Today, something a little different. I’m losing a bit of steam on my “Untitled Novel” edit, so rather than let myself burn out completely, I’ve been getting started writing some of the stuff for my No Books project. When finished, the No Books saga is (if finished as planned) a pentology (or whatever you call a five book series) with each containing one part of the its story arc. I’m approaching this one a bit differently however, as I’m not writing “chapters” per se, so much as I’m writing short stories that all tie together.
Also, in the interest of full disclosure, this project is heavily based on the roleplaying experience I ran on the site No Books of Men, and while the plot and overall arcs are about 95% my creation some of it did change in the course of that site’s existence. The characters are probably about 60-70% mine too, but there are others mixed in there which were Player Characters created by others. I will attempt to give credit for those I have permission to use, and those I cannot get permission for will have names and basic elements changed to “protect the innocent” (and my own butt).
This story contains characters owned by others. Avery Gannon belongs to my friend Angie and is used with permission. Noah Fenwick belongs to my wife, Elysse and is used with permission.
As Richard Mansfield approached the podium he had to remind himself why he was standing here before the collected student body. Traditionally the Headmaster would address the students and faculty at the start of each term. He would announce any rule or policy changes, mention any relevant news items, and welcome everyone to the new term. Unfortunately, the Hermetic High Council had called Dr. Hastings away for some reason. It was all very hush-hush and honestly Mansfield didn’t care to know. Clearly it was far above his pay-grade, which made it not worth digging into overmuch. Regardless of why, with Hastings absent all of his duties fell to the Assistant Headmaster. Thus Mansfield was left as acting Headmaster and leaving this unenviable task was now his.
His eyes traced over the crowd, trying to assess who had bothered to show up. He saw the typical swath of young, unwashed, and unkempt college students which were the majority. To one side were a collection of equally young but much cleaner looking students, those would likely be the new freshmen. The front few rows were dominated by people he largely recognized, as they were predominantly staff and graduate students which were the sorts he actually bothered to learn their names. Silverman, Fenwick, Thompson, Linley, Takahashi, Gannon, Jones, and many others were recognized and mentally noted. Also noted was that Bridges and a few others would need a refresher on what the word ‘mandetory’ meant.
Mansfield focused his Essence and cast a small enchantment on his voice allowing it to carry through the auditorium. This way, even those sitting in the back would hear him as well as those in the front row. Clearing his throat, Mansfield’s gruff voice spread amongst the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen of the Collegium Illustrata Columbiana, I would like to welcome you to the start of this year’s term. Dr. Hastings, is unfortunately unavailable to welcome you himself, but he sends his greetings and his regrets at being unable to attend this important event. Those of you new to our illustrious institution, both he and I would like to welcome you personally and we hope that you will attend our welcome luncheon later this week where we can get to know you.” Mansfield hoped they wouldn’t, but his position made such truths unwise to voice.
He smiled and nodded as he continued. “As our returning students know, this isn’t merely a chance to welcome everyone back, but to also remind everyone of some basics. Classes will begin this coming Wednesday at 12 o’clock noon; any classes that would begin before noon on Wednesday will instead have their first meeting at the next weekly scheduled time. As always, I would like to remind you that Mr. Brown’s property in the forest is strictly off-limits, this is for both his safety and yours. Also, after last spring’s incident, I would like to formally ask that students cease attempts to reach the bottom of the Deep Lake…” He paused for a moment’s breath when he noticed two tall men in suit’s standing in the doorway at the back of the room, a look of confusion flashed across his face before opening his mouth to continue…
…but he wasn’t given a chance to finish whatever he was about to say. The lights suddenly went out, leaving the auditorium pitch black. Students began to murmur and converse in the darkness. Mansfield called out, “Please stay calm. I don’t know why we lost the lights, but I’m sure that they will…” He was interrupted interrupted again, but with a scream. It sounded female, but in the dark Mansfield couldn’t be certain. Then the scream was suddenly cut short and a terrible silence fell.
When the lights returned a moment later they revealed an auditorium changed. Where moments ago had been hundreds of seats and nearly every one occupied with a student or staff member, there was now a roughly circular scattering of a few dozen seats and those seats in the center were simply missing. Those remaining seats were still occupied with increasingly panicked students and in the center of the empty circle was a large stone monolith sitting in silent testament to whatever had brought it there.
Mansfield blinked a few times before jumping down from the podium and running to the monolith. “What the hell…” was muttered, but with his enhanced voice could be heard across the room. There was little he could do for those remaining in the room, such was not his expertise. Besides, he was more worried about the other few hundred souls whose whereabouts were unknown. As he ran he shouted, “Get out of the way Gannon!” as he leapt over the poor TA’s head and made his way to the stone. Avery Gannon, for his part, made some strange and confused sort of sound but did get out of the way of Mansfield’s boots.
