Solitude is broken
Dreams are shattered
Hope is betrayed
Light is fractured
The fool’s gods are fools
They have failed us all
Delilah read the message several times, feeling her heart sink lower and lower as she did. She didn’t understand all that she was reading, but it was clear that it was ominous, and coupling that with the voice of warning she’d heard as she traveled through the portal to the Library of Solitude, she felt like she and the other girls had just fallen into a very dangerous place.
“Gwen?” Chelsea asked. Delilah looked at their Enchanted guide and friend, and saw the terror painted all over her face.
“You know something about this,” Delilah said.
Gwen nodded. “It’s… this shouldn’t have happened,” she said, her breaths coming shallow and panicked.
“No, it shouldn’t have,” came a voice that Delilah recognized. She turned towards the voice, coming from deeper into the entrance hall. Emerging from the shadows came a man dressed in white robes. He was slender, and very particular about his appearance, it seemed. His long red hair was tied back so that not a single stray strand fell on his smooth, ageless face. His robes were nondescript, and the only signifying items of his attire were his pair of round, silver-framed spectacles framing intelligent eyes, and a single golden ring on his left hand.
“You’re the one I heard,” Delilah said. “You said we shouldn’t have come here.”
The man nodded. “And indeed you shouldn’t,” he said in a calm, sad voice. “The Library of Solitude is no place for the living. Not anymore.”
“But you’re here,” Chelsea said, frowning at the man. Standing next to her, Isabelle was staring at the man with a puzzled look on her face.
A small smile creased the man’s lips. “Yes, of course,” he said. “I am Merric Jannson, the final remaining caretaker of the Library.”
“Merric!” Isabelle cried out, racing forward. “I thought I recognized you!” She crashed into the man, wrapping her arms around his legs tightly.
Merric smiled wider, placing his hands gently on Isabelle’s shoulder. “Yes, Small Lady,” he said. “I’m still here. But all others have gone. You really should not have returned.”
“That’s not true,” Isabelle said, gazing up at Merric. “Mommy said if I ever got lost, I should play the song on my flute to go back home. I’ve spent all this time trying to find the song, because I didn’t remember it. And now I’m back, because she told me to.”
“Lady Kodoka told you…” Merric started, trailing off as he studied Isabelle’s face. “Well. That is very peculiar.”
“What do you know?” Delilah asked. She gestured at the message on the wall, and all around the room. “This message… all of this emptiness… what’s going on here?”
“It isn’t so much what is happening, but what has already happened,” Merric said, his expression grave. “You are friends of Lady Isabelle?”
Delilah nodded. “That’s right,” she said. She introduced herself, and the rest of the girls did as well.
“There was another,” Chelsea said, her voice breaking for a moment. “Caleb.” She pointed at Delilah. “Her older brother. He was the first to commit to helping Isabelle, but he…”
“He had to leave because his magic hurt him,” Isabelle said. “But he’ll come find us, once he finishes his training.”
Merric smiled. “Well, I’m very grateful to all of you for assisting Lady Isabelle,” he said. “But…” He looked around, sighing with a weight of emotion too heavy for words. “I suppose… I could show you a few things. It would make things clearer.”
“Is it as bad as things appear?” Gwen asked. “’Night comes’… is it what I think?”
Merric nodded. “I’m afraid so,” he said. He turned away, starting to walk further into the Library. “Please, follow me.” He took Isabelle’s hand, but she pulled away, rushing over to Lorelei and taking her hand.
“She’s my buddy,” Isabelle said to Merric’s puzzled stare. “She reminds me of Maribelle.”
Merric smiled. “I can see why,” he said.
Merric led them through the emptied entrance hall, underneath the tilting chandelier and towards a towering archway. Looking around, Delilah got the sensation that whatever went wrong in the Library had happened a very long time ago. The stonework, the marble and carpeted floors, the banners on the walls, everything was so faded that it was impossible to decipher details about the Library of Solitude beyond “it’s really freaking huge.” This was just the entrance hall, and yet it took them more than a minute to walk to the archway that led to the next room.
