After Nic had finished his classes for the day, had gone over the bare minimum he would need to cover to not fall behind — the lessons were becoming progressively harder and more reading-intensive — which would take him maybe an hour, maybe two, he returned to his room and lay on his bed, certain that he held the knowledge to keeping Ranvar safer from shadow dragons but uncertain where it was hidden or how to access it.
His schoolwork was the least of his worries but he was determined to not let it be the thing he sacrificed in order to achieve the task ahead of him. Assuming he — or someone else — managed to avert the coming crisis, he would still need to secure some sort of future from himself. If, as he suspected, he was merely a pawn in some wider strategy, then he doubted much consideration would be shown his way once the danger had passed. He was not well-connected or likely to be offered his pick of the best opportunities once his usefulness was at an end.
It wasn’t actually that much of a burden to have to keep part of his focus on something so mundane as homework. Rather than wear him down, having to switch modes and work out what needed to be done and how to complete it efficiently kept his faculties sharp and his mind active. He couldn’t afford to drop any balls, and removing one might well unbalance the rhythm he had managed to sustain so far.
It also helped that with so many students now no longer present in classes, the expected standard of the end of year exams would be greatly reduced. Their absenteeism worked in his favour.
Confident that he was still in control of his destiny — something he would have been unable to claim a few weeks ago — Nic turned his attention to the matter of the dragons now in the possession of Gweur. Here was a problem that no textbook would help him solve. Without their own dragons, how could Ranvar possibly defend her borders?
The most likely answer seemed to be the mages of the Royal College. They had the power to oppose anyone who dared threaten the safety and security of Ranvar, they could bring the shadow dragons falling out of the sky, couldn’t they?
But the Gweurvians were aware of this. They wouldn’t come charging in with no way to defend themselves against magical attacks. Were their dragons immune to Arcanum? He had seen the Arcanum core that powered them, but he had been lucky to be allowed that close. Dragons were best used at long range and provide cover. He doubted they would make the same mistake again.
It was a sunny afternoon that gave no hint of the dangers that surrounded the school. They Gweurvians seemed to favour nighttime activity, which wasn’t surprising. Would there be more visitors tonight? The increase in the number of Secret Service agents when there were far fewer people to protect suggested they considered it likely. Nic saw them spread out across the school grounds when he closed his eyes.
When he tried to locate the shadow dragons, the results were the opposite — nothing to be seen. He knew they had crossed the border, but he hadn’t been able to keep track of them. They had just disappeared.
Could they be summoned and dismissed as needed? If so, the riders would be left behind, but there were no signs of them, either.
Could they be hidden from him? He didn’t yet understand his own abilities well enough to be sure. He sensed that if he could master this ability, the tactical foresight it afforded him would be a huge advantage in this sort of situation. But he was still trying to grasp how to use it effectively, not even knowing the correct terms for the things he wanted to see. For all he knew, the shadow dragons were right in front of him, but he wasn’t using the correct appellation to identify them.
What he really needed was a tutorial in the various different functions of his new ability. Or a manual. For once, he would have appreciated Winnum Roke’s advice, but she had been removed from his mind. He felt empty-headed with only his own thoughts to draw from.
Nic could have quite easily spent the rest of the afternoon and evening scanning Ranvar’s borders and the lands beyond. Even without knowing what to look for, it was a pleasant way to pass the time as long as he didn’t think about the possibility of war and the deaths that would bring.
He preferred to think of different targets to search for and it would turn over the image in his mind like the porters burning raked leaves, stirring them with long sticks so that sparks flew into the air. Lights flickered and dimmed as Nic watched.
He couldn’t see any dragons nor any Gweurvian spies. They could come and go as they pleased, it seemed. They could choose their own time and place for battle in the streets of the capital or on the school’s playing fields.
The thought of them having the initiative made Nic uncomfortable. It was considered a huge tactical advantage to be able to choose where and when you wished to fight. With control of the skies and who knew how many allies gathered, it was looking more and more like a well-planned and coordinated attack.
Ranvar, meanwhile, was losing all its advantages.
Nic got up, unable to find what he was looking for and reluctant to waste the rest of the time he had. He quietly left the cottage and walked across the campus to the school library. As impressive as it was to be able to search the world for whatever he wished to see, it was only as useful as his ability to know what to look for.
The library was moderately busy, those students left to continue their studies carrying on with their daily routine. The new librarian was a neatly dressed man, everything pulled in tight so he looked narrow enough to slide in between two pages of a closed book, who had been sent down from the Librarium. Nic had seen him there on occasion, one of the assistants to Mr Gheri.
Trying to find information on shadow dragons was going to be no easier here, but the library was where Nic felt most at home. Any library, it made no difference if it was housed in a stately mansion or a shed. It was the books that counted. It wasn’t even the knowledge they contained, it was the way they sat on the shelves forming wall after wall, a barrier between you and the rest of the world.
