It felt, to Nic, that all the pieces were there. He had gathered disparate bits of information from the many sides to this millennia-old conflict, and now he just had to sift through them to find the answer.
He wasn’t exactly sure what it was he was looking for an answer to, but he would probably recognise it when he saw it. At least, he hoped he would.
So far, the accumulation of knowledge, which he had viewed as one of his strengths, had only served to inundate him with endless minutia. How it related to the whole, assuming there was one, was still a mystery. It was quite possible that none of what he had learned would turn out to be of use to him. Or it might only make sense when viewed from the correct angle.
Winnum Roke had retreated to the demon world. The All-Father had taken the form of a dragon. The Librarian had sent him to the other place without telling him what he was supposed to do there. And the mages of the Royal College were hiding something within their walls.
They were probably hiding many things, but the secret of how demons and mages were connected was what interested Nic. If he was right — and there was an excellent chance that he wasn’t — they held the most important part of the puzzle.
He recalled a book about the eminent archaeologist, Gobal Triste, who discovered coloured shards of pottery from a previous Ranvar — many kingdoms had formed and collapsed before the current incarnation took shape. Triste attempted to recreate the earthenware by matching colours. He failed repeatedly, until he realised his discovery was not a collection of pots and bowls, but was in fact a mosaic.
Knowing what he was looking at made it much easier to reconstruct it. The picture had been of a many-headed dragon. It hung in the rear of the Librarium, collecting dust.
Triste had been lucky. He only had to swap one incorrect assumption for one accurate interpretation. One lie for one truth. Nic had several truths to contend with, each pressing to be the most believable.
As with the reconstruction of a shattered mosaic, it would be easier for Nic if he knew what the original version had been. Something the demon within him could probably help with, if it was so inclined. It was not.
He could feel the brooding presence under his skin, taking up space in some recess of his mind. It was a stifling thought, if he allowed himself to dwell on the knowledge too long. He had tried to reach out with no success. He had no way to force a dialogue. The demon was waiting for answers, just as he was.
The old man who had met them as they emerged from the other place was guiding them through the streets of what appeared to be an abandoned town. His clothes were torn and dirty, his white hair was lank and greasy, his beard was yellowed with the stains from some chemical trade. Maybe he was a tanner. He looked more like a beggar. He kept nervously peering back at them, even though Nic and Simole were invisible to him. Having confirmed nothing, he continued to lead the way.
It was eerily quiet. The town was the size of his own home, although Hammond was more residential, and this place had the air of a commercial centre. Most of the stores were aimed at other tradesmen, rather than the public. Large boards, the paint cracked from exposure to the elements, advertised services. Repairs for vehicles, feed for animals, cheap overnight accommodation; all designed to better serve those coming and going, rather than the citizens.
It was evident that people no longer lived here. Weeds grew unchecked, and broken windows and doors suggested the inhabitants had left some time ago.
“So,” said Simole. “This is Gweur.”
“Mm,” said Nic.
“This is my first trip outside of Ranvar. I was never allowed to leave the castle.”
“Sounds nice,” Nic muttered absentmindedly.
“It was lovely. We had dragon eggs for breakfast every morning. Took hours.”
“Mm, must have been tasty. Ow! What was that for?” He put a hand to the back of his head where Simole had slapped him. There didn’t appear to be any bleeding. As he looked at his hand, it seemed to grow fainter.
“You were ignoring me,” said Simole.
“No, I wasn’t. This is your first time in Gweur, you grew up in a castle, and you made a joke about eating dragon eggs.”
Simole’s scowl softened. “Do you ever stop preparing for tests?”
“Force of habit.” He looked around. They were in a cobbled street tightly packed with small empty shops. The one next to him had once sold boots and gloves. There was a solitary glove in the window with reinforced stitching and padded fingers. Ideal for unloading crates. “Where is he taking us?”
