Schooled in Magic
"It's time to close, my dear."
Emily Sanderson nodded reluctantly as the librarian stepped past her seat and headed to the handful of other occupied chairs. This late at night, only a handful of people remained in the library, either intent on reading or simply because they had nowhere else to go. The library was small and rarely more than half-full even at the best of times. Emily loved it because it was her refuge. She too had nowhere else to go.
She stood and gathered her books, returning them to the trolley for re-shelving. The librarian was a kindly old man - he'd certainly not asked any questions when the younger Emily had started to read well above her grade level - but he got grumpy when visitors tried to return books to the shelves themselves. Not that she could really blame him. Readers had a habit of returning the books to the wrong places, causing mistakes that tended to snowball until the entire shelf was out of order. And Emily hated to see poor Rupert grumpy. He was one of the few people she felt she could rely on.
Most teenage girls her age would never crack open a history book, unless they were looking for the answers to some test. Emily had fallen in love with history from a very early age, taking refuge in it from the trials and tribulations of her life. Reading about the lives of famous people - their struggles to change the world - made her feel her universe had a past, even if it didn't have a future. Perhaps she would have made a good historian one day, if she'd known where to start working towards a history degree. But she already knew she would never find a proper life. She knew what happened to most graduates these days. They graduated from college, they celebrated, and then they couldn't find a job.
Her stepfather had certainly made it clear to her, after an endless series of arguments about what she wanted to do with her life, that she would never do anything worthwhile with her life.
"You'll never amount to anything," he'd told Emily, one drunken night. "You won't even be able to flip burgers at McDonald's!"
Her mother should never have married again - but she'd been lonely after Emily's father had vanished from their lives, so long ago that Emily barely remembered him. Emily's stepfather - she refused to call him father - had never laid a finger on her, yet he hadn't hesitated to tear down her confidence every chance he could, or to verbally rip her to shreds. He resented Emily and Emily had no idea why. She didn't even know why he stayed with a woman he clearly didn't love.
Emily caught sight of her own reflection in one of the windows and winced inwardly. She didn't really recognize the girl looking back at her. Long brown hair framed a face too narrow to be classically pretty, with pale skin and dark eyes that looked somehow mournful against her skin. Her clothes were shapeless, hiding her figure; she rarely bothered with makeup, or indeed any other form of cosmetics, not when there was no point. They wouldn't improve her life.
And they might attract unwanted attention too.
The librarian waved to her as she took one last look at the bookshelves and headed for the counter. "No books today?"
"No, sorry," Emily said. She had a library ticket - it said a great deal about her life that it was her most treasured possession - but she'd filled it over the week. There would be no more books until she returned some old ones. "I'll see you tomorrow."
The familiar sense of despondency and hopelessness fell back over her as she stepped out and walked down the street. There was no future for her, not even if she went to college; her life would become consumed by a boring job, or an unsatisfactory relationship. No, the very thought was laughable. She was neither pretty nor outgoing; indeed, she spent most of her life isolated from her peers. Even when there were groups that might have attracted her - she did occasionally take part in role-playing games - part of her never wanted to stay with them for very long. She wanted friendship and companionship and yet she knew she wouldn't know what to do with them if she had either.
In fact, she'd been to a game earlier, before coming to the library. And she'd left early.
But now she didn't want to go home. Her stepfather might be there, or he might be out drinking with his buddies, swapping lies about their days. The former was preferable to the latter, she knew; when he was out drinking, he tended to come home drunk, demanding service from Emily's mother. And then he shouted at Emily, or threatened her.
Or looked at her. That was the worst of all.
She wished to go somewhere - anywhere - other than home. But there was nowhere else she could go.
Her stomach rumbled, unpleasantly. She would have to prepare a TV dinner for herself, or perhaps beans on toast. It was a given that her mother wouldn't cook. She'd barely bothered to cook for her daughter since Emily had mastered the microwave. If she hadn't been fed at school, Emily suspected that she would have starved to death by now.
As she trudged home, she realized something with a crystalline clarity that shocked her; she wanted out. She wanted out of her life, wanted out so badly that she would have left without a backward glance, if only someone made her an offer.
And then she shook herself into sense. No one had made her an offer and no one would. Her life was over. No matter what it looked like on the outside, she knew her life was over. She was sixteen years old and her life was over. And yet it felt as if it would never end.
A fatal disease would have been preferable, she thought, morbidly.
The wave of dizziness struck without warning. Emily screwed her eyes tightly shut as the world spun around her, wondering if she'd drunk something she shouldn't have during the role-playing session with the nerds and geeks. She had thought that they were too shy to ever spike her drink, but perhaps one of them had brought in alcohol and she'd drunk it by mistake. The sound of giggling - faint, but unmistakable - echoed in the air as her senses swam. And then she fell ... or at least it felt like falling, but from where and to what?
And then the strange sensation simply faded away.
When she opened her eyes, she was standing in a very different place.
Emily recoiled in shock. She was standing in the middle of a stone-walled cell, staring at a door that seemed to be made of solid iron. Half-convinced she was hallucinating - perhaps it had been something worse than alcohol that she'd drunk, after all - she stumbled forward until her fingers were pressed against the door. It felt cold and alarmingly real to her senses. There was no handle in the door, no place for her to try to force the door open and escape. The room felt depressingly like a prison cell.
Swallowing hard, Emily ran her fingers over the stonework, feeling faint tingles as her fingertips touched the mortar binding the wall together. It felt like the castles she'd read about, the buildings that had been constructed long before concrete or other modern building materials had enabled the artists to use their imagination properly. There was a faint sense of age pervading through the stone, as if it was hundreds of years old. It certainly felt hundreds of years old.
Where was she?
Desperately, Emily looked from wall to wall, seeking a way out of the cell. But there was nothing, not even a window; the only source of light was a tiny lantern hanging from the ceiling. There was no bed, no place for her to lay her head; not even a pallet of straw like she'd seen in the historical recreations she'd attended with her drama group. And how had she come to be here? Had she been arrested? Impatiently, she dismissed the thought as silly. The police wouldn't have put her in a stone cell and they wouldn't have had to spike her drink to arrest her.
A hundred scenarios her mother had warned her about ran though her mind; her captor could be a rapist, a serial killer, or a kidnapper intent on using her to extort money from her parents. Emily would have laughed at the thought a day ago - her stepfather wouldn't have paid anything to recover her from a kidnapper - but it wasn't so funny now. What would a kidnapper do when he discovered that he'd kidnapped a worthless girl?
A clatter that came from outside the iron door rang through the cell and Emily looked up sharply. She would have sworn that the iron door was solid, but all of a sudden a tiny hatch appeared in the metal and a pair of bright red eyes peered in at her. There was something so utterly inhuman about them that Emily recoiled, convinced that they belonged to a monster. Or a devil. There was a second rattle at the door, which then blurred into a set of iron bars, revealing a hooded figure standing outside the cell. His eyes, half-hidden under his hood, weren't just red; they were glowing. The rest of his face was obscured in darkness.
Behind him, there were more stone walls. A pair of skeletons stood against the wall as if they'd been left there to rot. Something about them caught Emily's attention before she saw the first skeleton begin to move, walking forward as if it were still flesh and blood. The second skeleton turned its head until it was looking directly at Emily, the sightless eye-sockets seeming to peer deeply into her soul. Emily felt her blood running cold, suddenly convinced, right to the very core of her being, that this was no ordinary kidnapping. She must be a very long way from home.
"Welcome," the hooded figure said. There was something cracked and broken about his voice, almost as if he hadn't spoken for a very long time and had lost the knack. "You may call me Shadye."
He spoke his name as if Emily should know it, but it meant nothing to her. She tried to speak, but discovered that her mouth was so dry that speaking was impossible.
Shadye stepped forward, up against the bars, and studied her thoughtfully. His red eyes flickered over her body, before meeting her eyes and holding them for a long chilling moment.
Emily forced herself to speak. All the novels she'd read about kidnapped heroines suggested that she should try to get the kidnapper to see her as a human being - although she was far from convinced that Shadye himself was a human being. The fantasy books she'd devoured in an attempt to ignore her father's departure and her mother's desperate search for a second husband seemed to be mocking her inside her skull. All of this could be a trick, perhaps a reality TV show, but something in her mind was convinced that what she saw and sensed was real. But what? She couldn't have put it into words.
Besides, she couldn't see any TV cameras anywhere.
"How...?" She broke into coughs and had to swallow, again. "How did you bring me here?"
Shadye seemed oddly pleased by the question. "They said that there would be a Child of Destiny who would lead the forces of light against the Harrowing," he said. Emily realized suddenly that he wanted to gloat, to show off his own cleverness. "But I knew that every prophecy has a loophole. I knew that if I could catch that Child of Destiny before it was her time, I could use her against the cursed Alliance and defeat them utterly."
Emily felt a sinking sensation in her stomach. "But I am not that person..."
"No Child of Destiny knows who she is until her time has come," Shadye informed her. "But the Faerie know, oh yes they know. And I called for them to bring me the Child of Destiny and they have brought me you." He rubbed his hands together in glee. "And now I have you in my hands. The Harrowing will be pleased."
"Right," Emily said. Her, a Child of Destiny? Only in the literal sense...and she doubted that Shadye would believe her if she tried to explain it. What did her mother's name have to do with anything? She fought desperately for something to say that might distract him. "And I guess I'm not in Kansas any longer?"
"You are in the Blighted Lands of the Dead, on the southern face of the Craggy Mountains," Shadye said. Her words seemed to mean nothing to him, which was more disconcerting than anything else. "Wherever this Kansas place is, I assure you that it is far away."
Emily started to answer, and then stopped herself. "If you don't know where Kansas is," she said, trying to keep her growing fear under control, "I really am no longer in Kansas."
Shadye shrugged, the motion stirring his robe. Emily frowned as she saw the way the cloth moved over his body, disturbed in a manner she found almost impossible to describe. She couldn't see what lay beneath his robe, but there was something about the way he moved that suggested he was no longer entirely human. A very faint shimmer of light seemed to surround him, half-seen forms flickering in and out of existence ...
Somehow, that was all the more disturbing to her imagination.
This is real, Emily told herself. It was no longer possible to believe that she was standing in the middle of a TV studio, with hidden cameras recording everything she said and did. There was something so real about the scene that it terrified her. Shadye believed that she was the person he'd been searching for and nothing she could say, or do, could convince him otherwise. She thought of all the fictional heroes she'd known and loved, asking herself what they would do. But they had the writer on their side. She had nothing but her own wits.
Shadye snapped his fingers. The iron bars melted away into dust.
Fresh shock ran through Emily's body at the impossible sight, but before she could do anything, the skeletons stepped forward and marched into the cell, their eyeless sockets firmly locked on Emily's face. She cringed back as the bony hands, so eerie without flesh and blood, caught her shoulders. The skeletons propelled her forward, no matter how she struggled. The sorcerer's servants didn't seem to notice, or care. Oddly, their bones were held together without touching, as if their flesh was invisible. Like magic.
"You don't have to do this," she said, as she was marched out of the cell. Was she even on Earth any longer? "I..."
Shadye cackled, a high-pitched sound that chilled her to the bone. "Your death will bring me all the power I could desire," he said. Emily redoubled her struggles, but the skeletons never loosened their grip. "Why should I let you live when I would remain like this?"
He pulled his hood away from his face in one convulsive motion. Emily stared, horrified. Shadye's skin was pulled so tightly around his skull that she could see the bones underneath, his nose cut away, replaced by a melted mass of burned flesh. His eyes were burning coals of red light, shining in the darkened chamber, utterly inhuman. She saw his hand as he lifted it to stroke his hairless chin and winced at the cuts that criss-crossed his flesh.
Emily had seen all sorts of movies, ones where the directors strived to outdo themselves in creating new horrors, but this was different. This was real. She took a deep breath and smelled dead flesh in the atmosphere surrounding him. It was suddenly easy to believe that his body was dying, animated only by his will - and magic.
"There is always a price for power," Shadye said. His voice darkened, unpleasantly. "But there are always ways to escape the price. And when I offer you to the Harrowing...oh, they will rebuild my burned frame and grant me power eternal."
He turned and strode off down the corridor, pulling his hood back up to cover his head. Emily stared at his retreating back, just before the skeletons started to push her down the corridor after him. Resistance seemed utterly futile, but she struggled anyway, panic giving her extra strength. Just for a moment, she broke free of their grip and turned to run, but then there was a flash of blue light and her muscles locked, sending her falling to the floor. No matter how she struggled, she couldn't move anything below the neck. She watched helplessly as the skeletons picked her up and carried her after Shadye.
The sorcerer started to laugh. "I told you where you are," he said, mockingly. "Even if you escaped my dungeons, where would you go?"
He was right, Emily realized. She'd never heard of the Craggy Mountains, let alone the Blighted Land of the Dead. And he had never heard of Kansas. No matter how she wanted to avoid it, she had to accept the fact that she had somehow been transported from her own world to one where magic worked, where skeletons could be used as servants and an evil sorcerer could sacrifice her for power. She was utterly alone, ignorant of even something as basic as local geography.
Shadye was right; even if she did escape, where would she go?
They reached a stairwell leading up into the darkness. Shadye seemed unbothered by the lack of illumination, as did the skeletons, but Emily found it hard to restrain her panic as they climbed onward and upward, while she was unable to see anything. Her legs bumped against the walls from time to time, the spell binding her holding her body as firmly as ever, just before they finally walked out into the open air. The ground below their feet was mud...no, she realized suddenly, it was ash. She sniffed and then shuddered at the stench of burned flesh in the air. In the distance, she caught sight of what had once been a forest. Now, it looked as if something had killed the trees, leaving their dead remains standing in the midst of the darkness.
"The Necromancer Kings faced the assembled might of the Empire not too far from here," Shadye said with heavy satisfaction. He seemed to like the sound of his own voice. "They say that the skies were black with dragons and terrible lizards as they fought for forty days and forty nights. In the end, so much magic was released that the land was permanently warped by chaos. Those who stray into these lands without protection find themselves twisted and transformed into horrors. Few dare to visit my fortress, even though they believe that they have powers that can match my own."
Emily found her voice. "Why did they fight?"
"The Necromancer Kings wished to enjoy their powers without restraint, to create a world where their whims and wishes would be the whole of the law," Shadye said. "But the Empire and their wizards believed the necromancers to be an abomination. The wizards believed that they had won, yet the Harrowing can never be stopped. All they could do was delay it, for a time."
He stopped and muttered a series of words under his breath. There was a brilliant flash of light, bright enough to make Emily squeeze her eyes closed against the glare. When she reopened her eyes, she saw a large building made out of dark stone right in front of them, as if it had been there all along. Perhaps it had been invisible, she told herself, taking some measure of comfort from the thought. If Shadye had needed to hide his dark temple, or whatever it was, it suggested that someone was watching for him. Maybe he'd been lying when he'd claimed that no one came into the Blighted Lands of the Dead.
