Cold And Cruel

rating: +10+x

I never had very many friends growing up.

I was the kind of obnoxious, outdoorsy kid, the one who always had scrapes on her knees and elbows, the short, uneven nails, the messily cut short hair. I grew out of phases just a little too late, I smiled and laughed just a little too loud.

In fifth grade, that changed, just a bit.

I grew up in a rather small town, surrounded by trees on all sides, except for the coast. Sometimes we got tourists in the summer. Only once, did one of those tourist families decide to stay.

The Varenes family was perfectly normal. They arrived quietly, and asserted themselves in the most mundane fashion possible. With them, they had a single daughter— a girl named Amie. She was unremarkable in every way. Long, brown hair that usually stayed in some kind of bun, large glasses that made her eyes seem just a bit too large for her face, and clothes that were just a bit too formal for elementary school.

What I’m trying to say is, she got made fun of a lot.

It didn't help that Amie wasn’t very happy about her life suddenly being upended, and it showed. She spent a good chunk of September hiding in the shady, overgrown part of our old playground. I spent a good chunk of September there too, collecting sticks and making little huts for any creatures that lived in the trees.

Maybe that was why, while I was walking around with the biggest stick I could find, swinging it around haphazardly to keep myself warm in the late September air, she decided to finally talk to me. We’d spent a good while in silence, after all.

I turned as I swung that branch, and that’s when I hit her— right in the stomach. She stumbled back, as did I. We were both startled by her sudden appearance, and I had no idea how she’d gotten over from her position under the decaying monkey bars to the edge of the playground so fast.

“Sorry!” I practically yelled, dropping my accidental weapon. “I didn’t mean it, don’t tell Ms—”

“It’s fine.” Amie interrupted, standing back up as if nothing happened. “I like your boots.”

My yellow rain boots were at their wits end— color fading, shine long gone, still just a little too big, since I was supposed to grow into them instead of wear them out.

“Thanks. I like your sweater.”

“I don’t.” Amie responded, looking down at her outfit with a slight scowl. “I hate it. We had cooler clothes at home.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

I didn’t question what ‘home’ was at the time. Any questions I would have had would have been answered by what happened next, anyway. Without saying another word, Amie grabbed my hand, and dragged me to the edge of the playground, right to the threshold that led into the woods.

She stood there, staring at it blankly. She didn’t even look at me when she spoke again. “Can you keep secrets? Big secrets? The kind that you can’t ever, ever, ever tell anyone?”

I nodded, because I didn’t have anyone I could tell any secrets to, anyway.

“Do you like books?” She asked. I scrunched up my nose, and shook my head.

“Do you want to? I know how to find a book even people who don’t like reading enjoy.”

“…Sure.” I respond, unsure what else I could say. Amie raised her hand towards the trees the moment I said that. The air grew warmer, and wind seemed to rush in from the forest. I will admit, I was pretty startled by that, and so I glanced behind me— only to see that the playground at my back seemed to have some kind of warbling, translucent barrier over it, stopping me from running… or maybe, stopping others from seeing.

I looked back just in time to see the forest past the treeline shifting. Trunks and branches forming together into a circle, moving impossibly until they made a long tunnel, warm light shining from the other side.

“I can feel when these things are nearby. Mom and dad say it’s because we’re not from here. Now come on, we only have ten minutes before recess is over.”

I nodded, and allowed Amie to drag me through the strange tunnel. As we moved, I could see the light morph into something… much more understandable. A large clearing in a sea of impossibly tall bookshelves greeted us as we stepped out, my muddy boots somehow not staining the pristine white floors. Amie released my hand.

“Don’t yell if you get scared, or I won’t be able to help you.” She said, before walking forward, off into the bookshelves.

I looked up. There was a glass dome on the ceiling, but I didn’t see any sky, just blinding white. After a few seconds, my eyes started to burn, and so I looked back down, and followed my friend into the aisles.

“We can’t go too far. What kind of stories do you like?”

I didn’t respond for a few seconds, thinking as hard as I could. I didn’t listen to many stories, written or otherwise— except for one kind— the kind my uncle would tell me in between his travels. He’d won the lottery by chance a few years ago, and spent his money traveling the whole world. I loved listening to his tales of far off sights. They were the only thing that could ever grab my attention.

“I like stories about places.”

“Places to explore?”

“Yeah.”

Amie stopped walking, and placed her hand over her mouth. I moved to stand beside her, watching as she made a noise like rustling paper. The rustling was recuperated, and before I knew it, a long, spindly creature was hanging in front of us. I almost fell backwards, and quickly covered my own mouth, so I didn't scream.

She was perfectly calm as the creature reached out an appendage. She looked at me, the beginnings of a smile inching onto her face. “You’re lucky, that’s exactly the kind of stuff this shelf holds. Pages don’t usually do this, but give it your hand, it will know which book here is perfect for you. I bet it’s on a high shelf.”

Slowly, I reached out, placing my hand in the creature’s. It froze, unearthly still for just a few moments, before skittering off into the sky. It returned with a small, orange book in its hands.

I took it gingerly, making sure to use both hands. It seemed to radiate a kind of power that my young age couldn’t quite place or express. Amie’s expression was a full blown smile now— a grin typical of my other classmates.

“River, I’m going to be the one technically checking this out for you, so when you’re done with it, give it to me. If for some reason you can’t find me, come back to the playground and put it next to the trees— they’ll understand.”

I nodded, and Amie led me back out, through the mystical tunnel, and back to our ordinary playground. She waved to me, and rushed to her teacher as the bell to go inside sounded.

