Behind Martin’s back, the pillar is hard as a spine beneath its thick coating of moss, still as cold as when he touched it. The chains haven’t warmed either, thick rough links of some dark, unrusted metal that hold him tight against the rock.
Not that he’s tried to escape from it. However scared he is, sick and hot-cold-sparking with churning terror, he can’t… He has to do this. Or, someone has to do this, and it may as well be him. So he doesn’t try to get free; not that its any more than a futile gesture. They’re well-wrapped, these chains, and the padlock that nobody in Hope has a key to – that they’d found unlocked and resting on a tree stump just inside this clearing, waiting for them – holds them fast.
The autumn air is thick with rot and greenery, a cold-edged breeze tugging at his hair. Cold enough to make him shiver, but he appreciates it nonetheless. On the way here, their procession through the only marked path in this forest, there’d been no wind at all, not even the faintest movement. The air had been so still it had become a weight, pressing down on Martin’s stiff shoulders. It’d been dark, beneath the trees. A heavy, settling dusk, even at the hight of the day. Every footstep of their little procession at once too muffled and too loud, every snapped twig sending cold prickles across Martin’s neck and adding to the nausea chewing through his stomach.
It’d been worse when they reached the clearing, though. When he’d seen the pillar standing proud in the centre of the green circle; rough stone, ancient and softened with lichen and moss. It had seemed almost organic, like it had grown from the dark earth. A heavy presence hung around it, reminding Martin oddly of church. So much emotion bled into the stone, ingrained in the grit of it. So much fear.
Martin had squeezed his eyes shut tight when the people who’d brought him here, people he’d known all his life, had turned to leave. He’d been too scared that if he saw their backs turned to him he’d call out, scream and beg and cry and he couldn’t, he couldn’t bear for that to be the last sight his former neighbours had of him. The thought had mortified him to his core.
So he’d hung there, the chains they’d bound him in biting into the softness of his arms and legs and belly, straining to hear their footsteps fade. He’d been alone again before he knew it, and he’s stood here alone since. Long enough for his feet to ache, but he can’t bring himself to lean into the chains for too long. They dig in too deep, like they’re trying to choke him.
The light falls fast, or maybe he just loses track of time. One moment, Martin’s watching shadows drag themselves across the leaf litter as the sun moves across the sky, and then it feels like he blinks and they’re gone. Just the darkness, settling cold and close around him. It’s a full moon, of course, but here in the depths of the old forest, only a precious little light bleeds down from the sky, dappling tiny patches of earth and leaving the rest wreathed in shadows.
Each breath comes sharper, thicker, the forest damp sticking in his throat and suffocating him. As Martin’s eyes adjust, he can see his exhales pluming silver-wet in the air in front of him. Marking him as living prey.
The back of his neck, pressed to the stone, has been prickling for so long that he’s stopped noticing. Suddenly it flares, static-sharp across his skin. Marin jolts in his chains, looking around frantically; but of course, whatever is watching him is buried deep in the darkness. There’s no one point where the feeling is more intense – it feels like he’s being studied from every angle, every part of him watched.
Another terrified flicker of his gaze across the clearing, and – it catches. Something catches it.
There is a shape at the edge of the clearing, standing in the gap between two towering trees. Human-like, tall and cloaked, nothing but a silhouette. Martin can’t even see its face, not properly, so it makes no sense at all that he knows where its eyes are. Its gaze like a whirlpool, a dragging void that sucks at him, tugs on his eyes until they feel like they’re being pulled from their sockets.
Martin slams his eyelids shut. The clearing is silent, he realises suddenly, and the forest around it too; no more rustling or cooing or snapping twigs. The only sound is chains clinking together as he shivers helplessly.
Footsteps, slow and heavy across the leaf-strewn stone. Martin doesn’t dare open his eyes, burning now with fresh tears. There’s a scream trapped in his throat, but he can’t make a sound, he can’t, even though the monster already knows exactly where he is, couldn’t possibly miss him.
