“We’ve run into a problem.”
“You have?” said Minister Delcroix, surprised at the bluntness of the admission. “You can’t find the rebels?” He pressed the bridge of his nose between two fingers and willed the dull throb in his head to go away. It receded, a little.
“No, we found them. Reports indicate that they’re holed up in the warehouses to the east of the city. We’ve established a perimeter and my team is in position.”
“Then what is the problem, agent?”
The man he was speaking to wore a red mask covering most of his face. Only his mouth was visible, and his lips were twisted with unease, which was not what you expected of someone in his position. Secret Service agents rarely expressed emotion, and if they did, it was even rarer for that emotion to be concern.
“Usually we… that is, our site inspection is incomplete. We haven’t been able to get a clear picture of what kind of defences they have, or how many of them there are.”
“They’ve flooded the area with raw Arcanum. You were briefed that they would, were you not?”
“Yes, Minister. We came prepared. It’s not that.” He hesitated again, like he couldn’t quite find the right words.
“Please, agent, you’re being tiresomely vague. Exactly what is the issue?” asked Delcroix, finding the agent’s apprehension to speak up bewildering. He’d never known the Secret Service to be anything less than needlessly enthusiastic in such situations. It was what they were bred for.
“It’s me. I’m the problem.”
“In what regard, agent?” It was protocol to refer to them as ‘agent’ no matter the rank. Their anonymity was operational policy. Occasionally colours were used to identify individuals when several were seen together, to avoid confusion. It wasn’t often necessary. Their job was to be seen as little as possible.
“I apologise. I cannot shake a morbid sense of fear and foreboding. It is mild, but it is there. Yet the source... It can only mean I’ve been compromised.”
He was right. Agents didn’t experience nerves or doubts. If the agent was struggling to function within the usual parameters, chances were it was an effect placed on him. Probably on the other agents, also. They were supposed to be resistant to that kind of meddling, but resistances could be worn down.
“You aren’t incapacitated, though.”
“No. It’s more subtle than that. I’ve been unsure if it was even real, but I can’t ignore the possibility that the enemy is in possession of more advanced abilities than we assumed. If they can target me specifically, and break through my protections, it suggests they have evolved beyond basic Arcanum use.”
“And the rest of your team? Are they similarly affected?”
“No. I’ve questioned them. None of them are experiencing what I am.” His eyes, seen through the holes in his mask, were apologetic. “We could still go in, it’s not like we couldn’t handle any resistance, unexpected or otherwise, but if their capabilities have improved markedly…”
Delcroix could understand why the agent was being so cautious. The rebels had wreaked havoc across Gweur, disrupting almost every aspect of daily life. The government was at a loss about what to do. They didn’t have any way to defend themselves against Arcanum — no one did. Ranvar had always prevented any kind of anti-Arcanum technology being developed by their neighbours. Which meant they were the only ones capable of bringing the rebels to heel.
The attacks so far had been primitive and crude. Many rebels had died in an attempt to control powers well beyond their means, and many more civilians. The public had little sympathy for their cause. Ranvar’s assistance had been welcomed warmly.
In many ways it was an excellent education in the dangers of Arcanum for the people of Gweur. How destructive it could be in untrained hands. And also, a great example of the benevolence of the Ranvarians, ready to put the lives of their men and women at risk in order to aid their neighbour in need.
As a public relations exercise, it was an opportunity to cement bonds and alliances, under very favourable terms. But if the rebels had begun to show finesse in their manipulation of Arcanum, even perhaps mastery, then this clean-up operation could quickly turn sour. A little caution was well worth exhibiting.
“I am ready to step down as mission leader. My second in command can—”
“No,” said Delcroix. “Let’s not rush to judgement. If they are able to target a specific agent, it suggests two things. One, that they are aware of the command structure, which there is no logical way to explain other than infiltration, and second, that they view you as an effective threat who they wish to negate.”
“With all due respect, Minister, they may also view me as weak point susceptible to attack.”
Delcroix looked the man up and down. Nothing about him stood out as suspect. No different to any other agent. What had marked him out? Who was he?
