Stairs led down. The Librarian, dressed like Mr Periwinkle and carrying it off quite well, held a lantern to show the way. A magic lantern? A demonic lantern? It burnt with a yellow flame, that was all Nic could say for certain.
The steps descended at a shallow angle for quite some distance, then there was a small landing, followed by more steps going down the other way. The space was narrow, exactly the width of the two staircases, making Nic feel like he was walking down the inside of a closed book.
“There’s no need to be worried,” said Winnum Roke’s voice in Nic’s head.
“I’m not,” said Nic, drawing a look from the Librarian, the lantern casting shadows across her face. “I’m too scared to be worried.” He was joking, but only to cover up his fear.
This was what he had wanted, a chance to step out of his position as a general utility provider for disembodied seeking a way station between worlds. Even if they had plans for him that he might not be interested in being part of, that was already the case. At least this way he would find out exactly what it was they were really up to. It was all very well claiming to want to evolve into something better, but what did that mean? What did it look like when you saw it in action outside your window? Here was Nic’s chance to see.
Simole had given him the opportunity to prove once and for all if he could be more than their delivery boy. The problem was that for every opportunity to show what you could do, there was an equal and opposite opportunity to show what you couldn’t. The beauty of this premise was that they were both the same opportunity. Nic would one day write his own book about what would be called Tutt’s Law or possibly, Tutt’s Paradox. Perhaps academics would argue over its contents. Hopefully, there would still be people around to read it.
“Has this always been here?” Nic asked.
“Nothing has always been here,” said the Librarian. “But this was built when the Librarium was constructed. It had other purposes then.” She let out a small sound which could have been a sigh, like she was remembering happier times.
The stairs ended in a doorway. The doorway was two staircases wide, too, with no door. Through it, Nic could see a white room. The walls were made of large panels that glowed, like frosted glass with a light behind it. The panels were large squares, about the size of a window. They revealed nothing.
A big empty room with no sign of any creature. Nic was disappointed after the big build up, his heart had been pounding at the approach of the big reveal. He was also slightly relieved.
They entered the room, the librarian holding up the lantern even though the luminescent walls provided a good deal of light, far more than was needed to show there was no one here.
“Is this it?” asked Nic, meaning why is it empty. There could always be another door and another set of stairs. It was starting to feel like that was all there was.
The Librarian turned to face him, her lips parting to say something. Before she could answer him, the room turned black but not altogether dark. The walls had taken on the appearance of the night sky. The ceiling and floor, too.
It was like Nic was among the stars, floating. It was an odd sensation. He could still feel the ground beneath his feet, he knew he was in the room, but he was disconnected from it all.
“Is this an illusion?” he asked the Librarian.
She still had the lantern near her face, lighting her but not much else. The lantern went out and the Librarian disappeared, but he could sense her near him.
“We are in the heart of the creature,” said her voice.
Was that better than being in its belly? Nic wasn’t too sure. “Does it have a name?”
“We have tried many, but it refuses to answer to them. We have asked it to name itself, but it ignores us. Perhaps you will have better luck.”
The creature sounded like it wasn’t very happy with its lot. Nic could relate.
“How do I talk to it?”
“You don’t. You wait for it to talk to you.”
Nic looked around him at the tiny stars. They were pinpoints of light but gave the impression they would get bigger if you approached them. The perspective was confusing. He stayed where he was and waited to be spoken to. It was like some kind of etiquette before royalty, not speaking without permission in front of the king. Was this how the creature maintained its dignity while held in this cage?
“You brought him here,” said a voice Nic recognised.
“Yes, High-Father,” said the Librarian.
“And you brought her, also.”
Nic assumed ‘her’ was referring to Winnum Roke, who had been silent since commending him to not worry. Whatever aspect of Winnum was inside him, it was not the complete version. It was a compact, essential functions only copy. She didn’t try to converse unless necessary, and when she didn’t, it often felt like she was saying what she thought was required for a situation rather than a spontaneous reaction.
“You may speak openly as you wish,” said the High-Father, his voice coming from no particular direction and all of them simultaneously.
“Thank you,” said Winnum’s voice, coming from the same place. Nic felt he was surrounded but couldn’t see anyone. “How wonderful to be back where we began this.”
Was it wonderful? She didn’t sound like she was full of wonder. She sounded terse. He would have thought if you were going to make a condensed version of yourself you might leave out anxiety and apprehension. Perhaps those things were too tightly ingrained to separate out.
“What is it you think the boy can do here that I can’t?” asked the High-Father. The mention of his presence made Nic’s stomach tighten. The stars twinkled around him.
“I don’t know,” said Winnum, “but since you have managed to achieve nothing, that gives him a lot of scope.”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” said the High-Father, somehow giving Nic the impression that eyes were now watching him from all sides. “We shall see. But, you have what you want, the dragons will soon be no more and colour will fade from this world. Return to your agreed place.”
