Delilah managed to stave off sleep the entire time she watched over Chelsea and Gwen. Occasionally she felt her eyes growing heavy, and it was those moments when she hopped to her feet and paced up and down the long corridor, Reginald’s comforting blue glow alongside her. For however long she watched over the sleeping pair – time was strange in this place, and she didn’t have anything to track the hours with – nothing happened. No danger struck, no enemies arrived, no surprises jumped out of the darkness.
It was quiet and safe.
Every now and then, Delilah found herself staring at the sleeping pair. They looked like they’d been changed by whatever they’d been through in this section of the Library. Chelsea looked more peaceful than Delilah had ever thought possible. She’d seen Chelsea smile, and she knew she could be very kind, but this was a peace that ran deep, something Chelsea definitely hadn’t had before.
Her hair also looked different. Was it longer? Delilah couldn’t be sure.
Gwen looked similarly peaceful, rejuvenated by an untold adventure. Delilah had always thought Gwen looked very kind and soft, but the change now stood in stark contrast to the Gwen she’d known before. There had once been a hardness, a pain that Delilah hadn’t noticed, couldn’t have noticed.
Perhaps the two had been more alike than Delilah had realized.
Then a completely different thought occurred to Delilah.
What if Lorelei and Isabelle went out looking for us? First Chelsea and Gwen, now me, gone for who knows how long, leaving them all alone.
Or… what if the dangerous forces in the Library were waiting for Isabelle to be undefended? She’s the most important person here, after all.
No, that doesn’t seem right. Merric said that the places near the entrance were safe.
Unless Merric was lying. I don’t know anything about him. And where did he disappear to for so long? Assuming he hasn’t come back while I’ve been gone, he’s been away the longest. He left hours before Chelsea and Gwen ever did.
But he doesn’t seem like he’d do something sinister.
He might abandon us, though. He wanted to give up on the Library until we showed up, and he didn’t seem to moved by our determination to save it. He seems devoted to Isabelle, but he also seems like a man at the end of his rope.
What was that line dad used to say?
“Desperation is a dangerous thing.”
Merric seems like a desperate man.
Delilah sighed, sitting down across from Chelsea and Gwen. Reginald knelt at her side, sitting on his knees like he did in Great Feline Adventures. He was, after all, the most refined of all the Felines, possessing the arts of stewardship and service that had been passed down through the Meowmont line for generations. Delilah and Shana had tried to adopt Reginald’s mannerisms when they were little, particularly his sitting style, but their knees always got so sore from sitting like that, so they’d given up.
On one finger, Delilah twirled her keychain Talisman. Punctuating the silence with that gentle whirring sound of metal sliding around her finger, Delilah was able to smile in the solitude.
Library of Solitude… signs point to it having housed hundreds, maybe even thousands of people in the past. I don’t know why it got its name originally, but the way it is now, it definitely fits.
A gentle stirring across from her alerted Delilah to the young women waking up. She sent Reginald back through his portal – he was a secret for now, after all – and hopped to her feet.
Chelsea was the first to wake, followed an instant later by Gwen. The two presented the picture of graceful waking – both smiled very shortly after waking up, and they shared a long look with each other that conveyed a meaning Delilah knew she would never be able to discern. Then they looked at her, and things were awkward for a few moments.
First, Chelsea and Gwen stared at Delilah in complete confusion. As they blinked sleep from their eyes, Delilah tried to come up with something clever or welcoming to say. She never was good at breaking the ice, and Chelsea and Gwen felt more like strangers or acquaintances than friends to her, even after all the time they’d spent together.
“H-have a nice nap?”
Delilah cringed for stuttering, and then cringed again for the super lame line.
Chelsea opened her mouth, moved her lips a few times in confused attempts to form a reply, and then finally smiled and nodded. “Yeah,” she said. She pushed herself up to her feet. “And then some. Guess we had you worried. Sorry about that.” She turned and reached out a hand, helping Gwen to her feet. Once both were on their feet, Chelsea’s owl spread his wings and lifted off from her shoulders, soaring in a circle overhead. Chelsea laughed as she watched him. “Guess he’s restless after all that. How long were we out?”
Delilah shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t have anything to tell time with in here. But you were gone for probably at least six hours before I left to look for you. And I’ve been here watching over you for a few hours.”
“You watched over us?” Gwen asked. She looked to either side, at each of Delilah’s three Feline Summons standing guard.
Chelsea grinned. “Thanks,” she said. “You okay?”
