Snippet–The Zero Curse

10 Aug

Zero Curse Final Cover R2 FOR WEB

Prologue

It was a hot summer day when I realised – for the first time – just how vulnerable I truly was.

I was ten at the time and, despite everything, I hadn’t given up hope that I might have a spark of magic. It wasn’t uncommon for magicians not to show much – if any – spark and tar before turning twelve, when they would be schooled in magic. Or so my parents kept telling me, as they tried to teach me more and more arcane disciplines in the hopes of shaking something loose. My sisters were streaking ahead and I …

… I hadn’t even managed to cast a single spell.

It was a hot month, the hottest on record. My sisters and I would have loved to spend it in the swimming pool or paddling near the beach. Our friends – Alana and Bella’s friends, more accurately – had already decamped, leaving Shallot for their country estates where it would be cooler. We wanted to go with them too, but we hadn’t been allowed to leave. Great Aunt Stregheria had come to stay.

I still find it hard to believe that Great Aunt Stregheria was my father’s aunt. She was a tall dark woman, the tallest I’ve ever seen, her hair hanging down in a long braid that signified she was an unmarried woman. It was easy to understand why. I couldn’t help thinking that she looked rather like a vulture, with an angular face and dark eyes that seemed to glitter with malice as she peered down at us from her lofty height. She was one of those unpleasant adults who firmly believed that children should neither be seen nor heard and she hadn’t been shy about making her opinions known. She’d been scathing about my failings in magic. And she’d drilled my sisters in basic manners until even Alana was sick of her.

I didn’t know why she bothered to visit us. I still don’t. She complained about everything, from the food to the heat. We were in trouble if we didn’t curtsey just right when she saw us and when we deliberately stayed out of her way. She expected us to wear our formal clothes at all times, even though it was far too hot; she expected to wait on her at table, as if we were common maids. She’d get up late, have a long breakfast and then spend an hour or two with Dad before … well, we didn’t know what she was doing. We didn’t really care either. We just wanted her gone.

One day, the hottest day of the summer, we managed to slip away early. Mum didn’t say anything to us, let alone drag us back into the house. By then, I think she was sick and tired of Great Aunt Stregheria making itself at home. She had a home of her own. I rather thought it was a cave somewhere high up the mountainside, but I doubted it. Why couldn’t she go back home and stop bothering us? Great Aunt Stregheria was the sort of person who gave magic-users a bad name.

There was a little marshy pond down by the grove, one we’d paddled in when we were younger. We thought it was just far enough from the house – while still being part of the grounds – to escape detection, at least for a while. Dad hadn’t given Great Aunt Stregheria any access to the wards, we thought. She’d have been summoning us all the time if she’d had control. We took off our expensive shoes and splashed through the water, enjoying the cool liquid against our feet. For once, even Alana was too relieved to be away from the witch to indulge in a little malice. We were, just for an hour or two, a normal trio of sisters.

It didn’t last, of course.

Great Aunt Stregheria came striding through the grove in high dungeon, her face twisted with rage. I don’t think she was mad at us, specifically, but she was mad. We froze, fear holding us in place as solidly as any spell, as she stamped towards us. I had no idea where she’d been, or what she’d been doing, but …

“You little brats,” she snapped. In hindsight, I suspect she wanted to take her anger out on someone. “Get out of there!”

Normally, we would have obeyed instantly. But we were hot and sweaty and very – very – tired of her. We didn’t move.

Great Aunt Stregheria lifted her hand and cast a spell. I saw a flash of brilliant greenish light, an instant before the spell stuck me – struck us. Alana screamed – I might have screamed too, I’m not sure – as magic flared around her. My skin tingled unpleasantly, as if I was caught in a thunderstorm. I had an instant to see my black hand turning green and warty before the world shrunk. I squeezed my eyes tightly shut as I splashed into the water, then jerked them open as my legs started to move automatically. The tiny pool – so shallow that it barely reached our knees – was suddenly huge.

I broke the water, just in time to see Alana and Bella become frogs. My head swam as I grappled with the sudden change. It wasn’t the first time I’d been transfigured, but … but … this was far worse. There were no safeties worked into the spell. I could feel the frog’s mind gnawing away at mine, threading to erode my thoughts. The water was practically hypnotic, pulling at me. If I hadn’t been panicking, if I hadn’t managed to hop out of the water, I might have been lost.

