The Closed Archives
There were muffled voices coming from the physician’s office when Emilia sat down in the small reception area she had crossed earlier that night already. Danzas was back, and she was not alone. The conversation was quiet, and every word that was exchanged made Emilia scoot closer on the bench, until she finally got up and leaned towards the door to hear them better. One voice was clearly Danzas, a familiar sound. But the other woman was a stranger. It was a soft, high voice, impossible to tell the age of the woman it belonged to. It could be a young girl, but as easily a crone.
“We cannot let him fall into their hands. They would mindlessly slaughter him, without ever learning the truth. I will not let the last of the Elder Dragons fall into the hands of bumbling fools,” the woman said.
Emilia suppressed a gasp by clutching her hands over her lips. Dragon? How did this woman already know about that, when she had literally only just told Ludivine what she thought she had seen? Had this woman visiting Danzas known that a dragon was going to crash here? Had they perhaps been in the forests tonight and had seen it already?
“Don’t worry. We will not let him get away again,” Danzas assured in a quiet voice.
“Good. We will never have another chance like this. If we lose him again, we might never be able to find him again,” the stranger insisted. There was a sound that suggested she was getting up from a chair. “I will leave you too it then. It seems you have a nosy visitor.”
Emilia took a large step backwards.
How had the woman known she was out here? She had made no sound, had stepped around every creaking floor board. There was no way. No way.
She heard footsteps, then the door opened and physician Danzas stood in front of her. The woman in her late fifties was shorter than Emilia, stout in physique and with hair white as snow. She was wrapped in a flowing, floral printed gown embroidered with random pearls and coloured stones. Charms made from yarn, feathers and little animal bones dangled around her neck and in her worn out earlobes. Her eyes were a milky blue, brightly shining out of wrinkled, olive skin.
She smiled at Emilia.
“Emilia, how can I help you?” she asked.
“I… uhm…” Emilia began, a little startled. She glanced up when the woman who had been in there with Danzas moved past the phyisician.
She was an intimidating appearance. The woman was wrapped completely in white, from the robes swishing over the floor all the way to the veil covering her hair. Her features did little to betray her age, making it difficult to tell if she was just a well looking woman of advanced age, or a very mature looking young woman. Her features were harsh, the lines of her jaw, her nose, and her cheekbones sharp as blades. Her eyes were almond shaped and almost pitch black, barely any white visible in them, in stark contrast to the overall whiteness of her hair, her pale face and her white robes. The black irises and deep red lipstick were the only specks of colour about her, if not for that, she could just as easily have been a ghost. But she was not. In fact, Emilia guessed she had to be a White Sister. Judging from the heavy silver necklace resting over her chest – shaped like a woman with her arms spread to embrace the world – she was quite possibly a very high ranking sister.
The woman seemed to inspect her as closely as Emilia did, looking her up and down and her black-irised gaze lingered on Emilia’s eyes a moment longer than was comfortable. But she said not a single word, just walked past Emilia after she had sufficiently assessed the apprentice, and walked out the door.
Emilia watched her leave, and felt a cold chill crawl down her spine.
“Who was that?” she asked.
“Hm?” Danzas asked, looked up at her and then after the woman. “Oh, don’t worry about that. I found your note from last night. I assume you’re here to have me take a look at your head?”
She followed the physician into her office, both doors to the treatment rooms open and unused. Danzas made her sit on a chair as she went to get clean bandages and ointments for her to use, and Emilia sat and waited. It took only few minutes for the physician to return and begin to unwrap the clumsy bandage Emilia had applied last night.
“Well that doesn’t look to bad, does it…” she murmured to herself. Emilia blinked with the eye just underneath the cut when Danzas began cleaning off the day old ointment so she could put new medicine on it. “How did it happen?”
“It was dark and I ran into a wall. It was all a bit chaotic last night with these creatures,” Emilia lied. Gods, that came out quick and easy. She almost believed it herself. Her gaze wandered to the physician’s phase, hoping to see if she had really sounded as convincing as she thought she did. Danzas dace did betray nothing. “What do you think it was?” she asked.
The physician smirked as she leaned away to wash the cloth she had been using to clean the wound.
