Caught Between: A SHIELD Codex Short
. . .
"The Jade Emperor looked down at the Cat, who had missed the great ceremony and now would, by his own decree, hold no place in the stars. Then the emperor looked at the Rat, and there he saw cleverness and revenge, and he felt regret, for Buddha would teach that vengeance offered no path to our true peace. Yet even today, the Cat is no part of China's astrology." Wong sat crosslegged in his librarian's soft blue robe amidst a drift of thick satin pillows, their lovely ruby and gold patterns interrupted by fluffy bodies and intent, feline faces. He smiled at his audience and continued, a new epilogue to an old tale. "This is the version of the story my mother taught me. But my mother also said that one story alone will never fill the book of our world's song.
"The Cat, she taught me, found its own place in the world. Instead of being a part of the heavenly sky - and there are stories, too, that the Cat eventually found its way above by the grace of the Buddha - it became our companion, our guide, and protector. Where I grew up, we believed that no evil ghost could cross the threshold of a home watched over by a cat. Its eyes were too sharp, and its claws could cut even such a spirit."
Approving purrs came from the listening flerkens, many of whom were visiting specially for this semi-regular day of stories. One rose from her cushion and went to rub herself against Wong's knee. Her name was Weilai, and she herself had chosen it, as all flerkens make their preferred name known. Mostly because it had been the prettiest word she had overheard as a flerkitten when Wong was introducing her to the other keepers of the Hong Kong Sanctum. In context, he had been talking about taking part in preserving the future of her kind. Weilai liked that even more, especially when he explained the various nuances of the word and the way it could shift meanings in his language, yet still all be part of the same poem.
Wong put a hand down to cup her head as she leaned into his palm, purring contentedly. Around her neck, a tiny, tiny magic scroll jingled within a cinnabar cage dotted with a jade bead. The collar was light, fine gold and it did not catch her fur. On the scroll was the words of the library keeper's secret key, and she loved Wong very much for permitting her to share that duty with him. Once she had earned it.
. . .
When she was still very little, Weilai spent her time exploring all of Hong Kong, though sometimes the keepers fretted when she was away among high rooftops and close-crammed food stalls for too long. The days in the city were difficult ones right now, and moreso at night. The secret markets were well kept, those strange places that only children and dreamers could stumble into, and all whispers were troubled. China itself, ancient and beautiful, was still in the grip of dark times. But one did not say so, not openly. Not even in a free city whose hard fought freedoms were being slowly but increasingly caged.
The human keepers of the Sanctum were fine and good people, and they took time to pet her and give her treats, and no wall bore the marks of her fine, white claws whenever she came back. She saved her scratchings for things she did not like, and there were plenty of other things much better for that in the city. But as she grew and her lucky tortoiseshell fur filled out, she decided she loved the library parts of the Sanctum best. Weilai found herself both restless and willing to stay close until she again saw the good man who helped adopt her among the hidden society of magicians.
Wong had understood, somehow, taking time after his business to follow her to the locked door that magically went from the Sanctum's personal archive to the vast, winding halls of the Great Library of Kamar-Taj. She sat next to the gilded door and pawed at it, looking up and giving him a querulous, confused mew. A flerken could go almost anywhere, of course. If it could be a fixed point in space, a flerken's eldritch gifts could find it and take them there.
The heart of the great library was most assuredly not a fixed point in space. Old and powerful magic made it shimmer uneasily against the stonier backdrop of a hard reality. Spells and secrets that even Ancients and Supremes would barely whisper a word of.
A flerken is just enough like an earthly cat to be maddened by a door so firmly closed.
She mewed again, and patted, and looked up at Wong, who was looking down at her with a small but gentle smile. He said, "You are not a Keeper, a Librarian, or a studying sorcerer within our order or sponsored by it, little one. These are the rules of Kamar-Taj."
There was no condescension in his voice. Wong himself was one of the Librarians, chief among them in fact, even though he spent so much time in New York now. He was simply telling her a fact of his life.
Still, Weilai mewed again, firmer this time. Frej would be allowed in someday, then. She could feel her egg-sibling through the vague, indescribable network of thoughts and experiences flerkens shared, and knew Frej was already a beginner at the craft. But Weilai was living among the Sanctums themselves. Wasn't she herself a Keeper, then, in her way?
It wasn't about jealousy. Flerkens held their sense of community and family sacred, even if they might be light years away from another of their kind, and a flerken who was achieving a lifetime goal was a joy for all of them. But flerkens are, again, a little like cats, and a little like other mythical creatures, too, and if they all craved and would hoard one thing, it was knowledge.
Especially when it waited behind locked. Damned. Doors.
Weilai resettled herself next to the door to the great library, pulling herself daintily upright and patting her little paws into position until she looked up at Wong with the most determined expression a narrow felid face can put together.
When he tried, Wong could 'talk' with a flerken fairly easily. Loki, who had helped sponsor these adoptions when the flerken under Director Fury's care successfully hatched her large egg-brood, made their intelligence extremely clear when Wong had come to take one to the eastern Sanctum. Of course, Loki's flerken was Frej herself, destined to be the first sorceress among her kind.
