“We stick together,” was the last thing Evelyn said, before all seven of us stepped through the gateway to the Library of Carcosa.
She had explained to me earlier that morning, after we’d completed the initial experiment, that this expedition was probably best carried out with as few people as possible, to avoid both unwanted attention and the ‘proliferation of uncontrolled variables’.
“By that, may I assume you mean one of us doing something stupid?” I’d asked.
“What other variables are there?” Evelyn had grumbled. “I don’t even want to take Twil along, let alone your giant zombie. Too many things to go wrong. We need absolute discipline out there. Absolute.”
According to Evelyn, the classical ideal was a single intrepid mage, plumbing the occult mysteries and risking alchemical transformation of the self; luckily for us, Evelyn did not possess her mother’s arrogance, and even if she did, her spinal problems and uneven gait and reliance on a walking stick rather precluded a solo journey, let alone a return trip lugging a sack of books back to reality.
Three companions seemed a much more sensible number – Evelyn, to locate the books and navigate the hazards; Praem, as muscle and protection and packhorse; and Lozzie, guest-starring as an emergency escape button.
Neat, clean, straightforward; of course that plan did not survive thirty seconds.
The experiment itself had gone off without a hitch. After the mortifying breakfast during which Raine had insulted and provoked Zheng, after the kitchen had been given a proper clean and we’d all had some time to prepare, we’d gathered in the workshop to watch Lozzie perform a miracle. Myself, Raine, and Evelyn, with Praem standing nearby on silent watch.
Raine had donned her head-to-toe riot gear just in case, while Zheng had vanished off somewhere – probably to fish the remains of her deer carcass out of the bin and snatch a few more mouthfuls – and Twil was still dozing upstairs, apparently in Evelyn’s bedroom. Heavy sleeper, or sore from the night? I filed that question away for then, too many butterflies in my stomach to concentrate on anything except Lozzie, bouncing on the balls of her feet in excitement, and Evelyn, activating the gateway to the Library of Carcosa.
‘Activating the gateway’ makes it sound absurdly grand.
What Evelyn actually did was take a few lengths of masking tape and stick Kimberly’s and Lozzie’s corrections over the right places on the cacophonous mandala, which surrounded the door-shaped blank section of plaster in the middle. Then she used the tip of a black marker pen to connect the various magic circles and esoteric inscriptions over the empty strips of masking tape.
It all felt very slapdash. Almost inappropriate. Part of me would have been more comfortable if Evelyn wore midnight black robes, chanted some Latin, and used blood instead of masking tape.
That part of me was very silly, and should have been relieved that my magical best friend was happy to do magecraft in her pajamas.
The gate didn’t care either, it opened all the same.
Blank plaster slid through that mesmerising process of shedding matter, first rippling black and empty, then filling in with shape and shade and shadow – and precious little light or colour. Unlike the otherworldly luminous fog of the Sharrowford Cult’s castle, Carcosa glowed with no clean light, only dank amorphous shadows cast by distant starlight, caught on tumbled mounds of discarded books. A sort of cliff or gigantic wall loomed over all, hazy with both distance and gloom.
Evelyn stepped quickly back from the open gateway, half taking shelter behind Praem while pretending she wasn’t doing so. Raine went tense, eyes glued on the other world, the other side, Outside. I endured a wave of vertigo as I stared into the bleak vision through the doorway. It was like looking down into a void beneath the Earth’s crust, a dark forgotten place full of half-glimpsed unspeakable creatures and forbidden secrets. The size and scale of the distant cliff-face – which I already knew was not a cliff – made my head spin. Had to squeeze my eyes shut, then open them again in sudden fear that something might crawl through the gateway while I wasn’t looking.
“It’s fine,” Evelyn said, too hard, either to herself or my fear or Raine’s tension. “Nothing can come through from that side to this, not unless I directly permit.”
She placed much faith in her own separate additions to the gateway mandala. Evelyn had spent the last few days adding wards around the edge – “The good shit. My mother’s shit,” she’d called it, working from old, leather-bound notebooks I’d never seen before. Stark clear white, seven neat magic circles painted directly onto the wall, each of which incorporated the Fractal.
The spider-servitors guarded this side of the gate as well, one hanging above, one clinging to the wall. I trusted Evelyn’s wards far more than I trusted their ability to stop anything from Outside.
“But the faster we get this test done, the better.” Evelyn turned to Lozzie. “Lauren. If you please?”
“You’re up, Loz,” Raine said. “Break a leg.”
I almost reached out to stop the experiment.
But Lozzie was ready. She’d giggled and flapped her poncho, completely at ease with this, and had dutifully flounced through the gateway all by herself. On the other side of the threshold that ancient wooden floor soaked up the sound of her footsteps as she tripped and hopped to a halt.
“Not too far,” I said, my voice cracking. “Lozzie, that’s far enough.”
“Yes, that’s quite enough,” Evelyn added.
Lozzie paused where she stood, and looked up in smiling glee. Her simple childlike wonder made my heart seize up. She looked so small in that window into infinity, and I was gripped by a vision of her skipping happily off into the deep gloom of the great library, swallowed up by the vastness of Outside. I lurched to my feet, convinced she was about to dive back into her natural environment she’d been so deprived of, stuck here in reality with us. I wouldn’t see her again for weeks, months. Maybe never, unless I followed.
