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The words had sounded very real. They filled the dark room as he lay on his bed. But once they faded, it was hard to be sure.He tried to contact the demon again without success. He stilled his thoughts and reached out with his mind. There was nothing to reach out to. Why warn him if there was no purpose to it? Just to unsettle him?Lying on a bed staring at the ceiling in the dark was not as restorative sleep. It would not give him the same benefits. His body might not be exerting effort, but it wasn’t gaining anything either. It seemed a waste.He had risen, gone to his desk, and taken out all the notes he’d made over the last couple of weeks visiting the Librarium. He’d failed to find any new material written by Winnum Roke, but he had expanded his knowledge of demons by a significant amount. He wasn’t an expert, by any means, but he had read the words of those who were. He just had to understand them.He didn’t feel tired. His mental acuity hadn’t suffered from being unable to rest. The reminder that he didn’t have much time spurred him from his bed and set him to work, and now the glow on the horizon was filling up his room. He still had a lot to do. Possibly, too much. Perhaps he still wasn’t a morning person. Perhaps it was just very, very late in the day.He had to leave for Ransom soon. He had already packed and his trunk was downstairs. Mr Gram would drive him to the coach station and a new term would begin. His exams results felt pitifully unimportant. His studying had taken an altogether different purpose.There was a jangle of harness, the grinding of earth under cartwheels, the clang of metal containers jostling on a cart bed. He peered out of the window as the milk cart trundled down the lane. The noise of it was familiar, and something he once considered his greatest peeve. It used to rouse him each morning well before he was ready to be roused, and began the slow process of him forcing himself to leave his warm and loving bed.He couldn’t remember ever having actually seen the monster behind the disheartening sounds. It was a big farm horse with a thick, shaggy mane and fetlocks to match. It pulled a cart that seemed to have wheels of different size, making the cart rise and fall, although that was probably more likely the unevenness of the road. The driver was a woman, dressed in a thick coat that covered her from neck to shin. She was a stout lady with arms like tree trunks, although the voluminous coat sleeves might have added to the effect.Behind her, there were six giant urns squeezed onto the back of the cart, bumping into each other. Nic had been studying his notes for several hours. He had taken breaks and used the time to wash, to get dressed, and now he decided he could use some fresh air. He went downstairs to the kitchen and picked up the pail on the counter. His mother stared at him like she’d seen a ghost. “You’re up very early,” she said. Her face showed signs of concern which she was doing her best to hide.Nic realised he’d made a mistake. He never woke this early, and to do so today, when he was to go back to Ransom, implied he was eager to leave. To get away from her.“I thought we could have a proper breakfast together before you have to go to work.”She smiled, a little relief lifting her spirits. “Make sure you get enough milk for two.”He went outside and handed over the pail to the milkmaid. She filled it from a tap at the bottom of one of the urns, grabbing onto the side and tilting it even though it must have been extremely heavy. The coat sleeves hadn’t been deceptive in the least.He went back inside and had breakfast with his mother. He had plenty of work he could be doing, but this seemed more important right now. Despite his willingness to see the words that had woken him as something unclear and open to interpretation, he knew it had been the demon letting him know how little time he had left. How much didn’t matter. It wasn’t warning him, it was doing it to amuse itself.Demons saw humans as fragile and unstable. They found it entertaining. It made them feel superior. The books he’d found on demons tended to concentrate on trying to understand them. How they operated, how they communicated, how they drew power to devastating effect. Nic felt most of the authors he read were looking in the wrong place. What Nic had started to see was not a better understanding of demons, but a realisation of how poorly demons understood humans. He’d seen it in text after text. Not in what the mages and warriors of Ranvar had accomplished, but in what the demons had failed to do. Their view of what frailty meant was incorrect, in his opinion. They couldn’t grasp that even though a craftsman working with inferior materials might never produce anything of value, if he did, it would only be possible by developing skills far superior to those of someone gifted with the ideal training and tools.“They’ll have your exam results when you get back, won’t they?” asked his mother.