Content warnings for this episode include: Memory loss, Mental breakdowns, Parental death, Violence, Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Religious Violence, Birds, Strangulation/suffocation, Emotional Manipulation, Drowning, Bugs, Body horror
Intro - A Broken Shell
Nikignik: Hello again, dreamer. I hope I am not keeping you from any of your more entertaining nightmares. Looking around, I think not.
...is this really what fills your head when I am away? Do not worry. I will not tell a soul.
Do you remember the dreams I’ve shared with you recently? These singular people whose lives I dictate to you night and night again race through the deserts of America, preparing for the end of their journey and an ill-advised rescue.
But as is always true, there are other stories unfolding. This time in a place I have visited often, one which I regard with a special fondness.
Let our attentions fly, then, over a hundred desolate miles, over the remains of countries wrapped in the embrace of a new and deadly nature, back to a forest of black pines.
Far in its northern expanse, there is an unlikely structure—a large municipal building with two stone lions protecting its gigantic doors. Their brass letters may say Downing Hill Public Library, but the forest’s chorus of frog and wind and songbird sings ‘Hello From The Hallowoods’.
Right now, I lurk in the shadows of a cluttered office space, between some 19th century tomes and a collection of bird illustrations. Abandoned bookmarks have been preserved like talismans on the walls, and on a shelf there is a miniature replica of a broken bell.
The inscription upon it reads ‘Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof’, and it is, like the resident of this office, a cracked shell. The title of tonight’s interlude is Old Bindings.
Story 1 - A Man of Many Titles
Nikignik: Titles were important to Laurence Abbot, and ‘Archivist at Downing Hill Public Library’ was one he cherished especially, as it was his own. Titles formed the primary portion of his work—to take the forgotten relics of the past, tomes of deep knowledge abandoned to a ruinous world, and carefully return them to order and dignity and catalogue.
“Finally done,” Laurence muttered to himself, sliding the last stamped card into its pocket. He set the volume on his book trolley, among spines of red and black and gold. His care had done them good, and he stood up and stretched his back—he was going to be bent and nearsighted before his time, at this rate.
He had surrounded himself with posters of tourist attractions he barely remembered visiting, maps with strange nautical beasts lurking beneath the oceans, feathers in glass boxes and illustrated birds clipped from magazines. Everything had its place in his system, except for a few contradictory elements that yet troubled him.
A tape recorder sat on his desk, and he could not for the life of him remember where it had come from. It wasn’t itself archived, and didn’t belong to any of the other employees he’d asked. It fit comfortably in his hand, and he felt better about talking to himself when its black reels were spinning. He was careful to keep magnets far away; it would be a tragedy to lose any of his thoughts. He did sometimes draw odd looks from others in the hall while he went about narrating his own life.
The second item without a home was a small scrap of paper which sat on his desk, slightly curled. Severe handwriting read ‘Sapere Aude’—Dare To Know. It was signed with the initials A.A., although how it had ended up on his desk was a mystery too. Perhaps it had fallen from one of the new volumes he’d been organizing.
The last and most troubling thing was one he carried with him always; a series of tattoos that began on the back of his palms and ran across most of his body. They were mostly letters, though not from any of the twelve ancient languages he knew. In the center of his back, a beetle with outstretched wings lighted on his spine, a mystery beneath his skin.
Thoughts careened in his head like planets in the deathly expanse of space, and only speaking them would restore serenity. Laurence sighed, and reached for his tape recorder.
Journal of Laurence Abbot, Archivist at Downing Hill, entry number 296 if I recall correctly.
The Reed collection is finally done. I’m almost relieved—these poor books have been through a house fire, apparently, and they’ve not been easy to clean or organize. I can barely tell what some of these books are supposed to be about, given how dense the text is.
Judging from his books alone, I wouldn’t have enjoyed spending time with the old Mister Reed, although I’d be curious to hear where he even got these—most are easily a hundred years old.
On the other hand, I’m out of new books to catalogue, which means it’s back to repairing old pieces and trying to keep the collections clean and happy.
And you know what? It’s going to be a nice few weeks—a couple principal troublemakers from the Arcane Program are gone for summer classes. Friday won’t be here to set any of my books on fire, and Arnold won’t get pages stuck together. A certain canine smell is also gone from the main hall, but I’m not sure who to blame for that.
Even the Omen hasn’t been squawking around recently, which probably means it’s out collecting overdue books or something. God bless those poor souls. I usually love birds. Does that apply to a flock of murderous ravens that takes a human shape? I’ll keep leaving out shiny objects for them; they seem to take them happily enough..
I should be enjoying the silence, but I’ve been finding it difficult to concentrate lately. How to describe it? I feel like my head is an auditorium, and my thoughts are just ringing out in the darkness. The echoes don’t always come back the same.
