The two boys struggled to get Nic’s body down the ladder. They would have struggled even if he’d been conscious and able to assist a little — tilt his head, tuck in his arms — but as dead-weight, he was like jelly running through their fingers.
Dizzy felt frustrated watching them, but she had too many other concerns to worry about their lack of common sense. At least while they made a poor job of getting Nic down into the library, she had a chance to review her options. There might not be time to make a considered choice later, so she needed to use this time efficiently. What were her options? What were the likely obstacles? Who were her targets?
Her father was dead, she was fairly sure of that. Not only did the evidence suggest it was highly likely — his wraiths were completely unreachable — she also had a sense of it at a deeper level. She had never been one to put much faith in the power of emotional ties, but if Arcanum had bridged the difference in their abilities to allow her control of some of his creations, then it wasn’t too far a stretch to imagine she would be able to sense when that bridge collapsed. It was gone, he was gone, she knew it.
It was a devastating loss, but not one she had time to indulge. The gnawing sensation in her gut she identified as grief wasn’t going to help her, so she had to ignore it. The harder she pushed it away, the more she wanted to lie down, get closer to the ground, let her body uncoil, and give herself over to the embrace of despair.
Her nails dug into the hilt of the dagger. Losing focus now would be disastrous. Her father would have never allowed her into this situation, not when she was so far from being ready, but now that she was here, he would be disappointed if she didn’t make her presence count. Thinking about what to do only gave you less time to do it. At a time like this, what you had to rely on was momentum. Keep moving; it didn’t matter if you were wrong, only that you were building up speed. Stop, and you might never be able to get going again.
She forced her brows, knit together in concentration, to separate, relax. Her father had prepared her for this. He had known eventually she would be forced to operate without his assistance, so he had started her early. She had always known it. His reluctance to aid her, to spend time with her, to give her even the smallest compliment or encouragement, those weren’t the acts of a kind father. They were the acts of a great teacher.
She wasn’t ready, yet, she knew that. But she was better prepared for this situation than anyone in the immediate vicinity. Her actions could make all the difference. What she decided to do, and what she decided to stop.
“This is a bit tricky,” said Fanny with only his head poking up through the floor, and Nic’s forehead awkwardly resting on his shoulder. “Do you want to swap places?” His face was red and his exhaling breath made a strange whistling sound as it escaped from his nose.
“No,” said Davo, who had Nic’s feet. He looked annoyed, holding onto Nic like he was trying to thread him through the eye of a needle, his breath also laboured, his normally slicked-back hair flopping over his eyes.
At this rate they could end up stuck here while the rest of Ranvar dealt with the matter. Would that be the worst outcome? At least the Librarian would be unable to interfere.
She stood watching, an inscrutable smile on her pale face, not a hair out of place. Not human. Not demon. What was she, then? What else was there?
The boys looked to the Librarian for help, already in her sway. She didn’t even need to use magic on them.
“Get out of there,” Dizzy said to Fanny, a sharp wave of her hand telling him to move. “You’re going to drop him on his head. It’s about the only part of him worth something.”
Both the boys shot angry scowls at her, their faces even redder than from their exertion. Good, they could use a little more blood flowing to their brains.
She was sure of one thing — sitting out a fight didn’t get you anywhere. If you won, you earned nothing. If you lost, you earned nothing.
“We don’t have the time for this,” she said. “I’ll do it.”
They looked wary of her, but not doubtful. At least they accepted her abilities, if not her good intentions.
Davo pulled Nic away from the opening, dragging his face along the floor. Fanny huffed and snorted trying to get back into the room.
“No,” said Dizzy. “Go down.”
Fanny looked bereft, as though he was being sent home early from the party. She had no patience for his insecurities and feigned descending the ladder herself. He quickly put his anxiety to one side, and scurried down to avoid her boot stamping on his fingers.