Of course, Delcroix could easily find out this man’s name. His background, his track record, the regard he was held in within the Service. But it wasn’t necessary. They were selected for the job because they had the right instincts for the job. Accept orders without question, carry them out without hesitation. Secret Service agents didn’t flinch, before, during or after. Those were the necessary qualities to serve. Those were the qualities that were reinforced during their training.
They had a fluid and adaptable hierarchy. If this agent were to fall in battle, his place would be taken quickly and without debate. No disruption in the chain of command. If the Gweurians were targeting him, what good would making him feel slightly unsettled achieve?
The agent waited for Delcroix’s orders. He wasn’t their commander, or in any way responsible for the mission, but the agent’s self-doubt had left him second-guessing himself. He wanted to follow orders, not give them.
It was not how he should have been acting.
At least his confession was following protocol, so he wasn’t completely lost. Agents were trained to reveal all intelligence gathered. The most inconsequential detail could turn out to be of vital importance, so fear of self-incrimination was rigorously leached out of them. To compromise oneself in order to provide a fuller explanation was considered a duty. Agents never concealed facts in an attempt to protect themselves or their reputation or hide mistakes. Such thinking was anathema to them.
But if doubt was introduced, if second-guessing oneself led to delays in orders, it could do various degrees of damage. Was that really their gameplan? They couldn’t possibly control the outcome of such a strategy, it would merely make things a little less efficient. A layer of chaos that could be filtered out once identified. Any advantage was worth gaining, of course, but only when a concerted effort was made. Small advantages eventually add up. An isolated incident, though, would be unlikely to bear any fruit.
Unless, of course, this was merely one symptom of a much deeper problem. One, if not checked, they could end up fighting much closer to home.
“Did the Royal College send you a mage to assist?”
“Yes, Minister. They sent two.”
Delcroix raised an eyebrow in mild surprise. The Archmage was obviously feeling generous. Or he suspected this operation wasn’t going to go as smoothly as everyone had anticipated. It would have been a matter of concern that the Archmage’s faith in the Secret Service was so low, if Delcroix hadn’t already a number of doubts of his own. It wasn’t their competence that was in question, although recent events had not won them many plaudits. The problem was the enemy, and their growing access to magic. His suspicions seemed to have been justified.
When you base your strategy on keeping a particular weapon out of enemy hands, it can mean you will be unprepared to fight them if they find a way to obtain that weapon. As they had.
The Secret Service had some training to deal with rogue mages, in particular those whose use of Arcanum had left them disoriented and unable to properly control their powers. An occupational hazard. Most of that training relied on the appropriate protective garments to prevent Arcanum being used against them in anything other than a simplistic fashion. Brute force could be countered with brute force. If those protections had been bypassed in some way, then he would need to find out how.
That wasn’t the only reason he had come to Gweur, though. His own agents had also identified this place as an important stronghold, and not only because so many rebels had gathered here, presumably to make a last stand of some kind.
“I think perhaps I should speak to these mages. See if they’ve managed to uncover anything regarding your condition.”
“They’re at the pagoda now?”
“Yes. I’ll take you there. If you’ll follow me.”
A second pagoda, eerily similar to the one at the Ransom School, far too similar to be a coincidence, was what had drawn him here.
How had it not been detected until now? What was its purpose? And why here?
He had asked for a larger force to be sent, but his request had been denied. There were too many other targets that needed watching, and possibly defending. A small strike-force was deemed sufficient, for now. He had decided to come here to quickly check over the facility once the rebels were subdued. It was taking longer than anticipated.
Minister Delcroix rose from the uncomfortable chair and paused to collect himself. His mind heavy and hard to steer. When the agent turned to lead the way out, Delcroix took out a small ampule and snapped it over his mouth. He drank down the bitter liquid and his mind cleared, for a moment. Then the fog began creeping back in at the edges.
He dropped the ampule and crushed it under his boot as they left the small building that was the interim base.
