The Study at the Redwood Athenaeum

Submitted into Contest #223 in response to: Start your story with a student discovering a hidden room in a university library.... view prompt


Mystery Fantasy Thriller

It was a crisp winter’s day in Rhode Island. A perfect New England day, with red maples dressed in gold, plum, and scarlet, their leaves rustling outside the windows like fresh-faced young girls dressed up for a church meeting. Warm light flooded into the cold and dusty reading rooms of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum where Jessie was pouring over an old first-edition volume by P.S. Blackwood.

The book, titled “The Trial of Ares,” spoke of nightmarish creatures with seeming immortality, hidden from man in shadowy and remote corners of the globe. It told of artifacts imbued with unnatural power, humanity's only aids to contain and banish these preternatural forces that threatened devastation if angered.

Jessie needed to come up with an original thesis idea that would be well-received by the academic community if he ever wanted to secure an associate professor position and begin his teaching career. If Jessie wanted to live out his dream of remaining in academia and avoid trading hours for dollars like all of his peers, he had precious little time. It is difficult to come up with something original that is also significant enough to be considered scholarship.

Dust motes danced in the shafts of light, exacerbating Jessie's asthma. As a bout of coughing overtook him, he grew concerned about disturbing the tranquility of the study space. He exited the reading room, stumbling into a long, dim corridor. With his inhaler retrieved from his backpack, he continued on, cough subsiding.

At the corridor's end, Jessie encountered a display reminiscent of ancient Greece, complete with column-shaped pedestals supporting urns, vases, and busts from various eras of antiquity. As he navigated this chamber, the artifacts guided him to a narrowing point before a grand entrance. It was a formidable iron-banded oak door, its panels etched with intricate carvings that teased the imagination, their meaning shrouded in the scant light.

Jessie’s fingers traced the cool metal latch, and to his surprise, the door creaked open. Before him lay stairs plunging into darkness. Compelled by an insatiable curiosity, he descended, his iPhone's flashlight casting a feeble glow against the oppressive dark.

The stairs wound down in sharp zigzags, each turn obscuring the path ahead and behind. At the base, Jessie found himself in an expansive, desolate chamber. Another door, distant and unassuming, stood at the room's far end. Jessie hastened across the cold stone floor, his heart racing as he considered what foul things were crunching underfoot in the darkness.

The door opened to a sprawling study, its simplicity striking against the complexity of the path that led there. A plain oak desk held a manuscript, candles, and an out-of-place lighter nestled in a tin tray.

Jessie lit the candles, their flickering light casting shadows that danced along the walls and across the vellum parchment of the pages laid out on the desk. The manuscript, an unfinished work by P.S. Blackwood, detailed a creature known as the Devroop, a shadow-being speckled with amber flecks of light. Its inky presence drew in light and was said to pull out even the lights that are hidden away within the human heart, driving men to madness and desolation.

A chill ran down Jessie’s spine. The Devroop was somehow familiar. It brought to mind something that Jessie had just been reading about to prepare for his thesis defense for his M.A. in Literature. How was it that this creature from the depths of Blackwood's imagination appeared here in a forgotten chapter, in a secret room beneath the Athenaeum? And how was it that the Devroop also seemed eerily familiar?

Jessie read on, shocked at how these could be the final words and the culmination of P.S. Blackwood’s literary career:

True places are not drawn on any map. And the ancient ones, being not of this world, seek true places. Barbarous coasts. Death-taking alpine summits. Crushing sea-bottoms. And stranger things than these, undiscovered by men. Those far reaches, though inhospitable to man, ring with a divine grandeur fitting to these beings. Beings whose origins and purposes are too terrible to be fully understood in our feeble imaginations.

From the little we do know, the Devroop is an ancient being or race of beings, which love mountain towns and sleepy coastal villages by seaports. The Devroop appears to be searching for traces of death on the palls of funeral coverings and the faces of mourners. The reason for this fascination with the death ritual is unknown. But there is something of great value that they treasure which is connected to grief and mourning.

