A Short Story by Edison Estes
There is a place in the north of the world, where the mountains are high and the nights are cold and both are bleak and grey. No one knows quite where it is. Even the people who live there know only the “here” and “there” and very little about the “how” or “where.” But it exists, a long, narrow valley, walled-in by wide mountain ranges to the north and south and filled with forests of evergreen.
A car horn blared outside, at the same time that her mentor’s voice called from downstairs. “Saadia! we need a book from the library! Haaaakkkough-cough-cough...”
The silence shattered, the demon on her desk jerked awake, knocking over a pile of haggardly stacked books. It’s form bristled with black spines, and it’s empty white eyes widened in alarm. Saadia quickly picked it up from underneath, pulled it close to her chest and stroked it soothingly from its head down to its back. A few more moments of comforting and its amorphous body smoothed out. It reached up to place an icy-cold lick on her cheek before crawling up her shoulder, curling around her neck, stretching out its body and hanging about her like an ink-black scarf.
A tired sigh escaped her, and Saadia peered about in the dim candle-light of her tiny attic study. She found her cane rested in the thin gap between her sagging bookshelf and the cantilevered wall that was also the ceiling. She picked it up, then rose from her chair in a stoop so as not to bang her head. Lastly, she shuffled a couple half steps over to the top of the rickety old stairs and made her way down. As she left, the demon around her neck lifted its head and blew out the candle behind her.
She reached the bottom of the stairs, and peered around through strands of mousy hair. The main room of their little apartment was cluttered to the brim with mismatched furniture and research materials. The walls were lined all the way around with old wooden countertops. Two heavy metal tables occupied the rooms center, leaving only narrow alleys between each other and the counters. The upper half of the walls were laden with hastily assembled shelves, bowed with the weight of dozens upon dozens of heavy grimoires, orange prescription bottles, hand-blown glassware and old cigar tins and piles and stacks of other time-blown miscellania.
Mr. Grane was in the far corner of the room, pushing his feeble, be-robed form up from the counter with one arm and clawing desperately above him with the other. His mouth hung open, his tongue pressed out and down against his teeth as feeble breaths came whistling out from his throat. Through Saadia’s silver eyes, his panicked desperation was yellow lightning bolts that danced up and down his spine, and his breath was white-hot fire that clung and scraped at the inside of his lungs. Saadia stepped forward as quick as she could, sidling between the metal tables, hurrying over to his side. Once there, she braced herself on the counter and raised her cane toward the highest point of the shelves. The demon slid from around her neck and coiled up her cane, then leapt from the end and scurried into the detritus. It popped out after a moment with an orange bottle rattling with pills, which it leaned down to hand to the old man.
Mr. Grane scowled and tried to wheeze out crotchety belligerence. He reached up in vain to smack the prescription bottle from the demon’s hand, glaring at it despite his increasingly failing breath. The demon’s white eyes narrowed in irritation, and it threw the bottle in the old man’s face before disappearing back into the shelves. It came back out again with a tiny corked vial of dark green-yellow liquid. Mr. Grane managed to jump up and snatch it. He leaned back against the counter, hurriedly uncorked the vial and poured the contents down his throat, a noxious chemical stench coming from him as he did. There was a tense pause as the liquid trickled it’s way down his throat, then a heavy breath of relief came bursting forth from his lungs. He doubled over and into Saadia’s hurriedly outstretched arms.
“Sir,” Saadia pleaded, “you need to take the pills. The doctor said…”
“Bah!” he barked, and pushed away from her. “To Gehenna with those lily-livered, uptown, snot-nosed, good-for-nothing quacks!” He coughed again, but more lightly than before, then swallowed before continuing his rant. “I know illness girl, I’ve known it for damn well-on sixty years, and I certainly know my own damn afflictions better than any freak in a Clorox-drenched smock is every going to. My own remedies will do me better than any of their mass-produced venoms!” He looked up at her, met her silver eyes with his dark, buried gaze, and scowled. She saw his frustration build up like a rust-colored cloud centered between his eyes. “Or rather, they would, if someone was keeping them stocked in the north-corner, waist height cupboard as I been done told ‘em too!”
