Harry Potter meets Lest Darkness Falls ...
Emily is a teenage girl pulled from our world into a world of magic and mystery by a necromancer who intends to sacrifice her to the dark gods. Rescued in the nick of time by an enigmatic sorcerer, she discovers that she possesses magical powers and must go to Whitehall School to learn how to master them. A stranger in a very strange land, she may never fit into her new world... ...and the necromancer is still hunting her.
If Emily can't stop him, he might bring about the end of days.
I've known Christopher Nuttall since the early 2000s, when I was drawing a webcomic called A Magical Roommate. He e-mailed me to let me know he liked it, and we went on chatting for many years afterwards. One day, he told me he had written a book about a magic school, and he wanted to name one of his characters after one of the characters in my comic strip. I said sure. Little did I know what an awesome writer he would turn out to be! (Grin.) – Emily Martha Sorensen
"IT'S TIME TO CLOSE, MY DEAR."
Emily Sanderson nodded reluctantly as the librarian stepped past her seat and headed to the handful of other occupied chairs. This late at night, only a handful of people remained in the library, either intent on reading or simply because they had nowhere else to go. The library was small and rarely more than half-full even at the best of times. Emily loved it because it was her refuge. She too had nowhere else to go.
She stood and gathered her books, returning them to the trolley for re-shelving. The librarian was a kindly old man–he'd certainly not asked any questions when the younger Emily had started to read well above her grade level–but he got grumpy when visitors tried to return books to the shelves themselves. Not that she could really blame him. Readers had a habit of returning the books to the wrong places, causing mistakes that tended to snowball until the entire shelf was out of order. And Emily hated to see poor Rupert grumpy. He was one of the few people she felt she could rely on.
Most teenage girls her age would never crack open a history book, unless they were looking for the answers to some test. Emily had fallen in love with history from a very early age, taking refuge in it from the trials and tribulations of her life. Reading about the lives of famous people–their struggles to change the world–made her feel her universe had a past, even if it didn't have a future. Perhaps she would have made a good historian one day, if she'd known where to start working towards a history degree. But she already knew she would never find a proper life. She knew what happened to most graduates these days. They graduated from college, they celebrated, and then they couldn't find a job.
Her stepfather had certainly made it clear to her, after an endless series of arguments about what she wanted to do with her life, that she would never do anything worthwhile with her life.
"You'll never amount to anything," he'd told Emily, one drunken night. "You won't even be able to flip burgers at McDonald's!"
Her mother should never have married again–but she'd been lonely after Emily's father had vanished from their lives, so long ago that Emily barely remembered him. Emily's stepfather–she refused to call him father–had never laid a finger on her, yet he hadn't hesitated to tear down her confidence every chance he could, or to verbally rip her to shreds. He resented Emily and Emily had no idea why. She didn't even know why he stayed with a woman he clearly didn't love.
Emily caught sight of her own reflection in one of the windows and winced inwardly. She didn't really recognize the girl looking back at her. Long brown hair framed a face too narrow to be classically pretty, with pale skin and dark eyes that looked somehow mournful against her skin. Her clothes were shapeless, hiding her figure; she rarely bothered with makeup, or indeed any other form of cosmetics, not when there was no point. They wouldn't improve her life.
And they might attract unwanted attention too.
The librarian waved to her as she took one last look at the bookshelves and headed for the counter. "No books today?"
"No, sorry," Emily said. She had a library ticket–it said a great deal about her life that it was her most treasured possession–but she'd filled it over the week. There would be no more books until she returned some old ones. "I'll see you tomorrow."
The familiar sense of despondency and hopelessness fell back over her as she stepped out and walked down the street. There was no future for her, not even if she went to college; her life would become consumed by a boring job, or an unsatisfactory relationship. No, the very thought was laughable. She was neither pretty nor outgoing; indeed, she spent most of her life isolated from her peers. Even when there were groups that might have attracted her–she did occasionally take part in role-playing games–part of her never wanted to stay with them for very long. She wanted friendship and companionship and yet she knew she wouldn't know what to do with them if she had either.
