The air did not feel cold. Nic could sense the wind moving against his skin, through his hair, but it did not penetrate any further. It was like he had turned to stone. Or smoke.
His mind was inside the shadow dragon, watching Rutga run. He was in the dragon, in himself, aware of the whole world -- but mostly he was in the dragon. It was the one place he didn’t feel vulnerable. Or cold. It was the one place he didn’t feel anything, not even scared at being so high above the ground.
What was there to fear when you were a dragon?
Realistically speaking, a lot of things, but they were easily overlooked when your body was ten metres long and your wings rested on the wind like it was a hand holding up a sword.
The enormity of the power Nic now wielded flowed through him, not as an emotion but as a matter of fact. He didn’t feel powerful, he was power manifest. Arcanum wasn’t inside him like it was with a mage, he was inside Arcanum. And it was quite a calming experience.
Rutga was hurrying through the forest below, moving surprisingly swiftly for someone who looked to be well into his middle-age. Fifty at least, Nic would have guessed, maybe older. Even without the map that showed him whatever he asked, the dragon’s eyes were sharp enough to see the small figure darting between trees. When Nic did switch to the map view, Rutga lit up like he was on fire, burning white hot the way a blacksmith’s metal did when it came out of the forge.
Nic’s plan was to wait and see where it was Rutga would go. The people he was connected to, the ones who worked under his command and the ones whose commands he followed, they would all reveal their secrets when they thought no one was observing them.
It had taken Nic some time to think of how to use this ability the creature in the Librarium had given him, and even if this wasn’t using it to its fullest potential, Nic could start to putting together exactly who was responsible for what.
With so many people working with and against each other, it was hard to know who to trust. Not that any of them could be trusted completely, but it would help to at least know which of them were interested in the same end goal, even if who they wanted to be in charge at that point wasn’t the same.
It was fine for some internal struggle, the usual political jockeying for power in preparation for the calm after the storm, but there was a good chance that most of the people who claimed to want the best outcome for everyone were only interested in that best outcome if it was even better for them. And if not, why allow someone else to benefit?
Nic had seen the sour grapes approach to world affairs in history book after history book. People who failed to get the position they wanted were always happy to let the preferred candidate fail miserably, and often assisted in their downfall. What was in the best interests of the majority was never particularly relevant to the minority who harboured the desire to rule over them.
If Nic could map out the true intentions of the people involved in this business, the ones in Ranvar and the ones outside its borders trying to get in, he could start to decide who was best suited to lend assistance to.
He was hardly a kingmaker, but if he was going to use this gift, he might as well do it on his own terms, which he preferred to be as well informed as possible.
Rutga had been headed towards the capital, a journey that would take several hours even if he took no breaks for rest or water, which wasn’t possible for man or beast. Now he was veering off into a gulley of some kind. There was a stream and what appeared to be a cave.
Nic switched between different forms of vision. He saw the trees with glowing leaves, he saw water as glistening silver. Animals appeared in branches and in burrows. A horse was in the cave.
Rutga was prepared for even this eventuality. A need to get to the city quickly with his carriage lost. The horse, unlike his other stashed provisions, must have been placed here recently. To be able to foresee a need so clearly suggested a man of huge experience or perhaps vast paranoia. In any case, he had proved himself prescient. He was on the horse and riding out of the cave in an instant, moving slowly at first, nimbly navigating the trees, then onto a trail that led to a road.
Nic could see it all, watched fascinated. There was no hesitation in the man, no moment for reflection on what had happened so far, on where to go next. While Nic was routinely left in a state of near paralysis from not knowing what to do, Rutga was relentless in his pursuit of whatever it was he was pursuing.
Nic’s sight showed him the roads and the fastest route. The city was almost directly ahead of Rutga now. Where would he go when he got there?
Nic snapped into himself, the boy’s body that was his greatest handicap, and the night air’s chill stung him. In his own body, he was just cold and precariously balanced on a monster made mostly of smoke.
He looked around. The sky was endlessly starry, a few clouds drifting towards the west and behind him, the other dragons hovered.
