Snippet – Hasdrubal’s Tale (Schooled in Magic Novella)

17 Jun

Hi, everyone

Hasdrubal’s Tale is a short novella, set within the Schooled in Magic universe, and tells the backstory of Grandmaster Hasdrubal and Void.  As always, comments would be warmly welcomed.

Chris

Prologue

My dear Emily.

I don’t know when you’ll read this letter, or indeed if you ever will.

My brothers and I bound ourselves, when we decided it was us against the world, with a Tontine Curse.  The oath, rooted so deeply within our shared blood that nothing short of death could break it, ensured we could not share our secrets with anyone unless we all agreed to share.  There were no loopholes, save one.  If one of us were to die, the dead man’s opinion would no longer need to be taken into account.  We felt, at the time, that the last of us could decide how much, if any, of our story could be shared with the wider world.

In hindsight, that was a mistake.  My brother– my sole surviving brother, who I can only call by his moniker – and I disagree on many things, yet we are still bound by the tontine.  I cannot talk to others, even you, without his permission and I know such permission will not be forthcoming.  I attempted to discuss the matter with him, when you entered our lives, and he was firmly of the opinion sleeping dogs should be left to lie.  I am one of the most powerful magicians in the world, with some of the others working under me, and yet my ability to evade the tontine is very limited.  It took me years to come up with an evasion and I know, even as I write, that it may not work.  You may simply never see this letter, or he will find it first and destroy it before you ever know it exists.  The odds of you seeing it before matters come to a head are very low.

The spells woven into this parchment, Emily, are tied to the family bloodline.  The letter will remain hidden from sight, once I seal the scroll, until there is only one of us left.  It may slip through the tontine if I am the one to die, as I will be dead at the time and the curse won’t survive me.  If it isn’t me who dies, I will speak to you in person and destroy this letter.  It might not be easier, but it will be better.

It is not easy to write these words.  I am loathe to confess my own failings, and my role in the disaster that got my brothers killed, but you have to know.  You have to be warned before it is too late.  And yet, I don’t know if you’ll ever see this letter.  If you don’t …

Let me start at the beginning, to give you some context.  Our father – Hiram of House Barca –liked to consider himself a researcher.  He was a very powerful sorcerer with a complete lack of scruples, when it came to digging into the roots of magic.  House Barca regarded him with a degree of wariness.  He’d made a number of breakthroughs, even as a young student, but those discoveries had always been made at a price.  He was repeatedly suspended as a student for testing potions and charms on other students and, afterwards, there were persistent rumours of horrific experiments conducted in his private lair.  The family tried not to look too closely.  As you might expect, they wanted to reap the rewards without getting blood on their hands – literally.

It is difficult to tell what our father had in mind when he conceived us.  The majority of his research notes didn’t survive (or so we were told; I have always wondered if they vanished into the family archives) and what little fell into our hands were a combination of spell fragments and insane ravings, none of which made any real sense.  We only have a rough outline of what happened.  My father collected four common-born women, all with magic, and convinced them to bear his children, then step out of their lives.  I like to think he paid them well, for their services, but the truth is I don’t know.  They must have been desperate to agree.  Even then, newborn magicians were being offered the chance to go to school or marry into magical families.  They should have had other options, if he gave them a choice.

The family’s theory was that my father believed magical twins – or quadruplets, in this case –would share their magic, perhaps even their souls.  He might have been right.  Twins are far from uncommon amongst mundanes, but almost unknown amongst magicians.  He certainly went to a lot of trouble to ensure the four women conceived at the same time – the exact details have been lost to time, which is probably for the best – and gave birth within minutes of each other.  Quite what happened to the mothers after that I don’t know, but I fear the worst.  None of them ever came forward to make contact with their children.

This time, it looked as though my father had really gone too far.  The family was notpleased to be presented with four new heirs, so alike they even suspected glamours before realising the truth.  Nor were they willing to tolerate my father crossing the line so badly it was quite possible outside forces would become involved.  My father was ordered to surrender the children to the family, then present himself before the council for a full inquest.  He did the former, but not the latter.  Instead of showing up to the inquest, he walked away into the shadows and vanished, cutting his ties so completely we could never be sure if he was alive or dead.  He was never seen again, at least not by us.

