The tunnels

Every time again I wandered that cold, monotonous landscape. It was all there ever was. Me, the snow-covered hills, the grey sky, and that damnable cold. I had been wandering this cold grey canvas for what must have been years, looking for this one thing: warmth. I could not recall what it meant though, as all I knew was that it was the opposite of everything I had experienced so far. That grey, monotonous sky, the wind nipping at my already frost-bitten flesh with its needle-like teeth; and the figures standing together in the distance, on that almost indistinguishable horizon. I was certain that they could give me warmth, those figures far away. People. But no matter how many snowy hills I laboriously climbed. No matter how much I strained my muscles petrified by this arctic landscape—no matter how much I gave it my all, they never came closer: a constant reminder of that unattainable warmth I so desperately longed for.

Eventually, when I came to yet another hill, large and steep; I fell to my knees. Broken, shivering, and tired. The cold would not stop. It would never stop. Never. Then, a strange sensation came. Something I had not experienced in what felt like a thousand years. Streams of tears were flowing down my face, caressing my skin with a warm, gentle touch. I savored the feeling, reminded of what warmth is. But then the wind came rolling down the hill in front of me and took away the warmth of my tears, making them freeze onto my now even colder face. I wanted to scream in pain as that frigid brand of frozen tears burned into my face, and tore my frost-hardened skin apart. But I was too tired to scream. I just sat there in silence and listened to the mocking howling of the wind. I cursed it for all that it was worth. I wanted to grab it, strike it, stomp on it. I would have done anything to hurt that accursed icy blast; but I could do nothing. And the wind, the wind just swept on, leaving me even colder than before.

I looked down, defeated. I wanted it to stop. I wanted to stop. When suddenly I saw my tears had created a tiny speck of molten snow; and through that seemingly insignificant watery window I saw something, buried beneath the frost. It looked like a flat piece of stone. Ravished by my new discovery, I started frantically digging away all the snow that surrounded me, quickly laying bare the whole thing. It was a large perfectly square stone adorned with ornamental patterns and engraving; but it was only one part of a greater structure I had cleared out. The entrance to a tunnel, made out of perfectly square, ancient stone blocks.

It was not very deep. Only about two meters down. Without hesitation I climbed in, eager to escape this frozen hellscape. The tunnel itself was analogous to its entrance. It was perfectly square, supported by those huge blocks. It continued horizontally, and it was big enough for me to comfortably crouch in. So I pressed on into the antediluvian structure, leaving behind the snowy hills, the grey sky, and the distant figures. The longer I crawled on, the darker it got. I was not afraid. I actually rather enjoyed the dark; a welcome diversion from that grey cold monotony of the world above. While crawling straight forward for what must have been several minutes I was contemplating how ancient this passage might be, until I abruptly hit my head on what I feared was the end of the tunnel. As I felt around me I noticed the tunnel did not stop, but actually made a 90 degree turn to the right. I turned as well, and it did not take long before I hit my head again; but this time I did not have to feel around me to know where to go, because I saw something, flickering, to my left.

I saw light, as if from a burning torch. As I approached it I could feel the same sensation as when those tears had streamed down my face before; but this time I felt it envelop my entire body. Utterly enthralled by this newfound warmth, I scampered over to the torch as quickly as I could. But as I came to the center of what must have been where the light was coming from, there was no actual torch there. The light and its warmth came radiating out of seemingly nowhere. When I more closely examined the source of this orange hue however, I saw that it was coming from a strange bas-relief symbol in the center of one of the stone blocks. A symbol which bore a vague likeness to the shape of a star. I did not investigate any further however, as my interest was quickly drawn to something else. The tunnel had come to what looked like a crossroad. To the left and right it continued for what looked like a couple tens of meters. All was made with the same uniformly designed blocks adorned with bas reliefs. The dark was occasionally broken up by another orange light, presumably coming from more of those strange symbols.

