It was a brisk autumn evening. The cold October wind deadened the pair’s muffled conversation in the shadow of the University.
“It’s really not that difficult to be somewhere you’re not supposed to.”
“Oh, and you’re an expert on break-ins now?”
“Yeah, well, any idiot can break in somewhere. The trick is not getting caught.”
“Okay, so what’s your big insight?”
“You can walk in anywhere in the world as long as you look like you’re supposed to be there. I.D. badge, cover story, whatever. It’s not that hard.”
“…and this helps us break into an abandoned library, how?”
“It’s abandoned, right? No one’s supposed to be in there, so there’s no profile for who IS supposed to be in there.”
“Genius. You know, you should consider becoming a career criminal. You can do your Master’s Thesis on the financial benefits of living in a free 3-by-3 cell.”
“That’s not even a little bit funny. My POINT is that they’re not looking for anybody in particular, so they’re not going to be looking for anybody at all.”
“I’m not sure that’s how that works.”
“Whatever. No one’s watching the old place, besides campus patrol. But they come, what, once an hour? Plenty of time to sneak in.”
“How do we get in undetected, Oh Great Nightfox?”
“Simple. I came around yesterday night and smashed one of the panes of glass with a rock. They’ll have nailed some particle board up by now, and I brought a crowbar.”
There were dangerous corners in Raechel’s mind.
“Oh come on, Luke. They’re tearing it down over the summer and building a new one. It’s not like it hurt anyone. Besides, this is our last year as undergrads. I know I didn’t do shit that was risky the whole time I was here.”
“You became an English major.”
“I’ll pay for THAT later. Right now, I want to get in that library.”
“Because it’s haunted?”
“Because it’s haunted.”
Luke stopped walking and posed with his hands on his hips.
“You know there’s no way we’re actually going to see a ghost.”
“Yeah. I know. I’m not insane. BUT, they did close down the library for a reason, and I want to know why. I can’t find anything official, other than a notice of condemnation.”
The leaves littering the ground swished red and yellow good-byes around their feet as they approached the building.
“Maaaybe they closed the building down because it’s ready to be condemned!”
“Hush. I’m about to break the law for the first time since High School and I need a smoke first.”
Luke leaned against the brick front of the building opposite the old library. If anywhere was going to be haunted, it would be this place. Everything on this end of campus was from a bygone era. The walls were solid brick and the windows were decorated with ornate wooden carvings.
“It’s got pillars for God’s sake.”
“Oh, I was just thinking that if anywhere was going to be haunted, it’d be this place.”
“Yeah, that’s why I knew I could talk you into it.”
“Like you talk me into everything.”
“Only after you… anyways–shh! There’s more. I looked into it. Over the course of the library’s history, there have been at least ten reported disappearances.”
Luke cocked an eyebrow.
“Seven students disappeared at around roughly the same time. Years later, a professor and a student vanished within the same month. But, the oldest disappearance goes waaay back, to before the University was even here. It was a dude that had a PHD in Occult Studies. Name was Phillip Morganson.”
“Whoa. Hold up, I don’t really care what his name was, but you can do your PHD in occult studies?”
Luke had some serious life-choices to reconsider.
A steady, staccato clip-clop echoed through the night. Raechel exhaled a cloud of smoke and turned around to deposit her cigarette in the bin as a campus patrol walked by.
“I figured they’d increase security after last night’s vandalism.”
“And that’s why the smoke. And the turning around? You could have warned me.”
“Sooorry, I thought you’d figure out to hide your face. Whatever, this gives us more time to do the deed.”
“Do the deed? Who are you?”
She flashed a sardonic smile, “If anyone asks, I’m The Nightfox.”
She slipped her gloves on and sauntered up to the door. Slowly pulling the crowbar out of her bag, she eased it into the crack between the board and the door and pulled. The board gave a few inches. She slipped her hand inside the gap and “clicked” the lock open.
“After you, Monsieur.”
“Of course,” he bowed, pulling on his gloves.
They slipped into the building as quietly as they could, sliding the door silently back into place. Raechel pulled out a borrowed hockey puck and pushed the nails back in place.
“Doesn’t need to hold, just needs to look okay.”
“Alright, we’re in,” whispered Luke, a bit on edge.
“‘Alright,’ Ocean, did you bring a flashlight?”
“I did, in fact. It’s night. It’s dark. I did the math.”
“Ah yes, but did you bring a red filter?”
“Um, no. Was I supposed to?”
“Duh! It keeps the light from messing with your night-vision. I saw it on a movie once. Here.”
She slipped the loose plastic filter over his flashlight and secured it with an elastic.
“There. Now you kind of look like you know what you’re doing.”
His eyes threatened to roll into the back of his head.
“Bless you, Cunning Nightfox, what’s our next move?”
“Explore,” she grinned.
“You’re enjoying this.”
“Of course, I am! Why else would we do this?”
“Umm…I don’t know! Curiosity? Justice? Honoring the lives of those lost souls who disappeared here? Don’t you think we have a responsibility to find out what happened to them?”
“You’re enjoying this, too.”
“Oh, hell yeah.”
They crept past the admissions desk and deeper into the building.
