A Meeting of Dreadful Portent
Shadows, Wick thought sourly as he studied the treacherous mass of darkness at the end of the long bookcase, are foul and nasty things. They're mostly useless, only showing someone where he is when he already knows he's there. And what's the good of that?
Of course, evil things that dwelt in darkness loved shadows because they allowed them to walk in the light of day--just before they pounced on an unsuspecting victim.
Holding tightly onto the glimmerworm candle he carried, Wick paused between two huge bookcases in Hralbomm's Wing of the Great Library and let out a long, quiet breath that whistled slightly between his teeth. The books at his back felt reassuring. At least the thick volumes bound in stone and leather on the split log shelves offered protection from that direction. There was no defense against what possibly hid in the shadows in front of him.
After the slight sound of his inadvertent whistling breath had died away, silence filled the room again. At this time of morning, slightly before eleven, the Great Library was always quiet. The thick stone walls and the cavernous rooms filled with bookcases never allowed theeveryday noises of Greydawn Moors, the town farther down the foothills of the Knucklebones Mountains, to enter the library.
Gathering his failing courage, Wick lifted the glimmerworm candle high as he could. The shadows bent back as if afraid of the green-tinged candle flame. The candle was a good one, the delicate blown glass tubing fully two feet long and possessing a fluted reflector plate behind the flame. He'd refilled it only that morning with the dark green lummin juice milked from domestic glimmerworms raised on the island.
The candle had been a gift from his father, Mettarin Lamplighter, and Wick was proud of it. He'd gotten it on one of the last pleasant birthdays he had enjoyed before his father had developed a deep and lasting disappointment in him. It was his father's sighs, Wick often supposed, that were the hardest to bear. No one could sigh so disconsolately as his father could.
Steadying his trembling hand, taking a deep breath, Wick stepped forward on weak knees. "Be warned, large and putrid goblinkin," he said in a deep voice.
He was fairly certain only goblins would lie in wait so silently in the early hours--and it was still before noon!--because trolls and other things too horrible to mention wouldn't lurk about quite so early. Trolls, however, stayed on the alert for new victims to knock on the head and enslave ... except, of course, for those dwellers that were baked into pies.
"And this is the only warning you shall be given," Wick bravely continued, struggling hard to keep his voice from cracking. "After this, no quarter will be asked, and none given. You face a warrior born this morn," he wanted desperately to rephrase that last, "for I am Edgewick Lamplighter, Master Librarian at the Vault of All Known Knowledge."
He drew himself to his full three feet four inches in height and tried to look severe, much older than his seventy years which, actually, was quite young as dwellers went and more formidable than life as a librarian had made him. (Dwellers, in general, hardly ever reached four feet in height, so Wick was sometimes considered short even by their standards. Although about the same height as dwarves, dwellers were symmetrically built, not broad-shouldered and barrel-chested. Nor were they as slender as elves. Dwellers were just little people, able to live meagerly and on the leavings and--mostly--abandoned things of others.)
Wick kept his red-gold hair neat and himself presentable most of the time. As usual, he wore the white-fringed light gray robes of a Third Level Librarian in the Vault of All Known Knowledge. However, he now saw,he hadn't noticed the dark purple chulotzberry stain on his sleeve from this morning.
The shadows twisted and fell back again, as if reluctantly giving ground before the glimmerworm candle.
For a moment, enjoying the power of the flame and the way the title "Master Librarian" rolled so easily from his tongue in the agonizing silence, Wick felt as brave and fierce as Taurak Bleiyz. Taurak had been a dweller as Wick was, but Taurak had been a mighty warrior who had ventured down into the Bleak Pits of Darkhearted Vormoral to save fair Gylesse, the woman he loved above life itself. At least, until the next story. Taurak, as it turned out, was a dweller of considerable appetites and was always about, rescuing one love or another. Of course, Taurak's bravery and mighty strength had also come from carrying his magical warclub, Toad-thumper.
Claws skittered in the darkness ahead and the short hairs on Wick's neck stood up.
