The rain thunders down, an endless drum-roll, and the world holds its breath as it waits to find out what the big reveal will be. The occasional flash of lightning breaks the gloom inside the building, and every time it does the shadows are a little bit different. Free from the eyes of the world, the books sleep and dream.
Peace reigns in the library.
Something slams into the front door, rattling it in its frame. The library inhales, every bookshelf holding its breath as it waits to see what’s happening.
Another impact, but this time the window gives out. A hand sneaks in and fumbles for the door-handle, only to give up and finish clearing glass from the frame. A person – shrouded in shadows within their hoodie and hands covered in gloves – vaults inside.
“Come on, get the door open!” someone outside hisses at them. On a quiet night the noise would’ve carried all the way around the library, up to the balcony and down to the basement. The rain drowns the sound out, but the library still hears it.
“Just climb in,” the person inside says.
“With this leg? Oh, you arsehole.” There’s some more bickering outside, before two more people tumble their way in. They curse and mutter as they get themselves up and shake the worst of the rain off, while the first one in pulls a torch out and looks around.
The library lets its breath out between barred teeth. It doesn’t like its sleep disturbed, and it hates people who shake water about.
“Now what, Nick?” One of the late comers limps after the one with the torch. “The cops are still after us you know? Now ain’t the time to take up reading.”
Nick spins and flashes his light in the other’s face, making him shield his eyes. “Will you shut up, for once in your life? I know the cops are after us, but they ain’t gonna look here. They think we went down the other road–”
“You mean the one that would’ve gotten us out of here?” the guy by the door mutters.
“The one that would’ve led us right into their trap. There’s no way they’ll know we’ve come this way. We’re safe here.”
“For now at least,” the limping one mutters. “Ain’t gonna be much here to help my leg.”
“You should’ve looked where you were goin’ then, shouldn’t ya?”
“Hey, those spiked rails weren’t there when we did the recon.”
“I told you we should’ve done another check,” says the straggler.
“Will you two shut up?” Nick snaps. “They don’t know we’re here. We’ve got time to sort out a plan. And some stupid old place like this is bound to have a first aid kit. Now come on, before someone drives by and sees the light.”
The three criminals don’t even bother to creep as they head deeper into the darkness.
The library groans as it wakes itself from its dreams.
“Hey, Jimmy, check in there will ya? Looks like it’s a staff room or something, might have a first aid kit.” Nick points with the torch and the uninjured Jimmy nods and does as he’s told.
There are still windows here, so Jimmy uses the light of his phone to guide the way. Round the sofa, a flick through one of the magazines on the coffee table out of habit, and then over to the small kitchen area. Shadows creep and stretch behind him, fingers reaching out for the interloper – but they’re weak here. All they can manage is to brush the rain off his back, and he’s too busy poking his nose were it doesn’t belong to realise.
“Got ya,” he says when he spots the first aid box on the wall. There’s a small latch on the top to remove it, but he rips it off, tearing the plaster away and leaving an ugly grey scar in its place. The shadows hiss at him, but he’s already gone.
Nick and the other one are making themselves comfortable on a table that was – until a few moments ago – displaying an array of leaflets about local groups and activities. The fragments of community are now scattered like ashes across the floor, and neither of the men notice the shadows flicking across the tops of them like flames.
“Here you go, Dan,” Jimmy says as he chucks the first aid box at him.
“Git. You could at least patch me up?”
“Why? You were the idiot who got himself spiked.”
“Cos it’s the back of my leg, you spanner. How am I supposed to reach it?”
Nick spins back to the pair of them. “Knock it off you two! Jimmy, fix him up. Don’t worry about being gentle though.”
Nick keeps scanning the area while Jimmy digs out the bandages and Dan cusses. The shadows lap up their emotions, but the intruders are still in the foyer. There’s not much strength here.
A loud ringing clatter comes from the main room of the library, making all the men jump.
“What was that?” Jimmy asks.
Nick spins his torch round, his other hand going to the satchel at his side. The shadows sniff it out for weakness, and make a note of the vulnerability. “Don’t know. Sounded like something falling over.”
“Why though? Ain’t no one else here, is there?”
“At this time of night? It’s a miracle if there’s anyone here during the day. It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”
Though Nick goes back to checking the area, Jimmy and Dan share a look. The shadows under the table lap up their fear.
There’s another crash from the main room.
“Okay, seriously, Nick,” Dan says through gritted teeth. “There’s someone else in here. They could be calling the cops.”
