Between Shelves
rating: +66+x

This is a sequel to Going Out Of Book. You should probably read that first.

At first, all she saw was darkness. Then a red glow crept in. She was lying on a cold, hard surface, staring up. There was hissing, and cranking, and a rattling that sounded like a million wooden beads hitting the ground at once. Behind her was something that resembled laughter. The noise blended together into a low rumble that seemed to wrap around her and gently squeeze.

She became aware of a voice. “I told you doing this here was a good idea!” Whooping laughter followed.

The world was spinning. Her head felt like she had spent the past three days mainlining Jack Daniels, and her stomach wasn't much better. There was something wet under her nose. Touching a finger to it, she saw that it was blood.

Okay, she thought. This isn't the worst thing you've ever done. Get up.

She had begun to push herself up when a hand appeared in her vision. “Need a hand?” said the same voice as before.

She brushed the hand away. A voice in the back of her thoughts wondered why it had been red, but she ignored it. Rolling to her side, she tried to force her body up from the ground, but her arms buckled. A pair of hands grabbed her shoulders and started pulling up. She shook them away. “Fuck off,” she mumbled, more to herself than the person. Sucking in a deep breath, she wrenched her legs forward, under her body, then pushed up. She rose to a squat. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to stand. Her legs wobbled, but she stayed up.

Wiping the rest of the blood from her nose, she began to examine her surroundings. She'd been lying on a circular stone platform, about a foot off of a green carpet. The room was massive- the ceiling wasn't visible, and the walls looked hundreds of feet off. Around her, two dozen people were gathered around three grills, talking, laughing, clutching cans of beer. At least, some of them were people. There was something that looked like a shark with legs devouring a large hamburger. Next to it, a dog-sized mass of squirming tentacles worked a grill. They were both conversing with what looked like a ten-foot tall man made of copper, brass, and gold.

She turned. Behind her was another man, his skin lobster-red, eyes pure blue. He was dressed in a patched up leather jacket, jeans, and a Black Flag t-shirt. As far as she could see, he was completely hairless, though a thin ridge ran down the center of his head and into his jacket. A grin was spread across his face. “Hey,” he said, “I'm Colby.”

“I thought this was a Li-”

“Man, that was fucking awesome,” he said, his grin spreading wider. “You know it's been like… two months since anyone used that Way? Mitchelloth said nothing would happen if we came here, but I bet he's not feeling so smart now, is he? Hey Mitch!” he yelled, throwing an arm up in the air. “You owe me that copy of DeFronde, you fucker!” He turned his attention back to Alison. She became suddenly aware of several other… beings surrounding her.

“So, where am-”

“They didn't believe me when I said I could feel the Ways! Serves them right.” His grin widened, and he began smacking his knuckles against his palm. “You've gotta be a first timer, yeah? Yeah, if you weren't you'd know how to go through one without getting all mashed up. I can show you that, if you want. But man, lemme just say how cool that was! Most people, when they first come through, they're completely out. But you got up like it was nothing. Fucking sweet.”

“That's great, but-”

“So you'll want to meet everybody, right? It's no fun exploring the Library on your own, especially not the first time. Unless you've already got a guide, but if you did you wouldn't have landed like that, right? But don't worry, we're always open to new people. Where are you from anyway? I mean, you probably don't know the actual answer to that. But I mean, what country? Who's president? Do they have Gillferan food? You seem pretty-”

“Shut. Up,” she said, almost spitting the words. “I'm just trying to ask one damn question. Why is that so hard?”

Colby blinked at her. The grin melted away. “Oh. Yeah. Oh, damn, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude like that.” He rubbed the back of his head, looking away.

She sighed. “You said this was the Library. Last I heard, libraries had books, and I don't see any. So what's going on? Where am I?”

“We're in a side area,” he said, still looking away. “You know, for other stuff. Relaxing and sleeping and, you know, stuff.” He gestured towards the grill. “The actual books are in a different area.”

“Alright,” she said, crossing her arms. “How do I get there?”

“You don't want to stay a bit?” He looked hurt. “Come on, it'll be fun. We've got steaks, and Damon's making pasta, and there's gonna be cake and a big book reading. You'll get lost if you try to go into the stacks on your own.”

“I'll be fine,” she said. Looking around the room, she saw dozens of other groups of people. Some were cooking, some were sitting and reading, one had even set up a campsite. From what she could tell, less than one in ten of the beings here were human (or at least looked it). “Which way are the books?”

Colby sighed and pointed. “Can you maybe tell me what you're looking for, at least? I could probably point you in the right direction.”

She thought for a moment. “I need information on the Serpent's Hand. Where they are. What they're doing. How I can find them. And anything you have about the Foundation.”

