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The Temples of the Ark by Michael Livingston

Presenting The Temples of the Ark, a brand new story from Michael Livingston, set in the world of his series, The Shards of Heaven. Michael’s latest novel, The Gates of Hell, will be available November 15th.

I do not know whether there are gods, but there ought to be.
 Diogenes of Sinope

IT’S STILL DARK when I awake in the arms of the conqueror. The loose curls of his tawny hair have grown longer in Egypt, and they entangle with mine in a soft mat beneath my cheek, a few stray strands gently waving with my breath. The little oil lamp in the corner of the tent sets a faint glow against the shadows, and I smile at the truth of that feeble light. For all his rage upon the field, for all that he has walked the earth from Greece to Persia as a mighty king and killer of men, my strong-shouldered lover is afraid of the dark.

He stirs in his sleep, the corded muscles of his arm around me flexing and beginning to lift. I know the motion. I’ve felt it enough over the years. His mind and body at peace, he is turning away now, rolling to his side to face the outer wall of the tent. To look away from me.

That turned back bothered me when I was younger. I thought that perhaps it meant he was disappointed in me, ashamed of us.

Only later did I come to realize how it was his secret challenge to the world. In his sleep, in this weakest of times, he would expose his broad, naked back to the door, an invitation, a ready target to any who might wish the conqueror harm. And every night he wasn’t killed in his sleep would mean another night with the full trust of the men who’d sworn to follow him to the ends of the earth.

Which meant, of course, that he trusted me most of all.

I lift my weight off of him, giving him space as he sighs over to his side. His back shines in the dim light, and it casts the thick scar upon his shoulder into sharp relief. Only a few months since he took the spear-wound at Gazza and already it’s fully healed, as if it is years old.

One more sign of his divine birth, many think. One more proof.

None of them know, as I do, the truth. He’s as human as any other man. Divinity isn’t how the few blows that ever reach him heal with seemingly inhuman speed. Ichor doesn’t run through his veins, doesn’t explain why nothing can slow the onslaught when he dons his armor and the battle-rage boils over him, why he can press ever forward, scything men like dry wheat.

He doesn’t move as I slip free of the sheets and pull my simple linen tunic over my head. From a stool nearby I grab the wool cloak that’s traveled with me since I lost mine in Persia. Though the desert will be miserably hot in a few hours, it is cold before the dawn. I sit on the stool to bind my sandals, take one last look at the beautiful back of the sleeping king, and then I step quietly out of the tent and into a night filled with stars.

“Lord Hephaestion,” says the guard at the side of the flap, coming to attention.

For a few moments I can’t see him in the changed light, but I know the voice, just as I know the men assigned to keep Alexander safe. “Eustathios,” I say, acknowledging the big, reliable man who drew the duty this night.

“Couldn’t sleep, sir?”

“Not really. Don’t think I’ve slept well in Egypt yet.” I yawn, smiling as my body speaks its own truth. The clear desert air is indeed chilly, but the crispness of it feels good in my lungs, like cold water on sore limbs. It tastes of slowing fires.

“Me, neither,” Eustathios agrees. “It’s the sticking sand that does it. I’ve got Egypt between my toes. And by the gods it’s forever itching in my crotch.”

I grin as I shake my head mournfully, then stretch. I look up, tracing constellations in the great dome of sky. I did manage a few hours of rest, I can see. A good respite, but nothing like we need, nothing like what we’d get back home. “Can’t get out of this desert fast enough,” I say.

There’s silence for a few seconds. I’m still gazing at the wide stretch of stars, but I can feel him looking at me.

“You want to ask me something, Eustathios.”

He chews on his thought for a bit longer before answering. “Did the Oracle really say that he’s the son of God?”

The Oracle. The past few days since we left the oasis it’s been on everyone’s mind. Alexander and I have both known it. But what to say?

I shrug into the expanse. “Oracles never really say anything, Eustathios. It’s all riddles and maybes and whatever you want to make of it.”

“The men are saying it’s true, though. The Oracle confirmed it. And after Gazza, well . . .”

Gazza. The spear. That scar. It would have killed me — would have killed any other man — but Alexander had only switched hands on his blade and fought on, like a lion in the midst of the chaos. All the men had marveled at it.

Months before, counsellors had advised against the king leading such charges personally, but Alexander had always understood his men. They fought more bravely with him by their sides. And when they died — which so many did — they died more honorably.

“And what danger?” Alexander had once laughed. “No blow from a man can kill the son of a god.”

It had been a joke back then. We’d all laughed about it. By the stars, we’d grown up with Alexander. We’d seen him shit. He wasn’t a god, but he did have a god’s own luck. It was easy enough to joke that no mortal could kill him.

Now, after Gazza, after this Oracle, so many were like Eustathios, wondering if the joke had been truth after all.

I want to tell them all how preposterous it is. I want to tell them that I know the truth of who Alexander is, how he has become what he has become. No matter what some drugged desert hermit says, a man isn’t a god. Gazza didn’t change that. The Oracle didn’t change that.

But I know, too, the sacrifice that so many are willing to make for Alexander the man, how much he’s managed to achieve. What more could be done with Alexander the god? Could he conquer the world, bring peace after war?

“Alexander is of hearty stock,” I finally say to Eustathios. “You remember his father. Is that not enough to explain Gazza?”

“I saw the blow, Lord Hephaestion. I could not have survived it.”

“Nor could I.”

“So do you believe it?”

The stars, I keep thinking. They may put my friend there in the end. “Maybe the gods are what we make of ourselves,” I wonder aloud. “Maybe the question isn’t whether Alexander is a god, but whether the gods are men like Alexander.”

I look back to him, genuinely interested in the big man’s reply, but the sound of a horse pounding the earth turns us both away. Down the line of tents, we see the rider coming, his face flashing red as he passes the night fires.

“Hippolytos,” Eustathios whispers as the rider gets near enough to recognize. “One of the scouts.”

We walk forward from the tent to meet him, silently agreeing to move the noise of the horse and rider farther from the sleeping conqueror.

Hippolytos pulls up short in a rush of sand and dismounts with speed, saluting at almost the same moment he touches the sandy earth. “Lord Hephaestion,” he pants.

“Is it the Persians?” Eustathios speaks before I can, but it’s the very question that’s on my mind. The Persian governor of Egypt submitted to Alexander almost the moment that he crossed the border, but Masistes, one of the Persian generals, had raised a small force from the farther reaches of the Nile, and they were refusing to bow to Greek authority. Our scouts were sure Masistes was tracking us as we crossed into the desert, but we’d never managed to confirm the location or the size of his army.

The young man shakes his head as he catches his breath. “Nubians,” he says. “Tens of thousands strong.”

 

TALL ATOP HIS HORSE, Alexander shines in the brightness of the desert sun, his bronze breastplate glimmering in the waves of heat that shimmer up from the sands like phantom snakes. He smiles as I ride up from the right wing of our army. “All is well, Heph?”

I nod, reining into position beside him. We crossed into Egypt with 30,000 men. Some we left in the cities of the Nile, but far more were today working upon the edge of the sea, laying the foundations for a new city that would bear Alexander’s name. Looking out at the stretching expanse of exotic men that is arrayed against us — a sea of color and noise that undulates in its lines like pent-up waves ready to surge free — I find myself wishing we had those far away comrades with us again.

For a fifth time this morning, I count banners. I multiply them, and I know that even still we would be outnumbered.

But at least the odds might be improved.

“I don’t like the heat,” Alexander says in an off-hand voice, as if this is just another day, just another duty to be performed. “Though I must say I’ve never slept better.”

Eustathios, whose horse is just behind mine, chuckles, and several other men follow suit.

“I’m counting it four to one,” says one of the generals to Alexander’s other side. “Maybe five.”

It isn’t a tremor of fear, merely a statement of fact. We’ve fought at short odds before, and it has mattered little. The Thracians, the Syrians, the Persians . . . no matter their numbers, none had stood against the power of our Macedonian arms. So many had never seen anything like our core phalanx and our agile sweeps of cavalry.

