Nic had no idea what to expect. He had been imbued with some great power, apparently. For all he knew, its first effect would be to kill him.
The warmth rose through his body. It wasn’t painful or even particularly hot. Heartburn after eating spicy food provided more of a painful reaction. It was unnatural how it moved inside him, though. As if something was working its way around his organs. It was an unsettling sensation.
“What did you do?” said Nic, looking down at his chest like he might see a glow from whatever was inside him.
“I have given you everything you need to do what you must,” said the creature. It was a concise but not very illuminating answer.
“Could you be a little more specific?” asked Nic. “Will it hurt? Will it kill me? How does it work? What does it do? You don’t have to answer them in order.” He didn’t really expect to be answered at all, but there was always a first time.
“Everything will become apparent in a moment,” said the creature, “but no, it won’t kill you. There is a small possibility it will leave you unable to use your higher brain functions, but you will continue to live, as long as someone keeps feeding you.”
Nic regretted asking for specifics. “How small a possibility?” The warmth was up to the top of his chest, condensing into a ball about the size of a fruit pit, presumably in preparation for traversing up his throat.
“It’s hard to say. I’ve never attempted this with one of your kind. Humans are a resilient species, in general, so you have every chance of surviving with your mental faculties intact, for the most part. Don’t be concerned if you lose control of your bowels.”
Nic’s face began to heat up, only partly because of whatever had been put inside him.
Obtaining power rarely transpired without some kind of difficulty. The process was smoothed over when inherited directly from a parent, but even that required someone to give birth. Whatever was happening to him, it hadn’t caused him to suffer anything more than a slight discomfort. So far.
From what he had learned about mages, their transformation was far more gruelling. But the fact they suffered suggested to Nic that he would also. Possibly to an even greater extent. A painless shortcut would be welcome, but it would be foolish to put his hopes into such an outcome. He was just in the build-up phase and any second now his brain would explode and his body would burst into flames.
He had no actual evidence for his concerns, but he had always been good at making an educated guess.
Nic looked around for reassurance, possibly assistance if he needed to be doused in water. He was still surrounded by twinkling stars, although they all seemed far away again. The Librarian was most likely still here, but he couldn’t see her.
His brain was the target, although why it hadn’t just started there, he didn’t know. It had travelled from just above his stomach, through his chest, and was now rising from the back of his throat into the top of his skull. There wasn’t anywhere else it could be headed.
What would happen once it got there? What kind of power was it? If there were no drawbacks he very much doubted it would be given to him.
He felt like talking, asking questions, making guesses to be confirmed or denied, but it was only the nervousness he felt, not a desire for answers. Whatever was going to happen to him, there was no avoiding it now. He had to accept the decision had already been made, without him. Would he have refused if given a choice? He probably would have asked a lot of questions first, which would only cause delay and provide him with no real understanding of what to expect.
The truth was, he would have said yes, so he had no cause for complaint.
The heat began to expand as it entered his mind. Winnum Roke was no longer there, the demon had left some time ago, it was just his own thoughts that were slowly being brought to the boil.
He waited, teeth slightly gritted, eyes partially closed in preparation for the worst. The warmth dissipated, slightly heating his ears. The inside of his skull felt stuffy, like it had been filled with cotton wool, only not something quite that dense. Spiderwebs might describe it better. The threads tingled, as if someone was plucking at them. It made it hard to think clearly.
The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes were clouds. He was looking at them from a dizzying angle, as though he was floating above them. He looked up and saw a dazzlement of glittering planes and angles that made him reel without moving. His mind was doing somersaults.
Nic took a breath, a mental one. He couldn’t feel his body anymore, didn’t sense his limbs or the pressure of the ground beneath his feet. He tore his thoughts away from what that might mean. Instead, he concentrated.
This was an ability he already had, one that had served him well. He could shut everything out and focus, bring himself to an undistracted state where only one thing held his attention. It came in handy when revising in a noisy study hall.
He forced himself to stare into the chaotic kaleidoscope of lines and colours and matched their movements with his vision, not seeing them as random motion but as a pattern.
They stopped moving. They didn’t form a pattern, it was more like a tunnel, beyond which he saw stars. Not like the ones that had filled the room a moment ago, these were moving at incredible speed away from him. It wasn’t like the movement you experienced when you ran or rode a fast carriage. He was moving and not moving at the same time — this was a speed that stretched.
