And the winners are?

Prose second place winner, The Old Oak Door by Hûw Steer

A stack of books
PROSE SECOND PLACE

THE OLD OAK DOOR by Hûw Steer

 

In the midst of the maze of groaning shelves, there was an old oak door.

It was heavy, and dark, and whenever anyone tried to open it – whether out of idle curiosity or a more purposeful urge – they found the dull brass knob too stiff to turn. The stacks of books that were piled waist-high in front of it certainly implied that no-one had any pressing need to open it – and the thick layer of dust on the uppermost volumes told the inquisitive that nobody had felt that need in a very long time indeed. The hinges looked like they’d needed oiling for a decade at the least.

The student let go of the handle, defeated. He hadn’t been able to resist trying. He was new this term, and had taken the afternoon to get pleasantly lost in the university library, a bigger space than he’d ever thought existed in the world, filled with miles of shelves and billions of words. He’d been on his way back to his desk with an armful of texts when he’d noticed the door. He almost hadn’t seen it at all. The hanging lanterns in this section were old and dim, and the dark wood of the door was hidden in the shadows. The only thing that made the door stand out was the fact that there weren’t shelves across it. He had moved – with great difficulty – a couple of the stacks of old, heavy books to get at the handle, had run his fingers along the dusty surface of the old wood. But when he’d tried the handle, it had been stuck fast. Given the state of the hinges it wasn’t a surprise.

It was probably nothing, he decided; just an old door to an old room that might not even be there anymore. If it was important, there wouldn’t be books heaped in front of it. He stepped back with a sad smile, picked up his own pile of heavy tomes, and walked away into the gloom, his mind filled with possibilities.

After the sound of his footsteps had faded away, the librarian stepped out of the shadows, sighed, and began rearranging the heavy stacks of old books in front of the door. They’d have to bring up some more dust, she decided. It clearly wasn’t thick enough. Maybe another stack of books, she thought. Something really heavy. There were some out-of-date language books that would do the trick nicely. She didn’t like leaving piles all over the place, but they weren’t books that anyone actually read – and besides, there wasn’t space for them. The only thing this library had more of than shelves was books.

She carefully un-straightened the last stack and stepped back, surveying the old oak door. It would do for now. It was almost invisible in the gloom, the handle and hinges left to corrode, and lifting all the books would take half a dozen students, not just one. Perfect. The last thing she wanted was for someone to go through it again. She didn’t fancy staying late to clean up the mess.

*

The staffroom, in stark contrast to the cavernous library it served, was a cosy little room, filled with plush old armchairs and warmed by a crackling fire. The library outside was just closing, the lanterns being shuttered, the last students shepherded out by Travis and Marr, the two genial old night-watchmen.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Niamh, sipping at her mug of tea from the comfort of her chosen chair. ‘They always wonder about it. They won’t go through.’

‘I don’t know,’ said the librarian, adding milk to her own mug and then settling down in a chair of her own with a grateful sigh. She and Niamh represented most of the late shift. They always had a drink at this hour, before the last bit of reshelving and before they went home for the night. She sipped the tea and sighed. ‘They get more curious every time, I swear.’

‘As curious as the last two?’ Niamh asked. The librarian’s brow furrowed as she thought, trying to remember the last two students who had gone through the door.

‘Maybe. They were a strange couple, though. Hard to read.’

‘Nobody was betting on them,’ Niamh agreed. The librarian’s lip curled.

‘You know I don’t like that we do that.’

Niamh held up her hands.

‘I’m just saying. They didn’t!’ Some of the librarians opened a betting pool with the start of ever new year, betting on which students would be curious enough to try the door. Mostly, they were all wrong. The petty cash generated bought more tea and biscuits. Three (or was it four?) years ago, however, they’d completely failed to predict the actions of two entirely unassuming third-years.

‘And they recovered well enough,’ Niamh continued. ‘Nobody gets far enough to get in real danger anymore.’

‘Rogers still had a limp when he graduated,’ the librarian countered. ‘And he was blind in one eye.’

‘Are you forgetting Peter Stevens?’ Niamh shot back. They both fell silent for a moment as they remembered Peter Stevens, and they both winced as they remembered the state he’d been in when Marr had found him the next morning.

‘I suppose they did recover fairly well, at that,’ the librarian conceded. ‘But Stevens only went in the year before. Everyone was still talking about it.’

‘There are more than enough stories going around to put them off,’ Niamh dismissed, taking another gulp of tea and putting her feet up. ‘Wayland starts them off in his classes mostly. They’re all far too scared of it. And most of them don’t even know where it is.’

‘But there’s nobody left who went in,’ said the librarian. ‘Not anymore. Rogers and… the other one, they had Peter Stevens as an example.’ And not a walking one. It really hadn’t been pretty. It was a wonder the university hadn’t been sued into oblivion.

‘Are you really that worried?’ Niamh leaned forward, putting down her tea. She looked serious now. She could always tell when someone was genuinely concerned. The librarian shrugged.

‘Maybe I’m worried over nothing,’ she admitted. ‘But maybe not.’

‘Would you feel better if we put up another stack?’ asked Niamh. ‘I saw some good dust building in Medical.’

‘I would,’ admitted the librarian again, taking another sip of tea. Niamh smiled.

‘Alright then. I’ll meet you over there once I’ve reshelved Politics.’ She chuckled. ‘Besides, you’re on Days next week. It’ll be Julian’s problem then.’

