“So,” said Winnum, “this is what depravity looks like from the inside.”
Nic turned a full circle to take in their surroundings. Black walls made it feel like they were at the bottom of a well, the top far above them blurring as it fell out of sight.
He expected it wasn’t like that at all, merely an optical peculiarity of being inside the High-Father when there wasn’t a vacancy. It wasn’t at all like the other time he had been inside a dragon. Then, it had been like wearing a mask, where you were aware of a barrier between you and the world but were still able to view the outside through eyes that fit over your own.
“I thought he’d be here to meet us,” said Nic. He came back around to face Winnum, who was somehow whole of body and appeared just as she had in the Other Place — a middle-aged woman with a sensible haircut and a somewhat stern, angular face.
“Perhaps he doesn’t know we’re here,” said Winnum. She seemed very calm and composed considering how against this she had been.
“He knows,” said Nic.
“Of course he does,” said Winnum. “Do you have to be so literal all the time?” Perhaps she wasn’t quite as composed as she appeared.
“Sorry,” said Nic, who hadn’t been paying close enough attention to her tone. He was too taken with where he was. Demons were supposed to manifest inside humans but this time, the human was inside the demon.
“You aren’t even listening, are you? You should get on with him just fine. Two peas in a pod.”
“Hmm?” said Nic. They were completely enclosed but free to move as they pleased. A portable prison to take with you. He wondered if he could have any effect on them. Probably not while the High-Father was in control. He had let them in, so he presumably wanted them here.
Winnum let out a loud breath, resigned but grumpy. “He’s watching to see if he can learn anything from you, just in case you turn out to be a hidden genius using the artless exterior of a child as a disguise. He doesn’t know you like I do. If only it were an act. If only...”
She was needling him intentionally, to get a response. She was an impatient person, he had learned. At least, this diminutive form of her was.
“Don’t you want to speak to him, too?” Nic asked. “He’s the one you blame, isn’t he?”
“Blame? Blame is too small and far too prissy a word. He acts out of nature, not malice.”
“So, you don’t hate him?” asked Nic.
“Why would you think that?”
“Because you came here to destroy him,” said Nic.
“If you hear mice under the floorboards, do you leave them to breed? If there’s rot in the ceiling beams, do you leave them untreated to fall apart? Hate has nothing to do with it. Self-preservation requires firm and decisive action. Something the mages of the Royal College never understood. They were too pleased with their ability to toss balls of fire in the air while people ooh’d and ah’d at them. Fools. If I hate anyone, it’s them. For their stupid naivety.”
“But now the door is closed,” said Nic.
“It is, yes. Firmly shut.”
“And the High-Father will die and the magic will die with him, you said.”
“Indeed,” said Winnum.
“Then why did you come here?”
“I didn’t! You brought me here,” said Winnum.
“Not here,” said Nic. “I mean back to this world. You said you had to come to close the door from this side, but the door is already shut. Firmly. You must be here to do something else. I don’t think your followers taking you out of me and putting you in a bottle is what you were intending.”
“My followers,” said Winnum, “have lost their way. I can’t blame them after being left to their own devices for so long. Demons are much better at staying around to continue giving guidance. I did not have that luxury.”
“And I don’t think you came back to just watch your enemy’s demise,” said Nic. “I don’t think you’re that petty.”
“Thank you,” said Winnum. “Although you might be surprised. Or are you intentionally flattering me to get me to lower my guard? Are you shrewder than I thought? Is it an act after all?” She was toying with him, distracting him.
“Which leads me to believe you still have things to do here, to ensure the success of your ambitions.”
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “But I thought it might help if you spoke with the High-Father.”
“Help me?” said Winnum. “No, it will be of no help whatsoever.”
“Just a suggestion since we’re here anyway,” said Nic. “I also wanted to come and see if he really is dying.”
“You don’t believe what I told you, and you don’t believe the High-Father’s condition. What a sceptical boy you are.”
“It’s the best way to learn the truth,” said Nic. “Keep an open mind.”
“An open mind that everyone’s lying? How very impartial of you.”
“Maybe what you’re planning isn’t the best way to free ourselves of demonic tyranny,” said Nic.
“You have a better idea?”
“No,” said Nic. “I just think there’s going to be a fight at some point and a lot of people are going to get hurt. You said that magic would die and that would be the end of it, but I think you left out the in-between stuff. In the long run, it will be for the best, but those of here right now are going to get caught in the middle of it. That’s what I’m thinking.”
“You’re assuming a lot, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” said Nic. He was certainly doing that. “Am I wrong?”
“No, not wrong. Not right, either. Somewhere in between.”
“Do you not know, either?”
“Are you mocking me?” asked Winnum.