Tactics, as Alexander once said, make up for many numbers.

But, it occurs to me, we’ve never seen anything like the Nubians before. What tactics would they have?

“They look like an army of lions,” another man says.

It’s true. Many of them wear leather armor over their dark-skin — little different, it appears, from what so many of our own men are wearing — but over this they have sashes of color, bands of fur. Here and there are men who seem to wear nearly whole skins of wild beasts.  I wonder if they are officers.

“It is their leaders who matter,” Alexander muses. “I’d rather face an army of lions led by sheep than an army of sheep led by lions.”

The fact that he is wearing a golden helm in the form of a lion’s head — like Hercules wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion — goes unspoken. No man among us doubts that ours is an army of lions led by a lion who might well be a god.

I purposely keep from looking at that gleaming breastplate he also wears, though I’m presently aware of what it means for our enemies that he is wearing it. I’ve seen the rage it burns through him. I’ve seen the power and the possibility.

“Riders coming out,” Eustathios says.

Beyond the plain of sand between our armies, I see it, too: a small contingent has broken away from the Nubian lines. Four people are moving forward on resplendent camels, metal flashing golden from their flanks. They are moving at a slow pace, with four men surrounding them on foot, each holding aloft a long pole. A dark silken cloth is held taut between them, allowing the riders to remain in shaded comfort.

“Why don’t we have that?” Eustathios asks.

“You know why,” Alexander replies.

Eustathios stammers for a moment, clearly at a loss, and the conqueror looks to me with a smile.

“Because they couldn’t keep up,” I say.

Alexander lets out a light laugh. “Hephaestion,” he says, “my second self. Shall we?”

Without waiting for a reply, the king kicks his horse forward to meet the Nubian emissaries, and I’m left to follow, to chase him through the hot Egyptian sands.

 

I’VE KNOWN HIM since we were children. I’ve laughed with him. I’ve loved with him. I’ve fought with him and I’ve shed blood with him. And it occurs to me, as we come up to where the Nubian emissaries on camelback await us in their artificial shade, that I have never seen him so relaxed as he has been these past few days.

“One soul in two bodies,” Aristotle once said, chiding us for one of the many conjoined tricks we played upon our tutor. True enough in its way, I suppose. He and I are of one mind and one purpose. I am his right hand, acting his will without the awareness of his thought. I am, as he so often says, his second self.

But there is this difference between us: I hate this country.

In part it’s the damnable sand, of course. The winds raise it up like dust, push it in great billowing clouds that scratch like insects at our eyes, blinding us as they blot out the sun and erase our tracks. It’s a monstrous beast, this desert, and it wants to consume us.

Even when it’s not raised in storm, the sand simply clings to everything. It grinds in the teeth, grates in the sheets, and I simply cannot imagine how anyone can sleep at peace with it.

But more than that I feel an uneasiness in the air here. A tension in the foreign, hostile landscape. It is as if the whole of it is waiting, and I do not want to know what for.

Yet Alexander has welcomed it into his heart. He has founded what will be his greatest city here: his Alexandria, drawn up from the earth on the edge of the sea. And he has taken us a thousand miles across this desert to visit its Oracle, to learn that he is the son of god.  He says he loves this land. And he wasn’t kidding when he said he hasn’t slept better. I should know.

His second self I may be, but I cannot understand these things. And I cannot help but wonder if this day is the day my foreboding comes to pass.

The four emissaries waiting for us could not be more different from what I might have expected at a distance. For one thing, only three of them are dark-skinned Nubians. The two of these at the center of the four, judging from their bejeweled and gilded regal clothes and high bearing, are surely the king and the queen of their country up the Nile. They are a young couple, but they do not seem troubled by inexperience or worry. Alexander and I have seen enough kings to know fear on sight, and this king and queen have nothing of it. They are as relaxed as Alexander himself, which is an accomplishment that immediately earns my respect.

A third rider, also Nubian, is on the left of the king. He wears fine cloth, and he holds a kind of scepter that I assume conveys rank of some kind, but he is clearly of much lesser status than the royalty in the party. An interpreter, I imagine. Or some kind of holy man.

As strange as they all are to my foreign eyes, the fourth rider is strange for his familiarity. A much older man, he has the paler skin of the people of the Levant. And he is wearing only the simplest of hooded desert robes. His nervousness only emphasizes how entirely out of place he is in the gathering.

Alexander and I stop our horses just outside the square of their shade. His steed shakes its mane against the heat, the metal of its harness shaking loudly in the stillness. He steadies it with a pat along its neck, then he reaches up to unclasp his golden lion helm, shaking out his hair. I follow suit, and we stare at the emissaries.

The Nubian king leans over to the woman and whispers something. She smiles in reply, her teeth a shocking white contrast to her dark skin. Then she nods.

The man nods, too, and the third Nubian speaks. “Do you speak Persian?” he asks.

Even before our defeat of Darius, both Alexander and I had tried to learn something of the language of those whom we intended to conquer and rule, but war had made our lessons scattered and ineffective. Some of our comrades, like Peucestas, had made remarkable headway, but we ourselves knew the language no better than children. Perhaps worse. “We know some,” I answer brokenly. “Do you speak Greek?”

“Better than your Persian apparently,” the king of Nubia says in rough Greek.

The interpreter looks from his king to the conqueror to me with wide eyes, clearly worried that there has been a breach in etiquette. But Alexander is smiling, and I shrug and smile, too. “So it seems indeed.”

“Ah … yes.” The interpreter stammers for a moment, but he begins to settle into a common Greek. He lifts his scepter in a gesture that clearly has import within their culture. “The qore of Kush, Nastasen, and the kandake, Sakhmakh, greet you, Alexander, conqueror of many.”

I watch as Alexander gives the king and queen the slightest of bows in turn. “I am Alexander of Macedon, king of Greece and king of all Asia,” he says, speaking relatively slowly so that the interpreter can translate his words into the Nubian tongue for the others. “I have taken this land of Egypt by arms and assent, and I have been rightfully declared by its Oracle to be its king. This is my land, and I will defend it.”

“Their majesties do not desire war,” the interpreter says after they reply in their tongue.

Alexander cracks his neck. “War there will be if you stay.”

The qore, Nastasen, laughs lightly, and he says something to his wife in Nubian that makes her smile, too, before he addresses the interpreter. “Numbers are on our side,” the man translates.

“And I am Alexander.”

“So you are,” Nastasen says in his own Greek.

For a full half-minute the two men simply stare at one another. The kandake — the queen — is staring at Alexander, too, but her eyes move more in a look of judgment, like a merchant appraising goods. It is . . . fascinating, I think, that she might think herself in a position to judge such a man as my friend.

Not wanting to stare at her myself, I find myself turning to look at the fourth man, the lighter skinned man. Alone among the many tens of thousands on the plain — alone except for me — he is not looking at Alexander. Not at the man, anyway. As I watch him I can see that he’s looking at the conqueror’s armor, at the gleaming bronze of the breastplate that Alexander alone is allowed to handle. And he is staring most especially, I realize with mounting horror, at the blacker-than-black stone that is locked into its center. He is staring at the thing that has made my friend a god, and he is smiling.

“As their majesties have said,” the interpreter is saying, “there is no desire for war here.”

“Your army speaks otherwise,” Alexander replies, casually leaning in his saddle to look past them at the great masses. The Nubian warriors are chanting and rocking in a frenetic anxiety. “And it seems to think otherwise.”

“The army will stay or go as the qore wishes,” the interpreter says. “He felt it was necessary for their protection.”

“From what?”

“From you, Alexander king.”

“I have no wish to conquer the land of Kush or the Nubian people. I came for Egypt. I will return to Persia from here.”

“It is not your armies we fear.”

“Then what?”

