Terror Trapped Between Pages
Emilia sat on her bed, peeking out the window into the yard of the library. Militia was patrolling thoroughly, every few minutes one or two men in uniform and with rifles over their shoulders came marching past the dorm, and she could see two militiamen position right by the gates of the grounds, blocking the only way out.
There was no chance for her to leave tonight. She wanted to, she truly did want to return back out there and find her bag, find Fran’s manuscript. It had to be in a terrible state by now! She would have to spend days fixing it, no way could she return it to her friend in the sad state it had to be in now – edges singed, mud-splatters across, possibly soaked from the rain by now… thinking about it let guilt twinge in her stomach. How could she have been so careless? Some friend she was.
She slid back down into her bed, pulled the covers up and glanced over at Fran, who was already sleeping, breathing steadily and quietly. Emilia rolled over, facing the wall, and closed her eyes. Perhaps it was a good thing she could not go back into the woods tonight. She needed the rest, really, after last night’s adventures. She wondered if the dragon would still be there when she eventually returned. Maybe, now that she had access to the closed archives whenever she wanted, she could find something on dragons down there. The books were ancient, some written in the time when the dragons still ruled the skies, there was bound to be something. Maybe something about people like her, who had this strange kind of connection to the beasts. Maybe something on the dragon himself. If he was, like Danzas assumed, an Elder dragon, he might be mentioned in historical texts, or depicted in drawings. Maybe she could find a name, maybe a legend. Maybe something about the north wind. Something other than old wives tales.
When exactly along her train of thought she dozed off to sleep, she could not quite recall. But something knocking against her bed startled her awake. Emilia groaned and rolled over, eyes half lidded.
“Fran?” she asked, blinking against the bright light. A most unexpected brightness. Her eyes fully opened and only then did she realise she was no longer in her dorm room.
She stood on a wide, open plain, flat from horizon to horizon, a burning sky above and the sun brighter than it had ever been. If that even was the sun. It could just as well be something deadly, something horrible. Flames were falling from the sky, roaring, tearing through the clouds, the air so hot it was hard to breathe. The world was falling apart around her. Whispers and screams of agony were whirling around her, she tried to find their source, spinning around and around disoriented. Something was crunching underfoot and when she looked down, her boots were crushing brittle bones, crumbling like glass. A skull was looking up at her, eyes like black holes, a dead grin mocking her. Emilia cried out in shock and stumbled back, but wherever her feet set down, there was just more death. The plains she had thought to be rocky dry ground turned out to be just bones over bones over bones.
“No… no…” she heard her own whispers, voice trembling in horror.
Her name, echoing across the wasteland, making her spin in circles until she saw him. The figure in the distance. A black cloak was billowing in the burning wind as the figure came closer, her name a whisper on the wind. She did not know the voice, but there was something in the way he said her name that almost broke her heart.
A hand extended towards her, black leather gloves and a black gauntlet, metal claws with golden tips, offered for her to take. And she wanted to. She did, but at the same time she felt like taking the hand would be the end of her life. She knew, taking that hand would kill her, and she was frightened, and sad, and angry, because there was so much left to do, so much she could still do. It was not right, it was not fair. But her gaze came up from his hand, trying to see the face under the hood but all she could see was lips pulled in a smile, the rest lay in shadows.
She was reluctant to put her hand in his, his fingers gently closing around hers before he nudged her closer and his other arm came around her. Lips came to rest on her hair and she was surrounded by the scent of ashes, of molten gold, the leather of his clothes, and an unfamiliar scnet. But there was the warmth, something comforting, something so familiar, making her close her eyes and lean into him while the world fell apart around them. He whispered his name just by her ear.
Something tore at her shoulder, made her gasp and look up and he was gone. Instead, it was Fran staring down at her worried, shaking her shoulders.
“Goddess, Em, you weren’t responding! I thought for a second you had died in your sleep!” her roommate declared, slumping back onto her own bed. Daylight was falling in through the window and Fran was in uniform already. Emilia gasped, sat up. There was cold sweat on her skin, her nightgown sticking to her, and she was freezing.
