The High-Father’s face was framed by the darkness, his eyes glittering, his lips curled into a warm smile that didn’t make Nic feel any better about the situation he was in. His appearance might have been that of a genial old man, a trim white beard, short grey-hair covering his scalp, but his presence was still very much that of the dragon he had once been.
“The story begins in a time before Ranvar existed as a singular nation, before the cities and the farms, when men survived using only the most basic tools, wooden implements being the norm, and rocks the most common weapon.”
“You were here, then?” asked Nic, wary of being tricked. Would he even be aware of it if he was? “That sounds like a very long time ago.”
The High-Father nodded.
Pinpricks of light appeared around him. Stars and worlds circling the two of them. Between Nic and the High-Father was the world Nic was now familiar with from all angles. It was a small ball no bigger than a marble, but it was easy for him to recognise it.
“I was here. I came to observe, to see how you strange creatures lived and what, if anything, I might learn from you.” The High-Father’s tone was soft and humble — not at all how Nic saw him. If this was an attempt to lull him into thinking he was speaking to a kindly uncle or grandpa, it would require a great deal more convincing.
“Your world was one of many I had visited, no more or less outstanding than the others. But on closer inspection, this world, this world was different. I watched a while, the men and women struggling to scratch a living from the earth with the tools they’d made with their own hands,” said the High-Father, sounding like a history teacher, although Nic had never been taught anything from this far back. “There was something about the people of this land, these hills and mountains you now call Ranvar, that caught my attention. They did not speak the language you speak now, they did not even look the same, their skin more pale and sallow. They looked sickly and ready to die if the hunting became scarce or the weather turned too cold. It would not be an exaggeration to say they were on the path to extinction, as a people. And they would not be missed.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Nic, feeling the need to defend his predecessors.
He had never heard the original settlers of Ranvar spoken of in such disparaging terms. They had always been considered wild and aggressive, but hunters and warriors who fought against great odds and great enemies to establish the first unified tribes under a single banner that would one day be called the Kingdom of Ranvar.
“Because your people were considered vermin,” said the HIgh-Father. “There were neighbouring tribes, far stronger, far more advanced in their development. Better tools, better weapons. They had domesticated animals, kept livestock rather than relied on hunting. They were tougher and bigger because they ate well and kept themselves clean, free of illness.”
“And the Ranvarians didn’t?”
“No. They died quickly and often.”
“You make them sound like animals,” said Nic. “No, not even animals are that incapable of taking care of themselves. If they were so weak, how did they manage to survive?”
Nic was too interested in what he was being told to fear the situation he was in. What time was it? Already morning? Were the Librarium staff arriving for work? There were people searching for him, meaning him harm, most probably. None of that seemed very important right now. He was under the Librarium and no one was going to find him here.
“I wondered that myself,” said the High-Father. “Your people should have been long dead before I happened to come across them. Long dead and forgotten. But they were not. They were stubborn and persistent, tenacious beyond reason. They would not make allies, they refused to be told what to do. They valued their freedom above all else and ignored threats that could have wiped them out.” The High-Father’s expression was a mixture of admiration and also bewilderment. “To prefer annihilation rather than bondage… I had never witnessed such a thing. All societies value survival above all else. Slavery and tyranny are tolerated if it means a chance to continue living — but not with your forebears. It wasn’t even arrogance — they had nothing to be arrogant about. If they had been forced to fight, they would have lost. It helped that they occupied a land so rough and wild that no one else had any interest in taking it from them.”
“That’s who you chose them to give your power to?” said Nic. “Why? Because they were wild and reckless?”
“Not wild and reckless. Independent. They thought for themselves and made a point of taking the path others shied away from. I can’t say I fully understood it, but I was fascinated by it and wished to see where it would take me. And here I am, still.” There was a sense of wonder from the High-Father, as though he couldn’t quite believe it himself.
“They lived in the mountains?” asked Nic. This is what he had been told in school about the first tribes of Ranvar, but maybe that wasn’t true, either.
