The stranger sitting on Nic’s bed pulled back his hood to reveal a mass of curly hair. It was impossible to tell the colour in the darkened room, but it was thick and unruly, suggestive of youth.
As Nic’s eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, he could make out the features. A prominent nose, a pointed chin. He could have been a student, if it weren’t for his eerily luminescent eyes.
Their blue glow wasn’t like that of a cat’s, reflecting light like a small mirror, there was movement to it, crackles and sparks. It was as though his pupils were on fire. It was clearly some kind of side effect of Arcanum, but Nic had never seen something so pronounced.
“We do not have much time, young master,” said the man, his voice low and urgent. “Take this.”
Nic felt something small and round thrust into his hand.
“If you need help, use this to call us. We are many and ready to do what we can.”
“I don’t understand,” said Nic, keeping his voice low. He didn’t fear the intruder, didn’t feel threatened. There was something calming and also intriguing about the man’s voice, the way he seemed to treat Nic like an old acquaintance. A friend, even.
Nic had expected the Secret Service agent to come running in—surely he would have detected an intruder so heavily contaminated by Arcanum—but there were no sounds of footsteps, no doors being thrown open. Now, he hoped the agent wouldn’t hear them, not until Nic could get some answers. “Who are you?”
“Call me Seth. I am your devoted servant. My life is yours if need be.”
“Thank you,” was all Nic could think to say. He felt foolish and confused. He wasn’t scared but he didn’t trust this man either. “But I don’t want your life. Who is this Lady of the Shadows?”
There was a slight shift in weight on the bed, a withdrawal into surprise. “The one who bound her love to you. The one who made you her voice in this world. Her warmth is on you, like the blessed last touch of the setting sun.”
The more he spoke, the more the gentleness of his voice was eroded by the oddness of his words. He sounded like the religious fanatics who would occasionally stand on a box in the market and implore people to follow their deity of choice; the only one who could lead them to salvation. There were numerous religions to choose from in Ranvar, but none that offered rewards before death. In a country where magic existed, people required more tangible evidence of godliness. The marketplace zealots were roundly ignored and often chased away for taking up valuable trading space.
One thing was certain, though. Whatever facet of the divine this man believed had attached itself to Nic, he clearly didn’t mean Simole.
“Whose touch? Who are you talking about?”
“You do not know?” He seemed thrown by Nic’s refusal to join in with his avid acclamations. “Perhaps you know her by another name? Our Reverend Mother, The Lady Junia?”
Nic recalled Mr Tenner referring to Professor Veristotle as Old Mother. He strongly suspected this was the person, the entity, this man was talking about. A demon. A powerful creature from another world who had needed Simole’s power for its own ends.
If the tether the Archmage had detected was not from Simole, if it was from this demon, shouldn’t the Archmage have been able to tell? Was he unable to differentiate between a demon and his own daughter?
“I don’t know who that is,” said Nic. “I don’t know anyone called Junia. I’m just a student here, and you’re a strange man who’s broken into my room in the middle of the night. Are you going to hurt me?”
The man jumped off the bed and backed away. It was too dark to see his expression but his body movements suggested he was appalled by the idea anyone would think he was here to do harm. Truthfully, Nic didn’t think so either, but he felt it was best to play dumb and try to draw information out of the man.
“I see,” said Seth. “You are the anchor but you do not know which ship you hold fast. Tell me, are you a true Ranvarian?”
It felt like a dangerous question, the answer to which could swing him into or out of favour. He didn’t know which way to answer. Was this man a fanatic who believed in the glory of Ranvar at whatever cost, or a fanatic who wished to see Ranvar fall and crumble?
“I was born in Ranvar. My mother is a maid and my father is dead. I don’t know any other life.”
“Yes,” said Seth. “Yes, I see why My Lady chose you. You are the symbol of Ranvar we need to stand behind. We shall My Lady, we shall.” His voice grew louder, still no one came running in.
“Who is the Lady of the Shadows?” Nic asked again.
“She is the one who will deliver us from Ranvar’s tyranny. She brings us the power to wield Arcanum. Does that surprise you, my young master? Did you think only the chosen few, the special ones, could use magic? You have been lied to. There is no limitation on who can cast spells and shape the shadows.
“Your leaders, they hoard the power, keep it for themselves. They know if it were ever to fall into the hands of the common people, we would rise up against them and throw them out of their palaces and mansions.”
