Original Work Work Experience (Schooled In Magic IV)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Nov 24, 2013.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    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.
     
  2. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    More More More!! :)
     
  3. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    I like it, but I did go back and forth a couple of times, trying to decide if I was missing a chapter. (no battle scene just the aftermath) one comment about believing the hedge witch (they haven't met) so where is the dialog from that? You have me reading late into the night sometimes, so I might have been too tired to catch something.
     
  4. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    Heh. That's why I read it over morning coffee --
     
  5. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    I believe he was still on the offensive towards the Hedge Witch?
     
  6. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    Somehow, I missed chapter 36 entirely. I am reading it now.
     
  7. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirty-Eight
    Emily caught her breath as waves of magic crackled out, setting fire to the plants surrounding Mother Holly’s home. The flames grew brighter as the magic grew stronger, wiping out decades of work in mere seconds. She spared a thought for the creatures Mother Holly had kept as potions ingredients, then braced herself as the necromancer appeared, walking through the flames towards them. Her eyes were brilliant red.
    Just like Shadye, Emily thought. Lady Barb nodded to her, then stepped to the side. There was no point in standing close together when the necromancer started throwing blasts of raw magic at them. Emily held up her staff, preparing to channel magic through it, as the necromancer came to a halt. Her eyes, no longer remotely human, stared at them with cold malice. Behind her, illuminated by the fires, she saw three bodies. All children. All dead.
    She shuddered. Just how many children had died to fuel Mother Holly’s dreams of power?
    Mother Holly let out a screech, then threw a fireball towards Lady Barb. The combat sorceress ducked, then threw back a fireball of her own. Mother Holly didn't do anything to block it, but when it struck her body it did nothing. Emily shuddered as the implications sank into her mind. Mother Holly had already started the transformation into something inhuman –and, if she escaped, she would be able to find enough victims to keep her alive.
    Lady Barb kept moving, ducking and dodging as Mother Holly threw fireball after fireball at her. Emily noted, as she started to throw fireballs of her own, that Mother Holly still seemed to recall some of the habits of a Hedge Witch. She wasn't used to having such vast power at her disposal; even now, her spells were conserving power. Normally, Emily would have been impressed, but now it was deadly dangerous. She thought wistfully of the drain a spell like Berserker could have caused, then jumped aside as another fireball slashed past her and struck the far side of the valley. A dull explosion told her just how much power Mother Holly was feeding into her attacks. One hit would be lethal.
    Emily threw a set of fireballs, then tossed a transfiguration spell at her target. Mother Holly didn't show any reaction to either, as if she was no longer human enough for the transfiguration spell to work either. The Hedge Witch made a gesture and a wave of flames blasted towards Emily, then vanished as Emily hastily summoned water and threw it at the blaze. Mother Holly advanced forwards, then stopped as Lady Barb struck her back with a rock. The necromancer turned angrily, forgetting Emily as she reached out with her magic towards Lady Barb ... and found nothing.
    Mother Holly screamed in rage and hatred, then blasted out a wave of raw magic. Emily hesitated, then cast another series of spells of her own, directing them at the ground below Mother Holly’s feet. It turned to mud, then quicksand; the necromancer started to sink, her feet caught in the mire. Mother Holly kicked angrily – she didn't seem to realise where the attack had come from – and then struck out with her magic. The shockwave shook the ground, sending Emily to her knees, but it also blasted Mother Holly free. Emily cursed and pulled herself to her feet, just as a knife struck Mother Holly’s back. Lady Barb had hidden herself, then attacked from the rear.
    For a moment, seeing the magic crackling around the blade, Emily thought they’d won. But then the blade shattered, tossing pieces of red-hot metal everywhere. Mother Holly turned, moving with inhuman speed, catching hold of Lady Barb’s shirt before she could retreat. There was a flash of light and a rat jumped out, scurrying across the ground and snapping back to normal. Emily took advantage of the necromancer’s confusion to blast her with a killing spell, one that should have killed her instantly. It didn't work.
    She felt the snake-bracelet around her wrist, but dismissed the thought of trying to use it against the necromancer. If killing spells didn't work, poison was unlikely to do any better – and besides, there was so much energy crackling around that the snake might be vaporised instantly. She darted to one side as yet another fireball narrowly missed her, then twisted in midair and came after her. Emily barely had a second to block it before it struck, the explosion picking her up and tossing her through the air. Somehow, she managed to keep hold of her staff. She landed badly, almost breaking her leg. Gritting her teeth, she applied a quick-heal spell even though she knew she would pay for it later. There was no time to have Lady Barb heal her.
    Lady Barb tossed an odd spell at Mother Holly. Emily frowned in puzzlement; the spell didn't look even remotely dangerous. But Mother Holly howled in outrage and started lashing out, blindly. She was blind, Emily realised. The spell was one of the pranks they were forbidden to use at Whitehall, a spell considered too cruel even for magicians who regularly turned their rivals into animals or inanimate objects. Emily could understand their logic, although she thought it was long overdue. She pulled herself back to her feet as the necromancer stopped, as if she were listening. But if she was blind, she couldn't see them coming.