Dizzy brought her dipping foot out of the opening, and took two steps to stand over Nic. She bent down to slip her hands under Nic’s arms. She yanked him up, his feet slipping out of Davo’s hold, and heaved him over her shoulder. His face shot past hers, and for an instant they were nose to nose. His eyes were open, but vacant. Then he was just a weight on her back.
She walked over to the opening, and stepped into it.
There was no need to use the ladder on the way down. She didn’t bother to check if the fat boy had stepped clear. Either he had, and she would hit the landing hard, or he hadn’t, and she’d hit it a lot softer.
Her boots met solid ground, her knees bent the necessary amount to compensate for the extra weight, and she straightened. Nic remained flopped over her shoulder.
“Is he alright?” asked Davo, his face peering down at them.
“Yes,” said Fanny from behind her. “I think so. He looks the same.”
Momentum. She kept moving through the library, down the stairs, to the back office. She kicked the door open, tilted forward, and let Nic fall off her, onto a chair. He landed on the seat, but the lack of any tension in his body meant he was going to slip right off. She raised her boot and placed it on the seat between his legs, stopping his downward slide.
“What are you doing?” cried out Davo.
She looked at his horrified face, then down at her boot in Nic’s crotch.
“Be quiet,” she said, not feeling the need to explain her every move. She took her foot away. Nic remained seated, momentum gone. “Where’s the Librarian.”
“Here,” said the Librarian, entering from behind Davo, Fanny eagerly following like a pet on a leash. “We will need to get to the edge of the barrier.”
“You can raise it?” asked Dizzy.
“Yes,” said the Librarian. She looked out of the window. “We need to wait a few minutes.”
“Wait for what?” said Dizzy.
“The right moment. Can you manage with Mr Tutt?”
“Yes,” said Dizzy, “but I’m not entirely sure why I should have to. You’re one of them, aren’t you? Yes, yes, you aren’t a demon, you use trinkets to perform marvellous feats, it’s very impressive, but you share some of their abilities, don’t you?” The Librarian nodded. “Then animate his body and make it follow you. I imagine it’s something you’re good at.” She gave Fanny a withering glare before returning her gaze to the unflinching Librarian. “I would rather conserve my strength for other things.”
She kept her eyes locked on the Librarian’s, watching carefully. There was little chance the Librarian would do as she was told, but the manner of refusal often revealed something about a person.
“You could do it, if you wanted to,” Dizzy said very plainly, “couldn’t you?”
The two boys were looking at the Librarian, expecting an answer. Good. None of them had the ability to overpower her, but maybe they could still wring a few answers from her with the weight of simple expectation.
Demons were susceptible to it, she knew. They wanted you to think they had the answer. It strengthened them, solidified their faith in their own abilities. Being able to manufacture truths made them arrogant. It was one of their many weaknesses. Even if this wasn’t a demon, it was from the same mould. A disposable copy would exhibit the same traits.
“Yes,” said the Librarian. “I could assume control of his body. But it would be highly discourteous. I would never do such a thing without his permission.”
What was this? An attempt to appear sympathetic? Principled? Judging by the way the two boys were looking at her with moony faces, the ploy was being well-received.
“I give you permission,” said Dizzy. “No one knows what he would want better than me.”
That earned her a raise of one eyebrow.
“What are you talking about, you deluded harpy?” said Davo, voicing his outrage in no uncertain terms. “You have no say in what happens to his body. I thought we were clear on this. He isn’t your property. Even a servant deserves better consideration.”
This was starting to irritate her. “A servant does, yes. But he isn’t a servant. He doesn’t have those sorts of rights. You may not think I have the power to decide what happens to him, but make no mistake, if he had the chance to assign ownership of his vacant body, he would hand it over to me.”
Davo rolled his eyes so hard his whole head rocked back. He didn’t believe her. The arrogance of the ignorant. Her father had spoken about it often. In a country where people gained authority by birthright, you had to expect people to assume they deserved to be where they were, because nothing had proved otherwise.
The only way to dissuade them of that notion was to provide them with the otherwise they believed didn’t exist.
