The First Installment in The Disease Trilogy
There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. At least, not that I knew of, and the night the first of the dragons arrived, I didn’t notice. I was distracted by how unceremoniously Aulam ended things between us again. He had a boyfriend working the docks of the Southern Shore, or so he told me. I was a placeholder, a warm body, there for Aulam to find comfort during the school year. But as the summer holiday drew near, he had his sights set on someone better apparently. Fuck him!
As I left Aulam’s dormitory and, humiliated, hurried back to mine, I distinctly remember the moon going dark for a moment. At the time, I thought it was a cloud, but now that I think about it the passing shadow moved much too quickly to be cast by a cloud. Now I know it was the first of the dragons to arrive in the Valley.
When I returned to my dormitory, I was alone. My roommates, Darnkal and Jistchet, had yet to return and I was grateful. They didn’t like Aulam, and every logical part of my brain agreed with them. Aulam just had this charm that melted the irrational parts of me, so I ran to him each time he beckoned. I couldn’t handle my roommate’s inevitable “told you so” response to what happened, so finding them gone I was relieved. I got into bed, turned off the lights, and tried to sleep.
Sleep didn’t come. By about 2 AM, Darnkal and Jistchet came home. Despite being obviously drunk, they tried to stay quiet upon seeing me in bed. I pretended to be asleep. I was lucky to have them. I met them my first year at Neiklot University, the lifeblood of the Valley, in the way society’s outcasts usually find each other. I just didn’t want to talk to them right then.
The night stretched on mercilessly, but when my alarm sounded at 6:30 AM I somehow wasn’t ready to get up. If the day started, the night before was the past, and Aulam and I were history again. I pulled myself together, groomed in the uncomfortable silence that only a dormitory bathroom on an early Saturday morning can produce, and left for the Neiklot library.
I could barely afford to attend Neiklot University. My parents owned a small cleaning business on the eastern outskirts of the Western Woods. They couldn’t afford to send me or my siblings to university. If I wanted an education, I had to work for the tuition. I had two jobs: professor’s assistant and library supervisor. That early Saturday morning I was headed to the latter.
In my first year at Neiklot, the University assigned me, like it assigned all needy students, a job. My job, luckily, was library attendant. It was lucky because the Neiklot library’s stout little manager, Terriga, promoted me to supervisor within a month. With cigar stains on her yellowing teeth and virtually no neck, Terriga was the friend every poor first year at Neiklot needed. Within my first month, she had also introduced me to Professor Mattlick, the professor I now assisted. I owed her so much, so when she asked me in the middle of my first year to open and attend the library annex on weekend mornings, I didn’t think twice before accepting the shift.
I may have thought twice about accepting the shift had I known how draining attending to the annex would be during final examinations. The main library was open 24 hours a day during final examinations, and the annex opened at 7 AM and closed at 1 AM the next day. It was the first day of those hours. I would have 4 early mornings at the annex before examinations concluded the following Sunday.
The morning shift at the annex wasn’t all bad though. The annex was in the main library’s basement and stretched down, underground, by 3 floors. No one could access the annex through the main library without special permission, however, for security reasons I was told. The annex housed ancient volumes that most students and professors didn’t use but were—according to Terriga—“fairly valuable.” The annex, therefore, had 1, subterranean public entrance in the back of the library, protected by 2 heavy metal doors and a steel accordion gate in between. Hard to find and unpopular, the annex was usually empty, especially in the early morning. I could study for my final examinations during my shift and try to forget about Aulam.
After collecting the keys from the main library’s front desk, I headed towards the annex. Though the main library faced Neiklot’s quad, making up the quad’s western side, the annex entrance faced the Argot River that made up Neiklot’s western edge. In a sleepy, distracted haze, I rounded the library’s northeastern corner through the last archway in a series of archways emanating diagonally southwest from the University’s church, which made up the quad’s north side. It took me only a minute to walk the length of the library’s north wall, which faced a well-kept garden most students didn’t know about, and round the library’s northwest corner.
The annex entrance was just south of the library’s northwest corner, down a metal staircase in a narrow hole lined with concrete just large enough for the staircase and door at the staircase’s end. I unlocked and opened the door with the first key and stepped inside. Past the door, I was in a narrow corridor—lit by a single flickering bulb in the ceiling above—leading along the library’s north wall to a steel gate and the second door just beyond.
