The Good Student

Chapter 52

Chapter Fifty Two


It was a lot colder sitting on a dragon high above the ground than it was being a dragon high above the ground. The wind whipped Nic’s hair back, and chilled his face. He didn’t much feel it.

Dizzy had her arms around his waist. She was pressed up against his back, the two of them squeezed into a saddle made for one. Her chin was resting on the top of his shoulder, digging into him. When she blinked, her long lashes scraped against his cheek.

“Do you ever feel like you’re waiting for something to happen,” she said, the words falling the short distance to his ear before the wind could steal them, “but you don’t know what it is? A thing that could change your life into something special, purposeful. And finally it arrives... only for a boy to step out and take it away from you.”

The warmth he felt from her body was not reflected in her voice.

“Well done, Nic. You did it. You travelled to another world and changed this one. Something not many people can claim to have done, and you managed it while simultaneously stealing my destiny from me. I would guess you were ambidextrous, if I didn’t know otherwise.”

Nic thought of a number of different responses, but he could easily predict how each would be received, even with all the other concerns weighing on his mind. Apology would invite rage. Denial would insist on it. The only thing to do was to refuse to accept the premise.

“How did I steal something that was never yours?” said Nic, having to raise his voice to make sure it reached her.

“You didn’t.” The sharpness in her voice fell away, deflated. “I’m just being unreasonable.”

“Yeah,” said Nic. “I know.”

She sighed. “Where are your manners, Nic? You’re supposed to disagree when a woman criticises herself. Agreeing makes it sound like you think I’m jealous of you.”

“You are,” he said.

“You aren’t supposed to say it, though.”

“Why not? We both know it.”

“You’re such a clever, clever boy, but you don’t understand people.”

“It’s just you I don’t understand,” he said.

“I know,” she said, and moved her head to get her lips closer to his ear, brushing skin against skin. “Stop thinking of me in that way. It makes it hard for me to focus on what I need to do when I can see the dirty thoughts on your face.”

“No, you can’t,” he blurted out, and only then realising that was the same as admitting it. He turned his head and felt how close she was. Heat filled his face as he looked into her eyes.

“Your heart’s beating very fast. I can feel it through your back.”

He turned to face front. “I can’t help it if you hold me that tightly.”

“I’m holding on so I don’t fall off,” she said. He felt her hands unclasp from around his waist, slide down his hips, and come to rest on his thighs. He nearly jumped out of his seat.

He let go of the saddle pommel and grabbed her hands, quickly returning them to their previous position. “It’s safer this way.” Safer for both of them.

He thrust his face forward, his nose cleaving the freezing air, letting it cool him down. He hadn’t expected her to come with him.

That wasn’t entirely true. He had expected her to come; he hadn’t expected her to be like this.

They had a tacit agreement to ignore the thing between them. If they pretended it was some silly crush that would pass, they could be like fellow students. Time would pass, other matters would need to be addressed. As long as he kept his mind occupied, he could ignore the pointlessness of his infatuation. That’s all it was, after all. The future was where they could deal with it, if need be. They might never make it that far, so there was no point addressing it now.

But she was deliberately provoking him. For what reason? To amuse herself? Out of sheer pettiness? He had enough on his mind, he didn’t need her prodding him out of boredom. He knew that wasn’t it, though. She was probing him. He had been to the other place, spent far too much time in the company of demons. She wanted to see if it was really him. Could she tell? He had to convince her he hadn’t changed, and if this was her way of testing him, so be it.

The air buffeted them and Simole’s wings adjusted, bouncing them up and down. Dizzy’s grip tightened again. Nothing more than an attempt to gain additional security, he told himself through long slow breaths.

They were heading to the Royal College. Everything would be resolved there. He had played his part. Now his only role was as an observer, an interested party who wanted to see how the story ends.

He was in a privileged position. He was not able to insist he should be allowed to participate. The Librarian had allowed it. The demon had allowed it. Even Simole had allowed it. He knew this, and Dizzy knew it. So why was she so resentful? It wasn’t to be envied. Perhaps if she had been there in his stead, she wouldn’t have let herself be used as a pawn. He could certainly see an argument made that the simple exchange of boy for girl could have made for a very different unfolding of events. But it wasn’t something that had been within his control. None of this felt like it had been his to choose.

