Rutga flashed past, outstretched hand missing Nic, then turning his torso, trying again to grab at Nic’s hair, clothing, waist, one after the other; missing each as Nic skipped backwards, his feet barely touching the floor.
It was like he was gliding. Not exactly like when he’d been a guest in the body of his powerful ancestor Nicodene Tutt — then he hadn’t even registered his movements, they had been as effortless as breathing — but this was very definitely new for the current Nic Tutt.
Rutga took two heavy steps to stop his forward trajectory and swivelled on one foot so he was facing Nic. They were in the bare white room where the creature had shown Nic the map of the stars. Now there were only the two of them and nothing very celestial about the encounter.
The room was small and plain. There was one exit, an archway, with Rutga blocking access. The look in Rutga’s eyes was a mixture of surprise and dogged–focus. There was an intensity there Nic had not seen before. Not when he’d kidnapped Nic from the school, not when he’d fought the Gweurvians, and certainly not when they sat upstairs in the Librarium.
He had seemed like an old pro then, an expert past his prime. Still quite capable of taking care of a neophyte like Nic, but not the coiled beast in front of him now.
“You use that body well,” said Rutga. Nic wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean. It didn’t sound like a compliment, more of a sneer.
“Why are you attacking me?” asked Nic. As far as he knew, he wasn’t that much of a threat. If Rutga had wished to dispatch him he could have done it earlier, so what had changed? Assuming this was the same Rutga, of course. He looked the same as before, but then so did the Rutga he had met a thousand years ago. Maybe there was a never–ending supply of Rutgas, all identical.
“It would be best if you stop trying to fight me,” said Rutga, “whoever you are.”
“I’m me,” said Nic.
“Of course you are. You think I can’t smell the foul stink of magic on you. There were cows on our farm that gave birth to monsters. They smelled just like you do.”
Nic had never heard of monstrous cow–births, and he had no idea what that had to do with him. “Arcanum doesn’t—”
Rutga lunged, arms aiming low, trying to circle Nic’s waist.
Nic saw it coming as soon as Rutga moved. He no longer had Nicodene’s size advantage, but he could still read a body in motion. This Rutga moved much better than the one the creature had inhabited (although that might have had more to do with the pilot than the ship) but that only made it easier to predict what he was trying to do.
This Rutga’s movements were precise and controlled and carefully chosen to do a specific task, in a manner Nic understood. He hadn’t until recently, but now it was clear as the clearly indexed appendices at the back of a book, explaining and clarifying every tiny detail.
Nic jumped to one side and spun around behind Rutga. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do from there, but attempting to escape from Rutga’s clutches wasn’t going to be necessary if he never got caught.
Rutga was bigger and stronger than him, and if they got into a clinch chances were Rutga would overpower him. Skill and ability helped up to a point, but raw power tended to make up the difference once you were in close–quarter combat.
“Can we talk?” said Nic, backing away. He was breathing a little heavily, but not as bad as he normally would. Managing his effort was also a lot easier now.
Rutga was couched, eyes fixed on Nic’s, which he found uncomfortable. But he knew he couldn’t look away or he’d be flattened in an instant.
“That body doesn’t belong to you.”
Nic realised why Rutga was so keen on taking him down. He believed Nic had returned under the control of some other entity. Which meant he was aware of the creature’s intentions.
Did that mean he was on Nic’s side? Maybe it just meant he was working against the creature.
Then again, Nic wasn’t sure why the creature had been so eager to switch him with the younger Winnum Roke. Wouldn’t she be hard to control if she’d been brought back in Nic’s place? There was no reason to think she would go along with whatever the creature or the older Winnum Roke had planned for her.
Rutga came running in low, his body compact and ready to pounce in whichever direction Nic attempted to evade.
It might even be the case that Rutga was working with the creature and capturing Winnum from the past while she was inside Nic’s body was what he was the goal, before she could gain proper control of his body. It stood to reason that a teenage boy’s body was not something she was particularly familiar with.
“Stop, please, I’m not who you think I am,” said Nic, backing away in hops and skips.
“I know,” said Rutga, bobbing from side to side as he closed in.
“No, I mean I’m me, the real me. I’m Nic.”
Rutga hesitated, straightening to get a better look at Nic, or so Nic thought. The moment Nic relaxed a little, Rutga surged forward as though he’d been waiting for this slight shift in posture, barrelling forward, almost tumbling as he aimed for Nic’s legs.