There were no agents in sight, but he knew they were present. The night sky was clear and full of stars. Their soft light irritated Delcroix’s eyes. The over-sensitivity was a classic symptom of Arcanum-related dementia. How much time did he have left?
“This way, Minister. We can cut through here.” The agent pointed down the road.
It wasn’t cold, but Delcroix pulled up his coat collars. A wave of exhaustion washed over him and he had to steel himself not to show it. He had hoped not to have to use any magic on this trip, and had been avoiding doing so as much as possible of late, but he still felt drained nearly all the time. The medication the Archmage had given him was losing its efficacy. He had followed the instructions, but a strange restlessness haunted him. Sleep would not come.
The town of Bruler was devoid of life. The roads were more like dirt tracks, strewn with pebbles and dead leaves.
The buildings were empty shells. The outer walls still stood, mostly, but the windows were broken, the doors were rotten and hanging open, offering glimpses of the interiors: the remains of chairs and tables, pitiful toys, ragged clothing, fallen ceiling beams. It seemed like something that had happened a century ago, and what was left were just vague recollections of the event.
But only a few years ago the town had been a thriving hub for the area. Bruler was once a vital storage facility for the local farms. They produced so much surplus, it had to be kept here until buyers could be found. Of course, once Ranvar agreed to take all of it off their hands, places like this became redundant.
Ultimately they gained more than they lost, overall. But individuals were forced to relocate.
They walked through the deserted streets, the agent holding a lantern to show the way.
“And you have enough men?” asked Delcroix, trying to normalise things. Just another mission. A group of reckless amateur and malcontents should not have presented much of a challenge. But to underestimate someone who could use magic, even if poorly, was never a good idea.
“More than adequate,” said the agent.
“It’s mostly abandoned, isn’t it?” asked Delcroix, even though he knew the answer already.
“Completely. Not one house is occupied. We did a thorough check.”
An ideal place to hide a rebel army.
The outline of the warehouses made distinct silhouettes against the night sky. They were huge, each as big as a city mansion. Twelve of them were set out in a grid, four by three, a short open space between them. They were more than simple barns, they were built with stone walls to protect the merchandise and harvested crops housed there before being sent to locations around the country. Stables stood somewhat apart from the looming buildings with room for dozens of animals. The stalls were broken and in a state of extreme disrepair, the structure dilapidated from simple lack of care and the power of unchecked weeds to split open the tiniest cracks.
“Did you find any plans for these buildings?” asked Delcroix.
“No, Minister. I don’t think there are any. The town has no library, and the town hall is more of a gathering place than a repository for files and records.”
The function of municipal buildings in Ranvar were clearly mandated by government. Any city would have the same basic civic structures, performing the same basic civic functions. A country like Gweur, predominantly an agricultural society, focused on farming needs more than building regulations. You could do as you pleased as long as you brought your crops to market on time. Still, they should have kept basic records.
“There may be tunnels under the warehouses,” said Delcroix, “linking them to some hidden exit outside the city limits.” He had no proof for such a claim, but it would be very unusual for any merchant building not to have a way of circumventing city officials and customs duties.
“We’ve seen no evidence of such tunnels,” said the agent. “If they had been dug at some point in the past, the soft soil here is excellent for growing, not so useful for burrowing. None of the houses in Bruler even have cellars. I’m sure such tunnels would quickly fall into disrepair once the warehouses were abandoned. Rotting timber braces and crumbling walls would quickly lead to collapse.”
Delcroix nodded. It was a reasonable, competent answer, but an unlikely one. Commerce always found a way to avoid taxes.
“We’re watching the surrounding countryside,” said the agent. “It’s very flat and featureless. Even if they had a way out, it would be difficult to escape undetected.”
The pagoda was in the middle of the warehouses, shielded on all sides by the enormous warehouses. It looked identical to the one in Ransom, the same number of tiers, the same flared eaves. The same windowless walls. It was dark and silent. If there was an army inside, they were keeping very quiet.
Still no sign of any agents, but that was to be expected. A small group of lanterns had been placed by one of the warehouses, and two men were crouched in the pool of light.
