To save the Library of the Unwritten in Hell, former librarian Claire and her allies may have to destroy it first…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from A.J Hackwith’s The God of Lost Words, book three in the Hell’s Library series—published by Ace Books.
Claire, rakish Hero, angel Rami, and muse-turned-librarian Brevity have accomplished the impossible by discovering the true nature of unwritten books. But now that the secret is out, in its quest for power Hell will be coming for every wing of the Library.
To protect the Unwritten Wing and stave off the insidious reach of Malphas, one of Hell’s most bloodthirsty generals, Claire and her friends will have to decide how much they’re willing to sacrifice to keep their vulnerable corner of the afterlife. Succeeding would mean rewriting the nature of the Library, but losing would mean obliteration. Their only chance at survival lies in outwitting Hell and writing a new chapter for the Library. Luckily, Claire and her friends know how the right story, told well, can start a revolution.
Churches gave sanctuary, in my time. To the unwanted, the unloved, and also the criminals, whether they repented or not. I don’t see why a library in Hell shouldn’t be a kind of church—good lord knows that we have enough altars to longing, to regret, to mistakes, here in the stacks. Few souls find their way down here, but if they do, what shelter we can provide, the Library should. Libraries have always been a kind of church, a kind of sanctuary.
Librarian Fleur Michel, 1784 CE
There were times—moments, really, no longer than a swig of tea—when Brevity longed for the simplicity of the Muses Corps. Take this, go here; love this, break your own heart. It was hard work, but there was a certainty to it. Certainty was good; it kept quiet the beehive of anxiety that she held in her chest.
As Echo and her daughter turned their expectant gazes on her, Brevity swore she could hear buzzing.
“Sanctuary?” Rami repeated, breaking the silence and earning Brevity’s eternal gratitude. His brow tucked in on itself in disapproval. “You intend to stay here?”
“Them and their entire wing,” Claire said.
“On a temporary basis.” Iambe had maintained her icy composure. Echo, wearing Pallas’s face, continued a placid kind of eye contact with Brevity. As if completely confident in her fellow librarian to navigate this bombshell.
Sanctuary. Brevity wracked her brain but couldn’t remember any relevant protocol. She risked a glance at Claire. “Is that possible?”
She expected a clear signal from Claire. As former librarian, Claire always had an opinion on the goings-on in the Unwritten Wing. Brevity had leaned on it, up until recently when they’d disagreed over the ink of unwritten books. Brevity had tried to restore them, Claire had tried to isolate the threat, and the result had been a disaster. The ink had nearly killed Claire and Hero. Brevity had traded her beloved inspiration tattoo for scars. Perhaps both of them had been wrong, but Brevity wasn’t sure they could survive being at odds again.
Which is why the distracted glaze in Claire’s eyes was so alarming. “Claire?” Brevity prompted again.
“Hmm? Oh.” Claire shook herself, razor-edge focus returning. “Gregor referenced an agreement of mutual support and allegiance between the wings of the Library.” She pursed her lips. Claire had always avoided mentioning her predecessor by name. “But I don’t recall anywhere in the log where it’s actually been done. We’re a standoffish lot in the Library.”
If Claire had an opinion on the matter, she hid it well. Brevity didn’t have the time to panic over what that might mean. A glance said Hero and Rami were just as lost.
Only Rosia looked at her with clear understanding. “You are the librarian,” she said simply.
The librarian. Brevity sucked in a breath. It was a title, but it was a duty too. Spending so much time with the log and books, one couldn’t help but draw some conclusions. Librarians protected the books with a ferocity like Ibukun’s. They cared for the books with skill like Ji Han’s. They considered the power of books and humanity with the wisdom of Gregor. They bucked tradition and expectations for the sake of the books with the abandon of Fleur.
But they also, whether in Hell or on Earth, didn’t turn away anyone in need.
She’d learned that one from Claire. For all Claire’s harsh manner and harsher words, she’d never turned away anyone who really, truly needed what the Library could offer.
Brevity was the librarian. There was no question what a librarian’s answer was.
“Okay, then,” Brevity said.
Hero blinked. “What? Are you sure that’s wise? You may want to—”
“I . . . On behalf of the Unwritten Wing, I grant you sanctuary.” The words swept past Brevity’s lips, as if stolen on a snatch of wind. A susurrous sound rippled through the damsel suite like a tide as millions of pages ruffled. It was a prelude to a sonorous creak, which turned into a rumble that shook the floorboards beneath her feet. The world tilted. And the Library rearranged itself.
