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?”
Nix appeared as if by – well, by magic – with a tentacle draped over his shoulder. “Good morning, ladies. I see you found my guest room.”
Terry leapt to his feet. “Remove these bars and see how smug you are without your mind!”
Nix fondled his spell book and smiled.
“I’ll return tomorrow,” he said, “and CS will eat one of you. Choose wisely, girls.”
One good thing: to feed us to CS, Nix had to open the box. Phil stood as our volunteer, and I prepared my mind to take Nix’s breath.
The door opened and CS’s tentacle snaked inside and caught Phil around the waist, pinning his arms. I stole Nix’s breath and he passed out.
CS thrashed, knocking over the cage and hurling books everywhere. I leapt onto CS and tried to climb up to Phil. CS fled, throwing me off.
Terry woke me, white-faced: “Phil’s gone. I felt his mind stop.”
I said, “We need to get out of here before we’re cthulhu food too.”
I send squads of my book minions ahead to check we were safe. Many of them were missing or covered in slime from CS’s explosive rage.
We passed another shattered door and Terry sensed CS was close. I saw the Library Book lying open and ripped on the floor.
“It’s a trap,” said Terry.
I said, “I have to try anyway. You get out – tell the other mages all you know. Tomorrow I’ll touch the book.”
I hoped Terry got out safely. In the next room, I heard slithering, and Nix’s gravelly voice. I curled up for my last night of freedom.
I touched the library book, smelling as friendly as I could. Nothing happened. One page curled around my hand. I picked it up.
The door opened as I stared, enthralled by the sorcery I held.
“Like it?” said Nix. “I wrote it. CS – dinnertime!” A tentacle snapped out—
–and a bookshelf crashed to the floor, crushing it. CS howled in rage. My new book fell open on a page with just one word: RUN. I ran.
I ran and hid and ran all night. My body ached but I was encouraged by thousands of rustling pages. The library wanted me to live.
A book on waterfalls dripped fresh (though slightly inky) water into my mouth, and a cookbook fed me something suspiciously like calamari.
A bookshelf hollowed itself out and filled itself in after me with books on history, war, revenge, and how to write a fairy tale ending.
I awoke refreshed, cushioned by home furnishing books. Judging by a distant explosion, Nix was far away. I began reading the Library Book.
The Library Book opened with a picture Nix had clearly painted of himself – except for the moustache of cthulhu slime scrawled across it.
I wished Terry was with me.
“But I am,” he said in my ear.
I jumped: “Is it really you? How did you find–”
He said, “Mind mage, remember?”
I read the book three times – it added more amusing Nix pictures each time. The last page remained the same: The librarian wins.
“Is the librarian the original author – Nix – or the current owner?” Terry asked.
I didn’t know either, and the book wasn’t telling.
“I think we should fight,” I said.
Terry pointed to a stack of tunnelling books and said, “Indeed. I read more than just minds, you know.”
We followed the books through long-broken air vents and the backs of three-storey bookshelves until we looked up and saw Nix’s book.
“We’re in the pit below it,” said Terry.
The Library Book folded into origami gauntlets. Then Terry boosted me up.
I grabbed Nix’s spell book, and was thrown into blackness. My hands and chest burned. But I didn’t let go – even when I fainted.
I awoke to the sound of burning, and cracked open my eyes to see Nix’s spell book on fire, unable to exist inside the anti-magic cage.
Nix rode into the chamber on a cresting wave of evil books – paranormal romance, if I’m not mistaken. He screamed in pain and rage.
I put my hands through the bars and held onto the lock as Nix tried feebly to open it. He writhed and died as the last page burned to ash.
I slept easily, certain Terry would rescue me. As I checked for any remaining unburnt spell pages, a tentacle coiled through the bars.
I screamed for help as more tentacles encircled my legs and squeezed. CS pressed its horrible wet maw against the bars and pulled me closer.
Suddenly CS turned aside and sucked Nix’s corpse up from the floor instead.
“Terry?” I croaked.
He said, “Good cthulhu. Eat it all up.”
We rode out of the library on CS’s broad head. From the library’s heart to the outside took only a few hours this time.
“You know,” Terry said reflectively, “it’s not such a bad place.”
“Except for the giant rotting cthulhu.”
“Well, yes. Except for that.”
CS sped us home. Her tentacles brought out the highlights in my puce robe. Other mind mages took over so Terry could rest at last.
Terry and I washed and ate before we were summoned by the council to take up our new posts as the library’s keepers.
“Bit of cleaning up to do,” said Terry, patting CS absently on the tentacle.
I grinned, “Yep.”
I never did see those James Bond books again.
New tale begins August 1.