A thin wind slithered between the steepled ancients of the Old Quarter, passing effortlessly through the cloaks of beggars and burgesses alike, swirling the mist that blanketed the City into strange shapes as it whistled by. In the distance, bells mourned another hour lost, offering a sonorous punctuation to the silence of the night.
In one particularly lonely street walked a striking young Lady, looking quite out of place in the foggy darkness that surrounded her. In one hand she held a black parasol folded by her hip and in the other was a thick grimoire, cradled in the crook of her elbow. The book was heavy, bound with bronzed clasps and pinned shut by three locks of sapphire, emerald and ruby around the fore-edge. The keys to these locks rested in their hidden places around her person, invisible to all but the most inquisitive of searches.
Once, the Lady was forced to ask a rather uncouth Beggar for directions to a certain Library which she had heard had set up recently in a nearby Square. At first the wretched man was reticent, but a pittance of gold to loosen his tongue opened the way for her, and she was given clear instructions to the ruined Square, leaving the man confused and certainly much richer for his troubles.
The Lady had continued on her way, following the simple instructions the beggar had given her, winding through alley and street, the mist grasping behind her as if to pull her back. Soon, she found herself at the arched gateway of ancient St. Gaunt's Square. The gate itself was missing, however, and she walked freely between the mist-damp pillars. In the centre of the gloomy square stood a fountain, once of bright marble but now grimy and overgrown with moss. The Putto that had once been its centerpiece was now a faceless, malformed lump of rock staring blindly towards the archway, the weathered sprouts of marble that rested on its back still outstretched like the proud wings they had once been. No water had passed from the hands that cupped its infant face for decades at least, and the Lady idly wondered just how old this Square must be. She looked up at the statue, resting her chin on her hand as she leaned on the rim of the fountain.
“What stories could you tell, I wonder, if you had the tongue to speak them?”
A glance down at the basin of the fountain revealed a few corroded old copper coins among the rotten vegetation. She picked them up, examining them closely for any sign of heritage. The search availed her nothing and she tossed the disc of metal back into the fountain, her momentary curiosity forgotten.
The withered Putto was forgotten just as quickly as she strode forward, allowing the grasping mist to swallow her as she forged her path across the remainder of the square. With a haste born of the bitterness of its new meal, the mist spat her out at the base of a squat building whose embossed sign simply read “LIBRARY”. The door was made of dark wood, banded with black iron which stood out against the crumbling beige sandstone of the structure.
She hooked her parasol onto her forearm and composed herself before taking hold of the heavy, moist knocker and rapping three times on the door.
There was no answer.
She glanced impatiently around, turning her head back to the Putto on the fountain, smirking in amusement as she saw that its hands were outstretched towards the Library.
Perhaps the owner of the Library had had the Putto and its fountain installed as an esoteric, if slightly gauche, signpost she thought.
A loud creak shook her out of her reverie and she turned back to the library's door, composing herself to greet the Librarian, who peeked his head out of the door as he dragged it open.
“Ah,” He said, adjusting his glasses, “A guest... Please, do cross the- ah... threshold.”
The Lady paid no attention to him and had strode across the door before he had finished speaking. She looked around, studying the interior with a piercing gaze. The building was deeper than it had looked, and seemed to stretch on endlessly. It was brightly lit, with lamps hanging from walls and the occasional candelabra on a table. It all looked rather quaint, she thought.
The Lady turned to the Librarian, who was pushing the door shut again.
“Must stop this insufferable mist...” He muttered.
He was quite a small man, she thought, and had quite an unhealthily pale complexion, at least in the little of his flesh she could see. He wore some form of leather coat that covered almost all of his body, a scarf that obscured his mouth and a pair of black gloves. His eyes were concealed behind the glint of his glasses in the candlelight, but as he turned to her she thought she caught a glimpse of jaundiced yellow in his sclera. The Lady's lip curled in disgust.
The Librarian walked back to his desk and sat down, looking up at his guest.
“May I be of assisstance?”
“Why yes,” Responded the Lady sweetly, “Can you point me in the direction of the... “rare books” section? I have been searching for a particular volume, the so-called “Sanguinicon”, for some time and I believe your establishment might have it in store.”
“Let me see, young lady...” His voice grew distant for a moment as he reached for his ledger, “We have ever so many books now, and they tend to, ah, get moved... Yes, that's it. Moved...”
His finger scratched down the lists of books upon books, occasional hisses escaping his lips as he read the faded ink.
It had been somewhere around ten minutes and the Lady was growing impatient. The Librarian turned the dry, crackling pages of his catalogue with interminable slowness and read through them even slower. The bells outside faintly tolled the quarter hour and she slammed her own tome down on the desk to get his attention.
“For gods' sakes, work faster!” she exclaimed, “I have very pressing matters to attend to!”
The Librarian, again, did not respond. He continued to trace his fingers down each huge page with insolent sloth, seemingly oblivious to everything that wasn't contained on the fragile page. This continued for another few minutes, allowing the Lady to seethe in frustration while she waited. Suddenly the Librarian piped up, catching her quite off-guard.
