Aaron was not getting much sleep. He was staring instead at the page, at the abstract scratches of ink without the scratches resolving into letters let alone words let alone ideas. He knew he should sleep, but the answer had to be here, and the answer was more important than sleep. Sleep was a personal concern. The answer he sought would change the fate of the city, the world, would drag both back from the perilous cliff by which they now teetered. His need for sleep was a side effect of his mortality, his humanity, a weakness. If he found the answer he would be propelled to legend or godhood, a hero of the old stories, defeating the same newly arisen enemy that the heroes had felled.
He had been reading the dusty pages of the underground library for seven days. At first, he had allowed himself time to step out into the sunshine. He had allowed himself to leave for meals. He had allowed himself to go to his bed each night and lie down with his head on the downy pillow that he had finally earned after years of poor wages and drudgery.
For three days now, now that the deadline loomed at the edge of the dawn, the end of the night, time had been marked only by the number of candles he had had to replace and the occasional appearance of a mousy servant who left him platters of bread, cheese, a bowl of soup, tankards of weak ale. She had last come in six hours ago according to the candles. His stomach was starting to feel hollow and empty—like his head—like these pages.
Aaron groaned and let his useless head fall into his useless hands, blocking out the senseless pen scratches, the dim candlelight, the passing of the hours, the coming end of the world.
She was there when he woke. The tray was beside him. The soup was no longer steaming. She was seated across from him on a stool. She had a ragged piece of old vellum in her hands.
“What’re you doing?” he sputtered.
“Wondering what you’re looking for.” Her voice was warm and had a pleasant, cultured accent. Aaron was surprised.
“Give that to me,” Aaron snapped, thrusting out his hand.
“What does it mean,” she wondered, “ ‘pain or disorientation is most efficacious’?”
“What?” Aaron stammered.
She showed him the paper, pointing to a line of the text. “Here. ‘In weakening the Vatrin, pain or disorientation is most efficacious, resulting in the division of the Vatrin’s Energies—’ ”
“Give it,” Aaron demanded, and she did, and he read the line again. “This is it,” he breathed.
“It’s—well, maybe not the answer but an answer certainly. It gives us a way to weaken them if not a means of doing so.”
“You don’t know?”
“Apparently not.” She threw a fist to a cocked hip and slid herself half onto the table. “So tell me.”
Aaron hesitated but shook his head. “It’s not my place to be filling your head.”
“I filled your hands with that paper,” she said, nodding towards it. “That’s what you’ve been looking for these days?”
Aaron frowned. It was at least part of what he had been looking for, but that was no reason for him to tell her that tomorrow the sun might set on red earth and the empty ribcage of a city, home to naught but scavenger crows and dogs.
He looked at her, rosy-cheeked, her eyes glittering. He imagined her gray and her eyes shuttered. It could be that she would look like that by morning if the stories were to be believed, if the man descended with his army on the city as he had promised.
“What time is it?” he wondered, starting. He should have asked that first.
“I was about to go to bed. It’s past midnight.”
“How many hours?”
“I don’t know. Maybe one. Maybe two.”
“Four or five hours till the end then,” he breathed, “and we’ve only part of an answer.” He looked up at her again, saw her alive, young, bright as the candle flame, sparkling as sunshine on the ever moving ocean. “Stay with me,” he said.
She glowered. “And what?”
“Just stay,” he begged. “If these are our last hours, I don’t want to be alone.” He gestured to the papers. “And maybe you can help me find a way to fight spook tales monsters.”
Her frown deepened but softened. “I’ll need more than that to help. And that best not be a euphemism.”
I am a thief! And I am late. I stole the first line of this story from Kate Kearney’s “Countdown to Burnout,” and she beat me to posting the story, but I have not yet read it, as per the rules of legal thefting. Check out what she wrote on her blog More Than 1/2 Mad–and I will do the same. All legal theft pieces are collected by our thief lord here.