There are few magical librarians left in our modern world. Not because there’s a shortage of individuals who’d like to care for secret collections and forbidden tomes, but because most of the enchanted libraries that survived the end of the Age of Magic have gone feral.
Mine was like that before I tamed it. Little more than a snarling beast, devouring all who wandered through. It’s calmer now, although it took a good deal of work to set right. And it gets riled easily. Visitors have to remain calm, speak in a soft voice and keep their powers under control, or else the place hungers.
That evening, I was at the Raven Pie Tavern near Greenwater Square when I sensed something was wrong with the Library through our psychic bond. I swilled my craft beer and stepped onto the street. It was around 6pm and the streets were full of fast-moving cars, motorcycles and mopeds. Bicycles and skaters whizzed past in the green lanes to the side. Everything was a blur of neon and streetlights. I stuck my thumb out and hailed a cab, as the Metro had delays for track work. A few vehicles sped by when they saw me—I’m not the most accepted person in society as I’m half-ogre, half-elf, or ‘blended’ as the young folk say these days. Finally, a compact car pulled in.
“The Cull.” I slipped inside, hunching uncomfortably in the front passenger seat. “Tempest Ward.”
My driver was a youthful dwarrow, barely licence age. The vehicle was the right size—for her. She had thick sideburns, braided with worked copper nuggets. “What’s the exact address, ma’am?” She reached to tap the location into her navigation unit.
I hunched over, my legs cramping. “I’ll have to tell you. Straight ahead, and left onto Royal Drive—”
Following my directions, the cab slipped through the central city districts until we were within the Tempest Ward. A melting pot for immigrants, outcasts and other undesirables, the Ward has escaped Storm City’s various gentrification programs. We drove through thin lanes, over ancient, cobbled roads, and weathered terrace houses.
“We’re here.” We were outside an old factory from the 1900s: a shell of tumbled red bricks and broken chimneys reaching into the sky.
“That was fast.” The dwarrow frowned and tapped on the screen of her device.
“Shortcut.” I shoved a generous handful of coinage at her, minted with the heads of monarchs from different eras, then ran down a darkened alley between the old factory and an abandoned lot full of wild grass, stopping at a blue door.
I unlocked the entrance with the oak-and-iron key around my neck. Rather than emerging on the side of the ruined workshop, I entered a wide hall with a high-vaulted ceiling lost in the darkness. Books lined nearby shelves, light glinting on polished leather and silken bindings. I trusted the cab driver hadn’t remained to watch me walk through. If she had, she would have seen nothing untoward. Despite our magical past, today’s world of humans, elves, ogres and dwarrow is focused on ordinary, big city life guided by technology. Ancient pacts and secrets protect them from the strange and secret magic.
I closed the Library door, and with a flicker I was somewhere else in the complex, near the stacks containing eldritch bestiaries. Books littered the ground. Portraits of past librarians hung awry. The Library’s rage echoed in the shivering of pages, the rattling of the shelves and in the strained binding. If I didn’t calm the place soon, terrible things could happen. Entire rooms might disappear, portals could open to dark and unpleasant dimensions, and paintings could trap innocent visitors within their landscapes.
Footsteps echoed in the distance, and I could smell magic in the air. Not the Library’s own power, but the alien scent of energy siphoned from other dimensions. Through some quirk of my relationship with the Library, I could scent these as easily as my camelia perfume. Quietly, I moved towards the fracas and hid behind a shelf, where I peered at two intruders.
They circled each other like angry panthers seeking weakness. One was a pale-skinned elf with glowing red eyes, wearing an 18th century frock coat and cravat. His magic reeked of bitter loneliness and regret: darkness and cold. That was the stench of the Underworld, which meant he was an undead revenant.
The other was a human woman with crimson-scaled skin and horns. Her power carried the scent of blood and iron. I sniffed again. Definitely infernal energy, which meant she was a cambion.
I moved to speak to them, when the revenant picked up the cambion and threw her at a nearby shelf. It toppled backwards, spilling books everywhere.
“Stop it!” I shouted.
Ignoring me, the crimson-skinned intruder leaped to her feet and lunged at her opponent. She crunched into him horns first.
He took the blow and swung at her with black-gloved fists.
The cambion ducked, flipped the revenant over her shoulder and sent him crashing into a reading chair.
I stepped in front of him, drew my umbrella from the nearby stand, and pointed it at the undead creature’s throat. I whispered as loudly as I dared: “Please sir, do not make a mess of the Library any longer!”
I glanced at the cambion. She waited, arms folded. Not an immediate threat.
The revenant sneered. His blank red eyes glowed in the dim light. “Away from me, you misbegotten half-breed!”
“I am the librarian, if you please, sir, and I must ask you to refrain from loud sounds or violence as you will startle the Library—”
“No one commands me!” The undead elf struggled to push the umbrella from his throat. “I am Arianthus Bloodcrow…”
I summoned the tome Beasts of the Indigo World to my hand and flicked it open to a blank page. “Thank you for your name, sir.” A heartbeat later, the revenant was in the book. An illustration showed him pacing around a cage. The caption read:
Revenant. One of the most powerful types of undead being. A deceased sapient who has made a pact with a ghost lord of Tenebra, the Underworld. In exchange for service, the revenant bears a vestige of its patron’s soul, which enables it to return to the physical world as a living corpse. Revenants possess great strength—
“—and not much good sense.” I flicked through the pages, displaying the entry for Cambion.
