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Precession

Chapter Text

Somewhere, not far – behind that bookshelf? – the pattering of tiny feet. Or was it just there, in the second to last aisle? Shadows flickered across the spines of books, light playing off flaking gilt and cracked leather, and the words of men long dead, given corporeality in the characters of languages no longer spoken. At the small desk, the island of light in the spacious room, the library’s sole patron raised his oil lamp in suspicion. He removed his reading glasses but did not bother to stand. Again, the faint sound of organic movement, a skittering across the floor. Then silence. Oppressive.

The man peered briefly down the center row of shelves, alert but dispassionate, merely tuning his ear to extraneous noise… and with a shake of his head returned to his study and the scroll in front of him. Mice, he thought, or otherwise. It would not require much suspension of disbelief to attribute to the Grand Gears Library its own weird ecology. The man had found, in one of the least frequented reading rooms, the descendants of book lice the size of small terriers, engorged to bursting with book binding glue, leaving spiced metabolite trails along abandoned dictionary spines. Even he was reluctant to go searching through that nesting congregation – and there was very little that the man truly feared. He had stared down death from an early age, and it had long since failed to faze him. All other dangers simply failed to live up to death, the great nil – fear was a matter of practicality, in the end. He never balked at peril, but did abide by a personal maxim: “Don’t go seeking trouble, for it will surely find you first.”

The man glared back down through his spectacles at the crumbling parchment, furrowing his brow in concentration. Here was trouble unlooked for – always trouble in these opaque texts! In the opacity, a blossoming of possible interpretations, a textual void burgeoning with meaning. The ancients were always playing games with Uther Doul. And the soft silent passage of night in the library overlooked him, while more than one nocturnal intelligence scrutinized him in quiet curiosity or with feebly calculating caution, as Uther Doul scrutinized the Verses of the Dawn.

When scuffling pad-feet worried the wooden floorboards again, Uther paid them no mind. Had hours passed? An imperceptible diminishment of oil in the lamp – a continent spanned in scrawled words.

Uther became aware that there was someone reading over his shoulder. He felt no hint of threat. It occurred to him in the way that a half forgotten melody creeps into the mind, bypassing consciousness to birth a half-hummed song - pleasant, but unexpected. Turning over a few loose leaves of paper, he found the passage he was looking for and began to softly quote:

“Bring me one who breathes without breath, who sings without voice, who sips sun-cordial in the in-between land, but dreams in the un-land that lies between none. This one who has never hailed the dawn may see the shattering tomorrow.”

Uther paused. “What do you suppose that to mean, Deadman Brucolac?”

“Liveman Doul,” came the chuckled answer. “Ah, you flatter me. Godsdamned scholar. You know my suppositions on such texts are quite meaningless.” There was a flicker of breath at Uther’s ear. “And oh, you flatter me. Did you pick that one out in advance?”

The watcher materialized in a lazy blink, shaking off a stray shadow with a careless flick of the wrist. A tall, lithe man now sat opposite Uther Doul at the desk, legs crossed, idly tapping his fingers against the arm of his chair. He was dressed in the manner of a city gentleman, with a well-cut coat and silk cravat that signaled wealth and class. The savage glint that flickered in his eye, however, warned otherwise. Uther acknowledged the newcomer with a studied nod.

“It would be a lie to say I was not expecting you.”

“Ha! Word gets around.” The Brucolac nodded in Uther’s direction, fidgeting fingers tapping their way across one scroll in a pile of many. “Especially when you waltz into town, my little refugee. And not a greeting to anyone! Not even your old friend! It’s a good thing I know where you like to hide, eh?” Mock indignation was well suited to the Brucolac’s boyish face, with its improbable splash of freckles. “Though of course, I didn’t come just to look for you, you smug bastard.”

“Oh?” Uther peered over his spectacles. He leaned forward slightly, and in him the small movement was pronounced – he had remained in his natural pose, relaxed but preternaturally still, since the Brucolac had appeared.

“No. No, why should I come looking for you?” The Brucolac hissed. His playful ire took on a sour tone. “What reason should I have to seek out the saddest fuck in Armada, whose idea of a good time at three past midnight is to be, what, reading shitty poetry in the godsforsaken library? Who doesn’t even have the human decency to be asleep at this hour. Why should I give three shits about the most ungrateful excuse for a pirate I have ever seen, when he doesn’t even bother to say hello to his only friend. For more than a week. Were you planning on never seeing me at all?” In the prolonged silence that followed, there unfurled from between the Brucolac’s lips a horrifyingly snakelike forked tongue, which tasted the air twice, and then receded.