“There,” said Simole, pointing to where the man was standing, holding a door open. The building had no signage, but it looked like a cafe. There were tables and chairs inside. They had served food, once.
Nic and Simole entered, but the man remained holding the door, uncertain if his charges had arrived or not. Simole let him know by raising a hand and blasting the door shut.
The man blinked in confusion for a moment, and then understood his guests were inside. He looked around the dimly lit room.
“Um, welcome. That is, this is the…” He raised an arm, indicating a corner of the room.
There were two people seated at a table. Their chairs had been turned so the table was behind them. A man and a woman. Both fairly young, but adult, dressed like workers. The man wore boots, trousers with braces, a woollen shirt, and a small hat that was tilted back, doing little to cover his curly hair.
The woman wore a simple smock over a plain dress. She had a bonnet tied onto her head, but it was not the flamboyant kind worn by the women of Ranvar. It was functional, there to keep woman’s long flaxen hair out of her face while she worked.
Both had their hands on their knees, and their eyes open, staring but unseeing.
“I was told this would be all you needed,” said the man. “That is, and the transportation. I’ll prepare the horses now.” He went back to the door, testing the door handle like it might bite him before taking hold of it. He paused with the door open. “Thank you for helping us. When we are free, I hope we can show our gratitude.” He hurried out.
“I wonder what he thinks we’re going to do?” said Simole.
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “Probably not what we end up doing.”
“Which is what?” asked Simole.
Nic looked at her, then at the unmoving couple. “Do you know how to ride a horse?”
“I know how to ride a dragon. Can’t be that much different.”
Nic couldn’t help think maybe it was, but he was getting ahead of himself. “So, how do we… Just dive in?”
Simole approached their new hosts and leaned forward so she was eye to eye with the young woman. “Hey, you know what would be fun?”
She straightened up and turned to face him. “You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“That we swap genders.”
Simole’s shoulders drooped a little. “What’s wrong with that?”
“We don’t have time for fun, Simole.”
“You sound like my father. Planning on being Archmage one day?”
Nic looked past Simole and appraised the man. His chest was moving; shallow breaths. He looked a bit taller than Nic, although it was hard to tell by how much with him sitting. A few years older. “Male and female physiology is sufficiently different that it would probably take time to acclimatise. I’d rather not have to relearn how to balance my body while I’m trying to stop myself falling off a horse.”
“Men and women aren’t that different,” said Simole.
He looked at the woman. She was smaller very slight of build, but her hands were just as calloused as the man’s. “We have markedly different weight distribution.”
Simole’s eyes narrowed. “Where were you looking when you said that?”
Nic touched the seated man on the chest. It was different to how it felt when he’d touched the old man earlier. There was less resistance here. His fingers slid effortlessly through the shirt and into something that made his fingertips tingle, pulling him in.
“I think they’re in some kind of Arcanum-induced coma.”
Simole did the same with her host. “Yes. I’m surprised they aren’t dead. Do you think they volunteered?”
Nic didn’t really want to think about it. However they had ended up in this state, they were here. He lifted his hand to his face and moved it from side to side. It left blue dust in its wake.
“We’re going to fall apart without a source of Arcanum, aren’t we?” said Simole. She was waving her own hand about, to similar effect.
“Eventually. I’m not sure how long it would take for us to lose complete cohesion, but I think they’ve been prepared to keep us going until we can get back to our own bodies.”
Nic took hold of the back of the man’s neck and leaned in like he was going for a kiss. Their heads collided, or didn’t, and Nic felt himself falling. It was a familiar sensation by now.
He opened his eyes and instantly wanted to throw up. The room was spinning. He tried to stand up, but only managed it on the third attempt. His host was much taller than him. It made him feel like he was about to topple over.
The woman who had been sitting beside him skipped past. She twirled and danced, her dress flying up and falling down in a hypnotic fashion.
“Not bad,” said Simole. The voice wasn’t hers, but the tone somehow was.
Nic was still struggling to stay upright. “Does everything come easily to you?”
