Nic began studying in earnest. He didn’t want to dwell on the other aspects of life at Ransom, no matter how persistently distractions tried to get into his field of view. When he was immersed in a book, no other thoughts could reach him, and that was perfect.
If the others noticed a change in him, they didn’t mention it. They trusted in his ability to organise them in the most efficient manner, and followed his lead. It was a struggle to keep up, but they had already become much better students since arriving at Ransom thanks to him, so it seemed like a natural, if exhausting, progression.
Every day, after lessons, they convened at the library. Their regular table would be waiting for them and Nic would write an extensive list of subjects they needed to cover. Sometimes it would be something they had been taught in class but not to Nic’s satisfaction. Other times it was completely new and seemingly unrelated, but they didn’t question his choices.
They would work all evening and then, one by one, head back to the cottage, always leaving Nic on his own, the last man standing.
Occasionally, Nic caught them giving each other concerned glances but he didn’t have time to deal with their worries. He had too much to do.
“I thought you might enjoy this,” said the librarian one evening when there was no one left in the library. She was holding a book for him to take. A very old book with a plain cover. Unlike most of the books in the library, it wasn’t bound in leather and didn’t have a fancy title embossed in gold. In fact, it didn’t have a title at all.
Nic took it from her. When he opened it, he found no title on the inside, either. “What is it?”
“It’s the autobiography of Winnum Roke.”
Nic frowned. “I’ve read it.” He’d found a copy in the Librarium, although it didn’t look like this.
“This is the… ‘unabridged’ version. It’s the only copy I know of, so I don’t think you have, in fact, read it.”
Winnum Roke, the first female Archmage, had been an Also-Ran. Her autobiography had been very interesting as a historical record of what life was like a thousand years ago, but not particularly relevant to the upcoming mock exams.
“I don’t think it’s on the syllabus,” he said, offering the book back.
The librarian fixed him with an acute stare over her glasses and he slowly withdrew the offer.
“Sometimes, a problem is best solved by approaching it from a new direction. You can leave it in Mr Tenner’s room when you’re done reading it.” She scooped up a number of books from the table—somehow, she knew which ones he no longer needed, and walked away.
Nic read the first few pages of the autobiography. It didn’t seem very different to the one he’d read before. At first. Then he began noticing details he hadn’t spotted before. Very personal details about her family life. And it was a lot more specific about her schooldays.
Before he realised it, he was deep into the book, his studies forgotten. The rest of the library was dark and empty, but he sat under the single lamp still burning, reading through the night. He began to understand that Ransom was never going to accept him if he continued on the path he was on.
Even though he read the entire volume in one sitting, he wanted to keep the book close by for reference. He had quickly developed a fondness for both Archmage Roke and for the book itself, with its modest, unassuming appearance.
He had explored the library thoroughly and never seen the book on any shelf, so it was probably kept somewhere safe and out of the way. Probably with other books of a similar ‘unabridged’ nature.
Winnum Roke had primarily been a demonologist, and while she had written well known texts on the subject, there were some unusual references to it in her biography that Nic had never come across before. Her enthusiasm for the other dimension and its denizens had started at a very young age.
It reminded Nic of Mr Tenner’s devotion to what was, for most people, an archaic subject.
He took it up to Mr Tenner’s room, as the librarian had suggested, and left it on a corner table, under some other books.
It was very late, and he had meant to drop off the Roke book and go home, but he found himself examining Tenner’s research material. There were reams of notes in small, neat handwriting, and many tomes lying around. On Demonology, Arcanum and a book of fairytales that seemed completely out of place. Wink Munroe’s Tales of Myth and Legend. It was a book about monsters and brave mages. Nic sat down and read it from cover to cover.
Pretty soon he was going from one book to the next. As he read through the notes and cross-referenced them with the books piled on the table, a pattern began to emerge. Mr Tenner was looking for something. Something very specific. Nic only noticed because Winnum Roke had spent much of her life looking for the same thing. And found it.
At the bottom of Mr Tenner’s notes, Nic wrote ‘Dana-Long’ and underlined it. He locked up the room and left the library.
The next day, in Military History, Nic sat at the back as usual as Mr Varity lectured them on the dangers of overextending on a superior position.
“The balance between secure defence and an overwhelming offence is a thin one. Colonel Brattniz snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by showing a lack of patience. It is a common occurrence among great military minds to believe fate or destiny or supernatural forces are supporting their right to achieve greatness. However, it is the men on the ground who decide battles, not the hopes and dreams of old men. Who can give me another example of hubris from the Battle of Kelemy? Mr Cheesul?”
