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The Sergeant's Apprentice
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

The Nameless World Goes to War!

When the necromancers resume their assault on the Allied Lands, Sergeant Miles invites Emily to join the force assembled to oppose them. It's a challenge she dares not refuse. But with a dangerously-sane necromancer leading the opposition, it may also cost her everything...    Book 11 in the Schooled in Magic series.

 

 

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The Sergeant's Apprentice

fantasy

Christopher G. Nuttall

 

 

Prologue I

Gwyneth took a deep breath as she walked along the edge of her family's farm, tasting death in the wind that blew across the fields. Her footsteps crunched on sand blown in from the desert, slowly strangling the life out of the farm. The field below her was already dying, the corn turning a sickly yellow as it struggled to survive. It wouldn't be long, she knew - despite her father's boundless optimism - before the farm died, before her family had to take flight and head west. If they were lucky, they would be able to find work on another farm; if they were unlucky ...

She gritted her teeth as she reached the boundary marker at the edge of their property. The sandstorm in the distance was blowing closer, but she could still make out the remains of an older farm. Her best friend had lived there only two years ago - now, the girl and her family were sharecroppers, slaves in all but name, on a farm further to the west. Gwyneth and her family might go the same way. The thought of giving up their freedom was appalling, but there was no other way to survive.

And I may be married off, she thought, numbly. Forced into someone's bed to keep my family alive.

She felt a pang of bitter regret, mixed with sadness and grim understanding. Tom had come to pay court to her - she'd known him long enough to believe he would make a good husband - but his father had vetoed the match. Gwyneth's family was on the brink, he'd said when Tom had asked for his blessing. He didn't want to have to take them in, let alone feed and care for them ... and he would have been obligated to take care of them, if Gwyneth had become his daughter-in-law. Gwyneth wanted to hate him for forbidding the match, but she was a farm girl. She understood the logic all too well. Tom and his father couldn't support an entire family, if - when - they were forced off their farm. The entire region was dying and no one gave a damn.

The wind picked up speed, just for a moment. She covered her eyes, cursing under her breath as grit pelted her face. Nothing, no matter what they did, seemed to be enough to keep the sand off their fields. She spent half of her days clearing the land, only to see the sand blow back time and time again. The water wells were drying up. It wouldn't be long before they had to leave. Already, agents from further to the west were prowling around, looking to see what starving families might have to sell. And with dozens of families on the brink of total disaster, it was a buyer's market.

She peered into the distance, her eyes seeking out her friend's abandoned farmhouse. They'd stripped it bare, of course, once the farm had been surrendered, leaving only the shell of a building in the hopes that - one day - someone would return to the fields. But she knew that was futile. The fields had been strangled so quickly, once the farmers had left, that only endless sand remained. She'd once played in those fields as a little girl, back when the land had been green and wet. Now ...

Her father had forbidden her to walk into the desert. But he needn't have bothered. There was something about the sand that scared her, something that chilled her to the bone, even though she couldn't put it in words. No one went into the Desert of Death willingly, not even the bravest man in the village. There were too many strange stories of things lurking in the sand.

Something was moving within the sandstorm. Gwyneth stared, unsure if her eyes were playing tricks on her. There was nothing out there but abandoned buildings and dead fields. Animals shied from the desert, refusing to go near the sand. And yet, there was definitely something there. She watched shapes within the brown haze, strange figures that seemed to be coming closer. Surely, nothing could survive out there ...

The sandstorm receded, just for a second. Gwyneth froze in horror as she saw the men advancing towards the farm, towards her. They were men, but they weren't men. Their faces were twisted and warped, their eyes bulging or their faces twisted and mutilated ... a handful had animalistic eyes or legs. And there were hundreds of them, an entire army advancing out of the storm, carrying swords and spears and weapons she didn't recognize. Her family had no weapons. They weren't allowed to carry anything more dangerous than a knife.

She turned to flee, too late. Strong arms caught her before she'd run more than a couple of meters, knocking her to the ground. Gwyneth was hardly weak - she'd been working on the farm almost from the moment she could walk - but it made no difference. In an instant, she was hanging over its shoulder, staring down at the rock-like skin of his back. For all the effort it cost him, he might have been picking up a bag of seeds. It was hard to see anything as the creatures swarmed onwards, but she saw enough to know they were storming the farmhouse and tearing the farm apart ... she heard, just for a second, a scream torn from a very familiar throat before it stopped abruptly. Her father was dead.

Her head swam as the creature carried her onwards, its comrades surging into the village and smashing through the buildings. There was hardly any resistance - how could there be? The villagers had no weapons either. She was dumped unceremoniously in the middle of the village square with a handful of other prisoners, as helpless and scared as herself. She knew some of them, worked and played with them. And now ... once she'd prayed to the gods in the square; now; now she wondered if she would die there.

"Sit," the creature grunted. "Stay."

Gwyneth glared at its retreating back, then looked around in hopes of finding a way to escape. But there was nothing. An endless stream of creatures was making its way out of the desert and heading west. It wouldn't be long before they reached the nearest town, then the nearest city ... the king would send soldiers, surely? But the soldiers might not be able to stop the creatures. All they seemed to be good for, these days, was bullying farmers and demanding tax. And more tax. And ...

She glanced at the other prisoners, feeling cold. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason - there were old men and young men, old women and young women - and it puzzled her, more than she cared to admit. Youngsters made good slaves, if the creatures wanted slaves; oldsters weren't worth keeping alive, not now their village was gone. And yet ...

A man stalked past her, his eyes crawling over the prisoners as he silently counted them. He looked reassuringly normal, yet there was something in his eyes that terrified her. She lowered her eyes, but watched him as best as she could. Who was he? What was he doing with the creatures? What were they?

He reached into his pocket and produced a sheet of parchment and a pen, then wrote something down. Gwyneth frowned, trying to understand what he was doing. Was he a slaver, recording the useful prisoners? Or was he up to something else? She had no way to know. She'd never been taught how to read or write.

"On your feet," the man ordered, returning the parchment to his pocket. He jabbed a finger westwards. "March."

Gwyneth stood, then assisted one of the older women to stand. Maybe they had been enslaved after all. Or maybe ... gritting her teeth, she began to stumble west, helping the old woman to walk. There was no way to escape, not yet. They were surrounded by an entire army of monsters. All she could do was follow orders ...

... And pray, desperately, for a chance to escape.

 

Prologue II

"Are you out of your mind?"

"No, Grandmaster," Sergeant Miles said. "I believe there is no other choice."

Grandmaster Gordian didn't look happy. Miles wasn't surprised, not really. Gordian might be a stiff-minded bureaucrat, powerful magician or not, but he took his responsibilities seriously. And with his school in disarray, following the near-collapse of the pocket dimensions, the Grandmaster had too many other things on his plate. They'd barely escaped certain death only two days ago - and everyone was screaming for answers the Grandmaster couldn't provide.

"You intend to take a fifth-year student to the war," Gordian said. His voice was deceptively even. "Is that correct?"

"Yes, sir," Miles said. It spoke well of Gordian, Miles supposed, that the Grandmaster wasn't prepared to just let Emily go. He didn't like her - he'd made that clear - but he wasn't willing to send her into danger. "She is no ordinary student."

Gordian's face darkened. To him, Emily would always be a dangerous student. Miles understood, but life was dangerous. No one, not even a Lone Power, could guarantee their own safety. And Whitehall, on the front lines between the Allied Lands and the Blighted Lands, was far from safe. Miles knew, deep inside, just how close the school had come to utter disaster four years ago. Emily had saved them all from a fate worse than death.

"Politics," Gordian said, finally. He looked up. "I know better than to think this was your idea."

"General Pollack requested her specifically," Miles said.

"And it would be politic to grant his request," Gordian said. "He is her future father-in-law, is he not?"

"If the courtship comes to a successful conclusion," Miles said. Formal courtships were relatively rare. He was surprised, more surprised than he cared to admit, that Caleb had opened one with Emily. He'd met Caleb's mother, years ago. She hadn't struck him as a strict traditionalist. "But I believe he wants the Necromancer's Bane."

Gordian's face darkened. "Does he?"

"Yes, sir," Miles said. "And he has called in a number of political favors."

"Of course he has," Gordian said, dryly.

He leaned back in his chair. "You do realize this will harm her education? She may have to repeat fifth year just to make up for it?"

And you don't want Emily hanging around for another three years, Miles thought, sardonically. Gordian had tried - hard - to find grounds for expelling Emily, rather than allow her to return to Whitehall after his predecessor had died. The quicker she graduates and leaves, the better.

"I will offer her private tuition over the summer, if she needs it," Miles said. "And I believe Lady Barb will do the same. If worse comes to worst, she can sit the remedial exams before sixth year begins. It isn't an ideal solution, but it will have to do."

"She won't like that," Gordian predicted.

Miles nodded. Emily was one of the most studious students in Whitehall, yet even she wouldn't want to spend her entire summer trying to catch up with the rest of the class. It wasn't uncommon for students to retake entire years, if they failed their exams, but it was humiliating. And with Emily's rather ... odd ... status, retaking a year would probably reflect badly on her.

Gordian tapped the desk, meaningfully. "You may ask her," he said, flatly. "No tricks, no games ... just a simple request. If she chooses not to go, you are not to force her. And I suggest you clear it with her father first."

