Abby and Lem were already leaning into the great bronze panel under all their strength as oracle, alchemist, and wizard crossed the threshold. The door closed with agonizing slowness and eerie quiet. When it finally latched the five held collective breath, waiting for some sign.
There was a sound, but it came from the room, not the doorway.
“What is it?” Rahab whispered, one arm entwined in Gloriana’s, the other hand clutching Ravenous Umbra.
“A broken toy,” muttered Abby.
Alchemist and wizard spoke together: “What?”
“She’s right,” the oracle offered softly. “It looks vaguely like a humanoid, shaped in metal and clockwork, and it has difficulty walking.
Lem had kept his eye on the door, just in case. Finally satisfied that closing the portal prevented the arrival of another light howler, the gardener turned to see. “It’s a construct, I think.”
Again, Kara and Rahab: “Hostile?”
The noise of whirring gears and metal on stone neared and stopped. A voice echoed in unknown language, vibrations rattling within ferrous chambers bellowed by copper lungs.
“No,” Abby said, “just incomprehensible.”
“Not exactly,” murmured Gloriana.
Rahab patted the oracle’s arm happily. “You have magic of translation.1 Excellent! What did the construct say?”
The oracle carefully relayed: “‘Which volume of lore would you like me to retrieve for you? There are currently twenty-four thousand four hundred and ninety-one volumes, scrolls, pamphlets, and unbound manuscripts available. Please indicate your wish by author, title, subject, or date of acquisition by the Therassic Monastery.’”
The grip on her arm suddenly increased tenfold, and her heart broke a little.
“Lore?” A tremor took the wizard’s voice. “Twenty-four thousand four hundred and ninety-one volumes of lore? Where are we, Gloriana?” His face twisted and turned frantically, sightless eyes desperate and useless.
For a long time the oracle did not want to answer. The warm glow from numerous crystal lanterns fell gently over the circular room. Long wooden tables and comfortably appointed chairs surrounded a great, central shaft descending deep into the brilliantly polished marble floor. Within the cylinder ranged wide, sturdy shelves, and not a single space stood empty of parchment, book, scroll, text, or illuminated page. The construct waited with eternal patience.
Abby caught Gloriana’s eye. Do you want me to tell him?
The oracle shook her head sadly. “I am sorry, Rahab,” she sighed. “It is a library.”
The wizard’s grasp on Gloriana’s arm became a trembling claw. “What do you see?”
In her experience as a healer, as an adventurer, as a Soul of The Road, the oracle had heard many sentient creatures beg. Sometimes they begged for money, sometimes for mercy; sometimes they begged for a kiss, sometimes they begged for forgiveness; sometimes they begged for relief from pain, or the return of their dead child, or for a quiet moment in which to die. Rahab’s question tore all the way through her, shrugging past an echelon of mischievous haunts as a whale through water. The query landed in her heart with a weight to drag her into the very stone below her feet, and it was made of relentless agony that threatened to become its own restless ghost.
“I can describe the room, if you like.” Her voice sounded hundreds of miles away.
“Please . . . ” he whispered, and he suddenly seemed ancient, and bent under terrible burden.
Abby swallowed hard. Lem’s jaw worked, and he looked away in silence.
The oracle gave quiet account of what she could see.
“The well . . .” murmured Rahab.
“The volumes there . . . .”
A croak: “The—the construct . . . .”
Gloriana leaned close to Rahab’s ear, and he felt the question more than he heard it, gentle, warm, and soft. “What would you like me to ask?”
The flood of cognition and emotion threatened to overwhelm, as if thought was an experience heretofore unknown, and now he stood lost within the vaults of the mind, frightened by all the possibility of loss, where he had never felt such fear before.
This is what it feels like to go mad.
Kara still linked to Gloriana’s other arm, and the oracle felt movement. A quick glance showed the alchemist’s free hand carefully walking along one of her belts, pausing periodically as though a creature tracking scent. After some hesitation, Kara plucked a vial free from a leather loop and held it forth. Gloriana was nonplussed.
