It was the dog. The dog wasn’t right.
Nic couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move. Simole had regained her powers, and was using them to squeeze his throat shut. She was doing an excellent job.
He could feel the demon inside of him. It had been hiding, waiting. But not for this. Simole’s attack had been an irritation. He might not have been merged with the demon as he’d been led to believe — led to believe, ha! That was almost funny — but he was close enough to feel the change in attitude, the shift in tone.
He had done what he could, the rest was up to her.
“You don’t seem to be taking me seriously,” said Simole. The grip tightened inexorably around Nic’s neck, making his blood pound in his ears.
He would have told the demon that taking Simole seriously would be wise, if he thought it would do any good. But he didn’t think the demon was in the mood to take advice. He was more or less a bystander at this point.
He wanted to pay attention to what was happening — it affected him quite directly, after all — but his thoughts kept falling back onto Winnum Roke. More specifically, her dog. Dana-Long.
She had turned the dog into a popular children’s story. A creature that came in the night to steal children from their beds. A fearsome beast.
The pug he’d met out in the field had not been very frightening.
There could be any number of reasons for the discrepancy. Fairy tales weren’t meant to be taken literally. And yet…
He had also read Winnum Roke’s autobiography. She had described the dog in there, too. It was similar to the one in the fairy tale; long-limbed, wolfish, a big animal that lived on a farm. A working dog.
The pug didn’t fit the description at all.
Why would it be different? If it wasn’t her creation, maybe it wasn’t really her. Maybe the woman in the cottage was a manifestation produced by the All-Mother. But would she get the dog wrong? Demons seemed to be sticklers for detail. They had access to the same texts he had. They probably knew Winnum Roke personally. Maybe even knew the dog.
And if it was Winnum Roke, if the woman he’d met was truly the Archmage of the Royal College transported here to prevent the demons from crossing back over, why would she change her dog?
The part of his mind that was always working on something, even when he was busy with other matters, was turning over. It made it hard to stay focused on Simole. That’s where the real battle was happening. It would all be academic if she failed to defeat the demons.
All academic. That was almost funny, too. When had his life been anything else?
When he’d been with Dizzy, that was the only time. His life was all action, back then. She never stopped. He never managed to catch up, except when she let him. Had that all been part of the plan?
He found it hard to believe, but then that why it was the perfect thing to use against him. The right tactical choice. Something that was already there in seed form, just water it a bit. He wanted to believe that’s what it was. It wasn’t placed in him, it was there all along, just intensified for the cause.
But wanting to believe was irrelevant. It was what it was. His only recourse was to not find out the truth. Or to make a better one.
Why him, though?
If they wanted him here, it had to be for some reason. The demons didn’t try things for the sake of it. They didn’t act without reason.
And what about Simole? Had she forced her way in, or was she meant to be here, too? If she had been tricked, if this was also part of the plan, there was no point trying to think of another solution. She was it. There was no other way to stop the All-Mother.
He realised he wasn’t struggling to breathe any longer. He had no body here. He didn’t need air. Simole wasn’t constricting his airways, she was restricting the demon from taking over his consciousness.
It was a nice gesture, but futile. It wasn’t him they wanted. And they would soon refocus on taking away her power. His had been a temporary solution to their power over her. He thought she might have a chance to attack the All-Mother directly, but it’s hard to fight the stars. They’re so very far away.
Nic felt like he was moving. Like he was being pushed. Down. Or in. He wasn’t sure. Away. Yes, he was being pushed away. His presence was no longer needed. Not even inside his own body.
But it wasn’t his body. There wasn’t a body, so what was he being separated from?
The dog, the silly dog. It bothered him. Usually, once a test was over, he didn’t dwell on the answers he had given. He’d done his best, and now there was no way to change anything, so why waste energy on fretting?
Was I right? Was I wrong? It made no difference to the mark he’d get.
But why change the dog? If it was still nagging at him, it suggested the test wasn’t over. Or that he was losing his mind and needed something to cling to. But if that were true, he was already lost, so no point thinking it.
The lights around him began to fade. It looked like a crystal city, blurred through a window. The less clear, the more it glittered: domes and towers lit up by coloured lights. Balconies suspended in the air, bridges spanning gaps. Once, it had probably teemed with activity. Now it softly faded from view.
Further in, further down. It was dark. He couldn’t see, or was there nothing to see? Was there a difference? Being blind and inhabiting a place with no light amounted to the same thing.
He heard a sound. A sniffing, whining. Animal. Whimpering, scrabbling. It sounded like a dog. A trick? A trap? He didn’t really care. He would have followed it just for something to do.
