The Fatal Commons
"Hello? Is anyone there? It's me, Felix."
Why he thought introducing himself to an empty cavern was effective is anyone's guess. Maybe it was a comfort thing; Felix hated few things more than being alone, and this was the loneliest he'd ever been. At least last time he got lost down this deep, he had company.
The pain in his chest grew. He called again.
"Please. If you're out there—I'm not scary. Um, quite the opposite! Very easily scared myself. Always have been, of everything. Scared of the waves on the beach, even, my brother used to say."
Alas, only the echo of his own voice responded.
Felix swished his tail and cursed himself in his mind. Only you would talk to an empty library, you utter freak.
But surely, if it were empty, it wouldn't be so—clean, would it?
Stop asking these things. It's not your place. You don't belong down here.
Felix inched closer to a rope bridge dangling over the lower levels of the library. He almost hated heights as much as being alone. Gripping the ropes tight in his paws, he went slow over it, pausing a few times when anxiety choked his mind.
How'd I even get down here?
Believe it or not (and he certainly believed it), spelunking wasn't a regular hobby of Felix's. Otters like him didn't do well in dark, smelly caves, and he didn't make it a habit to stay in them very often.
Didn't you stay in an inn last night? Wasn't it Freyvale's? How do you go from an inn to a cave while you're asleep, Felix Phearais? Do you sleepwalk?
I couldn't have. I still have all my stuff with me.
So if it was real, how'd it get here? Four levels of sturdy oak and maple paneling and planks, walkways, railings, and bookcases, lit by scattered, steadily-humming crystallum lanterns, not to mention the thousands, nay, tens of thousands of leatherbound books, all of varying thicknesses.
This was all deliberate. Someone built all of this.
Leaping a few times from stubby legs, Felix managed to grab one of the lanterns and pulled it down from the iron ring from which it hung. It was a long way down to the bottom level and an even longer way to the heart of the library, but he was willing to see it through.
In fact, unless he found talking to the cave walls a better use of his time, he didn't have much of a choice.Back to top
With lantern in hand, Felix wandered the narrow passageways between the bookshelves for a while. Several times taller than him, they stretched upwards into the corners where the lantern's light couldn't reach. He couldn't help but look frequently up into the darkness for anything ready to pounce on his head.
At the end of one of the passageways was a small ladder, worn from the scuffs of shoes and claws, but sturdy. Felix dragged it towards the center and climbed it, using the opposite bookcase to steady his ascent before craning his stubby little otter neck up to the highest shelf he could reach.
The books were nicely bound in leather and fastened with fairly thick, gold-coloured thread, and they all seemed to have author names, though no titles, across their spines. There was no writing and no markings anywhere else on their binding. They were invitingly small, though certainly not pocket-sized.
Felix hesitated before pulling a thinner book from the selection. "Alessio Grimm" read its spine. He flipped it open to somewhere towards the beginning, balancing the bottom of the book against his chest and holding the top with one paw as the other held the lantern.
It was thanks to a summer stint as a courier that Felix had any semblance of literacy at all. Signs and directions were second nature; anything longer was still a struggle. He could certainly recognize some words in the paragraphs and paragraphs of text: "Whalecrest", "sable", "Navy captain" (I wonder if he knows Devon...), and of course, Alessio's name, though as a "Boudreaux" for some odd reason.
Felix exchanged the book for another, thicker one. "Pavani Barrueco". Though he recognized fewer words of her origin, as an Othushan native, he skimmed through to find she was a golden cat and a Destruction student with Dragonbridge's Mages' Guild...and dismembered herself in a test involving a Wildfire spell.
Horrified and a bit shaken, Felix left the book where he found it and shrunk away from the bookshelves, nearly falling off the ladder in the process. There would be no more reading today.Back to top
Still shivering at the thought of someone being disfigured, Felix climbed up on an old plush couch away from the shelves and started fidgeting and pinching at the webs on his front paws to distract himself. At least here, he had two lanterns to ease his fears.
You are no closer to finding out what this place is than you are to finding an exit, Felix Phearais, and at least that won't put you in more danger. Why aren't you leaving?