Saadia retreated in herself, dropping her head down low. The demon leapt over to her and curled chillingly around her neck again. “I’m sorry sir. I’ve just been so caught up in the research you gave me last week. Fascinating stuff, yu’know?” She looked up at him imploringly and smiled a fragile little smile. “I got distracted again. I’m sorry.”
He closed his eyes and lifted his hand to wave the issue away. “We need a book from the library,” he said. He moved over to a heavy volume resting open on the table and began tracing down the page with his finger. “Need you to pick up...mmmmm...lessee’ere…..ah, yes, Bartholomew’s Codex Daemonica Inscriptus, fifth edition.” He muttered under his breath and scratched at the fraying hairs on his chin. “Mmm, yes. Young Mrs. Daisy surely ain’t gonna be carrying that on the public shelves, bless ‘er soul.” The volume shut with a weighty THUD. He began rummaging through drawers one at a time. “Ye’ll have to make a night run. What time is it?”
Saadia glanced up at the old standing desk clock perched atop a high shelf. “‘Bout a quarter past eight.”
“Aye, ye’ll have to leave now then. Ye got change on ye?” Saadia nodded. Mr. Grane continued to scrounge frantically through drawers. “..Where’d I put the blasted thing…Ye’ll need to head downtown to the public library. Before you get there though, stop at St. Smith’s park. Walk three times around the perimeter and down the central path, and every time you pass the fountain drop a penny in. Then get yourself over to the library, but don’t go in until the Eastforest bell strikes midnight.”
Saadia frowned. “The library’ll be closed well before then sir.”
“AHA!” he shouted, “there’s the blighter!” He lifted a rusty old key from the final drawer. A few shuffling steps closed the distance between them, and he pressed the key into her palm. It weighed heavily on her arm after he released it. “Use this to let yourself in. Just don’t let the police catch ya breaking and entering eh?” he winked. His smile fell as a look of panic crept over Saadia’s face. “That was a joke lass, a joke. Ye needn’t worry about that. Just make sure ye go in at the right time. Eastforest midnight, on the dot, no ealier, no later.” He held up three fingers in her face. “Three times ‘round St. Smiths, three cents in the fountain. Ye 'ken?”
Saadia nodded, and he nodded back. “Oughta be a chill’ night. Make sure ye wrap up warm.” With that he ended the conversation, and crossed the room to bury his nose in a pile of yellowing scrolls.
Saadia left through the first of three doors under the stairs, into a closet-sized entryway where she donned a pink-patterned beanie and a canvas coat. She stepped carefully through the front door so as not to trip on the descending step immediately following, and locked up behind her with the small apartment keys she kept around her neck, before tucking the rusted old key Mr. Grane had given her into a coat pocket and making her way outside.
Piles of fresh snow gleamed in the light of the city, and the air twinkled with feather-light flakes. Instantly, the demon squealed in excitement, and leapt from her shoulder to tunnel it’s way into the snow, popping its head up a few dozen yards away to smile with its eyes and chirrup back at her.
Souls swam about her, in her eyes a symphony of color and texture. Anger and fear, hatred and lust, kindness and grief, all danced about her in every manner of unique textures and colors and patterns of movement. She rocked back on her heels from the brightness of it all, and quickly dug around in her skirt pocket for the glasses Mr. Grane had made for her. She slid the wide, round spectacles onto her face. When next she looked up, all she saw were people, young and old, men and women, stepping by each other in peaceful silence as they made there way about their business. Cars rolled slowly by on streets wet with slush, and pigeons and starlings danced about in the crystalline air.
A moment’s pause on the front steps of their ancient brownstone apartment building let Saadia soak in the peace and quiet. The sharp winter air filled her lungs and sent a brisk vigor coursing through her fragile limbs. She made her way down the stone steps at a brisk trot, leaning on her cane to steady herself. Watching her steps carefully so as not to slip on any patches of ice, she made her way towards the downtown.
The City stands in the center of the valley. At night it glimmers with brilliant skyscraper light, but at day seems to almost fade away, an obscure blot on the background scenery. Tall glass monoliths stretch upwards in a race with the far-off mountain peaks, yet still the City is shrouded with a veil of age and stinks of a great, communal rot. The people who live there speak no single language in common, and yet it is rare for any of the natives to ever miscommunicate their meaning. It has an official name, written somewhere on an ancient document buried in the bowels of city hall, but you’d be hard pressed to ask a passerby what it was. The people of the rural valley simply call it “the City,” and the people of the city call it home. Many roads lead into it, but only a few lead out, and no one who lives there is quite sure which ones.
