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The vast basements of the Grand Tomar Library (the largest library in all the worlds) are pitch black and freezing cold. It’s where they keep the oldest tomes,written in the ancient tongues and bound up with old magic. These books and artifacts hold a wealth of sometimes dangerous information, but that power comes with a certain fragility. They would crumble at the slightest kiss of sunshine and begin to decay at the touch of a living hand. There is also a monster living there, among the shelves, that only I seem to know about.
All trainees have to spend time down in the dark alone. A few weeks after joining the staff, I had my turn in the depths, my only company a lantern cast in red glass. This was the first time I had been in a place where the magic was so concentrated, and it squeezed the air from my chest. I could almost make out the rivers of it wrapping and twisting around me in the nothing. It carried sounds to me and made them multiply in my ears. The gentle flutter of books seeking a roost. The soft scraping of elven skirt against human petticoat. My heels squished into the carpeted floor like mud and occasionally made a soft squelching sound when I stepped. Once I had stumbled my way past three shelves, I turned the flame down to nothing and let the vibrating shadows consume me. I blinked hard, attempting to shake the thin, weepy darkness away as my eyes tried and failed to adjust. I just had to make it through five minutes.
Only a minute had passed when I heard the distant sound of shuffling. It wasn’t a book; it was… feet? Gentle, but with purpose. A soft scuttering sound that stopped and started, but kept getting steadily closer. Three stacks away, it fell silent, and I felt a little bubble of fear pop in my chest. I pushed it down into my belly, silently chastising myself for the budding hysterics. This was a library, after all. When I heard it again, it was within arm’s reach, breathing in long ragged strokes. By the time I had fumbled the lantern switch back on, there was nothing to illuminate.
I finished my time in the dark, my pounding heart making each second drag on into eternity, and climbed back into the upper world. In private, I revealed to a more senior librarian what I had experienced.
“Don’t be concerned.” She dismissed me immediately. “The magic does peculiar things to your perception down there. The humans have it a little easier, but it can be really rough on our kind.” I didn’t speak of it again.
Over the next couple of years, I learned that almost no one ventured into the basements with regularity. Even the head librarian had only visited a handful of times in all her forty years. That was, probably, why I started going down there on my lunch breaks, passing through the secluded door in the back of the archival building and dropping down into the abyss. I never went farther than sitting on the bottom step, bathing in the light of the lantern at my feet and staring off into the inky black void beyond. Most of the time I could hear it. Ambling and creeping somewhere just out of sight. Sometimes I would think I spotted a stray shadow, but I could never be sure. It reached the point where the days I didn’t hear my monster were the most frightening.
Eventually, I took a more senior position at another library. On the last day of my post, I trekked down the steep steps one more time to sit with baited breath listening for the sound of feet. It didn’t come, so I waited. I had to hear it one last time. But it was too cold and the magic was too strong and my cardigan wasn’t enough to shield me from either. My body started curling up into a shivering ball against my will.
“You’re going to drop dead from hypothermia.” The step next to me creaked with the weight of another person. A heavy cloak came around me and both the sharp chill in my bones and the foggy cloud of magic frothing in my brain abated almost instantly.
“What are you?” I whispered to the thin, sharp voice from the void.
“A librarian.” Another crimson light flared to life. The glow it cast fell on transparent skin and gigantic blue-black eyes, and I recoiled a little. After a moment, though, I started to see the features in his face that resembled my own, and his nature became startlingly clear all at once.
“You’re a cave elf, aren’t you?” He nodded. “Why doesn’t anyone seem to know you’re down here?”
He tsked lightly. “What do you do when you need something from the Dark Shelves?”
“Put in a request to Jackie, the Assistant Director of Magical Reference.”
“Have you ever met Jackie?”
“The directors are usually super busy, so, no…oh…hold on…”
“Hi, I’m Jackie. Nice to meet you.”
“This is not a satisfactory answer to my question,” I responded. He sighed and leaned back.
“You’re a wood elf. You know how people treat the more ignoble members of the elf family. The only other person that works these floors is Marcel, and he’s a vampire. Everyone’s content to assume the whole division is run by magic rather than deal with us.”
“Is that the reason you waited until now to introduce yourself?” His skin was so pale that even in the dim light I could tell he was blushing scarlet.
“I’m shy around cute girls.” Now I was blushing in the darkness and acutely aware of his arm resting on the step behind me.
“I need to go. My lunch is almost over.” I shrugged off the cloak he had given me and stood.
“My phone number is in your locker.”
“After today, no more of those sticky co-worker fraternization policies. So, you know, if you have a free night…” His voice trailed off meaningfully.
“Oh,” and I smiled. “Alright.”
“Good.” The red light remained hovering at the bottom of the stairs as I ascended.
There’s a creature in the basement of the library that only I seem to know.