His mind raced to keep up with the luminous smears of colour that were streaks of indistinct shape and at the same time individual jewels of light. He felt like the darkness that served as a background would crack wide open, or maybe his mind would.
He looked away, turning his vision down, back to the clouds. He used the same technique on them, hoping the result wouldn’t risk the same kind of madness.
The clouds parted. He saw land, he saw sea. Mountains and forests, and wides swathes of clearly demarcated farmlands in various hues of nature.
The identity of this place was obvious to him, even though he had never seen it from this vantage point before. Even when he had flown as a dragon, he had never reached this height. And yet it was all so clear. He could see the trees and houses and people.
Directly below him was Ranvar. Further afield were its neighbouring countries. He could shift his perspective with a tilt of his head. A farmhouse where a woman fed pigs from a metal bucket. A city where people swarmed like ants. A mountain where birds flew in soaring circles.
There was sound, mostly wind. He tightened his focus and pushed past it so he could hear the birds squawk, further down, water rushing over a fall and crashing into a lake, the woman feeding pigs calling out, “Din-dins! Come and get it my lovelies.” The pigs snorted and squelched about in the mud. Over by the city, the one he was inside, a cacophony of noise ebbed and flowed.
He couldn’t feel his face but he knew there was a smile on his lips. He was seeing the land as it was now, he was viewing the people and animals going about their business. There was no sense of closeness, he wasn’t down there with them. It was as if he was seeing them through a telescope which he could adjust at will, but with none of the accompanying blur. Everything was defined with crystal clarity.
Could he enter the houses? See inside a specific room? He located the Librarium and sank through the roof. Was there anywhere he couldn’t go? Any place restricted from this magical sight?
As he approached the room he was now in, his mind seemed to buckle. He winced and turned back, allowing the image to recede. Apparently, there were some things that hurt to look at.
The tunnel vision pulled back and broadened until he had the full panorama spread out beneath him again. It was an astonishing sight.
“It’s real,” he said to himself.
“Yes,” said the creature, still an invisible presence beside him. “This is your world, everything as it happens. No place is hidden from you, no conversation a secret. You can know whatever you wish to know.”
“Isn’t there too much, though?” said Nic. “How can I possibly take it all in? How can I know what I need to know and where to find it?”
“Is that what concerns you?” said the creature. It sounded slightly disappointed, perhaps a little mockingly so. “No moral quandary for you, Nicolav? You can spy on people’s most intimate moments, know their deepest secrets, and your only worry is you may miss some choice piece of scandal?”
While the point was a fair one, it didn’t sound a little disingenuous. The existence of this power was proof enough that it was already in use and his interrogator the one who had used it.
“You’re right,” said Nic. “This is an unreasonable intrusion into people’s lives. I can see it being abused to great effect. The person who controls this power has the potential for great evil.”
“But not you, Nicolav?”
Even without being able to see it, Nic could tell the creature was smiling just by the way the words sounded like they were curled up at the edges.
“I don’t know,” said Nic, truthfully. “I haven’t really accepted what I’m seeing, yet. I can go anywhere, hear anything?”
“I think it would be more useful if I had the ability to be everywhere at once,” said Nic. “This… I can see how you could use it to perfect a course of action, but if you wanted to be aware of action you needed to take, be aware of it as it happened, you could never hope to be in the right place at the right time.”
“You couldn’t,” said the creature. “I can. I am able to process every conversation happening now, even as we speak. In truth, it takes up barely a fraction of my capacity.”
“And the High-Father, what about him? Could he use this to keep watch on us all?”
The pause was strange to Nic’s ear. It suggested there was more to say on the matter, and a decision not to say it.
Did the High-Father really need something like this to achieve his goals, though? His power was already far in advance of anything the people of Ranvar or the other countries could put up in opposition to his ambitions. There was something else here, something less obvious than the ability to spy on people.
“How long have you been watching us?” asked Nic.
“A long time,” sighed the creature. Was the regret due to what it had seen or because of an inability to look away? “I have seen your people rise from worms scrounging in the mud to dominators of their environment, slinging magic like it was their birthright. All that you are and all that you have done is recorded in my memory forever, every glory and every ugly moment.”
“Wait,” said Nic. “Do you mean you have a record of everything that’s happened since you started watching us?”
“I believe that is what I just said.”
“So if I ask you a question on a specific historical event, you can recall the answer? The true answer?”