    Seeing a large rock, Emily cast a levitation spell on it and pointed the rock towards Mother Holly’s head. She must have sensed something, because she started to move just before the rock hit her, but it was too late. There was a colossal explosion as the rock disintegrated, revealing a battered human form blazing with energy. For a moment, Emily thought that Mother Holly’s body – more energy than living flesh – was about to explode and braced herself, before the energy faded back into nothingness. Moments later, Mother Holly pointed a finger at Emily and she had to jump aside, a moment before a supercharged spell blazed through where she had been standing. The blindness spell had been broken.
    “Do it again,” she called to Lady Barb. She’d never learnt how to cast the spell herself, even in Martial Magic. “Hurry!”
    Mother Holly howled and struck the ground. An earthquake rocked the valley, forcing Emily to lean on her staff to remain upright. In the distance, she heard the sounds of trees falling and rocks crashing down the edge of the valley ... just how far had the earthquake reached? She glanced towards the castle, only to see nothing but darkness. What if the castle, already damaged, had been ruined by the earthquake? Or the town they’d stayed in the previous day ...?
    Emily lifted her staff as the shaking subsided and cast a series of spells, one after the other, feeling her magic flowing through the staff. A prank spell turned the ground under Mother Holly’s feet to ice, sending her falling to the ground. Another triggered a blaze of fire under the necromancer’s body, a spell she’d been taught to reserve for zombies and the other forms of undead life. Mother Holly howled, but showed no sign of harm as she climbed back to her feet. A spell from Lady Barb sent her back down again. The ground shivered, as if it was repulsed by Mother Holly’s touch, sending chills down Emily’s spine. And then the necromancer turned to look at her.
    Red eyes, blazing with inhuman power and madness, met Emily’s gaze. She froze, like a deer staring into headlights, remembering Shadye and just how close he had come to killing her and taking Whitehall for his own. She’d cheated then, drawing on the power of the nexus and Earth’s concepts of science to wipe him from existence, but there was no nexus here. All they could do was hope they could exhaust the necromancer, a necromancer born from a woman who knew how to conserve her power. It struck Emily, as she stood helplessly, that they might not win the battle.
    Mother Holly gestured and an invisible force yanked the staff out of Emily’s hand. Emily screamed, feeling as if part of her had been ripped away with it, as the staff flew through the air and into Mother Holly’s grasp. She stared down at the staff, as if she wasn't quite sure how it worked, then focused her magic on it. The staff disintegrated into sawdust. Emily stared in horror, feeling her magic flickering helplessly without the staff. Mother Holly looked up, triumph somehow readable on her maddened face, and flickered a finger at her. Emily found herself tossed through the air and slammed against a rock, held in place by an irresistible force.
    She felt panic bubbling at the corner of her mind as Mother Holly started to advance towards her, one hand clutching the stone knife. Shadye had wanted to sacrifice her too ... but she’d been alone then. The knife flew out of Mother Holly’s hand, then slammed into a fireball Lady Barb had created and tossed into the air. It shattered into pieces of stone. The force holding Emily in place vanished as Mother Holly turned to face Lady Barb, curling her hands into fists and then uncurling them to reveal inhuman claws. Magic flashed around her as she prepared yet another strike. Lady Barb acted first.
    For a moment, Emily thought that Lady Barb had summoned Basilisks or another set of giant snakes to help. They seemed to come out of nowhere, crashing into Mother Holly and grinding her into the ground. It took her a moment to realise that Lady Barb had animated them out of rocks, a feat Emily knew she couldn't hope to march for years. Magic flared around the snake that was trying to kill the necromancer, then it glowed with life and disintegrated. Emily barely managed to raise a ward before pieces of stone flew everywhere, several bouncing off her protections. Lady Barb started to throw more spells as Mother Holly rose back to her feet ... then floated upwards into the air.
    Emily hesitated. Part of her wanted Mother Holly to run ... but she knew the necromancer would just find more victims and devastate the countryside. She gritted her teeth and cast a spell intended to cancel the witch’s flying spell, but nothing happened. Horror flared through her mind as she realised she’d become far too dependent on the staff. She closed her eyes, recalled her very first lessons in magic, then recast the spell. Magic flashed around her and she almost collapsed in relief, then opened her eyes as Mother Holly hit the ground. The witch looked absolutely furious.
    Cold ice ran down Emily’s spine as Mother Holly stood upright. She was tired – and Lady Barb, despite having more reserves, couldn't be in a much better condition. If they exhausted themselves, rather than the necromancer, they were both dead. She remembered what she’d done to Shadye and cast an illusion spell, creating copies of herself that advanced towards Mother Holly with threatening intent, while she ducked down and hid. Mother Holly didn't seem to care about which Emily was actually real; she threw blasts of magic at each of them in quick succession. The blasts passed through the illusions and slammed into the far edge of the valley, exploding in light and fire. Emily shuddered – if one of those blasts hit her she would be vaporised – and then created more illusions. Mother Holly kept blasting them, one after the other. There was so much magic flaring through the air that Emily couldn't help wondering what it would do to the local environment.
