The sun set, its last rays dancing across the Golden Lake and giving the high mountains in the distance the appearance of being on fire. A flock of bookbirds flew near the surface of the glittering water, their feathers fluttering in the cool October breeze.
Not far away, the city Literatura was preparing for nightfall. People returned to their houses, shops closed and the cobbled streets were empty except for a few peddlers gathering their goods to return to their villages. Two story character boys quickly left a pharmacy, their chattering voices loud in the evening silence. Leaves danced over the streets and in the air, blown by the breeze. A door banged. Window shutters closed with a creak. Then all became completely silent as night fell and the dark crept over the Book World.
Suddenly, the nightly silence was shattered by the faint sound of hurrying footsteps echoing along the dark walls of the quiet houses - a loud, unaccustomed sound that would not remain unheard however much the owner of the feet tried to hide the noise. A dark shape sneaked out from a side street, scaring away a rat. The man looked around nervously, then hurried down a larger street, glancing back over his shoulder every now and then, hoping that no one would open a window and see him. He was glad, when he neared the centre of the city, that the rushing of the two rivers drowned his footfalls.
After tiptoeing down different paths, taking dark and silent alleyways, he took a wide cobbled road, crossed a bridge, and reached, at last, his destination: a large, open square surrounded by silent, sleeping houses. There he stopped, looking up before him at the tallest building of the city, admiring its baroque architecture and its polyhedral dome. There it was. How long had he loved this place, how long desired to own it… and how much had he already done, just to get it for himself! Years and years he had spent, trying many different ideas, however strange they seemed, but never coming any further.
But today, today…
He had planned this for so long! Two months he had spent, hidden away from everyone else, pretending to be sick, and now, now he was ready to bring his plan into action. What he was going to do tonight was only a tiny step closer to his goal, but still, it was the one step that would make all the difference.
The man took a deep breath and stepped softly towards the great arched doorway hidden in the shadows. It wasn't locked; doors were never locked in the Book World. How perfect for his plan! Those Bookling fools; without knowing it, they were making everything so much easier for him… Slowly, carefully, he pushed open the heavy wooden door. It creaked loudly, and the man jumped, looking nervously around. But no one had heard him. Everyone was asleep.
Chuckling to himself about the stupidity of Booklings, he slipped quietly inside. He was met at once by the typical Book World smell of dust, ink and old books. Stumbling through the dark room, he groped blindly around for the stairs. Suddenly, he accidentally banged against one of the bookshelves that had been fixed onto the right side of the spiral staircase instead of a rail. A thick book fell out, clattering loudly onto the floor and making such a noise that the man was afraid the whole city would awake. He quickly picked it up again. In the light of the rising moon, he could read the title: The Ten Commandments. Annoyed at his own clumsiness, and trying to hide from himself a growing guilty conscience, he shoved the book back in its shelf.
As he climbed the stairs, he reassured himself that he didn't believe in God, that nothing would happen to him if he did this, that this wasn't his first time anyway and wouldn't be his last and that no silly book could stop him. Even so, his heartbeat quickened and he had to stop, leaning against the bookshelf and nearly letting another book fall down. He had always had heart problems; just why now, when he was so close, so close…
Why was he worrying? Why was he wasting time? He must go on. He shouldn't have let the Booklings soften him so much; he was starting to turn into a wimp and a weakling.
He left the shelf with a groan and walked up the last few steps to the second floor of the library. He breathed in the musty smell and had to hold back a sneeze because of his dust allergy. The bluish moonlight shone eerily on the cold stone floor and the laden shelves, letting the books look almost alive. A light breeze turned the pages of a book lying open on a lectern below a window, making the man jump at the fluttering noise of the paper. He suddenly thought he could hear the books whispering, reproaching him.
"Murderer!" the open book whispered.
"You bring evil to the Book World…" another book on display said softly.
The man quickly turned away, reproaching himself for having become so soft, and stumbled over to the librarian's desk directly opposite the staircase. It was littered with papers of all kinds, quill pens, books, catalogues and empty ink bottles.
This was a very special librarian. He knew Bookish, Latin, Greek, German, French, English, Chinese, Arabic, and whatever else, including even a few story character languages and an own invented language that no one else understood. He had written fifteen books already and read many of the books in the Great Library (in other words, a lot). He had also travelled all over the earth, although he still preferred the Book World to anywhere else.
But now all this would be destroyed. Tonight, this librarian's fame and many languages wouldn't help him. Tonight, the man's greatest enemy would be gone forever, no longer blocking him from getting what he wanted, what he had wished for so dearly all these many years…
Yes, the man had noticed that the librarian was secretly taking away all the books that he needed. He didn't know where he had put them, but that didn't matter now. Once the librarian was gone, no one could prevent this, his evilest and most cunning plan, from working at last. He would become all-powerful, richer than the richest man on earth! If only he could get this library, he would have enough money to do whatever he wished!
