There was an air of unbridled enthusiasm across the school. The exams were over and Demon’s Tithe was almost here. Younger children would get to dress up and receive gifts. Older ones would be celebrating in no less exuberant fashion. Those who were travelling to Ranvar National Park would miss out on the bonfires and festivities, but they would be enjoying the end of the year in their own way.
There were only two days before the trip, which wasn’t enough time for Nic to prepare as well as he’d like.
Davo had taken it on himself to deal with the paperwork for the club, which had been named the Ransom School Nature Appreciation Society. Davo had chosen the name for its dull and uninspiring qualities. The last thing they wanted was for some other student to see it listed somewhere and apply to join.
Winter had arrived with cold, blustery winds and ominous grey skies. There wouldn’t be snow until the new year, but there was always the chance of a sudden downpour. Davo also took it on himself to arrange for the appropriate clothing.
“You’d think they’d arrange this sort of thing when it was a bit warmer,” said Fanny as they walked across the campus, the wind whipping at them from behind, urging them to hurry up.
“It’s not supposed to be some sort of jolly holiday,” said Davo. “It’s a testament to how hardy and ready for action our country’s next generation are. Ready to take the tiller when called upon. They may have been brought up in the lap of luxury with everything they’ve ever wanted handed to them by a butler or a maid, but that doesn’t mean they’re soft.”
Nic wasn’t sure if Davo was mocking them or genuinely expressing his admiration.
“They do look like they know how to climb,” said Fanny. He was looking across the quad to where the girls from the climbing club were hanging from the wall. Sounds of their excited voices carried on the wind and jagged off in all directions.
They stopped and watched, marvelling at the jaw-dropping athleticism. She was there, of course, in the middle of it all, conducting them like an orchestra.
Every time Nic had passed by, they had been practising, as committed to this challenge as much as they were to their studies. Nic was relieved he had found an easier route to the top of the mountain. Even if they had more time, he doubted he’d be able to reach the necessary level of skill required to climb a near-vertical surface.
“Who are they?” asked Fanny. He was referring to a group of boys who had arrived, dressed in similar fashion to the girls. There was some discussion and then the girls on the climbing wall were called down.
The boys replaced them and began climbing in equally impressive fashion. The two tallest impressing the most.
“I thought Brillard said the boys’ climbing club had disbanded,” said Fanny.
“He did,” said Davo.
“Looks like they’ve reformed,” said Fanny.
The girls stood to one side, watching. It was hard to tell if they were put out by the interruption to their training, or happy to have the boys join them. Their body language gave little away, their focus, like Nic’s, on assessing how good the boys were. Very, by the looks of things.
“Well, this is all very fascinating, but don’t we have arrangements to make?” Davo turned away from the climbers and blocked the view. “Hmm?”
“Yes,” said Nic. “We should get going.”
It was eerily quiet in the library. It was always a place of little noise, but now it felt not just silent but also empty. Other than the librarian behind her desk, there seemed to be no one here.
The boys took the stairs up to the private study room that had been allocated to them. It was at least warm in the library, even though there was no fire and no obvious source of heat. The book-lined walls offered insulation from the cold.
Nic had several atlases open on the table and was calculating how long it would take them to get to the top of Demon’s Heart. The issue wasn’t just getting to the top, they also had to go around to the far side which was more conducive to being climbed without crawling like a spider.
Their biggest advantage in achieving their goal was that they didn’t have a teacher to watch over them, and they probably wouldn’t be missed.
“What about the Secret Service?” asked Davo. “They’ll be there to watch over their more important charges.”
“I haven’t seen any agents around the cottage,” said Nic. “I think they’ve decided we aren’t in any immediate danger.”
“Just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there,” said Davo.
“We’re just going to be walking around looking at things, aren’t we?” asked Fanny. “They shouldn’t care too much.”
“We’ll be wandering off the reservation with their special boy. I imagine they’ll still want to keep an eye on him.”
“I don’t think they’ll care as long as we’re in the park,” said Nic. “If they do stop us, we’ll just say we got lost.”
Davo took a long breath, thinking it over and not looking too pleased with his thoughts. “I think we need to be ready with an excuse that sounds plausible. If anyone wants to know why we’re on the wrong side of the mountain, we should play dumb, like we’re just some kids who have no idea what they’re doing. Fanny, you should do the talking.”