This time it is not one of the Nubians who replies. It is the fourth man, who has at last stopped staring at Alexander’s armor. “Your rage, god among men.”

Alexander turns to him, his eyes narrowing. “My what?”

“Your rage,” the man repeats, and he nods toward the breastplate. “It sits on you even now as a flame ready to alight.”

No one but myself knows the secret of what we found in the sanctuary of Athena at Delphi. No one else could be trusted. So when Alexander turns his eyes in my direction, I have nothing to give him but my own wide-eyed bewilderment.

“We know something of what you carry,” Sakhmakh says through the interpreter.

“What do you think you know?”

“We know little,” she continues. “But our friend here knows much. And he has told us enough to understand.”

“What do you want?” I ask.

Nastasen nods at me, a subtle gesture of respect. “What we want, Lord Hephaestion, is a favor from the great king, Alexander.”

“A favor?” Alexander asks.

“We want to give you a gift,” Sakhmakh says. “A gift that must never be used. A treasure that must always be protected, that perhaps only you can protect.”

Alexander and I exchange another glance, and then I spread my arm across the sand before us.

“No,” Sakhmakh continues. “We cannot give it to you here. We dared not bring it. But we will take you to it.”

“Take us?” Alexander asks.

“Just you,” the kandake says. “And your companion, if you will. In good faith only myself and Terach will accompany you. Our armies will withdraw by other ways.”

The pale-skinned man smiles, and I assume he must be Terach. “Where?” I ask.

“Not far from here is the Way of Forty Days,” Sakhmakh replies. “It is a path long-traveled between our country and the sea. It will speed our journey south, across the sands to the southern oasis. There is good water there, and good shade. From there you can travel north on the Way, or you can travel take a boat down the great river — however you wish. You can meet your army in Thebes, if that is your destination.”

I almost want to laugh, but I can see the serious look on Alexander’s face. He’s considering it.

“You wish for us to go with you,” I say, “among your people, surrounded by your thousands, back toward the heart of Kush? More of your army could be waiting for us.”

The Nubians listen and nod as the interpreter translates the words. “Our thousands,” Nastasen finally says, talking not to me but to the conqueror. “And you are Alexander. If we are right, if you have what we believe you have, do you think such numbers really matter?”

“The Aegis of Zeus protected Troy from all Greece,” Terach abruptly says, and he is once more looking at my friend’s breastplate. “I’m certain it will protect you from us, great son of Macedon.”

 

WE LEAVE THE NEXT DAY, after preparations are made for the journey, including the organization and direction of the army in our absence. Many of the men were shocked when Alexander announced that he and I would leave the army for a time and rejoin them in Thebes. More than a few, especially wary men like Eustathios, voiced concern for the king’s safety. But in the end none could stand up to Alexander’s fiery gaze.

As our final preparations were coming together, I learned that there was a rumor in the camp that he and I were journeying to yet another oracle. It had only been a matter of days since Alexander had walked alone into the presence of the Oracle at Siwa, and then, they said, he’d been declared a child of the gods. What more, the men whispered, would this new oracle bring?

I said nothing when I was asked about these rumors. I know too much.

As promised, only four of us have ridden into the desert together: myself and Alexander, the kandake of Kush, and Terach, who is, we have learned, from Jerusalem. We left an hour before dawn. No fanfare. Just a steady ride between the packing armies, headed west for the Way of Forty Days. Finding it, we turn south for the deeper desert.

Sakhmakh is unlike any queen I’ve ever met, and I can tell that Alexander feels likewise. She wears white linens, trimmed with gold, that drape over her shoulder and breast, bound about her waist with a beaded and jeweled sash. The gown is cut so loose that it moves in waves about her as she rides, and more than once I have found myself avoiding the hints it makes about the body beneath. Her skin, like her husband’s, is the color of rich cinnamon. It is dark against the brightness of the sands, yet in the light of the sun it seems to radiate an inner warmth. Without doubt she is beautiful in her way, but I have found that most queens are. No, it isn’t her beauty, exotic though it is, that makes her different.

She catches my eye — and Alexander’s too, no doubt — because of how free she seems. She sits as straight-backed as any Persian princess we have known, her head held high on her dark and slender neck, but there is an honest readiness to her smile, and an unbidden laughter in her dark eyes, that reminds me of someone entirely unbound by regal customs. She rides with a shocking comfort, seemingly as comfortable on her gilded camel as some of our Greek countrymen are on their steeds, I would dare to say. And perhaps strangest of all, she shows not the slightest concern for being alone in the desert with three men, one of whom is the conqueror of all Asia.

Sometimes, when I catch her looking at me and smiling, I wonder if she knows.

She also enjoys talking far more than I would have expected. Her Greek, we quickly learn, is far better than we had been led to believe in our initial meeting. She asks many questions about our travels, confirming and reconfirming the truth behind the stories that are told of the great Alexander. She is relentless in her pursuit of knowledge, I think, and Alexander seems glad to tell her all that she wishes to know. Her eyes are full of wonder when they talk, but it is not worship. I think he is glad for the difference.

Ahead of me, the kandake and Alexander are riding side by side on the Way of Forty Days. He is telling her of the siege of Tyre. The city was undefeatable, it had been said, because it was built upon an island, encircled by the sea. Siege engines could not be brought to bear upon its walls. My friend is smiling, telling her that he nevertheless broke them.

“How?” Sakhmakh asks. “Would you not need the engines?”

“Of course.”

“But you said the city was surrounded by water?”

“It was, yes. My men built a causeway to the city. It is no longer an island.”

I see her swallow hard, her eyes wide. Yes, I think, sending her my thoughts. Alexander bends even the earth to his will.

The Jew, Terach, has ridden toward a ridgeline of sand and rock ahead of us, and he calls out to the kandake to join him. She takes her leave of Alexander with a short bow, and then she drives her camel forward in the heated dust. As she leaves, Alexander pulls up rein until we can ride beside each other, he and I. Despite the heat, he is still wearing his bronze armor. He enjoys the company of the kandake, but not enough to trust her completely. He smiles over at me, and I realize it is the first time we’ve been alone since the coming of the Nubian army.

“Why are we going with them?” I ask.

“I think you know why, Heph. Because I need to know.”

“To know what it is they are offering?”

Alexander shrugs, a toss of his hair in the sun. “Or what it isn’t.”

I sigh. “You’ve more gold than Midas, more jewels than any man can dream of. What use is more treasure?”

He frowns for a moment, before a lightness strikes upon his face. “Do you remember when we were young and went to Corinth?” He smiles at his own memory. “Do you remember when we met Diogenes?

I lean back, smiling, too. “Of course I do. How could I forget? One of the most famous philosophers, living in his clay pot, as they used to call that little hovel. Aristotle warned us not to bother with Diogenes, but of course we took that as a challenge.”

Alexander laughs lightly. “So we did.”

“And there he was,” I say. “I remember you walked up and told him that you were the son of Philip of Macedon, the student of Aristotle, and that one day you would conquer all of Greece. You asked him if there was anything he would ask of you. Gods, I remember it as if it was yesterday morning. He blinked up at you, studying you, and then –“

Alexander’s voice cracks with feigned age. “‘Stand a little out of my sun.'”

I laugh, just as I laughed then. And I know that at some level, for all that has come upon us, he and I remain those two young men standing before old Diogenes.

Alexander laughs, too, but not for long. “When I say we’re going with them because I need to know, I guess it’s really because Diogenes was right. He saw the truth of me. He saw the truth of all of us. Glory fades, Heph. Life fades. We’re all mortal.”

I give him a sidelong look. “Maybe not all of us.”

Alexander the Great rolls his eyes. “Yes. Me, too, my friend. Whatever else this armor is, whatever else it does, it is no shield against time. Death will find me one way or another. Even Achilles had his heel.”

“Still doesn’t explain why we’re riding into the desert … riding, for all we know, into the waiting trap of an army. The Aegis of Zeus — if that’s what it is — may protect you, but it won’t protect me.”

