Aleesa was drinking tea while she read, but that was all right, as she was in the lounge attached to the clerical dormitory and not in the library proper, and she was handling nothing more significant than reports of the temple’s operations. So many supplies purchased, so much paid out in wages, tallies of tithes by visitors and stipends from the Universal Church… It was all nearly mind-numbing in its banality, and not for the first time in her career she entertained a brief fantasy of deliberately spilling tea on the papers. This was chased away by a rush of guilt. Mundane and irritating or no, the written word was still sacred.
Still, if an accident should happen, she wouldn’t be particularly upset.
It was the younger acolytes’ shift change, and they bustled past her efficiently. Smiles were exchanged along with pleasantries and snatches of conversation, even the odd laugh, but the overall tone of the room was demure. They were followers of Nemitoth, and after all, the temple was still a library, for all that this was their living space. Calm, quiet and order were not only the rules of the house, but the major inclination of those who served the god of knowledge. He didn’t call just anyone to his side.
For all that working in her office would have been quieter and more comfortable—and would have allowed her even more luxury than a cup of tea—she like to position herself here or in the dining hall when she had paperwork that didn’t demand the whole of her concentration. It helped her stay in touch with the young ones. And helped them remember that they were watched. They were good kids, but few were over twenty years in age and you just didn’t collect that many youths into one environment without needing to supervise them heavily. Nemitoth didn’t encourage multitasking, but Aleesa chose to regard this habit of hers as simple efficiency.
Sipping her tea, she lifted her eyes from the ledger she was perusing. Two young women sat in different chairs, reading; a few people were still chatting quietly against the far wall, where the shelves of battered old novels were kept—well-tended, but aging and consigned here rather than presenting their shabby condition to the public in the main library—and as she watched, a boy wearing an expression of suppressed panic dashed by, in too much of a hurry even to hear her pointedly cleared throat. Ah, well, it likely wasn’t worth chasing him down to criticize his decorum, especially since he was clearly already late for something. Other than that, the room was slowly clearing out as the acolytes scattered to their duties, only the mere handful who were free this hour remaining.
Which meant she should think about heading back to her office… Aleesa sighed softly and tilted the ledger to check how many pages she had left to go over. It was simple work; she only had to read and verify that the figures were correct. Her position as head of the temple demanded that she sign off on them, and she made it a point of policy to always know what she was signing and be certain it was right. Some administrators simply slapped a signature on whatever they were handed, and in truth, she’d rarely caught an error and none of those would have caused significant problems if left unattended. It was the principle of the matter; this was a holy place, dedicated to a deity who espoused precision and reason in pursuit of knowledge. Letting the little details slip by would have been tantamount to a spiritual failing, in her opinion.
Aleesa finished her tea about the same time she finished a page, taking that as a sign that she had reached a stopping point. The rest of the ledger she could polish off more efficiently in her office and return to her scribes by evening bell. With a soft sigh, she stood, setting down her teacup on the low table to be cleared away by the acolyte whose duty it was this shift.
“Ah, priestess, I’d hoped to find you here!”
Approaching her with a smile was Colin, one of the seniormost acolytes, not far shy of his own ordainment. He wore white gloves and was carrying a large, leatherbound volume carefully in both hands.
“Colin!” she exclaimed—quietly; it was a temple of Nemitoth, after all. “Is that…? Please tell me it is.”
“Of course,” he replied, with a faintly teasing smile that said she knew very well what it was. Aleesa couldn’t quite identify every volume in the library at a glance, but this one was distinctive and had been the subject of some recent controversy. “Duke Madouri has opted to move with his family back to their ancestral home. His seneschal just delivered this to the temple.”
“I suppose we should count ourselves fortunate it hasn’t found a permanent home in the Duke’s personal library,” she said dryly. “Is it…unharmed?”
“Indeed, it appears to have been well-treated,” he said, grinning. “I can’t find any damage. It’s almost as if it was handled properly by someone well-versed in caring for old books.”
“I suppose if you have Madouri money, you can afford to hire experts in anything,” she replied, fingers itching to reach for the tome. She didn’t, of course, not until withdrawing the pair of white gloves she kept in a pocket of her uniform and slipping them on. “It frankly surprises me that he would bother.”