“Are you saying that because I’d be the most convincing?”
“Yes,” said Davo. “You have a gift.”
“I don’t mind,” said Fanny, “but I think we need something a bit more convincing than telling them we got lost. We’re aiming for the peak, aren’t we? I know it isn’t that high up, but it’s still supposed to be out of bounds.”
“We were curious,” said Nic. “We wanted to know what the mages did up there. It’s why normal boys would be up there. On a dare, or something.”
“Didn’t Brillard say that’s what caused the last group of climbers to meet with an ugly fate?” said Davo.
Nic considered the implications. “They’ll tell us to go back, but they won’t think we’ve got ulterior motives. Boys will be boys.”
“What exactly are our motives?” asked Davo. “I know the hope is there’s a book of instructions hidden under a rock, or something, but failing that, what do you expect to find, Nic?”
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “I really have no idea. I just know that’s where I’m supposed to go. Well, I don’t know for sure, I…”
“You have a feeling,” Davo finished for him.
“What if there’s a portal?” said Fanny. “Demon’s Tithe, the stars align, a doorway opens. Are we going through?”
“No,” said Davo and Nic together.
“Are you unhinged?” said Davo. “We want to avoid travelling to other dimensions, particularly ones full of demons.”
“But how else are we going to get Simole back? We have to open a portal somehow.”
“I don’t think there’ll be a portal,” said Nic. “If it was just a matter of waiting for Demon’s Tithe and climbing to the top of Demon’s Heart, Tenner wouldn’t have spent his whole life trying to open a door. And the demon wouldn’t have needed Simole. Anyway, I thought you said there wasn’t any magic possible on top of the mountain.”
“I said it was a null space. I didn’t say I knew what that means.”
“What I’m hoping,” said Nic, averting his eyes so he didn’t have to look at them, “is that this null space will make it easier for me to deal with the demon.” He glanced up to see if they were looking at him like he was an insane person. He looked back down before he could tell.
“Are you saying you want to try and take control of the demon?” asked Davo.
“No. Not exactly. I mean, maybe.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to try and kick it out?” asked Fanny. “If it’s possible.”
“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea,” said Nic. “I don’t know what that would mean for Simole’s chances. Maybe it’s unrelated, but I feel like I should hang on to it until I know. Even if I can get it to come out and speak to me, that might tell me something. I know it doesn’t want me to go to the mountain, so it might be weaker there.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“What’s it like?” said Fanny. “Having a demon inside you.”
Nic shrugged. “No different, really. I only know it’s there when it says something.” And when it took over his body, he wanted to say but didn’t.
There was a knock on the door before it was opened without waiting for a reply. Fanny shot to his feet, shoving the maps off the table as he stood between them and the intruder. “We’re just talking,” he said in a high-pitched squeal.
The librarian looked at the maps on the floor and then glared at him.
“Well done,” said Davo. “I knew you’d be the right man for the job.”
“Those maps are very old,” said the librarian. “And delicate.”
Fanny began picking everything up while apologising profusely.
“I brought you this.” She placed a very thin folio on the table. It was bound with a black ribbon. “It’s a very old, and very fragile—” she peered over her glasses at Fanny “—topographical map of the National Park. The Department of the Interior doesn’t make these available to the public, for reasons of national security, but the cartographer is an alumnus and bequeathed the originals to the school, for future generations of mapmakers.”
Nic picked up the folio and, after waiting for the librarian to give him a nod of permission, pulled the ribbon. Inside, there were a dozen or so sheets of beautiful ivory paper, almost as thick as card, with exquisite lines drawn in green ink, forming clusters of warped circles. They almost seemed to be moving on the page.
“I don’t think you’ll find a more accurate representation of Demon’s Heart.” She turned and closed the door behind her. She didn’t give them any kind of warning about taking care of the maps, but she didn’t need to. It was like holding a work of art that should have been hanging in a museum.
They were due to leave on Sunday morning. The official document recognising the Nature Appreciation Society and all three of its founding members was on the mat when they woke.
Davo was very pleased with it, especially with his name at the top.
“President Redavo. I like the sound of it.”
“You’re not going to start bossing us around, are you?” asked Fanny, a slice of half-eaten toast already in his hand.
“If only I had my own kingdom to banish you from.”
