It was dark in the Pagoda. Dizzy took out a pair of tinted spectacles and put them on. Now it was even darker.
There were lanterns outside, ringing the Pagoda in a circle of prohibitory light, but Dizzy had no desire to announce her arrival.
From a pouch on her belt she took out a small bar of metal. It was randium, a soft, light metal that was quite rare and too brittle to be very useful in construction. Its only practical property was that it emitted a dull glow, barely perceptible to the naked eye. With the right glasses, though, you could see in the dark.
She quietly pushed into the interior where, pausing at the edge of a faintly purple circle on the ground, she stared at what had once been a staircase. Now it was filled with rubble, also faintly glowing purple around the central shaft.
If there was anyone down there, they wouldn’t be aware of her presence. They wouldn’t be aware of very much at all. Her stealthiness served little purpose, which was just as well since a moment later a bright light came charging through the door raised above and ahead of a sweaty, apprehensive-looking boy.
“What are you doing here?” she said in a brusque tone she immediately regretted. Not because she was being rude, which wasn’t something that would ever bother her, but because she knew it would sour the proceeding exchange and make things more difficult. Complicating matters when it could be avoided was always regrettable.
“I came to help,” said Davo. “You’re welcome by the way. Nice glasses. Can you see anything in those?”
She took off the spectacles and put them away. “I told you I’d summ—” She caught herself but she could sense the hostility already building. “I said I’d signal you when I needed help. You could have compromised me if there’d been anyone here.”
Davo lifted the lantern higher and swung it around. “There doesn’t appear to be anyone else in the vicinity.”
It was pointless to argue. He knew what she meant, and she knew that forcing him to admit it would achieve nothing.
“The stairwell’s blocked. Looks like it collapsed. There’s little chance of anyone getting in or out through here.”
“Aren’t there any other entrances?” said Davo. “I imagine they added emergency exits when they built the damn thing. Especially if they planned to get up to no good.”
Dizzy tightened her mouth just to make sure no needlessly aggressive words slipped out. She could feel them massing on the border, ready for the charge. He was nervous, but also something else. She couldn’t quite place it, but there was a difference in the way he held himself. His whole body was different, somehow. Unaccustomed to being in these kinds of situations, most likely.
“Where’s the other one?” she said.
“If you mean Fanny, he’s waiting to be summoned. By your signal. He’s a good boy, you should tell him that.”
“And the equipment?”
“Yes. And the equipment.”
It wasn’t what she had meant. When she asked a question about equipment, she expected a full report on location, condition and distribution. She had trained her people to answer her directives quickly and efficiently. But he wasn’t her people and she had to learn to handle him. Everything was an opportunity to learn.
“Good. We’re going to need it if we intend to get to Nic. He’s down there, somewhere.” She tapped the edge of the stairwell with her boot. It was a shallow pit with not even the first step showing.
“Here,” said Davo. He pushed a stick towards her.
She recognised it immediately. It was from her equipment bag, a pick, even though it looked more like a walking stick made from ebony. It was the exact item she needed. How had he known to bring it? And where had he been hiding it? It hadn’t been in his hands a second ago.
“Thank you.” She reached out and took it from him. “This will get us started. You should go get Fanny.”
“In a minute.”
She bridled at having her instructions deflected, but she didn’t say anything. It was enough that she had the mining tool. She carefully stepped into the ring of rubble that had recently been a stairwell, testing the large stones haphazardly sitting on each other before allowing her weight to rest on them.
Once she reached the shaft, she began working the end of the pick into a crack between stones, rotating and wiggling the tapered end into the gap. All the while she could feel him watching her. Waiting for a mistake so he could point it out? He wouldn’t be the first. Most of his predecessors were still waiting.
“Sky still dark outside?” she said. She could work the debris and the boy at the same time. Both would eventually yield to her.
“Impenetrable,” said Davo. “What will you do if a demon appears?”
“I’ll think of something,” she said without looking up.
“Nic would have a plan,” said Davo. “He generally has one for all occasions.”
“Good.” She grunted as the tip finally went in. “We can ask him about it after I save him. Again. He’s an excellent strategist. He should do well in a logistics role. I’m sure he’ll find gainful employment. People always need a good clerk.”
