Simole looked up at the sky. It wasn’t blue. It wasn’t any colour, really. It had that white tinge you get when you squint up at the sun and its brightness bleaches the area around it. Except there wasn’t a sun.
There was plenty of light, though. She had to shade her eyes with a hand to look up, it was just that there was nothing in particular to shade them from. It was coming from everywhere. The absence of a sun made it hard to measure the passage of time.
She had no idea how long she’d been here. Hours, for sure. Days? Maybe.
She didn’t feel tired. Or thirsty, or hungry. It wasn’t really her body, just a manifestation of her spirit, so she didn’t expect to experience normal sensations, but it was still odd. She didn’t feel all floaty and ghost-like, the way she had back in the Pagoda. She felt very real and solid.
Around her there was tall grass and endless fields. No roads or signs of anyone else ever having been here. No trees. No animals. Not even insects. Just her. And the dog.
It was small and ugly, and it sat up ahead, waiting for her with its tongue that seemed too big for its mouth hanging out. Its preferred seating position was to have its hind legs sticking out from under it, splayed so its small pink testicles were clearly visible and pointed in her direction. She experimented moving to the left or right, and the dog shifted around on its small butt to keep her lined up correctly.
She had been following the dog with no idea where it was taking her and no destination in sight.
“Is it very far, where we’re going?” she asked the mutt.
The dog continued panting loudly. It looked around as though expecting someone else to answer her question. Simole carried on walking and the dog jumped back onto all fours and scampered ahead with an awkward, waddling gait that went from side to side as much as it went forward.
Simole took a deep breath, more from habit than necessity. She didn’t need to breathe, either. It still made her feel refreshed to inhale deeply. Once, when she had been very young, she had trapped herself in a pantry closet. Her calls for help had gone unheard. It had taken her father two days to notice she was missing and release her.
She had a vivid memory of the moment the stuck door had opened and she took that first breath of fresh air. How cool and delicious it had tasted after the sweaty, stale air with which she had been forced to suffice.
Entering this world had struck her in a similar way, only it wasn’t the non-existent air that she sucked down greedily, it was Arcanum that had flooded her senses. It was many times the level to be found back home. Ranvar was a stifling closet compared to this place.
She raised a hand and half the grass in the field flattened to one side so she could see the dog clearly. It required no effort, no transfer of Arcanum from one place to another. Free power.
It gave her a sense of security to have so much of it at her disposal. She followed the dog without fear, confident she would be able to handle whatever danger she might encounter. It was a misleading confidence since the boost to her own abilities would be matched by the boost to those of whoever she met. But it was still reassuring to know she wouldn’t need to be measured and efficient in dealing with them. Her father always insisted she remain vigilant at all times, balancing her output with her input. It was the sensible and tedious approach to magic.
Here, she could keep going for as long as she wished, or was able. It was a great release. She looked forward to facing a demon and trying out her supercharged spells. The only problem was finding one.
“Are there any demons around here?” she called out to the dog. It gave a cursory glance back at her, but kept going. “Are you a demon?” she asked it.
This wasn’t the demon plane she had been expecting. The Other Place was always described as a horrifying dimension where no human could possibly survive, a darkness filled with terrors. Not a sunny field with pretty flowers. She plucked a pink and yellow bloom off a tall stalk and held it up to her eyes. It didn’t seem very demonic. No teeth or horns or menacing red eyes. Just a flower. She tossed it away.
The dog was sitting again, making an exhibition of itself as it waited for her to catch up. It never got too far away from her. She was sure it had been sent to fetch her, but by whom? Would it have been so hard to attach a note to its collar?
There were telepathic spells you could use to speak with animals. They weren't that useful since most animals weren’t particularly intelligent. Their thoughts revolved around their own priorities, which were mainly food-related. They also didn’t have much interest in learning the way people structured their thoughts. Even if they had the answer you needed, they would have to understand the question first to realise what you wanted from them. Telling a dog to fetch a stick is easily communicated. Asking it to tell you where a particular stick you’re looking for can be found is an altogether more complex proposition.