“We have a fine selection of tomes on the subject of dragons up on the third floor,” said the new librarian, Mr Cuttle.
“Yes,” said Nic. “I was hoping you might have something about their history more than their biology.”
“Their history?” said Mr Cuttle, his eyes looking down his long nose in the exact same manner as every librarian Nic had ever encountered. They had to be trained to do it at some secret initiation ceremony. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“Anything to do with the mythology of dragons. Where they came from, how they were created.”
“Ah, you want the fiction section.” Mr Cuttle leaned across the reception desk. “Dragonriders of Vengeance was always a guilty pleasure of mine.”
Nic had heard of the book but had never read it. A glimpse at the print of a shirtless man on a dragon on the inside cover had told him more than enough. Simole would probably like it. “I was hoping for something more traditional.”
“Folklore? We have some old texts in the archives, I believe. They’re rather simple retellings of old tales.”
“Yes, that sounds promising,” said Nic. Perhaps the most basic version of the story would be the most revealing.
The librarian took a large bunch of keys from behind his desk and led Nic to the rear of the library, to a scuffed door. He asked Nic to wait and returned in a few minutes with a small pile of books that were little more than pamphlets. To call them basic was an understatement.
Nic took them and promised to return them once he’d finished. He didn’t imagine it would take more than ten minutes.
He found an empty table, of which there were many, and flicked through the pages.
A passing draft of air caught his attention, the scent familiar, and he looked up just as Dizzy passed by, books in her arms. She sat down at a table with her back to him, no indication that she had even noticed he was there.
Nic could see the names of the books but would have recognised them anyway. They were from the Advanced Economics Analysis reading list. It seemed Dizzy was making sure she regained her place at the head of the year. If fewer students made it easier to maintain your position, it also made it easier to climb.
The ‘advanced’ part of the class had turned out to be memorising a lot of facts and figures. Mostly figures. The different economies of the neighbouring regions and how they fluctuated under changes of policy had been meticulously recorded over several hundred years. It was possible to predict future changes by evaluating the variables and adjusting for social and political variance. There were some very complex equations and some even more complicated correction tables you were supposed to know by heart. You would, of course, have access to the tables in most normal situations, but having them in your head was considered essential for anyone thinking of applying for a position in any of the governmental departments. Every decision you made was expected to take into account the financial ramifications, home and abroad. Stability was founded on secure economics more than armies and soldiers.
In fact, armies and soldiers had tended to have the opposite effect, creating more strife rather than lessening it. Sometimes, that was unavoidable.
Nic sat at his table and closed his eyes. He tried to bring up the tables from the textbooks Dizzy had open on her desk. If his ability could show him a book as easily as it did other targets, it would make his academic life a lot easier.
He could vaguely see the page, but it was from his own memory and not some supernatural implant. He would just have to remember them the old-fashioned way.
Nic returned his gaze to the pamphlets on the table. They were frayed at the edges and on the verge of falling apart, but no extra care had been taken to preserve them. They weren’t considered valuable enough. Carefully turning the pages so as not to cause any more damage, he read through the short paragraphs on each side to confirm the general assessment of the writing had been accurate.
The first small book was called Dragon Tide and was written in verse. Nic groaned internally, never a big fan of poetry or any other attempt to obfuscate meaning in the name of art. There were undoubtedly some things that were impossible to convey in a direct or factual manner, but they were usually so difficult to get across hardly anyone attempted it, in any form. The subject of most art tended to be very clear cut and not in need of abstract interpolation. Beauty, Nic felt, was best represented in clarity.
The verse itself, from what Nic could tell, was about a sea dragon — a species that did not exist and never had — that came on land and took the form of a man. He took a human woman from the isle of Anrogga as his wife and left her to go back to the water when she became pregnant, although this was couched in euphemistic terms. She was left to raise the child while staring out to sea, which probably made the child-rearing much more difficult than it needed to be.
Nic doubted the story had very much to do with dragons and more than likely was aimed at lovelorn women and widows. Personally, he didn’t think there was anything romantic about abandoning a pregnant woman, but it was a condition not that uncommon among the brides of soldiers. Rather than a sense of being betrayed and abandoned, it offered comfort in the form of hope. They weren’t dead, they had returned to the sea. It felt a cruel sentiment to Nic. He knew only too well what it took to raise a child alone, and there was little time for gazing at the sun setting in the hope of seeing a loved one again.
The other stories weren’t quite so maudlin, but they did have a tendency to rehash the same clichés. A hero who was noble to a fault, a damsel who required rescuing, and a beast that embodied fear and death. In his experience, only one of those stereotypes bore any resemblance to reality.