‘He could do with the experience,’ the librarian said with a smile. Niamh grinned.

‘He could do with taking down a peg. And a few hours with a mop and a bucket full of blood ought to do it.’ She sat back. ‘Now, have a biscuit.’

*

The librarian happened to know that it had been fifteen years, three months and eleven days since the hinges of the old oak door had been oiled. She knew because she’d been the last one to oil them. They had once taken as good care of that door as any of the ordinary doorways in the grand library, but fifteen years ago it had been decided that it was more trouble than it was worth to keep it in order. They didn’t want anyone going through it, after all, and no number of warning signs and notices had been able to prevent a steady stream of rebellious students from opening the door anyway. No amount of ‘Danger of Death, No Really, If You Go Through This Door You Will Almost Certainly Die, Seriously, We’re Not Joking’ had been enough.

The new stack of old books looked good, though. The Medical dust had really done the trick.

She had tried, repeatedly, to get permission to just brick the door up and hide it forever – or to replace it with a new door, something utterly nondescript. But the library was a ‘historic building’, an ‘important insight into the facility’s storied past’ – and the University Heritage Committee had ruled that the door had to be left as it was. The Ethics Committee had also ruled that simply telling the student body what was behind the door, and therefore exactly what it was that the signs were warning about, would be ‘adverse to the continuation of high morale.’ In other words, nobody outside the librarians – and, to be fair, the infirmary – cared enough to do anything about the problem. The students who went through the door were the rebels, the troublemakers. Those who came out would never question authority again. Those who didn’t come out… well, they weren’t a problem anymore.

Except for the librarians who had to clean up the mess.

So instead of blocking the door off, they’d tried making it look like nothing important at all. The haphazard stacks of old books had been carefully selected to be as boring as possible, which had had the welcome side-effect of making them very heavy indeed. They’d taken down all the apparently intriguing warning notices, had stopped oiling the hinges or handle, had brought in the thickest dust they could find. The librarians hadn’t made the door look unopenable, but they’d made it look as though it hadn’t been opened in centuries.

It had worked, in part. The rebels and dare-devils had mostly found other ways to flout the university’s authority, ways that resulted in a good deal less paperwork. But while the door no longer looked forbidden, it now looked mysterious – and that brought a whole new class of inquisitive student to try its handle and wonder at what lay behind. They stood and stared, their little imaginations working overtime to dream at the possibilities the ancient door could be concealing. Most of them left it at that – which was enough for the senior staff to call it a success and move on.

But there were always some, every few years, who couldn’t resist.

She could hear them now, as she bustled down the aisle with a reshelving trolley, stacked high with abandoned textbooks. It was late, so late that the only students in the library were cramming for exams, flasks of coffee running dangerously empty already as they frantically flipped pages and scrawled notes as neatly as a dying, ink-dipped spider. They were silent, wrapped in their own quiet cocoons of stress and caffeine. She liked the library at this hour – usually. There was nothing to hear but the creak of the towering shelves settling, old wood protesting gently at the fluctuating temperature of the cavernous stone building, and the rustling of paper. The librarian kept her trolley oiled, its wheels silent even on the warped old floorboards. She also had, despite her greying hair and strong-lensed glasses, excellent hearing.

The whispers of the trio of students at the back of the history section, therefore, were as loud as shouting to her ears.

The librarian stopped on the other side of the bank of shelves, and removed, very carefully, the third volume of A Complete History of the Arcadian Empire (which was neither complete nor particularly historical), opening a narrow gap in the shelf. That gave her a decent view of the three students on the other side. They were second-years, clustered around a heavy old tome she didn’t recognise, and their eyes were alive with excitement. One of them was the boy she’d seen earlier.

‘…the one in the west wing,’ he was saying, pointing at the page. ‘It’s in the right place. And I think it’s got the markings too. The ones from the journal.’

‘You think it’s the door Master Wayland was talking about?’ asked a girl with round glasses.

‘Must be,’ said the third, a gangly youth with a long nose. ‘How many doors like that can there be in this place?’

The librarian sighed. Here we go again, she thought. She coughed, just loudly enough to be audible, and wheeled her trolley around the corner. By the time she entered the reading-nook, with its warm hanging lantern and broad table, the three students were each pretending to read books of their own, the heavy old tome they’d been poring over nowhere to be seen.

‘We’ll be closing in half an hour,’ she said, her stage-whisper both respectful and capable of carrying through the whole section.

‘We’re almost finished,’ said the girl with the glasses, smiling nervously up at her.

‘See that you are,’ the librarian replied. ‘We’ll come around and check again.’ She put a little warning into the last few words. She would make sure that security checked here and around the door later.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ said the girl meekly. The librarian glared at the three of them a little more, just to be sure, then turned her trolley and walked away. She heard them start talking again before she was out of earshot and sighed deeply. Every time. She could hear them still, their whispers echoing through the shelves, as they debated which one of Wayland’s stories – which covered every kind of terror and treasure known and unknown to man – was really true. Damn that man. She’d always been unsure of his stories, horrible as they were, as a deterrent. Most students were made suitably nervous of the dark corners of the campus, but there were always a few to whom a horror story was nothing but a challenge.

If they go through that bloody door, she decided, I’m going to brick it up and damn the consequences.

