The Zero Equation – CH1

14 Jan

And here we go …

Chapter One

I awoke, to a soft insistent tapping on the other side of my drapes.

“Coming,” I said, sitting upright and swinging my legs over the bed. My watch said it was ten o’clock in the morning. Sandy had let us sleep in. “Sandy?”

“Yeah,” Sandy said. Her voice sounded muffled. Rose had cast silencing charms on my drapes, but they hadn’t lasted. “You’re wanted in the changing room down the corridor.”

I winced. I’d been trying to forget that Rose and I had been summoned to Magus Court. It had been a week since we’d been rescued and it hadn’t been easy getting back to school. But then, school hadn’t been easy in the first place. Even now …

“Cat,” Rose said, from outside. She sounded as tired as I felt. “Can I come in?”

“Yes, please,” I said, pulling a small bag from under the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Rotten,” Rose said, as she pushed the drapes aside and stepped in. “How are you?”

I looked up and winced, again. Rose looked pale, so pale that her red hair was more striking than usual. She’d been having nightmares, I knew; nightmares that had left her feeling as though she hadn’t had any sleep at all. I was surprised that Sandy hadn’t insisted that Rose sleep somewhere else, if she wasn’t going to take anything to help her rest. Or, perhaps, attend counselling with Magistra Haydon. My father had offered to let Rose speak with one of the family’s experts on mental health, but that would have to wait until after the hearing. I didn’t think she’d enjoy it very much.

But she might need it, I thought. I’d had problems with the shrinks – they’d assumed that I was deliberately repressing my magic, the magic I didn’t have – but Rose was a far simpler case. They might be able to help her.

I slung my bag over my shoulder, then stepped through the drapes myself. The other beds were empty, suggesting that our dormmates had gone down to breakfast or found something else to do with their time. Sandy might have chased them out, I supposed. Normally, weekends were lazy days … even with exams coming up. But no one would argue with Sandy when she was in a bad mood. I’d heard that she’d received a tongue-lashing for letting Rose, Akin and myself be kidnapped. It wasn’t her fault, but I knew the staff were in desperate need of someone to blame.

“They’re in the changing room,” Sandy said, jerking a finger towards the door. Her stern expression softened, just slightly. “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” I said. I’d reassured Sandy that I didn’t blame her, but my word counted for nothing. “We’ll see you this evening.”

Sandy shrugged, then lay back on her bed. I hesitated, trying to think of something to say, but none of the etiquette lessons Mum had forced me to take had covered this situation. Sandy hadn’t made a fool of herself, unlike a few upperclassmen I could mention, nor had she been deliberately malicious … and yet her future had been ruined anyway. No one would want to offer her an apprenticeship now. I wished there was something I could do for her, but nothing came to mind. My father was hardly likely to listen to my pleading on her behalf.

I felt oddly exposed as I walked through the door and down the corridor. My hair hadn’t been washed, let alone braided. Mum would have pitched a fit if she’d seen us, even though there was no reasonable chance of being seen by the adults. And if I was seen … I’d be the talk of the town, not in a good way. There were just too many people who wanted to embarrass our house. They’d gleefully dissect my etiquette failings for the rest of the year.

Not that it matters, I thought. They spent the last three years dissecting my failures in magic.

The familiar bitter resentment welled up inside me as we reached the changing room and stepped inside. I’d had no magic – no apparent magic – for six years, while my siblings had developed their magic at a terrifying rate. Even now, even after discovering what I could do, I still felt a little resentment. The kidnappers – Fairuza and her mystery patron – had treated me as an object, rather than a person. And too many others felt the same way. They were more concerned with what I could do for them than what they could do for me.

“Cat,” Alana said. “You look terrible.”

I tensed, automatically. Alana had been my tormenter for six years, regularly hexing and jinxing me for her own amusement. Our relationship had never been pleasant. Even now, I was wary of her. She’d veered from regarding me as a ball and chain around her future prospects to fearing that my unique talents would allow me to outshine her. Dad might have ordered her and Bella to help us prepare for the hearing, but … I hoped she’d have the sense to behave herself. Dad was on the warpath.

“I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” I told her. It might well be true. I wasn’t ugly, but my face had more character than traditional beauty. “Are you well?”

Alana’s dark face twisted into an ugly scowl. “Get in the shower and wash,” she ordered, flatly. “We’ll be ready when you come out.”

I looked from Alana to Bella, then shrugged. It was hard to believe, sometimes, that we were really related. We had the same eyes and skin tone, but Alana’s face was sharper than mine while Bella’s had grown pudgy. They took more after Mum than Dad, something I supposed was lucky for them. I had inherited his cheekbones. Mum had told me that I’d grow into my looks, but I rather suspected it was the kind of thing mothers told their homely daughters.

“Fine,” I said. The sooner we were washed, the sooner we could get dressed and have our hair braided. “You get set up here.”