Miles nodded, feeling a flicker of grudging respect. The temptation to just order Emily to go to Tarsier had to be overpowering. It would have gotten her out of the school, with no blame attached to the Grandmaster. And if Emily happened to get herself killed ... somehow, he doubted Gordian would spend overlong mourning her. A student like Emily was always a mixed blessing at best.

He pushed the thought out of his mind. "I will ask her," he said. He had no intention of trying to manipulate the girl. Barb would cut off his unmentionables if he tried. "And I will ... attempt ... to communicate with Void."

"Very good," Gordian said. "Ask him first. She is still under his authority."

Miles shrugged. Only a handful of people knew Emily's real origins, and Gordian wasn't one of them. Void ... had played along when people had started to conclude that Void was Emily's father. It would hardly be out of character for Void to hide the existence of a daughter, then send her to school as soon as she turned sixteen. And he'd even sent her on a dragon ...

And he is her legal guardian, he thought. He rather doubted that Emily understood all the implications, but it wasn't his place to discuss such matters with her. She does need his permission to go.

"She will be my apprentice, if she chooses to come," Miles said. He had no illusions. It was not going to be a comfortable experience. "She will be under my protection."

Gordian looked displeased, but he said nothing. Miles didn't blame him. It was unusual for anyone to take on an apprenticeship before completing their sixth year, although some students occasionally managed to jump ahead. And yet, having Emily listed as an apprentice, if only for a few months, would make life easier. He would have grounds to teach her spells and tricks that weren't normally discussed with students.

But then, Emily was no ordinary student.

"Take care of her," Gordian said. He shrugged, dismissively. "And good luck."

Miles nodded curtly, although he knew that they would need more than mere luck. The reports were grim. This was no raid, no attempt to capture prisoners the necromancers could sacrifice for power ... this was an all-out invasion. The necromancers had been quiet since Shadye's death, but few had believed it would last. And now the frozen war had finally come to an end. If Tarsier fell, the Allied Lands would face attacks on three fronts ...

And if the necromancers have finally managed to learn to cooperate, he thought as he headed for the door, it could be the beginning of the end.

 

Chapter One

Emily snapped awake.

Her mind raced. She'd been enspelled ... she'd let herself be enspelled. And then ... her head felt hazy, her memories slightly jumbled. It wasn't uncommon, if magic was used to stun an unwilling victim, but ... she pushed the thought aside as she tried to move and discovered she couldn't. Her hands were tied - tightly - behind her back.

She forced herself to concentrate, silently assessing the situation. Her hands and ankles were tied so tightly they were starting to go numb, while ... something ... covered her head. It felt more like a piece of sackcloth than a blindfold, she thought ... she stuck out her tongue and felt rough sacking, far too close to her skin for comfort. Someone hadn't just tied her up, she realized as she tested her bonds, they'd made escape practically impossible without magic.

There were gaps in her mind, something plucking at her thoughts. She tried to focus on what was wrong, but her mind kept jumping away from it. She didn't know how she'd got there or how she could escape, or even if she should escape. The only thing she was sure of, lying in the darkness, was that she shouldn't use magic. And yet she wasn't sure why. Her magic was there, thrumming below her skin, but she couldn't use it. She was sure of that when she was certain of very little else.

She gritted her teeth as she rubbed her head against the hard wooden floor. The room was warm, alarmingly warm. Sweat trickled down her back as she tried to remove the sackcloth, just so she could see, but it was tied snugly around her neck. Panic bubbled at the back of her mind as the room started to grow warmer ... where was she? Somewhere in Whitehall or Blackhall? She sniffed the air and shuddered, helplessly, as she tasted smoke. Was the entire building on fire? She listened, carefully, but heard nothing beyond the beating of her own heart. A spell could easily make the air smell of smoke ...

And yet, the room was growing warmer.

She twisted her body, trying to weaken her bonds, but it was futile. Sergeant Miles and Lady Barb had taught her all sorts of tricks to escape captivity, yet whoever had tied her up was clearly an expert. She couldn't budge the knots, no matter how hard she struggled. And she didn't dare try to roll over without knowing the layout of the room. For all she knew, there was a bottomless pit right next to her. Or a fire ...

"Emily!"

Emily started. Someone was calling for her. The voice was muffled, the sackcloth making it hard to tell who was calling, but there was someone out there. She lifted her legs and banged them on the floor, hoping the sound would attract her rescuer. Perhaps it was unwise to draw attention to herself, she thought a moment too late, but she was already tied and helpless ... as long as she didn't use magic. She knew a dozen spells that could get her out of the trap, yet she didn't dare use them.

"Emily," the voice said again. Emily heard footsteps, then felt strong fingers untying the rope around her neck. "Found you!"

The bag came free. Emily found herself staring up at Frieda, the younger girl's face streaked with sweat. Emily was lying on the floor in a small room, utterly barren save for the wooden door. Frieda plucked a knife out of her belt and sliced through the bonds on Emily's ankles, then freed Emily's hands. Her pigtails bobbed as she helped Emily to her feet, muttering a spell to help soothe the pain. Emily's legs felt utterly unreliable.

"We have to get out of here," Frieda said, half-carrying Emily towards the door. "The whole place is on fire."

Emily stopped as they stumbled out of the door. Flames were clearly visible down the corridor, licking at the wooden floor. She glanced down at her feet, wondering if the floor was going to catch fire soon ... or simply collapse, plunging them into the flames. If the entire building was on fire ... Frieda yanked her down the corridor, dragging her towards the stairs. Emily caught sight of a portrait hanging on the wall, an aristocratic-looking man with a mouth set in a permanent sneer, a moment before it exploded into flames. The stairwell was burning.

"Crap," Frieda said.

She grimaced. They were trapped.

Emily's mind raced. There were spells they could use to protect themselves, but the odd flickers of color amidst the flames suggested that they were magical. The spells might not be enough to keep them alive. And the air was already starting to thicken ... she ducked down, trying to stay low. If the smoke wasn't rising ... perhaps the smoke was magic too.

Frieda caught her hand. "This way ..."

Emily nodded and followed her further down the corridor. If they were in Blackhall - and she was sure of it, now - they should be able to find another stairwell and get down to the ground floor. But it was growing hotter and hotter ... she heard the floor creak an instant before it started to collapse, sending them plummeting into the flames. Frieda gasped out a protective spell, then tried to levitate them both into the air. But the levitation spell gave out a second later ...

Frieda threw a pressure spell down, cushioning the fall. Emily's mind raced, searching for mundane options. If they couldn't use magic ... if she couldn't use magic ... there were other options. But what?

"Water," she gasped. It was growing hard to breathe. A water spell might not work in the local environment. Perhaps ... "Cast breathing spells, then ..."

She glanced up, alarmed, as a chunk of debris fell from high above, landing far too close to them for comfort. Frieda yanked her forward, waving her free hand desperately to cast spells as she pulled Emily down the corridor. The entire building was creaking loudly, on the verge of total collapse ... the roof shuddered, more and more pieces of debris crashing down around them, one smashing into Frieda's wards and disintegrating into a sheet of flame. Emily nearly cast a protective spell of her own as Frieda's wards weakened, but stopped herself just in time. The temperature was rising steadily. They were about to die ...

Frieda dragged her through a door, then froze. The room was small, utterly empty save for a window looking out over the forest. Emily peered through, then swore. They were on the third floor, at least. Given time, she was sure they could climb down and make their escape, but they didn't have time. She wasn't even sure if they could open the window before it was too late.

"Hang on," Frieda said.

Emily sensed the wave of magic an instant before the younger girl wrapped her arms around Emily and held her tight. She closed her eyes as the world lurched around her, something crashing into the wards hard enough to weaken them badly. Frieda screamed as they flew through the air and hit the ground, the magic protecting them lasting barely long enough to save them from the impact. And then the temperature dropped rapidly ...

"Ouch," Frieda said.

Emily opened her eyes. She was lying in the snow, Frieda on top of her. Their eyes met, just for a second, then Frieda rolled off her and sat up. She looked utterly exhausted, her face paler than usual. Emily gathered herself, then stood and undid her hair. It just didn't feel right to tie her long hair into a bun.

"Well done," she said. She helped Frieda to her feet, then turned to look at Blackhall. The old house was wrapped in flame, but the fire didn't seem to be doing any real damage. "You made it."

"In the nick of time," Frieda said. It was clear she could barely stand. Emily wrapped an arm around her to hold her upright. "Do you think we would have been burned?"

"Of course," Sergeant Miles said.

Emily jumped. The sergeant had been right behind them ... and they'd missed him? Lady Barb would be furious when she heard. And she would hear, Emily knew. She'd certainly heard the lecture often enough. Letting someone sneak up behind you was asking for a knife in the back. She turned slowly, supporting Frieda. Sergeant Miles smiled at them both.

He didn't look like an army officer - or a sergeant. Or, at least, he'd never matched her conception of what a sergeant should look like. He was short, with neat brown hair and a friendly face ... a face she knew she could trust. But she also knew he was a combat sorcerer with more experience than most of the other teachers put together. A very dangerous man hid behind his friendly smile.

"The flames wouldn't have killed you," he assured them. "But yes, you would have been burned."

Frieda shivered against Emily. "Did I pass?"

Sergeant Miles looked back at her. "Did you?"

