The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Library of Dreams

At the Library of Dreams, you can conveniently deposit your unwanted nighttime imaginings for the low, low price of twenty-five dollars.

A Librarian will collect, archive, and catalog your dream, but don’t worry—you don’t have to wait around during the boring stuff. As soon as your dream has been safely withdrawn, the Librarian assigned to you will give you a receipt—hold on to this, mind you—and you can be on your merry way.

Now, let’s say you find yourself wanting to re-live your dream—whether that’s because it was a particularly thrilling one, but rather too thrilling to reside permanently in your mind; or because you are thirsty for inspiration and think it could make for a rollicking good story, if only you could remember what it was. Or perhaps you want your dream returned to you altogether, because, on second thought, it unnerves you to think about some figment of your subconscious sitting unused in a drawer somewhere. Well, you’re in luck: Recollection and restoration services are available, with pricing upon request. All you have to do is present your receipt (did you hold on it as you were supposed to?) at the Welcome Desk, and a Librarian will assist you.

Dream harvesting and storage, and excellent, first-class service, all for only twenty-five dollars.

Isn’t it a bargain, though?

But wait! There’s more!

If you will allow your dream to be a matter of public record—that is, freely available for viewing by any registered citizen—we will waive your collection fee, and pay you a sum of one hundred dollars (plus an additional percentage of each viewing). Think of it: Countless others, generations of others, paying to experience your own dreams, long after you’re dead and gone.

Kind of exciting, isn’t it?

Here at the Library of Dreams, we certainly think so.

*

It was Taja’s first time working the Welcome Desk at the Library of Dreams, and she was nervous about it, but not in the way you might think. She wasn’t nervous because she was the youngest apprentice at the library and was therefore bound to screw up something.

No, she was nervous because, since coming to work at the Library, she’d been content to scuttle around in the shadows and run errands and make coffee for the Librarians, even Madam Jacosa, who was by all possible definitions terrible. Taja had let the Librarians with bad attitudes yell at her and the Librarians with workaholic tendencies ignore her. Basically she’d allowed herself to drift unseen and (mostly) unloved through the Library like the bottom-ranking piece of scum she was, with no complaints.

Even though she was more talented than all of them.

Especially because she was more talented than all of them.

But now, thanks to a scheduling error, and hopelessly flaky Elis having called in sick again, Taja had been hastily reassigned to the Welcome Desk for the day. And at the Welcome Desk, she’d have no choice but to be noticed. And Taja worked very hard not to be noticed.

It was for the good of everyone, really.

The front door dinged and a rather furtive-looking young woman entered, half-hidden by a felt hat and tasseled scarf.

“Welcome to the Library of Dreams,” Taja said. “How may I help you today?”

“Yes, hello.” The woman hunched over the desk, as if protecting her words. She glanced at the five doors marked HARVESTING, RECOLLECTION, RESTORATION, VIEWING, and WAITING. “The thing is, I’ve never been here before.”

Obviously. “You don’t say?” Taja said.

“It’s just I’ve always thought dreams shouldn’t be tampered with, and that the Librarians have far too much power, and that something else is going on here. Something nefarious. Behind the scenes, as it were.” The woman eyed Taja expectantly.

Taja kept her face serene. Another conspiracy theorist. The Library saw at least five a day. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can assure you, we’re far from nefarious here at the Library of Dreams. We’re simply providing a service.”

“I read there was once this king who thought the Library was evil, that it should never have been built. He tried to burn it down, and then he disappeared.” The woman leaned closer. “Under rather mysterious circumstances.”

“Yes,” Taja said calmly, “I’m familiar with the story. Roysius the Third. He was quite mad.”

The woman’s mouth thinned. “You look rather young to be working here. I’m not sure I feel comfortable talking to you. Where’s your supervisor?”

“I’m thirteen, and quite capable, I assure you. My supervisor is Larkin, and he’s busy just now.”

“Oh yes? Busy doing what, exactly?”

Taja’s smile dazzled. “I can’t tell you that. Official Library business.”

The woman scowled, turned away, tapped her foot against the polished marble floor, and turned back. “Fine. Fine.” Then she mumbled something. Taja pretended she hadn’t understood.

“What’s that?” she asked sweetly.

