And so it begins...
Ex Libris watched the scrawny, colt of a girl walk across the field, arms full of books, head down, limp hair blowing across her face in the breeze. He watched her trudge toward him in wretched ignorance. She had no idea what was coming, and that made things more lively on the other end. He loved giving the Scald a good screamer and this pale sniveler was sure to have been saving up.
The girl was nearly upon him before she looked. Ex Libris tipped his midnight top hat before catching the back of her neck in the silver crook of his ebony cane. The girl’s eyes and mouth grew wide, but Ex Libris tapped a gloved finger roughly on her cheek.
“Hold that thought,” he commanded as he hit the jump button.
The bone wrenching temporal shift would be the eternal payment Ex Libris owed for his life. It cut at him until the scream of time out of place spat him out of the rift, his false left leg grinding mechanically as he caught himself at the edge of the alcove. The girl, still tight in his grip, was whitewashed plaster next to him, eyes rolled back in her head. He gave her a shake and a tight slap but nothing came of it. He looked out into the great echoing cavern. It glowed with the infernal light that caught and played off the metal of the bridge before him, and off every other bridge that shot from the great expanse of floor like the spines of an urchin toward the alcoves above, where he now stood. Ex Libris eyed these bridges as he dragged the girl forward, but they were as they had been. All were dusty, save one- his.
“Wake girl,” he growled, “you’re going to want to see this.”
He could feel her stirring. She moaned and pushed back a lank lock as she lifted her head. Shock jolted through her and she bucked fruitlessly against him. Ex Libris waited a moment, which he didn’t mind at all, allowing the girl to take in the full effect. Generations later, this was still his favorite part- the anticipation that one would fight back.
The not-word echoed through his skull and bounced painfully against its walls. Ex Libris was almost at a run before he knew he had moved; one didn’t disobey the Scald. He had barely a moment to look at the girl, saucer eyed with “no” falling from her lips like broken teeth, and then they had reached the other side.
Give clawed through his Id.
“She’s yours,” Ex Libris growled, dangling the girl before him like a brace of rabbits. She turned and spun and fought, until the dark came before her and she became very small. The Scald lifted their arm and plucked her from Ex Libris’ grasp. She didn’t fight, she didn’t speak, she just looked and looked as the Scald took her toward the infernal light. She looked and looked as they cradled her and pet her and cursed her cheeks with their kisses. She looked and saw and oh, so small, she smiled. Then they threw her in, her soul was ripped, and she was no more.
Ex Libris was half way up the bridge before the deed was done. Once it was clear the chosen child was going to go along with things, he refused to become a willing audience. Watching the Scald coo over some unwanted tramp made his stomach turn and gave him a touch of the post traumatic. That final show of affection was more evil than he could take. His fingers brushed his left leg as he pushed on.
Across the bridge and through the alcove, Ex Libris took the wrought iron handle of the great oak door. Through this door was his hard earned life, and he knocked the harsh remains of his work from his boots before he entered.
Wood polish and parchment were Michael Barker’s favorite smells. As he passed through the door, he realized it was the perfect hour of the day, the time of late afternoon when the sun poured gently through the stained glass of the library and gleamed across the high shine of the immensely tall bookshelves, the railing of the wide circular staircase that led to the top, and the gold inlay of the precious leather bindings on volumes and volumes of knowledge. He breathed Michael in and Ex Libris out.
“Sir, you are perfectly timed as usual.”
“Sprague,” Michael nodded to his aged butler as he quickly shed himself of his outer attire. Sprague bundled the garments deftly for cleaning before they would be returned to the black closet.
“Your tea is upon your desk, sir. Will you be taking your supper there as well?”
Michael paused a moment. “No, I believe I will go to my club this evening.”
“As you wish, sir,” came the disembodied voice. Sprague, ever the epitome of decorum, was away from the room before before his last word died in the air.
The tea service looked small and delicate upon the imposing carved wood desk. Michael touched the pot to find it still piping hot, and poured himself a generous cupful of the Earl. He took neither milk nor sugar, though both were there as offering. Instead, he reached into a small drawer to the right for his favorite addition- a touch of whiskey. There was only tremor enough to waste a couple of drops to the saucer, and he counted it as a success.
