Worth the Candle, Ch 128: An Open Book

By ‘married’, Bethel apparently meant ‘I am going to irrevocably swallow him and our essential natures will merge’. There were a few equivalents across Aerb, species that would merge with each other and lose individual identity as part of pair-bonding, or who would take on parts of each other as part of the process, but it was manifestly not marriage.

“Well, we’re doing it anyway,” said Bethel. “It’s what we both want. I can take on part of him so long as he’s in the house, but he can’t do the same.”

“I’ll talk to him,” I said with a sigh, rubbing my face a bit. “Can you … would it be too much to ask to hold off on doing something that you can’t reverse until after I get back from the Library? And maybe you can talk about it with other people first, instead of just deciding between the two of you?”

“Amaryllis already gave me her blessing,” said Bethel. “I spoke to her first.”

“Really?” I asked. “That doesn’t seem like her. I would have assumed that she would have had some strategic considerations.” Namely the fact that having sentient rope is really useful and has saved my life a few times.

“I believe her considerations are strategic,” replied Bethel, smiling a bit. “She wishes to temper me and thinks that Ropey would be a good influence on my makeup.”

“Ah,” I replied. “That does sound a bit more like her.” I was trying to think about the philosophical, moral, emotional, and intellectual issues inherent in Bethel taking in another sentient entad. “Do you even want my input?” I asked.

“Not particularly,” said Bethel, with a nonchalant air.

“Well … thanks for telling me before doing it,” I said. “I do appreciate that much. I’ll miss him.”

“You’ll miss him like you would miss having a dog,” said Bethel.

“I have a tendency to let people fall by the wayside when they’re not directly promoted to my attention,” I said. “It’s one of my worst habits, I’ll admit that.” I swallowed. “So am I going to attend a wedding before leaving for the Library?”

“We will wait,” said Bethel, frowning slightly. It occurred to me that it was entirely possible for her to be in conference with Ropey at the same time that she was talking to me. I didn’t know how many conversations she could hold at once, especially with her expanded scope, but my guess was that it was more than one.

“Okay,” I said. “Well … congratulations.”

“Thank you,” she replied, but it was a fairly frosty response.

I had no idea what I was supposed to think. Maybe the whole thing would have seemed less like it was coming from nowhere if I had spent more time trying to get at what Ropey thought about things, or if I had a better handle on Bethel. I had tried, with both of them, but not gotten anywhere, and there was a limited amount of social labor I was willing to put in when I was getting nothing back in return. With Ropey, the problem had largely been that he would respond with the sentient rope equivalent of “k” or “yeah”. With Bethel, I think it was some inherent suspicion of me, which had only recently broken down enough that she could take me at face value.

I gave an internal sigh, then went to go find Raven.

Amaryllis was dead-set against me going alone, naturally, but I had already come up with all of the objections that she was ready to use, and so her arguments didn’t really land that well. We’d had it out when I first said I was going, then again in the common room, where she was sitting with Raven.

<Is this because of Maddie?> asked Amaryllis, using the thought-speak channel instead of saying it out loud.

<No,> I replied. <But not having everyone constantly around seems like it might be better for getting some answers from her.>

“You’re using the other channel?” asked Raven, looking between the two of us.

“Yes,” I replied. “Sorry, it’s not incredibly sensitive, but Amaryllis felt the need to check whether I was speaking carefully.”

“I see,” said Raven with a short nod. “Well, we can leave for the Library at any time.”

“Juniper, if you’re going, you’re going in as well-equipped as you can possibly be,” said Amaryllis. “With the funds that you said Pallida is bringing in, we could get a few of the more expensive tattoos, or make a trip to one of the major cities for an entad auction.”

I held my tongue. I was pretty sure that this was a stalling tactic, a way to get more time so she could convince me not to go, or convince Raven to take more of us.

“I think I’ll be fine with what I have,” I replied. “That goes double if I don’t have to be watching out for everyone else.”

“And what if you level up?” asked Amaryllis. “There would be no one to put you back the way you were, and no one to save the librarians from you.”

“I actually had a thought about that,” said Raven, clearing her throat. She pulled some papers from her satchel, and when I glanced at them I realized that they were her copy of my character sheet. “Here,” she said, pointing to one, “Spirit.”

“We don’t know what that one does,” I replied. “It’s meaningful to you?”

Raven nodded. “I believe it to be the same skill that Uther used to make knowledge of the Outer Reaches safe for us.”

“But you said that all the masters who might teach me were dead,” I replied slowly. “And I’m not clear on what this secret skill was. I can’t use the skills until I have some base level of learning and competence.”

“Uther described it as a companion or counterpart to soul magic,” said Raven, shifting in her seat. “And to answer your second question … it’s not something that we often use the Library for, but it’s possible that you might be able to learn Spirit from a book. Uther did that, more than once.”

“A counterpart to Essentialism?” asked Amaryllis, furrowing her eyebrows. “In what sense, specifically?”

“That was never entirely clear to me,” said Raven. “Uther had hoped that the art would die with him. He found it nearly as abhorrent as he found soul magic. He said that if a person’s soul was a rock, then their spirit was water flowing over it. If the soul was etched in a book, then the spirit was the pen that wrote that book.”

Quest Accepted: As the Spirit Moves You – There are no spirit mages left alive. The art has been dead for some five hundred years, and Uther was the one to kill it. Though the books have all been destroyed since long ago, there is one place where books can never be entirely removed from. Once you find the entrance to the Infinite Library, you might be able to find the lost power.

