The librarian’s office was as neat and proper as always. Not one thing was out of place, so it took Nic no time at all to locate the lamp she kept on the shelf behind her desk.
Nic had entered the library through this office many times. He had never rummaged through the desk drawers or rifled through the filing cabinets, that would have felt like a transgression, but borrowing the lamp and using a match from the box next to it were acceptable liberties.
He lit the candle and drew down the hood so the light from the yellow flame became a dim glow.
“Start in here,” he said to Fanny. “But remember to keep your back to the Pagoda.”
Fanny nodded and took out the Arcanum detector, careful to keep it pointing away from the way they’d entered. The Arcanum emanating from the Pagoda had been enough to destroy the detector before, and that was before its sensitivity had been increased.
Davo stood by the window. His tall, angular frame silhouetted against the square pane of starlit glass seemed far more nervous than his face would suggest. His head batted back and forth between keeping watch and observing Fanny.
“Is that a herbal detector?” asked Dizzy dubiously.
“Yes,” said Fanny, a hint of pride in his voice. “I modified it.” He took hold of a wire sticking out of the back of the detector and pulled, lengthening it until it was up by his head. He inserted the end into his ear.
“What’s that?” asked Davo.
“Make it easier to hear the clicks.” Fanny raised the detector in front of him and Nic and Dizzy immediately moved to get out of his way.
Steadily, Fanny waved the small wooden box from side to side, deeply concentrating. He moved it up and down and around, pointing at different parts of the room.
“Modified it to do what?” Dizzy had lowered her voice to offer no distraction, but sounded no less dubious.
“Detect magic,” whispered Nic. “Processed Arcanum, hopefully.”
“That isn’t possible,” said Dizzy. “You would need—”
“Simole charged it,” said Nic.
Fanny finished scanning one area and looked up to see where to apply his machine next, his serious demeanour already that of a master detectorist.
“That was a while ago, though,” said Davo. “Are you sure there’s enough power left in there to do this?”
“It was a massive amount of raw Arcanum she put in here.” Fanny shook the box like they might be able to hear the Arcanum rattling around inside. “I’m sure it’ll last the night. At least. Pretty sure.”
Davo shook his head. “Why do I get the feeling those words will come back to haunt us?”
Fanny held the detector over the librarian’s desk. “You don’t think there are ghosts in the library, do you?”
“We have far more scary things to worry about than ghosts,” said Davo. “Just get on with it before we’re caught and expelled ahead of schedule.”
“What is it you’re looking for?” asked Dizzy. “A new species of indoor herb?”
“I’m hoping there’s a key in here,” said Nic.
“A magic key?” said Dizzy, her tone making it very clear what she thought of the idea.
“A key that might have traces of Arcanum on it,” said Nic.
“Couldn’t we just search for it the old fashioned way?” asked Davo.
“No,” said Nic, more sharply than he intended. Disturbing the carefully arranged private sanctum of the librarian felt wrong. A betrayal.
Fanny shut one eye and pressed the wire sticking out of his ear so it went further in. He continued scouring the shelves and cabinets. The other three stood back, waiting.
“This key,” said Dizzy, “what will it open?”
“A room,” said Nic. “A secure room where they keep special books. Most libraries have them.”
“This one doesn’t,” said Dizzy.
“And you know that for a fact, do you?” said Davo.
Dizzy folded her arms and looked from Davo to Nic. “So all this is for a book?”
“This is all to save someone’s life,” said Nic, and immediately regretted saying the words out loud. They sounded ridiculous. Did he even have any proof Simole’s life was at risk? And even if it was, what made him think he should be the one to save her? The whole thing was preposterous from start to end. And yet, the danger he sensed felt no less present. It was right there.
“Simole?” asked Dizzy. “She’s got herself in some stupid predicament and you’re going to rush in and save her? You?” She was voicing his thoughts like she’d read them off the top of his head.
“Not me. The book.”
