In Nic’s estimation, war was inevitable. It wasn’t the battle between nations that concerned him — even without dragons, Ranvar was superior in military might to her neighbours. The real fight was between the High-Father and his wayward pupils.
The creature that lived under the Librarium, the demon he had once kept as a guest in his mind, and Winnum Roke. They had formed a coalition to defeat the High-Father to stop him from using this world as his playground.
The High-Father’s attempts at evolving his creations to something resembling free spirits came at a price — the annihilation of all indigenous life. Not really the kind of exchange rate Nic considered favourable.
The inevitability Nic sensed did not come from the determination of the three rebels to be free of the High-Father’s yoke. If he wished to stop them he could have. No, it was the High-Father himself who encouraged the struggle most of all, who kept the fire burning under the crucible. He saw it as a means to produce the best results, like metal being tempered in the fiercest flames to imbue it with unwavering strength.
Nic was sure everyone understood this. They weren’t naive enough to think their plans were succeeding by outsmarting the High-Father. They did, however, seem to think Nic was naive enough to believe his role in all this was down to blind chance or possibly a destiny foretold among the stars.
Nic had never been much of a believer in fate or destiny. His only birthright was to be a little spoiled by a doting mother, and who wasn’t born with that?
He wasn’t born special. He wasn’t even born ordinary to become special, like the heroes in so many of the books popular with his peers. He was born with no entitlement, which made him conveniently easy to torment and dominate.
There was probably more to it than that, some trait he had that was useful to these people and their grand plans. It most likely wouldn’t be anything of benefit to him. It most likely would end up killing him, once his usefulness was at an end.
He understood all this but still he was fascinated to be in such august company. He was at the heart of world-changing events, and as much as he felt his position had been artificially elevated and entirely undeserved, it was hard not to find it tantalising, to be present, to be in the front row as the curtains rose.
What he would do, he had decided, was not try to play the hero, or even the role they were trying to tempt him with — some kind of proxy for their own ambitions — but instead to watch and learn from them. He wanted to see the way the world really worked, not the half-glimpsed truths written in books and shaped into something else entirely so as to be easier to consume and digest. And the person who could give him the keenest insight as Winnum Roke.
“It seems you have been keeping secrets,” said the High-Father. His tone was light, playful, and there was a benign smile on his wizened face, but there was a steeliness to his eyes that suggested he wasn’t entirely pleased.
“It is as you wished it to be,” said the creature’s voice from every direction, seemingly. “We act without your permission or guidance, as you wished us to.”
“Indeed, indeed,” said the High-Father. “But to have kept this ability from me, it is quite an achievement.”
Nic was more or less an observer, a non-participant in the conversation. For someone who would decide the fate of the world, he was remarkably uninvolved in most decisions. They wanted him to agree to play the game, but all the moves were made by them.
From what he had been able to work out, the High-Father’s only real interest was in creating a race of beings able to think for themselves. Free will. He wanted his creations to be able to disobey him as proof of this. He could achieve that easily enough by telling them to disobey him, but that wasn’t the same thing.
The High-Father didn’t want to accomplish this through the same method he himself had acquired free will, through the death of an entire world — which was a relief. He wanted to use a far more intricate and intensive approach. He wanted to nurture it through conflict.
The creature, on the other hand, along with Winnum Roke, had decided the sacrifice of millions was a small price to pay for defeating the High-Father’s tyranny.
Nic wasn’t sure whose side he should be on. Could a strong desire for self-preservation spontaneously produce free will? Was it worth wagering every life on the planet to prevent the High-Father continuing his endless journey of destruction from world to world? That seemed to be the experiment Nic was stuck in the middle of.
The creature didn’t strike Nic as the best person to decide the fate of his world. In some ways, it was another example of the same thing the High-Father was trying to do. Its creators had made it capable of thought and independent action, which eventually led to it deciding the best course of action was to sacrifice them for the greater good. Not all that different from what the High-Father was trying to achieve. Was that an example of free will and self-determination, or was it cold logic with no consideration for morality or compassion?
What worried Nic was that if that was how the creature thought then, there was no reason to think it didn’t think the same now.
“Nothing has been kept from you,” said the creature. “The opportunity did not exist until now. There was nothing to be kept hidden.”
Nic recognised this form of evasion, where the technical truth was treated as a substitute for the real thing, like promising not to kill a man if he confesses to a crime, and then having someone else kill him.