The cold blue flames dancing in his eyes flared and Nic reflexively flinched back, pushing into his pillow. He thought about the pen. He had left it on his desk. If Seth lost control of the Arcanum he already seemed to be barely managing to keep in check, the pen might be the only thing that could save him.
Seth came closer, sat down on the bed and leaned in. “We can show you how to become as powerful as them. With your soul bound to hers, there is nothing you could not accomplish. Nothing.”
He grabbed Nic’s hand in both of his, squeezed it around the sphere in his palm. A flicker of blue light enveloped their combined fists.
“With this you can contact me. Break it and I will know you need my assistance. Do not let them know what you are. If they find out, they will take you to one of their special cells and there will be little I can do to save you from that place.”
That part Nic didn’t need convincing of. This man didn’t seem like he was going to be anyone’s saviour. In fact he would more likely do harm, most probably to himself.
“She chose you for a reason. She will come to you when the time is right, and she will tell you what you must do. What needs to be done. The people of Gweur are with you. When you call on us, we will be ready.”
He stood up again, gave Nic a nod that was almost a short bow, and then he disappeared.
There was no movement, no fading from sight. He was standing in front of Nic, and then he wasn’t.
Nic jumped out of bed. His shirt stuck to his back which was covered in sweat. He had remained calm in his mind, but his body had reacted with fear. He was shaking.
There was a perfect spherical stone in his hand. He went to the desk and dropped it in a drawer. He picked up the pen. There was no real need for it, nothing to protect himself from, but he still felt safer with it in his hands. Then he left the room, quietly but quickly. He went to the door of the cottage and opened it.
The cold night air washed over him, leaving an instant chill. He stuck his head through the door.
The white-masked Secret Service agent was standing in his usual place. He turned his head to look at Nic. He couldn’t tell if it was the same white-masked agent, but it was certainly a member of the Secret Service, standing guard, apparently to no great effect.
Nic retreated inside, closing the door behind him. Whatever power Seth controlled, barely or otherwise, it was enough to evade detection by the Secret Service.
Even with the front door closed, Nic was shivering. His sweat-soaked nightshirt had robbed his body of all heat as soon as it was touched by the night air. He went to the fireplace and started a fire.
“What are you doing?” asked Davo bleary-eyed.
Nic looked up from where he was crouched by the fire trying to warm himself.
“There was a man in my room.”
“Is this a story I’m going to regret hearing?” asked Davo.
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “Probably.”
“What are you two doing?” said Fanny. He had a blanket over his head and wrapped around his body, his head poking out like an old fishwife.
“Nic’s been entertaining visitors in his room. Try not to judge.”
“Oh,” said Fanny. “Anyone we know?”
“No. Nobody I know, either. He said his name was Seth. He was from Gweur, I think. He wanted me to know I had been chosen by the Lady of the Shadows as her representative in this world. I’m very important to him and his people. He wants to keep me safe, for his Lady.”
There was a pause. Nic looked up at them.
“This, er, lady, is she like a demon?” asked Fanny.
“Good question,” said Davo. “Is she like a demon, or is she in fact a demon. Come to think of it, are you a demon?”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Nic.
“Good, good,” said Davo. “As long as you’re reasonably sure.”
“I thought… I thought Simole had attached her spirit to me, but now I’m not so sure. It may have been a demon and Simole is untethered.”
“Should we be talking about this so openly?” said Davo, nodding towards the front door.
“He didn’t hear the man telling me I was the demon’s voice in this world,” said Nic. He knew there might have been good reason for that, but he needed to talk to someone, and the two of them was all he had.
“Where is Simole?” asked Fanny. “Her spirit, I mean.”
“I’m not sure. In the Other Place, I think. That’s what her father told me.”
“You spoke to him?” asked Davo.
“Yes. He dropped by on his dragon. He wanted me to be his apprentice so I could fight demons for him. I declined.”
“Probably for the best,” said Davo.
“Maybe we should tell the Secret Service agent,” suggested Fanny, pulling his blanket around himself and edging his way closer to the fire. “They’re supposed to protect us against this sort of thing, aren’t they? Demons and such.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” said Davo, also getting closer. He bent down to throw some more logs in.
“Why not?” asked Fanny.
“I suspect the whole point of putting a guard on Nic wasn’t so much to protect him as keep an eye on him. They may have suspected these people would get in touch and are just waiting for the right moment to pounce. If they learn their primary goal is to keep Nic safe and out of harm’s way, then the easiest way to draw them out would be to put Nic in harm’s way. The more harm the better.”
“You really think they’d do that?” said Fanny.
“Yes,” said Davo.
“Probably,” said Nic. He believed the Archmage wanted to keep him safe for Simole’s sake, but he wasn’t really sure why the guard was watching over him. The Minister of Instruction going out of his way to protect a boy from bullies seemed an unlikely use of government resources.
“That still leaves us with the question of what to do,” said Davo. “If they think you’re their special demon boy, they’re bound to contact you again. Perhaps try to force you to do things in the name of their demon lady.”
“I don’t think we should do anything,” said Nic. “If it is a demon I’m attached to, then it might be the only way Simole can find her way back. I have to keep the door open. I can try to find out more about it from Winnum Roke’s biography, if I ever get a chance to get back in the library.”
“Hmm,” said Davo. “Which you can’t do with Agent White perpetually by your side.”
Nic nodded. It was handy to have a personal bodyguard when it came to ensuring other students kept their distance, but it was a hindrance to his other activities.
“I don’t think he’ll be back tonight, at least.” Nic rose, his shirt dry and his eyes feeling heavy. “I’m going back to bed. If you hear strange sounds like a demon’s trying to consume my soul…”
“We’ll get as far away as we can,” said Fanny.
“Your sacrifice won’t be in vain,” said Davo. “We’ll make sure we live long lives and toast your memory.”
“Ooh,” said Fanny. “I fancy some toast now.”
Nic returned to his room while Fanny rummaged around in the kitchen with Davo admonishing his eating habits. They had taken the news of demons and late night visitors better than he had expected. The chance to rescue Simole, no matter how small, trumped any trepidations they had about the dangers they potentially faced. It probably helped that the potential dangers were mainly going to be faced by him.
The thought was unsettling, but the threat seemed so unreal it was hard to take it seriously. He knew he should. He should be terrified and looking for someone else to take responsibility. But there was no one. No one he trusted.
Nic lay down in the dark and listened for sounds that he wasn’t alone. There were none. Whatever it was he had found himself in the middle of, he felt he had time. He didn’t know how long, but from what the Archmage had told him, and what Seth had said, something was coming. It hadn’t arrived.
It wasn’t much to cling to, but it meant he had time to find some kind of answer in Winnum Roke’s work. It was the only place there might be clue to what he should do. She had been in his position. Sort of. First, though, he had to find a way to free himself of the agent who was his constant companion.
He fell asleep and had fitful dreams. There were no monsters in the dark, but many questions that snapped at him no less menacingly. He woke in the morning feeling exhausted with little memory of the debate that had raged in his mind, just a feeling that no conclusions had been reached.
The first lesson of the day was Explicit Biology of Organisms. His previous experience with this class had been theoretical. Examining diagrams of the internal workings of various animals. The drawings had been very detailed and intricate, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Their new teacher, Mr Matterworth, clearly considered artwork to be a poor substitute for the real thing. He walked into the classroom with a large bag, from which he poured out a dozen dead frogs.
“We’ll be doing this in pairs, so please find yourself a partner.”
Nic turned to find Davo and Fanny already standing next to each other. He looked around. For an instant the idea he might be paired with Dizzy floated through his mind. It was quickly dashed as she was approached by a girl with honey coloured hair. The two looked perfect together, like they’d worked in tandem many times.
Everyone seemed to have a predesignated partner. No one looked lost or seeking a second. No one other than Nic, that is. He turned to the agent stood next to him. The agent turned and walked to the other side of the room.
It wouldn’t be a problem for him to work alone. In many ways, it would be preferable.
Mr Matterworth walked around the room, opening the tall windows. “This is all very straightforward,” he said as he pushed the windows as wide as they would go. “The smell just takes a little getting used to.”
“Looks like I’m with you,” said a voice beside Nic. He looked over. He recognised the boy, his face, the slicked back hair, the excessive jewellery, but he couldn’t remember the name.
The boy slowly rolled his eyes. “Brillard Epsteem. President of the Standard Club?”
“Oh, yes,” said Nic. “Of course.”
“Yes, of course. For someone who came second in the national exams, I would have thought remembering a name or two would be no problem.”
“Sorry. I tend to block out the extraneous stuff to leave space for, erm…”
“Matter of more importance? Charmed, I’m sure.”