“Yes. They’re only mocks, though. They don’t mean anything.”His mother raised an eyebrow but continued eating. It was rare for them to sit at the kitchen table together like this. “I’m sure you’ll do well.”He probably would. It really didn’t mean anything, though.“Mr Gram’s going to take me to the station,” he said, even though his mother already knew. She was the one who’d arranged it. “He’s a good person. I mean, I like him.”It came out more awkwardly than he’d intended. He hadn’t sensed anything different between his mother and their neighbour, but he wanted her to know he approved, in case something did happen and he wasn’t around.His mother gave him a curious look. “Well, make sure you thank him properly.”There was more noise outside, more jangling and clopping of hooves. Too noisy to be Mr Gram’s small cart. Nic got up and went to the window. There was a large carriage outside their garden gate, filling up the entire road.Nic went outside, followed by his mother. He recognised the driver, it was the same one who had picked him up to take him to the Delcroix house. The carriage was different, though. Bigger and more impressive, with a spotless, polished finish. And black as a starless sky.The driver jumped down and opened the carriage door. Minister Delcroix stepped onto the running board and skipped down before the driver could pull out the steps.“Ah, good morning, Milly,” he said to Nic’s mother, removing his hat. “Good morning, sir,” she replied, a little flustered.“Niclov.” He nodded at Nic.“Sir.” Nic had no idea why the minister was paying him a visit, but it probably wasn’t anything bad. He seemed too relaxed. “Nice to see you again.” He hadn’t seen him since his visit to the house, so perhaps he had a message for him before he went back to school. Maybe he just wanted him to wish him a pleasant journey.“Yes, yes. The reason I’m calling is that I’m on my way to the city and I happen to pass the school, by which I mean Ransom, of course, and thought I might offer you a lift.”The minister seemed more sprightly that the last time Nic had seen him. His eyes were clear and his disposition almost jocular. Perhaps there had been good news. “Thank you very much,” said Nic mother. “That’s very kind of you, sir.”She’d taken it on herself to accept the invitation on his behalf. For her, this was an excellent opportunity to further Nic’s chances at a government position. If she could thrust him a few rungs higher on the clerical ladder, she would do so with both hands.“Yes, thank you very much. But, Mr Gram…” Nic pointed over the garden fence separating the two properties.“Never mind about that. I’ll take care of everything. You get your trunk and stop delaying the Minister.” She shooed him into the house and kept up a stream of polite babbling about her duties until he returned with his luggage. The driver placed the trunk on the roof next to one already up there. The minister held the door open and Nic was halfway up the steps, his head just above the carriage floor, when he saw the other occupant. Dizzy was sitting in the far corner, glaring at him.Nic paused and turned to the minister. “Ah, maybe I should sit with the driver.”“What? Nonsense, you’ll freeze your ears off. Hurry up now, I don’t want to be late. The Ministry of Instruction has some very fierce penalties for tardiness.”Nic doubted the minister would be chastised for being late, but he climbed in and settled into the corner furthest from Dizzy. The minister followed, pulling the door behind him as the driver clattered the folding steps. His mother waved him off, beaming with pride. He waved back, discreetly. When they were on their way, he dared a peek at Dizzy. She was resolutely staring out of the window on the other side, emitting a strange atmosphere that was hard to place. If he had to name it, he might call it killing intent.Nic sat quietly. If he’d known the minister was also dropping off his daughter at Ransom, he might not have agreed so readily. No, there was no way he could have refused the invitation, but he might have been better prepared. No, he’d still feel utterly thrown by being this close to her.The minister had papers out and read them through eye glasses perched on his nose. The shaking carriage would have made it impossible for Nic to read anything while they barrelled out of town and onto the highway. On closer inspection, the minister seemed to be doing some shaking of his own. A slight trembling in his hands.“You’ll be told the results of the mock exams when you get back,” said the minister over the top of his papers. He spoke directly at Nic.Nic glanced at Dizzy watching the trees flash by. “Yes, sir.”“I wonder if you’ll do as well as you did with the last test you sat. Second place nationally should translate to second place at Ransom. At least.” He looked over at his daughter who had come first nationally. She didn’t react, other than to stare out of the window more intently.“I doubt I’ll do as well,” said Nic. “I had some distractions.”