The sky was white. It was painful to look at for more than a few seconds, the brightness of it. Nic lowered his gaze until he was watching the back of Simole’s head, the hair running in a strip down her back, but cut above the shoulder on either side.
She was already walking away from him, expecting him to follow. No discussion, no explanation. Just expectation.
He stood where he was, trying to get his bearings. Which was very difficult when there was nothing to use as a reference point. Yellowing grass spread out in all directions.
Simole stopped and walked back towards him part of the way. She had a small smile on her lips, like she was amused by how bemused he was. She hadn’t changed much.
“Are you alright?” he asked, mainly because he didn’t know what else to say.
“I’m fine,” said Simole. “Why are you here, Nic? Was it an accident?”
It would have been easy to take offence at her dismissive manner. Whatever his purpose in being here, it was bound to be pointless, as far as she was concerned. The problem with taking umbrage, though, was that she was right.
“Yes, more or less. I had a slight issue with the school librarian, and it turns out she’s a demon.”
“She turned into a demon because you were late returning one of her books?”
“No, she’s always been a demon. She turns into a human when she doesn’t want anyone to know.”
Simole nodded, accepting this information as though it fit perfectly into her understanding of the way things worked. It was mildly infuriating.
“And she sent you here?”
“I’m not entirely sure.” Nic looked around. The breeze drew ripple across the top of the grass. An occasional flower poked out between the stalks. “I’m not entirely sure where this is. You don’t seem very surprised. I mean, about the librarian.”
Simole shrugged. “Demons. Once you’ve seen one…” She smirked. They were in some kind of odd contest, where you tried to act as though the other person’s tribulations were small potatoes, because all tribulations were.
It was actually quite comforting to act like it was all a minor inconvenience, a little rain you had to walk through to get home.
“I don’t suppose you have a dog with you?” asked Nic.
The look on Simole’s face lost its smug superiority for a second, replaced by one of surprise.
Even though he didn’t know what this place was, he had been here before. He had seen it from above, soaring over this field, or one like it. And he had seen Simole below him, walking along behind a dog.
It was nice to put a little uncertainty in her eyes. Satisfying. Maybe his arrival here wasn’t as hopeless as she’d thought. It was hopeless, of course — there was not much he could do to get them out of here — but it was still nice for her to have a moment of doubt about it.
A dog barked from somewhere in the grass. The stalks parted and a mutt came bounding out, tongue lolling, head bobbing on a loose spring.
“How did you know about the dog?”
It was Nic’s turn to smile smugly. “Saw it in a dream.”
“You must have some strange dreams. Come on, we don’t want to keep the Archmage waiting.”
She turned to start walking, but the dog got between her legs, panting hard and wagging its tail in wide arcs that slapped against her thighs.
“That’s Dana-Long?” asked Nic, his voice full of doubt.
“Yes. It’s her dog.”
“Are you sure?” He immediately regretted his tone as she shot him a dark look for questioning her. “I mean, that’s not how he was described in her biography. There’s even a picture of him on the book of fairy tales she wrote. He was more like a…” Nic wasn’t sure how to describe the breed of dog drawn on the cover of the book. He wanted to say ‘longer.’
“You can ask her yourself,” said Simole. “He’s not my dog.”
Dana-Long had his front legs on Simole as he demanded pats on the head. He seemed starved of attention, which would certainly be in keeping for a pet of an archmage. They had little time for anyone, in his experience.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” said Simole. “I’ll answer your questions on the way. Or you can stare into the middle distance while you walk. You won’t bump into anything here.”
She pushed the dog off and set off, the dog bounding around her.
It was a small, ugly pug-faced thing, suitable for a young girl. There were any number of reasons why the dog described in Winnum Roke’s biography might be different to this one. Any number of reasons why his information was wrong. It still felt not right to him, though.
He swallowed his concerns and followed.
“What have you done with my body?” asked Simole as they walked, her staying slightly ahead, the dog running ahead of her, stopping and looking back.
“Nothing,” said Nic, in unintentional guilty fashion. “I mean, I think your father had it put somewhere.”
“Well, I hope someone did the same for yours.”
Nic looked down at himself. He was dressed the same as he’d been back in the library. He felt the same. But this wasn’t his actual body. His lifeless corpse would be lying on the library floor.
