Author: Michael Pomroy

The old book’s leather binding was cracked and eaten with age, any print on the cover long since faded by time. The lock holding it closed had no key, and the clerk didn’t know where it came from, so for only two dollars I left the thrift store with the strange prize tucked under my arm.

I needed it as a photo prop, and it looked great as a backdrop for posting the day’s coffee drink across my social media. Usually I would toss it in the closet with all my other props, until I needed it again, but this piece made me curious. The lock was rusty and large, overkill for something as simple as a book, and I couldn’t help but wonder what was inside.

Was it an old diary? A family history? Could the pages inside make for a collection of more interesting photos?

I cut the strap holding it closed with scissors, and found myself flipping through a collection of photographs. Only they weren’t, not really; they were printed directly on the old parchment pages, far too detailed to be sketched out with pencils and ink. There was no way the pictures were as old as the paper, someone must have printed them on the aging skins and had them bound together.

A brunette woman in a voluminous dress and bone corset, a grand brooch on her chest. A knight with a shining sword. A straw-hatted farmer, leaning against a plow. A teen girl with a hula hoop. A young man in a college hoodie. The pictures went on for most of the book, but the pages were all blank near the end. Except one.

This page was completely black, like a moonless night. I felt my eyes lose focus as I gazed at it, unable to look away or close the cover, staring until I could see nothing but the black void filling my field of sight.

My senses returned in an unfamiliar place, deathly quiet. My hardwood floors were gone, replaced by a desolate stretch of flagstone path, flanked by piles of rubble and debris. I was sure I fell asleep staring at the book, but I couldn’t will myself awake.

The black sky felt like no sky at all…a high, cavernous roof, maybe? The still air hinted at distant walls too far for my eyes to see, and despite there being no visible light source, everything at floor level was well-lit. To my right, the path through the debris curved downhill, to a place that felt darker somehow. To my left it angled upward, toward the remaining shell of what was once a grand structure. A castle? A manor? It was impossible to tell as I walked in its direction.

There was no door on the strange keep, and the deteriorated d├ęcor only remained in scraps of musty cloth and splinters of rotted wood. The empty room had no ceiling over most of it, save for a small stretch at the end of the foyer. A strange, wooden door was set overhead, shiny and new in defiance of the surrounding decay.

A neat pile of large stones underneath hinted that someone was here before me. There were no other exits, and nowhere to go but up, so I clambered up the rocks and pushed open the hatch.

Through it, I saw my own ceiling. My heart pounding, I pulled myself up and crawled over the edge of the strange door, into the familiar embrace of my welcoming, sunlit home. Behind me, all I found was the book…and in place of the eerie, black page, a view of the empty foyer below.

* * * * * * * * * *

I tried to ignore the lure of the book after that.

Fear kept me away at first, and I didn’t tell anyone what happened. How could I? Who would believe it? But after two weeks, I had to try again. I had to know if it was real.

Sitting in the same spot in my living room, I opened the book to the last page and stared at the black stain until I felt my senses fading. The same as before, I came to on the odd path, in the unsettling, unknown place. Up the road, into the building, through the hatch, back into the real world; three times, until I was sure it was real.

I closed the book and put it away again. I needed time to think.

* * * * * * * * * *

My thinking lasted for a week. I returned to the book’s world several times after that, each trip longer than the last. I dug through rubble and picked through debris, searching for some sign of what was once here. A city of some kind, I deduced, with houses of stone, with no signs of the original builders.

But I did find treasures in the ruins: jewelry and pottery, precious stones and gold coins. Some I kept, most got sold, and the income was more than I made working full time. Eventually, I quit my job and spent more time lurking in the ruins. They were vast, and unearthing my finds took time, but the state of my bank account was worth it.

But I always avoided going down the hill.

Sometimes, I’d stray toward the farthest edge of the gentle slope, where the angle steepened and the view of anything lower was hidden by bulky rock. But all my instincts fought against rounding the curve and going farther.

Someday, I told myself. Just not yet. There was plenty to be found closer to the exit.

It was two days shy of a full year since I first walked into that thrift store, as I sifted pebbles and dust, that a cry of surprise scared the hell out of me. It echoed surprisingly loud in the still, silent air, and I sprinted along the narrow path I’d cleared in search of the sobbing source. There, on the road where I always arrived, I found my little sister Kaley and her fiend Serena. They weren’t due home from college yet and I didn’t expect the visit, and I definitely didn’t expect them to stumble across the book.

Serena was in shock but was the braver of the two, and I almost took a piece of wood to the face before she realized the dirt-covered madman running toward them was me. Kaley was absolutely losing it, understandably, given the situation, and I focused on calming her down. For ten minutes, through frantic tears, she demanded answers I couldn’t give her.

