Nic woke much earlier than he wanted to. His early morning training sessions had habituated his body into getting up at a particular time and being tired made no difference. That was just normal.
Even though the agents had allowed him to go to bed because he was exhausted — and he had been completely drained of all energy by events — his eyes still snapped open before the first grey light of dawn.
He remained in bed for a while, trying to convince himself to go back to sleep. Logically, he needed as much rest as he could get for whatever the day would bring, but his mind was not listening to him. What he wanted to do was get up and run around for a bit, which was a very strange feeling. He considered resisting, but what good would that do?
Restless and twitchy, he got out of bed and got dressed in his gym clothes. If his body now craved exercise, that was probably a good thing. The sort of thing that would make it easier for him to get in shape, in the long term. In the short term, it was just annoying.
A jog around the school grounds, one circuit, should be enough to get it out of his system, he decided. He made his way out of the cottage as quietly as he could and stood shivering outside the front door, already regretting this new-found enthusiasm for wearing himself out.
As Nic started to run, he felt a presence beside him and nearly fell over, thinking he was about to be attacked by someone chasing him. He veered to the side slightly but then realised there was a Secret Service agent, wearing a green mask, running next to him.
It was a little tricky to see the agent clearly, he was more of a blur than a solid person, but Nic could just about make him out.
He kept running, slightly self-conscious of the person observing him. Should he try to run as fast as possible to make a good impression? Retain good form so the agent would report back with a positive assessment of his progress?
The agent didn’t say anything, didn’t even look at Nic, just kept pace with him.
Nic felt a little foolish for reading too much into what was most likely a simple assignment to keep an eye on him. With various elements moving against Ranvar, and with Nic seemingly in the middle of things, it made sense to make sure they knew where he was at all times.
The sun was up now and the porters were out and doing their usual maintenance jobs. They ignored Nic as he ran past. Could they see the agent jogging beside him? Did they even notice Nic? They seemed far more interested in doing their job and getting on with their own lives.
Nic closed his eyes for a moment and pictured the school from above. He asked for the location of all agents on school grounds and multiple lights appeared, far more than there had been last night.
There were even lights lining the route he was taking around the school. He opened his eyes — if he kept them closed too long there was a strong possibility he might run into a tree — and looked for the agents he’d seen from above. There was no sign of anyone watching.
Had they increased their presence on campus because of him? All the important children had already been removed, so there wasn’t really anyone else they would be here for. Nic felt mildly embarrassed about flattering himself into such an important role. The whole Secret Service here to watch over him, how grand.
He had to remind himself it wasn’t so much that he was a VIP, more that he attracted people who were important and dangerous, so sticking close to him was an excellent way to get to them.
As Nic ran, he got faster and faster. Rather than tiring himself out and losing his breath, he felt energised by being outside, not having to think or observe others, no calculations running through his mind. It was freeing and exhilarating to simply cut loose and not care what was up ahead.
Something painful happened to the back of his left leg and he quickly came to a halt, hopping the last few steps. He hadn’t bothered to warm up properly, even though the agents who normally trained him always insisted on it. And he’d made such a basic error with all these people watching.
He hopped over to a bench and sat down, along. The green-masked agent wasn’t in sight, nor were any of the others. Nic had a burning sensation biting into the back of his thigh. He rubbed at it but without much relief. The black-masked agent had always been very good with these sorts of injuries, but he wasn’t here. Nic thought about asking the green one for his help. Would that be too forward?
He closed his eyes and checked the location of the agents again. There was one standing right next to him. Nic opened his eyes while maintaining his second sight as best he could. He turned his head and saw the agent standing there, hands behind his back, legs slightly apart.
“I don’t suppose you know how to fix a strained muscle.”
The agent ignored him, looking straight ahead.
“The other agents, the one who help train me, they do this thing where they sort of hammer my muscles to loosen them up when I get tight.” It felt like an imposition, like he was asking a favour from a stranger. “I mean, it’s fine if you don’t.”
