War in the Library



War in the Library


The Wanderers’ Library
1 October, 2021

Walking down the towering aisles, Alison Chao stopped and bent down to examine one of the leatherbound tomes. Li Fong Yue, Vanguard agent of MTF Tau-9 (“Bookworms”) watched as the Black Queen picked up the book and turned it over in her hands.

“We have things to do,” Li said.

“Oh relax, Agent. Your organization has been waiting to get into the Library for generations. I’d think you of all people would be interested in smelling the roses.”

Li looked around at the endless bookshelves surrounding them, the scragged housing a few hundred meters away, the ramen shop halfway up a floating cliff-face of lime crystal dividing sections of the Library. Swooping away from the shop was a man held aloft by butterfly wings made of stained glass, his eyes glowing orbs emitting yellow mist. A circle of scholars sat around a small blue fire pit, the pyre lighting up their faces as they discussed some magical treatise or another. Or they could be talking about their latest bender, for all she knew.

Absent-mindedly, Li reached down and placed her hand on her holstered sidearm.

“You’re absolutely sure the Librarians won’t mind us being… equipped?”

Chao laughed. “No, people bring weapons into the Library all the time. The only problem is when someone uses them. Any violence against a patron will get you kicked out, or worse.”

“Just worried. We’re on thin ice already, having been blocked from the Stacks for so long. I don’t want to give them an excuse. I’d love to take time to see the sights, but our mission is more important than that.”

“Our mission is to grab some fucking books.” Amy Corwin walked up beside the two of them. Her gaze panned over the nearby stacks then her eyes unfocused, like she was staring out towards the horizon.

“Where did you go?” Li asked.

Amy refocused her gaze at the agent. “Fuck off, Jailor.”

Chao placed a hand on Amy’s arm.

“Alright, alright. I got it. All on the same side now. Yeah.” Amy looked up at the distant twinkling ceiling of the library, endless meters away. “Shut up. I said I got it.”

Amy walked on. Chao turned to Li with a lopsided frown. “Sorry about that. She has a lot of issues with the new system, given how your previous organization treated her.”

“She’s not alone,” Li said. “It’ll be an uphill battle getting anyone to trust us.”

“We’ve all done things we regret in this conflict. The best way forward is the path we’re taking… together.”

Li didn’t say anything, she just watched Amy Corwin walk away. She turned and made sure the rest of the party was keeping up – researchers, other thaumaturgists, and a few other agents.

When she turned back to the Black Queen, Chao was holding out the book to her. The Once and Future Tyrant – A Comprehensive Survey of Alternative Versions of the SCP Foundation from the Multiverse.

“What’s this about? I get it, we’re the bad guys. But surely in some universe we did more go–”

“This is more interesting because of what it’s missing,” Chao said.

“What?”

“There’s no mention of Vanguard anywhere.”


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Watchtower-19
28 September, 2021

“Right, what’s your proposal?”

“Directo–”

“I’m not a Director anymore.”

Li shrugged. “What am I supposed to call you?”

“Tilda? Ms. Moose? ‘Hey you’? We’re working on it. But for now, it’s an interim board in charge.”

Alison Chao laughed. “Aren’t the members of a board still directors?”

“Shit.” Moose chuckled. “Whatever you want to call me then. Now, Li, what is it you’re proposing?”

Li nodded, and said, “We go into the Library and establish a beachhead. Something like an outpost. Plant a flag, now that we have access.”

Chao frowned. “The way you said that makes it sound… needlessly colonial. Let me clarify. For years now, I have been collecting and guarding occult literature within the Library, but not of the Library. I call it the Depository, and it’s been open to the use of the Serpent’s Hand and its’ allies. I want to secure this Depository, bring the books back, and distribute them throughout Vanguard for reference. But the Depository itself will serve as a Lighthouse or sorts, something open to the public, particularly the anomalous public, as a forward facing Vanguard base. If we’re going to start reaching out to the anomalous world, we need to get the Library and its patrons aware of us and the new direction of the Fou… Vanguard.”

Moose nodded. “I like that idea. Okay, this makes sense to me. Is this going to be a mobilization, Li? Do you expect any resistance?”

“Possibly political. A lot of people don’t quite trust Vanguard yet, and there’s always the chance someone tries to start a riot.”

“I want it to be mostly my people, with some core Vanguard personnel. The word has been spread throughout our communication lines and most of the Hand cells are aware of the shift. But it would be good to put forward a friendly and familiar face,” Chao said. “This is as much about establishing an outpost as it is showing that Vanguard can act with more deference and respect than the Foundation did.”

“This sounds promising, I’ll bring it to the Board. Tell me more about this Depository.”


