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Preface from Mooderino

Book 2: Chapter Thirty Seven (part two)

Nic had lost track of time. The light from his bedroom window suggested it was early morning, but he wasn’t sure of which day.

How long had he spent inside the recreation of the past? It had seemed like several hours but it was hard to tell.

Rutga was asleep on Nic’s bed. He was lying on top of the sheets, fully clothed in what was clearly a military uniform, and he was breathing. The whole situation wasn’t as bad as it could have been but by no means was it good.

“He’s an old friend of my dad’s,” said Nic. Which was true and, he thought, enough information to not require further explanation.

“Oh,” said Fanny. He took a bite out of the hot pie that was in his hand. There wasn’t a bakery on the school grounds, and he certainly hadn’t baked it himself, but food had a way of appearing around Fanny. “Army buddy?” Flakes of pastry fell from his mouth, but he caught them with his other hand, probably to save for later.

“Yes,” said Nic. “They were in the army together. I, ah, bumped into him. He needed a place to sleep. Temporarily. Don’t tell anyone, I don’t think we’re allowed to have overnight guests.”

It was sounding more and more plausible as Nic spoke. He had inadvertently encountered someone who had known his father back in his army days, someone who was in a bit of a state, and he had offered to help him. Perfectly legitimate and believable.

Fanny was nodding like he found Nic’s story acceptable. He was used to Nic behaving in slightly odd ways, so why not bring home a middle-aged man and let him pass out on his bed?

“He’s back,” Fanny yelled, turning slightly so his mouth was pointed towards the hall.

“I told you he would be,” shouted back Davo.

“We were worried,” said Fanny. “It’s not new for you to wander off, but it’s usually because you’ve got yourself involved in something awful.”

He had a point. It wasn’t like those times Nic had gone missing previously had turned out to be him getting lost in a good book and forgetting dinner.

“There’s no need to be worried,” said Nic, trying to make his frequent near-deaths sound manageable. “I always come back.”

“Yah,” said Fanny, licking the crumbs off his hands. “But one of these days, you’re going to come back dead. It’ll be very sad. I’ve been preparing myself.”

“You have?” said Nic. “How?”

Davo appeared in the doorway. “He’s been writing up the menu for your wake. He expects me to have it catered. Who’s the fellow with the red nose?”

Rutga did have quite a red nose. It was naturally quite rosy but it seemed to have an added blush of colour to it this morning. It might be a result of their fight. Rutga had taken some hard knocks.

Nic wasn’t about to take full credit for beating a man far his superior in skill and experience. He had the benefit of an expert’s insights plus the fact Rutga hadn’t been expecting to fight an equal. Surprise was a powerful weapon.

“He’s an army buddy of Nic’s dad,” said Fanny. “I think he’s been, you know…” Fanny mimed swigging from a bottle.

“Ah, that would account for his nose,” said Davo.

“He isn’t a drunk,” said Nic. It would have been easy to pass Rutga off as a bit of a lush, and himself as some kind of saviour to the downtrodden, but Nic felt bad misrepresenting the man. He didn’t deserve to be tarred as a charity case when he was quite capable of looking after himself, and anyone who crossed his path. “He’s just a bit tired.”

Nic leaned over Rutga. He had asked the High-Father to lend Rutga’s services to him, but he hadn’t expected to receive Rutga comatose. How was he meant to wake him? And would he be ready and willing to serve? The High-Father could certainly force people to cooperate, but he seemed reluctant to do use that power most of the time. And then there were times where he did it without considering the consequences in the slightest. It was difficult to grasp exactly what boundaries the High-Father had set himself. Extremely flexible ones, would be Nic’s guess.

“We have to keep him a secret,” said Fanny, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

“I should think so,” said Davo. “Tongues will wag.”

“You’re getting the wrong idea,” said Nic. “He’s actually a very nice—”

“Arghh,” shouted Rutga as he sat bolt upright.

Fanny and Davo both instantly disappeared, diving out of the doorway. Nic jumped back, more from surprise than fear.

Rutga blinked a couple of times, looked around the room, and then rubbed the back of his head. He winced. “I think a mountain jumped me from behind.”

“Ah, no, sorry about that. I accidentally threw you at a wall.”

