There was something subtly off about the man sitting across from me, diligently writing on the parchment using a feather pen. He had already been in the room when I was manhandled through the door by the burly, most-likely-not-human guard, sitting there like a statue in black robes embroidered with gold filigree. He said nothing as he wrote, and every time I opened my mouth to say something, the guard growled at me, and I shut up.
The man just felt wrong, in the same way that you can smell the cold. It felt like I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing. In the ten minutes since the eight-foot-tall man with horns had dragged me into the small, cold room, he hadn’t said a word. He just sat there, writing.
I hazarded a glance back at the guard. He stared at me with predatory eyes, burly arms crossed over his broad chest. A pair of ram’s horns curled off his head, and I knew from earlier experience that he had cloven hooves instead of feet. Coincidentally, I had a bruise between my shoulders the same size as said hoof.
The pain told me that I wasn’t in a dream, and the guard told me that I was most definitely not in Kansas anymore. A man with eyes like a big cat, teeth like a piranha, and the horns and hooves of a sheep? It was like somebody had taken a few animal parts, tossed them in a blender, and hit ‘puree’. Except instead of a messy, bloody, pulpy mess, the product was a professional wrestler.
The ‘man’ snarled, showing a mouthful of sharp, angular teeth, and I whipped back around to face the man who made me think of a lawyer for some reason. It was really easy to picture him in a suit instead of those embroidered robes.
He was too smooth. His skin looked like airbrushed porcelain, and his slick black combover looked like shiny rubber. His gray eyes were focused on the paper as he wrote; right to left, I noticed. I decided, for the sake of brevity, to call him Mister Plastic.
Finally, he finished writing, and pushed the parchment towards me, as well as the feather pen and pot of ink. “Please apply your signature to the contract present on the table in front of you,” he said. There was no emotion in his voice.
“Fuck you,” I said.
Mister Plastic glanced at the guard, who slammed my forehead into the table. I bit back a scream.
“For the second time, I request that you please apply your signature to the contract present on the table in front of you,” Plastic repeated.
“I want my phone call,” I said.
“I do not understand the meaning of the term ‘phone call’,” Plastic said, as sterile as a surgeon’s hands.
“Then I’m not signing that paper,” I said. I had made my decision, and I was prepared to stand by it.
Mister Plastic gave a tiny nod to the guard, and an enormous hand with fingernails like talons wrapped lightly around my throat, ready to clench at a moment’s notice. “So I just sign at the bottom?” I asked, reaching for the feather pen. The hand retreated from my throat. I can take a few blows to the head just fine, but I’ve sort of got this thing about keeping my airflow unblocked. Call it a preference.
“Your statement is correct,” my interrogator said, staring at me without any sign of emotion.
I dipped the end of the quill into the inkwell, and carefully moved the wet point to the parchment. I glanced over the contract, but it was written in strange, blocky letters that I couldn’t recognize.
After a second of scrutiny, I realized I did recognize them. It was the same as the writing from the book that had gotten me into this mess. This fact both intrigued and didn’t surprise me.
I prayed that I wasn’t selling my soul or anything, and scribbled my name at the bottom.
As soon as the quill left the paper, the world lurched.
I gasped as something was ripped away from me. I felt sort of breathless, but I could breathe just fine. It was like – everything felt just a bit duller. Something was gone, something that I’d never noticed before, but now that it wasn’t there-
Mister Plastic took a pair of green-lensed glasses from his robes and peered at me through them. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he placed them on the table. “Both signatures have been accepted, and thus the contract is both valid and effective,” he said. He set out another piece of parchment in front of him, and began writing on it. He wrote much faster than he had been earlier, and the letters were looser, less angular. “Please state for the record your given name.”
“Fuck you,” I said, but what came out of my mouth was “Oliver Meyer.”
“This is hereby added to the record,” the man said as I gasped. I hadn’t meant to give him my actual name. “Mister Meyer, please state your present occupation.”
“Student and part-time library assistant.” The words felt like they were being pulled out of my mouth.
“Please state the name of the location at which you perform your studies and the name of the library at which you are employed as a part-time assistant.”
“Oak Ridge University, Oak Ridge University Library.”
Mister Plastic’s quill stopped moving. “Oak Ridge University?” he repeated, his confusion the closest thing to an emotion I’d seen on his face. “Please repeat the location at which you perform your studies.”
“Oak Ridge University,” I said. “What the hell did you do to me-” I tried to stand up, but the guard forced me back down.
“Please state the location of ‘Oak Ridge University’,” the man said. He wasn’t writing anymore.
Now he was really confused. Almost frantic, he grabbed the parchment I had just signed and pored over it, lips moving silently as he read. At my signature, he paused. “In what language have you written your signature?” he demanded.
Plastic jolted like he’d been struck. He scanned the document again, almost frantic. “-doesn’t make any sense-” I heard him mutter. “-not a known language, but the contract accepts it-”
When the contract didn’t yield the answers he was searching for, Mister Plastic put the glasses back on and stared at me, and then at the contract. He began to write, still muttering. “-not under any other contracts but this, can’t be lying to me-”
“Glad to see I’m not the only guy who’s confused here,” I said. “I don’t know what sort of weird Middle-Earth type stuff I’ve gotten mixed up in, but if you have any idea how to send me back to Earth, I’d love to hear it.” The words were completely my own, I was happy to find. I only got the weird ‘words being pulled out’ feeling when Mister Plastic asked me a question, it seemed.
Mister Plastic looked up at me. “What is Earth?”
“In the context of my previous usage, it is my world of origin.” More pulled words.
“Who are you?” Mister Plastic asked.
“Oliver Meyer,” I said. “I am a student studying biology at Oak Ridge University in Bradford, Kansas, I am twenty-one years of age-”
It was the paper, I realized. I’d signed the paper, felt something pulled away from me, and then I was singing like a canary to the tune of every question I was asked.
I heard the man take a deep, steadying breath. “Oliver Meyer, please recount the circumstances of your entry into the Contractual Vault, as well as your motivation and any cohorts who assisted you in the perpetration of the crime.”
The truth flowed out of my mouth like water. The leather-bound book, written in a language nobody could recognize, that had been left in the drop-off slot in the middle of the night. Nobody had seen it before, but it was in the library catalog, and it even had a Class K label on the spine that showed it came from the legal section. I reshelved it, putting it right where it was supposed to go, and then…
I was somewhere else. A library unlike any I had ever seen. Huge and roomy, smelling of ancient paper and rich dust, the shelves filled with books that looked like antiques-
“This is ludicrous,” Mister Plastic said. “You must have signed a memory-altering contract, that’s the only way you could be able to get around the truth contract-”
“But you just said I’m not under any other contracts or whatever!” I reminded him.
“It is the only logical explanation,” Plastic said.
“Logical explanation my ass,” I snapped. “You just don’t believe me.”
“Enough,” Mister Plastic said. “You will remain in holding until such a time as the Court can discover how you tricked the soul-sight lenses.”
Mister Plastic tore the contract I had signed in half, and whatever I had been missing flowed back into me. “Bailiff, take him to a holding cell,” he said.
The guard grunted and grabbed my head. The table zoomed towards me, and I blacked out.