Friday, April 28, 2006

Antaria: Late Research

Gharen walked among the shelves, passing rows upon rows of books, scrolls and other scholarly treasures deposited by the Metrian Guild. The main library held many secrets -- many powerful secrets, Gharen was sure -- but there was often a price that came with them. That, or a certain mastery of the Metrian mindset, whichever came first.

On the other hand, it was not as though Gharen himself had no such secrets to hide.

Gharen slid past some of the more ancient sections of the library, his eyes resting on the occasional worn title. Arcane Fundamentals, Theories on the Nature of Lightning, Transdimensional Teleportation... they were all there. But they were not what he sought. They were, in fact, quite far from what he sought.

He found the volume sitting on a low shelf in one of the far corners of the hall. It was in an anonymous section of the library, its companions casually tossed or stacked in the immediate vicinity simply because they could not be classified anywhere else. Apprentices called it "the Heap", if only because that was what the resulting mess was.

Most of the references in the Heap defied categorization: A History of Unorthodox Knitting Techniques. Efficient Thaumaturgical Disposal. Common Allergies of the Modern Metrian. Their titles were stenciled across leather spines and wooden staves. Some of the letters were embossed in silver; Others were scribed in faded, spidery handwriting.

Gharen's volume, however, was unique among the pile of books and discarded works. It had no title at all, or at least none that stared out from its black-green cover.

He gave the book a quick pull, and then waited.

It took almost a full minute before the wall opened up in front of him.

* * *

Cerise pushed her way through the shelves. It was dark, but not too dark; she knew that she was among the more ancient books, and they were quite a distance away from the glare of the closed lanterns.

She wondered why she was here in the first place. Then again, she already knew why she was here to begin with. It was all his fault, really. It was all Gharen's fault, and she wished that she could tell that to his face right then and there.

But she had to find him first, of course. Not that she would actually tell him that when she actually found him... but she had to find him first. It was a question of priorities, or at least that was what she told herself. It was indeed a question of priorities.

Cerise sighed. She was making absolutely no sense at all.

She found it quite strange, however. For all the access he had to the Guild libraries, Gharen had been visiting them farther and farther into the evening. Zerah, the crotchety old librarian everybody knew and loved, even sent him a letter of complaint the other day. And now, well... there was just no excuse for getting up out of bed in the wee hours of the morning just to do whatever research he fancied.

There was also the question of just how Cerise knew that he wasn't in bed in the wee hours of the morning, but she preferred not to think about that. It was all Gharen's fault, anyway. It was all Gharen's fault.

She thought she heard something along a row of shelves to her right, and started moving in that direction.

Walking around in the empty libraries late at night, she concluded, was not an experience she would care to repeat. It was an environment where sound persisted regardless of the fact that there should not have been any sound to speak of. What she heard could have been Gharen shuffling around in his nightclothes, but it could just as easily have been wood settling in the shelves, a bunch of books falling over, or some otherworldly thing nesting in the shadows waiting to drag her off into a mouthful of sharp teeth.

"Cerise," a voice said.

She reacted immediately, almost knocking over an entire row of shelves.

* * *

Gharen brushed aside a few cobwebs. Now he was getting somewhere.

The room before him was octagonal in shape. Shelves, cabinets and vaults littered the walls, and empty alcoves indicated that no one had lighted any torches in the room for some time. That, and the inch-thick layer of dust on the floor suggested that no one had even so much as set foot in the place for a while.

Gharen whispered a few arcane words, and watched as the room illuminated slightly. If his references were correct, then the thing he sought was somewhere nearby. He guessed that it was in a locked or trapped container as well, if he knew the Guild well enough.

Gharen ran one finger along the lid of a particularly large wooden case, studying the faded text inscribed on top. War Research 41-90, it said. The one immediately below it read War Research 91-140, and Gharen decided to leave them alone. He had little use for extensive property destruction at this time.

