Anecdote XLIX. A Game of Fate and Chess

June 23rd, 2015

When Lask entered the Library the night Zestir died, he did not stop at his podium on the landing. Instead, he took the staircase on the left and trotted down to the main floor. He paused for just a moment at one of the tables near the steps, placing a foot on one of the chairs to draw his boot knife, then preemptively unfastened the top five clasps of his shirt. Taking a breath, he steeled himself, and whispered to the Library,

“Please let me emerge from here again.”

With that, he set off down the main aisle. It would not be like chasing Satha into the Library’s depths. There would be no need to twist and turn through the endless shelves. Instead, he had to walk the length of the endless expanse, until he came to the place where his plane of existence could go no further.

Lask took a relaxed pace, not knowing how long it would take to reach the border, and wanting to conserve his energy. This part of the aisle was familiar. He had perused it often, and shown his students and visitors around it many times. His long stride carried him away from the door, until his landing and stairs were just pinpricks behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he took one last look at the door, then carried on until it was out of sight. He could feel the words of the Writer trailing behind him, like an invisible thread. He hoped they would be enough to pull him home.

It was hard to look ahead. The light that shone from the horizon was bright enough it made his head hurt if he stared too long. Instead, he watched the shelves as they rolled past him, like waves on an ocean of ink, full of more books than could ever be cataloged. The shelves stretched ahead of him as far as he could see, and spread out on either side, continuing under the archways into eternity. Light streamed through the stained glass at the tops of the walls, and the wind of his passage stirred faint motes of dust in swirls in his wake.

He could feel the pressure building in his chest. He imagined it was like diving in the ocean. He tried to hold off as long as he could, but eventually, he had to pause and bring his knife up to his chest. He pressed the tip of it to the center of his scar, the point sinking into his skin. As his skin was punctured, air sputtered out of the scar with a slight spattering of blood. Lask’s jaw tightened, knowing it was the first of many times he would have to open the scar.

There was no time in the Library. Lask couldn’t tell if he had been walking for an hour or a day. The Library was a bright and welcoming place, but he could not help being afraid. The sheer scale of the Library was frightening. Though he had walked in only a straight line, he imagined how easy it would be to get lost. It was like drifting in space, being a mere speck on the face of the universe. Lask was a powerful man in his life, but in the Library, he felt like nothing. It was as if he were a child alone in the woods, and though there were no predators to stalk him here, the aloneness he felt in the face of that beautiful oblivion was terrifying.

“Elbariel,” he whispered, as if afraid to shatter the silence, “Can you still hear me?”

A book fluttered from a nearby shelf and fell open at his feet, revealing only a large, illuminated word: yes.

Lask nodded, and reached to pick up the book. As he drew it into his hands, the pages fluttered, revealing another passage: Be not afraid, for I am with thee. Be not dismayed, for I am thy God, who strengthens thee. I will help thee always. I will uphold thee always in my right hand. Lask smiled at the words and whispered, “Thank you.” He closed the book and set it back on the shelf from where it had fallen.

He continued on, feeling a faint breeze blow at his back, knowing the Library was encouraging him on. He strode with bolder steps, as a child walks when holding a parent’s hand. The breeze blew him deeper and deeper into the expanse of shelves and words, and twice more he had to stop to prick the scar with his knife to relieve the growing pressure. After the third time, he stopped and leaned against on the shelves. He could feel the journey beginning to take its toll, so spoke again,

“Elbariel, you told me I may need to untether myself from time to make this journey. How do I do so?” A book slid off the shelf across the aisle from him. Lask crossed over to it and scooped it up. “Where should I look?” he asked.

