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A drowning man might see his life flash before his eyes in a few seconds. Death was no less present in the black hole under the Pagoda, but his demise was much, much slower. He had the experience of remembering the events of his short life in startling clarity, but it was no flash. They unfolded slowly in excruciating detail and vividness.He saw himself with his mother, a child of two or three. He recalled the smell of the kitchen and the way the cat’s tail would brush against his leg when it begged for scraps.He was able to recall entire conversations that were of no significance, but wholly accurate, he was sure. He allowed the warm nostalgia to wash over him, a better coffin than the stone and dirt.Scenes from childhood played out in his mind. Games with Dizzy in her large house. Making up stories to narrate their adventures as they jumped out of a window and ran to the barn. He was the pirate who had lost his ship. She was the ship detective who was helping him track it down. She never chose a profession he’d heard of.He wasn’t remembering it, he was reliving it. They ran up to the hay loft. They climbed over bales of hay. The sun was streaming in through the loft opening. Dogs were barking somewhere. And Dizzy laughing.“Look at this book.”He turned and it wasn’t Dizzy. It was Simole.“Why are you here?” he said, confused. He wanted to enjoy his time with Dizzy. What time he had left.“Look.”He looked at the book she was holding out. It was Winnum Roke’s book of stories for children. The one in the school library, handwritten.She was holding it out, open, insistent.He took it. It felt much heavier in his juvenile hands. Much bigger. It was open a little past halfway. The story title was: A Wizard of Refinement.The subtitle read: In which a man discovers that all questions have an answer, but only one that is correct.Nic recalled reading the story. It was short and of no great meaning, as far as he’d been able to tell. Was Simole contacting him from the other place? Was the demon trying to torment him? Was he going insane?The words on the page were as clear as if he was holding the real book. He read the story.***Parniss Sob will forever be remembered as the greatest of all battle mages. He was responsible for defeating the Demon Queen when all had seemed lost. His strength and fortitude prevailed when the demons swept through the Vale of Frett.Many died, even more lost their minds, but Parniss Sob stood tall. He pushed the hordes back. He faced the Queen alone, and so turned the tide.He was hailed a hero, and rightly so. He was feted and venerated, and rightly so. Statues were built in his likeness and parks named in his honour. And rightly so.But Parniss was an old man by then, who wanted to go home. As well as a battle mage, he was a husband and a father. His children were grown and had families of their own, but his wife waited for him.He returned to their small, modest house in the low country west of the Speckled Mountains. It was mainly farmland around the mouth of the mighty River Din, an area prone to flooding by the delta. He found her in the kitchen. There was no embrace, no exclamation of joy. It had been many years since he’d seen her, too embroiled in demonic wars to spare the time. She had grown old. They both had, but she had once been a great beauty, and now she was a lonely woman who had aged alone. Her eyes were full of bitterness and recriminations, which she held back, knowing he didn’t deserve them. He had fought to protect the whole world, faced death innumerable times. His battles were immortalised in song. Hers were unknown to any but herself and her pillow.“They say you drove out the Demon Queen,” she said. “How were you able to resist her temptations?”The story was already legend, sang in taverns and music halls. How the Demon Queen had used lust and seduction to bring the mightiest of mages low. But not Parniss Sob.He told her the true story. He told her the complete story. He held nothing back from her. She was the girl he had married and they had no secrets. Many suitors had vied for her hand, but she had chosen him. He tried to remember why.He had been a young man of no consequence. He was unremarkable in every way. From a minor family, possessing no great wealth, of average prospects. He had not expected to win anyone’s hand at the Spring Ball, let alone that of the the prettiest girl there.She was the Duke’s second child, and his favourite, as anyone could tell. She would be matched with some prince or dignitary of high repute, but oh how Parniss enjoyed watching her on the dais. She had a presence that becalmed him. He only wished her luck in finding a good man.And somehow it had turned out to be him. He had spoken to her. He remembered that. What had he said? A clever joke that made her laugh? Something profound to make her think? It was a pivotal moment in his life, but he had no recollections of the words that had won her heart. He only recalled that she had crossed the room and placed a kiss on his cheek. “The Queen must have appeared very beautiful,” she said to him. You abandoned me, her eyes told him“Yes, she was very beautiful.” Not by choice, he wanted to say.“Did the illusion not fool you?” You fetched me to this corner of the world, and left me to wither away.“It was no illusion. Her word is truth. She was astonishing to behold.” If I could have stayed, I would have.“But you resisted her advances. You were not seduced like the others.” I was already old and spent, there was nothing to stay for.