Nic withstood the pain as long as he could, staring in through the window. Maybe there was someone else inside, someone who he couldn’t see, the real leader of the Gweur uprising. It certainly wasn’t him.
He had asked to be shown something very specific and this was what it had led him to — himself. That didn’t necessarily mean it was quite what it seemed. There was no way to know if his magical sight was that literal. In a roundabout way, the argument could be made that he was key to what had happened in Gweur. He was involved, certainly, although inadvertently. Maybe his actions in some way led to the overthrow of the Gweur regime.
He tried to get closer to the window, maybe see if there was anyone to the side. Logically, the him in the room should have been able to see the person from where he was on the bed but it could be they were hidden and only the special sight afforded to him by his new ability could uncloak them.
It was like pushing his face up against a wall of spikes, though, and eventually he was forced back to relieve the pain. It was still there but at least it was less now that he wasn’t staring directly at himself. In fact, it was a little easier than it had been. Perhaps it took time to get used to the side-effects.
The painful nature of staying close to his location had encouraged him to go off exploring, to soar across rolling plains, chasing the sun as it sank, dragging shadows with it over the rippling grasses, flying alongside birds, riding the currents and eddies with wild, chaotic swoops and dives, they and him both.
It was addictive to simply spend time watching and taking it all in, and ignoring the pressing matters that he had convinced himself he had to be a part of. Or others had convinced him. Or he had convinced them.
His head only hurt more when he tried to sort out the reasons behind his current predicament, outside his own window, looking in on himself.
A noise behind him made him spin with swift inhuman speed. He turned just in time to catch some movement high in one of the trees near the small pond Simole had once sucked the life from and left a barren clump of dead plants. It had grown back and was as wild and insect-ridden as ever. Was Simole also back?
Nic flowed closer with a thought. He could have asked to be shown Simole’s position, but she might have been able to detect his presence the way her father had. Perhaps she already knew he was watching, but he would rather not draw attention to himself. He still wasn’t sure how much he should involve her in whatever he’d managed to get himself mixed up in.
He was still curious, though. What was she up to? She was hardly one to spy on him when she could simply appear at the end of his bed at will and demand answers to questions she was far better informed about than he was.
There were more movements among the branches and Nic slowly drifted closer. The only thing beyond the trees was open ground and then the wall surrounding the school. If Simole planned to go over it, she didn’t need to climb a tree first.
At the first sight of hair tied off in a ponytail, he knew it wasn’t Simole. He could recognise Dizzy’s hair anywhere, at any angle. What was she doing out here?
His first guess would be keeping an eye on him, waiting to see what his next move would be and making sure she was involved. It was both a comforting thought and also a presumptuous one.
She had certainly given him reason to think she intended to keep an eye on his activities, but spying on him through his bedroom window? It wasn’t really her style.
A little more confident that she wouldn’t be able to sense his presence, Nic followed the movement in the branches to see what she was doing. He rose over the trees and down the other side. He thought he’d lost her for a second, and then realised she was still in the tree behind him, straddling a branch and building some kind of structure.
It looked like an observation post. Somewhere to watch from without being seen, somewhere to keep supplies so you could grab them at a moment’s notice. But why out here? Who would she need to keep a lookout for?
There was no indication she knew she was being watched. He had half-expected her to have an innate ability to know when eyes were on her, even when they weren’t real eyes. Perhaps the bond between them would give her a special connection that prevented him hiding from her.
It was a fanciful thought based on no evidence. She carried on working, silently strapping short planks to the branch. She worked incredibly quickly and without hesitation in the near-dark. Over and under and through a loop, a hand flashing behind her to grab something too quick for him to see.
Nic found it even more fascinating to watch than his journeys across mountaintops and oceans.
Within a few minutes, she had constructed a platform and attached a rope to it. He thought it was to let her climb up and down, but she hooked the other end of the rope to her belt as she stood on the edge like a diving board.
Below her was the unforgiving ground, not a pool of water. If she planned to launch herself, assuming she had made the rope the right length, what would that achieve? It would put an enormous strain on her waist and on the branch, and probably break both.
As he was wondering about the stability of her creation, she jumped head-first.
