The first thing Holly knew, when she opened her eyes, was that she was no longer alone.
The second thing she knew was that the intruder had cast a complex spell on her. She couldn’t move a muscle, apart from her mouth. Even her eyes refused to open.
She refused to panic. At fifty years of age, most of them spent living in her shack, Holly had little fear of death. Besides, the intruder had to be a powerful magician – he’d walked through her wards and protections without triggering any alarms – but it was unlikely that he meant her any real harm. If he had, he could have cut her throat before she ever woke up.
“Good morning,” a cultured voice said. It was male, but otherwise unfamiliar. A spell was probably being used to disguise the speaker. “I apologise for casting a spell on you, but I would prefer to remain unknown.”
“I am sure of it,” Holly said, dryly. “And why exactly have you invaded my home?”
“I came to make you an offer,” the voice said. There was a clink as something was dumped onto the rickety table. “An offer of power.”
Holly snorted. She’d heard such offers before. Hedge Witches lived closer to the untamed wild magic than any of the snooty graduates of Whitehall, Mountaintop or the other magical academies. She’d seen her first demon before she even had her first blood.
And she knew what demons wanted. “And all you want in exchange is my soul?”
“Not at all,” the voice assured her. “I merely wish you to use what I bring you.”
Holly didn’t believe him. In her experience, nothing was ever given for nothing. There was always something desired in exchange, no matter how many pretty words might be used to hide it. And power always came with a price.
The voice became seductive. “Have you never wished for more power?”
Holly would have nodded, if she had been able to move. She’d been born to a poor family, in a poor village. Only a talent for magic had saved her from being sold or married off as soon as she first passed blood. But she had never been powerful enough to go to one of the academies. Instead, she had learned from the local Hedge Witch and, when the elderly woman had died, Holly had taken her place.
But it was a frustrating job. People relied on her and were terrified of her in equal measure. They begged for her help and whispered about her behind her back. And, no matter what she did, she knew she couldn’t help all of them. She had dedicated her life to the folk of the mountains, yet it was never enough. And the demons knew how she felt. It was why they kept coming to her, tempting her with dreams of power.
“Yes,” she said, out loud.
“These are the tools of a magician who garnered power,” the voice said. He tapped something that sounded like wood. “A skull of memories. A book of spells. And a knife of power.”
“I can’t read,” Holly confessed.
There was a chuckle from the darkness. “The New Learning hasn’t spread this far yet, has it?”
He cleared his throat, then pressed on before Holly could ask him what he meant. “Don’t worry,” he assured her. There was an easy confidence in his voice that both puzzled and alarmed her. How long had he been spying on her to have such an accurate idea of her capabilities? “The skull will provide all the guidance you need. All I ask in return is that you help the folk of the mountains.”
Holly clenched her teeth, pressing against the spell. It refused to break. “Why … why are you doing this?”
“Because someone has to,” the voice said. It was a delightfully uninformative answer. “And because the people need help. You know how powerless they are.”
He was right, Holly knew. The mountainfolk scrabbled to make a living from the soil. What little they had was taxed, often heavily, by the Lords of the High Castles. Their sons were pressed into armies, their daughters often forced into effective prostitution; entire families had been broken up because their masters decided that it was necessary. Hedge Witch or no, Holly had never been in a position to stop the aristocrats from bullying the common folk. If she’d tried, she knew the aristocrats would have called for a magician from the academies to deal with her. All she could do was watch.
But if she were offered the power to change it, would she?
She had to admit that she probably would. The only reason the aristocrats held power was that they were powerful. If she had more power, she could make them bend to her will. And then she could ensure that the mountainfolk had a chance to live free.
“Good luck,” the voice said.
The spell unravelled moments later. Holly’s eyes jerked open, but all she saw was the cramped interior of her shack. Her tutor had told her that a Hedge Witch shouldn’t crave luxury; the shack was barren, apart from a pile of blankets, a table, a handful of shelves and a small fireplace. The shelves were crammed with potion ingredients Holly had collected herself. She stumbled to her feet and looked around, sharply. Her vast family of cats seemed to have vanished completely.
Carefully, she tested the wards. As far as she could tell, they were intact. But the intruder had walked right through them.
She looked down at the table and scowled. As the voice had promised, there was a skull, a book … and a knife. The skull glittered with magic of a kind Holly had never seen before – she resolved to be careful when trying to use it – and the book seemed impenetrable. But it was the knife that caught her attention. It was a long dagger, with odd runes carved into the blade …
… And it was made of stone.
The room looked perfectly safe. Emily was suspicious at once.
She stepped into the room, hand raised in a defensive posture. Magic crackled over her fingertips as she glanced around, looking for unexpected surprises. Blackhall was crammed with traps, some magical, some mundane; the merest touch could trigger something that would explode in her face. And, with Emily the only student in the building, the traps could be keyed to her personally.
