The School of Hard Knocks–Snippet

14 May

Chapter One

Emily glanced both ways up and down the corridor, then knelt in front of the heavy stone door and reached out with her mind. There was no physical lock holding it shut, merely an incredibly complex spell woven together from literally hundreds of spell components. It would pose no barrier to the person who had crafted the spell, but anyone else would find themselves either unable to enter or forced to unpick the spell piece by piece, just to gain entry. The spell was so well-crafted that it was already reacting to her intrusion.

She felt a moment of admiration for the professor who had crafted the spell – she had hardly any time to study it to determine how best to proceed – then plunged her mind into the spell, trying to sniff out its weak spot and destroy it. A spell so complex would have no shortage of components that could be removed, weakening the spell; she pushed her mind forward, feeling magic crackling around her as the spell continued to react. To stop now would leave her exposed to the spell – and whatever it was designed to do to unwanted intruders.

It felt like hours before she saw the knots of spell components holding the whole network together, but she knew it was no more than a few seconds. Time always seemed to slow down when she thrust her mind into a web of magic. Summoning a dispersal spell, she pushed it at the spell component and watched it evaporate into nothingness. The magic chasing her seemed to fade away at the exact same moment. Emily felt a flicker of triumph, which faded rapidly as she realised the remainder of the network of spells wasn’t collapsing. It was reconfiguring itself …

Horror flashed through her mind as she recalled the Mimic, then she realised – too late – what she was seeing. The professor had been clever, very clever. His spell had been designed to collapse into another pattern when someone removed the vital component. The magic powering the spell hadn’t evaporated, it had merely fallen into another spell and charged the new pattern instead. And there was no time left to deal with the new configuration. Magic flared around her …

… And she found herself back in her body, utterly unable to move.

Damn, she thought.

It had been Lady Barb’s idea to have Emily test her skills against the defences various professors mounted on their doors. Trying to break into professorial offices was an old tradition at Whitehall, after all. Emily had cracked three doors in the last two days, but they’d belonged to professors known to be weak in magic or magical skill. Professor Lombardi was neither.

She gathered her magic and tried to break the spell holding her firmly in place, but it refused to budge. It was difficult to tell if the spell was simply resistant to the magic she was using or if there was something about it that broke up and absorbed the spellwork before she could even trigger the magic. The professor’s defences were clearly far more complex than the simple freeze spells students practiced on one another in First Year.

“Well,” a voice said. “What do we have here?”

Emily had to wait until Professor Lombardi stepped into her field of vision before she saw him. He was a short man with lightly-tanned skin, wearing – instead of the robes most professors and students wore – a leather jacket and trousers that seemed to glitter under the light. The scars on his hands, a reminder of experiments that had failed, seemed to look worse every year. And he looked far from happy.

“Emily,” Professor Lombardi said. “You do realise that trying to break into the office of a Charms Master could be very dangerous?”

Yes, Emily thought. It was a point of law in the Allied Lands that magicians could do anything they wanted to anyone who tried to break into their homes. A magician’s home was his kingdom and he could defend it however he saw fit. The Grandmaster wouldn’t allow his professors to use anything lethal to defend their offices, but anyone caught in the act of trying to break in could expect harsh punishment at the very least.

“Let us see now,” Professor Lombardi said. He inspected the door, then turned to meet her frozen eyes. “You got past the first level, but the second caught you. I’d expect better from a student with more advanced tutoring in charms.”

He paused. “Of course, the third or fourth levels were primed with nastier defensive spells,” he added. “The third level would have turned you into a slug, while the fourth level would have knocked you out and kept you out. And you really don’t want to know what the fifth level would have done. Now … punishment.”

Emily cringed, mentally, as Professor Lombardi assumed a contemplative pose. He wasn’t an easy-going professor, not by any definition of the term. Emily had seen enough accidents, even in a carefully-supervised classroom, to find it hard to blame him. A moment’s carelessness could inflict permanent damage on an idiotic student. At the very least, she could look forward to a short uncomfortable session with the Warden.

