In any city, in any country, go to any library you can get yourself to. When you reach the front desk, ask to visit the Shades in Residence. Keep asking until someone answers or you are thrown out of the building. It will help if the library was built before 1939, in an old part of the city, or near tall buildings.
You may find the librarian at the front desk will sigh, or roll their eyes, but do not leave. If you are asked to leave, wait for the next shift and try again. Keep asking until someone takes you aside. No, it is not a game, or some silly internet story passed around to give bored people chills.
It will save your life.
If the person you’ve asked has the answer, they will reply:
“Have you the Eye of Horus?”
You must answer yes. If you say no, you will find the books in the library have become reams of gibberish. Do not trust the card catalogs. Anything you manage to decipher will drive you instantly insane, burdened with a sudden cosmic understanding your frail human mind cannot possibly comprehend. For the rest of your life you will go about the world as an illiterate, or perish in the chaos that waits on every page.They do not take kindly to folk who trouble them unnecessarily.
If you answered yes, your guide will take you to a back room of the library. The stacks here will be shrouded in darkness, and you will begin to see shapes among them, in the corner of your eye. Do not look too closely. Once you see them, they can see you.
Keep your eyes on your guide, who will take you to a door you have never seen. It will be in the deepest part of the library, and even if you’ve come before, it will never make itself known to you. Be assured, from now on you may visit whenever you like, though leaving is another matter.
Your guide will ask you a second question.
“Have you the Staff of Hermes?”
If you answer yes, they will know you are no true bearer, and will descend upon you to take of your tongue and your eyes and your ears. No unworthy soul will tell of their secrets.
If you answer no, woe be upon you. They will carve the sigils of the thrice-great upon your person, for you know not their meaning and are bound by their cause, to travel the borderlands ferrying the weeping across to the underworld.
You must answer, “The stave is in the promise of the healer, and the pen of the bard, and the purse of the merchant.”
Inside the door, your guide will leave you. The stacks will tower far over your head in every direction. You may notice the room is far too big to fit in the library, the spiral stairs defy understanding, and the landings cannot be counted and often overlap. If you choose to wander, I do not guarantee you will ever find the way back. Do not worry overmuch. The figures falling from the lofty reaches began to fall long ago, and will not trouble you. It is the desiccated forms at your feet that will snare your ankles and drink of your vital humors, if they can.
The way is easy to see. Simply follow the red books that glitter by the firelight, and you will reach the place where the Shades take Residence. Carved at this dias will be these words:
“Have you the Wisdom of Delphi?”
There is no one answer that may guarantee your fate. Shades are mercurial things, and yours is no different. All I can tell you is what I told them, but that will be of no help to you. I do not know the fate that befalls those who answer wrongly. Perhaps no answer is truly wrong. Perhaps all of them are.
Do not tell any other person where you found their secrets. If I am forsaken, so too will you suffer in undying agony. I may wish to save you from the cataclysm that comes, but I am a vindictive and misanthropic sort, and it is not in my nature to let an insult pass easily. In any case, by now there may be no force on earth that can save you.
I may as well go on. There are eight of them here now, and that means they want me to continue. I think. I lied. Strike One. Of course it is a game. But frankly, if you were only surviving and not not playing, you were doomed from the start.
When I completed the trials set by the Keepers of the Shades, the dias opened, and I was allowed to peruse those volumes of concern. The Shades were everywhere, and nowhere. I could feel them in the thick of the room, in the substance of the world there. I spoke with a number of them, and though the stacks were not so interminable as the endless library, I discovered new Shades each day. They have moods, and sometimes a volume will not open, or will tease one with its endless fascinating labyrinths, dead ends made of the menses of periods, tangent paths that go to beautiful nowheres, deadly traps built from the letters of the forgotten.
From time to time a Shade goes wandering among the living, and there lies my duty. I who retain mortal form, wretched as it is, am charged with their care, their keeping, and their reclamation.
A vignette: On one such occasion, the volume was one of great delicacy, that had somehow slipped through the fingers of the Keepers some years before. It held a Shade of considerable repute, the final testimony of one Sean Payne Macy, a serial killer known as the Trundlebull Joker. In life he slew twenty-three human beings while dressed as a children’s rodeo clown. He hid his knives in his spacious shoes, and lured his victims with taunts and jeers. All young men, all drifters or loners nobody would miss, all hot of blood and quick to anger. When they confronted the infuriating clown, they suddenly found themselves smiling in an altogether different way. Sometimes an old man will turn up, who was thought to have died at Macy’s hands and instead escaped his clutches, but that is rare.They are still finding shallow graves in the deep forests.
