The Good Student

Chapter 45

Chapter Forty Five


Nic closed his eyes for a second, a last minute attempt to marshall his thoughts. The dark emptiness overhead was distracting in a bland, unobtrusive way. It was the incongruity of it. When you were used to a riot of stars, or the uneven texture of nighttime clouds, a blank slate became a shocking thing to see.

He was entering into a situation where he had little chance of coming out victorious. Even if he had the requisite powers to defeat the forces lined up against him, he would probably still fail, just from the lack of experience. You had to know how to wield powers before they could be employed in any sort of life-saving capacity.

It was also highly likely that any notion of self-control he had was an illusion. He had been led here, given the unique abilities of a demon — so unique he had no idea what they were — and placed in this pivotal position. Not by his own cleverness, but by the machinations of those who found it convenient to do so. Convenient and profitable, as Davo would probably characterise it.

The question was, when you find yourself in the heart of a problem, with access to the most sensitive buttons and levers, but not the power to activate them, how do you use that access to your advantage?

He racked his brain for some sort of historical example he might be able to draw guidance from. And the only thoughts that came to him were ones reminding him he wasn’t alone. That any thoughts would be shared with the enemy. That any thoughts may come from the enemy, leading him another step closer to the goal they had set for him. It made it very hard to think clearly.

Nic took a breath, eyes still closed. He didn’t actually know if the demon was still present in a distinct form. He had agreed to merge with it — quite possibly an agreement he had been tricked into — and he had a vague recollection of great pain. But there was no memory of what had happened or how the two had settled into their partnership. Just a gap. Which in itself was quite worrying.

It was an awful risk to do anything other than what Dizzy had suggested: find somewhere to hide, wait for the adults to resolve the problem. But the first mages had merged with demons to gain their powers, and they had retained their sense of self. Hadn’t they?

He began to silently recite his own name over and over, hoping the reminder would help anchor his consciousness to his mind. And then he was falling, slowly at first, into black water, without sound, no splash or ripple, sinking, saying his name, saying his name...

“What are you doing?” said Dizzy, impatiently.

“Let him have a moment,” said Davo, his voice strained.

Nic staggered slightly, even though he was standing still, and opened his eyes. Davo was wincing, one hand on his shoulder where the stab wound was still raw. He seemed to be pressing on it, which was bound to hurt, but sometimes a sharper pain helped distract from an unrelenting dull one.

“It’s okay,” said Nic. “I was just making sure I’m still me.”

“And how would you know?” asked Dizzy.

She was standing in front of the library’s back door, which was open. She had opened it, but not with any special device or even blunt force. All it had taken was turning the handle. The dark doorway was both inviting, and taunting.

“You’re you,” said Davo. “For now, at least.”

Dizzy turned to look at Davo. Nic couldn’t see her eyes, but her stance told him she wasn’t impressed by the diagnosis.

“And how would you know?”

“You aren’t the only one to have spent time with him, Miss Delcroix.”

“A few months? You think that’s enough time to pass judgement?”

“Some of us are able to discern the good from the bad without the need for years of study. I realise the two of you are remarkable students, but try not to forget I, too, am here on merit, and not just for my good-looks and sartorial elegance. If those were the criteria for entry, I imagine it would be quite a bore to have to sit in an empty classroom day after day.”

“You know, I could always put the dagger back where I found it,” said Dizzy.

Davo blanched, taking her threat seriously, which ably proved he indeed could discern the good from the bad in people.

Dizzy wasn’t happy, Nic could see that plainly. She had never been the type to be pleased when things went well, and unhappy when they went poorly. The task needed completing regardless. Problems never worried her, as long as she was in control. But she wasn’t in control, and she wasn’t happy.

“You’ll need the dagger for me,” said Nic. “Maybe.”

Dizzy nodded, accepting the prioritising of targets.

“What’s the plan?” asked Davo, peering into the libraries innards. No one had put themselves forward as the vanguard.

“Plan?” said Dizzy before Nic had a chance to say anything. “You think there’s the possibility of a plan for… this?” She pointed at the doorway, dagger in hand.

“What would you suggest?” said Davo. “Run in blind?”

“It makes no difference,” said Dizzy. “You either delay or you get on with it. Whatever we face in there, it won’t be something we can prepare for. You don’t prepare for the unexpected, or the unknowable. You prepare yourself. You prepare your instincts to act without thought. There’s entirely too much thinking among mages… and demons.” She gave Nic a sharp glance. “The mind can do amazing things if you don’t waste its time with thinking.”