“This is impossible,” said one, his words laced with irritation.
“And yet there it is,” said the other. “Unless we are sharing the same hallucination.”
They were dressed as workmen. Labourers in the fields, which would have been a reasonable disguise if there had been fields to labour in. They wouldn’t draw too much attention, though. There was no one here to see through the attempted charade.
“This is Master Kamfel and Master Serteel,” said the agent, presenting the two men like they were at one of the Queen’s garden parties. “Both third order mages. Full clearance.” He turned to the two men. “Minister Delcroix, of the Ministry of Instruction.”
The mages were busy with a box on the ground between them, too focused to pay any attention to the new arrivals, but they both straightened their backs and nodded their respects when the agent mentioned which ministry he was from. Which might have been coincidental. Or it might not.
“You’re here just in time,” said the shorter one who the agent had introduced as Serteel. He had a beard and close-cropped hair, making him look older than his age, which was probably his intention. “We’re going to show these amateurs how a real mage does it.”
“You can overcome the interference, can you?” asked Delcroix.
“Of course,” said Serteel. “The Archmage told us what to expect. These buggers like to flood everything with raw Arcanum. Makes it a beast to see anything beyond the immediate, but we came prepared.” He crouched down and tapped the side of the box.
“We don’t want to give them any warning, so we waited until it was nice and dark,” said Kamfel, who had a hooked nose and bright eyes. He had the same haircut as his colleague, and a similar if smaller beard.
Delcroix knew from his time at the Royal College that students often took to idolising a particular master. In the case of these two, it was obvious they favoured Master Grims, and had attempted to present themselves in his image. He wondered how Grims felt about his acolytes.
"We don't look too suspicious, do we?" asked Serteel. “We’re going to do a quick scan without them even realising.”
A Royal College mage’s skill in penetrating defences and ferreting out fugitives was well documented. This level of magic should pose no trouble.
“Ready when you are,” said the agent. There was a suggestion in his tone that he had been ready for quite some time.
Kamfel looked like he was about to say something to the agent, but shrugged and bent to his work. His movements were certain as he arranged his paraphernalia in the box with confidence. Despite their youth, the two mages seemed to know what they were doing, which was to be expected. They had been taught by the greatest exponents of the arts, and selected by the Archmage for this task.
Serteel carefully filled a bowl with a clear liquid from a canteen, poured in a few droplets of oily fluid from a tiny vial, then dusted the surface with tiny pinches of powdered substance from pouches on his belt. He squatted next to his colleague, and began to quietly chant.
The surface of the liquid became cloudy. Abruptly a tiny flame appeared in the middle of the bowl and danced across the liquid. He poured it into the box.
It vapourised with a thick rush of fumes. A red flame shot into the air for an instant and then winked out.
The four of them waited.
“Did it work?” asked the agent.
“No,” said Kamfel sullenly. He dusted off his hands on his cloak and began to rearrange the items in the box.
Delcroix hadn’t seen this equipment before, and had assumed it was some kind of prototype.
The agent placed a hand on the mage’s shoulder, which was a mistake. “Couldn’t you—”
“Magic isn’t some cheap trick you can perform with a finger snap and a puff of smoke,” snapped Kamfel, swiping away an ill-timed wisp of smoke. “We came prepared for their obscuring tactics, but this isn’t raw Arcanum, this is something else.”
Serteel cried out in terror. “No. It’s broken. I can't stop it! I…” His frightened voice trailed off and he slumped to the floor.
Kamfel caught his falling colleague. “This can’t be. They broke through his shield.”
The second mage had been sent to protect the first. It took a powerful exponent of Arcanum to destroy a shield-mage.
The box at their feet began smoking. Kamfel let Serteel drop and picked up the box. He hurled it to the other side of the warehouse. It flew further than it should have, hitting the warehouse wall with a soft thud.
Delcroix felt a trickle of wind across his face, noticeable for its warmth, which rapidly intensified to a hot blast. He had barely time to register this change before he was jolted by a ground-shaking impact. The warehouse shuddered and its stone walls buckled.