“I’m afraid that won’t be necessary,” Lady Barb’s voice said. She sounded to be coming down the corridor, but Emily couldn’t turn her head to see. “Emily was acting on my instructions.”

Professor Lombardi’s face darkened. “And do the two of you have an excuse for setting a student loose on my wards?”

Emily felt a flicker of surprise. Two of them?

“Yes,” Lady Barb said. “It’s called practice.”

Emily heard her fingers snapping. A second later, the spell holding Emily in place shattered, releasing her from its grip. She staggered and would have fallen to the ground if Professor Lombardi hadn’t held out a hand and caught her. Her heartbeat was suddenly very loud in her ears, as if all involuntary functions had come to a halt while she’d been held by the spell. Or perhaps there was some function included in the spellwork that had kept her calm, despite being helplessly trapped. She knew she couldn’t ask the professor until he was in a better mood.

She turned, forcing herself to stand upright. Lady Barb winked at her; as always, she was a tall blonde woman with an patrician face. Her silver armour glittered in the light emanating from the walls. Beside her, Sergeant Miles looked like an amiable gnome. His short brown hair seemed damp, clinging to his skull. Emily’s eyes narrowed as she realised he was standing too close to Lady Barb …

“This is outrageous,” Professor Lombardi said. “You do not turn a student loose on my wards for practice.”

“You were the first Professor who managed to stop her,” Lady Barb pointed out, mildly. “I think you should be proud of your success.”

Professor Lombardi glowered at her, but Lady Barb cut him off before he could say anything.

“Emily, the Grandmaster wishes to speak with you,” she said. “Go to his office. I’ll speak to you afterwards.”

“And you can tell him that I object in the strongest possible terms to allowing anyone to practice on my wards,” Professor Lombardi said. “And if you hadn’t been encouraged by your tutors …”

“Testing wards is hardly an unimportant part of her training,” Sergeant Miles said. As always, he seemed utterly inoffensive. If Emily had met him without his armour or uniform, she would never have taken him for a soldier, let alone a combat sorcerer. “And besides, testing the defences here is an old rite of passage for students.”

“And so his hideous punishment for those who get caught,” Professor Lombardi snapped. “Emily; go.”

Emily nodded apologetically and fled down the corridor. Behind her, she heard the argument getting louder, then fade out as Whitehall’s wards absorbed the noise. She slowed as soon as she turned the corner, then walked up the stairs to the Grandmaster’s office. Whitehall felt eerily quiet to her, although she wasn’t sure if she was imagining it. She knew it would be another month before the majority of the staff and their students returned from holiday and resumed their studies.

She paused outside the Grandmaster’s office and checked her appearance in the mirror hanging from the wall. Her dark brown hair had grown longer, she noted, reaching down to the small of her back. She was tempted to keep it that way, although she knew she would need to cut it before classes resumed in the fall. But her face no longer looked pale, even compared to the dark shirt and trousers she wore, while her body looked stronger and healthier than ever before. And she felt more confident too, despite the certain knowledge that she would have been in real trouble if Lady Barb hadn’t intervened. She could have endured whatever Professor Lombardi chose to dish out as punishment.

The Grandmaster’s door was solid wood. Emily hesitated, then tapped once on the door. It creaked open a second later, allowing her to enter the office. Surprisingly, there was a large bookshelf mounted against the far wall, something that hadn’t been there the last time she’d visited the Grandmaster’s office. The Grandmaster normally kept his office completely barren, which no longer surprised her. He was blind.

“Emily,” the Grandmaster said, rising to his feet. “Take a seat.”

Emily sat and studied the Grandmaster as he returned a book to the shelf. He was a short man, barely taller than Sergeant Miles, yet he radiated power that blurred into the wards surrounding Whitehall. As always, a dirty cloth was wrapped around his eyes, a reminder of his blindness. Emily knew he had to see in some form, perhaps through magic, but she had no idea how it worked. She’d asked, once, and had been told she would have to wait to learn when her own magic was strong enough to use the technique.

