Sand. Stone. The burnt end of torches. A coarse smell that assaults the senses. A wispy voice that invites them. The remains of starved carrion. Featureless faces attempting to laugh. A dry tension mounting in the gut, forcing octopi out of the mouth.
The stuff of my dreams carried dully into each day and collected within me until we slept again. Then a new slew of visions cropped up and lingered. If we were to judge by our cycle of sleep, we entered the library three weeks ago, though without sun or stars who knows how long we slept or how many hours we dragged on awake before giving in each day.
Calling it a library was calling a lake a puddle. It was an underground continent populated mainly by books. We spent the first few days walking down drab stone corridors with low ceilings, punctuated by expansive rooms with even less room to stand. One particular passage required us to crawl on all fours past bookcases two shelves high. Eventually the architecture changed dramatically, and we were walking down ivory staircases into grand ballrooms with crystal chandeliers, and under towering glass domes through indoor gardens more lush than their natural counterparts. One vast, cavernous room required us to step into a rowboat and traverse a seemingly bottomless lagoon, docking finally at a wooden pier that somehow smelled like the sea.
And we were not completely alone. In some corners of the darker chambers we heard movement that first week, past the scuttling rats that we ate nightly. When we began making our way through the larger rooms we caught sight of revenants ambling mindlessly. We took no chances, giving them wide berth, surrendering nothing of our existence. What caused their state we couldn’t be sure, but it was clear their minds were warped, that they were subhuman. A near-endless garden of books and not a soul to read them.
But the books were also warped. For days they were completely empty. Not one had so much as a scribble in it. Eventually we found some filled with words, but these were catalogs of specific moments – a shelf of tomes dedicated entirely to a single wasp’s flight during a period of three minutes, chapter after chapter describing the creature and his environment as they shifted from moment to moment. Another set of shelves were dedicated to describing a feather’s path as it was shed from an albatross and landed in the sea. Once we’d passed from that tiresome city of encyclopedias, we came to a long swath of unsettling ledgers that merely listed out seemingly unrelated nouns. Harmless though they seemed, somehow the words would infect our dreams, or else describe them from the night before, so that we were caught in a loop of tedious familiarity, unsure what was informing what, and hesitant to speculate. For a few days we lost the ability to string a sentence together, and found ourselves constantly touching objects to ensure our waking reality.
Eventually we used the books for navigational purposes only, picking one up to get a bearing of our surroundings, trying to piece together a path forward having little sense of direction. Each day we became more hesitant to open the books, scared to discover their next evolution. Each night we slept less and dreamed more and awoke in the middle of the night hesitant to share our dreams.
It was in the midst of an especially vivid series of nightmares that I awoke to find him gone one night. Unflustered by his absence and certain he was in no danger, I coaxed myself back to sleep. When I awoke again in the morning he was sleeping soundly across from me. From then on I slept lightly and sure enough, he spent most of his nights scuttling around the shelves, pulling specific books and rifling through them. Did he expect to discover his lost grain of sand in this endless desert? I felt some blend of anger and pity for the old man. This was not a good realm to misplace a book.
“I have been dreaming of the sisters.”
It was late into an especially frustrating day where we appeared to be walking in circles. He had spoken almost nothing of his research up to this point and was wonderfully dextrous at avoiding my questions about it. I almost gasped that he chose to break the hour-long silence with that thought.
“I would imagine you are constantly dreaming of your life’s work.”
“It has been ages since I have dreamt of them.” He glanced at me and added, “Some of them don’t take kindly to it.”
Dreams were the last topic I hoped to explore, but I wanted to keep him talking. “Which ones find their way into your dreams?”
“A few from long ago. One that I hunted for six years who then found me. We spent a long time together afterwards. ‘The Lepidopterist’ she used to call me.” A chuckle. “I found it fitting.”
“You are hardly collecting butterflies.” My tone might have come off too severe. “Tell me, are you hunting one now? Were you hunting one in the prison?”
He grew flustered that I repeated his verb. “Am I researching one now? Seeking one that I am studying? Perhaps I was before you found me. Perhaps the footsteps I am retracing will remind me if that was the case. Perhaps that’s what the dreams are for.”
“Perhaps they are all just dreams, old man. Tell me, does your memory of this place serve you well enough to know if we’re nearing an exit?” He shook his head. “Wonderful. The lack of sunlight was welcome at first, but now I crave the sky.”
That night I slept soundly. He must have drifted farther than usual in his midnight investigations – I awoke to distant grunts and a muffled scream. Approaching carefully but still half asleep, the scene in front of me jolted me awake. Three revenants hovered over my partner, one holding down each arm, another bolting his legs to the floor. A large book lay open atop his face, a sight that was almost comical, until I detected an almost imperceptible movement, the book undulating slightly as if it were feeding.
Still assuming me asleep, I had the upper hand and made short work of the trio. Despite an inhuman strength, they were slow and moved more like marionettes than living creatures. I took my time choking the last one, interrogating him to no avail, haunted by his lifeless, lidless eyes. Then I pried the book from my companion’s face, peeling it back slowly, a giant leech that didn’t want to wrest control of his victim. The scream that met me when I finally peeled it from his mouth could have shattered the ceiling above us. Wrested free, I threw the book forcefully against a wall. My companion convulsed for a few moments and then went limp. I checked his vitals and gently tried to awaken him. After a seeming eternity he came to, turned to look at the now-normal book and smiled broadly, exhaling deeply. He then nodded towards it. “Open it. Carefully. It should no longer be a threat. Tell me what’s written inside.”
Wary of the creature that nearly took his life, I flipped it open with my foot, then stepped on both sides as I bent over and cautiously flipped through the pages. Symbols in a language I could not fathom filled the tome. I told him so. “Page through it more carefully. I am certain there are a few pages that –“
“Yes.” Towards the back of the book there were a few pages written in his handwriting. He motioned and I brought the book over, propping him up against a bookcase and handing him the book, monitoring it carefully lest it come to life again.
“It is as I thought.” He gave me a mischievous grin. “It appears the book found me.” He cleared his throat. “Permit me to read it to you.”
As he found his place I noticed that the book was not his only pillage. Jutting out from his pack was a large sheet of ripped paper folded hastily and jammed inside.
Illustration by Chris Baily