So Wong was quite aware of what he was dealing with. He smiled, as he occasionally would with the young trainees who had not yet gotten on his almost militaristic bad side amidst the library stacks, and he inclined his head at her. "To be sponsored entry by our order is an undertaking of peculiar and difficult matters, and the rare exception is exceptional indeed. However… Not all of our Keepers are great sorcerers themselves. Some have small powers and large hearts, whose paths brought them to Kamar-Taj to remind us that even a humble gift might change a world. It is more about their sense of duty, their commitment to an oath to protect knowledge, even at the risk of their own lives." Here, Wong arched an eyebrow. "And a Librarian may hold almost no magical gift at all, save a fine memory and a good pair of hands to sift through the words under their care."
Weilai mewed questioningly at him. Wasn't Wong a great sorcerer, himself?
"I am a sorcerer, yes. But my predecessor was not." Wong looked around and found one of the small stools that got scattered around the Sanctum. Not everyone liked the floor cushions, and walking around New York gave him a backache sometimes that Hong Kong never had. He suspected it was the brusque hurriedness of the city, as compared to his homeland. He loved New York's energy in that respect, but it exhausted, too. He plopped himself down on the stool's plush seat and absently resettled the folds of his robe as various tools of magic jangled at his waist. "Her name was Akila, and she sometimes claimed her family could trace its lineage to Istros the Callimachian, one of the librarians of lost Alexandria itself."
Wong bent down to bring his face closer to Weilai's level. "This was probably not true, she told me quickly when I was chosen to be her assistant. But this was during a fraught time in our order, where some of our most powerful pupils and sorcerers had grown foul ideas about what 'strength' meant. So Librarian Akila told them a story so that they would not argue why a woman with such mundane power held the key to our own great collection."
Weilai mewed, questioningly. So she lied, said this mew, unsure if she should disapprove.
"It was only a lie to those fools who would only respect such a lie. But the rest of us knew she held her position rightly and never questioned her blood, so she would never lie to us. Nor let a lie stand. She could not summon the air to her hand, or transform, or even whistle down the smallest elemental. But she knew every book under her care, and knew more about the art of restoration than anyone I have ever known. Her hands were so steady our friend Stephen might have thought her a surgeon.
"She was a true expert, Akila. She was a beautiful brown woman with long fingered hands and hair gone so white you thought it was a veil if it was down. She kept it in a thick braid, however. She was old when I met first met her, but her eyes were a child's joyful brown eyes. After her studies in Europe, she trained in book restoration, little one, and then went on to study with the masters of her chosen art."
Weilai mewed with her head cocked. Through Wong's words she could sense the passion of the previous librarian, and wondered not only where it had come from, but if that had really been enough to put her in charge of the world's most secret library?
"Yes. It was."
. . .
Akila stood in the center of a tiny one room apartment in Cairo, her fists balled at her hips as she stared at the clunky old phone on the wall. It was 1952, the King of Egypt had been deposed, and she had been kicked out of her current study program in London. Her Greek mother was trying to call, no doubt begging her to come home where she could be assured her headstrong traveler of a daughter was safe… and in position to be manipulated into a good marriage. Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Akila's mother didn't care, so long as her daughter would live well and, preferably, close to home. If not in home entirely. It was a big enough place.
Her father was probably still in the streets, telling upset British colonizers where they could go (England, obviously, but with a bit more passionate crudity than that). She loved him desperately, agreed with his passion, and hoped to Allah he would be safe every night. She hadn't spoken to him since the revolution began. He was too busy.
"Fuck," she said indelicately, knowing only the beleaguered cat would hear her. Nitocris finally slunk out of her traveling box and trotted up to slam against her bare legs. "Fuck, fuckity, and shitfuck," she continued, enjoying words that would cause her well-meaning but intensely prim mother to pass out. Nitocris, like a proper if mythical Pharaoh, ignored her curses and continued to purr throatily, slobbering on her ankles.
There was no question about the motives behind her abrupt departure from the Oxbridge schools. The old kingdom (she got a huge kick out of mentally marking England with that phrase, though the archaeology of her homeland was a secondary interest) was mad about the Egyptians. Thousands of Egyptians were mad about years of Englishmen telling them what to do with their country. Hundreds of Egyptian citizens and, to be fair, English ones, too, were caught in the middle.
Somewhere in London, no doubt, was a pale girl standing in a room with her luggage, saying 'fuckity fuck' in her plumby Cockney accent, having been forced out of Cairo and some beloved educational program of her own. Akila wasn't a vengeful person, so she wished all people like that well and bid them good luck on their next leg of their education.
Meanwhile, she also felt she had a right to be good and pissed off. She was almost thirty, her PhD in library science was nearing completion, and she had a line on a masterclass French conservation program that took a scant number of students every year. She had worked for these opportunities, twice as hard and more as the bright-eyed boys from America for whom doors opened at a smile.
Now everything in her life was, and here she glanced around furtively, as if her mother would magically appear to hear her think it, completely fucked.
. . .
Akila's former professors at Cairo University couldn't help her. Her mother's contacts in Athens couldn't help her, but at least she got a free family lunch and a grab bag of the usual guilts out of it. So, meanwhile, she worked at a little grocery with a very old friend who was now married to a good Muslim man, and she kept her ear open for a chance. Any chance.
Sometimes the streets made her ears ring too loudly for any hope to filter in. The revolution might be all but won, but there would be fights in the streets for some time yet. Sometimes there was smoke all around, and she stopped being frightened of that quickly.
