The Cursed Word

The man lay in his path, screaming. Raymond had been hearing him for the last quarter of a klick or so. There were no words in the scream. Just the sounds of a man’s agony.

Raymond walked down a narrow path. There were no breaks here, no narrow alleyways where he could move to a different stack. Shelves stretched on as far as he could see, boxing him into a confrontation with the screaming man that he didn’t want.

The books in this part of the Library were old. Older than any Raymond had come across before. They were crumbling tomes on crumbling wooden shelves, each volume chained into position. The florescent lights overhead cast stark shadows across his path.

Now that he could see him, the man was about Raymond’s age with the same pasty skin of everyone who was trapped in the Library. He clutched one of the Medieval tomes to his chest as tiny pale worms inched across his clothing. Raymond hadn’t seen anything like them in all of his years of overseas deployments and rotten food.

He leaned over the man, keeping himself at arm’s length. People were scarce in the Library. Supplies scarcer. And intel. He was surrounded by information but never knew what was happening. He’d come into the Library with no idea of what to expect, but it wasn’t this.

The man in his path hadn’t stopped screaming. Raymond didn’t think he was even aware of his presence.

“Hey man. What happened to you?” he asked. “Hey, can you hear me?”

He refused to touch the man to shake him and risk being infested by the bugs. The man could answer him or go to hell, though he seemed to be in hell already. They might all be.

“What the fuck is wrong with this place?” Raymond asked.

“Magic,” the man groaned. “Fucking magic.”

A month ago Raymond would have said that magic’s not real and punched the man for fucking with him. A month ago the Library hadn’t started to gobble up the universe.

“What happened to you? What the hell are these bugs?”

“Stole the book,” the man said, opening the front cover of the fat tome.

Raymond made out the words on the first page, in faded Gothic strokes of some poor monk’s pen hundreds of years ago: If anyone taketh this book, let bookworms gnaw his entrails, let the falling sickness and fever seize him, and let there be no surcease to his agony till the dissolution come.

The warning was cheerfully decorated with small animals killing each other. Medieval monks didn’t fuck around, apparently.

“Bookworms?” Raymond asked.

The man coughed, a gurgling laugh. “Fucking curse came to life. This whole place isn’t fucking around.”

Raymond took his knife out slowly, careful to let the man see what he was doing. “You need anything?”

The man shook his head. He wiped an arm across his face, smearing the layer of dirt and sweat. “I can feel ’em. I can feel ’em in my guts. I just always loved books, you know? I’ve never seen a book this old before in my life. Just wanted one for my own since we’re all going to die in here anyway. We’re all going to die in here.”

“I know,” Raymond said.

He gave the man a clean death. It was all he could do for him. He left the book laying on the stranger’s chest, opened to the first page as a warning to the next person who came along. Raymond moved forward, checking for bugs as he went.

Dianne Williams lives in Lawrence, Kansas. She grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries and classic science fiction. She once dreamed of being an astronaut. Or maybe a lawyer. Or an artist. She settled for being as many of them as she could all at once through fiction writing.

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