October Frights 2022 The Spirit of Alchemy (Complete Story)
Welcome to the 2022 October Frights Blog tour!
I’m running a little late with my final piece, but here’s the complete story.
Enjoy, and please be sure to check out everyone else on the tour!
The Spirit of Alchemy
James P. Nettles
I do not understand why anyone would wish for this curse. I certainly did not.
My…no, not that. Not in many years. Never again would I refer to him as such. Lord Apollinaris Offredus feared death above all else.
When he was cogent enough to care.
The low drone of a television wafted through Offredus’ closed door, but the lack of other sound meant he was still entertained. It might be a while before the nightly tirade began. I could no longer pity the remains of what had been a vibrant and brilliant, if not also a narcissistic aristocrat from his time. Now, it was mostly the self-absorbed spirit trapped in his own twisted mind, forgetting his age. Forgetting what had transpired over the ages. Still promising he could still amend for what he had done to me.
Maybe I could resume my work for a period before… before. Or maybe I should simply walk into the night and return in the morning when he would again settle down for the day. Then again, the last time I did such a thing, how long had that been? No matter, it hadn’t been worth the effort to clean up the mess afterwards.
Sipping at my glass of merlot, beads of wine trailing down the inside curve of the glass like blood, I reached for the curtains shielding the apartments sanctum from the outside world. The falling sun casting a blazing halo behind the New York skyline, long shadows creeping up the side of buildings, scurrying like plague rats around scattered glows of artificial beacons of light cast through the windows of artificial mountains that held offices and homes.
Rising from the single chair at the kitchen table, closed the lid on the remains of another flavorless meal from a plastic container, and tossed the bundle into the trash. Taking the glass, I retreated into the study.
Tomes, texts, scrolls, and loose pages filled the wooden shelves lining the walls, more stacks on the floor and every available surface, except for my working space. A small wooden chair and table rest in the corner, bathed in the warm glow of a floor lamp. A lone notebook and a fountain pen awaited me. As cluttered as everything else was, I needed my working space to be clear. I allowed myself to only place those items that furthered my work on the otherwise clean working space, even setting the wine glass aside onto a stained spot on the windowsill.
What to work on tonight?
Plato’s Apology had done little for my mood. It could sit and wait for me to come back around to a rereading in a decade or two. A small wooden cigar box, tucked on a shelf where my eyes passed over it daily, tugged on my sense of nostalgia to be opened. I could quote everything inside the container, though I couldn’t begin to remember the last time I had actually looked inside.
Taking the box, I opened the lid and was greeted with faint memories of tobacco and perfume. I could smell the coffee from the café downstairs of the Paris apartment during the glorious days of Années folles. It was the last time Lord Offredus had seemingly been happy, or at least felt we were close to a solution, when he was most like his old self, not that it was always a good thing. We spent more than a decade chasing an alleged master alchemist known only as Âme Brûlante around the city, missing him by mere moments here and there, though I often doubted his existence. Exchanges of notes like spies through Horace, a ‘mutual traveler,’ never to meet face to face. The last communication had come with a small book. A French translation of the Corpus Hermeticum written allegedly by our mysterious friend, complete with footnotes and opining for having missed the great age. In a delicate scrawl on the inside cover was the note;
May our interpretation of the great work be of assistance to you.
Horace, and Âme
Placing the delicate century plus book on the table, I could picture Horace, wispy and being swallowed in a hand patched suit, offset by a garish blouse or another, and a floppy, oversized blue beret that covered his thinning brown hair. Every evening, he would appear, almost a spectral figure, known of by all, but really known by none in the small Montmartre cafés. I cannot remember how our, I’m not certain I can call it friendship, it was much more and much less at the same time, began. One evening, he slipped into the painted cold iron chair across from me, a cheap cigarette trailing a cloud clutched between two fingers, introducing himself as he motioned to the server for that damnable mix that was more cream than coffee.
It was well known, and accepted, if you were to be so blessed as to be selected for a chat, you would be picking up his tab. Always several cups of coffee, and at some point, a pastry. His first words to me were, “What do you know of alquemie?”
I snorted a bit of my glass of wine. Esoteric topics were not unusual, but I expected something more along the lines of talking about art, or the latest scandal among the community. Around us, many were laughing about Ernest, the new American reporter who was spending so much time poking at the artists and their weird ways. But alchemy?
I flipped to a bookmark, a piece of old parchment, and read the first piece I came to.
Whatsoever human souls have not the mind at the reins, they are but fated to the same destiny as souls with lives irrational. For the mind acts as reason in balance, and giving cause to the soul to pursue the desires for which it was borne; and not at the mercy of the nature of the animal. The animal ceases not to rage and lust, nor are they ever satiated of these ills. For passions and desires are exceedingly great ills, over which God hath given man mind to be judge, and executioner.
What of the mind when there is no longer a body to contain it? What of the mind trapped in a body that for all practice, cannot and does not age?
Of course, I believed Horace had come up with the poor translation, a mix of the old Latin with his years of conversations with the denizens of the arts district. His ramblings and commentaries showed the influence of too much coffee, and likely other drugs, and not enough material sustenance.