So he moved, untethered as he was to the physical world. Disembodied, he could float, a sense of movement under him, the darkness a black ocean. His body grew heavier, the movement more difficult.
He stretched out his arms and felt walls on either side, a roof within reach above him, a floor covered in grit and dirt. It was like he was somewhere deep underground, in a tunnel, a vaguely roundish passage. The walls were smooth, but somewhat slimy. He didn’t really want to think about why that was. It seemed to be sloping downwards, into the belly of the beast. He didn’t want to think about where he was, but it was impossible not to consider the most awful options.
Slowly, he edged forward into the dark, straining to hear. The tunnel went on for some time, sloping down, perhaps switching back, he couldn’t be sure. He tried to conjure a light, force it into existence, but either it wasn’t possible here, or he just didn’t understand how to do it. Or maybe he didn’t want to attract the attention of whatever else was here. A simple compulsion kept him moving forward.
He lost his footing, fell down a steep incline, taking him deeper, lower. He rolled to a stop, the darkness far more confusing than any illusion. He heard a muffled bark. He rose to his feet, he was in a larger chamber, he could sense the space above him, the lack of walls.
The sound had come from his left. He tottered that way, expecting to fall again, maybe a hole or a pit he couldn’t escape from. Instead, he found another tunnel gouged out of the wall. Smaller. He had to get down on his hands and knees and crawl. He would have looked for another way, a less constricting passage, but there was a soft glow ahead of him. A light.
He scrambled forward, and suddenly there was nothing under him. He fell, again. Landed hard, slamming his face into the ground. It hurt, even when he tried to convince himself it wasn’t real pain. It felt the same as real pain, so that made it real enough.
When he raised his head, he saw someone. A woman in dirty clothes and dirty face. Winnum Roke, he knew at once, but not as he’d seen her before. Not sharp and lean, a powerful entity. This Winnum Roke looked weak and broken. She was chained to the wall, hands raised over her head and pinned there. A light hovered over her, flickering slightly.
The real Winnum Roke. The truth he’d been seeking. How convenient.
Nic crawled closer. Her head was bowed, chin on her chest. She mumbled something. He sat down opposite her, legs crossed, slightly leaning forward. He took a deep breath, allowing the air to feel cool and refreshing inside his lungs. Even without a real body, it felt a relief to relax for a moment.
“I’m glad I found you. I wanted to tell you, the dog really bothered me.”
She looked up, her eyes red, her lips cracked. “Get away,” she whispered hoarsely. “The dog. A trick.”
“I know,” he said. “I think it was meant to bother me, but that bothered me even more. Do you know what I mean?” He looked at her.
She wasn’t making pained noises anymore. She was looking at him, her dirt-streaked face almost a mask she was peering through.
“Early on,” he continued, “I decided the best way to do well in exams was to not just study the lessons, but also to study the teachers. They were the ones who gave out the marks, decided what was right and wrong. It didn’t matter what I thought was the right answer, it only mattered what they thought. Or what I could convince them to think.”
He smiled. “I was a bit full of myself back then, to be honest. Although part of that may have been induced in me.” He looked down and picked at the earth with his fingernails. “Or maybe I would just like to think so. In any case, I assumed most teachers would be expert in their chosen field. That field being the assessment of children. Better than any parent, who might rear, what, three or four children in a lifetime? Maybe ten or twelves if they really had nothing better to do. A teacher would go through batches of twenty, five or six times a day, for many years. And they would specialise in certain age ranges, seeing their responses to the same stimuli, over and over. If you were planning on running an experiment, the conditions would be ideal.”
She was staring at him with something approaching disbelief. “Run.” It was almost too quiet to hear.
“I calculated that any full-time teacher would have observed ninety percent of all possible behaviour within their first six years. The ones who resisted authority, the ones who never spoke, the ones who instigated trouble… practically all the combinations, good and bad, should have been seen. Then it would be a simple matter of forming strategies to tackle them. Some trial and error, of course, but by ten years in the profession, not only should they have solutions in place, experience should have taught them to spot the signs even before they manifested.”
“They want you here,” she said, her voice full of urgency.
“Wait. Let me just make my point. So, not only did they have this wonderful opportunity, I had the added advantage of seeing the entire progression. While teachers always taught the students of the same age, my teachers were all at different stages of their careers. A young woman starting out, an old man approaching retirement, and everything in between. My theory was easily confirmable. And I was wrong. They did not aspire to perfect their craft. They lost interest. They didn’t care what the students did. It wasn’t why they became teachers.”
He spread his hands apart to indicate he was as baffled as she. Although her bafflement may have been unrelated.
