I suppose that it may all be my own fault, that I brought what occurred, and what will happen, upon myself. They tell me that it was me, my own choice, at any rate. Perhaps they are right...no! No, I shall not give in to that. It was her...Ilsa, Ilsa Drake, who lay at the heart of it, who gave rise to my final nightmare. It was her...it must be...
In fairness I must admit that the sin of ambition was mine, my most pressing flaw. It drove me to work hard, to spend long hours locked in study each night. Books were meat and drink to me, and I became one of the finest students at Motavia Academy in Piata, itself the best and most famous center of learning on the planet. I received my degree after assiduous effort, and at once set out towards my next goal, that of an assistant professorship.
Ilsa Drake had entered the Academy in the same year as I had, and from the first I knew we were destined to be rivals. Tall, cool, and beautiful, she was nothing if not brilliant; things I learned, concepts I absorbed only with effort she picked up as if they were a child's lessons. In a strange kind of way, though, I owed her a debt, for I would not have worked half so hard without her there before me, a constant challenge.
Ilsa, for her part, never seemed to realize that we were rivals. Perhaps, to her, we were not--after all, it seemed as if all she had to do was to put her mind to work and my best would be, well, second-best. From her perspective, then, there would be no competition--but from mine, ah! From mine it was an entirely different matter.
Over six years at the academy Ilsa was always cordial and polite towards me, as befit a colleague and classmate. As for me, I was utterly consumed by the desire to, just once, surpass my rival in scholarship. I drove myself relentlessly, always trying to find some new theory, some new approach to a topic that would best her in this paper or on that exam.
All for naught.
Then, as it inevitably had to happen, Ilsa and I were placed in direct competition with one another, only the two of us seeking the same goal. In this case, the goal was the position of research associate to Professor Wilton Baynes, one of the Academy's best-known scholars. Baynes was working on a new project of historical and anthropological significance, and his associate would be a shoo-in for the assistant professorship I coveted. I applied at once, only to be surprised when Ilsa chose to apply as well.
There were no other applicants besides we two, and this was not in and of itself surprising; Ilsa's ability and academic standing frightened off most of the marginal graduate-level scholars, and the addition of my own reputation would have helped convince the lesser lights that they stood no chance of success.
Unfortunately, there was a distinct possibility that this pessimistic analysis applied to me as well, and the realization filled me with rage. I had sought the position first, and Ilsa now hoped to come along and take it from me. It was not a case of me trying to match her, but rather her seeking what was rightfully mine.
I was positively consumed with the desire to beat out Ilsa for this position and the only way to do so was to have an edge--a command of the material that Ilsa did not. Professor Baynes was particularly interested in the occult, in the cults and new religions that had surfaced soon after the Great Collapse. This was not a subject Ilsa had spent much time on, I knew, and with some extra work I could, I hoped, take her place.
I was already familiar with most of the standard works on the period, but for this I needed something extra, some source of extra knowledge to prove that I was the correct one for the job. Thankfully, I knew exactly what I needed.
One of the main purposes of Motavia Academy is the recapture of the ancient sciences lost during the Great Collapse, and to that end it has become a treasure trove of books and scrolls on every possible subject. Among them is a collection of occult works known as the "Madison bequest," a gift to the Academy by a wealthy woman of Kadary. These books were sealed under lock and key by order of the Academy principal following the investigation into the death of Professor Karl Hoffmann some years ago, but merely glancing at the catalogue of titles indicates that they consisted of the finest collection of occult lore known to scholarship--the Testament of Xayn, the hellish Corruption in Darkness, the blasphemous Menobe Writings, and the fearful Bayamare Scriptures.
These were the books I needed to study, the books that contained the knowledge of ancient, hidden secrets of lost magic which I could discuss with Professor Baynes, put myself on a more even footing with him. I did not consider that the professor might ask as to how and why I had gained access to the dark lore set out in those pages--only that I might, through it, be able to speak to him during our interview on a level that Ilsa Drake, try as she might, could not reach.
Obtaining access to the books was even easier than I had hoped. Knowing that I had no reason to view them that would satisfy an official inquiry, I resorted to stealth. Owing to my research habits, I was a familiar sight in the library even in the long hours of the night, and more than once a librarian had allowed me to stay on even after closing, asking me to lock up when I left. That evening, I immersed myself in history texts until, predictably, the student who was on night-duty yawned and declared that he was going home. I had a moment of fear when he told me that I had to go as well--he was new here, and might not have been amenable to my plan!--but he yielded, remembering at last that the head librarian had told him about my nocturnal habits when she had first assigned him to the late shift.
"I suppose that you know the routine better than I do, Carr."
