Nic was wearing shorts and a vest. The warmth of the library had come as a relief but up here in the mirrored room he was beginning to feel chilly again.
Mr Periwinkle looked the same as before but the way he stood was different now. The posture was more feminine, the smile familiarly inscrutable. The Librarian had somehow transformed into his teacher. A typically demonic move but the Librarian wasn’t a demon, or so she claimed. It didn’t really matter that she had been here all this time, he didn’t feel she was his enemy. It was actually nice to see her.
Hewt, on the other hand, was an altogether harder presence to understand. Seeing him in this place made it completely clear that he shouldn’t exist at all. Brillard didn’t have any siblings, never had. So why had everyone accepted the new Epsteem so easily?
“You decided to give up the library for teaching?” he asked the Librarian. She seemed the safer person to interact with.
“Not exactly.” Her voice was still Periwinkle’s, but the inflection was all hers. “It seemed a less obtrusive way to remain close by.”
“I thought you couldn’t change your shape,” said Nic. “You said you weren’t a demon. You said you were stuck as you were.”
“That’s not what I said,” said the Librarian. “But you’re right, I cannot change shape. I am still in the same body I was the last time I saw you.”
“You don’t look the same. You look like Mr Periwinkle.”
“I am Mr Periwinkle,” said the Librarian. “I thought I did quite a good job.” She brushed back Periwinkle’s blonde locks.
“How did you change the way you look? Magic?”
She rolled up her sleeve to reveal an amulet wrapped around her forearm with small nodules covering it. She pressed some of them and her appearance changed to that of the Librarian, although still in Periwinkle’s clothes, which made her even stranger to look at.
“And you…” He turned to Hewt. “You must be a demon.”
Hewt pursed his lips. “You forget me so quickly.”
“You’re my demon.”
That’s a rather offensive way to put it, my child.”
“The last time I saw you, you were in a dragon.”
“I still am.”
“Dragons can turn into little boys?”
“And little boys can turn into dragons. Don’t tell anyone or they might try to ride me into battle.” He smiled. It didn’t look like the smile of twelve-year-old. It looked more like a small carnivorous beast.
Nic felt like punching the little twerp on the nose but he doubted he’d get anywhere close. The demon had transformed from a woman to an old man to a young boy, but it was still the same immensely powerful entity underneath it all. He had carried it around in his head long enough to know how dangerous it was, and how little it cared for etiquette. They were no longer in a truce. It wouldn’t give him fair warning before it pounced.
“You don’t exist, do you? I mean Hewton Epsteem doesn’t exist. Brillard doesn’t have a brother. How did you manage to fool everyone? A child suddenly appearing out of nowhere can’t have gone unnoticed. The Royal College, the ministries, the Secret Service… one of them must have realised you weren’t supposed to be here.”
“It isn’t as hard as you think. It starts with a source — the mother in this case — and you build from there. Such things are mere child’s play.”
The demon made it sound like a minor trick, a card summoned from a pack with invisible thread, but how do you convince a mother she has a second child? Did the mother have to have a deep yearning to be exploited? Could any woman be fooled into believing she had birthed an imaginary offspring, or just those with a desperate sadness? He didn’t like the implication.
“I don’t think it can have been that easy. Even if you have that much power, someone would notice.”
“They’re all too busy,” said the demon. “Too many distractions.”
“Gweur? Is that your doing?” The uprising in Gweur had been started by the demon in the first place, so it made sense that they would be following the demon’s orders.
“They were set in motion long ago. I have had no contact with them since we last met, I no longer control what they do or how they go about it, but I am confident in their ability to keep the Ranvar forces busy for the time being. Which gives us the perfect opportunity to get you ready.”
There was that implication again, that he would jump at the chance to play the hero. “What if I don’t want to be part of any of this?”
“Then you don’t have to be,” said the Librarian.
“But you do want to be part of this, don’t you?” said the demon, a child with impossibly knowing eyes.
