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Votes refresh every seven days, so last week's votes no longer count.Preface from Mooderino
Nic had a lot of problems that he was objectively failing to deal with. Turning his analytical brain on himself was always an uncomfortable experience. He recognised that he was out of his depth, needed help and couldn’t trust anyone offering to give him any.
Continuing down this path seemed like a bad idea.
Wishing to be someone who could step up when the time called for it was very different to actually being that person. Some people were born with that kind of foundation already in place, their ambitions fully supported — mainly people in storybooks and exaggerated biographies.
He couldn’t even trust his own mind, which was a rather large drawback for an unathletic boy. He was used to relying on that particular organ. He would like to be the boy who could land a jaw-shattering punch and duel two opponents at once with a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. He didn’t use to have such absurd dreams, but circumstances had shown him the weaknesses of a bright mind. If someone had planned to handicap him in the most efficient manner possible, forcing him to second guess every passing thought was an excellent way to go about it.
On the plus side, no one expected him to do very much. He was seen as important to the process in much the same way a nail was very important in hanging a painting. A vital element in the business of showing off great art, but no one came to look at the nail.
The Librarian and the demon wanted him to go to the Librarium to meet the High-Father’s creature, but he didn’t for one second believe he would be there as an equal member of the assemblage. He would not get a vote on how to proceed. All the votes were in.
He wouldn’t be at all surprised to find himself not being taken to meet some creature constructed by the High-Father from designs obtained from another world, but instead shown to an altar large enough to lay on top of, with grooves running along the sides to collect the flow of blood. He had read about such rituals in books by historians and archaeologists who claimed human sacrifices were regularly carried out in primitive societies. Nic had read enough history to know that all societies were primitive, and only the size and look of the altar changed. Sometimes it was as big as a large field. Sometimes it was a building used to house books.
This was his state of mind as the omnibus pulled into the main depot in Ranvar City. The six students of the Arts Course emerged from the carriage, blinking and stretching. It had taken them less than two hours to get to the capital, the six horses stopping only once to be watered.
There had been some chatter along the way, a little speculation about what kinds of books they’d see at the Librarium, some comments about the capital city and the people who lived there. Nic suspected the field trip was a ruse to get him to the Librarium, but perhaps that was presumptuous. If there really were books of power here, he hoped he would get a chance to see them before he was led away to his terrible fate.
In his mind, he had decided to assume the worst so that the reality wouldn’t seem so bad when he faced it. If he did manage to come up with a way to extricate himself for this mess, they would never see it coming. He certainly couldn’t.
“Are you alright there?” asked Brill. “I saw you playing about with your leg. Some kind of injury?”
Nic was standing next to the omnibus, one hand on top of the wheel arch. He had grabbed his ankle and pulled it behind him in an effort to stretch the muscles in his leg. Training with the Secret Service agents had loosened him up — enough for him to be able to perform well above his natural limits — but now everything was starting to cramp up again.
“I’m fine,” said Nic. “I did some exercise this morning and I think I may have strained something.”
“You should definitely stretch that out if it’s starting to hurt,” said Carol, who was slight of frame and not particularly sporty. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to move come tomorrow. These things fool you into thinking you’ve managed to pass through unscathed. Next day you can’t even get out of bed.”
“So true,” concurred Brill, who was a little on the portly side. “Small amounts at regular intervals, that’s the way.”
“Don’t overdo it,” added Carol.
Dizzy walked past carrying her large bag as though it was full of feathers. “Any of you gentlemen willing to aid a lady in carrying her luggage?” The coldness of her tone was not the kind normally used to request assistance.
She shoved the bag into Carol’s midriff. He caught it with both hands and dropped into a squat he couldn’t get up from.
Dizzy took the bag back with one hand. “Overdo it more,” she said, without looking at Nic. “Pain is your friend, not these two. Learn to withstand suffering — I’m sure I can find you a reliable supply.”
“I say, that’s a bit uncalled for,” said Carol, getting back to his feet unsteadily. “I’m not aiming to qualify as a porter, you know. Your standards for manhood are going to leave you disappointed.”
“Are you saying I’m going to end up an old maid?” said Dizzy, the flat neutrality of her voice fooling nobody.
“Not at all,” said Carol. “I think you’ll end up with exactly what you’re looking for. And then you’ll be sorry.”