Simole stopped dancing and smiled. Even with someone else’s lips, she could communicate her dark nature. “Envious of those born with talent?”
Nic slowly walked forward. “Yes,” he said.
Her smile broadened, the malice receding. “And so you should be. Let’s go.” She grabbed his hand and yanked him towards the door.
“Hey, easy. I’m going to fall.”
She stopped and held up their clasped hands. “Look, matching rings.” Both hands had a gold ring. “I think we’re married.”
Both rings had the same engraved design. “Looks like it,” said Nic.
“You know what we could do?”
“No.” It wasn’t a prompt, it was a refusal.
“I don’t think she would appreciate it.”
“Who? Your true love?”
“No, the woman whose body you’re borrowing.” He tottered forward, holding onto Simole for balance.
“Not even slightly tempted by the offer?”
“It isn’t an offer. Teasing me is just your coping mechanism in stressful situations.”
“And what’s your coping mechanism? Concentrating on how to save the world so you don’t have to think about what’s really important?” She dropped his hand and spun around, her dress spiralling about her, opening the door and exiting while he slowly hobbled after her.
“No,” he muttered to himself as he watched the door swing closed. “Concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.” He staggered forward. The door opened for him as he approached it and he nearly fell because he wasn’t expecting it to. Simole’s grabbed him from behind and pulled him back to an upright position.
The old man had two horses hitched to a cart full of crates. Nic was relieved. He hadn’t driven a cart before, either, but it had to be easier than trying to ride a horse for the first time.
“Oh. Yes. I see. Very good.” The man stared at them, clearly afraid of the sorcery he was witnessing. He shook himself out of it and hurried to help Simole into the cart. She ignored him and climbed up by herself.
Nic found it much more difficult, his feet refusing to align themselves with the wooden board he needed to step on. The man watched him for a moment, then assisted him by holding his elbow. It steadied him enough so he could climb aboard, although he was facing the wrong way. Simole twisted him around and he fell onto the seat with a thump.
The man put the reins in Nic’s hands. Simole took them from him, which Nic was thankful about. He looked down at the worried face of their fearful provider.
“You’re Rin Casterman, and that’s your wife, Simmy,” he said, handing Nic a folded piece of paper. “This is the manifest. You’re to transport this wine to the Royal College. General shipments have all been cancelled on account of the troubles, but you shouldn’t have any trouble.” He spoke quickly, trying to force out as much information in the shortest amount of time. “It’s their special delivery, they’ll let you through — no one questions the Royal College’s seal.” Nic inspected the paper thrust into his hand. The red stamp of the college looked real, but he had only ever seen it in books. “Follow this road out of town and all the way to the border. There’ll be guards, of course. I’m not sure what you’re to do after they let you through, but the capital is north, and well signposted. I imagine you could get there in a day or so. There’s food and blankets under the seat.”
Nic bent forward to look under the seat, and almost tipped out of the cart. Simole pulled him back.
The man looked over at Simole. “I… I don’t mean to impose — it’s a great service you would do us to bring down those wretched mages — but the woman you inhabit, young Simmy, she’s my own daughter. Chose to do this of her own free will, ready to make the sacrifice if need be, but if you could see your way to letting her survive this, I would be eternally in your debt.”
The fear Nic had sensed, could hardly have missed, was not so much from the presence of supernatural forces, but the fear of a father for his child.
“You realise,” said Simole, “whoever is master after all this is over, the lives of people like you will most likely be unchanged? They may even get worse.”
“We are ready to fight,” said the man. “And die. War is not our desire, but sometimes it is the price that has to be paid.”
“You will lose any direct confrontation,” said Simole.
“Is there no chance for the weak to overthrow the strong, my lady?”
“There’s always a chance,” said Nic. “A small one.”
“We’ll take it. Good luck to you, also.” He slapped the horse on its rump and it started forward. “And switch drivers before the checkpoint. They’ll be suspicious if they see a woman driving.”
