There are many kinds of stories, and several times more ways to tell them, and still more reasons for telling them in the first place. There are simple ways to describe these reasons, and complex ways to describe them, but for now let's follow Ockham and stick to simple. Some stories are told to feel good, to rejoice and celebrate, to yell and clap and jump as high as you can and feel the air all around. These kinds of stories lift you up and let you look around in starry-eyed wonder at the world and miracles around you. These are the kind that make you look up at the sky and try to fit the shapes of clouds to shapes you've seen before. These stories make things better. This is not one of those stories.
It started with something so innocuous that it's almost laughable to think of it now. An email, the pink coloration of which glowed from the screen urgently in an ill-advised attempt to get my attention, with a tag line denoting it as being from one of the faculty at the college I was attending. It read as follows:
To: Henry Ian Tham
From: Professor Isaac Abode
You have been randomly selected from our school's allocation of Psychology students to participate in an alternate course which will serve as credit in any course you wish. You will assist me, Professor Abode, in conducting experiments and research in the field of Paranormal Psychology. My office is in the old library, now known as the Fjord building, and I will be there to answer any pertinent questions. Should this arrangement be contrary to your wishes, please contact the Dean's office to be placed back into the standard Paranormal Psychology classes.
Thank you for reading,
P.S. Any liability for injuries or accidents incurred during the duration of the course are heretofore automatically waived and forgotten based on a NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) hereby agreed to by the student by accepting and participating in the course.
Clicking closed a few windows on my laptop computer, I turned to an approaching customer. Disgusted, I noted his violation of the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy.
“What, dear patron, would you like?” I said, hesitating on the word 'patron'. The scruffy, overweight man scratched his balding scalp and then gave me one of the oddest glares I have ever had the fortune of experiencing.
“Hoi tink hoi’ll ‘ave a cuppa joe, iffen ye’ll oblige meh.” The man said in a husky, gritty accent that I once heard in a dying homeless man.
“I see.” I responded, shifting over to pull a pot of deep, black liquid off its place on the counter and pour its contents into a small cup. “Black? Cream? Sugar?”
The man grinned, showing off a startling array of darkened, yellowed teeth, more than seemed possible to fit into a mouth, and laughed sepulchrally.
“Hoi’ll take me cuppa black, lad.”
I turned around, as much to get a lid for the up as to remove the utterly unnerving sight of his face from my view. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I said, picking a lid out from among the jumble of condiments, cups, and bags of creamer.
When I turned back, he was gone. The cup was empty (a piping hot cup of coffee, downed within seconds?) and next to it laid a small, silver coin. I shudder to admit to it, but as my gaze searched the café for that man’s grubby form, I could’ve sworn I got a whiff of brimstone.
“Sir?” My voice echoed hollowly in the suddenly very empty café.
After this experience, I had much difficulty sleeping. As you probably knew I would, I kept both the cup and the coin. The coin itself proved rather peculiar. Emblazoned on its face was a symbol of a man’s profile, with alarming goat horns adorning his head. What I first supposed was silver was much more durable and almost stainless in comparison to any other metal I know of. It looked almost to be made of liquid, as if it were a hollow glass coin filled with quicksilver, the way it glistened.
It occurred to me that perhaps something in the makeup of the coin or some other… less tangible quality of its being is interrupting my sleep. However, I had this creeping feeling that should I have left the coin alone it would have disappeared just as mysteriously as its owner. I supposed that for the moment I’d simply suffer insomnia. It is not so bad a thing, as I still suffer it, and it provides impetus for getting more work done in the day.
The next morning, I awoke unhappily. My first class was the usual monotony that I had become accustomed to since the fascination and naivety had worn itself out in my freshman year. The professor droned on about certain aspects of the culture of a small group of pigmies that I could certainly care less about, considering most likely they were going to disappear into the annals of history filed under the category of "things we killed off", in the section marked "that we probably shouldn't have."
Fortunately, just before I drifted into a fantasy of being a custodian for all of history, the professor dismissed the class. I made my lazy way out, looking down at my new schedule to see which building the next class was in. My eyes widened with sudden recognition. The memory of the email, the strange customer at the cafe, and the cursed coin flooded back and locked itself in place in my mind. Perhaps my day would be interesting.
Heading towards the Fjord building, I must confess a certain foreboding. After all, it's not every day you have to comply with a Non-Disclosure Agreement for a college course. I shrugged it off, though, or at least I did in the way one can shrug off a winter's chill, and entered the building. I found the classroom, which seemed to have been a library until very recently since it was filled with bookshelves, and found a seat in a small clearing among the shelves. Fifteen other students sat near me, spaced out among the array of seats in the classroom. One thing about the classroom irked me- It almost seemed like it wasn't a classroom at all, but the study area in a long-forgotten and ill kept archive room. Mounted on the row of bookshelves that the chairs pointed to was a large screen, and on one of the desks in the middle was a projector, which was attached to a laptop which hummed lightly in the silent room. I took up my college-trained stance of staring at the screen dutifully.