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The Wanderers’ Library
1 October, 2021

Hidden between the stacks, three stories tall, a bastion carved from stone served as the Black Queen’s Depository. The building itself was ovoid with gently sloping walls, with a minaret with a small observation deck stretching out of the top. A short wall surrounded the building, with a gatehouse at the front. A pale green moss covered much of these walls, but the Depository itself was untouched.

The Depository was a jarring sight in the way that only an anomalous space defying the rules of space and time could be. A small castle within twenty meters of bookshelves and Library patrons was a strange sight. Despite this, the Librarians actively avoided it, and those patrons within sight seemed to pay it no mind, as if they hadn’t noticed it.

Chao and Corwin were opening the gate as Li and the rest of the team approached.

“How did this happen, anyway?” Li asked.

“We don’t know. We found it abandoned but sitting right in the middle of the Library,” the Black Queen said. “I suppose we were squatting at first, but when I approached the Archivist about the building, it acted like it had no idea what I was talking about. I’ve never seen a Librarian within the walls, and no one approaches the building without being connected to the Serpent’s Hand.”

Li looked up at the minaret. There was a small balcony up there, where one could overlook the surrounding area. “Does it project some kind of cognitohazardous or anti-memetic effect?”

“None that I know of, though if there was I certainly might not know about it. Honestly, there are endless mysteries here in the Library. There’s a river system connecting different wards, with boats serving to transport books and supplies through the Library. Also, there’s at least two different reading rooms that I know of with windows looking out on outer space, despite the Library not having an outer space. Sometimes, things here just don’t make sense.”

Li frowned. “It feels like it doesn’t belong.”

“It doesn’t,” Corwin said. She stood outside the open gate with her palms outstretched, her back to the rest of the group. She closed her eyes, and began to murmur.

Suddenly, a dome of rippling, shimmering air formed around the structure of the Depository. A seam burst in this dome in front of the gate, allowing for passage through.

“What happens if you try to pass through without that trick?” Li asked.

Corwin gave her a surly look, then marched into the courtyard.

Li ushered the other agents and thaumaturgists in. On the other side of the opening, parallel to Li, the Black Queen leaned against the wall. “Give her time, she’ll warm up to this, really. Amy was on her own for a long time and then ran from your people for even longer. She was even drafted into one of your MTF teams herself for a while before I got her out again.”

“Do you trust her?” Li asked.

“Yes.”

“Then I don’t mind.”

“Alright. To answer your question, the boundary of the Depository has a memory charm on it. Anyone who isn’t invited forgets why they’re here and leaves. It’ll have to come down if Vanguard wants to make it a public outreach center.”

Li’s eyes widened. “Probably, yeah!”

Chao smiled at her, and Li found herself smiling back. For someone called the Black Queen, who had almost single handedly led a massive resistance campaign against the Foundation, she was easygoing and pleasant.

“You’re wondering why I’m not more like Amy, aren’t you?”

“Are you psychic, too?”

“No, it’s just a natural question to have. The truth is, this is the best foot forward we’ve had in a long time. Vanguard is exactly what the Hand has been fighting for all along. Even if not everyone is going to see it that way.”


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The Wanderers’ Library
1 October, 2021

From the third level of the Library, Karl Lange leaned against a bookshelf as he watched the Foundation team enter the Depository. Next to him, Eliza Salazar crouched with a small notepad, scratching off hash marks on the paper. Closing the notebook, she stood and looked over the bannister towards the vanishing team.

With a scowl, Salazar spoke. “Twelve, not including the Queen. I recognize some of them, good thaumaturgists. The others I’d guess are Jailor soldiers. Makes me sick, watching her pal around with them.”

“Same here. When I was running from the Jailor’s hunters, she was the one who gave me a safe place with the Hand. She saved me. And now she’s a traitor.” Lange was almost growling.

“What if they’re forcing her?”

“That wouldn’t make sense. She’s too powerful for them to be able to do that. No, something’s changed. The jailors have never been welcome in the Library before. Somehow, some way, they’ve pulled the wool over the eyes of the magical world. But we know them better. We don’t forget. The same bastards who the Queen sides with now killed so many of my people a century ago, and flushed the rest up that goddamn chimney. Doesn’t matter what they call themselves.”

“What do you want to do?”

Karl looked down on the building, the shimmering dome closing back around the gate. He watched as Alison Chao walked into the Depository, followed by an Asian Foundation agent.

He thought of all those years running after he escaped the other place, until he found the Library. Accidentally taking someone’s name, watching him get carted away by the Librarians. Wandering the stacks for weeks, barely subsisting off of the scraps left behind by patrons. Not knowing what he was going to do or where he could go. He thought about when Alison Chao found him, the one from his reality. He thought about her showing him how the Library connected to myriad worlds and the work her sisters were doing with the Hand. That’s when he knew why he’d been spared.

“We can’t let them get a hold of the Depository. Those books belong to the Hand, not to the Black Queen.”

