Title: Trial By Fire (Schooled In Magic 7)
Author: Christopher G. Nuttall
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
About the Book
Three years ago, Emily killed the Necromancer Shadye before he could sacrifice her and destroy the Allied Lands. Now, the shadows of the past hang over Whitehall as Emily and the Grandmaster travel into the Blighted Lands to recover anything Shadye might have left behind, before returning to Whitehall to start the fourth year. For Emily, it is a chance to stretch her mind and learn more about new and innovative forms of magic ... and to prepare for the exams that will determine her future as a magician.
But as she starts her studies, it becomes clear that all is not well at Whitehall. Master Grey, a man who disliked Emily from the moment he met her, is one of her teachers - and he seems intent on breaking her, pushing her right to her limits. In the meantime, her friends Alassa and Imaiqah are acting oddly, Frieda seems to be having trouble talking to her and - worst of all - Caleb, her partner in a joint magical project, is intent on asking her to go out with him.
As she struggles to cope with new challenges and to overcome the demons in her past, she becomes aware of a deadly threat looming over Whitehall, a curse that threatens her very soul. And when she makes a tiny yet fatal mistake, she finds herself facing a fight she cannot win, but dares not lose...
Caleb stopped outside the stone door to his father's study and paused, feeling his heart pound inside his chest. He had few good memories of his father's study; he and the other children had never been allowed to enter, save for long lectures and punishments when they'd disappointed their parents. Caleb had never dared to try to break the complex network of spells on the lock, knowing it would displease his mother and father.
And both of his parents were formidable indeed.
"Caleb," his mother called. "Come in."
Caleb bit his lip and pushed at the door. The house was small - living space was at a premium in Beneficence - and his mother had had over twenty-five years to weave protective spells and wards into the stone building. She'd always known what her children were doing while they lived in her house. Her children had rapidly learned to keep their misdeeds well away from home if they didn't want to get caught at once. He shivered when he felt another protective ward shimmering over him as he stepped through the door, then bowed formally to his father. His father looked at him for a long moment, and nodded. Beside him, Caleb's mother kept her face impassive.
They made an odd couple, Caleb had often thought, once he'd grown old enough to meet other soldiers and magicians. General Pollock - his father - was short, stubby and muscular, tough enough to march with the younger men instead of riding a horse to battle, while Mediator Sienna was tall, willowy and one of the most experienced combat sorcerers in the Allied Lands. She might not have been classically beautiful, her stern face edged by long black hair, but she was striking, with a trim athletic build even after giving birth to five children. And there were few people who would dare insult her to her face.
"Caleb," his father grunted. He'd never really seen Caleb as anything other than a disappointment, once it became clear that his second son was more interested in theoretical work than fighting. "You wished to speak with us?"
"Yes, father," Caleb said. His parents weren't stuck-up enough to insist that their children make appointments to speak with them, but certain things had to be done formally. The little rituals of politeness, as always, kept civilization going. "I do."
His father waved a hand, impatiently. "Then speak," he ordered.
Caleb took a long breath. Casper - handsome Casper, confident Casper - would have found it easy to speak to their parents, he was sure. But his elder brother had basked in the approval of their father, while even their stern mother could rarely remain angry at him for long. What Casper wanted, Casper got. Their parents hadn't really spoiled Casper, Caleb had to admit, but he'd had advantages none of the younger children shared. He'd set out to walk in their footsteps, after all.
"I ask your permission to open a Courtship," he said, allowing his voice to slip into cool formality. "I ask for your blessings and your wisdom."
His parents exchanged glances. A simple relationship was one thing, but a Courtship was quite another. It implied that Caleb was willing to spend the rest of his life with the girl, if she proved receptive to his advances. And his parents...they might have to welcome the girl into their family, if the Courtship worked out. Caleb was the first of the family to discuss a Courtship. Even Casper had yet to bring a girl home to meet their parents.
His mother spoke first. "Who is this girl?"
