If you haven’t started this story from the beginning, this one won’t make too much sense. I suggest you start here before continuing.
Victor knew what an improperly set dislocated shoulder felt like, which gave him confidence to know Jack had done his work properly. Still, it bothered him. His body wasn’t as elastic as before, no longer snapping back like it used to.
Looking into the yawning hole in the ground, Victor wasn’t sure he wanted to climb down, even if they found a rope to aid his descent.
“Can you see anything?” Sarah called to Jack, fingers still in the gravestone.
“Not really,” Jack responded.
Victor nodded to the young woman, who correctly took that as a cue to release the locks on the entryway. Better to let it fall into place – or execute whatever countermeasures Lucy had put there to protect the library – now, while they were all here, on the other side. Nothing happened; the statue stayed in its new, open location.
“Use the torch app on your phone?” Sarah suggested, slapping her hands together as she stood.
Jack glanced at her from the tops of his eyes as he pulled out the smartphone. It was a gesture of annoyance, Victor knew too well, but also a sign that he wasn’t maintaining his polite barriers as much. “I’ve been in the U.S. for six years now,” he told her. “I know what a flashlight is.”
Sarah seemed unperturbed, peering into the hole in the ground with a contagious smile. “Maybe, but this adventure calls for a torch, don’t you think?”
Victor couldn’t help his own broad grin. “I agree.”
She nodded his direction. “Thank you.” She slipped out her own device with more fluency than Jack and flicked on the light, quickly deciding that down, closer to the hole, might afford her a better view. Victor knelt beside her, putting his weight on his good arm to lean over.
The outside world was too bright to make anything beyond the first foot down out clearly. The first six inches or so on all sides was smooth, carved stone, which gave way to hard-packed earth and clay. No rope or ladder to guide them down, or help any occupants escape from within. It couldn’t have been too deep, then.
Victor picked up a rock from the grasses and – with an irritating pain in his shoulder as he twisted – dropped it in the center of the two foot square. The responding echo told him several things. First, that the ground was harder than the mulch they knelt on but softer than the ground of a natural cave. Second, it went down farther than the height of the average person. Third and most importantly, it stopped at all, and on dry ground.
Without waiting for an invitation, Sarah slid her phone back into her pocket, twisting beside him from all fours to a sitting position, legs dangling over the edge like a kindergartner in an adult’s chair. She looked more than happy to push herself into the unknown feet first.
“Hold on,” Jack cautioned. As per usual.
“What?” She looked up at him. “Afraid of a monster guarding the library?”
“We don’t have a way to get back out, not without leaving an obvious trail behind for anyone –” Victor knew he meant the council or their peons – “to follow. “
“Cross that bridge when we come to it.” Sarah didn’t wait for his permission, instead pushing off as if she were plunging to a pool instead of the dark mystery. She definitely had courage. Victor had to give her that.
There was no yelp or sharp inhale of pain as she landed, thankfully. Victor wasn’t sure what he’d do if she hurt herself.
“Come on!” Sarah called, a light flicking on and sweeping the dirty air. “Ooh.” Spying something apparently interesting, she stepped to Victor’s right, out of sight.
“Sarah!” Jack called, audibly panicked.
“Gotta keep up!” came her playful call back.
Victor was amused to see Jack’s mind churning, working on a plan. “Go ahead,” he told the young man before he asked. Spending time with someone was spontaneous as Sarah would do him good. Perhaps finally relax that furrowed brow. Victor knew he would be no help down there.
“Stay by the trailer,” Jack ordered, eyes back down the hole Sarah had disappeared into. “If we’re not back – or you don’t hear from us – within an hour, find help. Law enforcement, if you have to.” His decision to allow them made sense; their list of allies in this corner of the world was thin at best. “Don’t come after us yourself. Not alone, at least. Am I understood?”
Victor couldn’t help his amusement at the young man’s paranoia. “I’ll be fine. Go. Protect her.”
Jack took a deep breath and a moment longer before throwing himself in. It wasn’t like anything more would happen on the surface anyway.
This was all achingly familiar to Jack, something akin to that feel five minutes after waking up from an awesome dream. He mentally scrambled after the memories even as he felt them slipping away. Frustrating, yes. But it also exhilarated him, telling him they were on the right track.