“May want to open that door,” Iambe suggested, a second before a gust of wind tossed the entrance to the suite open hard enough to crack the inset glass. Outside, a feral thunder rumbled through the wing.
Brevity grabbed the corner of the couch, squinting against a shiver of dust that fell from the suite’s rafters overhead. Light splintered on the shoals of dust particles, forcing her to squint. The air, when it cleared, was accompanied by a bite of green.
The damsel suite, in itself, seemed unchanged. Echo’s pool had dried up, leaving Pallas’s sleeping body inert by a merely damp carpet. But Brevity could hear the raised voices of damsels outside. She hurried out the door, with Hero close on her heels.
At the threshold, Hero let out a low whistle into the dim aftermath. Dim, that was, because the globes of Brevity’s faerie lights filtered through new obstacles. Spider-thread vines and silky drifts of heather hooked carelessly up the sides of bookcases and across strings of lights, painting everything in a mossy kind of watercolor. Wood-slat crates punctuated the formerly tidy shelves, overflowing with haphazardly rolled paper and clapboard notebooks. On the book cart nearest them, an old unwritten epic appeared in a struggle for territory with an elaborately folded envelope. Its jaws were still sealed with red wax, but it nipped and stabbed creases into the larger book.
The Unwritten Wing remained; it hadn’t been harmed. But it had been . . . subject to revision. Brevity bolted down the stacks, overcome with the sudden desire to check the front desk, to anchor herself with some sense of solidity. She had to pick her way over fast-growing vines and sandstone vessels popping up like mushrooms over the top of impeccably polished wood floors. She slipped, once, when a fresh patch of moss decided to sprout under her heel. It was Claire who caught her elbow and kept their forward momentum. They sprinted between dappled foliage and familiar shadowed shelves to slide to a stop at the edge of the lobby.
“I just inventoried that section,” Hero complained.
“Unacceptable,” Claire muttered under her breath, more than a little scandalized. Brevity was prone to agree. There appeared to be a turf war brewing between the stack of books she’d been in the middle of repairing on her desk, and a clatter of rickety papyrus that was emerging from a drawer that hadn’t previously existed. The unmistakable sound of tearing paper prodded her to action.
“Excuse—wait, y’all, listen, just—SETTLE DOWN!” To Brevity’s ears, she always sounded more like a frazzled babysitter than an authoritative librarian, but she was used to that by now. She drummed her hands on the desk until the sound of textual warfare eased.
“How nice,” Iambe said with a tone devoid of said quality, which Echo repeated with a more sincere “Nice.” They trailed out of the stacks with the others, accompanied by a handful of damsels, whose expressions ranged from wide-eyed wonder to deep judgment. Iambe carried her brother’s sleeping form as if he weighed nothing.
Brevity had been trying to pry a scroll out of the maw of an angry gothic horror, but she paused. “Is . . . is your mom okay?” The floor had gone concave underneath Echo-as-Pallas’s feet, and water—water! in a library! again!—was seeping in from the floorboards beneath her toes. She beckoned with a waft of one slender arm.
Iambe grunted a prolonged complaint under her breath as she hefted Pallas’s limp form over one shoulder and deposited him without reverence into the growing puddle. “Oh, she’s happy as a sea hag.” She made a small adjustment so Pallas was merely slumped over and not at risk of drowning as the small flood of water grew. “Good luck getting rid of her now.”
“Surely this is just a temporary—” Claire made an arch noise as Echo-as-Pallas ignored her. The spirit laid a gentle hand on top of her sleeping son’s head and began to sink.
The shallow water swallowed her up, and inch by inch Pallas’s reflection returned to him. Hero shook his head and turned to Iambe. “Your mother is kind of an asshole.”
Iambe smiled. “You just noticed?”
A crack, like a popping log, thundered from the doorway, drawing Brevity’s attention. The greenery had spread a trail of tiny white flowers out the door, but Brevity couldn’t see how such tiny plants could make such a ruckus.
Claire’s brow furrowed, then smoothed with a dawning kind of horror. She broke into a run. “Oh, bugger.”
By the time Brevity caught up, Claire had frozen to a stop at the edge of the hallway, just before the gargoyle alcove.
The gargoyle’s empty alcove.
The flowers swarmed over the wide hallway, blanketing the alcove in blooms. Dark red-purple leaves and wide lilies the color of turmeric had joined the foliage now, and evidently driven out the stone inhabitant.
