CHAPTER TWO - FOLLOWING FOOTSTEPS
“I think we’re being followed,” Julian muttered as they jogged up the smooth marble steps of the library.
“No one knows we decoded the journals today, Julian. Why would someone suddenly be following us to the library of all places? Wouldn’t they just think we’re here to do research?” Christian made a move to turn around to study their surroundings, but Julian caught his arm.
“Don’t turn around!” Julian hissed. “They’ll see you.”
Christian’s eyebrows rose up as did the hair on the back of his neck. Now that his best friend had mentioned it, he did feel eyes on them. It was reminiscent of the feeling he’d had when they were in Mumbai when a gang of street thugs had believed he and Julian were easy marks.
His right hand went to his video recorder. That was the most precious object he had on him. But his forehead furrowed. His objection to being followed still stood. No one knew that they had discovered the alleged location to the vampire city so why would someone be tracking them on this night of all nights?
Unless they hacked our server, but how likely is that? Even our most rabid fans wouldn’t go to that extent. And we’ve never publicly talked about vampires until tonight so it couldn’t be them. It couldn’t be vampires anyway since they aren’t real! He added that last part automatically.
He respected Julian. He respected Julian’s parents, but he was having a lot of difficulty believing in blood drinking immortals that could pass between universes. If not for reading the Harrows’ hidden journals, he would never have thought such a thing possible outside of fiction. He still didn’t believe it was possible.
From what the Harrows had written, they had started on this track of inquiry because of a fan they’d met in Budapest. This fan had a former girlfriend, a doctor, who was something called an Acolyte of a Vampire House. Acolytes were humans who had been given tastes of a vampire’s blood that granted benefits like increased strength, speed, mental acuity, and extended youthfulness for as long as the blood drinking continued.
Acolytes were people the vampires had determined would be useful to have access to in this universe. Doctors, lawyers, politicians, business owners and the like were often chosen for these positions. Some were turned into vampires, but many were not, because they lost their usefulness once they were turned. Just like in the legends, vampires could not walk in daylight, which made certain occupations difficult at best.
This fan told the Harrows that her former girlfriend had wanted desperately to be a vampire, but the House had decided not to turn her and had cut off from her sips of vampire blood. This had reduced the woman to a homeless wreck. She was like a junkie that could never get a fix.
The fan was desperate to help her former lover and hoped the Harrows might assist her. Maybe in some of their adventures they had run across the vampires or other Acolytes that had successfully kicked the blood addiction.
The Harrows had agreed to try and help, but after one poignant encounter with the former Acolyte, in which she had mostly raged about the fan’s betrayal of secrets, the former Acolyte had been found dead, apparently of suicide, in the Danube. But the Harrows didn’t believe in coincidences like this any more than Julian did. She had talked to them about vampires and now she was dead.
They tracked down other Acolytes, both ones that had been cut loose and others that were still in active service. From them, they’d learned all about the vampires and the alternate universe. They’d even gotten a vampire religious text–one of the things missing from Wingate after their deaths–which had led them to the cavern below the library and the abandoned vampire city.
Christian wondered at the vampires’ security if these Acolytes would just reveal their deepest secrets and hand over sacred texts, but then again, the Harrows weren’t just anyone and not all the Acolytes were happy to be in service. Some were simply trapped. Their lives were no longer their own. Some saw themselves as slaves.
From their reflections in the journals, it was clear that the Harrows were fascinated with what they were discovering, but they were also just as determined to free these unwilling Acolytes by bringing the vampire's existence to the world.
Christian wondered, even if everything that the Harrows and Julian believed was real about vampires, if revealing that truth would actually accomplish the good that they thought it would. Or would it trigger the vampires to preemptively strike at humanity? With the supposed powers they had and the Acolytes they’d gathered, wouldn’t the more likely outcome be that the information was suppressed, at best, or, at worst, the vampires rising up and taking their place as rulers of Earth?
