A Matter of Impending Doom
Calvin, Junior Aide to
the Second Servant of the Crown Prince cleared his throat in an attempt to
start over, “Your Esteemed Custodian-ness, I wish to employ your services.”
He shuffled forwards into the light of the large bronze lamp that hung over the side of the desk. It was an imposing set up right from the front door, old copper crusted in pastel shades of green with a knocker of gold shaped as like the maw of an enraged griffin. Before him was a large desk behind which the old Custodian, a grey haired man wearing an old purple suit and yellow tie, was bent over. The entire countertop was a giant book, as thick as an elephant’s thigh. It was long and wide, about the size of a very tall, fully grown man laid out, or perhaps a teenage giant. The cream coloured pages were of a thick parchment, and neat cursive writing covered them in a vibrant green. As the sun hazarded a peek out from behind the thick clouds that threatened rain, thunder and Doom upon the realm, the green ink sparkled under the light like crushed emeralds and Calvin marvelled at it.
“Yes?” The old man grumbled, straightening up as best he could.
The pomp and prestige of his title naturally drew along formality, but most days he felt like a camel drawing up enough salvia for one good shot in the eye. He reached for a pen and dipped it into the inkwell on the stand beside him. It was true, few managed to reach this Library of Marvels, and each returned to their companions and lands with bizarre stories. And each and every one of them spent too long on introducing themselves and fumbling over the nature of their quest, request or research.
Calvin coughed nervously, “I am here on behalf of the Crown Prince Reuben of Arkamus, Regent of Puisian Islands, the Great, Magnificent and True Ruler of Cahland.”
The old man stared for a moment, sighed and then wrote the titles down. He dipped his quill in the inkwell once more and asked, “What’s your name, and what is the nature of your request?”
“Oh, I’m Calvin, Junior Aide to the Crown Prince’s Second Servant.” He leaned forwards and watched the Custodian write it all down. Then he recalled himself and stood up straight, mouthing the words he had previously said to remember whereabouts he was at in the protocol.
The Custodian finished writing and looked up expectantly.
“Ah yes…The Crown Prince seeks an item of powerful magic. One which is both rare and special.” Calvin recited, just as he had practised on his long journey over. “An item which can solve the problem the Kingdom currently faces and allow him to secure his position in the eyes of his subjects.”
“Right, so I’ll put down: Item of Power?” The Custodian asked, and waited for a tentative nod. There was a brief silence filled with the scratch of quill on crisp parchment.
This sound was on Calvin’s top five list of best sounds, behind number 3 of a babbling brook and above number 5 of an A Minor scale on a finely tuned lute. He left the scratching wash fill the silence and relaxed his shoulder muscles which hurt from being tensed up for so long. He had been thoroughly shaken by the long and difficult journey. The first leg he had spent hanging over the side of the top-deck of the ship. The three masts had billowing sails, one of the finest in the fleet, but all he had really cared about was keeping his meagre supper down. The trek across the mountains had been better, the fresh air had been a nice change and the snowstorm had certainly been challenging. After all that, the ride across the flatlands to the forest was a piece of cake.
His own brown and white dappled horse was currently tethered and grazing enthusiastically in the field just beyond the forest. The stubborn animal had refused to cross the final two leagues through the Dark Forest and had thrown him off when he had dug his heels into the horse’s ribs, leaving him to lug his heavy bag through the trees. Truthfully, he didn’t blame the mare, it was called the Dark Forest for a reason. He had scared himself silly four time while making his way through, and had been heart-stoppingly terrified enough times to loose count. The third instance had been the worst, when he had to scramble into a hollow of a tree. He had pulled the gnarled roots in front of him and stopped breathing entirely as a creature he had never seen in his entire life and desperately prayed he’d never see again lumbered into sight. Its eyes were the colour of vomit, but glowed from within. And those teeth – horrifically pointed and the matted fur of its muzzle was coated in dark crusted blood.
Calvin shook away the feeling of cold dread creeping up his spine. He was relived he had reached his destination. Out of the three who had originally set out, only he had made it to the Library. Never in his entire life would he have thought that the fate of the Kingdom and everyone in it rested in his hands.