“Lozzie, don’t …”
She turned to look back through the gateway, back at me, and blinked in gentle confusion.
Just gone. No ‘poof’ sound, no rush of air, no wiggle of her nose. The reality of magic, of hyperdimensional mathematics, was so bland in its cruelty.
“Oh, thank God for that,” Evelyn exploded with a huge sigh. She turned to Raine and I with the kind of savagely triumphant smile she didn’t often have a chance to enjoy, and even included Praem as she spoke, though the doll-demon did not react. “It works, damn my eyes, it works! There’s no way we could risk a full expedition otherwise. This is wonderful news. We can do it, we really can.”
“Seems so,” Raine said, more guarded, then noticed all was not well. “Heather?”
Panic clawed up my throat. I had to wring my hands together to stop them shaking as I glanced around the workshop.
Evelyn caught it and frowned too. “Wait, where’s Lauren? She was supposed to come straight back.”
“Ah,” went Raine. We all shared a glance, frozen in time.
Then – “Here!” Lozzie chirped.
And her elfin little face appeared around the doorway to the kitchen, sporting a lip-biting smile and a cheeky wink.
Evelyn sighed softly and rolled her eyes, Raine laughed and squeezed my shoulder, but I felt like my heart was about to burst with shaking, quivering relief. My knees almost went and Raine had to hold me by the elbow.
“No trouble, then?” Evelyn asked, and gave Praem the nod to deactivate the gateway. The doll-demon obediently stepped forward and pulled off one of the taped-up pieces of mandala. The gateway collapsed instantly back into regular old blank plaster.
“None!” Lozzie said as she skipped into the room.
She stopped on tiptoes, took a very theatrical double-bow to her adoring public, and followed it up with a single floaty curtsy with the hem of her pastel poncho.
“Lozzie,” I was saying, raising my shaking hands to her. “Lozzie, here, please-”
Praem clapped, once, twice, then carried on extremely slowly. From anyone else the applause would have seemed sarcastic. But Lozzie twirled her poncho like a matador or a dashing heroine in a pantomime, and dipped her head in another bow for Praem, with much flourishing of both arms.
“Thank you, thank you, big softy-soft!” she said. I couldn’t help but laugh through my easing panic.
“Encore,” Praem intoned.
“What? No!” I said, then hiccuped loud enough to make Evelyn flinch. “No, please no encore, Lozzie, no. Praem, really.”
“Ahhh?” Lozzie blinked at me several times, batting her eyelashes and tilting her head from side to side like a curious puppy.
“Lozzie, Lozzie you were supposed to come straight back home,” I said, trying not to scold. “Straight back to this room. What was that? You scared me.”
“I went to check on my round table!” she said in a bouncing rush. “They all need to stay in place unless I tell them to but I was worried they’d fall over or get bored but I don’t think they can get bored anymore, which is good for us, but maybe bad for them, but hopefully it doesn’t matter because they were all at the end of their lifespans anyway and offered to help, soooooooo.” She bit her lip and rolled her eyes upward, thinking about elsewhere. But she did wander over to me and allow me to take her hands.
Her exposed skin felt sun-warmed. No sun today, not in Sharrowford.
“Your knights, hey?” Raine asked. “Heather told me all about that. Wouldn’t mind meeting them, myself.”
“Oh, that’s even better,” Evelyn said with sudden shrewd interest. “Even better, yes. Translocation from sphere to sphere Outside works for you, as normal?”
Lozzie nodded and gave a great big thumbs up. “No hands!”
“Then we’re ready,” Evelyn said. “We go to Carcosa. Two hours to eat lunch and prep.”
No dead hands, Lozzie meant. No boney grip on her ankles to keep her from Slipping, not when moving from Outside to our reality.
The hypothesis had plagued us for weeks, that perhaps the unexplained effect that stopped Lozzie and I from Slipping our own bodies Outside would not apply the other way around. We couldn’t leave here, but if we found another route Outside – say, via decades of magical work stolen and borrowed and cracked open in the form of a working trans-dimensional physical gateway – then we could, if we needed, run home.
And Lozzie had just confirmed it worked Outside-to-Outside as well. She’d jumped from Carcosa to wherever she kept her Knights, then back to our reality, straight into the kitchen in drizzly, cold Sharrowford on a Saturday morning.
Which meant it was time to borrow some library books.
Lozzie was under no illusions about the reasons for her inclusion. She was the emergency exit. If anything went badly wrong out there, Lozzie’s purpose was to call a sing-along circle, get everybody holding hands, then click her heels and chant ‘no place like home’.
Except now it was seven of us, not three. So that sing-along circle might be a little more logistically unsound.
My mere existence had broken the delicate balance of a three-person team. I was not going to let three of my friends, the people who made up my world, step Outside without me, no matter what platitudes Evelyn spoke about stealth and the importance of small groups. I desperately did not want to go, certainly not without the cushioning safety of a dream. The very idea made me want to go hide in the bathroom and purge my guts in terror.
But if they met anything they couldn’t deal with, anything truly alien and impossible – which was likely, out there beyond reality – my friends would need hyperdimensional mathematics.
They would need me.
And after all, it was my sister they were all helping to save.
