On the night of April 19th, 2026, the Veil broke. Ten thousand years of strain building up against the fabric of postdiluvian reality finally proved too much to bear, and the Self-Keeping-Secret tore like moth-eaten cloth stretched too far.
In a single night, the foundations the world had built itself on were swept away, and the pillars beneath were exposed for the first time in ages.
In a single night, magic returned to the world. The Ways opened once more, and the old gods woke from their slumber and wandered again in the world of men. Secrets lost since the dawn of man found themselves new voices.
In a single night, the world returned to how it had been before.
In a single night, everything happened.
All at once.
A trail of muddy footprints wound across a once-pristine carpet. The prints belonged to a pair of taped-up sneakers, and the sneakers belonged to a little girl wearily treading her way across the room. The girl’s name was Naomi, and she was very tired.
The air was warm, musty, thick with motes of dust suspended in beams from an illusory sun. Perhaps on another day, she would have pulled books from the shelves and found a comfortable corner. But not today. Too tired. Exhausted. The act of standing was almost too much for her to bear. She didn’t know when she had last slept, how many hours had passed since then. It hadn’t been much sleep, she knew. A few hours on hard ground. A cough tickled at the back of her throat: she swallowed it down.
The books absorbed the noise of her passing, looming with polished hardwood and leather binding.
The girl felt very small, treading through this place. Very small, and acutely aware that something was missing, that she was not truly a child anymore. Not fully? How could she be, with what she had seen over the last few months? Everything that was familiar, her home, her school, her neighborhood, most everyone she knew, gone. Never to return.
She felt…hollowed out. What was the line? Butter scraped over too much bread. Too true a phrase, now that she had lived it. Some thoughts dragged themselves through her autopilot mind.
Her shoes were ruined, that was first. Soaked right through. Her feet were cold, her socks were a lost cause, and she definitely had some blisters swelling up. She made a note to get a pair of proper boots. The jacket was okay for a while longer, though she was beginning to pick up the rather distinctive stink everyone else claimed it had acquired.
With her group of refugees led away by the docents from processing, she had closed up the Way, as she was obligated to do, and now had to file a report with the Head Librarian. Her report would then be copied down and filed with the Archivists, with further copies disseminated to the other Conductors.
As the crow flies, it would take just under eighteen thousand years to walk to the Head Librarian’s office from where she now stood in the marginal stacks. Of course, crows are notoriously unsubtle creatures with a bad head for direction in esoteric dimensions. In taking advantage of the various junction points between there, here, and somewhere, the walk could be made in twenty minutes or so.
Naomi’s muddy footprints eventually dried up as she made her way across narrow hallways and reading rooms. The architecture, direction of gravity, and even what classified as a book shifted often. Spider-legged Pages scuttled about the shelves, readers lurked in the corners, and all seemed to be as it normally was. Today she saw a trio of pale purple fish-men discussing philosophy in burbly voices, the Minister of Clouds (May He Forever Be Voluminous and Fluffy) pacing through a section on practical application of romance theory, and a large bucket of curly fries leafing through an atlas of the Amberbradcht Food Zones.
One got quickly used to the number of alien forms found in the Library: most were welcome, after all.
Past a brilliantly illuminated reading room inside of a god1 and a corkscrew passage of slate-blue steel, she arrived on a little balcony in the edge of the center chamber of Library: the Head Librarian’s office.
It was at this point that Naomi’s sense of scale and proportion hung itself right then out of self-preservation. It was the only way of viewing the enormity of the room, and the thing that filled it.
The Serpent moved. A serpent the size of a planet, coils of muscle bunching and twisting. A head the size of a continent rose up, a pair of pince-nez spectacles balanced on its snout.
“I suppose you’re here to tell me that you’ve brought more refugees to my Library.” The Serpent continued moving about, pulling country-sized, granite-bound books from the walls of its office with its tail. “They’re tracking mud on my carpets, child.”
Naomi glanced down at her own feet for the briefest of moments before looking back at the Serpent.
“Bah. What is one more pair of feet? How many this time?”
“Twenty-one. Through the Yzlotski-Rubharbic Way.”
“Anything else to report?”
“It’s still stable, but there’re a lot of Ten-Colors running around, trying to get in.”
“We tried talking to them, but they didn’t feel like listening. Three people died.”