The pick seemed to have become firmly lodged in place. Which was what she wanted. It began leaning and she grabbed it again.
“I wonder if you two would work well together,” said Davo. “I mean, as a team. You are both quite similar. Obviously not in temperament. Or personality. Or manners. But otherwise. Perhaps you’d complement one another as partners. You both seem to know a lot, but we’re heavily outmatched, I’d say. If you could pool your resources, cover for each other’s weaknesses....”
Dizzy stopped and straightened her back. “Do you know what makes a good leader? No, not a good one, a great one, do you know? It isn’t what most people think. The ones in history books who won battles and achieved amazing, unlikely feats, they were mostly lucky. Hot-headed fools who gambled recklessly and won. Many more gambled and lost, but you don’t hear about them. Or they had an unassailable advantage over the competition, as is the Ranvar way. What separates a true leader from just someone handed the job is knowing what to do.”
She looked up, letting go of the pick which remained stuck where she’d placed it. She brushed off her hands.
“You can have all the information in the worlds at your fingertips, but that won’t tell you when to use it or how. It’s like cooking from a recipe book won’t guarantee results. Different cooks will produce different cakes. And the best one won’t follow the recipe to the letter. Execution is everything. Not just the right choice, but the timing. To be able to look at a situation and to know which is your best option. Not because there is a best option waiting to be chosen, but because you understand what your opponent is going to do. When you understand their objective, you don’t need to wait for them. You can react before they have the chance to act.”
“That sounds like Nic.”
“No, it doesn’t. I’ve known him a lot longer than you. He’s never been that way. He was always indecisive and cautious. I may have missed a few years in between, but he hasn’t changed that much.”
“Don’t you think he might just have been like that around you?”
Dizzy made her way out of the shallow pit, taking long, high strides so as to not disturb the unsettled rocks. “Because I make him nervous? I don’t think so. He’s perfectly capable of controlling his emotions.”
“I don’t think you make him nervous,” said Davo. “I think he doesn’t want to get in your way.”
“Are you saying he’s stepping aside for me? So I can pass?”
“I’ve seen him do it. I was there when he asked the Head to not reveal he had come first in the mocks and to let you take the top spot.”
She looked up sharply, and then quickly muted her surprise. There was an instinctive acceptance from her that he had spoken the truth, that Nic had come first but hidden it. The question wasn’t whether or not it was true, the question was why was this boy telling her?
To get a rise out of her? This didn’t seem a very appropriate time or place for that kind of baiting. It had been a while since anyone had tested her.
“Even if that’s true, I doubt it has anything to do with his relationship to me. I imagine he didn’t wish to be the focus of attention going forward, and coming first would attract nothing but. It was a smart move for someone who prefers to work without pressure.”
She glanced up long enough to see the surprise register in the boy’s face. Direct hit, she would say.
“You really are just like him. The way you take things apart.”
“Of course,” she said. “Who do you think he learned it from?”
She turned her gaze towards the pick. Any second now… any second…
The stick began vibrating. It sank a little deeper and began to hum.
“Is it doing what it’s supposed to do?” asked Davo, his voice trembling in sympathetic resonance to the vibrations in the air.
“Yes. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.” The rocks around the base of the pick turned into gravel.
“Do you ever think how nice it would be to not be the leader? To follow orders and leave the decisions to others? You could do what you do best so much better if you didn’t have to worry about everyone else.”
Dizzy froze for a second. He hadn’t sounded like himself just then. He’d sounded remarkably calm and insightful, like a wise old man. Only his words weren’t wise, they were infuriating. Do one thing well? Like a trained animal drilled over and over until their expertise was automatic… mindless?
No, she hadn’t ever thought that. Why would she? Why do one thing well when you could do everything well? You just needed the people around you to do what they were told. That was the difficult part — relying on others.
Nic felt like he was bathed in light. His eyes were closed, but the darkness had an illuminated quality to it. And a warmth.
It was similar to when you sat in front of a fire with your eyes shut, that redness across the inside of your eyelids. Only this went much deeper than his eyelids. This was all around and inside him, too. He could have been in an oven, cooking. Not in a bad way. Not in a way that suggested burning and dying. This was more like dough rising.