“I’m sure Davo and Fanny will take care of me,” he said, not sounding very confident. He wasn’t sure of the situation he had left behind.
“Knowing those two, they’ll probably spend more time drawing anatomically correct organs on your face.”
“They wouldn’t do that.” Despite them being teenage boys, Nic was fairly sure they had more pressing things to worry about. In addition to which, neither was a big fan of art.
“If you say so,” said Simole.
They walked in silence for a few minutes. It was warm and the breeze was mild. They could have been in any meadow in Ranvar, if it weren’t for the empty horizon in each direction, and the empty sky above.
“You didn’t say what you’ve been doing since you got here,” said Nic.
“No,” said Simole. “I didn’t.”
If it was going to be like this, life was quickly going to become very trying. And there probably wasn’t much of his life left to be wasting like that.
“I thought you were going to answer my questions on the way to... wherever it is you’re taking me.”
“You haven’t asked any questions,” said Simole, which was true.
“What’s Winnum Roke like?”
“Like… a middle-aged woman. Actually, more like a teacher. The type who doesn’t brook any nonsense, and is a spinster for good reason, even though no one knows what the reason is.”
It was not the answer he’d been hoping for — something to do with magic and casting spells to take them home would have been more useful — but it was still a very detailed response. He knew what she meant.
“And what about the demons? Are they here… somewhere?” He looked around like they might sneak up on him. Although he didn’t know what they’d look like, which gave them something of an advantage.
“Yes, they’re here.”
“Where?” asked Nic.
“Mostly, in there.” Simole pointed at a large black mountain that hadn’t been visible a second ago. Now it dominated the skyline on his right.
Nic stopped and stared. It didn’t look real. The sides were too smooth. “That isn’t a mountain, is it?”
Simole stopped and turned to look back at him. “No. It’s a ship, apparently. And we’re inside it, in case you were wondering.”
Nic nodded. “Is the All-Mother in there?”
Simole raised an eyebrow, and quickly pulled it back down again. “Yes.”
“Have you met her?”
“She didn’t kill you, then?” It wasn’t really a question, more of a way to keep Simole talking. He wasn’t quite sure why, but he had the impression she didn’t trust him.
“You think I’m acting weird, don’t you?” she asked, but somehow made it into a statement.
“You are acting weird,” said Nic.
Simole took a breath. “You see, nothing here is real. What you see, the grass and the sky and all that, it’s Arcanum. The place is full of it, everything reeks of the stuff.”
Simole raised a hand and a ball of fire shot out of her palm, arching into the sky. It left a trail of smoke behind it as it disappeared into the distance. It exploded into a shower of sparks.
Nic flinched at the noise. “That won’t set the grass on fire, will it?”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Simole, “It isn’t really grass. It’s formed into this shape because Archmage Roke wants it to look like... this. She’s a fan of romantic cornfield scenery for some reason.” She waved her hand around dismissively.
“Probably because she’s a middle-aged spinster,” said Nic, realising he was being just as dismissive, and immediately felt bad for it.
Simole smiled with half her mouth. “Yeah. Exactly.” She looked at Nic. “Maybe it really is you.”
Nic bridled a little, but did his best to not show it. Partly because he realised she had doubted he was really him, and partly because apparently being mean to old ladies proved he was the genuine article.
“Of course it’s me. Who else would I be?”
“You don’t understand,” said Simole. “You can’t be sure of anything here. I don’t know if it’s the real Winnum Roke I’m taking you to see, I don’t know if this is really you, or if I’m really here, or if this is the real Dana-Long.”
The dog stopped at the mention of his name and tilted his head to one side, whining like he was disappointed in her.
“What?” said Simole to the dog. “I didn’t say you weren’t. I just don’t know for sure, that’s all.”
The dog turned and walked off, unimpressed.
“So I could be talking to a demon right now?” said Nic. “I could be talking to the All-Mother, for all I know?”
“Yes,” said Simole. “I could be the All-Mother and not even know it. Makes fighting the enemy a complicated proposition.”
Nic could see her problem. You couldn’t trust anyone here, not even yourself.
“I don’t think it matters,” he said.
“And why is that?”
