An Undesirable of the Library (March 2021)
By Emma Kathryn
Getting assigned to a post in the library of the guild of mages was the first greatest thing to happen in the sad, lonely life of Izabella Drankin. It was only supposed to be a short-term post to help her pay for room and board as she studied magecraft but that changed everything for her.
From her first day working in the library, she devoted herself to the protection of ancient magic texts. She dropped out of her horticulture and herbalism classes, picking up ancient languages and bookbinding instead. Her spellcasting professors grew to loathe her incessant questions as she stayed behind after lectures to ask questions about spells for revealing invisible inks or how to make a book read itself aloud.
By the time she graduated, all the guild masters were more than happy to leave her to the librarians. Within ten years, she had annoyed and irritated her way up the ladder with her overzealous love of literature.
Getting assigned to the post of chief librarian and archivist was the second greatest thing to ever happen to Izabella Drankin. She accepted the role with smugness and set about running the library her way.
Within another ten years, the library became the envy of every other guild in the Three Cities — even the pompous guild of clerics. Averr, Goddess of knowledge, certainly wasn’t smiling down on them now, was she?!
The collection was impressive and many flocked to see it. However, after meeting with Izabella, very few made a second trip.
On one particular evening, while inspecting some returned books, Izabella discovered three mistreated tomes — all with the hardback covering coming away from the spines. It was positively barbaric!
Turning on her latest assistant (a post that had an extraordinarily high turnover rate), she searched for an explanation. “Nicolas,” she hissed, keeping her voice well below the maximum acceptable volume for during library opening hours. “What is the meaning of this?”
Somehow, her whispering was worse than any professor’s bellowing and the young student leapt from his seat at the information desk. “I don’t know, Mistress Drankin,” he responded in a panicked yet hushed tone.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? Surely you surveyed the condition when the borrower returned them?” Even when angry, she didn’t once raise her voice. Nicolas glanced around. There was nobody currently in the library to disturb (or to witness his reprimand). There seldom was.
“The borrower wasn’t there, Mistress. The books were left, wrapped in a paper bag, on the doorstep over lunch.”
Izabella pondered this for a moment. Nicolas wasn’t one to lie and many students had been petitioning for a deposit box to be fitted outside the library for years now. They claimed it was so they could return books when the library was closed. Everybody knew the real reason though.
“Cowards,” Izabella cursed, running her hand over one of the broken books. What a sight. Who would treat books so poorly?
She sighed and came to a swift resolution. “Nicolas, I’m going to need you to stay on for a while as I fix these. I’ll be in the restorations room.” The restorations room was a new addition she’d campaigned for last year. Again, Nicolas looked around.
“There’s no one here, Mistress,” he said, stealing a glance at his pocket watch. “I could just lock up for you when I finish my shift. In fifteen minutes or so. That way no one will bother you…”
A death glare was issued. Izabella was famed for this. It was not the first time Nicolas had been subject to its aggressive beam.
“I think an extra hour or two in here would be more beneficial to you than the hour or two we both know you would be spending in the tavern after your shift.” Izabella didn’t give Nicolas the chance to respond and stormed off to the restoration room, slamming the door behind her as quietly as she could.
The third greatest thing to happen in Izabella’s life was winning the funding for and having this restoration room built. She’d received some resistance from the Dean of the college, who’d requested a vault for the more dangerous books but Izabella had fought and won. The restorations elevated the library to the lofty heights of being considered a highly respectable archive of magical tomes. It meant restoring ancient texts and ensuring the longevity of new material.
On the subject of new material, she knew what her next funding application would be for: one of those new-fangled printing presses.
As Izabella set about repairing the spines of the books with meticulous care, she allowed her mind to wander. She imagined the librarians’ journal she would launch with her new printing press. Filled with essays on great spellcasters and the archivists who recorded their works, informative pieces on caring for and maintaining scrolls, book reviews…
The door flew open, slamming against the wall and rattling jars of fluid and vials of ink, pulling Izabella from her quiet daydream. Nicolas slumped inside, grasping a tear on his shoulder which was covered in blood and ink.
“Mistress Drankin,” he gasped, “come quick! There’s a monster in the study hall!” He was as pale as fresh paper and by the looks of it, his skin had torn just as easily.
“What?” Izabella hissed, trying to make sense of the wounded lad before her.
“It’s eating some of the books!”
“WHAT?!” she screamed, raising her voice to a level that no one had ever heard from her before.
Pounding through the library, with Nicolas in tow, she made her way to the study hall. Throwing the doors open, she was met with something she had only ever read about (and could easily cite her sources).
Something humanoid in form clung to one of the bookcases that made up the west wall of the hall. It looked like a horrific scarecrow — made from scraps of bone, torn paper and an old cloth sack. Books and fragments of broken shelves lay like driftwood on the floor beneath it. One huge claw dug into the wall while the other hand grabbed books, checked them and then hurled them aside.