“Remember, only use your flashlight when you need it. They can still see the light outside.”
The main floor sprawled into the shadows behind the faux-stone staircase that led to the second floor.
“You are an Arts major,” Luke cooed.
They crawled up the steps. The slight scuff of their shoes “shhff-ing” into the empty air.
“Okay, I can’t see a thing, and I’m not knocking over a bookshelf. I’ve played with Dominoes.”
Luke flicked his flashlight on, spilling red across the grey-speckled lino, and stifled a shriek.
Nothing greeted them. An empty linoleum floor stretched past the crimson pool and into the darkness.
“You didn’t think they would just leave them here.”
“Well, I wasn’t expecting just nothing. You know, you don’t expect a library to just be empty. I mean, is it even a library without books?”
Raechel’s “Shh…” echoed into the darkened corners of the room. Grinning sheepishly, she flicked her light on. Then, hands clasped over the beams bleeding onto the floor, they carefully inched their way through the abandoned hall.
“You’re right, though. This doesn’t feel right. I guess you never really think about how BIG a library is without all the shelves.”
“Like paper without ink, graphite or thought.”
“Hooow poetic. Remind me what you’re taking again, Luke.”
They trained their tinted flashlights across the floor of the upper hall for about ten minutes before stumbling into the shelves that had littered the hall, stashed around a far corner.
“Ugh,” Raechel shivered into her habitually chewed scarf, “Piled in a corner like a dirty secret.”
Luke grinned, “They do have something of a skeletal look to them, all empty metal ribs and gleaming… shelves.”
“Just like normal humans.”
“Just like ‘em.”
They giggled quietly at their horrible joke, half hilarity, half nerves.
“What are we looking for, anyways, Raechel? This place is empty.”
“I know. I don’t know. I just figured I’d know it when I saw it,” she considered for a second, “No, I guess I just had to see for myself, you know?”
“People gone. Books gone. This place eats lives.”
“The University? Or this library in particular?”
“Why be specific?”
“Good point. Okay, let’s check the bottom floor and sneak out. Its been a while, but we’ve still got time to get out before the next patrol even gets here.”
“I can’t believe our plan revolves around the regularity of campus patrol. Have you really thought this through? Real life is not movies.”
She gave him a wry, one-fluttering-eye, mouth-curled-at-the-corners look, and they both burst into quiet laughter.
Descending into darkness isn’t as easy as crawling up into it. With the library’s main door directly in front of them, they didn’t dare use their lights. So, they sat upon the stairs and dipped their toes into the night. Gradually, step-by-step, they were submerged.
“Raechel!” Luke hissed into the night, “Are you there?”
“Yeah,” she groped at his arm. She felt him pull away in shock, “Calm down. Once we’re around the stairs, we’ll be fine.”
“Okay. It’s just… It’s really dark.”
“I know. I’m freaking out, too, but we’re almost at the bottom. Did – did you close the shades on the front doors?”
“No. I didn’t even think of it.”
“Because, they’re closed.”
They looked around. They all were, in fact.
“Okay, that’s normal, right? I mean, we probably just didn’t notice when we came in.”
“I don’t know. It feels a lot darker now.”
“Maybe one of the street lamps went out. Maybe a cloud crossed the moon. You’re just being paranoid. And, it’s making me paranoid.”
Their feet found the floor once more.
“Let’s go left. We don’t want to lose each other,” Raechel whispered, “Here, put your arm through mine.”
“I thought it was,” Luke squealed, a stitch of apprehension plunged into each syllable.
Raechel’s flashlight pierced the night, her eyes wide with terror. Before her, Luke’s shit-eating grin resolved in red.
“You’re a fucking bastard, you know that?”
“Sorry, Miss Nightfox. I just needed to break the tension.”
“You’re lucky we’re friends, or there’d be another disappearance to add to the list.”
They laughed, sobering a bit. The shadows had indeed deepened. The front door blended into the night and the main floor under the stairs was a pit of nothing.
“I thought you said these beams wouldn’t mess with our night-vision. I can see less now than I could before, even if it IS a bit darker.”
“Wait. Look. You can’t see anything. That means that all the shades at the back must be closed, too. We don’t have to worry about using our lights.”
“And that doesn’t worry you?”
“I find it more likely that we didn’t notice they were closed while we were breaking in than that someone ran through and closed them all.”
“Sprinting, jumping, dancing through the air, pulling shut each curtain like a madly dancing man? Hearing unhearable words? Drawn to a beloved’s grave?”
“Yes. That’s exactly what we were lacking while trawling through the nightscape of an abandoned library: Shakespeare references by way of Silent Hill.”
“Alright. You were right. I was just being a scaredy-pants. But how are you not? I’ve never done anything like this before, and it’s bloody terrifying to boot.”
“I AM terrified, but I know that you’re here. You’re my oldest friend.”
“And you can depend on me?”
“No, I can outrun you. Whatever’s in the dark will eat you first.”
He flicked the flashlight on under his chin, casting strange shadows across his face, eyeballs mad with mock jollity, “That’s so funny..”
“I thought it was,” she echoed, mockingly, turning on her own light.
