She could do this.
The front door was open and the setting sun set her front garden ablaze with oranges and reds. Poppy didn’t look at how her mother’s flowers seemed to be almost luminescent in the ambient light, how the bees and butterflies hurried to make the most of the dying light.
Poppy didn’t look.
But she would have to brave it, because the sad fact was that she had run out of books to read, having finished her favorite just hours before; for the umpteenth time. Poppy needed to space the next read out before she ended up losing affection for the tale.
She took a deep breath and walked outside with her hood pulled up.
She walked past the beautiful flowers, the insects, and birds, and ignored the glorious sunset. She took a moment to look back at her home. A simple two-story building that was her haven. Her bedroom called to her, whispering the safety from her powers that Poppy craved.
A blank canvas where emotion could be controlled and neatly experienced in tight packages.
Still, even Poppy needed to pass the time. Without new books, she would be driven mad and no amount of control would hold her back from erasing her mother’s ugly kitchen curtains from existence with soul fire.
Not that Poppy had any idea what happened to the last 36 sets of ugly curtains her mother seemed to conjure from the Abyss itself. Poppy had not one clue to offer on why they kept catching fire, dissolving, being swallowed by a black hole, aged to dust...
Poppy smiled softly at the memory of the one time Deo had turned them into a cape and put on a dramatic performance of his favorite superhero, which he had made up.
It wasn’t original, but Deo really didn’t need it when he brought a passion that even Poppy could somehow stand to be around. Not even Poppy’s mother could be annoyed at Deo for long when he tried to return them cleaned but dyed a hot pink the next day.
Poppy enjoyed watching her mother disposing of the curtains she loved so much. It was the small things, but even those moments of satisfaction gave rise to urges of dragon fire and demonic malice.
Poppy could never enjoy things for long. It just wasn’t safe. Somehow though, Deo’s warmth was something she could be near without being set off. She could just enjoy it. Like the sun on the skin, a tiny thing that didn’t stir her too much.
She began to walk down the street watching the people of the town wind down for the day, while others seemed to come alive as the sunset. Durence was a town that Poppy had been born in. She had always noticed how the adults were a little sombre; a lot of them seemed almost more like dolls that looked like people.
They said the right things, did their daily routines but it all came off feeling like she was staring at golems left on repeat. Petering out until whatever material was holding them together finally gave up. Even her own parents sometimes began to flicker out in some areas.
Her Dad only seemed to come to life when he cooked. Her Mom... when she decorated.
But at least most of the kids seemed alright. A little odd, or even ignorant of the town’s greyness, but Poppy couldn’t blame them. Having to control herself so tightly made her watch people. Most of the kids seemed to have something going on with them too.
Amanster actually glowed with a light when he first started going to class. Mr. Jones had to strain his smile slightly when he came to help him. Deo was... Deo.
Mrs. Dabberghast’s kids talked to the trees outside the window. Grimnoire ate his homework once it was passed back with a high mark. There were a few silent kids that seemed to need to be woken up by their mothers every morning before they accidentally got lost in some ruin that Poppy was sure wasn’t there the day before.
They always came out with some treasure or talking sword that Mr. Jones confiscated so they could get back to focusing on his History lesson. It was as though, as the adults lost something the kids gained more.
Poppy shrugged the thought off and walked towards the center of town, avoiding any large groups of people or mysterious doors that appeared. Durence had begun to get a little weird in the last few weeks. People were waking up. It was the only way Poppy could think of it. The store owner on the corner no longer sold the same three items every day. The woman who walked her dog didn’t talk about how monsters were on the rise or about legendary crystals on a loop anymore.
Her dog actually pulled her home now. Poppy peered as Elder Haldi walked past, he smiled and slipped a cheese flavored piece of candy into her palm.
“You’re a good lass. Tell your Dad I’ll bring him some good stuff for his platters soon!” he grinned, the gap in his smile a little endearing rather than frightening.
“Of course, sir,” she promised. Haldi frowned and rubbed his chin.
“Hm, call me Haldi. Leave the elder rubbish for Jose, eh?” he winked before he turned down an alley just as a hawk made of cheese dropped a message into his hand.
