To know a thing, my mum had used to say, was to no longer know any fear of it. This had once seemed to me to be the most abject of wisdoms, comparing it to the monsters I knew. The things that rattled and bumped in the night. The fears I knew.
What the Hollow Man did to his victims scared me no less when I had finished the log than it had before. This might have seemed unfair to me had I taken a moment to try and soothe my mind with something so comforting as simple irritation.
I didn't want to talk about it to anyone. They didn't ask, even after I had shut Ser Naderry's dusty old book and covered my eyes. He had been a good writer, in his own plodding way. Not like a writer of tales, but as a record keeper. He did not leave anything to the imagination. I could almost be grateful. My imagination was a bit too skilled in filling in gaps with horrible things.
The states of the Hollow Man's victims varied, but the gist was this: they lost their lives very slowly. Not, as the general populace assumed, like a grape drying into a raisin in the dehydration of the sun, but like a doll being somehow turned inside out. The details were not something I would ever want to dwell on, but accursed Ser Naderry had recorded them diligently, in all their variance.
A hand on my shoulder made me jump, knocking a pile of books onto the desk. Chrysander hopped up to retrieve them for me, and I realised that it had not been, as I had supposed, his hand.
Asclepia took a half step round to look at my face. "You aren't well," she said. Or guessed. It might have been a guess. I disliked her again, suddenly remembering the way that General Thornbehr had talked about her. A precognitive. How much did she really know about the future? How did such latent talents really work?
"No," was all I could say.
"I see you have read the paladin's log. Do you wish to know more about paladins?"
"I wish to know why I am not to be one," Chrysander piped up. He already looked indignant, and I was almost grateful for the interruption. I needed this moment to calm down and tell my knees that there was nowhere to run. My world, once a small thing I had thought of as consisting merely of the university and some nebulous outside, had shrunk further. The laboratory, the staircase to our rooms, the tunnels that lead everywhere and subsequently nowhere.
A sigh from Asclepia, not tired, but irritated. "This is not a question for me. Do not pose it again or I shall be forced to send you home."
"I wouldn't go."
She shook her head. "How unexpected. Next you shall tell me that the sun will rise in the east." Turning back to me, her expression softened, but it didn't quite fit her face. "There will be two paladins with you at all times. Better yet, they are your friends, which is better than any other training they could have."
"The training which they have received over the past..." My own precision came in to haunt me, but all I let myself say was, "less than a week. It's been days, Asclepia."
"Their lives have been rather longer than days. I like to think that every unwasted moment in someone's life is training."
"You would," Chrysander broke in. "By your own admission, half to all of being a paladin is down to caring for one's charge and just having been alive. I've seen at least as much combat as Demetrius--what's more, I have had the tendency to go up against people. Human beings are a lot craftier than bushsnakes." He folded his arms, then unfolded them and held them at his sides. Either he was fidgety, or learning what postures made him look like an annoyed kid.
One hand over the closed logbook, I turned up to look at him. A tirade was the sort of thing I expected from... anyone else other than him. It was fascinating. His hair was even ruffled, without his touching it.
Asclepia watched him as well, not participating in the argument beyond a somewhat blank stare. There really must have been something in names. All this time, he had had to call her Dr Cordet, if he deigned to speak to her at all, and to him, she had stayed Dr Cordet.
"I just want to know... All right, all right, stop looking at me like that, I know why. But it still sounds like maths gone all wrong." Clearly desperate now, he indicated me with a sweep of his arm. "She needs protection, not help running into danger."
I raised my hand, feeling oddly like Soterios when we had first met him. "It appears that some discussion has been going on without me. As it appears to have something to do with me particularly, I should very much like to know what it is about."
It was Asclepia who answered, after first glaring at Chrysander. "This is why I wished for you to know the duties of a paladin. You were only supposed to read the marked sections of Ser Naderry's logbook."
"I skipped those." I had done so on purpose, but I didn't feel it necessary to add that.