“Presidents don’t rule kingdoms,” Fanny pointed out through a shower of crumbs. “You’d have a republic. And you could be ousted by any of your citizens. No line of ascendancy.”
“Planning a coup already?” asked Nic, sleepily.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” said Davo. “It’s the hungry ones you have to watch.”
They also received an early morning delivery of clothes from Connoling & Son; a full outfit for each of them.
“They’re, um, matching,” said Fanny.
“Very,” said Nic.
“They’re supposed to be. Every club has its own uniform. This is ours.”
They were dressed head to foot in tartan. A jacket, and trousers that came to just below the knee. Long, tartan socks. A tartan cap with a red bobble on top. And heavy, brown walking shoes.
“At least the shoes aren’t tartan,” mumbled Fanny.
“No, but they need to be oiled. Ideally they should be broken in, but we don’t have time.” He handed around a small bottle of dark brown liquid.
Fanny opened the bottle and sniffed the contents. “Why are we oiling them?”
“To make them waterproof,” said Nic. “It’s a good idea. Thanks, Davo.”
“Yes, thanks,” said Fanny.
Davo smiled in a patrician-like manner. He was happiest when he was dealing with satisfied customers, even non-paying ones.
“And if you think these outfits make us look ridiculous,” he said, “you’re right. No one’s going to take us seriously, traipsing around the wilderness dressed like this. Let them look down on us and carry on feeling superior. It’s our best hope of being ignored.”
There was a certain logic to Davo’s idea. Make a point of being noticed so they could then be dismissed. Embarrassing, but logical.
They were to report to the front gate to board their assigned carriage. The details were attached to their official society document. Carriage 42.
They carried their bags to the designated meeting area and were met by the sight of dozens of carriages, all being boarded by excited students. Luggage was stowed away by school porters as students and teachers sorted out seating arrangements. None of the carriages appeared to be numbered.
They wandered aimlessly through the crowds trying not to bump into anyone, looking for an empty vehicle.
“It’s probably the one falling apart with a half-dead nag at the front,” said Davo.
Nic was about to suggest they ask someone, when he walked into a girl and made her drop her bag.
“Sorry,” said Nic. It was one of the climbing girls, the one with honey-coloured hair. She looked ready to explode.
“Please accept our apologies,” said Fanny. “This is our first time going away with the school and we’re a bit lost.” He smiled nervously. “I do hope you can forgive a trio of bumbling idiots. We promise to watch where we’re going in future.” He bowed, doffing his cap, and came up holding her bag.
She took the bag, frowned but turned without speaking and got into her waiting carriage.
They moved on quickly.
“That was good,” said Davo. “You did really well.”
“I’ve been practising,” said Fanny, his nerves and awkwardness gone. “The subtle art of ineptitude.”
They still couldn’t see their ride, but as the carriages started leaving, it slowly dawned on them which was theirs.
“It can’t be that one,” said Fanny. “It’s too… nice.”
There was a small but very well-maintained carriage with no passengers. It had a polished rosewood exterior, a sleek black horse pawing at the ground and a rich, red leather interior.
They approached nervously, afraid of being laughed at for even thinking this was to be their assigned transport. The driver stood by the horse, stroking its neck.
“Excuse me, my good man,” said Davo, overcompensating by a large amount, “is this number forty-two?”
“That’s right, sir. Can I take your bags?”
They handed over their luggage and watched the driver tie them to the small platform on the back.
“There you are,” said Brillard, appearing from the other side of the carriage. “I thought you might have had a change of heart, or something. Shall we depart?”
“Oh,” said Nic. “You’re riding with us?”
“Certainly. This is my father’s carriage. I thought it would be best if I escorted you personally, what with it being your first time. Help you settle in quickly. I wasn’t expecting the outfits.”
“No. Neither were we,” said Nic. “I mean, club uniform.”
The driver came back to open the door but Brillard sent him away with a casual wave. “We’ll be surviving off our own power from here.” He held the door open for them to get in.
The journey was to take several hours. The park was in the south of Ranvar and the camp was deep in the woods. The carriage was as comfortable as it looked, riding over bumps in the road with barely a shudder. As the highway curved ahead of them, they caught sight of the other carriages ahead of them, an orderly convoy reaching to the horizon, it looked like.
