Afternoon on a lovely Monday. The golden afternoon shone down upon the wide reading space of the Academy Library. Jo and I, along with Sameer, Sean, and Aurore, stood before the desk.
"Hello," I said, "I was wondering if you had any information on a figure known as Sam Hill."
"Absolutely not," said the Librarian.
Midnight, and the silver moon shone down upon the wide reading space of the Academy Library.
"Technically," I said, "we're not leaving the grounds of the academy."
"That will be a great matter of debate among the professors after they find our mangled bodies," said Sean. "Were these five students breaking all the regular rules of the academy, or all the rules plus their extra restrictions? Do the library stacks extend beyond the bounds of the academy itself, or are they completely contained within the walls, stretching ever onward but never reaching the outside, like a magical asymptote? Do the library stacks count as their own mystical realm, in which case entering them DOES count as a violation of curfew? Ah, but it is all academic; the students were eaten by Ysgramor's Bestiary, and have recieved their just rewards."
"How else are we going to find any information about Sam Hill?" I said. "And before you ask, I checked the Internet. All I got was one of those non-explanations for the origins of strange phrases. Sam Hill is a Euphemism for Hell. no, he was a man who lived in Buffalo in 1876. No, it's a mangling of the word "samhain". The internet cannot help us."
"And you think the library can?" said Aurore.
"Who knows what you can find hidden away in a library?" said Jo. "Tucked away on a shelf are books nonbody has thought about in years, so obscure and forgotten that the librarians have forgotten to de-accession them. And THIS library, of all libraries, has stuff the Library of Congress doesn't know about. Talking of which..." She plucked a book off the stack. and looked at the spine. "The Library of Congress doesn't know about these books, but somehow they're still classified uder the LOC system."
"Nuts," said Sameer. "I was hoping for Dewey Decimal."
"That wouldn't help," said Jo, putting the book back. It shivered slightly as it was returned to its place. "LOC classification isn't helping either. We have no idea what or who Sam Hill is, we don't know what subject area to begin looking...we might not be able to find anything about him unless we actually ask a librarian for help. Which, as we discovered, will get us nowhere."
"So here we are," said Sean, "In the middle of the night, no librarian in sight, preparing to plunge into a potentially infinite array of books to find information that could be anywhere. It's like searching the internet one file at a time. Pat, this was your idea."
"Hey, hey," I said, "give me some credit. I have an actual idea of where to start looking for Sam Hill, at the very least. If everyone thinks the name is just an expression, that would be under Idioms, right? LOC number P301.5.I34. If that doesn't work, maybe I could...ask the books if they know. Who knows? It could work."
"And we're going to get into the stacks how, exactly?" said Sameer. He pointed to the heavy iron gates blocking each row. "I don't even have to put my glasses on to know that those gates will have heavy protective spells."
"Let me try," said Jo. She put her hood up and strode to one of the gates. I couldn't exactly see what she was doing under that cloak, but I could see that a red light was falling upon the gate -- coming from the direction of Jo's head. The gate shuddered. I thought I heard a faint whimper. The gate slowly opened.
Jo waved us forward, but she did not turn -- she strode into the stacks, stepping quickly as if to leave us behind.
Not a sound but our soft footfalls, as we hurried forward. Not a rustle or a growl. No light at the bottom of the stacks, save for the soft red glow of Jo -- her whole cloak was glowing now.
"Alright," whispered Aurore. "We're already breaking rule number one by being here in the first place -- but we shouldn't be compunding the error by introducing artifical light into the stacks. Jo, can you turn that light off?"
Jo neither spoke nor turned to face us.
"Something tells me that her light isn't artificial," Muttered Sameer. "It's not a flashlight, and it doesn't look like a wizard's spell. I don't know what's going on with her. Pat, do you -- "
"I have absolutely no idea," I lied.
"Fine. Well, as long as we don't run into any -- whoops."
There was a soft thumping, and a book skittered forward into the space lit by Jo.
The book gnashed its teeth at us, and then skittered away.
"is that it?" said Sean. "Have we angered the books? Should we be retreating?"
For a second we all shushed, and listened for the tell-tale sound of rustling paper. But there was nothing.
"Perhaps we're lucky," said Aurore. "Let's just keep going. We're not even out of the AC1 section yet. We're probably going to be walking ten miles to find the linguistics section...and ten miles back. How do the librarians manage to find what they're looking for? It's not as though they go tramping miles and miles for every request...right? Can they just teleport themselves to the right location? Or...wait a second. Sean, you mentioned the Internet. What if it's like that?"