The hole they found themselves in formed the end of a path carved deep into the hillside. Roots lined the walls and dangled from above, but the thin ones didn’t stand in their way, and the thick ones seemed to support the cave, not threaten it. Jack’s memory of the upper level told him that, though descending rapidly, they were following under a walkway in the cemetery. He wasn’t going to tell Sarah this, but for the first twenty meters they were between ancient coffins until finally they had descended underneath them, with only dirt to separate the dead from the living.
In no time at all, they were beyond the boundaries of the cemetery, with barely a curve in the path. Another five minutes or so, to Jack’s surprise, and they found themselves at a fork in the carved clay and dirt road.
“Which way?” Sarah asked, sweeping her phone’s light between the two options.
He had no idea. Jack shook his head before recognizing that she couldn’t see him. “I don’t remember this place.”
“Alright, Gandalf,” She started, turning her light to him. Then, realizing she was blinding him, she pointed it down. The orange-red clay ground reflected it back up, lighting her in a fiery glow. She was grinning and watching him expectantly, as if waiting for him to get a joke. “Gandalf?” she asked again, clearly hopeful. “Mines of Moria? Follow your nose?”
“Like from Lord of The Rings?” Jack tried. He had seen the first movie once in theaters, but barely remembered it.
Instead of the disappointed look he expected, Sarah appeared proud. “Very good.” her light swept their choices again. “Unfortunately, they both smell the same to me.”
Jack couldn’t help the half-huff, half-laugh that escaped him. “Let’s go right then.” He stepped past her toward the place he had voiced.
“Remember something?” she asked excitedly as she followed him.
“No. But it doesn’t matter, does it? Equal choices.” It was a phrase he had adopted from Julia. She had spoken it in an effort to keep him from stalling himself and thinking instead of acting. It hadn’t worked, but he still treasured the phrase.
To be honest, he hoped the library was this way. It made no sense to hope anything at all, but unless his sense of direction had failed him entirely, the man-made lake was to their left. If their destination was that way too, then there was a good chance their treasure trove had been damaged when the lake was built, if not underwater entirely. Jack stifled a shudder at the thought.
They traveled the next few minutes in silence when Jack noticed something unnaturally horizontal and reflective ahead. Iron across a wooden door. He rushed the last few yards, Sarah’s quick step keep up behind him.
This was it. The door he’d imagined – now confirmed remembered – right there in front of him. The wood had been treated somehow, so that it was untouched by time. It wasn’t as protected by the surrounding dirt, however. He scraped the accumulated clay off the top of the iron, creating a ledge again from what time had filled to smooth.
“Cool.” Sarah’s breathed comment behind him reminded Jack of his company, and his purpose. “Uh, Jack?”
“There’s no handle.”
He stepped back, side-by-side with her now. She was right, of course, but the vision before him didn’t strike him as wrong. It hadn’t been broken or tampered with. No, the door had been designed exactly as he saw it now.
It was heavy and protruding out from the clay and rock wall around it; not a sliding pocket door. The library was designed to be a refuge. He remembered that much. Something they could rush into in a hurry, and fortify from within if they needed to. So it probably swung inward. The lack of visible hinges supported his theory.
Could it really be that easy?
Jack stepped forward again. Knowing Lucy had been right handed, he put all his weight into the right side of the heavy door. It refused to give at first, sending doubt shooting through Jack’s heart to his head, but when Sarah joined him with a hand on either side of his head, it slowly began to give. Clay crumbled around them, revealing an equally sturdy door frame. He stopped his efforts the moment it was open enough for him to slip inside.
It was far more massive than he had imagined, and impossible for his phone to see more than a quarter of what was in front of him without moving the light. The cavern was the size of a school gym, with maybe a dozen bookshelves freestanding before him, each double-sided and around eight feet high. The ceiling was another four feet or so above that, so that small trinkets had found homes in the in-between. What he could see of the walls to his left and right also boasted shelving, all of it nearly full. To the right was an open space with a long table and several chairs, even a fireplace, which must have been quite the engineering feat this far underground. The far wall held relics of some kind, but it was too distant for his feeble torch to tell him any real detail.
“Cool,” came Sarah’s breathed awe from his right. “There’s no way she penned all of these herself.”
“No,” Jack had to agree. “Not in one lifetime anyway.” She must have been accumulating these for centuries. It made his collection in his trailer look paltry in comparison. It couldn’t be just genealogies either. They didn’t exactly have a shared bloodline, but it was likely they still used a “family” Bible to write it all down. Unless the council knew exactly which book to look for, they’d have a hard time finding it at random in this collection. They’d go from no data to too much too quickly.
