A big thank you to my new Patreon supporters Bruce Abbot and Matthew Fine. Cheers guys.Preface from Mooderino
The blank sky added a layer of unreality to proceedings. It also made it much darker. Light from windows pooled around the buildings, but quickly faded as Dizzy walked towards the Pagoda. Even the lamps along the path seemed diminished and offered minimal illumination.
There was no one about. No students, no porters and no agents. She assumed they’d been incapacitated one way or another. Killed, engaged in battle, blinded, distracted, removed from the grounds...
“What is it you expect to do?” asked Davo, catching her up with long strides. “Snap your fingers and make all the demons disappear?”
Dizzy ignored him and kept walking, slightly ahead of the other two so they would understand the structure of their impromptu rescue party.
In her experience, actions established order much faster than words, especially with children. She had realised that when she was ten years old—even before that, if truth be told—and had put it to good use during her time at Ransom.
Thanks to their strict Ranvarian upbringing, the students were primed for obeying a firm and methodical hierarchy. She had seen that immediately, and had been only too happy to place herself in the vacant position at the head of the table.
Unfortunately, those brought up in a less regimented manner were less susceptible to being dominated. They were more likely to feign fealty, performing very much like those who were truly subservient, but never truly accepting subjugation. Especially if she was only introduced to them after they had already started to think for themselves.
It was an interesting problem she hadn’t encountered before, but one she would no doubt encounter with greater frequency going forward, so well worth coming to grips with.
“Hey, slow down,” called out Fanny. “How is this stuff so heavy? Can we swap? Wish I’d gone with Brill, now. Probably sitting by a fire with a hot drink.”
“But surely the love of a good woman has you floating with the strength of ten men,” said Davo, rearranging his own burden.
“It wasn’t like that. She… what was her name, by the way?”
“You don’t even remember her name! What a gigolo you have turned out to be. Just handed her your saviour box for the price of a kiss.”
“Um, yes.” Fanny blushed, which was an impressive thing to do so clearly under such dim lighting.
“What does that mean? What are you hiding, you low-rent lothario?”
“Come on,” said Fanny, suddenly finding his second wind and surging forward. “We have to keep up with her ladyship.”
Most servants and tradesmen were happy to know their place and play along, making their true feelings irrelevant, but those who thought a little too much of themselves, those who believed they were equally capable as those born into a family of high standing, weren’t going to simply kowtow to the lord of the manor. Accidents of birth were hardly grounds for respect and admiration, she could see that.
Dizzy suppressed her urge to put these two upstarts in their place. Instead, she would use them to refine her technique. How do you handle difficult subordinates who aren’t obligated to follow orders? Rather than be irritated, she could use this experience as a valuable learning opportunity. Just because demons were threatening to invade didn’t mean she had to disrupt her schedule.
Her own ambition had led her to train herself to deal with those ahead and alongside her. They were the most likely to get in her way. Of course, there would always be the occasional anomaly who would rise from the ranks, but to do so without the benefits of superior guidance and opportunity meant there would be very few. Ransom itself only accepted four such pupils, but there was likely very little reason to open their doors to more.
It would have been a waste of resources to prepare herself to deal with the kind of people she now found herself walking in front of. The fact that it would have come in so useful now was something she couldn’t have predicted. She would have to improvise and use her wits, which were sharp enough to handle the unexpected. If she treated it as a practical exercise, the experience would provide her with the ability to be that much more efficient in the future, should a similar encounter occur.
Once she’d thought it through and come to the reasonable and logical conclusion that vexing as her current situation was, it would ultimately work to her benefit, she was able to relax and regain full control of her concentration.
“I think she’s ignoring us,” said Fanny.
“I think she’s desperately trying to think of a way to get us to do what she wants without having to say please,” said Davo.
They were both speaking loud enough to be sure she would hear them. Another strange way to behave. Why say something provocative and insulting with the express intention of being overheard? She knew many of her fellow students talked about her behind her back, and that was not only to be expected, but encouraged. It gave them an outlet for their anxiety, and also spread that anxiety to others like a contagion.
But these two seemed to be using their anxiety to take potshots. They had less to lose, so were happier to gamble on gaining some kind of respect for their audacity, presumably.
“I don’t like how dark the sky is,” said Fanny. “Makes it feel like we’re in a box, waiting for someone to open the lid and stick their hand in.”
She glanced up involuntarily. The sky was uniformly black, with no texture and no outline. If anything convinced her there really was a demonic presence in Ransom, it was that. Magic might be the cause of the dome of darkness covering the school, but the reason someone would go to such lengths could only be something very drastic. If not demons, something equally problematic.
