Evelyn had waited as long and as quietly as any librarian could. “Roland. Something’s wrong.”
Roland jumped, all four-foot-three of him (in heels). “T-the fortress of our great Aklatan Library is a bulwark from the Nevez,” he said. “But we do tend to rattle around a bit in here. Is that it? Or is it…”
Evelyn laid a hand on Roland’s shoulder seeking to stem the tide of nervous twitterings that were his stock and trade. “Calm yourself, my friend,” she said. “I’ve told you a hundred times, just because the Aklatan Archives are under the Stricture of Silence…”
“…it doesn’t mean I have to make twice as much noise outside them, I know.” said Roland. “But enough of that. What’s mildewing at you, Evelyn? The Nevez? They sacked another caravan bringing us books, I heard. Three carts of tomes to the torch in the name of holy ignorance, and three librarians besides.”
His words echoed in the cavernous common area, sending a few librarian-initiates scampering away to their cells with wide fearful eyes. “Roland,” Evelyn said. “Stop. Listen.”
“I’m stopping. I’m listening.”
“I am afraid…that the Nevez may have made inroads into the Aklatan. Through nefarious means, sorcerous means that we librarians with all our weapons and training have nothing to counter with.”
Roland began to pace like a caged animal, his stumpy legs acting out his nervousness. “One of the initiates saw you pounding on the wall in a dead-end in the Old Annex,” he said. “I also heard over in the meadery that you’ve been heard crying and whispering things in a strange language.”
“Stranger than Nevezean?” said Evelyn with a glimmer of a smile.
“I said crying and whispering, not grunting and hooting.”
“It’s true, though,” Evelyn said, growing serious and drawing Roland near. “I keep seeing…well…it’s as if the veil of this world is torn from my eyes and another is set down in its place. Horrifying visions that I can’t quite describe. Almost like…insanity. Things that, if the High Cataloguer knew…”
“Insanity? What kind of insanity?” cried Roland in a voice that echoed off the rafters.
“Shh!” hissed Evelyn, with her best librarian-face and raised finger, honed in areas the Stricture of Silence covered. “Visions of people…of places…” she continued. “I try to draw my sword, but there is no sword, I try to kick and my muscles have lost their memory, I try to scream but the only words that come are gutteral nonsense.”
Roland was a loudmouth and a nervous wreck, but it was clear Evelyn’s words wracked him with worry. “How often?” he said, much quieter this time.
“Irregular but…increasing.” Evelyn instinctively gripped the handle of her saber, fingering the groove where a Nevez axe had left its mark during last year’s incursion. “I worry that it’s some sort of…spellcraft…that the Nevez are trying to use. Destroy the Aklatan from within, not from without.”
Roland violently shook his head. “No, no, no, no, no. The Nevez stand for ignorance. Stasis. Brutishness where applicable. They’re not sorcerors, and their dead gods have no power to grant them anything.”
“Then what is it?” Evelyn cried, much louder than she intended. “Aklatan librarians are trained to meet threats with arms and tomes. I’ve nothing.”
It was Roland’s turn to shush her. “Let me talk…er, sign…to the Head Archivist about this,” he said. “You know she won’t talk. Vow of silence and all. We can see if anything like this has ever happened before.”
“But…” Evelyn’s doubts were cast upon Roland’s back; as was he way, he was off pumping his short legs in pursuit of his latest, likely impractical, idea.
Alone in the common area, Evelyn began to find her way back to her cell, hand still light on the hilt of her blade. The Aklatan library suddenly seemed every still, very quiet, even though it was not time for meals or combat training, the twin pursuits that took librarians, archivists, and initiates out of circulation.
A sharp T-junction at the end of the common area, designed to prevent noise from bleeding over, should have put Evelyn on the path to her modest quarters. Instead, the ninety-degree jog that she navigated opened upon a scene from a nightmare.
A bright light blazed, Evelyn’s pupils stinging as they contracted in response. It was rushing toward her with the sound of a spring storm, growing in intensity and clarity even as the individual bricks of the Aklatan seemed to be torn loose and devoured by a hungry and glowing maw.
Evelyn tried to run, but her legs ached as the hours of endless combar training deserted her. She tried to draw steel, but the muscle memory wasn’t there either. All she could do was stumble forward, blindly, into the vortex that seemed to be ending her world.
And beyond it?
Shelves, dull beige with rust spots. A ceiling of rickety metal and fiberglass panels, fluorescents dying a slow blinking death within them surrounded by the bodies of their many insect victims. And, of course, books…but not the richly bound tomes and ornate scrolls of Aklatan. Pulp and hardback instead, bowed by moisture and time.
“Evelyn!” A sharp voice from around the corner.
“Yes, Ms. Foster?” said Evelyn, the gutteral words gritting against her lips like beach sand.
The Alcona Public Library deputy director stuck her head around the corner. “Finish shelving that cart instead of talking to yourself.”
“But…I was talking to Roland…” Evelyn murmured.
“A junior library volunteer is here as labor, not as a chatty Cathy,” Foster snapped. “See to your work and only give that hyperactive little monster what he he needs so he can see to his.”
“Yes, Ms. Foster.” Nodding smugly, Foster withdrew, leaving Evelyn by herself in the basement with the stains, the rust, the mold, the pulp fantasy novels slowly going to seed. Aklatan, wherever it was, was as far away as it had ever been.