Nic stared out the library window at the Pagoda. Long poles and wooden planks surrounded the tall structure on all sides. It had been marked for demolition but was shrouded in scaffold, as though it was in the process of being repaired. The eaves had lost many of their tiles and the walls had large cracks running up them. They didn’t want it to fall down before they had a chance to destroy it, like a prisoner sentenced to death and put on suicide watch.
From the small room in the library that had become their personal study, the three boys could watch the workmen and ministry official come and go. Which ministry were they from? It was hard to tell and unwise to ask.
Nic would have guessed the Ministry of Instruction would be involved in some capacity. He assumed they would be under new leadership by now. It was hard to imagine who could replace Minister Delcroix. At least until Dizzy was older.
She had taken her father’s death hard, but she hadn’t turned to Nic for consolation. She hadn’t turned to anyone.
“I’m tired,” said Fanny.
“We’re all tired,” said Davo. “No one’s forcing you to stay here. Go back to the cottage and have a nap if you want.” He spoke without looking up, making notes in his elegant and effortless bookkeepers scrawl. “You could do with some beauty sleep. Sixteen to eighteen hours should do the trick.”
“I can’t take a nap,” said Fanny. “There’s too much to do.”
Nic sighed and closed the book he was supposed to be reading. He’d read it before. There had been no changes since the last time. He shoved it across the table and then reached for another book from the pile.
“I don’t think the exams will be as bad as you think,” he said. “They’re bound to make them easier because of all the disruptions.”
Recent events had left the school and most of Ranvar reeling, but it hadn’t taken long for the flood of explanations and reassurances to bring things back under control. Dragon troopers had flown over the big cities in huge formations as a show of strength. The strange rumours everyone found hard to believe were converted into far more acceptable stories about a Gweurian uprising brutally crushed. Across the border, unrelated to life in Ranvar, the rebels of another nation had been defeated, everything was under control.
“Is there anything in particular you don’t understand?” Nic asked Fanny.
Fanny put his pen down. “Now that you mention it, yes. How is it that the High-Father was a demon changed into a dragon, but the other dragons aren’t demons? That story about dragon kites, that’s not how dragons really came into existence, is it?”
“I meant anything about the exams,” said Nic. He had spent the last several weeks explaining the events of that night to Fanny and Davo. He did his best to be open and clear, but it was hard when there was so much he couldn’t tell them. Not for their own safety, which he realised was patronising and mostly ineffectual, but because he really didn’t understand a lot of it himself. And also, maybe, a little for their own safety.
“He knows that,” said Davo. “It’s still a good question.”
“Yes,” said Nic, “but I’m hardly an expert on the subject.”
Davo’s twisted his mouth into a sour grimace. “I would have said you were the preeminent expert on the subject.”
“But the High-Father is a demon in the shape of a dragon, right?” Fanny peered across the table expectantly. “A demon living in our world all this time.”
Nic stopped flicking through pages and picked up the book, pulling it closer to cover his chest. He felt more secure with a shield against the inquiring duo. He had done his best to tell them what had happened at the Royal College, and what it all meant, but he had kept to the things he was sure of. Which meant his answers were limited and gave the impression he was holding back. How was he supposed to explain things in a full and satisfactory manner to them when it made such little sense to him?
Then again, he had also deliberately avoided analysing those events too closely. His role had been mostly as a stooge and he wasn’t very keen on recounting those few weeks of his life. Best forgotten was how he saw it. The residual action that needed to be taken was in the hands of people far more qualified than him. It would have been nice if he had emerged from the experience as an untapped prodigy destined to meet such challenges, but that sort of thing only happened in fairy tales. The ordinary child who tried to battle dragons and demons did not, in the real world, arise from the debris triumphant and unscathed.
But refusing to examine the way things had played out was against his nature. Being able to ignore them indefinitely was unlikely. There was a lot to learn and any information he managed to extract would aid him in dealing with whatever came next, which could be absolutely nothing, but that too was unlikely.
He would have to evaluate what had happened at some point. His brain wouldn’t allow otherwise.
“The High-Father made the dragons as a vessel for the other demons,” Nic said. “It gave them somewhere to stay when they weren’t bonded to a mage. At least, that’s my impression.”
“Ooh,” said Fanny, his excitement rising as he realised Nic was finally opening up. “So why would they bond with the mages in the first place? And why would they become unbonded? And who controls the dragons when there isn’t a demon inside them? Oh, and—”
“Calm down,” said Davo. “Let the boy answer one of your fifty million questions.”
They both turned their attention back to Nic.
“Well… as far as I can work out, the demons crave change. They’ve been stuck in the same unending existence for… I don’t know, probably several thousand years. For some reason, being bonded with one of us — I’m not sure what the criteria are for bonding, maybe it’s open to anyone, maybe you have to have a particular suitability — being bonded with a human enables them to evolve in some way.”