“I said, I would like to view a particular dream. Should be filed under Halon, of the Dower family. He’s my . . .” The woman rolled her eyes. “All right, so he was my boyfriend. I know it’s silly, but . . . Right before he left me, he had this dream. I don’t know what it was about, but it upset him so much he could hardly speak, and then he left me, and I have to know what it is, I just have to. The cousin of his roommate is a friend of my sister’s, and she said he came to the Library the morning after he had that dream, which means it must be filed away here somewhere, and I’m fairly certain it’s public. So . . . I’d like to look at it now. Please.”

Taja waited with her hands clasped on the table before her. “I really didn’t need to know all of that. I just needed to know the service you required.”

The woman gaped, flushing. “And you just let me go on and on?”

“I didn’t want to be rude. Now,” said Taja, and here was where her heart’s steady trot became a gallop, “please let me see your registration, and I’ll get things started.”

The woman fumbled in her purse, muttering to herself. Then she slid her registration card across the desk. When Taja took it, she made sure her fingers grazed the woman’s hand.

All Librarians could see dreams. It only required a slight touch of skin to skin for the dreams to appear, surrounding the dreamer—ghostly shapes, cityscapes, nonsense. The dreamer, flying. The dreamer, falling. The dreamer, outrunning a forest of tornados. Typical stuff, most of the time. Same song, different voice. Recent dreams appeared closer, more vivid. Long-ago dreams were harder to make out and farther away. Sifting through the images to find the long-ago dreams was like fumbling through a dimly lit mirror maze with thousands of people, trying to find what you needed—one particular reflection among millions.

But for Taja, it was different.

*

For Taja, a touch didn’t mean simply seeing dreams. It meant seeing everything—dreams, memories, wants, fears. Stray violent thoughts. Deepest secrets.

It was a gift, Taja’s mother had said. At first.

Then Taja started telling her mother what she saw every time they kissed and hugged, every time they joined hands and danced in the kitchen while breakfast cooked: What her mother feared. What her mother wanted. What her mother thought of old man Duggan from next door. Where her mother had kissed the banker she’d gone to dinner with the night before. How her mother had hated Taja for a time when Taja was very small.

How her mother had thought of hurting her.

Taja didn’t hold a grudge; she’d long ago learned enough about the way minds worked to know that you couldn’t always control what you thought about. Accepting that was a matter of maintaining sanity, for Taja. She wasn’t insulted or anything.

But, quickly, the reality of this became too much for Taja’s mother. “What am I thinking now?” she would ask nastily, when Taja hugged her good-bye before school. “Tell me what I’m thinking,” she said one night, suddenly, while preparing supper. She grabbed Taja by the throat in a fit of mad-eyed rage, shook her, and then released her.

She watched Taja fearfully from across the room while they watched evening programs on the television. “I’m sorry,” she would sometimes whisper, and Taja would pretend she didn’t hear.

Taja’s mother started flinching, cursing, sobbing every time Taja entered a room, every time she moved or spoke, every moment she existed. Once, she threw a knife at Taja when she came down to the kitchen to help make lunch. “Don’t touch me!” Taja’s mother screamed, and Taja calmly left the room and went to the park to play with whatever kids she could find, because all of them were much happier than she was, and when she bumped into them while playing games, she saw flashes of smiling parents, and birthday parties full of color, and bright, brilliant futures so unlike the one she saw for herself.

Then, one night, Taja awoke to find someone—a gloved, masked someone—dragging her from her bed, stuffing her in a sack. She knew it was her mother because she smelled her rose perfume. In the back seat of the car, she sat silent and blinded. Through the cloth sack’s weave, she saw the faint shape of her mother, driving. Before Taja’s mother threw her over the bridge into the river, Taja’s mother whispered that she would be happier now, without Taja around.

“You monster,” Taja’s mother hissed, her voice choked with tears.

That was the moment, right before she slammed into the icy water, that Taja decided her mother wasn’t worth her time, and that her ability was a gift, not a curse. It was special; it could probably prove useful somewhere. So Taja decided she would live, and find out where that place might be.

*

“If you don’t mind,” the woman snapped, whipping her hand away from Taja’s, “I’d like only my assigned, grown-up Librarian to touch me.”

“I’m sorry! Sorry. It was a mistake. I— ” Taja paused, collected herself, stared at her desk. “If you’ll please take a seat in the Waiting Room, a Librarian will be along shortly to assist you.”

The woman gave Taja a curt nod and hurried to the Waiting Room. Her heels clacked against the floor like teeth.