“Sorry… sorry I… I guess I was just really tired…”
She sat quiet on her bed, still as a statue, palms pressed over her eyes, the voice still lingering in the back of her mind, the feeling of a breath softly tickling through her hair. Sending shivers down her spine.
“Yes, sorry. I’m up, I’m fine. I’ll catch up at breakfast.”
She climbed out of her bed and gathered her uniform in her arms, under the scrutinizing gaze of Fran, who still sat on her bed.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine, Fran. I’ll see you at breakfast.”
And she was out of the door. Down the hall in the bathroom, where she washed her face, brushed her hair and changed into her uniform then went to join Fran and Andrew at breakfast. It was quiet in the hall, more so than usual and it took her a moment to realize why. Every apprentice was secretively shooting glances over to the door, where Madame Ludivine and librarian Roderick Salmai were arguing. Properly arguing, like they had rarely seen before. Salmai was wildly gesturing, his voice in a tense whisper-shout to avoid the apprentices hearing what exactly they were arguing about. Ludivine had her threatening posture put on – hands on hips, face tense, pale blue eyes in a deadly glare at the younger libriarian, and she every now and then hissed counter arguments through gritted teeth. Every time she spoke, Salmai flinched, shoulders slacking in defeat before he bucked himself up for another argument.
“Hey, what’s up with Ludivine and Salmai?” Emilia asked as she sat down with her friends. Andrew shrugged.
“They’ve been at it since they got here,” he said.
“I have never seen Ludivine so angry. Look at her eyebrows. Those eyebrows are serious business,” Fran noted. Emilia glanced over to the indicated eyebrows. Ludivine usually plucked her eyebrows into a very elegant line, and today that line looked so cross, it was like the brows would jump off her face any second to strangle Salmai.
As they finished their argument, the head librarian threw open the doors and stormed out, red dress swishing as she moved in angry steps.
“Maybe the militia did something she didn’t like again,” Emilia speculated. They watched Salmai sigh, wipe sweat from his brow. They could only imagine how frightening it had to be to have Ludivine be so cross with them. Once the head librarian was out of the door, the apprentices turned back to their own conversations amongst each other and a steady level of sound hung in the hall.
The three of them finished breakfast and made their way to the main building ahead of most of their fellow apprentices. There was no lecture this morning, so they had time to focus on their own work and on the housework given to them by Oheier yesterday – book maintenance and restoration. They went to the closed shelves, each picked up a pile of books to work on and magnifying goggles then went to a table large enough for the three of them. There were workstations on each, with lamps for each of them. As they sat down, Emilia glanced up. The ceiling above them had been quickly patched up with wooden planks, keeping out the rain. Most of the glass had been swooped away, picked up and thrown away and scaffolding had been put up to fix the ceiling soon.
The closed shelves were arranged in neat aisles, all of them barred and padlocked. Many shelves were on the ground floor with them, surrounding the tables, and more shelves were on the gallery just above and in smaller rooms dedicated to specific sections. Par’bain was by no means the largest library of the guild, but it was one of the best sorted ones, largely thanks to head librarian Ludivine.
They each carried tools with them, rolled up in hand made, leather bound purses with little compartments for each tool. They unfolded them next to their books, put on their goggles and got to work – fixing old leather binding, reattaching pages, reconstructing paled out writing. Andrew was hunched over the book he was working on, a palette of fine colours before him and a very fine brush in hands as he repainted an intricate illumination on one of his pages.
They sat for about a half hour before there was a commotion near the lending desk. A young librarian who had only graduated his apprenticeship this summer was being put there and instructed by Oheier in a harsh tone. The young man was nervous beyond belief – they could see the sweat stains under his arms from where they were sitting and his hands were shaking as he took the pen and noted his name down in the register. Usually the senior librarians did not let recent graduates staff the lending desk – a great responsibility, to keep order in the shelves. Why was today the exception?
The three of them frowned when Oheier marched past the lending desk to Ludivine’s office, and moments later the rest of the senior staff made their way there with swaying robes.
