“How did he escape?” Minister Delcroix’s gaze went from one end of the empty cell to the other for the third time and then alighted on the captain of the prison guard.
“Not through the door, sir,” said the captain, his voice trying to remain steady through sheer force of will.
The captain was a tall man with several days of growth on his chin. He looked tired and dirty, but his eyes were sharp and defiant. Serving as guardians to the Ministry’s most valued guests was a full-time occupation and all the guards remained in the adjoining quarters.
There was no leave, no weekends off. They were as much captive as the prisoners, although paid well for the inconvenience. Delcroix had handpicked each himself, and didn’t doubt their competence.
“We opened up the door to serve the guest his breakfast and found the room empty. No signs of escape. We checked thoroughly.”
Delcroix bowed his head, accepting the captain’s words. The man was clearly upset at having failed to keep the facilities most important guest confined to his specially prepared quarters. He also refused to accept his men had been negligent in any way.
Delcroix walked across the cell. There was no shimmering wall to keep him from sitting down on the bed. He examined the room from the Archmage’s perspective.
“And if there is no tunnel or hole in the wall,” said Delcroix casually, leaning back to look at the ceiling, “what other method do you think might have been used, Captain?”
“Minister,” said the captain, glancing at the two men standing nervously beside him, “I can only imagine it was magic of some sort. He is the Archmage of Ranvar, after all.”
“He is. He was. But there was an Arcanum density field erected here.” Delcroix waved a hand at the air in front of him.
“Yes. And now it’s gone. I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t know enough about these things to explain the… whatever…” He flapped his hands in frustration, unable to find the words. He stopped and took a breath. “Please, Minister, there must be people better educated in these matters than I who might offer an explanation.”
“Indeed there are,” said Delcroix coldly. He stood up, the bedsprings squeaking as he rose, and faced the bewildered captain. The man looked worried to death. “There will have to be a full investigation by the Secret Service, yes, I know how you feel about that, but this happened on your watch and you are ultimately responsible. I’m afraid you will have to submit to their full scrutiny.”
“But Minister—” He advanced a step, his face distraught.
The man to his right grabbed him by the shoulder and held him firmly. The Captain shook off the gripped hand, furious with his subordinate but when he turned to rebuke him, the look of desperate fear he was met with from both escorts quelled his rage.
The Ministry of Instruction, the Secret Service... they were in enough trouble as it was. No need to make things any worse.
“Of course, Minister,” he said with a resigned air. He stood straight and steady, but his spirit seemed to sag. “I understand and accept my fate, but I want you to know I’m as baffled as to how he affected an escape as anyone. Not only were all our precautions for nought, I have the distinct feeling he could have left at any time he wished.”
“That might very well be true,” said Minister Delcroix. “There is only one way to be sure, though. A team from the Royal College will be arriving. You will offer them every assistance.”
The captain, brimming with tight-lipped restraint, bowed dutifully. “Yes, sir.”
“And the other guest? Has she arrived?”
“Yes. We received her a few hours ago.”
“You understand, Captain, that she was his daughter. That her death was probably the reason for his escape and that he may very well come back to reclaim his child. I doubt he’ll be in a good mood.”
“I have been briefed. There are six men in the room with her at all times. Although if he does return, I’m not sure what we’ll be able to do to stop him.”
“You aren’t expected to do anything, Captain, just raise the alarm. There will be others brought in to deal with the Archmage.”
The captain nodded. “The mages you spoke of?”
“Among others. With an opponent this powerful, we need to be prepared on many fronts. Your men will also be issued with devices to help neutralise the threat posed by Arcanum.”
“Understood,” said the captain, clear instructions more to his liking than questions he couldn’t answer.
Minister Delcroix took one last look at the empty cell and left. He made his way up the stairs and walked down the long hallway to his office, organising all the tasks he had ahead of him in his mind. He stopped outside the doors to his offices and pinched the bridge of his nose. He had a severe headache and took a moment to clear his head before entering.
Stodar, his personal secretary, sat at his large desk, fingers interlaced and a serene look on his face. He slowly turned his head as the minister entered but made no other movement. He didn’t jump to his feet or rush to inform the minister of recent developments, he just sat calmly, waiting.