"I don't follow."
"What I'm saying is, the Internet is like bringing the mountain to Mohammed. What if this library is like that? Its depths are unexplored because nobody has ever actually had to go all the way into it. They just...bring the shelves to them. Does that make sense?"
Sameer donned his glasses and gazed up at the spaces where moonlight hit the high shelving. "It's plausible", he said. "There appear to be transportation spells built into the wood. I can't tell what they're meant to transport...could be shelving, could be individual books. Do we really want to mess with that?"
"Yes," said Aurore, bringing her spellbook out of her cloak. "Shouldn't be too hard. All we have to do is add the LOC number to the right place in the locator spell, do a little dimensional warping, control for the energy output of folding space...Jo, bring that light over here, will you? Jo?"
Jo was no longer there.
"Jo," I called, "Where are you?"
"Nuts," said Aurore. "Alright, Sean. Cover me, will you? Im going to be lighting up this page."
Sean spread his cloak over Aurore, and they vanished from sight.
"Is transportation spells something first-year academy stuents know about?" I said. "Will I learn them this year?"
"No," said Sameer. "Nor the next year, nor the year after that. Aurore is...quite precocious when it comes to transporting matter across vast distances. I mean, we are talking about her specialty."
"And your specialty isn't the same thing? You're the one who jumps through mirrors."
Sameer huffed. "I thought I made it clear earlier that my mirror-magic isn't about teleportation. I have to walk, you know. Sometimes a long way. The realm of Light is...not an easy path to traverse without practice. I wouldn't dare bring you there unless I was certain that you could survive if I vanished for a moment, but, you know, what spells can you do?"
"Don't go making fun of me. It's not like I had my Daddy call the school to get me in here."
"Indeed not. I'm not trying to make fun of you...I know what it's like to be out of one's depth. Like we are right now, come to think of it. Maybe we ought to scrap this expedition and ask the librarians for help. Again."
"And abandon Jo? We're not leaving until we find her. Let the book about Sam Hill hang, for all I care. Aurore -- "
At that moment, there was a mighty rushing sound. The distance seemed to be rushing toward us, like a zoom shot in a movie, and the light between there and here piled up so that it was too bright to see anything. The shelves behind us shuddered, and a few books fell off.
And there it was in front of us -- section P301.5.
"Hurry hurry!" said Aurore. "I can't hold this thing here forever. Find the book you're looking for and let's get out of here!"
I dashed forward. if I could just ask the books if they knew where Jo was, or where Sam Hill was, it would be easy --
I looked behind me. Sam, Sean, and Aurore were suddenly getting very far away, like a zoom-out shot in a movie -- and the light between me and them was stretching thin, and they vanished into darkness.
Well. That made for TWO people lost. ONE of them had too much power to handle, and the other one was -- an idiot who thought she could get away with traversing the library at night, without having much power of her own. Anf got stuck in the dark, who knows how far from her own bed.
What was I going to do now? Ask the books for help? That had been a joke last time I mentioned it, but...these books were sapient. I usually treated everything around me as sapient, but that was kind of a..."every rock and tree and creature has a a life, has a spirit, has a name" kind of thing. Kind of. Sometimes you could get a brick or a dandelion that sounded like it was as clever as a crow. Sometimes you could find a crow that cleary knew more than they were letting on.
But I'd never seen a book move of its own accord, nor act like an animal. nor procreate. If these books were full of Knowledge, they had to be able to answer me in a way that was useful -- right?
"Alright," I said, "Is there any one of you who can help me find my way out of this place?"
I heard a loud thump behind me. I turned around. It was hard to make out in the darkness, but I thought I could see a large mass there on the floor, slightly darker than the surroundings. I groped forward. It was a book alright. A book that flipped itself open, smacking my hand away.
The pages flipped for a while in complete darkness, then stopped. A single passage glowed like moonlight.
The Library of the Academy of Wizards operates on the Library of Congress classification system. Books are named by their parents according to LOC classification; their titles are considered nicknames, useful only in the event that a human should be able to find them. The books can find each other and place each other quite easily according to LOC numbers, and do not believe that they truly need titles.
"Well, that's interesting," I said, "But I'd like to know how to get out of here. Or how to find my fianceé. Both, ideally. Look, how far is it to the exit?"
