“Why didn’t you tell us any of this before?” asked Davo, as annoyed as Nic had ever seen him.
“Yeah,” said Fanny. “Would’ve been nice to know.”
“And maybe Simole wouldn’t have wandered in there, unprepared,” added Davo.
The guilt already weighed heavily on Nic, he didn’t need them adding to it. But he understood why they felt betrayed. Now they knew the truth—all of it, as far as he could remember—and they had not reacted with sympathy and understanding. They had both become very angry.
The hardest part was admitting he had purposefully misled them. He tried to make excuses, citing his confusion and Arcanum-induced delirium as reasons for holding back. There was some validity to what he said, he’d hardly been able to believe it himself and been full of doubts, so spreading his uncertain suspicions wouldn’t have done much good, but his words sounded hollow and empty.
“To be honest, I’m not used to relying on other people. I’ve always done things on my own.” He stared at the rug on the floor, unable to meet their eyes.
“Yes,” said Davo. “You have a terrible habit of looking down on the people around you.”
Nic wanted to object, insist that wasn’t true, but he was in no position to do so.
“Tell us again, everything that happened inside the Pagoda,” said Davo. “Leave nothing out.”
He repeated his story, from the moment he stepped through the strange door to when he found himself back outside. He quoted every word he’d heard and what he suspected they meant, from the odd things Professor Veristotle had said to the unlikelihood of both Arcanum experts not noticing his poisoned condition.
He included what he’d learned from the books he’d read and the conversations with Tenner. He told them about his deal with the librarian and the history he had with Dizzy, who her father was and the mystery of why he gave Nic the pen. And he told them whose daughter Simole was.
Once he started revealing all the things he had kept so jealously guarded, there seemed to be no stopping it.
He’d kept so much from them, left them in the dark while he basked in the glory of knowing what others did not. It was embarrassing, it was awful, he wanted to crawl out of his own skin and slink away, but he deserved every excruciating moment.
They had listened slack-jawed and grew increasingly agitated, but held their questions for when he finished.
“So they were using you to bait Simole?” asked Davo.
“I think so. I can’t see any other reason to let me go so obviously out of my mind. They wanted her to come to them.”
“Why?” asked Fanny nervously. “What are they going to do to her?”
“I’m not sure. Something to do with opening a door into the demonic plane, I would guess. Her power might allow them to do something, some experimental spell, that wouldn’t work with anyone else.”
“By killing her?” Fanny’s normally red face was stark white.
“Maybe. They’ll probably need to keep her alive for now, though.” He knew he sounded like he was grasping at straws.
“We could be jumping to all sorts of silly conclusions,” said Davo, his face as pale as it ever was. “She might be absolutely fine. We’ve seen what she can do. If anyone can take care of themselves in a situation like this…”
“I know,” said Nic, quietly, “but they know what she’s capable of, too. They wouldn’t have done this if they didn’t have a way of controlling her or neutralising her abilities.”
There was a long silence as the three of them stood in the small hallway.
“So, what do we do?” said Fanny, desperately trying to move them towards a solution. “We could tell one of the teachers. They’d have to do something. I mean, they’re not all hostile towards us, not completely hostile, that is…” He lost faith in what he said as he said it and let his words fade away.
“It’s Saturday,” said Davo. “And even if we could find a teacher, they wouldn’t be inclined to believe us. Simole’s just gone off somewhere, like she always does. They’re hardly going to give credence to the idea she’s been kidnapped for nefarious purposes by another teacher.”
It certainly sounded unbelievable when Davo said it out loud. Nic felt at a loss. What was he supposed to do? This wasn’t a multiple choice test where he at least knew the correct answer was somewhere on the page. Simole was in trouble, every uncomfortable twinge in his body insisted on it. He might even have inadvertently given Tenner the idea to use her as a dimensional doorway. The guilt choked him and made it hard to breathe.
He left Davo and Fanny by the fire and went into his room. It was too hot, too close, his face burned with heat inside and out. He opened the large window by his desk and stuck his head out, taking large, gulping breaths.
