Nic spent the next several weeks training with the Secret Service agents in the hours before dawn. He had expected the experience to leave him exhausted and unable to function at his best in class, but it had the opposite effect.
His body suffered greatly, with pains in places he had never experienced pain before, but his mind felt clear and refreshed. He wasn’t sure if it was just the regime of exercise and digital manipulation of his muscles by the agent in the black mask, but he noticed the difference after each session. He could think like himself. The fact his mind was his own once more, with no other residents taking up space, might also have been a factor.
The agents’ attitude towards him changed as he started to improve. He wasn’t able to complete any of the tasks they set him, but they seemed to appreciate the effort Nic was putting in.
He appreciated the effort they spent in forcing him to keep at it, no matter how terrible his initial results were. Nic had never had a father to teach him how to be a physical presence. He wasn’t entirely sure that was what a father did, but it would have helped, he felt. Now he had two men taking great care to get him into some sort of masculine condition.
Not that you had to be physically fit to be considered a man, it just helped Nic feel more confident about his future.
Logically, all the running and jumping in the world wouldn’t help him if he was to go up against the High-Father or the Archmage, but it seemed less terrifying when he could run up and down the stairs in the cottage without panting for breath.
“You’ll have to learn to defend yourself,” said Black, like he thought it would not turn out very well if the situation called for any kind of combat. “Your first consideration should always to be to get away from the problem.”
“Run like hell,” said White.
Nic was able to recognise the two agents quite easily now. He didn’t think they were an assortment of agents wearing the same masks, as he had when he first encountered them. Spending time with them — even when it was only to be brutally stretched and twisted — had made it easy to recognise their voices and their demeanour. Even their masks seemed to take on expressions that reflected their individual tone and attitude.
“I don’t think it’ll be an option,” said Nic. “When I’ve been in trouble before, it’s usually been people who took precautions to make sure I was trapped.”
“In that case,” said Black, “you need to employ unconventional methods to gain the upper hand. You’re small and weak.”
“And slow,” added White.
“Aim for the eyes and the groin,” said Black.
“I should fight dirty?” Nic wasn’t against the idea in principle, but he wasn’t sure it would necessarily work in his favour. His treatment if he was caught after kicking someone in the crotch would probably be worse than if simply surrendered. The ideal outcome was obviously not to get caught, but his record wasn’t so great in that regard.
“There’s no such thing as dirty fighting,” said White. “There’s only survival. How you achieve that has never been subject to any rules or laws. You can’t receive a caution for inappropriate behaviour if you’re dead.”
“Eyes and groin,” said Nic, already feeling uncomfortable. “What if I have to fight a woman?”
The two blank masks seemed to be looking at him in a judgemental manner, although he might have been imagining it.
The agents took him through a series of moves that required him to use his knees and elbows. He was encouraged to grow his nails and to diminish his sense of impropriety. They were emergency measures, and in an emergency you had to be prepared to put aside good manners.
“The only unforgivable sin in a fight is to freeze,” said Black. “Whether it’s a war or a brawl in a tavern, if you act without reservation, even the wrong thing can work in your favour. Doing nothing will only get you killed.”
It became easier as the stiffness and painful joints lessened in the mornings. He still had classes to attend — the Arts Course, Advanced Economic Analysis and Military Strategy — on top of which there was the world map he was now carrying with him everywhere he went.
Nic could sink into his mind and spend hours floating above the world, watching life go on with no inkling of a threat approaching. Maybe there wasn’t one, not for the general population. Certainly not for the people hundreds of kilometres away.
Sometimes, he would spot a ship out at sea and follow it as it bobbed about in the waves. It was surprisingly soothing, although sometime it would take a moment to realise that what appeared as tiny waves to him were rising higher than the ship’s masts and was probably not a very soothing experience for the crew.
Nic had yet to come up with a good use for this worldwide awareness he now had. If he told anyone about it, he was sure they would find a good use for it and for him, but he had no desire to become a resource for others to exploit as they saw fit.
