Major Yagare stood at the edge of the hole and looked down. It was a hot day, and the sun was at its highest point, casting no shadows. The chasm was a circular tear in the earth, refusing to yield to the sunlight.
The walls were smooth and unmarked, save for the stairs running down them in corkscrew-fashion.
“My father used to say the deeper the well the cooler the water,” said Pastor Chesinghe, “but the deeper you travel down here, the closer to hell you get. He was the pastor here before me.”
“How far down did he go?” asked Yagare.
“All the way.”
Yagare nodded. The clerics that served as guides here had a tradition of eventually taking the journey to the bottom no one had ever returned from.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” said the pastor, “you’ll be in charge of the garrison permanently?”
Yagare turned away from the hole and looked at the small, round-bellied man in his simple peasant’s clothes. They were well made, ideal for the rugged wilderness, not rags he was forced to wear. A learned man who, unlike him, had chosen to live in the middle of this wasteland. A learned man who carried a spiked mace hanging from his belt.
“Yes,” he said. “It is both my honour and penance.” He looked over the pastor’s head at the fort on the hill. Two hundred men to guard against the coming of whatever might be waiting to emerge from a bottomless pit. Poorly trained and lacking in discipline. His to command, if he could manage it.
“I did hear something about that,” said the pastor. He wiped the top of his bald head with the cuff of his brown woollen sleeve. His face went slack for a moment, a look of regret, possibly for not having remembered a hat. “I know it’s not polite to indulge in gossip, but it’s hard to resist when there’s little else to do.”
It wasn’t hard to accept the apology, even before knowing what it was referring to. The arid landscape in every direction more than justified the excuse. Nothing to do, no one to talk to, no one to fight with. Out here, the borders were vaguely drawn, and the hill people kept to themselves. Gossip was at a premium.
“There’s no need to feel shy about asking, Pastor,” he said. “I can confirm that anything other than the most scurrilous slander is probably true. I am your classic example of a shining star brought low by its own hubris. A tragic end to a glittering career.” He smiled ruefully, and twitched his nose as his moustache hairs prickled his nostrils. He was getting lazy with his grooming, a sure sign of a man’s downfall.
“If you ever care to talk about it, I would gladly lend you an ear. Confidentially, of course. My oath is somewhat distant in my memory, but it still holds.”
“Thank you, Pastor. I’m sure there will come a time when I will wish to avail myself of your services.”
He spoke out of politeness, but maybe what he said was true. First the desire to shave, then the desire to hold onto his pride.
It wasn’t a particularly exciting tale. Certainly not worth destroying a career for. He had been sent to observe and report on a group of farmers who had combined forces to form a militia. They wished to claim independence for their minuscule holdings up in the highlands. More like they wished to no longer pay taxes to a monarchy they rejected as undeserving of the fruits of their labour.
Observe and report. Such a dull mission. He had a whole troop with him. Forty well-trained rangers, capable of killing a dozen peasants each. He had decided, in his infinitely reckless wisdom, that he would show some initiative. It was the sort of thing the higher-ups appreciated. When it was successful.
He hadn’t expected them to be so well organised. He hadn’t expected them to be so well prepared. And he most certainly hadn’t expected flaming oil from the air.
They had one of those men among them who liked to come up with brilliant ideas. New ways to approach an old problem. You would sometimes find one of those men among the new recruits. A man who had a better way to tie a knot on his backpack, the way his father did it on his fishing boat.
It would have to be beaten into such a man that innovation was not what the quality he had been recruited for. Outside expertise was not desired or to be encouraged. But the farmers clearly thought otherwise.
He still should have won. He knew it had been he who had handed them victory. His men knew it, too. That was the bitterest part of it.
It wasn’t all that clever. Kites carrying wax pots with burning oil. It took some smart calculating to time it right, so that the wax pots melted at the correct devastating moment. And some skill to fly the kites, which it turned out was something the local shepherds used in the managing of their flocks.
But it had been he, not some green recruit, who had been stunned by their appearance, failing to give commands when it was vital to do so. Large, colourful shapes with streaming tails. His mind had reverted to that of a child, or so it had felt. Tales of dragons breathing fire. Silly stories to make a boy want to be a knight, to fight creatures that didn’t exist.
