Edition 16: Libri de Atrum Divum by Travis Burnham
Ackerley Brumlow is dead, and the jokester’s long-time friend Ezra still doesn’t know if Ackerley managed to dispose of the sensitive material he’d given him. Other unlikely happenings open Ezra’s eyes to more sinister signs that all is not right in Tendry Spire. Travis Burnham’s supernatural horror is a question of who is strong enough… SY
The evening they buried Ackerley Brumlow the sky was a bloody bruise. Steely storm clouds menaced the north and the air was charged and heavy; the threat of lightning making every breath laborious and wheezy for those attending the funeral.
Though Ackerley had no family to speak of, many of the residents of Tendry Spire were arranged about the coffin, some to pay their respects, some to truly mourn, and some simply at a loss for activity after a Monday’s work.
Many were children, with which Ackerley had an affinity; no surprise as they comprised a majority of his clientele.
At the presiding priest’s last words, Ezra Calogero stepped forward and, scratching his short, shaggy beard, hesitated at the edge of the grave, “Somber words for our resident trickster, wouldn’t you say, Father Robert?”
A cold stare was Father Robert’s reply.
As Ezra threw the first fistful of dirt, something slid from a small hidden compartment, and rose from the grave.
Ezra stumbled backwards into the equally surprised crowd. As they all looked on a fat balloon, coppery with the reflected red of the setting sun, rose above the grave’s lip. Painted on the balloon was a garish grin, all white teeth and bright red lips that stretched into an impossibly large smile, as guffaws and resounding chuckles issued forth from an inflatable gag.
The mourners stared, stunned silent.
One of the children giggled. Ezra looked down at her, smiled and then his laugh joined hers. Within moments the graveside was loud with laughter.
This hilarity was a far more fitting exit for the owner of Brumlow’s Bag o’ Tricks.
Ezra couldn’t help but think that all those who lived in the Spire didn’t even realize they owed Ackerley a debt, for he’d destroyed the Libri de Atrum Divum.
Ackerley and Ezra owned the only two establishments in Tendry Spire that dealt with thema fields and the manipulation of reality—what in common parlance would be called magic. Ackerley dabbled in the lighter realm, in baubles and tricks, trinkets and pranks. His was the domain of the stink bomb, the self winding yo-yo, the talking doll, and the everspin top, while Ezra dealt in the more serious arts of meta-cognition, organic manipulation, the merging of sinew and steel, and all those topics that existed at the boundaries between biology, mechanics and thaumaturgy.
As the only two practitioners in town, Ezra and Ackerley were close, companions in exploring the vast uncharted sea of magic. Ezra was fond of likening them to seafarers, he the captain, and Ackerley his trusted first mate.
Ackerley’s apprentice Tomas wouldn’t look at the balloon or into the dark wound in the earth where his master had been laid. His lips were drawn tight as purse strings and his eyes were restless things— taking in all but settling on none. He’d refused to throw the first handful of dirt, and muttered unintelligibly when quietly asked why.
Ezra squeezed Tomas’s shoulder. “Don’t look so serious, Tom, or people will start suspecting foul play.”
Ezra followed the rest of the mourners down the muddy path that twisted through the ancient oaks and tombstones and bled back down into the town and the main street. Tomas lingered graveside, but finally turned and followed.
As everyone filed past Mr Felderley the cemetery guard, they tipped their hats or gave him grim smiles. A shotgun balanced in the crook of his arm, he tersely returned the greetings.
A year ago there’d been no need for a cemetery guard, but that had changed when old widow Zagerstrom, dead and gone eleven months past now, was the victim of graverobbers. She had been the last—there’d been two others previous—but there had been no more thefts since Federly had assumed his post.
Ezra, who had been instrumental in creating the guard’s position, had been a friend to Widow Zagerstrom, but even more so to her son, Willoughby, and the body’s disappearance cost them both many a sleepless night. To spare other families the torment of losing loved ones in this way, but also to soothe and distract Willoughby, Ezra rallied the small town government to fund a cemetery guard position, for which Federly was hired.
As if the encroaching storm had been holding its breath for the townsfolk, rain began pattering the pavement just as they finished filing into the Three Exalted Jacks tavern, Ezra and Tomas at the back of the line.