A sapient who holds a demon’s vestige, having made a pact with one of the powerful entities imprisoned in Thargul, the Netherworld. Cambions act as agents of vengeance and—
“I’m sure you will be more civilized.” I gave the woman a mild stare.
She smiled. “Absolutely.”
I closed the bestiary and returned it to the shelf. The Library would decide how long the revenant remained imprisoned. “Would you explain what you are doing here?”
“By accident. Bloodcrow stole a book from my client. I retrieved it. We were grappling over it when we found ourselves in this place.” She pointed to a leather-bound tome on the floor—The Codex of Occult Crystals and Their Properties.
I collected the book, clicking my tongue over the loose pages. “This volume doesn’t belong to your client—it belongs here.” I turned to the endpapers, where the card displayed the book was last checked out in 1923. “It’s extremelyoverdue. And they have defaced it!” On the front cover, an erroneous bookplate read: Property of the Luminous Night Society. “Bloody magicians!” The book’s whimpering pained me, and I soothed it with promises of repair and rebinding once I’d dealt with the intruder.
“I’ll let my client know.” The cambion studied the surrounding shelves. “What is this place?”
“The Labyrinthine Library, although it has many names—”
“How do I leave?”
“Only members can come and go freely.” I apologized. “There are two ways to depart. First, you may wander off, alone.” I gestured at the cavernous vault of the ceiling above us, and the corridors that stretched off into infinity. “You might find a door to odd places and times. Or you could spend centuries lost. It depends on the Library’s whims.”
“I don’t have time for games.” The cambion woman folded her arms. “I’ve got work to do. What’s the alternative?”
“First, you must tell me your name.”
Her mouth twisted in a cynical smile. “I saw how you bound Bloodcrow, and I’m sure that’s not his real name…”
“Ah, that’s because all words have power here, even street names. No, the safe way is to become a member. And that means building a relationship. Think of this place as a wild beast. It will show you the trail you seek only if it trusts you.”
She paced, then turned to face me, smiling. “Call me Thaena. Thaena Ashmore.”
“I’m Ivarlis. Let’s adjourn for tea, and I’ll explain.”
We moved to the Dahlia Room, where paintings of flowers hung in golden frames on the wood-paneled walls. “The next part of gaining the Library’s trust is to give what it wants most. Stories. It has a particular interest in biographies, you see.” I served jasmine tea and raspberry coconut biscuits and returned to my chair. “Tell me about yourself. What do you do?”
Thaena leaned forward on her armchair, clawed fingers twisted around her teacup. I glimpsed a shoulder holster partially concealed under her leather jacket. “I’m a cambion. My clients call to the Netherworld for vengeance, and I ensure it happens.”
I nibbled on a biscuit. Though these were unusual circumstances, it was pleasant to chat with a potential new member. And Thaena’s pragmatic approach was refreshing. She wasn’t displaying any overt signs of prejudice about my mixed heritage. She simply wanted to solve the problem she faced. A cambion would start with diplomacy, but violence was always a possibility.
“I’ve spoken with cambions before,” I went on. “Let’s be blunt. You’re required by your pact to send souls to your demonic patron. How do you cope with that? Do you see yourself as an assassin? A champion of the infernal realms?”
“It’s very simple.” Thaena steepled her hands together. “Demons don’t care for the souls of the innocent. They need those who’ve committed crimes worthy of the Netherworld. I’m called on by those who seek vengeance and can’t get it by normal means. Doing that work, I fulfill my pact and give my clients the justice they require.”
“Are you sure it’s always that simple?” I finished my biscuit and wiped my face with a napkin. “The Library enjoys stories where matters aren’t as straightforward as they appear.”
Thaena sighed. “And if I tell you this tale, I can go?”
I shrugged. “The Library will judge, not me. However, something truthful, yet twisted and exciting, would ensure your membership.”
Thaena drummed her fingers on the edges of her leather armchair. “Challenge accepted. How about this—a story about one of my clients…”
The Vengeance Business
When you want vengeance, who do you summon?
Thaena Ashmore, half-demon assassin.
She’s been in the business for centuries.
In this devilish collection, Thaena Ashmore seeks to balance her duty to the ancient laws of the Netherworld with the concerns of living in the modern age.
In “The Vengeance Business”, a battered housewife makes a diabolical pact to flee her husband, but is that what she really wants?
In “No Way Out”, one of Thaena’s targets is back from the dead as a living corpse. The only way to stop him is to make a dangerous bargain with a monster slayer–an individual with the power to kill Thaena as easily as the revenant she seeks to destroy.
If you have a taste for villains receiving their just desserts, or want to explore what lurks in the infernal corners of the Vestige World, then this is the collection for you.
You’ll get this collection, regular short stories, and news when you join the Labyrinthine Library.