The short strip of pale cloth twirled like a sycamore seed through the library air, dragged onward by the weight of the heavy iron nut.
Praem’s throw was strong, her aim precise. The hard nugget of earthly metal flew straight and true between the rows of towering bookcases, miniature cloth pennant fluttering behind. It hit the floorboards with a muffled thunk, the sound soaked up by the shroud of silence and the insulation of thousands of books, then rolled to a stop, at the edge of the wide patch of shadow, almost exactly where Evelyn had indicated.
We all stared, waiting for the reaction.
Well, Zheng didn’t. She was too busy pulling predatory faces at our gaggle of squid-faced librarian groupies. Neither did Praem, already palming another nut with a length of cloth tied around it, from the bag on her shoulder. Lozzie wasn’t paying attention either, turning her head sideways at the titles on the spines of the nearest books – titles which she certainly could not read, written in erratic looping circles like no human language, on book binding made from a substance too peach-soft to be bone.
“Hold off.” Evelyn stalled Praem with a flick of her fingers, eyes glued to the metal nut on the floor.
“Verdict?” Raine murmured.
“I’ll tell you what my verdict is,” Twil hissed, head hunched low, positioned halfway in front of Evelyn as if something unseen might rush her from the shadows ahead. She eyed the darkness, the bookcases, even the books themselves as if they might launch a surprise attack. “We’re not setting one foot in the spooky bloody darkness, that’s the verdict, not after the last patch. You’re not going in, Evee. I veto.”
“You don’t get to veto me,” Evelyn said.
“Yeah I fuckin’ do. You wanna argue when I can just pick you up? I’ll bloody well carry you over my shoulder instead. Praem and me’ll carry you like a bloody sack.”
“Like a sack,” Praem joined in.
Evelyn frowned. “Be that as it may.”
“That’s not even a full sentence!” said Twil. “Why the fuck are we testing? Let’s just walk round. Come on.”
“Because we might learn something,” I said, and held back a resigned sigh.
“Indeed,” Evelyn murmured, her voice abstracted and distant, still watching the iron nut ahead of us, on the edge of the shadows. “Heather understands. There is much to be learnt here.”
We were paused, less than fifty feet distant from the next set of staircases, a great branching twisted mass that punched downward through the ceiling above like cancerous capillary growth erupting through brittle tissues. The staircases spread out in an organic swirl, some of them far too thin to actually climb, spindly as bird-bone or dead twig; but others joined together like tributaries flowing into a river, sturdy and wide enough to carry us upward, to the next of the library catalogue floors.
The staircases formed an obvious landmark. We’d spotted the explosion of dark wooden growth as soon as we’d reached this floor, no searching required, impossible to miss even with the protective bulk of Raine and her riot-shield getting in my line of sight all the time.
One obstacle barred our route. The lights were out.
A lake of extinguished darkness extended left and right for perhaps a quarter mile through the jumbled maze of bookcases. The glowing light-rocks up ahead lay empty and dark, as if sucked dry, while the ones we stood parallel with still cast their thin, anaemic light without issue. Going around would cost us more time and energy, but privately I agreed with Twil. We all did, except Zheng, who would gladly fight ghosts, inanimate concepts, or her own reflection if given half a chance.
“Learn what?” Twil growled.
“Something useful,” Evelyn drawled. “Perhaps if we learn a few things, this will all go so much faster.”
We’d learnt three things so far, over an hour of picking our careful way up the first four floors of the Library of Carcosa.
Lesson one was that while each floor might indeed be of infinite length, at least they possessed finite depth. Our exploratory efforts – mostly in hopes of locating staircases upward other than the rickety risks of the nailed-on walkways which scaled the canyon-side – had revealed a back wall to the library, made of the same solid dark wood as the canyon floor.
Raine estimated that back wall lay about two hundred meters in, or as she put it, “Two football pitches end-to-end, I reckon. Hey, at least there’s no windows.”
“Do not joke about that,” Evelyn had hissed.
Lesson two: getting anywhere was still going to take an incredibly long time.
As soon as we’d mounted that first staircase up from the canyon floor, Evelyn had pulled a notebook from her overflowing coat pockets and began making a map. Or at least notes toward a map, complete with her meticulous tiny handwriting and awful drawing skills.
We’d crept through a silent, dead forest of towering, overflowing bookshelves, beneath a claustrophobic sky of dark wooden ceiling thirty feet up. A knot of squid—faced librarians followed behind, and even our footsteps seemed muffled, so if one glanced away, one felt very much alone. I’d tried to keep my attention on myself, on my feet, or on Lozzie’s hand in mine or Raine’s back directly in front of me, or at the very least on our group cohesion – I slipped into a mantra of counting off all seven of us again and again, repeating names and making sure everybody was still accounted for – but from the moment we entered the confines of the stacks, Evelyn’s gaze dredged the library for every scrap of information.
She muttered estimated distances and measurements under her breath, counted shelves and guessed at numbers of books, scribbled down conjecture, copied fragments of titles, sketched out known areas and here-be-dragons in the dark beyond.
“Why does it matter how many meters wide that is?” Twil had hissed to Evelyn during one stop, as Praem threw clattering iron nuts at the floor ahead of us.
“Because precision is important.”
Evelyn had answered without looking, not until Twil jogged her shoulder, and then she’d stared around as if only just remembering the rest of us were there.
“Evee, that’s not an answer, hey?”
“Evelyn?” I said gently.