Their twin beams lanced into the insubstantial ichor of the main floor, ploughing headlong into wooden shelves. Rows and rows of them. Their darkened husks splashed with rivulets of red, appearing hunched and hollow in the gloam.
“Why are these still here?”
“Look,” Luke said, kneeling by a shelf, “They’re sunk directly into the stone. Like sign posts or…”
“Gravestones,” Raechel muttered in a gravelly baritone, miming a sign, ‘Here lay the resonant echoes of a hundred separate lives.’”
“You’re so deep you need spelunking equipment.”
“Be glad I don’t have a rope and a rock pick.”
“You make a laaaawt of those jokes.”
They moved between the wooden shelves, casting their flashlights about them. Stopping to examine the odd shelf that the corner of their eye convinced them held a book. As they approached the back wall, Raechel sighed with irritation.
“Well, I guess I got exactly what I was expecting.”
“Look at it this way, at least you didn’t record the process,” he nudged her, “We both squealed like children at one point or another.”
“Some people make their living doing just that.”
A shrieking squeak knifed through the air. Someone had opened the front the door. They dove between two shelves and hunched together in the darkness, smothering their flashlights. A slow, low heartbeat rhythm echoed through the shelves.
“You didn’t lock the door?!” Luke whispered, frantic.
“Neither did you!”
“Hush! You go that way,” she nudged his shoulder, “I’ll go this way. I’ve got an idea.”
Separately, they sprinted off into the darkness. The stone floor reported their harsh, scrambling dashes into the shadows, red lights shaking frantically through the shelves.
The library’s heart-beat quickened. Raechel made for the back exit, the invisible footsteps growing louder as they approached. She barrelled into the door, flinging it into the open air.
“Out! OUT! RUN!!” she cried, masking her voice as best she could, killing her light and letting the door slam on itself. With every ounce of self-control she had, she slunk back into the dark and rolled herself onto a shelf.
She stifled her breathing as best she could, staring into the woodwork inches from her face.
“One, two, breathe in,” coached her mind, “Three, four, breathe out…”
The footsteps rang nonsensically in the hollow halls, bouncing off shelves and ceiling alike. Eldritch light stuttered through the stacks from an unseen source, playing quickly between the shelves.
“One, two…” she pulled her scarf up to cover the bottom of her twisted, white face. She breathed through the smell of poly-blend and sweat.
The finish on the shelf above her face glared brightly with sudden illumination
“Three, four…” she held her breath, unmoving.
The glare of the woodwork faded as the footsteps disappeared into the night. Raechel held her breath and sent her ears straining through the halls of wood. Her probe returned nothing. She waited for five minutes…
Ten minutes… Nothing.
She thought… hoped… she heard a door close somewhere in the library. A cacophonous crash burst from somewhere in the shadows. Still nothing.
Fifteen minutes… She heard a strained call from somewhere in the stacks, “Nightfox!”
Two beats… two breaths.
She rolled to her feet, crouching in the shadows.
“Marco…” she responded, huskily, flicking her flashlight back between the shelves.
“Polo,” pierced the penumbra.
Luke crept up to her, and they sat in silence for several minutes.
“What was that? Where did it go?” he finally whispered.
“I don’t… I think I heard a door close.”
“Okay, well, I’ve got something to show you. Follow me…” he looked pointedly towards the back exit, “Quietly.”
They crept through the shelves and towards the front door. Luke pointed down the hallway near the administration desk, by the bathrooms. At the entrance to the hall sat a wooden bookshelf covered in an intricately carved array of glossy stone books.
“A Modernist expression of the utility of an unread bookshelf?” Raechel mused.
“I was thinking more that it was to help the hallway blend into the rest of the area.”
“I guess from a certain angle it does bring the room together.”
“Anyway, shush, that’s not why I brought you hear. Check it out,” he wrapped on the shelf. It returned a dull, unmistakable echo. “It’s…”
“It’s.. it’s hollow,” Raechel sputtered, wide-eyed.
“Yeah, my carafe bumped into it earlier when I was -trying- to sneak back into the main area.”
“That was really loud.”
“Probably acted as a sounding board. Kind of supports the idea that whoever that was left, though.”
“Let’s try to get this open.”
Together, they pulled on the shelf. Pushed at it. Fiddled with the panels. Tried to twist nearby signs. Raechel pointed at a nearby panel of light-switches.
“I really don’t think we should,” Luke breathed, “Even if one of those is the right one, those are bound to turn on some lights.”
“Yeah… but do you have any better ideas?”
“Quit and go home?”
“Okay, but first we try the switches.”
Raechel threw up the switches and grimaced into the sudden light.
“A little warning?!”
They tugged and pulled at the unmoving shelf.
“Off! Off! Off!” Luke rasped.
She plunged them both back into darkness.
“Do you think anyone saw?”
“I don’t think it’s worth hanging around to find out,” Raechel returned.
“Why didn’t that person just turn on the lights earlier?”
“Maybe they weren’t supposed to be here, either,” Raechel whispered, annoyed, “Now, let’s go!”
“Wait!” Luke grabbed her arm.
“WHAT!?” she growled loudly through jangled nerves, clamping a hand over her mouth too late to smother the exclamation.
