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Why were the Ministries more effective than a democratic system of government, like that of many of Ranvar’s neighbours?The idea was to give students a fuller idea of each subject. Nic saw it more as a way to convince the students that the bias in the way they were taught was there for a good reason. It didn’t matter if you were only given partial facts if what you were told was correct, and what you weren’t, wasn’t.Nic mainly kept quiet during discussions. He had made the mistake of speaking his mind the first time he was called on, and the conversation came to a rather abrupt halt. It served no purpose to point out the flaws in an argument if the flaws were the reason for the argument in the first place. After that he kept his contributions succinct and aimed in the direction the teacher was clearly trying to shepherd the cla.s.s.The idea of encouraging students to think for themselves and to look at topics from different angles was a good one, generally speaking. But Nic had no need for encouragement in that direction, especially the kind of encouragement that pushed you through every angle until you came back to the first one.Cla.s.ses weren’t very interesting for Nic, but they gave him time to think and consider his options. He had a presentation to prepare, like everyone else, but he didn’t see it as very important. His reasons for excelling had drifted away and he was left with a need to make all that learning mean something. “It’s such a lovely day,” said Mr Denke, “it seems an awful waste to sit in this room with our noses in textbooks, doesn’t it?”Dekne’s teaching style was never conventional, but he had eased off on the blatant lying, at least as far as Nic could tell. His words were often sarcastic or obtuse, but he fell short of the kind of misinformation he was peddling when he first arrived. Nic still wasn’t sure the reason behind his odd behaviour, but Denkne’s cla.s.s on Arcanum a.n.a.lysis was the one cla.s.s where Nic remained fully alert.“What say we go outside and try to attain a better idea of what Arcanum means by staring up at the sky?” Denkne smoothed his white hair, which was already slicked back without a single strand out of place. “Who knows what mysteries might unfold with the pa.s.sing clouds.”“There aren’t any clouds, sir,” said Brill. He was always keen to engage on any topic. To Nic, he always seemed most at home when conversing with teachers, even when they were as strange as Denkne.“Are you sure?” asked Denkne, extending the words like he was asking a teasing riddle.Brill leaned to one side to get a glimpse out of a window, and then leaned back to an upright position. “Yes, sir. It’s a crisp, blue sky without the slightest hint of water vapour.”Denkne smiled sadly and shook his head. “The youth of today… no sense of adventure. Does it really matter if there are clouds or not? This obsession with ‘facts’ is going to get you nowhere.”“May I ask you a question, sir?” said Brill. “It’s related to the lesson.”“Frankly, I would have preferred if it weren’t, but go ahead, ask your question, Mr Epsteem.”“What you said about facts, it made me wonder why demons were so fixated on the truth. Everything I’ve ever read about them indicated the truth mattered more to them than anything. Something of an obsession, one might say.”Nic stiffened in his chair. Brill was aware of Denkne’s little forays into falsehoods. They had decided not to confront him about it—or, rather, Nic had told the others not to, and they hadn’t disagreed. Brill was clearly trying to provoke some kind of response on the matter.It wasn’t like Nic had forbidden them. He had no real idea what the consequences of provoking the mage would be. Safer for them to not find out, in his estimation. But if someone decided to take the risk, it was hardly his place to stop them. Plus, there was every chance he might learn something from their sacrifice.“An obsession,” said Denkne. “Yes, one might say that. It’s not a particularly difficult thing to understand. It’s not that they venerate the truth, as much as they have learned to use the truth to their advantage. It’s a form of power, and who doesn’t enjoy power?”It was interesting that Denkne spoke of demons as a real and present thing, rather than near-mythical ent.i.ties no one had seen in a thousand years. Nic wondered if that was deliberate or merely a slip of the tongue.“Truth is power?” asked Brill. “In the way knowledge is power?”“Not quite.” Denkne stood up picked up a pencil from his desk. “Pencil.” He said it slowly and moved the pencil around so the everyone could see it. “Pencil.”He sat down on the edge of the desk and put the pencil out of sight behind his back. He folded his arms across his chest.“Pencil. What do you see? You see a pencil, correct? Maybe the one I showed you, maybe a similar one, but you see what I want you to see. Language, in many ways, is a kind of magic.”He paused to let mild confusion permeate the room. Everyone understood what he was saying, of course, they just had no idea why he was saying it.He reached across the desk and picked up a fountain pen. He held it up to show everyone. It was big and black, not dissimilar the one in Nic’s pocket.