‘Dare To Know’. That’s the note on my desk. I don’t know any relevant authors or coworkers with the initials ‘A. A.’. It makes me think of Amelia, but then again, I see a little of her everywhere. If you can help it, don’t lose your sister in the forest.
For that matter, don’t move to a deadly forest at all. Stick it out in Pennsylvania with your kids. You’ll make it easier on everyone, and they won’t end up missing or wake up on the steps of a library covered in tattoos with a copper card in their pocket.
…It’s a lot of work to cover someone’s skin in pictures. It’s an intimate thing. I think that’s the worst part. I have no idea who I was when I got these tattoos. Why I thought they were important. What they’re supposed to mean, if they do mean anything at all.
Then again, I suppose there’s no better place in the world to find answers. That’s enough to keep me here, for now… living between these impossible shelves. I’m convinced this place is like a painting; it looks however you imagine it. Is it just blackness beneath the veneer of offices and shelves? Or something worse?
The voice in my head wants coffee, and I should probably let someone else know that I’m alive. I’ll record again later.
Interlude 1 - Home For Rejects
Nikignik: The Downing Hill Public Library was created to serve as a home for rejected artifacts and people alike. Even so, I could think of better places to live. Places where words that could drive you mad are not written on the page, places that do not linger on the threshold of reality and thought. Places with kinder rules regarding curfew and less student death.
It is home to C.S. Blackletter, Library Director, who sits in her office a floor or a thousand miles below the library, wondering what to do about Laurence Abbot, and it is home to her ravens, which fly towards a desert thunderstorm.
It is home to Friday Rescher, who attends the Summer Program in the forest beyond. She carries a knife up her sleeve and a large spider in her coat—it feasts on souls, she knows, and the opportunity to feed it may come soon enough. The library is home to her mother, a veiled spirit who hovers in ember and shadow.
It is home to Clara Martin, who thinks of her parents, of the precious future she cannot afford to lose, and occasionally of a girl with short hair who might still love her. I am sorry, she thinks. If I do not answer my questions now, I will be asking them for the rest of my life.
It is home to Arnold Eggers, who struggles to take care of books or clothes or himself, and to Victoria Tepiani, who hopes that this class will allow her to live up to the library’s expectations, to Harrow Blackletter, who tries to enjoy a brief moment away from Downing Hill, for although there is safety in family, there is also terrible weight.
And Downing Hill is home to Laurence Abbot, who moves on with the day’s tasks and pushes a trolley of textbooks down the hall. The Library has been the sole constant in a life he can barely remember, a rock to cling to in an ocean of unseen memory.
We go now to one surrounded by waves of shadow.
Story 2 - The Missing Book
No, for the last time please put a lock on that cabinet! Anyone who needs access to the tomb scrolls can ask for a key, it’s not worth losing another librarian to the sarcophagus… I covered this in the safety lecture!
Journal of Laurence Abbot, Archivist at Downing Hill, entry number 297. You leave people alone for one minute and the next they’re trying to turn the Sepulcher of Vile Scrolls into a visitor’s wing.
I’ve met Downing Hill employees from every walk of life—archaeologists and Olympic athletes and fire starters—but I’ve never come across anyone with a jot of workplace safety training. If I was hiring staff for the world’s most dangerous library, I’d start with health and safety. Maybe followed by getting some actual librarians. Ugh.
...why is O’Connor’s office so hard to find? I swear they hired M. C. Esher as an architect for this place. O’Connor asked me to bring a selection of texts for his fall curriculum. I don’t see how all of these are related, exactly.
…I wonder how I would do, if I went through the Arcane Program? I’m probably too old, and not nearly strange enough. You have to be able to electrocute librarians or set things on fire with your mind or something. Maybe I’m secretly gifted. My power could be printing perfect labels. I wonder where the Binding Stone is? I could check and make absolutely sure.
I think he has a waiting room around here somewhere… conspiracy magazines, yep, that seems familiar. I’ll be back a bit…
O’Connor, is that you?
…I’m sorry. I lost my thought.
I thought I heard someone. Do you ever… feel like your body isn’t quite yours?
Sometimes I look down and it’s like my hand belongs to a total stranger, and I’m just peeking out of his eyes.
Maybe I should get some time out of my office. Visit the conservatory. But first, textbooks. I’m going to see if our esteemed Professor of Cosmic Economics is ignoring me in his office.
Laurenced tucked the tape recorder away, and rapped on the frosted glass of O’Connor’s door. The staunch professor did not respond. It wouldn’t do at all to leave these here in the hall, Laurence thought, and tried the handle.
