Nic woke with a start and groaned. He had fallen asleep in an awkward sitting position on his bed, his back against the wall and his feet under his crossed legs.
His intention had been to stay awake all night, the only way he could think to avoid the demon’s tendrils reaching into his mind. If he lost consciousness, he feared he would be vulnerable to the entity he now believed had attached itself to him.
His sleep had been dreamless but he knew it was still there, tethered to him. He had felt it when he had climbed the wall, flooding his body with its otherworldly strength, allowing him to surpass his own meagre limits.
It had been thrilling, at first. A sense of liberation and limitless freedom he had never experienced before. He had felt like he could do anything. But he knew it was a false ascendancy, like a euphoric drug that left the user no more than a cripple when it was spent.
The borrowed power, intoxicating as it was, came at a price. Control. He did not wish to become a demonic creature’s puppet. He did not covet its gifts so greatly that he would relinquish his sense of self. He had felt it slip away from him on the climbing wall. A momentary stepping outside of himself to become an observer. It was not how he wished to view his own life.
He groaned again and slowly straightened one leg. The demon may have augmented his abilities with its own but it still had to use the untuned instrument of Nic’s body to do it. He ached in his back and thighs. His joints were sore and his fingers felt swollen and bruised.
Grey light fell through the window. It was very early and not even the birds had noticed dawn approaching yet. He rose stiffly, wincing, still dressed in the garments from the night before, the loose clothing bunched and twisted around his limbs.
He straightened them out but felt uncomfortable, the unfamiliar clothes scratchy and tight. He stripped them off and wrapped a towel around his middle. The cottage was quiet save for Fanny’s soft snoring. Nic went through the kitchen to the bathroom and stood under the shower for ten minutes. The water was freezing cold but he withstood it without complaint. As it began to warm, the furnaces somewhere in the school lit by porters preparing for another ordinary day, he turned off the taps and returned to his room.
The light had brightened to a crisp white hinting at an overcast day. He dried himself and changed into his school uniform. He left the cottage by the front door and paid no attention to the agent who fell in behind him.
There was no one in sight and nowhere to go. The cafeteria wouldn’t be open for another two hours. He put a hand in his trouser pocket and held the key to the library that had been returned to his possession.
Outside the library’s back door, he turned to face the agent who he realised was different to the one from last night. He wore a green mask.
“Wait here,” said Nic as confidently as he could muster. “I won’t be in any danger inside but keep watch out here.”
He had no idea if the agent would do as he was told. There was no reason for him to listen to a child’s order, especially one of no standing. Nic unlocked the door and entered. The agent remained outside.
The library was as still as a mausoleum, even the dust motes immobile in the early morning light. Nic took the rod from behind the librarian’s desk and climbed to the top floor. He used the rod to prod the hole in the ceiling and a ladder slid down from the opening.
In the mirrored room he found the two books just as he’d seen them last time. The autobiography of Winnum Roke and the handwritten book of fairy tales she’d written under a pseudonym.
He sat down at the small table and opened both books, scanning the first page of each as though some great secret might be hidden there. He doubted he would find the answers he was looking for. He wasn’t even sure what the correct questions were.
The book of myths and legends seemed the more likely to hold hidden clues, he felt. It was written in her own hand, illustrated, somewhat crudely, by her art. Even from the cursory glance he had given it, he could tell it differed from the published version he was familiar with. The stories had different titles, for a start. But unless Winnum Roke herself jumped out from between the pages, he doubted they would reveal any great truths to him, or save him from the predicament he had found himself in.
He flicked through the pages in a casual manner that he imagined the librarian would not approve of. A title caught his eye: The City at the Edge of Death.
There was a subtitle: Wherein a man is in possession of a demon and yet is not possessed.
It seemed to relate to his situation, if only nominally, so he read it.
Archduke Koral was the youngest brother of Emperor Kargane IV, and thirteenth in line to the throne of the Kargeni Empire. This is when the Empire covered a quarter of the known world and commanded armies numbering in the millions.
The Archduke, like any member of the royal family, had been trained in all royal pursuits, but he had little interest in anything other than his studies in magic.
Fencing, riding, dancing with ladies at the Summer Ball were activities he excelled at, but interested him little. He spent all the time he could in his rooms, poring over books about the arcane arts.