“Yes. Of course.”Nic looked out of the window on his side. “I’m not really sure learning such a broad spectrum of things is the best way to achieve anything.”“You could be right,” said Minister Delcroix. “Specialising has always yielded better results, once you have a solid foundation.”“I don’t know if that’s important, either,” said Nic. “Some problems require extreme solutions. Short term ones.”The minister lowered his papers into his lap. “Nic, it never hurts to know more. Even if it doesn’t help you, it can help others. The great advantage of a cooperative society like ours is the ability to combine small advances into big ones.”“The demons don’t think like that. They place no value in individual achievements. Everything is already as advanced as it can be, they just distribute it to the best available exponent.”There was a silence in the carriage that pulled Nic out of his musings. He looked at the minister who was staring at him.“Sorry, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject.”“Clearly. And what conclusions have you drawn?”“They have a weakness. They underestimate us. How to use that against them, I’m not sure. Mr Tenner said they gave us Arcanum, but I think he misunderstood. They are Arcanum. It’s their blood.…” Nic’s voice faded. “Mr Tenner probably knew more about it than me, though.”“Mr Tenner was an obsessed man. They understand very little. Too much specialisation isn’t a good thing either. Hopefully his replacement will be a more well-rounded teacher.”“Master Denkne?” asked Nic.“Ah, of course, you’ve already met. Yes, Denkne, Master of the Royal College. You’re quite lucky to have someone of his caliber teaching at Ransom. You can torment him with questions to your heart’s delight.”“Yes. He seems very… different.”“You mean the white hair? Part of his Grissenheim heritage. His father was an officer of the embassy. Met a local woman—actually a countess—and whisked her off back to the homeland, never to be heard from again.” The minister took off his glasses. “No doubt because she was busy being blissfully happy. And then several years later the product of their union applied to the Royal College.”“They don’t usually accept foreigners, do they?”“No, but his dual nationality gave him the right to apply, and his obvious talent awarded him a place. It’s always been a Ranvar tradition to not let prejudice get in the way of common sense. A tradition that isn’t always upheld, as I’m sure you’re aware. He’s a good man. You can trust him.”Nic nodded, acknowledging both the sentiment and also the instruction.He turned his head, remembering they weren’t alone in the cab. Dizzy had her eyes fixed on him, her lips pinched together. It was so familiar it made him smile. Which was a mistake.“Why are you smiling?” she asked him. Her voice was cold and unnervingly emotionless.“I’m not,” said Nic, quickly pulling his mouth straight. “You were. I saw you. What’s so funny?”“I… You just reminded me of something when we were children. You used to make the same face just before…” He was looking for a way to undo the tension. He couldn’t seem to find it.“Before what?”“Before, um, you would try to bite me.” There was always the truth. It was funny. It would ease everyone’s mood.Her eyes seemed to flash red. He recognised that look, too. His feet would have started running if there was anywhere to run to.“Dizzy,” said her father in an admonishing tone. “Did you really bite the poor boy.”“No,” said Dizzy. “He always ran away.”“Well, please don’t do that sort of thing in the future. It’s very unbecoming for a young lady to bite someone who’s a guest in their home.” He seemed mildly amused, but Dizzy certainly wasn’t.“Yes, Father. I’ll try to remember.” She continued to stare at Nic. “Please don’t let me interrupt. It sounded like the two of you were having a fascinating conversation.”“Do you think so?” the minister asked her, his tone very blase.“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you so chatty,” said Dizzy.“It’s a long ride,” said the minister. “It can be quite interesting talking about hypotheticals. It passes the time.”“Yes,” said Dizzy. “Hypotheticals.”Nic didn’t speak for the rest of the journey, and the Minister went back to his papers. Dizzy stared out of the window, fuming. There was nothing to be done about that, other than to keep his extremities out of reach.They arrived at the school a short while later. There was a mad rush around the entrance as carriages came and went, dropping off their contents.Nic exited first, eager to not be in anyone’s way. By the time he’d looked around at the school buildings and turned back, Dizzy was already stalking away towards her dormitory. The driver placed the trunks on the ground for the porters to take away.“Well, good luck, Nic,” said the minister. “I meant what I said about Denkne. You can rely on him. He’s been fully vetted by my department.”“Yes,” said Nic. “The Archmage seemed to have a lot of faith in him.”