The next morning was a dire affair for Ezra, waking to dog breath and liberally applied canine saliva, along with a throbbing head reminding him over and over of his excesses and overindulgence the previous evening. The mage scratched Copernicus behind his one organic ear.
Though Ezra remembered that wine had figured heavily, the memory that he dwelled on most from the day before was that of Tomas; his grim face at the funeral and his subtle but firm refusal to join in the festivities. He’d found a dim corner and nursed a drink for the entire evening, which was very uncharacteristic behavior.
Normally, Tomas was exactly what you would expect from the apprentice of the local prankster: witty and full of good humor, sometimes goofy, and always quick with a joke.
Ezra decided a visit was in order, a quiet, one-on-one talk. It wouldn’t do, Tomas moping about. It’s true that Ackerley was like a father to Tomas, but chins had a tendency to wag in Tendry Spire, and they wouldn’t wag friendly if the dark mood persisted.
With an effort of will, Ezra pushed the blankets off and then himself out of bed to stagger over to the wash basin. Feeling a bit more human with a splash of water and some back of the neck scrubbing, he looked down at Copernicus, who wore an expectant look.
The dog, with the mage’s help, had survived a bear mauling. He stood on two of his own legs and two crude, cast-iron legs, while dark coarse metal covered a portion of his torso and skull, the remainder was covered in a motley spackling of short black and white fur. One false ear of hardened leather stood at attention, while the other slouched to the side. Ezra had designed all of the replacements, but his strength lay in utility and the melding of flesh and iron, not in aesthetics. It had taken him many months to attune the parts to Copernicus, to allow them to move and flex using the dog’s own natural vigor. He’d tapped into thema fields, the energy that surrounded the atoms of living things.
Ezra tossed a leftover bone from the remains of dinner on the bedside table. With puppy-like enthusiasm, Copernicus launched himself after the bone, cornering it and then flopping down with grunt of contentment, his two metal limbs thumping on the wooden floor.
Stretching, Ezra felt more than heard soft cracks as bones fell back into place. He threw on some clothes that seemed cleaner than others, and ambled into the street. Copernicus took his meal mobile—attempting to chew and walk at the same time with varied success, often dropping and retrieving—and fast followed at Ezra’s heels as they threaded their way through the rundown streets of the Spire.
The town’s buildings were dilapidated and, more than a little, reflected the general character of the populace. Nine Beggar Crossroads was the local theater, but with aging bitter actors giving uninspired performances, they hadn’t made money on any of their productions in years. Father Robert had done what he could to empty the church with sermons that only masochistic parishioners could stomach. And these were just examples, for the businesses of hardware or food or necessities or what have you were all run by calculating men who cared not for their customers, but for how much money could be squeezed from them.
In short, Tendry Spire was something of an ongoing battle being lost on many fronts.
Ezra couldn’t help but give thanks that Tomas would assume ownership of Brumlow’s Bag, for the shop was a bastion of mirth in the otherwise bleak backdrop that was the Spire.
At the back of the Bag o’ Tricks was a narrow brick alleyway littered with trash and smelling of vomit and stale piss. A narrow wooden staircase stretched from the ground to the second floor rooms where Ackerley and Tomas had lived.
Copernicus hesitated at the bottom of the stairs: he and Ackerley had never been on speaking terms.
Ezra turned, “Ackerley’s gone, Cop, just come on up.”
Seeming to understand, the dog followed and the two continued up the stairs which, though they groaned in protest, managed to bear the weight of the two visitors.
Pounding on the door, Ezra yelled, “Let’s go, Tomas, up!”
Ezra slammed his fist against the door again, shaking it in its frame. “Get out of bed, Tomas, you toad-loving son of a whore. Enough of the grim act, it’s time to run a joke shop.” He reached forward and tried the doorknob, which twisted easily. As the door creaked inward, Copernicus whined, nostrils flaring and ear back, his hackles raised.
Ezra pinned the dog with a skeptical look. “I know that you and Ackerley never got on, but he’s gone, it’s just Tomas now.” And then louder added, “You’ve got Copernicus spooked, Tomas, but I’m coming in to haul your sorry ass out of bed.”
Ezra swung the door open and stepped in, but felt the emptiness, his senses telling him that Tomas wasn’t home. He went to shut the door, but with a breath, he hesitated.