The skeletons carried her into an opening that appeared out of nowhere, an instant before her head would have slammed into the stone. Inside, there was a sense of overpowering vastness, as if the building was much larger than she could comprehend. The smell of blood assailed her nostrils; a moment later, as she looked around, she saw great waves of red blood washing down the walls and pooling on the ground. Shadye seemed unbothered by walking through the blood, bowing from time to time towards statues that appeared out of nowhere, only to vanish again when Shadye walked past. They were disturbing. Oddly, the ones that looked most human were the most disquieting. One of them, a stone carving of a handsome man with sharp pointy ears, was impossible to look at directly. Another, an eldritch horror out of nightmares, seemed almost friendly by contrast.
And yet she couldn't understand why one scared her more than the other.
"There," Shadye said. He reached into his robe and produced a sharp black knife, carved from stone, before addressing the skeletons for the first time. "Place her on the altar."
The altar was a simple stone block, easily large enough to accommodate her - or any other sacrificial victim. Emily opened her mouth to protest, but it was futile; the skeletons picked her up and carried her forward with implacable strength. Somehow, the simple lack of carvings on the altar was even more terrifying than the horrors she could see in the distance. It struck her, suddenly, that there was no doubt to whom the altar was dedicated. This place belonged to Satan. It was a place beyond the sight of God.
She tried to recall the prayers she'd learned as a child, but nothing came to mind. Instead, she kept trying to struggle, but the force holding her refused to surrender. The skeletons placed her on the stone and stepped backwards, almost as if they were admiring their work.
"We begin," Shadye said. He started to chant as he waved the knife in the air. Emily couldn't understand a single word, but she felt the gathering power in the chamber, as if someone - or something - was slowly pressing itself into existence. Brilliant tingles of light danced over her head, slowly fading into a darkness so complete that it sucked up the light. In the last moments of gloom, she saw new statues - savage-faced angels - appear at the edge of the chamber.
Shadye stopped chanting. Absolute silence fell, as if unseen watchers were waiting for a final command. The summoned presence hung on the air, its mere existence twisting reality around it.
Emily saw something within the darkness, a hidden movement that seemed to be only present within the corner of her eye. A strange lassitude fell over her, as if there was no longer any point in fighting and it was time to accept her fate. Shadye stepped forward, one hand holding the knife as he raised it up and over Emily's heart...
...And then, suddenly, there was a brilliant flash of light. The summoned presence simply vanished.
Shadye bit out a word that was probably a curse and ducked as a bolt of lightning sliced through the air over his head, before smashing into the far wall. She twisted her neck as another flash of light lit up the chamber, revealing another dark-clad form standing at the far end of the room. Darkness fell for a second before the third flash of light showed the figure much closer, followed by the monstrous angel statues, which had moved when Emily wasn't looking. Her savior? It was obvious that he didn't want Shadye to have her.
"No," Shadye snapped. He lifted his hand, somehow plucked a fireball out of empty air and threw it at the newcomer, who lifted a staff and deflected it into the darkened reaches of the chamber. There was a deafening explosion as it struck one of the angel statues, which appeared undamaged. "You will not cheat me!"
A second later, the newcomer tossed a spell of his own. Shadye vanished in a flash of light.
The spell holding Emily to the altar snapped at the same instant, allowing her to move again. She sat up, only to see the newcomer race toward her. Another flash of light revealed that his face was hidden behind a wooden mask. He reached for her and she drew back, suddenly unsure of what this new man wanted. Shadye had wanted to sacrifice her. What would this man want?
"Take my hand if you want to live," the newcomer said, when Emily balked. The darkness was flooding in from all sides, pushing in around them as if it were a living thing. "Come with me or die!"
Emily didn't hesitate any longer. She took his hand.
And then the dark chamber vanished in a final blinding flash of white light.
Once the brilliant light faded away, she was standing in the middle of a very different room.
"Welcome to my Tower," her rescuer said. His face was still hidden behind a wooden mask, but his voice was kind. "Don't worry. Shadye can't get you here."
Emily nodded, trying to keep her body from shaking. Her knees threatened to buckle, but she did her best to look around this very strange new place. The room in which she stood was large, but crammed with strange devices and boiling pots of liquid that looked as if they were about to bubble over and spill on the ground. Dark lines had been drawn on the floor, creating patterns that changed every time she looked at them. Light steamed in from a massive window, bright enough to suggest high noon. But it had been dark just a moment ago...
"Here," her rescuer said, as she started to shake again. He passed her a glass of clear liquid. "You may need this to calm yourself."
Emily hesitated. All her life, she'd been told that she shouldn't take gifts from strangers - but she did need a drink. Besides, if he wanted to poison her, he could probably have done it without forcing her to drink anything. That decided, she drank the water. It was cold, almost tasteless, but refreshing. Afterwards, a strange calm descended on her mind.
The man nodded to a pair of wooden seats below the window and Emily walked over to them, peering out of the window overlooking a green and pleasant landscape. Everywhere she looked, there were forests and lakes - but no sign of human life at all. The ground seemed to shimmer with magic.
She caught herself and looked back at the newcomer. "Who are you?"
"You need to know one rule right from the start," the man said slowly, as he removed his mask and pulled back his hood. "Do not ever ask a sorcerer his name. Ask instead what he would like to be called."
Emily sucked in her breath as he looked up at her. He looked surprisingly young, with a handsome face and a shock of brown hair, but there was something in the way he moved that nagged at her mind. It took her several seconds to realize that he wore a young body, yet walked in the manner of an older man. His lanky body seemed almost as strange to him as it did to her.
He smiled at her and she suddenly felt reassured. "You may call me Void, if you like," he said. "Please, be seated. You must have many questions."
"Yes," Emily said. Hundreds were tumbling through her mind. One question seemed very important. "Why...why did you rescue me?"
Void seemed oddly surprised by the question. "Why not?"
Emily studied him, trying to understand. He'd risked his life to save a girl he didn't know? Why would the question surprise him? Or maybe he'd jumped in to prevent Shadye from sacrificing her and thought that Emily would be able to deduce that for herself...
She cleared her throat. "What...what did you do to him?"
"Shadye?" Void seemed to smile. "I stunned him, rather badly." His smile faded away into a grim expression that seemed more natural to him. "Sadly, I fear that he will get better."
Emily stared at him. "Why didn't you kill him while you had the chance?"
"His protective wards wouldn't have slipped that far," Void said. "I couldn't have sneaked the attack in at all if he hadn't been in the Inverse Shadow. He had to lower part of his guard just to enter the building."
Emily felt a wave of confusion. What had been so special about the Inverse Shadow?
"But I got you out," Void added, with a childish grin of triumph. "My old master would be turning in his grave. If he were in his grave."
Emily had to smile back, and then collected herself. "Right," she said. "Where am I?"
Void didn't seem surprised at that question. "You're in my Tower, located on the edge of the Greenwood, in the Southern Marches of Barcia." He studied her face for a long moment, thoughtfully. "But that means nothing to you, unless I miss my guess."
"No," Emily said. Despite the calm, she felt her thoughts starting to spin. Where was she? "Shadye said he brought me here."
"He did," Void confirmed. He paused, just for a second. "Actually, he ordered creatures from the realm between the worlds to deliver him a person fitting specific criteria. They brought him you."
Emily shook her head in disbelief. "And why me? What makes me so special?"
A third question appeared in her mind a second later. "And how can I get home?"
Void hesitated. "I only sensed your arrival in this world, so I confess that I don't know why Shadye thought that you were important," he admitted. For the first time, he seemed rather unsure of himself. "As to getting you home...it may not be possible. It may never be possible."
There was something in the way he said it that kept her from realizing his true meaning for almost a minute. "I can never go home?"
The thought staggered her. Her life hadn't been good; she'd watched her mother drink herself close to death while her stepfather had been unpleasant and abusive whenever he cared to remember that he had a stepdaughter. But it had been her life. She'd had her books, the company of the nerds and geeks whenever she wanted to play games, and a bright future ahead of her...
...Or had she?
Her teenage years would have ended with her going to college, and then perhaps searching for a job. She would never really be able to live her own life, nor find a position that suited her. She knew from older acquaintances that it wasn't easy to find a job, let alone make ends meet in the adult world. One day, all the skills she'd learned at school would be utterly unimportant. The only consolation was that those who had ruled the school through being popular, pretty or athletic would be even less important.
And it was hard to escape the thought that no one would miss her now that she was gone.
"The problem is locating the world that birthed you," Void admitted, breaking into her thoughts. "If we were to open a gateway into the worlds beyond to locate your homeworld, the necromancers would have their chance to interfere with the magic, perhaps killing you or the conjurers. Even if they didn't, searching for your world might attract attention from beings that live outside the normal walls of our reality."
Emily remembered the dark presence in what Void had called the Inverse Shadow and shuddered. "So I can never go home," she said softly. In some ways, having no choice made it easier. "Why did Shadye think that I was a Child of Destiny?"
Void's eyes went very wide. "He thought that you were a Child of Destiny?"
"He said I was," Emily confessed. "But my mother was called Destiny."
Void stared at her for a long moment, then burst out laughing. "Shadye would have been in for a shock when he finished sacrificing you. The Dark Gods would not have thanked him for your soul."
Emily didn't understand the joke at first - and when it dawned on her, it didn't seem very funny. "But he would have killed me!"
Void nodded. "My guess is that one of the criteria I mentioned was that you would be a Child of Destiny. But the creatures that inhabit the worlds beyond are mischievous, prone to reinterpreting orders if they're not very specific. A Child of Destiny...if he didn't bother to clarify what that actually meant, they might have gone after you instead. But you'd still meet the other criteria."
He studied her for a long moment. "Wizards have been attempting to use magic to foretell the future for thousands of years," he added. "It rarely works very well, because the future is constantly in flux. Sometimes knowing about a possible future destroys it; sometimes knowing what is in store makes it inevitable. Even the best of wizards will leave the future to take care of itself.
"But we do know that some people are born to be at the heart of history. Those people will make decisions that reshape destiny, that completely alter the future. If Shadye had offered you to his dark lords, they would have rewarded him with power beyond imagination." His smile flickered back into existence. "But Shadye has a great deal of imagination."
Emily rubbed her eyes, trying to comprehend what he was telling her. "But I don't have any say in what happens," she said, finally. "Back home, I was nothing."
"No one is ever nothing," Void said cryptically. "The Children of Destiny are rarely seen and recognized in advance. Sometimes, we only ever realize that they were there in hindsight. Who would have thought that the lowly goatherd Avon would become the linchpin of an alliance that would push the necromancers back into the dark lands? In hindsight, we know that he was living at the crux point - and if they'd killed him before his time, the necromancers would have had the world."
"Or if they'd convinced him to join them," Emily guessed.
Emily remembered the history she'd studied, very taken by the thought. "Or if he'd fled from the battlefield..."
"Precisely," Void said. He stood up and looked up, out of the window. "Do you know that there are more necromancers in this world than there are powerful sorcerers?"
Emily rolled her eyes. She'd barely been in the new world for more than an hour, maybe two. How could she have hoped to learn anything about its history, culture or geography? Shadye certainly hadn't been interested in educating her. How did Void expect her to know anything?
"The only thing that keeps them from crushing us is that we can work together and the necromancers are unable to cooperate very well," Void explained, without looking back at her. "Every one of them believes that his rivals would stick a knife in his back the moment he looked away. They have good reason not to trust one another..."
He turned and looked down at her. "They are still gaining in power," he said. "Three years ago, the Kingdom of Gondar was overrun by their forces and the population was enslaved."
Emily stared at him. "And you could do nothing? With all your power, couldn't you do something to keep it from happening?"
Void looked down at his hands. For the first time, Emily realized that they were scarred, as if he'd been cutting himself time and time again. "All our efforts could do little more than hold back hell long enough to get a tiny percentage of the country's population out before it was too late. With Gondar in their hands, they have a land route through to Chirico, which now needs to pull back its troops from the border defenses and see to its own defense."
"Forcing you to split your forces," Emily said. She'd played enough games with the nerds to know how it worked, even if Command and Conquer logic never worked in the real world. "But I don't even come from this world. Why me?"
Void smiled. "Shadye may have asked for a Child of Destiny without specifying that she - or he - had to come from this world," he said, wryly. "Or the entities might have deliberately misunderstood the instructions. Or...he may have had a reason for summoning one from a different world."
His expression darkened. "But right now, a Child of Destiny is far more likely to swing the odds in our favor than against us. Shadye may simply have been intending to ensure that one never appeared, or to remove him from the world before he reached his time."
Emily felt her head spinning again. This was too much. Void was talking calmly about matters that hadn't meant anything to her before she'd arrived in this world, before her life had turned upside down. And Shadye had not only brought her here against her will; he'd marked her for death, long before she could have done anything to him. Her lips cracked into a bitter smile. Shadye should have known that if he'd left her in her world she would never have grown into a threat to him.
And yet, how could she ever be a threat to him? She'd seen the sorcerer work magic casually, without any effort at all. She had no magic, not even an understanding of modern technology that could be used to alter the balance of power. Her teachers hadn't taught her anything useful; she had no idea how to produce gunpowder, or steam engines, or even the basics of modern medicine. Shadye had probably targeted her because she would be helpless even if she did manage to escape his grasp.
"You will be assured of my protection for as long as you are forced to remain in this world," Void said, when she asked. "This world is not always safe for the unwary, or the weak, and Shadye's interest in you may attract attention from others."
Emily looked down at the floor, watching the strange patterns as they shifted from place to place. She'd read countless fantasy novels where the heroine was a chosen one, picked from all others to save the world, normally wearing a chainmail bikini as she hacked and slashed her way to slay the dark lord, or banish the demon back to hell. Offhand, she couldn't recall any novel where the chosen one had simply been a case of mistaken identity. And in the books where there was no tinge of destiny, the heroine was almost always supremely competent. What was she going to do? Impress Shadye by her masterful grasp of role-playing games, creative writing, and wasting time browsing the internet and reading web-comics? She didn't even have a homicidal rabbit with a switchblade on her side.
"I..." She stopped and swallowed hard. "I think Shadye might have chosen me deliberately."
Void lifted an eyebrow, politely. "You think he might have seen something in you that everyone else missed?"
Emily flushed. She hated it when people tried to be snide. "I mean that he targeted me to force you to waste your time with me," she said. "He might be doing something else while you're helping me to fit into this world..."
"I'd hate to think that Shadye could calculate so precisely the time it took me to slip into the Inverse Shadow," Void murmured. "Or even that I would have risked my life saving yours. A necromancer would expect me to kill you before you could be sacrificed, not try to save you. Besides, he couldn't have counted on me realizing what was going on in time to intervene."
His face twisted into a manic grin. "But we can easily test that theory. Follow me."
He walked across the room and out of the door before Emily could even stand up. Shrugging, she followed him through the door and into a network of corridors that glowed with a pearly white light. Void stepped through another door into a room crammed with old books, a handful scattered on chairs as if their reader had just taken a break to find a bite to eat, and paused outside a second door. When Emily caught up with him, he opened the door and motioned for her to precede him into the room. Inside, there was a small table, with a handful of objects scattered on the wooden surface and little else. The walls were bare stone.