Simole snapped the reins to get the horses moving faster. “Peasants,” she muttered under her breath.
“I think it was the Ranvar soldiers he was referring to,” said Nic.
“I know, so was I,” said Simole.
It took Simole very little time to become a proficient cart driver. As with most things, she was a natural.
The road was long and dusty, but remarkably flat and smooth. Being close to the border with Ranvar didn’t really tell them much about where they were, exactly, but at least the route was direct. There was no traffic to impede their progress, and the weather was clear.
Neither spoke for the first part of the journey. They both knew speculation was pointless. Their approach would be guided by the nature of the obstacles they encountered. Their goal was to get to the Royal College, but after that… It was a less than ideal operation. Nic wanted time to think through the options, but he would have needed to know what they were, first. He still felt he was being pulled along by a lead, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. If he was a pawn in someone else’s game, he was hardly in a position to thwart their plans. Pawns were pawns for a reason.
If anything, he was only here to deliver the demon. As this body had been prepared to house him, he had been prepared to house it. A doll inside a doll inside a doll. For what reason, he couldn’t say, but one demon against all the mages in Ranvar didn’t seem like good odds. Of course, there were more pieces on the game board that he wasn’t even aware of. Why tell the pawn?
And then there was Simole. As powerful as Winnum Roke had been, she hadn’t been able to take control of the girl born to magic. No one had.
“What do you know about your mother?” he asked her as they rolled forward, and gently side to side.
“You don’t speak for an hour, and suddenly you want to know all about my private life.”
“Yes. Was she a mage?”
Simole didn’t say anything for a long minute. “How did you know that?”
“I didn’t. But it’s rare for mages to have children. Or to marry. I can’t recall any other Archmage with a family. I assumed it would be a workplace romance.”
“I don’t know how romantic it could have been. Have you met my father?”
“He was young once.”
“Do you have proof?”
“Have you seen a picture of her? Spoken to anyone who met her?”
“She was real, if that’s what you mean. Her name was Esteria Hokern. She wrote a number of papers and treatise. I’ve seen her name on them, so she existed. My father said she died giving birth to me, but that’s probably a lie. Female mages always die giving birth, that’s why they never have families. Why would my mother forfeit her life to have me? It doesn’t make sense. Far more likely she happened to die around the same time I… arrived. Convenient to make out she was my mother when in reality I was probably concocted from some Arcanum experiment.”
“You think you were created by mages?”
“Why not? It’s possible, isn’t it? Would explain a lot.”
“No, I don’t think so. She was probably your mother, although I don’t know why she would risk her life to have you either.” He paused to look at her. “I mean…”
“I know what you mean.”
“You could do magic when you were a child. So could Winnum Roke. Her mother was a mage, too. She died giving birth to her, same as you. I don’t think that can be a coincidence.”
“How do you know that isn’t the same lie? She could have been a manmade abomination, like me.”
Nic smiled. “We’re all manmade, and you’re hardly an abomination, Simole.”
“If that’s your attempt at flattery, you need more practice.”
“I’ll set aside some time,” said Nic. “You could be right, but it’s hard to fake a pattern. The truth always seems to have an excess of unnecessary pieces. I think you and Winnum Roke were the children of mages, and they didn’t want either of you around.”
“Your father, the other mages, the college. I’m not sure how they come to their decisions, but I don’t think they want you anywhere near the Royal College.”
“So that’s why we’re going there?”
“That’s why we’re going there.”
There was a loud scream, definitely not human, from some distance away. The horses shied and Simole had to pull hard on the reins to stop them shifting sideways off the road.
“That was a dragon,” said Simole, peering up at the empty sky.
Nic stood up and shielded his eyes with his hand. “Not the All-Father.”
“No. Might be dragon troopers. Looking for us, do you think?”
“I doubt it. Will they be able to recognise you?”
“The dragons? How? I’m just a working woman.” She got the horses going again, and Nic fell back to a sitting position.