He would go to bed and drift off with the world beneath him, pondering what he should do with his newly found wealth of knowledge. He could see whatever he wished as long as he knew what to call it. As great an advantage as it was to be able to see where your enemies were hiding, it only worked if you knew who your enemies were.
He could ask to see the Gweurvian troop placements, but how to differentiate between the forces loyal to the government and those to the rebels? They were all technically people of Gweur.
And even those who claimed to be for one side over the other might not be. Would it show him what people were or what they claimed to be? How did it tell the difference?
Nic tried various different approached to get a handle on how it worked, asking for the same thing in different ways to compare results. It was studying with the whole world as his textbook.
He made notes and drew charts. He created a whole system to try and break down the common factors when it came to choosing a specific target, going from viewing an entire species of an animal, to the one owned by his neighbour. The world was full of donkeys, it turned out.
The ability of the map to show him huge numbers of highlighted points of light was staggering. It could seem overwhelming from his overview — where to start? — but when he closed in, each individual dot was what he had asked to be shown.
Not everything was as simple. Some commands he thought were obvious showed him nothing. It was often hard to know where the problem was or how nuanced he had to be to get what he wanted. Honest men got him nothing. People who could be trusted more than half the time produced more points of light than he could estimate.
Usually, he would fall asleep to be awakened by the arrival of his early morning fitness instructors, but sometimes he would lose track and be immersed in the world in a way he had never been from down on the ground. If he spent too much time on it, he would get a sharp pain in his head.
It always subsided after a break but it was a concern. Was this thing harming him in some way? It wasn’t made to fit inside a mind like his, he was pretty sure. What if one day the pain just stayed with him?
The training with the agents was what helped him overcome his fear. He felt stronger and better. He had no evidence that would protect him from his head being ripped asunder by his newly acquired gift, but it couldn’t hurt.
He did ask the Librarian about it. She was the only one who knew the power he was now in possession of, and her knowledge of it was superior to his.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” said Mr Periwinkle after class. “Your young brain is still soft and malleable. If you were older, there might be cause for concern — a little atrophy to be wary of.”
“Atrophy?” asked Nic, not liking the sound of the word.
“The surface of the brain, the outer membrane, it can shrivel up and form a crust, leaving a smaller amount of matter to continue the normal mental functions. But you would still be perfectly able to perform basic tasks, even so.”
Nic was sorry he had asked.
During this time, Dizzy kept her distance but Nic was aware of her observing him. It was pleasant to think she might have been admiring the change in him, physically, but whenever he caught her looking, the expression on her face didn’t suggest admiration. Only a cold, contemptuous evaluation.
When she did finally speak to him, she said, “I’ve noticed the change in your body.”
“Have you?” said Nic, his voice catching in his throat. They were in the library with the others all in attendance, Simole alongside Dizzy, an interested and smirking observer.
“You’re stronger,” she said. “And you move a lot better. I think you would do well in the school athletics team.”
He would have been pleased but her tone was not congratulatory. It was more analytical, like she was judging a cow’s health to get a better idea of the quality of its milk and the prospective condition of its meat once it had been slaughtered.
“Thank you,” said Nic.
“I’d like to fight you,” said Dizzy.
“Sorry, what?” said Nic.
“You against me, no weapons, to see how far you’ve come. It would be a good test for you. If you can pin me to the ground, I think we can safely say you’re ready.”
Nic could feel his face heat up. He was getting that pain in his head, and he hadn’t even been thinking about the map.
“What are you trying to do to the poor boy?” said Simole, highly amused. “The thought of pinning you to the ground is probably enough to put him into a coma.”
“Don’t be so disgusting,” said Dizzy. “It’s not like he has any chance of winning.”
“No, it isn’t that,” said Nic, doing his best to salvage what was left of his pride. “I just don’t think I’m ready to fight anyone right now.”
