“Have you found him yet?” Perth stood tall, regal, higher than the other council members, his long, grey fingers rapping in anxious indecision on the wooden log that served as their table.
“We think so, sir, this time, yessir.” Rexus bowed halfway, out of respect, certainly, for he respected the council and their decisions, but mostly out of fear. Not for what they would do to him if he failed, but for what would would be done to them.
“You think so?”
“We are…” He hesitated. The last nine they had brought back had broken. Miserably. Violently. Painfully. “We are….more certain, this time, sir. He is complete.”
“How much more certain are you?”
“Would…would you like a percentage, sir? I…I need time for the calcul-”
“Oh, shutup, Rexus.” Perth rubbed his temple, his eight fingers wrapped around his entire skull, massaging away the pain this whole damn process was causing. He closed his eyes. “How much time do we have?”
“Three days, sir,” another council member spoke up.
“Three days.” Perth opened his eyes, lowered his hands, pointed a long, bony finger at Rexus. “Three. Days. I don’t want to lose another one, do you understand?”
Rexus shuddered, remembering the pain of the last, how he had died, remembering the horror, the magnitude of the thing. “Yes, sir,” he said, and hoped his voice conveyed his sincerity. “With permission, sir,” he mumbled, and Perth nodded, and Rexus ran from the room.
The blue glow was cold somehow, soaking up the energy from the surrounding air instead of imparting it. It was hovering, too, and small, the size of a bookmark ripped in half. It peeked like a shy mouse from behind a brown, metal bookshelf piled high with VHS tapes no one had been able to access in decades but also hadn’t been able to bring themselves to get rid of.
“You okay back there?” the librarian called. Otto couldn’t see her and knew she couldn’t see him. He was obscured by looming shelves of disorganized and forgotten books, stacks of colored paper, and a seemingly endless supply of random office supplies.
“Yeah, sure, just, just looking,” he called back. His backpack cut into his right shoulder and he shifted his weight to take some of the pressure off. It was, as always, stuffed with books until the seams stretched tight against the worn fabric. There were two autobiographies, five science fictions, a high fantasy, a half-burned book with no cover he had found discarded in the recycle bin at another library, a history of the English language, something written by Chaucer, and a racy murder mystery his parents would probably kill him for even touching. Anything he could get his hands on he crammed inside that insufficient sack and devoured ravenously under his bedsheets with a flashlight and a bag of Cheetos (to the thrill of the ants that shared his mattress).
He was looking, he hadn’t lied about that, but not for the VHS she thought he was looking for, an old History Channel documentary on the Civil War from back before they decided their purpose was to make the world believe in aliens. He was looking at the glow. He couldn’t rip his eyes from it. It wasn’t an orb, it was just a light. A sourceless light. And cold.
As he watched, it moved. As if timidly crawling out from behind the perceived protection of the metal bookcase, it wriggled into the open and danced around his head as he spun to keep it in sight. It circled him, faster and faster, until it looked like a solid wall of light, then stopped abruptly in front of his face. It hovered there, still, quiet, pulsing slightly, glowing cold, until it expanded rapidly in front of him and he jumped back, startled. It was big enough for him to walk through. He squinted and leaned forward to touch it with his outstretched finger, the endless curiosity of youth, the insatiable and innocent belief in the immortality of children, driving him forward. But before he could make contact with the icy blue glow, a grey and white striped arm shot out of the light, grabbed his backpack, and yanked him through.
“I found him, sir,” Rexus said, holding the backpack high with Otto dangling from it. Though he’d always been rather tall for his age, even his twelve-year-old height was only half as tall as the shortest in the assembly. “I found the One.”
Perth stood, and the assembly, who had been murmuring in excitement and anticipation and fear, fell silent. He sat behind the log table with his council beside him. The hall was filled with the few who remained of their crumbling world. The walls were rotted trunks of dead trees, the ground a hard, rocky mud. Outside, the overgrown forest had become a den of thorns and the creatures they fed and cared for were flocking from far and wide to sit outside the ruinous hall and wait and watch and listen.
He stepped down the hard mud and stone steps that raised him from the ground and stopped in front of Otto. He inspected him, eyes narrow, grey skin pulsing the light pink of curiosity and concern, and raised a long finger to touch him on the face.
“Please, please, sir,” Otto said, a little embarrassed at the quiver in his voice. He’d spent his whole life immersed in magical worlds beyond comprehension, wishing he could be the ordinary protagonist plucked from his ordinary life and told he was special and sent on a grand adventure, and now that it was happening he found he wished he was only reading it. “I just want to go home. Please.”