“I can’t say exactly why. I have a number of theories, but it became more practical to use what I had learned rather than to understand it. I can share some of my ideas with you, if you like.”
She didn’t say anything.
“Perhaps they didn’t have enough time to change anything. Or maybe their influence wasn’t great enough. Maybe it was already too late by the time the children reached them. They say by seven, a child is fixed in its psychology. Maybe it just doesn’t matter when it isn’t your own child.
“What I could tell was that for most of them, they saw their job as getting the student to graduation still breathing and holding as many certificates as possible. A simple, measurable metric of success.
“It must be hard for a teacher, to know so much, to have learned a specific way to convey it, and then be faced by so many disparate minds to communicate it to. Overwhelming, I would imagine. Especially if it seemed so clear and obvious to you.”
He looked back to her. “The dog. It isn’t your dog. But it led me to you. It doesn’t make sense. If you made it to attract attention, the demons would have spotted the error. If they made it to fool me into coming here, then they trapped me with a lie. That’s not how they work. They would trap me with the truth. It might have worked on me if I was a demon. They can get drawn in by a well-made lie. But I am not a demon. And neither are you. I know you sent the dog. I know who you are and why you’re here. I think I know why you wanted the demon here, and Simole, but I don’t think you wanted me here. The All-Mother sent me, because you lied to her.”
“She lied to me,” said Winnum Roke, and then she disappeared. One moment she was there, and then she wasn’t. Nic sighed. He unfolded his legs from under him and stretched them out, his back against the wall.
His body couldn’t be tired. His body was nowhere near here. He hoped it didn’t have a moustache shaped like a penis drawn on its face.
Now that he understood why the All-Mother had sent him here, he decided he would like to go back. He didn’t want to stay here, wherever here was. He wanted to go home.
He opened his eyes. He was looking up at the stars. Not the real ones back home. These ones moved when he stared at them too long, like they didn’t appreciate the close inspection.
He no longer sensed the demon in him. Events had occurred in his absence.
There was a lot of noise. He sat up. Simole had her back to him, her arms stretched out in front of her. A beam of blue light was shooting out of her palms, making an awful buzzing sound that got louder the longer he looked. There was probably a reason why the volume was affected by his sight, but he doubted it was important.
He got to his feet. She was focusing the full might of her terrible power on Minister Delcroix. At some point during Nic’s small excursion, he had arrived. Had been taken control of by the demon, and then battle had commenced.
Simole poured out her fury with relentless abandon, the Minister calmly watched behind a wall of shadowy figures.
There were dozens of them, maybe hundreds. They rotated around him, absorbing everything Simole was throwing at them.
She couldn’t hear him over the racket her Arcanum-fuelled attack was making.
“Simole…” He stepped in front of her.
The beam hit him in the chest. His whole body was filled with blue light, he could see it surrounding him like he’d been swallowed by a phantom. The power of it was immense. Every part of him shook, but so fast it was hardly noticeable.
It ran down through him, into his feet, into the ground, back to where it had come from.
“Simole, stop. This is what she wants. This is why she brought you here.”
Simole looked at him, her face pained with effort. “I can’t.”
Nic nodded, understanding. She was caught in some kind of loop. The Arcanum so powerful, it flowed through her like water through a crack in a dam.
He reached out and grabbed the light rushing into his chest, and held onto it as though it were a pipe. He bent it back ninety degrees, so it pointed upwards, firing into the air, bursting apart like a fountain. Then he bent it again, so it pointed at Simole. The moment it touched her, it vanished.
Simole staggered back.
“No!” cried out a voice from behind him.
Nic turned and walked over to Delcroix. His wraiths were still swirling around him. His eyes were burning bright blue.
“What if there was only one of you?” said Nic.
The wraiths gathered together like soldiers called to attention. It appeared like there was only one of them now, hovering in front of Nic. When he leaned to the side, he could see them lined up behind each other, stretching into the distance like two mirrors had been placed opposite each other. There was one wraith. Lots of ones.
“What if you were many?” he suggested.
They shattered. Blue flecks floated around them, filling the air. Settling like snow on the ground, which absorbed them with flashes of light.
Delcroix moved towards him. He looked like a man standing in front of a painting. He was really here. In his hand he had a knife. A black dagger. He wasn’t a spirit, a part of his psyche made manifest. And the demon was controlling him.
“Before you kill me,” said Nic, “I think I owe you the ending of a story.”
“End him, now!” said a voice.
Delcroix didn’t obey. The demon was waiting for Nic.
“The Green Demon tried to become human, did all it could to win their trust, but it had to learn one final lesson. It had to learn to lie. And in order to lie, you must know the truth. But the Green Demon didn’t want to believe the truth. So it could never lie.”