“Indeed. Remember, you will be watched at all times. Not just by my people. There are many interested parties at this point. Be careful what you say to people. These things tend to be a lot of nothing for a long time. It’s easy to get complacent.”Nic nodded. “Yes, sir.” He considered telling him about the voice he’d heard, but there didn’t seem any point. She was known to be coming before. She still was. It wasn’t like he’d been given a time of arrival. He noticed the slight trembling in the minister’s fingers. And then the blue glimmer around the edges of his pupils. “You have Arcanum poisoning.”The minister was a little startled, but quickly masked it. “You are an observant boy, but perhaps a little too eager to share your findings.”“Even with someone I trust?”“You never know when your trust is misplaced. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention this to anyone.” His gaze drifted towards his rapidly departing daughter.“She doesn’t know?”“No. It’s not as though it’s fatal. There are plenty of cures, I just don’t have the time, right now.”As far as Nic was aware, there were very few cures, most of which had =mixed results. But he was in no position to question someone who knew about confidential procedures not available to the public.“Take care, Nic, and feel free to drop my name if the Headmaster gives you any problems.”Nic was sure the Headmaster would leave him alone, but he thanked the minister anyway.He made his way to the cottage, occasionally looking around to see if he could spot anyone keeping an eye on him. The Secret Service agents were good at keeping out of sight—perhaps too good—but the minister had indicated it would be his own people that would be watching. He saw no one.As he approached the cottage, he saw Davo and Fanny outside. It looked like they were arguing, or at least having a vigorous discussion. They stopped when they saw him and quickly moved towards him.“There’s been a development,” said Davo.“Yes,” said Fanny. “A development.”“Okay,” said Nic. “Is it a bad development?”The two anxious boys exchanged a look.“You should see for yourself,” said Davo. He headed back towards the cottage.Nic followed, a little bemused. It was only their first day back. He hadn’t expected any drama this soon.He entered the cottage behind Davo. Everything appeared to be the same as they’d left it. Except for one addition.“Welcome back,” said Brillard Epsteem.“Thanks,” said Nic. He looked at the others. He still wasn’t sure what the development was. Had Brill come for answers?“It’s been a while since I had roommates,” said Brill. “Let me know if there any rules I need to follow.”“You’re moving in?” asked Nic. “Here?”“That’s right. Convinced my father it was time I left the nest.” He leaned forward. “I also told him I’d keep an eye on you three. He’s very suspicious about what you get up to, out here on your own.” Brill smiled and rocked back on his heels. “I’ll be taking this room.” He pointed at Simole’s room.“Oh,” said Nic. “She might not like that.”“That’s what we told him,” said Davo.“It’s not our fault if she gets mad.”“But she isn’t here,” said Brill, a little confused.“I know,” said Nic. “It’s complicated. There’s a good chance she’ll be coming back. A chance.”Brill looked at the three of them, sizing them up. “I see. I want you to understand this from my perspective.” He touched his chest with the extended fingers of one hand. “You asked me not to mention what happened at the camp, and I haven’t. But this—” he put out his hand and moved it around in a circle “—this is where something is happening, something momentous. I can tell. I intend to be a part of it. To at least be a witness. I won’t get in your way. I will ask you nothing, you need to divulge nothing, explain nothing. But perhaps you’ll need my help. I will be here, ready. The girl can have her room back if she returns.”He nodded once and went into Simole’s room.“I wonder what he’s up to,” said Davo.“Maybe nothing,” said Nic. “Definitely something,” said Fanny. “I hope he doesn’t end up getting hurt.”“I hope I don’t end up getting hurt,” said Davo.“I hope so, too,” said Fanny. “Any of us.”Nic watched as they shook hands and retired to their rooms, and wondered if his friends were as odd as they seemed, or if it was just that he’d never had many friends and this was normal.Brill kept to his word. He didn’t bring up any sensitive matters. His conversations were about school and work and, occasionally, his father, the headmaster. It wasn’t the safest place to be, but then, it was his choice and they weren’t in any immediate danger, as far as Nic was aware.Classes began the following morning. Nic had a restless night. There were no voices, he just felt apprehensive about the future. Ill-equipped and ill-prepared was how he saw himself. The demon attached to him probably considered him a perfect representation of his kind. Perhaps it would give the mages an edge in the battle to come.Before they began class, everyone gathered in the main foyer as the exam results were pinned up. Each subject had a separate sheet, and there was an overall standing, with Dizzy at the top, which wasn’t very surprising.Somewhat more surprising was Nic’s name. It was completely absent, from all subjects. As were Davo’s and Fanny’s.