I walked toward the gate and found its key. Finding the key, I unlocked the gate at one end, pulled it open, and draped a rope hanging just beyond the gate across the gate’s middle. I tied the rope to a hook on the wall near the first door and walked past the gate towards the second door. The second door was keypad operated. The code changed every month. This month’s code was one of Terriga’s daughter’s birthdays: 13 March 3507 (the third age of man). The code was 13-03-07.
Past the annex’s 2 doors and gate, I was in the pitch black that always greeted me when I entered the annex. This was my least favorite part of opening the annex. I knew the annex’s layout like the back of my hand, but that darkness was impenetrable. It was only me down there—at least I should be alone first thing in the morning—, but I couldn’t help but worry that someone was left in the annex’s 3 floors when the evening attendant locked up the night before. This year’s evening attendants were unreliable, so I was justifiably concerned. I quickly felt around for the switchbox on the wall to my left and turned on the lights.
Phew! The annex appeared just like it always had. Straight back from the second door was a more formidable steel gate than the 1 I just unlocked. Past it was the staircase that led up to the main library. I didn’t know where in the main library it led because I’d never taken it or seen its end in the main library. It just disappeared into darkness to end somewhere in the main library’s northern stacks, probably somewhere around Zoonotics (the study of animal diseases and their impact on humans). The main library’s ground floor had the University’s Mathematics and Sciences books and was organized south to north as the Premier decreed.
For a moment I looked at the staircase across from me. It was a wide staircase, almost grand, with mystical animals carved into its dark wood railings. It was probably quite dramatic to descend when in use, but now it was just shrouded in darkness as the 1 area in the annex that the switchbox couldn’t illuminate.
Between the switchbox and the grand staircase to the main library were the bathrooms. Straight across from the bathrooms was the front desk, the desk I’d sit at for the next 3 hours. Across from the desk was a small sitting area with 3 stained couches forming a crescent—opening towards the front desk—around an even more stained coffee table. Coffee! I forgot to get a cup of coffee on my way to the library. Zut!
Beyond the front desk the rows of books started. The rows of books didn’t extend the entire length of the main library above because the annex was just half the length of the library above. With that much space, the annex’s top floor could accommodate 6 rows of books running parallel to the library’s north and south walls, left of the annex's central corridor, which extended south from the front desk. At the end of each row, along the annex’s east wall, were study carrels. To the right of the annex’s central corridor was the staircase descending to the annex’s second floor.
The annex’s second floor was laid out the same as the first. The only difference was the 6 additional rows of books. The annex’s third floor, however, was markedly different. It was accessed by a staircase directly below the staircase to the second floor. Where the second floor fit 12 rows of books, the third floor fit 23. They were all flush with 1 another, which left a single, narrow lane to walk the length of the rows. Each row’s books could only be accessed by rolling the row blocking the desired row (with the desired book) along metal tracks bolted to the ceiling. Only 1 row could be accessed at a time, and it was a real pain to do so because each row was so heavy and hard to move.
What I imagined was an even greater pain was accessing the locked row of books running along the eastern wall of the annex’s third floor, perpendicular to the floor’s 23 rows. Where the first and second floors had study carrels along their east wall, the annex’s third floor had a row of books locked behind 2 steel gates, 1 that opened south to north and the other, behind the first, that opened north to south. I had never seen those gates opened. I didn’t even have the key or keys to open them. Terriga did, I assumed, because she told me to tell her if anyone wanted a book from the locked row. No student or professor ever had.
I moved from the switchbox to the seat behind the annex’s front desk and pulled 2 textbooks from my backpack, 1 for each of my courses that term—the 2 I could afford. I decided to start with Botanical Medicines. The other, History of Lesser Bryophytes, was too dull for so early in the morning. Given my state, I’d fall asleep in minutes if I started by reviewing the origin of early mosses.
I hadn’t studied but 15 minutes before the annex’s phone rang. I rushed to pick up the receiver.
“Ev, Hey Ev.” Terriga’s deep, raspy voice called from the receiver. My name was Evándrick, named after my paternal grandfather, but everyone called me Ev for short. I preferred the sobriquet because it was also what everyone called my maternal grandmother, whose full name was Eveleey. Eveleey was my closest friend growing up. Being a child of the moon, what people called men who fell in love with other men, I had more bullies than friends, but Eveleey always knew how to cheer me up. She had died the summer before I came to Neiklot.
“Yes, good morning Terriga. How are you?” I asked.
