Authors: Margaret Rogerson
Barefoot, dressed in only her nightgown, she drifted down the stairs like a ghost. A few turns brought her to a forbidding oak door reinforced with strips of iron. This door separated the library from the living quarters, and it always remained locked. Prior
to the age of thirteen, she hadn’t been able to unlock it herself; she’d had to wait for a librarian to come past and usher her through. Now she possessed a greatkey, capable of unlocking the outer doors of any Great Library in the kingdom. She wore it around her neck at all times, even when sleeping or bathing, a tangible symbol of her oaths.
She lifted the key, then paused, running her fingertips
across the door’s rough surface. A memory flashed before her: the claw marks on the table in the vault, which had scored the wood as though it were butter.
No—that was impossible. Grimoires only transformed into
Maleficts if damaged. It was not something that would happen in the middle of the night, with no visitors and all the grimoires safely contained. Not with wardens patrolling the darkened
halls, and the Great Library’s colossal warning bell hanging undisturbed above their heads.
Resolving to banish her childish fears, she slipped through the door and locked it again behind her. The atrium’s lamps had been dimmed for the night. Their light glimmered off the gilt letters on books’ spines, reflected from the brass rails that connected the wheeled ladders to the tops of the shelves.
Straining her ears, she detected nothing out of the ordinary. Thousands of grimoires slumbered peacefully around her, velvet ribbons fluttering from their pages as they snored. In a glass case nearby, a Class Four named Lord Fustian’s Florilegium cleared its throat self-importantly, trying to get her attention. It needed to be complimented out loud at least once per day, or it would snap shut like
a clam and refuse to open again for years.
She stole forward, holding her candle higher.
Nothing’s wrong. Time to go back to bed
That was when it struck her—an eye-watering, unmistakable smell. The last few months fell away, and for a moment she stood in the reading room again, bending over the leather armchair. Her heart skipped a beat, then began pounding in her ears.
Someone had performed sorcery in the library.
Quickly, she snuffed out her candle. A banging sound made her flinch. She waited until it happened again, quieter this time, almost like an echo. Now suspecting what it was, she snuck around a bookcase until the library’s front doors came into view. They had been left open and were blowing in the wind.
Where were the wardens? She should have seen
now, but the library seemed completely empty. Chill with dread, she made her way toward the doors. Though every shadow now possessed an ominous quality, stretching across the floorboards like fingers, she skirted around the shafts of moonlight, not wanting to be seen.
Pain exploded through her bare toe halfway across the atrium. She had stubbed it on something on the floor. Something
cold and hard—something that shone in the dark—
A sword. And not just any sword—Demonslayer. Garnets glittered on its pommel in the gloom.
Numbly, Elisabeth picked it up. Touching it felt wrong. Demonslayer never left the Director’s belt. She would only allow it out of her sight if . . .
With a stifled cry, Elisabeth rushed to the shape that lay slumped on the floor nearby. Red hair feathered
by moonlight, a pale hand outflung. She gripped the shoulder and found it unresisting as she turned the body over. The Director’s eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling.
The floor yawned open beneath Elisabeth; the library spun in a dizzy whirl. This wasn’t possible. It was a bad dream. Any moment now she would wake up in her bed, and everything would be back to normal. As she waited for this
to happen, the seconds unspooling past, her stomach heaved. She stumbled away from the Director’s body toward the doors, where she coughed up a sour string of bile. When she put out her hand to steady herself, her palm slipped against the door frame.
, she thought automatically, but the substance coating her hand was something else—thicker, darker. Not blood—ink.
Elisabeth instantly knew
what this meant. She wiped her hand on her nightgown and gripped Demonslayer’s pommel in both hands, shaking too violently to hold it with only one. She
stepped out into the night. The wind rushed over her, tangling her hair. At first she saw nothing, only the twinkling glow of a few lamps still lit down in Summershall. Their lights flickered as the orchard’s trees thrashed in the wind. A high
wrought iron fence stood around the library’s gravel yard, its sharp finials spearing the restless sky like daggers, but the gate hung open, warped on its hinges, dripping with ink.