The moment she stepped inside, she felt a muffling fall over her mind and stopped dead in her tracks. "You have some sensitivity," Void noted. He didn't seem to have felt anything. "This room is designed to contain unexpected discharges of magic. I haven't used it since my last apprentice left me."
There was an odd note in his voice that left her feeling it would be unwise to pry too far into his affairs. "Look down at the table," he instructed, "and take an item."
Emily frowned. "Which item?"
"Use your instincts," Void said seriously. "Pick up the one that feels right to you."
"Oh," Emily said. It was a test, then. She'd never tested well. "How long do I have?"
"As long as you feel you need," Void said. He moved over to the wall and leaned against it, adopting an insolent pose. "Pick the one that feels right to you."
Emily nodded, staring down at the objects on the table. One was a large hammer, marked with runes that seemed to have been etched into the metal; a second was a long black cane that appeared to be made of shadow. A third looked to be a magic wand, right out of Harry Potter; a fourth seemed to be a fairy wand, complete with a glowing star on the tip. There was a bracelet with solid metal runes, a green ring that seemed to glow with its own light, a sword that gave off a sense of being incredibly old, a dark statuette of a falcon and a key marked with a Greek letter. The Omega letter, if she recalled correctly. A book that looked almost as old as the sword, with yellowing pages and a brittle cover, marked in dark letters she didn't recognize...
Finally, there was a piece of wire that twisted in ways that went outside normal reality. She tried to follow the wire with her eyes and felt the world spinning around her until she tore her gaze away from the object.
Shaking her head, trying to escape the sense of being muffled, she looked from object to object. The hammer glowed with electric power; the cane looked almost translucent, as if it wasn't really there. Something about the key warned her not to even think of touching it.
Pick the one that seems right to you, Void had said. Emily tried to think about it logically, and then realized that magic - and she was dealing with magic - might not follow the rules of logic and reason. She might as well assume that she was in a role-playing game and act accordingly. Her hand drifted from item to item, never quite touching anything until it settled on the book. She'd always loved books, right from the day her mother had shoved a kid's comic under her nose and gone off to drink herself into a stupor. Books had been her companions throughout her entire life.
Carefully, she picked up the book and held it out to Void. "I choose this," she said. "Is this the right choice?"
Void snorted. "Is it the right choice?"
"Yes," Emily said, suddenly tired of the game. "It is the right choice."
"You have a talent," Void said. "Every would-be apprentice is offered the chance to choose something from a similar table. Choosing the book..."
He smiled, thinly. "We shall expect great things from you, I think." He took the book from her hands and studied it thoughtfully, before passing it back to her. "Far too many take the wands, or the hammer, or the sword. They would make poor magicians."
"I can be a magician?" Emily asked, stunned. "But -"
"You have the talent," Void confirmed. He turned and led her out of the room. "The book is yours now, although it may be a long time before you know how to use it. My master gave it to me and promised to teach me all of his dangerously-won knowledge if I learned to read it in less than a year. It took me ten years to learn."
Emily stared down at the book. Ten years for someone to learn how to read it? The letters seemed to twist and turn in front of her eyes, as if the meaning constantly changed into something else. Emily had never tried to learn a foreign language in her life, unless one counted the codes they'd invented for their games. How could she even make a start on reading the book?
"I need to make some arrangements for your future," Void added. "We shall eat and then you can rest while I speak to the rest of the council. They will need to be informed of your appearance. And then we can decide what to do with you."
Emily lay in bed, unwilling to open her eyes. It had all been a dream. It had to have been a dream. Because being transported to a land of magic and wonder, so different from the dull mundane world that had given birth to her, was a dream come true. No; it was too good to be true. When she opened her eyes, she knew that she would be back home...
But the bed felt uncomfortable and unfamiliar - and the air was too hot - and someone was in the room. Someone else?
Her eyes snapped open. She was lying on her back, staring up at an elaborately crafted ceiling decorated with gold and silver leaf. A young woman stood by the foot of the bed, holding out a robe for Emily to wear. Her original clothes had been taken away to be cleaned - or so she thought. It wasn't as if she wanted them back.
It hadn't been a dream, Emily realized. She found herself smiling brightly as she pulled herself out of the huge bed.
The serving girl passed her the robe - there was a curious blankness in her eyes that bothered Emily on a very primal level - and stepped back, heading for the door. She was young, with long blonde hair and blue eyes, wearing a uniform that managed to combine elegance and practicality. The girl didn't seem curious about Emily, or what she was doing in her master's bed, but she worked for a magician. No doubt she was used to all kinds of wonder and magic.
The robe was long and shapeless, hiding her figure more completely than her own clothes. Emily let out a sigh of relief as she donned the robe - it felt surprisingly soft and warm against her skin - and she headed to the bathroom to splash water on her face. One thing that hadn't been mentioned in any of the role-playing campaigns she'd fought was that medieval plumbing left a great deal to be desired. There was no hot running water, let alone a device to flush the toilet. Magic clearly didn't provide a substitute for such basic technology... Maybe, she told herself, she could convince Void to install running water in his tower. It might make the environment healthier.
Chuckling at herself, she washed then stopped in front of a mirror, studying her face. A moment later, the image rotated around, showing her what she looked like from behind. Emily started backwards in surprise, then realized that the mirror image was due to magic, exactly what she would have created if she'd had the power and the talent. She found herself casting a glance at the book Void had given her, wondering if it would teach her how to create a magic mirror or other useful tricks.
She couldn't resist. "Mirror, mirror, on the wall," she said, "who's the fairest of them all?"
"Silly question," a voice said. Emily nearly jumped out of her skin. "Fairest is a subjective measure. One man's fairest woman might be another man's ugly cow."
Emily started to laugh. "Don't you have any opinions on the subject?"
The mirror's voice deepened. "I'm just a mirror," it pointed out, rather snidely. "I am really nothing more than a reflection of yourself."
"I see," Emily said, although she wasn't sure that she did. Her body image had never been very good. Surely the mirror would have mocked her as comprehensively as her stepfather. "Thank you."
She stepped away from the mirror, towards the heavy wooden door. The serving girl had left it open and was waiting outside with an expression that suggested that she was prepared to wait forever.
Emily stepped out of the door and wasn't entirely surprised when it closed behind her, slamming shut with a faintly ominous thump. Void had promised that she would be safe in his tower; it was, he'd bragged, protected by countless security spells.
Emily could feel something in the air as the serving girl bowed to her and led the way down the stone corridor, past a giant window looking out over the forest. Something huge hung in the air, something with giant bat-shaped wings ... Emily stopped and stared. It couldn't really be a live dragon, could it? How could something that big even fly?
Magic, she reminded herself. She had to remember that magic really worked here.
The dragon flapped its wings slowly; the next moment, it was gone. Emily felt a sense of loss, as if all the magic in the world had drained away into nothingness. Tears prickled at her eyes, but she wiped them away impatiently. There would be more wonders to come.
The serving girl led her the rest of the way into the dining hall. Void's hall was large enough to seat a small army, but there was only one table, set up in front of a roaring fire that flickered with eerie green and blue lights. The sorcerer himself was seated at one end of the table, devouring a plate of sausages and bread. A pair of serving girls stood behind him, silently waiting for his orders. There was only one other seat at the table.
"Come in," Void called.
Emily hesitated. Something about the sheer size of the hall stuck her as faintly ridiculous. She'd certainly never had the impression that Void liked to entertain outsiders in his hall ... she stopped and laughed inwardly at herself. Since she had only known Void for less than a day, how could she claim to be an authority on him?
She walked over to the table and sat down facing him. "The kitchen staff was quite pleased to hear that you were staying with us," Void said. "They want to cook something a little different from time to time, but I'm rather set in my ways. I don't want anything more than meat and bread for breakfast."
He smiled, as if he expected her to share in a joke. Emily, who normally ate only corn flakes and coffee for breakfast, didn't understand it. Her parents might like the thought of devouring eggs and bacon for breakfast, but she had never been able to endure eating a large breakfast - it always left her feeling slightly unwell.
One of the serving girls placed a jug of water beside Emily, while another gave her a mug of hot black liquid that smelled faintly of ground earth and sand. Emily hesitated, before picking it up and taking a sip. It managed to taste almost, but not completely unlike coffee. On the other hand, it seemed to contain enough caffeine to give her system a morning jolt.
"The water was safely boiled by my staff," Void assured her, as she eyed the jug doubtfully. "Anywhere else, ask them if the water has been boiled. Some of the common folk don't believe in the invisible devils in the liquid."
Of course, Emily told herself; humans hadn't always known that water had to be boiled to ensure that it was safe to drink. Her reading had told her that unsafe water had been the cause of countless epidemics throughout history. Invisible devils was as good a way as any to describe germs, even if it wasn't very scientific. But to a world built on magic rather than science, it might make perfect sense. Hell, the germs might be real devils.
"Thank you," she said, as she poured a glass and took a sip. The water tasted sweet to her lips. "What are we going to do today?"
Void lifted a hand. "Wait until you've eaten," he said, firmly. The serving girl returned and placed a platter of meat, eggs and bread in front of Emily. "A good meal will make it much easier for us to talk properly."
Emily had no idea how he expected her to eat so much, but as she dug into the meal she found that she was far hungrier than she had realized. The meat tasted a little like beef, yet there was something in the taste that she didn't recognize. And, of course, she had no idea what kind of creature had laid the eggs. Only the bread tasted remotely familiar, rather like the bread they had cooked in home economics class. But it tasted much better than the bread thirty schoolchildren had produced while they were watched by a nervous teacher worried about what might happen to her career if her students poisoned themselves. Perhaps it was her imagination, but the food seemed healthier than anything she'd eaten back home.
"I have been summoning Beings and making enquiries," Void informed her as the serving girl removed the platter after Emily had finished. "It seems that you have been the victim of ... imprecise specifications."
He'd said much the same thing yesterday, Emily knew. "Shadye was very specific in his demands," Void continued. "He ordered certain entities to bring him a Child of Destiny, with great magical powers, yet no real awareness of those powers. Unfortunately for him, he failed to specify what a Child of Destiny actually was, or where he or she should actually come from. Had he specified that the entities should concentrate their search on this world, you wouldn't be in this mess."
Emily nodded thoughtfully. She hadn't known that she had magical powers, but then there was no such thing as magic in her world. Unless, of course, Arthur C. Clarke had been right when he pointed out that a sufficiently advanced technology was no different from magic. Or perhaps mental powers - assuming that they existed - were really no different from magic, either.
Or maybe you should just go with whatever Void says, a voice at the back of her head said. The laws governing magic in this place might be very different from anything you've ever read about.
Void's eyes twinkled. "Necromancers rarely bother to consult with others, if they can even bring themselves to recognize that outsiders might bring a new perspective to their problem. No doubt he believed that the entities would obey orders...which, to be fair, they did. He just wasn't specific enough to get them to do what he wanted."
"And so they picked me up instead," Emily mused.
"If nothing else," Void added, "think of it as a lesson in the requirement for absolute precision when dealing with magic and magical entities."
He shook his head. "But that leaves the problem of deciding what to do with you. Shadye may not have realized that his summoning failed - indeed, given that I plucked you out of his grasp before he could sacrifice you, he may believe that he succeeded, only to lose you to me. He will certainly be looking for you; he may even try to remove you from my Tower and take you back to his territory."
Emily shivered. It was easy to feel safe inside the tower, but suddenly that safety felt like an illusion. She'd seen both Shadye and Void do things that she would have sworn were impossible only a day ago. What could she do if Shadye captured her for the second time? He certainly wouldn't make the same mistake twice.
"There's also the fact that you need to be trained, and trained properly," Void said. His voice was mild, but there was a force behind it that made her sit up and take a good look at him. "Right now, you're a potential source of magic for any untrustworthy mage out there; Shadye won't be the only one who wants to capture you once word gets out. Shadye wanted to use your power and your status - your presumed status - as a Child of Destiny; others will have far darker ambitions. You need training and I can't train you."
Emily felt her heart twist. She had expected, she realized now, that Void would train her. He was odd, but she was coming to like him. The thought of leaving his tower and going out into the wider world beyond chilled her, particularly with hostile wizards out there intent on capturing her and taking her power - the power she hadn't even known she possessed - for themselves. She certainly didn't want to think about what they might do to get their hands on her power.
"I'm a bad teacher," Void admitted, when she pressed him. "I've had seven apprentices in my time. Three of them had to be dismissed for disobedience, two died in magical accidents, one went rogue and became a necromancer ..."
There was a long pause. Emily finally broke it. "And the last apprentice?"
"I had to kill him," Void said flatly. Emily wanted to ask, but she had the feeling that it might be unwise to press him any further. "Suffice it to say that my history of tutoring apprentices is not good."
He hesitated, as if he was unwilling to admit to anything else. "There's also the fact that you need a far wider field of study than I can provide for you in my tower. You've only met myself and Shadye - and there are plenty of other types of magician out there. I would just limit you if you studied under me. You deserve better than that."
There was a second pause. "I'm sending you to Whitehall," he said. "You'll be safe there."
Emily blinked, trying not to feel abandoned. "Whitehall?"
"There are only a handful of places where new wizards are trained," Void explained. "Of all of them, Whitehall is the oldest, constructed back in the days of the Old Empire. Politically, it's unaligned in the power struggles between the Allied Lands - and it is a bastion against the necromancers. Your presence elsewhere may" - he paused, as if he were selecting his next word carefully - "upset people."
"I don't understand," Emily said. "Why am I so special?"
Void snorted. "Luck." He shook his head, ruefully. "If word gets out to the Allied Lands that you are a Child of Destiny - even if you're not a Child of Destiny in anything other than the literal sense - there will be repercussions. And once they realize just how much power is welling up inside of you, they will either try to co-opt you or kill you."
He shrugged. "It won't surprise you to know that the Allied Lands spend as much time fighting each other as they do fighting the necromancers. We mock them for their disunity, but ours is just as bad."
Emily frowned. "So which side are you on?"
Void gave her a sharp look, and then nodded in understanding. "I'm a graduate of Whitehall myself. As such, I owe overall fealty to the Allied Lands as a whole, not to any single country. Those of us who are on the sharp end in dealing with the necromancers have no time for power struggles between the Allied Lands. Maybe Princess Samira didn't actually want to marry Prince Davit ... whatever really happened, it's not an excuse to start a war that creates openings for the necromancers to break into the Allied Lands."
"You said that the necromancers were tightening the screws," she said. "Can't the Allied Lands see that they're in trouble?"
"I'm sure they can," Void said. "They just don't bother to actually think about what they're doing."
He looked at her, directly. "Whitehall sits in the mountains, at a crossroads of power where two ley lines intersect. That gives the school's wards incredible power. No necromancer can enter the school, or its grounds, and no one from the Allied Lands would dare to breach its walls without permission. The Grandmaster's will is absolute within the school."
Emily found herself smiling. "His name wouldn't be Dumbledore, would it?"
"I wouldn't know," Void reminded her, archly. "Those of us who seek great power keep our names secret, remember?"