“What the-” Andrew began.
“Unscheduled board meeting?” Fran suggested.
“This is Ludivine we’re talking about, that woman iron’s her handkerchiefs every morning. She does nothing unscheduled. Ever,” Andrew reminded her.
“Maybe that’s why she was in such a foul mood at breakfast…” Emilia guessed.
“I wonder what they’re discussing.”
“How much do you want to bet it’s about the creatures?” Andrew asked.
“Do not quote me on that, but I heard the creature might have been a dragon,” Fran whispered. Emilia and Andrew turned towards her with surprised gasps – for different reasons entirely. Emilia’s hands turned cold. How had word spread so quickly?
“That’s nonsense,” Andrew protested. “There have been no dragons in a thousand years, they’re extinct.”
“At least that’s what we assumed…” Emilia mumbled.
“You were on the watchtower that night. Did you see a dragon?” Andrew asked. Emilia shrugged, averting her gaze to focus back on her work.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d even recognise a dragon if I’d seen one,” she said, then picked up her tools again to continue working, acting especially busy to avoid more questions about the dragon. She was squinting over writing, refreshing the black ink lines with her calligraphy pen. She noticed Fran and Andrew returning to their own work after a moment and the three of them sat in silence for a good hour.
They were only interrupted when they heard the librarians leave Ludivine’s office again, each of them returning to their duties. Ludivine was just behind them, watched them leave and then marched right towards their table.
“Uh-oh, here she comes,” Andrew whispered, intently focusing on his work. They heard her steps, then heard her stop.
“Miss Baines, in my office please.”
Emilia looked up, met Andrew’s and Fran’s worried gazes. She put down her tools, switched off her light and left her book and goggles at her workstation with them as she followed Ludivine. The head librarian was rushing ahead in quick steps. Emilia struggled to keep up. They reached the office on the other end of the library. Ludivine closed the door behind them and pointed at a chair in front of her large, ebony desk. The office smelled of furniture polish, ink, book leather, paper and Ludivine’s perfume. Light was shimmering in through stained glass windows, books were lining the walls in shelves and the soft carpet depicted a starry night sky. A chandelier was hanging from the ceiling, there was a small fireplace and a large, cosy looking armchair.
A head librarian enjoyed quite some comforts, apparently. But Ludivine had sacrificed much to be here, to become such a high ranking member in the guild. The only female head librarian in the world. The price had been distance from her family, her friends, anyone she might have cared about, because it was still frowned upon for women to enjoy an education like the librarian guild required. There were two acceptable paths a girl could go in rural shortear Arcaria. Become a housewife and mother and possibly work in her husband’s business – like Emilia’s mother who worked at the inn, or like Lotte who worked in her fathers’ workshop and was engaged to be married to Henrik Hernesson, the son of the militia Captain. Or alternatively join the White Sisterhood and live in the monastery. A path chosen by many girls from poorer families, when the choice came down to ‘having to sell the girl into prostitution because there was no way to feed the whole family otherwise’ or ‘letting the girl starve in favour of her brother’. Girls in circumstances like that chose the White Sisterhood as a last resort, devoted themselves to the life in the mountains with their new sisters, taking the white mantle of servitude to the Mother Goddess Bijwidd, learning the art of healing and taking a burden off their families. And now there was the library, thanks to women like Ludvine who had paved the way – with blood sweat and tears – for girls like Emilia and Fran to join the apprenticeship and have their own career, independent of husbands or fathers thanks to a select few scholarships.
On the desk, Emilia spotted a black and white photograph taken outside the Grand Library in Par’fost – it’s beautiful towers and banners rising into the sky where a prototype airship was hovering – of Ludivine in her red robe, together with a group of other women. A few of them were young and in the apprentice uniforms, others were Ludivine’s age and on different degrees of seniority in the guild it seemed. There was a glint of pride, even through the still photograph.
There was a massive book resting on the desk between them as the head librarian sank into her chair and put the glasses that had been dangling around her neck onto her nose.