<Just got a quest for it,> I sent to Amaryllis. <Which means she’s telling the truth.>

<Not necessarily,> replied Amaryllis. <Point taken though,> she continued after a moment of hesitation. <I’ll need the full text.>

“Well, it’s probably of vital importance that I find a book like that sooner than later,” I said. “I’ll add that to the list of things I need to accomplish while I’m in the Library.”

“And if you level up before you find the book?” asked Amaryllis, still insistent. “Juniper, that could very well be a failure condition.”

“I know,” I said. I rubbed my face as I tried to think. “Raven, how negotiable is your limit of one person?”

“It’s not negotiable,” said Raven. Her voice was as firm as I’d ever heard it. She looked at Amaryllis. “It’s going to be far easier to cloak a single person in some kind of excuse, but even with that aside, the Isle of Poran is demonstrably important. Removing the entire Council of Arches would change the course of history, making the predictions from the Library far less accurate. It’s better to have someone on the outside attempting to maintain stability. That’s what Uther did.”

“Everett led us to believe that your experiences with the Library didn’t turn out well,” said Amaryllis. Her lips had gone thin.

“They didn’t,” said Raven. “Part of that is that Uther was trying far too hard to shape and mold the future, and in ways that the Library reacted negatively. That’s one of the reasons that I want it to be Juniper alone. From everything you’ve said, he’s the single most capable of you.”

“That’s not true in terms of raw power,” I said. “But I suppose that doesn’t equate to ‘capable’.”

“He’s also vitally important,” said Amaryllis. “You’re removing the single most important person from future history. That won’t have impacts?”

“It will,” said Raven. “It always did, when Uther went in. But if we’d come in with him, the world would be even more tilted than without.”

Amaryllis looked at me with something like a glare. “And how long are we supposed to wait for him to come back out?”

“Indefinitely,” I said. “I mean, logically you would want to continue on as though nothing had actually happened, because if you go into the Library, that’s what the books in the Library will show, and then there’s nothing much that we can do about it.” I turned to Raven. “Right? I assume that you have procedures in place like that?”

“We do,” nodded Raven.

“Besides,” I said, turning back to Amaryllis. “I can’t give you a report on what went right or wrong with your schemes if I can’t see them from the inside.”

That was what finally got Amaryllis to relent. “Fine,” she said. “Leave as soon as you can, then return as soon as you’ve done everything you need to do.” She paused. “Stay safe.”

“I will,” I said with a nod.

“We can leave now, if you’d like,” said Raven. “Normally I would wait for the shift change, which isn’t for another week and a half, but I think the benefits outweigh the costs, so we might as well just go directly. Do you have a large collection of books?”

“Define large,” I said. “Hundreds? Thousands?”

“One hundred would do,” said Raven with a nod.

“Then sure, let me take you to the library,” I replied.

Our library wasn’t actually that big. We had quite a few books from Earth, and a couple dozen reference works from Aerb, but all in all, it was barely enough to fill a bookshelf, in part because many of our books were stored in the glove, and that aside, Bethel could simply grab any book from Earth we wanted with no need to have it on the shelf. The room was particularly nice though, even by Bethel’s usual high standards, with a large mahogany desk for quiet reading and a pair of comfortable chairs that sat beneath lamps for something a little more sedate.

When I opened the door, that wasn’t what I saw.

Instead, the library was cavernous, stretching forty feet from floor to ceiling, with a row of chandeliers hanging down to illuminate row upon row of books. The door I’d opened had once gone into a room not more than twenty feet across, but this one was as large as a football field. I was high up, with a staircase in front of me, which gave me a better view of it. I counted the rows, trying to figure out how many books there were, and my best guess was that there were close to a million of them. That would have been stunning, if I hadn’t been distracted by the fact that the room in no way fit within the confines of the house.

“Is this the Infinite Library?” I asked, turning to Raven.

“No,” she said, looking over row after row of books.

“Huh,” I said. At the base of the stairs there was a reading area, not too different from what we’d had in the old room. If my eye had been drawn to that first, maybe I would have realized that this was Bethel’s handiwork. “Bethel?” I asked.

“Yes, Juniper?” asked Bethel, appearing right next to me. She was looking out over the books with me with a smile on her face.

“Explain?” I asked.

“I made a new library,” she said. “I also took the liberty of adding a few books.”

“A few,” I said. “How many are in here?”

“One and a half million,” said Bethel. “I first tried to fill it with books I thought would be useful or interesting, then ensured that we would be able to check citations found in each of those books.” She pointed to the left side. “That side contains books from Aerb,” she said, then turned to the other side. “And that side contains books from Earth.”

“Wait,” I said. “How did you get books from Aerb?”

“Truly, I am the greatest house to have ever existed,” said Bethel.

<The bottle’s power allows me to greatly expand interior spaces without regards for physical topology,> Bethel said. <The books from Aerb come from an entad that Raven carries on her person, one which has a prodigious number of books stored on it. I had to use a different power to copy them into physical form, and I’m still working on getting titles on all of them, since my existing power for copying only replaced the pages of the blanks, but that takes both time and attention.> The thought-speak was fast, barely at my limit of comprehension.

“Was it wise to bring in so many books from Earth?” I asked.

Bethel frowned at me, mouth drawn. “Because you’re worried about Shia LaBeouf?” she asked.

My heart skipped a beat.

