Nic was crouched, huffing. His struggle with Mallory was meant to have led to his escape. A risky venture he had accepted and thrown himself into with desperate enthusiasm. He would cast off his bonds, strike down his captor, and force his way to freedom. That’s how it would happen in a book.
Instead, he was cornered and there wasn’t even the hope of getting out of this room, let alone reaching safety. He blamed Dizzy.
He had no fighting skills, no moves to defeat even these opponents — women, old men, a boy whose arms could be snapped like twigs. She had told him he first needed to get stronger. Learn to breathe while he moved. Nic glanced at the gleaming instruments on the trolly. He wouldn’t be doing either fairly soon.
“There’s no need to be afraid,” said the woman, her hands held out in an effort to calm him. “You will soon be free and can return to your normal life, unburdened and unharmed. I promise you.”
One of the instruments was a bone saw; Nic had seen a picture in a book. Her promise to leave him unharmed was a hard one to believe.
His eyes darted around, searching for a way out. Six people around the woman, two of them holding lanterns at just the right height to make their faces eerie and unidentifiable. Another at the door, and Mallory sitting on the floor gasping for breath.
There were more of them than him. They could easily rush him and force him to do as they wanted. It was a long room with deep shadows. Was there another door at the other end? It was too dim to make out. There were beds, quite a few of them, and curtains separating them. The college infirmary?
“You did this,” he said in his thoughts, but loudly. “Why?”
“A contingency, if I needed one,” said Winnum Roke. “I’d all but forgotten.”
“You had this planned from the start? How long have you been preparing me? My whole life?”
“Nothing quite so laborious.”
“But you needed me to go to Ransom. How could you be sure without engineering my infatuation.”
“You mean the girl?” Winnum sounded mildly amused. “You are overthinking the situation. If you were the only candidate, then perhaps such complex manoeuvrings would be called for.”
There had been others? Even his selection was nothing special. He had been one among many. He was just the one who’d got there first.
“They mean to cut you out,” he said, trying to appeal to her sense of self-preservation.
“I would have thought you’d be pleased to get rid of me. To be honest, I’d quite like to see how they do it. I assume techniques have advanced while I’ve been away.”
This was hardly the time for professional curiosity between the homicidal and the insane, even if it was a startling proposition. How do you surgically remove a thought process? And where do you put it once you get it out?
They didn’t look like they planned to attack. Did they need him alive? Did they think he might be injured in a fight? If his life was what they considered precious, perhaps he should grab a scalpel from the tray and hold it to his own neck. Not many people would consider taking themselves hostage, but then it wouldn’t really be himself he’d be threatening to kill.
The concern these masked and gowned people seemed to have for him was bordering on fear. Not fear for him, but fear of him. What did they have to fear? He remembered Mallory speaking of his eyes, how they had flames in them. An awful thought occurred to him. What if they wanted to cut out his eyes?
“You did something to my eyes,” he said internally.
“I thought it best to fulfil the prophecy. They might doubt you, otherwise.”
“I’m fine with people doubting me. It’s comfortingly familiar. Change them back.”
“Please,” said the woman, her countenance softening and her lips forming a hopeful smile, “this is a matter of great importance. We want to help you. Let us help you.”
Her words were kindly and sincere. It would be very easy to believe her, to aid her in whatever mission she was on. It sounded of paramount importance. She had a regal nature to her, the air of someone you would follow into battle. She spoke calmly but with a great deal of insistence. Urgency, but not out of desperation. Out of virtue.
Nic had read about charismatic leaders who had rallied whole nations through dint of their personality. He had read their speeches and had not felt any compulsion to agree with their point of view. Words on a page didn’t capture the magic they possessed in person, he had assumed.
This lady with her beatific smile gave him an idea of what it must have been like to be in the presence of magnetic individuals. She spoke so earnestly, it was impossible to doubt her. So powerfully that no one felt it necessary to use violence to subdue him. The eyes watching him were all convinced he would simply succumb to reason.