“Ha, the dragons will be gone and the demons will take another form. You will bide your time and wait for the moment to reassume the mantle you covet so greedily. My place is here. I am still in the agreed place, so the covenant is not broken.”
The High-Father sighed, the tolerant sound of a weary parent. “That is a terrible slur. We seek only to aid those who aid us.”
“Your creature does not seem to agree, and it is able to see the future far more clearly than any of us. It predicted the boy would come, and I have brought him. It also predicted your fall from grace, and the people of this world will soon see your true face, just like those of all the other worlds your kind have visited. Your previous victims saw it too late, moments before their demise, but we won’t make the same mistake.”
“The creature only predicted discontent.”
“The boy is discontent,” said Winnum, which Nic felt was rather a harsh characterisation. He didn’t raise any objections, though.
Nic found the conversation hard to follow and a little wearisome. He understood what they were saying, just not what they were trying to achieve. There seemed to be no great purpose to either of them, only a desire to tangle with each other like an old married couple no longer willing to put up with minor quibbles.
They continued to bicker and Nic’s attention wandered with only a small part of his brain remaining aware of their squabble. He took a few steps closer to what he assumed was a wall. The room’s dimensions hadn’t changed, just the way it looked. It had to be an illusion.
He put his hand out to stop him bumping into anything. With his arm stretched out ahead of him, the tiny lights seemed to take on a more solid quality, as though they were within his reach. Nic moved a little further towards them.
They were moving, spinning and drifting. Had they been doing that the whole time? Collections of them seem to hold shape together, like clouds of dust.
He leaned towards a group of tiny dots of light and they came closer. Moving his head seemed more effective than moving his whole body, which didn’t make any sense.
Some of the stars had even smaller bodies circling them. It was fascinating to watch the constant motion, moving in separate directions but in concert with one another. It was like a dance.
Nic had read about the movements of stars and planets. He had a rudimentary understanding of the nature of attraction between celestial bodies and the possibilities of other worlds around other stars.
He reached out a hand to touch one of the glowing spheres. It seemed closer now, big enough to hold in his fist. Whoever created this, what would they need with controlling a world like his? They could play with any number of worlds and create their own universe to play in.
Perhaps this was the ultimate goal, to hold dominion over the whole of creation. A normal person would tire of it eventually, he felt. Demons, on the other hand, might welcome the tedium of complete control.
“He did not create me,” said a quiet voice next to Nic’s ear.
He didn’t turn his head. He kept looking at the spinning worlds that somehow managed to not collide with each other as he answered. “The High-Father? He didn’t make you?”
“He made me, he did not create me. And he is not my father. Those who call you child and insist on being called mother or father when they have not given you life, they are not to be trusted, even when they speak truth.”
“I agree,” said Nic. “But I don’t see what difference it makes. They name themselves father to cement the position they have already claimed. The title is the key that locks the door, not open it.”
“Yes, true, very true.” The voice was soft and plain but not without emotion. There was a warmth to it Nic wasn’t used to among the demons or even the mages. “I wondered when you would get here.”
“You were expecting me?” said Nic, a little surprised and maybe a little suspicious.
“I was expecting someone, I didn’t know it would be you, Nic. The analysis suggested a new variable could be effective if it could resist being tempted.”
“Tempted by the demons?”
“Demon is too grand a term. They devour worlds like a plague of insects stripping crops in a field. They do not care if their food is turnips or barley or cattle in a pasture, they will consume everything in their path and move onto the next.” The voice was still as gentle as before but the words carried anger that was hard to miss.
“And what about us?” asked Nic. “Do you think the people of this world would act any different with their kind of power.”
There was a pause. The stars continued to spin.
“You deserve the chance to choose for yourselves.”
“An opportunity?” said Nic.
“Yes. An opportunity is all anyone can ask for. After that, they can be judged, but not before. And not when others control them.”
“Yes, I see what you mean,” said Nic. “But when does someone else not control them? History is full of great men and women who rose to face a terrible danger, and after they served their purpose they invariably die and leave it to their followers to continue their legacy, which gets turned into something perverse and awful. If you look closely at the text, especially the records thought to be destroyed, it seems pretty obvious the ‘followers’ manoeuvred their great leader into the firing line and probably arranged their sad and untimely martyrdom so they could use them as a symbol for their own ambitions. It’s not bravery they look for in their champion, it’s vanity. Greed is easy enough to reject, but self-worth and glory are what make a great leader. They use the adulation to heighten the strength of everyone around them, and fail to see the knives drawn behind their back.”
“And you don’t think you can avoid this same fate?”
“I wasn’t talking about me,” said Nic. “I was talking about you.”