“Bloody hell – will you just think about it? If there was someone else here they wouldn’t be making all that noise.”
“Well something’s making that noise, and don’t give me that tosh about stuff falling down.”
With an exasperated sigh Nick turns back to his partners in crime. “Fine. If you two have your knickers in such a twist, we’ll go and have a look. Happy now?”
Nick storms off into the main room, leaving Jimmy to help Dan stumble after him.
Get them closer.
The thin beam of torchlight doesn’t do much in the vast space. The end dances over bookcases or tables or walls, all with no warning before hand and no trace afterwards. Nothing exists outside the band of light.
“Bloody dark in here, ain’t it?” Jimmy says.
“It’s two a.m., what do you expect,” Nick replies. “And see? No one here.”
“How would you know? Seriously, why can’t we see anything else?”
Dan hops forward and fumbles for a table to lean against. “Will you calm down, Jim? It’s just a bad torch, nothing more. Besides, this is a library. It’s hardly going to be haunted or anything is it. Except with the souls of people who’ve died of boredom in here.” He laughs at his own joke, and it’s enough to bring a smile to Jimmy’s face. Nick is still frowning at the darkness though.
He can feel what’s out there. He can feel the shadows moving. He just doesn’t know it yet.
“God, tell me about it,” Jimmy says, still oblivious. “All those dull weekends as a kid, getting dragged here instead of being allowed out on the bike.”
“Urg, right? All that, ‘read to better yourself’ nonsense. It was all just a cover for my mum to pick up Mills and Boon books anyway.”
“Eww, dude. Too much information.”
“Would you two shut up?” Nick snaps.
“Why? Thought you said there wasn’t anyone else here.” Dan’s still rubbing his leg, and the blood stain on his jeans is growing. Most of the tremors in his body are from pain, but there’s a hint of fear there as well. Here in the main room, that slight hint can grow to so much more. The shadows under the table swell, and sweat trickles down his spine.
“There ain’t no one here.” The edge to Nick’s words don’t hide the fact that he’s shaking as well. “But…”
“… there’s something here.”
Nick looks as surprised at his words as the other two. All of them are tense now, their bodies moving constantly as they try to hold the panic in check. Try and fail.
“Here,” Jimmy says. “Where was the door? Where the hell’s it gone?!”
“Just calm down, will ya! It was right behind us, let’s just go and stay in the entrance way. We need to split the stash and then make our getaways anyway.” Nick starts by heading back to the other two, trying to hide the fact that he has no idea which way was ‘behind’ them.
“Split the stash? We splitting up as well?” Dan asks.
“Makes sense. We can move faster and draw less attention. Cops will be looking for three blokes–”
“You git, you’re leaving me as a scapegoat! You just wanna leave me behind to get caught, while you get away scot-free!”
“Will you keep your damn voice down! I ain’t your mother, you don’t wanna go to prison, don’t get caught. Now come on, let’s get out of here.”
Nick spins the torch round again but it’s no use. Everything else in the room has been swallowed by the shadows. The world has shrunk down to just the three men and one table. Eyes wide Nick pulls the satchel up to his chest.
Time to see if the contents are worth it.
The shadows overhead dip down and the men are filled with a sudden feeling of panic. There’s a faint rustle of pages.
‘The door creaked open, and a shadow filled the girl’s doorway. But it wasn’t the shadow of her father.’
The thieves jump, and Nick drops the satchel. It lands heavily with a faint tinkling sound.
“Careful!” Dan cries, far louder than he means to as terror grips his heart. “Careful with that. That’s our pay-check there.” A few jewels have slipped out the bag, but no one moves to gather them up. In fact all of them are shaking too badly to do much of anything.
Time for a change of pace. Another soft flick of a book, unheard over the thumping hearts.
‘Her lover smiled, and the world was filled with beauty and light. She smiled back and reached out her hands to him.’
Both Nick and Jimmy had been backing up against the table as well, and with this fresh flood of warmth they both sink down on it with a contented sigh. Then they blush, as all of them realise they reacted out loud.
“What the hell is going on?” Dan asks. “My head ain’t right.”
“Same,” Nick says. “We need to get out of here.”
“There’s gotta be a wall somewhere. Just pick a direction and we’ll walk that way.” Nick scoops up the loot and marches off into the darkness, and this time Dan doesn’t let his injured leg slow him down.
A soft flick of pages.
‘There was always someone on these streets tougher than you. And it was on nights like this that they showed their faces.’
