By this point, Nic was no stranger to dragons. He had encountered them in the most intimate terms possible, riding them from the inside. It had been an absorbing experience, his mind expanding to not just fill the dragon’s mind but its entire body.
He could still recall the feeling of having wings, of soaring on air currents, of having the weight of endless teeth in his mouth. To control a dragon, you had to be a dragon.
The shadow dragon flying towards him now was something different. He was inside its head, looking through its eyes, but the sensation was limited to vision and nothing else. He was in control of its actions, but only by willing it. He wasn’t moving wings or shifting weight to take advantage of the wind. If he wanted to fly in a particular direction, he thought about it and the dragon did so.
It certainly looked like a dragon from the outside. It had the correct shape, if a little blurred at the edges like a watercolour painting on wet paper, but it also had the quality of a model built with all the correct parts but no real understanding of how things connected under the skin.
Its creator would certainly know but seemed to have considered it unnecessary. Why make something accurate down to the last detail when it could serve its purpose with only a superficial similarity?
It would take a lot more study to learn the nature of this thing, how it was made and what it could do.
Nic could see it coming towards him while seeing himself from the dragon, the two opposing perspectives threatening to drive a wedge through the middle of his brain. There was a weird stretching and compressing of the world when his thoughts distracted him and then he returned to the present, so he did his best to not think too freely.
It was disorienting if he allowed himself to lose focus, but at least it wasn’t painful the way using this power had been whenever he was in close proximity to his real-world location at the start. He was making progress with this power, but every new application required even more intense concentration.
Nic stood on the rise, the evening air gusting at him. He ignored the chill and remained fixed on what looked like a thick pall of smoke flying towards him, blotting out the stars in a wavering outline of wings. His eyes watered slightly as he held his stare, afraid of losing control if he blinked.
Once he had a dragon at his disposal, he could go anywhere he wished, assuming he could ride it and be it at the same time. He had never been required to hold two states of being at the same time, but his concentration had always been good. This required him to be single-minded about being double-minded, which was an odd way to look at it. He knew he could do the first, and hoped the second wouldn’t be beyond him.
As the dragon shape grew larger and easier to discern, Nic also became aware of the other forms behind it. He put the number at eleven, although he kept losing count, his mind buckling if he tried to take too much in at once.
For a moment, he thought he had somehow claimed all the dragons. With twelve dragons to do his bidding, what could he achieve then? But he realised the other dragons weren’t following the first, they were chasing it.
It was hard to tell if this was something they were doing of their own volition, or if the Gweurvians who had brought these beasts here were directing them to stop him. Did that mean Rutga was dead? At least unable to prevent the Gweurvians from acting. Nic still didn’t understand why the man who had kidnapped him had gone to such lengths to prevent him being taken by his fellow conspirators.
Nic didn’t have time to ponder such thoughts right now, though.
From what he had managed to ascertain so far, these shadow dragons weren’t able to think for themselves. They could be left to exist as apparitions, but they didn’t have the mental capacity to behave like true dragons, which themselves were only vessels for demons in transition.
The dragons of Ranvar were basic creatures, able to sustain themselves through hunting and fighting like any other animal. These shadow dragons were one step beneath that kind of independence.
The other shadow dragons were some way behind. Would they attack their brother? Would they attack him? The logical way for Nic to defend himself would be to command his dragon to attack the Gweurvians on the ground before their dragons could do the same to him. Without minds to guide them, they would be no more threatening than clouds.
A mind intruded on his. He felt it slide into the same space in the dragon that he was occupying.
It was one of the Gweurvians, he was sure. There was something about the mental force impinging on him that was familiar. Nic could even identify which of the men that had assailed the carriage was now trying to unseat him. He didn’t need to know the man’s name or have spoken to him, the shape of his mind just reflected who he was.
The force was blunt and raw and like a shove in the back when you’re running at full speed. It could send you toppling, or it could make you run faster.
Nic absorbed it and let it pass through him and out again, carrying with it an emphatic: “Stop.” The words made no sound but filled every available space.
He sensed a hesitation, a wavering of the pressure being applied. “My lady? Is that you?”
The words didn’t come with a voice. There was no male or female quality to them. Nic’s words would have been equally genderless, he assumed. The man had mistaken him for the demon. Perhaps this was how she had communicated with them in the past. No one wouldn’t expect someone like Nic to have such an ability, so it was reasonable for this man to think his true master had returned, the thought was driven by a wish for it to be true.
