The look on the Abbot’s face was telling. “Come in,” he said. “Hurry up Flint, I haven’t got all day.”
Flint lingered in the doorway for a moment. He was not ready for another tongue-lashing from the old man. “Is something the matter?”
“Close the door behind you.” The Abbot sat behind an ancient desk that gave the man a distinct aura of wisdom and authority.
Something unpleasant was coming, that much was certain. The Abbot rarely called the adjuncts into his office, and this was the third time Flint had been summoned inside a month. Flint pulled the door shut with trembling hands.
“I think you already know why you’re here,” the Abbot said. His impassive eyes studied Flint. “It’s the same problem we’ve had since you started.”
“The research,” Flint said, looking down.
“You need to produce something. I understand that you are busy teaching. But so are all of the monks. You need to find some balance between class and your research. We can’t keep you on as an adjunct if you don’t produce something original.”
The words did not register immediately. Flint shook his head. “Can’t keep me on? You mean you’re going to dismiss me?”
“I have no choice!” the Abbot said. “You’re a fine teacher, but this is a research monastery. How will it look if my monks are not broadening our knowledge of the occult?”
“But I’m buried in work! You have me teaching more classes than any other monk by half. It’s not that I don’t want to study. I just don’t have the time.”
“Are you telling me you can’t do the job?” The old man placed a heavy hand on his desk.
Flint’s mouth hung open, and he waited for words to come out.
“Look,” the Abbot said. “I’m not unreasonable.” He shifted in his seat, and his eyes filled with an uncharacteristic guile. “I’d be willing to give you some extra time, if you are willing to do me a favor. Brother Godfrey has been working on a side project for almost a year now.” The Abbot sighed. “A full year. And no one has any idea what he’s actually doing.”
“I’ve heard,” Flint said, shrugging.
“You and everyone else. But it’s my responsibility to know, and that’s the trouble. Brother Godfrey is brilliant, but he’s stubborn as an ass. And he’s tenured. He won’t say a word. He wouldn’t even tell me where he’s working.”
“That’s the favor? You want me to find out where he’s researching?”
“And what, if you can. Do that, and I’ll give you a pass on your work for the next few months.” The Abbot pointed a finger at Flint. “But listen. I don’t want to hear about you breaking any rules, or using the occult to manipulate him. Do it right, or don’t do it at all.” The Abbot put his hand back on the desk. “Why don’t you see if he’ll take you on as his research assistant? That would put you right where you need to be.”
“I don’t know,” Flint said. “He’s so secretive. Do you really think he would consider it?”
“Go find out,” the Abbot said in a tone that told Flint the conversation was over.
Flint tried to hide his worry. He pulled open the door and stepped out into the empty corridor.
“And Flint,” the Abbot said. “This is the third time I’ve had you in my office. This is your last chance.”
Flint looked through the open door and into Godfrey’s lecture hall. Godfrey stood in front of a large body of students, where gray light filtered in through the windows and onto his brown robes.
Godfrey cleared his throat. “Now, there are some things that divine studies have yet to achieve. Some of these things have not been achieved because they are physically impossible to accomplish. Others have not been adequately studied because they are beyond the pale. They are considered too dark or too dangerous. Some, here at the university, are afraid to push past these boundaries. But I am not one of them. Our next lecture will touch on one of these topics. I think you will find it enlightening.”
Flint cocked his head to one side. Godfrey’s cavalier attitude sat well on him, despite his scholarly appearance.
A young student, hardly old enough to grow a beard, raised his hand. “Brother, aren’t there some subjects that are best left untouched?”
“Perhaps,” Godfrey said, resting a hard look on the apprentice. “But those studies are well beyond the capabilities of first-year students.” The school-bell’s low chime echoed overhead, and Godfrey looked up. “Looks like that will be all for today. Class dismissed.” The students poured into the corridor, leaving Godfrey alone.
Flint strode past the empty desks. “Brother Godfrey,” he said as he approached. “Good evening.”
Godfrey wiped at the blackboard with a rag. “Evening.”
“How goes the work?”
Godfrey answered automatically. “Fine. Just fine.”
