I need to unwind my brain. I want to drop it from a third story balcony and watch it unspool until I hold a single strand of neurons. Once I’ve untangled my thoughts, I’ll be able to think straight. All I need is gravity and a bone saw. All I have is a glass of mineral water, which is what you’re served if you tell the barboy at the Rogue’s Gallery to pour you a Brimstone Bub. Rogue’s belongs to the city’s Oddjobbers. It’s our drinking den, gambling parlor, back office, fight club, hideout, confessionary, and church. On the benches, Oddjobbers mumble the names of hard spirits with the reverence their mothers save for climate martyrs. When dawn hobbles in on three legs, our congregation goes out into the streets to serve our lord Greed. Our Guild collects tithes in a tin can on the bar. The tin reads: Buy yourself an alibi.
I’ve spent a Senator’s ransom on tithes since joining the Oddjobbers. I’ve banked enough alibis to keep myself out of the prison-mines, but our subterranean city has other ways of punishing a scofflaw. Down here where light doesn’t grow, darkness ripens like a tumor. There isn’t an attic in Underhell that isn’t storing a Mad Aunt or Munted Uncle. I’d rather be a lifer in the mine than shackled up inside my mind. At the bat’s hour, when the darkness is so thick you could choke on it, my guilt sneaks so close I can smell it. My conscience smells like soiled trousers and spilt milk. I need to unwind my brain. I need to comb out these memories, comb until my mind shines.
I sink deeper into my booth, a stone bench chiseled from the cavern wall. Rogue’s Gallery occupies a grotto on the city limits, squatting in the blind spot of the law. Clutching my glass, I watch Guildsters drink, all looking gloriously remorseless, with a whisky-glint in their eyes. If I could rob that nonchalance off one of them, I would leave my drink and get back to work. Instead I’m wallowing over my sulfur water wondering how to steal back some innocence.
In my grey suit, I am conspicuous as the Nightwatch amongst the fever-dream fashions favored by Guildsters. Alaska wears a turquoise duster over pinstripes, with a copper-plated cat skeleton draped around his shoulders like a stole. Olympia is all in scales, her iridescent dressing gown stitched from fish-skins. Everyone is decked in trophies and trinkets. Scapegrace dazzles in her necklace of fingernails, lustrous as pearls. Neptune’s mackintosh fastens with deadmen’s buttons. Duchess is crowned in a braid of his victims’ hair, a plait so long it snakes to his ankles, and doubles as a whip when he fights dirty. Capricorn ticks like a voluptuous time bomb, her arms sleeved in stolen watches. They count the minutes since their masters died. I don’t take trophies. Trophies are resplendent evidence even an expensive alibi can’t hide you from. But Oddjobbers mistake my fear for indifference. They think I’m Evil’s foster-daughter, second-cousin to Malice, Murder’s sometime-lover, too exceptional to play by Guild rules. They call me Death-friend, Pain’s sister, Priest. They come to me to bless their commissions. Though I’m not old enough to have a murder-log half as long as rumor says, fear has turned my hair an authoritative grey. If I ever tried to quit the Guild, they would come looking for me. My legend is much stronger than I am. Guildsters need their Priest.
Alaska slides onto the bench across from me and empties a sack of peaches onto the stone table.
“Deadman’s fruit,” he says, arranging the skeleton around his shoulders. “Best hothouse-peaches in Underhell. Ripe as penthouse virgins.” He grins. He knows that taste too well.
I don’t touch the peaches.
“Bless my commission, Priest?” asks Alaska, stroking his cat’s copper paw. They never tell me whether they’re off to steal a bridegroom or help an heiress shortcut the inheritance line. Maybe it’s as innocent as forging love letters. Dipping my fingers in my drink, I sprinkle it over Alaska, leaving his pinstripes sparkling with wet sequins. The smell of sulfur lends the ritual a villainous aura, as if Old Scratch just limped by to order a Spitfire at the bar. I unfold my coat on the bench beside me, dig into the pocket for the pebbles I pass out as portable luck, and pull out–a weasel.
