Six years ago the Greater Altalamatox Public Library put its small and remote home city on the map when it spilt out of the ether and onto the shores of its lake.
It's a building with a lot of history. Once part of a prestigious campus, it was last owned by a club of gents with a shared passion for illegal spellcraft and dimensional exploration, who used it to hide their howling voids into the cosmos and also their pointy hats and anything else they didn't want their wives to find. They never did accomplish discovery of a new world- or never had the satisfaction of knowing they did- but did manage one highly impressive feat which was to tuck the Library sideways between dimensions when the police came 'round to investigate. This was about a hundred and ten years ago.
The gentlemen, after their prison terms ended, never succeeded in summoning back the building. To that end they'd have to have known where it lay nearest to this world, and to their distress they were witnesses to what would later be known as Gow-Tow's Theory of Dimensional Oozing: the stuff between dimensions slurps about a bit. In this case, floating an entire building nine and a half worlds away to Alté, where an eerily dead patch of space next to the lake (otherwise prime waterfront estate) had long been a point of interest since its colonization.
While portal tech got up to snuff, the building bobbed in the misty void, its disappearance nearly forgotten, for a century. It hung dangerously close to the alien dimension which leaks the strange physics fancifully known as magic into the Network. And as the sun does strange things to the cells of a tenacious sunbather, all this supernatural radiation began to change the library, into the Library.
Finally came the year Alté was important enough to merit some attention from the Bureau of Rogue Portals (BORP), which sent some experts around who did a lot of peering through instruments and chalking outlines and frowning, before yanking thousands of tons of looming, sprawling, three-story, ivy-encrusted stone building out of the air like a tissue from a box.
The second biggest surprise was finding people in it.
I said that club was dabbling in the do-it-yourself, make-your-own-personal-gateway-to-an-alien-world business? It's a totally insane occupation and also inevitably fruitless, as it works a bit like the game of Battleship, using an actual size playing piece in the actual size ocean.
Ah, but they got a hit.
Over a thousand years ago all the flighted dragons vanished from the Network. This was because they'd been tyrants and their masses of humanoid oppressed bit back one decade, and kept biting, and ripping, and tearing, and killing, until all their monstrous masters were dead or tripping over their own tails to flee. Their flightless dragonian cousins remain in the Network to this day, and both dragons and men have idly wondered where the ancient oppressors flapped off to so long ago.
It was Berenger. First discovered by the flighted dragons who fled there en masse and pulled the gateway down behind them. Discovered again many centuries later by humans, who have never been able to give a reasonable explanation of their origins. Neither party was too happy to find themselves mashed together again sharing this isolated world. Cue Berenger's long and colorful history of high fantasy racial warfare.
This time the sides would be more evenly matched, as Berenger is significantly more magically inclined than much of the Network. (Meaning the humans could now hurl giant fireballs too.) The Network didn't have a Middle Ages, or didn't flounder in it for centuries like certain places, but between the surplus of magic and the constant warfare, Berenger has been technologically jammed in what looks like thirteenth-century Europe turned living-fairytale to the present day.
The gentlemen never saw Berenger. In the basement of the tucked away library it was their clockwork which correctly applied the random coordinates and their homemade gateway (read: a brick wall) melted away into a square of brilliant blue sky and verdant fields to the shock and wonder of absolutely no-one.
It's supposed the doorway to Berenger had been open for a few weeks before attracting the concern of some locals who didn't like the look of the thing, plus some of their sheep had wandered through it, and so they sent for their friendly neighborhood knight. Who showed up and did what knights were kept around for: something both terribly brave and terribly stupid. He put his face through it. There was a room with benches on the other side. He pulled his face back, there was Berenger. Benches. Berenger. Oh, and the sheep. He left his mount with the shepherds and crept into the room-somehow-in-the-middle-of-a-field to herd them out.
His mount was later sold for a fetching price and the shepherds kept whatever was in its saddle bags in exchange for their lost livestock as Sir Benjamin the Lion-Eyed, and six sheep, were never seen in Berenger again.
The knight found himself on the wrong side of a poorly-crafted one-way portal without even an inkling what that was. But what it looked like was a miserable, damnable, empty wall where his life used to be. Of course he didn't fully comprehend this until months of wandering the giant sealed library satisfied him there was no way out. But he was to discover he was not alone.
