There was daylight coming in from a window. Archmage van Dastan was standing in front of a window, making him slightly ethereal with a soft glow around him.
“Well, say something, boy. Can’t you speak?”
Beside him, Dr Wylian offered an encouraging nod.
Nic kept silent and did his best to assess the situation. Panicking wouldn’t achieve anything, although that had never been panic’s aim.
He was lying on a bed. Not an operating table — there were sheets and a blanket, a pillow under his head.
The Archmage and Dr Wylian were wearing their normal clothes. Neither had a sharp instrument in hand.
He turned his awareness on himself. He was wearing the nightgown from last night. His bare feet felt gritty and dirty. He wasn’t strapped down.
“I—” His words stuck in his dry throat.
The Archmage and the doctor leaned in, like parents expectantly awaiting their baby’s first words. What should he do? Was he in danger with the Archmage here? If the Archmage was also involved in the doctor’s scheming, there was no escape. But if he wasn’t, accusing the doctor would reveal the passenger he was carrying. A passenger who was being very quiet.
Nic peered into his mind, looking for signs of Winnum Roke, even though he had no way to know what those signs might look like.
“Nic?” The Archmage’s voice was louder and sharper, startling Nic.
“What happened?” said Nic, choosing to play the role of confused and uncertain young man. The role he was apparently born to play, again and again.
A look of relief crossed the Archmage’s face. “Thank goodness. I extracted you from the High-Father’s body. You were very lucky. Getting caught in there when he passed… you would have remained in limbo until the corpse rotted.”
“The High-Father’s dead?” As far as Nic recalled, the High-Father had left of his own volition. Where to, he had no idea.
“Unfortunately, yes,” said the Archmage. “There was nothing left of him, the body of the dragon is merely an animal carcass. His loss will cause many problems. But tell me, how did you end up in there?”
Nic looked from the Archmage to the doctor. She showed no signs of malice, or of concern that he might reveal her secrets. Was she that confident he would keep quiet on the matter of a Winnum Roke cult operating inside the Royal College’s walls?
“There was an explosion,” said Nic. “I went to see what it was. There was no one with the High-Father when I got there. When I touched him…”
He was speaking the truth, more or less. He hadn’t gone to investigate the explosion, he had been using it to cover his escape from Dr Wylian’s clutches — clutches he was uncomfortably within range of again — thanks to Mallory. What had happened to him?
“The explosion… was anyone hurt?”
“No,” said Dr Wylian, “everyone’s fine. It was just an accident in the laboratory. A student mixed two volatile liquids… foolish, but he survived with only minor injuries.”
Was that true? The Archmage didn’t seem to be suspicious of the explanation. Perhaps students conducting late-night experiments was a normal thing here.
“What happened inside the dragon?” asked the Archmage. He was eager to find out about Nic’s own late-night experiment.
“I… I spoke to the High-Father. He appeared as an old man, small with white hair. He… said there would be changes, and then he left.”
The Archmage’s face registered surprise, then something close to excitement. “He left? Are you sure?” His tone was one of bracing hope. “Where did he go?”
Nic shook his head. “I don’t know.”
The good thing about being seen as a hapless waif who kept stumbling into matters completely out of his league was that his ignorance was not only accepted but more or less presupposed. Pleading ignorance wasn’t necessary, it was his due.
“You must think, Nic,” said the Archmage. “Think about what he said to you. Even the smallest detail could be of vital importance. Think, boy.”
“Archmage, please,” said Dr Wylian. “You promised me you wouldn’t be so heavy-handed be gentle. The boy needs to rest.”
Nic looked at the doctor with curiosity. What was she trying to do here? Get him on his own so she could complete her task?
The Archmage misconstrued the look as something more basic. “This is Dr Wylain, the college physician. She will see to your recovery.”
“I feel fine,” said Nic.
“Nic,” said the Archmage, attempting the gentle approach he had apparently agreed to, “there is something I have to tell you. When I went into the dragon’s mind to retrieve you, there was another entity there, attached to your consciousness.”
