, without knowing how she knew, that all times were one inside the wood. If she chose to break her word, her past self would be killed and ... everything she’d done would simply be erased from reality. It would never have happened at all.

    She found herself on her knees as the tiny shapes danced in front of her. She’d felt their power, six years ago, but she hadn’t really understood just how powerful they truly were. It was hard to believe they were in hiding, hard to believe humanity could do anything to them. And yet, she knew it to be true. They were in hiding ... they’d made her promise to keep their secret, as well as everything else. She had to force herself to look at them as their power beat on the air. Up close, they were somehow ... wrong.

    They’re not human, she reminded herself. She had never claimed to be a social expert, but she understood that all humans had things in common. These creatures were not remotely human. Whatever they look like, they’re not human. They don’t think like us.

    “Emily.” The swarm spoke as one, their voices harmonising into a single hypnotic sound that chilled her to the bone. “We have called you here. You have always been here.”

    Emily bit her lip, hard. The pain helped her to remain focused. She looked beyond them, at her past self. The older - younger - Emily wasn’t moving, caught in a timeless moment. She couldn’t see her, Emily recalled. She hadn’t seen her future self when she’d stumbled into the Unseelie Court. Perhaps, from her other self’s point of view, the oath hadn’t been made. Not yet. And if she refused to keep it, the oath would never be made at all.

    She swallowed, hard, as the implications dawned on her. She’d always assumed she’d die if she refused to keep the oath - and promised herself that she’d accept death if the demands were too onerous - but she saw now it was worse than that, far worse. If her past self died here, killed to keep their secret, the entire timeline would unravel. She couldn’t even begin to calculate the scale of the disaster. How many things rested - had rested - upon her? They had her over a barrel. Whatever the price, she’d have to pay it. There was no choice.

    The voices hummed in unison. “You will complete your oath. Now.”

    Emily swallowed. Her mouth was very dry. Her voice, when she finally managed to speak, felt tinny, as if she was shouting inside an immense cathedral. “What do you want from me?”

    There was a long chilling pause. “Seek out the Heart of All Things, in the Castle at the End of the Land,” the voices said. They rose and fell together. “And reignite the Eternal Flame!”
     
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four

    Emily felt as if she was a puppet, dangling on weakening strings. Her legs felt as if they’d been turned to jelly. If she hadn’t been on her knees, she was sure she would have lost her balance and tumbled into the lake. She had a feeling, although she had no idea how, that falling into the water would have killed her. The lake wasn’t real. Her surroundings weren’t real. Everything she saw was ... perhaps ... an illusion, something her mortal mind could comprehend. The swarm of tiny flying humanoids in front of her might be nothing more than the tip of the iceberg, a hint of something far greater ...

    She bit her lip again, tasting blood. “The Eternal Flame?”

    “The Eternal Flame,” the voices echoed. “You will reignite the Eternal Flame.”

    Emily’s mind raced. She’d never heard of the Eternal Flame, not in any context that made sense. The Heart of All Things? The Castle at the End of the Land? She thought she recalled a reference to the latter, but she couldn’t remember where and when she’d heard it. She concentrated, but her memory refused to oblige her. It had been a very vague reference, something that hadn’t made much of an impression on her at the time. She’d have to do some research before she knew what she had to do ... reignite the Eternal Flame? What did that mean?

    “I don’t know what you mean,” she managed. What were they asking her to do? Give up her apprenticeship for a quest that might take years? She didn’t know. And yet, she couldn’t refuse. Saying no would be disastrous. She’d made a deal with inhuman entities and they were now demanding she lived up to her side of the bargain. “What do you want me to do?”

    The voices broke apart into a discordant racket, all of the little creatures talking at once. Emily tried to follow the argument, but she found it utterly incomprehensible. They didn’t seem in agreement about anything, beyond the very basics. They hadn’t been keen on making the deal with her in the first place, she recalled suddenly. They’d thought twice about doing it ... she swallowed hard, wondering precisely what they wanted her to do. They could have killed her past self in an instant if they’d wanted to.

    “Reignite the Eternal Flame,” the voices said. “Reignite the Eternal Flame.”

    “I don’t understand,” she said, trying to plead with them. “I can do it, but I don’t know what you want me to do.”

    Emily gritted her teeth as the voices broke apart again, bombarding her with an endless series of statements that made absolutely no sense. She felt her heart sink, convincing her that she’d have to make her excuses to Void and do ... and do what? She had no idea where to go, much less what they wanted her to do. Reignite the Eternal Flame? Where was the Eternal Flame? What was it? She felt the wild magic grow stronger as the little creatures started to glide away from her. They were leaving, throwing her back out ...

    “Wait!” Her voice sounded weak, even to her. “I need you to listen.”

    “Listen, listen,” the voices echoed.

    “I need to tell my master something,” Emily said. “Can I tell him the truth?”

    “You may, you may,” the voices sang. “Reignite the Eternal Flame!”

    The world spun around her. Emily squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the ground trembling under her knees. The cold struck her again ... she realised, suddenly, that she was on her knees in the midst of a snowdrift. Snow was falling ... she stumbled to her feet, hastily wrapping her cloak around her body. The temperature was dropping rapidly ...

    She cursed and started to run. Frieda! Her friend had been turned into a tree! Emily couldn’t believe she’d been so unconcerned, even if she’d been in the grip of powerful - and wild - magic. The Unseelie had been calling to her ... no wonder she’d been having bad dreams. She wondered, numbly, why they hadn’t simply yanked her to them. They had the power. But then, being slightly disconnected from time - at least as humans understood it - must bring its disadvantages. They’d known when she’d come to them. They hadn’t needed to bring her to them ahead of time. She rubbed her forehead as she continued to run through the woods, slipping and sliding as she crashed through the ice. Where was Frieda ...?

    “Emily! Frieda stood at the edge of the thicket, looking confused. “What happened to you?”

    “Frieda!” Emily gave her friend a hug. “What happened to you?”

    Frieda gave her an odd look. “You stumbled into the forest,” she said. “And then you came out.”

    “You were turned into a tree!” Emily had heard strange tales about wild magic, but she’d never seen it in action. “I saw ...”

    She shook her head. “It’s a long story,” she said. She could feel the oath at the back of her head, pushing her onwards. It felt like a geas, one she couldn’t dispel. She’d have to complete her mission if she wanted it gone. “Are you alright?”

    “Yeah.” Frieda eyed her, suspiciously. “Are you feeling better?”

    “I think so.” Emily rubbed her eyes. The visions of the other town and its alien denizens were gone. “But I think I’d better go.”

    “What happened?” Frieda caught her arm. “Emily, you’re behaving like a madwoman.”

    “I’m not sure if I can tell you,” Emily said. The geas didn’t seem to care, but it was hard to be sure. Oaths were tricky things. The Grandmaster hadn’t forced her to break the oath deliberately when he’d peeked into her mind. “I ...”

    She swallowed hard and outlined the story, half-expecting the geas to tighten around her mind and freeze her tongue. But nothing happened. Frieda listened carefully, her eyes going wide as Emily described - in vague terms - the deal she’d made six years ago. It felt odd to say it out loud, after keeping it to herself for so long. She’d practically forgotten the oath had ever been made. She wondered, sourly, if the Unseeli had done it deliberately. She’d had her mind read, several times. The searchers might have learnt the truth without her ever breaking the oath.

    The Grandmaster had no interest in starting a fight, she thought. But other people would have felt differently.

    “You made a deal with the other folk,” Frieda said. “With the awful folk ...”

    “I had no choice,” Emily said. “If I’d died there ...”

    “It’ll bite you,” Frieda predicted. “Where I grew up ... everyone knows that bargaining with the other folk is asking for trouble.”

    Emily pulled her cloak around her as the snow kept falling. “I had no choice,” she repeated, quietly. “What have you heard?”

    “Bad stories,” Frieda said. “They’re not called the awful folk for nothing.”

    She lowered her voice, even though the wild magic was gone. “Children snatched from their cradles, bundles of sticks left in return. Men turned into animals, women dazed into ... there’s a myth, back home, that magicians are descended from changelings, from creatures left behind when the babies are stolen. There are places no one will go, for fear of never coming out again. Entire villages, vanished into the night. I ...”

    Her voice trailed off as she remembered something from the past. “My father’s hometown was destroyed, shortly after I was born,” she added. “They said the villagers had angered the awful folk.”

    Emily frowned. “Why?”

    “I don’t know.” Frieda looked pained. “No one ever went anywhere near the village after it died. Not even me.”

    She looked at Emily. “You have to be careful,” she said. “Really.”

    “I will be.” Emily looked towards the distant mountains. “Do you want me to teleport you back to the school.”

    “You were dead on your feet, only minutes ago,” Frieda pointed out. “I’ll walk back when the snow stops, I think. You can teleport home and do ... do whatever you have to do.”

    “Sergeant Miles used to say that walking through a blizzard was dangerous,” Emily said, dryly. Lady Barb had said the same thing, only with much more profanity. “You’re sure?”

    Frieda smiled. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “But really, you should rest before you teleport anywhere.”

    “I’ll be fine,” Emily assured her. She felt strange. Her magic felt refreshed, as if it was just the work of a moment to teleport right around the globe, and yet ... she felt the geas prodding at her, urging her not to waste time. She hadn’t felt so jumpy since she’d drunk an energy potion for the first time. “Take care of yourself.”

    “I’ll be here when you need me,” Frieda said. She gave Emily a hug, then stepped back. “And watch your back.”

    Emily nodded, feeling a twinge of guilt. She’d intended to watch the winter rituals, even though she couldn’t partake. They’d always meant more to Frieda than they had to any of her other friends. But ... she raised a hand, then closed her eyes and carefully cast the teleport spell. This time, everything worked perfectly. She opened her eyes to see the tower, rising up in front of her. The heat melted the snow on her cloak, turning it into water. Emily took it off, then headed for the tower. The wards welcomed her home. She rubbed her forehead, wondering precisely what time it was. Teleport lag was never easy to overcome.

    “Lady Emily.” Silent curtseyed as she entered the tower. “You’re home early.”

    Emily blinked in surprise. Silent rarely showed any interest in her comings and goings. And yet, the maid was always there to greet her when she returned home. Emily guessed the tower had something to do with it. Silent’s job was looking after Emily ... she put the thought aside as the geas poked at her, reminding her she had to talk to Void. She reached out with her mind as she took off the cloak and passed it to Silent, asking them where to find Void. He was in the living room ...

    “My Lady,” Silent said. “I ...”

    “Later,” Emily said. The geas wouldn’t let her do anything else. She felt as antsy as a fly on a griddle. “We’ll talk later.”

    She hurried up the stairs, hoping the tower wouldn’t start to play games. It - or Void - had tested her by rearranging the corridors on short notice, forcing her to realise she was trapped and manipulate her surroundings to get out. She thought she felt something watching her, as if the tower was considering doing just that before thinking better of it. She frowned as she stopped outside the living room, then opened the door. Void sat in an armchair, facing the sofa. Master Lucknow - and Jan - were sitting on the sofa. Emily was astonished. She’d never known Void to have guests before.

    “Emily.” Void sounded oddly displeased, although it didn’t seem to be directed at Emily herself. “Take a seat.”