Rutga frowned. He furrowed his brow like he was trying to recall something.

“You threw him?” said Fanny, peeking back in. “That’s not very nice.”

“He was showing me some moves,” said Nic. “He’s in the army.” It felt like everything should be clear without the need for further elaboration. An old friend of the family giving Nic some tips so he could better take care of himself. Sounded perfectly reasonable.

“I was showing you how to slam someone’s head in, was I?” said Rutga. “Does sound like something I would do.”

Nic let out a breath, relieved Rutga was playing along. Even if he didn’t quite remember what had happened, he wasn’t yelling and demanding answers. None of the Where am I? and How did I get here? type of questions that would have been Nic’s first reaction.

Rutga was taking it in his stride, as though this sort of thing happened to him all the time. Which very easily could be the case.

“Sorry, lads,” said Rutga, holding up a hand in apology. “Had a bit of a nightmare, you know how it is with warfare, limbs flying about, corpses all over the place. You think you can handle it just fine, and then you wake up screaming. Didn’t mean to startle anyone.”

Somehow, his mixture of joviality and deeply disturbing imagery seemed to put Fanny and Davo at ease.

“You’re a friend of Nic’s father?” said Davo.

“That’s right,” said Rutga. “Long time back. Knew him in the army. He was always getting himself into some scrape or other. Young Nic here is the spit of him. Thought I’d seen a ghost first time I set eyes on him.”

Nic was impressed at how easily Rutga had slipped into the role he had been unknowingly assigned. He had a knack for it, or years of practice.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” asked Fanny.

“Ohhh, I’d love one.”

“I’ll see if I can dig up some biscuits,” said Davo. “Maybe the nice ones Fanny keeps hidden and thinks we don’t know about.”

“Hey, have you been eating my biscuits behind my back?”

The two of them drifted off to the kitchen. Nic puffed out his cheeks. So far so good. Now, he had to deal with Rutga, who no doubt had much harder to answer questions, and wouldn’t be so easily appeased.

“Nice boys,” said Rutga. “I can tell they’ve got your best interests at heart. Don’t believe a word you told them, though.”

“Didn’t they?” said Nic, shocked. “But it was true, mostly.”

“If you want trust, you need to be a bit more than mostly true. Now then, what exactly am I doing here? I might have been hit on the head, with a wall, but I’m fairly sure I was in the capital, last I checked.”

“You don’t remember how we got back to the school?”

“No,” said Rutga, gently stroking the back of his head.

“Rutga, I believe you when you say you knew my father, and I think you’re loyal to Ranvar, in your own way, but who do you really work for? The High-Father?”

Rutga gave Nic a curious look. “You think I work for a dragon? And a dead one, at that.”

It was hard to know if Rutga was playing a part or if he really had no idea the High-Father was more than just a dragon. Nic hadn’t expected a straight answer in any case but he had wanted to see if he would be able to see something in Rutga’s reaction now that he had the added perception of an older and wiser Tutt to call on.

“You’re here to help me, right?” said Nic, hoping that would be enough to activate whatever it was the High-Father had put in place. But he saw nothing other than a genial old soldier. The High-Father agreed to give Nic use of Rutga, perhaps Nic should have asked for specific details of how that would work.

“Yes,” said Rutga. “Of course. What exactly would you like help with?”

Rutga seemed amenable but a little baffled. The blow to the skull probably didn’t help. “You’re okay to do what I ask, even if you don’t know why you’re helping me?”

“You need help, that’s all I need to know. You're Tutt’s boy. I’ll always help you in any way I can, Nic.” He sounded sincere, but then, he was trained to.

“It doesn’t bother you that someone might have tinkered with your mind? Made you think you’re doing what you want to do, even though it’s someone else’s idea?”

Rutga looked confused. “If I believe it’s what I want, what difference does it make?” He smiled. “I wouldn’t worry too much, if I were you. We’re very resistant to magic in my family, all the way back to the first Rutga — we’re all military man with heads made of wood.” He rubbed his scalp. “Take more than a bit of hocus pocus to get in here.” He knocked on the top of his own head while tapping the wall with his other hand to make a hollow thud.