“I’m old and I’m tired Ev, and I’m on my last nerve with these dumbass night attendants.” Terriga answered. “Dinia just called me to say she can’t work her shift at the annex tonight because she needs to study for her examinations. That girl is taking fluff courses like Introduction to Aesthetic Gardening. What did she need to study?” I saw Terriga’s eyeroll as if I was standing by her in her office 2 floors above. “Ev, can you cover for her?”
“I...uh,” I hesitated but only for a moment. Terriga had done so much for me, I had to agree. “Of course.”
“Ev, you’re a gift darling, thank you,” and she hung up.
Zut! I was already tired from getting no sleep the night before. Now I would have to be here past 1 AM to close the annex before returning to reopen the annex at 7 AM tomorrow morning. If it were anyone other than Terriga, I’d have said no. Well, who was I kidding? I was such a pushover. I’d say yes if anyone had asked me. That same submissive quality kept me running back to Aulam each year. Fuck! I had to put Aulam out of my head and focus on studying. I just had to get through the week, and I could retreat to lick my emotional wounds from the safety of my parent’s home for the summer.
At 10 AM, my replacement arrived, and I went to grab a quick breakfast—and coffee, thank gods—before returning to the arboretum north of the library to continue studying. Fortunately, neither Darnkal nor Jistchet were in the dining hall. I still didn’t want to tell them what happened with Aulam the night before.
I returned to the garden north of the library by 11 AM. The garden had lines of shallow flower beds just past the library, but those beds gave way to lines of rose bushes twice as tall as me and then a dense arboretum with winding trails further north. The rose bushes stretched the length of the University’s massive church to their east and the middle five lines were interrupted by a large fountain halfway up the church. The church’s bishops prayed to the gods around that fountain every day at 6 AM, 12 PM, 6 PM, and 12 AM. The church loved their even numbers.
Passing the fountain just after 11 AM, I missed the bishops that would soon be gathering for 12 PM prayer. If I ran into them, which had happened more than once during my time at Neiklot, they’d stop me and ask if I’d accepted their gospel. I’d have to offer some assurance that I had for them to let me pass, but I always felt sick doing so. Their church didn’t like children of the moon. In fact, they didn’t like any children of lesser gods, which is how they labeled those they considered deviants. If they found out I was a child of the moon, they’d never let me pass. I’d be stuck praying with them and then they’d have me inside for readings and teachings. I’d get no studying done and be made to feel awful about myself to boot.
Safely past the fountain, I neared the University’s arboretum. During the day, the arboretum was practically empty. In the arboretum’s maze of benches, picnic tables, gazebos, bridges, and blinds (erected for the University’s year-end game of capture the flag), I had found the best place to study. On the top of a little knoll overlooking the Argot River to the west and wrapped in a crescent of evergreen trees to the east sat a picnic table. Cut off from the rest of the arboretum by the evergreens, it almost seemed like a person could only get there by climbing the steep, muddy banks of the Argot to the west. I, however, had discovered a narrow path just between the northern-most evergreen and the edge of the Argot’s bank that connected my study knoll to the trails below.
Reaching the knoll at what must have been 11:30 AM, I started studying. After 2-ish hours, somewhere between memorizing the healing effects of some tree root and the poisonous effects of another, I fell asleep.
When I awoke, it was dark. Zut Alors! I was more tired than I thought. If it was dark, it had to be after 8 PM. The evening shift at the annex would start at 9 PM. I gathered my books and notes, and, after carefully navigating the path leading to and away from my study spot, I ran south through the arboretum, the lines of rose bushes, and the shallow flower beds. I stopped running as I approached the library’s northwest corner. I took the stairs descending to the annex slowly, so as not to fall, burst through the first door, flew past the gate, and threw open the second door.
With my chest heaving, I stopped in the annex entrance. The first year I was relieving looked up from a textbook and said in a transparent attempt to sound cool and unbothered by my dramatic entrance, “Dude, your shift doesn’t start for another 15 minutes, calm down.” Without missing a beat, however, the first year realized my arriving early meant he could leave early. With a hastiness betraying his cool façade, the first year gathered his things and said, “But dude thanks, always happy to clock out early on a Saturday night.”