    “Thank you, sir,” Emily said.

    She sat, trying not to fidget like a little girl. The geas itched at the back of her mind, demanding she insist he drop everything and attend to her. She met Jan’s eyes and noted he looked bored, even though there were sorcerers who’d sell their souls - literally - for a look inside Void’s tower. She wondered, suddenly, why Master Lucknow had brought him. Had he hoped Jan would spend time with Emily? Or ... or what? It was rare, vanishingly rare, for one magician to visit another without calling ahead. Void would have all the justification he’d need to tell them both to go away. Or simply pretend he wasn’t in residence.

    The maids wouldn’t have opened the door without permission from their master, Emily thought. They probably have orders never to allow anyone into the tower when he isn’t there.

    She twitched, uncomfortably, as Master Lucknow spoke about reports from the borderlands and other warning signs. Emily could barely hear him as the itching grew worse, as if a swarm of midges had somehow gotten under her dress ... the thought somehow made it even worse, nearly completely unbearable. She found herself shifting from side to side, grinding her teeth together to keep her mouth from opening. She simply couldn’t keep still.

    “Emily.” Void’s voice was cold. “Come with me.”

    Emily felt herself blush - again - as she followed him into the next room. Her heart sank as he closed the door, a privacy ward slamming into place. Void might be very understanding and tolerant when they were alone, treating her as close to an equal as possible, but he couldn’t show her anything like that kind of tolerance when they had company. She felt as if she was in trouble, even though she had an excuse. Void had every reason to be angry at her - and no way to know what was really bothering her.

    “Emily.” Void met her eyes, evenly, and pointed her to a chair. “I assume you have an explanation for acting like a child?”

    “Yes,” Emily managed. “I ... I need to start from the beginning.”

    She watched him as she gabbled out the whole story, starting with the battle in the mountains six years ago. Void didn’t seem surprised, either by the encounter with the Unseelie or the oath she’d sworn to them. She wondered, suddenly, just how much the Grandmaster had told him. No one else knew what had happened. She’d thought the Grandmaster had kept it to himself ...

    “They want me to reignite the Eternal Flame.” Emily struggled to remember what had been said, in that dreamlike world. “Seek out the Heart of All Things, in the Castle at the End of the Land. And reignite the Eternal Flame.”

    Void started to laugh, humourlessly. “Is that what they want you to do?”

    Emily blinked. “What’s so funny?”

    “A very strange coincidence,” Void said. He started to pace the room, his previous irritation gone. “What do you think the Eternal Flame might be? Something you’ve reignited in the past.”

    Understanding clicked. Emily kicked herself, mentally, for not seeing it earlier. “A nexus point.”

    “Yes.” Void turned to face her. “A nexus point in the heart of the Blighted Lands, with an extremely powerful and dangerous necromancer sitting on top of it and several more within a few days walking distance.”

    “... Oh.”

    “Yes.” Void chuckled. “The Castle at the End of the Land was built on top of the nexus point, centuries ago. No one knows who built the castle, or why. Like Whitehall” - he winked at her - “there are aspects of history that have been lost in the mists of time. The nexus point died well before the first necromancer infested the castle, snuffed out ... well, that was before my time. I don’t believe anyone knows what happened to it.”

    Emily shivered. “The nexus point at Heart’s Eye was used to carry out experiments,” she said, slowly. She didn’t want to remember just how far those experiments had gone. “What were they doing at the Castle at the End of the Land?”

    “We don’t know,” Void said. “The Blighted Lands are littered with old buildings and structures, some dating back well before recorded history. The necromancers have moved into them like hermit crabs, turning them into fortresses ...”

    “And then losing them to other necromancers,” Emily said. For all their power, necromancers didn’t last very long. Shadye had been a necromancer for fifteen years - or so most sources agreed - and he’d been counted as one of the older ones. “What about the Heart of All Things?”

    “I don’t know,” Void said. “It could be connected to the nexus point. A number of old structures are, as you know better than me. Or it could be something else, something that was never written down ... I’ve never heard the name. It could be anything.”

    “They wouldn’t ask me to do the impossible,” Emily said. “Would they?”

    Void said nothing for a long moment. “Many years ago, there was an up and coming sorceress who was destined for great things. Everyone knew it, particularly her. One of her superiors, fearing the competition, tricked her into swearing an oath that could never be completed. She had to give up her career and devote herself to trying to complete the oath.”

    Emily blanched. “I thought that was impossible.”

    “You can’t force someone to swear an oath,” Void said. “But you can trick someone, if you’re careful. It’s been done.”

    “How?” Emily wanted to stand and pace herself. “I thought it couldn’t be done.”

    “There was a magician-thief who once signed a contract obligating him to move a painting from one room to another,” Void explained. “Unfortunately for him, the rooms were actually several hundred miles apart.”

    “I see.” Emily shook her head. “And ... what happened?”

    “Oh, he had to complete the oath,” Void said. “It didn’t go well.”

    He grinned. “It may, or it may not, be a coincidence that they demanded you repay your oath today,” he said. “Do you know why Master Lucknow came here?”

    “No,” Emily said. She couldn’t help asking the next question. “Every time I asked if someone could visit, you said no. I thought you didn’t like guests.”

    “I don’t.” Void turned away, his voice lowering slightly. “He wouldn’t have come if he hadn’t felt it was urgent. And I wouldn’t have let him in if I hadn’t known he wasn’t given to exaggeration.”

    He smiled. It didn’t touch his eyes. “And Emily ... he came to see you.”

    “Me?” Emily shook her head. “Why me?”

    “I’ll let him tell you,” Void said. He reached for the door, then stopped. “Do try and look like you’ve been chastised. I have a reputation to keep.”

    Emily had to smile. “Yes, sir.”
     
  10. silentechoes

    silentechoes Monkey+

    chapter 2

    was the ward’s ability to conduct and host magic

    wand's
     
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    Emily did her best to look like someone who’d been scolded as she followed Void back into the living room. Master Lucknow glanced at her once, then returned his attention to Void; Jan shot her a sympathetic look before his own master nudged him, none too gently. Emily promised herself she’d make it up to him as she took her seat, studying Master Lucknow with interest. He was a Charms Master, Void had said, but he was also something more. She thought she could sense odd magic surrounding him as he leaned forward.

    “I believe my apprentice may be interested in your proposal,” Void said. “Perhaps you should start from the beginning.”

    Master Lucknow produced a scroll and unfolded it carefully. Emily frowned. It was a map, showing the Craggy Mountains. The northern side was elaborately detailed, complete with tiny drawings showing the location of Whitehall, Dragon’s Den and a number of other places she’d been; the southern side was vague, barely showing any detail at all. What little detail there was had been drawn in pencil, allowing for hasty modification as circumstances changed. She felt her frown grow deeper as she studied the map. Someone - Master Lucknow, she assumed - had pencilled in a cluster of notes on the southern side of the mountains. It was hard to be sure - the scaling was terrible - but they looked to be a few short miles from Whitehall.

    “The Blighted Lands,” Master Lucknow said, by way of introduction. “It’s impossible to produce detailed maps, geographical or political, of the region. Everything keeps changing, to the point that a map will often become outdated before it is even printed. The terrain is mutable, as you know; the necromancers themselves are locked in a constant battle for supremacy. Even the more ... sedate ... parts of the landscape can change at terrifying speed.”

    Emily nodded. She’d been to the Blighted Lands twice. The landscape had looked like a foretaste of hell, the ground burned to a cinder and covered with ash. She’d heard stories of people who lived in the Blighted Lands, slaves to necromancers, but she’d never visited any of their villages. A life of constant fear, from birth to death ... she shuddered. The necromancers were utterly unpredictable, capable of turning on even the most loyal of their servants without warning. And the parts of the region that weren’t dominated by necromancers were almost worse. She’d heard the tales of unwary travellers who barely escaped creatures out of nightmares.

    “The region south of Whitehall was once controlled by Shadye, as you know,” Master Lucknow said. “After his death - after you killed him - it was left untouched for several years. This surprised us, but we weren’t ungrateful. We took advantage of the pause to establish defences further south of the school. Recently, however, a necromancer has claimed the territory. We have done our best, since then, to keep an eye on him.”

    “They were scared of Emily,” Void said. “Not without reason.”

    Emily coloured.

    “We believe so,” Master Lucknow said, a little stiffly. Beside him, Jan winked. “It’s also true that that particular region is surprisingly barren, even for the Blighted Lands. There’s an orcish breeding pit, but little else. Shadye devastated the handful of known villages before he met his doom at Whitehall. There was little to gain by taking the territory and a great deal to lose. Recently, as I said, that has changed. A necromancer has moved into the territory.”

    “But keeping his distance from the Inverse Shadow,” Void commented. “Wise of him.”

    Master Lucknow looked irked. “Since then, that necromancer has forged an alliance with two other necromancers. Our general assumption was that the alliance wouldn’t last long enough for us to alert our superiors, as necromantic alliances rarely do. One of them will always betray his allies, sooner rather than later. This alliance, however, seems to have lasted several months. They’ve actually been working together pretty closely. That does not bode well.”

    Emily nodded. It was rare for two necromancers, let alone three, to work together. Their very nature made it impossible. And yet ... she felt a chill run down her spine. If they managed to work together, they might win the war. A lone necromancer was vastly more powerful than any known sorcerer. Three of them, working together, might be able to break through Whitehall’s wards, destroy the school and push through to the Allied Lands beyond. Shadye had come within inches of winning the war. Three of them ...

    “They’ve been massing their armies here,” Master Lucknow said, tapping a spot on the map. “And we don’t know why.”

    “But you have a theory,” Jan said.

    “Yes,” Master Lucknow agreed. “I do.”

    Emily narrowed her eyes. It was hard to be sure, but the spot on the map looked to be at least sixty miles from Whitehall. It would take weeks to march the army to the pass and advance on the school ... she shook her head. The necromancers could make their orcs march for weeks, if they wanted. Logistics would be a pain, but she doubted the necromancers would care. They’d have no qualms about making their servants eat their dead comrades. Orcs could eat anything. And once they were through the mountains, they’d rampage across the Allied Lands.

    She looked up. “You think they’ll attack Whitehall?”

    “It’s possible, but I don’t think so.” Master Lucknow met her eyes. “I think they understand that taking the school is going to be difficult, if not impossible. I also think they know their alliance might shatter ... will shatter ... when they reach the nexus point. I think they have something else in mind.”

    “Go on,” Emily said, slowly.

    “They’re digging,” Master Lucknow said. “I think they’re trying to carve a path through the mountains.”

    Emily blinked in surprise. It seemed incredible. She’d spent enough time in the region to know the Craggy Mountains were practically impassable. Even the most bold and daring of her fellow students had hesitated to climb the higher mountains ... she found it hard to wrap her head around the concept of cutting a road through the region. It would have been possible on Earth, but here? She shuddered. The necromancers had more than enough orcs to carve a road right through the region, if they wished. And then ...

    “They’ll bypass Whitehall,” she said. “And flood into the Allied Lands.”

    “I believe so,” Master Lucknow said. “Whitehall was the cork in the bottle, the only thing keeping them from invading. If they’ve managed to find another way to get around the mountains, which I believe they have, it’s only a matter of time before they invade. I think we have months, at best, before those three necromancers lead a full-scale invasion of the Allied Lands.”

