“Sayn Cerupeen, boy, but you need to learn to tell a story better,” is the first thing that Culnor says, when I finish. "There’s a horrible tentacle monster, and you spend all this mopey time talkng about how sad it was for those elves to meet you. Do you realize, Jaspar, that you are never the hero in your own stories? Your father would disapprove.”
I snort. “You and my father were the only heroes in any story I've ever known. Everybody else has just been... people.”
He laughs. “You think your father and I were some kind of heroes? Piffle! We wrote the stories, boy, think about it! Hardly going to say, ‘and right there, facing that dragon, I pissed myself in terror,’ am I?”
“You pissed yourself?”
“No!” he bellows. “Well, yes, lots of times, but alcohol was involved. My point is, spice it up some. None of that whiny stuff about deciding to let your partner die! You saved her! You killed the monster! Be the hero!”
“It was luck,” I counter, slumping. “By all rights, she ought to be so much dust right now.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he says. He looks me in the eye. “Do you think I look back on my years of adventures and remember all the times I got lucky? No! I remember the times I got filthy rich, had throngs of people adoring me, and diddled some princess!”
“So you do remember the times you got lucky,” I snicker.
“Not. All. Of. Them.”
I throw up my hands. “Okay, okay, you win. The elf-girl didn’t die, we fucked like bunnies, and there aren’t cephalopodic demons suddenly taking an interest in the affairs of those outside of their oceans.”
“Better story,” he growls, but then sighs. “If only.”
We sit and stare at nothing for a moment.
“Did I mention that one of them attacked me on my way over here?”
He sits bolt upright. “What?”
I tell him.
He lets out a low breath. “So that’s what happened to you. You’re lucky I was at the Club.”
He rises heavily, and for the first time I can see the years on him. His first few steps toward one of his massive bookshelves are tentative, as if they pain him. His back is as ramrod straight as ever, but it’s pride that keeps it that way, pride and stubbornness.
“A minion,” he says, and hands me a tome.
It is thick, and seems to be bound in iron. I brace as the bigger man hands it to me; this thing must weigh twenty-five pounds. A hinge hangs open on one side, with a slot to accommodate the matching loop on the thing’s cover. I peer under it as I accept it from Culnor.
“It takes a lock?”
“This book and that scroll you found share certain subject matter,” he says. “This one’s a rough translation, instead of the real thing, but you can never be too careful with Those Below.”
I peer at the page. It’s an illustration of the thing that attacked me -- well, one of them; it’s been that kind of night -- rendered with careful detail and geometric precision. It’s written in Old Calish, which I don’t read, though I can make out a word here and there. “Demon”, it reads. “Weak”, “slave”.
“Ieander,” I murmur. “If that thing was just a servant...”
“Turn the page,” rumbles Culnor. I do so.
The next page shows an image of what look like armies clashing, except they aren’t human. They seem to be insectoid... the Crawling Ones? And on one side, each soldier has one of these minions covering its face. The other side doesn’t seem to be faring that well. Storm clouds are moving in from the winning side, and the picture just fades off into darkness there.
“The Battle of Ix’Thn’kkul,” says Culnor. “Where the Crawling Ones fell.”
He takes the book back from me and locks it as he explains. “They were once not that dissimilar from ourselves: a powerful race that covered the globe, masters of all that they looked upon. But they did something -- no one knows what -- that raised the ire of Those Below. They were obliterated for it. A handful only was saved by their gods, spirited to the Crawling Lands to serve as what we now affectionately refer to as the Dukes of Hell. Those Dukes were the only survivors of Ix’Thn’kkul, when the last of the Crawling Ones fell to the armies of Those Below.”
“And these minions... they controlled them?”
“Yes. A spore barge -- a kind of giant, flying jellyfish -- would fly over, blow its sacs, and soon the place would be coated with little pods, each containing a minion. Thousands of them at once would burst out of their pods, and go affix themselves to the nearest sentient. But...” he pauses, brow creased. “The texts make it seem like they aren’t really intelligent, themselves. Just a channel for Those Below to exercise their will. There’s certainly nothing about mentalism.”
