The final embers of light clung to the burning orange sky over the Valkar Mountains. But slowly, as the golden sun sunk back down behind the peaks of the rocky horizon the warmth vanished from the shadowed land.
A single torchlight flickered as it glimmered between the overgrown and wild thickets that spread over the mountainsides. Filoto cursed the wilderness in a hushed tone whilst blindly stumbling over the rocks and roots that were hidden beneath a thick layer of grime.
An unnatural fog hung in the air.
A sack, slung over his shoulder, was filled with scraps of food pilfered from the market stalls in Formit. It burdened his already crooked back. The bread inside was stale and hard, but he thought it didn't matter: any food was better than none.
He trawled through he seemingly endless maze of trees as night drew on. The fog thickened and caused the nervous twitch of his eyes to become even more erratic. There was no rest for his rapidly beating heart when around every corner there was growling or heavy breathing shifting through the air. He continued onwards, over huge trailing roots and between the ever-sharp thorns.
He held the torch higher and quickly checked the path he was walking. Something shifted in the darkness behind him and disturbed the twigs on the woodland floor. After a pause, and a flick of his shoulder, he rushed onwards through the haze.
He felt a strange connection with the murky depths of the forest. They reminded him of the Regallum dungeons, where he spent much of his time when She was in power. There too the walls were covered in moss and crawling roots and never saw the light of the sun. But never before was he scared of the darkness, only now was he realising how terrifying it could be.
Several hours of exhaustive trekking passed until he finally saw where he was heading. Between the gnarly trunks of the thick trees, he could see the darkened entrance to a cave, set high above in the mountain cliffside at the top of moss-covered steps. The light of the moon pierced through the fog and illuminated his way.
The rocky, winding path up to the cave was only short and with a fleeting glance back over the Valkar forest, he skulked inside. The sack was heavy and cumbersome so he was glad to lower it to the ground. He rummaged through it for a moment, took out a small loaf of bread and then followed the gentle flicker of light coming from further inside the cave. He knew what was waiting for him inside, yet was still apprehensive; he trod lightly and was careful not to make any sudden movements.
The light, coming from a log fire in the centre of the next chamber, stung his eyes. When his temporary blindness had faded he glanced around the room.
It was untidy and unkept. Books were scattered around the floor in odd piles, some laid open, some looked like they had never been touched. There were a few crude wooden bookcases over the far side of the cavern but they were mostly unused. He looked around the fire to several thin sheets spread over the floor. Then, he looked up to the shadows beyond the light on the fire; the bed, beneath a low shelf of rock, was empty.
"Hello?" he whispered.
He took a few steps forwards and placed the loaf from the sack down onto the table in the middle of the room. His eyes were drawn towards a scrap of parchment lying amongst the other scrolls and documents scattered across its surface. He had only read the first few words when he was suddenly pushed across the room and pinned against the cavern wall with a dagger at his throat.
"Who are you?" screeched the woman.
Her hair was matted with grease and smeared through with grime and dirt. The white and purple robes she wore were ripped and equally downtrodden and worn. There were no shoes on her feet and her hands were covered in paper cuts marred with soil.
"Mistress! It's me!" Filoto whimpered.
The rage in her eyes dulled slightly and she took a better look at the scrawny features of his face. But she shook her head, pushed the dagger harder against his neck and said, "What are you doing here?"
Again, he whimpered. "I brought you food. Look," he urged, "there."
For a moment She was unconvinced, but when she followed Filoto's gaze she saw the loaf of bread on the table. Without turning back, she pushed the dagger back into her tattered belt and scampered towards the bread. She crouched down and pushed the top of her chest against the table's edge and as soon as she had the bread in her hands she ravaged at it with an eager appetite.
She ate like she had been starved for days. The bread was tough to chew so she rarely even tried before gulping it down in ravenous hunger. Stale crumbs scattered over the tabletop, but she paid little attention to them.
"Mistress?" Filoto said to break the silence.
She looked up suddenly as if startled by a hidden predator. Slowly, she replaced the bread back onto the table, swallowed the food in her mouth and turned towards her visitor.
"Ah, Filoto," she said. "How nice of you to join me."
She stared at him for a moment when suddenly, a memory echoed in her mind. Her gaze was fixed on him, but she was lost in her own thoughts. It made him feel uneasy and awkward, though he stood still, tried to straighten his hunched back and started to ask, "Mistress, are you...?"
