As far as Nic was aware, the only people who had dragons were his own — and they were stubbornly refusing to take to the air.
It was difficult to see exactly who was flying these dragons from his lofty position high over the school. He recalibrated his vision to get a better look.
They were above Dizzy, now. Curving their flight path, the five of them in a line that was turning into a circle, and then a spiral as the lead dragon began to descend. Were they here for her? For him?
As he came down closer, he could see their distinct outlines, but while the riders were clear to Nic, dressed in heavy cloaks with hoods pulled over their heads and their feet sticking out on either side of the large beasts they straddled, the dragons themselves looked indistinct.
Their outlines were easy to see, but there was no substance to them. No scaly skin, no membranous wings. They looked smokey and black. They looked like ink blots on wet paper, taking form the way clouds sometimes appeared to be very specific animals.
Magic? Pretend dragons? But then, wasn’t that what dragons were anyway?
Whatever they were, Dizzy was beneath them and had no idea what she was about to face. He didn’t know, either, but at least he knew the threat was imminent. Dizzy was probably watching the school wall for more shadowy minions, readying herself for more acrobatic attacks.
He was tempted to just wait and see how she responded to the skydiving shadows approaching her. Adapting to a new opponent was the sort of thing she was good at, but this would be risking too much. If she failed to come up with an appropriate strategy, she might end up dead.
That was assuming they were here as enemies, which wasn’t certain. What was certain was that Dizzy would treat them as such and they probably wouldn’t have any choice but to live up to her expectations. She had a way of bringing out the antagonistic side in people.
But what were his options? Rush out there and save the day? How would he do that? And how angry would it make her?
It was all very well being aware of the situation but that didn’t really help much if all he was was a distant observer. This power he now had didn’t allow him to interact with the things he could see.
If he could just communicate with the people he watched…
The Archmage had seemed aware of him, did that mean there was a way to reveal his presence intentionally? He dropped down to where Dizzy was busy in the same tree as the previous night.
Dizzy? Can you hear me?
There was no response. He felt foolish trying to contact her through his thoughts. And if she did hear him, then what?
Look out! was hardly going to make a difference.
No, it wasn’t her he should be trying to contact.
He rose again, towards the lead dragon as it glided with wings spread, the other four like shadows of shadows behind it.
They looked like dragons — like the dragons in the service of the Ranvarian army — but they didn’t move like them.
Nic’s experiences with dragons, and as a dragon, had given him a familiarity with their general physiology and movements. Dragons were rarely still, even when they weren’t moving around. Their muscles seemed to be constantly rippling and shifting under their scales. Their wings adjusted and corrected for changes in the air. Their heads turned and tilted as they flew.
These dragos were stiff and strangely inanimate, like a carved wooden toy with moving parts in the right places but not moving in a fluid manner.
It was also odd how the riders weren’t positioned on the longs necks like he’d seen the dragoons positioned, but were on the backs of the dragons, halfway between head and tail, practically lying down. They gave the impression of being passenger more than pilot.
Whatever these dragons were, could he interact with them? If they were some sort of magic creation and he was using some sort of magic, perhaps the two could meet somewhere in the middle.
Nic focused on the lead dragon which was at about the height of the top of the tree now. Dizzy was bound to notice any second that she had company, and probably launch an ill-advised attack.
STOP! he mentally yelled at the dragon, aiming for the spot between its eyes (or where he assumed the eyes would be if he could see them). It wasn’t exactly a carefully-designed stratagem, but there weren’t many books on how to handle this kind of situation.
The dragon’s head rose and twisted. It looked a little unnatural, like someone had tried to turn the head in a direction it hadn’t been made to turn.
The rest of the dragon’s body buckled and the rider went from tightly holding on to wild panic as they desperately tried not to fall off. And then each of the dragons turned into mist and faded away, one after the other, as though each was the only link holding the next in line to this world. They disappeared as easily as smoke from a chimney shredded by a sharp breeze.