With a deep sniff, Ezra identified traces of hot tar, citrus honey and mildew, incense, brine and rot, as well as a number of scents that he couldn’t place with even his well-honed, alchemical skills. The air was filled with an unusual, exotic smell, small traces of which felt familiar and set the mage’s nerves on edge, raising the hairs on the back of his neck.
Beneath it all was an odor that Ezra remembered too well from countless operations and his youthful years as a battlefield medic: the coppery-iron tang of blood.
Ezra crossed the threshold, while Copernicus, obviously reluctant, followed for two small steps and stopped just inside the doorway.
Walking deeper in, Ezra came to the front of the apartment. The room was dark, but a stray block of sunlight broke through the shutters of the front window, limning Tomas in the late morning light. He was seated at a rough hewn table, head thrown back and a black powder pistol between his splayed limbs. A spray of blood and other matter painted the wall behind him.
As Ezra drew closer, he saw a jagged hole in the back of Tomas’ head.
There was no sign of a struggle. As a matter of fact, it seemed that, betraying Tomas’ meticulous nature, almost nothing was out of place. It seemed that he had simply finished his dinner, pushed his plate aside for some light reading—Willard’s 101 One Liners—and then casually shot himself.
The apprentice hadn’t worked in the time to write a note of explanation.
It was a hard blow for Ezra, losing what amounted to two of his best friends in as many days. He looked up to see Copernicus, framed in the doorway and then, sitting in the chair opposite, Ezra heaved a sigh, hung his head in his hands and asked, “Why, Tomas, why?”
Constable Fowler was a toad of a man, of wide girth, sallow skin and slow wit. It took him all of fifteen seconds to determine that Tomas was a suicide and that no further investigation was needed.
“Look at the state of things.” Ezra cast his hands about the room, exasperation edging his voice. “Tomas wouldn’t have left an unwashed dish or an open book. And what’s that suspicious odor?”
“You saw him last night. He was depressed, probably over the death of Ackerley. Maybe having to do this last dish was the final straw. And I’m no perfumer, but the smell certainly didn’t kill him.”
“So between dinner and reading about a few joke items, he just up and decided to kill himself?”
Constable Fowler fixed him with an annoyed look. “Apparently so,” he replied, as if explaining to the village idiot. He then thrust two pudgy fingers at the undertaker to indicate that he should begin the removal of the body.
With a force of will, Ezra held his tongue and opinion, as he didn’t fancy an evening in jail.
The smell that had lingered in Tomas’ rooms was vague and uncomfortable, recognizable in only the most cursory way, like memories of danger from a previous life.
Had Ackerley done as he’d promised—had he reduced the book to ashes?
By necessity, Ezra’s next stop—after dropping off Copernicus—was the cemetery. He harbored suspicions that merely required confirmation. After inspecting a number of other gravesites, including the newly turned burial place of Ackerley Brumlow, he knew a conversation was in order.
Federly lived in a rickety shack that flaunted its disrespect for the laws of gravity. Wedged between two tombs, and in the shade of a large, lightning split oak, the hut was a dilapidated and somber affair.
Ezra, grim faced, knocked at the plank that passed for a door, setting the whole structure a-rattle. “Federly!”
Following sounds of frantic movement, a voice from inside replied, “A moment.”
Ezra simply shoved the door open.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Calogero.” The cemetery guard stood anxious and slightly out of breath in the middle of the dark room. “How can I help you?”
“I have some suspicions,” Ezra said, as he looked about the small hovel, kicking at this, sliding that. There was little that needed moving. “And I need confirmation.”
Federly simpered placations such as “I’m sure I can help you find whatever you need” and “I can’t imagine what you might be looking for.”
The search lasted all of a couple minutes, after which Ezra found sets of poorly covered scrabble marks in the dirt floor near the straw that served as a bed; marks which led to a poorly fashioned wooden box.
“I can’t says I recognize that,” whimpered Federly. “I can’t imagine how it got there.”
Ezra opened the box and, nestled amid silver earrings, bracelets, necklaces and other bits of jewelry, immediately recognized the Widow Zagerstrom’s platinum wedding ring—a double, radiant-cut set of sapphires ringed in small pearls—there could be no duplicate.