Such wishes were the easiest to grant.
These acolytes had lost their leader, their contact with something special, which had made them feel special. Ever since the demon had been taken from them, they had been desperate to reclaim that touchstone to the supernatural, as eager as Nic had been to get rid of it.
But Nic had spent a great deal of time with the demon lodged inside his head. He had spent plenty of time trying to understand it, to find a way to overcome its threat to his sanity. He might have only partially succeeded, but he had gained a great deal of familiarity with the demon’s nature. If he never truly learned how to beat it, all that examination meant he could certainly imitate its manner.
“Yes, my child. You must depart this place. Now.” A mixture of gentleness and overbearing authority, a touch of warm condescension, and some small indication that you’d rather be anywhere than here.
The words in their shared headspace held no specific tone or voice, but they could still carry an attitude, a way of seeing the world. Nic did his best to capture that side of the demon that best represented how she came across. Superior.
“You have returned to us?” The reverse was true, also. Without being able to hear the Gweur rebel’s timbre or inflection, Nic could still sense the desperate hope, the craving for the possibility of his beloved leader’s return.
Here was something Nic could do. He could use his purely academic understanding of the demon, the insights that had done him little good against her, barely keeping him from perishing, and use that knowledge against these people instead.
They were just as much victims of hers as he had been, perhaps still were. They had fallen foul of a being far more powerful than themselves, and had coped by accepting the inferiority, gratefully accepting a subservient role in a grand house. To serve was seen as a great privilege by them.
It seemed little different to their submission to Ranvar, as far as Nic could tell, but perhaps kneeling to those who looked the same as you was more galling than bowing down before something alien and exotic. If so, then all Nic had to do was play the part. Their own need for a lord and master would do the rest.
“This child is mine. You will not touch him. He is the key that will open the door to a new era across this world.”
“He is the key?” The words were unmistakably jubilant. “The key… we have the key.”
“He is the key!”
Voices joined in. They all sounded the same but Nic knew they were the other Gweurvians, their minds locked inside the other dragons.
He had no idea what he was saying, other than it sounded like something the demon would say. The great thing about playing this role was that no one would question his meaning. Finally, the refusal to explain what they were after was working in his favour. The more vague he was, the more authentic he would seem. It was almost laughable.
But Nic would still need to be careful. There were things the demon wouldn’t do, like ask questions or demand explanations. Why would the all-knowing demon need to question her lowly subjects? Nic would need to be careful not to give himself away by trying to prise answers from these men, even though they probably had many of the ones he sought.
For an instant, Nic’s mind split into thirds, and he was able to see the carriage he had escaped from. The Gweurvians who had attempted to take him were now sitting on the ground, eyes closed. There was no sign of Rutga.
The wrench inside his mind from seeing through his own eyes, the dragon’s eyes and from above the Gweurvians, was almost too much to bear, and Nic felt his mind tearing. He let go of the multiplicity of perspectives and returned primarily to the dragon’s.
There was excitement and joy at the edges of Nic’s perception, his pursuers now his ardent devotees. He was becoming better attuned to the other dragons, or they were easier to sense now they had minds controlling them.
“Quiet, my children. Quiet your minds and know that your journey is near its end. Soon you will enter the promised land.” It was easy to do but he would have to be careful not to slip into mockery. He had to show restraint in his portrayal.
There was no response but Nic could sense the buzz of anticipation. He had given them the thing they wanted most, and now they were his to command.
A single dragon was as much as he’d expected, but now he had twelve. What was he going to do with them?
Nic opened his eyes and saw the dragon hovering above him. It wasn’t flapping its wings. It wasn’t moving, apart from a slight shimmer of its outline. Its eyes shone blue and looked at him the way a reflection looks back at you from a mirror.
The first time Nic had seen these dragons as they flew over the border from the west, the Gweurvians had been riding them, straddling their backs. Now that he was seeing them up close, they looked too insubstantial to mount. Their bodies were made of what looked like a thick column of smoke. Any attempt to climb on its back would send you falling through the back mist, like jumping off a mountain and falling through low-lying clouds.
But he had seen it, so it had to be possible.
Shifting into the dragon’s head as much as he could, he told it to pick him up. He wasn’t sure how it would follow his instructions, but that hadn’t posed a problem so far. It had flown here because he’d wanted it to, he didn’t seem to be required to understand the underlying mechanics.
