The Good Student

Chapter 38

Chapter Thirty Eight


If he opened his eyes, the darkness frightened him. When he closed them, the darkness was no less dark, but there was a comfort to being inside.

It was worrying when he thought about where he was and what was going to happen to him. Orderly plans kept him from having to contemplate it, so he let his mind sink and sift through his memories. The demon had told him to dig, but he had no strength to fight through anything. He let himself settle as deep as he could and let the weight of his thoughts carry him lower.

His mind was full of information, a whole lifetime’s worth. If he allowed himself to be still, to not let the fear of death override his mental faculties, the answer would rise out of the depths to meet him. If there was an answer.

Winnum Roke’s stories rattled around his head vying for attention, but he pushed them aside. Whatever secrets they might hold, they were beyond him. Clever, twisting parables were fine for children, but they offered little assistance when you were buried alive. Magic, on the other hand, might have come to his aid. He smiled to himself in the dark—the strain it caused in his stiffened skin brought tears to his eyes.

He had told everyone he had no interest in learning magic. No desire to become a student of the Royal College. Not even a passing fancy to enroll in the Arts Course. So proud in his rejection of what others valued so highly. That Dizzy reached for so eagerly. What he would give for ten or twenty years to complete those studies. Perhaps the demon would give him a deferment. He laughed and his skin cracked. He put a hand to his face, but it felt smooth and clean. Dirt fell into his mouth and he had to control his panic with bloody-minded effort. He turned his head to the side and spat it out.

How long had he been lying here? Centuries?

His thoughts sank deeper. What had Denkne said? That nothing was more powerful than creating your own reality and inviting others into it? Trapping them inside.

Was that the point of Winnum Roke’s storybook? Not to communicate an answer, but to be the answer. How would that work? Most likely with magic, of which he had none.

They were stupid stories. People behaving in completely unrealistic ways in order to make some point or other. Why not simply tell people what you meant? Why dress it up in costume and misdirection?

Such things were easy. A cheat. You decided your message, then worked backwards, making it look like the revelation was inevitable. Of course it was. It came first.

He could have come up with one just as easily. A tale full of wise vagueness and seeming insights. A man with a hat will protect his head from the cold. Bravo. Author! Author!

His amusement was bitter, but it wasn’t cold. It warmed him to have others to blame. He could have been the hero of this story if he’d had the correct weapons available to him. And the training. And the courage to use them in the face of abject terror. Then it would have been simple. It would just require him to be someone else, entirely.

Where was the power in words? How did story turn real? It sounded profound, but it made no sense.

Are you weeping, little one? Are you grieving for your abandoned future?

“I tried to build walls in my mind,” said Nic. “They always fall.”

You try to build too high, too quickly. Spread your walls wide. They may be low, but a maze isn’t built to trap, its purpose is to entertain. The one inside wants to find the correct path, that is the joy of it—they will stay until they do.

Was it really so simple? He let his mind see in the darkness. He had tried to visualise the walls of a mighty fortress with ramparts and battlements, and they had tumbled down as soon as he’d looked away. Now he raised hedges, green and leafy, and created patterns around himself.

They stretched out in all directions, surrounding him. Intersecting and forming spirals, with him at the centre, waiting. Only, there was no route to the centre. He had created a labyrinth with no answer. No correct path to be found.

See? Wasn’t that fun? So creative when you put your mind to it.

She came through the hedges, a woman, young and beautiful, hair the colour of autumn wheat, wearing a simple white smock like it was a ball gown. The leaves flew into the air as though a great scythe had slashed out a path to let her through.

All the knowledge in the world isn’t a match for a boy with a little imagination.

She was mocking him. The demon had taken on this form to rip his creation apart in a way he could see clearly.

But demons didn’t lie. If a little imagination was what it would take, he could provide that much, at least. No walls, no maze, he would build a city. If the demon wished to bury him in dirt and despair, he would surround himself with life and the living. Houses and gardens. Paved streets and large squares. Fountains of sparkling water.

It came to him easily, like a child playing with building blocks. A boy and his imagination.

He knew about road planning. He’d read all about aqueducts and sewers. His city would be no toy replica, it would be real and functional. It would have businesses and government. And a library as big as a palace.

He lost himself in his creation. Not just structures of brick and mortar, but people. Families and friends. They filled the emptiness with activity and industry.

Come find me here, he thought. He wasn’t hidden, he was busy.

And the demon came. The woman in white searched for him, seeking an audience. But he was too swamped in work. He had too much to do, too many other people too see. They were no less important than the demon. They were no less real.

They had ambitions and desires, and they came to him for help. He was the creator and he simply had to name something to make it be. This was magic beyond what they taught in the Royal College. He wouldn’t save anyone with these powers, but that was no longer his purpose. If the demon wished to take his world away from him, he would make his own.