“This is their world. They can do what they want here, can’t they? More than we can. More than I can, anyway. Why bother trying to trick us? If you’re reluctant to say anything to me, holding back because you think it might give them an advantage, I don’t think it would make a difference. Knowledge isn’t fixed here, at least not the way it is back home. Things mean what you want them to, right? It doesn’t matter what you know or think or reveal to them. You can always change it to mean something else later. It only matters what you want and what you believe.”
Simole stared at him, not letting his gaze drop, holding him there, or he let her do it. “It’s really you, isn’t it.” This time it was just a statement.
“Mm hm,” said Nic. “Only, I don’t think I came here alone.”
“No? Who did you bring?”
“I sort of merged with this demon. It was a bit of a desperate gambit to try and stay alive.”
“Oh. Things bad on the other side, then?”
“Sort of. The school’s locked down under some kind of protective bubble. No one can get in or out, so as to stop the demons coming through the door you left behind.”
“I don’t think they can come through my door.”
“No, they can’t. But the backup plan was to use me to open another one, or maybe the same one. Your father made sure that wouldn’t happen, even if it means all the students die in the process.”
“And you made a deal with the demon to avoid doing what my father wanted? I can relate. Although, bit selfish if it ends up costing the lives of every living person back home.” She grinned.
It was hard to disagree. Nic shrugged and looked at the ground. “I thought I was your only way back, so I had to stay alive.” There was a long silence. When Nic looked back at Simole to see what she was thinking about, he was met by a red face. “What?”
“Nothing.” She blew some air upwards, which lifted the hair hanging over her brow. “How’s the girl, by the way? Okay, is she? Still got a stick up her bum?”
“Dizzy? Yes. I mean, yes, she’s okay.” Nic looked back at the mountain, which was really a ship. “So you’ve been inside?”
“We’re inside, now.”
“But you went in there. To meet the demons.”
“Yes,” said Simole. “It wasn’t a very long meeting. Archmage Roke made them let me go.”
“How did she do that?”
Simole turned and started walking again. “Who knows? She’s an archmage, she knows things. She spoke to the All-Mother, and then they let me go. Just like magic. I don’t understand why they don’t make her do whatever they want, to be honest. She seems to understand how to… not control them, exactly…”
“It’s because of the way stories change reality,” said Nic. “I think they like it. I think that’s how we took Arcanum from them in the beginning.”
Simole frowned. “This a theory you’ve been working on?”
Nic looked at the top of the grass, sweeping them away with strokes of his hands. “Sort of, yes.”
“Well, we can test it out on the woman herself. She’s in there.”
Nic looked up. There was a small cottage ahead of them. The dog had gone streaking towards it, although he only had little legs.
It was very picturesque, with a thatched roof and smoke drifting up into the white sky. It was the sort of place his mother would have liked. A middle-aged widow.
Simole marched up to the door and opened it without knocking. “Hello!” she called out as she disappeared inside.
Nic followed nervously. Not because he was about to meet the great Winnum Roke, but because he didn’t often visit people’s homes. He wasn’t very comfortable in these sorts of situations. He felt like he should have combed his hair.
He found himself in what looked like a farmhouse kitchen. It was big, with a large fire at one end. His mother would have approved and said something complimentary.
“This is Nic,” said Simole. “But you probably already knew that.” There was a surly tone to her voice, like a fed up teenager. “This is Winnum.”
“Archmage Roke,” said the woman sitting at the large wooden table with tobacco and wine spread out, ready for use.
“Hello,” said Nic. “I like your kitchen. It’s very big.” He felt dumb and self-conscious. Heroes in books never travelled to alternate dimensions to comment on interior decorations and furnishings.
“You smell like a demon,” she said, throwing in a withering stare.
“Yes. Sorry. I sort of merged with one.”
“Are you sure?” The withering stare turned hard and analytical.
He didn’t think she believed him. “I was poisoned. With Arcanum.” Her doubtful eyes remained unchanged. “To make it easier to merge.” It sounded more and more ridiculous.
“Well, if you did merge” —no sincerity whatsoever— “it’s doing a good job of staying out of sight. Must be completely dormant. Apart from the smell.”
Nic had the urge to smell himself, but resisted.
“Does he always look like that?” said Winnum Roke, waving the lit cigarette in her hand in his direction. She wasn’t as old as he’d expected. Thin and angular, with a stern look. Like a teacher. One who the male teachers were nervous around. Apart from the gym teacher, who secretly harboured feelings for her, but didn’t have the courage to confess them.