The stowaway looks unabashed and doesn’t bite, so I set her on the bench and offer Alaska his pebble. He avoids my eye, his collar shadowed with sweat. I drop the pebble amongst the deadman’s peaches. Alaska fears my touch. What a monster I am, leaking weasels and reeking of boilerplate damnation. He scoops up the pebble with a handkerchief and slides off the bench. They always forget to thank me.
Beneath Rogue’s tables, rats indulge in lechery, gluttony, and sins even we haven’t invented yet, but the weasel doesn’t slink away to play with her debauched cousins. She stares at me as if she’d rather count my crimes than start a tab of her own. Even she is better dressed than I am. Her red pelt fits more fashionably than this suit hangs on me, and I’ve never managed to wring my shirts as white as the fur running down her front.
I make a pillow of my coat and close my eyes. I like sleeping at Rogue’s because it’s loud enough to scare off my nightmares. My mind goes dark but I don’t dream. The nightlight is still on. When I wake, it feels as if I’ve been gone for a generation or two–long enough for my legend to die of old age and leave me free–but I open my eyes to find Rogue’s only a few layers dirtier and drunker than before.
A bear-son and a few bull-sons have pulled up to the bar, refilling hipflasks on their way to the Fleshmarket. Human flesh is not legal tender within city limits, but the Secretary and her Senators can’t legislate their way into the tunnels where smugglers trade. The smugglers are all hair and muscle, hybrids bred by violence and grown in human wombs. Bear-sons dominate the organ-trade; bull-sons keep stables full of human mothers, milking them dry. How else would Underhell’s rich keep up their vitamin levels? I sink back into my coat and come face to face with another weasel.
My coat is bleeding weasels. A third spurts from a sleeve, and a fourth oozes from under the table. An epidemic of weasels swarms across my bench. I sit still as midnight, hoping no one will notice I’ve bled weasels all over. I don’t want to share my legend with an episode of weasels. When they move, the weasels seem to squeeze out of the third dimension, compressing themselves into slender red lines of pure velocity. They make no sound at all. One peels from the mob and leaps onto the table. Around her neck is a narrow band of paper with my name on it. Keeping my eyes on her meat-grinder mouth, I unwrap the note from her neck. I haven’t fingered real paper in years. Paper is older than Underhell. No one has milled a ream since our ultra-great grandparents abandoned their surface-cities to found a town underground. With no trees to purée, they switched to wax tablets, slates, and skins.
The corner of the note has been nibbled off, but the words were left uneaten.
I have just the job for you. No bystanders and no mop-up. You won’t even have to browse alibis. It isn’t a crime–the Law hasn’t imagined it yet. I’ll pay in paper.
–The Eater of Rarebooks
Postscript: Please keep up with the weasels. They tend to run-on.
A few weasels have already latched their butcher’s teeth into my boots as if they plan to drag me to their Bookeater cadaver-style. I’ve gone foolishly long without a commission. If I don’t take this one, Guildsters will start asking each other whether Priest’s grown a conscience. But my stomach overreacts when I try to guess what could be so devil-licking devious that the Law hasn’t imagined it yet. My legend is going to get me killed. If I die, will she survive? I wish I had her famous stomach. She can eat a bushel of villainy for breakfast and wash it down with a bloodbath. At least the Bookeater pays paper.
I stand up and shake out my coat. The weasels seep like fumes across the floor, vanishing between boots and table legs, silent as smoke-poisoning. I hurry after them, afraid I’ll lose my escort. But passing the smugglers, I trip over my own haste.
“I want what she’s drinking,” rumbles the bull-son. “You don’t have the liver for this line of work, Peaches,” he says to me. “I have a stall with your name on it in my stables. You’re a stringy piece of lady-shank, but I bet you’re juicy where it counts. I’ll fatten your belly with a few runts and milk you till you moo.”
I just smile like it’s a compliment and make for the door. That’s all I like about smugglers: they don’t care about legends. When they look at me, they don’t see a demon’s by-blow. They see a stringy piece of lady-shank.
