Nic hurried after the Archmage before he lost him. The fog rapidly closed in after being swept aside by the dragon’s wings and obscured everything more than an arm’s length away.
The thick white mist kept the dragon partially hidden, its outline like scaffolding on one side of the Pagoda to keep it from falling down.
That helped. Made the enormous reptile seem less real even though he knew full well how real it was, perched, watching him. Nic kept his head bent low, his eyes focused on the ground so he wouldn’t trip and fall. So he wouldn’t lose sight of the path. So he wouldn’t have to look up.
But it wasn’t scaffolding. It moved and writhed in his peripheral vision as he ran towards the entrance. The Archmage had already gone inside. The tail slithered as it curled around the Pagoda’s base, sealing the only way in.
The Archmage had said to follow, but the dragon seemed to have other ideas. It’s glossy black scales blocked the doorway once, twice, the surfaces sliding over each other with a metallic rasp.
The dragon dove out of the fog with sinister grace and Nic froze, unable to move, a mouse petrified by the serpent’s stare. The head stopped in front of him, both eyes elongated into green slits angled to peer down the length of its snout. It’s lips curled back to reveal rows and rows of triangular teeth. The precision with which they interlocked was mesmerising.
He had read about the father of dragons, the absolute dominance it held over its offspring, the power in its cold, venomous blood. He had seen pictures in books. They weren’t accurate. No drawing could capture the flicker of the fiery red tongue or the dark endless cavern of its throat. Nic could have walked all the way into its stomach and never have to lower his head.
Nic’s body shook but he daren’t move. The dragon sniffed, first a short intake of air, then a longer one that brought the fog rushing in, flapping Nic’s clothes and sucking his hair into his face.
The dragon lifted its head and bellowed a deafening roar. It was an angry, sad, yearning cry. It was for Simole.
The Archmage had said it was an impenetrable fog and nothing could enter or leave, not even sound, but how could anyone not have heard that?
Nic gritted his teeth and forced down his fear. There was no time for this. Simole was alive, somehow. Her father had come to save her, to do what Nic couldn’t. That was all that mattered.
“Let me by,” said Nic, his voice trembling and carrying no force whatsoever. “I have to help get Simole back.” He had no idea what his role was in all this. What help could he be to the greatest mage in the world?
Not knowing wouldn’t stop him. It would drive him on as it always had. Even if it was just holding the Archmage’s coat while he performed whatever spells were necessary, Nic would do as asked.
There was a hiss as jets of steam blasted out of the dragon’s nostrils. The head rose again and the dragon clambered up the Pagoda, knocking off tiles and bricks as it disappeared into the mist, its tail the last to disappear, sliding up the Pagoda in curls, round and round until the the dark, foreboding door was once again revealed.
The bloom of light in the fog dimmed and faded. The white walls surrounding him rapidly darkened. Nic ran forward.
He stumbled as he entered, his hands outstretched, feeling for the door frame. There was no light and even the faint glimmer through the gaps in the Pagoda’s walls had been extinguished by the suffocating fog.
The stairs leading down were on his left. He made his way from memory. There was no sound, no sign of the Archmage. Nic tripped, scrabbled on his hands and knees. The rough ground tore at his palms.
There was another howl of bestial frustration from far above. A white light bloomed outside, flooding in through every gap and crack. He could see the stairway and ran as the light faded again. He slammed into the wall with his shoulder and sat down on the steps. He slid on his backside using his hands and feet to propel himself downwards.
The darkness enveloped him again. There had been torches lighting the stairway from sconces in the wall, but they were mute. Nic worked his way down as quickly as he dared, ignoring the sharp digs as he bounced off the steps.
His feet met flat ground when he wasn’t expecting it and his ankles buckled. He stopped, breathing hard, the palms of his hands stinging. There was a blue glow up ahead. He could see the shape of the door outlined by it. It was moving away, growing fainter. He didn’t want to lose it. He pushed himself to his feet and forced himself to walk forward, limping and grinning against the pain.
After a few steps the pain subsided and he was able to walk normally and then run. He saw the Archmage at the other end of the passage, a ball of light hanging over him.
Nic reached him as he opened a door. The light was cold blue and highlighted every line and crevice in the Archmage’s bald head and gaunt, unsmiling face.
“There you are,” said the Archmage with a disinterested air, like a busy scholar distracted by important thoughts. He would have made an excellent librarian. “What’s your name?”
“Tutt. Nicolav Tutt. Nic.” His breathing was laboured and his words came out choppy and nervous.