“There was?” said Nic, trying his best to live up to his reputation. “What kind of entity?”
“It’s hard to say. Not human, not demon. I believe it was put there by Archmage Roke. Perhaps to keep watch over you. Perhaps to guide you without you even knowing it. Whatever the aim, it would be to your detriment, of that I’m certain.”
Nic was certain of that, too, but he had still agreed to her presence. “What did you do?” he asked.
“I disentangled you from it,” said the Archmage. “It wasn’t easy. There may have been some… damage. I’m sorry, but it had to be done.”
It took a moment for Nic to control his fear. Damage? He felt the same as before, at least in his mind. He tried to get up.
“No, don’t—” said the doctor.
He managed to sit up on the bed. Everything appeared to be working. His hands and feet were responsive.
The doctor pushed him back down. “You have to rest. It was a very stressful ordeal. You don’t want to hamper your recovery.”
Nic allowed himself to be guided back to lying down, not resisting, for now. He was confused more than anything.
“You managed to get it disentangled?”
“Yes,” said the Archmage.
“Where is it now?” asked Nic.
“I left it in the dragon. It can’t do any harm in there.”
Nic looked over at the doctor, who was smiling. She, too, had wanted to remove Winnum Roke, although her method had been somewhat more direct, and surgical.
“What if it takes over the High-Father’s body?” said Nic.
“Don’t worry. Without the High-Father’s magic, the dragon is no threat. It is completely inert and a suitable prison.”
Nic looked over at the doctor again.
“I’ve checked you over,” she said, leaning over him, putting her hands on his face and pushing his eyelids up with her thumbs. “There are no indications of severe damage. Any minor tears will heal, I’m fairly confident.”
Her hands were surprisingly strong and held him so he couldn’t move his head. Not that he planned to — Nic was so still he didn’t even dare breathe.
She looked into his eyes, but not in a personal manner. She seemed to be searching for something. He had had his eyes changed by Winnum to help convince the doctor and her followers that he was indeed the one they were told to expect. She was checking to make sure the flames were gone.
She released him and stepped back. “You will be fine, I’m sure. Given time.”
Nic did not want to stay and convalesce. Even if there was some internal damage, he had very little faith in the doctor’s intentions. In the end, she might take his head just to be on the safe side. She seemed the sort to wear belts and braces.
He sat up again, slower this time, his eyes on Dr Wylian so he could avoid her firm grasp if she came at him. “I’m not staying here.”
“You must,” she said. “You have to be kept under observation. As your doctor, I insist.”
She had got what she wanted, the entity Winnum Roke had attached to him had been excised and isolated. It was stuck in an inescapable vault made of dragon hide and dead magic. But she wanted to make double and triple sure. She wanted to keep him here because what he wanted was of no interest to her or anyone else. He recognised the pattern.
“You aren’t my doctor,” said Nic, with a cold confidence that even surprised him. “I’m not a student of this institution and your medical opinion is not binding. Or invited.” He slid off the bed and stood there, the shortest of the three and the least dressed. “I’m fine. And I have classes at school.”
It was maybe an underwhelming reason to be rejecting her professional help, but it didn’t matter. He had learned very early that some people were going to try to obstruct you just to show they could. His success in academia had produced many jealousies and petty rivalries, and the only way to deal with them was to call them out immediately. People expected you to dance around your options, like fighters probing for an opening. They didn’t expect to have their bluff called before they even had a chance to place their bets.
“Archmage,” said Dr Wylian. “Please instruct this young—”
“He doesn’t have any authority over me, either,” said Nic, focusing entirely on the doctor, letting her know he was willing to challenge her. “And if he wishes to detain me here on your behalf, he will have to inform the Ministry of Instruction and the Secret Service, who are both keenly watching my activities. They’ll want to speak to you, of course.” He let the surprise spread across Dr Wylian’s face. She might not feel threatened by him, but would she welcome closer inspection by Ranvar’s most inquisitorial departments? He suspected not.
