This Week’s Prompt: 121. Photius tells of a (lost) writer named Damascius, who wrote “Incredible Fictions,” “Tales of Daemons,” “Marvellous Stories of Appearances from the Dead”.
The Prior Research:The Last of His Kind
Oil lamps illuminated the faces of the Muses, painted eyes watching over the scrolls of lore. It was my honor to attend to such texts—the Imperial archives, surviving riot and war, time and time again. Sophia smiled on us still, we her sacred stewards under the Aquilla. Still, even among such scholars, neophytes whisper. There are old texts here, of course. There are texts that were penned by ancient men, in times of light amongst the dark.
But the stories that linger around men of learning. The common folk say we peddle in secrets that can cure warts, that can send misfortune on our enemies, that can alter the fate of princes. We do know many things, lost to most—collections of lore on the body, how the stars can effect the fates of persons upon birth, the histories and philosophies of leadership. But there is nothing wicked about such knowledge, rightly gained and earned.
Still, such stories color ones mind, when a man enters the hall, his hood pulled over his veiled face, hand covered by a falconers glove. In the light of the oil lamps, his white robe caught the shadows—it looked pockmarked. Something about his gait alarmed me—my eyes went around his robe, looking for signs of grease, catching a feather caught at the bottom of his robe and dust stains lining the edge. Repulsive.
Still, he approached. When he drew close, I saw that beneath his veil was a mask—a mask of well-worn ivory, with carved carnelian lips. His voice was weak, like the wind moving through the reeds of the river.
“Honored master, I have traveled far and long.” He said in practiced tones, stumbling slightly in his Greek. “I am seeking wisdom that I have heard is in your house. I ask for some sanctuary, that I might cultivate in myself better virtue.”
Practiced words, practiced pleas. Hollow and rotten from over use, no doubt. No, no there was something wrong with his manner, his gesture. No, he was here for some other reason. An ill wind followed him in. But it would not behoove a man of learning to dismiss a man without reason. So I drew up my conviction and waved my hand to brush aside his request.
“I am afraid, supplicant, that this honored library is in need of more than sophistry. We cannot permit you entry on such grounds.” I said. The man’s left hand shook at his side—a strange convulsion, but sinister. He bowed his head and stepped back slightly.
“I see, I see. I shall return then; I shall return with more promising requests.” He bowed slightly, turning to leave. Even his gait, staggered and creaking like a broken automaton, was unsettling. I gave a brief prayer, and returned, hoping to forget his visage by morning.
It was alarming, then, when he returned the next day. This time he came, shambling mass, with a scroll in his hand. I took it quickly—and inside found a commendation from a scholar I spoke often of in Athens. The speed was surprising, until I saw the date so inscribed—this abhorrence had traveled far it seemed. That at least was not a lie.
“This is quite impressive, but we are not open to all—this place is under imperial aegis.” I said, shaking my head. The man inhaled sharply, hissing like a serpent as he stared at me through veil and mask.
“This is unreasonable, teacher. I wish to read only a tome, for my own understanding. Is that not the purpose of wisdom, to share it like the light of heaven?” he said—before coughing into his robe and glaring at me with hate. “If you fear I am here to make off with your scrolls, you may attend me—even a man such as you would be able to over power me in this wretched state.”
This…was true. His form seemed light, robes hanging from his frame like they would from a dying oak. And unobserved, he might make off with some texts for some distant Persian. I sighed and nodded.
“Very well. What wisdom drives you to such lengths?” I said, gesturing at the many, many shelves of scrolls. The man seemed contented, leaning back some.
“It is a text by Damascius of Athens, last of that pagan line. Marvelous stories of Demons is the title.” He said, scratching at his chest. I caught a glimpse at his wrist beneath his gloves—how many sores were on his arms. Some seemed to ooze pus and blood. Maybe it was the oil lamp.
“Well, I think I know that text.” I said, taking a moment to consult the inventory before leading him back, deeper and deeper. His steps followed, stilted and scrapping on the stone. Such a broken wretched shape—but he had come with commendation with Athens. And I could not turn him away, not yet for that.
