“Is he dead?” asked Davo, his voice a low but urgent whisper.
“He isn’t moving,” said Fanny.
“Are you sure? I think I see his chest going up and down.”
Fanny leaned forward, straining against the invisible bonds holding him in place. He was standing with his arms by his sides, unable to move below the neck. “I can’t tell. Nic?” Fanny shouted. “Are you dead?”
There was no response.
“Brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“What? We’re hardly going to get into more trouble, are we?”
Davo peered nervously towards the other side of the glass dome they were in, where the Librarian was lying, just as still as Nic, but with a knife hilt sticking out of her head.
“At least she’s dead.”
“I don’t think so,” said Fanny. “If she was really dead, we wouldn’t be stuck like this.”
They were held tight in whatever magic the Librarian had used to bind them.
“Maybe it’s self-sustaining,” suggested Davo. “Needs to be turned off.”
“That doesn’t explain her.” Fanny nodded towards his other side, but without looking that way.
Davo had to lean forward to see past him. Dizzy hung in mid-air, her feet several centimetres above the floor. Her arms were raised and spread wide like she’d been crucified, her head bowed. Her hair, which had been pinned back in a neat bun, now hung loose over her face. She hadn’t spoken since Nic had collapsed. The only noise coming from her were heavy, rasping breaths.
“She was free when the Librarian bought it,” said Fanny. “The spell on her was cast after the Librarian went down.”
“Meaning the Librarian can still do magic? Then why is she just lying there? Taking a quick nap?”
“I don’t know,” said Fanny. “Maybe she’s hurt.”
Davo thought it over. Did demons need time to recover from their injuries? Magic beings could conjure up a healing spell, you would have thought. But Dizzy had used some kind of specially-made weapon to immobilise her. It had probably disrupted her Arcanum field. But that didn’t make sense, either. If her Arcanum field was scrambled, how had she managed to cast a spell on Dizzy after getting hit?
Davo leaned forward again, the effort pulling the muscles in his neck painfully taut. “Hey, Delcroix, can you free yourself again?”
She had managed it before, long enough to throw the dagger at Nic. It had been a smart move, using Nic to shield her actions. The Librarian didn’t see the projectile aimed at her until the last moment, when Nic dodged out of the way. That was, he assumed what she had planned. She might have just been trying to kill Nic.
Dizzy didn’t respond. She hadn’t been in the best of moods since being pinned in mid-air, her feet hanging free below her. She had spent the first hour or so struggling to escape, twisting her body into impossible contortions until she was exhausted. Now, she was probably trying to come up with a plan that involved sacrificing him or Fanny.
It might actually be better all around if inspiration didn’t strike.
“Hey,” he said, “how can we help Nic?”
Her head slowly turned to the side, one eye visible through the curtain of hair. Even though he was held firmly in place, Davo’s body twitched in an effort to get away from the vicious mono-stare.
“I’m trying to think,” she said in a slow, quiet voice that left no doubt of the level of interest she had in his queries. “Shut up.”
Fanny’s left leg suddenly jerked forward. The shoe flew off his foot, arcing through the air, aiming for Nic’s prostrate body. Nic’s hand rose, knocking the flying shoe away. Then the arm flopped back to his side.
Davo waited, expectantly. Nothing else happened.
“It’s an involuntary response,” said Fanny. “The body is protecting itself while the mind is elsewhere. Spirit displacement.”
“How do you know that?” Davo was more curious about how Fanny had suddenly gained insight into magic than where Nic’s mind had been displaced to.
“I know things,” said Fanny defensively.
“How did you move your foot?”
The shoeless foot was back in position next to its non-identical twin.
“I’ve got a small disruptor in the pocket of my trousers on that side.”
“So it’s just one leg you can move?”
“Yes. But I have to let the charge build up first. Takes quite a long time. I’ll need another six hours before I can do that again.”
It didn’t sound like it would help them get out of their predicament. No unless Fanny could fling his sock across the room and hit the Librarian with it. Davo was familiar with the state of Fanny’s socks. The smell would be enough to destroy the most intense of Arcanum fields.
There was movement on the floor. The Librarian’s arm moved. Her hand grabbed the hilt of the dagger and pulled it out, throwing it aside. Then her arm flopped back again, similar to how Nic’s had done.