After checking every window and door of every room and hall of the mysterious building to find they all opened into impenetrable white matter, horror and shock began to congeal into horror and tedium, and the knight began flipping through the books.
The library was in an awful state. It hadn't properly been used as such in years and was already run-down by the time the gentlemen had acquired it, and they'd only cleared a few rooms to conceal their portal-seeking trials (and late-night drinking). The leap between the dimensions had not been gentle either, apparently, as entire desks and shelves had been toppled, books avalanched over the floors, skidding trails through the dust and dirt.
On the fourth day, Ben's stomach was stating in no unclear terms it was going to kill him if he didn't find something to put in it. Despite a feeling of brotherhood with the sheep, the knight picked up his sword and stumbled off in search of mutton. Instead he found something astounding. There were the sheep alright... grazing on a large patch of grass and weeds growing out of a stone floor.
Walking hazily through the deep, cool, impossible grass Ben's foot met a book lying open, pages somewhat nibbled. He lifted it to his face, examining the grass sprouting thickly from its pages. He smiled in a half-crazy way at the weirdness of it all, parting the grass to read the text between the roots. A book of gardening. He attempted to turn the page.
Daffodils! Suddenly daffodils. The sheep voiced their displeasure as their thick grass turned to bright flowers. The next flip yielded alfalfa and the sheep grudgingly baa'd their apology before digging in. Ben raised his eyes widely as it occurred to him...
Soon he was giggling madly as he pulled thick carrots out of the damned floor, and peas, and radishes, and cucumbers, and an interesting melon he found on page 387. He'd gone bonkers, he knew it, but it silenced his stomach and tasted delicious. After gorging on greens he flipped the book back to 'Chapter 24: Even More Bluegrasses' for the sheep and somewhat giddily went to see if his hallucinations extended to the other books.
The first few dozen had him convinced otherwise until The Complete Book of Hummingbirds shot a complete hummingbird at his face with intent to take out an eyeball. Ben clapped the book shut to better swat the thing, but found the bird gone. Shaking the book heartily summoned a rainbow of crazed mini-birds which took off in a melee for parts unknown. He left Hummingbirds open for the sake of company. He was understanding. Maybe not believing, but understanding.
By nightfall (according to the large (cuckoo?) clock high in the central lobby, which he'd decided might as well stand in for time in this place where the windows and glass dome looked into foggy Nothing), he'd carried an armful of nicely hallucinogenic books to the room with the Nondescript Wall Which Used to be Home where he'd taken to sleeping.
One with tight, meticulous script emitted a nice glow, and several others sent nothing forward from their pages but were like watching through a lettered shop window at a scene beyond. Ben propped these against a bench and watched each page for a while, forests with shifting lights to city streets he barely recognized as such, with people and machines. People. He was terribly lonely already. Thank god he'd found at least three good books on beers of 'The Network' and was steadily educating himself. Some of the other titles he'd found just sounded like good reads. And after a few chapters of Kilbagen's 107 Brews of Thurmund'hl, they were.
It was not lost on Ben that if real live birds could come out of a book (the hummingbirds were spotted daily at work murdering each other over a patch of woods Ben had been letting grow in a corner), then so might human beings. He would search, and in the meantime he filled each day by righting bookshelves, perusing books, filling the shelves with titles arranged according to their observed properties, which he scrawled on slips of scrap paper peeking from their pages.
It wasn't two weeks in that a book spewed out something like a furless hound with a box of cutlery for a head, which had a go at taking chunks out of Ben's body before the knight was able to make a dive at its book and shut it. And then squash it firmly under a small statue. He carried his sword from then on, as well as some of the toys he'd found gleefully in a book (concerningly) titled Ancient Weapons and Warfare: a beautiful bow and quiver and some wicked daggers.
The joy of the miracle books was wearing thin after the fourth week alone. It was about then he found one of the sheeps' carcasses torn wide open with pieces fully up a shelf. This brought new waves of excitement and Ben spent the day relocating his living quarters to a more defendable position on the second floor. This was fortuitous as it introduced him to the fiction section where one morning (according to the clock, though come to think of it he might've got the AM and PM switched around by now) he would meet the first of the Librarians.