She knew she wouldn’t. She’d be sacked for sure. At least she’d added that pile with Niamh – and when she’d done so she’d tested the handle, and even knowing the trick of it, as she did, had barely been able to turn it. The thought of that made her feel better – but not as good as the thought of the metal bolt at floor level, tucked behind the fattest legal ledger she’d ever seen, that held the door even more firmly closed. Marr had added that – reluctantly and at her request – after the last two had gone through. Nobody had so much as noticed it, not even Niamh.

They’ll be fine, the librarian decided, and pushed her trolley away down the corridor. Thoughts of home and her husband’s cooking filled her mind, and by the time she reached the main hallway the inquisitive students were just a distant memory.

*

A week later, the librarian was once again reshelving – this time in the warm light of day, streaking into the library from the leaded skylights high above in long shafts of dusty gold. It was a good day. It had been a good week. She hadn’t seen those three students together since. Each had been in separately, but they’d all been genuinely studying. She knew, because she’d found a copy of the gangly boy’s timetable tucked inside a book he’d been poring over with a look of anguished worry on his face and seen all the tests that he’d been scheduled. Just in case, she’d stopped by the old oak door each night on her way out, and had been pleased to see that the fresh dust hadn’t been disturbed at all. It seemed that the three had had some sense after all.

Now she was on the day shift, and that was reason enough to be happy. Nights, and the security of the doorway, had passed to the insufferable Julian. If anyone managed to get in, it would be his job to deal with the consequences – which was something that she privately felt he deserved twice over. But they wouldn’t.

She found that she had come to the old oak door, quite without meaning to. She looked at it, and saw that the stacks of books were still in place. Good. Julian had kept a decent watch.

Except, she saw, that he hadn’t. The layer of dust was marred, by grasping fingers. Someone had moved them. Looking down, she saw very faint footprints in the dust that had drifted down to the floor. She felt her heart sink. There were three of them, she thought. If one stayed outside and put them back…

She tried the handle. It turned far too easily. The corrosion inside had been broken by a determined hand.

She shook her head. She was being ridiculous. The door was firmly closed, and all the moved books told her was that someone had been curious enough to take a look. Even if they’d been strong enough to turn the handle and break through the rust inside, there was still the hidden bolt below.

She bent down and moved the big legal ledger. The bolt was open.

Give me strength, she sighed, shoved the books aside and grasped the handle – but before she could pull, the door flew open in her face, almost knocking her over. The boy who stumbled through, face pale as snow, was barely recognisable as the curious boy who’d stood here before. He fell to his knees immediately, looking up at the librarian with an expression of pure, unbridled horror.

‘The others…’ he said hoarsely. ‘They… the things… the eyes…’

His own rolled back in his head, and he flopped to the floor like a dead fish. Blood pooled beneath him from within his clothes, which were already stained fully red. The librarian bent down and checked his pulse. He didn’t have one. She pulled open the door and looked down the length of the corridor. There were red shapes on the floor that might, if reassembled, resemble the girl with the round glasses. The gangly one was nowhere to be seen. In the shadows, yellow eyes glowed.

With a deep sigh, the librarian closed the door and shot the bolt across. Damn you, Julian. She could see the pile of paperwork now. And I was supposed to be going home early today. There was no chance of that now. There always have to be a few.

At least they wouldn’t need feeding for a few weeks now. Students always filled them up nicely.

She checked the boy’s lack of pulse again, just in case, then stood up, and went to find Travis the watchman, a nurse, and a mop and bucket.

PROSE SECOND PLACE

THE OLD OAK DOOR by Hûw Steer

 

In the midst of the maze of groaning shelves, there was an old oak door.

It was heavy, and dark, and whenever anyone tried to open it – whether out of idle curiosity or a more purposeful urge – they found the dull brass knob too stiff to turn. The stacks of books that were piled waist-high in front of it certainly implied that no-one had any pressing need to open it – and the thick layer of dust on the uppermost volumes told the inquisitive that nobody had felt that need in a very long time indeed. The hinges looked like they’d needed oiling for a decade at the least.

The student let go of the handle, defeated. He hadn’t been able to resist trying. He was new this term, and had taken the afternoon to get pleasantly lost in the university library, a bigger space than he’d ever thought existed in the world, filled with miles of shelves and billions of words. He’d been on his way back to his desk with an armful of texts when he’d noticed the door. He almost hadn’t seen it at all. The hanging lanterns in this section were old and dim, and the dark wood of the door was hidden in the shadows. The only thing that made the door stand out was the fact that there weren’t shelves across it. He had moved – with great difficulty – a couple of the stacks of old, heavy books to get at the handle, had run his fingers along the dusty surface of the old wood. But when he’d tried the handle, it had been stuck fast. Given the state of the hinges it wasn’t a surprise.

It was probably nothing, he decided; just an old door to an old room that might not even be there anymore. If it was important, there wouldn’t be books heaped in front of it. He stepped back with a sad smile, picked up his own pile of heavy tomes, and walked away into the gloom, his mind filled with possibilities.

After the sound of his footsteps had faded away, the librarian stepped out of the shadows, sighed, and began rearranging the heavy stacks of old books in front of the door. They’d have to bring up some more dust, she decided. It clearly wasn’t thick enough. Maybe another stack of books, she thought. Something really heavy. There were some out-of-date language books that would do the trick nicely. She didn’t like leaving piles all over the place, but they weren’t books that anyone actually read – and besides, there wasn’t space for them. The only thing this library had more of than shelves was books.