As the minister approached the desk, Stodar rose from his chair and picked up a stack of files. He nestled them in the crook of a long, bony arm. “You’re back, Minister.”
Delcroix paused. “Yes, Stodar.” He rested a hand on the lacquered desk, steadying himself.
“You seem rather gloomy, Minister. Perhaps some lunch would help improve your outlook?”
“It’s been a difficult morning, Stodar. The nation is under attack, our enemies are growing emboldened and the most powerful mage in the land has broken free of his shackles to exact revenge in what fashion we have yet to see. What kind of luncheon do you think would improve my outlook on all that?”
“Fish pie?” said Stodar without the slightest hesitation.
Delcroix smiled grimly. “Thank you for the recommendation. Perhaps later. Did you send for the Chief of Staff?”
“Yes, Minister. He is waiting in your office now.”
Delcroix looked across the room at the doors that led to his personal office. “Is he alone?”
Delcroix took his hand off the desk and straightened his jacket. The Chief of Staff of the Secret Service was a formidable man with whom he had a long and prickly relationship. Many of their jurisdictions clashed and neither side was keen to relinquish control, on any level.
“Have some wine sent in. Any Cabernet.”
“The Chief doesn’t drink.”
“I know. And make sure it’s fortified. The stronger the better. What? You don’t approve?”
“It’s not that, it’s just that it’s customary to drink white wine with fish.”
“The fish pie can wait. Indefinitely. There should also be some mages arriving shortly. See to them.”
“Yes, Minister.” He walked around his desk and opened the door.
Delcroix entered the room and walked over to his own desk. In the chair opposite sat a man, broad shouldered with an aristocratic, stern face, balding white hair cut very short and a large, downturned mouth. Beside him on the armrest rested a golden mask.
“You must be very busy today, Delcroix,” he said quietly with no emotion. “Not often you keep me waiting so long.”
“Indeed, Chief,” said Delcroix, equally uninvested. He sat down behind his desk and closed his eyes for a moment, glad to be off his feet. “Such are the demands of my work. You will have heard about our guest’s unplanned departure.”
The head of the Secret Service scowled and clawed at the armrest like an unsettled cat. “Of course. What in damnation are you playing at Delcroix? I thought you had him securely locked away.”
“Yes.” Delcroix paused to consider how to best explain his failure. There seemed no good way. “He is the Archmage, officially or not. A man of such ability is not easily unseated, or kept in confinement.”
“That goes without saying. That was why we went to such extraordinary lengths to make sure he was unable to access those abilities. Did the density field collapse?”
“No. It was turned off.”
Delcroix laid his hands on the desk and looked out of the window. “I do not know. There was a mage from the Royal College who was installed here along with the density field. He has disappeared.”
The Chief of Staff raised an eyebrow. “Sympathetic to the Archmage’s cause?”
“Possibly sympathetic, possibly coerced. Possibly killed by a third party whose identity we do not know.”
“That’s a lot of possibilities,” said the Chief.
“Yes. I intend to discover which is the actuality but in the meantime there are other matters to take care of, not least of which is the school.”
“I had a feeling we’d get to that. I suppose you think my agents were somehow responsible for the girl’s demise.”
“They had been briefed to keep the girl safe. They failed to meet those expectations, wouldn’t you say?”
“She was hardly a normal girl. I’ve seen the reports. Damned child could disappear at will. How do you propose we kept her under observation when she could make herself invisible to our most advanced devices? It was a completely impossible task from the outset.”
“Is that what you plan to tell Prince Ranade,” said Delcroix. He spoke evenly, without any hint of malice or provocation. Both would have been very easy to inject into his words.
“Yes,” snorted the Chief. “I’m sure that would be well received after I accepted the commission so easily. Look, Delcroix, I realise who’s at fault here. Whatever the difficulties, her safety was my responsibility and her death is squarely on my hands, but this whole debacle was doomed from the start. We should have executed the Archmage and put the girl to work for us after extensive re-education. And I’m not referring to that damned school for spoilt brats. And then there’s this business over in Gweur that’s about to blow up in our faces. We need to be better prepared than this. Those damned mages are supposed to warn us about these things before they happen, not run around like headless chickens crowing about the sky falling down.”