"Yes," Frieda said, stubbornly. "I got Emily out of the building."

"You also smashed a hole in the wall," Sergeant Miles pointed out.

Frieda twitched. "The objective was to get her out before it was too late," she said, before Emily could say a word. "You didn't say anything about how I was to get her out."

The sergeant smiled. "True enough," he said. "You pass. And congratulations."

He turned. "Jove!"

Emily glanced behind him as the third student stepped into view. Jove was in Frieda's year, a young man with dark skin and green eyes. She barely knew him beyond Frieda's comment that he'd asked her out several times. He never seemed to give up hope she would say yes.

"Take Frieda to the infirmary and make sure she gets some sleep," Sergeant Miles ordered, shortly. "And then report back to the Armory."

"Yes, Sergeant," Jove said. He held out an arm for Frieda. "I'll take her at once."

Emily hesitated, then let go of Frieda. Jove wouldn't do anything stupid, she thought; Frieda might be drained, but she was hardly incapable of defending herself. And besides, Sergeant Miles would take a very dim view of anything stupid. Friendly or not, Emily knew she wouldn't want to do anything to risk his displeasure.

She watched the couple walk off, then looked at the sergeant. "I don't like being the damsel in distress."

"No one does," Sergeant Miles said. He snapped his finger at her. "Remember."

Emily winced in pain as she felt a spell - a spell she hadn't quite known was there - flicker and fade into nothingness. Her memories returned a second later ... she'd agreed to serve as the victim, she'd agreed to refrain from using magic ... she'd ... her head swam, just for a second. She hated spells that affected her mind.

"You didn't have to use the spell," she said. She knew she sounded petulant and she didn't much care. "I wouldn't have done anything without it."

"There were reasons for it," Sergeant Miles said. He looked up at Blackhall for a long moment. The flames had gone, leaving the building suspiciously intact. "And we will discuss those at a later date."

Emily nodded, reluctantly. She knew there was no point in trying to draw the sergeant out, not when he was determined to be quiet. He'd tell her the other reasons when he felt like it.

"I need to talk to you about something else," Sergeant Miles said instead. "Go back to the school, take a shower and then report to my office. Do you have anything planned for the rest of the afternoon?"

"I was due to help clear up the library in an hour or so," Emily said. "Lady Aliya ..."

"I'll speak to her," Sergeant Miles said. "Go shower. I'll be back in my office in-" he glanced at his watch "-thirty minutes."

Emily hesitated, then turned and hurried back down the path towards Whitehall. She wasn't in any trouble, she thought, but it was odd for the sergeant to want a meeting. And a long meeting, at that. What could he possibly want? She puzzled over it as she walked through the side door, shaking her head at the mess. Only two days since the entire school had come close to a complete collapse ... they were still cleaning up the mess. It felt like longer ... but then, it had been longer for her. Her trip to the past had made her several months older than everyone else. It still surprised her when her friends talked about events that - to her - had occurred months ago.

Time lag, she thought. It was like jet lag, only worse. At least I don't think it's midnight when it's actually noon.

The wards pulsed around her, silently welcoming her home. The Grandmaster had realized the implications of her work in the past, even if no one else had. But then, he had cautioned her to keep the whole story to herself. She had been there when the nexus point was tamed, she was the sole surviving founder ... she, in a very real sense, owned the school. And yet, the knowledge was as much a curse as it was a blessing. No one had managed to duplicate Whitehall's work in nine hundred years. If someone realized she knew how to do it, they'd want her to show them how ...

... And they wouldn't ask politely, either.

She glanced into one of the spellchambers and smiled when she saw a couple of boys practicing their spells. Sergeant Miles had put her to work repairing several of the spellchambers, although she wasn't sure if it was a reward for hard work or a punishment for nearly destroying one of his chambers several months ago. Except it had been only a few weeks for him ... she shook her head, then headed onwards. The remainder of the Armory was completely deserted, save for a hopeful student browsing the small collection of books on military tactics and strategy. Emily silently wished him well, although she knew he needed more than book learning to pass Martial Magic. Sergeant Miles had made it clear, more than once, that nothing could substitute for experience.

Putting theory into practice isn't easy, Emily thought. Jade had admitted as much, back when he'd been writing to her during his apprenticeship. Master Grey had been a good teacher, whatever his faults. Jade had problems leading men at first, too.

She pushed the thought aside as she stepped into the washroom, checked the wards to make sure she was alone and started to undress. She'd picked up a whole series of bumps and bruises during the escape from Blackhall - and there were nasty marks around her wrists and ankles - but she was otherwise unharmed. Frieda's charms had held up, despite the flames and heat. She walked into the shower, turned on the water and allowed it to run down her body, enjoying the sensation. Several months with nothing but sponge baths - at best - had reminded her, again, of the sheer luxury of being able to have a shower whenever she wanted one.

But there was no time to relax and enjoy the warm water. She stepped out of the shower, used a spell to dry herself and hastily tugged her robe over her head. The ill-fitting tunic she'd worn earlier would have to be washed before it was returned to the general pool, waiting for the next person to wear it. She scooped the tunic up, dumped it in the basket and left the room, pacing down the long corridor. A couple of first-years were playing hide and seek through the tunnels, risking worse than a ticking off if they were caught so close to the Armory. Emily had been the only first year student in decades to be allowed to enter the Armory and train under the sergeants.

She stopped under a large portrait of Sergeant Harkin and looked up at it for a long moment, feeling a wave of bitter grief. Nothing in her life had prepared her to like a man who looked like a gym teacher from hell, but she had. He'd treated her as just another student. And he'd given his life to save hers and beat Shadye. Whoever had painted the portrait, she thought numbly, had never known him. The basic details were accurate enough - short brown hair, lanky body - but the subtle points were lacking. He looked to be sneering, rather than smiling.

Shaking her head, she walked through the door into the sergeant's antechamber, then sat down on the bench and waited. She knew better than to try to enter the sergeant's office without his presence, even though he had asked her to meet him there. The protective spells were so powerful that she could feel them from halfway across the antechamber. Trying to break in could wind up costing her more than she cared to pay.

The door opened. "Emily," Sergeant Miles said. "Come with me."

He led the way into his office, the protective spells falling back at his touch. Emily smiled in genuine admiration at how easily he handled the spells, then glanced around the office. It was simplicity itself, bare save for a handful of pieces of wooden furniture. A desk, some chairs ... she couldn't help wondering if he'd made most of it himself. Emily had watched him work miracles with wood during long excursions into the wildlands surrounding Whitehall.

"Take a seat," Sergeant Miles said. He motioned to a chair. "Kava?"

"Yes, please," Emily said. She couldn't help a flicker of relief. If he was offering Kava, she wasn't in trouble. "Thank you."

She sat, smoothing down her robe, as the sergeant poured them both Kava. He passed her a mug, then sat down behind the desk. A handful of pieces of paper - she smiled as she recognized a chat parchment - lay on the table, one unfurled to show a map. She wasn't familiar with the country.

"Emily," Sergeant Miles said. He sounded oddly hesitant. That was odd. She'd never seen him at a loss for words before. "There is a serious problem."

Emily forced herself to meet his eyes. They were grim. "What?"

"Four years of relative peace have come to an end," Sergeant Miles told her. "A necromancer has invaded the Allied Lands."

 

Chapter Two

"A necromancer," Emily said, in shock. "I never knew ..."

"The news hasn't spread far yet," Sergeant Miles said. "That will change."

Emily took a moment to gather herself. She'd known - they'd all known - that the necromancers would eventually resume their offensive, but she'd hoped it would take longer for them to recover their nerve. They didn't know - they couldn't know - what she'd done to Shadye. And they couldn't know - she hoped - that what she'd done to Shadye couldn't be repeated, not outside Whitehall.

Sergeant Miles leaned forward. "A week ago, while we were trapped in the school, a small army of orcs and enslaved men crossed the Desert of Death and attacked Tarsier," he said. He turned the map to face her, running his finger over the parchment. "The White Council hoped that it was just a large-scale raid, but the army has continued pressing northwards, crushing anything in its path. Tarsier may be on the verge of falling completely."

"That's not good," Emily said, numbly.

If she recalled correctly, Tarsier was over two thousand miles from Whitehall, but if it fell the necromancers would be able to pillage the Allied Lands at will. Millions of people would be captured and drained for power, making the necromancers even more dangerous. There were few natural barriers between Tarsier and the remainder of the Allied Lands, certainly nothing like the Craggy Mountains. Putting a cork in the bottle might prove impossible.

"It is," Sergeant Miles agreed. "The necromancer in question is called Dua Kepala. Have you heard of him?"

Emily shook her head. The Allied Lands tried to keep track of the power struggles amongst the necromancers, but it wasn't easy. Necromancers were dangerously insane, their actions often completely unpredictable. They might turn on each other as easily as they might invade the Allied Lands, particularly as they started to run out of humans to drain. Their armies of orcs and other dark creatures, she assumed, couldn't be drained.

"He's been a known necromancer for fifteen years," Sergeant Miles said. "We don't know who or what he was before he appeared in the Blighted Lands, but we do know that he's remained remarkably stable for a necromancer. His actions have often been more calculated than Shadye's. Somehow - we don't know how - he managed to break through the defenses of Heart's Eye and destroy the school. He may have come very close to absorbing the nexus point."