“The mountains, yes. Inside them, in caves and tunnels. They came out to hunt and to forage. Their skin near grey from the lack of sun and their eyes squinting in even the weakest daylight.”
“And these were the people you chose to bestow power on?” asked Nic, finding the reasoning hard to accept. Why choose the most stubborn, unworthy, unjustifiably arrogant individuals who were close to extinction? Just to prove a point? Tempt them with power beyond their dreams and lure them into mindless servitude? It seemed a petty goal. “Did you think it would prove your superiority, to subjugate the most defiant people you could find?” He was, he realised, a little angry about it.
“No, not at all,” said the High-Father. He smiled wistfully like he was recalling a fond memory. “It was their perverse contrariness I valued. I wished to learn from it. You see, Nic, there are qualities that make no sense and come from unfathomable origins but they are all the more valuable for it. The universe is built on those qualities and learning to apply them can change everything.”
“Alright,” said Nic, not sure how to take in this information about the people he was descended from. “I still don’t see what that has to do with me. Or why you would want me to be your champion.”
The word felt strange coming out of Nic’s mouth. He was the one who had suggested the idea, to limit the war between men and demons that he could see coming to a much less destructive battle between two individuals. One representative for the humans, and one for the demons.
At least that way fewer lives would be lost, and the results would be known far quicker than a war between thousands.
It had been more or less an idle thought. A possible alternative that might be worth considering. He hadn’t expected the High-Father to suddenly appear and accept the proposition without hesitation. Nor had he expected to be named one of the two champions. And even more of a surprise was to be chosen to represent the enemy!
It was all very confusing. And now the High-Father wanted to make Nic a willing participant by recalling tales of ancient Ranvar.
“You are the obvious choice,” said the High-Father. “I believe you will come to the same conclusion, that you are the appropriate person to take on this matter on behalf of myself. If not, you are welcome to forfeit. It will be my loss.”
Nic shook his head. No sense at all. “You seem very confident that I’ll agree.”
“I am not,” said the High-Father. “That is what makes it so exciting.” He grinned, not at all maliciously. “The challenge begins with convincing you, and it only gets harder from there.”
“But you could simply make me do what you want,” said Nic. “You could even make me think it was my own idea.”
The High-Father raised a hand and waved away Nic’s insinuation. “That is how you have been treated so far, I am well aware of that. I would apologise to you, but it is not my place to do so. That was the approach taken by others — with my permission, admittedly, but not condoned.”
“What difference does that make?” said Nic. “If you allowed it, then you condoned it.”
“I allowed those who I am responsible for to act as they saw fit. It was always this way and for good reason. If I am to raise them to their full potential, they must be allowed to find their own way, to make their own mistakes.”
“Why?” said Nic. “What are you trying to achieve?”
The High-Father looked like he was about to say something but stopped to think it over, as though it was his first time considering such a question.
“You are doing well,” said a familiar if terrifying voice from the dark. It was the creature, who had been silent since the High-Father appearance. “You are asking the right questions.”
“Am I?” said Nic. “Have you asked these questions already? Do you know the answers? The real ones, I mean.”
“You think I would lie to you?” asked the High-Father, sounding slightly offended.
“It’s not lying if there are many truths and you choose which one to tell,” said Nic. “I know the power you put into your words, that you can recreate any reality you choose. It is what makes you so hard to understand — your lies aren’t lies because you shift reality to make them true. It isn’t very fair.”
“The truth isn’t fair?” said the High-Father.
“Not when you can change it at will,” said Nic. “Why do you even need us? You have so much power, you could do anything, go anywhere. Why waste your time with us?”
“Because infinite possibilities require fuel to power them,” said the High-Father. “Where I came from, there is nothing left to draw from.”
