NOVEL EXCERPT: The Lost Level by Brian Keene

THE LOST LEVEL (Novel Excerpt)

Chapter 1

My name is Aaron Pace, and I’m writing this by hand in a spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook that I found in a student’s backpack inside of an abandoned school bus. All three—the notebook, the backpack, and the school bus—have seen better days. For that matter, so have I.

The notebook paper is wrinkled and curled, and many of the pages are water stained or smudged with dirt. The backpack is one of those vinyl and canvas kinds you can buy at Wal-Mart, emblazoned with cartoon characters on the back. I don’t recognize any of the cartoon characters, but there are a lot of things in this place that I don’t recognize, because they’re not originally from this world. The backpack is one of those things. I found it attached to a child’s skeleton in the back of the bus. It is still in relatively good shape—the backpack, rather than the skeleton—but both shoulder straps have been slashed, rendering it useless and impractical for my purposes. The skeleton is missing its lower half. The hips and pelvis are shattered. I have no way of knowing if that happened before or after the child died, but I suspect it was the former. The bus has some broken windows, four flat tires, and a giant gash in the side where something clawed through the metal to get at the kids inside. There are dried brown smudges splashed all over the vehicle’s interior. The splashes could be old dirt, but dirt doesn’t usually have a spray pattern. More likely, they’re blood.

There is a lot of it, but then again, that’s also not uncommon to this place. This is the Lost Level. This is where things become lost. Why should blood be any different?

It’s impossible to know how long the bus, the backpack, or the skeleton have been here, because there is no time in the Lost Level. The sun—if that’s what it is, and I have strong suspicions that it’s not—never changes position in the sky. We live in a perpetual state of high noon. If we have a moon or stars here (or things masquerading as moons and stars) then I’ve never seen them. The only visible body in the heavens above is that ever-present sun, mocking us with its cruel, unforgiving light. But despite the constant illumination, it is easy to find darkness here. There are deep canyons and a massive, spiraling network of caves and tunnels below ground where the light never reaches, and there are sections of the forests and jungles where the vegetation grows so thick that the sun’s rays can’t penetrate it. Go look in any of those places, and you will find darkness.

And if you can’t find it there, then all you have to do is look inside yourself.

There is a darkness inside of me. I have lost everyone that I care about—from both before I came here, and after. Especially after. They are lost, and I am lost.

Lost here in the darkness of an eternal sunshine.

Lost in the Lost Level.

Anyway, I suppose I should recount how I got here and what has happened to me since then, before this pen goes dry or I run out of paper. Or I get eaten. Or worse. I’ve given up hope that anyone from back home will ever read this, but it’s important to me that I get it down on paper regardless, if only just to prove that I once existed. That I was once alive, and had thoughts and feelings. It would be nice if, after I am gone, others knew my story. Perhaps, one day, someone from my world will stumble across this notebook, and read what I have written here, and I will live again, if only for a little while and if only within these words. And who knows? Maybe that’s what passes for an eternal life inside this place. Perhaps that is the best we can hope for in the Lost Level.

I doubt there is enough paper for me to tell you everything. I’d need a dozen notebooks or more for that. But it is my sincere hope that I can at least tell you how I came here and what happened after. That I can tell you about Kasheena and Bloop. If you have just arrived here, some of this information might just save your life.

I’ll write as much as I can, until I run out of room. Which, when you think about it, is how life goes. Our story continues until there are no pages left to write it on. story. I was born and raised in Byron, Minnesota. My father was a Methodist minister and my mother worked from home part-time as a court stenographer. Every day, they’d send her audio recordings of court cases, and she would transcribe them. It seemed like boring work, but I never heard her complain. I had two siblings—an older brother and a younger sister. We were never wealthy, but our parents made sure we never wanted for anything, either. In short, I had a good, safe, middle-class upbringing. We lived in a parsonage next to the church, who paid for the home, thus freeing my parents of the responsibility of a mortgage.