He was drawn towards this final meeting out of a need to see the conclusion. If it had been denied to him, there wouldn’t have been much he could do about it.

“Even now you don’t see it, do you?” she said into his ear. “They wouldn’t let you come if they didn’t still need you.”

“They let you come,” he said.

“That’s because I’d make a fuss if they didn’t. And my fuss would have been to take you away from them.”

She was telling him her assessment of events she hadn’t even witnessed, but he could see it clearly when she presented her thoughts. More clearly than from his own vantage point, which had been close and personal. Too close. Her analysis was good. He wasn’t one to deny another person’s reasoning just because it didn’t correspond to his.

And the realisation made his heart swell and his breath shorten. She wasn’t coming to see what they were going to decide, to try and find a way to insert herself into the plans of demons and mages. She knew she was as ill-prepared as he had been. Well, maybe not that ill-prepared, but far from ready.

She was coming because she had spotted a way in that was much more appropriate for her capabilities. Him. He was part of this, and she was going to stick with him so they came as a pair. She was using him, and it made him happy. That was probably the wrong response. But the important thing to remember was that she would have to follow his lead. She might want to take over at some point, but first she would have to be his second, his assistant. The world might be in turmoil, with supernatural calamity on the horizon, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy having her follow him around for once. He kept his face looking straight so she wouldn’t see his grin.

“What’s going to happen when we get there?” said Dizzy, pushing her chin over his shoulder and resting her cheek against his. “Will they fight?”

It felt like he had two heads now.

“I don’t think so,” said Nic, resolutely facing forward. If he turned even slightly, his lips would meet hers.  “I don’t think they ever did much fighting. They’ve always had too much to lose. It’s easier to negotiate when you both have something the other wants.”

The stories about the battles between mages and demons seemed highly unlikely to him. Not untrue, but more metaphorical than literal. The battle had been of another kind. One which required dragons.

“What if we get there and the All-Father is just another big dumb dragon?” she said.

“He isn’t,” said Nic. He turned his head to where the Librarian rode one of the other dragons. The one with his demon in it. “They aren’t going to see a dumb dragon.”

Dizzy shifted behind him, looking the same way as him, resting her ear against his back. “She’s going there for a reason.” Her words vibrated pleasantly through him.

“Yes,” said Nic. “They both are. They’ve waited all this time, and now they’re ready.” It was the most troubling part of the whole thing. What was different now?

“I get what we want from them,” said Dizzy, “but what do they want from us?”

It was a reasonable question. Magic was certainly worth waging wars over for ambitious men, but the demons had very little to gain, on the surface at least.

“I don’t know,” said Nic.

“You went to their world, didn’t you? Didn’t it occur to you to ask?”

“They weren’t home,” said Nic.

“None of them? What about the All-Mother.”

“No. Just Winnum Roke.”

“Winnum Roke,” said Dizzy. “You let her go. Was she the real Winnum Roke, though?”

Nic paused to think about it. Was she?

“So where’s the All-Mother?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You mean, you aren’t sure. But you have an idea.”

“Yes,” said Nic.

“Have you considered that the All-Mother is closer than you think? That we might be sitting on her.”

“I doubt it,” said Nic. “Simole had no idea what she was doing in the other place.”

The dragon under them shook. Simole’s draconic version of scoffing.

Dizzy sighed, a deep exasperation caused by him. She buried her face in his back. Something shot through him. Had she just kissed him?

His whole body stiffened as he felt the impact of her mouth against his shoulder blade. Just an inadvertent contact which meant nothing. Or was she trying to seduce him? He had to stifle a laugh. That would be ridiculous and achieve very little. He was already infatuated with her, they both knew that. But he was never going to be moved against what he considered his own best interests. And that included her best interests.

The problem had never been one of doubting her feelings for him. It was that there were better ways for her to spend her time. His only way to change that wasn’t to convince her otherwise, it was to become a better alternative, but all he’d managed was to be her rival.