Breathless, Taja slid the woman’s ten and two twenties into the cash drawer and dropped the woman’s registration card into the holding file for safekeeping. The truth was, though, that she wasn’t sorry at all. Stealing thoughts like this sustained her. She craved the thoughts of other people more than she craved actual food.

She was no curse. She was a gift.

I am a gift, mother. And I am alive.

What had Taja seen this time? She blew out a slow breath, assessing. An array of images had laid out before her, for that miraculous second. A vastness of books opened to their most vivid illustrations:

The woman customer, kissing a man. The woman, crying in a dimly lit room. The woman, winning the Presidential Award for Notable Contributions to Science. The woman, working in a laboratory. The woman, laughing in a theater with her friends. The woman, kissing a man, kissing a man, kissing a man named Halon Dower. The ex-boyfriend. This woman woman was absolutely miserable about him. Taja couldn’t feel her misery, but she could clearly see it in how many thoughts and memories focused on him.

This, of course, made Taja think of Larkin.

If anyone else existed who could do what Taja could do, and happened to touch Taja at that moment, her thoughts would have appeared to that person like images on a television, and they would have looked something like this:

Larkin, pulling Taja out of the river, exclaiming that she couldn’t be dead, please, not this poor little child.

Larkin, nursing Taja back to health in a tiny, warm room lined with books.

Larkin, giving Taja her blue apprentice’s coat.

Larkin, smiling. Chuffing her shoulder. Ruffling her hair. Looking at her. Singing while he worked.

Larkin, Larkin, Larkin.

Larkin, kissing her. Someday, when she was older, taller, beautiful. He would not ruffle her hair then.

(Her most precious, secret hope.)

The door opened. A man walked in, suited, vested, wearing a dark bowler hat. His suit had long coattails. Taja approved of this, and of his clean, attractive jaw.

“Welcome to the Library of Dreams,” Taja recited. “How may I help you today?”

“I’m here for a recollection,” the man said, sliding a crisp fifty and his card across the counter.

Taja appreciated regulars, and also people with voices coarse and rich, like this man’s. Velvet-textured. Rough around the edges.

“If you’ll please take a seat in the Waiting Room— ”

At that moment, Taja touched the man’s wrist. There was a strip of skin there, between his glove and his sleeve. She hadn’t meant to; she generally tried to limit herself to one touch a day. But she had been distracted by this man’s soft-crackling voice, by her lingering thoughts of Larkin, by a stray memory of her mother.

And so she had touched him. And so she had seen . . .

The city, burning. Her city.

The presidential palace, overrun with crawling shapes. Child-shaped hunters with claws like needles. Winged and scaled, slippery and tough-hided. Gaping jaws and dead eyes and no eyes, jagged beaks and glistening hooves, and—

Smoke and screams, pale wings in the air, fluttering and leathery—

Blood in the streets, a woman tearing at her hair; fat, wet shapes plopping onto rooftops, burning holes through the shingles—

“Is something wrong?”

Taja’s head snapped up. The man was watching her with mild curiosity, his eyes clear and steady.

“No, I— I’m sorry,” Taja stammered. “It’s my . . . it’s my first day.”

“Oh. How exciting for you, I’ll bet.”

Something like that. Oh gods, oh gods. What had she seen? “What is your name, please?”

“It’s on the card, isn’t it?” The man’s smile was a tiny ghost of a thing. “But all the same, it’s Winters. Soren Winters.”

Taja’s fingers shook on the typewriter keys. She was punching in absolute nonsense. Not that it mattered. Even though the name he provided matched the name on his registration card, she had seen the truth in his mind—this was not his true name. He was lying, about that and other things she couldn’t interpret.

“And you’re here for a recollection,” she said, in a casual sing-song. “Sure, sure.”

“Shall I go to the Waiting Room?” Mr. Winters took off his hat, smoothed his hair. It was the color of dust, and impeccable.

“No!”

Mr. Winters turned, his eyebrows tiny twin question marks. Not surprise so much as Oh?

“No, no, no, not today,” Taja said, hurrying to him with a clipboard in hand, which she hoped made her look at least halfway legitimate. She had no idea what she was doing, but she could not let him go through recollection. “We’re so dead today. I can take you right in.”

Dead. So completely, screamingly dead, like the city in Mr. Winters’s mind.

It hadn’t been a dream, that image. It had been a want. A someday. A desire sharp as hunger and as certain as now—the sensation of this is happening.

