I walked as quickly as I could down the corridor, the books bouncing hard against my ribs in their sack. I snarled a bit at the passing faete, his massive green hands shifting upwards, the leaves slowly getting out of my way. I hurried out of the building, grateful classes were over for the next ten-day. It wasn’t enough time to go all the way home, but I could at least visit Aunt Dunaria in her aerie outside the city. Anything to get out of this sweltering heat.
The gates to this city were open and the guards stopped me before I left, checking the books weren’t one of the six forbidden tomes. Not like I could take them from the grounds of the yardril without everyone noticing them. As I entered the larger city I heard noise behind me and groaned, Kirkin and his friends were following me. On horses. My tail inadvertently lashed back and forth in frustration.
“Look, the freak refusing to walk like a person,” Kirkin snorted as he approached the gate, the guards glancing at him but not searching him. Not that Kirkin would ever merit touching the bejeweled books of power.
“Probably afraid she’ll fall down if she’s looking at us from so high,” one of the lackeys said, was that one Derjoul or Ladour? I couldn’t ever keep those two apart.
The sound of a horn bugled and I scrambled up the wall of the gate to get out of the way of the horsemen, twisting my head to look over my shoulders as six great horned beasts galloped into the courtyard. Nearly twice the size of a human’s normal steed, the men tucked into the compartments on their backs looked like boys rather than knights. I didn’t even take satisfaction in Kirkin and his ilk having to scatter as well, so caught up in the sight of Nerdous Guard galloping past. I scrambled up the wall instead of jumping back down, my claws finding grip in the mortar between the stones. There wasn’t any doubt the Nerdous Guard would go through the Yardril to the palace, but I longed to watch them regardless.
I paused when I saw two of the guard peel off and gallop to the gates of the Yardril library. The books. A shiver ran through my spine and I quickly scrambled to the gargoyle on the wall, perching on his back and leaning far forward to crane my head to see.
“What is it?” Kirkin yelled from bellow, “what’s happening?”
I looked down to watch four more Nerdous Guard gallop past. I leapt and scrambled to the next gargoyle wishing I had the sort of perfect balance of a real cat, then the next and the next. My hindquarters slipped on the fifth gargoyle, just two from the window of the Yardril keep. My little wings spread almost in instinct and I scrambled fiercely, my claws slashing deep into the stone as I dug in. Damn. Those were my favorite gloves too. At least they weren’t the lambskin gloves Papa had sent me.
I made it to the wall of Yardril and climbed easily to the tall windows in the grand library. Dedicate Urda was there, his sword in hand as I came in. When he recognized me he said, “Oh thank the tears, I was afraid it was…”
“A Carzul from from the halls of chaos?” I half-joked. He frowned and said, “Not something to even tease about.”
“You told me the books are drained,” I said, “there is nothing there the halls of chaos doesn’t already know, and the books have no powers of their own.”
“Except the souls themselves.”
I didn’t argue with the man. I moved to stand over the tile over the books and said, “Ten Nerdous Guard came galloping in, two came into Yardril. I assumed I had better come here in case they want me to try to read something in one of the books.”
Dedicate Urda slowly sheathed his sword and covered it back within his grey robes. He ran a thin hand through his grey-flecked brown hair and then scratched his hair-roughened cheeks. He was going to say he needed to shave before they came when the door opened. I jumped a little and felt myself crouch immediately, the hackles around my wings rising and my tail flicking furiously.
The two Nerdous Guard followed in the arch-diada into the library. The arch-diada wrinkled his stubby nose a little when he saw me and waddled closer to Urda. I could smell the stench of wine from where I crouched, feeling the pupils of my eyes widen as I took in the sights of the strange men.
One was a tall young human with darkened skin, his helm in his hands showing off his shaved head and a tattoo that ran from above his right eye down the side of his face, the ink in his face a bright white contrast against his skin. His companion was a much younger man, probably still a squire himself. Light brown hair and bright green eyes were staring at me with a look of awe.
“I thought all the dark sphinxes were dead,” the boy tried to whisper but it was loud in the quiet of the library.
I tried to imagine what he must be seeing right now. My long black locks braided back behind my head like a normal human woman, though my face had the strange mixture of cat-like eyes, big cat-like ears swooping up against the sides of my head, but my human-like nose and mouth. My neck being a little long even for a human, wings and forepaws sharing my shoulder space. My wings were still small, golden lion-like sphinxes grew into their wings by the time they were ten or twelve years old, but at nearly twenty I still had little wings which looked more toy-like against my one-hundred fifty kilogram body. My sleek black fur was mostly short, glossy and sleek. My long tail was my pride and joy, longer fur than anywhere else on my form it waved through the air behind me like a domesticated cat’s. The tuft on the end I took special care to keep clean and wavy.
The knight grimaced and the arch-diada made a slightly disgusted face, “Most were. This one… was found.”