“Fuck,” I said, “Fuck, you can’t do that,” I looked over at Raven, who was looking between the two of us with confusion. “Don’t say it,” I said. “It’s a name of power.” I turned back to Bethel. “If this is how I die –”

“It’s fine,” said Bethel. “I can say it. I tested it while you were gone at Speculation and Scrutiny. It stands to reason that I wouldn’t be able to trigger it, given that I’m not a person.” She smiled at me and leaned in. “It was very nice to see you so scared.”

“Is this because I have mixed feelings about your wedding?” I asked.

“Wedding?” asked Raven, looking between the two of us.

“Perhaps,” said Bethel. “With that scare, I’ll consider us to have made amends.”

“And if Raven had said it without knowing what it was?” I asked. “We could have died, it’s not funny.”

“Oh,” said Bethel, cocking her head to the side. “You said that you understood my sense of humor.” She glanced at Raven. “Naturally I was prepared to sever her vocal cords if it came to that. I’m not an idiot.” She looked down at her fingernails for a moment, affecting boredom, even though her fingernails and eyes were both illusions. “I’ll see you around, Juniper. Stay safe.” She disappeared in a blast of smoke. Apparently she was still experimenting with special effects.

“I’m serious,” I said, looking at Raven. “Don’t say that name, or you’ll die, and if I understand it right, I’ll die too. Infohazard protocol, understand?”

“Can I think it?” asked Raven. She seemed strangely calm. “Am I in danger just from knowing it?”

“No,” I said. “Just don’t say, write, or otherwise transmit it, even with a cipher.” I resisted the urge to say something about Bethel. I was suddenly eager for her to merge with Ropey, if that was what they would both want, because it was hard to imagine she’d pull that kind of stunt if he was sharing her brain-space.

“It’s not an infohazard,” said Raven. “It’s a commhazard. Infohazards are dangerous to know, cognitohazards are dangerous to think about, and commhazards are dangerous to communicate.”

“Ah,” I said. “Just warning you. It’s not quite instant death, but it’s close.” I have a plan, and it might even work, but —

“This is one of the things that I’ve been dealing with for the last hundred years,” said Raven. Her face was impassive. “The Infinite Library contains every book ever published, or that will be published. Some small fraction are hazardous. For the most part, we’ve made it through.”

“Ah,” I said. “That … does cast a rather different light on things.”

“I don’t want you to go in blind,” said Raven. She moved past me and began descending the staircase. “I should warn you that going in direct is irregular, for special circumstances only. We’ll arrive in the Library vestibule, with the Library having undergone a full reset. There will be perhaps a hundred librarians in the vestibule with us, some having been woken up from sleep by the transition, some having lost their place whatever book they were reading, and in either case, no one is going to be happy about it. However, our other option is to go in with the shift change, which would mean waiting a week and a half, and I don’t think that we can spare the time to do that.”

Raven had made her way into the stacks and was holding a finger out in front of her like a divining rod, moving it first one way and then the other.

“But you’re the head librarian, right?” I asked. “You have ultimate authority.”

“If you’ve read about Uther, then you know he was big on consent of the governed,” said Raven. She stopped in place and pointed to a book. We were in the Aerb section, which I had noticed had books of uniform size and color, all without titles. Raven picked a book from the shelves, seemingly at random, opened it, leafed through it, then put it back. “Here is good,” she said. She looked over at me and held out her hand.

I took it and swallowed, nervously.

“Close your eyes,” said Raven. “Don’t open them until we’ve come to a stop.”

I did as she requested, and felt her tug me forward. Based on my sense of direction, we were walking directly toward, then through the bookshelves. I listened for the sound of my footsteps, then realized that I couldn’t hear them, even as I kept on walking. The world seemed like it was reduced down to simply Raven’s hand, gently pulling me along. The menu popped up, but I squinted it away. I wanted to open my eyes, but she hadn’t clarified whether it was merely a bad idea, or whether something might kill me.

Achievement Unlocked: We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Achievement Progress: Oh the Places You’ll Go (2/64)

Loading …

When we came to a stop, I opened my eyes, and saw the vestibule of the Infinite Library in all its glory. My body had changed, shifting position: I was standing straight, with my arms out to the side. I lowered them as soon as I became aware of how I was standing and looked around.

There were, as Raven had said, perhaps a hundred people standing around. They ran the gamut of species on Aerb, though I noted a distinct trend toward both the smaller races (gnomes, halflings, kle’tan, tywood, and nearly twenty goblins) and the longer-lived ones (elves, lennsi, vitrics, and to my mild surprise, one of the renacim). Robes were common, but there didn’t appear to be much of a dress code, which ran counter to my expectation.

My eyes traveled past the place we were all standing to take in the rest of the ‘vestibule’. It was a huge domed room with marble columns, each of them as thick around as my house back in Kansas had been wide. To one side were double doors, thirty feet high, the most prominent feature of the room. On the opposite end from the doors, maybe two city blocks away, there were incongruous adobe huts, shaped like spheres with circular porthole windows. They clashed with the Grecco-Roman aesthetic of the dome itself, and the tiled floor we were standing on. Above, light streamed in through a hole in the dome, with blue sky visible next to the sun.

There was some commotion toward the edge of the group, with a handful of the librarians standing over someone on the ground. A handful of others had moved toward the doors and were opening them up.

“Xorbus, Entwell, Majom, to me!” called Raven. “Stay with me,” she said to me.