Great! I now had 4 hours and 15 minutes at the annex, no dinner, and the unwelcome prospect of studying the History of Lesser Bryophytes. At least I wouldn't fall asleep given I’d just slept for what must have been 7-ish hours. How did that happen? Was I really that tired? In a flash, I reflected on my week. Tuesday and Thursday I’d worked late for Professor Mattlick. Wednesday and Friday I was with Aulam. I was worried about my final examinations and how I was going to pay for the next term, so what little chance I had to sleep didn’t turn into sleep. I hadn’t really slept for days, so yes, I was really that tired.
“Have a good Saturday night,” I blandly offered the first year as he rushed past me. With a sigh, I sat down behind the front desk, took a textbook and notes out of my backpack, and settled in for an evening of studying.
At 30 and 15 minutes before 1 AM, I walked the annex’s central corridor to announce the annex was closing soon. The handful of students in the annex filed out. At 1 AM, I set the second door’s alarm from the keypad just inside it, locking it, and hurried to the third floor to start my final rounds. The attendant closing the library had to check that no student or professor remained in the annex. The third-floor rows were opened just a few rows south of the north wall. I walked to the row and looked down it. I saw nothing but yelled “annex is closing” just in case. I checked all the carrels on the second and first floors as well, periodically yelling “annex is closing.” No students or professors remained, so I returned to the front desk, gathered my things and the annex keys, walked to the switchbox, and turned off the lights.
I keyed in the code to the second door, unlocking it. As I opened and walked through the second door, pitch dark behind me, I was startled by a woman standing just beyond the gate. She was tall and thin with long, straight black hair that framed her pale, wrinkled face. She wore a black blouse, an amber pendant around her neck, and a dark green pencil skirt. She also had a dark green wool shawl draped around her shoulders. She looked too old to be a student. Startled as I was, I eeked out—probably a little too loudly—, “I’m sorry, the annex is closed until 7 AM.”
In a high, hissy voice, the woman said, “Oh but please, I’m in desperate need of a book for my research. You see, I’m a visiting scholar from the Eastern Rivers, working on a book of my own.” She tried to give me a smile, but all she could muster was a quiver of her lips.
I tried again to get her to leave. “I’m truly sorry, but you only have to wait 6 hours for the annex to open again.” The thought of only 6 hours before returning made my heart cry. I’d be back here in 6 hours lady. You can wait that long, I thought.
She insisted, “Please, I need this book.”
“Fine.” Defeated, I turned to open the second door. I hadn’t relocked it yet. Past the second door, I turned on the lights and made for the front desk. Behind the front desk was a chest of drawers containing a card catalogue with a list of the annex’s books and their locations. When I reached the chest, I turned and asked the woman, “What is the name of the book you’re after?” I was surprised to see that she had followed me behind the front desk. She now stood uncomfortably close to me.
“Zuxepth’s Complete Theoretical Cryptozoonotics,” she answered. I found the book’s card in the bottom row of drawers. When I read the card, my heart fell. The book she wanted was in the locked row on the third floor. I rose from the ground where I knelt and turned to the woman. “I’m sorry,” I said, “the book you want is in our locked section, I can’t get it for you tonight.”
“I need that book!” The woman yelled, leaning closer to me. I about jumped out of my skin. She must have realized she frightened me because she immediately took a step back. Straightening her shawl and looking at the rows of books to the right, she repeated in a calmer, quieter tone, “I need that book.”
I explained, “The book you need is in our locked section. I don’t have the key to the locked section. I need to request access to that section from my supervisor, and she’s gone for the night.” I knew Terriga was long gone for the day. She was a grandmother and always tired. The moment the sun set, I was sure she was in bed.
The pale lady looked begrudgingly convinced. “Please request access to the locked books for me, my name is Sepetia Sidma. I will be back first thing tomorrow morning for the book.” Without waiting for me to say anything, she turned and walked briskly towards the second door. I watched her go. With her hand on the second door’s handle, she turned and looked at the grand staircase leading to the main library. “Disgusting” she hissed and threw open the second door, leaving without another sound.
All that effort and drama for nothing. I rolled my eyes. I wrote the creepy woman’s name on a scrap of paper I found in the front desk’s top drawer with a note that read, “wants into locked books.” I was sure I’d beat Sepetia to the annex at 7 AM, and I would call Terriga before she arrived.
I repeated my closing procedures. I turned off the lights, stepped through and locked the second door, stepped past the gate, unhooked the rope (which caused the gate to spring forward and lock), and locked the first door after stepping out into the night air.