Davo waited for the next thing. There wasn’t one. The two bodies continued to remain where they were on the ground.
“I was right,” said Fanny.
“Congratulations.” Davo was about to add some more choice words regarding what he thought of Fanny’s diagnostic abilities, when Dizzy began shaking. Her shoulder on one side jumped closer to her ear, making a cracking sound that didn’t seem very healthy. Her legs shot out in front of her, and then climbed up like there was an invisible wall to push against.
Both legs were almost vertical, and it looked like her body would go through an entire rotation, but then they just hung there, inverted, before they fell back down again.
Her body went limp, her breathing laboured. Whatever she’d been trying hadn’t worked.
“I think she was trying to climb out,” said Fanny, leaning away from Dizzy.
“Would that work?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I could help if I could reach her with my foot.”
Davo couldn’t see how that would help anyone. “If she does get free, do you think she’d help us?”
Fanny thought about it. “Probably not.”
“No. Probably not. We have to come up with our own escape plan.”
“Yes?” said Fanny. There was a long moment of silence as the two of them racked their brains.
“What would Nic do?” Davo muttered to himself.
“He’d probably tell us a story about some ancient bureaucrat from fifteen hundred years ago who defeated a mad tyrant by using advance accounting techniques.” Fanny chortled to himself, amused by his characterisation of his friend.
“Yes,” said Davo. “You’re right.”
“I am? Accountancy’s the answer?”
“No, you dolt. He would come up with a story. He said that’s how you overcome demons, didn’t he? You weave a fantastic tale so mesmerising, they lose all focus and become immersed in the world you create for them, like a prison. All we need to do is come up with one that keeps the Librarian so absorbed, she forgets to keep us under this spell. Then we get out of here as fast as we can.”
“Okay,” said Fanny, “what kind of story?”
“It has to be one she hasn’t heard before.”
“But she’s a librarian. She must have read every book in the world.”
“Then we’ll have to make up our own story.”
There was another long silence.
“Can you think of one?” asked Fanny.
Fanny shook his head. They both looked across at Dizzy. Neither bothered to ask her.
“Why don’t you just start talking?” said Fanny. “See if something come out.”
“Why don’t you?”
“It’s not really my thing,” said Fanny. “I’m good with my hands. You’re the chatty one.”
Davo considered taking offence at being described as chatty, like he was some kind of shopgirl, but it was hardly the time or place. Clearly it was up to him to get them out of this particular inconvenience.
“Once upon a time…”
“What are you doing?” said Fanny. “Once upon a time?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s a bit old fashioned, isn’t it?”
“She’s a demon,” pointed out Davo. “She’s probably ten thousand years old. She probably invented ‘once upon a time.’”
“I thought you said it should be something she’s never heard before.” There was a faint ‘gotcha’ tone to his voice that Davo didn’t appreciate.
“The format isn’t the important thing, it’s the content. Look at that book of fairy tales she was carrying. You think they were written in the latest style? Now, unless you want to do this, I suggest you play the part of the appreciative audience and shut up.”
“There’s no need to be so aggressive,” Fanny mumbled. “I think she’s rubbing off on you.”
Dizzy made a grunting sound, although whether it was a formal rejection of the credit for Davo’s behaviour, or her preparing for her next escape attempt, he couldn’t be sure.
“I’m sorry. I’ll try to make it up to you in the next life. It should be along shortly.”
“Apology accepted,” said Fanny, who had the irritating habit of answering sarcasm with earnest gratitude. “Please continue.”
“Once upon a time,” —Davo paused, but there was no interruption— “there was a gentleman named… Faniman.”
Fanny’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say anything.
“This gentleman lived in the beautiful city of Cit...iplace.”
“Hmm. Don’t think I’ve ever heard of Citiplace. Sounds made up.”
“Obviously it’s made up.”
“Why didn’t you use a real city?”
“Because what if the demon knows the city better than I do? I have to be convincing, so she can’t doubt my story.”
“You think Citiplace is convincing?”
“Do you know if there’s a river running through Citiplace or not? Huh? See? I control the reality.”
“If you had a strong enough Arcanum field,” said Fanny. “You could use a real city, and it would have a river or not because you said so.”
“I know! Do I have an Arcanum field? No. So that’s why I’m making up my own locations.”