Her arms moved from around his waist, up his chest and gripped the top of his shoulders. Meaningless, all meaningless. He was finding it hard to breathe. Her head tilted to the side and rested on his back. He sensed it all through touch, and it made his head spin.

“Your heartbeat’s gone up again,” she said.

“Are you doing this on purpose?”

“Doing what? I’m tired. Wake me when get there.” She squeezed him and the bottom fell out of his world.

Rather more literally than a simple hug should elicit. Simole banked hard and dived. Nic felt his stomach rise into his throat. Dizzy’s embrace turned into a desperate grip, holding onto him with all her strength as she was lifted out of the saddle.

“Simole!” Nic cried out.

The dragon pulled up, swooping back up towards the other dragons.

After a few seconds Dizzy’s grip loosened and he was able to breathe again.

“I think your girlfriend’s jealous,” said Dizzy. There was a smile in her voice, he could distinctly hear it.

Had she been trying to provoke a response from Simole all along? He felt silly for having assumed his own central role in what she was up to. If Dizzy wanted a ticket to the show, an even more important player was within her grasp.

She wanted to know if she could manipulate Simole, perhaps. She might not even have anything in mind, yet. A test to check if she could get a reaction out of Simole. The answer was an unequivocal yes.

“You shouldn’t take risks like that,” said Nic, feeling both a little embarrassed and a little disappointed that he had been a pawn, again. He would have to think of a way to stop that from happening.

“No, Nic, taking risks is exactly what I should do. It’s what you should do, too. This isn’t over. They aren’t going to sit around a big table and sign a treaty. Blood is going to be spilled, one way or another. That what this is really about, isn’t it? The blood they need to create mages.”

Was she right? Maybe. It was certainly a possibility. “What do you think I can do about it?”

“I don’t know. But you should be paying attention instead of getting worked up about a little cuddling.”

Now she was just being cruel. “You’re the one—”

“—who started it? Don’t be such a child, Nic. Distractions aren’t a valid excuse for losing focus.”

She was doing what she would do to him when they were kids. Pushing him to be more like her. More useful to her. A better tool. And he had always tried his best to live up to her expectations. But she still left him behind. She would again. He was tempted to push himself beyond her and make her the tool. But if he succeeded, it would mean changing her, and what was the point of that?

And she was right. He had to maintain his focus, watch out for a break in the defences he had set up inside himself. Demons were not the only thing he had to be wary of now.

“I’m sure there are people better qualified than me to deal with whatever happens next,” said Nic.

“Then why are you in such a rush to go to the college? You want the All-Father’s autograph?”

“No. I want to…” His voice faded.

“You want to make sure nothing goes wrong? Because only you can fix it?”

“What do I have to do to make you stop, Dizzy?”

“You could try staying out of my way. But it’s too late for that, isn’t it?”

“Even if I hadn’t gone,” said Nic, “what makes you think that you would have been sent instead?”

“Did you hear that, Simole,” Dizzy shouted. “See how big his head is after one trip to another world? Maybe you are the only one who can keep his ego in check. If he’s like this at sixteen, imagine what he’ll be like when he’s grown.”

“I am here, you know?” said Nic, finding it hard not to get annoyed even though he knew she was baiting him for exactly that reason. “I don’t know why you’re telling her. She’s travelled to other dimensions more than I have.”

“Yes, but she lives up to her billing. She’s the person…” Dizzy’s voice faltered.

“Who deserved to be sent?” Nic finished for her.

“Yes,” said Dizzy, the amused mocking tone no longer in her voice. And then she added, somewhat petulantly, “She might have the power, but not the brains.”

Their transportation didn’t take kindly to the insult. Needling Nic might get him to snap or lose his temper, but provoking a dragon whose back you happen to be flying on was an altogether more reckless sport.

Simole’s wings tucked in and she twisted in the air. The barrel roll only lasted a second, its speed keeping her passengers in their seat, but it was a long second that left them both shaking and holding tight long after they had no need to.