Even more certain to Taja was the knowledge that “Mr. Winters” wasn’t just here to recollect a dream.

He was here to steal one.

*

As far as Mr. Winters knew, Taja was just a Librarian—or most likely an apprentice, judging by her youth—which meant she couldn’t see anything but dreams, and so he had no reason to worry.  He had long ago learned how to control his dreams, and had been careful never to dream of . . . particular things.

This girl Taja was a little odd, true, but then, she was thirteen, so what did you expect?

He laughed, once, softly. Thirteen. That had been a good year.

Not for his father, true. But for him, at least.

And soon, all the quiet years between then and now would prove to have been worth it.

*

Taja led Mr. Winters through the RECOLLECTIONS door and down a series of hallways she was definitely not supposed to be in, ever. Were it not for Larkin, she wouldn’t even know they existed.

“And these are our recollection rooms,” Taja explained, gesturing pointlessly to the dark wooden doors lining this stretch of hallway. The carpet was thick and blood-red. Taja remembered the streets of Mr. Winters’s mind, stained with dead bodies, and felt faintly ill. “You’ll be assigned to one of these, and your Librarian will meet you there. It doesn’t hurt much, despite what people say. Recollection, I mean.”

“I’m familiar with the process. I’ve been here before, remember?”

Taja didn’t look at Mr. Winters, but she heard the hardly-there smile in his voice. “Oh. Right. Sorry, just—”

“It’s your first day.”

“Right.”

Think, Taja, think! But honestly, what was there to do? If she told anyone what she knew, they’d demand how she knew it. If she explained how she knew it, then her secret would no longer be a secret, and who knew what would happen to her then? The more skilled Librarians tended to disappear—it had happened twice during Taja’s years at the Library, once with Phenna Talisin, and then, later, with Garet Azhar, both of whom had just up and vanished one day, at the height of their popularity with patrons. The scandal had monopolized the papers for weeks, and the Library had enjoyed a temporary and not insignificant bump in business.

No one could resist a mystery, especially a grisly one.

Taja had often feared that she would wake up to find Larkin gone from her in this fashion. Everyone knew he was a genius. They called him Dreamkeeper, and whenever they did, he rolled his eyes and said something like, “They make me sound so old. Am I that old, Taja, to be given such a name?”

Once, Taja answered that no, he was not old, he was beautiful, and her cheeks had burned, but she would have said it a hundred more times if she could have, and Larkin had looked at her for a very long time before brushing the hair out of her face.

If she ever woke up to find him gone, she would tear apart the Library until she found him.

Would Taja, should she be found out, disappear? And if she did, would Larkin come looking for her?

“Do you think we’ll keep walking for much longer?” Mr. Winters asked, adjusting his coat. “Or do you have a special room in mind?”

Taja felt suspended in mid-air for an instant, and then nearly fell over her own feet. A special room. Of course. A plan slammed into her like the punch of the icy river water, straight to her lungs. It was wild, it was impossible. It was most likely fatal. But it was the only thing to do.

Mr. Winters could not be permitted to recollect someone else’s dream and steal from the Library. He could not be permitted to leave the Library, either, not with such plans churning in his head, and not on Taja’s watch. The Library had raised her. She had grown up in these unending hallways, ordered here and there by tired, frazzled adults in dusty robes, their eyes bloodshot from too much dreaming. She was to be a Librarian someday, and Librarians did not fear death.

Taja had faced death before, and lived.

“Not much longer,” she said cheerfully. “Sorry for the walk. They’ve been doing work on the front rooms.”

A special room, indeed. She would take him to the most special room of all. She would take him to the Vault of Nightmares.

And she would lock him inside.

*

Larkin probably didn’t even remember that he had told her. But he had.

It had been that first night, when Taja was six and shivering in Larkin’s arms, river-drenched to the bone. He held her close to the fire and spooned hot broth into her mouth. He sang to her, a lullaby called “The Fairies of Far Westing,” which reminded Taja of her mother and made her gasp with pain.

To soothe her, Larkin had shown her the marvelous things in his office: The rows of books cataloging some of his own, most beloved dreams. The wood-handled silver bell that had been a gift from his father.

And the belt of keys kept in a small drawer, which could only be opened by pressing the wood carvings on the drawer’s face—curling vines and singing birds, a rose with twenty-three petals—in a particular way.

