She breathed, and as everyone who’s lost their breath will attest, that first gasp of air is always the sweetest they’ve ever known. Breathing, and rubbing her chest, Lesedi rested her head against the worn carpet and thought.
How long had it been?
Ten years? Fifteen? Longer? Shorter? Maybe only a few days? Maybe only a few seconds? Was there any difference, when an aeon passed as a minute, and an instant stretched into an infinity?
Lesedi didn’t know, and there was no way for her to really know. Thus was the peril involved in entering these books, in reading their words and hearing their voices and being enveloped—absorbed—in their plot, in their world, in their stories. It had happened for uncounted centuries before she’d made her way to the circulation desk. From story to story to book to book she’d jumped, looking for ways out, seeking an answer to why she was stuck in this world of night; trapped within the Night Library. She’d spoken with hundreds of people- no, not people, characters. She talked with them all, had tried to glean something about why she was there, and how to get out. But every time it looked like she was about to get an answer, every time the eyes of the character she was speaking with sparkled and deepened in the likeness of distant galaxies, a fissure would appear, and through that tear in space and time a figure would emerge, impaling and killing the character while Lesedi looked on, helpless and screaming.
Sometimes those who stepped through the tears in space were the Shelvers; tall, gaunt, horrible rotting things with green glowing goggles and wide brim hats that laughed like infants and screamed like wounded dogs. With their putrid, long fingers they’d slash at Lesedi, clawing and calling out to her, repeating “A worm, a worm! Kill the worm!”, while twisting their skeletons until they cracked and broke, and continued chasing her.
Other times, the authors themselves would enter the books; eyes ablaze in terrible fury at having their stories meddled with. A few instances saw Lesedi befriending the author, saw her speaking with them and enjoying the company of another sentient being. But those were few and far between. Most authors saw any intrusion into their creations as the ultimate perversion, and being gods among these worlds they created, enacted horrific displays of power that Lesedi was only too lucky to escape.
This latest venture, into the dystopian steampunk novel Gespar had directed her to, ranked up there with some of her longest tenures in the lands of fiction. Generations had come and gone, had ebbed and flowed around her, and she’d been stuck in the middle of it all, wondering if she’d have to trudge to the end of the story to escape, like with all of the other books she’d been in.
So, having escaped, and finding herself lying on the hard carpet of the library, Lesedi grinned and counted herself lucky. Still, the time in the book had taken its toll, and an exhaustion she hadn’t felt since escaping David Copperfield dug hooks into her bones and pulled her to the floor, rendering her muscles useless. Consciousness flitted in and out like a dying light bulb, and the distant flickering first sightings of phantasms played at the edge of her vision.
“No time for rest,” gurgled the voice of Gespar. The hiss and pop of hot oil and an overwhelming cloud of floral aroma roused Lesedi from her near sleep. Groaning, she got to her feet, rubbing her chest and massaging the back of her neck. The fall to the floor of the library was less than gentle, and she wasn’t exactly encouraged to get up and potentially repeat the experience.
“Well, well,” chuckled the invisible Gespar. “Have you the… item I requested? Did you get it?” There was a great snotty sniff and a tugging of the air around her, which tossled her hair. “Mmm… Yes. Yes, you certainly have it.”
Mechanically, Lesedi pulled her backpack from her shoulders and removed the head of the heroine she was sent to slay. The time spent in the story had not been kind to its preservation, however; the skin was mush, the eyes rotted into gelatanous pools of black, the hair falling out in clumps at the faintest touch, the teeth clattering within the mouth like seeds in a maraca. Lesedi turned her backpack and dumped the head on the floor, but before it splattered on the carpet, an invisible hand snatched it up and held it suspended in the air. Shoving her hand back into the pack, and doing her best to ignore the clumps of putrid flesh and rotting liquids the severed head left behind, Lesedi pulled the scrying glass free and held it up to her eye.
And for the first time ever, she wasn’t completely disgusted with what she saw.
It was almost comforting, really, and seeing Gespar in this form was immensely preferable to the shapes he normally inhabited.
Standing before her was an elderly man, hunched over from age and injury. He wore a simple red and blue plaid button up shirt, and a pair of grey slacks were held in place by brown suspenders. There was little hair left on his head, but a well trimmed snow white beard framed his softened features. A pair of silvery blue eyes glinted in the moonlight, and though it was hidden completely by the mustache and beard, Lesedi could tell her was smiling. His feet were bare; coated only in a slight dusting of dirt and pollen.
If not for the severed head he held, the scene could have been one out of some literary piece of sepia toned nostalgia.
“Alright?” hummed the old man. The voice was also unlike anything Lesedi had ever heard from Gespar. It was warm and familiar and comforting, and if sounds had feelings, she would have described it as a warm embrace on a cold day.
Lesedi nodded, but said nothing.
“I…” Lesedi licked her lips and fought for words. “It’s strange, seeing you this way.” The old man chuckled. “I’m so used to seeing monsters or demons or gaping holes of rotting bodies that seeing this” she gestured to the old man “is strange.”