“She didn’t offer me anything I valued.” He took a step towards her.She took a step back. “If you weren’t tempted, you deserve no credit. It is easy to reject what you don’t want.”He paused. “I was tempted. It is her nature to offer to fulfill the most basic of desires. Every man has the same needs.”“Then you wanted her and that’s nothing to be proud of,” she said angrily. “If it was only duty and obligation that prevented you from succumbing then your heart was still corrupted, even in victory.”“My heart was not corrupted, my love. The demon offered me everything a man might want, but she failed to overcome the one thing that would always make me choose you over her.”“And what’s that?” she asked, holding back her tears.“My good taste.”She slowly crossed the room and kissed him on the cheek.***The image of the book faded and Nic was in the darkness again. It was a version of the story he had never read before. It wasn’t the same as the one in the book in the library. It certainly wasn’t something you would read to children.What did it mean? Did it mean anything? A coded message he was supposed to unravel? He didn’t know. Even if it was his subconscious trying to tell him something, he was the wrong person to send it to. He was in no condition to solve riddles.He liked the story, though. He liked that they loved each other, equally. In which a man discovers that all questions have an answer, but only one that is correct.It was an odd subtitle. Not all questions had an answer. Not all problems had solutions. Someone had to lose.***Dizzy climbed to the top floor of the library and walked from one end to the other, weaving between every bookshelf, checking in every study room. Those that had closed doors, she knocked on politely. Those that didn’t answer, she entered using means the school would not have approved of.She worked her way down to the next floor and did the same. By the time she reached the ground, and thoroughly inspected every nook and crannie, she had found nothing to indicate Nic’s presence.Students carried on their business, nothing seemed out of place. And yet Dizzy had the inescapable feeling everything was wrong. The librarian was at her desk, working on a book with a tattered spine. “Excuse me, I’d like some assistance,” said Dizzy.“Of course, Miss Delcroix,” said the librarian without looking up. “How can I be of help?”Dizzy didn’t say anything. She just waited until the librarian slowly raised her eyes to meet Dizzy’s. “Yes? What are you looking for?”“You’re undivided attention,” said Dizzy.There was no reaction on the librarian’s face. She put down her tools and straightened her back. “Of course. Anything else?”“Nicolav Tutt. You know him.”“Yes,” said the librarian.“It wasn’t a question,” said Dizzy. “He’s gone missing. When did you last see him?”The librarian inflected a single eyebrow so it rose above her glasses. “Missing? Are you sure?”“Yes. Unless you know where he is.”“No, I’m afraid I don’t. Shouldn’t you report this to the Registry Office?”“They already know. There will be a special assembly this afternoon and students will be confined to their rooms while the Secret Service make a full sweep of the grounds. They won’t find him.”“They won’t? How can you be so sure, Miss Delcroix. Unless you know where he is.”“I don’t. But whoever took him would know how things operate here. They might make a mistake and reveal themselves, but I doubt it.”“What makes you think he’s still here?” asked the librarian.“It’s not what I think, it’s what everyone else thinks. I can only assume they have good reason to. I intend to find him first.”“Why?”Dizzy held the librarian’s gaze for a full minute without speaking. “I have an obligation.”“I see. Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you. I haven’t seen him in a few days, and he seemed the same as normal.”“You allowed him to use a private room.”“Yes.”“Isn’t that unusual?”“Yes, but then, he’s an unusual boy. Wouldn’t you agree?”“No,” said Dizzy. “I’ve always thought of him as very normal. You also allowed him to use the library after hours. Have you ever given that privilege to anyone else? I’m sure there must be others equally deserving.”“There very well maybe, Miss Delcroix. None have them asked.”“I believe he’s in trouble,” said Dizzy. “When I find the people responsible, I intend to make them regret their actions.”“I believe you.”“You don’t know where he is.”“No, I’m af—”“That wasn’t a question, either.” She turned and walked away. The woman was a liar and hiding more than a few secrets, but Dizzy believed her when she said she didn’t know where Nic was. “Miss Delcroix?” Dizzy stopped and turned around. The librarian was hunched over her work again. “If you do locate Mr Tutt, please let me know. I find him very normal, too.”Dizzy felt her jaw tighten, but she didn’t say anything. There was too much to do. She turned and headed for the door. Two tall boys stood waiting for her. She stopped in front of them, looking from one to the other. “Leave. If I see either of you again today, I’ll give you night terrors for a week.”Both boys blanched, then backed out of the door. By the time she exited the building, they were nowhere in sight.