“What truth?” asked the demon, its voice oddly feminine in Delcroix’s mouth.
“They never left you behind. You were the only one left.”
The dagger fell from Delcroix’s hand.
“What do you mean?” said Simole. “How can it be the only one. What about the All-Mother?” She pointed up. “What about all them?”
“The All-Mother isn’t a demon. I think she’s more like a guardian. One that failed horribly. And that,” —he pointed up— “isn’t the All-Mother. That’s Winnum Roke. She switched places with the All-Mother, some kind of deal they made. Winnum Roke wanted to reach the stars, the real ones. I’m not sure what she thought she’d find there, maybe intelligent life, unlike what she had found here. You should read her autobiography. She really doesn’t have a very high opinion of anyone.”
“But what happened to the other demons?” said Simole.
Nic shrugged. “Mages aren’t born, they’re made. I don’t know what they do in the Royal College, but I can see why they’re so secretive about it. He might know.” He pointed at Delcroix. “Will you let him speak?”
Delcroix stood motionless for a few seconds, and then he sagged. His skin took on a sallow pallor. He was terribly ill, that much was clear.
He looked around him, saw Nic, and then staggered like he was about to fall. Nic rushed forward, but he raised a hand to ward him off.
“She isn’t here,” said Nic.
“In Ransom. Safe. Comparatively.”
He nodded, relief flooding his face, then becoming overburdened with pain once more. He turned and looked at the wraiths. Then what was behind them.
“I have heard of this place. It isn’t anything like I thought.”
“Minister. Did you know? About the demons?”
He looked confused. “Know what?”
“The Royal College. What they did. Did you see?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He collapsed, falling to one knee, coughing and wheezing.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Simole.
“He’s dying,” said Nic.
“Can’t you save him? You seem to have a pretty good grasp of how to use Arcanum all of a sudden.” She said it like an accusation, like he’d been hiding it from her all this time.
“I don’t think so. It’s the Arcanum that’s killing him. More of it won’t help.”
“He’s right,” said Delcroix, getting back up. “There’s no point offering a cup of water to a drowning man. Come closer, boy. My daughter, you must...” He had another coughing fit.
“What did they do to the demons?” said Nic. “In the Royal College. How do they turn you into mages?”
Delcroix shook his head. “It’s a secret process. I was unconscious during it. Only a few know the truth.”
“But there’s a place somewhere in the college? A place only a few have access to?”
“And you have no idea what’s in there?” said Simole, sounding doubtful.
“I believe him,” said Nic.
Delcroix began coughing again. Blood sprayed from his mouth. He wiped it with the back of his hand. “They brought me here, why?”
“To use you against the mages. Against the dragons.”
“I see. Yes. That makes sense.” He raised his hand, and the dark-bladed knife was in it. As fast as it appeared, it disappeared, into his own chest.
Blood shot out in a spout, and froze mid-air. The Minister’s face changed, the skin growing taut, almost painfully so.
“You think you can take your own life here,” said the demon.
“Let him go,” said Nic. “Someone will use him against the All-Father if you don’t.”
“That someone might be us,” said Simole.
“We don’t need him,” said Nic. “We have you.”
Minister Delcroix was as frozen as his blood. “What have you done?” said the demon, the voice coming from between unmoving lips.
“You can’t keep him alive,” said Nic. “It isn’t your choice.”
“You think his heart will stop beating while I hold it in my hands?” asked the demon.
“You have spent enough time among us,” said Nic. “Have you ever known spilled blood to be drawn back into an open vein?”
The blood flowed out and the Minister fell to the floor.
“Did you just overcome a demon’s will?” said Simole.
“Yes. It’s their weakness, the direct contradiction. Don’t worry, I can only do it here. Back home, you’ll always be able to squash me like a bug.”
Simole snorted. “Glad to hear it. Was it really necessary to let him die?”
“There was no way to save him. This was better than the alternatives,” said Nic.
“I’d like to see you convince the girl of that.”
She had a point. It was something he would rather avoid, but he doubted he’d be able to.
Nic shuddered as something passed through him.
You have grown, little one. How much stronger you are. How much better to stand with.
It was like having claws sunk into his skin, into his flesh.
“Wait. First, you should speak to your summoner. She wanted you here for a reason. Look.” He pointed up. “Is it the All-Mother?”
The roof was full of twinkling lights. They were watching, silently. He could feel the demon resisting the truth, and suffering for it.
“Okay,” said Simole. “Whenever you’re ready.” She took a step back.
