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Book of Death

"Whatever can be in this gloomy place?"

She shivered slightly as they stopped by a cold stone wall. The faint light of the library had faded into almost nothing, and even the candle seemed to struggle against the overwhelming blackness. A chill draught blew through the air and a chill ran down her spine.

"Here," he gestured towards the bookshelves next to them, "is the Book of Death."

She approached the shelves, arms folded around her against the cold. "Which one? Which book?"

"All of them."

"All of them?" She glanced at him, seeing him nod in the faint orange glow of the flame, and then looked back at the shelves. The wooden frame towered up into the heights of the library, and extended sideways into the darkness, vanishing from sight. Each shelf was filled with books in different sizes, styles and colours. She looked along the volumes before turning back to him with a confused shrug. "Where do I begin?"

He pointed upwards. "Up. The early books are all at the top."

She looked about, and spied a wheeled ladder attached to the shelves. Rolling it nearer to the librarian, she gingerly climbed upwards into the darkness. She stopped as the floor below faded into black.

Next to her on the shelf a book caught her eye, and she carefully pulled it free. The ancient covers were misshapen, formed from poorly cut animal hide. The sandy colour of the material bore no writing or explanation, but was stained faintly around the edges with the blood of some long-dead beast. Pieces of dried reed bound the covers together at one edge and held in place pages of a thinner hide.

She skimmed through the book, precariously balancing it against the ladder, and found no words, only pictures. Every page was decorated with crudely drawn images of people, animals, trees, vegetation - cave art, she recognised, or at least the same style. She placed the book back on the shelf.

Stepping further down the ladder, she pulled out a book at head height. This time the book was thick and heavy, the cover carefully formed from black leather and inscribed with strange symbols and patterns. She levered it open slowly, and found inside row upon row of neat hieroglyphics, carefully laid out with precise and pain-staking effort.

Even further down, she found a book with a tattered brown cover. The crisp parchment pages inside bore line after line of fine calligraphic text with tall, ornate capitals. Flowing language proclaimed the many happy remembrances of people who met their untimely demise.

Finally she reached the bottom of the ladder and stepped away, her footsteps echoing on the stone floor in the gloom. "There's so many books," she said, "and they go all the way back in time?"

The librarian nodded.

"Wow." She took a few paces alongside the shelves into the darkness, before a polite cough stopped her.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said.

"I only want to see how many books there are." She looked at him with a faintly pleading expression.

"No-one knows how far back the shelves go. Or at least," he added, "no-one has returned to say."

She looked again at the shelves. They tailed off into the distance, vanishing into the blackness with no end in sight. In the silence, the cold draught returned and played about her arms. She shivered. "They don't end, do they?"

"Probably not."

She spoke in a whisper then. "Follow the Book of Death, or die in the attempt."

There was a brief pause, then he chuckled, and his laughter seemed to push back the cold and the dark. He moved the candle closer to her shivering form.

"Something like that," he said, "Something like that."

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