Snippet – Void’s Tale (Schooled in Magic Spin-Off)

31 Mar

Hi, everyone

Void’s Tale is a Schooled in Magic novella, filling in some of the background to The Right Side of History and The Face of the Enemy.  It takes place roughly 90 years before Schooled In Magic.  I don’t think there are any major spoilers for either, but you might want to be careful anyway.

As always, comments, corrections and suchlike are warmly welcomed.

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Emily dreams.

She dreams she stands on a vast ocean, the dark waters shifting below her feet.  Strange lights and dark shapes move within the shadows, things she dares not look at too closely for fear they might look back.  High overhead, the sky is a nightmare of lights and things that burn at her mind, eyes belonging to creatures and intellects so far beyond hers that even taking note of their presence risks madness.  She is alone and yet the sense of vast powers moving and shifting around her pervades her mind.  Lightning-fast thoughts dance at the corner of her eyes, daring her to look at them.  The dream world is a very dangerous place for an unshielded mind. 

“I thought we should talk.”  Void is behind her and in front of her and beside her … somehow, this does not surprise her.  “Here, we cannot be overheard.”

Emily steps back, bracing herself.  Void looks … old, his body bent under the weight of some vast burden.  Grey hair shrouds his face, hiding everything but his eyes.  It strikes her, suddenly, that this is how Void sees himself.  He may look young, in the real world, but he is old.  Emily knows it is just a matter of time before his magic can no longer keep him alive.

Her voice sounds weird, even to her.  “What is this place?”

“This is the dreamtime,” Void tells her.  For a moment, they are master and student again.  She feels the warmth of his regard enveloping her.  She likes it and hates it and wishes that certain things were not so.  “This is the place where minds, all minds, come to rest.”

He speaks the truth, Emily realises dully.  The ocean below her feet is the vast dreaming mind of humanity itself.  The things above her are linked to humanity and yet so far beyond it that there are no points in common.  She remembers some of the things she’d seen outside the fabric of reality, when she was thrown back in time or linked to the entity that had invaded Heart’s Eye; she shivers at the grim reminder of just how fragile reality truly is.  The longer she stays in the dreamtime, the harder it will be to return.  Cold ice washes down her spine as the implications dawn on her.  She might never escape the dreamtime.

She faces him.  She turns to face him.  She doesn’t face him.  All are true in the dreamtime.

“You thought we should talk,” she says.  “Fine.  Talk.”

Void says nothing for a long moment.  She can see thoughts – shadowy thoughts – below the water, below his feet.  The surface ripples beneath him.  She thinks, suddenly, of just how much power he’s expanding to bring her into the dreamtime.  She knows he will not hurt her and yet … she fears.  She looks away, up towards a black sun high overhead.  It seems to peer back at her.  She dreads to imagine what it must be.

“You wanted to know why I was taking control,” Void says.  “And you didn’t like my answer.”

“No,” Emily says, warily.  She understands his point of view, she follows his reasoning, but she doesn’t agree it justifies everything he’s done.  “You have a point.  But your actions have made everything worse.”

“I didn’t account for you,” Void agrees.  A wash of affection follows his words.  “A person from a world beyond my ken … no, I couldn’t account for you.”

He takes a step back.  “I can’t say anything more to you,” he said.  “There are no words I can use.  But I can show you.  Here, in the dreamtime, you can see my memories.  You can walk beside me as I made the fateful choice, the decision to take power for myself and use it.  You can watch through my eyes and decide if you would have made the same decision – or not.”

Emily cocks an eyebrow.  “And afterwards?”

“And afterwards, you are free to go,” Void says.  “You have my word.”

“I see.”  Emily thinks, quickly.  She cannot stay in the dreamtime for long.  Her body will die, leaving her a ghost on the astral plane.  “I’ll take your word.”

Void smiles, and snaps his fingers.  The ocean seems to shift beneath her feet …

… And his memories reach up and overwhelm her.

Chapter One

There is a place near Whitehall, far too close to the Dark City for comfort, where the grass will never grow again.

I stood on the edge of the clearing and peered across the scene.  Two of my brothers had died there, ten years ago; a third had seen something so terrible the sight had permanently blinded him.  Even I hadn’t been unscarred, although I could never have put the feeling into words someone could understand.  It felt like a shadow of a scar on my soul.