“You’re early,” said a tall, lanky man with swirls of red and green going down his bare arms. He was wearing a vest, with a bare chest beneath it. The temperature in the Library was moderate, bordering on cool, and I didn’t imagine that heating the space was remotely possible without some powerful or specific magic. He seemed under-dressed. “And you’re alone. Who is this?”

“A recruit,” replied Raven.

“Important?” asked the man.

“Obviously,” replied Raven. Her cloak twisted around her once, then untwisted itself, and she held up her hand to make three orbs appear, all of which promptly blinked out. “Diagnostic,” she explained. “My entads were out of commission.”

“Oh?” asked a woman who came up to us. “A very prepared warder, or something else?” She paused and looked between Raven and I. I tried to place her species and came up with nothing. She was a few inches shorter than Raven, and had a swell at her belly, but I didn’t think she was pregnant. Her too-wide mouth was the only sign she wasn’t bog-standard human. “You came alone, with someone new?”

“Yes,” replied Raven. She looked around the room. “Xorbus!” she called.

One of the goblins who was standing in the cluster looked over, then began jogging to us. “What’s going on?” it asked. Gender wasn’t clear to me; it had a large number of earrings, but I couldn’t really assume that meant anything, nor was ‘Xorbus’ seemingly a gendered name. I decided on female, for no particular reason. She was wearing something similar to a sarong, which came a few inches from the ground. (Goblins on Aerb had ears that stuck far out to the sides, sharp teeth, and knobbly joints that stretched out their green-hued skin. Xorbus didn’t seem like anything special in that regard.)

“What happened over there?” asked Raven, nodding toward the huddle.

“One of the piles collapsed, apparently,” said Xorbus. “Timothy and Angela had been missing for two days, and they weren’t where they were supposed to be. We were going to reset to try to get them back, but I suppose that’s moot.” He paused. “Timothy didn’t come back on reset, by the way.”

Raven grimaced. “He shouldn’t have been out.” She winced, then shook her head. “We’ll have a memorial tomorrow. In the meantime, how is Angela?”

“Broken leg, which is why she didn’t make it back,” said Xorbus. “And Timothy was healer-on-duty, which means that you’re going to need to make a call on what happens with her.”

Exactly why he shouldn’t have been out,” replied Raven. “What was he even doing in the field?”

Xorbus glanced at the others. “He was sweet on her,” she said.

“Expeditions offer some privacy,” said the tall man. “Not the ideal place for love-making, but –”

“I’ll be sure to mention it at his memorial,” said Raven, lips thin. “His wife will be pleased, I’m sure.”

Again the three around us exchanged looks. It felt like there was a long-buried argument there, or perhaps some background information that I was missing. I assumed that Raven was being sarcastic by saying that she’d talk about his infidelity at his funeral, but it was hard to tell.

“At any rate,” said Xorbus, “Would you mind terribly cluing us in on this hulking fellow?”

I was mildly surprised to hear myself described that way, since it wasn’t how I thought of myself. If I was looking in a mirror, I would have agreed that it fit, given my musculature and height, but that wasn’t something that I thought of often, except when I noticed how much taller I was than any of the girls in my party.

“Consider it infohazardous for now,” said Raven. “I’m going to be going into the stacks to teach him, personally.”

“Teach him?” asked Xorbus. “At a time like this?”

“And go yourself? ” asked the tall man. “Who is he?”

“You can call him Rakon, for now, until I know more,” said Raven. “Rakon, this is Xorbus, Entwell, and Majom.” Entwell was apparently the woman, and Majom was the tall guy. “They’re in charge of various executive functions within the Library.”

I nodded to them. They were giving me skeptical looks.

“He seems awfully well-armed,” said Entwell. “Coactus es?” she asked, the words unfamiliar.

“No, it’s not duress,” said Raven. “I told you, infohazard standards.”

“Standards,” said Majom. “But not in actuality?”

Raven let out a sigh.

“I only ask because we’ve had a freeze on recruiting for a few years now,” continued Majom, “And if you bring in some mysterious new person without consulting anyone, it’s going to raise some obvious questions about nepotism, not to mention protocol abuse.”

“I understand that,” said Raven. “I will let you know more once I know more, and once I know enough to know how safe it is to be sharing the information. It’s very complicated. Also, let Pinno know that we’re going to need access to his exclusion contingencies, particularly the Fel Seed one.”

“Did things go that badly on the Isle of Poran?” asked Xorbus with a laugh.

“Yes,” said Raven, lips pressed thin. Xorbus’ smile fell. “We’re going to have to keep tracking them.” She looked to me. “Rakon, with me please. I’ll explain once we’re out of earshot of the entrance.”

“Wait,” I said, glancing at the woman who was still surrounded by people. “You need a healer? I’m a bone mage.”

“Bones aren’t something that we keep around,” said Raven. She was watching me closely.

“That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll make do.”

I walked over to where the people were grouped up around the woman, Angela. I had a handful of bones in my bandolier, most of them from the unicorn. I also had a complement of healing fairies, but just like the unicorn bones, those were only for emergencies, a limited resource for times of need. I hoped that I wasn’t giving away too much by revealing that I was a bone mage, but I didn’t wholly agree with Raven’s policy of silence. I imagined that she was concerned about politics, especially Utherian politics. From a quick survey of the people here, perhaps thirty of them had potentially been alive during Uther’s era. I supposed they would all probably have their own thoughts on Uther, whether they had been alive then or not, especially given that their head librarian had been one of his Knights. I had to place a bit of trust in Raven’s judgment, which was an uncomfortable feeling, partly because Maddie hadn’t been an exemplar of rational thought. It was hard to divide my feelings on them.

