THE BLACK LIBRARY
The librarian led Sammy and Mehrak through the winding palace passages. He was a slim man, dressed in dark green, and walked in an unusual straight-legged fashion with his hands behind his back, which kind of made him look like a stork.
“How long have you been the librarian?” Mehrak asked as they entered a gallery with a high, vaulted ceiling and walls covered with paintings of posh-looking men and women in fancy clothes.
“Ten years. But the role has always been in my family,” the librarian said with a nasal hiss.
“Did your family know Esther?”
“Ugh.” The librarian peered at them over the half-moon spectacles that teetered on the end of his sickle-shaped nose. “My father had to share his job with her while she was here. He wasn’t happy about it and was still moaning about it years after she left. She was friends with the Regent Mother, that’s how she got the position. Fortunately for us, she didn’t stay long and the role of head librarian returned to the family.”
At the end of the corridor, the librarian pulled open a steel door braced with thick struts. On the other side, a narrow staircase dropped steeply towards a flickering light at the bottom. He led them down, single file.
They emerged into a barren stone room with burning torches on the walls. The decor couldn’t have been more different to the plush gallery they’d just left, seeming closer to a medieval dungeon than a palace.
Two palace guards in red waited on either side of an ornate pair of brass doors. The doors had greened with age yet were exquisitely cast with images of trees and winged beasts on their surfaces. One of the guards reached inside his collar, retrieved a key that hung on a gold chain around his neck, and lifted it up over the top of his head. The librarian extracted a matching key from beneath his own collar, and they both placed them into adjacent locks, one on each door.
“On three,” the librarian said. “One, two …” They turned their keys.
Inside the door, mechanisms meshed, clanked and groaned, then there was a faint click and the librarian pushed the doors inward. Air whistled in through the opening making it seem like the library was inhaling.
Sammy stepped back from the black, gaping hole.
“This is it,” Mehrak whispered. “I can’t believe we’ve made it.” He rubbed his hands together.
His enthusiasm was infectious. Sammy shouldn’t get her hopes up, but it was hard not to with Mehrak dancing about excitedly by her side. The answers were in there somewhere, hiding in the dark, waiting to be found.
“This used to be the solitary confinement chamber,” Mehrak said. “Some of the worst criminals ever to roam Perseopia were kept here.”
Shame he couldn’t have saved that piece of information until after they’d left.
The librarian went in first, disappearing into the darkness. He returned shortly with a brass oil lamp. He removed the glass and lit the wick from one of the torches on the wall. Then he replaced the glass casing, turned up the flame and gave Sammy and Mehrak the nod. Cautiously, they followed him into the tunnel.
The doors slammed shut behind, plunging them into a cloying blackness.
They both yelped.
“Let’s get moving,” the librarian said. He smiled devilishly, with the light of the oil lamp under his chin making a sinister spectre of himself.
Good one, loser. Sammy imagined the slamming door prank was one of his favourites. How many other visitors had he spooked with it? She brushed an imaginary speck of dust off her shoulder like it was no big deal.
Mehrak cleared his throat. “Let’s go,” he said in a contrived gruff and manly tone.
The librarian led the way along the barren stone tunnel. Mehrak and Sammy followed behind.
At the end of the passage, they entered an atrium. It had a circular floor and probably a circular ceiling as well, although it was too dark above to see further than the first few storeys. Square tunnels branched off the hall right the way around its circumference, like the rays of light a child would draw when illustrating the sun. Stacked above the ground-floor passages were further rows of tunnels, the same arrangement again, directly above, and then again, and again, right up into the dark, like being inside a giant bees’ nest.
Nearby desks sat dusty and abandoned in a cluster with tarnished oil lamps on their surfaces. In the centre of the hall sat an enormous glass panelled sphere, connected to a point high above by a steel chain.
“Amazing,” Mehrak said. He turned slowly, staring up at the warren of tunnels.
“This place doesn’t get used often, does it?” Sammy said, running her finger through the dust on a table.
“Unfortunately not,” the librarian said. “Our illustrious Regent, blessed by Ahura, isn’t as interested in literature as previous generations. Only the Regent Mother still uses the library, although not often since her illness.”
The librarian opened one of the glass panels on the big sphere. Then, removing a thin splint from his pocket, he lit the wick inside
from the one in his lamp. He made an adjustment to an internal mechanism and the sphere ignited with an all-consuming brilliance that lit up the place.