Nic tried to leap over the incoming attack and knew immediately it was the wrong move. He was panicked by the sudden loss of awareness caused by the surprise attack. He had gone from being one step ahead to one behind, and the idea of having to rely on his old senses was not an inspiring one.
Rutga went from down low to straight up, hitting Nic in the chest with his head, knocking him into a spin that turned him over in mid–air.
Nic frantically stuck out his hand, his body upside down and the top of his opponent’s head below him. As Rutga’s headbutt tossed him into a somersault, he grabbed Rutga under the chin and pulled him over as Nic came down.
He wasn’t sure if this was a move he’d taken from Nicodene’s repertoire, or one born of sheer desperation, but Rutga went flying over the top of him and the momentum carried him across the room, slamming into the wall.
“Enough,” said a familiar voice. Rutga obligingly slid to the floor and remained there.
Nic was a little concerned he had done the man more harm than he’d intended — he hadn’t intended harm or anything else, his actions had been entirely instinctive — but on closer inspection it became apparent that Rutga’s stillness was being unnaturally enforced. He was like a statue, one in a very unflattering pose. He wasn’t moving or breathing, but somehow Nic could tell he wasn’t dead. He was too fixed in place, like an insect pinned to a board.
Nic slowly released the tension holding his body like a spring and stood up straight. He let out a breath and looked around. The room was empty apart from the two combatants.
“You made it back,” said the voice, now behind him. Nic turned to find the High–Father standing there like he’d been there the whole time, which he might have been. “How did your meeting with the Archmage go? Well? Did she mention me?”
The High–Father was shorter than Rutga, and less powerfully built, and he wasn’t charging Nic with killing intent in his eyes, but Nic felt far more under threat in his presence.
“It wasn’t quite as I expected. It wasn’t the Winnum Roke I expected.”
“Yes, you met with one of the creature’s documented versions. She was no less Winnum Roke, though. Her answers would have been just as accurate. You wanted answers, did you not?”
“Yes…” said Nic. “I suppose so.”
“She didn’t provide you with the answers you sought?”
“It wasn’t that. I don’t think she was the same person. I mean, I understand she is an accurate representation of the Winnum of her time, but the Winnum now isn’t the one from then. She’s changed. And that Winnum couldn’t tell me how this one came to the decision she did. They aren’t the same person. None of us are, compared to our older selves.”
The High–Father pursed his lips and stroked his white beard. “No, I suppose not. I find it fascinating how you change over time. It seems to be an essential part of the process, but so prone to flaws.”
Nic wasn’t sure what the High–Father was referring to. He pointed at Rutga’s slumped from. “Is he working for you?”
“In a manner of speaking. He performs the occasional task for me.”
“Like attacking me?”
“Ah, yes, that was more of a test to see how you had changed, and who you may have changed into.”
“So you knew what the creature intended to do to me?” said Nic.
“Intention, yes. Outcome… that is what matters, and not something I control, by prior arrangement. I hadn’t thought you would come out unscathed, though. You surprise me again.” There was a glint in the old man’s eyes and smile played across his lips. He wasn’t as much pleased that Nic had returned intact as he was amused by it.
“And if I had come back changed, what would you do then?” asked Nic.
“Nothing. I just like to know. I have agreed to not intervene and I shan’t.”
“You know what they are trying to do and you let it happen anyway?” said Nic, feeling frustrated by how casually the High–Father accepted all of this. “Does it really matter what happens then? Whatever they do, they won’t be able to defeat you, will they? That’s never been possible. You only want them to learn how to reach further than they think they can. A little growth, a little closer to your goal.”
“That is one way to look at it,” said the High–Father. “But for all my prescience, I can still be surprised, like with you. And you did come back changed. Weren’t you concerned that you weren’t worthy of the role of champion? Just a boy in over his head? But look how you have gained the ability to defeat a man far superior to you in skill and experience. Such growth in such little time. Is it not astonishing?”
Nic felt a cold thought crawl up his spine. “Is that why you let me go with the creature? Did you make the creature take me because you knew this was a possibility?”
“No, no. Like I said, I have agreed not to intervene. But naturally I notice when things develop. Already, we are in a new place that has never occurred before. That alone is a cause for optimism. I do have a question for you, though, if I may. You are yourself, untainted, which is impressive, but where is the creature? It does not appear to have returned with you.” The High–Father gave him a curious look.