The seconds ticked by, conveniently aided by a large grandfather clock which loomed down one of the corridors of bookshelves. Slowly the seconds became minutes, and then half-hours, and finally I had been staring at a screen for a full hour, resisting with all my will the urge to make up sleep lost the previous night due to that damned coin.
"Class was supposed to start half an hour ago." Spoke a mellifluous voice which carried with it a slight exotic accent that I vaguely identified with curry and large, domed palaces. I turned and, against my long-developed training to ignore my peers, began to notice the effectively full room of students who had just spent an hour staring at nothing. The one who spoke was a slim slip of a girl, dressed in tight fitting clothes probably popular in nearby New York. He skin was a dark-ish color which I finally decided defined her as Indian.
"Perhaps Abode canceled the class by email and we all simply missed it?" Dark haired and dressed messily, as if he rarely cared what he wore as long as he wore something, the one who spoke up this time looked around the room hawk-ishly. His face was largely obscured by dark-yellow sunglasses, which seemed odd due to the dim lighting. A clacking of keys drew my attention from this odd looking student.
"No, I don't think so." Spoke up one of the others, who seemed to have manifested a laptop out of thin air. His face was framed by long hair that reached his shoulders, and his clothes were drenched in supposedly witty neologisms. "I can't find anything from him in my email."
"Should we just leave? Class isn't supposed to end until another hour and a half." I said, and suddenly knew the sensation of a mouse squeaking amongst a pack of cats. All of the other students turned to me, almost as one. From my reaction to so simple an event, you can probably guess that I have minor difficulties with public speaking.
"That won't be necessary." A gruff voice spoke out from amongst the students. Suddenly, as if he'd simply been invisible until he spoke, an old, balding man, dressed to look almost like an old Victorian-aged train conductor, appeared at the desk with the projector and laptop. He glared at me, and then the other three who had spoken. "You four can stay." His gaze turned to the rest of the class. "Everyone else, leave. You are no longer part of this class. Go to the Dean's office for reassignment."
A small din of disagreement and muttering stirred up at this, but, dutifully, all the other students began to collect their belongings. One student stood up indignantly.
"But why? We all agreed to that crazy contract you sent us by email." The old man, presumably Professor Abode, gazed at the student levelly.
"You may stay. All others, go. I have no need for an unquestioning flock. What I need here are able and, much more importantly..." The old man harrumphed grumpily, looking each one of us in the eye slowly. "... inquisitive minds." The mass of students filed out, some still grumbling, but once in the hallway they all became silent. The old man watched each one leave in turn, a disapproving frown on his face. The one student who had stood up to talk sat back down heavily, and the room became deathly quiet, but for the sound of the clock.
"So you're Professor Abode, then?" The Indian girl said. The curmudgeon turned, his head swiveling like an owl who had just noticed a particularly plump rabbit. He breathed in heavily.
"Yes, I am. And I assume, Ms. Harris, that you find what I have just done to be a great boon."
The young lady's eyes widened, letting the grey-limned orbs show off the fact that she wore contacts. This moment of detail vanished quickly, though, as she blinked and resumed her composure.
"A... boon? You must excuse me, Professor, but I don't know what you mean." She spoke, her words sounding carefully ingratiating. A crackling, grinding sound, somewhat like the sound of coffee being ground, began emanating from the professor. Suddenly, it occurred to me that this was the sound of the professor laughing.
"Oh, you know, Ms. Harris." The professor turned to the class, the wrinkles in his face sliding away for a moment as he smiled. "You'll all know each other very well in the coming days, so I doubt that any secrets should be kept..." He sniffed. "All right!" The professor clapped his hands together, matter-of-fact-ly. The old man lifted himself slowly out of the desk he had been sitting in, old joints audibly popping. He began strolling leisurely up to the board mounted on the front bookshelf. His old, rusty voice echoed in the clearing between the bookshelves, and I found myself slipping into the normal trance; the mind-numbing haze of a college student listening to some old professor droning on about his subject began to creep upon me.
"So, Ms. Harris!" The professor's voice boomed sonorously as he made a quick about-face. "Sharing time!" Harris jumped at this, her expression conveying a sense of extreme confusion. Abode sighed. "I'll spell it out for you. What might be a reason you could enjoy having such a small class? Perhaps a certain phobia you have? An education style that you are used to...?"
Obviously jarred by this, Ms. Harris began to speak, her voice shaking slightly. "I'm not sure how this bears upon this class in any way, Professor. Whatever problems I might have with large crowds or past experience with solitary learning doesn't concern you, or the students here. I was under the impression that you intended to judge this class on personal merits, not on personal history." As she spoke, the professor began shaking his head.
