Chapter 9.1

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The aisle stretched away into the distance. Shelves towered above her. She removed the nearest book and it fell apart in her hands; with a grimace of disgust she flung it to the floor and wiped her hands on her pants.

The aisle soon intersected with another. At the intersection she looked left and right: an identical vista stretched out in both directions, vanishing away into the murky light. How many books were here? A million? Everyone had heard of the State's Arcane Vault, said to house the banned objects of centuries. Had she stumbled upon it? Surely Corvus knew it was here. That was a disturbing thought.

She thought she heard a sliding, stealthy sound from one of the hidden aisles, and stopped to listen. The silence drew in like a cloak. The air was warm and somehow thick, as if the silence itself had substance.

When she reached the far wall she followed it around the perimeter of the room, assuming she would eventually come to another door. She considered going back the way she had come, but the thought of returning through those corridors, past those skulls and doorways, was unbearable.

The books here seemed in better condition. She stopped from time to time and took one down. There was a book full of mathematical diagrams and equations, and one written with peculiar hieroglyphs. Another contained crude woodcuts of a woman being burned on a pyre, a pack of dogs tearing a man apart, heads mounted on stakes outside a castle. She quickly put it back on the shelf.

She came to a place where she would have to detour around a long bookcase that abutted the wall. She could see over the tops of the books to the next bookcase, which ran parallel to it. Between the two lay a shadowy space. It seemed too narrow to be an aisle, and there were no books facing inwards. She wondered what purpose it served. Perhaps it was a way out. 

When she reached the end of the bookcase she found that a statue blocked the entrance to the dark aisle within. It was an ugly thing: a life-sized man with the legs of a goat, dancing as he played a flute, his face racked with pain, as if he were dancing on hot coals. His nose had worn away to a snout and several of his fingers had dropped off. His eyes were despairing.

Taking a fearful look up at him she crawled beneath his legs. She stood up on the other side and looked around. The bookcases towered above her, seeming to lean inwards, and there was a faint smell like burning coal from somewhere up ahead. She proceeded on at a trot, eager to get past the beetling stacks.

A flight of four steps materialised out of the darkness. She climbed them and found herself on a landing before an arched door of some smooth and unmarked metal, closed, with no handle or keyhole. There was a mark on it:


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Below this was a metal plate that had gone greenish with age, engraved with four lines of text in an unknown language. A circular grate was set in the wall beside the door.

She reached out and touched the door. It was strangely warm. She put her ear to it and heard a faraway thrumming that could easily have been the blood rushing through her own body. She pushed the door but it didn't budge. She was not sure she wanted it to open anyway. Somehow she knew that this door did not lead out, but deeper into the building.

She hurried back up the aisle, crawled back under the statue's legs, and continued on her journey around the huge room. She glanced back from time to time as if the statue might be following her.

She had not gone far when she heard a cough. She whirled around.

"I hope I didn't frighten you." Corvus said.

She had no idea how he had crept up on her. "I – you didn't – I mean, you did. I'm glad to see you," she blurted, but wasn't sure she meant it.

He shuffled towards her. Ludwig was not with him.

"I got lost," Carmen explained.

"Perfectly understandable."

"What is this place?"

"A library."

She repeated the strange word under her breath.

"Did you find anything interesting?" Corvus said. His eyes were searching.

"Skellingtons. What happened to them?"

"They died in the Plague. A long time ago.

"Is this the Arcane Vault?"

"No."

"How'd you know I was here?"

"Ludwig alerted me. When you took longer than I expected I came to find you. I take it you've come for Grim?"

"No. I mean – I just wanted to check he was okay."

"Naturally," Corvus said, but the corner of his mouth twitched. "You'd better come upstairs. No doubt you've had enough sightseeing for one day."


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