WARNING – Everything here is a major spoiler for Infinite Regress. If you haven’t read that book, you might want to check it out first. (And this is the pre-major-edit version, so feel free to point out problems.)
They were doomed.
Lord Whitehall knew it, knew it with a sick certainty that could not be denied. The magic swirling around the small gathering of magicians would overwhelm their defences soon enough, no matter how hard they struggled. The brilliant – and sickly – light was burning into their minds, making it hard to think clearly. Their wards were cracking, on the verge of breaking, yet they could not abandon the work and run for their lives. It would have spelled instant death as the tidal wave of magic from the nexus point overwhelmed their defences and crushed them like bugs. They would have been safer, he saw now, to stand in the path of a rushing river and demand it bow to their will.
It had been a dreadful mistake, he knew now. The castle had seemed their only hope – it was far from civilisation, far from anyone who might want to hunt the commune – but the nexus point beneath the castle was a wild thing. It could not be tamed, he realised; the merest touch had unleashed a surge of magic so strong that all of the masters, working together, could barely save themselves from instant death. And yet they could not even break free to warn the remainder of the commune to evacuate the castle. They – the masters and a handful of their most trusted apprentices – would only be the first to die.
His head started to pound as he thrust more and more magic into the wards, knowing that it was futile. All he could hope to do was keep his people alive for a few more seconds, before the wild magic slammed into them. Those who lived would envy the dead, he thought, if the whispered rumours were true. The monsters they’d encountered as they hacked their way through the forest, towards the castle, might have been human once, before the wild magic transformed them. Now? Now they were just beasts.
I’m sorry, he thought.
He wasn’t sure who he was apologising to. His teacher, the man whose secrets would now be lost with his former apprentice; his fellow masters, who would die beside him; his apprentice, who would never become a master in his own right; his daughter, who would never have a husband or children of her own … ? He’d failed them all. They were all going to die in the next few minutes, no matter what he did …
The demon tricked us.
It was a bitter thought. He’d known for years – his master had hammered it into his skull, when he’d been a young man barely starting out as a magician – that demons were untrustworthy, but they’d been desperate. They’d known they were desperate. And so Lord and Master Alfred had summoned a demon and put the question to the entity, asking where they could go that was safe. The demon had told them about the nexus point …
… And sent them straight to their doom.
Power surged around him as the nexus point grew larger, wild magic spilling into the air and pressing against the wards. They couldn’t hold for more than a few seconds … he heard someone screaming, but he couldn’t tell who. Perhaps it was himself, in the final seconds of his life, all dignity torn from him by the grim awareness that he’d led his people right into a trap. And then there was a flash of light and … someone … was kneeling in the middle of the circle, just in front of the nexus point.
There was no time to stare. The wave of magic – the final wave of magic – built up, slowly sliding forward as if it were guided by a mind that wanted the magicians to watch helplessly as their doom approached them. He pushed the last dregs of his power into the wards, knowing that it would be futile …
… And then the newcomer added his strength to the wards.
Whitehall would have been astonished as the wards changed, snapping into a new configuration that was both bizarre and yet perfect, if he hadn’t been concentrating on holding the outer wards in place as the inner wards grew more complex. It was working! Whatever the newcomer had done, it was working! The wild magic flashed and flared inside the wards, but it couldn’t escape. There was a final shudder, running through the entire building and then the wild magic was gone. The blinding light vanished at the same moment, plunging the room into near-darkness. And the nexus point hung in the middle of the room, tiny and yet immensely large at the same time, tamed. They’d tamed a nexus point!
He found it hard to keep from giggling inanely as he collapsed to the stone floor. For a long moment, all he could do was lie there and fight to keep himself awake. Everything blurred around him as fatigue threatened to overcome him. And then, drawing on reserves he hadn’t known he possessed, he pulled himself to his feet, grabbed a torch and stumbled towards the newcomer, heedless of the risk of stepping too close to the nexus. He …
… No, she.
Whitehall stared. He’d travelled widely, first with his master and then with a string of apprentices, but he’d only ever heard wild rumours about witches. He’d certainly never met a real witch. And yet, the girl before him was clearly a magician. Her power was faint, perhaps as drained as his own, but he could perceive it surrounding her, infusing her body and giving her a strength she would not otherwise possess.