The High-Father, of course, would also know the difference. But the High-Father was the one who had encouraged the creature to go in this direction. He wanted his charges to find ways to deceive him. It showed growth.
“You wish to take young Nic to consult with Winnum Roke, then?” said the High-Father.
“If it helps him come to a decision, isn’t it a reasonable consideration?”
The High-Father looked at Nic. In the darkened room, surrounded by stars and galaxies, he appeared like a celestial being of immense size. Nic wondered if he looked the same to the High-Father. Probably not.
“The door is closed,” said the High-Father. “How will you get them together?”
“There are other doors,” said the creature. “Not as large or as convenient, perhaps, but adequate for a short conversation. He only wants to exchange a few words. Isn’t that right, Nic?”
Nic was a little caught off guard to be addressed directly. “Um, I suppose. Although, I’m not sure I believe you.”
There was a pause, a silence which suggested the creature had taken offence at the suggestion. Then the High-Father laughed. “Wonderful, wonderful. If only I could harness a fraction of the spirit you contain, Nic.” He was thoroughly amused.
“I assure you,” said the creature, “I have expressed no falsehoods to you.”
“No, I don’t think you have, either,” said Nic. “But what you say you will do, and why you are really doing it, are two entirely separate things. Whatever Winnum Roke might share with me, what she might share with you could be the more important matter.”
“I will not be present,” said the creature. “Whatever happens between the two of you, it will only involve the two of you. The method of contacting her resides with you, the map you now have access to, and the heritage you share due to being of the same people. You are linked to her as you are to everyone of your kind.”
Nic felt his brow crease. “Are you saying I’m related to Winnum Roke?”
“Only distantly,” said the creature. “As you are to most Ranvarians. The insular nature of your people has meant that you share a lot of commonalities.”
If not for the careful wording, it would have been easy to take the creature’s explanation as an insult.
“And I can contact her through this map?” Nic looked around him at the twinkling lights. He squinted, as though he might be able to spot Winnum Roke hiding among the tiny stars.
“Yes,” said the creature. Nic couldn’t see the creature, but he had the feeling it was smiling smugly.
There was no doubt in Nic’s mind that things weren’t as simple as they were being made to be. He may well be able to speak to Winnum Roke, but what would Winnum Roke be able to do with him.
Despite his reservations, Nic was still inclined to go along with the creature’s plan. Even if he were being led into an ill-advised predicament, he would still be able to learn something about how the creature and Winnum Roke intended to defeat their vastly superior foe. The High-Father was the one Nic really needed to be wary of. If he couldn’t hold his own against the creature, he was hardly going to be able to withstand whatever the High-Father had in store.
“Do you really want them to defeat you?” Nic asked him.
“I want them to try,” said the High-Father.
“But you expect them to fail.”
The High-Father sighed and nodded. “It is the likeliest outcome. You never know, though.”
“You always know,” said Nic. When you could change reality at a whim, the future was whatever you wanted it to be.
The High-Father smiled. “So far, yes. But this world is young and full of potential. I have high hopes. For them and for you. I think you may be what tilts the balance, this time.”
This time? Had the High-Father tried this before? A being who had existed for as long as he had probably had the time to attempt numerous experiments, the only limiting factor were the lives he needed to play with.
“What do I have to do?” said Nic to the room. Speaking to a disembodied voice with no name made it hard to know who to address.
“Nothing,” said the creature. “I will guide you.”
“Then I will leave you to it,” said the High-Father. There was a confidence to his voice, a certainty that whatever it was the creature was going to do — and Nic was sure the High-Father was as suspicious of the creature’s true motives as he was — there was nothing he needed to fear. Even with his eyes closed and his fingers in his ears, the High-Father would still be impossible to sneak up on, let alone overthrow.
The glitter in the darkness swirled and lost its shape. Nic felt like he was about to fall over. He closed his eyes to try and keep himself upright.
“I don’t feel well,” he mumbled.
“This won’t take long,” said the creature’s voice right next to Nic’s ear.
“What are you doing?”
There was no reply.
Nic had expected a door of some kind to open, maybe a hole to fall into. The last time he had visited the other place, the ship between worlds, it had felt like a physical transfer. This time his head was spinning and he felt mildly nauseous. Of course, he was just assuming he was being taken to the ship. The door was closed and another way would be needed. They couldn’t keep that from the High-Father. But Winnum Roke wasn’t necessarily waiting for him in the same places as before.