Nic looked at her. “You’re not going to help?”
“What can I do? You’re the one who has the power here.”
“Not really. I just understand how it works. She never did. Winnum Roke made a deal with the All-Mother. The ship for our world. Only, everything had come so easily to her, she never bothered to try and understand what she was doing. For her it was always very simple. My truth is better than your truth. That didn’t work here, with unlimited Arcanum. Everyone’s truth was as strong as everyone else’s. It was hard to go in one direction for very long. Which is a problem when you’re on a ship. No crew, no idea how to raise the anchor, or how to fill the sails.
“She wanted to go to the stars,” Nic said, spreading his arms. “She only got as far as the lights on the ceiling. She never had much of an imagination.”
“But what about her book of fairy tales?” said Simole.
“I don’t think she wrote those. Her autobiography, that she definitely wrote.”
“But you figured out how to use Arcanum here. Why couldn’t she?”
“It’s like I had been prepared for this place. I guess that’s why she sent me here. It’s always been very clear to me that there is more than one truth, and that they can exist alongside each other. Is a date in a book correct? Yes, it’s the answer you should give in the test. Is the other date in the banned book correct? Yes, it makes sense to hide a date that reveals someone wasn’t fathered by the man who was stated to be the father. Could the date be fabricated to embarrass the family? Yes, a lie can be made to seem real, bound in leather. Could they use the truth to cause that same embarrassment? Yes, just because it’s used as a weapon, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And so on. All these things can be part of the same reality. Here, they can actually exist at the same time, if you can bring them together.”
“Yes,” said a voice from above. “I see why she sent you now.”
The stars were moving together, forming into a shape. A humanoid figure, trailing plumes of blue light behind it, seemingly walking down invisible steps towards them.
A more recognisable figure emerged as she neared. A girl. Dizzy. Only her hair was elegantly twisted around her neck. Her eyes were lined in black. Her lips were painted red. As her form took shape, her body was barely covered in satin dress that seemed to be sewn out of a galaxy.
“Come with me. Together, we can reach the stars.”
“Ha.” Simole scoffed loudly. “You really don’t have a very good imagination, do you? He doesn't care about the way she looks. If it was pretty girls he wanted, it’d be my feet he’d be kissing.”
“What do you mean?” said Nic. “You don’t think she’s attractive?” He had the awful feeling it wasn’t only his desire for Dizzy that had been altered.
“She’s fine if you like that sort of thing,” said Simole. “Well put together, you know, like a scorpion is for the desert.”
Nic frowned. He wanted her to explain the analogy, but now probably wasn’t the best time. “I—”
“Never mind your love life,” said Simole. “Look, old woman, what have you and my father been doing in the Royal College. And if mages can only be made and not born, how does that explain me?”
“Who was your mother, Simole?” asked Nic.
She was caught off-guard by the question. “I… I don’t know. My father always said… He lied to me. He always lied, and I always knew it. Wait, you aren’t saying it was her?” She pointed at the image of Dizzy.
“Winnum Roke?” said Nic. “No. She hates kids.”
“I don’t hate them,” said Winnum Roke. “I just don’t enjoy being around them. Meeting the two of you certainly hasn’t changed that. But we should try to get along, seeing as we’ll be spending so much time together.”
“No, thank you,” said Nic.
“She literally doesn’t understand people have feelings different to hers, does she?” said Simole. “Us kids don’t exactly enjoy being around you, either. I’ll have to pass.”
“You come all this way to find answers, and now you won’t take them?” She might have looked like Dizzy, but the voice was far too grand.
“The price is too high,” said Nic.
“You don’t know what I’ll ask.”
“I know how much it cost you. I doubt you’ll want to make a loss.”
“You don’t want to know what’s inside the Royal College?”
“I already know,” said Nic. “I just wanted to know if he did.” He looked down at Delcroix.
“You have nowhere else to go,” said Winnum Roke.
“We have everywhere to go,” said Nic. “And so do you. It was never a matter of needing demons here, or using Simole to convert the Arcanum into raw power.” He pointed at the now dark roof. “You limited your own goals.”
The roof cracked, shattered, fell in a million, million tiny pieces that floated down in a shower of glittering dust.
What was left was a star-filled sky. Not just above them, but in all directions. “You don’t even need the ship anymore. You’ve been here so long, you’re made of Arcanum. Go where you want. I’m going to go home.”
“How?” asked Simole.
“Same way he got here,” said Nic, kneeling down beside Delcroix. “You should come with us. We could use your help getting into the Royal College. And you probably have things you want to ask the All-Mother.”
The demon, barely perceptible presence inside him, shivered. He took that as a yes.