The two stood in an uncomfortable silence.
“Godfrey, I have a favor to ask.”
Godfrey regarded Flint. “A favor?”
“You probably don’t know, but I’ve been struggling with my research lately.”
Godfrey scoffed. “Of course I know. Everyone knows.”
The comment caught Flint off-guard, and he recoiled behind a well-maintained facade. “Everyone… Well, it’s been difficult finding time to study when I’m pulled in so many directions.”
“Then make time. Late nights. Weekends. Whatever you have to do. No one is going to hold your hand. I do most of my best work when the moon is out.”
“Actually, that’s what I want to ask you. Would you be willing to let me work with you? I’ve been dying to know what your project is all about.”
Godfrey’s face fell. “Did the Abbot send you in here after me? I knew that fool would start prying sooner or later.”
“He said that you might be willing to take me on as a research assistant. Help me get a foothold in some meaningful work.”
“Take you on as an informant, you mean. He’s trying to find out what I’m onto, isn’t he?”
“Godfrey, please. I’m already up every night grading. The Abbot is going to fire me if I don’t deliver something soon.”
Godfrey scowled. “Sorry,” he said. “My work is too sensitive. You’ll have to make do on your own.”
Hope melted from Flint, and he left to wander the corridors.
“I’m not surprised,” Gloria said. She moved her leather schoolbag to the ground, and Flint set his plate in its place. “He’s never been particularly pleasant.” Gloria spooned up the last of her dinner. “And he’s always been strange, too. Especially when it comes to his work.”
Flint slammed a fist on the table. “He’s paranoid, that’s what he is! He was so preoccupied thinking about the Abbot that he didn’t even listen to what I was asking him.”
Gloria’s spoon stopped halfway to her mouth, and she glanced around the dining hall. The students at the table next to them looked startled. She nodded to appease them. “Take it easy,” she said. “You’ll figure something out.”
Flint shook his head. “You don’t understand. I have nothing outside of the Priory. Nothing. I’ll be on the streets if I lose my job here. Out on Beggars’ Row next to the drunks, shaking a cup at you when you walk to work in the mornings.”
Gloria’s quiet lasted too long.
“What?” Flint said.
She looked around and said, “Don’t be obtuse. You know you won’t be on the streets. But I wouldn’t be walking by you anyway. I’m leaving the Priory soon. That’s why I can’t help you. I’m going to tell the Abbot tomorrow.”
Flint’s face was placid, though a storm brewed behind his eyes. He looked at Gloria with the intensity of a brokenhearted man. “Leaving? But why? I thought you were happy here. You’ve only just earned your tenure.”
“It’s this place, Flint,” Gloria said. “These people. Every one of them is pretentious. They think they’re better than the rest of the world because of their studies. I need a real experience. Something outside of these walls.” She set her lovely hand on Flint’s.
The pace of Flint’s heart quickened. He looked down at her hand, then at her face.
“I want you to come with me,” she said.
Flint shook his head in dismay. “I… I can’t.”
“I can make something of myself here,” Flint said. “You can make something of yourself here. I know it’s not perfect, but there is so much to experience here. The longer I study, the more I realize that we know almost nothing about the occult. You and I can explore it all together.”
The summons bell rung for evening class. “I have to go,” Gloria said.
Flint watched the flow of her long hair as she walked away. He sat at the table, brooding, until his food was cold. After a time, he shook his head and pushed his chair back.
A familiar brown bag lay under the table.
Flint picked it up, and looked inside to confirm that it belonged to Gloria. Her lecture notes, her quills, and her small key ring hid inside.
He left the dining hall for his dormitory with the bag under his arm, winding through the eastern wing where a disused entryway let in the cold.
Godfrey stood in the half-open door. He carried a small pack full of travel supplies and was wrapped in a mass of heavy cloaks to ward off the cold. He tried to leave before Flint could interrupt him.
“Out for the night?” Flint said.
“Going to visit my daughter in town. I’ll be back before class tomorrow.” He pulled a hood over his head.
“Any chance you’d reconsider what we talked about earlier?”
Godfrey disappeared into the snowy night, leaving the door open behind him.