“Don’t play coy, Emilia. I know you heard us talk.”
Emilia looked away, teeth gritted together. “We have reason to believe the creature that attacked last night may have been a dragon.”
“I thought dragons were extinct,” Emilia noted.
“Dragons are no more or less real than the Gods are. It was the Gods that struck down the dragons that once terrorised the world. If we believe in the Gods, we necessarily will also have to believe in dragons. If we can believe the Gods can return, then we naturally also have to believe their eternal enemy can return. Dragons are real, and… after a thousand years of peace, of silence from the Great North, it was only a matter of time before they would rise again,” Danzas explained. She looked up wistfully at the large map Emilia had noticed yesterday as well. “We can only hope this time we are ready to face them.”
“Will you tell the head librarian? Or the militia? They want to go out there to find the creature, won’t they be in terrible danger?” Emilia inquired.
“There is very little I can do about that. If the creature wants us dead, none of us are safe. If it doesn’t then it won’t be bothered by a few townsmen and their guns.”
“Your… friend said something about… an elder dragon. What does that mean?”
“It’s just a legend. According to old lore, dragons had a monarchy, just like old shortear society had, and just like the hellvar and dwarves still practice. Supposedly the Elder were ruling their people. Just like we have our House of Six Gods, the dragons had their six Elder.”
“So… they are the equivalent of Dragon Gods? And you think the one that crashed here may be one of them?”
“It is possible. If he is an Elder… he is invaluable.”
Emilia sat in silence for a long moment. An Elder dragon, a God among its kind. Was that why she had felt this strange… connection earlier? Was it because that was no ordinary beast, not a mindless grunt, but a creature born to something greater? Was what she had felt when meeting the creature’s eye not terror but awe, the fear of God?
“What about the other creature?”
“Other creature?” Danzas asked, glancing over at Emilia with a frown. Emilia nodded.
“The one that crashed into the gallery,” she explained, then reigned in. She did not want to sound like she knew too much about it, like she had seen too clearly what had happened that night. “Everyone’s talking about it, and there’s militia patrolling the grounds to make sure it’s gone.”
“Hm… sounds like the dragon was in a bit of a pickle. But I am sure whatever creature that was, it did surely not survive the encounter.”
“I hope so…”
Danzas smiled as she wrapped a new bandage around Emilia’s head, then patted her cheek gently.
“Don’t worry, dear. The library is the safest place you can be, I promise,” she assured herm then packed her things. “All done with that. Come back tomorrow and we’ll have another look, but it does seem like it will heal just fine. Might leave a small scar though.”
“That’s alright,” Emilia replied with a smile.
“Takes more to get girls like us down, doesn’t it?” the old physician said with a laugh, nudging Emilia’s shoulder. Emilia nodded with a smile, then got up from the chair she had been sitting in.
“Can I get back to my lecture then?”
“Of course, of course, sorry, I didn’t mean to keep you. Have a lovely day, dear.”
Danzas returned behind her desk and Emilia made her way out of the clinic. By the time she was halfway across the premises back to the main building, she had forgotten about ever having seen the woman in white. By the time she would remember the meeting, it would be too late.
It was not the first time Emilia zoned out during the morning lecture.
The auditorium she and the other apprentices sat in was large – a former theatre where the nobles used to entertain themselves. The seats were uncomfortable and had a tendency to try and fold upwards when you tried to readjust yourself to a more comfortable position. The lights were dim, barely managed to illuminate the entire room, there were no windows to let in fresh air, and the furnishing was full of dust that whirled around the room whenever anyone moved anything.
Librarian Archibald Oheier stood on the stage with a small pedestal in front of him on which he had placed a book and his lecture notes, behind him was a blackboard on which he occasionally drew or wrote, and there was a projector filtering light through black and white images to enlarge them on the large canvas behind the librarian. Oheier was an impressively large man, his full body draped in finest red velvet with golden embroidery of detailed stellar constellations. The cloak was closed around his neck with a library clasp, and his meaty neck spilled over the garment, blending with his chin to an indistinguishable blur of flesh. His face was pockmarked, and his white hair was sharply receding with his age. He was one of the oldest librarians here, a fossil, some said, and in charge of the linguistic department. And Oheier hated these morning lectures at least as much as the apprentices. And he hated the apprentices. In fact, Emilia was not entirely sure if there was anything Archibald Oheier truly liked other than language.