The little librarian forced himself to breathe. More than anything, he wished he could run from the room. But if someone saw him running, what then? Most of the other librarians, even the ones at his own low ranking, made it a point to stay away from him. A chance to ridicule him for running from shadows would be too much for many of them to resist.
Claws scratched at the stone floor again, but the shadows drew no closer.
Trolls don't have claws, Wick reminded himself, then instantly remembered, but they often let their toenails grow long and curved so they can be used as weapons. He waited, pressed tightly against the bookshelves, fearful to make any move. Drawing in a deep breath, he realized the rotten stench that usually accompanied trolls wasn't present.
I am not afraid, Wick told himself, raising the candle. The lummin juice burned steadily even with him jerking it around and shaking on top of that, proof of his father's craftsmanship. Panting, he stumbled forward on fear-numbed feet. I have slain poison-tongued Terror Toads alongside Taurak Bleiyz in Donsidance the troll queen's private chambers. I have climbed the Ogre Leper's Forgotten Maw with Carrad Muzzyl and found the Philosopher's Skull.
The shadows continued to draw back, but the claws skittered on the stone again. This time they sounded a little frantic.
I have survived attacks by the undead pirate crew of Purple Lament in the Dagger Straits, Wick went on, growing a little more confident, and dug up the treasure of Captain Kallyn One-Eye.
It didn't help that he knew all the adventures he thought of were ones he'd encountered in books. Adventures, at least in real life, were much too dangerous. He preferred the life of a librarian, even the life of a Third Level Librarian ... but still, he loved the excitement that he only borrowed from books.
As Wick neared the end of the bookcase, leaving the shadows pressed up tight against the wall there, the claws froze and the noise they made faded.
"I'm only toying with you," Wick stated, trying to make his voice steely as he continued to advance. "If you run now, I'll spare your life. I'll--"
Without warning, the little librarian tripped over his own feet. He fell face forward, breaking his fall with one hand and managing to keep the glimmerworm candle whole with the other. He fearfully thrust the candle forward toward the sound of renewed claw skittering, afraid that the creature might attack in his moment of defenselessness.
"I warned you!" Wick shrieked, lying prone with the candle before him, wrapping his other arm around his head to protect his face. "I'm not in the mood for taking prisoners today!" When no attack followed, he spread his fingers and peered cautiously between them.
The candlelight spread its warm, green-tinted glow over the foul fiend that waited on him in the shadows. The creature, scarcely as big as the dweller's fist and covered in soft gray fur, looked up with black, beady eyes beneath pink, shell-like ears. It held a tiny morsel of hard yellow cheese between its front paws.
A mouse, Wick realized with relief, not even a full-grown rat. The little librarian breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the tiny pink nose twitching as the mouse continued to frantically nibble at the cheese.
"Aha!" Wick exclaimed, his mind seizing on a new game. He pushed away the fear that had filled him and shoved himself to his feet. The trembling left his knees and he dropped into a swordsman's stance. He'd never had any formal training, but the Vault of All Known Knowledge carried several good treatises on the art, and reading was his life. He let the glimmerworm candle dance at the end of his arm, and made swishing motions that caused the flame to burn brightly for a time. "So, a shape-changing wizard, are you? See how easily I see through your mouse disguise? I am a very experienced warrior. I recognize you for the base-hearted villain you truly are."
The mouse, evidently afraid of a full-grown dweller towering over him, stuffed the cheese crumb into its mouth and darted away.
Wick heaved himself to his feet and flicked his candle-sword through the air. "No evil wizard has ever escaped the righteous indignation of Sir Edgewick Lamplighter, champion swordsmaster and righter-of-wrongdoing." He launched himself in pursuit of the mouse, catching his empty hand on the bookcase and swinging himself about into the next aisle.
Quick as a wink, the mouse scampered on, running over the shoe of the man standing there.
"Ahem." The man cleared his throat disapprovingly.
Wick drew himself up short, narrowly avoiding a collision with the man. "Grandmagister Frollo!" the dweller gasped, suddenly noticing he still held the glimmerworm candle like a sword. He pulled his arm back and looked as innocent as he could. He quickly stepped back three feet, dropping his eyes. "I didn't know you were here."