She cleared her throat. “Precision is important, because if the books we need are two hundred floors up, we’re not getting this all done in one trip, are we? I need measurements if I am to make a second gate, if we’re going to have to come back and resume the journey from where we left off. The more I understand about how this place is laid out, the easier it will be to find the books, too.”
“Of course, it’s okay, we’re just trying to … follow,” I’d said, and sketched her a smile – but she’d already turned back to her notebook, indicating another suspect place for Praem to toss a cloth-pennanted nut.
“Where do all these books come from, anyway?” Twil asked. “How do they get here?”
“Bad question, laangren,” Zheng rumbled from behind us.
“Hah,” Evelyn barked without humour. “First sensible thing the zombie’s ever said. Yes, bad question, because I don’t know the answer. Perhaps the platonic ideal of the library accretes them from elsewhere. Or they’re brought here by mages and others, in trade for knowledge. Or perhaps there’s some ur-collector. Let’s hope we never meet it.”
“Oh, I do hope not,” I added.
“How old do you reckon this place is then?” Twil asked with a scrunch in her face.
“I’m flattered that you think I know everything,” Evelyn said. “Now shut your mouth and keep your eyes peeled. Do your job.”
But the map is not the territory.
Some parts of the library boasted neat lines of bookcases, with all their volumes tucked away, spines flush and clean of dust. Little clusters of librarian creatures tended to inhabit those areas, slouching back and forth with books in their arms, dragging those heavy wooden carts loaded down with stacked volumes, or carefully feeding hardbacks one-by-one into their own faces for re-cataloguing. They ignored us completely, as if the attention of the group which followed us was enough to satisfy the whole of their interlinked consciousness. We saw nothing to indicate that they possessed any living quarters – if they lived at all, in our sense of the word – and that upset me on a level I didn’t have the spare energy to process. Did they eat, sleep, defecate? All they did was sort books. All we saw was more library.
“Maybe they just shit in their robes,” as Raine so delicately put it.
Jumble, mess, and maze far outweighed the organised parts of the library. Lines of bookcases kinked and twisted, defying straight line of sight down the stacks. Clear ways narrowed, dead ends proliferated, repeating patterns emerged – of crosses or open squares or L-shapes or dizzying spirals we dare not follow. Clearings were few, tight corners many, navigation a slow plod of test and map and probe.
We were far from alone in the great Outside library.
“Hopping place, isn’t it?” as Raine described.
“Bottom feeders,” Zheng rumbled through clenched teeth. “Scavengers. The abandoned and the dead.”
The grouped clatter of our muffled stop-start footsteps sent all manner of hidden creatures scuttling off beyond sight as we approached through the stacks. Almost everything except the librarians fled from us, as reluctant to encounter other library users as we were. Thin whispers occasionally leaked over the top of bookcase rows, only for no speaker to be found when we rounded the corner. A skitter of footsteps would reveal no source. Distant voices grew yet more distant if we need venture in their direction.
“This is so fucking creepy,” Twil had hissed.
“I won’t deny that,” Evelyn said. “But it’s the best possible outcome. We are being avoided, and that is a blessing, more than I hoped for. It may not last. Keep moving.”
“Are we being avoided?” I asked, looking back at the gaggle of a dozen librarians, following at a respectful distance.
“They don’t count,” said Evelyn.
“Slaves and hands,” Zheng purred. “Nothingness in them, shaman. They are empty.”
“As I said,” Evelyn grunted. “They don’t count. Keep moving.”
In some places, books had spilled over into foothills of paper and ink, impossible to scale without tumbling on one’s backside. In others, the cases themselves had been toppled over onto each other into masses of shattered shelves and shredded splinters. Our first encounter with one of these nests of snare-tangled broken wood had proved the efficacy of Evelyn’s nut-throwing strategy.
That technique accounted for the other half of our slow progress. We ventured down no pathway, trusted no footstep, braved no ground – not even that trod without care by the librarians – before Praem had tossed at least one of the exploratory nuts ahead of us, and we had observed it come to rest, untouched and intact. She re-collected the ones that fell safely, so we wouldn’t run out. The unsafe ones, we did not approach.
By that method we charted where not to go, the places where the nuts vanished, or fell to rust in the space of seconds, or provoked shadowy fingers to edge out from nearby corners to investigate the sound, or a dozen other bizarre fates that befell our brave little inert scouts. I couldn’t help but anthropomorphise the metal nuts after the first hour, little flags fluttering in the air as they fell by the dozens to unseen threats and pockets of reality not made for us.
We avoided other areas too, places where all the books were missing, or where darkness formed solid walls of lightless reign, or where for no discernible reason our accompanying librarians refused to follow.
Stop-start, stop-start was a constant drain on our energy and nerves. At every stop, Raine would manoeuvre Lozzie and I between herself and a solid bookcase, a temporary fortress. Zheng would silently seethe with impatience and leer at the librarians with all her teeth. And Twil would circle Evelyn, close and protective, which I think was driving Evelyn up the wall.
“Why nuts?” Twil had asked, as Evelyn had instructed Praem to toss a few at the tangle of fallen bookcases, shattered light-orbs, and chewed paper. That nest of broken wood lay at the core of the first lake of inexplicable darkness we had encountered back on the second floor.
“Terrestrial matter,” Evelyn answered. “Any force that acts on them will also act on us.”
“Yeah, but like, why nuts specifically?”
“Heavy,” Praem intoned. “Easily thrown.”
And she demonstrated, as a cloth-tied nut bounced at the foot of the shattered wood and swaddling shadows.
“You mean there’s not like, a magic reason?” Twil asked. “They’re just nuts? Why the bit of ripped-up sheet on ‘em them?”