“So not seeing something strange is strange to you?” Lesedi nodded at the old man’s words. “Seems fair enough, I s’pose.”
The two fell quiet for a moment, neither moving. Lesedi had a million questions, and the exhaustion of having exited that last book was still fresh and heavy on her, but she seemed unable to express anything on her mind. The old man saved her the trouble of broaching a topic, though. Frowning, he held up the head she’d brought him and waggled it back and forth.
“Thanks fer this,” was all he said before turning around and tossing it, underhand, further down the stack, and out of sight. “Can’t imagine it was easy for you to do, especially considering that—”
“What is this?” Lesedi demanded. She was a little surprised at her own brashness, but pushed down her reservations. There was a need to know what was going on, what was happening. The world had been one way, and she’d known it to exist within certain bounds and limits for the aeons she’d been stuck in the Library, but suddenly, something had changed. Something—someone—had shifted and altered and was no longer how they were supposed to be. She fixed the old man with an angry stare, but he only frowned in confusion.
“What is this?” she repeated. “Why do you look like that and what’s with this kindly old gentleman gig?”
“Sorry?” asked the man, scratching his beard. “What in the world are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you! I’m talking about how you look and why you are acting different and why you’re changing the way you do everything.”
“The way I do everything? What are you getting at?”
“Are you Gespar, or aren’t you?”
“Of course I’m Gespar!” hollered the old man. He took several steps forward so that he was arms length away from her. “Who else I’d be?”
“But you’re…” Lesedi was blinking back tears that were as strange and unwanted as this new apparition. “You’re wrong! You’re not supposed to be like this.”
“Like what?” asked the old man, bending low to look her square in the face. “You don’t like the form I’m taking? You don’t like the voice I’m using or anything about my manifestation? Huh?” Lesedi whimpered that she didn’t like any of it. “Well, then change it! This is all on you, little lady. I only appear as what you wish me to be. I’m the god of madness, the great old one of chaos that drives all men and women to fits of screaming insanity. But I ain’t nothin more’n an idea in this realm. I can’t actually appear here. So I pop in lookin and soundin just as you wish me to sound; as you wish a god of insanity to appear.”
The two stared at each other a moment longer before the old man stood up straight and walked away from Lesedi a few paces.
“You done good, getting the head,” grumbled the old man. He kept rubbing his temples, then looking at Lesedi, then looking at the floor and closing his eyes and rubbing his temples, over and over. “I know it wasn’t easy. I know it was long and that you want to give up, but you can’t. Understand? You can’t quit now. You getting this head is… It’s as close as I’ve ever come to seeing my wish of entering the waking realm realized. You can’t quit, because I can’t allow you to. And you can’t quit because if you do, then you’re never getting back home. You’re never getting back to your family, to your friends, to your church or anything. You’ll be here forever, running from the Shelvers, running from authors and characters and forever seeking a way to free yourself from this perpetual night—from this night among stories.” The old man looked her over once more, and a disappointed sneer flickered over his face. “Don’t be a quitter.”
Lesedi’s mind was still reeling, still wondering why everything seemed to be changing, and why she would have ever chosen any of the forms that Gespar had taken before, let alone the kindly form he was taking now. But she heard the truth in his words, heard the desperate pleading in his own argument, witnessed the change in his demeanor and form when the possibility of her giving up had flickered in his mind. She remained quiet, then, taking deep breaths and trying her best to push her fanciful anxieties from her mind. She only turned her head to look over her shoulder for a moment when she heard glass break from somewhere far behind her. But since nothing emerged from the dark of the stacks, she turned her attention fully back to Gespar and waited on him.
“So,” she said tentatively, “what do I do next?”
The old man sucked on his teeth and spit onto the floor, then ground his heel in the spitum.
“You’re going to hard story, a long one to get something that the entirety of that world wants to possess.” He fixed her with a long look, sucked his teeth once more, and grinned. “I need the One Ring from Middle Earth.”
Lesedi immediately felt cold and shivered. Despair set upon her like wolves on a wounded rabbit, sinking icy teeth into what little resolve she had. She sank to her knees and began to weep.
The old man rushed forward and knelt down with her, and wrapped her in his arms, humming and shushing and assuring her over and over that “everything’s gonna be alright.” How long they sat there like that, Lesedi didn’t know, but when she finally gathered enough strength to fight off the tears and look up, the old man was sitting back on his own heels looking at her square in the eyes.
“You’ll see,” he said, giving her a gentle smile. “Everything’s gonna be alright.” His breath wafted over her and that’s when Lesedi knew…
The perpetual moonlight overhead glimmered in the old man’s eyes, kindling something almost familiar in Lesedi’s mind. But it wasn’t until she smelled the warm tones of vanilla and the swell of pipe tobacco smoke that she realized who she was looking at.
“Ntate-moholo,” she whispered. “Grandpa…”