The steps get closer, closer. Then they stop.
Martin’s breath won’t come, lungs frozen. He can feel it, heavy as stone in the air in front of him. Can feel its gaze on him, sweeping across his entire body and through him, burying itself into the meat squirming beneath his skin.
In the cold silence, Martin could swear he can hear the tear dripping from his chin and falling to pat into the stone below his feet.
Suddenly there’s a touch on his face, a hand cupping his jaw. Martin gasps out a scream and tries to flinch back, but the hand is strong as the chains, as the stone, keeping his jaw trapped in its grip.
It doesn’t quite feel like skin, what’s holding him. Cold, the same temperature as the air around them, and parchment-dry. Almost parchment-y in texture, that particular grain to it. That was one of the tales, wasn’t it? A scholar who’d been too caught up in his books and learning, who’d forsaken God to learn what no man ever should, who’d made deals with dead, forbidden things and been eaten by his own parchments until he wasn’t a man anymore, just a starving thing made of words and endlessly staring eyes.
There are a hundred legends, but that’s the one Martin likes best. Had liked best.
A thumb – maybe a thumb, would it be better or worse if the monster looked like a person? – swipes across his cheek, just under his eye. Drying his tears. Then it’s gone, just the phantom of it burned into his skin.
“I mean you no harm.”
The words fall into the silence between them, and they’re so… wrong. A man’s voice, yes, deep and pleasant – but it sounds oddly distant, as if the speaker is a few metres away and not so close they’re almost touching. There’s this prickling, shivery undertone to it, a distortion to the sound that can’t possibly be natural, and such a strange noise accompanying it. Like the whirring of some fine clockwork, or of something being drawn through a mechanism at speed.
It does have a mouth, Martin thinks. At least, something that in the shadows under its hood looks a little like a mouth. It doesn’t move when the monster speaks, though, and nor does the monster’s jaw or its chest. Its chest doesn’t move at all, still as the stone pillar Martin’s back is pressed painfully against.
When the monster does move, reaching down towards Martin’s side, he can’t help but flinch again. This time, it doesn’t stop him, just ignores the movement entirely as it takes the padlock in one gloved palm. Its hands are big, Martin notices; its fingers just a little too long, just a little too thin.
When it lifts the padlock up, he feels the movement tugging on every chain that binds him, pulling his whole body close and taut. A gasp slips from him, and the monster glances up. For a moment, the moonlight glints off what must be eyes, two patches of shining darkness that pin Martin to the pillar more surely than any chain.
He doesn’t see what it does to the lock, but he feels it when the tension in the chains releases, when the monster lets go of one end and they start to slide down and off him. In their wake, Martin feels light as a feather; as if the night breeze could catch him, lift him up into the trees and far, far away from here.
“Don’t run,” that voice comes again, clicking and whirring and so oddly distant. “I do not rule this place, and if you flee, I may not be able to protect you.”
The idea that there might be worse things in this forest than the monster that scares his village so much that they’d rather feed their people to it than fight back – Martin wraps his arms tight around himself, wincing as his muscles pull and protest.
“I, I won’t.” His voice is thin, reedy, and he wishes so much that he was braver. Wishes he could straighten his shoulders and glare defiantly up into the monster’s shadowed face, go to his death unbroken. Wishes he would run, take his chances, fight to live.
But he’s never been a woodsman. Before he moved back to Hope, he’d lived in big, bustling Manchester town, and even before he moved there he’d not been much for playing outside. Smaller than all the other boys, softer. He wouldn’t make it five minutes in this wild, teeming place; would be lucky if he just broke his leg and starved to death.
He wants to live, he does. It’s just that maybe, if he goes with the monster that at least professes to want to protect him, he’ll live a little bit longer.
“Good,” the monster replies, and then it’s moving towards Martin. He jerks backwards, but the monster is faster, wrapping a long, too-thin arm around his shoulders, and that arm isn’t flesh, it can’t be. Flesh wouldn’t be so completely unyielding, wouldn’t whisper so strangely against the rough-spun fabric of his shirt.