Since he didn’t think it was likely that the Harrows were lying in their journals, and it seemed hugely unlikely that every person they met was lying, too, Christian thought that there might be some kind of underground religion. Drugs could easily be administered to people without their knowledge. That could cause the addiction and dependence that these Acolytes felt. It could all be explained away.
But he still had the prickling feeling on the back of his neck. Despite what his logical brain was telling him about vampires not existing and, even if they did, no one knew what Julian and his plans were that night, the sense that something wasn’t right remained. He didn’t attribute this feeling to a sixth sense or precognition or anything paranormal. The human brain took in far more information than was consciously processed. His subconscious was letting him know that he’d observed something off. He just didn’t know what it was.
He lowered his head and gave a quick scan of the line of cars along the curb outside of the library. He thought he caught sight of a shadow passing between two of them, but when he focused in on it, there was nothing there. Yet he couldn’t be sure that nothing had been there.
It was full dark out and the streetlights were dim. The streetlamps were meant to look like old-fashioned gas lamps with the uncertain, flickering light of gas as well. They were pretty to look at, but didn’t do a very good job at lighting up the place. Still, their town was hardly a haven for criminals so adequate lighting wasn’t a concern. One was more likely to bump into a professor from the local university walking her dog than a thug. His own parents were professors there.
He glanced up at Julian. His best friend’s eyes were scanning the pockets of darkness. A frown was on his handsome face. Julian’s thumbs were hooked behind the straps of his backpack as if ready to slip it off and take off after someone at a moment’s notice. But then Julian’s shoulders relaxed slightly and he shook his head.
“I could have sworn that someone was behind us, but there’s no one,” Julian said.
“I thought I saw someone myself after you mentioned it,” Christian kept his voice low. “Maybe you weren’t imagining things. Maybe they’re just very good at hiding.”
The night seemed terribly quiet then. There was not even the churr of night insects or the rustle of tree limbs in the cool October breeze. They stood there, still and listening, for a few more minutes.
“Let’s go in. I don’t think we’ll see anything more and the library closes in an hour,” Julian said and turned towards the doors.
“So we only have an hour to find the vampire city and get out?” Christian frowned.
“Of course not, but I figured an hour would give poor Mrs. McArdle time to forget we came in before the old dear locks up for the night.” Julian flashed him one of his trademarked smiles that had their fans squealing in delight and fantasizing about him being their boyfriend.
Mrs. McArdle had been old when they were kids. She’d been old when his parents had moved to town. And she was still old and still running the library seven days a week, rain or shine, in sickness or in health.
Maybe she’s a vampire. Sweet, old librarian equals cleverest vampire disguise yet!
But he’d seen Mrs. McArdle in daylight and he doubted that even the vampires would consider an elderly librarian a worthy Acolyte.
But then again, she is working on top of an entrance to one of their cities…
Christian shook himself internally. Was he really thinking that their librarian was an Acolyte who had ratted out the Harrows to her Masters who then killed them? No, he could not believe it. Yet as he passed inside the library, the prickling on the back of his neck was back. He didn’t turn around, but made sure the heavy bronze door to the library closed firmly behind him.
The smell of yellowing paper and lavender perfume engulfed Christian. It was a smell he loved. It was the scent of old books and the elderly librarian who had been their guardian for who knew how long.
The heavy bronze front doors of the library opened into a circular rotunda. The library was three stories tall and the rotunda was overlooked by every floor. The gold-painted dome ceiling glowed softly in the library’s welcoming yellow lights. In the center of the rotunda sat Mrs. McArdle in a desk as round as the room.
Despite being a fixture at the library forever, Mrs. McArdle–no one knew if there was a mister, and no one was brave enough to ask–was not one to remain in the past. That wasn’t exactly true. She believed if something was not broken that it was better not to fix it, but she’d embraced technology like a person brought up with it.
She had gotten grants and donations in order to have top of the line computers installed at the library for the patrons use. She had immediately subscribed to the digital world of books and patrons were able to borrow electronically as easily as they could borrow physical books.