Nic could feel himself smiling at his own fanciful thoughts, and then the heat in his face in case the Archmage could read minds.
“Look like what?” asked Simole.
“The expression of constant apology.” She took a drag from the cigarette that had been quietly smouldering, nestled between her fingers.
“Sorry,” said Nic, unable to stop himself.
“See?” said Winnum Roke, as she blew out a long plume of purple smoke.
What Nic could see was that this wasn’t going well. He’d have to do something, say something, before they gave him a broom and told him to sweep up while they talked amongst themselves. “I’m Nic. Nicolav Tutt. I read your book.”
Winnum Roke raised an eyebrow, allowing a modicum of curiosity to show. “Yes? Which one?”
“Oh. Um, your autobiography. And Wink Munroe’s Tales of Myth and Legend.”
“And what did you learn?” she asked him.
Nic hadn’t expected to be tested on his reading, but it was the one line of questioning he was actually prepared for.
“That demons are susceptible to a well-told lie.”
There was a moment of something. She wasn’t impressed, but maybe no longer as uninterested. “You think it’s that simple?” she asked. He could tell she thought it might have been a lucky guess. She really did have the makings of a teacher.
“No. I think it takes a lot of luck, unless you know what you’re doing.”
“And you know what you’re doing?”
“I got lucky. The school librarian felt sorry for me. She sent me here.”
“Not much of a kindness,” said Winnum Roke.
“She’s a demon,” said Simole.
“Of course,” said Winnum Roke.
Now that he had had a chance to see her, she looked less like a teacher, and more like a farmer’s wife. Not the pleasant dumpy woman who stirred the pot on the stove while carrying a babe in her arms. The hardened wife whose husband died young, leaving her to run things. She wept over his grave, and then the next morning, she put on his work clothes, rolled up the sleeves so they fit, and hitched the horses to the plough.
A woman who did the hard things because there was no one to do them for her.
Simole was staring at him.
“What?” he said.
“That was good,” said Winnum Roke. Her hair was shorter, more practical, and she was wearing overalls.
Nic looked around. The room was different. More austere, with hardly any decoration. His mother would not have liked it like this. She would have put that broom in his hand and told him to start at one end, while she started at the other.
“Sorry,” said Nic.
“Don’t be,” said Winnum Roke. “You might do after all.”
“How did you do that?” asked Simole. She looked less than impressed, her face demanding an answer of him.
“Do what?” asked Nic.
Simole glared at him, and then stomped to the doorway. Nic went to the window — which may not have been there a moment ago — and looked out.
The sea of tall grass was gone. Instead, there was tilled earth, ready for planting. “Oh,” said Nic, “you meant that.” He turned to Winnum Roke. “Is this how you’ve kept the demons busy all this time?”
She nodded, taking quick, short puffs of her cigarette, her eyes darting around like she was reading from an invisible book.
“What does that mean?” said Simole. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s complicated,” said Nic.
Simole’s face screwed up in consternation. “Are you being condescending towards me?”
“No.” Nic kept his eyes on her hands, ready to dodge a fireball.
“Then what would you call it?”
“Um, technically, I was being patronising.”
“The difference being? Technically.”
“Oh, well, condescending is an intentional attempt to act superior, while patronising is more, um, by accident.”
Simole’s eyes narrowed, like she was taking aim. “And what do you call someone who manages to be both condescending and patronising at the same time?”
“That’s not what I would call him.”
“No. I can see that.”
She turned to look out of the door, and then back to him. “Explain to me why you can change the shape of the world when you have no magic ability, while I can only do this.” She pointed at an old rocking chair in the corner that looked like it had been crafted with great care. It disintegrated into sawdust.
“I’m not using magic,” said Nic. “It’s just how stories work here.”
“What does that mean?” She was becoming ever more exasperated with him. “You’ve only been here five minutes. How do you know how things work here?”
He knew he wasn’t being very clear. It was the excitement of it, the discovery of something new. It made him mildly incoherent. He paused and took a breath. He at least owed it to her to answer her questions properly.
“People think the best way to make a lie convincing is to believe it yourself. But that just means you believe it. Other people can see you’re lying, they just can’t get you to admit it, which doesn’t really make a difference.”