“How do I leave?” he asked the demon.
You must pass through the door.
The demon was quiet in his mind, a spent force that offered very little resistance. He had taken the immense energy it had tried to force into him, and instead of fighting it to the point of becoming unstable, he had kept consuming it until his entire body was not much more than a bottle about to blow its lid. But he had kept it all in.
“I thought I was the door.”
You are the door. Your body is the doorway. You are more than your body.
He wasn’t sure what that meant. He only knew the demon had agreed to help him escape, and he meant to keep it to its word. Precisely. If there was one thing he had learned about demons, it was that they liked to be true to their contracts.
“Can I close the door?”
There was a pause before the demon spoke. You would need a sacrifice.
“Aren’t you the sacrifice?”
The demon had tried to offer itself as the source of his transformation. It hadn’t quite worked, not in the way it had been meant to. At least, he didn’t think it had. The problem with dealing with demons was that their true intentions weren’t revealed through their words. They were very careful to speak accurately, but the truth could be very misleading.
I was the sacrifice to open the doorway. I no longer have the power to reverse the process.
“But it is possible?”
It is much easier to cut down a tree than to return it to its place in the forest, but it is possible.
“The other demon, could I use its power?”
There was another pause. He knew the demon wasn’t alone in this world. Perhaps there were hundreds of them, hiding in plain sight. But that seemed unlikely. If there were that many, they would have been able to take over long before now.
Probably there weren’t very many. Or possibly there were, and there was something preventing them from being more bold. In which case, it would be useful to know what that was.
It is harder than you imagine to draw power away from its owner.
He took that to mean no, the other demon would not be amenable to assisting. Not very surprising. But the idea of leaving the doorway to the other place open, even if it allowed him to escape from his tomb, was not appealing.
“I took power from you.”
I gave it to you.
“Yes.” The demon had done more than give. It had forced. But if it took a demon to instigate the transfer, it raised a very interesting question.
“The first mages, how did they convince you to share your powers?”
It was something that wasn’t mentioned in any book, at least none that he had read. Not even the ones kept hidden in the special rooms of libraries. Which suggested it was a secret the Royal College guarded very carefully.
Arcanum, said the demon.
That didn’t explain anything. “We found a mineral that you were weak to?”
There was something like a laugh in the back of his mind, amused but far more bitter than joyful.
You think Arcanum is a rock that is buried in the ground to be found? It is ours. It is our blood.
“But we dig it out of the ground, don’t we?”
Much blood was spilled during the time we warred, your people and mine. Far more than you can possibly imagine.
“We’re picking up your dried blood? And the deposits we find inside mountains?”
Mountains? No, they are not mountains. They are corpses.
It made a kind of morbid sense, and he didn’t doubt the demon was telling him the truth, but the truth could be misleading.
Tell me the secret of the Green Demon’s failure. I wish to know before the last of me expires.
“First you have to show me the way out of here. That’s what we agreed.”
I have already told you. You did not ask for all the ways. I have given you one. It is up to you to take it. Or not.
“There are other ways, though, aren’t there?”
Harder ways. You have to change what you are if you wish to change what you can do. This much you already know.
“The first mages, they merged with demons somehow? The demons must have been willing.”
They committed a blasphemy. They gave their power away.
“So did you. You gave me your power.” There was no response. “Could you merge with me? Could we close the door that way?”
Still no answer. Nic felt like he was close to something. But he was also acutely aware that he might have been led here, the way a child might be led to a dentist with encouraging words and the promise of ice cream later.
He reached out with his mind, trying to feel his environment. When he paused his exchange with the demon, he became more aware of his surroundings. The dust, the closeness of rock and earth. He was trapped underground and there was no way to crawl out. The demon’s offer seemed to be the only path to freedom. His freedom. Everyone else would be at the mercy of whatever passed through in the other direction.
But nothing had passed through yet. Why was that?
He let his mind wander a little further. He would have liked to have spoken with the others again. Not that it would serve any purpose, but it would be comforting to know they were okay.