Emily flushed at his tone.
"I have made arrangements for you to go there today and be enrolled at the school, before anyone apart from Shadye and I learns of your true nature," Void continued. "You don't need to worry about payment; the Grandmaster owes me a favor or two, so he has agreed to waive the tuition fees in your case. Besides, I think that if you have proper training, you will be formidable indeed. I rather doubt that Whitehall is anything like the schooling you had back home, but it will provide you with the grounding you so desperately need."
"Thank you," Emily said. It was hard to escape the conviction that she was being abandoned, but it was clear that Void was doing his best for her. Going back to school ... well, she would actually be learning something more fascinating than sanitized facts and pointless nonsense. Besides, if Void was right and other magicians would be seeking her out, she'd better learn to defend herself as quickly as possible. Shadye had overpowered her with contemptuous ease.
Void smiled. "You're welcome," he said. "If you become a defender of the Allied Lands, standing beside us, I will be more than repaid."
He stood up. "I have also made arrangements for your transport. The kitchen staff will provide you with food for the journey."
Emily blinked as she stood up herself. "You won't be coming with me?"
"I'm afraid not," Void said. "Don't worry. Your transport" - he grinned, as if he were smiling at a private joke - "trust me, no necromancer is going to want to risk drawing the attention of your transport."
"Right," Emily said. All of a sudden she felt as if Void had given her a red shirt to wear, perhaps complete with a targeting circle. But then, he had lived in this world for his entire life. No doubt he knew what he was doing. "I meant to ask you something."
Void lifted a single eyebrow, patiently.
"Your servants," Emily said, quietly. "Why do they all look so ..."
She couldn't think of a suitable word, but Void understood. "They have pledged themselves to me for the duration of their services. In order that they might live here, they have accepted powerful loyalty spells, ones that prevent them from doing anything contrary to my interests." He gave her a reassuring smile. "You're starting to sense magic properly, my dear."
Emily winced. She had no way to be sure, but she would have bet good money that the spells went a great deal further than simply ensuring the loyalty of his servants. The blank stare in the girl's eyes chilled her. Perhaps she no longer had any real free will of her own, or perhaps Emily was just imagining it. She hoped that she was imagining it.
She shook her head. This world might be more exciting than her old world, but it had dangers of its own. And Shadye wasn't the only one who misused magic.
"How big is this tower?" Emily asked.
Void smiled as they kept walking up stairs that seemed to reach all the way to heaven. "It's as big as it needs to be."
"That isn't an answer," Emily said, irritably. The knapsack of food and drink Void's servants had given her was dragging at her shoulder. This world had clearly not invented comfortable rucksacks - at least, not yet. Absently, she wondered what - if anything - she could introduce from her world to make lives easier here. "How big is the tower?"
Void's smile grew wider. "The tower is far larger on the inside than on the outside. Each successive owner has added more to the interior, creating a mass of passageways and compartments that run for miles underground. Even I couldn't tell you just how big the tower is on the inside."
A gust of cold air struck her as they finally reached the top and out onto the battlements. Emily felt a wave of vertigo as she realized just how long a drop it was to the ground far below, and just how small the battlements were. A child could climb on them and then be blown off by a sudden change in the wind. They didn't look very secure to her eyes, but as far as she could tell the true defense of the tower rested in Void's magic. A small army of men could climb over the battlements if they could get past the wards.
"He comes," Void said, pointing towards the sun. "Look!"
For a moment, Emily saw nothing. Then, out of the sun's glare, a dark winged shape dropped down towards the tower. It was so large that she had problems trying to take it all in; its green scales flashed in the sunlight, while its brilliant golden eyes and wings were so immense that they seemed to stretch for miles. Giant claws, each one larger than Emily's entire body, glinted with light as the dragon dropped to the battlements, landing with a gentle thump. It seemed impossible that the tower could even hold up under its weight.
Emily shrank behind Void as the dragon opened its mouth, a wisp of smoke emerging from its nostrils. Inside, there were razor-sharp teeth and a long tongue that licked at its lips, as if it had decided that the two humans would be a pleasant snack. For a being that large, the rational part of Emily's mind insisted, two humans would be nowhere near enough to sate its hunger.
And then she caught the golden eye and froze, transfixed.
Somehow, she knew that the dragon was old. The magic field surrounding the creature bombarded her with impressions and sensations, piling them into her mind. It was old enough to have seen eons pass while it drifted through the skies, heedless of the scurrying humans on the world below. She no longer felt any sense of threat from it, merely a sense of ancient knowledge and amusement.
Void seemed equally stunned by the dragon, even though they had to be a fact of life in his world. But how many magicians, Emily asked herself, knew dragons personally?
"It has been a long time," the dragon rumbled. Emily shuddered at the thought of what a dragon might consider a long time. All of the fantasy books she'd read had claimed that dragons had very long lives. "Do you finally wish to call upon the debt I owe you?"
"I do," Void said. His voice sounded tinny in comparison to the dragon's deep rumble. "This girl needs transport to Whitehall."
Emily suddenly felt very small as the dragon's great golden eyes peered down at her. "A traveler from another world," the dragon stated. It wasn't a question. "How strange. We have not seen one like you for many years."
It bent its head down towards the ground. "You may ride on my back. None will dare harm you while I am here."
Void nodded to Emily. "You can trust him to take you to Whitehall," he said. "And I will see you again, soon enough."
Emily hugged him, suddenly, and then turned to face the dragon. She'd always had the impression that dragons were romantic, but there was nothing romantic about this dragon. Up close, there was a faintly disconcerting smell - sulphur, she guessed - and the scales felt uncomfortably hot to the touch. Years ago, at a petting zoo, she'd touched a snake, but this was very different. Touching the dragon was like touching an armored tank that had been out in the sun.
"Use the scales to climb on my back," the dragon said. It sounded vastly amused at her struggles. "You cannot hurt me."
Emily hesitated, and then scrambled up, half-expecting to feel scales giving way under her weight. But nothing happened. She reached the dragon's back and swung her legs over the side, clutching a scaly hump that rose up in front of her. A moment later, there was a sudden gust of wind and the dragon threw itself upwards, into the air. The ground dropped away with terrifying speed. Emily yelped and clutched the hump tighter, trying not to look at the ground, or at the wings as they flexed against the air. She'd flown in airplanes before, of course, but this was different. She knew there was nothing between her and the ground. If she fell, she would plummet to her death.
The airflow seemed remarkably mild as the dragon twisted in midair, rather like a rollercoaster, and snapped at a bird with its sharp teeth. There was a brief explosion of feathers and nothing else, apart from a dragonish gulp. Emily shivered again as the dragon leveled out and started to fly away from the tower; somehow, she managed to turn just long enough to see Void's tower as it receded into the distance. It looked like a giant chess piece, standing alone in the middle of the forest.
There was a wave of heat as the dragon blew fire into the air, its entire body flexing underneath her. Emily told herself firmly not to be scared, trying to convince her eyes to look back down at the ground. If she'd had any doubts that she was in a different world, they would have faded away when she saw the villages below. They were primitive, utterly untouched by the modern world. The only genuine road she saw reminded her of the stone roads the Romans had built when they'd conquered most of Europe; the remainder were little more than muddy paths traversed by horses and carts. Most of the fields were tiny compared to the ones she'd seen back home, worked by hand rather than by combine harvesters. If she recalled correctly, medieval farming had never been very efficient. It had taken the development of modern technology to make farming on a vast scale profitable.
Down below, she caught sight of people working in the fields. It was hard to be certain, but they looked to have been beaten down, as if they knew that they weren't working for themselves. Perhaps they weren't, she told herself, as she saw a handful of others who were clearly standing guard, watching the workers. Armed guards, she guessed, as the dragon flew over a small castle-like building at the centre of a number of villages. The local baron probably lived there, exploiting the peasants and taking all of their crops for himself. Perhaps he didn't even leave them enough to live on.
The dragon blew more fire into the air as it flew over a colossal lake sailed by hundreds of tiny fishing boats. Emily glanced to the other side and saw that the lake was actually a giant inlet linked to the sea, allowing sailors to dock their boats on the shore where they were sheltered from storms and powerful waves. None of the boats looked particularly advanced either. The largest she could see was not much bigger than a fishing boat from back home. Perhaps they didn't bring the bigger sailing ships into the lake, or perhaps they simply didn't exist. Void hadn't said much about local geography, but he'd hinted that the necromancers were pushing in on the Allied Lands. Perhaps the Allied Lands had no time to explore the rest of their world. Coming to think of it, she asked herself, did they even know that their world was a sphere?
If this world is a sphere, she thought, after a moment. If magic was real, why couldn't there be a flat world?
In the distance, a wall of mountains rose up in front of them, covered with hardy green plants that seemed to provide food and shelter for a tiny human population. The dragon roared and lunged forward, diving between the peaks and dancing through the mountains, playing chicken with the rocky walls. A long valley opened up in front of them and the dragon flew down it, heedless of the small village hidden away from the rest of the world. Emily winced in horror as she caught sight of people staring at the dragon, then running away in terror. They had to think that the dragon was intent on eating them, or on eating their animals. A woman stood up at the edge of the village, shouting at the dragon, only to be ignored. The dragon was too high for Emily to make out even a single word.
But how could she understand anyone in this world?
The dragon chuckled as he lifted up above a mountain peak, and then dived down into another valley. This one seemed to be completely deserted, nothing more than trees and flowers hidden away by mountain peaks. The dragon jinked right and left, before flying up and over a giant statue that someone had carved into the side of the mountain. Even looking at that statue gave Emily a chill. She'd seen pictures of giant statues that had been destroyed in Afghanistan, but this one was larger - and clearly not human. Giant pointed ears dominated a face so cruel and calculating as to be completely alien, with eyes made black gemstones that glowed in the shadow cast by the statue. Beyond it, there were a row of seats looking out over a depression in the rock. It took her a moment to realize that she was looking at a sporting arena. The entire area seemed completely deserted ...
... yet she felt the hackles rising on her neck as the dragon lifted up into the air. It felt as if they were being watched by unfriendly eyes.
Helplessly, she glanced around, feeling the sensation growing stronger and stronger with every second. There was nothing that looked threatening, apart from the statue itself, but it was just a statue. Wasn't it?
But this was a world where magic worked, she reminded herself. A statue might come to life and fight the dragon in a world like this, for all she knew.
The sensation fell away as the dragon lifted even higher into the air, leaving the eerie statue and arena behind. Emily allowed herself a sigh of relief as the mountains became foothills, revealing a ruined city on the other side. It looked as if someone had bombed it to hell and then the citizens had abandoned it. There were hundreds of damaged buildings, along with dozens of statues that had been knocked to the ground. One towering building had been left intact, right in the centre of the city; the remainder had simply been wrecked by whatever force had torn the city apart. Emily wondered absently if Hiroshima had looked like that, before trying to deduce what magicians would use in place of a mundane atomic bomb. Maybe they enslaved dragons and used them to wage war on entire cities ... again, there was no way to know.
She shivered as the dragon flew away from the city and over the desolate, barren wasteland. There were hundreds of towns and villages, all abandoned and left to rot. In places, there were only a handful of signs that there had ever been a village or town there at all. There were no living humans. The inhabitants had fled or had been killed by the forces that had destroyed their homes.
Puzzled, Emily stared at the wreckage, trying to work out just how long it had been since the city and the surrounding countryside had been destroyed. Surely, a medieval village wouldn't last very long if it had been completely abandoned ... but then, some European cities had structures dating back over two thousand years. She shook her head, dismissing the problem as insoluble. It would have to be answered at Whitehall.
Carefully, keeping one hand holding on to the dragon's skin, she opened her knapsack and found a roll of bread with some meat, a very makeshift sandwich. Void's kitchen staff had produced enough food to last her for several days, along with four bottles of water - Void had told her that the bottles were spelled to keep the water cool - and one of a green liquid that smelled vaguely like lime. She ate the sandwich thoughtfully, washing it down with more of the pure boiled water. There was no way to know how long it would be until she reached Whitehall, or what might happen before she was admitted to the school. She might need to save the rest of the sandwiches for later.
Emily shook her head, wondering at herself. Yesterday, she had been bored of life, desperate to escape her family. Today, she was flying on a dragon ... and somehow she'd come to accept it without any real quibbles. She was in deep trouble - Shadye wanted her dead, others might want to keep her alive, draining her power into themselves - and yet she felt excited, delighted to be here.
Maybe, after being so long in the shadows, her real life could begin. Or maybe, coming here meant she would finally have a chance to be someone important.
The ground changed so rapidly that she missed the moment when overgrown towns and villages became nothing more than charred ash on the ground. It looked to have been consumed with fire, burned to the ground until there was literally nothing left. She took a breath and tasted wet ashes floating on the air. The wasteland stretched as far as the eye could see, broken only by faint hints that the firestorm had raged over cities too well-built to be completely reduced to ash.
Emily took another breath and felt the tint of magic in the air, sparking against the magic field that kept the dragon aloft. She glanced towards the massive wings and saw blue-green sparks dancing along the scaly surface, moving with an eerie silence that chilled her to the bone.
And then they were suddenly back in the mountains. The sparks faded away into nothingness. Emily breathed a long sigh of relief and tried to relax. It didn't work. The sight below the dragon chilled her to the bone.
These mountains were different from the previous mountain range. The firestorm that had scorched the countryside to ash had raged through these mountains too. There were no plants or trees growing on the craggy stone; everything had been wiped away, leaving nothing, but naked stone.
Emily shivered again.
Then the air suddenly grew colder, just before the dragon twisted and headed towards a towering building perched atop a mountain. As they flew closer, she realized that the mountain was actually part of the building and that it was sitting alone, surrounded by another hidden valley of greenery. Unlike the creepy alien city, there were humans in the valley, some staring up at the dragon. Others seemed intent on ignoring it.
Up close, the giant castle appeared to be built from pure marble. It glowed white in the sunlight, a beacon of hope against the darkness pressing in from the other side of the mountains.
Emily remembered what Void had said about the lack of entangling alliances and realized, in dismay, that Whitehall was right on the border between the Allied Lands and the necromancers. The necromancers would have to push their way through Whitehall to fall on the Allied Lands beyond.
The castle blurred into the mountain, hinting that the interior had been completely hollowed out and converted into living space for the students and their tutors. Given what Void had said about the Allied Lands not cooperating very well, it was possible that many of the forces gathered to fight the necromancers were also based at Whitehall. Or perhaps she was wrong.
She braced herself as the dragon came to a halt, hovering in the air like a giant hummingbird, before dropping down towards the ground, claws extended for a safe landing. The giant creature touched the ground so lightly that, for a moment, Emily didn't even realize that they had landed.
"You may disembark," the dragon rumbled. Emily hastened to obey. "I will consider the debt between myself and your master settled."
Emily wanted to point out that Void was hardly her master, that he'd actually refused to consider taking her as his apprentice, but she doubted that the dragon would care.