Nic turned to the Archmage. “I don’t think there’s much more to tell. The High-Father pulled me in because I was the only one there. I don’t know where the others went.” He knew the mages keeping vigil over the Father of Dragons had run off because of the explosion, but he had no idea what happened after that. The Archmage would be aware that Nic had been alone with the dragon, though.
“I think,” continued Nic, “he wanted you to come find me, so you would know he was leaving, and maybe he knew about that… other thing, and wanted to trap it. If he wanted me to pass on a message, he would have said, but he didn’t.”
It sounded plausible. Nic watched the Archmage for signs of acceptance of his version. For all Nic’s bluster and warning of meddling by other departments, if the Archmage wished to keep Nic here, there wasn’t really anything anyone else could do about it.
They could put him in a straitjacket and mask, and leave him to rot in a tower while they waited for some demon or ghost to erupt from his body. Or not.
Who would rescue him then? A passing fairytale prince? That would be his preference. Fairytale princesses, in his experience, were not that helpful.
“I want to go back to school and normality, if I can. I survived Arcanum poisoning and being used by demons for their sport. I’d rather not sit around here to satisfy a doctor’s curiosity. And if something were to occur, I’m not sure what she would be able to do. She isn’t even a mage.”
He said it so offhandedly, ‘not even a mage’, like he was some expert on the matter.
“How do you know she isn’t a mage?” asked the Archmage, his manner becoming more shrewd.
A slip? Had he revealed he had met the doctor before. It didn’t feel like that big of an error.
“I’m perceptive,” he said, and moved on. “If I recall something the High-Father said, I promise to let you know. Or just come interrogate me there. I have free periods Wednesdays and Fridays.”
He didn’t feel particularly defiant, but he’d done his best impression. He waited for the Archmage to make his ruling. If it wasn’t the one he hoped for, there wasn’t really much he could do about it. Without Winnum, he was just a smart boy in a stupid situation.
A commotion rose in the hallways outside the room before the Archmage had a chance to speak.
The commotion was loud and argumentative. And oddly familiar.
There was a crack of something that sounded like a whip, only brighter. Light glimmered from under the door. Someone shrieked in pain and numerous thumps resounded against the other side of the wall.
The door opened and Simole stood there, frowning. Dizzy pushed past her into the room, upgrading (or possibly downgrading) the situation with a scowl.
It was a princess-rescue. Two of them. Nic looked at Dr Wylian and wondered if it might not be better to stay here with her. She might want to conduct an invasive investigation or two, but it would probably be less painful in the long run.
“Why are you here?” said Dizzy completely ignoring the persons of higher status in the room, higher than him and her.
“Father?” said Simole. “Are you trying to perform a sense-evocation? Didn’t you tell me they were illegal.”
Despite being a hoarder of arcane knowledge, Nic didn’t care to find out what a ‘sense-evocation’ was, but he strongly suspected the only reason Simole knew they were illegal was because she’d wanted to perform one herself.
“I passed out,” said Nic. It sounded suitably pathetic, and therefore would be accepted without question.
“Don’t talk such rot,” said Dizzy, too infuriated to be cowed by the company Nic was keeping this morning. “You went off to talk to the dragon without us. You used us for the free ride, and then you dumped us and went off on another of your adventures.”
Nic tried his best not to be amused. Dizzy’s only concern was that he had attempted to pursue glory and renown without her. If only she had a better idea of what his adventuring comprised of. In truth, he preferred her to think of him as some reckless daredevil who threw himself into the arms of danger at every opportunity, even if it incensed her to the point of lunacy. The King himself could be standing next to him, and she would only have eyes for him. Mad, enraged eyes.
The idea he would attack insurmountable jeopardy with foolhardy abandon was probably the only romantic notion she would ever hold towards him, and he wished to hang onto it.
“No,” said Nic. “I just stumbled into it, as usual.” He knew, of course, that his casual dismissiveness of his own importance, honest as it was, would only convince her he was keeping some profound truth from her. She thought too much of him and nothing at all, both at the same time.