Perth tilted his head like a dog who isn’t quite sure where sound is coming from. “Who are you?” he said, and, without waiting for an answer, took the backpack from Rexus, lowered it to the ground, and shook Otto out of it. The boy stood, confused and almost jealous, and watched him walk back to the log table with his bag.
Perth removed its contents, gingerly, one by one. He picked up an autobiography, examined it, and placed it unceremoniously back in the backpack. He did the same for the science fictions and the mystery novel until he finally grabbed the destroyed book from the recycle bin. He gasped and cautiously turned every page as if the entire thing was made of smoke and might dissolve if he breathed on it too hard. The entire assembly seemed to believe the same thing, and held their breath, and waited. When he had examined every page, he closed the book and turned around. His grey skin pulsed the light blue of hope as he held it high.
“He is complete,” he said, and the assembly roared. They stood and jumped and made whooping sounds Otto could not identify and would not have been able to reproduce. The skin of every being in the room pulsed the same light blue as they took deep breaths and exhaled a shimmering, warm, amber light that glided out of their mouths and floated across the air and was swallowed by the strange little book.
Perth removed his hands but the book remained in the air, held aloft by the golden breath, and it hovered, higher and higher, until it was several feet above the ground.
Perth’s voice rang out, solemn, in the assembly.
“Every book contains life,” he said, and the crowd replied, “Every book is life.”
“What life he gives,” he said.
“We shall return,” they replied.
“Our story is not finished.”
“May it never be.”
“He contains our past.”
“May he protect our future.”
The book opened and the golden light it had inhaled blazed and exploded from its pages, showering the room and everyone in it. Otto could only try to remember to breathe as the decomposing walls of the room turned green and strong before his eyes, as rain began to trickle and then stream outside, as the hard mud floor groaned and swelled with wet and water and life, as the moonlight shone strong and flowers bloomed on trees and somewhere beyond the walls he watched an apple grow in an instant and fall to the earth.
Perth reached out his spindly fingers and took the book and went back to the log table. He pulled a heavy, glass case from underneath it and placed it on top. He set the book inside, closed the lid, and turned around.
“This is the last book of our world in existence,” he said, and the assembly, enraptured by the joy of the renewal, fell silent and watched him. He waited for a moment, and then spoke again.
“This is the last book of our world in existence,” he repeated. A tall creature sitting behind the log table and wearing a purple cloak nodded solemnly. “There will be no others. We must protect him at all costs, or risk our destruction. Nothing is more important than his life.” He waited a moment, let the words linger heavy in the air, watched the assembly closely, then repeated, “Nothing.”
He turned his attention to the small, shivering lump of human still standing with his mouth open in the middle of the assembly floor. He picked up the backpack, walked to him, and dropped it at his feet. He put his face right next to the boy’s, bending so low it hurt.
“Thank you for finding him,” he said. “Thank you for saving him.”
“Him?” Otto croaked.
“Our world book, child. The very last one.”
“He is alive. He is giving us life. He is he. Not ‘it’.”
“You may go home now.”
The blue light that had yanked him from his own world hovered in front of him once again, and Otto picked up his backpack and slung it back on his shoulders. As Perth walked away, Otto lost the fear that had locked up his voice and he looked up and shouted, “Hey! Wait a second!”
Perth turned. “Yes?”
“I…what if…it was…can I…” Where were his words? He couldn’t remember where he’d put them.
“Are you needing payment, child? For your book?” Perth asked.
Perth smiled and reached into the pocket of his amber robe. He pulled out a shimmering yellow rock, flat and smooth, inlaid with something glittery and stamped with a symbol Otto didn’t recognize. “Here,” he said, and handed it to the boy.
Otto held it, rubbed his finger over the surface. “What’s it do?” he whispered, his eyes wide.
“Do?” Perth laughed, but it was kind. “It does nothing. It is payment.”
Otto couldn’t take his eyes off the glittering jewel. “Thank you, sir,” he whispered.
Rexus stepped toward the boy and reached his hand out to pull him through the icy light, but Otto realized he only had a moment to take what he truly wanted more than anything to remember this extraordinary moment by. He ran to Perth, wrapped his scrawny arms around the grey man’s tall, slender body, and squeezed.
Perth startled for a moment, then chuckled and muttered something about children and patted the boy’s back.
“Thank you,” Otto whispered, and let go and wiped his eyes and returned to the light.
“Are you ready, tiny person?” Rexus asked, and Otto nodded. Rexus gripped his arm, stepped into the light, and pulled him through.