"Thank you," she said. Her legs felt weak and unstable after the flight, forcing her to lean against the dragon's hot scales until she felt able to walk on her own. "I -"
The dragon spoke over her. "You should be aware that your master is playing a very dangerous game," he said.
Emily looked up in surprise. She'd thought that the dragons were largely uninterested in humanity.
It was impossible to read any expression on the scaly face. "His plan may cost your world dearly."
Emily hesitated, and then asked. "What do you mean?"
The dragon said nothing. Instead, he flexed its wings and launched himself upwards into the sky.
Emily watched as he rapidly dwindled into a tiny dot that vanished in the sunlight. Then, she sensed someone standing behind her. When she turned around, she saw a little man whose head barely came up to her chest, wearing a red robe and carrying a staff that was taller than he was. His head, completely bald, reminded her of a Japanese warrior monk from some of the bad films she'd watched as a teenager.
He wore a cloth over his eyes, but she had the sense that he could see her, somehow. "I am the Grandmaster," he said. His voice was stilted, as if he couldn't be bothered to speak naturally. "You are welcome to Whitehall."
"Thank you," Emily said, falling back on politeness. The towering castle was awe-inspiring, taking her breath away. "It's good to be here."
The Grandmaster snorted. "They all say that," he said. "If you'll follow me?"
He turned and started to walk towards the castle, his staff tapping against the ground.
After a moment, Emily followed him, sensing other students looking at her as she entered Whitehall. How many others, she asked herself, had arrived on a dragon? Somehow, she doubted that many others had made such a spectacular entrance.
Once she stepped through the large stone doors that led into Whitehall, she felt a rushing, tingling sensation in the air, followed by a faint shimmer that seemed to dance over her body before fading away into nothingness. Her mind felt oddly muffled, as if her ears had been blocked by some outside force, as she walked past a long line of statues wearing armor. The effect felt like the sensation she'd experienced at Void's tower, but it was much more pronounced. She knew that this must be what magic felt like.
The Grandmaster looked up at her and smiled. "There are powerful wards in Whitehall," he said, by way of explanation. "Some to keep outsiders from breaking in, others to stop you and your fellow students from harming yourselves."
The rows of immobile armor gave way to a series of paintings of wizards, almost all of them men. There were only a handful of pictures of women, including one of a blonde girl who seemed to be staring at the painter, daring him to do his worst. She couldn't read the names under the paintings. None of the pictures were moving openly, but every time she looked away and then looked back the pose in each picture was different.
They passed a handful of students waiting in the corridor, who stepped to one side to allow the Grandmaster to pass, as they reached a flight of stairs and walked up to a higher floor. The sense of magic in the air was only growing stronger. Like Void's tower, Emily realized, Whitehall was far larger on the inside than the outside. It made her wonder what else might be hidden inside the building: secret passageways, hidden bases, perhaps even a place for the tutors to hide and rest away from their pupils. It made sense; human nature probably didn't change even if magic was involved.
She followed the Grandmaster into a long corridor and blinked in surprise as she saw a line of students standing with their backs to the wall and their hands on their heads. None of them looked her in the eye as she walked past, which made her realize that they must be in trouble. It didn't surprise her. The students she had known back home had been quite capable of getting into trouble without magic, so who knew what mischief someone with magic could do?
At the head of the corridor a harassed-looking man wearing a black robe was talking to one of the students, a young girl with a faintly ill expression.
"But he hexed me, Master," she said as they passed. "I didn't actually mean to turn his skin blue!"
"And how many times," the tutor inquired sarcastically, "have you been warned never to feed anyone a potion without testing it first?"
Before Emily could reflect on this, the Grandmaster led her onwards again, past a pair of statues of wizards carrying wands and a strange creature with a human head and goat's body. After that odd display, they stepped though a wooden door into a large room dominated by a massive wooden desk and a throne-like chair. It was decorated sparsely, with only a pair of pictures and a couple of parchments Emily guessed to be certificates. They certainly looked like the certificates on the principal's walls back on Earth. The desk itself appeared hand-carved, covered in little sigils that had been cut into the wood, but it was barren, without the computer or telephone that she would have seen back home.
"Stand there," the Grandmaster ordered, as he walked around the table and took his seat, facing her. Emily somehow forced herself to stand still, despite the oddities of the day. "Void wishes for you to learn magic."
"Yes, sir," Emily said nervously. She had the feeling that she needed to be very polite to the Grandmaster. He might be small and slight, but he could probably turn her into a toad with a snap of his fingers. Back home, there were laws against mistreating students, even if they were the sort of kids who deserved a sound spanking rather than love and understanding. Those laws might not exist here.
"You have the potential to be a proper sorceress, he says." The Grandmaster looked down at the table, as if he couldn't be bothered looking at her. "We will have to verify that, of course, and in doing so we must ensure that you receive a proper grounding in all forms of magic. There will be several days of testing before we start assigning you to classes, as well as exercises and other tricks to hone your powers in the proper direction."
Emily nodded, feeling her head spinning. There were more forms of magic than just two?
The Grandmaster looked up at her, sharply. "Have you worked magic already?"
Emily hesitated. "I ... I don't think so," she said, finally. "I sensed magic, but..."
He shook his head. "We'll have to show you how to unlock your powers. I'll have Mistress Irene work with you, at least at first."
He studied her for a long moment. "Void wasn't entirely clear on where you came from," he said. "Would you care to enlighten me?"
It wasn't a request, Emily realized. Quickly, she ran through the entire story, from when she'd been kidnapped by Shadye to the moment Void had put her on the dragon and sent her to Whitehall. Uniquely, at least in the adults she had met, he had the ability to listen without interrupting. The Grandmaster listened until she had finished, and then asked her a couple of questions for clarification. Emily answered the first one easily, but the second was impossible. There was no magic in her world, as far as she knew.
"Interesting," the Grandmaster said. He looked down at the table again. "First things first; Void or Shadye gave you a translation spell, probably Shadye. There is something about it that suggests that it was designed for use on someone who might not want it. You can understand us, but I suspect you won't be able to read our writing."
Emily shook her head, remembering the painting. She'd wondered how she could talk to the locals; neither Shadye nor Void would know English. Of course they'd used magic to translate their words into something she could understand! Under the circumstances, it bothered her; one of them had cast a spell on her and she hadn't even realized it until the Grandmaster had pointed it out. What else might they have done to her?
But the Grandmaster pressed onwards before she had enough time to ponder that thought.
"I will have Mistress Irene teach you a basic translation spell for written words," he said. "Beyond that, you may be well advised to study the language and learn it as quickly as possible. A proper understanding will make it easier to take your studies forward to the highest levels."
It wasn't a request, Emily realized. Part of her wanted to chaff at the requirement - no one had ever forced her to learn another language - but the practical part of her mind told her that she had no choice. Besides, she had never studied outside the country before. The rules were probably different for exchange students. They had to be able to communicate with their hosts.
He smiled, thinly. "You're not from this world, but I'll give you the standard lecture anyway. The Allied Lands may have countless disputes, ancient and modern, but they are not tolerated in this school. Students who pick fights with other students over such divisive issues are punished; those who remain here long enough to enter the advanced classes are expected to swear an oath to the White Council and abandon their nationalist beliefs. There are too many necromancers out there for us to be distracted by infighting."
"Yes, sir," Emily said. Questions filled her mind, demanding answers. What was the White Council? And what were the advanced classes? She pushed them aside, knowing that there would be time to find out later. She needed to get her bearings first.
The Grandmaster shrugged. "You should be able to rise above it, as whatever disputes there were on your world are unlikely to matter here. However, in the event that you don't rise above it, you will be punished. It's astonishing how many students refuse to believe the warning until it is too late."
His unseen eyes, hidden behind the cloth, seemed to fix on her face. "There is a great temptation to misuse magic in this school. We allow a certain degree of latitude for youngsters, because it helps them to learn to control their powers, but there are limits. You'll hear more specific warnings later, but - in particular - anything that risks a fellow student's life is grounds for immediate expulsion from the school. Those who actually manage to kill a fellow student will have to face that student's family."
Emily gulped. What had she gotten herself into? "Does ... does that happen very often?"
"Too often," the Grandmaster said. His voice was grim, suggesting that he was recalling dark days when students under his care had been hurt - or worse. "If there is any doubt at all over what happened, everyone involved will be interrogated under truth spells until the truth comes out into the light, after which punishments will be assigned."
He stood up, suddenly. "We hope that you will enjoy your years here, and that you will live up to the potential Void sensed in you, but there are limits to what we can tolerate," he concluded. "But you're not from here. You should be able to ignore the political scrabbling and infighting between different factions."
"I'll do my best, sir," Emily promised.
The Grandmaster's lips twitched. "The proper title is Grandmaster, young lady," he said, drolly. "I suggest that you listen to how tutors introduce themselves and remember it. They take it so personally when someone gives them the wrong title."
He smiled, more naturally. "If you will come with me...?"
The line of students standing against the wall had grown longer in the few minutes they'd been in the Grandmaster's office. A pair of them glanced at Emily as she passed; the remainder ignored her, seemingly reluctant to risk catching the Grandmaster's attention. Absently, she wondered what sorts of punishments were assigned in a magical school. Did they have to write lines, or do detentions? Or were they simply turned into frogs for a few hours? She shook her head, dismissing the thought. No doubt she would find out soon enough.
They stopped in front of a blank wall that the Grandmaster tapped it with his staff. It opened, revealing another corridor leading away into the distance. The stone walls were interrupted, every few meters, by wooden doors. A short fat woman waddled out of a side door and looked up at the Grandmaster, before taking a long and thoughtful look at Emily.
"This is Madame Razz," the Grandmaster said. "She is your housemother for your first two years at the school. I suggest that you listen to her very carefully."
"Thank you, Grandmaster," Madame Razz said. She had a tart voice that suggested that she wouldn't stand for any nonsense. "What time is her first class?"
"Mistress Irene will arrange that," the Grandmaster informed her. "Until then, she is free to be outfitted with everything she needs for her first term."
He nodded to Emily, then turned and strode out of the concealed door.
Emily turned back in time to see Madame Razz study her with a faintly disapproving expression. But before Emily could start to worry about it, she beckoned Emily to follow her down the corridor into a large storeroom, which was crammed with everything from clothes to bedding and toilet supplies. Madame Razz studied her for another long moment before producing a white robe from a pile of clothing and thrusting it at her. Emily held it up against her body and realized that it would fit, although it would also conceal the shape of her body from prying eyes.
"The white robes are assigned to newcomers to Whitehall," Madame Razz informed her, coldly. She plucked what looked like an oversized pair of panties off a railing, followed by an undershirt and a pair of socks, passing them all to Emily. "You are not permitted to wear anything else outside your room, particularly anything that may cause divisiveness among the students. You will be assigned five pairs of everything, which you will be responsible for. You will make sure that it is put out for wash, and then collected from the laundry room. If you lose anything, you will be charged for it."
I love you too, Emily thought. The Grandmaster had seemed a decent guy, even if he had issued heavy-handed warnings. Madame Razz, on the other hand, appeared to be inclined to assume the worst of any of the girls. She had to have stepped right out of a boarding school from hell.
"You will change your bedding once every week," Madame Razz continued, thrusting more packets of cloth at her. "Once changed, you will place the bedding to be washed along with your clothes. Luckily, the beds are standard, so we can interchange bedding if necessary. However, you are also responsible for removing any protective charms that you might have placed on the sheets. Accidentally leaving one in place to attack the laundry room staff will result in you being assigned to help them for at least a week."
She picked a small amulet out of a bag and passed it over to Emily. "This is a guide to the interior of the building, which changes regularly," she explained. "In the event that you need to go anywhere, hold the amulet in your left hand and speak the name of the place aloud. A ball of light will appear in the air and guide you to your destination. If it refuses to work, you don't have permission to enter that part of the building yet. Certain parts will remain off-limits until you reach a particular level. Wear the amulet until you learn how to ask the school for directions using your own magic."
Emily glanced down at the amulet, and then put it around her neck.
"Toothbrush, toothpaste, washing powder, watch, medical potions," Madame Razz continued, piling bottles of liquid on top of the clothes Emily was already carrying. "During that time of the month, take one swig of this liquid per day and the effects will be much reduced. Be careful not to leave samples of your blood lying around; it maintains a link to you and someone with bad intentions can use it to hex you, or worse. There are charms to cut the link; until you learn them, hand any bloodstained items over to me for disposal."
The watch was odd, seemingly out of place. Emily looked at it and realized, finally, that it was actually designed for someone to wear around their neck, or carried within their jacket, rather than worn on their wrist. It used clockwork, she decided, rather than anything electronic. She'd have to wind it regularly to keep it working.
Madame Razz finally picked a book up from one end of the room, then led Emily back into the corridor. Emily followed her, staggering slightly under the weight, until they reached a single door, no different from any of the others. Madame Razz rapped on it sharply, then opened it by tapping a finger against a rune that had been cut directly into the stone. Inside, there were three beds, two of them already made up and surrounded by piles of books and devices that Emily didn't recognize. The third bed was nothing more than an uncomfortable looking mattress.
"Place the bedding on the bed," Madame Razz ordered. "I assume you know how to make up your own bed?"
She sounded as if she didn't expect Emily to be capable of tying her shoelaces without assistance, but Emily nodded. The last thing she'd wanted was her mother or stepfather coming into her room back home, so she'd taken care of everything from a very early age. It wasn't actually hard to change a bed; it had always amused her that boys - and a number of girls - complained about how unfair it was that their parents made them do their own beds. They spent longer complaining than it took to make the bed.
"Yes," Emily said.
"That's yes, Madame," Madame Razz snapped. She scowled at Emily then nodded towards the door in the rear of the room. "Toilet, washbasin and bath are in there. You'll have to come to an agreement with your roommates about rotas for using the bath; I'd prefer not to have to enforce one. The water basin over in that corner contains drinking water; if you happen to want food or anything else to drink, wait until morning. As a new student, you are not allowed to wander the building after lights out."
She turned and nodded towards the other beds. "I've put you in with Aloha and Imaiqah; Imaiqah is a first year student, like yourself, while Aloha is a second year student. As such, she is expected to take charge of the room. Should you keep the room clean and tidy, with a minimum of noise, fighting and bother, you will be rewarded with room points that can be exchanged for decorations, books or even sweets. I would strongly prefer not to have to intervene in disputes between you. In the event that it becomes unavoidable, you will all be punished. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Madame," Emily said, trying not to roll her eyes. "I understand."
"Good," Madame Razz said. "I understand that Mistress Irene will contact you; in the event of her not doing so before dinner time, one of your roommates will take you down to the dining hall. Or use the amulet to find the hall."
She marched over to the door and looked back at Emily. "This school is very different than anywhere else in the Allied Lands," she added, her tone becoming almost compassionate. "It can be hard to adjust, particularly if you came from an aristocratic family. If you need help or advice, you can talk to me at any time."
"Thank you," Emily said.
Madame Razz left, quickly closing the door behind her.