He fumbled around a little more, inspecting long-faded tags on worn volumes and checking labels on rusted strongboxes. Some shelves contained the sensitive works of long-dead scholars; Some cabinets contained collections of moth-eaten scrolls that were long past the level of indecipherability.

Fifteen minutes into his search, Gharen decided that the item was unlikely to have been kept out in the open. He began scrutinizing the walls one brick at a time, looking for anything that seemed out of place.

"The cabinet with Horann's journals holds a false bottom," a familiar voice said. "It shouldn't have been opened in the last few years, but you should still be able to shift it a little bit."

Gharen shook his head. "Thanks," he said, before realizing that he should have been alone in the room.

He turned in time to see the owner of the voice.

After a while, Gharen nodded his greetings.

* * *

Zerah approached cautiously, holding up a covered light. "Cerise?" he asked in his usual raspy voice.

Cerise picked herself up from the jumble of books on the floor, and straightened her robes. "I'm... I'm all right," she said, and sighed in relief.

Zerah squinted at her. "What are you doing here so late at night?" he asked. There was a certain edge in his voice this time, and Cerise felt as though it were best for her to tread carefully.

"I'm... looking for something," she said.

"What are you looking for, then?"

"Ah," she said, her mind settling on the first thing that came to mind, "something on elementary sleep techniques."

Zerah gave her a strange look, and for a moment Cerise thought that she had said something wrong. Then the librarian grunted in dissatisfaction, and nodded slightly.

"You're in the wrong section of the library," he said. "What you need is in the central area, near the apprentices' sections."

Cerise knew where it was, of course, but held absolutely no interest in it at the moment. "I, er... see," she said. "I'll... have a look right now."

Zerah glared at her. "Surely what you need can wait until tomorrow. The books will not move from their rightful places tonight."

"Er... ah... right, right," Cerise said.

"In the meantime, I will bring you back to your room," Zerah said.

The alarms went off in Cerise's head. "That, er... won't be necessary," she answered weakly.

"I insist."

Cerise cursed inwardly. "A...are you sure, Zerah? I might be distracting you from..."

"Shall we go, Cerise?" Zerah asked.

If there was a time to risk everything, then that time was now. "But Gharen's in there somewhere," Cerise said desperately.

"Gharen?" Zerah asked, raising an eyebrow.

Cerise nodded.

"Yes," Zerah said. "I know."

Suddenly, Cerise couldn't think of anything to say.

* * *

Atharus stepped from the shadows, his staff rapping sharply against the old wooden floor. Somehow, Gharen was not surprised. Atharus had a tendency to be everywhere at any given time. It was as though the old man wanted to make sure that everything was in its correct place.

"Well?" Atharus asked.

Gharen looked surprised. "Well what?"

"Aren't you going to have a look?"

Gharen glanced at the cabinet in question, and then gave a little laugh. He wasn't expecting to be in such a situation, and the best he could do at the moment was to give the grandmaster the most innocent face he could think of.

"Stop that, Gharen. You're getting to be as bad as Cerise."

Gharen dutifully recovered from the vapid expression.

Atharus took a few steps around him, as though inspecting every inch of his clothes. "As the Masquers would say," he said, "Curiosity kills. Curiosity kills, Gharen."

"I thought that we Metrians are supposed to be curious," Gharen answered.

Atharus stopped and glared at him with cold eyes. "You're the one who's at a disadvantage here, Gharen. Don't answer back."

"Yes, sir," Gharen said.

"What do you want with the Codex?"

Gharen blinked. "What?"

Atharus gave him an expression of unimaginable patience. "The Codex, Gharen. It's what you came for, isn't it?"

Gharen took a deep breath, and then decided to come clean. "Yes," he said.

"What for?" Atharus asked.

"Call it... morbid curiosity."

Atharus glared at him even more. "It's not some children's book, Gharen. It's the Obsidian Codex. Why would you wish to find out what happened to an Empire that was lost centuries ago?"

"Well," Gharen began, "there's..."