"Of course you did." She sounded a bit put out. "Listen, you already know that paladins are the men and women sent out to retrieve the people that the Hollow Man takes away."
"Everyone knows that."
"Quite. But I wanted you to know why and how."
"I know how. They have some kind of magical protection they believe to be holy, and they carry very large swords while wearing armour."
She laughed, which actually lifted some of the tension fogging my vision. "No, I'm afraid it isn't so simple. That is the childish version of events. Oh now, don't make faces. That's why I marked what of Ser Naderry's logbook you were to read. He was a fanciful man, and indeed, very religious."
"And a nutter." Chrysander sat back in his chair near me, not quite slumping, but giving off a subtle air of wanting to do as much. "Before Dr Cordet confuses you worse, let--let me. Paladins are protectors. They were never supposed to be on recovery teams. People were afraid to need them, but we do. Monks used to train them, but now all they need is combat training of any kind, and the ability to reinforce it with their own convictions."
I gave him a wan smile, twisting a little to include Asclepia. "That's what you meant, caring about me."
Chrysander went on. "Surely you agree that anyone who cares for you now ought to be with you out there."
"You appear to feel awfully strongly about this." I didn't know if I was goading him or not. It was such a curious situation whenever anyone talked about sending me 'out there'. Whenever it came up, I buried myself in research and pretended harder at having a job at a desk.
But that was running away, same as if I had bolted into the tunnels and never returned. Just less dark.
The look that Chrysander gave me was playful, but there was more to it than just that. "Of course I do," he said, "can't you talk some sense into your boss there? She--she won't let me be a paladin. It's absurd. You know what I can do, I can fight."
"You do fight. Like a scrappy dog. Endlessly and often."
He faked a wince, smiling through it. He opened his mouth, ready to speak through the tilt of his grin, but Demetrius interrupted him. "We all have to do what we're told now. It isn't up to Athena, so stop bothering her."
"What holy protection do you get?"
Everyone turned to look at Noni. She had her hands clasped together, held in front of her. Demetrius, refusing to look at her, mumbled something incoherent.
Soterios cleared his throat and said, "We don't, really. It's just going in ready to fight the Hollow Man for us. I never had any education outside what my parents taught me, and Demetrius says he never went to a monks' school either."
Eyes flashing with grim victory, Chrysander folded his arms and leaned back in the chair. "I have done. There's those as would stop you two from being called more than knights."
"The name is not what is important," Asclepia started, but Chrysander cut her off again.
"A name can be absolutely everything. You never went to a monks' school anymore than any of them." He gazed defiantly up at her. "And yet I'm to be a bloody diviner."
"Diviners are as essential as paladins, of which you are well aware."
I would have had to agree, but I kept my mouth shut. The people who sought out the Hollow Man, called 'diviners' though there was nothing holy about the process that I could tell. It was a term that had to have come from the old divining rods, but instead of looking for water, they were looking for activity from Hollow Man.
The need for such an obscure term was not really a difficult thing to understand. It was imprecise, sounded an uncomfortable process, and if no one had been reported missing, never seemed to yield results.
"Why make Chrysander a diviner?" I asked. "If he doesn't want to do it, then he shouldn't have to." The irony of what I was saying did not escape me, but I pretended I did not notice it. Especially when I saw that Demetrius was looking at me with a sympathetic grimace.
Asclepia tossed her head, setting her long hair into a momentary sway. "He is the only person in this facility who can do it."
Turning to Chrysander, I said, "Isn't that enough for you?"
He did not meet my eye. "That's as may be, but it isn't all of the facts. Go on, doctor. Tell her the rest."
"You sneaky little..." Asclepia's eyes flashed angrily, and for a moment, I really thought she might hit him. It wasn't as though she raised her hand to him, or anything, there was just a sudden tension in her shoulders. "A courier brought a message from the king. He has had diviners seeking around the clock since I brought all of you to the laboratory."
My heart was already sinking past my knees before she said the words.
"The Hollow Man has been found. Or they think he has. I am to lead an expedition at last to trap the evil thing."
"With my help."