“Why not?” said Dizzy. “It would do you good, plus it would help me gauge where you are in your development.”
“Sure, I mean, I’m sure it would. But I haven’t the right techniques for dealing with girls, I mean women, I mean people without groins.”
Dizzy’s face clouded over. “You don’t want to hit a girl?”
Nic couldn’t tell from her tone if she thought that good or bad, but he forged on.
“No, I would, I mean, if I had to, not generally speaking,” said Nic, desperately trying to stop his voice going high-pitched. “It’s got nothing to do with you being a girl. Simole’s a girl, and she could easily kill me.”
“Correct,” said Simole. “I’ve even thought of a couple of interesting ways to do it.”
“And I couldn’t kill you?” From the way Dizzy was looking at him, there was no need to answer the question.
“I don’t want to fight anyone,” said Nic. “But if I do, you’ll be the first person I ask.”
Dizzy continued to stare at him until it got very uncomfortable for Nic. Then she turned and walked away.
Simole sighed. “For future reference, when a girl asks you to wrestle with her, it means she likes you.” She walked off shaking her head.
“Or it means she’s looking for an excuse to beat the stuffing out of you,” said Davo.
“Hng, mmm, I vote for answer B,” said Fanny, chewing on something while licking his fingertips.
“You know eating isn’t allowed in the library?” said Davo.
Fanny swallowed. “I’m not.”
“She’s right, you know,” said Davo, “you have changed.”
“For the better?” asked Nic, hopeful of a more a supportive view from the boys, rather than the merciless critique he expected from Dizzy.
“If you like,” said Davo, which wasn’t one thing or the other.
“I think you look a lot tougher,” said Fanny. “More butch. You remind me of my sister.”
“Thanks,” said Nic, a little disappointed.
“What?” said Fanny. “That’s a good thing. She’s a dragoon, you can’t get tougher than them. Or she was one.”
“Still no joy from the beasts?” asked Brill.
News of the plight of the dragons had started to spread. If people at school knew about it, there was more than a good chance Ranvar’s enemies did also.
“No,” said Fanny. “She says they just lie about looking depressed. Won’t even eat.”
“What do they eat?” asked Brill.
“Fish, mostly,” said Fanny. “And they like vegetables. Potatoes, especially.”
“Are you making that up?” asked Davo.
“No,” said Fanny defensively. “That’s what she said in her letter, anyway. Maybe it’s misinformation to keep our enemies guessing. She knows I can’t keep my mouth shut.”
“A dragonless army,” said Brill, tutting to himself. “I never thought I’d see the day. I wonder what’s wrong with them.”
Nic could have said something about the dragons but it wouldn’t really clear anything up. He looked around pensively in case Dizzy decided to make her invite to a fight involuntary. Sneaking up behind him for a brutal ambush was the sort of thing she used to do to him when they were children. He wondered if he would be able to pin her down now. The thought made his face warm again.
“Where’s your brother, by the way, Brill?” Nic asked as a way to distract himself. “Haven’t seen him around lately.”
The atmosphere turned distinctly awkward.
“I don’t have a brother. I’m an only child.”
They were all looking at him like he had something on his face.
“Hm? Oh, sorry. I don’t know where that came from.” Nic smiled apologetically and received a few mildly concerned looks, but that was all.
Was it that easy for a demon to insinuate itself into human life and then disappear without leaving even a memory? If they were that powerful, why bother with any of the subterfuge and intrigue? He still couldn’t fathom their true intent. The only thing he was sure of was that the High-Father hadn’t been truthful with him. Whatever he was really after, it wasn’t merely observing humans at play.
He did wonder where the demon who had been masquerading as Hewt was now. He hadn’t paid it much mind since returning from the Librarium because it seemed like he would be left alone for a while. But now he was curious to know where it was, and as it happened, he had the perfect way to find out.
