This is another ‘birthday story’ – in fact I think it may well be the first one that started me doing it as a thing. As should be obvious, it was written for my buddy Chris Allen. It has, I think, a bit of a ‘comic book’ feel particularly the fight scene, which also has a hint borrowed from Greek mythology. See if you can find it.
A small billow of dust rose from the worn stone tabletop as the guardsman set aside the ancient tome with a faint cry of crackling leather. Pursing his lips, he brushed some of the millennial dust from his scarlet battlejacket while reaching for a datacrystal from a small stack he’d made.
Senekal examined it briefly, turning it over in his fingers. The case had once been a deep purple but it had begun to fade with age. It was marked only with a human skull flanked by feathered wings outstretched and an Imperial date code, in gold, in the corner. He popped it into the reader, drumming his fingers on the stone as he waited.
Light fingers, gentle as a zephyr played quickly across the back of his neck and were gone. He spun, but was only just in time to catch a blur disappearing behind a data stack to his left and rear. Pressing his lips tight in a strange expression, half smile – half frown he turned back to the reader screen which displayed the same symbol as the case and a variety of touch selections with different headers. He studied them for a moment. Then selected one.
Again a gentle pressure against his back, but not fleeting this time. Soft, strawberry blonde hair fell down half across his face as velvet lips brushed his right ear. “One day you’re going to get hit pulling that,” he whispered with his smile showing in his voice.
“Here, Arcturan?” Her voice was silver chimes hanging from a gnarled tree in an ancient wood tinkling in the faintest breeze. “What danger could befall here? No place in the galaxy is as well guarded.”
“You might want to tell that to the mouldering pile of bones back there behind the stacks,” the Colonel replied nodding his head toward the body he’d discovered, “he’s not even been dead much more than a year or so. One of your kind from the equipment. This dump needs a janitor.”
If her voice was silver chimes, her laugh was the ringing of mythral bells. “I never said that there was no danger here. I meant only that it would be unlikely to come upon you unannounced. It is rare to meet enemies in the Library, but it has happened now and again. It is rarer still for them to fight for by their very presence here they have shown allegiance to the cause of order over chaos.”
“You’ll pardon my very human perspective, but I prefer to think of myself as an agent of balance. Too much order is every bit as bad as the predations of chaos. It is only the evil aspects of chaos that I war against. Order and Chaos notwithstanding I *am* someone who believes in good.”
“So are they,” she nodded at the emblem displayed in the viewer. Senekal had been flipping through records on the crystal while they spoke. “Surely they are not part of your quest for information on the Rotted Lord and his minions?”
“The Library is not generally used for idle curiosity. The trip is too hazardous, the effort too great.”
“But we were here anyway, weren’t we?”
“They are ones even my people usually consider allies.”
She trailed her red gloved fingertips down his cheek causing pleasant chills to run up his spine, “So,” her breath whispered in his ear, “care to tell me why you seek of them, lover?”
Senekal leaned back in the ancient chair and reached behind him, sliding his arms around her lithe form. She nuzzled closer, more strawberry hair falling into his face shutting out the world in a curtain of warmth scented with strange flowers. “For friendship,” he finally answered.
“A lot of effort for a friend. Is it worth it?”
“The day it STOPS being worth it is the day that I quit fighting for anything. Love is one thing, Ariel,” he said, using the closest human approximation of her name, “It comes on one all unknowing. Friendship is something different, but every bit as special. It is earned each and every day. You can have friendship without love and love without friendship – sometimes I think we border on the latter although I hope to change that. But true friendship is effectively love of another type entirely. The kind one can share with anyone. The kind that transcends background, distance, space, time, often even death.
“I have few friends like that,” Senekal continued, “but this one is one of them.” He tapped an image on the screen of a very young looking man in deep blue armor. Thick dark hair fell over his smooth fresh features and his dark eyes showed hints of a sadness that hadn’t left. The eyes hadn’t changed and you could see the resemblance in the youth to the man he’d eventually become.
Faint warmth and damp touched the side of his face. Ariel’s tear scalded its way down the side of his neck, seeming to beat with his own pulse before soaking into his high collar. “I envy you,” she whispered. He could almost feel her make an effort to regain her composure, “But that record is centuries old, Arcturan. He still lives? I do not recognize the name.”