    Lady Barb added her own illusions, creating copies of herself and several other magicians. Emily saw a Master Grey blown apart by a blast of magic, then a Grandmaster smirking as he lifted his staff. But the illusions weren't actually dangerous ... Mother Holly slowly seemed to come to the same conclusion, as she stopped throwing magic at them. Emily braced herself and shaped a very deadly spell in her mind, then stood up and cast it.
    For a long moment, nothing happened ... and then Mother Holly started to choke. The spell transmuted the oxygen in the air around her to something else. Sergeant Miles hadn't known just what it did, merely that the spell made it impossible for the target to breathe. She did need to breathe still, Emily realised, wondering if she dared unleash the snake. Maybe poison would work after all. But then the madwoman stopped choking ...
    Emily cursed under her breath, searching her mind for ideas. Prank spells prevented panic – she’d never quite realised that she wasn't breathing when she was turned into something inanimate – but other spells didn't have safety features built into their structure. Mother Holly must have believed that she needed to breath, even if she’d passed beyond such human weakness. But once it had been put to the test, she’d discovered the truth.
    Emily stood, catching her breath. Everything seemed very still; she was vaguely aware of Lady Barb, standing behind the necromancer. Even Mother Holly didn't seem inclined to keep fighting. But she knew it was just a matter of time. Emily was sweaty, exhausted and pushed to the edge of her endurance. Unless Mother Holly ran out of energy in the next few minutes, they were going to lose.
    An idea occurred to her, an idea that might at least allow them to take Mother Holly down even as they fell themselves. She hesitated, then started to work her way around Mother Holly, heading towards Lady Barb. The necromancer eyed her through brilliant red eyes, but did nothing to try to stop her. Lady Barb held up a hand, warningly. They didn't dare get too close together or Mother Holly might try to kill them both at once.
    “You're being consumed by your own madness,” Lady Barb said, addressing Mother Holly in tones one might use to address a dangerous animal. She sounded calm, reasonable and, above all, understanding. “But you can still stop this.”
    Emily gaped at her. Was she trying to talk Mother Holly out of embracing necromancy? Surely it was already too late. Mother Holly had passed beyond humanity into a twilight stage between human and something else, a stage that would need a constant influx of power to maintain. She would die if she couldn't find more victims to sacrifice. Or did Lady Barb believe that Mother Holly could be useful? The thought was horrifying, but easily dismissed. Even if the Allied Lands had been prepared to tolerate someone taking innocent children and using them for power, her madness would make her an unreliable weapon.
    No, Emily realised. Lady Barb needed to regenerate her powers, just as much as Emily herself. She’s trying to buy time.
    Mother Holly turned to face her, but said nothing. Emily wondered if she was still capable of speech – Shadye had been able to talk, right up until the end – then decided that it didn't matter. She might have plunged further into madness than Shadye – or any other necromancer who had learned to live with his new existence. Emily felt a stab of pity – all Mother Holly had wanted to do was make things better – then carefully shaped the spell in her mind. A single mistake might prove disastrous.
    She held up her hands, signalling to Lady Barb. Sign language was nowhere near as developed in the Allied Lands as it had been on Earth, but she'd been taught the basic signs in Martial Magic, as well as how to use them in combat situations. Lady Barb lifted her eyebrows as she saw the instructions – knock her away from us – but nodded and cast a spell on the ground below the necromancer’s feet. Before Mother Holly could react, she was lifted up and flung across the valley. Magic flared around her as she hit the ground, mocking Lady Barb. Even being slammed into a rocky wall wasn't enough to kill her. Emily could only hope that her secret weapon was.
    Emily cast the nuke-spell, praying desperately that it would work. There had been no way to test it, even if she’d dared find something uninhabited and cast the spell. She felt the magic shivering into existence, brewing in power. It would detonate within seconds, she hoped, although she wasn't entirely sure. There were too many variables within the spell, not to mention fixed limitations she’d engineered in when the full implications struck her. Her nightmares had suggested that it was entirely possible that using magic to split atoms would result in cracking the entire planet in half.
    She ran over towards Lady Barb as the spell started to work. It felt evil ... or perhaps it was just her imagination. “Teleport us out,” she snapped, grabbing hold of the older woman. “Now!”
    Lady Barb stared at her. “I can't,” she snapped back. Her face was torn between horror and puzzlement. The nuke-spell was coming to life ... and it was completely outside her experience. “I don’t have the power left!”
    Emily looked over at the magic – and, beyond it, Mother Holly rising to her feet. She hesitated, wondering if all three of them were about to die, then hastily closed her eyes and concentrated on creating a pocket dimension. All the variables she’d designed when Lady Barb was ill sprang into her mind, then into her spellwork. There was no time to test it, no time to ensure that it was actually safe; she opened her eyes, then yanked the dimension forward, surrounding them. Mother Holly’s angry face vanished into a grey haze ...
    ... And then there was an odd sense of timelessness, as if the stasis spell hadn't worked quite right ...
    ... And then they were in the midst of hell.
    “Emily,” Lady Barb said. She sounded badly shaken – and drained. “Emily, what the hell have you done?”
     