Their riders, the men from Gweur who had come to take Nic away, were patiently waiting. They believed the dragon was possessed by the demon who had inspired their revolt, and that the boy on its back was merely a prisoner, trapped in the air with nowhere to go. It was as much a prison as if he had been surrounded by bars.
But Nic was controlling the dragon. He could order the others to do his bidding, and they would. As soon as he thought of something for them to do.
He was wary of giving himself away, saying something that would make them suspicious. Even though the demon was beyond reproach for them, they still had certain expectations. Nic couldn’t dither or be flustered when impersonating her. His fear of sounding like himself, a teenage boy, full of uncertainties, kept him from pushing his luck.
But he needed them to go away or at least be kept busy. He certainly didn’t want them to follow along, a proud escort to their lady of the shadows. He was nervous enough as it was without an audience.
He urged the dragon forward, a thought was enough to do it. He sensed the others follow at a respectful distance.
Should he send them off on a wild goose chase? Some contrived mission that would take them the rest of the night to complete? What sort of things would a demon ask of them?
Nic flew against the wind, his draconic face merging with his own, and wondered how to keep eleven Gweur rebels busy.
His attention was still on Rutga, now haring down the main road to the capital. Nic comforted himself with the thought that he had until the city walls to come up with something.
But his hope for some uninterrupted contemplation was cut short by the sight of men up ahead, a barrier thrown across the road. A rapid series of switches in his viewing parameters showed Nic that there were sixteen of them, four horses, two wagons, the men in Ranvarian uniforms and heavily armed, and that they were alert and ready for combat.
There was no lounging around. None of the men had the body language of people bored and disinterested. They gave the impression of people expecting hostilities and ready for it.
Rutga was one of them, though. He had nothing to fear, assuming he had been truthful about that. He merely needed to identify himself and they would let him pass.
He seemed unaware of the roadblock until he was nearly on top of it. There were cries to halt and make himself known. Rutga responded by veering off the road, into the trees. Half the men broke ranks and gave chase on foot, swords drawn. Two others had mounted their horses and were heading down the road at full speed, whipping their horses to make haste.
The two horsemen split, one headed for the capital, the other onto a trail through the trees in an attempt to intercept the presumed enemy.
Nic had no idea why Rutga hadn’t identified himself. He could see Rutga clearly, a white shape on a green one, zig-zagging through the trees to get out of reach of the five yellow men chasing him. Nic was able to separate his targets into different colours, the men, the horses, the dragons and their riders. He could choose a group and highlight them for easier identification when he was following multiple targets.
The important thing was to make his selections as unique as possible so there was no overlap. If he simply wanted people in Ranvarian uniform, then Rutga would look the same as the men pursuing him.
If the same target satisfied more than one requirement, then they might shift between colours.
When he was following a lot of targets, it sometimes felt as though his mind was pushing on the inside of his skull, trying to get out, but he was managing to keep everything on the inside, for now. His concentration seemed to be extra sharp when he was inside the dragon, which was probably not a coincidence.
Nic would have preferred Rutga not to be caught. Whatever was making Rutga run, if he was captured, he would be taken away and it would take even longer before Nic would get a chance to see the conversation he was hoping to spy on. If it reached dawn, then he would no longer have the dragon, and he had no idea what would happen to the Gweurvians. Presumably, they would hide somewhere.
“Strafe the trees and make yourselves useful,” said Nic in his best demonic syntax. “Scatter the soldiers, leave my prey.”
He might have pushed it a little too much. He could sense the unease around him. Hopefully, it was more to do with the vagueness of his command than the possibility that they suspected he wasn’t who they thought.
The dragons swooped, buzzing the treetops, roaring in an ear-splitting screech.
Nic watched the men panic, turning and stumbling, looking up. They wouldn’t be able to see much more than dark shapes overhead, but that would be more than enough to give Rutga a chance to distance himself.
Even though the men were on foot, a horse in densely wooded terrain couldn’t move very fast. They had cut off the way back to the road and there was a steep cliff that would prevent Rutga’s escape, unless he had also had the foresight to set up the world’s longest ladder.