“Listen to me,” she said, instantly fixing his attention to her words, “you carry a presence within you, like a cloak around your heart. You must have felt it, a despair in your core you couldn’t explain. If it isn’t removed it will kill you.”
She wanted to help him, ease his burden, save him from a terrible fate. All these ideas seemed to come to him unbidden. They came, but they were turned away. Nic had an acute understanding of what he carried within him. He thought it highly likely Winnum Roke would get him killed, put him in harm’s way for certain, but she was no tumour devouring his organs.
But the woman’s belief in her own words was absolute. The people around her also emanated nothing but certainty. Nic found it off-putting. Blind faith was a powerful thing, but also a dangerous one. Conjecture and speculation were useful at the start of a journey, not at the end.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” said Nic, doing his best to keep his voice calm. “I know what’s inside me, I’m the one who put it there.”
“You…” The woman reacted with a start. “You put it there? I… I don’t think you understand. We have to take it out. It isn’t good for you.”
She could be right. Perhaps he was the one who didn’t understand. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been misled by people more knowledgeable and more cunning than him. Doubting oneself was part of the learning process, but doubting others was just as important. One thing he didn’t doubt, though, was that he didn’t want to be cut open.
Nic rose from the animal-like crouch he had adopted. Whatever danger these people posed to him, they weren’t going to attack him at the moment. And if they did, there wasn’t going to be much he could do about it. He was one person in a nightshirt. His defensive options were very limited.
“Who are you?” he said, deeming it time to move the conversation away from talk of surgical matters. “What do you want?”
“We want to help you,” said the woman without pause for thought. She spoke like a fanatic, her stock answers suitable for all occasions. She reminded him of the man from Gweur, driven and utterly loyal to his demon queen. Could these people be under the influence of a demon? He sensed no magical power from them, no excess of Arcanum leaking out of them, but they might just be better at controlling it.
“No, I mean what do you want. Winnum Roke wouldn’t ask you to cut me open. If she wanted something removed from my body, she would just reach in and take it out. But you…” He looked at the instruments again, sharp and jagged and gleaming with sharpened purpose. “You think you can extract a presence with a knife?”
“No, no, no,” said the woman, her face opening with the beginnings of understanding. He had misunderstood their intentions. Jumped to the wrong conclusion and assumed the worst. This could be instantly cleared up with a simple explanation. Nic saw all this in her pitying eyes, feeling sorry for the mistake he had made. “I am Doctor Wylian, the college physician. Sometimes I have to remove a rotten tooth or see to a broken limb. These aren’t for you.” She pointed at the surgical tray full of sharp objects.
A mixture of relief and disbelief ran through him. If they didn’t plan to slice him open that could be nothing but a good thing. Assuming she wasn’t lying, which her actions so far had done nothing to support.
But her ability to portray her and her group of oddball acolytes as some kind of force for good was patently ridiculous.
“You drugged me with a sedative used during surgery,” he pointed out, “and then you had me carried here against my will in the middle of the night.”
The woman nodded with a single hand held up now, as though she could see his mistake and he had no need to say anything more. She understood how he had got it wrong, how he had drawn the wrong conclusion, how he was in need of the correct information.
“I admit, our methods were crude and for that, I apologise. It was not out of disregard for you, but because we are surrounded here by forces that must not learn of our existence. They would not react kindly if they knew of our goals. And if they knew what it is you are truly here for, your life would be in danger. My oath is to never hurt anyone, the same as my colleague Dr Gilleshpie. You know her, don’t you?”
“The school doctor? You know her?”
“Of course. She’s a good friend.”
Nic found this news unsettling. “She’s one of you?”
“Please, you’re making us sound like some kind of cult.”
“You aren’t?” said Nic. “You’re following orders left by a woman who died a thousand years ago.”
“Not following orders. We only want to remove the danger to you and put it somewhere safe and out of the way where it can do no harm.”