“Sorry if I seem agitated, it has been a long day,” Ludivine said. Her gaze shot to the small golden clock on the mantelpiece of the fireplace and she sighed. “And it’s not even noon…” she mumbled.
“Is something wrong?” Emilia inquired.
“Word has spread that the creature that came down in the woods may have been a dragon, and naturally Mayor Erkinnen and Captain Hernesson have dramatically overreacted,” Ludivine explained, rolling her eyes equally dramatic right as she said it. “They have sent for hunters from the Inquisition. These people hunt monsters and people who use magic, they are known to be ruthless and dangerous, and are not known to discriminate between prey and victim. The thought of having these people in our town… it worries me.”
“But no one here uses magic, right? They can’t take offense.”
Ludivine raised her gaze, her angry brows now more sceptical brows. Emilia gasped, both hands clasped over her lips.
“Danzas…” she whispered.
“You know that Danzas is a bit more than a physician. We all know some of the things she does involve magic. No one in our town would ever dream of reporting her to the Inquisition, because we need her. She is the only healer for miles, if we did not have her I dare say this entire town would have been swallowed by the plague that ravished the lands 15 years ago. But here we are. The thing is, the Inquisition will not take kindly to that. If they learn of her gift, they will capture her and the entire town could be implicated for assisting a magi. Par’bain would burn.”
“What can I do? I assume you brought me here for a reason?” Emilia asked. She was in part relieved her being here had nothing to do with her dragon, but she was still on edge because she could not fathom why Ludivine had brought her here.
“To protect Danzas, we will have to make sure the hunters leave as quickly as possible. The only way to do that is to make it clear the ‘threat’ that brought them here is not as serious as it was made to sound. We need to learn as much about this creature as soon as possible so we can present them all the evidence we have once they arrive. They can proceed to find and slay the beast and be on their merry way before they even have time to worry about any possible abuse of magic in our town. Danzas will likely leave town temporarily, to be on the safe side, and will only return when the hunters have gone. Sister Matoya has requested aid from the monastery, a certified healer will take Danzas’ place while the hunters are here,” Ludivine explained.
Emilia listened attentive, trying to figure out why she had been called in here. Finally, Ludivine opened the heavy book. Emilia’s gaze fell onto opulent illustrations of… creatures. All kinds of creatures, mythical and real, all with accompanying texts and art. Ludivine pushed the book towards her. “I need you to look through this and if you find anything that looks like either of the creatures you saw, you need to inform me. It could be evidence the hunters will want to see. Or… evidence we need to make sure they never see, if you gather my meaning.”
“I do,” Emilia confirmed as she scooted closer with her chair to take a closer look at the book. “What is this?”
“It’s part of the Encyclopaedia Arcaria, an addendum on beasts,” Ludivine explained as Emilia skimmed through the pages. She took a closer look at the cover. The red leather binding was well made, golden letters embossed the word Bestiary in it and on the very first page the name of the author. Allart Anoren Aziz. The Grand Librarian himself! No wonder she had never seen this book. A lowly apprentice could never even dream of touching something the Grand Librarian had written until long after graduating. “You’ll find every creature ever researched in this.”
“May I borrow it?”
Ludivine pursed her lips a little, but then nodded reluctantly.
“You may. But treat it with care – there are only three copies of this addendum available in the world at this moment, it is still in review at headquarters and this is a review copy, so please do treat it with caution,” Ludivine requested. Emilia nodded.
“I will. And if I find anything, I will let you know right away.”
Emilia gathered the book in her arms as she got up and bowed to the head librarian, before she headed for the door and rushed outside. She hesitated to return to her work for a moment. The knowledge that hunters of the Inquisition had been sent here, due to arrive sooner rather than later given travel times from Par’fost – likely by ship – gave new haste to her plan of returning to the woods to find Fran’s manuscript. If it was discovered there, it was possible the hunters may jump to conclusions that someone had indeed interacted with the creature. An accusation that could end deadly if the Inquisition was involved. She had to get back as soon as possible, find her bag and never leave another trace in the woods.
