The Very Ugly Duckling (Bookworm II)–Snippet

9 Apr

Chapter One

The Witch-King, Elaine thought, must have been out of his mind.

She lifted her eyes from the small book on the table, resisting the urge to rub them in the hopes that certain memories would fade from her mind. She’d always had a good memory, even before the entire contents of the Great Library had been dumped into her head, but the Witch-King’s spellbook was too horrifying to remember. Somehow, reading it naturally – rather than having the knowledge stored in her mind – made it worse. It was far too easy to see just how twisted he’d become by necromancy.

There were laws against reading such books, unless one happened to be the Grand Sorcerer. Elaine knew that many young magicians had chafed against such restrictions, assuming that the Grand Sorcerers had wanted to keep certain types of knowledge to themselves, but she understood perfectly. There were spells and forms of magic that were inherently corrupting, so much so that even using one of them once would taint a person for the rest of his or her life. If Elaine had had the power to make some of them work, she had a feeling that Lady Light Spinner would, with the greatest of regret, have ordered her execution. Even so, she was effectively a prisoner in the Great Library.

It wasn’t something she resented, most of the time. She was, after all, one of the most important people in the empire – and she had a seat on the Privy Council, which controlled the empire, as well as the ear of the Grand Sorceress. But there were times when it gnawed at her, such as when she’d been asked to read the Witch-King’s book and see if there were any hints as to his current location. Somehow, against all logic and common sense, the Witch-King was still alive. The gods alone knew where he might be hiding.

Elaine shivered, remembering the brief moment of mental contact when she’d been trying to stop the maddened Kane from destroying the Golden City. The Witch-King was still alive, trapped as a lich – and quite insane. He was effectively immortal; he had literally hundreds of years to prepare his plans, while remaining hidden from even the most intensive probes. If he couldn’t be found, Elaine suspected, he would simply start another plan that would take generations to come to fruitarian. How did one fight an enemy who could take hundreds of years to prepare his offensive? They might well miss the clues until it was far too late.

She looked back at the book and scowled. All magicians of real power – Elaine had very little, despite the knowledge in her head – kept a private spellbook, a tradition the Witch-King had honoured. Unsurprisingly, the spells had grown darker and darker the more she’d read, showing her how to control an army with her mind, corrupt a child or even create a horde of monsters from dead human flesh. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would dare risk using any of those spells, but not everyone had her unique insight into how magic worked. Besides, corruption rarely set in immediately. Someone might use a mildly dark spell, then a slightly darker spell … and, before they knew it, they were corrupted, thinking nothing of using the darkest of spells.

The book should be destroyed, she thought, although training and inclination mediated against it. The Black Vault existed for books that were judged too dangerous to be allowed to be copied and shared everywhere; surely, she had been told, the book would be safe there. But Elaine’s very existence proved otherwise. If the Witch-King’s book had been in the Black Vault, its knowledge would have been dumped into her head along with the rest of the Great Library.

She closed the book, placed it back in the box and concentrated for a long moment, muttering homemade charms under her breath. Standard lock spells were one thing, but the spells she had devised herself were almost impossible to detect – or to open, without the right code. Even the most powerful of magicians should have had problems opening the box – and if he managed to crack through one spell by brute force, the second would incinerate the book. It was better that the book be reduced to ash, Elaine had told herself, than risk it falling into enemy hands. She hadn’t told either Lady Light Spinner, the Grand Sorceress, or Inquisitor Dread about the precaution. It would only have upset them.

Standing up, she picked up the box and placed it within a stack of others, each one completely indistinguishable from the rest. Only the Head Librarian could find anything within the Black Vault; even the most powerful magician in the world would have had problems, at least until he managed to bend the magic shaping and maintaining the pocket dimension to his will. Elaine could have done it, she thought, but few others could have managed such a feat. They would always be tempted to use raw power rather than subtle magic.

Shaking her head, she took a long look around the compartment. Massive bookshelves, bursting with books, ran for as far as the eye could see, each tome forbidden to the vast majority of the population. There were chests of papers belonging to the Grand Sorcerers, sealed away too so that their heirs could keep it to themselves, as well as books and artefacts that had been offered to the Grand Sorcerer by other magicians. The magic that shaped the Black Vault would keep everything preserved, Elaine knew. Generations could pass outside and the books would remain safe.

And hopefully unread, she told herself, as she stepped through the mirror and out into the more normal stacks. Mirrors served as gateways between the normal world and the pocket dimensions used to store the library’s vast collection of books, but only one person could use them to access the Black Vault. Elaine smiled to herself as she felt the library’s magic pulsing around her, closing the gateway, then started to walk towards her office. Moments later, she realised that she had a visitor. Inquisitor Dread.

“Inquisitor,” she said, as she stepped into her office. “Make yourself at home.”

She had to smile as she sat down facing the hooded man. There had been a time when she wouldn’t have dared joke with an Inquisitor, when she wouldn’t have wanted to face one … but Dread was a friend, of sorts. And one of the very few who knew what had happened during the selection process for the Grand Sorcerer. Most of the world believed that the battle between contenders had gotten out of control, wrecking large parts of the city. Elaine knew better.