“If you answer truthfully, I’ll do my best to see that you avoid the gallows. Lie, and even Constable Fowler’s ineptitude won’t save you.” Ezra saw the calculating look in Federly’s eyes. “The grave robbing didn’t stop after you started your post, did it? They were just forced to be more careful in their excavation and midnight ramblings,” he continued. “Ackerley Brumlow was paying you for the bodies.”
Haltingly, as if by moving more slowly it prevented an admission of guilt, Federley nodded.
“It’s all done with,” Federly whined. “Ackerley’s dead and the dead certainly won’t miss any of those things. I never did any of the digging me’self, just turned a blind eye. They let me keep a few trinkets to offset me … inconvenience. I’ll leave tonight and you’ll never hear from me again.”
Ezra simply snarled and pushed the cemetery guard aside. There were far larger problems that needed to be handled.
Lost in dark contemplations, Ezra sat in the dark of his room until a knock stirred him.
A familiar knock.
Before he rose to answer, he packed his pipe with the herbs and oils that he’d gathered earlier in the evening. He considered the pipe, looked at the door, and then with a deep sigh, lit and sucked mightily. He was rewarded with orange embers glowing hot in the bowl.
Ezra swung the door wide.
Ackerley stood in the doorway, traced in moonlight.
He was filthy, dressed in the clothes he’d been buried in, with dirt ground into his pores and under his nails, while his skin had the etiolated look of old celery, flaccid and pale. He waved his hand, cutting through the pipe smoke that wreathed the doorway.
“A new blend for the pipe, eh?” Ackerley’s voice was gravelly, soil packed into his mouth and around his teeth. His breath reeked of decay. “I didn’t think there was anything around more noxious than your previous concoction, but you seem to have stumbled on a contender.”
“You don’t exactly smell like a bed of roses.”
Ackerley laughed, a deep unpleasant rasp. “I’ve missed our banter, Ezra, really I have. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
Ezra moved aside to let Ackerley pass and they sat opposite each other at the small table in the kitchen.
“Where’s that foul dog of yours?”
“He’s with a friend.”
Ackerley snorted. “He was never mauled by a bear you know, though I suppose a bear might have gotten hold of him afterwards. He was a cast off, a bit of a failed experiment. Apparently I did a poor job of finishing him, and that soft-hearted moron Tomas wouldn’t have done it. I was never more impressed with your skills than when you saved that brainless mutt.”
“But save him I did. What did you do to Tomas?” Ezra asked.
“I did nothing but offer an opportunity,” Ackerley replied, giving a slack imitation of a grin, “which he chose not to take. I was hoping you’d learn from his mistake and join me.”
“I think the price is a bit too high. Look what it’s already done to you. Tomas was like a son to you, and you smile and make his death into a punch line.”
“Oh-ho, and where did I get the knowledge to transform myself? Where?”
Ezra frowned, fighting back a wave of sorrow. “From the Libri de Atrum Divum, the foul book that I was foolish enough to give you. You promised me that you’d destroyed it.”
Ackerley pounded his fist on the table, causing Ezra to jump. “Of course, give the all powerful book to foolish old Ackerley, the joke man and the butt of jokes. Ask him to dispose of it because he won’t see the utility of such an incalculable treasure, wouldn’t have any trouble throwing away a book bursting with magic of depth and power, because he is its antithesis, shallow and weak. But now who is the captain and who is the first mate, charting the new course?”
With an anguished moan Ezra gripped the table. “I only gave it to you because I thought we were different, you and I. I thought you were stronger. I thought where I had failed—to destroy the book—you would succeed. You lived in the present, and wherever you passed you left mirth and laughter in your wake. You wielded the power of humor and its ability to lift people from their drudgery. Foolish perhaps, but I thought that power brought you above temptation. I’m so sorry, Ackerley, for placing that burden upon you. So sorry.”
Ackerley gave a short, bitter laugh. “Sorry for what? The gift of eternal life? For delivering power to me that before had been unthinkable and unattainable? Imagine the things I can learn—we can learn—with an infinite lifespan. We’ll be gods!” His eyes burned, crazed and intense. “Which brings us to it. Will you join me?”
“Become a twisted parody of myself? Laugh and destroy all the things I once cherished?” Ezra shook his head, slowly. “Who did you have to murder in order to reverse your life force?”
