فصل 06کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 14
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Jess expected that they’d leave the Serapeum and board carriages for the train station.
It was a long journey back to London, and then to Oxford.
But Wolfe didn’t lead them outside. He put his wristband against the painting of Callimachus, the first Archivist under Ptolemy II, and the painting melted into flowing orange symbols.
Symbols Jess recognised, after having seen them moving under Morgan’s fingers. Formulae, Morgan had called them. What was it doing here, hidden inside a painting?Then the wall next to it slid open, and Wolfe stepped into another, hidden corridor.
The eye of Horus was inscribed on the tiles that lined the hall.
‘I had heard this place had secret tunnels,’ Thomas said.
He kept his voice low, but it echoed all the same. ‘I thought they were all ancient.
Not this one. It was modern, and lined with inset statues that melded Greek, Roman and Egyptian influences in the odd style that Alexandria had developed; the first, a Scholar in a Greek tunic, held a scroll.
The next, in a Roman toga, held an open book. The third was one of the Egyptian deities … Thoth, who had invented writing, and served as the god of scribes. He held the feather of Ma’at.
All, Jess realised, were automata. If a threat was found in the hall, it would never make it out alive.
Jess got all of this in hurried glances, because Wolfe was moving at a quick pace to the end of the hallway, which ended in another empty wall. He used his Library band on it, waking more symbols, and another entrance opened.
The Obscurists built these passages. He looked at Morgan, who’d put her hands in her dress pockets as she walked, as if she was cold.
He remembered how the string of orange light from the blank had clung to her fingers. She was afraid to touch anything, for fear she might call something up that others could see. Jess followed her into a small, plain anteroom lit by amber glows. No books here.
No blanks. No reading tables or couches. In one corner was a stack of black canvas bags.
‘Pick up your packs,’ Wolfe said. ‘Your names are on tags.’
Thomas got there first.
Even for his bulk, the pack he selected seemed large. When Jess grabbed the one with BRIGHTWELL on the tag, he was staggered by the weight.
He slipped the straps on his shoulders. It fitted well enough, and having the load distributed made it feel more manageable.
He wondered how Khalila would fare with it, but he needn’t have worried; she shouldered it just as easily as the much more muscular Glain. Only Izumi, the smallest of them, seemed overwhelmed, but she didn’t complain.
‘Watch out for each other,’ Wolfe said, when they were all ready. ‘This will not get any easier, I can promise you. I didn’t want you involved in this, but since you are, I need all of you focused.
Follow orders without delay, and stay alert.’
It was Wolfe’s concern,Jess thought, that was the most unsettling part of this.
‘I thought we were going to Oxford,’ Thomas said.
‘What are we doing here?’ Wolfe said, ‘You are in the Translation Chamber.
That is how we will travel.’ Jess had heard of it, but only in whispers … the same principles that allowed for the mirroring of documents and the movement of books back to the Archive could allow different kinds of things to be physically moved from one spot to another … with the direct participation of an Obscurist. It wasn’t something he’d ever expected to see.
There was a brief hesitation before Dario said, ‘I thought the Translation Chamber was only used to send supplies.’‘It is,’ Wolfe said. It sounded casual, but Jess wasn’t deceived. ‘But it can also be used to send people in emergencies. I will warn you, it can take years of practice to grow accustomed to
Translation; some never do.’ ‘We – haven’t had years of practice,’ Thomas said. ‘Or any practice.’
‘I’m aware,’ Wolfe said.
‘But needs must. It’s a simple enough process, one that requires little from you but to clear your mind. If all goes well, you’ll appear in the Translation Chamber in
Aylesbury, which is the closest safe point to Oxford.’ ‘And if all doesn’t go well?’ Khalila asked.
Wolfe ignored the question. He reached out and pressed his gold band to the matching Library symbol embossed on the far wall, and a hidden door swung open.