His elder brother did not begrudge him his interests. In truth, he was relieved his younger sibling harboured no ambition to rule in his place. There were already far too many members of the royal lineage who coveted the Kargeni throne, beside which there was a square wooden block, a shallow groove hollowed out of its top and a bucket rested in front. A man with a broad-bladed axe stood next to it, ever-available for immediate duty.
Assassinations were commonplace and executions often preemptive. The palace was awash with cries for mercy and spouts of blood.
Koral would have made a reasonable candidate for the crown if something were to happen to the Emperor and the twelve next in line—thirteenth was not so far if the coup was well-organised and bloody—but he barely lifted his head from his books.
By the time he had soft whiskers on his chin, the Emperor had named him Court Wizard and left him to his own devices.
The position was nominal, no more eminent than Court Jester or Court Minstrel. Wizardry was considered a hobby of the rich and prodigal. They concocted potions that might ease the suffering of the ailing, or end it completely. Some had been known to produce vats of gases that could decimate a battlefield of men, although which side would depend on the way the wind was blowing. Little faith was placed in their dabbling with matters they understood little.
Archduke Koral was retitled Archmage Koral and spent his days in the tallest tower of his brother’s castle in the Kargeni capital. Some said he had been imprisoned there for plotting against the Emperor, but most didn’t even know the Emperor had another brother, and soon forgot after being reminded.
Koral’s goals were far more lofty than the creation of empires. He wished to harness the true power of the universe. The only way to do this, he believed, was to contact denizens of another plane of existence. This Other Place was mentioned fleetingly in archaic records. The citizens of this rumoured dimension were referred to as demons and djinns. Spirits that could take any shape they wished and had power over the elements.
Visitors had been said to pass through rents and schisms in the fabric of existence, but how they did this or where they went was hopelessly vague. Records were sparse but Koral pursued them vigorously.
The Kargeni Empire was vast and its resources near endless. Treasures from many ancient cultures were brought back to the capital; spoils of war and prized loot. The books and scrolls in indecipherable languages were of little interest and passed to the Archmage’s tower.
The Emperor would remind his sibling that any useful information—blueprints for war machines, recipes for elixirs, locations of dragon eggs—were to be made available to him, for the glory of the empire. Koral readily agreed. Such trinkets and gewgaws were certainly of no use to him.
He continued to search and study. And as the years passed and his whiskers grew to a silvery waterfall, he came upon a scroll from far in the east that gave instruction in how to call forth a demon.
He studied the scroll for a long time. Verified its contents from many sources. He practised the drawings it required of pentacles and helixes. Strange shapes that required a steady hand, not one shaking with excitement.
On a night like any other, quiet and still, he read the incantation, first backwards, then forwards, and drew lines in the air with a pointed finger.
The summoning circle drawn in white Arcanum dust on the floor glowed and filled with a dark cloud from which emerged two eyes.
Koral’s studies had prepared him for what was to follow. He negotiated with the creature, sparring with willpower and determination. The language they used was beyond words. Their thoughts intermingled and each struggled for control of the other.
The demon was the summoned, its desires secondary to the summoner’s. Still, Koral knew he could not let down his guard. The demon tested him, probed his mind for weakness, tempted him with offers under unfavourable terms. His soul for a wish, his sanity for omnipotence.
The demon was slippery. It was conniving and cunning. But Koral was intensely aware of what he faced. He refused to yield. He did not lie. He did not mislead. He took the demon on a journey, the longest it is possible to take for it takes exactly one lifetime to reach the destination, the City on the Edge Of Death.
Some think it is possible to visit that city, look over its walls at the never ending oblivion, and then return. But there is no turning back. You must go on and become one with the void.
Koral offered the demon a stark choice. Damn them both to the numbness of nothingness, or become his servant.
Demons lack many human emotions and spite is one of them. It could thwart the wizard’s plans, but only by sacrificing itself. There was nothing to gain in doing so. The wizard was prepared to die, he cared little for the comforts of home, the affection of loved ones. If he could not have the demon’s servitude, he had no interest in clinging to an unsatisfactory existence.