Rogue’s grotto is hidden high up the cave wall, several stories above the city junkyard. Below me, the metropolis stretches like a pelt on a tanning rack, pegged out all the way into the distant tunnels. Though underlit and vitamin-deficient, Underhell is feverishly alive. Prehistoric stalagmites have been reincarnated as skyscrapers–once hollowed out, they’re repacked with parlors, penthouses, and knick-knacks. Flocks of gossips bob across the flint bridges that string together galleries and grottoes. The ceiling of the vast cavern is an opulence of opal and milky quartz, slick and glistening as a bubble bath. Sky-shafts have been drilled into the ceiling and as day grows thin, the shafts miser out second-helpings of greasy light. The light drips down stalactites, oiling the streets to a shabby sheen. We hoard every teaspoon of light that falls from the country above, the left-behind lands, the manmade Hell. Our ancestors fled when the soil baked solid, too hot and hard for even their clever new wheat. The temperature had risen so slowly over the years that they hardly noticed until they found themselves living in Hell. So they escaped into the caves and the slithering cool, but aboveground, their homemade Hell grows hotter by the year, hot enough to melt toenails, so hot sandy beaches have turned to glass. Hell has light to spare. In Underhell, we savor her offcuts, her offal, light like pale gristle.
But where Underhell runs out of shelter and light, reputations like mine are made: where the junkyard pools on the city’s shores and darkness turns carnivorous. Like earth’s ancient seas (before they dried up, leaving menageries of needle-boned fish to suffocate under the sun), the glittering dump creeps to the city’s edge, ebbing when the fishermen wade in to trawl for aluminum and tin.
I step back from the overlook and follow the weasels down the Strangler’s Stairs, a spiral flight cut deep into the stone. Like red knitting unraveling, the weasels stream out over the trash-spangled shore. Our secondhand light is smeared too thin across Underhell, and it’s all spoiled by the time it reaches the beach. On these shores, light is a luxury. Sky-shafts are an extravagance only a good name can pay for, and if you wash up here, you must have sold your name long ago. Only the city’s throwaways live here, fishing the dump. Ravenous for light, they hoard bright reflections in mirrors, prisms, and stolen silver spoons. In rancid twilight, the city’s flotsam and jetsam comb the junkyard’s shore–strays and waifs, urchins and vagrants, circus freaks, orphan-adepts, pickpockets, roustabouts, hooligans, and tatterdemalion runaways. The junkyard has grown into a second city, getting fat on Underhell’s scraps. Far from the scorn of the skyscrapers, a shanty-town spawns in the shadows: a ramshackle brood of sheet-metal lean-tos.
Following a bleed of weasels, I crunch through next year’s sand: jars crusted with fish-jam, vials dusty with vitamin-D powder, bottles full of burnt out fireflies, and staring glass eyes. Night-fishermen slouch by and wade deeper into the dump. With hooked poles they fish for treasures, hip-deep in a sea of canary cages, outsmarted rattraps, tins of pickled lichen, and thirsty bottles of Pearl & Hammer brandy.
There they are again, weasels with their white throats clean as starched collars. They tumble through the garbage like bachelors playing hooky from an all-night ball. The bachelors come often, smelling of skyscraper and farmed caviar. Swinging lanterns stuffed with fireflies, they lurch across the beach, topping up their courage from a flask. They come for a little hocus-pocus with girls too young to be their sisters, mistaking our hunger for lust, starvation for birdlike beauty. They come for charms and cure-alls from women so old even Death won’t look them in the eye. They come for Dream-Mongers who sell bathtub brew and the chancier mushrooms. They come for children. Some want orphans for their hair-farms and blood-banks. Others want a son or daughter to dress up like a doll. I would have liked to have a part-time mother, but women from the towers want full-time children and I’ve always been too feral for daily baths and hair-brushings.