Already assessing the situation before he hit the ground, Mansfield tried to determine as much as possible from what he saw. The stone itself was plain and would be easily overlooked if it wasn’t in the middle of a previously packed auditorium. It stood about fifteen feet high by Mansfield’s reckoning, and was shaped roughly pentagonally but lacked any precision or skill in its creation. To hazard a guess, it seemed to be roughly hewn out of granite. A moment’s longer inspection revealed a strange, greenish-black tint within the stone that hinted it may be something else entirely. Possibly even from outside the confines of Earth.
Mansfield heard a jittery shout from behind him and glanced back with a lifted eyebrow. Noah Fenwick was climbing awkwardly with his spindly limbs over the chairs to join Mansfield by the stone. He repeated himself, as if Mansfield hadn’t heard. “Don’t… Don’t get near it!”
Mansfield rolled his eyes. “Thank you for the opinion Fenwick, but I’m not an idiot. I know better than to touch an unknown artifact which appears out of nowhere. Not until we know more, that is…” He sighed, knowing the Mechanical Engineering professor was just trying to help. He decided Noah was attempting to warn off the remaining students instead, give the man’s intelligence some credit.
Another came over for a closer look, a graduate student. Hannah Jones. Sharp enough kid if a bit unreliable in Mansfield’s experience. “What do we got?” She asked as she approached. “One of those Multiple Reality Discordence Events we keep hearing about?” Mansfield waved her off with a grumble, turning instead to a young and well dressed young man who asked what the students should do.
“Silverman!” Mansfield called out to the oldest member of the teaching staff, who toddled on over with a smile and a nod. Not giving Sal Silverman a chance to start one of his endless conversations, Mansfield barked an order. “Take this student and round up the others. Get them out of here. You and the other staff keep them out of here until we figure out what happened to our missing students. What he didn’t mention was that he was now guessing about two-thirds of the attending students were now missing, which was over a thousand of them.
Turning back to his impromptu back-up, Mansfield saw that Avery had joined their crew and was looking over the monolith. Fine, if the two graduate students wanted to help, he’d put them to work. “Gannon, what do you see? And keep it to the point.” Kid was sharp, but always struck Mansfield as a bit of a blowhard, needed to keep that in check. Glancing to Noah and Hannah, Mansfield lifted an eyebrow. “Or how about you two? Ideas? Theories of origin? Composition? Purpose? Any clues?” He was being gruff, gruffer than usual, but he wasn’t happy at so many unknowns with lives on the line.
“Well…” Avery shrugged. “It’s definitely tangible. And… And…” He trailed off, a strange look on his face as he took a step towards the stone. He reached out transfixed to touch the stone. His hand gently moved across the stone and he began to mutter something under his breath, but none could make out the words.
Mansfield, guessing what Avery was up to but moving a touch too late, grabbed the young man’s arm roughly and pulled him away from the stone. Being physically removed from the stone seemed to pull him out of the strange stupor and back to his senses. Shaking himself bodily, Avery stepped back and looked very worried. The young man’s mouth worked strangely, as if he wanted to say something but was still too shaken.
Meanwhile Noah had been using beam of light projected from his watch to scan the monolith and now took the chance to add, “And seems… enchanted.” The word ‘enchanted’ came out of the man’s mouth with a hint of derision. Mansfield wasn’t surprised. It was well known that Noah and most of his fellow Opifex and CES professors in the technology wing didn’t care for the traditional terminology preferred at the school. Ignoring it for now, Mansfield nodded for Noah to continue. “It looks like basically the control panel for a…for a gate…touch activated and…” His free hand idly reached for the stone and he slapped it with the other. “And apparently…I don’t know this for sure…but it likes to be t-t-touched.”
Hannah nodded. “I wouldn’t call it a theory, but I might have some random guesses. There are really only two things I can be pretty sure of. One is this thing came from the spirit world. And two, it was placed here purposely.” She shrugged helplessly.”Aside from that, your guess is probably better than mine….” She trailed off as the stone began to hum. “…but we might be about to find out more.” She swallowed hard.
Mansfield turned slowly, looking at the the stone with eyes narrowed by worry. Whatever was going on, it clearly wasn’t good. The sound rose and grew more distinct, slowly beginning to sound something like music. Mansfield looked the stone up and down, slightly tilting his head to hear the music more clearly. Something was tickling the back of his mind, something familiar and alien at once. It was discordant and unsettling, like a dying heartbeat heard through a rusty drum mixed with a violin sorely out of tune and missing a few strings. Mansfield narrowed his eyes and stared at the monolith waiting for something to click, some memory to rise. His eyes grew wide. “Get down!” He dropped to one knee and held out a hand towards the monolith, creating a glowing barrier of energy between the stone and the group just in time to block a wave of power emanate from the stone.
