Author's Note: Yeah, this is Shadow of the Xweetoks related, and takes place directly after One Way. A day may come when I stop doing disclaimers, but today is NOT THAT DAY!
A hand comes down on my shoulder.
"Dromiay," Benjai hisses.
The spell ends. I choose to run.
Panting, I clutch my chest. I hear her screams. She howls, like a wild animal searching for its prey. Except she's not an animal. She's a monster.
"Dromiaaaaaayyy!" Benjai cries. I freeze as I hear her take in a colossal breath. She slams her body into something.
A bookshelf. I know it's one of the bookshelves, at least, one that's still standing. After all, it's not like there's anything else here. Before it can fall, take down a line of other bookshelves and eventually crush me, I dash out into the aisle and down the intersections. She's found me.
My bare feet slap down on cold obsidian floor over and over again as I keep on breathing in. I'm panting, it feels like my chest is going out, my lungs are crying for me to stop, but I don't stop. I can't.
I had sandals. But first one came off, and then the other. I don't remember running with both. I pull my arms to my chest to try going faster, but I don't notice any difference. At least the scarlet robes swishing about my legs are too short to hamper me.
Benjai roars again. She's right behind me. I brace myself for her arms to come around me, or -- worse -- she tries to throw a bookshelf down on me again. It makes my bones jitter with pain, but here, they can't even be broken. Benjai can't get tired of hurting me here, because my body can't be damaged. Only hurt.
I close my eyes and brace for impact, but instead, I feel two delicate arms around my stomach. As my heart plummets, my mind empties itself. It feels like I'm made of air.
My feet come down on a bookshelf, and I finally dare to open my eyes.
It's the Ixi.
"Thank you." My shoulders freeze up as I gaze at the Ixi. What can I say to someone who might not even understand me?
She blinks at me, once, twice, with her chaotic, peaceful, and all at the same time stagnant grey eyes. Her gossamer wings twitch a couple of times as she folds them back. We each wear clothes that used to be beautiful. My disheveled velvet-and-crimson robes that I only now realize I'm wearing backwards. Her tattered, icy crystal-blue silk dress.
I wonder what happened to her. And how much of it has already happened to me.
I know I've lost my usefulness. I kept on trying to defend myself with my magic. But every time I muttered a spell to try fending off Benjai, or opened my palm in her face to at least try stunning her, nothing happened. My magic is gone. Every last drop of stark-white power. I wouldn't care, if only Benjai were gone too. Now I can't even fight. Just run.
All I know is that I'm the last sane person in the library.
At least the Ixi isn't bad. She saved me from more of Benjai, and that's good enough for me. She's ruffled, though. She hunches towards the ground like she can't bear the weight of her own crippled form, and her mouth is always agape. Her fur is bleached lavender-white as though from age, but she has the face of a child. I don't know how, or why, she's here.
But I know Benjai hates her too. That makes her my friend.
I look out at the library. Mahogany shelves lay toppled on top of each other, with black books spilling out onto the aisle. It's a path of destruction, bordered by the shelves that are still upright. I've been running from Benjai for some time. I don't know whether it's been an hour, or a month. I can't tell without a sky or a clock or even my own bodily functions.
I just want to be someplace real again.
I think we've escaped Benjai. For now, at least.
The Ixi sits down against an upright shelf packed with undisturbed copies of the black novels. She hugs her knees to her chest and says nothing, as usual.
"Everything okay in there?" I whisper, sitting down beside her. She stares bug-eyed at me.
"Oh. Right." I glance to the floor. "I... I wish I could know who you are. Since we're both stuck here, after all."
I realize something.
"I'm sorry I brought Benjai here. You... You must have been trying to read. I mean, if you can read. There isn't anything else to do here or anything, but now we're both stuck hiding from Benjai. She's so destructive."
Still no words.
"Maybe we could read now, but we can't get too involved. Benjai could find us... well... anytime, I guess."
I turn around, place two fingers on top of a book, and try to dislodge it. The shelf is packed tightly, but I manage to pull it out.
I open the front cover.
My eyes widen.
I leaf through more of the books. They have no chapters or page numbers, but are instead chaotic paragraphs streamed together. Sometimes it seems like I'm following a story closely, but in the middle of a sentence, it'll jump to a different reality. And no matter how many pages I read, I never seem to be any closer to finishing any of them.
It is insanity.
Once again, I turn the thin page. Massive amounts of information pour out through slender rows of text. Armies meeting under eclipses, the stories of objects long forgotten, everything that happened during the very last rainy day of a certain person's life. Walls of words that spin tales of love, sorrow, boredom, numbness, pain, fury, life.
There is something horrible about the books. Since I never finish any of them, every few minutes I switch to a different one. They're all the same way. It hurts to read them. All of a sudden, I wish I knew the time, day, season, anything. Not just where I am.
Although I wish I knew that too.
A sob escapes my throat. It sounds strangled. Broken. Dead.
I want home more than ever.
The Ixi has wandered off. Maybe that's for the better. She wouldn't understand my feelings. Maybe she doesn't have feelings. I'd rather cry by myself anyways. Maybe one day I'll find a book that tells me that the only real friends I ever had are dead now. All four of them. Maybe I'm at the end of time and they've been dead forever.
