Chelsea sat at the table attempting to read the book in front of her, but she couldn’t help watching her friends instead.
They’d moved back out to the domed chamber of bookshelves. Despite saying he’d show the girls the entire library, Merric had instead ushered them back to the earlier chamber, saying “you need to study before you’re prepared to see more.”
Chelsea hated people who talked in riddles like that.
Their group had taken up a large open study area, and Merric had lit several lamps, shedding a warm orange light that provided a soothing atmosphere more effective for napping than reading. Chelsea had planted herself at a table with the book Merric had suggested – Lock and Key: Advanced Magical Security – and started reading, but it was quite difficult. The book was horribly formatted – there was no table of contents, no pictures, no headers or divided sections like chapters. It was an unbroken wall of text that stretched for seven hundred and fifty-seven pages.
So after a few pages of boredom, Chelsea had taken to people-watching. Her owl familiar seemed to have dozed off, his pillowy form pressed into the back and top of Chelsea’s head.
Delilah had chosen a round, plush armchair and had promptly curled up in it like a cat. Her long blonde curls looked like some strange kind of body pillow that Delilah had sunken into, and she had a curious look on her face as she slowly turned the pages.
Close to Delilah’s spot was a couch, where Lorelei sat in the very center, with perfect posture as always as she read her book. She had to hold the tome up in the air, because her lap was occupied with Isabelle’s legs. The red-headed girl had decided to lay on her back across the couch with her legs draped over Lorelei’s, while her head was near the arm of the couch. She held the book up in air, arms outstretched, the very picture of childish curiosity as her feet bobbed back and forth.
Chelsea’s chosen table, Delilah’s chair, and Lorelei and Isabelle’s couch, formed a sort of circle. There were more seats available in this circle, and yet Gwen had chosen to sit just outside of it, in a rocking chair. Her chosen location, her posture, and her facial expressions all suggested to Chelsea that Gwen wanted to be closer to the group, looking as if she wanted nothing more than to sit next to Lorelei.
If Caleb were here, Chelsea thought, he’d just up and invite Gwen to join us. But Chelsea couldn’t bring herself to do it, finding herself feeling rather awkward and guilty as she watched the golden-eyed tailor struggle with her position just outside of the rest of the group.
If Caleb were here… Chelsea thought, dwelling on the possibilities, the absence of the one she loved. If he were here, the two of them would probably be on a couch together, sitting as close as possible. He’d slip his arm under hers, or hold her book for her, or perhaps they’d be reading the same book and holding it together.
Chelsea didn’t remember struggling with loneliness or homesickness as a child. Despite the tragedies she’d struggled through, those had fostered entirely different emotions within her. It wasn’t until the first time she and Caleb were apart, shortly before they started dating, that Chelsea first remembered feeling the pangs of loneliness. It had been a frustrating feeling, a helplessness that Chelsea couldn’t come to terms with, and it came up again and again with her every time she and Caleb were parted.
Why does that boy tie my heart up in knots whenever he’s away?
Realizing she really wasn’t going to get anywhere with her current book, Chelsea closed it and stood up, stretching her arms up overhead, as her owl familiar awoke and mimicked the movement. She cast another look at Gwen, who, noticing Chelsea looking at her, quickly buried her face in her book.
Come on, Chelsea. She made you a brand new outfit. Don’t leave her in the cold.
Chelsea took a deep breath, then let it out. She walked over to Gwen and leaned on the back of her rocking chair.
“How’s the book?” she asked.
Gwen looked up as if she just realized that Chelsea was there. “Oh, um, hi, Chelsea,” Gwen said, offering a shy smile. “It’s… fine.”
Chelsea, feeling just as awkward as Gwen came off but doing her best not show it, smiled back. “Wanna explore a bit?” she asked.
Gwen blinked twice. “What?” she asked.
Chelsea looked around, as if inviting Gwen to do the same. “Notice something?” she asked. “Merric vanished. I know he said he’d be back, but it’s been a few hours. Aren’t you curious where he’s run off to?”
“Well, I…” Gwen fumbled with her words for a bit, and then met Chelsea’s eyes. She showed the same rebellious curiosity that was core to Chelsea’s personality. “He did say not to wander off.”
“But who’s gonna stop us, right?” Chelsea asked, grinning.
“What about the others?” Gwen asked as she closed her book and stood up.
Chelsea waved a hand dismissively. “They’re actually enjoying their books,” she said. “Let’s not disturb them. Come on.”
