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The Black Library

We dragged ourselves onto the shore, struggling as the tide tried to suck us out into the the dark water. Up in the sky, the helicopters receded, becoming shuddering black specks in the powder blue dusk. Even though it was still half-bright out, the sky here was spangled with ten times as many stars as I had ever seen.

The island had no beach. Instead we plodded through ankle-deep mud and climbed sharp, slippery rocks, then scrambled onto grass. I knew how to get to the monastery from studying satellite imagery. We would have to spend some time hiking.

“Ready?” I asked. Lydia removed her boots and dumped out seawater.

“Uh huh,” she said. “Let’s go.”

We moved from the grassy shore to a game trail winding through the trees. The air smelled of salt and pine and soil.

It was only a few minutes before I felt the twinge in my ankle.

“Let’s stop to rest here for a minute,” I said, struggling to keep the strain from my voice. Lydia stopped and I sat down on a fallen tree. I gingerly removed my boot and my sock. My ankle was visibly swollen. I must have managed to twist it when we dropped three feet from the helicopter to the water.

“That’s perfect,” I muttered.

“It doesn’t look too bad,” Lydia said. “We don’t have to go much further, right? If it helps, you can lean on me.” I nodded.

“Yeah, thanks. Just give me a second.” I wanted to rest my ankle and to ground myself. We were technically in Italy, but this island was in the middle of the Mediterranean. No one had any idea we were here. My parents thought I was staying in Arlington, and Lydia was dead to the world. Our only tether to the outside was that aircraft hovering in international waters. I wore an earpiece that allowed those in the helicopter to communicate with me, but so far they hadn’t spoken.

“What’s on your mind?” Lydia asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Let’s go.” There was a rustling sound above us. The trees had smothered us in near silence as soon as we left the shore, so the sound made us both jump.

I glimpsed the outline of something shifting. White starlight reflected black and blue off of feathers. The bird looked dark and wet, like it had been dipped in oil. Its eyes glinted like polished glass. I looked to Lydia. Her eyes were fixed on my right hand, which had flown to my sidearm. I hastily removed it and heaved myself to my feet, wincing.

“I thought you said we were alone on this island,” Lydia said.

“We are,” I replied. “It’s abandoned. The Italian government keeps this place secret. We’re not even here, officially.” Lydia’s eyes were still fixed on my gun.

“Then why do you need that?” she asked.

“I won’t,” I said. “It’s just part of being a soldier.”

We walked on. I was only limping a little, but the swelling was getting worse. The game trail widened. If I had not known where to look, I probably would have thought we were just emerging into a clearing. But on closer examination, what looked like a pile of rocks was actually the foundation of the monastery. Rings of stone indicated where there had been towers. Piles of rubble betrayed where walls had collapsed.

After the monastery burned to ash, someone had salted all the land. Almost nothing could grow here, even now, except for weeds and clumps of grass. One tree stood at the center of the clearing, where the monastery’s courtyard had once been. But its branches were long dead and blackened.

I pressed a button in my earpiece, activating the receiver in my collar.

“Checkpoint one,” I said. “Over.” There was a pause and a buzz.

“Copy,” came the reply.

“The library was over here,” I said. “Come on.” Lydia stared off into the distance, not moving. I followed her gaze. Three black birds, identical to the one we had seen before, perched in the branches of the dead tree.

“That tree is old,” Lydia said. I nodded and cautiously placed my hand on her shoulder.

“We should move on,” I said. “The library is this way.” Absently, Lydia placed her hand over mine. She never looked away from the black birds.

“I don’t think we should,” she said. “I think you should call your friends and have them meet us back at the shore. I don’t think we’re welcome here.”

“Lydia,” I said. “Think about this. If we go back empty handed, you go back alone. Back to where they had you before. Nobody wants that. The faster we find the library, the faster we can go back to the helicopter and put this whole thing behind us.”

“Yeah,” she said. She pressed herself against me and I could feel her shudder. “Yeah, but fast O.K.? Fast as we can?” I nodded.

