"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.
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.
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.
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.
"Wait, wait...so everyone in the entire world has a book?"
Hernando, now augmented by a stepladder, shuffled a few books around on the top shelf, occasionally tilting his head and squinting at a spine in the lamplight. His pointed muzzle twitched and flared on occasion. He said not a word.
Felix sat hunched over an adjacent table, keeping his own nose low and pulling his shabby little cloak tighter against him. There was a dreadful draft nearby.
Hernando growled, enough bite in his whispery tone to freeze Felix's blood. "I said eighteen million, did I not?"
"I-is that everyone?" Felix squeaked, shrinking timidly in his seat.
"And it's—their whole story? How they were born, their life..." Felix's tummy started to twist again. "—H-how they die?"
Exhaling noisily, Hernando stepped off the ladder with a book in hand. He took it to a nearby couch, where he slipped off his sandals and sat on the far end with his legs underneath him. "I suppose you would like a story, so I have picked one for you."
Felix listened closely. "A—story would be nice, thank you."
"This book contains the story of a Gerwald Lundsstrom, of Montroux, Adwolen. ...A very famous composer." The dhole stopped for acknowledgement, though Felix only seemed confused.
"I—don't know much music, sir. U-unless it's someone at an inn, or—maybe on a wagon out of town—"
"Enough." With a pause to flip a few pages in and another gasp of breath, he started to read aloud. "Gerwald Lundsstrom was born to Augustin and Greta Lundsstrom, a luthier and a seamstress respectively, on Aprilis 2, 1683, with a radiant blue-grey coat and a birth weight of 42 grams. With both parents being of a pure long-tailed chinchilla lineage, he too was deemed purebred." He paused to look up at Felix. "And that's in there."
Hernando flipped ahead slightly and continued. "It was in his father's shop on Iunius 14, 1697 that Gerwald composed his first sonatina for viola; it went untitled, though excepts would later be used in his second fugue, A Meditation on Neptune."
"And that's in there." Hernando skipped much further ahead. "Not five months later did Gerwald become the father of another daughter. This one, he named Lillian, saying her innocence had reminded him of a bed of lillies."
Felix was astounded. Even just from the excerpts, there was so much detail, so much to know about someone he'd never even heard about before now. It had to be real, didn't it?
"And that's in there?"
Hernando tilted his head and paged through the rest of the book, seemingly skimming for something in particular. "And as for your last question..."
The otter lad seized up, preemptively grabbing fistfuls of his cloak.
"On the way to a performance in Liessingen on September 20, 1747, Gerwald began complaining of chest pains and a sense of weakness, especially when he stood. His wife Regina implored him to stay in the carriage as much as possible, but a sudden surging pain caused him to jump out of his seat and hit his head on the side of the coach, causing his brain to bleed out into his skull. It was later learned his heart had failed, but the head trauma was what truly killed him. He was 63."
Breathless, Felix only stared. The whole concept of death was one he never quite got comfortable with, especially with the many ways one could go out, and every time he heard a new one, his imagination spiralled—a heart stopped cold and going blue, the violent impact, brain juices pooling on the inside of his head—and he grew panic prone.
Hernando pulled a face before returning to the floor, feet slipped securely into his sandals once more. "What's your surname?"
"Your book is nearby."
"Since you're so curious..." Drifting off around a corner with his lantern illuminating shelves and floorboards on the way, Hernando took his leave. Felix was still stuck pale on the thought of a dead composer to notice much.
I visit this balcony in my times of aching. It hangs over the darkness of the Floor of the Commons, where only silverfish will go. I come here and I think. I think about my prison, these books that mean nothing to me, and certainly my captors. Narrators, they call them. The infinite eyes and minds to lay every brick and paint every cloud. Even as they leave these lands, they don't leave my mind.
I only wish I knew why they came up this time.
Hernando leaned over the kitchen island, rubbing in vain at his legs and paws to get the pins and needles out of them. He was usually stiff after his...sessions. The honey badger had neglected to return his shirt too, but frankly, he seemed a bit out of it. Hernando could usually tell his superior's mood from, say, two hours of staring over a pair of stocks into his eyes, but looks of dull, weary frustration were all he got this time.
It seemed like better days when my ship arrived in Dunebury's harbour. I was a foolish one then, so intoxicated on hubris that I'd even arrived, that the Gods saw my ship though to the shores. Even in rags, I stood proud in the guild hall. Too proud. One of the chief scholars took notice of me. A prickly-furred, imposing honey badger draped in an ill-fitting plush purple robe.
"Looking for work, you said?"
"I've been in need of an assistant. How are your reading and writing skills?"
Taught well, sir. Fluent and meticulous.
"Come with me to my office. You'll do well."
Hernando jittered and turned to face the trap door in the corner of the dining area. Banging and hissing followed the sound of pumping water. They were roughhousing down there, moreso than usual.
"G-give me my powers back!" was all he heard, her voice colored by fear and muffled by the tank's glass.
"No one can hear you, so you know," he said. "Except for me, I guess."
I don't have a place to go home to, sir. I just got here.
And he stared into the apocalyptic glow of Dunebury's late sunset and tilted his head. "I'm going back to Applebury tomorrow. How would you like to stay with me?"
I feigned modesty. I wouldn't want to be a burden, sir.
"None at all. It's just me and—a close friend. There's a room for you, Hernando."
In truth, it was his kitty friend that frightened me more. I don't know what he owed her, that joyless little busybody terrorizer leopardess. Climbing on him. Scratching him. Poking, prodding. Running out of the house in her nightclothes to chase ghosts. At first, it was occasional fighting. Then twice a month. Then twice a week. My peace started when they left the farmhouse.
And the less said about her tank, the better...
Hernando opened the trapdoor just a crack and peered down into the dusty lanternlight. The margay was quickly exhausting, throwing herself against the walls of the glass box and now stuck in a foot of ever-rising water over past the hem of her blue dress.
The honey badger nursed a bloody arm with a roll of gauze and pulled something from his pocket—his weathered old pocketwatch. "You've got about five minutes," he said to her, studying it.
His scowl inverted into a perverse smirk. "Enjoying yourself?"
"But you always liked the tank...that's why you had me build it, remember? That's why you always put me in it, remember?"
The margay leaned on the glass, weak and succumbing quickly. She couldn't swim, nor tread water. Normally, she had her narrator powers to resurrect her every time she spent a little too long underwater—suffice to say, she wasn't about to get them back.
Hernando couldn't watch. Poetic and fitting, perhaps. The way she deserved to die? Most likely. Even still, in all the times he'd heard it fill, in all the times he heard them violently quibble, furniture being thrown and lashings exchanged, in every night some poor sap got sealed in there—he never quite expected it to end in murder. He had to leave.
My reward for living through what I have...immortality. Eternity in a void with no beginning and no end, tending to the memories I have of them. I would not wish it on monsters, warlords, the wicked, or the depraved. Yet, "Official Bookkeeper"—a title I had no hand in giving myself, is one I bear for all time now.
Still staring out over the bannister, Hernando buried his snout in his robe's sleeve and whimpered.
That is, unless destroying their books sets me free.
This story is as of yet unfinished. Check back for new chapters!