Here's the next installment of our Metallum Nocturne story. If you need to catch up on any of the previous episodes, click here.
Claire woke believing she was suffering from a heart attack. Her chest felt like she'd been stabbed through the sternum. She clasped her hands over the spot, gasping for air and curled into a ball. When the pain subsided enough that she thought she wouldn't die in the next few minutes, she reached for the lamp unerringly in the dark, switched it on and recoiled from the brightness.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Claire calmed her breath and rubbed her chest, finding a tendril of night metal had curled beneath her breast, the tip looking like a dark vine reaching towards her neck. The flesh was hard and cool like the other sections.
It wasn't just the pain and the fear of death, but the dream she'd been having before she woke. She'd been in a dark place. Claire had been creeping through a building that made her think of a cathedral but it wasn't made of solid materials, but shadows. The dream had lasted until she'd placed her hand on a door that led to an inner sanctum intending to open it.
The dream and the growth of the night metal seemed related, though she knew the stress she was under wasn't helping. Since there was no way she was going to be able to sleep again, Claire decided to head to the gym. As she dressed for an early morning workout, she thought about the initial waking and how it'd felt like she could see the lamp in the dark. Claire dismissed it as muscle memory and her mind trying to justify the illusion.
The workout was one of the best of her lifetime. Despite the early hour, she blew past at least four personal bests and was certain she could continue working out for another few hours but wanted to get back to research. She still didn’t have any idea of what the next two reagents for her project were going to be, nor did she know how she would pay for another batch of night metal. It was almost as expensive as magesteel. The only reason it wasn't more was due to the limited use. Claire had cashed in a favor with a friend the last time and they'd swore they wouldn't touch the stuff again afterwards.
The Hall library was empty. Claire hung in the doorway until she decided that she'd exhausted the material available. If she was going to figure out what was happening to her, it would have to come from outside the Hall.
The good news was the city of sorcery had the greatest collection of arcane bookstores anywhere in the world and possibly the realms. She took the train to the third ward which was next to the tenth. The Spire, the enormous tower at the center of the city, sparkling in the morning sunlight. Left Tower Books wasn't open when she arrived, so she found the nearest Wizard's Coffee for a cup and a danish while she waited.
Left Tower Books wasn't the largest bookstore in the city, but it held a special place in her heart. When she'd first come to the Hundred Halls, she didn’t have much money, and while the City Library could have provided endless free books, she like the cozy feel of Left Tower Books.
"G'morning, Claire," said Mark from behind the counter as he was flipping through papers. He was reed thin with gray hair along the side of his head. "What a lovely surprise. Did you remember that we still existed?"
An unbidden smile broke across her face. "It's been a rough year. I haven't had much free time."
"Rough year?" asked Mark, scrunching up his face.
"Mark!" came a voice from the back. A slightly heavier man with a bushy mustache and heavily dyed black hair appeared from the back room with a stack of books in his arms. "Are you just the worst, asking her that after everything that's happened?"
"Well, thank you Carl, for putting me on the spot like that," said Mark. "Either way I look like a blessed fool."
"It's okay, Mark. I don't expect everyone to be following the news," said Claire.
"The news?" asked Mark, expressing sympathy. "That can't be good."
His partner, Carl, dropped his books on a table, sighing with relief. He gave a quick rundown of the accident and lawsuit with the mayoral candidate Annette Block.
"Oh, Claire," said Mark, rushing around the counter with mincing steps, holding out his arms and giving her a big hug. When he pulled away, he tilted his head and flexed his arm. "You've gotten stronger haven't you? I felt like I was hugging a fancy, pink-haired gorilla."
"Mark!" exclaimed Carl.
"She knows I'm not calling her a gorilla. Just as strong as one. You get that, right?"
"It's fine. I understand," she said, remembering why she enjoyed the bookstore more than the others.
"How can we help make your life a smidge less horrific," said Carl with a wink at Mark. "I assume you weren't in here bright and early because you missed us."
"I'm sorry I haven't been around—"
Carl made shooing motions. "Please. Never apologize for that. People have their lives, but when they need help, we're here. Whether it's for a summer beach book recommendation, or one on how to keep shadow demons from invading your cellar."
"I'm looking for books about night metal," she told them.
"Night metal?" asked Mark with a furrowed brow. "I'm not as familiar with that."
"Mark! Didn't I just tell you that's what blew up in the accident. I swear if I didn't remind him a dozen times a day about the easiest things."
Mark stuck his tongue out slyly, which suggested to Claire that he was doing it on purpose. Carl threw up his hands and marched into the back of the bookstore, motioning for her to follow. He brought her to the rare book room which was behind a locked door. She'd visited the room, but never bothered reading much because the topics were so esoteric that they never caught her interest. The room had a comforting musty smell as the books were significantly older than the rest of the bookstore.
"Now where was that book," said Carl, licking his finger and smoothing his bushy mustache.
He pulled a worn-edged tome that looked at least a hundred years old and after checking the table of contents handed it over.
"Mysteries of the Arcane?"
He rolled his eyes. "Pretentious and mostly out of date, but I remember reading a section on night metal when we acquired it. Fascinating from a historical point of view, but not so practical."
"I can't afford it," said Claire, checking the price tag.
"You can stay here and read it. Ignore the no pictures sign on the door. If you need to snap a few, I give you my permission. Just don't tell, Mark."
It was her turn to roll her eyes. "Thanks, Carl. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your kindness."
Carl squeezed her upper arm, raising an eyebrow at the firmness of her muscles.
"You really are a delightful pink-haired gorilla. In strength, of course."
She chuckled. "I'll put it back after I'm done."
Carl paused before leaving. "If you need me to take care of that Miss Block for you, let me know, and I will kick her right in the biscuit. She is nothing but bad news for this city, riling up people over the littlest things, making 'em all nasty and mean. And what she's doing to you is unconscionable."
Claire settled onto a lime-green beanbag chair in the corner, resting the hefty tome on her knees. The table of contents read like a list of superstitions about magic. She wasn't sure what Carl was intending her to read until she saw the listing: Mythical Materials. She paged to the section and started skimming. The text was a who's who of fictional materials like orichalcum, mithril, or adamantine. The last one at least had a modern analog, but it required heavy use of enchantments to achieve the simulated impact strengths. There was no mention of magesteel, which came from the Danir, but she wasn't surprised because the portal systems that connected the realms only came about in the last fifty years. She was beginning to wonder if Carl had been mistaken until she found a few paragraphs towards the end talking about the Night Mother. The text read like a description of a horror movie explaining that those who sought the Night Mother usually ended up flayed alive or enslaved forever in the realm of Umbra. Claire was well-read enough to know there was no realm with that name, but given the publishing date of the tome, it was unsurprising. The early years of magic were filled with superstition and fear. She was convinced that there was nothing useful in the text until she hit the last line.
"...the tears of the Night Mother were collected in the Halls of Shadow, and mixed with mundane metals of the highest quality to produce a material with unusual qualities this author can only describe as night metal."