“So, everything you told me was bullshit.”
Rupinder tilted his head. “Was it?”
“All that talk about letting me leave if I wanted? Yeah, looks like it.” Something about him made her shudder, though she couldn’t put her finger on what.
He held his hands in his pockets. His hair was tied back in a ponytail. The green sweatshirt had been swapped for a black T-shirt reading “THROBBING GRISTLE/MONTE CAZAZZA TOUR”, marked by holes at the seams. It made him look more like a bored grad student than someone who organized raids on world-spanning conspiracies. “You did leave, did you not?”
“I figured you wouldn’t, you know, kidnap me again.”
Rupinder raised an eyebrow. “Is that what I’m doing?"
Amy glanced around. He was standing between her and the only route out. Maybe she could rush him?
Don’t. Violence is strictly forbidden here. The punishment will be severe.
Well that was good to know. “You’ve got some girl scout cookies for me to buy or something?”
“I have an offer. Since you fled before we could finish our conversation.”
“There was a reason for that.” A bead of sweat ran down her forehead. At first glance, he seemed relaxed. But there was a tension in the way he stood, like a jaguar watching its prey.
He shrugged. “Unfortunately for you, I have little else to do today. You’re stuck with me for now.”
She stayed silent.
“I was impressed by your little escape routine. Memory magic is a tricky thing. For one as new as yourself to use it for any length of time is… unprecedented.” He paused, looking thoughtful, then added, “Nearly. You may prove interesting.”
Hearing that made her hesitate. She recovered quickly. “Sweet. Put it on a card, I can hang it from my fridge.”
“Still, you cover your tracks poorly. Following the traces of your spellcraft was like trailing a rabbit in clean snow.” He scratched his beard. “I’m surprised it didn’t teach you.”
She raised a mental eyebrow.
It did not occur to me that it was something you would not know.
You’re not really great at this ‘being of pure knowledge’ thing, are you?
I am a collector of knowledge, not a distributor of it. Instructing inexperienced mages is not my purpose.
More reason to find some books on magic, it seemed. She focused back on Rupinder. “We had some communication issues.”
“Well, I suggest you be more careful. There are…” he glanced to the side, “others, who may be interested in you. Our offer of help still stands.”
“Super not interested.” His eyes didn’t move at all as he talked, she realized. That’s what was so unnerving about him. He’d only blinked twice during the whole conversation.
“One job. Not even a particularly dangerous one. That’s all we would need, after which our considerable resources would be turned towards helping you.” He smiled. It didn’t touch his eyes. “And your family.”
“Fuck off,” she said. It had worked once before, right?
Rupinder sighed, and finally his eyes moved off her. “If you insist.” Tendrils of smoke began to rise from floor. He pulled an object from his pocket and tossed it to her. She caught it. “When you change your mind, use that. Your little partner will know how.” The smoke thickened, blocking him from view. When it dissipated, he was gone.
Amy took a deep breath and willed herself to stop trembling. She wiped away the sweat from her forehead. It suddenly occurred to her how tired she was. How long had it been since she slept? Twenty hours? More? Her stomach rumbled. Almost as long since she ate. All the food had been lost in the subway, when the bag tore.
She opened her hand. He’d given her a small black stone, engraved with a crown. She shoved it into her pocket. You know this guy?
I was not sure until this point, but if what I believe is correct, he is a spellcaster with many names. One who has been active for as long as I have been aware, and should not be trifled with.
Many names, huh? What do most people call him?
Payeshim. From a long dead language, translating approximately to… It trailed off, as much as a voice that existed only as thought could. The shelf to your left. What do you see?
She glanced over. It looked fine to her. The wood was a bit scratched up maybe, but not horrifyingly so. Uh… books?
One moment. A second later, a small bug appeared on the wood. Amy stepped towards it and bent down for a closer look. It was a silver wasp.
What the hell?
I believed it a normal insect, until I realized its motions were unnatural. It appears to have been masked by a form of perception-filter. I have removed it for you.
Its wings buzzed. Before it could take flight, she thrust her hand forward, mashing it against the shelf. She felt a small shock. When she pulled her hand back, she saw a small mess of wires and metal. Jesus. You think Rupinder…
No. This is a Foundation drone.
Her blood turned to ice-water. We’re getting out of here.
I believe that would be unwise.
No, fuck that. She began to walk through the shelves, toward the Way Silav had directed her to. If they know we’re here, we’re bouncing the hell out.