But there was a flipside to that coin. A soldier who rose from private to general, whose armies were victorious, you could give credit for the win. A commander put in place by a powerful family, given the pick of the finest troops and advisors, might also be a genius on the battlefield, but how would you know?
Before she could show Davo his desire to protect Nic was unnecessary, she would have to convince him her authority was valid. He had seen Nic prove his worth. She was just the daughter of a well-positioned Minister.
“You think I feel nothing for him? That he’s a pitiful waif pining for some unrequited love? I feel everything for him. Everything. And he knows it. Do you really think he would pursue me so relentlessly if he didn’t already know how I felt? Do you really believe he got his calculations wrong?”
Davo’s face, held rigid in a state of determined defiance, buckled. He didn’t believe her, yet, but he was beginning to doubt himself.
“The way you feel about someone is immaterial when it comes to shaping the world we live in. This isn’t a fairytale where the good, good people fight the bad, bad people. The princess immediately falls in all-consuming love with the endlessly brave prince and they live happily ever after. You think that’s the ultimate goal? What is your ambition, Davo? Open a new branch of your father’s store in Gweur or Francome? Wealth? Family?” She spoke with as much disdain as she could gather, which was easily done. “So what if I have feelings for him? What if I want more than that? It doesn’t mean I don’t care for him, it means there are some things more important than being happy.” She let the words sink in. “Can you grasp that? Can you see beyond the profit margin on your balance books?”
The two boys looked at each other, confused. They didn’t understand. They couldn’t envision a need for reaching beyond the things they’d always been told were the most enviable of goals.
“He could have done it. I don’t doubt, given the time, and a lack of distraction, he could have convinced me to give up my dreams for him. That’s part of the reason I did my best to keep him away. But there were distractions. Big ones. We both knew where our priorities lay. Where we were needed. We’re the same. We’re not interested in other people’s stories, other than as a curiosity to take apart and put back together. Do you know why people find stories so engaging? Because they’re written to please the simple-minded. Magic that shapes reality into sweet confections for the drooling masses, like you.”
Fanny’s face had paled, his eyes enormous. Davo was stiff as an iron rod. Both looked ready to throw themselves in front of Nic’s body, to save him from her.
“Fools like you, and her.” She pointed at the Librarian, who showed no reaction, as expected. “They think making dreams come true is some kind of pinnacle to be mounted. That faith is worth venerating. That’s why we beat them. That’s why we’ll always beat them.” She saw the questions in the boys’ eyes. They wanted to doubt her words. What was her source? Who did she take her answers from? “What? You don’t think I studied the history of our people? You don’t think I was curious about how we defeated a race a thousand times more powerful than us? You seem to think Nic’s superiority over you must mean his superiority over me. Everything he knows, I know. The only difference is that I can also climb a rope and hit a target with a knife at twenty metres.”
“He beat you in the mocks,” said Fanny in a muttered whisper.
“Yes. And he will always beat me in a written exam. That’s how he thinks. He likes to collect as many answers from as many experts, living or dead, as he can, and then he looks for the better answer none of them managed to find because they never had the chance to meet each other. It’s an excellent strategy if you have the luxury of time and only the inconsequence of school exams to worry about. In the real world, that isn’t feasible. There are already people who did everything you are setting out to do before you were even born. You won’t catch up by racing them. And there are people who have access to materials you don’t even know exist. And most critically, there are creatures like her, who know the source of what you seek because they were actually there when it happened. You can’t outlearn them.”
“Then what?” said Davo.
“You have to outplay them. Outfight them. Outthink them. You take what you know, evaluate the risks, and extrapolate.”
“You guess?” said Fanny.
“You can call it that. But you act. You affect their choices by being involved. As soon as they have to take you into account, their preparations, no matter how many millennia old, are diminished.”
It was all so infuriating. She turned to the Librarian. “I know I wasn’t ready. At least another three years, maybe more if my father had his way. But I was still the person you should have sent.”
“You would have failed,” said the Librarian, so matter-of-factly it stung. “It is time. Be careful with his body. He’ll want it back undamaged.”