Perhaps I should introduce Braille, she thought, morbidly. There were spells to cure blindness, but they were only available to the rich or well-connected. Poorer victims couldn’t hope to have their blindness cured. It made them completely useless to their families, nothing but an additional mouth to feed. Braille might make the difference between them having a chance to live or being thrown out into the gutter to die.

But she didn’t know how to recreate Braille from what little she knew of it …

The concept might work if I passed it on to someone, she thought. They’d have a clue how to proceed …

The Grandmaster cleared his throat. Emily started, embarrassed.

“I trust you have been enjoying your time at school, without actually having to attend classes,” the Grandmaster said. “You’ve certainly been keeping the librarian busy.”

Emily flushed. She’d spent over half of each day in the library, just reading her way through the colossal collection of books on magic and the Allied Lands. The remainder of the days had been spent with Lady Barb or Sergeant Miles, exercising and practicing newer forms of magic. Some of them had been so tricky she doubted she would be able to master them for years to come.

“Yes, sir,” she said.

The Grandmaster hesitated, then got to the point. “You will recall the events of last year, of course,” he said. “Lin stole some of your notes and almost killed you.”

Emily nodded, wordlessly. She still had nightmares about how close she’d come to death, time and time again. The Mimic would have killed her outright, then stolen her form, but the Gorgon’s magic would have leeched away her thoughts piece by piece, eventually leaving her as nothing more than a stone statue. It was a thoroughly horrifying way to die.

And the Gorgon would have been blamed for my death, she thought. Lin would have covered her tracks very neatly.

“We have been investigating since then,” the Grandmaster continued. His voice sounded oddly awkward. “We have uncovered a plot to kidnap you.”

Emily blinked. “Kidnap me?”

“You are quite important,” the Grandmaster pointed out, sardonically. “If you didn’t have such a powerful Guardian, it is quite likely there would be more plots to kidnap or assassinate you. Your mere presence turned the world upside down.”

Emily took a long breath. “And what should I do? Hide?”

“No,” the Grandmaster said. “We want you to let yourself be kidnapped.”

He went on before Emily could say a word. “The kidnap plot seems to come from Mountaintop,” he said, referring to one of the rival schools of magic. Lin had come from Mountaintop, along with a number of other exchange students. “They actually asked for you to be considered for the student exchange program in Second Year. Now … we believe they are moving to find a way to bring you to Mountaintop without our permission.”

Emily frowned. “By kidnapping me?”

“They would probably make it look like an accident,” the Grandmaster said. “Or perhaps have someone else do the kidnapping, then claim they rescued you. The point, Emily, is that they would have you at Mountaintop. At that point …”

He hesitated, noticeably. “At that point they will try to seduce you.”

Emily felt herself blushing. Male attention had always bothered her, although she had a feeling that it was more of a legacy from her stepfather than anything more fundamental. But the thought was absurd. Did they plan to send a handsome young wizard to woo her?

“They’ll offer you knowledge and power,” the Grandmaster said. “Lin … will have told them that you have a habit of pushing the limits. They’ll give you access to forbidden books, show you magics you are not yet ready to handle and encourage you to progress forward as fast as you think you can go. Mountaintop does not have a reputation for turning out excellent sorcerers without cause, Emily. There is a great deal they will be able to offer you.”

“Oh,” Emily said. She swallowed, nervously, as it dawned on her that it would be tempting. She’d resented the librarian’s flat refusal to show her some of the forbidden books without permission from the Grandmaster more than she cared to admit. “But what will they want in exchange?”

“They’ll want you, on their side,” the Grandmaster said.

Emily frowned, then looked up at him, staring at the cloth covering his eyes. “And why do you want me to … to let them kidnap me?”