At least the customers were interesting. Although travel through her country was a bit tense at the moment, scholars and tourists still braved the embassy alerts to go see the pyramids or the old tombs along the Nile. Her friend's grocery was in a good place to serve these people a little water for the road, or warm eish paladi, or some kabob. They kept a cart, too, near the rickety buses belonging to one of the tourism lines, and sometimes Akila delivered supplies there.
Not elegant work for a woman forcefully paused just shy of the apex of her education, but she felt no shame in it. People needed to eat, from white men in ugly shorts to nervous diggers from across the world. Even the oddest ones. Akila was not particularly faithful, but she believed in the ideas of fellowship, of being a good neighbor, and she believed very much in the grace behind the act of sharing what little one may have. No matter how strange or foul a person looked, they would eat from the grocery when she worked. Even if they only had a coin or two to offer.
One of the odd ones wore set of robes that were mostly bright yellow. They looked Eastern to Akila, though the person in them - she thought it was a woman, but the skin was pulled tight around a narrow face that was nearly hairless to boot - was as white as her teachers in London. She came to the grocery regularly, trying something a little new every day and occasionally talking to other customers.
Akila suspected the strange woman was scouting on behalf of some new religion. Maybe like the Hare Krishna men that thronged the airports, they wore yellow, too. The person didn't seem to bother anyone, so at least they weren't being pushy.
The street cats particularly liked the robed one, and many pieces of bread and meat were shared with the scavengers. Akila was surprised one day when she saw the robed traveller hunched just outside the door, parceling out shares to cats lining up with strange dignity for their piece. After that, she made sure the traveler's portion of food was a little larger than most.
Then the robed person was gone. The streets had been quite loud lately, and not as safe for those who didn't understand certain unspoken rules, so Akila assumed that was why. She continued to reach out to universities around the world, trying to regain entry. And yet, all their doors remained closed to her.
It was hard to not feel drained by these constant defeats. Her friend elbowed her one day, broaching the topic Akila tried to avoid. Her burdens were her own. "Sahbti, nothing?"
Akila shook her head and went back to patting flat loaves into shape.
"Ai, such bullshit."
The English swear word came out of nowhere, making Akila dissolve into giggles. "Inaya!"
"It is bullshit." Inaya glanced around the shop to be sure no one was overhearing her. "Come to dinner tonight. My husband's family is here. It'll be a big meal, you'll be welcome."
She rolled her eyes over to her friend. "His little brother is still single, isn't he?"
Inaya slapped at her upper arm. "Would I do that to you? I am not your mother. Your mother, bless her Greek heart, is more Muslim now than my whole house combined."
Akila started giggling again.
Inaya pressed a finger to her chin, leaving a dot of flour there on purpose to amuse her friend. "However, he is, and he isn't bad on the eyes." She waved her hand away. "Regardless, it wasn't my point. My point was, this is festering in you, Akila. And for good reason. I hear your poor cat has been meowing at night trying to comfort you while you are on the phone with idiots on the other side of the world."
She winced. "I hope it isn't disturbing anyone."
"Only my heart, our landlord says nothing otherwise." Inaya began working a pat of dough herself, more roughly than it needed. "These fools don't know anything. No one loves books as much as you. They don't know you like we do, and with their idiot eyes, they don't see you to find out. Give you the damn silly piece of paper you deserve, let you go be with some stacks of ancient books that are more dust than leather."
The dough began to take shape, bubbles emerging only to be squashed back down by a forceful palm. "I remember, sahbti," she snapped at no one in particular. "I remember how upset you were."
. . .
Akila was five and she was precocious, already reading, already asking questions, already being quite ungirly, or so some of the neighbor men said. Her father was proud of her, so proud, and she sat on his lap and read along from all the books he liked to read, though she didn't understand all the words yet. American science fiction, Russian sagas, histories of countries so far away they felt like myth. And she had books of her own, little fables and golden books from over the sea, and her favorite, oh her favorite was a little old book in American English about a Japanese cat named Good Fortune and how her love for the painter she lived with was strong enough to move someone special called a 'Buddha.' It was a fight to read it, big chunky American words on its pages clashing with the pretty Japanese inks, but she could.
It was a big, wide book for a little girl, but she carried it everywhere in those days, one hand on its torn slipcover, the other in the equally little hand of Inaya, her best friend in the world.
It was a boy a little older than her that destroyed the book. A boy who pushed the two little girls into filthy mud left by horses and oil carts, the book landing underneath robes long enough to trip their little feet up.
From here Akila's memory is mostly tears, the ruined book cradled in her hands. And the sight of Inaya, throwing herself at a boy bigger than her. Leaving him with a black eye.
It could have been bad, things were not always fair. But the boy lied to protect his own pride, and no one questioned the girls.
Akila's father could not fix her very favorite book. It was too dirty, its spine torn and manure and mud driven deep into its fibers. It had to be thrown away, and Allah, how she had cried when he took it away from her. Her father replaced it, of course. A new printing, smaller and without the pretty ink paintings her book had had, but he had tried his best.
It wasn't the same, but she thanked him, and hugged him and loved that book, too.
But all the while, all through the years, she wondered if there hadn't been some way to fix a book that had been that special to her. Even something like magic.
. . .
"Inaya…" What was she going to say? That her entire academic career wasn't built from a little girl's upset over a ruined kid's book? It wasn't, of course. Not entirely. But small things sometimes have a way of guiding a person to their life's work - if not their obsessions. She stopped herself and shook her head with a smile. "I remember you knocked that boy's lights right out."