“How do you mean, evolve?” said Fanny, enthralled. “Like, bigger and stronger?”
“He just said he doesn’t know, didn’t he?” said Davo.
“I know,” said Fanny, “but he’s probably got a good guess. Right?”
Davo’s objections wilted under Fanny’s enthusiasm. Nic wasn’t sure what to say, he really hadn’t thought too deeply about it. Intentionally.
“Whatever it is they’re going to become,” he said, thinking on the fly now since he couldn’t avoid it any longer, “it also turns out that if a woman becomes bonded to a demon, and then has a child, the mother dies in childbirth, and the child inherits the powers of a mage.”
“Like with Simole?” said Fanny.
“Yes,” said Nic. “And Winnum Roke.”
“Wait,” said Davo. “Back up a bit. If a man bonds with a demon, he gets all the fancy powers and so on and such and such. But then what? How does that help the demon evolve?”
“Uh,” said Nic. “I think it’s a very slow process, one that goes well beyond a single human lifespan. When the mage dies, the demon has to be transferred to a new host, to keep the process going. That’s where the dragons come in. They can hold the demons between hosts, possibly they’re a key part of the transfer, I’m not sure. My guess—”
“I told you he’d have a guess,” said Fanny smugly.
“My guess would be that the dragons are a convenience. They are the ideal vehicle for containing a demon, and somehow are also able to operate without a demon in them.”
“You were in a dragon,” said Fanny. “What was it like?”
The memory of his time as a dragon sent a thrill through Nic. He had been able to fly as an unrestrained force of nature and nothing felt more natural.
“It was exhilarating,” he said.
“What I mean,” said Fanny, “is did it feel like there were two of you in there? You and the dragon?”
“Oh, no. Just me.”
“Ah,” said Fanny.
“Ah what?” said Davo. “What moment of epiphany did that grant you?”
“Obviously, the dragons are able to separate from their demons and operate basic functions, but when they have someone controlling them from the inside, they probably become one entity and become a lot more powerful. My sister can tell her dragon where to go and where to land and stuff like that. But if you were joined with the dragon, I imagine there are a whole range of additional abilities available to you.”
“Was it like that?” Davo asked Nic.
“Not really,” said Nic, giving Fanny an apologetic look. “I was too busy flying to look too deeply, though. Maybe you’re right.”
“I think so,” said Fanny. “I think there’s more to the dragons than flying lizards.”
“Yes, yes,” said Davo. “I’m sure if you ask they’ll let you open one up and have a look inside to see how they work. Can we get back to the demons? You’ve been pestering him all week about it, and now that he’s actually giving us answers, you start distracting him with all this nonsense about the inner workings of dragons. What are you planning to do, draw up schematics for how to build your own dragon?”
Fanny calmly waited for Davo’s rant to end, and then said. “Have you finished? Then Nic, please continue.”
“Don’t make me out to be the one—”
“Please,” said Fanny, even more calmly to infuriate Davo, “don’t interrupt when he’s about to explain everything.” He took out a notebook and began making scribbles in it.
“What are you doing now?” said Davo.
“Taking notes. This is complicated stuff, we have to find the connections for it to make sense.”
“And you think it’s a good idea to put it down in writing?” said Davo. “What if someone stumbles across it?”
“Ah, I’ve thought of that. It’s coded, no one will be able to tell what it means.” He nodded sagely.
Davo leaned over to take a closer look and grabbed the book out of Fanny’s hand.
“What is this supposed to be?”
“I told you, it’s in code.”
“It looks like it was drawn by a five year old.”
“That’s the genius of it,” said Fanny. “If someone finds it, they’ll think some child drew it for fun.”
“Of course, brilliant thinking. Is this meant to be a demon? Why does it have a moustache.”
“Those are teeth,” said Fanny.
“And what is this?
“That’s a dragon.”
“Is it? I’m sure I’ve seen a similar drawing in the boys’ bathrooms in the cafeteria. Are you sure you’re not trying to be vulgar?”
“Of course not,” said Fanny. “How is that vulgar? Oh, I suppose from a certain angle...”
Davo held the book away from himself to get a better look. “So, the demon goes in the dragon and then gets transferred into the mage — a lovely young woman with googly eyes, apparently — who becomes a demonic amalgam of some sort. And when she dies, it’s back into the dragon, and round we go again.”
“You’ve cracked my code!” said Fanny.
“Yeeeees,” drawled Davo. “Imagine that. I wouldn’t show this to anyone, if I were you. Not if you don’t want them to pity you.”
“I suppose you could do better,” said Fanny.
Davo turned the page and quickly drew something. He handed it back to Fanny.
“Hmm,” said Fanny. “It’s a bit on the nose.”