    His words hung in the air, dark and cold. Emily stared at the map without really seeing it. She’d been in the wars. She knew how hard it was to stop an orcish charge, with or without a necromancer in command. There were no solid defences on the northern side of the mountain, nothing capable of stopping the orcs from plundering the countryside and rampaging on until they reached Zangaria. She sucked in her breath, unable to comprehend the scale of the looming disaster. Whitehall would be isolated, cut off from the remainder of the Allied Lands. Kingdom after kingdom would fall, unable to establish new defence lines before it was too late. It would be the end of everything.

    “There’ll be no hope of saving the people,” she breathed.

    “No,” Master Lucknow agreed. “The cities have walls, true, but they’re nowhere near strong enough to stop an enemy prepared to pay the price. And beyond them, there are few defences that will slow the orcs for more than a few days. The Allied Lands were never keen on internal fortifications ...”

    “Politics.” Void spoke with a cold certainty. “The monarchs didn’t want their fellows asserting themselves. If they’d built forts along the inner mountain ranges ...”

    “But they didn’t.” Master Lucknow had the air of someone repeating an old argument. “And even if they had, they wouldn’t be enough to stop the orcs. Not for long.”

    Emily understood. The locals could build something akin to the Great Wall of China, but it wouldn’t be enough to do more than slow down the orcish horde. The orcs would clamber over the dead bodies of their fellows to break over the wall and take the fortresses. And then tear it down. And ... she shook her head. A necromancer might be able to blow a hole in the wall if it wasn’t warded from one end to the other. The logistics of establishing an internal defence line - quickly - would be impossible. As long as the orcs could advance on a broad front, they could outflank and isolate any defensive strongpoints.

    She considered it for a long moment. There were options. There were quite a few options. But they all had risks ...

    “We need to act fast,” Master Lucknow said. “They could do a lot of damage before they’re stopped.”

    “If they’re ever stopped,” Void said. “Our greatest fear was that they’d find a way to overcome their ... problems ... and break into the Allied Lands. And now it looks like they have.”

    “They can’t work together for long, surely?” Jan looked pale. “Can they remain united long enough to tear a hole through the mountains?”

    “They might.” Master Lucknow grimaced. “I don’t understand how they’ve managed to remain united for so long, but ... we have to assume they’ll stay united long enough to get their hands around our throats. We dare not assume otherwise.”

    He scowled. “One of them might have figured out a way to leash the others,” he added. “We know they overpower their spells. If they’ve cracked that barrier ...”

    “Unlikely.” Void spoke with calm certainty. “Even a relatively weak necromancer would have a natural immunity to compulsion spells. Subtle magics wouldn’t impinge on their mindsets. Brute force might work, but it would be extremely difficult to keep the spell in place. I doubt any necromancer could master the art.”

    “It only takes one,” Master Lucknow pointed out. “And some necromancers are more capable than others.”

    They shared a look, something unspoken hanging in the air between them. Emily frowned, wondering what Master Lucknow was unwilling to say. Something he wanted to keep from the apprentices? Or something else? She promised herself she’d ask Void, as soon as the meeting was over. He might not answer, but she trusted he wouldn’t lie to her. He’d tell her to mind her own business if it wasn’t important.

    “Anyone capable of casting such a spell wouldn’t be fool enough to experiment with necromancy,” Void said. “I think we have to assume they’re working together of their own free will. And that their alliance will last long enough for them to win.”

    “Quite.” Master Lucknow didn’t sound pleased. “Lady Emily, I need your help.”

    Emily felt her heart skip a beat. “What do you need?”

    “The White Council has not heeded my concerns,” Master Lucknow said. “King Jorlem of Alluvia has taken me seriously, as you may imagine, but the other councillors have not been so receptive. They’ve been reluctant to declare an emergency, let alone do anything that might help. The whole issue is ...”

    “Political,” Void snapped. “They’re happy to ignore the problem as long as it stays on the other side of the mountains.”

    “It won’t stay on the other side of the mountains,” Master Lucknow said. “And once the necromancers do break through the mountains, there will be no time left to take precautions.”

    Emily nodded. She’d met King Jorlem of Alluvia, although it had been a very brief meeting and she didn’t remember much about him. But she could understand his concern. Alluvia was the kingdom directly north of Whitehall, in nominal control of the northern side of the Craggy Mountains. It would be the first target, if the necromancers came over the mountains, and the first to fall if they came with overwhelming force. Alluvia was considered one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Allied Lands, but it wasn’t strong enough to stop the necromancers. There was no way they could even hold out long enough to buy the others time to prepare.

    She let out a breath. She understood the problem, better than she cared to admit. The kingdoms had a very limited view of the world. The necromancers might as well have been on the other side of the world, for all the kings and princes saw of them. A few hundred miles was an impassable gulf, as far as they were concerned. The idea of travelling so far in a heartbeat was a fantasy. It was hard for them to comprehend that the necromancers might break through the mountains and just march from one end of the Allied Lands to the other, burning the kingdoms to the ground as they passed.

    Magicians have a bigger view of the world, she thought, numbly. But they have their own problems.

    “I understand,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”

    “You have influence,” Master Lucknow said. “People listen to you. I want - I need - you to talk to your friends, to convince them to help prepare defences before it’s too late. We can - we will - do things to slow the necromancers down, but we can’t stop them. They’ll break through the mountains, sooner or later, and we have to be ready. I need you to use your influence to convince the councillors, and the monarchs, to listen to me.”

    Emily frowned. It was hard to believe, sometimes, that she had influence, that people would listen to her. Alassa would, but anyone else ...? It was hard to believe. And Alassa would have her own problems too. Her kingdom was trying to rebuild itself, after a bitter civil war. She couldn’t dispatch an army to Alluvia without risking her throne. Who knew? Her neighbours might take advantage of the crisis to press their claims to disputed territories along the border.

    “I can try,” she said, slowly. “I don’t know if they’ll listen.”

    “Make them listen,” Master Lucknow said. “The fate of everyone is in the balance.”

    “I can try,” Emily repeated. “What’s happening so far?”

    Master Lucknow tapped the map. “So far? Very little. General Pollack has been tapped to command the army, when it’s assembled, but even that is political. King Jorlem wants his son to have a position within the command staff, preferably the deputy commander. The only reason he’s prepared to settle for deputy commander is that General Pollack is a Knight of the Allied Lands.”

    “And therefore a neutral choice, as far as everyone is concerned,” Emily said. “I know him.”

    She kept her expression under tight control. General Pollack’s oldest son had died during the last war, died when he and Emily had walked into a necromancer’s lair. And Emily had been dating his second son at the time. She thought the general respected her, but she didn’t think he liked her very much. It would be hard for anyone to lose so much and not cast around desperately to place the blame. She wished she’d thought to send Casper back to his father before it had been too late. But she knew the young man would have refused to leave.

    “Yes.” Master Lucknow nodded, stiffly. “Once the army is assembled, we hope you’ll stay with us.”

    “We shall see,” Void said. He cocked his head, warningly. “Emily is an apprentice, after all.”

    “Her apprenticeship isn’t quite as important as stopping the necromancers,” Master Lucknow pointed out. Emily had never heard anyone take that tone with Void before. “As you know better than I do.”

    “Quite.” Void sounded oddly unconcerned, as if his mind was elsewhere. “My apprentice and I will discuss the situation, then let you know the decision.”

    Emily felt a hot flash of irritation. She might be his apprentice, but she didn’t belong to him. And yet, in a sense, she did. He was her master, at least until she graduated or they parted ways. She couldn’t leave the tower, let alone join an army and fight in a war, without his permission. She calmed herself, drawing on her experience to swallow her anger. Void would understand. He was just making a point. And ... she wondered, suddenly, if he’d join the army too. She was sure he’d find a way to make his presence felt.

    “Of course.” If Master Lucknow was irked by the comment, he didn’t let it show. “I have other meetings, as you might expect, but a letter to my apprentice will find me.”

    Void nodded, summoning a maid with a wave of his hand. “Maddy will show you to the door,” he said, as the redheaded maid stepped into the chamber. “We’ll be in touch.”

    “Of course,” Master Lucknow repeated. There was a hint of icy politeness in his tone. “I look forward to your letter.”

    He stood and bowed. Jan followed him, looking as if he wanted to say something himself. Emily promised herself she’d write to him as soon as possible. She couldn’t say anything now, not in front of both masters. Void wouldn’t be pleased if she contradicted him in public. They had to show a united front.

    Just like the Allied Lands, she mused, as Maddy escorted the two men out of the room. And ...

    A thought struck her. “It isn’t a coincidence, is it?”

    Void didn’t have to ask what she meant. “That your oath would be called in, at the same time a necromantic army starts massing on the far side of the mountains? If that’s a coincidence ...”

    He shook his head. “No, it can’t be a coincidence. And that’s worrying, don’t you think?”
     
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    Emily had hoped to discuss the matter - and Master Lucknow’s request - as soon as they were alone, but Void refused to be drawn on the matter. Instead, he sent her back to her rooms to shower and change before joining him for dinner. Emily suspected that meant he wanted time to think about the request before they talked, although she doubted he’d say no. The necromancers posed a clear and present danger to the entire world. And he’d spent much of his career helping to keep them in check. He wouldn’t say no to a request for his apprentice’s help.

    She mulled it over as she changed back into her apprenticeship robes. She’d never really thought of the necromancers as cunning, although Shadye had displayed a certain animal sneakiness and Dua Kepala had figured out a way to retain some of his sanity after the transformation. That might have been a mistake. She’d honestly never considered the possibility of them literally carving a pass through the mountains, even thought she should have done. There’d been roads - and tunnels - carved through mountains on Earth. They’d even dug a tunnel under the English Channel. There was no reason the necromancers couldn’t do the same. They had to be stopped.

    And quickly, she thought. I could use the nuke-spell ...

    She scowled. The devastation would be immense. God alone knew how many innocents would be caught in the blasts. And everyone would want to know what she’d done and how. Even if she hid behind the Sorcerer’s Rule, there was no way to keep other sorcerers from trying to duplicate the spell. Sooner or later, they’d figure it out or come up with something just as destructive. And then all hell would break loose. The nuke-spell was just like necromancy. A relatively low-power sorcerer could unleash horrendous devastation, if he was prepared to pay the price.

    “My Lady.” Silent stepped into the room, her eyes downcast. “The master is waiting for you in the dining room.”

    Emily glanced at the clock, then nodded. It was later than she’d thought, even though she’d returned earlier than planned. She’d meant to eat and chat with Frieda, then teleport back to the tower just before midnight. She picked up the chat parchment, scribbled a quick message to Frieda to make sure the younger girl had reached Whitehall safely, then headed down the stairs to the dining room. Void was sitting at the table, looking pensive as Maddy carried a tray of food into the room. Emily felt her stomach growl as she took her seat. She hadn’t realised she was so hungry. But then, she wasn’t sure how much she’d eaten at Dragon’s Den.

    And I owe Frieda for the dinner, she recalled. I’ll have to repay her somehow.