“Most of the Hand went to the other side, Karl.”

“Then fuck them. And fuck the Queen. Those books aren’t meant for Jailor cells.”

He checked the rifle slung across his back, and the ammo in his belt.

“Call the others,” he ordered.

She nodded and left, leaving him holding his weapon at the barrier between the new and the old.


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The Wanderers’ Library
1 October, 2021

The agents and thaumaturges immediately began packing up the books within the Depository’s library.

“Library within the Library,” Li mused.

“Yup, very strict lending policy though,” said Amy Corwin.

Surprised, Li turned and found Amy next to her. She had a distracted look about her.

“Hey.”

“So, I’ve been told I need to apologize,” Amy said, almost muttering.

“You don’t. Not to me anyway.”

“Good. That’s what I said.” Amy nodded curtly.

They were quiet for a moment, watching the others load up the books.

“What did you mean about the lending policy?” Li asked, desperate to escape the awkward silence.

“Oh, it was nonexistent. You take a book you’re not meant to, and you become a Thief.”

“How is that different from a normal library?”

“Thief with a capital T. Marked as a violator of the rules. Nobody likes a thief, the universe least of all. You’d have some kind of probabilistic cascade against your well-being, until you die in a way both convoluted and ironic, somehow. Final Destination type shit.”

“Okay, as upsetting as that is, that’s a big problem. Aren’t we planning to take these books out of here?”

“Sure, but Ali was the one who put the curse on them, so she can take it off… probably.”

“Probably?”

“She’s working on it.”


Alison Chao threw a book onto the table in front of her. She crossed her arms and glanced around the small study. A fireplace, reading table, and ritual circle were the only things in the room. She stepped out of the ring of silver and beryllium bronze interlaced in various Celtic knot patterns that made the ritual circle, and leaned against the stone wall.

“How the hell did I do this in the first place?”

She could feel the working that marked someone as a Thief, sense the edges of the ritual that created the thaumic energies in play. But try as she might, she couldn’t find the right thread to pull to disassemble it.

“Maybe it’s a macro problem. I could look at the collection as a whol–”

A dull, tolling bell began to ring outside, loud enough to shake her from the reverie.

“ATTENTION. ATTENTION. THIS IS THE EIGHTH ARCHIVIST OF THE WANDERERS’ LIBRARY.”


Li put a hand on her holstered sidearm. “What the hell was that?”

Amy ran to a high window, perching on a stool to look out onto the courtyard. “Shit!”

“I HAVE DETECTED HOSTILE ACTORS PRESENTLY IN THE AREA OF THE HAND’S DEPOSITORY.”

“What the fuck is happening?” Li asked.

Amy slammed a bar across the bastion’s main door, went to a bookshelf, slid it away from the wall and grabbed a pump action shotgun hidden behind it. “We’re being attacked.”


“We’ve been made!” Eliza cried as she quickly dropped behind a low wall surrounding a storage area in the courtyard.

Karl looked up towards the distant Library ceiling. The booming voice came again, echoing off the stone ramparts of the small bastion in front of them.

“AS THE PERPETRATORS OF THIS INTENDED VIOLENCE, AND THE TARGET OF THEIR IRE, ARE BOTH SERPENT’S HAND MEMBERS, I HAVE MADE A DECISION. VIOLENCE IS PROHIBITED WITHIN THE BOUNDS OF THE LIBRARY, SO THE CONFLICT WILL NOT TAKE PLACE WITHIN OUR HALLS.”

A pressure began to build over the surrounding area, pressing Karl into the earth of the courtyard. A high-pitched whine steadily rose, causing a sharp pain in his ears. He turned and looked towards Eliza, saw her clutching the right side of her head.

He reached out for the other five members of his crew, also down on their knees in the dirt, and saw blood trickle from Iphigenia’s ears. And then the pressure released its grip on Karl’s head, followed by a sudden flood of light. He shielded his eyes as he looked up, and saw an overcast orange sky above them.

Eliza followed his eyes skyward and stared. “What the fuck is going on?”

“YOU CAN COME BACK IN WHEN YOU’VE SETTLED YOUR DIFFERENCES. ONE WAY OR THE OTHER.”

A loud gunshot rang out, and a puff of dirt lifted into the air a few paces from Karl’s position. He looked up and saw a shotgun sticking out of an arrow slit.

“Pull back! Through the gate!”

Eliza dragged him to his feet and hauled him out of the courtyard, followed by the five other members of Jacob's Rise. The seven of them represented the only members of the team that were left after one too many dangerous ops. Eliza didn’t want to lose any more of them, Karl assumed. He didn’t either.

Karl collapsed against the outer wall surrounding the courtyard, on the far side of the gate. Out of the line of fire he looked out towards the horizon. To his left, as far as he could see, there was nothing but gray sand and large obsidian towers; to his right a verdant green sea gently slapped against the shore. Sand, water, and stone. And a perpetually overcast orange sky.