Michael sank heavily into the winged leather chair of his desk. The light was already beginning its evening change, and it pushed its heavy rays through the stained glass, causing the fiery colors to melt onto the East Indian carpet before him. When he was small, he had thought that carpet could fly. He had laid upon it, one leg resting on the magic weave and warp as the other fresh stump was propped, like his head, upon overstuffed pillows from the couches. Sprague had kept him fed with thick sandwiches and thicker books. Michael had dreamed that many months of lions and tigers and forty thieves, but mostly he dreamed of life.
The great book upon his desk caught a hint of light on its gold etched cover. Michael sighed and drew it near. He turned its cover and the pages fanned, opening past a quarter, past half, past three quarters of their whole then stopped and fell open. At the top of the page were words- his words. He took a final sip from his cup and lifted his pen from its silver holder. He laid the pen tip upon the blank space and began to fill it.
He was wrapped in black and starring out into the abyss sometime later. In the dark, he felt small and it took all his great fight inside of himself not to topple in. There were wisps of something in the black that seemed freckled, made it less black but worse. It became the wrong kind of alive; would eat him, he was sure of it. Michael fought, fought against the black, screamed and fought until he felt himself tear and then he fell. He fell far and hard until he landed with the chime of a bell. The chime echoed in the aether, twelve times, each wave bringing him closer to the inky surface until he looked up into the light of a single flame on his desk and realized that he had fallen asleep at his book again. He sat back in his chair and let the fog of sleep leave him. The candle gleamed off the silver of a tray. Sprague had brought his dinner, after all.
Michael replaced his pen, thankful that he had not left the ill omen of a blob of ink to seep through the pages in his sleep. He then reached for the book, lifting the cover with a mind to give it rest for the evening. The pages did not close as he wanted. They flipped and fluttered, but not to the great Ex Libris on the first page as they did other nights. Tonight they opened to a man. A man made of words that cut as deep as his cane had done in the flesh. Michael flinched, and slammed the cover over the name.
With the morning light came the fresh start that every new day gave to Michael Barker. A new day far removed from the terrors of the night, a new day to live the life he had sacrificed much for. This day, Michael had an appointment with his haberdasher. It was high time for a jaunty new chapeau.
It took some adjusting each time Michael left his home into the trappings of his own time. The vacuum of neutrality inside his walls allowed his mind to settle between trips, but it still burned the synapses when he ventured out.
“Oi, Mike, what’s the haps?”
Michael smiled at the ringing voice of youth that could always bring his mind back to center.
“I say, young Master Braiden, do you not know the proper way to address your betters?” He turned to the voice, just in time to see a boy of not much more than eight come upon him in a cloud of street dust and good humor.
“I do when I sees one,” the imp tossed up as he fell in step with his friend.
“Now see here you little barbed tongue,” Michael growled as he doffed the child’s cap and rubbed his knuckles playfully over the his scalp.
“Eh now, me mum’s just washed and cut that. Give me a second to look smart, will ya. I’ve got ladies to impress.”
“Do you now,” Michael began but paused, seeing a dark smudge behind the boy’s ear that lead down and around the back of his neck, just under his dirty collar. A thumb and large fingers. He gritted his teeth and brushed the boy’s hair gently back into place before returning the threadbare cap.
“Matty Braiden,” Michael said softly.
The boy looked up at his friend, puzzled at his tone.
“Matty, you are being careful with those phrases I’ve taught you? You are keeping them for just you and me?”
“Sure, Mike, sure. I don’t talk no jive to no one but you.”
“Promise, child?” Michael implored.
“Yes, Mr. Barker, on my honor,” Matty blinked his most solemn blink.
Michael gave the boy a searching look and then sighed. “Well, if its on your honor, boy, we are all in trouble.”
Matty laughed and laughed. “Where we off to today, Mike?”
“We are off to public, Master Braiden, so Mr. Barker it is and a fresh hot crossed bun for you if you can abide by it.”
“And for Maggie,” the boy’s voice dropped into uncharacteristic shyness.
“Well, I will determine my generosity by the diligence with which you conduct your good manners, sir,” Michael looked down his nose at the boy.
“Then buns for the whole world,” the young chap vowed as he squared his shoulders and straightened his cap.