The carriage was also surprisingly quiet. Nic had travelled in carriages of all sizes, to and from the capital, mainly, but also to other places. The one thing they all had in common was the noise. Wheels grinding against the road. Axles and joints rattling. The wind growling as it sneaked in between cracks and gaps.
There was none of that this time. Just a mild hum, like a cat purring under their feet. There was no need to raise your voice to speak, like you’d have to in a regular carriage.
“Do let me know if you have any questions,” said Brillard. “I may not know the answer, but I can probably find out for you. Or point you at the right person. I’m afraid my appreciation of nature is somewhat limited but I can assure you there won’t be a shortage of things to appreciate.”
No one asked anything and they travelled in silence until Brillard pointed at Fanny. “Fandral, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Fanny.
“Your father’s a mage at the Royal College, I believe.”
Fanny sighed. “He is.”
“That must be helpful. The insights you have, puts you at an advantage, no?” It was posed as a friendly query, but Fanny squirmed under the polite interrogation.
“We saw a group of boys, back at the climbing wall,” said Nic in an attempt to unpin Fanny. “Climbing.”
“Yes,” said Brillard, pivoting effortlessly like he had been expecting exactly this question. “They’ve reformed the Climbing Club. By which I mean they’ve re-formed it, not reformed it. It’s been long enough for the appropriate amount of respect to be shown, and for lessons to be learned, hopefully.”
Nic nodded. He wasn’t sure why that had popped into his head. Even if they were climbing the mountain, they wouldn’t be going to the top.
“Are you planning to climb the mountain?” asked Brillard.
There was a long silence.
“We’re just a trio of—”
Davo nudged Fanny in the side to shut him up.
“We thought we’d see how far up we could get,” said Nic. “Out of curiosity.”
“There’s a reason we aren’t allowed up there,” said Brillard.
“Yes,” said Nic.
“I don’t suppose the Secret Service would allow anything like that,” said Fanny.
“The agents withdraw to the edge of the park,” said Brillard. “Easier to monitor from the perimeter. Also easier to spot uninvited guests. They don’t pay much attention to what the students do. There’s an unspoken agreement not to interfere unless absolutely necessary. It wouldn’t do for the nobility to be assisted when their ability to cope on their own is being tested. To be frank, if someone was to attempt climbing the Demon’s Heart, I doubt they’d do anything about it.”
Brillard was sitting on one side with Nic beside him; Fanny and Davo opposite. Brillard’s eyes travelled from one to the other until they rested on Nic.
“Do you think there’s some truth to the stories about magic rituals and so forth? Summoning of power from dark places.”
“You mean the sacrifices?” said Fanny.
“Indeed,” said Brillard ominously. “People said to be possessed were cured of their possession, apparently. In rather brutal fashion.” He smiled.
Nic shrugged. “It’s probably just a craggy peak with a bit of grass growing on it.”
“More than likely. But it is Demon’s Tithe. A night strongly associated with those rituals I mentioned. Stars lining up and such and such, creating the conditions for powerful forces to converge. A common belief among people who don’t understand the reasons for astrological myths.”
“What reasons?” asked Fanny.
“Agricultural, mainly,” said Brillard.
Fanny looked confused. Davo was looking out of the window, but a crease appeared in his brow.
“Most of the stories to do with stars and constellations are an early form of calendars,” said Nic.
“Most?” asked Brillard.
Nic shrugged. “I don’t think you can speak in absolutes.”
“What do you mean, calendars?” asked Fanny.
“Before people learned to write,” said Nic, “before they had invented paper or even writing with chalk or charcoal, they were farming. And they learned that different times of the year were better for planting and harvesting.”
“Yes,” said Fanny. “So?”
“They also noticed,” continued Nic, “that different groups of stars appeared in the sky at different time of the year, every year. So they could time their crops by the stars. But they couldn’t write it down to pass on the information.”
“Why didn’t they just tell them?” asked Davo, peeling his eyes from the ever-moving countryside.
“They did. And in order to make it easier to remember, they made it into a story. That constellation looks like a sword. It belonged to a great hero who died and was reborn.”
“Varagas,” said Fanny.
“Yes,” said Nic. “So when he appears in the sky, that represents when he was born. So time to plant your seeds. And when he disappears, he died. Time to harvest. Then he comes back, plant again. It’s an easy way to remember when you don’t have books. But when people stopped needing the stories, they kept telling them because they liked them. And in some cases they took on a different, more spiritual meaning.”
