The Library. Tenrali’s Grievances. Tender Mercies.
An explosion sent fire, sparks, and embers racing across the cobblestone floor of the library.
Stepping through the portal with the use of a sturdy cane, the aged Tenrali Bubruco, Lower Magistrate of the City State of Caerleon, glowered. Pausing briefly to lift a lantern and adjust his eyes to the darkness, Tenrali sneered, “And now, my old friend, I’ve come to exact my revenge.”
Behind him followed Godwick Emberfoot, a halfling warlock enslaved by the Arch Fae Aurusel the Gardner, and upon his shoulder, a tiny pseudodragon named Greymalken. Standing his full height, Godwick’s head arrived at Tenrali’s waist, while Greymalken was no larger than a common rat. And when Godwick doffed the cowl of his patchwork cloak, the ring of fire sealed behind them and vanished from existence.
Cast in darkness, the light from Tenrali’s oil lantern spilled upon rows of embalmed human corpses stacked vertically like a wall before them.
“P-Pax Mors Lectio,” Godwick announced, stepping out from behind Tenrali, his hands shackled by a heavy iron chain. “The Library of the Dead.”
Tenrali grunted and turned to find bodies stacked similarly behind him.
“W-we are far below the surface, M-Magistrate, in the l-library’s archives,” Godwick stuttered, gesturing his chained hands to the ceiling. “If we are q-quiet, the l-librarians won’t know w-we’re here.”
“At first, I can’t say I believed you, smallfoot,” Tenrali breathed, holding his lantern higher to give light to the darkness. The musty space smelled sharply of brimstone and sulfur, remnants of Godwick’s portal. “A dingy, stuttering halfling. Chained and dressed as you are. With power. With means. Please. Forgive my wrongheaded presumptions. You are a most impressive burglar.”
Tenrali Bubruco removed a black leather purse from his inner jacket filled with rare and precious gems and tossed it to Godwick.
Justly receiving his compensation but not at all what he’d come for, Godwick shrugged. “I t-take no offense, M-Magistrate.”
“I’m convinced it’s a universal constant, the big underestimating the small,” Greymalken grumbled telepathically in a way that only Godwick could hear, flaring his wings and coiling his serpentine body across the back of Godwick’s neck.
There were three rows of preserved bodies stacked vertically on platforms atop the other, spanning in every direction, for as far as his lantern’s light would reach. Hanging from the neck of each corpse was a wood placard carved with the name of the dead and a reference number. In the distance, Tenrali could make out the looming shadows of tall iron gates that soared to the ceiling.
“Should we be discovered, the necromancers won’t take kindly to our trespass, Godwick,” the pseudodragon warned. Greymalken’s reptilian eyes squinted into the darkness and bared his jagged teeth. “We should take our spoils and be quick about it.”
“Come, w-walk with me,” Godwick said to Tenrali and turned to his left. “Gaed Hok is not far.”
They walked for a time in silence, observed only by the vacant stares of the dead. The bodies had been lovingly, carefully preserved, labeled, and cataloged. This place is where the City States of Gaelwyn sent their most esteemed. The library housed the remains of queens and kings, dukes, sages, emissaries, teachers, wizards, clerics, philosophers, artists, bards, alchemists - even persons of no particular pedigree but of a peculiar interest - so that their life’s experiences might be conveniently accessed as if they were books. In death, their wisdom could be extracted for the library’s generous patrons, but as the fees were beyond the reach of someone of Tenrali’s modest standing, more desperate actions were required.
Godwick Emberfoot wore a quilt-like cloak made of colorful square patches, a green waistcoat, tattered and torn leggings, a gray shirt, and a soiled yellow cotton cravat tied loosely around his neck. He had curly graying-black hair that ran past his shoulders, and his face was prematurely wrinkled as if he’d witnessed an entire life in but a single day.
Godwick walked with his chained hands held before him and eyed the dead suspiciously. “I will need to kn-know more to ch-channel the ambassador’s voice, M-Minister.”
Tenrali Bubruco had a severe limp and leaned heavily on his wooden cane. He walked with a hunch and wore the black and white cotton garments of his station. Scowling, examining the faces of the deceased as they passed, he grumbled, “I could tell you a lifetime of wrongs I’ve suffered at Gaed Hok’s hands.”