Evelyn frowned at her like she was an idiot. “Visibility.”
Twil puffed out a disappointed breath.
“I know how you feel, Twil” I added, from behind Raine’s riot shield. “Somehow magic would feel a bit more reassuring, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Raine chipped in. “Wiggle your fingers and banish the darkness, o’ mighty mystical one.”
“Well excuse me for practical solutions,” Evelyn huffed. She clicked her fingers and waved at the torn-up bookcases. “Praem, another, if you please. We can pick our way over this, it’ll be quicker, but I don’t like those shadows.”
Twil was frowning especially hard now, as if manually oiling the gears in her head. “Isn’t this nut-throwing stuff from like, a video game?”
“It was film first, you philistine,” Evelyn said, without much conviction.
“Actually it was a book,” I said, and laughed a small, nervous laugh, nervous enough to make Lozzie squeeze my hand and murmur my name. “Maybe we could find it here.”
The second scrap of fluttering cloth and twist of iron left Praem’s hand and bounced directly into the shadow-clad tangled wooden shards – and provoked a reaction.
A limb, shining and white and luminous and possessing far too many elbows, ratcheted out of the nest like a trap-door spider catching prey. A hand with about a hundred knuckles snatched the nut out of the air, and tossed it back at us as a wisp of compressed gas.
Zheng was the only one laughing. She cracked her knuckles. “A fight, shaman?”
“N-no, no, Zheng, no- I-”
“Even you wouldn’t survive that, idiot,” Evelyn answered for me. “And I won’t try to pull you out. We go around this one.”
So we’d gone around.
This second patch of shadow produced a reaction too.
“There, look,” Evelyn grunted, and pointed with her walking stick. “We’ve learnt something useful.”
The nut had rolled to the very edge of the lake of extinguished darkness, but now it lay within the shadow, as if it had moved without any of us noticing. I blinked hard and rubbed my eyes, and Evelyn must have noticed, because she added: “No, I’ve been watching it this whole time. It was just … over the border one moment.”
And then the nut was gone, faded into darker shadows until there was no cloth-wrapped nut at all, only the unlit floorboards.
Twil shivered. Raine nodded and hefted her shield. Zheng ignored the whole thing because she could neither punch nor eat it.
“No walking in darkness,” Praem intoned.
“Yes, quite,” Evelyn said. “Well put.”
“Could’a told you that myself,” Twil grumbled.
“No,” I forced myself to stand up for Evee’s methods. “No, this is useful. Between this and the previous time, I think we can conclude that any shortcuts through dark areas are bad ideas. So we don’t need to test them anymore.”
“I will walk through any darkness with you, shaman,” Zheng rumbled, and I flinched slightly. Hadn’t thought she was listening. I glanced at Raine, but she said nothing, still on high-alert, watching the nearby corners and the tops of the bookcases and the blind spots.
“Yes, we’re all well aware of that,” Evelyn drawled. She looked left and right, along the edges of the lake of darkness, then glanced back at our following of librarians.
They’d accompanied us all the way from the canyon floor, but never closer than about a dozen feet. That may have been respect, or it may have been because Zheng had wordlessly drifted into a rearguard position and spent most of her time grinning at them, whispering things under her breath, and occasionally stalking toward them with a pace or two of menacing display. I’d stopped her after the first of those, with a sharp “Zheng, I need you to not do that,” and she’d grinned back at me hard enough to make my stomach flip over. But she’d done as I’d asked.
“Well?” Evelyn demanded of the librarians now, the latest of dozens of times she’d asked the same question, at every junction and crossroads in the maze of books.
She pointed at the staircase, then left, then right.
The ‘squiddly-diddly scribblers’ – as Lozzie had dubbed them – once more exploded into the proliferation of pointing in wrong directions. One of them even stuck his arm directly back out toward the canyon. But they quickly rearranged themselves as they had the first time, and every time since, until they all pointed off to the left, around the lake of darkness.
“Left it is, then,” Evelyn drawled. “Praem, another nut, please.”
Two floors up and forty minutes later we came face-to-face with another library patron.
Twil spotted him – or her, we never could tell – first, as she stalked a good six paces ahead of Evelyn, into a cross-junction between two rows of bookcases. She froze in sheer surprise, wide-eyed as we all caught up, and then there was much scrambling of feet and hissing to get back, Evelyn snapping out “say nothing!” and Twil growling like an animal. Raine swept me behind her shield, though I craned to see what we’d discovered.
A figure sat cross-legged on the floor with a book open in his lap, hooded and cloaked in yellow robes, bent forward and absorbed in reading. He did not look up.
“Isn’t it just another squid?” Twil hissed, claws out, already trying to creep sideways to catch a glimpse of the man’s face. Evelyn all but swatted her back with a whack of her walking stick.
“They don’t wear yellow, they wear grey,” Raine said, quick and low. “And there’s no tentacles. And he’s too small.”
“Could still be one-” Twil said. “Ow, Evee, fuck, stop, alright.”
“They don’t read,” I said.
“Heather?” Evelyn frowned back at me.
“They don’t read,” I repeated. “The librarians. We’ve not seen a single one of them sitting, let alone reading. They only sort.” I stared at the hunched man, the all-too-human curve of a back, the rounded shoulders, the skull beneath the hood. “I think that’s a person.”
So after positioning of feet and readying of weapons and clearing of throats, Evelyn called out, first in English, then Latin, then something I assume was ancient Greek, then some harsher, more painful languages that made us all wince and made her mouth bleed. Then Praem tossed nuts until one bounced off the figure’s head, and he still offered no reaction.