“Take the vial and give it to Rahab,” said the alchemist. The oracle carefully cradled the container and maneuvered it to the conjurer’s blind grasp.
The wizard’s voice was a shudder. “What is it?”
“Yetretiarmedem. Soosh ulvor drinom muthandiatar,”2 Kara replied.
“Your magnificence is unequaled among the Mierani!” Greedily the conjurer drank the potion, and when realization of the clockwork librarian’s language became clear he could not decide if this was better or worse.
“What is this place?” Rahab whispered to Gloriana to translate through her magic. Thus began a conversation among three parts that did not sum to a whole.
Clicks and buzzes responded. “This is the library of the Therassic monastery.”
Rahab to Gloriana to the librarian: “Who last ventured into the library?”
“A stone giant called Mokmurian.”
“The door’s abjuration requires a password to transcend?”
“What is the word?”
“I do not have that information.”
“What manner of being emerges when the door is breached without the proper word?”
“A shining child.”
Giddiness a riot now in the wizard’s stomach. He felt ridiculous, unbidden mirth shaking him: not delight, but fragility; the mind’s desperate defense against insanity. He fought against the sensation, and still the spears of blindness stabbed in torment. Focus. Think of a question. Work THROUGH this. THINK!
“The door’s abjuration: Is it a feature of Mokmurian’s magic?”
“No. The abjuration predates Mokmurian.”
“How old is it?”
“I do not have that information.”
“Describe your knowledge of the library.”
Gloriana frowned and turned to the wizard on her arm. “It does not hurt to say ‘please,’ Rahab.”
Blind eyes blinked above a psychotic grin. “The construct has no ego to wound, Gloriana. Its consciousness is imposed externally by the magic that binds it, and does not exist independently. You might as well petition one of your burning rays, or one of my evocations of fire.”
In the subsequent silence a sightless head waited, then bobbed. “Librarian?” Eventually the oracle took up the translation.
“How may I assist?”
“What do you feel when I address you?”
Whirring gears churned. “I do not understand your query. Please rephrase.”
“What emotion do you experience when I speak to you?”
Noises again, clicks and pauses and hums, a longer silence. “Would you like a catalog of those texts discussing the subjects of sensation, emotion, and perception?”
“No. Your response has illustrated my point.” Strained visage angled blindly in Gloriana’s direction, something tragic and grotesque in the movement.
The librarian buzzed: “Are you a visiting scholar?”
“I am,” Rahab replied after forcing back a mad laugh, “or I would be, had I not been struck blind by the library’s security system!”
The clockwork helpfully suggested petitioning a member of the order for redress of any difficulty. That portion of the conjurer’s mind not teetering on collapse found some strength not to weep, or rage, or howl.
“Librarian,” the wizard resumed, enunciating with distinct tremor, “describe your knowledge of the library.”
“I maintain catalog of titles, subjects, authors, dates of acquisition, and cross-references of same. I also know the locations of all materials in the library, organized according to methods established by the Therassic order.”
Rahab beckoned into emptiness. “Abby, display Avenger to the librarian.” Then, after a moment: “Please.”
The warrior looked skeptical, but did as bidden. The wizard resumed his questions through Gloriana: “Do you recognize this aegis?”
“No,” the librarian chirped.
“Do you recognize this carapace?” A clumsy pat fluttered at Gloriana’s shoulder.
“Regard the halfling’s boots. Do you know them?”
Rahab flailed at his pack, knelt, and struggled to pull The Book of the Strange free from the interior entirely by feel. He held the tome aloft like a priest at ritual. “Librarian, do you recognize this book?”
“I have seen it before, but do not know its author, subject, or date of publication. It is not part of the catalog.”
“Under what circumstances—and with whom or what—did you see this book?”
“One claiming ownership of that book came to peruse the library’s lore.”
Clicks and clatter accompanied some measure of calculation. When the clockwork responded, the reply made no sense, not even through the magic of translation.
Gloriana laid a hand on the kneeling wizard’s shoulder. “What does that mean?”