"I gathered as much, Librarian." Grandmagister Frollo, dressed in the charcoal gray robes that represented his office, cinched by the thin black cord that held the keys to all the rooms of the library, headed the Vault of All Known Knowledge.
As humans went, he was tall and blade-thin, slightly stooped from all the years spent as a librarian hunkered over books. His features were pinched and severe, a step removed from harsh. A long, twisting gray-and-white beard hung to his chest. His hazel eyes held buttermilk yellow dots. Inks of several colors stained the ends of his fingers of both hands from handling quill and inkwell.
"So," Grandmagister Frollo said, putting his hands together behind his back, a sure indication that he was somewhat displeased and was on the verge of a stern lecture, "I see you have saved the library from yet another horrendous threat, Librarian Lamplighter. A shape-shifting wizard this time, no less." The fierce brows knitted together. "How very brave and adventurous of you."
"No, sir," Wick replied quickly, "that was purely in jest. Merely something to amuse myself. I was only chasing the mouse away before it could disturb the books."
The grandmagister nodded. "I suppose that would explain all the shrieking I heard only a moment ago."
"Well--" Wick's face burned fiercely in embarrassment as he sought for an excuse. Preferably, one that he hadn't used before, though therehad to have been precious few of those. At the moment he couldn't think of a single one.
The mouse hesitated at the end of the bookcase, its cheeks puffy with cheese. The black eyes gleamed in the candlelight as if it found merriment in Wick's plight. Then it was gone, scuttling under the bookcase and vanishing from sight.
"Well," Grandmagister Frollo prompted.
"I didn't exactly know that it was a mouse at first," Wick admitted glumly.
"You didn't know? Why, it looked every bit the mouse to me."
"Mouses aren't always what they appear," Wick said weakly. "In Roltho's Bestiary of Furry Friends there is mention of at least fourteen--"
"Mouses?" Now a tinge of outrage rang in the grandmagister's voice.
"Mice," Wick replied quickly. "I meant mice." The proper use of language was the grandmagister's pet peeve.
"I happen to be familiar with Roltho's work," Grandmagister Frollo stated. "None of the twenty-seven varieties of mouse-looking creatures he documents happen to be shape-changing wizards."
Wick pursed his lips. He lifted the candle. "It was very dark where I found the mouse, sir."
Grandmagister Frollo nodded. "Um-hum. Not being able to see the mouse clearly, then, you believed it to be a shape-changing wizard."
"That's not entirely correct, Grandmagister."
The grandmagister's gaze turned fiercely dark. He was never, never, NEVER told he was wrong.
"Begging your pardon, sir," Wick apologized, bowing deeply. "What I meant to say was that I at first believed the mouse to be a troll."
Grandmagister Frollo shook his head and tsked loudly. "Librarian Lamplighter, there never have and there will simply never be any trolls in this great library. I refuse to allow it."
"Of course, sir."
"It is your imagination that misleads you," the grandmagister said disgustedly. "If I have taught you anything in the years that you have worked here, surely you remember what I have said about imagination."
"'Imagination, whether trifling or wild," Wick intoned guiltily, slumping his shoulders, "dulls or shackles an otherwise orderly and logical mind, and wastes thinking power that could surely be put to good use elsewhere.'"
"Precisely. Now you see again for yourself what harm can be causedby this--" Grandmagister Frollo hesitated at word choice, which Wick knew was a very bad thing, for the man never minced and never hesitated over words, despising those who did, "aberration you exhibit."
Wick winced, suddenly feeling as though his whole cherished career as a librarian--even a Third Level Librarian after all these years--teetered on the brink of disaster.
"This imagination of yours has been responsible for You giving yourself a good scare," the grandmagister continued, "and for your toppling Snerchal's Adventures in the Writhing Snake Mountains, Astomasq's Once a Thergalian Thief, Zeltam's two-volume discourse Caravaning in the Great Whiskery Desert: Before and After, Pohlist the One-Handed's A More Cautious Guide to Roc Hunting: Beware the Really Big Snappa!, and Iskar Shayl's Magic Lantern Story-Telling to the floor."
