On the Tip of Her Tongue
by Ember Randall
The days when new books arrived were Aquila’s favorite. Watching them rustle as she welcomed them, hearing their excitement and calming their fears. It was the best part of her job as Archivist of the Library of Gaia.
Tonight, she had almost two score new arrivals, all arrayed in a half-circle in front of the pool dominating the atrium. Their pages glowed under the light of the massive crystal light-globe resting in that pool. Mutters written in the smell of ink and the susurration of parchment rose from them, curious and nervous—Aquila, though not fluent in the language of books, could understand that much.
She ran her fingers over her communicator, a fine piece of parchment stretched inside a wooden frame. The copper backing it sparked as library magic filled it with words and symbols for her to choose from, and her fingers danced. “Welcome, all of you,” the communicator declared in a lilting voice. “I’m…”
The parchment went blank. A split second later, the light-globe in the pool flickered out, plunging the room into darkness. Moonlight poured in from the skylight above, turning the shallow pool silver, but its light couldn’t banish the shadows stretching out from the rows of bookshelves lining the walls.
The books rustled their pages. Sharp sounds now, as they edged away from one another; the caustic scent of their fear filled the air. She had to reassure them, convince them they were safe under her care… this was a simple glitch, nothing more.
She brushed her fingers over the communicator, but the parchment remained blank. Her throat closed. Without it… You’re safe, she tried to say. But nothing came out. She knew the words, could even visualize how they were written. But, somewhere between her brain and her mouth, they twisted away from her… Her nails dug into her palms.
Now the books on the shelves shifted. They were dull things, barely awake even after nightfall, but they held enough spirit to sense the unease of their new compatriots. And they didn’t like what they sensed.
Breath coming faster and faster, Aquila shook the communicator, ran her hand over it, shook it again. Poking, tapping, shaking… nothing brought it back to life. All its words—life-giving, magical words—were sealed away.
Her breath stuttered. Without realizing it, she’d begun to rock back and forth, and the books were inching away from her… she’d failed in her one task as Archivist.
No. Breathe. Not failed yet. Breathe. She held her breath. Rock forward, rock back, rock forward, rock back. Breathe out. Four more beats. Hold. Forward, back, forward, back. Breathe in. She hadn’t failed yet—this was a setback, but she had plans for setbacks. The old Archivist had rehearsed them with her, and she’d drilled them every year after she’d taken over. She could handle this.
None of her contingency plans had taken into account a broken communicator, though. The books loved words, needed them the way humans needed air. And they’d loved her words—they’d listened to her better than any prior Archivist, the Catalog had told her grudgingly, because her words came from them in the end.
But now those words were gone.
She forced herself to keep breathing. You can still fix this. She had to believe that.
Then thunder split the air, and the books scattered to the winds. She froze. How was she supposed to salvage this now? If the books got into the labyrinthine tunnels beneath the library, or, worse, into the locked rooms containing tomes that were never unchained…
The scraping of scales on stone interrupted the images that flowed, ink-drenched and reeking of terror, through her mind. She looked up to see Callimix, the true keeper of the Library of Gaia, hurrying towards her.
Grey-scaled and white-eyed, the Bookwyrm stood two heads taller than her when walking on his hind legs, as he did now. His heavy tail trailed behind him for balance, while his stubby wings fluttered with agitation. Though sleep still clouded his pale eyes, worry was rapidly overtaking the fog. “Aquila! Archivist, what happened? Where are our new books?”
Gone, she tried to say. “Aaaooo.”
He blinked at her with both sets of membranes. “What?”
She rocked faster, clutching her communicator to her chest. “Nah,” she managed. Tears stung her eyes. The words were right there, like they always were, but they wouldn’t come out.
His lower membranes slid closed. “Your communicator?”
She shook her head. The library magic is gone. No point in trying to say that, though.
Callimix dropped to all fours and butted her gently with the top of his head. “We’ll fix it. Are you breathing?”
His tone, a cross between parental and puzzled, startled a shaky chuckle from her. He could hear her breathing perfectly well, she knew, but he’d watched her grow up under the tutelage of the former Archivist, and that redoubtable old lady had loved that question. For good reason, Aquila admitted, given her childhood tendency to hold her breath when upset, but Callimix had never quite understood why.