    “There are three necromancers involved in the affair,” Void said, motioning for her to start eating. “Two of them are fairly standard necromancers, little different from Shadye. You can read their files later, if you wish. The third - Rangka - is a little more dangerous. He worries me.”

    Emily glanced at him. “You?”

    “Me,” Void confirmed. “The other two - Bersuit and Gerombolan - were fairly low-power magicians before they started experimenting with necromancy. Their stories were pretty straightforward. They wanted greater power and they were unwilling to work for it. The results weren’t pretty, as you might expect. Rangka, on the other hand, was a powerful magician who thought he could handle necromancy. He was wrong.”

    “I understand,” Emily said.

    “He knows far more magic, and magical theory, than either of the other two,” Void said. “He was a diligent student, unlike most necromancers. I think he may have found a way to use advanced magics, despite being a necromancer. It wouldn’t be easy, but he probably has the discipline to make it work. He’s certainly survived twenty years as a necromancer. He couldn’t have done that if he wasn’t capable of channelling magic properly.”

    Emily scowled. “He might start throwing overpowered advanced spells at me, instead of overpowered basic spells,” she said. “I see your point.”

    “Yes.” Void took a bite of his sausage. “It’s not easy, as you know, to cast advanced spells. You have to build up the power to cast them and the discipline to channel the power without overloading the spellwork and accidentally destroying your spell. Necromancers are rarely capable of such discipline, which is why so many of them resort to flailing around like madmen. They could be handled easily if they didn’t have the raw power they needed to survive their own mistakes. Rangka might have reached the next level of necromantic power.”

    “And he had the imagination to suggest cutting a path through the mountains,” Emily said, slowly. “What else will he devise?”

    “I wish I knew.” Void shook his head. “The politics are ... not good.”

    He leaned back in his chair, looking tired and frustrated. “The Allied Lands were never keen on the idea of building internal lines of defence. The northern kingdoms saw them as a waste of money, the southern kingdoms feared their existence would give the north a chance to decline to send help if the necromancers invaded. And there were very real fears of the fortifications freeing up troops to fight border wars and other concerns ... in short, Emily, it won’t be easy to convince them to take the threat seriously. They can’t look past their own minor concerns to see the overall threat. Lucknow wasn’t wrong. You might be able to convince them to take the threat seriously.”

    “I can try,” Emily said. She considered it for a moment. “What do the ... the other folk want?”

    Void let out a humourless laugh. “Rangka is sitting on top of the nexus point they want you to reignite,” he said. “And that cannot be a coincidence. They want you involved in the war.”

    “But why?” Emily remembered where the Unseelie Court hid and frowned. “Do they feel threatened by the necromancers?”

    “It’s possible,” Void said. “It’s also possible they want something else. Not that it matters, I suppose. You have to reignite the nexus point. How do you intend to do it?”

    “I don’t know,” Emily said. “The last one ... I pushed Dua Kepala into the nexus point. This time ... I could charge a battery, slip it into the nexus point and take control, then turn the nexus point on the necromancers. We could win the war in a single blow.”

    “If you can get to the nexus point without being killed,” Void pointed out. “Rangka’s fortress is supposed to be the most heavily defended stronghold in the Blighted Lands. Do you think you can get inside?”

    “I think I don’t have a choice,” Emily said. “Or do I?”

    “No.” Void met her eyes, evenly. “Do you want to help?”

    Emily hesitated. “I don’t know if I have enough influence to convince the kingdoms to build an army,” she said. “But I have to try. If we fail, if they come through the mountains, we have to stop them before they start rampaging across the Allied Lands. If we meet them on the near side of the mountains ...”

    She scowled. It wouldn’t be easy, no matter how many troops and combat sorcerers were assembled to meet the threat. The necromancers could just keep throwing warm bodies at the defences until they were crushed by sheer weight of numbers. The artificers were making newer and better guns all the time, but they’d never be able to keep up with the demand for bullets and gunpowder. And if the necromancers managed to poke a hole in the defences, they’d punch through and win the war. A passive defence was going to be about as useful as the Maginot Line if the necromancers could find a way to outflank it.

    We need a more active defence, she thought. An idea was hovering at the back of her mind, stubbornly refusing to come into focus. Some way to take the initiative for ourselves.

    “You can try,” Void said. Emily dragged her attention back to him. “But the kingdoms won’t take the threat seriously until it’s far too late.”

    His expression darkened. “They don’t see the bigger picture, Emily,” he added. “And they’d sooner keep the lid screwed on tightly than risk allowing some of their subjects to escape.”

    “I’ll have to find a way to convince them, somehow,” Emily said. She still found it hard to believe she had influence. The monarchs probably regarded her - and her innovations - as a very mixed blessing at best. The gunpowder weapons she’d introduced had turned their world upside down. What did it mean for kings and princes when a commoner held the power to kill in his hand? “If they’ll listen to me ...”

    “You can try,” Void echoed. “But you’ll have to head into the Blighted Lands alone.”

    “I know.” Emily shuddered, remembering the walk into the Blighted Lands. “Unless I can convince someone to travel with me. Last time ...”

    “The Grandmaster walked with you,” Void said. There was an edge to his voice that bothered her. “And he died shortly afterwards.”

    Emily nodded, feeling a flicker of guilt. If she hadn’t carried the cursed object into Whitehall ... she shook her head. It hadn’t been her fault. The Grandmaster had inspected everything they’d found in Shadye’s fortress, before allowing her to take the small collection back to the school. No one had realised the danger until it was too late. And the Grandmaster had died for his school ...

    Something clicked in her mind. It was hard to believe, but ... she’d seen enough clues over the past few years. “Were you ... were you and the Grandmaster brothers?”

    Void’s lips thinned. “Yes.”

    Emily blinked. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t he tell me?”

    “Half-brothers, technically.” Void took a sip from his glass. “Our father had a lot of magic, an inquisitive mind and a complete lack of scruples when it came to carrying out experiments. His family practically disowned him, which gives you some idea of just how dangerous his experiments were becoming. My brothers and I kept pushing the limits until ... well, we went too far. Hasdrubal lost his sight. The other two lost their lives.”

    He took another sip. “Hasdrubal devoted his life to the school. He climbed the ladder until he reached the very top, then sat there. He learnt some of the right lessons from what happened to us, although not all of them. If he’d killed Gennady, instead of expelling him ...”

    “Gennady?” Emily had heard the name before, but she wasn’t sure where. “Who’s he?”

    “You met him,” Void said. “You knew him as Shadye.”

    “I knew he’d been expelled,” Emily said. Inwardly, she was reeling. “What happened?”

    “It took us a while to put the pieces together,” Void said. “He was ... he was from the Cairngorms. He was never a very powerful magician. It didn’t help that he was lacking in basic skills, like reading and writing. And he had a very hard time of it at school. He didn’t have anything like your connections, or your friends. Eventually, he tried a forbidden ritual and got expelled. A couple of years later, he resurfaced as Shadye.”

    Emily frowned. “What was he doing before he resurfaced?”

    “We don’t know.” Void shrugged. “I suspect it probably doesn’t matter.”

    “I hope so,” Emily said. She looked down at her hands. “I’m sorry about your brother’s death.”

    “We weren’t that close,” Void said. There was a warning note in his voice. “We might have been brothers, but we didn’t have that much contact.”

    Emily had a hundred questions she wanted to ask, but she didn’t quite dare. Why had Void sent her to Whitehall? Why had the Grandmaster taken her in? Why had he accepted - even encouraged - the belief Emily was Void’s daughter? And why had he never suggested that Emily might be his niece? And ... just what had they been trying to do? Emily could think of a handful of rituals that might kill some of the ritualists, but none of them were precisely good. Most of the rituals were downright horrific.

    “Our father thought we’d share magic, perhaps even souls, if we were born together,” Void said, more to himself than to her. “But I think he was wrong.”

    “Why?” Emily looked up. “Why did he think it was even possible?”

    “There’s no such thing as magical twins,” Void said. “And he wondered why.”

    He finished his dinner and pushed his plate to one side. “You have my permission to put your apprenticeship on hold and leave the tower, if you want to involve yourself,” he said. “I will not order you to involve yourself.”

    “Thank you,” Emily said. She wasn’t good at reading social cues, but she was insightful enough to understand the previous subject was now closed. She could have kicked herself for bringing the subject up, although ... it had honestly never crossed her mind. “Will you be accompanying me, when I head to the Eternal Flame?”

    “I have something else to do,” Void said. He held up a hand, cutting off her question before she could so much as formulate it. “Something that needs to be checked, something I’ve let fester for too long. The tower will remain open to you, if you come back before I return. Silent will accompany you if you stay away for more than a day or two.”

    “I can’t take her into the Blighted Lands,” Emily said. Silent was smart - Emily was sure of it, even though the maid rarely spoke out of turn - but she wasn’t trained to enter the Blighted Lands. Emily herself wasn’t keen on the thought. “She can have a holiday from my demands.”

    Void grinned. “Emily, compared to the average royal brat, you have no demands.”

    Emily wanted to deny it, but she had to admit he was right. She’d yet to meet a princess - even Alassa - who didn’t demand everything they could, and a little bit more, from their servants. They treated the servants as tools, worse than animals ... she’d known princesses who doted on their horses, but had no hesitation in slapping maids who were barely in their teens. And she still found it hard to get used to the idea of servants at all. She couldn’t bring herself to hurt a maid for a tiny offence.

    “I’m sure she’ll appreciate the holiday,” Emily said. She wondered, idly, where Silent would go. Perhaps she’d just go home for a few weeks. Or travel. She was certainly paid highly for her service. “Unless she really wants to go into the Blighted Lands.”

    “It isn’t a common holiday destination,” Void said. His grin faded away. “And before you go, I want you to have a clear idea of where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there. The files will be on your desk tomorrow - take them with you and read them before you enter enemy territory.”

    “I will,” Emily promised. “I’ll message Alassa tonight. If it’s fine with her, I’ll go to Zangaria tomorrow. I think she’ll listen to me.”

    “She’ll listen,” Void said. “But she might not agree with you.”

    “She’s trying to rebuild a kingdom,” Emily protested. “She has other problems.”

    “None of which will matter if the entire world gets overrun by the necromancers,” Void said. “Zangaria might be the last to fall, but it will fall. You need to work on contingency plans, as well as everything else.”

    “I understand,” Emily said. “And I will.”

    “And be careful,” Void said. His voice was suddenly very cold. “There’s something about this whole affair that doesn’t quite make sense.”

    Emily nodded, slowly. “Why do they want the nexus point reignited?”

    “Good question,” Void agreed. “And I have no answer.”

    He finished his drink and stood. “Keep me informed,” he ordered, motioning for her to finish her dinner. It was rare for him to leave ahead of time, but she supposed he had reason. “I’ll call you when the time comes to resume your lessons.”

    Emily watched him go, feeling a pang of guilt. She hadn’t meant to drag up a piece of his past, or to remind him of his three dead brothers. She’d never had any siblings, as far as she knew. She couldn’t imagine being so close to someone for so long, sharing parents and families and blood, only to lose them ... she swallowed, hard. It was easy to believe, suddenly, that Void really was that old. The Grandmaster had looked very different, but that was meaningless. Void could make himself look as old or young as he wished.