We crept closer, with Lozzie and Evelyn and I kept well in the rear, until Praem was near enough to politely bend forward and look under the man’s hood.
“Dead,” she announced.
“Super mega extra dead,” Raine laughed, and nudged back the hood with the tip of her truncheon.
The corpse beneath was a shrivelled brown mummy, papery skin pulled tight around empty eye sockets and peeled back on ancient yellowed teeth, so dry he should have crumbled to dust at the lightest touch. The book in his lap lay open on non-human spider-scribble scratches up and down the page. Beneath his thick robes, the long-dead reader wore white silk embroidered with golden thread. At his throat lay several thick necklaces of the same colour.
“Wooo,” Twil let out a low whistle. “Is that like, actual real gold? He’s loaded down with it.”
“Do not touch anything,” Evelyn spat. “Do not touch him. Better, turn around and don’t look at him. Forget we saw this. File past, keep to the opposite shelves.”
“Think I recognise some of that stuff on his necklaces,” Raine said. “Eye of Ra and a sun disk. Our boney old friend here must be-”
“Ancient Egyptian, yes,” Evelyn hissed, bodily shoving Twil to the far bookcases, away from the ancient corpse. Twil skipped and skidded, but didn’t resist. “And it doesn’t matter. This was a mage, a very, very old one, who stayed here too long. Do not touch it. Faster we’re gone, the better. Move. Now.”
Praem followed without question and Lozzie came when I pulled. Zheng gave the corpse a look like she wanted to kick its head off, but we left it behind, to the dust of another five thousand years.
We were winding our slow way through the seventh floor, toward the distant sight of another set of stairs – a single shaft this time, a dizzying spiral that got wider and wider toward the top – when something vast and unknowable passed down the canyon alongside us.
I doubt it was looking for us. I doubt it noticed us at all.
First awareness came as a rising wave of lightness, a full-body throbbing as if the air around us had lost the ability to contain our forms. I felt it first, or perhaps my abyssal instincts did, twitching with increasing panic into a blinding swirl inside my head.
“Heather’s not the only one, I’m getting it too,” Raine said, squint-frowning in faint pain.
“Feels floaty!” Lozzie chirped, the only one still smiling.
“Ignore it,” Evelyn hissed. “Ignore it and press on. Ignore-”
And then the singing reached us.
Angelic, wordless, beautiful and alien. It crept into one’s hearing and grew louder with alarming swiftness. We all went silent and still – except for Lozzie, who opened her mouth to join in, stalled only by my fluttering hands against her lips.
The singer drifted by, out in the canyon.
Great dark ropes of flesh hung from far above, each as thick as a tree, moving with silent terrible pressure through the canyon like a mass of dangling jellyfish stingers, caressing the wooden walkways with deceptive gentleness. The main body was far above us, but the tentacles were surrounded by a moth-eaten shroud of pale yellow, draped down in vast sheets of rotten fabric. Tatters of golden light like sickly fireflies detached from the mass and floated off behind, turning to dust and ash.
The librarian creatures scattered among the stacks, all tottering and skittering in different directions.
None of us could stand the singing, the sight, the rotten majesty of the passer-by. Twil managed to bundle a paralysed, green-faced Evelyn behind a bookcase, but then she’d gone all wolf, growling and whining as she crouched over Evelyn’s shaking form. Praem stood next to them, ramrod straight, and closed her eyes as they filled with tears.
Raine crammed herself, Lozzie, and I all into a corner behind her shield, and I’d clamped my hands over my ears to drown out the singing, my own hyperventilating hiccups, and the awful way Lozzie was still trying to join in with the alien chorus. Raine had gone blank and empty, staring at a spot on the wall. My abyssal side wanted to dig through the floorboards and curl up in the dark, as far away from this leviathan’s song as possible. Instead I clung to Raine, and I think I shouted wordlessly into her back.
Only Zheng stood out in the open, arms wide and roaring nonsense, daring the passing godling to pluck her from her feet.
When it passed and the singing faded and the pressure relented at last, I scrambled to my feet and lurched for Zheng.
“H-Heather, woah,” Raine was saying, trying to catch my arm, but she was weak with shock and I was using anger to paper over my terror.
“Zheng!” I snapped, my eyes still wet with the confused tears of a small animal penned by a giant, my heart still going a hundred miles an hour. Fear – Outside fear, stripped of human context – made me forget all my issues with my beautiful Olympian goddess, right here in the middle of a tumble of bookshelves. “What were you doing?! You’re not invincible, it would have crushed you with a thought! You can’t fight something like that!”
“Have faith, shaman,” she purred, staring out into the empty canyon.
“What were you thinking?! What was that? You-”
Zheng placed one massive hand on my head and turned to grin down at me, a shark-toothed smile, marred only by the slow sloping second of profound unhappiness I caught in her eyes, before she muffled it behind a wall of bravado.
“ … Zheng? What … you … I-I don’t understand, were you trying to show off? You … ”
But our little party was rapidly reforming. The librarians drifted back in ones and twos. They did not possess facial expressions, but their body language was hunched and furtive now; poor things were no more suited to this place than us. Twil and Praem were both helping Evelyn to her feet, Twil twitchy and skittish and baring too many teeth. Raine was already at my elbow, taking deep breaths, and could hear everything Zheng and I said to each other. I trailed off, embarrassed. Those were the most words I’d spoken to Zheng since the night we’d kissed.
“What was that all about, left hand?” Raine asked, neutral and easy.
“I long for a good fight, yoshou.”
