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The morning rush that normally swamped the city streets, parted to leave the carriage’s progress unimpeded. The windowless conveyance clattered through the tall iron gates set in high stone walls and crunched across the gravel-covered central courtyard of the palace. It stopped near the main entrance, which was flanked by soldiers in full military regalia. Servants were waiting to help the Minister disembark, but he was already out of the carriage before it had come to a full stop. He strode briskly along the cloistered walk of the main building, oblivious to the warm suns.h.i.+ne and zealous salutes, and turned the corner. He pa.s.sed through arches into the innermost courtyard, which contained a fountain and a small garden, both of which had been repaired recently, although it would be hard to tell if you hadn’t seen the devastation they had suffered.The antechamber door was open. There were no soldiers here. Not visible ones.Delcroix walked in and immediately felt a chill. The outer buildings surrounding the palace somehow affected to be several degrees colder within than without.“Is he alone?” Delcroix asked.“He is never alone,” said Monfoth, the Prince’s faithful retainer. He was a small, benign, pockmarked man, who had been the King’s most trusted va.s.sal for over fifty years, and the Prince’s after that. “In addition to which, the Dove and the Hawk are in attendance. As well as the Peac.o.c.k. Such a gathering does not bode well.”Delcroix smiled. What was it about trusted servants that made them so willing to sa.s.s their betters? Perhaps being in the perfect position to know exactly what kind of people their ‘betters’ were.“You’ve become an ornithologist as well as a loyal drudge? I wish I had the time for hobbies.”“We make time for the things we love, Minister.”“I wonder what bird you think of me as, Monfoth. A vulture, perhaps?”Monfoth grunted and rearranged his notes, which were forever held against the crook of his elbow. “Nothing so vulgar, I a.s.sure you, Minister. I don’t think of you as someone with a taste for carrion.”“Thank you,” said Delcroix, amused by the older man’s bottomless deadpan. He walked towards the far door. “Should I prepare for the end,” Monfoth called after him.Delcroix didn’t answer. He knocked on the door.“Come in.”A wood fire burned in a grate, illuminating the fine heavy furniture, dark with age and rich with polish and care. Prince Ranade, the most powerful man in Ranvar, had been a corpulent figure in his youth. Now he was lean and always looked hungry. He was seated in a high-backed leather chair in front of the fireplace.“Delcroix,” he said. “You’ve found the boy?”“No, Your Majesty. My agents are still looking.”The Prince scowled. “I fail to understand how you people manage to lose a boy in the middle of a school. It even has a wall around it to keep the brats in.” “Isn’t it most likely that he’s dead?” asked Reshvay. The Minister for War sat beside the Prince, his hooked nose in profile giving him a hawk-like appearance, although he was the one Monfoth referred to as The Dove.“I think not,” said Delcroix. “I would expect the effects of his death to be much more p.r.o.nounced. And formidable.”“He isn’t dead,” said the Chief of Staff of the Secret Service, standing by the window. “He’s still on the school grounds, somewhere.”“How would you know?” said Reshvay angrily. “It was your d.a.m.n men that lost him.”“I’m well aware of that,” the Chief said coldly. “Three of my men are still missing. We may not be able to locate him, but the school perimeter was considerably modified after the last… incursion. If he had left the premises, we would know. No one has either entered or exited the grounds, of that I’m sure.”“Pah!” said Reshvay. “The boy didn’t neutralise three of your agents by himself. Clearly he had help. Which means someone got past your perimeter.”“I am confident—”“Double Pah!”“What do you say, Delcroix?” asked the Prince, his words immediately silencing the other two. “Did someone a.s.sist him in disappearing? Perhaps the demon?”“The demon may have been involved, Your Majesty,” said Delcroix, careful of his words. “More than likely, I would say. But, the demon is not in a state to do much more than advise the boy. Maintaining a link between this world and the other place will have severely depleted its resources. The only reason we allowed the boy to continue to play the role of bait was knowing the demon’s powers had been negated, more or less.”“More or less,” repeated the Prince. “And if not the demon, then whom? Could it have been this mage sent by the Royal College.”“I don’t believe so, Your Majesty,” said Delcroix. “He is under observation, also. There have been no indications of his involvement.”“I can confirm,” said the Chief. “Surveillance on the mage was uninterrupted. We have him in his room all night. Nothing untoward happened, no use of magic.”“He’s a mage isn’t he,” bl.u.s.tered Reshvay. “What’s to say he didn’t use his arts to bamboozle your agents?”