“I want to try something real quick,” he hissed back, “It’s always the books.”
“We don’t have time to check each book!”
“I know!” he said, pulling the metal carafe off of his backpack and popping the lid, “Just give me two seconds.”
He drew a line of water along the top of the books. It settled, pooling between each fake, finely-etched wave of rising, bent pages. False imperfections inlaid into false bindings.
“Hurrryyyy…” Raechel said, simultaneously admiring his ingenuity and wanting to beat him over the head with his water bottle.
The carafe clinked against one of the books as Luke kept pouring.
“Careful!” Raechel said, breath caught, nearly vibrating.
“Almost done…” Luke sounded slightly disappointed.
The pooling liquid bled into a thick book on the third shelf from the bottom. Their heads turned towards each other simultaneously, shock and surprise outlined in shadow.
Luke grabbed the book and flipped it open. Nonsense scribbles in the dark. No mechanisms ground together in the wall. The shelf remained unassumingly attached to the wall.
“No, wait,” Raechel squealed, shining her light into the space the book had occupied.
Sunk into the back wall of the shelf was a gleaming handle. She pulled and it folded down, clicking into place. She pulled up, but the lever resisted.
“Here, help me with this,” she whispered, barely audible over the excitement building in her throat.
Together, they pulled upwards, groaning with the strain until…
The shelf moved slightly. Wide-eyed, they folded the lever back into place and returned the book to its nesting place.
“I don’t… what do we do with this information now that we have it?”
“The only thing we can do…”
Together, they pulled the shelf open. A narrow wooden staircase led down into an abyss.
“After you…” Luke grinned.
“I’m…” The sound of the door near the back of the library crashing open cut her off.
Without thinking, they both piled through the door and pulled on a bolted metal handle to close the case.
On the other side, they found the other end of the lever and pushed it back into place as quietly as they could. A metal chain set in the floor pulled up and looped over the lever’s handle.
“I guess that’s like a lock,” Luke whispered, “Now, what do we do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we’re stuck in here now. Someone must have noticed when we turned the lights on.”
“Yeah. We just wait until they leave.”
“How will we know? Can you hear anything?”
“Hey, you ran in here, too. I don’t have anymore of a plan than you do.”
“Truth. Okay, let’s just… look at what’s down here.”
Their flashlights cut gruesome red lines through the air as they creaked carefully downwards, doing their best to ignore the cobwebs they ducked under.
Soon, the steps turned to stone and the ground levelled out into a wide chamber. What looked like a passage lay behind a build-up of thick, crumbling ruin. A set of spiral stairs led further downwards.
“Okay, nope, I’m done. That shit right there,” Luke pointed at the blocked passage, “That shit could happen to us.”
“It could happen to us right here. Right now. If you keep whining about it in that high-pitched voice, L’il Mittens.”
“I’m being serious!” he shot back, “This is freakin’ dangerous. We’re liable to get killed!”
“Would you prefer Short-round?”
“You are NOT Indie.”
“And you’re not ten! So, stop acting like you’re still self-conscious about your hand-size and get past puberty already! This is amazing!”
Luke breathed, “Yeah, I guess it is, but still! Don’t you think we should call someone about this?”
Raechel held up her phone, “Zero bars.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know! Listen, you’ve got your whole future planned out for you. You’re going to finish next year, scoot on over to your Masters program and land a good job. Me,” she thrust her thumb at her chest, “I have no idea what I’m doing!”
“You’re going to write,” he stared, a little worried, “Right?”
“Yeah, but about what?! You can’t just go down to the writer shop and buy your writer pants and start making money writing, right?! You’ve gotta get people’s attention. You need to be creative. Imaginative. Worth. Reading,“ she ranted, face contorting with doubt and anger, “And what does that even mean?!? Do you know how many writers end up working in some stupid job because their book didn’t get approved by the right person? Because their words didn’t ring to the right magazine? Huh?? Do you?!”
“Well, neither do I! I wish someone would write about it, but from where I’m standing, it feels like a lot. It feels… insurmountable. I just…” she cast her head down in a manner scientifically calculated to draw sympathy from the dead stone, “If I found this…” she looked around, “…this place, and I was the first to break the story or write the book, I’d have my name made. Or, at least out there. It’s a long, hard road from here to self-sufficient. I need the boost.”
Luke’s face was contorted somewhere between concern and amusement.
“You had me until you pulled your ‘sori-mom’ look. I was there when you coined the damn term”
“I know, I just wanted to stop you from tearing up, you big jerk,” she grinned, half chagrin, half game-master, “It’s not as bad as all that, but the truth remains. This would be amazing for my career.”
“Did you know…”
“No, I didn’t KNOW we were going to find this place, but I thought we might find something. It’s a strange library. Subtly off, you know?”
“You mean the way the second floor doesn’t match the first at all, like it was an after-thought?”
“Exactly. But the outside was clearly built all at once. I did some digging and found out that this foundation dates back to way before the library was here. Even after it was built, it belonged to a private citizen, that PHD dude. He donated it, and the land, when the town was looking for places to build the University.”