“The autobiography of Winnum Roke,” said Davo. “Perhaps you’ve heard of her?”
“Of course I’ve heard of her,” Dizzy snapped.
“No,” said Nic, “not that one.”
“No?” said Davo, surprised. “Then which book are we looking for?”
“I’m… not sure. But the librarian said we’d find it in the room with the autobiography. Don’t you remember? You were there when she said it.”
Davo rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “She said there were books on Demonology, but she didn’t say they would help us save Simole.”
“Yes, she did. I mean, she didn’t say it like that, but that’s what she meant.” He sounded desperate, even to himself.
Davo softened his voice, as though he recognised the fragile place his friend had placed himself. “Even if we find the right book, do you really think you can learn enough in a night to challenge Tenner? He’s been studying this stuff his whole life.”
“I don’t need to match his knowledge,” said Nic. “It’s a lot easier to break things than build them. He might have taken a lifetime to figure out how to open a door to the Other Place, but we only need to find a key step in the process and stick a spanner in it. If we can disrupt the procedure before he can complete it, he’ll fail to connect and the door will stay closed.”
“And in the meantime,” said Davo, “Simole could already be dead.”
Nic bowed his head. “Yes. But I don’t think so. Everything I’ve read about this kind of transformation has said its slow. And painful. We have time.”
What he said was true, he had read about this kind of thing and the victims didn’t die instantly; it was long and drawn out. But he had only read about it in fairy tales. Although, to be fair, they were fairly tales written by Winnum Roke.
“Tenner?” said Dizzy. “Are you talking about Mr Tenner, the Arcanum tutor?”
“Yes,” said Davo. “Arcanum and Demonology. He’s got Simole.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Dizzy, too flustered to say anything else. The look in her eyes suggested she was starting to regret coming on this particular adventure.
“There’s nothing here,” said Fanny emphatically. “I don’t think so, anyway,” he added somewhat less emphatically.
“Okay, let’s try out there.” Nic opened the office door, glad for the change of scenery. The office was small and they were too close together for comfort. The others filed past him into the main floor of the library.
Fanny raised the detector and swung it in a wide arc. Nic rushed forward and grabbed Fanny’s arm, restricting his movements.
“Careful,” said Nic. “Pagoda.” He nodded over his shoulder at the looming shape in the window behind him.
Fanny nodded and made smaller arcs as he walked across the library, the other three behind him.
“The girl must mean a lot to you,” said Dizzy, her effort at nonchalance quite convincing.
“She means a lot to all of us,” said Davo. “That’s how friendship works.” He let his words hang in the air. Nic could tell there would soon be a combustion between them, like between two volatile gasses, but didn’t know what to do about it.
Fanny stopped in the middle of the library and pointed the detector higher. “I’m getting something. Faint. I think we need to go up a floor.”
They marched up the stairs, Fanny leading the way.
“This is going to take all night,” said Dizzy irritably. “And that’s if the room even exists.”
“You can always leave, if you don’t feel up to it,” suggested Davo, affecting a couldn’t care less manner designed to infuriate her further.
“Another floor,” said Fanny, holding the detector over his head. Dizzy stomped past him and headed up the stairs.
“She’s right about one thing,” said Davo. “This could take all night. Are you sure it wouldn’t be better to try something else?”
“Like what?” said Nic.
“Like what Fanny suggested, painful as it is for me to say those words.”
“I heard that,” said Fanny from further up the staircase.
Davo ignored the interruption. “Contact the Secret Service, let them handle it.”
Nic exhaled through his nose, the sound amplified by the closeness of the walls. “I don’t think so. Even if we did manage to track them down, I don’t think they’d be able to do much. They know she can make herself impossible to find if she wants. That’s what Tenner was counting on. And they’re not going to break into the Pagoda on our say so. At best, they’ll wait till tomorrow and talk to Tenner about it, and he’s hardly going to admit to anything. This way, if there is an answer, we can stop Tenner’s plan before he has a chance to get very far into it.”