Emily looked around the room, her gaze settling on a pile of books beside one of the beds. Her first impulse was to pick them up, but then she felt the magic haze surrounding them and realized that picking them up - at least without permission - would be a very bad idea. Instead, she sorted through the pile of clothing and bedding, before placing the clothing in the empty cupboard nearest her bed. The bottles of medicine went into the smaller cabinet beside the bed, followed by the amulet; finally, she started to make the bed. It was even easier than she had expected, although the mattress felt rough and uncomfortable once she'd tested it out.
Lying back on the bed, she stared up at the ceiling and shook her head. Her life had turned upside down, yet she found some aspects easier to deal with than she had expected. What was strangest of all was how she felt about her old world. It seemed almost dreamlike now. And she knew that she would never want to go home.
For a moment, she concentrated on her roommates. She'd never shared a room with someone else before, not even a sleepover with girlfriends. Whatever her roommates were like, she prayed that she could get on with them. Friends - or at least allies - would make her life here complete.
And was one of them really named Aloha? Or was that just a translation glitch?
Shaking her head, she picked up Void's book and started to leaf through the pages, wishing that she could read and understand the words. But, even though Void had promised her that understanding would come in time, they were still nothing more than Greek to her. The spidery handwriting seemed impenetrable.
It's only been a day, she told herself. See what you can do in a week.
Emily was still flipping through Void's book when the door clicked open and the first of her roommates walked in. She was a short, mousey girl, with long dark hair, a freckled face and a tired expression, cute rather than beautiful. Emily found it impossible to estimate her age; she could have passed for fourteen back home, but she had a feeling that people aged faster in this world, considering that it had no technology. The girl looked surprised to see Emily, one hand coming up in a defensive stance, before realizing that Emily had to be a third roommate.
"You can call me Imaiqah," she said. Her voice was low, almost as if she didn't want to attract attention. "What would you like to be called?"
Emily blinked in surprise as she realized what she'd been missing; names! The Grandmaster - that wasn't a name, that was a title. And he had never asked her name, which was quite odd, once she came to think of it. Neither had anyone else, not even Shadye. Or Void.
She wracked her brain, thinking hard. Void had told her that it wasn't a good idea to ask for a sorcerer's name, which made her wonder if she shouldn't tell anyone else her name either, for fear it could be used against her. She couldn't understand how an entire school operated without anyone knowing their real names, but this was a whole different universe. Things worked differently here.
"Call me ..." She stopped, shaking her head. What could they call her? Could they call her Emily, without her surname? Or should she pick a nickname ... surely, Madame Razz had to be a nickname too. And Imaiqah sounded vaguely Arabic. "I'm honestly not sure."
Imaiqah smiled, brightly. "Your tutor will help you decide what you want to be called. First day?"
"First day," Emily admitted. Madame Razz had said that Imaiqah was a first year student too. "How long have you been here?"
"Seven months," Imaiqah said. She stepped over to the bed and held out a hand for Emily to shake. "I'm an herbalist and a mirror magician, or so they tell me. Herbs I understand; mirrored magic isn't working so well. What do you intend to specialize in?"
Specialize? Emily didn't know what, if anything, she could specialize in. Void had given her the book of spells, but he hadn't said anything about specializing. Remembering some of the role-playing she'd done before being transported to a different world, it was easy to see that Void had probably taken it for granted that she would specialize in something - and that she would know more than she did about magical talents. He might not have understood that her world had no magic at all and therefore also had no specialized magicians as this world knew them.
Imaiqah saw the book on the bed before Emily could answer, her eyes going wide. "You're a sorceress," she said, astonished. "How many spells do you know?"
Emily hesitated, and then admitted the truth. "None." She knew nothing about casting spells, let alone tapping her magic, the magic she didn't quite believe she had. "I only just discovered that I was a sorceress."
Imaiqah stared at her, as if she suspected that Emily was lying. "How is that even possible?" The surprise in her voice was obvious. "I thought that all students were tested for magic."
And then her eyes narrowed. "Where do you even come from? I can't place your accent."
"A long way away," Emily said, unsure how much she should admit to Imaiqah. The truth, that she came from another universe, or a vague statement that wasn't quite a lie? "It's my first day at Whitehall."
Imaiqah nodded in sympathy. "I remember my first day too," she said, turning away and walking over to her bed. "Mistress Irene will see that you are properly set up for your studies, then assign you to classes. Maybe we'll share a class or two."
The door opened again before Emily could say a word, revealing a tall, dark-skinned girl with a scowl on her face. "I swear I will turn that fool into a toad," the newcomer said, one hand clutching a wand as if she intended to start firing off spells in every direction. "How dare he try to ask me to walk out with him on the grounds?"
Imaiqah ignored the question as the door banged closed. "Aloha, this is our new roommate," she said. "She doesn't have a name yet."
Emily heard her tone and understood, instantly, that Aloha considered herself the Alpha female in the room. She was a second year, whatever that meant. The mushy girls boarding school books her mother had owned had suggested that senior girls could punish younger girls at will. They'd also included suggestions of lesbian affairs among the girls.
"Right," Aloha said. Up close, she reeked of magic ... and of something Emily couldn't identify. "I would prefer not to be bothered by any junior students. Keep to your side of the room and I will keep to mine - and don't even think about touching my books."
She dumped a bag onto her bed and stalked past them, into the bathroom. Emily watched the door close and then glanced at Imaiqah, who looked a little frightened. No doubt her roommate bullied her, she decided, or at the very least considered associating with a first year to be undesirable. Aloha might have magic, but she was still very human.
"She means it," Imaiqah said. She sounded as if she were trying to make light of it, but couldn't quite pull it off. "Everything she owns is covered in protective charms. I once picked up one of her books and ended up frozen to the floor until she came back and released me."
Emily stared at her, and then looked down at the stone floor. If she'd touched any of the books ...
A dull gong echoed through the building and she looked up. "Dinner," Imaiqah said, with some relief. "Do you want to come with me to eat?"
Emily wanted to say no. She wanted to stay and hide in the room until the sense of weirdness - of being out of place - faded away, but she was hungry. Besides, the world wouldn't change if she hid herself under the blankets. She nodded once, pushing the book of spells Void had given her under the bed, and then picked up her new robes, pulling them over the robes she already wore, even though Madame Razz had effectively stated that non-school clothes were forbidden. But there was no time to change.
She should have changed while waiting for her roommates, but the sense of weirdness had just grown stronger and stronger.
Imaiqah picked up a book from her bedside table, then led the way back out into the corridor. There were dozens of students outside, all wearing robes of different colors, several old enough to be adults. In fact, Emily realized as she looked from face to face, some students looked to be barely entering their teens, while others seemed to be in their twenties. A handful of them carried wands, or staffs; a couple carried broomsticks and one carried what looked like a gnarled club of wood. Their chatter didn't fade away when they saw Emily; they didn't seem to be surprised by an unfamiliar face.
Or maybe there were so many pupils at the school that no one could hope to know them all. Emily had spent two years at her last school and she'd barely known anyone outside her grade.
"That's Marcus," Imaiqah said, pointing to a taller male student wearing a green robe and a red badge that seemed to glow with an eerie light. "He's one of the prefects assigned to keep us all in line; he isn't a bad person, but he takes his responsibilities seriously. Don't go running in the corridors in front of him."
They walked out of the dorm and down a long flight of stairs. Emily said nothing, staring around her. Every time the castle seemed to make sense, something happened to confuse her again. The corridors seemed to be rearranging themselves at will; worse yet, some of the students didn't even look human. One of them had pointy ears like an elf, reminding her of one of the Star Trek characters she'd watched as a younger girl. Another seemed to be a living plant, with green skin and twigs in place of hair. And a third ... Emily realized in shock that the strange girl's head was surrounded by living snakes that moved of their own accord. She looked like the pictures of Medusa from the role-playing games, the ones that had been modeled on the legends of Ancient Greece.
"She's a Gorgon," Imaiqah explained, when Emily asked. "It's very rare for a Gorgon to attend Whitehall, or so we've been told. Their society prefers to have nothing to do with the Allied Lands."
Emily actually felt her head spin as she tried to wrap her mind around the concept. Classes with a Gorgon? Could she turn people into stone? Wouldn't her classmates be afraid of her?
They left the Gorgon behind and, eventually, reached a huge doorway which led into a massive dining room. There were tables everywhere, all crammed with students who were stuffing their faces with all sorts of food, served on giant platters. Bright balls of fire hung high overhead, casting warm light over the dining hall. Emily looked towards the raised table at the front of the room and saw a dozen tutors - they had to be tutors - eating with more dignity, looking up between every bite to make sure that their students weren't getting into mischief. They seemed a varied lot; a handful looked like traditional wizards, complete with robes and pointy hats, while others looked even stranger. One even looked like a wicked witch, gimlet eyes flashing as she stroked her cat and eyed her students sardonically. Another looked alarmingly like Red Sonja.
At least none of them look like Professor Snape, Emily told herself.
Imaiqah pointed her towards the line of pupils waiting for food, jostling one another as the line slowly advanced towards a hole in the wall. A pair of cooks were serving plates of food, something that looked like a hot stew with boiled potatoes and some vegetables she didn't recognize. One of the cooks smiled at Emily, reminding her of one of her stepfather's favorite sayings. Never trust a thin cook, he'd said; the cook was fat enough to pass for two people. Clearly, she'd been eating her own cooking.
"This way," Imaiqah said, once they had been served. The food smelled strange to Emily, but it was from another universe. "The first-years sit at the rear of the room..."
"So, the mouse has found a friend," a new voice said, interrupting Imaiqah.
Emily looked around and saw a tall girl sneering at them. The speaker had long white-blonde hair, surrounding a china doll face that could only be described as patrician.
Before she could think of anything to say, the strange new girl went on. "I trust that you will soon learn the folly of your choice."
Emily had endured school psychologists and far too many cheerleaders who were ridiculously full of themselves, but she'd never been spoken to in such a condescending manner. But because she was new here, she swallowed the response that came to mind and attempted to ignore the newcomer. It wasn't easy.
Finally, she ventured a question. "Umm...who are you?"
"We are Alassa, Heir to the Throne of Zangaria," the girl replied. She had the regal dignity act down pat, Emily had to admit, even if she did seem a little surprised. Had she thought that Emily would know her? "You will give us due honor, as we deserve."
Emily stared at her - and then started to laugh. She couldn't help it. Maybe a genuine monarch, with years on the throne of her country, could have pulled off the regal act, but Alassa sounded more like she was posturing rather than actually being dignified.
Alassa's face clouded rapidly and one hand reached for the wand at her belt. But before she could do anything, Imaiqah caught Emily's hand and dragged her off towards the tables. Emily would have preferred to stay and exchange barbs - it was her experience that bullies needed to be fought - but her new roommate didn't give her any choice. Besides, the self-styled Heir to the Throne of Zangaria probably knew much more magic than Emily.
"She's a pain in the posterior," Imaiqah muttered, as soon as they were out of earshot. "If you're not one of her cronies, you're her target."
"I've met the type before," Emily agreed. "Is she really royalty?"
"Where do you come from?" Imaiqah asked. "Zangaria is one of the Allied Lands - one of the most powerful states in the West. Alassa is their royal princess and will be Queen one day, may the gods help them."
Emily had to smile. "So why is she here?"
"Their Royal Family has a long tradition of magic." Imaiqah snorted. "So they send their heirs out to Whitehall to learn magic - and, just incidentally, to make contacts among their fellow nobility in the Allied Lands. But she is the social queen of the school and is not inclined to actually make friends ..."
"But she has a small following of cronies," Emily guessed. Oddly, she found it reassuring, even if she was in a very different world, to find the behavior she'd seen before had continued to manifest. The people were definitely human, regardless of their magic or their odd appearance. "People who keep telling her how wonderful she is, in the hopes that the glamour of royalty will rub off on them."
Emily smiled, and then asked the obvious question. "Why doesn't she like you?"
Imaiqah hesitated, then tried to answer. "I don't have strong magic. And I'm a tradesman's daughter."
That can't be it, Emily thought. Or maybe the Royal Brat really is that shallow.
Before she could ask, Imaiqah went on. "I made the mistake of refusing to do her homework several months ago and now she ..."
She shook her head. "Well," Imaiqah added, "you know."
Emily didn't know what to say. Commiseration wouldn't help, she knew, it had never helped back on Earth. So she sat there, silent. Helpless.
"I really don't have strong magic," Imaiqah added, a moment later. "You won't want to associate with me ..."
There was something in her tone that made Emily's heart twinge in pain. She'd been a social outcast too, even though she'd lived in a world that should have known better. It wasn't a bearable life; kids could be cruel...and those who might be decent otherwise chose to have nothing to do with the outcast, for fear that the popular kids - and the bullies - might turn on them next. Emily knew the unspoken truth behind every kid who took a gun to school and opened fire at random. They'd been knocked down so hard that they believed themselves to be at war with the entire establishment.
"I can associate with whoever I like," she growled. The Grandmaster had warned her about political factions, but it wasn't as if Emily was going to be socially important. It was rather unlikely that a prince would want to marry her, and she had no family here. "I don't care what anyone else thinks of me."
Imaiqah stared at her, and then started to protect. "But you're a sorceress..."
"I'm still learning," Emily interrupted. It was technically true, although - more practically - she hadn't even started learning. "And I can be friends with whoever I like."
She started to eat the stew while studying the other students. They were definitely diverse, far more diverse than any crowd she'd seen back home. Apart from white, black, brown and yellow skins, there were students who were green-skinned, or blue, one so bright a blue that it had to have been a magical accident of some kind. And a number of students seemed to be the products of mixed-race marriages, as she knew them from back home, and others seemed to be part-human hybrids. One older student looked to be part-Orc, not unlike the characters from the role-playing games. Another was a dark-skinned elf-like humanoid who looked far too thin to be human.
The stew tasted surprisingly nice, certainly better than anything she'd ever eaten at her old school. There were herbs that sent odd tingling sensations running down her tongue; the meat itself tasted like a vague cross between beef and pork. Servants moved from table to table, pouring glasses of fruit juice and water for the students; Emily couldn't help, but notice that the servants flinched away from some of the tables. She wondered if they were targeted by the magical students for practical jokes on a regular basis.
Imaiqah pointed out some of the tutors as they ate. "Professor Thande is the Head of Alchemy," she said, nodding towards a short professor who was arguing with one of the other tutors. "He prefers research rather than actually teaching, so don't get on his bad side or he'll use you as a test subject for his concoctions. Professor Torquemada, beside him, is the Head of Healing; they've been squabbling for years over something that happened when they were both students. Or so I've been told."
She grinned at Emily, as if she couldn't quite believe that she was actually getting a chance to talk to someone and show off. "Professor Lombardi is Head of Charms; you'll probably have a private session with him before you formally join his classes. He prefers to measure everyone's potential first, before they join the other students. The man beside him is General Kip; he teaches combat magic and battle strategy. Don't ever forget to call him General. He assigns the worst detentions in the school."
Emily jumped as a hand fell on her shoulder. "Welcome to Whitehall," a voice said. She turned to see a stern woman looking down at her from a great height. Her face could have been carved from stone, seeming as if it were permanently fixed in a disapproving expression. "I am Mistress Irene. You will report to me in my office tomorrow at nine bells."