The spell on me wore off in an hour, although it wasn’t until two years later that I understood why. By then, Dad had literally thrown Great Aunt Stregheria out of the hall and ordered her never to return. The spell on my sisters lasted nearly a week before it finally collapsed. Dad was delighted, utterly over the moon. He insisted I had a definite magical talent. I had to have something, he reasoned, to escape such a complex spell. Our parents had been unable to unravel it for themselves.

I knew better. Alana and Bella had been trapped, but neither of them had been in any danger of losing themselves in an animal’s mind. Their magic had even fought the spell when it was first cast. But I had no magic to defend myself. The protective spells Mum and Dad had laid on me had never been anchored properly because there was nothing for them to anchor to. It was sheer luck that I’d survived long enough for the spell to unravel. I was defenceless. Anyone could cast a spell on me.

It was a lesson I should never have forgotten.

I was a zero. And being powerless was my curse.

Chapter One

The workbench was ugly.

It had been made of dark brown almond-tree wood, once upon a time. It would have gleamed under the light, when it was new; now, it was covered in burn marks and scratches and pieces of mismatched wood where its previous owner had replaced broken drawers and covering with newer material. Half the drawers were tight, so tight that opening them was a struggle; the remainder were so loose that I felt I’d have to replace them sooner rather than later. And I’d found five secret compartments, concealed by careful design rather than magic, one of which had been crammed with gold coins from a bygone era.

It was ugly. But it was mine and I loved it.

The workbench had been in the family for centuries, according to my father. It had belonged to Anna the Artificer, once upon a time, before it had gone into storage after her death. Her children hadn’t had the heart to use it for themselves, apparently. None of them had come close to matching their mother when it came to forging talent. If there hadn’t been stories of her fighting a duel with a prospective suitor, I’d have wondered if she’d been a Zero. There were no stories about her forging Objects of Power – at least, none that had been passed down the ages – but some of her Devices of Power had lasted nearly a decade without maintenance and repair. Very few forgers could make that claim.

Dad had given me the workbench, along with a workroom and suite of my very own. He’d said that I was the first person in centuries to live up to Anna’s legacy, the first person to deserve to sit at her workbench and forge. Personally, I thought he felt a little guilty. My sisters – Alana and Belladonna – had long-since had their rooms decorated, to mark their progress in magic, but I’d never managed to cast even the simplest of spells. Until recently, everyone had assumed that I was either a very slow learner or a freak. And I was a freak.

Just a very valuable freak, I thought.

The thought made me smile. It was good to be appreciated, to be something more than my family’s private shame. I still didn’t understand why I could forge Objects of Power – where everyone else was limited to Devices of Power – but it gave me a talent none of my sisters could match. Alana had never been a good forger – Bella had been too lazy to learn more than the basics and only then because Dad had pushed her nose to the grindstone – yet it wouldn’t have mattered if she spent every waking hour at the workbench. I was the only person who could forge Objects of Power.

“I can still turn you into a toad,” Alana had said, last night. She’d come home from school, along with Bella. “And you can’t do that to me without help, can you?”

“No,” I’d said. My sister was a spiteful person, now more than ever. I was careful to wear protective trinkets every time I saw her. “But anyone can turn me into a toad.”

I leaned back and surveyed my new domain. Dad hadn’t skimped on outfitting the chamber, either. Two walls were lined with bookcases, heaving under the weight of reference textbooks and a small collection of reprinted volumes from the Thousand-Year Empire. I wasn’t the only one who could read them – I’d had Old Script drilled into my head before I’d reached my first decade – but I was the only one who could make use of them. The instructions for making Objects of Power were easy to find, if one had access to a decent library, yet something had been left unsaid. It had been sheer luck that I’d realised that the missing ingredient, something so obvious the ancient magicians had never bothered to write it down, had been someone like me. Maybe I couldn’t use magic personally. It didn’t make me useless.

A second workbench, covered with handmade tools, sat near the door, next to a furnace, a kiln, a set of cupboards and a giant translucent cauldron. Dad had crammed one of the cupboards with everything a budding forger would want, while Mum had filled the other with potion ingredients. I hated to think how much it must have cost, even though I knew my family was rich and that my sisters had earned rewards for themselves, over the years. Being best friends with a commoner had taught me more than anyone had realised. I was almost embarrassed at the thought of bringing Rose into my workroom. A single gemstone – like the ones hidden in one of my drawers – would be more than enough to buy and sell her entire family.