Colby paled. “The Foundation? Are you out of your mind? What the hell do you want with them?” His eyes darted around the room. He clicked his teeth together. “Man, I should have known something like that was up with you, the way you showed up. Look, I can't have anything to do with that stuff, L.S's whole group is fucking crazy…” he trailed off.

L.S. The name sounded familiar. She'd heard it before, rumors of an ever elusive figure within the Hand. She sighed. “Then why bother?” She turned to walk off.

“Excuse me,” said a voice. Alison looked and saw a short, blonde woman approaching. “I heard you expressing your interest in the Hand?”

“Can you help me get to them?” said Alison.

“I can do better than that,” said the woman, smiling. “I'm a member. I can answer any questions you might have. But first, let's get a burger.”

The burgers weren't terrible, for something cooked by an alien tentacle monster. Juicy and well-seasoned, with just the right amount of cheese. Alison ate it quickly, taking stock of the beings around her as she did. She'd seen a few non-humans in her travels: the waste spirit, aliens captured in a Foundation facility, a demon summoned when a spell backfired, but nothing like these, and never so many. There was something that looked like a miniature animate tree, a man with wings that shone in the light, a woman whose face always seemed to be hidden in shadow.

There were talking animals, and a robot that looked like it had come out of an Asimov novel. Only a few meters from her, a mass of floating bubbles was talking to a woman with a birdcage on her head (complete with parakeet). From what she could tell, they were discussing the physics behind divine intervention. There were a few humans too, but not many. She wasn't sure what she had expected coming here, but it hadn't been this.

The blonde woman walked up. She had a plate with three burgers, a pile of fries, and a large can of beer. At least, Alison was pretty sure it was beer. The label didn't seem to be in English, or any other human language she'd seen.

“Alright,” said the woman. “First thing's first, my name's Meredith. You are?”

“Alison,” she said.

“Nice name,” said the woman, taking a large sip of beer. “So, Alison, what do you want with us? Not often someone just shows up on our doorstep like this.”

Alison thought about this. She didn't know this woman. For all that she knew, Meredith was completely lying about being a member of the Hand. She could be a plant, she could be an angry spirit, she could be a buddy looking to avenge Diligem. “I'm looking for a friend. He vanished a few months ago, but before he did, he was talking about you guys, and coming here.”

Meredith nodded. “And you think the Foundation might have something to do with him going missing, right?” She took another swig of beer, then crumpled up the can and placed it by her feet.

“He thought they were watching him. He was… different, and said they would come after him for it. The night before he disappeared, he called me to say he needed to leave as soon as possible. That was the last I heard of him.” It wasn't a great lie, but it would work. Probably. At the least it would hold up until she decided if it was alright to tell the truth.

Meredith nodded. “What was his name? We get a lot of people looking for refuge.”

Alison bit her lip. “Jonathan Bell. He had black hair, green eyes, was about this tall,” she motioned with her hand, “and always looked real nervous.”

“I can't say I've seen him, sorry,” said Meredith. “Though there's dozens of groups of us around the Library. It's entirely possible he's with one of them.” She took a bite of cheeseburger and thought as she chewed. “But you're doing more than just looking for him.”

Alison started. “What do you mean?”

“If you were just looking for your friend, you wouldn't need information on the Foundation,” said Meredith, staring into Alison's eyes. There was something disconcerting about her glare. Alison fought back the urge to squirm. “You're planning something against them. Or at least, you want to.”

“It's not like that,” said Alison.

“Look,” said Meredith. “Why you're here is not my business. If you want it private, fine, it's private. But moving against the Foundation is different. They're dangerous, and that's not something you hear often around here. If you're in their way, you're finished. Three of my friends have been killed by them. Two more were captured, and there's absolutely nothing I could do about it. So, are you sure you're up to making an enemy of them?”

Alison wasn't sure what to say at first. Of course she was. That's what she'd come all this way for. She just hadn't expected it to be put so bluntly. “I am.”

Meredith smiled. It wasn't a cheerful expression. “We'll see.”

After they ate, Meredith took Alison to another room, filled with beds. “There are things I have to take care of,” she said. “It should take a week or so. In the meantime, take a look around the place. Explore the Library, see what you find. Just be careful where you go.”

That had been three days ago. Since then, Alison had spent most of her time wandering the stacks. She'd kept to herself, mostly, and the few times someone had tried to approach her she'd been able to brush them off.

Searching the stacks had yielded little information about the Hand or Foundation. The organization behind the shelves, if there was one, was completely beyond her. Books were arranged with no regards to content, condition, author, publication date, even language. A copy of “The Complete Harper Lee” (over a thousand pages long and with text almost too small to read) would be right next to a user manual for a 1959 Austin Mini. It was maddening.