Just as the rope went taught, she unclipped it from her belt and landed on the ground as casually as if she’d stepped off the bottom rung of a ladder. She didn’t pause to admire her perfect dismount, she rushed around, collecting more bits of wood. She put them in the bag strapped to her back and took out two thin daggers. Then she ran back to the tree and up it, poking the daggers in and out of the trunk like the claws of an arboreal animal. She was back up in a flash.
She emptied the bag of the sticks she’d collected and began working on them with another dagger. This one had a flat blade with a sharp edge. Occasionally, she looked up towards the school wall, the blade slashing away with practised speed.
Nic hung there, watching. There was a sort of poetry to her movements, a relentless flow. She kept up a rhythm, only pausing to switch between sticks. She seemed to be preparing for something, but what? And how would sharp sticks help?
“I know you’re there,” she said, not looking up.
Nic froze even though he didn’t have a body. He said nothing, not knowing if he even could in this state, but not wanting to even try in case she was bluffing. She turned her head and looked at him and then through him.
“I’m not the one hiding.”
Nic turned and saw Simole standing in the next tree, like a festive ornament, her clothing not the least bit suitable for climbing trees. He suspected she hadn’t climbed up the way Dizzy had.
“Neither am I,” said Dizzy, looking back at her work.
“You can’t protect him by yourself.”
Dizzy stopped and let out a short sigh. “I’m not protecting him. I’m protecting everyone but him.” She turned to look at Simole again. Nic felt like he should move to the side to let them see each other without getting in the way, but he wasn’t really there.
“They’re not coming for everyone else,” said Simole. “I don’t even think they’re here to harm him, just to keep watch.”
“You’re wrong,” said Dizzy. “You have no idea what they’re capable of. Once they establish a base here, they can make a move any time they want. And even if they are only coming to keep watch, they don’t belong to Carmine. They belonged to my father, and he wouldn’t want them used like this.”
“I could help you,” said Simole.
“Like you helped at the Librarium?” said Dizzy, her voice taking on an edge sharper than the knife she held in her hand. She had at least half a dozen pointy sticks now.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Simole. It was hard to see her clearly, but he could feel the smile as she spoke.
“You were the only one I didn’t have my eye on. You stopped me, I’m not sure how but it doesn’t really matter. I’m glad he’s got you to help him, but the rest of the school isn’t going to be so lucky. If they’re sending shades to keep watch, they’re expecting trouble. And when it comes, they’ll treat the students as shields. Not the important ones — they’ll make sure to move them first — but the rest of us. It’ll be easier to stay alive without them around, trust me.”
Nic wasn’t really sure what she was talking about. He hadn’t seen any sign of anyone trying to enter the school grounds. But then, he hadn’t been keeping a very close watch on the area around him. He had spent most of his time travelling far and wide, avoiding his immediate surroundings, even though that was where he needed to be most vigilant.
“Alright,” said Simole. “Have it your way. I think you’re being very petty, though.”
“Petty? How am I—”
“You’ve got company,” said Simole.
Dizzy turned and crouched. She seemed like she would fall off the tiny platform — good thing she was attached to it by a rope. She was pulling things out of her backpack and inserting her sticks into them.
Nic looked in the direction she appeared to be looking in. It was too dark to see much, but strangely darker in some spots.
The darker areas were moving. They came over the walls and fell into the shadows, but he could see them, a black that went beyond the mere absence of light.
Dizzy was leaning forward, right on the edge. She waited for the darkness to come gliding across the grass. And then she fell.
There were three of them that Nic could make out. She had waited until the last of the three passed under her, confident they wouldn’t look up. Then she pounced with the stick held out, the white tip suddenly flaring into a bright, incandescent flame that was blinding.
It pierced the shade through the top of its head and it splintered into a thousand pieces.
He body twisted and then she wasn’t falling any more, she was swinging, with another stick in each hand, one for each target.
She struck them both in the backs before they had a chance to turn or run, the white flares passing through them and extinguishing as they did. Her ability to know exactly where to be so she was outside their field of view was uncanny. Nic could see the angles clearly — the slightest shift and they would have spotted her.
Both dark shapes fractured like tattered cloth being ripped apart.