The demon knew there was no other way. The wizard’s determination was like a blinding light to its senses. It agreed to his unfavourable terms.
“My name is Irridinhart,” said the demon.
“Is your name Irridinhart?” asked Koral.
“It is.” Once asked to confirm its name, it had no choice but to comply. The demon could not lie.
Together they now faced oblivion, but there is only one thing more powerful than death, and that is faith.
“I will live,” said Koral, and he leaped into the void. He was proved correct. What he believed wasn’t true, but by believing it, it became true. Such was the power of words.
The demon had no such power because the demon could not speak. It was only able to share thoughts with Koral and its influence was limited to his mind, a place where Koral reigned supreme.
The demon offered the wizard any wish it was in its power to grant. Koral refused. To fulfil a task was to sever their bond. Until then, it would be perpetually bound to him, forever the summoned, weaker than the summoner.
Koral did not need the demon to cast a spell for him, nor favours to bestow. He already had vast wealth to draw on; servants and luxuries he rarely used. He had his own spells if he wished to shape the world to his will. What he required of the demon was its presence. It was the source of energy necessary for magic to become manifest.
Like a donkey tied to a millstone, the demon wore the yoke of a tamed beast.
Koral had achieved his life’s ambition and suddenly awoke to see the world around him anew. His brother was still emperor, but an aged and weak one, surrounded by jackals and wolves. The empire had declined, weakened by years of corruption and decadence. A new age was about to be ushered in.
Koral emerged just in time to slam the gate shut in the faces of the would-be marauders. No one had expected a monster to rise from the forgotten tower. No one was prepared for the onslaught that followed. The enemies of the empire were crushed overnight. The supposed-allies waiting to take control were brought back to heel. A golden light appeared over the citadel, encasing it in an impenetrable shield, and armies of the dead manned its walls. A new ruler was crowned, God Emperor Koral.
The new emperor ruled for six hundred years. His orders were followed without question, his territories expanded to reclaim land that had been lost and acquire new lands that had remained unconquered. The Kargeni Empire flourished. It thrived and was rampant. No nation dared resist. Battles were over without a single drop of blood when the armies of the dead appeared, led by men who were as fearful of the God Emperor as those they defeated.
Long-lived as he was, though, Koral still aged. Time can be slowed and for short intervals even stopped, but it can never be reversed. As powerful and learned as he was, his faith was not strong enough to cheat death twice.
The demon had stayed with him all this time. It had provided the energy to raise armies of the dead, create storms that levelled mountains and turn barren deserts into fertile land. It had attempted to escape its bonds many times, but had never managed to outwit the man who held it captive.
On his deathbed, Koral, God Emperor of the Kargeni, thanked his servant for the years of service. It had kept its word, as it was bound to do. He offered it freedom.
“To free me, you must give me a task to complete,” said the demon.
“Then I wish for you to find happiness in this world. It is what you deserve.” And the Archmage died.
Irridinhart let out a howl of rage no one heard. The wish was ungrantable. There was nothing in this world to make the demon happy. What men and women saw as incomparable majesty, it only saw as dirt and filth. The stars in the night sky that made lovers rejoice, were like scratches on a piece of slate. The towers and cities that were the pinnacles of man’s achievement, were like sticks in the mud. And the people, the strong and the beautiful, decked in the finest bejewelled raiments, were like swine swimming in their own filth.
It could deceive and beguile them, seduce and entice. Never needing to lie, always allowing them to delude themselves. It was easy. Wars barely required a nudge. And in all that time, it was never able to comprehend the bewildering gullibility of people. How baffling it was that even the most cunning and clever would frequently see only what they wanted to see. And when the scales finally fell from their eyes and they saw the horror they had conceived into the world, they would raise their fists to the skies and damn the power that had made them act to such disastrous effect. Someone was to blame, someone other than themselves.
There was nothing to revel in with their destruction, no joy to be had.
The Kargeni Empire crumbled and others rose and fell. Time was nothing to the demon, an endless series of events without meaning. The demon attempted to contact other mages, but none matched the abilities of Koral. They were mere illusionists and tricksters. Those the demon was able to appear before were too frightened and cowardly to do nowt but run screaming. Even if they had remained and done the demon’s bidding, they had not the power to satisfy its yearning. Its desire to go home.