The dragons might have vanished but their riders were still very much present, and falling. One after the other they dropped through the sky towards the tree. The tree Dizzy was in. At least their cries of terror would let her know she was about to have company. Five guests, but Nic felt confident she would be able to defend herself when she had her position secured while the new arrivals were going to be too busy trying to grab onto a branch on the way down.
Her advantage might not last long, though. If they were able to conjure dragons, there was a good chance they had other tricks up their sleeves. What was needed now was a little assistance from someone who also had a sleeve full of tricks.
Nic said Simole’s name and focused on her current location. He suspected she wasn’t far away, probably watching what was going on with an amused grin. But he was wrong.
His sight flew up and across the school grounds, towards the girls’ dormitory. Then it swooped towards a window, like a bird that had no concept of glass. Normally, Nic would turn away when his sight took him here but this time he allowed it to pass into the room. Dizzy wasn’t there and Simole… well, this was an emergency. If he caught her in a state of undress, he would have to accept the consequences.
It occurred to him that those consequences might actually be more severe than anything the High-Father had in store for him and this was an extremely foolish idea, but by then he was already in the room.
The lights were out but he could make out Simole in her bed, asleep. Even the most powerful mage needed to rest. Lucky for Nic’s personal health but not very useful for Dizzy.
If he had been able to have some influence over the dragons then it seemed possible he could in some way contact Simole.
Simole, wake up. Wake up!
She made some grumbling noises and then rolled over, still fast asleep.
The sound of screams and shouting broke into his thoughts. Nic opened his eyes in his own bedroom. There seemed to be a fight going on outside his window and, by the sounds of it, Dizzy was involved — there was no one else Nic knew who roared with rage like that.
Nic jumped off the bed and opened his bedroom door. Fanny appeared from his room, blinking the sleep out of his eyes.
“What’s going on? Are we under attack?”
“Fanny,” said Nic, “can you make some kind of disturbance that will attract the Secret Service agents on campus?”
“Um, yes, I think so,” said Fanny, confused and bleary-eyed. “Not sure there’s many left on the school grounds since they all ran off with the important kids. I haven’t seen much activity from them lately.”
“That’s fine, I know there’s at least two. Just do what you can. Make them think there’s something crazy going on here.”
“What is going on?” said Fanny, a little more awake now.
“Something crazy,” said Nic. He ran across the hall and banged on Davo’s door.
“What is it?” said Davo when he opened the door, looking uncharacteristically unkempt with is his usually-pristine lacquered hair flopping over his face.
“I need you to do me a favour. Go to the girls’ dorm and get Simole.”
“The girls’ dorm? At this time of night?”
“Sorry, it’s important. Tell her Dizzy’s fighting off five men by herself.”
“What?” said Davo.
“I’ll explain later.” Nic rushed out of the building, running towards the tree all the noise was coming from, and nearly collided with a body as it fell.
He jumped out of the way, his recent training coming in useful as he rolled and came up on his feet.
The body was a man and still alive although he had landed without trying to protect himself from the fall with outstretched hands. Probably because his hands and feet were both tied. He groaned and squirmed on the ground.
There were still sounds of fighting from above, although Nic couldn’t see clearly through the leaves and branches.
Another body fell and Nic jumped back. This one landed neatly on her feet, a stick in one hand and a looped rope in the other.
“What are you doing here?” said Dizzy, looking annoyed at being interrupted.
“I came to warn you,” said Nic.
“A bit late for that,” said Dizzy.
“And to help.”
She looked at him with a frown. “And a bit early for that.”
Nic suddenly felt awkward and out of place. He had been in so much of a hurry to come to her rescue, he hadn’t thought of what exactly he was going to do once he arrived. Now he just felt like he was in her way, another problem for her to deal with. The way she was looking at him only confirmed the feeling.
“They came here on dragons,” said Nic, wanting her to know he had helped.
“You down there,” called a voice from the tree. “We didn’t come here to fight. There is no need for bloodshed.”