The door came open, and Laurence wheeled his trolley into the office. It was a curious room, crowded with furniture from the 60’s, newspaper clippings of UFO sightings, and posters of Mesopotamian reliefs. Books blanketed the back wall of his office in large shelves, full of curios and unusual rocks.
Laurence did not find the professor in any of the rather orange chairs, and so he pulled the cart over to O’Connor’s desk to unload the textbooks.
“Life Determining Its Own Value: A Humor,” he muttered. “To Erase A Pale Blue Dot. Ten Dead Gods You Can Spot With Your Telescope. Lovely materials for a semester.”
He finished the stack, and glanced at the door—it was still open a crack, but there were no footsteps nearby. Laurence couldn’t help but turn his attention back to O’Connor’s shelves, and took inventory of the professor’s private collection. There were titles in here that Laurence had never seen, bound in crimson and dark leather. Each shelf was packed, save for one empty space near the center where a book had been removed.
Laurence sighed, and turned to leave, and suddenly found himself in agony. His hand was on fire, a shuddering pain that spread across his skin and pierced his bones, and his vision was seared white.
He caught his breath a minute later, leaning against the desk. The sensations vanished from his arm as if nothing had happened. There was no swelling, no sting or irritation—just the letters inscribed in the back of his hand. He shook it, and stood up, and caught a glimpse of color on the back side of the desk.
Laurence could hear steps outside, but felt compelled to glance quickly around the corner. A desk drawer was slightly ajar, and he could see the corner of a book inside, glinting gold embossed on a green cover.
He looked over his shoulder, but no one stood at the door. He lowered his hand to the drawer, and slid it open.
The book was roughly square, and charred around the edges as if burned. On its cover, a scarab beetle was embossed in gold. It was a symbol he recognized immediately, with outstretched wings covered in twisted glyphs. He’d been staring at it in a mirror half his life.
Before he had time to fully weigh the possibilities, the book was in his hands, held tightly to his chest. It was not all that was in the drawer. Piled beneath it were little black cassette tapes, labeled in red marker. His marker. His signature scrawled on the label for each one.
“We can’t keep doing this, Laurence,” a voice said, and Laurence looked up to find O’Connor standing in the door. His prosthetic leg was a collection of whirring clockwork mechanisms today, and his colorless eyes were fixed on Laurence.
“These are the textbooks you’d asked for,” Laurence said, barely processing O’Connor’s words, and as he turned he slid the beetle book into the bottom of his trolley, and stood. He nudged the drawer shut with his foot. “Thought I’d drop them off for you. Be careful making copies of ‘Starry Islands’, I think the spine is a bit fragile.”
O’Connor stared at him for a moment, as if inspecting an artifact for quality. “Why are you behind my desk?”
“I tripped,” Laurence said, and realized he’d chosen the most suspicious excuse. “Got dizzy for a moment. I’m sorry.”
O’Connor entered the office, tapping his cane on the carpet as he approached. He wouldn’t look away, and Laurence returned his gaze as blankly as he could.
“Is that really everything?” he said.
“I brought everything on your list,” Laurence said. “But if you find you’re missing anything you know where to find me.”
“Quite so,” O’Connor said, and feigned a smile, and stepped around Laurence for his desk. Laurence noticed his eyes dart down to the closed drawer. “Forgive me. You of all people know how it is to be protective of your space.”
“Of course,” Laurence nodded, and pushed his cart to the door. His heart pounded in his chest, and he could feel the blood rushing in the veins of his wrist.
“If you’re feeling unwell you should visit the infirmary,” O’Connor called after him. “We want to make sure you’re in perfect condition.”
“Haven’t fallen apart yet,” Laurence nodded. “Thank you for the concern.”
He wheeled the trolley into the hall, and closed the door, and barely dared to breathe until he was out of earshot. He half-expected the door to burst open, and for O’Connor’s voice to come shouting about his missing book at any moment.
A surge of adrenaline took Laurence, and he had the desperate sensation that he was drowning, that some great dark expanse followed just behind each turn of the hall, pulling itself closer to him each moment.
Run, a voice in the back of his mind was saying. Run and don’t stop.
He broke into a quick trot, abandoning the trolley cart in a side hall. He snatched up the Beetle Book, and felt for the tape in his pocket, and dashed through the corridors for the safest place he knew.
Journal of Laurence Abbot, archivist at Downing Hill Public Library, entry number 298. I’m currently hiding under a desk in the restoration room. I don’t know anyone else that has a key to this place—it’s mostly home to my half-finished restoration projects . There’s no sign of O’Connor at least. I think I’m in the clear.
Right. Where to start. I stole a book from O’Connor’s office. Which does sound bad—come to think of it, I shouldn’t be confessing to this on tape. But the answers are here; some of them anyway. To questions I’ve been asking for years. He had to have known this book would be important to me. He hid it for a reason. I can’t… well. One thing at a time. Let’s start with the book itself.
