They crept down the stairs, tense and wary. Rainbow leaned on the brothers heavily after wrenching her ankle mid-climb out of out the hole she’d fallen through. None of them spoke. They didn’t need to. Nikifor’s thoughts pounded inside his skull, shouted louder than they had any right to. Every damned hair on his body stood on end. Every shadow they passed lurked, alive, waiting to reach out. He needed to get to the library, where it was safe, and hide in a corner amongst the books to re-read the last words of Magnus and figure out how he could write such lies, or if...
No. The alternative was simply unthinkable. The king could not possibly be evil.
Finally, finally, they made it to the bottom of those forbidden stairs. They stopped a moment in the passage, listened for voices, but no ambush awaited.
“We should find you a medic.” Nikolai’s words were subdued.
“No,” Rainbow replied, sounding testy. “Then we’d have to lie about how I hurt myself, and then we’d have to keep our story straight. Help me to my room, I’ll just strap it up myself.” She turned her piercing, unsmiling eyes to Nikifor. “Carry me. It’ll be faster.”
Nikolai’s eyebrow quirked, but he made no other comment.
Nikifor shrugged, picked her up awkwardly, and tried to ignore the moment she buried her face in his shoulder and shuddered. Vulnerability never seemed quite real in Rainbow, but he wouldn’t judge. He went as quickly as he could down the three halls that led to the women’s wing, relieved to encounter nobody along the way. Nikolai opened the door for them; he went in and lowered her onto the nearest couch, then stretched his aching arms.
“Thank you Nikifor.” She opened her mouth to say something more.
“I have to go.” Actually, he couldn’t stand to be around either of them another moment. Nikifor turned on his heel and almost ran from the room, out of the women’s quarters, down the stairs and left through the twisting passages that led to the library. Only then could he slow, breathe, begin to calm. The shelves of dusty books worked their magic. Nobody else wanted to look after this treasure trove; they’d been quite happy to hand it to him, and since then, he’d made it his domain. The books were cared for and ordered and returned to the shelves every time a student moved them. He’d read hundreds, and had thousands left to read yet. There were twenty volumes of philosophy by Magnus.
He stumbled down the stacks, turned into a dark corner that held a scratched-up divan and table for studying, and collapsed. With trembling hands, he lit the candle on the table, took the leather he’d hidden in his sleeve, and spread it out.
This is the last word of Magnus of the Wild Blackthorns at the Mouth of the Screaming Cave. I am not prey to the madness they speak of me...
He closed his eyes and laid his hand on the leather, let the ancient ink and the shadows whisper to him. He didn’t know if he was supposed to. Muses were supposed to focus on candlelight and hone their control. They were supposed to walk amongst the humans in the world of Dream while they slept, and inspire them. Most of all they were supposed to adhere to millennia of tradition and love their king and respect the law.
The darkness shuddered. The king is evil.
Magnus whispered around him, trod the ground around him like smoke. One by one, he will kill us all.
Purple lightning flickered behind his eyes. A glimpse of blood, a stone knife.
He didn’t know how much time passed like that, and he didn’t hear the footsteps at all. It was only when a bony hand landed on his shoulder that Nikifor started to his feet in fright.
“They said I’d find you in here.”
“My king!” Nikifor almost fell over at the wave of sick horror the familiar face made him feel, but he managed to turn the stumble into a deep bow.
“Did I catch you sleeping? Sit down, my dear boy, I have some news for you.” King Pierus paced around him and sat on the opposite side of the table.
Nikifor sat heavily. His hands trembled. The candlelight flicked over the gaunt face of the king, turning it to a frightening, hollow skull. He thought he could still feel the dread ghost of Magnus hanging over them both. He reached out for the leather, hoping to draw it out of the line of sight of the king.
“What’s that you have there?” Pierus removed it from his hand in one smooth motion, tilted it to the candlelight and read. Lines deepened on his face. If there had been any warmth before, it went ice cold. His mouth thinned.
Nikifor wanted to run, but he dared not move.
Pierus’s grey eyes glinted silver when he looked up. “Where did you get this, boy?”
