Shelfstalkers - Galen’s Guide to Bibliozoology
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——— Chapter 5: Shelfstalkers ———

A pungent odor of burning wood and dying embers echoes across the air like a cry for help.

My heart aches for the weeping shelves; they are screaming. A smoke plume leads me to their mutilated remains, lying in the blood and ash of the desolate ruin. I land upon the scarred ground, wings kicking up soot that forces a chorus of coughs from my throat. The smoke makes my eyes water, and my vision clouds as I tuck my face into the top of my sweater and to continue to hack up a lung.

When I raise my head to look around again, my blurred gaze lands on a heap of swirling crimson, gold, and orange atop a black clump surrounded by vague outlines. The fire was still burning. As my sight clears, my blood runs cold.

The shadowy blurs were not wood. Far from it.

Large beasts — dragons with insect properties — slunk down from the top of the pyre, paying the fire little to no mind. Their scales glinted dark crimsons, blacks, and browns in the firelight. One, then two, then three, then four. Four of them. Eight sets of piercing, orange eyes staring right at me. My gaze follows them down the wreck.

It got worse.

There, at the foot of the scorched shelves, is a corpse. Blood stains the blue military uniform in counts of three criss-crosses on their chest, the symbol of a blue star stained with crimson. A Book Burner.

I gulp, and it feels like a golf ball is going down my throat as my stomach twists and churns. Never mind the book burner, what about me? Surely the dragons could see me. They were staring right at me. Could I outrun them? No, definitely not, and who's to say they wouldn’t zoom forward and clip my wings before I get the chance to take off?

I shut my eyes, paralyzed in fear. I knew I wouldn’t die. What would happen? Would I be torn apart by the dragons until they were done with me? Healing over and over only to be torn asunder again and dumped on the ground like a broken toy? I’ll live. There was no doubt in that. Wandsmen heal all too fast for me to die.

Tears fall at the thought. I remain silent and shut my eyes in preparation for the worst. Silent and still as a statue, I wait… and wait… and wait…

Huh?

I open an eye to find that there are no bug dragons circling me like prey. No. Instead, the creatures have reconvened at another pile of wood. Chattering as loud as a jackhammer rings out as they begin to… chew into the wood? Eyes off me, minding their own noisy, terrifying business.

I sigh in an almost excited relief, bending forward. Wood eaters. They ate wood. Or…?

My eyes flick back to the Book Burner’s corpse. Completely deserted, the corpse remains untouched.

Wood eaters.

That sound will forever spark some deep fear in me. It grades away at my ears, and I realize that it would work well to cover my leaving. If I am steady and quiet, I could sneak away un-mauled,

And so I did.

Now that I’ve seen them, I cannot unsee them. Lurking in the dark corners of unrenovated areas, their form flickering in the corner of my eye and disappearing just as quick. Slinking in the shadows of seared shelves I pass on my path to the Ways. The distant sound of their chattering noises as they gnaw through the oaks and pines of the west shelves.
I call them Shelfstalkers.

Galen, 7th Junior Wandsman of the Wanderers' Library


Overview

The Wanderers' Library is a known bastion of knowledge. Vast hordes of tomes pile into its endless shelves, and a vast variety of beautiful, terrible curiosities lie in wait between the folds of aged pages. So long as the rules of the land are followed, Wanderers from all walks of life are invited to plunge its depths on their quests without fear of conflict or violence. However, harmony has not always been a constant within the Library. The Great Searing was a long period of discord in the Library. Flames were ignited. Shelves were destroyed in myriad forms, their books obliterated. Wanderers scattered to the four winds, cowering in fear of battle. The few Librarians that hadn’t buried their heads in the sand went mad. Stories sung in ink became scrawled in the blood of the patrons. Atlas collapsed under the weight of the heavens. The maintenance of the rules fell and with it, so too did all normalcy.

In the heart of this chaos, the first Shelfstalkers appeared. Although the Library has become relatively peaceful once more, there is never a lack of incendiary threats to its hallowed halls from ignorant, outside forces like the Book Burners, who have risen to prominence in the aftermath of the Searing. Such destruction has ensured the species’ survival in the Library as protectors and scavengers of burnt or decaying material in need of removal.