“No offence, Nic, but it sounds a bit like you’re reaching beyond your grasp.”
“Yes. I am, I guess. But I’ll know for sure once we get inside the room. I shouldn’t take too long to find out if there’s a book in there that can help. And if not...” He didn’t finish because he didn’t know.
“What about Mistress Delcroix? Couldn’t her father help?”
Nic smiled and exhaled another noisy breath. “Perhaps, but there’s no way she’d ask him for help. Ever.”
“You realise,” said Davo, “as soon as we leave here, she’s probably going to report us in exchange for a gold star or whatever they hand out to reward good behaviour.”
“She wouldn’t do that,” said Nic, utterly shocked by the idea.
“No, of course not. Because you ate berries under a bush once.”
“It wasn’t just that,” said Nic, a moment of fond recollection crossing his face. “I got stuck under a wicked bramble for reasons that are too… complicated to go into, and she thought it was hilarious. I couldn’t move without gouging myself, it was horrible. I was covered in bloody scratches and unable to go forward or backwards. She could have gone for help, or cut the thing down herself, but she didn’t. She crawled in there beside me, just so I wouldn’t be alone.”
“That,” said Davo, “is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Yes,” Nic agreed. “It is.”
They reached the next floor. Fanny had the detector pointed at the ceiling. “Up there. Next floor.”
There were no more stairs.
“I’ve told him,” said Dizzy, “you can’t go any higher.”
“Maybe on the roof?” said Nic.
“This is as high as it goes,” said Dizzy, “unless you think the books you’re looking for are on the roof, out in the open.”
Fanny’s face reddened in the candlelight. “There could be a—”
“No,” said Dizzy, cutting him off. “You can see the library roof from the top of the School Pavilion. It’s flat and empty.”
“Just because you haven’t seen something, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” said Nic.
“I’ve been here five years, I think I would have noticed a secret bunker on top of a completely flat roof.”
“Are you really Ransom’s smartest pupil?” said Davo. “It’s not a hard concept to grasp. If you see it, that means it exists. If you don’t see it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You have to be willing to investigate further.”
Nic could tell Davo was desperately hoping there was a secret room just to prove his point, and that Dizzy was desperately hoping the opposite. It almost made him smile.
Fanny walked around with the detector held high as possible. He went back and forth, slowly closing in on an area in the far corner. “Here.”
Nic slid the hood off the candle so the light illuminated the room more fully. He knew there was a danger they would be noticed from outside, but there was little choice. They all looked up at the whitewashed ceiling.
“Can you see that hole?” said Davo. They all strained.
“Isn’t it a speck of dust or something?” asked Fanny.
“I don’t think the librarian allows them,” said Davo.
“I see it,” said Nic. “It’s a hole. A really small hole. It could be a keyhole.” He looked around at the others. “A really small keyhole.”
Davo and Fanny didn’t look convinced but Dizzy said, “Wait here,” and ran down the stairs.
They waited, as instructed, shrugging at each other. A few moments later she came running back carrying a stick. It was very thin and about the length of her arm.
“I told you, I’ve been here five years. I notice things.” She flicked the stick and it extended to twice its length. “I always wondered what this was for.” She flicked it again and it grew by another third. It was long enough to reach the hole in the ceiling and the pointed tip appeared to be the right size to fit.
Everyone stepped aside as Dizzy went to the far wall and raised her arm over her shoulder, prodding the stick at the hole. After three failed attempts, it slotted into the hole and there was a click. A square outline appeared, emitting faint light and a flap dropped, making them all rush back in case something fell on their heads. There was a metallic whoosh as a ladder slid down. The bottom rung stopped just before it hit the floor.
Fanny pointed the detector at the much larger hole in the ceiling which now showed the night sky, and nodded. They stood there looking at each other and then Nic and Dizzy stepped forward at the same time, almost bumping into each other.
“Ladies first,” said Davo drily.
“But I have the light,” said Nic, holding up the lamp with the hood drawn over it again. Dizzy handed him the stick and took the lamp from him. She went up first.
