rating: +26+x

My brother was a Page.

It was a stupid, idiotic mistake. He was always hotheaded. He was hotheaded when we were apprentices, he was hotheaded when our father introduced us to the Ways and to the Library. When we first journeyed in, he had no patience or care for the creatures that inhabited the shelves, brusquely moving past them to the grimoires we needed. He didn’t much care for the Librarians, though he obeyed them — albeit out of necessity.

When we began to spend more time in the Library, whiling away our days and nights deep in study, Brother’s nature tended to cause friction with the other patrons. Little things at first. A sharp exchange over a mutually desired book, a passing comment. Nothing that would anger the Librarians, of course — we were both smarter than that. Then it got worse. After our father died he… degraded. Furious at the smallest perceived slight, constantly defending challenges to his honor only he saw. He even raised his voice at me — me! — though he apologized after. Never an apology to anyone else, though.

I was his voice of reason, I made sure he never did anything he would regret. I was there, pulling him back when a many-legged patron pushed him aside for a tome. I was there, whispering in his ear when a scholar obliquely said he was too stupid to understand the knowledge we were seeking. And I was there in the Main Hall the day he finally broke the Rules.

We were poring over books on one of the study tables in the Main Hall regarding the history of the Library and its various eras — the Discovery, the Searing, the Gilding, and so on. It was a wonderfully quiet space — always large enough to accommodate as many people as needed, but always small enough to cross in only a handful of strides. Most Ways into the Library lead out there, meaning a slow but steady trickle of new arrivals who are immediately educated in the nature of spaces in the Library. Deep green carpet, an endless availability of study tables, shelves leading out of the round space in every direction and, at the far end, the Librarian’s Desk. Sometimes the long, insectoid form of the Chief Archivist perched in the shelves watchfully. Peaceful.

Not anymore. But I digress.

I can’t even remember what started it. Something trivial and stupid, no doubt. A member of the Hand, those green-cloaked pompous bastards, said something snide and condescending to him. They’re patrons here, the same as anyone else, but the conceited among them are convinced that they’re special, that the Library depends on them somehow. It had been a difficult day — the knowledge we were looking for hadn’t panned out the way we wanted. We still had no way to contact our father, and we were in low spirits. Whatever that comment was, it was the last drop on the overfull glass, and sent everything spilling over the edge.

Before I could even say anything, he shot to his feet, whipped around, grabbed the back of the departing Hand member’s head, and slammed it into the corner of the table. For a moment, we just stood there. The table dripped blood, and the body of the Hand member was crumpled in a heap below it. Brother was staring at his hand in horror. For a second, everyone was silent, staring.

Then the Docents were upon us. Two of them seemed to materialized out of thin air, tall and dark and red-eyed and hands intertwined with the chains of their lanterns. Single-minded, they shoved me out of the way, sending me stumbling backward. One leaned over and collected the crumpled, bleeding body of the Hand member, cradling him in its arms. The other grabbed Brother by both hands. As quickly as they arrived, they began to leave, the other wanderers giving them a wide berth.

I chased after him. You need to understand that I chased after him — but the Docents were too fast. They don’t walk so much as they move across the floor of the Library, the path forming around them. I ran as long as I could, whipping around corners and watching them get farther and farther away. Then they stopped.

It remains the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in a library that defines itself by the strange. A large, round doorway, bookshelves bending around it as if it was always there. I couldn’t see inside, but it looked to be some kind of tunnel. I’d never seen anything like it, but my attention was drawn more to the Docents entering it — dragging Brother with them into the darkness beyond.

I rushed forward, with every ounce of strength left in my aching legs, but it was too late. There was too much distance. I watched them disappear into the darkness that lay inside, and a massive, stone door slip into place, blocking the entrance.

I was in such despair it never even really occurred to me to question what this all was. There are mysteries to the Library we don’t understand. All I could think of was the agony of losing the only person I had left. I dropped to my knees as I approached the door, all the energy gone out of me. Crawling forward, I placed two of my hands against it. Stone. Stone, in the Library. Baffling. Bizarre. But I had no room in my brain to process it. I leaned my back against the door and sobbed. The tears came hot and salty but eventually, they dried. And I resolved to wait. They’d have to come out sooner or later, wouldn’t they? And if I left, I had no idea how I’d be able to find my way back here again.

It was at least two of the primitive day-night cycles in the Library spent sleeping by that huge stone door. I didn’t see another soul in all that time. Thoughts of leaving, thoughts that Brother was already dead, began to creep into my mind. They were dashed when I felt the rumbling of the door on my back.

Scuttling to a safe distance away, I watched in quiet, rapt attention as the huge stone door rolled away, exposing the dark, dim interior once more. And a Page emerged.