As a kid, I read a lot of comic books and paperback novels. Sometimes I wonder if people back home still do. Read paperback novels, that is. Right before I came here, there was a lot of talk about electronic books. I doubt something like that would ever truly replace printed books, but I can’t be sure. Some of the things I’ve found here can only have come from a future timeline, and given that they are far enough advanced that I can’t figure them out, reading a book on a computer doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

Anyway, I was a voracious reader. I especially enjoyed sword and sorcery tales and loved reenacting them in the woods behind the church. Using sticks or plastic swords, I fought mock battles with my brother and our friends. In high school, I took up fencing. I also joined a Historical Reenactment Society and worked summers at the local Renaissance Fair. Both activities allowed me to hone my sword-fighting skills even more. When not doing that, I dabbled in Live Action Role-Playing games with my friends. Not only was I proficient with a sword, I also became pretty good with firearms, thanks to the father of a friend of mine who used to take us target shooting and deer hunting each year. Tramping around the Minnesota wilderness in winter will toughen up any kid. I was a deadly shot with a rifle, bringing down my first buck—a six pointer—when I was twelve. With a pistol, from a distance of seventy-five yards, I could put a grouping of six shots close enough together to fit a half-dollar over them. Eventually, I earned varsity letters for football and wrestling, as well.

I hope you don’t get the wrong impression. I wasn’t a jock by any means. If anything, I was considered an oddity by my fellow teammates because of my interest in things like reading and the fact that, in addition to my athletic ability, I studied and applied myself and got good grades. Indeed, my books granted me educational opportunities that my otherwise middle-class upbringing could have never afforded.  

Something else I discovered in high school was a rabid interest in occultism and religions other than Christianity. Maybe this was my own form of teenage rebellion against my father, although if so, I wasn’t consciously aware of it. I loved my father. I respected him and the rest of my family, as well. But all the same, I didn’t share my family’s beliefs. When I sat there in church on Sunday and listened to my father’s sermons, I didn’t feel anything. In truth, I would venture that a portion of the rest of the congregation didn’t feel anything either. That had nothing to do with my father’s skills as an orator. He was passionate and emotive and always tried to make things interesting. Overall, he was an excellent speaker. Despite this, I sometimes glanced around and saw old men sleeping, women balancing their checkbooks or fanning themselves with church programs and staring off into space with dazed expressions, and small children playing with cars or dolls beneath the pews. It eventually dawned on me that these people were not there every Sunday because they believed, or because they enjoyed listening to my father speak. They were there only because it was what they were expected to do. They were expected to attend church services every Sunday. For them, it had become habit. Routine. The church lacked energy. It lacked spirit. That bothered me. I wanted to feel that universal spirit I’d heard so much about. I wanted to be filled with it. And if I couldn’t find it with God, I reasoned, then perhaps I would have better luck finding it elsewhere.

A trip to the local mall provided me with a start. I went inside the bookstore there and found the occult and metaphysical section, which was comprised of exactly two shelves sandwiched between Bibles and Western novels. I’d already read my father’s Bible and my grandfather’s complete (if somewhat battered) collection of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour westerns. What I wanted was in that small middle section.

That first visit to the ‘New Age’ section introduced me to the Simon paperback version of the dreaded Necronomicon. I was familiar with the book from my readings, but too young to know that the Simon edition was a fake. Attracted by the lurid cover and the book’s reputation, I bought it and read it. Hell, I devoured that book. It was like a switch had been clicked on inside of me (sadly, it wasn’t until years later that I beheld the real Necronomicon). I returned to the bookstore every week after that, and soon I’d discovered everything from Crowley’s Magic in Theory and Practice to Lavey’s The Satanic Bible to various paperbacks on Wicca and other pagan religions. After reading everything my local bookstore had to offer, I started perusing the free occult texts that were available online.

By the time I earned a full scholarship and entered college, I’d worked my way through most of the readily available occult tomes and now spent my weekends haunting antiquarian bookstores, looking for the rarer, esoteric volumes. And that was how I first discovered the Labyrinth. 