The possibilities were staggering if what he asked was true. Historical books and records only told part of the truth, sometimes not even that. Often the facts were deliberately obfuscated to hide some unpleasant detail — Ranvar’s history was littered with such ‘adjustments,’ the reality lost under lies and exaggerations. To be able to learn the facts of an event could reveal a far greater understanding of what had happened to lead to the current moment than the doctored texts allowed.
“I can do more than tell you,” said the creature, “I can show you.”
The land below seemed to warp and shift. Some features shrivelled while others expanded. Rivers changed course and whole mountains appeared from nowhere.
“Here you can see the most famous of your battles, a lamentable orgy of violence.”
Down below, masses of troops wheeled and charged at one another. They were smaller than toy soldiers, but the clash of bodies, weapons tearing through flesh, horses screaming in their death throes, was like no child’s game.
It was the Battle of Carjeer. Nic could tell with just a glance, knew the date and the principal players. It had led to the founding of Ranvar City, or Ranvarakarathan, as it was known then.
But even though he recognised the standards flying in the midst of the fighting, this was not quite the engagement he had been taught at school or by the many books on the subject. There were six armies, not five as were reported. And they weren’t united against one valiant foe, it looked much more like a free for all.
“And here, the death of the only queen your people allowed to sit on your much-venerated throne.”
The land warped again, bubbling and twisting. Nic’s focus was drawn to a building he recognised from a painting hanging in the Librarium — Marston Palace. The artist had done an admirable job, the turrets and towers accurately portrayed, only the colours a little different — the painting had the pointed roofs a brick-red, similar to the Royal College, whereas the original was copper turned to verdigris. But accuracy couldn’t adequately convey the spectacular architecture, the wild curves and spiralling fortifications hanging impossibly over the edge of Marston Cliffs. It had been built back when impossible structures convinced to stand through the persuasive powers of Arcanum were the fashion. Neither the palace nor the cliffs still existed. Persuasion could always come undone.
Nic’s vision narrowed into a tight circle, down to a window, tilting either him or the world to let him see a bedchamber where men surrounded a bed with swords drawn, stabbing the naked woman on the bed. The men were also naked, save for masks. The queen was tied to the bedposts, screaming obscenities as blood spurted everywhere.
That wasn’t how the death of Queen Dygna was told in the history books. She was murdered, but in the Grand Garden, the trusted Count D’acosta attacking her from behind with a poisoned dagger while she admired the roses named after her.
“It is all here, just as it happened,” said the creature. “You may see any moment of your history. Every conversation, every deed committed.”
It was difficult to appreciate the full scope of what he was being shown. It was too huge and all-encompassing to even start thinking about how to use it effectively. But still, there was a bigger question pressing on him than what he could do with this power to see everything.
“I don’t understand,” said Nic. “What would the High-Father want with this?”
“What does any tyrant want? Control.”
Nic wasn’t so sure.
“Can you show me—”
“You don’t need to ask,” said the creature. “This is inside you, now. You merely need to think of the moment you wish to see and it will appear.”
“I can choose any moment from history?”
“While you are here, yes. Your mind is too… basic to be able to contain your whole history. Away from this place, you can access this view to see what is happening around you in the current moment. I hope you can appreciate the magnitude of such an ability.”
“No,” said Nic, “I don’t think I can.”
“An honest and accurate answer. Perhaps this won’t turn out to be a terrible mistake. Two in a row might start to look like a habit.”
The convivial tone only made Nic more tense.
The High-Father allowed those around him to do as they pleased, using their unpredictability to boost his own drive for ever-greater progress, or so it had been claimed. But then why would he want to maintain control over the very people whose ability to surprise was what attracted him in the first place? Surely he would want the opposite of control.
It only took a moment for the answer to appear. Control, not order. The word itself had misled Nic. It suggested formality and convention, but all it really meant was determination. The High-Father didn’t want everything to proceed in a prescribed manner. He didn’t want to control people to be easier to manage or to guide them in a preferred direction. He wanted to control them to make sure that didn’t happen.
The more chaotic, the better.
If an era of stability and peaceful cooperation came about — Nic wasn’t sure how that would occur, but it was technically a possibility — it would slow down the High-Father’s progress. He didn’t want that to happen, and he was doing a fine job of ensuring it didn’t, but there was certainly potential for more mayhem.