"Oh, Ms. Harris, but this does indeed have quite a bit to do with the class. We show our weaknesses to one another so we may work around them. We share secrets so we can gain trust. This is how we humans interact, yes?" He began to lean back onto the board, chin lifted up a bit. "What you will be doing in this class will require the whole lot of you to learn to work together. I cannot have a group of sheltered introverts who shy away from giving the smallest part of themselves away."
A loud, barking laugh came from the back of the class, and I turned to see the student who had spoken up when told to leave grinning widely. His blonde hair, streaked with small lines of black, was spiked, giving him the overall look of an oddly colored, grinning hedgehog.
"Is this it, then?" He said, a hint of a southern drawl mixing in with his tone. "Scare us all by making half the class leave, and now impress us with knowledge about our personal lives and hints to some huge future undertaking?"
"I know how much you love being the center of attention, especially considering that ridiculous hair styling of yours which may or may not be a homage to the traditional headdress of a small group of indigenous people who live in the ruins of the City of Poetry, or Ashaar bin Apal, but please, wait your turn." The professor glared at the blonde hedgehog-lookalike, and slowly the grin slipped away from the student's face.
While I was trying to remember my history lessons on India to see if the professor had simply made up a large bunch of gibberish to cow the upstart or simply had a horrible grasp of Punjab, Abode harrumphed again and turned, pulling out a marker to write on the board behind him. His slow, methodical strokes eventually spelled out "Paranormal Psychology", underlining it heavily in the blue marker. Once finished, he tapped underneath the letters twice, and turned back to the class.
"This is what all of you have signed up for. Each one of you must at least be mildly interested in the subject matter, and, if my background checks were done well enough, are open minded enough to participate in this class profitably." He leaned forward and grinned a surprisingly white-toothed grin at the blonde hedgehog-boy. "Yes, even you can profit from this." The boy looked mildly uncomfortable, leaning backwards and turning away from Abode's glaring eyes.
"Alright, so what of it?" The blonde spat, grimacing. Abode stood up straight like he had been shocked.
"What do you think of when you hear these two words? Paranormal Psychology?" He said. I raised my hand. Abode nodded to me. "Yes, you there. Mr. Tham."
"The Occult?" I said, my voice tentative.
"Yes, that would be one thing, I suppose." Abode replied, turning around to write 'Occult' down under the heading. "Anybody else?"
"Psychokinesis." Ms. Harris spoke, calmly. Turning to look at her when she said this, I noticed she had completely calmed down. Her eyes were entirely focused on Abode, watching his hand as he wrote down what she had said.
"Yes, yes, keep them coming." Abode said, underlining the word 'psychic'. We all began to speak in turn after that.
The professor tapped on the board twice and cleared his throat.
"All done now? Any other suggestions?" His voice boomed, his back to us. He turned slowly. "Alright. Now..." He said, pacing towards the class and then along one of the aisles of desks. "These are all good suggestions." The old man stretched slightly, rolling his shoulders before placing a hand on the shoulder of the student who was wearing sunglasses. "I can understand these being your responses going into this class. However..." Abode pointed to the words on the board. "These can all be summarized with two words."
"Paranormal Psychology?" The student in sunglasses suggested, half-joking. Abode glared down at him and then walked up to the board briskly.
"The unquantifiable. The immeasurable. The inexplicable." He spoke, his voice clear and loud over the diminishing laughs from the other students. "Everything that plagues mankind that we cannot put away as a simple trick of the light or a part of nature. What skeptics call superstition and the faithful call miracles." The eraser jumped into his hand and slid across the board, clearing it of all markings.
"All these elements are part of one, all-consuming section of the human condition." His marker raced across the board quickly, spelling out two words in big, bold letters.
I began to suspect the professor of having a hobby somehow involving penmanship as I looked at the beautifully written letters emblazoned across the board. Abode smirked at the class, and then began to pace to the right of the board. Suddenly, the lights went dark, and the board was lit up by the activation of the small projector which had gone unattended for quite awhile in the midst of the desks.
"For this class, I will need you all to take notes and pay attention as I explain the task I will be giving to you. This course is intended to be a problem-based study and analysis of paranormal psychology and the events surrounding it." He said, the board displaying images of old crypts and ancient ruins, some of which I recognized from my history studies. "You are all expected to work together as a cohesive group in these undertakings which may eventually lead to you exploring areas in the field with proper equipment." A laser pointer appeared in his hand, and the red dot traced from one image to another as he spoke.