“No,” said Nic, realising he had been too casual in how he spoke and was in danger of offending her. “I’m not in a position to look down on you. Or on anyone. I think that’s how I ended up involved in all this. A vessel was needed, one that wouldn’t complicate things by being of any value. No one will risk everything to save me, and I can’t really save myself. I’m very convenient like that.”
“Perhaps you do understand,” said Winnum. “But it isn’t only you, it’s all of us. They travel between the stars and visit worlds as strange to them as they are to us. It isn’t with malice they use us, but we are only tools to them. Instruments to apply to their needs, and then put away, forgotten until needed again.”
“I think of it more like a suitcase,” said Nic. “A sturdy, dependable case you need to transport your possessions from here to there. And then you put it away in the attic. I have a trunk at school that used to belong to my father. He got it from his uncle. It’s beautifully made and does an excellent job. It’s only a trunk, but it has great value to me because I need it. Like they need us.”
“Yes,” said Winnum, sweetening towards him a little. “A suitcase is very apt. Our utility makes them fond of us, but they do not care for us beyond that.”
“People rarely throw out old suitcases,” said Nic.
They stood there in the strange darkness, considering their role as the valise of unworldly beings.
The blackness around them pulled back. With no light present, the effect was peculiar, oddly colourless, but the sense of space and shape around them shifted and warped, even though everything remained black and impenetrable and no movement could be discerned.
“He comes,” said Winnum.
“I was always here,” said a sombre voice from the darkness. A man slowly appeared, as though he was walking towards them through a bank of black fog.
“How nice of you to greet us,” said Winnum, “when you have so much else to do. Dying and so forth.”
“Welcome home, Archmage Roke,” said the High-Father. “Hello, Nic. I wondered if you would come.”
“Hello,” said Nic, a little startled to be addressed directly. “You look in much better health in here.”
The High-Father of dragons looked like a man in his 60s. Taller than Nic, but not intimidatingly so. His hair was white and close-cropped and his clothes were robes similar to those worn by the mages of the Royal College.
“Thank you,” said the High-Father. “This isn’t a very accurate representation.”
“No,” said Winnum, “it never is.”
“I must say,” said the High-Father, “I am saddened that you would go back on your word like this. Archmage. And after such a short time.”
“Only you would consider a thousand years to be insufficient time to come to an obvious realisation. Do you know how angry I was when I realised you had lied to me?”
“I never lied,” said the High-Father.
“No,” said Winnem, “you never do. You just don’t reveal how awful the truth is going to be.”
“You have misinterpreted my intentions,” said the High-Father. “Your time alone has created phantoms in your thinking.”
“Truly it has,” said Winnum. “Ghastly phantoms I wish to exorcise, and so I shall. Starting with you. Don’t be fooled, Nic. This, all this.” She waved her arms about. “All of it is a lie, yet it reveals so much. Look at this place, this is how he wishes us to think of his interior. Dark, sombre, open to possibilities with no preconceived notions — a blank slate. But so does he reveal the truth. Darkness — a mind with no ability to reflect. A kindly old uncle? No. He is dragon on the outside and dragon on the inside, a savage beast driven by base needs. Hunger. He feeds on us. He means us no ill will, but every animal must eat. They will devour us and then they will move onto the next hunting ground.”
The High-Father looked a bit startled. “That’s a bit much, isn’t it? Is that how you really see us?”
Winnum Roke’s eyes were glinting. When she spoke about demons, her distrust and misgivings bubbled up into her face, energising her like an athlete primed for the race. Or a hunter settling into a killer’s mindset.
“I see you for what you are. Do you forget who I am? What I know of you? This facade does not deceive me. I know what you are.”
“You are not her,” said the High-Father, his voice soft and compassionate. “You are… limited in your understanding.”
“You are correct. I am not her. I am something you should fear more. I am the distilled essence of what she thinks of you.”
Nic listened and observed, very much doing his utmost not to become involved or even be noticed. The High-Father was choosing to play the role of the reasonable but wronged victim. Winnum Roke was having none of it, pushing harder with every gentle refutation he made of her accusations. The High-Father had to know that would be her reaction, so the only conclusion was that he was deliberately goading her. Obversely, she had to know that was his plan, but was rising to the bait, or seeming to. It was all rather disorienting, but still fascinating.
The High-Father’s placid demeanour made him look the more moderate of the two. Winnum Roke’s sneering hysteria made her seem quite, quite mad. Not a deranged, irrational madness of the mind, but rather a highly-focused and intense madness of intent. On a battlefield, her enemies would shrink back in the face of her blood-lust, and her armies would rise with the swell of her animosity. Or so Nic imagined.
“You will die,” said Winnum. “You and your children. They will wither and fade and be forgotten. You may take a few of us with you, but that is a small price to pay.”