A boy near the front nervously rose to his feet. Just by his reluctant body language, Nic could tell Cheesul, a thin, blond boy who toadied around after the bigger boys, was not confident in his knowledge of the battles of the pre-Arcanum period.
“The Rout of Groff?”
“Yes,” said Mr Varity, sounding surprised. “You are correct. Well done.”
A complete guess. Technically it was right in so far as it involved an act of overconfidence on the part of a Ranvarian officer, but it was more incompetence than hubris. It was the most famous battle of the period and Nic was sure Cheesul had plucked the answer from thin air without any knowledge of what had happened in one of Ranvar’s most shameful disasters.
Nic was also sure Mr Varity could tell his student didn’t know the details. A follow up question or two would make that only too apparent. But Mr Varity turned away to move onto the next part of his lecture.
“The Rout of Groff was an act of insubordination,” said Nic, “due to the acting commander deciding to sacrifice his front line troops so he could retreat to safety.”
The class was silent. They were unused to Nic or any of the other Also-Rans speaking in class. Their wariness of Simole led to them acting like none of the four existed, and the teachers seemed to encourage such behaviour.
“You don’t think it counts as poor judgement on behalf of a military leader?” asked Mr Varity.
“I think there are better examples. The Battle of Ranvar Falls, when General Montfrey simultaneously attacked twelve different settlements along the Great Ranvar River. Or the Charge of Sacksonomy. That’s S-A-C-K-S not S-A-X.”
There was a pause, and then a sudden burst of scribbling as the rest of the class took notes. Davo was the only one not writing down Nic’s words. He watched closely, wondering what was going on.
“Thank you, Mr Tutt. That’s a very comprehensive answer. With correct spelling. Let’s consider the Battle of Ranvar Falls, first.”
The lesson continued and Nic offered further details as and when required, even if it wasn’t asked of him. Whenever a question was posited and not answered in the fullest possible manner, Nic stepped in to expand and fortify the student’s unsatisfactory response.
By the end of the lesson, Nic had spoken almost as much as Mr Varity. As they left the classroom, Davo walked up beside Nic and said, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“I think so,” said Nic.
Nic did the same in the other classes. He was a mine of information on all manner of subjects, and he was in a sharing mood. It didn’t matter who was asked to contribute their thoughts, if they failed to provide a full and rounded answer, Nic intervened to fill in the gaps.
By lunchtime, Davo was fuming. He banged his tray down next to Nic’s and took his seat with much huffing and exasperating.
“This won’t do. It just won’t.” He picked up a fork, violently stabbed an innocent sausage, and then tossed it back onto the plate. “I thought we agreed to not attract undue attention until the end of year exams. I suppose you intend to come first in the mocks, too. Just to ruffle the maximum amount of feathers.”
“Yes,” said Nic.
“But why?” exploded Davo, slamming his fist on the table. The eyes surrounding them tried desperately not to look in their direction. The threat of Simole was too great for them to risk peeking.
“Keeping a low profile isn’t going to work,” said Nic. “You saw what they did to Mallory. The master from the Royal College didn’t even pick him—he never would have and they all knew it—but they still broke his arms. That’s how they operate, here. It’s how they’ve always operated. They’re happy to compete against each other, but it’s an affront to even let us on the playing field. They’ll come after us no matter what.”
“And how does showing off in class make things any better?” asked Davo. “You want to speed the whole thing up? Make our demise more efficient?”
“Yes,” said Nic. “Plus, the fewer of them there are, the harder it will be for them to surround us. That’s their preferred mode of attack, outnumber and outmanoeuvre. It’s a weak tactic and easily exploited.”
“What do you mean, fewer?” said Fanny. “Why will there be fewer?”
“If they can’t keep up with the pace, they’ll be forced to leave the Upperclass. So I’m going to be the pacesetter.”
Davo’s outrage dissipated. “You really think that’ll work?”
“It has before,” said Nic.
“Well, okay,” said Davo begrudgingly. “I just hope they don’t jump us when we’re out alone and try to pass it off as some accident. It’s all very well out-thinking them, but it’s hard to outsmart a punch in the face.”
“They won’t do anything. They’re too scared of Simole.”
“And that’s fine with you, is it?” said Davo, getting the hump again. “Happy to let a girl fight your battles for you?”
Simole didn’t say anything, quietly watching and eating.