"This is not for the light of heart or for the unquestioning. Dull minds are useful in society, but not for academic inquiry. The field of paranormal psychology is a mentally taxing one as it does require the participants to put themselves, consistently, in uncomfortable situations where the basic elements of mankind's belief structures are constantly under attack." The board began showing pictures of news articles with headlines like 'Ten Flayed in Broad Daylight' and 'Town Population Mysteriously Disappears Overnight'. "If any of you are going to have difficulty keeping an open mind and a calm temper during such events, you can leave now and discuss transfer to a normal psychology class with the Dean."
The lenses of Abode's glasses flashed in the darkness as he waited for any of us to get up and leave. No one moved. The projector dimmed, and the lights went up again.
"Good. Now, I know you have all agreed to the NDA via email that was sent earlier to invite you to this class, but as a legal precaution and a method of making this all seem a bit more realistic to you all, I need you to sign the course syllabus. There's a copy for each of you on top of the projector."
Just as the professor said this, the student next to the projector yelped.
"I, uh... Those weren't there earlier." Said the sunglasses-wearing student, looking at the small pile of paper that sat on top of the projector as if it were a snake coiled to strike.
"Oh?" Abode said, a hint of humor in his voice. "Perhaps you simply didn't notice them, Mr. Allan."
"No, you don't get it. I remember everything about every room I enter. Those weren't there earlier." Allan said, his voice shaking a bit. "I have eidetic memory."
"I see. Fascinating. I think I once wrote an article on people like you." Abode said, his face pensive.
"Yes. You did. It was titled 'Eidetic Memory: Psychic Battery?'" The student responded, turning towards Abode. "You went into great detail about how you had done a study on people like me, saying that our brains hold imprints of every psychic impression and situation we experience and record, in essence, the mental state of everyone we have ever met. You said we could be used as a sort-of psychic repository, able to serve as a conduit any person's psyche using the psychic impression from our past, under the right conditions. It's why I agreed to this class."
"Oh, yes. I remember that. I got a lot of letters from people thinking they could talk to their dead relatives and friends through eidetikers. Quite entertaining." Abode laughed, shaking his head.
"This doesn't quite explain the mysterious case of the magically appearing course syllabi, now does it?" The blonde student said, his smarminess returning slowly. Abode considered this and nodded.
"Ah, well. I seem to have been caught with my hand in the cookie jar, as it were." Spoke a light and breezy voice, tinged with a slight British accent. A lean feminine form, clad in dark, unassuming clothing, stepped out from one of the aisles of bookcases.
"Class, I'd like to introduce you to one of my former students. Meet Alyx.”
The slim woman bowed low and gracefully to the class. As she straightened back up she smiled at each one of us in turn and then winked at Professor Abode. Abode harrumphed disapprovingly at her, obviously trying hard not to smile.
"Nice to meet you, class. You see, this ole' codger here is growin' barmy in his tenure as a professor at his dear ole' university." She laughed airily. "Couldn't 'ave gotten away with that one when I was one o' yours, could I? Seems 'e needs some young blood to keep the flow goin' in class, if you get my drift. It's a bit daft, if you ask me, but the pay's good, and who can resist an offer from such a charming old man, eh?" Alyx said, her eyes dancing around the room.
"Yes, yes, very good, Alyx. You can go back to working the lights now." Abode said dismissively. Alyx bowed again and slid out of sight behind a bookcase. "Now, students, each of you will need to take a syllabus and read it over thoroughly and sign it. Next class will be at 6 PM sharp, I expect this to be acceptable to all your schedules. Now if you'll turn to page 6 of the syllabus... and before you do, I'd just like to say, if anything odd or disturbing happens to you outside of class, I would like you to report it ot me as soon as possible..."
The rest of the class went by formally and typically, and I felt almost as if only a couple of minutes had passed by the time that Abode dismissed the class. Walking back across campus, I couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement to see what possible task we could be leading up to. My mind racing with storylines from mystery novels and occult fantasy movies, by the time I had gotten back to my dorm I had decided upon something along the lines of ghost hunting. Slightly disappointed that all this to-do would end with something so mundane, I left the expectations to be played out in my dreams. Despite my roommate normally being of the nocturnal sort, when I got to my bed on the top bunk, my roommate was already asleep. I had no trouble following him in this endeavor.
I woke up during the night, suddenly, and could have sworn I heard my alarm going off. My alarm clock flashed '12:00 AM' in glowing green symbols, reminding me of a un-programmed VCR. I sat up to check it, and jumped under the sheets of my bed upon noticing a rather disturbing sight.
"Uh, Peter...?" My roommate Peterwas standing next to the bed silently, facing my bedstand.
After the shock of surprise faded, I realised he must be sleepwalking or something. I reach over from the top bunk to wave a hand in front of his face to make sure of this. I snapped my fingers twice, to no avail. He seemed to be out cold, unresponsive to the things I was doing. Quite unnerved by the sight of him like this, I moved down from the top bunk and walked over to see what he seemed to be looking at.