She blinked up at him, clearly half-blinded by the light. Her face was perfect, almost too perfect; there were no scars or blemishes, none of the marks carried by the girls and women waiting in the castle above. Her arms were muscular, but it was clear that she was not used to the backbreaking labour of a farmwife. And she was clean, as if someone had scrubbed away all the torments of womanhood and left behind nothing but purity. She was tall, almost as tall as himself; she was easily the tallest woman he’d seen outside royalty. Her long brown hair hung down to the small of her back, contrasting oddly with the shapeless grey garment she wore. He’d never seen anything like it …
And he couldn’t even begin to guess at her age.
He held up a hand, motioning for the others to stay back as the girl looked at him. He couldn’t help noticing that her eyes were soft, with none of the hardness that was all too familiar to him. His own wife had lived a harsh life, even after she’d married a magician; she’d never dared reveal such … vulnerability to anyone, not even him. The women upstairs, waiting to hear what the magicians had done, were hardly less harsh. Whitehall knew the world was an unkind place, but it was harsher on women. And yet, the girl before him was different.
And she was a magician.
The girl seemed to steady herself. “Who … who are you?”
Whitehall contemplated her for a long moment. Her words were understandable, but they were oddly-accented. The common tongue was clearly not her first language, he decided; boys were normally taught the common tongue in childhood, while girls were rarely taught anything other than their mother tongue unless they were destined to marry a merchant or a magician. His wife had spoken three languages and considered herself accomplished, for the youngest daughter of a magician. She’d been a remarkable woman. And yet she’d died in childbirth …
“I am Lord and Master Whitehall,” Whitehall said, gravely. He didn’t miss the expression of shock that passed across the girl’s face. This was not someone, he reasoned, who was used to concealing her feelings or minding her words. An indulgent father and no husband? Or perhaps she was powerful enough not to care about her words. “Who are you?”
He held out a hand to help the girl to her feet. It was dangerous, but his instincts insisted that the girl wasn’t a threat. She seemed oddly hesitant to take his hand – that, at least, was a normal reaction – but she eventually allowed him to help her up. Her legs were concealed within her garment, yet Whitehall could tell she was tired and drained. Doing what she’d done – doing the impossible thing she’d done – had to have cost her dearly.
“I … I am Emily,” the girl managed. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Whitehall surprised himself by laughing. “Nor should we,” he said. “Nor should we.”
He snorted, then pushed his humour aside as he heard whispering from behind him. Solving the mystery of just how the girl – Emily – had arrived in the castle was important, but he was damned if he was going to rip her mind open to find out. They owed her their lives – and those of the men, women and children who had followed them to the castle.
“We are in your debt,” he added, grandly. “And you are welcome here.”
“I am Lord and Master Whitehall,” the man said, gravely. For a moment, Emily honestly thought the translation spell was glitched. “Who are you?”
Emily stared up at the speaker in absolute disbelief. She couldn’t have gone back in time, could she? It was impossible! Going forward in time was easy enough – she’d adjusted the flow of time within pocket dimensions to skip forward nearly an entire day – but going backwards in time was impossible. Or so she’d been told. Five years ago, she would have believed that turning someone into a frog was impossible too!
Her head spun. “I … I am Emily,” she said. She could feel the nexus point behind her, twisting in and out of her awareness as though it was both infinitely large and impossibly tiny. “I shouldn’t be here.”
She tried hard to think clearly as Whitehall helped her to her feet and welcomed her to the castle. Her head hurt as she considered the implications. If she was lost in time, she didn’t dare say or do anything that might alter the timeline for fear of accidentally altering the series of events that led up to her departure from Earth. But, at the same time, she’d already interfered – and, in doing so, protected the timeline. Everyone knew Lord Whitehall was the first man to tame a nexus point. No one had ever suggested he might have had help from the future.
And if I’m meant to be here, she thought numbly, what else am I meant to do?
She looked at Whitehall, feeling oddly intimidated. She was in the presence of a legend, the man who would found Whitehall School and lay the groundwork for educating hundreds of thousands of young magicians. The men behind him, watching her with wary eyes, had to be part of the Whitehall Commune. She wondered, absently, if she knew their names, if recorded history had been remotely accurate. There were so many gaps in the records that it was hard to know just who was truly significant and who had merely been shoehorned into reconstructions of past events because his writings had survived.
