Nic didn’t feel sleepy. He had a moment ago, but his head was clear now. Very clear. His body, however, was not responding to his clarity.
He had tried to move his fingers and toes with no success. He couldn’t even turn his head or open his eyes. He was helpless.
When wasn’t he, though? There was no point panicking about it or feeling sorry for himself. This was not a situation that was completely lost; not yet. This was not the work of a demon or a mage. This was Mallory.
What Nic really feared was that he would have to be saved, again. A heroic knight in a nightie and pigtails bursting through the door in the nick of time. He had had quite enough of being the damsel in distress.
His life at the centre of these infernal events never seemed to raise him up to the level of competent challenger. He was merely a pawn being moved around a board at someone else’s behest. And rescued from certain annihilation the same way.
But this was Mallory. This was the boy who Nic had helped save, who couldn’t even defend himself. If Nic was ever going to prove himself capable of overcoming an opponent on his own, surely this was the ideal opponent for the role.
It was time Nic learned to save himself. He had gone through a very intensive training camp putting him in extreme situations against invincible foes, now he had to show what he’d learned and prove his mettle.
He listened. His hearing wasn’t paralysed, at least. Footsteps came closer, soft, shoeless. The floorboard creaked gently and when he strained, irregular breathing that stopped and started. A presence neared, the weight of it seemed to press against Nic’s body.
An eyelid was thumbed upwards and Nic’s exposed eye was dazzled by a light. Behind it was a startled face, eyes widened in shock. The eyelid was released and snapped back in place, returning Nic to the dark.
It had definitely been Mallory, that much he had been able to ascertain. Beyond that, nothing was clear. Mallory’s face had shown fear and confusion. If he had wanted to check Nic was unconscious, he hadn’t liked what he’d seen, apparently. Footsteps, less guarded, stumbled away. Then there was nothing.
Was it normal for Nic to be able to think while under the effects of this drug, or was that because of Winnum’s presence? If she could keep his mind alert, why not the rest of his body?
“You could have warned me,” Nic thought to himself, although his words were aimed at her.
“If you had asked before drinking, yes,” said Winnum. “Now it is too late.”
“Can’t you remove the drug from my body or neutralise its effects?” It was a vain hope, but if Winnum would only respond to requests and not volunteer assistance, he might as well ask. Would her help constitute having to rely on someone else? It didn’t seem likely he’d need to make that judgement.
“I am flattered by the powers you deign to bless me with.” There was a gentle mocking to her soundless words. “I am simply a voice in your head. A brilliant and wise voice, but no more able to cure the lame or heal the sick than you.”
“You were able to detect the bugs in the mattress,” said Nic.
“I am also able to sense the poison in your blood. There is a big difference between being aware of a problem and being able to do something about it.” Still mocking, almost a delight in his predicament. Did she see this as some kind of indirect victory over him? He had kept her prisoner in his body, and now he had become her cellmate.
“If something happens to me, won’t it also put you in danger?” he said. “You are more likely to be the target of this than I am.”
It did seem a more feasible possibility that whatever Mallory was after, it was related to the ex-Archmage.
“Yes,” said Winnum’s voice. “Unless the boy has designs on your body.”
Even though he already couldn’t move, Nic froze a little harder. He hadn’t considered something like that.
No, she was being ridiculous. Mallory had never exhibited any inclinations of that sort.
But then, what did he really know about the older boy?
There had never been anything other than cordial relations between them, so why would Mallory turn on him now? They might not have been friends, but Nic would class their relationship as friendly. Mallory had seemed grateful to him and the others for their help, so why?
Nic listened again. Some sort of sound… Breathing? Panting?
He was there, Nic was sure. Waiting. He wanted to be sure the drug was fully active before approaching again. Cautious or nervous? Had he learned to be patient through practice, or was he hesitant because this was his first time doing something like this?
He had to be acting under someone else’s orders. Unless it was for the nefarious reason Winnum had suggested.
No, it was even more preposterous now that he thought about it. The risk of being caught would be insurmountable. Archmage van Dastan himself was aware of Nic’s presence here. Unless, of course, Mallory was acting under orders from the Archmage.
To think, after all Nic had been through, this was where he would be caught out. He couldn’t accept it. Wouldn’t. Not without seriously attempting to free himself using the resources he had at his disposal.
Winnum Roke was a brilliant mind, and even if she wasn’t able to remove the sedative, she had the knowledge of an archmage to draw from. She also knew the Royal College intimately, and had the ability to send out probes. There had to be a way to use that to his advantage.
