Nic knew he was late for Ad. Calc. but he didn’t rush. Being ignored had its advantages. As expected, he opened the classroom door with Mrs Finleaves in full flow pointing out the importance of twinned integers in weather equations and was merely glanced at. She carried on speaking as he walked to the back of the classroom where the others were already seated and his unoccupied desk awaited him.
Fanny greeted him with a smile, Davo with a cocked eyebrow and Simole not at all. He sat down and took a book out of his bag without looking at which book it was. It didn’t matter, he was already well-versed in meteorological prognition tables.
And, as it turned out, it also didn’t matter because he was destined to never graduate from Ransom, if Mr Tenner was to be believed.
It was a crushing thing to learn, and even more galling that it had never occurred to him. He had read enough in the biographies of prominent Also-Rans, not least of all Winnum Roke’s, to know how outsiders were treated by the establishment.
Deducing how they would treat him should have been a fairly easy task. But not for a moment had he considered they would take steps to remove the threat of embarrassing their students, who they’d trained over so many years, even before he set foot on Ransom grounds.
Keeping the Also-Rans isolated and unintegrated with the rest of the Upperclass served them well in this regards. He didn’t get to socialise with the other students. He barely had the chance to observe them, other than in the cafeteria or library where they kept themselves at a distance. If he had spoken to them or discussed aspects of their studies, it would quickly have become apparent they were working at a far more advanced level. But the only interactions he’d had were angry confrontations, which only helped to keep him distracted.
He felt stupid and outplayed.
Winnum Roke’s story in particular should have warned him. She had shown remarkable aptitude for magic and was considered a prodigy, but faced relentless hostility and unfair treatment during her time at Ransom.
While the idea of making sure no child with the potential for greatness should be left unnurtured seemed a solid one, the realities of putting that kind of thinking into practice required a number of highly-rated children to step aside. And which prominent members of the Ranvarian elite would gladly accept a demotion of their children’s prospects, even if it was for the good of Ranvar?
Nic was no prodigy. His skill was purely academic, in every sense. He posed little threat in terms of taking away one of the coveted spots on the Arts Course, but a huge threat when it came to making the institute of Ransom look like a waste of time and effort. If a lowly maid’s son could outshine the best and brightest, trained under the finest teachers with no expense spared, then what was the point of the school?
Of course, Nic was just one boy. There were many ways to pass him off as a fluke, a one-time aberration, but it was still an uncomfortable admission to make. Better to make him disappear, quietly and without fuss.
Could that really be what was happening? It seemed an extreme response to what would be a fairly minor blow to Ransom’s reputation. Mallory hadn’t been treated in that manner, and he was good enough to reach the Arts Course. They had multiple ways of stopping Mallory from reaching the Royal College and were happy to let him deny a place to one of their own. Why then would they be so worried about someone like Nic?
Unless it wasn’t him who had caused their placement on the rejected list. He looked over at Simole. She was clearly a problem for the faculty. Her presence had already caused a number of unsavoury incidents, with more to follow, most likely. Would they think it wise to get rid of her?
That didn’t make much sense. With her gifts, Simole would end up at the Royal College no matter what. And no matter which class they put her in, she would attract the wrong kind of attention. It was just in her nature. There seemed to be nothing for them to gain by trying to fail her. And even if they did, she could probably wave a letter in their faces from the King himself and get a reprieve.
He looked past her at Fanny and Davo. They could both be keeping secrets that would explain why it was one of them that had sent them all spinning towards the exit, but it seemed unlikely. Their backgrounds were stable and respectable. If they did well, no eyebrows would be lifted. They were exactly the kind of students who Ransom could point to and congratulate themselves for their egalitarian principles.
No, it looked like it was him and him alone. He was the upstart who needed to learn his place. You could do well, you could try to better yourself, but don’t try to better your betters. That kind of impertinence wouldn’t be tolerated.
It was hard to get angry about the injustice when it made such good sense. Nic understood their reasoning. Unless Nic had the potential to save the nation when no one else could, it was hardly worth letting him upstage the prized youth of the country just because he could. National pride just wouldn’t allow it.