Finally, she returned to her work with Fran and Andrew, only to gather her tools and excuse herself, with the bestiary stored in a bag.
There had been many things she had wanted to do before returning to the woods. Things she now had to do much sooner. She picked up the key to the closed archives from the nervous librarian at the lending desk and made her way down into the crypt alone. Her bag with the bestiary stayed by the door when she took the lantern, fuelled the small generator and then took out the first map she and Andrew had drawn yesterday. The farther back the tunnels went, the older the books, so she assumed if she went back far enough she was bound to find something on dragons. Even with the books in the terrible condition they were, there may perhaps be one or two books she could still read, some possibility for her to understand why the dragon had spared her life twice over.
As she wandered down the winding tunnels surrounded by books, her fingertips brushed over the old book spines. She tried to decipher anything, where time had claimed much of the golden letters pressed into the leather, and where languages were written that no longer existed. Every time she passed something that might be of interest – be it a symbol that resembled a dragon, or the word outright written on the spine – she stopped, put down her lamp and inspected her find more closely, only to be again disappointed by it.
Her path eventually led into a dead end she dotted down on her map when she reached it. The chamber was filled with books, pressed so close together they resembled a brick wall and she could not even tell if there was still a shelve behind them or if they were just held up by the pressure they put on each other. She inspected the spines curiously. The language they were marked in was foreign, even for someone who had studied languages and ancient dialects for three years. Some seemed familiar, like archaic palaans, but parts of it were off, suggesting it had to be a sub-dialect she had not encountered yet.
Reluctantly, Emilia pried one of the books out. When it came loose, she could see pitch black darkness behind it, like there was actually no shelf at all. Carefully, with rolled up sleeves, she reached into the darkness, trying to find a back wall. But there was none. She put up her lantern, tried to see anything beyond the book wall, but it was swallowed up by darkness.
This was no dead end at all. The wall had been artificially created by the books, but beyond it, the tunnel simply continued! That posed the question: what lay beyond here? Where did this tunnel lead? Emilia looked back at the book she held. It had to have been down there for ages, pressed together so firmly the pages barely wanted to separate. She cowered down, took out her tools and with the delicate pincers she pilled some of the pages apart, revealing the writing in them. It had been handwritten in a foreign language, not a word of it identifiable. But all books down here had similar words on their spines. Was this an entire section written in a language that no longer existed and not even the library taught anymore? How unusual. She would have to do some research into that, so she tucked the book under her arm and turned to head back, when a whisper hit her in the face.
Emilia blinked irritated, tried to determine if what she heard was just a trick of the wind that was now howling through that hole in the wall of books she had created, or if there was actually someone in here with her, pranking her.
“Andrew?” she asked into the tunnel. The electric lights overhead flickered. A shiver was crawling down her spine as the whispers came again. Lantern raised, Emilia started walking back the way she had come, slower now, listening. She knew this kind of whisper. It was similar to what she had experienced in the woods, when she had come across the dragon’s spell. But different. His spell had tried to push her away from something. This one was trying to lure her towards something. Far more difficult to resist, as the words snaked around her neck and into her ears, crawling down her spine, chilling her blood. It was equal parts a threatening feeling as it was using her curiosity to lure her closer.
As she passed a tunnel she had previously completely ignored, Emilia stopped in her tracks. She stared down at her map, then at the tunnel and the bookshelves lining its walls. Back at the map. Back up. It was not there. She would have marked it down when she had passed it earlier on her way here, but she had not. She had just walked past it, as if it had not been there. As if it… had only just appeared. By the Gods, maybe this town needed to be purged! Maybe there was dark magic at play here that had nothing at all to do with their harmless old physician.
She peeked into the tunnel. It described a curve and she followed it carefully, keeping an eye on the way she had come from to be sure not to lose her way. Since her surroundings were obviously changing of their own free will.
