“Hmm,” said Simole. “This doesn’t look good.”
“Well, obviously,” said Davo. He put his hands in his pockets and leaned against the wall next to the smouldering fireplace. “The boy’s in bed leaking Arcanum out of every orifice. Hardly a healthy position to be in.”
“I don’t mean that,” said Simole. “You don’t end up with that much Arcanum in you by accident. It doesn’t just leap inside your body because you happen to stroll past.”
“So?” Davo pushed himself off the wall and straightened up, taking his hands out of his pockets, his face strained and eager. “What does that mean? How did he end up so full of the stuff.”
“Somebody put it in him,” said Simole. “I don’t think it was an accident at all.”
“He’s going to be alright, though,” said Fanny. “Isn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Davo. “Of course. Probably.”
“I think Mr Tenner has a lot of explaining to do,” said Simole. “I think I might have a word with him.”
“Look,” said Davo, “do we really need to stir things up any more than they are already? Whatever happened, I doubt giving this particular hornet’s nest a kick will produce anything but regrettable results.”
Simole nodded thoughtfully. “Yes. You’re right.”
“I am?” said Davo, surprised by the ease of his success.
“He is?” Fanny asked for the same reasons.
“Yes. You should stay out of this. Keep an eye on Nic, or whoever that is.”
“What does that mean?” said Davo. “You don’t think that’s Nic?”
“Who is it then?” asked Fanny.
“I’m not saying it isn’t, I’m just not sure. The other thing such a large dose of Arcanum does to a person, apart from killing them, is shield them from prying eyes. There’s no way to look inside Nic’s head to see if it’s really him. Or if he’s alone in there.”
“You can do that?” asked Fanny, blushing hard. “You can look inside people’s heads? Can you read their thoughts?”
“No,” said Simole. “I’m not a carnival sideshow. But I can sense presences. People tend to have a specific… feel to them. I’m not sure how to explain it.”
“But this is all conjecture and supposition, isn’t it?” said Davo. “You don’t know any of this for sure.”
“No, not for sure,” Simole admitted with a slight shrug. “But I have enough suspicions to warrant a visit to the Pagoda and see what’s going on in there.”
Both boys reacted with startled expressions.
“Woah, there,” said Davo. “No one said anything about breaking into the Pagoda.”
“How else are we going to find out what happened to Nic?”
“I don’t know,” said Davo, throwing up his hands, “wait till he’s better and ask him?”
Simole shook her head and looked off to the side. Their shared concern had brought them together, but now she regretted not maintaining her distance. She wasn’t used to interacting like this. Their concern was both irritating and strangely endearing.
“He probably has less idea than us. He’s all over the place. Doesn’t know where he is, or who he is. If we want to help him, we need to know what the threat is. Trust me, this is what I’ve been trained for.”
“What does that mean?” said Davo.
“Why were you trained to find threats?” said Fanny. “Are you some kind of government assassin?”
“No,” said Simole. Both boys looked unconvinced. “It’s not important. The first thing to do is check out the Pagoda.”
“Reconnaissance,” said Fanny.
“Right,” said Simole. “Have a look around and leave without Tenner knowing I was ever there.”
“Because it’ll be that simple,” said Davo. “You don’t think Tenner has the Pagoda locked up tight?”
“Couldn’t we report Tenner to someone?” asked Fanny.
Davo tilted his head from side to side. “I’m not even sure what it is we’re accusing him of. What exactly are we accusing him of?”
Simole shrugged. “That’s what I want to find out. Don’t worry, I’m sure I can get into the Pagoda without much trouble.”
“That’s exactly what I am worried about. I know you have abilities beyond the norm, but it’s still incredibly risky. To the point of being reckless. A lot could go wrong. A lot. Far be it for me to throw around my risk assessment training at a time like this, but on a purely practical level, what you’re considering is, to use the technical term, bonkers.”
“Bonkers,” agreed Fanny.
“I can see why you might think that, but it’s not so crazy. I can hold my own against someone like Tenner.”
“Why are you even here, Simole?” asked Davo, exasperated at common sense being ignored so wilfully. “Someone like you shouldn’t be at a school with regular children.”
“These aren’t regular children,” Simole pointed out.
“No. But there’s no one like you here.”
“Lucky for you there is.”