The healing itself didn’t take long, once I had cut away some of the cloth and cleaned the wound. There were no signs of infection, at least so far as I could tell, which was the biggest risk for a treatment like this, since bone magic didn’t handle infection or disease very well.

Once it was done, Raven and I were on our way.

The books started right past the doorway, which led into a hallway that stretched up as far as the light reached. Granted, that wasn’t very far, since the library proper didn’t seem to have any light sources, and the sun coming in through the hole in the dome didn’t penetrate very far into the gloom of the endless books. Sitting to one side of the doorway was a crate, which Raven reached into to pull out a burning torch. When I looked over, it was full of the things, all merrily burning away without giving any sign that the crate itself was going to catch fire anytime soon. She handed one to me, then took one for herself.

“Do you have an initial report?” Raven asked a librarian, who was standing inside the door.

“Nothing much right now,” the librarian replied, raising an eyebrow in my direction. “We need a little more time than that. The first population sample gave us nothing too suggestive, no obvious language, subject, author, or title groupings. The library is a little more twisted than usual, which is going to make things difficult.” She eyed me again. “Who is this?”

“Need to know,” said Raven. “I’ll call a meeting in the next day or two if there’s need. We’re going in.”

You’re going in?” asked the woman. “It’s been a few years, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, it has,” replied Raven. “We’d like some place that no one else is going. Which path takes us away from the sampling crews?”

“Left, left, straight, right, Head Librarix,” said the librarian with a short, casual bow. “Nominal directions, of course.”

“Of course,” said Raven with a curt nod. “I remember that much. We hopefully won’t be long.” She set off, and I quickly followed behind her.

“You’re different, in the Library,” I said.

“It’s hard to be in charge,” said Raven. “I didn’t take naturally to it. My appearance also makes people question me, even those who have known me for more than a century.”

“Ah,” I said. It didn’t seem to me like she’d done that good a job keeping discipline among her people, but I knew essentially nothing about management styles.

The hallway got more narrow as we walked, though it didn’t seem to lose any appreciable height. The everburning torch that we carried lit our way, not casting terribly much light ahead of us. It was funny, given how incredibly important they tended to be in low-level tabletop games, but I had never actually experienced torchlight before. It seemed like one of the things that I should have done, back on Earth, just to get a feel for it. Lord knows I’d done enough stuff like that, though I’d stopped short of taking archery lessons like Reimer did.

The first junction we came to was split five different ways, two of them with narrow staircases that I was pretty sure I would struggle to fit through, and one that looked like you would have to get down on all fours to duck beneath the archway. Everything was a little bit off-kilter, with bespoke angles. When I paid attention to it, I realized that the floor itself was uneven, just a few degrees off from being level. We took the left, which was a narrow, crooked passage, without any actual discussion.

“Okay,” said Raven, once we had taken a few twists and turns that more-or-less equated to ‘left, left, straight, right’. “We should be safe and private for the time being.” She let out a breath, and it felt like she’d been holding it for a long time. The hallway was narrow, with books crowding around us. Raven was doing her best not to make it awkward, but the uncomfortably cramped quarters made that difficult.

“Do we need privacy?” I asked.

“There are limits to what I will say when someone eager to cut off parts of my body is listening to my every word,” said Raven. Her voice was firm. “There are also limits to what I’m willing to say in front of a hopefully former non-anima with unspecified powers and one of Uther’s descendants.”

“That’s understandable,” I said, even if it was annoying. I wondered, briefly, whether or not I could take Raven in a fight. Bethel had fed us everything she could divine about Raven’s entads, and while the armor would be tough to deal with, and the cape was reactive, I would probably be able to either go for her head or use the sword’s ability to cleave through her chest while bypassing the metal. It was grim and grisly, but I had given it the requisite thought before we left. “What were you refraining from saying?”

“Uther,” said Raven. “You knew him. It’s not beyond a shadow of a doubt, but you’ve given us enough, and the things in those books … it explains some mistakes that he made, especially early on. They didn’t just call him the Poet King because of the breadth of art he produced, sometimes he seemed to have his head in the clouds, like he was a step out of phase with the rest of us. It caused problems, on occasion. It’s not something that you’ll find in any biography, but he screamed the first time he met an elf. Apparently he had gone his whole life without knowing what their teeth looked like. It makes more sense, if he truly was dream-skewered.”

“But that’s not what you were keeping from the others,” I said.

“No,” replied Raven. She took a steadying breath. “First, I can tell you the reason that no one ever found him. He wore an entad of almost absurd power, an amulet that –”

“Wait,” I said. “Can I have a guess?”

Raven stared at me. “You know it?”

“I might,” I said. “Nondetection?”

“Go on,” Raven nodded.

“Firstly, it protects him from divination magics of all kinds, most likely including the sorts of entads that you’d use to find him,” I said. That was how the standard nondetection spell worked in D&D. “But it also protects against detection by any means, including sight and sound, and probably a few more exotic methods, with the amulet itself being covered under the same effect while worn. So how did you find him then?”

“How did you know?” asked Raven.

“It was in one of my games,” I said. “I was just turning the concept up as high as it would go. Well, not as high as it would go, because there was no element of redaction, but pretty high.”