But his coughing, his hacking and wheezing. It was stifling, and seemed to douse the lamps momentarily with the phlegm he spewed. At last, not to far from the entrance, but when we were alone, I turned to face him again.
“Sir, please, you must leave. You may be a scholar of good intent, and wisdom you do profess, but I cannot risk that you will riddle these halls with your misfortune. Plague and bile spews from your mouth—go now, before a black death comes to the wise and learned of this house!” I said, pointing out ward, my own lamp held high. He recoiled at the light—but in silence acquiesced. And gone he was, from this house of wisdom, even if the air of his presence remained.
Of course, he returned. Like the pestilence that clung to him, he returned. An old itch on a royal thigh, with a letter of health from many a doctor—many of repute, who attested not only his health, but that whatever illnesses and conditions he had, they were not present in the miasma. He had many herbs sewn into his cloak now, to keep the stagnant air at bay.
“Now, at last, may I seek my text?” He asked, his irritation clear. I acquiesced, biting my tongue. It seemed no matter the documents or proofs I needed, he would find them. So at last, we returned to those muse lined halls.
He coughed hacked, but no mucus was left in his wake. Perhaps there was something to the assertations that these outbursts were like the twitches of muscle memory. He staggered, he stumbled, he cursed. But this would get him free of my hair, so we sought his book.
“Here, the complete writings of Damascius.” I said, holding the lamp to the collection of scrolls. The man’s hands shot up like a coiled viper. Grabbing a scroll, he opened it swiftly, and placed it to the side. Another, another like a grotesque hundred limbed spider seizing flies.
In moment’s he had emptied the first shelf, and was panting with effort.
“There is no need for such strenuous—”
“I seek neither your opinion nor consul.” He said in a low growl, as he turned through another book. “Where is it, where is it? It must be amongst these, somewhere, somewhere.”
And he began to pull free the second set of scrolls—but in that moment his arm froze. His other hand gripped his chest and he panted. He swore in some alien tongue, his finger nails dragging on the wood as he collapsed before me. My heart, normally an open wound, felt nothing as he expired.
And then the next moment, alarm struck me. As man became corpse, before my eyes, fear struck me. There was a dead man in my house of knowledge! A man who died seeking my understanding! A morbid and frightful curiosity came over me, as I stood over what was once so wretched. I saw he had fallen, his mask knocked askew. And beneath, I saw something foul.
It was as if to stare into death itself. How had such a man, more miasma and malformed rot than flesh, survived to seek me? What had driven him, that this apparition of Hell did not stall or stop him?
I wrote a letter with this inquiry to my college in Athens, who spoke so highly of the man. It was my embarrassment to not know his name—nor did any of the doctors, who wanted him out of their offices as fast as they could. But he was so striking, that I was sure my colleague would remember him and his miasma of rot. It rattled my brain, how my emotions were quickened when he expired. Should it not be the reverse?
Why should I feel more sorrow for a corpse than a man?
My friend’s missive came in its time, almost a year since the stranger’s passing. He was distraught at the death of his friend, a fellow he knew well—destined for the priesthood, he said, and a bright young philosopher. He had some accident in the woods of Macedonia, my friend said, and had been seeking cure to his affliction. Fate had turned her face from him, and the Devil had filled him with afflicitons.
He had no known cure, and concluded that some spirit of the woods—perhaps some old phantom of a bygone age, still trapped here on its why to the beyond—was quarrelling with him. Especially as illness seemed to afflict him, and sleep fled him. He hoped that whatever affliction it was, it did not follow him still into the bosom of the Lord.
I wanted to do another historical piece, and found the idea of a character seeking the work I myself couldn’t find appealing. This definitely drew more from ideas of misfortune bringing demons then anything else. I’m rather content with this one. If I rewrite it for Patreon, it will probably take a radical new direction–or expand on the ending, having the confused master of the library seeking what caused the illness. I also would have done more historical research on the actual running of an ancient library!
Next time, we will discuss a 11th century story of the fantastic! I will see you then!