Grumbling and racket came from Offredus’ room. It sounded like he was in a heated debate, arguing with himself again. It used to happen only occasionally, but in recent months, it seemingly happened every few days, about the same time. It was as if he were fighting with an earlier version of himself. What had gone wrong? What had he left out?
In truth, I doubted he knew. The secretive bastard would sometimes hide things even from himself to “protect the work.” It what put me in this position, and him in his.
No, I wasn’t in the mood for a fight this early. Maybe he would calm down if I went for a walk, even somewhat. Or he’d be in a rage that I wasn’t there when he beckoned. I was no longer his servant. Let him rage.
Besides, Fastred had sent word he had something of interest.
The clear evening carried fall’s crispness as I took to walking six blocks to Arcane Oddities, Fastred’s shop. It was one of those places you had to know existed to even look for it, much less find it. And it had an essence that if it didn’t want to be found, it could hide itself, not that I’d had such a problem, but rumors abounded.
What had once been a five-story-tall department store was now apartments, all except the top floor. The doorman, Mr. Henley, nodded and held the door as I slipped him a twenty. Only one of the elevators went to the top floor, and it only arrived if called by Henley, or one the other two doormen. It had taken some time to figure out their system, and it seemingly served the shop well. The lift doors opened with a chime, and it was if I were stepping back in time itself. The doors ambled closed, and soon the box began to amble upwards.
When the doors reopened, it dumped me out into a small, familiar lobby. An ancient table supporting a bouquet of fresh flowers, and a lone, wide, dark wooden doorway with fading gold letters advertising Arcane Oddities – enter at your own risk.
I knocked, and opened the heavy oak door, and was greeted with the warm earthy scent of old books, a hint of vanilla an spices reminding me I needed more tea. A labyrinth of wooden shelves covered every available space, seemingly an endless maze of books and artifacts.
Fastred looked like he could be the only man on earth older than I, and for all I knew, he was. He sat perched on his stool behind a small counter. A little over five feet tall, and a small paunch, a shock of wild white hair atop his head, he looked up from what he was doing and pushed his thick glasses up to the bridge of his nose. In an accent reminiscent of old Europe, he said, “Enzio. Good to see you. Are you early, or late this evening? The old one being ornery?”
“He was arguing with himself a little earlier than usual, so I decided to come down a little earlier than usual.” I walked over, placed the box on the counter, and leaned against it. “Things are a quiet in here.”
Fastred shrugged, nudging his hands into the air. “I am an old man, how much excitement do I need?”
“Customers?” Enzio grinned.
Returning a knowing grin, the shopkeeper pointed to the labyrinth. “There are always a few people shopping about. There are more than a few that haven’t come out from the stacks in years. It’s you that needs a little excitement. That Miss Andersen that comes in asks about you all the time.”
Enzio flushed, “She is quite lovely, but I don’t know I’d have much to offer. Besides, what would I do with the old man? I can only leave him to his own devices for so long before I come home to hell to pay.”
“You can bring him by for a visit. It’s been far too long. Who knows, he might get lost with some of the other haunts in the back.”
“Tempting. I’ll give it some thought.” Enzio tapped on the counter. “What prize are you holding for me? I’ve been trembling with anticipation.”
“The impatience of the young.” Fastred reached under the counter and pulled out something wrapped in linen, placing it on the counter. With a few deft movements, a book lay unwrapped.
Enzio gasped, a leather bound book not much smaller than the cigar box spread before him. Gold leaf and dried skin flaked from the cover. In Middle Gaelic, the title read The travels of Brother Oilioll among the fair folk. “You found it?”
“The original. The one and only.” Fastred leaned back, folding his arms over his chest. “I thought the lead I had was for one of the twenty copies, but nope, I stumbled on the copy.”
“I cannot begin to thank you. I’ll let Daniel know, and please deliver it.”
“Of course, as soon as the payment hits, it will be in your hands. Tomorrow then?”
Enzio nodded, barely able to stop grinning.
“Have you brought me something?” Fastred glanced at the box resting between my hands.
“I thought you might like to look at a little something.” I opened the lid, allowing him to look inside.
It was the bookseller’s turn to not reveal his real level of excitement. “Is that real? May I?”
Enzio nodded, and watched the old man gingerly remove the book in cotton gloves. “Where do you get this? I thought these were a myth from the old days in Paris. You wouldn’t believe what some of my collectors would pay for this.”
“A gift from a friend, many years ago. And no, not for sale.”
“Too bad.” Fastred flipped through a few pages. “Must be one hell of a friend. I see it’s even signed. There may have been what, twenty copies? Thirty? The shop that printed these was known for small runs of esoteric works.”
I stifled a laugh. The evening Horace passed out hundreds of copies from the case he clutched to his chest, to anyone he knew or had sat with over the years, by the end of the night most littered the streets like flyers for an exhibition. For all I knew, this was the only remaining copy. I’d often thought seeing his work, and that he’d probably scraped for years to pay for the print run, trash dumped in the streets broke him. He’d disappeared after that night.
I’d wished to see him one more time, if he’d been able to see the world as I had that night, he’d have recognized it for what it was. A microcosm of the world. Clueless people pretending to be wise, and discarding the very thing that might give them one piece of wisdom, or at least set them on that path. “No idea. I find myself drawn back to these pages now and again, even though they were, not so studied. In my opinion, of course.”