“Please don’t tease her again,” said Nic.

“Alright,” said Dizzy.

They flew in silence, Dizzy’s hands no longer an object of desire, just a safety harness Nic appreciated.

“The dragons,” said Dizzy, some time later, “they hold demons, don’t they?”

“They can,” agreed Nic. “I don’t think most of them do, currently.”

“I’ve never seen a baby dragon. Or even heard of one being born.”

“No, neither have I,” said Nic.

“I wonder if they’re even real.”

“It would probably be best if you didn’t stop believing in them right now.”

Dizzy laughed. “I don’t have the strength of will to stop dragons from existing.”

“Yes,” said Nic, “you do.”

She was silent again, thinking, he could tell from how still she was against him.

“Have you noticed how mages don’t usually have children,” she said. “The men, sometimes. The women almost never. I think maybe it dilutes their power.”

“Or maybe the opposite,” said Nic.

“What do you mean?”

“Winnum Roke’s mother was a mage. So was Simole’s.”

There was a movement on their right. The demon-dragon had its wings outstretched and was gliding effortlessly. The Librarian stood up and walked towards them across the wing. Her gait was as casual as it would have been walking across the school quad.

She stopped on the very tip, motionless and unperturbed by her precarious positioning.

“Before we arrive, I wanted to apologise to you both,” she said. Even with the rushing wind, her words were easy to hear. “I never meant to put either of you in harm’s way. You can be sure, whatever happens when we get to the college, I will ensure your safety.”

“From demons?” asked Nic.

“You have nothing to fear from them.”

“From dragons?” asked Dizzy.

“No, they will not harm you. Unless you provoke them unreasonably.” Her eyes slid towards Simole. Then she turned and walked back.

“That only leaves one group,” said Nic. “That’s the problem with studying too hard. People worry that you might know too much.”

“I want to tell you something,” said Dizzy.“If Simole had thrown us off, and we fell wrapped in each other’s arms, I would have kissed you before I used you to break my fall.”

“I know you don’t mean that,” said Nic.

“That I’d use you to break my fall?”

“That you’d kiss me. But it doesn’t matter. If we fell, Simole would catch me.”

The dragons flew in V-formation. The Librarian led the way, sitting on the demon-dragon’s neck. Simole was on her left, flying almost wingtip to wingtip. The rest behind.

As grey light seeped into the morning sky, the towers of the capital emerged from the thinning, retreating darkness. The city was mostly still asleep, perhaps not too many people would notice a flock of dragons passing overhead. And even if they did, they would probably put it down to some exercise the army was carrying out. The problem was if the army spotted them, and wondered why they were flying around the city when there were no exercises. Nic knew they had developed anti-dragon weaponry, just in case.

They flew over the Librarium, the palace, all the buildings of note. The Royal College was on the far side of the city, surrounded by slums. No one wanted to live near it, apart from those who couldn’t find or afford any place better. Everyone feared what might leak out from between its walls.

It was built from red stone and surrounded by crenellated parapets. The ground outside, Nic noticed from his high seat, had been subtly lowered so it felt even more imposing. An aloof fortress.

The impressive fortifications were unnecessary, though. No one in their right mind would try to enter the college without permission, and preferably a mage as an escort. Stories abounded about children who had snuck in out of curiosity, and been added to the city’s raven population.

As the dragons circled the three towers that the college comprised of, the main courtyard below filled with mages. Nic assumed that’s what they were. They wore robes and most had elaborate beards, which seemed to be popular among the older men. Most of them were older men.

Simole shifted under him, and Nic spotted the Archmage down there. He stood out from the others, power tightly clenched in his body, his face peering up with a strained intensity Nic fancied he could feel. Perhaps it was just his imagination.

Only two dragons touched down in the courtyard, the demon-dragon and Simole. The other dragons roosted on the towers, hanging off them like gigantic gargoyles.

The mages were gathered in a tight knot behind the Archmage. Their outline was smudged behind a layer of Arcanum that shimmered around them.