I could fill up the rest of this notebook writing about the Labyrinth, and still not explain it fully. Since I don’t have the time or capability to do that, I will have to give you the CliffsNotes version. If you have a layman’s grasp of string theory, or if you’ve ever read a Marvel or DC comic book, or watched an episode of Doctor Who or Star Trek, then you’ll understand the basics of the Labyrinth. Provided they have those things where you come from, of course. Not every place does, as I’ve learned from some of my fellow castaways over the years.

The Labyrinth is perhaps best described as a dimensional shortcut through space and time. It touches and connects everything. Most of humanity remains ignorant of its presence, but it is explored and utilized by madmen, magi, occultists, and a few in the highest levels of world government. The only times the rest of humanity sees the Labyrinth is when we die, dream, have an out-of-body experience, or alter our consciousness in some manner, perhaps while under the influence of certain perception-enhancing substances. It is not actually a labyrinth, but that is how mankind has perceived it over the millennia, and thus, that is how it has gotten its name.

Imagine the universe. Picture our galaxy and all of the other galaxies beyond ours, both known and unknown, that make up the universe. Then consider all of the planets in each of those galaxies. The Labyrinth connects to all of them, and by utilizing it, one can travel from planet to planet and galaxy to galaxy. But it goes far beyond that. Interplanetary travel is just the beginning. Our planet, our galaxy, and our universe have different versions of themselves that exist in other dimensional spaces. Some people call these alternate realities. Devotees of the Labyrinth refer to these alternate dimensions as levels. As one occult tome explained it, “Just as there are different planets in the sky, there are also different versions of those planets, existing simultaneously on a different level of the universe. Beings, including humans, can traverse this multiverse of levels by means of The Labyrinth.”

By using occult methods, one could access the Labyrinth and through it, visit an Earth just like the one I came from, or maybe one where the Germans won World War II, or where North Korea launched a nuclear war in the year 2008, or where dinosaurs never became extinct and continued to evolve instead. And just as you could travel to alternate Earths, so could you explore the alternate realities of other planets—a Mars filled with lush vegetation or intelligent life, if you liked, or a Mercury cool enough to walk on. All of these levels were accessible to a practitioner who had the knowledge and will to do it. And I resolved that I would be such a practitioner.

The one thing I came across time and time again in my studies was the mention of a “Lost Level”—a dimensional reality that existed apart from all the others, a place where the flotsam and jetsam of space and time occasionally washed up from across the shores of the multiverse. It was supposedly a place where one could encounter creatures and beings and objects from, quite literally, anywhere in the multiverse. All mentions of the Lost Level warned that while it could be accessed by a traveler, there was no escape from it. The Labyrinth led into it, but there was no exit, except in death—and even then, the scholars seemed divided. Some said souls and spirits could escape the Lost Level. Others said those energies remained trapped within it. Regardless, the one thing I’ve learned since my arrival here is that no one gets out of the Lost Level alive.

I wish now that I had heeded those warnings, but I was young and headstrong and stupid. I have matter from the entire universe beneath my feet, and yet I am homeless.

Accessing the Labyrinth—finding a door, opening it, and traversing the dimensions—was a long and complicated process, and again, I’ll have to be brief in my explanations of it. During a careful study of ley line maps, I found a place of power at a lake about one hundred and twenty miles southwest of Duluth and decided to begin my experiments there, as such places were traditionally favorable for rituals such as this. On my first attempt, I went there in the afternoon, chose a remote location far removed from prying eyes, and set up my tent. I’d fasted all day, and I was lightheaded with hunger and a strange mix of fear and excitement. It was hard to stay focused, but I did my best. I felt ready. Pure. Having a healthy body, mind, and spirit is important in magick, as is possessing a sense of self-assuredness and confidence. The key to success is making the universe revolve around you—understanding that you are the focal point of all that occurs.