He understood, but there was a faintly yellowing ember of ambition in his deepest recesses that was fanned to a momentary red glow by the thought of thwarting their attempt to brush him off. It was only transient, an unsustainable light in the darkness. How could he possibly overcome their well-planned and resolute intention to keep his ambitions subdued? He couldn’t reach the Arts Course, he would never gain a place at the Royal College, and he certainly wouldn’t become Archmage. He wasn’t Winnum Roke. He was a boy who liked reading too much.
He felt a poke in his ribs and looked up to find the classroom nearly empty. His thoughts had consumed him so completely, he hadn’t heard a single word Mrs Finleaves had said. Hadn’t heard the bell for the end of class. Hadn’t noticed the other children get up and walk out. Only his fellow Also-Rans remained, and Mrs Finleaves sitting at her desk, pretending not to notice them.
Simole, whose finger remained poised to stab again, and probably harder, looked at him questioningly.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Davo as he finished stuffing his bag with books.
“Nothing,” said Nic.
“You were pulling a lot of strange faces,” said Fanny. “I thought you were going to throw up.”
“Was I? Sorry.” He had been too deeply entrenched in his thoughts to be aware of what his face was doing at the time. He felt a sudden blush of embarrassment at the thought of being observed processing what he had just learned.
“What did Tenner want to talk to you about?” asked Davo.
His gaze went from one to the next to the next. Should he tell them their future at Ransom was a foregone conclusion? A sham education destined to come to a sudden and unavoidable premature end?
“He wants me to meet him after school. He wants to show me something in the Pagoda.”
The three of them stared at him. There was a kerfuffle at the other end of the class as Mrs Finleaves dropped the papers she had been pretending to mark. Nic stood up and slipped the book on his desk into his bag. Nobody said anything until they had left the building.
It was a blustery afternoon and the quad was empty. Classes were over for the day and everyone had rushed off to whatever after school club they had waiting for them. Ransom had a plethora of extracurricular activities to help broaden the young minds under their charge. Most of them.
“What does he want to show you?” asked Davo. He pulled up his collar as they walked towards the library.
“I don’t know,” said Nic. It was a good question but one that hadn’t occurred to him while other things preyed on his mind. “He said he wanted me to meet someone.”
“A demon?” said Fanny in a tremulous voice that sounded even more ominous as the wind picked up and whipped his hair up over his head, making him look like he’d been startled by a ghost.
Davo slapped the wayward locks back down, following through to smack Fanny on the top of his head. “Yes, I’m sure he has a whole coven of them in there, doing his bidding and granting wishes.”
“I’m not saying that,” said Fanny. “I mean he might need a human sacrifice, as part of a ritual or something. Mm. Mmm, mm, mm.”
Fanny suddenly couldn’t open his mouth, his lips stuck fast together.
“You know,” said Davo, “normally I would object to you abusing your powers like this, but in this case, good work.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Simole.
“I’ll meet you at the library. I doubt it’ll take long.” Nic turned away to go around the side of the library to the Pagoda.
“Mmm. Mm, mm, mmmmm,” said Fanny.
Nic walked briskly, his shoulders bunched up against the cold. Once he rounded the first corner, the breeze died down as the rear of the library and the group of trees around the Pagoda provided a wind break. It was eerily still and quiet.
The treetops still swayed but above them the Pagoda rose like barbed spearhead jutting out of the ground. It was an imposing building, its windowless facade making it seem more like a container or maybe a prison.
He walked up to the door which was wider and taller than a regular door needed to be. It was made of some strange black metal or maybe polished stone. The door had no hinges and its edges were flush against the frame. Only the difference in colour separated it from its wooden surroundings. There was no bell or knocker. Nic reached out slowly towards the door and the hairs on his arm rose.
His hand stopped short and he considered if touching the black slab was such a good idea. Maybe he should shout and hope someone heard him. Before he had a chance to decide, there was a click and the door opened inwards, swinging effortlessly and without making any noise.
“Ah, there you are,” said Mr Tenner, appearing in the doorway. “Come in, nothing to be worried about.”
His words made Nic think he must have looked as apprehensive as he felt and he made an effort to appear relaxed and at ease. He took a step over the threshold and his heart began hammering in his chest. So much for playing it cool.
It was quite dark at first and then his eyes grew accustomed to the light seeping through the gaps in the structure, of which there were quite a few. Enough to reveal that the insides were almost entirely empty other than a single shaft running through the middle, top to bottom. Nic looked up and he could see almost all the way to the highest point, like he was inside an empty grain silo.