***The story Nic had read weighed heavy on his mind. It was a very short, simple tale that probably wasn’t true. He couldn’t stop thinking about it.Maybe there was an answer to his particular problem. One that he just couldn’t see. Rather than give up hope and lay quietly in the dark, practicing for death, he decided to focus his thoughts on finding a way out. It was all very comforting to feel sorry for oneself, but it soon became quite boring.He accepted his was a lost cause, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t affect the manner of his demise to suit him a little more, even if the result was inevitable.The most obvious option was for him to find a way to end his own life. Timing seemed to be an important factor, and if he upset the timetable, it could ruin everything for those waiting to land the perfect strike.Of course, that would leave Simole adrift, but it wasn’t as though he was offering her much of a chance at it was. He was fairly certain, if asked, she would tell him to do what he thought best, and she would take care of herself.Indeed, the whole notion of him being there to save her was ridiculous. His aid was a tiny fraction of a fraction when it came to improving her chances.The real problem was how to go about it. He had no means to harm himself and could barely move. Since finding himself swallowed by the earth, he hadn’t experienced pain, hunger, or even a need to relieve himself. The only conclusion was that his senses were being modified. It was quite possible that he was in a terrible condition. Wounded, starving and covered in his own excrement; he just wasn’t aware of it.In which case, he should at least be grateful for small mercies. To have his senses overruled under such conditions, for all its dangers, was better than having to deal with reality.Which he understood was a dangerous position to take. It was the kind of compromise that allowed an insidious power to make unchallenged advances. But if you can’t take dangerous chances when you’re buried alive with only a demon for company, then when?His greatest advantage was that they needed him alive. For now. He was here for the sake of convenience, a way to keep him in cold storage until it was time to make the necessary sacrifice. It would be better to let him escape than die, which meant he could engineer a way for the demon to aid his release, if the alternative was his death.Admittedly, it was an excellent prison he’d been placed in. He couldn’t move more than a centimetre or two. The only part of him that was free to move was his mind, and what good was that?Worry not, said a slithering voice that came from the distant darkness and simultaneously right next to his ear. I won’t let any harm befall you.“Will you show me how to die well?” he asked quietly.What need do you have for braveness? You will not be judged.He believed it. He probably wouldn’t be thought of at all. Do you fear pain? I promise you no suffering.“I imagine you’re keeping me from experiencing the full horror of my predicament, for which I am grateful. But at some point you will release me, and I will feel it all at once. I don’t want to go insane, even though it will protect me from knowing suffering and pain.”There was a pause. You see clearly in the dark, little one.“My eyes have become accustomed to it,” said Nic. “You can refuse me, of course, but know that I would not have refused you, if our positions had been reversed.”And after I teach you, then what? You use my teachings to betray me? Such is the lesson we learned. And we ruminated and meditated on the lesson as we ate our own hearts out in vexation. It took a long time to learn the lesson, but we learned it well. “I’m not asking you to give me strength. You’ve already buried me. I ask to be buried deeper. It’s not like you need my mind to be here.” But you already have that gift, you need not receive it from me. You have been creating your own privacy from the moment you found yourself trapped. Impenetrable walls are a simple matter for you, I have noticed.“What walls?”The ones you crouch behind. It would not take much to build a limitless maze, little one. Your language has such dips and valleys, such excellent places to hide. Cleanse your mind of people—an easy task for one as you. Close your ears. Close your heart. Surrender your desire to ever leave. You will be out of reach.“Isn’t there a skill I have to learn? A technique?”There was a soft laugh in the back of his mind. A guide? A manual? What technique do you need to claim what is already yours? Power is not something you attain, it is something you display. How the weak love the appearance of power, how they writhe in its presence. They fear it as much as they admire it. “I didn’t ask for power, only—”Control over your own fate? You don’t think that takes power? If you wish to be buried deeper within yourself, then the answer is in your own hands. Dig.***“We really don’t know where he is,” said the tall one“I know,” said Dizzy. She looked around the small, cosy room. The fire crackled and popped. The Head’s son brooded in one of the chairs, watching her closely. The tubby one fidgeted and grew redder in the face.“Then why are you here?” the tall one asked. Dizzy ignored him.“Shouldn’t you be in your room?” asked the tubby one. “The Head said we should remain in our rooms. Everyone.”“That’s where I am, then,” she said.“Then why can I see you standing in front of me?”“Poor eyesight?”“Look, Dizzy—” she shot the tall one a dark look and was pleased to see him flinch, although he didn’t stop talking, which was a surprise “—wherever Nic is, he doesn’t want us to get involved or he would have said something.”“I don’t care what he wants. What did you tell the Headmaster? Specifically.”“Nic was talking about the Pagoda,” said the tubby one. The tall one turned with a furious expression, making the tubby one burn even redder. “What? The quicker we tell her, the sooner she’ll leave. Nic wouldn’t care.”