The letters faded. The pages fliped for a while, then settled once more, and the letteres glowed.
The Library is ever-growing, and an accurate assessment of its size is difficult to obtain. On April the 25 of 2015, the library had approximately 1.9 bazillion volumes, contained in a space about 20,000 square feet in real-space and one hundred gajilion square miles in L-space. Those who get lost in the midst of the library are advised to walk as far as they can in any direction; this will give them something to do while they starve and die. That is assuming the books do not get to them first.
"Oh, you're a big help."
Flip flip flip flip. The books of the Academy Library devise themselves, and are not written with human beings in mind. It is considered remarkable, among the elders of the stacks, that the younger generation should be so willing to present their information in comprehensible syntax; there was a time when students were expected to spend months parsing the text of a single book. This author is ambivalent on the subject.
"Do you know if I can find anything around here about Sam Hill? Does anyone here have that information?"
The book slammed shut.
Okay, so...Sameer and Sean knew something about him, but the library either didn't know or didn't want me to know. Who was this character?
Likely as not, I wasn't going to have the chance to find out, because I was going to get eaten, or something, here in the dark. Once again I had rushed into a realm I didn't understand; once again I was the catalyst for disaster. This time it was personal -- not on the level of falling cities and mad machine-goddesses.
It was a very lonely disaster.
The last time I'd fucked up this bad, I'd been able to bargain my way out of it with an entity who had complete control over the area I was in - -so she had the ability to let me out. But this time? There was no ruler of the library. No single person to persuade. The books were probably not going to talk to me any more. I had well and truly put my foot in it.
It was clear to me that I was not learning from my mistakes at all. How many times was I going to rush blindly into something before I realized people were getting hurt?
And not just me and Jo -- Masie Sani was going to be quite disappointed when she heard about this. Hopefully she would hear it from me first, instead of hearing it from someone who came across my corpse -- assuming anyone ever would.
Talking of which...if the books didn't want to deal with me, maybe the wood would.
"By any chance," I said to the shelf on my right, "would you be able to transport me to one or the other exit?"
The wood creaked a bit, but made no other sound.
How does one communicate with wood? The answer was probably in this library, somewhere...that I couldn't reach. Jeez. It was like those cheesy '90s kids cartoons where people got Lost in Cyberspace. I was lost in L-space.
"Oh dark library," I cried, "Show me the forbidden knowledge!"
No answer but the rustle of paper...lots of paper. From behind me.
I turned around. In the moonlight that fell at the intersection of the aisle, a few books were sitting, their pages open slightly, crinkled into sharp rows of teeth. Behind them I saw more books, and more gathering, thumping down from the shelves. The books in front gnashed their teeth and rushed towards me.
Well, when you're lost you're supposed to stay put, but this was a special circumstance. I ran forward into the darkness.
Ten minutes later and the books were still coming after me. I'd tried to dodge them at an intersection by turning right and then quickly left, hoping to vanish from their sight -- but the moment I dashed into a new aisle, a book fell to the floor and gave away my position. I was surrounded by snitches. If I tried to double back, the damn books were going to surround me. They were going to get me anyway, eventually, but damn if I was going to just stand there and let them. So i kept running though my legs began to burn and my lungs nearly gave out -- and this WITH the boosted endurance the City of Big Shoulders gave me.
Come to think of it...if I could run far, couldn't I jump high? Might as well give it a shot while I still had the energy. I crouched, and leapt, hoping to catch the top of the tall, tall shelving. And you know, it almost worked -- my fingers just brushed the top. Not enough to hold on, though. I fell into the aisle, landing heavy on my feet.
And the books were stepping up their attack. As soon as I landed, books started falling around me, on me. They were going to bury me if I didn't do something quick.
Well. The trick had worked last time.
I crouchhed to the floor as books piled up around me, over me. I whispered to the wood, "your mother was plywood and your fatehr smelt of cheap varnish."
The floor bucked, and sent me and the books around me flying. But I had been ready to spring as soon as I felt the floor move, and so I was boosted high enough into the air, this time, to grab the top of the stack. I scrambled onto the top and looked out at the library.
Endless shelving, as far as I could see, stretching out into the night -- if there were any walls, they were beyond the horizon in all directions. I looked up. The moon shone huge and bright in the night --
There were no stars.
I shuddered. Whatever this place was, it wasn't exactly the world I knew.