"He had it coming. He's dead now, by the way." She said it matter of factly. "He was in the revolution. An Englishman got him, last summer."
Something crawled up Akila's back. She had never wished that boy dead, but it still surprised her. She turned her attention back to the dough and looked for a change in subject. The store was too quiet. "Ai, I miss the big tourist groups. Think they'll be back soon?"
"Oh, eventually." If Inaya knew she was uncomfortable, she let it go. "The arrests will only stop them for a little while."
"The what?" Akila stopped kneading.
"The arrests." Inaya paused and looked at her. "Some white lady in these crazy yellow robes got caught in the Ministry of Education. They rounded up everyone for being associates, but really, it was only her."
Akila felt stunned by the news. Inaya had a relative in the Ministry, and he liked to talk. "What?"
"Apparently she said she was putting something back. But you know the Ministry." Inaya rolled her eyes. "They hit the roof. And you know? They say she doesn't even have any identification!" She swatted at her friend's hand, leaving a puff of white flour. "Dinner soon. Let's finish these and you come home with me."
. . .
The person - woman, Akila corrected herself - was outside the shop the next morning, feeding the stray cats as they lined up on the narrow walk. A few patted their paws on the places where her strange yellow robes pooled around her, looking content.
Akila froze, then looked wildly up and down the streets. She had to be a fugitive! No one walked out of the Ministries so quickly! Especially a foreigner, and especially right now. One of the cats sensed her distress and looked up at her, mewing silently as if to not alert any of the patrolling guardsmen. The strange woman didn't move, a small black cat licking the last of some meat from her outstretched fingers.
Akila's mind went blank, wondering what to do. When she came to, still blank, she found her hands shakily unlocking the door to the shop. Then the answer hit her. "Quickly, get inside!"
The woman turned her head slightly to look at her. Sharp green eyes like a cat, brilliant in the colorlessly white and hairless face. She said nothing, but there was curiosity plain in her expression.
"The police are regular here! Tourists always get looked at." Akila didn't know what else to say. The obvious felt too harsh. You're a fugitive, do you want to die? Cairo was too tense right now. The idea that she was putting herself in danger didn't enter her thoughts. This was a foolish white stranger that gave away her meals to needy cats, and she needed help.
The woman in yellow rose up smoothly, her robes falling into place. The cats seemed to vanish, darting between the folds and then scattering away to nearby alleys with safer pickings to scrape through. She darted a look at the door. Akila widened it for emphasis, craning out to look for other early risers who might see what she was doing. Thank Allah she was here before dawn to start more bread - the Fajr prayer had come and gone and most would still be asleep a little longer. Then she followed Akila inside.
. . .
Akila fluttered around, pulling her ingredients into position with one eye on the woman in her robes. Neither of them spoke, although the woman walked through the few aisles with her palms pressed together like a supplicant of some kind. Curiosity wended through the air like a growing snake, looping the two of them together.
Pitas came together, and a stack of easy flatbreads. Still she saw no people on the streets outside. The oven began to warm nearby, giving the shop a homey atmosphere. Akila began to relax, which made her jump all the harder when the woman finally spoke.
"They won't find me," she said in a pleasant not-quite-Englishwoman's voice. There was an odd cant to it. "They won't find you, either. I'll make sure of that. You offered a stranger kindness with no thought to yourself, so that will of course be paid in kind."
Akila's hand paused atop a lump of dough. "Did you break into the Ministry?"
"Of course I did." Those colorless hands stayed pressed together. "We had a scroll in the great library that didn't belong to us. It needed to be returned to its proper place if was to have any sort of future restorative effect on its focal region. However, it's so old that I'm not sure our people were able to conserve it properly. Still, the residual power in it is strong enough that we agreed that returning it to its original coffer might offer it the proper healing."
Some of that was quite strange, but Akila's mind seized on certain words. "You said it was a scroll. Papyrus or parchment?"
"Papyrus. Quite old. Pre-First Dynasty."
That's impossible, thought Akila. "How damaged?"
"Well, the fibers were splitting, we think there was simply too much moisture around it despite our best efforts. Most of the ink is intact, as it should be, considering."
"But the original coffer was siltstone and carnelian with a little bit of bronze for the spellwork to bind together. It should be fine now, not that the Ministry will understand that." The woman sighed. "Optimally, they would put the coffer itself back where it was found, but I doubt that'll happen. We'll have to run another operation later to do that." She turned to bow to Akila. "That must all sound a little confusing."
It did, but… "Did your people try to stabilize the papyrus with wheat paste? Is there mold? Did you have another papyrus you could use strips from?"
The woman smiled, as if she were asking the right questions. "Our current library staff is excellent at what they do, but it turns out I've discovered that we lack certain practical skills. After a little research, they've done what they could with the mold, but we're hoping for the best with the artifact's inherent magic."
Magic. The word linked itself with the other strange things the woman had said.
Obviously she was mad.
But… Akila didn't realize she'd stopped working the morning dough. "What sort of 'great library' doesn't have a proper conservation office?"
"One with its nose a little too up in the air about certain matters, as it happens." The palms came away from each other, sweeping elegantly around to clasp behind the woman's back. "Our general motto has been to remain apart from the world whilst yet being a part of it, and I think we've gone a mite too far with the former. I think that's probably the heart of a great many issues we've got coming, and I've got to do what I can now to get the future chivvied along a bit more smoothly." The woman inclined her head towards Akila. "You're well educated on the topic."