In fact, she'd been to a game earlier, before coming to the library. And she'd left early.
But now she didn't want to go home. Her stepfather might be there, or he might be out drinking with his buddies, swapping lies about their days. The former was preferable to the latter, she knew; when he was out drinking, he tended to come home drunk, demanding service from Emily's mother. And then he shouted at Emily, or threatened her.
Or looked at her. That was the worst of all.
She wished to go somewhere–anywhere–other than home. But there was nowhere else she could go.
Her stomach rumbled, unpleasantly. She would have to prepare a TV dinner for herself, or perhaps beans on toast. It was a given that her mother wouldn't cook. She'd barely bothered to cook for her daughter since Emily had mastered the microwave. If she hadn't been fed at school, Emily suspected that she would have starved to death by now.
As she trudged home, she realized something with a crystalline clarity that shocked her; she wanted out. She wanted out of her life, wanted out so badly that she would have left without a backward glance, if only someone made her an offer.
And then she shook herself into sense. No one had made her an offer and no one would. Her life was over. No matter what it looked like on the outside, she knew her life was over. She was sixteen years old and her life was over. And yet it felt as if it would never end.
A fatal disease would have been preferable, she thought, morbidly.
The wave of dizziness struck without warning. Emily screwed her eyes tightly shut as the world spun around her, wondering if she'd drunk something she shouldn't have during the role-playing session with the nerds and geeks. She had thought that they were too shy to ever spike her drink, but perhaps one of them had brought in alcohol and she'd drunk it by mistake. The sound of giggling–faint, but unmistakable–echoed in the air as her senses swam. And then she fell ... or at least it felt like falling, but from where and to what?
And then the strange sensation simply faded away.
When she opened her eyes, she was standing in a very different place.
Emily recoiled in shock. She was standing in the middle of a stone-walled cell, staring at a door that seemed to be made of solid iron. Half-convinced she was hallucinating–perhaps it had been something worse than alcohol that she'd drunk, after all–she stumbled forward until her fingers were pressed against the door. It felt cold and alarmingly real to her senses. There was no handle in the door, no place for her to try to force the door open and escape. The room felt depressingly like a prison cell.
Swallowing hard, Emily ran her fingers over the stonework, feeling faint tingles as her fingertips touched the mortar binding the wall together. It felt like the castles she'd read about, the buildings that had been constructed long before concrete or other modern building materials had enabled the artists to use their imagination properly. There was a faint sense of age pervading through the stone, as if it was hundreds of years old. It certainly felt hundreds of years old.
Where was she?
Desperately, Emily looked from wall to wall, seeking a way out of the cell. But there was nothing, not even a window; the only source of light was a tiny lantern hanging from the ceiling. There was no bed, no place for her to lay her head; not even a pallet of straw like she'd seen in the historical recreations she'd attended with her drama group. And how had she come to be here? Had she been arrested? Impatiently, she dismissed the thought as silly. The police wouldn't have put her in a stone cell and they wouldn't have had to spike her drink to arrest her.
A hundred scenarios her mother had warned her about ran through her mind; her captor could be a rapist, a serial killer, or a kidnapper intent on using her to extort money from her parents. Emily would have laughed at the thought a day ago–her stepfather wouldn't have paid anything to recover her from a kidnapper–but it wasn't so funny now. What would a kidnapper do when he discovered that he'd kidnapped a worthless girl?
A clatter that came from outside the iron door rang through the cell and Emily looked up sharply. She would have sworn that the iron door was solid, but all of a sudden a tiny hatch appeared in the metal and a pair of bright red eyes peered in at her. There was something so utterly inhuman about them that Emily recoiled, convinced that they belonged to a monster. Or a devil. There was a second rattle at the door, which then blurred into a set of iron bars, revealing a hooded figure standing outside the cell. His eyes, half-hidden under his hood, weren't just red; they were glowing. The rest of his face was obscured in darkness.