"Peter, this isn't funny..." I said, uncertain of what to do. He was facing my bed stand, face angled directly to be looking at the coffee cup I had gotten the from the strange customer at my workplace. I moved around him, looking him in the face, and immediately pulled back. His eyes were open, but completely glazed over, giving him an extremely zombie-like appearance. I shuddered, inching towards the coffee cup. I dreaded the implications of what I was about to make sure of, so as my hand reached for the cup it shook mightily. I lifted up one side of the cup tentatively. Just as I had expected, a hint of mercurial silver gleamed from underneath. The lip of the Styrofoam closed over it again, and I stood there for awhile, my mind racing. Certainly I'm just jumping to conclusions at this point, I thought.
To test this, I slid the cup up and gently nudged that cursed coin out from underneath with the edge. His face followed the motion of the coin. That string of words details the bare physical details of what happened, but I cannot do justice to the feeling of sheer dread I felt when I saw this. I had hidden the coin from sight the entire time I had been back to the dorm. He had no way of knowing what was under the cup, and no way to know how much this would freak me out. There was no way Peter was just joking.
"If you're pulling a prank on me, Peter, I swear to all that exists..." I said, inching closer to the cup. Surreptitiously I slipped the coin into my right hand while my left arm obscured what I was doing. His face still followed it, the dead stare continuing with my hand as I moved it slowly behind my back. Facing him, I began to edge around him. He followed me. Backing away from him, I felt for the door handle, and as I did so almost tripped over the chair sitting in front of the TV in my dorm room. Grimacing from my newly stubbed toe, I kept my eyes on Peter, who kept dully staring at me. My hand clasped the door handle and began turning it slowly, opening the door without a sound. Peter began to move after me, his footsteps drawing him closer so that he was only a few feet away.
As he began to move, I went into action, grabbing the chair that I had almost tripped over and pulling it with me to keep a barrier between me and my zombified roommate. I threw the door open, moved swiftly around it, and turned. I broke out in a cold sweat when I saw what was before me; the entirety of the dorm, all seemingly awake, stood out in the hall, staring blankly at me as I had emerged. Behind me I heard a thump and then the soft raking sound of Peter's hands numbly pawing at the door. My hands trembling, I dropped the coin into my pocket, and suddenly went through the incredibly awkward experience of watching as the entire zombified population of one's dorm lowered their gaze to one's groin. I know it sounds corny, but I most definitely heard the familiar sound of sepulchral laughing in the distance.
What can I say? I bolted.
I kept running until I could see the looming shape of the Fjord building in the distance, and even then only slowed to catch my breath. Out of shape as I was, I wasn't about to let much distance close between me and the horde of shadowy figures that had swarmed around me as soon as I came out of my dorm. This was around the point that I actually turned to look back and began feeling extremely silly. Whatever had caused this massive bout of somnambulism had not bestowed any sense of urgency to its victims, apparently, as I was out of sight of anything that had been following me. Sucking each breath in, I began to laugh between gasps, at myself, at the world, at the coin.. Of course, then I saw the surging wave of figures in the distance crest the hill between the Fjord building and the dorms.
Needless to say, I sprinted the distance to the library in record time. I found the makeshift classroom-library darkened and empty, which, while expected, served only to make me more paranoid.
"Hello? Anyone in here?" I said, feeling terribly cliche as I groped around for the light switch. I found it, and to my dismay flicking it up did nothing to the lights themselves. I took out my cellphone, using it as a makeshift flashlight, and subsequently felt terribly spooked out by the outlines of the classroom's desks against the ground. I made my way to the middle of the room, and then suddenly remembered something I noticed the professor had done earlier. Moving towards the right side of the board, I stepped on the bookshelf's lowest shelf, and it depressed gently. The lights flickered on, and I let a self-satisfied smile grace my face.
Looking through the dusty tomes as I walked down the bookshelf's aisle toward the back, where Abode had said his office was, my eyes flitted from book to book. I began to realize something off; the books were beginning to give way to little figurines and statues, along with bas reliefs and fractured tablets that seemed like the kind you might find in a museum. I shrugged, assuming it was just a collection the professor had accumulated for the class.
However, one set of figurines in particular caught my eye. Each one looked oddly familiar and rather recent acquisitions, despite the dust that seemed to have gathered around them. They looked almost like modern action figures, attired as if they were from around the present. I held one in my hand, which seemed to be in the image of a dark-haired young man wearing sunglasses. My eyes widened with shock when I realized that I had seen that young man earlier today in class. The entire set of figurines consisted of every single student that had signed the course syllabus in the class... except for me. I couldn't help but let loose a small yelp of surprise, and suddenly I sensed motion behind me.
I whirled around. Suddenly I found myself eye-to-eye with the dark-clothed woman from earlier, Alyx. You can imagine that I was at a loss for words.