“So, what is the best way to tell a lie?” asked Simole.
“You make it about something the person already believes. The lie they told themselves. Make it so you agree with them.”
Simole frowned. “You have to wait until they try to trick you with a lie they’ve convinced themselves with? Kind of a long-term strategy, isn’t it?”
“No,” said Nic. “You can, but it’s easier to just use the ones they don’t know about. The ones they’ve been believing forever. The girl who thinks her friends are loyal, the boy who believes his good deeds will be rewarded, the soldier who fights because his heroism will be remembered, the king who is certain his words will make his subjects love him. It can be anything, you just have to know what it is for that particular person.”
Simole nodded without any sign of comprehension on her face. “What has that got to do with anything?”
Nic took another breath. “If I tell you I went down to the beach and met a mermaid, you might think I was insane or drunk or trying to trick you. You would start off not believing me. It’d be hard work to convince you otherwise. If I tell you the story of a man who went down to the shore and met a mermaid, you’d listen to what I have to say without worrying if it was true or not.”
“Because it isn’t real,” said Simole.
“No, it doesn’t matter if it’s real. Which is different.”
“Is it?” said Simole. “I’d forgotten what it was like talking to you. It’s coming back to me now.” She didn’t make it sound like the recollection was a fond one.
Nic tried again. “It’s in our nature to estimate and predict. We extrapolate from a proposition to a conclusion, without having to be told where we’re meant to go. That’s what we call consciousness. Anything else is instinct. To act without thinking. If you want people to react in a certain way, you have to bypass their ability to think.”
“Get them to react without thinking?” said Simole. “But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
“No,” agreed Nic. “But it’s predictable. And if you can predict something, you can prepare a response ahead of time. It’s an advantage.”
“Yes,” said Simole firmly. “I agree.”
“When you listen to a story, you think you’re responding with your conscious mind, but you aren’t. That’s why you laugh or cry when things happen in the story that, as you say, aren’t real. You don’t control those reactions the way you would if you saw them happen in front of you. You don’t question the motives of the people in a story, not in the same way. Which is why demons see them as more than just stories.”
“Mmm,” said Winnum Roke. “You aren’t quite the dolt you appear.”
“Thank you,” said Nic with no inflection.
“You’re right,” she continued, not paying attention to his gratitude. “They like to travel to different worlds, but they don’t have to if you bring them worlds here. Can you do that?”
“Wait, wait, wait,” said Simole, throwing up her hands. “If I’m fighting someone who’s been trained to be very defensive, and I make them angry… so angry that they lose their discipline, then I’m accessing their instinctual behaviour rather than their conscious decision-making. That’s what you’re talking about?”
“Yes, exactly,” Nic slapped his hands together. “Well done!”
Simole’s bright eyes shrank to burning coals. “You’re being patronising again.”
“Sorry,” said Nic, looking at Winnum Roke who would no doubt be judging him for his constant-apologist’s face, making him want to apologise to her, too. It was very draining to fight against the disapproval of women. He hoped it wouldn’t always be so hard. “I was actually more pleased with myself, because I got you to grasp my meaning through my horribly garbled attempt at an explanation.”
“Now you’re just being snivelling,” said Simole. There was no winning, sometimes.
“Enough of this,” said Winnum Roke. “I can finally see a way out of this. You.” She pointed at Nic. “Are you any good at putting theory into practice? You aren’t one of those boys who comes over all shy when he has to speak in public, are you?”
“Um, no, I mean, I, er, don’t—”
“Good, good. We’ll take you out and give you a turn in front of the All-Mother. How about that? See how you do with an audience.”
Nic shrugged. He wasn’t entirely sure what she was asking of him, but he did have a desire to see what the All-Mother looked like.
“Don’t do it,” said Simole. “She just wants you to take her place. She’ll leave you here and go back without you.”
“Can she do that?” asked Nic, unsure how the exit-entry system operated in this place. He looked at the hard-bitten woman who didn’t seem very magical. “You’ve been staying here on purpose? Do you think that was a good idea?”
Winnum Roke’s face soured. “Are all the children in Ranvar as insolent as the two of you?”
“No,” said Simole. “We’re gifted.”