“She’s only saying a little muscle can be of use,” said Simole. “Sometimes,” she said to Nic as she strolled past, “even if it isn’t broken, you have to break it and put it back together so it works properly. Adequate isn’t always enough.” She smiled and Nic braced himself in case she planned to demonstrate her theory.
“Come along, children,” said Mr Periwinkle, coming around the other side of the omnibus, making it sound like he was taking a kindergarten class to a petting zoo. He seemed to be in a good mood, at least. What was the Librarian so pleased about?
They left the omnibus in the shadowy confines of the depot and lined up behind Periwinkle as he strutted into the bright warmth of the city. It had been a while since Nic had come here like this, in the full throes of daily life. The sound was immense and coming at them from all directions. The smells were rich and pungent. The sights…
Nic squinted in the sunlight, at the tall buildings, their pointed roofs, their spires and towers. The trees that grew here filled in the gaps with green. The smoke from various homes and businesses added wisps of blue and purple. All of it sat under a cloudless sky with no indication of concern for the future. How could any destructive act be more than an inconvenience to such a settled old pile?
“This way,” said Periwinkle. “I know a shortcut. We don’t want to get stuck behind all these tourists. Don’t get lost, now. Consider it part of your training.” He disappeared into the crowd. “This way,” his voice drifted over the masses.
The area around the depot was awash with people coming and going. Mainly coming. New coaches were arriving every few seconds, practically tipping their contents out and then swiftly vacating the area for the next delivery. Life here had a relentless quality the school had shielded Nic from. There was no time to stop and think.
The six of them had to hurry to keep up with Periwinkle. None of them had bags apart from Dizzy, but she was at the front, using her bag as a battering ram. Nic followed the sound of upset city folk as she barged through them.
“This is very exciting,” said Rumi, in the middle of their caravan, turning this way and that to get a better view as she walked. “I’ve never been allowed to come here without an escort.”
“You have an escort now,” said Carol.
“I mean an escort who could protect me,” said Rumi.
There was a slight pause, then Nic said, “You have Simole.”
“And Mr Periwinkle,” said Brill.
“And even Delzina,” said Carol. “Assuming she isn’t the one launching the attack.”
It could have been taken as a slight matter of embarrassment that the three boys weren’t able to count themselves in the list of capable chaperones for a young lady in the city, but the three in question were smart and intelligent, not porters and not guards. Smart men made money and hired people to do that sort of thing. Nic had no idea how he would make that kind of money, but he wasn’t really thinking that far ahead.
The shortcut was not the one Nic used to take on his way to the Librarium, but he trusted Periwinkle knew where he was going. They were soon off the main thoroughfare and walking through far less busy, far more narrow streets.
The tall buildings took away their view of the city and the warmth of the sun. They plodded on behind Periwinkle.
“It’s getting towards lunch,” said Brill. “Is there somewhere to eat in the Librarium?”
“Yes, there’s a small restaurant. It’s a bit…” Nic was about to say that it was a bit expensive, but he realised he meant it was a bit expensive for him. “It’s a bit of a limited menu, but I think you should be able to find something you like.”
“Oh, good,” said Brill. “A sandwich or something would be fine.”
“You’ve never been to the Librarium?” asked Nic.
“No, never felt the need,” said Brill. “I don’t like travelling all that much, and we have a fine library at the school, after all. I’m much more of a homebody than my cosmopolitan appearance might lead you to believe. I’m not really one for crowds and all this bustle, used to being in a small unit, just the three of us.”
“Three of you? What about Hewt?”
“Hm? Oh, yes, I meant four. How could I possibly forget him.” Brill rolled his eyes in jest.
How strong was the demon’s spell? Would it fade over time? Could it be resisted? It was an interesting question. Shame he didn’t have the time to investigate the matter more thoroughly.
They arrived at the Librarium via a circuitous route that didn’t save them any time but kept them hidden away in side streets. Perhaps that was the idea. The sun had climbed during their dark sojourn and the well lit main square was pleasantly warm.
“Oh my,” said Brill. “I didn’t think it would be so… big.”
The Librarium was an enormous building. Nic stopped at the bottom of the broad steps and looked up at it. The stone dragon and griffon forming an arch over the main entrance had never seemed so real to him. If he stared long enough, he felt he might catch them move.