“You know where to get that, when you want it,” Raine said. “But not out here, yeah?”
Evelyn was still shaking, green in the face, clutching Twil’s arm with all her might, but she had the strength to raise her head. “Everyone keep your bloody voices down,” she hissed in an angry stage-whisper. “We do not want that thing to turn around and come back.”
“Yeah, fuckin’ right, hey?” Twil shook too, eyes going left and right as if a stray tentacle might sneak down through the bookcases at any moment. “Shhh, right?”
“Yes,” came a soft, broken-bell voice.
Tears were drying on Praem’s cheeks; I felt sick.
“Yes, yes!” Lozzie whispered. “Shhhhh, shhhhh!” She did finger-to-lips shushing motions at everybody, dancing between us as if the otherworldly singing had put a spring in her step. She shushed Evelyn and she shushed Raine, she shushed me and ruffled Twil’s hair as one might try to calm a spooked hound. She even hopped over to the squid-faced librarians, pulling a random book off the shelves and passing it to one of them. The librarian so blessed by Lozzie’s attention immediately fed the book into its own face.
“Stop that!” Evelyn hissed at her. “Do not interact with them! Not even you – especially not you!”
Lozzie giggled, curtsied an apology, and clamped herself to Praem’s side. She dried the doll-demon’s tears with the hem of her pastel poncho, and Praem stared down at her. Expressionless as always, I couldn’t tell if Praem was surprised or offended or thankful, but she didn’t push Lozzie away.
Evelyn resumed scolding, but Lozzie took it in good spirits. I turned back to Zheng and struggled over what little I could say.
“Feelers,” Zheng rumbled. “Parts. Slaves. So atrophied they cannot feel the mooncalf’s regard.”
It took me a moment to realise she was talking about the librarians again. Zheng stared at them with naked contempt, and that allowed me the fractional hardening of my heart the moment required.
“Zheng,” I hissed up at her. “We’ll talk about this later, when we’re back home. But in the meantime-” I swallowed, held down a hiccup by sheer force of will. “Remember you made a promise to me as well. Don’t do that again. Don’t bait self-destruction. ”
Zheng raised an eyebrow over a casually puzzled smile. I held her gaze until she let go of my head, and thankfully Raine didn’t ask any questions as I snuggled back in behind the protection of her makeshift riot shield.
Still pale in the face and unsteady on her feet, Evelyn pulled out her map sketches once more, as we re-oriented ourselves, ready to move.
“What do you think that was?” I asked.
She gave me a desolate shrug. “Another library user.”
We found another ‘library user’ on floor twelve, around which a shrine had been erected.
This one was obviously – and thankfully – dead, and quite a bit smaller.
We all stood there staring at the thing in stunned, skin-crawling silence for a full minute, still recovering from our earlier encounter, still twitchy and on edge. In the end, Twil cleared her throat, and said “Looks like a crab shagging a Christmas tree.”
Whatever it was, it had died, or perhaps been interred post-mortem, in a large clearing ringed with a circle of bookshelves. A few stacked tomes sat nearby, as if it had died in the middle of scholarly study. One of the many clawed graspers radiating from the cone-shaped body clutched a tome even now, though the books this being had perused were not remotely like human books. They were made of dull metal, shaped as icosahedrons and hexagonal prisms, which fell open in thousands of stiff close-packed leaves.
The alien corpse was maybe twelve feet long, and about as tall as me at the widest part, the very end of the thing. Somebody or something had placed hundreds of wax candles around it, untouched and never lit, along with dozens of shallow tin bowls which had probably once contained some sort of offering, now long dried up or rotted away, except for a thin brown crust.
“Very astute,” Evelyn said eventually, her sarcasm failing. Then, after another ten seconds of stunned silence, she added: “Christmas trees aren’t yellow.”
“It’s pretty!” Lozzie said, then pouted when everyone looked at her. “It is! It’s got all those little sparkly bits. And the round parts, shiny!”
Raine tilted her head. “I think it’s on it’s side. Is that the head, at the end of that stalk?”
“Oh, ew,” Twil wrinkled her nose. “Then that – that’s a huge foot! Like a slug. Ew, ew ew, no.”
“Ew,” Praem echoed.
“I have no bloody idea,” Evelyn said, mostly to herself. “I have not the faintest clue what this is. Was.”
“At least it’s dead,” I sighed, but it emerged as a shudder. “Poor thing.”
Praem readied a nut to bounce off the dead thing’s hide, but Zheng was already striding forward, her patience gone. She ignored Evelyn’s hiss of warning and planted both hands against the cone-shaped body, then leaned in close and sniffed at it, long and deep. A mocking grin spread across her face. She rapped her knuckles against the material, clonk, like solid iron.
“A shell,” Zheng said. “Thick, old, empty. No meat left.”
“So it is like a crab then,” Twil said.
“Would have made a good fight,” Zheng purred to herself, gazing down at the triple-lobed head on a thick stalk like that of a palm tree. “Strong claws. So many eyes.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Evelyn huffed. “Leave it alone. Stop touching it, it makes my skin crawl.”
Despite her words, Evelyn made a quick sketch of the the dead monster, and marked it on her map before we carried on; Lozzie patted the empty shell as we passed. Our squid-faced entourage ignored it completely.
Floor fifteen was quiet as a grave, muffling even the sounds of our own breathing, filtering our voices so a level tone turned to a whisper. The effect grated on our already wire-thin nerves – and then the hooves started up.