"Our help," Noni corrected me, stomping over. "If Chrysander gets to go and be a diviner or whatever, then I can do the same thing."
"You can't," he retorted. "Not only don't you have the temperament, you've probably never even seen a monk. In fact, I know you haven't. Dem had to visit me in school, but you always pretended at being sick."
"It wasn't pretending." She tossed her head, running a hand through her hair, now completely changed a nutshell-esque light brown. "Just thinking about you made me sick."
Soterios, ever ready to break through an argument, said, "When are we meant to go?"
"Today. Now, if you can all act like a collective of adults and rally." Hands on her hips, Asclepia appeared to stare down each of us. When her gaze fell on me, I tried to see if she was hardening again, but the affect of the laboratory held. "The days have been short, but there will be no other chance for this."
By that, I supposed she meant that we might not all survive the mission, or expedition, whatever it was. I certainly didn't expect to. She left before anyone could, or would, ask.
Once she had gone, Chrysander deflated. "It oughtn't to be like this. If I'd known... I should have listened to my mother. Or my sister."
Remembering something I had heard him say soon after we had first arrived here, or perhaps something Noni had said, I forced a smile and asked, "Which one?"
He sat up quickly, startled. "What do you mean?"
"I thought you had more than one sister. Someone mentioned it." My grin faltered. "Sorry. Trying to take off the edge."
"No, I'm--I'm sorry. There's..."
Whatever he was going to say was swallowed up in a cough from Demetrius. "Unlike some people, I've spent this time reading. Diviners might not have the fancy name or the right to stand in the front, but they can fight too. Go and get your kit, and instead of whinging on about your lot in life, do what you've always done." He all but sent Chrysander off with a half-hearted kick.
Then, to my surprise, he did the same, to a more respectful extent, to Soterios and Noni, adding to the latter to go and answer the letter the courier had brought for her. He handed Soterios a slip of paper, spoke in a very low voice the defied eavesdropping, and then Soterios walked towards the tunnels.
"What did you just do?" I asked, jumping up from my chair. None of us had gone near the tunnels since the first time through.
"Sent him back to the house to get some weapons from the armoury." He didn't look worried, but that didn't make me feel any better. "Call me superstitious, but I don't trust any gear that I don't know something about." Then, he smiled a little, looking as though the expression were a suit that he knew did not fit quite right. "Don't worry. I told him to take a torch, and I wrote down the directions."
"What if he gets lost?"
"Then we can get ol' Chrys to divine him out."
I suspected it didn't really work that way, but I was getting fed up with arguing. I sat back down and leaned my elbows on the desk, burrowing my fingers into my hair, working them over my scalp like worms.
Demetrius's hands on my shoulders were awkward and mostly unwelcome. "It's going to be fine. I promise we'll all come out alive."
"You can't promise things like that."
"Then you can't follow through."
"Maybe I can't. But no one else could do better."
I turned round, suddenly quite furious with him. "No one else could... You are an utter fool, aren't you?"
Astonishing as anything, there was a silly smile on his face. My spin had knocked his hands away, but he had just leaned on the chair instead. "Maybe. But fools tend to keep on living. We're like cockroaches that way."
"It continues to baffle me why Noni finds you so outrageously attractive," I said with a sigh.
That was a mistake. The smile vanished and he spun on his heel. "You aren't the only one baffled by that," he said. "I'm going to go after Soterios. You're right to worry about him getting lost, it's hard to read in torchlight."
When he had gone, I stood up, stretched, and then walked sedately to the staircase. After shutting the door and determining that I was as by myself as I would ever get again, I ran pellmell up the stairs. I didn't stop until I was out of breath and had to turn round to go in my room. Weapons, paladins, and diviners. Hollow Man, an expedition, and me.
Fishing had been one of my favourite pastimes as a child. My father would take me out in the earliest eke of the morning and the two of us wouldn't come back home for hours. It worried my mother horribly, but we would both laugh away her fears and talk about how brave we were.
This wasn't like that at all, and yet it was.