To a layman, it might have looked like every other Page. Chitin-skinned, yellow-brown, many-armed. A face like a stretched out insect. But I could tell. The shape of his hands, the bits of his hair packed between plates. His mournful eyes. We looked at each other for a bit, and I told him:

“I’ll wait for you.”

I knew that the punishment for breaking the rules was service as a Librarian. I also knew the Library was fair, and the punishment was never permanent. I would wait until Brother had paid his debt, and then we would both be free. Besides, I had nowhere else to go anyway.

And so I spent my time studying. I would follow Brother from place to place as he worked, seemingly against his will and ignorant of my calls. I would pore through treatises on possible methods of reversing or shortening such a transformation. He never responded to me — I doubt Pages even have mouths — but I felt he was listening and so I would speak, communicating what little I learned. Maybe give him a spark of hope in his miserable condition as we meandered from wing to wing, shelf to shelf, weeks passing, then months.

It was one of these times that it happened. I was sitting with my back to a shelf, looking through a limited encyclopedia of the species of Librarians, hoping for a lead in the right direction. Brother was overhead, swinging from shelf to shelf, one arm curled and holding a stack of books, filing them in whatever arcane method Librarians use to determine what goes where. I was looking down, so engrossed in the text, I didn’t even see the shadow of the falling book until it struck me.

I could tell something was wrong the moment I awoke.

I rubbed my hand against the back of my head, and it came back bloody. I got to my feet. I was still in the part of the Library where I had been, but things felt… different. There was no one else around — Brother was gone, but that wasn’t unusual. No, everything simply felt… off. Wrong. Then I started to take in my surroundings.

Books were missing from the shelves — entire sections absent of their usual tomes. The shelves themselves were in poor shape, falling apart, as if stricken with a rot. I could hear… something in the distance, a deep, low droning. The corridor I was in was littered with piles of scattered, torn pages. Tearing a page out of a book is a deep, deep taboo in the Library. And here I was, knee-deep in them.

Yes, something was very, very wrong.

Confused but coherent enough to feel guilt, I lifted a cluster of such pages to dry the back of my head. They came back stained with blood. I had no idea where I was, but I began to walk. It wasn’t just my section — much of the Library was like that. Desecrated. I wandered through silent corridors, seeing toppled shelves and crushed books. Dark, dreadful stains on the carpet. And not a soul in sight.

I heard them before I saw them. The droning was punctuated with the sounds of smashing and crashing, first distant, then growing louder. Foolishly, I wandered toward them, still confused and disoriented. All such disorientation exited my body as my body exited into a clearing between the shelves.

Two wanderers, a demonic ogre and some kind of mage, tearing each other apart. As I watched, crouched beneath an overtured shelf, the ogre picked the mage up by the staff, slamming him into the ground repeatedly. I heard the bones crack and knit themselves back together through the screaming, and I heard the equally violent scream as the mage fall backward and rolled, released a burst of fire that vaporized the left half of the ogre’s torso. Blood and offal dripped out as the ogre looked down, not quite registering he was dead yet, then dropping to the floor.

I rushed backward in terror. A murder. A killing, in the Library. Where were the Docents? They had taken Brother so quickly, and now they were nowhere to be found after a brutal duel to the death in the Stacks?

My question was quickly answered as the droning grew closer and louder. The mage looked around too, as confused as I was in my hiding spot. The noise reached a crescendo just as the far shelf toppled over and the Docent crashed through it, lantern swinging wildly.

It was the source of the noise — for a moment, I couldn’t discern what exactly it was. Then I looked closer. It wasn’t a regular docent — its ‘surface’, if you could call it that, bulged with some kind of quivering mass just under the skin. Its head was long and distended, the bright red eyes grossly malformed. The right hand of a Docent is intertwined with the chain from which its ever-burning lantern hangs. This Docent’s lantern chain was wrapped around its neck like a tightened leash, cutting into it and releasing a filthy black blood.

Then it finally registered to me — the noise was the noise that comes when something without a mouth is screaming. The Docent rushed forth, right into where the duel occurred. And didn’t stop. It slung the mage to the side, toppling another shelf. My shock at the violence was eclipsed by the shock of seeing a Docent harm the Library. It bellowed like an animal through its nostrils, loping forward on all fours, into the distance.

I gave quiet, silent chase. I don’t know why. It was the only thing I recognized in this perversion of the Library, even in its corrupted form. I moved through the semifamiliar shelves like water, avoiding the large main corridor and taking care to step around the strewn-about piles of books and torn pages.

Here and there, small fires burned in such piles. Fire is another thing that is strictly monitored in the Library, for obvious reasons. It is the weapon of choice for Bookburners and all those seeking to destroy knowledge. To see it so casually present simply added to my deepening sense of panic. This was not the Library I knew or loved.

But at the same time, a strange, unidentifiable sense of familiarity came through to me. I didn’t register what it was at the time — just a vague notion of having been here before as I slipped after the Not-Docent. I was so engrossed in it that I didn’t notice the pile of stacked books until I tripped over it.