Now that the men were spooked, Rutga, seemingly unperturbed by the winged shadows above, turned and made a run back around to the road.
Nic turned his dragon to follow.
“Keep them occupied and give them stories to report when they return,” Nic commanded his ‘followers’ through their dragons.
Was there any reason not to just kill these soldiers? If there was war in the offing, then killing as many of the opposing side as possible would seem the opportune thing to do.
Nic hoped that indicating there was a reason but not saying what it was, would be suitably demon-like. He didn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of any Ranvarians. He didn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of any Gweurvins, either.
Rutga’s horse was an impressive animal. Once it was back on the road, having circumvented the barricade, Rutga gave it its head and the animal burst forward.
Far ahead, the other soldier who had ridden for the city was thundering along at a decent pace. For the soldier to be so quick to race back to the city suggested he had orders to raise the alarm at the first sign of an invader, even a solitary one. Which meant they had no real idea from which direction the enemy would attack. They knew they had been seen entering from the west when their country of origin was in the east, and that they had dragons. They could appear anywhere and only sharp eyes and early warnings would prevent a surprise attack.
Nic could have told them exactly where the enemy were coming from, of course. He could even tell them numbers and armaments. But currently there were no armies bearing down on Ranvar City.
Whatever the plan of attack, tonight was not the date of a full-scale invasion. What the dragons had been sent to achieve, he didn’t know, but it would hardly be very demon-like of him to ask. It was probably the demon’s plan in the first place.
Rutga’s steed was doing a remarkable job of catching the horse ahead of it. From high above, Nic watched the gap close between them.
He could have intervened, driven the first rider off the road and into a ditch. But he was curious to see what Rutga planned to do. Would he kill the man, even though his warning of an enemy attack wouldn’t be true? Or would it?
For all Nic knew, Rutga was the vanguard of an invasion already in progress. Nic hadn’t seen any evidence of that, but his ability only worked when he knew what to look for. The enemy could have moved across the border in small numbers over decades, and trained their children to overthrow their adopted rulers.
It had been done that way before, although that was when most people lived in huts and farming was harder than hunting because you had to domesticate wild animals before they’d let you milk them, and nobody had figured out how.
Back then, whole tribes would move around in search for better living conditions, settling near each other, forming bonds and taking oaths of allegiance, eventually turning on one another when circumstances changed.
Demons lived long enough to have come up with a long-term strategy. Nic doubted very much that things would proceed in the traditional troops-carrying-flags meeting on the battlefield.
Rutga had caught up with the other rider now. The Ranvar messenger had realised he was not alone on the road to the capital and was urging his horse on faster. The horse seemed about ready to collapse. The rider drew his sword and had it ready.
Rutga closed in, both hands on the reins, seemingly uninterested in his rival for the finishing line. His horse was still galloping at full speed, showing no signs of flagging. Once Rutga was past, it was unlikely he would be caught by the slower horse and rider.
But the soldier wasn’t about to give up first place so easily. As Rutga drew up alongside, the lead horse swerved towards him and the soldier thrust his sword out to the side.
Rather than try to veer away, Rutga angled towards the attack, the two horses on the verge of colliding. At the same time, Rutga leaned back so the blade passed in front of him.
With nothing to connect to, the force of the thrust caused the soldier to nearly fall out of his saddle. Rutga grabbed the man’s wrist as it crossed in front of Rutga’s chest, and yanked it, providing just enough extra weight to drag the soldier out of his stirrups and off his ride.
The soldier fell between the two horses, letting go of the sword as he tried to grab onto something, anything, to save himself, but he failed and crashed into the road.
At that speed, he would certainly have injured himself quite severely, possibly broken some bones, but he probably wouldn’t die, unless he landed awkwardly. Nic saw him roll along for a bit and then come to a stop.
Rutga, in the meantime, had lunged forward as soon as the man fell, and grabbed the bridle of the other horse. His own had not slowed, and without the weight of a rider, the other was able to keep up. Rutga didn’t even look back as he raced on, now with a second horse.