“And where was that?” asked Nic. There was no reply but Nic wasn’t going to let it lie. He might never get another chance like this one. After this, after he rejected the High-Father’s offer (or even worse, accepted it), he would probably be used like wood in a fireplace, the kind of fuel that gets burned up and floats away as smoke and ash. He could at least satisfy his curiosity first. “Where do you come from?”
Nic didn’t really expect an answer, not a coherent one. Maybe a vague allusion to a myth or fairytale that had no real meaning, or a hundred different ones.
The tiny lights around them swirled and the world he recognised was replaced by an angry red ball.
“I was created in a place that no longer exists. Here, there was a world where this cloud of dust now resides.” The High-Father passed his hand through a small dust cloud, making it shimmer.
It was a shockingly direct answer and Nic nearly forgot to follow up. If the High-Father was in the mood to talk, Nic wanted to get as much information out of him as possible.
“By whom?” he said. “Who created you?”
“Aini Ahlia. A man — not a man like you, not with two arms and two legs and a head with orifices, but something similar — only not. An existence living among many. Millions. Billions. They lived, they died, they loved and they reproduced, just like you — only not. Their world was a grand and magnificent globe of grand and magnificent minds. They were beings of incomparable capacity, always attempting to grow and expand their knowledge, their understanding, and their reach.”
“This man, Aini Ahlia, he created you?”
“He made a terrible and horrible discovery — he learned that a living mind could reshape space. Not just the space within its own imagination or in dreams, but in reality, in the space people existed within.”
“Why is that terrible and horrible?” asked Nic.
“Because the living mind had to be removed from the living being that housed it in order to achieve this shape-changing ability.”
“And he did that to himself?” asked Nic.
“No,” said the High-Father, shaking his head. “No, no. Not to himself, to others. To experiment on himself would have brought his work to a very rapid close. Although his experiments on others were also quickly ended, with his execution.”
Nic nodded. It seemed the appropriate punishment for a murderer.
“But they still had the minds,” said the High-Father.
“They weren’t dead?”
“No,” said the High-Father. “They were alive and transformed, and in immeasurable pain. But to kill them as an act of mercy was not something that was deemed acceptable. An unseemly fate for his victims. Death was a far worse fate, for them, and reserved for criminals and madmen. After the execution of Aini Ahlia, people continued his work and found the parts of the mind responsible for reshaping reality.”
“They continued his experiments on the living minds?” Nic was dumbfounded. They had killed the man responsible for what was clearly a horrendous act on innocents, but were apparently willing to continue his work once the initial evil had been committed.
“It would have been a waste not to, or so they believed. It may seem to you that it is as cruel to meddle with an enslaved mind as it is to enslave it in the first place — and so it is — but the people of that word drew a rigid distinction between instigating and perpetuating. To them, it seemed right and compassionate.
“And so it came to pass that the discovery of minds that could change the shape of existence led to the discovery that the minds themselves could be reshaped and bring into existence a new being.”
“You?” asked Nic.
“Eventually, yes,” said the High-Father. “But not at first. First, they had to sacrifice the minds and combine them into one. They coalesced and grafted and welded with heat and pain. Pain is a powerful glue that can bind things together for aeons. A torrent of discordant colours and textures flooded my senses when I first awoke, my screams went unheard but gradually the pain ebbed away until I was left trembling on its shore.”
Nic couldn’t help but be horrified. He understood that he was hearing about an entirely different culture to his own, as different as birds to fish or lizards to lions, but the idea of treating people as ingredients in an experiment, to be mixed and stirred, did not fit well with him.
“And you were the result?”
“Eventually, yes,” said the High-Father, taking pleasure in Nic’s discomfort, although perhaps he imagined that. “The minds combined had the effect of displacing reality altogether. The whole world became unglued and what was once a large bowl with a little bit of everything, turned into a soup. From which I slowly emerged. I had the memories and conceptual awareness of the beings that had birthed me, but there was so much else to learn. This was a very long time ago.”
The High-Father smiled, his story told. Nic didn’t feel the shift in perception that came with the other stories he had been told by demons. This had felt simple and unembellished, although perhaps that was because the storyteller was far more accomplished at subtle changes.