“You’re so … blunt about it,” said Raven, staring at me. “That amulet was made by forge frenzy and unknown to anyone outside Uther and the Knights.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’m sorry, but this is the reality of the world. I don’t like it any more than you do.” That probably wasn’t true. “So how did you find him, if you couldn’t detect him?”

“Second order effects,” said Raven. “The amulet doesn’t allow the detection of direct effects like light or sound, not even footprints, but it’s possible to detect the effects of those effects.”

I nodded. “Meaning … okay, if you put the amulet around an apple, you wouldn’t be able to see the apple, because you wouldn’t be able to see the light bouncing off of it, but you would be able to see that the paper the apple was sitting on was tinted red, because the red light reflected from the apple would hit the paper, and the amulet’s powers don’t extend that far.” There was probably some inherent wonkiness there in terms of definition. I wondered whether the amulet would protect against cameras.

“I could have used you four hundred years ago,” said Raven with a soft smile. “It took me a long time to wrap my head around it, and longer still to figure out some way to use that weakness to try to track him.”

“Which led you to the exclusion zone,” I said.

“Yes,” replied Raven. “And from there, he appears to have gone somewhere else.”

“Meaning that we could get into the exclusion zone only to find that he was last there five hundred years ago?” I asked. “And logically, there would be no trace of him, given how long ago it was?”

“I’m more hopeful than that,” said Raven. “The Second Empire put in some work on the exclusion zone, most of it classified. They were trying to figure out a way to kill Fel Seed, partly because they thought it was necessary, partly because they were worried about exclusion breaks, and partly because it would be a political victory if they could accomplish something that no one else had. They tried a lot of different things, but only one of them bore any fruit.” She was watching me, probably to see whether I could complete the thought, which I obviously couldn’t. “There was a dimensional survey of the exclusion zone, from a distance, looking primarily for infernal influence. What they found instead was a tunnel leading somewhere else.”

“Where?” I asked, more confused than anything.

“They never found out,” replied Raven. “The project was costing money without producing results, so they stopped trying. I didn’t find out about it until we had a particularly good run at the Library and got our hands on numerous classified documents, which was a good twenty years after the fall of the Empire.”

Classified documents? I looked at the walls around us. “What counts as a book, exactly?”

“‘Twenty pages, where the majority are filled with symbolic language, the majority of the pages are bound in some fashion, and there are covers surrounding the pages.’” said Raven, clearly going from some internal script. “There are some definitional issues there, specifically about what constitutes a ‘page’ or ‘cover’ in terms of material, shape, size, and topology. Why?”

“I was just thinking that if you knew about the Library, there would be things that you might do in order to prevent sensitive materials from ending up here,” I said. “That was all.”

“The Second Empire’s misadventures with the Library will have to wait for another time,” said Raven. “I’m telling you all of this because I think that it might be important to finding out what happened to Uther. I can show you the literature, if you’d like. I have the books stored in an entad I carry with me, but that will come later, unless you have any particular insights.”

“No,” I said. “Cosmology isn’t a strong suit for me, and it was one of the things that varied so much in my games it’s hard to tell what might have made the translation to Aerb.”

A Tour of the Elemental Planes listed twenty-eight of them: acid, base, blood, bone, chitin, clay, earth, electricity, fire, flesh, glass, gold, ice, iron, lava, light, magnetism, mist, rust, salt, sand, shadow, smoke, steam, stone, vacuum, water, and wood. There had been hundreds of demi-planes, but they were excluded back in Uther’s day. There had been a mirror dimension and a dream dimension, both excluded. There were a handful of planes which were even more entirely hostile to human life than the elemental planes, including m-space, n- space, t- space, and p-space, most of which had only been detected by exotic instruments or mathematical proofs. There were nine thousand hells and no heavens. There was an equivalent to the Ethereal Plane, but it was badly out of sync with Aerb, and you could only get there if you were a star mage. The Plane of Drift had similarly harsh requirements for access, unless you ended up there by chance, and was largely useless (its Earth origin was what Reimer had called ‘the Amelia Earhart dimension’). There were no less than thirty-seven dangerous parallel dimensions, three that were excluded, eight that had apparently been destroyed, and another twenty-six that were ‘inaccessible’, a fact that everyone seemed to accept. There were hints of alternate timeline Aerbs, though not enough hints that anyone could say that they had ever actually existed. Long story short, cosmology was fucking complicated, and there were a ton of places that Uther could have gone if he wasn’t on Aerb. Given my experiences so far, I wouldn’t have been surprised if there were another twenty places I hadn’t heard of so far. (Oh, and there was also Earth.)

“It’s one avenue worth exploring,” said Raven. “If we can figure out where that deformation in space leads to, we might know why he went, and failing that, we might be able to skip the exclusion zone altogether.”

“If I had to make one guess about where Uther went, it would be back to Earth,” I said. “So far as I know, the only magics in existence that can bridge to Earth are under the power of the Dungeon Master, whether that’s dream-skewering or the backpack he gave me, and the examples we have are one way, from Earth to Aerb.” I shrugged. “That’s as much as I know.”

“He never talked about Earth,” said Raven, shaking her head. “He had a wife here, two sons, and even if he never connected with his sons, he had Dahlia, his pride and joy. He had his Knights, he loved us, he had his Empire and everything that he’d built. To believe that he would have left all of that –”

“I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere with psychoanalysis,” I said. “I actually don’t think that we’re going to get anywhere by talking.” I gestured to the books around us. “Teach me library magic and we can start working.”