The magical emanations burned at me.  The power we’d unleashed – for a few short seconds – had blighted the landscape permanently, bleeding into the surrounding foliage and warping it beyond recognition.  No one came here, not even the more intellectually-challenged students who thought they could handle anything.  The otherworldly magic in the air drove them away.  I was the only person I knew who could breach the clearing and I couldn’t stay for long.  The magic was just too dangerous.

I stared at the scorched ground, breathing a silent prayer for my brothers.  The four of us had grown up together, outcasts from our more distant relatives because of how our father had chosen to sire us.  We had studied magic together, we had gone to school together, we had done everything together.  We’d thought we could change the world, for the better.  And we’d been wrong.  We’d played with fire and two of us had died, vaporised so completely there’d been nothing left of them.  My brother and I hadn’t even been able to take their bodies home for proper funeral rites.

The magic shifted, a faint otherworldly sense pressing against my mental shields.  I wanted to run.  I wanted to walk into the clearing, into another world.  I wanted … I clenched my fists as the contradictory urge grew stronger, unwilling to let it get the better of me.  I’d spent ten years researching the spell we’d tried to use, the rite we’d found in a forgotten tome and tested carefully before we actually cast it.  I still didn’t know if we’d made a dreadful mistake or if the entire spell had been a booby trap from the start, designed to kill anyone stupid enough to try it.  It gnawed at me, in the darkest nights.  What had we done?  What had we really been trying to do?

My nails dug into my hands.  My memories were vague.  I’d performed spell after spell designed to drag up old memories and yet, everything that had happened between the moment we’d started the rite and recovering in the burnt-out clearing was a blur.  I remembered … thingsthings I couldn’t see properly.  I knew I should be glad – my brother had been blinded – and yet there was a part of me that just wanted to know.  What had really happened in the period I couldn’t remember?

The magic shifted again.  I thought I heard my brother’s voice on the wind, calling to me.  It wasn’t real and yet it felt real.  I turned and walked away.  Whatever we’d done, we’d blighted the land beyond repair.  I had been lucky to survive.  The sensation faded as I walked faster, unwilling to spend another second near the otherworldly magic.  There was nothing I could do about it.  The land was blackened and burnt and no longer the province of human minds.  It wasn’t safe for anyone, not now.

I dismissed the thought as I walked onwards, my magic bending the trees and foliage around me.  There were no paths here.  No students explored this far from the school, no hunters prayed on the local wildlife … I’d been told there were a handful of hermits living so far from the civilised world, but I’d never seen them.  The odds were good they were no longer entirely human.  Being so close to the wild magic of the Greenwood did unpleasant things to humans, at least those without the proper protections or agreements.  The Other Folk were always haunting the land.  I could feel unseen eyes watching me.

The sensation faded, the moment I reached the ancient road that led from Whitehall to Dragon’s Den.  There were agreements here, agreements forged so long ago that no one really knew who’d put their name to them, agreements that the students would remain untouched by the Other Folk.  I’d hunted through the archives, trying to determine who – or what – had written the agreements and bound themselves to them, but I’d drawn a complete blank.  There was just no way to know what had really happened, so long ago.  Perhaps it had been the first emperors.  They could speak for the human realm.

I felt the shadows of the past lifting as I kept walking, heading down to the town.  Dragon’s Den had survived the fall of the empire reasonably intact, given that it was ruled by Whitehall School rather than the local magnate – who now styled himself King of Alluvia – but everyone thought it was only a matter of time before all hell broke loose.  The town had attracted hundreds of refugees from magical communities over the last few decades, all of whom had been trying to find permanent homes that didn’t involve bending the knee to the newborn kingdoms or long-standing magical aristocracy.  The non-magicians in the town were having an even worse time of it.  There were just too many low-power magicians who took their frustrations and resentments out on their magic-less neighbours rather than trying to build up the power to strike back at their tormentors.  It was said – truly – that if you walked down the wrong street at the wrong time you’d go through at least five unwilling transformations before you reached the end.