Davo frowned. “I’m sure. You like your secrets, you and Nic.”
“Sometimes it’s the best way to protect people.”
“Yes,” said Davo. “And sometimes it’s a way of preventing people telling you how idiotic you’re being.”
“I’ll be fine,” said Simole. “I know what I’m doing.”
Davo and Fanny exchanged a look and shuddered in unison. Simole flicked her finger at the fireplace and the fire roared back into life.
Neither boy tried to dissuade her further, but she could tell they both disapproved of her plan. It was a mixture of the ominous nature of the Pagoda and the condition Nic was in. He was delirious and, according to the doctor, lucky to be alive. Whatever Tenner was up to, it clearly wasn’t good for the health.
They were right to be wary, but Simole was not the average student when it came to this kind of situation. Her father had prepared her for exactly this kind of vague threat. She knew the signs and appreciated the risks. She also found it hard to shake the feeling there was something more to it than scuppering the chances of a promising student the school didn’t like. She had been taught to trust those instincts.
“I should be back in a bit,” she said.
“And if you aren’t?” asked Davo.
“Then whatever you do, don’t come looking for me.”
Both boys nodded.
She left through her bedroom window. It was dark and no one was around, but she felt better not walking out the front door. The moment her feet touched the dry, prickly grass that grew around the cottage, a cloak of darkness swarmed over her.
It was a cloak that was only visible to those adept at seeing Arcanum manifested in physical form. Anyone with a keen eye and deliberate purpose would see her standing there in the milky light of the half-moon, but not many would know to look. The Arcanum drew prying eyes away, seeing past her and around her without realising a girl travelled in its midst.
It was a simple spell and one that took little concentration to maintain. A vigorous search by experienced mages would quickly reveal her presence, but even her father, who had taught her the spell, would be hard put to notice her if he wasn’t actively looking for her.
The teachers at Ransom, many of whom she knew had magical ability, would fare less well. And the Secret Service, who used devices built to augment their meagre abilities, would have to form a web of intercepting probes and locate her by triangulation, and then hope to get lucky.
Her training since childhood had been to prepare her for exactly such missions, although her father had probably not expected her to be carrying them out so far from home, or so far from him.
She set off across the campus with a thrill of excitement. Using her abilities in the way she had been taught, even though she had often resented her relentless tutelage, gave her a sense of purpose. She had a goal, an objective. She would use her skills to achieve that objective. The idea was satisfying.
Which was odd because that was exactly what she had hated about her upbringing. Her father had often referred to her as a girl with a purpose, but from his lips the words had sounded like a cage placed around her. It wasn’t that she didn’t want direction in life, it was just that she didn’t want the direction he had set out for her.
The campus was more or less deserted. She saw a couple of school porters rushing around on some business or other. She ignored them and they were unaware of her.
A night bird called in a warbling hoot. It was no more aware of her than the porters. Something small shrieked in the bushes off to her left and wings beat and thrashed for a second before stillness returned.
She reached the library in a few minutes and made her way to the rear. The Pagoda seemed to spring up in front of her out of nowhere and at the same time gave the impression it had always been there, waiting for her.
She hurried across the small open area to where the trees crowded around the Pagoda’s base. There were few leaves left on the branches which formed a circle of dark fingers parted by a thin path.
There was no sound from within, no lights and no movement. She stopped at the door and placed a hand on the smooth, cold surface. It wasn’t like any door she had seen or touched before. There was no handle and no hinges. It could have been a black square painted on a wall.
Simole closed her eyes and let the nerves in her fingertips enter the cool metal under them, and let the metal enter her. She sensed how thick the door was, how it hung on pins on the reverse side and the lever that connected the two. She let her mind reach further. The emptiness of the Pagoda startled her. It was almost entirely hollow with a central shaft running down the middle. She followed the shaft down and down. It seemed to go on forever. Certainly deeper than she had expected. But it wasn’t just the shaft, the walls of the Pagoda also carried on. The Pagoda wasn’t a structure sitting on top of the ground, it was inserted into the earth, the visible part the tip of a much larger structure. And the further down it went, the more solid the contents enclosed by it became. It possessed a piercing solidity that numbed her thoughts and made it hard to focus.
Simole shook her head as though waking from an unscheduled nap.Whatever was down there, it wasn’t just a few rooms of laboratory equipment.