“And the loss to your kind?” said the High-Father, unruffled by the vehemence thrown at him. “You will be sent back to the dark ages, struggling to survive.”
“Yes,” said Winnum. “Struggling is what makes us strong. It was a mistake to accept your help and your comfort. We are not like you. We are willing to bite off our own limbs to escape from a hunter’s trap, even if it means bleeding to death. It takes time to bleed, you see? And we, unlike you, are accustomed to getting things done in a short amount of time. Like finding the one who placed the trap and tearing their throat out, protecting our future. We think in generations, you think only of selfish eternity.”
“The result won’t be as you imagine,” said the High-Father. “What you are doing will leave your world on the verge of annihilation.”
“Isn’t that better than every other world you have visited your benevolence on?” asked Winnum with vicious alacrity. “Better to be on the verge than beyond it.”
“We can still find a way to reach common ground, Winnum,” said the High Father.
“You forget, I am not her. I do not have her mercy, or her gullibility. Your pleas for collaboration won’t work on me. I am the purest part of her — I am her spite. And I have grown strong. The door is closed, Old One. Come open it if you can.” Her defiance made her seem incandescent in that dark place. Nic watched spellbound.
There seemed to be no compromise possible here. Winnum refused to entertain it, and she went out of her way to make that clear. It was more than mere gloating, it was a posture of defence. If she didn’t take such a stance, she might be run over and convinced of some other path, less painful, more agreeable.
Or was there more going on here than Nic could see. A battle of wits and wills carried out beyond the limits of his perception.
“You want him to break,” muttered Nic to himself. “You want to push him into… What?”
Winnum Roke turned slowly to look at Nic. She was smiling, but in a way that sent a shiver down Nic’s spine.
“You’re very smart. Keen eyes and sharp ears. What a loss it would be to lose you.” There was an underlying mocking quality to her tone, but he wasn’t sure if it was aimed at him or the residue of her conversation with the High-Father.
Nic held up his hands to apologise for interrupting. He tried to say the word ‘sorry’ but no sound came out of him.
Her attention was fully on him now. “What did you think would happen if you brought me here? Was it purely a throw of the dice? Academic interest? Smart boy like you would have more of a design to your actions.” Her eyes were narrowed and the High-Father no longer that important. “Or did you think this would be the best way for you to get some answers? No one cares what you want to know, but they might reveal it in your invisible presence. Was that the idea?”
“I just thought… I wondered if you might… find a way to get along.” It sounded terribly weak and juvenile now that he had seen what the two of them were like together. In an odd way, they weren’t really that different, which was probably the reason they clashed so hard.
“He thinks we’re two sides of the same coin,” said the High-Father. “He believes we are not so very dissimilar.”
For a moment Nic wondered if the High-Father had read his mind, but there was no need to suspect something so farfetched. He had simply guessed the obvious thoughts of a predictable boy.
“You aren’t, really,” said Nic, pushing aside concern that what he was doing would only draw their ire. “You both think you can provoke the other into a mistake or a concession or… something. I don’t think either of you will succeed.”
Winnum Roke seemed to sag, then straighten. She didn’t appear to be infuriated any longer. If anything, she was completely at ease.
“If the boy is able to analyse our strategies so easily,” she said, “how is it we continue unaware?” She turned back to the High-Father for an answer.
“It’s because he is odd,” said the High-Father. “Don’t you think?”
“He is,” agreed Winnum, talking about him like he wasn’t there. “Yet there’s nothing about him to suggest he is anything more than he seems. A little more perceptive than most, a little more astute, occasionally. Why did you choose him? Because he is so unremarkable?”
“You think he’s unremarkable?” said the High-Father. “Look how he stands there, unafraid. How many mages would be so bold?”
“Is it ignorance?” said Winnum. “Are you too ignorant to be afraid?”
Nic hesitated, unsure if she was being rhetorical. If he was too ignorant, how would he know?
“No, I don’t think so,” said Nic quietly, unable to not sound meek. “I’m relying on my unimportance to make me not worth the trouble. It would be embarrassing if you had to kill someone like me to get what you want.”
The High-Father started laughing, loud and full-bodied, shaking his belly and chest.
Winnum rolled her eyes. “Don’t be taken in by his avuncular ways. He is not the wizened wizard he appears. The harmless appearances of someone who can take any shape they wish tells you something, eh?”
“I can see why she likes you so much,” said the High-Father. “Tell me, Nic, what do you think would be the best way to proceed?”
Nic was surprised to be asked so directly. He had wondered if he would have a chance to share his thoughts on the matter, but such a thing seemed more than presumptuous. He would be laughed at for suggesting it, he had thought. But he had already been laughed at, so what was there to lose?