“As long as they want to keep us confined,” said Dizzy, “they want to keep us alive. That’s the only thing you need to glean from the dome’s presence.”
“I think there are a number of other things we can glean from the dome’s presence,” said Davo, “such as the power level of the people who put it over the school, the likelihood that they have other, even more daunting powers to use against us, and the very real possibility that they are on the school grounds right now, probably watching us and wondering what we’re doing with all this gardening equipment.”
Both boys were loaded with the equipment from her chest, none of which would be very useful for gardening, but it would come in useful if they needed to dig through a collapsed building. She was carrying a coiled rope over her shoulder, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
“You may well be right,” said Dizzy, “but there’s nothing we can do about any of that. Which is why it’s irrelevant. We are at a disadvantage, and when there is absolutely no way to achieve an overarching victory, you focus on one thing and try to achieve it to the best of your ability. They, whoever they might be, have taken on a large and overwhelming situation. I don’t care who they are, you can’t fight on so many fronts and maintain full vigilance in all areas. We only have one goal—finding Nic. Our advantage is in being able to focus all our resources in one area.”
She wouldn’t normally have taken the time to explain herself to those she considered her workers. Giving people a reason to follow orders set a dangerous precedent. You may not have good reasons for things you ordered in the future, but you would still want those orders carried out.
In this case, however, it was the most expedient way to mollify her reluctant followers. It was unlikely she would need them again, so spoiling them with shared knowledge was unlikely to come back to bite her.
“We’ll find Nic, dig him out, and then find somewhere to hide while the Secret Service take care of the rest.” Give them simple, positive tasks, and they would soon trust her commands implicitly.
“I wouldn’t have put you down as such an optimist,” said Davo. “Nic has a much more rigorous approach. He assumes everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. It makes him shockingly well prepared for any eventuality.”
The comparison made her hackles rise, but she let it pass. How Nic would or wouldn’t react in her place was beside the point. No one would know unless they were in this position having to make decisions on the fly. What people assumed from the comfort of their minds was worth nothing. And not worth commenting on.
“Nic has always been too slow to act,” said Dizzy, unable to heed her own advice. “Which is fine if you have the luxury of having time to prepare, but that isn’t always the case. Especially if your opponents know what you’re capable of, as ours clearly do. They’ve set up a perimeter, managed to keep the Secret Service contained, and they’ve yet to reveal themselves which means they aren’t even in danger of being counterattacked. Books don’t fight back.”
“I think we should take a break,” said Fanny, gasping for breath. The equipment the two boys carried wasn’t particularly large or bulky, but it was heavy. The density had been increased by their exposure to Arcanum over a long period. “Or maybe you’d like to carry some of this stuff. It is yours, after all.”
“Now, now, Fanny. There’s no point delegating if you end up doing everything yourself. Or anything.”
They had crossed the campus to the cafeteria, which was dark and quiet. The Pagoda was just behind the library, only a few more minutes away. She didn’t know what would be waiting for them when they got there, so a little reconnaissance seemed in order.
“Wait here, I’ll check to see if anyone’s watching the Pagoda.”
“You think they’ll be sitting outside waiting for you?” said Davo. “They’re probably hiding in the shadows.”
“That’s where I’ll look, then. Try to get your strength back, there’ll probably be a lot of digging to do.”
Fanny groaned. “Couldn’t you have brought along some of your oafish minions? They look like they’d be good at that sort of thing. Tell them there’s a bone buried under the Pagoda and watch them race to get at it first.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Dizzy, perplexed but sure she should be offended on behalf of her oafish minions.
“It means,” said Davo, “that people judge you by the company you keep. You surround yourself with sycophants and violent thugs. You’re a means to an end kind of girl, aren’t you?”
“What if I am?” She hadn’t had it put to her so bluntly before, but there was no shame in being the kind of person who got the job done. It was what the entire kingdom had been built on.
“Well, it’s very hard to trust someone like that. They’re always justifying their actions by claiming it’s for the greater good.”
“And what if it is for the greater good?”
“Whose?” asked Davo very flatly.
“I don’t have time to debate politics with you,” said Dizzy. “Suffice to say you would lose. Wait here, I’ll be back in minute.”
“Wait,” said Fanny. “How will we know if you need us?”
What kind of question was that? “I’ll tell you when I come back.”
“He means what if you get caught or trapped.”
Unlikely as that seemed, it was a possibility. “Give me one of those boxes you gave Garroty.”
Fanny stared blankly at her.
“Go on,” said Davo. “She can use it to call us.”