“Well, this whole furor was kicked off by the Duke’s sudden fascination with his ancestry,” Colin said, gently placing the old book in her hands. “In a way, this is a physical link to them.”
“Which makes it all the more surprising that he didn’t simply cart it away to Madouris,” she said, deftly tilting the book this way and that to inspect it. Indeed, there had been no harm done that she could detect. “After throwing his weight around to be allowed to take this out of the library, it was clear enough we could hardly have stopped him.”
“May I never have cause to understand how nobility think,” Colin intoned solemnly. “I fear it would damage my faculties. I need those for work and flirting with girls. And prayer, of course.”
Aleesa pursed her lips, regarding him with a raised eyebrow. “I must say, I’m rather disappointed in you for bringing this in here. You are well aware that food and drink is served in this room.”
“Now, now, priestess, I was only pausing to glance in the door and see if you were present. Had you not been I would have gone straight to your office. Now that you’re here, though, you can escort our lost little lamb to its home in the vault.”
“And, of course, now my hands are too full to take you by the earlobe and dish out a lesson in manners.”
“Indeed!” He grinned wickedly. “My insidious plan is complete. Infer an evil laugh; I’ve been asked not to do that where people are studying. And now, I abscond!”
“Hold it,” she said severely. “Since you were heading toward my office anyway, you can take that ledger and deposit it on my desk.”
“Ooh, almost got away,” he said ruefully, snatching up the ledger where she’d laid it on the arm of her chair. “Consider it done.”
“All right, get on with you,” Aleesa said, unable to repress a smile. He winked at her and turned to glide out of the room.
Aleesa caught Farah, one of the acolytes, gazing after him with such piquant longing she might as well have been on stage. Ah, to be young enough to make that face un-ironically… The girl glanced up at the priestess momentarily as Colin slipped out, failing to disguise a dirty look before burying her nose back in the book she was allegedly reading. Aleesa decided to let it go. One of the first lessons of working with young people was that there were some things it just didn’t pay to get involved in.
The lounge exited into a quiet exterior hallway which was actually a balcony over the main library floor. Aleesa slowed, as she almost always did, passing across this. Cunning architecture set the stone balustrade a distance back from the actual edge of the balcony, the angle making it difficult for those below to see those above. Indeed, it wasn’t evident from the floor that there was anything up here at all.
Still holding the book carefully, she peered over the edge as she passed, savoring the view of orderly stacks, well-behaved patrons and silently bustling clerics in the crisp brown shirt and slacks of Nemitoth’s uniform. She could have claimed it was part of her duty as head of this temple to keep an eye out for trouble, but if she were to be honest with herself, Aleesa simply enjoyed the sight of a well-run library. That she was the one running it filled her with a satisfaction she didn’t try to suppress. No harm in a little pride. Nemitoth wasn’t a god who demanded asceticism of his followers, just orderly thinking.
From the balcony she stepped into a wide, spiraling stairwell that carried her down past the ground floor. Even holding the heavy tome, Aleesa made the trip without growing winded, though she felt the beginnings of twinges in her knees and lower back. Those were new… Working in a library kept one in surprisingly good shape if one went about it with the proper enthusiasm. Books were heavy, and the library’s proper functioning demanded that things be done swiftly and precisely—and quietly. They were not only librarians, here, but clerics of Nemitoth, and had a divine mandate to treat every task as an act of worship.
Nemitites liked to joke among themselves that they ran as quickly and silently as elves.
The sharp little pains weren’t debilitating or even terribly distracting, but they still occupied Aleesa’s mind. She was in her sixth decade, and a point would inevitably come when drawing on the divine light each evening wouldn’t erase them entirely. Eventually, she would have to pass on the task of running the temple to someone else, and the thought caused a sinking feeling to open up inside her. It wasn’t that she craved authority so much as that she loved her work. Without her work…she wouldn’t even know who she was, much less what to do with herself.
Carrying the precious old volume of biographies, one of only three copies still extant and the only one in Tiraan Province, she of course took care where she placed her feet, taking no risk of any accident that might damage it. Still, she knew these halls well enough to navigate them sightless, and various matters weighing on her mind tugged at her attention. Nemitoth’s opinions on multitasking notwithstanding, Aleesa was well accustomed to running a secondary train of thought as she worked—or walked.