The agent turned his head and looked at Nic through the green masks tiny eye-holes, making eye-contact with Nic.
“You can see me?”
“Yes,” said Nic.
“Oh, um, well…” What was he supposed to say? The truth? That probably wasn’t a good idea. “My senses have sort of gotten heightened.” A partial truth would do, he decided.
“That’s how you knew about the dragons?”
“Yes. In a way. It’s difficult to explain.” He got up from the bench, which made him wince. It would probably be better to head back and avoid answering any more awkward questions.
“Stop. Lift your foot up.”
Nic raised his foot behind him and rested the tip of his shoe on the bench.
A sharp twinge pinched the back of his leg. Followed by another and then another. His leg went numb for a moment, and then very loose.
He lowered his leg and stamped his foot on the ground.
“Thanks. Good as new.” It did feel a lot better, although the memory of the pain still lingered, like he was wearing trousers that were too tight. At least he could walk again. He started to walk and then jog back to the cottage. He sensed the agent still trailing him, just a half-step behind, but he didn’t look directly at him.
When he returned to the cottage, none of the others were up. It was only just past sunrise and they were enjoying their rest.
Nic took a shower, the water so hot it nearly scalded him. He turned it colder and colder until he was being blasted with freezing cold water. The shock of it shook his brain in a way Nic enjoyed. He couldn’t think straight or dwell on any one subject. Everything went blank when his skin turned blue.
Icy water struck his head like icicles and ran down his face like claws. His body shivered and then all feeling passed beyond his reach. He felt nothing and stood under the relentless flow sinking deeper into it.
He came out of the bathroom to find Davo standing in the kitchen in his monogrammed robe and carrying a fluffy towel.
“You took your time,” said Davo, “what were you doing in there?”
“Taking a shower,” said Nic, unable to not sound guilty. “Was I long?” He had lost track of time once his mind went blank.
“Nearly an hour. Now there won’t be any hot water left.”
“Oh, it’s okay. It was a cold shower.”
Davo arched a single eyebrow. “I see. That girl preying on your mind is she?”
It took a moment for Nic to grasp what Davo meant. “No, nothing like that. I just went for a run and felt a bit overheated.”
“You can’t run from your problems,” said Davo. “And you can’t freeze your desire.”
“It was just a shower.”
“Have you two finished?” asked Fanny, yawning as he entered the kitchen.
“He has, I haven’t,” said Davo.
“Well, hurry up, what are you standing out here for?”
“He only just came out,” said Davo. “After a one hour cold shower.”
“Oh,” said Fanny. “Girls, eh? I get the same way after I watch a lacrosse match. It’s the short skirts.”
“No,” said Nic, patiently. “I was just cooling off after a run.”
“Did someone say cold shower?” said Brill, coming into the already crowded kitchen. “Excellent for the health. Helps with circulation.”
“Yes,” said Nic. “Exactly.”
“Especially,” continued Brill, “if you’ve been having fever-dreams about the opposite sex all night. Miss Delcroix got you tossing and turning, has she?”
Nic put his towel over his head and walked back to his room using his new ability to guide his way.
Lessons were scheduled as normal but the absence of so many students made the classroom feel empty.
The second year of the Upper Class was limited in number and most of Nic’s classes were already quite small, apart from Military Strategy, which attracted all the people looking to become career soldiers. Most of them came from military families and planned to continue the family tradition; it was expected.
Their connection to the army also made them the most likely to be withdrawn from the school. Information about what was happening was scant and mostly unfounded gossip, but those in the army would have the best idea of just how bad things were about to get.
Nic was sure that the people left behind could also tell things were in a precarious condition merely from seeing who was gone. The students all knew each other, were familiar with each other’s backgrounds having practically grown up together. If all the people with military connections had returned to their homes, it made it very clear that there was about to be some kind of conflict in the very near future, and not just the usual scrimmaging on the outskirts of the country, but something that would affect everyone.