Caleb held himself steady, refusing to be swayed by the bite in her tone. "Emily," he said, simply. "Daughter of Void."
"I see," General Pollack said. His voice revealed nothing. "You overreach yourself, do you not? She is a Baroness of Zangaria."
"I am a sorcerer," Caleb countered. He'd known his father would object on those grounds, if nothing else. General Pollack came from aristocratic stock, but his father had been a mere Knight. Grandfather Karuk had been powerful enough to buy his son a commission, yet he'd never been as wealthy and powerful as a baron. "We are social equals."
"And her father is a Lone Power," Mediator Sienna said, slowly. "Do you not fear his thoughts on the matter?"
Caleb hesitated, but pressed on. "That is why I have decided on a formal Courtship," he said. He'd always had the impression that Emily was largely flying free - he didn't think that an experienced sorcerer would have allowed the crisis in Cockatrice to get so badly out of hand - but marriage was quite another issue. "It would allow him a chance to object before matters became serious."
"She may reject you," General Pollack warned. "You are not a wealthy man."
"I know," Caleb said. The family wealth, what little there was of it, would go to Casper, once his parents passed away. General Pollack was a poor man, by the standards of their social equals. But not using his position to enrich himself had made him popular with the troops under his command. "I do, however, have excellent prospects."
His father's face darkened. "But not as a defender of the Allied Lands."
Caleb bit down the response that came to mind. His father had expected his children - his male children, at least - to go into the military, to fight for the Allied Lands. Casper, whatever his flaws, was a halfway decent combat sorcerer. But Caleb? He'd always been more interested in fundamental magic research than fighting. The transfer to Whitehall had been the best thing that had ever happened to him.
"His research may prove useful," Mediator Sienna said.
General Pollack gave her a surprised look.
Caleb couldn't help staring at her in astonishment. His mother might be formidable, but it was rare for her to disagree with her husband in public. Caleb knew they'd had some spectacular rows, yet they'd always been held in private. They'd always put forward a united front.
His mother ignored their surprise. "Do you believe she likes you?"
Caleb swallowed. That was the question, wasn't it? He had never been able to read a girl, to tell if she was interested in him or if she was just being polite. The lads in the barracks had bragged endlessly about how many girls they'd slept with - Caleb was privately sure most of them were lying - but he had never had a serious relationship with anyone. Stronghold had enrolled only a handful of female students, while he'd been too busy at Whitehall to consider the possibilities. He'd never had the nerve to go into a brothel when he'd been on leave.
"I think so," he said, finally. He went on before his mother could start demanding details. "That's why I decided on a formal Courtship. If she thinks otherwise..."
"You can back off without shame," his mother finished. It would be embarrassing to be rejected, Caleb was sure, but better that than getting into a muddle. Courtship, if nothing else, was a ritual intended to ensure that everything was open, without even the merest hint of impropriety. "I would advise you to be careful, though. It is rare for a Lone Power to have a child."
"And one so grossly irresponsible, at that," General Pollack growled. "Inviting both the Ashworths and Ashfalls to the Faire. What was she thinking?"
"She shut them both down," Caleb reminded him.
His mother met his eyes. "Yes, she did," she agreed. "But it was still irresponsible."
"I like her," Caleb said, refusing to look away. "I request your blessing for the Courtship."
General Pollack exchanged a long look with his wife. "We shall discuss it in private," he said, finally. "Wait."
Caleb scowled inwardly as his mother cast a privacy ward, ensuring he couldn't hear a word of what passed between them. It galled him to have to go to his parents, but he knew they would have been furious if he'd approached someone with serious intentions without consulting them first. There were times when he wouldn't have minded being disowned, yet - in truth - he loved his family. Even Casper...
Father has no magic, he reminded himself. And yet he rules the family with a rod of iron.
