REMNANTS OF DARKNESS, by Eldrice
Standard Disclaimers Apply: Will Stanton, Bran Davies, Jane Drew, and the entire Dark Is Rising universe belong solely to the wonderful Susan Cooper.
A/N: Djibouti actually became a state in 1977. But an old prof of mine always had this great way of poking affectionate fun at Djibouti, and I just couldn't resist following in such a noble tradition.
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Chapter Sixteen: Blood Will Tell
Blood will tell, but often it tells too much.
- Don Marquis
Peter emerged from the math classroom forty-five minutes later, unscathed and triumphant. He was flanked on both sides by Mat and Jeff, who were grinning like fools and running a brilliant interference between Peter and the modest crowd of admirers, all of whom wanted to congratulate the newest member of their small community on what everyone agreed had been a very thorough rout.
Peter laughed as the friendly hands clapped him on the shoulders. Nothing like this had ever happened at Wraithfell Middle.
And thinking back on the past hour or so, he couldn't stop grinning.
Stumbling into the math room, he had seen a very short, very fat man standing before a large green chalkboard, explaining a complicated theorem. The man had looked up immediately upon Peter's entrance and frowned, small eyes blinking furiously.
"Well," he had said softly in a voice ridiculously high and thin. "This must be the elusive Mr. Peter Davies."
Peter, who had been torn between the dangerously conflicting emotions of fury and guilt and panic, had figured that the best response was simply to walk toward an empty seat near the back of the room. He did so, uncomfortably conscious that all eyes were on him. He saw Mat and Jeff seated near the front, watching him sympathetically as he stalked past. And there was Cutter, tucked away in a back corner, twirling a pencil and grinning at him with wicked delight. Her gaze sought his, and she shrugged her shoulders apologetically.
Mr. Mantey's voice had reached out like a dead branch and snagged Peter as he walked down the row of desks. "Not so fast, Mr. Davies."
Peter had turned around warily, asking "Yes?" in an impatient tone that may have come across has somewhat snippity.
Apparently it had. Mr. Mantey's smirk had frozen for one second before broadening into an unctuous smile. "Since class attendance isn't a priority for you, I must conclude that you are already perfectly familiar with inverse functions." He had gestured at the chalkboard. "Since that's the case, would you please come up front and demonstrate to the class your boundless proficiency by finding the value of ƒ1(ƒ-1(a))?" A piece of dirty chalk, smudged grey and worn by use, had been held out to Peter in one chubby hand.
Peter's gaze had raked the chalkboard once, which had been covered from top to bottom with rows upon rows of cramped mathematical symbols.
"Er, no thanks," he had said somewhat thoughtlessly, scratching his head and sliding into an empty desk.
The tips of Mr. Mantey's ears had reddened. "I'm sorry, Mr. Davies," he said, the cold sarcasm cracking like a whip. "But do what you are told. Without comment. Now, come up front."
Peter had felt a quiet rage building up within him at the obviously mean and vengeful attempt to humiliate him. Mr. Mantey knew that the problem he was asking him to solve was ridiculously complex, and not something a new student could be expected to tackle on the first day.
Still . . . hadn't he seen something like this in a library book he had borrowed one rainy afternoon . . .?
"Why?" he had asked coolly.
"So the whole class may benefit from your intellect, of course. Now, please."
"Don't be silly," Peter had scoffed, fixing Mr. Mantey with a bright yellow stare. He wasn't very good at verbal sparring, but he knew there was always one way at least he could intimidate an enemy . . . and mathematics was not a battlefield on which he would willingly yield ground. "I can tell you the answer from here."
The other students in the class had shifted restlessly. Peter had seen Mat turn completely around in his seat and stare at him apprasingly. Jeff's eyebrows had shot up, and Natalie Cutter had stared at Mat, clearly surprised that he was so surprised.
Mr. Mantey had given a small, smug smile. "I'm sorry, Mr. Davies, but calculators aren't allowed in this class. They're a crutch, used only by the weak."
