The box in Fanny’s hand was emitting a high-pitched squeal that was painful to Nic’s ears. Judging by everyone’s else’s reaction, they weren’t enjoying it much, either.
“That’s a herbal detector isn’t it?” asked the bald man standing closest to the Archmage. A horizontal scar ran across his face, just under his eyes and across the bridge of his nose. “Why is it making that dreadful noise?”
“Stop asking stupid questions, Berimonga,” the Archmage snapped at the man. “And turn off that wretched thing.”
Fanny turned off the detector and the sound died away, though not before one last shriek.
The Archmage took it from Fanny, snatching it out of his hands. “Grims, take a look at it.” He passed the box to a stocky man with a dark complexion who turned the wooden box over in his large, calloused hands.
“Looks to have been modified. What did you do to it, boy?”
Fanny squirmed uncomfortably under the combined gazes of the mages. They had closed in around him, their professional curiosity overcoming their apprehension about what the Archmage and his dragon would do to them.
“I, um, you see, it was because of Simole…” He hesitated, looking at the Archmage.
“Stop blathering and answer the question,” said the Archmage, making Fanny even more flustered.
“Archmage, please,” said Fanny’s father. “If you’ll give him a moment to collect himself.”
The Archmage sighed, doing his utmost to keep hold of his temper.
“He reminds me a lot of you, Bostware,” said the Archmage. He didn’t elucidate, but it was clear it was meant disparagingly.
“Well, he is my son,” replied Fanny’s father, refusing to take the slight as intended. Something about him made Nic feel less vulnerable, up here on a mountain with the combined power of Ranvar’s magical might.
Nic’s mind raced in an effort work his way out of the tight spot he’d got them into. Whatever he told them, he was sure they would do whatever was in their best interest and not his.
Nic stood next to the dragon, glad to not be the focus of attention for the time being, even if that meant remaining within biting distance of the giant lizard.
He could feel the hot, wet breath brushing against his hands as they hung by his side. The thump of its heart in its chest, like a slow explosion a long way away, vibrated through him. The metallic scales clinked as is shifted its weight and there was another sound which Nic thought might be purring, but which he realised was ivory grinding against ivory as enormous teeth slid against each other.
Nic looked over at Davo. The tall, thin figure wasn’t moving, his face impassive, betraying no emotion. Nic wished he had that kind of composure. He could tell Davo was measuring each man, not for a suit, but for the correct approach.
“I just tweaked it a bit,” said Fanny in a wavering voice. “I was trying to make it more sensitive, so we could keep an eye on the Secret Service agents…” He faltered again. It wasn’t nerves that kept tripping him up, it was the effort to not say the wrong thing in this highly-judgmental company. “It would be easier if I showed you.”
He reached for the box. Master Grims hesitated for a moment, then handed it over. With a few deft moves, Fanny removed a section, turned it over and revealed the inner workings. The faint glow from the fire made it hard to see inside, but there was something glittering inside the box.
“This can’t be correct, can it?” asked a white-haired mage, the colour incongruous with his youthful face. “That’s Arcanum. Active, up here.”
“Where did you get this?” asked the Archmage.
“Um, well, originally, Simole powered it up for me. That lasted a few weeks. Then it died and I couldn’t get it to work, but, um, something happened the other day, in Nic’s room and…” Fanny bit his lip as he realised he’d said too much, again.
All eyes shifted to Nic. He took an involuntary step back, bumping into a wall of dragon.
“I had a visitor, from Gweur.” He hadn’t meant to say that, but it was like the dragon’s nudge had popped it out of him.
The mages began muttering and mumbling among themselves.
“Quiet,” barked the Archmage. “Go on.” He gave Nic a permissory nod.
“He appeared in my room. Out of thin air. And then he left.”
“Teleported,” said Berimonga. “What did he want?”
“He said he was a follower of the demon. He thought I was, too. He used magic, but he didn’t seem to be able to control it fully.”
More muttering followed.
“How was this not detected?”
“The Secret Service should have. Isn’t that the reason they’re there? They’ve been very disappointing of late.”
“Of late? Haven’t they always been—”
“Gentlemen, please,” said Berimonga. “The inquest can wait. Let’s deal with the matter at hand, first.” He turned back to Fanny. “For whatever reason, the device works. But why does it detect Arcanum in him?” He pointed at Nic.
Fanny shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. But it must be something important.”
There was a disappointed reaction to this answer, even greater than the disappointment with the Secret Service.
Fanny became flustered again. He turned to Nic. “You said we’d find something up here. Isn’t this it?”
