Gaining Purchase
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“It’s not called the Great Library for nothing,” Aaron murmured.

I raised an eyebrow. “What did you expect? A public library?”

“I didn’t expect it to have its own weather system.”

Around me bookshelves towered into the sky, the tops obscured by a layer of clouds. I had been through the Library enough for the novelty of the impossible structure to wear off, and I sometimes forgot how it looked to a newcomer.

I stepped away from the Way entrance and looked around the corridors, searching for librarians. Sure enough, there was one nearby, cataloguing some books. I stayed silent and it moved away after a few minutes, probably to chew out some innocent library-goer.

“We’re clear. Get the gear out.”

Aaron unzipped the yellow canvas bag and pulled out two pairs of climbing shoes, two harnesses, two loops of bungee cord and rope, a chain of carabiners, and a bag of chalk. Everything an experienced book pilferer needs, or even one with next to no experience, like Aaron.

I put on my gear quickly and waited for Aaron to finish up.

“The Scavenger Hunt finishes in…” I checked my watch, “Three hours. Let’s get climbing.”

Aaron pulled his shoes on and fastened them. “Don’t rush me, Lorrie. There won’t be a point of going to the competition if your partner breaks his neck.”

“After you die, I’m sure that I could use my feminine wiles to convince the Huntmaster to let me claim the prize by myself.” I grinned, “Wouldn’t need to split it, then.”

Aaron was nonplussed. “Whatever. Are we actually able to get all the way to the archival section? Like, physiologically.” he gestured to the clouds.

I laughed, “This isn’t my first rodeo, cowboy. I make a living off of getting books. The books down here are able to take a beating, but the ones up there are fragile and valuable enough that they have to be kept above the clouds to stay dry. Usually, I do this alone, but the clouds are lower than they look, anyway.”

“And there’s no guards or anything? Wouldn’t it be protected by the Serpent’s Hand?”

“Just at the bottom of the staircase. Nobody in their right mind would climb all the way up the shelves to steal things. And don’t worry about the Hand, they’re big softies.”

We finished the preparations, using the carabiners to secure ourselves to opposite ends of the bungee cord and chalking our hands generously. Checking once again that no librarians were nearby, we began the ascent. I chose my starting points carefully, placing my feet on ‘An A-Z of mushrooms’ and ‘Indispensable tips for snark hunting’.

People might say that climbing up a library bookshelf, with all of its flat landings and handholds, would be easy, but anyone with experience searching the upper areas for books to liberate will tell you differently. The shelves aren’t like ladders, there are several meters of piled books between each rung. Beyond that, following the laws of physics isn’t exactly the library’s strong suit; books taken from other universes tend to be dangerous, maybe it disappears without warning, maybe it takes a bite out of your forearm, maybe you get a papercut. The biggest problem is the books themselves. It is hard to gain purchase on dusty old tomes, and dusty tomes make up about 90% of the library’s mass (the other 10% is angry librarians, who are also dusty).

I kept up a good pace, though I didn’t go as fast as I could have so that if Aaron slipped, I wouldn't be pulled down. Halfway up, I stopped climbing and looked down at Aaron. “How you doing?’ I shouted down to him. He gave a shaky thumbs-up in return.

We made steady progress, eventually breaking through the cloud layer, which was lower than it seemed from the ground.

The trouble began when we reached a section which had clearly had a bookworm infestation. Stacks of manuscripts crumbled to dust whenever I used them as a foothold.

Aaron screamed and I looked to see him falling from beside me, sending a shower of books raining down to the floor far below us. I darted through the books and tightly grabbed one of the solid beams of the shelf. If we both fell, that was the end. I felt the bungee cord pull and then loosen. I released my hold and began to pull Aaron back up.

He was out cold. When he had fallen away from the wall, he had swung in an arc into the shelf below like a fragile, fleshy wrecking ball. Luckily, when I pulled him up to me, he didn’t seem to have any injuries beyond a few bumps and bruises.

I took my coil of rope and securely fastened Aaron to my back. Climbing with a fully-grown man attached to your back is hard, and we still had some ways to go, but I could handle it.

I left the gap in the books to resume the climb, but I noticed something strange. Was the ceiling falling? No, it was the whole bookshelf that was falling down! I looked down and saw the cause. The shelves were built like skyscrapers, nothing short of high-powered explosives could knock them down; but a millennia of rot, termites, and interdimensional skirmishes had weakened the structural integrity of the shelf so much that Aaron’s impact had been enough to snap it clean in two.

Thinking quickly, I sprung from our collapsing shelf towards the adjacent one, twisting in the air to meet it. I fell quickly and reached out my gloved hands to grab the stable shelf as I drew closer. My fingers snagged a book and gripped. Aaron was still strapped to my back and the jolt of our combined weight almost made me lose my hold. My feet scrambled for purchase and I got them safely wedged into a gap in the shelves. I glanced at the book which had saved me: ‘An Encyclopedia of Doorknobs.’ This was probably the first time it had been useful since it had been published.

My muscles strained for the rest of the journey, but I was able to make the last few meters. Relieved, I hauled myself up over the railing into the archival section. The room hadn’t changed; musty filing cabinets spanning in every direction. I untied Aaron and lay him on the solid wooden floor.

I shook him awake, “Hey! Hey!”

He started, “We’re… we’re not dead? What happened?”

“You snapped the entire shelf in half!” I shouted, giggling from the adrenaline high, “We almost died!”

Aaron stumbled over to the railing and peered down at the magnificent wreckage of the shelf. “Holy sh- how- we escaped that?”

I escaped that, no thanks to you. What were the two themes for the Hunt?”

“Um…” Aaron rubbed his head with one hand, “Forgotten Cities and Alien Invasion.”

“Alright. I’ll take the Invasions one.”

I went to a directory and typed in a few search terms, then looked through the corresponding filing cabinets. Aaron followed suit.

Now for the fun part. With our arms full of documents, we sat against a pillar close to an open Way and leafed through our bountiful harvest. It was less than thrilling, but it gave us a chance to rest.

Voices resounded from nearby, approaching rapidly. They must have figured out that we had been climbing up to the archival section. Aaron and I wordlessly seized all the papers we could carry and ran for the Way, only to be barged into by a man in Hand robes, sending all three of us rolling.

I pushed myself up and kicked the man hard in the head, just enough to keep him down. My hard-toed climbing shoe made a satisfying thwack. I scooped up a few of the papers and yanked Aaron to his feet just as a platoon of Hand members emerged from around a corner.

We ran desperately as they drew upon us, firing spells past our heads and swinging their swords; but at the last moment, we half-ran half-fell headfirst into the Way, home free.

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