Stan’s small pouch landed in the bonfire unnoticed. The soldiers were too busy heaving books into the flames, and the crowd was busy being outraged and chatty.
Britta watched the pouch drop, and then waited. Nothing happened.
In adventure stories, the characters made their move and events unfolded rapidly. In real life, or at least this version of it, there were far too many false starts and failed beginnings. When events unfolded, they did it when they pleased, not when you wanted them to.
Britta looked up at Stan, who didn’t show any signs of disappointment at his damp squib. “What was in the b—”
There was a series of quick pops, loud and sharp. The crowd’s chatter dropped to a confused murmur as they tried to figure out what was going on.
Rockets of coloured light shot out of the bonfire. They would have made quite a spectacle if they’d gone up into the air, but most of them went sideways into the crowd, causing understandable panic.
Screams and shouts filled the square, along with whizzing and banging.
“The librarians are coming! The librarians are coming!” Stan shouted gleefully. “Don’t stand near the book burners!”
As stupid as it was to think there was a militant group of librarians who were going to punish the soldiers for destroying books, the crowd took to the idea with gusto, either scrambling over each other to get away from the terrified soldiers, or shoving the soldiers out from their midst where they were trying to hide.
It could have been true, a secret organisation of ninja librarians terrorising those who failed to return books on time. And if it was, the players who hadn’t committed any crimes against literature were keen to see what would happen to those who had.
“Stop this!” screamed Rick. “Stop this right now. They’re just fireworks, you fools.”
“Chinese fireworks!” shouted Stan in response. “The Chinese are coming! Chinese Ambush!”
The panic escalated. Everyone here had seen videos of the Chinese team that had defeated the Korlath dungeon. Forums had been inundated with speculation about how the Chinese were planning to wipe out the New World players. Hadn’t they already scooped up all the low-level XP for themselves so the local players wouldn’t be able to level-up? It was clearly a sign of their intention to conquer this world.
Fighting the Chinese was not even conceivable at this time. Dying to them was. Which would suggest the best course of action would be to log out, but people wanted to see what would happen, so they squeezed into the corners and edges, some on rooftops.
What Britta wondered, as she made her way around the square to where the dean had been, was why the NPC’s were acting so hysterical. They were even more freaked out than the players, running around with arms raised and crying out to be saved. It wasn’t entirely clear who they were crying out to.
Perhaps N-28 wasn’t quite as impartial as he’d made out.
The dean was no longer surrounded by soldiers — they had all run off. Rick wasn’t here, either. Probably trying to get things back under his control. Now was as good a chance as she’d probably get.
“Excuse me. Hello? Could I have a word?”
The dean didn’t seem to hear her. She had a hand over her mouth as she watched the pile of books continue to blaze. Singed pages occasionally flew out of the flames, floating on the rising heat. The dean began snatching at them, jumping up and down.
Britta felt bad for her. Even though she was just a computer generated character, her desperation to save at least a page or two felt very real. Britta would have helped her, if she’d had the height for it.
She grabbed the back of the dean’s robe and pulled her away.
“You can’t stay here.”
“My book, my books,” cried the dean, but she let Britta guide her out of the square into a side alley.
“I’m sorry,” said Britta “but I need your help.”
The dean was distracted, looking back towards the fire which was still partially visible from where they were. Then she noticed who had pulled her away.
“You! You’re the one who stole the books.”
Britta wasn’t sure what to say. It wasn’t like she could deny it. “Um, yes, sorry about—”
“Oh, if only you hadn’t returned them. We might still have them.”
“Actually, I do have a couple I didn’t return.”
The dean’s attention fixed on Britta. “You do? How many?”
Britta opened her bag and took out the two books she’d taken from the Institute’s vault. They were Perfect Positioning for Illusions and Footwork and Fireballs.
“Just these two, I’m afraid.”
The dean took them from Britta with a hungry expression. She patted and stroked the covers.
“We mustn’t let them find these. This will be the seed for a new collection.”
Could you grow books? Did they mate and reproduce? Anything was possible in a world like this one.
“I was hoping you could teach me what they contain. I’m an illusionist.” It sounded odd saying it out loud after keeping it a secret for so long, but if she wanted the dean to reveal the secrets in these books Britta would have to convince her she was an apt pupil.
The dean looked at Britta with a glimmer in her eye. “You must read, study, absorb.”
“Um, I’ve tried reading them. It wasn’t really very, um, enlightening. I mean, I probably didn’t understand what they were trying to say. That’s why I thought you might give me a few pointers. Please?”
“You want a shortcut?” The dean didn’t sound very impressed. Then she looked back towards the fire. “Very well, since time is of the essence.” She opened one of the books, presenting it to Britta. It was open at the last page.
“Read the end first?” said Britta.
“Read it back to front,” said the dean.
Britta took the book and began reading it backwards.