“Couldn’t some of those stories be true, though?” asked Fanny.
Brillard scoffed. “Possible, but not likely.”
“That could be said about a whole host of things,” said Davo, “that turned out to be as advertised, in spite of how unlikely they were. Arcanum makes many unlikely things possible.”
“I will concede that,” said Brillard.
Outside the window, trees became fields of grass, then came the turn of farmed land, black earth lying in deep furrows. Villages appeared in the distance as squat groups of white blots with an occasional splash of colour. A red roof, a brown fence. Orchards of bare trees, the dull glimmer of light reflected off a pond.
Trees returned in force and the road split into two. They moved over to the right and were soon under a canopy. These trees were still covered in green, their branches heavy with pines and needles.
The road was rougher, covered in small rocks that hummed as the wheels ground them down.
On either side of them, the land rose in steep slopes, creating a gully. The trees were enormous now, rising so high you had to stick your head completely out of the window to see their tops, and even then they merged with each other so no individual could be marked out from its neighbour.
Up ahead were two gigantic boulders, one on either side of the road. Across the top, a fallen tree had either been placed or had toppled very serendipitously. There were no branches, just a bare trunk covered in green moss.
They rode under it, a gate into the forest’s heart, in the middle of which sat a demon’s.
The valley broadened, opening into a large depression with rising forests on either side. It was like they were sinking into the earth. Jagged rocks appeared between the trees, the first hint of the stone edifice that suddenly rose in front of them, a blank palm raised to prevent all further movement.
The sheer mountainside was accompanied by a roar. The sound of water rushing. It was relentless and angry, it seemed to Nic. He couldn’t see the River Din, but it didn’t need to be seen to make its presence known.
The carriage followed the winding road, slower now.
“Welcome to Camp Ransom,” said Brillard as they came around the bend and caught their first sight of the camp. It was not what Nic had expected.
There were no tents or impromptu shacks. It was more like an artfully constructed toy village. The buildings were made from logs, but wouldn’t have looked out of place in a town centre. There was no sign of wilderness hardships.
The carriage stopped next to a double-storey stable. Grooms were already taking care of the horses from the carriages lined up, and most of the students had already disembarked.
“You’re in this building here.” Brillard took them to one of the smallest cabins, which was still far larger than their cottage on campus. “Make yourselves at home, and since you don’t have a teacher to call on for assistance and advice, feel free to give me a shout if you have any questions. I’m over there.” He pointed at the building opposite, which could have been a Town Hall in some rural municipality.
They took their bags inside and each took a bedroom, of which there was six. Each with its own bathroom. There was a kitchen with a full pantry. A closet full of musical instruments, for some reason. And an area on the wooden floor that was lighter in colour, like something had recently been moved.
“I think someone’s borrowed our grand piano,” said Fanny. He wasn’t joking.
“When should we start?” asked Davo.
“Now,” said Nic. “The sooner we go, the better chance no one realises we were even here.”
“Right. Give me five.” Fanny grabbed his bag, emptied all the clothes and began filling it with food from the pantry.
Davo shook his head, but got water from the pump in the kitchen and filled the water bottles they’d brought with them.
Nic checked he had his notes and all the maps he’d drawn. He pocketed a compass and the pen.
“What about this?” said Fanny. He held up a large kitchen knife, suitable for cutting steak.
“What are you hoping to do with that?” asked Davo. “Offer the demon a shave?”
“There’s more out there than demons,” said Fanny defensively. “Wild animals.”
“Take it if you want,” said Nic. “But be careful. If you trip and stab yourself, we might have to leave you behind.”
“Although, if we get lost and have to eat each other,” said Davo. “it could come in handy. You look like you’d broil nicely.” He squeezed Fanny’s arm.
“You’re both not funny,” said Fanny. “This is serious. We could find something really horrible on top of the mountain.”
“It’s just gallows humour,” said Davo. “We all know how this could turn out. I guess we all liked that girl more than we were willing to admit.”
“What do you mean?” said Fanny. “I admitted I liked her from the start.”
“Me too,” said Nic. “Or do you mean like like?”
“Are you confessing your feelings?” asked Fanny. “I didn’t think you had any.”
“Give me that knife,” said Davo. “I just thought of a use for it.”
