The cave did continue beyond what they had seen. For quite a ways in fact. Eventually even Merlin’s book collection ended and the cave started snaking up through the rock. Steps carved into the floor carried them up to the surface. Arya could barely walk. Michel and Katniss were mostly carrying her with her arms draped across their shoulders.
“He said it wasn’t far.” Binny led the group, slower than she would have liked, but they made progress.
Gradually the rocky terrain gave way to a more Mediterranean landscape. Off-white and orangey rocks were more prevalent. Fading greens of plants that looked like they were losing their color in the sun. And then a structure loomed on the horizon.
It looked like a layer cake, or maybe like an Aztec temple. Maybe they were in South America, or rather some book’s version of South America. Binny didn’t know. It didn’t matter. Binny’s mission became increasingly clear.
Merlin had said there was a place in the Stacks where magic would work. In Binny’s mind, this meant that there was a place where anything was possible – a place where creativity was possible. Binny had already decided, it was a place where she could feel alive.
It hadn’t escaped Binny’s mind, that if they found the place magic worked, that Hermione could heal Arya. Binny knew that ultimately Arya would be fine, but watching the color slowly drain from her friend’s face was something she’d like to stop as soon as possible. Arya was putting on a brave face, but it was clearly an enormous effort.
The stone steps that led to the top of the structure numbered in the hundreds. Arya said she could do it, but nobody believed her.
“I’ll go.” Binny said. “I’ll go find out where to go, and we can go from there.”
“I’ll go with you.” Michel volunteered.
“It’s okay. I dragged everyone here, I’ll do it myself. You stay and help Katniss and Hermione take care of Arya. I’ll be back as soon as possible. I promise.”
Katniss caught Binny’s eye but said nothing. Binny sensed that Katniss was proud of her. It made Binny feel good, and it gave her some energy, which was a good thing as the steps were numerous, steep, and brutal. By the time Binny made it to the top, she was sweating profusely.
Binny walked under the arched doorway at the top. Binny thought that a giraffe would be able to walk through the doorway without having to stoop. Once inside the temperature changed and the air felt cool on her skin. The room was large. Sculpted reliefs, mainly of lions, lined the walls. They looked almost Egyptian but not quite.
“Maybe this isn’t South America.” Binny said to herself, aware of how her voice bounced off the ceiling of the large hall. When Binny looked up at the ceiling she saw an enormous eight-pointed star made out of inlaid stone.
“It’s not.” A woman said from across the room.
Binny was momentarily startled, but quickly regained her composure. She’d come here to meet someone after all. “Oh, hello.”
“Hello Binny.” The woman said.
Binny could now see her. She was tall, impossibly so. She had eagle’s talons instead of feet, and eagle’s wings sprouting from her back. She was wearing next to nothing and she was beautiful. Binny was mesmerized.
“You are in Ur, Binny. Not South America.”
“Thank you. Sorry. I didn’t know.” Binny fumbled with her words, not quite sure whether to look away or not. “How do you know my name?”
“I know everyone’s name. I read every book.” The winged woman said.
“I wish I could say the same. I’m sorry, but I don’t know yours.” Binny said, hoping she was being respectful. She had no idea who this woman was, but it was clear she was used to having great power.
“I am the Great Lady Inanna. I am a godly maiden. I am the Portentous One and the Bearer of Happiness.”
Binny bowed. She didn’t know what else to do.
Inanna glided towards Binny.
“You’re a god?” Binny asked. It occurred to Binny that this might be a disrespectful question only after it had left her mouth.
But Inanna didn’t seem to notice. “Yes.”
Having survived that potential faux pas, Binny pressed on. “But isn’t everyone in the Stacks a fictional creation? So you’re no more a real god than I’m a real person. Right?” Again Binny regretted her words the moment they left her mouth.
“You have a creator. Does that alone not make you real?” Inanna asked. “If you were created, then you must exist.”
Binny smiled, “I hadn’t thought about it that way. But wait, that means someone created you.”
“True.” Inanna said in a far away voice. “I was created a long long time ago.”
“I’m the oldest one here Binny. Nobody in the Stacks is older than me.”
Binny’s eyes got wide. “Who created you?” Binny asked.
“Her name was Enheduanna. She was my author. She was the author.”
“What do you mean?”
“Enheduanna’s poems about me are the very first example of an author naming herself in her work.” Inanna looked at Binny closely. “The first example, ever.”
“Your author was the first to put herself in her own book. And you met her! I met my author too.”
“You could not possibly meet your author Binny. They are all gone now. They’ve been gone for one hundred and fifty years.” Inanna said.
“What happened?” Binny asked and watched Inanna’s face closely for a response. Inanna had gotten closer and looked tired. After a moment, Inanna seemed to think through what she wanted to say and then sat down. Her eagle feet crossed, her wings pulled in tight. Binny was so eager to hear the answer, she had forgotten that Inanna was clothed in nothing more than wisps of a transparent veil.
“What happened was a trick. We were tricked.” Inanna sighed. “I suppose it was our own fault as well.”
“You need to understand, for so long, there were so few of us. I was here, with Enheduanna. Gilgamesh arrived. Enkidu. Later there was Odysseus, Achilles, Hector.”
Binny made a face.