Mehrak helped the librarian raise the light using a wheel and ratchet by the entrance tunnel. It wobbled up off the floor, and upon reaching the third floor, they secured the chain to the wall.
The librarian lit another two lamps for Sammy and Mehrak, then went to a metal cabinet by the entrance tunnel. He removed several tatty books, checked them over, took one and replaced the rest.
“This is the most recent logbook with Esther’s name on the spine,” he said, bringing the book to the table. He leafed through to the last page. “This is my grandfather’s handwriting. If we work backwards from here, we can find Esther’s last entry.”
Mehrak waited with the librarian as he checked each page in turn. Sammy left them to it and wandered the circular hall under the burning glass beacon. The light bleached the colour from everything. Not dissimilar to what it would be like being an ant under a magnifying glass, except, she supposed, without the burning to death part.
She walked around the edge of the atrium. The tunnels branching off were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and books, plummeting into blackness only a few metres in. Not particularly inviting. Sammy imagined convicts hiding in the dark, ready to shank her if she got too close. She moved back to the centre of the hall and, for a second, lost her bearings. Where was the entrance? She spun round in a panic, saw the metal cabinet that held the logbooks, and relaxed. The entrance passage was next to it; the only passage without books. She let out a long sigh.
“We’ve got it,” the librarian said.
Mehrak wasn’t smiling.
“What?” Sammy asked as she came over.
“We’ve found Esther’s last entry.”
“And it wasn’t the last time Esther came here.”
“My father added an entry after hers,” the librarian explained. “It’s dated six days later and reads, ‘I know Esther has been here tonight, but she’s not left a record of the books she’s removed from the shelves. I’ve taken an inventory of the books she reads on a regular basis and found The Arda Memoirs missing. I’ve tried to find her and confront her with this allegation, however, she’s left the palace with no indication of when she’ll return.’”
“She took the book,” Sammy said.
“It’s a setback,” Mehrak said. “But we can read through the other books on her reading list. Maybe one of them will point us in the right direction.”
“Do you want me to fetch you the other books?” the librarian asked.
“Please. And also any books you have referencing the final trials of Pouyan or anything on the steppe map?”
“You’re looking for information leading to the Rule Book,” the librarian said with a raised eyebrow.
Mehrak shrugged. “I have a mild interest.”
“Sure you do. The Regent Mother had that same mild interest. Follow me and bring your lanterns.”
The librarian took them through a tunnel to their right. Like the others, it was filled with books from floor to ceiling and all the way down its length. At the end of the corridor, they came to the base of a staircase. They climbed three storeys and then doubled back along another tunnel, leading back towards the centre of the library.
Halfway along the passage, Sammy leapt back behind Mehrak. “What’s that?” She pointed as she held him in front of her like a meat shield. It was a spiky, spherical object, the size of a beach ball, lying on the floor and silhouetted black against the light in the atrium.
“A cactus,” the librarian said.
Mehrak walked towards it. “I’ve heard about these. They remove humidity from the air, don’t they? They stop the books from getting damp and rotten.”
“How very interesting,” Sammy said, and walked past the cactus without looking at it. She was a nervous wreck. And getting scared by plants now. What was the deal with that?
Mehrak and the librarian followed her along the tunnel but stopped several sections from the end.
“Here we are,” said the librarian. He began scanning the bookshelf. Mehrak helped.
Sammy gave the books a cursory glance, but all the text on the spines was of the strange, looping, squiggly variety she couldn’t read, so she walked on to the end of the tunnel by herself. She stood on the edge, high above the atrium. From her vantage point, she could see the ceiling. It was almost the same view looking up as it was down, minus the desks. The library was big, but it somehow felt confined, as if the fear of a hundred imprisoned men still clung to the walls. She felt even further from home here than she had done in the forest. But at least Mehrak was with her. Thank God for Mehrak. Turning up when he had, taking her in, feeding her and giving her somewhere to sleep. He was still looking out for her now, working to find a way home.
“Unusual Temples by Armilla Citan,” the librarian said, breaking the silence and Sammy’s thoughts. He gently pulled a tattered, brown book from the shelf.
“And here’s Zoroastrian Religious Sites by Yousef Moez,” Mehrak said.
They went on reading out the names as they found the books and loaded Sammy up with them. When they’d found all the books from Esther’s reading list, they headed back to the stairs, went around the outside of the library and up another flight to find Mehrak’s Rule Book reference books.