We were raised by our family, but always on the edge.  They didn’t know quite what to make of us.  I suspect some of the more wary councillors would have advocated for our deaths if they hadn’t known the entire family would turn on them.  We grew up alone, with no one else to rely on, as we came into our magic.  Is it any surprise, therefore, that we formed a tight-knit group?  We had no one else.  There were no playdates with outsiders, no hint of future marriage arrangements, nothing.  The family did its best to pretend we simply didn’t exist.  I’m still surprised they allowed us to go to Whitehall.  I think they would have blocked it if they hadn’t been so keen to get rid of us.  They wanted us to go to school and never come back.

Adulthood didn’t make it any easier.  We were brilliant magicians.  Really, we were.  There are few amongst your peers who come close to our potential, back in those days.  The family should have been proud of us, but instead they eyed us like monsters that would turn on them at any moment.  They didn’t trust us and yet they wanted to make use of us.  They dangled the prospect of full acceptance in front of our eyes, giving us jobs to do that – they assured us – would eventually lead to us being acknowledged as what we were, Sons of House Barca.  In hindsight, I doubt they had any intention of keeping their word.  Our history and our nature set their teeth on edge.  There were very few of them who could even stand to be in our presence for long.  We really were uncannily alike,

You wouldn’t believe it, having seen us now, but it was true.  We were practically identical.  If you didn’t see us together you would believe there was only one of us.  We were tall, with dark hair and angular faces and black eyes and muscular bodies …. we knew we were handsome, our bodies brimming with magic and potential.  And yet … our family didn’t want us.  We knew it, even if we didn’t want to admit it. 

And so our resentment grew.

It all came to a head, eventually.  Of course it did.

And it all started in a house of horrors.

Chapter One

“It feels like a storm,” Void said.  “Doesn’t it?”

I nodded, stiffly, as I stood at the gates and peered towards the distant mansion.  My uncle’s message had been surprisingly urgent, for a man who so lazy there were whispered suggestions he’d married a pregnant women.  It was cruel of us to laugh, I suppose, but Uncle Mago of House Barca was the man who constantly dangled the promise of family acceptance in front of us, if we did one last thing – and then a second last thing – for him.  The family regarded us as deniable assets.  I wondered, sometimes, if they thought they were fooling anyone.

“The wards are clearly going haywire,” I agreed.  Hamilcar and Himilco – our other brothers – were walking the edge of the grounds, prodding the defences to look for weak points we could use to breath into the mansion.  “And there’s wild magic spilling everywhere.”

Void glanced at me.  “Do you think they’re betting there’s enough wild magic in this place to kill us?”

“I hope not,” I said.  There were no birds flying through the air, no small animals scurrying through the brambles.  That wasn’t a good sign.  Animals tended to be smarter than humans where wild magic was involved.  “I really do.”

I felt my heart sink as my eyes ran over the grounds and the distant mansion.  It would have looked good in its time, I was sure, but now it was a wreck.  The wild magic animated the flower beds and distant bushes, turning them into ravenous entities that were clearly on the verge of uprooting themselves and setting out to wreck havoc on the countryside; the mansion itself was drenched in magic, the wards slowly decaying into a haze of magic that might easily destroy the mansion.  They had to be taken down, Uncle Mago had said, before the entire structure collapsed into rubble.  Personally, I suspected he was renting us out to the White Council and its Mediators.  I’d checked the records, such as they were, and House Barca didn’t seem to have any interests in the region.

Unless our father is involved, somehow, I thought.  We didn’t remember the bastard who’d sired us, then left us to the family’s tender mercies.  We’d spent long nights using spells to try and track him down, although we didn’t know if we wanted to hug or hit him, only to draw a complete blank.  Is this one of his labs?

Hamilcar and Himilco returned, wands in hand.  “No weak points,” Hamilcar said.  He was our wardcrafting expert, although we were all pretty good.  Our tutors had wondered if we were taking each other’s exams at school, on the grounds our unique nature made it difficult for anticheating charms to work.  “We’ll have to go through the gates.”

“There’ll be something nasty on the path,” Void cautioned.  “We’ll have to be careful.”