Dizzy unclipped herself and landed softly. “Only three tonight.” She looked up to where Simole had been, but there was no one there. Nic hadn’t noticed her leave, either. Dizzy smiled to herself. “Just me, then.”
It was a self-satisfied smirk, the kind he hadn’t seen from her in a long time. He’d forgotten what she looked like when she was pleased with herself and felt a twinge of guilt. He was probably the one who took that away from her.
But more than that, he could see how well she accomplished her task while he struggled to even work out what it was he was supposed to be doing. He should have been aware of these things, sent from the Ministry of Instruction if they used to belong to her father. He hadn’t because he’d been wandering about, reluctant to endure the pain of observing himself. He needed to change that.
He left Dizzy to her packing up and returned to his bedroom window. The moment he saw himself sitting on his bed, the pain returned. He ignored it and pushed on, through the glass.
Everything went blurry. His head was filled with a thousand needles and he wanted to cry. Maybe he was crying, it was hard to see his own eyes with his vision so distorted.
He still didn’t know how he was meant to be the leader of the Gweur rebellion, but he would try to find the answer once he had taken control of this ability. The pain didn’t subside and it was becoming harder and harder to crawl forward, but he refused to give in. What would happen if he passed out? It felt like he was about to find out.
Something shoved Nic from behind. He lunged forward and smashed into himself, face to face.
Nic’s mind burst, or felt like it. The pain went away just when he thought he couldn’t bear it any longer, leaving behind a sense of disorientation. He was still floating, but inside his own head. He could see through his own eyes, but also behind him and above. It was a very odd sensation.
He could also see Simole, standing at the end of his bed. “You alright? Nothing broken?” She looked like she was dancing.
“Awoo,” said Nic. His mouth was too soft and the wrong shape. No shape at all.
“That’s what I thought. Looks like when there’s no one else in your head, not even you like being in there.”
Nic took a breath. At least he could still do that. Then he concentrated on making things stop wobbling. “I’m… fine.” The words came out a little over-enunciated, but apart from that they were under his control once more.
“Bit of a party going on outside. You saw, did you?”
Nic nodded. The room kept moving after his head had stopped. “Who were they?”
Simole shrugged. “Arcanum shades. Not really very powerful, but sneaky. Don’t like light very much, fall apart if you so much as wave a candle at them.”
“She seemed to think they were worse than that.” He was getting the hang of it now. He could see all of the room at the same time but the trick was to only focus on one bit at a time. Which wasn’t ideal but it would get easier with practice, he assumed.
“Maybe she’s right. At least she’s got something to keep her occupied while you ignore her.”
“I’m not ignoring her,” said Nic.
“Yes, I can see that. All eyes on the prize. Have you been keeping a watch on her anywhere else?” She cocked a suggestive eyebrow.
“No,” he said, a little too fiercely.
“Good. I share a room with her, wouldn’t like to think you’d been peeping without permission.” She smiled in a way that made Nic uncomfortable.
“I wouldn’t do that,” he said.
“And if I gave you permission?” She was grinning now, enjoying his discomfort.
He closed his eyes and let go of the omnivision. His head reeled for a moment and then he felt himself again. When he opened his eyes, Simole was gone.
Nic shakily got to his feet and stretched the way the Secret Service agents had taught him. He hadn’t exerted his body at all but it still felt appropriate. As his body responded and his mind relaxed, he wondered how long Simole had been in his room.
The first lesson the following morning was the Arts Course with Mr Periwinkle. Nic wanted to ask him about the change he had managed to enact with his vision. He was hoping it was the correct thing to have done. He hadn’t tried again since then, deciding he should let his mind rest before stretching it in any more irregular directions.
He had already been up a while, his training continuing as usual from just before dawn. The training felt a lot easier today, making him overconfident. The resulting fall from a high wall twisted his ankle, which was better than breaking it.
The black-masked agent had manipulated his foot until it stopped hurting but he was still finding it hard to walk normally, like his brain expected it to hurt and refused to put the normal amount of weight on it.
He limped into the class, last of the six students, to curious looks.
“I went running and tripped,” he said by way of explanation.
“Good thing no one was chasing you,” said Carol.