With a thunderous crash the roof collapsed. The building groaned and roared in protest, then exploded in a storm of splintered wood and stone.
Delcroix frantically darted back as clouds of dust blasted their faces, and then he was behind a wall as six agents appeared in front of him, shielding him from the impact.
The dust settled and Delcroix looked around. Serteel was the only other person standing. He had regained consciousness and seemed dazed.
“They probably know we’re here,” he said.
Delcroix got back to his feet. “They may have an inkling.”
“You should have thrown it towards the pagoda,” said the agent, his team once more gone, checking the surroundings.
“Of course not,” said Kamfel. “Who knows what would have happened if I’d done that.”
The agent seemed to withdraw, chastened. Also very unusual for someone with his training.
“Was that their doing?” asked Delcroix.
“No, no,” said Kamfel. “They couldn’t have done that. It was a miscalculation, that’s all.”
It sounded very much like the mage had no idea what had happened.
There was loud metallic scraping sound which pulled their attention toward the pagoda. The top tier, the smallest, starkly outlined against the night sky, sank into the body of the tower. The walls shrieked, and the next layer also sank. It was like a telescope being collapsed, loudly.
Delcroix stepped back, as did the mages, leaving their accoutrements behind. No one dared to take their eyes off the pagoda as it lowered itself in startling leaps.
There was no building Delcroix had ever seen that was constructed to collapse in on itself in this fashion, but it could be done, he was sure. The technology existed, certainly on a smaller scale. But for what purpose? And who was doing it? Did you simply pull a pin and let gravity draw the separate sections down one by one?
A slight pause, and then another tier dropped, the eaves that formed a ring, jutting out from the tower, flipped up and were sucked inside with a rush of air that sounded like rasping breaths. What would happen when the pagoda reached the ground? Would it sink into its foundations and leave no trace?
Hardly any dust or dirt was thrown up as the pagoda shrank, becoming shorter and shorter.
“What does this mean?” asked Serteel.
He received no answer. They were waiting for the finale. What would be revealed? The rebels jumping out from behind the disappearing walls? It would be an incredibly elaborate form of surprise attack, somewhat undermined by the extensive preamble.
“Prepare yourself,” said Delcroix. He had no idea what he meant by it, a general recommendation to whoever could hear him above the slide and snap of falling walls, but he felt he should say something.
His mind felt dull and heavy, hampering any attempt to understand what was happening.
All that was left now was the lowest tier. It looked like a simple shack. A house with a flat roof, no windows and a closed door. With a tremor and slam like unfastened shutters blown back by a wind, the walls sank from sight.
There was a square of emptiness on the ground. It was very clearly defined. You could see where pagoda had been, even though the earth on either side of the line was the same, and there was no actual line.
In the square was a circle. A hole with steep walls, and what looked like steps, at least from where Delcroix stood. It led straight down.
The Pagoda on the Ransom School grounds, behind the library, also had a lower level, below ground-level. But the staircase was a narrow shaft winding sharply. This shaft was the size of the entire building. The building that had vanished.
Delcroix realised something had changed.
There was a figure standing on the far side to Delcroix, at the edge of the square, directly facing him. He was a Gweurian, Delcroix could tell immediately. The people of Gweur were short and stocky, as a rule, with curly hair. Even those who weren’t, had a squat look to their faces and heavy-lidded eyes. It was an insular society, without many immigrants. There wasn’t much to come here for. But this was clearly a local.
If he was a member of the rebels, he can’t have been their most auspicious member. He was a dishevelled fat man with a dirty white beard, and a vapid expression as he stared across the divide. He lacked the build for a champion come to issue a challenge, or the gravitas for a general come to negotiate surrender.
If he was their leader, perhaps this was how he had avoided detection all this time. Cast off the trappings of pride and glory and you looked like any other person in a crowd. Perhaps he was so powerful, he could afford to dispense with ego.
Perhaps he was a sacrifice to stall for time.