Nic smiled. He’d never had an uncle before.

“They’re trying to start a war,” said Nic, “one they think will end the injustices of the world, but it will only make things worse.”

Rutga nodded. “You could be right. One war usually leads to another. It’s a bit of a merry-go-round. What’s that got to do with a lad like you? You should be learning your letters and leave the fighting to men like me.”

“Yes,” agreed Nic. “But I think I can stop the fighting before it starts. If I can… a lot of people are going to be very upset. They’ll probably want to have a word or two with me about it.”

“I see. And you’d rather not speak to them?”

“I’d rather not. At least, not until I’ve had a chance to see it through. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to keep an eye out for any…”

“Suspicious characters?”

“Yes, exactly. As long as I have a little advance warning, I should be okay. I don’t think they’ll try anything too overt, it would expose them too much. That’s what they don’t want. They all like to act like the other side is all self-interest, while their intentions are pure. But none of them are really looking out for anyone but themselves.”

“True, but that’s always been the way. Not much to be done.”

“I think there is,” said Nic. “If everyone saw what the others were up to…”

“Ooh,” said Rutga. “That’s a dangerous game. Men like to keep their flaws private. They’ll be mighty upset if you reveal them to the world.”

“As long as everyone’s equally exposed…”

“They’ll be equally upset with you. I see why you need someone to watch your back.”

“I would do it myself, but I’ll be a bit distracted.”

Rutga sat quietly for a moment. Then he sprang to his feet. “Leave it to me.”

Nic hadn’t expected Rutga to be quite so eager, but that was the power of the High-Father. If he had wanted Nic to think he was acting true to his own beliefs, then that’s what Nic would believe without a moment’s doubt. It was disconcerting to think about, but as Rutga had said, if you weren’t aware of it, there was no difference.

“What will you do?” asked Nic.

“I’ll be around. You won’t see me, but if you need something, just call. I’ll hear you. And if we do have visitors, well, if they get to you then that means I’ve already been disposed of.” He grinned like this was something to be pleased about. “Now, where’s that cuppa?”

He walked out of the room as Fanny exited the kitchen and took the steaming mug out of Fanny’s hand. He drank it down in one go, gave a loud, “Ahhh,” and then headed for the front door. “Nice meeting you lads. Maybe we’ll see each other again and I’ll share a few war stories with you. Then you’ll be the ones having nightmares, eh? Haha.”

When he’d gone, Fanny turned to Nic. “He’s an odd bloke. I like him, though.”

“Yes,” said Davo. “Perhaps you could ask him for advice on women. After the horrors he’s seen, your love life should only cause him mild nausea.”

Nic turned around to go back in his room.

“You better get washed up,” said Davo, “or we’ll be late for class.”

“Actually,” said Nic, “I think I’ll skip classes this morning.” Fanny and Davo both stared at him, agog. “It’s only the Arts Course this morning. I’m not even going to be a mage.”

Brill emerged from his room, ready to leave. He stopped when he saw the three of them in the hall. “What’s going on here?”

“He’s doing a bunk,” said Fanny.

“Davo, that’s not like you.”

“Not me,” said Davo. “Him.” He pointed at Nic.

Brills pulled an appalled face. “But it’s the Arts Course. Mr Periwinkle will be very aggravated if you play truant. He’ll take it out on the rest of us.” Appalled escalated into alarmed.

“No, he won’t even notice,” said Nic. “Tell him I’m feeling under the weather. He’ll understand.”

Nic returned to his room before the others could find more ways to express their astonishment. He actually did feel a little out of sorts. He hadn’t had any sleep in a while and the bed looked inviting. But there was no time for that.

What he had said to Rutga had been the truth — he believed the way to stop the war between Ranvar and its neighbours was possible through exposing a few secrets — but he hadn’t quite figured out how he was going to do it.

He had the map that gave him the ability to see what everyone was up to, but the problem was that if he looked at everything at once, none of it stood out. And if he focused his attention on one small part, there was no way to know which part was important at any given time.

He could spy on the Gweurvians or the Ranvarian ministers or the rulers of the neighbouring kingdoms, but there was no guarantee they would say or do anything of interest while he watched them.