“What do they represent?” asked Brill. “The dragon and the griffon. The real and the imaginary? Fact and fiction? Books, yes? Here are all the books you could ever want. I’d wager they sell some interesting sandwiches in the restaurant.”
Brill was reacting like a typical student, bright and interested. Nic couldn’t help but feel apprehensive about the same things that filled Brill with enthusiastic anticipation. They had told him the high-Father’s creature was part of the Librarium. Did they mean it was like one of these statues? To him, both were imaginary beasts, one from the minds of demons, the other from his own people, locked in a strange embrace. The open double doors took on the appearance of a mouth as Periwinkle entered. Nic shivered, despite the midday heat, and pushed the thought away. He absentmindedly rubbed the back of his leg.
“Why are you doing that so openly in public?” asked Simole.
“What?” said Nic.
“Massaging your buttocks.”
“I’m not. I’m just… Never mind.” He stopped.
“Something caught your eye?” asked Simole, looking up at the two monsters over the entrance.
“Huh? Oh, no, not really. Same old Librarium.”
“If you don’t hurry, Dizzy will get away,” said Simole, indicating Dizzy as she heaved her bag up the steps.
“No. She’ll wait for me,” said Nic.
Dizzy stopped at the top of the steps and looked down at them, impatience etched into her face, her eyes urging them to hurry up.
“Letting me go wouldn’t be a suitable punishment for my crimes.” He started up the steps.
“Your crime of loving her?” said Simole, exaggerating the words to make them sound mocking.
“My crime of not letting her take my place. She’d hate it if I ended up saving her.”
“Isn’t there anything that would make you step aside to let her have her way?” asked Simole. “Not even the end of the world.”
Nic adopted the same mocking tone. “I can’t let her be the one to sacrifice herself. How will I ever get her to see me as a man?”
Simole smiled, already amused by what she planned to say. “You think you can get her to see something that isn’t there?”
Nic let her have her fun. “Well, there is magic in this world, that should give me a chance to achieve the impossible.”
“A very small chance,” said Simole.
“A very small chance is better than no chance,” said Nic, “statistically speaking.”
“True,” said Simole.
Dizzy snorted at them impatiently as they caught up and they entered the Librarium, the dragon and griffon both keeping an eye on them.
They went up to the main desk where Mr Periwinkle was talking to the Chief Librarian, Mr Gherry.
The six students waited, five of them patiently and Dizzy with a scowl on her face.
“Ah, Mr Tutt,” said Mr Gherry. “How nice to see you again.”
The other people behind the desk all looked up to greet Nic in a flurry. More of the staff were called out from the back.
“Hello Mr Gherry, everyone” said Nic, mildly embarrassed by the attention.
“I didn’t know you were famous,” said Rumi.
“You’re in the castle of King Tutt, now,” muttered Dizzy. “Get used to nothing making sense.”
If he was king in here, thought Nic, she was queen of just about everywhere else.
“You, Mr Librarian,” said Dizzy, snapping her fingers in front of Mr Gherry in an obnoxious fashion. She really was in a bad mood. The focus on Nic had not gone down well. “You have a private room under the name of Delcroix, do you not.”
“We do,” said Mr Gherry, not in the least put out by Dizzy’s manner.
“Good. I’m Miss Delcroix. I have my father’s key.” She took out a gold key from her jacket pocket. “I’ll need to use the room to store this bag, and I’ll sort through his belongings after I’ve finished with this class.”
“I see,” said Mr Gherry, looking down his long nose at her, “yes, of course. However, I will need—”
Dizzy began pulling bits of paper out of the bag at her feet. “Here’s a letter from the Ministry of Instruction, approving my right to collect my father’s private material. Here’s another letter from my mother, here’s my birth certificate as proof of identity, here’s my library card, because it seems to mean a lot to you people.” A small pile grew on the desk. She stopped and looked back at the librarian, surrounded by his staff. “And if all that isn’t enough, I’m sure Mr Tutt will vouch for me.”
Snakes carried less venom in their bites.
“Um,” said Nic, taken by surprise by the sudden mention of his name, “sure. I mean if you think…”
Dizzy threw him a look that told him she hadn’t actually wanted his personal validation. He shut his mouth.