"Maybe," Emily said. Heart's Eye had been destroyed twelve years ago, if she recalled correctly. God alone knew how many students, tutors and helpless civilians had perished when the school had fallen. And yet, if the necromancer had absorbed the nexus point, he would have become something far worse. "What happened to the nexus point?"

"We don't know," Sergeant Miles said. He sounded frustrated. "No one has been able to get close to the school."

He shook his head. "Dua Kepala is a very dangerous man," he warned. Emily nodded, shortly. All necromancers were dangerous. "There are even some sorcerers who speculate that he has managed to retain some of his sanity."

"Ouch," Emily said. Both Shadye and Mother Holly had shown moments of cunning, but their power - and its demands - had eventually overcome them. Shadye had died, at least in part, because he'd focused on Emily to the exclusion of all else. She pushed the thought aside and met his eyes. "What are the Allied Lands doing about this?"

"An army is being put together to assist Tarsier," Sergeant Miles said, bluntly. "Assuming everyone keeps their promises, there will be upwards of twenty thousand men and a number of combat sorcerers. Tarsier itself is trying desperately to raise another army of its own. General Pollack, whom you may have heard of-" he winked at her "-is taking command."

Emily felt her cheeks heat. General Pollack was Caleb's father, her prospective father-in-law. She honestly wasn't sure what to make of him. He was a decent person, she thought, but he was too bombastic, too openly masculine, for her to feel completely comfortable in his presence. And she doubted he understood his second son very well.

"That's good," she said, trying to ignore her embarrassment. Sergeant Miles wouldn't have called her into his office for a pleasant chat. "I'm sure he'll be able to stop the invasion."

Sergeant Miles looked back at her. "He has requested your presence," he said, flatly. "I have been asked to invite you to accompany the army."

Emily blinked in surprise. "Invite me?"

The sergeant's face darkened, as if he'd bitten into a particularly sour lemon. "You are the Necromancer's Bane," he reminded her. He didn't sound entirely happy. "Your presence would boost morale. Your magic and ... innovations. would make a useful contribution. I can't say he's wrong, either."

"But you don't like the idea," Emily hazarded.

Sergeant Miles nodded. "Being in a military camp, even as a combat sorceress, will be very different from anything else you've done," he pointed out. "You will find it thoroughly unpleasant. And you are not ready to take up a full apprenticeship. As ... innovative ... as you are, I would prefer you finish your education rather than leave the school for several months."

"I might have to repeat the year," Emily realized.

"You might," Sergeant Miles agreed.

He held up a hand before she could say a word. "If you choose to accompany me, you'll be my apprentice for the duration of the war," he said. "Not unlike the arrangement you had with Lady Barb, but you'll be expected to act more like an adult. Unfortunately, there will be very little time for proper training. You may find yourself at a disadvantage compared to the other apprentices."

And you won't be able to look after me, Emily filled in, silently. She'd learned enough about apprenticeships to know that the apprentice was expected to learn to stand on her own feet, without a master holding her hand. It could be awkward.

"You have a completely free choice," Sergeant Miles told her. "I contacted your guardian and he agreed you could go, if you wished. The Grandmaster ... feels that you should make your own choice. There will be no consequences for saying no."

But that wasn't entirely true, Emily knew. If General Pollack had asked for her ... he'd certainly take it amiss if she refused to go to the war. And if he'd pulled strings rather than asking her directly ... she ran her hand through her hair, thinking hard. He could have asked her directly, if he'd wished. Or through Caleb, if he was reluctant to contact a prospective daughter-in-law himself. Pulling strings suggested ... what?

There will be consequences, she thought, crossly. She needed to sit down and think about the situation, if she had time. What will Caleb's father do if I say no?

"I'll have to consider it," she said, temporizing. "How long will I be away from the school?"

"Wars have a habit of being unpredictable," Sergeant Miles pointed out, rather dryly. "I suspect we'll be away for at least four months. It may be longer. You may well have to repeat the year."

Emily winced. The prospect of repeating fifth year wasn't pleasant, even though part of her didn't want to leave Whitehall. No one would make fun of her for repeating a year - it was fairly common - but still ... it wasn't something she relished. Sharing classes with younger students would be awkward.

Sergeant Miles leaned back in his chair. "There are some good reasons for you to come," he said. "Zangaria is sending a company of musketmen - the first company in history - to take part in the war. You may find that interesting. And you may also find a way to rid us of another necromancer."

Maybe, Emily thought. She had the nuke-spell. Mother Holly hadn't survived the blast she'd unleashed. But using it near so many other sorcerers would be incredibly risky. Someone might have the presence of mind to figure out what she'd done and duplicate it. And if they do, the entire world will be at risk.

She forced the thought out of her mind. "King Randor is sending troops?"

"Just about every kingdom is sending troops," Sergeant Miles told her. "Convincing them all to cooperate will not be easy."

Emily made a face. The troop commanders would be noblemen, of course, and noblemen had a habit of picking fights over status and precedence. Organizing Alassa's wedding, when the vast majority of the guests knew their place in the pecking order, had been hard enough; organizing an army would be far harder. General Pollack was going to have his work cut out for him. It was all too easy to imagine an aristocratic fop taking his troops and going home because he thought he'd been insulted.

And it won't be much better amongst the sorcerers, she thought. And as his apprentice, I will be the lowest of the low.

She dismissed the thought with some irritation. Sergeant Miles was a good man. She trusted him. Lady Barb trusted him. They'd been in a relationship for the past two years.

"General Pollack may have an agenda of his own," Sergeant Miles warned. "You need to watch him."

"I will," Emily promised. She cleared her throat. "Will Lady Barb be accompanying us?"

"She may join us in Tarsier," Sergeant Miles said. His voice was flat, but Emily thought she heard a hint of wry amusement. "She has something else to do at the moment."

Spying on the necromancers, Emily guessed. Lady Barb had made a career out of spying on the necromancers. She might want to know if other necromancers intend to support the invasion - or take advantage of it.

The sergeant picked up a set of papers and held them out to her. "These are the latest briefs from the field," he said. "Read them, then make up your mind. I'm due to leave in four days, so ideally I'd like your answer by tomorrow. There's a lot of work we have to do before we leave."

"Exercise," Emily guessed. It had been too long since she'd taken Martial Magic. She might be in better health now than she'd ever been on Earth, but she hadn't been working out over the past few months. "And refresher courses?"

"And a few spells that are normally only taught to combat sorcerers," Sergeant Miles said, dryly. "You will have to fight to defend yourself."

"I know," Emily said.

She shuddered helplessly as she remembered the army of orcs smashing through Whitehall, forcing its way into the school. Shadye had come far too close to winning outright, taking the nexus point for himself and using it to make himself a god. The prospect of facing another such army was terrifying. And yet ... and yet, she suspected she had no choice. The necromancers had to be stopped before they could pillage the Allied Lands.

"I advise you to review the apprenticeship rules too," Sergeant Miles added. "You may not be taking on a full apprenticeship, but you will be bound by the rules as long as you remain in my service. There will be very little wiggle room when other sorcerers will be watching."

Emily nodded in grim understanding. An apprentice's behavior reflected on the master. If she acted poorly, Sergeant Miles would be shamed. But then, if she did well ... she wondered, absently, just how that would reflect on the sergeant. It wasn't as if she'd been his apprentice for the last five years. He didn't have any claim to her achievements.

It doesn't matter, she told herself firmly. What I do with him is what counts.

"I will," she promised.

"Finally, I advise you to discuss it with your boyfriend," Sergeant Miles suggested. "He may have some insight into his father."

He smiled. For once, it didn't look reassuring. "And he may hate being parted from you for so long," he added. "Now that your relationship has turned physical ..."

Emily flushed, helplessly. Her mind raced frantically. The sergeant knew? Did everyone know? How? Had Caleb told everyone that she'd slept with him? She'd trusted him ... he wouldn't have betrayed her, would he?

"He didn't have to say a word," Sergeant Miles said. He sounded oddly amused. "But he's been grinning like an alchemist for the past few days."

It took Emily a moment to realize that he'd answered her unspoken question. "How ...?"

The sergeant laughed. "Honestly," he said, shaking his head. "You youngsters are always so transparent."

Emily's flush deepened. "Does everyone know?"

Sergeant Miles shrugged. "What makes you think that anyone cares?"

"People like to blather," Emily said, finally. She fought the urge to cringe. The idea of countless strangers keeping track of her love life, such as it was ... it was horrific. She hadn't realized it was so obvious. "Everyone talks."

"True enough," Sergeant Miles said. He met her eyes. "I trust you've been taking precautions?"

Emily put her head in her hands, fighting a tidal wave of embarrassment. She didn't want to talk about it. Lady Barb would have understood, she was sure, but Sergeant Miles was a man. How could she look him in the eye after ... after he knew what she'd been doing? And yet ... cold logic told her it didn't matter, not really. She was hardly the first student to start a sexual relationship in Whitehall. Imaiqah had had so many boyfriends that Emily had lost count. Hell, some of them had come and gone so quickly that Emily had never learned their names.

"I have," she whispered. She couldn't meet his eyes. "Potions and ... well, you know."

"Glad to hear it," Sergeant Miles said. He sounded amused, rather than embarrassed. Emily wondered, suddenly, just how many lovelorn students he'd seen. "If you became pregnant ... it would be awkward."

