The stacks stretched forever. Red had never seen so many shelves. She’s never see so many books. More than any girl could read in her lifetime.
The tale the old woman who ran the little shop of oddities in her town was real. Not a fairy story like all the other children teased. Old Bafta’s losin’ her mind. What’s she saying about magic books. Book never helped me at the mill. Or in the field. Bet you Old Lady Bafta got a place out in the forest. She tricks kids into going there with fairy and goblin stories, just like this one. You go lookin’, all you find is a stew pot or at best a buggerin’.
But the other children were wrong.
The old woman’s warnings were real.
Red stepped lightly across the floor boards, each of her movements eliciting a squeak. Each board soft with the uneven feel of rot. Tentatively Red took another step forward. Beatles scuttled out from under her foot fall. She needed to be more careful, less she squish some poor creature.
From the outside, the ruins of the old library had given the impression of a place no bigger than Red’s town’s church. Made of crumbling stone that reminded her of broken teeth. The wide cornerstones still in tact, along with some rounded pillars here and there. And a hole that led underground via an evenly cut stone staircase.
Below the ruins, the library was more or less intact, preserved by some magic from the old shop woman’s tales.
Red walked among the underground space, a cavern with walls worn away by human hands. Lichen grew up and down the walls. Roots burst free from cracks, clawing across the even surface. The floors were made of wood boards, segmenting the deep cavern into multiple levels with wooden staircases leading treacherously deeper and deeper, the banisters broken, in some places missing completely.
One warning passed on by Old Bafta that Red had heeded wisely was… If you venture forth to find the library and that book we discussed in particularly, than go during the day. Down there is dark and dank. Swallow you whole, the shadows will.
From the world above, afternoon light streamed through holes in the ceiling, making the ruins above seem much larger from underneath than Red initially observed. The yellow of the sun gave the vegetation clinging to the walls a glow. But the further Red descended, the darker the library became.
Red ran her hand along the spines of the books. Dusty. The covers crumbling beneath her fingertips. She sounded out each title with large lip movements the way her mother had taught her. After stumbling through one long title, Red glanced down the long aisle she’d chosen to wander and imagined sitting here for hours just reading the titles along.
You’ll know the tome when you find it. Your bones with rattle. Your mind with ache trying to comprehend what you’ve discovered. That was the advise Bafta had given Red.
Considering the aisle a while longer, Red decided the book Bafta told her to fetch wasn’t there.
She exited at the top of the aisle and walked further into the library. At the ends of the aisles and on some of the outer walls, Red saw framed portraits of distinguished, uppity people, their faces turned to runny messes.
Eventually Red found another staircase leading down into a pit of gloom. At some point the day’s light wouldn’t follow her any further, stretching only so far.
Red clutched the cloak and hood the others in her class had jokingly named her for and took to the steps of the darkened stairwell, testing each step.
She halted her progress on a landing that turned and descended further. A noise, there and gone as quickly, grazed Red’s ear. Like a passing wind. Had her mind been playing tricks? Yes. Of course. It was her classmates teasing her about judging Bafta seriously, about walking right into a stew pot. Those taunts were whittling away her courage.
Stiffening her back and raising her chin, Red climbed down to the next level.
Some of the light from above made its way down here. What didn’t help was the walls were covered in fabric. Perhaps the rags of torn tapestries eaten away at the bugs Red found wherever she stepped.
From her belt Red pulled a hand lantern. And inside a pouch on her belt she pulled free a match and struck a light. Within moments Red’s lantern came to life.
Along with a second light just ahead of Red.
Red leaped back and away from the second glowing ball, stifled a cry halfway up her throat.
When she raised her lantern to get a look at the person holding the other light, that other light mimicked her own’s movements.
A second Red, this one more blurry, smudged, and covered in grime stared curiously back at her.
A laugh exploded from Red. As did a laugh from her reflection.
In front of her was a mirror half covered in a draped cloth.
From within her chest a tightening loosened its grip on Red. She shook her head.
“Silly goose,” told her self, breathing in deeply. “Scared of your own shadow and your mirror self.”
Good thing no one from her class was here. She’d never live that down.
Now, back to the book Bafta wanted.
“Can I help you?” a voice intoned deeply.
Red startled, jumping nearly out of her boots. From her surprise, she lost her grip on her lantern, which clattered to the floor, the light inside flickering.
The glow around Red didn’t get snuffed out with her lantern. Another source of light remained.
Red turned around from the mirror, looked up until she felt her neck might snap, and found herself staring a giant slug with a face. The beatific human face of a woman, which stuck out from a long wrinkly neck, with flesh as yellow as the glow from the lantern, eyes two pools of black, a tiny nose, a high brow that sprouted what Red took as a ram’s horns.
“What are you going here child?” the slug lady asked. When she tilted her head quizzically, the slow movement suggested a great weight which required effort to turn.
“Looking for something,” Red said after a moment of hesitation.
“A book perhaps?”
Red rolled her eyes without thinking and immediately regretted the response. She’d never be so bold with an adult in town. A monster that lived under the ground? That was something you didn’t cross. No matter how nice its low baritone sounded.
The slug woman giggled girlishly. A noise unnerving and comforting at the same time, as it was too human and coming from a giant slug. “Of course you’re looking for a book.”
With a gesture of her lantern, the glow from the slug woman’s lantern spread out further than the bulbous housing should’ve allowed. The light revealed this library level’s immense labyrinth of shelves. More books, a daunting amount that Red felt overwhelmed at witnessing.
“My name is the Curator,” the slug woman said, adding a bow that shifted her whole shell-less form, squishing with mucus and slime that lubricated and dripped from every wrinkle and fissure on the slug woman’s body. It made Red cringe with disgust. She fought down the vomit warm in her throat.
“Nice to meet you,” Red offered, choking. She didn’t offer her hand.
“This is a library,” the Curator reminded her.
Red fought back the rude urge to roll her eyes again. Not like the books weren’t a dead giveaway. And not like Red had ever seen more than ten or twenty slim spines stacked side by side outside the old shop lady’s place.
Something in Red’s movement–a twitch or subtle tick–must of told the the slug woman the girl was feeling cheeky and full of herself.
The slug woman tittered again. “What I mean is,” it went on to explain, “every library has an entry fee. Can’t lend out without a little incentive for the borrower to bring back. Hmmm.”
Red shrugged. Sure.
All the courage and bravado Red had exuded since she set out from town and again used to advance herself down those first stone steps from the surface area ruins to this library below, washed away as quickly as a pebble by a river. When the slug woman reared up, her horns nearly touching the wooden ceiling that was the level above, she pressed out her slimy belly. Across the belly a wrinkle widened into a hungry mouth with jagged teeth.
“What price will you pay for my library’s lending?” the Curator asked sweetly, the mouth in her belly greedily agape.