“I do not know. The inability of the magic to translate suggests that the meaning does not correspond to the words.”
Abby shook her head. “Not getting any clearer, Rahab.”
Kara raised her own blind visage in announcement: “It means that the words are recognizable, but there is no meaning that corresponds to understanding in Glori and Rahab. The librarian cites a calendar to which we have neither access nor reference.”
The warrior looked at Lem, and the gardener just shrugged and shook his head.
Rahab pursued: “Librarian, was the book’s owner human?”
“Did the owner use the book while in the library?”
“In what manner?”
“Some magic of the book allowed the owner to make copies of several volumes in the catalog.”
“By what method?”
“I do not have that information.”
The conjurer lapsed into silence, eventually struggling to return The Book of the Strange to his backpack. After a few moments Abby could stand by no more, and strode to help. Rahab’s ragged rictus flashed once more. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” The warrior looked up at Gloriana, but the oracle only gave a sad smile.
As the wizard gingerly resumed his feet, Gloriana slipped her arm once more around his. Rahab continued. “Librarian, for what purpose did the stone giant Mokmurian venture here?”
“He requested texts.”
“On what subjects?”
“History of Thassilon.”
“And he took the books hence?”
“No. He made copies.”
“Can you name the spell or method?”
“I do not have that inf—”
But the wizard was already waving irritably. “Yes, yes, of course.”
Rahab stood silent, head bowed. Gloriana could feel his pulse hammering along the length of his arm, and his whole body shivered.
“The shield, the armor, the boots, and the book I referenced previously:” the conjurer resumed. “Do you have lore relating to them?”
Whirs, clicks, a faint whine: “No.”
“Do you have a basic primer on the Thassilonian language?”
“We have forty-seven different works related to fostering Thassilonian language development in children.”
“Please retrieve the two most comprehensive of such works.”
Those with sight watched the clockwork librarian scuttle to the well’s edge and navigate down and around with all four limbs, a strange, spider-like sculpture in metal on errand.
Rahab leaned close to the person he could feel but could not see. “By what mechanism does the construct locomote?”
“Why do you assign it masculine gender?”
The oracle started. “I . . . don’t know. I—”
“Never mind. Its movement . . .”
“ . . . It . . . walks on two legs, but has some difficulty. It has suffered some damage, I think.”
“Damage, or decay?”
“The condition of the metal: Polished? Patina? Scratched?”
“Yes. Signs of wear. What are you thinking?”
“I suspect it is ancient, as is the chamber in which we now convene, if only I could see it! The librarian is a relic of Thassilon and this ‘Therassic order.’ More than ten-thousand years have gone, and even a construct may decline, with time.”
“Have you heard of this ‘Therassic order?’”
“Against all likelihood.”
“Conversation with Quink.”
Gloriana quietly nodded as if to say, Of course.
The grip at her arm tightened. “Gloriana. My vision . . . Kara’s— . . . your healing magic . . . can . . . is there . . . ?”
The wizard felt her voice at his ear, quiet, mournful, yet still sunlit. “I am sorry, Rahab. I can do nothing right now, for my power is greatly diminished with our efforts. Have hope. Tomorrow I converse with my ancestors.”
His reply, ragged and rent: “I . . . all is . . . how—?”
Her whisper became a snowfall’s softness, and a smile he could not see wrapped around words only he could hear. “Do not worry: My ancestors like you.”
They rested for a bit. Gloriana led Kara and Rahab to one of the long tables and seated them in two of the upholstered chairs. Abby and Lem walked a perimeter looking for concealed secrets. Down in the well the librarian made slow progress around the shelves.
Warrior and gardener reported back. “Nothing.”
“I have lost track of time,” Kara said, “and that is disconcerting. How long has it been since we broke camp?”
“You mean at the river,” asked Lem, “or in Conna’s Mausoleum of Weirdness and Necrophilia?”