But wait - now was not the time for him to start dreaming! The librarian was still sleeping peacefully upstairs. But not for long now… Ignoring the whispering books, the man softly tiptoed over to the door behind the librarian's desk and pressed down the rusty door handle.
A dark staircase was now all that parted him from the librarian. "Murderer…" the books whispered behind him. "You bring evil…" Excitement jumped within him as he fumbled under his cloak and pulled the knife out of its sheath. It had not been easy to find a weapon in this place, because no one owned weapons in the Book World. Finally he had managed to take it from one of the story characters not too long ago. He had used it only once before, but that had been nothing but practice - now came the real thing.
The knife glinted in the eerie moonlight. The man stroked its blade fondly and continued climbing up the stairs. His heart was hammering excitedly in his chest again, but he ignored it, thinking only about his goal. Soon, soon, SOON!
The door was open. The librarian lay snoring in his bed, a book lying open on the night table. The moonlight illuminated his sleeping face, giving it a whitish tinge. It was so quiet in the room that the man almost thought that he would wake the librarian with his loud heartbeat.
Now was the time… now at last he would strike! Outside, the church clocks struck the time. The man counted each stroke. Midnight. All would awake in only seven hours when the sun rose over the mountain tops… He had seven hours now.
The librarian moved in his sleep, unconscious of the threat standing just beside his bed, unconscious of what was about to happen…
A light breeze entered the room, brushing against the book beside the bed. Again, the man heard it whispering as the pages rustled… "Murderer…" He gripped the knife more tightly. Somehow this was more difficult than he had expected… the last time had been so much easier. "You bring evil to the Book World…" The words seemed to become louder and louder, echoing around the room.
The man didn't know what had happened. He knew what he must do, what he wanted to do, but somehow, he could not - it was as if some strange power was stopping him, preventing him from any movement. Still the books were whispering, but just beyond the rustling of the pages, he thought he could hear the flapping of wings, as if a bird was sitting on the windowsill behind him...
The moon was momentarily hidden by a cloud. An owl hooted nearby; two fighting tomcats hissed at each other. A wolf howled somewhere far away, maybe as distant as Lektura. Crickets chirped, and the bullfrogs croaked a loud concert under the bridge across Bukbak.
The wind passed over the sleeping city, the capital city of the world of book lovers, writers and story characters. All was quiet again; all was asleep. Only the animals of the night slinked along the cold streets or flew over the rooftops.
It was not long before dawn when suddenly, just as the first bookbirds left their nests and took to the air, a terrible, angry cry rent the silence of the library. Then, all was quiet again, as though nothing had happened.
But as the city awoke to a Friday morning, a warm, promising Friday morning perfect for a walk to the Silver Forest, one Bookling did not wake up. As the streets filled with men and women going to work, students going to school or to the university, and housewives out to do shopping and to hear from the neighbours if Clarice Scrivben's newest book was any good, a stooped figure left the Great Library in the city centre and slinked away, unnoticed.
The market stalls opened, sellers shouted at the tops of their lungs, book prices were compared and quill quality discussed. The typical happy atmosphere reigned in Literatura, lit up by the golden sunlight pouring down from the skies. No one knew what had happened that night, or how it would affect all their lives in only a short while.
Under the shadow of the library walls, two story characters sat behind their spread out goods from their own worlds, staring silently and gloomily ahead and waiting for customers. Both kept glancing up at the clock over the library doors, impatient that the library should open and lure more people past their corner.
"'E's late," the older of the two grumbled, taking his ill-smelling pipe out of his mouth and blowing out a cloud of smoke that momentarily hid his grey-bearded, wrinkled face.
"Old Readig must have stayed up late again if he's still asleep," the younger story character chuckled. "Typical Bookling, must've decided to read half the library in one night. Perhaps someone should go wake him."
"You can go if you really want to," the first said. "But I'm not movin' from 'ere before I've sold this my dragon jewel! I sweared it last night."
"You were drunk."
"Still. An oath's an oath, you know."
"Oi! Nanus! You go," the young man shouted to a small, thin figure sitting in a corner, immersed in a very fat book.
The boy stood up without an answer and slowly trudged towards the library. "But you must give me half your lunch!" he called back over his shoulder.
He pushed open the door without expecting anything wrong. Why should he? He was in a country without war or evil. He hadn't experienced any war or bloodshed since the age of nine, and that was five years ago. But he could still remember the enemies storming his village, attacking for no reason, killing people he had known for as long as he could remember…
Better not think about it… better not remember. He wanted to return, even if it was to bloodshed, return to his family, to his people… but it was impossible. Felicius had said so. He was trying to find a way all the time, but he never found anything.