Delcroix remained silent, waiting for the other man to stop puffing and wheezing. Once his reddened face returned to something resembling its original colour, he spoke very gently.
“What have you heard about the happenings in Gweur?”
“It’s hardly a secret, is it? Anarchy reigns. Peasants are killing each other over ownership of empty fields. Minor nobles send their retinues to battle over misremembered grudges. Innocent men hang from trees at the roadside while bandits roam the highways, slitting throats of travelling merchants and tradesmen. The landscape is agog with makeshift gallows. This kind of instability will not end well. Not for them and not for us.”
Delcroix rubbed his brow. “Unstable neighbours are nothing new. In many cases, we have been able to use it to our advantage.”
“This chaos wasn’t instigated by you, was it?”
“No, Chief. My methods are slightly more subtle.”
“Slightly,” snarled the Chief.
“There are other, internal reasons for what is happening across the border. Be assured I am well aware of events and they are being monitored closely. Our own population is more of a concern at the moment.”
“I expect Ranvar to be infiltrated by… unnatural forces. Which is why I would like you to increase your surveillance across all regions.”
“To locate the Archmage?”
“No. His location is already underway. The infiltration I’m talking about won’t be coming from him. An altogether darker entity will be responsible.”
There was a long silence between the two men.
“You are sure of this?” asked the Chief.
“As certain as I can be. The girl’s death was not a natural one. She was claimed by those same forces. We can expect the barrier between dimensions to be penetrated, soon.”
The Chief tensed in his chair, his features hardening. “Will the mages be able to deal with any incursions.”
“I believe so. The issue with the Royal College is one of leadership. We took theirs away and to be frank, there isn’t a suitable replacement. We can’t, at the moment, rely on them the way we used to. But they are still a formidable force to use against our enemies, once we identify them.”
“Yes. I see what you’re saying. Forewarned is forearmed. I’ll inform my men. They’ll be spread very thin.”
“I appreciate that, Chief, but they are our best line of defence, even when stretched to the limit.”
The Chief picked up his mask and placed it on his face. A trim, silvery beard appeared on his chin and he had a full head of white hair. He stood up. “First, I have been summoned to the palace.” He didn’t sound like he was looking forward to it.
“Please give His Highness my regards.”
The Chief scowled, the mask making it seem a vicious grimace. “I’ll be sure to do that. Any more errands you’d like me to run?”
“I expect I’ll be summoned myself, shortly,” said Delcroix.
“Yes.” The Chief let out a frustrated breath. “I suppose you will.”
“Oh, and Chief, about the school, I’d like you to double the number of agents you have there.”
The Chief’s golden mask glinted, as immobile as a frieze but still able to convey his consternation. “Isn’t it a little late for that?”
Minister Delcroix waited for the hostility from his opposite number to fade before responding. “I hope not. The chaos you refer to is centred on the school. If there’s going to be a breach anywhere, I would expect it to be there.”
The Chief took a moment to take in this information.
“I understand,” he said, calm once more. “I’ll see to it.” He left the room, the door opening as he approached it. Once he’d passed through it, Stodar appeared with a bottle on a tray doing his best impression of a wine waiter.
He placed the tray on the Minister’s desk, opened the bottle and poured the red liquid into a glass.
“The wine took it’s time getting here,” said Decroix.
“As all good wine does, Minister.” Stodar paused, bottle still held at an angle.
Delcroix noticed the second glass on the tray. “Thank you. That will be all, Stodar. And tell the Chief of Staff I want to see him.”
Stodar put the bottle down and gave the minister a curious look. “You just met with the Chief.”
“Hmm? No, not the Chief. Who do I mean?”
“I don’t know, Minister.”
“Oh, never mind,” he said somewhat flustered by the slip of the tongue. “I’m sure I’ll remember in a moment.”
Stodar nodded and left the room.
Delcroix sat back and let out a long, tired breath. He pinched the bridge of his nose again. He picked up the glass and walked to the back of the room where there was a discreet door to his private dressing room and bathroom.
