In a room full to the brim of old and rare books, Professor Artemis J. Perkins searched for one book in particular. Though he knew that it lay within these walls, unfortunately, the previous owner of the hoard wasn’t very good at organization.
For weeks, he’d shut himself up in the dusty library where he’d pore over endless stacks of ancient books. The problem—aside from the lack of order—was that the old professor didn’t know exactly what the book he was looking for even looked like.
His recently deceased colleague, who had owned this impressive collection, had only mentioned the book in the letter Artemis received after the man’s death. The letter said only that he must never read the book, or allow anyone else to so much as open the cover. Not a sentence was to be read. By anyone. Ever.
The man had been explicit on that much about the book at least, but as for his description of the forbidden book, the letter said only that it had neither title nor author. Presumably, this meant that the cover would be mostly, if not completely, unadorned.
Needless to say, Artemis found these instructions more than a little odd. First of all, how could he truly prevent anyone from reading the book if he couldn’t identify it? Of course, he hadn’t yet seen the library in all its chaos when he’d originally wondered about that little detail. But even now, having seen how unlikely it would be for someone to find the book in this mess, there was still the chance that someone could happen upon it, and how then could he prevent them from reading it if he didn’t know what it looked like?
Secondly—and admittedly, to him more importantly—why not read it? What was so bad about this book that such caution was merited? The letter didn’t say. This, of course, only increased the professor’s curiosity and desire to find it in this mess.
His days spent cooped up inside had gotten him through most of the books in the library, as he’d merely checked for a title or an author on the cover. So far, he’d found two books with blank covers. They appeared to be journals, but he hadn’t opened them. Not yet anyways.
It was late in the evening, and Artemis was getting tired. He resolved that after he’d searched this last stack, he’d go home for the night.
Thomas Aquinas. Super quarto libro sententiarum.
Thomas Cogan. Haven of Health.
Nicolas Monardes. Joyfull Newes out of the New-Founde Worlde.
On the very bottom of the pile, however, he came across a book without a title or an author. It was quite old, older even than most of the other books in this library. The leather binding was worn and cracked, and a strange, embossed tree was the cover’s only decoration. Not a normal tree, either. It seemed to lack the suppleness and pride that trees have inherent in their branches. Instead of reaching towards the sky, the limbs appeared to be reaching for…something else. For a moment, Artemis got the distinct impression that those branches could reach out of the cover and ensnare him.
He shook his head to clear it. That was preposterous. He knew then that he’d been spending too much time inside this claustrophobic room. Tomorrow he’d take a break from it and do something outdoors. He could use some fresh air.
He looked again at the embossed tree, expecting it to be just a normal tree now that he’d become more clear-headed. And yet, there was something distinctly odd about it. At first glance, the tree appeared to have been painted silver, but upon closer examination of it, rather than glimmering and reflecting light as it should, it gave the impression of actually draining the light from its surroundings.
It was then that he noticed the smell, like something rotten, coming from the book. But then again, all old books had their smells, especially when stored in poor conditions. He was letting his imagination get the better of him again.
It surprised him how easily such flights of fantasy and fear were taking hold of him. Artemis had always prided himself on being such a level-headed person. “When others lose their composure, I pick it up and keep it for myself,” he used to joke. It was how he’d survived the war—by not letting his fears get the best of him.
He closed his eyes and ran his hand over the roughness of the cover. He wasn’t sure why, but touching the book sent a slight stinging sensation through his hand. He figured he was imagining it.
He’d been warned not to read this book, but he just couldn’t resist. Something, some deep raging curiosity burned past his caution, and in one fluid motion, Artemis opened the cover and looked down at the page.
It was blank.
Disappointed, he started flipping through the pages. All of them were empty. When he got to the end of the book, he ruffled backwards through the pages again. Upon reaching the beginning, he shut the cover slowly, despondently. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he felt crestfallen. He thought at first that perhaps it simply wasn’t the right book, but he shook that idea off almost immediately. It could be no other book than this one.
Without really expecting to see anything, he opened the book once more to the middle. Saddened that his expectations for empty pages were met, he looked away. When he did so, however, he thought he saw something. A mark on the page. Just out of the corner of his eye.
Glancing back, he saw it again—a faint sort of discoloration, going down the length of the page. Upon closer examination, he saw the letters. There was text!
In order to read, he had to put to book so close to his face that the dank smell of its pages made his eyes water. He whispered softly as he read from the book:
Ye stand upon a precipice
Gazing down into the gloom
Fear not the road before you
Though it leads you to your doom
Stare deep into the valley
Where poison flowers bloom
Behold the flowers’ petals
They shall adorn your tomb
The words on the page wavered in front of him and dissolved while the shadows in the room began to expand, sucking everything they reached into their blackened void. When the first shadow touched the professor’s foot, it sent an icy jolt up his spine and into his skull. A cold, burning pain rippled throughout his head consuming everything. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream. He forgot his own name.
