The Royal Sorceress III: Necropolis

30 Mar

Coming soon!

Prologue

Written for publication in The Times, London, 1831. Article suppressed at the request of His Majesty’s Government.

It is with great dismay that we report an attack on Cavendish Hall, home of His Majesty’s Royal Sorcerers Corps. The incident was spearheaded by an explosion in one of the training compartments, which apparently served as a diversion to allow the actual attack to take place without interruption. As far as can be determined, the aim of the attack was the kidnap of OLIVIA CRICHTON, the adopted daughter of LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON, the Royal Sorceress. The kidnappers succeeded in removing OLIVIA CRICHTON from Cavendish Hall and, as of writing, she has not been recovered.

Large parts of OLIVIA CRICHTON’S past are a mystery. We know she was adopted after the Swing, with several people suggesting that she is the daughter of either Master Thomas or Master Jack, but there are no records of her existence prior to then. Nor is there any clear reason why LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON chose to adopt her, despite being barely of marriageable age herself. The only reasonable assumption seems to be that she possesses powerful magic of her own. If she is indeed the daughter of a Master Magician, she may well be a Master herself.

LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON flatly refused to comment on the affair. However, her father, LORD RUDOLF CRICHTON stated that OLIVIA CRICHTON had been accepted into the family, suggesting that she may well have an aristocratic birth, even if the records are sealed.

Speaking in the House of Commons, HIS MAJESTY’S PRIME MINISTER, THE DUKE OF INDIA, stated that the attack would not be allowed to hamper His Majesty’s Government’s preparations for war with France, which is expected at any moment. The Royal Sorcerers Corps, in common with the other military arms of this great nation, will stand shoulder to shoulder against any threat. However, with an attack that apparently caused a considerable amount of damage, the reputation of the Royal Sorcerers Corps has been badly dented at the worst possible time.

Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard was unwilling to comment, but sources within the government have suggested that the kidnapping was intended to put pressure on LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON, who would be expected to lead the Royal Sorcerers Corps into battle, despite being a woman. Colonel Sebastian, who has rejoined his old unit, was unavailable for comment, but other disgruntled magicians warned of the dangers of female emotions interfering with military operations. If LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON is threatened with her daughter being killed or otherwise hurt, how will she react under such pressure?

The timing of the incident seems dire. With war against France seemingly days or even hours away, and the Russians apparently reluctant to commit to either side, we can only pray that OLIVIA CRICHTON is recovered as soon as possible. The fate of Great Britain and her Empire might depend on it.

Chapter One

Olivia Crichton fought her way back to wakefulness through a haze of pain.

Her memories made no sense. She’d been in the library, studying – again – with her tutor, trying to master boring Latin grammar she knew she’d never use outside Cavendish Hall. Apparently, educated ladies were supposed to know Latin; privately, she figured that she’d forget it as soon as she impressed her tutor and he moved on to something more interesting. And he’d given her a drink. And …

She swallowed hard, cursing her own carelessness. Six months off the streets and she’d lowered her guard long enough to take a drink from a near-stranger, a man who hadn’t tried to hide his disdain for the street child Lady Gwen had adopted. There had to have been something in the water, she realised slowly, something to knock her out. And then she’d been transported somewhere else.

Carefully, without opening her eyes, she felt out her surroundings. She was lying facedown on something soft, her hands were firmly tied behind her back. The environment felt as if it were rocking slightly, reminding her of the first time she’d sailed on a boat up the Thames with Jack, before the Swing. She could hear nothing, apart from a thrumming sound that seemed to come from below her. And, as far as she could tell, she was alone. Bracing herself, she opened her eyes.

She was in a cabin, she realised at once. It was barren, apart from a mattress and a tiny porthole that shone bright light into the room. The walls were solid metal; the door seemed strong enough to resist an army. But she knew better than to stay where she’d been put. A childhood in the Rookery had taught her that being helpless was never a good idea. She twisted slightly, testing her bonds, then started to press against the knots. It didn’t feel as though she was bound tightly enough to prevent her from carefully working her way free.