Nic understood Fanny’s need to be validated in front of all these doubting eyes, which included his father’s, but he still wished he hadn’t dragged him into it. Nic didn’t have any answers, either.
“Fandral’s right,” said Davo. It was hard to tell which was stranger, Davo’s calm and measured voice in such a tense situation, or that he had used Fanny’s proper name. “We came here to find something. Some proof we were on the right track. We found it.”
“And you are?” asked the Archmage.
“Redavo Conoling, Archmage. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” He bobbed his head in a barely perceptible bow.
“The Conoling Store?”
“Yes, sir. My father.”
“Yes, I know him. He supplies the college raiments. At a far more reasonable price than that crook, Miggets.”
Davo, who had been the picture of composed poise, now positively brimmed with giddy aplomb, throwing him completely off his game. “Thank you, I’ll be sure to tell him.”
The Archmage snorted. “Never mind that. Why did you come here? Who sent you? The demon?”
“No,” said Nic. “It warned me not to come. I think it’s scared of this place.”
“Then who?” asked the Archmage.
“Winnum Roke,” said Nic. “Not directly. In her book of fairy stories.”
There was more scoffing, this time for all sides.
“Quiet!” shouted the Archmage. “He isn’t talking about the books you all have in your homes, you blithering idiots. Are you?”
Nic shook his head. “It’s the original manuscript.”
The scoffing was replaced by a communal gasp.
“How is that possible?” said the white-haired mage. “There’s only one copy, and that’s in the Royal College vault.”
“Use your head, Denkne,” said the Archmage. “That’s a fake. The original is kept safe, away from curious mages. But our little bookworm seems to have found his way to it.”
Denkne bristled under the criticism. “That still doesn’t explain why the herbal detector—the modified detector—says this boy’s full of magic. Here. Where magic can’t activate.”
“I think the only one who can answer that is the demon. Can you summon it, Nic?” The Archmage was much more temperate with Nic than he was with his senior mages.
“No. I don’t know how. It comes to me at night, mostly. When I clear my mind.”
“Do that now. Let it come and take over your body. Let it speak through you.”
“No,” said Nic before he could stop himself. He had taken care not to allow the demon ownership of his body. He had felt the demon attempt it and he strongly suspected that if he allowed it once, it would become harder and harder to resist. He felt the weight of expectation from the Archmage, the insistence, but it would be a mistake, of that he felt sure.
“Do as I say, boy. There is no danger to you, here.”
“I think there is,” said Nic defiantly. “I think the fact Fanny detected magic in me means there is a very real danger. I won’t let it control me. I won’t give it my voice.”
His voice sounded feeble to his own ears, but he clung to his resolve. Pitiful defiance in front of a group of men who could snap him in two with a thought. But not here. They had no access to their great powers here.
“Then what do you suggest?” asked the Archmage, irritation creeping into his voice.
“If… If it comes, I can tell you what it says.”
“If it comes, we should kill it,” said Master Grims.
“How?” asked the white-haired mage. “Cut the boy’s throat?”
Grims nodded. “Yes, Denkne. If need be.”
The dragon suddenly moved. It had been sitting, quietly grinding its teeth behind Nic, only occasionally flexing a limb. Now it lunged forward and placed its head between Nic and the bickering mages.
Steam escaped from its nostrils and rolled across the ground. When the mist reached the fire, there was another flaring of flames. They shot into the air in tongues of gold and orange, lighting up the entire mountaintop.
The dragons lips curled back over its teeth. The mages backed away.
The Archmage stepped forward and pushed the dragon’s snout with a firm hand, sending the head floating back into the air on the long, serpentine neck.
“We won’t be cutting anyone’s throat. Even if the tether isn’t to my daughter, she is still bound to you, somehow. The All-Father’s reaction confirms it. He wouldn’t protect you unless he sensed her close to you.”
Nic considered what the Archmage was saying. Did that mean the demon had lied to him? He doubted it. From what he had read, demon’s didn’t lie. But he might have misunderstood.
“I’ve only ever made contact with the demon,” he said. “But… the demon may be in contact with Simole.”
The Archmage nodded. “A bridge. Yes, it’s possible. But we’ll only know if we speak to the demon. Now, summon it.”
He made it sound like Nic could snap his fingers and call the demon like a pet. The same way he was snapping his fingers and treating Nic. A pet of no consequence.
Nic sat down cross-legged on the uneven ground. Stones and pebbles dug into him, making it hard to get comfortable. Being intensely observed by the most powerful mages in Ranvar didn’t help, either.
The dragon, at least, was behind him and out of his line of sight. He could still hear the steam hissing out of its nostrils, though.