He didn’t know how long it lasted, but quite suddenly, everything stopped and he found himself in a dead forest. Barren trees and plants spread out in all directions. The pungent smell of decay assailed his nostrils. Before he could get his bearings, he heard something coming towards him. A large animal—a large something at least—was crashing through the brush.
When it came into sight, he couldn’t tell what it was at first. His vision was still blurry. The crashing sound grew louder as the thing moved closer. Artemis still couldn’t tell what it was, but he was beginning to think he didn’t want to know. He took a shaky step backwards but his knees buckled and he fell to the ground.
He fumbled around as he tried to get back on his feet. His pulse raced, his breath came in ragged gasps. He knew he was letting his fear run wild, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get up and run away.
And still the roaring grew louder. Artemis knew he was too slow. Whatever was coming was going to get him before his shaky legs would respond.
Just as he got his feet under him, he looked up, and immediately fell back down to the ground in shock. What he saw defied all natural order. It couldn’t exist. It was as simple as that. It just could not exist.
But it did.
It stood before him. It stood. On legs. On hideous, grotesque legs, the tree that could not really be a tree stood and glared down at him. Could a tree glare? This one was doing a good job of it. And it had a face. Rugged features in the wood. Oblong holes for eye sockets, a slit of a mouth. It was something out of another world, a Tolkien-esque monster far beyond the boundaries of Middle Earth where it belonged.
Artemis was so numb with fright that he couldn’t even scream when the gangly hand encircled his waist and lifted him into the air. The disgusting tree creature was covered with a sheen of the foulest smelling slime the old professor had ever encountered. Worse yet, when he touched it with his bare skin, the slime burned his flesh like a strong acid.
All at once, the tree creature stalked off into the forest again with Artemis held firm in its grasp.
“Oh my God…” the professor whispered.
“God is of little use to you right now, I’m afraid.” The tree’s voice was stiff and grating. “Surely you were warned not to read from our book,” it said, lifting him up close to its horrible face. The stench from its mouth nearly made him pass out. “You should have heeded that warning.”
“What are you going to do?” Artemis asked while trying to wrench himself free of the acerbic grip of the tree.
“Why, take you home, naturally! Not to your home of course,” the tree said with a laugh, like the sound of trunks creaking in the wind.
On and on they traveled through the dead, murky forest. The professor could soon not hold back his moans of pain, for the acidic slime had soaked his clothes and was now burning him all over.
There was no point in trying to reason with his captor. Every one of Artemis’ attempts to find out where they were going and why only resulted in caustic remarks while the tree cackled.
After awhile, they came to the top a ravine. “Ye stand upon a precipice,” the tree quoted with obvious humor. “You remember the rest, don’t you?”
Artemis chose not to respond, which only made the tree creature shake with more laughter.
As they made their way down into the ravine, the old professor noted his surroundings. At the bottom, there was a small lake, which flowed into a cave. He thought he saw more of the repulsive trees by the shore.
Upon reaching the lake, the tree creature waded out into it without hesitation. The professor, on the other hand, cried out in pain when the liquid soaked into his shoes. More acid.
“Don’t worry,” said the tree. “You’ll soon pass out from the fumes. But before you do, feast your eyes on my home, won’t you? Few get to see it, and as for those that do… Well, you’ll find out.”
The weak, old professor looked around him in silent fear and wonder as they entered the watery cave. More of the repugnant, living trees waited inside the cave. For a moment, the professor thought he’d gone color-blind. Everything existed in a dismal state of grayish green.
There was other vegetation to be seen, some with leaves and fruits, some without. One thing was certain, however. The old man was certain he didn’t want to taste any fruit that could grow under these conditions.
There were flowers too. Lots of them, growing out of the lake bed the way lilies do. Despite his pain, Artemis couldn’t help but admire the flowers, all white and faintly green. They stank, but their petals seemed to glow dimly in the professor’s burning eyes.
His vision was getting blurry. He was so cold, so tired. He knew now, even if the tree would let him down, there’d be no escape. He wouldn’t be able to stand, let alone walk. Right now just breathing, which once seemed so easy, so effortless, took all of his concentration to continue.
In… Out… In… Out…
“It’s almost over,” the tree whispered.
He thought he saw shapes moving out of the corners of his eyes, but he couldn’t be sure. All he could focus on now was the grotesque tree that held him in its corrosive grip.
“I—We owe you our gratitude. With your untimely end, we’ll thrive for awhile.” He gestured to the flowers growing in the lake. “They need human flesh to feast on, so that the waste they give off creates and maintains this acidy atmosphere of ours. If they die, we die. It’s a horrible existence, but… well, never mind. You needn’t be bothered with details at such a time as this.”
“Good bye, human. I don’t envy you your last moments.”
In… In… In…
It wouldn’t come, the next raspy breath of the dank air. Just as well, he was tired of its stench. Shadows moved in his vision, but he couldn’t discern them. He didn’t care. It simply wouldn’t do to have his last thoughts wasted on the disgusting creatures down here. And yet, all that came to mind was an image of the strange, iridescent flowers. Well, they were beautiful…