“Oh, yes, fixing this will be a walk in the park,” a cold voice snapped. The Catalog, a willowy human-simulacrum of indeterminate gender and age, strode out of the shadows of the bookshelves. Their lips were pinched together as though they’d swallowed a lemon, while their draped toga shifted around them in a nonexistent breeze. “You’re supposed to fix problems, Archivist, not create them.”
Aquila’s arms tightened around her broken communicator. How are you still moving? she wanted to ask. If the library magic was gone, the Catalog should have vanished, yet here they were, scowling as though Aquila had planned this disaster to ruin their night.
The Catalog shook their head. “I told the former Archivist when she took you in that you’d be more trouble than you were worth. You picked a terrible time to prove me right.”
Aquila wanted to shrink into herself. I can still fix this, she screamed within her head. I can, I know I can, just… give me time. The books couldn’t have gone far.
But, even if she found them, what would she do? Without her communicator… Why? Why had the gods cursed her like this? She rocked faster.
When she failed to answer, the Catalog sighed. “Even as a child…”
Aquila threw up her hand. Wait. When she’d first come to the library, she hadn’t had the communicator, just a clunky device that an artificer patron of the orphanage had created. It had worked on similar principles, and had been the basis for the communicator, but it was never connected to the library magic.
Ignoring the Catalog, who was living up to their name as they listed off the various problems Aquila had caused as a girl, she sprinted for the stairs.
Six flights later, she slowed to a walk, gripping her aching side. The rush from the run had sapped some of the nervous energy from her, leaving her limbs loose and her mind centered as she ducked inside the small suite of rooms that had been hers for fifteen years.
Nestled in the heart of the sixth floor, they had no windows to let in the moonlight, leaving them pitch black without the library magic to light them. She grunted as she stumbled into the corner of her dresser—another bruise, another badge of her clumsiness. But the lamp should be on top of that dresser…
Her hand ran into metal. Hard, harder than she’d intended as she groped around… the crash as the lamp fell made her jump. She felt for it again, more cautiously, and breathed a sigh of relief when her fingers met smooth, unbroken glass. Now she just had to find the matches…
A banged shin later, she held up the glowing lamp and bounced happily. Her bedroom was spartan, containing only a cot, a dresser, and a desk; her kitchen held the bare minimum of equipment to cook basic meals. Callimix had teased her about that in the past. Like most Bookwyrms, he loved hoards of all kinds, but she couldn’t abide clutter.
And now that worked in her favor, for she knew exactly where her baby communicator would be.
She flipped open the chest at the foot of her cot and pulled out the bulky wooden box. It was heavier than the library communicator, filled with wires and gears and who-knew-what-else behind a cotton screen. If it still worked… she held her breath as she flipped the power switch.
Gears churned, grinding away with a sound that hurt her ears. Then, light—dim and faded but nonetheless there—skimmed across the cotton.
Breath still trapped in her lungs, she tapped the first picture that formed. The gears whirred. “Food,” an artificial voice said. More pictures appeared—fruit, bread, meat, stew—along with several written words. She tapped them all. “I you he she want like hate fruit bread meat stew,” the voice ground out.
She hugged the box to her chest. Her words were back!
When she said as much to the Catalog, though, stumbling through the sentence in the limited vocabulary of her old communicator, the Catalog shook their head. “The books will never listen to you when you sound like that.”
“No,” Aquila pressed. Symbols for yes and no were always visible, but she had to tap on the person icon before she could summon the next word. “They…” She spun the big dial on the side, and it reset to the initial set of light-pictures. A tap on an image of a person moving brought up a small set of verbs, written in the basic script used for mundane communication. None, frustratingly, were the one she wanted—‘will’—so she chose ‘do.’
At the Catalog’s look of pity, her heart sank. Maybe the Catalog was right. The books loved gorgeous language, after all. Nothing soothed them more than an elegant tale or a poem that flowed like water. She’d given them that with the now-broken communicator, but the clumsy thing in her hands was more likely to terrify them than soothe them.
“Don’t worry,” Callimix urged, nudging her with his snout. “I’ll find them.”
She began to rock back and forth again. No, she wanted to say. It’s my job. And your claws will damage them. Archivists had served the Bookwyrm for centuries for precisely that reason. Aquila had always wondered why the gods had gifted Callimix with a love of books, yet cursed him to be unable to hold them, but then, such twisted gifts were common in myth.
After a minute of hunting for words, she managed to create a sentence approximating what she wanted to say: “You big sharp no.”