“No,” said Nic. “Why would I want to be involved in any of this madness? I’m completely out of my depth. What does any of this have to do with me? I’m nobody, I haven’t achieved anything. My whole life is completely unremarkable. Did you perhaps mistake me for someone else?”
“It isn’t that simple,” said the Librarian.
“Isn’t it? She just said it isn’t as hard as I think. You two should really get your story straight.”
“You should reserve your anger for the High-Father,” said Hewt. “You’re going to need it.”
It made no sense why they would focus so much attention on him. He understood when they used him as their delivery boy — his place could have been taken by anyone, he just happened to be convenient — but there was no reason to try to convince him he was someone vital to the cause. He wasn’t. How could he be?
“I told you,” said Winnum Roke’s voice, coming from the amulet on the Librarian’s arm. “You were one of many candidates. The only one to come this far. If we could have chosen someone else, we would have seriously considered it.”
“Now that the three of you are finally together, can’t you leave me alone.” He looked at the Librarian. “Is she in there now?”
“This is just a way to amplify her voice. She is still inside you.”
“Can you take her out of me? Without cutting me open?”
“No,” said the Librarian, which wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
“No, you can’t take her out, or no, you can’t take her out without cutting me open?”
“It has to be you, child,” said the demon, a child itself.
“Why?” It was almost a desperate cry that came out of Nic’s mouth.
“Because we have tested you,” said the demon. “We have put you in harm’s way and given you the chance to save yourself, but you have refused. Your humanity is modulated by intelligence.”
Nic turned to the Librarian, lost. “What does that mean?”
“The girl who you like,” said the Librarian, “she is just out of your reach, is she not?”
Nic only found it more confusing to bring Dizzy into this. “I suppose you could put it like that. What has she got to do with any of this?”
“You want to know what we see in you,” said the Librarian, “I’m using her as an example. You’re a smart boy, Nicolav, you’re good at figuring things out. Surely you must have thought of numerous ways to get her to like you, to admire you, to respect you. Maybe even love you.”
“No. Why would I do that?”
“I’m not saying to act on them, but a mind like yours must have approached the problem as a puzzle. How to convince her she should consider you more seriously. Defeat her in battle, help her to achieve her goals, reach her true potential…”
“Manipulate her into falling for me, you mean? That’s not… that would defeat the whole point.”
“What point, Nic?” said the Librarian.
“If I changed her to make her like me, she wouldn’t be her anymore. You can’t have what you want if you change it to get it.”
“She would be the same person on the inside,” said the Librarian.
“That’s immaterial. It’s the person on the outside who I know.”
“Few people think like that,” said the demon. “Few of your people and few of the people in the worlds we have visited.”
“That’s because the way I think doesn’t get me anything,” said Nic bitterly. There was no reward for his way of thinking.
“No, it doesn’t. But it can. You can be trusted with power because of it.”
“What power? Arcanum?”
“No,” said the demon. “Another power. A greater power.”
“You have to understand the nature of the High-Father,” said the Librarian. “What it is that we… what you think of as demons… what it is we do.”
“Okay,” said Nic. “Tell me.”
“We travel to worlds,” said the demon. “We give the people we find power beyond their imagination, and we wait.”
“Wait for what?” said Nic.
The Librarian said, “For them to grow, to expand their reach beyond stability, become as advanced as their potential allows. And then for them to turn on each other, to destroy everything, including the world they live in.”
“Why?” said Nic.
“That’s the deal,” said Winnum. “They offer us power for the chance to exist within us. They set no time limit. When a race dies out, they will emerge. They won’t attempt to hasten the process or interfere, and they don’t. The simple act of handing over power is enough to doom that race to oblivion, far sooner than they would otherwise.”
“Too soon, in most cases,” said the demon. “In this world, we attempted to slow the process. By giving power to only one nation, we were able to control the chaos, at least for a time.”
