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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
A graduate student researching an unusual plague outbreak from the past awakens a horror that has lain dormant for centuries.

Submitted: October 08, 2018

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Submitted: October 08, 2018



The craftsmanship was impeccable. It was difficult to find the seams that joined one piece of ebony to another in the flowing shapes of ornate life-size figures that lined the walls. The figures were grotesque carvings of humans, with faces contorted into expressions of terror and pain, being eaten alive by monstrous, distended bellied demons with sinister smiles that revealed their long, serrated teeth.


I am a person of reason and I found the walk through the Corredor de Alegria Demoníaca to the small library of the rich merchant Galo Escuro, that was once a chapel, extremely unnerving at the best of times. Truly amazing craftsmanship.


Galo Escuro built the Corredor de Alegria Demoníaca and chapel beneath his home during the height of a plague outbreak in 1543. He used the chapel as a reliquary of sorts by collecting and storing documents related to the plague. Escuro became obsessed with finding a cure to the plague after he lost both his wife and daughter to the disease. The chapel turned library holds the only remaining documents of the plague that decimated the district of Alfama in Lisbon.


The plague itself was extremely unusual. It didn’t have exactly the same symptoms as the pneumonic plague but they were similar enough for it to be considered a variant: coughing up blood, difficulty breathing, fever, vomiting, and a relatively quick death with most perishing within a week after exposure. The Alfama variant seemed to have a couple of extra symptoms: stiffening of the joints, glowing, blood red eyes, blackening of the skin, and maniacal behaviour.


Scholars believe that the blood red eyes may have been a result of ruptured blood vessels in the eyes due to extreme coughing, but they’re split on the “glowing” part. Some say it was an embellishment and others consider it a literal description of a symptom that has never before or since been seen. I’m on the fence, or I was until I started my research.


Blackening of the skin and maniacal behaviour did not seem that out of place for most researchers. Some descriptions of the plague elsewhere mentioned black spots or patches, so it’s not too far of a stretch to believe that the Alfama plague presented with larger portions of the skin blackening due to gangrene. Furthermore, victims of the disease were depicted with sinister smiles or maniacally laughing and attacking or feeding on the non-infected. It is well known that some diseases can cause psychological instability, so, again, it did not seem too far fetched that victims of the Alfama plague would suffer psychologically as a result of the disease. However, when taken as whole from the images of the Alfama plague -- the glowing red eyes, pitch black skin, demonic smiles, and feeding on the non-infected -- scholars believe that the images reflect the state of fear the population was living in at that time rather than actual depictions of those infected with the plague.

I was writing my graduate thesis on pictorial representations of death and illness during the 1541-1546 Alfama plague outbreak. I wanted to shed some light on why the people who documented the plague predominantly used images to describe their experiences instead of text. The images are considered some of the most stunning works of art created in Europe at that time. The primary work of interest was the Livro da Morte Escura.


There is only one copy of the Livro da Morte Escura in existence. It has never been copied, photographed, or scanned. If a researcher wants to view the images of the Livro da Morte Escura, he or she has to travel to the Alfama district of Lisbon and walk the Corredor de Alegria Demoníaca to Galo Escuro’s Library. The Library has been retrofitted with climate controls to protect the documents from deteriorating. All electronic devices have to be handed over to a security officer at the entrance to the Corredor de Alegria Demoníaca and the visitor is presented with special gloves that protect the pages from any potential contaminants. For a sizable fee, only one researcher is allowed access to the Library at a time for one hour each day over one week. Due to researcher demand, the Library is open from 8 AM to midnight every day of the week. The current waitlist is two years.


My hour of time was the hour before closing each day in the last week of November. I had seven hours to make notes and draw by hand key images for my thesis. It was old school data collection and I had spent the previous two years researching the Alfama plague, learning to draw, and learning to read Portuguese. With my funding in place, I arrived at my six story walk-up across from the Museu do Fado -- Fado is the traditional folk music of Portugal

-- at the entrance to Largo do Chafariz de Dentro -- a very narrow lane filled with Fado restaurants -- close to midnight on Sunday.