Poppy blinked as she popped the candy into her mouth. It was a ball of hard cheese with a creamy cheese center.
It was... interesting.
Haldi had always been someone who people avoided because the man seemed to be particularly graying — her term for the empty feeling that the adults had before. Now the man never stopped moving, he seemed to go to places in town that Poppy had never even known about and blatantly ignored the ‘no mail’ rule with little worry. Maybe it was an elder thing?
Poppy just swallowed the cheese treat and headed to her destination. The only bookshop in town. Poppy supposed it was odd, but honestly, the bookshop had almost everything so she didn’t really mind.
She slowed as she noticed someone sitting on a small bench outside the shop. A girl with a scowl on her face. Poppy looked up and stared at the sign.
Yup, this was the right place, but she had never seen anyone else at the store besides an irate Grim and a few enthusiasts.
What made it weird was that Poppy was sure that the girl was the new baker in town.
“Something on my face?” the girl called and Poppy chided herself for not just moving past.
“No. Sorry,” she murmured and made to go inside.
“Hey! No worries, sorry if I snapped. Been a stressful day,” the woman reached out and Poppy had to stifle a wince. Human contact on her skin made several things bubble furiously. Static skin, spiky thorns, toxin sweat, and many more. Poppy took a shallow breath and pushed it all down.
The girl seemed to notice she had done something.
“Uh... sorry, new in town and... I uh... my names Velki,” she offered and stepped back to give Poppy breathing room.
“...Poppy. It’s fine. Why are you here... actually, don’t answer, nyeh” she quickly added, her fluster at being touched had accidentally made her socially curious. She would have to reign that back in.
She pushed the door open as Velki stared.
“I... nice to meet you?” she trailed off as Poppy shut the door behind her. Poppy relaxed slightly as the smell of very old books enveloped her like a warm embrace. Books, books... books.
The shop before her stretched pretty far back, and on either side of the entrance were thick walls of shelves; each lined with so many books and scrolls that they almost poured down like an avalanche on anyone who entered. It was like the inside of some old beast.
She walked forward towards the gentle light of a lamp. Any windows in the place had long since been used for shelf space, and the shadows between the shelves offered the visitor any number of places to crawl into and curl up with a book. It was like a secret place that the world forgot.
Poppy turned the corner to the ‘center’ of the papery labyrinth. The building stretched far back, more distance than the building could ever actually hold. Poppy had felt like asking about it once, but in the end she really didn’t care.
More books wasn’t something to complain about.
The owner of The Bookshop was a woman called Paige Turner. Poppy had stared blankly when she had first met the woman and heard that name, but the woman had smiled and confided that her real name was far worse when it came to her profession.
Paige was a woman whose hair was always in a neat bun. Poppy guessed she looked like a librarian, but the appearance seemed more for her personal amusement than any accidental cliche. Paige was the only person who seemed to ignore the effects of the gray, but Poppy had never seen the woman leave her shop.
One time, Poppy had heard the ocean outside a nearby sealed window. Paige just shrugged.
Today, Paige was not alone. At her circular desk stood a familiar figure.
Mr. Von leaned on the counter and smiled a smile that looked more at home on a predator than a boring old banker.
“Paige... Paige, how long have we know each other? Think of all the good times we’ve had!” he said, adjusting his dark glasses. Paige moved to sort some paperwork. Her blonde bun, crisp white shirt, pencil skirt, and heels practically made her ooze an aura of ‘no-nonsense’.
“Too long Mr. Von. You once burst in here on a literal tide of alcohol and destroyed far too many books for me to list in the little daylight we have left. Another time you barged in here and said you needed a book on how to-”
“Cook a unicorn into a pie, and trust me, it was delicious!” Mr. Von beamed at the memory. Paige pushed her glasses up with one finger and Poppy blinked as the glasses seemed to reflect light that wasn’t there.
“Shall I bring up the time you used a priceless book as paper to smoke some sacred ashes? I loved that book, loved!” Paige snapped and the books around her fluttered as if disturbed. Mr. Von looked uneasy.
