The journey to the rest stop on the way to Chart, was uneventful. It was a well-traveled road with plenty of people to keep us company, and Sally’s threatening glare kept any potential troublemakers at bay. Jerome’s coil kept everyone else away too.
Sally tried to get him to stop, but couldn’t bring herself to get close to him while he tinkered with it. As the sun dipped below the horizon, Elenor and Ben began leading our party, although the lanterns and torches held up by our fellow travelers lit the way quite well. Our hesitation from before seemed completely unwarranted.
The rest stop was a collection of inns. A stone slab illuminated by a hanging lantern said the inns had been established by the government in 1455 A.B. for the benefit of all travelers, wayfarers, and wanderers.
We rented two rooms, and Sally insisted we take turns standing guard for the night, electing to take the first watch herself. The innkeeper – a tired middle-aged woman – made Jerome quit working on his coil because the explosions were disturbing the other guests. As the night wore on, and the fatigue of a taxing day settled in, Elenor and I sat alone in our room. I sat on the side of my bed while she sat on the chair beside the lone desk in the room.
This was the perfect opportunity.
“Hey Elenor,” I said.
“Yeah?” she replied.
I was going to ask her how magic worked. I intended to ask her bluntly since I had already concluded that it didn’t matter if she found out I was from Earth. But a strong paranoia took over my head as the words formed in my head, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
An awkward silence hung in the air.
I took a deep breath.
Elenor broke the silence, “I’m sorry we couldn’t catch him.”
“Huh?” I said.
“The guy you were chasing. I’m sorry we let him get away.”
“It’s alright.” I leaned against the wall next to my bed. “He’s an asshole, but a smart one. I’m not sure there’s even a point in me chasing him if I can’t beat him.”
“Is he a header?”
“A member of the upper classes.”
I recalled his shoes, scarf, and suit. “Oh yeah, he’s rich alright.”
“No wonder. His books must be incredibly powerful.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“But don’t worry, we should be able to take him out if we work together,” said Elenor.
I smiled. “You don’t have to go that far.”
“Hey, I don’t have anything better to do.”
“You could go back to Moxy after you drop me off at Bendeck.”
She pursed her lips. “Maybe.”
“Could you help me practice magic?”
She sat upright in her chair. “Me?”
“Your magic is amazing. The one you used earlier in the day.”
“It was nothing special.”
“No, I mean it. My ears are still ringing. I’ve been thinking about it all day, and the only way I’m going to be able to defeat Demetrius is if I can beat him at his own game. I need to know how to use my magic properly.”
“But if I couldn’t find him today, then his magic’s probably stronger than mine. Tell you what, I’ll ask Sally and Jerome to teach you. They’re better than me anyways.”
“No!” The more people involved, the more complicated the situation would become. “It’s a little embarrassing. I don’t want the others to know.”
She tapped her fingers slowly. “Okay…” Her words trailed. “Just how bad is your magic?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Have you burned one yet?”
What did that mean? “No.”
“Do you know how to burn one?”
“Really? I heard the situation in Epil was bad, but not knowing how to burn a book is a little surprising.”
I had to tread lightly because I didn’t even know what kind of country Epil was. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad over there.”
“Which city are you from?”
Crap, I didn’t know any cities in Epil. “I’m from the countryside.”
“No wonder!” said Elenor as she shook her head. “I was assuming you were from one of the free cities. It never occurred to me that people could live in the countryside there. It must’ve been rough, huh?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, nodding.
“Are your family bandits?”
“No,” I said. “Nomads, we’re nomads. Kept moving around, never stayed in one place for too long.”
“Makes sense. Total anarchy out there.” She nodded her head and stood up. “But okay, I understand now. Epil’s been in a sorry state for years, it’s only natural your grasp on magic would be a little weak. For starters, you’ve read more than three books, right?”
I remembered being asked that question before. “Yeah.”
“Good, and you know the rhyme?”
“The rhyme?” I asked.
“Yeah, the Magician’s Rhyme. I know there’s an Epilian version too, Mo said you swapped Bit or One with Static.”
“Must have been a city thing,” I replied.
“It’s really not that important, but they teach it to kids all over the place. Help’s keep a bunch of information in an easy to remember package. I’ll sing you the version Moxy taught me first. It goes like:
Draw from the endless well,
Knowledge bound yet unbounded;
On every shelf,
Three apiece for life,
Lest burnt for greed,
Or taken on lease,
One plants a seed,
To be recalled in peace.”
“It sounds great but I don’t get it.”
“It’s just the basics. Three books on a shelf, each for life. You can burn them for power or give them to someone temporarily, but they’ll always be yours once you put them on your shelf. Unless you die, in which case you can pass on your unburnt books.”