From somewhere deep within him, Nic clearly heard a confused, “Eh?”
“You don’t want to fulfil her prophecy?” asked Nic, also somewhat confused.
“Winnum Roke was an outstanding mage but not a uniter of people. And not really the greatest role model, as none of the truly great mages were. Ego is so hard to contain when you have limitless power at your fingertips. She forced the mages of her time to make her Archmage, it would be surprising if they weren’t resentful.”
“I was the most qualified!” said Winnum Roke in Nic’s ear. “Convincing is not forcing. I can’t believe she’s taking their side. Who is this viper? Was she there? Was she?”
Nic almost blurted out the question, but managed to keep his jaws locked together.
“We are all educated people,” said Dr Wylian. “We wouldn’t blindly follow a woman who had no idea how the world would change in her absence.”
“But you said you were her followers,” said Nic. “Followers follow, don’t they?”
“We follow through the doors she opened, continue her research as best we can. But we decide our own fate.”
“How could my legacy become so diluted,” said a demoralised Winnum. “I had such plans…”
“But you believed the prophecy?” Nic was still wary of these people. They claimed to be reasonable and rational, but at the same time, they were engaged in an act of sheer absurdity. Kidnapping him by order of some ancient forecast.
“We believed in her talent. She was undeniably a magnificent mage. If she claimed to be able to return in the guise of a child, who are we to gainsay her? She gave us so much, built so much of what we are surrounded by and take for granted, the least we can do is take her into our care and allow her to spend her dotage in a safe place among those who respect and admire what she once was.”
“She thinks I’m senile,” said Winnum.
“You are over a thousand years old,” said Nic.
“Sorry?” said Dr Wylian.
Nic realised he had spoken aloud. “No, I was talking to Winnum. She isn’t very happy with your assessment of her mental faculties. I think she might excommunicate you from the cult.”
“You can speak to her?”
“Yes. She’s in my head. I can hear her think.”
There was some reaction to this news. Apparently, they hadn’t considered the possibility that Winnum Roke would return compos mentis.
“Spirit cannot survive without flesh to sustain it,” said Dr Wylian. “You will be consumed if you do not allow us to separate you.”
She wanted to help free him, he believed that. The way she radiated hope made it hard to think of her as anything but selfless. Or a very good actor. He was inclined to believe it was the former, but even then that was no guarantee of the outcome.
Nic stood awkwardly in the midst of her ugly good intentions, unsure what to say. He experienced a terrible sense of isolation creeping through him, unable to reach out for help from without or within, trapped in the middle with only his own counsel. And how reliable was that? He was the pivot at the centre where the whole structure turned.
He frowned. He was doing it again, claiming a grandiose description for his role when he was just the box the valuable item came in. He was luggage.
“Explain to me how you would remove her?” he said.
Dr Wylian visibly relaxed, her shoulders lowering and her head lifting into a smile. “Good. I will be open with you, I will answer whatever you want to know, I will tell you the truth, but we must hurry. Let us prepare as we speak. Come, this way.” She took a small step to the side, the sway of her arms urging him to join her.
“No,” said a voice in Nic’s mind.
Nic wanted to go with this woman. She wasn’t using magic on him, but there was a compulsion in her voice that was not dissimilar. He had been compelled by others before, the feeling was the same. He didn’t move.
“She is your descendant,” he said to Winnum. “She acts in your name.”
“Then I am disappointed. The young never live up to your expectations.”
He was tempted to go with the doctor just to rile his passenger. Nic straightened, squared his shoulders.
“I won’t go anywhere with you,” he said. “You promise to explain everything, but you tell me nothing. If you want my assistance, tell me what you plan to do.”
There was a slight hesitation, a calculation of how much time there was, perhaps.
“Very well, I suppose it’s better to waste a little time if it means you will be cooperative. I mean to remove the presence in your mind using the methods we’ve developed here to help those mages who do not react well to their first assimilation with Arcanum. Some are naturally compatible, others less so and require help. In the most severe cases, it is possible to reverse the process and flush the body. It is a last resort, but it is possible.”