Together, Chelsea and Gwen left the warmly lit study space, wandering off into the bookshelves. The room was circular, and the shelves were largely arranged in long aisles, like spokes on a wheel. The study space the girls had occupied was at the very center of that wheel, but these aisles were still broken up occasionally by smaller study areas. Gwen and Chelsea continued to travel outward, switching aisles now and then, with Chelsea leading the way.
“Where are we going?” Gwen asked.
“We’re exploring,” Chelsea said. “Merric said he’d show us more of the Library, but that hasn’t happened. I think he’s hiding something.”
“It seems like he’s hiding a lot of things,” Gwen said. “But he might have a good reason for it.”
Chelsea stopped as she climbed the stairs near the perimeter, turning to face Gwen with hands on her hips. “You know, for some reason I thought you wanted to explore free from the constraints of someone telling us where we can and can’t go,” she said. “But if you want to go back to reading your super exciting book…”
Gwen grinned. “All right, let’s see what we can see,” she said.
“That’s more like it,” Chelsea said. The pair climbed the stairs to the top of the room, and then started walking around the perimeter, passing the archway to the entrance hall, and then the one to the corridor Merric had taken them down earlier to show them the Light Catcher. At the next pathway leading away from the wheel-like chamber, Chelsea turned to head down it.
“It’s awfully dark,” Gwen said as she followed.
“We can handle that,” Chelsea said. She smiled up at her owl, who took to flight, staying a few paces ahead of them, shedding white light around him. Chelsea pulled out one of her lighter Talismans, clicking it once to bring a ball of emerald fire to life, floating it up above their heads as they walked. The corridor seemed to go on forever, and so far no doorways or branching rooms were visible.
“So between this library and the music library in Millennium Vista,” Chelsea said as they walked, “which would you prefer to spend your time in?”
“Well, I prefer a variety of books over one single subject,” Gwen said. “And despite the danger, the Library of Solitude is so… fascinating. Look at this corridor. Where does it go? What kind of library has so much empty space like this? Or… are there secret passages off of here?” She started to feel along the walls, stopping to eye a stone statue suspiciously.
“I like the way you think,” Chelsea said. She sized up the statue, which resembled the stereotypical fantasy wizard: old and bearded, wearing a hooded cloak and gripping a gnarled wooden staff in one hand. She poked the statue’s eyes, to no avail. Gwen was twisting at parts of the staff, but none of it budged. Chelsea’s Summon drifted down, perching atop the wizard’s head as the girls tried in vain to discover a secret passage.
“Guess there’s nothing here,” Gwen said, pouting slightly.
Chelsea flashed a grin. “Well, we just keep on going, then, right?” she asked.
Forward the pair went, surveying the corridor by the emerald light of Chelsea’s ball of fire and the white light of the owl. Every brick in the wall that seemed out of place was pushed and prodded. Every statue got a full pat-down by the would-be discoverers of secret passages. Farther and farther they went, with nothing to show for their efforts. The arched ceiling of the corridor loomed in shadows overhead, while the darkness before them seemed to grow ever deeper. Chelsea started to check her magical light now and then, wondering if it had grown smaller or dimmer, but it never did.
“What’s the point of such a long corridor with nothing in it?” Chelsea asked.
“More than anything now I just want to know where it leads,” Gwen said. “Maybe they made it this long so they could have races.”
Chelsea burst out laughing. “There’s a novel idea,” she said. She pulled out her lighter again, summoning a second ball of fire that floated several feet above her head. The first ball readjusted its position, now clearly staying above Gwen’s head. “Race you to the end.”
Chelsea took off running, and Gwen shot after her, protesting. “That isn’t fair, I can’t use Enhancement Magic like you!” she called out.
“I won’t use mine!” Chelsea called back, running on her own physical strength and nothin else. Despite what many people thought about Hunters, Enhancement Magic wasn’t something they used at all times. Chelsea and Caleb frequently ran under their own power, saving magical spurts of speed for when they needed it most.
More than that, Chelsea just enjoyed the feeling of physical exertion without any magical assistance. It was exhilarating, and every time she glanced back she was impressed at how Gwen kept up with her. For someone whose skillset was decidedly sedentary, Gwen was shockingly athletic, very nearly keeping pace with the experienced Hunter.
They ran for several minutes, often laughing and yelling for no apparent reason. They were just enjoying themselves.
Though Chelsea occasionally thought it might be something a little bit deeper. All this darkness and gloom in the Library of Solitude could easily be depressing, even soul-crushing. Laughing in the face of it seemed like the best way to fight back against the shadows.