On the other side was a dizzying array of wires, tubes … a tangle of metal and harsh lights. So different from everything else Jess had seen here. Massive and intimidating, this … machine, he supposed he should call it.
In the centre of it was a clear space, and an old man in a white robe stood with a bronze metal helmet in his hands. The helmet was connected to wires that led into the tubes.
There was a sudden, loud hiss, and white steam billowed up over their heads.
Jess ducked. So did everyone, except Wolfe.
Niccolo Santi stepped into the room and edged past them to Wolfe. He had on a pack, too, but his looked well worn.‘Let me go first,’ he said.
‘Show them how it’s done.’ Wolfe nodded and put his hand on Santi’s shoulder. ‘In bocca al lupo.’
‘In bocca al lupo,’ Santi said, and walked to the centre of the room where the old man was waiting. ‘I’m ready.’
The old man sighed and fitted the helmet down over Santi’s head. It looked tight,and left only a small part of his face showing.
Santi’s easy smile faded, and he closed his eyes. Stood very still.
‘Ready?’ the old man asked. Santi nodded. ‘The connection isn’t good. It will hurt.’
‘Always does. Get on with it.’
The old man put his palsied, unsteady hands on the metal helmet Santi wore.
A column of orange symbols rose up into the air around the two of them, and began to revolve. Slowly at first, and then faster and faster, until it was just a blurring tornado of light. The old man suddenly jerked his hands away, and the light contracted down to a tight, whirling circle around Santi’s body.The circle drew in on itself into a single, brilliant orange point of light, and Santi … folded. There was a flash of something horrible, something so fast Jess hardly saw it: sprays of blood and torn flesh and the fragments of bones. A powerful wave pushed through Jess’s flesh, and he felt the hair rise on his head and arms in response to something alien, terrifying, and wrong.
The metal helmet fell with a heavy thud to the floor.
Empty. Then it was silent.
The Obscurist – he had to be one, there was a golden collar around his throat – staggered backward, breathing heavily.
Khalila let out a choked cry, and pressed both hands to her mouth as if she felt sick. Jess knew exactly how she felt. How were they supposed to endure that?
In the silence, the Codex in Wolfe’s pocket buzzed. He checked it. ‘He’s through,’ he said. ‘Next.’
It was abruptly very real, Jess thought; the pack dragging on his back, the Translation Chamber, the future opening wide and unknown at his feet like an abyss. His feet felt frozen to the spot.
It was somewhat surprising that it was the quiet Guillaume Danton who stepped forward and said, ‘I’ll go.’ He didn’t sound frightened, but Jess caught the telltale tremor of his hands.
Wolfe put a hand on Danton’s shoulder and guided him forward. He picked up the helmet and placed it on the boy’s head. ‘Think about the sky,’ he told him. ‘Close your eyes. Think about the blue sky, and clouds moving over it. White clouds. Moving over a blue sky.’ Wolfe’s voice seemed different now, slow and soothing, and Jess saw Danton’s body actually relax. Wolfe nodded to the Obscurist, who placed his hands on the helmet. ‘Blue sky.’ ‘I see it,’ Guillaume said, and smiled.
The orange light formed around him. Symbols swirled.
Wolfe took a step back.
‘White clouds,’ he said.
‘Watch them move.’
The light snapped in on itself, and Danton screamed.
It was a horrible cry, ripped right out of the core of him,and Jess started forward, but Wolfe was in his way, holding him back.
‘You can’t help him,’ he said.
Jess stared as Danton’s body was ripped apart, folded, gone. The horrified shrieking cut off clean, and that wave of power flashed over his skin like a burn.
The empty helmet clattered to the floor. Wolfe checked his Codex.
Something changed in his expression, just a brief flash: anger, anguish, fury – hard to know. He said, ‘Next.’ Going next was the very last thing that Jess wanted to do. It was all he could do not to bolt for the exit.
Khalila said, with forced cheer, ‘Better to get it over with.’ She walked towards the Obscurist, who was picking up the helmet.