She cleared her mind and reached for the pins with her fingertips. Her hand looked the same, but felt like her fingers were extending in and through the door. Easing the pins up and out of their sockets was a simple task. Behind her, the last of the leaves curled up and fell to the ground to join their scattered siblings. The door made no sound as it swung away from her, gliding open.
Simole paused to listen. Behind her the wind had stilled, the birdcalls were silent. She entered and closed the door. It closed easily and quietly.
The darkness inside was broken by glimmers of light seeping in through gaps in the Pagodas walls. It wasn’t really light, just less intense darkness. It didn’t illuminate the interior as much as give it an outline.
Nothing moved in that hollow shape, no man, woman or insect. Simole made her way to the stairs leading down, careful to make no sound and disturb the air as little as possible. Not even the dusty ground marked her passing.
The stairs started broad and narrowed as she descended. The air thickened with Arcanum so it became harder to think clearly; her senses were all pushed back inside herself. She went slowly touching the fingertips of her left hand very lightly on the wall. She felt the pocked surface bump against her skin. Voices echoed, quarrelling somewhere below.
The curling steps revealed flames flickering in sconces that showed her the spiral falling ahead of her. There was a small room at the bottom, empty save for a simple table and a wooden door at the far end.
The door had a simple latch and handle. It creaked when she opened it, scratched at the ground. There was a tunnel with many doors. She followed the voices, muffled and indistinct so it could have been one person arguing with himself, and stopped as she approached the final door.
She leaned forward to hear better.
“You may enter,” said a high pitched voice that could have been either male or female.
Simole froze, unsure if the voice was speaking to her. She assumed it was, but it would have been an embarrassing mistake if her assumption turned out to be wrong. She remained on her side of the closed door.
The door sprang open and Mr Tenner stood there. He peered straight ahead, straight through her. Then his eyes widened, the pupils dilating as though adjusting to the dark and finally he saw her standing right in front of him.
“Simole! You made it.” He smiled like a host welcoming an expected guest. “Come in, come in.”
She didn’t fear him but was unhappy at having lost her disguise so soon. She could have retreated immediately and considered doing so for a second, but only a second. Tenner stepped aside and she walked into a small room with a burning hearth.
There was a man in a large chair. He was dignified, elderly and well dressed. And he was also none of those things.
“This is Professor Veristotle,” said Tenner. “An old friend.”
There was an urge to sink down to her knees that she resisted. It wrenched at her body which only made her reject it more fiercely.
“I am not Veristotle,” said the man who was not a man. His voice was soft. “I am…” He used words she had never heard before. The sound of them came into her mind and settled there like a hen settling on a clutch of eggs. It wasn’t unpleasant but it quickly became stifling. She couldn’t stop listening.
The turmoil of her mind quieted and she felt as though she were lifted. The words raised her up. She forced her hands to cover her ears but it made no difference; that wasn’t where the words entered.
The words didn’t stop, but the act of defiance was enough to break the spell, if only for a moment. Then she saw the true form of the man. She saw a woman, bent over and naked, her small breasts hanging empty. She was bald and her skin scarred. Her joints seemed swollen and her limbs thin as twigs. The pale eyes looked up at her.
“You resist well,” said the demon, for she knew what it was now.
“Why are you here?” she asked it. She should have been afraid, her father had told her what these creatures were capable of, what they were prepared to do if they caught whiff of a lie or untruth. But her curiosity squatted on her fear and flattened it.
“I will tell you, Child of the Dragon. It doesn’t matter whether I tell you or not. You cannot change what will be. But I desire to know things from you and it is only right I offer the same in return.”
“Old Mother,” said Tenner sounding alarmed, “the girl isn’t worthy.”
The demon held up a withered hand. “The child stinks of dragon dung the likes of which I haven’t smelled in centuries. It is pleasant to my senses. She is far more worthy than you think, wizardling.”
“I used to muck out the stables,” said Simole without being prompted.
“An honour, to be sure. Such a shame the dragons you have are so weak and stringy. Have you ever seen a shadow dragon? No, of course you haven’t. Glorious dark beasts that ruled the never-sky. One of them was worth four of yours, and yet the Great War was lost. No use if one of yours is worth four of theirs and they bring five. Numbers, that is where you had the advantage, and we the power, until it was stolen from us. Do you know the true history of Ranvar?” asked the demon.