The dragon lowered towards him, settling over him like a bird coming down on its egg. Nic’s instinct was to jump out of the way, but he resisted the urge and held his ground. The dragon passed through him and he could taste it; a bitter, metallic tingle on his tongue.
He recognised the taste, he had consumed too much of it not to. Arcanum.
The dragon sank into the ground, turning into a mist around Nic’s feet, only its head still visible. And then it rose back up and Nic was lifted with it. His legs separated around the base of the neck and he was riding the beast even though the body offered nothing for him to hold onto. Only the spine running from nose to tail seemed to be solid. His hand passed through the rest, wet and cold to the touch.
He was quickly high in the air, about treetop height. The other dragons circled overhead.
Now he had to decide where to go. He had wanted to warn the city of the dragon invasion, thinking he could help pinpoint the creatures in the air. But now, the dragons were under his control and the Gweurvians believed he was their leader restored to her rightful place at their head.
If he approached the city, they would see him as a threat, most likely. Either as an enemy of its defenders, or as a rival to its attackers.
Who should he go to?
It still wasn’t clear to Nic who was working for the High-Father and who against. If these dragons were creations of the Ministry for Instruction, then Minister Carmine probably wouldn’t appreciate Nic commandeering them.
The Archmage, Nic had seen with the demon, so that pair were probably best avoided.
The Secret Service had been infiltrated by at least one person, maybe more.
Should he go directly to the Palace? And say what? He could bring them dragons, but how long would he remain in control of them once people knew?
He could attach himself to the empty space inside a dragon’s head, but he couldn’t create one of these, nor could he vanquish it. But someone else could, possibly while Nic was sitting astride it, high in the sky.
The only real advantage he seemed to have was the ability to take them away and prevent their use in the coming battle between Ranvar and its neighbours. Was that his best course of action? He still needed answers.
Nic closed his eyes and searched for Rutga. He had known things Nic would like to question him about. Now seemed the ideal time to do so.
He spotted him in the trees, already far from the carriage, making his way towards the capital, darting left and right through the trees. It was dark now, the forest a swarm of shadows, but Nic could see him clearly, a glowing figure standing out against a black backdrop.
From the dragon’s eyes, from his own, from the map of the world that now sat in his head — the three combined to form an all-encompassing view of Nic’s surroundings, in every direction.
It was getting easier to find what he wanted. It worked best when he had a clear idea of what that was. A single person was the ideal target.
As Nic watched Rutga sprint at an even pace, he was also aware of the other eleven dragons behind him. Each now had a rider. He hadn’t noticed that happen, his ability wasn’t able to attract his attention towards things he should be aware of.
This was the problem — he could see anything, but not everything.
The dragons were hanging back, waiting for his instructions… for her instructions.
“Wait here,” said Nic, careful to have the words come from the dragon. As far as they were concerned, Nic was just a captive, riding on the dragon because that’s where he could be kept secure, a key in someone’s pocket. They had been sent to fetch him, but the demon had come herself, confirming that their mission had been an important one, emphasising their importance for having been selected for it.
All Nic had to do was to keep them convinced and they would gladly do whatever he asked of them.
The dragon flew down through the trees. The wings spread out looked like they would collide with branches, but they passed through them with a whisper, the sound wind might make brushing across leaves.
The dragon felt solid under him now. The night had given it its true form, a beast made of flesh and bone, or something that would be hard to distinguish from them. And yet, the edges seemed to be merely fumes left after an extinguished fire, and the whole thing felt like it might choose to stop being real at any moment.
Nic’s knees pressed hard into the dragon’s neck. His hands gripped between what felt like scales — he didn’t look down to make sure. His many eyes were on Rutga, a beacon in the forest.
There was a clearing up ahead, some fallen trees and a pond. The water reflected the starlight and glittered. Rutga had rushed to the water’s edge and was pulling something out on a long rope.
The dragon swooped into the clearing as Rutga turned and stood. He had a dripping wet bag in his hands; stashed weapons, perhaps? Or maybe some other equipment for survival? Did a man like Rutga have many hidden caches like this in case of emergencies? How many would you need to have all around the kingdom to be sure of one being close by? Or did he prepare this one especially for this mission, knowing something like this might happen?