An artifact is hidden high in the mountains which can deter the Devroop from driving a member of the recently departed’s household mad. It is called the Kadupul Plant or the Flower of the Moon, which blooms for two hours on full moon days early in the fall. The yellow and orange rays of this night-blooming plant are seemingly poisonous to the Devroop and are known to repel its presence.

A sheaf of papers from a Composite notebook was piled to the right side of the table. The notes were written in another hand and were obviously more recent. At least within the last thirty or forty years.

Jessie put the sheaf of papers in his pack and hustled back, already late for his lecture. Climbing back into the corridors of Athenaeum, out of the dark pit, and then out into the full light of the autumn day, Jessie felt like he was gradually waking from a dream.

* * *

November 18, 1973:

I am in the third month of my study of the contents of P.S. Blackwood’s chamber below the Athenaeum.

There are five recurring mythological creatures that I have discovered in these writings: first, the Zhalara (a flying parasite that can latch on to the host’s mind and fill it with voices and whispers—a creature dwelling on thoughts and rumors); second, the Golmoth (an anthropomorphic magnetic field that can incarnate into stone or control technology—a creature drawn to built things); third, Thesna (a creature with the countenance of molten alloy that is concerned with mining and metallurgy, which seeks veins of buried treasure—a creature that hovers around production and industrial pursuits); fourth, the Devroop (a shadow being obsessed with the newly dead); and fifth, the Silentium (the personification of the space between breaths, a being that looks like a thin, bald child, and which grows to fill the volume of the space it inhabits with its aura—a creature interested in absences).

What has me troubled is that I have found evidence of some of these creatures in the lore of aboriginal cultures or as features of storied gods and demigods. Only P.S. Blackwood named these creatures and detailed them with great particularity, as if they had been encountered and observed. But why?

As part of my study, I have begun a catalog of abilities. The ability to instill dread. To make suggestions or haunt with voices. The power to control or assist with building projects. The ability to find precious metals and spur the production of products. Occluding space and time and clearing away space for things yet to come. I have been searching for a pattern. I continue the search. And, indeed, I have my speculations, but I will not fill these pages with wild conjecture.

Nonetheless, idle slips of the tongue about these ideas have happened. And this is how I discovered the Order of the Artifact. Still, I am scared to write too much about them, even here in this secret volume which I keep in a secret chamber below the depths of the earth. What if someone finds these writings? What if they choose to silence me?

--Leonard Shaw

* * *

As Jessie read Leonard Shaw’s letters, under the light of the setting New England sun, by the window of his country home, it became clear that Leonard had stumbled on something that powerful people wanted to keep hidden. P.S. Blackwood’s unpublished writings, although they seemed to be pure fantasy, hid a dangerous truth.

Jessie started searching the microfiche for old newspaper articles and learned that Leonard Shaw had been studying for his M.A. in Literature, just as he was. Leonard Shaw had suddenly gone missing in 1973, shortly after writing the journals. The mystery was never solved.

What was the Order of the Artifact? Why were these fantasies so important?

* * *

Jessie's return to McAuley Hall was overshadowed by an unnerving sensation—he couldn't shake the feeling of unseen eyes tracking his every step. Glancing behind him, he caught sight of a figure in a puff jacket adorned with a Mets cap, maintaining a discreet distance. Each time Jessie paused, the figure did as well, always remaining a half-block away, stirring a cocktail of paranoia and curiosity within him. 'Could he know about my discovery?' he pondered, the thought sending a chill deeper than the autumn air.

Upon reaching the English Department, Jessie inquired about Dr. Bearer with Lydia, the secretary. Her report of the professor's sudden illness was puzzling—Dr. Bearer was the epitome of vitality, his presence as steadfast as the old oaks outside.

At that moment, Professor Harold Waddington appeared, his gait as deliberate as his inquiry. “Jessie, how are you?” he asked, his voice carrying an undercurrent of urgency.

