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He had said his goodbyes to Davo and f.a.n.n.y, exchanging only a few words about what had happened to them since they’d met, and nothing about what they would do next. The winter break was also a refuge; a time for them all to consider their options and try to make sense of what they had experienced.Nic knew he was embroiled in affairs far beyond his control. His role was only important in as far as his connection to the people who were the true players on the stage. He felt both a fraud and an unworthy partic.i.p.ant in such momentous events. He should have been more afraid, both for his own safety and for everyone else’s, but the outlandish nature of the threat made it hard to truly comprehend. Demons wouldn’t really leap out of some schism in the sky and turn Ranvar into their feeding ground—it was too ridiculous.His neighbour, Mr Gram, had been waiting at the coach station and driven him home, asking short, polite questions about Nic’s time at Ransom, and receiving short, polite answers. His mother burst into tears when she saw him come walking down the garden path, dragging his trunk behind him. He wasn’t sure if they were due to joy or relief or some other emotion, but the evaporated just as quickly as they’d appeared, so there was no need to dwell on the matter.He had written to her every week, revealing little of his true experiences with Ransom school life, so as not to worry her, and nothing at all about his encounters with demons, so as not to send her into paroxysms of dismay. She had written back, keeping him informed about her health and general well-being. There was no real exchange of information, nor did there need to be. The effort to stay in touch was all she required, and Nic was happy to provide it.“Look at you,” she said, wiping away the last of her tears. “You’ve grown so much.”He hadn’t grown at all, he was pretty sure. He did, however, have new boots on, courtesy of Conoling & Son, and the heels were a little bigger than his other shoes. He didn’t mention it, though. He liked the feeling she could see him as something other than a small child to be protected.“Is there anything to eat?”There was, of course. His mother peppered him with questions as he ate, and he did his best to answer them. He told her about his teachers, the different lessons and how they differed from his old cla.s.ses. He gave clear descriptions of Davo and f.a.n.n.y and Simole. And of Mallory, the second year living upstairs.Like any test, he knew the kind of answers that would be found satisfactory, and which would lead to him being subjected to more rigorous questioning. He was neither evasive or impatient with her queries. He focused on the food, which tasted all the better for the drubbing his tastebuds had been subjected to by the school cafeteria, and responded with a stream of details to satisfy her need to be informed.There were things he couldn’t tell her, so he told her more than required about the things he could. Buildings and porters and visiting dragons. He painted the school as a fantastical place, which was an easy thing to portray since that was exactly what it was.He didn’t try to rush through it or cut his answers short. A part of her life had been severed in a very abrupt manner and he understood her need to reconnect to at least some of it. As he gave her a glimpse into the days and weeks she had missed, it was almost like he was providing warmth to cold hands in front of a fire. Her tense face relaxed as she accepted the boy who had returned was the same one who had left.Of course, he wasn’t the same boy. He didn’t really know what he was anymore. He wouldn’t have minded changing from the studious boy whose world was a tight box around his head, but he hadn’t developed into something better. Just something else.Once he’d given his mother enough a.s.surances that he was alright and that his life away from her had been a worthwhile sacrifice on her part, he went to his room, thump-dragging his luggage up each step.His room looked the same, although it felt colder. And it the smell had changed. He unpacked his clothes and lay down on the bed. It seemed smaller than before. Maybe he had grown.It was a strange feeling to have no work to do. The mock exams had been the primary focus of the first term, at least academically, and he wouldn’t know the results until the start of the next term. He had three weeks to wait.He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. He had no idea what he should be doing. There was a demon chained to him. A door to another world, somewhere. An infernal army potentially on the march. He was in the middle of it all, and yet he had no role to play. Sit there and wait for the qualified people to deal with it.He waited for the demon to make its presence known. He had questions he wished to ask, but there had been no sign of his guest of late. There was no voice in