And suddenly here they were, flying over him, spewing tongues of fire.
Mayhem ensued. By the time he’d gathered his wits, what was left of them, a third of the company were dead, most of the others had fled in panic.
It wasn’t a catastrophic failure for the empire. Another, larger troop was sent out, and laid waste to the farmers. It took less than a day to reduce their fields to burning stubble, along with their fanciful dreams of independence.
Yagare’s crime was far worse than his clumsy insubordination. He had embarrassed himself, and the empire. Neither would be suffered, but to admonish him publicly would be to publicise the defeat of the empire’s forces by a slovenly rabble.
Yagare was promoted instead, and sent here, the farthest nook of the empire. A place he had thought as fictional as dragons. Everyone knew, of course. It was not a promotion, it was exile. He had lost to peasants. The humiliation was far preferable to admitting what had really made him take leave of his senses.
“I have read about this place in books,” he said to the pastor. “It never felt like it really existed.”
“Oh, I imagine much of what’s been written isn’t very accurate, but as you can see for yourself, the rift very much exists. And some of what’s been written, although hard to believe, is also true.”
“Magic and monsters?” said Yagare with a smile that made his nose itch.
“Well, it depends on your definition of both. I can’t say I’ve seen either, but there’s a history of strange happenings down there. And the one you’ve no doubt heard most often is entirely true. No one has ever returned from below the third tier.”
Exploration had gone down in three stages, and the fourth had never been completed. No one ever came back to explain why.
“Do you know why?” Yagare asked the pastor.
“No one knows.”
“But you don’t have a theory?”
He was more than the resident cleric. He was a scholar. A rift expert. Ever since the chasm had been abandoned as a site of importance, a single member of the church was stationed to watch over the great rip in the land. To watch, to study, to wait…
Yagare had done some research once he had been given the posting — might as well fake some degree of competence in this early twilight of his career — and knew the rough history. Knew the place had been considered a site of religious significance once. Still was, to some degree, but no one understood what it was or why it was here.
They had done their best to find an answer, but the chasm swallowed those sent to investigate it. How else were they to discover its secrets?
“Oh, well, I have some ideas knocking about, but nothing I’d be willing to share. Not while I’m sober, in any case. There are quite a lot of stories among the local folk.”
The indigenous population, the hill people, were little more than savages, really, who eked out a meagre living hunting and fishing. They had no settlements to speak of, no structures bigger than a hut.
“Do any of them bear scrutiny?” Yagare asked, looking down into the depths again.
“Not really,” said the pastor. “They say if you stare into it for too long, you go mad.”
Yagare pulled his gaze away, even though he knew he was being teased. “Anything else?”
“Demons who grant wishes and that sort of thing.” He grinned mischievously. The church wouldn’t approve of such talk, but the pastor didn’t seem to care.
And why should he, out here in the farthest reaches? They could hardly punish him by sending him somewhere more desolate. Yagare realised the same was true for him. There was a sense of freedom that came with exile.
“Any story that explains how this place suddenly appeared one day?”
The pastor nodded. “Many. Perhaps you would like to hear about the demon who travels between worlds? It begins with a lost spirit—”
“Wait,” said Nic. “Are you going to go into another story?”
There was silence from above him. The multitude of stars, or whatever they were, twinkled knowingly. He aimed his question at the brightest of them.
“I thought you were going to tell me about the first mage.”
More silence. It had a quality to it, though. It was saying that this was the story he had been promised, in all its meandering detail. Nic didn’t particularly want to sit through the long version. He certainly didn’t want to stand through it.
“Unless one of those two is the mage. I could see Yagare making a wild and reckless attempt at wrestling a demon into submission. And Pastor Chesinghe could be a collector of arcane knowledge. But this place they’re at, I don’t think it’s in Ranvar, is it?”
“I don’t think it’s the tribal lands that went on to become Ranvar later, either. Dorasham and Gilveday and all those little provinces, not those places, right? It feels like it happened further out. Grissenheim?”
Grissenheim was the country Denkne came from. The names, Yagare and Chesinghe, they had a Grissenheim quality to them. But Grissenheim was a relatively new nation.
“Or the place before Grissenheim. They had an empire, I think. The Gorretian Empire?”
