Nic’s chest burned as he ran. The cold morning air went in like a knife and then broke into tiny shards of molten metal in his lungs. His arms pumped wildly as he forced himself to keep running. He had never been prone to regrets or dwelling on his misfortune. Anger and self-pity achieved little and only prolonged the period where you weren’t doing something about your problem, but this… this he hated.
He rounded the cafeteria and began the loop back to the cottage. Having made it to the halfway point made it no less gruelling.
“I find you inflexible,” Dizzy had said. “Let’s see what we can do.”
She had approached his training, or his rehabilitation as she’d called it, with professional detachment. She saw him as a broken toy to be fixed, and the first part was to make a thorough, hands-on inspection. Such a thing should have been a dream come true, literally.
It was not.
Dizzy touch was cold and impersonal. She twisted and bent, tested his limits and then pushed a bit further, just to see what was there. She acted in a completely serious and dignified way, but he knew her too well to miss the slight undertone of sadistic pleasure in her eyes.
Perhaps he imagined it. Perhaps this was her dream come true.
“There’s no point trying to fine tune an instrument until it’s in tune,” she had said once she’d tried to pull his head off his neck and confirmed it was attached firmly, “and you are very out of tune. We need to start with regular stretching, in the morning as soon as you wake and in the evening just before you go to bed. That and running. Lots of running, as fast as you can manage. That means pushing yourself, Nic. You’ll only be cheating yourself if you use a shortcut. The point isn’t to achieve the immediate objective using the least amount of effort. Effort is the objective.”
“I understand.” It had been difficult to keep his irritation under control when she spoke with such presumption, with such surety of his intentions. His methods when faced with proving himself to a teacher were not the same as those he used when facing himself. Or so he presumed. He had not been forced into this position very often.
“Normally, I would tell you to take it slow and not risk injuring yourself, but in this case I don’t think we have time to take the slow route. Pain is your friend, it will tell you you’re on the right path.”
The speed with which she had returned to being the bossy girl who always came up with the plan, always made the decisions, was noticeably swift. Back when they had been children the difference in their status had made it an indisputable part of their relationship. Now, though, she was merely a fellow student. He didn’t have to do what she told him.
He pushed on, even though he was tired and miserable, even though all reason told him to stop before he threw up. He might no longer be compelled to follow her orders, but he was certainly not going to let her shake her head at him with a knowing look that this was what she had expected all along.
It was early, before most students had even woken. There was a slight mist covering the ground and the grass sprayed his shins with flecks of moisture as he pounded across it. His form was not good. He had never been the athletic type, but he had seen enough sports at school to know what it was meant to look like. Graceful, elegant, an efficiency of movement. He very much doubted that was how he looked to the groundsmen and porters going about their business, if they even noticed his presence.
He was on the last leg, just one more turn and then the long path that came out by the cottage. It hurt to breathe so much he found himself holding the air in his lungs for as long as possible, like he was running underwater.
Up ahead, two figures stood at the finishing line. One he expected, the other was not someone he recognised. A young boy, it looked like.
Running so early served two purposes. One, to discharge his commitment as soon as possible, and two, to avoid being seen doing it.
He came to a shuddering stop, bent over and gasping for air that seemed reluctant to enter his body unless sucked in with an immense amount of force.
“That was hilarious,” said Simole. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone flounder like that. Well worth getting up for.”
“Time,” said Nic.
“Mm? Oh, six forty-five.”
“I mean…” He stood up straight and nearly fell over backwards as his head went light and woozy. “I mean, how long did it take me.”
“I have no idea,” said Simole.
Nic took a few more deep breaths before continuing. It didn’t really help. “That’s why I gave you the watch.”
Simole looked at the silver pocket watch in her hand. “Yes, and it says the time is six forty-five. AM.”
“Fourteen minutes,” said the small boy standing a little to Simole’s left.
Nic looked at the boy. He was about eleven or twelve, yet to experience a growth spurt, or very unfortunate if he already had. He was dressed in the school uniform, everything neatly pressed and spotlessly clean. His shirt was a shockingly white, his jacket had not even a trace of lint, his shoes were unscuffed.