“You wouldn’t. I had to track him in other ways as the Void Phantoms change their names throughout their careers. They give up their birth names in some kind of ritual. I’m not sure exactly why although I think that this,” he tapped the ancient grimoire he’d first been handling, “may explain some of it. I’ve not had time to read it, but some things this one has said have led me to believe he may be interested in it. Perhaps it may benefit him in some way.”
She sprang back out of his grip. “You cannot be thinking of removing it from the Library! The guardian will never permit it. Nothing is EVER removed from here!”
“That’s untrue, Ariel,” he said turning his chair around to face her. “Knowledge is removed from here all the time. Any time someone comes here they come here to remove knowledge. Sometimes they use it themselves, sometimes they pass it to others to be used, is that not true?”
“Only for the purest of motives!”
“We shall see if the guardian thinks my motives are sufficiently pure,” he stood, removed the data crystal from the reader and stacked it with the others before carefully putting them back in their storage racks. He tucked the grimoire under his arm, nearly losing his balance as Ariel slammed into him, more tears tracking down her inhumanly beautiful face.
“Arcturan. Love. Please, do not do this. The Guardian is terrible. If he finds you unworthy…”
The Colonel’s voice grew hard as granite. “IF he finds me unworthy for this than everything that we do here – everything this place purports to be for is nothing but a sham. A filthy lie perpetrated on those who struggle and give their lives for it all unknowing. If that’s the case then I’ve no interest in surviving such a struggle. And should that be the case, the damn Guardian best watch himself as well. I’m no damn slouch.”
“You cannot fight the Guardian. No one can!”
“You ever know anyone to try?”
“NO!” Her voice was horrified.
“Then how do you know it can’t be done?” He strode off toward the entrance to the Library, tome under his arm.
Ariel stood for a few long seconds before taking the masque from her belt and pulling it over her tear stained face. Resuming her persona of the Solitaire before following Senekal. For once, resuming her persona did not banish her fears or internal conflict. She struggled to stay to her Path but discovered, very quickly, that the Eldar Path often couldn’t snap the silver cord of love no matter how much she might wish it to. That realization chilled her more than she could imagine. She hurried to catch up.
Senekal stood before the exit, casually snapping his powerglove into place on his arm. He walked up to the desk behind which the Guardian sat, in this instance appearing as a pinch faced human in a dark suit with archaic lenses over his eyes. The Colonel slapped the book down on the counter. “I’m checking this out.”
The Guardian’s eyes narrowed in surprise behind the lenses, making his face look even more pinched. He tapped a small sign on his desk. Reference Library Only, it read, No Removals.
Senekal half sat on the counter and leaned over toward the Guardian. As he bent toward the little man, his powerglove came down on the sign which disintegrated with a brittle crack. “I SAID I was taking this out.”
“It is not permitted.” The Guardian’s voice was as brittle as the sound of the splintering sign had been.
“It is NOT permitted!” The voice remained low and sharp but the warning in it was clear.
“I said, why not? Or do you just have rules without reason because you feel like it? A rule without good cause is no rule at all.”
The tiny eyes flicked over to the masqued eldar. “Explain it to him, Solitaire.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence before Ariel answered, “I cannot. It’s never been explained to me.”
The Guardian’s version of perturbed was clearly to become even more pinched looking, if that was possible. “You were never told the rules?”
“I didn’t say that. I didn’t say they’d never been told to me, I said they’d never been explained. It is not much in the Path to question. That, too, seems to have been lost in the Fall. The Colonel wants justification, not chapter and verse.”
The lenses were pulled from the narrow face and slowly cleaned on a snowy handkerchief, for long seconds the Guardian seemed to have forgotten they were there, before he once again perched them upon his hawklike beak of a nose. “Colonel, what if everyone were to take out data from the Library. Soon there would be nothing here.”
“You have two other copies of this text. This is, in fact, a copy of the original which is here as well. Written by hand. I take only a copy that you could easily reproduce. As I explained to Ariel, everyone leaves here with knowledge. I just need this knowledge to be more complete or it is useless. Ball’s in your court.”
“Ball’s in? Never mind. The rules are clear, Colonel. You may not take the book. You are not given permission.”
“I don’t recall asking for permission. I’m TAKING the book. You can choose to try to prevent it or not but it’s leaving with me, or I’m not leaving.”
“As you like. Solitaire, kill him.”
The Solitaire sat stunned for a long moment. Respect, duty, dignity, and love all warred within her for long seconds. “No.”
“What? You were given instruction, Solitaire!”