    She forced herself to think. They couldn’t assemble an army on the near side of the mountains and wait. She had no idea how long it would take the necromancers to carve a passage through the mountains - there were entire sections of the mountains that had never been charted properly - but she doubted they could do it quickly. The threat would become part of the landscape, falling out of the king’s mind before it ever truly materialised. And when it did ...

    We can’t keep the army on alert forever, she thought. She’d had enough trouble keeping watch, back when she’d been in school, to understand that keeping an entire army on alert permanently would be impossible. We have to find a way to take the war to them.

    She stood. She’d had an idea.

    And I need Alassa’s help, she mused. It was a good idea, but she’d need help to turn the concept into something workable. And then ... she shook her head. She didn’t care if she got the credit or not. All that mattered was winning the war. If we can make it work, we can change everything.
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven

    “Emily,” Alassa said, as Emily was shown into her private chambers. “Welcome back!”

    “It’s good to be back,” Emily said. King Randor’s castle would never be her favourite place - too much had happened within its walls for her to be entirely comfortable there - but Alassa loved it. “I’ve missed you.”

    She hugged Alassa, then looked around the room. Baby Emily - Millie, to her family - was crawling across the floor with terrifying speed. Emily couldn’t believe how quickly the baby had grown. She’d been only a few days old when Emily had last seen her, a newborn clinging to her mother’s breast. Now ... she was practically on the verge of walking. Emily felt an odd little yearning as the baby turned to face her, blue eyes sparkling like the sun. It made her want to have a child of her own.

    “I’ve missed you too,” Alassa said. She gestured, communing with the wards. “Jade’s on his way. He was just in the spellchambers.”

    Emily sat on the chair and picked up the baby. “How have things been here? I haven’t had time to keep up with the news.”

    “Lots of little problems,” Alassa said. “The aristocracy insists it has accepted the post-war world, and the Great Charter, but a handful of nobles have been doing their level best to overturn the changes. A couple wound up dead, assassinated by their people. Others ... it’s a mess, Emily. Too many people on all sides want to either turn the clock back or push it forward. It doesn’t help that everyone is insisting on the right to bear arms.”

    “I suppose it does make it harder to keep the peasants in their place,” Emily said, dryly. “I thought they were supporting you.”

    “They are, as long as I do what they want,” Alassa said. “It doesn’t help that we’ve become the centre of radical agitation. The Levellers have been printing missives and churning out everything from guns to printing presses and sending them in all directions. I’ve had a dozen complaints from various monarchs about hosting radicals, renegades and general troublemakers. And I can’t deal with them - or even keep them quiet - without undermining my throne.”

    “It’s never easy when you’re the one in charge,” Emily said. “No one else sees the whole picture.”

    “No,” Alassa agreed. “Right now, there’s a court case that could do considerable damage to investment and property rights, whoever wins. And I can’t stop it from going ahead without doing considerable damage myself. And I was hoping ...”

    She broke off as Jade entered the room. “Emily,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”

    Emily stood and shook his hand. “It has,” she agreed. She made a show of looking him up and down. “Have you put on weight?”

    Jade snorted. “I’ve been very busy, I’ll have you know,” he said. “Do you realise that we didn’t even scratch the surface of the tunnel network? I found passages we never even knew existed, passages so old I don’t think half the kings knew they existed.”

    “They might have been lost if a king died before telling his children,” Alassa said. She smiled at Jade as he sat next to her, then turned her attention back to Emily. “You said it was urgent.”

    Emily nodded, without taking offense. Alassa’s time was no longer hers. She had to spend almost all of her waking moments running the kingdom, for fear something would spread out of control before she realised she had a problem. Or that her courtiers would start thinking she was losing her touch. Zangaria had never had a female monarch before and ... Alassa hadn’t had a good reputation, before she went to Whitehall. There were too many people who saw her as weak or vindictive or both. And the layers upon layers of wards surrounding her private chambers suggested that some of her enemies had resorted to sneak attacks.

    “The necromancers are up to something,” she said. She outlined the situation, as Master Lucknow had described it to her. “It’s only a matter of time before they break into Alluvia.”

    “And King Jorlem is trying to rally the troops,” Alassa said. “His son was one of those who wanted to marry me.”

    “I hate him already,” Jade said.

    Alassa elbowed him. “He didn’t get anywhere,” she said. “I assume he was married off at some point, but I can’t say I was paying attention.”

    “No,” Emily said. “Master Lucknow wanted me to beg you for troops. And ... I had an idea.”

    “Troops,” Alassa repeated. “He would have to ask for troops, wouldn’t he.”

    She shook her head. “Go on,” she said. “What’s your idea?”

    Emily stroked her namesake’s hair. “We don’t know when the necromancers are actually going to break into Alluvia,” she said. “If we assemble the army too early, we’ll lose our edge by the time they arrive. If we assemble the army too late ... well, it’ll be too late. They’ll break into Alluvia and that will be that.”

    “I can’t fault your logic,” Alassa said. “Go on.”

    “So we take the offensive,” Emily said. She wasn’t sure how much she could tell them without infringing her oath. “We send a force of our own into the Blighted Lands.”

    “And get slaughtered,” Jade said, in a manner that suggested he knew she’d already considered the risks. “They’d destroy our army as we made our way through the mountain pass or across the Desert of Death.”

    “They might not even notice if we crossed the desert, certainly not in time to matter,” Emily said. She unfurled a map. “We can use portals, like we used earlier, to put an army here” - she tapped a spot on the map - “in the borderlines between necromantic domains. The army should have time to establish proper fortifications before they realise we’re there and move to deal with it. And then they’ll impale themselves on our defences.”

    “And crush you under thousands of bodies,” Jade said. “The necromancers won’t care about how many orcs they send to their deaths, as long as they die killing you. Us.”

    “No,” Emily agreed. “The army will be a diversion. It will hold its ground, possibly even triggering a civil war between the three necromancers. Even if it doesn’t ... it’ll give me time to sneak into the nearest fortress. I’ll reignite the nexus point, take control of the wards and turn it on the necromancers. And that will be the end.”

    “If you can reignite the nexus point,” Jade said. “Can you do it?”

    “I think so,” Emily said. “It just requires a massive infusion of magic.”

    Jade frowned. He was one of the very few people who knew magical batteries were even possible. They’d used them to free Alassa from the Tower of Alexis, over a year ago. Given time, Emily could stockpile enough magic to reignite the nexus point or simply vaporise the necromancer outright. Emily had a rough plan for dealing with the necromancer, but - so far - she hadn’t been able to make it practical. She’d promised herself she’d sit down and work out the details before it was too late.

    And figure out a way to keep them from spoiling the plan, she thought. Randor found a way to stop me in my tracks.

    “I assume that’s how you reignited Heart’s Eye,” Alassa said. “Can you get into the fortress and make your way to the nexus point?”

    “I’ve sneaked into fortresses before,” Emily reminded her. She didn’t blame her friend for trying to poke holes in the plan. Sergeant Miles had cautioned his students that it was better to have the flaws pointed out by one’s friends than exploited by one’s enemies. “And I came out alive.”

    “And the necromancers didn’t,” Jade said. “It’s a good plan, on paper.”

    “On paper,” Emily agreed. “If we can trigger off a civil war, if nothing else, it’ll buy time.”

    “True,” Alassa agreed. She sounded thoughtful. “You might just have solved one of my problems.”

    “I might?” Emily frowned. “What did I do?”

    “There are people who fought for my father, then deserted him,” Alassa said. “They’re having some trouble fitting into the post-war world. Too many people think of them as oathbreakers, now my father is safely dead. A handful have changed their names and left the country, but the remainder are too stubborn or too notorious to go. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. If they join your army, they can earn back the honour they lost by betraying their oaths.”

    “Your father became a necromancer,” Emily said. “They didn’t break their oaths ...”

    “I know that,” Alassa said. She smiled, without a trace of humour. “But why would a little thing like truth stand in the way, when their enemies want to bury their daggers in their backs?”

    “It wouldn’t,” Emily said, sourly. “Do you think they’ll agree to go?”

    “If they come back with glory, their enemies will be silenced,” Alassa said. “And if they don’t come back at all, they can be laid to rest with honour. The stain on their names won’t taint the next generation.”

    Emily winced. She understood the feudal mindset, and how it overshadowed the lives of everyone from the highest to the lowest, but she was damned if she’d ever understand why anyone would adhere to the code. King Randor had become a necromancer! His loyalists had been quite right to run for their lives, knowing it was just a matter of time before they became fodder for his magic. They might have been the last to be thrown into the fire, but they would have been. She had no doubt of it.

    “Sir Roger would be their commander, if you agreed,” Alassa said. “He really doesn’t have a place here. His family has been making increasingly unsubtle suggestions he should go off on a quest and never come back. If he wasn’t so prominent ...”

    “I think we could offer them a chance,” Emily said. “How many?”

    “Around two to three hundred,” Alassa said. “I’ll see what else I can scrape up. You’d probably get some volunteers from the lower classes, if you put out the call.”

    “There’s a whole bunch of militiamen who regret leaving the army,” Jade put in. “They’ve become quite astonishingly fond of the military life.”

    Emily had to smile. The commoners generally regarded the military as a bunch of idle layabouts who couldn’t get work elsewhere. Good iron is not used to make nails, they sneered, and good men are not used to make soldiers. She was glad to hear that was changing, as the army became more democratic, more representative of the lower classes. And yet, she had a feeling it boded ill for the future. Alassa and her peers might have second thoughts about allowing the army to become too democratic.

    “I can put out a request,” Emily said. She wasn’t entirely comfortable with people volunteering to fight - and perhaps die - for her, but she didn’t see any alternative. “If you think it’ll work ...”

    “It will,” Jade assured her. “You’re popular.”

    “Oh dear,” Emily said. She’d never really wanted to be popular. “That sounds worrying.”

    “Be glad of it,” Alassa said. “That’ll help encourage others to send troops too.”

    “There might be a problem there,” Jade said. “The other kingdoms will not like the thought of sending troops on a suicide mission.”

    “It won’t be suicide,” Emily protested.

    “Every attempt to attack the Blighted Lands has come to a bad end,” Jade reminded her, bluntly. “The kingdoms will not like the idea of putting their troops into a position that could easily become a death trap. You’d have to be there, sharing the risk.”

    “Except she has to be sneaking into the necromancer’s lair,” Alassa pointed out. “She can’t be in two places at once.”

    Jade frowned. “Send someone else to reignite the nexus point,” he said. “I’ll volunteer.”

    “You don’t have Emily’s fame,” Alassa said. “They’ll expect Emily to do both.”

    Emily winced, inwardly. Alassa didn’t want to send Jade into the Blighted Lands, but she couldn’t say it. Not to his face. Jade would sooner die a thousand deaths than be thought a coward. His position was already ambiguous, consort to a queen rather than king in his own right. And if Alassa died, he’d merely be regent for his daughter. Emily wondered if Jade would grab Millie and run, if his wife died. The poor child would have to grow up very fast if she was expected to take the throne.

    And then it hit her. “I can be in two places at once.”

    Jade stared at her. “You can bilocate?”

    “I can experiment with the spell,” Emily said. She’d have to go back to the tower and work on it before Void left on his own mission. And she might have to talk him into letting her practice before she did it for real. “I can get it to work. One of me stays with the army, the other me goes to the necromancer’s lair.”