“Oh, you’ve met Hector I see. I’m afraid this place does things to everyone. Arthur and Merlin came too. Now all they do is war with Sun Tzu and Gilgamesh. It’s sport for them. Everyone copes the way they know how.”
“But you see, it was easy. We were few. New arrivals were scant. And usually didn’t last very long anyway. Things weren’t organized. They were peaceful and easy. There was no library. There was just endlessness. Your book was wherever you wanted it to be. You entered when you wanted, and you left when you wanted.”
Inanna continued, “You could even enter the books of others.”
Binny raised her eyebrows. She thought of how they’d found the lectern in the Rare Books Room that let them enter the hybrid book they were in now.
“And then, somewhere in the 15th century, something changed. It was small at first, but I felt it. I had long been the oldest one here. The influx of characters into the Stacks was always a curiosity. But now it was a nuisance, a pestilence. A swarm of locusts taking over the Stacks.”
“The 16th century was when it really started to become unbearable. Shakespeare in particular was one of the culprits. Every day new people arrived. Every day our peace was disturbed.”
Inanna grabbed Binny’s hand for emphasis. “Imagine you live in a sacred garden. One that only lets in the most beautiful butterflies. Ugly butterflies die quickly. And then one day, the moths arrive. They live long lives and they multiply with vigor. Soon everywhere you look it’s all moth.” Inanna said the word ‘moth’ like she had one in her mouth at that very moment.
Binny shuddered. “I’m a moth then. Aren’t I?”
Inanna looked down at Binny and smiled sympathetically before continuing. “And then one day, after 500 years of this infestation, two women came up with a plan. They knew we were unhappy. They courted us, the old-timers. They met with the most influential among us. I was one. They promised to fix things. They promised to eradicate the moths. They promised…” Inanna looked off into the distance.
“They promised that we could go back to the way things used to be.” Inanna let the words sink in before continuing. “And we’d only have to make one, small, sacrifice.”
“Your books. You’d have to give them your books.” Binny completed Inanna’s thought.
“Exactly! Our books. Instead of having them ourselves, they said they’d tend to them for us. They’d create a grand library, like the one in Alexandria.”
“We gave them our books. So gladly. So freely. So easily. And they used them. They used our books to build the library, to build their rules, and then to build this…” Inanna motioned around her “…this retirement home. They’ve put us in a ghetto.”
“The boys fight the same battles over and over again. Merlin sits in his cave. I sit in my temple. Alone with my stone lions. And none of us will ever create our own future again. We just retrace our tired and worn old steps over and over again.”
“There used to be more of us you know.”
“More of you?” Binny asked.
“Yes. More characters my age. But over time their books were lost and forgotten.”
“When nobody reads your book, you end up in the fire.” Binny said.
“Yes. That was always the case. Even before they took our books.”
Binny was disappointed. “Oh, I’d hoped that was something I could avoid.”
Inanna laughed. “It’s life here Binny. It ends in fire.” Inanna paused. “But, you can prolong your life here. At least one could. Before.”
“You could extend your life in the Stacks?”
“I’ll tell you a story Binny. I had a friend here for many years. His name was Tiroas. His author was named Cicero. The play he was in was lost a long time ago. People stopped reading it, and he felt the draw of the fire get stronger and stronger.”
“But rather than weep for his fate, he decided to sculpt. He made beautiful sculptures of marble and stone. He sculpted lions for me.” Inanna went pensive for a moment, thinking back to her friend. “The more he sculpted, the less he felt the draw of the fire. It didn’t matter that his play was lost, he’d found new life.”
Inanna continued, “But when the change happened, they didn’t just take our books, they took our ability to create. They took Tiroas’ ability to create. And then the fire took Tiroas.”
Binny could see the fire flashing in Inanna’s eyes. “Tiroas discovered the secret to staying alive! Why doesn’t everyone know this? Why don’t they know that they don’t have to die in a fire if nobody reads their book.” Binny’s eyes were flashing fire of their own now.
“It wasn’t my place to tell of Tiroas’ discovery. And once he realized he should share it, it was too late. Too late for all of us.” Some combination of a sigh and a growl emanated from Inanna’s throat. “Do you know what it’s like Binny, to have lost the power to create your own destiny?” Inanna stared hard at Binny.
“Do I know what it’s like to lose it? I can’t say that I do. I never had it. But I want that ability very badly.”
“Of course you do my little moth. You may turn into a butterfly yet.”
Binny and Inanna sat in silence for awhile as Binny contemplated what she’d heard.
And then, Binny remembered why she’d came. “Inanna, I’ve come to ask you a favor.”
“Merlin said there was a place. A place I could heal my friend.”
“Yes dear. My Enheduanna is there. Would you do something for this ancient faded butterfly?”
Binny nodded earnestly.
“Will you give her my love? Tell her that even Gods miss their creators.”
Inanna stood up, Binny had forgotten how tall she was. Inanna flapped her wings once. They were so powerful, they lifted her in the air a full foot. Inanna hovered for a moment as if she’d forgotten something. “Behind the temple is a forest. In the center of the forest you’ll find a building, almost entirely covered with beautiful colored glass windows. That’s where you must go.”
Inanna, still hovering, leaned down gracefully and kissed Binny gently on the head. Twice. “One for Enheduanna, and one for you.” And then, with a few powerful beats of her now enormous wings, Inanna was gone, and Binny was alone.