“Where the hell are we?” Karl asked. Eliza shrugged.

The shotgun fired, snapping him out of his reverie.

“Hey Lange, I fucking see you!” Amy Corwin yelled from inside the Depository.

Crouched against the stone wall, Eliza met his eyes. “Well, this is going great.”


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Another Place
1 October, 2021

Li grabbed Corwin and yanked her away from the arrow slit. “You’re asking to get shot hanging your entire ass out there.”

“Son of a bitch. I know that asshole.” Corwin worked the action on the shotgun, ejecting a case and racking a new round.

“Who are they?”

“An edgy dick who calls himself Karl Lange. Idiots who follow him are called Jacob’s Rise. They’re a splinter cell of the Hand. They like to do raids on Bookburner sites and Jailor… Foundation trucks.”

“Who’s Jacob?”

“Hard to say, his lover? Mentor? Father figure? Never was clear to me. He died a while back on a mission.”

“Wait, I thought you were all in different cells.”

“Sure, technically, but when Alison called most of us dropped what we were doing to listen. Lange is a hardliner. We hadn’t heard boo from his group since the announcement.”

“So what – is this a hit?”

“Maybe. He’s got that zealous vibe, you know? Real edgelord BS. Only good jailor is a dead jailor, that sorta shit.”

Terrific. Where’s Chao?”

Corwin looked back towards the stairs leading up to the upper levels. Then she panned around the bookshelf laden walls, catching the eyes of a half dozen archivists and mages crouching down covering their heads.

“Becca, get over here.”

A red haired black woman crawled over. “Shouldn’t you be ducking too?”

Amy looked out the window towards the courtyard. Nothing was moving out there except the waves of a weird green ocean.

“They’ll take a minute. Okay, we need to batten this place down. Get our people up and over to the windows. They’ve all got wooden storm shutters, open up the glass and get those shutters clamped down.” She turned back to Li and pointed at the sidearm in its holster. “Have you ever fired that thing?”

“Of course.”

“What about your people? Can we count on them in a fight?”

“No. They’re archivists. I’m the only field agent.”

“Shit. Okay.” She turned back to the stairs. “Becca, on second thought, get one of our people up those stairs and find out where her royal self is. While you’re at it, take a look out the observation deck. The big bug did something and I’m guessing we’re not in Kansas anymore. Find out what’s going on.”

“While they’re doing that, what are we doing?” Li asked.

“First watch, hot stuff.” She pointed to the portal in the main door and walked back to the window, this time taking cover behind the wall as she kept her eyes on the courtyard. “You watch that side of the building through the view port in the door, and I’ll watch this one. There’s only the one gate, but the wall ain’t that tall, so we’ll need to watch for them climbing over.”

“Agent Li,” hissed one of the archivists. “What’s happening?”

“We’re being attacked. Keep away from the windows. Retreat to one of the inner rooms when you can. I don’t suppose any of you know how to use a firearm?”

The archivists all shook their heads. “Okay. Then get down and stay out of the way.”

She looked out the view port – a miniature trapdoor within the wooden door one could open – towards the courtyard and at the open gate. The distance was only fifteen meters from the wall to the Depository’s entrance. She could just see the outline of someone crouching through the gate, and for a brief moment their eyes met. He had a shaved head, five-o-clock shadow, and piercing green eyes. Then he backed out of sight.

Li looked over toward Amy. “How many were there?”

“Six, I think. Armed to the teeth from what I saw.”

“Terrific. The one with the green eyes, is that Lange?”

“Yeah. He’s a vanished one, or at least that’s what I heard.”

“Openly? Usually, they try to hide their nature.”

Amy shrugged. “It’s what I heard.” She looked up the stairs. “Where the hell is she?”


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Alison looked out from the tower into the surrounding vista. Pink dusty plains all the way to the horizon in one direction and emerald waters in the other. There was no sign of life besides scrub bushes and yellow moss on the obsidian formations dotting the sandy plain. Everything was eerily quiet; even the sea lapping against the gray shore was muted somehow. She could breathe without difficulty, so this was an Earth-like reality, but she was sure it wasn’t anywhere close to home. Alison shuddered thinking of the power necessary to shift a building full of people into another reality. The Archivist was often conciliatory but always terrifying.

Alison turned her attention to the wall, where the fleeing Rise agents had taken shelter. She could just make out their movements by listening to the crunch of sand beneath gauche combat boots. Alison rolled her eyes. Karl had always been so militant.

She lent some will to her voice and called out to them.


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“You three, circle around and make sure no one is climbing over the back wall,” Karl said.

Two men and a woman armed with AK-47 rifles nodded and began slowly walking around the wall, keeping close to it to maintain cover.

Eliza sidled up next to him and crouched so they were eye to eye.