What had me completely baffled however was the tunnel straight ahead of me. It was relatively short compared to the other two, but more importantly, it was not empty. The walls were lined with shelves hewn into the stone, and on the shelves were volumes upon volumes of what looked like books. Wild with curiosity I approached one of the shelves and pulled back one of the leather covers. By the gods! This is a library! I quickly pulled out the book, and read the title: "Life, 35 million years A.A.". Being strangely surprised by the fact it was in English, I opened it up and was greeted by the image of a lean scaly creature. It stood on two long slender legs, had arms tucked in close to its body, a long neck and tail, and a maw full of sharp teeth. At first I conjectured it was some kind of dinosaur. The animal's likeness was unmistakable to me, but what made me doubt was the incredible detail of the illustration. Every scale of its skin was clearly discernible; almost like… a photograph. "How could anyone have taken a photograph of a dinosaur that has been extinct for nearly 200 million years?", I thought. But then, I read the caption at the bottom of the page, sending a shiver down my spine. "Coelophysis, an early therapod species, see page 52" With a mixed feeling of both enthusiasm and foreboding I turned to page 52, expecting to find more strangely detailed illustrations; but what I found instead baffled me even more. A full page of text describing the lifestyle of this long extinct dinosaur. I was impressed by the comprehensiveness of the text. This amount of information could not possibly come from mere research of the fossil record. I quickly flipped through the rest of the book. It was a volume filled with meticulous illustrations and descriptions of all kinds of creatures from the Triassic period, both known and unknown to modern science.

Bewildered by the contents of the book I held in my hands I looked at the title once more. The way it was dated puzzled me: "35 million years A.A.". I was curious as to what A.A. meant. Whoever wrote this book clearly had a different way of dating the past. Finding what this abbreviation means could shed some light on when the book was made. I read through the first few pages, and got a strong feeling of consternation when finally I found the explanation I sought. A.A. is an abbreviation… for After Arrival. "Arrival of what?", I asked myself bewilderedly.

I quickly snapped out of deep contemplation as from the corner of my eye I saw something move in the far end of the tunnel I was in. Startled, and frozen with fear I stared at the spot where I had glimpsed it. I saw that there was another one of those glowing symbols there, and conjectured it must have been the mere flickering of its orange hue that made me start. Before I continued browsing the books more, I decided I should see if there were more branching paths in this ancient underground network. I went to the far end of the book-filled "aisle", and surely enough I found myself in another cross section. It was an analogue to the one I had started from. A long tunnel running to my left and right perfectly parallel to the earlier one, and for just as long as well. I construed these were probably the main hallways, with more book-lined passages connecting them. My hypothesis was quickly confirmed as I went further to the right, and found another aisle; this one lined with books as well. Here too I pulled out one of the covers and started reading. This one was filled with such wondrous tales of fancy that they made me reminisce about those days when I was still young, and my grandmother would read me and my brother fairytales before bed. The settings of these tales puzzled me as much as they pleased me. Whoever had written this must have had a remarkably rich imagination.

I suddenly closed the book though, as it occurred to me what sort of place I had found myself in. Here, in a safe, dark place, filled with warm light, and all the books I could ever possibly want. I had not felt this excited in years. Revitalized, I started browsing through the aisles, occasionally taking a book with me until I had an entire stack of them. I then sat myself close to one of the radiant bas reliefs I had by now become so acquainted with, and started reading. Hours went by as I read marvelous tales, looked at beautiful illustrations, and found knowledge the likes of which no other human being could ever hope to attain. Sitting warm and safe in these ancient tunnels. For the first time in years, I did not want to wake up.

When I had finished the last book I immediately wanted to go for more; but then I realized something. I had forgotten where exactly I had taken them all from. I really wanted to keep this library orderly. Not only because that is an overall habit of mine; but also because somehow I felt an almost subconscious compulsion to put these books exactly where I had taken them from, as if I should respect the rightful owner of these great volumes. So I laid the books down in an ordered stack and set out with one of them to find where it belonged; but then, right as I turned the corner, I heard a hurried shuffling sound behind me. Startled, I dropped the book and quickly turned back to see what it was; but as I peered back into the corridor I was utterly shocked. The stack of books… it was gone!