He tried to clear his mind the way he’d taught himself. It was very difficult. His eyes were closed but the impatient look on the Archmage’s face remained clearly visible, somehow. Magic didn’t work here, so it had to be pure depth of feeling that the Archmage was projecting.
Nic shifted his weight and let his mind go blank. Little noises crept in and filled the void. He tried breathing deeper, holding his breath and letting it out slowly.
He opened his eyes and they were all standing watching him. Some had their arms crossed, others had their hands behind their backs, leaning forward to see the first signs of a demon materialising, probably so they could attack him with rocks or sticks.
“I can’t do it if you stare at me like that,” he said, trying his best not to sound like he was making excuses. “Could you go over by the fire? I’ll call you when I’m ready.”
Reluctantly, they moved away. The dragon settled down, its tail sweeping round to circle Nic, the tip flip-flopping from one side to the other. Nic placed his focus on it and blocked out everything else. Voices drifted over to him, but he let them pass by.
“I don’t understand how it’s possible,” said Fanny’s father. “The whole point of Demon’s Heart is a null space where Arcanum is inert. There shouldn’t be any magic of any sort.”
“Maybe it isn’t Arcanum,” said Fanny. “Maybe it’s another source of magic.”
“Is this what you’ve been doing at Ransom? Investigating alternative power sources?” He sounded mildly scolding.
“No. Only in my spare time.”
“Leave the boy alone, Barstowe.” It sounded like the one called Denkne. “He’s stumbled onto something most mages at the Royal College would give their eye teeth to have discovered. A form of magic we weren’t aware of—it’s remarkable.”
“We don’t know that’s what it is,” said Berimonga. “Not knowing doesn’t mean any guess is right. There’s a demon involved, remember. Look at how we’ve advanced our understanding of Arcanum in the last thousand years. Did you think the demons wouldn’t make advances, also? They had a hell of a head start.”
“Then why didn’t they discover these advancements a millennium ago?” asked Master Grims. “Like you say, they had a hell of a head start. Plenty of time to learn all there’s to know.”
“Simple, isn’t it?” said a voice Nic couldn’t place. It was older, with a cracked quality to it. “They had no need to. They used the powers they required and no more. Efficient. Then they came here and learned their mistake. We drove them out, but they probably realised we would run into each other again. So they made sure they were ready.”
“Speculation. Their weakness was their unwillingness to adapt. Stuck in their ways. I doubt that’s changed.”
“Raw power wasn’t enough, they know that now.”
“Or they could bring more power, next time.”
“This time, you mean. This could be the opening they’ve been waiting for.”
They were talking over each other, making it very hard to tell who was speaking. Nic was trying to stay inside the emptiness of his mind, but even the softer spoken voices were proving impossible to ignore.
“How long is this going to take?”
“Demon’s Tithe is almost here. Look, the stars are almost in conjunction.”
“You think he’ll wait for the exact moment of Demon’s Tithe.” There was a dismissive scoff. “Don’t be so superstitious.”
“There is an order to these things. Such is the way of magic.”
“Magic.” This voice was clearly the Archmage. There was no missing his commanding tone. “It is the embodiment of chaos. We cannot classify it in absolute terms. We only see one aspect of it. There could be countless.” There was a pause. Nic fell into the silence gratefully.
“Magic is the key to a door. You do not understand what the door keeps from you. The door behind which lurk nightmares, fear and unimaginable horrors, behind which enemies hide and wait, destructive powers, forces capable of annihilating not only the one who opens the door but with them their entire world. Magic is not chaos. Magic is the weapon used to tame chaos. But there is always more chaos than magic. Chaos will have her revenge in the end. That you stole magic to use for your own petty ends will be your undoing, you children of the dirt. Oh you poor little wizardlings.”
Nic listened, wondering who was speaking. He was drifting so pleasantly within his foggy thoughts, like in a bath full of warm, salty water, it only slowly dawned on him that it was his own voice. But not his words.
“A weapon, yes,” said the Archmage. “But is it not also a great art? One an artist can employ in the creations of great beauty? Should it not be shared with those who would celebrate its possibilities, rather than deny them in fear of making mistakes and errors? How do we evolve beyond our paltry origins without risk? How do we grow without sun and rain?”
“Art? How can you call such ugliness art? Those of you who discovered a talent, abused it for base rewards. You did not grow. Your evolution was in a perverse direction. Admiration transformed into envy. You call it art, but there was little of that art shown when you turned on your allies. We brought you a marvel beyond your comprehension, you drove it through us like a barbed spear. To defeat your enemies is a thing of great glory. To tear your brothers to pieces so only you can feed at the Mother’s teat, what glory is there in that? You use your art to terrorise the weak so you can better see the shape of your strength. It is a most unattractive shape, wizardling.”