I am searching the area around us. There is nothing else watching.
Well, you already missed one, didn’t you? She spun around a corner, almost slammed into a large octopus-thing carrying a stack of books. It shook a tentacle at her.
Now I will be less wary. You are worn from your travels. If you do not rest, you will be at an even greater risk. I will be able to carry watch as you sleep.
I can be tired for a bit.
You are safer within the Library than at any point upon Earth. Here, nothing approaching violence is permitted. They would not be able to touch you without your blessing. Elsewhere, you would be at their mercy. This is the optimal opportunity to prepare. To plan. Or is it more to your liking to attempt to combat the organization that held you for five years, when you possess no information and your body barely functions?
Amy slowed, but kept walking.
There are places here in which to rest. Think. This is the wisest decision.
With a sigh, she stopped. Okay. We’ll stay for a little bit.
Amy hid, peering around a corner of the shelf.
Someone had erected a shanty town in the middle of a clearing. Over a dozen small huts were scattered around a single, multi-story cabin. Denizens manned food stalls placed around the edges of the area. Some people had laid sleeping bags on the open floor. Children kicked a ball back and forth. It made her remember the stories of villages constructed in the New York subways by the homeless. She’d always pictured those the same way as this- strung together from a hundred pieces, barely held in place.
They will not hurt you.
Yeah, well. Suck it up. We’re doing this my way. She watched the inhabitants of the village. Nobody in a Foundation uniform that she’d seen. Not many humans at all, in fact. The predominant species were the multicolored bug/man/lizard hybirds manning the stalls. A beefy specimen leaned against the door of the center cabin. A few others sat at makeshift tables, chattering with other patrons.
Her stomach rumbled. Most of the food being served looked like brown mush, but that wasn’t stopping her mouth from watering. The last meal she’d had had been the noodles, way back in New York. Not even a full serving. She glanced around and, satisfied there was nobody too suspicious, slunk towards one of the stalls. The chef was skinning something long and hairless, and didn’t notice her approach. She cleared her throat. It was impossible to read his (her? its?) expression as five and a half pairs of eyes looked over at her. It chittered.
“You speak English?” she asked it.
“L’il bit,” it responded in a voice that sounded like bubbling tar.
She looked over the available options. There was a plate of what might have been meatloaf, except for the wriggling green feelers sprouting from the surface. Next to it was a grey crustacean. It had been cut open at the chest, and a white gritty substance oozed out. It didn’t look cooked. Next to that was a sandwich.
Do I want to know what’s in that?
Nothing that might hurt you.
Amy sighed and pointed at the sandwich. “That.”
The chef’s eyes rolled back into its head. “You gonna pay for it?”
“Uh, how much?” Did she have anything on her to trade? She’d lost the bags in the subway station, and there hadn’t been much worth bartering anyway
The chef refocused on cleaning the animal. It hadn’t stopped the preparation while it talked. “Recommend me a book.”
She raised her eyebrows “What?”
The chef carved away the last bit of skin with a flick of its wrist. It laid the knife and animal on the cart. “Gimme a book I ain’t read yet.”
Amy blinked. Damn, she should have paid more attention in English class. What had they even studied? “Uh… Of Mice and Men?”
The chef’s antennae clattered together. “I like mice.” It handed over the plate.
She snatched it and retreated to the emptiest shelf possible. She sat, leaned against the wood, and lifted the sandwich. A dollop of green sauce dribbled onto the plate.
Next time you’re finding me some real fucking food, she thought, and took a bite.
Maybe it was five years of Foundation meals. Maybe the Witness did something to her head so she tasted differently. Maybe she was just so damn tired she didn’t care. But it was the best sandwich she’d ever tasted. The meat was tender, juicy, tasting like something between beef and lamb. The spices were salty, sour, a little sweet, blending together in perfect levels, complemented by the tangy sauce and fresh, springy bread. She devoured it in less than a minute. It seemed far too filling for its size. She leaned her head against the shelf.
A touch on her shoulder startled her awake. Bleary-eyed, she looked up. A hooded figure stood over her, shaking her with its right hand. Its other arm hung at its side. Instead of a hand, a small lantern dangled from the wrist. The face under the hood had no mouth. A blue, wrinkled eye gleamed.
“Shit!” Amy yelled, kicking out. The thing stepped out of the way of her foot, turned, and began to walk away. She pushed herself up. “Hey, what the hell?”