I lay, unmoving, peeking through a gap in the shelves. On the other side, the Not-Docent froze, grossly extended neck wrapping around to peer at me. Bright red eyes shining until they met mine. Then it started to move towards me, as I lay frozen on the floor. I would’ve kept laying there as it approached to do who-knows-what unto me if I wasn’t grabbed by the back of my cloak and tugged upward, pulled into the air.

Something was carrying me. I craned my neck around as I was jostled, and saw the back of Brother’s chitinous head as the rest of his arms skittered up the shelf. He didn’t turn around to look at me. Below, the Not-Docent was staring up, eyes aflame, watching me disappear.

We climbed for such a long time. I say we, but it was Brother doing the climbing, all the way to the top of the shelf, where he pulled us over and set me down, indefatigable. I got a good look at him for the first time since waking up and registered, with a shock, one of his arms was torn off. The stump wiggled uselessly. I ran my hand over it in concern, whispering words of thanks to my brother. Then we turned to look out of the Library.

It was a horrific sight. The small fires I saw burning were nothing, nothing compared to the conflagration that engulfed entire sections of the Library. As I watched, a huge shelf in the distance keeled over and slowly crashed to the ground with a bone-shaking boom. I could see small figures, the size of ants, engaged in what could only be combat, entire battles playing out below me. Docents running like mad dogs through the fray, ignoring the destruction — or contributing to it. And above it all, a huge, winged shadow swinging through the rafters.

This was familiar. This was what I had read tomes about, memoirs on: the Searing.

But that was impossible. The Searing was an era ago. There was simply no way. The Main Hall had been perfectly fine this morning, I would have known of another Searing — perish the thought — had happened. This was the original Searing, hundreds of years before I lived. It was impossible, and yet here I was.

I turned to Brother with a look betraying my shock. All I could manage was one word: “How?” If he understood, he didn’t respond. Just turned and moved forward, stopping once to cast a look behind him. The message was clear. I followed.

We leapt from shelf to shelf. He made the vast leaps as though they were natural to him, which I suppose they were, while I had to steel my nerve and take a running start. My mind was still racing with thoughts. I had been hit by a book — how had it sent me *through time?* I had never heard of such a thing, no mention of it in any of the texts I had ever read. I rolled over the question in my mind over and over as we moved from shelftop to shelftop, Brother sometimes having to pick me up and leap with me. I still had no answer by the time we arrived at our destination.

It was a slightly larger shelf, and from our position on the top of the adjacent one, we were facing into the books. Except in one section there weren’t books: instead sat a large, ornate, golden grate. Brother leapt across, grabbing into the shelf, and pulled the grate open.

I’d read about these. The question of how exactly the Pages managed to get across the Library so quickly was an enduring one. Some suspected these passages, inset into some shelves, served as a transportation network. And as Brother slipped into the tight square passage, it seemed they were right. I leapt after him, the force of my impact against the stone (?) making the grate swing shut after me. It was dark. I could just barely see Brother’s multilegged form crawling forward, deeper into the abyss. I steeled my nerves and followed. I would not lose him again.

I don’t know how long we crawled forward. The light dissipated only a few lengths in, and I crawled blindly. The passage was tight, barely wider than my already-lanky form. The sound of Brother’s arm’s scraping against the stone walls was my only guide. Here and there I felt the passage branch away, but I followed the harsh sound of chitin-on-rock dutifully.

As I did, another thought occurred to me. Say I had, through unknown force or means, been cast through time back to the Era of the Searing — why was Brother here? What had happened to his arm? There were too many questions I didn’t know the answers to. I had to find out what was going on.

And that’s the thought that carried me until I registered a soft light in the distance. My eyes adjusted as seemed to come to the end of our travel. My sense of space malformed, I didn’t realize the tunnel was sloping down, down, down until…

I tripped forward, slipping into an uncontrollable roll downhill as the tunnel twisted in on itself. In the fragmented flashes, Brother was nowhere to be seen, and the downhill slope morphed into a complete vertical drop. All four of my hands scrabbles against the stone walls for a grip but there was no purchase to be found as I fell wildly, the light growing brighter.

I crashed through the grate below me — and kept falling until I landed in a crumpled heap. Rubbing my tortured head, I immediately noticed a few things. The sounds were the first — it was loud, louder than I had ever heard it in the Library. It took a moment to realize what the sounds were and cross them with what I was seeing.

The Main Hall was a warzone. I was somewhere near the center — and all around me, open combat. Wordsmiths and members of the Serpent’s Hand, a sea of red and green cloaks, fighting *things*. I spotted some Bookburners among the fray, armed with their dark firearms, pushing back against the solid wave of Wanderers. On the tops of the tall shelves that ring the Hell, other Wanderers were stationed, casting down spells into the fight. It was brutal, and the Librarians were nowhere to be seen.

