Finally, the mock exams were upon them and Nic had no choice but to focus on his studies. Despite the myriad personal problems occupying his mind, the reality of having to sit in a large hall for two hours with blank paper to fill pushed all other thoughts aside.
He had been drifting through most lessons until that point. His years of self-discipline had deserted him, but they had instilled a methodology in him that operated even when he took his hands off the reins.
He still took notes, identified what was useful and raised his hand to ask questions on matters that weren’t clear, even though he barely paid attention to what was being said. He had developed an instinct for when a teacher failed to explain clearly or got sidetracked.
It was instantly obvious to Nic that Mr Matterworth would forget to return to the importance of gall bladders in dragonbreath variations when he was asked about the effect of plugged bile ducts and internal explosions.
Or that Mrs Finleaves had misquoted an advanced equation by the way her chalk slowed as she wrote it on the blackboard.
He could even tell Mr Cromnym had skipped a page without realising from the change in intonation in his voice as he read out an introductory passage when he should have been reading a concluding one.
His hand would go up to request clarification, even though his own mental process was consumed by thoughts of demons and mages.
He had been trying fruitlessly to contact the demon he had somehow become attached to. Each evening, he sat on his bed and cleared his mind, leaving himself as open as possible to the presence that he could only just sense at the far reaches of his perception.
But there was no repeat of the connection he had made that one time. No weird dreams invading his sleep. He had scared the entity off, it seemed.
He had even started meditating in the mornings, before getting dressed. Slow, deep breaths, allowing his thoughts to come and go until he settled into a comfortable blankness. No voice broke the silence.
On the other hand, his mental fortitude appeared to have improved noticeably. He was calmer, less anxious about the future, and his awareness in class was almost supernatural. He didn’t believe that was the case. His observations were too mundane to be attributed to a being of magic.
It was reassuring to know all his years of dedication had been more than a simple cataloguing of information. He was more aware of what things meant, not just on the surface but in how they were presented. The difference, although often subtle, was everywhere around him.
And most of all in Winnum Roke’s book of fairy tales. He read her handwritten original in the secret room at the top of the library. Were they true? Were they metaphorical? Did he not recognise the names and places because they had been changed or because they never existed?
He was sure there was important information between those pages, but couldn’t tell how he was supposed to access it. By understanding a hidden code? By solving a riddle? He would have liked to ask the demon about it, but he had not been able to continue the one conversation they’d had.
And now the mocks were here. Two weeks of relentless testing and probing. Far too intense for the other students to waste time being concerned about him and the other Also-Rans.
Even the Secret Agent assigned to watch over him had been recalled to more worthwhile duties. Everyone had better things to do.
He no longer considered it very likely he and the other Also-Rans would be ousted from their scholarships—there were far too many eyes watching for even a legitimate attempt to have much chance of success—but he also didn’t see much point in trying to prove himself superior to his fellow students. Who would it impress? What would it achieve, other than raising hackles already quite pronounced?
He sat his exams, revised in the library, cleared his mind for any signs of squatting visitors, and did his best to be ready for the next contact. He was sure it would come, eventually.
He didn’t doubt it would be better prepared to deal with him next time. He didn’t want to fall victim to arrogance. This period of silence may well have been the demon doing its own research, making its own preparations. There was no way of knowing what it was doing in the dark recesses of his consciousness. Exploring Nic’s level of acuity? Testing his level of determination?
To assume your opponent is unchanged when you are striving to catch up is a foolish assumption to make. He had felt a definite surge of confidence when he realised the battle for dominance was his to lose, not a fate out of his control. And he had the home advantage. But his opponent was just as aware as he.
“How did it go?” asked Davo after the final exam; three hours of Economic Analysis so intense you were allowed to bring any textbooks you wanted into the examination hall with you.
“Good,” said Nic. “What I expected. You?”
“Same,” said Davo, readjusting the four, thick tomes in his arms. “Didn’t take any books in with you?”
Nic’s hands were empty. “No. I didn’t think I’d need them.”
Davo released a heavy breath through his long nose. “No, of course not. Have you seen our resident mage technician?”
“No,” said Nic. “Where’d he go?”
Davo shrugged. “He was still going over his notes when I left the cottage. I assume he made it here before—wait, there he is.”
Fanny appeared from the quickly emptying hall, looking slightly dazed, also with his hands free.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t take any books in, either,” said Davo.