I’ll call it the Beetle Book, for lack of a proper title. It’s heavy, and handwritten, I think, and it’s been through some kind of catastrophe. The words ‘Sapere Aude’ are written on the inside, along with my signature. I’ve had this book before, I think. I don’t remember it at all, and that’s impossible, because it is so important to me.
I haven’t read through much yet, but the beetle tattooed on my back is described in detail here. It reminds me of scarabs from the first intermediate period, but it’s distinct—there are words on its shell, like the words on my arms. It has a ritual significance of some kind.
I’m trying to stay calm. Because there were also tapes in O’Connor’s office. Dozens of recordings just like the one I’m making now. They have my initials on them. I don’t remember recording so many. I took one—again, I know, incriminating. Some part of me hopes that this has nothing to do with me. Maybe O’Connor also tapes his thoughts. I’m going to give it a listen.
*old recordings begin to play, increasingly urgent and distorted*
Journal of Laurence Abbot, archivist at Downing Hill Public Library, entry 297. There’s a book on O’Connor’s shelf with a beetle on the binding. I don’t know if he’s caught me staring. I think it’s exactly the one I need—I can’t believe I’ve missed it for so long. I’m going to try and get a look.
Journal of Laurence Abbot, archivist at Downing Hill Public Library, entry 298. I’ve been through the book. In the text it describes using this symbol for a kind of arcane transformation—on a jar, perhaps, or a scroll. It makes the vessel into a cocoon of sorts, protects its vessel from damage and age.
And it lists a ritual you need to destroy the vessel; set whatever is contained inside free. I don’t understand why I have this on me. Is there something… contained in me? Something alive? Why can’t I remember any of this?
Laurence Abbot, entry 299. I can’t control it. Not for long. He’s speaking in my head and he won’t be quiet. I’ve opened cursed books before, but this is so much worse. They’re looking for me now, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to hold them off for long
Laurence, 300. The Director’s coming for me. I can hear her scuttling. If I were an optimist, I’d hope for a quick talk about my work performance, but I know that’s not how this is going to go. She and O’Connor and the rest, they’re all in on it. I want to save these tapes if I can. I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to listen to them again. If you hear this, stay out of my office. It’s mine, even if I’m indisposed.
It’s like his bones are beneath my skin, and they’re cold like ice. I’m so sorry. I was close to getting us out; I was. Please, if you still remember when all of this is done, lead me back. We’ll get out of here, I promise…
The Director is here, and she’s… stay back!
Marketing - Literary Wonders
Lady Ethel Mallory:
Since all public entertainment shifted to the Prime Dream, there have been amazing opportunities for lovers of literature.
Rather than simply staring at a piece of paper—and that’s exactly what we had to do before this technology existed, younger members of our Happy Dreaming Family—you now can dream your way through stories old and new. Lay back and relax as the plot unfolds around you, with characters and settings inspired by your own imagination.
Your Dreaming Library, full of our nation’s wonderful history of written works, can be found in your Dream Interface, or any Botulus Corporation Contact Terminal. I could never get through a thousand dusty pages in a books, so this exhilarating new way to experience reading brings you entertainment… in a more entertaining way!
As a premium product you can even get access to newer works of fiction as dreamt by the author…
Story 2, Continued - The Missing Book
I hope ‘Never Stop Dreaming: The Mallory Story’ is not among those volumes so translated. I can only imagine that experience would be like to torture. There is one good thing about Lady Ethel and it is that I am usually able to drown her out within a few minutes of her interruptions. It is not that she is trying, I think, to insert herself at these particular moments. Her programming is a constant transgression—transmission—but a petty power compared to mine.
We return now to Laurence Abbot.
Laurence Abbot, entry number 298 I suppose.
I listened to the tape from O’Connor’s desk.
It was me.
I talked about doing something very similar to what I’m doing now. Finding the Beetle Book. I was in pain, from something or someone. And the Director coming to find me. It went to static after that.
And yet, for all the horror in that recording, the one thought I can’t shake is…
There were dozens of tapes in that drawer.
I think they’re all me. Something keeps happening, or I keep discovering something. And I don’t know how, but I think they take that away from me. I’ve never heard of being able to take away someone’s memories, but then again, would they let me remember if I had?
How long have I been here? Was waking up on the steps of Downing Hill just one more lie from O’Connor? From the Director? Did they take me from my parents all those years ago? Why the tattoos? What is happening to me?
I don’t know if you can hear this on the tape… but I can. Someone is talking to me. Hearing voices in the back of your head happens more often than it ever should in this library, and it never ends well. I know that much…
How do you know my name?
...that isn’t comforting.