“Okay, I’m just going to assume you know nothing about magic, and walk you through it.”
“Perfect,” I said, standing up. The room wasn’t that big so we were just a few feet apart.
“Pick a book from your shelf by focusing on it.”
I frowned. She’d skipped a step. “From my shelf?”
“Yeah, look into your shelf, and pick a book.” She skipped it again.
I was about to ask her what a shelf was, when the nagging feeling in my head came back. Judging by the way she was speaking, looking inside this shelf or whatever, was almost instinctive for the people of this world. I couldn’t have her doubting my origin.
Wait, why couldn’t I? I thought I’d had this discussion with myself before. It was okay if she knew. She’d either think I was lying or crazy, but I could live with that. Right?
The candlelight reflected off Elenor’s sunglasses, giving them an orange glow. Her glasses were still looking in my direction, and her fingers were tapping on the side of her hips, which would have made her seem impatient if she hadn’t been tapping her fingers all the time.
Okay, if I couldn’t ask her how to look inside my shelf, then what was I going to do? Maybe I could try to do it on my own. A shelf, right? This was magic so it probably involved chanting something, or using some inner power like mana or energy. Maybe that’s what ‘shelf’ meant?
No, that wasn’t it. I’d tried to meditate and said ‘abracadabra’ before, thinking it might work in this magical world, but it hadn’t. This shelf thing was something else.
Maybe I had to take it literally. A shelf. I should picture a shelf. What kind of shelf? Remember the rhyme, it said three books. So, a shelf that could fit only three books. A small shelf, then. Just big enough to fit three big books, if it needed to. A shelf like the one at the back of the library back home.
In fact, why picture just the shelf. The room, let’s picture the whole room with its rugs and sofas, reading lights and ladders. Just one shelf though, a small one with only three books. No wait, it only had two books.
Why did it only have two books?
“Huh?” Elenor was shaking my shoulders.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“I was worried. You weren’t responding.” She was breathing quickly.
“I, I’m sorry. I got a little carried away there.”
“Yeah, I –” I hesitated. “I was in my shelf.”
“You were inside your shelf?” she asked.
“I told you to look inside, not go inside!”
“It’s okay.” She walked back to the desk. “When you say you were inside your shelf…”
“I was in a room with a shelf on the wall.”
“That’s impressive,” she said.
“Most people only picture a shelf, grab what they need, when they need it, and leave. I haven’t heard of anyone going into a room before.”
I grinned. The idea had come to me from an old television show I’d seen on the internet. It was the best visual interpretation of a famous book series I’d read as a kid, so I still remembered it.
“Is that how you always look inside your shelf?”
This was my first time, I thought to myself. “Yeah,” I said aloud.
“I’d recommend shortening it to just the shelf. You don’t want to be vulnerable in the middle of a fight.”
“Got it.” I brought my mind back to the room, but only imagined the shelf with a little bit of wall around it.
“You said you hadn’t burned any yet?”
“Yeah, I haven’t.”
“Then pick any book and let me see how you use it.”
I focused on the books, and my eyes widened. I recognized them. They were the books that had vanished when I closed them! The Cannon and The Tempest. So this was where they had gone.
Oh no, I thought to myself. I wasn’t going to be able to return them to old man Ather!
It was a strange thought to have, considering how I’d already left Sett and wasn’t intending to look for it in the first place.
“Good, you’re –” She coughed and doubled over.
“Elenor!” I ran over to her. She was wheezing, and coughing incessantly. I grabbed a mug of water and she drank it. I helped her sit down, but her breathing was still jittery.
“What happened?” I asked.
“My fault.” She groaned. “I’m sorry, I tried to take advantage of your ignorance.”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “What did you do?”
“I tried to read you. I know it’s rude and invasive, but I just thought it’d be easier to help you if I knew what books you had. Lousy excuse, I know. I shouldn’t have done it. Totally my fault, I…”
“It’s okay,” I said. She tried to read me. What did that mean? It sounded a little creepy.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I can help you anymore.”
“No, it’s alright. I don’t mind it at all, I just –”
The door opened. “You ladies still up?”
“Sally?” I said.
“I heard some coughing. Is everyone alright? Want me to bring you some more water?”
“No, it’s okay,” said Elenor as she got up. “Let me take over your shift, Sally. I could use some fresh air.” She grabbed her stick and left the room.
I tried to follow her but Sally insisted I get some sleep. I tried to leave the room later in the night, but was stopped by a very cranky Sally hugging a pickaxe. Resigning myself, I fell asleep with the ghostly buzz of Elenor’s magic fading inside my head, only to be replaced with the agonizing sound of her coughing and crying out in pain.