“Rumor said that they had unlocked the great secret of the original Great Work.” Fastred sniffed, I could see he was reading through the notes and observations. I could almost smell the steam engine in his mind being stoked as he began to troll for information. We’d played this game may times, giving each other tidbits, some good, some foul. “Who do you think Brûlante was anyway? One of the old greats?”
“No, just the ramblings of an artist, who couldn’t find his way.” Enzio sighed. “The translations are poor at best, and the notes are… creative interpretation. I have found no great secret, other than the writings of a madman whose passions outran his knowledge.”
“If he were sane, he wouldn’t have been chasing the great work. In this business, we are all a bit mad.”
“I cannot argue with you on that.”
Fastred closed the cover and returned the book to the box. The old bookseller screwed up his face in thought. “I normally would not disclose such a thing, but you should know someone has been inquiring about Offredus – any works or artifacts.”
A knot formed in my gut. I’d felt something had changed, but something was always changing. That was the way of the great work. “Who?”
Fastred removed his glasses and began to clean them with an old handkerchief. “Can’t say. I haven’t met him, just a few phone calls. Started a few months back.”
“Do you have a name? A way to reach him perhaps?”
“No. Unfortunately not. Are you looking to sell some of your collection?” He slipped his glasses back in place. “I am happy to broker such a transaction.”
“I’m sure you are.” I closed the lid on the cigar box, and tucked it under my arm. “I would be willing to acquire anything they might have, though. How would you reach them?”
“He calls me. Once a week, or so. Sounds young, a bit posh.” The shopkeeper wrapped up my new book, and slipped it under the counter. “But educated in the work. Not to be taken lightly.”
“Thanks as always. I look forward to receiving the package tomorrow.” I nodded. Someone looking for us could be troublesome. I turned and moved for the door, pausing as I turned the handle. Looking back, “And if you hear anything, see if you can find out what they want. I will make it worth the time.”
It’s much more difficult to be immortal these days. It used to be that when people began to question why you didn’t age so much, or drew other attention like having money without an obvious means of support, you simply moved somewhere else. If you live long enough, it’s hard not to accumulate some wealth, and we had done well over the centuries. With all of the gadgets surrounding life in the twenty-first century, having a secure identity and money that didn’t draw unwanted attention was a challenge.
I was grateful for Mister Baird on that front. The firm he worked for had taken care of such needs for us since fifty years before the first auto spewed smoke through London. They asked few questions other than what was needed, and served what was now a specialized community.
Sitting at my desk, I took my laptop from a nearby drawer, and sent instructions to pay Fastred, and include a bonus. As an afterthought, I included a note to see if they had any information on someone that might be inquiring about Lord Offredus.
Returning the device to its place, I decided I would check on the bane of my existence. He’d been quiet since I’d gotten back to the apartment, which alone was concerning. I poured a glass of merlot and made my way down the hall to his door. The television wafted a laugh track from people long dead, with an undercurrent of incoherent grumbling.
I took a deep breath, and reconsidered a dozen times whether to knock, or wait for his highness to beckon, but there was always the chance he could be in a good mood. It happened once a century – or two. But I wasn’t betting on it.
“Enzio.” The thick, but hollow voice bellowed. “Come on in. I can feel you breathing.”
“Well shit.” I muttered. I’d brought it upon myself. I took a deep breath, turned the handle, cracked the door, and mustered as pleasant a grimace as I could. “How are you this evening?”
“Where were you off to?” The etheric form of Lord Apollinaris Offredus, still projecting himself as dressed breeches, blouse, and pointed shoes as he hovered several inches above and slightly off center from the faded rose-colored fabric of his favored chair, a gift from Louis XIII court. If you can consider something stolen by a courtesan a gift, but that was a different time. And we both still had corporeal forms at the time, even though he’d lose his within a decade. “Loyalty is so hard to come by. I called, and called for hours. What if something had happened?”
I bit my tongue at the melodrama. Watching modern television had done nothing for his overacting. Placing the glass on a side table, I took my seat on a cracked leather chair. “I was gone little more than an hour, and what could possibly happen to you? What could you need?”
“The little people in the glowing box, they are not the neighbors I wish to watch. It keeps changing. I wish to see more of what is happening with Amile and Roderick. I must know if her amnesia will be cured, there may be something there to help our situation.” Offredus’ faced me, his crooked nose pointing in three directions and wild hair streaming like a fountain of wisps framing a serios look. “I do like this era of voyeurism.”
I rolled my eyes and searched for something that would possibly capture him besides a bad soap opera. “These are fictions. Plays. I assure you, nothing of value can come from this device.”
“Were you off with a companion? You should get out more often. I miss being able to travel about.” The specter rose upright and floated nose first towards the glass. “You waste the body you inhabit. You should take me out with you more often.”
“Fastred mentioned that he hadn’t seen you in a while.” I took the glass and sipped from it, just to watch his sneer. “Maybe we can arrange a play date for you with Marie Antoinette’s head.”
“Bah. What about a tavern? A café? A tearoom? A companion for an evening or two?” He folded his arms across where his chest would be when he saw my reaction, and turned away. “But I would not object to a trip to the shop. Maybe I could find something of interest. If you still refuse to allow me to borrow your corporeal form.”