Izabella watched with disgust as a book landed at her feet, pages crushed and spine snapping with a sickening crack. Her upper lip curled in disdain as the creature found one of the books it was clearly looking for. It tore specific pages out and chewed down on them with borrowed teeth before swallowing with a loud gulp. Ink dribbled from the corner of its mouth, dripping black saliva on the floor, ruining even more books. Once it was finished, it tossed the remnants to the floor and looked for its next target.
The thing hadn’t noticed them yet but Nicolas hung back, staying behind the chief librarian at all times.
“I thought it was a person, Mistress,” he whispered. “I tried to approach and then it bit me…”
Izabella took Nicolas away from the room and towards the library exit. “I want you to go and see the following people in the order I say precisely,” she ordered in a hushed tone. “The Dean of the college, the necromancy professor, and then the healer. Tell the first two that we’ve got an Ink Drinker in the library.”
“What’s an Ink Drinker?”
“One of those cheap parlour tricks used by book thieves! Every page it eats will be recreated wherever the caster is hiding. A clever way to steal rare books without revealing themselves.”
“And what do I tell the healer?” he asked, sweat pouring from his forehead.
“Hmmm,” Izabella thought, eyeing him up more closely. “Maybe you’ve lost more blood than I thought. Better be quick about getting the dean and the professor then.”
“Oh,” Nicolas said, glancing over Izabella’s shoulder and into the study room. The banging and crunching continued. “But your library?” he whispered.
“Go do what I’ve asked and the library will be fine.”
He nodded and staggered towards the door.
“And I expect to see you here for your usual shift tomorrow,” Izabella added.
Nicolas sighed, nodded as if his head was made of lead and left.
Searching her mind for solutions, Izabella quickly came up with a plan. She raided the restoration room for a tincture she’d developed for removing ink from the page (damned students making notes in the margins). This would not be difficult but it would make the mess in the study hall even worse. And potentially harm even more books.
It was a decision Izabella wrestled with for about two more minutes before she heard an almighty clatter in the study hall.
Ink remover it is then, she decided and grabbed everything she had.
In the study hall, the Ink Drinker had leapt across to the other wall, gouging a hold in more bookshelves. It chewed away on page after page, its black eyes focused on the book.
“Hey!” Izabella yelled, standing in the doorway. The creature turned its attention to her, half a page hanging out of the ragged hole that formed its mouth. It bellowed at her, shaking the building to its very foundations. Around the room, books fell from their shelves like rubble.
Izabella stood firm and raised her hand, making a fist. An invisible grip held the creature and pulled it away from the bookshelf, keeping it held in mid-air. Izabella yanked her fist and the creature was pulled forward until their noses were only a foot apart.
“Not in my library!” she hissed before pouring the mixture over the monster’s face. It wasn’t much but it was enough and it burned like acid. The beast trembled and wailed as the liquid devoured it, soaking up all the ink in its makeshift veins, forcing it to wither and curl up on itself. Eventually, there was nothing left but a sack full of crumpled, soggy paper. Izabella let go of her invisible grasp and it fell to the floor with a squelch.
In the silence that followed, Izabella surveyed the damage and fought the urge to weep. The study hall was a disaster.
As she picked through the carnage, two figures appeared in the doorway. First was Lady Elena Fairblanc, the Dean of the college. She was in her cloak that deemed her the highest power in the institution, its silver threads reflecting in the room’s dim candlelight. Her hair was pulled away from her face in a rough bun, showing that she’d rushed over when Nicolas had reached her. The other was Marcus Stein, the necromancy professor.
“Izabella!” Elena began, taking in the mess, “Are you alright? Your apprentice claimed a beast came through?”
“I’m fine,” Izabella muttered, picking up fragments of shelves and setting them aside in a pile. “And the beast is dead but we’ve clearly been the target of thieves.”
Marcus looked every bit the necromancer. Slicked-back hair, thick eyeliner and a well-maintained moustache. Many of the students were utterly smitten with him. He crouched over the remains, sweeping his long black cloak aside, as he began poking and prodding. “An Ink Drinker?” he said curiously. “You don’t see these very often. Tricky to maintain across long distances. Pretty ugly one too. Rudimentary materials. Most people use corpses rather than scarecrows…”
“This means that the spy must have breached the city walls. Especially if they need to be close to control their puppet,” Izabella assumed. “Lady Elena, we must send guards out on a sweep at once. There are rare and dangerous books in this library and they could strike again at any moment.”
The Dean rubbed at her temples while the necromancer continued to inspect the crime scene.
“No,” Lady Elena said. “I’m not provoking a war across the Three Cities because someone tried to steal a couple of your books.”
“Dangerous books!” Izabella growled.
“This is why I wanted you to put in a vault for volatile magic texts instead of a bloody book hospital,” Elena stated with exasperation in her voice.
“What’s the point in having books if they’re in no condition to be read?” the librarian retorted.
“Uh, I hate to interrupt,” Marcus interjected, holding three half-devoured books in his hands. “I’m assuming that these were the books it was after.”
