Nic gritted his teeth and forced himself to keep walking forward. The effort required was surprisingly large. The gathered mages — dozens of them, maybe more — exerted a weird kind of pressure simply by applying only their attention to him. So many eyes with so many questions, all turned towards him, made Nic’s legs tremble.
They weren’t voicing their questions, they weren’t making any sound at all. But they were expecting something. Their eyes were seeking, their bodies poised to rush forward and grab it as soon as it appeared. Nic felt a weakness, almost a revulsion. Only by picturing levers in his mind, and the pattern of their movement, was he able to instruct his lower limbs to function.
He had expected some sort of anxiety when he came here. He had been steeling himself for it during the ride. But no matter how well you might anticipate a problem, there was nothing like the actual raw power of experiencing it in person. Books could not prepare him for acute pressure-sickness.
Nic approached the High Father, father of all dragons. The previous times he had encountered the massive beast, it had been a slithery monster of condensed power barely contained, always moving, even when stood still, its muscles writhing under dark scales.
This time was different. The long snout was unnaturally swollen, the scales were dull and limp, the wings were collapsed around the body like a broken umbrella that no longer responds to being opened.
There was no steam rising from the large nostrils. The eyes that were piercingly alert and almost physically penetrating, were closed. There was still a little movement under the skin that indicated the creature was not dead. Not yet.
“What ha—” Nic’s question hadn’t left his lips before there was a rush of air beside him and Simole shot past. Nic was lucky to not have been bowled over, but a steady hand caught the back of his coat and pulled him back to an upright position. A swift movement not performed tenderly.
Simole arrived at the dragon’s nose and didn’t stop, launching herself onto the elongated snout with arms extended.
“Don’t worry, I’ll save you,” she said as she wrapped herself around the most fearsome demon of them all. The dragon seemed to shrink in her arms.
Simole’s interruption took the focus of Nic, much to his relief. He could breathe again and, more importantly, think again. He took a moment to take in the situation.
The dragon was in the middle of a large courtyard. The mages had formed a circle around him. Why? What were they planning to do? They probably weren’t going to provide him with answers just because he asked. Rather, they would be the ones asking him questions. And they would expect answers.
“What did you do to him?” said Simole.
The assembled masters and apprentices remained silent. Even the Archmage didn’t speak.
Simole turned, her face filled with rage. “Bloodsuckers! What are you doing here? GO! Get away from him. Or do you want me to take back what you’ve stolen already?”
Nic wasn’t sure what she was saying, but there was no doubting she meant every word. The mages shuffled away from her, some of them leaving, all of them considering it.
“What did you do?” Now she was asking only her father.
“It is not I you should ask.” He turned to look at Nic. Nic’s jaw tightened again. He really had to find a way to calm himself in tense situations. His mother always suggested herbal tea. Now probably wasn’t the time to ask for a cup.
“Winnum Roke.” His voice sounded strained and caught in the back of his throat. He tried to clear it with a sharp cough. “She said once the door to the Other Place was shut — properly closed — this would happen. It would affect him most of all.”
There was some murmuring from the mages. Was this news to them? This much they must have figure out already.
Simole’s eyes narrowed. She knew Nic carried a passenger, the one he had just named. At least, that was what she believed. Nic judged her to be couching her next question in language that wouldn’t give him away. Which meant she was still on his side, for now. Her relationship to the dragon was close. She had grown up with the giant lizard as a guardian, as a beloved pet. Even though she knew what it was underneath the scales and claws, her bond with the monster was no less intense. If you could love a fanged, flying leviathan of death, what difference would a little demonic heritage make?
“You shut the door behind you?” she said.
“The door is closed,” said Nic, as careful with his wording as she. He hadn’t closed the door himself, Winnum Roke had done that. And she had done it from that side, locking herself in. Allowing him to leave with a parting gift lodged in his brain.
“And you knew this would happen?”
“I’m not sure what this is,” said Nic. “Why is everyone standing around doing nothing?”
They had gathered here, which meant something was going to happen, didn’t it? No one was attempting to heal the dragon. Were they just going to bear witness?
