The Good Student

Chapter 44

Chapter Forty Four


The Pagoda rose into the starless sky that hung over them like a black canopy. The shape began to grow more distinct as Nic’s eyes adjusted. Were they demon eyes, now? Able to see in the dark. No stories mentioned it. It seemed unlikely.

The Pagoda’s walls seemed rickety, the eaves ragged and misaligned. It was ominous, mostly shadow and outline in the feeble light of the lanterns ringing it, the suggestion more threatening than the reality. Nic stared up at it, his breath making his numb lips tingle. The nights were supposed to be getting shorter. This one seemed to be eternal. The air was cold, and the chill seeped into him.

This had been such an impressive sight when he first came here. He had thought himself lucky to be chosen. So lucky. One in a million, or at least, one in a couple of thousand. Made privy to the secrets it held below.

It had delighted him, he could see that now. To be invited into the inner sanctum. It didn’t really matter what it was the inner sanctum to. Anyone observing him would have seen maybe mild curiosity. That was all he would have admitted to. Even to himself.

He had been lucky, indeed. Specially chosen to be prepared with large doses of near-lethal Arcanum. Even back then, they were readying him for this moment. Like a calf being fattened for the slaughter, timing it so he’d be the perfect host for a demon.

He could feel it inside him. In his blood.

Nic looked up again. At the cage. It appeared to be a dome, but it was more likely a sphere, closed around them from above and below. It was a good thing he wasn’t meant to be the hero, fighting alone against a sea of demons clamouring to get past him, trying to save everyone. Nic Tutt, defender of the portal! The name didn’t fit very well. He would have failed.

Davo flopped about, his head rapidly turning from side to side. The hilt of Dizzy’s black dagger buried in his chest, on the other side from his heart. Nic had made sure to aim on that side because he didn’t trust his aim. It was high up on the chest, though. In his shoulder.

“Nggh,” said Davo through gritted teeth. “Get it out.” His fingers clawed at the dirt, his eyes squeezed shut.

“In a minute,” said Nic. “It has to finish first.”

Davo arched his body and spasmed in what looked like a painful manner.

How had he known the dagger would work? He had never seen anything like it before. He had no way of knowing how it functioned. But he had been completely sure of the effect. He still was, even though Davo’s condition did not seem to be improving.

His friend was in an immense amount of pain. Pain caused by him. But his observation was without emotion. Was that a side-effect of merging with the demon?

He remembered it happening, the demon sliding through him. He could recall his own immense pain, but as an abstract memory. It was gone now. And the demon was inside him. Not just in his mind, in his body, in his blood. The thought of it made him feel a slithering movement within his veins.

It was a fanciful notion, but enough to chill the blood across his chest. He pulled Dizzy closer.

The pen sticking out of her neck was humming. It was also growing warmer; Nic could feel the heat from it. He had her head in the crook of his arm. She was limp and unconscious, her weight fully pressed against him.

That’s why he had to hold on tightly. It was that or let her fall.

He readjusted to keep her vertical. Wherever her body touched his, a warmth spread through him. Her smell was comforting and familiar. Not sweet or flowery, though. She was more likely to choose insect repellent and healing balms than rouge and powder.

As children, she would daub her face with mud before playing hide-and-seek. She was a nightmare to find. And take three days of rations and a wide-necked flask for collecting urine when playing in the garden. The flask was to prevent tracking by dogs, she would explain, even though Nic had no dogs to send after her. It also came in useful to fight dehydration, she would tell him, in great detail. Some knowledge you really were better off without. There was a lesson he had failed to learn.

Davo made a gurgling sound that didn’t sound healthy. “You… stabbed me.” His words were coming out fully formed now. That was a good sign.

“Yes. Sorry.”

“You c-c-could put her downnnnn.” And then, sometimes it took a little longer to clear the mind completely of outside interference.

“No, it works better if she’s upright.” How did he know that? He would assume the demon had something to do with it, but there was no sense he was drawing on some alien knowledge. It just seemed the right thing to do.

