The archivist knew he was going to die today. The feeling of inevitability had crawled up his spine ever since waking that morning after a restless sleep. He’d barely picked at his usual breakfast of figs, olives, and oat bread dipped in oil, then went about his duties in the scriptorium with little enthusiasm. Death was an everyday fact of life in Maleos, particularly for a slave such as himself, but intuition and the ominous rumbling deep below the mountain palace told him the Gods of the underworld had other ideas.
The first tremor had occurred at noon the day before whilst the archivist was indexing his master’s most recent acquisition. Not the most powerful quake he had ever felt, but it was strong enough to send scrolls rolling off shelves and desks, make the lamps dance on their chains. One of the junior copyists lost a day’s work as his ink pot tipped and spilled the black liquid over his parchment. On any other day, the archivist would have ordered the boy beaten soundly for the costly mistake, but the archivist let the accident go unpunished.
Predictably, the tremor resulted in a flurry of activity and anxiety, none more so than among the shaven-headed palace priests who were convinced of impending calamity. They fluttered about in white and yellow robes, falling to their knees and shouting prayers and begging forgiveness. When the mountain subsided, the chief priest convinced the king the gods required a sacrifice to placate their anger. Eventually, he managed to convince the king it needed to be someone important, so the king immediately volunteered his queen’s nagging mother. Of course, that didn’t suit the chief priest. The wizened old schemer argued it needed to be someone significant — not simply inconvenient — to the king, and promptly suggested the king’s favourite mistress, whom the chief priest disliked profusely, as a more fitting offering to the gods.
Much wrangling and negotiating ensued, until a second tremor convinced the king his chief priest was indeed correct, and the poor girl was tossed over the side of the mountain, with all due ceremony and pageantry. As her screams abruptly ceased, a white dove conveniently appeared in the sky, and the chief priest solemnly declared the gods to be appeased. Crowds dispersed and everybody went back to their daily affairs, and that was the end of it.
Yet, ever the cynic, and suspicious of the ways of priests, the archivist harboured doubts, and thus he had spent the following night and morning with knots in his stomach tight enough to rig the mainsail of a felucca. And so it was, he was unsurprised when the big one came and shook the palace like the rising crescendo of a choral ensemble.
He was with the high priest when the earthquake shook the mountain once more, having been instructed to bring the library’s most treasured artefact, the Scroll of Sin-Magir, for the daily transcription of its ever shifting text. Sat upon his stool, the high priest grasped the edges of his desk and glanced worriedly at the archivist.
“Perhaps it should have been the queen mother, after all,” the archivist quipped.
The high priest shot him a withering glance that quickly lost its anger as the violence of the quake grew. The ceiling cracked above them, splintering the gaudy paintwork and showering them with plaster dust. The priest began hastily rolling up the scroll, then sheathed it in its protective cloth and thrust it towards the archivist.
“Return this at once to vault. I’ll deal with your blasphemy later.”
The archivist took the scroll, holding it tight to his chest. “Yes, Master.”
He set off, running for the doorway, but the shaking intensified so much that he could barely keep his feet. All around, chunks of plaster and masonry fell about him. Lamps crashed to the tiled floor, fireballs erupting as they smashed and oil caught flames. He lost his footing and fell hard, the wind knocked from his lungs. Behind him, the ceiling collapsed and the high priest screamed. The archivist rose to hands and knees, scrambling the last few yards to the doorway. For a minute, he could only sit there, trembling and coughing against the clouds of dust.
In seconds, the quake faded, and the archivist picked himself up. Dazed, he looked back into the priest’s chamber, which was an unrecognisable shambles. The archivist licked his lips and turned away, shuffling along the corridor. He retraced his steps to towards the library, passing confused men and women, their skins coated with dust and blood.
He never reached the library.
Another tremor shook the mountain, and a great chasm opened in the centre of the palace. Columns fell and fractured, walls cracked and tumbled, the ground opened up and swallowed everything in its path. The archivist, still clutching his chest, ran through the swirling blackness, deafened by the violence of the earth. Somehow, he managed to escape the widening chasm and forced his way into scriptorium. Bodies were everywhere, his copyists all dead, crushed beneath tons of masonry. His precious scrolls were up in flames, the air a choking fume that stung his eyes and burnt his throat.
His only hope was the vault, and he prayed it was still intact. He found for every step as more and more of the ceiling rained down upon him. Something heavy struck his head. It was a glancing blow, but lacerated his scalp badly. He staggered on, forcing his way through the chaos, until at last he reached the far wall. He was close, so close. Groping in the darkness, the archivist felt his way along the wall, seeking the hidden entrance with nothing more than memories and his sensitive fingertips to guide him. At last, he detected the seams in the wall, and hurriedly felt his way for the mechanism that would open the door. Mercifully, it swung open, and he fell forward into the vault, only to die as the ceiling fell and crushed the life from his body.