“Can’t you feel it?” said Simole. “The Arcanum pouring out of him?”
Nic took a moment to calm his senses. There was such an overwhelming number of mages here, it was hard to notice anything else, but under their stifling presence, there was more. A thickness to the air, a crackle against his skin. His fingertips were warm and dry. He felt like he could start a fire just by snapping his fingers.
“The High Father is leaking?” asked Nic. “No, I didn’t know that was going to happen. I just knew he would stop being able to hold this form.”
Simole’s eyes widened. “He won’t die?”
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “I guess he’ll sort of decompose.” The answer did not please her. He hurriedly continued. “I don’t know what will happen once this form collapses. He uses more Arcanum than anyone. What will it do to the city, if he lets it all out here? Is the college shielded from… I mean, is the city shielded from the college?”
“The city won’t be flooded,” said the Archmage. “The Arcanum will be absorbed.” He was being restrained, Nic could tell. Waiting for Nic’s answers rather than demanding them. Once he got as much information as he could that way, then?
Absorbed. By what? Nic looked around but there were only the nervous mages. On edge, wary of Simole… No, not just that. Excited. Were they the sponges waiting for the High Father to rupture and release his Arcanum? Was that what Simole had meant when she called them vampires?
Mages were powerful, but they hoarded their power and greedily tried to attain more. They were petty men, at heart.
Yessss, a stray thought seemed to confirm, but it could just as well have been the soft snort of air through his nose as he tried to maintain his composure.
“Could you clear the courtyard?” said Nic. It wasn’t really a question, or even a request. It wasn’t an order, certainly. It was… a favour. He was owed one, he felt.
“You want to be alone?” asked the Archmage, watching Nic intently. He was trying to ascertain what Nic was after. He was treating him with respect, the way you would respect a scorpion or a snake. Not as an equal, just as a threat that could be avoided if you were careful. Nic wasn’t going to be underestimated.
“Not alone, just not all of them.” His eyes glanced past the Archmage and back again. “They make me nervous. Don’t they have duties to attend to?” He had no idea how mages conducted themselves in the Royal College, but surely they had something to do, even if it was only sleeping.
There was more murmuring around him. Nic picked up a word or two. He turned away from the Archmage. “I’m not going to take the Arcanum for myself, if that’s what you think. I’m not a mage.”
No one answered, nor did they move. They looked hungry.
Nic turned to the Archmage again. “Are you no longer in control here?”
“They are barely in control of themselves. They are drawn here,” said the Archmage. “None of them can resist the High Father’s call.” Nic had never been around this many mages at once, but he was fairly sure they wouldn’t normally act like this.
“Come, I wish to speak to you in private,” said the Archmage.
“I’m staying here,” said Simole, glaring at the starving pack crowding her.
“Okay,” said Nic. “I want to bring her.” He indicated Dizzy, who looked mildly surprised.
“I would rather we were alone,” said the Archmage.
“Yes. But I feel less intimidated with her around, and less likely to stumble my way through what I have to tell you.”
The Archmage raised an eyebrow. “You feel she will protect you?” He gave Dizzy a quizzical look, which she returned equally quizzical.
“No,” said Nic. “Not exactly. You know how if you have a toothache and you pinch your arm you can distract yourself from the pain in your mouth?” The quizzical looks were turned in his direction by both parties. Was he being too specific? Wasn’t this a universal thing?
“She is your pinched arm?” asked the mage.
“She is a pain,” said Nic, “that I find useful.”
Nic noticed that everyone was now staring at him. Even though there were all these people, they were too distracted to listen to him, he had thought. But he had managed to draw them away from their primary focus. Nic glanced over at the corpse-like lizard behind Simole. An eyelid rose, revealing a giant green eye, the yellow vertical line at its centre narrowing and then shortening until it was just a dot. The eye closed.
No one else had seen it. They were all too busy wondering what the little boy was rambling on about. And probably also wondering why the little girl was burning her gaze into him. Nic could feel that without turning his head.
“Very well,” said the Archmage. “Follow me.”