I put the thought aside as I carefully pulled on a set of protective robes, tied my hair into a tight bun and inspected myself in the mirror. My dark face was marred by a nasty burn from when I’d managed to splash hot potion on myself, although it was healing nicely. I had a nasty feeling that I’d have forger’s hands – hands covered in burn marks – by the time I was twenty, even though my tutors had drummed safety precautions into me from the very beginning. It wasn’t something that bothered me, although Alana had made snide remarks about me not having ladylike hands. It was proof that I was more than just another aristocratic brat entering High Society.

Not that High Society ever really cared about me, I thought.

It was a grim thought. I’d gone to birthday parties, of course, doing the social whirl that ensured that everyone who was anyone in Shallot knew everyone else. But birthday parties for young magicians had been hazardous for me, all the more so as rumours about my magic – or lack of it – had started to spread. Very few people had grasped that I had no magic whatsoever, but it was clear that I was a very late bloomer. No one had wanted to be associated with me, for fear that whatever had laid me low might be catching. I’d had no true friends until I’d gone to Jude’s. Now …

I swallowed, hard. I wasn’t looking forward to going back to school, even though I’d declined when Dad had offered to let me stay home. Rose was there, after all. I couldn’t leave her alone, not after everything she’d done for me. And maybe things would be better, now I’d beaten Isabella. The school’s honour code was strict. Isabella had been beaten fairly and that was all that mattered. Unless she reasoned she hadn’t been beaten fairly, after all. It wasn’t an unarguable case.

One by one, I removed the protective amulets and earrings I’d forged over the last couple of weeks, placing them on the small table by the mirror. I felt as if I was naked, utterly unprotected, when I was done, even though the workroom was locked. I’d spent the last six years trying – and often failing – to avoid increasingly nasty pranks from my sisters, pranks that I’d never been able to see coming. Even something as simple as sitting down to dinner could turn into a trial if Alana had had time to hex or jinx the chair. Now … I was protected, as long as I wore the earrings. But I didn’t know if I could wear them while forging without ruining my work.

Buttoning up my robe, I strode across to the workbench and looked down at the longsword, resting in a web of silver netting. It was big, easily too big for me to carry, even using both hands. I wasn’t exactly a weakling – forging requires physical strength as well as dexterity – but it was still too big for me. Sir Griffons, the man who’d commissioned the sword, was easily twice my size. He had muscles on his muscles … and yet, normally, even he would have trouble carrying the sword. I couldn’t help thinking that a Kingsman – a servant of His Most Regal Majesty, King Rufus – wouldn’t consider the longsword a practical weapon. But it did have its advantages.

I smiled as I studied the blade, carefully planning out the next step. Casting the blade itself had been simple, a task that anyone could do. Dad had even offered to have one of his apprentices do it for me, pointing out that I didn’t have to waste my time on it. And yet, I’d declined. There was too great a chance that someone else’s involvement would taint the magic, making it impossible to turn the long sword into an Object of Power. I intended to experiment, once I returned to school, to see just how much I could pass to someone else without ruining the work.

And besides, I wanted to impress Sir Griffons.

The swordsmen of the Thousand-Year Empire had had swords that could cut through anything, according to legend. Their blades had been as light as feathers, in the hands of their true owners; their scabbards had had magic of their own, healing wounds and boosting strength when swordsmen met in combat. And there had been some truth in the legends. I’d seen blades, passed down through the years, that had been magic, when wielded by the descendents of the original owners. My Family Sword, buried in the Family Hearthstone, had powers of its own. You simply couldn’t buy a weapon like that for love or money. Even if a family sold off a priceless heirloom – which would have forced them to put a price on ‘priceless’ – the magic wouldn’t work for anyone outside the direct line. Whatever rites and rituals had been used to transfer a blade to a new owner had been lost hundreds of years ago.

Sir Griffons had been obsessed with owning such a sword for as long as I’d been alive. He’d been pushing my father to either crack the secret behind the blades or come up with something new, something that would allow a Device of Power to survive against counterspells. Every year, Dad had tried something new; every year, the blade had either snapped in combat or lost its magic at terrifying speed. Dad and his apprentices had gone through the books hundreds of times, trying dozens of variations in a desperate bid to crack the secret. They’d known the reward would be massive, if they succeeded. The Kingsmen needed such blades to do their work. But they’d failed. The problem had seemed insurmountable.