I snort. “Did lots of people walk away from encounters with them?”
“You may be the first.”
“Then you said it yourself: look at who was writing the stories. If they were this unstoppable force, then the only people who could put pen to paper and describe them would at best have seen them from afar. Don’t believe everything you read. Especially when it was written by the Dukes of Hell.”
He harrumphs in a scholarly way, mutters something about a distant relative, but gazes off into space. When he comes back, he says, “So... a field of a thousand of those things, just as you describe them...”
“They’d wipe us off the map. One almost did me, and I’ve got God on my side.”
“Yeeeessss...” he tugs at his moustaches, “about that. You said that God Revealed to you how to kill the minion... and Holvelak, too. But His other tricks didn’t work against Holvelak, at least, and you had a hell of a time with one tiny flying octopus.”
“Both seemed to be mentalists. Holvelak talked to me about things that were only in my mind, that I hadn’t said aloud. Come to think of it, Fat Lonnie did, too.”
“But if he was reading your mind, Holvelak also had plenty of time to see what you were planning to do with that sword of yours, and the pyrotoxin. Maybe...” he paused. “Maybe mentalism can’t read the words of God. But maybe Divine Revelation isn’t perfect, either. Maybe God can’t see every outcome, which is how He steered you straight into getting pummeled by Holvelak.”
“Or maybe that was exactly His plan all along. I certainly seem to get my ass kicked often enough to suspect that maybe He prefers to lull His enemies into a false sense of security.” I sigh. “Look, I’m not claiming to be an expert or anything, but I am the one with the voices of angels in my head. And I’m telling you, trying to puzzle out the mysteries of the Divine Will... forget about it. I like your theory about mentalism, but every other time I’ve tried to figure out what’s what with Him, I just wind up making myself crazy. I mean, look at what I’m wearing -- thanks for the threads, but a good priest I am not. I think it’s what He wants for me... but maybe I’ve just given up the pleasures of the flesh for no good reason.”
I sigh again. “He’s mysterious, Culnor. It’s part of the schtick.”
Culnor claps me on the shoulder and laughs. “You’re right, boy -- it’s all certainly made you dreary, if not crazy. You need to unwind.” Then his eye gets that twinkle that I’ve come to dread, the one that spurred old Mernick Fellthorn on so many adventures and earned Culnor his long succession of wives. Anyone else would welcome it, but he’s too much like a second father to me for that look to mean anything but trouble.
“You need the Lady of Mysteries,” he proclaims.
I groan in protest, but he’s already sprung to the table, scribbling something on a piece of paper. “For God’s sake, Culnor, really?” I ask. “Lousy or not, I’m a priest... and you want to hire me a prostitute?”
He drops his pen with a flourish, all smiles under his whiskers. He looks like a giant schoolboy, giddy, though he can’t help but take a moment to lecture me. “She’s not a prostitute, Jaspar. She’s need made flesh. She doesn’t leave you with a fuzzy feeling and an itch that starts three weeks later. She fills you up where you’re broken.”
He shakes his head. “Maybe she won’t even sleep with you. Don’t get me wrong, I hope that she sleeps with you; you’ll be much less grouchy. But when she comes for you, she’ll fix you, plain and simple. I assure you.”
The tone in his voice catches me, the way he promises it. Clearly he’s seen her himself, but he’s not just remembering lusty bouts between the sheets. He certainly doesn’t defend the honor of any of his wives that way. She’ll fix you.
My voice catches in my throat as I try to protest again.
“Ashara,” he whispers into his hands, which are cupped around the piece of paper. “Ashara. Ashara.”
The paper flares up with an indigo flame, and is consumed. I stare after it, blinking.
He keeps grinning. “It’s done, boy. Enjoy her.”
“You just wrote something on a piece of paper, said her name three times, and that’s that?” I shake my head.
“I didn’t just write anything. It had a lot of zeroes on it.”