Godwick looked up at Tenrali with a weathered, weary expression. “A litany of c-claims are unnecessary. I’ll only need specifics on the in-information you s-seek.”
“Then I shall tell you a story,” Tenrali mumbled, lowering his lantern and realizing they’d a walk ahead of them, “of two good friends who became enemies.”
Greymalken nestled his wings closer into his body and glared at Godwick. “Could it be the fool’s so oblivious that he’s just going to hand it to us?”
“Quiet,” Godwick thought, glancing to the floor. “The more retrieved from the living, the easier.”
“It was hot, and it was summer,” Tenrali recalled, his old eyes trailing into the darkness. “My parents arranged for my schooling in Nodderton. Back then, Gaed and I took well to each other. We were young bucks, full of spite and pluck, and we’d escape our scholarly obligations by roaming the kingdom’s southern forests. It was there we found it.”
“The Gifting Tree?” Godwick surmised.
Limping past the rows of dead, Tenrali nodded. “Yes. It was a rowan tree. Brilliant, fern-like green leaves. Taller than most. It had a sturdy trunk that sent splayed branches twenty feet to the sky. It bore clumps of fat, red fruit. Berries. Its wood was strong, unyielding, easily taking our weight as teenage boys. It was a wholly remarkable tree.”
Godwick eyed Greymalken and said to the magistrate, “Yes?”
Tenrali licked his lips, recalling a taste from his childhood. “Its fruit was sweet, ripe. Delicious, to be sure, but bitter, and when we consumed them, our minds were filled with the matter of all things. When we ate the berries, Gaed and I, we were gifted with perfect understanding. A cognition far beyond our young years.”
“Bastards,” Greymalken grumbled in a way only Godwick could hear. “The blessing of infinite knowledge wasted on the idle brood of Man.”
“Needless to say,” Tenrali continued, holding his light to the names of every corpse as they passed, “the tree’s boon made short work of our lessons. We excelled, to our professor’s chagrin, and despite our meager upbringings. Together, we rose to academic prominence. We were celebrated by our peers and achieved the highest honors. We graduated from Nodderton’s college with distinction.”
Thinking, Godwick asked, “The b-benefit of the tree’s f-fruit wasn’t p-permanent, I take it?”
“No,” the minister grumbled and coughed, placing a wrist to his mouth as he hobbled along without the benefit of his cane. Only when he returned the cane to the floor did he recapture his breath so he might continue. “The berries we cut from the tree would wither and die. Therefore, we’d frequently return to the rowan tree to cut away more of its fruit.”
“Neither of you t-told anyone of the t-tree?” Godwick replied as they turned a sharp corner, accessing the row labeled ‘Sur Names, H.’
“Its location was a secret we vowed to take to our graves,” Tenrali continued, hoisting the lantern higher. “Our education concluded, we left Nodderton for our respective homes and professions, a life of promise ahead of us. Since we possessed absolute knowledge, we each knew how to take a cutting of the tree so we might regrow rowan trees of our own. A process we knew would take decades, but offer a familial legacy that might entrench our power for generations.”
“Certainly,” Godwick acknowledged, not really surprised at the minister’s audacity. “Meanwhile, y-you both returned to Nodderton and s-stole to the forest, to t-take more berries?”
“Yes, although that strategy was short-lived,” Tenrali admitted. “After leaving college, I resided in Caerleon. My access to the rowan tree and Nodderton’s forest was curtailed. Gaed, on the other hand, born of Nodderton stock, remained there, and had more indiscriminate access. I was a junior minister. I had duties, and responsibilities, and I could not visit the tree as frequently as Gaed. It was shortly thereafter our fortunes turned.”
“How so?” Godwick replied, scanning the names of the bodies as they passed. They were closing in on the ambassador.
Tenrali angrily slammed his cane into the floor. “Three years following our graduation, a forest fire ruined Nodderton’s southern range. The rowan tree was destroyed. We went to it. It was reduced to cinder and ash.”
“Tragic,” Greymalken said sarcastically.
“Yet, Gaed, you see, he was very clever,” Tenrali breathed, “for unbeknownst to me, he learned to preserve the berries through making wine out of them, and he filled his cellar with casks of endless knowledge, whereas I, regrettably, squandered my berries and was eventually left with nothing.”
“I see,” Godwick said as he and Greymalken shared a knowing stare.