“We are going to see Winnum Roke,” said the creature. The voice seemed to be drifting away from him.
“Where?” Nic’s own voice seemed to be drifting away from him, too.
“The place where the two of you intersect.”
Nic passed out.
When he opened his eyes, he was lying on a grassy slope, looking up at a cloudless sky. It didn’t look the same as before, though. The ship that had kept Winnum Roke prisoner all these years had an otherworldly feel to it, and this… this felt normal. He could feel the warmth of the sun, for a start.
“Is he dead? We’re in big trouble if he’s dead.”
And then a bucketful of water landed on Nic’s face and he inhaled sharply from the cold and the shock.
“He’s alive. He’s blinking his eyes.”
They were talking about him. He was the one blinking his eyes, trying to stop everything being a blur. The accent was a little strange but it sounded vaguely Ranvarian, and vaguely not. Was he in some distant outpost where the accents were different?
Someone moved nearby, he heard their feet squelching in mud. It was a clear day but there was water on the ground. The two things didn’t jibe until he remembered the water thrown at his face. He was lying in a puddle.
A pointed cap appeared in the sky over him. “Can you walk or are you going to stay there for the rest of the day, Private Tutt?”
Before he could answer, hands grabbed him, lifting him up. The world spun again, making it hard to see where he was. And then he saw the city ahead of him. He recognised it, the tallest buildings were familiar — the palace, the Royal College, the Librarium — and then again it was all completely different. So much smaller.
“What was he doing? Deserting?”
“Dunno. Took off like he’d seen a ghost.”
“He ain’t a coward. I seen him run into a hail of arrows. Bounced off him, they did. The boy’s charmed.”
“Don’t talk rot. Hey, don’t let go, he’s gonna topple right over.”
They were talking around him now, no threat or malice. Some curiosity, a little baffled, but they appeared to know him. But not as Nic Tutt.
“Nic Tutt,” called out an imperious voice. “Nic Tutt, stand up, man.”
Or maybe they did.
Nic’s muscles tensed and he was able to support his own weight again. He looked around and realised he was inside the city walls, it was just that the city was a lot less built up and a lot greener. Swathes of open land were on either side of him.
“This is the past,” he said out loud.
This was Ranvar City from a previous time, long before Nic was born. How was he here?
There was no response from the creature and only bemused looks from the soldiers surrounding him. He recognised the uniforms and the armour. This was the Golden Age. A time when Ranvar was building an empire. Nations quickly fell to the Ranvarian army and every battle ended in victory, or so Nic had read.
“This isn’t real,” he said aloud again.
The creature had said it had the ability to show him whatever he wanted to see, had given him that ability. But it also said it had recorded every moment since arriving in this world.
It had placed him here, in the past, when Ranvar was an unassailable force with no equal, and the Archmage of the Royal College had been Winnum Roke.
Somebody slapped him in the face. It didn’t feel like it wasn’t real. It hurt quite a lot, but it also brought his mind into focus. In front of him stood a man in brightly polished armour. He was taller than Nic, taller than everyone, with a face hidden behind a masked helmet.
“This way,” he said.
“I need to see the Archmage,” said Nic. That was why he was here, although he wasn’t sure what he was going to say to a thousand-year-old memory of Winnum Roke. How would she be able to tell him anything? This Winnum Roke knew nothing of what was to come.
“I know,” said the man. “That’s where we’re going.” He took off the helmet and wiped his brow. The face was familiar.
“Rutga?” said Nic.
“Don’t be so familiar, Private,” said the man who looked almost exactly like Rutga, if maybe a little younger, maybe a little thinner. “Be professional, be polite, and let’s hope the Archmage doesn’t have you executed.”
“Executed? What for?”
Rutga stopped and gave Nic a quizzical look. “Treason, murder, littering — take your pick.”
“Can you be executed for littering?” asked Nic.
“When you leave body parts lying around, yes,” said Rutga.
The men closed in around Nic and he realised they weren’t there to help him while he still felt woozy, they were an armed escort. Apparently, this Nic Tutt was in a lot of trouble. But it wasn’t like there was any danger to Nic himself. He put his hand to his cheek which still stung. If he could experience pain here, then what else?