5 Hours Later
She was fairly sure the landscape, such as it could be called, was changing. The labyrinth she’d started in was getting shorter, three metre walls becoming two metre walls as the maze seemed to sink into the floor. The walls gave way to a carpeted plain dominated by improbably high spires of wood and paper, stacks of books as wide and high as skyscrapers. Far above, some of the pillars were strung together with ramshackle rope bridges and winding wooden paths. Stairs ran at vertigo-inducing heights, close to the sheer faces of these cliffs of words. It was the first sign of any civilisation Alice had seen in several hours, besides the general sense that this library had been built by some deranged architect with a fetish for literature.
Idly, she picked a book off the top of a elbow-high pile, a foothill of a foothill of the full, terrifyingly tall pile that was nearest. Opening it, all its pages were blank, but it beeped in a manner reminiscent of both a singing birthday card and the Morse of a telegraph. She started, dropped the book, realised that that was silly, picked it up and closed it in time to hear the rattling howl that carried eerily through the titanic trees of compressed knowledge.
She paused, stock-still, realising that the library wasn’t actually silent. Small sounds: the creak of books moving in the nonexistent wind, the rustle of something in a nonexistent undergrowth. A flash of movement caught her eye, and Alice stared in amazement as a creature emerged from a burrow partway up one of the spires, jointed legs of pale wood contrasting with the many muted hues of the bookcovers. It was like a gigantic centipede made of the torsos of mannequins, attached end-to-end, with arms, claws and legs attached to shoulders and hips at random. It moved spasmodically, clattering across the vertical surface of the column it had emerged from with all the grace of a drunkard, and vanished slowly round the corner, out of sight.
She shuddered. Was that the thing that had made the noise? Alice wasn’t sure, but she kept glancing around nervously as she picked up the pace, walking through the tremendous tome towers.
She was alliterating now. Surely, madness followed. Other things Alice was fairly sure of were that she was going to need to get some water, soon. And food, although that was slightly less urgent. How long had she even been here? Hours? Was there even night here?
Thinking along those lines, she started casting around for a better vantage point. The book tower she chose wasn’t as hard to scale as she thought. It was a small one, a foothill, barely fifteen feet tall, and with a pitch so shallow that it wasn’t even a challenge to walk up most of the side. A short scrabble up to the peak was nothing, by comparison. The books didn’t even think of shifting under her feet, and a good deal of extra vantage opened up: she could finally see more than a few hundred metres in any direction. At least, until the pillars blocked the way. Pillars? Book skyscrapers… bookscrapers.
Lights flickered in the distance, visible between the bookscrapers, and Alice decided that was a better direction to go than most. The “forest” floor was a mixture of threadbare carpet and broken floorboards, cracks and gaps allowing tendrils of twisted paper to spear towards the “sky” or climb the pillars like ivy, bristling with muticoloured leaves, but there were paths worn into the carpet, meandering between the stacks and hopefully towards some manner of civilisation.
– – –
Half an hour later, according to her phone, the skyscrapers of piled books finished giving way to a more open space, rippling with low stepped hills. The occasional toppled bookshelf dotted the landscape, contents spilled across the floor like scree. Climbing atop one of the taller bookshelves, Alice could see that the hills stretched off from the towering “forest” behind her into the haze at her left and right, and to what looked like a vast wall straight ahead, upon which she could just make out the occasional flickers – pinpricks of light. These were the lights she’d been seeing earlier.
The distance to the wall, and hopefully civilisation and salvation from the insane library (at least, for the time being) seemed to be, at a guess, about a mile. The distance she’d already walked today had been significantly further than she’d travelled at any one time in years, and her legs were starting to ache. She wasn’t sure she’d make it that far before collapsing, and she could see no sign of a safe place to rest, never mind find food or water – if any even existed here.
“C’mon, Alice. End’s in sight.” She neglected to mention the eventuality if she didn’t find friendly civilisation nestled on the wall. Probably nothing pleasant, said an internal voice that she pushed to the side as she set off, clambering down the steps of the hill she was standing on, avoiding the uneven footing of scattered books and chunks of broken wood. Tufts of shag carpet clung to the occasional piece of scenery like some kind of textile-based moss, and a gentle breeze blew intermittently on her left, bringing with it a faint scent of camphor.
As she crested a particularly steep hill, Alice got the strangest feeling of déjà vu. None of the landscape bore any similarity to landscape she’d already passed. There was no noticeable resemblance in the scattered books and the paper flowers that grew from their tattered covers. There was nothing familiar about the pools of what she’d determined to be ink lying in the hollows between the jagged hummocks that dotted the plain. And then she saw them: a cluster of things like tiny fat flying saucers, no bigger in diameter than dustbin lids. A structure like an upside down colander on top of each of them flickered redly, emitting puffs of smoke that trailed towards her in the breeze. They all had a cluster of long glittering chains, trailing behind them like tentacles as they drifted across the landscape like metallic jellyfish.
A particularly strong puff of smoke blew past her, and she got a good noseful. It smelled like █████, which tickled her nose. Wait, smelled like what? She didn’t recognise the scent any more, and as the metal jellyfish drew closer, she had another chance to catch the odour of █████. The cr█atures drew closer, a█d A█ice started to get con██sed. What we█e they? W██ c█u█dn’t sh█ co██ent█te? S██ wa█ █ust s██nd█ng t██re l███ a l█m██, █nd t██ m█st█r█ w███ █p█ro███i██.
█h██ t██ ██ll? S█mt███g w██ ████ █████. ████e █ou███’█.
“████’█ ██ ████?”, ███ ████, ████████ █████ ██ ██ ████████ █████ ███ ███ ██████.
Everything went ████.