“So it’s our own fault?” said Nic. “We would be able to enjoy the power we’re given for as long as we want, but we succumb to greed and madness?”
“It always comes down to that,” said the Librarian.
“And you don’t do anything to speed things along?” asked Nic.
The Librarian shook her head. “No need.”
“So we’re doomed?” said Nic. “Getting magical power is the start of our inevitable demise?”
He didn’t find it hard to believe civilisations had quickly come to a bloody end once they had been granted immeasurable power. The idea the recipients would shake hands and have a big celebratory meal, congratulating each other on having unlocked the secrets of the universe did not strike him as a very likely outcome.
The shocking history of his own world was enough to assure him men would only become more extreme when given better weapons to fight with. And more deceitful with those they considered their rivals for power. Being able to utilise the most fundamental and secret aspects of magic was merely a stepping stone towards absolute control. There was no way it would be done as a cooperative venture.
But it didn’t inspire him to jump into the fray, protector of the planet.
“There is still time,” said Winnum. “You can stop him.”
“I don’t see how I can,” said Nic. “Even if you give me a magic wand and all the power there is, he is still stronger and more powerful. And he probably knows what he’s doing.” He looked at the Librarian and the demon. “There must be a better person for this role. It can’t be me.”
“It’s not that someone else could use the power better, it’s that they aren’t able to acquire it. Only you are suitable for this task. Only you can learn this magic.”
Even though it felt ridiculous, part of him wanted to believe he really was the right person for this. In his mind, he welcomed the opportunity to take a ridiculously huge risk with extremely poor odds of success, just on the off chance he might succeed. No one was telling him he would survive, even, but they wouldn’t have selected him if that wasn’t at least likely, would they?
He didn’t trust his hope, though. It felt very much like the story the Librarian had given him. He was the female mage willing to sacrifice everything for a chance to attain the ultimate prize. Her eventual victory made him feel like he too would defy the odds. Dizzy had called it a lie, more warning than temptation.
But that was a story, and you could give a story any ending you wished. It felt real because it was possible. Seeing it clearly spelled out made it more solid and graspable than failure, even though failure was by far the more likely. Demon magic relied heavily on this ability to shape concepts into reality, and it worked. It made you want it to be true.
It wasn’t a lie. No one claimed it was guaranteed — quite the opposite. They emphasised how unlikely it was. But put the positive outcome in picture form, in your head, and it took shape in there, height and depth and width, and made itself a reachable destination. A desirable one that attracted you, while thoughts of failing were repulsive and sent you reeling away from them.
“I think you’re not telling me the whole truth,” said Nic.
“No one knows the whole truth,” said the demon, which was a very demonic thing to say.
“I only want to know the whole truth you know,” said Nic. “What you don’t know isn’t expected.” He waited for some vague, enigmatic response.
“Very well,” said the demon. “You need to go to the Librarium. There you will find the answer you seek. There you will find the High-Father. There you will find the creature he built. It is this creature that will give you the power to defeat him.”
“In the Librarium?” Nic had been a regular visitor to the Librarium. His many trips to the capital had always been to explore the largest library in Ranvar and he knew it well. It had a lot of books but no creature which bestowed power on people as far as he knew. Although there were a couple of locked rooms he had assumed contained dusty boxes of old books no one wanted to read anymore; an image he found far more appealing than some creature produced by the Father of Dragons. “Where in the Librarium?”
The Librarian, who still looked bizarre in Periwinkle’s attire, but whose posture made her completely different to him in every other way, said, “The Librarium isn’t as simple a structure as you think. It is part of the creature.”
It was difficult for Nic to grasp what she meant. Some kind of beast with a library on its back like a shell made of learning? A monster tortoise.
“And that’s where you think the High-Father is now?”
“It is undoubtedly where he is now,” said the demon.
“And you want me to go there?” His inflection made it clear he didn’t think this was a well thought out plan. “Why don’t you three go? I think you’d have a much better chance of getting whatever it is you want.”
