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The God of Lost Words

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The God of Lost Words

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Author: A. J. Hackwith
Publisher: Ace Books, 2021
Series: Hell's Library: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Weird (Fantasy)
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Synopsis

To save the Library of the Unwritten in Hell, former librarian Claire and her allies may have to destroy it first.

Claire, the rakish Hero, the angel Rami, and the muse turned librarian Brevity have accomplished the impossible by discovering the true nature of unwritten books. But now that the secret is out, Hell will be coming for every wing of the library in its quest for power.


Excerpt

1

HERO

Maybe a library isn't defined by what it holds. Maybe it is defined by what it does.

Librarian Bjorn the Bard, 1433 CE

When a book runs, a librarian follows. It was the law, part threat, part promise, of the Unwritten Wing. Hero knew this; all the books knew this. It was thoroughly known.

What was unknown was what a book was supposed to do when the librarian ran.

The Arcane Wing had become a carefully layered thicket. No, not a thicket--a fort. Hero danced between half-crumpled crates of artifacts, malice and wonder dribbling out from between the cracks. A stack of folded gold cloth tilted precariously, and Hero sidestepped the silk avalanche.

It was worse than Rami had described when, in the low, gentle tones of a worried sheepdog, he'd asked Hero for help. "She hasn't conducted an inventory in a month. Not since..." He trailed off, finding it either impossible or unnecessary to indicate the epicenter of Claire's distress. Of everyone's, really. A mysterious ink that stained and threatened to possess Claire, a muse angling for revolution, Hero's book... gone. No one emerged from that nonsense with the unwritten ink okay. Under different circumstances, Hero would still be sunk into a dark corner of Hell and an even darker corner of whatever passed for a bottle of ale in these parts--he suspected Walter could point him the way. But those were different circumstances, and this... well, this was Claire.

The Arcane Wing had been ruled by Claire's discipline, iron will pitted against magical chaos. But now order had been discarded, however temporarily, in a search for answers that weren't there. Hero cleared the last wall of defense--a particularly cluttered table where ornate jewelry lay in a tangled nest--and found the center of Claire's warren.

"Go. Away."

Ah, this was why Rami had asked Hero to help. Ramiel was a steady assistant, could lend infinite wise guidance and support. That patently wasn't what Claire needed right now. People only ever brought Hero in when there was monstrous prodding to be done.

The Arcanist was slouched in the chair behind her desk. She had an absurdly large book held up like a shield. Hero cleared his throat. Predictably, Claire ignored him.

"Sulking doesn't suit you, warden," Hero said.

The book lowered a fraction. Claire's face did an enjoyable contortion before settling into an arch frown as she saw him. Bodies didn't change much in Hell, but Hero thought he could detect new, exhausted lines around her eyes that had not been there before. She rose and brushed past him with precisely the brusque, offended air he'd been hoping to elicit. "I don't have time to sulk--or for you."

"But I'm a delight." Hero shadowed Claire's steps as she stopped to straighten a particularly teetering stack of crates. Even when cultivating chaos, Claire was tidy. "And you must have time. You've wasted nearly a month on self-pity."

"Not self-pity. Research."

"Ever your vice. Personally I would prefer if you were a drunkard. It would be infinitely more entertaining for the rest of us."

"I apologize for boring you."

"Never that, no." Hero smiled as Claire finally halted at the head of a row of shelves to look at him. "You are never that."

Claire sighed, but Hero could see her shoulders relax by inches. "What do you want, Hero?"

"The same as you--answers. But we already know we won't find them here." Hero stepped closer, still feeling a thrill of wonder when he reached out to touch her chin and she allowed it. "We've already faced the worst, Claire. What are you hiding from?"

There was a moment when Claire drew a breath and her lips parted and Hero thought he'd reached her. But then the answer came out of the darkness behind him. "The consequences of her own actions, if I was asked to wager a guess."

The voice crashed against them like ice water. Hero stepped back out of reflex. Claire's mouth snapped closed and she turned with a poise she reserved for only the worst things. "Why, Malphas. To what do we owe the pleasure of a visit, Grandmother of Ghosts?"

Malphas was seated at a worktable near the front doors, enthroned in a brown-red cloak. She was a lean older woman, although demons could appear any age they wished. Age sharpened her edges rather than softened them. The soft light from the lamps deepened her wizened features and made the fabric appear to puddle into dried blood in the folds. At least, Hero reverently hoped it was a trick of the light. A smile pinched her wrinkled features and she raised her voice to carry. "Never cared much for that name. 'Grandmother' insinuates I'd claim anyone as kin."

"A shame; she'd make a delightful evil stepmother," Hero mused under his breath.

No one should have been able to hear him at this distance, but Malphas pinned him with a glance. It was precisely like a pinning, so much steel and malice in her regard that a cold smear of terror streaked up Hero's spine. He felt a small bit of relief when Malphas turned to Claire with a trip-wire smile. "If only it were bloodshed. No, nothing so pleasant. Worse: accounting."