Flint ran his fingers over Gloria’s bag. A key to the tenured monks’ common room rested inside – the common room attached to Godfrey’s private chambers. Flint lingered at the door for a time, as if struggling with a decision, then reached in the bag and removed the key.
The key slid home, and Flint peeked around the edge of the common room door. The fireplace offered the only light, but it was enough to show that the room was empty. All of the senior monks had retired to their rooms. Flint crept in, keeping to the shadowy corners where he might be able to disappear should someone interrupt him.
Godfrey’s private chambers were on the far side of the common area, opposite a tidy circle of leather armchairs and writing desks.
Flint slunk past a closed door, wincing when the wood floor groaned under his weight.
Someone stirred behind the heavy oak. The handle rattled, and the door swung open, hiding Flint from whoever stood on the other side.
Flint’s breath caught in his throat, and he froze.
The fat, dark-skinned monk who lumbered out could only have been Brother Harken. Harken threw the door shut without a backward glance and strode across the room. He picked up a stack of parchment from one of the desks and sat at the fireplace with his back to Flint.
Flint waited until the man had shut out the world around him, dragging his round fingers across lines of scrawling text and murmuring to himself. Flint inched along the perimeter, stopping short every time the man moved to turn a page or tend to the fire.
His hand found Godfrey’s doorknob, but it hung against the lock. Flint squeezed the brass and narrowed his eyes, concentrating on something far away and unseen.
But nothing happened. Flint glanced down at his hands, puzzled, as if he had expected a reaction. He closed his eyes and tried again. A mass of black magic laced in wisps of purple smoke enclosed Flint’s hand. The lock’s tumblers fell into place with a terrifying click. Flint dared a glance over his shoulder to see if the sound caught Harken’s attention, but it was lost in the crack and pop of the fire.
Flint pulled the door open gingerly, but the hinges screamed. He slipped through the narrow aperture and passed out of sight behind it.
Godfrey’s room was lit only by a sliver of firelight and the moon behind the snow. “I thought you were going into town for the night,” Harken said from the other side of the door.
“Me?” The Abbot was in the common room, not twenty feet away from Flint.
“Good evening, Abbot. Gloria,” Harken said. “No, not you. I just heard Godfrey at his door. I think he’s in there, anyway.”
“Strange,” Gloria said. “I saw him leaving just a little while ago.” Her soft footsteps echoed across the common room, drawing nearer to Godfrey’s room. “Godfrey? Knock, knock.”
Flint could not find the mindfulness to hide, and he stood in the middle of the room like a fool when Gloria put her head inside. Their eyes met and Flint shook his head, putting a finger over his lips before she could speak.
“He in there?” the Abbot said.
Gloria hesitated. “No…No. He’s not here.”
“Well someone opened the door,” Harken said, and he heaved himself out of his chair to investigate.
“Hide!” Gloria mouthed.
Flint dropped to the ground and crawled like a spider under the bed. Cold air rose from the cracks between floorboards. His fingertips brushed over a small metal ring resting flush in the wood. When he lifted it, the square outline of an enchanted trapdoor cut into the floor, and a whisper of sawdust fell through to a hollow place beneath.
Flint pulled, and the hatch opened. The unfinished wood dug splinters into his back as he scraped through. Godfrey’s room brightened, and Flint saw feet shuffle inside. He lowered the hatch over the top of himself, taking refuge in the dark once more.
Flint sat at the top of a dust-covered stair, wedged between the trap door and steps that dropped out of sight into black emptiness an impossible distance below. The monks’ muffled voices quieted and eventually disappeared from Godfrey’s room.
Flint pushed on the trapdoor, but it would not budge. He groped at the wood above his head, searching for its edges, but he found only unbroken slats. The magic had faded, and the door was gone.
Apprentices spoke of the undercroft in whispers and the monks not at all. The disused basements were a remnant of the Priory’s earlier and more wicked days. It was a bad chance that Flint’s escape was through one of the fabled long-forgotten doors.