Afterward, we had no idea how they’d approached so closely before we heard the clop-clop-clop on wooden floorboards – perhaps some further trick of the acoustics, perhaps it was their intention, or perhaps they hadn’t fully existed until that moment. The first thing we knew of them was the lonely, haunting rhythm of two pairs of cloven hooves slowly clomping along the row of bookcases parallel to us.
We didn’t need to discuss halting, we just did it; we all felt and acted like cornered animals by then, all but Lozzie.
“What’s that- what’s that-” My eyes wide, throat tight, chest constricted.
“Smells like farm animal,” Twil growled.
“Hush,” Praem intoned.
“Stay still and wait, damn you all,” Evelyn hissed. “It’s heading to the end of the row. If it passes, let it pass, let it go. Say nothing. Mouths shut, now.”
At the end of the row of bookcases, a misshapen shadow crept into view, in time with the clack of hooves. I half expected the devil himself to appear, skin red as blood, pitchfork and pointy tail and all. Instead, our waiting was rewarded with a sight so absurd that a hysterical splutter escaped my lips. I had not meant to laugh, and I was not amused. I felt stretched thin by hours in this place.
Across our path stepped a single live goat.
I would have forgiven the animal, if only it had been a big coal-black stereotype, a Satanic vessel with wickedly curled horns and beady intelligence glittering behind its eyes. That would have made sense. That’s what magic was supposed to look like, right? But it was just a goat. Off-white, sort of old, a bit raggedy around the middle. Sure footed but sleepy. It took one look at us, let out a dismissive snuff, and vanished between the opposite set of bookcases.
“What,” said Twil.
“That was a goat,” I said, rather lamely.
“Sure was,” Raine said. “Sure, Heather. Identifying goats.”
“I told you,” Zheng rumbled. “Meat.”
The very second Zheng declared the goat’s evident edibility, a great clattering of additional hooves started up from the parallel row of bookcases. We watched in incredulous silence as a whole herd of goats – I counted fifteen more – trotted past the end of the row, disappearing off into the library after their vanguard. Males, females, a few tiny bouncing baby goats too, at which Lozzie let out a pained “Awww, they’re so small!”
They wandered past as if lost in an English meadow, not Outside among dead wood and alien books.
The very final goat, a mid-sized juvenile, stopped to look at us with those weird, sideways pupils, and opened its mouth.
“Anazitiste kala, mikres kores tis hypervoreas,” it said, in a rich, masculine voice.
And then it trotted off. Hoof beats vanished, and the herd was gone.
Evelyn sighed like a bellows and put her face in one hand. I knew exactly how she felt.
“What? What?!” Twil was on the verge of an explosion. “Did it just put a curse on us? What was that?!”
“Goats.” I shrugged, almost giggled, until Raine nudged my shoulder. “Goats.”
“Did you see the babies?” Lozzie almost squealed, and nobody had the energy to rebuff her.
“It wished us good luck, in ancient Greek,” Evelyn deadpanned. “And called us ‘daughters of Hyperborea’. Which means whatever the hell that was, it knew we’re British. I think. I guess. How the hell should I know anything?”
Raine laughed. “Are we that obvious? Am I carrying a Union Jack I missed somewhere?”
“Speak for yourself, wizard,” Zheng rumbled.
Evelyn made a wide ‘stop’ gesture with both palms. “Fuck it. Fuck it, I don’t care. It left, that’s all that matters. If it- they- whatever that was, if it follows us, we’ve having goat stew for dinner all next week. Come on, keep moving.”
According to Evelyn’s analogue watch, when we finally found books written in recognisably human languages, we’d been climbing for six hours and thirteen minutes.
Back in rainy old Sharrowford, night had undoubtedly fallen, but here in the great windowless library there was only the steady greenish witch-light glow from the luminous rocks set in the walls and bookcase-backs. We had paused more than a few times before, for furtive mouthfuls of cereal bar and water, but now we practically set up camp. We stopped with barely any discussion or agreement, in a clearing or reading area or cavity or whatever it was supposed to be, a rectangular space between two heavy rows of shelves, sheltered far back from the canyon-face cliff-drop, in case something unspeakable should pass by again.
We were all exhausted, and not solely from walking.
The experience of hours Outside had not yet proved as physically dangerous as Evelyn’s dire warnings, but the very act of existing in this place had taken an unseen toll. Being away from our reality had consumed some ineffable, indefinable reserve in all of us, in addition to the psychological grind of constant vigilance. Except for Lozzie – who worried me greatly in her own fashion – we were all worn down and haggard, at the thin edge of our collective humanity.
Zheng checked the nearby rows of bookcase-corridors without leaving the group, but she had gone silent, hadn’t spoken in over two hours, every step like a stalking predator. Raine propped her riot shield against a bookcase and peeled the sweat-stuck motorcycle jacket away from her shoulders, and then touched me with the same fleeting, repeated contact she’d been seeking as she’d spoken less and less, slipped into high-alert, wordless tension. Even now she couldn’t relax, didn’t actually look at me, and kept her truncheon in one tight fist.
Twil hadn’t fully relinquished her werewolf transformation in hours either, bits of summoned claw and fur marring her outline, eyes squinted tight, shoulders hunched and twitchy as she hovered protectively at Evelyn’s shoulder. Our mage fared no better, already running her fingers along the spines of volumes in Sanskrit and ancient Greek and medieval German, wide-eyed and book-drunk, though thankfully she retained the sense not to open any before Praem had checked them first.
