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July 15th, 1921
Books, they say, are inherently haunted objects. Consider, for instance, how many people have read that aged tome before you. How many have slept with that manuscript at their bedside? How many souls have been moved or devastated by the contents of its pages? How many of those earthly readers have since passed to a higher plain of existence? Overleaf, you will find names, dates – withdrawals and returns, by men and women who lived and died. The book is ageless. The book is undying.
Burn a man, and he will die of wounds most hideous and excruciating. Burn a book, and its pages will wither, the prose may taint – but it survives, regardless, in the hearts and minds of the ever-captive audience, its secrets passed like some profane witchcraft from generation to generation.
I have lived a lifetime surrounded by literature – novels, scientific discourse, historical dissertation, philosophy, poetry – and, yet, the pursuit of knowledge, of reason most thorough, is unending. Perhaps I have been predestined to ponder the enigmatic cloths of existence since conception in my mother’s womb, hunt it in vain to the ends of the Earth, a stalker to absent wildfowl. The gods watch from realms beyond my life’s jest, laughing into their gauntlets of divine gold. Watch how the man prances, wastes his worldly energies deliberating man’s purpose! Watch as he tears the pages of ancient tomes in fits of intellectual frustration! Play up, play up, and play the game … !
The pact was sealed when I was youthful, a boy-deemed-man of twenty-two. He came to me in the night, cloaked in his robes of shadow, a brace of luminous pupils shining through the gloom of dusk. He whispered sweet promises into lobes ignorant with the witlessness of childhood, pledges which fathomed the very depths of my soul – alluring promises of greatness, vitality, lust fulfilled and yearnings satisfied. All He begged of me was the acquisition of my transient state, at some distant time in the undesignated future. How was I to refuse?
The following year, I met a woman, and saw it my fate-vested duty to wed her. We married in a church of old, and the following evening, needless to say, we were not divided. She soon bore three children to me, all healthy and vivacious with the enthusiasm of infancy. Our union was long and tender, and, as weeks drew to months and months to long years, our affections for one-another were only nurtured.
And yet, a third party owed witness to the marriage. I could feel his presence all around, scrutinizing my every living second with keen, aboriginal hunger. I awoke at midnight ever so often, to sight a pair of glimmering eyes gazing in from my bedroom window. Never did I forget my vows, and the pronouncement I had uttered on that fateful night has troubled me for all these decades.
He paid visit to me in material form on the afternoon of my appointment as Senior Lecturer at the University. “Have you remembered your side of the covenant?” He whispered, in tones deathly and ominous. I nodded, somberly, knowing all too well that, behind that priestly cowl of black, the demon was grinning with malice.
The War came like an ungodly herald of death, and the state bestowed upon all young men of health and sensibility the obligation of service. I spent weeks on end confined to a hole in the ground, colleagues being maimed and shot all around me. Despite several parleys with near-death, I emerged a disinclined survivor; sanity was maintained through visits to military hospitals, which provided an opportunity to regain the energies drained from my corporeal form.
He came to me under the cover of darkness, and stood at my bedside, as He had so charismatically seven years prior – though his demeanor now was anything but alluring. “You will not escape these parts alive. Give yourself to me now, and I will end your woes.” The proposition was all too enticing in my distraught condition – yet, somehow, I pulled through, returning from the hell-holes a year later, to a home lit by an inviting fire and kept by a lady I loved.
A decade passed like a tentative second, and I found myself living a pleasurable existence. Time had been good to my wife; as for my children, they had developed into fine young specimens – eloquent, inquisitive, passionate and affable. The Fates had been less considerate on my behalf.
Eventually, I found myself staring into a restroom mirror at a balding man of thirty-four – comfortable, affluent, somehow jaded by the cruel course of age. The War had unquestionably aged me beyond salvage, though I felt grateful for simply absconding the bloodshed unharmed. I was convinced some of my comrades who frequented the veterans’ club never truly ‘left’ the battlefields – those big, troubled moon-eyes spoke of disturbance perpetual.
After an address one cold February afternoon, a student posed to me a question set to plague me for the rest of my physical existence. “Why is it,” they inquired, “that a man lives for eighty extensive years, only to pass in a transition as brief and natural as conception? Is there a purpose in life?”
I ruminated upon those words, and those ruminations were soon invested in countless frustrated hours at the university library, thumbing ancient transcripts and holy texts in search of a mortal purpose. My family could not help but notice the dejected state I was slipping into, though I overruled their concerns with the half-considered pretext of ‘problems at work’. They sighed, they cast questioning glares, but they felt no need to pursue the matter beyond that.
It was during an irritated library session that He approached me once again; and, on this occasion, the dark figure seemed more determined and beseeching than ever before. He begged – literally BEGGED – for my soul, threatening repercussions unspeakable if I failed to concede. He had provided to me a stable, loving family; he had granted to me a profession of great standing and excellent wage. Now, I was expected to submit to his thrall. I refused, eventually flouting his dire warnings; it was only after his disappearance that a deep-rooted dread begun to foster inside me.
Two days later, I was called down from a lecture by a courier, most uneasy in tenor and discipline. He hesitated, before describing to me, in as subtle terms as he could, the tragedy which had befallen my wife and children. I struggle to even comprehend the misfortune, though I shall detail the calamity as well as I can: the family home had been engulfed in flames, either at the will of an arsonist or as the result of a tempestuous hearth-fire. They had probably choked on vile fumes before the blaze overcame them, though their charred remains survived; I couldn’t bring myself to look at the smoldered, twisted bodies, which had once bore names dearest to me.
Months have passed since my life collapsed around me. My sleep is disturbed by visions of burning edifices, of howling winds, thoughts on the futility of the human condition and the inanity of life itself. I can no longer bear the strain. Everything I hold sweetest has been seized so callously from my very palms …
But, now, it all seems so coherent. No longer do I have to suffer. No longer need I stand burden to this trauma. I have reached a verdict, and my conviction is total. I have packed my bags, and I am heading out tonight, never to return to this accursed place. I am going out to find Him, to offer my allegiance and pay my earthly debt to the Master. To fulfill the pledges I made over a decade ago.
To fulfill my side of the pact.