She had also kept his mind clear, although Nic suspected that was more to do with the fact it was a mind she shared and her reasons were more than likely self-serving. If he was mentally incapacitated, she would be also. Still, if she had the ability to shield his mind, there was the chance it could be used in some way.
There was a sound, a distinct one. The door opening. Was Mallory leaving, or was someone else arriving?
Nic didn’t panic. He was calm and observant, listening intently. Some small thing could provide him with the means to escape his invisible shackles.
Voices whispered, two of them, too quiet for him to be a able to hear what was being said.
“Can you hear them?” Nic asked Winnum. “Your senses are sharper than mine.” If she could sense bugs in the mattress, surely she could hear words a few metres away.
“Yes,” said Winnum Roke. “I can hear every word.”
“There’s two of them?”
“The man who introduced you.”
“You mean Bartlett, the Archmage’s assistant?” Did that mean the Archmage was behind this? Nic could easily believe Archmage van Dastan might want to extract information from him, but why go to these lengths?
To prevent Simole discovering what he was up to was the only thing that came to mind.
“What are they saying?”
“They’re talking about you, very lovingly. They consider you a great prize.”
The voice in his head was meant to be a repository of everything known to Winnum Roke. Not a person, not her, just her combined wealth of knowledge. The sly personality was merely an affectation, he had convinced himself. His belief was the source of his confidence that he could keep her in check. She wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t think like her, or learn like her, it couldn’t grow. A fixed entity, like a book. A talking book; one he only had limited access to.
Something popped, painfully. It felt like there had been water in his ears that was draining away. His inner ear turned hot, and then sound flooded in.
“The medication has taken effect?” The voice was Bartlett’s, but without the soft deference from before. Now it was all sharp and edged.
“Yes, sir. I mean, I think so. I’m not sure.” Mallory sounded nervous, maybe even scared. Was he acting under duress? Perhaps he was being forced to do this against his will.
“What’s wrong with you, boy? Is he held in Mifune’s embrace or not?”
Mifune. Nic recalled the name from some text he’d read a long time ago. A drug used in surgery? Arcanum-infused? He couldn’t quite remember. If he’d known obscure narcotics were going to play a part in his trip to the Royal College, he would have read up on the subject.
“Yes, yes… it’s just, I opened his eyes and…”
“He didn’t look how he’s supposed to. See for yourself.”
There was a pause. Nic could feel the hesitation between them. It might have been imagined, though, Or he could have been borrowing Winnum’s keen senses. He wondered what it was about his eyes that had thrown Mallory into such a tizz.
“We have to move him,” said Bartlett. “Even if he isn’t completely incapacitated, it is enough.”
“Couldn’t we give him a little more?” said Mallory. “A sip?”
“We don’t want to kill him,” hissed Bartlett. Nic almost felt relief. At least his death wasn’t part of it. Then again, there were worse things. “We’ll just have to take precautions.”
What did that mean? Nic didn’t have to wait long to find out. He felt something slip around his ankles. He could still feel, then, just not move. Was that a cause for comfort or concern?
A loop of soft material passed over his left wrist, which was then dragged across his chest until it bumped into his right hand. The material was then wound around both wrists to bind them together.
It was like they daren’t touch him. Why not? What were they afraid of? He could hardly do them any harm in his condition. He probably wouldn’t have been able to fight them off even if he’d been undrugged.
They feared something, that much was plain. There seemed to be only one thing that would elicit that kind of concern — they had to think he was in possession of a demon or something of equivalent power, like the demented spirit of an ex-Archmage.
“I definitely think you’re their target,” he said to the deeper reaches of his mind. “And they also seem to think you can do more than detect bugs at fifty paces.”
“Fifty paces would be stretching it,” said Winnum Roke.
“You can, can’t you? Do more, I mean. You could release me.”
“But then how would you learn who was behind this? If you allow them to take you, they will lead you to their master, don’t you think? Don’t you want to know who is so interested in you this late at night?”
She made it sound like a sordid affair, and also like she would enjoy having ringside seats. The pleasure she took in aggravating his fears was unnerving. Why did all the women in his life enjoy his discomfort so much? If he endured it, would it build character in the long-term? He doubted it very much.
There was something about the way he behaved — his timidity or his docile nature — that invited unkind treatment, apparently. He would have to do something about it, if he ever got the chance.
He also needed to stop waiting on others. Even if Winnum did have a way to untie his bonds and facilitate an escape, he shouldn’t have to rely on her. He might not be a mage but he was still a healthy young man capable of putting up a fight when required. Unfortunately, telling himself that made no difference as a gag was tied around his mouth.