The pages fluttered, opening to necessary information. Lask propped the book open on a shelf at eye level, then set about calibrating the device on his right arm. Ivan had done an impressive job on the piece, and as Lask turned its gears and knobs, and adjusted the sliders, it was as if he could hear the jingle of things unbuckling as he slipped free of time. It was easy to do in the Library, in a place where time did not exist. He followed the Library’s instructions to the letter, and when the last adjustment was made, it felt like shedding a stifling heavy coat. He felt instantly lighter. When he started walking again, it was like floating. He imagined he did not walk at all, but willed himself forward through the air. For a moment, he thought it was like the memories he had of gliding on the wind.

He continued on for what would have been miles, only there was no distance in this place. He thought he was probably walking on into nighttime or the next day, if he were still connected to his own time. The light pouring into the Library never moved or waned; it was a constant flood of brightness, as if only noontide existed. Lask paused again to vent the scar in his chest, and this time, it sent a small trickle of blood down his white torso. He wiped it away, and the bleeding stopped. He wondered how much farther he would have to travel, but decided not to ask, lest the answer daunt him.

As he passed ever deeper into the Library, it was as if the veil of existence grew thin. He could hear faint voices echoing in the arches and shelving. Some of the voices were familiar, others foreign. He heard things spoken in the past, and things he did not remember– perhaps they had not passed yet on anyone’s tongue. At first, it was only the voices, then the flickers began to appear.

He heard laughter, and turned his head to see Elanor skipping up behind him. She was young, perhaps only seven years old, but as she moved, he realized he could see through her. She twirled a rainbow length of ribbon on a stick, making spirals and loops in the air. As she passed him, she seemed to flicker and shine with iridescent opaline colors, never quite solid. She skipped into the distance ahead of him, then was gone.

Lask carried on, the voices still whispering around him. He heard a hawk’s cry above him, and looked up to see Aleva soaring under the rafters. As he watched her, she flickered out of her gold and black hawk shape, and into a deep blue eagle. “Jane!” she called, and then she was gone.

The next time Lask pierced the scar, a spurt of blood flew out with the rush of wind. It spattered on the floor before him, like a crimson spill of ink on the immaculate floorboards. It lingered a moment, then sank into the floor, as if it had never been there at all. In that moment, Lask wondered how much blood had been shed in the Library (and for what), and wondered if he were walking on a long road of invisible red.

The voices chattered incessantly, and the visions came with greater frequency. Lask saw each member of his family several times. Often they were happy, but more than once he came upon one of his alkesh mates weeping among the shelves. At first, he tried to stop and comfort them, but they drifted out of sight like smoke. He saw his children, older, grown, and had only seconds to marvel at their age and loveliness before they, too, passed back into the ether.

Lask could feel tiredness beginning to settle over him. He no longer felt as though he were floating. It was as if weight were creeping back into his feet with each step. After he pricked his scar again, the blood did not stop. Small drops continued to appear after the gust had passed out of his heart. He pushed himself onward, unable to ignore the voices coming from all sides.

I’ll never stop watching for you.

–bring me the flags? The wind is up tonight–

–was born a king, and will always be a king.

–to tell me. Why keep secrets when I can feel them in you?

Adar, save him!

The life we had is over–

I love shopping–

Tell me, love, where does the sun go when it’s dark?

–in a time when Mortherik’s evil is gone from the world.

She died a long time ago–

–another, Tabo! Another!

Hey, Light bastard! Come out here where I can–

How can you do this to my life, to me? What about what I want?

I know exactly what you are–

Just do it. What is more pain to me now?

Look after my–

–in the Halls of the Wind.

The voices were chaos. There was no context to any of them, though Lask recognized some of the words, and many of the voices. The visions flickered on both sides of him now, people and places he had known, and ones he had not yet met. They seemed to meld and mingle, yet all flowed onward in the same direction, drifting past him like ghosts, as if urging him on. Blood trickled in rivulets down the front of his chest, and just as he thought he might go mad with the swirl of words and images, he saw it.