"I had something..." she whispered to herself as she turned away. "Something I wanted to..." She dragged her nails across the wood and rested her chin upon the table. Her eyes scanned across the room to all the open books that littered her cold, primal home. A blankness washed over her eyes. She struggled to speak, she struggled to remember what was so important. "I had something I needed to..." she muttered, "to show you."
He moved closer, but said nothing.
"It was about..." she whispered, to make herself remember. "It was about..."
Filoto took another step closer. "The Library?"
She turned with a sudden jolt and leapt up. With her dagger bared ahead of her in Filoto's direction, she screamed, "How do you know about the Library?"
His muscles tightened and his body curled over in fear. Without thinking he crouched down behind one of the chairs by the table. She approached him and shouted again.
"Who told you about the Library?"
"You did," he yelped as she lunged forwards and threw the chair aside. He toppled backwards to the cave floor and watched the chair shatter against the cold, hard rock. Sweat dripped from his forehead. "You did Mistress!"
Her heart was beating too loudly to hear his reply. Paranoia had settled deep inside her mind since she was overthrown. She couldn't trust anyone. She daren't.
"What do you know of the Library?" she panted in fury. "What do you know of the Library!"
"Only what you have told me, Mistress!" Filoto grovelled from the floor. "You're searching for it. I brought you these books, to help you find it."
The anger on her face softened into a confused frown. She lowered the dagger. Slowly, she shuffled her feet through a pile of documents lying on the floor where she was standing. They led her eyes to the rest of the cavern, filled with sheets of crumpled parchment and piles of leather-bound books. "The Library."
Without realising, her dagger slipped out of her grasp and clattered to the floor. Filoto relaxed slightly and found the strength inside his weak heart to push himself from the ground. He watched as She scurried around the fire and rummaged through a pile of papers. When she didn't find what she was after, she dropped to the floor, onto her knees, and reached under her bed.
Filoto moved closer.
"I've found it," she stated from the floor, but not quite loud enough for Filoto to hear.
She pulled on a large, half-bound book, and dragged it out from under the bed. Its cover was dark, black in fact, and woven together from the hide of a wrei. It was soft to touch. She held it close and smiled. But her happiness quickly vanished.
"Did you hear me?" she asked.
He didn't reply.
"Did you hear what I said?" she repeated, not even turning her back. "I've found the Library. I thought you would be happier, hearing such news."
"Nothing would make me happier, Mistress!"
The way he spoke ignited a new thought inside her head.
She remembered the day Rantil took her world from her. He had done so so easily. She wanted to know how. After all those years of serving the people of Truaine with only kindness and contempt, how could they turn their backs on her?
Filoto was the only one left.
Rantil had used a power against her she'd never seen before. She started to question everything that happened since that day. Her escape down the tunnel, leading out into the Outer City. The Townsfolk were waking from their sleep as if they were under a spell. She thought about her trek through Liaport, hungry, battered and weary with sleep. How she found this cave in the Valkar Mountains and, with Filoto's help, managed to stay hidden.
Then came the voices in her head.
'The Library,' they whispered through her waking and sleeping thoughts. 'Come to the Library. There lie the answers to all your questions.'
Filoto stared at her with an expectant smile. She hated him. He was the only man left on the entire planet who remained loyal to her. But why? Why had Rantil been unable to sway his mind as easily as everyone else?
What if he was working with Rantil? What if he was spying on her?
"Good," she enforced, looking at him over her shoulder. "I'm glad you're pleased."
With the book firmly in her grasp, she stood and stared at Filoto's small figure, hunched and unloved.
"Now," she continued, stretching out her arm, book in hand, "read it."
He knew better than to reply, so instead took the thick book in both hands. Carefully, he turned to the table and rested the tome down. The title on the cover was written in a long dead language, but the golden letters looked newly stamped. The tendons in his hand raised from his skin as he reached over and lifted the cover of the book back. The ribbon, marking the last entry pulled the pages back with a waft of stale air.
He looked back at She who said, "Read it," once more.
The light of the fire was only dim and his eyes struggled to focus on the words so neatly written into the book. But, with She's ever-present gaze from across the room, he had no other choice but to try.
"'The 4th of the 5th Season, in the 29th Year of Sartheth
The prise of the three nations is at hand. The vast knowledge of the Ever-Beings draws closer and closer and my heart can barely wait until the day.
They say, inside is the power of a thousand worlds, joined together in the wealth of those who guide our lives. But what secrets are contained inside? No one knows. No one can remember.