She was talking about the process of merging mages with demons. It was fusing Arcanum with the host body, but it was more than that. The doctor was only referring to Arcanum because she either did not know the truth, or her cohorts didn’t and she wanted to keep it that way.
But the idea that some recipients might not react well to the process seemed reasonable. Developing some sort of elixir to smooth the process was not so farfetched.
“She’s lying,” said Winnum Roke. “No such procedure exists.”
“She says you’re lying,” said Nic.
“From her perspective it might seem that way,” said the doctor. “We have made some advancements in the last thousand years.”
There was no counter from Winnum. She had suggested the same thing herself.
“We would inject you with a small dose — I won’t try to deceive you, it may be painful, we don’t really know how it will affect this particular combination — and then move it to a new host.”
“What new host?” asked Nic. “Where will you put it?”
“In the High Father,” said Doctor Wylian. “Not while he lives, that would be disastrous. But the moment he is forced to leave, the corpse will become a valid host.”
“You want her in control of a dragon?” said Nic. If the idea was to not follow the agenda set by a volatile and unstable dead mage, giving her free rein inside a giant flying lizard seemed an unwise move.
Even more surprisingly, Winnum Roke was against it, too.
“No!” said Winnum. “You mustn’t let this happen.”
“You don’t want to be inside the mightiest dragon in the kingdom?” The idea seemed far preferable to being stuck in a boy of below average fitness.
“If I could control the body I was in, wouldn’t I already have taken over yours?”
“She won’t have control,” said Dr Wylian, answering the same point without needing to be asked. “That’s the beauty of it. She will keep the dragon alive but be unable to do anything else. She will be held prisoner indefinitely. It’s the only safe place to put her.”
“Lies, all lies,” said Winnum. “Understand this, Nicolav. The only way to put me inside the High Father’s corpse is for him to eat you. And you have to be alive when he does it.”
“I’ve seen the dragons eat a dead mage to reclaim the demon inside. They weren’t eaten alive. And how would the High Father be able to eat me if she only wants to put you in him after he’s dead?”
“It’s different with mages, the demons become one with the flesh. You and I are linked through our minds. If you die, so do I. And the High Father doesn’t have to be alive to consume you, just recently deceased. Placing you inside his stomach is all it would take. A skilled surgeon could do it. Not all of you, just the head would be enough.”
Nic felt his throat tighten. “You said I would have to be alive. I’m pretty sure decapitation would stop that.”
“There are ways to keep a head alive after removal,” said Winnum.
Nic looked at the bone saw and found it hard to breathe.
“Trust me, Nic,” said Dr Wylian. “I can rid you of her for good. Once she is held inside the High Father’s corpse, she won’t be able to cause any trouble. It’s for the best.”
What good would it do her to have Winnum Roke captive? Simply locking her away seemed an overly complicated solution, there had to be more to it than that. And he very much doubted the process would be as simple as giving him a shot in the arm. You didn’t wear gowns over your clothes to give an injection, you wore them to protect from blood splatter.
“Can you get us out of here?” he asked Winnum.
“I think so. There should be a door behind that curtain.”
She hadn’t been very helpful until her acolytes had turned out not to be the faithful followers she had expected, but that was okay. It meant her suggestions could be trusted, this time.
Nic took a long, thoughtful, silent inhalation through his nose, and then bolted for the curtain. He was quick enough to catch them on the back foot and made it behind the curtain where there was a blank wall and no door.
“Where is it?” bellowed Winnum, as surprised as Nic. “It should be here.”
A thousand years was a long time in terms of building renovations, and also in the reliability of memories.
“You must have misremembered,” said Nic.
“My memory is flawless,” insisted Winnum.
The curtains were pulled apart as they came for him, not with any particular urgency. They were probably wondering why he had made a dash for a corner of the room with no exit.