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirty-Nine
    Emily had no answer.
    It was broad daylight, almost noon, judging by the position of the sun. But the valley had been completely devastated, burned to a crisp. Some parts of it were still burning, as if the spell had set the very stones themselves on fire. The hovel and all that remained of the garden were gone, replaced by ashy ground that moved treacherously under their feet. She looked up, towards the castle, and saw a ruin. The blast might have been directed up and outward by the shape of the valley, but the castle had been slapped with it heavily enough to complete its destruction.
    Lady Barb caught her arm. “Emily,” she snapped. “What did you do?”
    Emily swallowed. “I can't tell you,” she said. She wasn't sure she wanted to discuss anything relating to splitting atoms with Lady Barb, no matter what oaths she’d sworn. “It’s not something to talk about, really.”
    “Really,” Lady Barb repeated. She looked around the remains of the valley. “Did you kill her?”
    Emily hoped so. The blast would have shattered Mother Holly’s body and broken down the energy holding it together. But there was no way to be sure. She looked around, wondering if she would see Mother Holly slowly reassembling herself, but saw nothing. The necromancer was dead, she told herself. Any other outcome was unthinkable.
    Lady Barb had another question. “How long were we in the pocket dimension?”
    “It should have been a few hours,” Emily said. It had been near midnight when they’d fought Mother Holly, which suggested they’d stayed in the bubble for over ten hours. “But I don't know.”
    She hesitated, then swore inwardly. There was one danger from a nuclear blast – or something akin to it – that was utterly beyond this world’s comprehension. Radiation. They were standing at ground zero. Radiation might be a very real threat. She cast the ward she had designed, back when she’d first contemplated the possibility, but they’d already been dosed. If, of course, there was a danger in the first place.
    “We have to get out of here,” she said. The ward was showing no reaction, but that proved nothing. “And we need to seal this valley off completely.”
    Lady Barb didn't argue, merely led her back towards the edge of the valley and a treacherous climb up and outwards. Fire had scorched the rocks, blackening them and sweeping away all traces of plants, bushes and soil. Emily remembered, absently, a story about a girl who had lived in a valley after a nuclear war and shuddered, then dismissed the thought. No one in the Allied Lands knew anything about splitting atoms, apart from her. It would remain that way, she hoped, for a very long time.
    But the Blighted Lands are dead, she recalled. They don’t need nukes to destroy whole countries.
    Outside the valley, the devastation seemed much less unpleasant. Trees had been knocked over – probably by the earthquake, Emily told herself, rather than the nuke-spell – but the countryside wasn't blackened and charred. They picked their way through the trees, heading down towards the town. Emily let out a long breath when they finally reached the outskirts and saw hundreds of people milling around, including soldiers from two different kingdoms. Rudolf’s father, she realised, had come to find his son.
    “He must have worked out where Rudolf was going,” Lady Barb said, when Emily commented on it. “I need to speak with him and Lady Easter.”
    Emily shook her head. “Wash first,” she said. Even if the radiation had faded away in the hours between the nuclear blast and the pocket dimension unlocking itself, there was still a risk of fallout. She shuddered, wondering just how much damage she’d done to the mountainfolk. There had been birth defects and other problems at Hiroshima for years after the city had been destroyed. “We need to be clean.”
    Lady Barb gave her a sidelong look, which only got worse as they entered the guesthouse and Emily forgot her usual reluctance to undress in front of anyone. Her eyes followed Emily, concerned, as Emily stripped naked and washed herself with warm water, then broke the clothes she'd worn down to atoms. After Emily was finished, Lady Barb washed herself and reluctantly destroyed her own clothes. The look in her eye bothered Emily more than she cared to admit.
    She wracked her brains for some way to test for radiation and came up blank. There was a way to do it without modern technology or magic, she was sure, but she had no idea how the trick was actually done. She'd read about it in a book set in a post-atomic war hellhole, yet the author had concentrated more on the horrors of the aftermath than any useful details. The best she could think of, eventually, was to have Lady Barb scan her body for anything that might be caused by radiation. If there was damage, perhaps magic could heal it.
    Or perhaps there wasn't any radiation at all, Emily thought, grimly.
    It was possible, she conceded, but it sounded like wishful thinking. They didn't dare take it for granted. She looked down at the snake-bracelet and shivered, again. Had she poisoned the snake as well as herself? Her lips twitched in bitter amusement. She was perhaps the only person in the Allied Lands who would regard that as a bad outcome.
    A knock on the door brought her out of her thoughts. She glanced over to make sure that Lady Barb was decent, then pulled one of her robes over her head and then opened the door. Rudolf was standing there, looking tired but happy. Behind him, there were a handful of soldiers, wearing the colours of both families. She couldn't tell if they were his bodyguards or his escorts.
    “Come in,” she said, feeling genuinely pleased to see him. “What happened last night?”
    Rudolf gave her an odd look as he stepped inside and closed the door, leaving the soldiers on the other side. “I was going to ask you the same question,” he said. “We saw flashes of light and the sound of thunder, then there was one final flash and the castle came tumbling down.”
    Emily shuddered. The castle had been built of heavy stone. Her blast might easily have sent pieces flying through the air and slamming down into the town like bombs from high overhead. How many people had died, directly or indirectly, because of the spell she’d unleashed? She suspected that she would never know.
    “We battled Mother Holly,” Emily said. “We killed her.”
    “And that’s all we can say,” Lady Barb said. “I think we need to talk to your father.”
    Rudolf nodded, rather shamefaced. “I did talk to my father,” he said. “And ... well, let’s just say he had the same problem.”
    Emily laughed. Talking to his father about his sexuality had to have taken considerable courage, more than Emily had ever shown when talking to her relatives. Lady Barb gave her an odd look, then shrugged, clearly deciding it wasn’t important.
    “We’ll be on our way,” she said, shortly. “You go tell them that we’re coming.”
    The atmosphere of fear seemed to have faded away, Emily decided, as they made their way through the town to the temple. Lady Easter and her daughters had moved in, billeting their soldiers and servants in a number of smaller houses, but everything seemed to be remarkably peaceful. Perhaps she’d realised that losing the castle made her vulnerable, Emily wondered, or perhaps everyone was just relieved that the threat was over. Maybe it wouldn't last ...
    Lord Gorham seemed stronger than Emily remembered, sitting next to Lady Easter and sharing a joke with her. He rose to his feet as Lady Barb entered the temple, then bowed sweepingly to both magicians. Emily dropped back and curtseyed as Lady Barb nodded. She didn't really want their attention, no matter the situation. It was better they just thought of her as ‘Millie.’
    “Mother Holly was a necromancer,” Lady Barb said, without bothering with the formalities. “She lost control of her powers and released her stolen magic, causing a massive explosion.”
    Emily blinked in surprise, then understood. There had to be some kind of cover story, even if it wasn't entirely believable. But anyone who might recognise the holes in the tale wouldn't believe what they heard, at least unless they walked into the mountains and inspected the blast site for themselves. For the locals, people largely ignorant of magic, there was no reason to doubt Lady Barb’s explanation.
    “That is understandable,” Lady Easter said. “She was always known to be unstable.”
    You weren't that brave when she was a real threat, Emily thought, vindictively. You were under her control from start to finish.