“Pencil. Pencil.” He said it twice slowly, and then put the pen behind him. “Now, when I say ‘pencil,’ what do you see?”A murmur went around the cla.s.s.“Don’t get hung up on the question—I’m sure you all know what a pencil is. The point I’m making is how easy it is to introduce doubt. Even when you know the truth, you can be made to question yourself, to consider allowing another’s definition to supplant your own. And it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that I might even convince some of the more feeble-minded among you that this—” he produced the pen in his hand like a conjuring trick “—is the same as this.” The pencil appeared in his other hand.There was more murmuring, but no real understanding of what Denkne was getting at. Nic was only too aware of the point being made, and it was making him very uncomfortable.“What would it take to really convince you of an untruth? A little browbeating? A little torture? A little Arcanum, perhaps? There are many ways to break a person’s mind, to snap it in twain, so they see what you want them to see. There is no ‘The Truth,’ only your truth, and my truth. We can share them, we can keep them separate, or, if we let our guard down, we can lose them. Do you understand the value of truth now, Mr Epsteem?”Brill had one hand on his chin, squeezing so his lips pursed as he considered what he’d been told. “The value of truth… depends on whose truth it is?”“Exactly, Mr Epsteem. You catch on very quickly. Far quicker than the demons, fortunately for us. Yes, if you lose sight of the truth, you become vulnerable. And how often do we lie to ourselves, wanting the lie to be true? The parent who is told their child is a bully and dullard, but refuses to believe it. The head of a ministry who is convinced enemies are plotting in the shadows. How easy it would be to nudge those beliefs as you saw fit. If you had the power, and the inclination.”“And demons used this to create magic?” asked Brill.“No, no, not the demons. They were not aware of what they possessed. This was something we discovered. This was how we created a door to push demons through. Away, away.” Denkne slapped his hands together and the pen and pencil disappeared. “You can’t think of demons in the same way as you think of people. Demons are inexplicable, Mr Epsteem. Demons are born of rock and light and air, as people are born from the womb.“They are like spirits but not, like souls but not. Perhaps they possess the same insubstantial essence as a person, but maybe all things have that—a tree or rock or plant is equally a living thing. Living doesn’t require breathing and eating, it only requires being. You exist, you live. And then you don’t exist, and then you are dead. And even then, maybe you just exist somewhere else.”“But how did we manage to defeat them?” asked Brill.“Perhaps we didn’t. Are we in Ravar so special? Are we completely unique and superior to all others? We alone, of all peoples, achieved dominion over Arcanum. We sneer at our weaker neighbours, but who are we to claim divine power? These things never end with a simple loss or victory.”The cla.s.s was a little unsettled by Denkne’s words. They’d never heard a teacher talk in such a fas.h.i.+on. “You make them sound like G.o.ds,” said Brill, his voice much quieter now, like he feared being overheard.“G.o.ds? No. They entertain neither theology nor G.o.dhead nor faith nor ethics. They do not create, because all creation is completed. They do not judge, because nothing that is true can be wrong. When demons first came here, they arrived with an immense amount of power, certainly. G.o.d-like, one might say, but not G.o.ds.” Denkne smiled like he’d thought of something immensely amusing that he couldn’t share. “They could shape their environment to be anything they wished, but they had no concept of words. They had a language, but their conversations consisted of mountains and valleys. Literally. Forest would grow and die as a simple form of greeting. The great subtleties of words and ideas, of stories, these were what allowed us to meet them as equals, even though we most certainly were not. It’s what enabled us to… convince them to share their power.”Nic had caught the hesitation, had seen the word buried underneath. Denkne had been about to say tricked. The demons had been tricked into sharing their power. Hardly a sign of the divine, but a clear cause for resentment.“Stories have power?” asked Brill.“Of course,” said Denkne expansively, spreading out his arms. “What can be more powerful than creating your own reality and inviting others into it? To see it, to live it, to be trapped inside it, unable to escape the whims of the author. Many people have died listening to a well-told story.”The cla.s.s was quiet as they thought over what Denkne had said. “You know,” said Denkne, “I do so enjoy these little chats. You never get a chance to talk about such things at the Royal College. Everyone already knows everything. Here, I feel I’m sharing something special. Opening your eyes to new possibilities. Now, shall we go look at the clouds.”