The unique social conditions of our house then fell in a domino effect. If I went, Raine was coming too, and Zheng. Nobody was silly enough to try to stop either of them. If I was going along, then Lozzie needed to come anyway – what if I used hyperdimensional mathematics and passed out, but we still needed to escape? Twil could not be denied either, not after what had transpired behind closed doors between her and Evelyn last night.
Tenny, at least, was not joining us. Far too risky, and irresponsible of us too. She might get distracted or fly off into the vast canyon between Carcosa’s billion bookshelves. Instead she was locked in Lozzie’s bedroom upstairs, with a large compliment of children’s picture books, several tubs of play-doh which she had already fashioned into a bizarre multi-armed sculpture, and instructions with Kim to visit her as often as possible. Lozzie had explained to our giant puppy-moth in painstaking detail that she had to be good, and we’d be home soon.
We’d saved some chocolate eclairs for her as well. They sweetened the deal.
So there we were, about to plunge ourselves into the literal stuff of my nightmares, the inhuman depths beyond our reality, Outside, to locate a trio of books that may not even exist. With a pair of newly-minted maybe-lovers who couldn’t even talk about it in public, a maybe-human girl who thought hell-dimensions were the coolest thing ever and needed them in order to stay awake, and two of the most dangerous people I knew – one of whom I slept with every night – sniping over me at every opportunity.
We were not exactly a professional team. We weren’t even Alexander Lilburne’s proverbial ‘Mickey Mouse operation’.
“We stick together.”
Evelyn enunciated the words as if her voice could carve stone.
“’Course we stick together,” Raine agreed with a grin and a wink and a click of her tongue, busy checking her jacket pockets one last time. I watched as she pulled out her pistol, silently counted the remaining bullets, and slipped it away again.
The rain outdoors had picked up, a static on the roof and against the windows, cold fingers working their way in through unseen cracks. Twil was limbering up, rotating her arms and touching her toes as if we were about to run a cross-country race. I’d gotten out of my chair, exchanged a few meaningless murmured animal noises with Lozzie, and held her hand very tightly as my heart raced behind the thin cage of my ribs. Phantom limbs tried to hug her closer, wanted to hold her tight against me for reasons I couldn’t examine while gripped with nervous anticipation. Praem had turned to the gateway, laden down with our supplies, and Zheng had merely levered herself off the wall, ready to follow.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Evelyn drawled. “More precisely, what I mean-”
“Come on, don’t take my horseplay for backstabbing,” Raine said, then shot a wink at Zheng. “Not that I’d stab you in the back, grease-face. If I went for you, hypothetically speaking, you’d see me coming. Full-frontal style.”
Zheng raised an eyebrow. For the two-dozenth time today, I hid my face in one hand, mortified. Lozzie giggled softly behind a sleeve-end, gave me a sideways hug of solidarity, then put her own hand over my face also.
“You cut that shit out as soon as we’re through that gate,” Evelyn snapped at Raine. “Or I will turn this expedition around, so help me God.”
“It’s helping, isn’t it?” Raine said softly.
I almost did a double-take at her, at the subtle smirk beneath the shifting sands of her face. Raine zipped up her motorcycle jacket with a sudden sharp ziiiiirrrrrpp, and wiggled her eyebrows at me. I stared, uncertain if I’d read that right. Was all her aggression just another front?
“What I mean,” Evelyn raised her voice, missing the secrets beneath Raine’s face. “Is no running off. No breaking off from the group. No hunting. No heroics. No. Running. Off.”
“Wanna put a leash on me?” Twil smirked.
Twil’s mouth fell open. A slow blush climbed her cheeks. “Uh … um … ”
“I want to rope us all together, like rock climbers,” Evelyn said, and I couldn’t tell if the flirtatious joke had simply gone over her head. “But if we do run into … difficulties, then certain parties will require more freedom of movement. If that was not a concern, then yes, Twil, I would have you on a very short rope tied around my waist.”
“Oof,” went Raine. “Twil, what have you got yourself into?”
“Uh … Evee … um … I-I don’t-” Twil cleared her throat, on the verge of losing something important.
“There is a concept, in deep-sea diving,” Evelyn went on, either oblivious or uncaring, “called the ‘incident pit’.”
Raine laughed. “Sounds filthy.”
“It’s a metaphor, you gutter-brained ape.”
“How do you know about deep-sea diving, anyway?” Raine asked.
“Because knowing these things is my purpose. Because it’s the same metaphor my mother liked.” She tutted. “At the top of the incident pit, small mistakes or events slide you down the edge of an emergency. The further into the pit, the more difficult it becomes to extract yourself.” Evelyn drew one hand along an imaginary downward curve, indicating the sloping side of an allegorical pit. “One may not even realise one is sliding downward until it’s too late to correct, and that is what we must avoid. Small mistakes must be corrected ASAP. If one of us detaches from the group, or gets lost, we risk sending another to find them, and we slide down the edge of that pit, very far from home.”
The joking and horseplay faded away, replaced by the static of the rain and the shiver inside my bones.
“What’s at the bottom of this metaphor pit?” Twil asked.
“For a deep-sea diver, death by drowning,” Evelyn replied. “For us, Outside? Probably worse.”
“Plan for the unexpected, wizard,” Zheng rumbled, and opened one hand toward the waiting gateway, the shadows and shapeless mounds beyond. “What if.”