And as they passed through it, Delilah finally felt like this was – or had once been – a library.
They stood on a platform overlooking a vast, circular room. No lights were lit, so it was difficult to see the full space. Windows, tall and wide, were all along the walls up towards the domed ceiling, and yet it was dark outside, with no visible stars or moon to shed light within. Still, Delilah’s heart leapt as she saw just a few details of the space in the shadows.
The center of the room seemed to be a sort of study area, with many desks and chairs – seating enough for hundreds, Delilah guessed. Branching out in aisles much like spokes on a wheel were shelves and shelves of books, enough space for tens of thousands at least. Around the perimeter were long and wide but shallow steps leading up to platforms like where Delilah and the others stood, and these steps had seating and tables and smaller bookshelves.
“It’s amazing,” Delilah said in a small voice.
“It was amazing,” Isabelle moaned sadly. “Merric, what happened? How did everything go all wrong?”
Merric leaned on the platform’s rail. “Darkness always seeks to devour the light,” he said. “This Library was your home, and mine as well, but it was also something far more important – one of a select few safeguards against the darkness.”
“The Library of Solitude was a Daylight Bastion?” Gwen asked.
Merric nodded. “Several Locations within the Enchanted Dominion were established as Daylight Bastions,” he said. “These Locations serve as massive shields, filled with light to force back the darkness. Unfortunately… the darkness is stronger than any of us feared. And the impenetrable night outside is the least of our worries if things continue down this path.”
“So the Daylight Bastion failed,” Chelsea said. “How?”
“That tale has its answers deeper within,” Merric said, walking along the perimeter of the room towards another archway. The girls followed, and he took them through that archway and down a long, dark hallway. Despite no lamps being lit and no light from outside, just like the massive circular library room, Delilah was surprised at how much she could see. The darkness was shadowy and dim, but it wasn’t pitch blackness.
There were paintings on the walls on either side, but those were faded beyond recognition much like everything else. Carved into the stone near the ceiling of the hallway was a phrase:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it
There were symbols too, Delilah could see. Like the phrase, they were carved into the stonework, deep enough that they wouldn’t fade away for centuries, perhaps even millennia. They were strange stars, with only four points, shaped like an X.
“Here we are,” Merric said, stopping at a scarred wooden door. He reached into his robes, pulling out a large iron keyring completely stuffed with old-fashioned keys. Despite so many keys, Merric knew the right one instantly, turning it in the lock and pushing the door open.
Inside was a domed chamber about the size of the Greyson Manor living room – enough space to park six cars and still have ample room to walk around them. For all that space, the room was rather empty. There were no windows, no furnishings, no decorations at all, save for one object on the wall across from the entrance: a mirror.
The mirror was a little taller than Delilah and framed in silver. A long, jagged crack ran from the top right corner down to the bottom left.
But the most puzzling thing was what it didn’t reflect: people.
Delilah stared at the reflection of the door behind her, a reflection that she wasn’t part of. She grasped the door handle while keeping her eyes fixed on the mirror and swung the door back and forth. The mirror reflected the door’s motions, as if Delilah was invisible.
“That’s a –” Gwen started, pointing to the mirror.
Merric nodded. “Indeed,” he said.
“Look,” Chelsea said, hands on her hips, “I get that the two of you know a lot of stuff about the Enchanted Dominion and weird magical artifacts and such, but we don’t. So could you please bring us in on what’s going on?”
“Sorry,” Gwen said sheepishly. She nodded to the mirror. “That’s a Light Catcher.”
“What it reflects is linked to its own strength,” Merric said. “Light Catchers have two purposes. One is to serve as a barometer of darkness.”
“Darkness in this case isn’t just the absence of light,” Gwen said. “It’s a magical force, something always trying to swallow up the light, which, again, isn’t just… light. It’s a word we use as synonymous with the very life of all living beings.”
“So darkness is a magical power that’s trying to swallow up all life,” Delilah said. “And Light Catchers measure darkness, like an early warning system. Right?”
