Chapter 26:

025 ┃ Pressing Matters

The Isle of the Forgotten

Spud had to stop to catch his breath. They had climbed at least a thousand steps from the base of the rock, and now he could barely feel his legs. He sat on the ground, trying to gesture with his hand for Dawn to stop.

“…wait… a… second,” the boy managed to gasp.

Dawn turned around. Seeing her companion kneeling on the ground, she sat on a nearby stone to wait for him.

“…thanks,” Spud mumbled, trying not to faint.

Dawn made herself comfortable on her rock and looked up at the city.

“This place is incredible. It makes me feel bad that we're the only ones who can see it,” she commented.

Spud struggled to lift his head off the ground and look over the cliff. The stairs they had been climbing wound around the entire cliff several times before reaching the top, making it easy to accidentally fall into the void below. From there, they could see the hundreds, if not thousands of snow-covered roofs that made up the city.

“Honestly, I can't imagine how whoever lived here managed. Did they have to climb these stairs every day? That's so impractical,” Dawn said, looking upwards. They had only about a hundred steps left to reach the peak.

The boy tried to respond, but only choked sounds came out between his gasps.

The girl stood up and offered Spud her hand.

“We're almost there. I'll help you the rest of the way,” she offered.

Spud looked at her with grateful eyes and took her hand.

It didn't take them long to reach the top. The surface at the peak was almost flat, though it seemed to have been handcrafted. A vast area lay before them, complete with a small frozen lake, grass, and even trees. Spud found it hard to believe they were atop a rock.

Most impressive was the massive stone castle that stood in the center. It was several times bigger than the lake mansion, and its architecture gave it a medieval vibe.

Both walked to the castle's entrance: two enormous iron doors blocked their way. Or at least, they would have, had one of the doors not been unhinged and lying on the ground. In front of the entrance, two skeletons still clad in armor lay on the ground.

“Guess the helmets didn't help much,” Dawn joked, kicking the rusted helmet in front of one of the bodies.

“Don't say that. They probably died protecting this place,” Spud scolded, walking carefully past the guards.

“Let’s see if they did a good job then.”

Dawn pulled him into the castle's interior. Though he had regained his breath a while ago, she hadn't let go of his hand. Not that he minded.

Though the castle's hallways were wide and tall, Spud found it easy to get lost. It was hard to believe such a vast place existed. It was like a maze. They found several servants' quarters, the massive castle kitchen, and a few storage rooms, but nothing of interest. Spud tried to create a mental map of the place to quickly exit but eventually gave up.

“It seems no one's here either,” Dawn observed, looking out a corridor window.

“I expected that. If the city was empty, it would have been strange to find someone in the castle. I doubt we'll find anything useful here,” Spud admitted, sounding pessimistic.

“Don't say that,” Dawn said, squeezing his hand slightly. “This place is huge. There's still much to explore.”

As if on cue, the next room they entered was unlike any other. It was two stories high with dozens of wooden shelves filled with books of all colors and sizes. Between the shelves, there were even ladders to reach the highest ones. Large windows on one side of the room illuminated everything, and the scent of old books excited Spud.

Without thinking, he let go of Dawn's hand and approached a shelf to leaf through the books.

“I can't believe it. It's like all the books in the world are here,” Spud said, thrilled.

“There are many, but... don't you have enough books in the village?” Dawn asked, watching him. “I wouldn't want to carry ten books on our journey back.”

“Don't worry; I won't take any. Maybe one or two. Let me enjoy this a bit. Maybe I'll even find something useful,” Spud requested, engrossed in the books.

Realizing her friend was now preoccupied with books, Dawn ventured deeper into the library.

“Alright, let me know when you're done. I'll look around,” she said, disappearing among the shelves.

Spud wanted to reply, but he was too engrossed to answer. Before him lay hundreds of books to read, each with infinite knowledge he didn't yet know. True, he hadn't mastered the language, but he was starting to recognize words and was getting familiar with the grammar. With so many different samples to study, he felt confident about becoming fluent in a few months.

He spent several minutes browsing, but none of the books he looked at had illustrations. He was a bit embarrassed to admit how helpful those would be, feeling like a little kid wanting picture books. Until he got more practice with the language, though, illustrations were beneficial.

A gleam caught his eye. Interrupting his reading, he noticed a book resting on a table by the window. It was a medium-sized tome with metallic edges. The cover was pitch-black, with no title or back cover. Despite its plain appearance, Spud felt the book was beckoning him.

“Why are you here and not on the shelf?” Spud whispered to himself.

Opening it, he began flipping through the pages. Though there were no illustrations, he was surprised to see the text was red, as if written in blood. A chill ran down his spine, and he touched the pendant he had found in the temple. He couldn't shake the feeling that all of this was connected.

“Spud! I think you should come here!” Dawn called from afar, pulling him from his thoughts.

The boy stashed the book in his bag and ran towards her voice. Navigating through the shelves, he found Dawn at the end of the room. In front of her was a large wooden machine with some mechanism.

“I found this, and it seems important, but I have no clue what it is,” she explained, scratching her head in confusion.

Spud approached the device curiously. There were sheets of paper on and around it with writings. At first, he thought they might be torn pages from a book, but they seemed to have similar writings. He picked up two sheets to compare.

“They're the same…” he murmured, puzzled. “Which means…”

“Do you know what it is?” Dawn asked, noticing his thoughtful expression.

Spud looked up, astonishment in his eyes. He turned to Dawn.

“It's a printing press!” he exclaimed.

“A printing press? Like the old way of making books?”

“Exactly. With something like this, you can print hundreds of copies of the same message in just a few hours,” Spud explained, studying the papers intently. “Thanks for letting me know, Dawn. This is the most significant find yet.”

“I don't get it. Why do you need this thing?” she asked, perplexed.

Spud moved closer to her.

"It's not the printing press that I need. Don't you see?" he explained, showing her the pamphlets he held in his hand. "We now have the last message that was printed here. Whatever killed all these people, and if there's anyone still alive somewhere... The answers must be written here."

A. Hoshino