She brought in experts to give talks on every subject under the sun, which had patrons coming to the library eagerly. There were three book groups that met at the library on different nights of the week. A wine aficionados club had wine and cheese parties at least once a month in the second floor reading room.
She made sure that people who needed help to find jobs not only got access to the library’s computers and printers, but also had hiring firms on call who gave free classes on resumes and cover letters, not to mention looking at patrons’ skills to see if they had any work for them.
Christian’s parents believed the woman to be a saint and though Christian knew that every person was flawed in some way, he had to agree with his parents that Mrs. McArdle had brought more light than dark into the world. Where in other towns, libraries were dying, theirs was vibrant. Even though it was past nine o’clock on a Thursday, there were plenty of patrons in the library. Maybe he and Julian would be able to slip past Mrs. McArdle and she wouldn’t notice.
“Julian! Christian! It’s so good to see you!” the library called out.
Mrs. McArdle turned away from the blue glow of her computer’s large flat screen monitor to gaze benevolently at them over half moon glasses. She had short white hair, like a wiry bristle brush, hazel eyes and a bird-like face.
“Mrs. McArdle,” Julian said smoothly, as if he hadn’t hoped the same thing that Christian had, which was to stay out of her radar. He walked over to the round desk with Christian tagging behind him. “Hey, keeping busy, I see.”
“Always.” She tipped her head towards Christian’s video camera. “You aren’t here to do a special on ghosts in the library for your website, are you?”
“Depends.” Julian grinned and leaned on top of the desk on his forearms. He dropped his voice conspiratorially as he asked, “Are there any ghosts in the library?”
She leaned forward with a twinkle in her hazel eyes. “Depends on if you count the ghostly fines.”
Julian laughed. “I think our viewers might be interested in that.”
“Mrs. McArdle, I didn’t know you watched our series,” Christian said, a slight tingle of unease running through him.
“I don’t miss an episode! You’re two hometown boys who have done extremely well,” she responded proudly. “I watched your parents’ show, Julian, and I can tell you that they would be just thrilled with what you and Christian are doing.”
Julian ducked his head and smiled shyly, thanking the librarian for her kind words. Though he doubted Mrs. McArdle saw it, Christian noticed the slight tenseness that went through Julian at any mention of his parents. Their deaths were still an open wound despite the long years that had passed. That wound had only gaped larger since they had found the journals.
Julian’s unformed feelings of something being wrong had become certainties regarding his parents’ death and he had begun to obsess. Christian ached for him. Getting Julian some kind of closure–even if it wasn’t the unmasking of paranormal entities–had become Christian’s goal in life. Now that the moment was nearly upon him though, he wondered if he shouldn’t have discouraged Julian from this course. It would just lead to unhappiness when they didn’t find any city of pale stone.
“So is there anything that the library can do for you?” Mrs. McArdle folded her hands primly in front of her, looking alert and eager to help.
“Oh, no, we’re just going to pull out some of the reference books on Tibet,” Julian lied, though the reference section was near the basement door.
A man was approaching, arms laden with books, while a little girl marched beside him, telling her father that they had to read at least half the books that night before she went to bed. Christian smiled. He had always loved books himself and it was a great dad that would allow his little girl to stay up late reading them.
“We won’t keep you, Mrs. McArdle,” Christian said, tilting his head towards the father and daughter team.
She smiled warmly. “I can’t wait to see the next episode, boys!”
They smiled and nodded back at her before heading towards the reference section.
“You do realize that when we post the video about the vampire city being under the library that she’ll be the first one down there to check it out?” Christian asked under his breath.
“I know she will. That’s what I’m hoping for. The more people who know the better,” Julian answered and hastened his pace.
The door to the basement was made of heavy, dark wood and had a cherry red fire extinguisher beside it. It hardly looked like the portal to a vampire city. It was locked however. Not that this was any deterrent to them. Picking locks was just one of the tricks they’d learned as they’d traveled the world.