“We cannot,” said the Librarian. “The High-Father would not allow it.”
“But he would allow me?” At least logic was on his side. Even if he wanted to believe their claims that he was the only one to play the hero in this battle to avert imminent doom, common sense very clearly suggested otherwise. “You want me, a schoolboy, to go into the den of the person you claim will destroy the world, get access to the creature he created — so his pet — and get the creature to make me a powerful mage able to wield a new kind of magic which you aren’t able to describe in any detail.”
He paused to draw breath, and also to let them have a moment to come up with a reasonable explanation of why any of this was possible. He would be interested in hearing it.
No one said anything.
He added, “I think I would be more inclined to go along with this project of yours if at some point one of you had mentioned how I was going to achieve any of this or gave me a device to make it possible. Perhaps a magic hat that makes wishes come true. But then, you already have that ability, so I feel any one of you is better qualified.”
“It has to be you,” said Winnum.
“Why? Because I’m special?”
“Because you are adequate,” said the demon.
“Please,” said Nic, his dismay at their offer to turn him into the world’s saviour rapidly shrinking into something more focused and intense and angry, “you’ll make me blush.” He glared at them, daring them to try again. “Clearly, I fit some basic requirement for this task, and probably only just. And once I complete it, assuming I don’t die along the way, you will turn me into a puppet without me even realising it and control me far more easily than someone who might actually be properly qualified to defeat the High-Father, but who wouldn’t be happy to give up their newly acquired dominion over the land.”
It was obvious they wanted to use him as a tool. They had done it before and they had the means to do it again. Even the fact Hewt existed showed the power they wielded over him, able to make him believe whatever they wished him to believe. The only thing that didn’t make sense was why they were trying to convince him to do any of this. Why not just force him?
“The High-Father found the blueprint for a terrifying creature on another world,” said the Librarian. “A world that creature had destroyed before we got there. He has rebuilt it here, but it ignores him. He cannot make it bend to his will. We believe you can.”
“What kind of creature is it?” said Nic.
“It doesn’t breathe,” said the demon, “it doesn’t eat, it doesn’t move.”
“It sounds like it’s dead.”
“It talks too much to be dead,” said the demon. “It has told us what it is looking for — it is looking for someone who will wield the power it can give without abuse.”
“And that’s me? What makes you think I won’t become corrupted?”
“You wouldn’t want to disappoint the girl,” said the demon, smiling its beastly smile.
“I think you overestimate my feelings for her,” said Nic, finding the words odd to say out loud. Were they overestimating his feelings? Was he?
“Yes, quite possibly,” said Winnum. “But you have an advantage over the rest of us.”
“That I’m adequate?”
“He starts to understand,” said the demon. “The fit is more important than the polish.”
“Isn’t this what your story warned against,” Nic said to the Librarian. “The attraction of happy endings.”
“It wasn’t my story. It was yours. I merely helped you find it.”
He didn’t believe that, but he let it go. “Wasn’t the ending a lie to encourage me to do as you want?”
“The story wasn’t a lie,” said the Librarian, “it was an awakening. The desired outcome exists, that is all the story tells you. There are infinite ways to get there, as there are to anywhere. The storyteller doesn’t show you the path, it is the existence of paths that you need to learn.”
“So I should build my own path? Towards the destination you choose for me?” said Nic.
“It is the destination that will stop this world from collapsing into chaos,” said the demon.
“Years from now. Hundreds of years, probably.”
“Time is meaningless,” said the demon.
“To you,” said Nic.
“No, it means a great deal to us. But you don’t even see it. You think it is something on the outside to observe, a clock that informs you of the sun’s movements. It exists only inside yourself. You stand. You walk. You run. That is time. You stand, you continue to stand, you remain standing, no time passes. You are unchanged.”
