Chapter Twenty-Six She awoke, unsure of what had startled her. For a moment, she lay still, remembering the day a maid had tried to kill her in Alassa’s bedroom, back on the road to Zangaria. An alarm bell yammered in her mind, but it took her a long moment to realise that something was pressing against the wards. She heard the sound of breathing as her eyes snapped open, peering upwards into the darkness. The moon was descending in the distance and the clearing was wrapped in shadow. But there was no sign of anything outside the wards. Bracing herself, Emily sat up, one hand reaching for her staff before remembering that it was hidden in Lady Barb’s pockets. The wards shivered again and her head snapped round, but she still saw nothing where something had touched the wards. Carefully, she cast the night vision spell over her eyes, casting the clearing into eerie light, but still saw nothing, apart from a faint disturbance in the ground. It looked as though a giant invisible creature was prowling the edge of the wards. Emily hastily tested the wards, just as they shivered for the third time. They didn't look as if they were going to break. Even so ... she stood upright, staring towards where she knew the creature had to be. Faint clouds of dirt rose up from where it placed its feet, suggesting that it was the size of a lion, perhaps bigger. The sound of deep heavy breathing grew louder as Emily carefully added a pair of extra wards. If the first set collapsed, they wouldn't be left defenceless. An invisible creature ... she'd never heard of anything like it, at least as far as she recalled from class. But there were quite a few stories of people encountering monsters and never managing to report back, although she hadn't been able to avoid asking how they knew that monsters were involved, if no one had escaped to report. What if their missing explorers had run into an invisible monster too? But the creature didn't seem that dangerous, not compared to a Mimic or a Werewolf. Could it be a Werewolf? Werewolves could use magic – could one of them have cast an invisibility spell on himself before transforming? But it seemed unlikely ... she prepared a cancelation spell, then dismissed the thought. Without clear eye contact with her target, it was quite possible that she would accidentally disarm her wards instead. She rose to her feet and crossed the gap to the edge of the wards, staring outwards. Warm breath touched her face and she stumbled backwards, breathing in the stench of rotting meat. The giant dogs she’d played with, back when she was looking for a familiar, smelled nicer. And she’d hated them. “A Night Walker,” Lady Barb’s voice said. Emily jumped. She hadn't realised that the older woman had awakened. Grimly, she turned away from the wards and peered towards Lady Barb. Her face looked pale in the darkness, a thin sheen of sweat was covering her face – and her hand was trembling slightly. Emily felt a cold shiver running down her spine. She couldn't imagine Lady Barb ever trembling. “He can’t get through the wards,” Lady Barb added. “But he wouldn't hesitate to attack if he could.” Emily sighed. “What do I do with him?” “Nothing,” Lady Barb said. “Just sit still and wait for him to lose interest.” The sound of breathing grew louder as the wards shimmered. Emily watched the interplay of magic around the creature, shuddering inwardly. If the creature was completely invisible – and none of her spells showed her anything other than its footsteps – it would be deadly dangerous, even to a sorcerer. She suspected she wouldn't sleep a wink all night – and then be terrified when she walked through the forest, the following day. How would she know there wasn't a creature after her? “They sleep during the day,” Lady Barb said, when she asked. “I think it’s part of their magic.” Emily scowled. Another Faerie-created monster, then, just like almost every other magical creature. She could imagine what use they’d had for an invisible creature. If nothing else, it would be a very effective terror weapon. Maybe it was meant to discourage people from visiting the Faerie ruins in the mountains. But hardly anyone would go visit unless they were compelled. She settled back on the ground, resting her hands in her lap, and felt the wards shimmer as the creature paced the edge of the field. Time and time again, it brushed up against the wards, then retreated, apparently balked. Lady Barb closed her eyes and returned to sleep, but Emily couldn't force herself to relax. Just knowing the creature was there ... she kept trying to see it, even though it was definitely futile. All she could see were the signs of its passage. Maybe there was a captured Night Walker at Whitehall and I just couldn't see it, she thought, with morbid amusement. Mistress Kirdáne would love a new pet. Sergeant Miles had taught his students that invisibility was only as good as the sorcerer who cast the spell. It was easy to turn invisible, harder to hide the tracks of one’s passage. Emily had watched him point out how they still disturbed the world around them – and how a simple spell could reveal their location, even if it didn't break the invisibility spell itself. And besides, there was no such thing as a perfect invisibility cloak. A properly constructed set of wards could rip it to shreds. Her fingers itched, ready to cast a spell that would create a mist or something else that would show the creature’s rough location and form, but she held the impulse under control. Instead, she toyed with the bracelet around her wrist. She could release the Death Viper, send it out after the creature, and then ... she shuddered, unable to