“There still aren’t any clouds, sir,” said Brill.“Are you sure, Mr Epsteem.”Brill leaned towards the window. “Oh, I think I see one.”The students began muttering excitedly, as though something incredible had happened, but it could just as easily have been an innocuous change in the weather. Denkne sat on his desk, tapping pen against pencil.***“I’m making a lot of progress already,” said f.a.n.n.y over lunch. “Now that I have a supervisor and a bunch of equipment, it really feels like I’m on the right path.”“How interesting,” said Davo. “Please tell us more about the special screws you now have access to. I hear the thirty-millimetre ones are much more precise than the sixty.”“You have a hardware department at your dad’s place, don’t you?” said f.a.n.n.y, in between chewing his food.“If by ‘your dad’s place’ you mean Conoling and Son, finest purveyors of luxury goods in Ranvar, then yes, we have a hardware department.”“Can you get me a box of the thirty-millimetre? Zinc coated? Or do you think it would be better without the coating and stick with the forty-five?”Davo paused for a moment, taking a long breath through his aquiline nose. “When I said I wished to discuss the matter of screws in more depth, I was being sarcastic.”“There’s your mistake,” said f.a.n.n.y. “Sarcasm only works if you don’t mean it. Weren’t you paying attention in cla.s.s? Nothing trumps the truth.”“What about you?” Davo said to Brill. “Care to share your expertise in carpentry?”Brill shook his head. “I believe there’s no point becoming an expert in something you can pay someone to do for you?”“Clearly,” said Davo, “that is an idiotic thing to believe.”Brill put down his knife and fork and clasped his palms together. “How is it whenever Mr Tutt speaks, his words are considered the epitome of wisdom, but I make a pa.s.sing comment and my feet are immediately held to the coals for it?”“The answer to that question,” said Davo, “is self-evident. Are you feeling underappreciated? Does the bitter chill of resentment make your gorge rise? It needn’t. He isn’t even listening to us.” Davo nodded towards Nic who had his chin resting on the heel of his palm, staring into the mid-distance. “I have no doubt,” said Brill, “ that he is listening to every word, while simultaneously working on a means to divide the universe in half, and collect whatever falls out in a handbasket. However, that was not my point. Yes, I am full of resentment, but only because I thought we would all choose Master Denkne as our project supervisor, and so, together, we would unravel his baffling proclamations and motivations. Instead, I alone am left to wrangle with his mystifying actions, words and, on occasion, theatrical asides. Meanwhile, the three of you proceed to carry on like larks enjoying the last days of summer. Tra-la-la.”Brill picked up his fork and began eating his pasta again, aggressively.“He seems upset,” said f.a.n.n.y. “Abandonment issues due to being an only child, I expect. The pompous whining is a dead give away.”“I’m also an only child,” said Davo.“I know,” said f.a.n.n.y.“I’m thinking about my presentation,” said Nic. The others stopped their squabbling and looked at him. “What? Didn’t one of you just ask what I was thinking about?”“No,” said Davo. “But the terrifying thing is that I was about to. What are you planning?”“Nothing. It doesn’t make much difference. It’s not like I’m looking to get on the Arts Course. I just need to come up with something that’s… and efficient use of time.”“You aren’t going to upstage us all, are you?” asked Brill with a resigned air. “Claim you’re going to do the bare minimum, and then produce a stage full of magic lights and dancing horses.”“No,” said Nic, not really knowing how to answer such an accusation. “No dancing horses.”“I don’t think he’d do something underhanded like that,” said Davo. “I can, however, see him suddenly having a change of heart at the eleventh hour, and the next thing you know, there’s a stallion in a tutu standing in the wings, waiting to put on a show-stopping performance.”f.a.n.n.y began giggling. “Stallion in a tutu.”“I’m not—”Davo raised a hand to cut Nic off. “Intentions are no guarantee of anything.”“Stallion in a tutu,” repeated f.a.n.n.y. Then he began choking on his food. Davo slapped him on the back and Brill poured him some water.A chair sc.r.a.ped out from under the table and all four boys stopped what they were doing, including choking, as Dizzy sat down at the end of the small table. She had a tray of food that was mainly comprised of olives. Which was odd, Nic thought, since olives weren’t on the menu. They waited for her to say something, but she didn’t even look at them. She just started eating.