“You will not be, not be, given reign over my body again. Never again.” I growled. “I would accept this damnation and cast you into the abyss for eternity before I will allow you earthly pleasures in my body. Not after last time. Never again, do you hear me? I am no longer your servant. You have the freedom you do at my pleasure now, do you hear me?”
“When I found you, what were you? A peasant shoveling horse shit. You should have more respect for the gif I have given you. Knowledge. Education. Wealth. Immortality. The devil has wrought deals like this for the future of nations, not trinkets like what your life was.” The specter flared with an unearthly glow filling the room. “What would you be without me?”
“Dead. In the ground having fed the worms. Gone to my eternal reward. Generations of children from my loins running about.” I shook my head. I’d let him draw me into the old fight. He was in the mood for blood. If he wanted blood, I could draw it as well. “What would you be without me?”
The glow flared around him, but was losing strength. “I should be the one about the town, celebrating, educating the few worthy among these senseless husks shuffling about. I would not be wasting my time.”
“Well, if the errands you send me on are a waste of time, then maybe I should no longer do them.” I had but one way to get his attention, and I wanted no more of him for the evening. Maybe ever. Maybe it had been in the back of my mind to start this fight tonight. Maybe it was time to be done and accept my fate. I leapt from the chair, crossing the room in a few steps. Opening the door to the old tabernacle I withdrew his cracked, sigil covered skull. “Good-bye Apollinaris.”
His mouth turned into a cruel slash across his face. “What do you think you’ll do with that?”
I turned and marched down the hall, tugging his spirit behind me.
“Boy! Return me now!”
I turned into the kitchen, several retorts on the edge of my tongue, but any response would just open the door for him to talk me out of it. I paused in front of the butcher block on an island in the middle of the kitchen and withdrew a cleaver from the rack. A huff of a laugh escaped my lips as I placed his skull in the center of the board. After this was done, it would likely destroy the board, and the blade. Hell, it could wipe out the block for all I knew. Or cared.
Likely it would test my immortality. Maybe it would finally give me peace as well. I just hoped not the be in the same bar in hell. “Any last words you second rate Faustus?”
“I have the solution.”
“Bullshit.” I swung the cleaver, the sigils I struck sparks showering me and the board, cracking the steel.
Offredus howled a curse, clutching his head as his form dimmed. “Stop. I speak the truth.”
I scanned the knives. None had a heavier blade. I opened a drawer and withdrew the meat hammer. Drawing it high over my head, I swung with all my might to be rewarded with an explosion of sparks setting the butcher block to smolder and the hammer’s head to fly in another direction. I needed something heavier. Stronger. Magical?
“Damn you.” Offredus bent over, seemingly gasping, trickles of glowing plasma flying from his etheric head.
“Too late, you bastard.” I stormed into the study.
“It is true!” He exclaimed.
“How would you have possibly found something after all this time. Damn soap operas have rotted whatever mind you may have once had. Lies will not save you. Not this time.” An old gun lay in the case. I doubted I could find fresh black powder this time of night, and I didn’t really trust it the last time I’d fired it fleeing Greece in the revolution.
“One of those things on the glowing box, it opened my memory.”
“Your memory is worth less than that spectral sausage and eggs between your legs.”
The wraith shrieked, “It found me, or -- he found me.”
I stroked a chunk of stone from the old workshop. It still carried a little of the energy from our transformations. It might be enough. “He who? How? You haven’t left your chambers in ages.” I grunted as I hefted the stone in my hands, carrying it against my chest.
“He summoned me.” The spirit scurried to stand between me and the skull, arms outstretched, not that he could stop me. It might not be pleasant, but worth the pain he could inflict even in this form. “I have been working with another student of the Great Work. I think I have what he needs, and he, I. Or we.”
I struggled to hold the rock in my hands. “Speak quickly. I’m about to drop this, and it’s up to you if I am to miss your skull.” I staggered forward.
“He has several of my missing journals. The one from the laboratory. One lost in London. The one from Paris. And his own work. He has the lineage.”
I took another step. “And what does he want?”
I paced around the cozy room Fastred allowed us to use… for a nominal fee of course. I couldn’t be sure what method was being used to talk to the old bastard, but within a couple of days it was easy to connect the person from Offredus communications with the bookseller’s interested party. All I had was the name Pépin. Fastred claimed to know nothing about him, which was concerning in itself as I thought he knew everyone dabbling in such things.
Mediums always bothered me. The dead lie, and the not exactly dead lie even more. Those who never lived lie the most, but that was a problem for another day, I hoped. You never know what, or who you are speaking to, and those who call them tend to be just as questionable in my experience.
The room was protected with sigils, and a number of enchanted objects were tastefully scattered about the room. We would have privacy, and be relatively secure.
If he ever showed up.
My being immortal didn’t mean you should waste my time, and the other party was twenty minutes late. Glancing at my watch, twenty-two. I would grant him a few more moments, and then my former… Offredus’ reprieve would end. It had taken three days to connect with this Pépin, another to get Fastred to confirm his end, two more to agree on a date and time, and two more to get to… now.
Every night, the old bastard raged more than usual, but he appeared to still be recovering from our spat. Thinking my rage had subsided was a mistake on his part, but one I did not intend to reveal. I let him believe I had returned to my fearful, subservient ways.
He would be wrong.
