Wednesday, June 17, 2009


She had managed to tire herself. Dry of tears, Irene coughed and cleared her throat of all its dust and sobs. Done with panic, she caught her breath again and listened to the creases in the silence. A squeal echoed from somewhere in the distance, an animal or a machine or rocks giving way under pressure . . .

She sat up. She was not on Earth. So where then?

In her shock, she had only been able to dwell on the irrevocable fact that the magic had led her to someplace beyond her kenning, someplace inaccessible to the machinations of rational thought. Glancing around at the contents of the massive shelves, she recognized something in some pieces that she thought to call "technology." Then she remembered Peter's words, which were now a warning. ". . . the Library, so gigantic it's like another world unto itself." A world unto itself: pipes, chimneys, wheels, lenses, tomes, scrolls, crystals, screens, blades, bulbs, spheres, shapes, objects, things – she might be able to put a label on almost anything here if she were willing to sacrifice precision.

Her surroundings were roughly as Peter had described. Before her was a canyonesque corridor cut between two rows of black shelves, which towered above her, disappearing into the orange glow of the sky high above her. Her position was in the center of a four-way intersection. She surveyed the areas on either side of the corridor, and estimated that between either pair of shelves, there was around an acre and a half of dust and ruin. The compartments of the shelves were linked by staircases cut into the black stone of the structures. Some were cut for humans, or creatures of approximately the same size and locomotive style; but ahead of her one grand pile of steps climbed the full height of the adjacent shelf. Who could amble up those stones – each one the size of a house – and into the formless light above?

Irene stood. A place totally apart. Yet, as lucidity crept back into her person, it seeped into the canyon as well. There was some kind of rationale here: It was a library, was it not? As disconnected from terra firma as she knew she was, Irene could not help but to notice that, whoever the builders may have been, they shared a common urge with many archaeologists. They were driven collectors and compilers.

There was no catalog as Peter had described. Nor was there a guide waiting. The air did not stir.


  1. Irene’s hands were trembling as her slightly more stable arms raised them up and then let them rest on the top of her head. Fingers that had grown sensitive and intelligent after many a mirrorless situation now worked to rearrange the part in her hair and also reign in any errant strands. It was not that Irene was so vain that she had to look chic even in a land that was, for now, entirely void of other intelligent life; it was just that appearance was important to her and had always been so. How you looked was like a life broadcast about your habits and character. Frumpy hair and wrinkled clothing said that you were sloppy, undetermined and didn’t care enough to look after yourself. More than that, it signified weakness. Irene needed as much confidence as she could muster, and it really helped if she knew she didn’t look like a sibling of one of her beaten, ragged childhood dolls.

    There was nothing she could do with her dress: it was dusty, particularly where her knees and elbows had hit the ground, and more than a little winkled and it was going to stay that way. But she brushed it off the best she could and adjusted the neckline and hem so that she at least looked presentable. Then, realizing that she’d forgotten one thing, she used the inside of her dress to wipe off her face, which she imagined was peppered with dust that was clinging all the more persistently given her earlier tears. The amount of grime that came off on the fabric proved her right. After picking a fresh spot and repeating the process, she decided that would have to do.

    Again, she surveyed her surroundings, but this time with a calmer, more critical eye. She didn’t like it any less, but at least she was reassured that there wasn’t anything immediately dangerous about it either. But in general it was, of course, immensely dangerous. This was the most peril that Irene had ever been in and she was well aware of that unpleasant fact.

    She considered calling out, but what would she say? And would that not only draw unwanted attention to herself? She was not so deluded as to think she could walk here and do as she liked without anyone or anything noticing her, but perhaps she ought to take hold of the opportunity she’d been given all the same.

  2. This was, after all, a library—albeit one that stretched the definition that she was so familiar with. If Irene was going to find a clue as to what she must do to bring back Peter’s sanity, then it must be here. Somewhere. And the only way to figure it out, given that there were no readily apparent directions that she could spot (or perhaps there were, but they were not decipherable to her human eyes?), was to simply dive in.

    Irene took a deep breath and then closed her eyes. She kept the lids down long enough so that the scene disappeared from her immediate memory; long enough so that she could take a step and not know where exactly she would be headed. Then, slowly, she shifted her feet so that she moved around in a circle, yet remained basically in the same spot. She tried not to think at all, but just to let her instincts guide her. When she at last opened her eyes, the shelves that she was facing were the ones that she carefully, cautiously walked over to.