Alexander reaches over to squeeze my shoulder. The grip is strong, and it lingers. “It is no trap. It’s a chance to know more, to understand more. About this armor, for certain, but also about us. About them.”

Ahead, Sakhmakh and Terach are conferring. The kandake looks from us to something below her on the ridge. She is smiling and laughing in the sun, and I can feel Alexander’s envy of her freedom.

“She is fascinating,” I say. “Did you see how easily she moved among her people as we prepared to depart? Like she was one of them.”

“A good leader must be,” Alexander says. He’s gazing at her, too.

I nod. It was the reason he fought in the lines, the reason for the Gazza spear that would have killed him if not for the power of the armor he wore. I think back to the conversation with Eustathios, and how the men thought of Alexander more and more as a god. “But surely a leader must be feared to be most obeyed,” I say.

“Obedience isn’t everything,” my friend replies. “I assure you I would far rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent than in the extent of my power and dominion.”

Sakhmakh is waving us up, but I feel Alexander’s eyes upon me. When I turn toward him I see that he is looking at me with a smile of genuine affection. I see, too, the wrinkles at his eyes, creases in flesh once smooth.

“So Diogenes was right?”

“I think he was,” Alexander says, “though there’s time enough to live still, you and I.”

“Life with a god-man has been good so far,” I say, “though I’d rather like to get out of Egypt, if you please.”

He laughs a little, then straightens himself on his saddle as he looks back toward the kandake and motions that we are coming. “Soon enough. And you know, Heph, perhaps I won’t always be Alexander,” he muses.

“If not Alexander, then who?”

“Well,” he says, “truly, I tell you, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”

My friend rides forward through the sand and sun. And I, as I always will, follow him.

 

THE TEMPLE OF THE ARK is a white block of stone rising from the lush greenery of palm and date trees that surrounds us. It has taken more than a day to reach this quiet place, but the sliver of green that Sakhmakh had pointed out from the ridge line, the tiniest hint of living color waving in the sandy heat, has resolved itself into a magnificent oasis in the middle of the desert. Occasional tents dot around the pools that we pass, or cling to the spots of cool shade beneath the larger trees. The people we see smile and wave. Some look Egyptian, others Nubian, and others might well be Persian. None seem concerned at our appearance. None seem at odds. It is as if the hostilities of the outside world have no place in this refuge in the desert.

As we have been approaching this place, the kandake has told us a story whose strangeness can only be matched by the strangeness of our company — a king, a queen, a Jew, and me — making our way beneath the sun. She tells us that two hundred years earlier a group of Jews had come to the lands of Kush, seeking asylum. They had with them a most powerful weapon: a box that contained a stone said to hold the power of their God. The qore and the kandake welcomed them, granted them sanctuary, and gave them the peace to continue their worship as they saw fit. The only price was that the Jews would promise to use the weapon to defend them if ever they were attacked. It had been this way for two centuries, Sakhmakh says. But the time had come for the Ark, as the Jews called it, to find a safer home. So they had moved it to this desert oasis, this new temple for the Ark, and here they hoped to give it to Alexander.

Alexander and I have listened quietly, and I can see he is forming the same questions in his mind that I am. We had the same teacher, after all.

“Why now?” he asks. “Why me?”

Sakhmakh smiles. “Because the one who leads the Jews asks that it be so.”

Alexander nods, and he turns to address Terach, the Jew who has ridden in silence beside the kandake as she has spoken. “You are descended from those who brought this Ark to Kush?”

For a moment Terach looks back and forth between the queen and the conqueror, seemingly confused. In reply she simply smiles and makes a gesture to him as if giving him leave to speak. He sighs. “I am,” he says. “Though I’m not the only one. From Jerusalem to Elephantine in the time of Manasseh, from Elephantine to Kush in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, from that time to this, my family has kept the Ark safe.” He reaches into his robes and pulls forth a thin chain that is clasped around his neck. Hanging from it is the symbol of a circle inscribed upon an inverted pyramid. “This is the mark held by those who protect the Ark. It is carried by all who watch over it.”

I don’t recognize the symbol, and I doubt my friend does, either. “This doesn’t answer Alexander’s question,” I say. “If it has been safe for so long, why move it?”

“It has been kept safe,” Terach says, “but often so at the cost of lives. It was only with God’s grace that we brought the Ark out of Jerusalem, and it was a further miracle still that it escaped Nebuchadnezzar’s reach.”

We are passing a small pool just outside the temple grounds, and the Jew nods over to a young Egyptian woman washing clothes in its waters. She smiles in return. As Terach turns back to us, he seems to shrug. “And Kush has been safe, it is true, but not without peril. The kingdom will surely not stand forever.”

I blink, and I see Alexander’s back stiffen in his own shock. The kandake, however, seems strangely unaffected. She is looking ahead at the square stone arch that marks the entrance to the walled temple complex we are approaching. Beyond the archway is a paved avenue, and I can see a line of sphinxes guarding its length, all the way up to the columned portico and the tall square shape of the temple itself, rising clearly above the white stone walls of the complex. There is a vague smile on her face, and I wonder if she even heard Terach so casually predict the end of her throne.

“Is there a threat?” Alexander manages to ask.

“Just one,” Terach says. He, too, is looking up toward the temple of the Ark now. A man has appeared there. He holds up a brown hand to shield his eyes as we approach. He is unarmed.

“Who?” Alexander asks.

Sakhmakh pulls her camel up beside the entrance, and the man on the ground reaches out to hold its reins. She says something to him in a language we cannot understand, and he nods deeply as he begins to gather the rest of our reins, too. The kandake stretches and then swings her leg to slip down to the ground. As she settles her feet onto the earth, she looks up at my king. “You, Alexander. Only you. Come. It awaits.”

We pass beneath the archway on foot, Terach and Sakhmakh in the lead. As we walk along the swept stones, I see that there are other people in the temple complex coming and going. Many are in hooded robes not unlike that worn by Terach. I cannot see their faces. A few seem to be pilgrims of one sort or another, standing before the little shrines that are scattered inside the walled grounds.

At first I think that no one has noticed us, but as we close in on the temple I become aware that many of the hoods are turning to follow our passing. And glancing furtively to either side, I see that there are at least two men on either side of us, carefully pacing our advance.

As we pass through the off-and-on shadows of the columned portico, I let my hand casually brush the grip of the blade at my hip, reassuring myself that it’s there. “Alexander,” I whisper.

“I see them, Heph.”

He is wearing his armor, I remind myself. Come what may, he has the Aegis.

The doors of the temple are open, and Sakhmakh and Terach disappear into the darkness. Alexander and I step into the shadows behind them.

There are oil lamps burning atop bronze tripods just inside the doorway, but their flickering flames are feeble compared to the glare of the sun and stone outside. Only when the doors shut behind us do my eyes truly begin to adjust. I see that the inside walls of the temple are engraved with images of myth and legend, the shapes and symbols of gods and men etched into the surface of the stone. Layers of paint bring the figures into sharp vitality. The air is heavy with years of incense.

We are also, I see, no longer alone. Terach and Sakhmakh have been joined by two more hooded figures. They are talking quietly before one of several doorways that lead further into the building.

It is Terach who finally pulls away from them to turn to us. He bows to Alexander. “I hope you will forgive us,” he says, “but you cannot pass further wearing the Aegis of Zeus.”

Alexander’s shoulders, I see, tense up. I can see a tightness in his jaw, too, though he is quick to relax it. Even in the little light of the lamps the polished armor shines beautifully. All except the stone. It sits like a pit in the center of his chest. “You believe that is what this is?”

“I believe others believe it to be so,” Terach says. “As for what it is, what it truly is, that is a much longer tale indeed. What is important now is that it is of a kind with the Ark, though their powers are different. What the Aegis does for your life, the Ark does for the earth.”

Alexander half-cocks his head. “You fear me possessing both?”