The intrigue of weasels tunnels through the rubbish, ignoring tramps and ragamuffins who try to spit them on fireplace pokers. The hunters are willing to bet weasel-steak’s more tender than rat. Their eyes slide right off me as they trot past. In my grey suit, I look too City to be junkyard flotsam (they don’t know I’ve filleted my fair share of rats), and I’m not shiny enough to make me worth mugging. I have a knack for invisibility. It’s the one talent I share with my legend. She’s never been caught.
I follow the weasels into the dunes, a rolling landscape of rubbish heaps: blown-out fireworks, mushroom homefarms grown rogue, and tombstones for people who were supposed to die but didn’t. Junkyard royalty live here, in ramshackle rubble-palaces mortared with moss and earwax. We are deep into the dunes when the weasels finally stop, fanning out around a particularly regal heap of rusting bookcases. The weasels stare at me with their licorice-drop eyes, waiting. I knock. I’ve seen stranger doors before. At Capricorn’s, you open a coffin and walk through to the vestibule.
The bookcase inches open.
“Priest?” hisses a voice crisp and dusty as the pages of an encyclopedia.
“The very same, Madame Rarebooks.”
I cross the threshold in an arrogance of weasels. But as the bookcase grinds shut behind us, the weasels bleed away into darkness. I can’t see an inch of my host. The darkness presses in, close and sour as chloroform. A hand like dry parchment folds around mine. The Bookeater leads me deep into the labyrinth of shelves, her breath a whisper of riffled pages. Her fingers feel tough as waxed thread, as if the bones would not break, only bend.
The air thickens, perfumed by a pungent musk. I sneeze.
“Angelica,” murmurs the Eater. “It must be midnight.”
A scent-clock. I sneeze again. This is my first Angelica midnight. Downtown, midnight smells like black licorice. In the cave city, if it’s too dark to see time, you can always smell it.
Ahead, a shy light peeks between two bookcases. In silhouette, the Bookeater appears wide as her shelves, large enough to hold a philologist’s lexicon collection. As she steps into the light, she drops my hand and turns to me. Her skin has the mottled look of spent vellum. She is scrawled all over in wrinkles, a memoir written in miniscule. Her teeth are black as spilt ink and even her lips are stained. When she smiles at me, a lazy, black trickle seeps from the corner of her grin. She daubs it away with a book jacket, which she wads into her dressing gown pocket. Then she ushers me between the bookcases and into the reading room.
An urgency of weasels skitters along the shelves, jabbing old tomes with feather dusters and straightening the rows. Firefly-lamps cluster in corners like flocks of soap bubbles. Slick with firefly light, the glass orbs come in every size, some small as eyeballs, others blown to the size of a skull. No wonder the Bookeater prefers these incandescent cages over Underhell’s oil and lightning lamps. If this were my library, I would fear fire more than the devil or his thieves.
The parlor is padded with books. They cushion every couch, chair, and footstool. The bookcases house travelogues, spelunker’s diaries, bestiaries, the encyclopedia-botanica, herbariums, experimental cookbooks, and drug recipes. Behind glass doors, the side tables and curio cabinets hold dream-atlases, hypnotists’ textbooks, lives of the Oneironauts, and nightbooks of narcoleptics. Benches and trunks are lined with treatises on mummification, cremation, inhumation, exhumation, aerial burial, aquaerial burial, detritivores, and paleontology. At the center of the library stands a dining table of petrified wood, encrusted in layers of books.
The Eater points me to a book-cushioned chair in the corner. Marooned in a swamp of unclassifiable volumes including Telekinetic Meditations and a paperback whose cover has worn away to green lace, the chair cannot be moved. I squeeze into my seat and rest an elbow on a shelf of alligator-tamers’ almanacs. The Eater sinks into a chair across from me.
“This is the book I was savoring when you knocked,” she says, pointing at a slender black diary lying on the table between us. Ink crusts her fingernails and traces the creases in her skin, sketching a map of age across the back of her hand. The Eater of Rarebooks fans the pages and bows her head over the diary. With a sigh like cracked book bindings, she sinks ink-stained teeth into the title-sheet. Swallowing, she hands the doomed volume to me. Such a woeful leather cover, creased and stained as a widow’s handkerchief, with gilt lettering that reads: Woken Bones: Your Unflinching Guide to the Living Art of Necromancy. By Oleander. I wonder whether necromancy is the flavor of the month around here or whether she’s just snacking on a toothsome dollop of death-warmed-over before we move on to business.