Behind him, there were more stone walls. A pair of skeletons stood against the wall as if they'd been left there to rot. Something about them caught Emily's attention before she saw the first skeleton begin to move, walking forward as if it were still flesh and blood. The second skeleton turned its head until it was looking directly at Emily, the sightless eye-sockets seeming to peer deeply into her soul. Emily felt her blood running cold, suddenly convinced, right to the very core of her being, that this was no ordinary kidnapping. She must be a very long way from home.
"Welcome," the hooded figure said. There was something cracked and broken about his voice, almost as if he hadn't spoken for a very long time and had lost the knack. "You may call me Shadye."
He spoke his name as if Emily should know it, but it meant nothing to her. She tried to speak, but discovered that her mouth was so dry that speaking was impossible.
Shadye stepped forward, up against the bars, and studied her thoughtfully. His red eyes flickered over her body, before meeting her eyes and holding them for a long chilling moment.
Emily forced herself to speak. All the novels she'd read about kidnapped heroines suggested that she should try to get the kidnapper to see her as a human being–although she was far from convinced that Shadye himself was a human being. The fantasy books she'd devoured in an attempt to ignore her father's departure and her mother's desperate search for a second husband seemed to be mocking her inside her skull. All of this could be a trick, perhaps a reality TV show, but something in her mind was convinced that what she saw and sensed was real. But what? She couldn't have put it into words.
Besides, she couldn't see any TV cameras anywhere.
"How...?" She broke into coughs and had to swallow, again. "How did you bring me here?"
Shadye seemed oddly pleased by the question. "They said that there would be a Child of Destiny who would lead the forces of light against the Harrowing," he said. Emily realized suddenly that he wanted to gloat, to show off his own cleverness. "But I knew that every prophecy has a loophole. I knew that if I could catch that Child of Destiny before it was her time, I could use her against the cursed Alliance and defeat them utterly."
Emily felt a sinking sensation in her stomach. "But I am not that person..."
"No Child of Destiny knows who she is until her time has come," Shadye informed her. "But the Faerie know, oh yes they know. And I called for them to bring me the Child of Destiny and they have brought me you." He rubbed his hands together in glee. "And now I have you in my hands. The Harrowing will be pleased."
"Right," Emily said. Her, a Child of Destiny? Only in the literal sense...and she doubted that Shadye would believe her if she tried to explain it. What did her mother's name have to do with anything? She fought desperately for something to say that might distract him. "And I guess I'm not in Kansas any longer?"
"You are in the Blighted Lands of the Dead, on the southern face of the Craggy Mountains," Shadye said. Her words seemed to mean nothing to him, which was more disconcerting than anything else. "Wherever this Kansas place is, I assure you that it is far away."
Emily started to answer, and then stopped herself. "If you don't know where Kansas is," she said, trying to keep her growing fear under control, "I really am no longer in Kansas."
Shadye shrugged, the motion stirring his robe. Emily frowned as she saw the way the cloth moved over his body, disturbed in a manner she found almost impossible to describe. She couldn't see what lay beneath his robe, but there was something about the way he moved that suggested he was no longer entirely human. A very faint shimmer of light seemed to surround him, half-seen forms flickering in and out of existence ...
Somehow, that was all the more disturbing to her imagination.
This is real, Emily told herself. It was no longer possible to believe that she was standing in the middle of a TV studio, with hidden cameras recording everything she said and did. There was something so real about the scene that it terrified her. Shadye believed that she was the person he'd been searching for and nothing she could say, or do, could convince him otherwise. She thought of all the fictional heroes she'd known and loved, asking herself what they would do. But they had the writer on their side. She had nothing but her own wits.
Shadye snapped his fingers. The iron bars melted away into dust.
Fresh shock ran through Emily's body at the impossible sight, but before she could do anything, the skeletons stepped forward and marched into the cell, their eyeless sockets firmly locked on Emily's face. She cringed back as the bony hands, so eerie without flesh and blood, caught her shoulders. The skeletons propelled her forward, no matter how she struggled. The sorcerer's servants didn't seem to notice, or care. Oddly, their bones were held together without touching, as if their flesh was invisible. Like magic.