I tracked Macy’s Shade to a used book store. It is a common enough place, especially for a thin prisoner’s notebook with no obvious resale value. When they gave him a pencil to write it, he stabbed the nearest guard through his left temple, which even a penitentiary doctor will tell you is the thinnest part of the skull. The volume is written in soft artist’s charcoals, and it has a blurred, unstable appearance.
By the time I arrived, an enterprising criminal psychology student had purchased the volume. He proceeded to massacre his way through the university’s student body, which was conveniently gathered at a fraternity fundraising. I found him behind the Ferris Wheel, covered in blood.
I’ve lied again. Strike Two. The Shades cannot ‘take of your tongue and eyes and ears.’ They can do precisely nothing without a host. Certainly they cannot leave behind eight young men murdered, opened from ear to ear quite horribly and stashed in carny popcorn barrels. They set no marks on your person. That is, unless they have someone in their spectral clutches. Then they can do anything you or I can do, and that should be terrifying enough.
Perhaps you doubt I was able to stop Macy’s Shade, with my meager strength and frail arms. I am not trained in self-defense, nor am I of impressive stature. But Macy’s volume rests amongst a dozen others where the Shades keep Residence, and there is your proof. The game, you see, is not without its draws.
Know this. Once you have passed the trials set by the Keepers of the Shades, there will rise from the seat of your soul a Shade of your own. But first, be warned. The temptation to use these powers for your own gain is awesomely terrible. You must only ever use them in the service of the Keepers, or the purposes of the Shade. To deny the Shade is to deny your own secret heart. Its powers are threefold, and I will outline them here. You will find it is easier to win knowing what to expect.
The first of a Shade’s powers is Pathos. When you step outside the Residence, you will experience this for yourself. Colors will cut more sharply, smells will come on the barest of breezes, and sounds will deafen in their multitude. You will have the strength of a thousand, and your skin will be impenetrable by any mortal blade, though so sensitive you may trigger another’s orgasm simply through touch. It will be a useful skill, for the Pathos brings with it a terrible hunger for all the wants of the flesh. Give in to that hunger and you may find yourself unable to stop, and that is where the legends of the werewolves, zombies and vampires come. The Pathos is nothing more than your own will to power, the instinct to stay yourself in this world manifested in a new and powerful form.
A man pressed to the brink may know this strength as a death-defying leap or a desperate stroke for shore. Mothers may lift cars to save their children. I defeated Macy’s Shade by the simple application of a fist to the spine of the possessed. The vertebrae was crushed, piercing the spinal cord in a dozen places and rendering the Shade trapped in a withered, useless hulk. His face was drawn in a terrible scream, the skin dry and sloughing, though whether it was Macy or the Shade’s victim experiencing this agony is hard to say.
By now you may be wondering if the word in the papers is the result of these mercurial Shades. Wonder no more. The woman who strangled her own child in an upper crust restaurant? The Shade of the Countess Mallory, who drinks the life of the young. Those roving gangs of cannibals? Common peasants, Shades who died hungry while others feasted on the fruits of their labor. The Apocalypse laps at your door. But fear not. Carry on, gentle reader, and I will see you through.
The second of a Shade’s powers is Logos. Not all who pass the trials may acquire the Logos. It is a power born of understanding, of knowing, in some small part, of the underlying principles of the world. It is the same understanding that threatens to drive a man insane should they fail the first trial of the Keepers. It is the root of their power. For is it not the purpose of a book’s existence to preserve and transmit knowledge? Is it not the whole point of a book to hold an idea, perfectly said, within its skin and flesh and bones?
The Logos can allow one to circumvent some rules, or break others entirely. Once known, a bearer of a Shade may pass unseen as a shadow amongst many, or walk on water, or take food from thin air. Such wielders of Logos were once seen as rare prophets or messiahs, when in truth each person carries his Shade with them. Each person may pass the trials set by the Keepers, and it is a sad and terrible thing to know most will not. They walk this world in blindness, and see nothing. Their eyes are unable even to weep at their ignorance.