“What exactly is the plan here, Karl?”

“The plan was to take them by surprise and force them out of the building.”

“Then what?”

“Make sure they couldn’t find it again. The books in there contain secrets that could threaten the Library itself. We can’t risk them falling into Jailor hands”

“Okay, but that plan isn’t going to work anymore. What do we do now??”

“I’m working on it, we need to get insi–”

KARL LANGE. LET’S TALK.

Eliza and Karl shuddered and clamped their hands over their ears.

“Jesus Christ!” Eliza yelled.

Sorry about that, I was a little too eager. Haven’t done this in a while. How’s this?

Eliza and Karl shared a look, but didn’t respond.

Karl, can you hear me?

“Yes.”

What are you hoping to accomplish with this stunt?

“I won’t let you take the books, Alison. They can’t have them.”

Them, who?

“The Jailors, don’t play dumb.”

There is no Foundation anymore, Karl.

“Same people, different name. Trust me, I know the process. Still a Jailor.”

Vanguard’s objectives are the literal opposite of the Foundation. The Jailors are no more.

“Yeah, bullshit. You can’t give them the books, Alison. I won’t allow it.”

You’ve always been too eager for violence, Karl. It’s why my sister passed you along to me. But the Hand wasn’t just about fighting the Foundation.

“You don’t get to say what the Hand was. It’s whatever we want it to be.”

You aren’t the Hand, Karl. Or did you forget? We kicked you out.

“You kicked us out. After Jacob died, you left us in the dark. And you know what? We were fine without you.”

Can we talk this out?

“Why don’t you shut up, traitor?”

The disembodied voice sighed.

We’ll talk later.

Eliza pulled up her carbine and stood up. “Fuck this.”


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“What the hell are you doing?” Amy yelled up the stairwell.

Alison Chao appeared at the top of the stairs and started descending.

“Opening a dialogue.”

“Uh huh. Couldn’t hear their side of things, but let me guess…”

“No, it didn’t go well.”

“You had to try,” Li said.

“Thank you, Agent Li.” Alison smiled subtly.

Amy snorted. She looked out the window again, training her eyes on the small gate.

“What’s our situation?” Chao asked.

“Amy and I are armed. Possibly some of your other people.”

“Not in the traditional sense,” Amy shook her head.

“How many will be of use in a fight?” Li asked.

“A few, maybe enough. We didn’t prepare for a war. This was meant to be a simple job.”

Chao chanced a look through the window, then retreated. “They have at least a half dozen, maybe more.”

“Simple fucking job. Pick up some books, go home.” Amy kicked the ground.

“Amy.” Alison sighed.

“Yeah yeah, I counted six when they ran for the wall.”

“So you, and I, Becca and Georges. Otherwise?” Chao put her finger to her chin in thought.

“Archivists. Academics,” Li said.

Chao nodded.

“Oh, that reminds me. Becca!” Amy yelled over her shoulder.

“Yeah boss?”

It was Chao’s turn to snort. Amy winked at the Black Queen.

“What’s going on around the back?”

“Three of their number circled around. They’re staying back there, probably to stop us from climbing over the wall and making a run for it,” Becca said.

“There’s nowhere to run to,” Chao said.

Li turned away from her vantage on the courtyard, and looked at her with the face of a woman desperate to pretend she was not out of her depth.

“We’re somewhere else now. The Eighth Archivist took the entire building and threw us sideways into another reality.”

“Wait, then where are we?” Li asked almost hopefully.

“Orange skies, gray sand, green oceans. Definitely not Earth.”

“Well, shit. So, what do we do?”

“Well, I think we shou–”

“No time for that!” Amy interrupted. “Here they come.”


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Lange led the group with his AK-47 up and firing. Eliza followed, shooting slower and more precisely than her leader. The remaining Jacob’s Rise mage stayed behind the wall, speaking hurriedly, intoning ancient Babylonian and gesticulating with frantic motions. Blood dripped down his arms from slices cut into his palms. This blood began to flow into the air and above the Depository’s structure, spreading outward into a fine mist. Clouds grew in the sky, followed by a crash of thunder and a quickly intensifying drizzle.

One of Eliza’s rounds smashed into the door of the Depository, through the small porthole Li was aiming her own weapon through. The bullet struck her in the upper arm and she spun back, blood scattering across the stone floor. Chao cried out and crouched to shelter Li from further barrage. The Black Queen began to mutter to herself while clamping a hand over the wound, a faint red light seeping from between her fingers.

The first cracks of lightning split the darkening sky, and a thick red mist drew through the open gate, hiding Lange and his lieutenant from sight. Amy fired the shotgun into the mist twice, then cursed.