The flush crept up Akila's face. "I haven't finished my studies."
"Yes, I know," said the woman simply. "It's quite unfair. Both to you and to the field. So many pages lost to time because politics have outweighed our basic human value to one another." She stepped towards Akila, who was stunned all over again. "I represent a place called Kamar-Taj. We are a sanctuary of scholars and sorcerers who preserve and protect vast amounts of knowledge. And while we have made mistakes and will continue, now and then, to make mistakes, I feel our charter is a good one. As its representative, it's my duty to look for ways to amend those mistakes. Before they happen, when possible."
She smiled at the silent Akila. "I've an offer for you, and I think it's a fair one. We need to reassess our practical concerns, including conservation, as you accurately pinpointed. Now, most such experts gain entry to their field and become… mmm… a little intractable. Their world is now that printed page, and not so much the margins around it."
The woman shrugged before continuing. "I, however, put faith in the occasional miracle. Even if I have to get out of the cart and push one into being." The hands came back in front to press together again. "I have certain useful connections, and they transcend this political nonsense. With a little push, you may have your opportunity to resume your studies and, should both your efforts and my nudging bear fruit, have a chance at working with a select few eminent conservators that will, in time, focus their efforts on building a central academy devoted to the matter.
"With our efforts, we can make that a certainty. A useful outcome for you, for Kamar-Taj, and for libraries worldwide."
That's impossible, thought Akila, again. Then she said it. "That's impossible." The words didn't sound firm in her mouth, however. They sounded like hope.
The woman smiled. "I am over seven hundred years old. Impossible, I find more often than not, is a word used to describe what is difficult and frightening. Impossibilities are much more rare than we realize."
Akila's hands had sweated flour into paste, thick in the lines of her palms. "I want to be sure I understand. You're a sahir, overseeing a university of people like you, and you need… me."
"Well, I have a list of options but I like you the best." The woman smiled brightly. "You're young, hopeful, and you've already proven yourself a kind, trusting enough heart to give shelter to a foreign stranger. You've been done poorly by the world's business but it hasn't marked you. You give extra food because you know it will go to stray animals. Kindness is a hard-earned skill, Akila. It isn't inherent. You choose to be kind, and I think that is terribly valuable."
"My mother fears I might be too naive sometimes."
"Well, it's a mother's prerogative. You won't be cut away from contact, incidentally, should you come to us. And I'm sure you know how special languages are - we'll never ask you to lie about what you do, but we will help you, if you like, craft your words so that she hears the truth she needs while you and your work are protected." Here that bare brow arched in a ghost. "It's not all safe work that we do. Sometimes our books whisper. You'll need to learn a few extra skills after your studies, but we won't add much more to your challenges. We can help, if you'll help us."
Akila felt the numbness spread through her body. Possibilities and impossibilities, changes and futures. "I need to help open the store today."
The woman smiled comfortingly. "Dear one, I have no expectation that you will drop all to follow me. If you agree at least to consider this offer, we will put things in motion and you will live your life as you will it. Your path shall be free even as it guides you back to another meeting with me. When it is time."
An image of a grand, overflowing library filled her mind, books singing their stories, books needing help, books with all the questions of the world and no few answers, podiums and sages and singers in the night, perhaps not her prayers, but those sacred hymns would be welcome, too. Speechless, Akila nodded.
It would be good to at least try.
"Then we will begin," said the Ancient One of Kamar-Taj, and she swept easily out the door and vanished for seven years.
. . .
The library of Kamar-Taj was better than the dream that Akila carried with her through her finished PhD, through her apprenticeships with half a dozen European conservators. The library was all, it was everything, and it quickly became her home.
. . .
"It is a small story," said Wong. "Librarian Akila put in the work, and her hands were fine and nimble. She could summon a small light to her side, so that she could work late without the smoke of our candles, and she could speak to the cats the Ancient One liked to bring around, though that was a gift our teacher gave her. When she came here, she reordered the entire library. The books, the aisles, the whole damned architecture itself. Sorcerers worked in concert for weeks so that we could change the environmental harmony of each room. Difficult work, I am told.
"She could not cast the spells herself, but she understood them in a concise way that made her an excellent sort of editor and professor. She could translate and pass on knowledge so clearly that her efforts have refined spells we use commonly now." Wong inclined his head towards the little flerken. "I use her work regularly in the New York Sanctum to please the artifact furniture with frequent rearrangements."
Weilai meowed, impressed with the tale.
"So as you understand, the worthiness to pass through each door of Kamar-Taj is measured by passion, and by using that passion to better not only our sanctums, but ourselves and those around us. Passion itself is not magic, though it can be as powerful as that art." Wong reached out to lay a hand on the sealed door to the great library. "This door must remain closed to you now. But there is always a way to open it." He bowed his head. "I am not the wise leader the Ancient One was. I do not know how to find another's riddle so they may better understand how to serve it. But you are a smart flerken, and you have your people's greater wisdom, and I think you will find a way to open any door that has meaning for you."
. . .
Weilai spent several days curled close to an old stove in the lower levels of the Hong Kong Sanctum considering what she with her paws and fangs could possibly offer what lay behind that sealed door. And she thought about Akila, a librarian who changed Kamar-Taj with a good heart, a trained mind, and a conservator's bottle of acetone.