contemplate the prospect of seeing the lethal snake crushed under the creature’s feet. The bond had tightened around her mind, as the books had warned. But she hadn't paid close enough attention at the time. She looked over at Lady Barb, sleeping peacefully, then returned her gaze to the creature, trying to gage its size and shape. Her first impression had been correct, she decided; it definitely walked on four legs. Other than that ... it was hard to estimate anything else about the creature. The way it walked suggested it was large, but was it really as big as she’d thought? Or was it just playing games with her mind? A shiver ran down her spine as the wards shimmered again, right in front of her. She peered into the darkness, unable to escape the feeling that the creature was looking right back at her, but saw nothing. High overhead, she heard something hooting and glanced up, just in time to see an enormous Snowy Owl flying through the darkness. A wriggling shape was caught in its talons, desperately trying to escape. When she looked back down, the creature was gone. Or was it? Emily slowly rose to her feet and paced over to stand at the edge of the wards. As long as the creature stayed still, it wouldn't reveal anything to show where it was hiding. It could be crouched right in front of her and she would never see it. She listened, carefully, but all she heard was the faint sounds of rustling from the undergrowth and owls hooting in the distance. A faint glow seemed to flicker within the forest, then faded away into nothingness. Emily peered into the darkness for a long chilling moment, then turned and walked back to her blanket. If the creature was lurking outside the wards, it could wait until doomsday. She had no intention of crossing the wards until the sun rose and she had to find water and perhaps another rabbit. A motion caught her eye, at the edge of the clearing, and she looked over sharply, just in time to see ... something moving through the air. For a long second, her mind refused to process what she was seeing. It looked like a blanket hanging in the air, yet the way it flapped told her it was a living creature. She wasn't even sure how it flew. They used to prove that bumblebees couldn’t fly, she reminded herself. She’d ridden on a dragon and she had no idea how it managed to fly, save by magic. But then, Alassa hadn't believed Emily when she’d tried to explain about jumbo jets. It sounded absurd, completely impossible, to someone raised in Zangaria. And yet she could turn someone into a frog with a wave of her hand. The newcomer seemed to hesitate, then flapped its way into the clearing. Emily stared, fascinated, as several others joined it, spinning through the air like dishcloths as they moved. She’d never seen anything like them on Earth, or in classes at Whitehall. Had they even been discovered officially? They didn't look dangerous, merely absurd. A low growl echoed through the air. Emily started, realising that she’d been right and the first creature had been hiding near the wards, hoping she’d be stupid enough to step outside and be eaten. The dishcloths – as she couldn't help thinking of them – stopped their flapping and advanced towards where the first creature had to be. There was a rustle of motion, but it was already too late. Powerful jaws savaged the first dishcloth, but its companions fell on the creature and attacked it. Emily saw hints of giant teeth – she had no idea where they’d been hiding – before the brief bloody battle came to an end. Victorious, the dishcloths retreated, carrying their prey with them. She couldn't help noticing that, enfolded by the dishcloths, the invisible creature was actually larger than a lion. Shaken, unable to sleep, Emily watched as the nightlife flowed through the forest. Some wildlife was mundane enough to have come from Earth, others were strange and wonderful creatures, including several others she hadn't seen at Whitehall. Foxes sniffed at the edge of the wards, then ran off; tiny spiders scuttled along the edge of the clearing, moving in large groups. Emily remembered the warped spiders near the Dark City and shivered, feeling sorry for whatever creature the spiders overwhelmed. Individually, the spiders were largely harmless, their poison insufficient to kill a grown human. Collectively, they were absolutely lethal. And, unlike spiders on Earth, they preferred to move in groups. She looked up, just in time to see something large flying high overhead, blotting out the stars as it moved. The magic field seemed to shift around her as she realised she was staring up at a dragon, the first she'd seen since her passage to Whitehall. Dragons weren't exactly rare, but the ones old enough to be intelligent stayed away from humanity. She still had no idea what Void had done to earn a favour from a dragon, let alone one that had been expended so casually. Void could easily have teleported her to Whitehall if he hadn’t wanted to use his favour. But she had to admit that being flown by a dragon had allowed her to make one hell of an entrance. Golden eyes glinted, peering down at her. Emily stared back, wondering if it was the dragon she’d met, years ago. But the dragon made no move towards the clearing. It merely flapped its wings and flew away, into the darkness. She was sure it had noticed her ... Feeling an odd sense of loss, Emily lay down on the blanket and stared up at the night sky. The moon was rising now, casting rays of silver light over the ground. Magic seemed to dance in response, now they were well away from human settlement. She remembered all the tales about people warped and twisted by wild magic and, suddenly, believed