Rose followed me into the shower. She looked as nervous as I felt, even though she knew she needed Alana and Bella more than me. I could braid my own hair, given time. I could even devise Objects of Power to help me braid my hair. But Rose had grown up in the countryside. Everything she said, every move she made, marked her as someone of no account. She needed to be dressed properly, if nothing else, or she’d be dismissed as hopelessly gauche.

And yet, that would be simpler, I thought, as I stripped down and stepped into the warm water. If I’d grown up on a farm …

I shook my head. If I’d grown up on a farm, no one would have thought there was anything odd about my lack of magic. But it wouldn’t have been an easy life. Rose had told me enough horror stories about life on the farm to convince me that it wasn’t something I wanted for myself. And yet … I wasn’t sure what I did want. I’d wanted to be famous – and now I was famous – but it had come at a price. My life would never be my own.

Rose muttered a drying cantrip as we stepped out of the shower and back into the changing room. Alana and Bella had been unusually efficient; they’d set up the dressing tables and hung the dresses behind the door, rather than leave them in the bags until they were actually needed. I hesitated, unwilling to let Alana any closer than absolutely necessary, then sighed and nodded to the dress. Better for Bella to work on Rose than risk Alana hexing my friend when her back was turned. I didn’t think Alana would be stupid enough to anger Dad that badly, but she’d done stupid things before.

“Get this on,” Alana said, shoving an undershirt at me. “We have to hurry.”

“We have time,” I said, soothingly. “They’re not going to start without us.”

“They’ll notice if you’re late,” Alana countered. She unhooked the dress and carried it over to me. “I hope you haven’t put on weight.”

Bella made a small sound of protest. I winced in sympathy. Bella wasn’t exactly overweight, but she was pudgy enough for it to be noticed. Thankfully, she had the patience to help Rose don unfamiliar undergarments. I didn’t know what Rose had worn on the farm, but I was fairly sure it was something simple. She’d had a great deal of trouble with the school uniform when she’d first arrived. I’d had to help her get dressed more than once.

I ignored her as I studied the blue dress. It was a miniature version of a dress Mum wore on special occasions, right down to the runes sewn into the silk and the family crest on my left shoulder. No one would fail to recognise me. Alana helped me into it, tightening fastenings and doing up ribbons. I tried to keep the dismay off my face as I inspected myself in the mirror. The dress looked nice, but it wasn’t designed to be easy to remove. I was going to have real problems when we returned to the school.

“We should be coming with you,” Alana said, once she’d finished. “You know … show off to the crowd.”

“Dad said no,” I reminded her. Dad couldn’t keep either Rose or myself from attending the hearing, but he’d put his foot down when his other daughters had been invited. “You can ask him if he wants to change his mind.”

Alana shook her head, hastily. I hid my smile as I sat down in front of the dressing table and braced myself. Sisters braided each other’s hair all the time, I’d been told, but I wasn’t too keen on allowing Alana anywhere near my hair. She’d once hexed my barrette to fall out at a particularly embarrassing moment, which would have been bad enough, but it had somehow undone my braids at the same time. Mum had been furious. Alana had been lucky not to be grounded for so long her grandchildren would still be stuck in the bedroom.

I had to smile. That had been a very peaceful summer.

Alana’s reflection scowled at me. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” I said, quickly. I made a show of looking at the clock. “Hurry?”

Alana nodded, then went to work with a smooth comb. My hair – our hair – had never been easy to keep under control, but my mother had charmed our combs and brushes to work out the tangles and other problems without a long struggle. I tried to stay calm as Alana brushed out my hair, then started to work it into long dark braids. If she hexed my hair …

She wouldn’t be that stupid, I told myself, again and again. My father knew how my talents actually worked. He knew he’d made a dreadful mistake by allowing Alana to hex me repeatedly in hopes of bringing out my magic. She wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it any longer. And besides, we were going to Magus Court. If Dad was humiliated in front of his rivals …

I shivered. Akin was going to be there – and so was his father. Lord Carioca Rubén had been working steadily to undermine my father’s position since they were both young men. Akin had told me that Carioca Rubén had been delighted when it had seemed I didn’t have magic, then horrified when he realised the truth. It would be hard, almost impossible, for us to be unseated if we were the only source of new Objects of Power. Dad had wondered if Carioca Rubén had backed the kidnappers, even though he’d sworn an oath denying it. They had every reason to try to remove me before my mere existence shifted the balance of power permanently against them.

And we have their Family Sword, I thought. I’d hidden it under my bed, locked away in a box I’d designed myself. I didn’t know if Akin had told his father about the sword. I knew I hadn’t told my father. That won’t make our lives any easier.

“Nearly done,” Alana said. Her fingers worked their way through my hair. “You do remember your manners, don’t you?”