Peter had spread out his hands. "You can see I don't have a calculator, not that a calculator could solve that, anyway. I'll show you my work if you want, but I don't need to. The answer's 1/2."
"You can't know that." The teacher's response had been quick and flat and sure.
"But it is. Check your notes."
Mr. Mantey had walked to his desk, where he shuffled through a pile of wrinkled papers. He had apparently found the one he wanted and read through the work, his lips moving soundlessly. Then he had looked up at Peter strangely, who had been able to tell from the look in the teacher's eyes that he had given the correct answer.
"Oh, and by the way, you made a mistake on that example problem on the left-hand side. You forgot to multiply the resulting integral by -1 when you switched the limits. The correct answer is actually 1 – 1/cos 1."
It had been the perfect coup de grace. There had been no resulting uproar from the students, no exuberantly tossed caps or shrill cries of victory. Still, their glee had been amply evident in the complete and utter stillness that fell over the room. Not a single paper had rustled nor one pencil rolled. Peter had seen one boy shaking, his hands gripping the edges of his desk desperately while he firmly bit his lip, his face turning a marvelous shade of purple because he didn't dare breath for fear of laughing.
Mr. Mantey had fallen silent. Red-faced, he had turned to the board and corrected his careless error. And although he had continued to glare at Peter throughout the lesson, he had said nothing more to the black-haired boy with the funny bird's eyes, obviously reasoning that this was an opponent best tackled another day.
But once the bell had rung, Peter had become fair game for his classmates, who had swept him safely from the room before the jubilation began."Whoowhee!" Jeff laughed, capering about. "Did you see the fat-man's face, Mat? Did you? I thought the Manatee was going to explode!" "He was certainly less than pleased," Mat conceded, giving Peter a grin. "I thought he was going to bite your head off, Davies. If he could, he would have torn you limb – from – limb. C'mon Cutter, don't you agree?" "I"ll let my uncle know he hires such bloody-thirsty teachers. Maybe we should post guards during lessons." The girl appeared suddenly on Mat's far side. Mat gave her only one quick glance and a welcoming smile, but Peter saw a slow flush start up his throat. Several students straggled behind the group of four, nudging each other, whispering, and pointing in Peter's direction. Now that the initial euphoria had worn off, the unusual attention made Peter somewhat nervous, and he thought uneasily of the knife and blue-green stone concealed beneath his sweater. "Hey," he interrupted Jeff's antics, anxious to change the subject. "Where are we going now, by the way? I mean, I can't be late twice in one day." Jeff guffawed. "So what if you are? Just give Barnes a complete oral dissertation on the economic and political impact of the Falkland Islands dispute on British domestic policies, and all will be forgiven. In fact, I think you should never go to class." Peter shot Mat and Cutter a pleading look.
"World history, with Mr. Barnes," Mat said, casually coming to the rescue. "He's the best, Peter, you'll love his class. He studied at Oxford, so he's wicked smart. Published and everything. He specializes in the British colonial period, although we don't get to talk about that much in lectures." There was a curious gleam his eye as he spoke that Peter couldn't quite believe was caused solely by academic enthusiasm.
"Oh god, Mat, not that old chip again. Don't pay any attention to him, Peter. He's just trying to get you into a debate on the evils of Western imperialism."
"I was not, Sleek!" Mat protested in a somewhat affronted voice.
"Look, all you really need to know about Barnes, Peter, is that he's cool."
Natalie Cutter shrugged, but said nothing.
Jeff continued. "We get away with everything in his class. Well, except sloppy work, of course. But if you want to bombard Mat with spitballs during the lecture, go right ahead. In fact, I think I'll help."
This was not a challenge Mat could let pass and resulted in the two friends laughing and becoming completely engrossed in threatening each other with various disgusting retaliations, each one more nauseating than the last. As a result, Peter found himself somewhat out of it, walking several steps behind them next to Cutter, silent and embarrassed, remembering their awkward introduction of the morning. He wondered what they should talk about, but then remembered the dismissive shrug.
"Don't you like Mr. Barnes, Cutter?"