Terach chews on this a moment. “I would say to the contrary, Alexander, we expect you to possess both. That is why you are here. But we want you to understand what they are. And we want you … unstressed, conqueror of kingdoms.”

“The rage.”

Terach nods. “Just so. It would be best to have a most level head in these matters. I assure you we mean you no harm at all.”

“Alexander,” I whisper.

My friend doesn’t look in my direction. He simply holds up his hand to end my speech. My mouth freezes, partly agape. “Very well,” he says to the Jew. “Heph, can you help me?”

He turns his back to me, and for a moment I’m back in that tent, our sweat upon me, watching his back turn toward sleep. The ultimate trust. I reach forward and begin to unbuckle the breastplate.

“I need to know,” he whispers to me. “It’ll be alright.”

I nod, for there is nothing I can say. As the last buckle is undone and Alexander pulls himself free of the armor, he lets out a long breath, a tired sigh. It is not the weight of the plate, I know. It is the power. It feeds on him somehow, even as it keeps him alive. We do not understand this, and I’ve no doubt that it is the answers to this that Alexander seeks more than anything else.

Terach watches my friend disencumber himself of the Aegis. When Alexander notices his observation, he smiles. “You know, you didn’t answer the rest of my question.”

“What is that?”

Alexander slips his forearm through the shoulders of the armor, holding it up. “Why me?”

“That’s best asked of the one who leads us.”

“That’s not you?”

“Hardly so,” Terach says. He turns toward Sakhmakh, who has at last finished her conversation with the other figures and has walked up to join us. “It’s her.”

Alexander stares, but I find the words for us both. “You’re in charge,” I say.

“I am.”

“But you’re the kandake of Kush,” I say.

When she smiles in return, a part of me feels as if I am a child. “A woman can do many things,” she says.

“You don’t look like a Jew.”

“But like my mother before me, I believe as one, little though it is known among our people.” She turns toward Alexander. “Are you also surprised that a woman could be in command of such a company? This does not seem the way of things among your people.”

Alexander’s smile is fast and genuine. “Oh, you’ve never met my mother.”

“Quite a woman, I imagine.”

“You’ve no idea,” I say, interrupting.

Sakhmakh raises an eyebrow, her eyes flashing with what appears to be mischief. “Very well,” she says. “Terach, carry the Aegis. Keep it close, but do not touch its stone. Now come, son of a great woman. It’s time for you to see the Ark.”

 

THE ARK OF THE COVENANT, as the Jews call it, sits in a small side room within the temple. The surrounding structure, we are told, is largely a Persian construction, built to honor the three gods of Thebes. I even recognize the figure of Darius carved into one of the walls just outside the doorway to the chamber housing the Ark. The Persian king is depicted holding forth an offering bowl to the gods, with the tall crown of the pharaohs upon his head.

That crown, I muse to myself, is no longer his. It belongs to my friend, who walks beside me into the chamber holding the Ark and, like me, stops to simply stare at it.

The Ark sits at the end of the chamber, its broad side facing us. It is wrought of a polished wood whose grains gleam in the torch light. Acacia, if I make my guess. The base is wider than the top, and long poles are mounted into metal rings at its sides, to ease its transportation. Thin filaments of metal weave around and about its surfaces like vines, and facing us directly, I can see, is the same symbol that Terach wore around his neck: an inverted pyramid within a circle, with a line cutting through its bottom third. All that would be remarkable enough, but far more striking is its gold-trimmed top, which is adorned with the statues of two winged beings who appear to be knelt in prayer toward one another: one fashioned of silver, the other of gold. Their wings sweep forward before them, the feathered tips almost appearing to touch each other. Beneath that, between them, I can catch a hint of deepest black, something flush with the surface of the top of the Ark.

“By the gods,” Alexander whispers.

“By the one God,” Terach corrects, and his voice is striking for its seriousness.

“Whether you believe in the God of the Jews or not doesn’t matter,” Sakhmakh says. She is in front of us, staring at the Ark with her own obvious sense of wonder. She takes a deep breath and at last turns to face us. “But you must believe in this: the Ark contains a part of the power of God, far more powerful than even the Aegis. Because it is a part of God, it is a part of creation. But it does not belong here. It must not be used.”

Alexander takes a step toward the Ark, then stops. I see him chew on the inside of his cheek, a habit I’ve long since given up trying to relieve. “Part of a god’s power. Even greater than my armor. I could do so much with it.”

I feel movement in the room, and I turn to see that there are four hooded figures behind us. They are close to my king’s back. I do not doubt that they are armed.

“You could,” the kandake admits. “That is the danger no matter who possesses the Ark. It is a danger even for anyone who is in reach of such power.”

Alexander still stares at the Ark. “So what is the answer to my question, Kandake Sakhmakh, keeper of the Ark?” Alexander at last turns to face her. “Why me?”

“Because you know enough not to use it,” she says.

His eyes narrow. “Because of the Aegis.”

Sakhmakh gives the slightest of nods, an acknowledgement of respect between sovereigns. “You’ve controlled it, but we both know it has been difficult. And the Ark is far greater. You know only too well that it would destroy you. As it would me.”

Alexander swallows hard. He does not like to admit weakness, my friend. But he knows the truth as well as I. “Agreed.”

“And you can protect it in ways we cannot,” Terach says.

Alexander turns to the voice, but he quickly shifts his focus back to the queen. “I cannot carry it with me,” he says to her. “I’m on a campaign, my lady. My army marches deeper into Persia, to find Darius and hunt him down like the wild dog that he is.”

Sakhmakh blinks, and I imagine she is surprised by this sudden turn toward bloodlust. But she shouldn’t be. Alexander is a conqueror. “No, I would not have you march west with it,” she frankly says.

“What then? How can I protect it?”

“By giving it a new home,” Terach says. “In a new city. A temple that is a tomb, buried beneath the ground, unknown to all but a chosen few.”

“A new city?” There is confusion on Alexander’s face.

I’m not confused, for I can see the perfection of what they hope to achieve, the fortuitousness of our timing. “Alexandria,” I say, turning the room’s attention in my direction. “They want you to hide the Ark in Alexandria.”

Sakhmakh smiles gratefully. “That is precisely what we wish to happen: for the Ark to be made safe and secure.”

Alexander nods, his eyes narrowing in thought as he turns back toward the Ark before us. I watch as the flickering of the lamp flame shifts the shadows of feathers on the winged creatures. It makes them seem to ripple with life, an expectation of movement, as if those kneeling figures are prepared to burst up from their knees, stretching themselves up and out as they let their strong wings beat a steady rise into the heavens.

“Very well,” Alexander finally says. His voice is quiet, almost reverent. “We will take it to Alexandria. We will build it a new temple there.”

 

THE ATTACK COMES just as the hooded figures — all of them, like Sakhmakh and Terach, members of the secret group of Jews sworn to protect their sacred treasure — have maneuvered the Ark out of the temple and into the shelter of the columned portico outside to await the cart that has been summoned. The brightness of midday has become the dusky shadows of evening, the sky a deep red as the sun sets far beyond the sands behind us.

There are shouts beyond the walls of the complex, a rushing of many feet, and the ring of steel.

Alexander and I are standing close beside each other to one side of the entrance, and we have fought in close quarters before. There is no thought, only instinct. In an instant our swords are drawn, our backs meeting. “Treachery,” I say, spitting the word at Sakhmakh. Standing at the other side of the entrance, the Ark between us, I see Terach, still holding the Aegis. His eyes are wide in shock.

The kandake of Kush stands in the doorway of the temple, backlit by the steady fires within. She shakes her head even as she begins to give commands in a language we don’t know. The hooded figures lower the Ark to the ground quickly but carefully, then they fan out in a rush, ducking behind stone pillars, retreating back into the temple, or running off into the night. Many of them, I see, are drawing swords from beneath their cloaks. And those who’ve hurried into the temple are back almost at once, carrying bows and sheaves of black arrows.