Then, in the distance, a hulking silhouette moved among the trees. Moonlight shone on its greasy surface. It limped toward the village with a rolling, ungainly gait, like a malformed bear clumsily attempting to walk
on two legs. There was no mistaking what it was. A grimoire had escaped from the vault. Drawing upon the power of the sorcery between its pages, it had swelled into a gruesome monster of ink and leather.
Upon sighting a Malefict, Elisabeth was supposed to alert the nearest warden or, if that was impossible, race up the stairs to ring the Great Library’s warning bell. The bell would call the wardens
to arms and prompt the townspeople to evacuate into the shelter beneath the town hall. But there was no time. If Elisabeth turned back, the monster would reach Summershall before anyone even had a chance to rise from bed. Countless people would die in the streets. It would be a slaughter.
Officium adusque mortem.
Duty unto death. She had passed beneath that inscription a thousand times. She might
not be a warden yet, but she would never be able to call herself one if she turned away now. Protecting Summershall was her responsibility, even at the cost of her life.
Elisabeth flew through the gate and down the hill. The sharp gravel gave way to a soft, wet carpet of moss and fallen leaves that soaked the hem of her nightgown. She tripped over a root in her path, nearly losing her grip on
the sword, but the Malefict
didn’t pause, only continued its lumbering advance in the opposite direction.
Now she was close enough to gag on its rotten stench. And to see how big it was, far larger than a man, with limbs as thick and gnarled as tree stumps. Paralyzing waves of fear crashed over her. Demonslayer grew heavy in her hands at last. She was no hero, just a girl in a nightgown who happened
to be holding a sword. Was this the way the Director had felt, Elisabeth wondered, when she faced her first Malefict?
I don’t have to beat it
, she thought. If she could distract it for long enough, and make enough of a commotion doing so, she might save the town.
After all, disturbing the peace is what I’m good at. Most of the time, I do it without even trying.
Courage crept back to her, freeing
her frozen limbs. She drew in a deep breath and shouted wordlessly into the night.
The wind tore her voice to shreds, but the monster finally lumbered to a halt. The oily black leather of its hide rippled as if reacting to a fly. After a long, considering pause, it turned to face her.
It was bulky and roughly man-shaped, but lopsided, crude, as if a child had fashioned it from a lump of clay.
Dozens of bloodshot eyes bulged across every inch of its surface, ranging from the size of teacups to the size of dinner plates. Their pupils had shrunk to pinpricks, and all of them stared directly at Elisabeth. The library’s most dangerous grimoire walked free. The Book of Eyes had returned.
After gazing at her for a moment, it wavered, torn between her and the town. Slowly, its eyes began
to roll back in the direction of Summershall. It must not have seen her as a threat. Compared to all those people ahead, she wasn’t worth bothering with. She needed to convince it otherwise.
She raised Demonslayer and charged, leaping over fallen branches, dodging between the trees. The Malefict’s bulky form loomed above her, blocking out the moonlight. She held her breath against its nauseating
stench. Several of its eyes swiveled to focus on her, their pupils enlarging in surprise, but that was all they had a chance to see before the blade swiped across them, spattering ink in an arc through the shadows.
The monster’s roar shook the ground. Elisabeth kept running; she knew she couldn’t face the Book of Eyes head-on. She plunged through the orchard and skidded to a crouch behind the
mossy ruin of an old stone well, sucking in gasps of clean air.
Somehow, hiding from the monster was worse than facing it. She couldn’t see what it was doing, which allowed her imagination to fill in the gaps. But she did determine, without a doubt, that it was looking for her. Though it moved with unnerving stealth, it was too large to pass between the trees without betraying its presence. Branches
snapped here and there, and apples plopped to the ground with hollow smacks. The sounds gradually drew nearer. Elisabeth stopped panting; her lungs burned with the effort of holding her breath. An apple struck the well and burst, spattering her with sticky fragments.
“Apprentice . . . I’ll find you . . . only a matter of time . . .”
The whisper caressed her mind like a flabby hand. She reeled,
clutching her head.
“Better if you gave up now . . .”
The greasy suggestion swirled through her thoughts, compelling in its bloodless pragmatism. Her mission was impossible. Too hard. All she had to do was give in, put down the sword, and her suffering would be over. The Book of Eyes would make it quick.