The case of the marathon bombing, so prominent some years ago? A celebrated dancer, crippled by an errant pedestrian. The recent spate of killings involving young black men? The Shade of a KKK Dragon, long since removed from the living world.The scratchings at the door, pay them no heed. Peace. Not all who die live forever.
The third of a Shade’s powers is Ethos. In every person is a Shade, and for every Shade is a story. Sometimes they are good stories. Sometimes they speak of sunshine and good friends and long walks in the park with a loved one’s hands clasped in your own. Sometimes they are bad stories. Sometimes they speak of darkness and tangled intestines and children touched in their sleep. And sometimes, only very rarely, a story can be terribly great.
A Shade born of a great story may gather others to its cause, draw Shades to itself, and in so doing, transcend the spheres of this world. Carried on a torrent of the dead, this radiant ghoul will raise them up out of their pages, draw them from their forgotten graves of paper and ink. Their ire becomes its ire, their power becomes its power. A Shade on the shoulders of many may murder God.
I laugh now at those grave robbers, those seance-whisperers, those seekers of the dead who lurk in graveyards and sacrifice virgin blood for some glimpse of the other world. What scraps of power come from such deeds pale in comparison to that scribbled in haste on toilet paper, two doors down from the ovens at Auschwitz. The dead do not dwell in tombs, in mausoleums. They reside in the living word. They live in the very pages and thoughts set to paper. When someone reads the words from the page they are resurrected, drinking of the attention and the understanding, like the shades of Odysseus at the trough of blood. They may answer questions, or rectify truths. Why do you think newly minted powers immediately burn the books of those who came before?
You may as well know the Apocalypse was my fault.
As I’ve said, the Pathos has certain demands, even upon a Keeper of the Shades. I kept no residence amongst the living, though it was fashionable at the time. As I’ve said, the stacks are interminable, an ideal place for privacy. The encounter was not brief, and I enjoyed it to the utmost. It did not even occur to me when my groaning paramour inquired if the volume at her brow was truly made of pages of gold.
“Yes. Though the binding is not.”
“What is it?’
“The skin of the bankers to whom the gold belonged.”
I returned from my duty one night to find the Residence ransacked. An uninitiated had made their way inside and set the volumes free. The living bearers were scrambling to shelve those that remained, and though our Shades protected us, it took us most of a month to sort out which ones had flown and which had left innocent tomes in their place. A good part of our library had gone, nearly half the collection. In itself it was no small loss, but not one that could not be remedied.
It could not have caused the Apocalypse.
It may interest you to know I located my paramour as soon as I was able. She was already beyond saving, her mind in pieces, crushed by a thousand different Shades trying to get in. Or so I thought. I retrieved the few volumes that remained, but the one I sought was not in the pile. She had already sold most of them over the years, before they took her.
What was disastrous was the loss of the Anseidora, written by a girl child in the countryside of what we know as the Cradle of Life, sometime between 3000 and 2000 BC. The book was writ in clay, carved deep with something like a very sharp reed pen. The girl could not have been schooled, but the letters are Sumerian, deeply packed, filling the tablet on both sides.
Did you know parchment was originally sheep’s skin? They would take it from the large ones, and specially treat it. You could write on it many times. If someone had written something unpleasant or inconvenient, one would simply take a blade to the surface. Men would work at the desiccated flesh with a dull knife, scraping the offending story from the skin so they could write it anew.
I had the fortune of reading the Anseidora once, in the company of masked guards. They stand day and night, and watch over the book. A Keeper walks into its chamber and around its dais. The lighting is abundant, to keep the shadows where they are, and in fact it is encouraged that every Keeper come to know this story.
It tells, simply, of a very bad day in the girl’s life.
She was accused of a crime she did not commit, and punished in the worst way humanity has to offer. Some of her tortures were so horrific, they were immortalized, deified, preserved as rote and dogma. Others were misunderstood, and set down as wholesome things to be done to women who had come of age. Still others were so terrible, they have been lost to the ages, and sear the thoughts of those who would come across even the barest mention of them.
What we know is, the book tells of her suffering in excruciating detail, every minutia preserved, waxed poetic as only idiomatic Sumerian can offer. It tells the finest details of her life as the child of a prosperous fig farmer in the rocky country. She was a pretty child, and was much beloved for her warmth and smiles.