Raven paused, looking me in the eye, then nodded. “You’re right,” she said. “Uther always prefered action, when we were in the thick of it.” She looked at the shelves that were crowding us in. “I have to warn you that it might be difficult. One of the reasons that we’ve temporarily stopped recruitment is that the Library is more twisted and dangerous than it used to be.”

“Since I showed up on Aerb?” I asked.

“No,” replied Raven. “No, it’s been deteriorating for some time, even before that. It’s gotten far worse in the last few months though, and that, I think, we can attribute to you, or whatever phenomenon has attached itself to you.” She plucked a book off the shelf and handed it to me.

I took it, silently, and looked at its spine. Merriweather Mysteries by Nghi Thanh. “It’s in Anglish,” I said, frowning slightly.

“Yes,” replied Raven. “Tell me everything you can about the book.”

I flipped to the inside cover and read the front matter. “Published by a company in Caledwich, but the actual printing was in Cidium, dated to 324 FE, author is Harmonian, judging by the name,” I began flipping through it, “And the book itself appears to be a collection of detective stories. One hundred and seventy-two pages,” I closed it, “Red cover, made from linen wrapped over cardboard, I think.”

“Good,” said Raven. “And how do we know that it belongs there?” she asked, pointing at its empty spot on the shelf.

I stared at it. “There’s a schema,” I said. I looked on either side of the gap, at the titles for the others. Both were languages that I didn’t speak. “In a typical library, it would be similar subjects clustered together, then with ordering by either author or alphabetically by title.” I looked at the books around us. “But naturally this is the Library, with all the books ever written, so it can’t be that simple.”

“All the books ever published ,” said Raven. “Written would be a different story. Publish, in this case, meaning at least two copies issued for consumption. It’s a very low bar.”

I tried to do some math in my head. “How many books are in the Library?” I asked. “I know it varies from future to future, so I suppose I’m asking how many historical books are in here. Even if I ballpark it at a million a year, which seems high, that would be what … five hundred million?” I thought about that, in the context of how far we’d walked, how many intersections there had been, and the way that the ceilings had been, for the most part, higher than I could see. If the library that Bethel had made was a football field, then the ‘Infinite’ Library should only be five hundred times larger, and that was at an upper bound.

“Your math is off,” said Raven. “And that’s because we’re using different definitions of ‘published’. When you say it, you’re likely referring to the book as entity, some collection of sigils which happens to have been put onto paper. Yes?”

“Yes,” I said slowly.

“When I say ‘published’, I mean the specific act of putting those sigils onto paper,” said Raven.

“You mean … printed,” I said.

“No,” sighed Raven. “Printing is the physical act, publication is issuing for consumption. The Library contains all books that have been or will be published.”

“It contains copies,” I said, with understanding dawning on me. That bumped up the number of books in the Library by a factor of a hundred, maybe even a thousand. Hells, maybe even more. “Wait, or probably not copies in your parlance, they would be, um, instances, right?” I looked at the gap again, the place that I had taken Merriweather Mysteries from. “Except that you said ‘publish’ meant at least two books, and this one doesn’t have a partner.” I looked at the shelves around me. “None of these do.”

“They do,” said Raven. “They must. It’s one of the laws of this place. Unfortunately, one of the more consistent aspects of the schema is that the positioning of the books is dependent upon print order.”

I frowned at that. “So,” I said, looking over the books. “All of these books would be, say, the two hundred and twenty-eighth of their print run?” I asked.

“Unlikely,” said Raven. “The schema is rarely that simple. The Library is too tangled these days. It just reset itself, and we need the new schema, but in the past a book’s position in the Library might be encoded by a multiplication of the first author’s middle initial, the print order, and the date of printing, with any duplication being resolved through some other similarly bizarre identifier or combination of identifiers.” She sighed as she looked over the books.

“Ah,” I said. The book in my hands was starting to feel a little bit heavy. I slotted it back into place. “I can see the problems,” I said. “You have no way of knowing where any given book is, even if there should be a thousand copies of it, and decoding each new schema must be maddeningly difficult work.” I paused. “Except that there’s Library Magic, etched on my soul, which must be the reason that it’s possible for the Library to provide any information at all outside of just randomly grabbing books off the shelves.”

“Yes,” said Raven, nodding. “Were you this smart on Earth?”

“No, and I’m not that smart,” I said. “It’s just a way that I’m used to thinking.”

“Usually it takes longer for recruits to understand all of it,” said Raven.

“I have a couple legs up,” I said. Not least of which is the fact that I designed a fair chunk of this place.

“Still,” said Raven, watching me. I wondered whether she was thinking about Uther.

“Are you going to teach me library magic, or not?” I asked.

“I am,” said Raven, taking a breath. “You need to get a feel for the connections between books.” She pointed to Merriweather Mysteries again, then to the two books on either side of it. “Can you feel the similarity between these three?”

I stared at the books. “I don’t actually speak either of those languages. I have Anglish, Groglir, and that’s it.” For now.

“I’m not asking you to find the common denominator,” said Raven. “I’m asking you to feel it. This Library has chosen a schema, one that was used to place every book within it. There is a single place that exact copy of Merriweather Mysteries belongs, and it’s right there. All of that absolute order has a thrumming power to it, one that a practiced librarian can feel just standing here. Handle the books if you need to, move them around to feel the disorder of having them out of place, do whatever you’d like. I’m going to leave you here, I’ll be back in an hour or two, or I’ll send someone to find you. Don’t wander too far.”