Sometimes she dreamed that she was Akila's cat, little Nitocris who lived to be quite old, and whose spirit slept somewhere behind that locked door. In one dream, as Nitocris, she padded her way down dark, eternally lengthening stacks of books, one of them lost and crying out to be read. She could not find it. She tried all night, and failed.
The crying seemed to ring in her ears when she woke, and she curled into a tighter ball, there next to the still warm stove.
The dream came again the next week as she put herself to business catching a handful of vermin who tried to build a rat kingdom in the oldest wall of Hong Kong's Sanctum, where reality passed quite close and could sometimes accidentally let seekers and vagrant animals in. She doubted such simple violence was any gift to the greater sanctuary, so she didn't beg for rewards or notice after her slaughter.
The sorcerers murmured at her, asking if she was okay, which she was, and giving her treats for battles well fought anyway. She was too busy thinking.
. . .
Weilai hunkered low between the stacks, her eyes fixed on a single book far down the aisle. It was a heavy tome, and not a special one, lest her latest trial run also failed. She wouldn't dare risk damaging one of the rare magical tomes, so she was in one of the ordinary study halls. Outside, a street festival rang through Hong Kong, lively enough to be heard inside. Her ears were closed to it, and her eyes saw only the target.
She wiggled again, then began her run. If this worked, the scamper wouldn't be necessary after she refined the technique, but right now it helped her to focus. She kicked a leap off the stack right across from her target, then flung herself at the old catalogue of western European wands and other simple artifacts. Her mouth opened and she made an odd, squeaking noise as she collided with the shelf just under the target book.
Her paw scrabbled up for purchase, trying to not claw the wood and then trying to not fall in surprise at the empty place where the book was.
It had worked! Her paw curled safely around the shelf and she pulled herself up to look through the shelf to the aisle behind.
By the mother's eggs, it had worked!
She fell elegantly to the ground and began to wash her shoulder before daring to turn around and verify that the target book was, in fact, now resting on the desk where it was supposed to be.
Flerken trans-dimensional displacement is an unholy eldritch mess that, by rights, shouldn't exist in any normal dimension. It survives mostly by virtue of its sheer audacity, a talent employed by a cat-shaped creature with pockets of sub-realities locked inside of itself, and whose easiest method of putting things in those pockets involved a slobbery, globbery mess of tentacles.
That was not going to fly in a formal academic setting.
Weilai was improvising. She was, having reluctantly borrowed some notes from Frej on the art of meditative centering, re-rigging her own understanding of trans-dimensional displacement. Narrowing it. Specializing it.
Rarely was a flerken ever annoyed at their lack of opposable thumbs. Their tentacles worked just fine in a pinch, but in an academic setting whose primary tools required delicate care and attention, well, see above. Weilai needed a way to manipulate objects around her without a: having access to more mundane forms of telekinesis, B: slobbering all over things, C: freaking out everyone around her, and D: flinging crap around randomly.
So, she had to come up with something new.
Her previous trial runs had come up against multiple issues, most of them resulting in D. Things flew. Sometimes just because she'd bodily slammed into her target and it hadn't ended well for anyone. Worst was B, where the trial run almost worked, but instead of carefully targeting her displacement focus on herself, she ended up so focused on not deploying her tentacles that she hit the side of an aisle, coughed up ten feet of phlegmy dimensional protuberances, and sogged an entire stack of phone books from 1968-1970.
She hid under a pillow when Wong showed up to help the Hong Kong students clean her mess. He patted her head when he left and said, only, "Keep trying."
She eventually came up with the idea of dedicating a 'dry' pocket inside of her. She kept some stable objects in there, a few boulders she nicked from a construction site, a set of dummy notebooks. A set of counterweights, so to speak, a focal nexus. If the notebooks stayed dry when she went through her exercises, she was on the right track.
Meanwhile, the dreams kept coming. No longer dreamwalking as Nitocris herself, she instead followed the small, earthly cat down those endless, swallowing aisles as the unintelligible meows of the cat drowned out the cries of the books. At the end of the dream, always, Nitocris disappeared somehow between the stacks.
She would push, and push, and try to follow, her paws stretching through the gaps, and she could see the empty place between the aisles. But she could not get there.
She always woke with her fur spiked.
. . .
The trial runs were becoming smooth executions. Wild jumping had given way to a more sedate trot and jump, and now Weilai was astonishing visiting sorcerers by helping the library assistants gather book requests. They would appear on assigned desks, stacked neatly, perfectly dry and ordered.
Weilai had also managed to request a specialized cat scratching 'toy' that allowed her to hone her claws well enough that not only could she deliver even specialized rare books, but also manage the page turns to requested information. She could even manipulate the computer library system, and was becoming faster than the human assistants, who loved having less work of their own in the busy facility.
She felt she was not pushing herself hard enough, however. She spent less time in her favorite place by the old stove, and more of it half curled on a podium, reading books left behind, worn out by a day's self-appointed duties.
The door to the heart of Kamar-Taj remained shut. And the dreams still came. Nitocris, losing herself between the stacks, and the cries of some lost, unfindable book.
. . .
It was an accident, protested the assistant. The book, a palm-sized grimoire on the herbal secrets of island fae, should have had a delicate chain keeping it in place. Instead it had fallen into an unreachable space behind the stacks. An impossibility, if things were working according to order.
