The Bracelet: Part Four
It was fully two weeks before Jamal called back. As impatient as I was to resolve the mystery, I had no way to contact him and he never returned to the library. I used the time to finish reading The Golden Bough, though it proved little help to my dilemma-I mean our dilemma. Nevertheless, it kept me occupied during the lonely nights at work when the mere ticking of the wall clock so wracked my raw nerves as to drive me into hiding in the bathroom for hours. The nightmares were getting worse to the point where I slept scarcely three hours a night, always waking to cold sweat and tangled sheets.
My roommate regarding me seldom those days, eyeing me with suspicion whenever our paths crossed. As you now know, he heard me mutter strange and incomprehensible things in my tortured sleep that bore a resemblance to language, though none with which he was familiar. Why he chose not reveal this to me at the time is anyone's guess. I imagine he thought it to simply be a manifestation of overdue stress regarding the impending midterm. If he only knew.
After speaking with Jamal, I began preparing in earnest for our exploration. I wanted to start early so we might scout the place out during the daytime, but the need to avoid calling attention to our trespass required cover of darkness. Jamal liked the idea of going in there in the dead of night less than I did, but it was either that or risk being arrested by the university police. At least our planned arrival corresponded with the apex of my peculiar circadian rhythm, although the recent insomnia was wreaking havoc on my conscious mind.
Aside from flashlights, I brought my bag of fetishes. The popular conception of magic, though amusing, is far from accurate. Most people think of wands, staves, crystal balls, and tarot cards when they envision a magus' toolbox. This is, of course, a conscious deception; objects of power exist in all forms. That is not to say that wands and crystals don't have their place. Among my more traditional devices is a shattered rosary, blessed by the Vatican, but this excursion required something more unconventional.
Jamal gave me a queer look as I handed him the bracelet. I explained how I lost the bracelet several times, but it always came back to me. I bade him put it on in case I lost him that night. He fiddled with it for a while, occasionally throwing me conspicuous glances, no doubt questioning my sanity and his own. I don't blame him; it certainly doesn't look like anything a wizard would wear. For one, it's plastic, purchased from a vending machine that caters to bored children with poor impulse control. No, I did not buy it. I found it, several times.
I know that doesn't make sense, but if it made sense it wouldn't be magic now, would it?
The bracelet is made up of eleven stars of various colors threaded around an elastic band. To assuage his doubts, I pointed out that one of the stars was broken, which is how I determined that it was the same bracelet every time I found it and not merely a different one that happened to be dropped in the same place as before. This only seemed to confuse Jamal, but he slipped it on nonetheless. I carried no trinkets. I never do.
We departed Lockwood Hall at the appointed hour and made our way into the parking lot. I kept watch while Jamal lifted the manhole cover, careful not to let it slide on the asphalt. He had me go in first and quickly followed after, quietly lowering the cover. For a moment, all was dark and silent save for our breathing and the gentle trickle of water at our feet. Jamal's flashlight came to life and broke the illusion of peace. The grey walls, thick with grime of what consistency I did not wish to speculate, served as ample reminder of our purpose. I lit my own flashlight and follow Jamal through the tunnel until we came upon ventilation duct. The opening was roughly four feet off the ground and narrow, requiring one to climb into it and proceed on hands and knees. I tried not to think about the filth clinging to my clothes as I slid into the duct.
We continued in this fashion for ten yards or so before Jamal stopped and asked me to back up a bit. Setting his flashlight down, he went into a crouch and with much shuffling, turned himself around. He then backed out of the opening I had yet to see and dropped to the floor. I scooted forward and handed him both flashlights. After about a minute of awkward contortions, I managed to repeat the procedure. Not bothering to brush myself off, I grabbed one of the flashlights and examined the room. We were in a short hallway. The walls were painted the same boring shade of tan as the rest of the university. The carpet too was no different. The ceiling, however, appeared to have the consistency of woolly cotton, the hallmark of asbestos insulation. To our left were a bathroom, an empty janitor's closet, and a stairwell leading up, on the right stood a set double doors and a large security window revealing a small antechamber. At the far end of the hallway sat a lonely water fountain, which surprisingly still worked.
Next to the doors was a plaque reading "Authorized Personnel Only" over a familiar security card reader like the one we have for the rare books section in the library. The red LED showing whether or not the system was active was off. I examined the gap between the two doors to see what sort of locking mechanism was used. It appeared to have two folding latches, one at the top and bottom of the divide. I slid my student ID into one of the latches only to be pleasantly surprised that it easily pushed it back. Jamal held the lower latch as I used my driver's license on the top one. Astounded at the university's abysmal security, I pulled the right-hand door open. Jamal disappeared into the bathroom and returned with a toilet seat to prop the door open.
The door leading out of the antechamber was not locked and opened into a long hallway that appeared to go beyond the area of the building above us. Several offices lined the sides of the hallway as we made our way to another set of double doors roughly one hundred feet from the first. These were locked just as securely and after retrieving another toilet seat, we were through.