"Hullo, squire. Follow me, if you would." She said, her smile wide and showing rather alarmingly pointed teeth. Don't get me wrong when you hear that. I'm not saying she had some piddling sharpened canines. I'm saying she had a mouth that Jaws would have been proud of. Alyx sprung into motion, bounding down the aisle. Hearing the sound of plodding feet down the way I had come, I less-than-eagerly followed, trying to keep up with her swift strides. This proved less than easy.
"Excuse me, but where are you taking me?" I said, with little hope for a good answer.
She didn't respond. We kept running, with me getting more and more out of breath and Alyx getting faster and taking bigger strides. This bookshelf aisle seemed almost impossbily long. One wouldn't expect to be able to sprint down one of these, much less run long enough to get out of breath.
"Seriously, I need an answer, Alyx! Where are we going?" I exclaimed, this time in gasps.
"Away." Alyx replied, her voice resounding in my head more than in my ears. It began to vibrate in my head, like the sound of a microphone catching it's own sound from the speakers and going back and forth louder and louder and deeper. I almost stumbled at this, slowing to a pace and then a standstill. I shook myself a bit, trying to clear my mind of the reverberating noise. When I looked up, Alyx was standing incredibly close, looking at me questioningly. "Why're you running?"
"Um, because you were?" I said, and Alyx grinned, showing off her amazing array of sharply pointed teeth. "Oh, wrong answer..." She said, her voice slowly changing to an oddly familiar gruff brogue, "...boyo."
"Shit." That was the one word I could eek out before being struck entirely speechless by Alyx's features melding into a twisted charicature of a human. I was starting to get used to this kind of thing happening, so by the time her fingers were becoming claws I had jumped back. However, I wasn't quite as used to it as I hoped and ended up tumbling into a bookcase, hitting my head rather hard. Hard enough that I don't remember what happened next, except that there was a sharp, piercing scream. After that, darkness.
When I came to, all I could remember was one word, spoken in a British accent.
I looked around me to find that I'd only been out for a few minutes. I was covered in dust and relics, all of which looked to be Celtic in origin. The bookcase I had hit hadn't fallen down, I had simply smashed into it and knocked the shelves down. In front of me a small, bone-handled hair comb lay among the wreckage but in a small clearing where no other relics touched it. It was threaded through with a slim, silken lock of hair. It was also broken in two. Next to it lay a small nameplate that read "Specimen A: bean sídhe".
"Huh." I said, the half-word sounding lame in the silence and dust. I noticed then that there was the sound of soft shuffling, as if shoe-less feet were being drug across the rugged classroom floor. I turned and saw a young man, eyes rolled back into his head, stumbling towards me down the book aisle, arms limp at his sides. He stumbled into the bookshelf on his left, and suddenly the lights went down again. He must have hit the pressure plate.
I turned around and began my flight anew. I pulled out my cellphone again and, to my relief this time I could see the end of the aisle even in the dim light. The sound of my footfalls rang out against the ground as the far wall grew closer and closer and finally I turned the corner. Before me was the door that led to the stairwell that Abode had indicated earlier as the way to his office. I entered with only mild trepidation as I heard the shuffling sounds grow louder.
Bruised from the fall, tired from a crazed sprint across campus, bewildered by the events surrounding my flight, I was less than enthused upon seeing the several flights of stairs ahead of me. I hadn't, however, run this far and endured this much to be overtaken by a couple thousand shuffling college students. Dug in and determined, I began my jog up the stairs.
Ten flights up, I paused my jog up the stairs, with seemingly thousands of flights left to go. I took a breather as only one hounded by thankfully stair-inept zombie-students could. Sitting down on the stairs, I looked down to see that my pursuers had begun climbing on one another after one too many trips on the stairs, but had reached an impasse when their numbers had succeeded in blocking the entrance to the stair well. I sighed as I watched this, shaking my head sadly.
At this point, I became aware of a sound distinct from the clamor of silent bodies climbing over one another that was coming from below. This sound was the sound of a sharp krak against the hard-surfaced stairs, which I suddenly realized were made of marble. It was coming from above, so I turned my head up. Above, Abode was walking down the stairs haltingly, a cane in one of his hands. His head was bowed, and as he came closer I realized he held a book in his hand as he walked and from the sound of it was reading aloud to himself.
"...and if your mind on urgent truth is set, need you go hunting for an epithet?" were the words he was mumbling when he came within earshot. He almost walked by, completely oblivious to the sounds below or the fact that I was sitting on the step he was passing, but I spoke up.
"Professor Abode? Excuse me?" I said, feeling quite foolish for the way I was starting this conversation. He looked taken aback, and peered down at me.
"Ah, be ye... Oh! Mr. Tham! I didn't recognize you for a second there." The professor said, his voice changing from an odd accent mid-sentence. "What brings you to my humble staircase?"