Christian stood guard, blocking people’s view of Julian as his best friend got down on one knee and used his lockpicks to open the ancient door. The reference section was, thankfully, mostly empty except for a teenage girl and boy who were more interested in looking deeply into each other’s eyes than at the books–lying open and untouched–on the table between them. The boy had given Christian and Julian the stink eye as soon as they’d come into the reference section. Clearly, he and the girl had been hoping for some alone-time in the quiet nook. Christian was just glad that they were ignoring him and Julian now.
“Got it?” Christian asked out of the corner of his mouth.
The door was situated in such a way that if someone rounded the first row of stacks, they would see him and Julian. Christian shifted from foot to foot as Julian lifted tumblers.
“Almost there. Hold on… ah! Got it!” Julian let out a soft sound of success and rose up to a standing position.
“Was that lock more complicated than you expected?” Christian asked as he turned around to face the door and his best friend.
Julian had his hand on the doorknob that was polished brightly from countless hands turning it. “Tumblers were a little stiff to be honest. I just hope that Mrs. McArdle didn’t invest in any fancy security system beyond this point.”
“We can only hope. Come on. Let’s go.” Christian gestured for Julian to open the door. For once, his best friend was hesitating and Christian saw the mixture of hope and fear in Julian’s blue eyes. He put a hand on his arm. “It will be all right.”
But did he mean that it would be “all right” if nothing was below them to be discovered or if there was?
Julian though just nodded and turned the doorknob. The door to the basement opened with a soft creak. Cold, water damp air raced out at them. Ahead of them was the start of a staircase leading down into the unknown.
They didn’t bother to look for a lightswitch. They just both turned on the clip-on flashlights that were attached to the straps of their backpacks. These gave out powerful beams. A simple staircase led down to a landing and Christian caught sight of another flight heading further into darkness. Without a word to one another, they stepped inside and closed the door.
Somewhere below them was the entrance to the Ever Dark and the city of pale stone. If Julian was right. Did he want for Julian to be right? There was no answer in his mind. But he forged ahead anyway.
There’s no going back now.
Their footsteps on the stairs were just soft taps. Despite his belief that they would find nothing–or something far more explainable than a vampire city–in the cavern below, Christian found that his heart was thudding heavily in his chest and his breathing was elevated. The bright, metallic taste of adrenaline filled his mouth.
At the bottom of the first set of stairs, Julian pulled out his mother’s journal, flipping to a marked page which he read carefully. Christian looked ahead of them and saw what appeared to be a maze of corridors snaking off in all directions from this main corridor.
“Okay, I know where we’re going. Three rights and one left and we’ll get to the old door to the cavern,” Julian said as he smartly closed the journal and slid it back into his cargo pants’ pocket.
“Lead the way, MacDuff.”
Julian flashed that grin again though it had a nervous edge to it this time.
The two of them practically flew down the corridors until they stopped in front of an aged metal door. The door was cold to the touch and Christian removed his fingers from its surface like it had bitten him. He wiped them against his shirt while Julian kneeled down to do some more picking. Julian muttered under his breath as he worked, which helped dispel some of the oppressive silence of the basement.
Christian kept thinking that he heard stray footfalls behind them. The darkness pressed in on them from every side. Yet it shouldn’t have bothered him as much as it did. He was used to being in blackness with only their flashlights. He took comfort in the fact that he had more than enough batteries to last them for a week underground and the food and water to go with it. Normally, that comfort was enough to push away humanity’s simple atavistic fears of the darkness and the predators it might hide. But it wasn’t working this time.
Christian found himself constantly shining his flashlight down the corridors, hoping to catch sight of something. But if there was someone or something there his light didn’t reach far enough and he found himself unwilling to venture away from Julian. Because it seemed if he took one step away from Julian in one direction, a sense that something was coming towards them from the exact opposite direction would overcome him. He would not leave his friend unguarded. Christian did not try to convince himself this was just nerves. As he had realized before when they were outside, his subconscious mind was warning him of something being off even if he didn’t know what it was.