With a sinuous grace, Sakhmakh slides forward to stand in front of the Ark. She has in her hands two long daggers, their twin blades — each as long as her forearm — thin and sharpened to a wicked point. Where she hid them under her clothes, I do not know, but she holds them like an extension of herself. She rises up before us, before the Ark, swaying ever so slightly between the balls of her feet, like a cobra ready to strike.

Alexander and I exchange glances. If the Jews are not attacking us, then who?

A high whistle pierces the night. Then another and another. One again our instincts take over, and Alexander and I tuck ourselves behind a stone pillar just beside the entrance. Around us, it seems everyone else has done the same.

All but Sakhmakh. She does not move from the front of the Ark. It is as if she intends to protect it with her royal body.

We can only see the vaguest streaks of the arrows sailing in the dim air, but we see them clearly enough as they land, clattering off the pillars around us with a noise like hail.

When the volley stops for a moment, I take the chance to stoop down and retrieve one of the spent arrows from where it has come to rest by my feet.

“Greek?” Sakhmakh asks over her shoulder. She still hasn’t moved. It’s a miracle, I think, that none of the missiles has struck her.

Turning the arrow over in my fingers, I know at a glance that it isn’t Greek. And I doubt it is Nubian, either. I’ve seen its like more times than I can count. “Persian,” I say, holding it out to my friend

Alexander takes it, nods, then tosses it into the shadows. “Masistes,” he says.

At a shout from Sakhmakh, I hear the sound of defenders launching their own volleys in return. The whistles move away this time, but there are far fewer of them. “Persians?” she asks us in Greek.

“How many I don’t know,” Alexander says. “They were in the desert. Don’t know how they found us here.”

“Spies,” the kandake says before she barks more orders to her men. “You are a recognizable man, Alexander.”

Whistles sound another volley of arrows, and once more we tuck into the shelter of the tall columns. Screams echo over the courtyard before us. Arrows finding their marks.

When the wave is over, I am beginning to stand up and step around the pillar, to try to survey the situation we face, when Alexander is suddenly shouting from behind me. “Right flank, Heph! Down!”

My king throws himself into my back, and we tumble forward onto the stone pavement. I feel the screeching wind as the flanking volley of arrows that were meant to tear into us rip through space instead.

“Terach!”

At Sakhmakh’s shout, I push myself up from my stomach just far enough to see that the old man has fallen. He is gasping around the arrow that sticks out from his shoulder like a terrible barb. He is kicking himself across the ground in the panicked shock of a wounded animal. The Aegis has fallen from his hands, not three strides from us.

“Alexander,” I call out. “The armor!”

Even as I say it, I know it’s too late. Beyond the Aegis, beyond Terach’s kicking legs, I see the Persians coming. It is only a small squad of them — likely all they could get over the walls, with the primary force preparing to charge now through the main gate — but it may well be enough to destroy us. I see four or five hooded figures shifting their defense to protect our flank here, but there’s a dozen or more Persians coming at a full sprint. The setting sun casts a red light like fresh blood upon their swords.

“To me, Heph!” Alexander is rolling to his feet, and I kick myself up onto my own.

Together, like the young and foolish warriors we once were, we run forward past the Ark, leaping Terach and leaving behind us the Aegis, and we meet them with a roar like mighty lions.

 

SLOWLY RETREATING over ground covered by the slain, out of the corner of my eye I see the second wave of Persians coming through the archway of the main gate, pouring into the temple complex like a screaming liquid of blood-thirsty men. I see them, and I know we are lost.

I trip over something, stumble, and I recognize that it is Alexander’s armor, littered upon the pavement with the blood and the detritus of battle. The Aegis of Zeus, which brought him life at Gazza, which turned aside the arrows at Issus, sits now unused and useless. It cannot help us now.

One of the Persians has pressed his advantage as I stumbled, and I only barely manage to get the blade in my right hand up in time to stop the blow. The ring of the metal rattles my bones, grinds my teeth. I taste blood in my mouth, and I don’t know whether I’ve bit open my tongue or my cheek or both.

I’m halfway to kneeling, and I push myself up against my enemy’s weight, reaching out with my left hand as I do so, catching the wrist of his sword-bearing hand. It exposes me, I know. If the man has a blade in his other hand, he will open up my gut. But he does not. Or he forgets that he does. And I’m able to push his sword off mine and, still holding his sword hand up, reach back my own and plunge it through the sweat of his arm pit and into his body.

He sprays gore as I kick him backward, and he falls to the ground to writhe out his end. One more obstacle for the remaining Persians, a few more precious seconds for me to postpone the end.

Alexander pulls back from his own latest victim, rolling around behind me to run to the side of Sakhmakh. There are many corpses in front of the Ark there — a few of her fellow Jews, far more of the Persians — and the knives of the kandake are dripping in the light that streams from the temple doorway. Ahead, surely a hundred Persians are bearing down upon them.

Alexander and Sakhmakh give the slightest nod to each other. They smile, and then they turn toward the onslaught, two against them all.

Like Leonidas at the Hot Gates, I think.

Another Persian comes forward, but he is tired, and I dispatch him quickly. Only a few are left on my side, and I wonder about abandoning it to go stand beside my lover, friend, and king. If I would die, it would be by his side.

I back toward them slowly, keeping a wary eye on the remaining Persians. There are streaks and pools of blood where wounded men have tried to drag themselves  away from death. I step carefully through it, sword between me and the enemy. They continue to hold back, seemingly content to let the coming horde finish me off with the king who once defeated them.

My heel strikes wood. It thumps like a hollow drum, deep and resonant.

The Ark.

I imagine its top surface, and in my mind’s eye I can see that between the two winged figures — the two angels still gleaming silver and gold, still freshly shined despite the horror of the gore that has splattered the pillars and the ground all around them — is the circle of a stone, blacker than black. I know in an instant how it will work. Alexander has often enough described how he uses the Aegis.

I look to the men before me, then I glance over to the screaming masses who will kill the kandake and my Alexander.

Without another thought, without hesitation, I throw down my sword, turn, and place both of my hands down upon the top of the Ark. I place them upon the stone.

The surge of power that erupts against my skin is so instant, so powerful, that I have to close my eyes and cry out. The power is hotter than fire. Inch by inch it envelops me, consumes me, as if I am leaning deeper and deeper into stone made molten in the forges of Hephaestus, my namesake god. Whether the world yawns up to me or I cave down upon it, I cannot tell. I’m uncoupled from the earth.

And then abruptly the heat turns to cold, into a deep void of swirling darkness that looms up and beckons me down. I feel myself falling, sliding, tumbling into the pitch night, and in my mind I scream down toward the hurtling abyss, though whether my throat has air enough to make a sound I don’t know.

Heartbeats have passed. Seconds. But if feels like years are being stripped away. I try to pull away, to swim up against the pull of the bottomless pit that wants to draw me on and on into oblivion.

Something jolts me as I fight against that rushing force, and somewhere in the distance I feel the bones of my arms threatening to snap, like twigs in the grasp of an angry beast. But the pain washes away. Everything is washing away. My body. The temple. The damnable sand. And Alexander.

Alexander!

The memory of him rolls over into my mind, like the form of him rolling over in our bed. The trust. The love. All stripped away. All passing into void, into nothing, into the darkness of death and eternal quiet.

No.

It’s a whisper in my mind, but it thrums louder.

No!

I fix my mind upon him. The memory. The imagination.

No!

The world stops. The swirling and sliding abruptly ends, and the power that has been surging over me is suddenly, I realize, surging within me.

I open my eyes. Alexander and Sakhmakh are there, dancing with death. The first wave of the Persians are upon them, and in a frozen instant I see the hatred and the rage upon those foreign faces. I see my king’s impending death. Only seconds remain.

Closer, I see how my fingers are curled and tensed, as if my fingertips intend to open wounds in the terrible, beautiful black stone. There is blood slashed across the darkness there, like red grooves, but the pain is something I cannot feel.