“The Widow Zagerstrom had already had a full and happy existence.”
“That wasn’t your decision to make. And who will be next in order to sustain you?”
Ackerley waved his hand as if brushing away a fly. “Pshh. Some other inconsequential.” He grinned. “I’d of course only select from a pool of those who’d already enjoyed a nearly complete life.”
Ezra looked at the ceiling, trying to master his emotions before replying, “I won’t take a life, any life, to continue mine. I can’t do that, not even for you. You were a dear friend, but the price is too high.”
“You speak of me in the past tense, yet here I sit. I’m not dead. I’ve surpassed death. And murder?” Ackerley snorted. “You talk as if it’s you paying the price, but in this case it’s someone else picking up the tab. I’m sure the widow went on to a cheerful afterlife and is smiling down at us now.”
“Unfortunately, our trip together came to an end the moment you stepped inside.”
“Ridiculous. The moment I opened the door our fates were forever mingled. I asked you to join me, but my question was rhetorical. I can force you. I won’t make the same mistake I made with Tomas. And I’m sure there’s some fool on a late night stroll willing to sacrifice his life to our cause.” His face split into a wide, dirt-encrusted grin. “In short, you’re mine.”
“I never told you how I came to possess the book, did I?” Ezra said. He continued without waiting for an answer. “Early in my apprenticeship, when my master was still hale and healthy and at the height of his power, and death wasn’t looking over his shoulder, he gave me a torn page from a book. He made me commit its contents to memory. It was a meaningless assortment of herbs, oils and reagents—none particularly hard to come by. Only when I could recite it backwards and forwards without error, did he tell me about the Libri de Atrum Divum, about the link between life and death.
“It wasn’t until then that I realized he’d been assessing me all those years. He told me that he was not strong enough to destroy the book, but he believed that I was,” Ezra paused. “Later, on his deathbed, he asked for it, begged really, but I kept my promise and watched him die, telling him over and over that I’d destroyed the book. But I think he saw the truth in my eyes. That story has come full circle, hasn’t it? I wish that I’d been strong enough to destroy it, but if it contained even a fraction of what my Master Kel had hinted at, evil though it was? I couldn’t bring myself to destroy it. I could only, and just barely, resist cracking its dreadful pages.”
“Enough! Don’t be an idiot. Why do you cling to these ridiculous notions of good and evil? There’s just you and me coming to a decision. I’ve run out of patience.” Ackerley sat up and reached across the table, hands hooked into claws, but when his fingers brushed through the whorls and coils of pipe smoke, they turned to dirt and crumbled to the tabletop.
Ackerley snatched what remained of his hands back. “What foul magic is this?”
“It’s true that this meaningless blend of components smoldering away in my pipe would be little more than a nuisance to one of your power if it weren’t for the added substance…me. Just as you needed to take a life to gain your pathetic semblance of unlife, so can another sacrifice themselves in order to reverse the process. That’s what’s on the page I memorized. This smoke is toxic, but it’s also bound us. It’s intertwined our thema fields, mine positive and yours negative. We are opposites now, you and I, two sides of the same coin, and as my life ebbs, so too will your unlife.”
“Impossible! The process granted me eternal life!”
“It’s true that if you continued to steal the lives of others, that you could have lived forever, but I’m afraid our course is now run, Ackerley, and it was run the moment I gave you the book.”
“We could have—” began Ackerley, his words crumbling even as he did, his body falling apart as he collapsed in upon himself to disintegrate into a pile of dark soil until not even a human shape remained.
Ezra lingered for a few moments longer, for life burns brighter than death.
He felt relief that Copernicus would be in good hands with Willoughby Zagerstrom. He took one last long pull on his pipe.
Looking at the misshapen mound of grave soil that had been his friend, Ezra gave a sad smile before he slumped forward onto the table.
Travis Burnham is passionate about teaching science, writing speculative fiction, and blowing things up. A Maine transplant, he lives in the upstate of South Carolina with his wondrous wife, Chika. His Olympic level lack of social skills when young led him to writing. He recently earned his MFA from Converse College. Loving travel, he has lived in Japan, Colombia and the CNMI, and traveled to many other countries. Online, you can cyberstalk him at travisburnhambooks.com and travisburnham.blogspot.com.