I smiled. “Shake hands with the left hand, stick my tongue out at the guests, run off as soon as decently possible …”

Alana didn’t see the funny side. “Well, if you want to be disowned … go right ahead.”

“I remember how to behave myself,” I said. Mum – and my aunts – had put us through hour after hour of etiquette training. The formal dinners I’d shared with my cousins had been nightmarish. Putting the slightest foot wrong had been grounds for a long lecture on precisely why we were meant to behave in a specific fashion. I knew it was important, but … I’d hated it. “And we’re not going to a wedding.”

“Thank the ancients,” Alana said.

Bella coughed. “I heard that Susan of House Fitzwilliam is getting married to Jan,” she said, tersely. “We’ll be invited, of course.”

I groaned. Weddings were hard enough at the best of times. But a match between a Great House and a New Man? They were always awkward. The Great Houses understood the importance of new blood, but there was always someone who would look down on the newcomer. And there was probably no way to get out of it, if we were invited. Mum and Dad would make us go.

“I’ll try to come up with an excuse,” I said.

Alana snorted. “You know what they say,” she said. “If you’re on your deathbed, bring your deathbed with you.”

Rose giggled. She clearly thought Alana was joking. I knew better. Weddings were the social event of the year, as far as the families were concerned. Anyone who didn’t attend would be deemed to have snubbed the families, something that would have thoroughly unpleasant repercussions further down the line. I’d heard enough horror stories to know that a feud that started at a wedding would linger for centuries, long enough for everyone involved to forget what actually started it.

“Done,” Alana said, shortly. “What do you think?”

I looked at my reflection. The braid was perfect, not a single hair out of place. Alana had placed a couple of clips into the hair to hold it firmly in place, but I doubted they were necessary. She’d done a very good job. The blue dress looked striking, although I had the feeling it was going to get crumpled by the time we reached Magus Court. Thankfully, the family dressmaker had charmed the material to ensure it didn’t get rumpled – or dirty.

Those charms might not last, I reminded myself. I’d discovered that charms fed off a magician’s personal magic, but – as far as I knew – Rose and I were the only people who knew it. And I was the only person who knew the source of magic. The dress might start getting dirty halfway through the hearing.

“Good enough,” I said, unwilling to praise her too much. “Rose?”

“She’s ready,” Bella said.

I glanced at Rose. She looked as if she didn’t dare to move. The green dress my parents had sent her was expensive, very expensive. My family could afford a hundred such dresses and never notice the cost, but Rose’s family could no more buy silk from Hangchow than they could purchase an Object of Power. If she tore it … I shot her a reassuring look. The dress was charmed to keep it intact and Rose, unlike me, had plenty of raw magic to power the spells. She wouldn’t be able to damage the dress unless she used a pretty destructive spell.

“You look great,” I told her. She did. Her red hair was tied into a pair of neat pigtails, drawing attention to her pale face and the client crest my father had given her. It was unusual for someone so young to be taken on as a client, but it would give Rose a little extra status at Magus Court. “How are you feeling?”

“Hungry,” Rose said.

“There’s food in the cooler,” Alana said. She opened the box to reveal a selection of sandwiches. “Eat quickly.”

I felt my stomach growl, so I took a sandwich and ate it quickly. It tasted like ashes in my mouth. We were going to Magus Court … the butterflies in my stomach were multiplying at terrifying speed. Normally, I wouldn’t visit the court while it was in session, at least until I was old enough to have my Season. A mistake made in front of everyone who was anyone would haunt me for the rest of my life. Alana would spend the rest of her life rubbing it in.

“You’ll be back before you know it,” Alana told us. “Try not to embarrass the family.”

“Thank you,” I said, sourly.

I opened my bag and removed a pair of protective bracelets, glinting under the light. I slipped one onto my wrist and passed the other to Rose. Magus Court was supposed to be protected against all threats, from subtle mind-altering charms to outright death spells, but I knew better than to place my faith in Devices of Power. Too many magicians would be working hard trying to find ways to circumvent the wards. Even Objects of Power could be beaten if one knew how to do it.

And I can’t even sense magic, I thought, as I snapped the earrings into place. I’m vulnerable.

There was a sharp rap at the door. Alana opened it.

“The carriage is waiting for you,” an upperclassman I didn’t recognise said. Her blue eyes flickered over us for a long moment, her lips twisting in a mixture of stern disapproval and bitter envy. “Are you ready?”

I looked at Rose, who nodded. “Yeah,” I said, standing. “Let’s go.”

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Excerpts from Interdimensional Survey Report (Allrianne)

10 Jan

I was chatting with another writer about the possibilities of a crossover between her series and The Zero Enigma universe. This is written from an outside POV, so it won’t be included at the back of book III.