She carefully un-straightened the last stack and stepped back, surveying the old oak door. It would do for now. It was almost invisible in the gloom, the handle and hinges left to corrode, and lifting all the books would take half a dozen students, not just one. Perfect. The last thing she wanted was for someone to go through it again. She didn’t fancy staying late to clean up the mess.

*

The staffroom, in stark contrast to the cavernous library it served, was a cosy little room, filled with plush old armchairs and warmed by a crackling fire. The library outside was just closing, the lanterns being shuttered, the last students shepherded out by Travis and Marr, the two genial old night-watchmen.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Niamh, sipping at her mug of tea from the comfort of her chosen chair. ‘They always wonder about it. They won’t go through.’

‘I don’t know,’ said the librarian, adding milk to her own mug and then settling down in a chair of her own with a grateful sigh. She and Niamh represented most of the late shift. They always had a drink at this hour, before the last bit of reshelving and before they went home for the night. She sipped the tea and sighed. ‘They get more curious every time, I swear.’

‘As curious as the last two?’ Niamh asked. The librarian’s brow furrowed as she thought, trying to remember the last two students who had gone through the door.

‘Maybe. They were a strange couple, though. Hard to read.’

‘Nobody was betting on them,’ Niamh agreed. The librarian’s lip curled.

‘You know I don’t like that we do that.’

Niamh held up her hands.

‘I’m just saying. They didn’t!’ Some of the librarians opened a betting pool with the start of ever new year, betting on which students would be curious enough to try the door. Mostly, they were all wrong. The petty cash generated bought more tea and biscuits. Three (or was it four?) years ago, however, they’d completely failed to predict the actions of two entirely unassuming third-years.

‘And they recovered well enough,’ Niamh continued. ‘Nobody gets far enough to get in real danger anymore.’

‘Rogers still had a limp when he graduated,’ the librarian countered. ‘And he was blind in one eye.’

‘Are you forgetting Peter Stevens?’ Niamh shot back. They both fell silent for a moment as they remembered Peter Stevens, and they both winced as they remembered the state he’d been in when Marr had found him the next morning.

‘I suppose they did recover fairly well, at that,’ the librarian conceded. ‘But Stevens only went in the year before. Everyone was still talking about it.’

‘There are more than enough stories going around to put them off,’ Niamh dismissed, taking another gulp of tea and putting her feet up. ‘Wayland starts them off in his classes mostly. They’re all far too scared of it. And most of them don’t even know where it is.’

‘But there’s nobody left who went in,’ said the librarian. ‘Not anymore. Rogers and… the other one, they had Peter Stevens as an example.’ And not a walking one. It really hadn’t been pretty. It was a wonder the university hadn’t been sued into oblivion.

‘Are you really that worried?’ Niamh leaned forward, putting down her tea. She looked serious now. She could always tell when someone was genuinely concerned. The librarian shrugged.

‘Maybe I’m worried over nothing,’ she admitted. ‘But maybe not.’

‘Would you feel better if we put up another stack?’ asked Niamh. ‘I saw some good dust building in Medical.’

‘I would,’ admitted the librarian again, taking another sip of tea. Niamh smiled.

‘Alright then. I’ll meet you over there once I’ve reshelved Politics.’ She chuckled. ‘Besides, you’re on Days next week. It’ll be Julian’s problem then.’

‘He could do with the experience,’ the librarian said with a smile. Niamh grinned.

‘He could do with taking down a peg. And a few hours with a mop and a bucket full of blood ought to do it.’ She sat back. ‘Now, have a biscuit.’

*

The librarian happened to know that it had been fifteen years, three months and eleven days since the hinges of the old oak door had been oiled. She knew because she’d been the last one to oil them. They had once taken as good care of that door as any of the ordinary doorways in the grand library, but fifteen years ago it had been decided that it was more trouble than it was worth to keep it in order. They didn’t want anyone going through it, after all, and no number of warning signs and notices had been able to prevent a steady stream of rebellious students from opening the door anyway. No amount of ‘Danger of Death, No Really, If You Go Through This Door You Will Almost Certainly Die, Seriously, We’re Not Joking’ had been enough.

The new stack of old books looked good, though. The Medical dust had really done the trick.

She had tried, repeatedly, to get permission to just brick the door up and hide it forever – or to replace it with a new door, something utterly nondescript. But the library was a ‘historic building’, an ‘important insight into the facility’s storied past’ – and the University Heritage Committee had ruled that the door had to be left as it was. The Ethics Committee had also ruled that simply telling the student body what was behind the door, and therefore exactly what it was that the signs were warning about, would be ‘adverse to the continuation of high morale.’ In other words, nobody outside the librarians – and, to be fair, the infirmary – cared enough to do anything about the problem. The students who went through the door were the rebels, the troublemakers. Those who came out would never question authority again. Those who didn’t come out… well, they weren’t a problem anymore.

Except for the librarians who had to clean up the mess.

So instead of blocking the door off, they’d tried making it look like nothing important at all. The haphazard stacks of old books had been carefully selected to be as boring as possible, which had had the welcome side-effect of making them very heavy indeed. They’d taken down all the apparently intriguing warning notices, had stopped oiling the hinges or handle, had brought in the thickest dust they could find. The librarians hadn’t made the door look unopenable, but they’d made it look as though it hadn’t been opened in centuries.

It had worked, in part. The rebels and dare-devils had mostly found other ways to flout the university’s authority, ways that resulted in a good deal less paperwork. But while the door no longer looked forbidden, it now looked mysterious – and that brought a whole new class of inquisitive student to try its handle and wonder at what lay behind. They stood and stared, their little imaginations working overtime to dream at the possibilities the ancient door could be concealing. Most of them left it at that – which was enough for the senior staff to call it a success and move on.