"Um..." I mumbled ineffectually, pointing downwards to the thronging mass of college students. Abode peered over the edge quizzically. He looked quite piqued for a second, but regained his composure nicely.
"I see.” He stood for a moment, thinking. “Well, off with us, then." Abode said, turning so that his heels clicked together. He strode up the stairs and stopped. I suddenly noticed a large, heavy door which seemed to have lurked out of the shadows, which the professor now stood in front of. Abode beckoned. "C'mon, boy. I picked you for your alacrity and curiosity, not your cautiousness!"
I followed him up to the foot of the door as he opened it, disappearing into the recesses of what lay beyond. There was something about the door itself which was utterly unnerving. I took one look at the pale faces which were, at this point, almost seeping upwards along the staircase and decided I was better unnerved than beheaded.
I retreated, following behind the cane-thumping professor at a brisk pace. The heavy door closed behind me with a great clamor, cutting off the terrible, silent shuffling of the masses below the staircase.
“This will not do, no!” Abode said, sifting around in front of me. I turned my attention from the closed door to his utterance and was at once stricken with surprise. We had emerged into an immense library filled with towering bookcases. The shelves were arranged before a central dais like knights kneeling to a king. Upon the dais was Professor Abode, sorting through a pile of decrepit tomes, more of which littered the floor around us.
“What may have happened? Who did this? Did one of my enemies find disfavor with my castle?” Abode continued to mutter as he busied himself with frantically searching from place to place as if driven by the Devil himself.
“Um, sir?” I said, a tentative waver distinct in my voice.
“Eh? Wot? Yes, Mr. Tham?” Abode said, perking up from his reverie to regard me.
“Perhaps you should take a look at this.” I offered the small coin from my pocket to him. The professor darted forward and snatched it from my hand like a sparrow catching a bread crumb in midair, or perhaps more like a snake striking.
“Ah! Aha! Yes!” Abode said upon inspecting the coin’s surface. “You can clearly see the markings even now, yes, yes…” The old man began to rummage through his lore again before coming back up with tome in hand. “Here! See!” He held up the tome open to a page bearing the exact same depiction that was on the face of the coin. “This is so much simpler, just a banishing! And here, look, we even have the name!” The professor pushed the tome further into my view and clearly emblazoned above the image of the horned man were ancient looking words which put me in mind of primitive Gaelic.
“So this is what is causing all of this? A demon?” I asked.
“No, no, no! Demon, no! One of the Good People! You’ll find no distaste for the cross or holy water here, but keep your mouth shut with the demon talk.” Abode brought the tome to his eyes and read slowly. “‘This is Sidhe Bragg, governor of wealth and commerce, who curses the niggardly and restores the free.’ You must have crossed one of the poor Good Folk and ignored their plea for alms. Simple!” The small man laughed gladly. “Oh, for a moment there I was truly worried! I thought perhaps ol’ Conj had caught up with me, or perhaps some other acquaintance.
“Now, let us go prepare for the banishing…”
After what seemed like hours of work for that stern bastard, I found myself in the attic of the Fjord building, dusting clear a disturbingly stained altar which held in it a small, sinister-looking basin.
“I didn’t know the Fjord building even had an attic.” I said to Abode, who was working feverishly to set up some odd contraption of mirrors behind me.
“Neither did the builders. That’s the thing about contract workers; you never have people with their hearts in the work.” The professor huffed as he planted a large pole in the middle of the room. “Now, take the library in the old Belfry! There were some dedicated workers. If I’m not misinformed, their hearts were later integrated into some of the finishing touches.”
I shivered, and then, due to the immense dust, sneezed. The sudden noise startled the small rodents which had taken to inhabiting the attic into flight. They flooded the small gap in the middle of the room where the moonlight lit upon the floor and then just as quickly melted into the darkness. I had the overwhelming urge, at that moment, to simply surrender to the sheer weirdness of the situation I was in.
Abode approached the altar and as he drew close I was astounded to find that all around me a reflection of the moon gleamed from numerous mirror emplacements.
“Normally, we’d make a big to-do about waiting for the ‘witching hour’ and so on, but as it’s already far past twilight we may as well just get on with it.” He said, placing the coin into the basin and letting it clatter with the tinkling sound of silver. “I know this is terribly cliché and droll, but as I see you’re not too into this, I’ll need a drop of your blood to feed the belief section of this ritual.” He whispered, and with that I felt a sharp piercing sensation as he pricked my finger with a small silver needle. He pressed the finger into the cold metal of the coin and I hissed, partly from pain and partly from the eerie cool feeling of the texture.
The professor began to chant softly in harsh, guttural sounds. I can’t exactly remember the words, but I’ll never forget the slithering feeling the pure sound of them left upon my skin. He was still gripping my wrist with his bony hand tight, as if he was locked in a sort-of premature rigor mortis. It was at that moment that I noticed how disturbingly wan and wretched his wrinkled, aged face looked in the moonlight.