Wick didn't doubt the grandmagister's guesses. Two of the six at least were correct. The librarians in the Vault of All Known Knowledge firmly believed that Grandmagister Frollo knew where every book was, in what room it was stacked, and when it had first been brought in from the outside world. Since no books had been brought into the library in hundreds of years, it was considered quite an accomplishment.
"Yes, Grandmagister." Wick hurried around the bookcase and quickly picked the books up. He lovingly placed the tomes back on the shelf in the correct order.
"When I started looking for you this morning and didn't find you in your room, the kitchen or your assigned wing," the grandmagister said, "I knew I would find you here. You were returning a book, weren't you?"
Wick's face flushed with shame, which barely outweighed the sheer terror of having the grandmagister search for him. What can he possibly want?
"Yes," Wick admitted. "But it was only one book." Through a supreme effort of will the grandmagister wasn't aware of, the dweller had managed to curb his reading binge of the volumes in Hralbomm's Wing.
Grandmagister Frollo's eyes roved the shelves in obvious disdain. "What book was it?"
Wick only hesitated a moment. "Slanskirsk's 1007 Zenkariquian Nights." It had been a truly wonderful book, a thousand and seven stories about wizards and warriors and dungeons and death traps. The dweller had been captivated, reading well into the morning hours.
"I suppose it had to be the annotated version by Vassely, the Mad Monk of Bethysar," Grandmagister Frollo stated with regret.
"Yes." Wick's shoulders slumped in dismay. The book had been amassive tome, all the book a single dweller could carry and still stealthily stumble up and down staircases without breaking his neck.
The grandmagister stalked down the bookcase, eyeing all the volumes distastefully. "You know how I feel about Hralbomm's Wing, Librarian Lamplighter."
"Yes, sir." Everyone at the Vault of All Known Knowledge knew the grandmagister's thinking on every room in the great library.
"This wing is filled with frivolity, something that has no place in a proper history of the world. And that is what we have here in the Vault of All Known Knowledge. We are the last bastion of hope, the final torch that will hold back that dreadful beast, Ignorance, father of the corrupting twins, Superstition and Irrationality."
Solemnly, feeling as though he had an anchor about his neck, Wick followed his master. After the Cataclysm had decimated populations and ravaged the world of whole races, when the very idea of civilization had hovered on the brink of disaster, the Old Gods had engineered a plan that had caused the construction of the Vault of All Known Knowledge.
Wick took pride in the fact that a dweller had been chosen to care for the First Book, the one the library designers had used to safeguard the island and start building. As those men had constructed the great stone edifice, others had searched out books lost in the world and brought them back. Now they had each and every one, and so it would be until a future grandmagister felt it safe to return them to the world. Until that time, dwellers would continue to serve the grandmagisters of the library.
"Imagination, as I have profusely illustrated upon more than one occasion," Grandmagister Frollo pontificated, "is simply a marriage of convenience between misinformation and an impatient passion to understand. A truly educated scholar knows, while an uneducated charlatan blends fact and fiction into a concoction gossip-mongers want to hear. A true student washes his hands, and his brain, of such things."
Wick trailed a hand over the book spines, struggling to keep from taking a tome from the shelf when he spied an interesting title. However, he did remember where they were located. He managed to snatch his hand way just before Grandmagister Frollo looked back at him to make sure he was paying attention.
"Were it within my power," the grandmagister declared, "I would rid the library of these particular books. They offer nothing educational, and only rob an impulsive librarian with an attention deficit of his already finite time in this place."
"Begging the grandmagister's pardon," Wick said, "but I wasn't reading that book during the time allotted to my duties here at the library. I never neglect those."
"I know you do not." Grandmagister Frollo stopped unexpectedly and turned to face the little dweller. The old man shook his head sadly. "I wasn't talking about your duty periods, Librarian Lamplighter. A librarian lives by the time that he spends between the covers of a book. You spend more than most. However, I hate to see that time go unrecognized by you as a precious commodity and squandered on volumes such as these." He swept a hand in irritation at the bookcases surrounding them.