Delilah nodded. “I’m fine. Nothing weird or dangerous happened. I just… um… what happened to you guys? You picked a pretty weird place to take a nap.”
At that, Chelsea and Gwen both burst out laughing.
“Yeah, we sure did, huh?” Chelsea asked, holding her stomach as she kept laughing. “We… ah. I don’t even know how to explain it.” She looked down the corridor, in the opposite direction from the stairs. A strange, thoughtful look crossed her face. “For a minute there I thought it might have been a dream.” She smiled. “I’m glad it wasn’t.”
“How are the others?” Gwen asked.
Delilah shrugged. “Lorelei and Isabelle were still happily reading when I left,” she said. “Merric, though… I don’t know about him. He was still gone.”
“And he was gone before we left,” Chelsea said, pursing her lips in thought. “I don’t care how much Isabelle looks up to him, I don’t like that guy.”
“Shall we head back?” Gwen asked. “And then if Merric isn’t there, we can search for him with the others.”
“I’d love to head back, but I don’t know the way,” Chelsea said with a sigh.
“I marked the path,” Delilah said. “I can get back easily.”
Chelsea grinned, reaching a hand over to ruffle Delilah’s hair. “You’re so smart,” she said. “Lead the way.”
Delilah felt a swell of pride as she left the corridor and led the way down the stairs. Though Reginald had been sent away for now, his marks would still remain, and Delilah would be able to follow them.
More than that, deciding to seek out and watch over Chelsea and Gwen had turned out to be a good decision after all. Despite not running into any danger, despite not having to actually protect them from anything, Delilah was able to help guide them back to where they came from. Without her, they would have wandered through the Library, lost and confused, once they’d awoken.
She kept Felix, Nekoma, and Redmond on alert. When they reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped out into a wider hub room, Nekoma stayed close while Redmond and Felix spread out far and wide, keeping a ready eye and ear out for trouble. Delilah spotted Reginald’s first mark, and took that path from this hub room, following the long corridor with Chelsea and Gwen close behind.
“You know, I don’t know any Hunter with multiple Summons,” Chelsea said. “And yet you’ve got three great ones. I don’t know how you did it, but I hope you realize how impressive they are. Even though we haven’t run into any trouble yet, I feel a lot safer having them looking out for us.”
Delilah smiled. On they walked, until Felix alerted her to someone farther down the dark corridor.
“There’s someone ahead,” Delilah said. “I’m not sure who.”
“Bet it’s our missing librarian,” Chelsea said, sprinting forward, Gwen close behind. Delilah, flustered for a moment, ran after them, though she didn’t stand a chance of keeping up. She took after Shias in that respect, never being one for athletic pursuits. Luckily, it wasn’t a long race ahead before they spotted Merric. He was walking towards them, with several leather-bound notebooks and rolled up scrolls clutched to his chest.
“Hey!” Chelsea shouted as she raced towards him.
Merric spotted her, and his eyes grew wide behind his round spectacles. Seeing the girls and Felines charging towards him, he turned without a word and began running away in the opposite direction.
“I don’t think so!” Chelsea shouted. She pulled out one of her silver lighters and clicked it once. A single green spark shot forward, and when it hit the ground several paces in front of Merric, it roared to life, forming a wall of emerald flame that entirely blocked the path down the corridor. “We have some questions for you!”
Merric, still not speaking, turned to the wall, fumbling with his stack of belongings as he attempted to open a side door.
“Stop trying to run!” Gwen called out. She was still a good twenty feet from Merric, but her right hand shot out towards him. Merric fell back from the door, one of his hands held up at an awkward angle as his books and scrolls tumbled to the floor. Delilah saw it now – Gwen was holding a thin, silver thread, and she’d thrown it forward so that it wrapped around Merric’s wrist, pulling him away from the door and holding him in place so the girls could catch up to him and properly confront him.
“What’s the big idea?” Chelsea asked, hands on her hips. Her owl landed on her shoulders, and the pair of them glared at Merric with matching intensity in their eyes.
“Let me go,” Merric said, tugging at the thread wrapped around his wrist to no avail.
“What’s going on?” Gwen asked, her tone much more polite than Chelsea’s. “What are you up to, and why don’t you want to talk to us?”
“It’s none of your concern,” Merric said, He refused to meet their eyes, staring at the floor as he continued to struggle against Gwen’s restraint. “Please let me go.”
“And then where will you go?” Delilah asked.
Merric sighed, his face shadowed by the light of the green flames at his back. “I must leave the Library,” he said. “As should you all.”