A figure had been watching him from the third floor. He'd never have noticed it if the hummingbirds hadn't first and made a fuss. It'd seemed human enough, but he was reluctant to call out to it lest he attract the attention of the Sheep-Splatterer or lest it be the Sheep-Splatterer.
His fears were laid to rest when he'd mounted the third floor, sword drawn, shield in hand, to find a tall woman coolly watching him down a long metal and wood rod she held against one shoulder. He grinned broadly and moved forward which apparently came off all wrong from a big man with a sword who hadn't cleaned up in almost a month, because she sent off a deafening burst of magic that shattered pieces of lantern down the stairs behind him and left smoke rising from her rod. She said she knew how to use the rod. He said he could see that. She asked who he was, he told her he was a friend if she was. She moved the rod off her shoulder and they continued introductions from a distance.
She was Rebecca Gallacker. She was the widow of a scientist and explorer and no stranger to the exotic, she said, but what she'd seen in the few days she'd been wandering this building was beyond her. She didn't know why the books did what they did but they did it for her as well, and when Ben dismissed it as some kind of magic she gave him a stern look and said there's no such thing. Then she wilted a bit. Okay, she admitted, maybe there might be. She called her rod a carbine and said she'd pulled it out of an illustration. Then she laughed madly and dropped into a chair. Ben chuckled in spite of himself and, ostentatiously leaving his sword stabbed into a potted plant, sat in a chair decently distant but close enough to converse.
Neither knew how they'd got there. Neither knew where this was, neither knew how this was. Rebecca said she'd been watching him for some time and had been cautious to announce her presence lest he not speak any language she knew and come at her violently and then she'd have to blow a hole through his face. He laughed and said he did have a shield, you know. She looked at him strangely. She asked him if he knew what a gun was. He said a book or two might've mentioned it. She suggested he was a long way from Coglas to not know what a gun was. He suggested she was a long way from Berenger not to recognize magic.
And then it began to hit them. Question after question... they were not from the same world. Ben thought she might be from a land across the Endless(?) Ocean but she said no, everywhere in the world has been charted, there is no Berenger, there is no magic, you look and talk like a fairytale knight, and damn if I couldn't go for a stiff drink. Either one of them was lying or there was at least one more world than either thought existed.
By the end of the day they'd decided there was nothing for it but to consolidate camps. They had dinner over a book of fire still trying to wrap their minds around the other and around their situation at large. Rebecca watched the knight drift into softly snoring sleep on a dusty old couch. She was forty two and he must've been only a couple years younger, with a mane of dark hair and a pleasant accent. He seemed likable enough and was obviously very, very happy to have someone around.
Rebecca blessed her insomnia because that night she shot the Sheep-Splatterer as it came oozing heavily down a distant aisle toward their fire. The gunshots scared the living hell out of her companion who in turn scared the hell out of her by tumbling off the couch baring inch long canines and bright golden eyes.
After the smoke cleared, he managed to coax her to take the bead off his forehead as slowly, amazingly, the long fur on his arms and face pulled back into his skin and his face flattened out and his eyes darkened. A spell, he said, just a spell, more of that magic stuff. He began to explain his moniker 'the Lion-Eyed' and his half-baked transformation powers given to him by fairies for a favor- but she shook her head looking ill at the word 'fairies' and so he trailed her as she carried off the fire book to inspect the monster's corpse. They could only figure it'd come from a book, but who knew which and where, so they got ropes around it and pulled it off to some far corner where they left it with the gardening book open to mushrooms.
The great mystery was how they'd each arrived here and how they would escape. While Ben could relate with certainty, if not quite a straight face, that he'd had a very nice lunch at a pub then chased several sheep through a hole in the air and found himself in a basement with a solid wall at his back, Rebecca could only say she'd woken atop a pile of books and couldn't recall anything prior. She wouldn't say, but she was obviously missing chunks of her recent memories and was perturbed by this.