But there were always some, every few years, who couldn’t resist.

She could hear them now, as she bustled down the aisle with a reshelving trolley, stacked high with abandoned textbooks. It was late, so late that the only students in the library were cramming for exams, flasks of coffee running dangerously empty already as they frantically flipped pages and scrawled notes as neatly as a dying, ink-dipped spider. They were silent, wrapped in their own quiet cocoons of stress and caffeine. She liked the library at this hour – usually. There was nothing to hear but the creak of the towering shelves settling, old wood protesting gently at the fluctuating temperature of the cavernous stone building, and the rustling of paper. The librarian kept her trolley oiled, its wheels silent even on the warped old floorboards. She also had, despite her greying hair and strong-lensed glasses, excellent hearing.

The whispers of the trio of students at the back of the history section, therefore, were as loud as shouting to her ears.

The librarian stopped on the other side of the bank of shelves, and removed, very carefully, the third volume of A Complete History of the Arcadian Empire (which was neither complete nor particularly historical), opening a narrow gap in the shelf. That gave her a decent view of the three students on the other side. They were second-years, clustered around a heavy old tome she didn’t recognise, and their eyes were alive with excitement. One of them was the boy she’d seen earlier.

‘…the one in the west wing,’ he was saying, pointing at the page. ‘It’s in the right place. And I think it’s got the markings too. The ones from the journal.’

‘You think it’s the door Master Wayland was talking about?’ asked a girl with round glasses.

‘Must be,’ said the third, a gangly youth with a long nose. ‘How many doors like that can there be in this place?’

The librarian sighed. Here we go again, she thought. She coughed, just loudly enough to be audible, and wheeled her trolley around the corner. By the time she entered the reading-nook, with its warm hanging lantern and broad table, the three students were each pretending to read books of their own, the heavy old tome they’d been poring over nowhere to be seen.

‘We’ll be closing in half an hour,’ she said, her stage-whisper both respectful and capable of carrying through the whole section.

‘We’re almost finished,’ said the girl with the glasses, smiling nervously up at her.

‘See that you are,’ the librarian replied. ‘We’ll come around and check again.’ She put a little warning into the last few words. She would make sure that security checked here and around the door later.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ said the girl meekly. The librarian glared at the three of them a little more, just to be sure, then turned her trolley and walked away. She heard them start talking again before she was out of earshot and sighed deeply. Every time. She could hear them still, their whispers echoing through the shelves, as they debated which one of Wayland’s stories – which covered every kind of terror and treasure known and unknown to man – was really true. Damn that man. She’d always been unsure of his stories, horrible as they were, as a deterrent. Most students were made suitably nervous of the dark corners of the campus, but there were always a few to whom a horror story was nothing but a challenge.

If they go through that bloody door, she decided, I’m going to brick it up and damn the consequences.

She knew she wouldn’t. She’d be sacked for sure. At least she’d added that pile with Niamh – and when she’d done so she’d tested the handle, and even knowing the trick of it, as she did, had barely been able to turn it. The thought of that made her feel better – but not as good as the thought of the metal bolt at floor level, tucked behind the fattest legal ledger she’d ever seen, that held the door even more firmly closed. Marr had added that – reluctantly and at her request – after the last two had gone through. Nobody had so much as noticed it, not even Niamh.

They’ll be fine, the librarian decided, and pushed her trolley away down the corridor. Thoughts of home and her husband’s cooking filled her mind, and by the time she reached the main hallway the inquisitive students were just a distant memory.

*

A week later, the librarian was once again reshelving – this time in the warm light of day, streaking into the library from the leaded skylights high above in long shafts of dusty gold. It was a good day. It had been a good week. She hadn’t seen those three students together since. Each had been in separately, but they’d all been genuinely studying. She knew, because she’d found a copy of the gangly boy’s timetable tucked inside a book he’d been poring over with a look of anguished worry on his face and seen all the tests that he’d been scheduled. Just in case, she’d stopped by the old oak door each night on her way out, and had been pleased to see that the fresh dust hadn’t been disturbed at all. It seemed that the three had had some sense after all.

Now she was on the day shift, and that was reason enough to be happy. Nights, and the security of the doorway, had passed to the insufferable Julian. If anyone managed to get in, it would be his job to deal with the consequences – which was something that she privately felt he deserved twice over. But they wouldn’t.

She found that she had come to the old oak door, quite without meaning to. She looked at it, and saw that the stacks of books were still in place. Good. Julian had kept a decent watch.

Except, she saw, that he hadn’t. The layer of dust was marred, by grasping fingers. Someone had moved them. Looking down, she saw very faint footprints in the dust that had drifted down to the floor. She felt her heart sink. There were three of them, she thought. If one stayed outside and put them back…

She tried the handle. It turned far too easily. The corrosion inside had been broken by a determined hand.

She shook her head. She was being ridiculous. The door was firmly closed, and all the moved books told her was that someone had been curious enough to take a look. Even if they’d been strong enough to turn the handle and break through the rust inside, there was still the hidden bolt below.

She bent down and moved the big legal ledger. The bolt was open.