“She won’t have to fight anyone,” said Nic. “Apart from those she wants to, of course. As long as she has them trembling in their boots, it would be a waste to not use their fear against them. And in answer to your question, yes, I’m more than happy to let a girl fight in my place. I’ll gladly stay at home and bake a cake for the victory party. I can make a pineapple upside down cake that is considered quite respectable.”
“Oh, really?” said Fanny. “Can I try some? Wait, have you actually made it, or just read how to make it in a book?”
“You have a lot of anger in you, don’t you?” said Simole.
“Me?” said Nic, as calm as ever. “I don’t think so. Do I look angry? I’m offering to make cake.”
Simole smiled. “It’s nothing to worry about. Angry men tend to get things done. Believe me, I know.” She carried on eating.
Nic’s proactive stance to student behaviour not only continued, it escalated. Nobody got away with a less than complete answer to anything. The teachers became quite confused and tried to restrict Nic to shorter interruptions, but it was hard to open up the floor to questions and then cut off someone providing very good answers. Especially when he could do it so concisely.
At the end of the first week, when there were a spate of tests as usual, the effects of Nic’s new approach became more than apparent.
Nic had determined how the teachers prepared their testing, and had systematically undermined them. He made sure the students had the answers to any and all questions of a basic nature, complete with correct spelling.
Without their finely tuned methods of assessing their students’ needs, the teachers were left to ask broader questions that required a proper understanding of the subject. Of course, they could have just asked the simpler questions everyone already knew the answers to, but that wasn’t the Ransom way.
When the results came back, not only had the overall average fallen across all subjects, some people had actually failed. Which also wasn’t the Ransom way. With Nic offering so much help in class, his was the last direction the students were looking for someone to blame. He planned to be even more helpful during the run up to the mocks.
The only teacher to take it all in stride was Mr Tenner. Once Nic offered up his superior knowledge on Arcanum, Mr Tenner began picking on him exclusively. Every question was asked of him specifically, and then further elaborations requested. Until the two of them would be discussing matters so esoteric, no one had any idea what they were talking about.
Since Arcanum was viewed with such low regards, no one really cared and let them get on with it. The questions in the tests were unaffected. Mr Tenner already gave his students all the answers they needed.
“And you don’t find the unsubstantiated claims of where Arcanum came from to be of issue, Mr Tutt?”
“I don’t think they’re unsubstantiated, sir. I think we have records and literature to back up the existence of Arcanum transference through dimensional doorways,” said Nic.
“We do?” said Mr Tenner, mildly surprised. “I wasn’t aware. Perhaps you could tell me the name of one of these corroborating texts?”
“Yes, sir. Wink Munroe’s Tales of Myth and Legend.”
Tenner smiled. “Fairytales? Of course there is much to learn from our ancient myths and stories, but do you really think stories written to frighten children are based on fact?”
There was a small amount of tittering in the class, from those still paying attention.
“Yes, sir. Like the story of the Dana-Long.”
“I see,” said Tenner. “Yes, I recall the name. A monster that exists in both dimensions. And likes to eat babies who aren’t good. It’s amazing most of you here survived with such a creature out on the prowl.”
“He didn’t eat them, they passed through him. He was a sort of a doorway.”
Mr Tenner stopped smiling and stood up straighter. “Is that so? A human door?”
“No, sir. I don’t think he was human. I believe he was an animal, accidentally transformed. That’s why he was never able to use the power he obtained. He was just someone’s beloved pet, trying to get home.”
“I see, I see. A mage’s pet used in an experiment, is that what you’re suggesting?”
“Perhaps,” said Nic. “Or a young person with an affinity for Arcanum they couldn’t control. There are records of such people.”
“Yes,” said Tenner, “there are.” He seemed to be looking past Nic, into the distance.
He was still staring off when the bell rang. Mr Tenner dismissed the students who slowly got to their feet.
“Ah, Mr Tutt, if I may?”
Nic approached the desk in the corner of the room as requested. “Sir?”
Tenner sat sucking on his lips and looking around the desktop like he’d lost something. He looked up and acted like he was surprised to see Nic there.
“Ah, it’s you. Quite the reputation you’ve established for yourself, young Mr Tutt. And impressively quickly.”
Nic wasn’t sure if he was meant to say thank you or sorry, so he said nothing.
“The teachers are all talking about your proclivity for participating fully in lessons. Some of them are quite tired out by being so thoroughly engaged.”
“I didn’t mean to be tiresome, sir.”