“Well it wasn’t me who was chewing on them!” Izabella snapped.
“Charming,” the professor snorted before continuing. “Anyway, all of these are on my third-year syllabus and there’s a project due next week. No dangerous books stolen. Just prescribed texts. I’m going to take an educated guess and say that your culprit is one of my students?” Marcus handed the three books over to Izabella. The top one was an anatomy textbook that was borrowed often. “I’ll get a list of the names and start grilling them tomorrow. Mystery solved: it was lazy third years.”
A silence hung in the air, taking up space that accusations and demands had once filled.
“Looks like my work here is done,” Marcus said, attempting to excuse himself. “If anyone needs me, I’ll be in the tavern, nursing a pint and pretending to mark essays.” The necromancer left, leaving the Dean and the librarian alone.
It was Lady Elena who braved the first word. “We both know that it wasn’t just laziness that made a student do this. For one, animating a scarecrow doesn’t exactly seem lazy…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Izabella interrupted.
“They’re scared of you, Izabella!” the dean said firmly. “Libraries are supposed to be warm, peaceful places but nobody wants to spend more than five minutes here. Hells — tonight has just shown us that some students don’t want to come in at all!”
The image of a bag of returned books abandoned on the front step flickered through Izabella’s mind.
“You need to look seriously at how you run this place or I’m going to have to start looking for a more welcoming chief librarian.”
“After all I’ve done for this place?!” the librarian said through gritted teeth as she fought back the tears prickling at her eyes.
“Yes. You’ve done amazing things for the collection and no-one can fault you for that. But sometimes a library isn’t just about the books. It’s what you learned while you were there. Goodnight, Izabella! I’ll be back once Marcus has the student responsible.”
“Wait, what am I supposed to do about the mess?”
“I’ll try to rally some volunteers to help.” Elena paused at the exit before briefly turning back. “I’m sorry about your books…”
Not one student volunteered to help clean the library that night. Izabella didn’t care. She would stay up all night cleaning on her own if she had to.
Which she did. At least until exhaustion took her in the wee hours of the morning. Sometime shortly after 8 am, Izabella found herself being woken by Nicolas. She had fallen asleep in a chair in the study hall and now everything ached. As her head cleared, she looked up at Nicolas who now had his shoulder bandaged up and his arm in a sling.
“Good morning,” he said sheepishly. “I’ve brought you some tea.” Sitting on the desk nearest her, a steaming cup beckoned her and she had never wanted anything more.
“Thank you,” she muttered and took a grateful sip.
“News is all over the guild that you took down a mighty beast all by yourself,” he grinned. “And it turns out that it was a group of Professor Stein’s third years. Four of them. All suspended for two weeks!”
“Two weeks for all this damage?” Izabella nearly spat out her tea. She thought again and then swiftly added, “and nearly killed you.”
Nicolas bucked up and stuck his chest out. “Oh, I’m fine. It’s just a scratch…and a minor fracture of the collarbone. That’s all.”
Izabella took another sip of tea. It was quite possibly the nicest tea anyone had ever made for her. And the only tea anyone had ever made for her without having to be told first. She looked at Nicolas and his sad little sling. Something tugged at her gut.
“Nicolas, go home,” she said.
“You heard. I want you to go home and rest up.”
“Oh, no. I don’t have to,” he bumbled. “Anyway, I quite like being here.”
Surprise filled Izabella. “You do? Really?”
“Well, I like the books.”
Izabella thought she felt a smile coming on but that might have been the exhaustion. “That may be true but I still want you to go home for the day. Actually, no. Better make it three days.”
“But the mess…”
“What’s the point in having all this magic if I can’t use it to help me clean up once in a while?”
With a flick of the wrist, Izabella weaved a shattered shelf back together. The wood merged and splinters healed and eventually the shelf looked as if nothing had ever happened. Apart from the rest of the broken bookcase around her.
She flopped back in the seat. “Maybe I’ll finish my tea before trying any more though,” she sighed. Nicolas chucked ever so slightly.
“Are you sure about me leaving?” he asked, trying to work out if this was a test he was failing.
“Go before I change my mind.”
“Thank you, Mistress,” he said, grabbing his jacket.
“How about when you come back, I start training you on restorations?” she queried, cradling her teacup in her hands.
“I’d love that.”
“Good. We’ve got plenty to practice on,” she said, nodding to the piles of books she’d gathered in the night – reshelf, repair, destroy.
“See you in three days,” Nicolas smiled and left with a bounce in his step.
Izabella finished her tea and took a long hard look around her library. Seemed like she had a lot of work to do to turn this place around. And it seemed like it might be the single greatest thing to happen in the sad, lonely life of Izabella Drankin.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Emma Kathryn (@GirlofGotham) is a horror and fantasy fanatic from Glasgow, Scotland. When she's not scaring herself to death, she is one half of The Yearbook Committee Podcast or she's streaming indie games on Twitch. She is rather tiny and rather mad.