“We’re well aware of his abilities, a.s.suming Minister Delcroix provided us with correct information.”“Our information is completely accurate,” said Delcroix.The chief nodded. “We have countermeasures in place which he is incognizant of. We make a point of keeping the Royal College uninformed of any advancements we make in that regard. I a.s.sure you, the mage was not involved. At least, not directly.”The room was silent. “If I might speak,” said the other man in the room who had been sitting quietly in a chair by the far bookcase. “Yes, Kuplas?” said the Prince.Foreign Minister Kuplas, dressed exquisitely and his hair trimmed only an hour or so ago, rose and sauntered forward. “It seems the boy has either become incredibly powerful in the short time since he returned to Ransom—which could be true, but strikes me as rather improbable—or he has come into contact with someone capable of dealing with three Secret Service agents, and counteracting the most precise detection devices we have available.” He turned to Delcroix. “You’re sure the demon wouldn’t have the capability?”“Not currently,” said Delcroix.“Then the only other conclusion would seem to be the Gweurians are involved.” He paused for any interjections. There weren’t any. “We know they have a vested interest in the demon, and also the means to create magic. They already bypa.s.sed your defences once.” He half-raised a polite hand to quell the Chief’s objections. “Yes, you’ve upgraded your effectiveness, but what’s to say they haven’t increased theirs, also? They’ve had just as much time to adapt.”“No,” said the Chief. “We’ve been monitoring all activity along the border and within Gweur itself. We know where the rebels are hiding. They haven’t moved. It would take more than one or two to accomplish something like this.”“I wish I shared your confidence,” said the Prince. “What is the situation in Gweur?”“Volatile, Your Majesty.” The Foreign Minister sighed. “The government will fall any day now. I’m afraid it’s inevitable. An intervention may be required.”“You were the one who said to hold back on Gweur,” the Prince said to Delcroix. “Make it easier to see what they were planning. You didn’t see this.”“Which is why I don’t believe they’re involved,” said Delcroix.Kuplas flapped his jacket, then smoothed it down. “If not them, then who?”“I don’t know. But not knowing the answer is no reason to act blindly. I’m sure the Minister for War would agree.”“What say you, Reshvay?” asked Kuplas. “Your men are prepared, are they not? Ma.s.sing at the border, as it were. A surgical strike, and the rebels would be wiped out. Once they are no longer a threat to Gweur, they are no longer a threat to us.”“Ridiculous,” said Reshavay. “You clearly didn’t pay enough attention in school, Kuplas.” “I was an excellent student, as I’m sure you’re aware.”“I’m aware of no such things. Delcroix is the one who keeps tabs on people, not I. And learning has very little to do with understanding. We can take Gweur, of course, but then we’re committed to keeping it. There’s a reason why we never invaded the entire continent and made it ours by empire. The d.a.m.n thing’s a waste of time and energy. No empire lasts. Not subjects remain loyal. We will overextend ourselves, and our other neighbours will be watching closely, waiting for an opening.”“Surely we could deal with them just as efficiently,” said Kuplas.“Indeed,” said Reshvay. “And then we would be stretched to the limit, troop numbers heavily depleted. Tell me, Minister, if you were a demon queen at the head of an army of slavering monsters, when would you choose to attack?”“We don’t know—”“I do,” said Reshvay. “It’s the duty of my ministry to provide the people of Ranvar with peace and security. The glory of my command will not be measured by the number of lands under the Ranvar flag, it will be measured by the number of our citizens who are left alive to see the flag flying. Dragons are aging. Mages are weaker than ever before. Demons are searching for a way to cross into our dimension. Now is not the time to cry tallyho! and charge into more conflict.”“Let my men take care of it,” said the Chief. “I have agents in place already. We could eliminate the key personnel in the uprising. No one would even know it was our hand that was responsible. Cut off the head, quick and effective.” The undercurrent of menace in his voice was chilling.“We’ve already seen how effective,” said Reshvay pointedly.“Enough,” said Prince Ranade, stepping in before tempers flared. He had listened to the heated exchange with simmering indignation. His Ministers were flailing around like this was the first crisis they’d faced. “Delcroix, you have the best position to see this from all sides. What’s your advice?”“I think it would be best—”“To wait,” the Prince finished for him.Delcroix bowed his head in deferment. “The boy is still our best hope for ending this… quickly and efficiently.”“I’m not entirely sure what it is you’re waiting for. The boy is still just a boy. What about your agents? Weren’t they keeping an eye on him, too?”