Everybody who lives in the city has their own lives, their own stories, but walking past them on the street they all look mostly the same. Saadia walked past scores of women in reddish-brown shawls wrapped over their shoulders and heads, and throngs of men in heavy black overcoats and brimmed hats. They all wore different grey shoes and different grey pants or skirts. Walking down the main streets, everything was clean, stone buildings polished smooth with age and car headlights gleaming bright and proud.
Stop in front of any alley between buildings, however, and you will be faced with a miasma of color, years of graffiti stretching up a dozen feet high and coated in all the chemical excess of the city air. Men and women and people of all areas in between would lurk at the back of those alleys, with wild hair and rugged, antagonistic outfits. Saadia loved to stop and stare at the wild scripts and mind-bending images that covered those alley walls, at the deep-city folk and their cacophonous rainbow souls. Yet she knew she dare not cross the threshold of any alley. People disappeared all the time in the city. The ones who didn’t were mostly the ones who knew what happened to the others.
Saadia walked through the frigid night for an hour before she came to St. Smith’s park. It was not a large park; square, and maybe a hundred yards across. Nevertheless, it served as a communally accepted border between the gleaming downtown metropolitan area and the neighborhoods with starker buildings and greyer reputations. Saadia circled its perimeter as slowly as she could, crossing through the middle after every completed circuit and dropping a penny in the fountain at the center.
The statue in the middle was blocky and roughly hewn. The story went that when the Westforest congregation had first granted Dimitri Smith his sainthood, he had stood outside the cathedral doors for seven days, bellowing the ears off everyone within three miles, telling them to take it back. When the church started carving a statue of him, he finally gave in, but still shoved the hired masons aside and insisted he do it himself. Now he stood, immortalized for all to see, short and barrel-chested, beard curling out and down to his chest, hands rested on the hilt of an upright greathammer, clad altogether in a minister’s mitre and a conspicuously large fig leaf.
Despite her leisurely pace, it was still only a quarter past ten when Saadia finished her third circuit. So she sat down on the edge of the fountain which, now that she looked, had long since frozen over. Her pennies rested rather forlornly on the surface, dusted over by snow. She doodled in the snow with a stick while the demon played by itself, chasing away squirrels and leaping after songbirds. When the demon came over and hopped up onto her knee to chirrup in her face, she tossed the stick for it, and together they played fetch for the remaining while.
At ten till midnight, she got up and traveled the remaining block and a half to the public library. It looked like many large city libraries; old, church-like architecture just slightly out of place amongst all the shining glass mega-structures, but still managing to feel comfortably at home in its environment. She walked up the steps to the huge wooden doors with their heavy iron latches bolted firmly shut, and waited. Soon, church bells all across the city began to toll out midnight, none of them quite on time. Together they filled the air with a persistent ringing hum, that didn’t drown out any of the other noise of the city but managed to chime out above it all the same. She waited just a little longer until she was sure she could hear the distinctive hollow, sorrowful tones of the Eastforest bell. A last, furtive glance over each shoulder, before she reached into her pocket for the key and slid it into the lock.
It seemed to stick at first; it took both hands and all of what little body strength she had to get it to turn. When at last it clicked, it did so with a hefty SNAP that for an instant seemed to cut off all other noise around her. Unlocked, the weight of the door began to pull it inward of its own accord with a long, ponderous moan of iron joints.
She stepped forward to enter, but instantly the door came rushing back at her, slamming shut with a threatening CRACK. Then it creaked back again, sucking the air around her in with it, before again a huge puff of hot air came and slammed it back shut. Heart rampaging in her chest, she stood back and watched wide-eyed as the door opened and shut, opened and slammed shut, as if the library itself had its own ponderous breath. She took of her glasses and stared. Perhaps it was her imagination, but she thought she could make out tendrils of deep blue curling around the bricks of the walls, like the aura of slumber she might see around a person at rest.