    It was not without trepidation that Irene mounted the stairs and began to walk slowly upward, all the while keeping an eye above her and below her lest anything new appear. She was all too aware of how Peter’s adventure here had ended, and she greatly feared that hers would terminate in a similar fashion—perhaps even a worse one. But yet thus far she did not feel as if she were in immediate danger. So, she could press on with some amount of optimism in her heart. She was still as determined as ever, of course! Though whether that would be enough to get her thought this alive—much less with any claims of success!—she could not know or even guess about. But in cases such as this one, it was best to tend towards confidence and belief in one’s self.

    At least, she reflected as she trudged upward, the voice had been silent since her arrival. Perhaps she had shaken it off somehow? She certainly hoped so. The last thing she needed was a devil somewhere inside of her to whisper words of discouragement. She had doubts enough of her own.

  3. She left footprints behind her.

    Irene reached the shelf that she had randomly selected. She looked upwards first, and then to the right and left of her position facing the megalith. Though the compartments were no way regularly sized, most were rough cubes, and they fit together like a puzzle of tiles. With a touch and a scratch, Irene determined that the structure was composed of some kind of igneous blend. Its texture ran from flint smoothness to the coarseness of fine sandstone.

    The builders did not have only themselves in mind when they had conceived of this place. Irene mused about their intentions as she stepped up slightly and into the compartment in front of her: the design of the building seemed to accommodate storage for differently sized beings.

    Tacking between intellect and instinct, Irene surveyed the compartment, searching for clues about its age or makers. It was empty except for a row of five tall stones, rectangular in form and regularly spaced in the back of the room. Each stone was as tall as Irene herself; each sparkled with crystalline fragments suggestive of silicon bound in mica.

    Though the evidence had been all around her for some time now, the immediacy of alien life, perhaps nearby, suddenly seized Irene. The thought remained terrifying, but there was in her throat the base twinge of a giggle, for it was exhilarating knowledge to have: there was more to the universe besides humans, and more besides that! Perhaps the nonconformity of the portals and accesses was an artifact of successive regimes of construction? Perhaps what she gazed upon now had been the cumulative handiwork of eons of building and reshaping. By accident or intent, the design of the shelves had for Irene an egalitarian appeal.

    She approached the center stone. Shall I touch it, she wondered? Is it a record of some kind? Is it an empty pedestal for a stolen piece?

    "No," the parasitic voice commanded. "What do you think you will do with that?" It had the tone of a teacher chastizing a pupil. "Do you intend to wrap your mind around anything here? You will not."

    Deflated: Irene's half-outstretched arm slowly dropped to her side. She glowered.

    "I tell you, some moment many millennia from now, a being unlike you in ways you cannot imagine will step across time and activate those things for its own purposes. To you it's a glittering mystery and will remain so. Do not touch anything." Its enunciation was concise and composed, which only lent to the sinister confidence of the speaker. "I had thought to wait until you called upon me, but even this formality must be explained."

    Irene looked over her shoulder.

    "You require a guide."

    The waste between shelves gaped at her. She saw the single trail of footprints leading away from her origin.

    "There can be no lone travellers in this place."

  4. “I don’t want a guide, and I certainly do not desire your company,” Irene said, channeling as much pride and rebuff as she could and pouring it into her voice.

    But she wasn’t going to protest or try in vain—for she has no doubt that he was correct, that she was not meant to walk here alone—to push him away. Neither was she going to let him think that she desired or appreciated his presence. Were she to give him any indication of weakness, it would only convince him that she could be easily led astray. And perhaps her efforts would actually help convince herself that she was stronger than she had ever suspected. She needed every bit of confidence she could muster right now!

    “However, I am willing to bear it,” she finished. “There are rules, as you allude to, and I am in no position to break them.”

    She paused, and then glanced around her, as if trying to pinpoint where the speaker was. Was the voice only in her mind? She really hoped it was not so, for she did not fancy having conversations with nothing at all. It felt like she was going mad like this, talking as she was to the air itself. Where was she supposed to look when she spoke? It was a little thing, to be able to see whom you were conversation with, but one that Irene quite valued.

    “Am I to speak to you like this? Have you no corporeal form?” she inquired, the irritation slipping into her voice. “And are you going to tell me anything useful?” She crossed her arms over her chest and simply stood there, waiting.

  5. "You are to speak to me just like that, and I will only plant my words like seeds into the soil of your thoughts. Why should it bother you?" the mental voice asked. "There is no one to hear you speaking into the air, no one to suspect that you are mad."

    Though there did not seem to be any living thing near her, Irene considered that this was perhaps the first outright mistake or lie that the voice had told her. For there had been, and would still be, people in this place. Peter's account confirmed it.