"There are quarters for married students," Emily pointed out. Melissa used them whenever Markus came to visit. "If we were married ..."

She shook her head. She liked Caleb, but she didn't want to marry him, not yet. But she might not have a choice if she fell pregnant. She couldn't abort the child, let alone forbid Caleb his rights. Bastardy carried a very special stigma in the Nameless World. Hell, given her rather ambiguous noble title, who knew what King Randor and his court would make of her bastard child?

"Better to finish your studies," Sergeant Miles advised.

He cleared his throat, loudly. She looked up at him. "I need an answer within the next day or so," he reminded her. "If you don't feel comfortable leaving Whitehall and heading to war, say so. I will not take an unwilling apprentice to the war."

Emily winced. She had no illusions about what the invading army would do to the local population, to the serfs and peasants who couldn't leave the land before it was too late. The kingdom would be ransacked, food and drink stolen ... the locals rounded up and either enslaved or drained for power. Even if the invasion was stopped before it reached Tarsier's capital city - she made a mental note to study the map very carefully - large swathes of the country would be devastated. The survivors might well envy the dead. She might have a choice, but the locals didn't. They were on the front lines.

Which makes stopping the invasion a priority, she thought. And yet, it won't be enough.

"I understand," Emily said.

"Talk it over with your friends," Sergeant Miles advised. "And then let me know what you decide."

Emily finished her Kava, feeling torn. She didn't want to leave Whitehall. Her studies had suffered badly when she'd fallen into the past. Grandmaster Gordian was already talking about extending the school year to allow everyone a chance to catch up. But on the other hand, she could be needed. General Pollack might well be right. If her presence boosted morale, it might swing the war in their favor.

And if we don't stop the invasion now, she thought, the Allied Lands might be doomed.

"I will," she said. She paused as something clicked in her mind. "You were testing me, weren't you?"

Sergeant Miles lifted his eyebrows. "I was?"

"When you ordered me not to use magic," Emily said. She rubbed her forehead. The last remnants of the confounding spell were gone, as far as she could tell, but she could still feel a headache coming on. "You wanted to know if I would obey orders, even when death seemed certain. Frieda wasn't the only person being tested."

"No, she wasn't," Sergeant Miles agreed. "And you both passed with flying colors."

He met her eyes. "There will be times, if you serve in the military, when you will be ordered to do things against your better judgement," he warned. "And some of those times, your orders will seem suicidal. You'll wonder if you're being sacrificed because your superior doesn't give a damn about you - or if your death will save countless lives. Learning to exercise proper judgement is vitally important."

Emily wasn't sure she agreed. On Earth, claiming that one was only obeying orders wasn't accepted as an excuse for countless atrocities. But on the Nameless World, it was. A lord could issue orders to his men and they would be considered personally blameless, no matter what they did. His men were his tools, not individuals with minds of their own. But she thought she understood what he meant.

"I'll bear that in mind," she said, finally. She glanced at her watch. If she was lucky, she should make it to the library in time to help with the clear-up. "I'll let you know what I decide."

"Good," Sergeant Miles said. He smiled, rather tiredly. "And if you see Jove, ask him to pop into my office."

Emily nodded, then rose and took her leave.

 

Chapter Three

I think you should go, Alassa wrote. Father is most concerned about the invasion.

Emily nodded as she sat at her desk, using the chat parchment to talk to her friend. It wasn't easy to have a real-time conversation - Alassa was in a different time zone, insofar as the Nameless World had time zones - but she'd gotten lucky. Married or not, Alassa was still the Crown Princess of Zangaria. She would know more about the political undercurrents than Sergeant Miles.

I understand he's sending musketeers, she wrote. Is that true?

They're already on their way, Alassa wrote back. Sir Roger of the Greenwood is in command. Did you meet him?

I may have, Emily wrote. But I don't remember him.

Young, brave and very loyal to my father, Alassa noted. I'll send you a copy of his file.

Emily smiled, wryly. She'd met so many knights and noblemen in Zangaria that she didn't have a hope of remembering them all. There were simply too many noblemen in King Randor's court. Sir Roger of the Greenwood hadn't made enough of an impression for her to remember him ... she hoped, absently, that he wouldn't find that insulting. But he would be loyal to Randor, she was sure. Command of a company of musketeers wouldn't be given to just anyone. Randor had to be sure of him.

Her face darkened. Alassa's father was one of the most ruthless men she'd met. He could be pleasant, even affable ... and then swing to threatening the moment he felt the situation called for it. Sir Roger of the Greenwood might have a wife and family who were being held hostage for his good behavior, just to make sure he didn't come up with ideas of his own or side with the other noblemen. Randor had always been careful, according to Alassa, but a near-successful coup and assassination attempt had tipped him into outright paranoia. And yet, he had a point. His daughter had almost been killed a scant few months ago.

Thank you, she wrote. Is there anything I ought to know about Sir Roger?

Nothing too important, Alassa wrote back. But you really ought to watch some of the other noblemen. They may have been sent to the war just to get them out of their kingdoms.

The penmanship changed. The Mediators will keep infighting to a dull roar, Jade wrote. His hand was rougher than Alassa's. He hadn't mastered English letters until after he'd left Whitehall. Trust them to handle such matters.

Emily felt herself blush. She hadn't realized that Jade was in Alassa's room. But then, he was her husband. She wondered, suddenly, just what they'd been doing when she'd interrupted them. Surely, Alassa wouldn't have bothered to reply if they'd been busy.

Keep an eye on the other apprentices, Jade added. They'll be trying to establish a pecking order.

Sergeant Miles will keep that under control, Alassa wrote. Concentrate on your duty instead.

Emily sighed. Alassa was right, she suspected. She might not have sworn any oaths to the Allied Lands, but she did have a duty to them. If there was a chance, even a remote chance, that she could end the invasion, she had to try. She did have an ace in the hole, if necessary. It wouldn't be hard to set up the nuke-spell and then teleport out, leaving the necromancer to die in the blast. She'd just have to make sure the spell was triggered well away from everyone else.

There was a knock on the door. I have to go, she wrote. I'll send you both postcards.

She closed the parchment, then rose and opened the door. Caleb stood there, looking tired. She stepped back, beckoning him into the room, then gave him a tight hug as soon as the door was safely closed. Her roommate - Cabiria - had practically moved into her boyfriend's room, leaving Emily alone. Emily rather suspected the housemother would tell Cabiria to get back in her original room, eventually, but for the moment Emily would take advantage of the privacy.

"Sorry I'm late," Caleb said. He kissed her, his hands stroking her back. "Professor Thande kept me busy in the alchemical labs."

"I was in the library," Emily said. Whitehall wasn't back to normal yet, no matter what the Grandmaster said. Just cleaning up the mess and replacing the destroyed supplies would take weeks, if not months. "Lady Aliya is not in a good mood."

She motioned for him to sit on the chair, rather than inviting him to join her on the bed. A faint flicker of ... something ... showed in his eyes, just for a second. It had taken her too long to be comfortable sitting next to him, let alone getting undressed and sleeping with him. He had to fear rejection, even now. And yet ...

"Your father ..."

She swallowed hard, then went through the entire story. Caleb listened carefully, occasionally injecting a question. Emily knew he loved his parents, but his relationship with his father had always been strained. General Pollack favored Casper, his eldest son. He hadn't made a secret of it either. Caleb had been expected to follow in Casper's footsteps, not transfer to Whitehall as soon as he decently could. Emily couldn't help wondering if it had been a shock to the old general when he'd discovered his son was courting a noblewoman.

There was a long pause. "He wants you there," Caleb said, finally. He sounded angry. "And yet, he could have asked you directly."

"Yeah," Emily agreed. "Why didn't he?"

Caleb's face darkened. "I don't know," he said, after a moment. "Contacting you wouldn't have been unforgivable. I mean ... he doesn't have to talk to you through me."

He looked down at the stone floor. "He may have been trying to convince the Grandmaster," he added, after a moment. "The Grandmaster could forbid you from going, if he wished."

Emily frowned. "Do you think that's possible?"

"It's one explanation," Caleb said. "If you left without the Grandmaster's permission ..."

"Maybe," Emily mused. Gordian didn't like her. She rather suspected the older man would have been delighted if she'd left the school without permission. It would have been the perfect excuse not to let her return. "Or maybe he was trying to pressure me into going."

"He could just have asked," Caleb said. He looked up at her, his eyes concerned. "Are you going?"

"I think so," Emily admitted. "If I can do something about the invasion ..."

"Father is playing his own game here," Caleb said. "And I think he wants you to play a role in that game."

Emily closed her eyes for a long moment. She knew, intellectually, that she was important, but she didn't really believe it. Even now, even after she'd abandoned Cockatrice, she was one of the most famous people in the Allied Lands. Lady Barb had warned her, more than once, that people would seek to use her. Hell, King Randor had tried to use her. General Pollack presumably had his own ambitions.

He must have been delighted and shocked when Caleb started to court me, she thought, grimly. On one hand, there would be a chance to expand his influence; on the other, he might as well have caught a tiger by the tail.

She opened her eyes and looked at him. "What does he want?"

Caleb shook his head. "I wish I knew," he said. "Father may want you to shore up his position in the command tent, which will be awkward, or he may have another idea in mind."

Emily frowned. "His position?"