There’s a part of me that wants to start lying here. I want to tell you that Amie and I became lifelong friends, and that we were inseparable.

But we weren’t. There are forces out there that ensure inseparable things separate.

We had the rest of the school year, and the summer. We made another friend— Claire— right before winter break.

The three of us spent our recesses— and days— in that library. If we had a free Saturday, we’d run off into the woods and spend as much time as we could without our parents getting worried.

The other library visitors would notice us, in time. A man in a green cloak, who was familiar with Amie, would often teach us about the library itself, how it would connect to other worlds. He told us we couldn’t venture off into those worlds yet, though. We’d have to wait until we were older.

Clarie was starry eyed at the whole thing. She wrote down everything she saw in a little sparkly purple notebook. I myself picked up drawing, and spent a lot of time drawing the different people I met.

Amie told us more things about herself, too. That June, as we sat in front of the threshold eating popsicles, she told us that she wasn’t human. That she was from another world. Claire’s green eyes sparkled at that, and she went to take out her notebook, but Amie stopped her. She told her that this story was far too personal to be penned.

I listened intently as she went into detail— that she was actually, impossibly, from another world, one where the beings were made of plant life, as well as humans. She described it as a world totally in harmony with nature, that the lines between nature of society weren’t ever quite drawn.

She then told us that this was an issue for people in this world, that there were groups that wanted to hide her away. Amie explained that while some people wanted to help her, like those in the library, they could only do so much.

Amie began to cry, her tears hitting the almost sun dried grass and causing it to spring up into tiny, healthy flowers. I hardly paid attention to that. Amie wasn’t an anomaly to me, she was my friend— we were children awaiting our next year of school, nothing more.

So I hugged her, and Clarie followed suit. The three of us shared tears as Amie poured out her anxieties. She said everyone would be forced to forget her, that no trace of her existence could or would ever be found… Then, she dug in her pockets, and pulled out two small, round roots.

“They’ll make you drink water. They’ll show up at your door and make you drink it, then ask questions about me. If I ever disappear, eat this, and then go with what they say. It’ll protect you, but it might make you sick.”

I took one, and Clarie took the other. We both stared at each other for a moment, before putting the roots in our pockets.

“We won’t actually have to use it though, right? Nothing bad will //really happen to you, right?” Clarie pressed, but Amie shook her head.

“No, you will someday. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, but… it’ll happen eventually.” Amie replied. “I might be able to escape, but they’ll take your memories either way.”

We were silent for a very long time after that, fidgeting nervously while the revelation sunk in. Then, I spoke up, and asked if we could go to the library. We spent the rest of the afternoon there.

A week later, and just like Amie said, it happened.

It was late at night. I was asleep in my bed, a book I’d checked out from the library beside me. It was a tale of adventure they didn’t print in this universe, so it felt pretty special that I got to read it. I was woken up, though, by the sound of pounding at my window. My bedroom was on the first floor of the house, and so it was pretty easy for someone to sneak into the backyard and see into my room. I was supposed to keep my curtains closed because of it, but I never did.

I opened my eyes to see Amie, her hands wound up in fists, pounding at my window. I immediately sprung up, throwing open the glass, and running back to my nightstand to shine a light on her. I could hardly see her in the dark, after all.

She looked different… less human, less… normal.

Her skin had faint, deep green, vine-like patterns on it, her eyes were just a bit too vibrant, and her irises seemed less round than they should be. Her faint freckles were now an almost luminescent white, too— and she had the beginnings of antlers growing from her head, barely peeking out from her messy hair. She was still in her pajamas, and looked absolutely shaken.

“Amie—“ I started, but she reached over and slammed her hand over my mouth.

“I don’t know what to do. They… something, at my house… dad transformed back. So did I. They came in… Got mom and dad. I don’t know what’ll happen to mom, mom’s human. I ran. They told me to run to the library if this happened. Please. Help me get there. Be quiet. Be fast.”

I heard running as soon as she was done speaking… heavy footsteps, and a lot of them.

I turned off my flashlight, made sure to put the root I’d kept on my bedside drawer in my pocket, and climbed out the window.

We were lucky the woods in my backyard led almost directly into the playground. We’d have to cross one road, but for the most part we’d be covered.

We didn’t say another word, we just ran. The footsteps faded for a few minutes, swallowed by the darkness and the messy overgrowth from a patch of trees no one but Amie and I cared about. About halfway through our run, I glanced behind me to check on her— only to see that she was leaving a trail of flowers and vines.

“They’re gonna be able to follow us, you have to stop!” I yelled back to her, hardly able to control the volume of my voice over my fear.

“I can’t!” She cried back. “But they can’t get in the library, so we just have to outrun them! Please don’t stop moving, River!”

I didn’t stop moving. I didn’t stop when I heard the footsteps again, I didn’t stop when I heard a radio crackle and a man barking orders in code I didn’t understand, and I didn’t stop as we reached the road— only to see the lights of a car parked right in the middle. We were trapped.

Footsteps fast approaching, Amie behind me, the two of us were trapped. I had no clue as to what I could do, and I wanted to scream in frustration.

Amie’s expression fell to a blank, and she quietly waved her hand to a bundle of trees and bushes, making the bushes grow just a bit more, but not in a way to draw suspicion.

She looked at me, and whispered in a cracking, heartbroken tone that I will never forget.

“Hide.”

“What about you?” I asked, but she just shook her head.

“It’s ok. Hide. The library welcomes you. It always will. Use it.”

She grabbed my wrist, pulling me towards the bush. With the footsteps growing louder, I finally relented, my own self preservation kicking in. I quickly nestled into the bush as deep as I could. Amie smiled at me, before turning her head to the direction of the noise. The bush’s branches began to shift as she did, before they covered my view entirely.