“Elaine,” Dread said. As always, his voice was near toneless. “I trust that you are prepared?”

Elaine blinked in surprise … and then remembered. They had been scheduled to run a specific security check on the Great Library. And she’d almost been late! No one could have contacted her in the Black Vault, save for the Grand Sorceress.

“I think so,” Elaine said. “Are you ready?”

Dread shrugged, one hand touching the burns on his face. “It wouldn’t matter if I was bleeding out and dying,” he said, flatly. “I’d still have a job to do.”

Elaine nodded, closed her eyes and reached out with her mind. As always, the wards of the Great Library answered her, recognising their mistress. Elaine found the experience slightly disturbing; the Great Library’s wards were old enough to have developed a certain intelligence of their own, something that gave them an odd sense of humour. Anyone who linked into the wards felt as if they were becoming part of the building itself.

No wonder Miss Prim fled the moment she could, Elaine thought, ruefully. She must have hated being convinced that she had birds nesting in her hair.

Pushing the disconcerting sensations aside, Elaine studied the wards carefully. Hundreds of sorcerers had created them, piece by piece; few of them had really understood what they were creating. The Witch-King, before his fall from grace, had been one of them. No wonder he had been able to slip a booby trap through the wards – and no wonder no one had expected anything of the sort! They’d thought that all the magicians who might have built themselves a secret password that would have allowed them to get through the wards were dead.

Elaine shivered at the memory. Bare months ago, she had been a normal librarian, one of many who worked in the Great Library. And then she’d picked up the book that had been carefully steered to her, the book that had been primed to channel all of the knowledge in the library into her mind. And then things had really become complicated.

She smiled to herself as the wards flickered and danced around her. One thing the spell had done – something she doubted the Witch-King had meant it to do – was show her precisely how spells really worked. Most magicians used their raw power to cover up the gaps in their knowledge, doing it so naturally that they never really realised what they were doing. Elaine, on the other hand, had little power, but by dissembling spells and putting them back together again she was able to do much more than she should have been able to do.

Carefully, she began to study how the Great Library’s wards went together … and swallowed a curse as she realised that there were more holes in the library’s security than anyone had ever discovered. Most of them were countered by other wards, but someone with real knowledge might have been able to exploit them. She couldn’t help wondering if there had been more thefts from the library than had ever been officially acknowledged. The librarians would be reluctant to admit failure when every ambitious magician would try to take advantage of the library’s weakness.

All right, she told herself. Here we go.

Piece by piece, she shaped tiny spells in her mind and uploaded them into the library’s wards, mapping them out thoroughly. By now, it would be impossible to dissemble the wards and recast them, no matter how much better they could have become with some careful fiddling and other improvements. They had simply become part of the library. But she could still make some improvements …

She pulled herself out of the wards and opened her eyes, feeling drained. Unlike Miss Prim, her inherent magic wasn’t strong enough to sustain the contact indefinitely, not when the wards drew on her as savagely as any other spell she knew. Dread would probably have been able to hold the contact for hours – the Inquisitors were chosen for magical strength as well as skill and bloody-mindedness – but the wards would have rejected him. The only other person who could have manipulated them was the Grand Sorceress.

“Ready,” she said, as she sagged. Sweat was pouring down her back, despite the cool air. “Are you ready?”

Dread nodded, one hand on his staff. “Can you do it now or wait until later?”

Elaine hesitated. On one hand, she was exhausted – and really needed to get some sleep in her office to allow her magic to recharge. But on the other hand, she didn’t want to have to do the whole process over again – and she would have to, if they delayed too long. The new spells she’d added to the wards wouldn’t last indefinitely.

“I think so,” she said. “Ready?”

Dread bowed his head in acknowledgement.

Elaine allowed herself a tired smile, then linked with the wards again, sending a final command into the network. She felt the wards shift as she fell out of the connection, her magic depleted so badly that she wouldn’t have been able to light a candle, even with the newer lighting spells she’d developed in her own mind. Not that it mattered; now that she’d given the order, the wards could do the rest on their own, sweeping the entire library for signs of unwanted dark magic – or other surprises. Light magic was associated with goodness, naturally, but there were plenty of ways light spells could be used to cause trouble.

“It’s done,” she said, as she collapsed into her seat. “The spells are searching now.”

Dread put out a hand and squeezed hers, an odd gesture of affection from the Inquisitor. “I thank you,” he said. “Now … relax.”

Elaine nodded, torn between watching as the wards searched the library and closing her eyes and trying to sleep. Standard search spells could locate an object within range very quickly, assuming they knew what they were actually looking for. The task she’d assigned to the library’s wards was far harder. They were to locate and catalogue any magic that wasn’t actually part of the library’s protections and filing system, then report back to Elaine. There would probably be plenty of reports of various cheating spells used by students desperate to pass their exams, but she wasn’t too worried about those. The real danger came from darker magic.