    As if reading her thoughts, the voice harrumphed before it continued. "And, oh, haven't I been useful? Haven't I already given you hope for Peter? Am I not giving you companionship in a place that kills the loner? And direction toward your goal – haven't I given you that as well? Listen, follow my orders. Walk to the end of this unit. Go to the corridor. Go to your right. Peter is that way. Do not dawdle – whilst you sat in your city, time here did not tick for-him-for-you, but now you are in the stream of things here, and you must not wait. Do not approach the machines and jewels you see. Go! Run to your comrade. Go! And keep him from destruction!"

    She would have liked to have resisted the voice's guidance, but Irene knew she could not afford to do so. Dropping her defiant stance, she hurriedly exited from the pillars' compartment and ran to the edge of the edifice. She turned to her right. Looking once again over her shoulder, Irene could only feel ambivalently about the singular trail of footprints she left behind her and her telepathic companion. Did she have any companion at all?

    "Run!" the voice implored her. Run she did.

    She passed two, three, four of the colossal shelves – demolishing drifts of dust, throwing sand up behind her, passing a plenty of alien artifacts without so much as glancing at them – before she had to slow to a jog. No sooner than doing so did she feel the ground rumble. She thought that she might have been trembling from exhaustion or from some deficiency in the atmosphere of the place – it was awfully warm, and the air tasted suspiciously of metal – but the shaking grew more intense by seismic proportions and Irene knew that her weakness was only relative to whatever force was great enough to shake the library around her. "Time is fleeing us!" the voice cried. "The next field will have your Peter! Run!"

    Irene bowed her head and gathered her dress to her waist. She clenched one fist around the knots and pleats of her dress, and she pushed herself to run once again, pouring herself forward, catching her weight on legs extended farther than before. Her gait was long and rhythmic. She bit her lip to distract herself from her pounding heart and the rasping sensation in her lungs. "Run!" She would soon have to admit that, even after so much labor in the ditches and life in the hotter parts of the world, hers were only slightly stronger than the heart and lungs of the average junior scholar or youthful countryside lady.

    Yet Irene's will was far stronger than her body. "Run!" the voice implored, and she did so without stopping.

    She blew into the next field of dust and the voice cried out again. "Now!" Irene nearly fell over herself trying to stop. "To your right, there is a shaft in the floor! Peter is down there – but do not go into it or you will seal both of your fates."

    The shaking ceased.

    Panting, Irene asked aloud, "And what else will I find?"

    "The styrgae, Irene."

  6. Irene had never been so determined in all of her life—this surpassed even certain dreadful and frenzied moments in India—and yet even as her feet thudded against the alien surface, dust rising and slowly drifting downwards when she passed, she was all too aware that she was acting on impulse and that once she reached her goal she would be powerless. But she pressed on still. She had enough energy to continue doggedly onward until she reached the shaft that the voice spoke of: a vaguely square tunnel into the earth covered by a dented metal lid.

    She stood there, bent nearly double, gasping for breath and all too aware of the emptiness in her skull. It seemed like hours, but it was only seconds until her breathing came easier and a tingling sensation in her limbs reassured her that she could still feel. She was still in control of her own body and her mind, despite its frightening emptiness.

    Quickly, Irene dropped to her knees and took hold of the door, wrenching it open. With a creak, then a brief and terrible screech and a puff of dust—which filtered through Irene’s lungs and heralded a painful minute of hacking coughs—the prison was open. That had been incredibly simple. It was not the cell that had been built to withstand rescue attempts, of course. Whatever made this place had provided a more powerful deterrent than a tricky door.

    The deterrent…oh God, they were everywhere. Irene heard them before she saw them, and before that she could have sworn that she could smell them. They stank of death and decay and madness and despair; Irene felt like she was breathing in the atmosphere of Hades; her lungs burned and her throat prickled. And, oh, the noises they made! It was like nothing Irene had ever heard before; every flick of the wings, every twisted little cry was like a knife digging into Irene’s skull. They were truly horrific, these prison guards who fed on their hapless charges. If she did not stop them, she knew that they would take him away forever.

    If fear and shock had not driven away her breath, she’d have screamed out and begged the gods or demons or whatever was directing these events to give her the answer. She would have done anything, even given her own life, if only they would help her. If only they would tell her how she was supposed to rescue her dearest friend from these dangerous and seemingly impenetrable styrgae. How on earth or on any other world was she to fight these creatures?

  7. Then, just like that, she knew.

    Creatures. They were born of another reality, but they were insects, weren’t they? They were animals of a kind. She didn’t just hope that she could use the spell to control them, she felt it. Even here, they were under her thrall. At least for now. She had to act quickly, though, for she was no practiced sorceress. The chances of her being able to hold them for long were not in her favour.