Finally, the corridor opened up, and Chelsea and Gwen came to a stop, panting for breath as they surveyed their new environment. Chelsea sent the ball of flame over her head floating around the room, illuminating it in bits and pieces.
“It’s not much different from where we came from,” Gwen said, disappointment apparent in her tone.
“So why put so much empty space between them?” Chelsea asked, staring at the domed, circular room with long aisles of bookshelves.
Gwen’s eyes brightened. “Maybe…” she said, turning around and staring at the corridor they’d traveled down. “Maybe out here, there are tons of other rooms.” She gestured at the walls to either side of the corridor. “So while there aren’t entrances to those rooms from this corridor, they still take up space so that the only way for a room this large to exist is to place it far beyond them.”
“So how do we get to the other rooms?” Chelsea asked. She started to walk along the perimeter, and soon came to a new corridor. It was only a few paces away from where Chelsea and Gwen had entered this room. “This looks promising.”
“Shall we?” Gwen asked, eyes bright with excitement and curiosity. Together the pair, illuminated by two glowing spheres of emerald fire, started down a new path.
“It seems darker than before,” Chelsea said, conjuring two new orbs of fire to add to their lighting. Her owl Summon had come to perch on her shoulders again, as there wasn’t any room for him to fly around.
“And not as spacious,” Gwen said, crowding near Chelsea. “Ah, here we go.” She found a door that Chelsea had missed, turning the handle and swinging it inward.
They stepped into a small bedroom. A simple wooden slab in the corner served as a platform for a mattress. The sheets and pillows atop it were coated with a fine layer of dust. Aside from the bed, there was a dresser that had its drawers pulled out, as if it had been emptied in a hurry, and a nightstand by the bed that held a single framed photograph.
“A man in love,” Gwen said, holding up the photo. It showed a young man with long, curly hair and a bright, perfectly straight smile with his arm around a woman who hugged him back enthusiastically.
“Not that in love,” Chelsea said dryly, “or he would’ve taken the picture with him when he left in a hurry.”
“Maybe he had to choose,” Gwen said, putting the photo back. “Look. These marks look like spaces where other pictures were.”
Chelsea considered the implications of the clues around her. “So the guy left in a hurry,” she said. “Probably running from whatever put the Library in this state. So they had some kind of warning.”
“Everyone except Merric is gone now,” Gwen said. “Perhaps he made it possible for others to escape safely.”
“Seems likely,” Chelsea said. She left the room, with Gwen behind her. A few paces farther, they found another door, leading into another bedroom that had all the signs of being abandoned in a hurry.
“Probably this whole corridor is filled with these tiny bedrooms,” Chelsea said. “For low-level staff, probably. Merric treats Isabelle and her mother like royalty, so they probably have a lot of servants, and a place this big would need a lot of menial workers just to keep it functioning.”
“A rather sad place for bedrooms,” Gwen said. “It doesn’t seem close to anything other than library chambers.”
“Good point,” Chelsea said, leaning against the wall outside the third bedroom they found. “Where would they go to eat? Or bathe? What do you think? Are the kitchens and baths close, or far away?”
“There are probably multiple of each,” Gwen said. “Depending on the hierarchy and structure here, there might be a nearby kitchen and bathrooms that are of a lower quality specifically for the people who live in this sector of the Library.”
“So do we keep looking at bedrooms, or try a new hallway?” Chelsea asked.
Gwen stood in the hallway, bobbing her head from side to side as she considered their options. “I don’t want to keep looking at bedrooms,” she said. “But I also don’t want to stay in the less interesting areas of the Library. If possible, I’d like to find signs of this really being a home, the way Isabelle thinks of it. So far, it feels like a workplace with meager in-house lodgings for their employees – not like a place people would actually call home.”
“Good point,” Chelsea said. They headed back out from the bedroom corridor into the circular chamber, and walked once around the entire perimeter, surveying each entrance they found. In all, there were twelve branching paths off from this room, including the corridor they’d arrived from.
“Those two looked most promising,” Gwen said, pointing straight across from them, and then slightly to the left. “Larger entrances with ornate stonework. And the carpets were different.”
They traveled back over to the larger entrances, both side-by-side. “They look practically identical,” Chelsea said, looking them over carefully. “What do you think?”
“I once met a human who had an interesting way of deciding between two choices,” Gwen said, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a coin.
“Ah,” Chelsea said, understanding. “Well, which entrance is heads, and which is tails?”