Inside, he placed the wine glass by the sink and washed his hands and face. He took long, slow breaths, trying to keep his mind steady and focused. He opened a drawer under the sink and took out a vial of red liquid. The tiny bottle was almost empty.
He unscrewed the top and poured the last of the contents into the wine. It fizzed and then dissipated. Delcroix raised the glass and swallowed the wine in one go. He grimaced as it went down and then shivered. His breathing suddenly quickened, became rasping and tense, then slowed again.
The alcohol made the concoction easier to absorb but the harsh taste and potent magic were far from palatable. He looked at the empty bottle. It would help hold his thoughts together for now, but each dose seemed to last for a shorter time.
He smashed the bottle in the sink and washed the shards down the drain.
“Master?” whispered a scratchy voice from behind him.
“Yes? What do you have to report?”
“The Archmage. We have found him.”
“Good. Make the necessary preparations.”
“Yes, Master.” There was a rush of air and then silence.
Delcroix spent the rest of the day reading reports and sending out orders. He had a late lunch of fish pie and then met with the mages who had been sent to investigate the Archmage’s disappearance and the body of his daughter.
There were four of them, each a Master Mage. The Master Mages of the Royal College came in almost all shapes and sizes. None of them, though, looked as the storybooks portrayed them. Long, grey beards and large crooked noses, a pointed hat and a trailing robe with voluminous sleeves. Wizened sages who summoned lightning and fireballs to strike demons down.
Modern mages served more mundane and specialised roles. One might be expert at manipulating weather, another at predicting future events. Plants and animals had their own disciplines. Every avenue had been researched and reduced to basic elements to narrow mastery. Omnipotence was seen as a dangerous thing, both for the mage and for everyone else.
Raw, violent power was the rarest ability and the only master of recent years had been the Archmage himself. It made him all the more fearsome as an adversary, as all the other mages knew.
Delcroix sat with the mages in a small but comfortable chamber, deep under the ministry.
“He had help,” said Berimonga, the most senior of the four. He was completely bald, a bland face but with a striking horizontal scar running under his eyes and across the bridge of his nose. It looked like a dreadful battle wound, but was in fact the result of a simple experiment gone awry in his youth. Such accidents were common although the injuries were rarely as spectacular. Not when the recipient survived, at least.
Denkne, a slim, sandy-haired man with almond-shaped eyes betraying some foreign ancestry, nodded as he sipped a hot beverage. “Undoubtedly,” he muttered from the lip of the cup.
“I had surmised as much,” said Delcroix patiently. Mages, in his experience, liked to express their status through inconveniencing others as much as possible. It was best to allow it. Trying to hurry them along was a fool’s errand. “Is there any way to trace the culprit?”
“Perhaps,” said Master Grims, whose speciality was the study of the smallest particles that weren’t even visible to the naked eye. He was a stocky man with a tanned, weather-beaten face. His hands were large and showed the signs of heavy labour. “I’ll tell you one thing for nothing, it was beyond the abilities of young Lenerson. That boy could have turned the density field off, I’ll grant you that, but disappearing without leaving no traces of himself, that’s just not within his range of abilities. I knew him quite well at the college. He had no talents in that direction.”
Lenerson had been the mage who had been given the task of operating and maintaining the density field which had been meant to keep the Archmage imprisoned. His whereabouts were still unknown.
“This is all well and good,” said Borkh, the smallest of the four. He was a very thin and wiry man, his skin heavily wrinkled and his spiky grey hair sticking straight up, giving him a slightly deranged appearance. “The girl, the girl is what we should be discussing with the Honourable Minister.”
“The van Dastan girl? Yes? You discovered something.”
“Of course,” continued the impish mage. “It’s so obvious you would have seen it yourself if you hadn’t spent so many years letting your own abilities atrophy within these walls.”
“You’ll have to forgive our colleague,” said Berimonga, the strip across his face darkening. “His youthful exuberance sometimes gets the better of him.”
Despite Borkh’s aged features, he was the youngest of the four, his sagging skin another symptom of misused Arcanum.
“Never mind making excuses,” wittered on Borkh. “The girl isn’t dead, that’s the crux of the matter.”
“She isn’t?” said Delcroix. “She was examined by a very experienced physician.”