Sweat beading on his brow, Mansfield felt the sickly green-black energy strike his shield and immediately knew that it wouldn’t be enough. He grunted softly as it rolled over his barrier despite his efforts, only redoubling his efforts to at least dampen the effect of that vile energy. As it rolled over them like mist, he felt his senses shift.
His vision was replaced with the image of standing within the plaza of an immense and twisted city. Buildings surrounded the plaza, but with no clear order or pattern. They jutted out at every angle and seemed to be built from dozens upon dozens of architectural styles, sometimes many styles within the same structure. Doorways and stairwells stuck led in countless impossible directions, revealing glimpses of the greater city beyond. The city itself seemed to be immense, stretching beyond the confines of sight and reason. The city appeared to be made predominantly by the same strange granite-like stone as the monolith, but there were signs of other materials like gold and marble. The only thing recognizable in this bizarre landscape was the monolith itself, sitting in a carved recess in the center of the plaza looking like it had just come home. All the while, the faint and strange music continued from all around them.
As quickly as the energy wave began, it was over. Mansfield let his shield drop as the energy abated and he dropped to the floor gasping. A glance to his companions showed that he had not been the only one affected by the terrible vision before him. “Sound off people. If you hear me and speak, I want to hear you. Whatever that thing was, I need to know you aren’t dead.” He offered a hand up to Avery as he looked around them. He clearly wasn’t happy with what he was seeing in this strange city.
Hannah was kneeling, looking faintly sick but also strangely vindicated. “So it might be fracturing us all into parallel dimensions…sweet.” The sarcasm practically dripped from er lips. “Minus the potential for soul-rending agony, of course.” With a wry smile, she shrugged and added, “Welcome to Wonderland, please enjoy your stay.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Great. Peachy.” Avery pinched two fingers against the bridge of his nose before adjusting his glasses. He then accepted Mansfield’s hand up, dusting himself off as he rose to his feet. He pulled out his phone and checked it with an annoyed expression. “Surprise, surprise… No signal. Looks like something hit before we left though…” He groaned lightly and rolled his eyes as he read the message. “Great. Last thing I got was Herb saying that something weird’s going down at the park too.”
Noah lay on the ground looking akin to a college kid who drank too much. “I’m fine…urp…fine.” He groaned and started to move, but seemed to think better of it and continued to lay there, but he did manage to tilt his head a bit which only elicited another groan. This groan however, quickly shifted to a yelp as he jumped up in alarm. “Wh… Wh… Whoa!” He pointed off to one side of the plaza. “We’re not alone here…”
Mansfield scanned the area. He half expected to see Avery’s friend somewhere around, given the news. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be so lucky. So to speak. Instead of another grad student, Mansfield spotted a lone figure off in the distance. It was North (or at least Mansfield’s reckoning of North) and about 200 yards (or so he thought, hard to say when angles and space seemed distorted) away from where they all stood. It looked vaguely like some sort of gargoyle or demon, but its features were vague and seemed to shift about bizarrely akin to the twisted city in which it resided. Worst of all, despite it being difficult to pin down where its eyes were, the thing seemed to be watching them.
“Thanks for keeping it together, Fenwick.” Mansfield was deflecting, though he’d never admit it. He wasn’t happy that they were being watched. He moved around a bit, only half-conciously moving himself to stand between the creature and his companions. “Being watched. No sign of students either… I don’t like this…”
A moment later, the creature moved. It didn’t show any sign of muscle movement, but rather disappeared and reappeared at a point halfway closer. Everyone recoiled in surprise, but only Avery said anything directly as he shouted, “Shit!” and jumped backwards.
Hannah, for her part, took the creatures movement as a call to action. Without a word, she took off running towards the monolith. Her goal? Mansfield wasn’t sure. What he was sure about was that if you have an unknown creature making potentially aggressive motions, and approaching wasn’t a good sign, sudden movements weren’t usually a good idea. Mansfield jumped to place himself between Hannah and the creature, expecting the worst.
He wasn’t disappointed. A moment later, the creature “jumped” again and grabbed Mansfield bodily around the neck, lifting him off the ground. Now that it was close, its features were easier to see. It was utterly horrific to look upon. It stood almost nine feet tall and roughly humanoid. Its skin was an unnerving dark grey color, making it difficult to focus the eye upon without the aid of its warped and shifting muscles beneath its skin. Beneath undulating folds, its eyes were the color of pitch and their glistening wetness one of its only clearly defined features. Worse still was its too wide mouth, dripping with saliva and filled to the brim with too many teeth. In total silence, the creature slowly started shifting and wriggling towards the monolith. Mansfield couldn’t break the creature’s impossible strength and he was carried along despite his best efforts.