Nic didn’t mind the squabbling, it was quite comforting, actually. Made it feel like he was on familiar ground. It also allowed him time to work through his thoughts. A lot of what he was telling them was new to him, too. He waited for their attention to him.
“Which do you prefer, Nic?” Fanny held up his notebook with the two drawings.
“So,” said Nic, ignoring the question, “the demons transfer from mage to mage, enabling them to slowly become more… something. They said it would take a long time but that time didn’t mean very much to them so they’re used to measuring time in aeons. It was worth it for them to surrender control to us while they hibernate. I could be wrong, they could be controlling the mages in subtle ways and we have no idea, but I don’t think so. Our obsessions mean very little to them. And in the meantime, fusing with the demons allow us to reshape reality to some extent, although nothing like how they are able to in the Other Place.”
“But if a female mage has a child,” said Fanny, “that speeds up their evolution?”
“Yes, and I think for a time, at the beginning, they used female mages like that, producing some really powerful mages, the ones we read about now.”
“But it killed the mothers,” said Davo, his face showing his disgust. “Barbaric. Do you think they knew?”
That was the horrible part of it. The part Nic didn’t want to think about, had tried his best to push out of his mind. Would the women have intentionally become pregnant, knowing it would kill them? It seemed unlikely. Perhaps a few zealots, but even they would have most likely been brainwashed into believing it was for some greater good.
No, the obvious conclusion was that they had been kept in the dark. Secrecy was, after all, the bedrock of the Royal College.
“I think,” said Nic, “they probably kept the truth from them and let the women die.”
“That’s horrible,” said Fanny. He made a change to his drawing.
“They must have known,” said Davo, leaning to have a look and wincing. “They can’t have not noticed everyone dying in childbirth.”
“I would imagine they had a way of explaining it away,” said Nic. “I think Winnum Roke was the one who figured it out in the end. That’s why she left. She didn’t want to be part of it.”
“But they stopped, right?” said Fanny. “Simole was an accident. They don’t do it anymore.”
“No, not anymore. They agreed to do it the slow way, but I don’t know when that happened, or whose decision it was. Ranvar had already established its dominance by then, they didn’t need the really powerful mages like they used to, so everyone agreed to be more… well, not more, less... “
“Evil,” said Fanny.
“Yes,” said Nic. “I guess.”
“And the All-Mother?” said Davo. “Where does she fit into this?”
“As far as I know,” said Nic, “she switched places with Winnum Roke. She came here and bonded with all future Archmages, and Winnum Roke took over the ship the demons used to go from place to place. She planned to go off and explore the universe or the other dimensions or whatever’s out there, and leave the evil behind.”
“Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” said Davo. “Why would she leave like that? If she was so upset about what they’d done, she wouldn’t just walk away, would she? She was the Archmage, for pity’s sake. She would be in the perfect position to turn the ship around. The Royal College, I mean, not the demons’ ship.”
“And what about the other demon, the one that was in you?” said Fanny. “She must have known Winnum Roke was on the ship. She started all that trouble in Gweur to prepare the way for the demons, but she was really preparing it for Winnum Roke, wasn’t she?”
That was the same conclusion Nic had come to. The demon had been on Archmage Roke’s side. When they got to the Royal College, it was obvious the demon was not sympathetic to the High-Father’s plans. She was the single voice of dissent, and her warning that She is coming must have referred to Winnum Roke.
“Hey,” said Fanny, “didn’t you say the High-Father called the Librarian a pilot? Like a ship’s pilot? If they needed a pilot to sail their ship, how was Winnum Roke supposed to go anywhere?”
“Good point,” said Davo.
“Really,” said Fanny, beaming. “Thanks very much.”
“Alright, don’t get carried away,” said Davo. “You just got lucky.”
“Yes, you’re right,” said Nic. “You’re both right. The demon was working with Winnum Roke. I don’t know what their goal was, but neither approved of what the rest of them were up to, the demons or the mages. I think there are a lot more secrets behind the Royal College’s walls, and it’s probably best not to pry too much.”
“Pry too much?” said Dave. “That’s rich coming from you. I suspect the information you’re trying so desperately to avoid will seek you out in the end. You’re a magnet for forbidden knowledge.”
Nic rather suspected Davo was right. There was no way to evade his fate. He was too entrenched in all of this, his only hope was to navigate his way through it as best he could. His time with the demon inside him hadn’t bestowed magical powers on him, but it had taught him how to keep his mind his own. He might not be able to do whatever he wished, but he was able to refuse the demands of others. It was a small achievement, but an important one.
“This still doesn’t make sense,” said Fanny. “The All-Mother bonds with each archmage, right?” Nic nodded and shrugged at the same time. “But if she transfers when the Archmage dies, doesn’t she have to go into a brand new mage who doesn’t already have a demon in them? That can’t be right. How can you have a brand new mage as the Archmage of the Royal College?”