    Irene unbent her back and positioned herself so that she was gazing directly down into the swarm. She could not see Peter clearly, but he was there. Even over the buzzing and the hiss of hundreds of tiny wings as they cut through the air, above all of that Irene could hear the slow beat of Peter’s heart. Such a human thing in such an alien world! It was so little a part of being human that it was so often taken for granted. But now Irene saw life for what it was: a vastly precious miracle.

    He was alive and soon he would be more than that. Soon, he would be himself once more.

    She stretched out an arm. It was perfectly still as it hovered there, emanating determination and command. She breathed in deeply, and then shuddered as she felt the creatures on another level of consciousness much deeper than mere human perception. But she did not falter. They were many, yes, but they were a swarm—and so they were one. And they would obey her.

    Eyes blazing with determination, Irene’s lips parted and her voice rang out with authority that surprised even her. “Stop! Cease your feeding. You will not touch him again. Restore to him what you have taken and disperse into the darkness. He is not yours. Since he cannot do so for himself, I reclaim him and will take him back to his world.”

  8. Having never really considered the bodies and lives of insects in any serious way, Irene was unprepared for her engagement with the creatures. The unspeaking million-minds which she now commanded surged into her consciousness. Irene had time for only one clear thought before she would be washed away in the deluge of being-insectoid: these styrgae were to earthly insects as the devil would be to a human being.

    No single word emanated from the mass of black joints and toiling jaws. A sea of not-quite thoughts surged into her. “Drives,” one might have called them. Beyond the compound eyes and strange nervous systems of insects, the styrgae were hydraulic creatures, propelled along on limbs and wings worked by the rapid pumping of ichors among internal sacks. Irene understood why they needed Peter. His vital fluids – his blood, his waters and mucouses – would be converted into these essential ichors. Their locomotion was synonymous with their motivation. Moving to feed, feeding to move. The lives of the styrgae were a circuit, a system of tidal desire.

    Her mind could have been a basin for the way in which the collective desires of the styrgae lapped at the surfaces of its cavities. Irene had never imagined such vast lacunae in her personhood. The styrgae’s million-minds licked at a filmy residue clinging to these spaces, washing them clean, breaking up and dispersing the pretense of uniqueness, specialness, what could be called humanity. These lacunae – these lost spaces of Irene’s insect-self, her devil-self – now cleaned, filled with the waves of insectoid desires.

    Irene fell to the floor and brought herself up on her palms and knees in a truly dumb, utterly ineffectual mimicry of arthropod movement. She scrambled to the lip of the shaft. Her palms left the ground and her forelimbs filled with blood. This insect-body, Irene’s body, remained bent and hovering over the dust at a right angle, supported by the hydraulic strength of the eldest ant queens. These claws, her hands, shook stiffly and vigorously; her knuckles clattered like castanets, issuing a message to the styrgae that she could not have pronounced with her mammalian lips.

    Somewhere above him, somewhere above the racket of the stinging, gnawing swarm, Peter heard a gurgling hiss. He knew not what creature awaited him at the top of the shaft, but he had no choice but to move towards the new threat, to keep trying to extract himself from the gullet of the black mass swallowing him. He turned his head upwards and saw two human hands above him, waving and shaking like antennae.

    The wash of styrgae fell away from Peter. Irene felt the tautness in her forearms ebb. The rushing tides of her body’s fluids receded. She saw Peter’s hand rise over the edge of the shaft. It was swollen with bites. Weakened, it quivered and flopped about as it searched for a hold. He made do with a handful of dust. His other hand appeared, slapping into the dusty ground. Slowly these hands and the smudged, dirty arms connected to them pulled a bleeding primate into the orange-red light.

    Eyes and an Englishman’s face. Torn fingers grasped Irene’s hand, clumsily lacing into her own dirty, outstretched fingers. Another wounded hand found her shoulder and, moving like a crab up her neck, tangled itself into her short hair. Sapped of her devilish wasp strength, Irene collapsed into the dust, leaving Peter to heave his own weight out of the hole. Her back and arms pulsed painfully.

  9. (Irene has expended -2 magic points and -2 sanity points in casting the spell. There was some trauma involved in setting up an affective link with the millions of styrgae, and it has cost Irene some additional sanity: -5 sanity. Rolls and rules more or less accounted for, this little episode will have some lasting effects on Irene’s psyche, which we can determine in email. Elizabeth, you can have first dibs on a suggestion for the shape which this mental maladaption might take.

    Peter is covered in bites, but, at 8 hit points, he is still relatively healthy. His sanity remains unchanged from its previous totals, including the effects of having died horribly at least once. Though the scar remains, Peter does not remember “dying”.