It was when Nanus had reached the top of the stairs that he first noticed that something was not right. Pages were flying all over the place, blown by the wind from an open window. He stooped to pick one up, and noticed that it had been torn out from a book. Strange… no one would ever do such a thing in the Book World! The text was written in a foreign language, in strange characters that he could not decipher. Felicius would know - Felicius knew a lot.
Stuffing the page into his pocket, Nanus looked around for the source of the flying pages. Had someone tried to steal a book? Was someone trying to destroy the library? But then he could just as well have set the whole library on fire. Hundreds of questions sprang up in Nanus' mind. But he knew that he couldn't answer them, because of the impossibility that anyone would ever harm a book here.
All of a sudden, he felt something crack beneath his foot. It was the broken back of a book. Nanus carefully picked it up, as if he were helping a wounded animal. A few pages were still left, fluttering weakly as his breath blew over them. Who in the Book World could have mistreated a book like that? Nanus looked around and noticed that a lectern had been thrown over and a few books thrown from their shelves. What had happened here?
He was brought back to the present all of a sudden by the loud banging of a door. He looked around and saw that the door to Readig's living quarters in the tower was open. He couldn't have forgotten to close it? Well… it was possible, wasn't it?
Maybe the librarian had accidentally locked up a cat or dog in the library and it had gone wild with panic in the night, causing all this mess. The door was never locked, but the animal could still not have opened it - but then how had it managed to get out again? It couldn't still be in here, could it? Nanus didn't believe this idea himself, but he was here to wake the librarian, not to try and solve impossible mysteries.
"Mr. Readig! Mr. Readig!" he shouted up the stairs. "Wake up! You are late!" There was no reply. "Sir!" Nanus walked up the stairs. "Everyone is waiting." He opened the door to Readig's bedroom. "Mr. Readig?"
The first thing Nanus noticed when he looked inside the room was that it was in total disorder. Notes had been thrown from the desk to the floor and books were lying scattered all over the place. No Bookling would ever treat books this way… and not even an animal could have made this kind of mess. Nanus turned to Readig's bed, afraid of what he might see.
"What's Nanus doing, you think?" the old story character asked the younger. "Reading all the books in the whole library, I'm sure! Maybe you'll 'ave to go look for 'im and remind 'im what 'e's there for."
Suddenly, the two were surprised by a shout from one of the library's upper windows. "Sluggard! Brogund! Come up, quickly!" It was Nanus. And from the sound of it, something bad had happened.
Soon later, a crowd had flocked around the entrance of the Great Library as the Head of the Council of Wise Old Men, Dominic Livron, entered the building.
"My dear Mr. story character… I really must ask… is this matter of such extreme urgency that you must force me to interrupt my highly important task of deciding the new price of peacock quills?" Livron asked as Nanus pulled him along. "I mean, what could possibly have happened that is worse than another book worm attack like the one in 1873?"
As soon as he was inside, the people started muttering, staring at the closed library door and wondering what could have happened. Nothing ever happened in the Book World that was bad enough to send a story character to interrupt a discussion about quill pens, especially the rare peacock ones. This must be very bad, very bad indeed!
"What is it, Mr. Sluggard?" Livron asked the younger story character once Nanus had led him up the stairs and before the door to Readig's room. Sluggard's face had paled, and because of its sudden whiteness the scars and dirt on it were especially visible.
The story character said nothing, he only slowly pushed open the door to Readig's room. Livron had to steady himself on the door frame. With trembling fingers he fumbled in one of his pockets to take out a tablet. He led his shaking hand to his mouth and swallowed the medicine at once, nearly choking on it. He was white as a sheet. For in the bed before him lay Albertus Readig, his eyes blank and staring up at nothing. He was dead.
The news soon spread all over the Book World that the librarian of the Great Library had died a mysterious death in the night. Sluggard and Brogund traded most of their goods that day because so many people were crowding around the library doors, wanting to know what exactly had happened. But the handkerchief sellers did best that day, because everyone was crying.
Soon later the library doors were opened once more. But it was only old and sickly Livron leaving the library, pale and continuously swallowing tablets. The doors were closed behind him, and so were the doors closed on the nightly events. No one knew for a long time after that how Albertus Readig had died.
A storm cloud moved in from the west. Raindrops fell down to the mourning Book World like tears. Trouble was brewing, everyone was sure. Librarians had died before, but always of old age, not so mysteriously that even the Council of Wise Old Men became worried. A time of dread began in the Book World: strange rumours and stories started circulating, and for the first time in the peaceful country's history, doors were locked at night.
Little did the Booklings know that the troubles did not end here.
They had only just begun.