Outside, the day was brittle and cold. His view consisted of grey skies and the pond, surrounded by dead vegetation. Simole had done that. Her power was truly awesome while being quietly terrifying, and she could use it without resorting to chants or complicated gestures.
It wasn’t really surprising; she had been trained by the greatest mage alive since she was a baby. Her skills were greater than most full mages, greater than the Master who had come to the school. Perhaps Davo was right, perhaps she could take care of herself.
But there was no confidence in his thinking. Simole was still a young girl facing two experienced and well-prepared opponents. He strongly suspected Professor Veristotle was much more than the doddering old man he had appeared to be. Possibly, his appearance had been altered using Arcanum to make him seem aged and harmless.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Nic felt responsible for allowing Simole to fall into their clutches. He didn’t know what to do, but he held no doubt that he had to do something.
He was even less qualified to take on Tenner and his mentor than Simole. What could he do to stop them? He didn’t even know what they were planning to do.
But he could surmise. He could take the information he had, and extrapolate a series of possibilities. It was what he was good at.
Tenner might have years of experience, but his resources were available to all. Knowledge was free and easily accessible. There wasn’t much time and a lot of data to go through, but sorting out the relevant from the incidental, and using the incidental to fortify the relevant in ways no one else thought to, was where Nic excelled.
He had an entire, well-stocked library at his disposal. If Tenner was planning to open a door using Simole as the catalyst, there would be ways to keep the door closed. Technically, you didn’t need to be a mage to disrupt a spell.
Buoyed by the idea of finding a solution that was waiting for him between the covers of a book, he turned around, ready to share his renewed hope with the others.
“I’ve got it,” said Fanny, rushing into the room. “Simole’s under the King’s protection, right? She’s watched by the Secret Service, right? All we have to do is contact them and tell them she’s gone missing and might be in danger.” His fingers curled and uncurled with nervous energy. “They’d have to act, right? It’s their job.”
“And how are we supposed to contact them?” asked Davo as he followed Fanny in. “Do you know any of their local hangouts?”
The Secret Service’s headquarters on campus was, as their name implied, a secret.
“They always turn up when there’s a rumble,” said Fanny, “as long as it involves one of the nobles. We could start a fight with someone important, in line to the throne or something, and then wait.” He looked expectantly for confirmation that this was a brilliant idea.
Davo shook his head. “All that would do is get us beaten black and blue. The only person who could pull of something like that is Simole but unfortunately, the person you’re trying to rescue doesn’t normally involve themselves in the rescue attempt.”
Fanny snapped his fingers and his agitated tics and jiggles stopped. “I’ve got it. We use the detector.” He pointed to the box sitting on Nic’s desk. “Secret Service give off Dark Arcanum, right? No problem. I just need to get hold of a copy of Roke’s Index.”
“You really think you can get it that sensitive?” asked Nic. He knew it was possible, but he hadn’t had the time to work out how.
“I fixed it before, I can do it again. I just need to refine the parameters.” He patted Nic on the arm. “It’s all very well knowing the theoreticals, but magic’s value is in its practical applications. I’ve been playing around with this thing since you broke it, I think I can modify it to do what we want. No, I’m sure I can. Let’s go to the library, they should have the technical specs I need.”
“Yes, I was just—” began Nic, but Fanny had already walked out.
“Hm,” said Davo, “well, that’s a start, but we need to cover all our bases. If they are planning some demonic hoo ha, there’s got to be a way of stopping them, or at least slowing them down. We should go look in that private study Tenner keeps in the library. We might find a clue to what he’s up to.”
“Yes,” said Nic, “I was going to say the—” Davo walked out before Nic could finish.
He was standing alone in his room, doing nothing to help Simole while the other two were already taking action. He hurried to catch up.
The three of them strode purposefully across the campus, the wind flapping their garments. There were hardly any students about but the sounds of cheers and applause drifted across from the playing fields. Sports of various kinds were taking place, harmless contests of skill and athleticism. Nobody died playing those games.
“Are you sure there isn’t anything else you have to tell us?” asked Davo as they neared the library. “Any dark secrets that might get us locked up or thrown out of the country?”