She turned to him with a slightly embarrassed laughed, tucking one short wayward strand of hair behind an ear. "Oh, you noticed that?"
"If you mean the loathsome sneer that came over your face when his name was mentioned, yeah, I did."
"Right. Uh, no, I don't really like him. In fact, I think he's a rotten teacher. But I've argued with Mat and Jeff about it long enough that I know I'll never change their minds."
"What?" Peter asked in deliberately shocked dismay. "A rotten teacher? At Thornhart? The horror!"
Cutter laughed, picking up on his mocking tone. "Whatever, Davies. Don't tell me you buy into all that 'hallowed halls of academic prestige' nonsense. You and I both know that most students get in here not because of their smarts, but because of their parents' reputations or pocketbooks."
"Really?" Peter asked with an innocent grin.
"Sure. Anyway, back to Barnes. The man is brilliant, of course; even I'll admit that. Mat's brilliant, too, by the way. You should know, because he can get a bit priggish about it. Just don't take it personal."
"You've known him long?"
"Ages. He's been a Thornhart student since he was ten, and I spend all my vacations with my uncle. I won't live sequestered in my room like a nun while here, so I've made some friends." She tossed her head somewhat defiantly, and Peter could tell that her association with the students must be a point of sore contention between her and her uncle.
The two of them watched Mat chase Jeff down the hallway, brandishing a wet paper towel he had swiped from a nearby bathroom. Jeff managed to grab the towel and proceeded to stuff it down Mat's collar, giggling and shouting.
"Sleek's smart too," Natalie said thoughtfully. "But, unlike Dickie, he hides it very well." She laughed. "And it doesn't seem like you have mush for brains, either. Not after your performance this morning, at least. You'll probably be another Barnes-lover."
Peter blushed. "Thanks, but I'm not following."
"Barnes is an excellent teacher – for those students he thinks worth his time and effort. Mat's one of those, and Sleek, too. But there aren't many others. And while Barnes will give someone like Mat or Sleek a bad grade if he thinks they wrote a lazy paper, he passes everyone else with easy A's, no matter what the quality of their work and without bothering to teach them anything."
"Why do you care?" Peter asked, somewhat surprised at the intensity of her voice.
"Well, my uncle – Dr. Clay – tells me far more than he should about this place. He actually almost fired Barnes last year, and has been rather sharp with him for months. He's something of an idealist concerning education, you see, and truly believes it has a transformative power. Barnes doesn't. When he and my uncle got into that argument, Barnes actually said something about society relying on garbage men just as much as it does senators, and how everyone should know their place."
"Indeed. My uncle didn't like that, nor do I. But the students don't care as long as they get their A's, and Mom and Dad are tickled that little Johnny, who never showed any brilliance at school before, is suddenly coming home with top marks in World History. Not that there's anything wrong with not being genius. But Barnes can't compromise with anything less, and he doesn't offer anyone an opportunity to prove themselves through sheer guts and hard work."
"Oh," Peter said. Being no philosopher, he was starting to have some difficulty in following the conversation. And this Cutter girl talked like no one he had ever met before. The closest example he could think of was Will Stanton's more cryptic speeches. But at least one expected Will Stanton to be cryptic, so it wasn't quite as astonishing as it should have been.
They had reached the door that apparently led to the history classroom. Jeff and Mat were already inside and seated, but Cutter grasped Peter's sleeve and pulled him aside before entering, a troubled look on her face.
"Look," she whispered hurriedly, "I shouldn't have told you all that just now, I have the worst habit of speaking before I think. Don't listen to me, and please don't tell anyone what I said. My uncle wouldn't like it if he heard. Thornhart's a great place, and you really are lucky. But I don't quite belong here, you see, and I have certain rights as a consequence. And I think I told you because I can see you don't quite belong here either."
Peter forced a laugh, her guilty expression making him feel bad. "Well, of course, I'm new. And I'm from England. We're all a bit batty over there." He grinned and waggled his eyebrows.