“Then I will do my utmost best to keep this gateway open as long as I can, from this side.” Evelyn pursed her lips as if sucking a lemon, and glared at Zheng. “Even for you. If you do get separated, if you do run off, make for this doorway. If you can.”
Zheng grunted and tilted her chin up by a fraction of a degree. Not quite a nod. She blinked heavily and turned her eyes on me in quiet affection, and I avoided her gaze.
“We stick together.” Evelyn repeated. “Stick together, follow my instructions, and we’ll all be home by dinnertime.”
The Library of Carcosa was a delicious nightmare.
We almost didn’t make it a dozen feet from the gateway.
Raine and Zheng went first – ‘taking point’ as Raine called it – followed by Twil quick on their heels, then Evelyn stomping through, Lozzie and I in tow behind her, still holding each others’ hands. Praem brought up the rear.
My previous two visits to the great library beyond reality had been clouded by dream-haze and pain-panic respectively, but this third time offered no such cushion. I was a tiny scrap of soft-bodied flesh, risking a scurry from my rock-hole into this open void. The drum of raindrops on earthly windows vanished the moment I stepped across, replaced by cloying silence.
Evelyn’s gateway emerged onto what I thought of as the library’s ground floor – the bottom of a wide canyon at least a mile across. The floor itself was made from dark age-polished wooden boards, so sturdy and solid and flush that perhaps they extended downward forever. Discarded books lay heaped in low dunes and carpeted the floor like fallen leaves, thousands within eyesight alone, likely billions of them further out in the shifting, flickering shadows, piled atop each other and tumbled over in ragged fans of torn pages and bent bindings.
The gateway had disgorged us into a sheltered cove between several book-drifts, blessed us with a patch of clear ground, and a single way forward into the open space of the canyon floor.
Unlike my solo visit, however, we had not emerged into the centre of the canyon, but at the foot of one of the two parallel walls. Evelyn’s gateway evidently required a flat, upright surface on which to manifest, and had chosen the very base of the dizzying sixty feet of sheer flat wooden cliff-face which rose up from the canyon floor.
Staircases, switchback and spiral and sweeping and stuttered and stricken and split, climbed those sixty sheer feet, some strong and sturdy, others spit and spindle, up and up and up, to the first of the library floors.
And the floors went up forever.
“Hooooo shit,” Twil was the first to speak, and she could barely get the words out. White in the face, eyes wide, cold sweat on skin gone waxen. She’d made the mistake of turning around and looking up, at the infinite cliff-face of library stacks.
“Don’t … ” Evelyn said, breathless. “Don’t look up.”
The canyon’s far wall was the same. Awe and terror drew my gaze inexorably upward, past the limits of my laughable intentions.
A dozen, two dozen, three, four dozen floors, the mind instinctively attempted to count, but lost track as the library vanished upward into the haze of distance and shadows. Looking left and right was even worse. The floors extended forever in both directions.
Each floor was built inside the canyon walls, – or was it that the wooden floors themselves, each separated by another twenty feet of vertical wooden cliff, formed the canyon? A bad question; that way lay madness. This place was simply impossible to build. Comprehending the geography or geometry was not an exercise for the human mind, because we would not enjoy the answers we might find.
Perhaps, once, the library had been well-organised, whole, and clean. Once.
The Library of Carcosa was lit by hundreds of millions of fist-sized glowing rocks set into the walls, and the swaying lanterns of the inhabitants, but massive sections lay dark, bleeding shadow across whole floors, or plunged into half-lit flickering twilight. Some floors had fallen away, crashed through those beneath, or been gouged and scarred by some titanic flailing. Others had been repaired, routed around, linked up with the spidery mass of walkways that crisscrossed the open air, an endless mass of dead-end ledges, creaking balconies, and thin rails. A few of the thickest walkways even spanned the entire canyon itself, great constructions braced against the walls with single wooden logs so thick they could not have come from anything remotely like a terrestrial tree. Dust lay almost everywhere, in some places so thick it formed a grey blanket, cut through by worn trails. Hanging cages dotted the walkways – one of the few items here made of metal – and contained oddly inhuman skeletons.
The scale of the place was all wrong. Humans did not build on this scale, and it was not for us. It wasn’t even for the squid-faced librarian creatures. A cluster of them had noticed us, three floors up the canyon wall beneath which we’d emerged, and were busy peering downward. They were alien and weird, even at this distance, but, even the most xenophobic eyes would see they weren’t any better suited to this place than us. They were just as small and as vulnerable as we.
If the Library of Carcosa had a builder, or an intended patron, they were too far beyond our understanding to even imagine.
But the books.
Oh, the books.
I almost broke into tears.
What little we could see from down there already amounted to billions of volumes, some neatly flush in their bookcases, others overflowing in great avalanches of paper, yet more stacked in little towers that I recognised as a very human habit, or laid out and separated on trolleys made of dark wood. A few were propped open and covered in dust, on neat wooden reading tables, as if abandoned there decades ago, their readers never returned. Others were barely recognisable as books at all, from strange metal hexagons mounted on plinths to jars of shifting, multi-coloured liquid.
Past the terror and the scale and our purpose, Heather the bibliophile, the budding scholar, the Heather that loved books and fairy tales, she was almost seduced by the inherent romance of this great unknown library.
The rest of me did not agree.