I heard shouting. A lot of “entity secured,” and needless questioning. They weren’t exactly rude or mean to her. They were monotone, almost businesslike, as if this was an ordinary, expected transaction.

From what I could gather, a few of the people escorted Amie away— while around three others stayed behind, probably collecting samples of the grass from the way they were talking. I heard one say something along the lines of, “the thing could have hurt someone with this much uncontrollable growth.”

They were gone quickly. I heard the car leaving. I stayed in that bush until the sun started to breach the horizon— not crying, not moving, hardly breathing. Processing what had happened that night was a years long venture.

But, as the sun rose, I stood up, and walked back home, tucking myself into bed so my parents could wake me up. I started school in a week, after all.

The next two days were filled with gossip as to where the Varenes family went. Then, the “FBI” came to discuss the disappearance and father more information. Everyone had to be interviewed, after all— this was a dangerous and high profile case, so a lot of information was needed. They managed to do it in an entire afternoon. I ate the root right before the van showed up at my house. It was bitter, and I almost threw up, but I kept it down and hid my nausea by the time my parents were done being interviewed.

The man in a suit gave me a rubix cube and a box of juice. I didn’t recognize the brand. I tried not to drink it at first, but he pressed, gently asking me if I liked juice, and that he was trying to decide if this was a good brand. He needed my opinion, he said.

I relented. It tasted like chemicals, but I pretended I didn’t notice.

He was none the wiser to Amie’s plan as he asked me questions.

“Did you know Amie very well?”

I lied. “No, I didn’t. She didn’t like talking to people.”

He nodded, smiling in a way that was both sincere and fake, like this was a normal conversation about school, but also a scripted scene in a bad movie. “I was the same way as a kid. I liked to read a lot. Your mom says you’ve started to like to read too. What got you into it?”

“I saw Amie reading sometimes.”

“Did she ever read anything… weird?”

I shook my head. “No, not really. She checked out books from the school library, but I think they kind of bored her. She must read a lot of books. Maybe everything’s similar for her now.”

“Maybe!” He laughed, leaning in just a bit closer, hardly hiding his attempts to stare at my eyes. “Did you know Amie very well?”

I paused for a moment, staring back at him in confusion. Hadn’t he already asked this question? Why was he—

And then it clicked. I had to fake losing my memory. So, in my most innocent voice, I tilted my head very slightly, and asked, almost dazed, “Who’s Amie?”

The man stood up, pulled out his phone, and made a call as he stepped out the door.

No one mentioned the Varenes again. No one mentioned the men in the vans again. Every school art project Amie made was gone, her name scrubbed from the school halls, her sidewalk chalk drawings cleaned off, the garden in her backyard dug up and replaced with mulch. Amie had vanished from existence in the span of a few days, and no one even noticed.

No one but Clarie and I.

We tried everything to get back into the library, but it never worked. Whatever Amie had done to open the door for us, we didn’t know how to do. Maybe it was tied to her abilities somehow, or maybe she had lied to me that night, and the library didn’t actually accept us. I turned in my book by leaving it at the threshold.

Sixth grade was a pain. Life was just as it was before I met my new friend, but now I was left with a gaping hole of grief in my heart, and only one other person in the entire world shared it. We coped together, for a while, trying to keep our friend’s memory alive with plants, art, and music— the creative things she loved, the lifeblood she fed into our town that now bled out and died in her absence.

Sadly, that year came and went, and cliques became ever present in life. I resisted it, but Clarie took to it perfectly fine, finding herself in the high achieving, honor roll crowd. She succeeded in science, started a robotics club, and our talks stopped with a jarring halt, reduced to knowing glances in the halls until even those fell into empty stares.

As for myself, the world chose my clique— an outcast, nobody. I was the weirdo girl who didn’t speak unless spoken to, I was the girl who wore shorts in the winter, I was the girl who showed up to prom in a worn hoodie, muddy sneakers, and jeans. I was the girl who still thought her imaginary friend Amie was real.

I was whatever they needed me to be, and I brushed it off as best as I could. By sophomore year, I’d already made a plan. I was going to find the library again. I vaguely remembered what to look for, after all. Anywhere that felt a little too surreal, anywhere that felt like a transition, anywhere that could serve as some kind of gate or door.

I planned my getaway carefully and swiftly. I’d run the moment I turned sixteen. It was going to be a pain to keep the cops off my back long enough to find a way to the library, but it would be worth it once I got there. Once I learned how it worked better, I could evade as much as I wanted.

I’m not proud of the toll this took on my relationship with my family. We’d slowly grown distant since the Varenes family vanished, but now it was at a snapping point. I was short with my parents, polite but quick to cut off interaction at the first chance I got. I was busy with homework, or going out to garden, or heading to the house of a friend that didn’t exist. I was never just around to talk, I was never just able to sit and watch a movie, or play a board game. No, I was growing up, I was busy.

My parents didn’t even try for my sixteenth birthday. I got a card and a quiet, “we love you,” but nothing more.

That night, I slipped out, and trekked across town to Clarie’s house. I threw rocks at her window until she threw it open, glaring eyes looking at me with none of the friendliness from our childhood.

“What, River?” She asked, leaning against her windowsill, chin resting on her hand. “It’s midnight.”

“I’m going to find Amie. I figured you deserved to know— and, uh, you can come with me if you want, but you should probably know there’s not gonna be any coming back here.”