The room was empty, save for a potted tree that grew out of a pot and reached up through a hole in the ceiling. Emily eyed it doubtfully, then cast a series of magic-detection spells. The tree was completely out of place, so out of place that she suspected that it was part of a trap. And yet it just seemed to be a perfectly normal tree …
Puzzled, she inched over towards the door on the far side of the room and cast another detection spell. The door itself seemed safe, but there was a powerful spell on the doorknob, one keyed to touch. The moment she touched it, she would unleash … what? So far, Blackhall’s defences had included everything from stunning spells to immediate eviction from the building. Emily couldn’t count the number of times she’d touched the wrong thing and triggered a trap.
She glanced behind her and muttered a curse. The door through which she had entered was gone. The only way out was through the sealed door. Absently, she tested the walls – she’d escaped one trap by blasting through the walls – and discovered that they were held firmly in place by magic. Clearly, Sergeant Miles wasn’t about to allow her to use the same trick twice.
There was no time for further reflection. Kneeling down beside the door, she started to work on the spell guarding the doorknob. She expected it to be tricky – the sergeants were brilliant at inventing complex traps – but the spell unravelled almost as soon as she touched it with her magic. Emily blinked in surprise; that had really been too easy. And then she sensed the second spell coming to life. A second spell had been hidden behind the first, waiting for the first spell to be removed. Emily threw up her hands as a wave of magic surged out at her, but it was too late.
She felt the spell strike her, warping her body. The experience wasn’t painful, but it was thoroughly uncomfortable – and interfered with her own magic. She saw hairs sprouting on her palms a moment before her head started to swim, her perspective changing rapidly. Her vision faded, then recovered. The room suddenly seemed a great deal larger …
Dear God, she thought, as she looked down at herself. I’m a cat!
The cattish instincts crashed into her mind a moment later. Prank spells provided their victim with protections against losing their minds, but the sergeants had obviously gone for something nastier. Emily found herself leaping across the room before her mind quite caught up with what she was doing. The tree she’d dismissed as unimportant suddenly looked great fun to climb. She looked up, remembering that the tree led out of the room. If Sergeant Miles hadn’t come to get her, she might not have failed … yet.
She climbed up the tree, marvelling inwardly at how nimble the cat-form was, then slipped into the crack in the roof. Inside, there was a long low passageway, smelling of something that alarmed her cattish side. Emily concentrated – it would be far too easy to lose herself inside the cat’s mind – and forced her way onwards, hoping and praying that the spell wouldn’t wear off while she was in the passageway. If she was lucky, she would end up trapped; if she was unlucky, her human body wouldn’t be able to fit into the passageway …
There was a faint hissing sound – her fur stood on end – and then the snake came into view, sliding towards her with deadly intent. She was probably imagining it, she told herself, but the snake seemed to look malicious. Beady eyes fixed on her as it advanced. Her cat-form shuddered, then went still. Emily remembered The Jungle Book and felt a flash of alarm, realising just how the snake had caught its dinner. She had almost been hypnotised into waiting patiently to be devoured.
She braced herself – and jumped as soon as the snake lunged at her. There was a dull thud as its head struck the stone floor, followed by an angry hiss. Emily felt the cat’s panic as she ran forward, past the writhing tail and out through another crack. The snake’s hisses seemed to grow louder, but it didn’t follow her out into the room. Emily wondered, absently, if the snake was actually part of the tests, before deciding that it probably was. The wards would have kept it out if the sergeants hadn’t wanted it there.
The cat instincts seemed to grow stronger as she looked around the room, threatening to overwhelm her human body. Emily mentally gritted her teeth as she struggled to cast the counter-spell; her mind was starting to merge into the cat’s, which meant that she no longer thought that being a cat was odd. Panic howled at the back of her mind as she fought the spell, but it refused to break. Was she doomed to spend the rest of her life as a cat?
“That’s a nasty spell,” a voice said.
Emily jumped, then skittered towards the far side of the room. She’d been so caught up in the mental struggle that she hadn’t realised that she was no longer alone.
“Let me help,” the voice added.
There was a snapping sound, as if someone had snapped their fingers. Emily closed her eyes hastily as her body twisted, then slowly returned to human form. When she opened them, she found herself kneeling on all-fours. And, standing in the centre of the room, was the sorcerer Void.
He looked older than he had the last time Emily had met him, something that bothered her. For a man who claimed to be over a hundred years old, he had a streak of vanity in his character that kept him using rejuvenation spells to appear young. Now, his brown hair was shading to gray and his skin was lined and pitted with wrinkles. He wore a simple black robe, loose enough to cover everything. Emily had the odd impression that he was actually weaker than he looked.