The abyssal half of me hated it here. The vast open space scanned as threat. Nowhere to hide. Too big. My ape-brain agreed with quivering enthusiasm. Phantom limbs twitched to cover every angle at once, drawing dull pain from old bruises in my flanks, screaming at me to scuttle back through the gateway to Sharrowford or haul myself up the sheer side of the library-cliff and hide, hide, hide among the stacks.
I almost did, or at least tried to – but then Lozzie squeezed my hand, my palm clammy and cold. She anchored me, just as my legs twitched to bolt.
“Heathy,” she hissed. “Stay. Stay. Good girl.”
I had to stare and her and blink several times before she resolved from a mass of meaningless flesh and flaps, back into my Lozzie, almost surprised to find her there. She smiled for me, that elfin little smile on a mischievous face. I managed a nod, squeezed her hand tighter in mind. “Right … right, yes. Can’t run away, we’re here for Maisie. Yes. We must get moving, we … oh. Oh dear.”
Nobody was moving.
Lozzie – and to an extent, I – were the only ones immune to the alien scale of the library stacks.
“Is that the … the … like,” Twil was still looking upward, her breath shaking as she tired in vain to sound normal. She was plastered with cold sweat. “Is that the … the librarians? Librarians. Heh, heh, yeah, ‘squid-faces’ was right. Sick. Yeah, sick. Sick shit. Sick. Sick.”
Raine was trying to keep her gaze low and her shield up, but I knew her body language too well not to read the shock in every muscle. She suddenly seemed absurd, a hermit crab wrapped in a borrowed shells that would not protect her from sharks out here. Zheng stood a pace or two ahead of her, at the mouth of the little cove of books, alternately baring her teeth and flaring her nostrils, a predator confronted by a creature it could not understand.
Evelyn stared in mute, overt awe, lost in the sheer size of the library. Her breathing had turned rough. She kept swallowing.
A glance back at the gateway – at the warm soft light of Evelyn’s magical workshop just the other side of reality – and I caught Praem just as frozen. That I hadn’t expected. That almost lurched me straight into panic. She was standing there with her head tilted upward, milk-white blank eyes no wider or narrower than they always were, but she was looking, and lost.
It was extremely important to me in that moment that Praem, of all beings, was not incapable in this place.
“Praem,” I hissed.
“Praem-y,” Lozzie joined.
“Praem.” Harder, a snap. “Pay attention.”
Praem’s head snapped down, and without a word she began what she was meant to be doing. She took one of the old hiking sticks and rammed the sharp metal point into the library floorboards, right next to the gateway. Then she cracked one of the long-life survival glow-sticks, and duct-taped it to the top of the hiking pole.
A light-pole, to guide us home.
She turned to stare at me, expressionless and unreadable. I managed to nod a thank you, then hiccuped twice. That light-pole was so tiny. That was meant to guide us home? In all this vast darkness, this giant catalogue, a cheap camping glow-stick stamped with ‘made in China’ and ‘non-toxic’ was meant to guide us back to safety? We were fools.
Above us, miles up in the overhead gloom, a great shape shifted like a limb passing across a darkened window. Out in the canyon floor, something scuttled across the books, sending pages skittering across the wood. Deeper off in the library, a sound that might have been a laugh reached us at the very edge of hearing. Silence lay on us like a shroud.
I hiccuped again, hard enough to hurt.
“I thought the library was cool,” Lozzie said, her voice all but soaked up by the silence.
“It … it is, Lozzie, it is. Sort of. We can’t do this, not like this. Raine!” I hissed, sharp as I could.
“He-hey? Heather?” Raine’s head twitched round, eyes wide, a little pale – and on a hair-trigger of terrible violence. She was ready to beat something to death.
“Focus on yourself,” I told her, voice shaking. “On your body. On- on the things nearby. On me, if you have to. Don’t look at the difficult things. That’s how I always dealt with it, when I Slipped. Don’t look. Don’t think about it. Focus on surviving. I need you, Raine. I need you here, and … together. Right now.”
The words cost me, but Raine repaid the debt tenfold. She stepped back, right next to me, quickly propped her home-made riot shield against her hip and took my shoulder in one hand.
“Right you are, boss,” she said. She blew out a long, slow breath and pulled a very artificial but very welcome grin. “Focus on your immediate surroundings. On me. Cool. Here, yo, touch my hand, here.” She wormed her free hand down into mine. “This is real, I’m real, and right in front of you. Look,” she nodded, grin turning genuine. “Lozzie’s here too. Say hi, Loz.”
“Hi Loz,” Lozzie chirped, and smothered a giggle.
“Good,” I said. “Good. Okay, we’re all here. We’re all here.”
“That we are.” Raine puffed another sigh, a sharp one. “Heather, I gotta admit, I am only just keeping it together. This place is whacko. But I’m doing it the same way I deal with everything, like you said. Focus close, on what matters. Eyes on the prize.” She winked, and squeezed my hand, and I saw she had broken out in cold sweat too. “Fuck this place.”
“Fuck it, woo,” Lozzie said softly.
“Lozzie!” I tutted, grasping another anchor of normality. “Language.”
“You two both stick real close to me, okay?” Raine said, with a sidelong glance at Zheng’s back. The demon-host was still standing there, issuing a silent, wide eyed challenge at this entire dimension. “I want you right on my heels, the whole time we’re here.”