    For defeating the styrgae, Irene receives a sanity bonus of +1. Her total in that department is now 58.)

  10. As the clicking, chitinous tide ebbed from Peter's flesh, allowing the return of oxygen and his senses, it dawned on him that he had just been retrieved from the brink of spiritual and physical annihilation. He clutched Irene with a mixture of relief and remorse, for it had been his foolish pride that had led him into such peril, and as grateful as he was for the rescue, it seemed Irene had sacrificed too much to accomplish it.

    His clothing in tatters, his body saturated with cold sweat and the blood from hundreds of thousands of tiny bites, Peter clung tightly to Irene as she tensed and twitched so awfully, offering her whatever warmth and stability his embrace could give.

    "I'm sorry," he whispered, gently rocking her. "I'm so sorry. But it's all right now. Irene, I'm here. I'm right here."

    Agasthiya's steed still awaited him, but first he had to get Irene to safety. He wrapped her arms around his neck and hoisted her upon his back. "Hold tight," he said, and summoned what remained of his strength to climb out from that maw of hell.

  11. Any semblance of coherent thought eluded Irene, and no doubt it would for quite some time. Somewhere inside of her—in her gut or her centre of reason or whatever one might call that special and very human bastion that clutched at truth and held fast to it no matter how terrible or terrifying or impossible the input—in that special, wonderful and horrible place, if nowhere else, Irene was aware of what was happening to her and around her and because of her; and she even grasped what it meant and what its consequences would be, but her waking mind and fragile vigour—already so removed from everything familiar and safe—were utterly overwhelmed by the swarms of Beelzebub. Comprehension flickered and then danced away, laughing and taunting her as she felt the last of her resistance crumble beneath her. With every twitch of limb and scuffle of knees and hands, she fought the urge to vomit. She was moving like them. No, it was far, far worse than that...

    She would have screamed, but she could not remember how to make a sound; she would have cried, but all of her energy was being leeched away and used against her will for other purposes; but above all else, if she had the implement and the ability to control her own body, she would have raised a knife to her throat and slashed swiftly and deeply so as to permanently banish the spirits that possessed her and the frightening truths they scattered across her consciousness. What she was experiencing was beyond madness as she conceived of it. Insanity would have been a blessing.

    Though her eyes had never closed throughout the brunt of the physical backlash, she had not really seen anything—or if she had her brain had failed to process the information. Neither had she felt the unfamiliar yet familiar touch of the man she had been willing to die for.

    Only when the worst of the convulsions had ceased did her wide, slightly crazed eyes focus on the beaten, but beautiful face of the closest friend she possessed in this world or any other.

    Irene's lips curved into a smile, but the dry skin stretched and broke; a moment later, warm salty fluid dripped onto her tongue and she grimaced. But she also remembered. So very much.

    “No, no,” she murmured, meaning to rebuke him for his apologies. Her voice was nearly all breath and barely audible, but she had never meant any words as truly as she did those. Her nose scrunched, her inability to communicate tearing at her soul.

    Peter was in no condition to carry her, yet Irene was well aware that walking was an impossibility for her. As she laced her numb fingers together, she realized that she could not hold on well enough or long enough, but was equally certain that she would do so, even if it meant tearing a firm handhold in her own arm.

    As she buried her face between Peter’s head and shoulders and fought to regain strength in her upper arms, Irene had to wonder where the voice in her head had gone—if it indeed had left her now. Had it expected her to fail, to be completely overwhelmed by the creatures and to fall into the pit herself? Had that been the trap? Yet of more importance now was this: what was awaiting them now? Did Peter know how to get back? He couldn’t...could he?

    “How are we…” That was all that she could manage; a gasp and a quickly stifled cough cropped the end of the question.

  12. The climb up would have been difficult under the best of conditions, but it proved truly Herculean in magnitude as Peter struggled upward. The odd slickness of the stone; the sweat on his hands; the weight of his savior on his back; the blood he had lost; and finally, gravity itself: all conspired to defeat him.

    He paused to gather his strength for another attempt, and to consider once again his predicament, as well as the conspicuous shortage of options.

    The Frenchman had disappeared after reciting the yantra. Would the spell work for those who had come by the power of the Mirror? Even if it did, would Irene be capable of channeling the spell after the psychic exertion of warding off tons of malevolent beetles?

    The other option was to continue downward, back through the swarm that had almost claimed his life. Agasthiya's steed, presumably, still awaited him; but what else?

    "I need a sign," Peter quietly pleaded, though he suspected quite strongly that none would be forthcoming.