I glanced at my watch. Nine-thirty-one at night. I’d allowed myself to slip. I’d given him an extra minute.
I took a deep breath and cleared my head. Charlatan or not, I had given the old man too much time. Too much grace. I had allowed him to control nearly every breath of mine for over five centuries. Even if it meant I would take my last breath, I would shatter the bastard’s skull and let him join the brethren on the other side, no doubt many of whom were salivating at the thought. Damn my fate. He had sealed it long ago.
I opened the door and walked down the narrow trail through the labyrinth. Fastred was speaking with someone, it sounded like whispers. The other voice was deep. Accented. It was hard to tell with whom.
I edged nearer to the cramped lobby. Fastred stood behind the counter, wringing his hands in a twisted towel. “How was I to know?”
“You were not supposed to know.” The warm deep voice carried the threat of a sheathed blade. Not readied, but ever present. “You have nothing to fear in this.”
Inching to the edge, I could see the edge of a figure. Expensive suit.
Fastred nodded, seemingly unsoothed by the promise. “I will take you to meet him now.”
“No need. Mister Necca, if you would join us?” The figure turned to face me.
I stepped into the space, maybe ten feet from him, near the counter. “Pépin, I take it?”
“Let me introduce myself.” The figure stood a little over six feet. Manicured nails, and impeccably trimmed black hair just giving way to white threads. “My name is Ilbert de Pons. Certain friends call me Pépin.”
The swirling in my chest grew. “I have not used that name for many years.”
“Would you prefer Salvaza, Mabe, Sithney, St. Auban, Carreau….”
“You have made your point.” I flexed my hand, looking around for a way to defend myself. I doubted a first edition of Dickens would help.
He held his hands in front of him. “I mean no affront, simply that I do know who you are. Exactly who you are. Shall we see if we can help each other?”
All I could read in Fastred’s eyes was concern. Or fear. It was hard to tell, because his poker face was only letting the slightest hints slip.
What the hell could he do to me? I’d been tortured before. It wasn’t like I was afraid of dying. “After you.” I nodded towards the direction I’d come.
De Pons strode past, a lion through the jungle.
Fastred gave a slight shrug I took as a wish of luck, and I followed behind my guest.
The aisle took two turns following the inside wall of the building, packed shelves giving a narrow path, until I reached the room on the left. The door stood open. Looking inside, de Pons had seated himself comfortably, his coat thrown across a nearby chair, his hands resting on the arms of an antique seat.
I closed the door behind me, and sensed the static charge that supposedly gave those inside protection, and privacy. I took the seat, a hard wooden office chair, and nodded to my guest.
De Pons shifted, making himself look at ease, but I could see the tension in his muscles. Controlled breathing. Absolute focus.
“May I call you Enzio?”
I steadied my nerves, and fought the urge to look down. I couldn’t give him an inch, no matter his aristocratic airs. “If you wish.”
“Call me Pépin. It is my hope we can be friends.” He shifted to lean towards me. “Shall we cut to it? Where is your benefactor? I understand you had quite the disagreement the other evening.”
“Safe. For now.” He had to know I wasn’t going to fall for some power play? Or maybe he thought I was still the mucking servant I was five hundred years ago. Offredus certainly believed as much. “What is it you offer, and what do you want?”
“My understanding is that you have been gifted for all intents, immortality. This happened in Lord Apollinaris Offredus’ attempt to bestow it upon himself, and instead, you claimed it, and he found himself living without form, dead without dying, and ultimately tried to reclaim his body, and now inhabits his skull. You desire mortality, Offredus to claim his immortality and again walk freely.”
“And what do you want, Pépin?”
“The secret. The next understanding of the great work. My family has been at this for centuries. I believe I have the key for you, and he has what I need.”
I leaned back in my chair. Had the great work driven him mad? Could it be possible? Or just another lie, a thief of ideas. “Tell me, why should I believe this? Believe you?”
“My great uncle Horace de Pons said you were a man of reason, and intellect. You knew more of the great work than most generations of alchemists. A man born of the earth, and one for whom the great work has not corrupted. One who has not allowed the gifts to control him, or use to ill.” He unfurled his hand and extended it. A coin rest in his palm. A 1923 1 franc. “Horace wished to thank you for all those nights you spent talking, educating him. Fastred even told me you keep his first work in a treasured box. When he passed over, I was bequeathed a box of my own, including the coin, and the information I needed to find you.”
“Horace was your great uncle?” I asked, “What happened to him?”
“He returned to the family. He pursued the great work. He never found his answer, though he had it all the time. You.”
“Maybe he knew he wouldn’t like the result.” I leaned forward. “If what you say is true, he knew enough of me to question this… gift.”
“You have my offer. What do you say?”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “I will think about it. I will have to confer with Offredus. Know this, the path you are on, what you seek, is not what you think.”
“Enzio, know this.” De Pons motioned for me to come close, and whispered, “Like my father, and his father, and his father, and generations before them, I bear the mantle of the Âme Brûlante. Hector feared this as much as you. Maybe more. This is my calling. My raison d'être. I have borne my next generation, such that if I fail, they will continue where I have failed. But I will not. We, will not.”
“I will consider it.”
“It is not too late.” de Pons leaned over me. Straps held my hands, arms, legs, and chest fast. He prepared the final two restraints that would hold my head in place. “I believe there is another way, based on what I found in the papers.”