Nic kept pace with the trio, high enough to be unseen except by the keenest eyes searching the night sky. He followed Rutga’s progress. The city was visible in the distance, a matter of minutes away.
After about ten of those minutes, Rutga switched horses. He didn’t slow down or adjust anything to make the transfer any easier. He simply pulled one leg up onto the saddle and pushed off just about high enough to skip across.
He kept going for another ten minutes, and then switched back. He repeated this twice more before he approached the city gates.
Nic was curious to see how Rutga would get past the city guards. The gate was manned even when there was no threat. At this time, there was bound to be an even larger presence. Rutga’s actions so far had heavily indicated he didn’t wish to be stopped and questioned, so how was he planning to get into the city?
Nic was also wary of getting too close and giving himself away. Not only might there be people keeping watch for rumoured dragons, but the mages of the Royal College might sense the dragon’s presence and consider it an enemy attacker. Being blown out of the sky by a fireball was not something Nic had much experience with, but he was fairly certain he wouldn’t enjoy it.
He took the dragon higher, up to the thin clouds that streaked the black sky. From here, the city looked ridiculously small and insignificant. Nic wrapped his arms around the dragon’s neck and closed his eyes. His vision dropped down, searching for Rutga.
For a moment, it seemed the man had disappeared. Then Nic saw him, the glow a solitary light between the south and east gates. The horses were no longer with him, and he was standing beneath the city wall. And then he was through it.
Nic was still too high up to see how he did it. As his vision came down lower, Rutga was already in the city, moving quickly and in a straight line… through buildings?
No, under them. A tunnel, perhaps. A secret entrance into the city, and then a tunnel leading to where? The glow started to fade. Nic concentrated harder but to no avail.
Lighter, smaller, gone.
Nic opened his eyes as wet mist slapped him in the face. He hadn’t felt it while his mind had been elsewhere.
He had come all this way, patiently tracking the man who could lead him to the answers he was looking for, and he had disappeared right before his eyes.
It was a risk to land so near the city but it was still very dark and it wasn’t like he planned to walk in the front gate. If Rutga could walk through walls, why not Nic?
The dragon landed in a copse near where Nic had seen Rutga. It came down in the middle of closely grouped trees, its wings passing through the branches without disturbing a single leaf. Real dragons couldn’t do that.
As soon as the dragon touched the ground, it dissipated, leaving Nic to complete the landing on his own. He managed to land on his feet with only a single step to steady himself.
On the ground was a large chunk of blue Arcanum. Nic picked it up and put it in his pocket, where it vibrated slightly. It didn’t feel particularly safe. He took it out and dug up a small piece of turf with a stick, and put the Arcanum under it.
He had no idea how to resummon the dragon, or what to do with the Arcanum, so leaving it here for now seemed the best solution. It wasn’t like he’d have any trouble finding it again, his map view would show him exactly where it was buried. He looked around and made a mental note of the surroundings, though. Just in case.
There was a large open area of grass between where he was and the wall where Rutga had entered the city. Sentries would be posted on the wall, many eyes keeping watch for enemies. Everything seemed peaceful, so he assumed no one had seen the dragon’s descent.
Nic moved quickly across the open area, head bowed and arms down by his side, hands in pockets, to hide the whiteness of his hands and face.
He made it to the wall without anyone firing arrows or dropping boiling oil on his head. If Rutga had used this area, it stood to reason it was a blind spot or an area not considered in need of watching. The wall was very high and while it might technically be possible to climb it, the large overhang below the battlements would take a great deal of skill to overcome.
There was no sign of a door, but that was hardly surprising for a secret entrance. Nic had his own way of finding the way in. He just asked.
With his eyes closed, the entrance was easily visible, a rectangular outline formed from cracks where stones had been laid next to each other. He asked to be shown the opening mechanism, and there it was, a rock near his feet on the ground. He lifted it up, and rather than beetles, there was a metal ring. Nic pulled it, slowly walking backwards as a chain emerged from the ground.