They emptied half the contents of Fanny’s bag, despite his protests, to make room for blankets. They planned to spend the night on the mountain and had the necessary tools to start a fire. It would be too dangerous to come down in the dark and if there was something up there, it might not arrive until midnight, the traditional time of Demon’s Tithe. They all knew how foolish it sounded and didn’t discuss it more than they had to.
They left their palatial residence and stood outside like they were heading off for a pleasant stroll in the woods.
Davo had a magnifying glass he took great pains to display as they walked through the camp. As expected no one paid them any attention. They were far too busy rushing around getting organised for whatever activity they had come to participate in.
The roar of the river got louder and as they passed the last building, the River Din appeared, flowing through a ravine that veered off to the left of the mountain, foam seething between the boulders and logs washed along by the current.
She stood resting her elbows on the railing of the short jetty with furiously bobbing boats tied to it. Her head was drawn into her delicate, upraised shoulders as she leaned forward, gazing at the water churning under her feet.
Nic moved toward her like he was being dragged by a rope, tied to a team of horses. She turned before she could have heard him. Her look cut the rope with a single, razor-sharp glance.
“Here, in the upper reaches, the river is a shallow stream. Up here, you can cross it without much difficulty. Lower down, in its middle reaches, the river is an insurmountable obstacle, smashing and breaking against the beds of its deep chasms. You should take care.”
Nic nodded, turned and walked back to the others.
“She has a very pretty way of saying terrifying things,” said Davo.
“I think she made me forget how to swim,” said Fanny.
They carried on walking. The trail disappeared and the trees crept closer and closer until they were stepping over roots and slipping between trunks. The sounds from the river faded until it was no louder than a bee buzzing menacingly too far away to worry about.
Birds cawed and hooted and occasionally flitted past like darts. If they had truly come to appreciate nature, they would have no need to go any further. But they carried on.
Occasionally, they heard voices calling out. Whoops and yells. When they moved to climb the slope, edging around the bottom of the mountain, they saw a valley full of fallen trees and logs. Runners chased each other over them and under them and through them. They ran nimbly, fluently, with incredible grace, their purple shirts flashing in and out of sight.
“That’s the Hiking Club,” said Davo.
“That’s hiking?” said Fanny.
“I checked the listings. Purple shirts, orange shorts. You don’t forget a combination like that in a hurry. Enough to make any tailor of distinction howl in horror and despair.”
They stopped after an hour to eat and drink. They sat in silence on a fallen brittle-dry tree trunk, listening to the wind rustling in the treetops and a woodpecker hammering away somewhere close by.
Fanny reached into his bag and took out the herbal detector. The box looked battered and worn.
“Why did you bring that?” asked Davo.
“You never know,” said Fanny. “We might detect something.”
“In a null space?” said Nic. “It won’t work, will it?”
“I made some modifications. But no, it probably won’t. It’s more like a lucky charm. I feel better with it on me.” He turned the dial and pointed it around. “Just background.”
Nic put a hand in his pocket and felt for the pen.
The slope stretched out below them and was less severe ahead. They had worked their way around in less than three hours, but there was still a way to go, and they hadn’t come across any of the known trails. According to Nic’s calculations, it would be another three hours before they reached the summit.
It wasn’t particularly difficult, but it was tiring. Winter days were short and it would soon begin to get dark, and then they would have a much harder time making progress. They had lamps with them, but it would still be better to get there with daylight as their guide.
They stopped by a large boulder to rest, making sure not to stand in its path in case it decided to roll away. The ground had become much steeper and there was path up ahead, cutting through the trees which still covered the slope. They waited to make sure there was no one else about. The path was made of stone, and layered into the earth like broad steps. It would make it a lot easier to make it to the top, even though it was at an angle rather than straight up.
They readied themselves for the last part of their journey. The boulder next to them shook and vibrated, as did the ground beneath their feet. They grabbed onto trees as the soil slipped away under their feet.
“Is this why we aren’t allowed up here?” said Davo.
“This isn’t normal,” said Fanny. He had his arm hooked around a sapling that didn’t look very secure, and had the detector out. “Magic. A lot of it. Close by.”
“At the top?” asked Nic.
Fanny pointed the detector towards the peak and shook his head. “No.”
The shaking stopped and they gingerly tested the ground for stability. It seemed to be staying where it was. They kept going.
“It just went dead,” said Fanny, holding out the detector. “Nothing at all. Just like the Pagoda.”