the darkness. After lying quietly for a few minutes, Nic rose and got changed. He put on the clothes in his closet. They were his old clothes, clean and ironed, folded expertly in neat stacks as expected in the home of a professional maid. They felt scratchy and uncomfortable, like they were borrowed from someone.It took a couple of days before he began to feel settled. Even though the demon refused to communicate with him, he found it soothing to use the meditation techniques he had learned to calm his mind and think over the problems he had faced, and those he would be facing.The enormity of what was happening hadn’t really struck him until then. It was much easier to ascribe all the things he had witnessed to a freak storm that had blown into his path, and would, like any storm, blow itself out. But this storm wasn’t a pa.s.sing meteorological event. It was circling around to make another pa.s.s. And it would be much stronger next time.His mother still had her work to go to, so he was alone in the house for most of each day. He organised his room, set out his books on his desk, made a list of things he needed to do. It was winter and the cold wind chilled its way through the window panes, yet he found the room stifling. He took to sitting out in the garden, watching the sky. He felt lost.On his third day back, his mother returned from work with a letter for him. It was from the Minister of Instruction, requesting he come up to the house. It wasn’t so much an invitation as a summons.It made sense that the minister would want to speak to him again. Not only was Nic the premium source of information on what other more important people were up to, he was also conveniently close by.Nic wasn’t too concerned. At least it gave him something to do. His mother was a little fretful, but she had confidence in her employer’s intentions. She was mainly worried about Nic making a good impression as the minister could be scouting for a new clerk or, if good fortune were to truly smile on Nic, a secretary.It would have taken five minutes to walk up the hill to the house, but a carriage was sent to collect him. His mother was bursting with pride as she waved him off. Nic felt rather silly emerging from the carriage only a few moments after he’d climbed in.It had been some time since he’d been here. Whereas his home had felt smaller and more claustrophobic than he’d remembered it, this place seemed to have only become bigger and grander. It was intimidating and his resolve to be calm quickly shrank inside him.The door was opened by a skinny man in a tight, black suit. Nic didn’t recognise him. He was asked to wait in the hallway and the skinny man spun around on the polished wooden floor like an ice dancer and clip-clopped away.Nic examined the tall paintings on the walls. These he remembered only too well. The elongated, aristocratic faces looking down at him had always struck him as disapproving of his presence, and they still did.“What are you doing here?”Nic turned as Dizzy came down the stairs. She was wearing a dress, which itself was shocking, and had her hair tied up, revealing a long, elegant neck and small, elfish ears.“Good evening,” said Nic. For a moment he felt her equal. A visitor dropping by. A guest arriving for dinner. The moment was fleeting.“I thought I made it clear I didn’t want to see you,” said Dizzy with a curl of her top lip. “Not at school, and not in my home. You shouldn’t have come here.”The last time he’d seen her was only a few days ago, although it felt like much longer. He had spotted her at the camp and made the mistake of taking a few steps towards her. He hadn’t been able to help it. She had cut him dead with a few words and sent him away like you would a bothersome mosquito.He didn’t resent her for it. He had only himself to blame and was doing his best to follow her wishes, but he wasn’t here to see her.“The minister will see you now,” said the skinny butler holding open the door he had just appeared through.Nic smiled apologetically. He didn’t want to embarra.s.s Dizzy, although it was hard not to feel a little smug as he saw realisation hit that her a.s.sumption had been wrong. He turned and walked through the door.There were three men in the room. Minister Delcroix, of course; a portly man with a walrus moustache and an excessive amount of whiskers on each cheek; and a tall man wearing a golden mask.“Ah, Tutt,” said the Minister Delcroix. “Good. Sit down.”There were four chairs in a semicircle around the fireplace. The three men were all standing. Nic sat down on the chair closest to him. He felt small and timid and had to fight to keep his head raised.“This is Minister Reshvay and this is the Chief of Staff of the Secret Service. He doesn’t have a name. You can speak freely in front of these men, you understand?”Nic nodded. He recognised Reshvay’s name from the papers. He was the Minister for War. The other man, the one wearing the mask, gave off a terrifying aura, as you would expect of someone in his position. It didn’t feel real, probably a spell, but that made it no less easy to bear.