Excerpts from Interdimensional Survey Report (Allrianne)

It is not actually clear if the natives of World-CGN-4832 are human or not. They are very definitely close to baseline human, to the point of being sexually compatible with outsiders, but there are a number of significant differences. The most significant of these differences is the chakra organs, present within their bodies. X-rays reveal that the average native of Allrianne possesses three to five such organs, with the uppermost one located just below the brain. These organs appear to have evolved to feed off the high-energy reality-distorting field surrounding the planet, allowing the natives to absorb and redirect the energy at will. They call it magic.

The magic field’s presence makes it hard to conduct a proper examination on site (all technology above Level C seems to fail very quickly) but a number things can be said with a reasonable degree of certainty. The chakra organs appear to function in a manner comparable to muscles, allowing even people with low magic sensitivity to develop their inherent power through constant practice. It is clear that even the lowest sections of society can produce powerful ‘magic-users.’ The presence number of chakra organs may determine one’s inherent power, as muscles determine strength, but exercise and training can allow someone to even the odds. It is possible that constant flexing of the chakra organs leads to the body automatically evolving additional organs. The limitations placed on opening direct contact with the natives makes it hard to study the more powerful magicians.

That said, it is clear that the chakra organs require the steady presence of the magic field to function correctly. The locals are unaware of this, but they do not actually possess any inherent power of their own. Their bodies act like batteries, storing magic; their powers simply fail, it seems, when they are separated from the field. The handful of volunteers we invited to cross the gate lost their powers very quickly. (This had the advantage of allowing us to conduct the x-rays mentioned above.) Physically, they were practically baseline humans with some additional DNA. However, we believe the chakra organs will manifest in any children sired or born by the emigrants. They appear to be dominant.

This isn’t too surprising, given the effect magic has on their society. Everyone has some level of magic, as far as we can determine. Non-magic users must have been out-evolved thousands of years ago. Conscious control of magic may have come fairly recently – the handful of history books we discovered suggest that magic’s principles were discovered only two thousand years ago, an eyeblink compared to the length of human evolution – but it is clear that unconscious usage of magic was in existence well before then. In particular, the magic may boost the body’s immune system and assist it to recover. It’s also notable that a magician may release a burst of uncontrolled magic when frightened or angry, protecting he magician from attack. Women have been recorded losing control of their magic and killing would-be rapists. It’s particularly notable that their society embraces a far greater level of sexual equality than many other societies at their apparent level of development.

Our attempts to study magic were quite limited. It was fairly easy to work out potential spells by running spellbooks through the supercomputers, but impossible to cast them without the chakra organs. We were unable to do more than get a few basic readings when our volunteers tried to cast spells in the testing chambers. Their magic simply dissolved within seconds of release. (It’s possible that it started to fade into the background as soon as they stepped through the gate.) We did attempt to convince volunteers to cast spells on their side of the gate, but results were very limited. Their ability to cast spells was limited too.

There were some oddities. Allen, Penny and Sam all volunteered to have spells cast on them. Their experiences were odd, to say the least; Allen, turned into a frog, reported that his mind appeared to understand his new body even through it was obviously not human. Penny, turned into a statue, reported that the experience felt oddly numbing. She didn’t panic, as she noted, because she felt she couldn’t panic. At some level, being stone felt natural. Sam was the only one who reported that her experiences were thoroughly unpleasant, perhaps unsurprisingly. Compulsion spells were cast on her.

It is impossible to be sure, of course, but we believe that, in the case of Allen and Penny, that their minds automatically adapted to their new bodies. Destroying a mind is apparently a great deal harder, although death spells are seemingly common. Sam’s mind was actually warped, to some extent; she felt that the spells were an intrusion, rather than anything more benevolent. Further research is clearly required.

In all cases, the spells wore off almost as soon as the volunteers were taken back through the gates. The force holding the magic in place simply faded once the victims were removed from the magic field. This appears to be true of spells cast on local victims too; they simply don’t last forever, unless held in place by magic artefacts. The locals do not seem to regard magic as anything unearthly or even supernatural. It just is.

It is important to remember, I think, that Allrianne is not a primitive world. It’s inhabitants have evolved a social structure that allows them to examine the world around them and learn how to control it. They have the scientific method, although they study magic rather than science. To them, magic is science. They may not be able to build gateway generators, but I wouldn’t rule out them finding some other way to cross dimensions.

It’s hard to see how we should proceed, too. Allrianne can teach us a great deal about the nature of reality, with a ready-made alternate way of looking at the universe. However, it will be immensely difficult to infiltrate their society in the short term. None of our people have the chakra organs and, therefore, will be unable to fake magic. Worse, the limits of technology make it impossible to conceal this. Sending an agent into one of the bigger cities will mean running a tremendous risk. We are unable to use magic – or to defend against it.

In the long term, we might be able to splice chakra organs into clone-bodies and transfer mind-patterns to them, but it is unclear if that is possible. Our clones will not grow to adulthood, but emerge fully-formed. It may not be possible to control their magic; indeed, we don’t know if the chakra organs will absorb power if they’re not touching the magic field from the very start. There are just too many unknowns.