“I thought you were going to help us,” Delilah said. “What about Isabelle? She’s counting on you.”
“There is no saving this place,” Merric said. He looked up, and his face suddenly looked as if it had aged ten years. His eyes were haunted and desperate. “You don’t know. You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.”
“So you’re a coward,” Chelsea said.
“I am no coward!” Merric snapped, his eyes flashing, for a brief, fleeting moment, with angry intensity. “I have attempted to save this Library longer than any other. It’s been several centuries since everyone else left, but I stayed! When all else abandoned their posts, I remained! I fought on, gave my very best, but the Library is lost. I see that now. I was already prepared to leave, but then you showed up, and you brought Isabelle, and things grew more complicated, but… I can’t stay here. No one can.”
“So you were going to leave without us?” Delilah asked. “You were going to leave Isabelle behind, knowing how determined she is to save her home?”
Merric’s voice dropped to a low, despairing whisper. “There is no saving this place. The darkness grows larger and stronger, consuming these halls one by one.”
Chelsea and Gwen both suddenly smiled. “Oh yeah?” Chelsea asked. “I know a certain second floor corridor that used to be covered in the thickest darkness I’ve ever seen.”
Merric looked up, his face questioning. “Used to be?” he asked.
“We entered the darkness,” Gwen said. “When we accomplished our tasks and escaped, the darkness was gone, and the corridor was as it should be.”
“That…” Merric shook his head. “Impossible. That’s impossible.”
“We can show you ourselves just how impossible it is,” Chelsea said. “You should see it for yourself.”
“No,” Merric said, shaking his head vigorously. “I can’t. Please. Let me go.”
Someone, on the other side of the wall of flames, cleared their throat loudly. “Hey, Chelsea!” came Lorelei’s voice. “Thanks for the fire – it made it easy to find you – but do you mind taking it down, now? Isabelle has some words for Merric.”
Chelsea grinned. “You got it,” she said. The flames suddenly vanished, revealing Lorelei and Isabelle. The little redhead was clutching Lorelei’s hand tightly, but once the wall of flame was gone, she let go, stomping forward towards Merric. Her face was flushed, and her eyes, while gleaming with the onset of tears, glared fiercely at the spectacled librarian.
“Small Lady, I –” Merric started.
Isabelle reached Merric, raised a fist, and punched him in the leg hard enough that everyone in the corridor heard a loud thwack!
“Ow!” Merric exclaimed, clutching his leg with his free hand. “Small Lady, I –”
“Shut up, Merric,” Isabelle said, glaring up at him. The tears were coming now, freely rolling down her cheeks, and the fist she’d struck Merric with was trembling. “You said you’d help. And you’ve always said you’d help me. You’ve never abandoned me. But now you –” Isabelle sniffed, shaking her head. “Now you’re just going to run away and leave me alone. I don’t have anyone left from here except you. Mommy’s gone, my sisters are gone, and I don’t know where they are, or if they’ll ever come back. Mommy left me a message saying to come back here, and she left me the song that brought me home. If you leave, you’re not just abandoning me, you’re abandoning Mommy. You promised her an oath, a super-promise, and you can’t break it. And then Chelsea and Gwen actually do something good, they actually get rid of some of the darkness, and you still say it’s impossible!” Isabelle had been teetering between sorrow and anger, and finally it seemed she’d landed on anger as her primary emotion, as her tears stopped falling. “You took us to those books, and Lorelei and I have been reading a whole bunch, and I know it’s not impossible, it even says so in the books! The Light Catcher can be fixed. The darkness can be stopped. That’s the whole point of this place. I thought you’d read every book here.”
Merric stared at the floor, unable to meet the little girl’s eyes. “I have indeed read every book here,” he said. “But I…” He sighed. “I am a coward. I can’t see any hope, not anymore. Please. Just let me go.”
“No!” Isabelle shouted, firm and final. “You can’t leave, Merric! This is your home, just like it’s mine. And if you won’t help us, Gwen will just have to tie you up somewhere. We have wheelchairs, so we can tie you up in one of those, that way we can take you everywhere with us and you don’t have any way to run away.”
Merric’s eyes grew wide. “You… what?” he asked.
Chelsea laughed. “My kind of girl,” she said. “Hear that, Merric? You’re stuck with us.”
