I wore a broad brimmed hat and a loose fitting trench coat over my robe. Dark glasses hid my eyes, a kind of obscurity suggesting notoriety. I am not sure which I prefer.
Alexandria is a disappointment these days. Entropy has taken the thrill out of travel; you can go to every city in the world and still be in the same place. You encounter the same flesh and spirit; the same sorts of paradise are up for sale: by the bottle, by the kilo, or just for the night.
As I walked up and down the vertiginous streets, I missed the seclusion of my studies. I felt inferior. Not to other people, but inferior to my conception of myself. I had lost that sense of infallibility that is so easy to achieve when I am alone– but then, that was why I took up this quest.
I forced myself to find something laudable in each person I passed, something attractive, or some hint of a special talent. My attention turned toward a street mime. Instead of thinking how foolish he looked in the performance of his antiquated art, I focused on the striving for physical control, the submersion of self through manipulation of tradition and convention. Next, there was a puffy faced businessman, consuming his vital organs in contests meaningless to me– but then I found in his eyes an extraordinary predatory intelligence. I applied the same inquiries to an assassin, an opium addicted mother, two teenagers in love, a mahjong champion, a doctor with a heart condition, a leprous caliph on holiday attempting to impress a German prostitute, a suspicious Nubian, a Naval Ensign, waiting in line. The effort taxed me, but I continued as an intellectual exercise, a kind of meditation.
Then I was interrupted by children. Hordes of pleading children made circuits through the streets like migratory birds. Child hands took flight in my direction when I turned a corner.
I dislike children. They carry too many possibilities; chaotic systems on the verge of glory or catastrophe. Too ignorant, yet too full of ancient wisdom, not fully forgotten. I began throwing handfuls of blessings, flowers, toys– anything I could conjure to satisfy their appetites, to make them go away. More and more children came out. They followed me in droves through the narrow streets. Not all the magic in the world would have been enough to appease them.
In a back alley, I found a heavy doorway made of living yew. Fresh, tiny branches sprouted from ornately carved Aegean motifs: tense, muscular nudes; snake and fertility gods. The door itself was an illusion, but you could not simply walk through it, you had to engage in the illusion of opening the illusion.
Once inside, the scent of aged paper greeted my nostrils. Musk to a scholar.
This was the Library of Souls. I paused at the crest of a long spiral staircase to admire labyrinthine stacks below. Here was the world’s most extensive collection of mystic texts.
I descended the spiral staircase, reading the esoteric Braille of runes and gargoyles burned into the banister. The staircase twisted past endless tiers of books and scrolls, all quiet as a vacuum, quiet as death. A perfect library.
The balanced marble walls, worn and stained, gave the illusion of being thin and fragile as parchment. The entire structure seemed to be held precariously together by floating paper.
According to legend, the library itself had been assembled by the entities we sometime called “The Builders” for lack of a better title. They now sat frozen in mannequin stillness, the living remains of intelligent beings, many races, many species, most of them shriveled and withered. Some were clustered in circles, while others braced against the northern wall, solitary and staring, for untold ages. Some had Elvin ears, now deaf to the perfect silence around them.
What happened to these comatose lost souls? No one knew for certain. According to one legend, these unfortunates fell prey to unknown spells. Perhaps from handling so many cursed volumes.
Precautions had been taken so that no one else would meet the same fate. The library was now mechanized; the card catalog tended by enslaved fairies. Here and there, the blue glow of oil lamps haunted the sullen recesses. Powered by combinations of electricity and steam and a power source older than either, mechanical arms searched the shelves and retrieved books.
I sat down beside a smoldering plate of entrails that served as an index and began to research Valkynne by burning a combination of runes. Some of the texts had been mystically inscribed whole-cloth into the dish of guts– but not many. One could read them off the rising smoke whorls, but this produced brain patterns comparable to a light sleep– not at all conducive to levels of focus appropriate for divination. Besides, who could deny the consciousness altering power of touching the original papyrus, or of savoring the aroma of vintage rag.
Pure silver mechanized arms stretched to cobwebbed corners. Sometimes the books would crumble at the touch of mechanical pincers. Tiny demons, and insects thought to be extinct, would scuttle away when disturbed.
Many of the sources were unreadable, except under flame. During the long night of translating from dead tongues, set after set of candles burned down to the sconce. Books and scrolls accumulated along the table in symmetrical piles. My eyelids were fluttering with exhaustion.
The filing system was maddening, full of paradoxes and cryptic cross references. The Scroll of Nog referred the reader to The Onyx Codicils of Libra which referred the reader back to The Scroll of Nog. Clewiston’s so-called authoritative text turned out to be merely speculative. I dared to consult DeMabe, despite its reputed curses and unsavory reputation– but on the subject of Valkynne, there was nothing but bluff and bluster. Too many dead ends, too many mirror loops.
Out of frustration, I tossed an ancient scroll toward the wall. The scroll itself was ancient and valuable, and I regretted instantly my momentary loss of control. I slowed down the moment with a hasty spell, and raced forward to catch the scroll in mid-air. Could I do it? This was precisely the kind of moment that prompted me to study martial arts. Certainly, hand to hand combat held no interest for me. Too much ugly, brute, physicality. But the prospect of developing speed and mental discipline intrigued me.
The scroll careened toward the wall, spinning. I made contact just before the point of impact. But at that moment, just as my fingers closed around the scroll in a triumphant catch, a dense puff of dust erupted in my face. It hit like a chalkboard eraser being pounded. I sneezed and my eyes watered.
All that dust wrought havoc with my allergies.
TO FOLLOW THE VIEW HELD BY FRANCESCO NOOGIN AND CROW, WHO BOTH BELIEVED THAT XYR CONTINUED TO SEARCH FOR AUGUST SCHILLER, TURN TO SEGMENT FIVE.
TO FOLLOW THE OLIVER TROLT INTERPRETATION, FOR A VIEW THAT XYR WAS TOO SELF CENTERED, AND TOO EASILY DISTRACTED TO CONTINUE THE QUEST, TURN TO SEGMENT FIFTEEN.