“And you were a friend of my daughter’s?” He said the word like it was a food he’d never tasted before.
“Yes, sir. We were in the same classes. Lived in the same building.”
“You knew she was my daughter? She told you?” He was still holding the door open but not entering. His eyes worked their way around the frame of the door, searching for something.
Nic’s breathing returned to something approaching normal. “I knew but she didn’t tell me. I guessed.”
The Archmage paused his examination of the door to look at Nic. “You guessed? How did you do that?”
“A troop of dragons stopped here. They bowed to her.”
The Archmage nodded, understanding the significance. “And what did she tell you about me? That I was a tyrant and a maniac who kept his child locked up in a castle?”
“No. She didn’t say much. Just that she had betrayed you. She didn’t say why?”
“Betrayed me? Ha. She betrayed me no more than I could betray myself. This is where the body was found?” He pointed into the room he still hadn’t entered.
“Yes. I found her.”
“Yes?” said the Archmage,
“She wasn’t breathing. She was cold and her eyes showed no signs of life.”
The Archmage accepted this information with no reaction “Yes. She isn’t in her body. She’s in… there.” He pointed into the room again.
Nic tried to look past the Archmage but he couldn’t see much beyond the shadows. Certainly no sign of Simole.
“I can’t see her.”
“Of course. Her corporeal body isn’t here. Go in.”
Nic hesitated. “In there?”
“Yes, where else?”
There was the slight suggestion in the Archmage’s tone of voice that it wasn’t entirely safe in the room.
“Shouldn’t you go in first?” he said meekly, not wanting to sound like he was refusing.
The Archmage looked at Nic with a cold, hard gaze and then slowly lowered his eyes until they reached Nic’s feet. His eyes moved from his feet to the floor and towards the door, his head bobbing slightly as though following a meandering thread. He looked into the room and nodded to himself.
“You’re the one she tethered herself to.”
Nic looked down at himself, trying to see what the Archmage had seen. “I can’t see any tether.”
“You take things very literally, don’t you?” The Archmage furrowed his brow. “For some reason my daughter chose to attach her lifeline to you, and not very well. I imagine she was rushed but still, I trained her better than this.”
Nic continued to look himself over, under his arms and around his back as far as his neck would allow.
“There really is no obvious explanation why it would be you, though. You seem to have remarkably little to attach anything to.”
“Maybe I was just the nearest person. I was in the library when she died. Or didn’t die.”
“Perhaps so, perhaps so. Well, in you go.”
Nic remained where he was. “What does the tether do?”
“It allows her to find her way back, assuming she survives.”
The Archmage grabbed Nic by the back of his coat collar and heaved him into the room.
Nic stumbled and staggered, the force of the throw taking him into the middle of the room. The large chair was in front of him and he grabbed onto it to avoid falling over.
He sprang upright and his head darted from side to side, half-expecting a monster to lurch out of the dark.
“How do you feel?” asked the Archmage.
“Fine,” said Nic in a small voice. “How am I supposed to feel?”
“Any pain? Shortness of breath?”
“No,” said Nic, feeling like he’d just been used to spring any possible traps.
“No overwhelming despair or desire to end your own life?”
“No,” said Nic emphatically. Had Simole’s father just tried to kill him?
“Excellent.” The Archmage walked into the room, the ball of light followed him in.
The light filled the room, pushing back shadows and changing the shape of everything. In the stark blue-white the room looked cold and sterile, completely unlike the cosy, fireside nook Nic had seen it as before.
The chair had harsh lines and looked uncomfortable. The fireplace was a ragged hole in the wall. The ceiling was uneven and gave the room the appearance of a warren dug out of the earth.
“The centre of this folly is here,” the Archmage said harshly. “There is an emptiness to this place. A hole in the world that bleeds out Arcanum. This is where she was.” His eyes constantly scanned the walls. “She is no longer here.”
The odd unfamiliarity of the room almost raised doubt in Nic’s mind that this was the same room he had found Simole’s body.
“Where did she go?” asked Nic quietly not wanting to disturb the Archmage as he pored over every inch with his intense gaze.
“The Other Place. The Demon Realm.”
“How can you be sure?”
The Archmage stopped and stared at Nic like he’d never had his words questioned before, which he probably hadn’t.
“She isn’t here, and the tether is still attached to you. There is nowhere else she could be.” He crossed to the middle of the room, turning all the way around. “You found her here? Her body?”
“Yes,” said Nic.
“Who else was here?”