“Come on.” I dragged her over to the northwest corner of the monastery. A couple of the library’s walls were still partially visible, waist-height, worn and smooth from years of wind and rain. From my pack I produced a metal detector and a telescoping pole. I attached the metal detector to the end of the pole and began to scan. After a few minutes, beeped and buzzed. I tossed it aside and reached for my next tool, a collapsible shovel. The second I plunged the blade into the dirt, Lydia gasped.

I looked up to see her staring at the birds again. There were a dozen now, so many that the branches of the ancient tree strained beneath their weight. More arrived every second.

“Hurry,” she said again. I dug faster.

It only took a few minutes for me to hit the metal door. I finished clearing the soil, breaking a sweat and losing my breath. There was a primitive lock binding the door shut.

I tugged at the lock. It didn’t so much feel like it was engaged as it did that it had been fused shut into one solid piece by rust. I thought about shooting it off, but I didn’t want to find out how the birds reacted to the sudden crack of a gunshot. Instead I raised the collapsible shovel like an axe and swung downwards. The ancient lock shattered.

One of the birds made a sound like the caw of a crow mixed with Velcro being ripped apart. Without looking back I pulled the door open to reveal a stone staircase.

“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Lydia who was still fixated on the gathering birds. I pulled her after me and shut the door. I ignited my tactical flashlight. Its light revealed a staircase that went on so far that the beam couldn’t penetrate to the bottom.

We descended, the dirt walls narrowing around us. When the stairs finally bottomed out, we found ourselves at another metal door. The first door had been two iron slabs with a hinge and a handle. This one was ornate, every inch engraved with text and symbols, the handle a twisting serpent, fangs bared so that even after hundreds of years in the ground it looked dangerous to touch. I reached for the handle and Lydia caught my wrist.

“Don’t,” she said, her voice level. “This is my part.” I stood back and Lydia reached into her jacket, producing three plastic baggies and a stick of white chalk. She crouched down and drew three circles on the steps and emptied the contents of the baggies into their centers.

It was dark and I opted not to point the tactical flashlight directly at the substances. One looked wet. Lydia began to speak. I recognized the Aramaic. Lydia placed her hands over the circles and began chanting. After a few minutes, her head rolled back. Her fingers curled back too, and she twisted back and forth, her limbs splayed at angles that looked painful. I tried to keep the light aimed toward the ceiling, but I still caught a glimpse of her eyes as she threw her head back, chanting breathlessly. They were rolled back in their sockets, almost completely white, with red capillaries squiggling across their surfaces.

Her head snapped forward. My flashlight sputtered and died. I scrambled for the spare, strapped to my boot alongside a tactical knife, and flicked it on.

Lydia was on the ceiling, stuck to it like flypaper, her limbs and twisted up like she’d been in some kind of horrible accident, her eyes white orbs the color of spoiled milk, her mouth stretched into a rictus grin so wide that it tore apart her face.

“Hey,” Lydia said. I swung my flashlight down to the source of the sound, and there was Lydia, looking as she had a minute ago. Eyes with pupils. Limbs and joints working normally. I pointed the flashlight back up at the ceiling.

“There’s nobody there,” I said, my voice shaking.

“There’s nobody there,” Lydia repeated. “It’s just you and me.” I looked around Lydia, to the door. It was open, just slightly ajar, revealing a sliver of the inky blackness beyond. Lydia sat down on the steps, calm now.

“That’s all I’m here to do,” she said. “Go find what you’re here for. I’ll wait right here.”

“What?” I said. “No. No you should come with.” Above us there was a heavy thud and the scrape of claws and wings against the iron door.

“No,” Lydia said. “You want me here to make sure nothing comes down after you. Look, I don’t have time to get into it, but I have cleared your path. The best thing you can do now is just get what you came for and go.” I took a breath trying to clear my head and drew my sidearm with my free hand. Lydia frowned.

“That won't help you,” she said.

“Just stay here,” I muttered, nudging the door open with my boot. I pointed the beam of my light through the crack revealing, surprise, another dark stone hallway. I nudged it open further and began to shuffle through the doorway sideways, light first, following the beam with the barrel of my sidearm.