The stairway up to my apartment was dimly lit, old, rickety, and very narrow. The light switch at the bottom of the stairs was on a timer; I had three minutes to reach my apartment before the feeble lighting went out. I quickly covered the six flights in about a minute and realized that three minutes was ample time for me to reach my apartment.


My apartment was small and well lit with plenty of windows. I imagined I would spend my mornings sitting by the open French windows that overlooked the square below, sipping coffee, and writing my research.


A little background on the Alfama. The Alfama is the oldest district of Lisbon. The maze of tight lanes and alleyways are physical reminders of Moorish influence. The cobble streets weave between shops, restaurants, cathedrals, and murals both old and new. During the day, a walk through the Alfama is a constant push against the throngs of tourists vomited forth from Leviathan-like cruise ships that dock a few hundred meters away.


After midnight, the Alfama seems to take a step into another time or, maybe, place. Large lanterns cast long dark shadows where dark forms move just out of the corner of your eye. Sounds echo and bounce between the ancient walls of the tight alleys creating voices that whisper and footsteps that follow. A late night walk alone can really mess with your head.


My first walk to Galo Escuro’s Library was during the daytime on the Monday after I arrived. I wanted to make sure that I knew the route and the security guard knew my face. The sun was shining and I didn’t mind the tourist packed streets. It was one of those days that made me feel like everything I had done in life had lead to this perfect moment of peace and happiness. The people I met were friendly and the Alfama was presenting its best version of itself with flowers on almost every balcony and, what seemed to be, freshly painted facades.


I walked the steep streets and stairways to the little alley containing the entrance to the Corredor de Alegria Demoníaca. Once I turned down the alley, everything changed. The bright joyous sunshine did not dare to enter this dark little alley. The walls were windowless and dingy grey and the cobbles almost black. Even the temperature seemed to be a bit colder. At the end of the lane was the little guard office so I quickly covered the distance and waved at the security guard behind the glass to get his attention. He asked me what I wanted and I told him who I was was. He smiled and said he was pleased to meet me and that my time was at 11 PM this evening. I asked if I could take a quick peek inside and he shook his no and said that it was forbidden. He bid me good day and that was my cue to leave, so I did.


I spent the rest of the day enjoying the Alfama and went back to my apartment around 4 PM to get some rest before my turn in the Library.


I slept longer than I had planned. I was woken by a female Fado singer holding a high note near the end of her ballad of lost love. I looked at my phone and saw that it was 10 PM; I was going to be late if I didn’t leave soon, so I quickly showered and ran out the door with my notepad.


The streets were filled with people listening to Fado music outside of packed restaurants. I politely pushed my way through the crowds to the upper levels of the Alfama where they gradually thinned till I was alone in the streets. I reached the alley at 10:57 PM and stopped dead in my tracks. If the alley leading to Galo Escuro’s Library was a cold, dark, and foreboding place by day, it was borderline terrifying at night. It was lit by a single incandescent light hung by a wire in the middle of the alley with the cord disappearing someplace in the darkness above. It almost looked as if the light was floating in the air by some unholy force. Moths flitted around the light creating a shadow play of demonic forces overcoming the light. Again, I walked quickly down the alley, trying to keep my illogical flights of fancy in check by avoiding to look around for fear of making contact with something evil and inviting a confrontation.


I reached the small guard booth without incident and the guard exited his booth to meet me. He guided me through a set of doors to a body scanner just before the entrance into the Corredor de Alegria Demoníaca to make sure I wasn’t bringing in any electronics and then passed me a package with information about the Library and a keycard. I swiped the card and opened the heavy opaque glass doors into the Corredor de Alegria Demoníaca.


Like everywhere else in the Alfama, the corridor was dimly lit; a string of incandescent bulbs ran along the length of the ceiling. According to the information package, the corridor was lit in this way to avoid damaging the ebony carvings along the walls and ceiling. The ancient floor creaked and groaned with every step I took. As I walked along the corridor, I heard the climate control system kick-in with a soft click and low hum. The ruby inlaid eyes of the demons flashed, and the ornately carved figures seemed to shift and jitter in the changing shadows as I passed under the feeble light. It was 11:01 and I didn’t have time to inspect the carvings. I hurried to the end of the corridor and just as I put my hand on the heavy opaque glass door into the Library, I heard a long creak behind me. It sounded like someone heavy taking a step close behind me. I spun around to find nobody there. I stood still and waited for a few seconds to see if anything moved. Then I realized that it was probably the climate control causing the wood to either expand or contract. I turned back to the Library and went inside.