The mages parted as he led the way through an archway into the large building that was as tall as a tower.
Nic followed with Dizzy close on his heels. He could practically feel her breath on the back of his neck. The night air was cold, the breath was colder.
The Archmage led them to a winding staircase that went up and up without break. There had to be more floors in between, but this was a direct route to the top.
They came out in a large room with a large fireplace that provided the only source of light. The Archmage waved a hand and the flames rose, illuminating the room. There was a desk and chairs, some books on a shelf and papers on the desk.
“Sit,” said the Archmage. “And then tell me why Winnum Roke would do this.”
“She wants the accord between mages and demons to end,” said Nic, without sitting. “While there was a door between the two realms, there was a flow of Arcanum.”
“Even though the door was closed?” said Dizzy.
“Yes. It was closed to us, not to the Arcanum. But Winnum Roke didn’t just close the door behind me, she broke it.”
“Then, she can never return,” said the Archmage.
“No,” said Nic. “The part of her that is there will forever stay there. And the demons will forever stay here, even after they achieve the transformation they are seeking.”
“But why would she do this?” asked the Archmage once more. “Revenge? We will all be long dead by the time that happens.”
“I don’t know if I would call it revenge. I think it will teach you a lesson, but I’m not sure what good that would do. With the link between planes gone, the demons will struggle to find the Arcanum to evolve. They may become unsettled in their current… accommodations. You… your mages may find it harder to keep control if their guests become agitated. Hungry.”
The Archmage, who hadn’t taken a seat either, walked over to the window and looked down. “Hungry.” He nodded. “She means to have us turn on each other. It is something I have considered. Prepared for.”
Nic moved over to the next window along. Down below was the courtyard where the High Father lay. The mages still surrounded him. Simole remained his guardian. Simole.
“You think she will be able to prevent any of them going rogue?” Nic asked.
“Prevent?” said the Archmage. “No. But she will be able to put them down, if need be. She has spent some time here, gotten to know a few of them. I don’t believe she will have any qualms about it.”
Nic frowned. Was this what Simole had been trained for? Could the Archmage have really predicted this turn of events?
“Don’t you wish to see what becomes of the Father of All Dragons first?” Nic asked the Archmage.
“With the connection severed, he will have to resume his true form,” said the Archmage.
“Which is what?” asked Dizzy.
The Archmage turned to her, his face showing a little surprise, like he’d forgotten she was there, and a little disdain, like maybe she shouldn’t have been. “I do not know.”
“And you knew this was her plan?” Dizzy said turning on Nic. He tried to indicate that she should be less confrontational via his narrowed eyes slowly widening, which she saw and understood, and ignored. “And you still allowed her to do this?”
“It isn’t really a plan,” said Nic. “She doesn’t know what will happen, only that it will speed things up. We will find out now what would have happened many centuries in the future. Why burden our descendants with the consequences of our actions? Shouldn’t we be the ones to face them?”
“You agree with her?” Dizzy asked, her temper rapidly shortening.
“No,” said Nic. “I… It was better than the alternatives, that’s all.”
“This chaos would be less chaotic than the other chaoses?” she asked with mock civility.
“Not chaos,” said Nic. “Not necessarily. It’s hard to explain.”
Irritation flashed in her eyes. “You don’t think the mages will start to abuse their power when they get desperate for Arcanum?” Dizzy pressed, moving towards him a little.
“If they do, then…”
“Simole will take care of it?” She looked across at the Archmage. “You’re both as bad as each other. Sitting back and waiting for others to clean up your mess.”
“I see what you mean,” said the Archmage to Nic. “She is… tenacious.”
“Everyone is,” said Dizzy, “when they have a strong enough reason to be.”
“There is still time,” said Nic.
“How do you know?” said Dizzy.
“I… think there is time.”
“You think?” Dizzy raised an incredulous eyebrow.
“We don’t need to rush things,” agreed the Archmage.
“You think?” Dizzy made a point of emphasising the first word.
“Yes,” said Nic. He looked to the Archmage, who granted him a short nod of support.