“It was old, even then? So, the bookcases that are sunk into the stone…”
“Yeah, and the disappearances…”
“Wait, how far back do they date?”
“I have no idea, but the first person on record that ‘disappeared’ was that dude. He was rich, eccentric and up to his ears in ‘complaints,’ so people assumed he skipped town.”
“But no one knew where. And his donation bought him enough good will that no one went looking.”
“Wait, exactly what kind of ‘complaints?’”
“They weren’t on record. Just that there were some.”
“And so, he disappeared. And he must have known about this place. And a Professor. And… what was it… eight different students?”
“SO, WHY ARE WE DOWN HERE AGAIN!?”
“Honoring the lives of those lost souls who disappeared here?”
“I hate you so much right now.”
“I know. But, you still love me, besty.”
“I know,” he hugged her, “Alright, but if I die, you’re going to live to tell my parents. And delete my browsing history.”
“Deal,” she giggled, brimming with agitation, “Let’s go, once more into the pit.”
They descended the stone steps, their shaking hands sending crimson shadows dancing across the stonework.
It wasn’t long too until they hit another floor and an open passage.
“Well, it looks like the masonry held up better here,” Luke grinned, all nervous bravado, “So, we might not get crushed.”
“True, and you’ve stopped whining, so that’ll help, too.”
“When you write about this, you’re not including that.”
“Of course not.”
The passage spilled into a huge chamber dotted with bookcases. A familiar scent pervaded the air.
“I smell old books. Musty old tomes,” Raechel said, darting to a shelf, “Here, look at this one. And this one!”
The shelves were over-flowing with books of every kind. Some were older, crumbling in their case. Others looked newer, the simple bindings flexing under their probing fingers.
They went through the shelves. Some were half-empty. Others nearly full.
“What the hell is this place? The rare book depository?”
“Yeah,” Raechel mused, “Some of these books are really rare. I don’t recognize half of them. And the shelving doesn’t make sense. I mean, they’re alphabetized by author, but sometimes they’ll skip from Ar to Au half-way down a shelf for no reason.”
“Aristotle to Austen…”
“Yeah. Wait, Sanditon?” she pulled the book off the shelf and rifled through it, “By Jane Austen. It looks… finished, but there’s no secondary author.”
“Is that a thing? An important thing?”
“I don’t know. Usually there’s a secondary author mentioned somewhere,” she flipped through the pages more carefully, “I can’t find a mention.”
She put the book down and drifted to another shelf.
“Here, again, I know Camus – The First Man, Capote – Answered Prayers…” her fingers danced over the titles, “I don’t actually know a lot of these other ones, but… Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales!”
Her eyes lit up, “I know The Canterbury Tales by heart. I should be able to…” she pulled it out by the spine and flipped through the book, “Yup, someone’s made extensive additions to it. Looks like someone’s finishing them.”
“So, what you’re saying is that someone built an insanely elaborate underground lair to finish old books?” Luke looked dubious.
“You’d be surprised how hard it is to find a quiet spot to work. And, no, I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that that’s what these are: finished unfinished books.”
“But, why would someone go to the trouble… with all of these?” he gestured into the blackness of the echoing chamber.
“There are few things more compelling than an unfinished story.”
“This seems like a bit of a stretch.”
“You’re right, but I don’t think this is the work of one person,” she pulled one of the newer books off the shelf and splayed it out side-by-side with The Canterbury Tales, “Look at the difference in writing styles. They don’t just have different tones; they’re written in completely different forms of English.”
“Maybe they’re just really good.”
“They’d have to be really, really phenomenally good to pull this off.”
They took pictures of the shelves and started pulling out the books that looked in decent repair and comparing them.
“These are too many, too good,” Raechel muttered, fully absorbed by the work, she brushed aside a spider, “And look. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between the work’s original date and the shape the book is in.”
“Is this normal? I mean finishing books, not building… this.”
“Continuation is pretty common with old works, but they usually change the title or mention their name as author. None of these do that. And some of them have clearly been here a very long time. Granted, these aren’t put together with the best preservation methods, but this one’s… EW!… rotten.”
“I’ve never seen a rotten book.”
“Yes, that’s the experience to focus on.”
“Hush,” he grinned, “Alright, we’ve got what you came for. Is this weird enough to catch the public eye?”
“Yes, but we don’t know WHY this is here or WHO did it?”
“Do you really think we’re going to be able to figure that out?”
“I think we should look. I mean, we were going to give up earlier, then we found this place.”
“Granted,” he looked up, fighting claustrophobia, “But, I’m starting to lose it a bit in here. There’s just… no other lights. High ceilings, utter darkness, who knows how much stone overhead. Kind of weighs on you.”
“Just a little further.”
“You missed my pun.”
“I didn’t acknowledge your pun.”
They set off, footsteps swallowed in the quiet of the dark.
“Think there are rats down here?” Raechel interjected, disrupting the silence.
“This is Alberta. Besides, what would they eat?”
“Right. Right. You’re right. This place is kind of getting to me, too.”
Although the ceiling was much higher, the hall ended up being about as large as the library. At the end of it, they found a grimy, old passage. Wooden doors led to some empty chambers and others filled with rotting furnishings. At the end of the passage, they found another set of stairs, behind an old, wooden door, leading down.