Clarie scoffed at me, rolling her eyes with the most annoyed, entitled huff I’d ever heard. “Right. She’s gone, River. We shouldn’t have ever eaten that stupid plant, it’s only caused us problems. Go home, forget her, the hard way.”

Clarie slammed her window shut. I didn’t linger. The moment I heard the slam, I turned, and walked down to the bus stop.

The rest of that day was spent hopping buses. My funds ran out quickly, until I landed in the nearest city with nothing to my name. I was really, really lucky, though— because after a few days of cowering under buildings to hide from the spring rain, I found a food truck owner who really needed a hand. I didn’t get paid a whole lot for this, but I did get to see a lot of people, and I was allowed to watch the food truck at night— meaning I had shelter.

I was doubly lucky, because after about a month, I met a young man in a green hoodie, who had a snake tattoo on his arm. I remembered him from the library. He hadn’t aged a day. Though, I think he recognized me before I did him— he ran up to the truck in such a way that told me he was pretty shocked to see me.

He handed me a note as he paid for his food.

“Meet me at the back of the Italian restaurant on Anderson Street this evening. If a worker questions you, tell them you know a great recipe. They’ll get it.”

Cryptic? Yes. A kidnapping? Probably! A lead? Maybe. I had no choice, I had to follow up with the note.

So I did, creeping out after the end of my shift. I knew the way to Anderson Street well, and slid into the dimly lit back alley without issue. I saw the man sitting on the steps to the back door of the restaurant, staring at the ground. He perked up when he saw me, and stood, rushing over. He slammed his hands on my shoulder, shaking me ever so slightly. I had to admit it took everything in my power not to scream in fear.

“River?! River, kiddo, is that you? By the flame, you’ve gotten so big! Has it really been so long? Gods, the years are blurring together!” He laughed, stepping back and running a finger through his hair. “My word, I’m so sorry, you must not remember me, do you? The amnestics would surely have—“

I raised my hand to stop his ranting. “I remember you. You’re that guy in the green cloak. You told us about other universes.”

His face lit up once more, and he laughed, in a slightly exasperated and vaguely unhinged way. It was like he was both stressed and relieved at the same time. “Aha! You clever girls, I knew you would have found a way to slip past anything those Jailers threw at you! Applause, River, applause!” He smacked his hands together for emphasis. “It fills me with nothing but the greatest joys to hear this! Why, I’ll write a song about this, and when I return to Revera, I’ll sing for all of its capital to hear! This strife is nothing but fables to them!”

I stood there nervously, and the man sighed, demeanor calming into a vague seriousness. He walked back over to the steps he was sitting on, retrieving his bag from… nowhere. It just appeared the moment he grabbed it.

“Now, now, River— wonderful name, that— they would call you the waters of life back in the era where fairytales roamed free— I believe it is my duty to guide you on your journey. So, tell me, where does fate call you? Don’t be shy! Whatever calling it is, I shall not judge!”

I took a breath, shifting on my feet. Did I trust this guy? Did I seriously, actually trust him? Did I really have a choice? He was my best chance. Possibly my only chance.

“Amie was taken. I want to find her, and save her. Do you know how?”

He paused, almost totally frozen solid in a dramatic motion. Then, he practically deflated, and shook his head. “Ah, the path of the hero— River, River, innocent River…” He began to dig into his bag, continuing to talk. “I will help you, as I promised, but I will warn you. The way you will go about this will involve abandoning all you know. You will become an enemy to the forces of the world— the forces that keep this place as it is, the forces that make your reality make sense.

He pulled out a small, silver wand from his bag, almost shaped like a unicorn horn. I thought it was a toy at first, but considering what I’ve seen…

“Now, do you fear nonsense?” He asked, reaching out the wand for me to take. I didn’t say anything, simply grasping the other end. He smiled, more apologetic, less erratic. “I worry for you, on this path, but I know you are strong enough to weather it. I’ve seen many people walk your road, and their outcomes were all different. Some were careless, and were caught. Some were glorious, and lived long, fulfilling lives in the depths of the incomprehensible. I’ve sung all their praises, and I’m sure you will be no different. Now!”

He turned, gesturing towards the brick wall to our right. “This is a Way! Notice, if you will, the cracks in the wall, how they make an arch! It is lowkey and subtle, Ambrose Restaurant’s speciality! It will lead us into the Wanderer’s Library, but only if we review this fine establishment five stars on Restaurant Reviews dot com! Are you up for the task? It is a daunting one, but consider it your first trial of many!”

He then proceeded to take out his phone. I stood there, glancing away awkwardly. I never owned a cellphone at this point. It never interested me, even though I knew it was going to be essential eventually.

“Oh, do you not have a phone?! Woe, woe upon you! If you did not have your good friend with you, then the Bookburners surely would have found you by now!”

As he tapped on his phone a bit more, it dawned upon me that I’d never caught this guy’s name. Though, considering how he talked, and acted… it was possible he actually just didn’t have a name to give me.

He held out his phone to me, and I gently took it. I was on a webpage with information on the restaurant behind us, and a simple screen to review it. I pressed the fifth star, and the crack in the wall seemed to glow, the inside of the little arch filling with a bright light. It contrasted against the waning evening, and made me look away in surprise.

“If you’ve ever wondered why a place has so many good reviews, you now know the answer!”