“Um. The thing is, I just gave her an empty box.”
“What?” said Davo, appalled. “It won’t send out a distress signal.”
“Why did you do that?”
“I just wanted her to feel better,” whined Fanny. “I was being nice.”
“Oh, very nice. And what happens when demons try to break down her bedroom door and she presses the button to summon her hero? You don’t think she’ll be a little disappointed in you?”
“She won’t be disappointed for very long,” mumbled Fanny.
Davo shook his head. “That poor girl. To think she gave you a kiss for that.”
Dizzy had had quite enough of these two. “Just wait here.” She ran towards the library without waiting for a response.
As she hurried away from the two idiots, she heard one ask, “What do you think he sees in her?”
The other one answered, “You really have to ask?”
She felt like running back and demanding they explain what they meant, by force, but she didn’t have time. She jumped onto a window ledge and propelled herself up. Scaling it wouldn’t be a problem, it had many handholds and plenty of ledges. Once on the roof, she’d have a much better view of the Pagoda, and a better chance of seeing any other observers.
She enjoyed climbing. It was when her mind felt at its freest. While her body employed every muscle and tendon in an attempt to defeat gravity, her thought flowed as though no longer connected to her or any of her more mundane problems.
She couldn’t rely on the Secret Service, that much was apparent. It made her realise how short-sighted she’d been in not studying their methods more closely. Apart from a broad understanding of their procedures and what they would and would not allow from the student body, she knew very little of their actual procedures and methods.
Her thinking had been that they would take care of whatever fell under their purview, so it wasn’t something that required her consideration. She only needed to make sure she was able to handle the situations that directly affected her. Now she could see how foolish that was.
Only by understanding how the Secret Service operated could she become aware of their weaknesses. Which would then make her aware of the strengths of anyone who managed to constrain them.
It was obvious now that she was in a position to need that information. If she knew what the enemy needed to be able to do, she would have a much better idea of what they were capable of, and therefore how to go about countering them.
But she didn’t know. She had assumed no one could overcome the Secret Service simply because no one ever had, which was stupid. Now she understood why Father was always so busy and looked so tired. He not only had to manage his own department, he needed to know the workings of all the others. That way, if they became compromised, he would know exactly what methods had been employed.
Once the minor matter of demons and lost boys was taken care of, she would redirect her attention to understanding how other people functioned, and the best way to nullify them, starting with the Secret Service agents here on campus. Their proximity made them the ideal subjects for study, which she should have realised when she first arrived at Ransom and discovered their presence. Five years of research potential lost.
Now she knew what her presentation project would be on. Her initial choice seemed pointless by comparison. She had the most fascinating topic right on her doorstep and the means to study them on a forensic level. Not that her presentation could be quite so explicit. If she truly presented a deconstruction of the Secret Service, she’d end up getting arrested. Probably by her own father.
She climbed over the parapet and onto the roof. It was flat and featureless, covered in black pitch. She kept low and moved silently. And then stopped. There was something ahead of her. Something on the roof. Not something small, either.
It looked like a small building, a structure like a dome. It was hard to see clearly.
It was the secret library they’d accessed, where the librarian kept Winnum Roke’s book. There was no obvious way in, as you’d expect.
She crept closer and reached out her hand touched it. The walls were smooth and glassy. If she had time she would have spent time trying to figure out how it worked, but not right now. She had other business to attend to.
She went around it, keeping an eye out for any more invisible rooftop features.
Nic felt bloated.
He wanted to sleep and let himself rest. Every part of him hurt. Not the kind of pain that came from broken bones or bruised flesh. He ached from within, like a child who had eaten too many sweets, had kept going when his body had reacted with nausea and dizziness, ignored the sweat on his brow to force down one more sugary treat, and now lay immobile, regretting every delicious moment.
He lay still, unable to rest, occasionally laughing for no reason.
He tingled with raw power that made him tremble if he didn’t force his mind to restrain it. He was able to hold it down, but little else.
He could still sense the demon close by. Smaller, weaker, an empty husk.
The demon had been unable to stem the tide. Nic had taken it all, ripped every morsel from the demon’s being. It had been remarkably easy. Once he had the demon in his grasp, it was like placing a straw in a cup. He sucked out every last drop.
It had filled him in a way he hadn’t expected. It wasn’t like the time he had been poisoned with an overdose of Arcanum, this was more like being fed too much soft cheese. Only, the more that was squeezed into him, the more compact and hardened it became. And the more rigid his body felt.