I scurried up the metal staircase, around the library’s northwest corner, and along the north wall. As I was just about to round the library’s northeast corner, a baritone voice behind me said, “You mustn’t let her get the book.” What now I wondered and turned around. What I saw terrified me.
Two large eyes, flaming and intense, were looking at me from the face of a gigantic dragon. The dragon’s body appeared to take up the entire length of the garden’s shallow beds and it was hunched down so its head was level with mine. “Sepetia must not get the book,” the dragon repeated, “if she does, she will kill you.”
Upon seeing the dragon, I had stumbled back against the library’s north wall, pressing hard against it in hopes I’d disappear into it. A sharp pain stabbed my left shoulder as an ill-fitting brick’s corner dug into my skin. “I...I...I,” was all I could get out.
“It isn’t safe for either of us if the bishops see us talking, so I don’t have long,” the dragon continued. “Sepetia and those like her believe deviance is a disease caused by magical animals. They seek to kill all deviants and magical animals to put an end to deviance. That book has within it the names of all those they would consider deviant, and the magical animal believed to cause it. In the wrong hands, that book would lead to mass slaughter.”
Shaking now, I eeked out the first questions that came to mind. “Is...is deviance caused by animals? Do...do magical animals even exist?” Looking back, I know the second question was foolish because a magical animal was in front of me, but until that moment I’d never seen a magical animal.
“Don’t be stupid,” the dragon growled. “There is no such thing as deviance. The notion of deviance is a fear tactic invented by the Premier and perpetuated by hateful magic. That book was written in the final days of the ninth age of dragons and magicked to record every perceived deviant and magical creature responsible in perpetuity. It is a fake science to justify the Premier’s witch hunt. Now I must go. If you have questions, ask Halim Mattlick. He called me here.”
Extending its impressive wings, the dragon was gone with a few silent flaps. For a moment I stood there, shaking and trying to calm myself. I knew there were groups that didn’t like children of lesser gods, but kill them because they were believed to be diseased? And diseased by magical creatures, which I’d heard tales of but didn’t actually think existed? My head was spinning so much I had nearly forgotten about the sharp pain in my shoulder. The pain returned with a vengeance now.
“Ahh,” I moaned, rubbing the spot stabbed by the brick, what was I going to do? Could this dragon be trusted? Should I worry about this book, its contents, and this woman who might want me dead? Rolling my shoulders, I tried to ease the pain. I can’t do anything tonight. Terriga was fast asleep, and the annex was locked up tight. I resolved to get to the main library early the next morning to speak to Terriga before my shift. She would know what to do.
Having calmed myself as much as I could, I walked to the main library’s front desk. At the desk, I dropped off the annex keys without a word and left the library. I rushed to my dormitory. Once there, I found Darnkal and Jistchet asleep. It was almost 2 AM now. I set my alarm for 6 AM, got into bed, and tried to sleep. Of course, I couldn’t. The dragon’s words repeated in my ears. What is the Premier planning? Am I in danger? What did Professor Mattlick have to do with all of this? Why had he called the dragon to the Valley? Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Sepetia’s pale face. My eyes would stay open.
When my alarm sounded at 6 AM, I jumped. I hurried through my grooming and practically ran to the library. As I approached, Terriga was just arriving as well. I walked with her into the main library, explaining the woman, the book, and the dragon.
“Keep your voice down,” Terriga demanded when I first mentioned the dragon. “We must get to the annex right away.”
We got the annex keys from the front desk and hurried around the building to the annex entrance. Terriga unlocked the doors and gate with a speed reflecting her years as library manager. Once inside, she turned on the lights and rushed to the third floor. I followed behind.
When we reached the third floor, I noticed right away that the pattern of book rows was different than it had been the night before. Now all 23 rows were pushed flush against the north wall, leaving a narrow path to the locked row along the south wall. My heart skipped a beat. Who had moved the rows?
When we rounded the corner of the southern-most row, Terriga stopped dead in her tracks. I peered around her. The steel gates at the end of the row were open.
Terriga broke into a hobbled run towards the gates. I ran too. As we approached, I could tell a book was missing from the bottom shelf. The locked row was packed full of books, but this morning an obvious gap appeared.
When we got to the locked row of books, Terriga bent down to examine the gap. When she rose again, I saw in her hand the note I had scribbled the night before. Only now the note had something else written on it, something I hadn’t written. Peeking over Terriga’s shoulder, I read, in dark green ink, “Curare Morbum.”
Cure the Disease.