Michael chuckled quietly to himself as the pair continued their stroll to town, thinking of how he could secret as many treats into his little friend’s sad life as possible.
“A very handsome choice, sir,” Sprague greeted Michael at the door some hours later. “A fine brushed beaver.”
“Thank you, Sprague,” Michael gave the new top hat a little flip in his hand before turning it over to his butler. “Any mail for me today.”
“Yes, sir. It is upon your desk.”
“You are a good man, Sprague. And any other mail for me today,” Michael asked as he removed his coat. Time, like his breath, suspended in anticipation of the answer.
Sprague coughed into a fist softly, and Michael let the breath out in a harsh huff. His left leg protested in a metallic grind as he pivoted toward his study, his fingers tap tapping against it as he walked down the long hallway to his study. Each step echoed in that hall with an angry thump, five, ten, fifteen steps until the high shine of black ebony came to his view. The door that lay just one step before his beloved library. Behind this door was Ex Libris, and he would drag that wicked demon out of its cage and through his study to the door that swung one way to hope and one way to pain.
Ex Libris came through the library, pulling his somber shade behind him, tainting the rich autumn colors Michael so dearly loved. He chewed up the space between where he was and where he was going until he came to the large mantle clock. Deep mahogany, burnished bronze, with hands that swam smoothly through the hours and bells that mourned the passing of each, Ex Libris reached a hand to touch, but resisted tainting its lovely form and moved instead some distance to the right. There, pulsing red like a hell ember, sat a timepiece of an entirely different sort. The infernal clock, its silver stranded cage not unlike the ribs of man, took residence next to its grander cousin. Inactive, it was quite beautiful to look at, a fairy thing, its strange precious filaments twisting with an impossible delicacy. It was not until it rang its own ghastly hour, that it became a thing of horror. Within its wispy chest would pulse a red stone and that meant a job must be done.
Ex Libris took the stone, never able to convince himself it didn’t burn. He looked a moment, as he always did, into its depths for something he knew he would not see. Just endless, hateful, swirling red. He set his jaw, tipped his top hat low over his eyes, twisted open the top of his silver cane and dropped the stone into its velvet seat. With a flick, he recapped the cane and with a snarl he hit the jump button, and deep inside the red stone cracked.
Another field... no, a pasture... and here a voice screaming, screaming. What was this small voice screaming? For its father who was moving away in a truck. Ex Libris had learned this word over the years- truck. He had once jumped into the path of these great beasts and had felt the bruising kiss of its light contact for weeks. This child was running toward it like a lifeline, a different kind of fear nipping at the heels. He was in the child’s trajectory, but its eyes desperately trained upon the escaping father. There, behind, was a house- a nice house, what should have been a happy house. And there, at the door stood a woman- tall and well appointed, what should have been a nice woman. But the woman’s face was dark and twisting, and Ex Libris saw that the child could never out run that face. He whistled a short loud burst and the child stumbled to a startled halt before him. The great eyes turned from truck to man and back again, the salvation of the truck quickly becoming an unattainable goal. The child shuddered in grief, and turned to look over a shoulder- her shoulder. A girl. Ex Libris caught the girl’s cheek before she could look back at that face full of hate and clucked.
“Never that again, little one. I promise,” he said softly.
These were the trips he loathed. The small and broken set poorly with him. The ages before ten were a personal sticking point and set him sour for many days after. He tried to find moments of interest in his job. It made him happy when the little brutes put up some fight, like they still believed they had something to live for. Those were usually older. These little poppets never screamed. They came with him meekly, no will left. This one actually raised her arms to be picked up. Ex Libris bent down and lifted the child, then gave the old witch at the door the two fingered salute before hitting the button.
Michael didn’t lie to Sprague that night- no illusions of social trips to clubs and dinner parties and balls. He wrote furiously in the book, mad words that slashed across the page with the rage of the day until the words became visions and like all the nights before, Michael drowned in the dreams of that book. This night, though, it was a pulsing vermillion and not a bell that brought him back to the surface. Morning was still distant but there on the mantle shone a heart of fire.