Grimacing, Tenrali unloaded his grievances. His face was awash in anguish. “It would take decades for our cuttings to mature, and, mine, without suitable knowledge, failed. It withered and died, and with it, every one of my vaunted aspirations. All the while, the bounty of Gaed’s cellar afforded him superior intellectual privilege and an uncanny insight into every political intrigue, every crisis and court dilemma, offering him a lifelong advantage. Thus he became a most trusted advisor, favored by the aristocracy. Gaed swiftly ascended through the ranks of Nodderton’s diplomatic corps. He was knighted by the king. He lived a life of prestige, power, and luxury.”
“And you did not,” Godwick concluded.
Tenrali grimaced and nodded spitefully. “Gaed concealed from me! I struggled, believing the tree’s fruit was forever lost, while he persevered, sharing none of his cellar’s cache. Ser Gaed Hok died in honor, showered with wealth, whereas I languish and toil as a lowly minister, wallowing in poverty. He did this to me! He is to blame!”
Greymalken stirred, his dragon head leering at Tenrali from around Godwick’s shoulder. “I’m inspired to ask what happened to the remaining casks in Ser Hok’s cellar.”
And Godwick asked the question of Tenrali as if it were his own.
“Gone!” Tenrali chortled, succumbing to a coughing fit that caused him to stop and wipe fresh blood from his lips. “All of it! Gone! After his demise, I personally ransacked his home! I hired spies to scour his offices, and … vagrants … to take his children at knifepoint. I have spent years seeking the location of his tree, born from the cuttings we made. Sadly, none of my efforts would come to yield any gain. We promised to split the tree's gifts, but Gaed deceived me! He lied to me! He made me this shadow of what I might’ve become, and I shall have my revenge!”
Godwick looked up at Tenrali’s blood-stained lips. “Minister. You’re ill. Y-you’re in the grip of c-consumption?”
Tenrali nodded and brushed his mouth with a sleeve. “Yes, but a disease even viler, burglar. It stubbornly persists even after divine favor, remaining forever incurable … without perfect, supernatural knowledge.”
“And nested there, within his nursery of bitterness and scorn, shall we discover Aurusel’s prize,” Greymalken communicated eagerly to Godwick, revealing a toothy smile. His lizardy tongue licked at the air as if tasting Tenrali’s delicious spite.
“The dead must still be convinced,” Godwick patiently reminded his familiar telepathically. “I doubt the ambassador will even speak to him.”
“And there you are, old friend!” Tenrali contemptuously growled, holding his lantern up to the face of the dead. The wooden plaque fixed to the corpse read Ser Gaed Hok, Consul of Nodderton. 10837.
The ravages of earthly decay were stimied by the librarian’s care. Gaed Hok’s sunken, withered eyes recessed into the boney sockets of an ashen skull. Wispy white hair framed his face, cobwebs draped his body dressed in regal garments, and his arms remained stilled and folded in front of his chest. Dry, pale, shriveled skin hugged his bones. Gaed Hok’s nose was surgically removed to leave only two slits, and his teeth were fully exposed in a permanent, deathly grin.
Tenrali Bubruco coughed and spat a wad of crimson phlegm on the library’s floor. Leaning heavily into his cane, Tenrali glowered at Gaed Hok’s body, and snarled, “Hear me, and know that I shall rip the tree's whereabouts out of you!”
Gaed Hok’s corpse stared unflinchingly into oblivion.
“M-Minister,” Godwick whispered, resting a calming hand against his forearm. “The d-dead are not without will. It’s within my p-power to resurface his soul, b-but Gaed Hok will resist. Revenge, sir, is a false goal. We can t-turn back now, f-forgive Gaed, let us leave him and this p-place in p-peace.”
“A dangerous proposition, Godwick,” Greymalken purred, the dragon’s tongue licking the air. Godwick could feel the drake’s astonishment impressing upon his mind. “One that would stray far from Aurusel’s desires. You’d dare deny Him this secret knowledge? Betrayer! We’ve come too close if only to be thwarted by your compassionate halfling heart!”
“Aurusel may rule my eternal soul,” Godwick retorted, speaking to Greymalken in his thoughts, “but He does not erode choice from mortal men.”
Greymalken growled and slunk over Godwick’s shoulder. “Together, we tread a fine line.”
Disregarding his familiar’s objection, Godwick looked up at Tenrali Bubruco with sincere and kind, pleading eyes.