She shook her head glumly. "No, it's more than that. You just seem different, somehow, as if you didn't really care about this place at all. That's rare, let me tell you. Most new students are terrified their first week. Or maybe it's just that you don't carry that aura of absolute wealth that trails Mat and most of the others like a puppy dog. I don't know. And then there's the – the . . . "
"The eyes, of course. It's okay."
Peter wondered if he had ever said those words before.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stare. But you surprised me so much this morning that I didn't notice then."
"Don't worry. But let's go inside."
Peter grabbed a desk in the row behind Mat and Jeff, next to a small red-haired boy who shot him a toothy smile, while Cutter continued on to what he assumed was her customary, unobtrusive seat in the back. Mat saw Peter sit down, smiled, and reached back to hand him a notepad and pencil. Peter mouthed a silent 'thanks' and, curious to see the teacher who inspired such love and loathing in his students, raised his eyes to study the man sitting behind the large mahogany desk at the front of the room.
Mr. Barnes was a short and slender, with somewhat delicate features. He was pale, with feathery blonde hair and slightly watery blue eyes. He wore a wrinkled tweed suit with a bow tie, and his expression was somewhat vacant as he absently gazed at his students, his eyes blinking as if a bright light shone upon him. He was the flawless image of the absent-minded professor.
"Good morning, everyone," he greeted them, standing up slowly. Peter jumped at the words. He had expected a voice that was thin and reedy, but the words came from those thin pale lips with a strength and force and richness that startled him. The man looked at him. "You must be Mr. Davies, I presume? The boy with the mathematical mind?"
The watery blue eyes gazed at Peter steadily, one eyebrow raised in knowing delicacy.
"Yes, sir," Peter replied, while the other students gave small whistles of appreciation.
Barnes smiled and didn't bother quelling the minor disruption. "Welcome, Peter. Please remain after class for a few minute so I can explain everything to you. Meanwhile, shall we just dive in? Jeff Kettering, I believe it's your turn today, no?" He glanced down at a piece of yellow paper in his hand. "And you're presenting . . . Djibouti?"
"Yeah," Jeff said, jumping up from his seat. Mr. Barnes took an armchair at the side of the room while Jeff strode up the aisle and took his place grinning behind the podium. He coughed to clear his throat. "For my report," he began with the utmost solemnity, "I chose the country of Dji-bouti."
Boys being boys, and Jeff's delivery perfect, the whole class snickered. Mr. Barnes nodded in appreciation and made notes on a clipboard placed on one knee. The red-haired boy next to Peter balled up a piece of paper and lobbed it at Jeff, who swatted it away effortlessly with one practiced hand.
"Now the Republic of Dji-bouti became a state six years ago after an overwhelming vote favoring independence at a referendum resulted in its independence from France. Before 1967, Djibouti had been called the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas . . ."
Jeff spoke for the rest of the class, his report littered with jokes and innuendoes so that Peter and the rest were kept in constant laughter. But Peter saw that Cutter had been right; it was irreverent, but smart. Cheesy, but not vulgar. Much as Sleek tried to disguise it, he was truly interested in the little African country.After class, while everyone was gathering their things together and beginning to verbally abuse the inadequate lunch that was surely awaiting them, Peter approached the mahogany desk at the front of the room. "You wanted to see me, Mr. Barnes?" "Ah, Peter. Let me put you off for just one second? Mat, I need to talk to you." "Uh huh?" Mat answered, coming up to stand next to Peter, his backpack slung over one shoulder. After everything Cutter had told him, Peter was surprised to see that his new friend appeared inordinately tense, his jaw grim despite the apparently casual words, as if he faced a firing squad. "If you'll stop by my office sometime tonight, I've read through your Puckett Competition essay. Excellent work, by the way, some of the best I've ever read. Student or scholar. But I do have some suggestions before you send out a final draft." Mat sighed, his tight shoulders loosening and falling down. "Thanks, Mr. Barnes. I'll come by after dinner." He seemed to steel himself for his next words, and tension creeped back into his lanky frame. "And can I ask if . . . if you talked to Sir Nigel today?" Mr. Barnes looked at Mat with something that Peter thought might be pity. "Not today, Mat, I'm sorry. I know you're worried. But he was meeting with the Chinese ambassador when I called and couldn't get away." "Oh," Mat blurted out in a deathly voice. Peter began to feel uneasy. He had never seen such a woebegone look on anyone's face before. "Well, that's all right. I mean, I don't want to be ungrateful, you've done so much for us. . ." "It's nothing, Mat. Nothing. My pleasure. Maybe I'll have news for you later this week." Barnes reached out and clapped a sympathetic hand on the boy's shoulder. "Well, I'll see you later tonight, then. Bye, Peter." Mat gave him a stricken smile and was gone. Peter, consumed by sympathetic curiosity, watched Mat's drooping back exit the classroom. He was surprised to find that even within the short time he had known Mat, he had come to think of the other boy as invincible. He found this brief glimpse of sadness – whatever its cause may be – troubling. He turned to Mr. Barnes, expecting to find the teacher equally worried and concerned. But Barnes was sitting easily behind his desk, his hands folded before him, watching Peter with an alert, cheerful smile.