“No, I, oh, actually…” There was something he had completely forgotten.
The other two stopped and glared at him. “What?” demanded Davo.
“It’s just that, er, we probably won’t be getting into the second year of the Upperclass.”
They continued glaring at him. Nic quickly summed up how they had been placed in the lowest classes with the intention of not troubling the students the school actually valued. Surprisingly, both Fanny and Davo took this news without much reaction.
“Can’t say I’m surprised,” said Davo with a snort. “Entirely in keeping with the entitled mindset this place thrives on.”
“And these people are going to be our future rulers?” Fanny shook his head in disappointment.
“Hardly time to sort this out right now,” said Davo, “but, Nic, please, no more withholding. I realise you meant to protect us while you found a solution on your own, but it really is quite patronising. It won’t do.”
“No. I’m sorry,” said Nic.
“From now on, full disclosure. Three minds are better than one. Even two and a half minds.” He glanced sideways at Fanny.
“I ignore your feeble attempt at humour,” said Fanny. “We’re only wasting time, now. We can come up with a way to destroy Ransom’s fragile ego later.” He marched into the library.
Fanny immediately split off to find the books he needed for his research. Nic and Davo went up to the private study room. Nic opened it with his key and they walked into an empty room.
Never had nothing been such a shocking sight. Every book, big, small, thick and thin, every scrap of paper was gone.
“Seems like they had a clear out,” said Davo.
Nic wandered around the small room like he might find a hidden corner behind which everything was waiting for him.
“It was here. Dozens of books.”
“Oh, I have no doubt. Thieves in the night, and so forth. We are a step behind, Nic, but there’s no cause for panic. We need to observe basic principles of business. When your competitor takes a seemingly unassailable lead, you put your head down and pursue your own course. You don’t rush blindly ahead, you slowly reel him in.”
Nic nodded. He had to think. The books hadn’t left the premises, the librarian would never allow that, they had just been relocated. He was pretty sure he remembered most of the titles. He certainly recalled Winnum Roke’s autobiography. There was zero chance the librarian wouldn’t know what happened to it.
Somewhere deep in his instincts he knew that book was important. It wasn’t just a recollection of anecdotes, it held vital clues, he was sure of it. Winnum Roke had inadvertently opened a door to the Other Place, as she called it. She had written the book of fairy tales full of myths that weren’t quite so mythical.
“Ah, Nic,” said the librarian when he approached her desk. She let out a long breath that was worryingly close to a sigh. It was the most emotional Nic had ever seen her. “It seems you have been quite the busy boy.”
“I have?” said Nic, unsure how to respond, or to what exactly he’d be responding to.
“Mr Tenner has asked that you return the key to his private study.”
“Oh, yes, of course.” Nic quickly handed over the small key. It wasn’t like he had any use for it, now. “I left the autobiography in there, the one you lent me.”
“Yes,” said the librarian. “It is back in my keeping.”
Nic let out a sigh of his own. “Could I borrow it again.”
The look over the librarian’s spectacles robbed him of his recently claimed relief.
“I’m afraid not. I received a missive from the Headmaster.” She paused to allow the gravity of the situation to sink in. “He asked that you no longer be allowed any extraordinary privileges beyond those of other students. I use ‘asked’ euphemistically. To wit, I will require the return of the other key I left in your keeping.”
The Headmaster himself had become involved. Was he trying to stop Nic embarrassing his students in the mocks, or was he aligned with Tenner?
This time he was far more hesitant when he took out the key to the library’s back door. He moved his hand towards her in jerks like it was being tugged forward by a string. She took the key from his involuntarily firm grasp and it was as if a lifeline had been ripped from him.
“You can still use the regular facilities during opening hours, of course.”
“But, but, the Libraries Charter…” It was a weak effort. She had originally given him the key to counter his claim to be able to take books out of the library, as the law stated was his right. With her taking back the key, he no longer needed to stay silent on the matter. But he didn’t have the time for this. He needed to get hold of the information he needed right now, not after a protracted dispute he would probably end up losing.