She straightened up, embarrassed. “Void,” she said, feeling an odd mixture of emotions. He was her Guardian – and the closest thing she had to a father. And yet he hadn’t visited Whitehall since the Mimic had been destroyed. The other students had been visited by their parents, who had descended on Whitehall en masse, but Emily had been left alone. Part of her resented it. “It’s good to see you again.”
“And you,” Void said. “I was … gratified to receive your exam results.”
Emily found herself blushing. Back on Earth, no one would have given a damn about her grades. Hearing that Void cared pleased and worried her in equal measure. It was strange to have someone looking out for her welfare, yet it made her feel unsteady. The person who should have looked out for her welfare had climbed into a bottle and never come out.
“Thank you,” she said. She knew she’d done well. Thanks to Mistress Sun and Lady Barb, her charms were head and shoulders above her classmates. The only class she’d actually failed was Martial Magic, where she simply hadn’t been able to keep up with the more experienced students. She would have to repeat most of the class in Year Three. “Were you pleased?”
“Of course,” Void said. “I’m very proud of you.”
Emily’s blush deepened. “Do you … do you want to go back to Whitehall?”
“I’d prefer not to speak with the Grandmaster,” Void said. He looked around the room, contemplatively. “Besides, this place brings back old memories. I ran through the maze myself too, once upon a time.”
When dinosaurs ruled the Earth, Emily thought, snidely. She didn’t say it out loud.
“Besides, I came to talk to you personally,” Void added. “There have been interesting developments. A necromancer is dead.”
Emily blinked. Necromancers were immensely powerful magicians, feeding on the life and magic of their victims to power their spells. Channelling such power through their minds always drove them insane, eventually. Shadye, who had brought Emily into her new world and then been killed by her, had been utterly barking mad when he’d died. Emily still had nightmares about facing him. She suspected she wasn’t the only one.
She forced her mind to work properly. “Poison?”
“Apparently, the necromancer’s throat was slit,” Void said. “Necromancer Harrow lived on the far side of the Desert of Death, ruling the remains of a small kingdom. I … kept an eye on him, worrying about the day he decided to cross the desert and attack the Allied Lands. And then his wards shivered and collapsed. When I investigated, I discovered that he was dead.”
Emily considered it. Necromancers did not die easily – and, from what she’d heard, their deaths brought on massive explosions as their stolen magic erupted from their bodies. The only exception to that rule had been Shadye, whom Emily had trapped in a pocket dimension which had then been snapped out of existence. Harrow’s body should have been utterly destroyed, along with a large part of his enslaved kingdom.
“That’s not bad news,” she said, slowly. “Is it?”
“We do not know how the necromancer was killed,” Void pointed out. “Fingers were pointed in your direction.”
He quirked an eyebrow at Emily. “Was it your work?”
Emily shook her head, hastily. Her method for killing necromancers required a nexus and enough time to set up the trap. She certainly hadn’t left Whitehall to go hunting necromancers.
“The Desert of Death,” she said, slowly. She’d taken an interest in the geography of the Allied Lands, but map-reading had never been her forte. “Isn’t that near where we’re going?”
“Yes,” Void said, tonelessly. “You should be very careful. We do not know what happened to Harrow, which leaves us with a worrying mystery. Whoever killed him may have powers about which we know nothing.”
Emily nodded in understanding. The Allied Lands didn’t know what she’d done to kill Shadye, thanks to the Sorcerer’s Rule. It had given her a reputation that made her feared and admired in equal measure. No one had ever taken on a necromancer in single combat and lived to tell the tale – apart from Emily herself. Some claimed she was naturally powerful, others that she’d cheated in some way … and still others that she was a necromancer herself. Rumours and innuendos would follow her for the rest of her life. If someone else had beaten a necromancer, one on one …
“You think we might encounter the killer?”
“It’s a possibility,” Void said.
“Maybe it was another necromancer,” Emily pointed out. “They’re not exactly friendly …”
“We don’t know,” Void admitted. “Few necromancers would willingly lower their guard when another necromancer was close by. But it is a possibility.”
He cleared his throat. “I want you to be very careful when you’re on your roving patrol,” he added. “Keep a sharp eye out for trouble. Hell, keep a sharp eye out for trouble anyway. I hear that the mountain lords have been plotting trouble for each other ever since the Empire fell. You might wind up in the midst of another coup.”
Emily shook her head. “I very much hope not,” she said, primly. The last attempted coup had been nightmarish, with one of her best friends a prisoner and the other very much at risk. “Lady Barb intends for us to stay out of danger.”
Void smirked. “Danger will find you,” he assured her. “It always does.”
Emily nodded, reluctantly.
“I meant to ask,” she said. She’d actually written several letters, none of which had been returned. That had hurt, but if Void had been spying on a necromancer, he wouldn’t have had time to reply. “What are you planning to do about Lin and Mountaintop?”