Morgan had a horrified look on her face. She rushed to Wolfe. Before she could speak, he turned on her and snapped, ‘Wait your turn, postulant.’
‘But I saw—’
‘Postulant. Control yourself, or go.’ Wolfe’s stare burnt, hot enough to melt the Iron Tower itself, and she finally nodded and bowed her head. Stepped back.
‘Postulant Seif, you may proceed.’
Khalila squared her shoulders as the Obscurist settled the helmet over her hijab. When Wolfe moved forward, she shook her head.
‘Blue skies and clouds. Yes. I know. Just let me do this.’ Dario made a twitch of a move towards her, as if he wanted to drag her back, but he held himself still. ‘In bocca al lupo, desert flower.’ ‘I’m from Riyadh,’ she told him. ‘It’s not the desert, it’s a modern city, with roads and carriages. And desert flowers have spikes.’ She somehow managed to smile beneath the weight of that helmet. ‘What does it mean?’ ‘In the mouth of the wolf,’ Dario said. ‘Forget the clouds, and keep your eyes on me. I’m much prettier.’ ‘And much more empty in the head,’ she said. ‘In bocca al lupo, Dario.’
The old Obscurist put his shaking hands on her head.
Dario continued, somehow, to hold her stare and smile, though Jess couldn’t imagine what that cost him. She didn’t look away, either, even as the light began to swirl.
Even as it snapped in and broke her apart.
She didn’t scream. Jess felt the power blow over him, disorienting and visceral, and he wondered how the old man could bear that lash, time after time.
Dario must have felt honour-bound to go next, because he strode up and donned the helmet without a word. At the last second, he threw a dazzling grin at Jess.‘Don’t ask me to look at you, scrubber,’ he said. ‘I’d rather think of the damned clouds.’ A soul-deep shriek of mortal pain and terror, blood, shock, and then he, too, was gone.
When Izumi’s turn came, it did not go the same. The Obscurist laid on his hands, and there was the same scream, the same whirl of blood and bone and flesh, but instead of collapsing inward, the whirling orange light exploded out. It washed over them in a wave of heat, and this time Jess ducked as if it was an actual, physical threat.
He wasn’t the only one. Even Wolfe flinched.
When he looked back, Izumi was still there. Face down, sprawled on the marble, buried beneath the weight of her pack. Jess got to her at the same time as Wolfe, and helped loosen the pack straps to get the weight off of the slender young woman while Wolfe stripped off the helmet.
Wolfe turned her over.
Izumi’s eyes were open and staring, but … empty, of everything but a mute horror.
Over their heads, a red light began to flash, bathing the whole room in flashes of crimson. A torrent of steam hissed out of valves and pipes in a deafening roar.
The old Obscurist was on his knees as well, but not to help. He was gasping for air, and shaking like an autumn leaf in a storm. His face was the colour of grey mud. He looked like he might drop dead. When Jess reached out to help him, the old man flinched back, as if he expected to be hurt. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Leave me alone. Not my fault. Not my fault.’ Wolfe pressed fingertips to Izumi’s neck, then his ear to her chest. ‘Help is coming,’ he told her. ‘You’re not alone. Can you hear me, Izumi? Show me you can hear me.’ She seemed frozen and unable to move, but her eyes cut towards him, and she blinked. His austere face softened into a relieved, fully warm smile. ‘Good girl.
You’ll be fine.’
She swallowed and managed to whisper something Jess couldn’t catch, but Wolfe clearly did.
He shook his head. ‘Don’t,’ he said. ‘Some can’t tolerate it. There’s no shame in that.’ The door they’d entered slid open, and a two-man Medica team carried in astretcher. They loaded Izumi on, and whisked her away before any of them could comprehend what had really happened.
