The Chronicles of Zer
Cursus stared in open-mouthed horror at the blank page.
"No. It cannot be."
He turned the page, the vellum of the old book crackling. The next was equally blank: smooth and creamy white. He opened the great tome at random in three different places. All the same. There could be no doubt. He closed the book with a hollow thud, a bloom of dust. Magna Bestiarum it said in gold letters on the red spine. The titles survived longer, of course, their words visible to anyone glancing at the shelf. He wondered who had written it, who had laboured over it, what wonders it had contained. Now it was gone and he would never know.
He stared down the hall, the shelves reaching from floor to ceiling, receding in ranks to a point in the far distance. This was only his first day in the Upper Western Atrium of the Spiral Wing. He hadn't set foot in this hall since he'd arrived, a wide-eyed blacksmith's boy sent because he alone of five brothers could read the family copy of Fine Charmes and Cures. Sixty years ago. The place had hummed with activity then: acolytes reading at the tables, bearing books to and from the shelves. Now there was only him. He and the Recorder, who didn't really count.
He lifted the Bestiarum with a grunt, crossed the room and slid it back into its place in the bottom-left slot of the first shelf nearest the door. He pulled out the next volume. A True History of the Verlainians. He had never heard of the Verlainians, had no idea who or even what they were. He carried this book back to the square table in the centre of the hall and opened it. More white parchment, devoid of script or illustration.
He spent the whole of that day taking books from the shelves, opening them, returning them. The most surviving script he found was in Storm and Weather Magick of the Mountain People, the pages of which contained a few scattered marks, the mere bones of letters. He tried to read them, to coax the words back into being, but they were too far gone.
Eventually, the light beginning to fade in the high windows, he'd seen enough. He walked back to the centre of the hall, lost in thought, footsteps echoing on the stone floor. He stopped at the glass bell-jar set upon its gold podium. He cranked the reluctant brass handle on the device, sending sparks crackling and flashing through the mist swirling within.
The grey wisps resolved themselves into the familiar, lined face. The Recorder opened its eyes.
"Which books?" it asked in its familiar, ringing tone. Cursus gave it the titles of everything he'd looked at that day, effortlessly recalling them from memory. Works on architecture, oneiromancy, chirurgy, history, crptobotany, astroarchaeology, unlinguistics. Every conceivable subject jumbled together side-by-side. Once the books had all been arranged alphabetically. But then, when a new book arrived, it took weeks to make a gap for it, shuffle all the other others around. Now they were distributed randomly and only the magical mind of the Recorder knew where everything was.
"A great many books for one day," it said.
"They were all empty. They have all faded."
"I see," said the Recorder. If it had any views, if it felt any sadness, it didn't express it. Cursus almost wished it would.
"Tell me," said Cursus. "How long is it since these books were read?"
"One hundred and eighty-seven years."
Cursus nodded. The interval was supposed to be a century at most. After that the ink began to blanch and fade from underuse.
"Were any in here read more recently?"
"Half, one hundred and twenty years ago. They, at least, may survive."
Cursus looked up at the shelves looming around him.
"Do you know how many books this hall houses?"
"Twelve million, four hundred and four thousand, eight hundred and ninety-two."
It was only one hall out of so many. And there were rooms, whole wings, he had never yet set foot in.
He sighed. He knew what he had to do. He had ignored the truth for a long time, busying himself in his work, but those blank pages finally gave him no choice. There was only him now, the Archivist by default, and he was old. He could never read even the smallest fraction of the books.
He spent that last evening in the Sanctum, devotedly re-reading one of the three-hundred tomes kept chained in there. As he did every night. These were the most important books in the library, the core repository of their knowledge. The fading of any book was a tragedy, but the loss of any of these was unthinkable. And yet, if he failed in what he was about to do, there would be no one to come here and open them up. Even these precious works would be lost. If he stayed, he might be able to keep these alive, at least. But soon enough he'd die and there would be no one.
He had no choice. He was on his own and had nothing to help him but the words of all the books he'd ever read.
The following morning he gathered the supplies he might need for his journey. He informed the Recorder of his intentions, which absorbed the information without comment. With the sun lighting up the eastern windows, Cursus hauled open the wooden doors at the entrance to the library and stepped outside. He stood for a moment, breathing in the misty air. Then he turned and locked the doors behind him with the great brass key he carried on a chain round his neck.
He looked back only once as he walked away. The vast edifice of the library stretched away into the mists in both directions, unbroken save for the single door and, higher up, a double row of arched windows. Beyond he could see only a hazy outline of the towers and domes he'd lived his life in. Cursus nodded, as if saying goodbye, and turned away.