What was the point, though? If he didn’t find a way to use the power now within him, all he would have achieved was to do the demon’s job for it. He needed to convert what he had taken into a tool, into a weapon. Into a door to some place other than here. He wondered if that was possible.
Your Green Demon is no demon at all, muttered the voice in his head. It had been relentlessly trying to explain Nic’s story, no longer concerned with anything else.
“He is as much a demon as you,” said Nic.
The Green Demon maimed the child for his own amusement. The demon sounded tired and uncertain.
In the story, the Green Demon had scarred a pretty girl.
“Would you have found it amusing?” asked Nic.
No. Pain is only amusing to the desperate.
“Show me how to leave this place,” said Nic.
I cannot. I will not. You must find your own way. The words rang with a finality that unnerved him. Even at its weakest, the demon would not relent.
While the demon squirmed to hold on to its last vestiges of existence, Nic squirmed as the enormous power he held tantalisingly offered him a way to be free while refusing to show him how.
But inflicting pain was not the only way to control others. It could be done just as effectively by inflicting pleasure.
“Your mistake,” said Nic, “is in assuming the Green Demon was unchanged by his many years in captivity. Or assuming he resented those years.”
There was a moment of stillness between them. He gained from those years, said the demon, hesitant but clear.
“He changed,” said Nic. “You cannot change the function of a thing and not change its shape. And you can’t change its shape without changing its function.”
He became more like those who surrounded him.
“When you face a power that is able to control you, whether by force or subterfuge, you can destroy it and hope it will be lost forever.”
All knowledge will once again resurface, said the demon.
“Or you can learn it yourself.”
And become changed by it.
“Yes,” said Nic.
The girl he maimed… your kind are repulsed by ugliness, especially in yourselves. You bury it so not to see it, but her scars were on the surface, stealing her confidence. She would have grown to be his rival.
The man whose house the Green Demon burned down, he was a pillar of the community, one of their own.
The gutted house would reveal the places he had kept hidden, the man he truly was.
The demon’s voice was stronger now. Growing. Unable to trust in their neighbours, they would turn to an outsider.
The rats he led out of the city… a gift they would take as a sign of his ability to help them, to save them, to lead them. He wished to be their leader. Not by force, but by acceptance. They would make him their king.
“Yes. You are right, except that the Green Demon failed.”
No, howled the demon, its newly refound confidence wavering. How?
“You wish me to tell you?” said Nic, simply, plainly.
“If I do, will you be grateful?”
“Will you show me the way to leave this place?”
Nic smiled. The power was less uncomfortable now. “Then show me, and I will tell you.”
Dizzy looked down at the Pagoda. Light from the main campus was the only source of illumination, and it provided very little. She could make out the Pagodas shape, but that was all. If there were people down there watching, they were too well hidden to be seen from up here.
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected. A ring of armed men holding torches aloft, perhaps. Something easy to identify as the enemy. It would have been more convenient, but she might as well have hoped for them to have colds and for their sneezes to give away their positions.
She had no choice but to get closer. At least the Pagoda was intact. She had feared it would be a collapsed ruin, quietly dropped on Nic’s head. Trust him to get himself trapped in the only place on the school grounds she hadn’t thoroughly inspected.
She removed the rope from over her head and hooked it onto the roof. It had a simple device attached to one end that would stick to any surface and remain so until pulled off with a specific rhythm. It had been one of the first uses for Arcanum-loading she had learned of, and had helped her get into many spots she shouldn’t have been able to reach. Now it was going to drop her into the middle of a spot she might never be able to leave.
She dropped the rope over the side and then ran down the wall, head first, holding onto the rope to stop herself falling. Her feet touched down softly as she swung herself off the bottom of the rope. She left it attached in case she needed to climb back up quickly, although she doubted that would be necessary. Anything she encountered here would most likely not let her get away so easily.
She crouched and listened, her hearing at least wasn’t obscured by the darkness. There were no sounds other than a soft breeze through branches.
“Attend me.” She felt the shape move around her rather than saw it. “Search around the Pagoda. Check for any hidden observers. Human or otherwise.”
“Area is clear,” said the wraith without moving.
Dizzy didn’t like the way it had been so sure. “How did you check?”
“Arcanum field scan.”
She reached into her pocket and took out a small button. It had been in the chest, one of the tracking devices her father had placed on her—the one he thought she’d never find, probably. It always perturbed her that it might not be, and there was one she hadn’t found, but she had been very thorough and was more or less certain.
She placed the button on the nail of her thumb, and then flicked it into the air, as far from her as possible. It landed silently out in the dark somewhere.
“Locate the button.”
“Button is no longer present,” said the wraith, very sure of itself.