“But I –”
“No buts!” Isabelle said, stomping one foot on the floor. “We’re tying you up, and we’re going to take you to the place that Chelsea and Gwen were talking about, so you can see the truth for yourself.” She placed her hands on her hips. “Your oath-super-promise to Mommy was also to me and my sisters. I don’t like giving orders, because it feels mean. But you’re supposed to help me. It’s your job. So I’m ordering you to not be scared, and to come with us, and to think about how mean you’re being, and to stop being mean and start helping us.”
Delilah found herself fighting back laughter, and it was a difficult battle. Gwen was clearly struggling as well. It was comical to see someone so small order around an adult. But Delilah had to remind herself that Isabelle was, in fact, a princess. Without her mother or sisters here, Isabelle was clearly trying to do her best to do what was right. She was a child – despite being hundreds of years old she was, after all, an Enchanted – and she was trying her best not to cry, not to be afraid.
“Then you must tie me up,” Merric said, his tone one of complete defeat. “For I cannot yet find the strength within me to obey those orders, Small Lady. I am terribly sorry. I… I have failed you.”
Isabelle punched Merric in the leg again, though it was much softer this time. “You can be brave,” she said. “Mommy always told me, sometimes it’s hard, but everybody can do it. So let’s find you a nice wheelchair, tie you up, and you can tell me when you’re ready to be brave.”
Their search for a wheelchair brought them back to the hub room where the girls had been reading. In a large closet that was more like a room in itself, there were dozens of wheelchairs of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Isabelle let Merric pick his wheelchair, but he couldn’t decide and asked her to choose. In the end, Merric was tied up by Gwen’s silver thread in an oversized yellow chair with lots of cushioned padding and big, colorful wheels that made Isabelle giggle every time they caught the light just right to show off how they changed colors with every revolution.
“She’s awfully feisty for one so small,” Chelsea said softly as they walked along. Isabelle led the way, while Gwen pushed Merric’s wheelchair alongside her. Delilah had sent Redmond far ahead to scout for them. She, Chelsea, and Lorelei walked just a bit behind Isabelle and Gwen, while Delilah left Nekoma and Felix to guard their rear.
“Reminds me of you,” Lorelei said, smiling knowingly at Chelsea.
Chelsea grinned. “She’ll grow up into an amazing woman,” she said proudly.
“So… what happened?” Lorelei asked. “You and Gwen had a bit of an adventure, I take it?”
Chelsea nodded. “I… honestly, I don’t know how to describe it. It was…” she smiled, “something really frightening. But then it was wonderful. And I feel… different. In a very good way.”
The walk to the corridor where Delilah had found Chelsea and Gwen didn’t take very long, and once there, Merric stared from his wheelchair in shock.
“This… this is impossible,” he said.
“You’re looking at it with your own eyes,” Chelsea said, sighing.
“But how?” Merric asked. “I don’t… without the Light Catcher…” His eyes widened. “We should check on the Light Catcher.”
“Do you think it might be starting to repair?” Delilah asked.
“It’s possible,” Merric said as Gwen wheeled him away. “I want to see for myself.”
“Are you going to not believe that, too, if it’s actually fixing itself?” Chelsea asked.
“I’m doing my best to believe,” Merric said. “I just… I can’t fathom it. For you to dispel the darkness yourselves, without any training or special magic or items…”
Gwen smiled. “I’m not entirely sure we’re the ones who dispelled the darkness,” she said softly.
They reached the room with the Light Catcher, the tall silver-framed mirror. It still had the long, jagged crack running from its top right corner to its bottom left.
And yet… it seemed different.
It still didn’t reflect Delilah or the other humans and Enchanted, which was just as eerie as the first time Delilah had seen it. But the frame seemed a little bit brighter, the glass a little bit cleaner.
“It’s subtle,” Merric said, as Gwen wheeled him right up to the Light Catcher so he could examine it closely. “Yes, subtle, but… it’s regained a small portion of its light.”
“See?” Chelsea said, grinning. “The Library of Solitude isn’t hopeless after all.”
“But whatever you did likely won’t be easy to replicate,” Merric said. “In fact… I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s impossible to replicate. But that is all right. I think… well, there’s more than one way to dispel the darkness, I’m sure. If we can make our way deeper into the Library, there is hope.”
“Why deeper?” Delilah asked. “What’s farther in that isn’t out here?”
Gwen wheeled Merric around so that he could face the group. “The Library was the first Daylight Bastion,” Merric said. “It’s also what we call the Prime Bastion. Not just because it was the first, but because it’s also the strongest, and its design facilitates that. The hub rooms you’ve seen are designed that way in order to weaken and slow the spread of darkness, should things ever get so bad that it began overtaking the Library. All of these hubs are built outward, from the center. The center is the Library’s strongest point, and that is also where darkness is most strongly ingrained. If we are to free this place from the evil invading it, we must free the center.”