"Yes, Mistress," Emily stammered. There was something about Irene that warned her to be careful. In some ways, she reminded her of Madame Razz, but with far more power. "I'll be there."
Irene's gaze switched to Imaiqah. "You will ensure that she finds my office tomorrow morning," she added sharply. "Make sure that she goes to bed early and has a proper sleep. Tomorrow she starts studying in earnest."
She stalked off towards the end of the table to deliver a reprimand to another student, leaving Emily staring after her. "Don't take it personally," Imaiqah advised. "She's like that with everyone. She's meant to supervise all first year students and keep them from killing themselves or each other."
"Oh," Emily said.
Imaiqah smiled. "And she dislikes Alassa. That's one point in her favor."
"Yeah," Emily agreed. "But what will she think of me?"
Imaiqah shrugged and changed the subject. But the thought continued to bother Emily as they returned to their room and prepared for bed. If Irene was so severe, how was Emily ever going to relax in her presence?
But then, she thought slowly, she probably doesn't want me to relax.
It made sense. She knew magic was dangerous; quite aside from Shadye and Void's barely-leashed power, several of the students bore scars from what Emily assumed were magical accidents. And the Grandmaster had warned Emily that students could die in Whitehall. It was obvious that Irene didn't have an easy job at all.
On that thought, she climbed into bed and fell asleep.
The following morning, Emily stood in front of Mistress Irene's office, wondering if she dared knock. Imaiqah had escorted her to the office after breakfast and then left, pleading an early class. Emily lifted her hand to the door and then hesitated. Mistress Irene's door alone looked intimidating and the woman herself, according to Imaiqah, was formidable. Mistress Irene apparently faced down a necromancer with nothing more than a sharp tongue and a complete refusal to surrender to the dark wizard. After meeting Shadye, Emily had an idea of just how much courage that had to have taken.
Bracing herself, she tapped on the door. There was a long pause, just long enough for her to wonder if Mistress Irene was somewhere else, and then the door swung open, silently. Emily stepped inside and saw a simple office, with walls lined by shelves crammed with books. It was smaller than the Grandmaster's office and far more down-to-earth.
Mistress Irene was seated at her desk, studying a sheet of parchment. She pointed one long finger at a chair and motioned for Emily to sit. Emily obeyed, trying to resist the temptation to glance at the devices on the tutor's desk. Some of them shimmered with brilliant magic.
"You are an odd pupil," Mistress Irene said, without preamble. "You are ignorant, yet powerful. That makes you dangerous."
Mistress Irene's voice was cold, rapping out the points one by one. "Magic can kill the ignorant. You must learn to control your magic as quickly as possible. Losing control could be disastrous. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, Mistress," Emily said.
"Good," Mistress Irene said. There was a pause. "It is possible to use a sorcerer's real name against them, but it requires their complete name to work. You may go by your first name, if you wish, or you may select something else you wish to be called. Choose."
Emily hesitated. She'd wondered, last night, about changing her name completely, but she wanted to cling onto the name she'd been given at birth. Emily alone, it seemed, would be safe to use. Her surname had never been spoken in this new world.
"Emily," she said, finally. Judging from the other names she'd heard - at dinner and breakfast - it wouldn't be too strange to local ears. Or so she thought, although she still wasn't entirely sure of what the translation spell was actually doing. Besides, it was her name. "You can call me Emily."
"Very well," Mistress Irene said. She looked up, her dark eyes fixed firmly on Emily's face. "Mana exists throughout the world. Magic is powered by mana. Your body produces mana. Do you understand me?"
Emily stared at her. "I think so," she said, finally. Inwardly, she wasn't so sure. Did her body produce mana itself, or was she drawing on an energy field surrounding the new world? Or both? Perhaps the human race produced the power that kept dragons aloft ... there was no way for her to know. Maybe she'd have a chance later on to apply the methods of rationality to magic and deduce its underlying rules. "That's what makes me a sorceress?"
"A potential sorceress," Mistress Irene snapped. "When you cast a spell, you power it with mana from your reserves. Learning how to power spells is the single most important lesson you'll learn at this school. Overpowering your spells will result in disaster."
There was a long pause. "There are other forms of magic, but you have to master your own first or you'll never be anything more than a journeyman," she added, in a gentler voice. She picked up a piece of paper and passed it over to Emily, who looked down at it, puzzled. "The relationship between magic and spells is both simple and complex. Simple, because the spells help steer the magic in the right direction; complex, because you have to tie the two together in your mind."
Emily nodded, carefully. "You mean...pouring magic into a given shape, like pouring clay into a mould," she hazarded. "Or do smaller spells work as building blocks for larger spells?"
"As good an analogy as any," Mistress Irene said. "Can you read the word on the paper?"
"No," Emily said, after a moment. She'd half-expected a recognizable alphabet, but in hindsight that had been foolish. The letters she was looking at seemed a cross between Arabic and Chinese. "I can't read them."
"Good," Mistress Irene said. Emily blinked in surprise as her tutor continued. "Had you been familiar with the language, we would have had to find another one for you to use. It is vitally important that you never relax while casting spells, even when you become proficient enough to cast them without verbalizing. A single mistake can be disastrous. Using a different language forces you to think."
Emily had to smile. Mistress Irene seemed to like warning her about potential dangers.
"This is a charged wand," Mistress Irene said, picking up a wand from her desk and passing it to Emily. "Wands are normally used for focusing magic; this one has spells inside it, already primed. Can you feel the spells?"
The wand seemed to sparkle in her hand, as if it were alive. Emily felt it twisting like a snake, even though she could see no sign of independent movement. Holding onto the wand was tricky, but the more she held it, the more she was aware of ... spells waiting for her. And as she became aware of them, she became aware of the mana inside her, waiting to be released. Her magic seemed to be crackling with life.
"Try to cast one of the spells," Mistress Irene said. "Focus your mind on it and trigger the spell."
Emily reached out with her mind, unsure of what she was doing. The spell glittered in her mind, but it seemed frustratingly insubstantial, as if the spell existed only in potential. An engine, she reasoned, but one that required fuel to run. The trick was to draw the mana from inside her body and use it to power the spell. But she wasn't sure how to form the link between her mind and the wand, let alone the spells waiting for her power. Her power seemed to stop at her skin ...
"Abracadabra," she muttered, in frustration.
Something clicked in her mind. Power shimmered out of her and into the wand; a moment later, the spell blazed with light in her mind and vanished. Emily opened her eyes, unsure of just when she had closed them, and saw a shimmering image of herself hanging in the air. She let out a yelp in shock, just before the image vanished into nothingness.
"Did ..." Emily swallowed and started again. "Did I do that?"
"You powered the spell," Mistress Irene said sardonically. "Everyone has their own way to tap their mana."
Emily put it together, slowly. There was a muscle for magic in her mind and she had to learn how to use it, but - like every other muscle - she didn't really issue precise instructions to her body and mind. The trick was learning how to issue basic orders. When she'd spoken the magic word aloud, her subconscious mind had done the hard work - and now that she knew what she was doing, she could do it again.
"Try the second spell," Mistress Irene said. "See if you can figure out how to make this one work."
"Right," Emily said. She closed her eyes and reached out with her mind, right into the wand. The spell was just waiting for her ... this time, there was no need to struggle to channel power into the spell. It flared to life in her mind and, when she opened her eyes, she saw a second image of herself. This one seemed alarmingly substantial. Her head started to spin a moment later as it glowed brighter. Something was draining the mana out of her body. "I ..."
Mistress Irene muttered a word. The image snapped out of existence. A moment later, the sense of being drained faded away.
Emily rocked back on her chair. The spell ... the spell hadn't stopped, she realized in alarm. It had just kept draining power from her until Mistress Irene had cancelled it. What would have happened if the spell had kept draining her? Would it have killed her outright, or merely knocked her out for a few hours?
"Something else to remember at all times," Mistress Irene said. "Never let a spell demand unlimited power. Magicians, even sorcerers, have been known to kill themselves through trying to use a spell before checking it carefully. Do not try to use any spell until you see how it goes together."
She stood up and picked a book off the shelves. "I'm going to give you a basic translation spell. It will only last a couple of months, but by then you should be capable of renewing it for yourself. Sit still and don't resist."
Emily shifted uncomfortably as Mistress Irene muttered several words into the air, moving her hand in a complicated gesture. She felt ... something gossamer-thin shimmering into existence around her, as insubstantial as a spider's nest, before it fell down and over her body, embedding itself in her mind. It was all she could do to remain still until the spell was completed. The spell was so uncomfortable that it could never be a permanent solution.
The Grandmaster had been right. She would have to learn to read the local language, just as soon as she possibly could.
"Now," Mistress Irene said, once the translation spell had been completed. "It's time to start looking at how spells go together."
The next hour passed very slowly as Emily puzzled over the building blocks of magic. Spells, Mistress Irene explained carefully, were made up of smaller spells; it was possible to memorize a more advanced spell, but without an understanding of the underpinning spells it would be impossible to progress any further. Looking at the magic words, Emily was reminded of a simple computer language, one that ran in her brain. One of her nerdy friends had bought an ancient computer and experimented with one of the earliest computer languages, before graduating to more complex systems. She was sure that he would have had little difficulty in learning to cast spells because of how familiar he was with arcane computer languages.
"Keep them in your mind," Mistress Irene said, again and again. "Concentrate on breaking down spells into their smallest components."
Emily scowled, feeling her head starting to pound. A computer language didn't actually do anything unless it was in a computer; writing a line of computer code on blank paper didn't automatically alter the coding inside the computer. Logically, she had to consider herself a magical computer and run the coding - the spells - inside her own head, but sometimes it didn't seem to work out that simply. Writing down a magic spell was sometimes exactly the same as casting it, sometimes not. Worse yet, it took several tries before she managed to learn how not to infuse power into the spells.
And then there were spells - natural and unnatural - infused into people, objects or even the empty air. According to Mistress Irene, mana was everywhere, allowing creatures to evolve into forms that could draw on it for themselves. She didn't want to even guess at what sort of evolutionary history might have produced dragons, gorgons or elves, but it made a certain kind of sense. Maybe, just maybe, orcs and goblins were humans who had been warped into something inhuman by exposure to the magic field.
"It's a very good idea to test everything for infused magic before you touch it," Mistress Irene said. "Your fellow students love playing practical jokes. One of them even managed to rig his friend's textbook so that it would turn him into a frog when he opened the book. Most of them won't be skilled enough to hide a spell-trap from basic detection spells directly, but there are plenty of tricks they can pull to make it harder to detect a hidden trap."
Emily looked down at the spell and nodded, before carefully casting it out loud. The room seemed to dim for a moment, just before a number of objects started to shimmer with an eerie red glow. She looked around, noticing the spells on the desk, the bookshelves, the globe and crystal ball in the corner ... and there were dozens clustered around the door. Some of them looked harmless, even in the red light, but a number looked downright ominous. She had the distant feeling that trying to take a book off the shelves without permission would be very dangerous.
"Good," Mistress Irene said. "Now, a second spell ..."
It didn't seem to do anything, at least at first, until Mistress Irene passed her a small goblet and invited her to repeat the spell. The red glow surrounding the goblet faded away into nothingness, leaving her looking down at a harmless object.
"The simple spell for dispelling trap spells has a much shorter range," Mistress Irene explained. "Should you be unable to remove a spell someone might have left on your property, bring it to me or one of the other tutors. Naturally, removing the more complex trap spells is a great deal harder."
Emily nodded. There would be no point in using any sort of spell to keep her property private if it could simply be dispelled. The spells crawling over Mistress Irene's door looked a great deal more complex, suggesting that cracking them would be difficult, if not impossible. She wondered, absently, what they actually did to intruders. Freeze them in place, transform them into something else ... or kill them outright?
No, she thought, that couldn't be possible. Whitehall might take a more relaxed attitude to students injuring themselves and others than any school she knew back home, but there had to be limits.
The second hour passed far more quickly than the first as Mistress Irene pushed her into memorizing and practicing a dozen different spells. One of them was a very simple defensive spell, enough to deflect many hexes and charms away from her body and soul. Emily shivered at the implications of students needing to know that spell as quickly as possible, forcing herself to keep it firmly in her mind. Another spell checked to ensure that a potion was safe to drink, although Mistress Irene warned her that it only picked up on potions that were lethal; she could still become very ill from drinking the wrong potion.
A more complex spell, one that Emily couldn't master in the first session, was designed to analyze other spells, allowing the caster to see how they had been put together by the original magician. Mistress Irene made it work with ease, but Emily couldn't quite keep all the different variables straight in her head. Finally, Mistress Irene told her to leave the spell for now; they'd return to it in two days.
"I'm going to permit you to enter the library and borrow books suitable for a first year student," Mistress Irene said. "I know that students practice spells with or without our permission, so I'd just like to remind you that hurting another student will leave you - at the very least - unable to sit comfortably for several days. If you manage to hurt yourself, you'll have us laughing at you as well."
Her eyes narrowed. "Every student has a different level of power," she added, a moment later. "Push your limits, but don't push too far, too fast. If you feel unwell, or headachy, stop casting spells and rest; eat something sweet to replenish your energy. The kitchen staff will provide you with something to eat if necessary."
"Thank you, Mistress," Emily said, finally. Her head already felt uncomfortable; when she stood up, her legs suddenly weakened and she had to grab the chair to keep herself from falling over. "I ..."
"You're going to the dining hall, where you will eat a large meal," Mistress Irene said,. "This afternoon" - she produced a sheet of paper, which Emily took automatically - "you will be joining the History of Magic class, followed by a free period during which you are expected to study. You'll begin proper classes tomorrow.
"Fortunately, we start basic classes throughout the year, as we never know when someone knew is going to come to the school. But you have to test out of them before you can proceed."
Emily glanced down at the paper. It was a class schedule, written out in a neat, precise hand. The school day was divided up into eight periods, seven of them assigned to actual studies and one assigned for lunch. There were thirty minutes between classes, either to keep the students from becoming exhausted by giving them a chance to get something to eat, or to ensure that if one class ran late there would be no delay for the second class. Being tardy, she suspected, would earn one a detention at Whitehall - or worse.
"I shall assign your roommates to assist you, as you are unfamiliar with our world," Mistress Irene added. Emily gulped; she liked Imaiqah, but she had the feeling that Aloha would be much less willing to help a newcomer explore the school. "Imaiqah needs to retake two classes, so she will accompany you to Transfiguration and Mentalist Magic. Depending on how you progress, you may be moved up to a more advanced class within the next two months."
Emily nodded. The schedule listed a dozen different classes for a first year, including Alchemy, Charms, Cryptozoology, Divination and Ethics. A number of periods had been left blank, but she wasn't sure if they were free periods for private study or if Mistress Irene hadn't assigned her to specific classes for those times yet. Two periods on Tuesday and Thursday had simply been marked sport. Emily scowled at the thought. She'd moved to a completely new world and she was still forced to attend gym class.