She really shouldn’t encourage… No, to be truthful, she really shouldn’t tolerate Colin’s attitude with her. It wasn’t as if she took his flirtations seriously; she was old enough to be his grandmother, and had never been a great beauty even in her youth. He only did that to brighten up her day, and incidentally make his own life easier. They both knew it, and well, it worked. She got a kick out of his charm when he turned it on her, and perhaps was a bit more lenient with him than he deserved. But Colin actually was one of her better acolytes, and he’d never crossed a line and never would. She wasn’t fool enough to think he was even interested in crossing that line, even had he lacked the self-control and respect for their respective positions. It wasn’t as if it had ever caused problems.
So far, anyway, she thought ruefully, thinking of Farah. Poor, silly girl… Aleesa had doubts about whether Farah had a future with Nemitoth’s cult; her aptitudes were simply not clerical in either sense of the word. She was a good people person, though, and had been helpful in keeping her fellow acolytes motivated and calm through the more stressful aspects of their training. Perhaps her obvious interest in Colin could be subtly encouraged… Farah would probably make a better librarian’s wife than she would a librarian.
Of course, Aleesa hadn’t the faintest clue how one went about matchmaking. Doubtless somebody in this place did. She’d make discreet inquiries.
She opened the door to the rare book vault and stopped, blinking in confusion.
This was not the rare book vault.
She was facing one of the lower reading rooms, well-lit by fairy lamps—the temples of Nemitoth had been quick to adopt these enchanted conveniences and rid themselves of having open flames anywhere on the premises—but completely empty. Aleesa backed up, frowning, and peered up and down the hall. No, this was definitely not the right place. Gods above, she truly was getting old. She hadn’t managed to get herself lost in the lower passages since she had been an acolyte.
Retracing her steps, Aleesa shook her head, grateful nobody had been there to see her mistake. Oh, the ribbing that would result from that. Subdued, good-natured ribbing of course, given the culture of Nemitoth’s cult, but she didn’t much care for teasing in any of its forms, at least not when it came at her expense.
Maybe, she acknowledged grudgingly to herself, it was time to at least think seriously about her replacement. There was, of course, a hierarchy in place, but theirs wasn’t a cult that encouraged competitiveness or ambition, and none of those in the ranks directly under her wanted more out of life than they had, at least as far as she knew. Of course, wanting a position didn’t qualify one for it… She had years yet, surely, before it would be necessary for her to step down. Plenty of time to single out a good successor and groom them for the role. A shame Colin was so new; he had all the right skills, plus a way with people that would make him a good leader someday. Especially if she could wrangle him into a relationship with that Farah. They really would be adorable together… How hard could it be to get him to notice? Farah was quite a pretty girl.
Aleesa opened the door and stepped through, then slammed to a sudden stop. She was in a storage closet, looking at rows of bottled ink, quills, nibs, rolls of parchment and sheafs of the newer white paper.
Her heart began to pound. Something was not right here; she was not that absent-minded. She wasn’t absent-minded at all. Was she ill? She couldn’t afford to be ill, she had a library to run.
She stepped back out into the hall, gently nudging the closet door closed with her hip, and looked around. This was definitely not the right hall. This was not the right floor. She was one level too high… But the reading rooms weren’t on this floor either. She surely hadn’t ascended a flight of stairs without noticing it. Nobody was that absent-minded. Something was going on.
It was time for a truly desperate measure: she raised her voice.
“Excuse me? Could someone help me for a moment?”
It was a calculated gamble. If someone came and found the head of the temple wandering confused around the basement, well, she’d never live that down. Quite literally, she probably never would. Senility was seen as one of the greatest tragedies which could befall a follower of Nemitoth, and even the rumor of it would dog her. Still, at least help would get her out of here.
Nobody came, though, or called back. In fact, the silence in the basement hall was absolute. This was a teaching temple; despite their nice little collection of rare volumes, the Steppe Library was far from the best repository of books in the city. It was full of acolytes-in-training, and even in these lower halls, there was always somebody moving about on some task, except in the very latest hours of the night.