“This all seems to be in order. I’ll have someone take you up.”
“Thank you,” said Dizzy. She turned around to Mr Periwinkle. “I’ll only be a second. You’ll wait for me here.” It wasn’t a request.
“Certainly,” said Periwinkle, smiling like this was exactly the sort of thing he expected, and indeed approved of. “Take your time.”
Nic wasn’t sure what the Librarian personally thought about Dizzy’s behaviour, but apparently when she played a role, she played it to the hilt.
“Make sure he doesn’t slip away,” Dizzy said to Simole.
“Count on it,” said Simole.
“And don’t slip away with him, either,” Dizzy added.
Simole pulled a face to indicate how absurdly unnecessary it was to include the addendum.
“I mean it.”
Simole held up her hand like she was taking an oath. “You can rely on me.”
Dizzy gave her a sustained look that suggested the matter wasn’t quite as settled as Simole was suggesting, then she turned and followed the young man Mr Gherry had called over as he struggled to carry Dizzy’s bag.
The rest of them stood there, waiting.
“Strange, isn’t it?” said Simole, nodding her head.
“What?” said Nic.
“The separation anxiety being on the other foot. She was the one who left you behind, but now she’s afraid you’re going to do the same to her.”
“I don’t think she’s afraid,” said Nic. “Enraged would probably be more accurate.”
“That must please you,” said Simole, stretching out the ‘please’.
“No. Why would it? I don’t want her to feel like I did.”
“Abandoned? Adrift? Alone?”
“Er, yes, I suppose. I got over it.”
“Did you? Did you, though, Nic.”
“Yes, Simole. I’m fine.”
“Hmm,” she didn’t sound convinced. “At least she thinks of you as King Nicolav. That must please you.”
“It would if she thought highly of kings,” said Nic. “And I’m pretty sure she was being sarcastic. I’m still hoping to get promoted from delivery boy.”
“That could be it,” said Simole, her eyes popping with a sudden epiphany. “You could become the next Postmaster General, responsible for deliveries everywhere.”
“I would gladly accept the position,” said Nic. “I bet he gets a very nice office and free stamps.”
Dizzy returned in a few minutes, stomping down the stairs two at a time, looking ready to demand where Nic had gone. He was still where she’d left him. She walked up to him and inspected his face to make sure he wasn’t some kind of illusion.
“Are we ready, then?” asked Mr Periwinkle. “Good. Let’s try to act like a credit to the school, shall we?” The comment was said to them all, but aimed at only a few.
Mr Gherry led them back up the stairs, through the shelves at the back where the books were so old you could hardly read the titles on their spines. They trailed behind him in pairs, Dizzy and Simole behind Nic and Brillard.
He liked having her watch him. He wouldn’t want to admit it to anyone — it would make him seem callous — but her need to keep him close to her, even if it wasn’t for any particularly laudable reason, provided him with a feeling of security. Simole was right, it did please him. Just knowing where she was put him at ease. It hadn’t been like that for the first few months after she had disappeared from his life. That was when he had learned what it felt like to grieve. A difficult lesson for a ten-year-old.
Nic glanced over his shoulder. Her eyes stared back at him, not even looking where she was going. He had to force the smile to stay inside his face.
Had she felt the loss when she left him behind? Probably not. Why would she? Her life had been about to open up and be filled with new experiences and people. When would she have time to miss little boys? He had to keep things in perspective. Her experiences were not the same as his, even the ones they had shared. There was no reason to expect more from her. His one-sided infatuation was not her responsibility, or her fault.
Mr Gherry led them to the same room Nic had visited before. The simple, unassuming door he opened with a key chained to the inside of his jacket; an antechamber they could barely all fit into; another door that opened into a room full of glittering books.
There were shocked gasps as they walked in. So many beautiful books that seemed to radiate a magical presence without a trace of Arcanum present.
“I’ll leave you to it, shall I?” said Mr Gheery.
“Thank you. We’ll be a couple of hours,” said Mr Periwinkle.
“I’ll see to it you aren’t disturbed,” said Mr Gheery. “You have the other key?”
“I do,” said Periwinkle. The exchanged conspiratorial looks, and then the Chief Librarian left, locking the door behind him.
“There’s another room?” asked Nic.
“You’ve been here before, haven’t you?” said Brill.