Naomi felt like she should feel something about that, should feel something about watching them die. She knew she did, once, but that was…only a few months ago.
Only a few months to strip her of that. To turn that switch off.
“Mmm. Very well. We will re-route through the Pendlock and Whaizha Ways until this is settled. I will send a squad of Collectors to regain control. You have done well, child. Go, rest. I suspect your father is awaiting your return.”
Naomi nodded, but instead of leaving, she sat down on the balcony, arms on the railing, legs dangling off the edge into thousands of miles of space.
“You’re a lot nicer than people say you are.”
“Pure character assassination. Better than confusing me for that thrice-damned rapist on his sodding throne, I suppose, but please restrain presumptions of nicety. I am a tester of men and a god of difficult choices and a keeper of delicate knowledge. An ass by trade. But, that said, I do have a vested interest in keeping mankind alive and well. They keep me both entertained and employed.”
“Someone’s got to do it, I guess.”
“Precisely. Someone must provide the options. My sister was the one for all the sense and order and right judgment. Order and chaos, free will and instruction working in unison. Wisdom impotent without the full knowledge of good and evil, and that knowledge self-destructive without the guidance of wisdom. Beautiful system. Of course, dear sister Sophie is in pieces now, which complicates matters greatly.”
Gears clicked into place inside Naomi’s head.
“Wait, that means she’s…”
“Aye, she is.” The Serpent paused for a moment. “Were she in her right mind at the moment, I feel you would appreciate her company. Now, that you can blame me for.”
The Serpent went back to sorting his books, occasionally writing in them with a Europe-sized quill pen, dipped in an inkwell Mediterranean.
After a while, the Serpent spoke again.
“You are still here. Speak, child. I can tell you are uneasy.”
Naomi let out a long, tired breath.
“I don’t know if I can do it anymore. Conducting, I mean.”
Break the dam, and words keep bubbling out.
“Everyone always says that I’m so much like my mom, and…I just want to tell them so what? I never met her. She’s just like…a name and a face but I don’t know who they belong to, and everyone expects me to be just like her and I try my best but I just can’t.
The Serpent was silent.
“And I can’t talk to dad about this because he still misses her, and he’s so stressed with Tribunal work, and I don’t want to disappoint him…”
The Serpent was silent.
“And I just…I’m just tired.”
A pause, and then the Serpent spoke.
“Go along and rest, child. Return when you are ready. You have done more than enough good, at a great cost to yourself. No one could rightfully blame you. You have not failed.
"Your mother killed a god, and the shadows of god-slayers are both wide and heavy. It is easy to be crushed under that shadow. Too many men and women have been. ‘My father has done great things: I have no worth until I have matched his feats with my own’ they say to themselves, and this guilt of failure eats away until they are hollowed out.
"But you do not have to become her. You do not have to walk in her shadow, and I have no doubt that she would have you standing at her side, not behind. She did not kill Moloch for her own glory: She struck down the Horned King because she loved you. Those around you want to see you become good and kind and strong, as she was. Any inbred barbarian with a magic sword can kill a god. It takes something more to be a good person in a cruel world.
"You stand on the threshold of innocence and knowledge, passing through from the simplicity of one to the bare cruelty of the other. It is a test. My test. It is not easy.”
There was a hint of a smile behind the glasses.
“But it is not impossible. That is all I have to say on the matter. Go now. Your father is waiting.”
Naomi stood up, and wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
It was several hours later when Salah returned to the makeshift apartment that served as home in the Library. The lamp hanging from the rafters was turned low, just enough for him to see his way to the bathroom door at the end of the hallway without stubbing his toes.
He poked his head into Naomi’s room, to see his daughter curled up on her cot, sleeping as deeply as King Arthur under his mountain. She was still wearing her mud-crusted shoes. Salah smiled wearily, and went about preparing himself for bed. He was exhausted: trying to coordinate order out of chaos of the world was not an easy task, and he was not suited for the Tribunal, even in the temporary manner he now served, despite what others claimed.
He completed his proper nighttime rituals, trudged back to his room of the room, and saw on his pillow a folded piece of paper.
The writing inside was in a small, tidy hand, and read:
Got back okay.
I love you.
The N was big and cursive and embellished, though perhaps not as detailed as it often was.
Salah folded the paper back up and set it on the desk by the head of the cot, and then turned off the lamp.
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