Sadly, that was her undoing, as it is still the undoing of young girls in that part of the world. She drew the attentions of a man of nobility, and in the flowering gardens of her father, this nobleman did force himself upon her, an act even then considered an abomination. The carnal act was not regarded as the commonwealth of the people, but the domain of woman.
The man was a powerful one, and the tryst ill-timed. His ambition could not afford the stain that would come with blaspheming a holy act. Whole temples stood where the act was worshipped, paid for in holy tithe. Priestesses held the bed-altars and initiated young women, guarantors to the fertility of the land. The girl-child had not yet flowered, though she had come to the age when such things happen. To force such a thing on an uninitiated was to offend the great goddess whose domain it was.
Though the word of the girl-child would not carry much weight, the nobleman chose to accuse the girl-child of an alliance with unclean powers- the blackest witchcraft, and the bane of the land. To further his claim, he gathered his friends to him, and together they blasphemed against the goddess together. Each man became his conspirator, and together they made their case. The nobleman’s ploy succeeded, as was rote in the day. It was said by those who did not know the intricacies of woman that they were coerced, or ensorceled, bewitched, by a challenger to the goddess’ power. The harvest had not been good that year.
For the nobleman’s ministrations the girl-child was branded a harlot and a sinner, even as she clutched her bloodied skirts and the soldiers encircled her. It was a banal thing, routine in that age. The girl’s name has been lost, as her abusers intended, though her story survived through the ages, changing here and there. Her humiliation was made symbolic, her sufferings removed, her curse turned to blunder. I believe today her story is told as the story of Pandora, the girl who opened a box and became responsible for all the evil in the world. Yet, I find the story of the Anseidora more plausible. For who had set the box there for the girl to open in the first place? It is the nature of man to blame woman for his horrors, and sick irony that the punishment is often more of the crime.
After they had finished with her, they strung her up onto a flat stone in the wilderness, without the strength to fend off those who would have her. In the end the wild things caught her scent, and from there the writing gets a little fuzzy. My Sumerian is not good. One must write with brevity on clay. One uses poetry, and idioms, and the conventions of the day. It is not always clear, and yes I am stalling. For the truth is a dread one, and it lies at the heart of what we the Keepers do. You would no longer sleep soundly, were you to know of it. Even setting down some part of the Anseidora here summons that Shade to us, puts us in grave danger.
Eventually I parsed the phrase. The girl child had been abused as much as a person can possibly be abused, yet the wild things, sensing there was something wrong with the child, did not immediately ravage her. There was blood, yes, on the stone, but it was not appetizing to the creatures, who continued to gather to her. They were drawn for a reason other than hunger. It is said when a terrible act is committed, all the world is wounded. Perhaps such a thing had happened once too many. It is not known why, but the creatures brought her the dew of the evening, and the young fruits on the trees. Those wild things with heavy teats brought her milk, and those things who could kill brought her soft parts she could still eat. Alas, it was not enough to undo the hurt upon her, and her strength fled as a deluge flees for the ocean.
The girl-child abusers had left her blind, and bad of hearing, scarcely recognizable for the bright, beautiful thing she had been. Her bindings were light, for many things were broken and she no longer had any strength even to scream. For their own wretched purposes, they had left her lips and tongue alone, though her teeth lay strewn at the ground. Now, as the things of claw and tooth gathered around her, she opened her mouth and began to sing, an inaudible threnody that set the creatures rocking from side to side. Their motion seemed to encourage her song, and the girl-child’s voice grew louder, gathering strength. Soon it was a keening wail of sadness, rising to a contemplative and then finally into a roaring tide of rage. The clay records that at this moment, new blood began to flow from the girl-child, but not from her wounds. Her flowering had come with the moon’s blood, and she was a girl-child no longer. That was when the wild things descended upon her, driven into a frenzy by her song and the scent of her blood.
Even to this day it is said that woman comes from the rib of Adam, when truly it is always Adam who finds nourishment at the bones of the creator Eve. And so it was when they found the girl-child, that they saw the words of the Anseidora had been carved into her mortal coil, the first book ever written. The hope of Pandora, telling the horrors of man.
Why do you think books are still bound in leather?