The lights extinguished as though a breeze had blown them out, though there had been no breeze, plunging all into darkness.
“Was that you?” said Nic.
“No,” said Winnum, irritated that he would need to ask after she had made it clear she was unable to perform such feats of magic.
The darkness caused confusion. It was as good an opportunity as he was likely to get. Nic ran around the other side of the curtain and could see nothing. And then he could see everything in shades of grey.
“Thanks,” he thought, and slid under the bed next to him. The floor was polished and he glided out the other side silently.
The improved sight Winnum had given him allowed him to see where they all were, white shapes in the darkness. His hand touched something sitting under the bed and he grabbed it. Most likely a bedpan, his night sight not so helpful with an unfamiliar object. He tossed it across the room where it clattered against something. It was enough to draw their attention.
“Don’t hurt him,” cried out the doctor as they rushed across the room. It would have been a reassuring thing to hear if it didn’t conjure up visions of his own disembodied head blinking in a glass jar.
Nic waited for them to pass and slid across the floor as quietly as he could. The door would be a problem but it was the only way out, unless he wanted to try smashing through a window and hoping for the best.
The door sprang open as he approached.
“Hurry,” said Mallory. “This way.”
Nic had no time to consider the wisdom of taking aid from his treacherous ex-roommate. He dived through the door as calls went up for him to stop.
Mallory pulled the door shut and ran, expecting to be followed and not waiting to make a persuasive case for the idea.
Nic had no idea where he was. He could go the other way and rely on Winnum’s dubious memories of her old residence, or trust in Mallory’s apparent change of heart. Neither was a very attractive option.
He raced after Mallory. The passage was dark and the rooms they passes showed no signs of life. His eyesight was still enhanced, as was his hearing. All he could make out was Mallory running ahead and the sounds of pursuit from behind.
“Here, here,” said Mallory holding open a door. A trap, another dead end, it was hard to say, but he’d made his choice, might as well see it through.
Mallory pulled the door closed, gently easing it shut to avoid making noise. The two boys waited, breathing shallowly to avoid making noise. Footsteps thundered past. They waited for them to subside.
“Why are you helping me now?” whispered Nic.
“I’m sorry,” said Mallory. “I know it was wrong, especially after you helped me back in Ransom.” He sounded guilt-stricken.
They waited, listening.
“Shouldn’t we try to get out?” asked Nic.
He saw Mallory shake his head in the pitch black darkness. “This part of the college is empty at night. Only their people are here, right now. We won’t make it out of the main entrance.”
“What do we do? Wait until morning?”
“We could,” said Mallory. “They’ll probably start searching the rooms. They’ll find us eventually.”
As escape plans went, this wasn’t a very well-thought-out one.
“Why did you do it?” said Nic. “Why help them?”
“I’m sorry,” said Mallory again. The repeated apologies with no explanation were beginning to grate. “You don’t know what it’s like to be kept on the sidelines, not good enough to participate.”
“I know exactly what it’s like,” said Nic, offended at the suggestion.
“No, you don’t,” said Mallory. “You might not be able to see it, but trust me, everyone else can. Being around you isn’t normal. Inattentive people would only think that. Even the mages aren’t like you, the way you accept things and move on, seeing how to overcome, how to go around, whatever it is. That isn’t normal. Most people just freeze or panic or find themselves unable to process what’s happening to them.”
Nic had never heard himself described in that way. Even if it was true, was it really anything special?
“But how did you get involved with her?” said Nic. He could see no benefit to Mallory’s association with the mad doctor.
“She… showed me something. A way to use magic that wasn’t magic, wasn’t to do with Arcanum. I can’t really explain it or show you. I… broke through to another plane, just for a few moments. But it was a revelation. It was what I had been straining for all this time and nothing I can say can describe it. It was like nothing I’d imagined.”
There was wonder and awe in his voice. Nic could understand the temptation only too well. An alternative to Arcanum, one not withheld from him. His desperate choices weren’t hard to imagine.