“Do you think she sat down at the wrong table by accident?” said f.a.n.n.y, wheezing slightly. His face had reddened during the choking, and had stayed that colour.“She doesn’t do anything by accident,” said Nic.There was a slight pause as Dizzy speared her next olive with her fork, but otherwise there was no reaction. Around them, there was some s.h.i.+fting of gazes as the other diners became aware of a new member of the corner table.“You’re drawing a lot of attention,” said Nic.“Am I?” said Dizzy without looking up. “Does it make you uncomfortable when people are watching you?”“People are always watching me,” said Nic. “Now they’re watching you, too.”Brill rose from his seat, picked up his tray, and walked around Nic to sit down again on his other side. “Never get between a gun and its target.”“Wise words,” said Davo.“Really? Thank you.”“Glaringly obvious,” said Davo, “but indisputable.”“Couldn’t even let me have that, could you?” said Brill, sagging a little at the shoulders.“Who are you really looking for validation from?” asked f.a.n.n.y, leaning towards Brill. “Is it your father? The want for a father’s love often leads an only child to act recklessly.”Davo coughed. f.a.n.n.y looked at him, and then blushed even redder. He slowly turned his head to face Dizzy, who was now looking up. At him. Intensely.“I wasn’t talking about… I mean, his father’s the head, and when your father’s in a position of authority it often… I mean, not your father, I mean all our fathers, well, not all of them, but , erm… Pasta’s a bit undercooked, don’t you think?”“I don’t eat pasta,” said Dizzy slowly. There was no pasta on her plate.“No?” said f.a.n.n.y, glad to have changed the subject. “Does it make you ga.s.sy?”Davo shook as he tried to contain his laughter. The glow from f.a.n.n.y’s face could have powered a blacksmith’s furnace.Dizzy turned her head to look at Nic. “You keep company with some strange people.”Nic looked past her. “So do you.” Standing on the far side of the hall, the two tall boys who were never too far from Dizzy’s side stood watching, eyes riveted on Nic’s table as they had been since Dizzy first sat down. A strong memory of what they’d done to Mallory hit him. Mallory, who hadn’t returned this term. Nic’s attention returned to Dizzy. “If I see either of them near my friends, I’m going to hold you accountable.”Dizzy flinched, taken aback by the change in Nic’s demeanour. “I don’t control what the people around me do.”“Then perhaps you should,” said Nic, locking eyes with her.“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Dizzy, looking away. “I only came here to organise our schedules. Seeing as how we have the same supervisor, perhaps we should meet to coordinate our presentations. We wouldn’t want to cover the same ground.”“Couldn’t you just guess what I’m planning to do?” asked Nic.“I wouldn’t like to presume,” said Dizzy. “Shall we meet in the library? I understand you have a private room, for some reason.”“No,” said Nic. “We won’t meet, and we won’t coordinate anything. For some reason, your father’s ministry, the Ranvar army and the Royal college have decided I’m a person of interest. They need me. They don’t need you. While I temporarily have their attention, I can ask them to a.s.sist me in removing any aggravations.” His eyes drifted back to the twins. “If you, or your friends, continue to pester me, I’ll invoke that courtesy, and I feel fairly confident my request would be granted. Stay way with your own kind, Miss Delcroix. Pretend I don’t exist. It shouldn’t be too hard for you.”Dizzy didn’t say anything, didn’t react or get angry. She finished the last of her olives, one by one. Nic watched, remembering how she would take the olives off his plate when they were children. Never asking, never needing to. Then she got up with her tray and walked off.“She isn’t going to listen to your threats,” said f.a.n.n.y. “It’ll only make her more determined.”“You’re an expert on how the female mind works now, are you?” said Davo.“Yes,” said f.a.n.n.y, “somewhat. Unlike you, I have sisters, so, yes, I do have some insight into how the female mind works. It isn’t pretty.”“Really? I saw how deftly you handled Miss Delcroix earlier. Did that come from your years of research?”“I’m not joking,” said f.a.n.n.y, his colouring returning to normal as his face clouded over. “You’ve only encouraged her to try harder, Nic.”“It wasn’t like she was going to stop anyway,” said Nic. “At least this way she’ll do it quicker.”