The wine eased my nerves but not my judgement. Either this would work, and I would be free, or it would be another failed experiment, and I would be back at my desk by mid-day. Nearly a week had passed since first setting foot on the grounds, and it was the wee hours of Friday morning. I turned to look at Offredus’ form. Something about the artefacts, or incantations around the lab allowed his form to have greater substance. I was able to see through him, still, but he had the ability to affect some small things. Turn a page. Move a droplet of water. Even turned a small valve on the evaporator. Even in these small joys, the old bastard had barely noticed my presence, having found his new adept. I tugged the leather mask over my head, the eye holes large enough to see through, wide nostrils, and the mouth large and flexible enough for me to speak. An energetic pulse surged through me as I cinched the laces at the back of my head, certain I looked like Leatherface the Luchador. “No, Pépin. I am ready.”
“Get on with it.” Offredus barked. “I wish to feel the sun upon my face, even if it’s his, with the dawn, and then break fast with a huge meal.”
De Pons poured a sickeningly sweet liquid into my mouth, stroked the side of my face, smiled, tucked a guard into my mouth, and positioned my head before locking it into place with a copper lined leather strap. “That will help you relax, and make the process easier.” A moment later, cold metal pulled tight around my throat.
I couldn’t see what was happening, but Offredus snapped, “What are you doing?”
“There is a small change in plans. I found the error in your work. There is but one way for this to work. I must place your skull back in the box, so your form goes to the body."
“I have not fully taken form outside of the skull, some of my essence resides within it.”
“I am aware.” The click of the latch echoed in the chamber. “I can’t have you interfere in the procedure, and your separation is of the utmost importance.”
“What! Interfere? This is my--”
I fought to turn my head, but all I could see were shadows moving on the ceiling. My head was swimming, I fought to keep my eyes open. My whole body buzzed like a beehive filled me. It was as if I realized my body was simply a meat suit, and it was time to strip. I tried to object, but couldn't get anything to come out of my mouth.
“Lord Offredus.” De Pons chuckle at saying the name chilled me. “Great Uncle Horace was a kind and brilliant alchemist. Enzio was one of the few true friends he had in life, but you refused to give him even the least acknowledgement, pretending you didn’t know he could see you, but taunting him the same, much as with everyone else about you. That it took until now for Enzio to try and kill you shows the patience of the saints, and a choir of angels. In this act, I shall take Enzio’s immortality, and set his spirit free. You, on the other hand, will be more divisive than ever. I shall have your skull, containing the wealth of knowledge and insight without the commentary and rage. I shall also have your personality, your Id, your ego, trapped in a form that deserves everything it shall have, but accessible when needed.”
Offredus howled, “What have you done?” I could hear taps, and rapping against the wooden box holding his skull.
Eyes darting, I caught a glimpse in a mirror of de Pons climbing upon the other table.
In soft tones, De Pons said, “It will all be over soon.”
I was barely still in my body, though it seemed to be breathing, heart pounding. A chime, followed by soft sound like snow falling surrounded me. I felt the moment I left my body, like a rubber band snapping. Drawn like a leaf on the stream, I was able to move, to see, somewhat. De Pons body lay prone, an odd cap on his head and something in his hands clutched at his sides. His spirit, or aura, or something stretched beyond his body, and looked to be climbing out.
I turned back to look at Offredus. He pounded frantically upon the box. I could see the small latch jiggling.
“Your pain is at an end.” De Pons voice sounded like it came through a waterfall.
Hanging in the air, I rolled to face him. In this state, he looked – exaggerated, cruel. “What is this?”
“Immortality is less about the body, and more connection to source, to energy. Like you, I have taken the substances that allow the body to remain eternally uncorrupted, but my essence lacks the power. I shall free you of this, taking it into myself.” His grin showed chipped, blackened points. His eyes clouded, all but lifeless. “If you had known the secret, you could have freed yourself centuries ago. The old man knew, but was afraid of you. Afraid you could stop his return to the mortal world. He will get what he wishes, a corporeal form, even if it will not be for long. And you will be free to pass to the next realm. Find the answers to the great mystery.”
“What are you doing to Offredus?”
“He will get your body for a few moments, until I can complete the transformation, and then he will get to die all over again. Two skulls, two purposes, one mind, never to be rejoined again.”
“Stop this.” I fought against the pull bringing me closer to de Pons. “I no longer wish this.”
“Unfortunately, no one can stop it now.” De Pons chuckled. “The elixir that freed you, will also prevent you from returning to that body. It ensures that your spirit doesn’t wind up trying to reclaim it, or something else untoward. Only one essence per container, and Offredus has claimed yours. Soon, your former body will begin to draw in the nearest available spirit. It’s time for me to take on the burden of your… curse.”
I swum against the ether, but had nothing to grab, nothing to hold onto in this liminal state. Glancing back, Offredus hunched over the box, seemingly bargaining with it to open. De Pons grabbed the sides of my head, turning me to face him, etheric being to etheric being.
He gazed into my eyes. I fought not to look into the swirling, milky ponds, seeing the muck and mire behind them.
“Quit fighting me, it will only make this harder on you.” What felt like pressure pushed on both sides of my head. “This is what you most desired, remember?”