Avery and Noah did not sit idle while the Assistant Headmaster was dragged along for reasons unknown. Avery placed a hand on his forehead, focusing mental magicks through his fingers and at the creature. Meanwhile, Noah took a more reckless approach. Tapping his toe against stone with a tapa-tapa-tap a small blade popped out and the scrawny professor leapt on the creature’s back. The blade dug deep into the creature’s side and fingernails into its shoulders. A spare hand grabbed a small plasma pistol from a hidden holder and fired into the side of the creature’s head. The smell of singed flesh and the ozone of telekinesis lingered in the air around Mansfield, making his gasping breaths harder to take. “Break… the… thing… Hannah… Break… the… thing…” Noah managed to grunt out to their final companion between his struggles to both hold on and damage the creature. Their efforts did little but slow the creature, but that was something.
Mansfield had almost forgotten about Hannah. Given his circumstances, he doubted anyone would blame him. As it were, he looked to the monolith and noticed two things. First, the stone had begun to “bleed” a strange and oily black substance which seemed to warp whatever it touched into that strange green-black granite. The creature seemed all too happy to see the substance, which meant Mansfield dreaded what it did. Fortunately, that wasn’t all he saw.
Hannah was standing before the monolith and was weaving intricate patterns of Spatial Energy around the monolith. Distracted as he was, Mansfield couldn’t make out exactly what her aim was from the sigils alone, but he could tell she was using every iota of her skill to do it. It seemed to be working too, as the city began to fade away slowly, revealing the auditorium they had left behind when they had shifted to the terrible city.
The creature stumbled as synapses misfired and plasma singed its skin. Its grip loosened just enough for Mansfield to get in a few kicks and further loosen its hold. Another few moments of struggling, aided by Noah and Avery’s assault, and Mansfield managed to drop free. Recoiling quickly, both from the creature’s grasp and the strange substance on the floor. As he retreated, he added a telekinetic blast of his own to the assault, causing the creature to stumble forward and against the monolith.
At the same time, Hannah was putting the finishing touches on her spell by weaving in a bit of Temporal Energy to the spell. Unfortunately, that was when her skills failed her. Unable to properly power the spell, its sigils began to fail. “Dammit, I need more power!” She shouted in frustration, knowing a moment’s delay could ruin everything.
Fortunately, Noah had just rolled to his feet from where he had fallen off the creature as it stumbled. He popped up and grinned. Power? I-I can do that!” He flipped a few switches on the side of his pistol, shifting its output out of the range of plasma and into pure Primal Force. He fired straight into the gap in Hannah’s sigils representing its rapidly failing power. Once. Twice. Three times. Each blast caused the sigils to flash and strengthen, but it wasn’t enough. They dimmed again each time, quickly draining the energy from the blasts. “Aww… Fuckit…!” He fired three more blasts rapidly and finished the trio of shots by lightly spinning a dial and throwing the pistol over Hannah’s head and to the sigils. It struck the mystic construct and seemed to disappear. For a moment, nothing happened…
…Suddenly there was a bright flash of light as the monolith seemed to implode. It splintered and shrank until it seemed to blink out of existence. About halfway through the process of folding within itself, the bizarre and twisted city seemed to fade from view and the creature vanished along with it. It continued to collapses inward until it disappeared from reality entirely, but not before as a final ‘fuck you’ it seemed to spray the strange ichor everywhere. Everything that foul liquid touched was warped and replaced with the strange green-black substance that resembled marble.
Mansfield surveyed the scene around him and couldn’t hide the shock in his face. In the wake of the implosion, the missing students had almost entirely returned. Laying unconscious in their chairs and covered in a thin layer of strange slime, they seemed completely unharmed. The few unaccounted for students had been in the seats closest to where the monolith had appeared and their seats remained missing from the circle where the stone had been. Glancing around, Mansfield called out. “Is everyone okay?” He spotted Noah and Avery, sitting up from where they had fallen. “Anyone seen Hannah? Or any of the missing students…?” Mansfield already dreaded he knew the answer, not mention the nightmare of identifying exactly who was missing…
A shaken head from both men left Mansfield worried. If the ichor had touched her, or even if she had gotten caught in the implosion… There was no telling where she had ended up. Even if she and the missing students were safe, unlikely as that was, there was no guarantee that they would have ended up anywhere near each other. Even if they had had, there was no telling how long they would have to rescue them. Assuming they even could mount a rescue in time. Plus arrangements would need to be made to ensure the returned students were unharmed and there wouldn’t be lingering effects of the their trip or the ectoplasmic residue. Mansfield audibly groaned. “Damn…” If there were worse ways to begin a term, he couldn’t think of one…