I gave him a friendly smile.
"The spare door key is in the desk, and I slip it into the head librarian's mailbox by the faculty office on my way back to my rooms," I confirmed.
"All right, I'll leave it up to you. Good night."
Under ordinary circumstances, there would have been no trouble, no reason not to trust me. I am a great respecter of rules and order--not, admittedly, so much for their own sake but because an orderly progression is necessary for the scientific method. Above all, I despise a slapdash, chaotic fashion of scholarship, the rush to prove a theory without acknowledging the presence of conflicting evidence. That is the practice of fools, half-witted idiots who have no right to call themselves--
That is irrelevant now, I suppose...the point is that any other evening the treasures of the library would have been quite safe with me, but tonight the ultimate prize was within my reach. Victory over Ilsa Drake at long last! The first step towards a professorship!
Most people didn't even know where the Madison bequest was kept, but a long-time habitué of the library like myself knew. I'd learned about it almost by accident, by overhearing two of the professors talking one day. They were in the Rare Books Room, itself kept locked and accessible only by faculty or by students who had faculty permission.
I took the librarian's keys from her desk and unlocked the Rare Books Room. Extinguishing the lamps in the main library so that they would not attract passerby, I carried one lit desk lamp into the small side room and began to search for the cabinet I needed. Its doors were stout wood, not unbreakable, but sturdy enough to keep out a casual thief. I couldn't resort to brute force in any event; kicking or smashing the doors might excite attention, raise a hue and cry. Besides, if I broke into the cabinet I would leave behind blatant and obvious evidence of my crime. What would be the use of gaining access to the forbidden knowledge if it resulted in my expulsion from the Academy? None at all--I could not let myself be blinded by the treasure trove of lore before me only to forget my purpose.
Swiftly, I tried my purloined ring of keys in the lock, but none of them worked. I tried each again, in case my hand had been unsteady or the lock a bit rusty with disuse, but again they all refused to turn. I hurled the useless keys to the floor in a rage, and was fortunate indeed that they struck a corner of the thick carpet in the room's center rather than landing on the strip of bare stone around the edges. I would not let this happen! I raged mentally. She would not beat me again! She would not, she would not, she would not!
I took several long, slow, deep breaths to calm myself, aware that working myself into a rage would do no good. A clear head was what I needed, a clear head.
An old proverb states that need is the fuel for imagination's fire, and now my need set my mind ablaze. I realized, with an intuitive flash, that I was not correctly defining the problem. My goal was not to unlock the doors, but to get inside the cabinet to the books. Once I had grasped this, an idea soon came to me. I checked the cabinet, verified my thoughts, and hurried back to the main desk. Retrieving a toolkit from the utility kit kept there, I unscrewed the cabinet doors from their mountings and took them both down, still bolted together.
The books within beckoned to me, beckoned like a long-lost lover, or like drink calls to some, the need for their forbidden knowledge singing in my veins. I skimmed my fingers over the ancient books in their crumbling leather bindings, my breath all but taken away at the history and power they represented. Was there any truth in these occult works? There must be, I was certain, else why keep them so carefully guarded, so much more than books of equal rarity but less disturbing subjects. Popular opinion and religious pressure could suppress certain works among the common population, but mere subject matter and word choice would not deter a scholar.
No, I thought as my hand selected as if of its own accord the Bayamare Scriptures, there had to be something here, some mind-blasting truth or secret power that made it necessary to keep these books secure. I thought of the death of Professor Hoffmann and how even today there were still rumors that his end had not been...wholesome.
I carried the book over to the table and opened the covers, which were bound in a strange, scale-like leather after the fashion of a reptile's hide though an unusual, nauseatingly bright shade of violet not found in any Motavian species. The characters on the page were of a regularity and precision in printing that I had never seen; the only explanation of this I could postulate was that it had been done before the Great Collapse, using a technology that had been lost and which our current-day printing presses were unable to duplicate. There was, however, no publisher's mark, indicating that it had been a private printing rather than one intended for mass consumption in the stores and shops of that lost age.
The preface to the Scriptures indicated that it was, in fact, not a pure copy of a manuscript but a translation of an earlier work written in an ancient language predating modern Parmanian, entitled Baya Malay Revelations. The original was reputed to be a work given to an ancient king named Lassic who had tried to found a new religion of which this book was in essence the holy writ.
Even then, without actually reading the content of the Scriptures, I was glad that this Lassic's attempts had failed. Drawing paper, ink, and pen close for note-taking, I carefully turned the page and began to read.