“Do you really believe they're going to let me go?” Lydia asked.

“What?” I said, pausing in the door. “We’ve been over this Lydia. Yes. They want to help.”

“***********,” she said. “You’ve slept in my bed. We’ve shared the same fucking blood.” I looked back down the hall. We were so close to being finished.

“I can’t do this right now,” I said. “I have to go. Just stay here, O.K.?” She folded her hands. I slipped through the door, down the hall.

I pressed the button on my earpiece.

“Checkpoint two,” I said, whispering for some reason. No response. We were too far underground.

The hallway opened up into a high ceilinged room that would have probably been a goldmine for any historian. There were shelves of ancient, rotten books, desks cluttered with arcane looking metal instruments, mortar and pestle still coated with powder, scrolls that looked like something out of the bible. It reminded me of those photos of Pompeii you see in your social studies textbook, a whole society frozen, leaving behind a plaster cast of an average day. Only instead of family dinners and afternoon hookups preserved in ash, this was a primitive laboratory, stored in stone and soil.

I approached the shelves along the wall and my stomach lurched. I was getting warmer. There were jars filled with yellow and greenish liquid that had organic-looking stuff suspended inside. One contained what looked like a length of intestine. One had what looked like a heart, but with a set of human teeth protruding from the arterial wall. It grinned at me in the dark. Half a dozen of the jars contained grey masses that could have been brains. Glancing around the room, I holstered my sidearm and reached out to examine one of the jars.

The second my fingertips brushed the glass, I felt an unbearable heat, all around me. I saw white fire, the library being consumed, purged from the surface of the earth, the screams of the men trapped inside being reduced to ash, simple elements. I tore my hand away.

“Fuck this,” I gasped, dropping the flashlight and shaking my hand to rid it of the residual burning sensation. “Fuck this shit. Fuck.” I reached down and grabbed the flashlight. For a second, its light was muted. In the darkness, I noticed a miniscule sliver of light between the bookshelf and the wall. It was barely there.

Gingerly, I pushed the ancient shelf to the side, revealing another passage. This one was even smaller, and the brickwork looked even more primitive, like it had been cut from mud or clay. I bent way over and shuffled forward, not quite crawling. The tunnel was only a few yards long. At the end was an earthen dome, criss crossed with cracks. Thin roots and tendrils snaked their way through the cracks and pressed against the glass jar at its center. In the jar was, without a doubt, a disembodied brain. The liquid inside had a dim glow.

I reached out to grab the jar and paused. I extended my index finger toward the glass jar and, ever so lightly, touched it.

There was an explosion of heat again, but I didn’t see fire. Instead I saw snowcapped mountains, from the sky. A syringe was jammed into my neck before someone slammed on the plunger, pumping me full of something that made me completely numb. Days and weeks passed in a white room. Time, and reality, were condensed into meals eaten through tubes, injections, a room with a frosted glass window that muddied the light of the sun. The syringe was in my neck again, and I wanted to tell them I did not need it, that I could scream myself to sleep. I was a brain in a jar, abandoned beneath the earth but hooked into a forgotten aspect of my own nature that allowed me to survive by taking on a lower form of life. The man removed the syringe and set me down gently on a soft floor. I laid still, limp as he walked to the door. Before leaving he looked back at me and said: “let the unclean crawl beneath the ground.”

I tore my hand away. Touching the glass was a bad idea, confirmed.

I dug around in my pack for my mylar blanket and wrapped it around both my arms. Then, using my forearms like giant pincers, I pressed them against both sides of the brain jar. There were no hallucinations, only an uncomfortable, crackling feeling running up and down both my wrists, terminating in a sharp prickling feeling in my armpits. In an awkward motion, I wrenched the jar to the side, ripping it free of the roots and tendrils. There was no room to turn around, so I scooted backwards through the tunnel with the brain in my pincers. Once I was back in the lab, I nestled it into my pack.

When I made it back to the staircase, Lydia was gone. In her place were three of the birds, each perched on one of the steps, looming like enormous black shadows. I barely had time to register how much trouble I was in before they swept down at me, screaming.