He held up a hand, trying to will forth a glow of ethereal light, but none would come. Flint looked at his palms. Down into the darkness was his only option. He descended thousands of steps, running a hand along the wall’s sharp masonry to keep his bearings until his feet found a packed earthen floor. He wandered aimlessly in the darkness for an age, languishing in the fear that time would kill him if he could not find his way.
The air cleared and grew colder in the depths. The dark lessened, and water lapped against a shore somewhere ahead. Flint’s breaths came in short white plumes as he emerged into a man-made cavern.
He gazed up at a vaulted ceiling rich with stalactites. Ahead, a saltwater canal disappeared into a winding crevasse of wet bedrock. Small waves broke against a pier that jutted from the embankment where he stood. A dingy grimoire bound in engraved leather rested between sheaves of heavily-inked parchment on a workbench further down, illuminated by a dying brazier.
Curiosity overcame his baser instincts, and Flint moved to examine it. He lifted a piece of parchment and began to read private research notes written in Godfrey’s untidy script. Flint lost all account of time as he poured through them, and the cold and damp crept under his clothes.
“What do you think you are doing?” Godfrey said from the darkness.
Flint jumped and dropped the parchment in the dirt. He spun around. A rowboat bobbed in the canal behind Godfrey. He glared at Flint. “I’m sorry,” Flint said. “I was just curious.”
“How did you get down here?”
“I accidentally found a way into the undercroft. I got lost. Wound up here.”
“Accidentally? And you came down here and thought you would just read my private notes.” Godfrey stepped forward. “Find anything interesting?”
“I see why you won’t let anybody know what you’re onto.”
Godfrey scowled. “They wouldn’t understand. Not a single one of them. Bunch of self-serving swine.”
“This grimoire affects the roots of the occult, doesn’t it?” Flint put his hand on its leather, feeling the power within. “The deepest parts of it. It can destroy our power altogether if you want it to. I’ve felt it already. I was lost just now because I couldn’t make light.”
“It’s a single incantation, but terribly long and complex,” Godfrey said. “I don’t believe anything like it has ever been attempted. But you’re wrong. I don’t mean destroy anything. Quite the contrary in fact. I just want to harness the foundations of the occult. Center it on this book.”
Godfrey’s laugh was edged with madness. “Because I need hope. I need the power to change things I can’t otherwise change.”
“Hope for what?” Flint said. “Godfrey, you have to stop. What if something goes wrong? The power you’re talking about is…dangerous.”
“My child is sick. My daughter. She’s, sick and no medicine can help. But I can save her, Flint. I can change the course of fate with this. It’s almost finished. Almost.”
Flint watched the man shrink from boldness to desperation. Godfrey’s secret was a heavy burden. He looked older than he had, sallower and more worn.
“Are you going to tell the Abbot?” Godfrey said.
Flint narrowed his eyes. “What will you do after you heal your daughter?”
Godfrey raised his hands. “Lock it away. Show the Priory what I’ve created and what miracles can be done with it.”
The decision was more difficult than any Flint had faced. He rubbed his black beard. “I can give you a week. But I have to be the one to tell the Abbot what you’ve been working on. And this is too dangerous for me to just walk away from. You need to take me on as your assistant.”
“Done,” Godfrey said.
The men moved to the workbench to discuss the course of things to come.
Arctic currents swirled in the ocean, carrying opaque-blue glaciers dusted in white.
Flint’s glazed eyes watched them through the glass of his dormitory window. Godfrey was still a hundred fathoms below where the water met the base of the Priory Cliffs, writing in the grimoire. It would be ready tonight.
Someone knocked on the door. “Flint? It’s me,” Gloria said through the wood.
Flint opened it.
“May I come in?”
Flint tried to smile and stepped aside. “Of course.”
Gloria took Flint’s place by the window. She turned, and her dark eyes cut through him. “What were you doing last night?”
“You already know,” Flint said. “I was trying to figure out what Godfrey is up to.”
“How did you get inside anyway?” Gloria chewed on her lip. “The common room door is hexed. It’s impossible to open without that key.”
“You left your bag in the dining hall last night.”
“You have it? I’ve been looking everywhere.” Gloria glared at Flint. “Wait, you mean you used my key to get in?”