He opened his mouth, but could not make any words come out.
Pierus’s lip curved at one corner. “Did you make it yourself? Is this a plot against me?”
He shook his head.
The king rose to his feet and took two steps toward him. He leaned down, placing a hand on either side of Nikifor’s head, pulling his hair until it stung. “Of course it’s a vicious lie. You know that, don’t you, boy?”
“And you are loyal to me?”
“Yes my king.”
“You would die for me.”
“Y-” he couldn’t finish the lie, not with those eyes boring into him.
“That was not a question. You will die for me. So I give you leave to speak freely. Ask me the question that burns in you.”
It was terror that burned his very marrow, not a question, but one tumbled out anyway. “Did you murder Magnus?”
“Oh yes, everybody loved Magnus, didn’t they?” Pierus jerked away from him and paced the tiny space. “It is not a muse’s place to speak pretty words, only to inspire them. That’s why he went so wrong. Did you know he once spent a whole moon living up a tree and reciting backwards sums to birds?”
“No he didn’t.”
“What was that?”
Nikifor raised his voice, amazed at his own temerity. “No, he didn’t. That’s a lie.”
“That is a lie.” Pierus pointed at the leather.
Nikifor rose to his feet. Every part of him went quiet. He fear did not vanish, but it went somewhere else, and a smouldering anger replaced it. “Did you murder Magnus?”
“Don’t challenge me, boy.”
“Did you murder Augustus?”
Something inside Pierus’s eyes cracked, and he grabbed Nikifor’s face in bony fingers. “Do not speak that name to me.”
“Who was Augustus?” Nikifor forced the words out, even though Pierus had almost forced his mouth shut.
“Enough.” Pierus laid his other hand on Nikifor’s forehead, and for a moment, Nikifor could see right through to a soul as rotten as the corpse that lay under the stairs four floors above. “Has anybody else seen this?”
Nikifor tried to break free of the grip, but it only tightened. The fear returned, and the words ripped from him unwilling. “Only Nikolai and Rainbow.”
The king raised an eyebrow.
“Good. Now forget.” The fingers bored into his forehead.
A moment of blinding pain. Nikifor fell to the ground. Darkness wrapped around him, and he thought someone kicked him in the ribs.
When he came to himself again, he sat on the scratched-up divan tucked away in a remote corner of the library. His favourite hiding place. He rubbed his temples and wondered where such a headache had come from.
“I seem to have caught you sleeping,” a low, serious voice said from across the table.
Nikifor started to his feet, and almost fell into a graceless bow. “My king! I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were here!”
“Sit down, my dear boy. I’m afraid I have some grave news for you.”
Nikifor sat, a little dazed. The king had never sought him out before, not alone.
Pierus leaned forward. The candlelight made him face gaunt, like a skull. “Nikifor, the Bitter Tower has fallen, and the vampire army invasion begun. The Champion is dead.”
“The Champion?” The words fell from numb lips.
“Yes. Your father died at the hands of the Vampire King, as did your mother, and nearly every muse defending the border.”
Nikifor fell to his knees. He buried his face in his hands, horror creeping across every inch of his body.
The king continued, merciless. “You are the Champion now. At the moment of your father’s death, the priceless gift passed to you. On your shoulders now falls the destiny and the burden. You must protect Shadow. You must lead the war against the vampires.”
“I cannot,” he whispered.
“Of course you can. You must.”
“But – I’m a librarian.”
“Go and get your belongings,” Pierus said. “We leave for Shadow City within the hour.”
Nikifor remained on his knees, frozen in the library he loved, the library that kept him safe, the library he wanted to fade into right now, to draw comfort from, to grieve the father who’d never loved him and the mother who had, a little. He needed to hide from all of this.
The sharp words drove him to his feet.
“And send me your brother,” Pierus said softly, just as he left.
“Yes, my king.” Nikifor took three more steps away.
“Send Rainbow to me as well.”
“Yes, my king.”
Nikifor walked softly, slowly, into the stacks. The shadows whispered around him, but he couldn’t hear what they said.