“Friend of yours?” asked Nic.
“I thought he was with you.”
“Your form is horrific,” said the boy, ignoring them much more forcefully than they were ignoring him. “You’ll only injure yourself running like that. You need to keep your head up and only move your arms in conjunction with the movements of your hips.”
“You’re the school expert on track events, are you?” Nic’s renowned composure when faced with those far more powerful than himself deserted him in the face of this little lordling who was trying to correct his posture.
“One doesn’t have to be an expert swimmer to be able to recognise when someone is drowning.” The boy turned around, slowly enough to indicate he was in no way intimidated by the company he was in, and walked off.
Nic turned to Simole with a quizzical look. She shrugged and handed him back the pocket watch.
“Nice watch,” she said. “Bit flashy for a maid’s son, isn’t it?”
“It belonged to my father,” said Nic. He turned it over in his hands. The casing was smooth from use and felt warm and comfortable. There was an inscription on the back, but a large dent from something striking the watch very hard had made it impossible to read.
“Well, that was fun,” said Simole. “I expect you’ll drop dead before Winnum Roke can make her next move. A brilliant plan.”
“Why did you even come here, Simole?”
“You think I’d miss Nic Tutt in shorts and a singlet? You might be someone quite important one day, and then I’ll be able to dine out on stories about the boy I knew way back when.” Her eyes gleamed. “And I also wanted to see if you were really going to follow instructions like a good boy.”
“Why wouldn’t I? I’m not too proud to accept a helping hand.”
“No, you’re not,” said Simole. “I’m still trying to decide if that’s a good thing or if it will be your undoing. When are we going to talk to Winnum Roke?”
The question caught him a bit off-guard. “Soon. I just need to get her into the right frame of mind.”
Simole nodded slowly. “It won’t work.”
“Using reason to manipulate an insane person.”
“She isn’t insane.”
“She is,” said Simole with complete conviction. “You’re just not attuned to seeing it.”
“And you are?”
“One doesn’t have to be an expert swimmer to be able to recognise when someone is drowning.” She smiled.
“You seem to be suggesting the same isn’t true for me.”
“It’s different for you,” said Simole. “Your opinion is a lot less pertinent when you are also at risk of drowning.”
“You think I’m going to go insane?” It was something he had considered, but since there wasn’t much he could do about it, there was no reason to dwell on the possibility.
“I think it’s a danger. You have Winnum Roke in your head, and before that it was a demon. You weren’t prepared for either, and it’s not like you’re at your best when dealing with unhinged women. You can’t even handle the little girl who’s so besotted with you she can’t stop raging about all the inconveniences you’ve caused her, and then when she finally gets her tiny hands on your body, she doesn’t wash them for days.”
Nic was startled then stunned. And then his rational mind took back control. “I think you’re lying.”
“Yes,” said Simole sweetly. “But I do it so amusingly, wouldn’t you say?”
Nic left her to her smugness and returned to the cottage to take a shower. Simole was right in many respects. There was no justification for assuming he would be able to keep Winnum Roke under his control, or that he would be able to stave off sinking into madness himself in the process.
By the time he was dressed and ready, the others were up and groping their way around the kitchen with bleary eyes. Nic sat in his room waiting for them. He could have used the time to read or go over his notes for the coming lesson, but he just sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the wall and wondering what the correct path was for a boy of no training and little experience. Jump in the deep end and hope nobody could tell if he was drowning?
At breakfast he consumed an apple, a bowl of porridge with cream, several rashers of bacon, two slices of toast with plum preserve and two glasses of milk.
The others watched in astonishment, apart from Fanny who watched while eating.
“How she schemes!” said Davo. “First she fattens you up, then she’ll carve herself a useful object from the raw block, and casually toss the excess that doesn’t serve her purpose. You will make a fine gentleman on a leash, my friend.”
Nic burped in a rather ungentlemanly manner.