Ben brought Rebecca to the basement wall for her appraisal. It's definitely a wall, was the best she had for him after listening to it, smacking it, and looking away and back again quickly. She suggested, mildly, that they could go get this book with a cannon, which she explained was kind of like her carbine but you could get your whole arm into it and it shot a metal ball bigger than Ben's fists together, and see if anything was behind it, but the knight went pale and so she said on second thought maybe they were just as well leaving it intact. So they passed on to where Rebecca had found herself.
There was the big pile of books. She even reenacted the scene for her companion, sprawling on the pile with a number of books atop her as if someone had tossed her there then scampered off halfway through burying her. There was nothing special about the pile and she'd had the foresight to not scuff up the dirty ground herself to search for tracks, but if anyone had planted her there they must have done so with an airlift: the floor had been perfectly velveted in dust. It was a mystery, she said, standing up and vanishing.
Ben's jaw dropped. Then he was shouting, plowing through the pile like a dog because as impossible as it was she'd just been submerged in three feet of books it seemed like the only thing to do and--
She'd fallen into the books.
She'd fallen into a book.
He began flipping open every cover he could reach, bindings beating against the floor, echoing back from the vast dome above. Intangible sparks flickered from one and a foghorn blew morosely from another but no Rebecca. Black books, old books, books with no covers, books with no names. Then his weathered hands parted two titles and what he saw beneath made him sit back and take it up carefully.
It was modestly sized, no taller than his hands, bound in brown leather and cloth. A green ribbon trailed from its spine. It was worn but beautiful, aged yet in good shape, had the smack of something like a journal, something that had been places and seen things and would not stand for retirement crammed between common books, books which hadn't been written in a grey mountain temple amongst children in orange, by lantern light in a desert with singing spires, and everywhere in-between. It was the second most overwhelmingly intriguing thing Ben had ever seen. He felt somewhat awkward touching it. He kicked a clear swath in the dust, lowered the book as if balancing a small animal on it, and opened it with a finger.
Rebecca stared down at him. She commented on his kneeling on the floor. He commented on her standing on his book. He smiled a gentle smile. Her book, rather.
So it was they discovered why Rebecca could not recall her recent past but knew who she was and could explain her life. She'd flipped through the book unbelievingly, and then she'd walked, grim faced, holding the thing before her like a gravestone angel, to a table, sat down, and shut her eyes.
Finally she said she was fine. Alright, so, evidence pointed to her being an... apparition. She was... a character in this novel. So was her late husband. Her friends. She'd thought those thoughts, she'd been those places. They were like a vivid dream to her, she understood now why her memories here in this place had seemed so much more real than her 'life': this was the first time she'd been a 'real person,' assuming this was the 'real world.' The world suddenly had a lot more quotation marks in it.
She met the knight's eyes. He was something. He honestly gave a damn. He was as unabashedly affable as a dog and relentlessly pleasant. He could be ridiculously goofy. He was very wise. He was worn but beautiful, aged but in good shape, and had the smack of someone who'd been places and fought dragons and then had the gallantry to go back, bandage them up, and admit he'd been wrong. His eyes did not reflect a work of fiction, nowhere in his face did she find the slightest sign he cared if she came from these pages or from some author's head or from Coglas or Berenger... in fact she'd been loved before and if those eyes weren't loudly insisting she was from heaven itself she'd be damned. She turned her head slightly and gave him a small, somewhat serious smile as if to say, really now. He laughed and shut his eyes sheepishly.
Their telepathy would only improve.
It seemed the Library had been used as a massive attic for some time. Shelves and reading alcoves dominated the three radiating wings, but behind the many doors which peppered the walls were study and storage rooms packed with the strangest junk, even to a pair who'd been trapped in an enchanted library for two months. For example, what seemed to be a staff room with an expensive table was otherwise completely and unsettlingly full of ugly statuettes of gnomes. Dubbed the 'Unholy Gnome Room,' it became square one in their new plan of meticulously scouring the side rooms for clues, friends, enemies, and at best, an escape.
Some days into this endeavor, and richer by several nice pillows, a small cooking grille, Palui Waters (which bubbled over like a spring when open), and a lifetime supply of ink and quills, they broke open a lock into the most eerie sub-hall yet.
