Chapter 12 - The Librarian's Pyre

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Time slowed to a crawl for Jaylina in the astral plane.

She watched in horrid fascination as creatures scuttled on rotted spider's legs, unfurling seeping tentacles that reached for her helpless form in the material world. These were no shades, Jaylina suspected, for they had no presence in the astral plane. They were tangibly in her world, which meant they could physically harm her body.

With a roar, Michael crossed back, dropping out of the astral plane as though through an invisible trapdoor into the shrinking space between the slumbering Jaylina and the hideous monsters. The light of a glowing torch appeared in his hand that he used as a ward to keep them at bay.

At that moment, something deep within the ethereal maelstrom stirred outside the bubble still surrounding Jaylina. A great scaly form brushed against the bubble and a slit the length of Jaylina's arm opened, exposing a singular massive eye like a giant squid's that focused momentarily on Michael's light before turning to Jaylina's glowing essence.

"Soul catcher," whispered Bellamy, now beside Jaylina, unphased by the terror that rose before them. "It appears to be hunting the astral plane within the library of the material world."

Tentacles wrapped around the bubble in which Jaylina trembled, and between them a great beak opened, snapping fruitlessly as its ghostly cephalopod arms tried in vain to find purchase around the invisible thin spherical barrier that separated the catcher from the souls within it. Suckers the size of large bowls surrounded her on all sides.

"It's very hungry," added Bellamy. Then he was gone.

She slowly stood, hugging the book—now momentarily forgotten—in her arms. How long would Michael's astral bubble hold?

The beak appeared to grow in size. Puzzled, Jaylina looked back towards Michael, still engaged in a fierce fight to protect her body, and saw he was shrinking.

They're not changing size, she realized in horror. The catcher was dragging the bubble towards its mouth! Jaylina found surreal the sensation of movement without feeling motion. It was as though she were standing still. Yet, closer to the catcher's mouth she drew like a giant oyster and Jaylina, the pearl.

More like the meat, she shuddered.

***

Back in the material world, Michael was losing ground. He could feel Jaylina's body lying limply just behind him. His torch sputtered as he swung it in wide arcs, threatening to go out as he did.

His worst fears had manifested. The presence he'd felt was a soul catcher, and he'd certainly attracted its attention with his light. He'd left Jaylina alone back in the astral bubble. It wouldn't be long before the catcher noticed her.

She should be fine as long as she doesn't leave the bubble, he told himself.

The spider-creatures were the catcher's dark attendants, protecting their host in the astral plane and foraging for souls here in the material. They were soulless extensions of their charge so there would be no purging their essence. He could slay a few of them by burning the knotted cords that attached them to their host back in the astral plane, but the rest would overwhelm him and tear Jaylina apart.

Only the dying light of the torch held them off.

He needed more light. He needed a bonfire. Without a thought, he touched the flaming remnants of the smoldering torch to a pile of books stacked near his feet. They took to light immediately, and the flames snaked to a nearby bookshelf. In no time a wall of fire sprouted up, separating Jaylina's body and himself from the monsters. They recoiled from its heat.

Then he tossed the torch off the mezzanine and into the common area. Small tendrils of flame flickered gently to life down below.

Satisfied, he crossed again.

***

Jaylina was alone and out of options. To stay meant being dragged into the gaping beak of the soul catcher. She had no idea whether the bubble would hold or what would happen to her after the massive being swallowed the bubble whole.

Sometimes the place we believe safest is no safe place at all.

It was time to move. Gathering her courage and closing her eyes, she let herself drift slowly backwards through the membrane of the bubble. It offered no resistance. A sensation of electricity tickled her essence as she passed through and into the maelstrom. She trusted the glimmering silver tether undulating from her essence into the chaos behind her would lead back to her body.

An orange glow that reminded her oddly of a warm sunrise gave her a moment of hope that she'd made the right decision. She smiled uncertainly at its strange beauty in the astral plane as its bright colors slowly intensified and penetrated the maelstrom.

How did the sun find its way so far into the library, she wondered.

Then her smile vanished, replaced by a grimace of sheer dread with the sudden knowledge provided by her intuition.

Michael had fired the library. The greatest and most profound accumulation of human knowledge in this part of the civilized world was ablaze.

But why?!

Her intuition brought the answer at once. Oh, Michael, she thought, her ethereal hands over her face. You should have let me die.

***

Michael popped into the bubble and found it empty. He swore at the sight of the soul catcher's great tentacles surrounding his field of view.

How many innocent souls had been taken by this great otherworldly beast? Had it taken Jaylina too? A dark fury flashed in his violet blue eyes.

"She never should have left the bubble," he growled.

Tentacles parted and he saw into gaping jaws of the soul catcher. Without thinking he launched himself out of the bubble and caught one of the writhing tentacles in both arms.

"I hope you like to read," he shouted at its unblinking eye.

Then he crossed back still clutching the behemoth.

***

Outside the great library in the plaza, a crowd had gathered to gawk and point at the rising flames from several of the broken windows. One of the guards broke and ran to fetch the fire brigade.

Suddenly there was a gigantic whoomp, like a tremendous explosion from within the structure, and the roof of the haunted library lifted, as if something colossal pushed from the inside, then collapsed, shaking the earth with a furious roar.

From the burning debris rose a monstrous shadow a hundred feet high with a thousand thrashing arms reaching out trying to find something—anything—to pull it from the firestorm it was trapped in.

It let loose a terrible howl of agony that detonated the night and shattered the windows of every building in the plaza. Then it fell back into the inferno and was consumed.

The people screamed and scattered. Those who stood on the stairs were crushed by flaming rubble from the higher floors as it toppled into the plaza.

Years later, it would come to be known as the Howling Night of Fire and none would believe what the survivors claimed to have seen. Mass hysteria, delusion, and excessive ale are sometimes easier for the well-governed mind to accept than the uncomfortable truths of a savage and wild universe.

In the dust and smoke, none saw two figures emerge from a side door under the tilted colonnade and limp away into the darkness.

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