The white key was for the Office of the Head Librarian, upstairs in the Tower.

The red key was for the Fifth Floor Collections, of which Larkin was in charge.

The black key was for the Vault of Nightmares.

The tiny brass key he gave to Taja, and which she wore always on a silk ribbon, hidden beneath her shirt, was her own key to his office. “If you should ever need a safe place to hide,” he had told her, not long after her arrival, “you are always welcome in here with me.” She had taken him up on that, often curling up in the threadbare chair in the corner to study, just to be near him as he worked, just to smell the ink staining his fingers.

He probably hadn’t thought Taja would remember anything about those keys. He certainly couldn’t have imagined that, every time she touched him, she searched his mind for an image of how to open the drawer of keys, until she had the combination memorized.

But Taja remembered.

*

Taja withdrew her brass key and opened Larkin’s office.

“If you’ll just wait right here,” she said to Mr. Winters.

He nodded, once, and said nothing.

Taja slipped inside the office, shivering. It was obvious Mr. Winters was becoming suspicious. She couldn’t blame him. She had kept him walking for fifteen minutes, and they were nearing the bowels of the Library, where everything was icy cold and the walls were stone instead of paneled wood. Mr. Winters had to have realized by now that this was not standard protocol.

And yet he was not protesting, or demanding to be taken back upstairs. Perhaps he was curious.

She hoped that was all it was.

Taja pressed the wood carvings, in the right order—fifth petal from the right, bluebird, bell, third petal from the top, and so on. She kept her ear pressed to the wood; with each press of her fingers, a tiny click sounded. The drawer popped open. She pulled out the black key and almost dropped it. It crawled. The surface of the key was cold, and wriggled as if from the cycling movement of a thousand tiny legs.

Repulsed, Taja dropped the key in her pocket and grabbed a random stack of papers from Larkin’s desk. The movement jarred a scarf lying there; it slid to the floor, and Taja caught the scent of Larkin—cinnamon (his favorite candies) and smoke (from the fires on this level, which were always lit to keep the Librarians from freezing).

I’ll come back, and I’ll tell you how much I love you, I won’t waste another second, she thought, and left.

“Almost there,” she said brightly to Mr. Winters, locking Larkin’s office behind her. She was surprised to realize she felt no urge to cry at the thought that, if something went wrong with her plan, she would never see Larkin again. She supposed she was too terrified to cry, as she had been on the night her mother had tried to kill her.

“What was all that about?” asked Mr. Winters.

“Just needed some paperwork.” Taja waved the papers with far too much enthusiasm.

“Ah. I see.” Mr. Winters moved his head the barest inch, his eyes looking to the ground, as though he were listening for something. His tongue flicked out, wet his lips.

Taja turned away, though every instinct she had screamed at her not to turn her back to him. There was something abhorrently serene about him.

The weight of the key in her pocket was like a living thing. Cold, and shifting.

*

The Vault—a nondescript door of weathered wood on the lowest level of the Library, which Taja only knew about through years of touching Larkin whenever she could get away with it. Apprentices were not allowed here; few Librarians were allowed here. The air here was so cold that Taja’s breath came in puffs. The weight of the Library above them pressed on her shoulders.

“How very odd, this place you’ve brought me,” Mr. Winters remarked, his eyes fixed on the door. He seemed different now, the lines of his body sharper, longer. Alert.

“My supervisor told me that, as one of our regular patrons, you get the special treatment this visit,” Taja said, her fingers shaking as she tried to fit the black key into its lock. “It’s like a sort of contest, you see, and you’re the winner.” The key twitched in her hand. Something bit her.

The lock turned, and the door opened. Beyond it, Taja could see only darkness. Right, then. There was no turning back now. Larkin, Larkin.

“Please follow me,” said Taja, stepping just inside. “Your Librarian will be right with you.”

Mr. Winters clasped his hands behind his back and followed her in. Then, Taja froze, considering. The pieces of herself shifted and realigned. She stood there for an instant, for a slow hour. What was she doing? What was she thinking? Her blood was a dull, desperate roar.

She could have stepped outside, slammed the door shut, and locked Mr. Winters inside. That had been the plan. A good plan. A plan to be proud of. But instead Taja flung the key back into the hallway and slammed the door shut, locking them both inside. Something had seized her heart and rooted her here, in this darkness, behind the weathered door.

Something like craving.