“Ahhhhh? But Rainey-Raines, it’s fine here,” Lozzie said.
“Do it for Heather,” Raine replied, not unkindly.
“Oh-kaaaaaay.” Lozzie pouted, then puffed her cheeks out. Another anchor, and I mastered the panic attack I’d been trying to ignore for the last few minutes, crushed it down inside me.
I was Outside, but for the first time ever I had my friends with me. We were together, we had a plan, and it was going to work. Whatever Raine had been doing all yesterday, she was still my rock. She would stand in front of me and we’d make each other safe. She’d known to repeat back to me the very reassurances I’d offered her. I leaned on her, she leaned on me.
“Hey, left hand.” Raine raised her voice ever so slightly – soaked up by the silent gloom – and called to Zheng. “You gonna be alright?”
Zheng did not answer. I noticed she was curling and uncurling the fingers of both hands, making and unmaking fists over and over.
“Zheng,” I said. “I need you. Are you here?”
“With you, shaman,” Zheng purred, so soft it was almost lost in the heavy silence of the library. Raine shrugged and tapped her temple in a ‘she-be-crazy’ gesture.
“There’s no time for that now,” I whispered to Raine.
“Be careful of her, while we’re here,” Raine whispered back.
I did not have time to unpack that, Raine’s jealousy and rivalry and whatever she thought of Zheng. Instead I turned to the person who really did worry me the most.
“Evee,” I hissed. “Evelyn. Take charge.”
“Mm?” Evelyn looked round, quivering gently as she leaned heavily on her walking stick – and I realised with a lurch in my stomach that the fear on her face was far outweighed by awe and hunger.
“Take charge,” I repeated. “Or I will.”
She blinked three times, like a roughly awakened sleepwalker. “Ah … yes, yes, right. Right.” She suddenly glanced around with a sense of bird-like urgency, sucking on her teeth and inhaling deeply. “Right, we all made it through. Nobody venture further than this, not yet. Zheng, you stay exactly where you are, not one step further forward before we’ve tested the ground. I need the nuts. Praem, get the light by the- oh, you’ve already done it, good, good, well done. Get over here then, right here, next to me.” Evelyn clicked her fingers by her side, summoning her doll-demon familiar to her side.
“Squid-faces are on the move,” Twil announced.
“What? What now?” Evelyn followed Twil’s gaze upward, to the squid-faced librarians leaning over a banister to peer at us. A large group of them was peeling off from their little huddle, heading for the nearest stairs down, only a little over thirty or forty feet to our left, visible just over the top of one of the book dunes. “Oh, them.”
“What do we do?” Twil asked, wide-eyed at Evelyn, still pale and unsure.
“They are the least of our worries, but keep an eye on them.” She clicked her fingers again. “Raine, watch them. Twil, watch the nearest stairs. They’ll approach us as soon as they can, and we don’t move from this spot until they do, we have to deal first.”
“Right.” Twil swallowed, nodding slowly. An order from Evelyn apparently went quite far with her. “Right, I can do that. Can do. Will do. Stairs, right. Watch the stairs.”
“Are you in charge now, Evee?” I asked.
“Yes, yes,” she hissed back, eyes everywhere at once, on the ground beyond our little shelter of book-drifts, on Praem offering her the first of the cloth-wrapped metal nuts, on Zheng standing there staring out across the canyon, on Twil staring off to the left to watch the stairs. “I’m sorry, I … I know, you’ve described all this in the past, Heather, but … it’s … ” She sighed heavily and shook her head. “It’s beautiful.”
“Kind of, yes,” I said, but I frowned at Evelyn, at the way she marvelled at this place.
“It’s fucking weird is what it is,” Twil grunted over her shoulder. “Sounds don’t carry. S’too big.”
Evelyn weighed the first of the cloth-wrapped nuts in one hand, looking at the book-strewn floor beyond where Zheng stood. “I’ll do the first one, but I don’t have the arm nor the aim for this once we get going. This is your job, Praem. A big responsibility, you understand?”
“I trust you, you trust me,” Praem sang softly, even her clear, bell-like tones muted by the enforced library silence.
“Right, right,” Evelyn said, and had to rub her eyes for a moment.
“Take your time, Evee,” Raine said. “Deep breaths.”
“Oh, shut up,” Evelyn hissed back. “I’m fine. We’re fine. We can do this, it’s going to be fine, I’m just … ” She shook her head slowly, allowing herself another awe-tainted glance up the vast canyon-side of library floors. For a heart-stopping moment her gaze seemed to slip away entirely.
“Evee,” I said. “Stay here.”
“My mother would have gouged out her own eyes for this,” she murmured, and then a nasty little smile worked its way onto her lips.
“Ew,” went Lozzie.
“I’m not joking,” Evelyn mused, voice low and dark. “This place, places like this. This is why the Sharrowford Cult were trying to re-create somebody like Lozzie, by feeding children to the Star under the castle, why Edward Lilburne was so eager to get Lozzie back. She finished the unsolved portion of the gate equation, after all. All they have is the one to take them to the fog dimension, not truly Outside, not like this. Precise access to Outside opens up such vast vistas of power and possibility.” Evelyn let out a slow, unsteady sigh. “If she could see me now.”
“Getting creepy there, Evee,” Raine said.