There are lumps in it, too. Small raised bumps, softer than the rest of its body, place at regular intervals up its arm. Martin very carefully does not put any pressure on those.
“Peace,” the monster tells him. It draws him into its side, against a hard, thin, still chest. The hem of its cloak rises, although he’d swear the monster hadn’t moved it, and it falls heavy across Martin’s shoulders.
“There,” the monster says, and as it… speaks? As the words come, Martin can hear something underneath its linen shirt, too thin for the autumn night. The whirring noise is louder, almost like wire spooling. When the word stops, there’s a strange, heavy clunk, and when it tells him “Stay close,” there’s a click just before it speaks, more whirring, then another clunk at the end of the word.
The clicks and clunks seem to come from its throat, level with Martin’s head and hidden under its high collar. The whirring, though, that’s in its motionless chest.
Before Martin can observe any further, the monster is moving, its arm pulling Martin along with it until he gets his feet under him and walks.
Outside the clearing, the chorus of the forest at night filters back in. There’s no comfort to be found in it, though; not when he’s still pressed up against the monster’s side, its arm still solid and immovable across his shoulders, its cloak dragging at him. Not when he knows, now, that this isn’t the worst thing he could meet in this forest tonight. Every snapped branch and rustling canopy and far-off cry is a threat in waiting.
It doesn’t help that this deep in the forest, so many of those noises are… wrong. Unnatural. Sounds that Martin’s certainly never heard an animal make, some he isn’t sure an animal physically could make. Some that sound almost human, but just as essentially wrong. Once, he thinks he hears laughter coming from the hole in a towering birch. Once, far in the distant gloom, he’s certain he hears a scream, high and terrified and cut off sharp as an axeman’s swing.
The monster he’s bound to doesn’t seem too worried. Its tread is even, neither slow nor particularly fast, long legs easily eating up the uneven forest floor and forcing Martin to quicken his stride uncomfortably to match it. It never stumbles, not once.
Martin isn’t so lucky. A moment of distraction, sure he can see a flash of something big moving off to their right, and he’s pitching to the side, foot plunging into something and he draws breath to scream –
Stone-hard hands wrapped around his chest pull him upwards, tugging his ankle free and setting him back on his feet. Heart pounding, Martin glances down, but his foot seems intact. His ankle throbs where it had twisted, but it’s not too bad, probably not even fully sprained. His shoe is caked in something dark, but when he frantically searches the forest floor, all he spots is the dark hollow of something’s burrow. Just mud, then, thank God.
“Are you well?” the monster asks, and that distant voice has gone somehow sharp, a little… urgent?
“Yeah,” Martin whispers, carefully testing his weight and finding to his relief that his ankle will hold. The last thing he needs is for the monster to see him as deadweight, unable to keep up. Just in case it would find it easier to haul a corpse back to its lair than have him living but lame. “It’s – I’m fine.”
“Good,” the monster replies, and then “watch your step, please.” The rebuke is brutally obvious, and Martin can’t help but wilt under it, the lump in his throat swelling and burning.
He almost whimpers when the monster wraps its arm around his shoulders again, drawing him into its side. Does whimper when its other hand closes around his wrist, but he doesn’t resist as the monster tugs his arm across its back. The architecture of its body is all wrong; if it has a spine, Martin can’t feel it, or shoulder blades, or a ribcage.
This time, Martin hears the click a few seconds before the monster’s voice comes. “Put your weight on me,” it says then falls into a few more seconds of silence before the clunk of its voice cutting off.
Still trembling, just a little – he’s not entirely sure he can stop – Martin obeys. When they set off walking again, he finds he can manage a normal walking speed without needing to lean on the monster too much. He also finds that he’s permitted his normal walking speed, that the monster has slowed its steps to a more comfortable pace. With the length of its legs, that must be a little uncomfortable for it.
That’s… Martin doesn’t know what that is. Maybe the monster needs him uninjured, for whatever it has planned for him. Maybe it’ll want him able to run from it, later.
