The Last Librarian
by Jeremy E. Brown
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Not an hour after their exit from the house, the rhythmic thumping of the drums faded, and a growing sense of dread began to fill Tancred as they traveled closer towards town.
Ashland, on the other hand, visibly relaxed as they hiked. “Thank the skies those drums stopped.”
Tancred’s hollow eyes bored through the forest floor before him, brow furrowed in thought and missing Ashland’s breach of silence. “Yeah...”
“What is it?” Ashland asked, his voice wavering.
“It’s probably nothing,” Tancred replied, “but they’re moving in the opposite direction.” He looked back the way they had come, past the meadow they had just crossed. Early afternoon sunlight filtered through the canopy, streaking down to flora reaching up for any taste of the life-bearing beams.
Changing the subject, he turned to Ashland. “You’ve really improved, Ashland. I just wanted to tell you that. You know, maybe one day you can show your sister how to do these things.” Tancred gave him an approving smile.
“Thank you, sir. That means a lot.” Ashland hesitated a moment. “Though, I think she’d learn more from you.”
Tancred scoffed. “No, no I’ve got a feeling that you’re going to do far better than I did. Soon, too, you’ll see.” Tancred kept his eyes forward on their trek, but he saw Ashland glance at him from the periphery. They walked on in silence for some time after that, emerging onto the trail that lead to town through increasingly thinning forest cover.
Then Tancred smelled the smoke, triggering that primitive warning in his brain. The library!
His feet pounded the beaten trail further into recognition. Drawing his bō within sight of the walls, Tancred slowed when he saw something large off the road leading up to the gate, hoping it was not what he thought. Ashland followed suit, his footsteps quietly mirroring his teacher’s. Tancred kept low, his head on a swivel, fight or flight response on overdrive.
He approached the gates. A wide stretch of grass spanned the gap between the forest and the steel beams and corrugated metal that was one of the town’s only physical defenses. He silently cursed at the sight of the Inquisition cross jutting out of the ground, a young woman’s body nailed to it. It was Yvette.
Ravens circled noisily above. A few had already perched on her shoulder, pecking, twisting and tearing the flesh from the pits where her eyes used to be. A small wooden sign hung from a nail impaled into her chest, harsh lettering bearing the message: sic semper blasphemis.
“Thus always to blasphemers,” Tancred muttered.
Tancred turned to stop Ashland, but the boy had already stopped a few feet back, eyes wide at the brutal scene before him. He doubled over and heaved the contents of his stomach, and more, onto the path.
Dammit, Tancred thought, crouching next to his assistant with a hand on his back. Staring off towards the west with fear, his mind raced, trying to come up with plans and contingencies, but it continued to rip back to the wilted figure of his suffering student. Poor kid. In this world it was bound to happen, but you never think like this. Skies, never like this.
Ashland moaned through a coughing fit, choked words broken through hysterical sobbing, before abruptly springing to his feet and frantically working at the nail through Yvette’s feet, taking care not to touch or disturb her body. Tancred stumbled to his feet and grabbed him, throwing the boy back. Ashland grunted and charged back in, blind in his grief, fighting to get around his teacher.
Tancred threw his student to the ground and stood over him with pained authority. “Ashland, stop!”
“I have to—” the young man pleaded, eyes fixated on the corpse of his sister.
“There’s nothing you can do for her! Nothing!” Tancred shouted back. Ashland’s chest heaved back and forth, darting his eyes between his teacher and his sister. He flopped over onto his hands and knees for a moment before he dropped his head to the ground and gave up.
Tancred’s own breathing slowed, and his fists unfurled. He forced himself to look away from Ashland. The pain of what he’d done grew stronger with the weeping boy in sight. Tancred looked up at Yvette’s face and then the sign, steeling himself, before finally glancing down at his grieving student. That was when he noticed him looking off towards a collection of boulders. “What’s that?”
“Yv-Yvette used to come out here and read in a gap between those. It was her favorite spot.” Ashland managed more clearly this time.
They must have found her out here, reading, that’s the only explanation for... this, Tancred thought, glancing back at the scene above him.
He left Ashland and approached the gate to find it splintered and broken, the ground littered with some signs of a struggle, and chunks of wood. He returned to his groveling assistant with a renewed sense of urgency to get back to the library. “Come on, Ashland, I think we should get inside; let’s get away from here.” He paused momentarily, thinking through his next words. “There’s time to mourn later, trust me, but we need to check on the rest of the village,” he lied.
Groggily, Ashland nodded and stood. Tancred ran his hand through his greasy hair, glancing back and forth between the slow-moving apprentice and the ominous smoke. The events that had transpired sent warnings through his nerves about what lay ahead, and every second tore at him.
They expected to find the town in a state similar to the entrance. However, upon entering they discovered it had been left unscathed. They walked cautiously down Any Road, surrounded by an eerie silence broken only by the hissing of the leaves in the light breeze.
“Everyone must have gone to the town square,” he thought out loud. At the same location the charcoal-black smoke snaked into the sky and faded into the blue.
They rounded a corner, and the town opened before them into expansive green plazas dotted with rolling plots for small farming, all before a large central building that, long ago, used to be a hospital. It was now known as Commons Administration. A gleaming white spire shot up from the middle of the building. Atop, a beacon was lit for the town to see, meant as a signal of the condition both within and without. Despite the light of the day, the beacon was lit a harsh red against the otherwise calming, baby blue sky.
Tancred and Ashland turned onto a side road that led towards the CA building. He glimpsed a thrumming crowd gathered around the large grassy rotunda that served as the town’s focal point. One by one, people in the crowd turned as they noticed the two men approaching, some warily brandishing weapons, but their ashen faces belied their bravado. The crowd parted ways like a wheel through mud as someone made their way towards him. It was the town magistrate. Her face bore the hollow coloring of loss.
Ashland’s parents escaped from the crowd and rushed over to meet him, the trace of tears on their dirty, anguished faces. The magistrate’s tragic gaze followed him with a sympathetic smile blooming beneath teary eyes, but those same eyes turned back to Tancred, and her smile faded back into that grim stare. A cold sweat coated his skin.
Tancred’s eyes flashed to the smoke behind them and he knew. He took off at an unsteady run, skirting around the crowd on rubber legs. He caught sight of the glowing pile that birthed it, and his legs could hold him no more as he fell to his knees, a desperate rage building inside him. His eyes filled with the glowing red embers of books, his books, the hard work to fulfill Jana’s wish charred and lost, some of it breaking off and fluttering away on a small breeze. His fists clenched tighter and tighter, until his fingernails threatened to break through the lambskin of his gloves. Muscles tightening in despair, a roar of anguish threatened to erupt from his throat.
Nothing came except overpowering despair, and the librarian fell back on his heels and wept. The image of Jana burning atop a pile akin the one before him, her initial sobs to him to keep going cut short with agonizing screams, melted into the charred remains of her dream that lay in front of him.
His disappointment of an assistant, the now-all-too-real fear of the outside world, it all finally drove home the fact that he had let her down, and not just her, but the village too. A year of work, and now only ash to show for it. Without her by his side, giving him purpose and telling him, “Every book saved is a village fortified against the night,” he wasn’t able to see past the ruins every day; wasn’t able to see what the world might be again. In the end, all I’m doing is fanning the ashes.
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Copyright © 2018 by Jeremy E. Brown