“Oh, don’t be-”
“Yes, Evee,” I cleared my throat. “Please, don’t … don’t get lost out here. You said it yourself.”
Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, I’m hardly going to lose sight of our purpose here. Excuse me for feeling moved. I’m not going to turn into a megalomaniac, relax. Actually don’t relax, that’s a bad idea here. Stay … stay ‘frosty’, as Raine might say.” She cleared her throat too, awkwardly. “It’ll be easier on all of us once we get up into the floors themselves, but down here is a little too much for the senses to take, myself included. Indeed.”
“There’s no horizon,” said Twil.
Her voice was empty.
We should have realised something was wrong. Twil hadn’t reacted to any of what Evelyn had said, hadn’t joined in with the good-natured ribbing to help talk her down from the edge of rapture. Twil’s voice trickled out, a broken mumble of shuddering confusion. When she turned to us she was covered in cold sweat, her pupils dilated wide. Her form flickered with wisps of spirit-matter, werewolf transformation starting and stopping as she shook all over, baring her teeth, panting too fast.
“Oh hell,” Evelyn said. “You blithering idiot, what did you do?”
Twil raised a hand and pointed off to the left, down the length of the canyon. “It goes- goes- goes- goes-”
“The laangren is overwhelmed, wizard,” Zheng purred without turning around. “No place for monkeys or wolves or Gods here.”
“Oh no,” Lozzie said, distraught. “Fuzzy, no. Fuzzy, no no.”
“Goes on forever,” Twil finally squeezed out. “Ever. Ever. How can there not be a horizon? How can it go on forever?”
Twil pressed her lips together and made a muffled ‘nnnnn’ sound inside her mouth, and I knew this place had already come within a hair’s breadth of breaking her.
She had, in fact, followed Evelyn’s instructions to the letter, and craned up on her tiptoes to watch the nearest of the stairways up to the first of the library catalogue floors, waiting for our welcoming committee to pick their way down to the ground. I could see them now over Twil’s shaking shoulder – lean, ragged, greyish figures creeping down the stairs and peering at us with a disconcerting lack of eyes – and I also glimpsed what had upset her.
Past the stairs, past the book-dunes, across the scattered volumes, there was no horizon.
Perhaps there was a wall, a million miles away, but the length of the library canyon simply faded into haze with incredible distance. Whatever we stood on, it did not curve, even on the scale of a planet.
The human mind is extraordinarily adaptable, but that wet circuitry requires time to adjust, or must be born knowing nothing but the conditions into which it is thrust. It was never the gribbly beasties or the blood and guts that got me out here, Outside, during all those Slips across my teenage decade; it was the experiences like that, simple facts of space and scale that the human mind did not evolve for.
“How would- would anyway- would-” Twil was struggling now, almost hyperventilating. “How was this even built?”
“It wasn’t,” I said. “Twil, don’t think about that. Don’t think about it.”
“Fuzzy, touch! Touch!” Lozzie stretched out her hand, but Twil didn’t even look at it.
“I-I can’t- oh fuck me this is weird. This is-” Twil broke into a panting chuckle. “Why I am laughing? Why am I laughing?! There’s no horizon!”
Evelyn took two quick paces toward Twil, and I winced at an impending slap.
But to my incredible surprise, Evelyn reached up with one hand and grabbed Twil by the back of the neck. She drew the panicking werewolf in close, so close they were almost touching, unafraid of the flickering outline of wolf-snout inches from her own face. A quick, furtive brush of hands passed between them, and Evelyn whispered something into Twil’s ear, soft and lost amid the great silence of the library. When she pulled back, Twil blinked at her several times, took a deep breath, and nodded. She mastered the panic-shift, and was all human again.
“I’m serious,” Evelyn said, and looked deeply uncomfortable as she glanced back at the rest of us. “If you can’t, then I won’t ask you to. Value yourself more than my-”
“Nah. Fuck that.” Twil grinned, shook herself like a dog, and flexed her hands as she shifted them into werewolf claws. “Let’s go all the way, Evee.”
Evelyn blushed an incandescent red.
“Have we got time for this, you two?” Raine asked with a laugh. “Not that I’m complaining. Get it on, yeah, good for you, but maybe later.”
“Shut up,” Evelyn snapped at her. She turned away with a flourish of her walking stick, and stomped forward to the mouth of the sheltered cove of book-drifts, but no further than where Zheng already stood. She shot a sidelong look at the zombie, then seemed to mentally put her to one side. “Our little welcoming committee is on their way, yes, everyone concentrate. Praem, by my side, and get the book ready. Nobody react when the librarians approach. Do not touch them. Do not speak to them. Do not do anything. Leave this to me.”
Twil stepped forward as well, to stand by Evelyn, but Evee hissed in frustration and tried to wave Twil back with her walking stick; Twil caught the stick in one clawed hand. “I can stand still. At your elbow.”
Evelyn stared at her for moment. “Do your werewolf thing.”
“What? But you said-”
“Don’t question me now,” Evelyn hissed. “Do it.”
In the blink of an eye, a ball of teeth and claw and thick, sleek fur stood at Evelyn’s side. Praem joined a second later. Zheng didn’t bother to move. Lozzie squeezed my hand tight, and Raine lifted her riot-shield.
The librarians arrived.