The atmosphere was tense and strained. No one knew what was going on, but they knew enough to be worried.
Nic looked around the barely half-full classroom as Mr Varity tried to talk about the advantages of controlling the high ground in a battle — elementary stuff but for some reason, it was taking Varity twice as long as it should to get through. He kept repeating parts he’d already covered and when he finally moved on to start talking about dragons and air superiority, he suddenly stopped and sat down behind his desk, shaking slightly.
There was a moment of confusion in the class as the eight students present looked at each other. After a few minutes of waiting for Varity to continue, one of the girls at the front rose and asked if he’d like her to fetch the school nurse.
“Hmm, no, no, I’m fine,” said Mr Varity, raising his head like he’d just woken from a nap. “I apologise, I’m not quite myself today. It’s all this talk of war and invasion. Pure speculation, I know, but it’s hard not to fret when your family lives so close to the border. It is, of course, good strategic sense to attack from the last place the enemy expects. A nation in the west attacking from the east… very smart, and hence very likely to be true.” His voice drifted off into mumbling and he stared down at his desk.
Nic had always liked Mr Varity. He had been a little difficult at first, treating Nic and the others the same as he’d treated all the Also-Rans over the years. There was no reason not to. But he had turned out to be more interested in teaching than holding onto a pointless prejudice, and had been very helpful to Nic.
“Sir,” said Nic, standing up, “I’m sure your family are fine. The attack is from the east, but it isn’t going to target any of the border villages and towns.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure you’re right. Not intentionally, at least. But there are obstacles that need to be cleared in order to get to your target, such is the way of war. It wasn’t so long ago — well, before any of you were born, of course — that one of our neighbours decided to launch an attack over a minor diplomatic squabble.”
“The Jaminikan Incursion,” said Nic.
“That’s right, that’s right,” said Varity. “Trust you to have read up on it. A meaningless thrust of no real consequence, quickly dealt with and punished accordingly, but, you see… by the time our forces were able to be deployed, three villages had already been burned to the ground. Dozens dead — women, children, farmers, labourers. No one of any great importance, except to their loved ones. I’ve always had a love for the elegance of great warfare, the wheeling of cavalry, the charge of men with weapons held aloft. But the truth is, the truth is…” He lost his train of thought and stared into the middle-distance.
The class became restless again, unused to seeing an authority figure brought to a standstill by dread.
It was hard to know how to reassure him his family were not in danger. There were no ground forces to run rampant through quiet, undefended villages. Dragons flew over them without stopping, without sparing even a thought over the women and children, or the farmers and labourers. Those were not their targets.
But who would believe the attackers rode shadow dragons? And if they did believe him, wouldn’t they become even more terrified?
“Where do your family live?” asked Nic.
“Mm? Oh, a small village called Invesk. I doubt even you have heard of it.”
“East? Past the Yorel River?”
“Yes, to the south of Great Bend.”
Nic could see the large curve in the wide river called Great Bend. He was above it, flying east. He could keep his eyes open and look at Mr Varity, and at the same time see the floodplain stretch out beneath him. He had seen it on maps many times, but seeing it like this, movement and sound, grass swaying and water rushing, it was like being a bird.
And people, he could see them here and there. Farms and villages.
“How far south? As far as the forest?” He could see the vast tract of woodland in the distance.
“No, not that far,” said Varity, his voice a little hard to hear. “Where the river narrows, a bridge and a straight road, pink from the clay in the soil.”
“Yes, a village with two white towers.”
“That’s right, the old temple. It’s a community hall now, where they hold dances. My family owns the house to the north. A red slate roof, the only one in the village.”
Nic soared closer, lower. He could see the house clearly, its windows open, the garden green and full of vegetables.
“Someone likes lettuce a lot,” said Nic.
“Ha, yes, my mother keeps rabbits. Spoils them rotten.”