“Okay. But you probably shouldn’t have said all that out loud. She probably heard everything.”
“Can we agree to no more audience participation? I need to get into the story if this is going to work.”
“Mr Faniman was a collector of hats. He had every style from every age, even from antiquity. One day he found a rather ancient, but quaint, form of headgear in an old shop that sold secondhand goods. A small establishment that traded in quality merchandise. The market for previously owned goods was a strong indicator of a city’s economy, and Citiplace produced both fashionable items that people desired, and well-made ones, that were worthy of purchase, even when having been previously owned. Some manufacturer’s considered items that were built-to-last as financially limiting. If a customer bought a pair of shoes that would last him a lifetime, he would never need to spend money in that store again! But Faniman knew better. He was a man who appreciated craft and was willing to pay more, and to buy for pleasure. Faniman loved hats.”
“You aren’t going to go off on a tangent about the import-export business, are you?”
“I’m sorry, am I boring you?”
“No, no. I was just wondering where this was going.”
“Yes. That’s how stories are supposed to work.” Davo gave Fanny a stern look. “Faniman tried the hat on, and the world around him changed. It was a magical hat. He was no longer in the small shop in the city, he was in a cave, and in front of him was a beast of unimaginable horror.”
“How could he see?” asked Fanny.
“What do you mean?”
“How could he see in the cave. Was there a fire?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m trying to help you make it more authentic. The demon won’t just accept your version of the facts.”
“Glowing mushrooms, okay? The cave was full of them. Happy now?”
“Where was I?”
“I know the feeling. The beast had horns growing out of its head. And tusks growing out of its face. And wings growing out of its back.” Davo paused, struggling to come up with the next part. What was he even trying to do? “It was a demon. The demon said, ‘You wear the hat of the first demon. It is an artefact of immeasurable power that will grant you three wishes. What is your first wish?’ And Faniman said, do you have a bigger hat? This one’s a bit tight.”
“That was his wish?” said Fanny, confounded by the direction the story had taken. “He wanted a bigger hat?”
“Do you know the number one reason for the return of headwear? Incorrect sizing. It’s very uncomfortable walking around all day with a poorly fitting hat on your head. Clearly you aren’t cut out to be a millner.”
“I don’t think you’re cut out to be a storyteller.”
“I don’t disagree! You try.”
“Okay. Once upon a time…” Fanny paused. It was the perfect opportunity to say something pointed, but Davo bit his tongue. “Once upon a time there was a young woman who had fallen in love with a boy far below her social standing.”
“Is this going to be a soppy love story where everyone dies because you can’t think of an ending?” asked Davo.
“No. It’s a tale so full of emotion and human drama that it will move you to tears.”
“I’m practically in tears now,” said Davo.
The Librarian sat up. Her eyes looked a little out of focus, but other than that, she seemed unharmed. There was no sign of any wound or injury. No blood, not even a bruise. She rose to her feet and looked down at Nic. She frowned.
“Um,” said Fanny. “Could you free us, please?”
The Librarian looked over at them, like she wasn’t sure who they were.
“Did you like my story?” said Davo. “I could tell you the rest of it if you let us go.” This was how Nic would do it. Offer a part of a story, use it as bait to swap favours.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening,” said the Librarian, her voice strangely muted, as though stuck in the back of her throat. “Maybe next time.”
Of course, the story had to be engaging. Not about hats.
“We aren’t really a threat to you,” said Davo. “And I think my arms are going to fall off if they don’t get some blood circulating in them soon.” His whole life he had been trained to charm austere women of noble birth. Some required cajoling, some flattery. There were even those who appreciated the blunt truth, as though it indicated honesty of intent.
This one seemed to be impenetrable, but she had shown a fondness for Nic. Perhaps even compassion.
The Librarian came closer. She took out a small grey box with a green gem set in the top. She pressed the gem and Davo stumbled as he was set free.
Fanny’s legs collapsed under him and he ended up sitting on the ground. “What is that?” he asked as he rubbed his thighs to get some feeling back.
Davo elbowed him hard. Now was not the time to make inquiries about gizmos and gadgets. Fanny gave him an annoyed look, but stopped talking, now rubbing the side of his arm.