“Wait,” said Brill. “You purposefully provoked her so you’d be able to ask for an intervention sooner? Of all the... Truly, if unpleasant behaviour was a romantic virtue, the two of you would be made for each other. Urgh, but your children… your children would be monsters.” Brill looked up, startled by his own words. “My apologies, I didn’t—”“Don’t apologise,” said f.a.n.n.y. “Truest thing you’ve ever said.” “Penetratingly astute,” said Davo.Brill watched them across the table in obvious antic.i.p.ation of the slap across the face that inevitably followed one of their hard-won commendations. It never came.After lunch they walked to the library. Students were milling around, talking excitedly about their projects. Everyone was still in the early stages, using each other to sound out ideas, many too complex and outlandish to ever be put into practice.Nic was in a dour mood. He walked slightly behind the others, head slightly bowed, staring sullenly at the ground and his own feet. He could sense their concern, but he knew they wouldn’t say anything. He hoped they would ascribe it to him being deep in thought about academic matters, or something relating to demons. He didn’t want them to think he was fretting over a girl.It wasn’t like he didn’t have enough work to keep his mind busy. A good presentation was still something he wanted to produce. The test-taker in him wanted to do well, as always.The requirement was to see your supervisor once a week, but while plans were being formed, many of the students would see their a.s.signed teacher more frequently. Nic had yet to arrange his first appointment with the Headmaster. He was worried Dizzy would find out when his meeting was, and somehow invite herself to join them. He had baited her into doing something like that, but now he didn’t want to give her the opportunity.He knew he had lost his temper and treated Dizzy far harsher than necessary. He didn’t doubt some harshness was required, but not the cold cruelty of his words. It hadn’t entirely been acting.Was there some lingering resentment for the way she had treated him since his arrival at Ransom? He knew it wasn’t her fault that she didn’t share his feelings. Focusing his whole life on reaching her had been his decision, and he had known the possible consequences. Likely might be a better word. But the rejection still stung, and now he had hurt her back. Was that what had driven him to be so callous? Was that why he had felt a thrill of pleasure putting her in her place? Was that why he now felt ashamed?Being around her was confusing. He founded it hardest to think clearly when she was within sight, but the threat to her had made things a lot more straightforward. He knew what he had to do, and so he did it. The fact he enjoyed it was what was troubling him.It was a small and petty way to behave, but it had to be done, he kept telling himself. She would have known if his vitriol had been manufactured. He wanted to believe the ease with which brutality came to him was because her safety was more important than the niceties of polite discourse. He knew her well, knew what it took to get a reaction. She wouldn’t thank him for it, but it didn’t matter how mad he made her. It only mattered that he kept her away from danger.Nic smiled to himself and kicked a stone off the path. He was trying to portray himself as the hero, acting out of n.o.ble purpose. It was hardly that. In truth, he wanted her to know he was saving her, to sob over his grave, knowing he had sacrificed himself for her. It was a morbid fantasy, and the solipsistic nature of it didn’t please him. Petty and small.He had to be better. His thoughts needed to be clearer, his actions based on logic, not emotion. It wouldn’t be a simple case of him forcing her into a position of his choosing—she would react and respond. He couldn’t afford to let his guard down. At least she would be good training for him. Diabolical minds were hard to find and he was lucky to have one so close by to help him gain experience. The demons, by comparison, would probably be far easier to handle. Once they were ensconced in their private library room, Nic left to find more information on Ransom. He had chosen the school as his project on a whim. No, it was more than that. He wasn’t foolish enough to think the reason he had become the focal point for such strange happenings was due to him. It wasn’t he who was special, it was the school itself, he had just been the one to unearth it. Something about this place had drawn the demon here, had transported Simole, and was now bringing things to a head. All in this one place. A plan a thousand years in the making. The more he understood the origin of the school, the better his chance of understanding what was going on. Perhaps. It wasn’t a whim, but it was very much a leap in the dark.The library was awash with students and he weaved his way to the main desk. He didn’t have to turn his head to know Dizzy was sitting at her usual table, with her usual friends. Including the twins. Jealousy? Was that his true motivation? He studiously ignored her as he was sure she was doing likewise.The librarian was at her station, working on her books.“Do you ever get to a stage where all the books are in good condition?” asked Nic as he watched her work.“No. It’s an endless cycle of healing old wounds as new wounds form. How can I help you, Mr Tutt?”“I wanted to find books on Ransom. How it first came to be, and why.”“There are plenty of books on the subject, I’m surprised you need my a.s.sistance.”