Author's Note: First, thank you to everyone who reviewed, and special thanks to Vick330 for reviewing *every* chapter. :) For a while, that was all that kept me going! Second, no, Kagedtiger, this is *not* better than Dungeon Views in my not-remotely-humble opinion, but thanks for the compliment (and the blush that went along with it)! Finally, sorry to take so long for the next chapter. Mea maxima culpa.
* * *
I closed the last page of the book with a feeling of deep satisfaction. It was brilliant. I had expected it to be, but there was always that nagging fear that it wouldn't have measured up, and I would have been forced to decide whether to lie to my Keeper, or face her wrath. Now, thankfully, the decision was out of my hands. I could tell her with a clear conscience that the treatise would revolutionize the techniques used by Mistresses and any Keepers bright enough to adopt them.
I rested my hand on the dragon-skin binding (not from one of the Twins, more's the pity), and closed my eyes. Was she here? I tried to feel for her presence in the air, but the chill of the library was as empty as it ever was. A small twinge of disappointment nibbled at me. I shook it away, uneasily. Why would I feel upset, even for just a second, that my Keeper wasn't hovering over my shoulder? No sane person wanted the undivided attention of their Lord or Lady; my own recent experiences should have told me that. And yet...
I jumped, and tiny tongues of lightning crackled at my fingertips. The Dragon chuckled, the sulfur stench of his breath made me gag as I turned to face him. "That's *Head* Librarian," I snapped, more angry at myself for shying away like an Imp than at the Dragon's unconcealed mirth. "What is it?"
"Feeling a bit...jumpy, Librarian?" The Dragon grinned. "Oh, sorry, *Head* Librarian."
"Is there a purpose to this, wyrm, or did you call just to inquire about my health?"
Atrius, I assumed it was Atrius, since Devlon had been avoiding me ever since that first wretched day of Lady Evelyn's return, narrowed his eyes into slits that glowed with some strong emotion like the forge fires of Hell. And I assure you, I know of what I speak. "Lady Evelyn wishes to speak to you this evening. In her *private* library."
I froze, and Atrius chuckled again at the expression on my face. Very few individuals were ever commanded to the Lady's private sanctum; most often, those that were were destined for a glorious (but very final) end in the service of science. This, then, was why she had decided to allow me to read her book...she would no doubt value someone who could give educated commentary as the principles were applied. How could I ever have thought...it didn't matter what I had thought. Nothing mattered anymore.
I turned away from my reptilian tormentor, and said with what dregs of pride that I could scrape together, "Thank you, Atrius. You may go." I dismissed him with an airy wave, the hand moving too fast for anyone to notice its shaking.
Atrius snorted. For a moment, I thought he would stay long enough to get in one, last taunt, but he consented himself with just slapping his tail gleefully against the wall as he left. No one cared to associate too closely with the condemned, it was better just to write them out of existence. I realized that my hand was still on the front cover of Lady Evelyn's book. It caressed the leather idly, with a will of its own. I removed it, and carefully wrapped the book back in the crimson silk in which it had been delivered.
At least, I thought as I tied the securing knot, Krem would be clear of any collateral damage. I'd sent him to gather the rare fungi that was the base for the magic-resistant ink called magestain. It'd be a couple of days before he would find enough to bring back. By then, it would be all over.
Everything would be all over.
My jaw set, I began setting my affairs in order.
* * *
I presented myself at the locked door of the Lady's private library promptly after dinner. I was dressed in my best robes, although I'd left the Head Librarian token back in my rooms. I didn't think it would be fair for my successor to have to clean...bits off of it before putting it on. I swallowed, though my mouth was dry and tasted faintly of bile, and rapped sharply on the door with my left hand. My right had a death grip on the Lady's tome, as if it were a talisman of comfort.
It opened with a silken silence that didn't seem possible with the heavy iron hinges that bound the oak to the stone. "Enter," said a familiar voice that sent cold waves of fear down my spine. I stumbled across the threshold, and my hands and face went the still, glacial cold of shock.
It was a Mistress. I didn't remember her name, but I remembered her ecstatic cries as she brought the whip down on my shoulders again and again. The door closed behind me. I was trapped. My eyes searched the room frantically for any means of escape. Which is when I noted the first of several peculiar things.
The room was not made out as a torture chamber. Far from it, in fact. Aside from the bookshelves that dominated all four walls, the only furnishings were a lovely oak table of surfacer make, and two matching chairs. On the table was a bottle, but it wasn't acid, unless some perversity of my Keeper bade her to use expensive night-wine bottles to house her poisons. Two glasses huddled near the bottle, like Hell Hound pups leaning against their mother. And the Mistress was not in her typical leather harness, instead, her athletic form was covered in a more elaborate version of my own Warlock robes.