Merric nodded. “Very astute,” he said. “And their second function, well… that’s even more important.”
“They don’t just measure darkness, but also actively repel it,” Gwen said. “Light Catchers are integral to keeping Daylight Bastions strong against the darkness.”
“That’s why they’re mirrors,” Delilah said, understanding dawning on her. She walked towards the Light Catcher, running her hand along the frame. “Mirrors are one of a very few innately magical items. Celestial Magic – the magic of light and darkness – is part of them forever.”
“I think your Celestial Magic is often thought of as more literal light and darkness,” Merric said. “I’ve never met a human who truly understood it.”
“I only know two people who even use Celestial Magic,” Lorelei said. “And it’s more of a parlor trick than something considered really useful or any sort of serious study.”
“I don’t know why humans find it so hard to tap into what Celestial Magic truly is,” Merric said, “but it is what it is. Celestial Magic, if you truly could tap into it, would be potentially the most powerful magic of all.”
“Light and darkness,” Delilah said, nodding. “Life and death.”
“Indeed,” Merric said somberly.
“So I’m guessing the big crack in the Light Catcher is what caused all of this damage to the Library,” Chelsea said.
Merric nodded. “Somehow… and I still don’t understand how… darkness infected it,” he said. “I believe that darkness slowly seeped into the Light Catcher, at a rate that was effectively invisible. Slowly, over time, it eroded the Light Catcher’s abilities – bypassing its detection abilities, and sapping away the light within, until the Light Catcher failed.”
“So… doesn’t that mean this entire Library is super dangerous?” Chelsea asked. She looked around. “Why are we doing just fine?”
“Because I have a slight bit of control,” Merric said, sighing. “I can keep certain halls and rooms relatively safe from the deadly darkness. And yet… I can’t take all of the credit. The truth is, with the Library of Solitude failed as a Daylight Bastion, and, in most ways, cut off from the rest of the Enchanted Dominion, there is little reason for the monsters and minions of death and decay to remain here.”
“But what do we do?” Isabelle asked. Her hands were on her hips, and she looked on the verge of tears, with a determined expression showing how hard she was fighting to focus. “How do we fix the mirror and the Library, and how do we get rid of the darkness?”
Merric shook his head. “I’m afraid…” he started.
“Don’t say there’s nothing we can do,” Delilah said. “There’s always something. You couldn’t figure it out on your own, but now you have all of us. And this place is full of books and knowledge, right? Let’s work together and find a solution. Tell us everything you know. Show us everything, even the most dangerous parts of the Library.” She clenched her hands into fists. “Don’t just give up. If you do, then what’s the point of you staying here all this time?”
“Count on the kids to keep us in line,” Chelsea said, grinning. “Come on, caretaker. If you don’t help us search for a solution, we’re just going to do it ourselves.”
Merric looked unfazed by the girls’ optimism, but he nodded. “I can show you more,” he said. “But… the Library was considered hopeless and was abandoned by all save me two human lifetimes ago. I can’t imagine there’s anything I haven’t seen.”
“These girls might surprise you,” Gwen said, smiling.
“I want my home back,” Isabelle said, her voice shaking.
“We’re not leaving,” Chelsea said. Lorelei came over, taking Isabelle’s hand and nodding encouragingly.
Merric sighed. “Very well,” he said. “There is… quite a lot of ground to cover. Let’s get started.”
Delilah felt a familiar determination within her. Years ago, when she was small and useless, she had seen and heard things from her parents that, as far as she knew, her siblings still didn’t know about. When she’d started her training, she’d done so in order to be useful, in order to be someone her family could count on. And then Caleb had faced danger, all for the sake of a little girl, and Delilah had been swept up in it.
Now, Caleb was gone. But Delilah was here, and as she looked at Isabelle, she knew this was up to her now. A part of her heart continued to say that Delilah had been away from home for too long.
But a larger part of her heart looked at a little girl with apple red hair, and said I’m right where I need to be.