“Hmm?” said Fanny, turning around like there might be someone behind him whom Davo was addressing. A stack of books bound by string hung down his back.
“Thank heavens for that,” said Davo. “For a moment I thought I’d stepped into an alternate dimension.”
They returned to the cottage and stood in the kitchen, not really knowing what to do with themselves. The school term was about to end and students would soon be going home. The idea felt oddly unsettling to Nic.
“When are you, ah… leaving, then?” asked Fanny.
“After Demon’s Tithe, I suppose,” said Davo. “Although, there really isn’t much to stay for. We could just leave now. I doubt anyone would stop us. Or notice.”
“I’m thinking of going to Ranvak National Park,” said Nic. “With the school.”
“Really?” said Davo. “Have you been invited?”
“No. I didn’t think you needed to be. Isn’t it open to all students?"
“All students who are members of a school club,” said Fanny. “What club did you want to join?”
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “Something to do with climbing, I suppose.”
“You want to climb the mountain?” asked Davo. “Didn’t Brillard say that wasn’t allowed?”
“He did,” said Fanny. “I remember.”
“Because of mage rituals?” asked Nic.
Fanny blushed. “That was a slip of the tongue. And only stuff I overheard, probably not even true.”
“I think it’s very likely there’s something important up there,” said Nic. “Something that will help Simole.”
“Even if it was allowed,” said Davo, “how are you going to climb a mountain?”
“I’ve been reading up on it,” said Nic. “Doesn’t seem that hard.”
Davo scoffed derisively. “You can’t just read about it and expect it to be as simple as steps one, two and three. You could fall off and die. Mountains are known for that sort of thing.”
“But if it’s to help Simole... ” said Fanny. “I mean, we could at least go have a look.”
“Have you seen those girls practising?” said Davo. “Have you seen them? If you want to look at something, go look at them. Although, I suspect you already have.” He raised an eyebrow that seemed to raise a whole host of questions.
Fanny blushed again. “Obviously we won’t go up that way. If mages can get up there, I’m sure there’s a less, you know, strenuous route.”
“Yes,” said Davo. “One employing magic.”
“I don’t think so,” said Fanny. “It’s a null space on the top.”
Davo and Nic looked blankly at Fanny.
“A what?” asked Davo eventually.
“An area with no magic. You can’t do spells. Actually, don’t tell anyone I told you that, either.”
“I definitely think I need to go up there,” said Nic, “but you two don’t. It might not even be necessary for me, but I just have this feeling.”
“Oh, well, if it’s a feeling.” Davo shook his head. “Try to be objective. You don’t belong to a club, you don’t know how to climb a mountain and you aren’t allowed up there in the first place. Is it really so important you have to risk life and limb just to check what’s up there? Hasn’t someone written a book who’s already been? Just read that.”
“You’re right,” said Nic. “This isn’t something to do on a whim. I need to deal with it like I would deal with any problem. Do you want to go to dinner?”
The sudden change of subject caught Davo off guard and he stammered into agreeing to head to the cafeteria for the evening meal. Fanny was only too happy to make it unanimous.
They sat at their usual table with the same meals they always ate. The school term had lasted ten weeks and taught them many things, but the most consistently valuable lesson was which meals the cafeteria staff did well, and which they didn’t.
Davo and Fanny talked about various exams and how they thought they did, gently enquiring about each other’s responses to certain questions. Nic spent most of the meal looking about the room.
When they had finished, Davo and Fanny rose, but Nic remained in his seat.
“Not finished digesting?” asked Davo.
“I’m waiting for someone.”
The other two sat down again, curious to know who it was Nic had his sights on.
The person in question appeared for the second sitting. Nic rose from his chair and went over to where Brillard was just about to sit down at a long table that had been vacated by its previous occupants and was nearly empty.
Nic sat down opposite him, drawing some surprised looks, but not very many.
“Do you mind if I join you for a minute?” asked Nic.
“Not at all,” said Brillard. “As long as you don’t mind if I carry on. It’s been an exhausting day and I really need to refill the energy stores. I assume everything went well?”
Davo and Fanny sat down either side of Nic, attracting more sideways glances, but even without the Secret Service agent to act as a deterrent, nothing more than curious looks came their way.
“Yes, thanks,” said Nic. “I wanted to ask you about the trip to the National Park.”
“Of course, although your assigned house teach—wait, that’s right, you don’t have one.”