With that, my guide leaned back into the glowing gateway, falling through without a care. I followed, sticking my foot in cautiously. When I didn’t feel anything, I tried my arm, and then my head— which seemed to, for lack of a better term, teleport me, since the next thing I knew, I was standing in a small corner, facing a few plush chairs and a single coffee table… surrounded by bookshelves lining the corner, and leading out into a maze of books I couldn’t see past. The walls were gray, and the ceiling held normal lights— it was really similar to my local library, in all honesty. It wasn’t that crazy, not like the library I remembered from my childhood…

My guide was already filming through one of the shelves in the corner behind me, and I turned. He didn’t look at me, instead raising up a book for me to see. “This is what I was hoping to find. A Weaver’s Guide To Bestowing Power!”

“…Ok… what’s a weaver?” I asked, approaching slowly to inspect the book a little closer. It looked about five minutes away from becoming dust, but I could tell it was once blue, and probably handmade.

“I am! It’s like— oh, well, I suppose the best way to describe it is that occasionally, we appear, we live forever, and we tell tales of what we’ve seen. We weavers have a bit of power— mainly the ability to bestow power onto others— only to ensure that fate stays its course, and it’s not a lot of power, mind you! I can’t make you a god.”

“I don’t think I want to be a god anyway…”

He laughed, a short quick one. “Oh, no, you don’t! The politics of godhood has a very long history. If you were to jump in now, I am afraid you would upset the gentle push and pull of the divine, or be collectively smited. The good news is, many of them are dead, so if your travels do lead you to godhood, you won’t have to meet as many gods as you would have about two hundred eras ago.”

“Right…”

He shook his head, turning to face me once more. “Now, I need some time to read this over to ensure I’m doing this properly, and you need somewhere to stay that is not in the middle of some city, so why don’t we head to a place of safety? Or, well, a place of safety with a hotel room and a hot breakfast the next morning. We’ll have to travel through just two Ways to get there!”

He said that, but it was definitely more than two. The locations were mostly different areas of the library— a Way nearby lead to a grassy clearing with a Way that lead to a jungle, which lead to a beach in a void, and the water lead to a small building, which lead to a city in a night sky colored void, swirling and contorting but never quite breaking.

I was exhausted by the time we made it to the hotel, and I was starting to process the insanity of the past few hours. By the time my guide left me alone in the room he’d bought me, the shock had just about worn off.

I didn’t find regret on the other side of that shock, though. I wasn’t blaming myself for carelessness, or wishing to return home. In fact, it was determination I felt— and a bit of excitement, too. I thought what I’d seen of the world before was what I would get. Besides Amie’s existence and what little I knew about the library, the world made sense, it had a set of rules and boundaries that I didn’t think were breakable.

Even then, I knew I had only just scratched the surface of this strange side of reality. It could get more fantastical, I knew it.

I wish I could say my journey to save Amie was swift and successful. I wish I could say my guide bestowed upon me enough power to fight anything that came at me, but… that didn’t happen. My journey came to a crawl, almost a halt, there.

I was given power, sure, but it was minor. I could cast a few spells with my new wand, though I was told the power wasn’t from myself, it was the wand that held the strength. My guide apologized for that, simply telling me I was “too painfully human to be able to withstand such things.”

The good news from that, though, was that I didn’t have to deal with backlash— which, my teacher at a little pocket dimension called Ravenbrook told me was usually a natural consequence of casting magic. Still, she was diligent in teaching me properly, and through hard work, study, and pure luck, I managed to get a pretty decent grip on basic manipulation of the world around me.

The rest of my teen years went like that. My guide dropped me off at Ravenbrook the next day, and I spent the year studying, learning how to spot Ways, figure out their knocks, and other general things that anyone who had lived in this world for more than a few months would know.

As time went on, of course, I was shown more— more time exploring the library, a library card of my own. I learned of other universes in detail, where I could go to find what, and who I could talk to. I learned of groups to trust, groups to distrust, and groups to be cautious with. The other side of the veil, as I learned it was called, had quite a complex system.

That wasn’t the only thing I learned, though. I learned I had a passion for photography from a girl who lived in a universe where the Jailers revealed themselves, but still held up the veil. She gave me a Polaroid that never ran out of film before she moved to a land where angels grew blue lilies. I gained a love of painting from a woman with ten arms, and the ability to sing with cats. I learned how to play a lyre from my guide. Then, when I was eighteen, I dedicated myself to the Serpent’s Hand.

Of course, my story with Amie wasn’t unique. How could it be? There were multiple Jailers, multiple worlds.

I made myself busy with helping people. The tasks ranged from simply buying supplies to raiding small Jailer strongholds— mostly to get back the stray few personal belongings back.

Well, until one day, when I was visiting a wing of the library that was like an old, forgotten temple, with cracked stone walls and thriving vines almost holding it up. I saw a group of people sitting at an aged wooden table, arguing in between the occasional shuffle of a page. I didn’t pay much mind until one of them mentioned a ‘humanoid containment site.’

There was no way it could possibly be the one Amie was being kept in, but I had to ask. So, I approached, and sat down next to a person with bright orange hair and intense red eyes.

“I can open up a portal for us. I can practically do anything we need.” They said, to which a girl in a faded college sweatshirt shook her head.

“Check your ego, buddy. You know what they say isn’t true.”

“And you’re acting like it is by saying that. You’re off the team.”

The girl in the sweatshirt scrunched up her nose. “I was never on the team. Good luck, Ash.” She said, promptly standing up and leaving.

Ash looked over at me, halfheartedly waving. “Relax, I’m totally chill. Elizabeth’s just bought into too much Bookburner propaganda. You alter your appearance once and suddenly everyone’s on edge.”

I nodded, glancing around the rest of the table. It was a small group, mostly of young people wearing clothing that definitely belonged at a convention, if it belonged anywhere in front of the veil.