I deflated a little, it hurt to be reminded that in the war the black sphinxes had served chaos and nothing would ever convince the arch-diada I wasn’t some kind of spy. Dedicate Urda stepped forward and said, “Young Master, the Lady Esthtabar was discovered fifteen years ago in the burning ruins of Jundala after the earth-shaker walked.”
My claws flexed instinctively, my first memories were the crashing and shaking of the earth around me, I still hated small dark spaces. The young man looked at me with wide eyes as the arch-diada said, “We need a reading from the black book.”
“I…!” I looked to Dedicate Urda with a sense of terror.
He held up a hand and said, “What are you looking for, you know most of what we need can be cross-referenced from the…”
“We need a name for this,” the Nerdous Knight held out his hand and a digit began to replay its recording. My curiosity won as a tiny man the length of a hand’s span seemed to almost dance with a most curious weapon. It seemed about the size of a dagger, but as the man moved through a group of orcs they dropped like flies. I stood on my hind legs, tail swishing furiously as I leaned close, not touching the image but looking at it from every angle.
“We don’t want to approach this wizard yet, but we need to get him under control quickly,” the Nerdous Knight said.
I nodded at last and carefully removed my harness which held my sacks of books I had planned to take to my aunt’s country house. I moved to the tile and slowly opened it. I pulled out the black book and carefully lay it down on the floor. I didn’t so much read these books as commune with them, and I tended to be very self-conscious about my process.
Each book was a specific color. The red book was one of my favorites, giving tales of specific people, their lives and their stories of strange things. I liked when I could access the red book for hours on end. I might not understand everything the red book told me, but I enjoyed hearing the people talk. The blue book was sometimes called the book of life, a tome full of information on plants and processes for making plants produce more or to use the product of plants in new ways which improved lives. Sometimes dry and tedious, the blue book was useful.
The brown book was the most convoluted, I can’t really explain what I contains because I don’t understand most of the words it uses. Dedicate Mirath thinks the brown book might be yet a different language. If so, the green book is a cross-over between the language of the red book and the language of the brown book. It talks about animals, but sometimes talks in the language of the brown book and it gives me a headache. It really seems to be written in the language of the brown and occasionally trying to use animals as a translation. That’s the best explanation we’ve come up with so far.
The white book is still locked, whatever is needed to communicate with it… well in a thousand years dedicates haven’t figured it out. Of course in ten years I’ve figured out five of the six. The black book is the strangest book, it shows images more than words, brief clips that often give more questions than they answer. Reading it is one of the hardest things I can do. I think it’s not as clearly written as the others. I hate reading the black book.
The book is huge, a good meter on each side. I carefully take off my leather gloves and lay them aside. I sit down beside the long edge of the book and wrap my tail around my hind legs. I place both hands on the hard surface of the book and the light blossoms from the center.
“Welcome Esthta,” the words appear in pale letters in front of me. I feel my eyes dilating as they adjust to the fluctuations of light the book emits. The words appear and I carefully move my paw over the word I’ve translated to Name.
“Please enter your query,” the book showed a single space for me to add my search.
This was why I was in so many Yardril classes. I had to try to think of just the right term to search for. I carefully put in, “dancing death.”
Immediately the book began to flash so many terms and images I could scarely keep up, but none of them were right. Most of them weren’t really about death – clearly dancing was the wrong word. I slid my left hand to the left edge imperiously. Sometimes if I wasn’t clear enough, if I hesitated, the book thought I wasn’t telling it to stop and it kept going.
The page cleared and folded back to the search, the light blinking in my eyes. I tried to tune out Dedicate Urda’s whispering explanation as I tried more words to find the name of the thing that dances death.
“You see Sir knight, we see nothing, but we knew she saw something when she first stumbled in here ten years ago because you can see a reflection in her eyes,” Dedicate Urda always got excited when I read the books. Some of the golden sphinxes could pick out bits, but I got the clearest viewing.
“Query returned no results. Please try again.”
I inadvertently growled a little and behind me heard, “Oh dear, the black book isn’t always cooperative. Maybe the red book….”
“No,” I said quietly, “They were right, this is a black book question. I just… I need more information. What can you tell me?”
“The stranger came out of the dry lands to the north,” the knight said, “As you see in the digit, his clothes are strange – but it is that weapon we need to understand better. How does he kill without striking them? Is he some new revnant from the chaos court?”
I frowned and put my paws on the search again. Carefully I put in “hand weapon.”
I had made the mistake once of asking the black book about weapons. The images it returned had left me screaming and having nightmares for weeks. I hoped limiting it to hand weapons might help. Slowly I began to sort through the images the pages were showing.
I stopped when I saw it, black and about the size of a knife, it was wrapped around the image of a hand. I put my paw on it and stared as the book began to inundate me with options – death and death and death. I began quivering as the images flooded past, I felt my shoulders begin to shake as I saw death again and again from a thousand ways. With a cry I jerked away from the book, half-collapsing to the side.
My head immediately began to pound and I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to let them adjust to the light in the room. The longer I spent staring at the screen, the worse the light hurt my eyes when I stopped. Dedicate Urda had drawn the curtains, but my eyes still seemed to burn when I tried to look at anything. Colors all seemed to shift together, giving the humans in the room a blurry, haze to them.
