Chapter Thirty-Seven Emily talked rapidly as Lady Easter took control of her guards – most of whom seemed to have either snapped back to normal or collapsed – and directed them to bring Lady Barb her staff, some food and a change of clothes, perhaps not in that order. Lady Barb listened as she outlined what they'd found at Mother Holly’s hovel, then swore out loud as Emily described the skull. “She must have tried to use it wrongly,” Lady Barb said. “That’s why she has a split personality.” Emily nodded. Mother Holly had claimed to be fighting for the common folk, but had stolen their children and used them as a power source. She would hardly be the first person to believe that the ends justified the means, or that there was nothing wrong with exploiting their own people because the cause was righteous, but it was still disappointing. One day, she suspected, the spread of literacy would lead to a spread of democratic ideals. Until then ... She looked over at Rudolf and wondered, absently, if he would make a good lord. “Go see what you can do for the poor girl,” Lady Barb ordered, as a guard returned with a change of clothing. “She’ll lose that arm if she isn't very lucky.” Emily swallowed and walked over to the wounded girl. She was cradling her arm, sobbing quietly to herself. The pain seemed to have faded, which wasn't necessarily a good thing, Emily knew. Death Viper venom spread so rapidly that it might well have destroyed the nerves that carried pain sensations to the brain. Emily knelt down beside the girl and winced as she saw the arm up close. It looked bruised and broken. “Stay still,” she advised, as she focused her mind. The venom remained dangerous to others, which was one of the reasons it was so deadly, but it shouldn't be dangerous to her. Or would that stay true if she wasn't actually touching the snake? It should – she hadn't wiped her hands after picking it up – yet she wasn't sure she wanted to test it. “Let me work on it.” She cursed as she used a spell to probe the extent of the damage. Thankfully, the girl had dropped the snake quickly enough to prevent the poison spreading all the way up her arm, but there was a good chance that she was going to lose it completely. Emily concentrated, carefully removed the poison, then winced as she realised there was no way to repair all the damage. Even magic couldn't rebuild an arm from scratch. The Allied Lands did have peg-legs and hooks, but she’d never seen a prosthetic arm. Rudolf looked down at her, nervously. “Is there anything you can do?” “I think I need a second opinion,” Emily confessed. She waved frantically to Lady Barb, who was pulling a new shirt over her head. “Maybe Lady Barb can do something.” Lady Barb shook her head as soon as she saw the damage. “You could purge the body of poison, but not repair the wounds,” she said. She looked up into the frightened girl’s face. “We’ll have to take the arm, completely.” Emily closed her eyes in pity. The girl – it struck her suddenly that she didn't even know the girl’s name – would be permanently crippled, in a world that wasn't kind to the injured and disabled. And it was her fault for bringing the Death Viper into the castle. The girl hadn't asked to be mind-controlled into servitude, or used as a servant by a madwoman. She’d never had a choice at all. Lady Barb poked her arm. “Not your fault,” she said. “And don’t you forget it.” Emily said nothing as Lady Barb carefully severed the arm from the rest of her body, then broke it down into dust. The girl started to cry again, helplessly. Rudolf eyed Lady Barb for a long moment, then sat down and took the girl in his arms. Somehow, the girl found it more comforting than Lady Barb’s looming presence. The castle shook again, very gently, as the wind battered against the damaged walls. “This place will have to be evacuated,” Lady Barb said, standing up. “Take your people and get them down to the town.” Lady Easter nodded and started to issue orders to her guards. A long line of guards, servants and conscripted soldiers filed through the room, then headed out to the road down to the town. Emily rolled her eyes as several of the maids arrived, carrying a stretcher, which they used to help carry the injured girl out of the castle. She prayed silently that the wind wouldn't send them falling line ninepins before they reached safety, if there was any safety to be had in the town. The storm was only getting stronger. Could it be Mother Holly’s work? Weather manipulation was possible, she knew, but the books at Whitehall hadn't gone into detail about how it was actually done. Emily had a feeling that large-scale manipulation would require more than one magician, perhaps using a ritual like Lady Barb had shown her, yet there was no way to be sure. Necromancers might not work together, but they had enough raw power not to make it matter. She took a piece of bread and cold meat from one of the servants and chewed it quickly, realising – for the first time – just how ravenous she’d become. Lady Barb didn't press for them to move as they ate, suggesting that she was building up her strength too. Once they had finished eating, Lady Barb spoke briefly to Lady Easter, then motioned for Emily to follow her out of the castle. Rudolf started after them, but a sharp look from Lady Barb froze him in his tracks. Outside, the wind was howling through the mountains, blowing rain into their face. Both of the protective wards surrounding the castle had vanished, along with Mother Holly. Emily guessed that her burst of magic had shattered more than just the walls protecting the castle. She cast a night vision spell, then found