Unfortunately Jack and Victor – and Sarah, if she kept this enthusiasm up – were in the same predicament.
He was about ready to at least get a better idea of the room’s layout when Sarah gasped beside him. Alarmed, Jack spun, trying to identify the catalyst, but her head was in her hands, as if struck by a sudden and violent migraine.
“What? What is it?” Jack asked, glancing her over with his light this time. Nothing. She was as healthy and well-put together as ever.
“It’s nothing.” It was certainly something. Her eyes were squeezed tightly shut, one hand covered part of her skull, other dangling, as if useless by her side.
“Talk to me, Sarah. What do you need me to do?” He couldn’t let her get hurt, or stay hurt, not on his watch. The library had waited for them for more than a century; it could wait an hour more if it meant she was safe and well.
“I’m fine.” She shook her head and opened her eyes, gesture giving him more comfort than her words. “See? It’s like before. It’s like before. I’m imagining – remembering – things.”
The memories affected them all differently, but this – this physical kind of reaction – was unlike anything he had heard of before. “You’re sure?” he asked. The last thing he wanted was to make her life harder by ignoring any signs. “Victor’s only ten minutes away.” A relatively short distance to start being affected by his absence, but not unheard of.
Sarah nodded in a clear attempt to reassure him. “I’m not going to –” A fresh, overwhelming pain slammed into her face again, this time eliciting a short wail. She plummeted to her knees, breathing heavily.
Victor had heard the first assailant moments before the rock slung into the back of his head, but he didn’t see the second student and his baseball bat until it was too late. It hit him square across both kidneys, driving him up onto his toes a moment before falling to his knees.
It took him too long to realize there were two of them, at least, including the one he and Jack had disconnected earlier. That young man was back with a vengeance, and Victor was helpless to stop him, or even call for aid. All he could do was run, trying to pull them and their attention away from the open cavity in the graveyard. After that second blow, he found himself instead struggling to breathe, much less stand again.
A hard, cruel palm caught Victor’s chin, forcing him to look up. The eyes he met were always different, but that cold twist of the lip – that was unmistakably Renaud.
“Where is Jack?”
They’d have to kill Victor first. He was done trading a young student’s life for his own.
The other assailant seized Victor’s bad shoulder – the one he had dislocated earlier – and squeezed, nails digging like talons around the bone into the socket. What little breath Victor had managed to gather escaped again as fresh agony swept through him.
The one holding Victor’s head up looked to his comrade with a jerk of his chin. “Look around. They can’t have gone far.”
No! The library was exposed, and Jack and Sarah had no idea they were unprotected. Terror battled relief as the clawing into his shoulder released.
“You, on the other hand, can talk to Symon.” Another member of the council, and one he knew to be particularly sadistic when it came to collecting information. Victor decided he would last as long as he could, anyway.
Renaud released Victor’s chin, twisting his other hand to bring the bat across his head instead.
Sarah collapsed sideways, and Jack could do nothing to stop her. Reason shielded him from panic as she bounced once on her shoulder, landing on her back without any attempt to brace her fall.
She wasn’t moving.
He needed to do something. But what? He had never been knocked out by a memory before. A closer inspection told him she was breathing, at least. But this – fixing whatever had attacked her – was beyond his skills.
Victor. He would know what to do, or at least be able to ease her memories until they could understand it together. But Jack couldn’t just leave her here. He slipped his phone into his front pocket this time, still letting it light the path from his hip. He’d need both hands to carry her.
Two short steps and a shoulder roll were all that he needed to lift her unmoving body across his own shoulders. Like a fireman carried a helpless victim of smoke inhalation, Jack hurried as quickly as he could back toward the cemetery, pausing only to shut the library door behind him. He definitely noticed when the path became steeper, telling him he had passed the fork in the road without seeing it, and the end was nearly in sight. The beam streaming into the dirty air was literally a ray of sunshine in his life, letting him know that freedom wasn’t far behind.
He was still thirty meters out when the joy turned to ash in his gut. A rope snaked into view, uncoiling as it dropped. Victor wouldn’t try to climb down on his own, particularly not without contacting them first.
They had been found.
Jack balanced Sarah on his shoulders with one hand as he hurried to tug his shirt over the light. Had they heard him approach? He had no idea. Better to conceal their presence until he could determine if so. He couldn’t easily pull out the phone to turn off the light, so he turned it around, aware that it made a spot on his gut glow in the dark.
