Rain splattered against the iron-laced window panes high overhead as Devon hurried through the library. Shadows stretched away from him down the hall, gathering in corners and towering over his head, getting caught in the gaudy chandeliers that watched over his flight from above. He held his single candle aloft, shielding the flame as best he could with his free hand and taking care not to move too quickly, lest it burn out and invite the shadows in to do their worst.
It was difficult. He needed to move. Needed to find it. To find her.
He reached the end of the carpeted hallway and entered the main chamber of the library. The open space was at once inviting and disturbing; the shelves seemed to lean in towards him, books threatening to rip themselves free of their confines. The ceiling here receded even higher, until it crested into a large dome, covered in gilded portraits and stained-glass panels. In the darkness, the faces on the dome were hidden. But Devon felt them watching.
His footsteps echoed through the cavernous space, and he shoved down the urge to run. The dream foretold this. The hollow rattle of his steps on the cold, tile floor rang in his head, the echo ricocheting off the walls in the same clattering rhythm he heard each night, in his sleep.
The dream. It was finally complete.
He quickened his pace, despite the risk of darkness. The dream showed him bathed in light, always, and so he knew he would be. The candle flickered, throwing warped shadows across the floor, figures draped in velvet robes of night that mirrored his every move and made a mockery of his pursuit. Yet still, the flame burned on.
He reached the other side of the library chamber and held the candle up higher, searching for the gleam of the brass doorknob that separated the librarians’ door from the rest of the mahogany paneling on the wall. The glint of metal caught his eye, and he practically dove for the knob and shoved his way through the door into the narrow corridor beyond.
He turned to the right, following the dream’s instructions down the hall to the stairwell. The images swirled in Devon’s mind. He saw himself, descending the stairs to the archive levels below, where the air hung thick with dust and well-hidden secrets. The book. The woman. His future penned on a page in a cramped, scrawling hand. Her face, eyes locked on his own, a hundred questions in her right eye, and each corresponding answer in her left.
The images that had been plaguing him for months, each night becoming clearer, lasting a few moments longer.
This night would bring the dream to fruition.
Devon scrambled down the corridor to the stairs, descending as fast as he dared, trapped in a balancing act between the burning need to push forward and the threatening sputter of the candle’s flame, the smooth glide of his slippered feet against the stone steps beneath. He passed one door, another, a third. None were the door he saw each night when he closed his eyes.
He reached the bottom of the staircase, his heart leaping into his throat and settling there to scream his pulse into his ears. This final door was exactly as it had been in the dream. Ancient, heavy, hinged with iron. Devon reached out, tried the handle. Unlocked. Just as he knew it would be.
The dream did not lie.
He threw his weight against the door, which he knew had not been opened for many years—the dream had told him so. Metal screamed as the hinges cracked open their jaws after remaining clenched shut for so long, gathering rust. Ever so slowly, the door gave way under the force of Devon’s body, the intensity of his desire.
He stumbled forward, and found himself in the room he knew held the book. Only six rows of shelves separated him from his prize. She was here too, he was sure of it. Her hands, he always saw her hands. Running her fingers along the book’s spine, taunting him with its contents.
The future. The world.
He stalked through the maze of dusty tomes and rotting wood, so intent on what lay before him that he didn’t notice the wax dripping down the length of the candle he still held in his hand. The tall wooden shelves gave way before him as he approached the end of his journey.
The back of the room jutted out to form a small alcove set into the wall, deep enough for a person to kneel inside of it, before the stone altar set within the recesses of the cavity. She stood within the alcove, the book held in her nimble hands. She looked up as he approached, and Devon was met with the same piercing stare that had woken him just hours ago. Eyes dark and regal, an unexplainable force behind her gaze.
The woman’s grip tightened on the book. Devon held out his candle, and the flickering aura of golden light he carried washed across the burgundy spine, the gilded lettering, the royal blue vines snaking across the cover. His breath caught. Here was the dream, the book, the revelation bound in leather and stained with ink.