“Nic,” said the librarian in a soft, hushed voice that made him take a step back. Davo, standing behind him, pushed him forward again. “I don’t know what’s going on, but my advice to you would be to maintain a low profile and do nothing to further antagonise the Headmaster.” She offered him one arched eyebrow as a sign of her conviction in her words.
“If I do nothing,” said Nic, “someone will most likely be killed.”
He earned himself a second eyebrow salute. “If that is true, you should inform the faculty immediately.”
“The faculty,” said Nic in a quiet but steady voice, “will be doing the killing.”
The librarian’s mouth lifted up at the corners. It wasn’t a smile, per se, but it had all the hallmarks.
“I see. And do you know the method of this murder you claim the teachers will be performing?” She pierced his with a look sharper than any knife.
“Demons,” said Davo.
Her gaze lifted over him and Nic could think again.
“Yes,” said Nic. “It started with Winnum Roke’s dog—” He had a lot more to explain but the librarian picked up the book she was working on, turned around and exchanged it for another on the trolley behind her. She normally moved quickly around her base of operations, but this time it took her an inordinate amount of time to return to the front desk. Her face was as smooth and unmarked as fresh vellum.
“Mr Tutt, you are a student at Ransom, and as such you have the same rights as any other student. Unfortunately, the autobiography you requested is considered a dangerous artefact and under the Libraries Charter does not fall under normal provisions. As stated in Article 8, such artefacts are held in secure locations where they can do least harm.”
Nic’s head swam with the sudden barrage of information. Not just what he was being told, but why? The librarian had basically just confirmed there was a special holding room for books like the autobiography, also implying there were other similar books.
“This secure location,” said Nic, “where is it?”
“I’m not at liberty to say. But you can be assured it is as secure as it can be while under my purview.”
That could only mean it was somewhere in the library. She was trying to help him, he just wished she could be more direct about it.
“We need to find the books on Demonology that were in Mr Tenner’s private room, those should still be on the shelves, shouldn’t they?”
“Of course,” said the librarian. “Only the most dangerous books on demons would be kept in the secure room.” There was a very long pause. “Happy reading.” She returned to her work and paid Nic no more attention.
They spent the rest of the afternoon hunting down books and making notes. Fanny was off in his own world, but Davo was happy to help Nic track down the books from Tenner’s room. Nic rifled through them, writing copious notes but not really taking it in. He would need to go through them later and process his thoughts.
By the time the library closed, Nic and Fanny both had stacks of paper to take home.
“I think I’ve got what I need,” said Fanny as they crossed the quad. “I should be able to pinpoint a Secret Service agent within a ten metres, maybe more if my calculations are right.”
“Forget that,” said Nic. “Just make it as sensitive as possible. We need to find a book in the library. One that’s in a secret room.”
The other two looked at Nic in surprise.
“A book?” said Fanny. “What book?”
“One on Winnum Roke, the autobiography I told you about, and some others on Demonology, I think.”
“The librarian?” asked Davo.
“Yeah. We just need to get into the library. After dark, when no one’s about.”
“And how are we supposed to do that when you don’t have a key anymore?” asked Davo.
“I’ve been thinking about that. I think I know someone who can get us in. We just need to find her.”
Fanny returned to the cottage to start working on his book detector. Nic and Davo headed towards the roars.
There were six separate playing areas marked out in white paint. Different matches, in some cases, different games, were taking place on each. Crowds of students surrounded them, wearing different coloured scarves that corresponded to the jerseys worn by players.
Nic thought it would be a miracle to find Dizzy here, but everyone seemed to be present and he knew how much she loved games. It turned out not to be difficult at all. She wasn’t watching, she was playing.
She was heavily involved in a lacrosse match, a game he had read about but never seen in the flesh. It seemed slightly ridiculous, but then he was not the sporty type; never had been. It was a wonder they’d ever been so close.
He and Davo stood on the sidelines, away from the majority of people. No one paid them any attention, too engaged with cheering and screaming and demanding more.
It made his heart soar to watch her leap and run and celebrate what he assumed was a goal or a point or whatever it was called. And it made his heart sink to realise how apart from her life he was. And sink even more when he caught sight of the tall boys watching from the crowd. Her friends or cronies or maybe even henchmen.