Loaded up with as many books as they could carry, they staggered back down to the main hall and set them on a desk. The
librarian fetched a fresh-looking logbook from the cabinet and noted the names of the volumes they’d taken.
“I’m sure you both know this already, but you aren’t allowed to remove books from the library,” he said. “You can spend as much time with them as you like, but they have to remain here. Now, I’m going to do some cataloguing, but call out if you need anything else.”
Mehrak already had his head in a blue leather book. “Thanks,” he mumbled.
Sammy picked up a black book and flicked through the pages. All the text was handwritten and looked like an ink-covered spider had crawled across the page. It didn’t even flow left to right like normal text; it went from right to left instead. She flicked through another book – handwritten in scribbles, too.
She sighed. “What language is this?”
Mehrak looked up. “Avestan,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
Sammy looked at the text. “I thought …” She stopped.
She’d recognised a word. She had no idea how to pronounce the letters or even what they were, but she knew the word. She looked further down the page. There were other words emerging; whole sentences coalescing on the pages.
“I can understand this,” she said. “This chapter is telling of how the ancients believed the Acropolis at Mycolos was built by a demon worshipper!”
“Interesting,” Mehrak said. “I think I knew that. Not what we’re looking for though, is it? Unless it also mentions pearls of portal paths or portal gems or something like that.”
“That’s not the point,” Sammy said. “I can read it!”
“Impressive. Can you also spell your name and count to ten?”
“Ha ha. I mean I’m reading this. I can’t read Avestan. I only know English.”
“English?” Mehrak said. “I’ve not heard of that.”
“Well, you’re speaking it.”
“I think you’ll find we’re speaking Avestan.”
Mehrak calmly looked up from his book. “Hey, Mr Librarian!” he called out.
“Yesss?” came the librarian’s nasally reply. He stuck his head out of one of the library tunnels two storeys above them.
“What language are we speaking?” Mehrak sat back in his chair, smiling expectantly at Sammy.
The librarian frowned. “Is this a trick question?”
“No!” Sammy and Mehrak chimed in together.
“Avestan, of course,” he said, and disappeared back down the passage.
Sammy stared down at the text in front of her so as not to make eye contact with Mehrak. She clenched her teeth and balled her fists under the table.
“Were you speaking English when we first met?” Mehrak asked.
“What?” Sammy pretended to be engrossed in her book.
“When Louis and I found you in the forest, I asked if you were okay and you replied in a weird language I’ve never heard before. Was that English?”
Sammy rubbed her temples. “I don’t know. I thought English was the only language I knew.”
“Maybe Avestan and English are different names for the same language.”
Sammy sighed. “This book’s definitely not in English,” she said. “None of these squiggles are in the alphabet.”
“They’re in the Avestan alphabet.”
Sammy concentrated on reading her book. She couldn’t cope with Mehrak’s nonsense. She scanned several passages. Not an interesting subject matter, but suddenly being able to read another language was pretty cool.
Five books later, Sammy was totally bored of her newfound super-reading ability. She knew she shouldn’t be ungrateful after acquiring a superpower, but super-reading? It wasn’t in the same
league as super-strength or super-speed. What if that was her only special ability? She wasn’t the proper chosen child, so did that mean she got crappy powers too? What if the real chosen children could fly or explode boulders with their minds? And her only power was to read obscure text in boring reference manuals! That would make her about as lame as Aquaman. How was she supposed to help save Perseopia with reading skills? She’d had enough. She was just about to get up to stretch her legs, when Mehrak piped up:
“I’ve found something.”
Sammy scooted round the table. “What?”
Mehrak slid the book to her. “The diagram.”
“It’s an island in a river.”
“Read the inscription underneath.”
“Built by the ancients, the Temple houses a gateway of paths between Perseopia and the other realms and worlds.”
“Sound like the right temple to you?”
“Sweet. Now we just need to find out where that island in the river is.”
“I reckon so,” Mehrak said. “If you get the librarian to fetch some charts, we can match the river in the diagram to the real one. I’ll keep looking for information about the pearls. I think the Arda Memoirs book Esther took probably had the info we need, but I’ll keep looking anyway.”
Sammy looked up at the library honeycomb. Three storeys up, a light flickered in one of the book passages. Mehrak followed her gaze.
“Take the tunnel below, then head up three flights,” he said. “That’ll take you to the one he’s in.”