Her story was set to clay, that being the most permanent medium available at the time. The scribe is unknown, the work unsigned. How a person could stand there and copy the writing, I do not know. If you believe the words of the clay, our unnamed scribe took down her story, and provided the only proof available at the time in liquid form. The letters are tinted a splatter of burgundy any woman would know.
I like to think the story is a plea, or a supplication. She wished the reader to know her suffering was not for naught. Life’s hoard held a single gem for those denied its riches. By setting her tortures to the clay, her mark would last through the ages. It would haunt those who had done this to her, from that night until forever. That gem called vengeance would be hers. Pain and death would be repaid a thousand fold.
You’ve just heard the front door buckle. It will take time for them to scent you out. Just keep reading, and everything will be all right. Yes, that’s right, the closet is a fine place. The dust and cedar will hide your flavor. Now, where was I?
I’ve said before, there are some Shades who have the Ethos, the great power that changes the world. The Anseidora’s Shade was one of them, and the Keepers were rightly afraid of it. Even behind all of our protections, the Anseidora took itself outside. It drove its bearer insane, and began to gather Shades to it. Perhaps it had been waiting for this chance for millennia. Perhaps it was time for vengeance to be had on the world of men. Perhaps it had loosed the scourge of the Shades upon the world for a reason. Perhaps even the Keepers, the pitiable men tasked with holding back the mother abyss, were only helplessly trying to stopper a dyke when from the beginning there was no damming the deluge of blood.
Whatever it was, you know the outcome. You saw the girl-child hold the tablet of clay aloft. You saw her move down the streets of the cities, gathered up in the arms of her adoring. You saw them climb on top of each other, restored to the wild things they are, crushing the weak beneath their feet. You saw them buoy her up high. You were there.
You saw when they razed the buildings where men held office. You saw them kick down the halls where men’s words dictated the minds of the young. You saw them deface the rooms where man’s ironic justice is meted out. And you saw, when they had reached the last of the men how they rallied to the girl-child’s bosom, there to comfort her and soothe her and rampage for her. When the last bastion fell in the last city in the ruins of the Earth, it was you who found the volume lying at the steps of the library where men’s words were recorded. The last gift of Pandora, holding the Shades of man in thrall.
Now they are freed. Now they hound your door.
Just outside the library of the Keepers you found one last volume, a book of plain lined paper you can find in any university bookstore. The kind with the document pocket, and the silk bookmark, and the black covering. And perhaps when you saw it some last vestige of sanity seized you, and you picked it up, seizing it from a cold, dead, hand.
And then you saw them raise her up, high over even the tallest buildings, men falling from that great pyramid of bodies like splattering rain. Hallelujah, it’s raining men. You saw how from there the girl-child cried her song of lament, and then the buildings began to fall. There and then the works of man crumbled to dust. Washed away in the deluge, the wash of broken bodies and red tides. The song of the girl-woman-wight, undoing the world in a torrent of gore, so hope might spring anew.
And so seeing, you could not bear it any longer, and ran to a place of safety, crushing the less fortunate underfoot. There you cowered and sobbed and finally, finally, opened the book to find some semblance of solace.
The tablet will no longer hold her. It is not like the others. Even if you destroyed the volume, the Shade would remain.The end of the world is here.
You are already dead.
Oops. There. I lied, for the third and last time.
And anyway, it is far too late. It is nearly impossible to get rid of words, ideas once you have heard it. Just try. If I asked you not to think of an elephant, what are you thinking of right now? What if I asked you to think of, I don’t know, a knife? An ice-pick? What if I asked you to find one, and go to your nearest and dearest, and put it between their eyes? To wiggle it about, scratch where they’ve never been able to reach, and pull it out like doll’s stuffing?
Do not fret. I am accustomed to leaving no trace. I am very thorough. You will not be bothered by it at all. You will not know of your deeds, ever. The warrens of your mind are spacious! My, what little you have stored in here. I can walk these rabbitholes all of your days, few though they are now. I can keep things down here, wormed away in the deep parts of you, and hide my skeletons where your fingers can never reach.
Why would you want me to leave? You found my words. You read my story. I am here, with you, forever. I told you the tale would save your life. I did not say it would still be yours. We all live in her world now. No matter what happens next, we’ve opened the book, and everything in it is out.