"He may be formally in command, but he won't be all-powerful," Caleb told her. "I heard too many of his early stories. He'll have a council of war at his elbow, objecting to everything they don't like ... he'll have to argue to convince them to support him, particularly if the war drags on. Every last nobleman will have ideas of his own and threaten to stomp off if they're not implemented. Your support may make his life easier."

He went on before Emily could say a word. "But, at the same time, you're going as Sergeant Miles's apprentice. Formally, you'll have no authority at all. Putting you in the command tent will not make your life easier."

"Oh," Emily said.

Caleb shrugged. "And I may be over-thinking it," he admitted. "Father may merely hope you can help fight the invasion."

"I hope so," Emily said. Alassa might delight in playing political games, but Emily preferred to keep herself to herself. "I guess I'll find out when I get there."

Caleb swallowed. "Can I talk you out of it?"

Emily blinked. "Do you think I should stay here?"

"I'd like you to stay here," Caleb said. He paused. "You're not going to have a good time."

"I know," Emily said. She hadn't enjoyed the forced marches and camping trips that had been an integral part of Martial Magic. Somehow, she doubted a military camp would be much better. But then, Old Whitehall hadn't been pleasant either. "I don't think I have a choice."

"Father cannot order you to do anything," Caleb reminded her. "Emily ..."

"I don't think I could live with myself if I didn't go," Emily admitted. She met his eyes. "If there is something I can do, I have to do it."

She saw a flurry of emotions pass over his face. Worry, fear ... he cared about her, he truly cared about her. He didn't want to let her go. The thought made her feel better, even though she knew she couldn't stay.

"I could come with you," Caleb offered. "Sergeant Miles could take on two apprentices ..."

Emily considered it, briefly. She'd miss him. She'd miss him more than she cared to admit. But she doubted Sergeant Miles would agree to take two students into the war. He'd clearly been reluctant to take Emily, despite political pressure. Taking Caleb also would be a step too far.

"I need you to continue work on the spell processor," she said. She'd planned to sit down with him and work through everything she'd learned in Old Whitehall, but that would have to wait until after the war. "What happens if I die? You have to finish the work."

"That doesn't matter," Caleb said. "I don't want to lose you."

"You won't," Emily promised.

"You could get killed down there," Caleb snapped. "You're not invincible. A charmed knife, a cursed arrow ... Emily, you could drink unclean water and die! And there's a necromancer out there too. You could die!"

"I won't," Emily said, reassuringly.

But she knew he was right. She was far from invincible. Robin ... she resisted the urge to retch as she remembered what Robin had tried to do to her. The spell he'd cast on her was burned into her memory, mocking her. He'd tried to take control of her; he'd tried to rape her. And he'd come far too close to success. She shuddered, helplessly. She'd studied the spell he'd used. If she cast it on anyone who wasn't a powerful and experienced magician, that person would be her slave for life. It represented an awful temptation as well as a stern warning not to experiment.

"You could," Caleb said. He rose, pacing the room. "Emily, I don't want to lose you."

"You won't," Emily said. She pulled him down to sit beside her. She trusted him enough to allow him to sleep with her, but she still disliked him - or anyone - looming over her. "And yet, I have to go."

Caleb looked mutinous, even as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Emily couldn't help wondering if something else was bothering him. They'd only been sleeping together for the last few days. Was he worried she wouldn't be sleeping with him any longer? Or was he worried she'd find someone else while she was away? She wouldn't, she knew, but ... she shook her head in frustration. Life had been much simpler before she'd found a boyfriend.

"Stay in touch," Caleb said, firmly. "Take the chat parchment and write to me every day, all right? I'll come charging down if I don't hear from you."

"I'll do my best," Emily agreed. "But don't leave the school. Gordian will expel you."

"He wouldn't," Caleb said. "He'd just make me repeat the year."

"I might have to," Emily muttered. "How many months can I miss without having to repeat the year?"

Caleb looked stricken. "You need to pass the exams and submit a completed project," he said, after a moment. "We might be able to get the project rolled over into the next year, if we were lucky, but it would have to be completed then. If you failed the exams, you'd have to repeat the year."

"Which would be bad," Emily said. In hindsight, maybe it had been a mistake to continue their joint project into fifth year. She might just bring Caleb down with her. Maybe he wouldn't mind that too much. If she had to retake a year and he didn't, he'd have to leave Whitehall and take up an apprenticeship - without her. "Do you want to repeat the year?"

"Only if I repeat it with you," Caleb said. He gave her a soft smile. "I wouldn't want to be without you."

"Me neither," Emily admitted. She snuggled up to him. "I will stay in touch."

"Keep a sharp eye on my dear father," Caleb warned, as his fingers started to play with her hair. "He will seek to use you."

Emily sighed. "Does everyone want to use me?"

"I don't," Caleb said. "But everyone else does."

He turned his head. "You know what's at stake," he added. "The necromancers have to be stopped."

"And hardly anyone seems to be taking the threat seriously," Emily said. "At least your father is trying to do his job."

She remembered the map and shivered. The Nameless World was roughly the same size as Earth, as far as she could tell, but distances appeared to be so much greater. Without magic, traveling even a few hundred miles could take weeks. The necromancers appeared to be thousands of miles away, a distant threat that hardly anyone noticed ... unless, of course, they were on the front lines. But the necromancers would keep coming until they overwhelmed the Allied Lands. They had no choice. Without a ready supply of people to drain, they would eventually run out of magic and die.

Unless this particular necromancer really has worked out a way to remain sane, she thought, grimly.

She'd read the reports very carefully, going through them one by one. Dua Kepala had not only survived, he'd prospered. He had neither burned out nor gone on a mad rampage that ended with his death. His fortress - the former school - was practically impregnable, even to someone as skilled as Lady Barb. And that worried her. If someone had worked out a way to channel that much power safely and use it, without turning into a madman, the entire world was at risk. Dua Kepala might have knowledge and experience as well as vast power.

But he's risked an invasion, she told herself. He must think he can win.

She leaned against Caleb, feeling the reassuring warmth of his arms. She was going to miss him. But she couldn't take him with her. Sergeant Miles wouldn't let her. She briefly considered asking, just in case, before dismissing the thought. The sergeant had to take her seriously. He wouldn't listen to her if she made an obviously absurd request.

Caleb's arms tightened, one hand starting to fiddle with the dress clasp behind her neck. "When are you going?"

"Sergeant Miles said four days," Emily told him. "I have to tell him my decision tomorrow, then ... I'm not sure what he'll want me to do."

"Train, probably," Caleb said. "He'll be running behind you with a whip, just to make sure you keep going. And he'll be barking questions at you all the time."

His face darkened. "That's what they used to do at Stronghold."

Emily smiled as her dress came free. "I don't think it'll be that bad," she said. She leaned in to face him, lifting her lips for a kiss. "And now I just want to forget about it for a while."

Afterwards - and after a quick shower - she lay in bed, listening to Caleb's gentle snores. It felt strange, very strange, to be sleeping next to a naked man, although it no longer felt wrong - or terrifying. She was more concerned about the small bed, she told herself with some amusement, than his nakedness or hers. Her stepfather's ghost had finally been banished, leaving her free ... free to do what? Enjoy herself?

Men are untrustworthy, her mother had said, years ago. A shiver ran down her spine as she remembered the old drunkard's bitter remarks. They only want one thing. And they lose interest as soon as you give it up.

Emily shivered, again. Caleb wasn't like that, was he? He'd set out to court her, rather than merely ask her out on a date. There was something formal in what he'd done that had impressed her, an offer of a genuine commitment. And yet ... part of her was scared. Not of sex or sexuality, not any longer, but of losing him. Choosing to sleep with him ...

It wasn't a mistake, she told herself, firmly. Caleb had been clumsy at first - just like she was - but it had gotten better over the last two days. Imaiqah's brutally frank advice had helped, even if it had been embarrassing. And I won't come to regret it.

She rolled over and snuggled up to him, her fingers tracing the muscles on his arms. He would have been considered a geek on Earth, she was sure, but he was stronger than any of the jocks she recalled. Stronghold had battered combat training into his head, literally. And yet, he was always gentle with her. She trusted him not to hurt her. She didn't want to hurt him either.

Smiling, she closed her eyes and went to sleep.

 

Chapter Four

Sergeant Miles hadn't shown either pleasure or irritation when Emily had visited him the following morning, and told him she would be accompanying him to Tarsier. Emily wasn't sure how she felt about that. Instead, he'd given her a long list of items to find and pack, saying she would have to justify anything she chose to leave behind. Emily had spent the next hour in the Armory, trying to find everything on the list. It hadn't been easy. Some items were common, with hundreds to choose from; others needed to be borrowed or altered for her. The only one she actually owned was her staff.

The third staff, she reminded herself. Mother Holly had destroyed the first one, two years ago; Master Grey had destroyed the second. And I have to be very careful with it.

She shrank it down, stowing it in her pocket with a handful of warding spells to ensure it couldn't be stolen. Sergeant Miles would be furious if she lost it and Grandmaster Gordian would go through the roof. Magicians could become dependent on wands and staffs after all, and anyone who used them ran the risk of losing the ability to work magic without them. She didn't dare take the risk. Alassa's virgin dagger went into her sleeve, where she could draw it if necessary; the remainder, thankfully, could be packed into her rucksack. But when she was finished, the bag was too heavy to lift, let alone get over her shoulders.