I sensed a crescendo in the chanting and suddenly a rustling began around us. The rats once again flooded the attic, parting around us as if some invisible barrier kept them away. A glittering sea of eyes shown in the moonlit clearing, and for a moment I didn’t know if I could take much more of the terrifying sight. Abode’s grip on my wrist was almost bone-crushing despite the weak look of his body at that point. His eyes seemed to have become pure white, almost glowing with the light of the moon. He began to shake as his lips formed the words, his booming voice now a ragged whisper. Suddenly, he dropped to the floor, his body completely limp. He fell silent.
Panicking in the darkness, I dropped to the floor too. I hooked my hands under him and began to drag him back upright and standing. The squeak of rats sounded almost like the baying of wolves. The sea of rodents around us seemed almost riotous as they seethed against whatever barrier held around us. I looked to Abode’s bloodless lips and lifeless frame and I couldn’t help but let out a cry.
At the sound of my cry, the teeming wave of rats crashed in across the boundaries around us. At the same time, Abode’s eyes flew open, and from his lips came that dreadful name and final verse.
The rats converged, not on us, but on the altar. They filled the basin and seemed to me to form almost a bubbling cauldron of fur and flesh. With frightening speed, they then disappeared, scuttling from the altar and away. In the basin now lay a barely recognizable disk of rust.
Silence descended on us in the attic like a hawk swooping on its prey. The quiet was only penetrated by the staccato squeaks and skittering of the rats, which faded into eerie nothingness within the walls. I looked up, peering out through the skylight in the attic roof, to see the now shrouded moon. My breath and energy rushed out of my body in a sigh of relief.
“It worked! Sídhe Bragg is gone!” I exclaimed, panting with the exertion of holding Abode up. Suddenly, a peeling screech echoed in the room. The shroud of the moon shifted in form from cloud to sharp shadow, which drew closer to the window at a blinding speed. The large form crashed through the window, showering the altar with shards of glass.
In front of me, inches from my nose, an impossibly twisted being perched atop the altar. All claws and terrible eyes, it grinned wide, showing dripping, slathering fangs which made my heart jump in my chest. It turned its gaze from my eyes to the limp body I supported and a glint of evil grew in its eyes. It drew close to him, opening its mouth to reveal its fangs again. Drawing in a wheezing, heavy breath, it whispered into his ear:
“YOU FOOL, THE PRICE FOR MY BANISHMENT IS DEATH!”
With these words, it drove its fangs deep into his neck and tore him from my grasp. It leapt into a distant corner of the room, tearing Abode’s helpless frame limb from limb. In the darkness, I could see only brief flashes of reflected eyes, glittering teeth, and slick claws, but the horrible noise was simply more than I could bear.
I fled, with not thought to my destination or safety. The last moment I remember was leaping out a window with the feeling of a nefarious force following close at my heels.
30 Years Later
A Dark Room in Kansas
“Could you please take that light of my eyes now?” Henry said, blinking in the sudden brightness. He shifted uncomfortably as a grimacing, sunglass-wearing face drew close through the haze of light.
“So, Mr. Tham, you are telling me that the murder of Professor Abode and destruction of Massachusetts State property, totally upwards of six hundred thousand dollars, along with the inexplicable ‘sick’ days taken by all on-campus residents, were the cause of some demonic visitation upon the humble town of Arkham?”
“I tell you only what I can remember of the entire experience.” Henry huffed, trying to return the grimace despite the blinding light.
“You can understand, Mr. Tham, if I am somewhat suspicious, to say the least. This is a very strange case indeed and, while your account is enlightening, it is not without its holes. I think, perhaps, you might be leaving out a few key elements.” The grimacing face was unmoving.
“I have cooperated to my fullest capacity.” Tham said, looking into the glasses sternly.
“Oh, really? Then why have you not explained the rusted circular object you just happened to have pocketed when you ran? Or the truth that it was you that threw Dr. Abode at the creature, instead of your claim that it tore him from your hands.” The grimacing face turned to a grin. The lips lifted slowly to show small, sharp, needle-like teeth. “What about the nights you’ve spent on the run since, all the bloodshot, straining twilights when I’ve watched you wait, trembling from the terror of what is your own fault?”
“How do you know that?” Henry exclaimed, truly frightened as he drew back and struggled against his restraints.
"Tell me, Mr. Tham. Why didn't the Sídhe take you as well?" The grinning face asked.
"I don't know. I truly don't know! I guess he was too busy with Abode. I was too fast for him!" Tham said, his voice at a whisper.
The interrogator chuckled softly, and continued to say in a terribly familiar brusque accent:
"Oh, no. Ye'll ne'er be faster than ol' Bragg, boyo."