Something was wrong, and not with her.
Aleesa reversed her course, heading back for the stairwell—she could at least tell where that was from her surroundings. Back to the main floor, to get help. It baffled the mind what could be afflicting the temple… There were cases of buildings suddenly developing space-warping properties and even signs of a governing intelligence, though that was usually a side effect of too much arcane magic practiced in the area. She’d never heard of such a thing happening to an active, dedicated temple of a god of the Pantheon. What else could it be, though?
Rounding the corner that led to the stairwell, she came to a sudden stop, finding her way blocked.
To someone who had read as much as Aleesa, a person shrouded head-to-toe in dramatic black, complete with mask and voluminous cloak, was more overwrought and cliché than imposing. It said something about the mood of the place—the unnatural stillness of both the hallway and the figure blocking the stairs—that she forgot herself so far as to hug the old book against her chest. Her uniform was spotlessly clean, of course, but that wasn’t how you carried valuable books.
“Can I help you?” she asked in her best “shh, this is a library!” voice, despite the irrational stab of fear that pulsed through her.
The cloaked person stared silently at her. He (or she) wore the hood up and a swath of fabric across the lower face, revealing nothing except a pair of blue eyes in a pale complexion.
Then, a hand emerged from the folds of the cloak, casually holding a murderous-looking knife.
Rarely had she had occasion to do so, but Aleesa grabbed for the light, drawing in as much energy as she could hold, a golden aura flaring up around her and illuminating the hall brilliantly.
“Pretty,” crooned the cloaked figure in an incongruously high-pitched, unmistakeably feminine voice. “What else will you do for me, I wonder?”
Aleesa stepped backward once. The woman in the cloak began striding toward her, moving with a sinuous, leonine grace that rapidly ate the distance.
Clutching the book, the priestess turned heel and fled. A mocking laugh rang out behind her.
Now she quickly grew winded, to say nothing of the pain in her knees, but Aleesa didn’t give any of her body’s complaints a sliver of her attention. She made for the other primary stairwell, several halls east, being as careful of the book as she could. As she ran, her mind raced even harder than her feet. Figure in black, possible spatial distortions, possible perception tampering… Trained as she was in analysis and critical thinking, even with Nemitoth’s light burning in her and incidentally aiding her mental faculties, there just wasn’t enough data. No telling what she was dealing with, much less how to deal with it. Her best hope was to get back to the main floor, surround herself with other clerics.
And hope she wasn’t leading something to them that would overwhelm them all.
She rounded a corner, almost fast enough to overbalance—she was used to moving quickly but efficiently, not this pell-mell gait—and skidded to a stop, choking back a panicked sob.
The cloaked woman was in front of her.
“Are you lost?” she asked sweetly, balancing the point of her knife on the tip of one gloved finger.
“What do you want?” Aleesa rasped, breathing hard.
“I need to check out a book,” said the woman, idly strolling closer, now tossing the knife in the air and catching it. Aleesa backed away from her, but didn’t try to run again; experience indicated it wouldn’t avail her much. “Something not in the main stacks. I think you’re just the person to help me. Ever hear of The Writhing Way?”
Aleesa’s breath hitched. The Tiraan Empire was not in the habit of banning books—not because there wasn’t anything the Throne didn’t want people reading, but because the Tirasian Dynasty understood that prohibiting material only drove it underground. The Universal Church was another matter, and The Writhing Way, an introduction to Elilinist philosophy written over five centuries ago and still seen as one of the most accessible primers to the mindset of the Black Wreath, was so firmly repressed it had been all the cult of Nemitoth could do to save a few copies. They only did so because it was Nemitite belief that destroying written lore was an abomination, no matter how repellent the lore in question; copies of the book in their possession were well-hidden in the deepest vaults.
“There are none at this library,” she said, hearing the quaver in her voice, hating it and unable to stop it. “H-have you tried the main temple?”
“How disappointing,” said the cloaked woman, sounding almost gleeful. “Well, perhaps we could discuss some of the finer points. You prize knowledge, yes? I bet you’d love to learn what the Black Wreath thinks about your cult’s involvement with the activities of the Church.”