In desperation, the assistant, a new young man with a gift for aquakinesis, gestured at Weilai, suggesting it had been the cat's fault.
Because of the nature of the incident, Wong had been summoned to Hong Kong. He looked at the new scholar, unimpressed. "You wish to blame Weilai for the situation."
"Cats knock things over." He spread his hands, stammering a little as his instincts sensed the trap he was bolting directly towards. "And she's always bolting around in here, it was destined to happen eventually."
Weilai, affronted down to her bones, meowed up at the scholar with a low, gravel moan attached to it.
"I didn't kick her." He hadn't, he wasn't that sort of creature, but it was clear he didn't understand her at all.
"Weilai, may I assume you deny the accusation?"
The young man was still ignoring the obvious. He laughed. "Seriously?"
Weilai meowed and patted at the floor. She had been below, working the encyclopedic stacks with Shu, one of the assistants.
Wong nodded. He looked at the new student. "Do you believe all that you see?"
The young man stiffened his shoulders. "I believe what my senses, all of them, are trained to find. I believe that we are not of one eye, but of many, and-"
"Enough." Wong spoke quietly, but with a militant firmness that made the assistant standing nearby wince. "Examine Weilai. Closely. Trust your senses, not that singular eye."
Unable to stop the scoff, he looked down at the 'cat.' Then he looked again, paling as Wong reached out and stretched his third eye into greater consciousness. He saw. "Oh. Oh my god. Oh my god, there's so many tentac-"
Wong stopped the young man before he gagged out the rest. "Weilai, will you accept this child's apology for his thoughtless act?"
She meowed, her paws set prettily in an act of grace.
"What is she?" The man moaned and clenched at the sides of his head. "Oh my god."
"Worth more than you." Wong jutted his chin at him. "You will assist me in rearranging the stacks so that we may recover the book you lost. It will be some effort-"
Weilai mewed again, interrupting him as the images from her dreams struck her with force. Places between. Small shadows. The book that was lost. She walked over to Wong and patted at him.
He paused himself and looked down at her. "You have something you wish to try."
As plainly and as emphatically as she could manage, Weilai nodded.
. . .
This would be a little easier, she hoped. This was jumping as flerkens did, however, it was still a risk. She could not sense all of what was behind the stacks, and there were a great many shadows to confuse her. There was a chance she could jump wrongly and harm herself, or become at least temporarily trapped. And since the aisles themselves were part of a greater magic architecture, that meant she couldn't even be sure of the reality between and behind.
Fortunately this was merely the Hong Kong Sanctum, built upon more solid ground and only its positioning echoed through magic. It occurred to her that the secrets within Kamar-Taj might be more risky to reach like this - and that gave her the last bit of drive she needed. An almost primal need to try.
Her eyes narrowed as she fixated on the tiny, dusty scrap of floor she could see, and the concept of the book she sought, and she
slithering through realities and dimensions, sleek fur whispering through the suddenly gigantic atoms and impossible shapes of the between
a path as long as eternity, all to get to a place scant inches away
And then she came to a brisk stop, her head nearly bonking against the back of a solid wooden shelf, the tangle of realities unraveling and resettling all around her.
Weilai looked around herself with a surprised mrrrp. There were many books lost behind the stacks. She spotted the one the fool had just toppled easily enough, and it was atop two more that had probably been written off of the Librarian's lists, some poor scholar long ago harangued for their disappearance.
She looked around and saw more. Old scraps of paper in languages long since faded, pamphlets, a handful of gemstones. Not junk, not in a place like this one. Things forgotten, long mislaid.
She swept as much as she could together with her paws, making a haphazard pile. Then she focused on the neat, empty desk that had been by Wong and danced around to swap everything out. Weilail heard Wong shout in surprise at the trove of lost treasures she found. Dimensions churned within her, followed by a faint yowl of victory. Not only had she done this, she'd done something new with her trick!
She jumped back out of the lost place, ordinary dust bunnies clinging to her fur like overboard sailors, and she immediately ran to Wong's ankles and began slamming on them.
He picked her up and held her to his shoulder, his gaze still fixed on the things she had found. "Now that, little Weilai, is a most useful skill."
She meowed into his ear, telling him pridefully that yes, yes it was it was. She'd worked quite hard to get it right.
More quietly she wondered, with a little more training was it enough to open the right door?
. . .
There are hundreds of aisles of books in the halls of Kamar-Taj, and some of them are deeper within its shadows than others. Places where only the Librarians may go, for there are things sleeping between certain pages that require a certain amount of alertness and care. And there are dangerous places between the stacks where one must know their own feet with the perfect awareness of a cat. Places where things could fall and never be seen again.
Weilai was not a cat, of course, but the day Wong opened the door to Kamar-Taj was the best day of her life. Her duty now would be to patrol those lost spaces, look for things forgotten or traps long since left behind, and be another set of eyes.
Eyes that could see the spirit of felines that stayed, to help guide and guard the library's smaller secrets. That had been one of Akila's own little mysteries left behind. Behind the oldest shelves, Weilai had found Nitocris's lost collar. The cat herself was a content spirit, waiting to help other librarians in the ways only a cat can, if they could but see her, and now Weilai's dreams became soothing and full of guidance.