“And what exactly is the nature of your problem?” The Custodian asked, pen poised to write the answer within the designated column.
Calvin took in a deep breath, dispelling the horrid memory from his thoughts. “The Crown Prince requires an item to prevent the Impending Doom which encroaches minute by minute and hour by hour on the subjects of his realm. He greatly appreciates the effort you make in order to help save our kingdom.”
The 400 year old man walked around the counter, then crossed the three spaces between them and poked Calvin quite firmly in the centre of his tie. Every sentence he spoke was then punctuated with another sharp prod.
“Now see here, I am the Custodian. You came here for my help. Now, I can refuse service if you continue to behave like this-”
“Wait a minute! I’m not-”
“Don’t argue with me, young man. I’ve seen all sorts! I’ve sent off all sorts as well. Now get on with your request, as per the Big Book’s guidelines. None of this wishy-washy nonsense. You’d better give me a proper answer.”
He straightened his neck and stared up at Calvin before tutting and shuffling to the side. “Then I can get on with putting my feet up. I want to have a nice iced tea and watch the 2056 Hardcourt Bike Polo finals. It took me a while to hunt down a decent copy.”
Calvin sheepishly dropped his shoulders. He opened and closed his mouth as he struggled to find the right sentence to convey the awkward position he’d been put in but also in a way that was appropriate for a junior aide. “I’m sorry. I just… I wasn’t told exactly what the Crown Prince needed. I was under the assumption that you would know what to give me.”
“Me?!” The old man’s frown cracked and he laughed, “I’m a Custodian. Not a bloody mind-reader!”
“Well, I know that now.” Calvin said defensively as the Custodian continued to laugh.
Calvin huffed and then looked out of the large window set under an arch to his left. Outside the clouds roiled and the gale force winds were blowing leaves and branches past quickly. A large bolt of lightning struck, and he held him breath counting silently. When the thunder rumbled, he sucked in a deep breath and noted that the storm had reached the heart of the kingdom.
He could imagine the dense clouds rolling outwards, like a blood dripping in water. The sun and sky would be blocked out and the entire city would be plunged into darkness at the epicentre of the curse. Panic would settle in the warm air before raindrops, large and heavy would crash to the ground. Those who were able to flee into the grounds of the castle would have done so. Others may not be so lucky. The curse itself had four parts, and had been announced to the entire kingdom by the wicked witch who had cast it; the Storm of Terror, the Earthshake, the Winds of Wildness and finally the Rain of Fire.
Calvin was really hoping there wouldn’t be any fiery rain.
“Do you think we could speed this up a bit?” He anxiously asked the old man who had loosened his tie as his laughter had transitioned into guffaws.
Three minutes later and five gulping breaths to even out his breathing, the Custodian nodded, straightened his jacket and motioned for Calvin to follow him down the aisles. “Well, an Item of Power. I’ve got enough of those coming out of my ears around here. It depends on what kind of Power you’re looking for.”
“Well, it needs to be powerful enough to solve the Impending Doom that faces the kingdom.”
“I see, and are there a lot of security issues. Invading armies, skirmishes at the border, goblins at the gates sort of thing?”
“Sometimes…” Calvin said slowly.
The Custodian took a sharp left, down an aisle of mahogany shelving that stretched up twelve feet into the air. He rolled the ladder across from the end of the aisle, pausing about a fifth of the way down the seemingly never ending row, and then climbed up about three feet.
Then he waved his hand, “This the Spear of Power.” He leaned in and squinted at the tag around the stand, “Made in 4500. Platinum handle. 200 year guarantee.” He turned back around expectantly, one hand on the ladder and the other on the shelf, ready to pick up the Spear and submit the request into the book.
“What does it do?”
The Custodian removed his glasses from his face and they hung around his neck on a daisy chain. “It incinerates the enemy. Three settings; person, person and their horse, or army. Quite efficient, and it doesn’t take long to power up.
“You’re reaching now,” Calvin warned. “That’s not I need.”
