The tattoo was what woke him up.
He'd been having a strange but oddly enticing dream about giraffes and pogo sticks and having to rescue the postal workers from the ensuing invasion when his left hand began to hurt. In the dream, he put it down to the pogo stick he had having a spiked handle- which, his dream self noticed, was incredibly counter-intuitive.
But then the pain went from an annoying-yet-bearable prickling to a sharp stabbing, until it finally escalated into outright burning. His hand was on fire. He needed water. He needed ice. Fuck the postal workers, he needed-
He fell out of bed and landed onto the carpet with a thump. On the back of his left hand, the Library insignia- an open book with two chains wrapped around it- throbbed dully.
Jake groaned and picked himself up off the floor. The Library needed him.
* * *
It was a short jog across campus from his room to the Library. He didn't bother with a key when he reached the entrance: he just placed his hand flat against the frame and the two mahogany doors creaked open for him. He knew there was something wrong the moment he entered the building. The familiar air of dust and calm and barely suppressed knowledge had a strange, urgent edge to it. He stepped inside.
The glass dome in the center of the ceiling towered overhead- which wasn't always a guarantee around the Library, so he was grateful that was at least working out alright. Everything in the lobby looked normal enough: sofas and chairs still spread around attractively, the two fireplaces still extant, nothing vine-y or fungal growing on the carpets. Then he caught sight of the back wall.
The wall that hadn't been there last night.
A small groan escaped between gritted teeth. He went to investigate.
What he had taken to be a wall was actually the back of several bookcases, all closed in together and put across the invisible and typically only implied line that separated the lobby from the stacks. Some prankster –a student, probably, he thought, disgustedly- had moved all the shelves, blocking off the rest of the Library. The polished rosewood shone in the light cast off from the oil lamps around the room.
Okay, he thought, staring at the wall blankly. There were options.
He could go out, find Mr. Narvasson, the head librarian, drag him down here, dump it all on his lap and then go back to sleep. He could find the night security officer who was supposed to be outside, preventing this sort of thing from happening, drag him down here, dump it all on his lap and then go back to sleep, or he could try handling this himself.
Jake turned on his heel and headed for the exit. This was a job for somebody else.
In fact, Jake thought as he reached the exit. Why wasn't the head librarian already there? He had the same tattoo Jake did. As did the archivist, and the reference desk worker. Why had he gotten the summoning when nobody else had?
He glanced down at the tattoo. It had stopped hurting the moment he'd entered the building.
Maybe it wanted me specifically, he thought. But, no. That would be stupid-
He tried pulling the door open, only to find it stuck tight. Thinking that he must've set it locked on accident, he tried placing his hand on the frame. All that happened was a sharp biting pain catching him in the palm.
Somewhere behind him, past the wall of shelves, something laughed. The sound reverberated through the walls and rattled the windows.
Oh, he thought. Damn. So probably not a student, then.
Things had just gotten a little more complicated. It looked like help wouldn’t be coming in any time soon. He rubbed the remaining sleep from his eyes and headed for the shelf-wall. It looked like he’d have to settle this on his own.
It took longer than it had any right to take to move a bookcase, even taking into account that he was taking extra care not to topple it and spill out all the books. He didn’t even manage to move it out all the way: the best he could to was scootch it forward enough to allow him to squeeze through.
The shelves inside had been rearranged into a maze. A lab-rat labyrinth composed entirely of shelves and library furniture. Carrels and desks were set onto their sides with chaired piled on top of them to block off passageways. Most of the shelves were still upright, which he supposed was a blessing, as most of them were old enough not to survive being put onto their sides.
There were two branches of maze to pick from. Figuring one was as good as the other, he picked the left branch.
After a few minutes of walking, he noticed that all the books had been rearranged. His breath caught in his throat. He inspected the other shelves. Every last book was out of place, seemingly set at random within the shelves. He winced, physically hurt by this. It would take months- no, years to set everything straight, even if they had a whole horde of librarians working on it.
Calm down, he thought. Breathe. It’s a spell. It’s obviously a spell. Nobody could have done this in the- what? Six hours since closing?
He sighed and waited for his heart to start beating normally again. If it was a spell, then they could undo it. Without the hand-work.
He went through the maze of shelves, taking books out and trying to find out the method of the arrangement. There had to be a pattern. If there was a pattern, and if he could find the pattern, then he could tell Narvasson and he could undo it. If he couldn't, then they'd all have to actually put everything back by hand. Which was not going to happen.
He went through the maze, more concerned with the organization of the books than with wherever the maze was going to lead him. Whoever or, for that matter, whatever had done this was probably waiting at the end, he figured. Maybe they were the ones who'd specifically triggered him to come, instead of Narvasson or the others. So he may as well give them a good long wait while he figured this out.
They weren’t organized by title, or by author. Not by genre, or by subject. Not by their call numbers, or year of print. They weren’t organized by shape or size, or cover color, or by the thickness of the pages, or by how many chapters- or, indeed, if there were any chapters at all. They weren’t organized by intended audience or by the names or gender of the main character, or by where the author was born or how old the author was or whether they were dead or alive. They weren’t organized by any commonality shared on the book jacket’s picture, or if the author had a photo on the back, or by word count or page count or by any other point of reference Jake could think of. For nearly two hours, he spent his time meticulously combing through the books and making his way through the maze, trying to find something that would connect them all.