Now they’re walking slower, Martin can pay more attention to the forest around them. This deep, the trees are impossibly tall, moss- and ivy-draped behemoths, roots bulging out of the ground around their trunks. Every cold, wet breath draws in a scent richer than anything Martin’s smelled in the fields and tiny, managed copses he’d sometimes wandered as a child. It smells of life and death, the growth and decay of millennia, a history unlike any contained in books. He is suddenly, coldly certain that he shouldn’t be here. That this is a place for wild things, not his soft and civilised self, and that the forest itself knows that. That the thick matt of roots and insects under the soft soil knows he doesn’t belong.
He can only hope it understands that he’s not here by choice.
Cautiously, he glances up at the monster’s face, fallen once again into deep shadow under its hood. Despite how obviously it resembles nothing in nature, it seems perfectly at home here. Maybe the forest makes an exception for things like that, things that couldn’t make a home outside it.
Since he’s looking at it, Martin can see the moment the monster’s head jerks upwards, up into the canopy of a bare, sprawling tree. The massive thing looks dead, bark peeling off and those branches that remain jut at odd angles without leaves to soften their shape, like an insect’s many-jointed legs.
Arm tightening around Martin’s shoulders, the monster pulls them sharply to a stop. Martin sinks his teeth hard into his lip to keep from asking what’s wrong; he knows his voice would be too loud, and the thought of attracting something’s attention… He shrinks further into the monster’s side despite himself.
The cloak falls a little over his face, like this, but the skeletal branches of the tree they’re under let in enough moonlight to clearly see the shape descending from it, suspended on a fine and glittering thread. It looks… Martin’s not sure. One moment he’s sure it looks like a spider, a massive one, bulbous abdomen and graceful, grasping legs; the next, it’s a woman, standing and wound in the silk threads like an aerialist, clothed in white silk in a cut Martin’s only seen illustrated in centuries-old art and historical texts.
Her descent seems at once slow and fast – Martin feels like he’s still staring gormlessly up at her hanging above their heads, and then he blinks and she’s hovering just above them, suspended on the silk. She looks to be the same race his father must have been, darker-skinned than he is but her hair is incongruously pale, a creamy white twisted in an intricate swirling knot of braids on one side of her head.
The other side of her head, Martin notices with a lurch, is completely bare. No hair, no scalp, no skull. Just a jagged cracked hole, and beneath it something the same colour as her dress, as the threads she’s balanced upon. A solid matt of it, filing her skull in the place of a brain.
“Archivist. Good to see you getting some fresh air.” Her voice is sweet and slightly lisped, and her lips are curved up into a smile. They’re stained black, he can’t help but notice, in a way that doesn’t look like a lip-paint.
“Ms Cane. I’m sure you were asked not to frequent this portion of the forest. Politely, I would add.”
The… woman? Spider? Monster, the other monster ignores him. “Is this the newest one, then?” Her black eyes are fixed on Martin’s face, and for a moment he’s sure she has more than two. “He doesn’t seem much like your type, you know. Even less than the last one was. Really, it’s like they want you to come visiting.”
The monster with its arm around him stiffens even further. “The last human who knew my, ah, requirements passed away quite some time ago. I’d imagine they’re sending all sorts, now.”
That… that shouldn’t sting like it does. Bad enough that he has to be sacrificed to this being, but to not even be a good sacrifice is salt ground into his wounds.
“You want to fix that,” the woman says sagely. “What happened to the last one was bad enough.”
Even more tension, right now – it’s like being chained to another stone pillar. “Tim Stoker’s death was not my doing,” the monster grits out.
“Of course not,” the woman replies, sympathy dripping from her tone. “You know, if you don’t think this one is going to suit, I’m sure he’d be very happy with me. I can practically see the cobwebs in his hair already.”