Licking flakes from her lips, the Bookeater says, “I taste much more than you can read. I taste the book’s age. Pages are stale, hardly any crunch left. A melt-in-the-mouth confection. But the ink, Priest! The ink is younger than me. It tastes like Mother’s last memos. Such a mystery, this mismatch; tastier than grandfather’s wormy old thrillers.” Her voice has changed. It’s the creak of old leather or the twist of a screw. Someone else’s voice was distilled in that ink she just swallowed. Does she have a voice of her own, or does she take them like medicine, dissolved in ink?
“All my books were published in Hell,” continues the Inkdrinker. “Collected before my ultra-great grandparents escaped the heatwaves and reshelved their library underground. I have a whole catalogue of Hell’s manuscripts waiting to be digested. But in all our collection, this is the first book I’ve found written by an Underhellian.”
“And you’re going to eat it?” This woman is off kilter–madder than the Aunts in the attics. If anyone knew about her library of riches, she would have been atticked ages ago.
“I’m not a glutton, you know.” The Eater nibbles on the Dedication. “I’m an archive. Every word I’ve eaten is printed on my insides. You are what you eat. These books will be redacted by mold or book lice, but their words are safe, transcribed under my skin.”
Until she dies. Then the mold will make a scaffold of her bones. But I’ve met enough escaped Aunts and Munted Uncles to know which of my smiles puts maniacs and ladyiacs at ease. I don’t have to take this commission. I could just avoid Rogue’s for a while so it looks like I’m employed. I can invent a rumor to keep my legend busy. She’s never tried strangling a man with his own intestines.
The Inkdrinker’s lips pucker. The Dedications must be bitter. “Not many refugees brought books when they left Hell. My family collects what’s left. According to the logs, Mother acquired Your Unflinching Guide from a Bonesetter. She shelved it, never opened it. She wasn’t a browser. Only had an appetite for encyclopedias. She was dull as Helvetica.”
“I tried to get a mother, but no one would go part-timesies with me. They all wanted full-timers.”
“Wouldn’t it be practical if you could check mothers out for three weeks and then bring them back to try a different genre? I could have avoided that war over Spelunkers Anonymous. I finished the book in one sitting, though my jaws felt heavy as the Merriam-Webster by the time I chewed through all that bookbinder’s glue. Then I went into the tunnels. I thought a real Spelunk would be the perfect epilogue to my meal. When I came home, Mother sent me to bed without so much as a flyleaf for supper. She fed me biscuits and fish-jam for weeks to teach me a lesson. I thought she would starve me out of circulation. I was so overdue for syllables of real sustenance that I had to lick the letters on coins when she wasn’t looking. I craved the whole vitamin-alphabet. Mother won. I was so thirsty for rich, black ink, that when she finally unlocked the bookcase, I promised I would never experiment again. Books are to be eaten, not enacted. My curiosity was shelved.”
“Are you thinking of taking it off the shelf tonight, Inkdrinker?” I can’t figure out what she wants from me. My patience has nearly burnt out.
The Eater hesitates at the Table of Contents. She looks at the page like it’s an extra-lucky potluck, where only one person brought rat-steaks and the licorice-to-lichen ratio is just right. I wonder whether chomping into the Contents would be like eating a whole buffet in one bite. Do the Contents taste like the book folded down to a single page? The Eater caresses the chapter titles, her fingertips grey with the ghosts of pages-turned.
“Oh no. Mother was right. I wouldn’t put a footnote on her advice. I am a living archive. To risk my body would be to betray literature itself. I am a thousand masterpieces. That’s why I need an Oddjobber.”
“You’ll go on a little necromancy spree for me,” she continues. “After all, you’re a career daredevil. Your life is a nickel-thriller. I want you to study Oleander’s book, then wake some authors from their graves and bring them back to me. Imagine my living library! Each author alphabetized and snug in her cell. All the lost techknowledgy, the meducation, the poetry, the plays–I’ll have to start a new card catalogue!”