I leave it up to you, sir, if we should attempt to make open contact.

The Great Houses of Shallot

10 Jan

It is probably better to look at the Great Houses as clans, rather than families. They are immense, even the smallest having over fifty senior members; they wield vast power and influence, at least in part, because they’re a gathering of powerful magicians. Their power (and patronage networks) often stretch well beyond the boundaries of Shallot itself.

It’s fairly simple to define a Great House. It must be a large and powerful faction of magicians, one that cannot be ignored by the rest of the city. In theory, smaller families and guilds can possess the power of a Great House (and demand seats on Magus Court) but in practice they tend not to have much staying power.

A Great House is generally divided into four sections. The greater family consists of the senior members nearest to the core bloodline; the lesser family consists of the senior members further away from the core, the children consist of the underage family members and the clients consist of unrelated magicians who have accepted the family’s patronage and sworn themselves to its service. It is unusual for a member of the lesser family to have any say in the family’s internal affairs, but it has been known to happen; children and clients, of course, do not have any say at all.

The typical Great House is led by a Patriarch or Matriarch, who is elected by the family council (the greater family) and serves for life unless the council decides to remove him from his position. A Patriarch wields considerable power over the family, although there are some limits; he is also expected to spend most of his day tending to the family’s affairs, seeing to the education of its children and nurturing the family’s network of clients. It is rare for a Patriarch to change things radically, as most Patriarchs come from the greater family and tend to regard tradition as inflexible.

The Patriarch’s day starts with breakfast, which is generally shared with his wife, children and closest relatives. Once he has eaten, the Patriarch will converse with clients or work with his apprentices to further their magical studies a task that consumes most of the morning. A Patriarch will then share lunch with his senior clients (an invitation to dinner is regarded as a great honour) before attending Magus Court (or the lesser law courts) to discuss city law or plead for his clients in a courtroom. Dinner is shared with close family and rarely interrupted; the evening is free.

Lesser family members are either trained to serve the Great House (as servants, for example) or encouraged to go into positions that will allow their family to expand its influence. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the family butler, for example, wields considerable power in his own right. Others go into teaching, where they tutor the family’s children, or join the family’s private armsmen. The family will also provide the funds for a lesser family member who wishes to open a business or something else that may enhance the family’s position.

The family’s children (greater and lesser) receive private tuition in magic from the age of six, as well as an extensive education that covers everything from accident languages to law and family history. A child is expected to be able to recite his or her entire family tree by the time they reach ten, allowing them to position themselves as heirs to ancient traditions. Particularly clever and promising children are singled out for further training, which can be offered privately (and secretly). A handful of children are sometimes dispatched to foreign schools, allowing them to make overseas contacts and keep abreast of magical developments outside Tintagel.

As they grow older, children are expected to attend formalised gatherings (and less formal parties) with children from other Great Houses. This allows them to get to know their fellows before they go to Jude’s, while their parents can show off their magical progeny to their peers. Courtly manners are drilled into them, to the point where making a mistake in etiquette can haunt someone for the rest of their life.

By law, children are effectively the property of their family (and effectively the family’s clients). The Patriarch has vast authority when it comes to shaping their lives, although wise Patriarchs understand the dangers of being too strict or indulgent. Magus Court (or other outside authorities) do not have the legal power to intervene, if they feel a child is being abused; that said, parents can be (and often are) held accountable for their child’s behaviour.

It is extremely uncommon for a family member to either betray the family or simply leave. The vast majority of family members believe in the family, even if they don’t always like it. Many of them wouldn’t know what to do outside the family (and wouldn’t have access to family funds.) Indeed, the Patriarchs often try to help the discontented find a place where they will be happier, rather than forcing them to stay somewhere they’re unhappy. That said, someone who wants to leave completely will often be given a severance package and formally disowned from the family. They will no longer be considered part of their former clan. A person who betrays the family, on the other hand, will be declared outcast. They will have little hope of finding a safe place within the city.

Happy New Year

31 Dec

2017

It’s been an interesting year.

The most important thing, of course, was the birth of our second son John in November. He came out three weeks early, much to our surprise, but everything went smoothly and we were able to take him home the following day. It’s been a month already and he’s putting on weight at astonishing speed. He’s also louder than his brother was, at least for the first six months. I think he realises he has competition for our attention right from the start. (It must have been baby-month, as my nephew was born two days before John.)

Eric, now three, is doing well too, although I think he’s a little bemused by John’s appearance. We did try to explain that he was going to get a brother, but obviously he didn’t really understand what is happening. I think he expected someone the same age as himself, not a baby who sucks up most of mummy’s attention. He’s been acting out more over the last month or so, unsurprisingly. We’re doing our best to be patient with him.