We entered into a massive, octagonal chamber circumnavigated by a raised steel platform upon which we now stood. The floor was some twenty feet below us and there my flashlight revealed what looked to be control boards, the kind you see at NASA Mission Control, all covered in plastic sheets, arranged in a ring around...
Jamal's beam caught it first. I don't know how we missed it coming in. Towering in the center of the room were two monolithic steel plates, each at least a foot thick. A panoply of complicated machinery piled up against the outer sides, but the space between held nothing but the two polished faces of the plates, which acted like mirrors, scattering the light from our torches throughout the room in dazzling, hypnotic patterns. We wasted several minutes moving along the catwalk, playing the light from different angles and marveling at the radiant display.
Eventually, we regained our senses and discussed how to proceed with this new discovery. Standing above it, the cyclopean device instilled a childlike wonder, but a sudden reluctance overcame us at the prospect of going down and approaching it. I could not imagine in the slightest what such a thing would have to do with research into soil or water contaminants. The few environmental science laboratories I had seen in my time were generally rather dirty and this place looked like a clean room. Jamal sounded uneasy as well.
We both offered our lack of science and engineering knowledge as excuses and resolved to examine the room where this all began. If either of us noticed the other walking more briskly away from that room than he did towards it, he didn't mention it. We left the doors propped open, but we were both visibly relieved when we closed the door of the stairwell behind us.
I checked my watch when we finally reached the third floor. As I suspected, we tarried too long in the basement and the witching hour was upon us. I turned to Jamal to warn him but was interrupted by the tremendous din of metal smashing concrete. The hallway shook with the uncanny impact, knocking a ceiling panel loose that fell near me feet. Strangely distracted, I bent over to pick up the tile, momentarily confused by the idea of anyone spraying a false ceiling with asbestos, unless...
Jamal screamed. His cry possessed such primal fear as to cause me to question its humanity, until I turned and saw the object of his horror.
At the end of the hall, around the corner, slowly curled a mockery of flesh, and metal; six fingers, or talons, or knives, casually gripped the wall as if some monstrous bulk behind it was trying to pull itself up. The sheetrock cracked and splintered under its grasp as the tips of its claws dug into the wall. It was then I noticed an odd feeling of adrenalin-induced clarity pass over me. I could hear Jamal's footsteps falling away from the stairwell behind me, see the small stress fractures form delicate tendrils around the creature's hand, and smell what I can only describe as burning ashes from a charcoal grill.
I do not know why I took that first step forward, but I am sure it was then that reason left me, for at that moment the lumbering mass rounded the corner. Oh God, those faces! The tortured leer hidden behind... of all unholy things, that I should recognize-
My legs still possessed some instinct and dashed madly for the nearest door. Slamming it shut, I found myself in the room exactly as Jamal had described. The candle still burning...
I took refuge in the closet. My flashlight gone, I huddled whimpering in darkness. The scraping... coming closer... and the chains! Now that I know why they rattle!
It passed by the door, by the too thin wall that separated me from that madness. I could hear them whispering. Oh, how I begged the darkness for oblivion!
There was the sound of twisting metal. The door! But it had passed... the stairwell? It was then I remembered Jamal. Forgive me, or find a man brave enough to stand before such insanity. I could but cower in the dark until I heard nothing but my own heartbeat. Even then I waited until I had enough courage to flee that accursed place. I dared not venture into the basement, instead smashing the first ground window I saw. Let the police arrest me, just so long as they take me away from there.
I ran all the way to our agreed upon rendezvous point, a late night diner just outside of campus. Jamal was not there. I took a booth and waited. The familiar setting calmed me somewhat. I even laughed a little when I realized how wild and disheveled I must have looked. A waitress came by with coffee. They know me there, but of course you knew that. Anyway, she was about to pour me a cup when she asked if I was all right. Not knowing what else to say, I replied curtly, "fine."
"Oh my God, you're bleeding."
I did not remember getting cut. She brought me a damp towel to clean up but I could not find the injury; I must have stopped bleeding earlier.
When the pot was empty, it was clear that Jamal wasn't going to show up as planned. I left money on the table and got up to leave. The night's chill greeted me as I exited the diner. As I turned back towards Lockwood, I found it lying in the same place as always. My stomach lurched as I bent over to pick it up. A second star was snapped in half.
And that, Dr. Ambrose, is the reason why I returned to the scene of the "crime". Such abominations are not fit for this Earth. I needed to destroy it much as you feel compelled to destroy this supposed illness of mine. If you only knew! Jamal's sacrifice was not in vain! He managed to turn on the machine in the basement before it took him. You saw the pictures in the police report, what it had done to him. You fools don't know what you're doing! We need to lure it into the machine. I have to destroy it. I have to send it back