“When I was young, I dreamed of what I would need to be in order to change the world. It was a wretched place you see. Corruption throughout the halls of power, an endless army of people who cared only to see those like me suffer, and no spaces where I could live, and grow, and pursue the dreams which held meaning in my heart.
You may wonder if this bleak view of the world was merely a product of my youthful ignorance. The tortured imaginings of one who had been wounded by the world and could not see how it truly worked.
I assure you, this was not the case. With the benefit of years, and the callouses of time having worn the sting of my early sorrows down to nothing, I can look back on those days with a new clarity and see them as they were.
And they were awful.
They are still awful mind you – but – and here is the key understanding which the centuries have granted to me – things could be worse. Would be worse of a certainty in fact, but for the efforts of those who believed they could be better.
It is to them, we owe the world that we have, and to those like them who will follow after that we owe the future we will create. But what need we to be? What answer have I found for the dreams of my youth? Who must we become to forge the future we would leave as our legacy?
Ourselves. Nothing more if required, and nothing more can we be.”– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame whispering to his two hundredth niece on the day she was born.
Despite nominally attending the Imperial Academy in order to pursue an advanced education, it didn’t seem like many of the Imperial Cadets held much interest in cracking open the covers of a book, at least not based on the crowd, or lack thereof, in the Great Library when we arrived.
“Why is no one here?” I asked in a whisper. I didn’t need to whisper. There wasn’t anyone around to hear me, but the few times Grammy had taken me to a library the size of the Academy’s there had been very strict rules about making noise which had somehow stuck with me.
“Most Cadets have their own libraries to draw on, or have private tutors if they feel the need for one,” Mellina said. She was walking on the far side of Idrina from me, in part I think to guard our right flank and protect the twins who were still working on recovering from the fight with the Clockwork monster.
“That and the Library’s only open to the ranking cadets,” Narla said. “All the kids in the common track have to settle for the libraries in their dorms.”
“So the people who actually need these books…?” I asked.
“Are the ones who are barred from accessing them,” Yarrin said, as though the answer to my question was in the slightest bit of doubt.
“In truth, they do not need these books,” Idrina said. She smelled subdued and there was a wobble in her step when she spoke which suggested the words had jumped to her lips as a reflexive defense of the Academy but only been allowed to pass after they were painted with a coat of regret. “The coursework they’re given to study is focused on practical matters; logistics, scheduling, field medicine. Their whole curriculum is focused on teaching skills which have well understood structure. The books gathered here were collected for their information on esoteric subjects. They’re concerned more with the theoretical and philosophical than anything that’s applicable for daily use.”
“That sounds like what I need,” I said. “But shouldn’t anyone be able to benefit from expanding their mind if they’re willing to put in the effort?”
I expected to start an argument with that. I hadn’t been intending to, but as the words escaped from my mouth and reached my ears, I heard how Idrina might take them as a challenge. Weirdly, she didn’t.
Instead she chuckled.
Which…yeah that was creepy.
“Yes, they would, but the common program doesn’t have the gaps in training ours does. They’re still in class now,” she said. “Even should they desire to broaden their knowledge, none of the common students are given the time.”
I had no idea what the exact time of day was apart from ‘very late’. Since the sun hadn’t started rising yet, I felt comfortable calling it the same night as the one in which I’d met with the Empress Eternal, her Eternal Majesty and Dread Tyrant and all that stuff. The thought that anyone was still up and doing required classwork seemed mind boggling horrible and yet another reason to burn the entire place to ground.
“I would prefer prior notification if you should pursue that endeavor,” Archivist Zirneklis said.
I don’t startle. With what I can do with my body and my tendency towards claws and fangs, startling when surprised is the sort of thing that could leave a lot of body parts strewn over a rather wide area. So I don’t startle.
I did jump a little though, but the squeak did not come from me.
“What endeavor?” I asked turning around to find a completely mild and unassuming older woman behind me.
Archivist Zirneklis had her hair up in a bun, was wearing a simple pale blue blouse and a cream colored skirt, as well as a pair of multi-lensed glasses which prevented me from seeing anything about her eyes.
I was very glad of that.
I didn’t know why, but I knew that I was.
“Burning down the Academy,” she said.
Which meant she was a mind read.
“I am not a mind reader,” she said. “I am merely very familiar with how Doxle’s children think.”
“You were not married to him,” I said, because that was a perfectly reasonable thing to say to the perfectly ordinary woman standing in front of me, as opposed to something like ‘how did you know Doxle sent me?’ or ‘what do you mean Doxle’s children?’
“That is correct,” she said. “You are here for one of the Forbidden tomes.”