The light in Dizzy’s eyes roared like the fire behind her. “What I would like to know is, if you say Winnum Roke is now safely locked behind a door which will no longer open, not even a peep or a crack, what is it you’re carrying around inside your head?”
Nic glanced over at the Archmage. It wasn’t like the most powerful mage in the country wouldn’t already have suspected something along similar lines. But now Dizzy had named it and made it flesh.
“You brought someone back,” said Archmage van Dastan. It wasn’t even a question.
“Not someone. Some… thing. It’s like a ghost,” said Nic.
“What do you mean?” said Dizzy. “Winnum Roke’s ghost?”
“Not actually a ghost, but like one.” He turned to the Archmage. “You remember how you brought Tenner back after he died, to bear witness on what had happened to Simole?” The Archmage nodded slowly, cautiously. “Winnum Roke used a similar process on me.”
“She put an imprint of herself in your mind?” said the Archmage.
“You can access her thoughts? Her memories?”
“Sort of. Yes.” What was he supposed to say? That there was a version of Winnum Roke in his head that talked to him at night? He would sound insane.
“This could be very useful,” said the Archmage.
“Clearly,” said Dizzy, “if she put it in your head, she did it for a reason. One that I doubt is going to be to our benefit.” She turned her attention to the Archmage. “Why aren’t you more concerned?”
“I am. I certainly am. But this is as much an opportunity as a concern.” He stroked his beard. “Yes, yes. I must think on this. You should have said something about this earlier.”
“I was still, um, processing what had happened,” said Nic. “It’s not quite like having a book in my head I can open at any page. It’s more like a jumble of information I can’t quite grasp, yet.”
There was a distinct harumph sound deep in his consciousness. He gritted his teeth to make sure it stayed there.
“Very well. You will remain here for the night, I think. That will be best. I assume you did not receive permission to leave the school. And the Secret Service are distracted at the moment… I will send word to the school that I have summoned you. There will be somewhere for you to sleep. In the morning, we can discuss this matter further. I must spend time thinking about this, and I need to see to the High Father. Yes.”
“What about me?” said Dizzy, her brow furrowed at how quickly her voice had been swept aside.
“You can share a room,” said the Archmage, “with my daughter.”
Dizzy nodded, somewhat relieved. Nic wasn’t sure because she got to stay, or she didn’t have to share a room with him.
It was all taken care of in an instant. Would that other problems could be solved as quickly. The Archmage rang a bell and a small, hunched-over man in a plain brown robe appeared from another door.
“Bartlett, have this boy settled with one of the new acolytes for the night. He is a friend of my daughter’s. I don’t want him to be put with someone too chatty. He will need a good night’s sleep.”
“There is an empty room he could—”
“No,” said the Archmage. “I do not wish him to be left alone.”
Was that because he didn’t trust him or because he feared for his safety?
“You, come with me,” said the Archmage to Dizzy. “We will attempt to prise Simole away from her beloved pet, who could destroy us all.”
They parted in different directions. Nic caught Dizzy’s eye as she began the descent down the stairs. It was a cold and suspicious look she shot at him.
“This way, please,” said Bartlett. He led Nic through the other door, into a cold passage with white walls that seemed like they had once been another colour.
“Are you a mage?” asked Nic.
“Me? No, no. A simple attendant and general dogsbody. Even mighty wizards need their robes cleaned and their bed linen changed on occasion. It’s next to impossible to employ a chambermaid for such tasks. They’re all too terrified to fold a pillowcase within these walls.”
He spoke humbly, with humour, and there was no aura of condescension clouding his words the way mages had a tendency to do. He just worked here.
They came to some stairs, wide and going down in flights rather than the endless curving of the stairwell to the Archmage’s study. Every landing seemed to lead to an endless passageway, with doors and lamps, but no sign of people.
On the third landing down, Bartlett headed into the passage on this floor. Nic wasn’t sure what floor it was, the unbroken climb up and unfamiliar climb down had muddled his bearings. He had never had a good sense of direction.
This passage seemed to have fewer doors. They came to a set of double doors which Bartlett pushed through without knocking, and rather than a bedroom or dormitory, they entered a large study area with tables and shelves full of books.