He flicked through the pamphlets, expecting less and less from them, and also treating them with less care. There really was no need to save them for posterity.
The last one was a little different. It was printed on green paper, for a start, making the faded ink hard to read. It had an imprint of two dragons that looked like fairly accurate representations, one black and the other just an outline so it appeared to be green. Below the dragons facing each other was what he assumed was the title: Dektu Narada Vim.
Nic didn’t recognise the language, had never seen the words before, and he was at least a little familiar with most modern tongues. This bore no resemblance to any of them.
The rest of the text was the same, strange words he had no idea how to pronounce. He sat bent over the paper, his finger under each word as he mouthed what he thought they would sound like in the hope it might give him a clue to their meaning. A mysterious new language might contain the secrets he was looking for.
“What are you doing?” asked Fanny.
Nic looked up to find his table surrounded by Fanny, Davo and Brill.
“Are you hoping to move up to big boy books soon?” asked Davo.
“Do you recognise this language?” said Nic, turning the paper around so they could see.
Davo picked it up as the other two stared over his shoulder. “Old Ingreet,” said Davo. He passed it back.
“What?” said Nic. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“Really?” said Davo. “We sell a set of soup bowls with it as part of the design. They’re very popular.”
“Why?” asked Fanny.
“Because people don’t want to eat soup out of the pot,” said Davo.
“No, not why you sell soup bowls,” said Fanny. “Why do the bowls have ancient writing on them?”
“Because it looks nice,” said Davo, like it was obvious. “Your problem is you eat too fast to appreciate your surroundings.”
Nic was confused. He had never heard of Ingreet, old or otherwise. He looked at the page again. It still looked like gibberish.
“Where does it come from?” asked Nic. “Which country?”
“This country,” said Davo. He seemed a little confused now, too.
“Before the monarchy?”
“Of course before,” said Davo. “Before the five tribes, before the Veld, before everything. Are you feeling alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Just… You’ve heard of it have you?” Fanny and Brill both nodded. “Do you know what it says?”
“No,” said Davo. “Unless it’s a soup recipe, I doubt anyone cares. Speaking of which, we came to drag you to the cafeteria. Left to your own devices, you will very likely starve to death.”
“It’s pasta night,” said Fanny, by way of encouragement.
“Mm? Oh, yes, alright.” He rose with the green booklet still in his hand. He put it with the others and picked up the pile.
How could he have not heard of an entire language? Even if it was old, he should at least be aware of something to do with Ranvar’s past.
He returned the books to the librarian and considered asking for something on Ingreet, but decided against it. There was something strange going on and he wanted to tread carefully. Plus, he was hungry.
The pasta came with a red sauce that was sweet and spicy. They ate and chatted about classes, with Nic still wondering about the green pamphlet. Maybe he should have copied it into his notebook and asked someone to translate it for him. Who, though? Was there a teacher he could ask? He really had no good reason to think it would tell him anything, for all he knew it was indeed a soup recipe, but it preyed on his mind.
The one person who he thought would know about it was Dizzy. If he had managed to somehow miss this part of Ranvar’s history, she wouldn’t have. He turned and looked around the cafeteria but she wasn’t present.
Nic stood up, his pasta unfinished. “I have to go do something. I’ll meet you back at the cottage.” He left them eating and went back to the library.
Dizzy wasn’t there either. The whole place was eerily quiet, which was quite an achievement for a library. The librarian was busy behind his desk. There was definitely some in-depth research Nic needed to do on Ingreet, but there were other matters he had to deal with first. But he did want to confirm with Dizzy that Ingreet was a real thing, because the other possibility was somewhat disturbing.
The girls’ Upper Class dorms weren’t too far and Nic hurried over there, eager to find Dizzy and have his suspicions put to rest. The woman in the reception booth looked up as he walked in through the double doors.
“I’d like to speak to Delzina Delcroix. Could you tell her Nic Tutt is here to see her?”
“Tutt, Tutt…” said the woman as she looked down at something. “Ah, yes, I thought I recognised the name. I have instructions from Miss van Dastan not to let you in once it gets dark.”
“I’m not here to see Simole,” said Nic, not liking the way the woman was looking at him. “Could you tell Dizz… Miss Delcroix I’m here, please?”
The woman didn’t seem keen but it wasn’t dark yet and the girls who were wandering around were not in their nightclothes yet.
“Wait in there.” She pointed to a door.
There was a small visitor’s room with two sofas and a table with four chairs. It didn’t look like it was used very often. Nic sat down and waited.
Simole appeared first. “You’re early, aren’t you? I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet.”
Dizzy came in behind her. “What do you want?”
“What do you know about Ingreet?” asked Nic, getting straight to the point.