It was left to Jess to say, ‘She failed, didn’t she?’ Wolfe’s smile was gone now, and his face closed and stony. ‘There’s nothing I can do. The Artifex made it clear that anyone who fails on this journey loses their place,’ he said. ‘Not her fault.’ ‘Has anyone ever died?’ Portero asked. His voice sounded higher than it normally did, his face two shades off his normal dull bronze.
‘Yes,’ Wolfe said. Just the bare word. He turned his eyes to Jess. ‘Are you ready?’ Jess realised that he was already standing in the centre, beside the fallen helmet. He felt the urge to bolt away.
Instead, he raised his gaze to meet Wolfe’s and said, ‘I’m ready.’
The helmet felt suffocating and heavy as granite as it pressed down on him. It smelt of sweat and burning metal. Think of clouds. He couldn’t. He couldn’t think of anything but the torment his friends had endured before him.‘Jess.’ He opened his eyes.
Morgan had stepped forward, and she was holding out her hand to him.
He took it, and she squeezed his fingers. ‘In bocca al lupo.’
He said it back, and then she was gone.
The Obscurist shuffled forward, and pressed those shaking hands down on the helmet. The old man’s robes smelt of stale curry, and his breath was rank with it too.
He’s too old, Jess thought.
Maybe it’s his fault, what happened to Izumi. Maybe he’ll kill me.
He felt something rising around him like a storm of needles, and caught and held his breath. He squeezed his eyes shut, like a child hiding from a monster in the dark.Somehow, he managed to hold on to the tattered remains of courage as the needles turned in, and began to rip him apart. It was an awful, horror-filled second of utter destruction, and he heard a scream wrenched out of his mouth that he couldn’t control. His vision went blood-red, and he felt himself convulse, and then… Then he was falling to his hands and knees on a stone floor, still crying out.
Nothing worked. He flailed and rolled onto his back, managed to silence himself, and tried to breathe. Someone grabbed hold of his shoulders and was dragging him away … Dario? Yes. It was Dario Santiago, gripping him hard enough to leave bruises.
Dario propped Jess’s back against a wall and left him there. For the first time, Jess was grateful for the pack weighing him down; it felt soft as a feather bed now, a familiar anchor in a world that seemed to still tremble and dance in front of his eyes.
‘Easy,’ Khalila was saying to him, and her hands were holding a cup of water in front of his face. ‘Drink.
You’ll feel better in a moment.’He took the cup, mindlessly; his hands shook so badly that he spilt half of it on his face and down his shirt, but he got enough of it into his mouth to choke down, and as she’d said, it helped. The world steadied slowly into an off-kilter wobble, then finally righted itself.
Thomas arrived while he was still struggling to adapt,and Dario’s job evidently was to grab and drag the newcomers, which wasn’t an easy job, given the German’s bulk. Jess handed the cup back to Khalila, and she filled it from a jug and moved to administer the same kindness to Thomas. She didn’t seem to have any problems; she moved with calm grace, and her hand extending the cup was rock steady.Jess still felt a horrible conviction in the back of his mind that some part of him was missing, lost in that bleeding whirl, though as he ran hands over himself he couldn’t feel any wounds.
He was better off by far than some of the others.
Dario and Khalila seemed to have done best; Guillaume Danton, first to arrive, was lying still off to the side. A woman dressed in the sand coloured overcoat of a librarian was tending to him – a Medica specialist, by the red blood-drop symbol on the lapel of her uniform.
Guillaume looked icy pale, his face slack.
Jess tried to stand up, failed, tried again, and slid down the wall to where Dario had dragged Thomas. He dropped in place next to his friend. Thomas lost his grip on the cup, which slipped free and dumped water all over Khalila’s dress. She calmly refilled it and tried again.
This time, Thomas managed a sip, then another. The look in his eyes was appalling, and Jess had to find something else to study for a while.
There were things too private to watch.
One by one, the rest came through. Portero vomited and wept, but more of the Medica attendants were arriving, and took firm charge. Portero and Guillaume seemed the worst affected; Glain seemed to hardly even need the water once she’d arrived, and she recovered fast.