    “That might work,” Jade said. He didn’t sound pleased. “Bilocation is a difficult spell. I tried a couple of times and I never mastered it. Even with the tightest spells, you might never merge back into one person. If you get split up permanently ... well, I don’t think it will end very well. You might go mad - or worse.”

    “I know the dangers,” Emily said. “Can you think of a better solution?”

    Jade and Alassa exchanged glances. Alassa spoke first. “Someone else could pretend to be you?”

    “It wouldn’t fool anyone who knew me,” Emily said. Impersonation was never as simple as merely donning another face. The impersonator would have to match her personality as well as her appearance. And know things she knew ... she shook her head. Even the people who knew her best would be unable to pretend to be her. By local standards, she was a deeply weird young woman. “Even you couldn’t be me.”

    “Particularly if I accompanied her,” Jade agreed. “People would talk.”

    “Yes,” Emily agreed. “People would talk.”

    Millie shifted against her, then started to cry. Alassa took the child, opened her dress and popped the baby to her breast without batting an eyelid. Emily shook her head, wondering when Alassa had become such a good mother. Most aristocratic women relied on wet nurses to suckle their kids, at least until the babies were weaned. It couldn’t be easy to breastfeed a child while handling matters of state.

    “The other option is leaving the army long enough to teleport into the enemy base,” Alassa said, seemingly unbothered by the child on her breast. “Could you do that?”

    “I doubt it,” Emily said. “I couldn’t have teleported into Heart’s Eye when Dua Kepala was in residence. There was just too much tainted magic hanging in the air. And the Blighted Lands are glowing with tainted magic. We might have problems opening the portal and keeping it open. I think we’ll have to draw power from the Heart’s Eye nexus point to open the link.”

    Jade grinned. “I dare you to explain that to Mistress Irene.”

    “Just bear in mind you’re not a schoolgirl any longer,” Alassa advised. “I have to keep reminding myself I’m not a princess any longer.”

    Emily gave her a surprised look. “Really?”

    “As Crown Princess, I had certain ... authorities ...that came with the title,” Alassa said. “I was the High Justice, allowing my father a certain degree of separation from some of my decisions. Everyone knew I followed his lead, sometimes, but it was never openly admitted. Now ... everything rests with me. I can’t deny everything and blame it on my daughter.”

    “Not yet, anyway,” Jade said. “Millie isn’t anything like old enough to serve the crown.”

    “No,” Alassa agreed. “And that limits what I can do without nailing my colours to the mast.”

    She looked almost wistful, just for a second. Emily felt a pang of ... something. Randor could have raised his daughter properly, if he’d wished. He could have given her a role in running the kingdom from the moment she was old enough to understand the stakes. And everyone would have understood his reluctance to override her in public, even if they didn’t think Randor hadn’t dictated her decision. They could have been partners, not ... enemies. They shouldn’t have fought a war over who ruled the kingdom.

    “I don’t have any siblings,” Alassa added. “Not as far as everyone else is concerned, anyway.”

    “I know,” Emily said. “Your half-brother would be too young, even if you did acknowledge him.”

    Alassa smiled down at her daughter. “I’ll send a message to Sir Roger,” she said. “If you can take him and the others off my hands, I would be grateful. And I’ll see what else I can scrape up, as I said. The other kingdoms will probably send at least a token force to Alluvia, if they know I’m doing it too. And if you’re ... accompanying the army ...”

    She stood. “Can you wait?”

    “I can,” Emily said. “Jade will look after me.”

    Alassa laughed. “Jade will take you to the green room,” she said. “You can chat there, then join us for dinner before you go. Jade and you can go through the plan together.”

    And see if it’s workable, Emily added, silently.

    “Come this way,” Jade said. He stood, brushing down his trousers. “Have you heard from Cat?”

    “No,” Emily said. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Cat had abandoned her when she needed him. She understood why, she understood his feelings, but she wasn’t inclined to forgive. Not in a hurry, anyway. He hadn’t so much as written to her since he’d left. “Why do you ask?”

    “Because you need him,” Jade said, flatly. “This mission? It’s just the sort of thing he’s trained to do.”
     
  14. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    Looks like Emily gets to play politician, tactician, ambassador, general........oh yeah, magician ;)
    Very good, sir!
     
  15. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    I have some serious misgivings about her splitting herself. Can she reassemble herself at will even when far apart?
     
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  16. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    Yes. IF the spells are correctly constructed and managed. Takes power that she may not have without a battery or two.
     
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  17. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    That begs the question - what happens if one of the splits meets an untimely demise? How does the remaining one react?
     
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  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    “I don’t know if I need him,” Emily said, as she followed Jade into the green room. It was a nicely laid out, but completely neutral meeting chamber. There were no flags, no coat of arms, no sigils to suggest the room was inside a queen’s castle. “There are others ...”

    “Not like Cat,” Jade said. “And you two did work well together.”

    Emily made a face as she sat at the table. “He left me,” she said. “And ...”

    She shook her head. Cold logic told her Jade was right. She’d need someone with her when she walked into a necromancer’s lair and Cat ... Cat had, technically speaking, done it once already. He’d accompanied her into Randor’s castle, when the king had revealed his necromancy for the world to see. And they had made a good team ... her heart twisted in pain. She’d enjoyed their relationship - and she’d known it wouldn’t last, he’d said so himself - but he’d left her at the worst possible moment. If he’d stayed ...

    “I don’t know if I can rely on him,” she said. “He ...”

    “I understand,” Jade said. There was an edge to his voice that made Emily wonder if he’d already ...discussed ... the issue with Cat. “However, I do think you need him. You do need him.”

    “There are others,” Emily said stubbornly, although she suspected it was a losing battle. Jade was perhaps the only other person, with the possible exception of Lady Barb or Sergeant Miles, who might accompany her into a necromancer’s lair. And ... Alassa would kill her if she so much as suggested Jade went to the war. “I ...”

    She ran her hand through her hair. “Where is he? Do you know?”

    “The last I heard, he was in Kwantung,” Jade said. “I can send him a message via chat parchment.”

    “He said he was going to hunt Jacqui down and kill her,” Emily said. “I haven’t heard anything from him since he left.”

    She shivered at the memory. She’d been powerless, completely at Jacqui’s mercy. If her rival - her unknown rival - had been a little smarter, she’d have killed or enslaved Emily right there and then. The only thing that had kept her alive and free long enough to escape was her opponent’s stupidity. But then, Jacqui had probably wanted to rub Emily’s nose in her defeat. Idiot. It wasn’t her who’d rendered Emily powerless. It had been King Randor who’d robbed her of her powers with his dying curse.

    “He might not have caught her,” Jade said. “Jacqui might have vanished before he reached her home.”

    Emily winced, inwardly. Jacqui had hardly been a failure - she’d studied at Whitehall for six years, but she’d been nowhere near as capable as Melissa, Alassa, Jade or Emily herself. She could have abandoned her home, snatched everything she could carry and vanished before Jade - or someone else - tried to catch up with her. The Nameless World was huge. All she’d have to do, if she wanted to remain undiscovered, was change her name and appearance. She certainly had the skills to learn a living without making waves ...

    She looked down at her hands. Cat ... had knocked some sense into her. She admitted as much, although she’d promised to castrate him if he even thought of doing that again. And he’d been there for her, at least at the start. She understood why he’d left - he’d never been one to take inactivity or helplessness well - but she found it hard to forgive him. They’d been more than friends, or so she’d thought. It stung to know they’d never been anything more than friends with benefits. She wanted something a little more in her life.

    She felt a sudden pang of envy for Alassa, who’d found someone who complemented her perfectly. Was there anyone like that for her? Jan was nice, but she didn’t know him that well. They hadn’t had the time. Cat had left her, Caleb had been unable to ... she shook her head. There was no point in woolgathering. Jade was right and that was all there was to it. She could put her personal feelings aside, for the good of the mission. Everything else came second.

    “Message him,” she said. “Ask him to contact me, as quickly as possible. If he comes here, direct him to General Pollack and Master Lucknow. I’m sure they’ll be glad of him even if I’m not.”

    Jade grinned. “General Pollack already knows Cat,” he said. “Is that going to cause problems?”

    “I hope not,” Emily said. She had no idea if General Pollack and Cat had ever been formally introduced. Cat had been an apprentice, back during the war. “Why would it?”

    “Well.” Jade’s grin grew wider. “You were dating his son, then Cat ...”

    “Don’t remind me.” Emily cut him off, quickly. “I don’t want to think about it.”

    “You might have to,” Jade said. “What’ll you say if you get asked?”

    “Mind your own business,” Emily said, curtly. She snorted. She’d heard rumours that linked her name with just about every magician of her generation, male and female alike. She had no idea where some of them came from, let alone why they lingered. She’d never met some of her rumoured partners. They’d never even gone to Whitehall! “I think that’ll have to do.”

    There was a knock on the door. Emily straightened upright, pasting a composed expression on her face as Jade snapped his fingers. The door opened, revealing Sir Robin. Emily stood and nodded to him as he bowed, then motioned for him to take a chair. Sir Robin looked to have aged twenty years in the last fourteen months. He was still handsome, in a way, but the zest for life she recalled was gone. He’d betrayed his liege lord. There’d been very little choice, Emily knew, but that hadn’t saved his reputation. Very few people, even Alassa, would ever trust him again.

    “Lady Emily,” Sir Robin said. He sounded older too. It was hard to believe he’d ever been considered a match for Imaiqah. “I understand you wanted to speak to me?”

    Emily studied him, thoughtfully. Sir Robin had been a loyalist, loyal to his sovereign until he’d betrayed him. She wondered, idly, why he’d stayed in Zangaria. He was one of the first officers to command a detachment of musketmen, to lead them in battle against orcs and rebels alike. There were plenty of kings and princes - and even magicians - who would have paid good money for her services, even if they’d never fully trusted him. And his family would probably have been relieved if he’d left the kingdom. It would be a great deal easier to pretend Sir Robin had never existed if he hadn’t been lingering around like a bad smell.

    She felt a flicker of understanding, even sympathy, mingled with a grim understanding of how his former comrades felt. A turncoat could never be fully trusted, whatever his motivations. Turning one’s coat was felt to be habit-forming. A man who betrayed his lord couldn’t expect mercy, let alone trust. And yet ... Emily’s heart twisted in bitter pain. Sir Robin had had no time to send a formal defiance, to renounce his oaths and declare war on his former master. He wouldn’t have survived long enough to flee.

    And he was raised from the very lowest levels of the nobility, she reminded herself. Sir Robin’s family didn’t have the influence to overcome his disgrace. Their position had depended on a king who was now dead. It was how Randor kept him under control for so long.

    “There is a war brewing,” she said, calmly. She outlined the situation, wondering how much of it Sir Robin already knew. Master Lucknow and his quarrel had been sounding the alert for weeks now. “Her Majesty has given her permission for you - and your men - to join the army.”

    Sir Robin didn’t look pleased, although it was hard to be sure. Emily didn’t really blame him. He was a liability, as far as Alassa was concerned. She’d probably breathe a sigh of relief if Sir Robin died during the war. She could honour him in death, without having to worry about a turncoat turning on her. And there was a very good chance none of them would come home. Holding the mountains was one thing. Plunging into the heart of enemy territory was quite another.

