Some say the universe is a library, and contains every book that might be written, in every language, in every possible arrangement of letters. Most are incomprehensible, strings of symbols that correspond to no meaning. Few and far between are those that contain words that might be read, even if the combination they create is as nonsense: musickeypushshipopendoorfollowsoundseekpagecapturehome. And rarest of all are those that create stories false and true; the tales of worlds now lost forever and those yet to be discovered, the true story of your life, the myriad possible defeats and victories you might encounter along the way. For every letter of truth there are dozens of fabrications, and they multiply to create endless forgeries and falsifications in the books of time.
As dearly as the D’ni custodians guarded the books of power, which might link them to other worlds, making sure not one page was lost from their spine, so too did they whisper of the Unknown Librarians, whose age no one could number, who skimmed and discarded the books of the ceaseless scripters. Among the D’ni, it was profane to desecrate a linking book. “But the ancient ones, they rip and they tear wherever they find meaning,” the legend went, “saving it from the piles of gibberish to pore over. If you see them and their tattered spines, do not bid them greeting or translate their lore, but run! Fly through a book of your own design, if you must; their letters bring only tragedy.”
But long after the D’ni were effaced, Atrus sat alone in his imprisonment, thought of escape long forgotten. It was then, after long days and nights had passed with only his journals for companionship, that the visage of the undying came to his cavern.
She wore a robe as black as the night as those who had never seen the sun, and below her hairless head were two holes for eyes that reflected distant stars. She came by night, and left Atrus a scrap of paper salvaged from potential voices.
I do hope your accomodations are not proving insufficiently luxurious. While my confinement is discomforting, I think back with fondness on the lessons in creation I have taken from you, and on the volumes that await me once my temporary isolation comes to an end. Already I feel convinced that, rather than sapping my creativity, this will serve as an inspiration for more meticulously designed locales. I thank you, belatedly, for your mentorship in these matters.
It couldn't have been real, Atrus told himself. There could be no way out, no way to create new links. But then again, could the figure he saw have possibly been real? If she was to pass through the walls of his jail like water, who was to say where else she could go?
After he'd reread it for days on end, puzzling and agonzing as to whether it could possibly be real, she returned again, bringing a similar but no less disturbing page.
Your books cannot hold me. I will escape soon. When I do, I will tear down your prison walls. My vengeance will be fast and cold.
Handwriting as familiar, and a message as impossible, as the first. He tried not to dwell on them–were not his own journals enough?–but to no avail. Another unfathomable message was soon to follow.
I will aid you no longer; your quest is of no purpose to me. How long have you dreamed amid your books, building trap after trap instead of recognizing the beauty of the world around you? How long have you feared the potential in our children, unknowingly making them your rivals instead of your successors? You have always loved creating puzzles and traps, but they never brought me such joy, and I would rather remain alone than be their servant. Let your pages fulfill you. They were always your deepest love.
“This isn't her,” Atrus wept, folding and unfolding the page as if to reveal some other pattern from the words. “Catherine would never have written this.” Yet in all the worlds, in all the combinations of letters, still he stared over something that spelled his name, something that came from beyond his bounded cell.
Why do you let those cavern walls bind you? Could you just apply yourself and have the courage to unlock once more what has been taken, you could step forward to the open skies and face me like a man. I did not think that so worthy a scholar as yourself would choose to be captive to tradition in addition to every other ancient stone.
“Is this some jest?” Atrus asked the empty space the specter left behind. “As well imagine my diary could let me pass beyond here than that I could repair my Linking book. With what, these lies?”
Still the letters poured forth.
My beloved grandson,
This island cannot hold me, I who forged it and know its every building and barrier. A little sleep, and I shall arise free to journey beyond space and time, and loose you from where you scribble your notes. Pass through the void, and you too shall become like me, with power over life and the constructions of lesser artists. Have patience, and your next lesson will soon begin.
“I have nothing but patience,” Atrus raged. “Since when has that rewarded me with freedom, or even the truth?”
He told himself he would not open the next letter, and he kept it face-down for days that blurred into each other, until one night (what was night in the caverns?) he could not sleep and reached for it.
To the unknown child who bears the echo of my name,
Beware! With every change of letter added or removed, another alteration is made to the fabric of the world. You are the heir of generations of craftsmen and women, and even their name is vulnerable in your hands. Guard it, and all that is your legacy, well, lest the ruins of a lost past be consigned to your empty future. For you, too, may someday be distorted or called upon to write in my stead.
Atrus crumpled it up. “You don't know me! You don't know that my future is empty! And if it is, what do I have to write about?” Yet still he kept his own notes, trying to ignore the visitor from beyond.
And still she came.
“Take me with you,” he pleaded. “Wherever you go, you have some way of escaping out of here. Let me out.”
The Librarian fixed him with her dark gaze. “You have learned to make a home for yourself in this small cavern, little one. Do not imagine you can comprehend the size of the shelves I walk.”
She left one more page on his table, and disappeared.
To the stranger whose path I follow,
I do not know you, have not seen your face, but still I am a prisoner in your world, seeking your will though you do not know me. The longer I stay here, the more I fall in line with your inscrutable design. I cannot tell how long it will be, reckoned by your time or my own, until we meet face to face, but I can only hope I have understood what it is you intend.
If not, we shall both be prisoners of broken pages, surrounded by your ghosts.