“He has a point,” said Davo. “They must have a way to extract one demon and replace it with another, possibly using the dragons. Which presumably means they could do that with a pregnant mage.”
“You’re right,” said Nic. “He does have a point, but I’m not sure what it means. There may be more to it, in fact, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t. All I know for sure is that they said they’re going to wait and see how things go. The Gweurians still have access to Arcanum, so they have that to deal with.”
“And Winnum Roke?” said Fanny. “She won’t try to interfere anymore?”
“I’m sure she will, but I think it will take her some time.”
He had told Archmage van Dastan and the High-Father that he’d closed the door on Winnum Roke, and when they asked him to explain, he had given them spurious reasons why it was best to keep that information to himself.
They had accepted his assurance for the time being; as long as Winnum Roke was sealed in her prison — because that’s what it was — they had no need to pry any further.
There was a knock on the door. The three boys looked at each other. They were in a private study room in the library that hardly anyone even knew they had access to. Fanny got up and opened the door. There was a girl standing outside, the one from the girls’ dorm with lots of frizzy hair. The one Fanny had given a ‘magical’ device to call him if she was in trouble.
“Oh, hello,” said Fanny.
“Hi.” She looked nervous and took a big breath. “I was just... I wanted to return this.” She held out a small box. It was the one he had given to her to call him if demons attacked.
“Thanks. I was, um, looking for that.”
“I was wondering if you weren’t busy,” said the girl, smiling shyly, “maybe you could show me how it works. I’m interested in Arcanum devices.”
Fanny’s face went bright red. “That would be great. I mean, I’d love to, but I’m just in the middle…” He pointed at the other two.
“How did you know we were in here?” said Davo jumping to his feet, his voice carrying an edge. “Were you listening to our conversation? Who sent you?”
The girl was taken aback by Davo’s brusqueness. “No, I… I saw you go in. I mean, earlier…”
“That was hours ago,” said Davo. “Are you saying you’ve been waiting all this time to give him back his box?”
She backed away, confused. “I, yes… I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“Oh, but you did disturb us. Trying to upset our revising, are you? Stop the Also-Rans from doing well, that’s your game is it?”
There was a flash of anger in the girl’s eyes. “That’s not it at all.” She shoved the box into Fanny’s hands and stormed off.
“Thank you,” Fanny called after her. “Maybe I can call on you sometime? Erm, ah...”
“You still can’t remember her name can you?” said Davo.
“Shhh,” said Fanny, hurriedly closing the doors. “Thanks for chasing her off, by the way.” He held up the box which was not what the girl thought it was. “Is it Marianne?”
“Maybe,” said Davo.
“You could just tell me.”
“No, no, you got yourself into this, I refuse to be an accessory. By all rights, I should have let her open the box and see what’s inside.”
“I just gave it to her to make her feel better. It was a thoughtful and considerate thing to do. I’m sure it helped keep her calm.”
“Absolutely,” said Davo. “I’m sure she’d be just as starry-eyed and grateful if she knew it was nothing more than somewhere you keep your spare wires. I almost wish the demons had invaded, just to see her face when she tried to summon you.”
Fanny sat down with a bump, unamused. “Do you remember her name?” he asked Nic.
“I’d rather not get involved,” said Nic.
“Yes,” said Davo, “Nic is very much a non-interventionist, unless magical beings threatening to annihilate the world are involved. Or a certain girl.”
Nic took a breath and let the buzzing in his head settle. His answers had satisfied them for the moment, but they had only raised more questions in his own mind. They had exams to deal with, which helped shift the focus, but then there was the whole summer after that. What would he do?
There was a lot more to be said, but it would have to wait, at least until he understood it a little bit better himself.
They had dinner in the cafeteria and went back to the cottage. Simole had decided to stay with her father and wouldn’t return to school until the exams. It wasn’t like she had much chance of failing — they wouldn’t dare.
Nic returned to his room and lay on his bed with a notebook resting on his knees. He quickly drew his own version of Fanny’s diagram.
It didn’t really make anything clearer.
Thoughts of demons and monsters ran through his mind like some distant memory. It was hard to believe any of it had really happened. He had very little to be proud of. He had been used and manipulated and barely managed to stay on his own two feet. He had no illusions about his role. Minor and secondary to everyone, which was a lot lower than secondary implied. He had not risen to the occasion.
As he drifted off to sleep a voice said, “So, Nicolav Tutt, here we are.”
“Yes, Archmage Roke,” mumbled Nic.
“Do you think you can keep me trapped inside your mind forever?”
“I don’t know. I’ve had quite a lot of practice.” Nic turned over on his side, smiling. His days were long and tiring, but his nights were never boring. “Would you like to hear a story?”
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