They reached the summit in a few minutes and ducked down behind some rocks. There was fire on the flat top. Around it were a group of men.
“Mages,” whispered Fanny. “Royal College. I recognise the robes.”
“What do we do now?” asked Davo. “Leave?”
“We’ll wait,” said Nic. “See what they’re doing here.”
“Hopefully there won’t be any naked dancing around the fire,” muttered Davo. He pulled out his blanket and wrapped it around him like a shawl.
It grew dark very quickly. The temperature dropped just as fast. The sky was clear and dotted with stars that looked far brighter than Nic had ever seen them.
They lay hidden, wrapped in their blankets as everything faded away as the fire settled to a small flickering glow, only the voices of mages complaining about the cold reaching them.
“Why?” said one. “Why you all looking at me? This wasn’t my idea.”
“We’re admiring your beauty,” said another with heavy sarcasm, drawing some chuckles.”
“Will he come?”
“How can we know?”
“They say the rebellion in Gweur has been quelled. They’ve scattered the rebels. Only a few managed to escape across the border.”
“A mistake, a mistake,” said an older, croakier voice. “They will be caught.”
“It’s so sad,” said another. “You may not believe it, but of more than a thousand species of fish living in River Din only a hundred years ago, not more than three hundred remain. It is truly sad. Man is such a mercurial creature. We can be saviours or we can be destroyers.”
“Or we can be quiet. I’m freezing my arse and now my brain is numb also from your prattle.”
Flames suddenly shot up into the air, bursting into a golden brightness which drew faces and figures from the dark. The mages all jumped back from the fire, looking up. The three hidden observers did likewise.
The stars seemed to be moving, taking shape. The shape of a dragon. But it wasn’t made of stars, it was made of flesh and claws and teeth. It landed and breathed out a mist. The fire roared again, flashing brightly. There was a man on the dragon’s neck. He dismounted and moved towards the fire, warming his hands.
“What are you skulking around like that for?” the Archmage boomed. “What do you have to fear, there’s no magic I can use here.”
“You have a rather large dragon with you,” said one of the mages.
“And if I meant you harm, you’d already be dead, wouldn’t you? Use your brain, man.” He spoke dismissively, offering no respect to the masters of the Royal College.
“What is it you want from us? Why did you ask for this meeting.”
“Ask?” There was a chortle from the Archmage. “You are here because I called you. We have much to arrange and little time.”
The dragon raised its head and swayed it from side to side. The Archmage stopped and looked around.
“But first it seems we have company. Come out, whoever you are. Don’t make me send the dragon after you. He hasn’t eaten today.”
The three boys didn’t move.
“As you will,” said the Archmage. “Go fetch your evening meal, my—”
“Wait!” said Nic, standing up. “It’s me, Nic.” He suddenly feared the Archmage wouldn’t remember him, and added, “Tutt.”
“Come closer boy. What are you doing here?”
He left the other two hidden and approached the fire. The mages on the other side also drew closer to get a better look.
“Is he the one?” said a mage.
“Yes,” said the Archmage. “He is tethered to my daughter.”
“No,” said Nic, “I’m not.”
“You aren’t?” said the Archmage. “I believe I—”
“I know,” said Nic. “But it wasn’t her. It was the demon who attached itself to me.”
There was much muttering around the fire.
“You’re sure?” asked the Archmage.
“It spoke to me.”
“This is good,” said one of the mages. “We sacrifice him here, end the threat, just like the old days.”
A chill went through Nic, and not from the cold night air.
“Yes,” said another mage, coming forward. “The demon has no power here, it can’t fight a simple iron blade.”
Nic looked to the Archmage, hoping for a dissenting voice.
“It is… an option.”
Nic began backing away and was met by a dragon’s head in his back. Hot air billowed around him.
“No, don’t do that,” said Fanny, running from his hiding place, Davo on his heels.
“Fandral?” said a shocked voice as another mage came forward. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, hello, Father. I’ll explain later.”
“You’ll explain now!”
“Wait,” said the Archmage, “let him speak.”
Fanny held up his detector. “I don’t think you should do anything to Nic. There’s no magic here.” The gathered mages looked at Fanny with blank expressions. “Listen.” Fanny took the wire that fed the noise from the detector into his ear and pulled it out. He pointed the box at Nic. It began screaming.