It was our second night camped outside the great mausoleum when I woke to find Kristy gone, her bedroll empty. I muttered curses as I swiftly dressed, thrusting myself out of my tent and into the night, flashlight in hand, only to find Kristy stumbling toward me out of the dark. She was bare-footed and pajama-clad despite the cold, and she seemed not to see me as she reeled toward our tent.
I grasped her shoulder, shining my light directly into her face. She jumped at my touch, surprised though both myself and my light had been in full view for some seconds already. She stared at me with unfocused eyes and I quickly diagnosed her with shock, helping her into our large, cabin-style tent. I sat her down, threw a blanket over her shivering frame and fetched her a cup of water. Wishing I had something stronger, I poured myself a cup from the canteen as well, just to have something to do with my hands.
The tin cup clattered against her teeth as she drank, but the water seemed to help, or maybe it was the blanket. Her shivering subsided somewhat, and she looked straight at me for the first time.
“We were right,” she said, voice hoarse.
“I knew it! You went out and found a way into the tomb all alone, didn’t you?”
She shook her head.
“Something woke me in the night. A voice, a voice inside my head.”
“What did it say, this voice?”
“I don’t know.” Her eyes were unfocused again as she strove to remember the events of the evening. “It was all in a language I’d never heard before. The words were harsh. Guttural. It was a Summons. I couldn’t understand a single word, but I could feel its pull. I saw you lying there, asleep, but I was like a sleepwalker. You seemed to be just a dream, and I walked right past you and out into the night. It was cold as I walked, I knew that, but I couldn’t resist the Summons, calling to me. Besides—”
“— it was colder inside the tomb.”
I was incredulous. “You found a way in? We couldn’t find a way in in the daylight, how did you do it in the dark?”
She drained her cup.
“I didn’t find a way. It was open when I got there.”
“The tomb of Wilhelm Ascher stood open when I got there, an inviting doorway in the moonlight, and in my dreamy state I simply walked right in.”
“You saw him?”
“Worse.” She shuddered again. “I saw it!”
“The Totenbuch!!” I whispered the words, but the name of the Book of the Dead still cut through the night like a shout.
“I saw it,” she repeated. “The tomb should have been blacker than the night, but instead it was filled with a strange light, a light that was not light, that allowed me to see but created no shadows. It allowed me to see him… and it.”
She was silent for a time.
“Was he in a sarcophagus? A coffin?” I asked, desperate to get her talking again but striving not to appear so.
“No,” she muttered. “No, Wilhelm was just lying on top of a great stone bier, looking for all the world like he’d lain down to take a nap three hundred years ago and just never gotten up. The—”
She hunched, made a retching sound, then continued.
“—the book was lying open on his skeletal chest, finger bones still caressing the pages, like he’d… like he’d simply read himself to sleep!”
She was breathing hard, caught up in the memory.
“I think the Not Light was coming from the book, but I’m not sure. I should have looked around, but all I could look at was the book! I was terrified, wanted to run, but all I could do was move toward the book! It was the source of the Summons. It was calling to me.”
Her eyes were wide and stared right through me, through the tent, back through time and into that tomb from which she had somehow escaped.
“I knew what it was and by God I wanted to run. We looked for it for so long, I know, but to be in its presence, its actual presence, it was somehow horrible, though it was just a book! I wanted to run, but the Summons, the power of the thing, it drew me forward and I began to read. It was in no language I’d ever seen, like the marks of spiders and worms wrestling on the page, but somehow the words began to come out of me, to come through me!”
She began to speak, and as the first words fell from her lips I could feel them resonating in my mind, churning my guts. It was no language I knew, but it was old. Something before writing, before language, some of the sounds were just that — sounds, like those of an animal. They lodged within my mind like thorns, burrowing deep, and I thought I was hallucinating for a moment, but I was not. Kristy’s eyes seemed to have been replaced with balls of fire, flame that throbbed with the cadence of her words, expanding and flowing outward into the tent wherein we stood.
I emptied my cup of water full in her face.
The flames died as she cried out, falling forward in a faint.
“You poor girl,” I murmured as I slipped her unconscious form into her sleeping bag. Her breathing was shallow, and my flashlight showed dark smudges beneath her eyes.
“You were lucky”, I said, though she could not hear me. “It let you go.”
I sat, pleased to already be fully dressed.
“You are not the one The Master wants.”
My mind was already filling with words I did not know, though their meaning was clear to me.
Come… come… come…
In the dark, I smiled.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
This month on Friday Frights the prompt is "Writer's Choice of Artist". There are several artists who have donated some of their work for this little project, and our job is to look at the available art, choose a work that speaks to us and write a story based on that inspiration.
Totenbuch is the tale that popped into my head when I saw the artwork to the left, a piece titled Burn by Sue Mydialk.
Artwork by Sue Mydialk