Up ahead, the fog began. It started as faint wisps curling around the shelves at the floor. As Lask continued on, the fog began to thicken, and the voices and visions faded away, absorbed in the fog. The light still shone as brightly as ever, but the fog began to obscure the expanse, until he could see only a few shelves ahead of him. Lask stopped, afraid to continue further. There was a point where he would walk far enough he would be unable to return. He would cross out of his plane, and into the plane beyond, and as far as he knew, there was no coming back. There didn’t appear to be any markers, so he hoped he had not walked too far already. He closed his eyes, feeling for a moment the words of the Writer still tethering him, and thought as long as he could still feel them, he would be able to find his way back.

Lask tucked his knife back into his boot, then pulled a phial from his pocket and removed the stopper. Kneeling down, he used his hand to sweep some of the fog into the phial. When it seemed full, he replaced the stopper, then tucked it back into his pocket. When it was done, he waited a moment. The Library had said it would arrange for someone to meet him with the Chessboard, but it seemed he was still alone.

“Savenen? Hello?” he called into the fog.

Only silence answered.

He decided to chance going a little farther. He took another step into the mist, trying to keep steady focus on the feel of the Writer’s words, the way a ship tugs at the lines in the harbor. A few drops of blood dripped from his chest onto the floor, and instead of sinking in, they rolled away, as if the floor sloped. The fog too, seemed to pull into the distance, drawn onward by an invisible force. Lask, too, felt the pull. It was quiet, and inviting, seeming to promise every peace and pleasure one could imagine. It was only when he felt a faint tug in the back of his mind that he realized he should stop.

A faint tension had grown in the connection with the Writer’s words. He did not know how much it would take to break it, but he dared not put it to the test. He stood still, knowing he could go no further, and waited in the silence. He could feel the blood running down the front of his chest, and looked down to see the scar was bleeding freely. It was not a heavy pouring of blood, but it was steady. Lask was not concerned, but hoped he would not have to wait here long.

It was so quiet, he thought he should have heard the footsteps, but there were none. He could see a shape in the fog ahead, barely a shadow. It was coming closer, slowly drawing into focus through the thick fog. As it approached, Lask could see it was a woman, strongly built and surprisingly solid. As she moved through the fog, he could pick out brown skin, a deep red stripe–

“Phena!” his voice split the silence like the sudden peal of a bell. He started to rush toward her, but she shouted,

“No! Stay there! You’ve come far enough already.”

Lask forced himself to be still, but the pull to rush onward was stronger than ever. He felt tears sting in his eyes as she drew near, and he reached out to her, but she pulled back from him.

“You mustn’t touch me,” said Phena as she came to stand in front of him. She seemed younger, brighter somehow. “If you even brush me, you can never go back; you will have to come into the beyond with me.”

“You’re still you,” Lask whispered. The tears spilled down his face with the words. “Phena, you’re…” He almost said alive, but stopped himself.

As if hearing his thoughts, she smiled, and told him, “I am not alive as you are, but I am not gone either. I cannot tell you of the beyond here, but yes, I am still me. I have brought this for you.”

It was only then Lask registered she was holding the Chessboard. It was bound in golden twine, keeping it closed, with the pieces tucked safely inside.

“One of Wyatt’s alkesh mates brought it with her as she was dying to take it out of your plane after Lenore died. It was the only way to keep it out of the Dark’s hands at the time. I hope it will not have to be sent back here again.” She offered it to him.

Lask reached out, taking the free end of the Chessboard. It was hard not to reach for her, not to take her hands in his own, but he did not. His fingers passed within an inch of hers, but did not touch. He took the Chessboard into his arms, cradling it. Phena smiled at him.

“You must go,” she said. “You’ve taxed yourself enough already. Get home, set the pieces, ask it about Moloch, sooner rather than later.”

“I miss you every day,” Lask whispered.

“I know,” she replied, with the same kind eyes she always had. “I’m not far; just on the other side of the wind. Sit in the garden with me as you used to and talk to me as you once did. Do not speak of me with heavy words, for I am light as a feather. Do not think of me as dead, for I am as bright as I ever was. I have but gone ahead of you. You will come home to me at the end of the days that are given to you.”