Surprisingly, and breaking with what seemed like a tradition of minimal lighting in the Alfama, the Library was well lit. The room was very white, small, and octagonal shaped. Plague paintings lined the walls and a small collection of leather-bound books filled the lower half of the east wall. The stark white walls dramatically contrasted the black demons and bloodletting of the paintings. I was mesmerized by the paintings for the first few minutes when I entered the room. I snapped myself out of it -- every second in this room burned a ridiculous amount of money -- and sat at the large sturdy desk directly across from the bookcase. Livro da Morte Escura and a laminated sheet of paper were the only two items on the table.


“READ FIRST” was written across the top of the laminated paper in bolded all caps. As you might suspect, it was all the dos and don’ts for handling the book. There was nothing here I didn’t already know, except for the last item on the list: “If there is an emergency, don’t leave the room. Wait for the security guard to assist you.” Really? The room is going up in smoke and I’m supposed to sit tight and wait for a guard to save me? Not bloody likely. Looking up in annoyance, I realized that there was a timer on the north wall counting down and it was showing 55 minutes left. I slipped on the gloves and got to work.


I stared blankly at the first image in Livro da Morte Escura. I couldn’t think of anything to write in my notebook and when I looked back up at the clock, I had two minutes left. I looked back down at the page and my notebook was closed. I panicked. I looked back up at the clock and I had one minute. What the hell happened? How did I lose an hour? I jumped when the guard told me it was time to leave over the PA system. I packed up my belongings and left the Library.


I don’t remember the walk home.


Nightmares filled my sleep. The grotesque carvings that lined the walls had come to life and were stalking me through dimly lit corridors and alleyways that stretched to infinity. Their ebony forms creaked as they methodically searched for me -- their glowing red eyes always moving closer no matter how fast I ran. Slowly, a black, red-eyed figure rose in front of me with a long moaning creak that I could feel deep in my chest.


A flash of lightning and crack of thunder jolted me from my sleep. The rain on my window hammered out an unholy rhythm punctuated by frequent thunder claps and lightning that bathed the world in searing blue-white light.


My heart pounded in my chest. Was I still in the dream? It took me a few minutes to get my bearings. The nightmare seemed so real. I flicked on my bedside lamp; the light faltered as the sky cracked with pure energy.


It was night. How long had I slept? I looked at my phone. I had been asleep for almost 21 hours; that left me with one hour to return to the Library. I grabbed my satchel, umbrella, and jacket and ran out the door.


The wet cobblestones made the journey treacherous. I had to navigate the slippery stones as if walking on ice: flat footed with short stiff-legged steps. Gusts of wind would leave me grasping and clutching at handrails, door knobs, cracks in brick and plaster, to avoid being swept off my feet. It was very slow progress.


I was too concerned with my own preservation to take notice of my surroundings; however, on a couple of occasions, I thought I saw some black forms dart in and out of the rain distorted shadows. They reminded me of the figures from the Library’s corridor that haunted my sleep.


I fought the wind and driving rain around the last corner to the Library’s alley and was relieved to see the single light suspended in midair when someone grabbed me and threw me to the cobblestones. The wind carried my umbrella into the dark abyss above me. I looked around for my assailant. The backlight from the security guard’s booth at the far end of the alley, combined with the pounding rain in my face, made it difficult to see my surroundings. Maybe the wind was so powerful that it felt like someone had thrown me to the ground?


I started to struggle to my feet when I was grabbed again. This time I was pulled up from the ground and as I turned to face what I thought would be a hideous creature from my nightmare, I was relieved to see the security guard helping me to my feet.


I thanked him profusely. He gave me a slight nod and escorted me to the Library entrance.