Nic wasn’t sure what to do with all this information. He had asked where the High-Father had come from and he had been given the answer. It had changed nothing. Perhaps he had asked the wrong question.
“And you were alone?” asked Nic.
“Yes. At first, my gaze was inward, wondering who I was, what I was, and then outwards, as I contemplated the silent stars. The joy of being, the pure unadulterated joy of existing, the beauty and grace I was surrounded by, it was enough, at first — when you listen carefully, you find the universe hums gently to itself. The novelty eventually wore off, and I began to explore.”
“How?” asked Nic. “How did you move from your world?”
“I didn’t,” said the High-Father. “I am still there. And I am here. It’s the distance between them that changed.”
“But the ship,” said Nic. “The place where you sent Winnum Roke, where the crea…” He stumbled on the word, not wanting to use such an anonymous term for the creature, but not knowing what else to call it.
“The ship enabled others to travel with me,” said the High-Father. “It is a fine vessel and very useful, able to cover unimaginable distances.”
“But you could change those distances with a thought,” said Nic. “Couldn’t you?”
He was struggling to understand what the High-Father was truly after. He seemed to be omnipotent, able to remould stardust into whatever he wished. So why was he here? What could he possibly learn from anyone?
“I could, but then what?” The High-Father waved his hand around as though the answer might be somewhere within the spinning stars surrounding him but their exact location was a mystery. “This into that, that into this. If you can change anything into anything, then everything is the same.”
Nic tried to piece together what the High-Father was getting at. Here he was, a being of limitless power and he was what? Bored?
No, that wasn’t it. He was searching for something, and he needed the help of others to find it. What could anyone possibly offer the High-Father that he didn’t already have or couldn’t conjure up with a snap of his fingers?
“You created the demons,” said Nic. “How? Are they a part of you?”
“As you are a part of your parents,” said the High-Father.
“And the All-Mother? Where did she come from?” Nic had only heard of the name, there had been no specific mention of who she was or what she could do.
“I created her and together we created our children.”
“And then you wanted them to grow and become like…” It dawned on Nic what it was the High-Father was seeking. “You wanted them to have free will, to make their own choices.”
The High-Father’s eyes lit up and his smile spread across his face. “Yes, that’s it. To be their own masters.”
“Couldn’t you just give it to them?” asked Nic. “Make them have it?”
“No. I could make them think their will was their own but they would simply be carrying out my instructions.”
“But they wouldn’t know any different,” said Nic.
“But I would.”
“So you do have free will. How?”
“Aini Ahlia was an intellect beyond reckoning. I have the collected memories of his entire world, but not his.”
“It’s a shame they killed him, then,” said Nic.
The High-Father laughed. “Indeed, a great shame.”
“I think I understand,” said Nic, “more or less. You want your creations to be able to think and choose for themselves. Even though they have enormous powers, they are still just an extension of you. You took them to various places so they could grow and learn. You brought them here and merged them with us, so they could acquire greed and desire and selfishness, or whatever it is that give us our desire to follow our own path. Aren’t your efforts already a success? The demon who came to me, she seemed very much to have her own agenda.”
“No,” said the High-Father, “I’m afraid not. She was carrying out my instructions, but in her own time and manner. It is not quite there, but close, very close. This world has brought me closest to my goal.”
“But Winnum Roke tried to stop you.”
“Yes,” said the High-Father. “But more than that, she wished to challenge me as an equal. And to do that she would need to create a being of comparable power.”
“How would she do that without…” Nic felt dizzy with the realisation that had hit him. “Without… she wanted to recreate the experiment that created you?”
“That is what she wished.”
“The minds of the people of this world?”
“I… I don’t believe she would do that.”
“You could ask her yourself,” said the High-Father. “She won’t deny it. She sees it as the only path to victory. She may even be correct.”
“I am correct,” said a voice that had recently resided in Nic’s mind.