"You don't have to do this," she said, as she was marched out of the cell. Was she even on Earth any longer? "I..."
Shadye cackled, a high-pitched sound that chilled her to the bone. "Your death will bring me all the power I could desire," he said. Emily redoubled her struggles, but the skeletons never loosened their grip. "Why should I let you live when I would remain like this?"
He pulled his hood away from his face in one convulsive motion. Emily stared, horrified. Shadye's skin was pulled so tightly around his skull that she could see the bones underneath, his nose cut away, replaced by a melted mass of burned flesh. His eyes were burning coals of red light, shining in the darkened chamber, utterly inhuman. She saw his hand as he lifted it to stroke his hairless chin and winced at the cuts that criss-crossed his flesh.
Emily had seen all sorts of movies, ones where the directors strived to outdo themselves in creating new horrors, but this was different. This was real. She took a deep breath and smelled dead flesh in the atmosphere surrounding him. It was suddenly easy to believe that his body was dying, animated only by his will–and magic.
"There is always a price for power," Shadye said. His voice darkened, unpleasantly. "But there are always ways to escape the price. And when I offer you to the Harrowing...oh, they will rebuild my burned frame and grant me power eternal."
He turned and strode off down the corridor, pulling his hood back up to cover his head. Emily stared at his retreating back, just before the skeletons started to push her down the corridor after him. Resistance seemed utterly futile, but she struggled anyway, panic giving her extra strength. Just for a moment, she broke free of their grip and turned to run, but then there was a flash of blue light and her muscles locked, sending her falling to the floor. No matter how she struggled, she couldn't move anything below the neck. She watched helplessly as the skeletons picked her up and carried her after Shadye.
The sorcerer started to laugh. "I told you where you are," he said, mockingly. "Even if you escaped my dungeons, where would you go?"
He was right, Emily realized. She'd never heard of the Craggy Mountains, let alone the Blighted Land of the Dead. And he had never heard of Kansas. No matter how she wanted to avoid it, she had to accept the fact that she had somehow been transported from her own world to one where magic worked, where skeletons could be used as servants and an evil sorcerer could sacrifice her for power. She was utterly alone, ignorant of even something as basic as local geography.
Shadye was right; even if she did escape, where would she go?
They reached a stairwell leading up into the darkness. Shadye seemed unbothered by the lack of illumination, as did the skeletons, but Emily found it hard to restrain her panic as they climbed onward and upward, while she was unable to see anything. Her legs bumped against the walls from time to time, the spell binding her holding her body as firmly as ever, just before they finally walked out into the open air. The ground below their feet was mud...no, she realized suddenly, it was ash. She sniffed and then shuddered at the stench of burned flesh in the air. In the distance, she caught sight of what had once been a forest. Now, it looked as if something had killed the trees, leaving their dead remains standing in the midst of the darkness.
"The Necromancer Kings faced the assembled might of the Empire not too far from here," Shadye said with heavy satisfaction. He seemed to like the sound of his own voice. "They say that the skies were black with dragons and terrible lizards as they fought for forty days and forty nights. In the end, so much magic was released that the land was permanently warped by chaos. Those who stray into these lands without protection find themselves twisted and transformed into horrors. Few dare to visit my fortress, even though they believe that they have powers that can match my own."
Emily found her voice. "Why did they fight?"
"The Necromancer Kings wished to enjoy their powers without restraint, to create a world where their whims and wishes would be the whole of the law," Shadye said. "But the Empire and their wizards believed the necromancers to be an abomination. The wizards believed that they had won, yet the Harrowing can never be stopped. All they could do was delay it, for a time."
He stopped and muttered a series of words under his breath. There was a brilliant flash of light, bright enough to make Emily squeeze her eyes closed against the glare. When she reopened her eyes, she saw a large building made out of dark stone right in front of them, as if it had been there all along. Perhaps it had been invisible, she told herself, taking some measure of comfort from the thought. If Shadye had needed to hide his dark temple, or whatever it was, it suggested that someone was watching for him. Maybe he'd been lying when he'd claimed that no one came into the Blighted Lands of the Dead.