I nodded as we inched to the gates, our magic fusing together into a single unit, as if we were a single person with multiple bodies  I wondered, sometimes, if it was that that scared the family.  We were an unstoppable team.  We’d fought duels in which we’d been heavily outnumbered and still emerged victorious, simply because we worked together so well.  If we’d taken on the might of the family … we moved as one, knocking the gates open and running up the path.  It was deceptively still until we were halfway to the mansion, where upon the ground shifted underneath us and the two leaders fell into a pit.  We reacted at once – as one – casting spells to levitate the fallers out of the pit while the others hopped over and landed neatly on the far side.  The ground shifted, trying to hurl us into the pit again, but we kept moving.  There were charms woven into the wards to keep us from flying – a simple precaution, even in those days – but they weren’t designed to keep us from levitating.  We pin-wheeled over the path and landed safely, staffs raised in anticipation of a second threat.  The ground heaved, the bushes tearing themselves from their beds and hurtling towards us like monsters from the Blighted Lands.  I thought I heard them scream as we blasted them with fire and wind spells, the former setting them ablaze while the latter hurled the burning branches against the far wall.  The damage to the garden didn’t matter.  There was so much wild magic in the air that it would have to be torn down, the ground cleansed before the garden was regrown from scratch. 

Void laughed.  “I think we’re not welcome.”

I heard my brothers chuckle as we pressed through the inner wards.  The owner – dead now, according to our uncle – had been paranoid, incredibly so.  His wards were a virtual spider web of traps, each countered spell triggering another.  Freeze spells tried to stop us in our tracks, change spells tried to turn us into toads, levitation spells tried to send us flying over the wards … we countered them all, covering each other perfectly.  I saw a fireball shoot at Void’s back and deflected it into a change spell coming at me; he caught a paralysis spell aimed at me and shot it at a stone statue, which stopped dead and then shattered into a thousand pieces of debris.  I hoped the statues hadn’t been human once, before they’d trespassed in a sorcerer’s domain.  If they were, the spells had lasted so long they’d become permanent.

The door loomed up in front of us, brimming with spells.   I threw myself forward, drawing the spells onto my wards and deflecting them into the air.  A wave of focused magic descended on me, threatening to crush my strongest protections.  It would have been suicide, if my brothers hadn’t been at my side.  I took the hit, starving death off long enough for them to undo the defences and tear the spells to pieces.  The doors crashed open.  I stumbled forward, blinking hard as we swept into the lobby.  Silence fell, like a physical blow.  I looked around warily.  The lobby was disturbingly still, brightly lit even though there was no visible light source.  I didn’t like it.

“Interesting,” Void said.  “The charms felt as if they were directed by a living mind.”

Hamilcar scowled.  “The sorcerer is dead, remember?”

“Is that true?”  Void kept turning his head from side to side, as if he expected to be attacked at any moment.  “Did you see the body?”

“That fat oaf wouldn’t dare to lie to us,” Himilco muttered.  “The sorcerer is dead.  His wards are lingering.  That’s all there is to it.”

I wasn’t so sure.  The lobby was … weird.  It looked like a normal aristocratic lobby, with a marble floor and marble stairs and marble statues and paintings – edged by marble, of course – and yet, there was a faint sense we were being watched pervading the air.  It felt as if something was waiting to happen.  I reached out with my senses, tracing the magic running through the mansion.  The files insisted the mansion had originally been built by the magicless aristocracy and then been sold to the owner, but I had my doubts.  The building was perfectly tuned for magic, allowing it to be turned into a warded stronghold with very little effort.  It was odd.

Perhaps they thought there’d be a magician in the family, sooner or later, I thought.  Or maybe something else is going on.

My eyes narrowed.  Uncle Mago was too lazy to lie and yet, it was quite possible someone had lied to him.  Had we been sent on a suicide run?  We were powerful, and as a team we’d bested magicians far greater than ourselves, but there were a handful of sorcerers who were practically one-man armies.  They could fight necromancers in single combat and win.  There weren’t many of them, but …

“If he did lie to us, we’d boil him alive until his blubber ran like water,” Hamilcar said.  None of us particularly liked our uncle – he smiled too much, concealing his distaste for us behind a mask he was too lazy to maintain – but Hamilcar loathed him.  I knew why.  “He wouldn’t dare.”

“We have to find the wardstone,” I told them, flatly.  There was no point in hanging around the lobby.  The wardstone would be at the heart of the building.  “Let’s go.”