“Doesn’t everyone believe their version of history is the true version?” asked Simole in return.
“That holds some truth, but my truth was not given to me second hand. I lived through it.”
“I doubt that makes a difference,” said Simole.
The demon smiled. “You are a confident one. You think you know enough, but you know too little to know what you should fear.”
“Yes,” said Simole. “That’s how I was raised.”
“I recall the first days of the Kingdom of Ranvar when it was no more than a mountain surrounded by more powerful enemies. The blood flowed freely as men fought for the mountain, for the mine burrowed into its heart. They dug for Arcanum.”
“They mined Arcanum?” said Tenner. “Arcanum was a mineral?”
“You are surprised, wizardling? Did you think it grew on trees? It was an ugly rock that sat inert in the bowels of a single mountain. So it would have stayed if not for three vile humans who brokered a deal they refused to keep. The transformation of a simple hill into an empire. And our reward for this great gift we bestowed? Banishment.”
“But you lost the Great War,” said Simole, “isn’t that defeat rather than banishment?” She had never heard mention of any Great War before that moment but she didn’t doubt it had taken place, and that grudges were still held.
“Yes,” said the demon. “The War was lost. But not the battle. That is what I recall. And what do you recall?”
The sun shone through the tall, narrow windows in the Old Hall. Simole sat at the long table that once seated kings and queens, but now only served two of no royal bloodline.
The castle was dreadfully cold and drafty. The sun danced around from one side to the other and Simole had to constantly move from room to room to catch the gently warming rays on her face.
Whoever built the monstrosity on top of a mountain must have had arteries filled with fire to stand the endless chill. The air was thin and carried no weight, like watery wine. They must have also had the constitution of bears to carry cut stone up from the valley and place them one on top of the other without mortar, carefully and closely.
Towers had been constructed later, five of them. Presumably to get a better view of an empty sky. Kings came and went. One added a ringed wall like a crown for a bald head, another a kitchen to feed hundreds. The Banquet Hall, the refectory, the Hall of Honors (or Hall of Horrors as Simole had dubbed it for the ghastly paintings of past monarchs in all their sinister splendour). The Archmage King, she knew, had built the dragon stables. That was centuries ago, some point in time when legend and history blurred.
As a symbol of dogged human determination, it was a magnificent monument. As a home, it was far from cosy.
She heard the large iron doors open behind her but the sun was on her face and she was loathe to turn her head. She already knew who it was. How could she not? She kept her eyes shut lest her eyelids miss out on the little warmth she had access to.
“Why aren’t you studying?” asked her father. His voice rang with severe authority.
“I’m bored of studying,” said Simole. “I already know far more than any girl my age. And far less.”
“A great mage is not defined by the knowledge he holds. Knowing your opponents weakness is a greater weapon than the mightiest spell. That’s the art: what to do and when to do it. The rest is nothing, meaningless ritual and mystery-making and superstitious gibberish.”
There was long sigh from Simole.
“You are no longer a child, Simole,” her father chided. “You’re nearly thirteen. In many nations, that’s when a girl is considered a woman, ready to be wed and mother a child.”
“Sounds good,” said Simole, “but I possess such little grace or wit. Who’d have me?”
“Anyone I ordered to,” said her father.
She opened her eyes and finally turned her head to face her father, the Archmage. “Was it your romantic side that convinced Mother to marry you?”
“Your mother did as she was told and so will you. The fate of the world depends on it.”
It never impressed her when he became bombastic and overly dramatic in his speech. He did it so often and without evidence, as far as she could tell.
“Yes, I know. ‘She is coming.’ Whatever that means.”
“You need only do what I have trained you to do. The rest—”
“The rest is a big secret. Shhh, the walls might be listening.”
The Archmage’s large, round shoulders sagged. “If I keep things from you, it is only for your own protection.”
“Thank you,” said Simole. “A blindfold to keep my eyes nice and safe.”
The Archmage shook his head. “I understand you are at an awkward age and I should be more sensitive to your moods, but unfortunately we don’t have the time. You were made for a purpose. You will serve that purpose. But you need to be more than you are. I need a sword and you are still but a hammer. Not every problem is a nail.” He raised an expectant eyebrow, waiting for her acknowledgement.