Malphas said the word with the precise feeling with which Hero might say "polyester," or Claire would say "coffee." Claire's lip twitched. "Poor thing. Don't you have a lesser devil of details to see to that for you?"

Malphas appeared to miss the wordplay. "They're the ones who brought it to my attention. I need an inventory."

The amusement faded off Claire's face. Hero was fairly certain only he could notice the muscles in her jaw as they twitched. "An inventory? Surely you don't mean my wing."

Leather stained the color of dried blood creaked as Malphas folded her arms and tapped a sharp claw against her elbow. "For a start. Don't get your knickers in a bunch, child. I'll be asking the Unwritten too."

Claire smiled, and it was a very particular smile. One she reserved for disasters and imminent death. Really, it was alarming how familiar Hero was with that smile. "I'd be happy to comply; unfortunately, Hell doesn't have authority over the Library to make such a request. We're sovereign, remember."

"A right shame--we do so love cooperating with Hell," Hero added.

"You aren't sovereign, not when it disturbs the power balance of the realms. There was a sudden drop in the ambient power of the realm a short while ago--coincidentally centered on the spaces where we generously host the Library wings. Almost as if something was removed."

"Well"--Claire gestured with a theatrically loose shrug--"your measurements are inaccurate. As you can see, here we are."

"It isn't your whereabouts that concern me--for once," Malphas said. "In our realm, the inventory of souls might as well be our borders and defense. We have a right to protect our assets." The trap in Malphas's smile sprang, and she stepped forward. "I find it strange that a soul loss would register here of all places, given your attendance. Don't you?"

Claire had her right hand clutched behind her skirts. Only Hero saw the flinch and reflexive clench of her fingers, hard enough to turn the knuckles pale. It was the same hand that had been stained black with the ink of destroyed unwritten books mere weeks ago. A stain that had subsequently spread, haunted, and nearly destroyed her. Hero might have--they might have--lost her had it not been for a fateful confrontation in the Dust Wing. In a struggle with Probity, a muse set against the Unwritten Wing, Claire had unleashed the ink. Rami had recognized the tattered souls in the ink, like had called to like, Claire had been saved, and the fragmented souls had joined their brethren in the Dust Wing.

At least, that was the current theory. Hero wasn't sure any of the Library's little family knew precisely what the hell had happened to any of them.

Claire had been haunted and then purged. Brevity had been tattooed, then scarred. Hero... well, Hero had been a character from a book. With that book destroyed, he wasn't sure what that made him now.

Ramiel, their angelic resident soul expert, insisted it all came down to the revelation of the secret the Library had been hiding: books are made from fragments of soul. Or, at the very least, human souls and stories were made of the same stuff.

Souls were one thing in Hell: power. When they'd released the ink, Hell had taken notice.

Hero's mind spun up a dozen ways to divert Malphas from this line of inquiry and discarded all of them as doomed to fail. His spiraling dread was only interrupted by an irritated tch sound as Claire clicked her tongue. "Well," Claire said after a moment, sounding irritated. "No need to make it out so dramatic, General. I don't have time to meddle with your little power plays and schemes. I'm positive you'll find all our inventories in order, but if you insist--"

"I do," Malphas said.

"--then I suppose we can produce yesterday's inventory. Will that suffice?"

"With proper authenticity, perhaps," Malphas allowed. Claire turned on a prim heel and strode toward the far aisle of shelves, waggling a hand over her shoulder as an invitation to follow. Malphas did so, shouldering past Hero with more weight than her fragile old grandmother appearance warranted.

There was no inventory, at least not one completed yesterday, or last week. Only years of professional villainy kept the blasé smile on Hero's lips. Years, and the firm belief that Claire was not so foolish as to let slip what the Library had discovered to the blood-soaked grand general of Hell. He wiped a palm over his face before hurrying to follow Malphas.

He caught up to them back at the oubliette of paperwork that Claire liked to call her office. It was more of an alcove, really, inset off the back corner of the Arcane Wing, conveniently located adjacent to Claire's twin priorities of tea and secrets. Even Malphas didn't care to follow the curator all the way into the bookkeeping stacks. Claire resurfaced after a moment with a box not quite succeeding to contain its pile of vellum sheets.

"Here, the most recent inventory, signed and countersigned by Walter, as a matter of fact. I assume that's sufficient?"

Malphas frowned, but even Hell's general wasn't going to question the good name of Death. The terrifying yet oddly charming gatekeeper of Hell was a rather clumsy giant and, secretly, one of Claire's greatest allies. Malphas eyed the box with significant prejudice. "This is your idea of filing?"

"Oh, I defer to my predecessor. All Andras's files were kept in just such a manner. Who am I to change the system?" Claire's smile was delightfully malicious, and Hero was glad he had a moment to admire it as Malphas reluctantly took possession of the box.

"You're hiding something," she said.