“And this thing is better?” the Catalog sneered at both her and her device.
Aquila glared at them. Do you want to try? She knew it was impossible, though. The Catalog was as insubstantial as a ghost, no more able than Callimix to lift the books.
No, this was her responsibility, and she refused to abandon it. Forget the political implications… she couldn’t abandon the books to the terror they must be feeling.
Thunder boomed again outside. She flinched, then straightened her stola, the loose gown she wore. “I go,” she tapped out. And, before the Catalog could argue, she spun on her heel and headed for the stairs.
The catacombs beneath the library were cramped and dusty, smelling of mold and old parchment. Wisps moved at the corners of her eyes as she descended, communicator in one hand and lamp in the other, but they vanished as soon as she looked straight at them. Whispers itched at the edge of her hearing.
Ordinary catacombs held bodies; these dank halls held books. But not just any books—deadly grimoires, scrolls from conquered tribes, scraps of leather inscribed with curses, and worse lived behind the massive iron doors that lined the halls. Every night that they awoke in chains, their fury grew, permeating the stone and eating away at the mortar.
More than one Archivist had died in these halls, seduced by the knowledge the books promised to those who would free them. Though she closed her ears to them, Aquila could still hear them, hissing as she hurried past. We can cure you, they whispered. Keep you safe. Free you. Help you. Free us.
She sped up until she was running, sandals slapping on the stone as her braid flew out behind her. No. She just had to find her missing books—that was all the knowledge she needed.
We can tell you where they are, the bound books purred. Just open these doors…
Liars, she snarled silently. She could never tell when people were lying, but books were different. And, even if their rustles hadn’t screamed of falsehood, she wasn’t stupid enough to fall for such a transparent trap.
Their attempts at temptation flew out her mind the next moment, though, as her lantern light flickered over a rectangular shape in the corner where two catacomb rows joined. She stumbled to a halt, then padded forward, hand outstretched like she was trying to coax a skittish cat to her. “Mmm…” she hummed. It’s okay. Sometimes, like cats, books responded to tone alone…
The book didn’t move, though, even when she knelt beside it. She set the lantern beside her so she had both hands free for her communicator, then spun the dial.
Question words formed a line down the left side of the cotton screen. “How,” she tapped, then brought up her verb list. “Are…” Back to the original set with a spin of the dial, then to the people words. “You.”
When the grating voice failed to elicit a response, her throat tightened. Curse her limited vocabulary! She had so many things she wanted to say, starting with ‘you’re safe’… did the baby communicator even include that word?
Once, she would have known, but the former Archivist had made her a new communicator during her first year at the library, and she’d never looked back. It’d had such power, such fluency… what if it was gone for good? Her hands clenched and unclenched on her knees.
Before she could start crying, though, she held her breath, then let it out slowly. Focus on what you can control. She had a book in front of her, too petrified to move—that had to be her first priority.
With painful slowness, she reached out and laid a finger on its spine. Even the dullest books would react to a touch after night fell, and this, judging by its age and heft, was no ordinary tale. But it remained quiescent under her fingertip.
Butterflies fluttering in her stomach, she dared to lay a whole hand on it. Then, when that elicited no reaction, she flipped it open.
Her stomach plunged, for, from start to finish, the pages were blank. Ink smudged some of them, especially in the middle, but, even as she watched, it faded away, leaving the parchment pristine. Whatever story it had told—the story that had given it life—was gone.
Now she did cry, but it was not the storm of gulping sobs that robbed both breath and thought that she’d feared. No, these were tears like rain, mourning for the dead book, and, like a gentle spring rain, they passed without doing damage.
The book was heavy in her arms as she rose, balancing the lantern and her communicator precariously on top of it. Anger and fear battled for dominance in her heart. She’d failed this book—she would not fail another one.
When she brought the book to Callimix, the inner membranes that protected his eyes slid shut. “What happened?”
She shook her head. It was easier than attempting to find the words ‘don’t know.’
He brushed the back of a claw over the book. “Poor thing. You found it in the catacombs?”
She set the book on the ground so she could use her communicator. “Thing…” There was no word for kill, but there was a word for hurt, so she chose that. “Hurt… it.”
“Something hurt it?” Callimix’s voice dropped to a growl. “No. Something killed it?”