She didn’t enjoy his ridiculous analogies and rolled her eyes.
“After that, assuming we both survive, I’ll buy you a pony.”
She scowled at his sarcasm which she despised even more than his analogies. “Do ponies trot around craggy peaks with ease?”
“I’ll make sure it’s a mountain pony. Now, please, return to your studies. Entrapments spells don’t weave themselves.” He turned and stalked out of the room, his large, warm robes flapping about him.
The sun had moved, as it always did. It would be in the library and there was nothing to do in there. She had read all the books and memorised her favourites, which wasn’t difficult since there were only two.
She rose from the chair and sat back down when she realised there was someone else at the table. A beautiful young woman with pale skin and golden hair.
“Why are you here?” she asked the demon for the second time.
“I wished to see your home. And your guardian. He is an impressive man.”
Simole shrugged. “Do you know who he means when he says ‘She is coming’?”
“Of course. The All-Mother, the Dark Queen, the Shadow Mistress. She has many names.”
“And she’s coming? Soon?”
“Indeed. To take back what is ours.”
Simole nodded, starting to understand. “He always treated me as a tool. Something to be used.”
“There is no shame in being the tool of a great craftsman. You will be well cared for.”
Simole couldn’t help but smile. “It’s a shame you didn’t meet him. You’re the kind of woman he’s attracted to. Stupid.”
The demon lowered her lovely face and glared through long eyelashes. Simole accepted the scrutiny. There was nothing offensive in it, an open and earnest examination. “This younger iteration of you is even more abrasive.”
“Yes,” said Simole. “I must have mellowed with age.”
“You have been taught to hate us, to look on us with contempt, that we come from a world without light or love or cheer. But light illuminates all things, even shadows. We cannot exist without it. You call it the Other Place and the Demon Plane, but we call it the Commonwealth, where power is shared. Men lie, cheat and swindle. They live within a tangle of jealousies and miseries and small ambitions and wasted passions. Magic resists untruths. The two cannot co-exist.” Its voice was full of grief and bitterness. “They took the original Book of Truth and burnt it. They chose to keep power from the powerless to protect themselves, to keep their hegemony intact. They will return what they took. Why would you want it otherwise?”
“My father taught me many things. To be wary of the words of a demon above all else.”
“But look and see, child, if all he’s taught you isn’t finally to follow your own heart.”
Simone felt the spell press down on her, making it hard to think, like her thoughts were crowded into a space too small to hold them all. The force was immense, but the placing was indiscriminate. Her father had never encouraged her to follow her heart. It was such an outrageous suggestion, she nearly laughed out loud.
A powerful lie can change the world, as can a powerful lie discovered.
The attractive woman was seated across from her on the other side of the long table Simole had sat at for so many years as a child. In the Pagoda, the demon sat across the small chamber in a large chair. Simole could see them both.
And beside the demon stood Tenner. There were tendrils of Arcanum, thin and insubstantial, woven around him. Glimpsed at his sleeve, peeking from his collar, caught in his hair. He looked his usual suave self, at first glance, but he was bound with puppet strings.
She couldn’t move. Heavy cords of Arcanum, devoid of all subtlety, formed a tangled maze of sticky lines of resistance and repulsion around her. They pushed and pulled her, preventing her freedom. But there was a way out of the knot, if she turned around this way like so, and then the other way, thus, and parted the lines with her hands, she was free.
The demon stared blankly into another world. This time Simole didn’t just reach out with her senses, she inserted herself and pushed all the way in. This wasn’t the soft probing mages were taught in the Royal College. Her father had shown her the route to a demon’s soul. Beyond the skin and flesh they hid behind, deep into the bone, the marrow.
There was no resistance, she was welcomed in and enveloped in warmth and love. It caressed her and wound itself around her. Simole knew she had made a mistake. She had been allowed easy egress from one trap and tricked into another that now held her within its unbreakable bars.
Now the struggle began in earnest.
“You will not fight me, child,” said the demon from all sides. “You are happy here, with me.”
She felt the happiness bloom inside. The comfort of belonging like a warm, soothing bath, soaking her cares away.
The appeal was swiftly rejected.