Simole knew these things from the books in her father’s library. Despite the drawbacks, it would have been an interesting area to explore. But her father had never deemed the more peripheral spells to be worth teaching her. He wanted her to focus on spells that killed things, not ones that opened a dialogue.
The dog began yapping. It was on its feet, looking up at the sky. Simole turned and tried to see what had caught the dog’s attention, but the glare was too harsh to see anything. If it was a demon come to attack, it would have a very clear advantage, at least for the first strike.
There was no strike. The empty world remained empty.
“What is it?” she asked the dog. It stopped barking and began licking itself inappropriately. Whatever it had been, it was no longer of interest.
If there were demons around, it would probably be a good idea to disguise herself. That was an ability her father had considered appropriate for her to learn. It wasn’t a skill she liked very much. It was messy and painful, and limited in range. Adapting facial features or hair colour wasn’t too difficult, but becoming something bigger required planning and strategy. A big, tall man would have to be a thin, tall man with a heavy coat. And you couldn’t reduce mass unless you were willing to cut something off.
Of course, before she could disguise herself as a demon, she would need to know what they looked like. Which was hard to do when so far she had run into exactly none.
She peered up at the sky from under a shading hand again. Still nothing to see, although she had also sensed a presence. Was she under surveillance by whatever beings inhabited this place, assuming there was someone other than the two of them here?
The dog barked to draw her attention, and set off again. She followed behind, hoping something—anything—would break the monotony.
It only took another ten steps for her wish to be granted. Seemingly out of nowhere, a black mountain loomed directly in front of her.
It was still some way in the distance, but it was very big and hard to miss, which she somehow had. And there was also something unnatural about it. Something too symmetrical and artificial about its shape.
From where she stood, the mountain was a triangle, with one side longer than the other, giving it the appearance of a fin emerging from the water. But its sides were smooth and straights, as though someone had cut them with a chisel and then sanded them down to a smooth finish.
Maybe it wasn’t a mountain. Maybe it was a building. Maybe it was both. She stood staring at it, trying to make out details, but its surface was too dark. There were some flickers of light, perhaps minerals sparkling, but she was too far away to see clearly.
The other mystery was where had it come from? She was walking through a flat meadow. She hadn’t crested a hill or turned a corner. She took a couple steps backwards and the mountain quickly sank from view, as though disappearing over the horizon. She stepped forward and it reappeared. It made no sense. What shape was this world that its geometry worked in such alien fashion?
She imagined whatever race of creature inhabited this world, the mountain was where she would find them.
The dog barked once. As soon as she looked across, it was up and off. It wasn’t heading towards the mountain, though. It waddled to the left, its short, stiff tail falling from one side to the other like it was about to drop off.
She followed it, one eye on the black mountain keeping pace with her every step. They probably had a large telescope at the top, keeping an eye on her progress. If you could call it progress.
The dog was barking again, this time excitedly. She saw it running, its hind legs trying to overtake the front ones so it was practically sideways. Through the grass she saw a small house. It had appeared as suddenly as the mountain, although it was only the size of a cottage so it materialising out of thin air was not quite as preposterous.
It had a thatched roof with a chimney. Blue smoke drifted into the sky in a twisting thread, accompanied by the smell of cooking. Even though she felt no hunger, the scent of baking bread was enough to make her mouth salivate.
She glanced over at the mountain, and then back at the picturesque cottage. There was no reason to believe one was more dangerous than the other. Witches in fairy tales often lived in cottages with a ready oven.
The door was open. A woman’s sing-song voice called out, “Dana. Dana-Long.” The dog disappeared through the doorway and could be heard yapping away inside.
Simole had heard the story of the Dana-Long, the creature who stole away naughty children. An odd thing to call your dog. She walked towards the cottage, hands by her sides, but ready to deal with whatever monster was lurking within.
She crossed the threshold and found herself in a kitchen with a woman in an apron.