“It’s a language?” said Dizzy. It was clearly a question she hadn’t been expecting.
“There’s no such language,” said Simole.
“Yes, there is,” said Dizzy. “It’s just very old.”
“Say something in it, then,” said Simole.
“I… I can’t,” said Dizzy. “I’m not fluent in it.”
“Okay, but you would know a phrase or something,” said Simole. “What can you tell me about it? Who’s the expert? What books are the best ones on the subject?”
Dizzy had a confounded look on her face. “I… I can’t think of any.”
“Right, because there aren’t any,” said Simole.
“I found a book in the library the Davo said was in Ingreet, but I’d never heard of it. Are you saying someone made it up,” said Nic, “and convinced everyone it’s real? Like they did with Brill’s brother?”
“Yes,” said Simole. “Exactly the same person, I would guess.”
“Brillard doesn’t have a brother,” said Dizzy.
“I know,” said Nic. “It’s a long story.” He turned back to Simole. “But why? And why let me find information about shadow dragons in a language that doesn’t exist?”
Simole shrugged. “I don’t know how demons think. I find it easier to ignore what they say and do and wait until they get in range. You can’t trust them, Nic.”
“I don’t,” said Nic.
“You seem to do nothing but,” said Simole.
Whether or not that was true, even if he was being toyed with, he had been given some sort of information about dragons, and dragons were the problem at the moment.
“If you want to know about shadow dragons,” said Simole, “why don’t you ask the expert on shades and shadowy creatures?”
“Who?” said Nic.
Simole was looking past him at Dizzy. Nic turned around. Dizzy didn’t look very pleased to have been excluded from the conversation up till now.
“I don’t have any control over shades any more,” she said in a voice too level to be genuinely calm.
“No, but you did,” said Simole. “Maybe you can help our boy better understand what he’s dealing with.”
“Why don’t you?” said Dizzy.
“If I did that, what would be the point of having you here?” said Simole, smiling.
“Are they made of the same thing?” asked Nic, quickly intervening. “The shades your father made and these dragons?”
“He didn’t make them,” said Dizzy.
“My father,” said Simole. “He’s the only one who could have. Why he would give them to Dizzy’s dad, I don’t know.”
“And your father made the shadow dragons, too?” Nic asked Simole.
“Possibly,” said Simole. “I can’t really see it, though. He doesn’t have that great an imagination, to be honest. Shapeless man-things is about as creative as he gets.”
“Could your father have made the dragons?” Nic asked Dizzy.
“No. I would have been aware of them.”
“Then… the new minister, your fiancé?”
“He isn’t my fiancé,” said Dizzy.
“He seemed to think he was,” said Simole. “Be a bit odd if he just decided by himself.”
“He’s quite an odd person,” said Dizzy. “Do you really think he would make dragons, though? For Gweur?”
“You know him better than we do,” said Simole.
“No, I don’t. I always made sure to not spend any time around him if I could help it.”
“Why?” asked Simole.
The conversation between the girls was making Nic uncomfortable. “First, can you tell me what you know about the shades your dad used? What are they made of? What’s the best way to fight them?”
“The same things you use against anything else,” said Dizzy. “They’re stronger at night.”
“So light hurts them?” asked Nic.
“No,” said Dizzy. “But they lose a lot of substance and go transparent. They find it hard to interact with things in direct light. They can manage alright in heavy shadow, though.”
“They go transparent?” said Nic. “So they’re still there, just harder to see?”
“Yes,” said Dizzy. “They’re still there. Harder to detect, even with magic.”
Nic leaned back in the sofa and closed his eyes. He saw the world from above, the sun on its way to setting in the distance. He asked to see the location of any shadow dragons and saw nothing.
The world flipped before his eyes, dark to light and vice versa. He could see them now, dozens of them circling the capital.
Nic sat up, eyes open. “I know where they are. I have to tell someone.”
He ran out of the room and slammed through the dorm’s front entrance, ignoring the door lady’s protests. He needed to find a Secret Service agent.
The campus was quiet and still. There were no signs of any agents, but they were everywhere now. He would find one easily enough. He was about to close his eyes to locate the nearest one when a figure appeared beside him, wearing a red mask. He was about to tell him he needed a message sent, but something didn’t seem quite right. Especially when the agent took off his mask.
His face was surprisingly old. “Hello, there. Nic, isn’t it? I would have guessed anyway, you’re the spit of your father.”
Nic was taken aback, too surprised to hold his tongue. “You… knew my father?”
“Certainly. Best trainee I ever had. My name’s Rutga, nice to meet you.” He smiled, but for some reason it sent a chill down Nic’s spine.
No sign up required, just hit the button. Cheers.
Votes refresh every seven days, so last week's votes no longer count.Afterword from Mooderino