Uther Doul smiled slowly. Emitted a rare laugh. Then his face settled back into its impassive expression, and he proceeded to clean his spectacles with a handkerchief as he answered.

“Deadman Brucolac, you are a harder man to find than you think you are. Whereas I know that you are very adept at finding me. Why should I work harder than I have to?”

“So you admit that you’re a lazy bastard, then.”

“I’m up past the witching hour. Isn’t that your favorite time for prowling? I’ve made myself available.”

The Brucolac sighed. “You’re still insufferable. There you sit, spouting sass at me with your straight face, and I just have to take it.”

“I contend that I do not, as you characterize it, spout sass. I merely speak the truth.”

“That’s exactly the sass I can’t stand, Uther Doul. And you know it. And you know that I know it, and that I’ll keep coming back for more, don’t you?”

From Uther, another gifted smile and a nod. “It is good to see you again, Deadman.”

In the darkness of the library two old friends reached across the table, each at the prompting of a knowing look from the other, and shook hands. A sudden, echoing THWAP! of a book falling from a high shelf near the back of the hall made one of the men jump, and cloak himself reflexively in a thin veneer of shadow. With their hands still interlocked, Uther tightened his grip – his pulse, if it had quickened it all, had done so infinitesimally.

“You weren’t lying when you said you hadn’t come just to see me?”

The Brucolac nodded in affirmation, his eyes wide.

“That noise… not just mice?”

The Brucolac nodded again, collected but tense. No.

“Come. Sit here with me,” said Uther, already clearing away his scrolls. “On the table. Back to back. Talk with me a while, and we will watch together. Tell me the news, old friend.”

“Things aren’t quite right, Uther,” the Brucolac whispered as he pulled himself onto the table, settling himself against Uther’s back. “I followed a strange scent here. That’s the first off thing, definitely not in the quite right. It’s not mice. It’s not khepri – they’re volumes of tastes unto themselves, but it doesn’t have the right tang. Hell, now I’m beginning to think I’m just imagining it.”

“Alright. That’s a good place to start. What else isn’t quite right?”

“Besides weird feral smells in the library? I was so damned pleased to see you I tried to forget the whole thing. But I think I hear something moving now Uther, and if I’m not mistaken a library is not a place for night creatures.”

“You’d be surprised,” Uther said dryly. “Do forget about smells, would you? What else is happening in Armada? Tell me what I’ve missed while I was away.”

“Really?”

“Please do.”

The Brucolac took a deep breath. “Where to begin. Garwater is still royally fucked up, Uther. When you left the last time the old President had just died, left no heirs, groomed nobody for her job. Shit poor planning, if you ask me. Nobody knew what to do. So Curhouse gets its fingers into the pie and decides that they’ll help set up an election for a new leader. It’s been anarchy ever since.”

“What went wrong?”

“Well, a Curhouse crony extraordinaire got voted in, but the people claimed the election had been fixed. Maybe that was the truth, maybe it wasn’t. I don’t blame them for being irate either way, really. The new sot was about one hundred eighty degrees from the old Madam President, and with the way Garwater loved that old madwoman I can hardly believe they would have voted in such a sap. They threw him out in the street within three days, intermittent rioting ever since. It almost makes me want to ride in on my white horse and show them the glory of benevolent dictatorship myself, but I have my own to care for. They’re more than enough trouble for me to handle, Uther.”

“Always wise to not go seeking trouble,” Uther replied, and, since the Brucolac could not see his face, smiled broadly. “The news from Garwater Riding is worrisome, though. I had hoped it would resolve itself.”

“Did you hear something?” the Brucolac whispered, and Uther felt the vampir’s muscles tense where the Brucolac was pressed against him.

“Yes. Do keep talking.”

“Alright. There’s been some gang trouble. Related to the rioting. Different factions supporting different figureheads in Garwater, seem to get along civilly enough by day. Night is a different story. My lieutenants have been harassed, which takes some serious gall, and in my opinion is gross reversal of a fundamental law of nature. Thankfully, I trained them well to beat the shit out of pitiful human assailants, such as yourself…”

Uther coughed politely, which the Brucolac knew was a secret signal of indignation.