The centuries passed and eventually the demon felt the tug of a summons, weak and pitiful. It would never have reached the Other Place, but the demon was already here. The summons was not strong enough to compel its presence, but the demon was willing without coercion, its curiosity piqued.
The summoner was a child. A precocious girl who had stumbled upon a book in her father’s library. She did not fear the demon, did not understand what it was. Like the others, she did not possess the power to open the gateway between planes.
But she was young. And she had potential. Under the demon’s guidance, she could become a she-wizard as powerful as the one who had bought Irridinhart to this world. It could make her the key it needed.
And so with care and attention, the demon raised its child. Quietly, with subtlety and a gentle hand, it guided the child to study magic, to learn and innovate. She grew to command great powers, to stand far above her peers.
She made mistakes, struggled with the needs of her profession, but eventually she created the door the demon had so patiently waited for. And then she opened it.
There was no need to go through it. The denizens of the Other Place were waiting. They had grown tired of their own world, knew every aspect of it and were looking for new worlds to explore. They rushed through and found their lost sibling waiting for them. It was a joyous reunion.
And it was short-lived. The demon had found happiness in this world and had completed its given task. It was returned home.
Returned to an empty place where none resided. It was alone again. The door was gone and there was none to summon it, and no way to call back its siblings. Its existence was desolate with no alternative in sight.
There was nothing it could do but wait. Eventually, another door would open. Another mage would emerge, another child might stumble upon a book. It was only a matter of time.
Nic finished the story and sat staring at the last line without seeing it. He felt he had read something true and yet how could it be?
There was a story in the published version available to the public about a man who sold his soul to a demon to gain power and riches. It was a standard parable about greed and poor judgement.
In that story, the demon was defeated because it offered three wishes and once the summoner realised his first two had been twisted to pervert his meaning, he used his third wish to set the demon an impossible task.
“Find your happiness in this world.”
It was similar but the story had none of the details of the one he had just read. It was a trite bedtime story for children, with a warning to not allow greed to rule your desires. The demon was still out there, searching, and little boys and girls making selfish prayers might summon it.
Was this a true story or a fanciful fiction by a bored Archmage with ambitions to be a novelist? Did Emperor Koral exist? Nic had never heard of him or of the Kargeni Empire. And was the girl mentioned Winnum Roke herself? There was no mention of the events in the story in her autobiography.
Which wasn’t in itself all that surprising. She clearly intended to keep some details of her life private, only to be made known to a select few. He was one of those few, although he had yet to learn why.
He hoped it was true. He wanted it to be true. It suggested a demon bound to a human could be controlled. There was risk. The demon could also control its host. But if there was a chance he could resist becoming a puppet, he had no choice but to grasp it.
Nic closed the book. There were many other stories within its covers and if they were all as opaque as this one, he would need a long time to unravel their meaning. He had lessons to attend and hadn’t had breakfast yet.
“You’re here very early.”
Nic started, turning and nearly knocking the books onto the floor. He grabbed at them as they fell and immediately regretted it; his snatching them out of the air was as likely to rip pages from their binding, and no excuses would satisfy the librarian, especially as she was watching him as he did it.
She ignored his impromptu juggling. “Have you been here all night?”
“No.” He casually placed the books on the table, undamaged. “Only a couple of hours. I needed to check something.”
The librarian wore a long, grey coat with high collars and a large beret that covered her head and her ear on one side. She looked younger without her glasses on.
“Well, you should pull the ladder up after yourself if you’re going to spend time up here. You never know who might be lurking below.”
“Yes. Sorry. Did you see the Secret Service agent?”
“I did. He did not, however, see me.”
Nic was surprised and evidently it showed on his face.
“I wouldn’t be much of a custodian if I couldn’t access my books without obstruction. They are my charges and no one will stop me from carrying out my duties.”
She said it with such authority and fortitude that Nic had no choice but to accept her at her word, even though he had no idea how a librarian was able to evade a trained agent of the nation’s finest. Probably just another door he wasn’t aware of, but maybe not.
“If I was possessed by a demon,” said Nic, “do you think you would be able to tell.”
The librarian peeled off the beret and her hair, usually wound into a tight bun, cascaded down to her shoulders to startling effect.