"There's the possibility that the Obsidian Empire knew the principles of True Magic?" Atharus interrupted. "Or perhaps there's the lure of lost knowledge undreamed of by human minds? Or the rumors that the book contains smatterings of future events?"

Gharen considered this for a moment. "Perhaps," he said.

Atharus stalked forward, reaching the point where he and Gharen were easily face-to-face. "Go back to your room, Gharen. I can already tell you that it's not worth it."

Gharen wavered only slightly under his gaze. "I'm certain of that, Atharus. That's why you keep it in a false-bottomed chest, in a secret room at the farthest corners of the Guild library."

Atharus was scowling now. "I don't keep it away from everyone because I'm selfish about the contents, Gharen. I keep it here because I know that whatever is in that book is not worth risking your sanity for."

Gharen smiled. "Sure," he said.

Atharus drew back a little. "You don't believe me," he said flatly.

"No, I don't."

Atharus drew himself up to his full height, changing the grip on his staff so that it seemed more a weapon than anything else.

"If you truly refuse to believe me so far, Gharen Miredrake," he said, "then you're welcome to have a look. You have my blessings to open that damned tome and listen to your mind scream at the sight of the words."

Atharus's robe dragged a thin trail of dust across the floor as he exited through the false shelf.

"Just remember this, Gharen, and remember it well:

"You wouldn't be the first one to do so."

* * *

Cerise spent about ten minutes lying in bed, swearing sulphurously to herself.

It was all Gharen's fault, getting out of bed in the wee hours of the morning just to go hunting in the libraries. It was all Gharen's fault, getting her all worried and curious and, well, just compelling her to go looking for him. It was all Gharen's fault, getting her caught by Zerah at the worst possible time.

She wondered if Zerah was going to tell Atharus about the incident. After a while, she decided that, if Atharus did call her into his presence, then she would just have to blame Gharen. Blaming Gharen would inevitably make it all better.

At least, she hoped that it would make it all better.

She wrapped the blanket a little more tightly around herself.

After a few more minutes, she had to admit that, despite everything that had happened tonight, she was still worried about him.

What did Zerah mean when he said that he knew Gharen was fooling around the shelves? How long had he known that he was there? Why didn't he do anything about it yet?

Maybe Zerah was ticked off. She didn't like the idea of Zerah being ticked off. He was probably planning to do something to Gharen, or anything along the same lines.

Cerise slid off her bed, her blanket still wrapped around her shoulders. She decided that a quick look in the corridor probably wouldn't have hurt.

She reached for the door latch, and felt the rough metal in the grip of her fingers. She steeled herself, wondering exactly what she would do if anyone else turned out to be in the hallway. She opened the door in a single smooth motion, and walked... right... into...


"Ow," he said, taking a step back.

A million thoughts suddenly went through Cerise's mind. What's he doing here? was in there somewhere, and so was, Why does he look as though Atharus just put him through the wringer?

She also couldn't help thinking, Did he just go rolling around a pile of dirt?, and a little voice inside her had to point out, What's he doing outside my room?

Then cold rationality kicked in, and Cerise suddenly realized that she was wearing nothing but her nightclothes and a blanket.

"Sorry about that," Gharen said.

"Er..." Cerise managed despite the million questions burning in her mind.

"Just some late research," Gharen shrugged. "Good thing Zerah didn't catch me, eh?"

"Y... yes," Cerise said.

"I'll, er... go back to my room now. It's been a long night."

"Yes," Cerise repeated.

Gharen gave her a strange look, and began padding down the hallway towards his room at the end. Cerise suddenly thought of something at the last second.

"Gharen?" she called after him.

Gharen turned around slowly. There was a strangely sheepish look on his face.

"Yes?" he asked.

Cerise steeled herself again, and weighed her options. There were so many things that she could say to him at the moment, but there was one particular thing that warranted mention. She had to say it. She had to tell him.

"It's all your fault, Gharen Miredrake," she declared, and then marched back into her room and shut the door.

* * *

Gharen never did figure out exactly what she was talking about.


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