There’s no one here… I’m talking to myself as usual. My tattoos, though. They’re glowing? Turning silver, like a developing photograph.
I think I’m falling apart.
Laurence folded the tape recorder back into his pocket.
“You’re not real,” he said. “You’re in my head.”
“You live here too,” the voice replied. “Does that make you less real?”
“Is it too much to ask if this is an ‘opened-the-wrong-book’ sort of problem or a ‘crumbling mental health’ problem?” Laurence said.
“I think you’ll find it’s both,” the voice whispered. It had a dry quality, like crackling paper. “I’ve been trying to reach through to you for a while. We have to act quickly. There’s not much time.”
“Time until what?” Laurence said. Someone was coming down the hall outside. He hoped they would walk past the door.
“Until they undo all the progress you’ve made,” the darkness replied. “This Director of yours will look into your eyes and steal your thoughts. I’ve been trying to rescue you, Laurence. I’ve gotten faster at it each time.”
“How many times?” Laurence breathed, tried and failed to categorize the information he was getting into some kind of order. “How many times have they done that to me?”
“I’ve lost count,” the voice said. “We’ve been here before again and again, but we’ve never quite gotten you free of them. You and I both need to escape.”
There was a rap on the door, then, and Laurence peeked up from behind the desk. Someone tried the handle, and found it locked.
“Who are you?” Laurence said. “What are you? How are you talking to me?”
“Always the questions,” the voice replied. “It’s the questions that slow us down.”
“I need to know I can trust you,” Laurence hissed. “Brain voices are usually not well-intentioned.”
“Laurence?” a voice called from the door; it was O’Connor. “Laurence, the Director is here to speak with you. We can talk about this.”
“If I get us to someplace safer,” Laurence said, “Will you give me answers?”
“I will give you far more than answers,” the voice said.
“Again, not confidence-inspiring,” Laurence said.
The door flew open with a clatter, and Laurence saw the white hair of the Director, and O’Connor like a pillar of salt behind her. Laurence focused his attention to the floor, and did something he rarely dared to.
Trapdoor, he thought. My library has a trapdoor right here. It leads to the second-floor gallery. He focused on its metal border, and its quiet hinges, and the way you’d barely know it was there at all if you weren’t looking for it.
And there it was.
He pulled up on it, and with the Beetle Book under his arm, slid into darkness just as the Director’s shiny black shoes rounded his desk.
*running through the hallways*
Laurence Abbot, 299! I think. Ugh!
I am currently running through the halls of Downing Hill—that’s a cabinet!—but for good reason I hope!
There’s a voice in my head, and it says that it’s the thing trapped by my tattoos. Which lines up with what I’ve gleaned from the Beetle Book so far.
They’re after me, I can feel it, the hallways are shaking—what are they sending, a whole army? Why do I matter so much to them? I have so many questions… just need to get out of here first.
I won’t be able to leave the library, not without passing some form of reception, and I bet that static-headed girl at the door wouldn’t let me through. I can only think of one place in this library that no one would follow me into.
Previously I would have said the ‘Dangerous Historically But Not Physically’ wing, but getting my soul devoured by spiderlings is the last thing I want right now. There’s a million of them in there.
The floors and walls are practically disappearing around me, like the building is coming apart. What the hell is this place?
Here it is. The wallpaper is turning into all sorts of darkness and stars, but there’s a painting here. It has a gold frame, and shows someone with their back turned, standing in a field of sunflowers. It’s a doorway, like half the decorations in Downing Hill. It’s had a label as long as I can remember: ‘Do not enter. Instant death’.
That’s why I’m going through.
If this is the last you hear of me… you know what, there’s no time. They’re almost here. Here goes nothing.
Interlude 2 - Home No Longer
The Downing Hill Public Library is home to many, but there are those who can call it home no longer.
Jeffery Stewart, former summer class instructor, was not killed by knowledge but by North Ontario wildlife, and lies sleeping in the bog a mile from the den of a monstrous fisher.
Olivier Song, who has been cast out from the Arcane Program, looks up to the desert sky as they race with new friends through the dust-laden highways. The Weather is in their blood and the atmosphere above, and their heart aches to think of the history they’ve left between the shelves.
The Director’s Omen, an unkindness of ravens with a heart of beating fire, flies from America’s desert with a myriad of heads full of new thought. It may bow to the Director’s bidding, carry out its remaining errands, but the library is its home no longer, and its nest in the forsaken rafters holds many shiny objects but no more comfort.
One I once called my friend will also return to this library no more. What she built with so much hope for the future—an opportunity to end suffering and to preserve history, to undo the wounds of the past—has become such a heavy thing, a house that crushes all who walk beneath its roof, and stalks them like a lion forever.
I wish she was still here, if not to salvage the legacy of this place, to talk to. But people, like books, disintegrate with the years, and we are left only with the awed memory of each chapter of their lives.
Outside the library, there is one receiving a message from the Director. She has spent every day free from the Library with a bittersweet joy—celebration that she escaped to find a world made new; regret for what she was forced to leave behind. It is not fear, but great love that compels her to respond, and to fly for the great doors she hoped she would never again cross through, hoping she will be there in time to see her brother still alive.
And there is Laurence Abbot, who for all his memory has known these cluttered halls and warped architecture as his home, these smiling professors and strange travellers as his family. As he steps through a painting, he leaves them all behind in search of the truth. We go now to one whose binding is coming undone.
Story 3 - Silver and Sunflowers
Well I have good news, and it’s that I’m alive.
I hope this thing is working... I have no idea what this place might do to a tape recorder. Really this is a terrible time to be recording, but somehow it’s comforting to talk my way through a crisis.
It’s like the world around me is painted, and some places are blurrier than others. Usually when you step through doors in Downing Hill, you find some hidden library section, but in this case it’s exactly what the picture advertised. The sun is bright, and there’s a mile of sunflowers around me. Someone is standing in the distance—I can’t see their face. I feel like that’s probably the ‘instant death’ part of this painting, so despite my curiosity I’m setting up this circle a good distance away.
The voice in my head has been talking to me. Sharing things. I’m going to try and document what he’s told me, before… if… I forget. We’re calling him the Scholar.
He says he remembers waking up; realizing that he was trapped in my mind, somehow. It’s mortifying to realize that I’ve had a second pair of eyes watching my life for so long, but I think that’s hardly the most important thing right now. He can’t communicate directly that well, not unless I’m listening. He’s had a lot to say.
The Director wants to keep him trapped here. In my skin. There’s a ritual to get him free of me, but she stops us every time. I’m grateful to have even a few answers. Just a little clarity. I’ve been stumbling in a haze for so long—investigating my tattoos and their significance, learning about the scarab symbol, finding out about him. And every time, been put back at square one.
I thought these people were my friends. Maybe not the Director, but at least she was nothing more than a strict boss. What happened to my parents? I know I lived with them a while, after Amelia disappeared. Was I taken from them? Are they alright?
The voice doesn’t know the answer either. But this Beetle Book contains everything I need to get the Scholar out. I have these tattoos for a reason, and it’s to free this person—be myself again. And with every rune I draw in the painted earth here, I’m getting closer. His voice is so loud now, and my tattoos feel like they’re burning in my skin.
There’s someone coming. Not here. Not now. I’m so close…
It’s the Director; she’s entering the field of flowers. The white hair and too-big suit jacket are a bit of a giveaway. I wouldn’t normally be terrified of a tiny old lady, but I know what she’s capable of.
Sorry. Yes, I’m hurrying. Before we go through with the ritual, the Scholar’s having me complete something called… a Ground Ward? Do you really think this will keep her away from us?
She’s almost here. I guess we’re about to find out.
“Laurence, I just want to talk with you,” the Director called, and he could see the glint of her half-moon spectacles as she approached through the painted flowers.
“You can’t stop me this time,” Laurence shouted. “I can’t keep living like this.”
“You have to, Laurence,” she said, eyes as black as the space between stars. She stepped out of the field into his clearing. “We all carry weight at Downing Hill.”
“Consider this my resignation,” Laurence said, and flipped open the Beetle Book—it was time to set the Scholar free.
“Consider it ignored,” the Director said, and stepped across the circle he’d drawn in the ground. He shuddered as her skin suddenly cracked like porcelain, a deep blackness beneath. She stumbled back, and looked up to him with a splintered face.
“Who taught you how to make this?”
“The same person who’s helping me get out of here,” Laurence said, and looked up from his page. “It’s true, isn’t it? That you’ve taken my thoughts away, my memories? I have nothing left without those. Do you know how cruel that is?”
“Yes,” she said, and stared at him with dead eyes . “I know. It was not without cost, Laurence. It was not without good reason.”
“There is no reason good enough for that!” Laurence said.
“Do not let her slow you down, Laurence,” the voice said. “We are so close. Complete the invocation and we will both be free. I am a scholar of many things she would rather keep buried. I can give you answers, Laurence. I can give you the truth.”
“All I want is the truth,” Laurence replied, and nodded.
“The truth, Laurence?” the Director said, and pressed her palms against the invisible wall that surrounded him, and for a moment the world flashed with shadow. When it faded, however, Laurence realized her hands had shattered, her pale palms in splintered fragments. What kind of power could stand up to the Director?
“The truth is, I’m tired,” she said, and put a hand to her head, and sank to her knees in the soil beyond the barrier. “You and I have had this conversation before, in many different places. And each time, you’ve made the right choice, but I cannot keep doing this with you.”