After the first two days of searching, all she'd manage to scrounge up was a book of poetry, “Oh, That Spiteful Snake”. Calling what was inside “information” would have been like calling Goodnight Moon an epic. Questioning the people she lived with didn't give her much else. Most of them preferred to be left alone to their reading. The few who cared to answer did so in the vaguest possible terms. Still, it wasn't a total loss. Even if the books weren't what she was looking for, they were fascinating, and by the third day she had developed a hefty stack of reading material.

It was the evening (according to her watch) of the third day. The last time she'd seen another person had been seven hours ago. The flow of people around the Library, she'd noticed, was similar to people grouping around a coastline. Most tended to stay near where resources were plentiful, by the common areas and living halls. Go even a few hundred meters deeper “inland", and the amount of people quartered. Go a few hundred more, and you'd only find one or two people browsing each shelf. A kilometer or more, and you would be searching alone. She'd wandered at least five.

Which was why she was so shocked to see someone else. She turned the corner to a shelf (REMUNERATION, read a small gold placard on the side. They all had signs like that. As far as she could tell, it was irrelevant to anything) and the woman was standing at the end, reading a book. She was short, and blonde, wearing a long black coat, and green fleece cap. Anything else was too far away to see.

Curious as the sight was, Alison ignored her. She walked down the aisle, running a finger across spines, pulling out and flipping through any books that looked useful. None were. A few seemed interesting at least. She slipped those into her bag.

Her finger stopped when she felt something warm. It was resting on the spine of a thin, white book with no text. As she pressed her finger to it, it pulsed, like a heartbeat, and began to warm. Curious. This was the first thing of its kind she'd seen here. She pulled it from the bookshelves, and it squirmed in her palm. At least, it felt like it did. The book itself didn't move. The cover felt like it was made of leather, and seemed heavier than it should have. In gold emboss, a complicated tetragram had been placed on the front cover. She flipped it open.

Sand erupted from the pages, slamming into her stomach. The world spun around her as she was launched into the air, and came slamming back down into the ground. The book spun out of her hands, landing at the other ends of the shelves. A geyser of sand spewed from the pages, spreading across the floor. She lay in a small pile of the stuff.

Her head was pounding. A trickle of blood ran down her forehead. She wiped it away and tried to stand, but her foot caught on something, and she fell back. Something tightened around her ankle. Sand covered her foot, creeping up across her leg. She tried to tear it away, but the sand clamped down.

There was a hissing noise. The sand around her was beginning to vibrate. It rattled against her, grains leaping into the air, showering her. A trail of it was snaking across the floor, moving across the carpet from her to the book like a worm. The hissing grew louder. It almost sounded like a voice.

Sand wrapped around her arms and other leg. The pile underneath her was shifting, spreading out around her. The edges rose in the corner of her vision. They seemed to tower over her, like a tidal wave of dust. The hissing was even louder now, a screaming in her ear. Piercing through it was a voice. I wondered how long it would be until you came. It sounded like someone speaking through an avalanche. How long you would be able to deny your sin. Does it pain you, Mikhal, to remember what you have done to me? I hope it did.

The sand rushed down towards her. She sucked in a breath of air and began to count seconds. The wave crashed into her. Soon, she was cocooned in it. I see her face in my mind every day. The way it looked when she realized you had left, when she knew you had damned us. You couldn't even stay to see that. You wouldn't even look us in the face when you seal our fate. Coward. The sand was tightening around her. Already, she could feel herself beginning to give, to buckle under the pressure. It was hard to think of anything past the pain, but she forced herself to think, to keep counting time.

They took her from me. I never knew her final fate. I hope they killed her quickly. I don't know how long they kept me alive. I don't remember anything but the pain, and hoping that you would return. But you never did.

Thirty seconds. She released her breath, bringing the words to her mind. Nothing happened. Her stomach sank. Had it failed? Had her timing been off? She'd only cast this spell a few times before. Had it-

A wave of wind burst from her, ripping the sand away. She pushed herself to her feet as it began reforming. A whip of sand lashed at her, but she rolled out of the way. As she did, she saw the woman from before, standing at the end of the shelves, only a few meters from the book. Her arms were crossed, and she wasn't moving.

“Hey!” yelled Alison, “Help! Close the damn book!”

The woman didn't move. Another bludgeon of sand rushed at Alison. She ducked under and sprinted towards the book. The woman didn't move.

Something slammed into Alison's foot, sending her tumbling to the ground. As soon as she hit the floor, sand wrapped around her arm. It threw her up, pinning her to the wall. More ropes of sand sprouted from the ground, moving towards her. The woman was nowhere to be seen.