“Then make him walk,” said Dizzy.
Nic stood up. His eyes were open, but there was no life in them. He walked stiffly to the door, and bumped into it face first. He bounced back a few steps and did it again.
“I’m a little rusty,” said the Librarian.
Davo hurriedly jumped in front of Nic, and opened the door for him. This time Nic walked out. The others followed.
It was the same empty sky overhead. The same still night with no sounds. Dizzy scanned the area between them and the Pagoda. The Secret Service agents had made no intervention. She had to assume they weren’t going to.
As they walked in single file, Nic’s empty body leading them, a sound caught her attention. A shuffling walk.
“Someone’s coming,” she said.
The Librarian stopped, and so did Nic. She raised a hand to indicate that Dizzy shouldn’t do anything. Dizzy tensed, prepared to make that decision herself, depending on what there were about to face.
A figure came staggering towards them. The gait was familiar. It was the same way Nic was walking.
“Mr Denkne,” said Fanny. “Are you alri…” The words died on his lips.
As he approached, it was clear he was not alright. His mouth was gagged, his hands and arms were contorted, his eyes were lifeless. He moved like a grotesque puppet. He walked past Dizzy without reacting to her, even though his injuries had been caused by her. He went to the head of the line, next to Nic. The difference between the two was noticeable.
“He’ll be fine,” said the Librarian.
“I think he’s dead,” said Fanny.
“Yes,” said the Librarian, “but he’ll be fine.”
The line began to move again. They were heading for the wooded area behind the Pagoda. As they walked through the trees, light from the lanterns around the Pagoda faded. The Librarian’s bracelet began to glow, providing enough light to see by.
Fanny and Davo stumbled a few times, but Dizzy, all the way in the back, never lost her footing. After several minutes the trees thinned and it was possible to see the barrier ahead of them. The darkness above them extended down to the ground, making it impossible to see what was outside the school grounds. It ended within the school walls.
There was a clearing here. The Librarian stopped the procession. Her bracelet glowed brighter.
She put out her hand and placed it on the barrier. It reacted to her touch, splitting open in a line that stretched towards the top of the dome..
“You’re separating the field?” asked Fanny, his voice filled with fascination.
“It is impenetrable vertically,” said the Librarian. “But horizontally, you can part it like a curtain. It pushes itself apart.”
“Like magnets?” asked Fanny.
“A little. The effect is not quite so binary.”
Fanny turned to Davo. “We don’t have anything like this.”
Davo took a moment to consider Fanny’s words. “This isn’t the Archmage’s doing?”
Fanny shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“You put up this barrier?” Dizzy said to the Librarian. “To stop the demons coming here?”
“There are no demons to stop. They are already here. They have been for some time. It was to keep people out, to keep them busy.”
The barrier parted like a curtain, as she had said it would. The outside world peered in. Nothing seemed to have changed while they had been locked away.
“If you put it up, you could have taken it down anytime,” said Dizzy.
“Then what were we waiting for?”
“It is not enough to act,” said the Librarian. “You have to know when. And be willing to wait.”
Davo snorted. “That’s a lot easier when you’re nearly immortal.”
“Yes, we are, nearly. But so are you,” said the Librarian. “You have children. It’s why we came here.”
Dizzy felt a chill. What did that mean? “Who are you? What are you? You say you aren’t a demon, and I believe you. But then what else?
The Librarian said nothing.
“You value the truth so much, yet you keep it hidden, like you’re ashamed of it. Do you think a lie is so different from a secret? Both are hiding the truth.”
“Some truths aren’t important,” said the Librarian. “They only make things harder to understand.”
“And some things are too hard to admit. Because then they can be shown to be false,” said Dizzy. “At least tell me this. Are you the All-Mother?”