As Delcroix collected his wits, fighting against the numbness in his mind, Secret Service agents materialised out of the air around the pagoda’s inexplicable absence. There were at least a dozen — more were appearing, making it hard to count. They walked slowly, but steadily, closing in.
They didn’t try to apprehend the man, who stood unperturbed. They gradually formed a spiralling circle around the invisible square, and then started down the steps. They were climbing down into the hole.
“What are they doing?” Delcroix declared with alarm. “Order them back, agent.” He turned to the red-masked man beside him just as the man stepped past, seemingly in a daze.
Delcroix threw out an arm to catch hold of something, but the agent moved too quickly, and Delcroix’s reflexes had become dulled by his illness. The agent joined the rest of his team as they descended down the steps like water circling a drain.
“Can you keep him busy?” whispered Kamfal. “If he’s the source of this, we need to be careful. We’ll take care of him if you can distract him for a few minutes.”
Delcroix felt he was perpetually coming out of a daze. Every time his mind cleared to reveal his true surroundings, it turned out to be another veil. Then his mind gave a savage twist, and his disciplined-mind regained control. He steeled himself and moved forward. The last of the agents were finding the top of the thread that screwed into the ground.
As he approached, he could see the walls of the shaft more clearly. They were smooth and dark, but not like mud or stone. They seemed alive, like skin or tissue, trembling.
It resembled a throat, with the agents willingly sending themselves into some creatures gullet. He heard a rhythmic beat, like a pulse, felt a presence pressing up from below, a ghastly, horrifying presence. The beat reverberated through his bones and blood. And then, as his mind was attempting to make sense of what he was seeing, it was just steps winding down a tunnel.
He blinked hard and forced his attention onto the man, who hadn’t moved. They were separated by the hole. The steps began closer to him. If Delcroix tried to run around to catch him, the man could quickly follow the agents down the hole. But Delcroix had no desire to lunge at the man.
“Who are you?” he called out.
“No need to be alarmed, it’s just me.” The man’s voice had a disarming chuckle in it. “Why don’t we talk, Minister Delcroix? You are surprised I know you. How could I not? Few are so full of righteous purpose and controlled fury. What would you not do for king and country?”
He was goading him.
“You follow a demon,” said Delcroix, desperately trying to take control of the situation. “Have you any idea what chaos you will unleash into this world.”
“No more than you already have,” said the man, calmly, pleasantly. “It was you that brought them here. Brought their magic. That much is irreversible, wouldn’t you agree? You are the candle and she is the flame. You allow her to burn.”
“Where does this tunnel lead?”
“It is not a tunnel, it is a door,” said the man disparagingly, as if such an error was the height of madness.
A door. The door. He had thought they would try to open it in Ranvar, in the school. That’s where the Pagoda was. But it was also here.
“Do you really think this will make things better?”
“It can’t make things any worse.”
“Fool!” shouted Delcroix. “Nothing you have suffered can compare to what they bring. You will be their slave.”
“I am no slave,” said the man. “Hunger for power outweighs conscience, why not hunger for justice?”
“Insolent fool! See what is in front of you. Think about what you do. You will be less than a slave.”
“It is true, I will be beholden to them,” said the man. “If they wish my skin flayed, so it shall be. If they wish me hung by my toes, it shall be so. But I am no slave.”
“They will have you killed. Slowly. Painfully.”
The man shrugged. “Pain is nothing new to me.”
“This pain will be like nothing you’ve ever known, I promise you.”
“I doubt it.”
“You will plead for death.”
“I will die when I choose. There will always be risk, but the way is open for you. Do not deny you have dreamed long of glory. It is not impossible for you to find it. Is it such a bad thing to sell your soul if the price offered is far more than it is worth?”
Delcroix’s head spun with confusion and disbelief. The door was open. He needed to think. He needed to clear his head. He needed to give the mages time to do… something.
The man opened his mouth, too wide it seemed, like he was yawning. He began to sing a wordless melody. His voice was discordant, barely audible with all the erratic rhythm of a trapped fly. It was like nothing Delcroix had ever heard. Blue mist slithered from the man’s mouth and nose, blue sparks filled his eyes.