Amy stepped away from the open window, stretched out her arms, and placed her palms against the frame. She felt the moisture in the air, the crackle of electricity threatening to strike down the Depository. The Witness reached for the water vapor in the air, exchanged one state for another, and condensed it into a thin sheet of ice that coated the stones of the courtyard. The fog cleared just in time for Amy to see Lange lose his footing and land hard on his ass. Amy laughed. Eliza, who had had the soles of her feet frozen to the ground, took advantage of this opportunity to fire a shot at Amy’s direction.

Just as suddenly as the ice had formed, it was gone. A thin mist flooded the courtyard once more, clouding Eliza’s sightline. She carefully walked over the slippery wet stones and pulled Lange to his feet. Right as she was about to ask him if he was okay, lightning finally decided to strike the Depository. Only five meters from the pillar of light and sound, Eliza and Lange were thrown back onto the ground. They slid across the stones until they were nearly back where they had started, at the gate to the courtyard.

Shaking the pain out of his head, Lange slowly rose to his feet. As he put pressure on his right leg, he groaned. One of his knees had twisted when lightning struck. As the mist cleared, Lange looked over what they had accomplished. He found the only difference seemed to be that the cobblestones were now wet.

“Goddamn it.”

“Did you really think you’d force your way in here, Karl?” Alison called from inside the building.

The storm broke completely. Lange turned and saw his subordinate on his knees, exhausted from the conjuring. Winking at Karl, Corwin held her shotgun pointed directly at the mage.

Lange turned and retreated out the gate, followed by Eliza. Both their guns began to glow red and turn painfully hot, forcing the two to drop them. Lange turned back to the Depository with a snarl, and saw a Hand thaumaturge standing on the observation deck holding out a staff. She finished the incantation and the guns melted. Lange gritted his teeth and kicked the pile of scrap out of his way, closing the gateway behind Eliza.


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“I could have taken his head, Ally.” Amy said, pouting.

“I said no. No killing, Amy. Not if we can help it. These people are not our enemies. We can’t solve this through violence, that’s why Becca smote their weapons and not their bodies.”

Alison helped Li to a sitting position, taking her hand from the wound. The skin was red, irritated, and her arm and torso were stained with blood, but the bullet wound was gone.

“And you, Agent Li? How do you feel?”

“Uh… it hurts a bit, and I’m a little shaken, but okay given the alternative.” Li rubbed at the muscles in her upper arm – remembering the feeling of the bullet ripping through her just a minute ago. “How did you do that?”

“It’s a minor mending. You’re lucky the wound wasn’t worse, or it might not have worked.”

“What’s happening out there?” Li slowly stood up, still gently probing where the bullet wound had been.

Alison risked a glance through the porthole in the door. “They’ve retreated for the moment. Even if they weren’t disheartened over how badly that went, the loss of their guns will give them pause. Speaking of disarming, Becca, come down here!”

Becca came halfway down the stairs. “What’s up, boss?”

Alison gave a quick look and a wry smile at Amy, then turned back to the mage on the stairwell.

“From the observation deck, can you see the other four?”

Becca nodded.

“Good. Do the same trick on them. No more guns.”

Becca saluted and rushed back up the stairs.

“So, what’s the plan now, my queen?” Amy asked with a curtsey.

“Oh, fuck off.”


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Eliza sighed and sat down next to Lange. “That went well.”

Lange narrowed his eyes and grumbled.

“What’s the plan now?” she asked.

“I’m thinking.”

“Well, they burnt our guns, and we can probably assume they did it to our other agents too, so that limits our options.” She cocked her head in the mage’s direction. He was gasping for breath with his head between his knees. “And Ezekiel looks like he’s out for the count.”

“There’s probably not much water here, we don’t know what that sea is made of. So the conjuring probably took a lot,” Lange said.

“Great, I get it. Not my point.”

“Well, I don’t fucking know, Eliza! What do you want me to do?”

“Maybe we could just… talk to her.”

About time one of you had a smart idea.

“Jesus Christ, Chao.”

Sorry, it’s rude to eavesdrop. But then, you did just shoot my friend, so I’m not horribly bothered. You’re ready to talk?

Lange grit his teeth and growled affirmatively.

Excellent! Karl, you and Eliza come back into the courtyard. I’ll be there, and we’ll chat it out. Sound like a plan?

“Whatever.”


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“You are not going out there!” Amy yelled.

“I have to say, ma’am, I think it’s a terrible idea,” Li chimed in.

“Duly noted.” Chao opened the door to the Depository and walked into the courtyard.

Across from her, Eliza and Lange entered from the opposing gate. Lange had a pronounced limp, and was leaning on Eliza for support. The two stopped just inside the gate, leaving nearly ten meters between them.

“So, Jacob’s Rise. That’s what you call your merry band, right?”

“That’s right,” Eliza said.

“Why?”

“You know why, Chao.”

“Humor me.”

“To honor his memory,” Lange groaned as he spoke.