More silence, but something in the twinkle of the stars told him he was correct. Somewhere in the old Gorretian Empire, a shaft between dimensions had appeared. Which meant the first mage wasn’t from Ranvar. Or Dorasham or Gilveday.
“What are you doing?” asked Simole. “You force me to listen to the enthralling tale of two men standing over a hole, and just when the All-Mother was about to reveal the secret of the first mage, and you interrupt her.” She sounded dismayed at his poor timing.
“I don’t think so,” said Nic. “She would have led us into another story, and then another, and another. It’s a fairly obvious tactic. We would have learned something, I’m sure, but we would also be lulled into a never-ending cycle of stories.”
“And why would she do that?”
It was a good question. “I don’t know.”
“Do you think you have some special ability now that you have a demon in you? Some ability to see through waffle?”
It didn’t sound like a particularly desirable ability to have, especially the way Simole was presenting it.
“No, I don’t really feel any different. It just… I don’t know, it just felt like she was guiding the story away from where it was meant to go.”
Simole was looking at him like he was an idiot. He looked up to see if the stars were looking at him the same way. They twinkled, but they were trying too hard. He was right.
“If you make the story too long, it becomes obvious you’re trying to change the perception of what it means. You aren’t good enough to do that without me noticing.”
“Do you think it’s a good idea to talk like that?” said Simole, aghast.
“Like what?” he said, looking back at her.
“You don’t think that was a bit rude?”
“Was it? Sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. I was being direct. Demons prefer directness. I think.”
“Great. Just bear in mind that my magic doesn’t work in here. If you upset the All-Mother, I won’t be able to save you.”
“Alright,” said Nic.
She stared at him. “Why aren’t you scared? You don’t look scared.”
“You don’t look scared, either.”
“Yes, but I’m me. I can do amazing things. I have no reason to be afraid. You, on the other hand, are you.”
She looked at him like this made perfect sense. Unfortunately, he had to admit, it did. But there was no reason for her to look so pleased about it.
“But your magic doesn’t work in here,” he pointed out.
“Their need to suppress my abilities tells me all I need to know.”
It was an odd kind of logic, but she was right. If they had to keep her from her using her power, that suggested they considered her a threat. Good to know.
“It wouldn’t do much good, though, would it?” he said. “Being scared, I mean.”
“Yes, but that’s always true. It never does any good, but people who are beyond the limits of what they can cope with aren’t able to help it. I think you’ve reached that limit, but you don’t seem frightened, at all. Are you telling me this isn’t the demon, either?”
She was suspicious of how he was acting, and with good reason. Her points were dead on. Any normal person — and he was clearly that in this company — would be shaking from terror. But not he.
“But it wouldn’t do any good. Whether or not my body wants to panic, I believe that it would serve no purpose. And here, belief is everything.”
Simole’s eyes widened. “Are you saying you just have to believe fear is useless, and it vanishes like magic? If you can do that, I should be able to, as well. And better.”
“But you already aren’t scared.”
“No, but I could try something else.” She stared at him, grimacing.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m focusing,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Happiness is preferable to anger.” She didn’t look particularly happy. Actually, she looked even angrier than usual.
“But I actually believe fear is useless,” Nic said.
Simole relaxed and her shoulders dropped. “Maybe I’ll try again later.” She nodded upwards.
Nic turned his attention to the crowded sky. The All-Mother hadn’t said anything while they’d been bickering. Perhaps she found it interesting to hear them discuss such matters, as unlikely as it seemed. Perhaps there was something else.
“Sorry. Please continue. Only… you can skip the parts that explain the past. Just what happened is fine.”
Yagare looked over the edge and wondered how many people had dropped coins or thrown stones down there. It didn’t seem very magical compared to other natural marvels he had seen, the waterfalls, autumnal forests and snow-peaked mountains. Weeds grew in clumps all along the lip of the shaft. Beyond that was grey walls. The sunlight, where it reached, showed dark streaks that shifted, making it look like the walls moved, like they breathed.
“I would like to go down there,” he said.
“Of course,” said the pastor. “Everyone does. They want it to live up to their expectations.”
“No,” said the pastor. “Nothing ever does.”
