She clutched the book to her chest and tried not to make eye contact with anybody. It had been in her dingy apartment for two weeks, and she hadn't worried. The crack-heads wouldn't look twice at a book. But here at a university? Books were their passion, right?
What made it worse was that the book knew it was home. Maybe it hadn't come specifically from here, but with so many of its brothers and sisters residing in this place, it was as good a home as any.
How crazy would people think her if she said any of that out loud? A book knowing where it was? Just a few weeks ago, she'd have laughed, too. That was before she knew better. Before this book came into her life.
She looked up at the two tall buildings in front of her. According to the map, one was the history building. Professor Carl's office resided on the top floor. Why did they have to name the stupid buildings after people instead of calling them what they were?
"You look lost."
Dora jumped, and wished she had a better grip on her nerves. The speaker had to know how valuable the book was now.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
She turned and found herself facing a man she guessed to be in his mid-30's. A bit young to be a professor--weren't they all grey haired gentlemen who wore bow ties and suspenders? But he was one; he had that air about him.
She grasped the book tighter and stared at her feet. "It's okay."
"Do you need some help?"
She planned on shaking her head like she always did when someone offered help, but something about his smile put her at ease. And she really could use some directions.
"I'm looking for Professor Carl's office, but I'm not sure which is the history building."
His smile flashed bigger. "You're in luck. I can take you right to it."
"Oh, no, I don't want to trouble you."
"It'd be more of an inconvenience if you didn't follow me. I'm Peter Carl. I'm assuming you're Dora?"
He stuck his hand out for her to shake. She stared at it for a few beats, and then grasped it for a split second. "Yeah, I'm Dora."
"Excellent. Shall we?" He motioned to the building to the left, the Harold A. Farmer building. "I'm anxious to examine that treasure you're holding."
She nodded and followed, making sure to clutch the book that much tighter. It wouldn't do to have someone snatch it from her grasp now. Not this close to being done.
As she followed, there was no doubt he wasn't lying about being Professor Carl. Since he'd approached, the book had warmed up and sent out pleasant vibes. She needed to remain vigilant, but this was the right course of action. Of that she had no doubt.
He didn't say anything until they boarded the elevator and the doors slid shut. "Keep up the silence. We'll be able to talk freely in my office. I have wards in place that'll keep out even the most powerful intruders." His smile never left his face, but her knees buckled.
He reached out to steady her, but she flinched away. "Don't worry. I'm on your side, and no one knows you're here. I'm being overly cautious, is all."
She tried to return the smile. This would all be over soon, and she'd be able to go back to her normal life. If it all went her way she might even get out of this with a few extra bucks.
The elevator doors slid open, and he led her to his office. In addition to unlocking the door with his keys, he waved his hand in front of it and whispered some sort of gibberish. Only then did he push it open and motion her inside.
After he locked the door and spoke another few unfamiliar words, he turned to her, the smile still on his lips, but not in his eyes. Those were dead serious. "I'm guessing the book tells you to trust me, but to not hand it over."
She gasped. That was exactly the feeling that bled through her.
"It's dangerous in my hands. I promise you I won't try to take it by force. Okay, Dora?"
She nodded and stared at the floor, her fingers hurting from gripping the book so tight.
"Look at me, Dora. Look me in the eyes. I want to make sure you understand."
She obeyed. When her gaze held his, she mumbled, "Okay."
"Good. Now listen carefully. I might ask to hold the book. Don't let me. No matter how important I say it is, do not let me get a hold of that book. Understand?"
"It's okay that I read it, in fact necessary, but only if you open it and keep both hands on it at all times. Still following?"
"In a few minutes, I'm going to start lying to you. Don't pay any attention. I apologize in advance if I call you any names. I don't think I will, but the book does strange things to me. I'll be able to give you a heads up when this starts, so don't worry. Okay?"
Her breath came in ragged gasps. "How do I know you're not lying to me now?"
His smile went all the way to his eyes again. "Good question. Ask the book. It'll tell you. It'll guide you through this whole ordeal. I don't know how you got mixed up in this, but I'm sorry you did. Don't worry. You'll get through. We both will."
She nodded. "I thought I was coming here just to sell it back to you."
"I know a buyer once it's pacified. She pays well." His breathing started to labor. "It's coming. Remember, believe nothing I say. Except the page numbers. I won't lie about those." He let out a growl that was halfway between pain and warning. The only thing that kept her from bolting was the continuous reassurance from the book.
"Page 77," Professor Carl said in a voice she hardly recognized. "Give it here. I'll find it."
The book shook in her hands. She ignored his request and turned to the correct page. He glanced at it, and then said, "Page 282. Hurry."
She set the book down onto his desk, but made sure both hands stayed on it. The pages practically leapt to 282.
"Give me the book. I'll find what I need faster."
She shook her head and kept both hands on it. She said a silent prayer that he'd keep his promise not to hurt her.
"Page 112. Give it here. I need to get there now."
"No." She flipped the pages back to 112. The book felt funny in her hands, more like a regular one instead of whatever magic it was. Hopefully it meant this was almost done.
"This time I'll turn the pages, and you read. Page 333."
The book buzzed under her touch, a warning jolt. She looked over at Professor Carl as she turned the pages. She could have sworn his real eyes, not the glazed over ones that had been there since this started, looked at her for an instant. What did it mean?
"Read," he said. His eyes, the evil ones again, bored a hole into her. The book did all it could to keep her attention focused elsewhere, anywhere but the words.
"Read, Dora. It's your destiny."
"No, you're lying," she managed to croak out while fighting the temptation. God, she wanted to see what it said so badly. Her eyes might as well have been filled with magnets drawn to the ironclad words of the page.
"Page 333, Dora. Read it."
The book convulsed in her hands. If it had the power to shut on its own, it would have. Instead of helping, that movement snapped her into action. Her eyes poured over the text. She read silently at first, but as she continued, the words forced their way between her lips. She had no idea what language it was in, what the words meant, or even how she could create the correct sounds for those symbols, but she did.
Professor Carl cackled an inhuman laugh as a colorful acidic mist bled out of the pages and filled the room. His laughter turned to coughs as the mist invaded his lungs. Before she could even think to release her hands to help, he dropped dead. She didn't need to examine his body to know it was true.
The magically sealed door burst open, and the mist seeped out into the hallway. Dora kept her hands on the book, hoping it'd give her advice, but it just lay there, as dead as Professor Carl.
She pried her hands off. Maybe that'd somehow end the spell, but no such luck. She walked to the window and pulled open the shades. The pinkish-orange mist had already spread across campus, and probably beyond, choking the life out of anything breathing.
As Dora watched humanity end, she couldn't even cry.
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