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Description

Shelfstalkers —or Dracoinsecta bibliocyte— are a group of detritophagous eusocial bibliocytes that range from approximately 5–7 feet in height and 10 -14 feet in length from head to tail. They have thick, armor-like scales on their back and legs. The scales that cover their stomachs and facial areas are far softer and lighter in color. Coloration can range based upon the sector of the Library, but these beasts generally come in browns of all shades, blacks, deep reds, or greens. Having six gangly legs, these creatures can reach speeds up to 50 mph. Long, scorpion-like stingers protrude from their spines, a thick and sharp barb at their end. This appendage functions both as a tail and a weapon due to the venom they possess.

Their diet consists primarily of decayed or burnt wood, paper, and leather. Occasionally, they may eat other decaying animal matter, but this is rare due to the specialization to consume specific types of wood as opposed to corpses. Shelfstalkers are very reactive to increases in temperature, and are drawn to the smell of smoke and fire. This is because their vision is generally very poor. Observation suggests that they can only see movement with those big, orange eyes. Since wood doesn’t move, Shelfstalkers find their meals through their sense of hearing and smell. Immunity to fire and heat stroke provide this creature easy access to their food, even when the fire is still raging. Through this specialization, Shelfstalkers have carved themselves a niche but useful function within the Library’s ecosystem. Once all of the wreckage is cleaned away by the Shelfstalkers, the area is clear and ready for renovation without the help of other parties. For Pages, this is a major time saver.


Lantern Koi watching can be a lot of things. It can be time consuming, boring, tedious, and even frustrating. You could perch at the top of the shelves waiting for a school to pass by until your ass got sore and your legs turned to jelly only to get a heaping helping of disappointment. Gods forbid you finally spot some, sneeze, and cause them to scatter. At its worst, it makes a wall of paint drying suddenly look real interesting.

It’s worth it, though. For every handful of shitty experiences, there’s a couple golden ones that are worth the whole damn lot.

There’s nothing as beautiful as lying back on the ornate oak at the top of a shelf, looking up into the winding dark, and seeing a brilliant brigade of yellow, green, and blue-scaled koi cascading across the void. A school of shooting stars with magnificent tails of light blazing behind them.

Or the excitement of being the one to discover a new shelf variant. Admiring the unique patterns, writing rigorous notes, and scrawling wonderfully messy sketches to record the accomplishment. The world becomes your oyster for a few fleeting hours .

And then there are moments that are just funny

The path to the nearest way skirts the border of scorched grounds. It’s a bit sad to see the wide, empty space that used to be full to bursting with bookshelves and greenery reduced to nothing but a clearing of soot covered carpet every day. I was strolling on the edge of it on my way out one day, keeping my eyes on the ruins for Shelfstalkers. They wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t bother them, but I had no qualms, like there’s a Jurassic Park T-Rex staring me down if they get too close.

Seeing the dragons hanging around is about what I expected, but what I didn’t expect was to see two small Shelfstalkers chasing around a Lantern Koi. They looped in circles around one another after the koi’s tail, batting at the trail of light left behind them with their claws. One shelf stalker would get on top of the other trying to reach the floating fish just out of reach. Even better, the fish would occasionally turn around to face the dragons and give them a chase of their own medicine, blazing bright as it chased them along the rubble.

I’d pay good money to see those little guys playing around again.

—Cassandra Hex of the Serpent's Hand


Ecology & Behaviors

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On the whole, Shelfstalkers are reclusive, outside of their appearances in damaged areas of the Library. Where exactly they go to slumber, eat, and sleep is a mystery. Even when they are out and about, groups stick to the outskirts of the Library and to the areas where their food is most abundant, which tend to be similarly devoid of most life. This means that Shelfstalkers rarely come to blows with Wanderers or other species native to the Library. Unprovoked and kept at a safe distance, they are relatively harmless.