The three men tense up again, but for Nick it’s too much. He leaps round, one arm raised to block the knife that isn’t coming for his back. They all narrow their eyes at each other, the solid certainty of betrayal lodged firmly in their chests.
A crack of thunder covers the sound of paper moving.
‘The goblins swarmed in from all sides. The day looked lost, until the sound of a horn echoed over the horizon.’
This time the men stand straighter. A smile on their face they all nod at each other, sharing the conviction that hope is coming. Then they realise where they are, and what their doing, and the smiles flee.
“What the hell is happening?” Dan asks, running a hand through his hair. “My head is all over the place. One minute happy, next sad.”
“Same,” Jimmy admits. “This place is freaking me out. Can we please get out of here?”
“Right,” Nick says. “Wait – do you hear that?”
Pages turn overhead.
‘The cold wires dug into his skin and hot blood rushed out of the wounds. But the wires brought life back into his still body, and the augmentations made his muscles buzz.’
Dan shudders and slumps over, clutching his leg that feels like it’s just been poked by some mad scientist. “What is going on!? Are we high?”
“I ain’t,” Jimmy says. “And I ain’t staying here either.” Moving his limbs as though they don’t quite belong to him he darts forward and shoves into Nick, snatching the torch as he does. Then he runs into the darkness, the tiny spot of light shrinking far too quickly.
“Wait! Jimmy, you idiot, get back here!”
“No! I’m done with this, I’m getting out.”
Poor Jimmy’s heart is fit to burst, a bubbling mess of emotions that he doesn’t normally let himself feel. He feels them tonight, and tonight the shadows feed.
There’s a pulse of darkness and the torch goes out. From somewhere there comes a tortured scream. Then the torch is back, rocking on the floor all by itself.
“J–Jimmy?” Dan hisses. No answer. Dan leans over and shoves Nick. “Go and get the torch.”
“Come on mate, we need it to get out of here.”
“Then you get it!”
“I can’t, my leg. You’ll be faster, go on.”
They need a little more.
Another soft crackle of pages.
‘He moaned softly in her ear. Her stomach flipped as she felt his fingers trace along the top of her skirt.’
Nick jumps back and stamps his feet. It’s harder to breathe now and he can feel his face going red, but he wants nothing more than to throw up. “Stop it, stop it, stop it!” he screams at the darkness.
The library smiles back, and flicks another book open.
‘Mr Smith was the dullest teacher ever. No doubt about it, he could make a bike race sound dull.’
The longing for old school days and the innocence of youth swell inside Nick and Dan, but Nick is the first to go. Trying to hold the crew together and organise everything was too much of a strain on him, especially when the other two were so useless.
The shadows pulse and engulf Nick. If they retreat again Dan can’t notice the difference. He doesn’t even bother calling out for Nick.
“What do you want?” he asks the darkness. “What are you doing?”
Dan freezes as he hears the flick of pages this time.
‘A mother lion will go to extraordinary lengths to protect her own cub. But she is less careful about other lioness’ cubs.’
Clutching his fists to his temples Dan fights down the maternal instincts that try to swamp him. Through some impressive deep breathing he gets himself under control again.
“Protect? You’re trying to protect yourself? Okay, okay. The library is protecting itself, whatever. All right then, I’ll just leave. Just let me find the door and I’ll go on my way. No problems, okay?”
The rustle of a book, and Dan groans.
‘The crime has been done, and no amount of money will make this right. The Carvers must pay for what they’ve done to my family.’
“But we haven’t done anything!” The anger implanted in Dan’s head gives him more fight, though it fades just as quickly. “Please. Please, I just want to leave.” Tears stream down his face and his whole body is shaking. He’s almost ready as well. Just one more, to finish him off.
The pages rustle and Dan closes his eyes in submission.
‘The figure in the graveyard turned to face him. The large dome of a head flopped back, and stared at him with dead, empty eye sockets.’
Dan keeps his eyes closed as the shadows sink over him, eating up all of his emotions.
With a contented sigh the shadows retreat back to their normal haunts. Bit by bit the vivid orange glow from the street lights seeps back into the room, glinting off the broken torch on the floor and the bag of scattered jewellery. There’s a few smudges of blood about the place, and the leaflets are still all over the floor, the first aid box open and forgotten in their stead.
Outside the rain is starting to ease, splashing through the broken front window every now and then. The library chews over its new emotions and settles itself back to sleep. There’s the occasional creak as the books calm down again and drift back off into their dreams.
Peace reigns in the library.