“They might recognise your scent.”
Simole leaned over and sniffed him. “We don’t smell like us. You smell…” She sniffed again. “You smell quite nice, for a change. Clean.”
“I don’t normally smell clean?”
“You normally smell like a boy. So, no.”
Nic smelled himself, the danger of dragons subsiding in the face of this latest revelation. “I wish someone had told me.”
“Oh, do you think that’s what’s been holding you back? To think, all this time, love was just a bath away.”
“Your coping mechanism won’t stop a dragon from eating you, you know?”
“Not going to happen,” said Simole. “Dragons love me. They’ll do what I tell them.”
“Not if they don’t recognise you.”
She was silent after that.
The border appeared a couple of hours later, a wooden fence stretching in each direction either side of the road. Soldiers stood guard, Nic counted at least six. But beyond them was a camp of far more. And with them, a host of dragons, sitting on the grass, preening themselves.
The cart trundled closer at a leisurely pace.
“How do they reproduce?” asked Nic.
“Dragons? I’m not sure. They don’t lay eggs, if that’s what you think.”
“Have you ever seen a young dragon?”
“Actually, I haven’t,” said Simole. “But their lifespans are far greater than ours.”
“What about mating?”
“In sight of the soldiers? A bit forward of you, Nic, but I suppose if you can’t restrain yourself any longer.”
“I meant the dragons,” said Nic, wishing there was a way to control blushing.
“You really think I’d be allowed to see that? I’m at an impressionable age. It might give me expectations that could never be met.”
Nic laughed. Simole smiled and this time she meant it, her face taking on a beauty that shone through the mask she wore.
“Wait,” she said. “If the All-Father became a dragon, where did the other dragons come from? He didn’t give birth to them, did he?”
“Winnum Roke told us that story, so I’m not sure if it’s entirely accurate,” said Nic. “It felt like a construct handed to her at one time.”
“Facts taken apart and reassembled to make something else. It’s like taking a mosaic apart and placing the pieces to make a different picture. It’s still true to its purpose, just not the purpose its originator had in mind.”
“So a lie.”
“A good lie.”
“Say it. Say it right now. Say it.”
“Yes, okay? Yes, a lie. Happy?”
“Almost never. You better take the reins.” She handed him the reins.
Nic immediately felt out of his element, the reins limp in his hands. He had no idea what to do with them. The horses stopped. She grabbed him by the wrist, and shook. The horses moved forward.
As they approached the checkpoint the guards stiffened, and more appeared, so there were almost a dozen waiting for them. Nic had no idea what the latest developments were at the school, or if the situation with Gweur had escalated. He had to hope their disguise held and the papers they were carrying were authentic. Even Simole would have trouble blasting her way through a troop of dragon riders.
One of the guards came forward, arm raised, motioning for them to come closer. He directed them just past the entrance into Ranvar, and then indicated for them to stop. “I’ll need to see your papers.” Unlike the sharply dressed soldiers watching, his face was that of a mildly bored veteran, his uniform worn and shabby. He had the air of someone who had been manning this checkpoint for years.
Simole handed over the manifest they’d been given, and the guard looked it over. None of the other soldiers had come forward. They milled around like men who had nothing better to do. Behind them, dragons snorted and stretched their wings as troopers tended to them, oiling their scales or brushing their tails with brooms. The view was both fantastical and mundane.
“Yes, this seems fine,” said the guard. “Royal College, huh? I imagine it’s the good stuff. We’ve been expecting you, actually. Delayed, were you?”
It occurred to Nic that they might need to give a bribe. They had no money, as far as he knew. He checked his pockets and found nothing.
“Just need to test a small sample. Can’t be sending soured wine to the Royal College.” He suddenly had a wooden cup in his hand. He walked around to the back of the cart and lifted a bottle out of one of the crates. He popped the cork out expertly, and poured out a small amount.
