Irene is teaching her new assistant the fundamentals of a Librarian's job, and finding that training a young Fae is more difficult than she expected. But when they're the targets of kidnapping and assassination attempts, she decides that learning by doing is the only option they have left ...
In order to protect themselves, Irene and her friends must do what they do best: search for information to defeat the overwhelming threat they face and identify their unseen enemy. To do that, Irene will have to delve deeper into her own history than she ever has before, face an ancient foe, and uncover secrets that will change her life and the course of the Library forever.
Release date: December 29, 2020
Print pages: 352
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The Dark Archive
The ether-lamps illuminated the wide tunnel with harsh brightness. Irene estimated that they were about eighty yards beneath the English Channel at this point, close to the coast of Guernsey. Fans set at regular intervals in the walls churned the stale air with their burnished brass blades, providing a soft background purr of sound. This was comforting in the otherwise eerie silence. Irene Winters, Librarian and spy, found herself perversely wondering who kept this tunnel dusted. And who polished the brass? But letting herself be distracted was, she recognized, an indication of how nervous she was at being here. She was capable of many things, but she couldn't hold back the sea or save them from an earthquake.
There was a heavy brass air lock at the end of the passage, with overlapping petals of iron and glass set into its roughly circular frame. A control pad with a recessed wheel and two huge levers were embedded in the wall by its side. This Victorian technology was perfectly appropriate, though, given that Irene was on assignment in a Victorian-era world. And her companion Vale-private detective and the person who'd requested her help down here-was a native inhabitant. But their dapper clothing had been designed for London society, rather than underwater tunnels. Irene eyed Vale's top hat and suit wryly, as she considered her own incongruous hat and veil.
"Is there some reason why this document's been sent through private diplomatic channels, rather than just in the mail? Why did we have to come here to collect it?" she asked, feeling suddenly claustrophobic. Her companion had been silent for most of their walk down the tunnel-a brooding, thoughtful silence that didn't welcome conversation. But the time had come for more information. After all, she thought with some irritation, she was doing him a favour by accompanying him. The four of them-her, the dragon prince Kai, her new apprentice Catherine, and Vale-had come here to Guernsey so that Irene could collect a very specific book for the Library. She'd also wanted to get them away from the recent rash of attacks targeting not only her, but her companions as well. After they'd arrived, Vale had asked Irene to come on this little subterranean excursion with him. She'd agreed, on condition that they get back in time for the book handover. And she'd left Kai and Catherine together for some tea, cake, and quality conversation. "I didn't ask earlier in case we might be overheard, but surely down here . . ."
Vale tapped the paved floor thoughtfully with his cane-which, Irene knew, was an electrified sword-stick. It was the sort of equipment that Vale found useful as the greatest detective in London. When dealing with criminals, werewolves, vampires, cultists, and spies, a prudent man took what precautions he could. "I know I was less than forthcoming earlier, Winters. Your new student places me in a difficult position. Catherine is your student and therefore loyal to your Library, one hopes. But she is also Fae, and the niece of Lord Silver. He might be the ambassador from Liechtenstein to the British Empire, but he's also its spymaster in London and highly untrustworthy besides. The risk of Catherine passing information to him, deliberately or otherwise, is far too high. I simply can't take chances on this job."
"I see your point," Irene admitted. "But you must have noticed how much she dislikes her uncle."
"Precisely the attitude I would cultivate if I were her and wanted to convince you I had no ulterior motives," Vale replied. He spun the wheel like the tumblers of a safe.
Irene couldn't argue with that. "Very well," she said. "So since we're now completely alone, and unlikely to be overheard . . . what can you tell me? I should have known you had a motive for coming along, rather than just avoiding our mysterious antagonists." She softened her words with a smile. Heaven knows she owed him a few favours.
"I'd appreciate your patience for just a little longer . . . because I would like you to approach the situation with an unbiased mind," Vale answered. He pulled the nearby lever down with a clang, and the air lock irised open, metal and glass petals retracting into the wall. "When I show you the document-"
Then they both fell silent. The air beyond smelled of disinfectant-but below that was the tang of fresh blood.
Immediately on the alert, Irene flattened herself against the tunnel wall, peering through the opening. Vale did the same, their conversation forgotten. The corridor beyond opened into a large room filled with mysterious machinery and radar equipment.