"W-what's going on, here?" I stammered. As openings went, it was vastly inferior to 'How may I serve you?' or 'My life is yours', but at the moment, I was entirely incapable of thinking anything else. The stress of the last few hours, and the unexpected appearance of the thing I feared more than death itself, had reduced my intelligence to slightly below that of the average Bloodspore Mushroom.
The Mistress stared at me, her black eyes impassive. "Head Librarian," she said, "have you lost your wits? Perhaps you've been associating with the Imps too much lately." She stalked toward my stunned form and took the silk package from my nerveless fingers. "At least you remembered to bring the book before your mind failed." At the table, she unwrapped the tome with long, clever fingers.
This was Evelyn, I realized as she seated herself gracefully. The diction, the air of confidence and power, even the way her voice seemed to reach down into his soul, all were the same. 'Of course, Cambri,' I thought, 'what form do you *expect* her to take when she possesses a minion? A Reaper?' I felt foolish, relieved, and apprehensive all at once. I sank to one knee, hurriedly, and bowed my head. "My Lady...forgive my rudeness!"
A sigh. "I suppose I must. Otherwise, I'd have to solicit opinions on my latest work from Krem. Now, come over here and sit down." I looked up, confused at the odd tone in her words. Some trick of the Mistress's voice, I was sure, had been responsible for the touch of...whatever it had been. I stood quickly, and sat down at empty seat at the table with little grace. A corner of her lips twitched. She gestured at the bottle. "Serve us."
I nodded, and filled the glasses to the halfway mark with the potent liquor. I was pleased to note that my hands hardly shook. Apparently, I'd gone past shock, fear, and confusion to find some calm harbor in the lands beyond. After I poured, Evelyn raised her glass, and after the tentative touch of rims, sipped her drink while studying me through half-lidded eyes. I followed her example, but kept my own gaze firmly on neutral territory like the wood grain of the tabletop. What did my Keeper have in store for me?
Apparently, it was talk. After a time of mutual silence, she began to fire questions at me about her treatise. Not just looking for generalities or opportunities for ego-stroking, her terse voice drew out everything I could remember thinking while reading the tome, and quite a few things that I hadn't realized that I'd thought. At first, I'd tried to hedge my opinions in praise, but it only took one cold, cutting rebuke to persuade me that, in this, honesty was the policy least likely to result in my demise.
I wasn't sure how long the interrogation went on, or when exactly the tension drained out of it, and it became a discussion. The Lady's knowledge was immense, but I found to my surprise that I could keep up with her in many areas, and there were even a few times when the expression on the face that she wore revealed her pleased surprise at a rebuttal or counterpoint I'd made. I marked each on of the times, and without knowing why, held them close to my heart, like rare and precious treasures.
As we were debating the pacifying techniques for Horned Reapers (or the lack thereof), I noticed that her glass was empty, and reached for the bottle of night-wine to refill it. To my surprise, it was empty. I blinked at it, then turned it over her glass anyway. One drop, like a bloody tear, slid out and splashed into the bottom of her glass. I looked at her, still holding the bottle. Now that I'd stopped talking, my thought was becoming less clear, obscured by a mist of alcohol.
She smiled. "No matter," she said, and there was husky depth to her voice that hadn't been there a moment ago. The eyes of her host held a dark intent, as if some great decision been made, at last. Those eyes caught me as surely as her Hand ever had, and when her borrowed lips brushed against mine, warm and sweet, a part of me wasn't surprised at all.
* * *
Got to get the mushrooms with the silver tops. Got to get two baskets full, then Krem goes back, and Master Cambri teaches Krem to write. Then Krem can serve the Lady better than any Imp, and Krem will be valued by the Lady and Master Cambri. And Krem will never be punished again. But first, must find the mushrooms with the silver tops.
What? Light down the tunnel...not supposed to be any light down the tunnel. Tunnel closed, Krem remembers. From the Before Time, before Krem was made wrong. Krem will go see if it is Imps. Maybe, this time, Imps talk with Krem and Krem will be valued by Imps, and not be punished.
Men! It is Men from the Above! Krem must tell the Lady! Surfacers are invading, and the Lady must be warned. Run!
Krem is caught! Caught like a chicken in the pot! Bad Krem, failed again! Bad!
"God above, this thing is ugly."
"Don't let it go, Sir Feston. We don't want it warning its damned master, now do we?"
Let Krem go! Krem must warn the Lady! Master Cambri, save Krem!
"The way it's yelling, we'll have the whole dungeon on our heads. I haven't spent all this time finding an alternate route into this hellhole to lose it all on account of one caterwauling little demon."
"So kill it, already. Or give it to the priests."