“I woke up in a barrel at the bottom of the ocean, I tell you, Paige... Not. Even. Once,” he nodded before drumming his fingers on the counter.
“Listen, I’d love to stay here and list all the ways I’ve personally screwed you over, mentally and physically, but I have a task. I need that book,” he insisted. Paige narrowed her eyes.
“If I give you this book you give me your word that you will not return for 6 moons, at least, unless a life is in serious danger?” Paige pushed. Poppy had never seen the calm bookkeeper so annoyed at someone.
Mr. Von’s smile was deadly.
“I promise... pinky swear?” he asked innocently, wiggling his gloved pinkie. Paige gave it a long, long look, before there was a flash of white as something soared past so fast that Poppy only saw wings before it was gone between shelves again.
Mr. Von looked down at his severed pinkie on the counter
“I’ll take that as a no...” he said dryly as he simply reattached it. Paige broke apart into several pieces of paper, and like a miniature twister, sped towards one of the higher shelves; her upper body reforming, while the swirling below kept her afloat.
“Now... let’s see... How to train your dra- Hm no... How to train your rock? Do I have that? Let’s see... How to train your trainer... Sword... Dog... Sword-dog...Aha!” Paige yelled triumphantly. She pulled a tattered book out and floated down.
“How to train your angsty student. First edition with included graphs to indicate when best to begin a montage,” Paige dropped the books into Mr. Von’s eager hands.
“Paige, you are a treat,” he nodded and turned to leave. He wasn’t even surprised by Poppy’s form.
“Monster girl, is baker girl still outside?” he asked without any preamble. Poppy nodded and stepped aside.
“Excellent. Now excuse me. I need to go...” Mr. Von opened the first page of the book in his hands.
“‘Impress your student with a powerful feat to convince them of your power’. Well, that just opens up oodles of fun options for tonight!” he chortled and left the shop. Poppy swallowed a little of the nervousness that she had been feeling in her throat.
Paige sighed as she appeared close to Poppy but with some healthy distance between them.
“If that man hadn’t saved more lives than he had taken... Well, what can you do?” she smiled at Poppy’s confused face.
“I’m going to guess you’re here for some... books?” Paige beckoned Poppy in deeper towards the circular desk.
“Yeah. Isn’t Mr. Von a banker?” Poppy asked, still a little uneasy. Paige put a finger on her chin.
“Yes, and I’m just a bookshop owner, simple. Now which of my children are you after tonight. I got some teen rated trash romance. Some good ole 10 book adventure series, a couple of Where’s Wanda, some nice biographies of people who don't exist, and, well... I’ve got books, what tickles your fancy?” Paige began to work again. Making paper sort itself, books arrange themselves, causing a few to shake some cobwebs loose. A whole shelf lifted and slid into a new place while one just floated away to… somewhere. The shop was alive around Poppy and the only safe island was here at the round counter.
“I like to wander,” Poppy admitted. After the dungeon where she had used so many monster abilities... there had been a bit of restlessness in her. The idea of going back was tiring to even think of.
But Poppy had almost enjoyed herself. The next best thing was to wander the shop.
Poppy saw things in the spaces between books. Some of them oozed, others clicked, while some just stared back.
But Poppy never felt in danger. It was as if every book here was looking out for her. If she got lost, she’d simply ask to leave and then three turns later, she was back at the counter.
“Hm, take Tom with you,” Paige nodded and snapped her fingers. From high up, the biggest bookcase around in fact, something was pushed from its resting place.
It landed with a thud on the counter, Paige not even looking at it. Poppy had never had to take a guide before...
“Do I need to? Nyeh... I’ll be fine,” she waved it off but the book was beginning to rumble. There was a peeling noise as the book lifted itself off the counter under its own power. The cover of the book had two large eyes.
The cover had no words but a large engraved symbol that seemed to almost look like a face.
“Blasted woman, how many times have I told you not to simply push me off in my sleep?” the book spun in mid-air to snap at a bored Paige.