“Tell me this,” said Lask, “Are you happy? Is it good there?”

“There is much happiness here,” answered Phena, and he could see from her smile that it was true. “There is much love, and light. Here there are all the friends I knew and loved.” She paused and smiled at him. “Well, almost all of them.”

A flicker of her smile spread onto Lask’s face. She seemed to brighten at the sight of his smile. He could almost see her want to reach out to him, but instead she clasped her hands in front of her.

“You are beautiful,” she told him, “So bright. You love so much, and shine for so many. I never grow tired of watching you grow.”

“You see me?” he said.

“You have many who watch over you, Lask.”

There was the faint sound of dripping, and Lask looked down to see the wound in his chest pouring faster onto the floor.

“You must go,” Phena told him.

“I wish we could–”

“I know.” Phena smiled at him again, with just a hint of sadness. “Sit in your garden and think of me.”

“I think of you every time I step among the roses.”

Phena’s eyes seemed to warm at his words.

Lask clutched the Chessboard and bowed to her. “I love you,” he told her. “Thank you.”

“You are well loved, Lask,” she answered, “By me, and by many.” He opened his mouth to speak again, but she stopped him. “No goodbyes,” said Phena. “Go. Fly.”

Lask closed his eyes and bowed to her once more, then turned around to begin the long walk back. He took five steps, then turned, but Phena was gone. He felt the ache of her absence in his chest, and did not know if it were the strain of the journey or the missing her that made his heart bleed faster.

Turning back to his path, he started walked again. He passed out of the fog, and through the stretches of visions of voices. It was a longer passage, for he walked slower, the weight of the journey impeding his steps. He could feel himself tiring, but pushed on, plodding for what seemed like hours or days. He felt adrift, as if it were only the Writer’s words keeping him from falling away into infinity. He glanced down and saw the hands of the clock on the time cuff spinning aimlessly in opposite directions. He had almost forgotten.

“Elbariel,” he called. “How do I tether myself back into my own time?”

A book came soaring out of the shelves to him. He caught it in his free hand and it fell open to a page with instructions. He propped the book on a shelf nearby, then transferred the Chessboard into the arm with the time cuff so he could work. He didn’t dare let go of the Chessboard until he reentered time, lest it not come back with him. It was a large and cumbersome piece, so he had to hold it against his bleeding chest in order to keep his grip on it.

He followed the Library instructions, turning the dials and gears on the cuff, and pushing the sliders back into position. As he did so, it was as if he could feel time flowing around him, like immersing oneself in a river. As he made the final adjustment, a force hit him from the side and sent him toppling into the floor. He felt a splash of blood erupt over his arm, and for a moment he could only lie on the Library floor gasping. He had managed to keep his grip on the Chessboard, and raised his arm to see the hands on the timepiece moving normally again. He let himself relax for a moment, knowing he had successfully returned to his own time.

He lay on the floorboards for a while, catching his breath. He was drenched in his own blood, but was glad to see the flow slowing down. He felt like he had been hit with an anvil, but made himself roll back to his feet and resume walking anyway. It was hard to know what kind of progress he was making, as the expanse of shelves, arches, and stained glass all looked the same. He felt a wave of relief when he at last saw his landing far in the distance.

It seemed to take ages for to draw nearer. Try as he might, Lask could not stop his pace from slowing as he traveled. When he at last came back to walk among the tables below his landing, he thought he might have to crawl on all fours to climb the steps back up to the door. He clutched the Chessboard to his chest, and gripped the railing with his free hand, half-dragging himself up the curved staircase to the landing. When he finally reached the door, he looked back over his shoulder into the brilliant expanse he had come from, and whispered, “Tiasgre,” then opened the door and stepped back into Del Sayronet.

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