He looked down at the stone floor, then up as the privacy ward dispelled. His father looked irked, while his mother was smiling coldly to herself. Caleb schooled his face into a dispassionate expression, waiting patiently for their answer. There were strong advantages to the match, he was sure, but there were also dangers. His mother was powerful, yet she was no match for a Lone Power.
"We have considered the matter," General Pollack said. "You may proceed with your Courtship."
Caleb let out a sigh of relief. "Thank you, father-"
"Now we will discuss the practicalities," his mother added, cutting him off. "And precisely how you intend to proceed. You will have to present her with flowers within the month. Choosing the right ones will be important."
"Yes, mother," Caleb said.
He cursed under his breath. It wasn't something he wanted to talk about, not to his blunt, plainspoken mother, but it was clear he wasn't being offered a choice. His father's brief lecture on matters sexual had been bad enough, back when he'd started to realize there was something different about girls, yet this was likely to be worse. He cringed mentally, then steadied himself. At least they hadn't said no.
And now all you have to do is go through with the Courtship, he told himself. And that won't be easy.
...Shadye looms above her, his skull-like face crumbling as the power within him threatens to spill out. Emily stumbles backwards, clutching desperately for something - anything - she can use as a weapon, but there is nothing. The necromancer grabs her shirt, hauls her to her feet and draws a stone knife from his belt. Emily feels her entire body go limp as he holds the knife in front of her eyes, then stabs it into her chest...
Emily snapped awake, feeling sweat pouring down her back and onto the blanket. For a long moment, she was unsure where and when she was; the nightmare had been so strong that part of her half-wondered if Shadye had killed her and everything she'd experienced had been nothing more than the final flickers of life before she died. And then she forced herself to remember, somehow, that she was in a tent, in the Blighted Lands. She'd had nightmares every night since they'd crossed the Craggy Mountains and started their long walk towards the Dark Fortress.
Just a dream, she told herself, as she wiped her forehead. The prospect of returning to Shadye's fortress, where she'd barely escaped with her life, was terrifying. If there hadn't been a very real possibility she'd inherited Shadye's possessions, she wouldn't have chosen to come within a thousand miles of the place. It was just a nightmare. It wasn't real.
She started as something slithered towards her, but smiled as Aurelius butted his head into her thigh. The Death Viper looked up at her beseechingly, his golden eyes somehow managing to convey a sense of hunger even though she'd fed him only the previous night and he should still be digesting his meal. Emily had been told, when she'd brought the snake back to Whitehall, that Death Vipers could live for weeks without eating, while their last meal was digesting in their bellies, but Aurelius seemed to disagree. Perhaps the familiar bond that tied them together demanded more energy...
Or perhaps he's picking up on my hunger, she thought, as she sat upright and picked up the snake. I could do with something to eat too.
Aurelius slithered forward. She giggled helplessly as the snake crawled up her arm and settled around her neck. She reached into her pack, pulled out a piece of dried meat and offered it to Aurelius, then pulled her trousers on, followed by her shirt. Sleeping without her clothes hadn't been easy, but it had just been too hot inside the tent. She knew several spells to chill the air, but the Grandmaster had forbidden her to use magic unless it was urgent. Thankfully, he'd insisted on keeping watch half the night rather than sharing a tent with her.
She crawled forward and opened the flap, then poked her head out of the tent. The Grandmaster was sitting in front of a fire, his back to her, cooking something that smelled faintly like bacon, although she had no idea if it was. It smelled good, but the stench of the Blighted Lands - a faint hint of burning that seemed to grow stronger with every breath she took - threatened to overpower it.
"Good morning, Emily," the Grandmaster said. "I trust you slept well."
"Well enough," Emily lied. There was no point in complaining about the nightmares. "And yourself?"
"You know I don't sleep," the Grandmaster said.
I assumed it was a metaphor, Emily thought, ruefully. But it was true; the Grandmaster hadn't slept since the day they'd walked through the mountains and into the Blighted Lands. It can't be good for his mental health.