There was still no sound except for the slow turning of the fans.
Vale frowned. He stepped through the air lock, cane ready in his hand. Irene followed a couple of steps behind. She didn't have a weapon on her, apart from a small knife for emergencies. But she did have the Language, a Librarian's most powerful instrument. With it, she could command reality with a single word, and that was dangerous enough.
The chamber appeared to be some sort of control room. Heavy steel and brass switches and toggles were embedded in panels that stretched from floor to ceiling. She could also see lengths of cabling that vanished into ducts in the walls behind. On the primitive-looking radar viewing screens, green circles fluoresced against dark backgrounds. But no targets had been identified-not that she knew what they were tracking. Two rickety metal chairs were positioned in front of the most important-looking controls, but both stood empty.
"Stand where you are, Winters," Vale said. "Don't disturb anything." He began to methodically search the room, examining the equipment. He paid particular attention to the other two passageways out of the room-also sealed with air locks, though without any security locks of the sort that had blocked their entrance.
"Were you expecting to meet your contact here?" Irene asked.
"Yes. This Guernsey monitoring station has a duty staff of six men. There should be two on duty here." Vale went down on one knee to check something. "And an additional five men somewhere within this complex. I happen to know a submarine is currently moored alongside, and the crew should have disembarked here."
"And the only route in by land was the one we came through?"
"Indeed. And Dickson up on the surface, in the St. Peter Port office, signalled them when we were about to come down. He received authorization for us to descend. That was only twenty minutes ago."
A chill ran up Irene's spine. Someone had known she and Vale would be here-trapped underground. And they'd been met by the smell of blood and the absence of allies. She refused to believe this was a coincidence, given their past few weeks. "This doesn't look good for us or the staff on this station. But who is the target here?" she wondered aloud.
"It is imperative that I find my contact-and the document I'm here to collect. But let us exercise extreme caution." Vale rose to his feet. "The air lock on the right goes to the submarine dock, and the other one leads to the living quarters. I can perceive nothing from the clues here, except that at least one man fell to the ground and suffered a minor injury. There are also some curious scratches, which might or might not be innocent . . . This floor is not conducive to the preservation of evidence."
"Let's block off the living quarters, then-just in case. The last thing we want is an inconvenient ambush from that direction. Or for an aggressor to make an escape." Irene crossed to the air lock and placed her hand on the opening mechanism. "Lever which I am touching, bend sideways and out of true."
The heavy brass lever warped until she was sure no one-no one human, anyway-would have the strength to straighten it. She then listened at the air lock for a moment but could hear nothing from the other side-no shouts from trapped enemies, no cries for help . . . no unspeakable slithering. She'd seen a lot in her line of work.
"Good work, Winters." Vale paused at the other air lock. "I'll open this one. Be ready for anything."
He pulled the lever, the air lock opened-and three men came bursting through. After anticipating everything and nothing, Irene was almost relieved at this frontal assault. They were moving jerkily, but with unexpected speed and ferocity. Irene stuck her foot out, tripping the beefiest one of their number. He sprawled on the floor and writhed unnaturally, like a broken toy. But the other two turned to face them.
Their aggressors both wore naval uniform, as did the man on the floor. This close, Irene could see the ones facing them had smears of blood on their collars. Even more worryingly, silvery threads glittered in their irises and their faces displayed an inhuman slackness. Their mouths hung open and their heads were cocked oddly, like marionettes. One held a crowbar, and though the other was unarmed, his huge hands were clenched into fists, ready to attack.
In the distance, Irene could hear the sound of running feet. Reinforcements? Or more "marionettes"? She had to assume the worst. She glimpsed Vale raising his cane, but her attention was on the man lunging towards her. With surprising speed, his hands went for her throat. She dodged and let him collide with the wall-but it hardly slowed him. He rose and barrelled towards her again, still moving like a puppet with hands outstretched. As she backed away, she saw a glint of metal at his throat. Something that bulged under the concealing fabric of his collar . . . and moved.
Time to finish this. "Uniform trousers, fall and hobble your wearers!" she ordered.