How can I describe the sanity-shaking horrors I found within those pages, or the cryptic, even poetic way in which they were described? The words were lyrical and haunting, like a dream in which one floats through landscapes of the imagination yet does not realize that the setting is unreal and wrong until one is fully and inescapably caught in a nightmare. That is how it was for me, absorbing hour after hour, verse after verse, greater and greater horrors without being aware of their true vileness until, as if a dam had broken in my mind under the inexorable pressure of the accumulated madness I'd read, the full realization of it all had burst upon me in one explosion of fear.
I do not know how long I sat there, frozen in place as images whirled through my brain. Our world, our lives were no more than a sham, the thinnest veneer beyond which unspeakable horror dwelt. The corrupter, the lord of ruin, the monster called Darkfalz and Dark Force and a hundred other names ravens there in the outer darkness, waiting only for the time when the stars are right for it to burst forth and feast on the bodies and souls of the living. Then would its followers be exalted and all else destroyed, even the planets of the Algo system itself. I'd read of the D-elm-lars, of Nahar and Menobe, of the Black Arena and of Garuberk-which-would-be. I'd grasped only the veriest hints of the truth behind the Mystery of the Seal, and even they left me shaken to the core of my being.
That was when I first heard them, though perhaps...perhaps they'd been there all along, all my life, and I was only aware of them now.
You could be so much more...
Come to us...
A whispering, a nagging, tainted voice that came from just behind my left ear, and yet when I turned there was nothing. Nothing! There was a sibilance to the voices that made my stomach twist in revulsion, something akin to the sweet yet putrid odor of decay.
The whispers urged me to read further, to absorb more of the nightmare lore, but with a tremendous effort of will I slammed the cover of the ancient book shut and fled the library. I could do no more; I know I should have taken steps to conceal my crime as I had planned, but I could not being myself to stay there one second longer.
Sooner or later, you will come to us...
You answered our call...
I fled from the Academy to my rooms. As an advanced student, I did not live in the dormitory but had my own apartment in a boardinghouse near the experimental gardens. My hands shook as I turned my key, so badly that I could barely get the door open.
You belong to us...
You are our master's...
Why deny his gifts?
Trembling, I flung myself onto the bed, not even bothering to shut the door behind me. I was possessed, filled by a terrible horror, by a loathing so dreadful that I could not speak...and yet, the worst fear of all was that in time I might not find horror in these things...
There is beauty in darkness...
Visions danced in my brain, visions of things I had read about in that hateful book, but even worse, visions of what I had not read. Misty forms, like a dream, of robed and masked men bearing strange symbols on their breasts, with bodies beneath their robes that were somehow...wrong, of pasty white hands with over-long, clawed fingers and corpselike skin...
You are one of us...
Why deny it?
Why resist what we offer?
They were familiar, so familiar! I knew these voices, these phantoms. They had been there all along, driving my lust for knowledge, my black passion to learn more, my hatred for my "enemies" in scholarship, all to lure me into these realms of blasphemy. The only difference was, now I could hear them. My readings in the Bayamare Scriptures must have somehow opened my consciousness so that I was aware of the voices, of the compulsions the whisperers awoke within me.
I knew now that they would make me theirs eventually, that the black thirst they had kindled would, in time, take me back to those books, to the magick I knew lurked within--why didn't those fools burn them when they had the chance?
God--please let there be such a being!--only knew how I was able to set this account to paper. My hand shudders so that I can barely write.
The whispers are continuing.
I can only hope they will cease when...
* * * * *
Addendum: The preceding statement, in manuscript form, was found in the rooms of one Halford Carr, Motavia Academy student. It appears to be intended to explain his subsequent actions. Academy authorities have confirmed that their so-called "Madison bequest" was indeed broken into in the manner Mr. Carr describes.
As for Carr himself, he was found in his room, hanging by his own bedsheets from an overhead beam. Evidence at the site indicates that he took his own life while his mine was in an apparently unbalanced state.
One curious circumstance exists surrounding his death, however, one which together with the look of "unspeakable, distorted horror" (in the words of Guardswoman Miria Falcon, the first official person to view the body) on the face of the deceased, led the investigating officers to initially suspect foul play.
When he was found, Mr. Carr's right hand was grasping the rope above his head, as if in a last, vain effort to rescue himself as he strangled. This grasp was loose, though made firm by rigor mortis, so that it must have come near to death, when little strength remained.
Beneath Carr's fingers, the cloth of the bedsheets was blackened and charred as if by great heat. Possibly, lacking the physical strength to pull himself up, he had attempted to apply a Foi technique to burn the rope and save himself from his suicide attempt.
Testimony of friends and associates, however, indicates that Mr. Carr did not, in fact, possess the ability to use such techniques.
(signed) Richard Vass, Coroner, Town of Piata