There was a large chest next to where the stairs began. It looked like a casket recently dug up, battered and heavily weathered. Inside were bits of wood and coils of rope. Chesinghe took out a torch and lit it. The flame was barely visible in the daylight.
The pastor went first, down the steps that had been cut into the rock wall. Dust and pebbles covered the steps, making it easy to lose your footing. There was no railing to hold.
The steps went down in a spiral, going all the way around the walls in a gentle decline. Marks and cuts had been chipped into the rock. Names and numbers that meant nothing to Yagare, faded by time and weather into illegibility. People had once wanted to be remembered for daring to enter this place.
A hundred or so steps later they reached the first landing. It was a small plateau you might fit a tent onto. Nothing seemed very remarkable about it. Yagare looked up at a sky with a few wispy clouds. The steps continued from the far end.
“I’m afraid it hasn’t been kept in the cleanest of conditions,” said the pastor. “Debris and detritus tend to collect on anything horizontal.”
The second landing smelled vaguely of urine.
“It’s not so bad further down,” Chesinghe assured him. “The soldiers don’t like to go beyond this point. Up to here, for a bet or a dare, is acceptable. Any lower… well, you’ll see what I mean.”
They pushed on. Yagare wanted to see for himself. He knew nothing of note had ever occurred above the third tier. Below was where things happened.
The deeper they went, the more the mystical nature of the place was overwhelmed by the sheer lack of safety. Yagare placed a hand on the wall to steady himself, and the warmth was unsettling. It was like touching skin.
He stopped looking over the side into nothingness or up at the retracting sky, and focused on the toes of his boots in the ever-deepening gloom. Shadows from the torch flickered and made his feet disappear and reappear.
Yagare recalled what he had read about the heat and lack of breathable air. He hadn’t brought water, and his clothes were tight and restrictive. He’d read looking for instruction, and ignored all that he’d found. He was sweating and panting by the time they reached the third landing.
Chesinghe placed the torch in a sconce and opened a small chest and took out a bottle of brandy. He poured it into small wooden tumblers and handed Yagare one.
“Not standard army rations,” Yagare noted after taking a sip and wincing.
“No. I put it down here for my own pleasure. Sometimes I come here and sit with this…” He spread his arms out wide.
It took a moment for Yagare to feel it. The presence.
He had thought if he came down here, he would find meaning to what had happened to him. He wanted to believe he had fallen for a reason, to be sent here, to be in the right place to do something important. But now he was on the edge of what was known, he only felt alone. The presence surrounding him was the feeling of utter futility.
He felt the walls draw away from him on all sides, and the platform seemed to shrink to the merest speck, barely enough to support his weight. The sky seemed an infinite distance away, and the darkness below was depthless and absolute.
There were more steps leading down, but they wouldn’t lead to any answers. No one came back. Why not? Was what was down there so heavenly no one could bear to leave it? Or so ghastly it couldn’t be escaped? Paradise or death?
“Have you been tempted?” asked Yagare.
Chesinghe nodded. “One day I will continue the journey. We all shall.”
“Who built these steps?” The steps continuing downwards looked no different to the ones above.
“No one,” said Chesinghe. “No one built any of them. They were here from the start.”
It hadn’t mentioned that in any of the books. A natural phenomenon with a built-in staircase? That seemed very unlikely.
But did you really need stairs? You could simply take a step to the side and fall into it forever. Perhaps that’s where the others had gone. Perhaps they were still falling.
“This is where you make your wish,” said Chesinghe.
Yagare frowned. “What wish?”
“The wish of a man who can reshape the world to suit him, if he believes in his vision.”
Chesinghe seemed different now. No longer tired, no longer small or fat. Yagare hardly recognised him, but he was too taken with the question. What would he wish for? A children’s game. A childish answer occurred to him.
“I’d wish for dragons to exist.”
“What,” said Chesinghe, “is a dragon?”
For a moment, Yagare thought he was joking. He looked like the little holy man again, his transformation a trick of the light. His face was curious.
“A beast with wings. A fortress that can fly. A hellspawned lizard that can destroy all in its path.”
Chesinghe seemed even smaller. He stared intently ahead, frowning. His jaw worked slightly, and Yagare wondered what he was saying to himself. Then he looked at Yagare, his eyes liquid and trembling.