Unlike the fear. No, the fear is something I feel very deeply.

That, and the power.

So as I watch the wall of Persians coming, as I watch the wave breaking over and upon those two figures framed by the frozen spray of blood and spit and sand that hangs in the strangely calm light, I know what to do.

What the Aegis does for life, the Ark does for the earth.

The rock. The stone. I can feel the elements all around me. Under my feet. In the columns. Waiting. Ready.

I let the power of the Ark beneath me draw up through my palms and those flexed fingers. I let it wick up into my flesh, higher and higher, and then I reach out to the paving stones that mark the path between the long line of sphinxes. The feet of the mass of men that have been falling upon them are, for the moment, stilled.

The power has come into me like oil rising into cloth, and with the spark of a thought it ignites within me.

A moment later, the power explodes forth from me. Time returns. Feet fall once again. But the surge I have released is a roar, and behind it comes the scream of the earth.

Like a wave passing beneath their surface, my power lifts the wide paving stones. As it rolls forward the attackers are toppled and throne, scattered like cut stalks of wheat.

Then another thought, another spark of flame in my mind, in my soul. My hands scrape stone in a tortured agony I can sense but not feel as the fire of power burns and pours forth. In response, down the length of the shattered stone road, the sphinxes that line it rise up. With a thunderous crack of rock, they shake off the chains of their makers and hungrily look down upon their prey. As one, they slouch forward in birth and mindless destruction.

In my mind I see the carnage, but I don’t know what’s real and what is imagination. Already my vision fades to darkness.

As the black sheet falls, I wonder if the agony of dying is the last thing I will know of this world.

 

I REMAIN. The darkness has lifted. My eyes are open, though when I try to blink, they do not respond. The air is heavy with the sick-sweet scent of blood, but it does not fill my lungs. The sun is a fading memory, and I’m cold to my bones, cold to my soul. I do not think I will ever again be warm.

I am, I think, dead.

Dying, at least.

Someone is speaking, a voice that’s at once close and far, far away.

It’s Alexander, I realize. A voice I should know anywhere.

Abruptly I’m moving, the stars shake before my eyes.

Then it stops and my friend’s face is rising up over the stars. Tears have run clean rivers through the dirty soil upon his skin. “Hold on, Heph,” he’s saying. “Hold on.”

The shaking comes again, and the face and stars before me sweep wildly to left and right. Alexander is moving me, I think. He’s doing something.

Whatever it is, it must be too late. If I had air, I’d breathe my last whispering his name, but he knows. We’ve always known, he and I.

My vision stills again, and I see my friend lifting something up against the background of stars. He settles it toward my chest. I see what it is.

The stars dim. The Aegis descends.

It touches my flesh. And the darkness becomes a searing light that carries me away into sleep.

 

THE SUN DANCES UPON THE NILE. Sakhmakh is standing beside us on the riverbank as Terach and the others carefully load the crate containing the Ark onto a low-walled barge. I’d say that it is a miracle that Terach and I survived, but I know the power that preserves only too well. I know the darkness that has made us whole.

“It will be hidden where none will find it,” Alexander promises her. Whatever thoughts he might have entertained for using the Ark, he has told me, they disappeared when he saw what it did to me that night.

And what I did through it. Even now, days later, I am certain that the desert carrion are still glutted on the horror we left behind, the horror whose end I don’t even remember.

My inability to recall what happened, my paranoid suspicion that perhaps I was in some way only a vessel for the power of the Ark — as if its stone were a sentient being and I its puppet — does nothing to alleviate my guilt.

Somehow it makes it even worse.

“I know you will see that it is so,” the kandake says, and she kisses him on the cheek. Alexander, for all his conquests, seems embarrassed. Next she turns her smile to me. “And you, Lord Hephaestion, are owed much, too. We would not have survived if not for what you did.”

I smile, but I doubt it is convincing. In truth, even if I don’t know what happened later, I can still remember that initial surge of divine power coursing into my muscles, into my aching bones. A part of me wants to feel it again, even as another part of me simply wants to throw up. “I’m glad we survived,” I manage to say.

The kandake of Kush kisses me, too, in her gratitude.

Within minutes, the Ark is aboard the barge and all is ready to depart. Terach will travel with us, along with three other Jews. They will begin the construction of the new temple of the Ark. The surviving remainder of their secret company will return with Sakhmakh to Kush, there to make their final arrangements for their move to the new city that Alexander is building upon the sea, the new city with the greatest of treasures beneath its streets.

We set off onto the river. The man at the tiller uses a pole to push us closer and closer to the main flow of the mighty river, and then I feel its steady roll lift our weight and begin to carry as downstream. It is a great beast, this river, more powerful than any I have ever seen. But it is nothing like the power that flowed in me, that flowed through me. That power, I think, seemed as if it could have broken the world.

The banks rise and fall around us. I stand at the prow as the waves slip beneath the barge. Trees and fields appear and disappear. I see it all through a kind of blank stare, lost in my own thoughts.

“You’re quiet, Heph.”

Alexander. He’s walked up to stand beside me. He knows me too well for me to hide anything from him. “I was just wondering,” I say after a moment. “What next? Will you keep the Aegis?”

My friend chews on his lip — gods, what a terrible habit — and he watches a small farm pass by along the closer shoreline. “I’ve thought about that a lot,” he says. “I think I must. There may still be more for it to do. And my dream is still alive. They can bury it with me.”

I nod. It’s what I have suspected. I look up at the Egyptian sun. “And after the Ark is in Alexandria? What then?”

Alexander smiles. “Then we’ll leave this country,” he says. His eyes glint mischievously. “And maybe you’ll start sleeping through the night.”

“Out of Egypt,” I whisper. At once I think of green vineyards, of peace and home. And then, as if on cue, I’m aware of sandy grit in my hair and between my thighs. The thought of it makes me let out a tired sigh of a laugh. “Can’t happen fast enough.”

“By the gods, Heph, I’ve missed that sound.”

I smile. And beneath us, unaware of its burdens, the great river carries us on.

 

Author’s Note

As with the Shards of Heaven series of novels for which this story serves as a prequel, the tale here falls within the genre of Historical Fantasy. Even more particularly, it is what is often called a “Secret History,” since its characters and events are intended to fit within the bounds of known history to the highest degree possible.

For all his extraordinary impact and fame, there is much about the life of Alexander the Great that remains unknown. One of our questions — one that is more argued in our modern era than in his contemporary day — regards his potential bisexuality. The Macedonian king was thrice married, and it seems certain that he had multiple female lovers, but there is also some reason to think that he engaged in homosexual activity, as well. In particular, much interest focuses on Hephaestion (born ca 356 BC, died 324), who was Alexander’s closest friend, his fellow student under the tutelage of Aristotle, one of his finest field commanders, and quite possibly his lifelong lover. The two men could hardly have been more devoted to one another: by their own actions it seems clear that they perceived of their relationship as modeled upon that of the Homeric heroes Achilles and Patroclus, whose relationship has likewise been subject to speculation about its sexual nature. In addition, a letter to Alexander that is traditionally ascribed to Diogenes of Sinope, the philosopher briefly mentioned in this story, suggests that the Macedonian king was too devoted to “Hephaestion’s thighs,” an implicit recognition of a sexual relationship between the men based on the Greek eromenos model.

Another historical unknown is why in 331 — after Alexander had seized Egypt, after the king had visited the desert oracle at Siwa Oasis and apparently been declared the son of a god — his army turned back from marching up the Nile to defeat the prominent kingdom of Kush. It may be that Alexander simply saw little political, military, or economic benefit to conquering the African kingdom, but there has long been speculation that there was some other rationale for his actions. At least as far back as the so-called Romance of Alexander, a third-century text now ascribed to Pseudo-Callisthenes, there have been stories that Alexander’s armies were met in the desert by those of the kingdom of Kush. The kandake, or queen, of Kush appeared at their head, riding a great war elephant. Impressed, Alexander agreed to turn back from driving further south. Still later accounts suggest that the kandake and Alexander had a passionate romantic encounter. Very likely such stories are nothing but legend … though one must admit they make for an interesting background to a story.