    “I see, My Lady,” Sir Robin said, when she’d finished. “And you believe the plan can work?”

    “I think so,” Emily said. “It wouldn’t be the first time I entered a necromancer’s lair.”

    “We barely managed to stop them when they attacked a city, with high walls and solid defences,” Sir Robin pointed out. “Can we keep them from overrunning us if we invade their lands?”

    Emily took a moment to consider her answer. It wouldn’t be easy. The necromancers would rain orcs on them like ... like rain. They’d throw hundreds of thousands of orcs into the fire, hoping to bury the invaders under a sea of bodies. A modern army with tanks and machine guns would be able to stop them, but the Nameless World was a long way from designing and building even a very basic tank. She’d seen plans for steam-powered tanks, yet even they would take years to produce. They simply didn’t have the time.

    “I think so,” she said. “If we take a solid position and fortify it, we should be able to hold long enough to distract them from tearing a path through the mountains.”

    Sir Robin frowned. “Is that even possible?”

    “They think it’s possible,” Emily said. It was a brutally simple solution to their problem. In hindsight, the real wonder was that no one had thought of it earlier. “And I have good reason to think they’re right.”

    “I see.” Sir Robin didn’t press for details, for which she was grateful. “How do you intend to proceed?”

    “I intend to make a formal proposal to General Pollack and Master Lucknow, once we’ve worked out the basics,” Emily said. “If they refuse to approve the plan ... at the very least, you and your men will assist in building defences along the mountain range.”

    “And you’ll be accompanying the invasion force,” Sir Robin said. “That’ll be a point in your favour.”

    “No one doubts Emily’s courage,” Jade said, crossly.

    Emily hid her amusement with an effort. There were few advantages to living in a world dominated by sexist double standards, but one of them - she had to admit - was that women weren’t expected to be brave at all times. Even a combat sorceress could refuse to join a war without facing an endless torrent of mockery. She could propose a retreat without charges of cowardice and endless challenges to duels. And if she accompanied the army, it would be the clearest possible sign she believed the invasion would succeed.

    As long as I can master the bilocation spell, she reminded herself. If not, the plan might need some revision.

    She glanced at Jade. “Do you have some paper?”

    Jade opened a drawer under the table. “Here,” he said. “Where do you want to start?”

    “At the beginning,” Emily said. “The objective is to distract the enemy, not to conquer the Blighted Lands.”

    She allowed herself to relax, slightly, as they started to draw up the first draft. She’d been in the wars, as had Jade, but Sir Robin had more experience in commanding and supplying troops than either of them. He knew how important it was to keep focused on logistics, to ensure the men had everything from food and drink to bullets and gunpowder. Emily took a second sheet of paper and started to list everything they’d need, making notes General Pollack and his staff could turn into a logistics system. They’d practically have to run a railway line through a portal, just to ensure they had everything in place before the enemy realised they were there. The portal would be the first target when the shit hit the fan.

    They’ll want to cut us off, Emily mused. And this time, there’ll be nowhere to go.

    “We would like hundreds of cannons,” Sir Robin said. “How many are we going to get?”

    “It depends,” Emily said. “But we should have enough for the war.”

    Her lips quirked. The foundries were churning out hundreds of cannon and thousands upon thousands of cannonballs, as well as muskets, pistols and bullets. Every kingdom and city-state worth of the name had kick-started a gunpowder weapons production program, trying to devise newer and better ways to kill people. No one could dispute the value of gunpowder weapons any longer, not after the Zangarian Civil War. Change was coming, no matter what the kings and princes tried to slow it down. They should be able to source weapons and gunpowder from all over the Allied Lands.

    “I hope you’re right,” Sir Robin said. “One thing we did learn was that we burnt through our supplies faster than we dreamed possible.”

    “We’ll keep shipping in more,” Emily said. “As long as we keep the portals open, we can move supplies behind their lines without interference.”

    Jade nodded. “And now you have to decide if you want to go,” he said. “If not ...”

    Sir Robin looked displeased. “I’ll go,” he said. “And I’ll see how many of my men want to go too. I won’t take anyone who doesn’t.”

    Emily raised her eyebrows in mild surprise. Kings, princes and aristocrats normally didn’t have any qualms about forcibly drafting unwilling conscripts into their armies. And yet, it wasn’t uncommon for their armies to shatter after a defeat, for the unwilling soldiers to throw down their weapons and go home ... Sir Robin had clearly learnt some of the right lessons from his experiences. If nothing else, a discontented army with guns could turn nasty very quickly. They might even gun down their leaders and disperse into the wilds.

    “I’m glad to have you with us,” Emily said. She picked up the papers and fold them carefully. “Prepare your troops. I’ll be in touch about when and where we’ll assemble the army.”

    “General Pollack will want to assemble somewhere near the mountains,” Jade said. “They’ll want to be ready if the necromancers complete their plans before we complete ours.”

    Emily nodded. “Makes sense,” she said. “But we’ll try and get there first.”

    “I have orders to ensure you join us for dinner,” Jade said, as the wards flickered an alert. “Sir Robin, we’ll discuss the details before you leave.”

    “Of course.” Sir Robin stood and bowed. “And, with your permission, I’ll take my leave.”

    Emily felt a stab of guilt as Sir Robin left the chamber. It felt wrong to exclude him from the dinner table, even though local politics made it inevitable. Alassa couldn’t show open favour to the man who’d betrayed her father ... Emily snorted, inwardly, as Jade led her through a corridor and up a flight of stairs. Aristocratic protocol still struck her as faintly absurd. The queen shouldn’t have to take political considerations into account when she chose her dinner guests. But merely being chosen to dine with the monarch was a sign of favour.

    Alassa stood as they entered the room, Imaiqah right beside her. Emily ran forward and gave her friend - her very first friend - a hug. Imaiqah looked to have recovered completely from the cursed blade, her tinted face flushed with life. She’d grown out her hair too, allowing it to hang down to the small of her back. Emily had to smile. Her friend had practically copied her style.

    “It’s been too long,” she said, as she released Imaiqah. “How are you feeling?”

    “I still have aches and pains, when I use too much magic,” Imaiqah said. “But otherwise, I’m much better.”

    “And doing three jobs at once,” Alassa said. She cast a pair of privacy wards into the air, then took a seat. “Please, be informal. I don’t need three sonnets and a monologue if you want to ask me to pass the salt.”

    Emily had to smile. “Is that a serious problem?”

    “They’re still feeling their way towards the new protocol,” Alassa said. Her smile grew wider. “The queen is allowed to make laws and behead people on a whim, but setting courtly protocol is beyond her. And everyone seems bent on setting the precedents for themselves.”

    “At least you changed the dress code,” Imaiqah pointed out. “Last year, people were freezing to death.”

    Alassa laughed. “That’s what happens when you wear so little in such a cold country,” she said. “I never saw the point.”

    “Well,” Jade drawled, deadpan. “I think ...”

    “Shut up,” Alassa said, quickly. She turned to Emily. “What’s your apprenticeship like? I heard stories from Dragora ...”

    “Intense,” Emily said. A cold weight settled in her chest as she realised she’d have to discuss her plans with Void. He wouldn’t be pleased when he realised what she’d committed herself to do. “He’s been pushing me to the limit and beyond.”

    “It’s done wonders for you,” Alassa said. “You’re much stronger now.”

    “Yeah,” Imaiqah agreed. “I barely recognised you.”

    “Thanks,” Emily said. “I haven’t changed that much, have I?”

    “Well, not physically,” Alassa said. “But your magic feels stronger, more focused.”

    “It’s a challenge,” Emily said. “He really has been pushing me.”

    “As long as he doesn’t push you too far,” Jade said. “I needed a holiday to recuperate after I finished my apprenticeship.”

    “That’s because you were determined to set a record,” Emily said. “I don’t think I’ll be done for years.”

    She took a chair and watched the maids bring in the food. It had been too long since she’d seen her friends, too long since they’d been able to sit and eat without something looming over their shoulders. Too long ... she leaned forward, enjoying the conversation as it veered from topic to topic. When the meal was done, she’d have to go back to the tower ...

    And she wasn’t looking forward to that discussion at all.
     
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  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine

    “Let me get this straight,” Void said. “You drew up a plan that requires you to be in two places at once?”

    Emily stood in front of him, feeling uncomfortably like a schoolgirl who’d been called upon the carpet. The last time anyone had spoken to her like that had been at Whitehall ... Void, for all of his power, had never talked to her as anything other than an apprentice. And yet ... she held herself steady, forcing herself to meet his eyes. She wanted - she needed - him to understand. She had to be in two places at once.

    “Yes, sir,” she said. “I couldn’t think of any other way to make it work.”

    “You could leave establishing defences to General Pollack and his staff, while you sneak into the Blighted Lands,” Void pointed out coldly. “You don’t need to put together an army and invade enemy territory. You certainly don’t need to put your own life at risk to make it work.”

    Emily clasped her hands behind her back to keep them from shaking. It was the first time Void had been genuinely angry with her, the first time ... he’d told her, bluntly, that he’d terminate the apprenticeship and kick her out if she disobeyed. She told herself, firmly, there was no choice. She had to be there, to give her blessing to the invasion, and she had to be the one to sneak into the necromancer’s lair. The oath wouldn’t let her stand back and send someone else to do the job. It had to be her.

    “I was committed from the moment I swore the oath,” she said, flatly. “It doesn’t matter if I go with the invasion force or not. I have to sneak into the castle and reignite the nexus point myself. And that isn’t safe.”

    “There’s a difference between a calculated risk and a dangerous mistake,” Void said. He pointed a long finger at her. “Have you managed to bilocate successfully?”

    “No,” Emily said. “But I can make it work.”

    “Yes,” Void agreed. “And do you know the risks?”

    Emily nodded, wordlessly. The books had gone into considerable detail. If the bilocated bodies and minds diverged too far, they’d become two different people ... if they had enough magic to sustain them. It was quite possible they’d dissolve into nothingness when they ran out of magic. And ... if one of the bodies died, the shock might throw the other body into catatonia. If she’d had problems coping with two sets of memories that lasted only a few seconds, it would be a great deal worse trying to absorb several days or weeks worth of memories. Even under controlled conditions, reintegration would be tricky. It might take months to recover from the experience.

    Void took a step back and began to pace the room. “I should forbid it,” he said. “I should tell you not to join the invasion force. I should tell you not to invade at all.”

    “But it might lure the necromancers out of their lairs,” Emily pointed out. “It would make it easier to sneak into the castle and reignite the nexus point.”

    “It would also give them a clear shot at you,” Void snapped. He let out a breath. “When do you have to join the army?”

    “I don’t know,” Emily said. “I sent messages to Master Lucknow and General Pollack ...”

    “Before you thought to speak to me?” Void’s voice turned cold. “Did you not think I might have a say in this?”

    “You said I could go,” Emily reminded him. “And they’re already expecting me.”

    Void snorted. “That was before I heard your plan,” he said. “The dangers ...”