Nic dropped the stick and hurried after her, careful to not let his fingers get trodden.
He came up into a small room with glass walls. It was a dome that covered the middle part of the roof and was empty apart from a little table. Nic looked at the tabletop, inlaid with curling patterns of ivory and silver, and at the two books resting on it. One was the autobiography of Winnum Roke, the other was the book of myths and legends written by her alter ego, Wink Monroe. There were no other books in sight.
Fanny and Davo emerged and looked around in wonder. They were under the open sky, but no wind or chill touched them.
Dizzy had a hand pressed against the glass wall, peering through it like she wasn’t sure it was there.
Nic opened the book on fairy tales.
“These are the only two books?” asked Davo.
“Yes,” said Dizzy. “Unless there’s another secret room even more secret than this one.”
“Do you think you could restrain the sneering for a moment?” said Davo, barely restraining his own. “We have to think what to do next.”
“I’m not sneering. But there doesn’t seem to be very much special about those two books, does there?”
Davo didn’t say anything, most likely, Nic guessed, because he agreed.
“I don’t know about the autobiography,” continued Dizzy, “but I have a copy of the other one at my house.”
“They’re both by Winnum Roke, aren’t they?” said Fanny. “That must mean something. Maybe she is still alive. Maybe she’s the person we have to find and the clues are in these two books.”
“You think she’s alive after a thousand years?” said Dizzy contemptuously. “Are you an idiot?”
Davo still didn’t say anything. Most likely, Nic guessed, because he agreed with her on this point also.
“There’s no record of her dying,” said Fanny. “Look in her autobiography.”
Dizzy pulled a face of utter disdain. “It’s an autobiography. That means she wrote it herself. How could she write about her own death?”
“Magic,” said Fanny defiantly, which was a reasonable point.
“Wait,” said Nic. “This book, this is handwritten and drawn.” He had the Tales of Myth and Legend in his hands. It had a very different feel to any version of the book he’d held before. He thrust it at Fanny. “Does it register Arcanum?”
Fanny pointed the detector at it and instantly reared back, wincing. He yanked the wire from his ear. “Yeah. Big time.”
Nic flicked through the pages. It didn’t seem like an otherworldly tome. No crackles of magic between page flips, no tingle of eldritch forces at play.
“What does it do?” he wondered out loud.
“I think that’s for you to find out,” said a soft voice from behind them.
They all turned, startled and huddling together despite their differences, to find the librarian standing there, tall and unwavering, her glasses hanging on a chain around her neck.
“You weren’t there a moment ago,” said Davo, a finger pointing accusingly, his other hand over his wildly beating heart.
“I was always here,” said the librarian. She took a step to the side and disappeared.
Nic and the others moved closer and around to the side. The librarian was sitting on a stool in an alcove. “In a country built on magic, a simple trick with mirrors.” She stood and waved her hand around. “All this is hidden in plain sight.”
“Are there more books here?” asked Nic. “Hidden in plain sight?”
“No. Just those two.”
“Are you Winnum Roke?” blurted out Fanny.
The librarian’s normally impassive features downturned into a momentary frown. “Exactly how old do you think I am?”
“Don’t answer,” Davo muttered from the side of his mouth. “It’s a trick question.”
“No, I’m not Winnum Roke.” The librarian reasserted her stone-like composure. “Although I often wished I was when I was younger; as do most girls who are aware of what she accomplished, wouldn’t you say, Miss Delcroix?”
Dizzy scowled. “I prefer to be myself.”
“Of course. Well, those of us not quite so gifted see Winnum Roke as something of a role model. She was a great woman.”
“Is she dead?” asked Nic.
“I think so. No one really knows. The mages from back then were transmuters and summoners of accomplishment, routinely modifying their own forms, and commanding the denizens of the Other Place. It’s hard to know what she was capable of. But she left these books—no others, just these two—for when they’d be needed. She didn’t explain how or by whom. Each Ransom librarian has taken on the role of watching over them until the time was right. That time would appear to be now.”