Whitehall himself looked nothing like his portraits. They’d made him look like a grand old wizard, Emily recalled, but the man before her was clearly in his late forties rather than pushing into a second century. His face was a dark olive, his beard slowly shading to white as he grew older. His hair was cropped close to his skull; his eyes, darker than hers, seemed to bore into her very soul. She couldn’t help thinking of owls as she let go of his hand, trusting her legs to hold her upright. There was something about the way he moved that reminded her of an owl.
He wore no robes, she saw, as he turned to face his companions. Instead, he wore heavy trousers and a dark shirt, making him look more like a labourer than a magician. Runes and sigils were sewn into his shirt, almost all of them unknown to her. And yet, she recalled seeing a handful of them in the tunnels below Whitehall … below old Whitehall. If she was truly back in the early days of the school, perhaps even before the school, the tunnel network might not have been constructed yet. She reached out to the familiar wards, but sensed no response. They didn’t exist either, not yet. The only thing she could sense was the constant presence of the nexus point.
She rubbed the snake-bracelet on her wrist, silently grateful that she’d kept it on when she prepared for bed. She wouldn’t be completely friendless …
“Master Baju-Merah is dead,” a voice said. “The strain killed him.”
Emily sucked in her breath as she saw the body. The man – the old man – had died badly, his face twisted in pain. A heart attack, perhaps, judging from the lack of physical wounds on his corpse. There was no way to know. Perhaps a strand of wild magic had escaped … she shook her head, dismissing the thought. If the wards had cracked, even slightly, everyone in the chamber would be dead or wishing they were.
She looked at the other magicians as they clustered around the body, glancing at her as they talked in low voices. There was no point in trying to match names to faces, not when the portraits were so wildly inaccurate. They looked … odd, at least compared to the magicians she knew. A number looked surprisingly old, surprisingly dirty, for magicians; others looked physically young, but mentally old. She found herself staring at a young man who was looking at her, unable to be sure just how old he actually was. But then, she’d never been very good at guessing ages on the Nameless World. People without magic aged at terrifying speed.
They’re all men, she thought, numbly. There isn’t a single woman amongst them.
The realisation struck her with terrifying force. My God, she thought. I’m the Dark Lady.
Her legs buckled, threatening to send her crashing to the stone floor. The Dark Lady was a legend, a person who was only mentioned in a couple of sources … a person who half the historians in the Nameless World believed to be nothing more than a story. Her story had either been wildly exaggerated or written out altogether … there was no way Emily and she could be the same person. And yet, it was impossible to convince herself that she wasn’t. It didn’t look as though there was any other role to play.
She closed her eyes for a long moment, trying to decide what to say when Whitehall finally demanded answers. He would demand answers too, she knew … and she doubted the Sorcerers Rule held sway a thousand years ago. Or was it only seven hundred? The thought made her smile, despite the shock and growing fear for the future. She might be able to learn answers to questions that had vexed historians from whomever had written the Book of Lives to Professor Locke himself.
I have to get back, she told herself. The past was fascinating, but she wanted to get back to her Whitehall – and Caleb. And everyone else she knew and loved. I can’t stay here forever.
“Emily,” Whitehall said. She opened her eyes. He’d dismissed most of the magicians, leaving only himself and the young man in the chamber. “I need to ask you some questions.”
Emily nodded, sensing Whitehall’s exhaustion under his words. Up close, it was surprisingly easy to sense his magic. He didn’t seem to be masking his power at all. That was – would be – considered incredibly rude in the future, a bare-faced attempt to intimidate her, but his body language didn’t suggest anything of the sort. He certainly wasn’t trying to lean into her personal space. Perhaps he was just too tired to keep his magic under control. There was certainly something … discordant … about it. Behind him, it was impossible to sense the young man’s magic at all.
“This is quite a hard place to reach,” Whitehall said. “How did you get here?”
The young man leaned forward. “And how did you appear in the chamber?”
“Bernard,” Whitehall said, reprovingly. “One question at a time.”
Emily felt her mouth drop open. The young man before her was Bernard De Born? The man who would be the first true Grandmaster? The writer who would write a history of Whitehall and dozens of other books that had been lost over the years? It was impossible to reconcile the image of the older man with the younger one in front of her.