I crawled inside the tent and meditated for a while. When it was time for the ritual to begin, I grabbed my backpack and went outside. Using the compass and GPS feature on my phone, I found north and faced in that direction, making sure there were no tree limbs or other obstructions directly over my head. Satisfied with my choice of location, I found a stick and used it to scratch a circle into the forest floor, at a depth of about a quarter inch—just enough to clear the dead leaves and disturb the soil. Then, I filled that circle with salt. Returning the salt canister to my backpack, I pulled out a red blanket and spread it out on the ground inside the circle, making sure none of the fabric overlapped the circle’s edges. Then, I placed four red candles in four different positions—north, south, east, and west. I lit each of them and then retrieved a small incense burner from my backpack. I filled it with a tiny amount of scented oil and lit that, too. When it was burning, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a piece of paper on which I had drawn the required symbols for this particular ritual. I touched one end of the paper to the flame and let the ashes fall into the oil, holding it there even as my thumb and index finger burned. I winced, clenching my teeth and resolving to feel no pain. When the paper had been consumed, I sat down cross-legged in front of the incense burner and faced north again. Finally, with my left hand, I pulled out my final item—a pocketknife my father had given me for my tenth birthday—and sliced the ball of my right thumb.

“I have fasted according to the Nomos,” I said. “The Nomos is the Law. I have eaten nothing unclean. I have drunk only water. I have avoided spilling my seed and have abstained from worshipping at the temples of Ishtar or Lilith. Thus, I have kept my essence and remained pure. My candles are of the appropriate and required color and were lit at the appropriate time. With them, I cast light upon the four Gates of the Earth, even as I face the Northern Gate. There is no roof over my head, except for the sky. I have done these things in accordance with the Nomos, which is the Law, and thus, I command your attention.”

I held my bleeding thumb over the burning oil and squeezed out three drops of blood. As I did this, I repeated the incantation three times. “Ia unay vobism Huitzilopochtli. Ia dom tergo Hathor.”

Finished, I paused for a moment, sucking at the cut. The taste of my own blood made me feel queasy, but I shrugged that sensation off. I pressed the wound against my jeans and waited for it to stop bleeding. When it did, I continued.

“I sit in the appropriate and required manner, and am safe inside my circle of protection. You cannot harm me. I come here with respect to open a gate. I come seeking passage. And so, I call upon the Gatekeeper, who gave to us the Nomos, which is the Law. I call upon the Doorman, who is the Burning Bush and the Hand That Writes and the Watchman and the Sleepwalker. I call upon he who is named Huitzilopochtli and Ahtu. He who is named Nephrit-ansa and Sopdu. He who is named Hathor and Nyarlathotep. I call upon him whose real name is Amun. And thus, by naming you and offering my blood three times, I command an opening.”

Nothing happened. I held my breath, waiting. My heart beat once. Twice. Three times. Then, the oil began to smoke. Wisps curled from the incense burner and rose into the air. The smoke seemed to be meeting resistance from something, even though there was nothing there. The wind was still. There wasn’t even the faintest hint of a breeze. I glanced down at my thumb, and when I looked up again, a doorway floated in front of me, hovering just a few inches from the ground. On both sides of the doorway was my world, but inside the door was another level. Through it, I glimpsed a scene very similar to the one I stood in—a forested lakeside after dark. Steeling myself, I stepped through into that other world. Sure enough, it was an almost exact duplicate of my own level, except for one telling difference. When I looked up at that other reality’s sky, the constellations were very different than my own. Indeed, they were different than anything I had ever seen from my Earth. Most telling was a long, crooked scar running across the face of the moon, a shadow that had no counterpart on my own moon.

I only stayed on the other level for a few minutes that first time, and when I emerged back through the doorway into my world, I was scared and shaken and didn’t sleep for two days. I had no appetite and ended up struggling with an unexpected and deep melancholy. But that didn’t stop me from trying again. If anything, it just encouraged me. The depression passed, and my hunger returned—and with it, a thirst for more.