It is a docent, one of the Librarian’s guardians. It means no harm
Her shoulders tightened as she watched it leave. It shouldn’t be fucking touching me.
The empty plate sat on the ground. Sauce had congealed around the edges. She picked it up before heading back into the clearing. The space was near empty. The food carts were closed. A few people still sat at the benches, drinking and swapping tales. The bug creature guarding the door had left. In its place, a large, bald-headed man stood watch.
“Uh, hey,” Amy said as she approached him. “You guys have rooms to sleep, right?”
The man looked at her. Most of the left half of his face was covered in a tattooed maze of red lines. It ran down his neck and disappeared under his collar. “We have a few.”
“Can I use one? Just for the night.” What even counted as night here? There wasn’t anything resembling a sun. Or any lightsource, for that matter. Where was the illumination coming from?
“Sure,” he said. “Price is a secret. One you’ve never told anyone else. And your name.”
“Uh… right.” Amy thought back. What was there? She didn’t exactly feel like exposing the deep dark corners of her soul for a few hours of sleep. But he hadn’t said how bad it had to be. “I’m Amy Melvil. I cheated on my Algebra final in high school.”
The guard rolled his eyes. “Boring.” He made a note on a pad of paper, gestured through the door. “You get one of the rooms down the first left hallway. Pick an empty one. We’ll know if you cheat.”
The building’s hallway ran back at least 200 yards, far enough that it should have intercepted the the shelves. At the end was a flight of stairs. Four paths branched off on each side of the hall. Amy entered the one she’d been directed towards, walked a bit before finding an open door.
The room was sparse. One bed. One set of paper-thin covers. One nightstand. A carpet that was more dust than fabric. Walls so close together she could bring her arms up and touch both. Amy stared. Then she stepped back into the hallway and slammed the door.
What are you doing?
She stormed back to the entrance of the building. “Hey,” she said.
The guard looked at her.
“I need a different room,” she said.
“You need a bigger secret.”
She sighed, thought for a moment, and said “I was in love with my best friend for like four years, even after she thought I’d gone crazy and stopped talking to me.” She paused. “And… I tried to kill myself, after I got out of the hospital. I forgot to turn the safety off the gun. Is that fucking enough for you?”
Grinning, the man wrote the words down. “More than. Three flights up the stairs, second hallway to the right.”
She nodded and began heading back.
Something is worrying you.
You are obviously bothered by something.
I’m not sleeping in a room like that. Never again.
The Witness didn’t respond. She made her way up the stairs, to the third floor. The hallway had four doors. Only one was open.
Behind was a basketball-court sized room. White marble flooring ran wall to wall, reflecting the light of the chandeliers above. In one corner, red and gold blankets draped over a king-sized bed. The wall opposite was covered by shelves, all stacked with books. There was a dining table, a pantry (fully stocked, it looked like), refrigerator, stove, dining table, dresser.
She barely made it to the bed before collapsing into sleep.
When Amy woke, the room was dark. As she sat up the chandeliers flickered back to life. She rested at the edge of the mattress, staring at the marble floors.
How long was I asleep?
Thirteen hours and four minutes.
Right. Rubbing her face, she stood. Her stomach growled. She obliged it, moving to the kitchen to rummage through the pantry. The contents were thankfully normal. She grabbed bread, butter, cereal from the pantry, eggs and milk from the fridge. Pots and skillets sat by the stove. She set about frying three eggs. And you don’t feel anything strange around, do you?
Everything is normal.
Amy grimaced as she dumped too much salt into the pan. You think they’re still following us?
If they are, they’re being exceedingly cautious.
Shit, she thought, both at the Witness’ answer and the smell of burning eggs. The pan sizzled as she scraped the salvageable food onto a plate. Not bothering to move to the table, she began to eat. What now?
We should travel to the Warden with as much haste as possible. How far is the Way?
She thought of the mental map Silav had given her. About six miles from here. Maybe another three to the village once we’re through.
They didn’t talk as she finished eating. It didn’t seem necessary to clean up the dishes- she left them on the counter and walked to the door. At the bookshelves, she paused. Do you think they’d let me take some of these?
A Library Card is automatically created if you take volumes from the shelves. You are free to keep them as long as you wish, until they are returned or lost. After a moment it added, Do not lose them.
See any good ones on magic?
It directed her to almost a dozen volumes of different sizes, and she was able to find a large knapsack in the dresser to carry them (she wondered how much, if any, of the room’s contents were specifically accommodated to her). Half of them were in languages she didn’t recognize, but the Witness assured her it would be able to translate.