“We’re planning to raid a humanoid containment site, if uh, you didn’t know that, by the fact you came over while we were fighting about it. It’s not just us, it’s gonna be like… fifty some hand members? I have a list of people contained, too.”

“…Names?” I asked, and Ash immediately shook their head.

“No, no, god. They don’t care for names. If you happen to know someone’s number, though… though, this site also has a weird designation system, it’s different from the norm…”

My gaze snapped towards the ground. Amie was absolutely assigned to a number, I knew that— as to which number, I had no way of knowing or finding out. Still, I’d have to do something like this at some point to save her, and I wanted to save other people like her— so I had no reservations.

“We’ll find who we can. I’m in.”

Ash grinned, a wide, genuine, toothy smile that I’ll never forget. They rode a contagious high of victory that spread through the group quickly. I tried not to let it cloud my judgement, though. I wasn’t about to go in thinking I was invincible.

“We ride at dawn. Meet me back here tomorrow to discuss the plan, then we’ll leave.” They said, standing up and motioning for their little group to follow.

That was a hard night. I slept on a couch posted up in the corner of a quiet wing— well, I hardly slept. Instead I stared at the purple, firefly-like entities that flooded this area during its “night” phase.

It’s not like I didn’t sleep in the library often. Actually, I basically lived inside of it at this point, leaving my little nest that my guide had placed me in. It wasn’t like I meant to do that, of course, but just like back in my hometown, I drifted away without too much care. It was hard for me to pin myself down, even more so now. I’d frequented so many fantastical places, and none of them ever quite fit me. I was human, it was strange to stay in a city of angels. I wasn’t a true magician, it was weird to stay in a little pocket dimension of them. I wasn’t anything but someone on a mission that had a low success chance.

But still, I wanted to stay the course.

Even if I never met my goal, even if I never saw Amie again, even if I never felt like I quite “belonged,” I found myself in love with this place. I found myself enjoying the adventure, the sights and sounds, the people, the magic. I wanted to stay, I wanted to help and understand in ways that weren’t quantifiable by numbers, or metrics— I wanted to understand with my heart, to connect to others even for very, very fleeting moments.

It hit me right there. Amie knew. She knew she’d be found, she knew her family would be torn apart. Her family could have lived in the library, or in a Freeport, or a place that was safe… but they chose that small town. They chose the boring world in front of the veil. They chose simplicity. They chose normalcy.

Tears streamed down my face, and the small purple glows trailed down to brush against my face. I didn’t even acknowledge them, or my stuttering, barely audible sobs.

This feeling of wonder, of excitement, of vastness that welcomed every part of me without judgement— did Amie feel the same way, back then? Did the mundane world of humanity touch their hearts like their world touched mine?

The creak at the edge of town, the chases after the ice cream truck as it missed our street— the boardwalk during the fair, lit up with fluorescent lights and cheap carnival rides— the rides on the back of Clarie’s dad’s truck… was all of that magic to her? Was showing her side of the world to us a form of magic for her? I didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure I ever would. Right then, I had to focus on tomorrow.

I met the group at a small, indistinct Way the next day. It was hidden in between shelves that looked like planet overgrowth, labeled with a small wooden sign that held warnings in several languages not native to earth.

Ash was dressed for the occasion, wearing a fancy button up shirt, a flowing cape, and extravagant boots. With confidence and grace, they walked up to the door, and spun around to address the group. I adjusted my jacket and tried to look strong.

“I see we’ve got a lot of strong folks today. I’m thrilled at this turnout.” They said, a smirk of pure, uncaring delight spreading across their face. “Today’s the day for action— explosions, fighting, daring acts of bravery! If you’re not loyal to the Serpent in every form, you better get the hell out of here!” Ash swept their hand across themselves, sending tiny, swirling flames into the air that dissolved swiftly.

A young man next to me dug in his jeans pocket, pulling out a small lighter, and a handful of smoke bombs— the kind you’d get around the Fourth of July, but something told me they were a little different.

“What’s your plan?” A familiar voice spoke up from behind me, and I turned my head. A certain someone in a green cloak was lingering in the back, arms crossed causally. Ash smiled, and spoke again.

“I’ll use a little trick I picked up to make the researchers think I’m right where I’m meant to be. With them none the wiser, I’ll get to the control room, and pull some strings to open some doors. Pretty sure the doctors call it memetic— we’ll call it… a light spell of mind control.”

Mind control? That didn’t exactly seem… well, ethical. Compromising free will like that was small potatoes compared to some of the other stuff I’d heard, but it still struck me as wrong.

My guide weaved his way over to stand next to me, elbowing me in the arm before whispering. “Don’t worry. We play dirty with the Jailers, but they play dirty back. A little memetic hazard won’t even phase them.

But wouldn’t this just be—“ I started, but was cut off by a shake of my guide’s head.

Stooping to their level? River, please. You’re a pure hearted one, I understand, but this is… a little more complex. This mission is a dangerous one, they don’t take humanoid containment lightly.

I relented with a nod, and my guide smiled softly, almost apologetic. A docet passed behind us, its lantern's glow flashing over Ash for just a moment. It almost emboldened them, because they spoke up once again. “Well, are we ready?”

No cheers came from the group. We were in a library, after all— but a majority did nod. Ash took that as a sign, and they turned, stepping through the Way with ease. We followed.

The Way led us to the edge of a massive snowy forest. The cold wind biting at my cheeks was my first indication of just where we were. Somewhere cold, isolated, where running without a clue of where the nearest civilization was would lead to death… or maybe, even if you knew, it would still be too far to make a journey.