“No one. Mr Tenner and Professor Veristotle were the only ones to use this building, and neither were here. At least, I didn’t see them. I don’t know what happened to them.” He glanced around, a crawling sensation down his neck warning him to watch out. Nothing moved, no sound was made. There was no one else there.
“There is death here.” The Archmage bent his head and closed his eyes. “A man, a mortal. His life was consumed. We will ask him what transpired.”
The ball of light still hovering over their heads grew brighter but smaller. The Archmage lips moved silently. Nic felt a crackle of something running along his fingers and up the hairs on his arms. He backed away.
The Archmage, his eyes still closed, tapped the fingers on one hand against the thumb, one to the next and back again.
The ball of light, now a small aperture exuding streaks of blue lines like light shone through a keyhole, slowly expanded and took the shape of a man. The form was insubstantial, shimmering like a figure seen at the bottom of a pool of water, but the identity was clear.
“Mr Tenner?” said Nic, his voice hushed in awe.
The figure turned to face him. He was dressed the same as always, but it wasn’t the suave, well-groomed teacher Nic had known. He was wild-haired and wild-eyed and his skin was drained of colour. The blue-grey lips mouthed “Nic?” but no sound came from them.
Nic’s blood ran cold and he stumbled backwards. “Is... Is he a ghost?”
The vision of Tenner reached out a hand towards Nic. He looked sad, lost.
“Stop thinking like a child,” said the Archmage dismissively. “There are no such things as ghosts. To truly resurrect a deceased life would be to raise an abomination. This is the memory of the one who died here. The last vestiges of his mind caught in an Arcanum net.”
Nic had never heard of an Arcanum net and had no idea of the difference between a ghost and the resurrected memory of a dead man, but it was definitely Mr Tenner.
“Tenner!” barked the Archmage.
Tenner’s head snapped to the side to face the Archmage. His lips moved again but Nic couldn’t tell what he was saying.
The Archmage raised a hand. “What happened here? How did you die?”
Tenner’s ghost, or whatever it was, ran towards the Archmage who didn’t react, didn’t attempt to get out of the way. The ghost passed through him and kept going towards the far wall. Suddenly he stopped and threw up his arms. He arched his back and lunged forward like he’d been shoved from behind.
His face contorted and his mouth screamed. His body twisted unnaturally so it seemed he would fall, but he hung illogically in mid-air. His arm vanished, then his leg. His face continued to show great pain and horror as parts of his body disappeared one by one, and then he was gone, taking the room’s source of illumination with him.
Nic stood quietly in the dark not sure what he had just witnessed. Another ball of light appeared over the Archmage’s head.
“That was interesting,” he said grimly.
“Did something eat him?” asked Nic.
“Quite possibly. I suppose we should ask him.”
The Archmage went through the same gestures and silent incantation as before. The light shrank once more and Tenner appeared. He looked just as bewildered as the first time.
“Mr Tenner?” said Nic softly, confident now that the ghost couldn’t harm him.
Tenner looked at him and mouthed “Nic?” in exactly the same surprised manner.
“He doesn’t remember?” said Nic.
“No. It can’t make new memories, you need a brain and blood with a heart to pump it to do that.”
“But he can see us and hear us. Doesn’t he need organs to do that, too?”
The Archmage smiled but there was a condescending edge to it. “It responds to vibrations. You are just noise. You have to speak in the right frequency to be understood. And you have to know the right question to ask. Tenner!”
The ghost turned to face the Archmage again.
“What happened to my daughter? What happened to Simole?”
Tenner darted forward again, but this time he went towards the chair. He stood in front of it and began waving his arms around, circling them like he was stirring a cauldron.
As his hands went round and round, ribbons emerged. It was like watching a clown pull knotted handkerchiefs from his sleeves, only these weren’t multicoloured, they were black. They streamed out and swirled around an invisible figure, slowly wrapping around a head, then a body. A small, female body.
“I don’t think that’s Simole,” said Nic. It was a crooked and deformed with twisted limbs.
“Tis a demon,” said the Archmage approaching the chair for a closer look.
Tenner spun on, swiftly working his way down to the feet, the figure swathed in black bandages.
“And my child, she was within? Hmm. I see. She accelerated the process.” He nodded in a way that made Nic think he was being appreciative of whatever it was Simole had done. “And then what, after the transformation...”
Tenner’s ghost leaped back, and began a familiar flailing dance ending again with limbs torn off and a dousing of the light.
The Archmage once more produced another glowing ball. The light revealed a malicious smile on his lips. “My girl. My clever, clever girl.” He moved towards the far wall. “Here.” He held up his hand like he was going to place it on the wall, but kept it from touching. “The door is here.”