I’ve learnt a great deal about parenting over the last three years. Some of the things I was told made no sense until I was actually a father myself. (And it’s harder, now, to pour scorn on helicopter parents.) Other things have not stood the test of actually having a baby. Trying to change nappies on a baby-sized doll, for example, was somewhat misleading – babies don’t bend that way. I’ve also discovered, as Eric fell in love with toy railways, that its often cheaper to buy stuff second-hand than new. I purchased three huge boxes of railway pieces and suchlike on EBay and we now have more than we know what to do with. (I ended up given some of it to my niece.) We also made the mistake, back in 2014, of purchasing a specialised baby table. It was largely useless right from the moment we actually tried to use it.

(And when I get asked for my words of wisdom by other new parents, I always say ‘buy wipes. Buy lots of wipes.’)

My writing career has been progressing well. I published The Zero Blessing in March and sales were good enough to justify writing and publishing The Zero Curse in September. It might have been a mistake to write three fantasy books in a row – I wrote The Gordian Knot on one side and Graduation Day on the other – but it seems to have worked out ok. I intend to write The Zero Equation and end the trilogy in mid-Jan 2018. I also brought out four Schooled in Magic books and yes, the series will continue next year. And I wrote The Hyperspace Trap – formerly known as Becalmed – which will be released in February. It’s a spin-off from the Angel in the Whirlwind series, but it adds a certain something to the universe.

On Kindle, I brought out six new books, including two Ark Royal books and one The Empire’s Corps book. I do intend to continue both series over the coming years. I’ve also continued turning books into audio and paperback editions. Unfortunately, this is a slower process than I – or some of my readers – would clearly prefer.

Overall, it has been a very busy year.

I hope you all had a merry Christmas – if you celebrate – have a very happy new year.

Christopher Nuttall

New Years Eve, 2017

Run, Run, As Fast As You Can …

31 Dec

Because you don’t want to be tricked like the gingerbread man!

I apologise for the doggerel, but there is a point here.

A couple of days ago, a friend of a friend posted a question to a writer’s group on Facebook. The good news was that he’d been offered a contract by a traditional publisher. The bad news was that that the publisher wanted him to pay in advance. The editing, marketing, and publishing would cost $350, they said; the contract stated that they wanted $395 as the first payment, then ten more payments of $295 every month regardless of the book’s actual status (published or not.)

I took one look and wrote a simple response. “Run, run, run!”

Greater writers than I have said this before, but it needs to be repeated time and time again. In traditional publishing, money flows downhill to the author. The publisher pays for editing, marketing and suchlike in advance (and then takes it out of earnings before they pay the author anything more than the advance). The author does not pay a single penny (or cent) to the publisher. Full stop.

Put bluntly, if the publisher expects you to pay in advance, they’re scammers.

Writers want to be published. We want to see our name in print. And that can make us suckers, ripe for exploitation. It is very easy to fall for the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy and keep shelling out cash, while the so-called publishers do nothing – or do it very poorly. Writers who get into these sort of messes often discover that the editing is sub-standard, the marketing consists of a handful of Facebook ads and the printing is terrible. Worse, they are often expected to buy huge print runs of their own books – which are then unsellable – or discover that their contracts entitles their publishers to first call on anything else they happen to write. Getting out of these contracts can be a nightmare.

Let me say it again. If the publisher expects you to pay in advance, they’re scammers. You are being scammed.

These companies do not make money by publishing books. They make money by exploiting hundreds of people like YOU, people who were so captivated by the idea of having their name in print that they didn’t recognise or heed the warning signs. Their whole business model is based around insisting you need services and then forcing you to pay for them. I know what it’s like to be an unpublished author, desperate to break into a hard market; I understand exactly how a newbie writer feels. But it is important to recognise that any newbie writer is a potential target for exploitation. A publisher who wants you to pay is not your friend.

Now, this obviously isn’t true of indie publishing. There, you buy services on contract – I hire editors and cover designers for my books. (I think the most expensive book I ever put out cost me around $1500.) But I also don’t have to split the proceeds with an agent or a publisher. Nor do I have to stick with a contractor whose services are not up to par.

If someone offers you a contract, do your due diligence. Check out Writer Beware and other online resources for writers. Read reviews of work your publisher has put out – not paid reviews, real reviews. Insist on reading the contract – perhaps even chatting with other authors (and make sure you find their contact details yourself) – before you do more than express interest. Perhaps even check out the free samples so you can see their editing for yourself.

If you get involved in a scam, it will cost you your book (and perhaps any future books) as well as your reputation. You do not want to look like a sucker. I’ve seen far too many authors shrilling for their scammers, all believing that a great payday is just around the corner. It’s an easy mistake to make, but you don’t want to make it.

So … warning signs.

If a publisher asks you to pay for having your book published, RUN.

If a publisher insists you sign a contract giving them complete and open-ended power over the book, and/or demands first refusal rights for anything else you might happen to write, RUN.