I reached for my notebook and opened it, checking my work one final time. The calculations hadn’t been that difficult, although I’d had to adapt some of the runes to adjust for modern-day materials. Whoever had come up with the original swords had been a genius, as well as a Zero. The network of runes that channelled magic into the blade had to be precise or the spell would simply refuse to work. Thankfully, I’d learnt the value of precision long ago. My sisters had enough power to compensate for deviations – often very big deviations – from perfect spellforms, but lesser magicians needed to be precise. Not that it mattered to me, in any case. I could speak a spell perfectly, with all the accent on the right syllables, and nothing would happen.

And yet, I can forge Objects of Power, I reminded myself, as I picked up the etching tool and held it over the sword. I am unique.

I’d forged the etching tool myself, as tradition demanded. I wasn’t too sure if it mattered – the harmony most magicians experienced when they used tools they’d crafted themselves was alien to me – but it wasn’t a tradition I wanted to abandon. Forging had given me a sense of purpose, of achievement, a long time before I’d realised what I could do. And besides, it kept my mind off uncomfortable truths. There were things I didn’t want to think about, even now.

Bending over the sword, I carefully pressed the etching tool against the metal and carved out the first rune. The metal was softer than it should have been – the silver cradle made it easier to carve, although I didn’t pretend to understand why – but I still moved with immense care. I didn’t have time to start again from scratch, not when I was due back at school in a couple of days. Besides, I wasn’t sure what would happen if I melted down the sword to reuse the metal. In theory, it shouldn’t make any difference; in practice, I wasn’t so sure. I’d seen forging go horribly wrong because the metal had already been tainted by magic.

The first rune fell into place, neatly. I took a moment to catch my breath – sweat was already trickling down my back – and then started on the second. My calculations insisted that the magic wouldn’t take effect until the last rune was in place, but I kept a wary eye on the blade anyway, just in case. A surge of magic that seemingly came out of nowhere would be dangerous, not least because I couldn’t sense the surge and take cover until it was too late. As far as magic was concerned, I was the blind girl in the kingdom of the sighted.

My hands were aching by the time I’d worked my way through a dozen runes. I stepped backwards, taking a deep breath. Magicians who forged Devices of Power claimed that the work couldn’t be paused, once it was underway, but I’d never had a problem when I’d forged Objects of Power. I rather suspected that my lack of magic actually kept the runes from activating early, too early to let the spellforms take shape properly. It was something else I intended to test, when I had a moment. Rose and I would have a lot of fun testing the limits of my abilities.

And then the lanterns dimmed, just slightly.

I tensed. Someone was outside the main door … no, someone was trying to use magic to open the main door. It couldn’t be my parents. Mum was in the garden, picking herbs for a potion she wanted to try; Dad was playing host to our very unwelcome guest. And besides, they would have knocked – loudly – if they’d wanted to come in. Very few people would enter a magician’s workroom without permission. The servants certainly wouldn’t dare. My list of suspects was very short indeed.

Alana, I thought.

I slipped back to the mirror, moving as quietly as I could. I’d had far too much practice in sneaking around over the years, although it wasn’t as much use as I’d hoped. Even a relatively young magician like my sister could cast wards to protect her belongings. Picking up one of the earrings, I cupped it in my hand and walked to the other workbench as I heard the sound of someone opening the door. It was very quiet, so quiet that I knew the intruder meant trouble. There’s nothing quite so alarming as the sound of someone doing everything in their power not to be heard. Alana must have assumed that her silencing spell had actually worked. It had, but the runes I’d carved into the door had drawn on the magic to dim the lanterns, then cancelled the spell.

Good thing she didn’t cast the spell on herself, I thought, as I kept the earring pressed against my skin. It shouldn’t make a difference, according to the books, as long as it was touching me. She might have noticed that the spell had failed if she’d intended to ensure that she couldn’t hear either.

I kept my back to the door as stealthy footsteps echoed down the tiny corridor, even though I wanted to turn – or run. I had too many bad memories of being hexed to feel calm when my sister was behind me. Alana had to be annoyed about something. Our parents had told her, in no uncertain terms, not to use magic anywhere near my workroom. Even Alana would have hesitated, normally, to defy Dad. He wasn’t the sort of person anyone defied twice.

“Freeze,” Alana said.

I felt the earring grow warm in my hand, tingling just for a second. Alana made a sound that cut off so sharply that it made me jump. I turned, slowly. Alana was standing there, utterly unmoving. A surprised expression dominated her frozen face. I walked towards her slowly, wondering just how long she’d intended to freeze me. She knew – now – that spells simply didn’t cling to me for long. It was very possible that she’d never bothered to calculate just how long her spell should have left me frozen.