“No,” said Nic. “We do have a second year who helps us with this sort of things, but we haven’t seen much of him lately. He may already have gone home.”
“Well, I’m happy to help, if I can,” said Brillard. He was busy rearranging the food on his plate into a more symmetrical distribution.
“I was wondering if there was a way for me to join the trip, even though it’s a bit late.”
“I should think so. Which club did you have in mind? I happen to be on the committee for the Angler’s Association. We’re always looking for new members. Do you fish?”
“Um. Not really, but it sounds interesting. Is there a lot of free time to do your own thing?” Nic asked tentatively. He didn’t have any interest in sitting on the bank of the River Din with a fishing rod in his hand, but if it got him to the Demon’s Heart it wouldn’t really matter.
“Free time? Oh dear, no. It’s a very full itinerary. Hectic would be a more accurate term. I suppose you think it’s lazing about while a hook meanders about in the water. It’s a far more challenging sport than people imagine.”
That didn’t sound like what he was looking for at all. “Maybe that isn’t for me, then. Is there a climbing club of some sort?”
“For boys? There was, but it’s been disbanded for some time. There was an unfortunate accident.”
Davo made a stifled sound indicating his displeasure at this news.
“Somebody got hurt?” asked Fanny.
“Somebody died. Not really anyone’s fault. You know how it is with competitive boys, always pushing each other to be more daring. I don’t think it would have led to anything on any other day, but there was a conflation of unusual circumstances on this particular occasion, and…” Brillard shrugged and began eating now that his plate resembled a carefully constructed display of complementing colours. It was oddly satisfying to look at.
“What if we wanted to form our own club?” asked Davo.
“That would be fine. What did you have in mind?”
“Hiking?” said Nic. Anything that let them go off and do their own thing would be fine. The less equipment required, the better.
“We already have one of those,” said Brillard. “Only the fittest and most athletic students apply. Power hiking can be extremely strenuous.”
Davo pulled a face. “That sounds contrary to all common sense. No, that won’t do. How about a Nature Appreciation Society?”
Brillard stopped eating, which he was doing in a methodical spiral pattern, and looked at Davo. “What do you mean? Appreciate how?”
“Aesthetically,” said Davo. “Debate and discussion to follow.”
“Oh, I see,” said Brillard, which took Nic by surprise. He had no idea how you debated the attractiveness of a rose or a butterfly. “You’ll need a president, a treasurer and a secretary.”
“Done,” said Davo. “I’ll be president, Nic, you like taking notes, you can be secretary. Fanny you have pockets, you can hold onto the money.”
“It’s not quite that simple,” said Brillard. “You have to register your club with the Student Registrar.”
“Where do we find him?” asked Nic.
Brillard wiped a hand on his napkin and held it out. “Chief Student Registrar. How do you do?”
Brillard assured them he would be able to rush their application through, having what he called ‘connections’ within the faculty. Namely, his father being the Headmaster. Nic thought it highly likely the Headmaster would approve in any case, since he had been warned not to hold the Also-Rans back anymore.
There was still a lot to consider and only a couple of days to make any necessary arrangements. Nic had more or less confirmed passage to the park, but he still had to get to the top of the mountain.
He went to the library and requested books about the park, the mountain and anything to do with basic mountain climbing. There were no books on basic mountain climbing, the librarian informed him, just as there were no books on basic heart surgery.
“Are you looking to broaden your horizons?” she asked him. “I thought demons were taking up most of your time these days.” She said it without inflection, no sense of mockery. It was hard to know how she meant it.
“It’s… related,” said Nic.
The librarian nodded without looking up from whatever she was doing on the desktop which seemed to be requiring most of her attention. “And how are your mental strengthening exercises coming along?”
“You know, if I told most people I was worried about being possessed by a demon, they wouldn’t have offered me books about focusing my willpower.”
“Most people don’t work in libraries,” she said, “so they don’t know which books are available.”
“Have you ever climbed a mountain?” he asked her.
“The roof of this building is as far off the ground as I have been. An achievement I do not intend to surpass.” She finished what she was doing and led him to the section on Heritage and National Monuments.
When Nic returned to the cottage, he had almost an entire exercise book filled with notes and drawings which he gave to Davo.
“The tests are over, you know?” he said as he flicked through the pages.