“You’re sure Oleander hadn’t been bitten by a Mad Aunt?” I ask. “If necromancy were worth a glass of whisky, I would have met a Necromancer. I drink with the predators, parasites, and bespoke-suited Beelzebubs who are eating this city alive. If they haven’t conned Death yet, she’s probably conning us.”
“You haven’t read Diary of a Climate Refugee. When it got too hot up there and our ultra-greats escaped into the caves, Death couldn’t keep up. Our ultras founded Underhell, but most of the species stayed up there and expired. Hell is full. There’s no shelf space left. Imagine how busy Death’s been, cajoling souls from all those overheated, dehydrated, deep-fried corpses. She’s overtired, overtaxed, slapdash, getting lax. Why do you think so many should-be-deads walk out of the Bonesetter’s with a pulse? It’s not because he’s some star of the operating theater, some scalpel-slinging hero. He’s no bone-whisperer, no ligament-witch. Death doesn’t work the way she used to. She can’t keep up with due dates. By the time she arrives, the waiting itself will have half-killed you. Mother died for ten years straight before Death remembered her. That last breath was long overdue.”
The ladyiac makes a good point. When the city’s throwaways wash up on the junkyard’s shores, half of them are already so old or broken they shouldn’t survive their first mugging. But most of us do. Even toddling dumpster-fry like I was.
The Inkdrinker bows her head. Firefly lamps splash her in light and shadow, painting her in shades of honey-wine and spilt night. Ink-veined and obscenely long, her tongue pours from between her lips to skim the Table of Contents. She slurps with relish, remorseless, leaving a slime of ink.
“I want more, Priest,” the Eater groans. “I want the authors themselves. Oleander and the rest of the collection. I want their living words. I want to wrap them in dust jackets. I want Oleander to feed me his words off mother’s horror-forks.”
“I’m an Oddjobber, not a Necromancer.” This is a lie. I am a shapeshifter. It’s my job. I’ve slipped into skins greasier than a Necromancer’s. “I’ve never tried reviving even something so small as a fly. It could be years before this book teaches me enough necromancy to herd a flock of ex-dead authors into your parlor.” This is just haggler-talk. I’ll sign the contract. This ladyiac is desperate. I can smell it. That rare, pure desperation of children and the insane. She will be so easy to fleece I won’t even have to pretend to be my legend. If the necromancy fails, I’ll blame Death for being more diligent than we thought, and if it succeeds, well, my legend has murdered enough innocent figments. Perhaps I can balance the scale by repairing a few ex-dead authors.
“I wasn’t expecting our adventure to be a novelette. I’ll renew your contract until you’ve finished a whole series of authors. There’s no due date. You’ll earn yourself a library, so that ought to be worth a few years of your life. Once you give me the authors, the books are yours.”
This job could set me free. With a library to liquidate, I’ll be able to fake a five-star death. For the right price, my legend and I will be obliterated in a fantasia of blood and feces. Priest will be redacted from her own future, and I’ll jumpstart my retirement with a sparkling clean name. Temperance, perhaps, or Chastity–a name whose virtue is so shrill no one will peek to see who’s hiding underneath.
The Inkdrinker gives the Contents a last lick, then slides the book to me. “Try Exercise One. I need to be certain you’re the hard-backed, leather-bound, steel-spined mercenary they say you are. They say you make your eggcups out of eye sockets. They say your wine is fermented menstrual blood. That’s why I chose you, Priest. Necromancy is butchery done backwards. You should be able to retrace your steps.”
That’s the first I’ve heard of the eggcups. I forged the first rumors myself, when I apprenticed to the Guild. Rumors were my armor, and also good marketing. But the lies came alive. They still protect me, but only because no one comes close enough to see whether I’m really a monster on the inside.
I read the exercise three times. I’ve brewed myself enough remedies for nightmare-proof nights to know it’s best to memorize a recipe.