And spells do cling to her, I thought, feeling a flash of vindictive glee. Alana was a powerful and skilled magician, for her age, but I didn’t think she could unfreeze herself without being able to move her hands. Even an upperclassman would have problems. She might have trapped herself until midnight.

“That was stupid,” I said, doing my best to imitate the tone my mother used when she was reprimanding us for being foolish. “Using magic in here? You could have triggered an explosion.”

That wasn’t true, I thought. But as long as she believed it was true …

I walked around behind her, wrapped my arms around her chest and picked her up. It wasn’t easy. Alana was lighter than me, I thought – she was certainly skinny – but she was as stiff and unmoving as a board. I half-carried, half-dragged her out of the workroom door, down the corridor and through the door into the main house. It was quiet, too quiet. I glanced in either direction, then manhandled Alana into the nearest cupboard and closed the door. She’d be stuck there until someone found her or the spell wore off.

Or if she manages to free herself, I thought. My sister had always been an overachiever when it came to magic. She might just make it.

I shrugged as I turned and walked back to the workroom. It was much more likely that she’d be discovered by one of the maids. They’d been working overtime, the last few days. I rather suspected that whoever found Alana would be tempted to leave her, but the maids would be reluctant to risk being fired. Alana was a vindictive person at the best of times.

And she left me in a cupboard too, hundreds of times, I thought. Perhaps I should have felt guilty. But I didn’t. She did far worse to me.

I sighed as I stepped through the door. I had work to finish before dinnertime. My parents would let me work until the wee small hours, if I wanted, but I knew I wouldn’t be in the mood. I knew it. Our family has the best chef in Shallot, but I wasn’t looking forward to dinner.

Great Aunt Stregheria was coming to tea.

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13 Responses to “Snippet–The Zero Curse”

  1. Simon August 10, 2017 at 1:14 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    I think you are missing a us in the prologue, paragraph 6 about halfway through ” she expected to wait on her at table, ”

    It looks good, can not wait to read the book.

    Is this a new type of earing that she has made as I thought the ones she had only cancelled the magic not returned it back on the caster? I thought it was a different object of power that she used in the duel to turn the magic back on the user?

    Kind Regards,

    Simon

    • Ann August 12, 2017 at 1:51 am #

      Cat had several earrings during her duel. But only one really got mentioned. Ring 0 cancel.
      She possibly built layered protection using different rings e.g.
      Ring 0 – cancel spells on body,
      Ring 1 – deflect spells from body contact,
      Ring 3 – reflect targeted spells,
      Ring 4 – cancel area spells around body,
      etc.
      Each may work further from her body and probably at a higher level of complexity (although stopping a magic imposed change may be easier and less energetic than creating the magic fueled change).

    • chrishanger August 18, 2017 at 6:11 pm #

      Yep. She improved it.

      Chris

  2. Stuart the Viking August 10, 2017 at 8:37 pm #

    I LIKE it!!! Can’t wait to read.

  3. An Marie August 10, 2017 at 11:05 pm #

    Do you have an approximate release date for it?

    • chrishanger August 18, 2017 at 6:15 pm #

      No. Probably early October, if everything goes well.

      Chris

  4. Juan Suros August 11, 2017 at 12:44 am #

    Sounds excellent. I think Zero Blessing is the CN book I’ve reread the most! Looking forward to this next one.

  5. kd7fds August 11, 2017 at 1:05 am #

    I am going to have reread Zero Blessing to get ready for this release. Sounds like it will be fun.

  6. Larry stoltz August 11, 2017 at 1:54 am #

    Simply put, More, more, more!

  7. Jill August 11, 2017 at 9:05 pm #

    I’m going to second Larry Stoltz. More! Please.

  8. Dan15 August 13, 2017 at 5:39 am #

    Kimi

  9. Dan15 August 13, 2017 at 5:46 am #

    Do you think that alana was trying a prank or was attempting to make her sister disappear? Now that she had a very real chance of taking over as the next head of the family honestly I thin cats gonna have to watch out for more than just spys or assassins from other country’s. Cat seems to not think through the political and social ramifications this seems like her one true weakness and i think severly cripple her long term also the wicked aunt has returned oh no!

  10. Jacqueline Harris August 13, 2017 at 11:29 pm #

    Alana is really worrying we may have attempted fratricide​ in the future. Cats parents really suck. There I a slippery slope darkside to there world are they really good g to let Alana keep acting like she’s been

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