She pushed the thought aside as she stood and looked around. The Blighted Lands were strange, perhaps the strangest place she'd ever seen. Lands that had once been green and verdant were now covered in a thin layer of ash. There wasn't a single living thing in sight, apart from the pair of them. A faint haze shimmered in the air, making it hard to see beyond a few dozen meters. The sky was a dull grey, the sun barely bright enough to burn through the clouds hanging in the sky; the air was unnaturally still, tinted with the faint scent of burning, and wisps of raw magic that danced across her awareness for long seconds before fading away. She could barely force herself to remain calm, even though she knew there was no real threat. The landscape spoke to her on a very primal level.
It looked very much like hell.
"I'm pleased to see your monster is taking things calmly," the Grandmaster said, as she paced around the campsite before looking at him. He was a short, wizened man, with a dirty cloth wrapped around his eyes, but he was surrounded by an aura of power she knew to take seriously. "I was worried, but I would have preferred not to deprive you of your familiar."
Emily nodded. If anyone else had tried to wear a Death Viper as a necklace, she knew all too well, they would have died before they could wrap it around their necks. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that Aurelius was one of the deadliest creatures known to exist, with a venom so poisonous that even a mere touch could prove fatal. Only the familiar bond protected her from the snake, allowing her to keep Aurelius as a secret weapon. He'd already saved her life twice.
"He seems to be happier here than I am," Emily admitted. She squatted down and took the mug he offered her with a nod of thanks. The Kava tasted strong, but she knew from experience that it would jolt her awake. "Is that normal?"
"The Blighted Lands may be where the Death Vipers were spawned," the Grandmaster said, as he ladled food onto two plates. "He may feel like he's home."
Emily looked up, staring at the mountains in the distance. "I hope not," she muttered. "I wouldn't want to live here."
The Grandmaster laughed, and passed her a plate of food. "Eat quickly," he urged, as Emily took it. "I want to get to the Dark Fortress before it gets dark."
Emily swallowed. Years ago - so long ago it seemed almost like another life - Shadye had accidentally brought her to the Nameless World, seeking a Child of Destiny. It had never occurred to him that someone would be named Destiny, or that her child would be a literal Child of Destiny. Shadye had meant to kill her, to sacrifice her to something called the Harrowing, yet in some ways she was almost grateful to the mad necromancer. If she'd stayed on Earth, trapped between her stepfather and her suicidal urges, she was sure she would be dead by now.
"Yes, sir," she said, as she ate her meal. It tasted better than anything she'd cooked back on Earth, although the ever-present scent of burning had worked its way into the food. "How long will it take us to get there?"
"About an hour," the Grandmaster said. "Unless we run into trouble, that is."
They finished their breakfast. Emily wiped the plates and cooking equipment while the Grandmaster answered a call of nature, and started to pack away the tent. He hadn't wanted a tent for himself, something that made her feel vaguely guilty, but he'd dismissed the matter when she'd offered to sleep in the open too. She couldn't help feeling relieved; quite apart from her concerns about sleeping near a man, she wouldn't have cared to sleep in the open, not in the Blighted Lands. The raw magic seemed to grow stronger at night.
That must be why so few people risk entering the Blighted Lands, she thought, as she packed up the rucksack. You could go to sleep in the wrong place and wake up in a very different form.
She shuddered at the thought, then pulled the rucksack on and braced herself against the weight. The Grandmaster nodded to her, checked the campsite for anything they might have left behind, then led the way into the distance. Emily gritted her teeth and forced herself to follow him. The flickers of wild magic in the air were growing stronger the further they moved from the Craggy Mountains that blocked the way to Whitehall. If she'd been alone, she had a feeling she would have turned back a long time before reaching the Dark Fortress.
"There's no need to push yourself too hard," the Grandmaster said, slowing. "If worst comes to worst, we'll set up our tents near the Dark Fortress and wait until sunrise."