“Yes, yes,” said Borkh dismissively, “I’m sure he’s a whiz with clearing allergies and such. The body may have become inert, but the vessel is merely empty. She departed her mortal container and can reoccupy it if she so chooses, or is able.”
Delcroix looked over at Berimonga for confirmation. The large, bald head nodded.
“I see,” said Delcroix. “Do you know why she would have been separated from her body?”
None of the men answered.
“Hmm. Well, I can’t—”
Borkh jumped out of his seat and yelled, “It doesn’t matter why. The important thing is that if she is alive he will come for her body. Don’t you see?”
Delcroix looked again to Berimonga.
“Yes, if he is aware of her condition, I believe he will. He wouldn’t entrust her care to anyone else.”
“Aware?” squealed Borkh. “Of course he’s aware.”
“I see, I see. I had considered it quite likely he would return in any case, but this would seem to make it a certainty.” Delcroix stroked his chin pensively. “So, we could set a trap for him.”
“We could,” said Berimonga. “He won’t be easily captured a second time, though. Even if he has lost some of his power, he was always a wily one.”
“And a ruthless one,” added Denkne. “A tendency to cruelty, fits of rage and unbridled hostility towards those who displeased him.” A faint smile on his lips turned to an ugly grimace. “We have to stop him, still. I have seen the direction fate would steer us. The red, red reflection of blood on polished blades, the screams of people flayed alive, the stench of corpses piled high and set on fire.”
“Enough,” said Master Grims, his leathery face grown pale. “You paint a far more grisly picture than necessary. The point. The point is, we must stop him, yes, but how? Have you forgotten his promise to strip us of our power? He wouldn’t make such a claim without the ability to follow through with it, and you can be sure of that.”
“Don’t you think the girl was the means to that end?” said Berimonga. “You saw what she did to poor Ferityn.”
“Then burn the body,” said Borkh. “Let her remain in whatever nether realm she resides and remove the threat.”
“And what do you think the Archmage would do then?” asked Denkne.
“He is no longer the Archmage,” said Borkh.
“Not in name, no,” said Denkne.
“Minister,” said Berimonga, interrupting the spat, “I will return to the college and inform the acting-Archmage of what we have learned, but it will take some time to formulate a reliable capture plan. In the meantime, would it be possible to increase security around the Royal College?”
Delcroix looked into the mage’s pleading, fearful eyes. “Such a request should be made by the acting-Archmage, ideally to Prince Ranade himself. He would be well within his rights to ask for an audience with his own brother.”
Berimonga looked away. There was a long, nervous silence among the mages.
“He won’t leave the college,” said Borkh. “He is too scared. The Archmage aimed his wrath at Ranofan most of all. He cowers in his chambers.”
“Silence, Borkh,” shouted Berimonga. “That is no way to speak of the Archmage.”
“Acting-Archmage,” mumbled Borkh.
“If you could intercede on the college’s behalf, we would be grateful,” said Berimonga.
“I’ll do what I can,” said Delcroix.
After some mollifying reassurances, Delcroix saw the mages to their carriage. They wished to return to the relative safety of the Royal College where they might be protected by the many charms and runes inlaid into the foundations of the building.
There was yet more to do but the expected summons to the palace did not materialise, which was a blessing. Not because of the dressing down he would no doubt receive but because it would waste valuable time. Prince Ranade, for all his bluster, was a man of good common sense who knew that if he wanted answers, he had to give his men time to find them.
The summons would come, though, and answers he would need to have. Delcroix asked for his carriage around nine o’clock. The next few days would be demanding and a night at home would probably not be available to him again for some time. A chance to rest his aching head on a familiar pillow seemed very attractive to him.
The carriage rattled through the city streets and into the countryside, the ambient light fading to grey starlight. There was no moon and the land was defined by differing grades of darkness.
It was soothing. His thoughts were growing muffled again. The tincture had lasted only a few hours this time. He had no choice but to push through the haze his mind had become, there was too much at risk to do otherwise.
The horses neighed wildly and the carriage came to a sudden stop, throwing the minister forward along with the other contents of the carriage. He threw out his arm to stop everything falling onto the floor.
Outside, there was silence. Not even the horses made a sound.
“What is it?” he called out.