The air… thickens. Goes heavy, watching. The arm around Martin’s shoulder suddenly spins him around, pulling him in close against what must be the monster’s chest. His face is smushed into soft fabric, warmed only slightly from where he’s been plastered to its side, and each of his stuttering breaths are heavy with ink and dust, something salty and metallic underneath it. The cloak brushes his hair as the monster draws it tight around him, trapping him in the cool, close darkness.
“He is mine,” the monster says, voice ice-cold and calmly, utterly murderous. Martin can feel its voice, vibrating through the bones of his skull. “Given in fair exchange. You will not ask me this again.”
A laugh, bright and gleeful. “As you wish, Archivist. Enjoy him, do.”
A rustling, skittering sound, and then the air loosens like a muscle relaxing. Martin takes a deep, strange-smelling breath.
“She’s gone,” the monster – the Archivist – tells him. A hand comes up to rest against his head, smoothing his hair down in something that Martin could almost call a comfort. “It is safe to continue.”
“Okay,” Martin whispers, and when the Archivist’s arm loosens its grip, he finds it strangely hard to pull away, even just slightly. When the Archivist starts walking again, he finds himself moving almost in sync with its long legs.
Time doesn’t pass the same under the enveloping canopy, but Martin’s sure they haven’t travelled much further before he begins to sense a change. The gloom gets a little brighter, the shadows more distinct with every step. The air changes too, earthy plant scents growing drier and dustier. Less alive. The ground starts to make crunching noises under their feet, more like sand than soil. Martin glances up at the Archivist in confusion.
“Nearly there,” it tells him without looking down, as if it can feel his eyes settle on him. Martin’s stomach clenches all over again, fear trickling back into his veins and rising fast and silent to the high water mark.
They step out of the trees and onto ring of bare, sterile earth surrounding the tallest tower Martin has ever seen, looming so high it dizzies him, pointed tip rising above the surrounding trees. Its walls are made of a pale stone that he can only catch glimpses of; the forest has claimed it as one of its own, and the stonework is thick with lichen. There are no windows, and yet he cannot shake the sense that something inside it – or maybe the structure itself, somehow – is watching him. Studying him from so very high up in the air.
The monster draws its arm from Martin’s side – why does that leave him feeling a little colder, when if anything it was sapping his body heat? – and strides forwards towards what must be its domain. There is no door that Martin can see, and yet the stone parts, blocks grinding against each other as they open for it to pass through.
“Come,” it says, and Martin jolts a little from where he was caught in some impossible staring contest. He gazes at the open hole in the tower’s side, skin prickling from the chill, ankle throbbing, heart in his throat.
He can’t run, he knows he can’t. If the woman who’s probably actually a spider doesn’t get him, it’ll be something else, something worse. He couldn’t have made it out from this far into the forest in daylight with adequate provisions and all the health God gave him; trying to at night, with nothing but the clothes on his back and an ankle that he really doesn’t want to try running on would be suicide.
But if he steps into that tower, the stone will grind closed behind him and there will be no escape. The monster, this strange inhuman Archivist, will have him entirely at its mercy.
“Martin,” the Archivist says again, and Martin starts, staring. He definitely hadn’t told it his name.
Of course, stupid him, hadn’t he heard the monsters talking before? As if the Archivist doesn’t have him already, doesn’t own him. As if there was ever any escape.
Crossing the bare circle of earth is still almost impossible. His legs shake, joints weak and almost liquid, but he makes it. The Archivist steps further inside, an amber light casting its cloaked shape into a blank silhouette, and gestures him in.
With a deep breath that catches and scrapes his throat on the exhale, Martin obeys.
The room is warm, is the first thing he notices. A sweet, heavy warmth that settles over him like a thick woollen blanket, and he shudders hard as his body acclimatises. The source of the warmth isn’t obvious – there are no candles, no fire in a grate. Instead, the room is lit by… are those stone?
With the Archivist moved further into the room, Martin wanders over to the closest light source to him. It’s resting on a wall sconce, an irregular sphere of what looks like some sort of quartz, except it glows. As if there were a light behind it, but there isn’t, it is a light. Like a tiny sun. When Martin reaches a trembling hand towards it, he finds it warm, on the edge of hot.