Alison tried to wrench her arm away, but the sand gripped it too tight. Another tendril collided with her leg. She kicked at it. Her feet hit the side of the sand and burst through. It reformed in seconds. Still, it was better than nothing. With her free hand, she groped at the shelves behind her. Her fingers wrapped around a thick volume, and she ripped it from the shelf, swinging it at the sand holding her arm. It sliced through and she fell, pinned to the shelf only by her foot, hanging upside down.

She wound up and threw the book as hard as she could. It hurtled through the sand, and she crumpled to the ground. There was a crunch, and pain shot through her side, but she ignored it. Already, she could see the sand reforming and rushing towards her.

Clutching her arm, she sprinted forward. Tendrils of sand batted at her legs, but she danced around them. She could hear the voice behind her, screaming. You dare? it cried. You dare try to flee? To run from this fate, when we could not? Turn around, coward, and face me with some dignity. She ignored it. Sand smacked into her back. She stumbled, but kept running.

The book only a few meters from her. She dove, arm outstretched. As she did, the fountain of sand sprouting from it turned and slammed into her shoulder. She tumbled down. The stream of sand twisted in the air, rocketing towards her. She pushed herself forward, rolling under it. Reaching an arm out, she snatched the cover of the book and threw it shut.

The voice stopped mid-sentence. The sand fell to floor. The Library became quiet. Panting, she rose to her feet. The world seemed to spinning around her. There was a buzzing noise in her ear, and her vision was blurry. Her knees buckled. She reached out and steadied herself against the shelf before she could fall any further.

It was thirty minutes before she could stop shaking and begin walking back to the common areas.

Meredith was sitting by her bed, reading a book. She looked up as Alison limped near. “Well,” she said, “don't you look like a woman who's just had an experience?”

Alison grunted a reply and collapsed onto the bed. “What the hell was that?” she managed to say after several minutes.

“What was what?” said Meredith.

Alison sighed. “What do you want?”

Meredith stood and stretched. “So, I've talked to some people. They'd be interested in meeting you.”

Just like that, the pain disappeared. Alison sat up. “What? Who? When?”

“Now, if you're up to it,” said Meredith.

Alison nodded.

“Follow me,” said Meredith. They began walking, out of the common area and into the Library. A few people stared at Alison, bruised and limping, but she ignored them. They wound through the shelves, moving back and forth between them until she'd lost any idea of where they were. Then they kept walking. Every time she tried to question where they were going, she was met with silence.

It was 45 minutes before they stopped, in a shelf that looked like every other (MENDACITY, read the plaque on the side). Meredith knelt down and rapped against the rug three times. She stood, took five steps back, and stomped twice. Then she took four steps to the left and stomped another six times.

A hole appeared in the floor. It didn't slide open, or open like a door. It just appeared, as if it had always been there. Leaning against the side was a ladder. The floor below was made of wood, and well lit. Meredith began climbing down. Alison followed.

They descended into a short corridor. At the end was a red door. Lining the roof were several fluorescent lights. On the sides were paintings depicting a variety of scenes, from what looked like the birth of Christ to a man floating in space.

“The Hand isn't what you're looking for,” said Meredith. The first thing she'd said since they left. “Most of it would be useless to you. They're not a bad group, but they're not up to going against something like the Foundation. They still hide from them, whisper in secret, use their nonsense names. They're scholars, and that has its place.”

Meredith opened the door and motioned for Alison to enter. “But we're the fighters.”

Inside was a large room, lined with chairs, pillows, and bookshelves. In the center was a fireplace. A flame flickered, the only source of light, casting twisting shadows across the walls. It smiled like old books and expensive liquor. The only other person, kneeling by the fire, was the woman in the green cap.

“What the hell!” said Alison. She looked from Meredith to the woman. “Who the fuck is this?”

Meredith didn't say anything.

“Of course,” said Alison. “Now we're playing this game. Lovely.”

The woman smiled. “I said almost the exact same thing.”

Alison scowled and stepped towards her. “Did you? Is that supposed to be some grand, revealing comment? Should I fall to my knees and forgive you for leaving me to fucking die?”

“I wouldn't have let that happen,” said the woman. She stared into the fire. “But if I'd had to step in, we wouldn't be talking now.”

“What a shame that would be,” said Alison. “I'd suggest you start saying something meaningful.”

The woman stood. “It's not often I meet someone like this. But it's not often someone like you comes to us either. I'm sorry that things went the way they did back there, but you were never in any real danger.” She stared into Alison's eyes. Alison looked away. Something about her gaze felt wrong. “You're lucky. L.S doesn't often accept people so soon. My name is Amanda. I'd like to welcome you to the Serpent's Tooth.”

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