There was no point taking on a stronger opponent head on. She had fought her father in this manner many times. It had been tedious and tiring as he insisted she try to escape his bonds even though his strength was far superior to hers. And the demon’s was even greater than that.
But men had learned how to overcome greater foes. Beasts that were bigger and more vicious with claws and fangs that made the hands and teeth of men seem puny and pointless. They defeated them still, with weapons. And with tools.
“You will be my door,” said the demon. “You will be my gateway.”
“No,” said Simole. “You will be mine.”
She reached out with her fingertips, but this time she didn’t try to escape and she didn’t seek to control that which confined her. Her grasp was towards that which was already grasped.
She ran her senses along the edges of her cage and along the bars. She reinforced her own prison, settled her presence within the larger one, and then reached for more protection to make her confinement more secure.
“Good,” said the demon. “You are welcome here. This is where you belong.”
The warmth inside her grew. Inside her self-built cocoon, the heat intensified. She ignored it and continued to gather materials until she found the thread she had been seeking. The one that led to Tenner.
She reeled it in. There was no resistance. Whatever this process was, Simole was accelerating it and that was worth giving up unnecessary baggage. The tendrils of Arcanum unwound from him as she encircled herself with them.
Tenner, stricken-faced, with a set mouth and terrified eyes, looked around him like he’d just woken from a terrible dream and had no idea where he was. He shut his eyes, as if he might find himself somewhere else when he opened them again. He stood there, intensely huddled, suffering. He drew breath furtively, as if stealing it from the air and hoping not to be caught.
“What have I done?” he whispered. “What have I done?”
Simole touched his unshackled mind and found a twitching, trembling mess.
“Help me,” she said into the mess.
“I don’t know how,” he replied, his thoughts shivering. “She is too strong and I too weak. A fool, I was a fool. I cannot defeat her.”
“No, but I can. Be my hammer. Undo what you have done. I am trapped in here.”
“I… I cannot release you.”
“I don’t want you to. I need you to keep me in here.”
“Yes. Yes. I see.” His thoughts were calmer now. “I will do what I can.”
“It will be dangerous. You mustn’t flinch or turn away from the task.”
“I don’t mind a bit of danger.” Some of his brio and sardonic manner had returned. “A small amount is good for the soul.”
Simole’s being was filled with a white-hot brilliance. She felt like she might explode.
“See how much easier it is when you help instead of hinder?” said the demon, excited and pleased with the unexpected progress. “Now, become my door.”
Simole was released and pushed out. Or, at least, an attempt was made. Simole clung on and refused to leave. The push became a more insistent shove. It was more than Simole could withstand alone.
“What?” cried out the demon. “What are you doing, wizardling?”
Tenner, manic and devoid of his usual suave appearance, was wildly wrapping strips of black cloth around the demon’s body like bandages. They pinned its limbs to its sides and restricted movements. Tenner worked quickly, tugging and smoothing and strengthening, expertly covering the demon from top to toe, a half-inarticulate chant almost inaudible in his throat.
“Stop! This is not your wish, it is hers.”
He faltered but then continued even faster. “Concentrate on the doorway, Old Mother. This is your only chance.”
Simole felt the struggle within the demon. Attack Tenner and allow Simole a free hand, or deal with Simole and let Tenner bind her.
The indecision made the choice for her.
Simole tightened the cocoon around herself and curled up around the demon’s spine. The outside world was methodically blocked off until they were both trapped, together.
“You did well, Child of the Dragon.” The demons sounded resigned to its fate, but amused nonetheless. “I did not think it possible you could be so daring.”
“It was what I was made for,” said Simole, and for the first time she didn’t resent her father’s endless sermons and lectures. Having a purpose had its rewards. The sense of victory was intoxicating.
“It makes no odds,” said the demon. “I would have wished to have seen it, but the door will be opened and she will come. That was always my purpose. My task is complete.”
Simole exploded into a shower of sparks. She stretched and expanded out of the demon’s body and into the structure around her and up and into the night.
She was scared. This wasn’t what she had expected. A quick death and no more would have been preferable to this. The walls shook and doors throughout the Pagoda burst open, unable to contain the pressure within.
There was nothing to hold onto, no anchor. Her father was supposed to be here, a point to hook herself to, but he was too far away, in the prison she had sent him to.