“Yes, Your Majesty. They also have gone missing.” The atmosphere tensed. “It isn’t quite the same, though. My agents can’t be silenced or destroyed. They will return, once they have time to... rea.s.semble.”“You think he’s still on the school grounds?” said the Chief.“I do.”“I’ll have a specialised search team on site within a few hours,” said the Chief. “Agents of the highest quality. If he’s there, they’ll find him.”“I already have a man on site,” said Delcroix. “I’ll have him confine students to their dormitories to give you free run of the place.”The Chief nodded curtly, and then turned to the Prince. “Sire?”The Prince’s eyes drifted to the fireplace, the weight of his office resting heavy on his shoulders. For the next several minutes, the Prince sat motionless in his chair staring sightlessly at the fire. The others waited patiently.Then he blinked. “Yes, alright,” he said to the flames. The fire spluttered and danced in the iron grate.The Prince got up and stretched and went to the window. “Well, gentlemen, it seems we have work to do.” He began to pace, his words as firm as his steps. “You’re convinced he’s still somewhere on the grounds?” he said to Delcroix. “And alive?”“Your Majesty, he’s far too important to the demon to allow him to die. And the school is far too important to the process to take him far from it. He’s there. The fact he has been hidden from us suggests time is running out.” “Search the school.” He turned to the Chief of Staff. “And have your agents remove the leaders of the Gweur uprising. Quietly. Make it seem like an internal power struggle. We might as well play it safe.” The Chief nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty. I’ll see to it immediately. With your permission.” The Prince waved him away and the chief faded into a ghostly apparition, and then entirely from view. “And no word from the Archmage? Allowing him back was meant to prevent exactly this sort of confusion.” The Prince shook his head. “I’ve completely lost my appet.i.te thanks to all of this. My wife, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, is delighted. Reshvay, I want you to reinforce the Gweur border infantry.”“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Reshvay.“And recall all dragon troops.”“From the Gweur border?” “From every border.”“But Your Majesty, that will leave us vulnerable.”“The threat isn’t from outside, it’s from the centre. You think anyone would invade us even if our borders were completely undefended? No, they will wait to see if we falter, and by then it will be too late. For all of us.”Reshvay rose stiffly from his chair, grumbling into his large moustache.“I take it the Gweur situation will be allowed to fester,” said Kuplas, taking out a handkerchief and wiping the sweat from his hands. He was the only one who seemed to not be affected by the cold.“For now. We will let them fight among themselves, and appease the victors with power, influence and money. If concessions are to be made, let it be from their side. And you, Delcroix, find that d.a.m.n boy.”“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Delcroix. He bowed and turned, hurrying out of the room. There was much to do and who knew how much time there was left? The Archmage might, but there had been no response from that quarter. He might even have to visit the Royal College himself, the first time in over a decade.Or should he go to the school first? Why hadn’t the mage intervened in whatever Tutt had got himself involved with? That was the purpose of sending him there, after all. Denkne, the half-breed mage with strong sympathies for demons.His predilections in that direction had been long known, of course. A harmless oddity, it had seemed. Not so, now. And yet, sending him to keep an eye on the boy had been perfectly valid. The demon wanted the boy alive. Who better to make sure no harm befell the lad than a demon sympathiser? So why hadn’t he ensured Nic’s safety? Or was there more to this? Had the time truly arrived? He hoped not. They were woefully underprepared. He needed to get back to his office and start sending out instructions.***The headmaster stood by the window that overlooked the main quad. Dizzy had been explaining the central thesis behind her presentation project for the last ten minutes, and he had hardly said a word, other than the occasional murmur.It was mildly infuriating. She didn’t particularly care if he had suggestions or not, the presentation was more or less complete in her mind, but he could at least feign some interest.Having selected him as her supervisor—more by design than preference—she had gone out of her way to choose a subject she knew would be of interest to him. She had learned of his Masters degree in Arcquatic engineering, even read some of the papers he’d co-auth.o.r.ed, and come up with a way to convert Ransom’s antiquated plumbing into a self-heating Arcanum-sink. He should have been overflowing with questions. He barely seemed to notice