What else? Books didn’t expire of fright or old age. As long as their words were readable, they lived. But, apart from the missing ink, the book had shown no signs of damage. “You… see…” She grimaced and flapped her hand, trying to ask if he’d seen this before.
Callimix’s scales bristled. “If it returned…” He bared his teeth. “Had the Catalog recorded the new deliveries?”
She shook her head, then kept shaking it. She’d been too busy welcoming the books to wonder where the Catalog had disappeared to this time.
Bookwyrm faces were not as mobile as humans, but Callimix’s wings, claws, and scales conveyed his fear and rage equally well. “Then I fear we have a lamia in our midst.”
The blood drained from Aquila’s face. The old Archivist had described lamiae as myths, the parchment version of the Boogeyman. Books that preyed on other books, draining their stories and leaving nothing but empty husks behind? Even the books trapped below, deadly as they were, saved their tricks for humans. Humans were the creative ones, the ones who could breathe life into ink and paper. Other books could not satisfy that need.
But Callimix’s declaration had held no doubt, just fury that his hoard was threatened. She spun the dial to reset her communicator. “I… will…” Find, curse it, there had to be a word for find. But, if there was, it refused to be found. “Get… it.”
“We will,” Callimix corrected. “I’m not letting you hunt for that thing alone.”
“What thing?” The Catalog slunk into the circle of light cast by Aquila’s lantern. “What disaster have you brought to us now?”
Rather than hunt for words, Aquila held out the dead book. The Catalog froze inhumanly still. “Oh.”
The single word held no emotion at all. The Catalog’s face was blank as they stared at the book, eyes black from edge to edge. Even the unfelt breeze that stirred their toga had died, leaving them a statue, and, for a moment, Aquila wondered if their magic, too, had run out.
Then they shuddered all over, and their eyes went back to a human guise. “You fool,” they spat at Aquila. “You let a wolf in sheep’s clothing into our sanctuary?”
Heat flared in Aquila’s gut. Registering the new arrivals is supposed to be your responsibility, she wanted to snap. Her fingers fumbled over the communicator, but it wasn’t fast enough; a shriek hissed between her clenched teeth.
Callimix shook his head. “No Archivist can recognize a lamia by sight alone.” As you should know, his tone implied. “Can you sense anything?”
The Catalog’s eyes darkened. “The magic is gone. I cannot feel a single one of my books, living or… otherwise.” Their jaw tightened as they looked at Aquila, but, despite their obvious fury, the breeze around them stayed unusually calm. “The lamia could be absorbing them as we speak.”
Callimix’s scales rippled. “Then we have no time to waste. Split up and find it before it kills again.”
Aquila’s mouth was dry as she descended the wide, shallow stairs to the catacombs once again. Without power, everywhere was dark, but the catacombs held their own darkness, a cloying one that her lamp couldn’t dispel.
The chained books rustled a welcome as she set foot into their hall. You’re back… back… back…. An icy breeze swept through the folds of her stola. Come to talk with us?
She held the lantern high, but could see nothing other than the iron doors and the damp stone walls. This part of the catacombs held no little nooks or crannies, nowhere for an escaped book to hide. If the lamia was still down here, it would be further in.
Hugging her communicator to herself with one arm, she forced her feet to speed up. Her breathing pattern was awkward while moving, but she did it anyway—in four, hold four, out four, hold four. Focus. Breathe.
Past the cells of the chained books, the tunnels narrowed, branching at odd intervals and turning in unexpected directions. Flagstone floors gave way to dirt, which stank of mold and dead things. As she squeezed through a gap in the tunnel where the roof had partly collapsed, she breathed through her mouth and tried not to touch the walls.
Then, as she emerged from the gap, her foot hit something soft. She froze, then peered down to see a battered old book sprawled in the dirt. The leather visible on the edges of its pressed-paper cover was dry and cracked, darkened from years of handling; its pages were yellowed and dog-eared. It had fallen open to a spot near the middle of the story, where a faded illustration filled both pages.
Tears filled her eyes as she knelt, setting her lantern by her side. So faded… the lamia must have gotten to it already.
But, as she picked it up, it rustled ever so slightly—the kind of movement a book made when it wasn’t sure it was safe. She ran a finger down its page. It’s all right, she wanted to say. I’m the Archivist. I’ll protect you. She fumbled for her old communicator. “You…” the voice grated. “Good.”
No, that wasn’t what she wanted. “I… you… home.” Safe. There had to be a word for safe.