“I permit no fire here,” the Archivist’s strange voice informs him, and Martin spins to face him, tucking his hands behind his back. Just in case his captor would take offense to his curiosity.
“That… makes sense,” Martin replies, eyes flicking around the rest of the huge, circular room that seems to make up the whole of this place. It is literally entirely books. Towering walls invisible under heaped bookcases that rise up higher than Martin can properly track, stacks of more books and scrolls spilling across the floor like mountain ranges of paper, only a few winding valleys left clear for anyone who might want to use the floor for its intended purpose.
More knowledge than Martin knew existed in the world is kept in this room. He has to steady himself against a bookcase at the thought, head swimming.
Pulling his eyes away from the vertiginous spill of books above his head, he focuses on the Archivist again. It’ standing over by a huge wooden desk that’s also piled high with books and scrolls and sheaths of paper, and he can’t help but notice it’s taken off its cloak. Underneath its clothes are plain, a white shirt and dark breeches, but the shape of them still seems as archaic as the spider-woman’s dress had. Without its hood to contain it, the loose knot of dark hair at the base of its head unravels with a shake, swinging to hang long and dark across its back. It moves strangely, reflects the light in a way that hair doesn’t. Martin stares at its back, trying to puzzle it out.
Another movement sends the hair shifting across the Archivist’s narrow back, and all at once Martin realises that it’s not hair at all. Sprouting from the Archivist’s head are thin strands of what looks like black ribbon – but it can’t be ribbon, because fabric doesn’t catch the light like that, shining in a way that’s almost slick. He’s just not sure what else it could possibly be.
Then the Archivist turns around, and Martin loses his train of thought entirely.
If Martin were to squint, he could pretend that the face looking back at him were human, and lovely. With clear eyes, he can see that the Archivist’s fine features are described in browning ink on skin that is not skin, Martin had been right, it’s parchment after all, and all of it written on. Words spill in all directions, a thousand different handwritings, some in script that Martin recognises as Latinate or Coptic, Cyrillic or Arabic, some that he has never seen before in his life. They spill across the pale paper, sculpted into the shape of cheekbones and a nose with only dark puddles of ink for nostrils and lips that don’t open. The eyes are the only part of its face that is at all organic, and they are…
Crowded. The ones set in its eye sockets are large, too large in proportion to the rest of its face. The ones that are not set in its eye sockets spill in an almost graceful wave across one cheek and down its neck, shining rows of them dotting its collarbones and even more covered by its shirt. There is no white in any of them, only a swarm of thin, overlapping, brilliant green irises and fat, swollen pupils. Every single one is staring right back at him.
Martin swallows, hard.
“Can you read?” the monster asks abruptly, its mouth unmoving and its eyes boring into him, a dozen or more pupils and yet it feels like the same gaze, a physical weight upon him.
“I- sorry?” Martin squeaks.
That little crackling noise sounds a lot like a huff. “Read. Can you read and write? I suppose it’s a lot to hope for.”
Martin can feel his back go up, even as his fear and his common sense beg him to let that pass, ignore the dismissive tone. “I used to be a librarian,” his traitor mouth says. “Actually.”
One eyebrow twitches upwards. “A librarian? Interesting. In Manchester, I assume?”
“Well, yeah, there’s not many libraries in Hope,” Martin mutters, and then flinches slightly at his own tone, still too sharp and offended. There’s no retaliation, though – the Archivist just keeps looking at him, steady and banked.
It occurs to Martin, a quiet thought that grows louder by the second, that it would make no sense to ask if someone can read if you planned to kill them.
“I moved back a few years ago,” he continues, for lack of anything else to say. “My mum got sick.” Not that she’d ever thanked him for helping, which is an awful thing to think – but what does it matter now? Whatever happens, he’s never going to see her again.
“Does she have anyone to care for her with you gone?” Goodness, Martin thinks wildly, but this monster is not tactful.