She forced herself to focus on choosing her words. There was no way she could tell Whitehall the truth, even if she swore him – both of them – to silence. And yet, the more lies she told, the greater the chance of being caught out. Whitehall wouldn’t trust her – at all – if he caught her in a lie. She would be surprised if he wasn’t already concerned – and suspicious – about her appearance. She’d arrived right at the moment of their greatest need.
“My tutor and I made our way here,” she said, finally. “He had a theory about …”
“He?” Whitehall repeated. “He?”
Emily cursed under her breath. She had the nasty feeling she’d just put her foot in it. But there was no going back now.
“He had a theory about taking control of a nexus point,” she said. “He’d worked out a complex set of spells he believed would be sufficient to take control. But it wasn’t enough to save his life. There was a flash of light and I saw him die, a moment before you arrived.”
Bernard’s eyes narrowed. “There was no one in the chamber when we arrived.”
“She might have been trapped in the nexus point,” Whitehall pointed out. “And our attempt to tame the wild magic freed her.”
“Then I thank you,” Emily said. “But I don’t recall anything between his death and your arrival.”
Whitehall frowned. “Who taught you?”
A dozen answers ran through Emily’s head. She could claim to have been taught by Dumbledore, or Gandalf, or Yoda … it wasn’t as if Whitehall could disprove her words. But she needed to keep it as simple as possible. She knew enough about telling lies to know just how easy it was to say too much and give the listener the key they needed to untangle the entire web of deceit.
“I swore an oath to keep the details of my training to myself,” she said, finally. If Whitehall and his commune were anything like the magicians she knew, they’d respect an oath. “Even though he’s dead, he never saw fit to release me from it.”
Whitehall nodded. “It is … uncommon for a girl to be schooled in magic,” he said. “Your father, perhaps? Teaching you because he had no son?”
Emily kept her face blank with an effort. Whitehall – her Whitehall – taught girls and boys equally, assuming they had magic. But the history books had made it clear that girls were not originally taught magic. It had been Bernard – Grandmaster Bernard – who’d first permitted girls to study at Whitehall, assuming that wasn’t something else the history books had managed to get wrong. There was no point, not any longer, in pretending to be an untrained magician. They’d seen what she’d done to the nexus point.
“I swore an oath,” she said, again.
Whitehall nodded. “I understand,” he said. “He must have been a very smart man.”
“He taught a girl,” Bernard said. “How is that smart? The curse …”
Emily frowned. “What curse?”
“He didn’t even tell you that?”
Bernard turned to his master. “She’s lying,” he said. “I sense no magic from her.”
“I sense no magic from you either,” Emily snapped back.
Whitehall gave her an odd look. “My apprentice has more than enough magic,” he said, coldly. “But yours is well hidden.”
Bernard stepped forward. “This is a joke, master,” he said. “I don’t know how she got here, but she is no magician.”
Emily scowled at him, feeling oddly disappointed. This was the Grandmaster who would invite girls to study alongside the boys? She reached out with her senses and frowned as she sensed magic surrounding Bernard for the first time. He wasn’t trying to mask his power at all; indeed, the only reason she hadn’t sensed it earlier was because Whitehall’s magic had obscured his apprentice’s power. Professor Lombardi would have summarily failed any student who failed to mask his power within his personal wards, she knew. Allowing one’s power to roam free was … sloppy.
“You sensed what she did to the nexus point,” Whitehall said. He sounded puzzled, but calm and composed. There was no anger in his tone. “She showed us how to patch the wards in place to tame the wild magic.”
“She’s a girl,” Bernard protested.
Emily felt her temper snap. “Then fight me,” she said. “I challenge you to a duel, if you dare.”
Bernard glared at her, then turned to his master. “Master …”
“She challenged you,” Whitehall said. He smiled, rather dryly. “Are you going to take up the challenge?”
“It wouldn’t be a fight,” Bernard objected.
Emily resisted – barely – the urge to stick out her tongue. “Then you don’t have anything to fear,” she said, instead. “You’ll beat me with ease.”
“Fine,” Bernard snapped. He turned and paced across the chamber, then turned to face her, his hands clenching into fists. “Master, will you set up the warding circle?”
“I doubt one will be necessary,” Whitehall said. He stepped to one side, nodding shortly to Emily. “Try not to kill each other.”