“Yes. And I recall the rules of the Library most clearly. Respect for the Guardian is implied but blind obedience is not mentioned. I choose not to slay someone on your order without reason.”
“Then you leave me no choice.” Without sound or warning, the Library vanished and the three stood in a forest clearing, brightly lit with the sun beaming down in Jacob’s ladders through the dark green leaves. The tiny librarian launched himself at the guardsman, seeming to grow as he charged – his glasses falling away, the eyes becoming multifaceted, the hands extending into great bone claws. The daemon thing struck at the Colonel who ducked under the swing in a roll. He came out of that roll with his gold chased sword in his hand, pinking the Guardian in the side with the tip as he sprung to his feet. No blood spurted from the wound, but the giant creature seemed to almost ‘deflate’ slightly. The creature whirled on him striking again as Senekal gave ground while parrying. He carefully gauged his enemy.
“Why do you want the book?!” The thing hissed from a mouth full of fangs.
“You’re the great and powerful Guardian of the Black Library, you tell me!” the Colonel said, feinting a strike low before nipping off an ear tip (they were long and pointed now).
“I asked you a question, mortal! Answer it.”
“I’ve no need to justify myself to arrogant bastards like you. If you’d have asked nicely I’d have told you. Now you’ve got to work for it.”
“As you wish!” the creature rushed forward raining blows down upon the Colonel in a rapid flurry. Senekal parried them all before smashing the creature with his powerfist, sending it flying across the clearing and into a tree which shattered under the impact. The thing again rolled to it’s feet and charged. Again, it seemed smaller somehow but it grew as it moved forward.
“You are gonna have to do much better than THAT!” the human taunted.
“You cannot win, mortal. I cannot be killed and will never tire. You are skilled but you have no chance!” The thing struck again, faster this time. One swipe got through and raked across the human’s breastplate, gouging the tough metal in parallel furrows of torn ceramite. The lowest claw caught his leg, opening the thigh halfway to the bone.
Senekal winced at the thundering pain and slapped at his combat drug dispenser. He didn’t have a lot of time to finish this now. The bone would hold but he’d no time for a tourniquet. He’d have to try to end this quickly or bloodloss would end it for him.
His leg was a bar of red hot iron searing his nervous system, it would be easy to just drop and scream. Easy to give in to the hurt. It wasn’t like normal when the fate of worlds relied on his winning, this was small. Just something for a friend. Part of him wanted to just give it up as not important enough. Give in to the Guardian and live. It was just – NO! No. NOT just something for a friend. There was no such thing in true friendship as JUST- !!!
Sweat stood out from his face as he fought the pain and tried to think. He HAD to win. How could he win? The thing didn’t get hurt normally. It just got smaller when struck. But it grew again when it charged. How the hell did THAT work? Momentum or something. He had to stop it moving, somehow.
The creature attacked again and this time Senekal didn’t fall back. He braced himself on his good leg and launched himself at the thing, ducking under its swings and running it through with the downward thrust from the side. He then gripped the hilt tightly and slammed the powerfist up into it. The thing shrank again. Now it was only a bit shorter than a space marine.
He tried to strike again but the creature had hooked his “fist” cable and was still much stronger. Arcturan used his good leg to kick the things legs out from under it and both went down, the thing falling on the guardsman’s sword arm. The blade was jammed deeper by its weight and the Guardian shrank a bit more as it rolled over atop the weaker guardsman. Arcturan knew he had to finish this quickly. He was weakening fast from bloodloss and the speed enhancement of the combat drugs was making it worse. He refused to quit now, he KNEW this thing could be beaten. He kicked hard with his undamaged, augmetic leg and twisted the blade in the wound with all the strength he had left.
“Give in, mortal. Leave the book and live. It cannot be this important.”
“It – IS!”
“You cannot win. Surrender and I will let you live – Nnngggg!” Senekal twisted the sword again in its side. The Guardian shrank yet again. He felt the grip loosen on his powerfist and tried to pry it loose but he, too was weakening fast from bloodloss although the drugs prevented shock while active. The Guardian kneed him in the wounded thigh and the human screamed in agony, losing his grip on the sword.
“Now you die.” It raised a claw to finish him –
It gurgled slightly.
It shrank smaller. To the size of a man. To the size of a child. Smaller.
As it shrank, Arcturan could just see over it to Ariel who had the tip of her Harlequin’s Kiss pressed against the back of the Guardian’s neck, her masque inscrutable. With his last erg of strength he swung his powerfist at the thing as the dark slammed down.