Sammy grabbed her lamp and made for the tunnel. The fusty smell of books seemed stronger than it had done during her first walk through the library. She could almost smell the history soaked into the fibres of the pages. Gilded titles on the spines sparkled in the lamplight like nuggets of gold in the walls of a gold mine. Each
leather cover protecting secrets that had been passed down through generations. Sammy wondered how many people had been privileged enough to walk these tunnels and share this knowledge.
At the end of the passage, a cool draught blew across her. She shivered. A strange dread flip-flopped in the pit of her stomach and, with it, the disappointment that she was scared. Again. The library was creepy, could she use that as an excuse? What could possibly happen to her in here? There hadn’t been convicts for years. The doors were thick metal and heavily guarded. Could evil entities still linger? Ghosts of the mass murderers rattling their chains? Being spooked while alone in the dark in a solitary confinement chamber was probably excusable.
Sammy gritted her teeth, marched the last few metres to the end of the tunnel and climbed the three flights of stairs to the passage where the librarian was.
The light in the atrium was almost on the level of the tunnel, lighting up dust particles so the air seemed like it was burning.
Sammy raised her hand to shield her eyes and pressed on. The librarian was just down this passage.
There was a movement ahead. Sammy paused. It was just the librarian. But she couldn’t bring herself to continue. She was feeling more stupid by the minute. She took a deep breath, gripped her lamp tight and marched down the last half of the tunnel. To find – no librarian.
Down in the atrium, Mehrak was at his desk, lost in a book, with the librarian stooping over him like a vulture. How could that have happened? Was there another way down she didn’t know about?
A slam echoed in the passage behind her. Sammy screamed and spun round.
“Sammy?” Mehrak called up. “You alright up there?”
A thick black book lay on the floor a short way down the passage.
“It was just a book falling off a shelf,” she shouted down.
The book had fallen on its spine and the pages were flicking back and forth as it reached equilibrium.
“Be careful with them!” the librarian called after her. “Some are over a thousand years old.”
There was a gap on the fourth shelf up. The book must’ve fallen off as she’d walked past it. She bent to pick it up when a dozen more pages flipped over by themselves, and stopped.
She stared at the book, not quite sure if she’d imagined the extra pages turning. She knelt down and placed her lamp on the floor. She was about to pick up the book when the picture on the open page stopped her hand. It was a painted illustration of a child with shortish, blonde hair. It was basic, but it kind of looked like her.
“The child with the golden hair,” she whispered as she read the inscription below the picture.
With shaking hands, she turned several more pages, careful to keep the sheet with the illustration marked with a finger. There were other pictures. Pictures of battles, ancient stone temples hidden in the Fungi Forest, snow-covered mountains, and a tall, thin structure with bird-like creatures soaring around its peak.
Sammy flicked back to the page with the illustration of the child with golden hair and read the passage beneath the inscription.
The child arrives at midnight, under the cover of darkness.
Under no circumstances must it be allowed to fulfil its destiny.
It brings nothing but death, a darkest darkness.
Kill it. Kill the child.
Perseopia’s future depends on it.
“Are you okay?”
Sammy opened her eyes.
She was on the floor. Mehrak was crouched next to her.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” the librarian said. He was standing over her, scowling. “What were you doing on this row?”
“Calm down,” Mehrak said. “She was looking for you and you never told her she couldn’t come down this passage.”
“The entrance of the passage is roped off. I’m sure even a child could guess the significance of that.”
“What rope?” Sammy mumbled. Her head was spinning. “I didn’t see a rope.”
“How long have you been asleep up here?” Mehrak asked.
“I don’t know.” She tried to sit up, but her stomach lurched and she slumped back down again.
The librarian leant against the bookshelf. Below his elbow was the gap on the fourth row.
“A book,” Sammy said. “A book fell off that shelf.” She pointed at the gap. “Where is it?”
“What book?” the librarian said. His eyes narrowed.
“There was a book on the floor, just here.” Sammy desperately tried to get up again, but couldn’t. “A black one.”
“There was nothing here when we found you,” Mehrak said. “You got here first,” he said to the librarian. “You didn’t see a black book, did you?”
“No,” the librarian said. “No book.”
“What was it about?” Mehrak asked.
Sammy looked from Mehrak to the librarian. The librarian’s eyes burned into hers.
“I can’t remember,” she said at last.
“I think it’s time for you both to leave,” the librarian said. “It can get stuffy in here. Some fresh air might do you good.”