There was a lot he agreed with her in what she said, but he didn’t have the same kind of training she did.

“But I—” He swayed backwards as Dizzy swung her hand at his face. The open hand narrowly missed hitting him. He was relieved it hadn’t been the hand holding the dagger.

“Hey! What’re y—” Davo cut himself off. “How did you do that?” he asked Nic.

“Do what?”

“How did you evade her strike? Is that the… was that the demon?”

“No,” said Dizzy. “That was me, wasn’t it Nic?”

Nic touched his tingling face with hesitant fingers, testing to make sure he hadn’t actually been struck and not noticed. His face was reacting to the attempt. If there’d been contact, there’d be more than a mere tingle. “She always attacked me when I didn’t agree with her. When we were children.”

“And you learned to avoid it. Not by thinking or arguing, but by moving out of the way. Even back then, I was teaching you a valuable lesson. You’re welcome.”

Nic frowned. “I’m pretty sure you were genuinely trying to hit me, and I taught you the valuable lesson about avoiding predictable patterns of behaviour.”

She waved a dismissive hand at him. “The point is, it didn’t take extensive calculations to work out what to do. Self-preservation is the only thing you need to practice.”

“And that’s going to be our weapon in the face of demonic magic, is it?” asked Davo. “Ducking?”

“That’s going to be our strategy. Nic is going to be the weapon. And I am going to be the hand that holds the weapon.”

Nic felt the bloom of heat in his face as he blushed.

“What are you doing? I didn’t mean it like that.” Now it was her turn to blush. “Ugh. I can’t believe how your mind works. Let’s go save your fat friend at least.” She pointedly didn’t make eye-contact with Davo as she pushed past him into the dark interior.

“You two had a very strange relationship as children, didn’t you?”

Nic made a point of not making eye-contact with him, either, as he followed Dizzy into the library. It was dark and quiet, which wasn’t unusual.

“I have this strange sense of grace,” whispered Davo from behind. “The calm you feel when you know you’re going to die.”

Nic softly tiptoed up the stairs. “I feel it too. Only, I don’t think it’s because we’re going to die, I think it’s because we should already be dead.” He half-smiled at the realisation of what he was saying, how morbid it was, yet still optimistic. He stopped halfway up the stairs and turned. “Everything from here is gravy.”

Davo shook his head. “I’m sure Fanny will be pleased. He likes gravy.”

“One more meal together,” said Nic. “I hope we can sit down at our table one more time.”

“It’s hopeless though, isn’t it? There’s no way we can resist a demon. I couldn’t. I didn’t even know I was supposed to. How will you stop her making you do whatever she wants.”

“I don’t have to.” Nic nodded past Davo’s shoulder at the windows, tall and dark. “They’ve already stopped them. They didn’t need our help. Not mine, anyway. I was here to draw them out, I think. They’d be mad to rely on me to do anything more than that.”

Davo looked over his shoulder like there would be something to see. There was and there wasn’t. The dome sealing them in was a difficult thing to see, even when it was all around them.

“You think that’s their entire plan? Lock us in and let us wither on the vine?”

Nic shrugged. “Whatever the Archmage has done, I’m sure he’s done it with no chance I can break out of here.”

“Then what did the demon want from you?”

“That’s what I’d like to find out.” He turned to head up the stairs.

Dizzy was standing there, glaring at them impatiently, but not speaking. Had she been listening? Perhaps hoping to pick up an indication that he was not himself. He couldn’t see if the dagger was in her hand, but if not, it would be within reach.

“Hurry up,” she mouthed wordlessly, as if it mattered. It gave him the impression there was a window between them, but he couldn’t tell which of them was on the inside. “Stop wasting time.” Also silently.

“You don’t have to whisper,” said Davo. “She knows we’re coming.” He was getting a little irritated with her.

Lights came on somewhere above them, as though joining in the conversation, emphatically siding with Davo.

Dizzy found her voice again. “Your fat friend needs—”

“And stop calling him that,” said Davo, responding to her speaking aloud by speaking even louder.

Nic knew she was deliberately aggravating him. Not because she was a mean person, although there was a case to be made for that, too, but because she didn’t trust him. He had been an agent of the enemy not long before, and he could be again. She meant to keep him off-balance, but there wasn’t really any need. Davo was hardly the only one susceptible.

