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The Öht Nürn Aldhii
‘Something wicked this way comes . . .’
Mraan finished his meal quickly, cut himself an extra chunk of dark bread to gnaw along the way, then left his home with no little sense of urgency buoying his steps. His sense of excitement had been growing daily as Haloch’s work on the new version of the Book of Runes neared completion; there remained only the tasks of proof-reading the text, and then finishing the final illustration; a painstaking task, as Haloch was used to working from a completed model.
Over the past months, Mraan tried to tell himself (his father as well) that he was excited because of his fathers’ accomplishment. The truth be known, the real reason was that he was hoping they would actually get to spend a little time together, before another task took Haloch away from his son in all but spirit for another lifetime.
Haloch had said that he would retire upon the book’s completion, but Mraan knew better than to take his father at his word where his work was concerned. Demands upon scholars came unbidden, and when made were difficult, if not impossible, to refuse. Such was the price of service to work whose importance superseded having one’s own life.
It was the still second hour before noon, a time of day Mraan had always disliked. There was something stagnant and dull about this time of day which always made him feel listless and impatient; it was as though time itself maddeningly dragged its feet out of mean-spirited obstinacy, or as though some hidden clockwork process of life itself had become sluggish, untrustworthy.
Never mind. It would pass in an hour or so, as it always did.
Stubbornly picking up his pace in an effort to get the day moving one more, Mraan began making his way towards the Street of Scribes, just a few short city blocks from the Library, towards the north end of Nith. When he rounded the final corner, however, the street was ominously quiet and still, seemingly made more so by his having just walked through the Street of Coopers, where the sounds of iron bands being hammered and forged, and the fire-hardening of barrels, was very loud.
He stopped, noticing in the same instant that nothing moved. Instinctively he froze, his senses becoming razor sharp. There was a watchfulness about the stillness which made him consider going back the way he’d come. But no; testing his senses, he felt the presence of something dangerous, and that the danger, whatever it was, was worse behind him. But something had happened before him, too: something bad. For a moment, he felt trapped between fear and fear. Whatever had happened was something he didn’t want to face. Whatever was coming didn’t bear thinking about. Taking a breath, bracing himself, he decided to return to his home on the Street of Scribes.
As he set foot once again upon the smooth-worn granite flagstones of the Street of Scribes, it seemed as though he came suddenly to an invisible wall or membrane; on one side the air was comfortably warm, on the other it was gelid. His mind went blank, but for a single thought which screamed in his mind, The Street of Scribes is empty! There was no familiar sound of children’s voices, no background murmur of families talking, no one walking about carrying laundry or food, no scribes walking about bearing backpacks and saddlebags in which they delivered scrolls. There was nothing but the empty street, criss-crossed overhead by laden clotheslines. These seemed to sag with drab-coloured garments which hung lifeless in the still air like the ragged pennants of some defeated army.
Hugging himself against the chill, trying to comprehend what was happening, Mraan began moving forward, his breath leaving a trail of vapour like fear. Before he had gone thirty or forty feet past this barrier towards his home, he stopped to listen. The sky, which had been very blue, was now slightly overcast, and the air itself, besides being cold, was beginning to feel oppressive. He tried to move forward, but something almost physical held him back. An image came unbidden into his thoughts; that of the frightening and evil illustration his father was completing. And something more . . . something strange his father had said about the illustration . . .
It’s odd, you know . . . but this illustration was never really finished . . . see the lack of layering and tone? The empty borders and blank paper there and there? I am told that the old Loremaster who set it down died before it was completed. It is said that on his deathbed, he requested that no further work be done on it.
Mraan heard something behind him; a rustle of fabric. Or, he thought with a shudder, turning around sharply and seeing nothing, it sounded more like . . . like wings.
Afraid now, hoping but very much doubting that this was merely his imagination playing tricks on him, he began backing up, looking about nervously. He started with fear as he heard the sound again, and was all the more afraid as he looked about, unable to locate its source.
There was another sound coming from a doorway behind him and to his left, indistinguishable either from a hiss from an animal or the gathering wind itself. The doorway was in darkness, and as he neared it, still backing up, the sky began to darken. As the light faded, his eyes were able to adjust to the gloom.
Someone was sitting there, arm outstretched, leaning back into the corner at a peculiar angle. He had the distinct impression that the figure was beckoning to him, and he approached, hoping to see a familiar face, someone who would laugh and adjure him to put this silly nonsense to rest.
He moved closer and froze. It was an Elf woman and child; they lay in grotesquely contorted positions where their broken and mutilated bodies had fallen. Mraan tried to scream, but no sound would come. In a blind panic, he ran headlong into the wall across the narrow street, and fell to his knees, numb with horror, unable to move or think.
Wings! He heard them again, and knew that his life depended on flight. He got to his feet and began running. The air was so cold now that it began to burn his lungs. He began to feel faint. Stopping to summon his strength, leaning against a cold stone wall like a derelict, attempting through the fog in his mind to regain his bearings, he began to listen once more. What he heard chilled him. He thought he could hear screams, though they seemed far-off and indistinct. But about the raw terror and despair in those voices he could not be mistaken.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw something moving about, something that was almost indistinguishable from the shadows.
Was it a warning? Or was it prophecy?
The words echoed in his mind like a litany of doom uttered by a madman or a murderer, and he was unable to recall whether the words were his own, or if he had heard them somewhere. Looking about, as though wondering where his courage and hope had fled, he spotted a door standing open. Instinctively he moved towards it, stepped inside, and locked it.