Give me strength, she sighed, shoved the books aside and grasped the handle – but before she could pull, the door flew open in her face, almost knocking her over. The boy who stumbled through, face pale as snow, was barely recognisable as the curious boy who’d stood here before. He fell to his knees immediately, looking up at the librarian with an expression of pure, unbridled horror.

‘The others…’ he said hoarsely. ‘They… the things… the eyes…’

His own rolled back in his head, and he flopped to the floor like a dead fish. Blood pooled beneath him from within his clothes, which were already stained fully red. The librarian bent down and checked his pulse. He didn’t have one. She pulled open the door and looked down the length of the corridor. There were red shapes on the floor that might, if reassembled, resemble the girl with the round glasses. The gangly one was nowhere to be seen. In the shadows, yellow eyes glowed.

With a deep sigh, the librarian closed the door and shot the bolt across. Damn you, Julian. She could see the pile of paperwork now. And I was supposed to be going home early today. There was no chance of that now. There always have to be a few.

At least they wouldn’t need feeding for a few weeks now. Students always filled them up nicely.

She checked the boy’s lack of pulse again, just in case, then stood up, and went to find Travis the watchman, a nurse, and a mop and bucket.

PROSE SECOND PLACE

THE OLD OAK DOOR by Hûw Steer

 

In the midst of the maze of groaning shelves, there was an old oak door.

It was heavy, and dark, and whenever anyone tried to open it – whether out of idle curiosity or a more purposeful urge – they found the dull brass knob too stiff to turn. The stacks of books that were piled waist-high in front of it certainly implied that no-one had any pressing need to open it – and the thick layer of dust on the uppermost volumes told the inquisitive that nobody had felt that need in a very long time indeed. The hinges looked like they’d needed oiling for a decade at the least.

The student let go of the handle, defeated. He hadn’t been able to resist trying. He was new this term, and had taken the afternoon to get pleasantly lost in the university library, a bigger space than he’d ever thought existed in the world, filled with miles of shelves and billions of words. He’d been on his way back to his desk with an armful of texts when he’d noticed the door. He almost hadn’t seen it at all. The hanging lanterns in this section were old and dim, and the dark wood of the door was hidden in the shadows. The only thing that made the door stand out was the fact that there weren’t shelves across it. He had moved – with great difficulty – a couple of the stacks of old, heavy books to get at the handle, had run his fingers along the dusty surface of the old wood. But when he’d tried the handle, it had been stuck fast. Given the state of the hinges it wasn’t a surprise.

It was probably nothing, he decided; just an old door to an old room that might not even be there anymore. If it was important, there wouldn’t be books heaped in front of it. He stepped back with a sad smile, picked up his own pile of heavy tomes, and walked away into the gloom, his mind filled with possibilities.

After the sound of his footsteps had faded away, the librarian stepped out of the shadows, sighed, and began rearranging the heavy stacks of old books in front of the door. They’d have to bring up some more dust, she decided. It clearly wasn’t thick enough. Maybe another stack of books, she thought. Something really heavy. There were some out-of-date language books that would do the trick nicely. She didn’t like leaving piles all over the place, but they weren’t books that anyone actually read – and besides, there wasn’t space for them. The only thing this library had more of than shelves was books.

She carefully un-straightened the last stack and stepped back, surveying the old oak door. It would do for now. It was almost invisible in the gloom, the handle and hinges left to corrode, and lifting all the books would take half a dozen students, not just one. Perfect. The last thing she wanted was for someone to go through it again. She didn’t fancy staying late to clean up the mess.

*

The staffroom, in stark contrast to the cavernous library it served, was a cosy little room, filled with plush old armchairs and warmed by a crackling fire. The library outside was just closing, the lanterns being shuttered, the last students shepherded out by Travis and Marr, the two genial old night-watchmen.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Niamh, sipping at her mug of tea from the comfort of her chosen chair. ‘They always wonder about it. They won’t go through.’

‘I don’t know,’ said the librarian, adding milk to her own mug and then settling down in a chair of her own with a grateful sigh. She and Niamh represented most of the late shift. They always had a drink at this hour, before the last bit of reshelving and before they went home for the night. She sipped the tea and sighed. ‘They get more curious every time, I swear.’

‘As curious as the last two?’ Niamh asked. The librarian’s brow furrowed as she thought, trying to remember the last two students who had gone through the door.

‘Maybe. They were a strange couple, though. Hard to read.’

‘Nobody was betting on them,’ Niamh agreed. The librarian’s lip curled.

‘You know I don’t like that we do that.’

Niamh held up her hands.

‘I’m just saying. They didn’t!’ Some of the librarians opened a betting pool with the start of ever new year, betting on which students would be curious enough to try the door. Mostly, they were all wrong. The petty cash generated bought more tea and biscuits. Three (or was it four?) years ago, however, they’d completely failed to predict the actions of two entirely unassuming third-years.

‘And they recovered well enough,’ Niamh continued. ‘Nobody gets far enough to get in real danger anymore.’

‘Rogers still had a limp when he graduated,’ the librarian countered. ‘And he was blind in one eye.’

‘Are you forgetting Peter Stevens?’ Niamh shot back. They both fell silent for a moment as they remembered Peter Stevens, and they both winced as they remembered the state he’d been in when Marr had found him the next morning.

‘I suppose they did recover fairly well, at that,’ the librarian conceded. ‘But Stevens only went in the year before. Everyone was still talking about it.’

‘There are more than enough stories going around to put them off,’ Niamh dismissed, taking another gulp of tea and putting her feet up. ‘Wayland starts them off in his classes mostly. They’re all far too scared of it. And most of them don’t even know where it is.’