“You’re leaving me?” I asked. “I can probably find my way back, but, ah –”

“I don’t know how long this is going to take,” said Raven. “The time after the reset tends to be the most critical, and when organization is most sorely needed. I also need to smooth over some of the disruption that our arrival has caused, and prepare for the memorial.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll just stay here, checking out books, I guess.” I looked at the cramped shelves around us. “What are the chances that I randomly run into infohazardous material here?”

“From a random selection?” asked Raven. “So low it’s not worth worrying about. Besides, if you practice mindful reading you should start to notice the effects before any real damage is done, at least for the vast majority of cases. There are relatively few that would just kill you outright without recourse.”

“Alright,” I said, though that was far from reassuring. I was pretty sure that if Amaryllis had been with us, she would have insisted that we run the numbers and find out how likely it was that I would die from picking up the wrong book. “I’ll be here. Hopefully I’ll be a master by the time you come back.”

“Hopefully,” said Raven with a nod. She didn’t seem like she fully believed it. I was probably going to have to grill her about the specifics of Uther’s Knack at some point, in the same way that I was going to have to grill her about a lot of things. She turned and left, with the light of her torch fading as she stepped away.

I turned to look at the books, and browsed for a bit until I saw three that were all in Anglish. The Library was dominated by Anglish, which was, after all, the native language of the printing press, the trade language of Aerb, and the official language of the Second Empire. I was grateful for that, in the same way that I was grateful that English was a hugely popular language on Earth.

The Briars Once More, The Commoner’s Guide to Gem Magic, and Imperial Index, 5th edition, vol. IV were all sitting together. I had read all the books in the Commoner’s Guide, or at least skimmed them, which I thought might put me in a better starting place. Flipping through the other two, The Briars Once More seemed to be prose fiction, and the Imperial Index was something that the Second Empire had printed around the height of its power to catalog … lots of stuff, basically.

I had no idea what these three things had in common, aside from the language. Based on the front matter, they all had different dates, authors, publishers, and countries of origin. There wasn’t anything in the subject matter that was remotely similar, at least on first glance, no mention of gem magic in the index, at least not under the headings I would have expected, and from what I could tell, The Briars Once More was, of all things, a fantasy novel.

I was looking at it wrong. I knew that. Raven had told me that it would be something that I would feel, rather than something I would know. It was Library Magic, not pattern analysis, though from everything that they said, pattern analysis had to play a part in figuring out each fresh new schema.

I stuck my hand between the books, trying to feel something. The soul was supposed to mediate a lot of things, and I was hoping that putting an extension of my soul between the books would help me to feel whatever I was supposed to be feeling. I’d had some luck with trying a cross-disciplinary approach before, but here, it didn’t seem to help.

I put the books back down and stared at them.

The problem was, the connection between the books could have been anything. If the books were uniquely ordered, then I was looking at the end product of that ordering, the point where whatever schema was at work thought that these books were very similar and was splitting hairs in the final stage. Alphabetical organization meant that you would sort by the first letter, then the second letter, then the third, until finally, if you went through some alphabetical organization, three randomly selected books that were all next to each other would have gotten their position by virtue of whatever was different between them — but the titles themselves would be mostly the same.

Here, there seemed to be nothing that the books had in common. They didn’t have a similar font or font size, so that was out, and they were different lengths, which meant —

I stopped and stared at the books.

They were different fonts and font sizes, which meant that they might be similar lengths. There was no way to do a word count in any reasonable amount of time, but from doing a quick page count and comparison of the fonts, it did seem like they might have roughly the same number of total words. Of course, that might be a proxy for something else, because if the Library was being obtuse about organization, then it could do something like counting the number of periods, or the number of hyphens, or some addition or multiplication of character counts, or it might do word counts, or average words per page, or a catalog of parts of speech, or the number of periods, and all of those might approximate to ‘length’ if you didn’t actually have the information and hadn’t done a proper survey. In fact, the number of periods —

I realized, slowly, that I had somehow fixated on that idea. It didn’t have to mean anything, people tended to fixate on the first idea that came into their head, I had seen that in action a number of times at the gaming table, but this felt different. It was just a twinge, as though the knowledge had snuck into my head from somewhere else. It was a thread that I could follow.

Skill unlocked: Library Magic!

Achievement unlocked: Bookworm

I frowned. I had just the barest taste of Library Magic, and I already didn’t like it. I could feel more clearly now the way that it was intruding into my head, placing thoughts there as though they were my own. That itself wasn’t so unusual, since I had all sorts of knowledge from various skills that hadn’t been rightfully come by, but there was something in the way the Library’s schema came to me that was entirely unsubtle.

I got up and stretched, then put the books back where they belonged. Technically, the unlock was the most important part, because I could sacrifice skills in order to boost it up to absurd levels. I wasn’t going to do that just now, especially not if I could use the librarians to get what I needed, but even if they couldn’t, I was hesitant, because it really was getting harder to get the sacrificed skills back up to what they had been. I had sacrificed Bows twice now, and even the early levels of the skill were slow to come now.

I had some time before Raven came back, so I set myself to work trying to get a better feel for the magic.

I was hoping that within the schema there would be some way to find a book written by a specific author; my guess was that there on the outside, in the future the Library was sketching out, some version of Amaryllis Penndraig had written a book for me.

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Worth the Candle, Ch 128: An Open Book

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: