KC had never liked the basement. It was dark and smelled like mildew and old parchment, and it looked like a dungeon, having been built somewhere in the early nineteenth century. It was creepy and cold and as if that wasn't bad enough, one of the other librarians had told her the building was once used as a temporary courthouse before the official courthouse had been completed, a hundred and fifty years ago. It was rumored that some of the less … pleasant sentences had been carried out in that very basement, and that sometimes one could still sense the spirits of those dead criminals wandering around, seeking vengeance.
Needless to say, KC avoided going down there during her volunteer days as often as possible. She wasn't superstitious by nature, but she'd seen too many horror movies with similar settings to ever feel comfortable going into one. Sometimes she cursed her overactive imagination. Now, of course, was one of those times, when her eyes kept trying to show her things that she was sure weren't really there. Like the large, bulky shape half-hidden behind an old bookcase, looking very much like the serial ax murderer she'd seen on the bad SyFy network movie the other day…
Gritting her teeth and clinging desperately to her wavering courage, KC darted through the large room, dodging broken chairs, spare shelves, packing boxes, and cobwebs left and right, and miraculously managing to not kill herself in the process. Her Ugg boots thudded dully on the packed-dirt floor, and finally, she was on the other side where a large, decidedly-modern door heralded the entrance to the basement reference room.
She could practically feel the breath of those alleged vengeful spirits ghosting down her neck—which was kinda stupid, really, considering spirits didn't breathe—as she sought to get the key into the lock. Was it her imagination, or had she heard something rustle behind her? In fact, it had sounded suspiciously like wing-beats.
"Ack! Bats!" she squeaked, and redoubled her efforts. She hated bats almost as much as she hated vengeful spirits, and unlike vengeful spirits, bats were real and showed absolutely no distinction between a moth and a human head; they seemed to dive-bomb either one with no discretion at all. She knew this from personal experience.
Another rustle of wing beats and a faint, high-pitched shriek reached her ears, making her almost bolt out of the room. Did bats shriek? She thought she remembered watching a documentary about bats in South America, and she was pretty sure those bats had shrieked. Of course, the suburbs of Boston were as far from South America as a person could get, but what if some had escaped from the zoo or something? There was a zoo in Boston, right?
KC managed to drop the key ring twice while dodging imaginary bats winging over her head, and wasted precious moments of again trying to pick the right silver key out of the bazillion other silver keys jingling on the ring. "Can't they label these things?" she complained as she inserted the fifth key into the lock and turned it. She was rewarded with a faint click as the lock released, and in another moment she was inside the room—tripping over the raised floor, as somebody had apparently spent time actually cementing this part of it over—and slamming the door behind her. Whew. Safe. Let's see rabid bats try to dive-bomb her head in there.
Taking a deep breath, and immediately starting to feel more than a little silly at her unreasonable panic attack—-Whoever heard of South American bats living in basements, anyway? Attics would be much more to their liking—-KC looked around the room, gathering her bearings. There was light streaming in from windows far above, but it was murky from all the street grime that coated the outside of the glass, giving the room a gloomy, dim appearance. Tall shelves stood in a line across the expanse of the floor and along the stone walls, filled with dusty tomes as thick as KC's arm and probably as heavy as Kimiko's backpack. The light switch was just beside her head, and KC flipped it on. The overhead fluorescent lights crackled to life, seriously out of place in such a dungeon but more than comforting to see as the room flooded with electric brilliance.
Nodding to herself, feeling much more at ease (no more flapping wings or weird shrieks in here), KC hung her coat over the back of a chair and dropped her fifty-pound backpack beside it, then headed toward the shelves to start searching through the rows of books. She wasn't quite sure what she was looking for, but hoped all the same that she'd find it. The titles were worn and hard to read, and she found herself squinting to make out the illegible print. Some of these books were really old, she realized. The titles were stamped into the leather covers, not just printed on with ink, and the covers themselves were cracked, dry, and brittle. No wonder they were sealed in this room; they'd decay in no time at all if left in the outer basement, or even up in the main library. They were probably highly valuable, too.
She finally came upon a book that seemed promising. The title read—-as near as she could tell, as it was a bit worn and happened to be on the shelf directly above her head—-"The Histories of the Orient" in fancy, scrolled lettering. "Bingo!" she exclaimed, reaching to take the huge volume from the shelf. A ladder would have been more practical, but as she didn't see anything resembling a ladder anywhere nearby, and as she didn't possess the patience to go look for one, she ignored all semblance of common sense and pulled. Hard.
She got the book easily enough. Unfortunately, she got its neighbor along with it, whose faded ribbon page-marker had somehow gotten caught beneath the weight of the first book, thereby dragging it forward and straight off the shelf. Needless to say, she was a bit surprised to suddenly find herself flat on her back with two rather large and extremely heavy books cradled haphazardly in her arms, squeezing the breath from her lungs.
"Boy, am I glad nobody was around to see that," she wheezed, pushing the tomes off her body. She didn't feel injured, but she wasn't so sure she could say the same about the books. Worriedly, she checked the first volume over, noting with relief that it didn't seem the worse for wear from its impromptu tumble off the shelf. The second book, however, had a very obvious crease right down the middle of the cover. She bit her lip; the bend may or may not have already been there, but she'd been too busy trying to dodge the thing before it landed on her head to actually get a good look at it beforehand.
"Mrs. Potter's gonna skin me alive," she groaned, trying to unbend the stiff leather as much as possible without cracking it. "I wonder how much of my life savings I'll have to give up to pay for this. So much for a new car." She pounded her forehead against the book a few times for added effect and then lay with her eyes closed, wondering if it was at all possible to start the entire day over again. "I really hate my life," she decided with a heavy sigh, and opened her eyes.
That was when she noticed the third book, lying not three inches from her nose, its bright red cover a shocking contrast to the dark brown, nearly black leather her head rested upon. Blinking a few times and wondering if she was seeing things—she was pretty sure it hadn't been there a moment ago—she slowly sat up and reached out to touch the small volume resting beside her hand. It felt real enough. It must have been caught between the other two books, and given that it wasn't even half the size of those two and barely thicker than her index finger, it was no wonder she'd missed it before. It, too, looked old, the leather cover faded and a bit worn around the edges. She picked it up carefully, hoping she hadn't managed to damage that one, as well. There was a strange imprint on the cover—like a bird, a red peacock—over which was embossed, in worn golden letters, a title. It looked like Chinese kanji.
"A Chinese book?" For a moment, excitement returned, and she hastily flipped open the cover, only to deflate when she realized the book itself, not just the title, was written in the same illegible characters. "What's this doing here? No wonder it's stored here; not like a lot of people can actually read it," she grumbled, staring down at the brief message (a dedication or an excerpt of some kind?) written on the first page. She could see the vague outline of an illustration on the other side through the thin paper and, more out of idle curiosity than anything else, she flipped the page over for a better look.
She was completely unprepared for the flood of brilliant, crimson light that burst from the pages, engulfing her in a hazy red glow. The sound of wing-beats returned full-force, surrounding her entirely, and she screamed and immediately threw the book across the room.
Well, she tried to, anyway.
What happened instead was that the book hung in midair, all by itself, as the light continued to flood the room. She gaped stupidly at the spectacle for a moment, before belatedly realizing that the book appeared to be getting closer.
No, that wasn't right. The book wasn't moving, she was! She was being pulled across the floor toward it, where the light burned brightest. The light, she realized, was actually trying to pull her into the book! She screamed again and whirled around, running full-speed toward the exit. She wasn't getting anywhere very fast, though, and to her horror, she saw the shelves around her, the walls, the floors, turning opaque, fading right out from under her.
A folding chair somehow got itself tangled in her legs, and she landed with a pained gasp on the floor, which still felt solid enough, even though she could see right through it. The tugging got stronger and she felt herself being dragged backward. She shrieked again and scrabbled for purchase, clawing at the smooth floor, grasping selves and whatever she could lay her hands on. She saw her pack and lunged for it, her hand just barely grasping one of its straps before the red light flared brilliantly, and then she was suddenly falling, falling through a swirling red and black vortex, as stars and light and the fading library room spun around and around.
The darkness of oblivion rose behind her eyes and she knew no more.
The Chinese tome hung suspended for another long moment, still glowing softly with eerie power. Finally, the red light flickered and died, and it dropped to the ground with a dull pat, becoming an ordinary book once again.
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