“Take off the d.a.m.n mask, will you?” said Reshvay. “You’ll give the poor boy conniptions.”The head of the Secret Service hesitated for a moment and then took off his mask. The pressure around Nic lessened and he felt the constriction in his chest ease. The man’s whole head seemed to change shape when he removed the mask. The face it revealed was older than Nic had expected. He looked like a strict P.E. teacher.Was it really alright for Nic to see his true face? Did it mean they planned to wipe his memory after asking their questions? The thought of being used in such a fas.h.i.+on made Nic feel utterly wretched. He hated being the envelope carrying important letters. Ripped open and then thrown away.“You met a man from Gweur,” said Minister Delcroix. “In your room. Tell us about him.”It wasn’t surprising that he knew about Nic’s visitor. He probably also knew about what had happened on Demon’s Heart. Now that the Archmage had taken charge of the Royal College again, it made sense all the different parties would start working together in an effort to stave off the threat of demonic annihilation. Nothing like an extinction level event to bring people together.But he still felt like he should be cautious. Simole was out there, somewhere. If he gave up everything he knew, there would be no reason to keep him around. He needed to be there in case she needed a way back.Nic struggled to find the right words. Minister Delcroix stepped forward and crouched down in front of him. He looked paler than Nic remembered. His face more austere. He had more things to worry about, so it wasn’t very surprising.“Look at me. I’m going to help you focus.”If the minister put a compulsion on him, there was no way Nic would be able to resist. He was tired and unsure of himself. The truth was he wanted to unburden himself and let others decide what to do. He resented being a person of no significance, but he also longed to be free of the responsibilities he had been tasked with. But there was no spell. The minister was going through the motions, but Nic felt no different. He had experienced the effects enough times to recognise the signs. The sense of freedom, the lack of concern, the desire to speak up—they were all alien enough from his normal disposition to stand out. They were all absent. “Now,” said the minister, “go ahead.”At first, Nic thought maybe the pen in his jacket had absorbed the spell. He put his hand in the pocket and felt the smooth, hard casing. It was no warmer than usual. And the minister would know he had it—he was the one who gave it to him. He would have asked for it back before casting a spell on him.Which meant it was for show. For the other men. And to give Nic permission to speak as he wanted. He wouldn’t be held responsible for whatever he said. He was under a spell that forced him. And because he wasn’t actually the target of any magic, he was also able to keep things to himself, if he wished.It was an incredibly generous thing for someone to do for him, especially a state instructor. They weren’t known for their kindness towards witnesses. It made Nic grateful, and also made him trust the minister, which maybe was the point. You didn’t need to use magic to control people, if you were smart and willing to offer benefits to gain their allegiance.“He was an acolyte of the demon who was left behind,” said Nic. “They’ve been given access to raw Arcanum and can use it to teleport and conceal themselves, but I think it’s very unstable and they find it hard to control.”“What did he want?” asked the head of the Secret Service.“The same thing the demon wants,” said Nic. “To open a door to the Other Place and allow more demons through. They believe it will lead to a fairer society where magic will be available to all. We will all be equal.”Minister Reshvay scoffed. “We’ll all be equally dead, more like.”“And why did he wish to speak with you?” asked the unmasked head of the Secret Service.“I’m connected to the demon, and the demon is connected to the Archmage’s daughter.”There was some consternation expressed at this answer, mainly in the form of a series of unintelligible sounds.“This boy…” said the Minister of War. “What were you thinking, Delcroix? Use him terminated and be done with it.”It was a similar response to the ones made by the mages. There was no point trying to hide it from these men, Nic felt.“He is under the Archmage’s protection,” said Minister Delcroix. “And also mine.”“You invite disaster on us all, man,” said the head of the Secret Service.“We are monitoring the situation closely,” said Delcroix. “At least allow my men—”Minister Delcroix raised his hand. “My agents are already in place, and better prepared for this sort of thing.”“Better prepared?” The Secret Service man looked ready to explode.