“Holding up, thank you,” Jessie replied, though his mind was far from at ease.

“Join me for a bite at McKillop Café, will you? There’s a matter concerning your thesis I wish to discuss,” Waddington proposed, beckoning with a motion that left no room for decline.

As they departed, Jessie cast a surreptitious glance over his shoulder. The man with the Mets cap had vanished, leaving only the rustle of colorful leaves in his wake.

Seated at McKillop Café, where white tablecloths teased formality, Jessie studied Waddington. The professor’s visage was an open book of a life immersed in academia—his eyes were intense, rimmed with the fatigue of knowledge, and his white beard and hair stood as untamed testament to his intellectual fervor.

Without a preamble, Waddington dove in. “What business had you in the Athenaeum's basement earlier?” he pressed, his eyes narrowing.

Jessie fumbled for words. “I—well, it was happenstance, a moment of curiosity gone awry.”

Waddington’s hand struck the table with a force that drew stares. His face bloomed with anger. “No more games. Answer me.”

Jessie’s defenses crumbled under Waddington’s gaze. “An asthma attack led me there. Respect for my peers—nothing more,” he confessed, his voice a mere whisper.

Waddington leaned in, the intensity in his eyes softening. “This lapel pin,” he began, revealing a small, intricate symbol, “is a Tyet, the knot of Isis. To her followers, it was a beacon of protection from her own magic, a safeguard from their benefactor's whims. These were treasured, scarce—signifiers of allegiance.”

Jessie’s interest was piqued, though confusion lingered. “And this relates to me…how?”

“You’re one of us now, by chance or fate,” Waddington declared, presenting the pin. “The Order of the Artifact recognizes you. Wear this for sanctuary—or peril will find you.”

Reluctantly, Jessie affixed the Tyet to his lapel. “I’ll entertain this...for the moment. But it’s only been a day and the whole world seems to have turned upside down,” he said, caution overshadowed by the intrigue of the moment.

Waddington’s eyes held his. “Answers will come. But we face immediate concerns. Your thesis defense is paramount—only professors may claim membership in the Order. There's an anomaly; we're securing the artifact, though it eludes our full understanding. Lastly, you need a partner for the Faculty Ball. As my assistant, prepare to delve into Dostoevsky, in-depth. He too was a member of the Order,” he revealed, a wry smile momentarily easing his stern features.

Jessie’s response was dry. “Is that all?”

“There remains the formality of Professor Reddington's blessing,” Waddington continued, unphased.

“And when might this audience occur?” Jessie inquired, a mix of sarcasm and genuine curiosity in his tone.

“Tonight, at eight. Prepare yourself. Mr. Blackwell's study is but a prologue to this evening’s revelations. I’ll send for you,” Waddington promised, standing to leave a bewildered Jessie to ponder the enigma of his new reality.

* * *

The haunting New England night glowed with a big-bellied full moon, the shadows of fulsome trees, and the glitter of quaint streetlamps.

The driver was the man in the Mets cap from earlier. He had picked Jessie up in a Black Land Rover Ranger, making Jessie feel underdressed. Perhaps, he should be wearing a tuxedo.

“Can you tell me what tonight’s meet is about,” Jessie asked.

The driver remained silent. They drove along the winding seaside roads, turning onto Bellevue Avenue and up to the Marble House Mansion in Newport.

A man in a tuxedo accompanied Jessie into the Grand Salon reception room with green silk cut velvet upholstery and draperies, walls of carved wood, with gold gilt panels depicting classical mythology from famous displays in the Louvre.

Reddington sat by a window, looking out past the Chinese Tea House, across the ocean.

“Your guest has arrived sir,” a servant announced.

Professor Reddington stood up, not wearing the usual pedestrian suit I was used to. Instead, he wore a formal black tuxedo. His blonde hair had turned white, like the marble in the entryway. His eyes were warm and full of electricity.

“You live here?” Jessie asked.