“Sanguinicon, yes?” His eyes and voice seemed now to have gained an intensity that they had lacked beforehand.
“Yes,” snapped the Lady in reply, refusing to acknowledge the change in tone and snatching her book up from where she had left it, “As I did tell you when I entered-”
“Yes, yes, of course,” he glanced back at the page and shakily lifted an arm, pointing down one of the far aisles of shelves, one with a golden chandelier hanging just above it. “Enter there and walk straight down until you see a wooden lectern shaped like an eagle, in the centre of a junction among the shelves. Turn right there and straight ahead should be the book you seek. And please,” he implored, “Do not deviate from these directions. It's ever so easy to get lost in the Library these days, and we have such a collection, it's hard to keep track of it all.”
The Lady's frustration vanished, replaced by elation at the end of her tedious vigil. She thanked the Librarian profusely and strode off, leaving the wretched man to his ledger.
He picked up a quill and, dipping it in a small pot of red ink, started to write.
The Lady walked until she was one aisle away from her goal and a book on a side-shelf caught her eye. She laughed at the title, “Ye Wickednesses of Womyn And Theyr Daemonologie”. Probably written by some pious fool three hundred years ago. She felt a strange compulsion to read it and quickly flicked through a few pages. Unfortunately, the actual content of the book turned out to be the same old drab, misogynistic tripe that she had heard for far too long, so she tossed the book away in disgust.
She continued walking, looking again for the golden chandelier. She remembered seeing it nearby somewhere. After she had passed six aisles she stopped to get her bearings, looking around.
There was no chandelier, just as there was no longer a Librarian. There was only the shelves, stretching on and on. Now, she had no doubt the Sanguinicon could be found in this place, as this type of illusion was typical of that employed by a lonely, paranoid wizard.
The Librarian would certainly fit that description, she thought with a smirk.
The parasol struck the ground, unceremoniously discarded, and she placed her book on the reading bench next to her. This was an amateur trick at best, and she was a master of her craft. She had allies and thralls in the darkest circles. It was time to call upon one of them for a favour.
She dusted herself off and daintily pulled out a small stiletto knife from one of her shoes. With a brutal motion, she slashed down the upper sleeve of one arm. A small bronze key set with an emerald tumbled out and she caught it, placing it in the corresponding emerald-studded lock on her book. Another slash, this time to her voluminous skirt, and a sapphire-set key tumbling from its lining was her reward. Again, this one found its home in the lock it had been forged for.
The last key had a particularly ingenious hiding place. She placed the knife on her inner wrist and dug it in, worming the thin blade into her flesh. She made a small incision and, dropping the knife on the ground, dug her nails into the wound. Wincing, she pulled out a small, blood-slick key. Smiling, she licked it slowly and placed it in the last empty lock, the one set with the gleaming bloodstone. She opened the heavy book, flicking through desiccated pages of the meaningless scribbling of eldritch wisdom to the exact middle spread where the paper was cramped with diagrams, esoteric formulas and, dominating the centre of the spread, an image of a fever-dream inspired cephalopod monstrosity.
She lifted her wounded wrist towards her face and, taking up the knife again, drew around the wound the shape of a jagged oval halo and three lines extending downwards onto her forearm. The whole almost resembled a serpentine eye, weeping crimson tears.
She turned the blood-sigil over the eldritch portraiture, allowing the symbol to drip onto the pages, where the fluid was absorbed almost greedily by the horrible paper. The desiccated pages grew more supple as the blood flowed with serpentine suggestion across the ink.
The Lady dropped her bloody wrist to the side and allowed it to drip onto the floor, where the fluid soaked into the wood of the dusty ground, causing the planks to creek eerily. The Lady paid no heed and brushed her unwounded hand across the now-moist page, pressing firmly upon it and whispering to the vellum in a sibilant, alien tongue. As she spoke, her voice took on a bass quality that sent her murmurs ricocheting madly through the endless aisles of the Library.
“Ischa'nayhiko voss, zhawrogk qra.”
The book shuddered on the table, growls and gurgles emanating from the pages. It began to shake, almost as if struggling against her grip. The covers arched shut, forcing the Lady to pull her hand back before it was trapped. The awakened tome shuddered and gurgled on the tabletop, a hateful sentience awakened within.
“Vo nakhsha ma wauroka! I'a Sothaka zha!” She cried, lifting the book from the table and wrenching the pages back open to the middle spread. Instead of the crabbed equations and eldritch algorithms now there lay a squirming, inchoate mass of gelid eyes, raw meat and gibbering mouths. It was glimpse into the madness of the World Beyond, something that was never meant to be now bound by dark writ between the pages of the Lady's old research journal forever. The writhing mouths cried out in anger, pain, jealousy, terror- and the Lady smiled.
“Ah, Sothaka,” panted the Lady, the struggle and the renewal of the binding cantrips having tired her considerably, “Again, you acquiesce far too easily.”
With cold eyes, the Lady peered into the seething mass of horror.
“Guide me,” she whispered, “Take me to the Sanguinicon.”