‘But there’s nobody left who went in,’ said the librarian. ‘Not anymore. Rogers and… the other one, they had Peter Stevens as an example.’ And not a walking one. It really hadn’t been pretty. It was a wonder the university hadn’t been sued into oblivion.

‘Are you really that worried?’ Niamh leaned forward, putting down her tea. She looked serious now. She could always tell when someone was genuinely concerned. The librarian shrugged.

‘Maybe I’m worried over nothing,’ she admitted. ‘But maybe not.’

‘Would you feel better if we put up another stack?’ asked Niamh. ‘I saw some good dust building in Medical.’

‘I would,’ admitted the librarian again, taking another sip of tea. Niamh smiled.

‘Alright then. I’ll meet you over there once I’ve reshelved Politics.’ She chuckled. ‘Besides, you’re on Days next week. It’ll be Julian’s problem then.’

‘He could do with the experience,’ the librarian said with a smile. Niamh grinned.

‘He could do with taking down a peg. And a few hours with a mop and a bucket full of blood ought to do it.’ She sat back. ‘Now, have a biscuit.’

*

The librarian happened to know that it had been fifteen years, three months and eleven days since the hinges of the old oak door had been oiled. She knew because she’d been the last one to oil them. They had once taken as good care of that door as any of the ordinary doorways in the grand library, but fifteen years ago it had been decided that it was more trouble than it was worth to keep it in order. They didn’t want anyone going through it, after all, and no number of warning signs and notices had been able to prevent a steady stream of rebellious students from opening the door anyway. No amount of ‘Danger of Death, No Really, If You Go Through This Door You Will Almost Certainly Die, Seriously, We’re Not Joking’ had been enough.

The new stack of old books looked good, though. The Medical dust had really done the trick.

She had tried, repeatedly, to get permission to just brick the door up and hide it forever – or to replace it with a new door, something utterly nondescript. But the library was a ‘historic building’, an ‘important insight into the facility’s storied past’ – and the University Heritage Committee had ruled that the door had to be left as it was. The Ethics Committee had also ruled that simply telling the student body what was behind the door, and therefore exactly what it was that the signs were warning about, would be ‘adverse to the continuation of high morale.’ In other words, nobody outside the librarians – and, to be fair, the infirmary – cared enough to do anything about the problem. The students who went through the door were the rebels, the troublemakers. Those who came out would never question authority again. Those who didn’t come out… well, they weren’t a problem anymore.

Except for the librarians who had to clean up the mess.

So instead of blocking the door off, they’d tried making it look like nothing important at all. The haphazard stacks of old books had been carefully selected to be as boring as possible, which had had the welcome side-effect of making them very heavy indeed. They’d taken down all the apparently intriguing warning notices, had stopped oiling the hinges or handle, had brought in the thickest dust they could find. The librarians hadn’t made the door look unopenable, but they’d made it look as though it hadn’t been opened in centuries.

It had worked, in part. The rebels and dare-devils had mostly found other ways to flout the university’s authority, ways that resulted in a good deal less paperwork. But while the door no longer looked forbidden, it now looked mysterious – and that brought a whole new class of inquisitive student to try its handle and wonder at what lay behind. They stood and stared, their little imaginations working overtime to dream at the possibilities the ancient door could be concealing. Most of them left it at that – which was enough for the senior staff to call it a success and move on.

But there were always some, every few years, who couldn’t resist.

She could hear them now, as she bustled down the aisle with a reshelving trolley, stacked high with abandoned textbooks. It was late, so late that the only students in the library were cramming for exams, flasks of coffee running dangerously empty already as they frantically flipped pages and scrawled notes as neatly as a dying, ink-dipped spider. They were silent, wrapped in their own quiet cocoons of stress and caffeine. She liked the library at this hour – usually. There was nothing to hear but the creak of the towering shelves settling, old wood protesting gently at the fluctuating temperature of the cavernous stone building, and the rustling of paper. The librarian kept her trolley oiled, its wheels silent even on the warped old floorboards. She also had, despite her greying hair and strong-lensed glasses, excellent hearing.

The whispers of the trio of students at the back of the history section, therefore, were as loud as shouting to her ears.

The librarian stopped on the other side of the bank of shelves, and removed, very carefully, the third volume of A Complete History of the Arcadian Empire (which was neither complete nor particularly historical), opening a narrow gap in the shelf. That gave her a decent view of the three students on the other side. They were second-years, clustered around a heavy old tome she didn’t recognise, and their eyes were alive with excitement. One of them was the boy she’d seen earlier.

‘…the one in the west wing,’ he was saying, pointing at the page. ‘It’s in the right place. And I think it’s got the markings too. The ones from the journal.’

‘You think it’s the door Master Wayland was talking about?’ asked a girl with round glasses.

‘Must be,’ said the third, a gangly youth with a long nose. ‘How many doors like that can there be in this place?’

The librarian sighed. Here we go again, she thought. She coughed, just loudly enough to be audible, and wheeled her trolley around the corner. By the time she entered the reading-nook, with its warm hanging lantern and broad table, the three students were each pretending to read books of their own, the heavy old tome they’d been poring over nowhere to be seen.

‘We’ll be closing in half an hour,’ she said, her stage-whisper both respectful and capable of carrying through the whole section.

‘We’re almost finished,’ said the girl with the glasses, smiling nervously up at her.