“Didn’t you. No, I suppose you had bigger plans than that. I must say, it’s quite a daring strategy to take. Are you sure it’s wise to be so confrontational? The school is quite big and set in its ways. Difficult for a single boy to take it on, alone.”
“I’m not alone, sir,” said Nic.
“No, you’re not. To be honest with you, Nic, it’s only because of that girl that you’ve been left alone to terrorise the faculty. Perhaps you might consider asking her to not use her powers so openly. It’s only a matter of time before people work out her identity.”
From the look Tenner gave him, Nic had no doubt he knew who Simole’s father was. All the teachers probably did.
“It’s not like she goes looking for trouble. It comes looking for her. I still don’t understand why a mage of the Royal College would attack her like that. He must have known who she was and whose protection she’s under.”
“Yes, I suspect he was under orders to teach her a lesson. Unfortunately for him, he underestimated her abilities. A lesson for us all.”
“Who would order him to challenge her like that?” asked Nic.
“That, I do not know. But you have to understand there are interests at work here who have a great advantage over you. Your plans to raise your position within the school are going to meet with more resistance than you imagine. You may feel you have the measure of your opponent, but believe me, you don’t.”
Nic was surprised both by the nature of the admission and the fact he was being told it. “I don’t?”
“All the classes you and you friends have been assigned to are the ones containing the students of the lowest ability.
Nic was shocked by this news. “But I thought…”
“That students were only split into streams after the mocks? Yes, that’s the official line, but not the case in fact. There are people, parents, who insist their children are allowed entry to the Upperclass when they really aren’t suited to it, shall we say. Once exam results show this to be so, they can be quietly released under various pretences and excuses. It’s done to avoid embarrassment.”
“And we were put in with them?” A coldness ran through Nic. He had been marked for removal from the beginning.
“With your test scores, it was probably deemed unadvisable to let you flourish under the best Ransom has to offer. You may think you are well ahead of the general student population, but I’m afraid that is not the case. The other classes are already well advanced in all areas and in all subjects.”
It suddenly became clear why he was in none of Dizzy’s classes. He was being prepared for ejection so there was no point wasting resources on the likes of him. He wondered how far behind he was.
“I leave it to your discretion, how you wish to proceed, but I certainly wish you good luck. If ever I met a student worthy of a place at this wretched school, it would be you, Nic. Which brings me to another thing I wanted to talk to you about. I’ve been very busy lately, but just the other day I popped into the library to do a little research and found a note left for me. ‘Dana-Long’, as I’m sure you know.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, I was reading some of your research and it seemed relevant.”
“While I find the mentions of various demonic beings in our folklore to be fascinating, I can’t say I see a direct connection, but you seemed to think otherwise. Perhaps you could elaborate.”
“I was just looking over the books you had collected in your private room, and I couldn’t help but see the pattern.”
“Yes, sir. At first I thought you were looking for a key. A way to open up a passage to the other dimension. Personally, I don’t think there is a key.”
Tenner raised an eyebrow. “A colleague of mine thinks similarly. Go on.”
“But then I realised it was a door you were seeking. The entrance. Which is why I thought of the Dana-Long. It was Winnum Roke who first wrote about the absorption of a person into their shadow, creating a shade.”
Tenner looked confused. “Archmage Roke? How does she figure into this theory of yours?”
“It isn’t a theory, sir. And it isn’t mine. She wrote about it in her autobiography. When she was young she had a dog called Dana. She accidentally split the dog from its shadow, and then the shadow consumed the dog, making it bigger. Longer. She called it Dana-Long.”
“How old was she?”
“Three, I think. The shade disappeared and she spent most of her life looking for it. Somewhere along the way she became Archmage. She made a record of most of her discoveries in the Tales of Myth and Legend.
Tenner shook his head like he’d been splashed with water. “You think she wrote down her work disguised as children’s bedtime stories?”
“Wink Munroe, sir. It’s an anagram of Winnum Roke.”
Tenner stood up so quickly his chair fell over. “Mr Tutt, I want you to come with me.”
“Er, I have Ad. Calc., sir.”
“Ah, yes, of course. Very well, after school. I want to show you something in my research facility.”
Tenner frowned. “I know the students call it that, but really, it looks nothing like a pagoda.”
“Oh, yes, sorry, sir.” It did look a bit like a pagoda, but Nic wasn’t going to quibble. He was going to get a look inside. He had absolutely no idea what to expect but he felt thrilled by the idea. And maybe a little scared.
“Don’t dawdle, now. Straight after lessons. There’s someone I want you to meet.”