The gardener closed his eyes and folded his arms. After a minute’s silence he speculated: “Gauging precisely while underground is impossible, but let’s call it the second afternoon bell.” He glanced around with a shrug. Abby nodded agreement.
“Can we stay here?” Gloriana wondered.
The warrior frowned. “What about the giants?”
“And the prisoners,” added Kara.
“It has been some time since we left Conna,” reasoned the oracle, “and still nothing has ventured down to follow us. They fear Mokmurian, and his magic, and his domain.”
The gardener scratched his chin. “I suppose it’s also possible they think we made a full circuit of the level above, and then escaped back through the cave system the way we came in.”
Kara’s blind head tilted. “Hit and run?”
“It’s how I would wage a small unit fight against a camped army.” Lem found his stride. “Stay at the perimeter, pick off the outskirts, find the weak point, penetrate for maximum damage, retreat into the shadows. I bet that valley is running wild with giants right now, patrolling for something that isn’t there.”
“That still leaves the villagers, though,” Abby sighed. “What if the giants have decided to take revenge on the prisoners?”
“I do not think so,” the oracle countered. “The kidnapped villagers are a direct result of Mokmurian’s order to Teraktinus and the war band. If Lem is right and they think we have fled, they will await Mokmurian’s word, and in the meantime keep watch on the valley. If, on the other hand, they think we ventured down, then likely they await news of our defeat. I think that—as long as the giants do not know what has happened—the villagers are alive.”
The warrior crossed her brawny arms. “There are a lot of ‘ifs’ in there, Glo.”
“No, I feel this: The prisoners are alive. Tonight we recover our strength, and tomorrow we help Conna reclaim command of the valley. Then we find and secure the villagers. With the giants subdued or dispersed, removing the Sandpointers to safety should be easier.”
Metal clattered on stone, gears whirred, ratchets clicked. The clockwork stopped at Gloriana and held forth one book and one scroll. When Abby reached to retrieve them she found the librarian’s grip undiminished.
The warrior glanced at oracle and wizard. “What’s going on?”
Rahab’s head twisted back and forth furiously and his hands clutched the chair arms. “What do you see?”
“The construct brought something, but won’t let it go.”
The wizard put hands to his temples. “Ah, yes. Gloriana must take them.”
“It was she who delivered my request. The librarian’s magic only comprehends the request as hers, not as having translated from me.”
The oracle approached the clockwork and gently reached for the items. When her hands closed around them, the metallic fingers withdrew gently. “Thank you,” she said. The clockwork made no reply, but only resumed its vigilant wait. Gloriana gently placed the works on the table in front of Kara and Rahab, and a gloom overcame her as she watched the wizard scrabble to touch them, hand trembling along a book spine, hefting the weight.
“Expertly bound,” he murmured, holding his ear close as he opened the book and listened to the flutter of pages past his thumb. “The condition feels superb. There must be some . . . some additional magic here, something that limits or displaces the entropy of time.” A stagger to his words prompted grave looks from warrior and oracle. The gardener shuffled uncomfortably.
“Gloriana, if you please?” the conjurer intoned, then angled toward the sound of softly ticking gears. “Librarian? Do you ever venture out of this chamber?”
“Did Mokmurian demonstrate fluency in the Thassilonain language?”
“Literacy as well?”
“Are there any maps of this structure, including the library and other portions of the Therassic monastery, within the catalog?”
The wizard announced to the air: “Does anyone else have any other queries at present? No?” He addressed the clockwork via Gloriana once more: “That will be all for now.”
Whirrs and clicks in answer: “Simply ask again if you need anything.” The sound of metal footsteps on stone tapped out of earshot.
Rahab suddenly felt an immense exhaustion that made the overnight in burning Sandpoint luxurious by comparison.
They gathered around the table. Abby and Lem perched cross-legged on the surface, and Gloriana dragged another chair nearby.
“The furnishings are humanoid sized,” the oracle observed.
“The Therassic monks,” began the wizard, “were mostly human, though other humanoid species congregated among their number, as well. The monastery was not likely built with giant-kin in mind, or at least not those portions set aside specifically for the order. Recall Conna’s concern. Little suggests that giants in the Thassilonian Empire occupied positions other than servitude, at best.”