The Librarian didn’t seem to have noticed. She was standing in front of Dizzy, who was still suspended. He and Fanny might not pose a threat, but Miss Delcroix was another proposition entirely.
A noise came out of Dizzy that was like a snake enraged, her fallen hair revealing none of her face. “What have you done to him, demon?” she hissed.
“He is working to save you. To save us all.”
“Would you like to hear a story from me, demon? I could spin you a tale. What would you like? Demons of sophistication who battle with their sharpened wits? That’s how you like to see yourselves, don’t you? Civilised. My story is about a knight and a monster. The knight, in gleaming armour, vowed to kill the monster. The monster, claws dripping crimson, fed on children, devoured them in chunks. The knight hunted the monster down and cut its legs off. The monster bit him with its pointed fangs and he broke its jaw. The monster attempted to flee, but he snapped off its wings. He sliced off its ears and burned out its eyes. He ripped its chest open and dragged out its entrails. The knight placed a blade at the monster’s throat and said, ‘You are evil, and you must be stopped. But your evil will not end with you. Your blood runs in the veins of every child you have sired. They must be cleansed from the land. Though they be but bairn who have committed no crime, their tainted blood has marked them for death, and it is I who must end their lives for no other reason than that they owe their existence to you. This is the evil you have wrought, monster, the curse you have placed on a man that was once good and fair.’” Dizzy lifted her head, her eyes level with the Librarian’s. “I am that knight, monster.”
“What kind of murder fairytale was that?” whispered Fanny in a ratted voice.
“After Nic comes back and saves us from the demons,” Davo whispered back, “it’ll be up to us to save him from her.”
“I like your story,” said the Librarian, betraying no emotion. “But the details are a bit muddy. I think you’ll find the knight left the children out as bait to entice the monster into his killing ground. Not his own children of course, they were too precious to him. Perhaps you know the old saying, ‘it takes a monster to kill a monster’? It is not always the case, but it is certainly one way to do it. Although you don’t have to create your own monster, you can usually find one nearby. Closer than you think.”
“Why aren’t you dead?” said Dizzy. “I struck you true. You should be dead. Why aren’t you dead, demon?”
“Because,” said the Librarian, “I am not a demon.”
Dizzy seemed to buckle, the words causing her discomfort. “Then what are you?”
To Davo, the Librarian seemed to shrink. “I am a failure. I failed to protect those in my charge. I lost everything to a world full of pettiness and greed, of small minds and narrow thought. And yet it was enough to defeat me.” Her sadness grew to fill the small dome they were in.
“You work for them,” said Dizzy. “You are one of them.”
“Yes, and no. I am nothing like them. This body is real. Once it is destroyed, so am I. I would appreciate if you didn’t try to break it again. The repairs are exhausting. The only magic I can affect comes from these.” She held up the small box again. The gem glinted. “Without it, I am no more powerful than you.”
Dizzy twisted her body. Her leg moved with startling speed, kicking the box out of the Librarian’s upturned hand. It sailed through the air and struck Davo in the chest. He caught it as it bounced off him.
“Press it,” screamed Dizzy.
Davo did as instructed, the urgency in her voice pushing out any thoughts of disobeying. He pushed the green gem.
Dizzy dropped to the floor.
The Librarian took a step back, but didn’t seem overly concerned.
Dizzy darted forward, threw herself feet first, sliding past the Librarian, not even close to striking her. But that wasn’t her target.
She skidded to a stop by the dagger that had been thrown clear. She grabbed it, turned over onto her front, and began running back, dagger held out to one side.
She darted from side to side, smoothly, like she was on ice. She veered off towards Nic, spun her body like meat on spit, and landed crouching over his body, one knee on the ground, one close to her ribs. She had a hand on his chest, the dagger pointed at the Librarian.
“You can’t have him. He belongs to me.”
The Librarian hadn’t moved. “I have no intention of hurting him. I think he can still return to us. I had planned to send you, once you were ready. But there was no time, and he was the only one who could… who might be able to change things. He is a boy of such unexpected directions.”
“You should have sent me,” said Dizzy bitterly, tears coursing down her face. “He isn’t a fighter.”
“I didn’t send him to fight. You are the warrior I would have sent. He is the guide that needed to show the way. They will return soon. We must be ready.”