The thought was nightmarish. She hated being helpless. Being trapped by a professor’s wards was one thing, but deliberately letting herself be taken … it was horrifying. She felt her heart start to pound in her chest as it dawned on her she could be walking into a trap.

“There’s something going on at Mountaintop,” the Grandmaster said. “We have tried to discover what is happening, but none of our sources have been able to provide answers. And yet Mountaintop produces a fourth of the combat sorcerers and trained magicians available to the Allied Lands. We must know what is wrong, if something is wrong. And we have been unable to slip someone through their defences.”

“But they want me there,” Emily said, remembering the story of the Trojan Horse. “They’ll take me in because they want me.”

“Precisely,” the Grandmaster said.

Emily stared down at her pale hands. “And what … what if they just kill me?”

“They’d be out of their minds,” the Grandmaster said.

Emily just looked at him. She’d been in the Allied Lands for just over two years. In that time, she’d met far too many people who could be described as being out of their minds. Shadye the Necromancer, the Iron Duchess, Hodge …

“They believe you to be a Child of Destiny,” the Grandmaster said. “Right now, the Necromancers are slowly winning the war. Your presence must swing matters in our favour because there’s no other way it can go. To kill you would mean losing everything to the Necromancers.

“And besides, for you to suffer an accident would start another war,” he added. “You are a student of Whitehall, after all, and entitled to our protection. And your Guardian would hardly take your death lightly. No, they won’t kill you. But they will try to seduce you.”

He paused. “And you already know there are far too many ways to tamper with a person’s mind.”

Emily nodded. Lin had been a mistress of Subtle Magic. So had Mother Holly. And, done properly, it was incredibly difficult to prove that someone had been under the influence at any time. She might go to Mountaintop and find herself slowly bewitched, never knowing she wasn’t acting entirely of her own volition. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.

But Lin had her notes. Who knew what she could do with them?

Gunpowder, Emily thought. Steam engines. Everything else I thought might be worth considering …

“You don’t have to decide immediately,” the Grandmaster said. “And we won’t hold it against you if you decide to turn down the task. But we need an answer within two or three days.”

“I understand,” Emily said.

“You can speak to Lady Barb or Sergeant Miles, if you like,” the Grandmaster said. “And don’t worry about Professor Lombardi. I’ll have a few words with him.”

Emily nodded, ruefully. All of a sudden, spending the next few weeks in detention didn’t seem like a bad thing. It might be dirty and unpleasant, but it didn’t carry the risk of death.

“How long will you want me to stay there?” She asked. “A month?”

“They will try to tempt you into spending your entire Third Year at Mountaintop,” the Grandmaster said. “It won’t affect your grades, I think.”

“I see,” Emily said.

“You may go,” the Grandmaster said. He tapped his desk, then looked at her with his sightless eyes. “You’re excused from everything else for the rest of the day. But think carefully before you give us an answer.”

Emily nodded, then stood and left the room.

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13 Responses to “The School of Hard Knocks–Snippet”

  1. Mark Anderson May 14, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    I have $15, a paypal account and a desperate need for this book……… 🙂

  2. Mike G. May 14, 2014 at 5:45 pm #

    Looks interesting, can’t wait.

    One typo:

    “And so his hideous punishment for those who get caught,” Professor Lombardi snapped.

    s/his/is/, I think.

  3. lamparty May 14, 2014 at 10:02 pm #

    You are an evil person Chis Nutall! Now do I not only have to catch up in the series, but I actually have to WAIT, to find out what happens after this. bad, bad man! 😉

  4. Qanelin May 15, 2014 at 2:20 am #

    I really enjoy this series and this snippet just makes me more eager for the rest of the book.

  5. Korwin May 15, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    More, please!

  6. Damian Stawiński May 15, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    Very interesting. But it can go horribly wrong for Emily and Whitehall in many ways.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Updates | The Chrishanger - June 7, 2014

    […] current plan is to start work on The School of Hard Knocks on the 17th, depending. We’re spending some days in London from Monday, then flying back to […]

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