As we approached the entrance, I turned to thank the guard one last time; at the same instant I was blinded by a flash of lightning that was quickly followed by a crack of thunder. I turned to look at the guard, but he was nowhere to be seen. I called into the guard booth; there was no answer. I fumbled in my satchel for my pass card, I swiped the card and opened the heavy opaque glass doors into the Corredor de Alegria Demoníaca. Then several events happened at once: lightning struck the guard booth sending sparks, wood, and glass flying; the concussion sent me flying down the corridor as the large glass opaque doors swung shut and all the lights flickered out.


As I lay on the hardwood floor recovering my senses, a long moaning creak filled the room. The suspended light from the alleyway provided enough light to vaguely see the carved shapes along the corridor that ended in pitch black towards the Library. The demon eyes glowed a pale red and seemed to follow me as I inspected the opaque glass doors to see if I could leave.


The doors must have been made of some blast resistant tempered glass because there wasn’t a scratch in the glass. The bad news was that they were locked tight and I couldn’t use my pass card because there was no electricity. Hoping the guard had returned after seeing the blast, I banged on the doors, but there was no response from outside. I was locked in.


Another creak filled the corridor and I quickly spun round. Just inside the reach of the pale alley light, one of the ebony demons stared at me with penetrating pale red eyes as it slowly pushed itself away from the wall -- wood cracked and splintered as it worked itself free -- while savoring the fear building inside me. I was stunned, transfixed, confused, and, for a brief moment, thought I was still in my nightmare. I was jolted out of my paralyzing fear by a thin row of ivory teeth that grew larger as the demon smiled revealing the sick pleasure it would have at tormenting me to death. If death was my escape from this nightmare. An image from the Livro da Morte Escura flashed through my mind of those tormented by the demons turning into demons themselves.


I turned to the large glass doors and banged wildly, screaming for help while quickly looking behind me to track the demon’s progress. A flash of lightning revealed that it had pushed its hips from the wall and had almost freed one leg. The lights flickered. The demon paused -- its smile wilted slightly. Another series of flickers and the lights stayed on. The demon froze on the spot.


I quickly swiped my pass card, opened the doors, and was immediately blown off my feet by a gust of wind that landed me hard on the ground. The heavy rain drenched me as I gathered my wits. The opaque glass doors glowed orange from the light inside. As my adrenaline subsided, I started to feel all the hard knocks I had taken so far this evening. Nothing felt broken, but I knew I had some scars in the making.


Using every crack in the brick wall I landed next to, I slowly clawed to my feet. I was exhausted. I wasn’t sure I could make it home. The lights in the corridor flickered off. I would make it home.

Battling against the wind and rain for every step, I shot quick glances back at the doors. They’re strong doors, I thought to myself. The blast didn’t damage them -- over the din of the driving rain I heard a loud low creak as a thin black hand worked its way between the closed doors. I put my head down and fought with every fibre of my body against the wind and rain to put distance between the living embodiment of the Black Death and myself.


The clamour of metal and glass being ripped asunder erupted behind me. I quickly looked back to see several tall, thin, black shapes escaping from the Corredor de Alegria Demoníaca. They had a slow and stilted motion that reminded me of an old wind-up toy with broken gears -- some movements were smooth, but then an appendage or their head would quickly spasm and launch the body part through an unnatural range of motion.


The weather didn’t slow them down, but the light from the single light bulb suspended in the alley did. Lightning also caused them to momentarily freeze. If it wasn’t for the weather, I would have easily outpaced my pursuers. We were caught in a strange stalemate where they couldn’t decrease the distance between us and I couldn’t increase it.


Each flash of lighting revealed more demons in pursuit, but there was something more; large angular arachnids overstepped the wooden demons to take perch high up on the corners of buildings and balconies. They looked like something out of a Georges Braque painting.


Turning a corner, I noticed some of the spiders hanging by their milky white silk threads from gargoyles that spewed rainwater diverted from the roof of a discrete black stained cathedral crumbling in the wake of centuries of pollution and weather with slivered sections of cream coloured stone reaching to the heavens like a prisoner reaching for a crack in the cell that provided a glimpse of a life no more. The high perching spiders were tracking my progress and announcing my position to the demons through chirps that sounded like a distorted call of bohemian waxwings.