The sense we were being watched grew stronger as we inched across the lobby, following the threats of magic as they led us down the corridor.  The marble décor never changed.  Long rows of portraits glared from the walls, their eyes seeming to follow us as we walked past them.  I wondered, idly, if they were the sorcerer’s ancestors or if he’d just inherited them from the previous owners.  There were legal precedents for fictional relationships that everyone took seriously, even though everyone also knew they simply didn’t exist.  Or maybe they were just part of the defences …

Void hissed a warning as the corridor twisted.  I cursed, snapping out a pair of protective spells.  The trap would have caught us if we hadn’t shared a bond.  The labyrinth spell was an impressive piece of work, warping the corridor into an endless circle that would hold any normal intruder prisoner until he starved to death … to us, the distortion was obvious.  We reacted as one, three of us shooting more spells into the walls to keep them from twisting while Void attacked the labyrinth spell directly.  The entire building seemed to shake – I guessed a pocket dimension had collapsed – as the spell snapped out of existence.  I was morbidly impressed.  A sorcerer who’d set up a pocket dimension without a nexus point was clearly a very powerful and dangerous sorcerer indeed.

The paintings came to life a second later, ghostly figures floating towards us.  I heard Hamilcar curse as a painting sliced at him with a translucent knife, a knife that proved to be real when it mattered.  The sheer power involved in making the knife real, if only for a few seconds … by the gods, I hoped it meant we were dealing with the work of a dead Lone Power.  All the other possibilities were worse.  I threw a fireball at the ghost of a snooty aristocrat – the man was short, yet he still somehow managed to look down his nose at me – and cursed as it passed through and splashed against the far wall.  Dispersal charms didn’t work either.  Void stepped forward, casting a wave of fire that swept the walls and consumed the painting frames.  The ghosts vanished with their paintings.

“Some people just like to be clever,” Void said.  “They’d have got us if they’d just kept the paintings out of sight.”

I nodded as we hurried down the corridor, ducking, dodging or destroying the mansion’s defences.  The statues came to life – again – and attacked us; powerful lights flickered and flared, voices whispering in our ears, speaking to our doubts and insecurities even as they promised us the world.  We jumped into the air as the floor dropped from beneath our feet, drawing on all of our reserves to avoid a plunge into a second pit.  The corridor thinned, the walls closing so sharply we had force them open … it would have been impossible, again, if we weren’t such a well-practiced team.  A wave of illusions rushed towards me – my worst fears come to life – and broke against our shared will as I drew on my brothers for support.  I could always rely on them.  We were family.

The marble vanished, replaced by black walls glowing with eerie light.  I led the way into the final chamber, feeling darkness pulsing around me like a living thing.  It was impossible to convince myself, now, that the defences were merely following orders.  I could feel the threads of magic pulsing through the darkness, leading us onwards … they were connected to something, something intelligent.  Did the sorcerer have a wife?  A child?  A partner?  Perhaps even someone who’d broken into the mansion, before us, and taken control for himself?  It wasn’t impossible …

… And then the darkness parted, revealing the nightmare at the heart of the mansion.

It stood in a circle, so disconcertingly human that it was hard to look at it directly.  My brain refused to acknowledge its presence.  It wore the form of a tall naked man, so inhumanly perfect it was impossible to believe it was human.  It’s perfect face was so proud and haughty that it put my family in the shade.  My legs wobbled as it met my eyes.  It was like staring at a dragon, at a creature that knew, beyond all doubt, that it was an apex predator.  It was almost hypnotic.  I had to bite my lips to keep from stumbling across the circle.  If I broke it …

“A demon?”  Void sounded astonished.  We’d never seen a demon before.  Technically, we weren’t supposed to know about them either.  If we hadn’t been sneaking into the restricted parts of the school library since first year, we wouldn’t have known anything.  The tales of DemonMasters were so ancient it was impossible to say what had grown in the telling.  “he used a demon to power his wards?”

“He was a little man with a great fear,” the demon said.  It’s voice, sickeningly sweet, seemed to reach my mind without going through my ears.  It made my skin crawl.  “And so he brought me out of the darkness to protect him.”

I stepped back, allowing Void and Hamilcar to examine the wards surrounding the circle.  It looked absurdly fragile, little more than a line on the stone floor, but as long as it remained unbroken – if the restricted texts were telling the truth – the demon couldn’t escape.  I forced myself to recall what I’d read about the nature of demons, about how they would take advantage of the slightest loophole to harm or even kill the fool who summoned them.  They were bound never to lie, the books insisted, but that didn’t make them trustworthy.  The best way to lie was to tell the truth in a manner that ensured you’d never be believed.  My family was very good at it.