A gaggle of students stood at the edge of the town.  They weren’t helping.  The Grandmaster was a firm believer in harsh discipline – I’d felt his wrath often enough – but he cared nothing for the mundanes in his town.  The students had no qualms about acting like entitled brats, intimidating the townsfolk and often humiliating them for shits and giggles.  Slip someone a love potion or a particularly nasty charm and watch the results, laughing all the time … bastards.  I didn’t bother to mask my magic as I walked past the students, watching in dark amusement as they scattered and fled.  No one would have faulted me for slapping them down, even without provocation.  The only safe streets in the town were the ones protected by powerful magicians.  It was unlikely things would improve unless the Grandmaster took a personal hand or he was replaced with someone a little more aware of his responsibilities.

The town was disturbingly quiet as I walked through the streets.  There were fewer students than I’d expected, even though it was a weekend.  Perhaps they were up to something or … I shrugged.  It wasn’t my problem.  I wasn’t a teacher.  I didn’t have the patience for it.  A young woman, barely out of her teens, made eyes at me.  I glanced at her, noted her dress – she was clearly from a magical bloodline – and ignored her.  My cousins had been raised to marry the strongest magicians they found, practically ordered to seduce them in hopes of breeding even stronger magicians.  I might be handsome – if I said so myself and of course I did – but it wouldn’t matter if I was uglier than a troll’s buttocks.  The girls would still be pushed into trying to marry me.

I felt nothing.  I’d never really been interested in anyone.

The cafe sat at the edge of the town’s centre, owned and run by a powerful magic.  I could feel his wards pulsing through the air, even from a distance.  A pair of students hung upside down outside, trying to keep their robes in place as they dangled from invisible strings.  They’d probably tried to harass the patrons on a dare, only to discover – too late – that the owner was too strong for them.  I didn’t bother to wonder what would happen to them.  The owner could do whatever he wanted, from putting them to work washing dishes to turning them permanently into toads.  The Grandmaster wouldn’t care enough to help them.

I stepped through the door, hung my cloak on a hook and walked to the table.  My brother – Hasdrubal – sat there, his eyes hidden behind a tattered blindfold.  He could still use magic to see – his first students had found that out the hard way – but ten years of research hadn’t been able to uncover a way to repair his eyesight.  Whatever had happened, it had proven impossible to fix.  And that should have been impossible too.

It was growing harder to tell we were brothers, I reflected, as I took the seat facing him.  I was tall, with pale skin, dark eyes and long dark hair that fell down to my shoulders; he was shorter, his eyes hidden, his body hunched as if he were carrying some great weight.  I supposed that being a teacher must have taken a toll, particularly with a Grandmaster who didn’t give much of a damn about his kids.  I had no illusions about the students.  They’d been obnoxious when I’d been a student and they were still obnoxious, even to the teachers.  My brother was the most powerful teacher in the school – he was head and shoulders ahead of many others – but that only made the thought of getting the better of him all the more attractive.  There wouldn’t be a student who hadn’t at least considered trying to sneak into his office.  Anyone who tried and succeeded, according to tradition, would be granted a free pass for the year.

Poetic justice, I thought, with a flicker of dark humour.  We tried to sneak into their offices when we were students too.

“Void.”  Hasdrubal looked irked.  He’d never liked the moniker I’d chosen.  “Thank you for coming.”

“Your message was very clear,” I said.  “You had someone you wanted me to meet?”

“Someone who wanted to meet you,” Hasdrubal said.  He flicked his finger in the air, sending a message.  “He has a job for you.”

“Oh, does he?”  I made a face.  I’d had a feeling it was yet another commission from the White Council.  Or, more accurately, a subcommittee of a committee within the council … a confusing mixture of sorcerers and aristocrats and newly-minted kings who could neatly evade the blame and deny everything if something went spectacularly wrong.  “And who might this person be?”

Hasdrubal nodded in the direction of the rear door, a moment before it opened.  I smirked inwardly – the door led to stairs, which led to the brothel – and then schooled my face into an expressionless mask as Lord Ashworth stepped into the cafe.  I wasn’t too surprised to see him – Lord Ashworth had always been too mealy-mouthed to do anything directly – but lurking there?  It was commonly believed he didn’t any balls.  His face twisted as he saw us, his lips starting to curve into a sneer before he hastily hid it.  He’d never liked my father.

“Lord Ashworth,” Hasdrubal said.  His voice was calm, so calm I knew he was irritated.  “Please.  Join us.”