“It’s hollow,” he muttered to himself.
“Yes, nothing much to see up here. Follow me.” Mr Tenner turned around and the door began closing by itself. Nic skipped around it to avoid being pushed back out. Mr Tenner walked over to the left and began disappearing from the bottom up, like he was sinking. As Nic chased after him, he saw the staircase leading down.
The steps wound around the shaft that continued into the foundations. The whole structure appeared to be built around a big stick in the ground.
“Does it act as a kind of antenna?” Nic asked, remembering what Mallory had told him on his first day.
“Antenna? Oh no,” said Tenner as he stayed just within sight as he descended ahead of Nic. “You can’t send a signal through this.” He patted the shaft with one hand and the thuds echoed up the shaft and away. “It allows energy to be dissipated safely. It provides a damping field.”
Nic had read about how some magical devices were grounded to prevent them firing off Arcanum when overloaded, but they usually required a small strip of tuned metal. The herb detectors they used in class had one hanging from the bottom of their casing. If Tenner needed one this big, how much Arcanum was he using down here?
The stairs went down maybe two full rotations. It wasn’t that far, maybe as deep as a basement where you might store wine. There was a small area with a table that could accommodate a small dinner party. Or maybe a corpse. The thought sent a shudder through Nic. He wasn’t sure where such a morbid thought had come from. It was just a table.
Tenner went to the other side of the room where there was a door. An ordinary wooden one that looked solid and heavy but otherwise unremarkable. He turned a handle and it creaked open, the bottom scuffing along the ground.
Nic still didn’t know what he was doing here, but it wasn’t like there was anything to fear. He was hardly going to be murdered and used in a demonic ritual like Fanny had said. Nic couldn’t help but feel it was too late to do anything about it even if he was.
“Come along,” said Tenner, holding the door open.
Nic hurried through the door and fell.
He didn’t actually fall onto the ground, it just felt like he missed his footing and never found it again. He dipped his head continuously and was sure he was about to throw up. Then it stopped and he was standing on the other side of the now closed door. He didn’t remember it closing.
“This way,” said Tenner from ahead of him. They were in a tunnel lit by lanterns set into the wall.
Nic hurried to catch up and bumped into the back of Mr Tenner who was just in front of him, which surprised him.
“That’s quite alright. The person I want you to meet is just in here.”
There was another door and through it was a nice cosy room. Embers from a large hearth cast an orange glow around the windowless chamber, pushing black shadows up the curved walls. A large chair by the hearth contained a figure, too deeply steeped in shadow to make out clearly.
“This is my… friend,” said Mr Tenner.
The figure leaned forward, a face looming towards him across the room, it seemed.
“You can call me Professor Veristotle,” said the old man. He had a pleasant face, warm and friendly. Rosy red cheeks probably from sitting too close to the fire. He seemed familiar but Nic couldn’t tell where from.
“Nice to meet you,” said Nic.
“Are you comfortable?” asked the professor. “You should be very comfortable.”
And he was. Any anxiety he had about being here melted away. He liked the room under the Pagoda. It was private and quiet and no one would know you were down here. He would have liked a room just like it.
He spent a good while thinking about the positive aspects of having his own underground bunker before he noticed Tenner and the professor were deep in discussion.
“You disappoint me wizardling. Such a poor specimen.”
“But Old Mother, he is sharp and malleable, a useful combination. There is much you could do with him and not many that would notice.”
It was strange he called the professor ‘Old Mother’. Was it some kind of nickname? He did have a mothering quality. Nic felt secure with the professor. What a nice man.
“He will not do. He has not a single thread of gold in his tapestry. The girl, I told you, she is a tall tree in a barren field of stubble. Bring her to me.”
“I cannot. She is watched very carefully. Do you wish to attract the attention of those who would wish you harm? No, Old Mother, it would not be safe.”
“Pah, safe, you say. Safe from what? You think me bereft of defences against your kind. Bring me the girl.”
They seemed at odds. Not in an aggressive way, they weren’t fighting, but the girl they were talking about seemed a point of contention between them. Who could she be?