“Once or twice,” said Nic, distracted by the idea of an inner sanctum to the inner sanctum. “I had permission from…” He looked at Dizzy and swallowed the rest. Her father had chosen to give him things he never gave her. It would be tactless to bring that up. “Anyway, I didn’t know there was another room.”
“There’s always another room,” said Mr Periwinkle. He took out a large brass key.
Everyone looked around for a door.
Nic had been in here enough times to know there wasn’t another door. Not an obvious one, at least. Their eyes returned to Mr Periwinkle.
“We are on the top floor, so the obvious place for a door would be…” He drew out the moment, and then bent down. He placed the key between cracks in the wooden floor and turned it.
There was the sound of metal pins shifting and a puff of air, carrying with it dust, revealing the outline of a trap door.
What was the point of a trap door here? Below them was the second floor of the Librarium. Presumably, it wasn’t just a shortcut for those too lazy to use the stairs. A secret room with no way in from below?
Mr Periwinkle used the key still in the lock to lift the thick door with ease despite its obvious weight, to reveal a dark stairwell. He began descending. “Don’t dawdle,” he said as his head disappeared into the dark.
A moment later, the glow of a light filtered up. They followed him down, Rumi first and Simole bringing up the rear.
The steps were winding, built into a stone shaft that seemed out of place inside the Librarium. Lanterns guided their descent, the sound of them flaring into life rising from below as Mr Periwinkle lit them. Could the Librarian see in the dark?
They walked down for what seemed like forever, the narrow stairwell at least not allowing them to feel like they might fall.
Nic estimated they had gone down through the entire Librarium and under it. All the way up just to go all the way down. It seemed an impractical idea, but one unlikely to be guessed.
“Where’s the door to the basement? Top floor?”
The walls felt cooler and the air a little heavier. Soon they reached a level surface and another room.
This one was large and cavernous. In fact, it looked like catacombs hewed out of the rock.
The air tasted of something sour and stung you behind the eyes. There was Arcanum here, for sure. Nic had experience of such things.
There were tables and chairs and large glass cases at waist height, each with a single book in them you could turn the pages with a lever inserted through the side.
Maybe you could only touch them indirectly because they were so old and fragile, or maybe contact with your skin would allow them to infect you with whatever nefarious power they contained. Nic could sense a brooding menace coming from them, even through the thick glass.
“Do you feel that?” he said.
“Feel what?” said Simole.
He turned and caught her examining him. Not like Dizzy, not with a searching look that tried to unravel his thoughts; her look was one of curiosity, like she wasn’t sure if he was doing a dance or falling over. He felt like he was doing both most of the time.
“This is incredible,” said Brill. “What a rare and wonderful opportunity. I feel like I’m in the presence of something very special.”
“You are,” said Mr Periwinkle. “These are the four original Books of Truth. They are kept here to prevent them falling into the wrong hands. They cannot leave this place. Not even the mages of the Royal College, not even the Archmage himself, can remove them without suffering catastrophic injury and most likely death.”
“Is it alright for us to be here?” said Carol nervously backing away from the case he had just approached.
“Oh yes,” said Mr Periwinkle. “And if not, it’s far too late now.” He grinned in a way the Librarian never would.
They split into groups and spread out, peering at the books through the glass tops to the cases, hesitant to use the levers for fear of provoking the books like beasts in a cage. Even though Nic knew he had been brought here for another purpose, he was still fascinated by the four books.
“I thought there was only one Book of Truth,” said Nic, although not loud enough to elicit a response from anyone.
“What is the Book of Truth?” Dizzy asked him.
He looked up at her. She wasn’t even that close to him, just listening intently. “It’s supposed to be the book the demons gave to the first mages. It was destroyed to prevent others learning its secrets. The demons were very upset about it.”
That was what he had been told by the demon, but apparently it was not quite the truth. Or was the lie in front of him? The Librarian wasn’t exactly to be trusted, either.
“I want you to spend some time with these books,” said Mr Periwinkle. “I think they will give you an understanding of what kind of world you’ll be entering. It’s hard to explain until you feel it for yourself. There is something magnificent and at the same time daunting about what these books contain. It is not of this world, and yet it is everything that surrounds us, distilled into words on a page.”