“Where is the last ingredient?” I ask. The first two are simple enough: my beating heart and a strong will. If mine isn’t strong enough, I’ll borrow my legend’s. But if I’m going to steal a life back from Death, I’ll need a corpse. Someone small, to start with. It’s only Exercise One.
“Use the librarians. I’m breeding new ones. This generation was just a rough draft. They never remember where they’ve left the keys to the book-safe.”
From under her dressing gown, she draws a silver-plated whistle on a chain and blows once. I hear nothing, but the instrument is pitched for finer-tuned ears: all along the shelves, weasels freeze, feather dusters quivering. Like fire along a fuse, a radiance of red weasels races across the floor and streaks up a table leg. Standing on hind legs, a dozen librarians form ranks beside Your Unflinching Guide.
Here is the secret. I don’t kill. I subcontract. I outsource assassinations to Alaska, Olympia, and Duchess. Once the Guildsters are convinced you drink fermented menstrual blood, it’s easy to make them believe routine assassination is beneath you. They think I save myself for more theatrical murders, for premium crime scene masterpieces, for ritualistic sacrifice deluxe, for running this city’s Nightmare Factory. The Inkdrinker chose me for her necromancy because she believes I’m a murder-artist. Maybe only a killer can unkill. If necromancy were easy, immortality would be an industry. It takes a devastatingly strong will to kill. To reverse death will require an equal and opposite force. I need to become my legend.
I reach out my hand to the first weasel and she leaps in. As I bring her close, she nestles against my chest, warm as daydreaming. It’s not really murder if I bring her right back. But if Oleander’s method fails and proves him a fraud, I am going to find his corpse and kill it extra-dead. I won’t have my record ruined by a charlatan who thought he could charm some cadavers and play skeleton-king.
The librarian sits primly in my hand, her tail wrapped around my little finger. I stroke her back, finding the weak link in the chain of vertebrae. I scratch her under the chin. Then I wring her like a wet sock. Her heart stops with a hiccup. The librarians flinch in unison, then bow their heads. This generation must have had the fear bred right out of them. I cup the weasel to my chest and count heartbeats. Death plays for keeps. According to Oleander, I have 144 beats to win back a heart this size. Otherwise I will be a librarian-killer. I can already hear the gears of the Nightmare Factory cranking out toothy new terrors just for me.
44, 45, 46. I can feel each beat vibrating through the weasel. Teach the dead heart a new beat, says Oleander. 72, 73, 74. My heart beats faster, outrunning the clock. 96, 97, 98. Knock-knock. Who’s there? 112, 113, 114. Your heartbeat answers from the other side. 127, 128, 129. My whole body is a heartbeat, a vibrating string. 138, 139, 140. Listen for an echo. I am listening so hard my teeth ache. 142, 143, 144. The weasel thumps suddenly against my chest, animated by my heart and Priest’s will. I can feel my own beat under her ribs. She’s back.
The weasel barks and climbs up my arm. My vision stereoscopes. I see two Eaters staring back at me. Through the weasel’s wide-set eyes, I can see to the edges of the library. In weasel-sight, the scene is sunk in deepest twilight, in shades of smoke, ash, and ink. The Eater dissolves into a few details: a hangnail, a glint of teeth, a bloodshot eye. But back in my own eye sockets, I can watch in living color as the Eater licks a dribble of ink from her lips.
The Inkdrinker smiles at me, showing blackened canines. She doesn’t look at the weasel. She doesn’t know there are two of me now. She doesn’t know I have four eyes, two hearts, and sharp claws.
“Try another weasel,” she says.
By the time I’m through with her weasels, there will be an army of me. But I love my new whiskers, the way they map the space around me in touchcolors. I love my red fur, soft as falling asleep. I want more of me.