It wouldn't have been so bad had the room any windows and therefore the pale illumination from the outside mist. But it didn't, so it was in a theatrical burst of candlelight that the black room was suddenly packed with skeletons. Ben and Rebecca took three synchronized steps backwards, and, after giving their hearts a chance to recover, peered back in from the doorway.
Wait... okay. It was like taxidermy or something, like a natural history museum's basement- a menagerie of mounted animal skeletons. Well, nothing was moving. They came back with lanterns and the books of light and fire to brighten the gloom. As usual they took turns teaching the other some ditty or singing idly together to lighten the mood, loomed over by empty skulls at the edges of the light, horrid shadows shivering up the walls in the firelight.
Thankfully this promised to be a quick one. Other than the oodles of long-dead animals, some of which neither recognized, there were only a few chests and closets shoved along the back wall to root through. They'd vowed to leave no stone unturned, so Ben started sorting through chests while Rebecca, who had a knack for lock-picking, sometimes with the aid of Ben's sword, set about on the closets.
She was in fact in the middle of hacking off a stubborn lock with said blade when between thwacks she heard something that put her heart in her throat. Not a foot away, within the wood of the closet, a voice. Several muffled words which meant nothing to either of them, then silence. Ben addressed the closet with a cautious hello which got no response. He shrugged and Rebecca took a final crack at the lock, hurling it into the floor with a racket, and together they pulled open the tall doors to reveal the very thing they had been relieved to have not found among the animals... a human skeleton.
But it seemed as surprised to see them. Immediately brightly golden smoke wisps wove together behind the eye sockets as the voice, a man's voice, yelped and stammered something again in rapid fashion. Ben and Becca's eyes swiveled to one another then back to the skeleton.
"What," Ben said out of the corner of his mouth to Rebecca, "in heaven's name do you think-"
"Brindle!" [*English] The light flared. "My goodness! I apologize- I thought I'd heard voices but I wasn't sure the words or even if... I was... it's been so long... I've had so many dreams." It tumbled over on itself. "I, oh... my, I seem to be some sort of wispy something...?"
Rebecca nodded. The mist snapped suddenly to sobriety, radiating an intense glow that lit the skull like a lantern. When the voice spoke it was in dead earnest and slightly out of breath. "My god. I have a voice. I have... a voice. You... you must listen to me. Please, please say you'll listen to me?"
The voice searched for words. "My name is Charles. Charles Arrhenius, I am- was- from Vadikov. Kreve? Quite some time ago, I fear. I have been... there are no words... I have been through something no man should have to experience."
"You're human?" Ben queried.
"Were?" Rebecca amended.
"I-- yes, yes, I was, certainly I was. I died, conventionally, some time ago. I am..." the man groaned, "immortal. Suffice it to say my body died with me in it, and when they found me they carried me away but I... I had no running blood, you see, no voice, I couldn't stop them, couldn't say or do anything, couldn't let them know I was still inside."
"They," the voice growl-sniffed, "strung me up like this, like a common classroom skeleton the blackguards." A sudden shudder. "No!" Charles laughed, "No, no, no, thank god they didn't bury me, thank god, thank god, thank god..." The mist twisted sheepishly. "I'm sorry, you'll be thinking me mad. Please, I haven't spoken to another soul in so long, I only remember being shut up one day, moved, then silence, damnable silence, for an eternity no sight or sound. After so long one sort of sleeps, or something like it. I'm afraid to ask how long it's been...?
Ben coughed. "Afraid we've been here some time ourselves. We don't know the date."
"Where is here?"
"It's a Library of some kind," Rebecca chimed in, "that's the sum of all we know. My name is Rebecca. This is Ben. If you're friendly then we're your friends. We haven't spoken with anyone else in a while either."
The mist swirled back and forth between the sockets like a dog running excitedly back and forth in the bed of a truck. "No matter, no matter! You have my undyin- I mean, my deepest, deepest gratitude for finding me, Lady Rebecca and Master Ben. And if you please, I'd do anything, anything, please don't-"
"Goodness, we wouldn't just leave you here," Rebecca said, "rest... assured."
"Bless you both, bless you... But this? A library, did you say?"
The pair glanced behind themselves at the scene of flickering skeletons.
"Methinks," Ben said, "we might relocate this conversation."