she was there. She kept talking, not paying much attention herself. She would need to come up with a visual way to demonstrate her concept to the students. They wouldn’t understand the maths, but they’d enjoy a water show.There was a note on his desk. It had arrived just as the appointment had started. The Headmaster had stared at it intently for a few minutes, and then gone to stand by the window.Dizzy had offered to come back another time, but he had told her to carry on. Being ignored wasn’t something she would normally stand for, but she was curious about the contents of the note, and hopeful the opportunity might arise for her to get a look at it. Even as she spoke, her mind raced through a number of possible ways to have him called out of the office.“Miss Delcroix,” said the Head. “Mr Tutt. You know him?”She was taken by surprise at the mention of Nic’s name. Did the note concern him? It wouldn’t surprise her. He seemed to be at the centre of everything of late.“Yes, sir. We’re in the same cla.s.s.”“Yes, yes, of course. I mean outside of lessons.”“We… are acquaintances, yes.” It was hard to find the right words. It was more important to make herself available for whatever the Head had in mind than to be truthful.“And have you seen Mr Tutt today?”“No, sir. He wasn’t in cla.s.s.”“That doesn’t strike you as unusual?”What was going on? She had noticed Nic wasn’t present even though the other members of his household were in cla.s.s. She hadn’t put too much thought into it at the time, but now it did seem peculiar.“I a.s.sumed he was ill, sir. Isn’t he in his room?”“Yes, I’m sure that’s where he is. In any case, everything sounds fine. Arcquatic engineering used to be an interest of mine, as it happens. If you have any problems, feel free to come to me.”Dizzy had thought that was what she was doing. The Head was too distracted to notice her look of disapproval. He was clearly not on his game.“Is Nic alright?” she asked with as much concern as she could force into her voice.“Hmm? Of course, of course, nothing to worry about.”“Only, if you want to know what he’s been up to lately, you should ask his roommates. Your son is one of them. And the other two are always with him. If anyone knows, it would be one of those three. They’re usually in the library at this time. Private room on the upper floor.”“Yes, yes. Very good, Miss Delcroix. If you aren’t accepted by the Royal College, perhaps you should consider taking over my position.” He smiled weakly.It was an incredibly offensive thing to say—why on earth would they not accept her—but she let it slide. “Would you like me to tell them you want to see them?” She half-rose from the chair.“No, no, that won’t be necessary.” He walked across the room and opened the door to lean out and talk to his secretary.Dizzy bent over the desk and read the note upside down. She sat down with a b.u.mp just as the Headmaster turned around. “Thank you Delzina. I’m obliged to you. Now, is there anything else?”Dizzy shook her head and picked up her bag. She left the Headmaster’s office and went out to the quad. She found a tree to sit under and took out a book which she didn’t read a single word of as she waited. The note had said Nic was missing. That there would be a search of the grounds and students were to be confined to their quarters. Nothing like this had happened before.A few minutes later, three boys entered the building. She waited. The three boys eventually came out. They looked a bit shaken by the experience.She got up and walked across the quad at a rake. The perfect angle to intercept them.“I’m hungry,” said f.a.n.n.y.“We just ate lunch,” said Davo.“You don’t think it was a little odd?” asked Brill. “The way my father—”“Where is he?” said Dizzy, making all three boys jump.“Don’t do that,” said f.a.n.n.y. “I have anxiety talking to girls as it is. You’ll give me a complex.”“Where is he?” she repeated.“We don’t know,” said Davo. “He wasn’t in his room this morning. You know as much as we do. Probably more, since you spent most of your formative years together. Where do you think he’d go if an unreasonably persistent girl wouldn’t stop bothering him?”She spent a long ten seconds staring at him. “He’s not hiding from me. He knows he can’t do that. We spent years playing that game, and he never once won.”“Have you ever considered,” said Brill, “that he wanted you to find him, back then?”And not now? No. That wasn’t it. But she did believe them when they said they didn’t know. The difference was, they clearly thought he was intentionally staying away from them. She knew he was in trouble.She could feel it, gnawing at her. This wasn’t like him, and wouldn’t she know? Hadn’t she spent the last five years keeping tabs on him? Every exam he sat, every trip he took, every library he visited, she had it all noted down. It hadn’t been very difficult to keep track of him, his life was so simple, and her father’s network so complete.It had been hard to figure out what he was doing, other than attempting to become the most dull person in Ranvar. But slowly, the inconceivable truth had dawned on her. He was a monumental idiot. Chasing after her when there was no possible way he could succeed. And yet, he had succeeded.And now he was gone. She would have been glad if it had been an act of surrender. An admission that there was no point to his obsession. But not like this. He was close by. She could feel it.