“Nnn you stabbed me, you stabbed her.”

“Had to,” said Nic.

“But not him?” Davo couldn’t indicate who he meant, not very clearly, but it was fairly obvious.

Denkne was sitting awkwardly, folded in half like a ragdoll, his forehead touching the ground between his splayed knees. His clothes were badly ripped, and he was bleeding.

“No point. He doesn’t have any power left.”

“H-h-how do you know?”

A reasonable question. “If he did, we’d all be dead.” A good answer. No demon-heightened senses necessary to state the obvious. Although, maybe he was feeling a tiny bit more focused.

A freshness permeated his mind. His head was clear. He breathed in the night air, and it filled him with a cool, crisp alertness.

“Librarian. Demon. Got Fanny…”

“Don’t worry, we’ll get him.” Where did this confidence come from? All the time he had been trying to figure out what was happening, he was being led by a rope. One around his neck. Why would things be any different now?

This was all part of someone else’s plan. He had studied enough history to know a strategy when he saw one. If he was in position to make a move, he had been placed there, the move predicted in advance.

How could they know which direction he would go in? They couldn’t guarantee it, but they didn’t have to. A maze can have more than one route to the centre.

He looked up at the empty sky. He squinted, as though he would see better that way. His newly acquired demon-sight enabling him to part the veil. But there was nothing to see.

“What are you doing? Hey.” The irritated tone brought his focus back, sharply.

Her eyes were open, looking at him. Not kindly.

She was in his arms, leaning back, her face turned up. Close to him. Very close.

The clarity deserted him. “I… you were… a spell. I…”

“If you did anything to me while I was unconscious,” she whispered, “I will kill you.”

“What? No, I mean, what are you saying? What do you think I would do?”

“You’re holding me in your arms. I don’t remember giving you permission.”

He let go of her, and she began to topple. Her body had not returned to full mobility yet. He grabbed her before she was out of reach, and pulled her in, slamming her head against his chest.

“Put me down,” she mumbled into his chest. “On the ground.”

He lowered her, gently letting her slide out of his hold, and stepped back. He quickly stepped forward again, and bent down to snatch the pen out of her neck, blood dripping from the nib.

She winced, then looked up at the pen like it was a murder weapon he was planning to use against her. He quickly stuffed it into a pocket.

“You aren’t listening to me,” said Dizzy. She sat up, her hand pressed against her neck.

“You weren’t saying anything,” he said, confused.

“Why would I say anything when you aren’t paying attention?”

Nic smiled. It had been a long time he had heard her be so pedantic. Her recent attitude towards him had been to not consider him worth the effort.

“Why are you smiling? There isn’t much to be amused about. We still have to find a way out of this mess.”

“I know. It was nice hearing you being so unreasonable. Usually, you just glare and ignore me.”

“Hey!” said Davo, his voice weak and struggling to breathe. “Any chance you could…” He ran out of air and began wheezing.

Nic stood up. “Sorry. Erm…” He looked back at Dizzy who was getting unsteadily to her feet, still patting where he had inserted the pen. He knew what trying to help her up would get him. “Could you…?”

He indicated the hilt sticking out of Davo’s chest. It had been a pretty good throw. He would have liked her to notice that.

“What do you expect me to do?” said Dizzy.

“Patch him up,” said Nic. “He’s bleeding.”

“Yes. You stabbed him.”

“I had to. He was under the demon’s control.”

“The demon inside you?”

“No. The other demon. The Librarian.”

Dizzy frowned, then looked down at Davo. He was flailing his limbs slowly, like a fish out of water too long to struggle much longer.

Her hands darted around in the pouches on her belt. Bandages, iodine, a suture kit. She knelt down and yanked the dagger out casually, and thrust it into the ground by her bent knee.

Davo gasped, mouth a large O. He would have screamed, probably, if his lungs had the air.