“Never!” Tenrali spat, wrenching his arm from Godwick. “You will deliver unto me what was agreed!”
Lowering his arms, Godwick nodded reluctantly. “Stand back,” Godwick whispered, and he raised his shackled hands to the body of Gaed Hok. Greymalken extended his wings to fly behind Godwick and come to rest on the floor.
Concentrating, Godwick inhaled and felt the wind of the cosmos rushing against his skin. His hair, clothes, and cloak rustled, blown by a furious gale that only he experienced, and his mind’s eye scried the universe for a single wayward soul. His patchwork cloak wrapped and fluttered, and Godwick’s body trembled from his effort, sweat rolling down his temples. Spasming, unable to stand, Godwick collapsed to his knees, and his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and his oily hair cascaded over his face.
Suddenly, the dead skull of Gaed Hok abruptly twisted to face Tenrali Bubruco.
“A-Ask!” Godwick stuttered, his hands grasping at the air before him as if to grapple an arrested soul.
“Gaed!” Tenrali shouted and, setting aside his lantern, pointed accusingly at the corpse. “Reveal the location of your Gifting Tree! Where can I find it?!”
Godwick’s quaking fingers clawed at the air as the vacant eyes of Gaed Hok lingered long on Tenrali, and when it finally spoke, its voice was the sound of ash and decayed leaves floating upon the wind. “Murderer!”
“It was necessary!” Tenrali hissed, dismissing the accusation with a flourish of his wrist. “I must know! Surrender the location of your tree!”
Struggling, Godwick fell forward and braced himself with his left arm, keeping the other raised to clutch at the body.
“You murdered my son,” the corpse whispered longingly. “Dae, my only son-”
“Tell me! I insist! Where is your Rowan Tree?! Tell me!” Tenrali demanded, and in response, a rush of hot, dusty air lifted Godwick and shoved him away, sending him sprawling into the legs of an adjacent row of dead bodies. Reeling over in pain, blood escaping his nose and mouth, Godwick managed his concentration, intensely focusing on holding the spirit, to keep it still - imprisoned - on the mortal plane.
Greymalken rushed to Godwick’s side and snarled, “Careful, dimwit, lest you give yourself a stroke! You’re my only way out of here!”
The jaw of Gaed Hok opened to unleash a deafening, hellish scream that echoed throughout the library, in violent resistance to the demands of the living.
“Tell me!” Tenrali boomed, coughing up bloody spittle and grasping at the lapels of the corpse. “Where is your Gifting Tree?!”
Rolled over on his side, Godwick concentrated and wrenched his hands as if squeezing the essence of Gaed Hok’s soul and strangling the information out of it.
Dust and debris swirled in the air, caught in a churning cyclone. Compelled, unable to completely deny the will of the living, and at the mercy of Godwick’s thrall, the spirit haltingly whispered, “In a … private sanctuary … owned by Severain Yim … cousin to the King.”
“That’s it!” Greymalken screamed in Godwick’s mind. The dragon took to the air. “We know its location! Return us to the Faewild, away to the gardens of Aurusel!”
Godwick’s eyes bled from their sides, his teeth clenched, and he fought with the spirit, for, regardless of Godwick’s compulsion to the contrary, the soul did not wish to leave, and its own will held Godwick hostage.
Tenrali Bubruco roiled with coughing, gasping laughter as he grasped his chest, and a choking rise of blood burbled from his throat. “Gaed! Damn you! Look at me one last time! Witness how I am broken!”
“Ruuuurrrraaahhhhh!” bellowed the spirit in a horrifying moan, and the center of the cyclone engulfed Tenrali to spin wickedly about him, stealing his breath, and suffocating him.
“To me!” Godwick gasped, summoning Greymalken to his chest. The dragon arrived, sailing down to pounce on Godwick and lord over his face.
“Godwick!” Greymalken hissed, rearing on his hind legs and extending his wings. “Flee!”
Godwick gripped his patchwork cloak’s cowl and brought it up and over his head, opening a portal of supernatural flame that exploded around Godwick and Greymalken to swallow them whole.
“Nooo!” Tenrali wheezed, gasping for air and extending his arm to where Godwick was, his breath stolen from him by a vengeful spirit. Collapsing to the floor, dying, alone, and abandoned deep within the archives of the ancient library, Tenrali awaited the tender mercies of its attending necromancers.