“Right. His memory. What did he stand for, in your opinion?”

“Don’t do this.”

“Come on, let’s play this out. You knew him well, if I remember right. What did Jacob Kaufman stand for?”

“Justice. For my people. Especially against the Foundation and their pogroms. Not to mention reinforcing the original genocide with their containment. He stood for fighting against oppression.”

“How did he feel about burning books?”

“Fuck off.”

“What?”

“You’re calling me a fascist. Stop it.”

“I’m not calling you a fascist, but I’m not the one who launched a raid on a library.”

“Like we haven’t done worse in the name of our mission. Come on, Chao, we used to fight the Jailors together. How could you give our secrets to them like this?”

“Karl, we fought together to stop the Jailors from oppressing others. You fought here today out of obsession.”

“Obsession?”

“Obsession. Jacob was a good soldier, but he understood that there was more than one way to fight our war. For every time he took arms against the Jailors, he used strategy, diplomacy, and espionage. You bluntly tried to use lightning to burn down my Depository, and you couldn’t even get that right.”

“You know, Chao, I used to idolize you. I was barely an adult, running around, and here was this magical woman who stood against the people who murdered my family. After I found out who your parents were, I still trusted you, because I really believed you were beyond them. You had to be, to do all you had done, right? But now I see you as you are. One breath of an excuse, and you go running back to your father, huh?” Karl smirked and showed his teeth.

Alison stared intensely at Karl and Eliza for a few moments. She took a few deep breaths, and rubbed the tips of her fingers together. Then, she smiled and chuckled softly. “Are you seriously trying to martyr yourself?” she asked.

“Fuck you! Those books weren’t yours to give anyways!”

“Yes, they are. I collected them, I stored them here, I put the charm on them to protect them. These are my books.”

“What?”

“I held the Depository open as a resource for members of the Hand, but I put every book into that building. Every single one. And you tried to burn it down.”

“That’s not what I wanted.”

“Then what the hell was your end goal?”

“We have to keep those books away from the Jailors at all costs. I would rather see them burn than see the secrets in them used against us. If there was any other way… it disgusts me to say this, but it was the only choice.”

“That’s Jailor thinking, Karl. Dangerous road to walk down.”

“Said the Jailor.”

“I’m not a Jailor, Karl. The Foundation is gone.”

Eliza cleared her throat and spoke up. “Ms. Chao, if I can interrupt here?”

The Black Queen nodded.

“I don’t believe you, if I’m being honest. You say the Jailors are gone, but they’re not really. The same people are in charge at… whatever you call it now. Just because they changed their name doesn’t make them not Jailors. And I don’t know how I’m supposed to just take you at your word for it.”

“Eliza, what was the Jailors’ greatest sin?”

“Containment? Seeing the beauty of the world around them and trying to keep it in a box. That’s how the old writing goes, right?”

“Exactly. Now, I am someone high up in the hierarchy of Vanguard. I can assure you, Vanguard’s mission is the opposite of containment. It’s normalization, to educate people about magic and protect the innocent. It’s everything the Hand stood for.”

“I’d love to believe you, but all we have to go on is your word,” Lange said, “You’re going to have to go a long way to prove that they’ve really changed.”

The Veil came down four days ago, by Vanguard’s hand.”

There was a long silence. Karl and Eliza gave each other a surprised glance, then looked back at the Black Queen.

“You’re fucking with me,” Eliza said.

“Nope. The news hasn’t reached you yet?”

Lange stayed silent.

“Vanguard is everything the Hand has been working to create. We have a real opportunity here, I don’t want to waste it for a blood feud.” Chao nodded at the two agents.

Lange shook his head. “Nope. Still doesn’t work for me.”

“Why not?” Eliza asked him.

“Let’s say, hypothetically, that I believe you. That I believe that thousands of people can completely change heart and turn good. Why then, would I not believe that that same group of people’s hearts could change again, and turn out worse than they had before?”

“I can’t really think of a reason why—”

“The Foundation slaughtered my family, Chao. I stopped asking why they do anything long ago.”

“…fair enough. Well, one of the big reasons is that it won’t be the same people in charge anymore. The O5s are retiring.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No, they aren't. The Foundation is how the O5s rule the world, they aren’t just going to turn it into a force for good out of the blue.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Karl. It surprised me too. There was a vote, it was close, but they decided they’d rather live with us than without us. The ones that voted against this path disappeared, probably to work on their own schemes. The others decided to retire. If you’d answered the call as so many other Hand members did, you’d have seen the proof for yourself.”

Karl closed his eyes and grabbed at his knee, wincing.

“The Foundation isn’t in charge at Vanguard. If it was, I wouldn’t be a part of it,” Chao said.

“I still don’t trust it. There’s got to be something rotten left behind. You still have scores of Jailor scientists and soldiers; we can’t risk them getting their hands on these books.”