“The Archmage’s daughter needs time to eradicate the threat. The boy will be our surest way of learning if she has failed or succeeded.”“She’s just a girl,” blurted out the Minister for War.“She is the most powerful battle mage we’ve ever produced,” said Delcroix. “We should allow her the chance, at least. It would benefit us all in the long run.”“And what about Gweur? Should we let the boy dictate how we deal with them, too?” said Reshvay. “Their government could fall at any moment. This supposed cult has already swept through the peasants, and it’s working its way up.”“I think the demon probably has allies in the Royal College, too,” said Nic. They stopped their squabbling and stared at him.‘Nonsense,’ barked Reshvay, looking intently at Nic. ‘A mage working for Gweur? For a demon? Why? For money? Risible. Counting on being rewarded by the victorious enemy? Even more ludicrous. And what part do they plan to play once the demons reign supreme? Offer to keep the dead populace in check?”“Do you have any reason to think that, Nic?” asked Decroix.“The demon disguised itself as a master of the Royal College, back when Winnum Roke was a student there. I think it’s been planning this for a very long time. There may be mages who don’t even know they’re being influenced by it.”“Poppyc.o.c.k!” shouted the Minister for War. A stream of more elaborate cursing followed. “I think that’s all for now,” said Minister Delcroix. He led Nic out to the hall. “Thank you, Nic. I’ll be in touch if I need your help again.”He looked a lot older now that Nic was standing beside him. His hair hadn’t been this grey before, had it?The shouting was continuing inside the room. “Did I say too much?”“No, I think you said just enough. He’s starting to understand the gravity of the situation.”“Could I ask you a favour?” said Nic. “Actually, two.”The minister raised an eyebrow. “Yes?” They both knew Nic was under no spell and whatever his request, it was purely his own wish.“First, a letter to the head librarian at the Librarium, giving me access to the full collection.”“What is it you hope to find?” asked the minister.“I’m not sure. I think Winnum Roke predicted this would happen and left us instructions how to deal with it. She would want people to know it was her who saved everyone. Reading her autobiography, I don’t think I’ve even come across anyone more determined to get the credit she believes she deserves.”The minister smiled. “A prerequisite for being Archmage, I think you’ll find. You don’t think instructions of that sort would have been discovered by now?”“They may not have been recognised for what they were.” Nic knew the implication in what he was saying was that he was able to see things the learned men (and occasional women) of the Royal College were blind to, but it wasn’t much of a claim. He was probably the only person who had ever bothered to look.“I’ll see to it. And the other thing?”“Money,” said Nic.“How much?”“Not a great deal. Enough for a small pension. If anything happens to me, my mother…”“Understood,” said Minister Delcroix. “I would have seen to it in any case.”“And thank you, for not using magic on me in there.”“I try not to use more Arcanum than necessary. The side effects can be bothersome.” He smiled again, this time a little more bitterly. “I know the position you’re in. If the Archmage thinks you can influence events, you should believe him.”Whether or not the minister was manipulating him to his own ends, Nic did trust him, and it was a great relief to know his mother would be taken care of.The skinny butler appeared to show Nic to the front door, and the minister returned to more important matters.There was a carriage waiting for him outside. It was early evening and still quite light. A sharp breeze nipped at him, but nothing very severe. “It’s alright, I’ll walk,” he said to the driver holding the carriage door open. The driver shrugged and closed the door.The walk helped clear his mind and the breeze kept him moving at a brisk pace. He needed to do more exercise, he reminded himself. Perhaps that’s how he could keep himself occupied over the next couple of weeks.The path he took to the main gate was one that took him through the flower beds. He tried to recall if anything seemed familiar, although the plants would have been changed many times since he’d been a child and played here. A thick nest of blackberry brambles had been here, he was almost sure.He was. .h.i.t from the side and went down, rolling under the bushes lining the path. Everything was a jumble of green and brown, leaves and mud. He was face down and there was a weight pressing down on his back. The wind had been knocked out of him and he was dazed.His jacket was pulled, the weight lifted, he was rolled over onto his back, and the weight came back down hard. Dizzy was sitting on him.