I can’t help but laugh. “Great, so you bought me a high-class hooker for Frostmath. I’m still just getting you another cravat.”
“You paid me one hell of a secret, boy. To know that Those Below are returning... I still owe you, by my reckoning.”
I pause. “You said...” I start, and lose my nerve for a second. There’s a lump in my throat when I rasp out, “You said something to Tanner about my father. About him not having to die like that... like it hadn’t already happened. And you’ve been reading my father’s books, the later stuff, the stuff that didn’t sell because nobody wanted to read it, even from Mernick Fellthorn. You’ve been mapping his voyages. What do you know, old man? That’s the secret I want in return.”
He gives me a look that lingers into the future that he sees for me, a future that his eyes tell me is full of pain. I almost prod him for a reply when he finally speaks. “Yes, of course it is. To be honest, I think it’s really yours anyway: love him though I still may, I’m not his son. And though I might undertake this journey out of that love,” he heaves another sigh, “I’m not the man I used to be. I might fail, where another would not.”
I move over to him, and put my hand on his shoulder. “Old age hath yet his honor and his toil. / Death closes all; but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done, / Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.”
“Don’t quote Lord Aelfred at me, boy,” he chuckles, “I have to look at his smug face every other week at Lady Culnor’s soirees.” He seems mollified, though. “It’s a good poem.”
“Because it tells the truth,” I offer. “Your days aren’t done. And I’d still be honored to have you at my side.”
“All right, all right,” he says. “I’ve been flattered by better than you, but I appreciate it nonetheless. I’ve a tale to--”
The door bursts open. “M’lord,” pants Tanner, “come quick! It’s the Count.”
The lycanth is bristling fur and teeth and fury... and fear. He’s down on all fours; for short distances they can outrun horses, and it looks like Tanner has really had the spurs in him. His face is slightly distended, jaw enlarged with canines poking up over his lip from beneath. Patches of hair have sprouted from the backs of his hands, and no one would call those things at the end of his hands anything but claws.
“Where?” Culnor snaps.
“The Black Library,” pants his not-quite-a-manservant. “We thought it had the best wards.”
I start for the door, but before I get three steps, I hear a lever pulled, and an electric crackle splits the air. Lightning arcs to the ground in front of me, and splits, two near-vertical beams sweeping in a circular arc left and right in front of me. Where they pass, the library where I was just talking to Culnor vanishes, replaced by another, of a darker stripe. Here, all the books are chained to the bookshelves, and their covers are black, or the red of blood.
No... not all the blood coloring is coming from the books. My nose tells me that in my second instant in the Black Library. Even overpowering the ozone smell of Culnor’s thaumaturgy, the scent of blood is so strong I can taste it.
“Mother of Mercy,” Culnor whispers.
The Count is hanging from the exposed rafters of the room, not moving. He is borne aloft by some kind of slimy cord wrapped around his arms and under his armpits. He is covered in blood, but it isn’t his own. His hair is lightly mussed, though it’s slicked to his head by the redness that coats his body. His eyes are open, but his face is calm, as if he didn’t even have time to register any surprise.
His head is screwed on backwards.
The murderer hasn’t gone far. Fat Lonnie is lying on the ground near the Count, blood smearing his hands and pooling around him. His abdomen is a gaping mess, and a ropy string of intestine trails from it, leading up to the rafters, and back down to the Count.
Culnor pulls out a handkerchief and covers his nose and mouth. Crouching next to Fat Lonnie, he lifts up one blood-covered hand. He peers for a long while at the wound, and then stands up slowly.
“He pulled his own guts out and strung the Count up with them,” grimaces the big man.
“But... look at the body,” I stammer. “He broke the Count’s neck, killed him clean. Why then do... that?” I make the sign of the star.
“I’ll be God-damned if I know,” he sighs. He waves a weary hand at the dangling body. “Jaspar, could you...?”
I nod. Between me, Tanner, and Jorngnir, we lower the Count to the ground.
“M’lord,” Tanner whispers, eyes wet. “Can ye... or is it...?”