“You aren’t the real Winnum Roke,” said Nic, looking around the starry sky he was surrounded by.
“I know how she thinks,” said the disembodied voice, “and I know this is the only path we have left. It is not a matter of choice, it is a matter of having no other good options.”
“She made you,” said Nic. “A version of herself. Like how the High-Father made his demons.” Nic could see it now, the similarity between the two. Winnum Roke may have been appalled and disgusted by what the High-Father had done, but she was still willing to follow his example. Willing to go to whatever lengths.
“What do you think, Nic?” said the High-Father.
“I… I…” Nic didn’t know what to think. He didn’t want it to be true. He didn’t want it to be possible. But what if it were? “You allowed this to happen. You gave them the task to defeat you by any means they wished. You wanted them to grow beyond you, and that’s what they’re doing. By destroying you, and us in the process. You want this to happen.”
“I do not want this to happen,” said the High-Father, “but I do want them to evolve. And evolution requires conflict. Winnum Roke was inspired to a new way of thinking, a darker way. But the cost is going to be very high, and very bloody. Will you stop her?”
Nic was at a loss. It was a lot to take in. Even if he did want to avoid the destruction of his world, how would he go about it? Winnum Roke was very nearly as powerful as the High-Father. And all Nic had was a very detailed map in his head.
“What about you?” said Nic into the darkness. “Do you want my world to end the same as yours?”
“It is not my choice,” said the creatures rumbling voice. “This is not my world. But if he isn’t stopped here, other worlds will fall to him, just as others have before. You are a single step on his journey to wean his children. There will be countless more before he is satisfied.”
It was a staggering thought. Winnum Roke had come to the conclusion that the only way to stop the High-Father was to create an equal and opposite force to oppose him, which made sense. And she was willing to sacrifice her own people to create that force, which didn’t.
“I still don’t see what I can do about any of this,” said Nic, feeling weary from the weight of so many impossible thoughts. There was nothing to cling onto, no rhyme nor reason. “What can I do?”
“I do not know,” said the High-Father. “Which is why I am keen to see what you will do.”
“Because I have free will?”
“Because you have your free will. Others have tried to mould you to their will, to use you as a convenient tool. I don’t think their ambition was any greater than that or you, but you have learned from the experience. The punishment they delivered to you was a great teacher. Your weakness forced you to take steps no one else would have, because they wouldn’t need to. With great power comes great complacency.”
“Aren’t there others who could challenge Winnum Roke?” asked Nic.
“Many,” said the High-Father. “But none who are powerful enough to defeat her, and all are too powerful to try any other way. And even if they did manage it, most likely they would only replace her. The path she has chosen leads to power far beyond what they have now.”
“It leads to you,” said Nic.
“Yes,” said the High-Father. “And who would want another me?”
“I think I’d like to speak to Winnum Roke,” said Nic.
“Again?” said the High-Father.
“No, not her. I mean the real one.”
The High-Father considered the request. Then he nodded and said, “I can arrange that but you should know that the moment she realises you are her prospective opponent, she is likely to remove you as a threat. Even if you have no intention of going against her, it will still be the safer choice for her. Are you ready to face her in that case?”
“No,” said Nic. “I don’t think I am. Can’t I just speak to her?”
“The door is closed. The only way is to open it and I have given my word I will not be the one to do so. Nor can I tell you how to go about it. And once you do open it, should you find a method, there will be no way to make sure she doesn’t attack you. How would you like to proceed?”
Nic wasn’t sure he did want to proceed. Leaving things as they were wasn’t much use, either. War was inevitable and he suspected the reasons behind the war were to do with the plan the High-Father had mentioned. A large gathering of people would be the ideal time to strip them of their minds and create a being to challenge him.
Nic wanted to speak to Winnum Roke directly and confirm what the High-Father had said was true. He didn’t think he was being lied to, but you didn’t have to lie to hide the truth.
“I can take you to her,” said the creature.