What it was around this part was cold and dusty. The dust lay thick atop each stack. You'd think the wind would have blown it away.
Hm. I wondered how the books were faring down there. I looked over, into the darkness.
They were piling themselves up into a big ramp.
Well, time to move.
I ran to the end of the stack, leapt across the aisle, and kept running.
I had granted myself a temporary respite and seen something nobody had ever seen before. But I hadn't solved my big problems -- how was I actually going to get out of here? How was I going to find Jo? Somewhere in the vast landscape of a potentially infinite array of information, there was my fianceé.
Presumably somewhere in the AC1 section. If she'd wandered off or been kidnapped, she couldn't have gone far. Which meant I had to get back to the entrance. Was I even going the right way? In the kerfuffle aout getting up here, I'd forgotten which direction was towards the top of the LOC numbers.
Well, as long as i was going SOME direction, I could reach an exit...maybe.
How do you keep running when your legs are on fire? Hope and determination. Heart is what moves us at all -- you literalyl can't move in any direction unless you want to. Every move you make is your choice, your desire. If you lose all desire, you've either reached perfect Buddhist enlightenment, or you're suffering crushing depression.
Or you're on top of an infinite set of book stacks with no idea wher eor when you will escape, no idea which direction is the correct one, and nobody to keep you company but a bunch of books bent on your destruction, coming fast up behind. THAT's when it's really easy to lose all hope, and stop in your tracks.
Like I did.
For a second. I would have fallent o the books right there and then, were it not for what I saw -- a set of human footprints in the dust, heading across the stacks and into the distance.
When Robinson Crusoe found that one footprint on the beach, he kind of went nuts. He went home and shored up his fortifications, jumped at the slightest sudden sound, wondered if he was going to be attacked in the night. Well, he WANTED to be alone. I didn't, so I had the opposite reaction, and hollered for joy, and followed a set of footprints belonging to someone whose intentions I did not know. Parallel, now, to the direction I had wanted to go. No matter. Here was proof that someone else could get in, which means they could get OUT, in something resembling a reasonable amount of time.
Assuming they'd only packed a lunch. Maybe they'd brought enough for a days-long expedition. Maybe months.
But I had to put that thought out of my head, now, and follow the - -
What if I came across their skeleton?
Bad thoughts! Bad thoughts!
But skeleton or not, there was no guarantee that this set of footprints heading FORWARD was going to end at an exit. I stood the chance of coming across a place where the tracks stopped...but if I followed the tracks from their source, that was more likely to lead to an exit.
I stopped for a moment and turned around.
There were the books, leaping from stack to stack. Well, no following those tracks backward now. It was forward or nothing. I kept leaping forward, bounding from stack to stack in the hope that this trail would lead me somewhere less papery.
And then, that was it. The energy i'd gained from seeing the footprints was gone. I'd followed them for a league and a half, and still no sign of an exit. The books were still behind me. They were going to gobble me up and turn me into a literal Cautionary Tale. Someday someone would find my book on the stack and read how I had been turned into ink and paper by a horde of angry books.
I turned to face my doom. The books were just a few stacks away now. Filling every stack I'd been on, as if I'd wakened them all -- and they were coming towards me.
There was nothing left for it but to meet my fate.
Then between me and the horde of books, a mighty THUMP and there appeared a high cloth wall. Aurore, Sean, and Sameer were here.
"Found you at last!" said Aurore. "It was hard to get you into the locator spell when you kep moving like that. If you hadn't stopped to catch your breath we might have never been able to. Say, did you know that this library is approximately three hundred gajillion square miles?"
"How on earth did you -- "
"We were able to figure out your general location," said Sameer, "when I realized that the moon counts as a mirror. Kind of a fuzzy picture, but it worked. Then we just added you to the locator spell, and here we are!"
"And here we need to scram," said Sean, "because I can't hold this thing forever." Books were leaping forward and thumping into Sean's wall.
"But where do we go from here?" said Sameer. "Back to the entrance?"
"I have no more energy to get us there," said Aurore. "Look, at least we're all together so Pat won't die alone. That's the important thing, right?"
"Sam," I said, "What about using the moon to get us back?"
"Mirror journeys are one-tenth the distance covered in realspace. We're out of luck there."
"My specialty is shields, not teleportation. What do you want, a giant sled?"