“Couldn’t you just have told us all this and shown us the books yourself?” said Davo. “Instead of making us go through all this?”
“I didn’t know how closely they were watching you. I waited here to see if you’d be followed. It appears they don’t consider you a very great threat.”
“Who doesn’t?” said Dizzy, sounding as exasperated as Davo. “Who are ‘they’.”
The librarian shrugged and there was a glimmer of a smile across her lips. “Do you know the true history of Ranvar? Our lands are small but rich in mines and minerals. There has always been war here and in the wreckage of each aftermath, all control was temporary, all authority fleeting. Until, that is, Arcanum was learned and peace and prosperity were established. Archmage Roke warned against too much reliance on magic. One day the owners of the power the mages wield so freely will return to reclaim what was theirs, but… it’s hard to heed a warning when you don’t know if it is due in a year or ten thousand. Especially when the benefits are so vast.”
“What do the books do?” Nic held up the Tales of Myth and Legend. “This one’s giving off Arcanum, but there aren’t any spells in here, are there?”
“No,” said the librarian. “Many have tried to decrypt the meaning in those stories, but it has never seemed more than simple tales for children. Perhaps you can find something others have missed.”
“But we don’t have time,” said Nic, growing ever more so frustrated. He had risked everything on finding an answer here, but this wasn’t the answer he’d been looking for. He didn’t want more puzzles. He didn’t want history lessons. He wanted a solution, a way to stop Tenner.
“I’m sorry,” said the librarian. “This is all there is.”
Nic looked at the book cover. There was an outline of an animal that most people thought was a wolf or some demonic beast, but which he knew to be a harmless pet dog.
Were there really answers in here? Could he find them before it was too late?
Fanny suddenly leapt in the air, his body twisting and spasming like he’d been blasted by an unseen force. He recovered almost instantly and peered around guiltily. The others looked at him with questioning eyes.
“Sorry,” said Fanny with an embarrassed frown. “I accidentally pointed the detector at the Pagoda. Thought it might blow up again.”
The top of the Pagoda was peeking down at them from across the way.
“Is it broken?” asked Davo.
Fanny’s eyes darted around the box, looking for signs of damage. “No. Actually, it isn’t.” He put the wire back in his ear and pointed it at the book in Nic’s hands. “Working fine. Close call.”
Nic walked over to him and grabbed the box from his hand. He pointed it directly at the Pagoda.
Fanny threw his hands up and pulled the wire from his ear, both eyes squeezed shut and braced for a sonic punch. One eye re-opened and he reinserted the wire. “Nothing.”
Nic turned to the librarian. “Do these walls block Arcanum?”
“No,” said the librarian.
There was a loud bang, followed by a series of sharp cracks as sparks flew from the Pagoda’s eaves, lighting it up from top to bottom. Lightning raced up its shaft and smoke wafted up in a large bloom.
Nic threw the box at Fanny, turned and ran. He jumped down the ladder, his hands burning as they slid along the sides. He sprinted and jumped down the stairs, through the back office and out into the night air. The chill hit him like a slap but he ignored it. He ran all the way to the Pagoda, stumbling a little in his haste.
The large seamless door was open. Davo and Dizzy caught up to him as he pushed the heavy door wider. It had opened effortlessly last time he was here, but now it was leaden. He entered the gloomy interior. He didn’t bother to wait for a guide, he doubted one would come. He knew where the stairs were.
He raced down them, the lit sconces guttering in and out of life. He came to a familiar antechamber and opened the door to the next room. There was the chair the old man had been in. Only there wasn’t an old man there now, there was a young woman, sitting limp, head fallen forward.
Nic lifted Simole’s head. Her eyes were open but lifeless.
He listened for a heartbeat, felt for a pulse, but found neither. There was no breath from her mouth. Her skin had an ashen pallor and she was cold to the touch.