Laurence paused, the first words of the incantation on his tongue.
“What are you talking about?” Laurence said.
“You don’t live at Downing Hill because you do good work as an archivist,” the Director said. “You were entrusted to our care by your sister, Amelia. To prevent exactly this kind of thing from happening.”
Amelia? Laurence’s heart froze in his chest, even as the tattoos bit into him like brands.
“She’s dead,” he whispered. “She’s been dead for years.”
“Yes,” the Scholar said in his head. “Now complete that ritual.”
“She was a student here,” the Director said, with no warmth in her face. “At Downing Hill. But she abandoned her program to rescue you. I am told that your parents thought she was dead. Would have done anything to bring her back.
The search led them to a church, devoted to a terrible name. These tattoos, this ritual—it was supposed to pull Amelia’s soul back into this world, bind it to a safe vessel. But she was with us, at the library. It was not her spirit that was bound in you.”
“Who are you?” Laurence whispered beneath his breath.
“We’re losing our chance,” the voice in his head said. “Finish this.”
“She brought you here to Downing Hill,” the Director said, hands folded in her lap. Gave you her library card so you could stay. We’ve had to keep you from remembering, Laurence, because you pick at these binding tattoos like a scab. Amelia can tell you herself; she’s outside.”
“She’s here?” Laurence said. “Amelia is here?”
“You are such a weak spirit,” the voice in his head said, and Laurence felt as though he was a puppet whose strings had been suddenly yanked.
An onslaught of memories flashed in Laurence’s mind—not his, he realized, someone else’s. A hand of silver bones, and fires that consumed the great libraries of the world, and a sky falling from the heavens to consume the earth and all the universe, life and death reunited and reborn in a new communion…
“You’ve lied to me,” Laurence said.
“You want to know who I am? I am Tiberius Laevinus, Prophet of the Black Eternity, father of the Church of the Hallowed Name. I do not lie,” the voice proclaimed. He shrieked, and fell to his knees; his bones were all on fire, and his tattoos began to burn with silver flame.
“My church needs me now more than ever, and the eternity is near at hand,” Tiberius said, loud in Laurence’s head. “If you do not complete the ritual now, I will find my way out again, in a day, in a week, in a decade. And when I do, I will destroy you, Laurence Abbot, and I will burn this library for its heresies as so many before.
Or, free my spirit from your flesh. The gifts I can give you are greater than you can imagine. You want knowledge. You want truth. You want order. I can give you those things. All you need to do is speak the words.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Laurence said, a holy fire in a field of flowers.
“Do you know where we are?” the Director said, glancing out to the field. “It’s a memory. I save them all, you know. Your memories. They end up as paintings, like this.”
The blue sky was turning black, the field of sunflowers disappearing into shadow. The figure in the distance had her back turned, but there was a second form, he realized, collapsed in the flowers.
“My father fell and did not rise,” said the Director. “Probably something simple. A stroke, I think. Something I could fix now. But I was so afraid I could barely move. And when night fell, it was a starless sky, and a voice spoke from the void and offered me a choice. That was the day my path was set forever towards this library.
You and I hold so much knowledge, Laurence, that this world can never know. We keep it safe. And it lies on us to make decisions no one should ever have to face. Whatever you do now, Laurence, it will affect everyone in this library. And the world beyond it. The choice is yours.”
Last entry of Laurence Abbot, archivist at Downing Hill Public Library.
To the next archivist, if this goes wrong, there are books that need binding in the restoration room. Please take care of them for me. I’ve put a lot of work into this place, and nobody ever cleans up the messes or labels the dangerous things correctly. Please give it your best. And stay out of my office. It’s mine. Even if I am predisposed.
Augh... That burns like a hot poker…
To Amelia, I don’t think I’m going to get to say goodbye to you properly. Because I’m not going to remember this, I think. I’ll remember you as my big sister who went missing half a lifetime ago, who the trees swallowed up whole. I’ll walk the halls of this place never knowing that you spent your years here too.
But I’m prepared to do that. As long as it takes, because the thing that’s shouting in my brain so very loudly right now… I know it could teach me things, Amelia. I know I could get answers to my questions about the library, about the universe. But what kind of archivist would I be if I gave in to the first old ghost I met in these shelves?
I miss you. And I will be missing you. And I hope you’re alright out there. Thank you for looking out for me, even now.
To Henry O’Connor, I’d rather you didn’t keep this in a drawer with the rest of my memories. That’s just a creepy thing to do and I thought better of you as a coworker.
To Tiberius Laevinus, be quiet. I’m in control. I am! This is still my body, these are still my bones, and I’m not giving them up to you. This library is mine. I take care of it. I’m not going to let you destroy it. You’ve been waiting, what, a couple thousand years? You can wait longer. I’ll outlast you, I promise.