“No,” said the Librarian without hesitation. “I am nothing so grand. I came here to fulfil a task, and I think I am close to completing it. I have had to wait for the right moment, and finally—”
“Did it not occur to you that the person being misled here is you?” said Dizzy. “That this moment, where you have everything ready to complete your ‘task’ is really just a pretence? Look who you have to wield as your tools. A girl not yet ready, two boys who can barely walk and talk at the same time—”
“—and a couple of empty vessels. What kind of fighting force is that? As much as your kind is adept at arranging for people to think they have made their own choice in getting to where you wanted them, haven’t you succumbed to the same? Somewhere, there is someone placing you in this position, making you think it is all your own idea. Do you really think you have reached your desired goal with us at your back? You planned so long to get here, with us? This is your grand scheme? Where are your demons? Where is the army you raised to sweep away those who stand in your way?”
“Um,” said Fanny. He was pointing up in the sky. “I think that might be them, now.”
She looked up, and from above them, a host of dragons descended. They had no riders, although many had saddles. There were at least a dozen of them, and they were a fearsome sight.
They came one after the other, landing with hardly a sound. Dizzy grabbed onto the hilt of her dagger, even though she knew it would do her no good. She had a very clear understanding of what it took to pierce those scales. A greater power than anything her arms could muster.
These were not the mere steeds of officers she had seen so many times before. These had become something else. Changed or revealed, it was hard to say, but something wild and unfettered. Had this been the secret? Had they been waiting within plain sight all this time?
The Librarian didn’t move. She didn’t speak. The dragons surrounded her. They crowded around her, bowing to her.
The Librarian tapped one on the head, and it waddled forward, ungainly and terrifying. It stopped in front of Denkne, opened its mouth without making any noise, and lowered its jaws over his head. The jaws closed around Denkne’s waist.
The dragon lifted its head, the neck stretching upwards. The mouth opened, and Denkne’s legs slid out of view. The bulge in the dragon’s neck slowly worked its way down.
The three of them watched. What else could they do?
“You… you said he’d be fine,” whispered Fanny.
“He is,” said the Librarian. If she was making a joke, she gave away no sign of it in her expression.
Another of the dragons came towards Dizzy. She refused to back away. Her mind was blanking on her. There was no good way to defeat a dragon. She stood her ground as the large head lowered towards her. The teeth were so large, they didn’t even fit inside the mouth, bursting out the sides. The eyes… the eyes were not those of a wild beast. They were not dangerous.
The dragon pressed the top of its head against her body, a gentle push. It almost felt like a greeting. But then she was out of the way and it was moving again. Towards Nic.
She realised she had just been in the way. It wanted Nic’s body. Was he next on the menu? She couldn’t allow it.
She threw herself between them, arms spread out. How was she going to stop this monster? The only way to fight off a dragon was with another dragon. She had no answers, she could only hope she’d find one before she was added as the appetiser.
The dragon stopped. It lowered its head again, and tried to nudge her aside. At least it wasn’t trying to kill her. Was it friendly? It didn’t matter. Whatever it had in mind for Nic couldn’t be in his best interest. She refused to give way.
Another dragon appeared next to it. With a simple bump of bodies, the first dragon was barged aside. And then the new dragon lunged at her. There was no gentle prodding with this one. Teeth descended in an open jaw.
There was nothing she could do. She lashed out with her dagger, but it proved as pointless as she’d imagined. Even less. Her extended arm was caught between teeth like it had been clamped in a vice. With the merest of flicks, she was flying through the air.
She was able to twist in flight, and landed in a crouch on her hands and feet. She looked up and saw the first dragon drop its chin on Nic’s head. A slight nod, and Nic would be crushed.
The dragon’s head lifted away, and Nic fell onto his backside, sitting on the ground. He shook his head and looked around, one hand scratching an ear, one leg bent at the knee. It was such a familiar pose to her, it left no room for doubt that it was really him.
“Nic?” she said. “You were the dragon?”
“Yes,” he said. “Didn’t you recognise me?”
Five seconds back, and he was already annoying her. “Of course not. You were a dragon.”
“I would have recognised you,” he said, almost chidingly. Her grip on her dagger tightened.
