I turned, unsettled, but saw nothing unusual, just rows of bookshelves that stretched on into darkness. They towered above, too tall to see where the shelves met the ceiling countless floors overhead. Considering I was somewhere in the mostly unexplored lower levels of Veritas, the largest library known to humankind and practically a world in and of itself, this was not surprising. The fact that I couldn’t see the source of the voice that had spoken, however, worried me.
“They hide in the highest reaches of this world, in their fortresses of the knowledge gleaned from these shelves,” the voice continued. It was higher in pitch now and had a mocking lilt to it. “Most are content to stay there and ponder what they already know.”
I squinted through the lavender glare of my lantern—one that used magic, of course; I wasn’t foolish enough to saunter into a possibly sentient library containing decidedly sentient creatures while carrying actual fire—but saw only more shelves.
“But some,” added the voice, deeper and colder, somewhere overhead this time, “some venture below. Here, in the depths, ideas are not the bringers of light you call them, and the knowledge you claim to master is of no use if you do not have the courage to wield it.”
“I’m not from Veritas,” I called, trying to ignore how my fingers trembled and sent shards light of light dancing around me. “And I certainly don’t consider myself a master of knowledge, though I do like a good story.”
“That,” the voice said darkly, “is rather obvious. Apart from the clothing, the hair, the lantern, and, oh, everything else about you, there’s one thing that sets you apart. Do you know what it is?”
My gaze finally snagged on something to my right. I swallowed. There it was, coalescing in front of me. An untouchable wraith. A monster that prowled the darkness beneath the shining city of knowledge, turning those foolish enough to wander these lower levels into the bones that splintered beneath my feet. A creature made of constantly shifting shadows that were never fully revealed even by the light of my magic lantern. As I stared, speechless, the darkness changed. Wings flared and faded back into nothingness. A tail with a snake’s head hissed in and out of the light. A face, part human, part decidedly not, formed and disappeared again.
“All the others,” explained the creature, “had so much fear. I could taste it, like salt and iron and the frantic flutter of a butterfly’s wings. It was...curious. But this” —the creature lifted a suddenly visible talon in my direction— “is far more interesting. You said you liked stories. So tell me one.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Tell me,” the creature repeated, settling a chin down on a pair of paws, “a story. Your story. What do you know about courage?”
I had never imagined I would end up telling my life story to a shadow creature in an abandoned library. But since that talon had looked quite keen, biding for time seemed my best option. I sat down, ignoring the bones that creaked beneath me, and tried to gather my thoughts.
“Most people here,” I started, “have the same idea of courage that I used to have. That it’s some special quality that can be called up like magic, some hidden wellspring of strength that only the chosen ones possess, something that sets a hero apart from the rest of us mortals. Or that it’s a gift bestowed by some powerful being, complete with shining sword and a protective blessing.
“There’s nothing wrong with swords, of course, and the right magical blessings are better than any shield. But there’s a terrible burden in thinking that life is like the stories we love to tell. Belief in heroism requires a faith in some sort of destiny, and while belief can be comforting to fall back on, it has never been enough for me. I spent much of my childhood running around with a makeshift sword, waiting for a call or challenge that never came. And as I grew older, I spent so much more time wondering if my lack of heroism was my fault. Maybe I didn’t have the magic and goodness that all the heroes of legend had. Maybe the powers above had thought me somehow broken, or just ordinary, and had passed me by without a second glance. Maybe, despite all my yearning, I wasn’t a hero.
“Still, some people have called me a hero. My parents did, jokingly, when as a child I played at stories. My grandmother did as well, though I think she meant it in her own way. She could tell the strangest and most enthralling tales, but her ideas didn’t quite fit in with how everyone else saw the world. “We all have a bit of the hero inside of us,” she would say as she covered my shoulders with a blanket. “I am glad you let yours show.” I would smile politely and scamper off with my blanket-cape trailing behind me, but I had my misgivings. Wasn’t the whole point of a hero being able to do what no one else could?”
I paused, shifting in place. The creature rustled impatiently, and I forged on.
“Though she wasn’t family, my best friend Aida was the only one who truly understood my dreams and doubts regarding heroism. She was the one who had run alongside me, wooden sword in hand, on my childhood adventures. She was the one who had supported me before I took my leap of faith. And afterward, she was the one who had sat beside me in the rain and told me that she, at least, thought what I had done proved me a hero.
“I still don’t think that leaps of faith are the sign of courage that so many people seem to think they are, though. Acting without considering the consequences is really just foolishness, not bravery. I certainly wasn’t trying to be brave then, when I came out as non-binary to my parents. Even if my breaths had to be dragged reluctantly from my lungs as I waited, standing across the kitchen table from my parents, in a lengthy and foreboding silence. Even if my heart had started keeping time with the incessant patter of rain on the roof. Even if my fingers were twitching with pent-up nerves as I tried to pretend that the tenuous hope of their support wasn’t cracking inside my chest. I must have succeeded at hiding my feelings, at least until I ran past my parents and outside to where Aida sat under the old tree, waiting and reading despite the rain. That was the day when she called me a hero, but that title never sat well with me. I wasn’t being brave; I had had no idea what I was getting myself into.
“Neither did I know what I was doing when I left the home I'd known all my life and threw myself out into the unknown. Others I’ve met in my travels said that made me a hero, but that doesn’t seen right, either. Courage isn't stepping off into the unknown. How can you be brave without knowing why, without knowing you are trying to be brave in the first place? My leaving wasn’t brave. It was impulsive and the kind of reckless self-destructive that leads down a very dark road.
“No, courage is neither the stuff of legend nor the faith and recklessness that everyone else seems to think it is. I guess no one really knows what it means to be brave. Do I? In all honesty, probably not. It's hard to tell, considering I have happily wandered into the bowels of a city tormented by what legend claims is some undefeatable, bloodthirsty creature.”
I dragged in a breath, realizing I'd probably said far too much, but I thought I might as well finish my story before the shadow creature decided my fate. Besides, I was starting to wonder if courage was so much the fabled conquering of monsters as it was being able to look those monsters in the eye and befriend them instead.
“But then,” I added, watching the creature warily, “I've learned not to listen too much to legends. And since I'm sure you've been wondering why it looks like I’ve hidden a weapon under my cloak when I clearly know you can’t be touched by such things...”
The creature shifted in curious agreement.
“Would you like a cup of tea?”