Nic put down his pen and closed his eyes. He let his mind go blank and he could see the world beneath him. He swayed slightly but remained in his chair — he could just about detect its presence under him, even though all he could see were fields and forest from way up high.
He focused on the school and felt a twinge in his temple. It was still hardest to close in on any place where he was present. The closer he came, the more painful it was. He would eventually like to find a way around that since being able to observe his immediate surroundings would be useful, especially when it came to avoiding any of Dizzy’s surprise attacks.
The problem with trying to locate the demon was knowing what to call it. He had already tried getting the map to show him all the demons in the world and had got no hits. When he tried to focus on the High-Father, again nothing, not even a suggestion he might be in the Librarium where Nic had spoken to him. Perhaps he wasn’t there anymore. Or it could be he was able to prevent himself from being seen.
The Hewt demon might also be able to avoid detection or it might be in a new body. Before Hewt, it had been Professor Veristotle, and before that, a girl called Junia. It could be anyone.
But Nic had spent a long time with the demon when it lived in his head. Its real name might not be known to him but the connection he had with it could still bring him to its current location, he was fairly sure. The reason he believed this was because in those times when he was idly exploring the map, his thoughts would sometimes turn to Dizzy, and without having to name her, he would be drawn to her dorm bedroom. Only the sudden pain of nearing a place he himself was close to would wrench him away before he intruded on her.
It wasn’t intentional, although tempting, but it suggested a way to use the map that went beyond conscious instruction. He could think his way around it.
Nic focused his mind on the demon, on its presence as he knew it — the voice in his head. Whatever form it took, the essence of it was the same. Where was it now?
If his mind had been drawn to the school, it would have caused him pain but it would have confirmed it was still nearby. But that wasn’t where he went. From high up, he rushed towards the capital, towards the Royal College.
He hadn’t meant to go so quickly, but the connection between them was strong and the map knew exactly who he wanted to see.
Down to the towers, through one of the windows, into a room with ornate furniture and grand paintings on the walls. And Hewt, still a young boy, talking to the Archmage.
Nic couldn’t hear what they were saying from the other end of the long room, but he could simply drift closer, an eavesdropping ghost. But as he neared, the Archmage looked up, staring directly at him, confusion in his face.
Nic opened his eyes, startled. Had the Archmage actually seen him or just sensed his presence? Either way, he would have to be more careful. Demons and mages didn’t make the best targets for this power if they could sense him watching.
In any case, he knew where the demon was now. What did it mean that it was talking with the Archmage? That they were working together?
“Are you alright?” said Davo. “You look white as a sheet. Not one of Fanny’s sheets, of course. They’re far from white. More of a mottled grey.”
“I wash my sheets as often as you do,” said Fanny.
“It’s the thread count,” said Davo. “Anything under four hundred is strictly for savages.”
“I don’t think savages worry about the softness of their linen,” said Brill.
“My point exactly,” said Davo. “Anyway, you’re not feeling faint or anything, are you, Nic? All this running around can leave your blood a bit thin if you’re not careful.”
“That’s right,” chipped in Brill. “Make you light-headed and imagine people have siblings who don’t exist.”
“I’m fine, I was just thinking about something and startled myself.”
“It was her, wasn’t it?” said Fanny. “She even attacks you in your daydreams, I bet.”
The other two nodded like this was the most feasible explanation, his own imagination too pedantic to do him any favours. Sadly, they weren’t wrong.
“You should accept her challenge,” said Fanny. “If you can beat her in a fair fight, she’ll respect you.”
“A born romantic,” said Davo.
“She would though, wouldn’t she?” insisted Fanny. “She’s that type. Win and die trying.”
“I think you mean, win or die trying,” said Davo.
“Do I?” said Fanny, looking up and to the right like the answer might be hiding there. “Not sure if I do.”
Nic’s next lesson of the day was Military Strategy with Mr Varity. It was a lesson he looked forward to. He found it useful to compare the positioning of the various armies around the borders of Ranvar with the conventional reasons for such deployments explained in the lesson. Occasionally, he would ask questions to help him understand what was going on in the real world.
