The dormitory door creaked. Stocking feet pattered in the dark. Nightgown skirts whipped softly about small ankles. A pigtailed shadow crossed the moonlit window, clutched something heavy in both hands.
"Thilde?" said a whisper. A weighty something sunk onto the mattress.
Mathilde popped an eyelid. A snub-nosed girl with pigtails sat at the foot of her bed. She clutched a book, peered at Mathilde with excited, blue eyes.
"Maisie?" mumbled Mathilde, rubbed flyaway hair from her eyelids. She blinked, focused on the book. "Woah."
"Yeh," said Maisie. She grinned, hugged the book tight. "Just nicked it." The hefty tome thumped as she dropped it to the checkered bedspread.
"Quiet!" said Mathilde, scrabbling upright. She crossed her legs, considered the cover. It was a moldy, soft grey, embossed with swirling filigree of a veiny sort. Neither a title nor a date marked it. Mathilde went a bit pale. "We're gonna get in so much trouble."
"Nah," said Maisie, tossing her head. "I'll put it back before Professor Montle wakes. He's all drunk."
"Well, if you're sure," said Mathilde. She peered about the dormitory, at the half dozen rows of breathing, curtained beds. Not a stirring could be heard, save a girl snoring two beds over.
The girls met eyes, nodded. Maisie grinned, crooked teeth glittering in the moonlight. Carefully, she turned the thick tome on its side. A hinged, iron clasp covered the text block. Maisie produced a little key, turned it in the clasp's keyhole. There was a clunk, low and resonant in the still room. The clasp slid away.
The tome split in her small hands. It rustled, soft, like fingers drawn over dry skin. Maisie flipped a few pages, squinted in the low light. A scent of fur and cloying taxidermy floated from the old leaves. They were thick, leathery, crabbed with faded, brown script.
Maisie frowned, turned the book about. "Can't read it," she said. "It's too faded."
Mathilde touched a cold page, pressed her nose close. Tight lines of ghostly, tea-brown script floated in the parchment, too light to be deciphered. Faded forms of tables and formulae crouched in the margins, unreadable.
She flipped to the last page, found it empty. Blank, lightly marbled parchment shone in the pale light. The girl turned them backwards. Leaves rustled, crinkled, stopped.
"It's blank, from here," said Mathilde, pointing. Maisie craned her neck. Text, scratched in spidery lines, filled half the page. Only the last, a single word, could be discerned.
"'Don't,'" read Mathilde, whispering.
There was a moment of stillness. Nearby, another child shuffled, turned in her sleep. Maisie glanced about, spoke in a quaver. "Maybe I should put it back."
Mathilde scowled. "Come on, don't quit now. This was your idea." She leaned over, plucked a pen knife and a goose feather quill from the side table.
The knife flicked open, scraped the nib sharp. Maisie watched her friend set the blade's point against the pad of her left thumb. "Tilde," she whispered, gasped. A dark bead bloomed under the steel. Maisie shuffled back, nervously wrung one of her braids.
Mathilde put her quill to the welling wound. Dark liquid oozed through its transparent shaft. Pen meet parchment, pulled crimson lines over the leathery page. There was a thin scratching, like rough nails over bone. When the girl lifted her pen, a short phrase was left behind in squarish print.
My name is Mathilde.
The girls stared at those wet, gory words. They glittered on the parchment. Mathilde put her thumb in her mouth, sucked. With her right, she moved to turn the page. "Maybe it's dea-" Maisie whispered, gulped.
On the next page was a new line: Crabbed, cursive strokes, small and red as capillaries on an eyelid.
Hello, Mathilde. Do you know who I am?
Mathilde gazed at the words through frizzy hair. Slowly, she lifted the quill to her thumb, scooped a new bead of red from the cut. She bent, wrote.
You are Gauge of Blaodwash. The last warlock of Marmony Dale.
Maisie crept from the foot of the bed, watched raptly as her friend turned a page. New words had appeared.
What can the warlock of Marmony do for Mathilde?
Maisie spoke, blinked at the tome. "Maybe... No one will notice if we don't put it back?"
"We are not putting him back," said Mathilde, scraping her dripping thumb for ink. She scribbled another line.
My friend and I are students at a school. They don't teach us what we want to know.
Mathilde turned the page. Her eyes went wide. The next, once blank, was filled to the margins: Symbols and formulae, text and diagrams; all bright red, as if just penned. On the top margin, in large text, was one more line.