They seemed less intimidating, even though their combined power could level mountains. He felt contempt for them, he realised, which wasn’t his to feel. Even though he was fully in command of his faculties, the passage of other souls through him had left their residual marks.

The mages were tightly grouped, ready to defend themselves. Nic had to stifle a laugh as the demon-dragon ignored them entirely, and pointed its head towards a dark recess of the courtyard hidden in a blanket of perpetual shadow. Something moved in there. Slowly the shadow unwound and revealed itself to be another, much larger dragon. The All-Father.

The demon-dragon stalked forward, head held low to the ground. Overhead, the other dragons made deep guttural sounds that reverberated around the courtyard.

The All-Father’s head emerged from the inky blackness, twice the size of the demon’s. The two faced each other, snout to snout.

The Librarian slipped off the dragon and walked forward. She had both arms raised as if to offer an embrace, or perhaps a request for mercy. The All-Father kept his attention on the dragon.

Nic was fascinated by the sight. These immense otherworldly powers reunited after who knew how long. It felt like a momentous event. One the rest of them weren’t meant to be party to. Not even the mages, who watched as rapt as Nic.

“Your lost wanderer returns,” said the Librarian.

The All-Father made a low rumbling sound somewhere from his stomach. The two dragons kept eyes on each other. And then turned heads to look at Simole, who had slowly moved up join their tête-à-tête.

“I don’t think this involves us,” Nic whispered down the long neck at her.

Simole ignored him and pushed the demon’s head away with hers, taking its place in front of the All-Father.

“We’re going to die,” Dizzy said into the back of Nic’s neck. She gripped him tighter, which he didn’t appreciate. She was still toying with him, even though they were about to become dragon food.

“Is it over now?” asked the Archmage, coming forward from the group. His face, mostly hidden behind a beard that seemed larger than the last time Nic had seen him, was worried. His broad shoulders seemed to be more sloped than before.

“Yes,” said the Librarian. She looked around. “This place is thick with sigils and spells of annihilation. Were you expecting trouble?”

“Yes,” said the Archmage.

Simole swung her head around and pushed past the demon-dragon. She stopped when the Archmage was under her shadow. The large lizard-head tilted, and an eye looked down at him.

“She wants her body back,” said Nic. He slid out of the saddle and landed awkwardly. Dizzy leaped down behind, landing gracefully, of course.

“Simole?” asked the Archmage.

Simole answered with a low growl. He turned and signalled to the mages. A man whose pink scalp shone through his thin white hair nudged the younger man next to him, who left the group and hurried into the building behind them.

All eyes returned to the All-Father. He raised an enormous talon towards the demon-dragon’s head. The demon pulled away, dodging the outstretched claw.

The All-Father made a deeper rumble in his throat.

“What are you doing?” asked the Librarian. “You have returned for this.”

The demons swung her head around. “No. I did not return for that reason.” The sound of her voice sent a flutter of anxiety through the mages.

“Then why?” said the Librarian.

“I come with a message. She is coming.” There was an unmistakable tone of glee in her voice.

The Librarian looked shocked. “No. It cannot be.”

“It can,” said the demon, “thanks in no small part to him.” Her head tilted to point at Nic.

“What did you do?” whispered Dizzy.

“Nothing,” said Nic.

The All-Father’s talon came crashing down at astonishing speed. It landed on the demon’s head, slamming it to the ground, caught in the claws like a cage. The demon laughed, although it was pinned and unable to free itself.

“How is this possible?” said the Archmage.

“It isn’t,” said the Librarian. She turned to look at Nic. Everyone was looking in his direction.

Simole stepped in front of him, wings spread. She opened her jaws, sending the mages into a paroxysm of defensive gestures, and belched loudly. Then she turned and swung her tail, slowly enough for anyone in its path to jump out of the way.

She lumbered back around so she was facing the All-Father, and pawed at the claw holding the demon down. The difference in size was too great for her to be able to free the demon. She reared back, and then bumped the top of her head against the underside of the All-Father’s chin.

The dragons watching from above let out a cry of protest, but the All-Father didn’t seem angered. He pulled his head back and lifted his claw.