Again, lots of questions I could have asked there. Lots of questions I arguably should have asked. Instead I sniffed.
Book bindings and silk. No magic though. The first didn’t surprise me. The second was wrong. I knew it was wrong too. I could feel the aura that radiated from the Archivist but the threads of magic which made it up were invisible to me.
“We are,” I said. I’ll admit that I was unsettled by how much she seemed to know and the palpable sense of ancient wisdom which hung around her, but apart from those I found her rather delightful to deal with. She was so direct and clear. Like she understood that the point of speaking was to communicate ideas, ideally the faster the better.
“We don’t know.”
“But I believe I’ll be able to find it,” Yarrin said.
“We want to talk to the dead,” Narla added, a fan of clarity in her own right it seemed.
“A loved one?” the Archivist asked.
“Yes,” I said. “My sister.”
“Departed this year?”
“No. It’s been ten years,” I said, the number not feeling real at all, despite it representing the majority of my time in this world.
“My condolences,” she said, and I knew she wasn’t offering me words of comfort for Trina’s death ten years ago.
“Lady Riverbond met her sister earlier today,” Yarrin said. “We believe one of the existing necromantic communication spells might be repurposed to establish contact since we’re not dealing with a ghost tethered to this realm.”
“Is that so?” the Archivist, wonder and delight lighting up her face as the scent of fresh ink rose from her.
That was probably a good sign. I was going to take that as a good sign.
“Would we be able to take the book with us if we can find the one we need?” Mellina asked.
“Of course not,” the Archivist said without admonition.
“Studying it here should be enough,” Yarrin said. “If that’s acceptable?”
“It’s gotta be. This is a library isn’t it? That’s what you do in libraries is read books,” Ilyan said.
“Just so,” the Archivist said. “Follow me if you will.”
And so we did because, seriously, who would refuse an invitation like that?
As we descended the fifth set of stairs into an even deeper basement level than the last I began to wonder if the correct answer was ‘any one with an interest in seeing the next sunrise’, but we pressed on.
The twins had the hardest time with the multi-mile hike down into the endless basements of the library. Ilyan put on a brave face but wound up with his arm over Yarrin’s shoulders for support once climbing the stairs and his injured muscles began to disagree with each other too much. Narla looked like she wanted to simply pick him up in a bridal carry to save him the effort entirely, but was probably concerned what it would do to the poor boy’s dignity. I suspected she could have hoisted both Ilyan and Yarrin up and neither would have complained all that much but that was for them to work out.
Idrina meanwhile soldiered on without flinching or complaint.
Because of course she did.
She only showed a moment’s weakness when we reached an older section of the stair and her foot fell off one of the fractured step edges.
I caught her before she could topple much – it wasn’t exactly hard since we weren’t that far apart on the stairs, but I did spend a moment considering if I should offer her my shoulder for support too. Before I could though, she straightened back up, nodded in thanks, and began to continue on, though just a little slower than before.
I stayed a bit closer to her after that since there was no telling how low her reserves were. My guess was ‘pretty much entirely tapped out’ since she didn’t seem to mind me being close enough to catch her if she even slightly started to fall again.
“I hope you will find what you are looking for,” the Archivist said, gesturing to the nearly endless rows of shelves on the final floor.
“Where should we start looking?” I asked, reasoning that a Librarian was the most appropriate person to ask that question of.
“Over here,” Yarrin said and started wandering off in what very much sounded like a daze.
I gestured for the others to talk a seat at one of the nearby tables, sliding out a chair so that Idrina wouldn’t have to, before hurrying off to catch up to Yarrin.
“What are you seeing?” I asked, trying to interpret his Thousand-Yard stare.
“Far too much,” he said, which was the opposite of both informative and comforting.
“You gonna be okay there?” I asked, ready to knock him out and drag everyone out of here if need be.
“I don’t know. That’s not knowable. This is fun though,” he sounded disembodied, which, I assumed, was not a good state for him to be in.
“Fun things can be dangerous,” I said.
“Everything’s dangerous if you know what to do with it,” he said. “Or if you don’t.”
“Right. That’s enough book-catnip for you then. Let’s go,” I said, taking him by the arm and dragging him back towards the stairs.
Whatever mystical tomes were held in the libraries lowest levels, they were clearly not the sort of thing that someone with as much informational magic as Yarrin possessed should be exposed to.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I can see the one we want.”
He pointed to a book on the third shelf of a rack to the right of us.
“This place is affecting you. I don’t think we want to open any book that’s calling to you here,” I said.
“We have to,” he said. “I have to complete the circuit or they’ll have me forever.”
“They who?” I asked.
“The ones who wrote the scripture we need,” he said. “They’re here with us now, and they’re not happy.”