The man on the ground moaned, possibly disagreeing.
“We did not mean to startle you, young lady.”
“Did you come by dragon?” Dizzy shouted back, doubt in her voice.
There was a pause. “Yes.” He sounded quite doubtful himself.
“Where are they?” asked Dizzy.
“I got rid of them,” said Nic.
“You got rid of dragons?”
“They weren’t real dragons.” Downgrading his accomplishment seemed the easiest way to convince her he wasn’t lying.
“You got rid of imaginary dragons?” said Dizzy, less incredulous, more unimpressed.
“We are here to make you an offer,” said the man in the tree.
“Who?” said Dizzy. “Me or him?”
Nic winced. She wasn’t going to like that.
“Of course,” said Dizzy. “And you are?”
“We,” said the voice rather grandly, “represent the free people of Gweur.”
“Right,” said Dizzy. “I see. And what about you?” she said to Nic. “Turning traitor?” It was asked casually, like she wanted to know his plans for the weekend.
Nic wasn’t sure what his answer should be. Every answer felt like it had been guessed and a blistering riposte prepared, so he decided to ignore her.
“Who is your leader?” he said looking up at the branches. They were staying up there, presumably four grown men who didn’t want to let Dizzy have a chance to do to them what she’d done to number five.
“I am the leader. My name is—”
“No, I mean your real leader. Who sent you here?”
“We do not have that kind of a leader. We consider no one to be our king or our better by blood.”
The more pleased with himself the man sounded, the less convinced Nic was by his egalitarian proclamations.
“Is it a woman with blonde hair?” asked Nic. “Or maybe a young boy of about twelve?” There was some muttering in the branches. “Someone is guiding you. Someone is giving you dragons to fly you places. Who?”
“We have many—”
“If you are not willing to be clear about who you are and what you represent, then I see no purpose in listening to you.” Nic looked across at Dizzy. She had her arms crossed and wasn’t looking at him, but she didn’t look quite so dismissive of him either. She may well have forgotten he existed and was working out the angles for a slingshot to the temple of one of the men he couldn’t even see.
“The people who run your country,” said the man slowly like he was choosing his words carefully, “they are not good people. They have terrorised and dominated innocents and honest folk who only wish is to be left in peace.”
“And you want to replace them,” said Nic.
“We wish them to be replaced, but it is up to the free people of Ranvar to decide with what. Not us. We have our own problems to worry about.”
“What makes you think the replacement will be any better?” asked Dizzy.
“It can’t be any worse. And there won’t be the dragons and magic to aid their tyranny.”
“Because they’ll belong to you?” said Dizzy.
A man jumped down from the lowest branch, landing not quite so elegantly as Dizzy had. He wore a long brown robe, simple and worn thin at the edges. He removed the hood to reveal typical Gweurvian features — curly hair, a wide nose — save for the glowing blue eyes.
“We are only in receipt of this power until our task is complete. We have no wish to control the destiny of others. We only ask if you wish to join us. If not, then we will be on our way.”
“By dragon?” asked Dizzy, eyes narrowed, mouth pinched, ready to catch a lie.
Nic turned his head to look at the Gweur rebel. How would he handle this? Perhaps Nic could learn something from an outsider’s perspective.
“Yes,” said the man. Behind him, three more similarly dressed Gweurvians climbed down from the tree. Two of them went to help the injured one, turning him face up. By the looks of it, the man had broken his fall with his nose, which was also broken, although it was hard to be sure with the flat noses they all had. The blood suggested his was now a little flatter. “May I ask what you were doing in the tree?”
“She’s protecting the school,” said Nic.
“From us?” asked the man.
“No,” said Dizzy, “from them.” She pointed past the man but didn’t look where her finger indicated.
The man turned, which Nic thought was risky. It was the sort of move Dizzy would use quite happily against an opponent, even though it was a little cheap. Dizzy was of the mind that the more gullible and easily distracted you were, the more you deserved the beating that would correct your failing. But in this case, there actually was something to look at.