Dizzy pulled the stopper out of the bottle with her teeth, stuffed the bandages in Davo’s open mouth like it was convenient storage space, and poured the contents of the bottle on the wound. Davo buckled, screaming into the bandages.

“How did you know?” she asked.

“About him? Seemed pretty obvious. He was acting weird.”

Lit from behind, it was difficult to make out her expression. He didn’t need to see her eyes, the tilt of her head told him there was absolutely no acceptance of his answer. “You said you merged with this demon that’s been living inside you. Did it give you the ability to read minds?”

“No,” said Nic, like he’d been accused of something. “I mean, I don’t think so. I can’t read yours.”

“Just as well,” said Dizzy, tersely. She turned back to Davo who had paled and was bathed in sweat. She ripped his shirt a little wider so she could see the wound. Davo protested via muffled sounds, more concerned about the tailoring fees than the blood. Blood could be removed with the correct detergents, tears were impossible to repair.

Maybe he could read minds. Davo’s whole argument seemed to be laid out in front of him. Although the magic he’d gained might only be to understand garbled complaints, which any dentist could also claim to do.

“It’s minor,” said Dizzy, leaning over Davo. “You’re lucky he didn’t have the strength to do any real damage.”

Davo didn’t seem placated by this news. Nic wasn’t too happy with it either. He had thought his dagger-throw had been quite solid, for a novice.

She took out a needle. The thread was already attached. “Keep still or this will hurt even more.”

As Nic watched her work, he also wondered how he had known. It was true that Davo had seemed to be acting unnaturally, but to go from that to throwing a dagger at him was quite a leap. One he would not have normally made so readily, he was sure. It wasn’t so much the knowledge he questioned, it was his reaction to it.

Had he been the one who acted. Was it his choice to pick up the dagger and hurl it like a man of action on the field of battle? It didn’t sound like him. It was more like a character in a story. That was the worrying part. He knew how much store demons put by such things.

Was the demon responsible? Would he deserve no credit for anything he achieved from here on out?

“You can’t be trusted,” said Dizzy.

“I’m in control,” said Nic.

Her eyes bore into him, like she was trying to penetrate a disguise. “Maybe. For now. But what if it’s just biding its time?”

“I’m sure it is. But this is the only option I had.” He looked up at the sky. “It’s not like it can get out of here.”

“No, but you can. Otherwise it wouldn’t have agreed to whatever you convinced it to do. You know that I’m right.”

“Yes,” said Nic. “I know.”

“So, you’ll listen to me? I give the orders?”

“No,” said Davo, muffled by the mouthful of bandages.

She snatched the bandages out of his mouth. “He’s got a demon inside him, and you’ve been appropriated once already. Who do you suggest we take instructions from? The traitorous mage?”

“As long as I have control of myself,” said Nic, “I can make use of this… whatever it is I feel.”

“And what happens when you lose control?”

“Then cut my throat.” He said it very matter-of-factly. “You’ll have to stay close to me. When you see me change, do it. You know me better than anyone, you’ll be able to tell.”

“A fine plan,” said Denkne, his head weakly lifted from the ground. His eyes were bloodshot, and his mouth swollen from bruising. The stylish white hair he wore like a plume, hung limp and damp, streaked with dirt and blood.

Dizzy stood up, walked over to him, and kicked him in the face.

His head snapped back and flew backwards to land on the ground behind. Still attached to his neck, but a couple more kicks like that and it wouldn’t be. His jaw was sure to be broken, which would make it hard for him to cast spells. But not impossible.

She knelt down and stuffed the bandages into the mage’s unhinged mouth, then wound the ends of the bandage around his face to complete the gag.

She looked around, found a rock, and picked it up. With short, efficient slams, she broke the fingers on both his hands.

She answered Nic’s horrified look with a curt, “I can’t kill him, they’ll probably want to ask him some questions. This way he won’t be a threat.”

Simole had dealt with a mage much the same way, if with different tools. She had used her magic to ruin the red mage’s hands. Dizzy had taken a more basic route.