There was a barrier around them. Around him. He could feel it. The dome over the school that Fanny had mentioned, was that responsible for also keeping the demons from entering this world? Did something have to bring it down first?
If it was something only he could do, he expected the demon would keep the fact from him, hoping to steer him into doing it without him realising. The willingness to act seemed to play a large part in how they worked.
And then he felt something else. Out there, in the world. Not exactly a presence, not in the living sense, but a force. A pressure. An opening.
“Is there another door?” he asked, not really expecting an answer. Perhaps the other demon was making plans of its own.
There is no other door I know of. They are hard to open.
“I can feel something… Don’t you?”
There was a moment of silence, and then the darkness seemed to shift.
Fools. What have they done? The demon’s weak voice rallied with the force of its outrage. They have opened a gateway.
“Who have? The mages?” There was no answer, but the lack of response felt dismissive. “Your followers in Gweur?” It seemed the only other option.
They are trying to reach the other side. They know not what disaster they will produce from this folly.
There was a desperate quality to the demon’s prediction that Nic hadn’t heard from it before. Almost… fear.
“Can we stop them?”
It is too unstable. Too weak. It will ruin both sides of the portal.
“Can we stop them?” asked Nic again, more insistent.
It must be closed.
“How? We don’t have the power to close the door, you said.”
It can be done. It can, if....
Nic wanted to urge the demon to finish its thought, but he instinctively knew to wait and stay quiet. If the demon was to offer a solution, one that required its own willing involvement, it would have to reach that conclusion for itself.
We must merge.
“And then we can close both doors?”
“You agree to close both doors?”
A trick? A trap, carefully and patiently laid out? There was no way to know, but the door was open, if not fully functional. If this allowed him to slam it shut, that would be enough. If allowing the demon to become part of him led to a disaster, it was unlikely to make things any worse. Unless there was more to this than he was able to perceive. He could simply be making a terrible mistake and the world would suffer the consequences.
The thought of it was chilling, but he also felt a strong desire to take the chance. He had never been much of a gambler, and the odds weren’t good, but the possible outcome was very attractive. And odds could always be adjusted.
“Will I be the one in control?” he asked, hoping for an honest answer, even if it later transformed into a sincerely offered lie.
As much as you are now.
Those were stark words whose ambiguity was not lost on him.
“What do I have to do?”
Dozens of needle-pronged flashes crackled through his skull, and his body stiffened in violent thrusts. His blood was on fire. He opened his mouth to scream, but the darkness rushed in to drown him.
The pick shook and the rocks around it slowly disintegrated. Very slowly. In a mine, there would be dozens of these sticks placed within a fault or vein that the engineers had identified as the ideal location.
Dizzy was going on a rather elementary understanding of geological excavation techniques. She had considered it an excellent acquisition from her father’s collection, but unfortunately it hadn’t come with an instruction booklet. The few times she had used it to get an idea of how it worked, the function had seemed fairly straightforward. You put it in the ground and turned it on by twisting the handle at the top. Apparently there was more to it.
“I don’t think one is going to be enough,” said Davo. “Not if we want to save Nic before he succumbs to old age.”
She didn’t appreciate the tone, but he had a point. There wasn’t much she could do from up here. Maybe the boy’s earlier point had been correct. Relying on one entrance or exit was poor design, and there was likely more than one way to get in and out. She just had to figure out where else the Pagoda might be connected to.
Mr Tenner had been the chief user of the Pagoda’s facilities, would there be an access point near his rooms? She racked her brains thinking of a possible location for a secret tunnel or passage. She had explored most of the school in her time here, and never come across anything like that. Then again, she had also been unaware of what the Pagoda was, or even that there was a mirrored dome on top of the library.
“We don’t even know he’s down there for certain,” said Davo.
“He’s down there,” said Dizzy. But she wasn’t sure, either. She just knew admitting doubt served no purpose when you were already committed.
“Don’t you have anything else we could use?” asked Davo. “Something a bit more… heavyweight?”
There were items in her possession that were of a more heavy duty nature. She would never contemplate using them unless the situation was dire, but that was a fair description of the current situation.