I will teach you what they will not.
The sorcerers of old are extinct. Ask anyone. No longer does a conjurer lurk in that high tower. No longer do crooked fingers stir cauldrons of gore and liquid spite. No longer do chimeras creep down from the hills, gobble children in their beds. The sorcerers are gone. Only in folkloric tales do they still appear.* In tales, and in libraries.
In the rare and cloistered stacks of academia lie curious tomes. They are thick, leathery things. Their covers are waxy and porous, girded with iron and locks. Their pages are veined, weirdly marbled. They smell of skin oil and preserved hide.
The best are eccentric, filled with histories that change with every reading. The worst are unreadable, filled with disgusting nonsense and rambling obscenity. Others are simply odd, filled with naught but tables and graphs without reference. All appear hand-written. All are writ in blood.
If a reader happens to scratch some script in their own blood, the tomes may write back. One must simply turn a page and see.
These tomes are all what remain of many a deceased magician. They are known as incunabula.** They are brains. Brains bound into books.
When a sorcerer dies, a peculiar ritual (known as absuturation) may be enacted upon their corpse. With care and gruesome precision, the cadaver is dissected, stripped for materials. The skin is flayed, flensed, layed out in sheets. The nerves are extracted, treated, wound like twine. The brain is cut from the skull, filleted, pressed into prepared sheets of vellum.
A skilled sorcerer may assemble these materials into a gory tome. This process resembles an occult surgery, rather than the binding of a book. Needles stitch grisly leaves with neuronal twine. Forceps stretch flesh to frock covers carved with charms. The resulting block of bound tissue must heal for a year and a day before gaining sentience.
The finished incunable is a marvelous thing; a dead mind restitched and made alive by sorcery. They are true books of magic.
Incunabula are among the most prized artifacts of sorcery. They are archetypal books of magic, the means by which the old practitioners pass on their arts. Without these books, many secrets would be lost to time.
A magician's library would be incomplete without at least one incunable. No simple text or lifeless grimoire can compare, hold quite such detail and expertise.
Interaction with such a book of magic is a ritual in itself. Messages must be written on the tome's pages*** in one's own blood. No other ink nor ichor may suffice.† If the tome is willing, a message will appear on the following page.
Incunabula feed on the blood which is provided them. A portion of the absuturation process incorporates ventricles and veins into the spine and gutters of the tome, forming an odd sort of circulatory system. The text which an incunable displays is formed by the action of veins and capillaries beneath the page.
Of course, not all incunabula may be willing to speak. Depending on the circumstance of their death, sorcerers may not at all wish to communicate (or even continue living.)†† Many practitioners of occult arts keep a standing will be absuturated after death.††† Other bindings are not so consensual. Many a sorcerer felled by combat or assassination has been spitefully transformed into a book.
Some modern scholars believe that sorcery, now largely banished, could only return to the world by the teachings of incunabula.‡ In an effort to prevent this, many incunabula have been chained up, hidden, in scholastic libraries and scholarly collections. Many hundreds of clever minds are left to rot on dusty shelves.‡‡ They are read rarely, if at all. When they are, it is with great care (for books can be highly persuasive.)
There exist some who would free these stifled tomes. Rogue magicians, disdainful of the closeted, conservative ways of the establishment, seek to crack the chained shelves. No knowledge, they say, should be forbidden, even that which is most dreadful.
*Of course, this isn't wholly correct. The sorcerers of old are dead. The modern ones are far more cunning.
**Oh, look. It's our namesake.
***Incunabula may populate pages with text on their own, as if displaying their thoughts. Many, though, remain blank. Any old thoughts become faded and unreadable, until new blood is supplied.
† Älf blood, most especially, will not do. Such black ichor burns the pages of incunabula, leaves permanent scars.
††Notably, the consciousness of an incunable is merely a reanimated version of the real sorcerer. The original remains dead.
†††Indeed, rumors say that elder magisters at various academies wish to be absuturated after death. They search tirelessly for the required recipe, determined to leave a personal, literary legacy.
‡The difference between a magician and a sorcerer is primarily political and historical. Both, certainly, own at least one cauldron. Sorcerers are merely more apt to put bits of people in theirs. They are also more likely to wear leather.
‡‡Humanity has a longstanding issue with not destroying that which they fear. There is a seductive lure to owning forbidden things, of knowing where to find them. Few scholars, in any case, could stand to see a book burned.