Well…that made a number of variables coalesce into a more coherent picture. It also told her just how much danger she was in. The woman stepped forward, right into the glow of Aleesa’s aura, without so much as flinching. Either a very powerful diabolist, then, or using some kind of arcane magic. The effects she’d already seen could be done with either; the Wreath was known to use both. Insufficient data.
“Stay back!” she said, tucking the book under her right arm and holding up her left hand, as if her thin arms could physically hold back the warlock.
The woman deftly caught her by the wrist.
“There’s more to the world than hiding away with your books, you know.” Her voice, now, was cold, those eyes hostile. Oddly, despite the glare, there was something almost childlike about them, and Aleesa couldn’t quite grasp what. With her arm in the warlock’s grip, she was having trouble focusing on anything but her own growing fear. Holding out a hand had been a critical mistake. She was certainly not trained for any kind of physical combat. “This is the real world,” the dark woman went on, icy and sibilant. “It’s not any more distant because you view it through a lens of numbers and paperwork. Your real actions have very real consequences.”
Quick as a striking snake, the knife came up. It was impossibly sharp; Aleesa felt nothing for a second. Only her eyes told her when the blade sliced off the first two fingers of her left hand.
The pain came seconds later, sharp but overwhelmed by the numb weight of shock. She felt the rushing, pounding sensation of blood running away from her head, threatening to make her faint. Aleesa grasped desperately at the light, drawing in so much that it nearly hurt, so much she could feel a faint, uncomfortable heat on her skin. It kept her upright, though. Light blazed from the clean stumps of her first two fingers, the wounds healing over before her eyes. The warlock flinched back from the glow, dropping her hand.
She stumbled as she turned to flee, but found her feet and used them, careening back down the hallway.
Her thoughts were completely scattered, much as she tried to corral them. How was this possible? This was a temple, warlocks couldn’t just operate freely in here, much less do… What had the woman even done? Where was everyone, how was she moving around so quickly? Aleesa needed a safe place… What was on this floor? Oh, gods, her hand.
She spotted a familiar intersection and thoughts clicked into place. There was an option.
Aleesa staggered to a halt, panting, and very tenderly set the book down against the far wall. Hopefully it would be all right there; it seemed violence was following her and it would only be damaged if she held onto it. If nothing else, the wounds on her hand hadn’t closed entirely, and blood would have a horrible effect on the aged paper. Straightening as best she could despite the sudden pain in her side—she hadn’t run like this for any reason in decades—she took off again down the side hall, making for the large oaken door at the very end.
She fished out her keys as she ran, staggering slightly with the effect it had on her balance, but had them in hand by the time she reached the door. Shaking fingers bungled the job of finding the right one, and then of fitting it into the lock. She didn’t dare look back to see how close her pursuer was. Gods, this was hard to do one-handed…
The lock clicked open and she yanked the heavy door toward herself, ripped out her key, staggered through, pulled it shut from the other side and threw the bolt.
Aleesa slumped against the door, gasping for breath. This was the most secure vault in the entire temple, the place where the most sensitive documents were held. Ironically, if the library had owned a copy of The Writhing Way, this was likely where it would have been held. Far more than the simple security of the heavy door, the blessings and enchantments on this room were enough to deter almost any threat; both key and lock were heavily charmed with divine magic, enough to resist a far greater attack than anything its designers had anticipated them actually having to repel. This was the innermost sanctum, and Nemitites took the protection of knowledge very seriously indeed.
“There you are. You know, the service here is really sub-par. I can’t make heads or tails of your filing system, and it’s impossible to find a librarian down here.”
This time, she didn’t bite back the sob that rose up.
The woman standing before her was also dressed in black, this one in tight leather that was if anything even more absurd than the one with the cloak, except that it clearly showed off the knives sheathed around her person. She turned to face Aleesa; she also wore a mask which covered everything but her eyes. Blue eyes…what was it about them that made her think of a child?
This was impossible. There was no way anyone could be in here.
To her left, the shadows behind a rack of scrolls deepened, then lengthened, and the first woman stepped out of them, accompanied by a faint whiff of sulfur. Of course, shadow-jumping was a known infernal technique. But the wards. They shouldn’t be able to do that anywhere in the temple, much less in this room!