It was not the first time she – or anyone really – dozed off during the lecture. It was a tedious topic, the grammatical foundations of root dialects that connected various regionally spoken languages in Selman and the western continent, and they had all had a rather short night. Hers perhaps shorter than most others, given that she had spent a lot of it wandering through the woods to fond the Dragon.
It could have only been seconds that she dozed off, her head bobbing forward a little before she caught herself again. One of the others yawned without a sound, and Andrew Fahren was already sound asleep. His head rested on his notes while his hand still held his pen and through involuntary muscle spasms in his dreams twitched ink across the paper. But for some reason, it was her little head bob the librarian saw.
Oheier jumped forward off the stage, surprisingly agile for his enormous physical mass, and marched towards the row she sat in. Emilia stared dead ahead, hoping that he was heading for someone else, hoping to get away with it just once. But no.
“Do you find my lessons so disturbingly boring, Miss Baines? Do you prefer traipsing around in the mud to the pursuit of academic excellence?”
“No, Sir. It’s just been a long night, Sir.”
“Oh, today it was a long night then? What was it last week? And what’s it going to be next week? Or tomorrow? There’s always something with you, Baines. For someone who claims such eagerness to learn, you show a startling lack of enthusiasm for the finer theoretical craft of being a librarian.”
“I have worked through all of this before though. Sir. I picked root translations for my dissertation, I have been working on it for months now, this is not new to me. It’s-” she bit her tongue. But the wild grey brows of the librarian had already been raised sharply into his large forehead.
“Boring? Is that what it is, Miss Baines? Boring to you and your superior grasp of linguistics? Well we can’t have that, can we? In that case, I suggest you seek me out after class and we will give you some extracurricular assignments to work on. Wouldn’t want you to get bored, would we?” he asked, his tone sharp as he noted it down. Extracurricular assignments, he called it. Detention was what he meant. As he turned away, his robes swished, whirling up dust. The librarian walked down into the next row of seats, where he stood for a moment staring down at Andrew – who was drooling ever so slightly out of the corner of his mouth.
Without a warning, the librarian, knocked against the other apprentice’s leg, sending Andrew into a startled frenzy in which he nearly poked his own eye out with his pen before looking up disoriented, wiping spit from the corner of his mouth. Emilia could see his face in the dim light. He had lain on fresh ink, having left a mirrored print of his own handwriting all over his right cheek. Emilia had to bite back a chuckle.
“Wha-?” Andrew mumbled confused.
“Detention. You and Miss Baines. After class, my office,” Oheier snapped, before he returned to his stage to continue his dreadfully boring talk. Andrew turned around to meet Emilia’s gaze, his face one of plain agony and she could only shrug it off.
They sat through the rest of their lecture in silence, before finally, finally being released after two hours of that ordeal.
Leaving the lecture theatre, every morning the apprentices looked like they had been starved of sunlight and air for days, falling all over themselves on their way outside, blinking against the misty grey light of the autumn in Par’bain. They all had work to do, but it had become a quite rule that after a lecture, apprentices were given a few minutes outside.
They moved into their little groups, with Emilia, Fran and Andrew leaning against a marble pillar. Fran took out her little herb pipe she always had hidden in the pocket on the inside of her robes, stuffed it and lit it, filling the air around them with the scent of sweet smoke.
“How do you stand it? How do you stay awake through this and take notes so eagerly?” Andrew asked their smoking friend. Fran focused intently on her pipe and Emilia knew very well that Fran had not been scribbling notes at all, but she would not mention it. As per their promise.
“I… wasn’t taking notes,” Fran quietly mumbled without looking at either of them.
“And we all saw what happened to your notes, Andrew,” Emilia teased with a grin as she poked Andrew against the jaw under the printed side of his face, hoping to distract from Fran because she knew her friend liked to avoid talking about her secret book. Andrew grumbled to himself and rubbed a sleeve over his ink covered cheek.