“Okay, that’s it. This is not a thing we’re doing anymore. I’m out.”
“But, I need to know!”
“Okay, then we’ll go back up. Get some more people together, people we can trust, and the proper equipment, and do this right.”
Raechel stared into the shadows, biting her lip, considering.
“You’re right. Okay, I’m sorry. This was stupid dangerous. But, let’s at least get some pictures before we go.”
“That’s fine. We’ll get pictures of the hall, some documents, and with the time-stamps, you’ll be sure to get the credit.”
“Yeah. Cool,” she smiled, “But, let’s go! This place is freaking me out.”
“Thanks, Luke. I never would have gotten here without you.”
“No problem, besty.”
They made their way back to the shelves, their camera phones momentarily dispelling the darkness every few steps. They grabbed snapshots of the texts they’d compared and used their other pictures to put them back in the order they were found in..
“Looks good,” Luke said, flipping through his album, “Now, let’s get out of here.”
Raechel stopped, eyes on her phone.
“Luke, give me your phone for a second.”
“Sure, checking picture quality?”
“No, just… look at my phone.”
She handed him her smartphone, its screen creating a globe of shadow around them.
“That’s not your hand, Luke,” she said, pointing at a picture of a shelf and scrolling over, “And that’s not your face.”
In the far corner of the picture, behind Luke, was a long, white face, its jaw distended, teeth resting gently on his shoulder. Eyes: tiny, empty, black pits.
“No, fuck no. Nope. No. No, that’s not. That’s not a funny thing, Raechel.”
“SEE!!?” she thrust his phone back at him, the same black eyes were slowly resolving, where it clearly could not have been, in the corner of a shelf.
“Raechel,” he spat, “We are going. NOW.”
“Way ahead of you,” she said, launching into a sprint, when the sound of a great BOOM resonated through the hall ahead of them. They could hear bits of the ceiling falling down and crackling into the floor.
“NOPE!” she turned around, grabbing for Luke’s hand and pulling him with her, shoulder-checking to ensure that it really was him.
They ran, flashlights sweeping the floor ahead of them, thunderous shaking littering the tiles behind.
She dragged him to the room with the stairs, and they slammed the door behind them. Luke began piling what little disintegrating furniture there was in front of the door.
“Run!” he said, bracing the barricade “Go see what’s up ahead. If there’s a way out, or down, or whatever, just…”
“Fuck that!” she screamed, as the sound of a colossal crash and cracking wood rent the air, “You’re not going out like that.”
She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the stairs.
“No, Raechel, wait!” he cried, as they stumbled down the steps, followed by the sound of the door splintering inwards.
“Shut up! Shut up!”
They took the spiralling steps as fast as they could, not caring as webs tangled in their hair, coating them in dust and decay.
They came out in another small chamber, gasping as quietly as they could, straining their ears in the silence. Whatever it was seemed to have halted at the stairs. They tore the webs from their faces and panted in the dark.
“Okay, so it was either ED-209,” Luke managed between deep, frantic breaths, “Or a Dalek, or…”
“What? What are you talking about.”
“Things that don’t handle stairs very well.”
Raechel pointed her flashlight in the air, illuminating the room and the thin sheen of terror-sweat that covered them. Luke glanced up from his recovery. She was looking directly at him, a silent, bemused smile on her face, eyes wide with disbelief. He managed a solemn look.
And the anxiety tumbled out of them in gales of laughter.
“I… I don’t even, Luke. I just don’t even,” she said, struggling to breathe between guffaws.
“You don’t even know what you’d do without me?”
“Not even a bit. Why did you try to stop me?”
“When that thing hit the door for the first time, I didn’t feel the impact through the barricade. It was weird. From the noise it made, the whole floor should have shook, but… didn’t feel a thing.”
“Huh. That’s… that’s a hell of a detail.”
“Well, actually, it didn’t quite register until we were half-way down, but I felt like something was wrong.”
“Iiiit’s possible you just didn’t notice because of the sheer, bloody terror?”
“You may very well be right. Either way, I’m not going back that way,” his voice barely hiding its quaver.
Suppressing the tremble in her voice, Raechel asked,“Door number 2?” as she pulled open the chamber’s wooden door. The beams of their flashlights lit another long hallway, its sides pocked with doors.
“Just looking for a way back up, right?”
“Right,” Raechel replied, pushing open doors and looking for stairs.
These walls seemed older. The doors seemed to crumble under the weight of their hands. After one left a great, sticky smear on Luke’s glove, they started gently kicking them in.
The end of the passage broke off into another huge hall. A dull blue light throbbed in the distance. They looked at each other.
“In for a penny?”
“We’ll hate ourselves if we don’t look.”
“Or, if we die.”
“That seems unlikely.”
They stalked in and the light grew brighter, filling the center of the chamber with a faint, deadened chill. As they approached the aura, their bones ached to chitter within their flesh, feeling an icy grip upon them, though they knew there was none.
“It was like ten degrees a second ago. Did you just get a lot colder,” Raechel’s voice broke through the pulsing mist of blue light.
“Kind of? It’s hard to describe. Like that blue whatever it is.”