Her heart leapt when she found it. “You… safe.” She hummed and flapped her hands, then hummed louder when the book rustled a question. “Safe,” she repeated through the communicator.
Another rustle—the book wanted to know about the strange talking box. Aquila laughed. “It… good. Safe. I… need.” The words came quicker now as her fingers re-learned the patterns.
The book hesitated, then flipped itself closed. Aquila beamed at it. “We… go… home,” she tapped out.
One rescue became two, then three, then six. By the time the city bells chimed the third hour of the morning, Aquila had found fifteen books, while Callimix had coaxed another twelve into following him to safety. Aquila wanted to celebrate that, but worry pinched her heart. Eight books, plus the lamia, remained at liberty. And, for four of the books, she’d come too late.
She readjusted her hold on her latest find as she trudged up the back stairs. Her eyes were gritty with exhaustion and spent tears; her legs ached from all the walking. It would have been faster to climb the main staircase, but she couldn’t let the other books see one of their comrades dead. So she balanced her communicator and her lantern on the book—worried that it was impolite, but not seeing another option—as she made her way once again to Callimix’s lair.
The Bookwyrm lived in a nest at the very top of the library, in a set of rooms that looked over the open interior. From his door, he could see the great staircase winding its way up all seven floors, or look up to the stars shining through the skylight. Like hers, his rooms lacked windows. Best not to let adventurous citizens see a sleeping Bookwyrm, should they venture where they weren’t allowed to go. But, in ordinary times, that was no hardship, for the lights of the library made the rooms a cozy, book-filled den.
Now, a lantern hanging beside the door provided the only illumination, casting flickering shadows over the low couch and the stacks of books on the table beside it. More books filled the bookshelves lining the walls, interspersed with the occasional knickknack. She spotted a drawing she’d made him when she was six—before she banged her knee into a side table she hadn’t spotted.
Callimix hurried out of the inner room. “Aquila?” He dropped to all fours when he saw her burden. “Another one.” His scales, dull from grief, flattened to his back. “Thank you.”
She set it on the table where she’d placed the others. They’d have to hold a proper farewell once the crisis was over. I’m sorry, she wanted to say. She laid a hand on his shoulder.
He bowed his head. “How could we have let this happen? They trusted us.”
Aquila bowed her head. “I… sorry…” she tapped out. If she’d reacted faster when the power went out, if she’d thought to sing or quote something, the books might not have scattered. If only I’d been able to reassure them.
She hugged her baby communicator to her chest. Maybe the Catalog was right. What sort of Archivist couldn’t tell stories to her charges? If she’d been normal… she flinched away from the word, but it burrowed into her brain like a virus and refused to let go. If she’d been able to talk like normal people, this disaster wouldn’t have happened.
Callimix nipped her hand. “This is not your fault,” he growled. “Did you turn off the power?” She shook her head, and he nudged her. “Then you have nothing to apologize for.”
“I…” she tapped. But I could have calmed them, and I failed.
“No. Nothing.” Callimix heaved a sigh. “The Fates did not smile on us tonight, but that is not your fault. And, without you, most of those books would still be wandering in the darkness.” He rubbed his muzzle over her arm. “You are the best Archivist I’ve had, and even the Catalog, when they’re not stuck in the past, admits it.”
She held up her baby communicator. Even with this?
He snorted. “I don’t care how you talk, and the books don’t either.”
Yes they do, she wanted to protest, but she paused before finding the words. They’d all been curious about it, but it had been a curiosity without judgement. And maybe that made sense. The words that gave them life were ink and parchment; their own language was subtext and the whisper of pages and scents. Why should they care if her words came from a box?
She pulled back her shoulders. “Thanks,” she found. Then her fingers paused. She’d intended to suggest that they should return to the hunt, but Callimix’s question about the power nibbled at her. Few natural events could harm the library magic, so what had happened? And why was the Catalog, who lived through that same magic, untouched? It didn’t add up.
Her fingers found a new set of words. “Where… light?” She motioned to the bookshelves surrounding them.
Callimix’s gaze followed her hand. “That’s…” He frowned, scales rising. “A good question.”
“Ask…” She scowled at the ancient communicator. Catalog was not one of the words available, so she flapped her free hand, then tugged at her stola, trying to indicate the breeze that always played with the Catalog’s toga.
“The Catalog?” Callimix’s eyes narrowed. “Let’s go see what they know.”