“So we work our way inward, finding the safest paths and fighting back the darkness as we go,” Delilah said. “What is that going to take?”
“There will be a physical confrontation,” Merric said. “For there are monsters, creatures born of the darkness that will attack our physical forms. But it isn’t entirely that. The greatest battle… it is something far less tangible.”
“I think we understand that,” Gwen said, looking at Chelsea, who nodded.
“There are safeguards against the darkness,” Merric said. “Reaching the center… there is hope there. But I wonder how possible it will be to save this place. It wouldn’t be possible at all without the Small Lady, but…”
“What about me?” Isabelle asked. Her characteristic curiosity had returned, and she listened closely to Merric’s ever word.
“Your magic is connected to the Library of Solitude,” Merric said. “You are the only one who can ultimately banish the darkness from this place – no other person here can do so. But if it is just you…” He sighed. “You and your sisters are all important to this place – the Princesses of Solitude can counteract the darkness. It is why evil forces have tried to separate all of you for as long as I can remember. And… I know not what has happened to the other Princesses.”
“Me neither,” Isabelle said, staring at her feet. “I… I lost them. And Mommy said it was very important for me to find my way back here if I was ever separated from the others, but it took me so long. Now I know why she said it was so important. We were all supposed to be here.”
“So what if we found her sisters?” Delilah asked.
Merric stared at her, blinking in confusion. “You… but how?” he asked.
Delilah shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “But if this place is connected to them, shouldn’t there be a way for it to locate them? Isabelle got lost – her sisters must have as well, and they’re all probably out there somewhere, alone and afraid, with no way to know how to get home.”
“Mari would know how to get home,” Isabelle said, shuffling her feet. “She could always find the way. She’d never get lost. And she’s super strong, nothing bad could ever happen to her!”
“It is puzzling,” Merric said. “And I would think I would know if any of them had…” He shook his head. “They should all be out there somewhere. Why Lady Maribelle has not returned is beyond me.”
“What if they’re in trouble?” Delilah asked. “If we could find out where they are, then we could go save them. Isabelle knows the song to return here, so we can come back whenever we want, right?”
Isabelle’s eyes lit up. “Right!” she said, beaming as she held out her hand, Conjuring her flute out of thin air. “I can come back whenever I want. I’ll never forget the song now.”
Merric lowered his gaze, clearly taking his time to think. “Our best option…” he said, speaking slowly as he collected his thoughts. “Yes. I think we’ll need to reach the map room. I may be the Library’s caretaker, but I’ve forgotten where everything is. The Library is vast, and so much of it has been invaded by darkness for so long that there are many places I have not seen in a very, very long time. I’ll need access to the map room in order to be sure if there’s a way to find the other Princesses from here.”
“So where’s the map room?” Chelsea asked.
Merric sighed. “In the second ring, downstairs in the third basement,” he said.
“What’s that mean in relation to where we are?” Delilah asked.
“Ooh, I know!” Isabelle said, raising her hand. “The Library of Solitude is built outward from the center. The first ring around the center is the first ring, the next ring after that is the second one. There are four rings total, and right now we’re in the fourth ring. There are also six upper floors, and three basements below us.”
“So… we have to go halfway towards the center,” Chelsea said. “And down to the bottom level underground.”
Merric nodded. “Unfortunately.”
“What’s the farthest towards the center you’ve gone?” Gwen asked.
“I haven’t been beyond the third ring in…” Merric mused for a moment. “Decades. The second ring is so infested by darkness that it’s been all I can do just to keep the third and fourth rings safe. And I’ve even failed at that.”
“So we’re going in mostly blind,” Lorelei said.
“I can lead the way,” Isabelle said, taking Lorelei’s hand and looking up at her. “I know how to get to the map room.”
“And it will be our job to keep you safe,” Lorelei said, smiling.
“If the Library is built in a ring, which side of the Library is the map room on relative to us?” Delilah asked.
“It’s on the same side we are,” Merric said. “So we at least have that advantage.”
“Do you know which paths are safest?” Gwen asked. “I’m sure they aren’t all equally dangerous.”
“We’ll have to change floors frequently,” Merric said, nodding, “but if you don’t mind a more circuitous route, I should be able to get us right up to the second ring. That is, assuming things haven’t gotten worse.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” Isabelle asked. “Come on, let’s go!”