"I think you've overdone it," Frieda's voice said. Emily turned to see her friend standing by the door, wearing a long white dress. "Can't you take some of the gear out? Or use a spell?"

"Sergeant Miles said I wasn't to use spells to lighten the bag," Emily said. It was frustrating, but she understood his point. A single cancellation spell, cast in her general direction ... she'd be crushed under the weight of her bag. She wouldn't put it past Sergeant Miles to cast such a spell just to make sure she wasn't trying to cheat. "And I need everything in the bag."

"But you can't carry it," Frieda pointed out. She strolled over to the table as Emily started to unpack the bag. "He has to know that, surely?"

Emily shrugged. The bedroll ... she needed that, unless she planned to sleep on the bare ground. She knew from bitter experience that she'd wake up stiff and sore. The potions ... maybe she could leave some of those behind. She'd made potions from items she'd harvested before, after all. The compass ... the whistle ... the cooking tools ... the knives ... maybe she could leave behind a couple of the knives. And the books ...

"I probably won't have much time for reading," she mused, reluctantly.

"Take a couple of the newer paperbacks," Frieda suggested. "If you think you'll have time to read ..."

"I probably won't," Emily admitted. She put the books aside, then examined the cooking tools. How many of them did she actually need? Knives and forks were one thing, but couldn't she share pots and pans with someone else? She wouldn't be cooking her own meals, would she? "I'll have to check these with Sergeant Miles."

"Make sure you take the tinderbox," Frieda warned. "You don't want to be caught without it."

Emily nodded. Tarsier was next to a desert, but deserts got very cold at night. Magic would be enough to light a fire, yet ... what if she was tired and drained? Or if she didn't want to risk using magic? The Manavores she'd seen in the past had warned her, as if she didn't already know, that there were things out there that hunted magic users. She'd never heard of them before her trip to the past, but they might still be lurking around somewhere.

Not that I need to worry about them, she thought. There's a necromancer out there.

Frieda shrugged. "What are you doing tomorrow?"

"Riding, it seems," Emily said. Sergeant Miles had told her they'd be going on a long ride around the countryside. She wasn't looking forward to it. Alassa might love her horses, but Emily had never liked riding. "And then we'll be going on a long forced march."

"I could come with you," Frieda suggested. Alassa had taught her how to ride, back in Alassa's fourth year. "Should I ask the sergeant?"

"Why not?" Emily asked. She'd told Frieda where she was going, after swearing her to secrecy. "But don't push it if he says no."

Frieda nodded her head, one hand playing with her pigtails. "You will be back, won't you?"

"Of course," Emily promised.

She wished she felt so confident. Many of the reports warned that the invasion was gathering steam. Tarsier was in deep trouble. No one knew how the necromancer had managed to get such a large army across the desert, but no one could deny that was exactly what he'd done.

He might have opened a portal, she thought, grimly. Most necromancers don't have the skill to open a portal, but this one is unusually dangerous.

"Be careful," Frieda warned, as Sergeant Miles stepped into the room. "The necromancer will hate you most of all."

"Probably ... " Sergeant Miles said. He smiled at Frieda, then winked at Emily. "We could use you as bait in a trap."

Emily made a face. "Only if there's no other choice," she said. "Sergeant ... could the necromancer have opened a portal?"

"It's been considered," Sergeant Miles said. "So far, nothing has been detected. A portal should be noticeable from quite some distance."

"It could be in the desert," Emily pointed out. "Have you managed to get anyone right up to the borderline?"

"It's a possibility," Sergeant Miles said. He dismissed Frieda, then smiled, rather thinly. "But right now you have other problems. How much do you intend to leave behind?"

Emily felt her head pounding, an hour later, as she was finally dismissed from the room. The sergeant had questioned each and every one of her choices with savage intensity, making her doubt herself. Everything was needed, he said ... but how was she meant to carry it all without collapsing? In the end, he'd pointed out that she could obtain some of what she needed in the camp, but told her to keep the bare essentials. Running short of potions to deal with her periods would be embarrassing.

"Report back to me in two hours," he'd finished. "You have some spells to learn."

Emily made her way to the dining hall, found herself a plate of food and sat down to eat. The hall was in bad shape, even though most of the broken tables had been removed and turned into firewood. Thankfully, the kitchens were still producing food. Her headache started to fade as she drank water, reminding her - again - that water was an essential part of her supply kit. There was no point in knowing a dozen spells to purify the water if there was no water at all.

I may have bitten off more than I can chew, she thought, ruefully. Mistress Danielle had taught her more combat spells, but she hadn't forced Emily on long marches to stretch her legs. I wish I had more time to prepare.

She looked up as Jasmine entered the dining hall, a dark blood-red scar clearly visible on her face. It was a nasty hex, Emily noted, watching the first-year girl slowly make her way over to her table. Jasmine was normally strikingly pretty, but the hex twisted her face into something thoroughly unpleasant. And she smelled too, a foul scent that made Emily's stomach lurch uncomfortably. Tiega had clearly taken a savage revenge on her enemy.

"Lady Emily," Jasmine said. She swallowed. "Are you really leaving us?"

"Not for long," Emily said. "I will be back."

She couldn't help feeling a strange mixture of emotions. Jasmine had acted badly, very badly. The anonymous notes she'd sent to Tiega had been nothing short of bullying, all the worse because the poor girl had been unable to strike back. But, at the same time, Tiega's revenge would mark Jasmine for life. The hex would fade, given time. The damage to Jasmine's reputation would not.

"She's mad at me," Jasmine confessed. One finger traced out the scar on her face. "I think she hates me."

Emily lifted her eyebrows. "Do you blame her?"

"She was awful to us," Jasmine said. She gave Emily a plaintive look. "Lady Emily ..."

"And if someone is awful to you," Emily asked, "does that give you the right to be awful back?"

"She wouldn't stop," Jasmine said, resentfully. "I thought ..."

Emily felt a flicker of tired understanding. Taking the moral high ground was all very well and good, but real life didn't give a damn. Bullies wouldn't stop bullying unless they were met with greater force, regardless of whether they were school bullies or foppish aristocrats. What was the point of claiming to be the better person if the better person couldn't defend herself against threats? To refuse to fight only made oneself a target.

But she couldn't condone what Jasmine had done.

"I'll speak to her, later," she promised. She'd meant to spend more time with the younger students she was supposed to mentor. But she doubted she'd be able to do it anytime soon. "Until then ..."

She sniffed, then cast an analysis spell. Tiega, whatever her faults, was an accomplished spellcaster. The hex - actually a trio of hexes - was something she would have expected from a third-year student. Tough, extremely hard to remove ... she felt a flicker of admiration as she parsed out the third hex. Anyone who tried to remove it would have to do some pretty fancy footwork to avoid being stung badly. Professor Lombardi would have no trouble removing it, she was sure, but she would have problems.

Tiega will be in trouble if Jasmine tries to get it removed, Emily thought, dryly. It isn't quite locked, but its close enough to cause no end of trouble.

"I'll speak to her," she repeated. She'd hoped that Tiega and Jasmine would learn to work together, the way Alassa and she had become friends, but it seemed as though she was out of luck. "And if the hex lingers for more than a week, go ask the Head Girl to remove it."

"I told her," Jasmine said. "I confessed."

It took Emily a moment to realize that Jasmine meant Tiega, rather than Aloha. It was rare for a student to go running to a teacher - or even the Head Girl - if they got into trouble, even if they were being bullied. It wasn't something she approved of, but Whitehall was more interested in teaching self-reliance than protecting its students. The staff wouldn't step in unless there was a serious threat to life and limb.

"She wouldn't have been happy," Emily pointed out, dryly. "What did you expect?"

Jasmine flushed, angrily. "Not ... not this."

Emily reached out and patted her on the shoulder. "You'll be fine," she promised. She would have to find Tiega later, if only to point out the dangers of carrying her revenge a little too far. The Grandmaster would take a dim view of a hex that was difficult to remove - and, perhaps, impossible for a first-year student. "Now, go eat something and then go back to helping repair the school."

"Yes, My Lady," Jasmine said.

She turned and hurried off. Emily watched her go, wishing she knew how she felt about the situation. She'd failed Jasmine and Tiega ... perhaps it had been a mistake to force Jasmine to confess. But Tiega had needed to know that her tormentor had been silenced. She wouldn't have thanked Emily for keeping the details to herself. And then ...

Emily rose, carrying her empty dishes and placing them on the trolley to be washed before walking out of the room and down the corridor. There was still at least another hour before she was due back in the Armory, so she walked back to the dorms and checked the wards. Tiega wasn't in her bedroom, unsurprisingly. The first-years knew the least magic, yet there was still work for them to do rebuilding the school. Emily was tempted to use the castle's wards to find Tiega, but she dismissed the thought. She couldn't give in to the temptation without risking everything.

Instead, she walked back through the castle, glancing into classroom after classroom as she passed. She had to admit that Gordian was a great organizer, whatever his flaws. He'd not only managed to get the students working to repair the damage, he'd brought in outside experts and set them to work rebuilding the wards. Emily had a private suspicion that he intended to eventually reopen the control chamber below the castle, but the wards wouldn't let him in without her approval. Until then ...