“The key to a successful revolution,” Mr Varity was saying in answer to just such a question, “is the leader of the uprising. The right man, or woman, can make all the difference. Of course, their true purpose is rarely to see their people freed of tyranny or persecution or whatever, it is to place themselves in that position.”
A hand went up in the packed class, the largest of the three Nic attended.
“If people know this,” asked Quin, the boy who had raised his hand, “why do they still fall for it?”
“Ah, yes, the age-old question,” said Mr Varity. “It’s hard to say, but I would guess it’s not so easy to see in the heat of the moment when the situation is desperate and any chance of victory seems acceptable. Afterwards, with hindsight and the true character of the de facto leader uncovered, it all seems glaringly obvious.”
“But every time?” asked Quin. “It can’t be that hard to spot a deceiver.”
“I think you’ll find people don’t spend much time in deliberation, they rush to judgement while they can. A mediocre strategy implemented quickly is always preferable to the ideal approach mobilised too late.”
It was a similar point to the one the Secret Service agents had made to Nic. Doing nothing guaranteed failure. At least if you attempted something, you had a chance.
Nic didn’t really like that sort of thinking. He would much rather have a clear idea of what it was he was trying to do and then come up with what he considered the best solution. Charging forward with no appraisal of the situation felt like a very weak tactic. Luck might prove you right, but that was all you were depending on.
What Nic was wondering was who was in charge of this rebellion? It had started in Gweur, with the demon at the heart of the initial uprising, a cult of ardent acolytes doing its bidding. Who was leading them now? And what did they really want? The destruction of Ranvar? The start of a new demon empire?
Nic’s instinct was to defend his home, despite being aware of the kind of place it was, and what crimes it had committed against its neighbours. The other thing a successful rebellion often required was the involvement of a foreign interest instigating discontent in the population. That was the approach Ranvar often took, quietly ensuring their new neighbours were more cooperative than the old.
“A pattern is often only visible after the event,” said Mr Varity. “The same is true of people.”
Nic agreed. The creature had called them high-functioning sociopaths. People who were willing to do whatever it took to get what they want. At the time, it might look like passion and conviction. Taking risks no one else dared to could easily be interpreted as bravery. It took a strong stomach to send others to their deaths. Except, of course, when it didn’t.
Nic was interested in knowing who was really in charge of the Gweur uprising. They might not be the tyrant in waiting he suspected. History did occasionally record a genuine hero who fought for justice and righteousness. They usually ended up dead soon after they accomplished the overthrow of the previous corrupt regime, just in time for the beginning of the next one.
Could he just ask to be shown the current leader of the Gweurvian rebels? From his testing, the more familiar with a person he was, the easier it was to locate them. He didn’t have to know them personally. He had used Prince Ranade as his test subject, someone who he knew a great deal about but had never met. He had been shown a large dining hall in the palace where the prince stared sorrowfully at a plate of salad.
Nic waited until he was back in his room before trying. He didn’t want to act odd in front of the others again. He closed his eyes and focused on the leader of the rebels. It was more of a concept than a person, but it was a very specific one.
His primary suspect was the demon, but his vision did not go towards the capital. Instead, it focused on the school.
It was painful to look here but he wanted to know. He had a fanciful thought that it was Dizzy. Simole often joked how she was his true opponent, the person he needed to defeat — what if she was right?
But it wasn’t the girls’ dorm he was closing in on, it was the cottage he was in.
The pain grew almost unbearable but he pushed on. Could it really be one of his friends? Were they part of some plot against him? He intensely disliked the thought, not helped by the agony tearing through his mind. Maybe this was what atrophy felt like. He ignored it. He had to know.
His vision was blurred and he felt nauseous. He came through a window and saw himself.
It didn’t make sense. There was no one in the room but him.
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