“You do not deserve this… gift.” I pounded on him, thrashing his arms, his sides, his head, all to no effect. “And the world should not suffer with what you will do with it. I see that now.”
“You have been blind to many things. Servant. You should never have received the power you know not, and care not to use. That shall be rectified now.”
All I felt was… pain? Exhaustion? Loss? Slowly at first, golden specks of light flowed away from me into him. It felt like I was evaporating. I thrashed, but knew it was in vain. There was no way I wasn’t being absorbed into this creature.
“Ha!” I barely registered Offredus break into a mad cackle. “Enzio. Stop fighting. Push through. You are stronger than he is. Beat him to his temple.”
What? I risked turning my ever-narrowing tunnel vision to Offredus. The box was open, and the eyes glowed before he used his will to snap the box closed.
Temple. His temple.
Shit – his body!
A tendril of energy reached out, a climbing vine looking for purchase, recoiled from me, and shot for de Pons. A second grabbed his arm. A thick tentacle of glowing energy wrapped around his throat.
He groaned, a gasp escaping from his body on the table. “Nnn.” His milky gaze snapped wide, he released my head, grasping with the energy. He tried turning his body, reaching for it, stretching.
One chance, my only chance. My only way was to I had to get into his body first. The only path was to push through de Pons, if I could.
Turning my focus, I pictured his physical form. The tentacles of energy were pulling us both towards my body, threatening to crush me in between. What would happen? I didn’t want to find out, the great work had a tend to be unforgiving when testing its adepts.
I concentrated on my only goal. I would enter his body, there was no other choice. Areas of de Pons body where the ever growing numbers of energetic vines grasped were becoming translucent. His eyes locked on me in a fury, but I knew not to get lost in them, lest he take me with him to his fate.
I stopped resisting, and crashed into him, our essences mingling, the whipping tentacles of energy retreating where we touched. The two thinnest parts of him were his head, and around his solar plexus. I targeted the latter. Shoving my head into his chest, fire took over my being. Blinding light. The roar of a great falls.
My head cleared though his back. I could see his form!
A lone arm of light stretched from his torso, tentatively reaching towards me. Pulling my right arm free, I reached for the lifeline. We touched, and the thin line of energy snapped to be a great serpent wrapping around my arm to the shoulder, pulling me. A second thread reached out, and grabbed me as my left arm cleared his torso.
More arms reached out from the body, waiting to pull me away.
My soul, or whatever resides in that smallest point in the heart made the briefest contact with his. Images, memories, knowledge, punched me like a prize fighter, and I shot loose.
De Pons clutched for me, twisting like a cyclone to grab my leg, fingers tearing into what my mind still registered as flesh and bone. With my free leg, I kicked his hand, and head. Energy shot from his body, wrapping around my trapped leg, pulling me free, as a tendril ripped into his hands.
Falling slowly, as if being lowered by a cloud towards his body, I flipped him off as I was welcomed into former chassis.
I flexed fingers that were mine, yet not mine. I held a cylinder in each hand, unsure what they were, fearing to release them. I blinked at the ceiling. He had no need for glasses. I could see.
Like an infant, I pushed myself upright, swinging my legs off the table.
I, my body, the body I had spent the entirety of my existence in. The one I had vacated. It lay strapped to the table, muscles flexing against the restraints. I didn’t realize how small, and soft I looked. Short, wild black hair. Plain.
Offredus spectral form leaned over my – de Pons body. My hearing began to work, the first sounds being the great Lord snipping at it, and with the tone, it was hard to know who he thought was in the meat suit.
“It’s me, Enzio.” I tapped my new chest, getting the feel for the body. “I’m over here.”
“Yes, yes. You managed to follow directions for once. Hooray for you.” Offredus quipped without looking over. “I want to know more about what the Âme Brûlante thought he was up to.”
I slid off the table, falling to my knees, and over to all fours in a flurry of oaths and curses. My new chassis was nearly a foot taller, leaner, and stronger than I had been when I worked in the fields. I just didn’t know how to make the automaton work. I pulled myself to my feet and kept a death grip on the pair of cylinders. Until I knew what they were, I would not release them.
I managed to stagger the few feet to the table, and lean against it. I waved one in his face, causing my face to pale, and eyes to widen. . “What are these things?”
“You may discard those, Enzio. We are safe from them.” Offredus folded his arms. “Aren’t we. You wouldn’t do anything that brought harm to yourself, but you would protect your own assets as it were, would you not?”
De Pons unleashed muffled, unintelligible shouts.
I studied the thrashing figure. “Are you certain?”
“Quite. You are immortal after all, and now, so is he.”
De Pons thrashing intensified as the milkiness in his eyes continued to clear. His pupils were dinner saucers. Beads of sweat poured from the gaps in the sigil covered leather mask. “Are you certain of that?”