The demon raised its released head, but not for long. Simole lunged forward and caught the demon’s neck in both her claws. She was up on her hind legs, the demon flapped its wings frantically, but Simole breathed out a blue mist that splashed around the courtyard, and the demon stopped struggling.

“You are strong, young one,” said the demon. “It won’t be enough to fight her.”

“Who are they talking about?” asked Dizzy. “The All-Mother?”

“No,” said Nic. “I think they mean Winnum Roke. I may have released her from her… prison?” He aimed the question at the Librarian.

“I went back to tell her I had failed,” said the demon, “but the little one saved me from embarrassment. Ah, such a good boy.”

Simole opened her mouth again, but the demon didn’t try to break free. It just laughed. Simole tossed the head aside, it fell, and then swung right back up on the prehensile neck.

“She is coming, and none of you can stop her.”

“Is this true?” said the Archmage, visibly shaken by the news. “Is there nothing we can do?”

“Why is everyone so scared of her?” asked Dizzy. “What have we to fear from Winnum Roke.”

Eyes turned towards Dizzy, but no one answered. Simole moved so her head was level with Dizzy’s. Now both of them posed the question.

“It is forbidden knowledge,” said the Archmage. “It is not for—”

“The demons gave themselves to us,” said Nic. “They sacrificed their young to let us be mages.”

“Why?” said Dizzy. “Why would they do that?”

“I’m not sure,” said Nic, “but I think it’s got something to do with changing them into something else. Inside us.”

“This is not something to be spoken about.” The Archmage looked anxious.

Simole’s head glided through the air. There would be no approach to Nic without going through her.

“As far as I can make out,” said Nic, almost as though he were talking to himself, “a mage holds the demon as part of himself, and when he dies, as all men do, one of these dragons is used to transfer the essence, spirit, whatever you want to call it, to a new host. As it passes through us, it becomes something new. They don’t change. But they want to.”

“Change into what?” said Dizzy.

“I don’t know. A different kind of demon? Something…” Nic looked around. The others were looking at him as though they were afraid he’d say some magic word and the world would split in two. They needn’t have feared. He had no answer.

“So, when the dragon ate Denkne…?” said Dizzy, recalling the oddness of that moment.

“Preparation of some kind, but… female mages…”

Simole moved towards him now, a questioning look in her eyes.

“When they give birth to a child, they pass it all on. There’s no in-between stage needed. But they die. They die in childbirth, and what they produce is a jump. It’s closer to what they intend to become.”

“But the mother always dies?” said Dizzy.

“Seems like it,” said Nic.

“You’d think,” said Dizzy, “they would prefer to have female mages, to speed up the process.” She looked around. All the mages present were men.

“They would,” said the demon. “The deal was struck and the transformations were swift. And the women died for a greater cause, until they realised. And then they refused to bear children. So there was no need to allow them to join the Royal College, except for the very gifted few, and the wilfully ignorant.”

As the demon spoke, Simole became visibly agitated.

“And Winnum Roke wanted to end it?” asked Dizzy.

“She wanted revenge,” said the Archmage. “But there is no one to blame, other than everyone.”

“So you exiled her?” said Dizzy, her voice full of resentment for something that had happened well before she had been born.

“It was deemed the safest choice for us all,” said the Archmage.

“And the All-Mother?” asked Nic. “She changed places with the Archmage. Convinced her that she would gain something from the bargain. Tricked her into going to the other place. Where is she? In you? In all the Archmages since?”

“We no longer use females in such a barbaric manner,” said the Archmage, side-stepping the question. “It is slower this way, but they do not experience time as we do. It matters little how long it takes. We achieved a balance, satisfactory to both sides.”

Nic looked at Simole. “Why did you have a child with a mage?”

The Archmage looked up at Simole. “I loved your mother. We were foolish and irresponsible. I tried to make it right, but she refused to give you up. I am sorry.” His eyes filled with quiet sadness. “If Winnum Roke returns… She is more powerful than any of us.”

