Lost. This one word has become the sum of all his thoughts. Vespesian despises it. Despises the Libraryrinth with equal ferocity, maze that is it, foul conundrum, just an unplace beneath an atrocity nested like a Cuckoo’s egg in the Veils. And, much like the changeling child world above, this wretched compilation of the unplaced and unplace-able has no right to existence, let alone the cunning, half-malevolent sentience that allows it to lead him to this loathsome state. Lost.
‘Show me the Librarian,’ he roars at the faceless stone shelves, their perfectly preserved burden of matchless wonders. ‘Do not trifle with me.’
The echoes of his words are left to diminish into mocking silence and the darkness closes in as if reaching for him, looming above and around him in dense thickets, bristling with menace. He refuses to cower. He is Vespesian. He will search every last shelf in every endless coil of the benighted place and find the Librarian wherever he resides.
The sound of his footsteps consumed by darkness, he strides on, the walls a widening gyre, a ravenous throat gaping in anticipation. Time is as lost as he; left far behind on the lip of the Libraryrinth, in mellow sunlight. Submerged in an infinite moment and adrift as he is, he still faintly perceives fragments from the world above. The energy of war building, a perfect storm of potential converging around it and, beyond that, the Mother’s daughters haunt the Veils surrounding this world, circling like carrion eaters for the moment to pounce.
Vespesian stops. Lifts his head, stretching his senses as far as they can go without breaking. There is another fragment, further away. Lurking in the distance, yet crawling ever closer. He feels it like the taste of impending rain in the back of the throat, something worse by far than the Mother and her Daughters. Something beyond wicked, crept from a prison so deep in the Veils it should never have found a release, and yet it has.
By creating this abhorrent tumour of re-patched and moulded worlds Cholmondley has picked holes in the ‘verse, letting unstable light in, and permitting this darkness to find a way out. Vespesian smiles and saunters forth along the Libraryrinth shelf. He knows what it is.
‘You had better let me find what I want,’ he murmurs as he strolls along, a silken drawl of extreme satisfaction, unctuous and rich as cream. ‘There is only one thing that can stop what’s coming, and it’s hidden here. The Librarian knows where it is and I can wield it. What say you? You unplace, you obscenity, you receptacle of the lost and unwanted things of an unnatural world. Will you allow the author of your destruction to enter unchallenged, or will you stand and fight?’ Darkness draws in ever closer, sharp as blades, mercilessly deep and yet listening, listening hard. Vespesian offers an unhurried grin, his cheeks stretching far enough to expose the damp gleam of molars. ‘I can be a weapon for you,’ he says, every syllable dripping with seduction.
The darkness presses at his skin and he feels its response vibrating in his bones. Can you promise freedom?
Four words. Four simple words. Oh but they hold a wealth of meaning to Vespesian. Until now he truly believed that the growing sentience around him could only result in the birth of an entirely new world, freed from the shackles Cholmondley placed upon it, free to devastate the Veils by simple virtue of its existence. He was wrong. But what delight in his mistake. Swiftly, as stealthy as possible, he unravels a tendril of his stolen power, entwined with silken threads of his own ability, to plunder the depths of this world. Learn the limits of its newfound independence. And fights to restrain a howl of triumph.
‘Yes,’ he lies, with the absolute confidence of the life-long con man. ‘I can promise you freedom. I can promise you will become whole. You will be real.’
A sighing issues from all around, long and mournful, as though a thousand men had died all at once and unleashed their last breath into the air. And the darkness parts, revealing a staircase set beneath the lip of the shelf, winding downwards to where faint lantern lights flicker. Ever the gentleman, Vespesian doffs his hat before putting his best foot forward.
The Librarian’s chamber is as round as the Libraryrinth, it is at one and the same time a vast hall crammed with endless shelves and a cramped hovel squeezed within damp walls, much like a Monk’s cell. There is one table. From one angle an infinite white monolith overlaid by a ream of vellum so vast Vespesian imagines that all the skins in the world combined would not be enough to achieve its length, and from the other angle naught but a worm-ridden desk groaning under the weight of a giant, cloth-bound book.
Ancient, dappled with mildew, it lies over halfway open. Hunched over it, dressed in plain, grubby linen, is a man more ancient than the book itself, patiently scratching entry after entry with a goose feather dipped in gluey, hastily mixed ink.
‘Libarian,’ Vespesian calls.