“It’s not going to be him again,” Nic said to her.

The glare slipped into a look of consternation. “And how do you know that? Demon whispering in your ear?”

“No. I just don’t think there’s a need. We’re already here. If she wants to kill us, she will. It won’t get her what she wants, though. You don’t think so, either. If you thought it could, you would never have let me come here. You’re just as curious as I am, and neither of us has anywhere else to be.”

“You’re wrong. I’m here to stop her. You don’t know what she’s planning, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t planning something. A way to slip past that barrier, a way to turn you inside out and get her friend back. This is the moment where the end will be decided, so this is where I am. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

She turned and started up the stairs again. Head held high, confident on her way into the ring. She had always wanted to prove herself. Here was her big chance. He was curious about that, too.

“She’s crazy,” muttered Davo. “Probably get us killed.”

By the time the two of them reached the top floor, Dizzy’s boots were all that were visible on the ladder that led up to the secret room on the roof. She was charging ahead in reckless fashion, just to make a point.

“She could at least give us a chance to get properly intimidated,” said Davo as he followed the soles of her feet.

Part of him felt like hanging back, let her have her chance. Who knew, maybe she would surprise them all. Part of him didn’t want her to succeed. It would only take her away from him quicker. It was a selfish thought, and a laughably pointless one — what he wanted was of little concern to anyone, least of all her.

When he stuck his head into the mirrored room, all he saw was the librarian, reflected off every surface. She was wearing her usual attire, with glasses perched on her long nose, watching him from every direction.

“Welcome.” She stepped to one side, and all the images collapsed into the one, solid version.

“Run,” said Fanny, his voice straining to force its way out of his throat. “It’s a trap.”

“Really?” said Davo. “I’m the one who brought back reinforcements, and it’s him you give warning to?”

The three of them, boy, girl, boy, stood in a line, not moving.

“I’m afraid there’s nowhere to run to,” said the Librarian. “For any of us. But I expect you have questions.”

“You’ll answer them?” asked Nic, afraid she might withdraw the offer if he didn’t get some kind of confirmation, preferably in writing.

“I think you deserve it. I never thought you’d get this far.”

“He had help,” said Dizzy, standing next to Davo and Fanny, and not looking amused at being sidelined.

“Yes. You’ve been very—”

“Not me,” said Dizzy, a twinge of defiance in her voice. “Your colleague. It chose him as its toy, so obviously he would make it this far. Why are you so surprised? Mascots don’t need to achieve anything to appear at championship matches.”

You could always count on Dizzy to be unnecessarily blunt, but also necessarily blunt.

“If my colleague had done her job properly, there would be no need for any of you to be here. The appropriation of Mr Tutt was only ever a last ditch resort. And anyone who prepares for the worst possible outcome is tempting fate.”

“You think of her as a she?” asked Nic, his academic nature hard to detach.

“I think of myself as a female, so naturally I think of her as the same. Like sisters. Such classifications are interesting for the change they can wrought.”

“Changes?” said Nic. “I didn’t think you could change.”

“Didn’t you? Have you heard the story of the Green Demon?” She held up the book of fairy tales by Winnum Roke. “There’s a version of it in here. But not your version.”

Nic was a little taken aback. How did she know about his version?

“Each of the stories in here,” she continued, “can change something small about you, that slowly works its way into a larger transformation. You cannot read those words and remain unchanged. How you change will depend on what it is you truly believe. You, however, remained yourself, and changed the words.”

She was right, the story he had made up for the demon, to seduce it, had come from the book in the Librarian’s hands. He hadn’t retold it as written, he had created his own version, specifically designed to not slot together like a puzzle. His lifetime — short as that was — of reading and studying had given him an inbuilt ability to see where a line of narrative was headed. In books of all types, the writer gave away the destination well before it was in sight.

Nic had taken a story that had a traditional structure, and broke it. He told the demon a story with no ending, at least not one he was aware of, so the demon was unable to beat him there. It would have been a problem if he hadn’t been able to get there himself, arriving at an empty place with no reason to visit, but he had managed to find a satisfactory resolution. Satisfactory in the sense that the demon had not deduced what he was doing. Or maybe it had, and didn’t care.

The curious thing, though, was how the Librarian knew. It had all happened in Nic’s mind while he was trapped under the Pagoda. A trap he had no recollection of escaping, but he had no time to try to piece that puzzle together.