His eyelid was again pulled up and Bartlett peered down at him from behind the light. “Yes, I see what you mean.” The eyelid snapped shut and darkness enveloped him once more.
“Why is it like that?” said Mallory’s voice from somewhere further back.
“I’m afraid I have no idea. There is no point waiting. Let us get this over with.”
Between them, they lifted Nic off the bed and manhandled him into a more secure position between them, one holding his feet, the other by his armpits.
“Ah,” huffed Mallory. “He is heavier than he looks.”
“He is a bag of feathers,” said Bartlett. “Strengthen your arms, Brother, and make light your work.”
An awkward silence followed as Nic was carried from the room, swaying slightly from side to side.
Weren’t they worried they might be seen? It was late at night and everyone was either in bed or down in the courtyard keeping watch over the dying dragon, but carrying a body through the corridors of the Royal College was going to be hard to explain if they happened to cross paths with someone making a trip to the bathroom. Or was everyone in on it?
Nic had no doubt these two weren’t acting alone. If not the Archmage, then some other high-ranking person was behind this. Winnum was right that allowing himself to be taken was the best way to reveal who that person was. But such a discovery was only of real value if he was allowing it, rather than just surrendering himself.
He pulled his senses back into himself, ignoring the footsteps and not counting the turns and corners, as though that would help him once he got free. First he had to regain control of his body.
If Winnum could detect bed bugs, then so could he. She had shown him she could share her abilities with him when she heightened his hearing. She might not have the power of magic or the ability to use Arcanum the way a mage or demon could, but she still had a greater range of skills than he had. Knowledge gained while she had been isolated in the Demon Realm could still be applied here.
Nic shut himself off from the outside world. His improved hearing dissolved into a warm silence. He wasn’t being carried to some awful fate, he was floating. His mind, too, was floating, stuck in place but capable of motion, of reaching out and sensing his surroundings. Like an abrupt revelation, Nic’s senses peeled back to see himself being carried through the dark passages of the College.
He was trussed up like an animal. Feet and hands bound, mouth covered.
The external awareness only lasted a second, and then it fell back into itself, settling into his body. Odours assaulted his nostrils — the damp brick, the sweat of his makeshift pallbearers, the whiff of parchment and paper. Sounds overwhelmed him — the swish of robes, the patter of footsteps, the minute creaks and groans of stone and wood. The lingering taste in his throat… the drug coated his mouth, his tongue. He could trace it into his stomach, out into his blood, see the dancing particles within him. Not see, exactly. It was more like staring at a candle flame and then shutting your eyes. The imprint of light projected on the inside of his eyelids, a multitude of tiny lambent motes throughout his body.
Ahhh. It was a soundless mental sigh of recognition.
He focused on the pinpoints of white, a million stars in the sky, and tried to see them more clearly. The white dots grew brighter, and brighter. There was no wincing, no looking away, he wasn’t using his eyes, but the whiteness was blinding. The change spread, faster and faster. And then they were gone..
“What’s wrong with him, he’s burning up,” said Mallory, panic rising in his voice. “Is it a fever? Did I give him too much?”
“Keep going,” said Bartlett. “It isn’t much further. He’ll be fine.”
Nic tested touching his fingertips. He could move them. “I did it!”
“Well done,” said Winnum, unable to keep the surprise out of her tone.
“How? Did I use magic?”
“No, you don’t have that ability. We don’t have that ability.”
“Sometimes, shining a light is enough to send bugs scurrying away. You have learnt how to interfere with magic, which is a useful ability in its own right.”
It hadn’t felt like he had really done anything. He hadn’t felt any kind of power go through him, no crackle of lightning. Just an intense focus and a great deal of heat in his face; something he was already quite used to, although usually for other reasons.
“What do you plan to do with your freedom?” inquired Winnum. She didn’t sound so mocking now.
Nic was still being carried, presumably towards the person who had arranged this. He could try to get free of his captors, but he was still tied up. If he stayed where he was — if he allowed them to take him — he could at least learn the identity of his enemy. But there was a big difference between being aware of a problem and being able to do something about it.
Indecision was a mark of inexperience, he knew that. Every option had its good and bad point and, given enough time, Nic would probably be able to figure out the best course of action. But time was not something he had, and a swift decision followed up by the appropriate actions to whatever was thrown at him in response was how a person in his position should conduct themselves. Assuming the person in his position was someone who knew what to do and had the skills to back it up.
He kept his eyes closed and tried to get his hands free without attracting attention. Hopefully, his carriers were too preoccupied to notice. They hadn’t used rope to tie him up, just some kind of cloth or belt. He could almost squeeze his wrists out without having to untie anything, but he didn’t want to make it too obvious so he gently twisted back and forth to loosen the knot.