“Look at her over there, now.” Davo lowered his head but leaned forward, his sharp nose pointing in the direction of Dizzy and Simole’s table. “Look closely and you can see plan after plan brewing in her cauldron of a mind, discarding each in turn if they seem ineffective, or too crude, or not in accord with her ultimate goal. She will reject any proposal that might leave her vulnerable to whatever reproaches or demands others might consider reasonable. So long as she is careful, firm, resolute, her skullduggery will prove effective. Doesn’t it worry you that she plans to benefit most from your schooling?”
“It worries me,” said Fanny, “that she might overhear you and think we think the same as you.”
“But you do,” said Davo.
“Not out loud, I don’t,” said Fanny.
“Ah, well,” said Davo, “it was just a passing thought. She probably just wants to see what Nic looks like with muscles. Women can be very superficial like that.”
“They aren’t the only ones to think superficially,” said a small voice from the far end of the table. A small boy put down his tray and sat. It was the same boy Nic had met earlier.
“You realise this is the Upper Class cafeteria?” said Davo.
“I do,” said the boy. “That’s why I’m here.”
“And you couldn’t choose another table?” persisted Davo.
“Obviously I could,” said the boy, “but it would be something of an irony if after the way you had been excluded and forced to exist apart from the regular students if you were to then turn around and treat others with equal contempt.” Having stunned Davo into silence, the boy turned his attention to Nic. “Hello, again, Nicolav.”
“Hello,” said Nic. “You’re a first year Upperclassman?”
“Rumours of your superior intellect have clearly not been exaggerated.”
“You know him?” asked Davo.
“No, not really. He watched me running this morning.”
“Oh, he’s stalking you,” said Fanny. “I wonder who put him up to it.”
“Nobody put me up to anything,” said the boy. “I spend my free time examining my surroundings. Curiosity is healthy. Scepticism is essential. There are great powers in the world that guide our daily lives, existences that are good and those that are evil. I plan to help one prevent the other.”
“Which one do you plan to help?” asked Fanny.
“Ha!” said Davo. “Good one.”
“Yes, well done,” said the boy. “You very nearly displayed a modicum of wit.”
“Thank you,” said Fanny. “You very nearly displayed a modicum of good manners. Who are you?”
There was a long, weary sigh from the other end of the table. “I’m sorry to say that he is my younger brother, Hewt,” said Brill.
“Hewton Epsteem,” said the boy with a mechanical smile that immediately disappeared. “A pleasure.”
“And why is he here again?” asked Davo.
Brill took a deep breath. “He’s something of a prodigy. His talent is precocious enough to gain him entry into the Upper Class at only twelve years old. We’re all very, very proud.” His tone suggested the opposite.
“I see,” said Davo. “And what is his talent? He’s twelve, but he is able to irritate people like a five year old?”
“Something like that,” said Brill. “I apologise.”
“There’s no need to apologise on my behalf,” said Hewt.
“Not yet,” said Brill. “I’m paying in advance. My brother is a very bright boy, but also terribly spoiled. He is the apple of my mother’s eye.”
“Feel free to send your mother to Conoling & Son at the first opportunity,” said Davo. “We have an excellent range of spectacles.”
“I wish it was that easy to correct her eyesight,” said Brill. “My brother was born twins, but sadly our sister didn’t survive childbirth. It drove my mother to dote on young Hewt to an unwarranted level. Coupled with his precocious intellect, it turned him into something of a monster.”
“While I wouldn’t dispute the facts with my brother,” said Hewt, “my sister didn’t just die, she transformed into an angel and now watches over me, ensuring my good fortune and warning me of feckless companions. She is hovering over my head right now.”
Davo and Fanny both instinctively looked at the air over Hewt’s head.
“She also points out gullible fools wherever they may be,” said Hewt with a smirk.
“He’s unbearable,” said Davo.
“Yes,” said Brill. “It’s best to ignore him and hope he gets bored. Sometimes he just wanders off.”
“Oh, no,” said Hewt. “Not this time, big brother. Your new friends are fascinating. This one in particular.” He was looking at Nic.
“Me?” said Nic. “Why?”