And slowly he began to sense something just out of reach, but close and getting closer. There was a power here he had some semblance of control over. His city wasn’t just a puppet show, it was breathing on its own. The people grew old and died, they laughed and cried, and they told stories.

They had myths and legends. They told them to their children and they drew them out of his imagination. He could feel himself generating them like dreams. A life spent reading stories told by others were within him. It didn’t matter if he understood what the author had been trying to say, what lessons were being imparted, it was the story itself. They were structures like buildings. Foundations, support and fortifications. He could speak his own tale and see it rise. It didn’t require him to know the ending first. The ending would be there when he reached it.

“Do you know the story of the Green Demon?” he said.

There was a long pause. So, the boy speaks again. Many stories of demons have I heard over the years. Do you refer to the tale of the the Minutet Forest bear whose fur was green? It terrorised the towns around the forest, and was believed to be a demon, but was not.

“No,” said Nic. “Not a bear. A demon with green eyes and green hair.”

The Woman of La Creza, then? Whose green eyes were said to mesmerise any man so he could not prevent her from gutting him with a dagger. A simple tale of men fearing the women they sleep with. She was but a woman who had been wronged once too often.

“No, not a jealous woman. The Green Demon walked among people without hiding its true form.”

Tell me your story, then. It seems we still have time. Perhaps I will recognise your Green Demon.

There was a subdued curiosity to the demon’s voice. A reluctant handing over of the reins. Nic took them, careful to not seem too eager.

“The Green Demon lived in a city, summoned by a mage.”

So, a pet.

“Yes. A pet. A slave. It served its master, and when the master died, the demon was free. But it had spent a long time among humans and had become accustomed to their ways. It lived in the mage's house, and it chose to help the citizens. In times of war, when famine struck, when aid was required. It was accepted. It was known to be wise and learned and would freely offer advice when asked.”

Hmm. Already this demon sounds very strange.

“Are you saying it isn’t real?” asked Nic. He had been careful to make the story clear yet short of detail, just like the stories he had read.

I would like to hear more before I decide.

“A man came to the demon, a seeker of knowledge, and asked the demon to teach him what his own tutors could not. The demon said, ‘You will not have the patience to travel with me and hold your tongue when you see things you do not understand. You chase answers instead of waiting for them.’”

I do not know your demon, but I grow fond of its words.

Nic slowed his breathing. He had spent most of his life giving people the answers they were looking for. This was no different. “The man insisted he would be patient. He sensed a rare opportunity to improve himself, and he was willing to be restrained, even though it was not in his nature.”

Nic was trying his best to tell the story in the correct manner. Did it matter how he told it? He wasn’t sure, but even without being able to see, he could sense the demon listening intently.

“The Green Demon relented, but with one proviso. If the man was to ask for an explanation three times, there would be separation between them. The man agreed.”

This story feels familiar, and yet not. As though it is all stories in one. Are you hoping to enlighten me with insights anew?

“This is the Green Demon’s story. I doubt it will make you any different than you already are.”

We shall see. Please, continue.

“They travelled around the city, the seeker observing his master closely. They came to a house where a man worked a furnace, preparing to shod horses. Children were playing in a courtyard. Many animals roamed freely. None paid attention to the demon who could attract no attention if he wished.

“A little girl stood out from the rest of the children. Although young, it was obvious her features would one day mark her out as a great beauty. The demon went to the furnace and took hold of a burning log. With a sudden strike, it hit the girl in the face, cutting her cheek open and blinding one eye. The girl screamed and fell to the floor.”

Nic waited for the demon to speak, but there were no questions.

“Her family rushed to see what had happened. In the confusion, the Green Demon walked out of the courtyard and down the street. The seeker was confused and waited for some kind of explanation, but none came. Eventually, he could hold his tongue no more and asked the demon, ‘Why did you strike down the child? Was she evil? Had she committed some crime?’

“The Green Demon said, ‘Did I not tell you to be patient?’ and the man understood he was being tested and that the demon would perform all sorts of unfathomable acts to tempt his tongue. Their only purpose was to befuddle him and he was ashamed he had succumbed so easily. He vowed to hold his tongue.”

This man was foolish, but a quick learner. Perhaps a relative of yours?

“Yes,” said Nic. “Perhaps. They continued on their trips and came to a large house. The lord of the manor offered the respected demon food and drink. They spent a pleasant evening dining and making conversation, and then when all were spent and asleep in their chairs, the demon rose and left the house, closing the doors and barring them from outside. Then he set fire to the house.