By the eleventh librarian, I have a high-pitched toothache and an eye-twitch. My jaw feels as if it’s about to unlatch and tear off half my face. My temples throb at a cruel frequency. When I shut my eyes, I still see through 22 others. I wring another librarian. My heart beats her back to life. I can see the entire reading room patched together from thirteen perspectives. All our sensations churn into a nauseous heave: up and down, scent and sound, left and right, run or bite. I am at the table, on the table, and under the table all at once. As the librarians slink away, my mind spills out across the library, tunneling with them between the shelves and holing up in the card catalogue. Twelve weasels ago, when I was huddled over my Brimstone Bub in the Rogue’s Gallery, all I wanted was to unwind my brain. Now it has unraveled into a dozen threads, all tangled tails and twitching whiskers. And I am free. I’m out of my mind. My nightmares can’t chase all thirteen of me. I can think in thirteen dimensions.
I won’t fake my death to kill my legend. I’ll give us the monumental murder we deserve while my dozen other hearts keep beating. Why live out my retirement in Priest’s sorry bone-cage, this stringy piece of lady-shank, when I can juice up a few new bodies with my old soul? I won’t waste one heartbeat on the Eater’s crusty authors. She’s ripe for the attics anyway. With luck, the Auntwatch will catch her in their next round-up. Oleander is the only cadaver I’m keen to meet. If I wake him from his grave, he’ll owe me a few lessons in this plutonian art. Perhaps he can train me out of these headaches. If a dozen weasels can cook my brain nearly to jelly, I worry what a more complex corpse could do. There are fossils slumbering in the lower tunnels–sabretooth, mastodon, dire wolf–but I can’t risk them until I know the necromancy won’t turn me into a puddle of plasma.
I climb out of the chair and cross the chamber the quick way, making stepping stones of stacked books.
“Priest?” says the Eater of Rarebooks. “Let’s draft a contract. You’ve proved you’re worth your weight in hardbacks.”
“I’m not going to fill your prison-library,” I say. “Authors are too wild to be kept in cells.”
She stands up and her arthritic joints go off all at once like a flock of fireworks, crackling so ferociously it sounds as if she’s about to go up in flames.
“I like your Oleander, though,” I add. “He’s not the type to settle for a cell. I’m going to unbox him from his coffin for a chat.”
The Inkdrinker is wedged between table and chair, sealed in by a swamp of books. Instead of wrestling out, she launches herself belly-first onto the table. Paddling her arms, she shoots between the books at blistering speed. I run.
“Get your scrawny lice-breeding haunches back in here you pulp-drunk, penny-dreadful, rag of a book-thief!”
I slip through the gap in the shelves and into the lightless labyrinth. Without the Eater’s hand to guide me, I don’t know my way to the door. But the librarians know. I trace the threads of my mind around every twist and turn. Weasels leap from shelf to shelf, leading us out. They will never dust another row or sleep in the card catalogue. I shut my eyes and see the maze from a dozen angles.
“Bring back that necromancy you stole from me!” shrieks the Inkdrinker, her voice cracking like the spine of a dictionary.
I’m already at the last bookcase. I topple it and we tumble into the junkyard in a frenzy of claws and fur. By now my skull is a jar of pickled pain, but I can’t resist having the last word.
“The hunt is on, Inkdrinker. First to find Oleander wins all the antidotes to death!”
Above, bats scrawl fleeting graffiti across the cavern ceiling, their flight-paths tracing gleeful notes no one else can read. The darkness is so thick you could sip it through a straw. But with weasel-sight, I see the junkyard sketched in charcoal and chalk. My face is one, long ache. I press cold hands into my eye sockets, trying to rub out the pain. I can rely on my two dozen nocturnal eyes to navigate the wastescape. Stumbling along behind my many eyes, all I can think about is a hot drink and a hotter bath. Back at Rogue’s, we can hunker down over hot sulfured rum and strategize. My mind unwinds across the trashlands, pulling me along behind. Priest’s sins won’t follow us. We have a dozen clean consciences to share amongst us, spit-polished to an impeccable sheen.
BIO: Lucia Iglesias is a writer and au pair in Iceland. She has taught English in Germany, packed produce at farmers’ markets, modeled for art students, and adventured through 26 countries. Her work has also appeared in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores and Shimmer.