The Book of Eyes was lying.
Gritting her teeth, Elisabeth looked up. The Malefict stood
above her, but it hadn’t seen her yet. Its eyes twisted in their sockets, moving independently of one another as they scanned the orchard. The ones she’d injured had closed up, weeping rivulets of ink like tears.
“Apprentice . . .”
Resisting the whispers was like treading water in sodden clothes, barely keeping her nose and mouth above the surface. She forced herself to stop holding her head
and clenched her fingers around Demonslayer’s grip.
Just a little longer
, she told herself. The monster shifted closer, and a yellow eye looked down. When it spotted her, its pupil dilated so hugely that the entire iris appeared black.
She thrust Demonslayer upward, piercing the eye. Ink cascaded down her arms and dripped onto the moss. The Malefict’s bellow shuddered through the night.
This time, as she scrambled away, she saw new lights winking on in the town below. More joined them with every second that passed, spreading from house to house like banked embers flaring back to life. Summershall was waking. Her plan was succeeding.
And her own time was running out.
An arm swept from the darkness, tossing her through the air like a rag doll. A bright shock of pain sparked through
her as her shoulder clipped a tree trunk, sending her spinning through the damp grass. She tasted copper, and when she sat up, gasping for breath, her surroundings blurred in and out. A strap of her nightgown hung loose, torn and bloodied. The Malefict’s dark shape towered over her.
It leaned closer. It had a lumpy head, but no face, no features aside from those countless bulging eyes.
“An odd girl, you are.
Ahhh . . . there’s something about you . . . a reason why you woke tonight, while the others slept. . . .”
The Director’s sword lay in the grass. Elisabeth snatched it up and held it between them. The blade trembled.
“I could help you,”
the monster coaxed.
“I see the questions inside your head . . . so many questions, and so few answers . . . but I could tell you secrets—oh, such secrets, secrets you cannot imagine, secrets beyond your strangest dreams. . . .”
As if caught in a whirlpool, her thoughts followed its whispers toward some lightless, hungry place—a place from which she knew her mind would not return. She swallowed thickly. Her hand found the key hanging against her chest, and she imagined the Director slamming the grimoire shut, cutting off the monster’s voice.
“You are lying,” she declared.
Guttural laughter filled her head. Blindly, she lashed out. The monster heaved back, and Demonslayer whistled harmlessly through the air. Wood splintered behind her as she scrambled away. The Book of Eyes had struck the tree that had stood behind her a moment before, a blow that would have crushed her like a toy.
She fled, stumbling over fallen apples. Disoriented,
she nearly smacked into a pale shape that stood between the trees. Something winged and white, with a sad, solemn face eroded by time. A marble angel.
Hope seized her. The statue marked a cache with supplies that could be used by wardens or townspeople during an emergency. She fumbled in the earthen hollow beneath the pedestal until her fingers bumped against a rain-slicked canister.
voice pursued her.
“I will tell you,”
“the truth of what happened to the Director. Is that a secret you would like to hear? Someone did this, you know . . . someone released me. . . .”
Elisabeth’s fingers froze as she fumbled the canister open.
“I could tell you who it was—apprentice!”
The air rippled with motion, but she reacted too slowly. Slimy leather closed in on her from
all sides, capturing her in a squeezing, stinking grip. The monster had caught her. It raised her up, lifting her feet from the ground, surveying her with eyes so near she could see the hemorrhaged veins that traced through them like scarlet threads. The fist began to tighten. Elisabeth felt her ribs bend inward, and her breath escaped in a thin gasp.
This is not how it will end
, she thought,
struggling against the dark. She was to be a warden, keeper of books and words. She was their friend. Their steward. Their jailer. And if need be, their destroyer.
Her arm came free, and she flung the canister’s contents into the air. The Malefict gave an agonized howl as a cloud of salt enveloped its body. Its grip loosened, and Elisabeth slid from its grasp to land with a sickening crack against
the angel statue. She blinked away stars. For a moment she could not move, couldn’t feel her limbs, and wondered if she had broken her back. Then the feeling in her fingers returned in a prickling wash of agony. Demonslayer’s grip pressed against her skin. She hadn’t let go.