From the shadows rose two figures. They were shades like the ones that had appeared last night, maybe the same ones. Now that Nic could see them with his own eyes, their indistinct inky blackness reminded him of something — the dragons he had just vanquished.
“Inform your master,” said Dizzy. “Gwuer has sent a team here.”
The two shades seemed like they were about to start moving, and then they were gone, nothing in between.
“Stop them,” said the leader to the others. The two who were administering to their fallen colleague left him and gave chase, running as far as where the shadows grew too dark to see much of anything, and then they too vanished.
“Will they catch them?” said Nic.
“Depends,” said Dizzy. “We’ll see how their new master has been teaching them.”
“Hmm,” said the man. “That was unfortunate. Still, better to know than to not.”
“So,” said Dizzy, “make your offer.” She lifted an arm in Nic’s direction like she was offering him up. She reminded Nic of the brokers at livestock sales who made deals on behalf of farmers, selling to butchers. “You don’t have much time.”
Her manner was so casual, Nic felt like there was no great danger to him while she was here.
“We would like you to come with us,” said the man. “To help us, if you wish. To not help those who would hurt us by not giving them access to the power you now possess.”
Nic could feel Dizzy’s eyes on him now.
“How do you know about that?” he asked.
“You have a new power, do you?” Dizzy asked, not caring about Nic’s line of questioning. “When did this happen?”
“It’s not really a power,” said Nic, feeling uncomfortable even as he tried his hardest not to appear so. “It’s more like access to reference material.”
“I see,” said Dizzy.
“How we know is not important,” said the man, his tone suggesting he was quite keen to be part of the dialogue.
“But it is,” said Nic, also quite keen he be in the dialogue. “Whoever told you is using you for their own ends. If you refuse to believe that, you will only make it easier for them.”
“Must be quite some reference material if they sent men on dragons to fetch you,” said Dizzy, the casualness of her tone no longer making Nic feel safe.
“Not real dragons,” said Nic.
“You don’t have to help us, you don’t have to help anyone. We will abide by your decision. We only make the offer. We know you have a good heart and a sharp mind.”
“Where did you hear that?” asked Dizzy.
“What say you? Will you come and discuss the matter with us? Will you at least see the people, the men, women and children, who your military is preparing to wipe out?”
“Will you, Nic?” asked Dizzy.
“Um, no,” said Nic. “I will stay here and make my choices as they are presented to me.”
“Very well. I accept your decision. But we cannot leave you here,” said the man with a sorrowful shake of his head. “They will abuse your gift and use it against us, whether you wish it or not. That is the Ranvar way.”
Nic knew that he was right, that was the Ranvar way, but he would rather that than to be carted off and kept as a guest of a foreign power. At least he was familiar with his own people’s unpleasant tendencies and had a chance to use his knowledge to stay out of their reach. After all, it had worked fairly well so far.
“Nice offer,” said Dizzy. “Come with us if you want, but if you don’t, then come with us. I can see you are students of the Ranvar way, too.”
“We mean what we say,” said the man. “We won’t force you to help us, but we can’t allow you to help our enemy, either.” He seemed genuinely apologetic.
“That’s enough.” Beside Nic, two men appeared from nowhere, one with a black mask, one with a white. “Surrender yourselves or—”
The two Gweurvians raised a hand each and a powerful wave of force washed over Nic. He felt it pass him on either side as the agents were knocked off their feet and sent flying. They landed far back and didn’t get up.
It had seemed effortless and well-practised. They had been ready, maybe even expectant.
“I’m sorry about this,” said the man. He and the rebel standing just behind him both raised their arms to the sky, their eyes glowing brighter blue.
Above them there was movement. Nic looked up as five dragon-shaped shadows took form, only really visible because of the starlight they blocked out; starless blackness with wings, like reverse constellations.
The rebel who had been left on the ground suddenly sat up. “She is coming.”