They decided that left would be heads, while right would be tails, and Gwen flipped the coin to Chelsea. Chelsea caught it in midair, slapping it down on the back of her other hand. “Heads,” she said, tossing the coin back to Gwen. “Let’s go left.”
Down the left path they went, and it wasn’t long before they came to a wide staircase that wound its way upward.
“I kept wondering if there were higher or lower floors,” Gwen said, gazing at the stairs excitedly.
“Pretty glad you left the reading room, huh?” Chelsea asked, smirking.
Gwen smiled. “I’m glad you invited me,” she said. “Thank you. I was feeling rather restless.”
“You and me both,” Chelsea replied.
Up the stairs they went, with Chelsea in the lead. Ascending seemed to lead to darker places, until they stepped out into a new corridor that was almost pitch-black, even with four of Chelsea’s flaming spheres providing light. Chelsea sent one forward into the gloom, and within seconds, it vanished. She blinked in confusion, calling it back, but…
It didn’t return.
“What happened?” Gwen asked.
“I… don’t know,” Chelsea said, staring at the shadows ahead in puzzlement. Her owl remained perched on her shoulders, and she was relieved she hadn’t sent him ahead as a scout. What would have happened?
She held up a finger to her lips, and Gwen quieted herself, even breathing as quietly as she could, while Chelsea did the same. For several moments they stood there as silent as possible, listening and watching ahead.
There was… something. Chelsea could tell that much. She didn’t dare dismiss the remaining three fire spheres overhead, despite the slight crackling and hissing noises they made, but she could hear something besides them, coming from ahead.
The fear of the dark was an interesting thing. Chelsea was one of those people who always responded with a resounding “Of course not!” whenever someone asked if she was afraid of the dark, but she couldn’t believe that with complete certainty.
Who wasn’t afraid of the dark, at least to a small degree? Who didn’t fear the unknown ahead of them, or dread wandering into a dark place with nothing to illuminate the shadows? In darkness could be anything, and not knowing what was right in front of you, or behind you, or beside you, was a terrifying, haunting feeling that Chelsea always felt in the back of her mind when faced with an unlit room or gloomy tunnel. It wasn’t a pervasive fear, or something that jumped out at her, or seized her in a paralyzing grip of terror. It was something subtle, under the surface, something she struggled to ever admit to herself, because it didn’t always even feel like fear.
It was a small, subtle sensation that all was not right. A tiny knot in the pit of her stomach. A whispered warning in the back of her mind.
Before her, Chelsea now faced a darkness the likes of which she’d never seen. It was darkness like a living being, darkness that had just swallowed up one of the four lights that Chelsea commanded.
She couldn’t avoid that fact. Her own magic, magic that brought light into darkness, had been swallowed up, consumed, destroyed by something unseen in the shadows ahead.
And as she stood with Gwen, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end, she listened.
And she heard something.
She couldn’t place it. It was faint, but powerful. It came from in front of her, and from all around her. It was quiet, and yet it couldn’t be ignored. Like drums, or like chains, or perhaps like cloth blowing in the wind.
Like a voice.
A voice calling her name.
Was it her name? Chelsea couldn’t be sure. Of course she couldn’t be sure. Was it even a voice? She had no idea what it was.
So why did she think she heard her name?
“Chelsea,” Gwen said softly, yet loud enough to make Chelsea jump. “Sorry. I… do you hear it, too? It’s like…”
“Someone’s calling me,” Chelsea said.
Gwen nodded. “Do we go forward?” she asked.
For a moment, Chelsea wanted to say are you crazy? But she couldn’t.
Why not go forward? Why else had they come this far, if they were just going to turn back?
What the heck are you so afraid of, Chelsea?
Was that a voice in the darkness, or Chelsea’s own thoughts? She couldn’t be sure.
“What do you want to do?” Chelsea asked, her voice barely a whisper. She studied Gwen’s face in the dim green light, a light which cast wild shadows and made Gwen’s features look gaunt and hollow.
Gwen turned her eyes on Chelsea, gold flecked with green, a haunted look that cut straight to Chelsea’s core. And yet, staring into those eyes, Chelsea felt like she was making the same face. Something haunted her, something she couldn’t escape. Whatever it was, it had taken hold of Gwen, too.
“I want to go forward,” Gwen said softly.
Are you freaking stupid? she wondered. This is crazy. Get more information. Call up more light, test the darkness ahead of you, do something to make sure –
The voice in Chelsea’s mind, her conscience, or whatever you might call it, abruptly cut off. Chelsea forced it out.
A voice called to her.
She would answer.