The other dragon’s head swung down, teeth bared in what looked like a smile. A thoroughly unpleasant one.
“Simole,” said Nic, “don’t start trouble. We have to go.”
Fanny came running forward. “Simole? Is that you?”
A taloned claw came down on him, slamming him to the ground, pinning him there. The dragon was grinning.
“It’s her,” called out Fanny. “Davo, it’s her.”
Davo came forward, but not very enthusiastically. He turned to Nic. “How did you get here?”
“Actually,” said Nic, “we were headed for the Royal College, and then suddenly they all changed direction and came here. Hard to break formation when you’re flying as a team.” He smiled. “What about you? Anything happen while I was gone?”
Davo looked at Fanny, then they both looked at Dizzy. She fixed them both in her sights.
“Um, no,” said Fanny, edging behind Davo. “Not really. Denkne got eaten. Oh, but you were here for that.” He looked from one dragon to the next. “That wasn’t you, was it?”
“No,” said Nic. “He wasn’t really eaten.”
“He was reclaimed,” said Dizzy.
Nic stopped and looked at her. The look on his face softened.
“Don’t do that,” she said.
“Look like you’re proud of me. I’m not one of them.” She nodded towards Davo and Fanny. “I’m not your underling.”
“I’ve always thought of you as my equal,” said Nic.
“I know,” said Dizzy. “That’s what’s so galling.”
Simole snorted, blowing dirt into everyone’s face.
“Oh, yes,” said Nic, brushing himself off. “Anyone know where they put Simole’s body?”
“The Archmage has it,” said the Librarian.
“That’s what we thought,” said Nic. “I guess we still need to go to the Royal College. Wait.” Nic began gingerly patting himself on the chest like he was checking for his wallet. Then he turned to face the dragon he had recently vacated. “Are you still in there?”
“Of course, little one,” said the dragon. “This form is much better for discussing matters with mages. Boys tend to burn too easily. You should stay here.”
“What about her?” Nic pointed at the Librarian, who looked like she was sitting in a nest of dragons. “Aren’t you taking her with you?”
The dragon moved towards the Librarian.
The dragon had spoken. Dragons didn’t speak. She had a detailed knowledge of dragon physiology and they didn’t have a voice box for a start. It was impossible for a dragon to make the necessary sounds. A demon, on the other hand…
The Librarian lifted up her hand, reaching towards the dragon’s snout. The dragon reared away from the touch.
“You are angry,” said the Librarian.
“I am ready,” said the dragon.
“You always were,” said the Librarian.
“I am ready to free the others.”
“You can’t. They need more time.”
“They cheated us,” said the dragon, it’s enraged face taking on an almost human quality. No, it was something other than human.
“No,” said the Librarian. “They can only delay. And we can wait. Look.” She pointed at Simole. “In the end, they will give us what they agreed to.”
Simole stretched out her wings. She seemed to be bigger than the others.
The demon-dragon spread its own wings, but then lowered one so it was flat against the ground. The Librarian walked up the wing and sat on the base of the dragon’s neck, ignoring the saddle.
“We shall see,” said the dragon. It took off with a sudden jump, wings retracted. The other dragons launched themselves to follow.
Nic climbed onto Simole’s back. He did it effortlessly, hopping onto her bent foreleg and into the saddle like he’d been doing it all his life.
“You should stay here,” said Nic.
“No problem,” said Davo.
“I should check on that girl,” said Fanny. “What was her name again?”
“What are you doing?” said Dizzy. “Let her go.” She pointed at Simole.
“I need to see this through. Your father…”
“I know,” said Dizzy.
“I’m sorry. We have to go.”
“I need to see this through, too,” said Dizzy. She jumped up and slid in behind him.
“Good luck, Nic,” said Davo.
“Don’t worry,” said Nic. “The demons and mages will be too focused on each other to bother about me.”
Davo looked at Dizzy. “That’s not what I meant.”
Simole grunted and shook herself like she might throw them both off, and then rose into the air.
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