Browsing finished, she exited the room and descended the stairs. The doorman, unmoved from his post, grinned as she passed.
Man, why do I get the feeling I shouldn’t have told him all that shit last night?
It was probably unwise.
Amy sighed. Whatever.
The clearing had filled back up. A crowd of people gathered around one of the shelves, watching an impromptu play. She glanced around, taking in faces, watching for anyone standing too close, looking too suspicious. Her breath caught as a tall hooded figure approached, but it passed by without a glance. She exhaled slowly as she watched its exit. Tugging the hood of her jacket over her eyes, she slipped into the shelves.
The area around the Way, when they arrived, was mostly deserted. A man covered in butterflies sat in an armchair with a picture book. Two woman pored through what looked like a glamor magazine. The rest of the clearing was empty, except for the tall mirror leaning against a shelf. Amy approached it and placed a hand on the glass.
She closed her eyes, and an image filled her mind- rolling hills covered in trees, shimmering, small metal buildings swollen with people. The color and light and noise filled her mind like puzzle pieces falling into place, until it was so vivid it was like standing there. And when she opened her eyes, she was.
Without hesitating, she checked Silav’s mental map and began to head north-west, uphill. The route was practically drawn out for her- every tree, rock, bush. Even shaded by the trees, the sun was punishingly hot, and soon her clothes were drenched in sweat. She pulled off the hoodie, let it drop to the ground.
Grey smoke drifted from the trees ahead. Frowning, she pushed forward. She could smell the fire now, the sour scent of embers. Her mouth had gone dry. She swallowed, and almost felt her throat cracking. Between the foliage, up the hill, there was movement.
She ducked behind a tree just as two men in black body armor walked past. They were talking quietly. One laughed. Both held guns.
The town ahead looked like a warzone. Four helicopters were perched in the still-smoldering dirt around the buildings. Most of the homes had been blown open, the furniture inside scattered and burnt. Craters scattered the earth. And everywhere she looked, there were bodies.
Some were from the soldiers. Some. The others were blackened, scorched, shredded beyond recognition. The dead soldiers were being gently loaded onto helicopters. The bodies of the townsfolk were ignored.
She stood to run, and felt the barrel of a gun against her back.
“Walk,” said a voice from behind.
Amy stepped forward from the trees. The soldiers turned to look at her. The rifle pressed deeper into her back. She kept walking.
The gun-holder guided her to one of the helicopters. A man sat at the edge of the fuselage, smoking a cigarette. Rather than the body armor and uniform of the soldiers, he wore khaki shorts and a blue pollo. His chest bulged slightly beneath it. Thick brown hair covered his arms. He looked up as she approached, raised an eyebrow. “Would you look at that.” He took a drag of the cigarette then extinguished it on the metal. “We’d hoped you’d arrive. Didn’t think I’d be so lucky though. Good thing our friends in the Library were so eager to trade information.
Her heart slammed against the wall of her chest. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening.
The man leaned back, propping himself up with his arms, staring at the roof of the helicopter. He looked more like someone relaxing at a poolside than a leader of a group of soldiers. “Therefore in fierce tempest is he coming, in thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove. Your buddy put up a hell of a fucking fight, you know that? But we got him. Headed to a containment chamber right now.”
It couldn’t end this way. There had to be something she could do. She couldn’t let them take her back. An idea came to her. The Witness’ instructions in magic. Focus. That was the key Forming the image in your mind, and releasing it. It had only mentioned the idea in the context of the glass-switching trick, but would it apply it here? She closed her eyes, clenched her fist, and thought.
A sphere of wind burst from her in all directions, strong enough to rock the helicopter and slam the khaki-wearer against the metal. Soldiers around her stumbled and fell. Grass was thrown into in the air.
Before she could regain focus, a shock slammed into her stomach, sending her spasming to the ground. A soldier holding a taser stepped over her and looked down.
“Shit,” said the khaki-wearer. He stood next to the soldier. “Looks like you’ve got more bite than we thought.” He wiped blood away from his nose. “Doesn’t seem as bad as your counterpart’s, thank God.”
Hands grabbed her and pulled her roughly to her feet. She closed her eyes, tried to bring the image of the wind back, but a fist slammed into her gut.
“Behave,” said the man.
Amy didn’t respond. She was too busy trying to imagine fire. The man slapped her.
“Come on, don’t keep trying that shit.”