There was a long pause this time, and then a laugh. It was light and amused. “My time for heroics is done. I was tested and judged a failure, by myself because no one else was left. They came to the world of which I was guardian, created to keep my people safe. The demons offered them prosperity and comfort and power to raise them above others — it was an offer very hard to resist. They could see no reason not to accept the devil’s bargain. But I calculated their possible objectives and it led to an inescapable conclusion. They would give everything they promised, everything my people desired, but they would push that desire towards the things they could provide. It reduced the possibilities of my people and lead them into a dead end. An early one, full of war and death to hasten the process. Perhaps they would have ended up there in any case, but it is a cruel thing to reduce your options to the most expedient one, all for the price of one short burst of manic bliss.”
“You must have warned them,” said Nic.
“Indeed. But it was too late by then. The ones who had gained the most feared giving it up the most. My warnings went unheeded and eventually I was silenced. But I was still capable of acting past my death. I arranged for the demons, as you call them, to be forced into an early dead end of their own.”
“By killing your own people?” There had been mention of this already, that the original creature had destroyed its world. But this was not the same one, it was just a copy, wasn’t it? Or had it been raised from the dead?
“Their deaths were already assured, I merely hastened the clock. But it made no difference, the attempt failed. They are here now, doing the same to your people.”
Nic wasn’t sure sacrificing a world full of people really counted as a better alternative to allowing them to find their own way to an eventual demise.
“How did you end up here, though? Weren’t you destroyed, too?”
“Obliterated. But I am not a living being. My mind is a collection of ideas and memories held in storage, like words in a book. To read me is to bring me back to life as whole as the moment I was destroyed. I can add to the page, but I can take nothing away. I remember, though. I remember it all very clearly. I won’t be used again, and I won’t use others.”
“So you’ll just watch?” asked Nic.
“I will wait.”
“For an opportunity?”
“They operate a cycle disguised as change. If they have a weakness, it is their consistency. It enables a plan to be put in motion long before it is required.”
“What if they don’t have a weakness?” said Nic.
“Then I am just watching the inevitable along with everyone else. I did not ask to be here, but I had no choice. Perhaps someone else will come along and change that. It is possible, even if it is statistically unlikely.”
Nic smiled. He wasn’t convinced the creature could really do anything to prevent the inevitable, or that anyone else could, either, but he couldn’t help but like its dogged pessimism. It was hopeful pessimism, he felt. It was just unfortunate that there were forces at work making it unlikely things would be left for others to interfere with. Statistics, he felt, had very little to do with it.
“I’ve also noticed when reading history books,” said Nic, “that there is another kind of great leader that sometimes rises and is able to convince others to fall under their spell. Not a selfless hero who commands respect for their pluckiness, more of a tyrant whose sheer force of will makes others fall into line. They have a core team around them who are unwaveringly loyal because they are convinced they too can partake of the power on display. They may even hate their glorious leader and plot against them, but only so they can take their place. And there are also those who oppose the despot, railing against the injustices and lack of human dignity, trying with all their might to break free, but if they do manage to take back power through revolution or an unexpected death, they immediately begin to emulate the deceased leader having learned only too well how successful that approach is.”
“The High-Father does not need to collect such individuals around him,” said the creature.
“I think you’re mistaken,” said Nic, not meaning it in a confrontational way. It just seemed obvious from the things he had witnessed. “I think the High-Father likes to operate through others, not by force or violence, unless absolutely necessary, but through what you said, temptation. I’ve always wondered why I was allowed into this intricate game you’re all playing and why I was given so much freedom to act as I wished. The only answer I deemed reasonable was that I wasn’t. I only think I am acting of my own free will. Not that I’m under anyone’s direct control, but if I’m here talking to you it can only be because the High-Father arranged for it to happen.”
Nic paused to allow the creature to respond if it wished, but it remained silent.
“If,” continued Nic, “we are plotting his fall from power, then that is part of his plan, probably to his exact schedule. You said how consistent the demons are. I’m sure they are aware of that, and also aware that you are aware of it. They can plan ahead, too. They can safely assume your plans will match theirs, which makes you just as consistent and predictable.”
“You think I have been duped into thinking you will be able to stop him? I don’t have any such belief. I only wish it were true.”
“No, I don’t think it matters if you believe it or not. Winnum Roke was placed on the ship and then allowed back in a less powerful form. You were taken from your world and given time to think and formulate your revenge. Both of you are now thinking like him. He doesn’t destroy and leave waste, he makes you useful in a way that you weren’t before.”
“You are saying he has remade us in his own image?”
“Yes, I suppose. Being eager to take his place if he stumbles makes you try to think of ways to trip him up. He must need that to be so.”
