Long-Shed and Shade-Filled Skins

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Florescent lights flickered down the narrow stacks of the Library's deepest levels. Down near the serpents' writhing nests, down where ink ran freely from crumbling pages, down where even docents tread carefully. Civilizations had been birthed in those narrow shelves before. Civilizations had died amidst the smells of glue and blood. No one happy with life delved so deep, not without purpose. No one aligned with history's proper course sought the knowledge held there.

T.A. was one such misaligned figure. In a long life, those initials had stood for many things. Names. Titles. His personal favorite remained teacher's assistant, but few remained who had ever called him such. Few would now, with his towering frame, neatly-trimmed beard, and deep wrinkles. Fewer would, with the bleeding sack clutched in his hand. Another title would have to serve. Tired Adjudicator, perhaps. Tumultuous agitator. Something that strangled the thesaurus less, but only after completing the task that necessitated diving so deep in this place of grated floors and suffocating stairwells.

"Hey, hey, I've got another one." A scratchy voice echoed through the stacks. Few would dare advertising their presence so openly when shades, thieves, or librarians might lurk nearby. Bravery or foolishness would both suit his plans.

"Yeah?" came a reply that whistled through the holes in syllables.

"Yeah, it's great." The sound of a dry throat being cleared sounded like nothing so much as sandpaper against a spinning grindstone. "So, what's the sound of three hands clapping?"

"That's stupid."

"You're stupid."

"It's just one clap?"

"It's one clap plus something."

"Yeah, that's stupid."

"You're stupid!"

T.A. rubbed the bridge of his nose while looking back and forth down rows of shelves that stretched into dim infinity. Nothing else stirred at the sounds of squabbling. Nothing walked, nothing breathed, and nothing imposed itself upon existence. Indeed, nothing else with the slightest bit of consciousness persisted within that under-under-underlevel except for the Library itself. He shook his head and turned toward the racket.

"You come up with something then!" Scratchy-voiced.

"I came up with the last good one." Whistling.

"'What's the taste of mother's blood' is a shitty koan. I can go test that myself!"

"I meant your mother's blood. It's about, you know, umbilical cords. Nurturing. Stuff."

"We can test that part too."

"Gross."

"You're the one who asked!"

Turning around around one last corner of one last aisle revealed nothing but more books. Nothing stood there, alive or otherwise. No humans, nothing imitating human shape, and nothing else either. Then he looked up. Two pairs of legs dangled from the shelftops, each clad in worn boots and long chains. Two figures stared down past them, each wearing type-heavy pages as loose masks. A familiar tradition in an unfamiliar place.

"Well, who are you supposed to be?" Scratchy asked from the left. Their boots kicked carelessly over the shelf's precipice.

"Also, where are you supposed to be?" Whistler asked from the right. Their legs dangled just as freely.

"'cause you aren't supposed to be here."

"And you probably shouldn't be yourself either."

"I am but a simple wanderer," said T.A., offering half of a classic call and response. Most saw it as an offering of peace, and an admission that stature mattered little within the Library's walls.

"Yeah, simple's one word for it."

"But lost might put it better."

"I'm a wanderer seeking an exchange. You'll honor that, no? Your generosity is legendary in the higher levels. 'Gold for a promise, and promises of gold.' Isn't that right?"

"You're thinking of the last pair. Silver teeth and silver tongues."

"Yeah, them. We're the ones who don't deal with horseshit."

Discontent radiated from both figures. Not at their chains, nor at their predicament, but at his very presence. Whispers in higher, safer places indeed spoke of the entities bound in 451-12-5EEW, but in the manner of devils who offered forbidden powers in unfair trades. His past life had been equipped to coerce these oppositional presences, but those resources were no more. Nothing was to be done but try again.

"I was hoping–"

"For too much," said Scratchy.

"But I've come–"

"To be disappointed?" suggested Whistler.

"Will you let me–"

"Leave?" said both.

"Finish!" Paper rustled in the word's wake. Shelves creaked, lights flickered, and far below, serpents hissed. Each reverberation fractured, splitting smaller and smaller until its force spread miles in every direction, persisting until its fragments settled like fine dust. "Your names matter little. Your predecessors matter less. It's your natures that hold weight, especially if they've left you shackled here. The Librarians wouldn't take such a step lightly."

Each chained figure breathed a single, slow breath. Chests rose, then fell. Fingers clenched tight on the shelf, then relaxed. Dangling feet slowed their casual kicking, and their masked faces tilted down in his direction.

"Like a flood through the shelves, they said."

"Like flames unbound."

"I have use for a flood then, and for flames too. Swear a single year's toiling to me, and I will free you from this place. "

"If that was within your powers, maybe."

"If you weren't just another puppy looking for a fresh tree."

T.A. reached into his dripping sack, grasped the fleshy thing within, and pulled it free. A Librarian's severed head dangled by an ear from his thick fingers. Four foggy eyes no longer scraped the world's text clean. Two wide mouths no longer spoke honeyed metaphors and harsh facts. Yanking one out had been challenging, and slaying it proved far more difficult, but the imagined expression behind those paper masks made hours of work with a diamond-edged saw worth it. Surprise, that's what he needed from them. Awe at his feat. Curiosity at what else might be offered.