“Are you sure it’s okay to partner with me?” said Nic, looking around to see if anyone was observing them.
“I don’t see why not,” said Brillard. “Makes little difference.”
Each pair was handed a rather stiff looking frog and then given instructions on how to prepare them for dissection. There were already a series of stitches down the middle of the frogs indicating this wasn’t the first time they had been opened up. There was also a very strong smell that settled in the back of the throat like a ball of cotton wool. Whatever was used to preserve these creatures, it was extremely pungent.
“Smells like vinegar and arsenic,” said Brillard, his eyes watering.
Nic had no idea how he knew what arsenic smelled like but he didn’t doubt he was right. He held out the scalpel he’d been given while leaning his head back as much as possible.
He slit the frog open, or rather, sliced through the stitches, and they inspected the insides. Mr Matterwroth talked through the various parts and how they were connected. It didn’t really seem all that different to looking at a picture in a book, although the reality of looking at a liver or a heart in vivo might have some effect he wasn’t aware of. It was hard to tell while tears dripped down his nose. At least the recycling of frogs meant fewer needless amphibious deaths. Perhaps there was a frog shortage.
He looked over at his partner who was suffering just as much. He had treated Nic like any other student, two boys working together to uncover the secrets of froggy body parts.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Yes, what is it?” said Brillard, gently poking the large intestine.
“Why did you invite me to join the Standard Club? Weren’t you told not to?”
“I was indeed,” said Brillard without looking away from the wormlike mass on the end of his pencil. “But entry to the Standard Club is purely on merit. We are the oldest club in the school and we take our traditions seriously. I don’t know why you were deemed unfit for membership by the Headmaster, but he isn’t the club president. I am.”
“You could have gotten into trouble.”
“Ha. I think not. My mother would never let him hear the end of it. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Nic looked at him, one eye closed. “You’re the Headmaster’s son?”
Brillard shook his head. “If I hadn’t seen the exam results printed in the paper…”
“Now, I want you to sew the frog’s body closed, ready for the next student.”
Everyone groaned as needle and thread were passed around. Nic couldn’t understand why they were going to such lengths to preserve twelve dead frogs. He felt like he was missing something.
“I’ll do it,” said Brillard. “Years of needlepoint. I’m convinced Mother wanted a daughter, even though she denies it.”
His stitches were neat and quick. It was quite impressive and the seam was barely noticeable. Mr Matterworth walked around with his bag as frogs were thrown in. Nic picked up their frog and felt something move.
He dropped it on the table.
“What?” said Brillard.
The frog flipped over, hopped to the end of the table in a single bound, and then jumped out of the window.
The two boys watched open-mouthed.
“Hurry up then,” said Mr Matterworth, the mouth of the bag held wide as a frog’s. “Where is it?”
The two boys looked at each other and then at the window.
“I, ah, felt sick and banged the table by accident,” said Nic.
“Yes?” said Mr Matterworth.
“And the frog flew out the window.” It was a plausible if unlikely scenario. The board the frog had been on could, in theory, have been flipped, catapulting the frog into the school yard.
Mr Matterworth’s face had taken on a maroon complexion. “Well, don’t stand about, go get it.”
They rushed out.
“Why did you tell him that?” said Brillard.
“I couldn’t tell him it got up and left, could I?”
“How did you do that?”
“Me? I didn’t. It was probably one of the others playing a prank. Does anyone have that kind of ability?”
“Magic? No, I don’t think so. And why would they prank…” His voice faded as they reached the other side of the window. “I see. To prank you. Perhaps partnering with you isn’t the same as partnering with anyone after all.”
“No,” agreed Nic. “I can’t see it anywhere.” There was some short grass under the window but no sign of a resurrected frog.
“No. I’m sure it didn’t feel like hanging around. We’ll have to tell him a bird grabbed it.”
They returned to the classroom and made their excuses. The teacher wasn’t happy but accepted their story. Probably more so because one of them was related to the Headmaster. Nic looked around the emptying class and wondered which of his classmates had performed the small miracle, and what they thought to gain by it.
The morning lessons ended and the three boys headed for the cafeteria, followed by their ever-present shadow. On the way, they heard sounds from the other side of the building, shouts of encouragement and disappointment, cheers and whoops.
Cautiously, as they had not been invited to join whatever merriment was taking place, they crept around the corner.