“Woot! Got it!” Julian crowed and stood. He looked at Christian in the light of their flashlights. A nervous smile was playing around his lips again. “This is it. The cavern. We just need to put the symbol on the wall in blood and–”
“Blood? It really said blood?” Even as he said it, Christian knew it was true. He’d checked the decoding of the journal himself half a dozen times.
Julian fished out his Swiss Army Knife. “I’ve even got alcohol swabs and a bandaid so I won’t get an infection when I cut my thumb.”
Instead of responding, Christian’s head whipped to the right. He had thought he had heard a sound when Julian talked about cutting himself. There was no one there as there hadn’t been the last dozen times he’d looked. Julian stepped away from the door–though he did not let go of the doorknob, Christian noted–to look down the corridor where Christian was gazing.
“Do you see anything?” Julian asked.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something there, he added silently. They could be staying just out of reach of the light.
Christian imagined stalking into the basement without any flashlights, skating along the corridors in pitch blackness, and watching people from behind corners. The thought horrified him on some level. It was unnatural to be so calm in this pure darkness. Logic tried to assert itself, to remind him that this was a basement where no monsters dwelled, but his secret was that he had always had a virulent imagination and he needed to cling to logic to stop his mind from imagining a twenty ring circus. Something about this night was causing him to lose his grip.
“Let’s go. If there is someone… Well, we’ll find out soon enough when we discover the city,” Julian said and Christian heard the click of the doorknob turning and the screech of the aged door opening.
The smell of water and stone that rushed out and bathed their faces was a thousand times stronger than what they had experienced up in the library proper. He and Julian had gone into plenty of caves in their day, but this cavern had the smell of the very deep earth even though it wasn’t all that far underground. The library’s pilings had been drilled through parts of the cavern so that the building didn’t collapse into it according to the research they’d done that afternoon.
Also, just as the research said, there was a stairwell that had been carved into the raw rock with a now rusted iron railing on their right. Julian cast one last glance at Christian, that nervous smile in full display, and then his best friend was hurrying down the steps.
“Julian, be careful, we don’t know the condition of the steps!” Christian warned.
“They’re fine!” Julian called over his shoulder, not slowing down at all.
Christian sped up his pace as well, not wanting to lose sight of Julian in the stygian blackness. The stairs followed the curving outside wall of the cavern. From the description in the journal, the cavern was shaped like a peanut. The stairs opened up into one of the “nut” chambers, then it narrowed, and opened up once more in a second “nut” chamber. The second “nut” chamber was where the door to the city of pale stone was.
They made it down to the cavern’s floor after five minutes of going down the stairs. Christian played his light over the interior of this “nut” chamber and let out a low whistle. There were the stone pillars that held up the library proper, but there were also amazing stalactites and stalagmites. The ceiling was three stories above their heads. Ahead of them was a winding path between the snow-colored stalagmites, leading to the narrowing area. Christian paused to take in the natural beauty of the cavern, but Julian was already moving on. Powdered stone puffed up with every step he took.
“Julian, wait!” he called, feeling almost out of breath catching up with his best friend.
“We aren’t here to sightsee, Christian,” Julian laughed, though it was a strained laugh. “At least, not until we get to the city of pale stone!”
“Right,” Christian muttered. He reminded himself that there wasn’t a city like that and they would have plenty of time to explore the cavern later. “Wait a second, I need to get the camera out.”
He’d nearly forgotten it and he never did that. He blamed it on the lack of planning for this trip and his unease. He quickly unstrapped it from his body and began to film all around them. As he recorded, he explained where he and Julian were and what they were heading towards. Julian, who usually did this kind of exposition, was far too intent on making it into the far “nut” chamber to say a word.