where she’d hidden the book and dug it up for Lady Barb. The older woman inspected it carefully, then swore out loud for several minutes. Emily listened, silently committing several of the words to memory. Lady Barb had an impressive vocabulary. “This shouldn't even be here,” Lady Barb muttered, when she had finished swearing. “How did a Hedge Witch get her hands on this?” Emily looked at her, silently casting protective wards to keep the rain from touching the book – or themselves. “Do you recognise it?” Lady Barb hesitated, then made a visible decision to talk. “It doesn't have a name,” she said, finally. “Most students of grimoires call it nothing more than Malice. The book doesn't just list hundreds of very unpleasant spells, it affects the mind of whoever tries to use the more complex hexes and curses. There are only five copies, as far as I know, and all five are under tight security. No one knew there was a sixth.” Emily swallowed. “What are you going to do with this copy?” “I should be asking you,” Lady Barb said. She passed the book back to Emily, who took it in surprise. “You captured the book.” “Oh,” Emily said. “But I stole it.” Lady Barb shrugged. “I don't think the magician who crafted the book gave a hoot about stealing,” she said. “All that matters is that you take possession of it. The magic woven into the book probably sees you as its owner now. If I tried to take it the results might be unpleasant.” Emily frowned. “But I took it,” she pointed out. “Why didn't it object to me taking it?” “No way to know,” Lady Barb said. “It depends what magic was woven into the book.” Magic, Emily thought. Every time she though she understood it, something happened to remind her that there were entire fields of magic beyond her understanding. Although, if the book had been written in the writer’s blood, it was quite possible that it had absorbed more magic than a more normal book from Whitehall. Besides, the magician who had crafted the textbook might want it to move from weak magicians to more powerful ones. “Besides, tradition says it belongs to you too,” Lady Barb added. “Just make sure you don’t lose it.” Emily nodded and followed Lady Barb as she made her way down the slippery path. Water splashed around her ankles, washing down into the darkness. Emily shivered, despite the protective wards. They were being soaked thoroughly. “She won’t have gone back home, will she?” Emily asked. “We know where she lives.” “Her place of power,” Lady Barb answered, bluntly. She turned and gave Emily a grin, illuminated by a flash of lightning from high overhead. “If you ever feel the urge to fight the Grandmaster, don't do it in Whitehall. He’s practically unbeatable as long as the wards protect him.” Emily nodded, remembering Sergeant Miles talking about how dangerous a magician’s home could be. There could be so much magic flowing through the walls that the slightest mistake could have disastrous consequences. And magicians could legally do whatever they liked to anyone who tried to break through their wards. Mother Holly, knowing that they would come after her, might well try to choose the battleground. A place where she had woven spells for years would give her a definite advantage. “Maybe we should face her somewhere else,” Emily said. She stopped as she realised the flaw in that plan. “But how do we get her elsewhere?” Lady Barb smirked. “You don't,” she said. “If she has any sense at all, she’ll stay in her valley and build up her power.” “I didn't see anyone else there,” Emily said. But she hadn't seen all the valley – and Mother Holly could have transfigured her captives and then hidden them elsewhere for later sacrifice. She’d certainly had the power and knowledge to make such spells work. “Do you think she’s completely lost it?” “If she was under the influence, then possibly,” Lady Barb said, shortly. She stopped, then took hold of Emily's arm. When she spoke, her voice was deadly serious. “We cannot afford to hold back, Emily. If you get a clear shot at her, take it.” Emily felt her face pale. She’d killed before, directly or indirectly, yet it always pained her – and she hoped it would always pain her. But Lady Barb was right. By now, Mother Holly had to be completely insane, utterly beyond reason. And, once she built up enough power, she might well become unstoppable. The only hope was to get to her before she could slaughter an entire village of innocent victims and use them for power. She looked up at Lady Barb as the older woman let go of her. “Do you believe her?” Lady Barb hesitated, then made a face. “I believe that she might have believed, once upon a time, that she could improve the lot of the people around her,” she said. “But necromancy” – she nodded to the book in Emily’s hand – “and certain other kinds of magic have always made it harder to maintain a moral centre. You should know that by now.” Emily nodded, doubtfully. She wasn't so sure. Most of the people in the village hadn't spoken highly of Mother Holly; they’d clearly been more than a little scared of her, not without reason. Something that had been a minor prank at Whitehall could be disastrous if used in the countryside, away from magicians who could repair the damage if necessary. Mother Holly had been shunned and excluded, merely for being what she was. Emily wouldn't have been too surprised if the madwoman saw preying on the town children as a form of revenge, even if she was reluctant to admit it to herself. Maybe she’d already been half-mad and that had given her some protections from the ravages of necromancy. “But it doesn't matter,” Lady Barb said, unaware of Emily's inner thoughts. “Whatever