When the final whistle blew, he tried to think of a way to approach her without drawing too much attention, but it would have been impossible. She was the centre of attention. She always had been.
But then she separated from the swarming circle and headed towards him.
“Is she coming this way?” he asked Davo, just to make sure.
“It does appear so. Looks like she noticed you were here.”
He had his request all worked out and ready to go, until she neared him in sweaty top and tiny skirt. She looked flushed but ridiculously healthy. She glowed.
“What do you want?” Her voice was colder than the chill breeze. “Go away.”
“I need your help.”
“And why would I help you?” She looked back, like she was concerned others might see her talking to him.
“Because you owe me.”
Her head snapped back to face him. “Owe you? How do I owe you?”
Her coldness helped thaw his nerves. She wasn’t the same person he knew a long time ago. He didn’t need to worry about impressing her anymore. He had failed that test already.
“When we were five, I took a beating for you. You promised me then, if I ever needed a favour from you, I only had to ask. I’m asking now.”
Dizzy’s face screwed up but she forced it back to a neutral position, keeping her mouth hard and straight. “We were kids.”
“Yes. It hurt a lot more then than it would now. You don’t get to ignore your debts because of age. I only need a small favour.”
“What is it?” The mouth tried to tighten into an enraged bud, but she flattened it through sheer willpower.
“I need to get into the school library. Tonight.”
Her eyes widened. “You want me to break into the library?”
“Just get us in, you can go after that.”
“You’re crazy. Why would I do that?”
“Because you always pay your debts. You always have. This is the last one you’ll ever owe me.”
She stood there, slightly swaying. She turned around and walked away.
“Behind the library at nine,” he whispered at the retreating figure which didn’t acknowledge him in any way.
“She’s not coming, is she?” said Davo.
“She’ll be there.” He was totally confident. But that didn’t mean he was right.
They returned to the cottage and Nic rushed up the stairs to talk to Mallory. He was another resource they hadn’t utilised. But the rooms upstairs were empty.
He went back downstairs to the kitchen. Davo was making food.
“He’s in there, building… something. Actually willing to miss dinner.” Davo nodded sternly, like this was the true sign of the seriousness of the situation. “I’m making him a sandwich like I’m his mother.”
“Or wife,” said Nic.
Davo dropped the bread on the counter. “I’m done here. This is your stupid fault, you make the sandwiches. I’ll take mine with cheese and salad. With pickle.” He walked out.
Nic made the sandwiches. It was the least he could do. Fanny emerged about an hour later with the detector newly painted red with white stripes down the side.
“Was the paint job necessary?” asked Davo.
“Yes,” said Fanny. “You wouldn’t understand. Advanced advanced calculations.”
Davo looked up at the ceiling. “If we fail you, please forgive us, Simole, we tried but we were brutally, brutally handicapped.”
Fanny's focus remained on his new toy. “It’s so sensitive now, it’ll probably blow up the first time it detects any Arcanum.”
“Well, don’t point it at the Pagoda, then,” said Nic.
The campus was dark and quiet. They got to the library without detection. Once they were round the back, it felt less likely they’d be spotted. The Pagoda loomed over the skeletal trees, windowless and silent.
Nic optimistically tried the back door, which was firmly locked. The windows on the first two floors had iron bars over them.
“Is she even coming?” whispered Fanny.
“Even if she does, how do you expect to get in there?” added Davo.
“She’ll find a way,” said Nic. “She always does.”
“If she turns up,” said Fanny. The branches swayed in the wind but their leaves had all been shaken loose. “All this for a book. Hope it’s worth it. Winnum Roke. I mean, was she even a real person?”
“Yes,” said Nic.
“Ignore him,” said Davo. “He prattles when he’s nervous.”
“Okay, she was a powerful mage. An archmage, even. But she’s dead now, right? When did she die?”
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “I’ve never seen a date of death for her.”
“Really?” said Davo. “Don’t they usually have so and so name, born this day, died this day, don’t they?”
“Usually, but I’ve never seen it for her. In any book. No mention of how she died, either.”