“Yeah,” she replied, “That feeling, this mist… you don’t think it could be drugs, do you!?”
Luke’s eyes shot open, fear jolting his brain, “If it is, it’s nothing like anything I’ve ever heard of. And it’s too late now.”
They zipped their coats in vain. At the center of the chamber, there was a ring of coloured stones inscribed with glowing, blue symbols. Each flashed in turn, spilling a pulsing light across the floor. In the flashes of blue, they saw a grinning skeleton peering over a crumbling desk.
Luke could hear Raechel’s breath quicken and his own heart pounding loudly, the sound of blood ringing in his ears. Terror, complete, alien terror, overran him. He could barely move.
A low voice of unyielding clarity rebounded through the chamber, “For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve, as in a vial, the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”
Raechel seemed to find her voice, briefly, managing to sputter, “Milton… he who destroys a book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God…”
“Yes!” answered the voice, morphing into a pleasant Soprano “Yes, you know the guy!”
The strange, distended face resolved in the air, pulling and compressing into that of a sheepish-looking lady, not much older than them.
“I am so, so sorry for all of those theatrics,” she continued, “I just had to get you down here.”
“Wh-what?” Luke managed.
“This is an ancient place,” she recounted, “There are deep magicks here. Older, in fact, than the hewn stones we’re standing on. But, wait, where are my manners? My name is Valerie Williams.”
“You’re one of the girls that went missing!” Raechel blurted.
“Yes, I am. You see, this place once belonged to a powerful Necromancer.”
“A what,” Luke squeaked.
“A Death-scribe. A Hell-keeper. Controls and maintains the dead.”
“Right, but he disappeared. And wherever he went, he took the entire first chamber with him.”
“We… we saw that,” replied Raechel.
“But the library still stood, and when the University took it over, someone was bound to find this place. Or, rather, this man did,” she gestured to the remains on the desk, “Him. He discovered this area, and the source in the basement.”
“The source?” they asked in unison.
“You’ll see. Anyway, with the knowledge he gained, he began preparing this Circle of Power.”
“A circle… of power.”
“Does what, exactly?” Luke finished.
“Different ones do different things. This one raises spirits from their unfinished works.”
The piece that had been threatening to slip into place finally clicked in their brains, simultaneously. They listened, now more intrigued than frightened.
“So, what happened to him?” Raechel gestured to the skeletal ruin.
“I did, when I discovered this place and found out what he’d been doing. Think of all you could do with the knowledge in here! And he’d just been using it to further his own literary career. To find manuscripts hidden by the author. Or interpret pieces. But author’s intent and changing cultural interpretation and all that.”
“She sounds like you, Raech.”
“Oh, are you students here, too?”
“Yeah, anyways, so what happened?” Raechel said, encouraging her to finish.
“Well, I told him that I’d go tell the world. Or, at least the University. And you know what he did? He stoved my head in with a rock! Crushed my skull and sent bits of my brain all over the floor,” with each word, her voice grew in intensity, emanating through the stone.
Her face began to distend, violently distorting into the stretched mass of hatred it had been before. Wind whipped violently through the air, pushing Luke and Raechel back a step.
“BUT! BUT WHAT HE DIDN’T KNOW WAS THAT I WAS AN AUTHOR, TOO!” her words crashed into them, slamming Raechel to the ground and bringing Luke to his knees. Raechel groaned, and Luke’s eye filled with concern.
“Oh! Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, the force of her voice pulling back, but her features stretching ever-violently, “I forget what squishy things you are. I forget, but then I remember. I remember tearing the skin from his body, stripping the flesh and casting it against the walls, painting the room with his droplets. With his little bits. So, I didn’t have to watch him rot. So, I could disintegrate him myself, holding his mind in place so the agony ripped through him as surely as I did through his nerves. I didn’t destroy him; I ingested him in front of his eyes. Broke. Him! Down!!”
“What about you? What about your body?!” Raechel cried, digging her fingers into the stone as torrents of air buffeted her prone form.
Suddenly, the monster was gone, and the girl stood in her place.
“Oh. I… I didn’t want to watch that rot, either. I — I took the poor thing and put it in a room. Buried it under a table,” she murmured, casting her eyes to the floor, “Actually, sorry, but I had a favour to ask.”
Luke breathed deeply, in a wide-eyed disbelief, and responded, “And what would that be?”
“I can only really move things on this floor. As I draw further away from here, all I can do is send ripples through the air, trick the eye or pull a book off the shelf. And then, only when my story is here,” she pointed to a small sheaf of paper on the floor, emotion welling through the circle and into their souls, “Please, take that and let me rest. No one must use this circle again. It’s too much for people so small.”
“To play with the dead,” Luke finished for her.
“Yeah, we’ll do that,” agreed Raechel, standing once more.
“One more thing. Go into the door at the end of the hall,” she pointed behind her, “Follow the stairs down and destroy the source.”
“What’s the source?”
“Deep magick. You’ll know it when you see it,” her form seemed to shudder with her final, barely audible, word, “Go.”
What could they do? They picked up the incomplete story and walked in the direction she’d pointed.