Emily glanced up. It was early morning, by her watch, but the sun was already high in the sky. And yet, the light seemed dim, the clouds growing darker as they walked deeper into the Blighted Lands. She'd thought it was night when Shadye had snatched her, but had his lands been buried in permanent darkness? Or was she merely imagining things?
"I thought you said it wasn't safe to lurk too close to the fortress," she said instead.
"It isn't," the Grandmaster confirmed. "But I would prefer not to have to enter the Dark Fortress in darkness."
He said nothing else until they stumbled across the ruins of a village, so hidden within the haze that they practically walked into the ruins before realizing they were there. It was hard to imagine that it had once been a living village, with farmers tending their crops and raising their children; now, it was nothing more than grey stone, all life and light leeched away by the Blighted Lands. The eerie sameness sent chills down her spine.
"Be careful," the Grandmaster warned as she peered into one of the buildings. "You never know what might be lurking here."
Emily nodded, pausing as she caught sight of a child's doll lying on the ground. It looked...normal, surprisingly intact despite the Blighted Lands. But when she reached for the doll and picked it up, it crumbled to dust in her hands. She swallowed hard, trying not to cry for the girl who'd owned the doll, untold centuries ago. Had she died quickly, at the hands of a necromancer, or fled with her family to the untouched lands to the north? There was no way Emily would ever know.
"There has to be something we can do for the Blighted Lands," she said, as she wiped the dust off her fingers. "Can't we...cleanse the lands, or something?"
"The necromancers unleashed wild magic," the Grandmaster said. "Every year, some people try to set up settlements within the edge of the Blighted Lands, in hopes of reclaiming the territory for themselves. And they always come to grief. If the necromancers don't get them, the wild magic does."
He took a long look around the village - Emily was sure he had some way to see, despite having lost his eyes years ago - and then led the way out of it, back to the south. She followed him, feeling an odd urge to stay within the village even though she knew it was suicide. It worried her for a long moment - it could be a sign of subtle magic - and then she realized the village had felt safe, despite being within the Blighted Lands. The urge to turn back and flee grew stronger with every step they took.
"The White Council was quite impressed with you," the Grandmaster said. He spoke in a conversational tone of voice, as if he were trying to keep her mind off the growing urge to just turn and run. "They were not too pleased with the management of the Cockatrice Faire, but...they were relieved at the outcome."
Emily nodded. Everyone from Lady Barb to the Grandmaster himself had pointed out that she'd been careless, at the very least, and that her carelessness could easily have resulted in disaster. If the Ashworths and the Ashfalls had gone to war, it would not only have led to the deaths of the leaders of both families, but also to the slaughter of hundreds of other magicians and the devastation of her lands. She knew she'd been lucky, very lucky. If she hadn't managed to get a battery to work...
She touched the ring, hidden within her pocket, and smiled. Lady Barb had urged her to create and charge a second battery while preparing for the trip to the Blighted Lands, and Emily had done as her mentor suggested. Now she had a battery she could use, although without a valve it was useless. And they had a tendency to work once and then burn out. Putting a spare valve together with the help of an enchanter in Dragon's Den had been harder than charging up the battery.
"You showed a staggering amount of power," the Grandmaster added. "They were very impressed."
Thank you, Emily thought, sardonically. Is that actually a good thing?
She eyed the Grandmaster's back, wondering if he knew just what she'd actually done. He hadn't treated her any differently when Lady Barb had returned her to Whitehall after the Faire, but he wouldn't have. Others...had stared at her in awe. In some ways, she was even dreading the day when the rest of the students returned to Whitehall. If they'd stared at her after beating Shadye - and they had - they would be paying far more attention to her now.
"Some of them even considered...insisting...that you take the oaths now," the Grandmaster told her. "Others thought you should be apprenticed at once to someone who could control your power, if necessary."
But I cheated, Emily thought.