The other girls at the Hall would be helpless by now, she thought, with a flicker of contempt and bitter amusement. Their perfumes and social graces wouldn’t get them out of this mess.

She smiled, darkly, as she managed to loosen the ropes enough to pull her hands free. In theory, she was an aristocrat herself, the adopted daughter of the Royal Sorceress. But in practice, no one took her seriously, apart from Lady Gwen and the senior magicians, some of whom viewed her and her magic with barely concealed horror. She simply didn’t have the noble blood of the other women at Cavendish Hall, let alone the endless lessons in etiquette that had been drilled into their heads since they were old enough to tell the difference between a knife and a fork. There was no one at the hall she could really talk to, not as friends. But then, in the Rookery, friendship was often secondary to bare survival. A friend could hurt you more effectively than a stranger.

Her hands came free. She let out a sigh of relief, remembering the first time she’d been captured and tied up by an older man who hadn’t realised she was a girl. Not that that would have saved her, she knew; his tastes might have run to young boys, but there were plenty of others on the streets who preferred young girls. She might well have been sold to one of the brothels and never been seen again, or simply wound up with her throat cut in an alleyway. But she’d escaped the bastard and she would escape this new prison too.

She undid the bonds on her legs, then stood up, gingerly. Her legs felt weak, as if the drug hadn’t worked its way completely out of her body. She shuddered, then staggered over to the porthole and looked outside. There was a seemingly endless stretch of water outside but, in the distance, she could see land. She pulled at the porthole, trying to open it up, but rapidly discovered it was impossible. It was firmly sealed against escape.

Gritting her teeth, she walked over to the door and tested it. It was hard to open, but it wasn’t locked. Olivia blinked in surprise, then decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and crept outside. In the distance, she could hear someone talking in a language she didn’t recognise, but there was no one outside. They must have thought that the bonds were enough to secure her, she thought with another flicker of contempt. If she’d been a born noblewoman, she reminded herself, they would probably have been right.

The floor – the deck, she told herself – was silvered, reflecting her own face back at her. She scowled darkly as she saw her torn dress and long blonde hair, knowing that there was no way she could still hope to pass for a young boy. She’d filled out alarmingly ever since coming to Cavendish Hall and feeding regularly, growing breasts and enough hair that it took far too long to prepare every morning. If it hadn’t been for the maids, Olivia would have cut her hair as short as Lady Gwen. But they’d been insistent and Olivia hadn’t wanted to defy them, even though she was technically their social superior. They’d helped save her from all manner of social embarrassments in the time she’d been at the Hall.

She brushed her hair out of her face, looking down at her dress. It still bothered her to know that it had cost enough money to feed a dozen families in the Rookery for six months, both because of the expense and because it made her a target. Wearing something expensive in the Rookery was just asking to be robbed, unless one happened to be so well known and fearsome that everyone else was scared instead. And to think it was one of the cheaper dresses in Cavendish Hall! She should have worn trousers instead, she told herself tartly, even if Gwen would have disapproved. It would have been far more practical than the damned dress …

Olivia froze as she heard someone coming down the corridor towards her. She glanced around hastily, looking for somewhere to hide, but saw nothing apart from solid metal. There was no time to get back to her cabin-prison before he came into view … she braced herself, then ran forward, cursing the dress under her breath. The man gaped at her as she charged him, then raised his hands, too late. Olivia rammed her fist into his chest with all of her strength, then chopped out at his throat. He dropped to the deck, choking and gasping for breath.

Idiot, Olivia thought, with a certain amusement. Growing up in the Rookery had taught her how to fight – and fight properly, not like the aristocrats and their obsession with fair fights with stupid rules. And most of the girls she had to study with at Cavendish Hall would have refused to fight, even if they’d been threatened with rape and murder. The very thought of being without male protection would have shocked them, even as half of the silly cows railed against being taken for weak and feeble women. They wouldn’t have lasted a day in the Rookery.