I begin to wail as tears stream down my face. I'll never see Amadeus again.
But I quickly stifle my voice.
I realize I've been heard.
I am running again.
My mind is still going on about what I've read. It hurts. Too much. I want home. I want peace. I want Amadeus. I want anything but this.
I don't want to spend my non-life running and reading. I don't want to clutch a book in silence as I wonder when Benjai will find me again. I want a life I can live.
I barrel down the aisle and duck to the side. Benjai saw that one; she's still behind me. She can't catch me.
Tears still slip from my eyes. I can't run forever.
And as soon as I think that, I dash into a clearing with a table and chairs.
One of my sandals is on the floor.
So maybe it doesn't go on forever.
Benjai careens after me as I breathlessly dash down the aisles. I don't stop thinking. This place repeats, maybe, but I've realized it has to be finite. The bookshelves are finite. The books are finite.
It hasn't been eternity yet. Amadeus could be alive.
I love him still. More than anyone, anything, any place. Even if I loved Rubia and Faith and even Cerulean. I love him more than the home I wanted to go home to for the first time, or the parents I wish I could know, or learning new magic. I don't even know why.
Maybe it's because he cared.
He faced so much pain for me. Maybe I should do something in his name.
Like face my own fears.
I stop in my tracks and turn to meet Benjai.
All is quiet.
I feel so much better. My muscles scream with pain underneath the weight of surely half a dozen partly-loaded bookshelves. The world is dark; I'm barely breathing. It's better than running. Even if I'll still never see Amadeus again.
Never see Amadeus again.
What if everything is out of Benjai's system now, though? What if I actually have someone I can talk to?
A crack of light. I moan.
The shelves are being lifted away by the only person strong enough to do it.
"Why?" I ask Benjai, as soon as I get to my feet. The spotted Chomby looks much calmer now.
"You took everything I had, that's why," she hisses. Without her scowl, her face is, well, beautiful. In a gentle, disappointed way. "I hope you're happy with what you got."
"Oh. So you're still..."
"Angry, yes." She sighs, and looks away from me.
"But why'd you rescue me?" I pursue. "Do you want to chase me down again?"
"No. I realized something." Her lips crinkle into a smile. "The worst possible punishment for you, my little mage, would be to go insane. And that wouldn't happen if your mind just wasted away. You would have to read. Like... like Lacy has done."
It almost feels like the old days. Except Benjai's different. Not even concerned with herself anymore. She's here to make it as horrible as possible for me.
"Lacy?" I ask. "That's her name?"
"...Yes. She is here because she tried to eradicate me as you did, only she wasn't successful."
Oh. Now I get it. I destroyed Benjai – sort of. Just like I destroyed myself – sort of.
I glance at Benjai again. "And what about you?"
"It doesn't matter." She shrugs. "I suppose... Same as you both. If Lacy couldn't find an escape after all this time, then there can't be one."
One last question. "How long has Lacy been here?"
"Longer than your little head can imagine."
Eternities, then. I stare at my hands. There's no escape.
Benjai sets herself down in the biggest chair, and begins to read a book. I decide to walk away. On my way out of the clearing, I pick up a sandal.
I stop. "Benjai?"
"If the books are what happens in real life... what would happen if a page were torn?"
Benjai says nothing.
"Maybe we can change reality."
"Dromiay, I-- Are you sure you want to try that?"
"I'll only rip a little bit as soon as I find the sentence that says we're all here."
Benjai falls silent.
I don't tell her good-bye. I just walk away.
Soon enough, I find the Ixi. She's huddled at the end of a bookcase.
"Lacy," I whisper her name.
She looks up. Her eyes light up with something like sanity.
And she smiles. Burbling, she hands me a book. So I begin to read.
Maybe this time I'm coming home.
The white Ogrin, Opal, led us through the halls of the Creator, where the walls and floors were good, familiar dirt, and yet the Creator's magic could still be felt in the air.
We watch Opal leave. She vanishes around a corner, and I turn to Faith.
She smiles, bowing her head but glancing up at me. The three of us will have catching up to do, for sure. We'll need to change into normal clothes -- out of emerald dresses and navy tunics. We'll fall into our routine again, but there's nothing in the world I would rather do. I grin at Faith, but a glimmer of sadness flickers through her eye.
"Dromiay?" I ask.
She takes a deep sigh.
I can't say anything. I didn't know Dromiay. Now I wish I had gotten to know her. I would have, if only I had known what she was going to do. Maybe we did have something in common all along. Now I'll never know.
I put an arm around Faith. There will always be two people more important to me than anyone else. I need to be there for them. The living ones. Just as they'll still be here for me.
I tear my eyes from the ceiling and look down at Faith. She looks at me one second longer, and then kisses me on the cheek.
Where some make sacrifices, life only burns stronger. And still, there may be a day where the sacrifices are restored, and everything seems fuller and more real than before. A day where the happy ending is truth and not just a dream.
"Good night!" Faith calls over her shoulder, as she slips into her room.
Some of the truth is here already.