“You commanded the defences,” Void said, picking apart the charms.  “He must have been sure he could control you.”

“He was a fool,” the demon said.  It regarded us with polite interest, but I could see the malice behind its smile.  No human bore that much malevolence towards anyone.  “He got what he wanted.”

I saw it in a sudden flash of insight.  The wards had started to collapse after the caster’s death.  It was only a matter of time before the mansion collapsed too, the rubble breaking the circle and freeing the demon.  The spells would release enough wild magic to feed the demon, allowing it to remain on the mortal plane long enough to do some real damage.  I shuddered.  The crazy madman had either planned it that way – perhaps he hated the world around him and wanted to make it pay – or he just hadn’t thought it through.  I cursed him under my breath.  How the hell were we supposed to stop a demon?  I wasn’t sure it was even possible.  A necromancer would be preferable.

The demon smirked.  I shuddered.  It could read my thoughts.  It knew I knew what it had done.  It knew there was nothing I could do about it.  There was no way to banish the demon without breaking the circle and no way to break the circle without freeing it.  It would be gone before we could work out a way to trap it … I cursed the dead sorcerer as I looked around, trying to find a way to reinforce the circle before it was too late.  We needed specialised supplies and there were none.  We hadn’t known to bring them …

Void laughed and cast a pair of spells into the ward network, taking control.  “We don’t have to banish you,” he said, as he snapped orders to the rest of us.  “We can use you instead?”

I saw it as we hurried to take our places.  The ward network drew on the demon’s power.  The sorcerer hadn’t been a complete idiot.  The demon was powering the wards that were keeping it prisoner, effectively pinning itself.  It had the same problem we had.  It couldn’t free itself without tearing apart the wards and it couldn’t do that without falling back into the darkness.  It needed the circle to come apart on its own …

“Perhaps we could make a bargain,” the demon said.  I thought I heard a hint of desperation in its voice.  Had we scared it?  Or was it playing with us, as a cat might play with a mouse?  “There is much I could offer you.”

We ignored it as we meshed out spells together, directing the ward network to draw more and more power from the demon, then consume the wild magic pervading the air.  The mansion shook – I heard the sound of crumbling masonry as the spells holding the building together started to fail – but we barely noticed.  We were so practiced at working together we had no trouble doing three things at once; drawing energy from the demon, channelling it into a ever-expanding spell and preparing our escape.  The wards shattered – the demon screamed, a sound that burned into my very soul – and we teleported out, materialising outside the mansion gates.  I barely caught a glimpse of the mansion one final time before it exploded.  I thought I saw the demon within the fireball, inhuman eyes burning down at me and then vanishing into the flames.  The air seemed to grow lighter.  The demon was gone.

“Well,” Void said, as the birds started to sing again.  “We did dismantle the wards.  And everything else as well.”

I couldn’t help myself.  I laughed.

After a moment, the others joined me.

7 Responses to “Snippet – Hasdrubal’s Tale (Schooled in Magic Novella)”

  1. Jared June 17, 2022 at 11:56 am #

    That’s awesome!!! I’m excited for more!!!!

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard June 17, 2022 at 3:14 pm #

    Good Start!

    One possible nit, I thought Emily saw a portrait of the brothers as boys/early teens and their father was in the portrait.

    I’ll have to recheck the books.

  3. randallberger June 18, 2022 at 10:45 am #

    As I told you in a beta message, Chris, I think the novella should be entitled THE HEADMASTER’S TALE and introduce his name later in the story, when discussing the other brothers. Most of us new him as THE HEADMASTER for the first books and not by his real name until later.

  4. Fred Mora June 20, 2022 at 2:34 am #

    Great beginning, looking forward to the rest!

    Typos: 2 instances of “It’s” should be “its.”

  5. George Phillies June 21, 2022 at 10:11 pm #

    Well done, as always.

  6. Fahnir June 25, 2022 at 5:31 am #

    Fastastic Story! I hope if this goes well, you might consider writing a story with an older Emily finding out what happened to Hasdrubal after he sacrificed himself to save Emily…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: