by Ryan Walraven
The monk held a rag to his mouth as the door creaked open. The dust inside was so thick that one might mistake it for snow. Besides, one could never be too careful when exploring the depths of the monastery. The inks in the oldest tomes, they said, eventually turned to poison that drifted through the air.
Some claimed such stories were just superstitions, but madness was not unknown in his order. Those monks who had licked their quills in the older times were afflicted with fevers, deliriums, and hallucinations. It had been some ingredient in the ink, they knew, though the ultimate culprit had never been ascertained.
Banishing such thoughts from his head, the monk gave up holding his breath and tried to focus. Who could say what was beyond the door? He took a tentative step inside and thick dust poured through his nostrils like sand. Again, the monk had no choice but to place a hand to his mouth to stifle a fit of coughing as he tried to make out the scene. Even with the light of his torch aiding him, it was difficult to see through the haze into the room, but the air that was seeping out told of long ages of rot and mold. How the room had escaped notice for so long behind a bookshelf, he could not say, but now it was his job to sift through the refuse within.
“Brother! Do take care with the tomes,” his master called from beyond the spiral staircase. “They require care and respect.”
“Yes, Brother,” he called, covering his mouth with the sleeve of his habit and pressing onward. “I’m entering the chamber now.”
The monk had once dreamed of becoming head librarian, but those dreams had faded when it became clear to him that neither his master, Restorer of Tomes, nor the current Head Librarian much cared for him. Perhaps it was his quiet nature. Now he was reduced to maintaining the library basements, searching them for salvageable texts and staving off the slow decay of information.
On days like these he sometimes questioned his membership in The Order, but then he had never really had much choice about joining. His family had volunteered him at the age of five – still a trembling child, no less! – but nonetheless he had walked himself through the looming wooden gates. He had been brave, but he could still see the torches flickering on the walls above him and the gargoyles peering down as he the gates shut behind him.
The monk had forsaken his name and lived within the monastery’s walls ever since. Better to live a life of austerity, he thought, than one of hunger and neglect.
The slow creak of the door behind him brought him back from his reverie. A draft was slowly winding through the room, lifting age-old hair and paper scraps into the air.
Steeling himself against the ruin that lay ahead, he settled his torch in a sconce opposite the door and stepped into the darkness. Dust motes spun around him like stars as they swirled to the floor and the blackness in the room beyond began to take shape. His thoughts, too, seemed to flutter about; for some reason a nervous agitation grasped him and would not let go.
“It’s simply the dark,” he whispered to himself, peering into the blackness. It seemed as if the light of the torch barely penetrated the room, as if the black ink from the pages of forgotten books had truly stained the air. What lay in the darkness beyond? Nebulous monsters began to drift beyond the borders of his vision, scents of blood and rusting iron, of Numina watching from the shadows.
“Librorum, commoda mihi lux vestra,” he chanted, reciting the ancient benediction of his order.
The monk’s eyes adjusted slowly and with each passing moment his mouth fell further open. The was not simply some forgotten storage cellar, but a vast chamber, its walls laden with bookshelves. He covered his mouth again as another cough erupted from his lips. This time, yellow phlegm came up with it. Grimacing, he spat it into a handkerchief and retreated to the torch. From within his robes he removed a small reading candle, lit it, then ventured back into the chamber.
Though the scene was mostly subdued hues of grey, green, and brown, the sight beyond dazzled him. He had stumbled across a lost wing of the library, buried beneath the monastery like a tomb for the books. “Brother?” he called up the stairs to his superior, but no response came.
Though he knew he should be cautious, a discovery of this magnitude was overwhelming. His trepidation had fled, replaced by a chaotic flurry of thoughts and a palpitating heart. Perhaps… perhaps, but no, he shouldn’t dare to dream such things. Head librarians weren’t chosen because of discoveries, but because of years of careful study, pious meditation, and devotion to the order.
The monk coughed again and choked down the fluid at the back of his throat. His heart was beating too quickly for his mind to even think of leaving. He strode to one of the shelves and laid a hand on the wrinkled spine of an old tome. It groaned as he lifted it and, to his amazement, the whole book crumbled. As the desiccated pages drifted to the floor, his heart slowed and a dread began to creep into his mind. Would any of the books be salvageable? And what labor it would take to find them!
It was like that with every book he lifted. He almost felt as if the weight of them were settling into his stomach. After the fifth or sixth volume, he relented and leaned against a wall to let the dust settle. How had such a vast collection been lost for so long? And what soul had sealed it behind a bookshelf to be forgotten? He clutched his arms, groaned, and began to collect his thoughts. He would have to explain himself when he returned to the upper floors.
Rubbing his temple and staring into the candle flame, he tried not to imagine just how much knowledge had been lost to the creep of decay, nor how he was going to explain the destroyed tomes to the head librarian. Pushing himself from the cold stone of the wall, he made for the door but stopped for one last look at the lost collection. Then, somewhere in the distance, someone or something glinted in the darkness as if to catch his attention. “Hello?” he called reflexively, though he knew no one should be down there.
He took a few steps further into the room and the glimmer grew stronger. His candle was burning low, but he could make out something shining in the far recesses of the room. Taking a last glance at the doorway behind him, he pressed further into the darkness. If the other brothers hadn’t heard his call, they were surely preoccupied and wouldn’t notice if he spent a few more minutes exploring.
His heart began to beat as he pressed on and he soon had to draw his robes about him. A wintry draft was blowing down from the upper levels and he had to shield himself and his flickering candle from the gusts.
Despite the cold, as the glimmer ahead grew closer sweat began to break out on his brow. The further he passed into the darkness the brighter it seemed and he could not help but think of stories of swamp wisps leading unwary travelers to their doom in the forest.
This was no wisp, though, but something else. He felt sure of it, oddly drawn to whatever was calling him in the dark. He pushed on and found his other senses compensating for the lack of light. The musky scent of mildew and rotting parchment filled his nose and the dusty air seemed to brush coarsely against his face. Soon, he found himself nudging fallen tomes aside with his feet. Those, and other objects that he couldn’t make out. They would have to wait to be rescued until later. For now, he couldn’t take his eyes off the light that lay deeper in the room.
Every step seemed to enshroud him in deeper darkness as if he were descending into a cave, but finally he came to the source of the shimmering light. The sight before him stopped him as surely as a hand placed on his chest. Hunched over a desk and a stack of old books was the robed skeleton of a former brother. It was the golden fringe of the brother’s robe that had caught the light of his candle – a sign of high rank, but one that hadn’t been used for centuries. Some of the man’s bones had long ago clattered to the floor, but his head still lay on the desk, peering sideways at an enormous book in eternal contemplation.
Again, the monk glanced over his shoulder. The door was far away and his candle had burned down to a nub, but he couldn’t turn back just yet. Already new questions burned in his mind.
Carefully, he touched the back of the fallen figure and muttered a brief prayer. Then, shifting his feet, he heard the scrape of metal on the floor.
Searching on hands and knees, sweeping aside crumbling paper and fallen bones, his hand came upon a rusty knife. He began to lift it to the light, but his fingers searched the handle and recognized the symbol of his order before his eyes had the chance. Gasping, the monk dropped the blade and glanced again over his shoulder, but found only the empty of the dark waiting behind him.
As delicately as he could, he cleared some space on the table and set the candle down. The he settled himself, breathed deeply, and closed his eyes. Whatever had happened here had occurred long ago.
Nodding, he resolved to leave, but not until after trying to get a look at the old book. Had the old brother been killed over something so simple as a piece of parchment?
Miraculously, the script was legible, though extremely shaky and hard to make out in the flickering light.
The monk lifted the candle and leaned over the rotting corpse, lowering his nose close to the pages. The scent of old paper filled his nose, but still he leaned closer until he could finally make out the illuminated words:
It’s been two days since I was sent to investigate the forgotten chamber and still I seem to be sealed inside. No one has come searching yet and I’ve begun to wonder if the others knew what awaited me when they sent me down here. I found the relic that we sought buried further in the catacombs, but I cannot seem to shake the feeling…”
The monk clutched his arms at his sides again and licked his dry lips. Then, he glanced over his shoulder.
There was probably no way to read the rest of the tale – not without the tools to properly separate and preserve the pages. But then again… what of the relic the text had mentioned? The page ended where he had stopped reading, but surely there was an explanation in the following passage. He tried to force himself to leave, but couldn’t pry his thoughts away from the old tome.
Tensing his fingers and holding his breath, the monk grasped a corner of a page and tried to turn it over. It was irrational – he knew this – but he could not stop himself even when the paper crumbled in his fingers. He nearly cursed, rubbing the brittle page between his fingers, but he knew he must try again. He grasped another corner and tried again to peel the page away, but as he did a solid chunk of the volume came tearing away with it and the book seemed to sigh, exhaling dust and ink, it’s secrets forever destroyed.
The monk moaned and collapsed against a bookshelf. There was no telling the value of what he had just destroyed. But then a glimmer caught his eye from within the book. He pushed himself off the bookshelf and approached the tome where the skull of the fallen brother still lay, its empty sockets trained on the same item that had drawn the the monk’s attention. Inside a carved out niche within the book lay a round spherical stone as black as charcoal, but gleaming in the light like a polished crystal. He stared at it, both apprehensive and curious. Shouldn’t he bring something with him to the surface? One of the crumbling books would never do, but the stone, perhaps, would work.
His hand shaking, the monk reached down to stroke the object. All at once, his throat went dry and the hair on his arms stood on end. Something inside him warned him to stop and he wanted to pull his hand away, but he could not. He gritted his teeth and glanced at the flickering candle light, but could not pull his hand away. For the love of the gods, he could not!
“Si deos bonos…” the monk mumbled, his eyes shutting as his hand closed around the cold weight of the polished rock. When they opened again, the room was dark and the scent of the candle smoke was heavy in the air.
“Hello?” he called, searching the dark for any sign of the torch he had left burning at the entrance. A draft seemed to be coursing through the room, whipping his robes about him. He had left the door open, hadn’t he? Turning in the direction of the entrance, he managed several steps forward before he stumbled over a stack of books and sent the black stone flying. It clinked on the floor somewhere nearby and rolled to a stop.
Gasping and coughing, he searched the paving stones for it in a mad haze. His hands swept across the floor, scraping aside the mouldering pages and bent covers of fallen books, the splinters from old shelves and tables catching in his skin.
In an ever widening circle he searched, until finally he hands clasped greedily onto the polished stone. Rising to his feet, he let a grim smile cross his lips. Now he simply had to return to the surface, to show his brothers the wonder he had found. Surely this would get him some recognition. The recognition he had deserved for so long.
But as he spun in place, all sense of space and time seemed to have fled from him. His hands searched the dark, his nostrils probed the air for any scent of smoke, but now it was the table that eluded him, and the doorway out.
“Hello!” he called again. “Brothers! I’ve found something!”
No answer came, none save the echo of his voice in the dark. He clasped the stone to his heart, wanting to let go, to run for the door, but wouldn’t that mean his efforts had been in vain? To abandon his discovery to other hands would be to betray himself.
Yes, he understood now. He slipped the stone into his pocket and spun in place. Somewhere within the lost chambers stood the doorway out, but there were also other secrets to uncover. He spun again… which way to go?
© Ryan Walraven 2015