Culnor’s voice catches in his throat. “I... no, Tanner. Even the Church couldn’t do more than send his soul on its way to the Core.”
He starts to rise to his feet. “All this blood... I’ve got to get--”
“No,” Culnor orders. “Stay. Let’s pay him some respect.”
I murmur a prayer, and then we stand in silence for a while. The darkness of this room is oppressive, stifling, but at least it means we can’t see the blood, and you can just about ignore the intestines hanging from the ceiling if you don’t look too closely. As my brain unclenches, I start to hear little noises from all around, tiny shuffles, almost as if the books are fidgeting. My companions don’t seem bothered by it, so I try to ignore the shudder that creeps up and down my spine.
“What is this place, Culnor?” I ask.
“The Black Library,” he rumbles. “Where all the worst things I’ve found in my years have come to be buried. That scenograph you gave me will end up here, once I recalculate the warding diagrams.”
“And you brought Fat Lonnie here because you thought They wouldn’t be able to get to him here.”
“At the time, I didn’t know what it was I was dealing with. If it were just a skinwalker that had been in him, we’d have had it out of there in no time. Nothing can transubstantiate or engage in mental projection, not in here.” He hangs his head. “Damn it, I didn’t know that it was Them.”
“And now... there are only... three of you... who do...” When Fat Lonnie speaks, three battle-hardened men damn near jump into one another’s arms.
“It’s... amazing... what these bodies will... do... if we push them.” The body just twitches a little bit, flopping an arm towards me. “So much red... all over... like an apple tree, in the fall... Do you all... scream... like that?”
Then he is still.
I don’t realize that I am moving when Culnor grabs my arm, jerking me to a halt. “Jaspar, no,” he warns. “It’s a trap.”
“Get. Your. Hand. Off. Of. Me.”
To my surprise, he does. He even takes a step back, and throws up his own hands in mock self defense. “All right, boy, all right--but listen first. They know how to pull your strings, so you have to pull back.”
I’m a ball of clench-fisted energy. I’m ready to tear through the door and anybody who gets in my way. Like an apple tree... They killed the one who uttered those words. They aren’t going to get Corwinne.
“They know you’re going to go tearing out of here, straight to her. They’re playing you, Jaspar. They can’t control you, can’t read your mind, so They’re just grabbing you by the balls and pulling.”
I take a deep breath. “I’m listening.”
He shakes his head. “Your father was the one who was good at this kind of thing... always used to be the one pulling me back from the brink of charging into something stupid. So let me do it for his son. What do we know?” He pauses for a second to let me review, but not long enough to reply. “Those Below wiped out the last civilization to cover the globe, and then vanished for long enough to let us crawl out of the primordial ooze they left behind. There’s reason to believe that They are somehow involving themselves in a war effort that has been bleeding us dry... but until very recently, They haven’t made any overt efforts that anyone has lived long enough to tell about. You’re the first person who has encountered Them and walked away.”
“When Those Below finally crushed the Crawling Ones, it wasn’t subtle. They haven’t yet shown that sort of force. No one outside of this room even really believes that they exist, except maybe a handful of elves. They need it to stay that way. They aren’t ready yet for the world to know that They’re coming. But there are those of us who do. So what’s the first thing they do?”
“Separate us,” I grit. “Pick the Count off, because who knows, maybe he put two and two together after spending time with Lonnie. Do it in a way that makes Tanner want to get out of here: blood and viscera clogging his nostrils, that’s got to be switching on every fight or flight instinct that a lycanth has got. Then pick me off, by threatening... Ieander, I really am protective of her, aren’t I?”
“Boy, you might just yet live to be your father’s son.”
“Not if they kill me when I go after her.”
“Borhafir’s bloated beard, did you not just hear what you yourself just said? They want you to do that. They’ve seen how you are with her. They’ll see you coming a mile off.”
I shake my head, mind tingling with a divine touch. “No. They’re not going to see me coming at all.”
“But I’m going to need a few more zeroes. This time in cash.”