Nic didn’t want to ask, he didn’t feel he should interrupt, but he strongly suspected they were talking about Simole. Who else? She was a special girl, the one everyone took notice of. She would go on to do great things, he was sure. She would be the next Also-Ran to prove herself worthy of Ransom. Nic was pleased by the thought. It was the special people like Simole and Winnum Roke who changed the world. Despite his own efforts to do well, it didn’t really matter if he fell by the wayside. What difference did it make?
“I’m fine as I am, thank you.” His words were loud in the silent chamber. Then he realised he wasn’t in the chamber with the pleasant old man anymore. He was standing outside the Pagoda, his back to the strange door, facing the rear of the library.
He didn’t recall how he got here.
It was dark and the library was closed, he was sure. There were no lights in any of the windows, but it didn’t make the building look spooky. Not at all. It was reassuring. The one place he was always welcome.
Nic walked back to the cottage. He had studying to do, but maybe he would wait until tomorrow. Maybe he would get to see Dizzy, if he was lucky. If he was destined to be kicked out, at least he could spend a little time around her. He found himself smiling at the thought. She would be very angry if he suddenly began popping up. He considered accepting the invitation to join the Standard Club; that would probably drive her livid. She always hated not getting her way. He burst out laughing. She was a special girl, too. Maybe it was her Mr Tenner and the old man had been talking about. Old Mother. It was an odd nickname.
And then he was outside the cottage, wondering how things might have been different if he had accepted that invitation. How would they have arranged for him to be quietly removed if the top students had taken him in and showed him what they were learning? It didn’t seem to make sense.
He shook the thought off. Probably just another ruse designed to stop him working out what was happening. They were smart people, the ones out to teach him the error of his ways. He could rest comfortably in the knowledge that he’d been beaten by worthy adversaries. No shame in being beaten by the best.
He entered the cottage in a good mood.
“What are you so happy about?” said Davo. Silly Davo, always suspicious.
“What did you see in the Pagoda?” asked Fanny eagerly.
“Nothing much. It’s empty, mostly. Big, hollow tube pointing at the sky.”
“Oh, you’re back,” said Simole as she came out of her room. “I—”
“Yes?” said Nic. She had stopped mid-sentence and was just staring at him. “Do I have something on my face?”
Simole came closer. Then closer still. Normally, being that near to a girl would be awkward. He might get a bit nervous, unsure what was going on. But he felt fine. It was just Simole being Simole. She sniffed him.
Good old Simole, always kidding around.
“I showered this morning.”
“No, you stink of Arcanum. I think. It’s a weird kind I don’t recognise.”
“Hold on,” said Fanny. He ran into this room and came out with the herb detector. “I just fixed it. Let me try.”
He turned it on and pointed it at Nic. The clicker turned into a screech which ended with a sharp bang. Smoke rose from it.
“Oh no, not again,” whined Fanny.
“What exactly happened to you in the Pagoda?” asked Davo.
“Nothing. I met a very nice man. I can’t remember his name, but I felt very comfortable around him. Like an old friend. I hope to see him again one day, but if I don’t, that’s okay.”
“This is very strange,” said Simole. “I can’t reach him. Nothing I do gets through. It’s like he’s wrapped up in wool.”
“Magic wool?” asked Davo.
“Stronger than yours?”
“Different. And stronger, yes.”
“What should we do?” asked Fanny.
Nic wasn’t sure what they were talking about. They were looking at him with concern, but he felt fine. He felt great, in fact. Never better.
“Give me that, I’ll fix it.” He took the still smoking box from Fanny. Fixing things, that’s what he should do with his life. You didn’t need to be the best, just good enough to be useful to others. He went into his room and sat down at the desk. He opened a drawer and looked for a screwdriver he knew was in there. He couldn’t find it. The only thing in there was a pen. Good, he could make a list of things he could do. Useful things.
He picked up the pen and his head exploded. Or that’s what it felt like.
He was knocked backwards. He was sitting down, so the chair tipped over and he was staring up at the ceiling. His hand was burning. He realised it was the pen. It was very hot. He let go of it and he looked around. Three faces were peering down at him.
“Are you okay?” asked Fanny.
“I think so,” said Nic. “I think I know what the pen does.”
He remembered going into the Pagoda. He remembered meeting the old man. Old Mother. Professor Veristotle. And he remembered where he knew the name from. It was in Winnum Roke’s autobiography. He’d been her teacher at the Royal College, more than a thousand years ago.