Truaine was said to be the home of riches far greater than any other. They were right. The Cankanium of Ciameth's mines is nothing in comparison, how could it be? Although I admit, before my journey began, I would have dismissed it as a lie and nothing more than a rumour. These Truainians are such an ignorant race.
It is hardly surprising that the Ever-Beings chose to hide it from them. They would never have handled the truth.
Praise the Ever-Beings'
'The 8th of the 5th Season, in the 29th Year of Sartheth
The beauty and majesty cannot be surpassed. Not for thousands of years has such a sight been seen by my kind. I know now, that we are the rightful heirs of the Spectra.
From that moment, when the doors started to open for the first time in too long, something beyond my will was drawing me in. I could feel the power of the Ever-Beings coursing through my veins and my head throbbed at the endless possibilities within.
A deeper presence was calling out my name. I wanted to let it devour me, show me the way to this higher realm that the Ever-Beings call their home.
I need to know more. I need to understand, everything.
I want my mind to be consumed by the knowledge of the hidden palace. I need to keep looking. I need to keep reading.
I have never seen such a place as the Library.
Praise the Ever-Beings'"
"You see," She screeched, slamming her fist against the wall on the other side of the cavern, "the Library does exist!"
Through the light of the fire, She's eyes were alight with all the rage and all the hatred she had for Rantil. The voices inside her head were louder now than they had ever been before. There was no question in her mind that they were going to be the answer to her problem; the Library was going to help her take back control of her world from Rantil.
"Mistress!" Filoto cheered. "The Library will soon be within our sights!"
She hesitated. If she stayed quiet, she knew she could convince herself that he was right. They were closer now to the Library than ever before. "We still have a lot of work ahead of us," she admitted. "We may know of the Library's existence, but we are no closer to finding its location."
"But this is still great news, Mistress!"
She began to smile, for one of the first times in many seasons. It wasn't one of happiness, but one of revenge. "Hand me the book," she called. "There has to be more."
Filoto turned back to the table and carefully re-closed the cover, being ever more gentle with the book. Using most of his strength, he picked up the corners and lifted it from the table. She, meanwhile, rummaged about with more papers under her bed and turned her back on him.
In the shimmering light of the yellow fire, the wrei leather began to glisten. Something within the night-black scales shone with the heat of the flames. Filoto's grasp on the book began to slip as the fire drew nearer; his eyes were caught on the strange light reflecting off the leather. She turned back to him, with just enough time to see him leaning all too close to the fire, and then watched as the book tore from its bindings and the pages slipped into the flames.
"No!" She screeched in horror as the ancient parchment began to curl at the edge. The flames burnt the skin on her arms as she tried to rescue the pages from the blaze. But within no time at all, they were charred black and their once irreplaceable value had turned to black ash. She only managed to save a few scraps of paper from the fire, all of which were useless to her.
Filoto dropped the wrei leather, and the ripped binding of the book, to the ground in a hysteric panic. "Mistress! Please, I'm sorry!"
When the fire died back down, he daren't look into her eyes. She stared at him with an anger he had seen countless times before. Hours and hours of searching had all been wasted, and the only proof of the Library's existence was gone. She could feel the rage building inside her. It crept up through her legs and boiled into her heart. What was worse, was the inkling in the back of her mind that he had done it on purpose. There was no way Rantil would allow her to find the Library.
"Mistress, please, you need me..."
The flames of the fire grew again in a flash of light, as She darted around the fire and raised her hand to strike at her companion. He screwed his eyes up tightly and braced himself for the moment of inevitable beating. Her rage would continue until he was nearing the end of his life, only then would she stop, so he had to live with the pain she'd caused.
But that moment never came.
Filoto opened his eyes again and saw She, staring down at the floor. He followed her gaze to the unbound cover of the book below. The inner lining of the black leather had come loose, and there, poking out from behind the cover, was a small, folded piece of parchment.
Without looking up, She bent down and carefully pulled at the corner of the hidden paper and took the scrap of parchment carefully in her hands. Filoto crept a pace forwards and peered over. He wanted to know what was written, but still wanted to keep his distance from his erratic mistress.
Carefully, She unfolded the paper.
She began to laugh.
"It seems we were closer to finding the Library than we thought," she said. "Gather whatever you can carry, we leave for Formit at first light." She looked over to Filoto with a welcoming smile. "The Library awaits us."