“Time only advances if I do?” said Nic. “So if I do nothing but watch a candle burn down from top to bottom, no time has passed?”
“Only for the candle,” said the demon. “But if you think, imagine, create ideas, then you take control of time and move it as you will. It is a power greater than Arcanum.”
“I can travel through time?” said Nic. “Go back in history?”
“No,” said the demon. “Time is not something to enter and exit.”
“I don’t understand,” said Nic.
“You cannot see it any other way than how you have been taught. I understand. But the High-Father’s creature can show you.”
“Even if the High-Father does all the things you say, brings destruction to us, I won’t be alive to see it.”
“But your children will,” said Winnum. “Yours and hers.”
It was the image again. The idea of victory to tempt him to take the risk. Yours and hers. Not necessarily yours and hers. There were no promises, just possibilities.
“Why do you even want to stop him?” said Nic to the demon. “Why do you care what happens to us?”
“I don’t,” said the demon. “I abhor change. It pushes us through time and makes us stronger, but it strips us to the core. The exterior is lost. It’s the person on the outside who I know. I don’t wish to lose myself again.”
They were his own words, his way of seeing people. The demons were reborn each time they transformed inside their hosts. A rebirth requires death, not an end to life in this case but of something he valued far more. The demon valued it too.
“How will I get into the Librarium? Won’t the High-Father stop me?”
“He will welcome you,” said the demon. “He is waiting for you.”
“You told him I was coming?”
“How could we?” said the Librarian. “We didn’t know if you would accept the invitation.”
“I think you did know.”
“Of course we did,” said Winnum, smugly. “It is what makes you so adequate for the task.”
“I’m only going because a creature that doesn’t eat and can’t move won’t be able to eat me or chase me.”
“You’re going because you are curious what this creature from another world can teach you,” said Winnum. “Which is the best reason.”
That much was true, he was curious. But the rest seemed like a fanciful dream. That he would claim some astounding power and use it to prevent the High-Father from bringing destruction to the world at some unknown point in the future, what kind of a non-urgent threat was that to counter?
“I think I should go home now,” he said, feeling the exhaustion of all that running start to make his bones ache. He’d probably be sore in the morning.
“Don’t be late for class,” said the Librarian, her posture reverting to Mr Periwinkle’s. “We’re going on a field trip to the capital.”
Nic left the library and made his way back to the cottage. He was hungry and cold, and jogged to keep warm.
The lights were on in the various rooms but he entered quietly so as to not attract attention. He wanted to at least get changed into something warm before having to answer questions about where he’d been.
He closed his bedroom door quietly before turning on the light.
“Where have you been?” said Dizzy, sitting on his bed. How long had she been sitting there in the dark?
“I went out for a run,” he said truthfully. “Lost track of time. Almost ended up in the capital. I think I’m getting quite fit now.”
“And then where did you go? Don’t lie to me. I can feel you holding something back. And stop looking at me like that.”
“I’m cold and I want to get changed.”
“So? Who’s stopping you.”
He looked at her icy face rigid with anger and resentment. Did she feel anything else towards him? Had she ever?
“Simole said you had a dream about having a child.”
“Female mages can’t have children,” said Dizzy. “Not if they wish to remain alive.”
“It can’t stop you dreaming about it. Who was the father of your child?”
“Dreams don’t predict the future, Nic.”
“I know. They just show you a destination, and the fact there’s a path to it. Many paths. I’m curious which you saw.”
Her jaw tightened and then she turned around and went to the window. She pushed it open as she jumped up on the sill like it was a tiny step up, even though it was halfway up the wall. She looked back at him. “I can feel you getting ready for something. You don’t have to worry about which path I’ll take. Wherever you plan on going, that’s where my path will take me.” She jumped out of the window and was gone.
Nic shivered in the cold night breeze, exhausted and numb, but he found her threatening words reassuring and couldn’t stop smiling at her obstinance, refusing to let him give up the thing he valued most.
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