From high over the school, she could see the dark buildings lighting up one by one as the Pagoda crackled with blue Arcanum discharge. She saw them in the library: Nic and Davo and Fanny. And the girl. She called out to him, the boy with terrible taste in women, reached for him, but there was nothing to hold onto. He was just an ordinary boy. Not a mage, not a demon. A shy bookworm.
She was falling away, losing her grip on the world, on herself.
Something caught her, yanked her back. She didn’t know what it was, couldn’t see it. She fell back through the walls of the Pagoda, down into the chamber where her body was now draped over the chair. Where Tenner cowered with one of her hands held in his, his desire to protect her fighting the urge to run away. And where an impossibly black shadow waited for her.
It had snagged her and pulled her back. Not to save her, but to consume her. She could sense its hunger, it’s desire to be whole, but she also sensed its confusion. Her body was inert and empty. Her spirit was hovering apart. If she re-entered her body, her shadow, her twin, would devour her.
Tenner watched enthralled and terrified. “I’m sorry,” he said, knowing she was in the room. “This was not what I intended. If the shadow must be sated. I’m so sorry, Simole.”
“Are you?” asked Simole.
Tenner looked around like he might spot her hidden in a corner when she was right in front of him.
“Truly I am. This was all wrought from my arrogance. This is my mistake but you will have to pay the price.”
He sounded genuinely remorseful, which made what she had to do easier.
She grabbed onto the remnant of one of the chains that had been used to enslave him, to convince him his will was his own when it wasn’t, and she pulled on it.
He staggered forward.
“What are you doing?” he cried.
“Helping you make amends.” She threw him at the shadow.
You couldn’t grow up in a giant castle with a terrible cook for a father and be a fussy eater. If the shadow’s outline was the same as her, why not its other tendencies?
The shadow fell on Tenner and fed. There was no blood or guts, he was absorbed and consumed, his face appearing on the back of the shadow’s head for one final, silent scream.
The shadow stopped moving and became a shadow again, a silhouette of her painted on the wall. The blackness of its form changed to light. Bright, searing sunlight. And grass, and sky. A doorway to another place.
She would come through this, the All-Mother. Simole understood the calamity this would bring to the world. It had been the basis of her entire education.
What would her father say when he found out what she’d done? What could he say? This was the task for which he’d created her. If she had done a poor job, only a bad craftsman blamed his tools.
There was movement on the other side. She sensed it first and then saw it. Something was coming, right now, charging. A dark blot in the sunshine. The glare blinded her from seeing it clearly but she steeled herself for whatever was about to arrive from the demon plane.
It leaped through the doorway and landed on the floor with a slap. A dog.
Not a demon hound or a beast of the netherworld. A pug. A mangy thing with tan and white fur. It sat there, hind legs splayed under it, exposing its testicles proudly, tongue lolling, panting hard. It stared at her with big brown eyes and then got up and turned around. It looked back at her and then jumped through the doorway.
It wanted her to follow. It could be a trick. Demons were sneaky enough, to be sure, but would they use such an ugly pooch to do their dirty work?
This was what he had trained her for her whole life. He had planned to prevent this from happening, to remove magic from the world, to remove mages. He believed their sacrifice was necessary and she had baulked at being his sword. She didn’t have any particular fondness for their kind, quite the contrary in fact, but she refused to be an instrument of death in her father’s hands, no matter how necessary the evil.
Now the door was open. She would be coming, whoever she was. Why not go to her first?
The door banged against the wall as it was flung open and Nic ran in. She had called him and he’d come, not knowing what he’d find, what danger he’d face. Foolish boy.
He didn’t see her or the doorway. She could make herself known to him, but there was something about his despair at finding her limp, lifeless body that she found perversely pleasing.
Behind him were the others. He had come for her, and they had come for him.
She was wrong about him; he wasn’t ordinary. But he wasn’t ready, either. Perhaps in a decade or two he would grow into a great man, or a clerk, or a happy husband and father. Maybe all those things. She looked at the girl. Hopefully a man with improved tastes. Either way, there was no reason to embroil him in her troubles. He would be safer here. It would be easier to protect him.
Simole turned her attention back to the door. The doorway was the same shape as her. The exact same. What greater invitation could there be? It was made for her to walk through. Simole walked through the door.