There were risks. If her father knew she had such items in the middle of such a densely populated area, he would no doubt be horrified. But it was exactly because she had prepared for eventualities beyond what would be considered normal that she was now able to implement them.
It made her very nervous, though. What kind of option was it to take a risk possibly far greater than the one you were trying to avoid?
“I’m not sure we’re at that point yet,” she said.
“Not sure? What happened to your speech about great leaders? Don’t you have an instinctive certainty about what to do?”
Dizzy brought her lips together tightly. Even then, she could feel the urge to teach him a thing or two about how to assess a complex position, and how to make the correct call. At least, that would be the gist of it. Mainly it would be well-deserved abuse.
There was a rumble from deep below, and the pick ceased moving. They both stopped to stare at it.
“Did it break?” asked Davo.
“I don’t know.” She took a step towards it, placing a foot within the ring around the stairwell.
Her boot sank into what appeared to be sand.
She yanked her foot back. The surface had changed to fine granules, trembling like the stretched skin on a drum. Then it began swirling, quickly dropping like water flowing down a pipe, taking the pick with it.
Steps were revealed, and broken walls. Davo leaned closer, but not too close, with the lantern held ahead of him. The sand was already almost out of sight as the dark bottom of the stairwell was out of reach of the light.
“That worked better than I thought it would,” said Davo.
“I don’t think that was how it’s meant to work.”
They stood leaning, listening to the sand swish away.
Dizzy raised a hand to stop him talking, which he did, much to her surprise.
“I think someone’s coming.”
There was a figure climbing up the steps winding around the central shaft. A small dark head was approaching. A familiar one.
“Nic,” called down Davo. “Are you alright?”
A round face looked up at them, and smiled. “Yeah. I’m okay. Bit of a headache.” He waved and then jogged up the rest of the stairs.
It was only when he got close to the top that his condition became clear. He was covered in dust and his clothes were badly ripped and torn. He was cut and blood had dried and congealed on his face and hands. Other than that, he looked more or less the same.
“What happened?” said Davo, grabbing him by the arms but stopping short of hugging him.
“It’s a long story. Dizzy…” he said like he’d only just noticed her. He held out the pick for her to take. “What are you doing here?” He glanced sideways at Davo like he was berating him for allowing her to be here.
“I’m saving you,” she said, pointedly. She took the pick from him.
“Oh. Thank you.”
“Yes, well done,” said Davo. “Nic, come on, we have to—”
Dizzy pushed Davo back with the sharp end of the pick. “Wait. We don’t know if it’s really him.” She took out a rod of black metal and held it in front of her.
“What do you mean? Of course it’s him.”
“No, she’s right,” said Nic. “You don’t know for sure.”
“Would you be suspicious of her,” asked Davo, “if it was the other way around?”
“No. I would know if it was her.”
“What does that mean?” said Dizzy, annoyed. “You think your ability to read people is better than mine?”
“No,” said Nic. “I’m just more aware of you than you are of me.”
On one level all he was saying was that he spent a lot more time thinking about her than she did about him, which was undoubtedly true. But on another level, he was saying his perceptions were sharper. Which clearly was nonsense.
It didn’t matter. There were more important matters to take care of.
“How did you do that?” She nodded towards the recently emptied stairwell.
“I didn’t. I thought you did.”
He looked the same, and he was as simple as ever, but she knew her device hadn’t been responsible for what had just happened. She flicked her wrist holding the small rod, and a blade sprang out of the handle.
“I don’t think Nic would have been able to come out of there unscathed. Who are you?”
“It’s me, Dizzy. Really.”
“How? Do you want me to share a childhood memory?”
“That wouldn’t prove anything. You seem to share those with anyone who’ll listen.”
“Then I don’t… can we at least get out of here. I don’t think we have much time.”
“Time for what?” asked Davo.
“Hey, quiet,” snapped Dizzy. “Okay, outside. You first, then you.” She jerked the dagger towards the door. He was right, they should get out of here. If he really had escaped, someone was bound to notice. And she needed to find out what he knew.
Davo put his hands on his hips. “I don’t think—”
“Do what she says,” said Nic. “She’s not being unreasonable.”