‘See that you are,’ the librarian replied. ‘We’ll come around and check again.’ She put a little warning into the last few words. She would make sure that security checked here and around the door later.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ said the girl meekly. The librarian glared at the three of them a little more, just to be sure, then turned her trolley and walked away. She heard them start talking again before she was out of earshot and sighed deeply. Every time. She could hear them still, their whispers echoing through the shelves, as they debated which one of Wayland’s stories – which covered every kind of terror and treasure known and unknown to man – was really true. Damn that man. She’d always been unsure of his stories, horrible as they were, as a deterrent. Most students were made suitably nervous of the dark corners of the campus, but there were always a few to whom a horror story was nothing but a challenge.

If they go through that bloody door, she decided, I’m going to brick it up and damn the consequences.

She knew she wouldn’t. She’d be sacked for sure. At least she’d added that pile with Niamh – and when she’d done so she’d tested the handle, and even knowing the trick of it, as she did, had barely been able to turn it. The thought of that made her feel better – but not as good as the thought of the metal bolt at floor level, tucked behind the fattest legal ledger she’d ever seen, that held the door even more firmly closed. Marr had added that – reluctantly and at her request – after the last two had gone through. Nobody had so much as noticed it, not even Niamh.

They’ll be fine, the librarian decided, and pushed her trolley away down the corridor. Thoughts of home and her husband’s cooking filled her mind, and by the time she reached the main hallway the inquisitive students were just a distant memory.

*

A week later, the librarian was once again reshelving – this time in the warm light of day, streaking into the library from the leaded skylights high above in long shafts of dusty gold. It was a good day. It had been a good week. She hadn’t seen those three students together since. Each had been in separately, but they’d all been genuinely studying. She knew, because she’d found a copy of the gangly boy’s timetable tucked inside a book he’d been poring over with a look of anguished worry on his face and seen all the tests that he’d been scheduled. Just in case, she’d stopped by the old oak door each night on her way out, and had been pleased to see that the fresh dust hadn’t been disturbed at all. It seemed that the three had had some sense after all.

Now she was on the day shift, and that was reason enough to be happy. Nights, and the security of the doorway, had passed to the insufferable Julian. If anyone managed to get in, it would be his job to deal with the consequences – which was something that she privately felt he deserved twice over. But they wouldn’t.

She found that she had come to the old oak door, quite without meaning to. She looked at it, and saw that the stacks of books were still in place. Good. Julian had kept a decent watch.

Except, she saw, that he hadn’t. The layer of dust was marred, by grasping fingers. Someone had moved them. Looking down, she saw very faint footprints in the dust that had drifted down to the floor. She felt her heart sink. There were three of them, she thought. If one stayed outside and put them back…

She tried the handle. It turned far too easily. The corrosion inside had been broken by a determined hand.

She shook her head. She was being ridiculous. The door was firmly closed, and all the moved books told her was that someone had been curious enough to take a look. Even if they’d been strong enough to turn the handle and break through the rust inside, there was still the hidden bolt below.

She bent down and moved the big legal ledger. The bolt was open.

Give me strength, she sighed, shoved the books aside and grasped the handle – but before she could pull, the door flew open in her face, almost knocking her over. The boy who stumbled through, face pale as snow, was barely recognisable as the curious boy who’d stood here before. He fell to his knees immediately, looking up at the librarian with an expression of pure, unbridled horror.

‘The others…’ he said hoarsely. ‘They… the things… the eyes…’

His own rolled back in his head, and he flopped to the floor like a dead fish. Blood pooled beneath him from within his clothes, which were already stained fully red. The librarian bent down and checked his pulse. He didn’t have one. She pulled open the door and looked down the length of the corridor. There were red shapes on the floor that might, if reassembled, resemble the girl with the round glasses. The gangly one was nowhere to be seen. In the shadows, yellow eyes glowed.

With a deep sigh, the librarian closed the door and shot the bolt across. Damn you, Julian. She could see the pile of paperwork now. And I was supposed to be going home early today. There was no chance of that now. There always have to be a few.

At least they wouldn’t need feeding for a few weeks now. Students always filled them up nicely.

She checked the boy’s lack of pulse again, just in case, then stood up, and went to find Travis the watchman, a nurse, and a mop and bucket.

JUDGE'S COMMENT:

“I liked the wry quality this had. Almost tongue-in-cheek but still intriguing.”

Jane Fallon

JUDGE'S COMMENT:

“I liked the wry quality this had. Almost tongue-in-cheek but still intriguing.”

Jane Fallon

JUDGE'S COMMENT:

“I liked the wry quality this had. Almost tongue-in-cheek but still intriguing.”

Jane Fallon

READ THE OTHER WINNING ENTRIES

Poetry second place: OVER BEFORE IT BEGAN by Jennie Balaganeshan

Poetry winner: THE BORROWER by Yaning Wu

Prose winner: A PECULIAR DISCOVERY by Libby Randall

READ THE OTHER WINNING ENTRIES

Poetry second place: OVER BEFORE IT BEGAN by Jennie Balaganeshan

Poetry winner: THE BORROWER by Yaning Wu

Prose winner: A PECULIAR DISCOVERY by Libby Randall

READ THE OTHER WINNING ENTRIES

Poetry second place: OVER BEFORE IT BEGAN by Jennie Balaganeshan

Poetry winner: THE BORROWER by Yaning Wu

Prose winner: A PECULIAR DISCOVERY by Libby Randall