"I'm sorry to keep you from your lunch, Peter," he said in that strangely resonant voice. "But I just wanted to bring you up to speed on the class."
"All right." Peter shifted his weight from one foot to another, beginning to think that maybe Cutter was right about this man. There was something behind the eyes that was . . . well, not quite there.
"Now, as you probably noticed, the assignment for winter term was to pick a country and to give an oral report upon significant events in its history. Since the other students were given two weeks to prepare, and since this is technically an extra-credit course, graded pass/fail, I hardly think it would be fair to require you to give one yourself."
"Wait before you thank me. This is not an excuse for you to doze off in class, or to mysteriously absent yourself." Again that knowing smile that showed too many teeth. "You will be present every day, taking notes like everyone else. There will be a 100 question quiz at the end of term on which I expect you to do very well. You've missed two presentations, but you will just have to get the material from one of your classmates. Would you agree that's fair?"
"Good. One other thing you need to learn about Thornhart, however, is that there is a strict dress code. For example, watches and class rings are allowed, but no earrings or . . . conspicuously weird necklaces, for lack of a better term."
"Uh, ok." Peter was confused by the sudden change of topic, but kept his face blankly polite.
"You've missed my point, Peter." Barnes raised one finger and pointed at the collar of Peter's sweater. "What is that thing around your neck?"
Horrified, Peter's hand flew up to feel that the leather strap from which his father's knife hung had bunched itself up so that it was showing over his sweater. He flushed and immediately jerked his hand away again. "Nothing," he stammered, ice running through his veins.
Unfortunately, it seems that all teachers have a talent for detecting cover-ups, and Mr. Barnes knew a guilty face when he saw one. He sighed with obvious resignation and held out one hand, palm up. "Hand it over, Peter, whatever it is."
"I think you'd better. Look, I'll be honest. Better me than someone like Mantey, or that new professor that came recently. Who knows what he would do, especially since new teachers are often a little . . . over-zealous in exerting their authority, shall we say?"
Barnes was mildly watching Peter's face, and Peter did not know why he found this so unnerving, so that panic was screaming dreadfully through his brain, until he realized that no one had ever looked that way at him before upon introduction, without any hint of surprise, embarrassment, or unease. There was nothing unusual in Barnes' gaze, and Peter thought that the man must be either a very good actor or . . .
. . . or he expected you. Not just another new student. But you.
The cut on his forehead throbbed hotly.
There was nothing for it. And although it sickened Peter, he could think of no other option short of running through the halls screaming bloody murder.
With shaking hands, he pulled the leather strap from around his neck, silently thankful that the more delicate silver chain from which the blue-green stone swung was still well-buried and invisible beneath his sweater. Unconsiously, he grasped the leather sheath so that the circle quartered by the cross was covered by one palm before pulling the Light's knife out and presenting it hilt first to Mr. Barnes.