There was a scream from behind him. Delcroix spun to find Kamfal running towards him, arms outstretched, tongues of fire rising from his head like golden hair. The flames spread, dancing along his sleeves. Blinded by the flames, flesh seared and blackened, he lurched and stumbled past Delcroix. He screamed in agony and fell into the gaping tunnel mouth, throwing himself as if that would somehow ease the unendurable pain.
Delcroix rushed to the edge, stopping at the line that would have marked the walls of the pagoda like it were a tripwire. The falling torch flared for a moment, and then went out. The screaming stopped.
The light in the darkness had illuminated the descending agents for a moment. None had paused to witness the fall. They continued their spiral downwards.
Delcroix turned back. Serteel was on his knees. There wasn’t much left of his face, and burn marks covered the remaining skin. His mouth jutted open, spilling ash from the broken jaw, and then the body, arms fused to the torso, toppled forward and shattered into more ash.
Delcroix knew he would have to use the last vestiges of his power, no matter the cost. The source was here. Arcanum was being used, and that meant he had a chance. His entire career he had prepared for a threat from within Ranvar, from within the Royal College. It seemed the obvious place. Nobody else could offer a challenge. Because of the mages, Ranvar was inviolate. Which meant only the mages could bring it down.
There was no suggestion it would actually happen, but if you prepared for the greatest threat, you would be prepared for lesser ones, too. It seemed like sound logic. It had proven to be wrong — he faced a greater threat, not a lesser one — but the logic withstood his error. Arcanum was the weapon being used against Ranvar, but not via the Royal College. Arcanum was what he had designed his creations to deal with.
He summoned the wraiths that had cost him his health, and now probably his life. It was a fair price. Whatever was happening here, it required Arcanum, and he would cut off the supply.
A mist formed beside him and took shape. A single, solitary shape.
Delcroix was confused. He shook his head, as though it was his vision that was deceiving him.
“Where are the rest?” he said in a croaked whisper.
“Engaged,” came the equally whispery reply.
It made no sense. Had he misheard? “Engaged by whom?”
His daughter. Without him knowing, without access to Arcanum, she had found a way. “All of them? The reserves too?”
“Yes.” The shape hovered, bobbing up and down.
Suddenly, his constant fatigue made more sense. How long had she been able to do this? How many times had she siphoned his powers without his knowing? Was this the reason he had been unable to stifle his illness’ progress?
She was in danger. She had found a way to commandeer his troops. He smiled to himself. For a moment he had regretted pushing her so hard, forcing her to rise to the expectations he never verbalised. She had chased after the lure like a maddened salmon, and now it would lead to his death.
But the smile was not bitter. It was what he had hoped for. If he’d discovered traces of her interference earlier, he would have put a stop to it, and unwittingly saved himself at her expense. He would have never wished for that.
He understood a little better now. They attacked the school to draw attention away from this place. How long they must have planned for this, predicting the reactions of their enemy. How long had they been studied? Had they targeted him as easily as they targeted the agents? Bringing him here to witness his failure?
“I want you to go to the Royal College,” he said. “Deliver a message to the Archmage. Tell him the door is here, not at the school. Tell him I couldn’t stop it opening. She is coming. He should take the necessary steps.”
The wraith began fading from view even before he’d finished giving the instructions. There was no parting salute, no wishing good luck. It vanished into the wind and was gone.
He looked across the hole, but the old man was no longer there. Had he gone down, or run away? It didn’t matter.
Delcroix looked into the black depths. He was curious about what was down there. If it was a door, he wanted to know what was on the other side. It didn’t make a difference now, it was out of his hands. His daughter had assumed control of her birthright and it was up to her to face the challenges ahead of her. He only wondered what was below.
He walked around the edges of the invisible box, only crossing the line when he reached the steps. They were narrow and curved steeply downward. He slowly began to descend.
Back to the regular weekly schedule. If you have a moment, please vote on TopWebFiction if you have a moment. Been a while since I posted so I'm languishing at the lower end of the chart. Just click the green button below.Afterword from Mooderino