“Who can know what the future holds?” Everyone turned towards the source of the voice. The All-Father’s mouth barely moved, but the voice was deep and low, like a creeping mist along the ground. “It is the past we fear. The repetition of the familiar dulling the nerves until all is meaningless. The future holds the promise of the unknown, in whatever form it may take.”

“I am to blame,” said the Librarian. For the first time Nic could remember, she seemed unsure of herself.

“No, Pilot,” said the All-Father, “you are not.” The All-Father’s head swayed and then settled to look down on the demon in dragon form. “I indulged you, that was my mistake. You were seduced by her words. She was a master at it. You cannot put your siblings at risk any longer. We didn’t send her away because she was inconvenient to our plans — there is no planning for the unknown — we sent her away because she went insane. By understanding the price of her powers, she came loose from the world. I thought solitude would suit her better. That too is my blame.”

“It is too late, Father. She is coming.”

“You will not be here to see it.” The All-Father moved towards the smaller dragon. “You will join the others. It is time for you to grow up.”

“No,” said the demon-dragon. “I refuse to take another form. Change is… overrated.”

“As is insolence. You will do as I say, believe what I believe.”

The demon-dragon shrank from the crackle of blue light in the All-Father’s mouth and eyes.

“Wait,” said Nic. “You can’t do that.” All eyes turned to him. “We have an agreement. A promise to merge. With me, and only me.”

The All-Father looked down at him, and then back to the demon. “Is this so?”

“It is,” said the demon, “but it hardly seems worth your time, little one. She is coming.”

“Not for a while,” said Nic. “I thought she was going to go out there, not back here.” He was pointing up at the sky, and felt foolish doing it. “A door to the other place seemed an unnecessary hole someone might fall into. So I closed it.”

The silence turned stunned.

“You closed it?” said the Archmage. “How is that possible?”

“I could only do it from that side. She’ll be able to open it again, eventually. If she wants, but she’ll have to unravel my lock first. I don’t think she’s very good at understanding how other people think, especially those not as smart as her, so I used the dumbest method possible. It will take her some time to work it out, I think. Erm, at least that’s what I believe.”

“It won’t work,” said the demon, but the voice was unsteady.

“It has already,” said Nic. “What you fear is the past, like the All-Father said. It cannot be undone. She will have to wait, and you will have to keep your word.”

“You aren’t ready,” said the Archmage. “This is the first unattached demon in a long time. The process will be gruelling.”

“Yes, I need to be better prepared. So I suppose I should go back to school. And then...” Nic looked around, and up at the buildings. “I hear you have a really good library here”

There was a commotion among the mages, and they parted to allow a cart through. On it was a girl’s body. Simole moved towards herself.

“You realise,” said Dizzy, “we’re about to lose our only way out of here.”

“There’s a door,” said Nic.

“Do you have the key?”

“No. But I think I know how to find one.”

Simole lowered her head to touch her prostrate form. Her eyes opened and she sat up. She moved her jaw from side to side and scrunched up her face to remind herself what it felt like. “This is much better.” She stood up, and immediately collapsed.

***

Simole woke in a darkened room. She was lying in a moderately comfortable bed. She raised her hand and produced a light. She jumped — which wasn’t easy to do lying down — when she saw the figure sitting beside the bed.

“Why are you here?”

“You’ve been asleep for two days,” said Dizzy.

“Okay. But why are you here?”

“Because I told them we were close and you would be more at ease if I was the first person you saw when you opened your eyes.”

Simole sat up. “And they believed you?”

“Old men have gaps in their knowledge, the behaviour of girls is one of them. Plus, I’m an excellent liar.”

Simole couldn’t disagree. “What happened to Nic?”

“He went back to school. Said he still had a lot to learn.” Dizzy smiled. “Sometime I think I’m the only one who knows what a massive idiot he is.”

Simole smiled back. “No, you aren’t.”

For a moment, they were content to sit with each other. And then the moment passed.

“What do you want?” asked Simole. She knew enough about this girl to realise her reasons had nothing to do with concern for a fellow student’s health.

“It’s not what I want that matters,” said Dizzy. “Do you understand what he did?”