The melting wax finally oozed out from where it pooled at the bottom of the metal candlestick, dripping onto Devon’s finger where it was hooked within the handle. He didn’t even flinch. His entire being, every sense, was ensnared by the mere presence of the woman whose hands haunted his dreams, and the treasure she carried within them.
“I should have known you would end up here eventually,” she said, her voice deep and full of the wisdom of those who have lived longer than anyone should.
“You know of me?” Devon’s question sounded hollow, lacking substance. “Then, you have the same dream?”
The woman grimaced, then shook her head. She stood up straighter, tucking the book under her arm and reaching for something leaning against the wall beside the alcove. “No, Devon. My kind doesn’t dream, for better or for worse.”
Devon’s eyes followed the book hungrily, even as the woman tucked it away. “How can that be?” he asked. “I’ve dreamed of… you. Of this night. Of that book. It’s been here, all this time, waiting for me. Waiting. The dream…”
He finally realized what it was that she had plucked from its resting place against the wall. A scythe. Blade sharp, glittering in the candlelight and throwing its own set of spindly shadows across the room, thin bars of darkness cutting through the candle’s dancing flame.
“I’m sorry, Devon,” the woman said. “This book has been luring people to their deaths for centuries. It’s my fault, really. I thought it would be safe here.”
Silence. Devon searched her face for some sign of a trick, a game, but found none. She did not break his gaze. “To their deaths?” he said, incredulous. “That book is meant to show me my future!”
The woman nodded gravely. “And it did.” She looked down to the floor, behind Devon. He whirled around, following her gaze, and let out a strangled yell. His voice broke, his mind split. The dream had not shown him this. He saw himself, lying on the floor, motionless, pinned beneath a fallen bookshelf.
“It was the candle wax,” the woman’s voice sounded from behind him, as sharp and metallic as the scythe she now held in her hands. “It’s the one thing that wasn’t in the dream. It startled you, and you fell back into the shelf. The book foretold it. But it chose not to show you.”
Devon stared down at his own lifeless form, his mind frozen in time and space. The body he had been in just moments ago was broken, spine fractured. He was dead. And yet, a part of him was alive enough to recognize his own death. He saw it now, felt it now. The book, the dream. The lie. It was all a lie, from the very beginning. The images in his mind shattered, the shards slicing into his skin.
He turned back to the woman, an icy chill seeping across every inch of his incorporeal form. “Who are you, then? If I really am dead.”
She gave a small smile. “You are, I’m afraid. I’m a Reaper, I would know.” “A Reaper,” Devon whispered.
She nodded. “You followed the book before. The dream. Now, you follow me.” She motioned with her scythe to a haphazard pile of books, fallen from the very shelf that had taken Devon’s life. The stack was just high enough that he could kneel before it and place his head atop the aged leather covers without overarching his back. He did so.
It felt right.
The Reaper approached, setting the traitorous book on the floor to Devon’s right. He turned his head to stare at the spine of the tome that had led him to his fate. His cheek scraped against the gritty leather volumes beneath him, histories that had remained hidden for hundreds of years. The Reaper hefted her scythe, silent and precise. She lifted it high above her head, the curved blade ringing as it scraped against the ceiling.
Devon could not make out the words written in gold foil across the spine of that treacherous book, amid the blue vines— deceit, painstakingly scripted and bound. The scythe whistled as it fell. In those last few moments, through the layers of stone and wood and stories told and untold, Devon could just barely hear the rain, still pounding against the dome of the library high above.
Maddox Emory Arnold
Maddox Emory Arnold (he/they) is a writer and translator based in Southeast Michigan, where he is also a full-time graduate student and Spanish teacher. His work has previously appeared in The Viridian Door and Cloudy Magazine. Most of his free time is spent thinking up story ideas, some of which eventually become something, while others are still pending. You can find him on Twitter @maddox_emory