“No, I’m not. Take a closer look at it.” The Custodian removed the spear from its stand and turned it vertically taking in the expert filigreed patterns on its handle and tapered blade that was sharp enough to shave a bumblebee’s legs.
“That’s not what I need.” Calvin repeated, “Solving problems by incinerating the Kingdom won’t help anyone.
The Custodian tutted, “You young lot these days. Time once was when a good incinerating meant there’d be none of this foolish Impending Doom business.”
If Calvin could have seen his face, he was sure that the Custodian was sticking his tongue out. It was a very childish response, but what else could be expected from a 400 year old Custodian who had to deal with these kind of vague requests on an almost daily occurrence? Honestly, they all thought their own quest/desires/journey-of-a-lifetime was so unique. More like they were as often as a monkey farted.
“I don’t want anything to do with this! It’s not my request!” Calvin threw his hands up and retreated back around the counter.
“Oh hush up.”
The spear was, in fact, under the Custodian’s Charge and thus it would be marked down in the Big Book that whatever happened, happened under his Duty. He replaced it back on its stand carefully and dusted the shelf around it with the microfiber cloth he wore slung over his shoulder.
The Custodian replaced the cloth over his shoulder and scratched his chin. “A solution to all the Kingdom’s problems then, any ideas?”
“Well, how about a Jinn?” Calvin wondered as the old man climbed down from the ladder.
“Don’t have any of those. They fell out of fashion in the 3rd Century. People couldn’t be dealing with all those loose ends. You know what they used to say, third time’s the charm, well more often than not, it wasn’t.”
Calvin stared with confusion, “Surely three wishes are enough?”
“No, not really. It’s like a box of chocolates, you eat all the best ones within an hour and are left feeling dreadfully sick and with all the horrible ones. Had a lotof complaints: my new wife’s unhappy with the jewels! Or I don’t like the colour of my crown! Or my Prince snores like a rhino.”
“Yes, oh indeed. And then there was that whole kerfuffle over the Trade Unions. If a wish was worded precisely enough and loopholes covered, as they mostly were around the 2nd Century, then those poor lot had no holidays and worked overtime. Not fair at all if you’re asking me. Jinns as magic as they are, got covered by that Convention on Trade and Work Guidelines. Everyone needs a holiday every now and again. I had my last one in the Maldives, lovely weather!”
Calvin’s horse had stopped grazing a while ago, and had trotted around to the shelter of the first line of trees of the Dark Forest as the thunderstorm began. The lightening had been incredibly frightening, but it had passed along with the hailstones the size of drinking tankards. She nudged through the ice to pluck up a mouthful of grass to chew out of boredom.
She bent down, still chewing to whuffle at the cold chunks of ice. Suddenly, the horse whinnied loudly. Bolting out from the cover of the trees, the mare began to clop around the tree she had been tethered to, tugging on the rope for a bid to break free. The birds in the trees flew up out of the forest, and a loud cacophony of animal calls followed.
Then the earth began to rumble underneath the horse’s hooves, first quietly before rising to a crescendo. The predicted earthquake commended and the people of the kingdom ducked under doorways, rushed out into open spaces, and held onto their love ones hoping their Crown Prince would save them.
“You could at least restock every now and again.”
“If I did that then any Henry, Jane or Florian could just saunter in willy-nilly. This Grotto has a reputation to uphold, and as its Custodian, I need to provide Rare and Unusual items.”
The shelves shook and the lights swung as the earthquake hit the Library. “Oh no, oh no!” Calvin shouted out as he looked to the window where the storm raged on.
“Seems like you might be running out of time, young man.” The Custodian said as he clung to his ladder.
“How about the necklace thingy next to it?” Calvin called out, pointing at a golden chain on the shelf beside him.
The Custodian peered at the tag looped around it, “Effective against the Cursed. Strength: 7/9. Permanent. 24 carat gold.”
“Sounds…a lot better than the others. Could you guarantee that it would work against an Impending Doom?”
“Yes, I’ll sign my own personal guarantee that it’ll do the job. It was originally part of a set, but the other client, some sort of knight, was quite adamant she didn’t want it. Something about not giving the right first impression. A shield is a lot more visible than a chain after all…”
He broke off as another strong tremor rocked the building, the shelves were obviously magicked to protect the object on them, but the ladder rolled forwards and back on its wheels. Above them the chandeliers swung, throwing shadows halfway up the walls to touch the ceiling.