She had almost dozed off completely when the wards twitched against her mind. A moment later, a glowing image of the library appeared in front of them, showing the location of every spell and magical artefact that hadn’t been cleared to enter the library. Elaine sucked in her breath when she saw the vast number of cheating spells and charmed note-takers. The Peerless School had always encouraged creative thinking and rule-bending, but surely there were limits.

“I shouldn’t worry about it,” Dread said. “Magic is all about looking for ways to cheat.”

Elaine blinked in surprise. “You’re advocating cheating?”

“Drawing information out of a book isn’t cheating,” Dread pointed out, dryly. “Neither is the use of memory potions to enhance one’s recall. They are taught, after all, because someone might want to use them. Cheating is getting someone else to do the work and most of those spells won’t help with that.”

“I suppose,” Elaine muttered, remembering her own schooling. There had been times when she’d been tempted to cheat, if it had been possible to cheat her way into a greater level of inherent magic. But that had been impossible – then. Now, she knew a thousand ways to boost her power … and the terrible price they demanded. Sanity, for starters. “And that …?”

Dread followed her pointing finger. “That isn’t a standard method of cheating at all,” he said. “That’s a damned compulsion spell.”

Elaine pressed her hands against the glowing image, trying to get it to focus in on the user. It turned out to be a seventeen-year-old girl preparing for her exams. Charity Conidian, Elaine recalled; one of the daughters of a Privy Councillor. Why would she want to cheat when it would reflect badly on her father? But the charm might not be her work at all.

“I’ll ask Vane to bring her into my office,” Elaine said, as she staggered to her feet. “You can interview her there without disturbing the other students.”

Vane obeyed without question. Elaine’s deputy wasn’t a good librarian – she certainly lacked the obsession with books that had driven Elaine when she was younger – but she was good at dealing with people, a quality that Elaine lacked. Her smile, undoubted power and family connections allowed her to handle the library’s staff and visitors, leaving Elaine to work on managing the library’s collection and writing her own spellbook.

“Draw some energy from the wards,” Dread advised. “You might need it.”

Elaine shook her head. The library’s wards simply didn’t work that way.

Charity Conidian proved to be the sort of girl that Elaine had hated, back when she’d been in school. Beautiful, rich, well-connected … and actually good at her studies. Long blonde hair framed a heart-shaped face that was probably the result of endless cosmetic charms – or so Elaine told herself. Charity reminded her of Millicent, before Kane had almost destroyed her mind. Six months later, Millicent still hadn’t recovered completely.

“Good afternoon,” Dread said, lifting his wand. The girl’s eyes went wide, but he had the compulsion spell off her before it could force her to do anything drastic. “Who put that spell on you?”

“My father,” Charity said. Very few people would be stupid enough to lie to an Inquisitor. “I asked him to do it.”

Elaine stared at her. Compulsion spells were not exactly illegal, but using one on someone without a very good reason was likely to get someone in hot water. And using one on one’s own daughter? The books in Elaine’s head told her that it had happened before, in far more detail than she’d ever wanted to know. None of the reasons were very good.

“Your father, the Conidian, put a basic compulsion spell on you,” Dread said. He didn’t sound as if he believed her either. “Why?”

Charity sagged. “I was having problems keeping up with my studies,” she admitted, “and father promised me an establishment of my own if I graduated in the top ten. But I just couldn’t concentrate! So I went to him and asked him for the charm.”

Elaine and Dread shared a glance. As far as she knew – and thanks to the Witch-King her memory went back as far as the foundation of the empire itself – that was unprecedented.

She found herself giving the girl a look of mild respect. Actually going to someone and asking them to use such a charm, just to help them study? Elaine couldn’t decide if it was a stroke of genius or absolute madness.

“Compulsion charms can be dangerous,” Dread said, “particularly if someone accepted them voluntarily. I suggest that you learn to master the art of studying without such help.”

He scowled at her. “And your father will hear from me about it,” he added. “He should know better than to use such charms on his daughter.”

Charity bowed her head, then retreated from the office.

“Well,” Dread said, once the door was closed. “That was a fine waste of time.”

“Maybe,” Elaine said. The Conidian served on the Privy Council, after all. She had a feeling that she hadn’t heard the last of the whole affair. “But at least we know the monitoring system works now.”

“Yes,” Dread said. “Until someone else finds a new way to break in.”

6 Responses to “The Very Ugly Duckling (Bookworm II)–Snippet”

  1. Mark June 20, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

    Can’t wait!

  2. Korwin June 25, 2013 at 6:29 am #

    I got the impression Elaine’s Magic got an power boost or at least got changed by the wild magic?
    Was it only an cosmetic change?

  3. Korwin June 28, 2013 at 6:01 am #

    Was thinking about this passage:
    “Her magic seemed to have been…tainted somehow, ……
    It still seemed to be ready for her to call upon when necessary, but now it rolled and seethed inside her mind.”

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