“I wanted…” He stopped and looked around. The other students were too deeply involved in their own business to pay any heed to his. But then, they weren’t the only eyes and ears that worried him. “It’s hard to study when there are so many people watching you.”The librarian carried on working on the binding of a large book bound in green leather. It didn’t look dyed. He tried to think of animals with green skin. A crocodile?“You know,” said the librarian, “you seemed so alone when you first arrived. An island in the middle of a great ocean. And now look at you. The most popular boy in school.”Nic wasn’t sure if she was mocking him, her face as implacable as ever. All the people who knew about the truth of what was happening at the school—the ministers, the mages, even the demon—affected an air of composure, but Nic could sense their deep unease. It didn’t make a difference how prepared or confident, defeat was always possible. The thought had to sit somewhere. Not so with the librarian. She radiated the same nonchalance as the first day he met her. The books needed to be taken care of, everything else could mind itself.“I do have friends now, but I wouldn’t say I was the most popular.”“Why, just the other day, I received multiple requests from various departments requesting permission to place agents on library premises, just to be closer to you. I refused, of course—such things would be very disruptive—but it does show you how far you’ve come.”“They had to ask you for permission?” asked Nic, taken aback.“Of course. It is a very old and longstanding tradition that the library grounds are sacrosanct. I say tradition, but of course it is all written down somewhere. An ancient pact between the royal house and the first librarian.”“So, an agent of the government couldn’t enter the library without your permission?”“Uh-huh.” She lifted up the book and checked its spine. “Not even, say, in the middle of the night?”“Not even then. The library has its own defences.”Nic looked around, wondering what those defences were. He recalled coming here with a Secret Service agent in tow, and asking the agent to stay outside. The agent had complied, and now Nic understood why.”“That’s very interesting. Thank you.”“You’re welcome, Mr Tutt. I’ll get you a list of books on Ransom that might be of use.” She walked off without once having looked up.Working on his presentation was surprisingly relaxing. It took his mind off his troubles and sank his thoughts into old tomes. The books the librarian had suggested were nothing to do with Ransom, but contained a few lines about the school, a paragraph at most. Books on construction, love letters between poets, sports almanacs. He felt like he was panning for gold with just as much chance of finding silver, or maybe even a diamond.They returned to the cottage after supper at the cafeteria. Nic sat on his bed, closed his eyes, and breathed. There was a demon somewhere in the dark. He had stopped trying to call it, but he could feel it watching him.Nic came out of his room after hearing some commotion, and found f.a.n.n.y sitting in front of the fire, the other two standing over him.“f.a.n.n.y has moved on from mastering carpentry,” said Davo. “He is now a master cartographer.”f.a.n.n.y was sitting on a large sheet of paper like it was a picnic blanket. It was a map of the school, but rather than being centralised on the main school buildings, the centre point was their small cottage, with everything radiating outwards from there. There were also a large number of pins stuck in various buildings.“That’s very good,” said Nic. “Is it to scale?”“Of course,” said f.a.n.n.y. “Has to be for my calculations to work.” He knocked on the top of the wooden detector by his side. “With this, I can pinpoint every Secret Service agent on campus.”“The pins?” asked Nic.f.a.n.n.y nodded. There were a dozen pins spread across the map, and three in the cottage.“Haven’t you just told them we know where they are?” asked Brill. “Aha!” said f.a.n.n.y. “That’s where this comes in.” He took another wooden box and placed it on top of the first. “I got the idea from what Nic said about going to see Mr Denkne in his bathtub.”“Been thinking a lot about that, have you?” asked Davo.“Yes,” said f.a.n.n.y. “You remember how he said the agents weren’t able to hear them, that they were hearing an entirely different conversation?”“You can do that?” said Brill, aghast.“Well, no, I’m not a mage. But I found a way to bounce around echoes of old conversations. Should make it impossible for them to hear us. All that in just a few days!”The three boys standing over the map looked at each other. It was an impressive accomplishment, for sure.“Don’t you think they’ll notice?” asked Davo. “Might make them a tad suspicious if all they hear is snippets of things from a few hours ago.”“It’s a prototype,” said f.a.n.n.y defensively. “Give me a chance, I’ve only had a few days.”“No, it’s good,” said Nic. “You better turn it off now, though, and keep the map out of sight. But it really is great. It’ll come in really handy if there’s an emergency and we need to talk in private.”