"Forgive me, grandmagister," Wick apologized, "for I did not mean to anger you."
"You don't make me angry," the old man snapped. "In fact of the matter, you vex me, Librarian Lamplighter, you vex me like a good dose of chafing wartneedle pox. By the First Book, if most of my other librarians had the zeal and the passion, as well as the sheer grasp, you exhibit for the written word, the task of finally cataloguing all the volumes in this building would not seem so insurmountable."
Pride swelled within Wick. He'd labored hard at the library for years only to never progress past his current level. No one had ever been a Third Level Librarian for as long as he had. The grandmagister has noticed! Suddenly, the thought that Grandmagister Frollo had been searching for him seemed not so daunting. Perhaps his promotion, which Wick considered to be long overdue, was again up for review.
"Yet," the old man continued in a more strident, thundering tone, "you insist on cluttering that great pumpkin of a head of yours with the most trivial literature contained within these magnificent halls." The grandmagister exhaled deeply and continued a little more calmly, but the effort showed. "I have tried to understand it, tried even to believe that you will some day grow past these debilitating pursuits, but there are days like today when my doubts overpower my dedicated attempts to believe those things."
Just as quickly as the feeling of pride had come to Wick, it went away even faster. The little dweller gazed down at his unpolished shoes and his guilt suddenly seemed too much to bear. His father was disappointed in him, and so was the grandmagister. "I humbly apologize again, Grandmagister. I will try to devote myself more to the readings you suggest."
"Very well, Librarian Lamplighter." The grandmagister cleared his throat. "However, I didn't seek you out to remonstrate you over your readinghabits. Despite your diversions and incessant ramblings through this great library, I've found you to be more dependable than many."
Now this was looking up. The air returned to Wick's lungs. "Thank you, Grandmagister."
"That was an observation," Grandmagister Frollo advised, "not a compliment."
"Of course, Grandmagister."
"I have a task for you."
"I need you to go down to the Yondering Docks and deliver this," Grandmagister Frollo pulled a thick package wrapped tightly in cheesecloth and twine from beneath his robes, "to the Customs House for shipping."
"Of course, Grandmagister. What is it?"
Grandmagister Frollo blinked irritably. "Librarian Lamplighter, I have taken obvious care that this package is wrapped securely." He popped one of the tight twine lines, making it thrum against the cheesecloth for a moment. "Were I to hire a town crier to go about announcing the package and what it contains, I think that would defeat the purpose of the wrapping."
"Of course, Grandmagister. I was only inquiring because I wanted to know how best to handle the package."
"With care, I would think, that would reflect somewhere between the concern one would show for an elven blown-glass figurine and a goblin hog's-head cheese."
Bile rose at the back of Wick's throat momentarily at the thought of a goblin hog's-head cheese. It was made, of course, from real hogs' heads. "I could take the package to the ship it's going out on. I really don't mind."
"Whether you mind is irrelevant," the grandmagister said. "If I'd wanted you to take the package to the ship, I'd have asked. What I want you to do is to deliver it to the Customs House."
"Will someone pick it up there?"
A frown turned the grandmagister's face sour. "No, Librarian Lamplighter, I'm sending the package to the Customs House to rot."
Wick's face flamed. He made himself be quiet.
"Are we quite clear on your duties now?"
"Oh, and this letter as well." The old man produced a letter. There was no address on the letter. The insignia of the grandmagister's ring--an open book and quill--was pressed into the wax seal.
Wick took the letter. "Yes, Grandmagister." He looked at the package and the letter, and his curiosity gnawed at him from the back of his mind like spoor beetles, which were known to crawl for miles after only getting a fragrant hint of a fresh prize waiting to be claimed.
"Off with you, Librarian Lamplighter," the grandmagister ordered, shooing Wick with one ink-stained hand. "There are only so many daylight hours librarians are graced with, and many, many pages to turn."
"Of course, Grandmagister." Wick bowed and backed from the room, carrying the heavy package in one hand, the letter in the other. "You can count on me."
The old man glanced at him threateningly. "If I can't, Librarian Lamplighter, I know where you sleep."