The obvious answer would be to make Arcanum available to all and then stand back as people tore each other apart. But Nic had already seen some vestige of that approach, and it had led to a direct threat to the High-Father himself. It might yet give him what he wanted, but it might also ruin everything.
No, simply letting the demons run wild throughout the world would be too unpredictable. Controlled chaos, as paradoxical as it sounded, was a better solution. The systematic and ruthless tightening of a screw until it creaked and groaned, threatening to snap and bring down the very thing it was holding in place.
The thought was cold and frightening. All it would take was a total lack of empathy for the human race.
Nic looked down on the world, on his home, and wasn’t sure what to do. Not allowing the High-Father to have this was, of course, the right choice. How long would he be able to prevent that from happening? The High-Father might not think it ‘sporting’ to simply snatch it away, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t try other means to get his way. He could use various tricks to get Nic to give orders on his behalf.
But what power did Nic really have? He could see everything, hear every word, but then what? How could he use that to achieve whatever it was he hoped to achieve? He didn’t even know what that was. World peace? A stable and prosperous economic system for all? How do you stop people from being chaotic in their lives? Wasn’t that just part of their nature?
“I see,” said Nic.
“You do?” said the creature, sounding mildly surprised.
“No, not like that,” said Nic. “But I see what I have to figure out. Who else knows about this? Just us in this room and Winnum?”
“Yes,” said the creature.
“And the High-Father won’t tell anyone else?”
“I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so. Why? Are you worried they will try to take it from you? They can’t.”
“It’s not that,” said Nic. “They might decide to manipulate me through others, or just eliminate me altogether. I don’t have any way to defend myself or the people close to me. As powerful as this is — and even without fully understanding it, I can see it is immensely powerful — it doesn’t actually stop someone from killing me. I mean, I’ll be able to see them coming to my house with their knives out, but that’s about it.”
“Your concern for your own personal safety is not without cause,” said the creature. “I wish you well.”
It would have been nice if there had also been the offer of a magic sword or personal bodyguard. A thick jacket with chainmail lining would have been a very appreciated gift. The gift of optimism was all he was getting in that department.
Nic looked down at the world again. There was so much of it. Even with his ability to see and hear the tiniest occurrence, it was a monumental task to put it to use. The creature might have the necessary mental ability to see it all at once, and be able to recall any part of it at will, but he certainly didn’t. How could he simplify what he was seeing?
“Show me dragons,” said Nic.
Nothing changed, the view was the same all-encompassing one, but there were dots that glowed now. When he focused on them, they were each a dragon, highlighted so he could locate them easily. They were gathered in tight groups, none of them in the air. They seemed to be sleeping. If they were dead, would they still appear to him? The body of the High-Father in the Royal College wasn’t among those marked for him.
“Show me the armed forces of every nation bordered with Ranvar,” he said.
Thousands of lights appeared across the world. Then they changed colour, different countries showing as separate colours.
“Did I do that?” said Nic.
“I assisted to make it clearer,” said the creature. “You will learn how with time and practice.”
The armies of all countries clearly pinpointed. How could anyone hope to defeat someone with a power like this? Of course, he would need an army of his own to make full use of the advantage.
As he looked down, something became apparent. The other countries had their troops amassed along their borders with Ranvar. It might be normal to secure their borders in troubled times, but they had also left the rest of their borders and other defensive positions unguarded to gather all their men at the Ranvar borders. He looked around. Every country was the same. They were preparing to attack in unison.
“Show all Ranvarian forces. In green.” It was the only obvious colour not taken already.
Green dots appeared along every border. They were aware of the threat, at least. Were they prepared to deal with it? They had no dragons to back them up, but they had magic. Although, this time the enemy did too, or at least some of them, in a crude form.
If the High-Father’s goal was chaos, he was doing just fine. Then again, how much worse would he make things if he got hold of the power now in Nic’s hands?
“Stop.” Nic closed his eyes. His head was starting to hurt. Not from the ability to see so much but from the sheer weight of expectation he felt now that he had this knowledge within his grasp.
When he opened his eyes again, the room was back to white and empty, with only the Librarian standing next to him.
“We should go,” she said. “You look tired.”
“The High-Father will allow you time to work through what you have learned here. It wouldn’t be fair to rush you. But you won’t have very long.”
Nic nodded, a little unsteady on his feet now that he was back on the ground. He had never really left, but facts were not always what had the greatest effect on the mind.
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