Calvin rushed back around to the front desk and the Big Book as the Custodian walked briskly behind him.
“And would you like the usual delivery service? That takes around three days by horse, going by the map and the route you described. Not many come through the Dark Forest, they prefer the Sickening Stream and its rapids, something about it being a better story I imagine. There’s also the option of the Overnight Special, and that is air dropped by a phoenix.”
“Are you joking? Anything quicker? The thunderstorm’s already begun, and the earthquake’s happened, so the rest of the Doom’s going to follow quite quickly.” Calvin’s voice rose higher with uncertainty, the time limit was running out and a miracle of some sort was desperately needed.
“I can do instant delivery, but it’s going to cost you a bit more.”
Calvin jumped forward, grabbing onto the edges of the Big Book, “How instant is instant?”
“Got pixie dust and phoenix fire. A little explosion on this end, a small boom, and it’s there.”
“Instant delivery please.” Calvin replied quickly.
“Alright, I need you to write down the exact address and recipient.” The Custodian handed over a piece of black parchment from a stack on the shelf behind him, and then he walked over to select a small bottle of golden ink, and pulled the cork out gently. “There you go, young man. Now make sure there’s no mistakes. You can use that small table over there.”
Twelve and a half seconds later, Calvin was back in front of the Big Book and handed over the black parchment. “All ready?” He asked, nervously looking out of the window, small branches and leaves were being blown across.
He didn’t know what colour Doom looked like, or the sounds it made, or even the smell it had. But his bones felt a lot heavier and the hairs on the back of his neck had risen up. Outside, he could hear the wind picking up and wondered how long until the winds would turn wild.
“All this eleventh hour nonsense,” the Custodian muttered as he signed the Big Book with the green ink. The colour seeped into the parchment and glimmered, then the old man blotted the page delicately. “It’ll be in the newspaper, Local Crown Prince just about saves the day! I’d want to move out if I was living there. Too much drama and all those hailstones.”
He carefully placed the necklace inside on top of the Big Book, then looked at Calvin, “Have you got a message for your Crown Prince?”
“Don’t think so. All he has to do is wear it, right? The curse was put on his kingdom.”
“Yes. As the kingdom is an extension of him, if he puts it on the curse will be lifted.” The Custodian turned around and grabbed a small bottle. He popped the cork and took a pinch of the fine glittery gold substance inside and placed it on top of the necklace.
“There’s the fairy dust, and now for the phoenix fire.” He reached down and grabbed a pair of bellows, “You might want to step back, young man.” The Custodian said before he readied himself, raising up the bellows and inflating.
“Three, two, one.” Calvin counted down and then held his breath.
The Custodian pumped the bellows onto the necklace, igniting the fairy dust in a short column of fire that engulfed most of the countertop. With a loud bang, which echoed in Calvin’s ears, the necklace vanished.
The Custodian tottered on his legs and then lent against the countertop. Calvin stepped forwards and look down at the pages of the Big Book. They were unburnt and in the latest column Deliveredwas printed in neat black letters, a different hand to the Custodian’s cursive green.
“There we are then,” The Custodian brushed off the soot from his nose and replaced the bellows underneath the desk. “And how would you like to pay?”
“Has it worked?” Calvin asked, looking towards the window.
“It’s stopped that bloody awful noise from outside, hasn’t it?”
Calvin hesitantly walked towards the large circular window on the far side of the entry way. Outside the wind was dropping and the thick black thunderclouds were melting away to reveal a light grey sky. It was the best thing Calvin had seen in his entire life. He let out a long sigh and walked back to the desk.
“I’ve got five bags of gold and jewels, a hair from the Crown Prince’s head, as well as two toenail clippings from the richest merchants in the City,” the Junior Aide stated.
The Custodian hummed and reached for his quill, “Yes, I believe that will suffice.”
He finished off completing the entry, took the payment and provided a receipt. All in all it was a good day’s work.