I drew my sidearm and blasted away. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was a crackshot. I fired three times. The sound of gunshots trapped in that narrow stone tunnel absolutely destroyed my eardrums, but even over the ring I could hear the meat-slapping sounds of the birds rolling down the staircase. I dashed past them.

Leading with my shoulder I crashed through the metal door, swinging my sidearm and my flashlight around, looking for Lydia.

I didn't have to look for long. Lydia stood with her palm pressed against the dark tree. Each of its branches swarmed with the birds. Dozens, maybe hundreds more swirled above in a spiral formation that expanded and retracted. The pulse of their combined wing-beats was like cold breath. I leveled the gun at Lydia.

“Time to go,” I said. “Come on.” She turned to me. Her pupils were so fully dilated that they blotted out the whites of her eyes.

“It happened during the fire,” she said. “When the fire came, she had her chance. She baptized her captors into new life. A life of servitude. And for generations they have served her, and plucked worms from the dirt.” Lydia extended her hand and one of the birds peeled off from the spiral, banking like a fighter pilot and making right for me. I drew a bead on it with my side arm and it exploded in a burst of blood and feathers.

“The only way they can go free,” she whispered, “is to die in her service. You have freed four souls tonight. Free one more.” Lydia took her hand off the tree and approached me.

“Don’t move!” I shouted. “Lydia, stay back!”

“Shoot me,” she said. “I am not going back to that room. Shoot me in the heart.”

“Lydia, you’re going free,” I hissed. “That’s the whole reason we’re here!”

“What world would have me free?” Lydia screamed. “Look at me.” She contorted her body again in that dance that bent her limbs the wrong way. The birds made her the center of their spiral, and the spiral took the shape of a cyclone. Lydia was surrounded by a screaming black vortex. She extended two her hands and two more birds peeled off, sailing right at me. I clipped one, blasting its wing off and sending it tumbling to the dirt, but I missed the other, and when I lined up my next shot, the gun clicked. Empty.

The bird hit me with what felt like the weight of a grown man. I felt its claws penetrate my eyelid and hot blood gushed across my face as I struggled to tear it off. It pressed its talon deeper and I felt it puncture my eye.

“You kill me,” she said, “or I kill you. And I take down those helicopters. And I fight everything else they throw at this island to the death, until they carpet bomb the place. Do it. There is no third option.”

What’s strange is, if Lydia hadn’t uttered the words “third option,” I probably never would have thought of using the thermite grenade I had discreetly pocketed before leaving Virginia.

And if I hadn’t thought of the thermite grenade in my pocket, I probably never would have thought of where I might, at that moment, throw it. And if I hadn’t thought of that, I probably never would have remembered that Lydia had killed her mother after she was caught spreading blood on a tree.

The fucking tree.

Defying my own instincts, I stopped struggling against the bird that was halfway through clawing out my eyeball. I reached for the thermite grenade, activated it, let it cook in my hand for the longest three seconds of my life. Then I heaved it over Lydia’s head at the big, dead tree. It landed with a plunk.

Lydia turned her head.

“What’s that?”

The grenade activated, spraying white thermite from both ends, lighting up the entire clearing like daylight. All the birds screamed and the one on top of me went haywire, thrashing in a panic, giving me chance to wrap my hands around its little neck and tear its head off. I rolled to my feet and looked for my sidearm but it was gone.

Lydia screamed and staggered over to the tree as its trunk was consumed by white fire. The black birds scattered in every direction. The tree’s uper branches began to burn orange, and within seconds it was fully engulfed. Dawn broke. The black birds disintegrated into the sky, like a fog burned away by sunrise. The tree’s branches snapped off. Its trunk collapsed. Its roots shriveled and turned black.

I felt my earpiece crackle to life.

“...hear me? Over?”

“Yeah,” I said, pressing my hand to my ear. “I’m here.”

Lydia fell to her knees. Her pupils shrank to their normal sizes. As the helicopters touched down amidst the smoldering ruins, I remembered the morning we spent up on her roof, sharing a joint, listening to the cicadas. It felt like a long time ago.

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