Nic listened and the fuzzy edge to his thoughts hardened. He was being used as a conduit. A vessel for the demon to speak through. He had said he didn’t want that to happen, had been determined to not allow it. But he had failed.
He struggled within himself to regain control, but there was nothing to hold onto. It was like trying to stay upright on a frozen pond.
When the demon had decided it wished to speak, it had taken control. Not by force—it hadn’t needed to—it merely stepped forward and Nic fell back.
He was no match. He was a child pitted against adults. His will wasn’t strong enough to fight a thousand-year-old creature born in another dimension. It was his body, his mind, but there was nothing he could do to stop the interloper from usurping control.
It felt bitter and cold in his throat. Realisation of his own folly and lack of ability took him away from whatever the demon and the Archmage were talking about. It didn’t seem very important to him. The fate of the world may have been at stake, but he didn’t feel like it was a concern of his. He only lived by the decisions made by others.
His effort to claw his way back to the surface bearing little fruit, he let go. Why waste energy? His experience in solving problems had taught him when to push and when to ease off. And when to give up.
He wasn’t quite at that point yet, though. He was deeper inside himself than ever before. The demon hadn’t just supplanted him, it had driven him into a part of himself that was vast and overwhelming.
Only, Nic was familiar with the feeling of being lost in a world he didn’t understand. It was how he had trained himself to learn. Not in small bite-size pieces. That was too slow and time-consuming. He preferred to throw himself in wholly and wait for the patterns to emerge.
And they always did.
As he floated inside his own psyche, he felt the flow of the darkness. It wasn’t emptiness, it wasn’t a void. It was just hard to see; a sea of black. And it was full of movement.
He let himself be pulled along. He could sense it. Now that he had stopped trying to cling onto his physical, corporeal-self, he could feel the cool trickle relentlessly travelling ahead of him.
He followed it. It became faster and stronger. He was gliding across it, part of it, caught in a current. He could have been smashed to pieces if there was anything in his path, but there was nothing to hinder his journey.
The light was almost on him before he noticed it. A small dot that grew into a window. He dived through it.
He was over land. There was sun and sky. He didn’t feel a breeze, no heat from the sunlight. He was falling but not very fast. Floating. He was gently floating over the land.
Below him, there were fields of wheat, or tall yellow grass, maybe. There was a figure making its way through the middle of it. A girl. Simole. Her hair fluttered in the breeze he couldn’t feel, her face glowed from the heat of the sunshine that gave him no warmth.
A small, ugly dog ran ahead of her, stopping to look back, making sure she didn’t get lost. The dog looked up at him.
He wanted to call out to her. He was so high up but he could see her so clearly. If he aimed himself just right…
With a gut-wrenching yank that threatened to turn him inside out, the land flew away from him. It wasn’t the land, it was him. He was being pulled back.
He rocketed through the opening he had fallen through, arms and legs flailing. The image through the window was like a painting. It looked real and stable, but the framing darkness was dissolving, like ash being sucked away by a twisting zephyr.
“What are you doing, child? Do you wish to trap your friend forever?”
There was nothing around him. But he knew it was the demon who had summoned him back. And that it was no act of mercy.
“You’re holding the door open,” he said.
“No, child. This isn’t the door. There is no door to pass through. You have to become the door. She is the door now. She is what you must become to pass into that world. You only observed from afar.”
“Then why do you keep this here?”
“There are many places to go, how will she know this is where she came from? How will she find the way home?”
Nic didn’t understand. He didn’t need to. The demon wanted to maintain this opening, whatever it was, and that gave him something to use as leverage.
“I will close it,” he said, even though he wasn’t sure how. He didn’t have to know to want to do it, though. It was a statement of intention, so not a lie or a truth.
“She won’t be able to return. You don’t wish her to return?”
“Return to what? There is no point if there is nothing for her to return to. Better for her to find somewhere else.”
There was a pause. A long silence in the darkness.
“You are angry.”
“You took over my body without permission.”
“Are you truly so precious about something so trivial? Merely a little trespass.”
“Yes. I didn’t realise until now just how precious it is to me. I suppose I have you to thank for that. Next time you take possession of my property, I will come here and close this portal. This is still my home. You are a guest. A rude, ill-mannered one.”
There was a stiffness to the silence this time. He had chosen his words carefully, aiming to offend his guest’s sense of propriety. When someone spent so much time chiding others for their poor sense of decency, it was likely they would be stung to be accused of the same.
“You have my apologies. I won’t overstep my bounds again.”
It was a promise, of sorts. There was no formal recognition of what those bounds were, but it would do for now.