“I’m sorry… it’s just…” I found myself sobbing and Dedicate Urda gently rubbed my long hair behind her ears with a hand. “Let me… Let me look at the red book and then I’ll try the black book again. It’s just…”
“Of course, of course,” Dedicate Urda tried to soothe me.
“No, we need an answer,” the knight said harshly. “I’m sorry lady, but we need to know.”
I nodded and said, “Ten minutes to check the red book may help me find an answer in an hour instead of a ten-day.”
He frowned but I ignored him and moved slowly to the hole in the floor where we hid our books. I reached into the darkened chamber and pulled out the brown book and brushed the white book. The white book was the smallest, the only one small enough to compare with the other books the library held. I noticed now a light on it, a little pulsing white light. I carefully pulled out the white book and there was a sound like a chirp of a bird, “Seeking. Seeking.”
I looked up at the arch-diada, feeling the blood drain from my face. His whole heavyset frame seemed to be shaking and he whispered, “Look at the book.”
I don’t have to lay this book on the ground, it is small enough for me to hold, though I do get more comfortable by laying down. The book’s smooth cover still has the blinking light. I hold it in both fore paws and stare at it’s cover intently, forcing my pupils to dilate and contract, trying to find that special spot of light where I might recognize something.
I turn it over, the back is also different than the others. The other books are smooth, single colors. The white book isn’t. It’s actually a roughened back with a shimmering backside. As I turn it over the chirping voice comes again and says, “Connection established. Please input satellite commands.”
I nearly drop it, but quickly turn it back over. The screen is still blank. I have no idea what to do and find a frightened purr rumbling through my chest. I don’t know what to do. Dedicate Urda comes over and puts a hand on my hair, gently stroking it and says, “What do you see?”
“Nothing,” I finally whisper in admission, “the little white light here…”
He gently takes the book from me and examines it himself while I hide my face in my hands, rubbing my eyes into the small pads on the heels of my hands. My ears twitch a little, catching small sounds of the dedicate and arch-diada look at the book. They aren’t having more luck.
The knight is frowning when I look up. The white book chirped again, “Please input command code.”
I frowned, the green book sometimes used a similar word. I figured out one of those codes totally by accident once. I sat up and said, “Here, let me try again.”
I took the book and grabbed a blanket. I dropped it over my head and held to book up in the darkened space I had created. I forced my eyes to dilate to their utmost. Slowly the letters on the screen began to appear to me. I found words I could recognize about a third from the bottom of the screen, “Place thumb here for current-user access.”
This almost never worked, but I tried it anyway and placed my thumbs in the pale boxes. It gave a rude bzzrt noise of rejection. But even this was new! What had made the book awaken? Could the stranger…?
I removed my thumbs from their spots and another set of words appeared, “Unidentified user. Would you like to create a user account?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” I whispered excitedly as I pressed the button.
Just like the other books, it wanted to know my name, my age and my rank. I always chose “commander” and the others had accepted. The white book showed dots around the rank and the word “seeking approval.”
It seemed to take forever and then it came back and said, “File not found. Would you like to take the commander’s test now?”
I frowned and said allowed, “It doesn’t want to let me enter without some kind of commander’s test… what should I do?”
“But you do see something now!”
“Yes,” I said.
It suddenly flipped and there was a face of a man on the screen, “Oh thank God. I thought I was alone out here! Where are you? I need help. I crashed and I’ve been attacked by some kind of native lifeform. I’ve been sending out distress signals for six days! My name is Dominik Rowe and I am….”
I stared at him with wide eyes with my mouth open as he spoke, the words unintelligible but I was reading them on the screen in what I assumed must be a translation, because the sound didn’t make sense. I screamed in pain when the blanket was ripped off my head and light seared into my eyes. I dropped the book as I fell backwards, thrashing a bit as I tried to bury my face into my paws, but the light poured into my dilated eyes.
There was yelling around me and suddenly the comforting darkness of the blanket covered me again. I mewed like a kitten again, sobbing in pain.
“It’s gone…” the arch-diada said, “the light went out too…”
“So the stranger doesn’t understand us?” that must be the knight, a deep slow voice.
“He… might,” I said, “I think he has another white book.”
“I saw a face, I think… I think it’s like the face from the digit recording” I said. I whimpered when the blanket was jerked off me again, but now it didn’t hurt as much. I just winced and let my pupils contract until they were bare slits. I wouldn’t be able to look at any of the books for the rest of the day now, “I could read it… the white book was… telling me what he was saying. He apparently crashed.”
“Crashed? Is there is an ocean beyond the Northern dry lands?” the knight said.
“The records are quite clear, the northern dry lands lead directly into the mountains of chaos,” the arch-diada said firmly.
“He thinks the trolls attacked him,” I said.
“Well they probably did,” the squire said.
“I… I think we should help him,” I said. “And… to talk to him we’d need the white book.”