    She scowled. In her own twisted way, Mother Holly had been an idealist – not too different from Emily herself. Like Emily, she’d discovered the tools to change things ... and put them to use, without any of the scruples Emily liked to think she would show. But the real world didn't respond well to idealism, let alone attempts to force it to go in a specific direction. If Emily tried to force things forward too fast ...
    The thought chilled her. She’d seen, in Zangaria and elsewhere, the effects of comparatively minor innovations she’d introduced. And she’d seen how far the old order was prepared to go to resist change. What would happen, she asked herself, when old and new clashed openly again? And how much of that would be her fault? Maybe King Randor was right in trying to co-opt those who had benefited from the changes, but he was riding a tiger. What would happen when he fell off?
    Mother Holly only knew the bad, she thought, remembering what she’d been told. No one had visited the Hedge Witch unless they were desperate. Mother Holly had never had any balance, let alone a detached view ... but then, it was hard to have a detached view when one was directly involved. And then there had been her simplistic attempt to steer the course of the mountains ...
    “We will gladly forbid anyone from entering the valley,” Lady Easter said. “And we thank you for your assistance.”
    Emily frantically dragged her attention back to the here and now, silently relieved that Lady Barb hadn’t been looking at her. Not paying attention in her classes could be unfortunate.
    “You’re welcome,” Lady Barb said, dryly. “But you might want to consider how much blame you bear for this disaster.”
    Lord Gorham gaped in surprise. “Blame we bear?”
    Emily was equally surprised. She looked at Lady Barb’s back, wondering just what she was thinking – and why? It wasn't like Lady Barb to bend the rules on limiting interference with local politics ... although, with a necromancer involved, the rules had probably gone out of the window long ago.
    “Your families – you aristocrats – have been exploiting your people since you killed your former monarch,” Lady Barb said, sharply. “Even without Mother Holly, the resentment and rage was staggeringly powerful. I would have expected an explosion, sooner or later, even without a necromancer becoming involved. And now you have been proven to be vulnerable.”
    Lord Gorham didn't understand, Emily saw, and Lady Easter didn't seem to agree with Lady Barb. But Rudolf was nodding his head in quiet understanding, while Lady Easter’s daughters seemed to be mulling it over. A few months of being slaves in all but name had taught them a few lessons. They’d just have to see if they remembered the lessons now they were free.
    She felt a moment of hope. The next generation of aristocracy would have a chance to reshape their country without a violent revolution. But only time would tell.
    “But ... they are ours,” Lord Gorham said, finally. He didn't understand at all. Emily remembered that he'd lined up extra-pretty maids for his son, expecting Rudolf to make love to them, and shuddered. “We are their masters.”
    They don’t see it that way,” Lady Barb said. She sighed. “Not that I really expected you to understand.”
    She stood straighter, then bowed to the aristocrats. “My apprentice and I will return to Whitehall,” she added. “I would request that you prepare reports of your own for the White Council. They will want an explanation of what took place here.”
    “It will be done,” Lord Gorham said.
    Lady Barb turned and strode out of the temple. Emily followed her, unwilling to spend any more time looking at the aristocrats. Rudolf followed her, then called out as he left the temple. Emily hesitated, then turned back to speak with him.
    “I wanted to thank you,” he said. “You saved more than just my life and ...”
    Emily understood. Rudolf had at least a chance at a happy life, which was more than he'd had before Mother Holly started playing games. She doubted it would be easy, but it would be possible to make it work.
    “You’re welcome,” she said, toying with the bracelet at her wrist. “And thank you for coming with me. I might not have made it without you.”
    Rudolf beamed. Emily remembered Imaiqah’s advice for talking to young men – praise them endlessly – and smiled, inwardly. Imaiqah had definitely had a point. Maybe, just maybe, Emily would risk a date with someone at Whitehall. Or maybe it would take longer to overcome her fears.
    “The offer ... well ... the offer has to be closed,” Rudolf said. He looked as though he expected her to blast him on the spot – or turn him back into a slug and stamp on him. “I’m sorry.”
    It took Emily a moment to realise what he was talking about – and then she started to giggle helplessly. Rudolf had asked her to marry him, partly in jest ... and even though she’d declined, the offer was technically still open. But he'd had second thoughts when he’d seen just how much she could do, just like Jade. She shook her head, feeling amusement rather than rejection. It helped that she’d never seriously considered his offer.
    “I hope you find someone suitable,” she said. The thought of her giving relationship advice to anyone was ludicrous, yet there was no one else who could say what had to be said. His father certainly wouldn't. “But remember what I said and be honest with her.”
    “I will do my best,” Rudolf said. He reached out and gave her a short, brotherly hug. “Goodbye, Millie.”
    Oddly, Emily didn't feel worried or disturbed by his touch. She wondered, briefly, what he would say if she told him the truth. If society pages had reached this far from their kingdoms, he had to have heard of the Necromancer’s Bane. But she knew she didn't want the attention, so she said nothing. Instead, she curtseyed to him and turned back towards the guesthouse. Lady Barb was waiting for her at the end of the street.
    “You did very well,” Lady Barb said, as they started to walk. “I’m sorry about your staff.”
    “I don't mind losing it,” Emily assured her. The brief moment of panic when she'd feared that she’d lost the ability to cast spells for good without a staff had been terrifying. “If I hadn’t taken it ...”
    “You might well be dead,” Lady Barb told her, bluntly. “Young Lady ...”
    Emily looked up at her, puzzled and alarmed. “You are in training to be a combat sorceress, not an obedient servant,” Lady Barb said. “Yes, I set rules for you, and yes, I am quite prepared to punish you when you make the wrong choice – but you need to develop a sense for when those rules can be put aside. Taking the staff was the right thing to do at the right time. It saved your life and mine too.”
    She patted Emily on the back, then sighed. “We’re going to have to cut our trip short,” she added. Her voice suggested that she wasn't too pleased. She’d enjoyed the walking from settlement to settlement, helping the people who needed help. “The Grandmaster will need to see us both, I think.”
    “I’m sorry,” Emily said.
    Lady Barb poked her arm, none-too-gently. “And how much of what happened here was actually your fault?”
    Emily flushed. It wasn't, not really. Mother Holly hadn't been driven to necromancy by anything Emily had done; hell, she’d been on the slippery slope a long time before Emily had entered the Allied Lands. Madness would have overwhelmed her, sooner or later, and then the mountains would have been drenched in blood. And, once she’d killed everyone in the mountains to feed her power, she would have descended into the surrounding countryside.
    “None of it,” she said, finally.
    “Right answer,” Lady Barb said. She sounded pleased. “But here’s something else you can think about, if you like.”
    She pushed open the door to the guesthouse, then closed it once Emily had stepped inside and set a privacy ward. “Skulls of Memories are not entirely common,” she said, once the ward was in place. “And that book was pretty close to unique.”
    Emily nodded. The book might still be buried – or it might have been destroyed by the blast, leaving one fewer copy in the Allied Lands.. She would have to go and check before they left the town. If it was still intact, it was hers. She wouldn’t use the spells, but she wouldn't give it up either. The thought of destroying it herself was unthinkable.
    “Someone gave them to her,” Lady Barb added. There was a grim note in her voice, a promise of trouble for the future. “But who? And why?”
    “Maybe she stole them,” Emily suggested. “Void told me that a necromancer was killed on the other side of the mountains. Mother Holly was good at misdirection ...”
    “Hardly enough to kill a necromancer, certainly not one who had been a necromancer for years,” Lady Barb interrupted. “So who gave her the tools?”
    Emily had no answer.
    “And just what,” Lady Barb added, “did they have in mind?”
     