“And now?” said Nic. “You’re no longer interested?”
“Not at this price. She wasn’t going to inject you with anything. I only saw them prepare scalpel and blade. I… I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” said Nic. “I understand.”
“You’re too soft,” said Winnum, and she was probably right.
Nic looked around the small storeroom they were in. A closet, really. The shelves had boxes on them, covered in dust judging from a quick swipe with his fingertips.
“There’s a window,” said Nic, pointing at a square on the wall. It was blacked out like it had been coated in paint.
“You can see?”
“A little. Help me open it.”
“We’re four floors up,” said Mallory.
“Help me,” said Nic.
They struggled to slide the window up, hampered by the jammed tracks and also by their desire to not make exposing sounds.
They managed it, the window groaning and stuttering, making far too much noise. Nic put his head into the cold night air and saw how far up they were. But the walls had plenty of handholds, and this was something he had been trained for, in a limited fashion. He began climbing out.
“What are you doing?” whispered Mallory hoarsely. “You’ll fall to your death.”
“I won’t live for long up here, either,” said Nic as he hung from the windowsill, facing his remorseful kidnapper. “Don’t worry, I’ve had expert tuition.” His hand slipped and he fell away from the wall.
Mallory grabbed him by the nightshirt and pulled him back. Nic grabbed onto the sill again.
“Thanks. I’m fine, you can let go.”
Malory released the shirt clenched in his fist. “Are you sure?”
Nic nodded. “It’ll be fine. Thanks.”
“I’ll do what I can to distract them. I… I’m sorry.” This time, the repeated apology wasn’t so irksome.
Nic nodded and began making his way down. He heard the window close above him. Now there was nowhere to go but down.
It was more exhausting climbing up, but at least you could see where to go. Climbing down was tricky if you didn’t know where to put your hands. Looking down was a restricted view. His improved eyesight helped a little.
“This could go very badly,” said Winnum.
“Not helping,” answered Nic.
His hands felt sweaty. His feet slipped a number of times, but his fingers seemed to hold. It was painful but the dread of what was waiting for him if he failed to get away was enough to draw unexpected reserves of strength from him. He would be sore in the morning, or a severed head.
He managed to get down to one storey above the ground and his hands gave out. He fell onto a grass border, his ankles buckling, and then rolled as Dizzy had shown him.
Once he was back on his feet, he moved gingerly to make sure he hadn’t twisted anything, and then broke into a run. He had no idea where he was, with only high walls around him. He followed a path around the building, doing his best to keep to the side where the shrubbery might hide him, wary of being spotted. Hopefully, they wouldn’t think he was already outside.
“The main courtyard is to the left,” said Winnum. “The dorms to the right, if they haven’t changed that, too.”
Nic paused for a second, and then went left
“Where are you going?” said Winnum.
“I want to check something.”
He reached the gateway to the courtyard and stopped. The High Father was lying in the same place as before, utterly still. A small group of mages kept watch. How could he approach with them there?
A loud explosion rang out. Nic turned to look in the direction he’d come. Flames were shooting into the air. Mallory’s idea of a distraction?
The mages scattered, running to help, or away from danger, it was impossible to say. Nic waited in the shadow of the archway until the courtyard was empty and then ran to the dragon. He wouldn’t have long.
“What do you think you’re doing?” said Winnum.
“Just wait,” said Nic. He slowed as he approached the dragon. “Hey, wake up. I know you can hear me.”
The High Father’s eyelid rose slowly. Nic placed a hand on the dragon’s snout.
“I want you to let me in,” said Nic.
“Are you insane?” blurted out Winnum. “You want him to eat you?”
“You can enter a dragon in spirit form,” said Nic. “I’ve done it before.”
“Only if the dragon is vacant. And if both parties are willing.”
“He’s willing,” said Nic.
“He will overwhelm us both. I am not willing.”
“But I am and you don’t get a say.” Nic’s body fell to the ground and lay next to the dragon, still and 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