The two men crashed to their knees, joining their companion on the floor. Irene noted that none of the three were reacting with the modesty one might expect at such an exposure. And Victorians did have a reputation for prudishness. They merely thrashed in an effort to regain their feet. Even the one who went in for purple silk underwear.
Vale's erstwhile opponent was already rising, so Vale tapped him with his cane. There was a flash of electricity and the man screamed in pain, his back arching, before finally collapsing to lie motionless. Something rippled around the back of his neck, wriggling under his collar like a snake. Irene took a hasty step back.
"What the devil is that? Can you do something about it?" Vale asked as he delivered shocks to the other two men. Both had shed the handicap of their trousers and were jerking to their feet.
"Not without knowing what 'it' is," Irene answered. The Language was a powerful tool, but to use it she needed the correct words. Mysterious object wriggling under that man's clothing was insufficiently precise, as her mentor Coppelia might have put it. Irene smothered a smile, feeling a little giddy as the adrenaline of the fight faded. "But at least electricity seems to work."
"Indeed." Vale was standing over the writhing men. "But my cane has a limited charge," he noted, as the screaming died away.
"Air locks, shut," Irene ordered. As the remaining air locks closed, blocking any further attacks, she leaned forward to look at the unconscious men. Curiosity was prompting her to unbutton their collars to investigate what she'd seen-but her imagination was painting a vivid picture of something horrific. Irene wasn't familiar with all the magical monstrosities that Vale's world might or might not contain. Vampires and werewolves she knew about, but what else might there be? She couldn't see enough . . .
"Uniform jacket on the grey-haired man, unbutton and open," she ordered.
The jacket obeyed, peeling back like wrapping paper. The man's shirt was stained with fresh blood. The thing that moved underneath it was two feet long, writhing and twisting like a length of cable.
"Note the fresh wound on his neck," Vale said quietly. "He appears otherwise uninjured. I fear it will not emerge on its own, whatever it is. You will need to undress him further."
Irene nodded. Such instructions from the upright Vale would be amusing-under other circumstances. "Shirt on the grey-haired man, unbutton and open."
As the buttons slid from their holes and the shirt-front parted, there was a flash of gleaming metal. Something leapt at her, and Irene took in burning blue eyes and dripping blood. She threw herself backwards, dropping under the creature as it sailed over her head. Vale's cane flashed out to intercept but missed. The creature curved through the air before landing on the floor, skittering across it. It moved, Irene thought, more like a wood-louse rather than a snake-could there be claws or legs underneath it?
And more to the point, how did she stop it with the Language? What should she call it-metal contraption? But that would shut down all the equipment in the room. "Vale!" she shouted. "Do you know what that thing is?"
"No, but don't let it get into the air ducts!" Vale answered. He advanced on the creature, his cane ready.
"Keep it busy." Irene edged sideways and picked up a nearby stool. She glanced back at the other two men, but no more creatures had emerged.
The creature scuttled along the floor, hugging the wall and trying but failing to writhe into the machinery. Fortunately the panels were all well-sealed. Then it darted at Vale in a horrifyingly fluid rush of speed.
Irene took advantage of the creature's focus on Vale to craft a swift sentence. "Stool that I'm touching, pin down the moving mechanical creature," she ordered in the Language.
The stool tore itself out of Irene's hand, upended itself, and slammed into the creature, holding it in place with the seat. Irene rubbed her forehead, wincing at a momentary pain. While it wasn't a major use of the Language, it was imprecise and had drained her strength. The creature squirmed under the stool, metal legs scraping manically against the floor and leaving long scratches.
"All right," she said. "What do you make of it?"
Vale knelt down to inspect it as thuds came from one of the air lock doors. Irene's earlier work was successfully blocking their entry-for now. "Interesting," he said, ignoring the noise. "I believe I do know what this is. It's rather more advanced than reports I've read, though."
"Is it a device that controls human victims by invading their nervous systems?" Irene "guessed."
Vale gave her a hard stare. "Have you been reading my correspondence again, Winters?"
"Now, why would I do that?" she dissembled.
Vale's eyes narrowed, but he eventually relented. "Yes-this contraption appears to be derived from the work of Dr. Brabasmus. But it is self-propelled . . . and rather larger than the doctor's original designs for cerebral controllers. Those were barely the size of a scarab, and lodged at the back of the neck."
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