The home was empty. Without even considering that he was rummaging through someone else’s belongings, he began searching for warmer clothing. Going into the bedroom closet, he found a heavy wool cloak, leather breeches and boots, and donned them. They were much too large, but something of their size and weight he found oddly comforting.
There was food on the counter and on the kitchen table. Going to the hall closet, he found a small rucksack. Then, returning to the kitchen, he packed as much food as he could find. There was no thought or planning in his activities. He was going through what to him seemed to be little more than a purely imperative sequence of motions. As he left, however, he paused in the doorway, mentally thanking whoever had lived in the domicile. Then, he passed through the entryway, and began making his way towards the Library once more.
The cold seemed to be thickening, despite the wind which made his exposed skin burn and his eyes water. The smooth-worn granite cobblestones somehow seemed harder and more unyielding under his feet than before.
As he neared the Library, a new sound began to impinge upon his awareness, but this one was more distinct. It was the sound of iron-shod feet and guttural voices, speaking no tongue that he could understand. He could see small groups of black shapes, running furtively to and fro, several blocks away yet. They were obscured by a dank mist which seemed to accompany their presence.
Impelled by a growing sense of urgency, Mraan decided to make his way to the Library. To his father, assuming Haloch still lived.
Moving in a low crouch, angling his way furtively from doorway to alcove, water-barrel to overturned cart, he stopped often, listening carefully. The voices, a large group of them, were receding. He felt instinctively that the other evil things, whatever they were, had preceded the ones making guttural utterances, whose feet were iron-shod, and from the sound of things were despoiling whatever they came across with impunity.
Something caught his attention and he stiffened, listening. It was a sound, ever so faint; an Elf voice, quietly sobbing. He raised himself up, turning his head from side to side in an attempt to locate its source. But the hard stone of the narrow street and the high stone walls on either side contrived to deceive him, making the despondent voice sound as though it could be coming from anywhere. Frustrated, Mraan decided to break his silence, reasoning that whoever was weeping would have drawn ruin upon him or herself already.
‘Where are you, the one who weeps?’ Mraan said in a loud whisper.
The voice continued as though its possessor hadn’t heard him.
‘Listen,’ he said again, ‘I’m here to help. But you’ve got to tell me where you are.’
‘Lost . . .’ said the voice, which seemed to echo strangely, sending a shudder down his spine.
‘Yes, but where?’ Mraan persisted.
‘Over here,’ said the voice.
Something in the timbre of the voice changed, giving away its location this time. It came from a short distance up the street, where an overturned cart lay on its side.
Checking around for any sign of danger, Mraan began making his way towards the cart.
‘Come closer,’ the voice whispered.
‘I’m coming,’ Mraan replied. He was approaching the cart now.
‘Closer . . .’
‘All right. I’m here,’ said Mraan, coming around to the other side.
It was an Elf girl, of about eleven or twelve. She was holding something in her arms that may have been a child. The girl’s stare was vacant, didn’t seem to register Mraan’s presence at all.
‘Come, we’ve got to get you out of here,’ Mraan whispered urgently. ‘There are bad things everywhere. Let’s go, now, while we can.’
The bundle in the girl’s arms moved, then was still again.
‘We can’t leave this place, ever,’ the girl said, her voice as empty as doom, her eyes as dead and vacant as stone.
‘What are you talking about?’ Mraan said, sensing something underneath the girl’s demeanour like unfocused danger.
She turned to look at him, and the sight of her eyes, which affected one like standing directly in the line of fire of a drawn bow, caused him to step back in fear. In the same instant, the thing in her arms suddenly sprang into life. All he saw of it was a blur of snapping teeth and ripping claws which seemed to burst out of the girl’s chest. He was several blocks away, lungs burning, legs quivering from shock and exhaustion, before he realized that there was no pursuit.
‘Dead!’ he thought in horror. ‘The girl was dead, yet still animate.’ And he found that he was able to put a name to the unspeakable thing that she’d become.
A demon from the Netherworld! During the full light of day!
He shuddered, trying to imagine the fate he had narrowly escaped and finding that he could not. Once more, he resumed his quest for the Library.
The city seemed deserted now, but he did not trust the silence. There was something all too watchful about the gelid and stifling air; it concealed something that was drawing ever nearer, like a leviathan of evil might which enclosed the city in its fist; whose gelid, sepulchral air was its exhaled breath . . .
Time, time, time . . .
That single word beat in his brain to the rhythm of his steps. Time. ‘Is father alive? Will I get there in time, time, time . . .’
Finally, he had made it to the open courtyard. Hardly heeding the open space, he ran directly to the entrance without pausing.
Gaining the entry, leaning on the doorframe and breathing hoarsely, he found that the iron-bound oak doors stood askew, partially riven from their hinges. Beyond them was darkness.
When he had left the Library earlier, it had been lit from within by many torches and candles. Tapestries and works of art had lined the walls. Stone statues and carvings of wood had lined the halls like silent sentinels, and graced the many alcoves. There had been many times many artifacts made of ivory, pewter, copper, bronze, silver, gold, jade, and myriad other substances, behind the leaded glass of display cases.
The portraits and tapestries had been torn down, slashed and defiled. Stone had been broken, wood hacked upon, cases and artifacts smashed and hurled about. As he stumbled along in the darkness, Mraan was thankful that the ruin he picked his way through was obscured by darkness. The air was becoming dank now, like that issuing from a tomb.
He came to a wide, open area. In the center was a huge spiral staircase which ascended into the darkness. Gaining the bottom step, groping blindly for the railing, he ventured a look upwards into the gloom.
High above, there was a dim flicker of light; too dim for a torch. A candle perhaps? Feeling a surge of hope indistinguishable from panic, fixing the dim glow with his eyes, he began the ascent.