“Does she bathe them, too?” He could see a small, fat woman, old but feisty, struggling to scrub an animal in a soapy bucket.”
“She does, she does,” said Varity. “Insists on keeping them clean.”
“She seems fine. Happy. There are no enemies here, no invaders. They would have been through here by now, if they were coming this way.”
Nic blinked and looked at Mr Varity, who had tears running down his cheeks and relief in his eyes.
“Thank you, thank you, Nic. I don’t know how you… I’m sure you weren’t supposed to, and I won’t ask how, without Arcanum. But thank you.”
The rest of the class was also staring at Nic, not quite so benevolently. They all knew he was a little different, given special treatment no Also-Ran had ever received, but he shouldn’t have flaunted it like that. He had acted rashly and unnecessarily, but he was still glad he had.
The bell rang.
“That was stupid,” said Dizzy as they left the classroom. She had waited until he was ready to leave and appeared beside him, her scent warning him before her voice hissed in his ear. “You exposed yourself for no reason.”
He thought she might demand answers, ask him exactly how he’d done it. But she just chastised him for being too open. She was probably right.
“I don’t think it’s right to let people be scared like that,” said Nic. “It’s hard when you feel helpless and can’t do anything.”
“It’s normal,” said Dizzy. “Giving people false hope isn’t a good thing.”
“Hope is never false,” said Nic. “By definition.”
“I don’t want to argue semantics with you. Just try to be a little more cautious about who you reveal your abilities to. I’ve been asking for weeks and you refuse to say anything, and the first time that old fool starts blubbering, you show your whole hand. Maybe I should have tried tearing up to get you to talk.” She sounded annoyed at his poor judgement. The fact he’d said too much or that he hadn’t said it to her?
They were out in the quad, on their way to the Arts Course. The whole quad was eerily empty.
“It’s different for us,” said Nic.
“Us?” Dizzy stopped, expecting him to do the same. He did, of course. “What makes you think there’s an ‘us’? What do we have in common, Nic?”
“We’re both on the outside looking in,” said Nic.
Dizzy stared at him, then started walking again without saying anything.
There was just five of them in the Arts Course. Rumi had gone but she had always been fairly quiet, so the change wasn’t as dramatic as in Nic’s other classes. Mr Periwinkle came in with his pile of textbooks and handed them out. They spent the lesson going over the various hand movements required for basic spells.
It felt silly and pointless when there was no actual magic involved, and no one to offer guidance. It was also tiring and surprisingly stressful on his wrist. He didn’t want another injury and warmed up his hands and fingers, while the others looked at him like he was doing it as a joke.
Simole refused to join in and put her head down on the desk. She had not had a good night’s sleep, as she told them while glaring at Nic spinning his wrists.
The rest of them examined the diagrams in the books they’d been given and then tried to imitate them without any idea if they were doing it right. Dizzy seemed to have the most fluid movements, but whether or not they were correct was impossible to say.
Periwinkle let them get on with it, claiming it was something they would know when they got it right. It would just click into place, apparently. He sat back in his chair and placed a book over his face, joining Simole in catching up on some sleep. What had he been up to last night? Nic wondered.
It was a fairly undemanding way to pass a couple of hours and another school day was over. It didn’t feel like he was learning very much, or that he was heading towards a career in clerical work. Nic wasn’t sure where any of this was leading.
Nic waited for everyone to leave, including Dizzy, before going up to Mr Periwinkle.
“I wanted to ask you something,” said Nic.
“Yes, Mr Tutt?” said Periwinkle.
“The dragons, the ones made of shadow, did he make them?”
“The High-Father created them, but he did not bring them into being here. That is the work of another, but it still leads back to him, as all things do.”
“And they only manifest at night?”
Periwinkle looked mildly surprised. “Yes. You learn fast, don’t you Mr Tutt?”
“Is there a way to stop them? A weakness?”