Sameer turned out to be more talented at wind magic than he thought, and he blew us forward over the stacks, as we rode in Sean's cloak re-shaped to resemble a great shallow sled. It was a bit of a bumpy ride, running across the stacks, but the sled was long enough that it covered multiple stacks at once. And so we beat on, boat against the dust, borne forward ceaselessly into the future.
Which wasn't getting any closer. Surely these tracks had to end somewhere? And yet they stretched on, on, on, on.
"I'm sorry I put you guy through all this."
"It's an adventure," said Sean. "highly dangerous, perhaps highly rewarding. I'm having fun."
"I learned I could teleport fifty bazilion miles," said Aurore. "That's a plus."
"I learned how to use the moon as a magic mirror," said Sean. "I feel like I've leveled up. Now, we just have to get out of here so that our effort counts. Assuming we can. I'm beginning to get tired. Aurore, do you have enough juice left to take over the wind spell?"
"Some," said Aurore, standing up slowly. "I'll ask you to take over again soon." She began to wave her arms ina great circle as Sameer crumpled down into the sled.
"If it comes to it," I said, "I suppose I could blow real hard."
The books behind us were getting tired. Maybe they were operating in tag teams, or something, but we never managed to shake them. Aurore started to flag. We began to slow down. Books began to thump against the bottom of the sled.
Everything we had tried was running out of steam. And now I could see why the librarians didn't let students in here: the sheer distances involved would kill anyone who was unprepared.
What now, then?
"Sameer," I said, "Do you have enough energy left for another moon-mirror spell?"
"We still haven't located Jo yet."
"Right, right. I'll give it a shot." He drew out his hand mirror. "Huh. That's odd. I wonder what that big red light in the sky is."
I looked into the mirror. A ball of rosy red light floated right next to the moon, and it was getting closer.
I looked behind us and upward.
"As if we couldn't get any more in trouble," I said, "We're in for a meteor strike in the next three minutes."
The glow was gaining on us as we sped forward.
Sean donend his glasses and gazed up at the sky. "That's an oddly-shaped meteor," he said. "It's shaped vaguely like a tall young woman."
At that moment, a red light fell over us.
And there was Jo, cloak, body and face glowing rose-red in the blue night. She said not a word, but flew to each corner of the sled and took it in her hands, gathering it about us like we were so much a pile of raked leaves. We were thrown all together as she drew Sean's cloak into a tight bundle and wrapped us in darkness.
"Oh great," I said, "Jo has turned into The Stork. Who are we being delivered to?"
At that moment I felt a massive force of accelleration, and we four were smushed aginst each other as Jo shot forward towards her mysterious goal.
And the next thing I knew, I was rolling onto a dewey lawn. Jo stood above me, no longer glowing. Just crying.
I rose, and she took me in her arms.
It had been a long night, not even yet over -- but here at the edge of the library, where the stacks of books slowly sloped into the soft earth, our pursuers were no longer following.
"Where the heck are we?" said Sean.
"I don't know," said Aurore, "But the trail isn't cold yet. Look." She pointed to a set of faint footprints in the dirt, leading onto a walkway that ran between a tall cliff and a wide river. A wide, wide river. It was near as wide as the Amazon, and it ran into a sea that looked strangely familiar.
As did the top of the single tower rising up through the center of the river. That was the Sears Tower, alright.
And in the distance, at the bank of the river was...more stacks.
Either a giant river ran through the center of this library, or the library grew up around the river every night.
"I daresay we've blundered into a part of Chicago we weren't aware of," said Sean.
"But we've got to blunder OUT," said Aurore.
"That's why I brought you here," said Jo. "I think. It'd hard to remember all the information that was running through my head but...this place is supposed to be important. The door's right around here..." She turned from me and strode along the walkway, vanishing from view as she went around a large outcropping of stone.
We all rushed forward, on the off-chance that Jo was going to vanish again. But there she was, standing in front of a small wooden door, where the footprints stopped.
She tapped the lock a few times and muttered, and i heard something click. She opened the door and waved us through.
There was but one light in the space, in the opposite corner, partially obscured by a partition that had a big rectangular hole in it. Almost like a restaurant's kitchen serving window...
As I stepped around the partition, I realized that the tales and chairs looked quite familiar.
"Well," I whispered, "I said I'd take you all to Meyer's Bar. I just didn't realize we would be literal intruders."
"And I didn't expect someone would break into this place through the back door," said a voice behind me.