If a publisher asks you to pay for services (editing, cover design, etc), RUN.

If a publisher promises you the sun and the moon tomorrow, but never today, RUN.

If a publisher tells you that he isn’t one of those evil vanity publishers, RUN.

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade. I understand the urge to get published and see your name in print. But it is important to remember that the urge makes you vulnerable and there are people out there who will try to exploit you. Do your research, keep a wary eye on anyone who claims to be your friend instead of taking a business-like approach and, for the love of God, learn from other experiences before you become the next cautionary tale for new writers.

Believe me, there are plenty of those out there already.

The Alchemist’s Apprentice Snippet

29 Dec

This is one of the planned successors to The Zero Enigma.  So far, it’s nothing more than a snippet, but comments would be welcome.

Prologue

I was twelve when I was taken into service.

It was no real surprise to me, not really. My stepfather might have accepted me into his home, but he’d never really liked me. There was no way a half-Hangchowese girl could pass for his. My skin was pale enough to pass for a country girl, but my almond eyes – slanted, the crueller kids said – proved that my father had come from overseas. He’d made sure I was fed and educated – the law demanded no less – yet he wasn’t going to waste any of his money on me. I certainly didn’t have enough magical talent to win a scholarship. And so, as soon as I turned twelve, my mother wrapped my dark hair in braids, stood over me as I packed a bag with everything I’d need for a month and took me down to the Hiring Hall.

My mother … I wasn’t sure how my mother felt about me. I wasn’t even clear in the details of what had transpired between her and my father. She seemed to love me, yet … yet she hadn’t kept my stepfather from ordering me into service. Was I a reminder of something she’d prefer to forget? Or was I merely old enough to earn my keep? I’d been cooking and cleaning almost as soon as I’d learnt to walk, like every other girl-child born in South Shallot; I knew the basics of housekeeping better than many a grown woman. My mother had taught me well.

I couldn’t help feeling nervous as we stepped through the massive wooden door and looked around. Normally, a girl who went into domestic service would find a placement through friends and family, but neither was willing to go out on a limb for me. My stepfather certainly wasn’t going to waste his contacts ensuring I had a good placement in a decent home. That was reserved for my younger half-sisters, assuming they didn’t have talent of their own. And yet, the Hiring Hall wasn’t meant for young girls who wanted to go into domestic service. Most of the people who came in search of a job were men from the countryside.

My mother spoke briskly to the attendants, who gave me a necklace to prove I was in search of a job. They didn’t seem surprised to see me. I couldn’t have been the only youngster who’d passed through their doors. And yet, as my mother walked me around the hall, it looked as though I wasn’t going to get a placement. I was too young for some placements, too weak or inexperienced for others … I’d never realised how limited my experience truly was until I needed a job. The Great Houses, who might have trained me, never hired through the Hiring Hall. They hired through family connections.

And then I saw Master Travis for the very first time.

He looked old to me; his chocolate-coloured face marred with the scars of a hundred potions explosions, his tattered brown robes covered with burn marks and marked with alchemical symbols I didn’t understand until much later. His gait suggested that he was constantly on the verge of falling down. He was, as he walked over to us, more than a little frightening. But he was also the only person who’d approached us.

“I need a shopgirl,” he said, bluntly. His accent was pure Shallot. I later learnt that he was a certain family’s natural-born son. “One who can read and write.”

“I can read and write,” I assured him, quickly. I could too, although not as well as he might have wished. My education hadn’t been that extensive. I certainly hadn’t done well enough to earn the chance to study for the financial or legal guilds. “And I can serve customers too.”

My mother leaned forward and started to haggle. My stepfather – damn the man – had insisted that I find employment in a place that gave me lodgings, even if I had to sleep on the cold stone floor. Master Travis haggled back, although without the intensity I’d expected from someone who’d grown up in Shallot. We’re a trading city. Children learn to bargain before they reach their second decade. By the time she’d finished, darkness was falling over the city and I had a job. Master Travis had even agreed to teach me some basic potions in exchange for a slightly reduced salary. My mother had been insistent. A young woman who could brew would have excellent marriage prospects, as long as she didn’t set her sights too high. It might just be enough to make up for my absent – and unknown – father.

“Come,” Master Travis said, once the contract was signed. I was his now, at least until I turned eighteen. “We have to go.”

The sheer enormity of what I’d done crashed down on me as I bid farewell to my mother and turned to follow him. I might go back to my stepfather’s house for visits – and Master Travis had agreed to give me one day off per week – but I didn’t live there any longer. Master Travis’s shop would be my home for the next six years. My heart was pounding like a drum as we walked out of the hall and down the darkening streets. Master Travis walked with the utter confidence of a man who knew no one would get in his way. I wished I felt so confident. There were parts of the city my mother had told me never to visit in darkness.