“I’m sorry Gloria. I know it was wrong, but I was desperate.” Flint looked down at the woven carpet beneath his feet. It bore the image of a whaling ship being torn asunder by a leviathan. “Godfrey came around. He’s taking me on as his research assistant.”
Gloria’s brow furrowed. “He changed his mind just like that?”
Gloria turned back to the window and said nothing for a long while. “How did you get out of there anyway? I waited for you in the common room all night.”
Flint put his arms around Gloria, and her hands found his. He told her everything.
“But,” Gloria said. “Godfrey’s daughter died last year.”
Flint recoiled. “What?”
“Her boat overturned in a storm. They found her body under the ice the next morning.”
“He must have another daughter then.”
Gloria shook her head. “She was his only child. Flint, what Godfrey is trying to do can’t be done safely. He’s manipulating the fabric of the occult. We have to tell the Abbot.”
“Do you think he wants to… bring her back?”
“I don’t know. But this sort of thing has been tried before, and people have been killed.”
The worry on Gloria’s face convinced Flint in the end, and they walked hand-in-hand to find the Abbot.
The Abbot walked across the Priory’s courtyard, taking in the sharp late-afternoon air. A fresh crop of snow flurries lit upon the overgrown whiskers that pushed out from under his hood.
Flint watched the Abbot from the foyer. “Why don’t you stay here? I can tell him by myself.”
“Are you sure?” Gloria said.
“I don’t want you to get caught up in this if he doesn’t take it well.”
“All right. I’ll be here. Good luck.”
Flint buttoned his cloak and went out into the cold. “Abbot!” he said.
The Abbot scowled when Flint admitted to trespassing in Godfrey’s quarters, and the bitterness stayed on his face until the story was finished. “Flint,” the Abbot said. “I warned you not to break the rules. And now you’re telling me that you stole another professor’s key, then used a forbidden incantation to trespass in another’s private chambers?”
“Abbot, Godfrey…” Flint said.
“We are not talking about Godfrey. We are talking about you.” The Abbot brushed a pile of snow from his wiry beard. “That man has been an institution at the Priory for almost twenty years. You, on the other hand, can’t even keep yourself from breaking the law!”
“This is it for you Flint. You’re finished. I won’t keep you here any longer.”
“Fine.” Flint’s face flushed, and he raised his chin. “But you’re wrong. You have to listen to me.”
The Abbot’s eyes turned black. “I don’t have to do anything.” His voice grew not in volume but in presence, delivered with the power of his station. “I will not be ordered around. And certainly not by an outcast.”
Flint saw nothing but the void of the Abbot’s eyes. He shrunk from the glare and fell backwards into the snow. His voice trembled. “We have to do something. You have to do something.”
“Roderick, Isabelle.” The Abbot beckoned to a pair of monks crossing the courtyard. “I need your assistance. Please escort Flint to his dormitory so he can collect his belongings. Then show him off of the Priory grounds. He has been dismissed.”
“But…” Flint said, but the Abbot turned his back.
The monks looked at each other, then at Flint. “What happened?” Isabelle said after the Abbot had walked out of earshot.
He had to get to Godfrey. Flint climbed to his feet and began to walk toward the Priory, looking up at its time-worn spires and stained glass. “Nothing,” he said.
Gloria shot Flint a questioning look when the trio passed through the door.
“I’ve been dismissed,” he said to her. “The Abbot doesn’t believe me.”
Gloria considered Roderick and Isabelle. “What are you going to do?” she asked Flint.
“I’m going after Godfrey.” Flint took a breath and clapped his hands.
The sound shook the room, reverberating in his chest like a violent clap of thunder. Sooty black smoke poured into being and Flint was blinded. He staggered through the clouds, searching for an exit. Gloria coughed close by, but Flint ignored her. The smoke cleared near the edge of the room and Flint ran, pulling the common room key from his pocket.
Godfrey read the grimoire by the brazier’s smoldering light. He flipped through its pages with increasing speed, chanting the inscriptions without pause for breath. The fire ebbed and flowed with his words. Sparks spit forth in gouts of red and turned to ash in the cold water nearby. An endless torrent of occult energy flowed into the grimoire, black and hazy.