Lem had begun to find his present enemy’s circumstances increasingly complex, and he hated when that happened. Digging deep enough into Thassilon would reveal—the gardener suspected—its whole sordid history rife with humans and their sins. Why could they not do the decent thing and simply stay dead?
Abby frowned. None of this made any sense. “Why are giants flocking to the service of some sort of Thassilonian tyrant, then?”
“There are always those who seek to serve tyranny,” Gloriana exhaled sadly, “imagining themselves exempt from the worst excesses and indignities. The most dangerous illusion in autocracy is the complacent imagination that whatever befalls thee shall not befall me. It is one of the oldest lies we tell ourselves.”
Across the table, a blind wizard nodded emphatically.
The warrior sounded indignant: “Why do we tell ourselves lies?”
“The path of least resistance,” offered Kara, useless eyelids shut against stimuli no longer detectable. “Confronting lies—one’s own, especially—is one of the most difficult things for a sentient being to do.”
“I hate lying,” Abby grumbled.
Rahab cackled, a sound not entirely secured to stable cognitive surface. “Careful that in asserting such you do not embody the very quality you despise.”
“I am not.” Gauntleted fists settled on the table with all the quiet of a rhinoceros at the charge.
“Alright,” Gloriana cooed. “We are all tired, and at our limits.”
The wizard refused to let the moment pass. “Abby, much as I admire you and value your friendship, one of the boldest lies any of us tells is that we eschew lies ourselves. We all lie, in some fashion or another.”
Lem leveled a dagger gaze. “Don’t lay that human shit on me.”
Abby’s own challenge stepped past that of the gardener. “That means you, too, Rahab, and yet I have never known you to lie to me.”
Again the unsettling chuckle as blind eyes gazed upon nothing. “Perhaps that is because to others I make every effort of honesty, and in turn lie only to myself.”
A tense silence descended. Kara broke the mood. “This is the kind of discussion I would much rather have at the townhouse in Magnimar, on a rain-soaked night, after the second cup of wine, and everyone’s bed within stumbling distance.”
Gloriana reached out and gently clasped the alchemist’s hand in thanks.
They camped in the library. Some debate arose as to setting a watch, but eventually the nervous assertions of Rahab, Kara’s muted aloofness, and calm placation on the part of Gloriana suggested that little else in the valley was likely to pass the trapped portal and catch them unawares.
Rahab awoke in two hours regardless, under the influence of The Book of the Strange. He sat up helplessly in his blanket on the marble floor of the library, his back and limbs stiff. A slow terror crept in his heart. He dared not move. Abby had helped him lie down and settle, and he did not know where in the chamber he was. He had a vague sense that the others were near, and that to his right loomed the well of lore, but neither offered enough certainty to settle trepidation. He kept waiting for his eyes to adjust, but the darkness never changed, and remembered realization was a wave of despair. Escher emerged from his pocket and nuzzled against the conjurer’s hand, a small but powerful comfort.
In a soft voice Rahab began to recite basic principles of arcane spell lore, lessons long inscribed in his mind through study and practice. For an additional degree of challenge, he conducted the exercise in the language of dragons, forcing as firm an intellectual rigor on his sanity as he could muster.
A sound reached his ears, shuddering metal, and a disembodied voice in darkness. Words tumbled out of nothing, each uttered in Draconic, each a thunderbolt launched into the unquiet depths of the wizard’s awareness.
“How may I assist?”3
Hope was the possibility of dawn, however hidden by cloud.
1 Gloriana had a tongues spell active.
2 Translated from Elvish: “Comprehension. Assuming my count is correct.
Kara gave Rahab a potion of comprehend languages. Like finding water in a desert.
3 It turns out that among the clockwork librarian’s languages was Draconic. Rahab had the ability to conduct unmitigated conversation the whole time, but he did not think of it because he was fighting a desperate rear-guard action against going crazy.