She stood up and turned to face him. “Yes, I know you. I know how your mind works. Which is why I know I’m the only one who can lead us out of this.”

Nic looked at her, standing there with her jaw clenched and her eyes on fire. It was hard not to agree with her. Especially after he’d seen what she was prepared to do with a rock in her hand.

“And stop looking at me like that. Enough. I am not the love of your life, or whatever pedestal you’ve put me on. We were children. Nothing more.”

“It’s not that simple,” said Nic, unsure how she had interpreted the look of intense dismay he was sure had been on his face as adoration. “What I feel—”

“Puberty. You feel puberty. I just happen to be the only girl you ever spent time with, so you fixated on me. What you feel is normal for a boy of your age. You just have a habit of narrowing everything down to one thing, and become obsessed, which is why you make such a good student. You can push everything else out of your mind, and lose yourself in that one subject, the thing you’re drawn to. It was the same when we were children. It’s the same now. If it wasn’t me, it would be another girl, or boy, or a hole in a tree. It’s just your biological need combined with your single-bloody-mindedness.”

Nic flinched. He understood what she was saying, and there was a degree of truth to it, but it hadn’t been anyone else. And it hadn’t been a hole in a tree. It had been her.

“I can’t help the way I feel. What do you suggest I do about it?”

“I don’t know. Whatever boys normally do to relieve the pressure of adolescence. Infatuation isn’t healthy.”

He smiled ruefully. “If you recall, I already distanced myself from you. I did my best to keep you away. You came here looking for me. No one invited you. You’re the one doing the chasing.”

“This is completely different. The only reason I’m following you is because of the company you keep. It’s the only way to stop whatever’s happening here.”

“You’re lying,” said Nic, completely certain of it. “But it doesn’t matter. This is something I have to do. There’s too much you don’t know, and I don’t have time to explain it. If you insist on being involved, fine. But the only person who makes the decisions from this point forward is me. You don’t lead, I do.”

He stepped past her and grabbed Davo’s arm to pull him to his feet.

Dizzy watched him with narrowed eyes and a tightly closed mouth. She took a breath, allowing herself to think more clearly. He knew that was her way of letting go of her anger and repositioning for the next offensive. He could read her like a book. He didn’t need any magic to do that.

“You said if you acted oddly, I should cut your throat.” She turned the dagger hilt in her hand. He hadn’t even noticed her pick it up.

“I did,” said Nic. “But don’t judge me odd from up here.” He pointed at his head. “It isn’t where you judge best.”

It was her turn to flinch this time. Then her face contorted into anger. “What are you talking about? I told you to stop with that nonsense. You can’t start acting all mystical and think people are going to do what you say. I’m not going to follow your orders. You have a demon inside you!”

It was a reasonable point she was making. Very hard to argue against. In truth, he had no way to tell if his thoughts, his choices, were truly his own.

“I don’t disagree with what you’re saying,” said Nic, “but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to get Fanny safe.”

“That’s what you want to do? The world is about to fall to the demon horde, and you want to go check on your fat friend.”

“That’s a bit uncalled for,” said Davo. He was on his feet, one hand over the stitches below his shoulder bone.

“I don’t know how much longer I have,” said Nic. “If I do lose control, that’s it. I accept that. But until then, they have to leave me alone. If they consider me their way out of here, then any sign of interference from them will give it away. They have to rely on my desire to save the world. A boy’s fantasy to be a hero.”

“When have you ever wanted to be a hero?” asked Dizzy.

“Never,” said Nic. “That’s the only thing they didn’t predict. What boy with the chance to be a hero would turn his back on it? I’ll tell you. The kind who’d already seen what it took to grow up with that goal. Who grew up with you.”

Dizzy scowled, batting away what he knew she would see as meaningless flattery. “Isn’t that exactly the sort of thing the demon would make you say to try and win me over?”

“No. Because demons don’t work that way. The demon would offer you what you wanted, not remind you of what you already have. And this one doesn’t have the strength to force the issue. Not yet.