Emilia remembered the day she had seen Fran pen down the first chapter of her book. Back in their dorm room, easily a year ago. They had been barely 16 then. Fran had lain on her stomach, chin resting on the pillow, scratching the simple, standard issue fountain pen across the paper.
“What are you writing?” Emilia had asked upon returning from the bathroom, when Fran had not moved significantly.
“Nothing!” Fran had declared with a gasp and a deep blush in her cheeks. It had taken her an impressive ten minutes of Emilia sitting on her own bed, legs crossed, watching her roommate intently, to break. Fran had sighed and rolled over. “I’m… writing a book.”
“What about?” Emilia asked curiously. It was in their very nature to be curious about books, after all. The were apprentices to the guild of librarians. It was what they had dedicated themselves to, it was the only reason why they were in this dormitory together, possibly the only thing the two girls had in common.
“It’s… just something silly.”
“What about?” Emilia had asked again, trying (and succeeding) to be as annoying as possible. Fran had grunted.
“It’s… about a prince in exile. And a mercenary hired by his enemies to track him down and seduce him so they can kill him. She does it to get a magical artefact back, the only thing that will allow her to return to her people.”
“That sounds amazing!” Emilia declared. Then fell into a whisper and leaned closer. “Fran if you write about magic, you’ll get in trouble.”
“It’s just… it’s a silly something I keep thinking about… It’s nothing dangerous.”
“I love it! Can I read it?” Emilia asked excitedly.
“I… it’s not really finished…”
“I don’t care!”
“I never really wanted to show… anyone…”
“Well, if you ever want to show it, I’ll be right here.”
It had taken another three months of Emilia never mentioning a word about the book again for Fran to turn to her. The lights in their room were already out and they could not see each other across the gap between their beds.
“Em… are you still awake?”
“Remember that book I was writing…?”
Ros opened one eye, gazing across the darkness to where she knew Fran lay.
“I… think I’d like you to read it after all. You can tell me what you think about it. But you can’t tell anyone about it!”
And so, Fran had given her the first chapters she had written.
Thinking back about that, Emilia’s stomach clenched. Where was the manuscript? Where had she last…
She traced her steps back through yesterday night. She had been on the tower, she had gathered the papers after dropping them, then taken them downstairs, where she dropped them again outside the library, then stuffed them in her bag on her way to the clinic. The bag had been with her when she left the clinic. The bag had been with her in the forest, it had been with her when she found the dragon. She had slipped out of it and put it down to show she had no weapons when she approached the creature. And then…? Had she picked the bag up again after that? Or had she just… Gods had she just left it out there, in the woods?!
The others had to notice all colour draining from her face, because both frowned concerned.
“Emilia, are you okay?”
“You look really pale.”
“It’s… nothing. Just… still a bit dizzy from that, probably a concussion,” she excused quickly, pointing at her bandaged forehead. She turned to Andrew, abruptly changing the subject. “We should probably go to Oheier, see what he has come up with this time.”
Andrew made a slightly disgruntled noise, but nodded. The both of them started to move away, turning back to Fran once with a “See you later” before they returned back inside the main building.
The main building of the library of Par’bain held a vast majority of books in its main section under the now shattered glass ceiling. Rows upon rows of barred bookshelves sealed with padlocks that each had nine digit numbers unlocking them, changing every week, and only the staff knew the codes. There were open shelves as well, in a much smaller hall accessible by the public for lending, but the beating heart of the library was the collection only for members of the guild. The lending desk was always occupied, and on the other end of the hall lay the Head Librarian’s office. The other librarians had their offices along the corridors that led away from the main complex, the wings of the building. On the end of the east wing lay the watchtower, on the end of the west wing the science lab, and just a few doors before that: Oheier’s Office.
It was quiet back here, away from the busy open shelves and the closed collection, and Oheiers door was slightly ajar. They knocked and peeked inside.
“Don’t even come in, we’re not staying here,” Oheier said as he stormed out of the door right past them. “I have the perfect task for the two of you.”