"Open the shackles," he hissed into one long ear. "I'll finish it if you do, or else it's back into the sack. I'm happy to mount you on a plaque for the next century."

After another squeeze of the ear and a long pause, its two mouths open. Long, black tongues emerged, and words followed. Silent syllables compacted and constricted in the air until they formed heavy keys. Those constricted too, stretching through the gaps in the entities' chains, twisting deep inside padlocks without keyholes. The locks clicked open. The shackles slithered down to the floor, then burst into dust along with the Librarian's head.

Both masks turned fully toward T.A. To call their eyes were unkind would be an understatement of historic proportions. The two holes cut into each page bored to a plane without stars. Nothing warm existed beyond. Nothing gleamed, glistened, or glowed. Soured by escape and dour in freedom, the pair slid free from their perches. They disappeared before hitting the ground.

The strands of their passage slipped through his fingers. Theirs was a subtle journey, clearly well-practiced over long ages, but its means were familiar. A method of final escape from the Howling Pillar's inexorable draw. Keeping those silken strands wrapped around his fingers, T.A. pushed himself through reality's porous membranes. They tugged away from the Library, away from its axis, and into another world entirely.

Red snow fell from a red sky. Its color suffused the muddy ground, and stained tall tree's white barks. It stained the corpses littering the ground too. All had spent days decomposing, swelling beyond recognition, bulging within their military uniforms. Their excesses leaked into deep craters, pooling along with the rain into lakes thick with silt and offal. Fresh battlefields always attracted looters. Fresh feasts attracted scavengers.

"It's not my fault that it's stuck," Scratchy was telling their companion while trying to wrench a long rifle from the hands of one corpse. Black rags billowing, black hair wild, both prisoners made for perfect crows. Tearing at tendons. Pecking at eyeballs. The white-wood rifle snapped free along with the corpses' fingers.

"I haven't heard your answer yet," said T.A. "Employment, or back to the Library?"

"Not much of a choice." Scratchy turned to their companion.

"As in, neither." Whistler did the same.

Both nodded and stepped back into one of the gruesome lakes. Their boots disappeared. Their legs, waist, and shoulders followed. Each vanished in moments, but not into the waters beneath. T.A. tugged along on their trails again. A passage could feel like years of effort compressed into one moment, but riding along was easier than carving a trail, and landings were softened by earlier falls. When he emerged again, it was not his breath that heaved, nor his legs that trembled.

No, plenty of others trembled and heaved around them. They had come to rest in a small, warmly-lit cafe with a wide window that perfectly framed the sunset. Patrons had scattered at their arrival, knocking over tables and chairs, and who could blame them? All three intruders left red footprints behind, T.A. included. All stank of old ink, new sweat, and rotting guts.

"I will have an answer!" shouted T.A. over a wave of panicked chatter. "You can't flee forever."

"Watch us!"

They pushed aside customers, barreled from the cafe, and vanished through the doorway. He did the same, marking the start of a flitting race across the planar coordinate grid. They emerged in barren plains, burning forests, and dim grottoes. They stumbled across fresh graves, through ruined metropolises, and beneath salty waves. Years compressed to moments. Entire lives could have been lived in the time they trampled, and entire sagas could have spanned the distance. In scant glimpses, they witnessed a hundred worlds in a hundred states. With each long stride, T.A. closed on his tiring quarry. Finally, fittingly, in the endless gray dunes of his home, he simply reached out and grabbed one.

"Tyrant!" squealed Whistler. They seemed terribly short and scrawny in that moment. Tiny under the voluminous rags, composed more of outrage and ill-will than anything substantial. To one side, Scratchy fumbled with the firing pin of their stolen rifle, clearly unfamiliar with the weapon.

"There's really no need to run. I'm only trying to speak with you." Patience and serenity came easily in victory's wake. He was a teacher's assistant once more, at least in spirit.

"We don't work with bureaucrats! Fuck off."

"My reputation preceded me?"

"Your stink did!" Scratchy tossed their rifle aside and spat after it. "Why are you bothering us, huh? We were doing just fine on our own. You boot-licking shitstains always ruin everything."

"I promise, my needs are not monumental. I only came for help in stabilizing a Uttman-Guiter multi-phase resonance array. Solicitation siphons are best for that purpose, but I've nothing at hand. Understand?"

"No," they said as one.

"No?"

"No, I have no idea what you're talking about!" Whistler finally shook free of T.A.'s hand, but only moved next to their companion.

"Like we said, you're looking for the last pair! We don't grant wishes."

"In truth?" asked T.A.

"Yes, in truth!"

"Always in truth! We're just gremlins, okay?"

They certainly believed their own words, at least. Catching one had not sparked a surge of potential either, though such things could be suppressed. But, no, a familiar sun's light revealed the unfortunate truth. Theirs were trifling existences in comparison to the things he sought. They could provide none of the power he needed.

This endeavor might prove more troublesome than anticipated.

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