Lord Ashworth sat, his face artfully blank.  I had no trouble reading his eyes.  He was both confident and afraid, a reflection of his power and his awareness of my far greater power.  I had no family – we’d been disowned after my father died – while he had a small army of magicians at his beck and call, but we both knew I could kill him.  He was far too close to me for his peace of mind.  I might not make it out alive – House Ashworth would spare no expense to hunt me down – but he’d be dead.

“Void,” Lord Ashworth said.  He summoned the waitress and ordered the most expensive drinks on the menu.  “We have a problem only you can solve.”

I resisted the urge to point out I wasn’t amused by his petty flattery.  I had no false modesty – I knew I was good – but I was hardly unique.  He didn’t want my problem-solving skills.  He wanted a deniable asset, someone who could be disavowed if necessary.  He wanted … he wanted something he’d be unwilling to come out and say.  I kept my face carefully blank, despite my disgust.  Lord Ashworth was one of the most powerful men in the world.  He didn’t have to jump around the issue for hours before finally getting to the point.

The waitress returned, with three glasses of something rare and expensive.  I didn’t touch it.  I didn’t want to accept any obligation to Lord Ashworth, no matter how small.  If he noticed – if he cared – he gave no sign.  Instead, he sipped his own glass with casual abandon.  I noticed a flicker of disgust cross my brother’s face.  Drunken magicians were dangerous.  Hasdrubal had managed to convince the staff to ban alcohol from the school, but the students could still drink in town.  And when they got drunk …

“We have a problem,” Lord Ashworth said.  “Have you ever been to the Principality of Yolanda?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never actually visited.”

Lord Ashworth made a face.  “The principality is really nothing more than a town, some countryside and a handful of mountain passes,” he said.  “It would have been swallowed by a bigger kingdom by now, except for a combination of geography and political reality.  Her neighbours – she has three – want her, but they don’t want their rivals getting their hands on her either.  King Jonathon – he styles himself the just – has managed to play his neighbours against one another, through a mixture of threats and promises.  It doesn’t hurt that Yolanda has a sizable magical community.  King Jonathon himself may be a mage.”

I nodded, impatiently.

“We have been quietly monitoring the situation,” Lord Ashworth said.  “The White Council has been using it as an example of what the council can do, meditating disputes between kingdoms and arranging matters so everyone is reasonably happy.  Keeping Yolanda independent, and the trade routes open, is in everyone’s interests.”

“Of course,” I agreed.  “And what does this have to do with me?”

“A handful of magicians, including a top-rank alchemist, have gone missing,” Lord Ashworth said.  “They were in Yolanda, all long-term residents.  And we don’t know what’s happened to them.”

“An alchemist,” I repeated.  “Was he one of the ones with … interesting … ideas?”

She,” Lord Ashworth corrected.  “And no, Layla wasn’t known for flights of fancy.  There was certainly no suggestion she should take her experiments somewhere unpopulated, where she would be the only person at risk if something went badly wrong.  She ran a simple apothecary and generally kept herself to herself.  She had no partner, no children, no apprentice.  The only reason we know she’s missing is because her former master didn’t get a letter from her.”

I had no patience for his bullshit.  “You mean, she was there to keep an eye on things for you,” I said.  “And you lost contact with her.”

Lord Ashworth didn’t bother to deny it.  I wasn’t too surprised.  House Ashworth had clients everywhere, as did the rest of the Great Houses.  I’d long suspected they were used as a covert intelligence network, particularly the ones with no apparent links to the magical aristocracy.  For all I knew, Layla might even be related – indirectly – to Lord Ashworth himself.  She would hardly be the first member of magical aristocracy to set off on her own path, trying to forge a life for herself.  And as long as she stayed in touch and made herself useful, her family wouldn’t care.

“We made indirect inquiries,” Lord Ashworth said.  “We were told she closed her shop and left.  That would be so out of character for her that we know it’s not true.  Further inquires revealed a number of other magicians going missing.  It isn’t easy to keep track of magicians, and it isn’t uncommon for the more independent-minded to simply vanish after graduation, but somewhere between five and twelve magicians have gone missing.”

“In Yolanda,” I said.

“Yes,” Lord Ashworth confirmed.  “They were all residents of the city.”

“And not the sort of people who would simply vanish one day,” I mused.  “What have you done about it?”

“We cannot send an investigation team into the town,” Lord Ashworth said.  “The politics are very delicate right now.  If the monarch refuses to allow it, we cannot do it.  We can’t even ask without risking a political crisis.”