And so the three returned to Rebecca and Ben's camp with their disturbing new companion in tow, bones folded into a large basket, and the three spent the evening trying to come to some understandings.
The old skeleton told them this was the first he'd been able to speak or be seen since his 'death,' and certainly the first he'd been a bit of swirly wisp. Try as he might, he was unable to move much further than a centimeter from his skull which he assumed was his immortality bonds at work. With permission, Rebecca had put a finger just within an eye socket and found the mist to be mildly warm, like the heat from a person's skin a hair away, and Charles found her touch ticklish. Ben seemed very unsurprised by it all. He'd seen ghosts before in Berenger, he said, and Charles was obviously some such, bound within his remains.
Ultimately more concerning than their friend's metaphysical state was what he had to tell them about his origins. Kreve, he kept telling them, good lord, how can you have never heard of Kreve? The massive, the remote, the deucedly icy? Even the most backwater Networker must have at lea-- But here Ben and Rebecca cut him off. The Network? Over half the books here are about the Network, they told him, what do you know about it?
The skeleton would have blinked his eyes if he still had them. The Network? We're in the Network, how do you mean? This library, he said, if it was coming back to him properly, is on a closed-down campus outside of Brindle, one of the founding nations of the Network, a prestigious, bustling nation full of, of... He trailed off at their expressions. They directed his attention to one of the cloud-choked windows.
And does this Brindle look mostly like nondescript white matter, Ben wanted to know. Charles didn't know what to think of that. He also didn't know what to think of the enchanted books his companions flashed in front of him. He certainly didn't know what to think of Rebecca herself being some kind of bookly byproduct and had never heard of Berenger. The suspicion that Charles was not from 'the real world' either was laid to res-- settled, that is, when he was able to explain so much of what they'd been gathering about this Network place.
But if the Network was real and here and now... where was it?
Perfectly immobile and unwieldy, Charles couldn't accompany the pair on excursions, until, with permission and a screwdriver, Rebecca removed the skeleton's skull. They stowed his remaining remains under a heavy couch and from then on the loquacious haunted skull went everywhere with them.
Charles turned out to be an amusing fount of wry wit and peanut gallery commentary on whatever his friends were doing. Benjamin got a kick out of the old ghost's sense of humour and Rebecca enjoyed his stories, and both were grateful for the presence and guidance of someone much older and wiser than they, almost as grateful as Charles was to just be in their company.
These three go on to spend the next few years together in their odd prison, joined gradually by other Librarians such as Jackie the rigging rat, Alan the cowboy, and Vra'kriss the reformed (?) dark lord. The Library is hacked into circa 2006, and three years later opens as a functional public library to support itself. This is the point these characters appear at on dA.
There end up being around ten Librarians but these three remain the core of the group.
Rebecca is the Library's spine. She doesn't take crap, she doesn't back off, and she personally sees to all meetings with hardboiled business persons and officials who think they deserve a slice of the Library. She is also the smack-down if any of the Librarians are acting like idiots. She's totally regarded as the scarier of the two leading librarians. She is very calm and charming, actually, but if you make her draw her weapon she will damn well make you regret it.
Benjamin is the Library's heart. DAAW. But he is. Very often Becca's hellfire is not needed if Ben can settle a problem with humor and kind words and by generally radiating happy sunshine. Ben's the one the Librarians go to when they need a hug. He's also the one patrons go to when they need a hug. He's like this tireless cog of positive vibes turning at the center of the Library's little family. This is not to say that Ben doesn't have horribly dark moments like anyone, he's just relentlessly committed to being pleasant.
Charles is the Library's brains. He sees farther than either Ben or Becca and suggests solutions and alternative that wouldn't occur to them. If you need practical advice or a problem considered, you pay the old ghost a visit, if you can brave the sea of sarcasm. He is basically charting the Library's future and advises Becca and Ben on how to practically manage the business. On his own time, he's the Library's Webmaster and IS the Library's digital presence and voice.
(There is a teeny tiny highly convincing argument that Charles, as its first inhabitant and only true Network denizen, should in fact have legal ownership of the Library. He wants no part of that whatsoever and is perfectly happy with Ben owning the place. This has not stopped Ben and Becca leaving it to him in their will.)