Claire was forced to shield her eyes to protect her sanity. Brevity stopped beside her and barely managed to drag them both out of the way to avoid a stone wingtip. The gargoyle flailed across the expanse of the hallway, churning up freshly formed moss under his stone claws. The greenery climbed up the creature’s sides, moss clinging to stone flanks even where the flowers couldn’t find purchase. The gargoyle’s frantic movement, coupled with his non-euclidian nature, made it hard to discern the details, but Brevity was almost positive it was yellow daisies encircling the shifting, fractal blur of his head.
The gargoyle let loose another growl that sounded like an aggrieved rockslide. It ripped at the offending greenery, but new moss just sprang up in its place. Brevity hesitated, then had a thought. “Rami?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ramiel stepped forward, shrugging his sword out of the folds of his coat. It ignited into a controlled blue flame.
Claire spun. “This doesn’t call for violence—” She cut off when Brevity squeezed her elbow. It didn’t take words to convey trust me, watch between them, and Claire folded her arms with a huff. Rami stepped past them, dodging around the gargoyle’s frantic movements with a grace that Brevity was always surprised to see he possessed.
Rami ducked and spun, waiting until he had an opening in the gargoyle’s guard. Then he tapped the burning tip of his sword to a mass of flowers clinging to the creature’s chest.
The foliage ignited, far easier than green moss should have. Violet, yellow, and white shifted into flames racing over the gargoyle’s stone body, stripping it of the offending flowers. When the embers tried to jump from the ankle to the floor, Rami stamped them out neatly.
The gargoyle was left with one singed daisy clinging above the fractalized cliff of his face. His panicked movements stilled, until the giant creature hunkered to a stop in the middle of the hallway, huffing great, gritty breaths.
“Aren’t you clever.” Claire cupped the side of Rami’s face with her palm before stepping past him as he sheathed his sword. She tutted at the gargoyle, “There, now. No need for all this fuss.” She began brushing ash off his shoulders. The creature let out a pitiful low croon.
“When do I get a flaming sword?” Hero complained as he joined them. He cast a loaded look toward Rami. “What do I need to do to get you to show me that trick?”
Rami’s stoic expression barely twitched but appeared to melt into something warm and shy. “You could train with me if you like.”
Brevity cleared her throat, which made Rami step back, but Hero only made a wretched face at her. She left them to it and joined Claire beside the gargoyle. “At least now we don’t gotta bother the dryads for flowers.” She tilted her head. “Hey, do you suppose the Unsaid Wing grows their own tea leaves? That could be handy.”
“It overflowed the Library,” Claire said as if she hadn’t heard her. Her face was grim and slightly speckled with ash. “Hellfire. We’ll need to move fast.”
The relief Brevity had felt drained away quickly. She glanced up and down the hall but couldn’t see any discernible threat. Claire’s shoulders were clenched as if an attack was imminent. “What do you mean?” A flutter of doubt grew. That swooping sensation Brevity got at the fear of having done the wrong thing bottomed out her stomach. “I had to help them. It’s what the Library does.”
Doesn’t it? Tell me I was right. Please tell me it’s what you would have done, a terrified small voice said in Brevity’s head.
Claire waved that away like an irritating fly. “Of course you did, but the timing is terrible. I didn’t have time to tell you before. Just before the Unsaid Wing arrived, Malphas was poking around the Arcane Wing. She’s suspicious.”
“Malphas is always suspicious.” Hero appeared to have put aside his flirting enough to join in the conversation. He shook a spot of moss from the tip of his polished boots.
“This is different.” A graphite streak of certainty in Claire’s voice managed to draw everyone’s attention. “The Library provides some obfuscation, but they noticed something changed when we freed the ink.” Claire’s left hand grasped her right wrist, as if attempting to stem the memory. She straightened. “The spillover of the Unsaid Wing into the Unwritten will have created a signal flare of power that even the weakest demon won’t have missed. There’s no way an inventory will satisfy her suspicion now. Malphas will demand answers. If Hell discovers that the Library they host is actually stuffed full of fragments of souls, they’ll be on us like carrion birds.”
“Perhaps this is a conversation best held inside.” Rami cast a wary eye down the hall. The gargoyle had calmed under Claire’s attention and shook the rest of the ash from its shoulders to dust the lot of them. Brevity wrinkled her nose and stepped back so the giant could lurch back to his alcove.
“You’re right.” Claire dusted her hands. “Besides, we have guests.”
Excerpted from The God of Lost Words, copyright © 2021 by A.J. Hackwith.