“That is true.”  Hasdrubal looked as disgusted as I felt.  “There is nothing, legally, that can be done.”

“Really.”  I met Lord Ashworth’s eyes.  He looked away.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Go to the town, find out what’s happening and report back to us,” Lord Ashworth said, bluntly.  “We’ll decide what to do upon your return.”

“If that is what you want,” I said, with heavy sarcasm, “it will be my pleasure to serve.”

“Good,” Lord Ashworth said.  He slapped a pair of gold coins on the table, then stood.  “You know where to find me when you have something to report.”

He strode away.  I stuck my tongue out at his retreating back.  It was childish, but … I’d put up with his sneers since I’d been a child.  Even now, when he needed me, he sneered.  I was going to make him pay for it, one day.

“There are odder rumours coming out of the region,” Hasdrubal said.  “One of them involves a necromancer.”

I doubted it.  The established necromancers were quite some distance to the south.  There might be a newborn necromancer in Yolanda – the rite was terrifyingly easy – but there was no way he could escape notice.  Not for long.  The tiny kingdom would be knee-deep in bodies by now.  The White Council would have all the excuse it needed to intervene.  None of the surrounding kingdoms would argue.

“I’ll sneak into the town, see what I can dig up,” I said.  “But it isn’t a necromancer.”

“No,” Hasdrubal agreed.  “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t something bad.”

I couldn’t disagree.  Magic could make monsters out of magicians.  I knew that far too well.

15 Responses to “Snippet – Void’s Tale (Schooled in Magic Spin-Off)”

  1. Jared March 31, 2021 at 11:02 am #

    Wow!! I like this!!

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 31, 2021 at 3:24 pm #

    Very Very Good Start!

    By the way, I like the idea that Void is telling this story to Emily in a Dream. 😀

  3. Peter Sleet March 31, 2021 at 3:47 pm #

    Intriguing! A lot of hooks dangling and worth tugging. It’s a good start hopefully it can be kept up and expanded with the same levels of intrigue.

  4. rhino March 31, 2021 at 4:22 pm #

    What a marvel…. your mix of magic with the perspective of looking down into the world of dreams and from that sharing a specific dream/communication between 2 people. What a story teller you are, sir. Thank you

  5. bret March 31, 2021 at 7:33 pm #

    Yay! There’s a good chance this will end up being my favorite book in the series – Void is such an interesting and powerful character!

    • Fahnir April 1, 2021 at 8:16 pm #

      Key unanswered question–WHY does Void agree to do the White Council’s dirty work??

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 1, 2021 at 9:00 pm #

        Perhaps because he still (at that time) believes in the White Council?

      • Jared April 3, 2021 at 9:24 am #

        It’s also a way to stay somewhat on the inside.

  6. AC Young March 31, 2021 at 7:53 pm #

    I’m hooked!

    Out of interest, is it possible for Void to lie in the dreamtime, i.e. give Emily false memories? (It’s probably not in his interests to do so given that he’s still trying to explain himself, to persuade her that he’s right. But if there’s something in his memories he doesn’t want her to see…)

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 31, 2021 at 9:04 pm #

      This is IMO more “Void Telling Emily A Story” than “Emily Seeing Void’s Memories”.

      So while Void can’t lie to Emily, he doesn’t have to tell her what he doesn’t want her to know.

  7. Fahnir March 31, 2021 at 8:24 pm #

    Wonderful Storytelling…I really hope Emily and Void can come to an agreement, rather than a simplistic good vs. evil struggle–Emily living, Void dying–complicated, unexpected storylines are much more interesting and would make the ending in Child of Destiny more unexpected and surprising!

  8. Rex April 2, 2021 at 3:50 am #

    This has a much different texture to it from the previous SIM stories. I find it very engaging and like it a lot.

  9. Jared April 3, 2021 at 9:28 am #

    I have been thinking about this since TRSOH came out. If you recall in the beginning the dragon told Emily Void was planning something. My point is it seems to imply that at least that dragon isn’t as aloof as they seem.

  10. George Phillies April 3, 2021 at 11:55 pm #

    First person. Very direct.

  11. Dale Switzer April 4, 2021 at 4:15 am #

    I like that Void feels that he must justify himself to Emily. This keeps him from being a 2-dimensional megalomaniac. That this book is his “apologia” it has to be in first person.

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