The skeletons carried her into an opening that appeared out of nowhere, an instant before her head would have slammed into the stone. Inside, there was a sense of overpowering vastness, as if the building was much larger than she could comprehend. The smell of blood assailed her nostrils; a moment later, as she looked around, she saw great waves of red blood washing down the walls and pooling on the ground. Shadye seemed unbothered by walking through the blood, bowing from time to time towards statues that appeared out of nowhere, only to vanish again when Shadye walked past. They were disturbing. Oddly, the ones that looked most human were the most disquieting. One of them, a stone carving of a handsome man with sharp pointy ears, was impossible to look at directly. Another, an eldritch horror out of nightmares, seemed almost friendly by contrast.
And yet she couldn't understand why one scared her more than the other.
"There," Shadye said. He reached into his robe and produced a sharp black knife, carved from stone, before addressing the skeletons for the first time. "Place her on the altar."
The altar was a simple stone block, easily large enough to accommodate her–or any other sacrificial victim. Emily opened her mouth to protest, but it was futile; the skeletons picked her up and carried her forward with implacable strength. Somehow, the simple lack of carvings on the altar was even more terrifying than the horrors she could see in the distance. It struck her, suddenly, that there was no doubt to whom the altar was dedicated. This place belonged to Satan. It was a place beyond the sight of God.
She tried to recall the prayers she'd learned as a child, but nothing came to mind. Instead, she kept trying to struggle, but the force holding her refused to surrender. The skeletons placed her on the stone and stepped backwards, almost as if they were admiring their work.
"We begin," Shadye said. He started to chant as he waved the knife in the air. Emily couldn't understand a single word, but she felt the gathering power in the chamber, as if someone–or something–was slowly pressing itself into existence. Brilliant tingles of light danced over her head, slowly fading into a darkness so complete that it sucked up the light. In the last moments of gloom, she saw new statues–savage-faced angels–appear at the edge of the chamber.
Shadye stopped chanting. Absolute silence fell, as if unseen watchers were waiting for a final command. The summoned presence hung on the air, its mere existence twisting reality around it.
Emily saw something within the darkness, a hidden movement that seemed to be only present within the corner of her eye. A strange lassitude fell over her, as if there was no longer any point in fighting and it was time to accept her fate. Shadye stepped forward, one hand holding the knife as he raised it up and over Emily's heart...
And then, suddenly, there was a brilliant flash of light. The summoned presence simply vanished.
Shadye bit out a word that was probably a curse and ducked as a bolt of lightning sliced through the air over his head, before smashing into the far wall. She twisted her neck as another flash of light lit up the chamber, revealing another dark-clad form standing at the far end of the room. Darkness fell for a second before the third flash of light showed the figure much closer, followed by the monstrous angel statues, which had moved when Emily wasn't looking. Her savior? It was obvious that he didn't want Shadye to have her.
"No," Shadye snapped. He lifted his hand, somehow plucked a fireball out of empty air and threw it at the newcomer, who lifted a staff and deflected it into the darkened reaches of the chamber. There was a deafening explosion as it struck one of the angel statues, which appeared undamaged. "You will not cheat me!"
A second later, the newcomer tossed a spell of his own. Shadye vanished in a flash of light.
The spell holding Emily to the altar snapped at the same instant, allowing her to move again. She sat up, only to see the newcomer race toward her. Another flash of light revealed that his face was hidden behind a wooden mask. He reached for her and she drew back, suddenly unsure of what this new man wanted. Shadye had wanted to sacrifice her. What would this man want?
"Take my hand if you want to live," the newcomer said, when Emily balked. The darkness was flooding in from all sides, pushing in around them as if it were a living thing. "Come with me or die!"
Emily didn't hesitate any longer. She took his hand.
And then the dark chamber vanished in a final blinding flash of white light.