“Never mind that,” said Simole. “What did you do to my dragon?”
“Nothing,” said Nic. He turned to Archmage van Dastan to step in and explain.
Simole switched targets without blinking. “Did you kill him? Was it you?”
“No, no,” said the Archmage. It was strange seeing such a powerful man taken aback by a young girl’s ferocity. Perhaps he was familiar enough with her moods to not want to provoke her further. Perhaps he was a father who was pained to see his daughter upset. “The body may no longer be functioning, but the demon that once inhabited still exists, somewhere. Isn’t that so?” He lobbed the hot potato back to Nic.
“Um, yes, I think so.”
“I don’t care about the demon,” said Simole. “I only care about my dragon.”
“The demon was the dragon,” said Nic. “I mean, he was never really a dragon.”
“No,” said Simole, firmly rejecting the idea. “They aren’t the same. Or if they were, they were two parts of a whole, and now only half is left. The rotten half. Give me back my dragon.”
“Or is there something else you aren’t telling us,” broke in Dizzy. “More secrets you’re keeping to yourself?”
Dr Wylian’s offer of quiet rest and only a very slim possibility of decapitation was looking more and more appealing.
“I’d like to get dressed now,” said Nic. He didn’t really hold out much hope of anyone listening to him, but he felt he might as well put it out there.
His clothes came flying at his face. They had been tucked under Dizzy’s arm, a curious bundle he had noticed but had been too busy to question further. It meant they had been to Mallory’s room first, and who knew where else. Tracking him down was becoming something of a full-time job for Dizzy. She probably didn’t appreciate the unsocial hours and poor pay.
Nic ducked before the shoes shot through the space his head had been a moment earlier. He had predicted they would.
Dr Wylian watched all this go on with a bewildered look on her face. She had gone from someone trying to wrestle the situation to her advantage, to being completely lost and well down the pecking order when it came to proclaiming personal umbrage. It wasn’t clear who was going to get their way here, but it was more than likely not going to be her.
“If you are returning to the school,” she said, slipping in between the chagrin and indignation, “then I will ask my colleague Dr Gilleshpie to keep an eye on you. She is a competent general practitioner and will be able to tell if there is any kind of… relapse.” She gave Nic a steady look of inspection, locking eyes with him. “On the off-chance something does go awry, I will deal with it as painlessly as possible.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” said the Archmage, “your oversight would be greatly appreciated.”
Nic wasn’t quite so grateful, but it would be too difficult to explain why. He thanked the doctor and edged behind a curtain to get dressed. He had no qualms about putting on his clothes in front of the others, he just felt it might help them calm down if they didn’t have him visible right in front of them.
Once he was dressed, he did feel a little more confident. It would at least be a little easier to make a run for it, if required.
He wanted to ask about Mallory, but it would raise too many questions and probably incite Dizzy to new suspicions. He hoped he hadn’t died in the blast he had created. Nic believed Mallory had truly regretted his part in Nic’s abduction, a momentary lapse of judgement driven by temptation. He had helped as best he could to get Nic free, and for that he was grateful. It was probably best to let the matter rest there.
“I’m ready,” he said as he emerged from behind the curtain. “Can we go?”
It was both a heartfelt plea and a request for clarification. Would he be allowed his freedom or not?
“Yes, the carriage is ready,” said the Archmage. “It would be best if you don’t dally any longer. I have been summoned to the palace, no doubt to explain what has been going on with their dragons. The invite was very insistent. Once I have dealt with the matter and made some investigations of my own, I may call on you at Ransom.”
Nic nodded. It wasn’t like he had much choice in the matter. Now it was down to what the High-Father was planning and who was going to help him. With Winnum Roke a spectator inside a dead dragon, Nic’s role was going to be severely curtailed. They would monitor him from afar, just in case someone else decided to use him as their personal transport from A to B, but otherwise he would be like any other bystander watching events unfold. Not that Dizzy would believe it.
Dr Wylian gave him a number of symptoms to look out for — dizziness, eye pain, hearing voices — and instructions to contact Dr Gilleshpie as soon as anything untoward happened.