Jess hated her for it. He wasn’t entirely sure he’d ever recover, in some very deep and visceral way. She seemed to have simply taken it in stride and moved on.
Like Khalila, who hardly seemed to have missed a breath.
‘That,’ Thomas whispered, ‘that was the worst thing I have ever felt.’ He seemed truly shaken. Jess slapped him on the shoulder and nodded. ‘I am not cut out for this. Not if that is required.’‘It’s only for emergencies.
And Wolfe says it gets better, with practice.’
‘It will never get better, and I will never practise.’ Thomas looked around, and spotted the motionless form of Guillaume. A frown line creased his brow and pulled his eyebrows flat. ‘Is he all right?’
‘Doesn’t look like it,’ Jess said. ‘Here. Drink more.’Khalila hadn’t spoken, but she was quietly waiting for Thomas to finish the cup; he did, handed it back, and she moved on to the next who needed it. Suddenly Jess wondered if her glacial poise really was a sign that she was all right; maybe it was a form of shock as profound as his own, only expressed very differently.
‘Mein Gott,’ Thomas said.His voice sounded different, flatter, and Jess looked away from Khalila to his friend. He was staring across the room.
The two Medica staff with Danton were standing back, and Captain Santi was making the sign of the cross over the body. As Jess stared, Santi slowly pulled the cover over the boy’s face.
‘Christ above,’ Jess blurted, and crossed himself;it was a long-forgotten habit, but shock drew it out of him.
Couldn’t be true, could it?
That Guillaume was dead?
Dario swore viciously, quietly in Spanish. Morgan, who’d arrived when Jess’s attention was elsewhere, was up and moving, and she tried to go to Danton’s body, but one of the Medica staff caught her and led her away.
She was weeping. Jess wanted to get up and go to her, but he wasn’t sure his legs were ready.
In a violent clap of air and movement, Christopher Wolfe arrived. He didn’t collapse. He didn’t even pause. He strode on, as if he’d simply stepped from one place to another, and walked past Jess and Thomas towards the place Niccolo Santi still knelt next to Guillaume’s covered body.
Niccolo Santi looked up just in time. He lunged up to halt the Scholar’s relentless advance. When Wolfe tried to push past, Santi grabbed hold and held him. ‘No,’ he said.
‘Christopher. No. He’s gone.’ Wolfe took in a deep breath, turned away, and used his Codex to send a message.
His stylus moved in fast, vicious jerks as he wrote it down. It hummed in answer a moment later, and he put it away and stalked off to a darker corner of the room.
That, Jess thought, was the most emotion he’d ever seen from Wolfe. Or Santi, for that matter. It felt like an earthquake on previously steady ground.
Santi stepped forward in Wolfe’s absence. ‘Up,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to move.’‘What about Guillaume?’ Khalila asked.
‘He’ll be returned as quickly as possible to his family,’ Santi said. ‘Does anyone want to say a word now for him?’
For a frozen moment, no one moved or spoke, and then Dario Santiago said, ‘I didn’t like him, but he went through first when I wouldn’t. Brave.
I think that says enough.’Santi nodded. He glanced towards Wolfe, who still hadn’t moved. ‘Outside,’ he said. ‘Go on.’
Most of them had already gone when Wolfe finally turned and stalked for the door, but Morgan had lingered. She caught Wolfe’s sleeve as he passed, and although her whisper was very soft, Jess was close enough to hear it. ‘Scholar, I saw it. I tried to tell you, I saw—’
Wolfe turned and gave her a fierce, almost wild stare.
‘You couldn’t have saved him,’ he said. ‘Even if you were an Obscurist, which I remind you, you are not. This wasn’t your doing.’ He yanked his robe free of her hand and pushed on and out the door.
Morgan nodded. She seemed flushed now, and tears sparked in her eyes.
Wolfe was telling her to keep her secret.
But Jess wondered if he was telling her everything
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