“You didn’t see what happened?”
“No. I kept my word and looked the other way. Whatever you concocted with the creature, I have no knowledge of it, currently.”
“It stayed behind,” said Nic. “I don’t know for how long. I asked Winnum to hold it there, as a favour.”
The High–Father’s curious expression changed to one of surprise. “You asked her for a favour? I was not aware such a thing was possible. Interesting. Very interesting.”
The High–Father was pleased, Nic could tell. He was like a teacher when the class understood the lesson and no one asked any stupid questions. Not just pleased but excited.
Nic wasn’t sure if that bode well for him or for the rest of Ranvar. He had begun to understand what it was the High–Father wanted, even if he had no idea why. With so much power and the ability to change reality at will, the desire to create beings he had no control over made little sense.
The demons, he had created to be like children, and he treated them as such. He wanted them to grow and become independent, but constructing them as fully–formed beings with free will was apparently not possible.
Allowing them to find their own path, with no interference from him — with limited interference might be more accurate — appeared to be the current plan, but it was slow and there was no certainty the results would be any different from previous attempts. But if that was the path the High–Father had chosen, Nic was hardly in a position to say otherwise.
What he still didn't grasp was what made him a key part in all this. Even if he was able to surprise the High–Father by not being dead yet, it was hardly going to aid in the evolution of demonkind.
“I do feel a little more capable,” said Nic, wary of not claiming too much and then being asked to prove it in some way, “but I’m still unable to use Arcanum.”
“Yes,” said the High–Father. “I have tried to raise the most talented of your kind to their full potential, or so I thought, by giving them the power they craved. And they readily and greedily complied, no matter how painful and excruciating the process. Many did not survive but there has never been a shortage of volunteers. But with you, it’s the opposite. Your lack of magical power seems to force you to rise to your potential far more effectively. While the ones I entrusted with challenging me have relied on emulating me, which I can’t see being very effective — I have a great deal more experience at being me than they do — you have never approached any task the way I would have. It may be the thing I have been missing.”
Listening to him speak, seeing how thrilled he was about this latest development in this process he had been conducting for so many millennia, what struck Nic was how little any of the people he had used along the way meant to him.
They were a means to an end. It wasn’t malicious, it was far colder than that. If there was a way to give the High–Father what he wanted without sacrificing whole worlds, he would accept it. And if there wasn’t, that was fine also.
“I think there’s a better way,” said Nic. “I don’t think Arcanum is it.”
“I agree,” said the High–Father. “It seems I’ve been wasting my efforts in that direction. Teaching Arcanum created an interesting dynamic but little in the way of substantive change. And the offspring of mages, although a much more efficient method, had unfortunate side–effects. But now I see there was another way all along. And you are the one who can bring it to light.”
“But I need time,” said Nic. “Can you stop this war so I can begin to study the problem more closely? I think I might be able to figure it out if I don’t have the constant distraction of being surrounded by death and destruction, especially my own.”
“Ah, I cannot do that, I’m afraid,” said the High–Father, shaking his head sadly. “My promise to not intervene still holds. But I am not the only one with the ability to halt these proceedings.”
“Who else?” asked Nic.
“Why, you of course. Let’s not lower our optimism so soon. You are the bright hope we have been waiting for.” He smiled.
Nic was about to refute the claim, but he stopped himself. He might not be a mage but he was no longer merely a schoolboy. If he wanted to prevent a war between nations, there might actually be a way to do it, one that wouldn’t require any bloodshed.
“Then can you give me him?” Nic pointed at Rutga. “I need someone to keep the rest of your chosen few from interfering, and I think they will try their hardest to do that once they realise I am trying to stop them from doing what they want.”
The High–Father chuckled. “If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about those with free will, it’s how much they resent others who also have it and wish to use it. Very well. You may have the use of our friend for the time being, but beyond that, you will be on your own. I will observe with interest.”
Nic nodded. Maybe his idea would work, maybe not. But first he had to stop a war. “Actually, could I ask one more thing? It’s very small.”
“Could you send me back to the school? It’s quite a long way and I don’t—”
“Just this once,” said the High–Father. “As a favour.”
The room vanished and was replaced by Nic’s bedroom. Fanny was standing in the doorway with his mouth hanging open. “How did you do that? And who’s he?” He pointed at Rutga who was lying on Nic’s bed, asleep.
“Ah,” said Nic. “I can explain.” And then he realised he couldn’t.
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