For all the days of his current employ, Ex Libris had never had a misfire during a jump. Yet here he was upon his own street, in his own time, his own home before him. He ran a finger over the top of his cane, tempted to push the button again but unsure how many times he could crack that cursed heart before it was nothing more than powder. And then what? He had never failed in his commission. He didn’t even know if failure was possible. Then a swell of sound brought mind and nerve in alignment. He was where he was meant to be. A heavy, dragging footstep was growing closer and he turned to face it. Another unprecedented moment for Ex Libris this night, having to face the child of the Scald’s choosing still in the hands of the monster who would seal such a cruel fate. He had never had to fight to rescue a child doomed to be ripped. So now, as he looked upon the rough figure of a man, breaking through the cloak of night into the faint glow from his own candlelit study, he readied himself for just this trouble. He was unable, however, to ready himself for the sight of Matty slung limply over the man’s shoulder.
Michael should have known that his penance was not to be so easily paid, if one would call bringing hundreds of maligned young to their end easy. That such a child, so like himself at that age, so very willing to be much in the world but cursed by the unhappy lottery of birth, would be put between the rock of his father’s ill intent and the hard place of his benefactor’s worse one. Never should he have allowed himself the sin of empathy, for now this child’s burden would be most horribly lifted.
So just how did one go about taking a child one did not want to take from a man who would not be very willing to give it up? Michael stood in his path and waited for the answer to come to him, and as expected, it did.
“I’ll be having my way through, if you don’t mind,” the brute growled lowly, his politesse nothing but show.
Ex Libris tipped his midnight top hat. “I do, actually. Mind, that is.”
“Well, sir, I’ll be going through all the same,” he snarled and made to step around.
“I think not. At least not with that parcel on your shoulder,” Ex Libris matched his tone even as he shadowed the large man’s movement.
“My boy? He’s not yours to worry over. I’ll be getting him back to where he belongs.”
“And how do I know this boy belongs to you?”
“Well, sir, he sure don’t belong to you now, does he? What more business is it of yours?” the man spat from the side of his mouth, far enough from Ex Libris to imply intent.
“I find your tone and that boy’s unconscious disposition to be disturbing. I think, maybe, you mean that child ill will,” Ex Libris squared himself up on the man.
“I’m sure you be some fancy lordling or such, or at least think yourself one, but I know my rights. This is my boy, my property and I’ll be on my own way without any trouble from you, sir,” and though the man’s words were measured he came chest to chest with Ex Libris, all but begging for just such trouble.
Here Ex Libris saw his chance, all he needed was to get the man to drop the boy. Using the art of surprise, he rounded on the man with a swift punch the solar plexus and popped back to catch the boy as the man doubled over in pain. But there was no doubling, no dropping, not even a harsh wheezing. The man worked for a living, and was as solid as granite. The only wheezing to be done was by Ex Libris himself at the electric bolt of pain that radiated from his hand to his brain and back again. This was decidedly the wrong tactic. There was no clear way to go in this, the man was obviously his superior in strength, but Ex Libris had to get the boy away. Not only did he have to do this for the Scald, a worry he couldn’t fully wrap his mind around, but because he knew this man meant to harm the boy. He needed to save the boy. But for what would he be saving him, to bring the child permanent harm himself? The panicked toll of “Save the boy” pushed through, but his mind so turned with pain and distraction, he was too late to see he had left himself open to reciprocity. A blow to his jaw sent Ex Libris several feet backward. He landed solidly on his backside, which did wonders for bringing his focus back to the here and now. Though Ex Libris had little experience in the manly art of fisticuffs, Michael had taken more than his fair share of blows in his life. As the mountain moved toward him to finish what was started, he let the boy slide from his shoulder. Any opening if ever there was one, Ex Libris waiting until the man was upon him and kicked solidly with his mechanical leg right at the man’s knee. This was a saving movement, as the leg would not sustain another such act. Down the man went like a the sack of bricks he so resembled, and Ex Libris rolled toward the boy, scooping him up before wobbling to his feet. The man moaned but made herculean efforts to finish what was started, and Ex Libris acted on faith alone as he swung the top of his cane at the already damaged knee of his foe. A crack, both loud and soft echoed behind as time blinked and all was darkness.
“Matty, child, wake!” Ex Libris gently shook the boy that lay upon the floor before him. “Come now, Matty, be a good boy and wake up.”