“Tom, watch over Poppy. I need to sort some of the new shipment,” Paige instructed. Poppy had never seen a talking book. She didn’t know how to feel about her favorite medium suddenly speaking.
It was her most and least favorite things in the world combined. A talking tale book.
“A guide?! I am a tome of powerful magic, in a single sweep I have brought kingdoms to their knees! I have been used by the most dangerous magicians and witches the world has ever known, and you want me to be a guide? I refuse. I simply refuse,” Tom snapped again.
Poppy felt the shop go still.
Paige took off her glasses and turned to Tom with a blank expression.
“Do you want to go back in the box?” she asked simply. Tom faltered as he stuttered.
“I-I-I, I say. Now see here, I will not be bullied into servitude...” Tom blustered. Paige raised one finger and Tom quickly cut her off.
“But as a respected keeper of tomes. I will do you a favor. I do hope you appreciate my loyal service,” Tom finished, with just a hint of acid to his words. Poppy took a step back as Tom turned to her.
“Girl, state your destination so this torment may end. I have things to do and magical theorems to complete,” he said with a pompous drawl. Poppy looked at the amused Paige who went back to her work.
“Tom, I want to-” she began but the book spun faster than she thought it could move.
“I will be referred as ‘Master Tome of Magic’ by oneself. I am the tome that people have given their lives to find. I will be given my respect,” he responded waspishly. Poppy tilted her head.
“Names too big. Nyeh, Tom is fine. Show me some good books,” she instructed. The book's attitude was grating and that suited Poppy just fine. Anger was an easier emotion to control. Tom slowly looked around at the hall of books.
“Your request is both vague and infuriating. Perhaps you like to add some more words to your phrasing so I may parse what you want? Perhaps ‘exciting’ or ‘Dark’. I shall even take ‘a red cover’,” Tom stressed. Poppy felt just a touch of a smile on her face.
“I want to see your best books. I can read... nyeh, I guess they can have some pictures in them if you want to add them to the list,” she spoke slowly in a tone she knew would annoy the book.
Tom gave her a long hard stare.
“I do not like you, little girl,” he stated, floating down a side passage. The book’s grumblings making him easy to follow.
“How about this one? The early guide to royal desert eating habits of the north, fifth edition!” Tom sudden pulled on a book with some unseen force.
“No,” Poppy put it back. Tom yanked on another one randomly.
“The... uh... complete history of Durence. The battle of the heroes and the End See-” he began but Poppy put it back.
“No,” she continued on, curious where the passage led.
“I do believe that I am the guide here, please stay behind me at all times or I shall turn us right back around,” Tom called. Poppy saw a clean-looking book and pulled on it.
The shelf spun and Tom’s startled cry mirrored Poppy’s yelp as they were moved into a new hallway by the rotating floor. They ended up in a dustier part of the shop. Old lamps and older books sat there.
Tom looked left and right before he turned to her.
“How have you managed to get us lost so quickly? Hm, one second...” he muttered and flew straight up. Halfway up, a colony of bats screeched out from a shelf and Tom screeched right back as he began to slap them away with his face.
Poppy just watched.
Tom may have talked, but as a book he was proving to be very entertaining.
This had been a good trip so far.
Poppy allowed a small smile as Tom floated back down, his pages ruffled and voice a little high.
“Come... I think I saw a familiar encyclopedia a few rows over. An ex, best not to make eye contact,” he wheezed out.
“What was she an encyclopedia of?” she had to ask. Tom paused.
“Stretching,” he stated with a blank tone and floated onwards. Poppy felt a little let down. She was hoping for something exciting. Looking around she began to scan the shelves as she walked.
She saw an old cookbook and grabbed it. Her Dad might like it.
It’s pages looked stained but it looked very well-loved.
It reminded Poppy of herself.
“Blasted comics! Pick up your sleeves and don’t backchat me!” Tom thundered to a shelf in the distance. Poppy had the feeling it might take a while to get back so she lowered her hood and enjoyed the quiet isolation in the shop, bar Tom’s muttering.
She hoped Deo was having fun.
She plucked a comic that showed a heroic knight on its cover.
Deo would enjoy this