She waved cheerfully at the Gorgon, who'd been assigned to help Professor Thande brew more potions, and made her way back down into the Armory. Three of the spellchambers were occupied, but a fourth was deserted. Emily checked the wards carefully, then stepped into the chamber and started to cast a series of spells, one after the other. Her magic seemed to hum around her as she allowed it to run free, blurring into the castle's wards. They seemed almost to dance around her.

The door opened. She turned, expecting to see Sergeant Miles. Instead, Grandmaster Gordian stepped into the room. Emily braced herself, unsure what to expect. He was a tall, powerfully-built man, with long dark hair drawn back in a ponytail. Emily couldn't help thinking that he had aged a decade overnight, as Whitehall School had begun to collapse around him. His predecessor had been over a hundred years old.

"Emily," Gordian said.

Emily bowed her head. "Grandmaster."

She couldn't recall the Grandmaster - either Grandmaster - seeking her out before, not like this. She'd met Gordian before he'd become Grandmaster, back at Cockatrice, but since then ... he'd either summoned her to his office or met her after she'd tried to teleport out of the trap below Whitehall.

"Your spells have improved," Gordian said, tilting his head. "You're turning into a very powerful young lady."

"Thank you, sir," Emily said.

Her mind raced. Did he know about her weekend combat training with Mistress Danielle? Were his words a subtle rebuke - or a warning? Or did he believe, despite all the evidence, that she might have learned forgotten magics from Lord Whitehall himself? Or was he merely trying to make conversation? She honestly had no idea what he wanted. To ask her if she really wanted to go, perhaps? Or to encourage her to go? She rather suspected he disliked the idea of a student who could overrule him at will.

"Your father was surprisingly insistent that you be allowed to accompany Sergeant Miles," Gordian added, after a moment. "He has not yet granted you your majority?"

Emily winced, inwardly. Void was her legal guardian, at least as long as she stayed in school. And yet, her position was odd. By some standards, she was an adult; by others, she was still legally a child. In truth, she wasn't sure how she felt about it. On one hand, it was humiliating to be treated as a child when she was twenty years old; on the other, it was nice to know that someone was looking out for her. But she hadn't seen Void for months.

"Not yet, sir," she said. She'd researched the age of majority in the Nameless World, only to discover that it tended to rely on the parents. Some parents granted their children freedom almost as soon as they entered their teens, others tried to control their children as long as possible. "I believe he wants me to complete my schooling first."

"Which may be difficult if you go to the wars," Gordian said, dryly. "Are you sure you want to go?"

"I think I have to go," Emily said, after a moment. "I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I could have saved thousands of lives, but did nothing."

Caleb had accepted that argument. Gordian didn't seem as impressed. "You will never know if there was something you could have done or not," he said, shortly. "Can you defeat a necromancer in single combat?"

"I have," Emily lied. She'd killed two necromancers, but she'd cheated both times. Did Gordian know what she'd done? She'd always suspected Grandmaster Hasdrubal knew the truth, even though he'd never mentioned it to her. "And if I have to do it again, I will."

Gordian studied her for a long moment. "Very well," he said. "You have my permission to go. And when you return, we will consider where you may best resume your studies."

"Thank you, sir," Emily said. Gordian couldn't have stopped her from leaving, but he might have made it impossible for her to return. He certainly had extremely good cause. "I hope to be back soon."

"Don't count on it," Gordian said. "As long as a single necromancer remains alive, the war will never be over."

Emily nodded. There were ways to deal with necromancers now, if she had the time to craft them. A Mimic, one programmed only to attack necromancers; a pocket dimension, combined with the nuke-spell; her batteries, combined with lethal spells ... she had plenty of ideas. But she'd need time to prepare them. She doubted she had that time.

"I will also give you my blessing," Gordian added. "The Mage Lord of Heart's Eye was a friend of mine. He didn't deserve to die in his school."

"Yes, sir," Emily said. Gordian had friends? She shook her head in annoyance. Of course he had friends. Hell, there were tutors who thought he was doing a good job. "Do you know what happened?"

"The necromancer must have sneaked through the wards, somehow," Gordian said. "There are ways ... there's no such thing as an impregnable defense. But the Mage Lord should have been able to take precautions ..."

He sighed. "Be careful, Emily," he added. "This necromancer is cunning. And that makes him very dangerous."

 

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Author Bio

Christopher G. Nuttall is thirty-two years old and has been reading science fiction since he was five, when someone introduced him to children's SF. Born in Scotland, Chris attended schools in Edinburgh, Fife and University in Manchester ... before moving to Malaysia to live with his wife Aisha.

Chris has been involved in the online Alternate History community since 1998; in particular, he was the original founder of Changing The Times, an online alternate history website that brought in submissions from all over the community. Later, Chris took up writing and eventually became a full-time writer.

Chris has produced The Empire's Corps series, the Outside Context Problem series and many others. He is also responsible for two fan-made Posleen novels, both set in John Ringo's famous Posleen universe. They can both be downloaded from his site.

Website: http://www.chrishanger.net/
Blog: http://chrishanger.wordpress.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChristopherGNuttall
Discussion Forum http://thewritersclub.prophpbb.com/

TTB titles:

Schooled in Magic fantasy series
  Schooled in Magic  book 1
  Lessons in Etiquette  book 2
  Study in Slaughter  book 3
  Work Experience  book 4
  The School of Hard Knocks  book 5
  Love's Labor's Won  book 6
  Trial By Fire  book 7
  Wedding Hells  book 8
  Infinite Regress  book 9
  Past Tense  book 10
  The Sergeant's Apprentice  book 11

The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire military SF series
  Barbarians at the Gates  book 1
  The Shadow of Cincinnatus  book 2
  The Barbarian Bride  book 3

Author web site.

 

###

 

The Sergeant's Apprentice Copyright 2017. Christopher Nuttall. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

To order this book:
Format: ePub, PDF, HTML, Kindle/Mobi
    Payment Method
PayPal -or- credit card -or- via Amazon Kindle; Amazon.co.uk; Apple iBookstore; BN.com Nook; Kobo Books
List Price: $6.50 USD

 

  Author News

  Articles

Christopher has a number of interesting articles up at his blog, The Chrishanger.

"The Stronghold Academy of Martial Arts"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/the-stronghold-academy-of-martial-arts/

"Emily's Finances"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/10/01/emilys-finances/

"Religion in the Nameless World
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/religion-in-the-nameless-world/

"The Military in the Nameless World - A Very Brief Overview"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/09/28/the-military-in-the-nameless-world-a-very-brief-overview/

"Wedding Hells: Randor and Alicia"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/09/10/wedding-hells-randor-and-alicia/

"Past Tense: Freedom and (Women's) Rights"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/08/15/past-tense-freedom-and-womens-rights/

"Wedding Hells Appendix (II) - History Exam"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/wedding-hells-appendix-ii-history-exam/

"Idle Musings (SIM 10)"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/idle-musings-sim-10/

"Whitehall's Liability Insurance"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/whitehalls-liability-insurance/

"Emily and the Barony of Cockatrice"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2016/04/02/emily-and-the-barony-of-cockatrice/

"Bonus Material: Whitehall History Essay Question"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2015/10/16/bonus-material-whitehall-history-essay-question/

"Schooled in Magic: Jade, Emily and Alassa" [Warning: spoilers]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/schooled-in-magic-jade-emily-and-alassa/

"Deconstructing Emily" [...There are a handful of spoilers for Books 1-6, so read carefully.]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/deconstructing-emily/

"Love's Labor's Won: Playing the Blame Game [Warning; spoilers!]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/loves-labours-won-playing-the-blame-game/

"Christmas Post: Five Things that Could Have Happened to Emily"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/12/25/christmas-post-five-things-that-could-have-happened-to-emily/

"The Tragedy of Marius Drake [Warning: massive spoilers in this post.]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/11/23/the-tragedy-of-marius-drake/

"Meet My Character Blog Hop" [Master Tor]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/meet-my-character-blog-hop/

"Draft Afterword (I)" [Cincinnatus]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/draft-afterword-i/

"But What Do We Do on Our Hols? An Introduction to Lessons in Etiquette"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/but-what-do-we-do-on-our-hols-an-introduction-to-lessons-in-etiquette/

"The Free City of Beneficence" [A new setting for Schooled in Magic.]
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/the-free-city-of-beneficence/

"An Introduction to Schooled in Magic"
https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/an-introduction-to-schooled-in-magic/

 

Interviews

"When did you start writing and what got you into fantasy?"
Author interview on Blogcritics

"When did you decide you wanted to become an author?"
Author interview on Blogger News

Character interview with Princess Alassa on Beyond the Books

"Deconstructing Emily" blog post

"Schooled in Magic is a fantasy book, but it draws extensively from real history."
Guest post on As the Page Turns

"The Inspiration behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Guest post on Review From Here

"The Story behind 'Trial by Fire' by Christopher Nuttall"
Guest post on The Story Behind the Book

"I was asked, at Ravencon, just what makes an indie writer successful.
I think they were hoping I'd know some great secret to success that I could tell them."
Guest post on The Writer's Life eMagazine

"No matter how well you write, you will get bad reviews."
Author Christopher G. Nuttall discusses The Decline & Fall
of the Galactic Empire novels in an interview with Edinburgh49

Trial By Fire chapter reveal on Plug Your Book

 

  Reviews
 



 

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