“Well, except you, you inhuman fuck of a Doul. I know you’re proud as a little bantam cock of your pretty toy swords, despite your utter lack of bravado. No, the problem is cactacae toughs – scabmettlers, too. They aren’t so frightened of a vampir, though they should be. Gods, that’s one problem I’ve been trying not to think about. Then there’s also new graffiti – a little too worthy of artistic merit for the average street thug, which beats me. And an upswing in the homicide department, which might be the most worrying thing of all. Dry Fall hasn’t been hit too hard. Yet. Which is some sort of blessing. From what my lieutenants have seen of it, it seems to be same perp, or group of perps. Nasty, nasty killings with a calling card. Mutilations. Makes even me shudder a bit.”

“How many so far?”

“Eight incidents, twelve victims. Could be more. There’s not really an official count.”

“Related to your gang problem?”

“Don’t know. Maybe. Likely.”

“Give me more details later, would you?”

“Of course. Which means there will be a later?”

“Deadman Brucolac will cease to be himself the day he does not invite me to the Uroc for a nightcap.”

“Ah, but you know what they say: you can lead a Doul to a decanter of port, but can you make him drink?”

“I’ll drink to your exceptionally long life, Deadman, right after we give our greetings to whatever is haunting our library. It is very quiet now, but not too stealthy. If I may make an optimistic assumption, we might surmise that a truly dangerous predator would not give itself away by making such a din.”

“Unless it’s not quite at home here. Unless you think it’s just looking for a good novel? At three past midnight, Uther?”

“Hush. Now, be very still.”

In the darkness, a faint but distinctly audible scratching could be heard moving along the end shelves of the room. Then silence. Then, perhaps, a sibilant hiss of breath? Or the faint slither of a large object being dragged with care across the wooden floor. Uther’s hand reached toward his belt and sword hilt reflexively, but he remembered that his scabbard was empty – checked at the front desk by the night librarian. No weapons were allowed in a house of learning. His armor, his second skin, had been traded for a formal grey woolen jacket. No matter, Uther thought. There are other ways to fight, and he was not alone. The Brucolac had shrouded himself in shadows, abundant here and easily coaxed from nearby corners. The shorter, stockier man with prematurely graying hair and a hard, weather-beaten face might have been sitting on the desk alone, the clouded patch of darkness behind him his elongated silhouette cast by the oil lamp. Except that, by the placement of the lamp, the shadow was being cast in the wrong direction.

The sounds of the unknown presence indicated its methodical, unhurried circumnavigation of the room. After Uther and the Brucolac had been still for a long time, the sounds receded through the large archway Uther had entered hours earlier. Out of the corner of Uther’s eye: a writhing movement, black on black and difficult to discern, then only the wooden beam meeting floor at the corner of the arch, as it should. Without a word or a glance to each other, the two men stood and followed. The Brucolac snatched from a nearby table an oil lamp and taper of his own, pausing only to light it from Uther’s flame. The two men entered the labyrinth of corridors and reading rooms that composed the Grand Gears Library, guided by instinct and the signposts of pursuit.

“I can’t hear the bastard anymore, but I can smell him,” the Brucolac grimaced. “Dry. But… a fungal dry. Like old mushrooms.”

Uther sniffed, but with his weaker nose detected no scent. “He’s stopping and starting, which is why we can’t hear him now. But we should have caught up to him by now if he’s playing that game.”

“Well, the nose knows,” the Brucolac whispered to himself.

Down spiral staircases to the lower decks, along a circuitous route of intersecting corridors, up a dumbwaiter, each taking turns to operate the pulley (“How’d he manage that alone?” the Brucolac muttered.) and at last to a suite of little-frequented rooms where books on the most arcane topics were shelved.

“No exit here. Ready for anything?” Uther raised an eyebrow as he glanced at his friend.

“How do you know there’s no exit here?”

“Besides it being my business to know every exit? The last room is Ghosthead theory. End of the line. I’ve spent a bit of time here.”

“That’s an understatement if I’ve ever heard one.”

Uther did not reply, but held up finger to his lips in a gesture of silence. A low rattle could be heard emanating from under the last door in the hall. Even Uther could now taste a hint of dry rot and old orange peel in the air. The door was thick, constructed of aged oak planks. Under the sill, Uther could see the subdued flickering of a small light source.