A door opened, shoved heavily probably by a shoulder. He heard it close as he was lowered onto a hard surface. Not a bed, which was a good thing. Not the floor, either. A table? An altar?
“Stay here,” said Bartlett. The door opened and shut again.
Nic tried to come to some sort of decision. Now was the time to act, while Mallory was alone. Or should he wait? It felt like his own indecisiveness was his greatest enemy.
“I know you can’t hear me,” whispered Mallory, his mouth close to Nic’s ear, his fingers loosening the knot around Nic’s wrists, “but I’m sorry about all of this. It isn’t personal. I—”
Nic’s hands were free. For once, he acted without deliberation. He threw himself towards the voice. He landed on top of Mallory who collapsed under him. Too surprised to defend himself, Nic had managed to get on top of Mallory and pin him to the floor. He raised his fist to strike the older boy in the face.
Mallory looked terrified.
Nic had been trained, somewhat. He had exercised, he had steeled himself to be more active, and here he was, in a dominating position. He hesitated. Despite his best efforts, he still lacked the determination to hurt others, even his enemies. Did that make him compassionate or cowardly? He was sure of one thing, he wasn’t a soldier, he was a child.
“Why?” Nic said pulling the gag away from his mouth, his forearm pressed against Mallory’s windpipe, preventing him from answering.
Mallory’s eyes rolled up in their sockets. For a moment, Nic thought he was about to pass out, and then he realised he was looking behind him. Nic’s gaze followed in the same direction, and realised they weren’t alone in the dimly lit room. Not even close to alone.
There were at least six figures, robed and masked, standing on the other side of the table Nic had been lying on. Nic released Mallory and stumbled backwards onto his backside, his feet still bound together. The door was behind him, if he could make it outside, perhaps…
But the door opened and Bartlett stood there. Nic was surrounded and his exit blocked.
“What do you want?” he managed to squeak out through the gaps in his frustrations with himself.
“His eyes,” said one of the masked figures.
“It is him,” said another. They were female voices.
“We are the followers of Winnum Roke,” said a woman, pulling down her mask to reveal a matronly face. “You are here because you were always meant to be here. We’ve waited a long time for you. We mean you no harm.”
No one moved towards him. They were waiting for him to do… something.
Was she one of the few female mages? Nic looked around at the others. They weren’t all women, but most of them were. They couldn’t all be mages, the Royal College didn’t allow more than two or three females at a time.
Nic yanked off the bindings around his ankles and got to his feet, stamping to get the feeling back. The table he had been placed on was thin and long. Beside it was a trolley with metal instruments for cutting. Surgical instruments. He scanned the group in front of him. Their robes were gowns, their masks… it was an operating table.
Panic that he had avoided until now welled up. They were going to cut her out of him. Followers of Winnum Roke they might be. Friends of Nic Tutt they most certainly were not.
“What do you mean?” he said to the woman who was apparently the leader of the group. “You were expecting me?”
“Of course,” she said. “She told us you would come. We didn’t think it would take so long, but we never lost faith.”
They were a cult of some kind, followers of a prophecy. Were they really so gullible?
Clairvoyance was an easy thing to fake if you happened to be able to live for a thousand years. Tell people what was going to happen, then come back in a millennium or so and make it happen yourself. Everyone thinks they’ve witnessed a miracle.
“You did this,” he said to himself. “You tricked them.”
“It was no trick. I told them to wait for my return, and here I am.”
Nic looked at the table. It was clean with no blood stains. They hadn’t been practising, which meant he’d be their first attempt. The thought offered him no consolation. A steady hand would be less painful.
“You’re wrong,” said Nic to the assembled crowd. “She didn’t send me.”
“Your eyes,” said the woman. “She told us you would have the flaming eyes.”
He didn’t know how his eyes looked, but another easy trick to pull off. Tell them to expect a sign, and then create the sign you predicted. Winnum might not be able to control him or use magic, but she could manipulate small things, like the colour of his eyes.
“You’re using these people. How is that different to what the demons would do?” he asked her.
“Who do you think I learned it from?” said the voice of Winnum Roke.
She had no interest in being a moral superior to the demons, just a replacement, and he was just a vessel. One they intended to empty.
Please vote on TopWebFiction if you want to support the story.
No sign up required, just hit the button. Cheers.
Votes refresh every seven days, so last week's votes no longer count.
Support on Patreon, chapters go up earlier there.Afterword from Mooderino