them all. There was something eerie about being outside in the forest, with the moon calling to the magic in her blood. If she’d been a werewolf, she realised, she would have transformed by now. The lunar magic gives them a boost, she thought, as she tried to relax. Their curse is charged up by the moon, allowing them to transform. Like most transfigured people, they lose themselves in the transformation – and, even when the spell snaps, they still carry the mental scars. She must have dozed off, despite the danger, for the next thing she knew was warm sunlight playing across her body. Her eyes opened and she hastily scanned the clearing for danger, but saw nothing, apart from a handful of splashes of blood and scales where the Night Walker had been killed. She stood up, brushing down her shirt, and walked over to the edge of the wards, looking for any hints that they were being watched. But there was nothing there, as far as she could tell. Carefully, she checked the caldron and discovered that there was enough water left to make two mugs of Kava. The fire had dimmed low, but it was still alight. She pushed pieces of wood into the fire, built up a blaze and then started to boil the water. Lady Barb moaned slightly, then opened her eyes. Emily shivered, deeply worried. Every day, Lady Barb had awoken first and left Emily to sleep. But now ... “I’m making Kava,” she said, as she poured the water into the first mug and added the ground powder. It reminded her of instant coffee, save for the taste. She’d grown used to it, but she doubted she would ever like the flavour. “Are you ... are you all right?” “I’ve been better,” Lady Barb grated. She managed to sit upright, crossing her legs. “You may have to entertain yourself today.” Emily looked at her, stung. She might be inexperienced – perhaps even naive – compared to the older sorceress, but she didn't know she was being babysat. Or perhaps she was. There were dangers in the countryside she wouldn't even have noticed, if Lady Barb hadn't pointed them out to her. She finished making the cup of Kava and passed it to Lady Barb, who took it and drank carefully. Every movement she made looked precisely calculated, rather like Professor Lombardi; it took Emily a moment to realise that Lady Barb was carefully controlling herself, trying not to lose control of her body. She had to be dangerously ill. “I need to know,” she said, quietly. “What is happening to you?” “I told you,” Lady Barb snapped. She took a breath, then continued in a quieter tone. “I spent a great deal of magic to repair the damage Lord Gorham suffered, under the influence of the runes. In doing so, I weakened my life force and became vulnerable to backlash shock.” She finished her mug and passed it back to Emily. “This is manifesting as a disease,” she added, darkly. “Don’t worry. You can't catch it from me.” Emily winced. She hadn't even considered the possibility. But she should have done. Whitehall’s residents came from a world without vaccines, without even a proper theory of medicine. Or at least not a non-magical one. Emily knew she was unprepared for diseases that had been wiped out on Earth decades ago, diseases that would eat her up as soon as they infected her body. Smallpox would run riot on modern-day Earth. What might she catch, simply by not having the immunities that were conferred by being born in the Allied Lands? “I was hoping that it would fade today, but no such luck,” Lady Barb added. “That means it has yet to reach its peak. When it does ... just keep giving me water, when I ask for it. Don’t try any magic, whatever happens.” Emily frowned. “Why?” “Because my magic will regard yours as an intrusion,” Lady Barb explained. She sighed and lay back on the blanket. “This isn't a normal disease or a broken bone, just my magic responding to my abuse. Give it time to recover and I’ll be fine.” “What if you're not fine?” Emily asked. “What should I do?” Lady Barb gave her a long considering look. “If I die ... you should have a contingency plan for it,” she said. She chuckled, rather harshly. “You seem to move between complete dependence or complete independence, depending on how far you trust your companion. Go back to the town, use the money in my pouch and catch a ride with the postal coach. He can take you down to the nearest city, where you can get a portal to Dragon’s Den. Make sure you take everything useful from my body before leaving it.” Emily swallowed. The matter-of-fact instructions were more worrying than shouts and screams. “What should I do with your body?” “Burn it to ash,” Lady Barb said. “Don’t worry about prayers. You don’t know the ones my family uses, so ...” She shook her head. “Just leave me to sleep, now,” she added. “Make yourself breakfast, then do some practicing ... but nothing with the staff. Leave the staff alone.” “I will,” Emily promised. Lady Barb had told her not to experiment without supervision, but she hadn't expected to get unwell. “Can I practice with pocket dimensions?” “Carefully,” Lady Barb said. “Very carefully.” She closed her eyes. Emily watched her for a long moment, then turned and stepped past the wards, one hand raised in a defensive posture. Nothing moved to attack her, nothing moved at all, apart from a rabbit at the edge of the clearing. Emily shot a stunning spell at the creature and knocked it out before it could escape. The Sergeants would have reproved her for wasting magic, but she didn't have time to set traps. She certainly didn't want to leave Lady Barb alone for longer than strictly necessary. Gritting her teeth, she picked up the creature, snapped its neck and started to cut it apart for food.