She tore at her dress, abandoning modesty in favour of movement, then started to run towards a ladder leading up to the deck. Another man was coming down the latter, carrying a large metal box in one hand; Olivia ran forward and punched him, as hard as she could, in the groin. He staggered, then fell, screaming in pain. Olivia cursed her own mistake – the entire boat would hear the racket – and then scrambled up the ladder as quickly as she could. Outside, sea air slapped at her face; she heard the sound of gulls calling as she came out of the hatch and ran towards the railing. But when she saw the water, she froze. Land was so far away that it was barely a strip of green on the horizon.

Ladies weren’t normally taught to swim. Gwen had insisted she learn, and she’d taken to her lessons far better than any of the aristocratic girls, but she’d only ever swum in the large pool at Cavendish Hall, wearing one of the absurd bathing costumes that covered almost everything, apart from her face and hair. The idea of swimming in the sea made her hesitate a moment too long, just long enough for someone to wrap their arms around her and yank her backwards. Olivia gasped in pain as he squeezed, then lifted her foot and kicked him in the leg as hard as she could. He grunted, but ignored it. She screamed and he clamped a hand over her mouth, precisely as she hoped. Opening her mouth, she bit him as hard as she could, biting down until she drew blood. He gasped, his grip on her loosening. Taking advantage of his distraction, she pulled herself free and started to run.

But where could she go? She’d seen a handful of boats, but this one didn’t look large enough for her to hide long enough to be rescued, if anyone knew where she was. Gwen would look for her – Olivia had no doubt of that – but how would Gwen knew where to start looking? And could she even catch up with the boat in time to save Olivia? The kidnappers, whoever they were, might well take their humiliation out on their captive, who had dared to try to escape. Olivia had heard enough stories from the Rookery to know she didn’t dare let herself be recaptured.

She reached the stern of the boat, stared down at the choppy water, and started to scramble over the railing. It would be a long swim; probably a very dangerous swim, but at least she would take her destiny in her own hands. She was midway over her railing when she heard a voice behind her.

“Stop,” it ordered.

Olivia’s body froze before her mind quite caught up with what was happening. For a long moment, she teetered on the railing, as if she were about to fall over the edge and plummet into the water, then strong hands gripped her and pulled her back onto the boat. She was rolled over and found herself looking up into the eyes of a tall thin man with short dark hair an incredibly pale face. Even if she hadn’t felt his magic, she liked to think she would have deduced what he was from the expression alone. There was a hint of superiority in his face that all such magicians seemed to have in common, the belief that they were superior to their fellow men, even their fellow magicians.

A Charmer, she realised, numbly. Wonderful.

“That was unwise,” the Charmer said, evenly. “There are dangerous currents in these waters, young lady. You would have been very lucky if your body was ever recovered.”

There was no longer any magic in his voice, but Olivia cringed inwardly anyway. She hated Charmers. Very few people actually liked having magicians who could influence their thoughts or compel someone to obey anywhere near them. And some of the Charmers in training at Cavendish Hall loved playing tricks on their fellow students. All magicians seemed to have a sense of playfulness in common, but Charmers were often nasty rather than playful.

“Now, listen,” he added. Magic ran through his voice, demanding her complete attention. “You will obey all orders I give you. You will remain calm at all times. You will remain in your cabin unless escorted by myself or one of my crew. You will not attempt to jump into the water again or to escape as long as you are on this vessel.”

Olivia cursed inwardly as she felt the commands sinking into her mind. Ropes and chains were one thing – she had already escaped one set of ropes – but mental commands were quite another. There was no attempt to be subtle, no attempt to influence her thoughts without her being aware of the influence, yet it hardly mattered. The commands would last for days, perhaps weeks, before she finally managed to break free. And he would presumably renew them every few days. She was trapped, bound by her own mind, far more solidly than she would be by handcuffs or shackles.

The Charmer leaned down until his dark eyes held hers firmly. “Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir,” Olivia said. She felt helpless and weak, a feeling she hated … but the anger was curiously muted, dampened by his magic. He knew that strong emotion would help her to break the spell and had taken steps to prevent her from getting angry. “I understand.”

“Very good,” the Charmer said. He stood upright and smiled down at her, a glint of amusement in his cold eyes. “Stand.”