Mistress Irene smiled. "You haven't done that badly," she said. "Void was right. You do have potential."
Emily flushed. "But I couldn't master the analysis spell. I ..."
The tutor laughed. "I'd be embarrassed if you mastered it without weeks of practicing. Do you know how long it took me to master it?"
Mistress Irene shook her head. "Go to the dining hall and eat," she ordered. "And then let your amulet guide you to History of Magic."
Emily nodded and left the office, thinking - as she left - that Mistress Irene wasn't so bad after all. Perhaps she even had a heart of gold.
"History is nothing more than a series of opinions about the past," Professor Locke informed his class. He was a short, elderly man with long white hair, wearing a pair of spectacles through which he peered suspiciously at his students. "Who, I might ask you, won the Battle of Janus?"
A male student raised his hand. "We did, sir."
Another student jumped up almost before the first speaker had finished. "No, we won!"
Professor Locke smiled. "A perfect demonstration of the essential truth of my statement. The Battle of Janus was fought out between Umbria and Holm for domination of the city of Janus, and the trade routes that ran through the Janus mountain range. While Umbria was pushed back, allowing Holm to claim a victory, the battle was so costly that reinforcements from Umbria were able to push Holm back out of the city within the month."
His smile grew wider. "So tell me. Who really won the battle?"
Emily considered the question while the more nationalistic of her classmates argued the point. Destroying an empire to win a battle was no victory, as she'd learned playing computer games; a victory that cost an army could be fatal if there was no time to produce a second army. There had been a Greek King who'd fought the Roman Republic, she recalled, who had bemoaned his exceedingly costly victory in one battle - and lost the war.
"The Allied Lands may have united to fight the necromancers," the Professor said, "but they still disagree on many things. One of them is on history. No Kingdom or City-State shares the same view of history, which can be irritating if one happens to be a historian. And yet our history, which is shared even if they don't want to admit it, explains why we ended up facing the necromancers today."
There was a long pause. "Thousands of years ago, the human race warred with the elves. The elves were magic, the elves were formidable ... but there were millions of humans. It was our time, we believed, and we no longer wanted to be dominated by the Fair Folk. So we warred with them until they were driven back into their hidden settlements and built the First Empire in the rubble of their empire.
"But we made a dreadful mistake. We could have reached out to the orcs and goblins, offshoots of humanity created by the elves. Instead, also we warred with them, forcing them into an alliance with the remaining elves. Many years later, they returned and waged war on the First Empire itself. They destroyed the First Empire."
Emily shivered, remembering what she'd seen as the dragon had carried her from Void's tower to Whitehall. Destroyed cities, including structures she was convinced hadn't been produced by human beings; their populations slaughtered or driven away to starve. Had that been the result of the war against the elves, or had it had a far darker cause?
"Those were terrible days," Professor Locke said. "The elves raised countless monsters to lay waste to our lands. Millions died as fire-drakes blew their poisonous breath over human settlements, and giant crabs emerged from the seas to destroy harbors while mermen sank ships in the ocean. The only solution seemed to be to reach for far greater magic and so we did. We discovered that we could use murder to power our spells and use them to strike back against the elves. Eventually, we rallied and drove the elves to the brink of extinction.
"But, as so often happens, the weapon we used to win the war turned in our hands. The necromancers were unable to channel the vast power they possessed without going mad, becoming monsters in human form. They didn't want to stop drinking in the mana from thousands of slaughtered humans, or basking in the sheer joy of power. Eventually, they attempted to take over the Second Empire. The battle to stop them also shattered any hope of establishing a new human unity."
Emily considered it, wondering - absently - why murder was required. Why not a willing sacrifice? Would it have made any difference if the sacrifices had volunteered themselves to the necromancers?
But Shadye had definitely been insane. No matter how genteel he'd acted, he'd planned to sacrifice Emily to the Harrowing, whatever that was. And his plan would have exploded in his face if Void hadn't intervened.
Professor Locke nodded towards the map on the wall. Emily studied it with interest; the continents bore little resemblance to anything she remembered from her own world. One vast continent was roughly the size of Europe, Asia and America put together, while a smaller continent to the south was little bigger than Australia. A network of islands - Japan and Britain put together, she decided - dominated the final part of the globe. They did know that their world was a sphere.
But it didn't seem to have a name.
Thirty-two states were part of the Allied Lands, if she was reading the map correctly. Most of them were grouped to the north of the largest continent, with a handful in the smaller continent and islands. Below them, there was a wasteland; it had to have been where Shadye had attempted to sacrifice her, after she'd been kidnapped from her world. She remembered the barren lands she'd flown over and shivered. The battle to stop the necromancers might as well have been fought with atomic bombs. It might even have been kinder in the long run.
"The necromancers fled into the dead lands to the south," the Professor said. "There, they built their strongholds, grew their slaves and eventually mounted a new assault on the Allied Lands. Their threat is overwhelming; given enough time, they will produce more armies of monsters to turn against us and crush the Allied Lands. The only thing that has saved us so far is their disunity. We cannot expect them to remain disunited forever."
Their disunity? Emily wondered. She'd had the impression that Shadye was acting independently of the other necromancers. He'd certainly not summoned any others to join him in sacrificing her for power ...
One of the students stuck up his hand, interrupting Emily's thoughts. "Can we not keep them disunited, Professor? We could offer to dicker with them if they fought each other ..."
"It has been tried," Professor Locke said. He tapped a darkened patch on the map. "The King of Halers believed that he could buy off one of the necromancers, an unpleasant fellow called Gower. Gower was sent hundreds of the king's subjects as sacrifices in the hope that it would buy the king's independence. But Gower wormed his way into the kingdom's power structure and turned the nobles against the king, the peasants against the nobles and the army against everyone. Eventually, Halers was so badly wracked by civil war that the necromancer was able to walk in and take over.
"Gower destroyed the kingdom. His monsters wiped out the remaining nobles, before killing enough of the peasants to keep the rest thoroughly cowed, those that didn't flee in time. Now, it is a source of monsters and magical sacrifices for the necromancers, all because a king was foolish enough to believe that a necromancer could be bribed into good behavior. We cannot negotiate with the necromancers. All we can do is muster our own power and prepare for the coming struggle."
Emily knew - looking at the map - that it would be difficult. Void had told her that the necromancers were slowly outflanking the Allied Lands, but he hadn't managed to convey just how desperate the situation was. If the necromancers managed to cooperate long enough to mount a major offensive, they could drive up through the mountains and split the Allied Lands in half. They'd then have access to vast resources - and humans for sacrifice - that they could use to crush the rest of the Allied Lands. And then they could turn their attention to the other continents.
"We do have some advantages," Professor Locke said. "Most importantly, necromancers are driven insane by the sheer power they channel through their minds. They have been known to lash out at each other without premeditation, as well as planning betrayals for reasons that only make sense in their own addled minds. Their power levels also slowly kill them as their brains cannot tolerate the pressure they put on them for long. As they grow older, they are forced to channel more and more power to keep themselves alive, slowly becoming undead lich-creatures. The true horror of necromancy is that eventually they will run out of humans to sacrifice and die out, leaving the land behind them a waste."
Emily spoke before she could think better of it. "Did the elves teach the first necromancers how to become necromancers?"
Professor Locke studied her for a long moment, thoughtfully. "And what, young lady, do you mean by that?"
His gaze was disconcerting. Back home, she would rarely have been called to justify herself to anyone at school. Here ...
"If necromancers need a constantly increasing supply of power merely to keep themselves alive," Emily said, hastily formulating her thoughts, "eventually they're going to run out of power."
"As I said," the Professor reminded her, impatiently.
"Well ... yes, but they have to know that," Emily countered. "So why did they even start, back when their brains were presumably not addled by necromancy? They had to have realized that necromancy would eventually exterminate the entire human race. But the elves might have given them the idea knowing that the human race would either have to abandon necromancy or destroy itself. Either way, they would win."
"An interesting theory," Professor Locke said, finally. "And quite possibly accurate."
He leaned back, thoughtfully. "But tell me ... how could we have beaten the elves without necromancy?"
Emily knew better than to continue the argument. She simply didn't know enough to make a good case one way or the other. And if necromancy had made the difference between victory or defeat, even the alien-minded Fair Folk of fantasy novels would have hesitated before giving such a weapon to humanity. Unless they believed that humanity would discover it for themselves anyway...she shook her head. That way led madness and a lifetime of raving about conspiracy theories on the internet.
"As I said at the start, history is really nothing more than opinions," Locke said, turning back to the class at large. "Can anyone tell me when the Treaty of Umbria was signed?"
A burly-looking male student put up his hand. "Ninety years ago, Professor. It bound the Allied Lands together into a united force to defend us against necromancers."
"True enough," Locke agreed. "Why didn't the rulers of the Allied Lands unite into a Third Empire?"
Emily could guess at the answer, but left another student to try her luck. "Because the bigger kingdoms intended to dominate the little kingdoms," the student said. "The little kingdoms knew better than to subordinate themselves to the bigger kingdoms, which would have more power in a united empire."
"You mean that your puny kingdom didn't want to commit to the united defense," one of the boys muttered. "Your people have always been cowards ..."
"Stay behind after class ends," Locke said. His ears were sharper than Emily had realized; his tone promised an unpleasant experience for the nationalist. "Believing that other kingdoms are inherently better or worse than your own kingdom is asking for trouble."
The Professor looked back at the first speaker. "Interesting answer, but incomplete." He nodded towards the map. "Anyone else want to try flesh out Gwen's answer?"
Several students exchanged glances, before another girl raised her hand. "The necromancers were already working their way into the castles and palaces where the kings lived, weakening their resolve to fight?"
"Possible, but that wasn't such a concern back in those days, not until after Halers fell," Locke said. He pointed towards the map. "The answer should be obvious."
Emily remembered Alexander the Great, and what had happened after his death in Babylon. His Companions, once his loyal followers, had divided his colossal empire up amongst themselves and tried to create their own dynasties. An empire that had spanned much of the known world had been reduced to a handful of squabbling kingdoms, which had eventually been absorbed by the Roman Empire. They'd moved from globalists to men unable to see beyond their own borders.
"They were all more concerned with their local politics than they were with the entire world," she said slowly. Now she had said it out loud, she was confident that it was the right answer. "They worried more about the kingdom next to them than the expanding necromantic empire, at least until it was too late to nip the necromancers in the bud."
"A good answer," Locke said, "and one that is barely enough to save you from the consequences of speaking without holding up your hand."
He looked around the classroom, leaving Emily flushing in embarrassment. "She is quite right," he said, addressing them all. "The necromancers were allowed to become such a problem because no one, not even those who were trained at Whitehall, attempted to do something about it before it was too late. Right now, we have a major problem: we have to hold the line at multiple different points, knowing that if we lose one we may well lose everything."
Emily nodded to herself. It was possible - probable, even - that some parties were evacuating as many people as they could from the big continent, but she knew that they couldn't evacuate them all before it was too late. Could they surrender the large continent and leave the necromancers to die when they ran out of sacrifices? She doubted it; Void had demonstrated that teleportation was possible, which suggested that the necromancers would be able to teleport entire armies right around the world ...
After a long pause, she realized that couldn't be possible on a large scale. Surely, the Allied Lands would have fallen a long time ago if the necromancers could teleport with impunity.
She took another look at the map. It seemed to her that they must survive through a combination of geography and luck, neither of which would apply if the necromancers could teleport.
Emily shook her head, dragging her attention back to the Professor. She just didn't know enough to make an informed guess.
"In theory, this course is not an elective," Locke said, as he returned to his desk and stood in front of it, looking at the students through his spectacles. "A full grasp of history is important for anyone who intends to practice magic as a graduate of Whitehall, rather than a hedge witch or court wizard. You will need to learn history in order to put our local squabbles in perspective - and to understand why it is vitally important that we unite against the necromancers.
"But I know that many of you feel that history is much less important than actually learning magic and control, and I am too old to teach students who don't want to learn. If you would prefer to spend these periods studying something else, you may choose to withdraw from my class and work quietly in the library. Later, should you change your mind, you may attend classes for younger students."
He smiled, rather ruefully. "Over the next few months, we will cover a wide range of topics. The development of magic from the early days until the basic rules were discovered by the great research sorcerers. How and why magic changed the course of history. The origin of the great wars with the elves, goblins, orcs and the other semi-human races. What happened to build the First Empire - and why it was taken by surprise and destroyed in the second great war. The history of magical artifacts, including legends of invincible wands, swords carried only by true kings and even stranger objects from before the dawn of recorded history.
"I will probably be stretching your preconceptions," he added. "You know your kingdom's own version of history, of course, but you will be surprised to see where it jibes and disagrees with that kept by the History Monks. Many of you will prefer to storm out of the class rather than accept that other versions of history exist. Frankly, that's your problem, not mine."
He glanced at his watch. "There's twenty minutes left, but I've said as much as I want to say right now," he concluded. "Should you decide you want to leave history class for the moment, simply don't attend the next class. You will be marked as absent, but there will be no punishment. Your ignorance will be punishment enough."
Emily understood, although she suspected that few others in the class shared her understanding. She knew almost nothing about this world, except what she could pick up from her tutors, her roommates and - now that she had permission - the library. It was easy to see that she had to learn as quickly as possible, if only to ensure that she knew what she was talking about in the future. She didn't even have the basics anyone who grew up in the new world would know.
But the others wouldn't understand their own ignorance. How could they? They'd been told the truth - at least the truth as it was officially sanctioned in their kingdoms - long before they'd been accepted at Whitehall. She could easily see why Professor Locke would prefer not to have to teach students who didn't want to be there. He was quite right, really; their ignorance was likely to cost them dearly in the future.
"Class dismissed," Locke said. "I hope to see some of you on Friday."
Emily rose to her feet and headed towards the door, following the other students. They'd have a plan for making the best use of their extra break between classes, perhaps drinking water or juice - or maybe they'd even badger the kitchen staff into giving them snacks. But Emily wasn't so sure what to do. She didn't have any other classes for the rest of the day and the only other thing she could think of to do was to visit the library ... she didn't even know where Imaiqah was, or if she was free right now.
Shaking her head, she walked out of the classroom - and right into a group of girls waiting for her. One of them caught her arm and held it tightly. The others surrounded her, preventing any retreat. It was a trap.
"So tell me," the leader purred. "Where do you come from?"
Christopher G. Nuttall is thirty-two years old and has been reading science fiction since he was five, when someone introduced him to children's SF. Born in Scotland, Chris attended schools in Edinburgh, Fife and University in Manchester ... before moving to Malaysia to live with his wife Aisha.
Chris has been involved in the online Alternate History community since 1998; in particular, he was the original founder of Changing The Times, an online alternate history website that brought in submissions from all over the community. Later, Chris took up writing and eventually became a full-time writer.
Chris has also produced The Empire's Corps series, the Outside Context Problem series and many others. He is also responsible for two fan-made Posleen novels, both set in John Ringo's famous Posleen universe. They can both be downloaded from his site.
Published by permission of the author.