A month later, he stood among trees on top of a grassy hill, chest heaving from the ascent, heart pounding. Before him lay Zer, city-state of the Azeri Doges. Or so it had once been. Now those white towers, so familiar from his boyhood, lay in ruins. The sun glinted no more off terraced golden roofs. Cursus felt no shock. It was what he had expected. Four weeks of travel across the lands - four dangerous, gruelling weeks - had shown him clearly enough why the library had been abandoned, why no more acolytes came, no more books.
The twelve lands lay in ruins.
He limped on down the hill, the blisters on his feet making each step an agony. The wound in his side tugged cruelly. If he missed his footing the pain jarring through him felt like a fresh sword-stab, making him cry out. He had done well to get this far. More than once he'd considered giving up, returning in failure to the library. He'd refused to be beaten, but this was as far as he could go. Zer was his only hope.
He picked his way down the wooded slopes towards the city. Soon he had to thread his way between high mounds of broken masonry, past smooth-skinned marble statues lying on the ground, faces pressed to the mud. Men, women and children eyed him from their hovels in the half-collapsed walls. At least no one threatened him. Vestigial respect for the library protected him as it had, just about, throughout his journey. Although more than once he'd had to thunder a curse recalled from a spellbook to scare off attackers.
He walked up the steep, spiralling streets to the Citadel, the centre of the realm. Perhaps there he would find some answers. It had once been well-guarded, he recalled, lines of soldiers in golden armour. Now no one stopped him walking inside.
He moved through the broken halls, remembering them as they'd once been. His father had brought him here as a boy to see the enthronement of the three hundred and third Doge. He remembered the gold and blue of the walls, the rustling purple silks of the crowd around him, the blaring brass fanfares. It was all gone.
"What do you want, old man?"
The voice from the shadows of the ruined palace was low, threatening. Cursus stopped, held up his hands. "I came to see the Doge. I am the Archivist."
The man laughed. "I'm afraid you are a little late. The barbarians overran Zer twenty years ago. Hadn't you noticed?"
"I wanted to see if anything remained."
"Old fool. The whole world lies in ruins. As your precious library would be if the old magic didn't render it inviolate."
"Magic walls may protect us," said Cursus. "But they don't stop the books fading."
The man stepped out into the light. He wore the clothes of a warrior, a sword and two knives sheathed at his belt.
"People have more important things to do than read, old man. Finding food. Staying alive."
Cursus nodded. He studied the man for a moment. He had a hunter's eyes above a finely chiselled nose, like some bird of prey. It was a fine nose, to be sure. Cursus debated with himself what he should do.
"You are right," he said at last. "There is nothing for me here. I shall return to the library while I still have sight in my eyes. May I at least rest here the night?"
The man shrugged. "As you wish. You look harmless enough."
"My name is Cursus."
"River," said the man. "I can spare you only a few scraps of food." He withdrew into the darkness of his side-chamber. After a moment, broken plaster crunching underfoot, Cursus followed him.
Inside, candles flickered from niches all around the walls. Here and there, the light glinted off surviving patches of gold-leaf. Cursus could see the remains of murals painted on the plaster. Deep blue skies over a shining white city.
"I am grateful," said Cursus, sitting down on a square of fallen masonry. "My bones ache and I can go no further."
"You shouldn't be out here, old man. It is too dangerous."
"I've survived. Fortunately my memory is good and I can recall all the maps of this area. Travelling is not too bad if you know which routes to take."
"Nowhere is safe any more."
"Indeed. I did think mighty Zer might have survived the conflagration."
"Nothing survived, old fool. Not Zer, not anywhere. Could you not see that, sitting up there on your mountain? Did you not read about it in your books?"
"There were no more books."
"People have been too busy dying to write."
Cursus nodded in the dark. "And, tell me, are you descended from the Doges at all?"
The man snorted. "Me? I'm just one of the barbarians."
After they had eaten, the man waved Cursus towards a place he could sleep, a shelf of stone with a ruined velvet curtain to wrap himself in. Cursus lay down with a grunt of pain. A lifetime of walking the library, of lugging books around, had kept him fit enough. But after his journey he felt his years weighing down on him. River sat across the room and stared into the flames of the fire he'd lit, saying nothing.
Late into the night, roused by some sound, Cursus awoke. He'd been living a nightmare of the library burning, all the books burning. He lay there, heart hammering, confused. The fire in the room had waned to a red glow. River sat across the room still, sinister shadows on his downcast face. He turned the pages of some book. Cursus watched him for a long time, thinking, before sleep came to him again.