For a moment, Nic wondered if all of this had been planned in advance. From the moment he had been dosed with Arcanum, poisoned to near-death, right up to the point where his increased resistance to Arcanum had made it possible for him to withstand the toxicity of these shadow dragons.
Was he still just a pawn in someone else’s game?
It was hard not to second-guess himself, but not of much practical use. If your own choices were preordained, what could you do about it? Being tricked into genuinely wanting something was maddening.
“I wanted to ask you something,” said Nic. The dragon landed in the clearing. Nic tried to think of the best way to slide off the dragon’s neck without tumbling to the ground in a heap. As he thought it, the resistance between his legs faded and he slid through the dragon, falling unnaturally slowly down through the dragon’s chest. It was like descending a slide made of a material with too much friction to be exhilarating. Which suited Nic just fine.
“Ask away,” said Rutga, his eyes on the dragon.
“Why did you save me from those men? Aren’t you on the same side?”
Rutga’s eyes slowly lowered to Nic’s face. “Well, no, I don’t see it that way. Many’s the time you ally yourself with another side in order to defeat a third. That doesn’t make you brothers. And even if it did, you have to keep an eye on your own just as much as theirs.”
Nic nodded. An alliance often broke down the moment their mutual interest was satisfied. You would need to make sure you hadn’t given away any unnecessary advantages well before that point.
“I’m only sorry I couldn’t do a better job,” said Rutga. “Seems like I was lucky the job took care of itself.” He grinned, throwing the bag over his shoulder.
“Aren’t you going to try and take me to your master?” asked Nic.
“Doesn’t seem much point,” said Rutga. “I doubt you would let me.”
“Tell me,” said Nic, “who’s in charge of the Gweur rebels now? You must know that much about your allies.”
Rutga gave Nic a quizzical look. “Right now, it looks that would be you.” His eyes veered up again, and then from side to side.
Nic turned and looked up at the dragons circling overhead. “They only think I’m their leader.”
“What difference does that make?” said Rutga. “If they do as you command, then by all rights you are their leader.”
Once again, Nic had the feeling he had been led to this point by a guiding hand. He didn’t like the thought of his every move being controlled by an unseen power. In his case, it was impossible to tell who that might be — not because of how well hidden they were but because there were so many candidates.
Nic stood in the clearing, seeing Rutga as a shadowy figure and also a bright candle in the dark, ever line clear as day.
“I would like to know more about my father,” said Nic, “but I’m afraid I might not like what I learn.”
“That’s true of any man, not just your father. You remind me a lot of him. He had the same way of doing nothing for the longest time, to the point you’d think he’d lost all interest in what he was supposed to be doing, and then he’d leap into action, no longer needing to consider any option that appeared. It was like he’d seen all the possibilities already.”
“But not the one leading to his death,” said Nic.
“No one sees that one coming, except the ones who welcome it. But he was also a man who took incredible risks. It wasn’t surprising he eventually fell victim to a poor roll of the dice.”
“I’d like to speak to you about him, someday.”
“Aye, I’d have no problem with that, assuming I’m still around. It’s hard to look too far ahead in my line of business.”
“You’ve managed to survive this long,” said Nic.
“Aye, but for how much longer? That’s always the question. You could kill me and there’d be nothing I could do about it. I wouldn’t even blame you.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” said Nic.
Rutga nodded. “Mercy is a dangerous thing, Nic. Few people appreciate it enough to return the favour.”
“Was that my father’s mistake?”
“I don’t know. You’d have to ask others about such things.”
There was a howl from above them. Nic looked up as the dragons wheeling overhead, their dark shapes now appearing very clear against the night sky.
When Nic looked back down, Rutga was gone. He wasn’t surprised.
The dragon sank down and picked up Nic. He didn’t even have to ask, the connection between them was growing stronger.
As they rose into the sky, Nic located Rutga, running again. Nic had many more questions, but Rutga was a professional. He would only reveal what he wanted to. It would be impossible for Nic to know if he was learning anything of value. He was almost sure anything he did find out, he would be given as a way to get him to do something.
But Rutga would return to his master or to whoever it was he took orders from. And Nic would be there to see and hear them.
The issue was to know where to look and when. There was so much going on, time spent in one place meant you missed what happened in another. But he was sure Rutga was going to have to report his night’s endeavours to someone. Nic rose higher and higher, ready to start using this ability to its fullest.
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