There was a group of girls, all dressed in a manner that was immediately familiar. They were standing under the side wall of one of the school buildings. It had no windows, but unlike other buildings that were classically built with perfectly maintained stonework, this wall was a mass of crags and bumps. Bricks stuck out and cracks were numerous. It was a climbing wall.
There were girls climbing, moving fluidly and instinctively across and up. Holding on by fingertips, stretching legs to reach a cleft or nub. And in their midst was Dizzy, giving instructions and barking orders. She was dressed the same as that night at the library, as were all the girls.
“Lunch?” said Fanny.
“You go on,” said Nic. “I’ll catch up.”
They left him there, assuming he was yearning after his lost love, but that wasn’t what had caught his attention. He sat down, out of sight and took out his book and began making notes.
Later, when they had returned to the cottage, Nic went through his wardrobe to find clothes that were vaguely athletic, or at least wouldn’t get in his way. He prepared himself as best he could and then left through the window. A figure appeared beside him.
It didn’t matter, the agent’s presence was of no concern. It was dark and there were no signs of any students. He made his way to the climbing wall with his notebook.
There were various routes to the top of the building, each marked by a different colour which was hard to discern in the dim light from the lamp posts along the paths. It didn’t matter, he wasn’t here to test himself that thoroughly. He would do well to reach the top by any route.
He knew he had to become stronger. He couldn’t continue to rely on others. He had to start somewhere and as Mallory had said, you could only truly learn by doing.
Climbing was something he had done as a child. He had never been as good as Dizzy, but he had been passable. He kept up with her.
He looked up at the wall. It looked more intimidating from this angle. He had spent the whole of lunch watching how the girls moved, how they overcame seemingly impossible gaps. He’d reviewed his notes many times before venturing out to see how far he was from where he needed to be. He expected the results to be poor. It didn’t help that he had a perfect physical specimen watching him. The agent could probably walk up the wall with both hands tied behind his back.
Nic began climbing. It was even more difficult than he’d expected. None of the holds or crevices seemed to be within reach. He struggled on, getting nowhere.
He dropped off many times. He knew the routes, the holds, when to switch positions, it made no difference. He didn’t have the strength or flexibility. He refused to give up. He would learn by doing. By doing it a lot. Learning by rote.
Slowly, he managed to get further up. Not quite halfway, but nearer halfway than the ground. He felt tired, his fingers ached and his breath burned. He reached for the next hold.
His fingers were too slippery, he lost his grip and fell. He crashed to the ground, slamming his back so hard he felt his teeth move. He lay there looking up. The agent’s head drifted into view. He hadn’t even tried to catch him.
“I thought you were supposed to protect me from danger,” said Nic. “I guess I was wrong.”
“A little fall like that won’t hurt you,” said the agent. It was the first time he had spoken. “You should keep trying. You were getting the hang of it.”
Nic got to his feet. There was pain but luckily the numbing cold made it hard to tell exactly where.
He got back on the wall. If he could get more than halfway up, he would deem it a victory. A first step to victory.
It was easier this time. The first few holds seemed much more natural. He reached his previous position and hung there, panting. The next hold was too far. There was no way he could reach it. The girls he had observed had used an outstretched leg, pivoted their bodies and made a crippling arch in their backs. He couldn’t possibly do the same. He needed another way, but his notes had nothing more.
He waited to catch his breath. His fingertips were sweaty. He was about to lose his grip again. He clung on as hard as he could. He could climb down if he just took his time.
His foot gave way. He grabbed the nearest nub and kicked his other foot. He jumped across the gap and caught his fingers in a crack. Energy flowed through him. It was exhilarating and freeing. He jumped with his back to the wall, his feet landing perfectly in place, his hands finding holds with ease. He rapidly ascended without even thinking and stopped just below the top. It was victory. It wasn’t his victory. Something was helping him, guiding and assisting, claiming him for itself.
He let go and fell.
The agent rushed forward to catch him before he hit the ground. Nic didn’t hit the ground. He caught the lowest holds and hung there for a moment, then let go and stepped onto solid earth like he’d walked down a set of stairs.
“Stop it!” he said through gritted teeth. “I don’t want your help.”
The agent stepped back, hands raised.
Nic looked at him, thought about correcting his assumption it was he Nic had been talking to, but what good would that do? He set off back to the cottage.
He went straight to his room and sat on the bed, his legs crossed and his back against the wall. He stayed awake as long as he could, afraid to go to sleep. Afraid he wouldn’t be him when he woke.