She slipped her glasses back on and stood, steeling herself, bracing her body against every furious slam of the door. When after a dozen or slow booming collisions she felt brave enough to enter, she darted forward on the next opening and slipped through the darkened gap. Once through, the door slammed shut behind her, and this time it did not open again.
It was pitch black on the other side. The air was hot and dense, pressing against her face as if the size of the building was not quite enough to contain the amount of atmosphere inside it. Saadia backed up until she felt the door press against her shoulder blades, and felt around until her palm found a part of its cool metal frame. Her breath was coming out short and panicked, and she forced herself to take longer, deeper breaths, though the air felt uncomfortably warm in her throat. She wasn’t sure how long it took, but eventually she felt herself grow calmer.
Then a gale of scalding air came hurtling down from the darkness and pummeled her to the floor, whipping her hair and clothes about her and scouring the revealed skin of her legs and arms and neck. With the windstorm came a voice, one that filled the endless darkness before her and seemed to echo with the power of centuries left in its wake. It didn’t just come from the dark, it was the darkness she faced, a bottomless, seething darkness in the face of which she was nothing more than a speck of pale flesh crawling across a boundless slab of time.
The voice said, “ONnn..mmmm...yyYOURR LEFT.”
Saadia felt her face flush as her body temperature rose dangerously. The demon curled its way up her legs to wrap tightly and protectively around her neck, cupping her cheeks with its cooling presence as it turned to hiss into the face of the darkness.
“nnnNO NNEEED TO BEee...mmmPETULANT, LITTLE BROTHER.” said the voice. “nnnNOW...PLEASE GIRL...THE WALL...ON YOUR mmmLEFT.”
Eyes wide as silver dollars, breath hot and rapid, Saadia crawled on her knees to the side until she bumped her head against a wall. She raised both hands against it, half feeling around, half keeping herself from collapsing. One of her questing hands found a switch, and with trembling fingers she flicked it up. A stuttering electric buzz, a loud POP, a flash of light and a shower of sparks revealed for just an instant the shadow of some huge form in the room beyond.
“mmmBUGGER.” said the voice, followed by the sounds of something wide and shaggy moving and shuffling around. “JUST A...mmmMOMENT…………...................aaaaAAH. hhHERE YOU ARRE.”
Something appeared in her hand, weighing it down. She touched it gingerly with her free hand and felt a tall, slender candle on a little metal saucer. Then a match placed itself between her questing fingers. “IF YOU...wwwWILLL.”
With a practiced motion, Saadia lowered her hand and struck the match against the flagstones. Lighting the candle as she rose, she stood and lifted it above her head. It cast soft glow throughout the room, much wider than any normal candle ought have done. Revealed by the candle light, she saw not the usual library entry way, but a single wide, circular room, stretching up and up and disappearing into darkness and lined all the way around with shelves packed to bursting with books. Before her, filling the floor of the tower, a massive creature heaved with breath, it’s face hidden, laiden with shaggy black feathers that seemed matte with layers of dust.
Saadias voice came trembling out. “h..h-h..Hello?”
The shape spun, and in a instant leapt at her, a blur of black movement, a cloud of dust and, looming above her, a sharp and gleaming beak, taller than herself and spreading open wide and wicked. She screamed, fell to her ground and threw her arms before her in some vain effort of self-defence. There was a flash of light, and the beak came crashing shut just inches away from her before the massive creature was thrown back into the room as swiftly as it had come.
“DEMITRI,” grumbled the voice. “I ssssSWEAR, THAT MAN WILL...aah...HAUNT ME UNTIL THE DAY THE sssSUN GROWS COLD. rrrRELAX GIRL. YOU ARE IN...nnnNO MORE DANGER HHHERRRE…”
Slowly, ever slowly, Saadia lifted her violently shaking arms from in front of her face. The demons body thrummed like a guitar string against her neck, an ear-splitting shriek of defiance squealing from its throat. She lifted it from her shoulder and pulled it tight against her breast. The cool aura of its body soaked into her heaving chest and relaxed her wire-taught frame. The candle had fallen from her grasp, yet somehow stayed lit as it lay on its side on the floor. She reached out and set it upright, then with a few deep breaths of courage, looked up and into the face of her attacker. “Who..who are you?”
The creature lifted a long, long neck, thirty or more feet into the air as it stood on two stubby hind legs and spread wide four vast, shaggy wings, each tipped with a single wicked claw. The shape of its head was indistinguishable beneath a long beard and tall crown of black feathers. It bore the fat, curled beak of a parrot, and two large devils-horns curled up from it’s temples. Three beady eyes sat in a line on each side of its face, for a total of six, and all of them stared at her with a violent and ancient loathing.
“I AM….THE BOK,” it said. “AN ANCIENT...mmmGREAT DEMON OF KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM. AND I HAVE BEENnnn...IMmmmPRISONED HERE FOR NIGH ON FOUR HUNDRED YEARSsssss.” The Bok let it’s head fall low, and swept across the floor towards her to place it musty visage just inches from her. It emanated a dry, dusty heat and reeked of mold and mothballs. “NOW GIRRRL. WHAT...mmmm...BOOK...DO YOU rrrrrREQUIRRRE?”
Standing up to back away from the heat of the great demon but keeping her eyes hard and cold, Saadia responded. “Codex Demonica Inscriptus. Ahh….Bartholomew’s….fifth edition.”
“AAH,” breathed the Bok. “ONE OF THEeee....CLASSICSsss.” It turned and moved back into the library tower, and began to swing its bowed neck left and right, head tilted up, searching. “YOU’RE...mmmmm...GRANE’S NEW APPRENTICE......AREN’T YOU GIRRRL.”
“Yes,” she answered, puzzled. “How did you know?”
Without answering, the demon leapt into the air, reaching up with the clawed tips of its wings and clasping onto the bookshelves above it. Shelf by shelf, it began to haul itself up the tower, each ponderous step filling the library with clouds of dust and the sound of creaking wood and causing the floor to shake beneath Saadia’s feet. It continued into the impenetrable darkness beyond the reach of the candle light before stopping what sounded like many hundred of feet above her. There was a dreadful pause in which Saadia and the demon around her neck were alone in the library. Then the Bok came crashing back down to the floor. It stepped up to her again, and from its beak dropped a large, iron-bound tome with a clang and a thud. “THERE YOU ARE.”
Saadia beant to heave the massive book into her arms, then stood back up to look the great demon in the eyes. “You didn’t answer my question.”
A low rumble filled the library, vibrating the flagstone floor and filling the air with malice. Saadia looked about her in wide-eyed panic before she realized what was happening.
The Bok was laughing.
“YOU’RE MASSSSTERRR….HE HAS A PENCHANT FOR TAKING INTEREST IN….mmmUNIQUE INDIVIDUALS. AND YOUR EYES GIRL….yyyour eyessss.”
“What about my eyes?”
“THEY’RRRRRE ssssSSILVERRRRR.” exhaled the Box. “YET I CAN sssSEEE...FLECKS OF...PURPLE AS WELL. YOU SEE THINGS MOST PEOPLE DO NOT, YESsss?”
Saadia’s heart began to race. “How did you-”
“BE WARNED GIRL,” it said “IT WILL NOT BE LONG NOW BEFORE SOMETHING COMES, COMES FOR YOU AND YOUR SILVER EYES. A WORD OF ADVICE. PERUSE FOR YOURSELF CHAPTERS...mmm...ELEVEN THROUGH TWENTY THREE OF THAT BOOK YOUR MASTER HAS REQUESTED. AFTER ALL, IT IS VITAL TO KNOW ONE’S ENEMIESsss.” The Bok turned around and curled onto the floor of the tower, tucking its head beneath it’s wings. “NOW GO GIRL, BEFORE DIMITRI GROWS….wwwwwWWWEARRRY.”
Saadia heard the front door swing open behind her and felt the gust of winter air on her back. She set down the candle and picked up her cane, fumbled for a moment to get a steady hold of the massive iron book before turning and making her exit. As she stepped outside, the Bok’s voice came from behind her one last time.
“GIVE MY BEST rrrREGARDS TO YOUR MOTHER, WON’T YOU?” and with that the door slammed shut behind her.
Bewildered and still shaking with an underlying dread, Saadia stepped down the stairs and into the winter night.