“You just saw me toss it over there,” she said, a little irked at how dense her father’s creations could be. Which was the main reason she had been able to override their instructions, but it was still annoying to deal with. “How do you think it disappeared?”
There was a moment of silence. “Arcanum field has been manipulated.”
“Yes. Now, search the area for any observers. Manually.”
The wraith vanished in a wisp of smoke.
“That’s very impressive,” said a voice from her left.
Dizzy sprang back as a light flared into life, orange at first, then settling to yellow, flickering off the leaves and plants behind him as Denkne appeared out of the dark.
She composed herself almost immediately. This was one of the outcomes she had been prepared for. She just hadn’t expected it to occur without any warning whatsoever. “Mr Denkne? Why are you here?” She looked around for any other surprise visitors.
“I believe I should be asking you the same question, Miss Delcroix. I take it that was one of your father’s sentinels. Amazing. And you seem to be able to control it without using Arcanum.”
“It’s assigned to watch over me. With varying levels of success.”
Denkne smiled, his teeth matching his pale face in colour, making the expression seem painted on his face. “But the level of sustained Arcanum to keep it active and following orders… the strain on your poor father must be immense. He must love you very much to risk the possible side-effects.”
Dizzy found him irritating, and assumed he was doing it deliberately. Put her off-balance by insinuating her meddling was putting her father’s life in danger. He wasn’t behaving like a concerned teacher, he was more like a guard, probing to find out what secrets a trespasser had overheard.
“Why are you here, Master Denkne? Weren’t you sent to make sure the Tutt boy was kept safe from harm? Because I think you’ve failed that task. Unless that was your objective all along. Do you long for the return of demons and wish to be a favoured vassal, like your people before you?”
He reacted, if only slightly, but she had touched a nerve. Two could play the off-balance game.
She knew the stories of his countrymen, how they had tried to win favour with the demons by fighting against Ranvar. The stories were unproven rumours with no foundation, or at least none that had survived. The nations had different names then, but their white hair and pale skin had survived long after the flags and borders had changed.
“Why are you here, Miss Delcroix?” he said, without the smile.
“I noticed the stars fell out of the sky and came to take a look. I believe the Pagoda is at the heart of this particular mystery. The dome above us appears to be centred over it.”
Only now that her mind raced to make excuses did she consider this. She had no way of knowing if it was true, but it sounded very plausible.
“Very perceptive,” said Denkne. “We should leave here, allow the agents to deal with whatever is going on. Where are your two friends?”
“They went for help.” How did he know about the other two? He was a mage, but if he had seen them earlier, why wait until now to appear? Surely he would have told them to go back as soon as he spotted them.
“I’m going to go in the Pagoda. I think there might be someone in there. My father is on his way, but I’ve found a strange Arcanum signature in there.”
“What kind of signature?” asked Denkne, suddenly more interested in her pretend findings than his teacherly duty to get her to safety.
“I placed a tracker on the Tutt boy,” she lied. Of course, it was dangerous to tell untruths so blatantly around someone highly versed in the use of Arcanum, but he was more than a little tainted by falsehoods himself. “It’s hard to detect under these conditions, but my guardian can get into very difficult to reach places.”
He nodded his head in a sympathetic, rhythmic way as she explained herself. “Can it? That’s very interesting. I think perhaps you better call it back, Miss Delcroix.” The light floating over his head brightened and there were blue sparks in his eyes. “It’s job is to protect you, after all.”
“That isn’t its job,” said Dizzy. “It just happened to be convenient for my father to have one watch over me. Originally, he designed it to protect the kingdom from what he considered the most likely threat to the throne.” She looked at him without fear. The power he was generating was impressive. She could feel the hairs on her arms rise.
“He didn’t consider demons to be the greatest threat?” asked Denkne, Arcanum spitting from his fingers.
“No,” said. “He’s always been more concerned by mages.”
The wraith appeared next to her, a shadowy figure of no discernible shape.
“Assess threat level,” she said.
“Activate enslavement protocol.”
“Confirmed.” The wraith floated in front of her.
“How sweet. You really think that little thing’s going to ‘enslave’ me?”
“No,” said Dizzy. “Activate reserves.”
“Confirmed,” said the wraith. Dark figures materialised, dozens of them, hovering above and around them.
Denkne took a step back, his eyes no longer mocking her. A blast of energy flew out of his hand towards her. A wraith darted in front of it, absorbing the energy and growing larger.
He fired again and again, but only strengthened the barrier around him.
Dizzy turned and walked towards the Pagoda as the wraiths swooped down on their prey.