It felt as though we walked for hours before we crossed the bridge to Water Shallot and turned down a cobbled street. The city was darker here, bands of sailors and tradesmen hanging around bars or roaming the streets in search of entertainment. Most of the shops were closed, their doors covered with protective runes. I stayed close to my new master as he stopped outside a darkened shop and pressed his hand against the doorknob. It opened a second later, revealing a vast collection of alchemical ingredients. I couldn’t help thinking of a sweetshop. And yet, the air smelled of herbs rather than sugar.

Master Travis lit the lanterns with a single spell. I could see why he needed a shopgirl. The counter was relatively clean – and the jars of herbs were properly sealed – but there was dust and grime everywhere else. Something tickled the back of my throat as I looked around. And yet, I was afraid to cough for fear I might set off a storm of dust.

“You’ll sleep in the garret,” Master Travis said, pointing to a narrow staircase leading up into the darkness. His voice was gruff, but I saw genuine concern on his face. “Do you need something to eat?”

I hesitated – my stepfather might have fed me, yet he’d never bothered to hide that the only reason he was taking care of me was because the law insisted – but then my stomach rumbled loudly. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and that had been hours ago.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Take your bag upstairs,” Master Travis said. “And then come down and we’ll get something to eat.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, again.

He offered me a lantern. I took it and walked slowly up the stairs. The building felt cramped, as if it was an oversized dollhouse rather than a real house. I later discovered that it had been fitted into the gap between two apartment blocks. The garret, at the top of the stairs, was dark and tiny. I was a small girl, for my age, and it still felt as if I’d bang my head on the roof if I stood up too quickly. There was dust everywhere. The bed and chair looked as if they’d been designed for children, not adults. I wasn’t sure where I was meant to put my clothes.

But it was private, I told myself. It was certainly better than the room I’d shared with my half-sisters. We’d practically lived in each other’s clothes.

I put my bag on the bed and walked back downstairs. I’d been sent away from home, and I’d be lucky if I saw my mother more than once or twice a month, but there were advantages. I’d be away from my stepfather, I’d be earning money … I might even be learning a new trade I could use to support myself. Perhaps, just perhaps, going into service wouldn’t be so bad after all.

And it wasn’t.

The Zero Equation–Snippet II

28 Dec

Not sure if I’ll go with this.  But it was running through my head.

Prologue II

The night I returned to the school, after the kidnap and our escape, I dreamed of the dragons.

Not the nasty beasts that inhabit the Desolation, the dull creatures we hunt for potions and alchemical supplies, but the Great Drakes of legend. Giant golden creatures, their wings shining in the sun as they flew. I dreamed I flew beside them, sharing the ancient wisdom in their eyes. I knew I was dreaming. And yet, it felt so real.

I could see more than just dragons. I could see castles built of clouds and giant floating cities, so large that they plunged the land below into permanent darkness. I could see huge buildings reaching up to the skies, great machines glowing with power as they transformed the land. I could see giants and genies and sprites and elementals and so many other legendary creatures; I could see magicians, flying through the air as if they were light as birds. Wizards walked through the clouds, taking their ease; witches rode on brooms, laughing as they soared above the clouds.

And I could see the magic.

I’d often dreamed of having magic – and then awakened to stare down at my powerless fingers – but this was different. The magic pulsed like a living thing, wrapping the entire world in its embrace. Colourless light seemed to shimmer around me – around everyone, giving them power. It looked as if it would last forever …

And then it was gone.

The genies and elementals winked out, as if someone had blown out a candle. They were gone before I quite realised what had happened. And then everyone – everything – was falling. The cloud-buildings dissolved into mist, their occupants falling to the ground far below; the flying cities plummeted, hitting the ground with terrifying force. Flying witches and wizards screamed as they fell, roaring and chanting spells in a desperate – and futile – attempt to save their lives. The magic was gone.

I saw it all. The giants, suddenly collapsing under their own weight; the great machines, flickering and failing. The population panicking, looking around in numb horror, utterly unable to comprehend what had happened. The most powerful amongst them, the ones who had lived amongst the clouds, were already dead. And none of the survivors knew how to live without magic. They couldn’t do anything without magic. I floated high above them and watched their world die.

And then I found myself beside the largest of the Great Drakes. It was lying on the ground, its wings flapping helplessly as it tried to return to the skies. But it was hopeless. A creature that size simply couldn’t survive, let alone fly, without magic. It’s eyes stared at me pleadingly, as if it knew I was there, then finally started to close. Pity tore at my heart as it died. The creature had been majestic, a true being of magic. And yet, the age of magic was over.

I awoke, screaming. Sweat ran down my forehead as I gasped for breath. It had been a dream, just a dream. I’d never had a True Dream in my life. The talent had been lost so long ago that some scholars believed it had never existed. And yet, I could still hear the screaming as I wiped sweat from my brow, still see the dead and the dying when I closed my eyes …

It felt so real.