“There’s a lot of deterioration around the opening,” he said. “Will it last?”
“It must,” said the demon. “I must drain it constantly and store the Arcanum here. It resides within you, Nic Tutt.”
“That’s what Fanny detected?”
“Do not tell them about this. They will see you as a convenient fuel for their ambitions. They will suck you dry like they did with us. They are not what they seem. They may look like the same as people you see every day, but they are vampires. They live by feeding off others.”
“Don’t we all?” said Nic.
This time the silence didn’t end.
Nic felt his mind rising to the surface. He felt his heart beating and the cold night air against his skin, and a crushing force against his chest that made it hard for him to breathe.
He opened his eyes. There were dark scales wound around his body. The dragon’s tail which had been lying nonchalantly in a circle on the ground had been gathered up and tightened around him like cotton wound around a reel. He had been raised to his feet, which were barely touching the floor.
In front of him stood the mages of the Royal College. They looked worried.
The dragon’s tail fell into loose coils and Nic landed in a heap. Fanny and Davo came to his aid, helping him up.
“What happened?” said Fanny excitedly.
“You started speaking in an odd voice,” said Davo. “And then you started shaking like you were having a fit.”
Both boys seemed to have lost their nervousness and more or less ignored the men standing around them, their concern taking precedence.
“Where is the demon?” asked the Archmage, raising his voice to get Nic’s attention over the fussing boys in his way. He didn’t shout at them or command them to move.
“I drove it back,” said Nic.
“You suppressed it?” asked Berimonga in astonishment.
“Because we were here,” said Grims. He picked up a stick and peeled a splinter from the bark which he used to pick his teeth. “Only because we were here, in this place, was he able to resist. If he were to be tested again, somewhere else…”
“A very viable theory,” said Denkne.
“It’s in my mind. It can’t beat me there, unless I let it,” said Nic, confident in his words. He didn’t need to theorise, he had experienced it for himself. He had the advantage, which was just as well. He probably wouldn’t have done very well without it.
“We should take him back to the college,” said Denkne. There were some murmurs of agreement which were swiftly quieted by a fierce look from the Archmage.
“I saw Simole,” said Nic. “She’s in the Other Place. It isn’t the dark, horror-filled world I was expecting. It was bright and sunny. She had a small dog with her.”
The Archmage stared at him. When one of other mages tried to speak, he raised a hand to silence him. He kept staring, thinking, assessing. Nic recognised the signs.
Finally, the Archmage said, “You should go back to the camp before you’re missed.”
“I thought we were going to spend the night here,” said Fanny.
“No, no, listen to the Archmage,” said Davo, not one to miss a good opportunity. “We should go. Quickly.”
“Archmage,” said Berimonga, his scar darkening across his face. “Should we really—”
“Enough,” the Archmage interrupted coldly. “Not too many of these matters at one time, Berimonga, not too many distractions from what’s important. Bostware, your boy shows promise. Send him some equipment from the college stores. Make it seem a personal gift. Denkne, you will take up a temporary position at the school. To observe, and offer assistance when asked. When asked, Denkne. That’s all for now, thank you.” He dismissed them with a casual wave of his hand. “Come, I will take you down the mountain.”
He looked over at the dragon. It yawned, creating a minor fog bank, and then lowered its head so its neck slithered along the ground towards them.
The boys looked at each other, not sure they were really being offered a ride on the father of dragons.
They flew up into the speckled night sky. The hour of Demon’s tithe had already passed with little fanfare and no supernatural occurrences. Not in this world, at least.
The camp was quiet and still. The students had gone to sleep hours before. There were some signs of the night’s revelries, which had probably served to keep their absence unnoticed. The dragon landed lightly behind their small building.
“Tell no one about what happened tonight,” said the Archmage. “My daughter is part of this demon’s plans. I believe you are the only one with any hope of saving her without giving it what it wants. And even that is a very small hope.”
The three boys slid off the dragon and stood shakily looking at each other after their dragon ride. They had silly grins on their faces. It had been quite an experience.
“Stay out of trouble, and try to be more discreet in future.” The giant dragon lifted into the air in a very indiscreet manner, and yet woke no one and drew no looks.
“Wow,” said Fanny. “That was cool. Wish I could tell someone.”
“Remember, discretion,” said Davo. “Don’t be a blabbermouth.”
Nic let out a breath and turned around. He was suddenly very tired and wanted to crawl into bed.
Brillard was standing in the doorway of their cabin with a cup of some hot beverage in one hand and a very surprised look on his face. He slowly pointed at the dark silhouette rising into the sky and in a quavering voice said, “Father of Dragons.”