“My world is a dragon,” he said sadly.
Yagare remembered the kites appearing overhead. He had been so astonished, so delighted. His men’s death has seemed trivial compared to such a monumental discovery. How different his life would have been if it had turned out to be true.
“I think this world would be a better place with dragons in it.” And he believed it.
But dragons did not exist, had never existed. For them to be brought into creation required a power as great as Chesinghe could possibly muster. For he had been the guardian of the chasm since its inception. He had taken on the guise of pastor and his own replacement in a series of deft substitutions, waiting for someone he could use to provide him a way back home. And he had finally found him, and lost himself in the same moment.
“Yes, I see,” said Nic. “Thank you for telling me the story.”
“What are you talking about?” squealed Simole. “She hasn’t finished yet.”
“But it’s obvious how it ends, isn’t it?”
“No! It isn’t. How does it end?”
“Chesinghe is the All-Father, he’s forced into becoming a dragon, Yagare becomes a mage somehow or other, it isn’t really important.”
“It isn’t really important? Are you crazy? Wait. Are you saying the All-Father is my All-Father?”
“Yes, of course. He’s forgotten himself, thinks he’s a dragon, but it’s him. Right?” He looked up at the stars and was met by a profound silence. “See?”
Simole looked up as well. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“Didn’t you? I’m sure she agreed with me. Right?” Silence. “See? The All-Father made a mistake. He made many, actually. His whole plan was very weak. Build a door, and then wait for the right person to come along, eventually? Terrible.”
“He did, though,” said Simole. “Eventually.”
“Yes, but there’s a great deal left to be desired in that method.” Nic looked up again. “You’ve come a long way since then. Great improvements. You really learned from his mistakes.”
“What mistakes?” asked Simole.
“Not a mistake, more like a lack of planning. It’s like if a man finds out his wife is cheating, and kills her lover. If I wanted the lover dead, and I find out about the affair, I can tell the husband, and let him take care of it for me. But I’m relying on a lot of things working in my favour. They have to have the affair, I have to find out about it, the husband has to be willing to commit murder… it’s a very poor way to go about it.”
“So you should kill the lover yourself?” said Simole.
“No, you’d get caught and put in prison. You have to arrange for the lover to meet the wife. You have to prime the husband to be enraged by jealousy. You have to create the conditions that you require.”
“And how would you do all that?”
“Not so hard, if you know what kind of man the lover is, what kind of woman he’s attracted to. You just have to hope they don’t tire of each other before you can get the husband seething with rage at fickle women. Shouldn’t take long.”
“And this relates to demons and dragons, how?”
“The demons came to bring their All-Father home. Only they found him as a dragon who attacked them. So they had no choice but to teach us magic.”
Simole threw her hand up. “How does that make any sense? They failed to defeat us because we had their great leader, so they shared their power? Where are you even going with this? I thought you were all about getting to the point quickly. This is as bad as…” She looked at him, stunned, finally understanding. “Explain to me how teaching your enemy magic is a good idea?”
“I’m glad you asked. They taught us magic, but gave us Arcanum to do it. They couldn’t defeat us, but they could slowly poison us. Once we were weak enough, soaked in Arcanum, they could—”
“Possess us,” said Simole. “Like they did with you! But why wait so long? It’s been over a thousand years.”
“Because we protected ourselves. Managed the poisoning. The Royal College found a way to minimise the effects so by the time it took hold, the mage was old and weak anyway. They needed someone outside the college. They needed someone capable of taking on mages, including the Archmage, and anyone prepared to deal with him would have a way to deal with his dragon. They never wanted me to be their puppet. They wanted Minister Delcroix. They wanted Dizzy’s father.”
“Then why are you here?” asked Simole.
“Good question.” He turned his face upwards. “Why am I here? Shall I tell you? Do you wish to know the story?”
He glanced over. Simole grinned. She had done beautifully. She had picked up on what he was doing, and had done a grand job of aiding and abetting.
The All-Mother had tried to tie him up in stories that spiralled into other stories and other stories. It only seemed right that she would only do that because such stories had the power to captivate here. And if it worked for her, it would work on her.