Once more overcome with consternation—and a faint sense of foreboding—I closely inspected the spot where the books had lain. The dust on the floor had been disturbed by something. Something other than me. There were several long trails, almost as if something had been dragged across the floor. I saw something even more disturbing between these dragging trails in the dust. It was partially erased by whatever had dragged on the floor, but there was no mistaking it. A print about the size of my hand lied before me. It consisted of four outspread toes; each with a dot-like imprint in front of them, most likely made by a claw. I could not relate this kind of print to any animal I knew, but of one thing I was now certain. I was not alone here in this ancient stone library.

Then, when I traced the trails in the dust and peeped around the corner, I saw it again. Movement. Only this time it was definitely not the flickering of the light. On the floor I saw a cluster of tails slither into the aisle on the far end of the corridor. Stark with fear, I immediately retreated and started thinking. What in the world is this thing roaming these ancient tunnels? I sat there for what felt like hours as my mind raced with otherworldly, terrifying imagery of things said to inhabit the dark unplumbed cosmos. I regretfully thought about that horrible mistake I had made all those years ago, when I could not yet grasp the significance of the cold: "Why did I have to look in that worm-eaten, ancient volume? Nothing has been the same since! Gods, all those mind-rending things that mad Arab had written in that dreaded Necronomicon! That one passage… THAT ONE PASSA—" I abruptly snapped out of my panic-induced pondering as I heard something approaching. The sound of shuffling footsteps, at the other end of the aisle.

I sat there, completely stupefied as the thing came round the corner. Two faintly glowing orange eyes, deeply set in their sockets, observed me as it slowly stepped out of the shadows. It was a creature that did not look like anything I had ever seen. Just a few meters before me stood a bent figure with a deep green, warted skin. Compared to its long arms with gaunt hands, it had squat, and relatively short hind legs; perfectly adjusted to wandering these ancient tunnels—or perhaps it was the other way around, I quickly thought. Behind it dragged—if I am not mistaken—five long, wrinkly tails; which made a shuffling sound as it moved. The thing had a ghoulish, almost skeletal look, bent claws, and a maw filled with pointed teeth. But, strangely enough, I was not afraid anymore. For even though this strange thing would have looked nothing short from repulsive—let alone terrifying—to the average person, there was something strangely soothing about the way it moved. I got the impression that it was specifically making an effort not to frighten me; making only gradual, gentle movements. It was like a hiker trying to approach a deer. Its eyes amicably stared into mine as it shuffled forward, not making any sudden movements. The thing stopped its advance and brought forward one of its lagging flexible tails. The tail was wrapped around a book, which it took into its hands. It was the book I had dropped in the corridor! I continued looking, dumbfounded, as what I now supposed is this place's librarian slid the book into a gap between the countless volumes. Turns out I had not even noticed the gap when I tried to find out where to put it. Then, as the librarian slowly retreated back into the dim corridor, a crystal-clear thought penetrated my mind: "One at a time. No need to hurry."

I felt remarkably more at ease after the strange encounter. And as I read the books one by one, I even started to feel at home. Now I no longer became startled whenever I saw something moving in the shadows; or when I saw a book was gone from the shelves, only to return a couple hours later. For I knew what inhabited this place, and that it had as much an appreciation for reading as I had. With this place's librarian—once strange, now familiar—I lived mostly in silent kinship. Though sometimes, without uttering a single word aloud, we would share our thoughts and experiences; discussing the many differences between the times we had lived in. The more we became familiar with one another, the more I remembered what it was like to feel warmth. Finally I had gotten it. Finally, I was home.

When I finally permitted myself to sleep in this antediluvian stronghold, and dreamt of my rotting body finally being found in my cold apartment, that I remembered in full that one passage from the Necronomicon that had once frightened me so:

"Cursed is the one who roams the cold wastes alone in doubtful sleep. The one who knows too much for the mind to bear, but cannot share it. In life shall the one forever be alone; for there can only be one at a time. But, there have been such splintering projections onto our reality of the thing beyond the stars before. The chasm of time can be crossed; but only in death. Only in death can the ones finally find the warmth of kinship. Only in death shall be united the facets of the All-In-One."

(Mount Shrine – Empty slopes)