“Look at this,” Raechel said, panning her light over the hand-written script, “This must have been an assignment. I mean, think about it. You’re just working in the library one day, see the wrong thing, and, suddenly, you’re trapped here.”
“Couldn’t she have just moved it? Thrown it down the hall?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. What if she didn’t throw it far enough and she was trapped, too weak to do anything, but still chained? Watching.”
“Or, maybe she stayed to guard the place. Can you imagine? Not knowing how long you’d be stuck under the stone. Buried without rest.”
“You know what we have to do though, don’t you,” Raechel stated more than asked.
“Yeah, I do.”
They found the room with the stairs and propped the door open. Then, before descending, they searched through the rooms until they found Valerie’s tiny, hunched corpse carefully curled under an overturned table. The other rooms were whirls of shredded paper and broken bindings. They stacked armfuls of paper around the body and laid her story on top, a fitting pyre for their departure. The stone room would become an oven, cremating her, at last.
“I guess this explains why we didn’t see anyone else. She tossed the books away.”
“Can you imagine?!” Luke said, wide-eyed, “Just running into Kafka? Or Dickens? Or Anne Frank?!”
“Yeah, I never really thought of that. Hemingway’s thoughts on the front lines. Even famous Generals who kept diaries. We could get a first-person account of The Peloponnesian War.”
“What about famous physicists? Philosophers? I saw Aristotle back there. We could… we could chat with Aristotle about Twitter!”
“The best minds humanity has ever produced. Working, tirelessly.”
“But, for how long?”
“No, seriously, how long would we make them work?”
Raechel sobered at the thought; the wave of excitement passed and reality set in.
“She’s right,” she said, as they descended the steps, still-shaking hands panning their flashlights back and forth, “I don’t think we can handle regulating the dead. It’s abject slavery.”
“Is it? I mean, we’re denying them their rest, but we’re also giving them the chance to complete the one thing they spent their lives doing.”
“Their lives. Lives being the operative word.”
“After-lives… is that an extension of life? Do they like, sit around and watch us watch bad television?”
“And cry a little bit?”
“Them or us?”
“Could go either way, really.”
They laughed into the pit they descended, their friendship a firm redoubt against the encroaching oblivion. Eventually, the walls started giving way, and the stone steps grew slick from the passage of a thousand-thousand separate footsteps. One wall disappeared completely, and they could see where it had fallen into a bottomless crevice.
Black rock jutted through holes in the remaining wall, eventually replacing the hewn masonry entirely. Both of them hugged the jagged surface as closely as possible, desperately avoiding a glimpse over the edge and into the depths of what must be Hell.They placed their feet carefully, trying not to think of what monstrosities might scuttle out of the ebony pit. Or, almost worse, what singular creature could leverage the shear length of its many legs to pull itself out of the depths of nightmare.
It worked as well as could be expected, under the circumstances. With only minor scratches and bruises, they finally reached an uneven landing. And there, on the edge of the cavern’s depths, sat a book on a pedestal.
Its pages glowed violently, shifting and morphing, flipping and tearing. But not the paper, no, never paper. Reality tore and distorted under the sheer concentration of its aroused power.
“Heed,” a deep voice like grinding stones sifted into their ears.
“Luke, do you-”
An image penetrated their brains. Entwined below the pedestal was an intricate arrangement of twitching bones and living flesh. They felt more than saw the process. Agony beyond the mortal planes filled their being. They gasped for air while frozen: still.
“They’re… they’re still alive, Raechel.”
“I know…” tears welled in their eyes, “You fucking bastard. They were… are so young.”
They saw, again, the man they knew was the Professor, before the ancient tome. “The priiiice…” the stone-voice trickled.
The Professor’s mind reflected in their own, the page of another book, “A man will always have works unfinished, because a mind can dream of far more than a body can create. So, any works placed within these sigils will act as an anchor to draw the spirit through. What’s more, a work is rarely done; it is merely manifested. This is a costly, dangerous and extremely powerful pact.”
“It’s… it’s trying to tell us that they’ve already paid the price.”
“Yeah, but they’re still here. Still chained to unending torment.”
“I know. I know. I — just think, for a minute, of the good we could do.”
“I have. I… I don’t know. What do we do?”
“We could burn it,” Raechel flicked her lighter.
“We could, but what’s our responsibility here? I’m so far outside my normal understanding of right and wrong when it comes to unending torment vs. unlimited enlightenment.”
“One thing’s for sure, we can’t let anyone else get their hands on this. I know people will see the benefit, but I’m not sure they’ll want to think of the cost.”
“There is another option?”
“We use the book to find a way to free them without destroying the source,” he panned his flashlight over the twisted heap of humanity at the base of the pedestal, “Then, we do what good we can with it.”
“Luke, no. If this still exists, then this,” she gestured towards the pedestal, “Can still happen.”
“It can still happen anyways, Raech. This can’t be the only one of these around,” he sighed, “But, honestly, I’m right with you. I don’t know what to do. I’m just searching for an alternative to making this decision for everyone.”
They approached the wavering reality fluctuations cautiously and sat before the pedestal’s Byzantine accoutrements, staring at the remains in stunned contemplation.
“What do you think they would do?”