My hand reached into my boot, and I pulled out my wand. Its energy pulsed reassuringly in my hand, warming almost my entire arm. I felt my guide’s eyes on me, not judging nor reassuring. He was simply observing, memorizing my movements into his eternal memory so that he could carry it to the future.

The site was a far distance off, hardly visible in the fog… definitely not natural fog.

Ash didn’t seem bothered. They smiled back at us, and stepped out from the tree line. “You’ll know the signal when I give it. When you see it, just go ahead and charge. The front door will be open.”

Ash swept a hand over their face. I couldn’t place it, but something in the air changed instantly once they did so. It felt heavier, as if there was some kind of heavy cloth over everything… and it tasted, ever so faintly, like chemicals… Yet visibly, there was no real change. Ash didn’t look different, and I still saw them as themselves.

I didn’t have time to think about it. They turned on their heels, and walked towards the site. That left me with maybe a few minutes to mentally prepare myself. The tense silence didn’t help.

Somewhere between five minutes and five hours later, a stream of fire flashed from the ceiling. An instant after that, loud alarms started blaring. A girl dressed in flowy wrappings rushed forward, moving so fast towards the entrance she seemed to be flickering in and out of existence. A college student with a baseball bat followed her, and he was trailed by my guide. I was the next to unfreeze. I leaped into the air as I entered the clearing, flicking my wand at the ground. Like clockwork, a stream of ice flowed onto the ground, and I landed, riding it a good distance so that I could catch up.

The stronghold came into view as we approached. Like Ash said, the front gate was wide open, and the guards knew that. Of course there were gunshots that ensued, but I hardly saw them, mostly because the young man with those smoke bombs from earlier had instantly set them off. I was right about them being unusual. They produced a lot of smoke quickly, and far too much for their size.

“Damn it, James!” Someone called, and I felt a chilled hand grab my wrist. In a second, we were blazing through the gate, a dizzying mix of teleportation and speed that I couldn’t keep up with.

“Where are we going?!” I asked, haphazardly twisting to look behind me to fire a beam of energy at what I assumed was a silhouette of a guard.

“Right to our goal! The faster we get there, the less likely they are to be prepared! They want us to stall at the gate.”

Ducking, weaving, teleporting, hiding. The labyrinth swallowed us whole within minutes, until all that remained as evidence of the chaos was the red, flashing lights that illuminated the concrete, windowless halls. Our race came to a stop there, at an intersection in the hall.

The woman let go of my hand, stepping forward. She turned her head to look at me with a solemn nod. “We split up here. Do what you think is right, but try to make sure you can get outta here on time. May Mekhane guide you.”

“Got it. Good luck to you, too.”

She nodded, and with a flash, vanished down the right hall, labeled “Sector B.” That left me with its counterpart, Sector C. I swept my wand in the air, and got moving, walking quickly but cautiously. There didn’t seem to be any guards here, most likely spread far too thin, but I had no idea, and no way of finding out.

The hall was lined with doors, labeled with names… offices, clearly, but none of them seemed occupied. The lights weren’t on, and the windows revealed eerily still rooms— at least, most of them, until I got ready to pass a door on my left. It burst open, and out jumped a young woman with a pistol. She aimed it right at my head, and practically barked out her threat.

“Get the hell back, or I shoot!”

Out of survival instinct, I stumbled back, but quickly regained my composure and pointed my wand at her. “Out of my way, or I’ll shoot!”

Her hands trembled on the weapon, and her eyes betrayed her. They welled up with fearful, angry tears. It was hard for me to keep my own composure in the face of it.

Something in her eyes was familiar, though. The single braid at the side of her head, the shine in her eyes, the woven bracelet on her wrist…

Slowly, dangerously, I lowered my wand. My feet felt like they were melding into the ground.

“…Clarie?”

Claire made a sound that felt like a mixture of choking and scoffing. She turned her gaze away, and squeezed her eyes shut. “…Be quiet, River. Just shut up.”

I stared, blankly, numbly. Sne seriously was with the Jailers. She seriously, genuinely, joined the side that imprisoned our friend. I thought— naively assumed— that she’d just leave the other side of the veil behind, and force herself to forget, but… no. She came here.

How dare she? How dare she?!

I pointed my wand right at Clarie’s throat, grabbing her shoulder and slamming her into the wall with a strength I didn’t know I had. My breath staggered, and my vision blurred with red hot tears. “So then, you can tell me… you can tell me where she is. Where’s Amie?”

Claire dropped her gun. It clattered to the floor and reverberated in my ears, breaking the silence that my anger had clouded my senses with. I didn’t budge,

“You won’t find her, River. Not the Amie you’re looking for, anyway.”

“Shut up. Answer me.”

“River.”

Shut up!“ I screamed, pressing the pointed tip of my wand into her neck— not so hard as to hurt her or draw blood, but enough to cause discomfort. I didn’t actually want to kill anyone today.

Claire cringed. “…She’s in the facility. This one, but… by the time I got here, she—“ I could hear the beginnings of sobs in her throat. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, River. I betrayed our promises. But this is… this is what’s right. It’s hard to understand, I know, but—“

I shoved Clarie away, releasing her from my grip. She fell to the floor, and I kicked away the pistol before she had time to grab it.

“Goodbye.”

I turned, and bolted down the hall, making sure to use my wand to raise the floor into a wall between me and my attacker.

The hall led into yet another intersection. I could hear fighting down one of the corridors. I didn’t need to read the labels to know where I was.

My feet hit the ground as I ran, but I didn’t feel it. I hardly felt myself fire beams of energy at guards, sending them flying, but hopefully not killing them. I saw my guide levitating a book in the air, spinning it around in order to fire sparks of light at the guards. He turned to look at me for a brief moment as I dodged past.