“Why did my father want to speak to you?” she hissed.They were inside a cl.u.s.ter of shrubbery. Now this, this felt very familiar. A little room of green light in the middle of green walls. She was wearing the dress, although it was all bunched up around her, and she had his lapels in her fists.“He just wanted to chat,” said Nic. She felt soft and warm. If he didn’t do something quickly, he would embarra.s.s himself horribly. He slowed his breathing and tried to empty his mind.“My father doesn’t invite the maid’s son in with the Minister for War and the Chief of Staff of the Secret Service for a chat.”She was very angry. And something else... she was jealous. It was very important to her to have her father’s respect and admiration. She had spent most of her life trying to prove her worth to him, and to herself. Nic had seen it first hand. And now she was being overlooked for the maid’s boy. It must have been infuriating.“It’s not what you think. Random chance put me close to Simole. She’s the one everyone wants to know more about, and I happen to have been the person nearest to her. That’s all.”Dizzy was still glaring at him, but her grip on his clothes loosened. She remained on top of him, though. It was excruciatingly pleasant.“What did they want to know?” Her voice was less strained now. An attempt to make it seem like there was some legitimate reason for her to a.s.sault him like this.“Do you know how your father asks his questions? He puts a spell of compulsion on me so I reveal everything I know, no matter how trivial, or awkward or embarra.s.sing. It’s hard to remember what he asked or what I said. For which I should also probably be grateful.”The look on her face changed to shock, then something resembling shame. Or maybe pity. She crawled off him.He was lying, of course. Her father hadn’t ensorcelled him, not this time at least. Under other circ.u.mstances, he would have been mortified to have embarra.s.sed himself in front of her like this. The person he most wanted to impress seeing him as weak and helpless should have made him want to crawl away, but it didn’t. Exposing himself deliberately made all the difference. He wanted her to see him as some drudge of her father’s. Not a rival, just a menial worker. A maid’s son.It was kind of funny. He had spent so many years in pursuit of this girl he had no right to, and now he was using everything he had learned to push her away. He had done his best to take care of his mother, and now he would do what he could to protect Dizzy while he could.The safest place for her was far away from him. Simole was a more capable person than him, and she had only survived by separating her spirit from her body, something he had no idea how to do.He had no illusions about his role in all this. It was his connection to Simole, to the demon, to Dizzy that had brought him to other people’s notice. He was just the hitching post people tossed their reins over. “Don’t be stupid,” said Dizzy.“What do you mean?”“If my father only needed information from you, he’d pickle your brain in a jar and extract whatever he wanted. There’s more to this that you’re holding back, and it’s annoying me.”He could tell her he was trying to protect her, but she’d probably punch him in the mouth.He sat up and arched his neck to look at the walls of leaves. “How do I get out of here?” There was a rustle behind him and when he turned, she wasn’t there anymore. He sighed. If had hadn’t scared her off with his attempt to portray himself as a worthless peon of her father’s, he’d probably managed it by playing the self-pitying wimp. In the end, he had accomplished his task.It took some thras.h.i.+ng about and ripped clothing to extricate himself from the bushes. He came stumbling out and landed in a muddy puddle. He walked home with wet knees.His mother’s voice rose to a scream when she saw him. “What happened?” she exclaimed, hands on cheeks.There were many ways he could have answered her question. He tripped, he fell, a pa.s.sing coach splashed him. He chose something closer to the truth.“Dizzy pushed me in the bushes as a joke.”His mother nodded, accepting this answer immediately, as Nic knew she would. It wouldn’t be the first time it had happened.“That girl.” The nodding changed to shaking her head from side to side. “She never could resist pus.h.i.+ng you down. Get those clothes off so I can wash them.”Another letter from Minister Delcroix arrived the next day, the one he had requested. He bought a ticket to the capital on the first available coach. The city was buzzing with activity. The holiday season wasn’t just for students, many businesses were also closed. Although not the retail ones. This was their busiest time of year.Nic headed straight for the Librarium and asked to see the Head Librarian, Mr Gherry. He recognised Nic immediately and welcomed him with a smile. “I’m very happy to see you, Mr Tutt. Very happy. I hope you’ve been well.”