The Guardian finished cleaning it’s glasses at the desk and looked up at the Colonel where he sat on the edge of the counter. “Your friendship. Your loyalty. So strong.” It turned to Ariel, “And you would act so for love?”
The two mortals turned to look at one another, both quite clearly believing that the struggle wasn’t over, that they were back here – with no injuries to mark the grim battle. Arcturan was still ghostly pale, Ariel visibly shaking. She managed a nod to the guardian.
“Then there may yet be hope for the race once Fallen.” He turned to the Colonel, holding the book out to him, “Take it. You have certainly good reason. I can think of none better. Such loyalty and friendship. Such determination for those things and only those things.” The being shook its head, “It touches me. It gives me hope that all that I have sacrificed for this is not in vain. The face became less pinched. More noble. Determined, powerful. “Do not fail as I did. Keep your faith. Keep your trust. And always watch for betrayal. Sometimes trust and love can be your downfall. But do not let a betrayal taint your soul. Do not let one betrayal cause you to betray – no matter how much it hurts. These are the lessons I leave you both with. Now take it and go. With our blessing.”
His hand still shaking, Arcturan took the book.
* * *
“A faint chime rang at the doorway to the Scholarium. Looking up, his dark eyes awash with power, the Lord Liche, chief Librarian of the Void Phantoms stared as Lexicanium Cantor dashed through the door, his blue armor glittering teal in the green light of the data screens, “Milord! I don’t know how – or where they – they asked for -”
“Calm yourself, brother Cantor.” He’d never seen the man so agitated, Cantor was not normally this easily flustered, particularly not in the confines of the Skull Moon. “What is it that has occurred. Who are ‘they’ and whom did they ask for?”
“For you, milord!”
Liche rose, his long robes sweeping the floor as he stepped ‘round the table. “Who asked?” He repeated, his voice an iron rasp across granite.
Both marines turned to the portal where a guardsman stood in the shadows. His face was pale under his tan, contrasting poorly with his crimson and white uniform. He looked quite unwell.
“Friend Arcturan.” This was quite astonishing but Liche showed nothing. He’d become used to Senekal surprising him. Someday he wouldn’t, THEN Liche might be caught off guard again, but the guard Colonel seemed capable of almost anything some days. “I was not aware you had come to the Skull Moon. Welcome.” He paused. “Are you unwell?”
“The trip has been – stressful. But it was important that I arrived in time.” The guardsman stepped into the room, producing a plain package from behind his back which he set on his desk. A faint movement in the doorway caught Liche’s eye. There was a shape, definitely feminine, in the darkness. Despite his enhanced marine eyesight she was still nothing but a silhouette which shouldn’t have been possible but clearly was happening anyway. He made a mental note to ask Arcturan about her later.
“In time for what, old friend? Today is no different from yesterday. No different from tomorrow. It is just another day.”
The guardsman smiled but it still came through thin and wan. “Such untruths from an archiver of the past,” he shook his head, “you can fool many – but Librarians are not the only ones with access to records, my friend.” He set the parcel on the info console. “Happy Birthday, milord. And many, many more to you. I hope you find it of use. It was not – easy – to get.”
Quelling his surprise at Arcturan’s ability to discover the anniversary of his birth, the Librarian looked down at the parcel and lifted it. He found it surprisingly heavy but ignored that and began to strip away the wrappings revealing an ancient codex crackling with age, the metal hinges and trim pieces black with corrosion. His hands caressed it fondly, his love for records and histories showing in the reverence with which he gently flipped the latch and opened it to the frontspiece. Cantor also drifted closer, pulled by the magnetism of the ancient codex.
Together, they read the title of Senekal’s birthday gift: “Being a Personal History of the Heresy and the Rise of the Imperium from its Ashes.” An ancient libram indeed! Then, as his eyes continued down the page he reached the name of the author, whose “personal history” this was. There, writ small as though from shame at the very bottom of the page, was signed by hand not printed; “Konrad Kurze.”
One of his hearts jumped. He looked at Cantor in shock to see the young librarian staring in open astonishment. He looked up toward the door, but Senekal and his enigmatic companion had vanished as mysteriously as they had arrived.
Recovering quickly as was his wont, he turned to the Lexicanium with a small secret smile. “Damn,” he muttered in his shattered voice, “he did it to me again.”