It wasn't a reassuring thought. If she'd tried to channel so much power through her mind, it would have killed her or driven her insane. It had been bad enough, years ago, to have people watching her, suspicious of necromancy. Now...they probably thought she was a staggeringly powerful magician instead, a young girl fully on the same level as Void or another Lone Power. The idea that she could match the Grandmaster for raw power was absurd...
...But, to anyone who didn't know about the batteries, it might not seem absurd.
She swallowed. "What are they going to do?"
"Nothing," the Grandmaster said, simply.
Emily blinked. "Nothing?"
"I am Grandmaster of Whitehall School," the Grandmaster said. "I have never had a student forced to take the oaths ahead of time, and I'm not about to start now. If you want an apprenticeship with someone...well, that could be arranged, but you have no obligation to find a master. Or mistress. Still..."
He shrugged. "Have you thought about your career?"
"I don't know," Emily admitted. "I'd like to stay at Whitehall for the rest of my life."
"You'd need much more experience before you could teach," the Grandmaster said. "I like my tutors to have at least ten years of practical experience before they start touching young and impressionable minds. But you could get a slot as a teaching assistant, I suppose, or a research student. We do have a few of them at Whitehall."
He paused, then turned to look at her. "You do need to decide on a major before you enter Fifth Year," he added. "Going by your marks, I'd recommend majoring in charms and perhaps healing, but it depends on what you actually want to do with your life. If you want to be a healer, you'll need alchemy; if you want to be a combat sorceress, you'll need martial magic and history..."
Emily sighed, feeling a little overwhelmed. "Randor expects me to go back to Cockatrice and be the baroness," she said. "I..."
"King Randor," the Grandmaster corrected, quietly.
"But I don't know what I want to do," Emily continued. "There are so many interesting subjects."
"You could probably study them all, if you spread out your years," the Grandmaster mused. "It isn't unknown for students to repeat their last two years at Whitehall. However, most students tend to discover the subject they want to major in while they're in their Fourth Year and stick with it. Your marks in Healing are not bad."
Emily winced. Healing was an interesting class, but she didn't want to spend the rest of her life working with ill people. She'd seen enough of that life during the walk through the Cairngorms to know she didn't want to do it permanently. There had been too many horrors there, hidden in small shacks or behind high stone walls. She had no idea how Lady Barb did it without cursing everyone in sight.
"I think I just want to study," she said. It was a shame there were no universities in the Nameless World. She could have stepped into one quite happily and never come out. "And go into magical research, perhaps."
"That would suit you," the Grandmaster agreed.
He shrugged, then turned back to resume walking. "You need to remember that you're not just any magician," he added, as he walked. "Too many people are already showing an interest in you, not least our friends to the south."
The necromancers, Emily thought.
She'd killed Shadye - and the Allied Lands had declared her the Necromancer's Bane. The other necromancers seemed to believe she could kill them at will, if only because none of them had tried to claim Shadye's lands or attack Whitehall. But that wouldn't last, she was sure. Sooner or later, the necromancers would resume their offensive against the Allied Lands. Their endless need for new victims to sacrifice would ensure it.
And what will happen, she asked herself, when they do?
She kept her thoughts to herself as she followed the Grandmaster, feeling the air grow steadily colder as they made their way to the south. Slowly, the twisted shape of the Dark Fortress - and, beside it, the Inverse Shadow - came into view. They didn't look anything like the half-remembered shapes in her nightmares, but there hadn't really been time to take much note of the scenery the last time she'd visited. She'd been half out of her mind with fear when Shadye's animated skeletons had dragged her into the Inverse Shadow, preparing her for death. If Void hadn't been there, she would have died that day.
The Grandmaster stopped, sharply. "Listen," he said. "Can you hear that?"
Emily paused, listening hard. There was a faint sound in the distance, a howling that seemed to come from many throats. It was growing louder, although she didn't think the source of the sound was actually coming closer. Whatever it was - and there was something about it that touched a memory - it chilled her to the bone.
"I think we'd better go see what that is," the Grandmaster said, after a quick glance at his watch. "Follow me."