Dizzy crouched lower, like a bird protecting her chick. “No. Don’t touch him.”
“Will you stop behaving like a spoilt child?” said Davo, rising to his feet. “Nic doesn’t belong to you. You’ve done nothing but treat him as an imposition to your grand plans since he got here. If you’d actually treated him with the courtesy he deserved, you might actually have learned from him, and been ready for when you were needed, instead of trying to manipulate everyone within reach to do your bidding. He could have been your guide, but now he’s out there, alone. Get off him. We have to be ready. What do you think will happen if he comes back and finds you sitting on him? He’ll probably die of embarrassment. Now get up.”
Dizzy’s face lost some of its vehement assuredness. She clung to the rest, but it was slipping away. “You trust her?” She slowly drifted back, so she wasn’t directly over Nic’s body.
“No. But as Nic would tell you if he was here, you don’t help your cause by doubting your choices. Once you commit, you act as though it is the right choice. Hesitation can turn a poor chance into a non-existent one.”
“Only he would say what Davo said in a much smarter way,” said Fanny.
“Thank you for your support,” said Davo.
“And he would have made my point much more tactfully than I did,” said Fanny, his face at least apologetic. “That’s why he can fight demons, and we can only try to not get in the way. Did you make this?” He held up the grey box. “Can I look inside?”
“No,” said the Librarian. The box floated out of Fanny’s hand and returned to hers.
“It should be obvious to even someone as conflicted as you,” Davo said to Dizzy, “that she is letting us run around like this. We can’t stop her, and we probably can’t even help her. But maybe if we stay close by, there will come an opportunity when we can help him.” He pointed at Nic.
Dizzy stood up, dagger still clenched in her fist.
“Pick him up,” said the Librarian. “We’ll have to take his body to him.”
“How will we escape from the Archmage’s containment field?” said Dizzy, not sounding combative for the first time. Not as.
The Librarian held the grey box up, and it opened into a strip covered in more gems, and wrapped itself around her wrist like a bracelet. “I’m good with my hands, too.”
Between them, Davo and Fanny lifted Nic off the floor while Dizzy watched through uncertain eyes.
“I thought she was going to stab you when you called her a spoilt child,” said Fanny.
“Me too,” said Davo, his voice no longer that of the bold realist. He patted Nic on the back. “Good luck, Nic. After the demons are taken care of, you’re on your own.”
“I thought our bodies would change,” said Nic. “Become more ghostly.”
“We aren’t ghosts,” said Simole.
“I know. But I feel like this is my real body.” He poked himself in the stomach. “But my body is back in Ransom.”
“You’re lucky,” said Simole. “I have no idea where mine is. Someone was supposed to keep it tethered.” She gave him a backwards glance as she climbed.
“I think it might still be. I’ll ask once she’s talking to me again…” His voice trailed off and he looked at the pulsating wall beside him. “It looks like it’s breathing.”
“It’s for dramatic effect.” She kept walking, the steps cut into the wall disappearing ahead of them once outside the reach of the light floating over Simole.
“It's very effective,” said Nic. “Dramatically speaking.” He did his best not to touch the walls.
Above them was a small white circle. The sky, he hoped. It hadn’t gotten any bigger the last few hours, though.
“I think your father will have your body safe, somewhere.”
“Hmm,” said Simole. “Very useful. Maybe I’ll borrow that girl’s body.”
“I don’t think she’d agree.”
“I wouldn’t ask first.”
“Don’t do that,” said Nic.
“I’ll let you see her naked.”
“No, thank you.”
“You don’t want to see her naked.”
“Not like that. You’re being creepy.”
“You have no idea,” said Simole. “You should see my journals. Take my advice, if you ever get the opportunity to peer inside the mind of a sixteen year old girl, don’t look.”
“Do you think she’ll be happy to see I’m alive?”
“Pathetic. Yes, I’m sure she’ll fall at your feet. ‘Oh, Nic, how could I have been so foolish. It’s you I’ve always pined for.” It will be a magical reunion, I’m sure.”
“Now you’re being mean.”
“Am I?” said Simole. “Am I even worse than a demon?”
“No. Pretty close, though.”
Simole stopped and turned around, looking down at him from on high. “Just watch yourself. Once we get out of here, I’ll be the all-powerful one, and you’ll be back to being a boy of no consequence.”
