Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Seven Riders

The librarian who hated me lifted the Letters of the Eidolon Queen from its bed of crushed velvet with great care, and carried it over to my desk as though he were carrying a sleeping child.  He set it down, placing it precisely and squaring the corners.  Then he moved some lever or armature set into the back of the desk and the book's far end lifted up to an angle of thirty degrees or so, an ideal pitch for reading.  He regarded me for long seconds, his hazel eyes seeming faintly luminous in the shadows of his eye sockets, and then laid a hand very gently on the cover of the book.
"Be very wary with her, Mr. Debraun," he said.  "The gentleman on the wall brought her here, and she is... restless still."
With that he left, taking slow, measured steps across the thick golden carpet, opening the door silently and closing it behind him equally quietly.  I looked up at the portrait on the wall once more, the reason why this was called the Derleth reading room, and shuddered.  The implication of the librarian's words was clear to me.


Later than evening, as I sat in the Bar of the Seven Riders, I had two glasses in front of me: one of Psaltrum and one of Deinore.  Psaltrum was a fortified wine made two hundred miles south of Crécy and usually brought up via mule train, across inhospitable desert scrublands and broken hills that occasionally hid salt-basins and ghost-mines.  Deinore, served in a much smaller glass, was made from pressing the must of the local grapes and fermenting what was left with a botrytis yeast.  The yield was small, hence the serving size, and was something of an acquired taste.  Both were more expensive that I could normally afford, but I needed my nerves settling.
"Debraun!"  Henrix was the first of our crew after me to arrive, and as he did so he spied the glasses in front of me.  His eyebrows rose fractionally, and he hove to the bar without saying another word.  Only when he'd returned with a glass of port for us both did he sit down and look around him, checking habitually that no-one was listening in.
"You were admitted?"
I nodded.  I hadn't spoken since I'd thanked the librarian and left.
"You saw... well, you saw why it's called the Derleth reading room."
I nodded, and couldn't help but shudder a little, no matter that I tried hard to suppress it.  Henrix nodded, and I realised he'd been looking for just that reaction.
"What did you think of the egg?" he asked next, and he looked hungry.  Finally I had reason to speak again.
"I never saw an egg," I said.  "There was very little ornamentation in there."
"Well done," he breathed.  "You have been admitted.  Damn, but you're doing well."
"What do you mean?" I said.  Now that I was speaking again it felt like I'd spent a lifetime in silence.  I needed to hear voices around me.
"I... well, I was crying when I came out; took me two days to dry up and talk to normal people again.  Constant, he's the one with the obsession with the Librum Nox, he was shaking like an Aspen tree and wouldn't see anyone for a week.  You look like you've been on a date with the Lords of Hell, but you're talking, you're drinking... you're doing well."
"I don't feel like I'm doing well," I said.  "The book was–"


The book was haunted.  It was probably the wrong word for it, but there was something about the book that there isn't about ordinary books.  When I touched its cover it was warm, and if I left my fingers there I began to feel a pulse.  It wasn't mine, I checked, holding two fingers firmly at my wrist and feeling my pulse there completely out of time with the one from the book.  I almost stood up then and left.  But I only needed a few references to complete my paper and so I told myself that this was a trick of library, a mean-spirited little antic played by the librarians to keep up the reputation of the place.  I opened the book.
I would have been happier if it had howled, or if blood had spilled from its pages and flooded across the desk, or even if demons had leapt down from secret hiding places in the walls and stabbed me with pins and tridents.  All of those things would have made sense, in a way, they'd all be easier to deal with.  Instead.  Instead a voice started reading the letters to me, a soft, feminine voice that sounded as though it had been trained to read.  There were stress and intonation patterns that suggested the owner of the voice was used to giving orders, to being understood.  And the things it was saying... they were just the words on the page.
At first.
When I turned the first page the voice paused, and then said 'Wait.  There is text missing.'  I froze, my fingers still holding the corner of the page, feeling that dreadful pulse begin anew at my fingertips.  'Curse Aloysius,' said the voice.  'I shall have him skinned when I find him, and his skin shall be used to record the missing text.'  Then it started reading words that weren't present on the page, words that fit with everything I'd read previously and added a whole new dimension to what had been recorded.  I let the page fall at last and scrambled for the paper and pens in the drawer so that I could write down what was being said.


"She spoke to you?" Henrix's voice was awed.  "The Eidolon Queen?"
"Someone, someone spoke to me," I said.  I gestured to the barman, and held up the glass of port.  I really wanted more Psaltrum, but I knew I couldn't afford to keep drinking it.  "Someone who knew what was missing from the book."
"Do you believe her?"  Henrix gripped the table so hard that his fingers were turning white.
"I think I have to," I said.  "She told me who the Seven Riders are."
The barman laid the port down on the table; I noticed he'd doubled the measure for both of us.
"No-one knows who the Seven Riders are," he said.  "It's just a name, one of those historical things.  Nothing special."
I let him go before I looked at Henrix and toasted him with the new glass of port.  "Eight people know who the Seven Riders are," I said.  "And I don't know why she told me."

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