“My father rants about you all the time. There must be a good reason for it, but one that eludes me. I very much enjoy solving a mystery.”
“There’s no need to continue your investigation,” said Brill. “You know full well why Father has an issue with an Also-Ran upsetting the status quo.”
“I think not,” said Hewt. “There is more here than meets the eye. There must be. And the first year classes have been very disappointing so far. I have a lot of free time.”
“Can I ask you something?” said Nic.
“Certainly,” said Hewt.
“If you discover this purpose for your talents, what if those people have no need for your assistance.”
“I care not one jot for their wishes,” said Hewt without hesitation. “I serve the cause, not the other servants. I have no illusion I will be pushed aside and forced to perform inconsequential tasks in case I steal some glory from those already in pursuit of their fame and fortune. It has always been thus, the powerful working in the service of a noble aim end up becoming the obstacle to their own ambition. It is the arrogance of success, to achieve so much good that one considers it best for all concerned if the world simply operated in accordance with one’s own desires. It’s laughable, of course, but inevitable. Despite the best of intentions, eventually, one clings to the reins of power having forgotten what kind of beast one is riding or which direction to steer it in. I hope when I reach that addled stage, my achievements having produced some progress, that some young buck comes along and kicks me off my horse. It is what I plan to do to my elders and better.”
The speech, which had been delivered with hardly a pause for breath, and between mouthfuls of food that left the rhythm uninterrupted, left them all unable to respond.
It did help Nic come to a decision, though. He rose and walked across the cafeteria.
“You need to keep training before I can help you further,” said Dizzy as he stood watching her and Simole eat.
“I know. I’m following your instructions.”
“He is,” said Simole. “Very energetically.”
“We’ll see,” said Dizzy, rising with her tray. “But it isn’t me you came to see, is it?” She walked off without waiting for an answer.”
“Simole, what we spoke about. I think I’m ready.”
Simole cocked an eyebrow. “That was quick. You weren’t so sure earlier.”
“It’s a matter of identifying what she wants, and if it’s something to help her with, or prevent from happening. The sooner I know which it is, the better.”
“Alright,” said Simole. “Just tell me when.”
Nic lay in his bed thinking about young Hewton Epsteem. Apart from being very bothersome and an excellent exponent of the needle, the boy had a very strong idea of how to utilise his skills. He hadn’t found an answer to the pressing question of what to do with one’s life, but he was actively searching for the path to take. He had recognised that there were forces at work in the world that were both entrenched and ingrained, and that he wanted to identify them and use his abilities to support the side he believed was the more worthy.
It was a clear and definite plan of action. He lacked certain elements, but he had the overall schematic outlined and was working towards filling in the blanks.
This was how Nic wished his life was. It had been for a while. When he was in pursuit of Dizzy, he had rarely needed to stop and think about his next move. Every obstacle was easily solved because he always knew his preferred outcome. It was a release from doubt to have a purpose.
“You seem distracted,” said the voice in his head.
“Yes. I’m trying to understand my place in the world,” said Nic.
“That’s not very difficult. It is whatever you want it to be.”
“What if you don’t know what you want it to be?”
“Then it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
Most of his interactions with Winnum Roke were not this conversational. Most of them were adversarial, a constant duel between two minds wrestling with images and words; often the same thing.
“I think I might like to travel,” said Nic. “To see the places I’ve read about.”
“A noble ambition,” said Winnum Roke. “Broaden your horizons. So why don’t you?”
“Now? I don’t really have the means.”
“What rot. Of course you do. Two legs and an alert mind, that’s all you need. You even have a companion to guide you. In spirit if not geographically.”
“Did you travel much, before you were Archmage?”
“I did, but that was a thousand years ago and the world was a very different place. There seems to be a different smell in the air now, and a different shape to the buildings, except here at Ransom. This place is the same.” Her voice took on a tone of bitterness when she mentioned the school. “I can’t offer you the powers of a demon, Nic, but I still have a mind that is sharp and bright. You wouldn’t have much difficulty navigating your way through lands of wonder with my help.”