Pardon me if going out into the inky darkness isn't my top priority.
Maybe sleep was the better option. Maybe he would sleep and wake bathed in warm Freyvale sunlight, and he could simply avoid libraries for the rest of his life. Seemed as good an option as any.
Curled up on one end of the couch and using the armrest as a rather uncomfortable pillow, Felix turned over and shut his eyes tightly. The pin-drop silence still wasn't doing his anxiety any favours, but he figured at least he'd hear anything coming.
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
Felix seized up. Tiny, clacking footfalls in the distance.
On one hand, he was no longer alone. On the other, he was no longer alone.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
These only got closer, and now, Felix was shaking rather violently. He scanned around for the source of the steps; no doubt they were on this level. He was rather useless at warding off assassins or thieves or torturers, and his lack of a weapon didn't help. The closest he could come up with was a tight grip on one of the lanterns. It was heavy enough to be a weapon, right?
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
Maybe hopping from the top level was the best solution. There weren't exactly very many soft places to land, last he checked, but surely he could find something, or maybe simply land on one of the parts of his body he didn't need.
"I thought I heard someone up here."
Felix's spirit about left his body at the sound. With a yelp, he jerked to his left and found the voice standing at the other end of the couch.
To his surprise, it didn't look anything like an assassin or a thief or a torturer. It was a dhole with a dull red coat splashed snow white down the belly, throat, and ears, cloaked in a tan robe, sandals, and holding a lantern of his own. His muzzle was sharp and his eyes, beady as they were, read unimpressed.
"How'd you get up here?" the dhole asked. His words came out like breathy snarls; Felix couldn't place the accent. Certainly nothing native to Elinar.
"Well, I—um, climbed—" In no sense was he in a position to really answer the question. He was too busy trying to steady his strangled gasps for that. Besides, he didn't know the answer anyway. "Climbed the stairs, up—to here."
"There are no stairs anywhere in the Commons."
Oh, Felix, you idiot.
The dhole slumped and shifted his weight. Somehow, lugging around a jumpy, cowering white otter wasn't exactly high on his to-do list, but he could tell Felix needed something of a tour if he was to be down here.
"Come with me."
And with no will to say no, Felix whimpered and followed.Back to top
The two crept around the inky corners of the upper floor Commons for some time with only their shared lamplight for comfort. The dhole lead the way, staring unflinching into the darkness. Felix stuck close, peeking between shelves for monsters that never seemed to make their presence felt.
"I'd suggest you try nothing," the dhole started. "These books are worth more than your life."
"Y-yes, sir," Felix mumbled. "No trying anything."
A few more steps in silence. Felix grew nervy.
"Oh! Um—we haven't been introduced yet, I don't think. I'm Felix, from Beachdrift, sir. My brother's in the Navy."
"Mmm. Hernando Valerio, official bookkeeper of the Commons."
Felix was relieved—finally, someone to fill me in on this mess. "So you must take care of everything?"
"Aye, more or less."
"Sounds really important."
"Eighteen million books in the Commons, every word in them describing a person in a place in a time, some the only memory of the events within. Utterly irreplacable."
Felix was in awe of the number. "So they're all about people?"
"Every last one. And without them, we'd disappear."
Hernando glared. "You ask too many questions."
"I mean—they're only books."
"The power of ink under a quill, Felix. A book lost to history, a few words scribbled out—was it ever really there?"
Without a response, Felix went back to silence, with only the sounds of the creaking wood beneath them and Hernando's hard-soled footsteps for a pulse. He went over things in his mind—a big library, a lot of books, something about scribbling things out—but it proved stressful.
Towards the end of the hall, Hernando leaned down and unlatched a trapdoor, concealing a rickety ladder into yet more darkness underneath them. He set his lantern next to the hole and went first, and despite his doubts about the ladder's sturdiness, Felix didn't hesitate to follow.
The hole lead to another level packed with books. Happily planting his feet on solid ground once more, Felix went right back to scanning the darkness and avoiding books, lest Hernando think he was trying something.Back to top
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