The Catalog was pacing back and forth along the edge of the atrium pool when Aquila and Callimix descended the great staircase. The breeze playing with their toga was fiercer than Aquila had ever seen it, and they scowled when they spotted Aquila and Callimix. “Where are the rest of them?”
Aquila set down her lantern so she had two hands for her communicator. “Where… light?” she repeated, again motioning to the books.
The Catalog’s eyes flickered sideways. “How am I supposed to know?”
“How… you…” For lack of a better verb, Aquila chose “…walk?”
The Catalog’s lips thinned. “How does that help us find the lamia?”
Frustration, hot and sticky, boiled up within Aquila. It was nearing four in the morning. She didn’t have the time or energy to wade through whatever the Catalog was trying or not trying to say.
Before she could lose her temper, though, Callimix rose onto his hind legs. “Answer the question.”
The Catalog looked away, then back at Aquila, eyes burning black. “You shouldn’t have let a lamia in! None of this would have been a problem if you hadn’t accepted those deliveries.”
Aquila’s shoulders hunched in the face of the unexpected anger, and she started to rock. “I…” she began, before taking a deep breath. “Why?” she tapped, rather than protest or apologize. Why are you angry now? What did you do?
As rocking bled away her rising tide of emotion, the Catalog’s mouth twisted. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Callimix’s scales bristled. “You did this, didn’t you? Disrupted the power.”
The Catalog folded their arms across their chest. “You needed to see the truth. In an emergency…” They waved a hand. “Well, look what happens when we don’t have a competent Archivist.”
Aquila’s lips pinched together. Lovely plan. The Catalog must have assumed that the books would scatter, giving everyone a good fright, but harming no one except Aquila. Why do you hate me so much?
As Callimix stared at them, their shoulders slumped. “I… gods, you have to believe me, I didn’t expect a lamia. I didn’t mean…” They drew themself upright. “It doesn’t disprove my point, though. If we’d had a competent Archivist…”
Heat burned in Callimix’s eyes. “We’ll talk later.” His voice was a low snarl, danger bleeding through and scorching the air. “Right now, we have a much more pressing problem.” He bared his teeth. “Can you restore the power?”
Their face went blank. “I can’t.”
Callimix’s snarl was a thunderclap. “Why not?”
The breeze surrounding the Catalog whipped into a fury. “If someone hadn’t let a lamia in… its presence distorts everything.”
Aquila jabbed at her communicator. “You… walk.” You have power.
The Catalog looked away. “I have shreds of power, nothing more.”
“Fine.” Callimix pulled his lips back over his teeth. “Then we find the lamia.”
The Catalog’s laugh was bitter. “How? It’s not some dog, to come when you call.”
Aquila shook her head. “No,” she tapped. “It… hungry. We… help… it.” With dawn fast approaching, it’d be eager to devour as many books as possible before the rising sun made it go dormant. If they could lure it in with a sufficient quantity of magic, they could capture it before it destroyed any more tomes. But they’d have to work fast.
The Catalog sneered, but the expression was muted. Their shoulders were slumped, and the breeze around them had died; their eyes were weary. “Help it?”
“Bring… it…” Aquila motioned to the atrium, then grimaced. They needed somewhere less exposed.
“The scriptorium?” Callimix suggested. “You want to lure it somewhere, I assume?”
The Catalog’s frown deepened. “With what?”
Aquila just looked at them. What else would a lamia desire, other than book magic? And the only person there who could manipulate that magic was the Catalog.
After a long moment, the Catalog closed their eyes. “Fine. But, if this doesn’t work…”
Their tone should have been sharp, Aquila thought, but it was oddly distant. Regretful, maybe? She couldn’t tell. And it didn’t matter. “Thank… you.”
The scriptorium was a long, airy room filled with rows of desks for artists, scribes, and writers. After pushing the desks to the side, Aquila arranged a knotted rope in a large circle, then set the rope tails a handspan apart. With any luck, the lamia would be so intent on the bait that it wouldn’t notice anything odd.
The Catalog, transparent enough to read through, set the lure they’d created in the center of the circle. To Aquila’s human eyes, it looked like an ordinary, leather-bound book, chased with gold, though it was no more substantial than the Catalog themself. But the Catalog had sworn it was packed with power. Aquila hoped it would be enough.