She mumbled something that sounded scary in her head. It came out a gurgle.
As they lifted her into the fuselage, a thought occurred to her.
That stone Rupinder gave us. We can use that.
The response was slow If you think it is wise.
I think- the thought was interrupted as a soldier tossed her against the wall- I think we might be out of options.
Very well. Take the stone.
She waited until the khaki-wearer was looking away before snaking her hand into her pocket.
You must break it.
After checking to make sure nobody was watching, Amy slammed the stone against the floor of the chopper. The noise was drowned by the sounds from outside. She glanced at the rock. Not even a mark. She began slamming it down, and over, a dozen times, until she felt the surface crack.
A funnel of wind burst forth, so strong the frame of the helicopter groaned. Soldiers were tossed across the yard. The khaki-wearer stumbled, rolled across the grass. Branch and leaves twisted in the air, snapped up by the gale. Amy dragged herself to the edge of the fuselage and looked out.
A pillar of smoke leaped up, sending nearby soldiers scrambling away. Rupinder stepped out. He wore the same clothes he had in the Library and a bored expression.. Seeing the soldiers he stopped, looked around. A grin spread across his face. His eyes focused Amy, and though he was over a hundred yards away, she heard him speak clear as day. “You ARE interesting.”
Before he could say more, two gunshots rang out. One went through his chest. The other sheared away the top half of his head. The body stumbled back, still standing. Brain and bone bubbled up in the skull cavity. Frothing blood ran down his cheeks and neck. The mush erupted like a geyser, fell back down, solidified into a copy of the missing skull. Skin formed around it. Rupinder touched a finger to his cheeks, brought the tips back red. He stared at them. And smiled.
The battlefield erupted. Three soldiers to his left began to scream as their bodies were wrenched back, spines bending like a contortionist. Thin branches and vines sprouted from their eyes, their nostrils, their mouths, growing until the soldiers were invisible under the tangle of leaves. The plants kept growing, rushing towards nearby agents, trapping then as well. A soldier dropped to his knees, opened his mouth to scream, instead vomited up vines.
Another group raised their weapons. Before they could fire, the air around them smeared, like a blurred photograph. Their skin began to warp, pulled, twisted, mashed together like play-doh. When it stopped, they were a single, moaning mass.
Without turning, Rupinder raised his hand, and a soldier behind him launched skyward. Amy didn’t see him come down. His buddy leaned over, coughing black liquid onto the dirt. He fell to all fours, his head resting in the puddle. Grey horns burst up from his forehead. His clothes ripped as his body swelled and his skin turned red and leathery. Wings sprouted from his back. Soon, an eight-foot tall demon stood in his place. It roared and fell upon its former comrades, tearing into them like a dog chewing
Within minutes, every soldier was dead or dying. The moans of the injured filled the air. The demon growled and turned to Rupinder. He waved a dismissive hand. The beast dissolved into ash. As the remains drifted away, he turned to Amy.
Her jaw fell open. How the FUCK did we ever get away from this guy?
That is an excellent question.
Rupinder approached her. “I didn’t expect your call quite so soon.”
Amy glanced at the bodies of the soldiers. She didn’t respond. The fused mass of bodies was dragging itself across the ground, reaching for the body of one of its fallen comrades.
“Are you going to object to me killing these people, too?”
She shook her head, still too stunned to form actual words.
“Good.” He slid his hands to his pockets, looking around. “Hell of a mess. What were you doing here?”
“That’s… that’s none of your business,” she managed to stammer out.
Rupinder stared at her with what might have been pity. “You seem to have made it my business.”
Amy looked away, not wanting to meet his eyes. Somehow, it felt like doing so would be dangerous. “I don’t need any more help.”
“I doubt that’s true.” He stepped away, walking through the bodies. His voice stayed clear. “You’re still not hidden from them. I can tell. If you stay, they’ll continue the hunt. And next time, I won’t be there to save you.” Rupinder knelt by a corpse of a villages. Her face had been ripped apart by a bullet. He placed a hand on the her shoulder. “You were lucky, essentially.”
Amy stared at the ground.
“You were looking for the Warden, were you not? A smart idea. He would have been able to help.” Rupinder turned and grinned. “Would have.”
“Get to a point,” she said, still not looking at him.
He stood. “My point is thus. You need protection. And we need a guide.” His eyes met hers, and she shuddered. “I think there is an agreement to be reached.” He held out a hand.
After the longest minute of her life, she shook it.