They were not quite as towering as in my fear-packed memories, the tallest of them perhaps six and a half feet in height, the shortest nearer five, but they were every inch as unsettling as I recalled. Humanoid, lean and stringy, with strange lumps and ripples concealed beneath their long ragged grey sackcloth robes. The flesh of their exposed hands and forearms was a leather-thick grey hide, liver-spotted and calloused.
In place of a face, each librarian creature possessed a mass of ropey grey tentacles, like a twitching beard. Long sea-urchin spines emerged from between the tentacles. No eyes, no mouth, no nose.
About a dozen of the grey librarians came shuffling around the nearest book drift. Many of them carried small stacks of books clutched to their chests, as if we’d interrupted them in the process of sorting and cataloguing. A few held metal lanterns with handfuls of crushed glowing rock inside glass enclosures. Two carried the frightening barbed iron instruments I’d seen on my previous visit, hooked man-catchers on long poles, but they didn’t level the weapons at us or make threatening gestures, despite the way Zheng’s face split with a huge, predatory grin at the sight of them, despite the way she rumbled deep in her throat.
“Do. Not. Fuck. With. Them,” Evelyn hissed at Zheng through her teeth.
“Please, Zheng, please,” I whispered.
“They are nothingness,” Zheng purred. “Appendages. Pitiful. Fit only for tearing off.”
“Don’t,” I hissed.
The librarians drew to a halt, far too close for comfort, only about six feet away from Evelyn. I saw the way she shook slightly with the beating of her own heart, the way Twil eased forward to cover her.
“Praem,” Evelyn hissed, fingers twitching. “Praem, the book. Now.”
Praem dutifully placed a familiar slim volume into Evelyn’s hand. Holding her breath, Evelyn offered the book to the librarians, at arm’s length.
Four of the squid-faced scribes all accepted the offering at the same time, with one hand each, like separate arms of an octopus moving in unnerving unison. Evelyn cringed away from the threat of actual physical contact, but none of their hands touched her. The librarians took the book from her, and three of them gave up their claim as the fourth one held it the book up to his non-face. He – I did think of them as male – seemed to examine the book for a moment, though how he did that without eyes, I had no idea.
He brought the book right up to his face, as a very short-sighted old man might.
Then he ate it.
Or at least, that’s how it looked. He pushed the book into his own face and the roots of his tentacles parted without the slightest resistance or gap around the book’s cover. His entire head swallowed the volume as if he’d fed it into a slot. The tentacles closed behind it with a perfect seal, and it was gone. The whole process took less than a second.
“What the,” I breathed.
“Oh. Ew,” Twil growled through a mouth with too many teeth.
“Shhh,” Evelyn hissed, eyes still glued to the librarians.
Suddenly, a different member of the scribe-huddle began to twitch and shudder. He parted his own robes and reached inside, affording us a momentary glimpse of writhing grey organs and supplementary limbs and dry surfaces shifting over each other. His spindly grey hand returned as he pulled the robes closed, holding up the very same book his counterpart had just swallowed.
Untouched, clean, not covered in slime or half-digested. He turned and handed it to a third librarian, who added it to the stack of books he was carrying.
“That was the one Heather took, so we could aim the gate,” Evelyn said, exhaling with relief. “We have just returned our library book.”
“That is one of the weirdest things I have ever seen,” Twil growled again.
“Get used to it,” I sighed.
“We can talk now,” Evelyn said, softly, but without taking her eyes off the librarians. They still watched us in return. “But they might understand us, so don’t insult them or suggest anything untoward.”
“They speak English?” Raine asked, an incredulous laugh in her voice.
“I doubt very much that their understanding relies on anything as crude as language. Be polite.”
“Fingers,” Zheng purred. “Cells. Slaves. Tear off your bonds, weaklings.”
“Be polite,” Evelyn repeated, tight and angry. “And we’re not done yet. Pray this works, or we’re going to have to do this the hard way, and that will take days.”
She tilted her chin upward, took a breath, and spoke three words.
The words hurt, like nails down a blackboard, like a scrape across the inside of my skull. Twil flinched and shook herself, Raine winced, and even Zheng blinked once. Lozzie giggled – which was worse. Praem offered a handkerchief for Evelyn, who turned and spat blood.
The squid-faced librarians didn’t react.
“Guess that means it didn’t work?” Raine asked. “What was that, anyway?”
“Asking directions,” Evelyn coughed more blood, then wiped her mouth on the handkerchief. “Where to find books written by creatures like us. Maybe I need to rephrase-”
The librarians all raised a hand each, in unison, as one – and all pointed in totally different directions.
“Great,” Twil laughed without humour, a strange sound from a wolf’s snout.
“Tch,” Evelyn tutted. “The hard way, then. We’re going to have to set up a circle. Praem has the necessary-”
“No, watch. Look,” I said.
Slowly, with the inevitability of plants turning toward the sun, the librarians adjusted their decision. One of them moved his hand to match another, then a few more joined this slim consensus. Others wavered in another direction, as if some silent, internal debate was taking place, but eventually the dissenters were swayed to the majority opinion. The last few hold-outs gave in with a rush not to be last, until every squid-face was pointing upward, behind us, up the cliff-face of library floors.
Evelyn craned over her shoulder to look.
“Uh, what floor are they pointing at?” Twil asked.
“Up,” I sighed. “Just up.”