“Head into the main room, I think you’ll find something very interesting! First door on your right!”

I nodded, and kept moving. It didn’t take me long to find what he was talking about.

The door was already open, showing a large, circular room with doors all around it. The chaos was almost unbearable. The room was caked in ash and other stray elements, and a good few of my comrades were busy fending off… something. It wasn’t soldiers or guards. It was more wild than that. They were fending off spores and vines.

A person in a heavy overcoat was shot back by a vine that smacked against them, and they slid on the floor, ending up next to me. They recovered their balance, fingers twitching in one hand, and their head in the other. They shot a glance towards me, shaking their head. “Bad news. Apparently, if someone’s contained long enough, they buy into anything. We’re under attack by someone we’re trying to save.”

My gaze shot back up to the center of the room. I could hardly see what was going on through the mix of explosions, beams of water, lightning sparks, and whatever else could be seen through the smoke.

“Got it. I’ll go help.” I said, patting the person on the shoulder. They winced at my touch, and I held back a sigh. They definitely fractured something.

“Good luck, River!”

“Thanks!” I yelled back, running towards the chaos.

As I entered the eye of the storm, I could hear voices, specifically one, a sharp, cracking voice that pierced through my chest. I gripped my wand tighter, and ran towards the source. A figure faded into view, hunched over and breathing heavily.

“Hey, we’re not your enemy! Look, I know this is scary, but—“

The figure shot up, turned towards me, and raised her hand. Another vine burst from the ground, and wrapped itself around me tightly. The air from my lungs slipped right out, and my wand fell to the floor.

“Stay away from me!

The smoke started to clear, and I noticed that I wasn’t the only one suddenly apprehended. It seemed everyone in the room was suddenly caught. Our captor came into full view, her arms stiffly outstretched, her brown hair messy and frazzled, and her orange jumpsuit covered in dirt. She glared up at me, antlers pulsing with light once.

“…What are you idiots doing? Why are you trying to take me away? I’m safe here, it’s— this is the only safe place for me.” She said, her voice slowly losing venom, instead slowly being replaced by helpless fear.

Our eyes stayed locked as she spoke, as if she was looking specifically to me for answers. I couldn’t say anything to her— I could hardly bring myself to breathe.

“I said… what are you doing?“ She repeated, the vine squeezing just a bit tighter. I coughed, and her eyebrows furrowed. “Answer me.”

I tried to say something, anything, at that, but I couldn’t. Not enough air could enter my lungs. She was choking me, whether she knew it or not. I don’t think, because her expression grew more desperate, her voice more shaky.

“Answer me, River. Why did you come here?”

She knew my name.

She knew who I was?

…Of course she did. Why would Amie ever forget me?

I coughed, and my vision started to darken. As much as I wanted to answer her, she wouldn’t let me. So, since my words couldn’t reach her, I did the only thing I could do.

I smiled the brightest, most enthusiastic smile I could.

Her expression fell to blank shock, and I felt the constriction loosen, before I was dropped on the floor. I fell limply, and laid there as air greedily returned to my lungs. Then, I laughed— not out of happiness or any sort of positive feeling. It was pure exasperation, the culmination of so many long years of waiting and hoping coming to a boiling point.

“I found you, Amie! I found you…”

“You…” Amie started, limply standing up straight, the defensiveness melting from her posture. “I can’t… I can’t leave. There’s nowhere else for me. This is it.”

I heard my fellow comrades drop as well, and the sounds of vines shifting. I didn’t look away from the ceiling. I didn’t need to.

“I… I’m so sorry. Please just go.” She whispered, and I shook my head.

“Not without you, not after I came all this way…”

Please…” her voice cracked. “I don’t want to be freed anymore. Please just go.”

Static filled the air, until a robotic voice replaced it.

“On site warheads set to detonate in one minute.”

I forced myself upright, my smile still plastered to my face, betraying my real feelings. “You can’t live here, either.”

Amie shook her head, and took a stumbling step back. I held out my hand, though it was shaking from fear.

“I can’t. Please just save yourself!”

I could hear my fellow Hand members scrambling away, but I refused to move, even as adrenaline gave me the strength to do so. I stayed right where I was.

“I’m sorry I stopped running, Amie. I shouldn’t have… but, despite that… please, can you give living another chance? Can you allow yourself another chance?”

Amie’s eyes darted between mine and my hand. A sob escaped her throat, and she covered her mouth.

“On site warheads set to detonate in thirty seconds.”

“River, I’m… so…” the words caught in her throat, and she slammed her eyes shut. Glittering tears spilled down her cheeks in almost inhuman waves. “I’m so sorry. I put you in danger. I should have never given you that remedy. You should have been allowed to forget…”

I couldn’t help but keep smiling. “No, no. You gave me the best gift I could ever ask for. I’ve gotten to see and experience so much, because of you. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I forgot you.”

Amie opened her eyes, and slowly removed her trembling hands from her mouth. “You really… you don’t hate me?”

“I think the issue, if there is any, is that I like you too much.” I laughed. My shoulders trembled, and I could feel machinery rumbling from deep within the facility. “You’re my best friend.”

“On site warheads set to detonate in five seconds.”

Amie screamed at that, a defiant cry that pierced through the mounting sounds of metal. She rushed towards me, throwing me into a hug so hard we were both launched into the air. Thick, green vines jumped forward from the ground, circling around us in a tight pod. My arms shakily wrapped around her in kind.

“Detonating on site warheads…”

Thank you!“ Amie yelled, as the sounds of explosions eclipsed my senses.

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