“It must know by now that we are following. If anything is holed up there, it will be ready to pounce or flee when we enter,” Uther whispered.

“A knife for you,” the Brucolac hissed in reply, pulling a stiletto from a concealed jacket pocket. “Not that I need it.” His reptilian tongue flicked at the air in anticipation.

“Here we go.”

With a slam of the door that nearly took it off its hinges, the two men stepped into the small room. Uther and the Brucolac could see the entirety of the place, well lit by a single standard library lamp. The footprint of the room was barely larger than a closet, but the walls lined with bookshelves extended upward for twenty or more feet, terminating in a distant skylight. Two things were immediately apparent to the men – first, the fact that there were no living creatures present in the room beside themselves and second, centered in the glow of the lamp upon the reading desk was arranged a gruesome tableau.

Most of the books had been removed from the shelves and arranged in a neat circular wall, three feet high, around the central desk. On the desk was sprawled the lifeless body of a khepri librarian. She lay on her back in a pool of congealed ichor from the deep wound slashed across her neck, her clothing matted with gore, her arms outstretched and hands clawed in rigor mortis. One frozen finger was clutched to the lamp she carried in life. The other held (and Uther Doul’s eyes fixed on the object in a brief and troubled expression of recognition) what appeared to be a small spoked wheel, as from a child’s toy cart.

The Brucolac was the first to move. “Oh gods… oh gods,” he muttered as he gingerly stepped into the circle of books. Uther followed close behind.

“You didn’t smell her?”

“No. The other smell overpowered her. Oh… oh gods I smell her now. She’s been dead for hours, Uther.”

Uther Doul made no response, but approached the table and plucked the toy wheel from the dead woman’s hand, scrutinizing it closely. He then gently peeled back a corner of her unbuttoned blouse to reveal a second superficial wound in the center of her chest: a perfect, flawless circle.

“There’s nobody in here Uther. Unless it crawled out of a skylight which I can see is locked from the inside. But we heard it. I can still almost feel it in here, whatever the fuck it is. There’s been no humans, no xenians I know of here. Gods, gods just her. Her and it and you here, now.” The Brucolac seemed on the urge of a shudder as he met Uther’s stony gaze.

“Blood doesn’t bother you, vampir,” Uther said, calmly. “Death does not perturb one who breathes without breath. What’s been lurking here frightens you.”

“I’m not frightened, I’m merely concerned about an assailant who can walk through walls.”

“Don’t let it frighten you now. It has fled. How, we don’t know. Why, we don’t know. We will look, and learn, and soon we will know.”

“A scholar’s reassurance,” said the Brucolac without humor, stepping over the wall of books and turning his attention to the empty shelves. Uther took a last look at the body, shook his head with regret for the loss of the unknown woman’s life, and pocketed the wheel without showing it to his companion.

“Is this the calling card of your gang killings, Deadman?” The Brucolac did not answer, and Uther glanced at the vampir standing rigidly on the other side of the room.

“Deadman?”

“Read this, Uther.”

“Read what?”

“Come read this.”

Uther approached with his lamp held high. Upon the walls, between the empty bookshelves as if they were lines on a giant sheet of writing paper, were scrawled words. A message was repeated over in over in a confident capital letters, in a calligraphist’s hand:

NEVER ODD OR EVEN, OH MIRROR RIM HO! SPICED SOMNAMBULANT MISTRESS, SEAMSTRESS OF NIGHT, I THEE PRAISE. SO MANY DYNAMOS! REVIVER, REIFIER, FLEE ONLY TO ME.

The two men stared in silence for a long time. It was Uther who finally broke the silence.

“Well, it’s written in ink.”

“Would you prefer it to be written in blood?” the Brucolac said with irritation.

“Of course not.”

“That’s all you have to say, then?”

“So far. I have to think on it more to make anything out of it.”

“Godsdammit Uther. That is some fucked up writing. I have no idea what it means, but my first conclusion is that whoever wrote is fucked up. And killed a librarian for apparently no reason. Which is also fucked up.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Uther?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Uther?”

“Yes?”

“What are we going to do about this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ah, I see. You don’t know.”

Somewhere on the far side of the Grand Gears library, a dark presence weaved its way between carts of books, unheard, unperceived by the two friends. The Brucolac sighed with resignation, and weakly punched Uther Doul on the shoulder. “So we’re up shit creek without a paddle. Business as usual, eh?”