“The whole process so far has been based on getting a door open,” he went on. “That’s been the goal from the start. Poisoning me, feeding me enough power to handle the merger, the demon weakening itself to the point a teenage boy could absorb it. The only way I could contain a demon within my delicate frame was for the demon to be at its most insubstantial. It would just break me, otherwise.”

“You don’t know that,” said Dizzy. “Feeble as it is, it could still take control of your even more feeble mind.”

“Harsh, but not altogether unreasonable,” said Davo.

“Even if you do still have full control of your faculties,” said Dizzy, “you don’t know when the influence will begin. It could be very subtle. You can’t have a leader second-guessing every decision they make.”

He couldn’t fault the logic. He was already questioning every thought he was having. And from what he knew of the demon, it would wait until the perfect moment and he probably wouldn’t even realise it. He hadn’t the other times.

“You’re right.”

“I am?” said Dizzy, her tone suggesting she was expecting more.

“She is?” said Davo, sounding the same.

“What do you want to do?” said Nic.

Dizzy seemed to grow in stature as she seized her chance. “I want to get away from here, find somewhere safe and easy to defend, and stay there.”

Davo laughed, scoffing at the idea. “You want to hide?”

“Clearly the demon wants Nic to find a way out. This other door, the only reason they want you to go there is to use it instead of the one here.”

“Yes,” said Nic.

“Any attempt by us to outmanoeuvre the demon is bound to fail. It’s just playing into their hands. We can’t be so blind as to think we can possibly defeat a demon by doing what it wants.”

Nic nodded, watching her closely. Something about the way she was so married to this idea didn’t feel quite right.

“You want to abandon everyone,” said Davo. “Fanny, the rest, make sure we all die in here as planned?”

“Why not? It’s a good plan. Or would you rather we let the demons out and let them kill and enslave the whole of Ranvar, the whole world, even? That’s what will happen, you can count on it. Better we sacrifice ourselves than the alternative.”

In that moment, Nic realised three incontrovertible truths. First, Dizzy believed her father was dead, and that she was responsible. Second, that his insights were his own. The demon had given him no special abilities, not yet anyway. Third, the reason they had managed to defeat the demons in the past was because they could never grasp the concept of a true lie. A lie so pure it couldn’t be used against the person who told it.

“He isn’t dead,” said Nic.

Dizzy, all wide-eyed determination a moment ago, came to a shuddering halt. “What do—”

“Your father, he isn’t dead.”

“But his agents… I can’t call them.” Her voice was suddenly very small, her face tiny.

“I can’t explain it. I only know what I know.” He knew no such thing, only that she needed to hear him say it, was desperate to hear it.

She stared at him, shaken. Unable to react correctly. Searching through her catalogue of appropriate countermeasures, and finding nothing.

She was right that he would be second-guessing himself, always wondering when the demon would make its move. But it wasn’t himself he would need to trust. He had her. His perception of what was real never wavered when it came to her. She was as immutable to him as any book. You couldn’t slip an extra chapter into a story someone knew by heart, and expect it to go unnoticed.

“We need to go find the Librarian,” said Nic.

“Fanny,” said Davo, relief palpable in his voice.

“I don’t think the Librarian is our enemy. Not in the same way. She’s different.”

“No,” said Dizzy, trying to climb her way out of the pit of hope he’d dropped her in. “It’s a trick. That’s what they want you to do.”

“You can stay here, if you want,” said Nic.

Her face was calm again. “And how will I kill you from here, if the need arises.”

“I thought you weren’t going to follow my orders.”

“All except that one.”

“Have you finally come to an agreement?” said a voice from high above them.

They looked up, over at the library roof. The Librarian was standing there, looking down at them. Had she been there the whole time they’d been squabbling?

“If you want to talk, you should come up. All four of you.”

Nic looked at the other two, and then Denkne, still unconscious. And then realised she hadn’t included him.

“Alright,” he said.

“This could be a terrible mistake,” said Dizzy. But she followed him to the library.

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