He looked over at Winnum, who didn’t make any objections.
“Well, what if you were to take it in turns? The demons operate on a completely different timescale to us. How long will humanity last, realistically? Ten thousand years? A hundred thousand? After we’re done, then the demons can emerge and do as they please. Wouldn’t that suit both sides?”
Winnum Roke and the High-Father exchanged a slow look. Then Winnum shook her head. “Idiot.”
“Sadly, that won’t work,” said the High-Father.
Nic wanted to demand an explanation, make them justify their immediate refusal to even consider what he’d said, but it would be pointless. Just them not wanting to was reason enough. At least he had managed to get them to agree on something for once.
“Then, what if you were to agree to fight on a smaller battlefield. A duel between the two of you. Settle the matter without bringing the rest of the world into it.”
“You don’t give up, do you?” said Winnum. He wasn’t sure if she meant it as a compliment or a weakness.
“Why not?” said the High-Father. “Disaster would be averted for the majority, at least.”
“Why not?” said Winnum. “Why not? I’ll tell you why not. Because I’m already winning. The advantage is mine. You will try, I know, but you couldn’t open the door more than the crack we agreed to, that I agreed to so foolishly, and now the door is sealed tight and I am still standing guard to make sure there is no chance for you to force it open. I am there, not here. And you are here, not there. How will you get past me? Knock loudly?” She smiled, the madness returning to her voice. “This is the problem with their kind, Nic. They take so interminably long to reach the conclusion already decided. Slow and methodical, hoping to outlast all sense and all reason. You have to push them along or you’ll die of boredom. Isn’t that right, High-Father? Are you close to reaching the decision I’ve already made for you?”
The High-Father didn’t answer, but he did seem less composed now. Was she getting to him?
“What decision?” asked Nic.
“Did you think he’d accept the situation as it is?” said Winnum. “He wants the door open. He wants someone to do it for him and now he will move every mage and every puppet he has to make it so. He will set us against each other, hoping to make us hesitate and weaken our resolve and open ourselves to negotiation and misjudgement. They won’t face us directly, it would make us too concentrated on a single goal. They fear to show us the truth in case it makes us too strong. Why don’t you show the boy your true face, High-Father? Go on. No? Shame. It would make you weep blood, Nic. Then you would know what you were truly up against, and nothing else would be needed to convince you.”
The High-Father’s lips were closed a little tighter now. His eyes slightly more deeply set in his face. “It didn’t have to be like this.”
“No, it didn’t,” agreed Winnum. “But you insisted.”
The High-Father said nothing else, he just disappeared.
Nic waited for something else to happen, but it didn’t.
“He’s gone,” said Winnum. “Finally.”
“Gone where?” asked Nic.
“I don’t know,” said Winnum. “The dragon can no longer sustain him. It’s just a bag of meat and bones at this point. An empty suitcase. Empty, that is, apart from us, of course. And possibly some mothballs.”
“Are you sure there’s no way to reach a—”
“A compromise? You have a lot to learn about true evil, Nic. It doesn’t have horns or breathe fire. It is reasonable and sensible and will tell you it is only doing what it must. The ends justify the means. The goal is worth the sacrifice. There is no other way, you see? It may be evil, but it is the better of two evils. The lesser evil. And you will believe it because they believe it.”
“Don’t you think the same about what you’re doing?” said Nic. “The lesser of three evils?”
There was a pause as Winnum considered this. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” And then Winnum laughed, just as the High-Father had laughed.
Nic waited until she stopped, which took some time.
“How do we get out?” he asked, finally.
“You tell me,” said Winnum. “This was your idea.”
“We can’t just go back to my body? We can’t take control of the dragon?”
She shook her head.
When he had been inside a dragon before, it had been effortless. He had entered and exited at will. He had been able to see what to do. Now he was in the dark. “Then what do we do?”
“Come, come, Nic. You have experience in this sort of thing now. You can see patterns, can’t you? What does a poor, helpless boy like you always do? You wait to be rescued.” She laughed again. It wasn’t a kind laugh.
Sometime later, he wasn’t sure how long, Nic’s eyes opened. He had been waiting in the dark forever, it seemed, and then he was dragged out.
He was in a bed and he was comfortable. The Archmage loomed over him, a concerned look on his face. The world was still blurry and distant, and he wasn’t sure what the Archmage was saying.
Should he trust the Archmage? Could he tell him what had happened? Wouldn’t he want to help the High-Father preserve magic? Was that so bad?
“Nic? Can you hear me?”
“You’re fine,” said the Archmage. “Just relax. The doctor will take care of you.”
A woman appeared next to the Archmage. It was Dr Wylian.
“Don’t worry, Nic,” she said, smiling. “You’re in safe hands now.”
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