The other soldiers crowded closer. Did they plan to rob them of their cargo?
The guard saw them coming and waved them away. “Here, back off. This is official business. This is for the Royal College. You see this seal?” He waved the paper about, too fast for anyone to be able to read anything. “What you think those mages will do to you if you filch their grog? Away with you.”
The threat was enough to scare them off. Bored and listless they might be, but they knew better than to draw the ire of mages.
The guard tasted the wine, and then replaced the cork and put the bottle back. “Ah, nice. Lucky men, those mages.” He scribbled something on the manifest and handed it back. It had gone smoother than Nic had expected. Now they just had to make it through the camp, find the road to the capital, and hope to get there before nightfall.
The soldiers were still standing around, eyeing the bottles of wine so close at hand, and yet out of reach.
Simole took his arm in hers and squeezed herself closer, doing her best impression of a dutiful wife, he supposed.
The guard noticed. “Don’t worry about the dragons. Harmless, as long as they’ve been fed. Haha, a jest. Tell your wife to be at ease. These troopers know how to handle these beasts.”
Nic nodded and shook his wrists. The horses didn’t move. Simole slipped her hands over his and pulled on the reins with her fingers. The horses immediately set off.
As soon as they entered the camp, dragons began to sit up and take notice. Simole hunched even closer, making it hard for Nic to guide the horses, not that he was doing a very good job to start with. There was a road, but the camp was encroaching it on both sides, and the horses had to weave their way through it.
The dragons settled down again as they passed.
Nick pulled on the reins.
“What are you doing?” Simole whispered into his ear.
There is no time for crawling along roads, little one. Why crawl when we can fly?
“She says we should take the dragons,” said Nic.
“Great idea,” said Simole. “I’m sure the army won’t mind lending us a couple.”
The dragons were up on their haunches again, their riders whistling and trying to get their attention. The other soldiers began to get nervous at the lack of success the dragon experts were having. The dragons began coming closer, knocking over tents and dragging their handlers with them.
“Stop attracting them,” said Nic.
“I’m not doing anything.”
“It’s not me they’re coming for.”
She was right, he could feel it. They were targeting him. Not him, the demon. He could feel the presence growing in him, and so could they.
The horses started to panic. Nic jumped down and grabbed a couple of bottles. “It’s the wine,” he called out, holding up the bottles like an offering. Did dragons drink wine? Probably not.
Simole copied him, also holding up a bottle in pretence. “Oh,” she said as she drew alongside him. “I see.”
The soldiers had all fled, only the riders continued to try and arrest the advance, with little success. Simole walked forward to meet them. Shouts warned her to keep away.
The lead dragon lowered its head towards her. She reached up and touched its snout, and then she fell, lifeless. Her body didn’t move.
The dragon raised its head and let out a piercing scream. The other dragons answered in kind.
Nic was frozen. A voice was telling him to go forward, but his feet refused. The dragon lowered its head again, its relentlessly fanged mouth open. The chin touched the side of his face. The teeth pinched his shoulder and picked him up. The teeth pressed against his flesh, but didn’t pierce the clothes or skin. He was lifted into the air and then placed back down on the other side of the tents. The dragon’s head turned to one side and an eye looked at him. It seemed amused.
Another dragon nudged him from behind. He turned, almost falling, and put out his hand to steady himself. When he touched the dragon, the sensation was like when he’d first touched his current host, but magnified many times. He was drawn inexorably forward, falling from a great height. This was different. This was like coming home.
He looked to the side. Simole spread her wings and lifted off the ground. He did the same. They were both airborne, flying, soaring. It was ridiculously exhilarating. He wanted to laugh. His mouth opened and a joyous scream tumbled out of him.
Below them, chaos reigned. More dragons took off, answering his call, following them, riderless.
Now, little one, now we are ready to face the All-Father.
Please don't forget to vote. It's my best way to find new readers and helps me out a lot. Cheers.Afterword from Mooderino