“Why can’t you offer me the powers of a demon?” asked Nic. “You’re a being of magic, aren’t you?”
“It doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid.”
“But you were born a mage. You contain the essence of a demon inside you.”
“No, I released my demon when I travelled to the Other Place. There was no need and I did not wish another to share my punishment. I am now just an ordinary woman, who happens to be living in your head.”
“And you’d give up your chance for revenge to go travelling with me?”
“I don’t know if I’d say that. I’d be willing to postpone it a while. What difference would a few more years make?”
“Where would we go?” asked Nic.
The dark surroundings shifted in colour and then settled into an image. “Through Gweur to the east, I should think. This is how it appeared when I was young. I’m sure much has changed.
It was a lush landscape that was completely at odds with what Nic had seen of Gweur, although he had seen only a small part. Insects buzzed and hummed in a frenzy of activity around great masses of white flowers, whose strange and heavy perfume intoxicated the air.
Rodents with fat cheeks rustled in the undergrowth, iridescent beetles scuttled between Nic’s feet in a rush to get somewhere, birds called in a sharp falsetto and were answered by clicks and grunts.
Tall pines surrounded them in curtains of dark green, occasionally revealing the golden greens of oaks in the distance, and glimpses of snow-capped mountains even further off. Were there mountains in Gweur? Not that Nic recalled, or perhaps not anymore.
And in front of him stood Winnum Roke herself, a slim woman in simple attire, her hair cut short and held back by a blue band.
“Why Gweur?” asked Nic.
“Just a path away from Ranvar. You have to leave somehow.”
“Not because that was where the demon left her power? The demon who was once part of you?”
“You doubt my sincerity,” said Winnum Roke.
“Just curious,” said Nic. “I have no doubt you will try to deceive me at some point. Everyone does, if they think it is for a higher cause. I asked someone to join us today, I hope you don’t mind.”
“This is nice,” said Simole. “Where are we? The jungles of Malma?”
“This is Gweur, a thousand years ago,” said Nic.
“Lovely.” She stamped on a beetle.
“Ah, Simole,” said Winnum with something approaching joy in her voice. “It such a pleasure to see you again. How I missed you. The prettiest girl with the sharpest tongue. And so rich in Arcanum, it makes me woozy just to be near you. Come my child, come closer so I can give you a kiss.”
Winnum Roke lunged forward, like a cat pouncing. She broke through Simole like she had been a pillar of smoke, sending her wafting in all directions, still holding onto fragments of the original image. An eye here, a hand there.
Winnum Roke screamed in frustration. “It isn’t her!”
“No, I decided to wait a little before bringing her here.”
Winnum Roke sagged, her head bent forward. “You never trusted my intentions.”
“I was… sceptical.”
“And now what? We continue to have our little chats while you keep me prisoner?”
“It was your choice to come here.”
“Choice?” said Winnum Roke. “Do you think I had any other option?”
“That isn’t my fault. You are responsible for your own successes and failures. They beat you and now they’re all dead. Who are you going to take your revenge on?”
“Dead?” said Winnum, with a laugh that sounded like it was on the edge of madness. “They aren’t dead. You think it’s the Royal College I blame? I don’t care for the fate of a few mages and their poor decisions. More will replace them and make even poorer choices. The demons, you foolish boy, they will be our undoing. Not today, maybe not for another thousand years, but they will rule over us in the end. So you see, it really doesn’t matter if we go for a sojourn around the world first, they will be waiting for us when we return.”
“And you think you can defeat them?” asked Nic.
“Defeat them? Not directly. What I can do is trick them back onto their ship and send them on their merry way thinking they have won and with everything they ever dreamed of.” She sat down on the grass and let lizards jump onto her hands.
It sounded like a very Ranvarian way to deal with an enemy. Convince them they’re the winners when they wave the white flag of surrender.
Nic sat down next to her. “Tell me how.”
Please vote on TopWebFiction if you want to support the story.
No sign up required, just hit the button. Cheers.
Votes refresh every seven days, so last week's votes no longer count.
Support on Patreon, chapters go up earlier there.Afterword from Mooderino