The Last Librarian
by Jeremy E. Brown
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Tancred’s tempered patience waned with the evaporating dew. As he rose slowly, his muscles whined; he had spent hours prone, watching the house fewer than thirty yards away, the one his young assistant, Ashland, had found.
He’s getting better, Tancred thought. He’d almost missed it himself; nature had enacted its vengeance on the monuments of mankind’s legacy. Thick undergrowth had swarmed over the house, devouring it amidst colonnade of trees. Its concealment seemed to whisper a natural warning, being so deep in Inquisition territory, and that warning told him to keep moving.
Holding his breath, he glanced cautiously around and listened intently to the heartbeat of the forest around him, its natural thrumming peaceful, yet potentially deceitful.
“Come on, follow me and stay low,” Tancred whispered to Ashland. The boy nodded his acknowledgement with wide, determined eyes.
Rising to his knees with the hushed grace of a cat, bō in hand, Tancred slinked to the corner of the house and approached the front door. Ashland swooped up right behind him, silent as an afternoon breeze. Tancred nodded his satisfaction
The heavy wooden door, infused with gilded glass paneling, clung desperately to the frame with the help of dead vines and blooming flowers. A quick glance through the closest window showed no threats; they carefully entered into the house and headed through the once-lavish foyer.
The teacher turned expectantly to hear his assistant explain their next step at the base of the stairs.
“What do we do now?” Ashland asked, immediately regretting it.
Tancred winced, suppressing a harsh rebuke from escaping his lips, and replied in a rehearsed whisper coated with admonition. “Try to remember, Ashland.”
The assistant drooped his shoulders like a puppy scorned and cast his eyes to the floor. “I’m sorry. We clear the upstairs first, then search the rest of the house.” Rules are rules. It’s safer that way.
Tancred patted him reassuringly on the shoulder, then gestured towards the stairs. Tancred took the lead, climbing slowly, bō at the ready, his hawkish eyes on the landing above.
Silence was impossible to achieve. Decay permeated every inch of the framing, and each step was a cautious dance around creaking boards, dogged with the persistent fear of falling through. Despite that, he quickened his pace, vowing to clear the second floor before the house punished him further for violating its sleep.
They cleared rooms quickly, each taking one side of the house. In a more civilized time, it had been a luxurious house, with four bedrooms and a large master. He discovered the family’s skeletal remains, tucked in the back of the master’s walk-in closet, clutched to each other in a final loving embrace. Such opulence, and in the end, they couldn’t let go, he thought. Piles of time-resistant, polychromatic food wrappers littered the floor around them. No need to search the kitchen.
He met back with Ashland at the landing that led downstairs. “Did you find anything, sir?” the boy asked eagerly.
Tancred stared past him for a moment before shaking his head. Let the dead rest. “No, let’s keep moving.”
They turned their attention to the first floor, Tancred sending Ashland to the front of the house, saving the back for himself. Nature had also invaded the interior, trees in their passive-aggressive way jutted through the walls, allowing light from the midday sun to filter in around their branches. Distorted in the dusty air, it cast everything in a grainy, gray tint.
Tancred stalked through the back, careful not to kick up more dust by stepping around the foliage that had crept in after the trees. He fondly ran his hand over the dilapidated and rotting furniture. He imagined the family at the large, stained oak dining table, or sitting on their nearly room-encompassing couch, playing board games and laughing, unaware of the calamity approaching until it was knocking at their door.
Ashland called from the front, and Tancred rolled his eyes. That boy does not understand the virtue of silence. Seeing an opportunity to hammer home the lesson, he glided silently to a dining room that opened into the hallway where his naïve assistant stood, back turned to the hidden niches of the house.
Tancred slipped forward, quiet as death, his hand snapping out and clasping down on the boy’s mouth. He whispered “silence” into the assistant’s ear. A gloved hand muffled Ashland’s screams as his muscles spasmed for a moment. When Tancred felt the boy’s body go slack, he spun Ashland around and shook him alert. Then, he stared intently into the terrified and tearing eyes of the trembling apprentice.
“Do you want to get caught, Ashland?” he whispered harshly through gritted teeth.
“N-no, sir.” he replied, his voice quivering almost as much as his legs.
“Then practice what I taught you. You know where we are.”
“Yes, sir,” Ashland acknowledged resolutely. He straightened up, taking a deep breath, and stepped towards a doorway covered in vines. “I figured you would want to see what’s in here. I think it could be an office.”
Excitement flowed over him like the forest floor had the house, pulling him in as he tore down the vines like a child given presents. And presents he found. The vines parted to reveal an office, shelves stocked floor to ceiling with books.
Clasping a triumphant and approving hand on Ashland’s shoulder, he set to the hunt and dropped his bag on the floor, scouring the shelves for any tomes that had yet eluded his archive. Educational texts already covered his library’s shelves, freeing this excursion for leisurely reads. Those thrilled him the most.
A gap-tooth smile of spines stared back at Tancred as he gingerly removed a small book from the shelf, cupping the paperback in his hands for fear of dropping it or creasing its fragile cover. Tancred carefully brushed dust off and appreciated the cover art: The Princess Bride. Intricately flowered gilding surrounded a masked swashbuckler, foretelling a story of adventure and love. He admired such a small thing, fragile and susceptible to the elements, yet somehow withstanding their onslaught.
Tancred opened it and brought the browning pages to his face, inhaling deeply. The fragrance of old ink and must melting tension from his shoulders. Fond, warming memories of his wife, Jana, slipped into his thoughts; the two challenging each other to guess the age of the books they scavenged amongst the remnants of human civilization. Ashland didn’t get it, nor want to try it, so he kept the game solo, vainly holding on to the fading past.
He was ripped from his reverie with a bird’s sudden flight, and he closed the book softly. Satisfied at a successful hunt, he smiled, then hesitated a moment and glanced over at Ashland. “Here,” Tancred said as he handed it to him. “Give this to your sister. If I remember correctly, she enjoys these, right?”
“Oh, yeah, thank you, sir.” Ashland looked from his teacher to the book in his hand, holding it with care and eager joy. “Yvette loves these stories.”
Nodding, Tancred hefted the bag onto his back again after closing it, adjusting the straps to keep it tight against his body and stretched, ready to head out.
Back in the foyer, his eyes scanned the house one last time for anything else worth grabbing, ultimately falling on the stairs. His thoughts shifted to the family upstairs. He considered burying them, but whispers of his grandmother’s tales about those who disturbed the dead rose from the depths of his memories; hushed fragments of voices with warnings of letting the dead rest and return to dust. The house was their tomb. In this fractured world, like the petrifying relics above, some overcame and some succumbed. Tancred chose to overcome, and they left as hushed as they had entered, leaving the house for the family like the ancient kings of old.
Outside, the ominous bass of war drums thumped through the moss-covered trees. Experienced tracker though he was, blood throbbed frantically through his veins at the thought of Inquisition soldiers nearby. Not a word passed between the two hunters; both knew they could delay no longer.
Tancred produced his compass and folded map, marking the neighborhood quickly before getting their bearings. They slid silently back into the woods, leaving the concealed neighborhood to slumber amidst the drumming.
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Copyright © 2018 by Jeremy E. Brown