On my second attempt, the doorway opened into another alternate reality. This time, I found myself looking at a city. At first, I wasn’t sure which one. They have always looked alike to me, especially American cities, where the architecture is usually the same, and the streets are filled with chain stores, fast food restaurants, and discount outlets. The doorway hovered directly over a busy sidewalk, and people bustled around the portal without even giving it a glance. I assumed that only I could see it. I stepped through the door and explored the city a little—half a block, no more, endeavoring to keep the doorway within my sight at all times. I found a newspaper at a bus stop and skimmed through it and found out that I was in Chicago. This level was much like our level and dealt with the same problems—global recession, terrorism, a new arms race, social unrest, the politics of polarization, and a media that focused more on entertainment news and celebrities rather than issues of actual importance. But there were subtle differences, as well. The President of the United States was somebody named Anthony Genova. On this level, Microsoft was the manufacturer of the iPod and iPhone. And the Chinese had launched a successful return to the moon in the year 2000. This act had since been followed by landing human beings on Mars, beating Russia and the European Federation there by a projection of five years, even as the American space program was discontinued due to a lack of funds.

I stayed in that world for an hour, never straying far from the door. I determined that this alternate America’s cash was the same as ours and bought something to eat from a sidewalk vendor. I watched some television in a storefront window and listened to music booming from car speakers as the traffic crept by. I didn’t recognize the television program or the various snatches of songs. When I returned through the doorway, I brought the newspaper with me as a souvenir. I wasn’t sure I would be able to, and when I closed the doorway and stopped the spell by extinguishing the oil, I half expected the paper to vanish, but it didn’t. It was still there, proof that I really had traveled to an alternate reality. When I got home, I hid it safely.

This time, upon my return, I felt none of the adverse side effects I’d experienced the first time. Instead, I felt excited and euphoric. Rather than becoming depressed, I was simply impatient to do it again as soon as possible.

So, I did.

My excursions grew more frequent—and more daring. I never did master the art of opening the door on a specific location. Instead, my attempts were similar to channel surfing. But I did become adept enough that I no longer needed to work the ritual from a place of power. I began doing them from the comfort of home, rather than the woods, opening doors into the Labyrinth and visiting other levels from the rooftop of my apartment complex in the dead of night when everyone else was asleep and I wouldn’t be spotted. I visited a world where the Nazis controlled America, and one where the gas crunch of the late-Seventies had turned us into a Third World economy from which we’d never recovered. I went to other time periods in our level’s history—the Old West, the Sixties, and what I think was a time about fifty years in my future. I can’t be sure about the latter because I spent all of my time there hiding in an alley as a series of massive explosions rocked the city I was in.

I also glimpsed other worlds, realms, and dimensions completely different than Earth. Out of an abundance of caution, I never set foot in any of them, although the desire to do so was strong. The first one I saw was a desert planet, coated with red sand, much like we are told the conditions on Mars are like (although I have my doubts about that). A human skeleton lay there in front of the door, dry and desiccated. Nothing else moved in that wasteland except a group of scarlet dust funnels, dancing lazily in unseen wind currents. I didn’t like the funnels. They reminded me of mini-tornadoes, and I had the uneasy impression that they were alive. I can’t explain why I came to that conclusion, but I felt it strongly. Suspecting the air there was poisonous, I stepped back from the door, lest any fumes cross over from that level to mine. Another time, I glimpsed a world populated by what I think were robots, but nothing lived there, either—at least nothing constructed of flesh and blood and other organic material. The last alien level I saw was a city composed entirely of crystal. It, too, was empty and lifeless, and so utterly alien in architecture and dimensions that I grew uneasy just gazing upon it. After watching it for too long, my stomach turned nauseous and my vision grew blurry.

That wasn’t how I felt when I first gazed upon the Lost Level, though. You must remember that I didn’t know that’s what it was upon that initial encounter. When I first saw it, I was transfixed by the beauty and splendor of a lush, green, tropical jungle. I saw palm fronds and ferns gently bobbing in the wind, and a white-tailed deer with velvet-coated antlers nibbling at some low-hanging leaves. Mistaking the dimension for an alternate reality of my Earth, I stepped through the doorway. In doing so, I startled the deer, who ran away. The ground was soft beneath my feet, a mixture of white sand and soil. The air was warm and humid, but a cool breeze caressed my scalp through my crew cut. I sighed, then smiled.

“This is paradise,” I murmured. "Maybe I’ll stay here awhile."

A buzzing insect hovered around my ear. I slapped at it and then turned back to the door.

But the doorway was gone.

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