Nic wasn’t sure they were. “It’s not as bad as we thought. Look, there’s two sides to the Demon’s Heart. This side is like a cliff, near vertical. I think this is where they do most of the climbing. There’s a ledge about halfway up and all sorts of records for getting up there the quickest. But on the other side.” He took the book and flipped a few pages forward to another sketch. “Here. The other side is more like a steep hill. Lots of paths and marked trails that lead through wooded areas. People go up there all the time, for the view.”
“But not to the top,” said Davo.
“No. Apparently it isn’t safe. That’s the official line.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Davo.
“It also says they stopped doing the magic rituals a long time ago. Now it’s just a thing people say but doesn’t actually happen.”
“I guess that’s possible,” said Fanny.
“So, that’s the plan is it?” said Davo. “We walk up the hill and then we walk back down again, and hope a giant boulder doesn’t fall on our heads.”
“Yes,” said Nic.
There was a little more discussion but the lack of any real objections made Nic feel confident they were both willing to go with him. He would have gone without them, but knowing they would be with him gave him a great sense of relief.
He went to his room and prepared for bed. As always, he turned out the lights and sat in the dark with only the sound of his breath for company. There was the occasional creak or thump, perhaps a night bird outside somewhere, but they slowly receded and only his breathing filled his mind.
He felt the cold bite of a winter wind, the movement of his hair being blown about. His eyes were closed, but a view gradually appeared before him. He was high up on a mountainside.
He heard murmurs swirling around him, incomprehensible. It could have been the wind. It could have been the ghosts of the long dead. Nic didn’t feel afraid. Perhaps that was stupid, but he was seeing further than he’d ever seen and it was thrilling.
“Why do you do this, child?”
Nic fought down the surge of excitement. It didn’t sound like someone talking, it was more like his own thoughts imitating what it would be like to hear the demon again. But he knew that wasn’t the case.
“I’m waiting for you,” said Nic. “I think you know why.”
“Do I? I cannot give you the power of a storybook demon. I am not a creature of fantasy.”
Had the demon been watching him this whole time? It wouldn’t be surprising.
“Why did you bind yourself to me?” he asked.
“You wish it was her? The noose the wizard tied so tightly around your neck, you wish she held the other end. The one who took my place, so I took hers.”
There was a chill that passed through him.
“Do you know what it takes to create a body, cell by cell? To form a mouth? To shape the words? It is painful beyond your imagining. To squeeze a glorious life into such a small vessel made of dirt and filth. To live with those who dig things out of the mud and tear down that which dwarfs them. Confined. Restrained. It is not a burden to be coveted, to become something you are not. And then to lose it all in an instant. The return of freedom you had all but forgotten. So vast and empty it is difficult to remember why you missed it so. I didn’t wish to be alone. I wanted to see her again.”
“Is the All-Mother coming?” he asked.
The murmuring lifted into a momentary chorus before drifting away again. “I do not know. I have done my part. I wait.”
He moved his feet just to see if he could. He looked away from the fields and forest below him and forced himself to look up, towards the summit.
“Do you know what’s at the top of Demon’s Heart?” he asked as plainly as he could.
“Yes,” said the demon. “The darkness of this world comes in various shades but is darkest on that vile point. Do not go there.”
“I think I need to.”
“And so you will.” There was a long silence, but Nic could tell the presence was still there. “Take care, little one. There are things in this world you will only regret once, but not always too late. Remember this when the time comes.”
He sensed his audience was nearly over. A sadness filled him. A sadness that was not his own.
“Is there a City on the Edge of Death?” he blurted out, not even sure why he asked.
The murmurs swirled around him, rising to a deafening roar before fading away.
“How quickly you learn about things you can never understand. How can it be a city if no one has ever lived there?”
And then it was gone again.
Nic opened his eyes to the darkened room and dropped his head onto the cool pillow, his mind racing with all the things he should have asked but didn’t. His overriding thought was that even if he wasn’t sure what he would find on Demon’s Heart, the demon’s warning indicated he was on the right path.
A little prickle of worry coursed through him. What if he was being tricked? The demon could let him think it was displeased to ensure he would think Demon’s Heart was the answer. His conviction could have been implanted in him, the task the demon had been busy with all this time.
He knew what it was like to feel driven by motivations carefully fed to him, believing them to be his own. There would be no telltale sign of alien influence. He would never know, not until it was too late.
But second-guessing himself was a poor approach. If he was wrong, he was wrong. But if he was right, then he could still fail if he didn’t follow through with conviction. He was committed to climbing the mountain and facing what he found there.