At the two and a half hour mark, he gave up trying to find out the pattern, telling himself that Mr. Narvasson would be much better suited to this than he was. Instead, he began to focus on making it to the center of the maze.
At the three hour mark, he found himself furiously trying to back trace his steps to the beginning so he could start all over again. The path he had taken before had lead him off into a dead end of 1095’s sci-fi, Latin texts, children’s books with talking animals on the front, and a mishmash of every other sort of book he’d been seeing that night.
The route he took eventually split up into another two choices. Again, he picked the one on the left, and again he wound up having to backtrack. From then on, whenever the maze split in two, he’d pick the one on the right, just to save himself time. It seemed to have worked, because eventually, the maze ended.
The path he’d taken lead into a circular not-room of shelf walls. At the center of the not-room was a reference desk. Someone in a large brimmed hat was sitting at it, head down and pouring over a thick book.
“Well?” said Jake, stepping into the make-shift room. “I’m here.”
The figure at the desk looked up and grinned at him. It was a short, impy looking thing, with coarse black fur covering everywhere except parts of its face. Its ears fanned out to the side and ended in smart points. It had an earring. Jake stared. Now that the hat was no longer in the way, he could see that the creature had been, up to that point, dissecting the book with a craft knife.
The room suddenly seemed slightly warmer. His hands unconsciously curled into fists at his side. “You little bastard-“
The imp creature opened its mouth, and a high, keening wail cut through the air. Somewhere, past all of the shelves, there was the tinkling of thin glass breaking. The creature then leapt onto the desk, then jumped up again. In mid-air, it transformed, changing from some sort of gremlin thing into a dark, wispy creature of smoke and air. The screaming didn’t stop.
The poltergeist swept around the circle room. Books flew out of their shelves as it passed without it having to touch any of them. It laughed. Then it stopped, less than a foot away from him. It opened its mouth, displaying shark-like teeth that looked more solid than the rest of it combined. Its breath stank of stale ink and dust.
Jake was not amused.
“Do you have a library card?” he said.
The poltergeist seemed not to hear him. It moved a little closer. A large, purple tongue flopped out of its mouth and landed on the floor, splattering ink where it landed.
Jake drew a deep, slow breath. “Do you have a library card?”
The poltergeist’s tongue shot back into its mouth, and its jaw snapped shut. It frowned, like it couldn’t quite figure out what had happened.
“Do you have a library card?” Jake said again, setting off the spell.
“The Chrestas College Library supports the instructional philosophy and programs of the College,” he intoned. “The Library supports the learning needs of a diverse student population, the instructional needs of the faculty, and the information needs of the community.”
The poltergeist flew back, as though it had been struck. Jake grinned, but didn’t stop talking.
“Students are responsible for all materials checked out on their Student ID. Faculty and members of the community are responsible for items checked out with their public library card. Fines will be assessed for late or damaged materials.”
He pointed to the general chaos of shelves, and then to the papers and books strewn around the floor, and then he stamped his foot. The floor rumbled.
“In order to preserve the peace and provide public access to Library facilities, the Library may suspend access to the Library for persons who fail to follow the Library’s established behavior guidelines. The Library reserves the right at all times to immediately discharge a customer who is dangerous or in any way threatening Library staff or other customers.”
“You,” he said to the spirit, “have broken several of the behavioral guidelines. Harassing, threatening, or intimidating staff or other customers. Vandalizing Library facilities, equipment, or materials. Blocking aisles or any other passages in such a way as to prohibit free flow of pedestrians, strollers, or wheelchairs. Using furniture or building facilities in ways which may cause damage or excessive or unreasonable wear, etcetera etcetera!"
The poltergeist wailed. Not the chaotic, noise-for-the-sake-of-noise wail it had given earlier, but a genuine cry of pain. Jake stamped his foot once more. Several of the skylights flew open.
“As the only representative of the Library staff available, it is my duty to inform you that we no longer welcome your presence upon Library grounds. As such, I must insist you leave the property immediately.”
He jerked his head up, indicating the open windows. “Get the hell out.”
The poltergeist vanished in a torrent of paper and smoke and was sucked outside. The windows all snapped shut behind him.
Jake grinned, feeling bone-deep exhausted, but insanely pleased with himself. He’d managed his first exorcism, and he’d done it alone. He staggered over to the desk the poltergeist had been sitting at and checked the cover of the book it had been mutilating.
The cover was blue and the book was thick, but other than that, it was too far gone to tell. He set it down gently, as one would a beloved family heirloom, and then looked around at the cases. He still didn’t know how they’d been arranged. He must have looked through a thousand of them, and he still had nothing-
He blinked. A thought occurred.
Aching, he crossed to the nearest bookshelf, where he pulled out three books that were sitting beside one another. One was a historical fiction, one was a collection of scientific essays on cellular degeneration, and one was a harlequin romance. He opened them all and after a moment, nodded. He then set them back into the places he’d taken them from, and went back to the reference desk.
The sun would be up soon. The other Library staff would come in, and then they’d all work it out. For now, though, he just needed to sleep. He set what was left of the blue book down onto the carpet, then crawled on top of the desk. Just a few minutes. That’s all he needed.
Alphabetically, he thought, drifting slowly into the dark recesses of his mind. By the first word in each book.
And then he was asleep.
For misterfuffie, though he probably doesn't remember why.