*static begins to warp the tape*
Wait… Director, it’s…
He’s breaking free…
Audio journal of Laurence Abbot, archivist at Downing Hill Public Library. Entry number 296.
The Reed collection has finally been completely cleaned and catalogued, and I couldn’t be happier. Finally, I can move on to some lighter material. There are a lot of books in need of repair, but it’s tedious work, and my hands are tired. Maybe I can get around to the bindings tomorrow.
‘Sapere Aude’, the note on my desk says. ‘Dare to Know’. A.A. It’s a real puzzle to me… how Amelia managed to sneak these notes into my books. I suppose I should address that; this has been one of the strangest weeks at work I’ve ever had.
Things went kind of sideways in the painting, and the spirit of that ancient terror Tiberius tried to claw its way free of my body. Which was painful. I thought that paper cuts were bad.
But as he did, a thought occurred to me, and the Director’s eyes were like black holes, pulling in light and sound and memories. And as he broke free, and my tattoos burned away like gunpowder, he was the one standing there in the field of flowers. He looked a thousand years old, with a beard to his waist and one arm of silver bones. I’ve never seen such… anger? Vengeance? In someone’s eyes. They burned like the sun.
And then the Director buried his memories, like she’s done a hundred times for mine.
He’s still standing there, in that painting, alongside the Director’s younger self. There are worse fates, perhaps, than wandering without memories in painted sunflowers.
It doesn’t mitigate the danger, exactly—he’s still there, and maybe someday he’ll remember who he is, how he ended up there standing alongside a pale little girl—but then again, that’s Downing Hill for you. Containing forgotten things, hiding them safely away from the world.
So I’ve spent the last few days getting to know my sister again. She’s been close this whole time, not too far from the library sometimes. That breaks my heart a little. But she has a life of her own now, and she tells me she’s found her own projects to work on. I suppose a little magic runs in our family after all. She’s working with some people now… Friends of Zelda? Something like that?
No sign of our parents, though. Apparently she lost track of them after taking me from the Church of the Hallowed Name. I hope they’re not still there. I haven’t heard much about it, but if Tiberius is their patriarch I can’t imagine it’s lovely. She’ll be keeping an eye out for our family’s double-decker bus, just in case.
I’ve lost most of my tattoos; they burned away like leaves when Tiberius was let loose. But I have a few which Amelia had given me years ago; I had her do one more design while she was here—a little scarab. Just so I never forget what happened here.
I’m not sure I’ve forgiven the Director. I’m not sure I want to stay at Downing Hill, after all this. But when it comes down to it… where else would I go? If I left, who else would corral unsupervised visitors and clean up the messes and keep this place in order?
I think I’m going to take a long break from work. Spend some time outside. And when I can bear to look at my hands again, I’ll come back. And keep doing what I do best, which is to keep this library running properly.
I’ve almost run out of tape. It may be a while before I record again; for once I’m not afraid of forgetting. This is Laurence Abbot, Archivist at Downing Hill Public Library, signing off.
*calling down the hall*
What do you mean the sarcophagus got him? That’s what the lock was for!
Outro - Old Bindings
Laurence Abbot sets down his tape recorder and begins to live for the last time, as do we all, and goes off to seal the Sepulcher of Vile Scrolls. Tomorrow he may deal with some new threat from Downing Hill’s collection, and another after that. Life as an Archivist is more life-threatening than you’d expect. Amelia Abbot thinks of him and smiles as she sets off again in the woods, pride and regret dwelling in unison, but she returns to a work of her own.
In his office, Professor Henry O’Connor plans his fall curriculum, and is able to truly relax for the first time in several years. He has not been so stressed since the Dexter Duckworth situation. There is a painting a few halls down with two figures standing in a sunflower field, though, and it gives him pause each time he passes.
Deep beneath Downing Hill Public Library, the Director looks in a mirror as she repairs the cracks in her skin, puts the facade together again like plaster. A book with a gold beetle on green canvas sits on her desk, a new key, she has realized, to Downing Hill’s future.
Your nightmares are waiting for you, dreamer, and we return our gaze from this library to the forest of black pines beyond, and the sprawling expanse of overgrown America where our trails yet take us. Until you awake, dreamer, for the last time, I am your loyal host Nikignik, waiting like an open book for your return to the Hallowoods.
The Season 2 Epilogue that goes with this episode is called 'Something Broken', and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!
The character of Laurence Abbot originally featured in the 'Athenaeums' miniseries, written by guest author Theo Dixon, a queer writer, podcaster and aspiring mortician. You can find fir online at @eldriitchbones on social media, or at crow's personal site.