“Hello,” said the woman. She was a little taller than Simole, and older. At a guess, probably at least forty, although she had an attractive face with smooth, unlined skin. Not pretty, but handsome, with strong features that worked well together. Her hair was short and dark, brushed back and held in place by band of blue material. “You’re younger than I expected.”
It was the sort of thing an adult would say without realising how dismissive it sounded. Simole smiled. At least it was the kind of demon she was used to.
“You were expecting me?” said Simole.
“You’re from the Royal College, aren’t you?” She had large mitts on her hands and was placing a bread tin on the table.
Simole shook her head. “Are you a mage?”
The woman frowned. “You weren’t sent here to find me?”
“No,” said Simole, and then asked again, “Are you a mage of the Royal College?”
“I’m Archmage Roke.”
“Are there any other Archmage’s named Roke?” She sounded a little irritated now. It was an effect Simole often had on her elders.
“Not that I know of. Why are you here?”
Archmage Roke took off her mitts and undid the apron. “If you weren’t sent by the Royal College, what are you doing here?”
“I asked first,” said Simole. She knew it was a childish thing to say, and would probably only annoy the Archmage more, but that was why it was so hard to resist saying it.
“Do you understand where we are? This is the demon plane. The Other Place. If the demons are allowed to find a way back to our world, it would spell the end for everyone.”
“So, you’re keeping them at bay.”
“Something like that. I’ve been waiting for someone to relieve me. I left instructions.”
“No one knows you’re here. If you left instructions, I don’t think anyone found them.”
Under her apron, Archmage Roke wore a simple grey smock tied at the waist with a leather belt. There was a large pouch across the front. She reached into it and took out a small piece of paper and some brown leaves. She quickly combined the two and rolled the paper into a tube which she placed in her mouth. She tapped the end with her finger and a flame appeared.
A stream of blue smoke rushed out of her mouth and she let out a sigh. “If they didn’t receive my instructions, what are you doing here, child?”
“I fought a demon who was trying to open a door.”
“You stopped the demon from opening the door?”
“No. I stopped the demon, but the door was opened. I decided to see what was on the other side.”
Archmage Roke leaned back, holding the cigarette elegantly between two fingers, blowing a plume of smoke like a banner. Simole coughed and waved fumes away. She’d only ever seen very old people smoking. Most people had stopped once it became known how harmful it was.
“You have no idea how much danger you're in, do you?” said Archmage Roke.
Simole was used to being condescended to, as well. “It doesn’t seem so bad.”
“What you see out there isn’t real,” said Archmage Roke. “Reality isn’t fixed here. You see what you want to see. Or what others want you to see.”
“That’s all you?” asked Simole. “Meadows of wild flowers and pretty cottages?”
“Yes,” said Winnum Roke, detecting the mocking tone Simole was doing nothing to hide. “It’s better than the alternative.”
“What about the mountain?”
“It isn’t a mountain. It’s a ship.”
It hadn’t looked like any kind of ship Simole had ever seen. “A ship that sails on water?”
“No. It travels between dimensions. That’s why this place is so hard to get to—it’s always moving.”
“What will happen to us next time it moves?” asked Simole.
“It’s moving right now.”
“But we’re outside it, won’t we get washed away.”
“We’re inside it. And outside it. It’s hard to explain.”
A ship you were inside and outside at the same time. And that moved without moving. That did sound hard to explain.
“What’s your name?”
“Simole van Dastan. I’m a student at the Ransom School. You went there, didn’t you?”
Archmage Roke crushed her cigarette into the table top and shook her head regretfully. “Another place full of demons.” She turned around and took two glasses out of a cupboard and a bottle of wine from a rack on the floor.
“What does everyone think happened to me?”
“They think you died. A long time ago.”
“How long ago?” She filled both glasses.
“About a thousand years.”
The second glass overflowed as Winnum Roke staggered. She quickly regained her composure. One of those adults who believed you should put on a brave face for the sake of the children. Which was more admirable than her father’s approach of sending the children out first to act as a shield.
