A tentacle circled my neck, squeezing the life out of me with agonizing skill. “Steve!” came Terry’s voice. “Steve! Wake up!”
I opened my eyes to Terry, leaning over me. He looked scruffy without his mind-mage robes on. “Your cthulhu nightmares suck.”
We got up for breakfast. As the mind-mage, Terry got cereal. Phil the muscle-mage got steak. As air-mage, I got zip. And MY robe is puce.
“Oi, Steve, stop being nervous,” said Terry.
I said, “Shut up or I’ll CO2 you.”
Phil cracked a smile, exercising at least twenty muscles.
We hiked across the desert toward the Forbidden Library. Terry cleared his throat when we were still twenty miles away: “I sense something.”
Phil tensed, ready to attack. Terry shook his head: “It’s dead – but still radiating.”
“So. . . ?” I prompted.
Terry said: “It’s a cthulhu.”
Five miles away, and I tasted dead cthulhu on the air. Phil was sure he could make the corpse slither away, though, so that was reassuring.
At last we reached the three storey iron- and bone-bound doors of the outer library. I sensed breathable air inside. “After you, Phil.”
Phil focused, and the great doors cracked open, spraying chunks of blood-stained iron bigger than my house. “And now we wait,” said Terry.
We barely slept. I had nightmares, but Terry had his own to distract him. At dawn, we heard the rustling of pages. We waited back to back.
A pack of graphic novels emerged and sniffed at my feet. They smelled what I wanted them to smell – a friend. And so they imprinted on me.
When I judged my literature army to be big enough, we walked inside. A single giant tentacle lay across the threshold. I removed the stench.
More books joined me every hour – everything from gardening to war. I was dizzy with the smell of leather bindings and dust.
Phil wanted to move the tentacle, but Terry insisted we climb it. Some mountaineering books made steps for us, and it only took a few hours.
“There’s a problem,” Terry whispered.
I said, “What?”
“The cthulhu – it’s either a mother or a daughter. And I can’t tell which is alive.”
We ducked into a cobweb-strewn chamber and were attacked by a squad of how-to books. They pounded my head and I wasn’t able to focus.
Phil pushed me aside and tore apart the books with his mind. Terry was taken over by empathic rage and he punched me in the gut. I folded.
Ten books rushed Phil at once and I reached out with my mind and made him smell of oil just in time. They calmed down, and Terry did too.
“It’s Nix,” Terry told us at last.
I said, “The monster mage! No wonder WE were sent. We need to find his spell book – and destroy it.”
Phil coughed: “How will we do it?”
“1. Look, and 2. Live,” said Terry.
I said, “You know what a cthulhu’s weakness is? They’re too big.”
“How is size a disadvantage?” Phil asked.
I said, “Because hopefully they won’t notice us.”
“Right,” he whispered.
Terry shook me awake. “They took Phil!” I stood at once, but all my books were asleep and there were no others to be seen. Terry whimpered.
“Is that your fear or his?” I said.
Terry said, “His. Which means he’s still alive.”
“Good.” I sent a shelf of James Bonds to find Phil.
I asked, “Do you think it was Nix or the live cthulhu that took Phil?”
“Nix. I can feel him laughing. And he knows I can hear him.”
The Bond books returned with an illustrated series on the Moulin Rouge. I altered the air so they fled in disgrace.
I said, “We need a library book.”
“Err. . .” said Terry.
I said, “A book ABOUT libraries. One about this library could tell us everything.”
“Good! Can you make the other books find it?”
“The thing is,” I said, “books find by smell. And that book smells exactly like this library.”
I said, “Okay. Library smell minus stone smell should work.” As I altered the air, my horde of books shivered. Then they moved as one.
Terry and I followed my books in a spiral toward the library’s heart. I was beginning to relax when Terry screamed. He was on fire!
I threw firefighting books at the sudden inferno and they smothered the flames. Terry brushed ash from his clothes: “BBQ manuals. Huh.”
Keeping away from any unfamiliar books, we crept onward, following the library book’s trail. The air was heavy with rotting cthulhu.
Terry wept in his sleep, and I woke him, hoping to make it stop.
“It’s Phil,” he said, “and believe me, I’d rather channel Phil than C.S.”
“Who’s C.S.?” I asked.
Terry said, “The other cthulhu. The live one. It’s the baby, and it’s so hungry. It longs for fresh meat.”
Terry stopped dead. I did too. My books clamoured at the door before us. The one stained with human blood and torn pages. “Huh,” said Terry.
“I guess we’d better open it,” said Terry.
I said, “Yep.”
“Phil could have done it.”
“What are we going to do?”
First I made the books hide. Then Terry. Then I lay down alongside the crack beneath the door, and I used my magic to smell like food.
A tentacle smashed through the iron door, sending bloody fragments flying. Then another tentacle, questing blindly along the floor. To me.
I rolled, frantically trying to smell of dust and stone. Terry reached down his hand and hauled me up, and we hid as C.S. squelched through.
C.S. finally floundered away and Terry and I climbed shakily through the smashed door into the library’s heart.
We gaped at soaring shelves and a stained glass roof. I saw the library book suspended over a pit, shimmering behind magical defenses.
We prepared all night, and Terry went first. He copied Nix’s mind in his, and the first barrier vanished. I smelled of Nix for the second.
Together we physically moved a third invisible boundary, and together stretched our hands out toward the prize. We touched it, and screamed.
We were hurtled through darkness, and the book was ripped from our burning hands. The burning filled my arms and chest, and I passed out.
I woke up in a cage. Terry lay beside me, still unconscious. Phil sat cross-legged. He said, “Let me guess. You’ve come to rescue me?”
Terry woke up. “Oh,” he said.
Phil said, “Yep. It’s a magic box. No magic in or out. And the bars are as strong as they look.”
“So. . .” I said, “how’ve you been?”