To help her in her duties, Weilai was given her own copy of the Librarian's key. This was a small but meaningful ceremony, and Weilai had been permitted to invite some of her family to witness. That included Frej, who was ecstatic to have her sister-kit as an ally amidst the library stacks, and it had included Frej's chosen partner, who looked to Weilai like a tall, deep shadow in defiance of the paleness of his skin. A pretty enough humanoid, she supposed the Loki was.
But she had long since decided she liked Wong much better.
The current sorcerer supreme was not able to come. There was a rumor that Strange was not fully aware of the matters of these flerkens, and the Loki would not say anything about the topic to him. Still, the Loki had taken a pillow when Weilai accepted her thin collar and its honorable amulet, and he had petted her when she demanded it, and he had even smiled when Wong gave Weilai and Frej twin sashes like other students of Kamar-Taj wore. Weilai's had a stay-clean charm on it, to keep its reds bright when she dashed into the places between the stacks, and Frej had a place for her little silver tools, a strange magician's kit for a strange little magician.
Because it was an auspicious day, Weilai was permitted to make a request. With a little effort and help, she did.
She wanted to hear more stories from Wong, stories only he could tell. And so it became a little ritual she shared with him, now and then. When there was time enough for tales.
Well… she, and the various visiting flerkens of her same young brood.
. . .
Loki shifted against the dark wood jamb as storyteller hour finished, looking down as Frej snaked against his ankles and then took off. He watched her disappear down the dark halls of Kamar-Taj as Wong hoisted himself upright with a tug of his blue robes. "Never bothered much with astrology on Asgard, honestly. The stars are too sacred as memorials to the dead, and we have had some issues with prophecy before."
"What about Jotunheim?" asked Wong, with the straightforwardness of someone genuinely interested in the answer and not at all the waffly social issues around the question.
Loki shrugged, content to accept the question in its intended spirit. "Storms rage across the ice with consistent forcefulness. Little point in basing a natal chart-system around a celestial structure you won't hardly get to use. They divine using gold flakes in a certain special tea. I'm not initiated so I don't know all the details, but it's apparently rather accurate so they try not to use it much. The few that do are ascetics that dance on the edge of going mad."
"Ah, eyes gone too blind from truth." Wong let Weilai plop into the curve of his arm, her paw reaching up to grab a stray bead on a string around his neck. "I've seen that before. In books, mostly, but we've heard there's a cult intercepting certain medical grade psychedelics in an attempt to foster some guidance for themselves. Strange is dealing with it personally, you know his attitude about anything medical. But that seems to be their goal."
Loki snorted. "I wouldn't bother. They're only going to melt their brains, or worse, wake up at a Phish concert."
That got a laugh from Wong, a rich one. "The ice cream flavor would be my preference."
"I detest that I understand the interlinked references here." Loki pushed himself away from the door and, unwittingly, reached in to give the library flerken another eagerly accepted scratching. "An idle question for you, a business matter."
Wong gestured down the hallway, towards a place where he could make a cup of tea for himself and his guest. "Of course."
"Have you sensed certain unearthly magics similar to those Strange and I interfered with a couple Halloweens back?"
Wong shook his head as he put down the flerken and went to the old green kettle. "I have not. Nor have we sensed anything else from Latveria since confirming the fading dregs of what Frej saw."
Wong looked back and saw Loki staring off at nothing, lost in contemplation. "We did sense something else. I'm not sure it's a matter for us at all, but it was odd enough to cross our radar."
That brought his attention back. "How's that, then?"
"Something in Antarctica. It coursed through the world's electrical currents so strongly that it came up on our observations."
Loki frowned. "Reflection of a solar flare?"
"No, we can rule those out. Solar magics are too intense to ignore, we understand their traces. We couldn't focus on it, so likely technological."
"I've heard nothing through SHIELD as of yet. I'll send off a note." He accepted a small jade cup from Wong, giving the tea a sniff. "Probably some nonsense Earth oddity that has nothing to do with anything important."
"That would be a pleasant change, wouldn't it?"
"Do you know, it actually would." Loki drank his tea with satisfaction. "A season with nothing but purring flerkens. A miracle." He cocked a wry eye at Wong. "So obviously that won't happen. Call it the prophecy of the obvious. I've mapped it all out. Mars is in fuckery ascendant, the Year of the Rat will give way to the Year of the Massive Shitstorm, and other ill tidings besides."
Wong smiled benevolently at him. "Our future, as it is writ in the stars, is writ in pencil, said my mother."
Loki lifted his cup to Wong in a salute. "Your mother was terribly wise," he said. "An antidote to cynical bastards like myself."
"There is no antidote to one like you, my friend," said Wong. "We build up our slow immunity, and find in time that the taste of the poison can be pleasant after all."
Loki stared at him, then began to laugh. "Fairly done, Librarian. I still like you better than Strange."
"So you say," said Wong, straightening as the flerken leaped from his shoulder to the table. "But he was chosen for his place by one better than all of us, and I still have faith in the wisdom of her kindness."
"A pity I never met her," said Loki.
"Perhaps you did," said Wong, giving him one last look before returning to his duties. "How would you ever know?"
Weilai stretched long between the two men with a yawn and a knowing smile. Then she too darted off, back to patrolling the stacks of sacred Kamar-Taj.
Nothing in the world is difficult. The mind only makes it so
~ Journey to the West, attributed to Wu Cheng'en