“That was all? He wasn’t interested in the library or Denkne’s place?”The three boys looked at her with startled faces. “You’re very well-informed,” said the tall one. “Or you’re good at guessing.”“You’re a lot like him,” said the tubby one. “Except, he’s actually quite a nice person when you get to know him.”She ignored the slight. “I’m going to stay here until it gets dark.”“What? Why? She can’t do that, can she, Davo?”“Calm down, Fanny.” He turned to her, serious and business-like. “We’ve told you what you wanted to know, there’s no reason for you to stay.”“We’re under curfew,” she said. “It would break school rules if I was to go out now.”The boys looked at each other, lost for words.“Which is his room? This one? I’ll borrow it. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.” She headed for the door. They didn’t try to stop her—not that they’d be able.She closed the door behind her and looked around the room. It was neat and tidy. She went through the drawers but found nothing of interest. She sat on his bed, and then lay down. The pillow smelled just like him.It wasn’t a pleasant smell. It never was with boys. She got up and opened a window. She lay down again and let her mind wander as the light grew dimmer.Once it was fully dark she sat up. “Attend me.”A shadow swept across the walls. “Yes, Mistress,” whispered a barely audible breeze.“Did the Secret Service find him?”“No, Mistress.”“Did they check the Pagoda?”“Yes, Mistress.”“Did you check the Pagoda?” “Yes, Mistress. Nothing.”“How far down did you go?”“To the bottom, Mistress.”“No further? You didn’t go below.”“There is no below.”“There is always something above and always something below. You should have dug deeper. You should always dig deeper.”“Unable to comply, Mistress. There is a null space beneath the Pagoda.”Her mouth tightened. “What’s in the null space?”“Nothing. It is a null space.”“Yes. The perfect place to hide something. How many of you are on active duty for my father?”“Half.”“And the other half?”“Waiting in reserve.”“Good. I want you to summon the reserves here.”“Cannot comply. Request is not permissible.”“What is your primary order?”“To protect the scion.”“What is the scion’s threat level.”“Mild.”Dizzy paused. She had expected it to be lower than that. “Which direction is the threat coming from?”“All directions.”It was referring to the general anxiety caused by the search for Nic, not a specific threat to her. “What is the boy’s threat level?”“High.”“What is the threat level for the school if the boy is compromised?”“High.”“Where is the scion?”“Ransom School.”“What is the projected threat to the scion if the school is compromised?”“High.”“What is permissible if the scion is under high threat?”“Everything is permissible.”“Summons the reserves.”“Reserves will be summoned, Mistress.”The air shivered as the shadows raced across the wall and out the window. Dizzy lay back down and breathed deeply.She had been annoyed when she first discovered her father had assigned one of his wraiths to watch over her like some treasured possession, but she had soon learned how to use the access to his network to her advantage.They weren’t the mindless automatons she had always considered them. They could be reasoned with. Convinced and persuaded. Even manipulated.There was a light knock on the door. It opened a crack. “It’s me. Fanny.” A sweaty round head peeked through the gap. “Are you alright?”“Yes. What do you want?”“Nothing. I just heard you talking to yourself. Thought you might be upset.”She glared at him, irritated by his concern. It was too dark for him to be affected by her displeasure.“I’m fine.”“You mean a lot to him. He wouldn’t want—”“You can stop talking.” She got up and walked towards him. He scurried backwards to get out of her way. The other two were behind him, scurrying to get out of his way.“I’m leaving. He’s in the Pagoda. Or rather, under it.”“You don’t know that,” said Davo, flustered. “You’re just guessing.”“Yes. I don’t have the energy to waste on explaining myself. Or the desire. He’s in trouble, you can count on that.”“And what do you think you’re going to do?” asked Davo. “Apart from get in the way?”“This isn’t some school prank,” said Fanny. “It’s either demons or Gweur rebels.”She was surprised. “Why would Gweur be interested in him?”Davo shot Fanny another dire look. “No good reason.”“And lots of bad ones,” mumbled Fanny.“It’s irrelevant. Do you want to come with me or not?”They were taken aback by the offer. “Don’t you want to take your minions with you?” asked Fanny.“Do you want more people to know about this? I’ll probably need help with heavy lifting.” She looked the three of them over, unimpressed. “It’ll probably take all three of you.”They looked at each other and came to some unverbalised agreement.“We aren’t going to follow your orders,” said Davo.“You will do exactly what I tell you.”“But only this one time,” said Fanny. “Good. First I need to pick up some equipment from my room.”“Um,” said Fanny. “Don’t you live in the girls’ dorm?”“Yes, of course.”“Boys aren’t allowed in there.”“I need you to carry things, so we’ll make an exception.”“Okay. I just need to brush my teeth,” said Fanny.“Do I have time for a quick shower?” asked Davo, even more flustered than when demons and Gweur rebels were mentioned.“This is against school rules,” said Brill. “But under the circumstances…”“I’m leaving now. Either come or don’t.” She walked out. They hurried after her.If you have a moment, please vote for this story on TopWebFictionNo sign up required, just hit the button. 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