Asher's plan from the start had, of course, been to regain his composure quickly before running back like the hero that he was and facing that hideous monster. But just as he was in the midst of his mental chastisement and a sea of bookstacks, he collided with yet another stranger.
As Asher once again regained his bearings from the prostrate position on the floor to which he had so quickly returned, he heard a woman's voice nearby. "Ouch!" She was dressed in much more familiar garb than the tentacled beast, which, Asher reflected in disgust, might not have been wearing anything at all. The stranger's dark grey hooded tunic overlaid a thin scalemale, and dark blue trousers with leather hide boots covered her legs and feet. But as Asher's vision came into focus on the woman, he realized she wasn't human, either. Her face was turned away, but he could see light grey fur covering her thin arms and a tail protruding from below the tunic.
"Watch where you're going!" A harsher male voice sounded above him. Asher redirected his gaze. This man was surely human, but he was built more strongly than Asher and wore a horned helmet and fur pauldrons that matched his light brown beard. There was an entire company of these armor-clad characters, a good seven or eight of them, all glaring down at the confused knight. Some of these were human, but others bore very animalian features.
"I apologize," Asher managed in a gasp. He felt a light touch on his shoulder and, looking to his side, met the eyes of the woman he had hit. Her face was almost entirely feline, resembling that of a snow leopard. She reached her arm out to him, having already risen from the floor. At the expense of his pride, our hero accepted the stranger's aid and rose to his feet.
"He's clearly confused, Rhoric." the hooded cat said. Her voice was gravelly, almost purr-like. "Do you know where you are, foreigner?"
"N-no," Asher said, recovering from the shock of the woman's visage. "Please, please tell me so that I can begin the journey home. I must return to Gholaire at once."
"I've got some bad news for you, foreigner," Rhoric smiled. "There is no going back."
"That's no way to explain it to him," the woman chided. She softened her tone and redirected it toward Asher. "You've entered what's called the Forsaken Archives."
"Is there really any kind way of explaining it to him, Siyada?" Rhoric interjected, eliciting a few chuckles from amongst the group.
"Well I'm at least trying, unlike you," she hissed, facing Asher again. "The Forsaken Archives is the place heroes like us go to when--"
"--When we get abandoned and rejected by our very creators," Rhoric butted in. Siyada's slightly pointed ears flipped back in frustration, shifting her hood.
"Abandoned? What do you mean?" Asher pressed, trying and failing to yield calmly to this spiteful man's poisonous words.
"What's your name?" Siyada asked pointedly.
This, it seemed, was one of the few answers our hero did possess. "Asher."
"Asher, you don't seem to be taking this very well. You've turned very pale. Let's go sit down, away from these fools. There are some nice reading chairs not far from here."
I have been feeling rather lightheaded, Asher thought to himself. "If I go with you," he asked, "will you tell me how to get back to Gholaire?"
Siyada's face took on an indecipherable expression. "I will tell you what I know, and I will try to help you in any way I can."
The ambiguity of this response did not placate Asher, but his options were few, and he felt he was running desperately out of time. He followed Siyada's lead.
"Ashen Asher," he could hear Rhoric laughing after him regarding his complexion. The knight's first reaction was to tighten his fist, but Siyada placed a gentle, yet clawed hand on his shoulder, extinguishing his anger for the time being.
"Rhoric's not so bad, once you get to know him," she said. "The man can't help it, after all. His tragic flaw was written to be arrogance. He gets very jealous sometimes at nothing; it's part of the package."
"You said he was written that way. What do you mean?" The pair arrived at a clearing with a number of large, cushioned chairs, some of which were occupied by eclectic persons almost indescribable to Asher. He took a seat near Siyada and tried to tune out his bizarre surroundings as best he could.
"You're a book character, Asher. We're all book characters. We're the main protagonists of our stories, as a matter of fact. But our stories were never written to completion. Our authors stopped writing for us. We never came to an end, and with nowhere else to go, we were sent here."
Asher slammed his arms down on the armrests of his chair in disbelief. "Book characters? You all believe you're book characters?" He wanted to laugh, but Siyada's somber face concerned him. The other beings in earshot looked at him somewhat coldly before resuming their business.
"Look around, Asher. What do you think all of these incomplete books are for? They're our stories. And there are many."
Asher surveyed his surroundings once again. There was still no end to the bookstacks in any direction. There was still no end to the novelty of these archives' inhabitants. And there was still no clear reason for Siyada to lie to him. "But that's insane! It's impossible! I'm a living, breathing, thinking person!" He gesticulated with the intensity of his emotions.
"That's the way it feels," Siyada answered, a drop of melancholy in her velvet voice. "But what I'm telling you is the truth. And I'm sorry to tell you this, Asher, but you can't expect to escape the Archives; no one ever has. The truth--our reality--is that we're all facing an eternity of wandering the endless Stacks together, looking for the purposes we lost. Less boring than death, I suppose... but less fulfilling." She shrugged in a chilling resentment.
Asher's heart stopped for a moment, but it would not fail him. "I don't believe it. I must return to Arabella! I need to rescue her!" He rose from his chair and began to jaunt off he knew not where, but Siyada rose quickly to obstruct him.
"I can prove it," she maintained, her cat eyes as piercing as ice. "Follow me; there's someone I want you to meet. Or something, I should say. Archie will explain this to you far better than I ever could." She yanked our hero on the arm, and Asher, baffled and void of any other leads, reluctantly followed.