There were a number of young men — only men, it seemed — scribbling notes or reading. Five of them, after a quick headcount, none wearing the robes of a mage. Only two looked up as they entered, and only a cursory glance.
Bartlett went over to one of the tables where a mess of wavy hair bowed over a manuscript while a pen marched furiously across the page, rising and falling in bursts rather than flowing.
“Ahem,” coughed Bartlett. “Mallory? If I may interrupt?”
The pen stopped scratching at the page and a familiar face looked up. It was the Mallory Nic had spent a year living under, not that he ever got to know the second-year Also-Ran very well. Or at all. Now he was the second-year, and Mallory was… what?
“Hello, Mallory,” said Nic.
Mallory’s face took a moment to register the surprise. “Oh. It’s Nic, isn’t it? Fancy seeing you here.”
“You knew each other at Ransom?” asked Bartlett, his inquiry polite and not at all impatient.
“Yes. We lived together,” said Nic. “Above and below.” He pointed to Mallory and then himself.
“I see,” said Bartlett. “That’s good, then. Mallory, the Archmage has requested a bed for this young man, for the night. I believe you are currently without a roommate.”
“Yes, Bartlett. I’d be happy to extend a little hospitality to a fellow Also… Ransom boy.”
He smiled warmly. No roommate. Did that mean he was being treated as a lesser here, too?
“Good. Then I can leave it to you?” Bartlett said. Mallory nodded. “Have him breakfasted tomorrow morning and I’ll find you in the dining hall.” Bartlett smiled at Nic and then turned and left.
Nic stood there, a little unsure of the situation. He had been asked to stay the night for some kind of interaction with the Archmage in the morning. No appointed time or place, nothing to allow him to prepare. This was as prepared as he would get.
“What are you doing here?” said Mallory as he packed up his bag. He sounded curious and a little astonished. No jealousy that a younger man might be here to steal his glory, which was how mages generally appeared to Nic; vain and desperate. The scene outside had not lessened that view.
“I came with the Archmage’s daughter. Simole. You remember her.”
Mallory nodded like it all made sense now. “Of course.” He looked down at his hands and flexed the fingers. “Of course. I’d like to see her, to thank her again.”
“I’m not sure if that’ll be possible,” said Nic. “But how are you here? We were told no one from last year was admitted to the Royal College.” Mr Periwinkle had very clearly told them that. But then, Mr Periwinkle was an odd man who couldn’t really be trusted. Nic looked around at the other men in the room, none of whom he recognised. “Who are they?” he whispered.
No one had bothered to look at the two of them when they were chatting away, but as soon as Nic lowered his voice, he felt their eyes on him.
Mallory gathered up the last of his papers and led Nic out by the elbow. “Acolytes, trainees, prospective candidates. Those who don’t get automatic entry can still take tests to prove themselves. Not everything revolves around test results and the Ransom school, you know? People slip through the nets all the time. Several more nets are placed to catch them.”
He led Nic into the passage, releasing his arm, but his brisk pace seemed to draw Nic along as though there were still attached.
“Those who are determined to find a place can study and prepare for years, waiting for a spot to open up. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The food here is very plain but abundant.”
Nic understood the lure of a great desire, but it sounded like a huge gamble to keep scrambling up a mountain that was constantly growing. It also sounded like something only the child from a wealthy family could afford to do. A large investment, not least in time.
They were back on the stairs now, going up again. Only one flight, and then along passages with doors on either side. Mallory stopped at one and opened it with a key he had hanging around his neck.
“This is us,” he said. “Don’t get your hopes up, it’s no palace boudoir.”
It wasn’t. A small room with a single bed up against the wall on either side. No windows. There were no chairs, no table. A single chest sat at the foot of each bed.
“I can lend you a nightshirt, if you’d like,” Mallory offered. Nic accepted with a grateful nod. “Check the locker at the foot of the bed there.”
Nic opened the lid of the chest. It wasn’t locked but a little stiff. It popped up, revealing some white linen and a nightshirt.