“I would certainly hope so. Why? Are you?”
“No,” said Nic. “Not yet.”
“Is it likely to happen in the future?”
“Yes,” said Nic. “Quite likely.”
They looked at each other for a long, silent moment. Then the librarian turned around and began descending the ladder. “You better come with me,” she said just before her head disappeared from view.
Nic reached the cafeteria just as it opened. He was the first, and only customer. The eggs were still being cooked, the toast not yet brown. He settled for the porridge that had been simmering since dawn and a glass of orange juice.
He made his way to the usual table, set apart in a corner. The vast, empty hall spread out in front of him while plates and pots clattered somewhere behind. The green-masked agent stood to one side, an absurdly unnecessary bodyguard.
Nic had finished his porridge and was about to go get some toast when another figure sat down beside him.
“Morning,” said Brillard Epsteem.
“Morning,” answered Nic, a little confused. There was plenty of other seating available and a longstanding tradition for every other student to use them.
Brillard had a tray piled high with food that would impress even Fanny. He tucked a napkin under his chin and began eating. His manners were delicate and precise, each fork taking the same amount of scrambled egg, each bite of toast dropping no visible crumbs. The napkin seemed entirely superfluous.
“Anything to report?” asked Brillard. He was speaking as though it was nothing unusual, another day at Ransom and some small talk over eggs.
“No. Nothing. You?”
“The usual. I’m looking forward to Advanced Calculations this afternoon, I must say. Cromnym promised to show us the latest Dream Formula.” Brillard paused with his fork in mid-air and raised his eyebrows to show his eager anticipation of this event. The scrambled egg on the end of the fork was perfectly symmetrical, Nic noticed, the fork’s tines piercing it in the dead centre.
“Mr Cromnym the Economic Analysis teacher?”
“He does teach that also, yes. But he is a fine equationist. One of the best. Pay close attention to his words, I think you won’t be disappointed. Mocks will soon be upon us and then it’s off to battle!” He stabbed the air. The egg remained firmly in place, before reversing direction and disappearing into Brillard’s mouth.
The mocks were only two weeks away but they held little interest for Nic at this point. Other matters were far more pressing.
“I’m looking forward to crossing swords with you, Tutt. Academically speaking.”
“Hmm? Yes, that’ll be nice.” Nic looked down at his empty bowl. He would have been eager to engage in a little healthy rivalry once. Now it seemed a meaningless distraction. He would still study and answer to the best of his ability, but his studies no longer absorbed him.
“I hope you aren’t the sort to underplay your hand, to try and bamboozle the opposition. Your high level of performance in this arena is already well established. No need to be modest.”
“No. I’ll do my best,” said Nic.
“Why are you sitting here?” said a tall boy. Nic recognised him and his companion.
The cafeteria was beginning to fill up and it wasn’t surprising Nic’s dining partner would be noticed. The two boys questioning the wisdom of this seating arrangement were the two he constantly saw around Dizzy.
“I’m having breakfast,” said Brillard, not cowed in the least. “I suggest you do the same. Get some protein or you might never attain the wisdom a healthy brain is capable of. And retie your neckerchief you slovely ape. This isn’t the Capital Zoo.”
The two boys who had seemed so intimidating a moment ago, shrank before Nic’s eyes, fumbling with the narrow scarves around their necks which seemed perfectly in order to Nic. They hurried away before receiving more admonishments.
“You were very, erm… curt with them.”
“Indeed. I’ve been dealing with Jereboam and Jasik my whole life. They’re like intemperate puppies, always trying to nip at people’s feet. A sharp rap on the nose is the only way to bring them to heel. Some, of course, believe a kind word and gentle encouragement is how you sooth a savage beast. I assure you that approach is of no benefit to the beast or its master. Left to their own devices, sibling of a similar disposition only extenuate each other’s failings.”
“Twins, although not identical, obviously.”
“Are they violent?”
Brillard paused to look at Nic. He narrowed his eyes. “I suspect you already know the answer to that question. They have a strong inclination to maintain the hierarchy they exist in, but as the sons of the Deputy Headmaster, they are not at the top of that hierarchy and so are obligated to bow to their betters. They have yet to ascertain that they are in fact only advancing the cause of those ahead of them without ever raising their own status.”