Judging by the distrustful look she gave him, she didn’t expect him to comply, but she wanted him to know where to go if things turned so desperate even he saw the merit in her zero-tolerance approach. If they only turned mildly desperate, he expected she would arrange other means to reach him by, that he wouldn’t be required to participate in. Not voluntarily, anyway.
It was still early, only just past eight. Leaving now, they would miss the first class of the day, but they’d be able to make it for the rest of the day’s lessons. The carriage, the same one that had brought them, was waiting in the courtyard next to the main gate. The driver didn’t seem perturbed to be within the Royal College’s walls, although the two horses seemed to eye the student mages with some animus, snorting and stamping if any dared approach.
The High-Father’s vacated corpse was sitting just as he’d first seen it, still and quiet. It could have been sleeping. Was Winnum able to watch him through the lidded eyes?
Simole insisted they wait while she went and spoke to the inanimate leviathan. She whispered into its ear and stroked the longs snout resting on the ground. She returned a little tearful, but with her lips set in a straight line.
It wasn’t until they were in the carriage and had passed out of the College’s gates that Nic was able to breathe properly again. He had managed to survive an ordeal he didn’t even really know why he had undertaken. There seemed to be an urge to come here, to face the High-Father together with Winnum, but now it seemed like a passing whim. At least he was free of Winnum Roke at last. Although, he felt like the separation had been foisted on him.
It was done, though. He was on his own.
Dizzy and Simole glared at him from the seats opposite, each for their own reason, neither of which he felt was justified.
Not quite on his own, yet, but perhaps soon.
“And what have you learned from this lesson?” asked a cool, amused voice in his head.
Nic had to fight to keep the surprise from showing on his face. He hunkered down, his head to the side, looking out of the window at the streets of the city clattering by.
“You’re still here?” he said in his mind, careful to not let the words leak out from his lips. “The Archmage said—”
“That amateur. He would need a thousand-year head start to catch up with me, not a thousand-year handicap. He has even more to learn than you do. You, at least, aren’t weighed down with unwarranted certainty. He saw what he expected to see.”
“And the High-Father? Where did he go?”
“Where he will,” she answered coyly. Did that mean she knew? “I have no doubt you will see him again, when he thinks it will be to his advantage.”
Nic wasn’t sure that would ever be the case. What possible advantage could he give anyone?
“And how would you rate the success of your late night sojourn?”
“I didn’t expect it to succeed,” said Nic, only realising it as he answered her. “I expected to learn something from the failure.”
“I see. And did you?”
“Yes,” said Nic. “He won’t let you keep the door closed. He is stronger than you, but he is hampered by trying to keep his word, while you have no such restrictions. But you are only one — less than that really — and you have no allies to depend on.”
“I have you,” said Winnum.
“Yes,” said Nic. “That’s the problem.”
“You are energetic and a quick study, and your friends are always ready to come to your aid. Perhaps you will be the salvation of mankind.”
She was mocking him, but that was okay. He had no illusions about himself — his willingness to see where this road would lead was naive, his hopes for a positive outcome rash, and for all his studying, his ignorance of the way the world worked bordered on staggering. But her words were undermined by her presence. For all his failings, she had nowhere better to go, otherwise she would have gone there.
He would, at least, get to see how things culminated. Perhaps he would write a book about it. He smiled to himself. To finally experience the world first-hand, only to record it for others to read about.
“What is it?” said Dizzy. He looked up to find her scrutinizing him. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” he said, sounding defensive, but how could he not? She had turned on him so that she wouldn’t have to deal with him as anything more than an adversary. It was probably time to let her—
“So, it begins,” said Winnum.
“What does?” said Nic.
“What?” said Dizzy. “Who are you talking to?”
He had spoken aloud, but now was not the time to explain himself. He raised a hand to tell her to be quiet, which would rile her but she would know he wouldn’t provoke her so blatantly without reason. She would acquiesce, but subject him to her ire later, and fourfold.