“I… Sir, that is, I think…”
“Spit it out, man.”
The driver had been with him for many years, a stout, steady man rarely reduced to stammering.
“It’s a dragon. In the road. A big one.”
Delcroix opened the carriage door and got out. He looked up at the driver. “Stay here and observe nothing.” The driver nodded.
Delcroix walked towards the large, black dragon blocking the road with its immense body, wings folded and head resting on its forelegs. Steam curled out of its nostrils.
“Minister,” said the Archmage, “nice to see you again.”
“This isn’t where we were to meet,” said Delcroix.
“No. I grew bored of waiting and I had the means of transportation to move our appointment forward. You have my daughter?”
“She is in the carriage.”
“She won’t be missed?”
“I left a simulacrum in her place. I had to wait for the delegation from the Royal College to depart first.”
“I suppose they sent Berimonga, that dullard?”
“Yes. That’s rather an unkind way to refer to a man you yourself trained.”
The Archmage’s severe expression softened. “You are right, Emil, forgive me. My daughter’s conditions has left me a little out of sorts and prone to snapping at nothing. It was uncalled for. I take it they didn’t understand the significance of my daughter’s absence?”
“No. They’re far too terrified you are going to fulfill your promise to think very clearly.”
“Ha. What would be the point now? The doorway has already been formed, by my own flesh and blood, no less. Their abilities will be needed, meagre as they are.”
He led the Archmage to the carriage and between them they lifted out Simole’s limp, lifeless body. The Archmage took her in his arms and began the walk towards the dragon, its enormous head raised and watching them intently.
“Where will you go now?” asked Delcroix.
“Back to my castle to await my daughter. She is our best hope.”
“Don’t you think they might come looking for you there?”
“If they do, they won’t like what they find. You’re the Minister of Instruction, instruct them to look elsewhere.”
Delcroix frowned, and then grew woozy. He staggered but managed to keep his balance.
The dragon placed its head flat on the ground so Simole’s body could be draped over its neck. The Archmage climbed on behind her. He took a small packet from his robe and threw it towards Delcroix. It wouldn’t be a difficult catch, normally, but his vision blurred and the packet sailed past him.
A dark shadowy hand caught it and floated it back to him. He took it and opened the packet unsteadily. There were four small vials inside.
“You realise manifesting those creatures is probably what caused your condition in the first place.”
Delcroix opened one bottle and drank half of it. His whole body felt like it was on fire. His vision cleared. “These creatures are also the reason you are out here instead of buried under the ministry.”
The Archmage looked like he was about to disagree, but stopped himself.
“Be careful,” he said uncharacteristically gently. “Those are stronger than the other ones I gave you, but the end result will be the same for you as it was for the King. I cannot reverse the effects.”
“I understand, but I have no choice.”
“There is always a choice, Emil. You could do as I did, excise the cancer, lose the majority of your power.”
“This is the wrong time for such dilemmas. She is coming as you keep insisting.”
“That She is. There’s one other thing I must ask of you, Emil. A favour.”
“Yes?” It wasn’t like the Archmage to make requests.
“At my daughter’s school, there is a boy. Nicolav Tutt.”
Delcroix was taken by surprise. He hadn’t expected the Archmage to mention that name, or even to have ever heard of it.
“You know him?” asked the Archmage.
“Yes. He is the son of one of my wife’s maids.”
It was the Archmage’s turn to look surprised. “A maid’s son? I had thought maybe the child of a minor nobleman.”
“No. I knew his father. A soldier, at least in appearance. He worked for me.”
“Worked? He died?”
“Yes. He was a gifted man. I had hoped his son was the same, but he has never shown signs of it, although he is unusual in his own way. What is your interest in the boy?”
“He is very important to me, to my daughter. He is her way back. As far as I can tell, he has absolutely no means to defend himself, and I fear he will have to. I wish you to ensure his safety. ”
Delcroix smiled at this strange intersection of their interests. “I will.”
The dragon sprang into the air, opened its wings and its dark shape quickly rose into the night sky.
Delcroix returned to the carriage where his driver’s bowed head stared resolutely downwards, as did the two horses. He climbed in and they moved forward again to spend one last night at home.