“What kind of emergency?” said Dav, rattled.“Yes, what are you envisioning?” said Brill. “Is it bad?”Nic spent the next five minutes rea.s.suring them he had no premonition of disaster and went back to his room. He thought things over for the next few hours, then he got up and went to f.a.n.n.y’s room. It was late, but f.a.n.n.y was still working on one his contraptions.“Can you use one of your devices to find unusual Arcanum spikes?”“On campus?” asked f.a.n.n.y. “Sure. I’ve already done a sweep, though. Nothing stood out.”“No, I mean in the opposite direction.”“An Aranum void? There’s only one place like that on campus. The PaG.o.da.”“The same as before?” “Oh no,” said f.a.n.n.y. “Much less than before. It was zero before, now it’s in the negative.”“How can there be less than no Arcanum?”f.a.n.n.y shrugged. “The reading went negative. I don’t know why?”“Right, of course. Thanks.”Nic went back to his room and thought some more. If Simole was trying to reach him, and she couldn’t get to him here, the PaG.o.da would be the next obvious choice. It was where she left from, it stood to reason that’s where she would return.He left the cottage through his bedroom window. Not to throw off the agents—they wouldn’t be fooled so easily now—but to avoid his roommates. He made his way to the library, and then around the back to where the PaG.o.da stood, cold and lifeless, ringed by lanterns on short posts. A sign forbidding entry hung on the door. He had an urge to go inside and check for… he wasn’t sure what. He was sure there were agents with him, even though he had seen no sign of them. He wasn’t expecting to find anything in there, but he felt like he was missing something. Some part of the puzzle he’d overlooked.The door was closed but unlocked. Not even a padlock. He took one of the lanterns and entered. He had expected an agent to materialise and stop him, but no one did.He carefully went down the stairs to the lower level, made his way through the rooms. They felt like they hadn’t been used in a hundred years. What was he looking for?In the room where he had spoken with Tenner and Professor Veristotle, he sat down on the large chair and closed his eyes, letting his mind wander as he breathed slowly. He tried to think of Simole, and found it hard to remember what she looked like. Then he thought of the time they had been kneeling in front of the red mage, and she had winked at him, and her features came flooding back to him.“Your friend is unable to reach you,” said a quiet voice in the back of his mind. Nic did his best to stay calm. “Why can’t she reach me?”“She is lost. Would you like to help her find her way home?”Nic breathed in and out three times, slowing each time. “Is she lost and looking for the way home, or lost, trying to lead others away?”There was a long pause which Nic used to slow his breathing even more.“You have grown perceptive, little one.”“You have grown lazy, old one.”“And you have grown daring.” There was an amused, annoyed lilt to the voice. “Why do you think me lazy?”He was being provocative, leaving himself open. He knew it, but when would he get a chance like this again? “You say you wish to open the door, to allow your like to return here, but you spend your time hiding, waiting for others to do the work for you.”“I see. Yes, a reasonable a.s.sessment, but you have limited information. I am a hard worker. Always striving. But the work is best done by those who are best suited to the task. There should be no hurry when it comes to doing things correctly. Don’t you agree?”“I agree,” said Nic. “But when you want to be certain things are done correctly, it’s best to check the work yourself. Especially when you approach the end.”“Do you think we approach the end?”“I don’t know,” said Nic hesitantly. Lies were a weakness, but what about uncertainty? “I feel it’s close.”“I, too, feel it is close. But a sacrifice is still needed to prise the door open.”“Am I the sacrifice?” asked Nic, unable to keep his voice from shaking.“Who else? Especially after I worked so very hard to bring you here.”Now there was a playful laugh. Now Nic understood he had been tricked. The urge he felt to come to the PaG.o.da wasn’t his. It was stupid not to have suspected, but the feeling had been so natural, so insistent. Would he have to learn to doubt his every instinct? Would he ever have the chance?He got up and ran.The earth began to shake.He felt his lungs about to burst, and every fiber of his being screamed panic. He tried to stand but could not. The rumbling, catastrophic roar was coming from above and below. It surrounded him until his eardrums were ready to split. He groped to his hands and knees as stones fell and the world tilted. The tremor stopped.The earth was firm again, firm as it had always been, firm as it always should be. And then everything tumbled down on top of him.If you have a moment, please vote for this story on TopWebFictionNo sign up required, just hit the b.u.t.ton. 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