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Forty
    “It would seem congratulations are in order,” the Grandmaster said, heavily. His sightless eyes sought out Emily. “Congratulations, Necromancer’s Bane.”
    Emily flushed and squirmed in her chair. It had taken three days to ride back to a place where they could step through a portal to Whitehall, but word had somehow spread ahead of them. Somehow, the Allied Lands knew that it had been her who’d killed a second necromancer, although they didn’t seem to know precisely how. Thankfully, the cover story about the explosion had held up to scrutiny.
    “Thank you,” she said, finally. The last thing she wanted was more fame, followed by increasingly absurd rumours about just what she'd done to Mother Holly. But, in this case, absurd rumours would probably be better than the truth. “Who told the world?”
    “I wish I knew,” the Grandmaster said. He looked down at his hands. It struck Emily, suddenly, that for all his power he was a very old man. “No one I have spoken to has been able to answer that question.”
    He shook his head. “But we are grateful for your work,” he added. “You saved thousands of lives.”
    Emily nodded, although she had her doubts. Neither she nor Lady Barb had been to find anything suggesting radiation damage, which meant ... what? Had there been no radiation or was the damage just beyond their ability to detect? She played with a strand of hair miserably, wondering if the first sign of real trouble would be her hair falling out. There was no way to know.
    But if there was radiation, she knew, it would have been swept up into the ecosystem and then deposited on the ground by rainfall. God alone knew what the long-term effects would be.
    “We would like to know what happened,” Lady Barb said, from behind Emily. “The explosion was more devastating than any recorded necromancer death.”
    “It shouldn't be talked about,” Emily said, carefully. “There are too many dangers in revealing anything.”
    The nuke-spell wasn't that complicated, she knew. All it would take to cast it was a single magician with bad intentions and enough power to make the spell work. If deployed properly, it could end the necromantic threat overnight ... and then rip the Allied Lands apart in the aftermath. It normally took a ritual to perform a Working of Mass Destruction, as Emily had come to think of them. But with the nuke-spell, a single magician could take out an entire city.
    “Then we shall tell them that it is a specialist skill of yours, should anyone ask,” the Grandmaster said. He gave her a long considering look, his hidden eyes twitching. “Did you enjoy your trip otherwise?”
    Emily had to fight to hide a giggle. She’d broken up with Jade – if what they’d had could be considered a real relationship. She’d helped a girl to go to Whitehall or another school of magic. She’d seen mundane horrors she couldn't prevent, she’d almost been raped by a village lout, she’d nursed Lady Barb when she'd fallen ill ...
    But there had been parts of the trip that had been almost enjoyable. Seeing the countryside, learning new magic with Lady Barb ... generally, the parts of the trip that hadn't involved other people.
    “It had its moments,” she said, finally.
    “You’ve grown up a little,” the Grandmaster added. He smiled at her. “That’s always good to see.”
    Metaphorically in his case, Emily assumed. Although, when magic was involved, it was hard to be sure. She had no idea why the Grandmaster tolerated his own blindness when he could have had his eyes rebuilt. Perhaps losing his sight was the price of his power.
    “Thank you,” she said. She looked down at her hands, clasped in her lap. “If you don't mind, I'd like to go back to my room and sleep.”
    “Understandable, but unnecessary,” the Grandmaster said. “I have taken the liberty of moving you into a private room, at least for the summer. You won't be supervised – well, not any closer than students are normally supervised. I suggest you behave yourself.”
    “And restrict your experiments,” Lady Barb added. “We can discuss a program of further study tomorrow.”
    Emily sighed, but nodded. There had never been a time in her life when she hadn't had to work, either at school or looking after herself. She’d always envied the children who talked about lazing around all summer. They didn't know how lucky they were. But then, most of Whitehall’s students weren't that lucky. Alassa had to learn how to rule, Imaiqah had to assist her family and the Gorgon ... she shook her head, thoughtfully. Just what did the Gorgon do over the summer?
    “It wouldn't be legal to take the book from you,” the Grandmaster added. “But I would advise you to make sure it is secure.”
    “I’ve put it in my trunk,” Emily assured him. “I’ll add additional wards to Cockatrice before moving it there.”
    “And don't read it here,” Lady Barb said, firmly. “People could get the wrong impression.”
    “I understand,” Emily said, as she rose to her feet. “And thank you for everything.”
    “Mistress Irene will show you to your room,” the Grandmaster said. “And one other thing?”
    Emily tensed, suspiciously.
    “I suggest – very strongly – that you don’t tell anyone about your new pet,” the Grandmaster said. “It would only upset people.”
    Emily looked down at the bracelet wrapped around her wrist. She could hide it, she knew; it wasn't as if Third Year students were expected to waste time trying to find familiars. Either they found on in Second Year or they assumed that they weren't likely to find an animal that clicked with them. But it felt wrong to be keeping something from her friends.
    And yet, she knew the grandmaster had a point. There were students who had bonded with wolves or even tigers, but familiars were generally smart enough not to hurt anyone unintentionally. The Death Viper, on the other hand, would be lethal to anyone apart from Emily herself. There was no way she could risk letting it curl up on her pillow to sleep next to her.
    “I won't,” she promised. It made one hell of a secret weapon, she had to admit. “No one will hear about it from me.”