Simole gave her a sideways glance as she rested her head back on the pillow. “Yes, I do, despite my lack of brains.”

“Sorry about that. I was just trying to work out what was different about him. I was maybe a bit blunt.”

“You have an interesting way of apologising,” said Simole. “‘Sorry for insulting you by speaking the truth.’ Very you. Have they figured it out yet?”

“No. He’s good at making himself look innocent. The keen boy eager to learn. It’s appealing to some. Old men.”

“Old men,” agreed Simole. “Aren’t you worried Nic might already be in her control?”

“You think I can’t tell if he’s himself? Believe me, I have ways to make sure. Why didn’t he just leave her there?”

“He was the door. He was always the door. He couldn’t stop her, but he could stop her getting through the doorway. He trapped her,” said Simole. “Do you think she’s really crazy? If she’s inside him, it might end up making him go mad.”

“He’s too stubborn to let Winnum Roke change his mind. But he might lose control of the rest of his body. And then they’ll know, and do something about it. They’re too scared to trust him. That’s why it’s important you look after him.”

Simole raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were the one who wanted the heroic jobs. He’d rather have you.”

“He needs you. You can protect him.” Dizzy smiled bitterly. “Must be nice to be born with so much power.”

“It didn’t come cheap,” said Simole, and Dizzy turned her head away. “It was interesting hearing him talk about how demons use us,” Simole continued. “If a female mage has a child, she pays for it with her life. But if a male mage has a child, it costs him nothing.”

“It doesn’t gain him anything either,” said Dizzy.

“I can never have children,” said Simole. The words felt meaningless, but something inside her chest burned with a cold heat.

“If I become a mage, then neither can I,” said Dizzy.

“Yes,” said Simole, “but that’s different. You would make a terrible mother.”

“I’d be better than you,” said Dizzy.

“Maybe,” said Simole, a little sadly. “You could get pregnant before you became a mage.”

“Only if I fall for a boy I shouldn’t, and do something stupid. Let’s hope that never happens.”

“Yes, let’s.” Simole looked at Dizzy. “Does he really mean nothing to you?”

“It’s surprising,” said Dizzy, “how much value people ascribe to feelings, like they’re some kind of reliable measure. I hope to improve my judgment, my level of perception, my understanding of people over the next few years. I would hate to think I’d already reached the pinnacle of anything at this age. Demons might lack the ability to change and transform, but we don’t. Let him become who he’s supposed to, and then we’ll see if he still feels the same way about me. Then I’ll decide what I feel.”

“Hmm,” said Simole. “That’s cold-hearted.”

“Now who’s being insulting?”

“Sorry. I meant that’s impressively cold-hearted.”

“Better.”

“And what is he supposed to become?”

“I’m not sure,” said Dizzy. “But I think he has something planned.”

“Do you think he’d tell us if we asked?”

“Yes,” said Dizzy. “In a two-hour lecture with drawings to help us understand. I’d rather stay ignorant.”

Simole couldn’t help but smile at the depiction of Nic’s need to explain things. She knew him well. “He’s going to die if he loses to her.”

“We’re all going to die if he loses to her,” said Dizzy.

“So… it’s up to him.”

“I’m starting to wonder if you’re not the crazy one,” said Dizzy. “Of course it’s not up to him. It’s up to us. You and me.”

“He doesn’t approve of your methods.”

“That’s okay,” said Dizzy. “I don’t need his approval. But I will need your help, so you better pass the exams to get into the second year.”

Simole burst into laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Dizzy asked

“You two, that’s what. So eager to get good grades. I don’t need to pass an exam to get into the second year. I might not bother sitting them at all, and force the Headmaster to announce I came first, just to annoy you both.” She laughed again. “You better go start revising. If you don’t beat him, you’ll have to suffer the shame of third place. Third place, Dizzy. Third place!

She carried on laughing as Dizzy left the room.

End of Volume 1.

Going to take a break on this story while I sort out the rewrites for the eBook. Couple of months, probably.

If you would like to discuss the story further, ask questions or point out massive discrepancies, the best place is probably my Discord channel. LINK

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