A cough from behind the Black Queen made them all turn. Li Fong Yue stepped from the Depository door, pistol holstered at her hip, and hands extended palm out above her head. Alison groaned internally. The Vanguard uniform she wore was an obviously repurposed set of Foundation tactical gear. If there was anything to set Jacob’s Rise off, it would be seeing her.

“Maybe there’s a compromise?” Li suggested.

“Fuck off and die, Jailor,” Eliza said. Lange spat.

“No, look. I understand your reservations about Vanguard. It’s in its infancy, nobody really knows what the final organization will look like. But there’s got to be a way.”

“What did you have in mind, Li?” Alison asked.

“Well, this guy here,” Li pointed at Karl, “Seems uncomfortable with the idea of us bringing it to one of our sites. But we’re planning to open an information center, everyone will be welcome to visit anyways. Why not instead set up a shop here?”

The Black Queen looked down at the gray sand beneath her feet, pondering.

“I think I see what you mean. So, we’re most interested in making these books available for up-and-coming thaumaturges, working with Vanguard. We never had any intention of hiding them away. Additionally, we want to make an open visitors’ center here, a lighthouse if you will, to show people the new way the organization is operating. An embassy, basically.”

“Get to the point. What are you proposing?” Lange asked.

“We leave the books where they are. Make them available to any Hand Member who wants to see them, as they were before. But we make the Depository the new embassy. It can be a library within the Library, as it always has been, but we’ll still use the building as a place to hold presentations and classes. It’ll even work better this way. And the good part about this is, if Vanguard ever turns into the Jailors again, everyone who would use the books for harm will find themselves barred from the Library anyways, ensuring they are kept safe.”

Lange turned and walked back to the gate, calling over his shoulder, “We’ll talk about it.”


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“That was stupid,” Amy said.

“No, it wasn’t. It was diplomacy. We can’t solve the first intra-organizational problem with violence, that’s not what Vanguard is supposed to be about.”

“Sure would be a lot easier to do it that way, though.”

“The Queen is right. We need to lead with the carrot and not the stick,” Li said.

“Exactly,” Alison said, “In the coming months, we’re going to have to lean on the anomalous community. And if the first public action was to kill anyone who disagrees with us, I think doors that would have been open to Vanguard would slam shut. We’ve got to distance ourselves from the Foundation, and not just in words.”

“I still think I should shoot him in his good leg.”


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“What exactly is the goal here?” Eliza asked.

“What do you mean?” Lange sat against the wall, taking the pressure off of his leg.

“What is the goal? Are we trying to kill Chao for ‘betraying the cause’? Are we trying to steal those books back, or destroy them? Are we just angry and want to make our voices heard?”

“Eliza, I would never have killed Alison.”

“Then what the hell are we doing! We launched an attack without even asking her why she turned. This compromise gives us everything we want, except for blood. Now, is blood the goal?”

Lange looked out over the green waves. He sighed. “No. Blood was never the goal. I’ve just been… angry. It goes against everything I thought I knew, seeing her prance around with the Jailors that she saved me from.”

“I don’t know if she is, Karl.”

He sighed again. “Fine. Let’s go be adults.”


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As Lange shook Alison’s hand, the Depository was back in the Wanderers’ Library. Li felt a wave of nausea pass over her, but there was much less spectacle than their first journey.

“THIS IS THE EIGHTH ARCHIVIST OF THE WANDERERS’ LIBRARY. WELCOME BACK TO THE STACKS. THAT WASN’T SO HARD, WAS IT? NOW, BEHAVE.”

Amy flipped the distant ceiling off.

“I SAW THAT, MS. CORWIN.”

“Good.”

Lange stepped back from Chao. “So, we’re agreed. The Depository will be a resource for anyone who needs it?”

“Including the Vanguard. But we won’t take a single book out of the building. Probably add more.”

“Fine.” There was bile to Lange’s words, but he seemed determined to follow them.

Lange turned away and started walking out of the courtyard. Eliza followed him with the rest of Jacob's Rise, taking a moment to look back at the Vanguard agents.

“You could at least apologize, assholes!” Amy called after them.

Chao turned to Li. “Let’s gather everyone up, finish cataloging the archive and get back to Moose. We’ll need to make some changes around here if it’ll be a library and a… what was the word we’re using for an embassy?”

“Lighthouse,” Li said.

“That’s the one,” Chao smiled.

Li nodded and went back inside. Amy sidled up next to Chao.

“You sure you wanna do it this way?” Amy asked.

“No choice, this is the best option we have.”

“No choice? We could have taken them.”

“No, I mean we had no choice. I couldn’t risk taking the books out of here.”

Amy met her eyes for a moment and then smiled.

“You don’t know how to remove the curse, do you?”

Chao shrugged. “Not a clue.”


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