Praem seemed most unaffected, as she dredged up some random bits of abandoned, ancient furniture – a chair from a reading desk, a pair of stools – and distributed cereal bars and energy drinks. But she possessed less economy of motion than usual, lingering over her own gestures as if examining the workings of her body. She blinked several times as I watched, far too slowly for her. Lozzie flopped down on the floor next to me, toes tapping and head bobbing, almost brimming with energy, like she could get up and sprint at any moment. I was afraid she would, so I stayed close while I rubbed my exhausted, aching thighs.
My abyssal side’s hatred of this place had curdled into quiet survivalist disgust; it wanted me out, but it wanted all of us out more.
It – no, I wanted my pack intact and safe, kept trying to reach for the others with phantom limbs, to draw them close to a protection my soft, vulnerable ape body could not really offer. Every unnatural encounter made me want to bristle and hiss, make myself toxic and poisonous to the things that would devour our souls, provoked claws I could not extend, spines I could not sprout, teeth I could not sharpen. Only a constant effort of will kept me from acting like an animal, and that supply was growing short.
Our gaggle of squid-faces hovered at one end of the clearing, neither joining us nor departing. Lozzie pulled funny faces at them. Evelyn sat down on one of the stools, with a Praem-approved book in her lap. As we all tried to recover, she began to read.
Didn’t take long for Twil to ask an awkward question, after a mouthful of energy drink and a good stretch.
“We are not lost,” Evelyn replied.
“I didn’t mean lost, I mean how do we-”
“Lost would imply not knowing where we are.” Evelyn spoke over her. “And we know exactly where we are: floor twenty one, about sixty meters back from the canyon wall, surrounded by … books.”
With great care, Evelyn closed the dusty tome she’d been flicking through, and rose from the stool with even greater care. She winced and put a lot of weight onto her walking stick, swallowing down a grunt of pain. She handed the book to Praem, who slid it back among its fellows as Evelyn massaged her hip. Evelyn nodded at another volume instead, but Praem did not carry out the instruction. She just stood there in mute defiance.
“Yeah, right, cool, whatever,” Twil was saying, “but how do we get where we’re going?”
“Oh yeah? Before or after your legs fall out of your hip sockets?”
Evelyn shot her a dark, pinched look, dripping with venom, the sort of expression to make a demon think twice – but for once, Twil neither flinched nor backed down. Evelyn’s mouth twisted around an ugly insult. “You-”
“You said it yourself,” Twil spoke over her, getting in her face, angry with her in a way I’d never seen before. “This might take multiple trips. Why not stop here? Head back for now, make that second gate or whatever. You’re gonna wear yourself raw, you know it.”
Evelyn struggled to speak, glanced at the rest of us, blushing and confused. “Not- Twil, can we not-”
Twil turned away, to me and Lozzie. “We good to go back, Heather? Like, now?”
“Um … ” I swallowed. “She’s got a point, Evee. You’re having trouble walking, you don’t have to pretend otherwise. Twil just wants you to be safe.”
“I’m fine!” Evelyn snapped at me. “I can carry on, you can’t stop me on my own account. We’re so close, look at all this!” She flung a hand at the bookshelves, then waggled an irritated gesture with her walking stick. “How can we stop now? We could be right on top of the exact Latin texts I’m after. We are surrounded, on all sides, by the deepest well of magical knowledge imaginable!” She clacked her walking stick against the bookcase. “We cannot stop now, I will not stand for it.”
“The wizard’s mind is on thin ice,” Zheng rumbled, first she’d spoken in hours.
“And it won’t be much further, it can’t be much further,” Evelyn said. “I can endure this, this is nothing. Praem.” She clicked her fingers. “What are you waiting for? Fetch that one down.”
“Evelyn,” I tried again, and kept my voice level with a great effort. “Why are you even reading these books? Do we need that one? You’re scaring me.”
“Forget the Invisus Oculus alone.” Evelyn turned back to me with burning eyes. “Forget merely masking our presence, hiding ourselves from the Eye. Heather, the things we could do with the knowledge here-”
“Defeat the Eye. That’s why we’re here. Evee.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Evelyn huffed. “But-”
“Evelyn,” Raine said, and a chill went down my spine, ending somewhere lower than my guts. I’d never heard her say Evee’s name like that.
Evelyn froze too, blinking at Raine. “R-Raine, relax-”
“How much longer to locate the three books you’re after?” Raine asked, deceptively soft.
“I-I … I don’t know,” Evelyn admitted, turning her eyes down and swallowing hard. “There’s magic I can use. Locating the precise texts is difficult but not impossible, that’s why I brought certain resources. With Praem, in the bag. I can … yes.”
“Yeah?” Twil joined in. “How long’s that gonna take?”
“Hours more,” Praem intoned.
Evelyn shot the traitor a dark look – then a darker one at our entourage of librarians.
“Bad service,” Raine cracked a grin.
“Quite,” Evelyn huffed.
The librarians’ group-pointing had led us this far, and over the last two floors of climbing, Evelyn had used any nut-throwing, hazard-avoiding pauses to refine her questions – “where are the books in Latin?”, “where are the books from the 17th century?”, “where is Beyond the Northern Ice by Magnhildr Dahl?” – but the librarians hadn’t pointed at all for those ones. Past a certain level of granularity, we were on our own.
“Hey, Evee,” Raine said, all soft reason once more, her grin easing back. “This place is a living nightmare.”
“Quite,” Evelyn said again. “I do not disagree.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I could do this all night, but Heather needs a hot meal, Lozzie needs to blow off steam, and Kimberly’s waiting for us too. Maybe it’s time to head home in the interim, Lozzie can take us. Make that second door you mentioned, back home. We can pick up right where we left off, load our save point.”
Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Video game metaphors again? Really?”
“Incident pit,” I added, softly. “Let’s not slip further down.”
If nothing else had worked, that seemed to finally penetrate the fermenting fascination in Evelyn’s subconscious. She made a big show of huffing and puffing and sitting back down on her stool, nodding along and grumbling under her breath. She pulled the map-filled notebook from her coat pocket. “Right, yes. Of course. Of course. Allow me to … to figure out the maps so far. We’ll take a book from up here home with us. Should be able to … re-orient the gate … mmm … yes, okay. Give me ten minutes, mm.”
She trailed off into mumbles, scratching notations with a pencil.
We settled in for a few minutes, the last rest before home, waiting as the silence of the library ticked by beyond our senses. Twil sipped sickly-sweet energy drink and hovered at Evelyn’s shoulder, while Praem stood on guard. After some rocking back and forth, Lozzie tottered to her feet and clung to my side, nuzzling my shoulder and making tired sounds in her throat.
Raine leaned against the bookshelf next to us. “Your legs are gonna ache something fierce tomorrow,” she said.
“I don’t mind.” I gave her a smile, and I meant it too. After her territorial displays all yesterday and this morning, in the library she seemed to have reverted to normal. My rock. “Anything for Maisie.”
“Anything for you,” she replied.
“Listen, Raine,” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “What’s wrong with Evelyn? Why’s she acting like this?”
Raine pulled a rueful smile. “Seen her like it before, couple of times. Just like when she first got unfettered access to her mother’s books. It’ll wear off, let’s just get her out for now.”
“I do hope so.”
“Trust me. It will. She’ll come round. Anyway, how about you? You holding up okay out here? Loz too, you good?”
“Good!” Lozzie whispered with an eyebrow wiggle over at Evelyn, still scratching away at her pad.
“It’s … not so bad,” I said, “being along for the ride. I don’t have to make any decisions, at least.”
Raine nodded, as if she could possibly understand, but perhaps she finally did, after six hours walking the realm of my teenage nightmares. After an odd pause during which she examined my eyes, she suddenly said, “I love you, Heather.”
“I … I love you too. Raine? Is something wrong?”
“This place,” she laughed a sigh, and ruffled my hair gently, and looked over her shoulder with only a hint of aggression when Zheng stalked over to loom above us. My two hands met each others’ gaze.
“Yeah, I know,” Raine said. “I can hear it too.”
Zheng raised an eyebrow. “Truth? Impressive.”
A shiver went up my spine, a finger of ice and bone. “I’m sorry, what’s this?”
Raine gave me a smile that curdled my blood, a smile I knew all too well from similar situations, from university hallways that repeated forever and underground car parks full of cultists. A smile that told me not to worry, that Raine would commit all the necessary violence.
“We’re being followed,” she said, and made it sound like nothing.
“Followed?” I hissed. My heart skipped, in the very bad way.
“Ooooooh.” Lozzie lit up.
“What do you think it is, left hand?” Raine asked.
“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “It moves in the shadow of our footsteps. Stays at distance, too far to double-back and catch. Two hundred feet distant? A carrion eater, perhaps. Waiting for our leavings. Or for us to slip and fall.”
Raine nodded. My mouth had gone dry. I glanced at Evelyn, but she and Praem didn’t seem to have heard the import of our hushed conversation. Twil, on the other hand, perked up and wandered over.
“Doesn’t matter one bit now though,” Raine said with a beaming grin, mostly for me. “We’re off home in five, ten minutes tops, and by the time we come back tomorrow or the day after, it’ll probably have lost interest.”
“You really think, yoshou?”
“What is it you can hear?” I demanded. “Exactly?”
“A wheel,” Zheng purred.
“Ah?” Raine raised her eyebrows. “I was thinking spiked shoes or something. Football boots, maybe.”
Zheng shook her head. “Too regular. A metal wheel, spiked, rolling across wood. How long have you heard it, yoshou?”
“About three floors ago.”
“Four.” Zheng grinned. Raine grinned back, and I decided I much preferred this style of sparring match. Let them compare hearing or hunting any day.
Twil joined us, knocking back more foul energy drink. “What’s up?”
“We’re being followed!” Lozzie chirped. “Isn’t that exciting!?”
“What.” Twil blinked once. “Oh fuck, what? Shouldn’t we tell Evee?”
Raine clapped a hand on Twil’s shoulder. “Give her a sec to finish working out her maths, then we can tell her. Next time we come prepared, right?”
“No, I think we should tell her now, we-” I glanced over at Evelyn.
Then a double take, as my guts turned to ice and my blood turned to pure adrenaline.
Evelyn was no longer sitting on the dark wooden stool. She stood before the towering bookcase of ancient tomes again. A cracked leather volume was open in her hands, yellow binding a sick vomit-colour against her palms, head down, eyes glued to the words within. Praem stood about five paces away, but a trick of bad luck or unseen machination had turned her head to watch us instead of her mistress. For perhaps as little as twenty seconds, nobody had been watching Evelyn.
The squid-faced librarians had surrounded her.
A jostling scrum of grey robes and liver-spotted flesh and sharp spines, all within arm’s length of Evelyn, and she hadn’t noticed them at all.
Then, as if glimpsed through the momentary parting of a theatre curtain, I saw one of the figures was neither squid-faced nor librarian. Yellow robes instead of grey, rich and deep and flowing in waves. A solid white mask, expressionless and human, dark eye holes with nothing behind them.
The apparition in yellow reached for Evelyn’s shoulder, with one porcelain-perfect, pale hand.