“Listen,” said Winnum Roke. “There’s a chance here. Whatever’s happening back in Ranvar, it will go a sight better with me there, I guarantee it. Once I sort it out, I can arrange for your return. Until then, you may be the only person capable of replacing me here.”
“Thank you,” said Nic. “That’s very flattering.” He turned to Simole, and quickly looked away from the intense glare.
“Excellent,” said Winnum Roke.
Simole shook her head. “He didn’t say he’d do it. I didn’t hear him agree to anything.”
Winnum Roke looked back at Nic. “You agreed to do as I said, didn’t you?”
Nic shook his head. “No. I don’t even know if you’re really Winnum Roke. But I would like to meet the All-Mother.”
“How do you know it’ll really be the All-Mother, though?” asked Simole. “Huh, clever boy?”
“I don’t,” said Nic. “But I’m an optimist.”
“Doesn’t sound like what an optimist should hope for,” said Simole.
“This way,” said Winnum, heading for the door.
“You want to go right now?” asked Nic, suddenly feeling the reality of his situation. He was curious, but he was still unsure of what this place was, or how best to conduct himself. He would have liked to do some research first, although they probably didn’t have many libraries here. Or any.
“No time like the present,” said Winnum. The dog went racing after her.
Simole was next out, leaving Nic standing there. He was falling again, out of his depth. Blindly charging forward because it didn’t matter if he failed here or a few steps over there, but it had got him to an audience with the All-Mother. At least, that’s what it appeared to be. He couldn’t tell for sure.
But now what? Could he really face the most powerful of demons and come away victorious? He didn’t need to study the evidence in front of him to know the answer to that question. But he was here now. It wasn’t much in the way of motivation, but it was all he had. And most likely, his arrival was part of some greater plan he had no inkling of. He might as well make the best of it.
His thoughts turned inwards, to the demon dormant within him.
“Hey,” said Simole, sticking her head back through the door. “Come on.”
He followed her out. Winnum Roke was already a fair distance away.
“Where are we going?” asked Nic.
“There,” said Simole, pointing at the black mountain.
“Inside?” He could feel his heart beating faster. It was all very well thinking things through, but a little mindless instinct every now and again would have been nice. It would have made the anticipation of disaster less overwhelming.
“We’re already inside,” said Simole, knowing exactly how irritating she was being. “That girl, do you think she’ll come after you?”
Nic hadn’t even thought about Dizzy. “She tried to kill me,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean she’ll let anyone else do it.”
They caught up with Winnum Roke, who was standing with her arms raised, as though praising the mountain. It was still quite a way away. She was muttering under her breath and making strange gestures with her hands.
“What’s she doing?” asked Nic.
“You’ll see,” said Simole.
Nic didn’t want to get between the mage and the mountain, but he leaned forward to try and get a better look. “Oh, I see. It isn’t a rock at all.”
“No,” said Simole. “And those aren’t stars glittering on its surface.”
“Where’s the other one?” asked Nic.
“The other wing. There should be two, shouldn’t—”
The air around them crackled with blue light, and the mountain or wing or whatever it was, turned into an archway, only a few metres away. Nic found himself pulled inexorably through it.
The light was blinding and his ears popped. He was inside it. Even more so than when he’d been outside. Ahead of him were coloured lights in the shape of buildings, pulsing and streaking in all directions. His body felt too heavy to move.
“Here we are, then,” said Simole. She was standing next to him, although he hadn’t noticed until she spoke.
“Where’s the Archmage?” There was no sign of her.
“I don’t know,” said Simole. “She did the same thing last time. Never seen her and the All-Mother in the same place at the same time.”
“So, this time they sent a boy,” said a cold, emotionless voice.
Nic looked up. The sky was full of stars. Or the ceiling was covered in lights. The roof was possibly swarming with luminescent fungi.
“Yes,” said Nic. “They sent me. By mistake, I think.”
“The Archmage tells me you have a story to tell me.”
Was this it? His moment to make a difference? He didn’t think so. “No, not really.”
There was a pause. “No? Then why did you come here?”
“I thought maybe you would tell me a story. The story of the first mage and demon. The story of the All-Father.”
Simole looked at him, shocked. “The All-Father?” She hissed at him. “That’s my father’s dragon.”
“No,” said Nic. “I don’t think he is.”
“Yes,” said the All-Mother. “I will tell you.”