Thoughtfully she looked down at the book in her hands. After all this trouble to get hold of it, she was just a little curious about what great secrets of necromancy might be revealed within. Raising armies of the dead? Invoking ghosts? How to unnaturally extend your life for thousands of years?
She opened it at the beginning. The page read:
It is my theory that the greater truths underlying life and death can best be understood as a parable – that is, as a fiction. There is no way that the human mind can understand, let alone accept, any of the fundamental principles that govern the transmission and return of souls, or the flux of energies which can bind a body on the line between life and death, in practical terms: the laws which other people have discussed, proposed, or even affirmed, in higher texts on the subject, slip past the boundaries of that level of understanding which would allow true inherent cognisance and manipulation of those necessities.
Too many commas and overly long phrases, she decided.
I have therefore decided to describe my work and my experiments, and the understanding which I have derived from it, in the form of a story. Those who wish to do so may take what they can from it. My sole desire is to explain and to enlighten.
And, Irene hoped, to entertain. She turned the page.
It was on the morning of Peredur’s birthday that the ravens came to him one last time. He had been three weeks at the house of the witches, and they had taught him much, but he had long been absent from the court of Arthur. The first raven stooped down, and took on the form of a woman. When the morning light struck her, she showed the form he knew: a withered old hag, scarcely able to bear the helm and armour she wore. But when she stood in shadow, then she was young and comely: never had hair been so black or skin so pale, or eyes so piercing sweet.
‘Peredur,’ she said, ‘in the name of the Ladies of Orkney, I ask that you remain here one day longer. For my sisters and I have searched the stars, and I tell you that if you leave us now, then you will perish before your time, and that in a fool’s quest: but if you stay one day more with us, then your path will be steady and your sister will meet you before all is done.’
‘I have no sister,’ said Peredur.
‘Aye,’ the raven witch said. ‘None that you have met . . .’
Irene shut the book reluctantly. Of course she had to send it to Coppelia first, for inspection and evaluation, but perhaps after that she could get her hands on it again.
There was nothing wrong with being curious about how a story turned out, after all. She was a Librarian. It went with the job. And she didn’t want great secrets of necromancy, or any other sort of magic. She just wanted – had always wanted – a good book to read. The being chased by hellhounds and blowing things up was a comparatively unimportant part of the job. Getting the books, now that was what really mattered to her.
That was the whole point of the Library: as far as she’d been taught, anyway. It wasn’t about a higher mission to save worlds. It was about finding unique works of fiction, and saving them in a place out of time and space. Perhaps some people might think that was a petty way to spend eternity, but Irene was happy with her choice. Anyone who really loved a good story would understand.
And if there were rumours that the Library did have a deeper purpose – well, there were always so many rumours, and she had missions to complete. She could wait for more answers. She had time.
Irene focused on the next steps. The sooner she handed in this book and filed a report, the sooner she could get herself clean and dry, and sit down with a good book of her own. And she should be able to expect a few weeks off for her own projects, which quite frankly she lusted after at the moment.
The computer in front of her hummed to life as she flicked the on switch. She wiped the screen with her sleeve, and blew dust off the keyboard. It was a pity that nobody could control the re-entry point of forced passages back to the Library from alternate worlds. All you knew was that you’d end up in the Library – although there were horror stories about people who’d spent years finding their way back up from some of the catacombs where the really old data was stored.
The screen flared with the Library logo: a closed book, with login and password windows. She typed quickly, hit return, and the book slowly opened, pages riffling to show her inbox.
At least nobody had figured out how to spam the Library computer system yet.
She called up a local map. It blurred into existence on the screen in a three-dimensional diagram, and an arrow in red pointed out her current room. She wasn’t too far out, only a couple of hours’ walk from Central. Reassured, she sent a quick email to Coppelia, her direct supervisor and mentor.
Irene here. Have secured the required material. Request appointment to deliver. Currently in A-254 Latin American Literature 20th century, about two and a half hours from your office.
The beep as she sent the email broke the room’s silence.
It was a pity that mobile phones, or wi-fi, or any similar technologies, all failed in the Library. Any sort of transmission not based on strictly physical links failed, or malfunctioned, or spouted static in bright warbling tones. Research had been done, research was being done, and, Irene suspected, research would still be being done in a hundred years. Technology wasn’t the only failure, either. Magical forms of communication were useless too and the side-effects tended to be even more painful. Or so she’d heard. She hadn’t tried. She liked her brains inside her skull where they belonged.
While she was waiting for an answer, she caught up on her email. The usual stuff; mass-mailed requests for books on particular topics of research, comparisons of Victorian pornography across alternative Victorian worlds, someone touting their new thesis on stimulant abuse and associative poetry. She deleted a plaintive begging letter looking for suggestions on how to improve penicillin usage in Dark Age era alternates. But she highlighted a dozen Language updates, which she put aside to check later.