she was, whatever reason she used to start her rampage, she’s become a monster – a deadly dangerous wild animal that needs to be put down. We have to stop her.” “I understand,” Emily said, bracing herself. She clutched her staff in one hand, inserting spells. Lady Barb hadn't reacted to its presence at all, beyond a simple raised eyebrow. But, unlike some teachers at Whitehall, she wasn't the type to make a fuss when there was a valid reason for breaking the rules or disobeying orders. Emily knew she could expect a long talk about it in the future, but probably not any form of punishment. “Do you have a plan of attack?” “Wear her down, force her to expend power and keep moving,” Lady Barb said. “By now, she might be too far gone to form proper spells, but don’t take that for granted. Try and send your little friend to poison her, if possible. She might have passed beyond the stage where she can be poisoned.” Emily shuddered, remembering Shadye’s obsession with the nexus under Whitehall. As far gone as he'd been, he needed a constant source of power just to stay alive, let alone complete his transformation into an eldritch abomination. The nexus would have provided such a source of power, she knew, or overloaded him so badly that the explosion would have devastated the country for hundreds of miles in all directions. But Shadye had been a necromancer for over a decade, as far as she knew. Mother Holly had only become a necromancer recently ... “We should call for help,” she said. “Couldn't more magicians be teleported here?” “Not easily,” Lady Barb admitted. She shook her head as lightning flashed high overhead, illuminating the rocks surrounding them. “It would take far too long to organise a group of magicians to help.” Emily wished, bitterly, that she had some way of calling Void. Or the Grandmaster. Or even Master Grey, as unpleasant as he'd seemed. They needed help, but there was no one close enough to get to the mountains in time. And they’d wear themselves out teleporting into the valley ... she shook her head, running her fingers through her damp hair. No, they were on their own. She looked over at Lady Barb and smiled. “I meant to ask,” she said, as another flash of lightning blasted through the sky. Each flash seemed to make it harder for night vision spells to work. “What happened to you?” Lady Barb stiffened. “There was a trap for magicians near the hovel,” she said. She sounded privately furious with herself. “I ... I walked right into it.” Emily gaped at her. “You walked into a trap?” “Don’t rub it in,” Lady Barb said, crossly. “Sergeant Miles definitely will.” She shook her head, sourly. “There was no magic in the trap at all,” she added. “I didn't have anything to sense, so ... it escaped my notice. If I’d thought through the implications of facing a Hedge Witch, with the limited power that implied, I would have been more careful.” Emily nodded, wishing she dared say something sympathetic. Some of the traps in Blackhall consisted of trapdoors or falling pieces of masonry ... or even contact poisons on doorknobs and other items an unwary visitor might be expected to touch. It was why they’d been taught to take extreme care ... and why relaxing after dismantling a particularly complex set of wards could be disastrous. She’d lost count of the number of times a simple trick had caught her or one of the other students. “He’ll probably force you to run through Blackhall again,” she said, instead. Lady Barb gave her an odd look, but said nothing. “The transfiguration spell keeps defeating me,” Emily said. “No matter what I do, I wind up a cat or another small animal.” Lady Barb snorted. “There’s no way out of the trap,” she said. “The trick is to avoid the spell altogether.” “But there’s no way to avoid the spell,” Emily protested. “Or ... what did I miss?” “The spell is keyed to affect a human,” Lady Barb pointed out, dryly. “Turn yourself into something else first, then open the door. Or you can try going through the pipes anyway, but that would make life difficult for you ...” Emily nodded. The pipes had been bad enough when she'd been a cat. As a human, they would be impossibly claustrophobic – and the snakes a deadly threat. She touched the one at her wrist thoughtfully, wondering if that was still true. The Death Viper could certainly clear the way. “Thank you,” she said, irked. The trick, in hindsight, was simple. Most of the tricks at Blackhall generally were, she had to admit, but they fooled most of the students. “Will the Sergeant be annoyed with you for telling me?” “Probably,” Lady Barb said. There was an oddly fond note in her voice. “But he will probably want to give you a more personalised curriculum for next year, then you can retake the second year of Martial Magic in Fourth Year.” Emily looked at her. Did Lady Barb fancy the Sergeant? The thought left her feeling oddly conflicted. If Lady Barb developed a relationship with someone else, where would that leave Emily? She damned herself for her own selfishness a moment later. Lady Barb deserved a chance to be happy. And Sergeant Miles was a good and decent man. She pushed the thought aside as the rain stopped, so abruptly that Emily couldn’t help wondering if someone had turned off a tap. High overhead, the clouds were thinning out, allowing the moon to shine through and cast rays of light over the darkened landscape. Emily looked up at the bright object, wondering briefly if magic could take her to this moon, then back down into the valley. Ahead of her, she saw the first plants of the garden ... And then there was a pulse of magic from dead ahead. Lady Barb swore. They were too late.