It depressed my spirits and slowed my already sluggish pace. Why run, I thought? The end is inevitable. They will pursue me until I am them.


I turned down a tight stairway between the cathedral and a centuries old apartment building and into the arms of a demon. I tried to side-step its fatal embrace, but its sharp wooden fingers raked across my shoulders and chest in a scissor motion as its head spasmed side-to-side. I lost my footing and awkwardly stumble-fell the length of the stairs, landing winded under a large antique street lamp.


I stared up at the lamp dazed and confused. Unholy chirps filled the air. I rolled on my side, a few steps beyond the light a demon slowly backed away and then climbed the wall to circumvent the light and cut-off my escape. Bits of stone fell to the ground, crushed by its tight grip, as it creaked and scratched its way around the light.


I rolled away from the demon, struggled to my feet, trudged to the next light and looked back at the demon. I could see several pale red eyes slowly moving toward me through the alley and along the sides of buildings -- chirps continued to sound all around me. I continued this pattern of plodding from light to light with brief stops to watch my pursuers. I was beginning to feel confident that I would make it to my well lit apartment when I was blinded by an immense flash of light followed by a deafening blast of thunder. The world around me shook violently. I continued to feel my way down the street till I regained my vision. There wasn’t much to see. The lightning had knocked out the power. Pale red eyes closed in from behind me. Lightning flashed again and, to my relief, I saw my apartment building at the end of the street. 


I moved faster than I had all evening in a last desperate attempt to escape the demons. A few paces from my door, power returned to the grid and lights flickered to life pushing the demons back into the shadows. I quickly opened the door, stumbled inside, locked the door, and switched on the hallway lights. I leaned heavily on the railing to catch my breath. I watched a puddle grow as water dripped from my rain-soaked clothes.


The lights went out. I panicked thinking that it was another outage, but remembered the three-minute setting on the lights and switched them back on. I heard a creak on the floor and looked down in time to see long ebony fingers retreat from under the door. I turned to ascend the steps and groaned in pain as I raised my leg to the first step. I was exhausted, stiff, and a little delirious; ascending the steps in three minutes seemed like a Herculean task. Each step was a study in pain and jumping at shadows.


As I turned the last corner that led to my apartment at the end of the stairs, the lights went out. Far down below I heard the door rattle, then crackle, and, finally, splinter as it was forced open. A short beat later, the sound of creaking and scratching slowly grew louder as I imagined the ebony demons methodically ascend the steps.


With one last push of effort. I mounted the final steps to my apartment, opened the door, took one last look down the stairs and saw a set of pale red eyes turn the corner. I slammed the door, locked it, and turned on every light in my apartment. I pulled up a chair and kept watch at the door. I could hear them scratching and creaking on the other side of the door waiting for the dark.


I must have dozed off at some point in the evening because I awoke to blazing daylight filling my apartment. I survived. As I attempted to push myself from the couch, pain shot through my whole body. I looked down and my shirt was filled with blood from lacerations across my chest and arms. It looked like road rash from a high speed wipeout on a bike. It made sense considering all I had been through the night before. I managed to stand, but I could barely walk. I had never been this stiff in my life.


I made some breakfast and remembered my notebook in my satchel. The satchel was supposed to be waterproof, but I doubted it survived all the abuse from the previous night. I was relieved to see that my notebook was dry and undamaged.


I walked over to the small dining table and opened the notebook. It was filled with elaborate sketches unlike any of the documents that I recall seeing -- I don’t recall seeing much. I started breathing heavy and shaking as I realized that there was no possible way I could have drawn that volume of material, with that level of detail, in an hour. I was, at best, a mediocre sketch artist. What was on the pages in front of me was of a level of artistry well beyond my ability.


While gathering my thoughts, I looked up at the lamp above the dining table and realized it was off. I must have shut off the lights at some point in the night while half asleep. I pushed my aching body up from the table and heard a hard tap and creak as my hand hit the top of the table. I froze. I didn’t want to look at my hand. It was impossible. Slowly I looked down at my hand and, to my horror, the side of my hand was hard and black like ebony.



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