The Catalog looked at Aquila. “Don’t screw this up,” they breathed. Had they been human, they would have been a breath away from fainting.
Aquila bowed her head in recognition of that sacrifice. I won’t. She flapped a hand at the Catalog. Go.
The Catalog went, and Aquila was alone. Callimix was guarding the recovered books, and the rest of the collection had been transferred to double-locked rooms. If the lamia wanted to feed, it had one place to go.
And, as the sky paled to blue, it came.
The book that crept through the door was a slender volume bound in emerald calfskin. It shuffled like an old man at first, but, when it spotted the lure, it shot forward like a cannonball.
Aquila twisted the rope tails together. Power sprang up from the knots, and the book froze. Shifting left, then right, it spun in a circle. Then, when it failed to spot her behind the desk, it hurried towards the lure.
As it touched the fake book, the illusion dissolved. The lamia flapped angrily.
“Oh.” The word fell from Aquila’s lips without conscious thought, for the pages she saw were blank. Only the first page had any writing, and that, only a paragraph. No wonder you’re hungry.
“Shhh…” she murmured. The book spun to face her.
Humming the lullaby the old Archivist had sung to her as a child, she inched through the barrier. It was only designed to stop books and book magic. “Shh,” she repeated.
The book watched her warily as she settled into a cross-legged position equidistant between it and the circle. Now, more than ever, she was grateful to her baby communicator. Her other one couldn’t have passed the circle.
“You… hungry,” she tapped, canting her head in the hopes the book would read it as a question. “Tired.”
The book fluttered—not a negative, but not agreement either. She smiled at it. “Hungry… no… good.”
It bobbed up and down. How it’d learned to devour other books, she didn’t know, but she found she couldn’t hate it for that. With such a fragmented story to give it life…
It needed a better way to survive, though. She bit her lip. “You… want… story?”
It hesitated, then snapped its covers closed. Pride, scented like ink, filled the air. She held up her communicator. “I… need… help… speak. Help… good.”
Radiating suspicion, it bobbed forward to nudge her communicator, and she let it. “I… help… you.”
Silence fell as it stared at her. She did her best not to fidget in visible ways, hoping not to scare it—would it accept her offer? Though she didn’t know if she could help, it had to be better than throwing the poor thing into a cell in the catacombs.
At last it sank to the ground and opened its cover. She flapped her hands happily.
Sunrise found her sitting on the floor of the scriptorium, stiff but elated. Ink stains covered her hands, but the book had almost a chapter now, and, before falling asleep, it had thanked her.
Callimix, yawning widely, unlocked the circle as he padded up to her. “Here.” He handed her the library-powered communicator. “You did good work tonight. The lamia won’t be devouring any more books, and, now that it’s trapped, the Catalog was able to restore the magic. You should be proud of yourself.
She hugged both communicators to her chest, then carefully set the old one aside. “We’ll have to find a good writer to give it the story it deserves,” she tapped out, the words appearing almost before she could think of them. Despite legs that had fallen asleep, she bounced where she sat. Oh, having all of her words back… she had no words to describe it.
Callimix laughed. “We’ll find one, I promise. But now it’s bedtime.”
She hauled herself to her feet, bracing herself on a desk so she didn’t fall over. “For you,” she tapped out. “I have junior librarians arriving soon who’ll need supervision.”
He, evil Bookwyrm that he was, snorted. “After last night, I’m sure you can handle it.” He glanced at her baby communicator. “Want me to take that back to your room?”
She picked it up and shook her head. “I’ll put it back later.” She hesitated, searching for the right way to ask what she wanted to know. “The Catalog… are you…”
He patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry. We are going to have a long, hard talk. I swear on my books, this will never happen again.” His voice dropped into a snarl on the last words, but softened as he added, “Thank you,” before turning away.
Once he was gone, she hugged her old communicator. Creaky it may have been, but it had served her well the whole night. It deserved a chance to see the sun again.
About the Author
Ember is a senior software engineer who specializes in user-centered design and accessibility. They got into tech to make the world a better place, which happens to be the same reason why they write – if their stories or the products they work on make at least one person happy, they count it as a success. In their free time, they enjoy reading, running, hiking, and generally exploring the outdoors, as well as creating new tales via larping. Their stories have been published by Zombies Need Brains, Future SF, and other venues. Find them at www.emberrandall.com.
About the Narrator
Katherine Inskip is the editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and Polu Texni.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.