“I… hope so. Millie said she would. Because, you know,” he can’t stop speaking, why can’t he shut up, why does he even care how inane he probably sounds to the monster who now owns him, “it was meant to be her that came. Her name got drawn.”
“You’re drawing names?” The Archivist sounds a little offended, Martin thinks, though it’s hard to tell through the crackle-hiss of its voice. “From a hat?”
Martin sighs, bites his lip. “It’s… you were right, we don’t know what you want from, from the sacrifices. So it’s the only fair way to do it. You can’t just, pick somebody to send…” He trails off before he can say ‘to their death’ or something similarly insulting.
“And yet, you are here, and Millie is not,” the Archivist states.
“She’s pregnant,” Martin says, and feels the lump swell harsh in his breastbone. “Her first, and she was so happy when she found out. Her husband was so happy, too – they’re both orphans, you know, and it’s like they’re building a family for themselves. I… couldn’t. And I knew nobody would miss me half as much, so.” His throat feels raw when he stops speaking, like the one time he swam in the sea off Lytham and swallowed half a lungful of saltwater.
“So you chose to be here,” the Archivist says, and its voice has dipped low. Almost soft. Martin… doesn’t know what to do with that.
He hadn’t chosen this. Not really. But the way the parchment being is looking at him right now makes him say, “I mean, yeah.”
For a moment, the intensity of the Archivist’s gaze is a burning, focused beam, sunlight through a magnifying glass, boring into him. Then its face moves, parchment twisting in an ungainly, unpractised-looking smile. It makes it look shockingly beautiful.
“Excellent,” it says, clapping those long-fingered hands together. “A promising start.”
Martin doesn’t have the first idea what to say to that. It looks so honestly pleased, paper face almost glowing. Does anyone else live here, in this impossible tower of words and parchment? Does this monster have anyone else but the people it takes?
The thought pulses uncomfortably in his chest, and something about the way the Archivist’s eyes study him makes Martin certain it knows. “We can talk tomorrow,” it says in that same, oddly soft voice. “You should rest. You’ve had quite a day.”
The sheer baldness of that understatement chokes a startled laugh from him, more hysterical than anything else, but the Archivist nods as if satisfied. It turns its back on him, and with the pressure of its eyes gone, Martin feels both free and oddly bereft. Shaking himself, he starts to look around for somewhere he actually can rest. He’s not had much luck sleeping since the lots were drawn, but he should at least try. Whatever madness waits for him tomorrow, it’ll be better dealt with when he’s not half-sick with wakefulness.
There’s a small nest sort of thing in the corner, a pile of pillows and cushions and blankets. Walking towards it feels like a transgression, like it shouldn’t be allowed, which is probably fair enough. He came here expecting to die, after all.
He doesn’t think he’s going to die, not anymore. He’s not honestly sure what to make of that.
Martin sinks to his knees and curls up on his side, unable to keep his eyes off the hunched shape bent over its massive dark desk. There’s something so elegant about the paper creature, the way it holds itself, the way it moves. That long, thin, sea-weed substance it has for hair drapes across its shoulders and down to shadow its face in a graceful curve, like a weeping willow’s branches.
Oh, Martin. Of course he would start to form some weird fascination to the monster who apparently has ultimate power over his life. He’s always gotten attached far too easily, and never to anybody remotely suitable.
“Sleep, Martin,” the Archivist says without looking up, and the words make him realise all of a sudden just how tired he is. Days of sick dread, the utter terror of this evening, it’s drained him almost dry. His eyelids are like stones, and even though they sting as they shutter over his exhausted eyes, it’s a satisfying pain, a relief.
The Archivist starts to speak; to itself, Martin thinks. Low, rich tones, with that soft whirring humming along beneath it. He can’t make out any of the words, which might actually be a very good thing, but it’s soothing. Like lying on his back in the cold ocean, letting something so much greater than he is move his limp body.
He’s asleep in moments, head swimming with words he can’t understand, nose full of ink and dust and someone else’s tears.