The rope was moving on its own, telling Jack that its owner was putting his weight on it and was starting to descend.
As quietly as he could, Jack side-stepped until his outstretched hand found the clay wall. Then, calves arguing as he carefully knelt, he slipped Sarah onto the ground, as close to a corner as he could get. If he had to fight, better his opponent never thought she existed.
She moaned quietly as she landed, but otherwise didn’t protest. Unsure if she was aware of her surroundings – her eyes were still closed – Jack found her face by the faint glow and put a finger to her lips, telling her to be quiet. It was as productive as talking in code to a sleeper.
The newcomer was nearly to the ground when Jack spun to face him again. He was right – it wasn’t Victor, but instead the same person they had fought earlier. They had disconnected him! Why was he still around, fighting for an unknown master? He should have crawled back to the hovel Renaud had found him in.
Never mind. For the hundredth time that day he found himself wishing his mentor was nearby to aid and protect him, and for the hundredth time he reminded himself he was on his own. Adrenaline kicked in to Jack then, pushing him up the steep hill to fight.
Feet landed on solid ground moments before he reached his target. Jack didn’t slow his momentum, instead ducking into a bull rush at the man. Shoulder collided with hip, sending his target spinning as he clutched onto the rope in surprise. There was no shout, no yelp of surprise, only quick reflexes rolling with Jack’s initial assault. Jack slid his left arm down, around the knees as his opponent turned, finishing the charge by pulling him off his feet.
Instead of landing flat on his tailbone, like Jack had planned, the man trusted his strength, pulling his weight back up on the rope.
Jack turned in time to see the man’s feet drive at his head. His neck snapped back on contact, pushing his whole body backward, spine carving into the dirt wall as he slid a few inches before gaining his traction again. Ow.
The newcomer’s feet landed back on solid ground with power, releasing the rope as he breathed through his teeth, sneering at Jack.
Think! What would his mentor do?
The man launched himself at Jack, left fist aloft, strength aided by all his body weight behind it.
Jack ducked under, bolting behind the arm before getting an idea. He stood, grabbing the inside of the man’s arm with his left and sliding to the wrist before placing his right flat on the elbow. Standing now torqued his opponent’s weight down, face first until Jack stood safely behind him, arm at his mercy. If he snapped it now, the man wouldn’t be able to get back up.
His prey turned his other shoulder down, slipping his arm out of Jack’s grip as he spun like a stunt plane making a barrel roll. Except this man landed on his back, bringing Jack down to his level. It was all he could do just to stop himself from going nose-first into the hard-packed clay. Were his mentor in charge, Jack knew she would flip by his feet at the move, but Jack didn’t have the skill to perform such an act. So he went down, merely able to extend an elbow at the man’s face as he went.
A solid crunch, like celery, told him his blow had struck home. He landed and immediately pushed his palms against the dirt, hoping to get above his opponent. Ground fighting wasn’t exactly in his expertise, but tools were. Spying the rope – still dangling not far away from them, Jack scrambled on his hands and feet to it. If his opponent could use it to his advantage, so could Jack.
He barely had enough time to snatch it with both hands before turning to see his opponent charging him, blood streaming openly from his nose. Instinct convinced Jack to put the rope between them, sweeping across and diverting the fist before it could do any more damage. Intent on keeping control, Jack wrapped the rope around the wrist several times before swinging right and stepping left. The end result had the newcomer’s arm chocking himself, fist high up over the opposite shoulder. Jack wasn’t about to let him try for another punch, though, so he wrapped what slack he had in the rope around the man’s neck.
To Jack’s relief, he stopped struggling. The other arm was still free, immediately abandoning Jack in favor of untangling the rope. Jack didn’t need to hold the man’s tethers anymore, so he stepped in, grabbing the free wrist and twisting it upside down.
“That’s enough.” He was surprised to see how out of breath he felt.
The man spat at Jack, then continued his struggles, despite their futility.
So Jack turned the wrist a little farther, threatening a spiral fracture. “I said that’s enough.” A dark thought crossed his mind then: if he followed through with his warning, the man wouldn’t be able to climb back up. He was already disconnected, and couldn’t summon help, or even tell the council where he had gone. Keeping the man here meant keeping the library safe too.
With a quick jolt, Jack finished the movement, breaking the arm of his prisoner. They couldn’t be allowed to find the library.