Flint saw it when he ran across the wharf. A coffin, black and still nailed shut, near the brazier. “Godfrey!” Flint said. “Stop! This is madness!”
But Godfrey turned the final page and snapped together the grimoire’s heavy covers. He hugged the book in his arms and raised his eyebrows. “Why? Why is it so mad to want to be with the one you love?” he said. “Doesn’t every man want the same? I’d wager you’d give much to keep Gloria at the Priory.”
Flint faltered. “But this is unnatural.” Flint’s face faded further with a profound realization. “At this moment, nobody in the world can manipulate the occult but you.” He lifted his hands, as if to prove himself incapable.
“A small cost. Perhaps things will return to the way they were. Perhaps not. At least I’ll have my girl.” Godfrey face was wet with tears. He turned to the painted box and raised a hand.
“Godfrey, I’m trying to help you,” Flint said.
The grimoire shook in Godfrey’s arm and the space between his hand and the coffin disappeared in black fog.
Flint lunged at Godfrey, clawing at the book, but Godfrey had already turned around. Something heavy flew from his hand collided with Flint’s chest.
Flint’s ribs cracked, and he flew backwards into the canal. Water flooded over him. Flint struggled to find the surface, beating at the water before his saturated cloak could pull him further down. His hand landed on the pier and he pulled himself to the embankment, coughing and retching from the pain in his side. He peered over the stony edge.
Godfrey stood over the coffin. Something inside it moved.
“Godfrey?” Gloria said from the far entryway. “Are you all right?”
“Of course,” Godfrey smiled.
Flint crept across the wharf, low and silent. He winced with each step. Splintered ribs grated against each other and he almost cried out.
“What are you doing?” Gloria said, locking eyes with Godfrey.
“Just finishing my project,” Godfrey said. “I’m think I’m….”
Flint pulled the grimoire from Godfrey’s grasp. Godfrey spun on his heels, his face shining bright with panic and rage. He raised his hand, poised to murder. But nothing happened.
The grimoire was heavy in Flint’s arms. Heavier than it should have been. Flint looked at Godfrey and pitched it into the brazier.
“No!” Godfrey said, scrambling for the hot coals. Flint used the last of his strength to shoulder him aside and they fell together to the ground.
The grimoire burned to ash before Godfrey found his feet.
The Abbot went to his office when he learned what had happened, and he barred the door. Days and weeks passed before anyone saw his face again.
Flint scratched a piece of gypsum across the blackboard. The classroom glowed from the sun on the snow outside. “As you know, the longer an incantation is, the more powerful. Or was, rather.”
A student raised her hand. “Why should we bother with this anymore? We can’t do anything with it.”
“No, at this moment we can’t. But we have to preserve our knowledge. What if the power of the occult returns in a hundred years?”
The bell chimed a somber tone in the towers far above.
“Right. Well, that’s it then. We’ll pick back up tomorrow.”
The students left the classroom, and Flint leaned to tidy the lectern. His hand shot to his side where the ribs had broken. When he was able to straighten himself out again, he found the Abbot standing in the doorway. “Abbot,” Flint said.
The Abbot looked his age, though more sorrowful than most old men. “I should have listened,” he said.
“You couldn’t have known,” Flint said.
“I’m glad you didn’t leave. I just wanted to tell you. And that I was wrong.” His head fell.
“Thank you. But Gloria left a few weeks ago and I’m going with her. I’ve already begun to pack my things.” Flint drew the sun-faded curtains, darkening the room. “I’ve found that… there is more to life than this.”
“The Priory will close. There is no hope for us here.” The Abbot slouched against the doorframe.
“There is always hope. Some things have funny ways of healing themselves. Just give it time.” A translucent wisp of light in Flint’s hand illuminated his smile.
A.P. Miller is an American writer who has spent the last seven years traveling the world as a Navy sailor. He finished business school while abroad and now spends his time crafting speculative short fiction in Sasebo, Japan, where he lives with his wife and children. His fiction has appeared in The Horror Zine.