“A Roke door?” asked Nic.
The Archmage turned sharply. “What do you know of such things?” he demanded.
The intensity of the question set Nic back on his heels.
“Nothing. It was what Tenner was interested in opening. It’s what his research was about.”
“And is that what brought you and my daughter together? That terrible woman?”
Nic was thrown by the question. “What terrible woman? You mean Winnum Roke?”
“Indeed. Greatest egomaniac Ranvar has ever seen. There’s a statue of her in the Royal College that she commissioned herself.” He said it like he could think of no greater crime.
“Do you know how she died?” asked Nic, fascinated by the insight into the woman he had only read about.
“She killed herself,” said the Archmage. He touched the wall and jerked his hand back like he’d pricked himself on a sharp pin.
Nic couldn’t see anything but a stone wall but he didn’t doubt the door was there if the Archmage said so. “Is Simole going to be alright?”
The Archmage snorted. “I have been training her for this her whole life.” He leaned closer, his nose almost touching the wall, like a naughty child told to stand in the corner. “She made the choice to abandon her studies with me and come to this place. I cannot help her now.”
He turned away from the wall and walked back towards the door.
“Wait,” said Nic, a surge of panic making him grab the Archmage’s cloak. “Aren’t you going to bring her back?”
The Archmage stopped and turned around, pulling his garb out of Nic’s hand. “Even if I had the time, I don’t think it would be my place to interfere. And I don’t have the time. The whole world is at risk. What is the fate of one headstrong girl when matched against the ruin of the entire planet?”
Nic was dumbfounded. “But… but… she’s your daughter.”
The Archmage changed from the calm, unaffected sage to an enraged beast, his face so dark and blind with fury the younger man drew back from him in real fear.
“We’re all someone’s daughter, someone’s son. Are you suggesting she is more important than every other person alive? I should forsake all others to ferry her home? That would be a deed of true ill omen.”
The storm passed as quickly as it had come. The Archmage let out his breath and he seemed to shrink to a more human size.
“Can’t we help her?” Nic asked quietly.
The Archmage stepped away from Nic. He was a intimidating man, both in size and presence but even though his countenance was fearsome, he spoke softly. “She is indeed more precious to me than any single person, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to ask millions to perish to save her. And you are being presumptuous to think she needs saving. She may very well save us all, if the wind blows in her favour.”
“What kind of chance can she have alone in the Demon Realm?” asked Nic.
“Hardly any,” said the Archmage. “It is a desolate land without water, without light, to step foot on that poisonous earth is to enter a dark place to die. Perhaps if she had tethered herself to me as I had prepared her, her chances would be better. Perhaps. But she chose to tie her fate to you. We shall see how her judgement fares.”
Nic was listening intently, waiting for the part that would make sense. The clever plan that had been laid out for just this situation the Archmage had obviously foreseen. But there was no such revelation.
“Why did you train her to go there? What is she meant to do?” His questions had been reduced to desperate pleading. There was nothing he could force the Archmage of Ranvar to do, even if he knew what needed to be done.
“I never intended to send her into that place. Such an undertaking would be pure folly. Her task was to prevent the opening of the door, not open it herself. I’m not even entirely sure what she’ll find there. I have heard stories of a place joy has abandoned, where terror reigns, about rivers of free-flowing darkness that will dissolve all living matter, and shadow dragons that spew molten rock, yet these could be mere fanciful tales. Who knows?”
Nic felt a great anxiety in his heart. When he thought of her as dead, he felt the pain of loss. But now he knew she was in another world, fighting for her life, the fear for her chewed at him. He wanted to help her but didn’t know how, had no power to lend her.
“The tether, will she be able to use it to get back?”
The Archmage sighed. “That is what it was made to do, a lifeline to cling to. But it is poorly manifested. If I were the recipient, perhaps I could strengthen the feeble bonds, but I am not. You are.”
“Can’t you transfer it to yourself. Make the bond firmer that way?”
The Archmage took a moment to think about the suggestion. “If she had done a good job I wouldn’t be able to, but this sloppy effort might actually make it possible.”
Nic could see the solution, a way to help Simole. He wasn’t the right person to guide her home. There was only one man suitable for that role.
“So you’ll transfer the tether?” said Nic, trying to speed the process along desperate to put the answer next to the question and hand in the assignment.
“Oh no, there’s no time for that,” said the Archmage. “She has her battles to fight and I have mine. Now that the door is open, new preparations need to be made. Sadly, the most likely outcome is an invasion of the kingdom, followed by the rest of the world.”