    His eyes bored into Emily’s. “You and I are going to spend the next week getting the spell down pat,” he said. “You’re not going to be needed at the camp until the invasion force is ready to go, so you can stay here until then. It’ll take at least two weeks to get everything lined up and ready ... I want you to be ready. We’re going to practice everything from wardcracking to duelling. You can charge the battery once you’re in the camp.”

    Emily winced at his icy expression, but kept her voice calm. “I understand ...”

    “Do you?” Void didn’t seem convinced. “Emily, this could go horribly wrong.”

    He turned away for a moment. “Did you have a good time with your friends?”

    “Yes.” Emily scowled at his back. “It was a good dinner.”

    “And yet, you have less in common with them now,” Void said. “Or am I wrong?”

    “It doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,” Emily said. She was used to Void changing the subject without warning, but she’d noticed there was always a point to it. “Or do you feel otherwise?”

    “They are limited,” Void said. “You shouldn’t be.”

    He cleared his throat as he turned back to her. “Go to bed. Get some rest. I’ll see you in the morning, spellchamber one. And be ready to work.”

    Emily dropped a curtsey. “Yes, sir.”

    Void pointed at the door. Emily turned and walked out of the room, despite an overpowering urge to run. She’d known he wouldn’t be pleased, but she hadn’t expected him to be quite so angry about it. He’d accepted she had to keep her oath ... he probably hadn’t expected her to suggest actually invading the Blighted Lands, let alone bilocating herself. The risks were quite considerable, but they could be managed. There was certainly no other way to be in two places at once.

    Unless I find someone who can take my place, she thought, not for the first time. But there’s no one who can pretend to be me well enough to fool anyone who actually knows me.

    She sighed as she reached her chambers. The plan was workable. And yet, she felt as if she’d betrayed Void. She felt ... she wasn’t sure how she felt. Void had put her in danger more than once, as a way to test her development and force her to expand her skills, but there’d been limits. She could have walked away from each and every test, if she’d been prepared to pay the price. Now ... she couldn’t abandon the plan. It was hers. General Pollack might veto the whole idea, when he heard of it, but otherwise ...

    He won’t, Emily thought, with a certainty that surprised her. He knows, as well as I do, that we have to get the necromancers fighting each other before it’s too late.

    She stepped into the room. Silent was standing by the table, unbundling a pile of letters. The maid turned and curtsied as Emily entered, a faint hint of amusement flickering in the air. She’d probably already heard Emily was in trouble. Servants talked amongst themselves, even if they weren’t allowed to gossip outside the household. They had to know what their superiors were doing, particularly if it was something their superiors might take out on them. There were too many horror stories of maids being at the bottom of a chain of abuse ...

    “My Lady,” Silent said. She really did seem amused. “There are letters for you ...”

    “I’ll deal with them in the morning,” Emily said. The clock insisted it was mid-afternoon, but her body was convinced it was evening. She wondered, absently, if there was a spell to dampen teleport lag. “Wake me up at seven and not a moment before.”

    Silent curtsied again, then withdrew. Emily glowered after her, feeling torn between irritation and guilt. It wasn’t Silent’s fault she was in trouble. It certainly wasn’t fair to take her bad mood out on the maid. And yet ... Emily put the thought out of her mind as she checked the pile of letters, then headed to the bedroom. She wasn’t prepared - mentally - to correspond with anyone. The sense of lingering guilt tormented her.

    I should have checked with him before I suggested using a bilocation spell, she thought, sourly. She undressed quickly and clambered into bed. And now the idea has already gotten out of control.

    She frowned at the thought. General Pollack would have his doubts, but - when all was said and done - he didn’t have any magic himself. Master Lucknow, on the other hand, might try to veto the idea. Or ... she wondered, idly, why Jade hadn’t tried to veto the idea. Did he think she could pull it off? He’d probably at least experimented with the spell, during his apprenticeship. Or had he? She wasn’t sure. She made a mental note to check, then closed her eyes and chanted a sleep spell. She’d pay for that in the morning ...

    Silent shook her awake, what felt like seconds later. Emily sat upright, staring at her in confusion. She hadn’t slept ... her head spun in circles as she saw the clock. It was seven in the morning, precisely seven. Silent had done precisely what she’d been told to do. Emily shot her an apologetic look. It wasn’t the maid’s fault she’d used a sleep spell either. She took the mug of Kava, drank it quickly and stumbled into the shower. The hot water jarred her awake.

    “My Lady, your breakfast is waiting for you,” Silent said. “And you have more letters.”

    Emily nodded as she dried and dressed herself, then followed the maid into the living room. A large plate of bacon, eggs and mashed potato awaited her ... she felt her stomach heave, even though she knew she had to eat as much as possible. She needed the energy. Void had told her she was going to be spending the next week practicing magic ...

    She put the thought aside as she sat down and sorted though the letters. Half of them seemed to be junk - she wondered if anyone would never forgive her for making junk mail possible - but she put them aside for later attention, just in case. The remainder started with a formal note from General Pollack, thanking her for agreeing to join the army and approving her plan ... if, he noted, she could find enough volunteers willing to carry it out. Emily smiled - she’d already taken care of that - and opened the next letter. Sir Robin had rounded up around five hundred men, old hands and new volunteers, and was starting drills. He thought he’d be ready to go in a week. Emily made a mental note to tell him to coordinate with General Pollack, then read the note from Jan. He’d invited her to dinner. She felt a pang as she put the letter aside. She simply didn’t have the time. Void intended to work her to death.

    Nothing from Cat, Emily thought, as she reached the end of the pile. Is that good or bad?

    She honestly wasn’t sure. She was torn between wishing he would say something, even if it was a flat refusal to join her, and being silently grateful he hadn’t said anything at all. Her feelings were a mess ... she wondered, idly, how Alassa and Jade had managed to build a proper relationship. They were friends and confidents as well as husband and wife. Perhaps they were a balanced couple, each one powerful in their realm ... she made a face, knowing it couldn’t be easy. It was just a matter of time until their enemies started poking at cracks within their marriage.

    And they know it too, she mused. She stood, feeling uncomfortably full. They’ll be ready for anything.

    Void was waiting for her in the spellchamber, holding a small mirror in one hand. “You’ll be working with this, instead of the big mirror,” he said, brusquely. “By the time you leave, I want you to master the art of casting the spell without a mirror.”

    Emily nodded. She hadn’t considered the issue, but she had to admit it made sense. She couldn’t carry a full-length mirror wherever she went. She’d seen aristocratic commanders travelling with entire cartloads of goods, sometimes throwing out wounded men so they could use the carts to transport their possessions, but she couldn’t do that. General Pollack would never allow it, certainly not on a big scale. And she couldn’t convince him she needed the mirror without explaining precisely what she wanted to do with it.

    “I will,” she said.

    “We’ll also work on teleport spells,” Void added. “It’s time to test your emergency escape route.”

    “Yes, sir.” Emily felt a rush of affection. “I’ll be sure to use it if there’s no other way out.”

    “Just be careful where you use it,” Void said. “If you try to tear through the wards, you might wind up splattered across the planet.”

    Emily nodded as she took the mirror and peered into her own face. Her reflection looked as if she hadn’t slept at all. She made a mental note to go to bed earlier, without relying on spells. They were just too dangerous to use regularly. Void motioned her into the centre of the chamber, then stepped back until he was leaning against the wall. Emily closed her eyes, centring herself. The spell had to work perfectly.

    Don’t push too hard, she thought, as she prepared the spell. Let the magic flow properly.

    She cast the spell. The magic flickered into existence, then faded back into nothingness. She swallowed a curse, then tried again. The world spun around her, going dark even though she hadn’t closed her eyes. She blinked, hard, and found herself looking into her own face. Her reflection - no, her other body - looked back at her. She looked into her own eyes ...

    The world blurred again. Emily staggered, feeling her knees start to buckle. Her other self was gone ... no, they’d reintegrated. This time, it was easier to take. She guessed the simple fact they didn’t have more than a few seconds of separation ensured they were still the same person, even if they were in two bodies. She bit her lip as she straightened, readying herself to try again. Void said nothing. He merely watched. She wished she knew what he was thinking.

    She cast the spell again. This time, she held it in place. Her other self looked at her ... she gritted her teeth and forced herself to turn away. Something tore inside her mind, something ... she wasn’t sure what it was, something she hadn’t even known existed until it was too late. She turned back and saw ... herself, looking back at her. They were two separate people ... it was hard to comprehend. She wasn’t even sure how best to handle herself.

    She’s me, she thought. She’s not an alternate version of myself.

    “I think ...” They spoke together, then broke off. “I think ...”

    Void laughed. “You, speak first,” he said, pointing to the other Emily. “How do you feel?”

    Emily stared at herself as the other Emily spoke. “Do I really look like that?”

    “Unless something went spectacularly wrong,” Emily said. Her head started to ache as she looked into her own face. “I suppose ...”

    She felt an insane urge to giggle. “I suppose Cat would be happy.”

    “I was just thinking that,” her other self said. “I’m sure he’d be delighted.”

    Void cleared his throat. “Reintegrate. Now.”

    Emily looked at herself, then started to cast the spell. Her other self held out a hand. They touched ... and blurred together, every atom of her body touching every atom of the other body. It felt strange, as if she was doing something exciting and yet fundamentally wrong. The magic field grew stronger, the world flaring white ... she found herself on her knees, the floor lurching like a boat caught in a storm. She had to fight to centre herself. The two sets of memories were similar, but not identical. How could they be?

    “My head hurts,” she muttered. Her mouth was suddenly very dry. “I ...”

    “Here.” Void pushed a mug of water into her hand. “How do you feel?”

    “Very strange,” Emily said. She found herself struggling to explain it. “I feel ... as if someone pounded my brain without actually going through my skull.”

    Void nodded. “Common, when you’re doing it for the first time,” he said. “It’ll get harder before it gets easier. Believe me.”

    “I do.” Emily rubbed her forehead. It was damp with sweat. Her stomach growled, even though it had only been an hour - if that - since breakfast. “I just feel ... funny.”

    “It’ll get harder before it gets easier,” Void repeated. “Just you wait until one of your selves has a conversation the other self never knew happened until reintegration.”

    “Ouch,” Emily said. She forced herself to stand. “How does it work? Some form of quantum entanglement?”

    “I don’t understand what you mean,” Void said. “The general theory, and I hasten to add that no one has managed to prove it, is that you and your other self are the same person and thus linked together by nature. My father” - his face twisted - “believed that magical twins, if they existed, would be linked together. His theory was that they didn’t exist because they merged together in the womb ...”

    “I don’t think that makes sense,” Emily said. Her head was too sore to parse the explanation properly. “What was he trying to do?”

    “He thought he could prevent them from integrating themselves, according to his notes,” Void said. “But we don’t know for sure. There’s a lot of stuff he never wrote down before one of his experiments killed him.”

    “Ouch,” Emily said. She knew what it was like to grow up without a father. “I’m sorry.”

    “Don’t be,” Void said. He shook his head, dismissively. “It was a very long time ago.”

    He made a whip-cracking motion. “Back to work,” he ordered. “You’ve got a long way to go.”
     
    squiddley, Darkwolf, techsar and 2 others like this.
  20. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    The only other than Cat?

    Why not message him herself?

    his? In context, I think that's what's meant.
     
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