“And as the Headmaster’s son, you are top of the hierarchy?”
Brillard smiled. “Only within these walls. In the real world I’m under the same constrictions and restrictions as anyone not of noble blood. Which might lead you to think I would wish to stay on at Ransom for as long as possible, enjoying the fruits of my father’s labour. My father also feels this would be my best option, become a teacher and eventually take his place as head. A dynasty of sorts, if a not very glorious one. But I do not wish to live my life in the bosom of my loving family to be forever coddled.”
“You want to be a mage?”
“Indeed. A member of the Royal College. Far more exciting than teaching the likes of Jem and Jak. You look tired, Mr Tutt. Perhaps a little more protein would be in order for you, also.”
“Nic. You can call me Nic.”
“Nic, then. Don’t worry, once the mocks are over, you will be able to relax. There are no classes during Demon’s Tithe.”
“Yes. I was thinking of going home for the week.”
Demon’s Tithe was an annual holiday, a night when people celebrated the end of the year and looked forward to the next. Other than young children who received gifts, it was a time to rest and spend with family.
“Really? And miss out on the trip to Ranvak National Park?”
Nic shrugged. “I didn’t know that was a thing. Is it camping?”
“For some. There are cabins for those who prefer their wilderness a little more civilised. Climbing Demon’s Heart is very popular. You’ve probably seen the various clubs practising. It’s quite competitive. And then there are various other activities. It depends on which clubs you belong to.”
“I don’t belong to any clubs,” said Nic.
“No, I don’t suppose you do.”
Speaking to Brillard about the school was like referring to an encyclopaedia, but rather than having to check the index, you merely had to call out a subject and the correct page would open in front of you. His knowledge of the school, its clubs and societies, was complete. He would make a very able Headmaster, one day, should he fail to get into the Royal College.
Davo and Fanny arrived a few minutes later and sat down cautiously, suspicious looks on their faces. They did not ask for an explanation, merely exchanged nods.
“Does the name Irridinhart mean anything to you?” asked Nic. The mention of Demon’s Heart, the mountain in the middle of the park, had reminded Nic of the demon in the story.
“No. There’s the River Din.”
“The one in the park?”
“Yes. I believe it was originally called the Irridin River. But that was a long time ago. It loops around Demon’s Heart. The Canoe Club use it for their races.”
The original name of the River Din struck a distant memory. Nic was sure he had seen mention of it somewhere also. The Irridin. Demon’s Heart. Irridinhart. It seemed like an intentional sign from Winnum Roke, left in a book a thousand years old with no creases and no torn pages, waiting to be read.
“Do they climb to the top of the mountain?” asked Nic.
“The clubs? No. They aren’t allowed. It’s Demon’s Tithe, the Royal College holds their secret rituals up there.” He spoke with a salacious sneer, suggestive of impropriety.
“It’s just tradition,” said Fanny. “They watch the rising sun and say some stuff. It’s supposed to be when demons are weakest and unable to resist binding. Or something.”
Brillard and Davo raised eyebrows in unison, synchronised to the millimetre.
“Ah, that’s supposed to be a secret, sort of,” said Fanny. “Don’t tell anyone.”
Everyone at the table turned to look at the Secret Service agent. He was standing immobile, staring across the hall, giving no indication he had overheard.
Fanny pulled a guilty face and kept eating.
It was difficult for Nic to concentrate during classes. He did his best. Ad Calc was not as exciting as Brillard had suggested. Mr Cromnym did show them the latest equations pertaining to the study of dream states, but it was highly theoretical and hard to understand without a degree in Theoretical Imagineering.
Nic’s thoughts were taken up with the idea of climbing Demon’s Heart. It being forbidden was the least of his problems. He wasn’t strong enough, nor experienced in mountain climbing. His body still ached from his minor exertions and climbing a mountain without anyone knowing was going to be no easy task.
The demon itself could assist him, but that would rather undermine the purpose of the climb. Perhaps it didn’t matter. Use the opponent’s strength to find the opponent’s weakness. It sounded like a sage aphorism, only if it were truly good advice, he was sure he would have read it somewhere, and he hadn’t.