“Do you think we’re going to be expelled?” asked Fanny as they stood there, scouring the boards for their names.“It’s ridiculous,” said Davo. “They could at least tell us to our faces.”“I’m sure they will,” said Nic. He doubted it was going to be a straight expulsion, not with the Archmage and the Minister of Instruction both insisting Nic be a student here. But it seemed the Headmaster was going to make life as difficult as possible. “There’s no point trying to second guess what this is about.”They went to their first lesson of the day. It was with the new teacher from the Royal College. The room was full of excited chatter about it.Master Denkne came striding in, making quite an entrance with his grey cloak flapping about. He removed it immediately, hanging it over the back of his chair, and paced up and down the front of the classroom.He seemed taller than Nic remembered him. And more elegant. His pallor was that of someone who rarely went outside, but that could have been part of his heritage like the white hair pulled back into a ponytail and his almond-shaped eyes that gave his whole face an exotic look.“Settle down. I’m Mr Denkne, your new teacher. I’ll be substituting for Mr Tenner this term. We’ll be following the same syllabus, more or less, so you shouldn’t have any trouble keeping up.”He went through the topics they’d be covering. He spoke quickly and confidently, like any teacher who’d been working at Ransom for years.“Alright. Any questions before we start?” A hand went up. “Is it true you’re a master at the Royal College?”“That’s right. I’ve been a master for, let me think, five years now.”“Why are you here?” asked another voice.“Penance,” said Denkne. “I’ve made some terrible life choices and it’s landed me here. I suggest you take advantage of my misfortune. I take it there are some of you who wish to attend the Royal College. Let me see a show of hands. Who here has aspirations to become a mage?”Hands slowly rose around the classroom. Fanny hesitantly raised his. Nic and Davo kept theirs down.“Interesting,” said Denkne as he scanned the forest of arms. “I notice that some of you were more eager to stake your claim than others. While some were irritated to be asked to declare at all.” He said this standing next to Dizzy, who had her elbow on her desk and her hand raised the minimum amount possible.“And then there are those who showed not even an iota of interest.” He had wandered over to Nic’s desk. “What about you? Not capable or not confident?”The class had all turned to look at him. He didn’t know why the mage had decided to target him in this manner, but he didn’t appreciate it.“No talent, sir.”“And when has that stopped anyone? Do you know what it takes to be a mage? The fundamental principles?”These were matters that were kept very confidential and guarded jealously by the Royal College of the Arts. Even Nic, who had read a great many books about the college, its founding and function, had only ever seen vague references to such things.“No, sir.”“It is not what you have that counts—talent, ability, knowledge… these things are easily obtained. It is a matter of what you can discard.”The students were all rapt with attention.“At your age, you are too young to receive the training required. You have experienced too little. Your appetites are too small. You are still building up your library of gratifications. Your belly is empty; you fill it with bread. You experience more variety, you become selective. You have your favourites. You gain taste, refinement, expertise.”He paused to let his words circulate. Nic had no idea where this was leading, or why he was telling them these things.“For most people this is enough. But there is another level. A resetting of the tastebuds, of the psyche. A cleansing of the palette that is your mind. It is extremely difficult, and painful. Extremely. You not only release your need to differentiate between preferences, you abandon the need for sustenance altogether.“How then can you sustain the functions of the body? This is the power of Arcanum. It replenishes the stores in our bodies, it supplies power to the cells in our organs while bypassing the glottal and olfactory apparatus. With only moisture drawn from the air and the fumes extracted from burning organic items, it is possible to live and to grow, if you have the correct belief system in place.”He turned to Nic again. “Now, Mr Tutt, what talent do you need to achieve that? Other than the talent to survive?”Nic had no idea how he was supposed to respond. Everything Mr Denkne had said made little sense to him. Fasting was the key to becoming a mage?There was a polite knock on the open classroom door. A boy was standing there holding a folded piece of paper. Denkne took it from him. “Tutt, Conoling, Bostware. You are to report to the Headmaster’s office.”The three of them rose and left the room. They had been expecting a summons of some kind. As they walked past Mr Denkne, Nic gave him a confused look. Denkne winked at him. Nic felt no less confused.They had to wait in the outer office for twenty minutes before they were called in. The Headmaster was seated behind his desk. The three boys stood in front of him, too resigned to their fate to be rattled.