“The man who had offered them hospitality was burned alive, along with everyone else in his household. The Green Demon acted as though nothing of note had passed. The seeker was perplexed, but he knew better than to ask, but surely the demon had not committed arson and murder just to test him.”

He won’t be able to hold his tongue.

“He wasn’t. The next day the man’s vow to stay silent broke as though he’d been suffering from a fever. He demanded an explanation, knowing he would have one more chance after this.”

Foolish. Asking is not the same as receiving.

“No. The demon admonished him for his impatience and offered no explanation. But the man did not regret his outburst. It was the release he needed more than the relief. The demon continued his life of ease in the city built at the meeting point of two rivers.”

Your city. I have enjoyed walking its streets.

“Thank you. I enjoyed building them. The city guard came to the demon’s house and brandished their weapons. They forced the demon out, driving it beyond the city walls, hurling abuse and threatening the demon if it tried to return. They had heard of the demon's acts of cruelty and wanted no harm to befall any more citizens. The seeker followed the demon as it retreated to the woods. They waited for nightfall.

“Under cover of the dark, the Green Demon returned to the city walls. It found a small crack between the stone blocks and slid its fingers into it. Slowly, the crack enlarged and stretched into an opening. The man followed the demon into the city, dreading what inexplicable horror he was about to witness. But there was no horror this time. The demon made its way through the streets of the sleeping city, to a storm drain in the central square.

“With careless ease, the demon lifted the iron grate from the drain and whistled into the dark, dank passage. Immediately there were a scurry of feet, and rats poured out of the drain. The demon hurried back to the crack in the city wall, chased by thousands of rats. The man raced to stay ahead of them, although they seemed to have little interest in anything but the demon.

“Once out of the city, the Green Demon headed down to the river. He stood on the bank as the rats threw themselves into the water. They didn’t drown as rats are excellent swimmers. They headed off into the night as though an important task awaited them.”

And now our confused hero will fail once more.

“Yes,” said Nic. “He couldn’t bear it. ‘Those soldiers chased you away, yet you broke into the city to rid them of rats. What kind of perverse reward for their behaviour is this?’ The Green Demon smiled sadly and said, ‘This shall be separation between me and you; now I will inform you of the significance of that with which you could not have patience.’” Nic stopped.

There was a long pause, after which the demon finally spoke. And what was the significance?

“Can’t you guess?” said Nic. “You who have a joy of mazes, can’t you find your own way out? Or do you require me to show you the way?”

Ah, but what a fine structure you have built. A quick, quick learner. You disappoint like all the others, but you come back stronger. It is good. You should be proud of how far you have come in so short a time. Your tale is a fine effort for one so young. Never did I sense a false note. The demon, although not known to me, was known to you. It lives in its world as I live in this one.

“And the reasons for its actions?” asked Nic, sensing the demon was delaying for time.

Not so hard to fathom. The girl whose face the Green Demon scarred, her beauty was destined to bring her grief. The eyes of men would be drawn to her, forcing themselves into acts of wanton lust. The mighty who know no censure, the family members who harbour cruel designs. By marring her looks, future pain was averted.

“No,” said Nic.

No? The details may not—

“No. Do you think I lie?”

No. You do not lie. Let me think on it. But the host burned in his own home, a paragon of his community who none would condemn for fear of reprisal. His evil acts carried out with impunity because of his position.

“Not even close.”

There was a longer pause, with a chill attached. Then the city rats. A simple matter of a charitable deed requiring no thanks. Even though the city guard were hostile and unjust, the Green Demon acted to save their city from disease and infestation.”

“Nope.”

You speak too hastily, said the demon with irritation in its voice. The actions of a demon are not so easily understood by your kind. You ascribe them roles in your pantomimes that represent your own foibles and desires.

Nic smiled to himself. This had been his intention, to feed the demon its own prejudices about people. Not that they were necessarily wrong, but once they were known, they could be used against them. Demons had a tendency to be inflexible, to commit themselves wholesale. It was a powerful force to be reckoned with, when they were right.

“Do you want me to tell you the answer?” said Nic.

I don’t need you to explain anything to me.

“I don’t think that’s true.”

There was a tension in the air. He was challenging the demon’s belief in itself. He had brought it into his territory and played a game where he made the rules. He could have simply fudged his answers, made them different to whatever the demon suggested, but that wouldn’t have worked. He needed his answers to be better. Truer. And they were. He believed that, and so did the demon.

What will you demand to complete your tale?

“Nothing. Find your own ending.” He wanted to ask for his freedom, but he knew that would have been what the demon expected. And that was the one rule to follow.

There was a long, long silence. And then the demon began to take apart the story, examining the Green Demon’s actions, questioning every aspect, making bold claims that were all shot down. At times exhibiting a ferocity so gleeful that it was almost genial, and now a geniality so outrageous that it bordered on the ferocious; yet Nic passed judgment with the tranquil superiority of an all-knowing creator.