"I'm sorry, sir," he was surprised to find his own voice saying plaintively, in an eager-to-please tone. He listened to his words as if from a curious distance. How many lies had he told in the past day? "But my grandfather died several weeks ago, and this was one of his most treasured possessions. He left it to me, you know. We were very close. And I – I – I can't bear taking it off or leaving it in my room. What if someone stole it? I bet it's very valuable."
Barnes took the hilt carefully and held the blade before him in two appreciative hands. "Well, well, well," he whistled. "And so it would appear to be. Your grandfather must have had excellent taste, for this was made exquisitely." He tested the tip of the blade with one thumb, and his eyes widened. "Quite sharp, too." He turned the thing over and over, studying it from all angles. "Still, Peter, this is not the sort of the thing that can be kept on school premises. It should remain with your parents until you're older. Understand?"
"Yes," Peter mumbled, immersing himself in his role and hanging his head in shame. He tried to ignore the feeling that he had just been slugged in the gut with a baseball bat. "I'll send it home right away, sir. Tomorrow, in fact. But can I keep it till then?" He even managed to call a few tears to the corners of his eyes and sniffle convincingly. "Please?"
"I have no desire to get my students in trouble, Peter." Barnes held the knife out in one flat hand, and Peter delicately reached out and retrieved it, careful not to touch him in any way.
"Now run along. I have papers to grade."
Peter let the heavy door of the bathroom swing shut behind him with a bang. The bathroom, like bathrooms everywhere, was illuminated by a harsh fluorescent light. He leaned back against a tiled wall and yanked the leather strap from around his neck, pulling the dagger from its sheath. And yes, there is was on the tip, just as he had expected: a small red smudge, where the blade had drawn just the slightest drop of blood from Mr. Barnes' thumb.
Peter didn't know what to think. Should he save the evidence? But for who? The only person it would mean anything to was Will Stanton. And, he thought rather crossly, Will shall just have to take my word for it.
A toilet flushed, a much older student emerging. He straightened his tie and nodded at Peter, who swiftly hid the knife behind his back. The student pulled a crumpled packet of cigarettes from one pocket, flashed a warning smile, all teeth, in Peter's direction, and lit a smoke with a lighter.
Twenty seconds later, deprived of his lighter, the student found himself ignominiously hustled from the bathroom by the skinny new student, who was shouting something furious about fire hazards and second hand smoke. Well! he thought haughtily as he walked away, rubbing the sore spot on his arm where the funny-eyed boy had grabbed him. He shows up one teacher and all of a sudden thinks he can order anyone around! And what does he mean, staring at me like that? Weird. Still, he kept on walking.
Once alone, Peter didn't hesitate in pursuing his hypothesis. He turned on a faucet and held the knife under gushing hot water, then carefully dried it with a paper towel. He produced the appropriated lighter and ran the blade through its flame several times with a scientist's precision, just to make sure. He had seen too many horror movies where blood could have a strange effect.
Breathing heavily now, he laid his left hand flat against the wall, palm facing out. He took a deep breath, tried not to think about the Stigmata or severed tendons, gritted his teeth, and drove the point of the blade into his flesh.
He gave a choking scream.
Will had been right, that dark night in his father's jewelry shop so many lifetimes ago.
Peter stared at the skin of his palm, smooth and whole. Nothing had happened.
He had found the Dark.
Reader Review Responses
GoldenRat: Thanks so much for still reviewing!
sarcastic rabbit: I can't tell you how much I agree with your assessment of Bran. It's been my biggest frustration since I started writing : ). You see, I did think about making him some great world leader, but I just couldn't bring myself to put smarmy political words in his mouth, and I guess I don't believe enough in noble politicians to make Bran one. So since I couldn't reconcile him with the real world, I took him out of it as much as I could. And if you keep writing great fics, I'll keep giving you great reviews! Also, I'm planning to read LyreD'enfers' and Gavin Gunhold's fics, but first I have to read the books they're based on : ). But I'm working on it!
I-LOVE-VEGETA: Much love : ) Hope to . . . uh, er . . . read you around, I guess!