The narrowing passage was still large enough to hold a bus. Julian ran through it without a glance around him. Christian had enough to do to keep the camera somewhat steady as he jogged behind his best friend. He knew that this footage would cause many of their fans to have motion sickness. Normally, Julian was cognizant of these things, but not this time.
Julian only stopped when they were deep into the second chamber, which was double the size of the first. His best friend had gone to a forgettable section of wall that was midway across the curving right wall. The area was not even smooth as some other parts of the cavern’s walls appeared to be. It didn’t seem a likely place for a magical door. Christian forced himself to keep an open mind, especially as Julian stared at the wall so hard that it appeared like he was trying to see through it.
Julian abruptly spun around and looked directly into the camera. Even under the stark light of the flashlights, his best friend’s cheeks were a hectic red. His eyes were glittering. He looked like he had a fever and maybe he did.
“We’re here,” Julian said and Christian saw him swallow hard. Julian pointed to the nondescript cavern wall. “It doesn’t look like much. It doesn’t look like anything. Until you get a little closer.”
He gestured for Christian to focus in on the wall about at the height of Christian’s head. At first, he saw nothing, and then, he saw a faint infinity sign dabbed in blood so old and faded that the blood had turned black and had mostly flaked off. A thrill ran through him.
“My parents were here,” Julian whispered.
Christian’s heart broke when Julian said this. The loss of them was something that Julian would never get over. His family had taken Julian in after their deaths. Julian had already been a son to Christian’s parents. With the Harrows traveling as much as they did, Julian had often been left behind so that he could attend school, although the Harrows had been talking about schooling him on the road with them before they died. Selfishly, Christian had wanted Julian to stay in town. Julian often lived at his home for weeks on end. They were as much brothers as best friends and he hadn’t wanted to lose that. But he hadn’t wanted Julian all to himself either if that meant the deaths of the Harrows.
The snick of the Swiss Army Knife being opened drew Christian back to the present. Julian held up the knife and his left thumb so that the camera could see both.
“The way to open the door is to use blood to draw an infinity symbol exactly where my parents did. Sounds easy, I know. But the door was unlocked back then, remember? Hopefully, it still is unlocked,” Julian explained.
With no hesitation, Julian cut a long, thin line down his left thumb with the knife and then squeezed the thumb until bright red blood flowed. Christian did not point out that he hadn’t used the alcohol wipes and he was rather desperate to put a bandaid on that cut, but resisted the urge. Julian hadn’t even flinched as he’d cut himself.
Julian stuffed the knife back into his pocket and turned to the wall. Christian focused the camera in on Julian’s hand as his best friend followed the faint outline of his parents’ earlier infinity symbol. Julian then stepped back, his hand shaking.
At first, nothing happened and they stared at the unmoving, unchanging wall for long, long moments. It was so long that Christian was about to say something about checking the journal to see if there was anything else they should do like say some magic words, even though he knew there wasn’t anything. But just as he opened his mouth, the wall began to shimmer and, instead of speaking, his mouth simply hung open in speechlessness.
“Please tell me you’re filming this,” Julian whispered as he stepped back to stand beside Christian as the wall suddenly broke apart into what looked like a million blue lightning bugs. These “bugs” moved and there was a passage of pale white stone ahead of them.
“I’m filming …”
There was suddenly a commotion behind them. It was unmistakable. Despite the wonder of the passage ahead of them, Christian whipped around with his camera. The teenagers from the reference room were standing there.
“What are you…” Christian meant to end that question with the words “doing here?” But instead, he left it at simply, “What are you?”
For he noticed something about the couple that he hadn’t before. Both the girl and the boy had shining silver eyes.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the girl said, her voice far too adult for her age.
“Selene, we weren’t to interfere. Just follow,” the boy growled.
“We can’t let them go to Ever Dark,” she said simply, a hint of fang showing. “Lord Ravenscroft wouldn’t like it.”
“You’re vampires,” Christian found himself whispering.
At the same time, Julian grabbed his arm and yanked him into the passage, shouting one single word at the same time, “RUN!”