    Lady Barb gave her a sharp look, then nodded.
    Emily nodded back and left the room. Outside, she sagged, feeling sweat trickling down her back. The world had changed and, once again, she’d made it happen.
    Mother Holly could have been you, a voice whispered at the back of her head. If things had been a little different ...
    “Welcome back, Emily,” Mistress Irene said. Emily hastily pulled herself back upright and tried to look attentive. In or outside classes, Mistress Irene was a stickler for good appearance and behaviour. “I’ll show you to your room. Dinner will be at seventeen bells precisely.”
    “Thank you,” Emily said.
    The room turned out to be bigger than she’d expected, slightly more colourful than the barren rooms she’d shared with her roommates. She placed her bag on a hard wooden desk, then sat down on the bed and stared down at her hands. Her emotions churned through her head, mocking her. She'd done well, she knew she'd done well, but no one really knew where it would all end.
    There were a handful of letters placed on her pillow, sealed with simple charms that would destroy them if the wrong person tried to tear them open. She opened the first one with her fingernail, then pulled out the sheet of paper – they’d improved the quality, she noted – and read it quickly. Imaiqah’s letter was bright and chatty, but said almost nothing of substance. There was just a note that she would tell Emily everything when they met in person. Emily wondered, absently, what had happened to her, then dismissed the thought. She'd find out soon enough.
    The next letter was from Bryon. Emily skimmed it without paying much attention; it merely noted that he’d spoken to both the Faire Master and Paren, Imaiqah’s father, about the planning for the Faire next year. Emily nodded to herself, deciding that she could leave the matter in his capable hands, then moved on to the third letter. The Gorgon talked briefly about living in the village, then moved on to a discussion of magical theory that would be better shared with Aloha. Emily read it anyway, then made a handful of notes for later research in the library. At least there wouldn't be any other students trying to compete with her for scarce books.
    It was odd, she realised, as she looked at the postmarks, to see that most of the letters had been written before the nuclear blast had vaporised Mother Holly and changed the world. They were almost a snapshot into a more innocent past ... she shook her head, dismissing the absurd thought, then reached for the final letter. Jade had written to her a day ago, according to the postmarks. He’d just been lucky enough to be in a city connected to the portal network.
    Master Grey, he’d written, was upset about the explosion, although he didn't say why. Emily read it twice, unable to avoid a sense that Master Grey was complaining for the sake of complaining, then mentally started to compose an angry reply before she thought better of it. Maybe he’d worked out that the explosion had been too powerful to have been the work of a necromancer, even one who had lost control completely, or ...
    She scowled, then put the letters back on the table and lay back on the bed. There would be time to reply later, she told herself, once everything had settled. Maybe then she would know what to tell her friends. Placing the snake-bracelet beside her head, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.
    Her dreams, thankfully, were peaceful.
    ***
    The Grandmaster said nothing else until Sergeant Miles had joined them and complex, almost impenetrable privacy wards were erected around his office. Lady Barb nodded politely to the Sergeant, then turned to look back at the Grandmaster. The older man looked borne down by the weight he was carrying. It was hard to play mentor to an entire community of magicians, certainly when combined with his other responsibilities.
    “She’s not ready,” Lady Barb said, bluntly.
    “I must concur,” Sergeant Miles agreed. “She has mastered more than I expected, given how ... early she was forced to join my class, but she is still young and inexperienced.”
    “She didn’t freeze this time,” Lady Barb said. She briefly related the whole encounter with Hodge. “Still, she isn't ready.”
    “We have few options,” the Grandmaster said. “Do either of you have a better one?”
    Lady Barb and Sergeant Miles exchanged glances. Neither of them spoke.
    “For better or worse, Child of Destiny or not, Emily has tipped our world upside down,” the Grandmaster said, quietly. “People have started to notice. Lin’s infiltration of Whitehall was merely the most blatant intelligence-gathering attempt ... and it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. We need to counterattack as quickly as possible.”
    “And you plan to use her to gather intelligence,” Lady Barb sneered. “Emily is good at many things, Grandmaster, but she isn't ready for this.”
    “Yes, I thought you liked her,” Sergeant Miles said. He shook his head, bitterly. “But the Grandmaster is right. There isn't anyone else who can do this for us.”
    Lady Barb sighed. “Then I suggest you give her a few days to recuperate before you broach the topic with her,” she said, tiredly. “And then we will plan out a crash-course in mastering all the skills she needs to complete your mission.”
    “Understood,” the Grandmaster said. “I have faith that you will prepare her to the best of your ability.”
    “No matter how prepared she is,” Lady Barb said, “she may well fail.”
    She glared at the Grandmaster. “You are not to guilt her into this,” she added. “She is not to feel that she has no choice, or that the whole mess is her fault. If she chooses to undertake your mission, she is to do it of her own free will. I will not stand for anything less.”
    Beside her, Sergeant Miles nodded in agreement.
    “I will speak to her in a week,” the Grandmaster said. “And I give you my word that she can make up her own mind. But we are truly out of other options.”
    “Then may the gods help us all,” Lady Barb said.
    The End
    The saga will continue in
    The School of Hard Knocks
     