Nic had started by rambling on about the different nations around Ranvar and their forebears. He had worked that into the nature of fear and belief, and then he pulled the story of the dragon-dreaming major into one about a cheating wife, and then demons attacking their own father.
Simole had egged him on and given him cues to jump from one tale to another, acting confused and enraged in turn, and that was even before she realised his plan. And along the way he had started to understand. The Minister was ill, his daughter had caused it, or been made to cause it. He was in a weak state, and if they possessed him, they possessed everything he was capable of, including taking down mages, including taking down dragons.
But how would they possess him? After failing so many times, they needed a better understanding of how humans worked. They left behind a demon. To spend time with the humans, to study them. And then they needed someone to bring it back.
An empty vessel with no magic ability. A courier to deliver a package.
It made sense now. His role, so pivotal, his presence so trivial. It all made sense. The only thing left was to hope Simole figured out why he was trying to keep the All-Mother preoccupied.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Simole. “You said they learned from their mistakes. From the All-Father’s mistakes. You can’t wait for the right person to come along, you have to arrange it.”
“Yes,” said Nic. Was she trying to take over from him?
“So how did you end up here, Nic? Did they hope you’d follow that girl all the way to the most exclusive school in the country? Bit of a long shot, no?”
She was right. He didn’t just stumble into this. There was no way they just happened to find him convenient to use. They had to have arranged his presence at Ransom.
But his only reason was Dizzy.
Wanting to see her, wanting to be near her, that was his deepest desire.
“They’re still guiding you, Nic. Even now. Or were you hoping if you believed this nonsense, it would come true? You save the world, you get the girl?”
Suddenly, the threads spinning around him like a shield began to drop away. He looked at Simole. What had she done? Why was she turning on him, ruining everything? He felt like his legs had been taken out from under him. He felt exposed. He was part of this. The courier to bring the demon needed to be set on his path early.
It didn’t matter. The reason he had been used was irrelevant. The method they’d used could have been anything. His feelings for Dizzy were as real as if they’d been his own. He desperately didn’t want to succumb to despair, not in front of demons, not in front of Simole.
She had shown him a brutal, painful truth, and by doing so, she would prevent it being used against him. She was right to do it. He forced his mind back to the task at hand. The way to stop them wasn’t to hide himself, or keep them from what they wanted. It was to give it to them. In buckets. More information than they could handle. Endless, interweaving streams of it. And if there was one thing Nic truly excelled at, it was providing people with the answers they were looking for. That would give Simole her chance.
“I see why you need me now,” he said, preparing to tell them in a hundred different ways. “You—” was as far as he got.
You never fail to surprise me, said the voice in his head. So ready to attack when you have no weapon, and no chance of success.
He couldn’t feel his legs, but he was still standing. She had never merged with him, he realised. She had just been waiting. For the Minister, probably. Ready to leap out and catch him unawares. Now that Nic was something of a threat, albeit a minor one, she had emerged to take back control.
You did well, brave little one. I can feel your heart breaking. I will take your pain away.
It rose up his body. He lost control of every part in a surge rising up and up, rushing to claim his mind, to his chest, to his neck and then… it stopped.
He couldn’t breathe. He was lifting off the ground, his toes barely touching the floor, choking, gasping, his throat pinched closed, allowing no passage.
Simole had her arm extended, blue light crackling around her closed fist. He could feel it around his throat, even though she wasn’t touching him. He tried to tell himself this wasn’t his real body, he didn’t need air, but it didn’t seem to help.
“Hello,” said Simole. “I’ve been waiting for you to turn up.”
Nic felt a change within himself. The surge of power washing through him had turned cold.
“I think you fail to realise who your true opponent is,” said Simole, her eyes ablaze with fury and her lips curled into a sneer. “You may consider the All-Father to be both your greatest leader and your greatest enemy, but to me, he is my pet. Now, why don’t you join your sisters in the stars? Your attempted ambush will not be happening, so take this opportunity to flee, before I rip you out of there, and feed you to my dragon.”
The force on his throat grew more intense. His face felt like it was cracking. Simole had regained her power, claimed it back while Nic kept the All-Mother entranced. Now she could do what she has been trained to do. He hoped she wouldn’t kill him first.