“Mostly. You both carry the aura.” Offredus shrugged, and hovered inches from de Pons face. “Âme Brûlante my ass. You thought I couldn’t see what you were up to? Your plots within plots? That I could not see and read the sigils? No, when you told me of what you planned to use to make Enzio’s body available to me that I did not know your plan? And that you were so unknowing that when I told you what modifications you needed to make to the elixir to absorb Enzio, you didn’t even question it? At first, I thought you two had concocted this plan, but no, not Enzio. I knew I would never inhabit his body, he had seen to that, but he deserved more. Better. And you were that opportunity. Horace came to me for knowledge, which I did not rebuke. I asked he make sure to obfuscate it in such a way only the very few could find its wisdom. I weep you are the family legacy. But your little experiment here has done a great deal to rejuvenate me, for that, you have my gratitude. Let us see how your dreams of immortality work for you, Pépin.”
De Pons eyes stared at me. Through the mouth guard, and the mask, I could tell enough from his garbled chatter he begged to be unrestrained, but I found no need for compassion, no desire to grant him anything. “Are you certain we do not need these?” I held up the two cylinders.
“We do not need them.”
I placed the devices on the table, and they both clicked as I released them.
“But he does.” Offredus mimicked de Pons cackle. “Don’t you? How long do you have?”
De Pons hand flinched as if it was trying to grab mine, leaning against the table. “What do you mean?”
The old bastard whispered, “I would take a step back, if I were you.”
Without pause, and limited control, I staggered three steps to steady myself against the second table.
Sigils in the mask began to glow. The leather tightened, straining against the body underneath. De Pons thrashed, muffled shrieks filling the room.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Bile filled me, watching the scene, but I didn’t have enough control over my body to free him, even if I’d so desired.
I didn’t. “What’s happening to him?”
“I believe what he had planned for me. Isn’t that true, chatterbox?”
Nausea, weakness, a cyclone blew through me, it took all I had to not black out. “You mean?”
A bell under the table chimed.
The sigils on the mask flashed, causing steam and smoke to rise around the head. De Pons hands formed claws, digging into his thighs.
The sigils flashed again, and when the cloud cleared, the sigils glowing brightly against charred leather.
A third chime sounded. De Pons clenched his fists, a final sign of defiance.
A blade sliced upwards through the table, slicing through his neck. The metal band around his throat, flashed white hot, fusing to the guillotine blade, and cutting a circle in it.
My body, his body, the body lying there continued to twitch. The restraints, all but burned away, broke. The head held fast for a moment, and rolled to the side. Glowing eyes stared at me, blinking, fury and fire behind them. The mouth opened, pushing the guard out with his tongue. “A gravelly, angry, resigned, version of my voice spoke at me, “Would you be so kind as to sit me upright?”
There’s an old saying, you can’t go home again. Grasping both side of the head, the warm leather and still charged sigils tingling in my hands, I felt something like a pull trying to restore the “natural order” of things, but it was far too late for that. Even if I’d wanted to swap back, there was no way in hell I’d exchange a living, breathing, moving body for… that. I suppose it gave me some idea as to how Offredus might feel. Both alchemists trapped by their own designs.
I struggled to empathize, but not for long. Yes, had the natural order been followed, I would have been in the ground generations ago, but something in this moment told me the fates had planned for this moment for generations. Whether specifically for me, or some other poor, random bastard I could not say. Nor did it matter.
I was the one here, now.
Offredus leaned over, chiding, taunting de Pons who snipped and cursed in return.
My legs trembling, unsteady, and feeling almost drunk, I staggered and collapsed into a nearby chair. How long would it take for me to be comfortable in this body? Control it? Would I ever?
I held this body’s hand up to its eyes. I couldn’t think in terms of them being mine, not yet. Some part of me feared that the spell would reverse, and I would find myself trapped in what remained of my physical form.
I must have fallen asleep. I dreamed of being a head mounted to a steel plate, and this pompous French ass tweaking my nose while Offredus danced in the corner. Of being shoved into a wooden box, trading fortunes for tokens. Shut in the darkness, pulled out only when someone direly wished for something they shouldn’t know.
Something under me chimed and vibrated, jolting me awake. Offredus and de Pons still bickered, tireless in a state of dead without death, alive without life. At least they could entertain each other.
Something vibrated under me again. I dug into de Pons suit coat and found his intelligent telephone. Staring at the device was enough to unlock I, though I intuitively knew the code. I seemingly knew many things about the alchemist. Hints of knowledge at the edges of my consciousness.
I stared at the message on the screen. “Pépin, who is Cassaundra?” I figured it couldn’t hurt to be familiar, if friendly. Soon enough it would take on a new identity of its own. Or not. Who cares.
Even though its eyes were not directed at me, I felt its glare. It rasped out, “My planned conquest of the evening to celebrate my ascension.”
“You’re not going to need that now. Are you?” Offredus cackled.
I glanced down. There was a time, and address, back in the city, and a can’t wait to meet you 😉. “Have you ever met her?”
I stood, my legs steadied. My arms stronger. My heartbeat, and I filled my lungs with air still tainted by the smoke and singed flesh. I had not felt so alive in… ever. “I suppose I shall have to make sure she is not disappointed.”
“You?” de Pons hissed. “You think you can be me?”
Offredus gasped, “Of course. For all intents, you are Ilbert de Pons, the current Âme Brûlante. You have his power, wealth, the family library. All yours. Ours!”
I looked at the picture of a lovely woman, maybe thirty. I would have no idea what to do. How to act? What should I say? The last time I shared such company was in a filthy tavern on the coast of the Mediterranean in a town that no longer exists. “I don’t know about all of that, but one must start somewhere.”
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