“How old are you?” Archmage Roke asked.
Archmage Roke nodded. She sat down and drank both glasses. Then she made herself another cigarette.
“I assume there have been many changes since my time.”
Simole shrugged. “I assume so.”
“How many female archmages have there been?”
“You were the only one.”
“What?” Her voice rose sharply and her eyes bulged. It was the first time she had let her emotions get the better of her. “In a thousand years? I opened the way.”
“They closed it behind you,” said Simole. “You shouldn’t have left.”
“I had no choice. All that time keeping the way back hidden, and no one even noticed. At least I have someone to keep me company, now.” She looked at Simole with no hint of happiness at the prospect of spending time in her company. “You realise you can’t go back.”
“Because, my dear child, it will show the demons how to return to our world. Something I have spent the best thousand years of my life preventing.”
“They can’t go there if I stop them here.”
“And how do you propose to do that?”
Simole raised her right hand. The palm glowed white and a beam of light shot out. The chair her hand hovered over was instantly disintegrated, leaving behind a chair-shaped cloud of wood dust which drifted to the floor. The dog whined and threw itself under its mistress’s skirt.
“Very impressive. Who taught you how to do that?”
“My father. He trained me to fight demons.”
“He’s a mage, is he?”
“He’s the current Archmage,” said Simole, watching for a reaction.
Archmage Roke refilled both glasses, the cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. “He sounds like a wonderful parent. I’m sure the college is in safe hands.”
She downed the glasses in quick succession. “Well, this isn’t how I was hoping to spend my dotage, but I suppose you have to make the best of things. If we don’t draw too much attention to ourselves, we might be able to protect the insufferable ingrates for another thousand years.”
Simole recognised the direction this was headed in. The wise old head making decisions based on common sense and hard-earned experience. Father knows best. As does mother. She had no intention of sitting in a cottage for the rest of her life, where the best case scenario was that nothing would ever happen.
“I think you’re drinking too much,” said Simole.
“This isn’t real wine,” said Archmage Roke, filling the glass from a bottle that seemed to have no bottom.
“It’s whatever you believe it is,” said Simole. She understood how this worked better than anyone. She had been trained for it her whole life. To best demons. And mages. A battle of wills would certainly be easier if your opponent was drunk. Or convinced they were.
“So, you want to fight the All Mother. Have you any idea how powerful she is? Your little parlour tricks won’t do you any good here.” She imitated Simole’s hand movements, but merely slapped the chair next to her and knocked it over.
“Maybe together,” suggested Simole. “We could end this.”
“End it? There is no end.” Her voice was slightly slurred. “Do you know what you come to understand when you live as long as I have. I don’t mean a thousand years, I mean thirty-eight.”
Simole was no expert on the aging process, but she doubted very much the Archmage was thirty-eight. She kept those thoughts to herself. Other thoughts, she released freely.
“Was it very interesting, standing against the invaders, alone. Sounds exciting.”
The Archmage blew air through her lips. “Once you’ve tried everything and the novelty wears off, you realise how boring it all is. Boring and frequently unpleasant. And what thanks do you get? None. It hardly seems worth it. You try all the finest wines and it turns out nothing beats a cold glass of water.” She poured herself another glass of wine.
“You can always surpass expectations,” said Simole.
“What good will that do?” demanded the fairly sozzled Archmage.
“It’ll make everyone feel bad for doubting you.”
“That’s true.” She picked up the bottle by its neck, considering Simole’s words and finding them pleasing. “Yes! Defeat adversities rather than accept them! Strive for excellence! You must try to do better than the best, even if it means a lifetime of dissatisfaction for your own inadequacy! Failure is better than settling for pathetic mediocrity.”
Spoken like a true teacher. In many ways she reminded Simole of her father. He was equally full of hot air.
“They stole your best years from you,” said Simole.
“My best thousand years,” said Archmage Roke.
“We should show them how wrong they were.”
“We should!” agreed an enthused, tipsy Archmage. “This way.”