“Maybe she didn’t,” said Fanny, his voice rising with excitement. “Maybe she went into hiding. Maybe she’s hiding in plain sight, right under our noses.”
“For a thousand years? I think you’re getting a bit carried away,” said Nic.
“She could be one of the teachers,” continued Fanny.
“Or the Librarian,” Davo suddenly interjected.
Nic buried his head in his hands, which at least warmed up his face.
“Why are you all dressed so conspicuously?” said Dizzy.
Nic’s head sprang back up. She was standing in front of him, wearing black from head to foot, skin tight but covered in belts and straps with tools hanging from them. The short jacket over the top had high collars that hid most of her face. The boys were still dressed in their school uniforms, never having even considered changing outfits.
“I’m sorry,” said Davo. “Not everyone can afford a range of specialised tactical gear for night manoeuvres. We aren’t all the children of wealthy nobles.”
“Oh,” said Dizzy, her haughty expression falling from her face. “Sorry.”
“Ha, you got her good,” said Fanny, smirking. “His Dad’s probably twice as rich as yours.”
Davo beamed like it was the best compliment he’d ever received. “At least twice. Nice jacket, by the way. From our winter collection, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Shut up,” said Dizzy. She took what looked like a chisel from one of her belts and waved it about. “And if any of you so much as touch me…”
“What makes you think we’d do that?” blurted out Davo, incensed. “Not everyone here’s madly in love with you. At least fifty percent of us aren’t.”
Fanny looked confused. “Fifty? Who’s the other person? It’s not me, she scares the living snot out of me. Oh, wait, you mean she’s in love with herself. I get it.”
Davo pinched the bridge of his nose. “Brutally, brutally handicapped.”
“Okay, okay,” said Nic. “Let’s just get inside.”
They turned towards the library and waited for Dizzy to do whatever it was she was going to do. She did nothing. They threw questioning looks at her.
“This is stupid,” she said.
“You don’t even know why we’re doing this,” said Fanny, trying to be defiant, but coming across as petulant.
“I don’t care,” said Dizzy. “It’s idiotic, whatever the reason.”
“We don’t have time for this” hissed Nic. “You owe me a favour, that’s all. Pay me back and your debt is settled.”
“No, this isn’t right. We’ll be caught. I don’t even know why I’m here.”
Nic stood up straighter, just about taller than her. “You want to know why you’re here? I’ll tell you. Because this is the most exciting thing you’ve done in the last ten years. You may have taken up with thugs and bullies and other unpleasant people, but that doesn’t change who you are. And I know who you are. You think I don’t? This is me, the boy who feasted on blackberries with you while we were stuck under a bramble bush for a whole day, laughing until we wept. You can return to the life you left me for once you get me inside this building but don’t try to deny what I know to be incontrovertible fact.”
He stepped aside and pointed at the library.
Dizzy stood there, breathing hard, determinedly refusing to look at Nic. Her eyes darted around the rear of the library. The door, the windows, the roof. She ran forward, jumped up so her foot landed on the ledge running below one of the windows, and then sprang to the side, catching the top of the doorframe with her fingertips.
She pulled herself up, then grabbed at slight indents between the stonework, crawling her way up the face of the building.
“She’s good,” said Davo.
“What’s she holding onto?” said Fanny.
In under a minute, she was hanging from the third floor window which had no bars. She pulled herself up and somehow managed to squat on the slender ledge. She worked at the window with a chisel and it sprang open with little effort. She disappeared inside.
A few minutes later, the back door opened and Dizzy stood there panting with a big smile on her face. “The window wasn’t locked,” was the first thing she said once she caught her breath.
“The librarian must have forgotten,” said Fanny. Nic knew there was no way that was true.
“You’ve done your part,” he said to Dizzy. “You can go. We’re quits.” They were far from quits, but he had nothing else to keep her here.
“No,” said Dizzy. “I want to see whatever it is you’re doing here.”
“Okay.” Nic’s heart nearly punched him in the face. He tried to maintain his calm exterior. “Don’t say I didn’t offer.” They entered the library.