“The Grandmaster has requested that he be allowed to handle it,” Void said. His face twisted into a thin smile. “I have agreed to respect his wishes.”
Emily lifted her eyebrows. If there was one thing she had learned about Void, who had saved her life and sent her to Whitehall, it was that he had a habit of riding roughshod over everyone else if he felt it was the right thing to do. Lady Barb disliked him, with reason; the Grandmaster seemed to be wary of him. And non-magicians found the thought of Emily being his bastard daughter worrying. Void had quite a reputation.
“And I understand that you have been corresponding with young Jade again,” Void said, hastily changing the subject. “Have you made up your mind about him?”
Emily flushed. Jade had proposed to her at the end of her first year at Whitehall – and, by his lights, he’d done her a favour. But Emily had been reluctant to commit herself, not after watching how badly her mother had screwed up her life by marrying the wrong men. And then she’d been ennobled and Jade’s letters had dried up for months. Now they were talking again, but there was a barrier between them that hadn’t been there before. It wasn’t considered socially acceptable for a commoner, even a combat sorcerer in training, to court a Baroness.
“We’re going to meet soon,” she said. Jade’s letters had talked endlessly about the Great Faire, which was apparently going to be held near Lady Barb’s home. “I think we’ll talk about it.”
“Good luck,” Void said. He smirked. “Would you care to know how many requests for your hand I have received?”
“No,” Emily said, quickly.
Void laughed. “I’ll see you again soon,” he said. He gave her a small wave. “Goodbye.”
There was a surge of magic and a flash of light. When it faded, he was gone. Emily felt a flicker of envy – she planned to learn to teleport as soon as possible – and then scowled as the door opened. Ahead of her, she saw a passageway leading out of the building. Sergeant Miles clearly felt that having Void’s help to return to human form was cheating. Gritting her teeth – if the sergeant decided she’d done it deliberately, she wouldn’t be sitting comfortably for a few days – Emily walked through the doors and out into the grounds. Bright sunlight struck her and she lifted a hand to cover her eyes.
“Careful,” Sergeant Miles said. “You never know what you might miss.”
Emily turned to face him. He was a short friendly-looking man, the sort of man anyone could trust on sight. And he was, Emily knew. He took very good care of his students, including Emily, giving them good advice and encouragement when they needed it. But woe betide the person who tried to take advantage of his good nature.
“That was Void,” he said, shortly. “I thought it was him.”
“Yes,” Emily said. “I didn’t call him …”
“I didn’t say you did,” Sergeant Miles pointed out, dryly. “Is it just me or are you being too defensive these days.”
Emily shrugged. Term had ended a week ago; Alassa and Imaiqah had gone home to Zangaria, leaving Emily to wait for Lady Barb. She’d been … encouraged to spend her days practicing with Sergeant Miles, who didn’t seem to have anywhere else to go. But the tests had gotten harder and harder, constantly pushing her to the limit.
“Lady Barb wishes you to meet her in the library,” the Sergeant added. “Good luck on your patrol.”
“Thank you,” Emily said. “And thank you for keeping me busy.”
She turned and walked through the forest, back towards Whitehall. For once, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky. It was pleasantly warm; she smiled as she caught sight of a flock of butterflies floating through the air, followed by a handful of bees. When Whitehall came into view, she stopped and stared at the castle before resuming her walk. It still struck her as wondrous, even after two years. There was nothing like it on Earth.
Inside, she blinked in surprise as she saw two boys cleaning the Grand Hall. Both of them had been held back after a prank had gone wrong – Emily didn’t know the full details – and had been set to cleaning the castle. Given Whitehall’s multidimensional nature, Emily rather doubted they would be finished before the holidays were over and schooling resumed. There were literally miles of corridor in the building.
She walked past them and headed up the stairs to the library. Whitehall felt strange without most of its students, although at least there wouldn’t be a crowd in the library. Lady Aylia was sitting behind her desk, carefully marking and tagging the new books from various printers. Emily couldn’t help a flicker of pride at seeing books produced by her printing presses. Given a few years, they were likely to revolutionise education in the Allied Lands.
“She said to take a seat and wait,” Lady Aylia said. She barely looked up from her work. “I believe the Grandmaster wished to speak with her.”
Emily nodded, unsurprised. They had planned to leave two days ago, but something had popped up and Emily had been told to stay at Whitehall. The Allied Lands didn’t believe in precise schedules, something that amused and irked her in equal measure. Sitting down at one of the desks, she pulled her notebook out of her pocket and started to write down ideas and thoughts. There were spells she wanted to develop, spells that might help the Allied Lands when the necromancers finally came over the mountains …
She’d faced Shadye and won – by cheating. The next necromancer she faced might be far harder to defeat.
And she knew precisely what they would do to a world she had come to love.