“It is not a home, Jessie, but a command center,” Reddington said.

“Command center for what?” Jessie asked, incredulously.

“I hear you wish to join the Order,” Reddington said.

“I don’t even know what it is.”

“That’s the catch-22 of the thing. If you join, there’s a blood oath and a life pledge of secrecy, and all of that. If you know too much and you don’t join, then it can be fatal. So, I have to be careful what I reveal.”

“I see,” Jessie said.

“Let’s just say that I once stood exactly where you are now. I once had all the same questions you are struggling with. All the same choices before me.”

“And what, you traded your interest in the truth for the lust of money?”

“Far from it. Now, I can’t promise you that if I had it to do again, I would make the same choices. But I can promise you wonders and adventures much greater than anything you’ve ever imagined if you pursue this path.”

“Are P.S. Blackwell’s creatures real or just academic fascination? And why is the faculty of a small New England College all tied up with a secret society.”

“The Order of the Artifact is an organization with a sacred duty. A duty to defend and appease the incomprehensible. To contend with the ancient of days.”

“And that required murdering Leonard Shaw, did it?”

“Is that what you think happened?”

“What else would I think.”

“Come with me,” Reddington commanded, and began walking with heavy steps to the underground corridors below the Marble Mansion.

Back into the cold dungeons of underground places. Back into the musty air of subterranean worlds. Jessie’s heart was pounding in his chest and a trickle of sweat beaded on his forehead. Reddington was deliberate and assured and led a double life. Why, Jessie thought, why am I following this man into the depths of hell?

There was a long ballroom adorned in gold and jewels, with parquet flooring with interlocking panels. There were sconces on the walls to hold torches. Redwood and Jessie came to a door identical to the one at P.S. Blackwell’s study. Reddington produced a key and opened the door, which creaked open to reveal a gallery room, with chairs for observing different exhibits displayed on the walls.

“Where is Leonard Shaw?” Jessie asked.

“It is not a simple answer,” Reddington said, with a forceful voice, then continued, “And the answer will surprise you.”

“Surprising that a cabal of rotten professors murdered one of their students?”

“You will see soon enough. But I cannot reveal the truth unless you join. I grant your skepticism but cannot risk letting our secrets out to the public.”

“Convenient. You would make me a co-conspirator before telling me what crimes I’d be accountable for.”

“Ha. You will be a fine addition. You see these paintings? These are Blackwell’s dreams. You see this one here—the Devroop. The Grim Reaper, himself. Anubis. The thing is that this painting was made before Blackwell’s great, great, great grandfather was born. So how could this be a figment of his imagination, then? Can you explain it?”

“I cannot.”

“Then you must join us.”

Baroque classical music played in the ballroom. Cloaked figures appeared with torches, joining in a rhythmic chant. “Come son, let us do the blood oath, and the rest of the ceremony, and then you will have your answers.”

“Alright, Redwood. You’ve got me.”

“Good. Then you can call me by my given name from now on. Leonard Shaw.”

* * *

The autumn light shone brightly on McAuley Hall, and Jessie’s fears about the Order had been replaced by a new kind of dread.

Dr. Bearer waited for Jessie in his office.

“So, what is the subject of your thesis, Jessie?”

“I’ve decided to focus on the idea that Dostoevsky’s works, both “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Demons” depict a kind of evil spirit that corrupts the human heart, the incarnation of a cosmic evil that covers its tracks all too well.”

“Interesting premise. I trust you’ve consulted original source material?”

“More than you know, Professor. More than you know.”

November 05, 2023 04:32

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Edd Baker
23:10 Nov 14, 2023

I really enjoyed this, great read. Descriptive, illustrative lines that painted a vivid picture, fast paced and increasingly intriguing with each new paragraph. The concepts and plot, along with the journal entries, reminded me of short stories by Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and a few other of the weird fiction greats.


Jonathan Page
23:12 Nov 14, 2023

Thanks, Edd!


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