“Yes, thank you.” Nic felt like this was someone he could have told all his problems to, but why burden someone else like that? He needed to take care of his own troubles. “Thank you for all your help.” He handed over the letter.Mr Gheery read the contents with mild surprise. “I see. This is very unusual. As to be expected, I suppose.” He smiled, as though this was all part of one big puzzle he was putting together. “This way.”He led Nic up some stairs and through various shelves until they reached a part of the library with no people in it and books so old it was impossible to read the t.i.tles on the spines. Mr Gherry opened an una.s.suming door that wasn’t locked, waited for Nic to walk through and then closed it. They were in a very small antechamber with another door opposite them. Mr Gherry shuffled past and opened it, ushering Nic through. Nic stopped, stunned. He seemed to have entered an entirely different library. There were rows and rows of shelves stretching out ahead of him. The spines glittered with gold leaf, casting their glow on the walls.“I know,” said Mr Gherry. “It takes a little getting used to.”Nic happily spent the rest of the day there. The books were all originals. Not just first print editions, but often handwritten copies by the author. They covered every conceivable subject, and often included sections that should have been prohibited. He felt elated to have been allowed inside the Librarium’s inner sanctum. There weren’t many people who could say the same. Nic’s only regret was that he had to go home at the end of each day. That, and the cost of coach tickets. When he had asked Minister Delcroix for money, he should have requested a small stipend for himself to cover travelling expenses.On his way back to the coach station, he took a detour into the heart of the city’s shopping district. The street lamps were decorated with coloured gla.s.s to create a dazzling light show over the heads of shoppers as they bustled from one store to the next.He stopped outside Conoling & Son. He didn’t think Davo would be here, but he was curious to have a look at the place he’d heard so much about.It was extremely crowded inside. Nic had to hold in his breath and squeeze past people clumped around the tables stacked high with various goods. He recognised a mannequin dressed in the same tartan gear they had worn to climb Demon’s Heart. It was even more expensive than he had imagined.“Looking for a bargain?”Nic turned to find Davo standing behind him, hair slicked back, wearing an immaculate suit that made him look ten years older. Somehow, he had created a small island of s.p.a.ce around the two of them.“Oh, h.e.l.lo,” said Nic. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.”“Come on, I’ll show you around.”They spent the next hour wandering through the store, no mention of demons or mages. The store was on three floors, each stocked to bursting and continuously being replenished. Nic left with an armful of items from the Kitchen Department Davo had insisted he take home to his mother, and a feeling that there was a world outside of books and libraries he had hardly even been aware of.He got home quite late, but his mother’s concern was rapidly displaced by interest in the shopping bags he came with. “What’s this?” she asked, holding up an oddly twisted piece of metal.“I think it’s for peeling potatoes.”“Why not just use a knife?” Nic shrugged.After several days of commuting back and forth to the Librarium, he still hadn’t found any Winnum Roke-related materials, although he had no complaints about the journey to this lack of discovery. He was at his most content when he was alone with a ready supply of books. Still, it was disheartening to have come across nothing to help him understand demons any better. There was one other place where he might find the answers he sought, and that was the library in the Royal College itself. He doubted if even the Minister of Instruction could secure access to that place for him.It was too soon to push for that, though—he had barely investigated a fraction of the Librarium’s special inventory. The ma.n.u.script he was looking for could be sitting on a shelf just waiting to be picked up.The weeks flew by and he was soon preparing to return to Ransom. Even though the future held a certain amount of dread for him, he realised he was looking forward to going back to attending cla.s.ses. And there was also his exam results, which he had all but forgotten.He packed everything back up and went to bed, needing to rise early the next day. His sleep had been untroubled and uninterrupted since he came home, helped in no small part from being exhausted by his constant travelling. He closed his eyes and slowly drifted to sleep. “She is coming,” said a voice. He sat up in the darkened room, his body coated in sweat.If you'd like to support the story please take a moment to vote for the story on topwebfiction.com. No sign up required, just hit the b.u.t.ton. Cheers.VOTEVotes refresh every seven days, so last week's votes are long gone.