She walked out of the cottage with the dog chasing her heels and Simole a short distance behind.
“Do you know what the All Mother is?” said Winnum Roke as they marched across the field towards the black mountain. “She is a vast repository of knowledge. She hoards it jealously and is always greedy for more. We can use that against her. I’m not sure how, exactly, but give me a moment and I’ll think of something. I always excelled at coming up with good ideas.”
“Shouldn’t there be more demons here?” asked Simole.
Archmage Roke stopped and turned, one hand holding the nearly-empty bottle, the other waving around not quite under its owner’s full control. “What makes you think there aren’t? They have no form and can take on any appearance. For all you know, I am a demon. Or perhaps I’m a figment of your imagination, telling you what you want to hear.”
“How would I know?” asked Simole.
“You wouldn’t. You just have to not care and keep faith with yourself. And those you trust.” She looked down at the dog. “Even a figment can be of use if it is well founded,” she added parenthetically.
She turned to face the mountain which was still some distance from them. The surface looked like the night sky and the glints of light like stars. Winnum Roke dropped the bottle, narrowly missing the dog who scurried out of range. She raised her hands and made odd gestures, as though trying to coax the stars down.
The air around her hands crackled blue and grew into a mass of brilliant sparks that settled down slowly into a haze encompassing her figure. The dog sat down next to Simole and tilted its head to one side.
Winnum Roke leaned forward and reached her hands toward the mountain. Simole's eyes blurred, she winced and blinked and turned her face away. The Archmage was warping size and distance, somehow, effortlessly stoking the surface of the mountain even though it lay well out of reach. She spoke words that hurt Simole’s ears.
She called out to something, cajoling and persuading in a language Simole had never heard. Simole felt compelled to walk forward. The mountain no longer looked like a solid object barring her way, it was a hole. The darkness was bright, glowing with a putrid yellowness. Simole trembled and shut her eyes tightly.
“If we fail, we will have doomed every living person in our world,” she heard the Archmage say.
At least there won’t be any witnesses, Simole thought to herself. A searing pain cut into her face.
The horrible light was everywhere, but it had taken on a quality that was more than visual. It had a scent that made her gag. It was sound, a fizzing hiss, crackling like relentless whispering. Simole opened her eyes cautiously. She could see again. It was as though the light had never been.
It was much darker. She turned. Behind her was a white mountain, the same proportions as the black one. There was no sign of Archmage Roke.
She looked around. It was hard to see anything in the gloom. There were structures in the distance, transparent like they could be made of glass. Coloured lights flared inside them, marking their outlines. As her eyes adjusted, she saw domes and towers lit in red and green and blue.
She tottered forward, her body filled with a deep chill. Her skin felt dead, her arms and legs heavy and stiff as iron posts.
“You are the door,” said a cold, inhuman voice from somewhere above her.
She looked up. The sky was crammed full of stars in constellations she had never seen. She raised her hand and tried to bring her power to the surface. Nothing happened.
“You are the door,” repeated the voice. “Nothing more.”
“I am not a door,” said Simole defiantly. It didn’t feel like too far-fetched a claim, and certainly one she could believe in.
“You are the door, Simole. You will show us the way home.”
“I don’t know the way home,” said Simole, a little unnerved at the mention of her name. Familiarity was the last thing she wanted.
“You are connected to the place you call home by a tether. You are caught on a line.”
Simole couldn’t detect any tether binding her, but if the voice said it was so, she didn’t doubt it. The news was something of a relief. She had tried to tether herself and failed. Apparently, someone had done it for her.
“Perhaps it isn’t me that’s caught,” said Simole. “Perhaps it’s the person on the other end of the line.”
“You are the door,” said the voice in its relentless way. “We will go home, you and I.”
There was an inevitability about the way the voice stated what would happen. They would return to Ranvar, and she would deal with whatever she had to there. It wasn’t something she felt like resisting.
“I thought there’d be more of you,” said Simole, shivering.
“There are,” said the voice. The stars began to descend one by one.