Olivia felt her body obey at once. She tried to glare at him as she rose to her feet, but the numbness seemed to press down on her emotions, making it harder for her to do anything more than stand there like a damnable opium addict. The thought was terrifying; she’d seen men and women venture into the opium dens and slowly fade away into nothingness, hooked on the drug that was slowly destroying their lives. Even if she’d had the money, she liked to think she wouldn’t have walked into a den willingly …

But that wasn’t the worst of it, she knew. A Charmer’s influence could be almost as addictive as any drug. At some point, their victims moved from hating the compulsion to loving it and demanding to surrender their minds to the magician controlling them. She swore to herself that she would never let it happen, yet she knew it wouldn’t be easy to resist. Unscrupulous Charmers were among the worst of magicians. Their victims often ended up in Bedlams, unable even to care for themselves. And he would want her to be completely under his control.

She found her voice. “What do you want from me?”

The Charmer smiled. “What do you think?”

Olivia swallowed. She had two things that were largely unique, as far as anyone knew. She was Lady Gwen’s daughter … and she was a necromancer. But anyone who wanted to kidnap her purely for the ransom wouldn’t have taken her out of Britain. No, they would have preferred to keep her somewhere she could be traded quickly for whatever ransom they demanded. Lady Gwen was a wealthy woman in her own right. They could have demanded a vast sum of money with the reasonable certainty they would be paid.

But if they wanted her because she was a necromancer …

She felt sick as she remembered the final moments of the Battle of London. The shambling hordes of undead monsters advancing towards her, the eerie whispering running through her mind that had grown louder and louder as the undead had grown in strength … and the moment she’d finally managed to stop their advance. They would have destroyed London, then the entire country if they hadn’t been stopped. She had saved Britain from a doom unleashed by one of her foremost defenders. And even that hadn’t been enough to save her from a death sentence, purely for being what she was. It had taken Gwen’s adoption of Olivia to convince the government to let her live.

“You must never use your powers again, unless ordered to do so,” Gwen had said. Olivia hadn’t needed much convincing. Unlike the other forms of magic, even Charm, necromancy was impossible to use for any decent purpose. “And you must not even tell people what you are.”

Olivia shuddered. Someone had clearly found out anyway – and kidnapped her.

“You know,” the Charmer said. “Don’t you?”

Her words came unwillingly to her lips. “You want me to raise the dead.”

“Something like that,” the Charmer said. “Follow me.”

He stood and strode back towards the hatch. Olivia followed him, unwillingly. She tried to struggle against the mental commands, but they were too strong to break. And yet, she knew that if she didn’t struggle, the commands would only sink further and further into her head until she would no longer be able to separate them from her own thoughts. He’d have her completely in his power when she thought she was serving him willingly.

The cabin looked as unprepossessing as before, but this time she felt herself trapped the moment she stepped back inside. The Charmer nodded to the mattress, then smiled at her mischievously. Olivia glowered at him, then sat down with all the dignity she could muster in her underclothes. She should definitely have worn trousers.

“You will be fed, of course,” the Charmer said. “You will eat and drink each day. You will not attempt to harm or kill yourself – or anyone else onboard this vessel.”

He smirked at her expression. She hadn’t considered suicide, at least not as a serious possibility, but he was clearly moving ahead of her. Olivia knew the potential consequences of an outbreak of undead monsters far better than anyone who hadn’t witnessed one such outbreak – and the knowledge she could cause one was terrifying. Suicide might have seemed the only reasonable solution if escape wasn’t a possibility. But he’d already ensured she couldn’t end her own life.

“Thank you,” she said, sourly.

The Charmer nodded, then walked over to the door and stepped outside. He paused, then turned to face her. “I suggest you sleep,” he added. “We have quite a long journey ahead of us.”

It wasn’t a command, but her mind insisted on interpreting it as one. Olivia felt her eyelids suddenly grow heavier. It was all she could do to lie down before her eyes closed and she plunged into darkness …

…And, when she dreamed, she dreamed of the horror she knew to come.

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