There was nothing, no movement of the eyes nor rising of the chest that he could see. Fear gripped his heart as he placed his cheek next to the boys lips to feel for any small breath. There, just barely, he could feel the tickle of air against his skin.
“Matty,” he whispered hoarsely, “you must wake. You must pull it together, son.”
A soft movement is the child’s jaw gave Ex Libris hope, and at the light tap of a finger on Matty’s cheek, the boy’s eyes fluttered open.
“There you are,” Ex Libris sighed out. “Thank the good Lord, boy. You had me scared for a bit.”
“Yes, boy, I’ve got you. But you must be so very quiet, understand?”
“Sure, Mike, but what happened? I don’t know... ouch!” The child yelped, rubbing his head.
“Quiet, boy,” Ex Libris whispered. “We must be as quiet as church mice. If you are able to stand, I will lead you out of here and then I will explain all.”
The boy nodded and, with help, got to his feet. He then took note of their surroundings and his eyes grew as wide as the opening of the alcove before them.
“Where are we?” he got out before a hand clamped over his mouth.
Ex Libris put a finger to his lips and a warning in his look before removing his hand.
Ever so softly, he moved them toward the oak door. Step by painful step, they crept, all the while Ex Libris looking from door to alcove, watching, listening for any sign they had been found out. An eternity passed until finally his hand touched the cool metal of the door. Ex Libris positioned Matty before him.
“I’m going to open this,” he breathed in the boy’s ear, “and I’m going to push you in. You get away from the door as fast as you can and wait for me inside. Understand?”
The boy nodded, eyes trained on the door before him.
Ex Libris took a deep breath and turned the handle.
There was a click, and the handle wouldn’t turn.
Ex Libris, panicked, wrapped the fabric of his coat around his palm, thinking his hand too sweaty with fear, and turned the handle again. Nothing.
“No,” he gasped.
Matty looked at him in confusion.
“Sprague,” Ex Libris whispered hoarsely, pushing his words into the frame, hoping their magic would penetrate the thick wood.
Ex Libris stiffened, even as his insides began to vibrate.
NO! he screamed back with his mind.
His feet began to slide away from the door and he grabbed the handle with both hands, Matty pinned between his arms.
“Mike!” The boy yelped in alarm.
“Matty, we have to get this door open,” he screamed in his mind but no words came out, only grunts as he fought the slipping of his fingers from the cool rounded metal.
Like an automaton, Ex Libris felt his heels dig against his grip and without leverage he was ripped free from the anchor of safety. The next thing he felt in his hands was the back of Matty’s shirt, wound tightly in the grip of his demon fingers.
From the alcove to the bridge, Ex Libris fought with all the fight in him. He screamed in his mind, sure they could hear him- screamed, raged, cursed. Still his traitorous feet stepped on. Down the bridge they turned and twisted, Matty silent as the grave with terror in his eyes. Down they came until there, no more time, no more hope, they stood before the infernal light.
Ex Libris howled inside his own skull, and bore down on his will with everything he was. He reached back into his mind, to the time before when a very small him twisted here in a woman’s hand, bearing down just the same. He ground his will to the sticking place and with one great yell he pulled Matty behind him.
And with the last of his will, Ex Libris let Matty go and stepped forward toward the ripper.
“Matty,” he ground out through fused teeth, “run. Sprague.”
The small sound of taps upon the metal bridge behind him gave him some tiny comfort as he stood before the three once more. Here you beasties, he glared, have me at last.
Darkness came upon him, wrapped him in its fullness and sent him back to every night of his over extended life. He saw the movement, the wrongness, that slithered within the void and he closed his eyes against it, just as he had so many ages ago.
Michael struggled again, but he could feel his will seeping out into black, feel the pull of the ripper against the fabric of his being. He opened his eyes.
There, before him, were stars and beyond that...
The voice cooed, and he felt a breath upon his cheek and he looked up, into the faces of the Scald for the first time and he saw. And oh so small, he smiled.
Matty pulled at the great door, but it was ever so heavy. He tried to not cry, but he didn’t understand anything, and this door would not open. He slammed his fist against the wood, and then like magic it moved. Matty looked at the slight opening and saw a face.
“Master Matthew, would you care for some tea?”
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, breakneckbettyWrite a Review