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  11. Darkwolf

    Darkwolf Monkey+++

    Thank you for this latest installment. I have enjoyed reading them, even though it has cost me some loss of sleep.
     
    kellory likes this.
  12. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    That was awesome! Please write the next book soon! Consider it an early christmas present to everyone. :)
     
  13. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    I hope the next book in this series is very soon!!
     
  14. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    Well done Sir.
     
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    LOL.

    My plan involves, basically, writing Book V around March. No guarantees, though.

    Chris
     
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  16. techsar

    techsar Monkey+++

    I had first suspected it, but now am certain that Chris and Cliff (Hanger) are in cahoots!

    Thanks for another delectable episode in this tale.
     
  17. Sapper John

    Sapper John Analog Monkey in a Digital World

    Chris, thank you for sharing your excellent work with us. It has been a true pleasure to read it!
     
  18. STANGF150

    STANGF150 Knowledge Seeker

    MARCH!!!!!!!!!!!!! *groans* :(
     
    mysterymet likes this.
  19. bagpiper

    bagpiper Heretic

    Ditto....
    Thanks Chris,
    I'm glad I waited until you were done... ;)

    Every time I think you can't possibly be more imaginative, you do it again, and again... you positively bubble and spark with your own brand of magic....
    when I think about the pain of waiting for the next installments, and you preying upon our weak mundane souls with cliff hanger after cliff hanger, I remember, the old days... waiting for paper...
    and I smile.

    Thanks again, for a new fix of emily.... I needed that...
    Still waiting to see what the Faerie can do....
    ;)
     
    STANGF150 likes this.
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Thank you!

    More will be coming soon, I hope <grin>

    Chris
     
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