The further she walked, the louder the whispers. At this point, to call them whispers was inaccurate, as they were now screaming at her, louder and louder, from every direction. Until they stopped so abruptly the silence felt frightening for a heartbeat or two. The lightbulb just above her flared up brightly, energy buzzing through it, before the glass exploded and small splinters rained down on her, leaving her in the dark. The other bulbs in this particular tunnel followed suit within moments, exploding in glass and sparks. All except for one, just ahead, casting what could only be described as a spotlight on one particular section in a shelf. Emilia stayed still in the tunnel and stared at that lit shelf where she saw something utterly unexpected.
A book in perfect condition.
Among books that were falling apart just by looking at them a little too sharp, among layers of dust thicker than her fingers, there was this one book that was immaculate. The leather was still shining and smooth, like it had only just been garbed, the golden engravings on the cover were perfect, not flaked off like all the others and although she could not read what it said, the way the words were drawn felt ill, dangerous, strangely unpleasant.
She moved closer reluctantly. The book was sealed with a golden clasp, with no discernible lock. The clasp was part of a decoration laid into the book cover, a round frame that seemed to have once held an almost fist sized jewel that had been shattered at some point, leaving only a small fragment in place. She reaches out, brushes her fingertips over the leather binding. It even feels new, while all other books around it seem at least a decade old. Had someone recently brought this here? Then why hide it so deep in the archives and not leave it near the entrance, where the newer books were piling up? Had this book been deliberately hidden?
She wanted to open it. Every inch of her skin was prickling like thousands of tiny legs crawling over her when she even tried thinking about opening it, but she wanted to. Part of her wanted to read every last page of this book, know what secrets it hid. But another part of her wanted to run away from it as fast as her feet could carry her. She was terrified by this book, like she had never been before.
It was just a book, right? Books could not… hurt anyone, right? Even if it was a book of magic, it was not the book itself that was a dangerous, but the people who misused the power it held, right? She was a librarian, her last three years of apprenticeship peaked into the one golden rule that knowledge itself was not dangerous, it was the way that knowledge was used that made it so. So what harm could there be in reading this book? Why was she so frightened, as if this book itself was somehow evil?
Emilia jumped and shrieked, skin crawling with terror as she stepped back from the book and rubbed her arms, turned towards the source of the voice. As she turned, the light flickered and came back on. Emilia stared up confused. The lightbulbs had exploded, had they not? How were they all fixed and still giving light? Had she… had she just imagined…?
Andrew came down the hallway, carrying another lantern.
“Wanted to get the key to do some detention but the guy at the lending desk said you were already down here. What’s that there?”
His gaze had fallen on the book, but Rose shook her head.
“It’s nothing. Just a book.”
Her gaze fell on the book again, like her eyes were glued to it. It was like it wanted to be read. It wanted for her to open it and let its words be burned into her mind, never to be erased again. She pulled away, bringing physical distance between her and the book and she took Andre’s arm, leading him back to the main hall with her. He watched her curiously and worried, but somehow seemed unaffected by the pull she felt. Had he not heard the whispers? Did he not feel the need to open the book and read it?
Her hands were freezing cold by the time they reached the main dome of the archives, where she picked up the bestiary again and extinguished the flame in her lantern. She rushed up the stairs and out of the building, into daylight like she was starved for it. But it was still there, like something sitting on her shoulder, breathing down her neck, the urge to read that book.
“Em, you have been acting incredibly weird since yesterday,” Andrew noted behind her and she glanced back to look at him. “You look like someone is chasing you. All the time.”
“I didn’t sleep very well tonight. And yesterday I obviously didn’t sleep at all. So I’m just... tired. I’ll be fine once all this blows over, Andrew,” she assured him with a smile. He watched her sceptically for a moment, before he nodded.
“Fine. I’ll believe you. What did Ludivine call you in her office for earlier?” he asked. She shook her head.
“I suspect she’ll make a public announcement at dinner tonight,” she said with a shrug. The door opened again and they greeted Fran who came outside, just storing two books in her bag. She looked up with a smile, but her expression quickly changed to curiosity. She squinted, stopping in her tracks at the top of the steps.
“Is that… a ship?”