He could ask Dizzy to help train him, but he immediately dismissed the idea. Not only would she be reluctant to aid him, especially after categorically telling him to keep his distance, he had no intention of exposing her to any further danger. He would face his demon alone.
He sat on his bed with the lights off and a piece of paper in his hand. It was too dark to read it, but he had already memorised the instructions. He just felt better holding it.
The librarian had shown him a book about strengthening mind and will. Dugarry’s Focus on Emptiness. It involved simple meditations, but the librarian swore by their effectiveness. She wouldn’t allow him to take the books from the library, of course, but he had made notes.
The idea was to empty one’s mind of all thoughts and allow the silence to fill the void. It was an oddly difficult thing to do. Distracting thoughts were ever-present and also incoming. Several times, just as he closed in on a moment of stillness, he thought he saw something in the corner of his eye, but it was a trick of light and shadow. The exercises were deceptively simple but hard to maintain.
Still, it was better than sleeping. His only concern was that if he did manage to empty his mind, his unwanted guest might take the opportunity to move in fully.
He knew from the story, which he had chosen to take as more fact than fiction, that a strong mind was able to resist and also overwhelm a demon. He would train himself in anticipation of a future encounter. He didn’t know if he’d be strong enough, but he would at least be stronger than he was now.
In the dark room, he repeated the mantras and affirmations the book told him he needed to say and slowly his mind quieted. It was soothing and he felt sure he would fall asleep. He hoped there would not be any more strange dreams. He hoped, if there were, he wouldn’t remember them when he woke. He realised by thinking about these things, he was letting his focus slip and he returned his attention to his breathing and his mind was silent again, but not the same kind of silence. This silence was not empty.
“Why do you sit in the dark, child?”
The voice was in his head. It wasn’t audible, yet it sounded familiar.
He shook, his heart raced. “I am training myself to be stronger,” he said as calmly as he could manage. He said it out loud but softly.
“I could make you stronger. I could lift your arms for you when you are tired. Raise your head when it droops. Would you like my help?”
Nic felt a wave of panic. He fought it down before speaking. “I do not. Thank you.” A little politeness might not be a bad thing, he thought.
There was a shiver in his head. A laugh, he realised.
“What if I were to insist? A debt by force is still a debt.”
“I don’t think you can do that,” said Nic, finding confidence in his rebuttal. “Your words carry no power because you have no voice.”
“Perhaps I will borrow yours?” The demon sounded irritated, if that was possible.
“It is mine to give, not yours to take.” He didn’t know if being combative was the correct line, but his instinct, born of a lifetime of facing questions, was to attack the demon’s claims. He noticed the arguments were all suggestions and not threats. Not ‘I will’ or ‘I can’, but ‘perhaps’ and ‘what if?’
“But I can offer you things that you want.” The mental voice was somehow sweeter now. “There is much that you want, is there not?”
“Yes. Tell me, is your name Irridinhart?”
There was a pause. He didn’t think this was the same demon from the story, didn’t know if the name was a real one or one fabricated to lead him to the mountain. But he had a witness willing to answer questions and this was a reasonable one, he felt.
The silence continued. “Hello?” he said to the dark room, feeling a little foolish.
The emptiness in his mind was whole again. The demon was gone. As unlikely as it seemed, it had run away.
He felt his skin prickle with perspiration. He had been so immersed in the moment he had forgotten to be scared, too wrapped up in passing the test. Now, his body suddenly realised the precarious situation he’d been in and sweat poured from his brow. He let out a long breath.
He had been focused on the demon’s questions. It was like sitting an exam he had been studying for without knowing it. All the information he had collected and assimilated without understanding had been there for him. He had just needed someone to ask him the right questions.
The demon was more than his foe, it was the catalyst that allowed him to filter out the unnecessary and draw out the essential details required to understand the Other Place. He no longer wished to push the demon away in hope it wouldn’t invade his mind, he wanted it to return so it could help him catalogue his own library of thoughts and knowledge accrued.
Nic sat in the dark and smiled, and his smile turned into a soft laugh. He had feared he would be stuck behind the walls of his mind with a demon, but it was also true that the demon was stuck in here with him. Close enough to be studied. And Nic was a good student.