It was an old refrain Nic had heard many times before, but this time it felt a lot more imminent. Immediate, in fact.
“Who,” said Simole, “sent Davo to wake me up?” She didn’t look very happy.
“Sorry,” said Nic. “It was an emergency.”
“He barged into my bedroom,” said Simole, ignoring the two men and their five shadow dragons. “What if I’d been sleeping naked?”
“You had that green nightshirt on,” said Nic.
“And how do you know that?” asked Simole.
“Yes,” said Dizzy, “how do you know that?”
Nic took a step back and looked to the Gweurvians for help. “Don’t you want to attack or something?”
Simole looked up. “What are those supposed to be made of? Candy floss?”
The five dragons seemed to float together, merging like clouds blown into each other’s paths. And then there was one enormous dragon in the sky.
It dived, mouth open in a silent scream, straight at Simole.
She seemed frozen in place. Was she unconcerned? Did she think it was harmless?
Nic looked at the dragon falling like a spear. It was bigger than even the High-Father when he’d been a dragon. Something about it, though…
Nic closed his eyes and he was above the dragon looking down. From here, he could see something else, something inside the dragons ghostly body, burning with a blue intensity that could only be Arcanum.
Nic view dropped, down towards his own body. The pain of it was still hard to bear but the speed of his approaching self was like a quick, sharp incision, one you don’t even feel until after it is done.
Looking up from his own eyes while still being able to see in all directions, his mind folding in on itself, he saw the Arcanum clearly. It was long and thin, shaped like an arrow with a deadly point.
“No,” said Nic, not shouting, a simple statement. He stepped in front of Simole and reached out his hand, putting it into the dragon’s open maw as it descended and grabbed the Arcanum by the tip.
The dragon passed through him, through Simole, and broke against the ground like pipe smoke hitting a tavern ceiling.
In Nic’s hand was a shard of pure Arcanum. It burned and turned his hand purple. His whole arm. His neck. His…
He let it go and collapsed.
When he regained consciousness, his head was resting on something very soft and comfortable. It also smelled good. Familiar.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know what your head is on,” said Simole’s voice.
Nic opened his eyes and looked up at Dizzy’s irritated face. She was holding his head in her arms, resting it against her chest. He was too scared to move in case he rubbed against something he shouldn’t, but if he stayed where he was it would seem deliberate.
“He’s fine,” said Dizzy, letting him go and standing up. His head bounced off her knee and then hit the ground with a dull thunk.
Nic sat up. The two Secret Service agents were approaching, looking a little shaken. There was no sign of the Gweurvians.
“What happened?” asked Nic.
“You saved me,” said Simole, not sounding particularly grateful. “Like a hero. No, sorry, I mean like an idiot. You could have died.”
“You could have died,” said Nic.
“I doubt it,” said Simole. “It was just a lump of Arcanum. Mildly toxic at best. You just happen to have built up a tolerance to the stuff, so it affects you less than most people. But thanks, anyway. Would have been annoying to stay in bed for a few months.”
“But what happened to them?” He pointed to the tree where the Gweurvians had been.
“They disappeared when you fainted,” said Dizzy. “Vanished in a blue flash.”
Nic nodded. “I’ve seen them do that before, in emergencies. I don’t think it’s very good for their health.”
“I’m going back to bed,” said Simole. She gave Nic a sharp look, a warning not to send anyone to disturb her.
“I think you better come with us and answer a few questions,” said the black-masked agent.
“No,” said Nic. “I think I need to get some sleep, too. I’d like to skip training today, if you don’t mind.” The two agents seemed taken aback at being refused so easily.
Nic took the time to close his eyes and check the world for Gweurvians. As he had suspected, there were quite a few who were no longer in Gweur.
“You should contact your Chief of Staff and tell him the Gweur rebels have entered Ranvar from the east.”
“The east?” said White. “How did they get over there?”
“Dragons,” said Nic. “They have lots and lots of dragons.”
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