Like most bibliological species, the Shelfstalkers appear to have an intrinsic knowledge of the rules and who is breaking them, and will harm those who break the rules or aggress them, much like the Docents. These are not creatures that kill living things to eat them. Of course, there is a gray area in terms of the ‘destruction of property’ rule, but there are gray areas such as this with other entities, too. Ultimately, the ‘destruction of property’ they cause leads directly to the benefit of the Library, which serves to balance it out. Given that Docents will seek out those breaking the rules and Shelfstalkers seek out areas that have been set aflame, they are the only species that interacts with these dragons on a regular basis. The two species will often intersect at the same area and bring carnage to the same people. It should be noted that the Docent's perfectly quiet movements confuse the shelf stalkers fairly often, as their impeccable hearing cannot help them to detect when Docents are there. This has resulted in some amusing interactions. Similarly, smaller Shelfstalkers have been recorded as playfully chasing smaller species such as Lantern Koi and Renallum.

If you encounter a Shelfstalker, try not to make any sudden, erratic movements. It can spook them, and possibly provoke them into stinging you in a panic to make the movement stop. Luckily, there have been no recorded deaths from situations like these, as Shelfstalkers typically walk away once the movement of the victim has stopped. While there is no reliable cure for the venom yet, the paralysis will wear off after about a week. If you ever find yourself paralyzed from a sting, do not panic. Call for a Page or Docent for assistance.

When looking for food, Shelfstalkers will typically arrive in groups of three or four to scope out the land. With the passage of time, many more will come to feed. What shelves they don’t consume, they collectively carry off. They do not travel alone. If they are, it is because they have lost the way back to their kin. Nothing is known about the colonies of Shelfstalkers, but it is understood that they use pheromone trails as some earth insects do. In the same vein, little is known about the life cycle of Shelfstalkers. Inferential logic suggests that they undergo a similar life cycle to that of Earth’s termites, as they follow a number of behavioral patterns similar to them more than they do dragons. This hypothesis would also suggest the existence of a Shelfstalker ‘mound’ somewhere within the Library. However; this is only speculation. No mound has ever been found, nor has anyone ever followed the beasts’ trails to locate it and come back to speak of it.


The Library speaks in many ways, but make no mistake, a Wanderer will know when they’ve stepped one foot too far. There’s this dreaded moment where the air goes still and silence deafens. A bowling ball-sized pit forms in the stomach, and a decision must be made then and there: Continue and chance death, or go back?

There are a million and one ways to slide into trouble. Attentive eyes and inquisitive minds will be tempted by an army of backroads into the bowels of our oldest networks. Secret passages engraved in the walls. Narrow cracks between darkened shelves leading somewhere just beyond the eye. Winding spiral staircases tucked into corners that dip down to unknown chasms. These sectors are not for the faint of heart, but I make my daily route in such sibylline places. What can I say? Being a giant centipede has its disadvantages, and during the rush hours it’s far more appealing to take the roads less traveled by.

One particularly odious day where I’d opted to avoid nearly trampling several Wanderers in the crowds, I took to the wooden tunnels in the fabric of the Library’s walls. Down, down, down into the old Library I skittered. The air was thick with the warmth of bodies and the stench of mildew and pine. Dark, winding walls of wood. Shadow consumes the slim space, and I could feel friction as the walls became tighter around me. Shelfstalkers carved these tunnels. I knew that much despite never having been here. They were not made for creatures my size. But I’d take cramped over whatever Black Friday-level madness was happening in the main halls.

Crunch.

Loud. Squelchy. Disgusting. Something hard and wet splintered beneath my front legs. An intrepid step or two more, and the smell plummets from humid tree hell into acrid, rotting entrails with an undercurrent of metallic organ stew. Wet. And as I looked down, the white of crushed bone, the purple-yellow of decomposing flesh, and the smattered red outline of trampled muscle smushed into the wood.

My head came down close to the floor. Recognition of the three clawed talons staining the ground. Instantly, a sound rattled and shook through the tunnels. It became so all-encompassing that I could scantily tell the direction it was coming from. Rumbling. A stampede of a thousand clawed feet pounding the drums of war from an unseen pathway. Shelfstalkers. Lots of them.

I stepped too far, and I know when I am unwelcome. I put myself in reverse and left. The Library makes no exceptions to this silent rule. Not even for archivists.

I will never discourage curiosity and exploration, but please remember to ask yourself just one question before you go chasing these dragons into the labyrinthine undergrowth of the realm. How much are you willing to pay for the answers you’re after?

—The Rounderpede, Eighth Archivist of the Wanderers' Library

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