The Librarian does not turn. He continues scratching away, silent and industrious, his head bowed, straggles of feathery grey hair cloaking his upper body.
‘I have come to find something, Librarian.’
The scratching stops. ‘Find?’
‘Yes. Wouldn’t you like to help me find something?’
The Librarian places his goose feather in the inkpot and turns, painfully slow, as if he has forgotten how to move. In all likelihood he hasn’t turned from the desk in millennia, though he’s been here only as long as this world has existed, barely any time at all, but this place is both achingly new and impossibly old.
‘Nobody comes here,’ the Librarian says, his rheumy eyes filled with bewilderment. ‘Everything here stays lost. I catalogue it all, and my work is never done. What would you find?’
‘I seek a small object. A tube. Sealed at one end with red wax.’
‘So many lost things and you want only this?’
Vespesian gives the Librarian the gift of his most appealing smile. ‘Just this one very small thing.’
The Librarian sighs. ‘It is not much, but it is at least something.’ He turns to his book and flips through the pages with a shaking hand, awkward without its ever-present goose feather. Bereft. He flicks past pantheons of lost gods, bestiaries of bizarre and wonderful creatures, chunks of civilisations both old and as yet unborn, castles built with stardust and chariots formed of light until he finds it, written in his own crabbed hand.
Item: Small brown tube. Sealed one end in red wax. Empty?
The Librarian lifts his hand. It trembles again, but this time with fear of the unknown. He has only ever written into the book, he has never had to call forth an object before, though he is able. He clicks his fingers, the joints creaking, and the shelves begin to move. Slowly at first, then faster, faster yet, they whirl around and around, a dervish, a dance, a giddy merry-go-round of stone, blurring before the eyes. Then with a deep, squealing grind they stop in front of Vespesian and there, sat between a chimera carved from pearl and a ruby goblet is the tube.
Vespesian reaches out to take it, but the Librarian clears his throat. ‘Wait.’
Reining in a lash of temper sharp as the crack of nine-tail tips to flesh, Vespesian forces out through clenched teeth, ‘What now?’
‘You must sign a release form.’
Vespesian takes a deep, cleansing breath. ‘Ah,’ he says softly. ‘Of course. Remiss of me. I do apologise.’
The Librarian reaches beneath his desk and pulls a sheet of paper from thin air. Meticulously he gathers ink on the end of his quill and fills out the form. He beckons Vespesian over with a gnarled finger.
‘Sign here, initial there, and there, and there.’
Vespesian takes the quill, replenishes the ink and does as he’s bade with a flourish elaborate as a conjurer producing flowers from his sleeve. He places the quill down, waiting without comment as the Librarian blows on the ink and nods satisfaction.
‘You may collect your item.’
Vespesian doffs his hat. ‘My thanks.’
As Vespesian walks to the shelf the scratching of the quill tip resumes. The Librarian’s work is never done, and his is just begun. He takes the tube. Inscribed into the wax is a powerful ward, something his previous skill could not have broken, but he’s engorged with stolen power and it takes but a whisper against the wax for it to crumble away in his hands. He restrains a gleeful laugh and wrenches the lid away, upending the tube over his hand. Into the cup of his palm falls a tiny bottle like a misshapen tear. Ugly and brown. Utterly unassuming. But within it there lies boundless power, the current of it is like the pull of an ocean against his skin.
‘Such an unclean vessel. So unworthy of you. I can give you a more fitting abode. Would you like that?’ he croons to it, his voice a charm, a lure, a clarion call. The bottle cupped in his palm warms imperceptibly and the current of power within shifts and dances. ‘If I give you this boon you will be beholden to me, do as I command.’ The energy within the bottle, the Radiance, recoils, seeks to fight, to bargain and Vespesian strikes, venomous and sudden as a snake. ‘You are mine. You will do as I demand. This unworthy gaol was made for you and I can force you back to it at any time if you cross me. Understand that I will show no mercy. I have no mercy to show. However, as long as you obey me, you will remain free. Do we have a compact?’
There is a moment where he feels his destiny holding its breath, then the bottle flares heat, burning a symbol into the palm of his hand, both a seal and a promise. Vespesian smiles his victory.
‘Then let us go hunting,’ he says. ‘Such a perfect vessel I have found for you, an Adonis no less, with such extraordinary gifts, but so vulnerable, so very breakable. You will scour him from the cradle of his flesh and make it your own.’
© Ren Warom 2013