He couldn’t watch them day and night. Even if he could, he’d only be able to watch one person at a time. That sort of approach was not going to work.

What he needed was a much broader approach.

He heard the others leave for class and stripped off his clothes. First, he would take a shower and get rid of the dirt and grime of the last couple of days. He put on a bathrobe and went to the bathroom.

He was skipping school and doing as he pleased. It was a liberating experience. For some reason, it was the most invigorating shower he’d ever taken. His mind raced with ideas as he scrubbed himself clean.

He returned to his room and dried his hair with a towel. He sat on his bed and stared at the wall opposite. His mind drifted with minimal effort and he saw the world from a bird’s eye view. He was over the school, where there was hardly any movement. The children who were still attending were all in class as they were supposed to be.

With a shift in thoughts, he was able to identify where specific people were. They lit up so he could see them through walls. He was careful not to choose anyone who might notice him, but students sitting at the back of a classroom or a dinner lady in the cafeteria wouldn’t be aware of his presence.

He could see them, but no one else could. This ability was powerful, but it was limited to him. He had been thinking about making it available to more people. To everyone. If they could see each other, there would be no way to hide anything. But he had no idea how to do that, and there would be other repercussions. Not everyone would be as circumspect as him.

Were there any Gweurvians nearby? He searched for them and found small groups dotted about the countryside. What were they planning? Their main goal seemed to be to provoke the Ranvarian forces into taking action, most likely in a way that would make Ranvar look like the aggressor. In all honesty, it probably wouldn’t be that hard to achieve.

It would have been easy to simply float around, observing for no other reason than to take everything in. He could see so much and he had no idea what to do with all this information. He started to get hungry and his thoughts turned to Fanny, wondering if raiding his pantry would be a step too far. He was instantly taken to the classroom where Fanny was seated. Nic had been thinking about where Fanny kept his stash hidden, apparently it was on his person.

As he hovered over the class, Nic thought about how good Fanny was at concealing things. Maybe he also knew a thing or two about revealing them. How did he produce items out of thin air? It wasn’t magic. It was a simple understanding of where people’s attentions lay. The more he thought about it, the more impressed he was with how someone like Fanny was able to achieve so much with no magical ability.

His focus made Fanny glow strongly. He was the sole person in the classroom being lit up by Nic’s ability and he was getting brighter. It wouldn’t be surprising if someone else noticed, Nic thought, but he was in a herbology lesson with no one like Simole or the Librarian there to notice.

Only, some of the other students did start to notice. They pointed at Fanny with confused looks.

Nic could have removed the effect but instead he pushed it more. Soon, everyone in the class could see the glow around Fanny, including Fanny. There was mild panic in the classroom.

Nic ended it and backed off. They would probably put it down to some malfunctioning device. Herbologists used devices that were powered by small amounts of Arcanum.

Nic returned his thoughts to the small cabals of Gweurvians. He isolated them as before so that they were highlighted. Then he focused on them so they glowed brighter; bright enough for others to see them. It would be difficult to carry out their actions in secret if they were lit up like a flock of lighthouses.

It wasn’t quite what he’d envisioned, but it would slow them down. He could use the same technique on other groups, make it impossible for anyone to move in stealth. And since he wasn’t using Arcanum, there was no way for them to counter it.

People in hiding around the country began to glow, much to their surprise.

“Why do you look so pleased with yourself?” said a voice.

Nic opened his eyes to see Simole sitting on the other end of his bed.

“Something very odd happened to Fanny,” she said, “and I think you had something to do with it. Why are you sitting here naked?”

“I’m not naked,” said Nic, pulling his bathrobe closed. “I’m a little busy, actually.”

Simole stared at him grimly. Nic pulled his robe closed even tighter.

“What are you up to?”

“Where’s Dizzy?” asked Nic, sensing that if Simole suspected him, then Dizzy would have reached the same conclusion. 

Simole’s mouth fell open. She was looking across the room. Nic followed her gaze.

Through the wall, a crouched figure could be clearly seen, glowing.

Dizzy stood up, her brightly lit face appearing at the window. “What have you done?” she said.

He had worked out how to achieve his goal. Now he had to work out how to stop.


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Afterword from Mooderino
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