“I hope so,” said Nic. They plodded on. Nic kept eyeing the wall. What if it wasn’t for effect? What if they were inside a living being?
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Simole. “Her letting us go like this. You know that, of course.”
“Patronising. Nice. A career in teaching awaits you. I was thinking, you were really clever back there.”
“I haven’t finished yet. You used your skills to create a maze for the All-Mother to get lost in. And that allowed me to get free of her restraining spells. An excellent plan.”
“Still not finished. It worked great. Only, that wasn’t the All-Mother. That was Winnum Roke. So then why would your strategy designed for demons work so beautifully on Winnum Roke, who is not a demon?”
“Well...” said Nic.
“Yes, yes, lots of possible reasons. The switch between her and the All-Mother could have had all sorts of side-effects, I’m sure. Arcanum everywhere, demons merging all over the place. Lots of possibilities, right?”
“Yes,” said Nic. “Lots.”
“But not very likely that you would just luckily stumble onto the right method at the right time, is it? Far more likely she let you think you outplayed her. That’s the way she likes to do it, after all. Like with the dog. Make a lie to be found out. Let the mark think they’re one step ahead, when they’re a thousand steps behind. Even now, she probably wants us to go to the Royal College, create a fuss. She probably even wants us to figure this out, all part of her plan.”
She stopped again. He was following with head down, so had to stop abruptly when he realised she had turned around.
“Um, yes. I think that’s most likely true.”
“But you don’t care? That’s why you didn’t press her for answers? She wasn’t expecting that, I could tell.”
“How?” asked Nic.
“I’ve known people to fake sincerity, but I’ve never known anyone who could feign contempt. What do you think we’ll find at the Royal College?”
Nic shrugged. “Could be a lot of things.”
“Don’t trust me, huh? Good move. I might be one of her stooges, too. Probably wouldn’t even know it.” She began walking again. “Who do you think my mother was?”
“I have no idea,” said Nic. He heard her sigh. “No, really. You need to ask your father.”
“He might not even be my father.”
“I think he is. You look like him.” He nearly walked into her again. He felt he’d said the wrong thing. She didn’t say anything for the rest of the climb.
It took several more hours to get to the top. Nic didn’t feel tired. Or hungry or thirsty. The white circle had remained the same size for ages, and then began rapidly growing and they were stumbling out into the light.
He also had no idea where they were.
“Does this look familiar to you?” he asked Simole.
She looked around at the large warehouses. One of them had collapsed. “No. Bit of a dump, isn’t it? No hero’s welcome for us. Who do we ask for directions?”
“What about him?” said Nic.
There was a man standing on the other side of the pit they’d crawled out of. He looked old, and his clothes were quite shabby.
“Hello,” said Nic. “Excuse me.”
He ignored the calls. It quickly became apparent the man could neither see nor hear them.
“Maybe we are ghosts,” said Simole as they stood right in front of him.
She poked him in the chest. Her finger passed into him, and he jumped back.
“Are you there?” His voice was dry and husky, like he badly needed a drink of water. “I was sent to meet you.” He was looking around, uncertain if he was speaking to himself or not.
“Give him a sign,” said Nic.
“Magic,” said Nic.
Simole pointed a finger at the ground and ray of light shot out. A few seconds later there was a message scorched into the earth.
Where are we?
The man tugged on his dirty yellow beard. “You don’t know where you are?”
Simole raised her finger and pointed it at him. Nic pushed the finger back down before she disintegrated their only ride out of here.
“This is Gweur,” the man said. “Near the border with Ranvar.”
Nic groaned. “It’ll take us forever to get back.”
“If you come with me, we have some bodies prepared for you.” The man backed away, still looking in all directions at once.
“Bodies?” said Simole as they followed him. “This’ll be fun. I hope they have a selection. Don’t worry, I’ll choose for you.”
Nic groaned again. “Please help me.”
“Are you talking to the demon?” asked Simole.
“Asking for help against the All-Mother. “
He looked at Simole, stuck in spirit form at the start of what would be a desperate fight, grinning wickedly at him. “Yeah, amongst other things.”
It would help me out if you voted for me on TopWebFiction. No sign up, votes decay after a week. Just press the green box below. Cheers.Afterword from Mooderino