His voice was almost hypnotic and as the six of them stood over the bookcases, a quiet descended over them.
Nic tried to read the page beneath the glass in front of him, but he couldn’t quite make out the words. He wasn’t even sure he recognised the language they were written in. His head felt funny and his vision blurred.
“Don’t look too hard,” said a voice in his head and he closed his eyes.
He opened them after what he thought was a few seconds, but it was hard to be sure. He turned around and the others were all unconscious, slumped over the glass cases or lying on the ground. All except for Mr Periwinkle.
“Ah, you managed to stay awake,” he said.
“What happened?” said Nic. “What did you do?” Dizzy was lying near his feet, her hair covering her face.
“Nothing too terrible,” said Mr Periwinkle. “They’ll wake in a little while and have no idea what happened. It was the Archmage’s daughter who resisted the most. Which meant the others took quite a heavy dose, but it’s not harmful. Not permanently.”
Simole’s head was resting on her arms, folded on the top of a bookcase.
“These books, are they really the Books of Truth?”
“No, of course, not,” said Dizzy. She rose to her feet, startling him. “You really are very gullible.” She turned to face Periwinkle. “And you. I knew there was something not quite right about you.” As she spoke, she removed a stick from behind her, inserted inside her jacket. “Fortunately, my father kept a stash of equipment here in the Librarium. Some very interesting items — like this one. You recognise it?”
She raised the stick, which was black and didn’t seem to be particularly ominous. Not that a stick in Dizzy’s hand couldn’t do some damage, but this was no ordinary opponent. Although, judging by the reaction, Periwinkle was somewhat perturbed by the stick, suggesting appearances might be deceiving.
“It isn’t what you think,” said Nic.
“Maybe it isn’t what you think,” said Dizzy. “Haven’t these things misled you enough times to make you think twice before blindly doing what they tell you?”
“She isn’t a demon. That’s the Librarian. Our librarian, from school.”
“So? Do you think she’s any more trustworthy than them? You really have no instincts for spotting a trap. You should ask the Secret Service agents to help you with that instead of trying to teach you how to climb a beanpole.”
Nic was momentarily confused, unsure how she had known what the agents had taught him, but he put the thought aside. Now was not the time.
“You’re only going to get yourself hurt,” said Nic.
“Strange, that’s what I was going to say to you.” She moved towards the Librarian with amazing speed, hurtling forward like her feet weren’t even touching the ground, the stick held high to one side.
As she passed Simole, a hand lazily struck out and caught Dizzy on the side of the head. Dizzy collapsed like she’d suddenly lost all the bones in her body.
Simole stood up, shaking her hand like it hurt. “Magical defences ten out of ten. Punch to the head defences could use some work.”
“You weren’t affected either?” said Periwinkle, transforming into the Librarian as she spoke.
“No. Your gadgets are terrible. You can’t just twiddle a knob and expect everyone to all fall down. Who trained you people?”
“What are you going to do?” asked Nic. One problem has merely been replaced by another as far as he could see.
“Nothing. You want to see this through, don’t you? Whatever this is. Go ahead. I’m quite curious to see how you do, too. I’ll stay here and keep an eye on the gang.”
“You don’t want to come?” asked Nic.
“Nope. The High-Father’s through there, is he?” She nodded towards what looked like a blank wall.
“Yes,” said the Librarian.
“Not in dragon form?” said Simole.
“I don’t think so,” said the Librarian.
“Then what’s the point? Go on, then, don’t keep him waiting. He gets all huffy if he doesn’t get his dinner on time.”
Nic moved towards the Librarian, cautiously, like Simole might change her mind if he made any sudden moves.
“Did you know about Hewt?” he asked.
“The demon? Of course. Terrible disguise.” Simole shook her head.
“She’ll be alright, won’t she?” he said as he passed Dizzy.
“Oh no,” said Simole. “She’ll be worse than ever, but I expect you’ll be long dead by then. She was right about one thing — this is clearly a trap.” Simole raised her hand and waved. “Don’t worry, I’ll avenge you.”
“Thanks.” Nic nodded and followed the Librarian who stood in a doorway where the wall had been.
“This way, Nicolav,” she said as she walked through into the next room. “Don’t make any loud noises, you might scare the creature. It only attacks when it’s scared.”
Nic entered behind her. Quietly.