“A predator would have eaten you,” said Brill. “A steady pace is better than a fast collapse.”
Simole rolled her eyes. “Not if you eat the predator first.”
Nic caught Dizzy’s eye as he passed her. She looked fresh and alert, despite her nocturnal activities. He must have given her a funny look because she was about to say something to him. And she never did that without provocation.
Fortunately, Mr Periwinkle came in at that moment. “Sorry, seems there’s been a bit of a problem at the Royal College.” He was carrying a stack of books.
Nic sat down, all ears. A problem at the Royal College could mean all sorts of things, but nothing good.
Periwinkle put the books down on his desk with a thump. “We were supposed to have a guest lecturer, a mage, you know, to answer some questions in the most vague and enigmatic ways possible, and then to demonstrate some rather intricate hand exercises for you to learn. But they can’t spare anyone, so we’ll have to learn them from this.” He held up a rather tatty textbook. “Not the easiest way to learn, but the basics are pretty straightforward.” He wiggled his fingers at them.
The door opened and two Secret Service agents — one green, one blue — came in. It was unusual to see them like this, even more so using a door the normal way.
“Excuse me,” said the blue-masked agent, “we need to ask Miss Kettle to come with us.”
Rumi stood up. “Why? Where are we going?”
“Just a precaution, your ladyship. This way please.”
“We were told to also make you the same offer,” the green-masked agent said to Simole.
You didn’t refuse to do as asked by the Secret Service; not unless you wanted to be carried out unconscious. Or if you were Simole. She waved him away with a dismissive flick of her hand.
Rumi packed her bag, gave the rest of the class a baffled look, and left with her escort.
She wasn’t the only one. It became apparent that all the children of nobility were being moved away from the school. Evacuated.
It looked like Dizzy had been right. Something was about to happen, and they wanted to protect what was most precious to them. The less valued children would stay and continue with their education.
Whatever the threat was, it wasn’t imminent. They got to dinner without incident and while there was speculation about invading forces and enemy assassins, no one had any real idea what was going on. The suggestion that there was anyone capable enough and stupid enough to come this far within Ranvar’s borders didn’t seem feasible at all. Even with the dragons acting strange, there were still plenty of mages and a vast number of soldiers that would need to be overcome.
It was seen as a precaution, just as the agents had suggested. It might be that there had been some plot to kidnap a prince or a ducal heir, and it had panicked the rest to quickly remove their children from harm’s away, in the overprotective manner of parents with influence.
Nic was curious to check on troop movements and went to bed early. No one was surprised considering how much running around he was doing these days. They all told him to go a little easier on himself and wished him goodnight and pleasant dreams.
He lay in bed, allowing his mind to drift across Ranvar, checking the borders. There didn’t seem to be any movement worth noting. The various troops were in the same positions where they were the previous nights, on either side of the borders.
With no major threat looming, Nic’s attention moved back to the school. Perhaps a smaller assault? If that were true, wouldn’t they have arranged some defensive forces to be billeted nearby? There were the Secret Service agents, but they had been reduced in number, and if they were busy taking their young charges to safety, there might not be many left.
Nic asked to be shown the agents on the school grounds and was surprised to find there weren’t any.
He searched for Dizzy, ready to call off the request if he started to head for her room in the female dorm. But he was left over his own residence, drifting towards the trees. Was she on her death-dive platform again?
As he closed in on her position, he asked to see any approaching enemies. It was a bit of a vague request, but he wasn’t sure how else to label the strange shadow creatures.
Five lights lit up below him, within the school walls, headed towards Dizzy. They weren’t shades, though, they were clearly people, moving very fast.
She was on her perch, working away on some weapon made out of twigs and string, probably. She didn’t seem to be at all aware of the people coming towards her, which was unusual for her. It took a moment for Nic to realise why.
When he adjusted his perspective, he could see they were on a different level to the girl in the tree. They were much higher. They were flying.
Nic took a closer look. He could make out a darker blot beneath each of them, like the shades, but much larger.
He could only think of one thing that shape, but they weren’t flying anymore. “Show me dragons within the school grounds.”
Each small dot of light that was flying towards Dizzy was engulfed by a much larger, brighter light in the shape of a dragon.
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