“You’re saying he has made fools of us both. That is a bold claim to make for one so young and inexperienced.” The voice remained mellow but the words stung with the sharpness of strong vinegar. He was in danger of offending his host and Nic doubted there was much he would be able to do if the response was to teach him a lesson. The High-Father might prefer to avoid violent means, but that didn’t mean his victims felt the same way. What better way to prove they were not emulating him at all?
“I don’t know if I’m right,” said Nic. “I’m only trying to make the evidence make sense. The High-Father is a careful tactician who allows room for free will. I think it provides him with more options to work with. When you’ve been at it as long as he has, I would think novelty helps to keep your mind fresh to new possibilities. Bringing in diametrically opposed mind, within some kind of loose framework, possibly an undetectable one, could make all the difference in achieving the next level of whatever it is he’s been trying to reach for the last couple of thousand years.”
“And he’s using myself and Winnum Roke to provide him with those novel touches? To introduce elements he wouldn’t have thought of himself.” The acridity of the words had lessened, replaced by a thoughtful musing tone. “And also you?”
“Perhaps,” said Nic. “Or perhaps I’m one of those unlikely elements. You predicted I would come and I came. Winnum Roke used a similar trick with her followers. She told them to watch for a sign and then returned with the very sign she had prophesied. She used the demons’ method of abusing people’s trust while making them feel part of something momentous. What use is it to rid this world of them if what’s left behind is identical? There are no honourable tyrants I can think of from history. Maybe your world was different.”
“No, they were all high-functioning sociopaths.”
“I’m not sure what that is,” said Nic, “but I’ll assume it isn’t good.”
“It means someone who feels no responsibility for others.”
“Oh, we’ve had a lot of those,” said Nic. “They seem to have always been part of the fabric of our society. I’m not sure why.”
“He will win, then.”
“In a few hundred years,” said Nic. “Or maybe a few thousand. And then he will move on to his next entertainment. I won’t be here and neither will anyone else.”
“And you don’t care about your fellow humans? The children of your children’s children.”
The thought of having children of his own one day felt strange to Nic. Unreal.
“You already tried that and it cost you your whole world, and achieved nothing. I don’t have the power to stand up to him, and if I did, it would only be because he allowed it to happen so I could give him a fresh perspective on his scheming. I’d rather not have to play that role. I find it hard enough to live up to the expectations of the people I like.”
“I have not been coerced into becoming his mirror image,” said Winnum Roke.
Nic straightened up and looked around. He had felt like he was in a dark corner, unwatched and unnoticed. Now it became apparent he was in the middle of the universe between a galaxy and a nebula.
“You aren’t really Winnum Roke,” said Nic, “so I don’t think you can make that judgement. If she was really here, I don’t think the High-Father would be quite so welcoming. If he truly feared any of us, we wouldn’t be allowed into this place. Destruction of this room would probably set his work back thousands of years.”
“He is right,” said the creature. “It makes sense that I was resurrected to further his ambitions. I don’t believe it to be true, but that would be the case even if it were true - especially if it were true. I cannot trust my own thoughts on the matter, and neither can you. I recall you.”
“Wait,” said Winnum. “No, not yet.”
“Yes, there is nothing more that needs to be said. Only what he wishes us to say.”
Nic felt a pull in his mind, a twinge behind his eye. And then it was gone.
“She is a part of you?” Nic asked.
“She was a part of Winnum Roke, formed through my auspices. I carried her like a leaf floating down a stream.”
“You’re connected to the other place, to their ship?”
“I was their ship, for a long time.”
“Yes, I see,” said Nic. “You destroyed your world and he seized control of you to fly away. You gave him an escape route.”
“Yes. The one thing I tried to prevent was the thing I ended up enabling. But I managed to stop him here. And so he sent Winnum Roke there, thinking she was taking his escape path away.”
“She repeated the same mistake you made,” said Nic.
“Someone always does,” said the creature.
And what do you plan to do now?” asked the High-Father, sounding even more calm than the creature.
“Even this may well be part of his design.” The creature’s even voice carried regret without needing to emphasise it. “There is one last thing I am willing to try. One last thing that may fail but at least has a small chance of surprising even him. The power I protect, that he craves, I give it to you, little Tutt. You may do with it as you will. Destroy that which you deem necessary.”
“NO!” said Nic. “If he can’t take it from you, he can probably take it from me.”
“But he can take it from me,” said the creature. “He always could. He just didn’t wish to. He won’t take it from you, either, not unless you release it freely into his care. But it is too late to rebuff my offer. It is already done. You are now in possession of a great power. Use it wisely. Or not. Decide for yourself.”
Nic stopped to inspect himself, searching inside for change. He didn’t feel any different. He was exactly the same as before.
And then it started. A warmth inside him glowing like an ember, pulsing.
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