When he awoke it was morning, light flooding in through holes in the walls and roof, lighting up this and that little patch of dirt. Cursus lay in the half-light, wondering which of the books in the library had faded away overnight. Which were vanishing at that precise moment, never to be read again.
He sat up, rubbing his face. River was nowhere to be seen. Cursus worked his way to his feet, bones stiff. The fire was just ash and a twist of smoke. He crossed to where the man had sat, remembering the night before. Frowning, glancing around to make sure he was alone, Cursus began to rummage through the tattered bedclothes. When he found the book, he picked it up and clutched it to him like an old friend.
"What are you doing?" River stood in the doorway, blotting out the light from outside. His voice was thick with fury.
"You read," said Cursus.
"Of course I can read. I'm not an animal."
Cursus leafed through the book. "I don't mean you can read. I mean you do. From these pages, the solid blacks, the vivid colours, I can see the whole book has been read recently and often."
"Like I said. I'm not an animal."
Cursus looked directly at him. "And nor are you the barbarian you claimed. Did you think I wouldn't recognize your face? That nose? And River, of course, is just the common tongue for Azeri. You would have been the three hundred and fifth Doge I think?"
"Very clever, old man. But I told you the truth. We're all barbarians now. The old titles don't matter any more."
"Yours may not. Mine does."
"Not for long. When you die all those books of yours will die too. Soon there will be no library, just empty paper and an old building decaying from inside."
"We could change that," said Cursus. "With enough people, from here and the other lands, we could re-read the books again, keep the wisdom alive. If you came, others would follow."
"I told you. People need food and blades. Not pretty stories."
Cursus looked down at the book he held. He turned a page. "This is the fifth volume of The Chronicles of Zer," he said. "Tell me, have you read the others?"
"Only that one survives."
"All twelve volumes are in the Sanctum. You could read them all there."
"What does it matter?" River sounded angry now. "The old world is gone."
Cursus shook his head. "No. If you had read the other volumes you would know that isn't true. All this is just one calamity of many. In the time of the thirteenth Doge a plague wiped out all but two hundred of your kin. Fires have destroyed Zer itself four times. It is the same in all the lands. Each time the people have rebuilt and carried on. That story is your identity and you have lost it. You have forgotten who you are."
"I know exactly what I am, old man."
Cursus stood. He felt suddenly furious with River and his meek acceptance of defeat, his refusal to listen. Cursus brushed past him, suddenly desperate to be outside, get away.
In the open air, he had to shield his eyes as he gazed around at the shattered ruins of Zer. There was nothing here after all. He would have to try elsewhere. Perhaps he would be lucky and meet with travelling companions he could trust. He had no choice. Not looking back he set off down the hill, heading for the rising sun. His feet were so blistered it felt like he walked across knives.
"That's the wrong way, old man," River called from behind him. "The library is northwards."
Cursus stopped and turned to see the man standing in the doorway of his ruined palace.
"I've decided not to go to the library," said Cursus. "The books need eyes, otherwise they're just useless paper. I shall visit the other lands until I find people willing to help bring the world back from its darkness. Eastfar, perhaps, or Endest."
"You'll never make it, old man."
"At least I'll die knowing I tried."
"It is pointless."
Cursus shook his head. "You are right about one thing at least," he said. "You are no Doge." He turned away and carried on walking. He didn't say it, but he man was right about other things too. He wouldn't make it far. He was deluding himself to think otherwise. And his quest was pointless. It would be the same story as this everywhere. Still. He could do nothing else.
"Wait!" called River.
Cursus turned to see him striding down the slope. For a moment, Cursus thought he would draw that sword of his and run him through. He almost welcomed the thought. Better a quick end than this slow, lingering decay.
But the man didn't draw his sword. Instead, he clutched the book, the fifth volume of The Chronicles of Zer. He stopped in front of Cursus. It took him a moment to find the words.
"The library. If I went there. Would it tell me how to rebuild Zer?"
After a moment, Cursus nodded. "How to set the walls straight. How to gild the statues. The songs to sing while picking lemons in the orchards and the names your ancestors gave to the stars."
"But the library is vast, it goes on for ever. How would I find any of those things?"
"Ask the Recorder. It will tell you."
"But how could I even get inside?"
Cursus studied him for a moment. Moments like this had occurred many times, he knew from the books. Turning points in history. Simple words exchanged between two people that altered everything.
He fished out the key he carried around his neck and handed it over.
"Just open the door and go in," said Cursus.