“If you see him, tell him I’m looking for him. And I will find him.”She turned and walked away. She would find him. It was one of the things she had always excelled at without even trying. And not because he wanted to be found. That would have been insulting, and he would never do that. She knew how he thought. It was one of the things that had made her… tolerate him.She knew whatever he had been waiting for, it had begun. Willingly or not, he was involved, and he planned to keep her out of it. He planned to keep them all out of it. His scheme wouldn’t work on her. She wasn’t going to get left out.She would start with the library. That was his place of refuge. That would be where he would go first.***Nic opened one eye. It was dark. And dusty. His throat was parched, but other than that there was no pain. He lay there, wondering if he had broken something so severely he had lost all feeling. Paralysed.He tried to move his fingers and toes. They seemed to still be there. He felt around. No limbs in agony, no wetness of blood. He was in a very narrow s.p.a.ce. He sat up and then tried to get to his feet, and discovered there wasn’t room to stand, banging his head against the fallen rocks that had formed a low roof over him.He tried to take a breath and his chest began to ache, he became weak and dizzy, so he lay down and breathed slowly, sipping the air. He was alive, but trapped. And without water, he wouldn’t last very long.“You wake, finally,” said a voice.“Couldn’t you find a better way to kill me?” he said, his words cracking.“Kill you? No, my child. Why would I want to kill you? You are so very, very important. You must live. The time is close now. Very, very close.”“I’m going to die,” said Nic. “You can’t stop it. Without water, without food…”“But you have water. Can’t you taste it? Can’t you feel it slip down your throat? So cool, so refres.h.i.+ng.”And he could feel it. He knew he should reject the idea placed in his mind. If he allowed himself to believe the demon’s words now, it would make it that much easier the next time. But without water, there would be no next time. And he was desperately thirsty. He gulped the water down.“Good, good. Drink your fill. We have little else to do.”“Why? Why here?”“Too many eyes watching above. All wanting to know when. When will she come? We can’t allow them to see these things not meant for their eyes. Better to stay down here, hidden. That’s what I built this place for, oh, so many years ago. I was a teacher here, once. Children—it made no sense to me. To make small versions of yourself, and then cease to be so they could replace you. Baffling. Now I understand, of course. Immortality is such a nebulous thing to you. You thought to take it in stages.” The demon laughed and the rock around him shook, dropping dust on him in the dark.He was frightened and began trembling. He would have preferred to have been killed rather than be stuck here. He felt vomit rising and focused hard to keep it down. That would make this hole even more unbearable.“I built this place, then, knowing one day I would need a place to hide from their prying eyes. The stones had to be brought across the sea, the timber from the mountains near the top of the world. It was an ambitious project at the time. I told them it was to study Arcanum. Hahaha.”More dust fell.“How long will this take? I have other needs apart from water.”“Not long. Hardly any time at all. We wait for the other to do their part, and then we are ready.”“The other? You mean the one from Gweur? One of your followers?”“My followers… No. They are of limited ability and limited use. They serve well as a distraction, but little else. I am too weak to complete this task alone, sadly. Holding the door ajar, even a crack, is no mean feat, you see? You and the girl, you struggle so—it’s very tiring. It’s a wonder I was able to hold on. But worth it, in the end. Soon she will come, and you won’t have any more troubles. None.”The other? Who was the other? Someone else to worry about. He felt like he was missing something. Something obvious.He lay quietly, he didn’t know how long, the dust in his nose, filling his mouth. Tears fell from the corners of his eyes and struggled to cut their way through the grime layered on his face. He tried to lose himself to his thoughts. And then he considered what had never occurred to him. Why would it? It had been unbelievable enough that there was a demon in the world. What would make him suspect there were two?If you have a moment, please vote for this story on TopWebFictionNo sign up required, just hit the b.u.t.ton. 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