Bloodrage - Helen Harper

Chapter One

I was on my hands and knees yet again, palms scratched by gravel, face no doubt an attractive shade of green, whilst I retched my guts up onto the ground.

“Are you quite alright, Miss Mackenzie?”

I couldn’t help but note the lack of solicitude in the inquiry. I dragged myself to my feet. “Yes,” I muttered, embarrassed. “I’m fine.”

“Then we should go in. The Dean is waiting for us.” Without pausing any further, the mage beside me swept through the door of the large sandstone building in front of us.

I glanced around, taking in my surroundings. We were at the end of a long driveway; in front of the training academy were large manicured grounds, covered with a layer of icy frost. A few crows cawed overhead, sweeping their way across the sky in search of some scarce winter food; to my left, the portal through which we had entered shimmered briefly in the air. I sighed deeply, turned, and followed inside.

My escort was waiting, a look of exasperated irritation on his weathered face. He didn’t say anything further, however, merely moved deeper inside through the main vestibule area before turning right down a scuffed corridor. A young teenage girl bustled out of a door just up ahead, carrying a few china plates with the remnants of some half-eaten food on them. Whatever the recipients of the plates had eaten, it didn’t look particularly appetising, especially to my still nauseous stomach. It was probably just as well that the meals weren’t fresh though, because when the girl looked up and saw me, her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open with a comic half ‘oh’ of surprise and dismay, and the plates went crashing to the ground. I paused, kneeling down to help her pick up the shards, but she backed away like a frightened rabbit.

The mage tutted to himself. “Really, Miss Mackenzie. We do not have time for this.”

He cast a stern look towards the poor girl, who seemed to be getting whiter and whiter by the second and was evidently praying that I’d just leave her and the smashed contents alone. I gave up and straightened. The mage made a moue of distaste and then continued forward.

At the end of the corridor a wooden door lay slightly ajar. He knocked on it briefly. A deep voice from within muttered something I didn’t quite catch, and then my ever-so friendly guide motioned me inside. I gave him a dazzling smile, ignoring the flickers of heat in my belly caused by a mixture of my nervousness and his rudeness, and went in.

Sitting behind a large desk that was strewn with all manner of books and oddities was an older man wearing a pair of half moon spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose. He stood up as I entered, clasping his hands behind him, and I realised that he was wearing an antiquated black academic gown in the ilk of someone who felt the need to proclaim his importance to the world. He gestured at me to sit down on a small chair in front of the desk and then seated himself again. The chair I was on was cushioned and fairly comfortable, but it was also considerably lower than the chair of the man in front of me, making me feel somewhat like a small child. It was a very old intimidation ploy, although knowing that it was a trick still didn’t stop me from actually feeling intimidated. I leaned back, trying to look relaxed.

For several moments, silence hung in the air. I bit my tongue to refrain from saying anything stupid. It was possible, well probable really, that I was going to be here for five years. The deal I’d made with the Arch-Mage in return for the mages freeing Mrs Alcoon, my old employer, from a particularly disagreeable stasis spell, meant that I had promised to submit to training here at the mages’ academy. Apparently the average length of time before graduation was five years; I was determined, if not for my sake then for Mrs Alcoon’s, to be much quicker than that. Pissing off the dean of the school probably wouldn’t help my cause much, even if he was being pissy himself.

Finally, he looked up from whatever he was doing to appear busy and stared at me over his glasses with a look that would no doubt freeze the balls off many young school-boy wizards. If he thought that looking at me was going to scare