You can feel Missy enter a room before you see her. The ambient sounds of the college classroom dissolve when she speaks, all the racuous shouting and laughter falling muffled beside the soft melody of her voice. She wears light and shadow with equal grace, every angle making her appear as though she were posing for the painter’s canvas. From the depth of her eyes to the supple curve of her body, Missy was a walking captivation. She was a dream, and I her dreamer, but it was all too soon that I had to wake.
She called me the night before she died, an event I’ve kept private until now out of its sheer impossibility. She’d been absent from class a week before that, but now she spoke fast, rattling off a string of letters, demanding that I write down everything. I was scrambling to keep up, unable to ask questions. Twenty letters total, ranging from A-D.
“They want more from me than I can give,” she explained in a breathy rush. “I have to go now. Memorize it, okay? You’ll understand when they take you.”
The line went dead and I couldn’t reach her again. She wasn’t in class the next day. Our psychology professor announced that she met with a fatal accident, refusing any further details. No-one else seemed to care, but each passing day I felt the burning of her empty chair in front of me. All I could do was memorize the list she gave me and wait, hating myself for not doing more to get to know her while I had the chance.
Then came the test.
“Just think of it as a survey,” Professor Rassle said, distributing the papers. “Do your best, and don’t worry. It won’t affect your grade. It’s just a little experiment for the department.”
The impossible test. Indecipherable characters, enigmatic equations: utter nonsense. Students were looking around and starting to laugh. Professor Rassle smiled indulgently, just urging us to take our best guess. The only thing that seemed familiar was the scantron answer key.
Twenty questions. Twenty letters. Coincidence or not, I filled them in from memory. I could feel the professor’s eyes lock on me as I wrote with purpose, but I didn’t care. I was consumed with the mystery of Missy’s disappearance, savoring this last connection before she faded from the world altogether.
Tests were collected, but I could tell the only paper the professor was interested in was mine. His keen eyes kept flashing between my test and my face. Then he excused himself to go to the bathroom, fishing out his phone as he left. I took the opportunity to follow.
“I’ve got another one from my class.” Professor Rassle was talking on the phone, his back to me as he walked. “Perfect score, just like Missy.”
I tried to get closer to hear the voice on the other end, but the professor heard me and turned around.
“Going somewhere?” he asked, pressing the phone against his chest.
“Bathroom,” I grunted, rushing ahead, feeling his eyes on me all the way down the hall.
He was leaning against the wall, arms crossed, patiently waiting for me when I got out.
“We need to talk, Elijah.” His voice was flat and dark.
“How did Missy die?” I hadn’t meant to blurt it out, but there it was. It had been on the tip of my tongue for so long that I’m surprised I even lasted this long.
The professor arched his eyebrows, studying me. “She isn’t dead. Not exactly. I can take you to her, if you want, but you might not like what you see.”
The professor wrote something on a notepad and handed it to me. Midnight. Room 031. Pack a suitcase.
“The psychology building?” I asked. “I didn’t know the rooms went below 100.”
He pressed a key into my hand before turning back toward the classroom. “This will let you into the basement. Oh, and Elijah…” he glanced back as he opened the door. “You might want to make an appropriate excuse to your friends and family. They won’t be seeing you again for awhile.”
Missy and I were never close before the night she called me. Our “relationship” was little more than collaborating on the occasional assignment or exchanging a covert smile across the room. Is it possible to love someone when you don’t know the first thing about them? Regardless, I was impotent against my overwhelming curiosity.
Professor Rassles doubtlessly counted on that, purposefully witholding details to bait his hook. It seems so obvious, looking back, but at the time I couldn’t think of anything beside the frantic desperation in Missy’s voice. She needed me somehow, and that’s all I needed to know. If only I had known what waited for me then no compulsion, mortal or otherwise, could have made me step through that door.
Instead, I was outside the room five minutes before midnight. I’d called my family to tell them I was accepted into a foreign exchange program and might be out of touch until I got setup there.
I felt the strangeness of the place the second I opened room 031. A descending stairway cut steeply into the ground, steps and walls hewn from large uneven stones that would be better suited to a medieval castle than a university. I had to use my phone as a flashlight, laboriously dragging my suitcase behind me.
The stairway terminated in what I can only describe as a wall of flesh. Taunt skin so tight as to be almost transparent stretched from wall to wall. The outline of faint blue veins was pulsing rhythmically beneath, and a single great eye almost a foot across was embedded in the center. It blinked at me as I approached.
A small stool was placed before it with a serrated knife resting on top. Another note with my professor’s handwriting read: Continue until you can go no farther. The door I entered at the top of the stairs slammed shut and I jumped at the sound. I pushed the feeble light of my flashlight as far up the stair as it would go, but it couldn’t reach the top. If someone had entered behind me, then I wouldn’t know.
“Hello?” My voice cracked like it hadn’t done since puberty. I picked up the knife and turned back to the wall of skin. The eye strained wider, staring at the blade in my hand. The whole wall began to violently tremble, goosebumps even appearing on the surface. I slowly set the knife back down, watching the wall visibly relax as I did so.
Footsteps on the stairs. “Hello?” I tried again, stronger this time.
“Quiet,” hissed a male voice from the darkness. “We’ll go farther if they don’t hear us coming.” Black eyes greedily caught my pale light. The boy who entered my illumination was about my age, probably no more than a college sophmore. Bumping along behind him came his own suitcase, considerably larger than my own.
“Did you pass too? What is going on?” I asked.
“You should know if you read the test. We’ve been accepted to the MC Academy.”