The entrance opened inwards. Nic let go of the ring and the chain slid silently back into the ground. Nic place the rock back where it had been and hurried into the opening.
Once inside, he tried to look for the closing mechanism but nothing appeared. The stone door, which was not very thick, began to swing closed on its own. Nic stepped further into the tunnel as it closed, and found himself in total darkness. He began to feel his way forward, gingerly putting one foot in front of the other.
A hole or steps could send him tumbling, so he was being extra careful. He stopped and closed his eyes and pulled his vision to him, so he was seeing the tunnel from the map. Now he could see everything clearly, bathed in blue light.
The tunnel led straight, and then some shallow stairs went down for about thirty steps. Nic tried to see if Rutga was also in the tunnel, but there was no sign of him.
The ground was damp and muddy and the walls were wet. Then there were more steps leading up and after that the ground became much harder, like it was paved with stone. The sound of running water came from somewhere below him and there was movement of air.
Nic stopped. Up ahead was darkness. He couldn’t see anything. He opened his eyes and it was also pitch black. Why was his sight not working? This was about where he had lost track of Rutga.
Arms stretched out, Nic felt his way along, small hesitant steps again.
He bumped into a wall and felt the rungs of a ladder. He began to climb.
Nic was about to find out where Rutga had been headed. His guess was the Ministry for Instruction, but the general location was a bit too central. Perhaps there would be more tunnels and secret passages.
Nic bumped his head on the roof. He raised a hand and pushed open a hatch. Light didn’t exactly stream in but it was a little easier to see. He crawled out into what appeared to be a tool shed. Shovels and pickaxes and other digging instruments were leaning against the wall. There was a door with a latch on it. It was bolted shut. If Rutga had left through there, how had he locked it from the inside?
There was nothing else here. A slightly musty smell, but not much more. Wherever this was, Nic had only one way to find out. He just hoped there wasn’t a welcoming committee waiting for him.
He pulled back the bolt as quietly as he could, which was still quite noisy, and opened the door.
Six men in uniform looked at him. They seemed surprised, then angry, and then they were drawing their swords, demanding to know who he was.
Nic raised his hands. “I’m not armed.” He wasn’t sure how to explain his sudden appearance out of a shed. He wasn’t even sure where he was. He stepped out and looked around. He recognised the large building next to him — the Librarium.
“Just what do you think you were doing in there?” said one of the soldiers. They were all of low rank, more surprised than threatened, but they weren’t about to take any chances, even when faced by a single, unarmed boy.
Nic couldn’t think of anything to say other than the truth, and he knew that was a bad idea so he kept his mouth shut, hoping they might decide to let him go.
“He’s with me,” said a voice.
The men turned as Rutga approached, only he was dressed completely differently now, in a fancy uniform that denoted a much higher rank than when Nic had last seen him. The men all saluted.
“Yes, yes, at ease.” He sounded quite at ease himself. Was he really a general? Nic found it very hard to believe.
“What were you doing in there, my boy?” asked Rutga, his voice suitably pompous for his supposed rank. “Did you throw up again?”
“Ah…” Nic wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say to that. “You said not to in the street.”
“So you did it in some workman’s shack.” Rutga shook his head. “I told your mother I’d make a man of you, and so I shall. Come.” He indicated Nic to start moving. “Gentleman, make sure no one cleans up the mess — this young man will be back in the morning to take care of it.”
The men saluted again, some sympathetic looks thrown Nic’s way.
“Follow me,” said Rutga. “Time to build up a tolerance.”
Nic followed, doing his best to look reluctant and confused. Not very difficult.
Rutga led him around the corner to the rear of the Librarium.
“You know,” said Rutga in his normal voice, “I’m usually quite good at not being followed. Somehow you managed to find me — your father would be proud.”
“Did you really know him?” asked Nic.
“I did, but you don’t have to believe it if you don’t want to. It makes little difference now. Let’s go inside.” He motioned towards the Librarium.
“In there?” said Nic. “Why?”
“Because it seems everyone was wrong about you.” Rutga smiled. “Everyone but me.”
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