“The dragons? They are insubstantial and easily destroyed. But they can be resummoned just as easily.”
“I see,” said Nic. “The caster is the weakness.”
Periwinkle shook his head in wonderment. “As you say.”
“I think the High-Father wants there to be a war.”
“And you don’t?”
“If it was just between the people who wanted to fight, I think it would be fine. Their lives are theirs to do what they want with. But the rest of the people who only wish to live their lives the way they see fit, I don’t think they deserve to be caught up in the High-Father’s plans.”
“He doesn’t work like that,” said Periwinkle. “If war is coming, it will be instigated by others, not him.”
“Was it like this on your world?” asked Nic.
Periwinkle paused and Nic could see the Librarian underneath, the way she sat, the way she held her head. “It was… similar. There were those who were filled with excitement at the prospect of claiming power. Things had been stable for so long, there were those who craved change, at whatever cost. They each believed they would be victorious in the end, of course.” She sighed. “In the end, it was everyone who lost. Everyone but him.”
“I don’t want that to happen here,” said Nic.
“What you want is not going to matter. The players in this game have immense power.”
“And I’m just a piece on the board.”
“Yes,” said the Librarian. “You would need to claim some of that power for yourself if you wanted to challenge the outcome, but that also happened on my home. It changes how you think when you can turn the things you dream of into reality. You become like him. Do you believe you can avoid that fate, Nic?”
“Does it matter if the alternative is so terrible?” said Nic.
She smiled. “That is how I failed my world, by thinking the very same thing.”
The truth was what he wanted was academic. He had no way to prevent what was about to happen. He would just be able to see it coming before everyone else.
Dizzy watched Nic leave the classroom and head back to his room. She waited until she was sure he was gone before entering.
Mr Periwinkle was sitting behind his desk, eyes closed, seemingly lost in thought. She stood there watching him. His eyes slowly opened and turned to look at her.
“Yes, Miss Delcroix?”
“I don’t know what you are, I only know you came with them. Are you here following orders?”
“Yes,” said Periwinkle.
“Will you turn against us when told to do so?”
“I won’t be told to do so, you should have no doubts about that.”
“Will you help us?”
“I cannot say.”
“If Nic finds a way to defeat them, as unlikely as it seems right now, and he needs your help, will you help him?” She watched closely for the answer; the true answer.
“If there is a chance, a real chance, then I would like to think I would.”
“Do you hate them?” asked Dizzy.
“Then why don’t you fight back?”
“Revenge does not bring the dead back to life,” said Periwinkle.
“It can stop more dead from joining them.”
“And then what?” said Periwinkle. “Your world is not so perfect for everyone as it is for you. Unhappy people will always strive for change. Slowly or quickly, it doesn’t make much difference.”
Dizzy could feel herself starting to get frustrated but swallowed it down.
“But you’re right,” said Periwinkle.
“About what?” said Dizzy.
“The way you feel about him.”
Dizzy could feel herself losing her temper, anger welling up inside her. “You know nothing about how I feel. Are you the one sending me those dreams?”
“Dreams? No. I do not have that ability. Someone else, or maybe just you. Are they bad dreams?”
“Yes. Like a fever. I wake up soaked in sweat, reeling. I want them to stop.”
“I’m sorry, I have no way to help. But what about you? Will you help him when the time comes?”
“He doesn’t need my help. Or want it. He sees me as a burden, something he has to protect. He’ll die trying to save me.”
“Perhaps that’s what he needs. Something to fight for.”
“That isn’t what I want to be,” said Dizzy, the heat of the words burning her throat and mouth. “He can find that elsewhere.” She’d had enough of this conversation, already regretting starting it. She turned to leave.
“By the way, your dreaming problem. Have you tried taking a cold shower?”
“Yes,” said Dizzy. “I take them frequently. It doesn’t help.”
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Votes refresh every seven days, so last week's votes no longer count.Afterword from Mooderino