Schooled in Magic–Snippet

8 Aug

Comments would be welcome, naturally.

Chapter One

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 at her high school. She would have thought that they were too shy to ever try to 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, followed by an abrupt sensation of falling. And then the strange sensation simply faded away.

When her eyes opened, she was standing in a very different place.

Emily recoiled in shock, glancing around in horror. 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 hadn’t been 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 for her to open, no place for her to try to prise 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 visited on a trip to Scotland, 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 in the cell? 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, or 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 rang through the cell, coming from outside the door, and she looked up sharply. Emily would have sworn that the iron door was solid, but all of a sudden a tiny hatch had appeared in the metal and a pair of gleaming red eyes were peering 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 and it seemed to blur, before it was replaced by a set of iron bars revealing a hooded figure standing outside the cell. His eyes, half-hidden under his hood, seemed to glow with an eerie red light. The rest of his face was obscured in darkness.

Behind him, there were more stone walls – and a pair of skeletons, standing 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 deep 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 was 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 seemed to flicker over her body, before meeting her eyes and holding them for a long chilling second.

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 hide from her father’s departure and her mother’s desperate search for a second husband seemed to be mocking her inside her skull. It could be a trick, perhaps a reality TV show, but something in her mind was convinced that it was real. 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 realised 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 their 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,” he said. “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. “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. “Where is this…Kansas place you speak of?”

Emily started to answer, and then stopped herself. “If you don’t know that,” 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 inwardly as she saw the way the cloth moved over his body, disturbed in a manner she found almost impossible to comprehend. It was impossible to see what lay beneath his robe, but there was something about the way he moved that suggested that 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 – and, as half-seen, 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 and the iron bars melted away into dust. Before Emily could do anything, the skeletons stepped forward and marched into the cell, their eye-less sockets firmly locked on Emily’s face. She cringed back as the bony hands, so eerie without flesh and blood, caught her shoulders and propelled her forward, no matter how she struggled. The sorcerer’s servants didn’t seem to notice, or care, as she kicked out at them. Their bones seemed held together with magic.

“You don’t have to do this,” she said, as she was marched out of the cell. “I…”

Shadye cackled, a high-pitched sound that chilled her to the bone. “Your death will bring me all the power I could use,” 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 horror 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 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 after him, just before the skeletons started to push her down the corridor after him. Resistance seemed utterly futile, but she struggled anyway, feeling panic giving her extra strength. Just for a moment, she broke free of their grip and turned to run, before 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; 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 had escaped my dungeons, where would you have gone?”

He was right, Emily realised. 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 been – somehow – 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 upwards 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 upwards and onwards, while she was unable to see the stone walls. 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 realised suddenly; it was ash. She sniffed and 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. “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. They 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 screw 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 had 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 forward and into an opening that seemed to appear 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, 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 seemed to appear out of nowhere, only to vanish again when they’d walked past. They were disturbing; oddly, the ones that seemed most human were the most disturbing. 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.

“There,” Shadye said. He reached into his robe and produced a sharp black knife, carved from stone. “Place her on the altar.”

Emily opened her mouth to protest, but it was futile. The altar was a simple stone block, easily large enough to accommodate her; the skeletons placed her on the stone and stepped backwards, almost as if they were admiring their work. 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. She tried to recall the prayers she’d learned as a child, but nothing came to mind. This was a place beyond the sight of God.

“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 seemed to dance over her head, slowly fading into a darkness so complete that it sucked up the light that seemed to come from all around her. In the last moments of gloom, she saw new statues – savage-faced angels – that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

Shadye stopped chanting. Absolute silence fell, as if the unseen watchers were waiting for the 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. Shadye stepped forward, one hand holding the knife as he raised it up and over Emily’s heart…

…And then there was a brilliant flash of light. The summoned presence simply vanished. Shadye bit out a word that Emily was sure was a curse and ducked as a bolt of lightning sliced through the air, over Emily’s prone position, and over his head. She twisted her head 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; the third flash of light showed the figure much closer, followed by the monstrous angel statues. They moved when she wasn’t looking.

“No,” Shadye snapped. He lifted his hand, plucked a fireball out of empty air and threw it at the newcomer, who lifted a staff and deflected it away into the darkened reaches of the chamber. “You will not cheat me!”

A second later, the newcomer tossed a spell of his own and 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, just in time to see the newcomer racing towards her, his face hidden behind a wooden mask, illuminated by a ball of light that floated into the air. He reached for her and she drew back, suddenly unsure of what he wanted. Shadye had wanted to sacrifice her; what would the newcomer want?

“Take my hand if you want to live,” the newcomer said. 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. She took his hand and the dark chamber vanished in a final blinding flash of white light.

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