“How do you know about that?” Had she been in contact with the demon inside him? Was she still? There seemed no harm in simply asking her to explain.

“A librarian’s job requires them to be a good listener,” she said. “Especially when it involves their own history.”

“You were the Green Demon?” said Nic.

“I have been many things, and yet always the same thing. Writing this book was a way for me to grow beyond that. It didn’t work. For me. For you, however…”

“Didn’t Winnum Roke write that book?” said Fanny.

The Librarian adjusted her glasses, even though they didn’t require it. “It was a collaborative effort.”

“You heard me tell the story?” said Nic, more concerned about how he had been overheard. “You can read my mind?”

“I can read hers. As well as I can hear my own thoughts. Sadly I missed the ending. I don’t suppose you’d like to share the denouement?”

“You’re connected,” said Dizzy. “The two of you, you’re connected right now?”

Nic felt a combination of mild irritation at being interrupted, and an eagerness to know if Dizzy was right. So eager, he couldn’t wait for the answer.

“You can feel where she is? Is she inside me? Did we merge? Will I lose control of my body?” He had meant to be calm and patient, but it was impossible to hold himself back. Which was unusual for him, normally so restrained. He glanced over at Dizzy. Had she noticed? Was she preparing to lunge?

“She has merged with you, thanks to your story. It was a fine tale, I was as captivated as she.” The Librarian’s mouth slid into a thin smile. Appreciative more than amused. “Your changes were very perceptive. Or maybe they weren’t. Did you know how we crave change, the one thing denied us? To be whole, to be perfect from the start, it is a mind-numbing tedium to deal with.”

“You don’t like being you?” asked Dizzy, her tone lightly mocking. She was starting to probe for weaknesses, but more out of habit than preparing for an attack. Or at least Nic hoped that was the case.

“Liking things is a product of change,” said the Librarian. "One thing differing from another, one thing better than the other. We can shape things as we wish, into the necessary shape to serve a purpose. All things are liked equally when all things are the same.”

She looked at Nic. “A demon capable of transforming into a being of desires… Did you know? Did you guess? Was it blind luck? No, I think not. You have a gift for taking known information, and seeing something new in it. You won her over.”

“What does that mean?” asked Nic. “I don’t feel any different.”

“Why should you? You won her trust. She thinks you will change her, so now she waits for you to fulfil the promise you made.”

“I didn’t… I don’t remember making a promise.”

The Librarian nodded stiffly. “No. You didn’t. It was a wonderful lie.” She sighed, a note of admiration in the breath as it left her.

Nic wasn’t sure what she meant. If he had lied, it hadn’t been intentional. “But what do I do now? Shouldn’t I have some sort of… access.”

“To great magic? Certainly. If I told you your body was a living flame, what would you do with it? Set fire to the library? Power is of little use without purpose. What is it you would like to do? The first mages wanted to blot out the stars. A ridiculous vanity, I thought at the time.” She waved an arm over her head and the mirrored walls cleared to show the empty night sky. “Now, I see I was being short-sighted.”

He didn’t know what he wanted to do. He looked down at his hands as though there might be some sign of Arcanum gathering under the skin. They looked like his normal hands.

If he could leave here, would he? Opening a portal for demons to pass through seemed counter-productive. And if he was capable of doing that, wouldn’t the demon also have had the ability to do so. A demon was  bound to be more proficient with demonic powers. He looked over at Dizzy. What would she do if she had merged with the demon in his stead. Wreaked havoc? He shuddered, preferring not to go down that road.

“You can’t break down the barrier?” he asked.

“What makes you think I want to?” said the Librarian.

“To bring the others here,” said Dizzy, testily.

“That was her mission, not mine. And she failed spectacularly.”

“She failed?” It had a finality to it that Nic dared not count on. “Completely? What about the other door.”

“That one is mine,” said the Librarian.

“I thought that wasn’t your mission,” said Dizzy.

“Doors have more than one purpose. To let something in, and to let something out.”

“You want to use it to go back?” asked Nic.

“No.” It was a firm answer. “Not me. You.”

“Me?” said Nic. “You can just send me across?”

“It will take some sacrifice,” said the Librarian. “But it isn’t like they would have much longer left in any case.” She was looking at the other three.

“I don’t like the way she’s looking at me,” said Fanny. “I knew I should have stayed with that girl. What was her name again?”