"It's Hell. Of course I'm hiding something." Claire made a vague shrug of her shoulders. "The only question is, Is it the same thing you're looking for?"

Malphas's expression grew warmer, if no less suspicious. "Careful, little librarian. Get too good at this game and Hell may decide to keep you for themselves."

"Hell could not afford to keep me in the damnation to which I am accustomed." Claire gestured vaguely to the collection of problems around her, with a finger flick for Hero. A warm feeling beneath his breastbone immediately decided it was a compliment. It nearly distracted him from noticing how Claire's eyes slid past Malphas's shoulder, and she abruptly cleared her throat.

"If that's all, General Malphas, I do have an Arcane Wing to run."

Not being a fool herself, Malphas turned her attention behind her. In the shadow of the Arcane Wing's wide double doors, Ramiel waited. His trench coat was even more rumpled than usual, feathers escaping the epaulets to stick up around his collar like some disgruntled owl. It was an atrocious look, absolutely horrid, and it never ceased to fill Hero with an inexplicable fondness. So much so, in fact, that he nearly missed the other visitor.

Pallas, smooth and perfect as a statue, was hard to miss normally. The--what was he, an attendant?--attendant of Elysium was no more than a blond sliver clutching Rami's sleeve. There was no official title in the Library for Pallas. His mother was the librarian of the Unsaid Wing and wore his body like a puppet when the mood suited her, a feat Hero hoped to never have to witness again. One trip to Elysium's library had been enough for him. Pallas should not be here, and his presence could only indicate a new problem.

More important, Hero noted with irritation, Pallas should not have been so forward as to clutch Rami like that.

These calculations occurred in the split second it took to glance back and catch the particular level of superiority in Claire's frown that she reserved only for deep alarm. If Pallas was here, then that likely meant other members of Elysium were here--for some ungodly reason--and Hell would not take kindly to visitors of a paradise realm encroaching on their doorstep. Hell barely tolerated the Library, which held a distinct policy of moral neutrality when it came to the afterlife. The Library could hardly afford more suspicious attention from Malphas.

Claire's lips parted but closed again as Hero made an irritated sound. He wasn't quite foolhardy enough to nudge Malphas aside, but he put extra dramatics into his sigh as he stepped around her. Attention was an easy thing to manipulate, once you knew the trick. "Ramiel, you scoundrel! You terrible cad."

The way Rami's brows inched together, like two anxious caterpillars in the middle of his forehead, never ceased to delight. He was excessively attractive when confused. Hero continued forward, slipping an arm through Pallas's elbow and stealing him away with a graceful turn. "Bringing a damsel down here, really! And while I was away visiting your senior, to boot." Hero squeezed Pallas's elbow, and the youth had the good sense to stay quiet. "I know you Arcane Wing types flaunt the rules, but leave our poor charges out of it."

Rami's broad olive features did a complicated twitch before regaining control. Bless his heart, the angel was just not wired for impromptu subterfuge. Hero said a silent thanks when Pallas cleared his throat.

"No, it was my fault. I swear it, Sir Hero. I begged Sir Ramiel until he agreed to take me along. I wanted to see the"--Pallas's eyes darted around the dim wing for a flicker of a heartbeat--"the tables... so awfully much."

"The tables are impressive. Connived your way into it, did you?" No damsel, indeed no self-respecting book of the Unwritten Wing, would call Hero "sir," but Pallas's wide blue eyes and cherubic cheeks, which flushed with performative guilt, would have sold a lie to the devil himself. "Not that an angel should lose out to a mere book."

Perhaps it was his time in Hell. Perhaps it was Hero's bad influence, but Rami managed to recover in the time Pallas had bought him. "One would think. But I appear to have a weakness."

Rami's constructed poker face almost hid the amusement in his eyes. Any flush of color in Hero's cheeks could be dismissed as annoyance, surely. He made a scoffing sound in his throat.

He'd nearly forgotten about Malphas until she spoke. "Behaving like children, as usual. I expected a better level of control from you, Claire."

"The misbehavior of unwritten characters is not my concern, alas," Claire said, hands primly clasped in front of her. She was the picture of buttoned-up propriety, which just made Hero want to pluck at her buttons. "As the general keeps reminding me, I am no longer the librarian."

Malphas offered Claire a smile that didn't pretend to reach her eyes. "That would mark the first time you listened to me, child." She hiked the sizable box against her hip with one hand, a relaxed reminder of her superior strength. "We will speak again. Pray you listen to me then."

"Quite," Claire said in that particularly British way that simultaneously said both Sure and I'd rather eat dirt. She held her placid mask in place until Malphas disappeared down the hall and the air colored with a sharp burst of anise and cinders, which signaled her true departure. All pretense dropped when Claire whirled on Rami and Pallas in alarm. "What for hell's sake are you doing here?"

"Language, ma'am," Rami muttered. He swallowed a particularly worried sound but was beat to the answer.

"Mother wants to see you," Pallas said simply.

Copyright © 2021 by A. J. Hackwith


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