Where were we? I didn’t know. What happened here? I never really thought about it, probably some mass exodus a long time ago. Where’s the sky? Outside, probably, closed off from whatever weird cave we were in.

I finally got her to calm down by promising to take her right home, but that was when i realized Serena was gone. Looking around around wildly, I just caught sight of her denim jacket disappearing around the downhill curve.

For the first time since discovering this place, I felt fear. That sloping path set off all my internal alarms, something about it wasn’t safe. I shoved Kaley toward the exit and ran after Serena, all my senses screaming I was going too far. I found her standing just around the curve, looking out over the scenery.

It was…nothing.

The hill was really a mountain, and the ground below was more piles of pebbles and dirt as far as the eye could see. No grass, or trees, or signs of a living earth, only gray dust fading into the distance. But the dust didn’t bother me, I’d been steeped in decay for months. It was what hung beyond the curve, caught on a jagged stone: a college hoodie.

I easily pictured its owner, the young, blond man from the book. A few more steps and I found pieces of what was once a hula hoop. Some yards down the slope, a straw hat. I picked it up by its brim to inspect it, and choked back a scream when I found the head that once war it was still there, nothing left but a grinning skull and some vertebrae. Hanging from its neck, a chain with a familiar brooch, a discovered treasure strung for safekeeping.

Then, I finally noticed.

The piles below weren’t stone pieces, they were bones. Hills and valleys of bones with no end in sight, only a hypothetical horizon fading out in the distance.

Something in the air changed, an indescribable shift. I knew this place had just become very, very dangerous, and we had to leave immediately. That this trap I’d been coming and going from for so long had finally been sprung.

I grabbed Serena and pulled her with me, against her protests. My brisk walk soon became a stumbling run as I dragged her along, and even though she tried to run with me, my longer legs made it hard for her to keep up. But with every step we took my urgency grew, and i could feel our window of escape steadily shrinking.

It was about ten meters from the building that I saw understanding flood her features. Something shifted again, a presence so large and nightmarish it was impossible not to feel it on the surface of our skin. Something unwinding its sinewy body, rising from slumber, hungry and expectant. Death was imminent, I felt that with every fiber of my being.

I ran, and so did Serena. Neither of us looked to the other, we both understood it was every man–or woman–for themselves now. There was none of the cooperation or care that were the hallmarks of humanity, only the animal instinct of terror-fueled self-preservation. It was unconscious, inborn, millions of years of evolution taking over completely.

I was faster. The hatch was open from Kaley going ahead, and I could hear my sister screaming for both of us to hurry. Even from the supposed safety of my apartment, she could feel what was coming. I knew I had to use every bit of speed I had left, if I slowed down even a little it was over for us both. But if I could just get through the door fast enough, I was strong enough to pull Serena up after me faster than she could climb.

I hit the stones at full speed and scrambled up, my nails digging into the wood of my floor as I desperately clambered through. Kaley grabbed my shirt and pulled with an animal ferocity, her smaller muscles fueled by panic and fear.

I felt the sharp pain of my own muscles pulling as I flipped around, bending farther than my body was used to, pushing the boundaries of my flexibility to reach for Serena. All she had to do was grab my hand, and I could haul her to safety.

Serena’s fingers barely brushed mine, and then she was gone.

Something scraped against my skin, like sandpaper made of steel. I yanked my hand back to find a mess of shredded flesh halfway up my arm, as a deafening, inhuman scream rang out. The opening was obscured by a writhing carapace, and what might have been a humanoid face appeared, once-sunken eyes gone and its skin pulled too tight over a cracked, chipped skull. Kaley let out a scream as a mouth full of long, pointed needles dropped open on a dislocated jaw, and I slammed the book closed.

In the deafening silence, we sat, frozen, her trembling and me bleeding.

It was the blood that shook Kaley out of it. She rushed to get me a towel, and as we cleaned and bandaged my arm I knew I was lucky I pulled back when I did. I could have lost the whole limb. We focused on my injury, ignoring the book on the floor and that there were two of us when there should be three.

It took us five hours to brave opening the book again. When we did, it was once again an innocent enough thing, filled with pictures that now shot me through with dread. It was no longer a collection of whimsical images, each page was a wordless stone on an otherwise unmarked grave.

The final picture was no longer the blond boy in the college hoodie. There was one more now, a brunette woman with jeans and a ponytail. Serena, leaning against the wall of my dining room, arms crossed and face somber.

Consumed in my place by the old, hungry book.

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