Andrew and Emilia exchanged glances, then struggled to keep up with his pace as he took large strides back down the hall and to the lending desk, where the two of them waited in the entry hall under the dome.
“What’s he come up with?” Andrew mumbled.
“No idea…” Emilia whispered back, shaking her head. Moments later, Oheier returned with the biggest, most triumphant grin on his lips and a heavy looking bronze key in his meaty hand.
“I have found a task for you. Since you are both so well advanced in your studies of linguistics and your grasp of the fine art of book maintenance.”
His voice dripped with sarcasm, and he was clearly very pleased with whatever he had come up with. So pleased, in fact, that Emilia was alarmed by it. He led the way with flying robes, through a door, down a corridor of classrooms, around a corner and into another door that led through a completely abandoned kitchen and to a narrow set of stone stairs that led down. Emilia stopped abruptly at the top of the dimly lit stone steps, cold air coming up toward them through a fragile looking door with a bronze lock on it.
The closed archives.
The infamous, third component that set this library apart from all other libraries the guild had opened all across Arcaria.
Once upon a time, when this library had still been a castle of a nobleman, he was known to have a great many lovers in the nearby town. Lovers he would meet in secrecy, in the dead of night, stealing his way to them through numerous tunnels dug underneath Harbour Hill. The hill was basically hollow and a web of tunnels led all the way into town, possibly beyond it. Parts of the tunnels had been destroyed during the revolt, others had been secured and sealed off, and a large number of them had been eventually claimed by the library. At first as a storage space, then as an archive for decommissioned books, and now… Gods, now there were so many of them that there were legends surrounding these archives. Legends of apprentices wandering into these tunnels, getting lost hopelessly in the maze of shelves and books and tunnels, never to be seen again. But it was said there were books down there so old, so precious… yet no one really knew for sure, because no one really ever kept track of what had been brought down here.
“Um… Sir?” Andrew asked alarmed.
“Don’t stand there like fools. Move.”
Andrew walked first, Emilia tried to regain control over her legs to move down the steps. She had only ever been down there once, over a year ago. Madame Ludivine had asked her to bring a decommissioned book down there. She remembered it vividly, could even recall the colour of the binding (soft purple in a velvety texture, a golden frame around a lovely little still life of a dinner table with steaming food on it and golden lettering ‘Soup – a cultural analysis of the significance of shared meals in rural households’. Completely irrelevant to everything she did, but she remembered it. And she remembered Madame Ludivine’s instructions: “Take this book downstairs into the closed archives. Leave it on the pile nearest to the door, don’t go any further in, don’t wander about. Don’t dally, just leave it there, lock the door and come right back here”. She remembered her heart drumming so hard she felt it pulse between her ears as she made her way down here and took that shy peek into the closed archives she had only ever heard about from stories the older apprentices had told them to frighten them. They had lovingly dubbed these archives ‘the crypt’ and said that you could still find the bones of lost apprentices in the depth of the archives.
“What are we doing down here? Are we supposed to find a book?” Andrew asked, fidgeting with the hem of his sleeves.
“No,” Oheier replied shortly as he unlocked the door. The lock was mostly for ceremony, Emilia figured. The door was so old, the wood so brittle and the hinges so rusty, she was sure she could probably unhinge it herself if she really tried, key or no key.
It swung open and Oheier stepped in, took a small oil lamp from a stand and lit it, motioning to the both of them to come closer. They walked into the large, dark dome that marked the entrance to the archives. Emilia’s gaze wandered first to the pile of books left-hand the door. There, under a much thinner layer of dust than the rest of these books, lay the dinner analysis she had brought here, unmoved since she had put it there. Back then, she had no light and she had not dared stop to take in the sight. Today, she took her time to take it in.
The entrance hall of the closed archives was a cave dome with rough cut, thick stone walls and small slits for windows, just below the ceiling, with grey, dusty sunlight falling in through them. It fell on high shelves, so high they gave the impression of cliffs and canyons filled with book spines, their once vibrant colours matted by dust and age like the layers in sedimentary rock. The shelves bent under the weight, and some had collapsed entirely, books and pages spilling, forming mountains in the alleys between the shelves. There were piles of books, once certainly with the intention to be stacked neatly into more shelves, now just randomly growing piles, like mushrooms on moist undergrowth. Some piled higher than Emilia had grown tall. There was something harrowing about the sight, like a graveyard at night, this place where books came to die and be forgotten. It was like its own little world, hidden underneath the busy library.
