January 30 at 12:00 AM
Based on a photo by Anna Cervova
Lawson scanned over the books, one after another, until his eyes filled with tears. Several of the accounts were handwritten, more art than language, dashed off with an eccentric flair. But the wayward scribble did little to slow him down; Lawson had a keen eye for such things, frequently unearthing gems from deep, illegible texts.
"Another." Lawson pushed aside a tall stack of books.
Laurent nodded and fetched some more.
Through the night the hunter devoured the texts, until he was no longer aware of the room around him. Ink bled down the cloth pulp, consuming the space between words and margins.
Pages soon became leaves, falling in the moonlight. His torch no longer with him, Lawson could barely make out the dim path ahead. Leaves showered down, whispering their secrets.
The hunter coughed, then again and again. Something was clogging his throat. He coughed deeper still, and clutched his windpipe as the obstruction fell from him. A grayish-brown husk littered the forest floor. His lungs were full of pulp.
"Why are you here?" A voice boomed.
Lawson lifted his head. A black willow rose before him, blotting out everything, save a sliver of moonlight.
"I come in search of knowledge," Lawson managed.
"I, too, seek knowledge." Twisted fingers reached out, and plucked Lawson from where he stood. It drew him close, crushing down. "Is there kindness in your heart, like the father before you?"
"Yes," he gasped.
Neighboring trees crowded around, warped and gangling.
"The truth lies underneath." It ripped a patch of flesh from Lawson's cheek, and tossed it into the night.
Lawson screamed as blood streamed down his chin.
Careful not to tread too deep, the black tree continued peeling flesh from bone. The hunter squirmed as the wood specters pawed at him, the essence falling from him in a steady downpour.
As the forest spinned, Lawson instinctively pulled back as something grazed his neck. He drew back again as a second gray shadow snapped its jaws in front of him, and then fell back to the earth. Two creatures paced in circles below, licking the blood from their manes. The lions steadied themselves, and then pounced at the wounded quarry.
"Intriguing," said the tree, swatting away the lions like flies. It stripped off a long stretch from Lawson's back, and marveled at the handiwork. "Tales of suffering we have endured at the hands of shadows and their kin. And what is this? To their aid you gallop, beholden to them like brothers?" the tree erupted. "Wander aimlessly into the forest, the more lost you will become. Leave now you must, with haste."
Stripped bare of his skin, Lawson bled like a river. "Not until I find her," he moaned.
Blood trickled into the hungry mouths below. Their appetite at fever pitch, the lions dug in their claws, and scampered up the black tree.
"Be still in your movements, let the anger subside, and she will come for you," said the tree.
"No," said the hunter. "I must not stop now."
"Leave while you still know the way back or the hunger will consume you." The tree opened its jagged mouth and tossed him in. As he fell, the lions sprang from their perch, biting down and tearing apart the last of his earthly core.
Lawson fell out of the chair, knocking over a pile of books as he went down. He recoiled, scanning over himself, surprised he was still intact. Slowly he took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
"If words were wine, it would be ages until you awoke from your drunken stupor." Lord Vangley grinned.
Laurent stirred from his sleep, surprised that he, too, had slumbered in the cold embrace of the archive.
"My lord," said Lawson. "How is it that you are here? The tunnels around us are flooded."
"Nothing in Vissorouy escapes my reach." Vangley offered.
"Very well." He took the elder's hand and got to his feet, wiping a trace of spittle from his mouth. Vangley's presence made Lawson suspicious; he had examined the room several times, and did not detect an odd draft or hint of a secret door. Most likely the old man had been in the room the entire time, a point not lost on him. "I am afraid I have lost my bearings." Lawson stroked his temple. "What time is it?"
"When the church bell tolls it will be seven o'clock."
"Good, still plenty of time for research." Lawson scooped up the books and sat down.
Lord Vangley leaned over. "Seven o'clock in the evening," he added.