Emily kept her expression blank as she tensed, testing her protections carefully. Challenging Bernard was a risk, she knew all too well. She could lose. And yet, his casual dismissal of her abilities hurt. She was damned if she was allowing him to talk down to her, let alone treat her as a silly girl who needed a man to make all the decisions for her. It wasn’t as if she was one of the stupid noblewomen who’d made Alassa’s wedding preparations such a trial. And Bernard was a disappointment anyway.
“Begin,” Whitehall said.
Bernard didn’t hesitate. His hand snapped down as he unleashed a spell she didn’t recognise, a spell that bled mana in all directions. It was sloppy work – Professor Lombardi would probably have broken Bernard’s hand if he’d cast that in class – but it was powerful. The spell slammed into her protections, shaking them roughly, yet it was really nothing more than brute force. Part of her mind analysed the spell quickly, noting how it made no attempt to seek out weaknesses in her protections and break through the cracks. Bernard had a great deal of raw power, although it was so sloppy she couldn’t tell just how much power, but very little actual skill.
“Impressive,” Whitehall commented.
Emily kept her eyes on Bernard as she deflected or drained the last remnants of his spell. He looked stunned, as if he’d expected her to be knocked out … or killed … by his magic. Emily wasn’t quite sure what the spell had actually been intended to do. It had just been thrown together so poorly that merely striking her defences had been enough to disrupt the spellware beyond repair. She gathered her own magic, readying a retaliatory blow, but waited to see what he would do. And then he tossed a second spell at her. This one was tighter and sharper … and felt unpleasant as it crawled across her wards. She felt a flicker of horror as she realised what that spell was meant to do.
“Careful,” Whitehall said. His smile was gone. “Using that in a duel could get you in real trouble.”
I suppose it could, Emily thought. Trying to take control of your opponent …
She summoned a fireball and threw it at him, watching dispassionately as it crashed into his magic and exploded into nothingness. His protections were nothing like hers, she saw; they were crude, utterly unfocused. It looked as though he was using his own magic as a baseball bat, swatting away spells as they approached, rather than embedding wards within his magic and concentrating on offense. Emily hated to think what Sergeant Miles would have said to any of his students stupid enough to try that. Splitting their attention between offense and defence meant that they couldn’t concentrate on either.
Bernard flung a third spell at her, so powerful that she stepped aside rather than try to catch it on her protections. Bracing herself, she threw back a ward-cracking spell of her own and followed up with a prank spell. Bernard let out a yelp of shock as his wards came apart – Emily realised, too late, that the ward-cracking spell had actually attacked his magic directly – and then shrank, rapidly, as the prank spell took effect. Moments later, a tiny green frog was looking up at her with disturbingly human eyes.
“I think I win,” Emily said.
She looked at Whitehall and saw him looking back in shock. “You did it so casually?”
“I had a good teacher,” Emily said. She cursed her mistake – if it had been a mistake – under her breath. She had no idea when transfiguration spells had been invented, but it was possible that Whitehall didn’t know how to use them – or regarded them as too demanding to be practical. “He taught me everything I know.”
Whitehall studied her for a long moment. “I think you win too,” he said. “Undo the spell, please.”
Emily nodded and cast the counterspell. Bernard looked astonished as he reverted to human form, his face pale and wan. A lingering greenish tone hung over his skin for long seconds after the spell faded back into the ether. He would have been trying to break free, Emily knew. If he had no experience with pranking spells – the spells Emily had learned in her first year of studies – he might assume that his mind was on the verge of sinking into the frog’s and being lost forever.
“I am sorry for doubting you,” Bernard said. He stood upright, then held out a hand. Emily shook it firmly. “And you are clearly a great magician.”
“A useful lesson, young man,” Whitehall said. “You are strong, but your training is far from complete.”
Emily kept her thoughts to herself as Whitehall turned towards the gaping door. Bernard, at least, didn’t seem to bear a grudge. But then, Sergeant Miles had told her she might have to fight to prove herself, if she was dumped in with the men. Beating a man fairly would work far better, he’d said, than whining to his superiors. The former would earn respect, the latter would breed resentment.
She rubbed the side of her head as she followed Whitehall, Bernard falling into step beside her. Her head hurt, a dull ache that was making it hard to think. She’d been awakened in the middle of the night, after all. She needed to sleep, to rest and figure out a way home before she accidentally tore a hole in history and erased her friends from existence.
And hope I can survive here long enough to find a way home, she thought, grimly. This isn’t the Whitehall I know.