She had seen people’s nightmares before, in brief flashes that kept her up for long, sleepless hours—not from fear, but from fascination. Beasts and devils, gods and death. What would a whole vault of them look like? Were any of them, she wondered, as monstrous as she? She would look, only for a moment. And then she would open the door and sneak out before Mr. Winters had even begun to process where he now found himself.

“My curious girl,” Larkin had once called her, his arm loosely about Taja’s shoulders as they sat by the fire. Taja had not been able to stop staring at his long legs, his dear, shabby shoes. “Your mind is a diamond. You’ll make a fine Librarian someday. Even finer than me.”

“Impossible,” Taja had declared hotly. “No one could be finer than you.”

And Larkin had kissed her on the cheek. “Little sister,” he had said, “it’s as if we share a heart.”

My curious girl.

Taja stepped away from the door, hungering.

*

The Vault was completely lightless—or at least it seemed so, at first. Taja’s breath came thin and fast. Though it had been cold just outside the Vault, inside the air was tropical. Damp, oppressively thick. When Taja’s eyes adjusted, she saw a rocky cavern, tremendous, never-ending and many-roomed. Fires here and there, and piles of luminscent moss, gave everything an eerie glow. The ceiling disappeared into blackness. There was water, somewhere; Taja heard the rush of a current.

The air smelled like burning.

A massive explosion to her right knocked Taja off her feet. She tumbled down the moss-covered ridge and hit her head. Dazed, she looked back up the ridge. The Vault door had disappeared, as had the wall surrounding it. There was only more cavern—fires dotting sky-high cliffs, figures crossing distant bridges. A black lake. A dim blue city.

“Mr. Winters?” Taja tried to call out, but her ears were ringing, and her voice came out strangled.

“What the—? Taja? Larkin’s girl?”

A voice behind Taja made her turn. Her head throbbed, and she nearly threw up. A woman stood there, scarred and sweating, her short hair in spiky braids. She wore thick goggles and carried a gun that crackled with white lightning. On her frayed shirt was a faded, familiar insignia—that of a Librarian.

Taja squinted at the woman’s face; it was spattered with blood, but Taja never forgot the face of someone whose mind she had touched.

“Phenna?” she breathed. “Phenna Talisin? But you’re dead. You disappeared. Everyone was looking for you—”

“Not dead. Not yet.” Phenna yanked Taja to her feet. “Get behind me, and cover your eyes.”

Taja did as she was told, peeking up through her fingers at the top of the ridge, where . . . something . . . was moving. Pale and thin, unthinkably tall, the something unfurled its wings, tearing itself free from what remained of a fine suit and vest, a shell of human skin. It blew out a breath, so hot Taja’s eyes watered. A charred scrap of bowler hat fluttered to her feet.

“All I wanted today was that key,” the thing rasped, in a voice that was part Mr. Winters and part wrath, part fever, part crumble and flay. As it spoke, its words dissolved until they were hardly intelligible, as if he were, right in front of them, forgetting how to form human speech. “But you, child, have given me something even better. You . . . have brought me home. And now, we can begin.”

The thing that had been Mr. Winters reared up to its full height, stretching its wings out twenty feet on either side. Its eyeless face turned to the black sky, and it shrieked to rend apart the world.

Throughout the vast cavern, screams echoed back, followed by two distant explosions.

“Fantastic,” Phenna muttered, cocking her gun. It began to whine, humming higher and higher. “You couldn’t have brought one of the little ones, could you, girl?”

Taja clutched Phenna’s waist, pressing her face against Phenna’s back. “What’s going on?” she screamed over the din.

“War, that’s what,” Phenna spat, “and you’ve just brought the other side a great bloody bomb.”

A low boom above them—the thing that had been Mr. Winters beat its wings once, twice, and rose up to hover, extending its claws. Its tail was a fat whip; Phenna ducked down to avoid it, bringing Taja with her. The thing that had been Mr. Winters shrieked, wheeled about. Its mouth reeked of blood and writhed with worms.

In the flash of time before the world ended, Taja could think of only one thing: The broken-hearted woman, sitting upstairs in the Waiting Room, pining over Halon Dower. The Library? Nefarious? No, madam, you’re mistaken. Sorry to disappoint you. We’re simply providing a service.

Taja burst out laughing. Conspiracy theorists, indeed! Gods bless them all.

The thing that had been Mr. Winters lunged at them. Phenna cursed, raised her gun to her shoulder, and fired.

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