I saw a young human Wanderer struggling with a black-armored Bookburner, before pushing him back with a well placed kick. He leapt forward, drawing his dagger from its sheath, and cut the Bookburner’s throat without so much as a moment’s hesitation. His gurgling corpse slid down, one arm fruitlessly reaching out at his killer as he collapsed.

I saw a Wordsmith and some kind of multi-faced beast engaged in a brutal fight, beating each other raw with their bare fists. Smashing chairs, tables, and occasionally other figures into one another as they angrily roared and tore at one another, equally matched.

I saw two figures I didn’t recognize grab a member of the Hand as she brought her arms together to cast a rune. Except they never met. One grabbed her moving arms while the other placed one of their devices against the back of her neck and squeezed the trigger. The look on her face as her head came apart will live with me forever.

I saw all these scenes and a thousand others like them play out in a fraction of a moment of this neverending battle. The only reason I wasn’t attacked was that no one saw me in a heap on the floor — or they did and assumed I was already dead. Regardless, I found myself frozen in horror, unable to move yet again.

This was not the Library I loved. This was deeply, deeply wrong. I had read books on the Searing in my time in the Library — the specifics of the conflict were always left vague, unarticulated. I found it strange and befuddling. How could one not discuss the origin and battles of the greatest war the Library has ever seen? In that moment, it struck me — if I could never remember those moments again, I would take the opportunity in a heartbeat.

I felt the yank on my collar again. I whipped around. It was Brother, hastily pulling me towards him and chittering worriedly.

I dragged myself up, stumbling forward as one of his hands remained clamped around my cloak in a vice-grip. We rushed forward, in the direction of the other end of the Main Hall. The small, one-on-one battles flowed around us like water. A few figures rushed at us, but a swing from one of Brother’s hands sent them flying. The thinness of his limbs betrayed his incredible strength and speed.

At a certain point I felt my legs go limp as I was simply pulled forward by him through the fray, swinging wildly. He was rushing to the rear of the Main Hall, where the Ways led out. Now, they lay utterly absent of portals and new entries. During the Searing, the Way network had famously begun to lead Wanderers astray, chewing them up and spitting them back out malformed — or not at all.

Shoving a pair of wrestling warriors out of the way and into a nearby table, Brother did something with his remaining hands, forming some sort of array and pushing outward. A dozen lengths ahead of us and a few lengths up, a dim Way began to form out of the air, a a small ring of energy. That was impossible. Ways didn’t work during the Searing. But then, all of this was impossible.

He chittered something at me. I didn’t understand any of it, of course, but the look in his four tortured eyes was enough to get the message.

“But what about you?”

If he understood me in turn, he gave no reaction. Simply wound his arm back and swung forward, releasing me and sending me flying forward in the direction of the Way.

But, as I flew through the air, I turned for a second. Brother was gone, melting into the vast, violent crowd. Instead, my eyes fell on the table he had thrown the figures in our path into. It was the same dark-brown, wide square table that one could find countless copies of in the Main Hall. But this one… its corner was broken. Sheared off in such a way and curvature as though someone’s head had been driven through the corner.

The last thing I saw before I fell head-over-heels through the Way was the very same table that my Brother had sent that Hand member’s head through, a thousand years after any of this happened.

Then darkness took my vision.

I stumbled out of the way in the Main Hall. But pure. There was no battlefield, no fires, no grand bloody conflict. Just… patrons studying in droves. A few laughing and joking with each other, most silent. Archivists seated at the Librarian’s Desk, approving Library Cards. Docents skulking near the back, shushing the excessively-loud — no noose-lanterns or wild eyes. Pages swung from the upper shelves, carrying books under their arms.

Brother wasn’t among them.

For hours afterward, I had to confront the possibility that it was a dream. Perhaps the book had hit me, causing a nightmare — someone, a kind patron or Docent, saw me and chose to deliver me to the Main Hall. It made sense, I decided — certainly more sense that falling through time and back again.

But when I looked down and saw the bruising where I had been dragged by my cloak, my fingers on all four hands rubbed raw from scraping against the stone of the crawlspace, the smattering of burns and scrapes, it was clear to me that I could not deny what happened.

I set about finding sources — reading what few books and treatises on the searing I could find. Memoirs. Essays. Then I moved on to breathing sources. None of the scholars I spoke to could corroborate an experience like mine. Most dismissed me out of hand. “The Searing is an age better left in our history,” they said. “There is nothing to fear from the events of centuries past.”

The Searing was the greatest breakdown of the Laws of the Library that had ever occurred. It is not out of the question, to me, that the laws of time could be among them. I see no other explanation for how that table, broken centuries after the Searing, could have been in the hall — or why I have not seen Brother in the months since that event.

The Searing is not as firmly in our past as some say it is.

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