“What is it?” he said.
“They have blocked the road up ahead and await your arrival.”
“See for yourself.”
His vision darkened like he’d been struck blind, and then he saw two carriages across the wide road that led from the capital to the school and beyond. Men were lined up, armed and listless. They didn’t expect this to be a difficult task. The carriages had a familiar black liver; the same as the carriage they were in.
“The Ministry of Instruction has set up a roadblock,” said Nic. “Is there another way to the school?”
Dizzy looked like she wanted to say something, but she spun around, going from seated to kneeling. She slid open a flap that Nic hadn’t even noticed, so well was it integrated into the interior design, and the noise of thundering hooves filled the carriage.
“Jacob, is there a blockade up ahead?”
There was a pause. “Yes, mistress. About a kilometre. Ministry men. Not ours.”
Jacob had excellent eyesight, or some other means of seeing across vast distances.
“Take an alternate route.”
She turned and sat again, just in time for the sudden lurch sideways as the carriage veered off the main thoroughfare onto what had to be a rarely used side road. They bounced and shook, but didn’t slow.
“Why are we running?” asked Simole. “I could just sweep them out of the way.”
“They would be ready for you,” said Nic. He wasn’t sure how, but he had no doubt they would have something planned.
“Yes? And I would be ready for them.”
Simole’s confidence wasn’t entirely unfounded, but Nic didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire. He was far from ready, for any of this.
The only place he felt safe was the school. There would be observers there, and interested parties. His greatest protection from those interested in him were all the others also interested in him. No one would allow him to be taken as the sole property of one department, so they let him be and watched him in his pseudo-natural environment, like a zoo animal. If he could get to the school, he would have a much better chance of remaining unmolested. But the school was an hour away, and even further now that they had taken a detour.
The carriage came to a shuddering halt.
“Out,” said Dizzy, throwing open the door and leaping without waiting for a discussion. The other two followed.
“If they catch you,” Dizzy was saying to the driver, “tell them the truth, where you dropped us, my orders, all of it.”
“Yes, mistress,” said the driver. Then he snapped his reins and the carriage drove away in a cloud of dust and dead leaves.
They were standing beside a barely visible track, surrounded by fields and forests.
“The main road curves around,” said Dizzy. “We can cut through here and get to the school in half the distance.”
Half the distance, but double the time if they were on foot.
“We’re walking up there?” said Simole. The ground was uneven and rocky, and rose steeply. “My shoes will be ruined.” She took off her shoes and scrunched up her bare feet.
“Isn’t there—” began Nic, but stopped when Dizzy pulled him aside.
“The exercise will do you good. It’s this sort of things you’ve been training for, so it should be much easier than it would be. You can use the time to answer a few questions I have.” She let him go and set off. “Come on. We don’t want them to catch up.”
Simole swung her shoes over her shoulder, laces tied, and followed.
Nic looked back down the track. No sign of pursuit. Maybe he should wait and turn himself in.
“Hurry up!” shouted Dizzy.
“I like her,” said Winnum. “She’s got a lot of spunk.”
“Do you want to transfer to her?” asked Nic. Now that he thought about it, maybe that would solve everything.
“Oh, no. She’s clearly a nightmare to live with. You better get moving, you’ll never impress her by dawdling.”
Her words struck him as true. It wasn’t Dizzy he wasn’t impressing though, it was himself. He wasn’t thinking, he was just reacting, and that was not an efficient way to deal with a situation.
He looked around to get his bearings. If the school was in the direction Dizzy was heading, then…
“This way,” he said to the girls who were already halfway up the slope. He pointed to the left and began walking that way.
“The school’s over here,” Dizzy shouted down.
“I know. But if they find out the driver dropped us here, they’ll go that route. Hammersham’s this way.”
“Hammer-what?” said Simole. Neither girl was following him, although they had both stopped.
“Hammersham. It’s the village the school gets their vegetables from. If we hurry we might be able to get a lift with the lunchtime delivery.”
He kept walking. He heard them coming after him.
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