“Ah, good, everyone’s here,” said the cloaked woman pleasantly. “Any luck, sister?”
“Not quite…ahh. I do believe this is it. What excellent timing.” She plucked a volume bound in black leather from a case of similar books, without even reading the spine. The analytical corner of Aleesa’s mind that was still functioning recognized how she was being played, the sense of drama at work here. Obviously the woman knew what was in that book; obviously she had been in here long enough to thoroughly investigate. They were just toying with her emotionally, now.
It was working.
“Why?!” she screamed, huddling back into the farthest corner from them. “We serve the god of knowledge! We’ve never harmed anyone!”
“Oh?” The woman in leather tossed the book at her.
Catching it one-handed taxed her frayed coordination to its limits, but her desperation not to allow a book to be damage was too deeply ingrained to permit failure. She finally jimmied it into the crook of her arm, face-up, and risked taking her eyes from her attackers to read the title. Her blood chilled. She recognized this one.
The slim volume detailed the Church’s program of removing children from the homes of Black Wreath cultists, both confirmed and in some cases only suspected, and placing them among families loyal to the Church. Names, dates, numbers, progress reports…
“We only keep the records!” she shrieked. “The cult of Nemitoth has nothing to do with the Church’s programs!”
“Complicit,” said the woman in the cloak, toying with her knife. There wasn’t even a drop of blood on the blade.
“Our work helps thousands…millions! Everyone! Research into medicine, agriculture, enchantment… The cult’s tithes can’t fund everything, we have to do work for the Universal Church to function! None of this is our fault!”
“Complicit,” said the one in leather coldly. “Responsible.”
“How’s the saying go?” said the other one, turning to her. “Evil prevails when the good do nothing?”
“I can’t imagine how you can keep records of something like this, keep the Church’s dirty secrets, and still sleep at night,” said Leather, still staring at Aleesa. “And they call us cruel.”
She could only stare back in helpless horror at those childlike eyes. What was it about them that was so… And then it clicked. They were too big for her face—not enough to be off-putting, but just enough to seem unusually…cute. The leather hood was too heavy, but Aleesa looked over at the one in the cloak, studying the side of the cowl, finding what she sought: the fold of fabric that meant nothing isolation, but once she knew what to look for, clearly marked the shape of an elongated, upturned ear.
And then more information snapped into place. The headhunter scare weeks back. Spatial distortion, messing with her perceptions, operating freely in a very temple of Nemitoth without raising an alarm. That was more than diabolism, more than the Wreath’s gift of stealth. By all the gods, Elilial had recruited headhunters. Two of them.
She had to survive. Someone had to be told.
Nemitoth didn’t much encourage intuition; it wasn’t reliable, wasn’t knowable. It resulted from the aggregation of the subconscious mind’s knowledge, and while occasionally powerful, it didn’t follow rational processes and sometimes was based on erroneous preconceptions. Despite the disfavor of intuition among her cult, though, Aleesa experienced a flash of it when the eyes of both women subtly changed. Intuition told her they had followed her train of thought, and come to exactly the opposite conclusion.
Nemitoth, she prayed silently, I’ve never seen you and rarely asked you for anything. I know the gods want us to solve our own problems. But if there were ever a time for you to intervene, this is it. Please…
Her god did not answer.
It was hours before the high priestess of the temple was missed. The first clues to the direction she had taken were gruesome: the fingers lying in a basement hall, specks of blood forming a trail. The venerable book of noble biographies, intact and unharmed but lying on the floor in a hall, where no self-respecting librarian would ever have left such a book.
The door to the inner vault was ajar, the blessed key stuck in the lock. The acolytes searching had begun, by that point, to suspect what they would find within, but first they stopped to extract the thin leather volume pinned to the door by a heavy, razor-sharp knife. They were librarians, after all, and quite apart from horror at seeing a book so treated, they couldn’t resist the desire to learn what it said. Even in these circumstances… Perhaps especially in these circumstance, for in this context, it was clearly a message.
The contents of the book, paired with the body of the high priestess, made the meaning plain.