“This comes with the room?” Nic asked.
“No. It was there when I moved in. Presumably belonging to the last occupant. I expect he died in some horrible accident, which was no doubt covered up.” Mallory grinned at Nic’s obvious discomfort. “Oh, and I should warn you, you might not be entirely alone under the covers.”
Nic hardly dared ask what that meant, so responded with a questioning look, which was not much of a compromise.
“Bed bugs, or maybe mites. Fleas, possibly. It’s best not to investigate too closely, just shake out the sheets. Mages and young men from the big houses are not all that house proud, and maids are hard to convince when it comes to hiring domestics. I’m told once you are sufficiently adept at the magical arts, it is the first spell everyone learns — the firefly.” Malory pointed a finger and made a zzzzt sound. “Funny, isn’t it? The most powerful men in the world, all eager to become pest controllers.”
It wasn’t all that different from what they became once they advanced in skill. The pests just got bigger.
Nic changed into the nightshirt loaner. It was far too big and his hands disappeared into the sleeves.
“Here,” said Mallory. “Take some of this.” He had a small brown bottle which he had taken from his own footlocker. He poured some red syrupy liquid into the cap, which served as a small cup. “It’s camfum. It makes your natural perspiration smell slightly, which acts as an insect repellent. We may not be a house proud bunch, but we find ways around the major inconveniences. It will keep you from getting bitten. Mostly.”
Nic had heard of camfum, but never had a reason to use it. He wondered if it could really be that effective simply by being present in the body. There was no reason not to test it out now — he didn’t want to wake up itching all over. He took a small swig. It tasted sugary and smelled vaguely flowery.
“I’m afraid I need to get to sleep. They drive us pretty hard and offer no mercy if we fail to keep up. I would tell you about it, but we’re supposed to keep everything that happens here hush-hush, even if we wash out, which most do, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
Nic lay down on the lumpy bed and let the darkness settle over him. Mallory’s breathing soon changed to a shallow and regular panting. He had expected to be asked questions. He had hoped to ask a few of his own. Lying there, he fancied he could feel something crawling around under him. The suggestion there were bed bugs was enough to make his skin crawl in awful anticipation.
“The answer is yes, we are not alone in this bed.” The voice came from deep inside him. At least his lips hadn’t been commandeered and woken Mallory.
“How do you know?” asked Nic, careful to think his words rather than say them. At night, he was able to clear his mind enough to carry a conversation like this, in small bursts.
“I sense them. Their presence is like beads of hot light. A dozen lice, four ticks, a beetle — quite a big one, actually — and an assortment of other insects. A community we are now part of. Don’t be too alarmed. They are mostly inside the mattress. The sheets are occupied by only you alone.”
Not quite alone. Even without the menagerie, he would still have one fellow occupant.
“You can do that?”
“Why not? An imprint can sometimes be as useful as the original. A drawing of a carrot might not be much of a substitute for the real thing in a casserole, but a picture of a sign—”
“Won’t tell you which direction your destination lies or how far it is,” said Nic.
“Unless you are standing where the old sign used to be,” said Winnum Roke’s ghost. “That poor girl.”
“What do you mean?” said Nic.
“You dragged her along just to provoke her into raising questions you didn’t want to bring up yourself. Demon you may not be, but there’s more than a little devil in you, Nic Tutt. I can sense her feelings, you know? Would you like me to list them?”
“Can you sense other things?” Nic asked, swiftly changing the subject.
“You mean as a lowly imprint of the great Archmage Roke?”
“It’s technically true,” said Nic. “That’s what you are.”
“A lie is also technically true, depending on the technicalities being used.”
“How far do your senses reach? Across the Royal College? Across the city?”
“Subtle things close, unsubtle things from not as close. This room. The hallway outside the door. The cup you drank from earlier.”
“What about the cup?”
“It didn’t contain camfum.”
“What did it contain?”
“A sedative. A mild one, but effective enough.”
“Effective enough for what?” asked Nic.
“I don’t know,” said Winnum Roke. “Why don’t you ask the sedater? He is coming over to your bed now.”
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