“MC?” I stared in open confusion.
“Mortal Coil.” A flash of a sneer as he pushed past me. He grabbed the knife from the table and I flinched back. “How do you not know this? We’re going to Demon School.”
“You mean a school that teaches Demons, or a school that teaches -”
“What are you, stupid? You couldn’t have even read the paper if you didn’t have Demon blood in you.”
I opened my mouth to ask more, deciding instead to hold my tongue just in time. Somehow it didn’t seem wise to tell the condescending guy with a knife that I cheated my way through and didn’t really belong here.
“You want to do it, or should I?” he asked, holding the knife handle toward me.
The wall was shaking so badly now that I could feel a gentle wind wafting from its convulsions. The other student must have noticed that I was frozen with confusion because he pulled the knife back a moment later.
“Fine, but you get the next one. I’m not going to carry you the whole way.”
He spun and thrust the knife directly into the giant eye on the wall. It clenched shut, lurching and thrashing against him. He grunted and leaned into the blade, pushing it even deeper as blood flowed freely to drench him up to the arm. The flesh was rumbling like a man trying to scream through a mouth that was sewn shut.
Five, maybe ten seconds before the trembling stopped. The boy withdrew the knife to make a few savage slashes until the flesh relingquished its hold on the walls and fell into a heaping mass on the floor.
“Guess this is mine now,” he said, wiping off the dagger and storing it in his suitcase. He lifted his case a foot off the ground and stepped through the leaking monstrosity on the ground.
“You coming or not?” he added.
I nodded, but it was nothing but a reflex. I tried not to look down as I gingerly stepped over the mess on the floor, almost vomitting as I felt it squelch beneath my feet. What have I gotten myself into?
He introduced himself as Michael Sooland as we continued. Not the company I would have chosen, but he at least seemed to know what he was doing. I was careful not to ask anything that would betray my ignorance after that, but I was able to pick up a few clues from his idle conversation.
Michael didn’t know he had Demon blood until recently, but he’d suspsected there was something different about him since birth. He accidentally watched the original Saw movie when he was 8, and his parents only caught him when they heard how loudly he was laughing. He’d broken his arm skateboarding so badly once that the bone ruptured from his skin, and he spent an hour playing with it before going to the hospital. He even said he felt like he was nocturnal sometimes, describing the night as something which fit him as naturally as a second skin.
The shrill wailing of an infant broke the conversation. We exchanged glances, his face a mask of greedy excitement like a child in a candy shop. When we stopped next there was a closed door blocking the hallway. Wooden this time, at least, although that did nothing to distract from the crying infant placed upon the matching wooden table.
He couldn’t be more than two months old. I picked him up, trying to get him to stop crying.
Michael was reading the note. “The key is inside.”
“Inside what?” I asked.
He just smiled.
“I’m not going to do that.” My response was visceral and immediate. “This is sick. The first note just said to go as far as we’re able. That means we can stop whenever we want.”
“That means it’s a test,” Michael corrected, stooping to open his case.
I glanced at the dark hallway behind me. I could leave. I could close the door and pretend none of this ever happened. I turned back to see Michael producing the serrated knife, still wet with blood.
Leaving wouldn’t stop these tragedies though. It would only enable this school to continue training these monsters, doubtlessly preparing them for worse atrocities yet to come. Maybe that’s why Missy led me here. Maybe she wanted me to help her put an end to all of this.
“We’re here because this is the only place for people like us. Might as well get used to it.” Michael offered me the knife. I instinctually shielded the child with my arms, backing away from him.
“Kill it now,” his voice was edged with sudden intensity. “Quick.”
“We give up!” I shouted to no-one in particular. “Whoever is watching, we give up. This is as far as we can go!”
“Elijah you idiot. Give it to me then!”
“No! I won’t let you.”
Michael lunged at us with the knife, but I managed to scramble out of the way. I lost my balance on the uneven stones and fell straight on my ass though. I covered the child with my body, but had to let go a moment later. A piercing pain like a fistful of needles was gorging into my hand.
The infant had latched onto me with unnatural ferocity. It shouldn’t even have teeth yet, but I could clearly feel multiple rows of razor edges burrowing into my skin. I screamed and strained to pull it off, but every movement did nothing but give it a fresh angle to burrow further.
“Bash it against the wall!” Michael shouted.
I did so. Again and again, beating the tiny body into the stone, feeling the fragile bones inside splinter with every iteration. The grip finally began to slacken, until finally I was able to stomp the tiny creature’s body and rip my bloody hand free. It looked almost reptillian where it lay on the ground, its yellow eyes boring into me as they closed to slits.
“Welcome home, Master,” croaked the dying monstrosity.
“Ready now?” Michael asked, handing me the knife once more. I didn’t hesitate this time. I plunged it straight into chest and tore a long hole straight down to its navel. A hot mess of insides oozed out, and I had to actually dig my fingers into it to retrieve the bronze key.
My hand was on fire. It bled profusely from a dozen puncture wounds. I wrapped it the best I could with one of my extra t-shirts, but I can only imagine what ghastly infections might come from those wounds. I don’t know whether it was the blood loss or horror of this place, but I felt so lightheaded that I almost toppled the second I stood upright.
“Come on now, easy there.” I was surprised by the gentleness in Michael’s tone as he helped me to my feet. “We’re in this together, so let’s do this right. We both want to get to this school, right?”
I nodded meekly, allowing him to guide me to the door.
“Then let’s not give up before we have to,” he said. “I for one am looking forward to seeing how far this rabbit hole goes.”