“I imagine you’re wondering why I’ve called you here.”“To expel us?” said Nic.“That was my guess, too,” said Davo.“Mine as well,” said Fanny.“And for what reason would I expel you?” asked the Headmaster.“No reason,” said Nic. The Head rose from his seat, irritated. He was a tall man and towered over them, even Davo. “As it happens, there is a reason. You may have noticed none of your exam results were posted with the others. Do you know why that is?”“No reason?” said Davo. Fanny stifled a laugh.“A very good reason. All three of your papers for Military Historic Analysis were virtually identical. How do you explain that?”“That isn’t possible,” said Nic. “Conoling has a tendency to favour trade over conflict. He strongly believes selling an enemy a product they think they need is the key to any military victory. It’s the subtext of every answer he’s ever written.”“What?” blurted out Davo. “Is that true?”“It’s in your punctuation. You can’t help it.”Fanny sniggered. “He’s right.”“And Bostware always emphasises defence over attack. He thinks not getting hurt is the better tactic over a costly victory.”“No, I don’t,” said Fanny.Nic ignored the protests. “It will be very obvious if you take a closer look.”The Headmaster’s face had turned a fiery red. “You think you’re very smart, don’t you, Mr Tutt. Well, the burden of proof is on you. I haven’t made a decision either way, but the school governors will be presented with the facts and will make the final adjudication. In the school’s history, the board has never not sided with the Headmaster’s recommendation. I realise you know some influential people, but this is not my call. The governors’ decision is final.”“How are we supposed to prove something that didn’t happen?” asked a flabbergasted Davo.Nic raised his hand to calm Davo down. He didn’t really care about the Headmaster’s vendetta. It wasn’t surprising they had given similar answers, but he could prove they didn’t cheat on a forensic level, if he had the time. He turned around and faced the back of the room.“Is there an agent in here? Someone watching?” Nothing happened. “My next step will be to contact the Minister of Instruction. Your Chief of Staff won’t be very impressed if you allow that.”There was a shimmer and a white-masked agent appeared in the corner of the room. The Headmaster’s jaw clenched to the point grinding could be heard.“Last term, during the exams, were your men in the school hall, observing me?”The agent nodded his head.“Did anyone report cheating, me or my friends here?”The agent shook his head from side to side.“Please make a request for a copy of the file to be made available to the school’s governing board. I don’t have any authority to ask, but I think the Chief of Staff will agree.”“We can do that. It’s been approved we grant any minor requests you make.”Nic turned back to the headmaster. “The proof you required.” He wasn’t nervous, and neither was he upset. He understood the headmaster’s need to take advantage of a situation he felt would work in his favour. It was just silly considering the true threat they all faced.“Where did we place?” asked Nic. “Overall.”The Headmaster slowly sat down. “First, third and fourth.”“I was third?” asked Davo.“Fourth,” said the Head.“Damn it.”“You just don’t understand,” said the Head bitterly. “You’re unsettling the whole school.”“I’m sorry,” said Nic. It was a needless disruption considering the likelihood of him not even completing his time here. “Would you post our results as somewhere in the bottom of the top ten?”The Headmaster looked up surprised. “Why?”“It’ll attract too much attention and our time here has had enough interruptions, which is my fault, I know. I think it would benefit everyone if life went back to normal, as much as that’s possible.”The Head narrowed his eyes. “That’s very noble of you. And if people were to discover this misrepresentation?”“They will,” said Nic. “It’s unavoidable. And when they do, the Secret Service records will show it was a compassionate decision made by you at our request to prevent bullying.”The Headmaster, after some consideration, agreed. Nic wasn’t surprised. It prevented more questions about the falling standards at Ranvar’s premier school, and at the same time showed a close adherence to Ranvar’s principles of putting the common good before social standing.They returned to class. No one said anything as they took their seats. Nic looked at the back of Dizzy’s and smiled to himself. Caught you, he thought.I'd very much appreciate any support on topwebfiction.com. It's my only way of attracting new readers so all votes are very gratefully received. No sign up required, just hit the button. Cheers.VOTEVotes refresh every seven days, so last week's votes no longer count.