With each rejection, he felt the demon’s presence weaken. The hold on him became slack. The demon’s focus was elsewhere, and Nic felt the chains loosen. To the point it was more like a leash held by him, a tug every time the demon worried some obscure aspect of the Green Demon’s tale.

He had achieved a small victory, but to what end? He hadn’t gained anything. How could he transform what was most likely a momentary respite, into a genuine advantage? He had no inkling if he had made any kind of meaningful progress.

What he did know was that the demon was lost inside the world he had created. It was a pitiful version of itself, harried and uncertain, roaming the streets of his city. There was at least a little solace to take from that.

And the smaller it shrank, the larger he grew. He could swallow it whole, if he wished. Where would that lead?

It wasn’t like consuming a sweet, down his throat. He was encased inside a black bubble and with a shrug of his shoulders he could invert it, enclosing the demon on the inside and taking the outer for himself.

He wouldn’t have had the perception to see the possibility before. Now he saw it clearly.

The chain he had been tied with was the tether the demon used to hold onto him. Another one reached into the void. Attached to Simole? The demon had placed itself between them, mediating everything, filtering what it would and wouldn’t allow to pass.

If Nic could switch places with the demon, he would have direct access. It might not be much, but perhaps he could reach Simole. Ask her what she needed from him. Allow her to use whatever power she had left. There were many possibilities.

He didn’t know what he was doing, but how much risk was there when you’ve already failed? His options were few, but at least he had some now. Time to stop feeling worthless and sorry for himself.

He felt around in his mind until he latched onto the nagging, twitching thread that seemed to jerk his insides around. It had been tightly wound, and hard to distinguish until it had loosened. Now it was impossible to ignore. He drew it to him.

It was difficult at first. Nothing seemed to happen. But it slowly became taut, then heavy.

What are you doing?

“Come here a minute.”

You wish to have me close?

“Very close.”

There was resistance. Pulling away. He tightened his grip. He had built these walls, these streets. They cleared for him as he reeled the demon in.

What... are... you... doing? repeated the demon, this time more firmly.

“Testing something. What do you taste like?”

There was thrashing and he almost lost his hold. He yanked as hard as his mind would allow. It was like his head was splitting.

He suddenly felt very full. Even though the demon had unravelled to a smaller rendition of its previous incarnation, it still filled him, making him feel like an overstuffed toy. He was wrapped around the demon, and could feel it begin to dissolve. He was consuming it.

The struggling stopped.

Finally. Finally.

There was an exaltation to the voice he didn’t like. The sick feeling he had been outwitted again washed over him. No, no, no. He had already lost. How could he lose more?

He couldn’t.

You have done well. A quick learner. Very quick. I thought I would have to wait an eternity, but now we can begin. The voice was quieter, weaker, much more sinister.

“You were expecting this?” he asked quietly.

Hoping. Waiting. This has always been dependent on when you were ready to make the sacrifice.

“I’m not the sacrifice… you are.”

Of course. Little boys make poor offerings. Not enough meat on the bone. You are the door. I give myself gladly. Ahhh.

He felt the demon move within him, like it was settling into a hot bath.

“No. I won’t do this. I reject you.”

He tried to push the demon out, but it wouldn’t work. It was lodged in him, a fishbone in his throat.

The demon laughed softly. So desperate to play the hero, to save everyone. You are so obvious, but you don’t win the day by killing the demon. You lose because you failed to keep the demon alive. It laughed again.

Quite the irony. By consuming the demon, he would satisfy the necessary requirements. He would open the gateway. He would become the door just as Simole had. No, not like her. She had some control over what happened to her. He had none. He had been prepared like a fattened calf. Cared for and fed well. Treated kindly so the meat wouldn’t spoil. The demon had allowed itself to become weaker as he became stronger. Just enough so he could overcome the demon’s natural resilience.

He had been made stronger.

“You gave me power.”

Yes. A tiny morsel. Thrilling, isn’t it?

Yes. Thrilling. He had been collecting arrows his whole life, and finally someone had handed him a bow. “I’ve never had power before.”

There was a hesitation. Too little to mean anything.

“I don’t believe you.”

Nic grabbed onto himself, threw invisible arms around his consciousness. It felt ragged and bloated. He squeezed.

What is that supposed to do?

“You’re getting weaker too quickly. I don’t want to miss out on the nourishment you could provide. I have to hurry.”

A heat filled him as he fed. His blood sang.

No, no, no. Stop. Stop!

He sucked the demon in with everything he had. The demon screamed. It was the most wonderful sound Nic had ever heard.


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