From the main hall, there were three corridors that led away into the old maze. The walls were lined with bookshelves, and there was barely a place to set down a foot without stepping on another book. It was breath-taking in its sadness.
While Emilia and Andrew stared in awe, Oheier was rummaging about with something by the side of the door. He was digging into a pile of coal, filling it into a small cylinder, lighting it and closing the metal lid. There was a crank to turn, and a rattling, aching sound spilling into a constant crackling noise, then a steady hum. Light flickered, as electricity began coursing through old copper wires into lightbulbs set in the ceiling in sporadic intervals.
“One tank should give you about two hours of electricity,” Oheier said, rubbing a hand over his chin, leaving a coal mark.
“To do what exactly?” Emilia asked.
“The High Librarian has requested these archives be cleaned out and stockpiled, he wishes to know what has been put down here and what can be still used. He will come to visit in the spring, and he will want to inspect these archives for himself. The two of you will take inventory of everything down here. Every shelf, ever pamphlet, every poster, every book. Make a note of everything, every grain of dust if you have to. Clean up what you can, let us know what shelves need replacement, and – most importantly – map this place.”
“What?!” Emilia and Andrew gasped in unison.
“What? Is that beneath you, too? You are librarians, so maintain books. You are linguists, so study their content. And I know at least one of you,” Oheier snarled, glaring at Emilia “has specialised in cartography, so put that knowledge to some good use for our library.”
“These archives are huge. This could take years!” Andrew protested.
“It could!” Oheier confirmed, then laughed like a giddy child, “Oh, by Gh’law, this is my best one yet.”
“When do we start?” Emilia asked without even looking at him or Andrew. Still, she was too fascinated by the mysterious world in these tunnels.
“Right now. Two hours every day. The lending desk is informed, you will be given the key and they will keep book of how long you stay down here. I expect weekly reports on your progress.”
“Right… I’ll get to it.”
Oheier hesitated, his brows in a frown as he inspected Emilia, who was still looking around in awe.
“Are you pulling my leg?” he asked. She blinked perplexed and turned to him.
“No, Sir. This is… I look forward to this, it’s fascinating.”
He stared at her in disbelief, then shook his head.
“You bloody insolent child…” Oheier grumbled as he put the lamp he was still holding into Emilia’s hand and turned to leave.
“How was that insolent?!” Emilia asked upset.
“I don’t trust you is how! Now get to work!”
He put the bronze key in Andrew’s hand and then slammed the door behind him. Woodchips were flaking to the ground, and the two of them were left alone. Andrew turned towards Emilia with a brow raised sceptically.
“I look forward to this, it’s fascinating!”, he mimicked her overly dramatic, and Emilia nudged him in the shoulder for it.
“I do! This is amazing. Of all the idiotic detentions he has put us in over the years, you have to admit this,” Emilia said, opening her arms to gesture to the entirety of the archives, “is pretty amazing!”
“I don’t know. To me it sounds a little like he wants us to stay here forever. This is a life’s work, Em. We could be old and grey before this archive is back in shape.”
She imagined that was exactly the intention. Oheier may be a grump who hated most things, but he loved the library, and the future of the library was his priority. If he could stick two apprentices into these archives, make them dedicated to the work down here, make them invested in it, make them stick around to keep it in shape, he could secure the future of a vital part of this place.
“I think that’s his plan,” she confirmed. Andrew stared at her flabbergast for a moment, but then it seemed to dawn on him too, and he sighed a long suffering sigh, his shoulder sinking. He groaned, and turned around stiffly.
“Fine! Let’s do this. You have what you need to map this place?”
Emilia dug through her bag, pulled out her pen and her notebook and nodded with a wide grin.
“You are actually enjoying this,” Andrew sighed as they turned towards the first corridor leading away from the main hall. Two hours, Emilia checked her watch, and then they began their walk through the maze of tunnels and books.