“Don’t be so hasty,” said Davo. “Nic isn’t going to sacrifice anyone.” He paused for Nic to confirm his assumption.

Nic frowned, concentration rendering his face devoid of intent.

“Oh dear,” said Davo. “I think the insane girl is our only hope.” He managed to turn his head towards Dizzy. Her whole body seemed to have gone rigid, and her eyes could have melted iron with their glare.

“How can you send me there with the barrier up and the other door in Gweur?” said Nic. He was leaning towards rejecting the offer, but it wouldn’t hurt to explore all options.

“I think you’ll do well there. They’ll like you, I’m sure. The All-Mother especially. No one enjoys being proven wrong like the All-Mother.” The Librarian’s lips quivered. It was possibly the closest Nic had ever seen her to laughing. “It’s an opportunity few receive. And if you stay here and find yourself unable to hold on to your self-mastery… well, my sister is not as warm as I. I really can’t see you turning it down, if you’re allowed.”

“Allowed by you?”

“Allowed by her.” She turned to look at Dizzy who had been watching with a face full of wordless anger.

“I didn’t say I was going,” said Nic, annoyed with himself for sounding guilty.

“It’s a trick,” said Dizzy. “She wants you to open the way.”

“The way is already open,” said the Librarian. “Your father is already there.”

Dizzy reacted, but quickly brought her face back under control. “Then I should go.”

“Yes, I thought you might say that. But it isn’t you I’m offering the place to. He is the only one who can go.”

“Why? He doesn’t even want to go. He’d be much happier waiting here, surrounded by books.”

Nic felt a pang of guilt. He understood only too well what she was going through. Her whole life had been aimed at preparing for some kind of test. She had never voiced it, never specified the challenge, but it had been straining inside her since they were children. Like she knew something was coming. And here it was. Only, it hadn’t come for her.

But he didn’t want to give it to her.

“What if I don’t want to go,” he said.

“You do want to,” said the Librarian.

“Yes. But what if I decided not to?”

“Then… you will stay with us, for as long as they choose to let us stay.”

As long as they chose to let them live? That seemed to be what she was saying.

“You made the other door?” he asked, stalling.

“I arranged for it to be made.”

“To distract her father?”

“To distract my sister.”

Nic wasn’t expecting that. “You wanted her to merge with me.” Thoughts came together in his mind. “You want to send her back. With me.” If he took the demon with him, it would remove one problem, at least. Assuming that was what he was being offered.

“It won’t be her, it will only be you. There, you will be master.” It sounded lonely the way she said it.

“No,” said Dizzy.

Nic turned as the dagger flew towards him. He didn’t have time to think, only watch as the blade closed on the space between his eyes.

It had seemed unlikely to him that she would allow herself to be caught so easily. Her ego would never allow herself to be neutralised as easily as Fanny or Davo. How had she evaded the Librarians clutches? Nic didn’t know, but he wasn’t surprised. He could always count on her. At least now the decision was made for him.

And then his body jerked of its own accord, stepping aside like it had been merely waiting for the right time to move. The air from the blade brushed across the side of his face, and flew past.

There was a choking sound. He turned to see the dagger’s hilt sticking out of the librarian’s throat. She had been as taken by surprise by his sudden dodge as he had been.

Her eyes rolled up into her head, and she fell backwards. Nic stood there, staring at the unmoving body. It can’t have been that easy to kill her. He decided against going closer to check.

Nic turned back to Dizzy, feeling it was safe to meet her gaze again, as if some moment of danger had come and gone. “You knew I was going to move?”

Dizzy’s face gave nothing away. “It works both ways.”

Fanny moved towards the body lying on the ground. “Is she…”

“Do you want to wait and find out?” said Davo.

“No, not really.”

Something in the air drew Nic’s attention away from them. Above them the dome cleared to reveal the sky, still a solid mass of nothing.

“True,” said a voice in his head. “It works both ways.”

He fell, into the black water. No splash, no ripple, sinking at great speed.

“Hey.”

He opened his eyes, flat on his back, and looked up into a face leaning over him.

“She said you’d be here, but I didn’t believe her. Guess I was wrong,” said Simole.

Nic blinked. The light was very bright. “Who said I’d be here?”

Simole grabbed his hand and yanked him to his feet. It hurt his shoulder socket. “Winnum Roke.”

Nic stood up. “Winnum Roke? She’s here?”

“Yes. Come on, she’s dying to meet you.”

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