Davo frowned, but started backing towards the door. “That’s a nice knife, by the way. Looks custom-made.”
Dizzy nodded. “That’s right. Let’s go.”
Nic followed Davo out. She was right behind him, scanning him from behind for any signs of the abnormal. She had no idea what she was looking for. A tail, perhaps.
Outside, the sky was as black and empty as before. Nic was staring up at, breathing in deeply.
“We thought you were dead,” said Davo.
“I was,” said Nic, “very nearly.”
“Explain what happened,” said Dizzy, still holding the dagger in a ready position. It was, as Davo had noticed, custom-made. There weren’t any like it, made of the same material as the pen Nic had. But she hadn’t been gifted it by her father. She had made it herself. She didn’t know if it would work against demons or the demon-possessed, but perhaps she would find out. Soon.
“So, um...” said Nic, “I’ll try to make this quick. I sort of merged with the demon.”
“You did what?” said Davo.
“That would kill you,” said Dizzy.
“Yes. If I hadn’t been poisoned with Arcanum already, and survived. I was meant to be used to open a doorway into the other place. I think they’ve been preparing me for the role since I got here. I thought maybe I had fallen into the middle of something by luck, but I don’t think so. I was just an easy target. A child is easier to control and manipulate than an adult.”
“Then how did you escape?” asked Dizzy.
He pointed up at the sky. “I don’t think this is the demon’s work.”
“No?” said Davo. “Then who?”
“Yes, who?” said Dizzy.
“I’m not sure. The Archmage. Your father. I think it’s to keep the demons from accessing the doorway.”
Dizzy nodded. “They were prepared to sacrifice us all to prevent them coming through.”
“I think so,” said Nic. “There’s another door in Gweur. I’m supposed to go stop it, like a hero.”
“But you aren’t going to?” said Dizzy.
“No. Not right now, at least. What am I going to do? Sixteen year old boys aren’t good at being the most important person in the world. They’re better at—”
“Being controlled and manipulated,” Dizzy finished for him. She was starting to think this was her Nic. The thought brought her up short. Why had she called him that? Just a slip of the tongue. “They want you to escape and get to the other door.”
“But how did you get away?” asked Davo.
“The demon let him go,” said Dizzy.
“But is the demon still inside of you?” said Davo. “Won’t it take control?”
They both turned to look at Nic.
“Yes,” said Dizzy. “How will you stop it, Nic?”
“Ah,” said Nic. “That’s the interesting part. I had to—”
Dizzy staggered, and then fell. Nic turned to Davo, and then all the way around. It was hard for Dizzy to see past Nic. Someone was there. She wanted to tell him to move, but she couldn’t speak.
“You made it out,” said Denkne. “Will wonders never cease?”
“Mr Denkne, are you alright?” Nic sounded genuinely concerned.
“It looks worse than it is.” He began choking. “A little trouble with some of Miss Delcroix’s friends. But then they vanished into thin air. Remarkably fortunate. I imagine that means their progenitor has been eliminated. My condolences.”
Something had happened to her father, that’s what he was saying. If the wraiths had dematerialised, that was probably a correct assumption. It also meant she was defenceless.
There was the sound of something falling to the floor.
Nic bent down, his face approaching hers. It was hard to focus. Was he indicating something to her non-verbally? If so, she had no idea what. He picked something up by her. The dagger.
As he straightened up, she saw a figure sitting on the ground. She knew it was Denkne from the white hair. There was also a lot of red. He had done well to survive as long as had. Long enough to reach her and get his revenge.
“Now, now. No need for that,” said Denke.
Nic had his arm raised. The dagger glinted in his hand. And then he threw it.
It didn’t hit Denkne. It was well wide of the mark, if that had been his target. But it hadn’t.
Davo let out a cry of pain and shock. More shock. He fell.
There were three of them on the ground now, and only Nic on his feet. She didn’t like the symbolism of it.
Hands reached around her and pulled her up. At least she could see clearly now. His hands were very firm around her waist. A little too firm, perhaps. She would allow it, this time.
“Nic!” called out Davo. “Wh—” He was struggling to breathe.
“This might hurt,” said Nic into her ear. It did. Everything went black.