Nic couldn’t quite believe it. “You won’t even increase her chances of finding her way back?” His words were filled with sheer astonishment.
“No, you’re right, I should try to increase the odds. Normally, I would allow the situation to run its course, the best teacher is to suffer the consequences of your own actions, but this is a special case, considering there may be nobody left to learn the lesson.”
He talked so much and yet it was hard to pin down how he intended to help. Most of it seemed vague assurances and a deliberate absence of guarantees.
“Stand still a moment,” said the Archmage. He pinched his finger and thumb together and slid them back and forth. “Can you feel it tighten?”
There was a cramp in Nic’s side. He put his hand on his hip, pressing down to relieve the uncomfortable twinge. It began to rise, moving up and across his chest where it settled for a few seconds.
Nic’s hand followed it across his body. It wasn’t painful but there was some discomfort. It rose to his neck and seemed to tighten considerably then, a collar around his throat, constricting sharply.
“There, that should hold. Nice and tight.”
Nic had his hand on his throat, struggling to breathe. “Can you loosen it a little, please?” he said in a hoarse whisper.
Archmage Van Dastan wasn’t overly impressed by the request but he raised a hand and the noose around Nic’s neck eased, a little.
“What am I supposed to do?” said Nic, rubbing his neck.
“Nothing. The doing is down to her. Your only job is to wait. And don’t die young.”
“How long will it take her to come back?”
“Anything from a few days to many years. Just be here for her when she’s ready to return.” He turned and walked out of the door, his head hunched between his shoulders as though a great weight pressed down on him.
Nic remained, wondering what he’d got himself into. She was alive, at least. Beyond that, he had no clear idea of how being tethered would affect him. Not at all, by the sounds of things.
It quickly darkened in the room as the Archmage’s light followed him out the door. Nic chased after it so he could see the way out. He ran to catch up but the Archmage effortlessly kept his distance, almost floating up the stairs.
Nic finally caught up when he left the Pagoda. The Archmage was standing in the white fog staring upwards. Nic followed his gaze but the fog was too thick to see beyond the Pagoda’s lower tiers.
“He is upset,” said the Archmage. “He agrees with you. He doesn’t want to leave her.”
Nic assumed he meant the dragon but he neither saw or heard anything. At least somebody in Simole’s family missed her.
“And what about you?” said the Archmage. “Do you plan to enter the Royal College and become a mage?”
“No,” said Nic. “I don’t have any interest, or ability.”
The Archmage frowned like he considered it a particularly stupid answer. “Neither is necessary to learn the art. Do you know man’s greatest power? Beyond strength or intelligence?”
It was the sort of question they asked in Reason and Logic class. The answer was usually something poetic when it should rightly be money and an effective army.
“Hope?” said Nic.
“Ha. Hope. What good is that? No, boy. Perseverance. You learn magic by doing magic. Now that I’ve lost my sword, perhaps I should sharpen a new one. What say you, boy? Are you ready for such a challenge. I could train you. You have shown surprising persistence already. There are not many who would dare harry and provoke the Archmage of Ranvar the way you have.”
It was certainly a rare opportunity but all he felt was a deep resentment. He was being offered the chance to study Arcanum at the highest level with its greatest practitioner, to perhaps become as powerful as Simole. But there was a hidden cost. Why offer the role to a talentless child instead of a trained mage? There was only one reason. To be the vassal of a man who saw others as tools to be used, even his own daughter, was to give up a part of himself, even if it was evidently a part only he valued.
He had been overawed and frightened too much, he had been filled up with fear and and had got sick of it and now he wanted no more.
“No?” said the Archmage. “Is that all?”
“No, thank you,” said Nic.
The Archmage was a little taken aback. “It is not everyday the chance to apprentice with the greatest living mage arises. And fewer days the offer is so firmly rejected.”
“I would rather achieve things for myself and be in no one’s debt,” said Nic.
“As you will. Come, All-Father, we have no time to dawdle.”
The giant serpent slithered down the Pagoda, its wings creating a rush of air ahead of it, clearing some of the fog to reveal itself. The sight was still astonishing.
“I will secure her body, wherever they’ve placed it, so she will have something to return to. In the meantime, speak to no one about this. She is counting on you, Nicolav Tutt, as am I.”
He climbed onto the dragon’s lowered neck and they rose together in a long, slow, sweeping motion. The mist rose with them, clinging to the dragon and trailing behind it like a gown. All that was left was a dour, chill dawn, the dark starry sky edged by a pale strip of grey.