The 332 siege at Gazza (modern Gaza) is a true event, as is the horrific shoulder wound that Alexander took there. Also true are the names of the kandake and the qore of Kush, the Greek leader who managed to learn Persian, and a host of other historical tidbits throughout this story.

The temple described here is also a real place: the Temple of Hibis, in the Kharga Oasis. Efforts are underway to restore its ruins, which include the magnificent carving of King Darius I of Persia described here. Also being restored is a line of battered stone sphinxes that line the road to the temple — not all of which are aligned as they should be.

Copyright © 2016 by Michael Livingston

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The Spark by Leanna Renee Hieber

The Spark by Leanna Renee Hieber

Presenting The Spark, a brand new novella from Leanna Renee Hieber, set in the world of her gaslamp fantasy series, The Eterna Files. Leanna’s latest novel, Eterna and Omega, will be available August 9th.

Chapter One

Louis Dupris stole the small, precious dagger, wet with his own blood, from the priestess, tears streaming down his olive-toned cheek.

He ran.

He knew her cries would haunt him until death. And beyond. First was the pained shriek of betrayal. Then the shout of anger. Then the bellowed curses as he fled the bonfire at the banks of the Mississippi. It was a terrible sound that he wished he could trade for a cry of joyful victory.

He ran towards masts of ships gathered from around the world, past innumerable lines of sugar sheds—squat structures inhabited by saccharine mountains made from life-threatening hard work and rivers of sweat; past mountains of cotton bales waiting for the terrifying black jaws of monster presses. Louis dashed between spires of industrial fire and smoke, one step away from the maws of myriad hells on earth, racing toward the beckoning, charming gaslight of the French Quarter, that curious metropolitan mosaic of culture and rich, diverse history.

He knew he had likely condemned himself in a dire way that would only reveal itself in time.

But it was all done for love. Deep, passionate, soul-rending love.

Love of the spirit.

And of science.

He would make the complex and oft misunderstood beliefs of his Creole blood into venerated theorems in the halls of great institutions. The rulers of this still war-ravaged nation—where the term “reconstruction” meant very different things to the powerful and the powerless—would bow their heads at that which had heretofore terrified them.

Vodun would no longer be considered witchcraft. It would be vindicated. Validated. No longer a subject of fear, fetish, and persecution.

But the priestess to whom he had been beholden would not understand. He could not make her understand. He had been sworn to secrecy by another. He prayed that the priestess’s powerful and just soul would forgive the unforgivable, in time.

He prayed to the great Bondye and to the canon of intercessor Mystères, asking that they collectively empathize, advise, and guard him.

If his theories held the promise he thought they did, they’d have all the time in the world. Literally.

 

Senator Rupert Bishop had been skulking around New Orleans in an exceedingly fine new frock coat for the past two weeks. He wanted to be sure that the range of psychic powers he possessed walked about well clad. Attractive to the eye. Apparent to any who might be looking.

He descended the stairs of the fine inn, happy to be spending these days and nights visiting one of his favorite cities, a place of magic and unpredictable characters, where the veil between the tactile and spirit world was perhaps at its most thin. Where everything could and did happen. The Senator was on the hunt…and using himself as bait.

Unfortunately, nothing yet had bit, though he wondered if he hadn’t narrowly avoided a vampire the previous Thursday. If he’d been one for whores, by now he’d have been drowning in naked women or contracted some sort of disease. But no. Carnal desire wasn’t what he had traveled to this inimitable city for. No, he’d pinned his hopes on finding a new operative for his ventures in this marvelous place.

There had been a promising lead last night, but the poor lad had fled. Frightened.

Or so he had thought.

To the Senator’s surprise, the young man in question was standing across the street, in front of the old convent.

Bishop studied the fellow from his vantage point on the veranda of the inn. He ran his fingers over the intricate, black, wrought-iron rail which captured slivers of gaslight, making the whole balcony seem like it was exquisitely carved, burning coal. Was that a knife glinting in the man’s hand, flashing in display to catch his attention?

Oh, well, that made things more complicated, didn’t it….

Sometimes Rupert Bishop wished his work was more mundane.

Senator Bishop doubted the cure for death could ever be found, but goodness did he enjoy trying to find it. That had been his commission since soon after Lincoln’s assassination and while he didn’t believe that the desired result would ever be achieved, the search itself was important.

He strolled out under the eaves and waited for a team of horses towing a wagonload of haphazardly stacked coffins to pass before crossing the street. The flickering gas lamp of the nearby textile shop only partly illuminated the fellow—Dupris, Bishop recalled—who had had sense enough to thankfully conceal the ceremonial blade.

Bishop tipped his top hat to Dupris, taking in the younger man’s overall appearance. Dupris’ olive-skinned brow bore a sheen of sweat; his white shirt sleeves were rolled up and his vest was undone and a bit muddy, as if he’d run up from the banks of the Mississippi.

“So. Changed your mind then, Mister Dupris?” Bishop asked casually.

“I did. I have. I’ll come with you to New York and join your commission,” the other said quietly. Bishop stared at him for a long moment, as always taking delight in how his piercing stare seemed to make everyone slightly uncomfortable, until the man added, “I simply didn’t believe you.”

“What changed your mind, then?”

“Shall we go indoors to discuss it?” Dupris asked, glancing behind him as if afraid of pursuit, a notion that did not sit well with Bishop. The Senator glanced around at the relatively unpopulated gas-lit street and decided to stand his ground. He knew nothing was seeking him at the moment.

“I find trees and bricks better company than people crowding about me in a bar.”

Dupris chuckled. “How do you manage business in Manhattan?”

“Carefully. Now. Tell me, before you waste any more of my time, what changed your mind?”

Dupris lifted his head and straightened his shoulders; nearly Bishop’s height, he spoke with distinct pride. “The hope that I can bring dignity and scientific proof to that which my mother practiced. I’d like to make the average American think twice before they curse what they deem as ‘black’ magic.”

“A noble goal,” Bishop said with a partial smile that soon faded. “No disrespect to your extended family, Mister Dupris, but your city and mine are two different worlds. Both metropolitan, both thronged with diverse cultures, both centers of commerce and culture, but vast attitudes and prejudices apart. The North is a curiously cold and double-talking creature when it comes to one’s… background. Let not the aims of the Union lull you into expecting an unconditional welcome. Having been raised Creole, you may face trials in New York that will be foreign to you.”

Bishop watched a painful, complex sweep of emotions flutter through the man’s hazel eyes and over his smooth, barely dusky skin before vanishing behind a cool mask.

“During some of my travels I have passed for white,” Dupris said carefully. “I suppose I may find it advantageous to do so again. But I appreciate that you acknowledge the blood from which I come, blood I do not deny, as one should associate no shame with it. Here in New Orleans we have our class, as you know, and we are proud, we are ascendant. Should I find it advantageous to pass, let me never hear one word against my line or the like.”

“Indeed, Mister Dupris. Make no mistake; I’d hire you regardless. I come from a fierce line of abolitionists and activists who have lived and died for the sake of equality for all men and between the sexes. In an often cruel city, I’ve others in my employ who have made that same choice, though I would never ask it. As a champion for all people, I wish institutional injustices were otherwise, and I will fight them as I have done all my life; as a Quaker, a friend to President Lincoln, and a man fiercely loyal to progressive Republican ideals. I pledge to you what I pledge to my female ward, that your struggles for rights will not go without allies.”

“That is heartening to hear, Senator. As for an oft two-faced North, my family always wanted what was easiest for me, most beneficial.” Dupris ground out the last word as if it were beneath a chemists’ pestle. “They won’t know any better, as they’ll never know the truth of where I’ve gone, will they, Senator?”

“Our work must remain secret and there will be no further contact. You do not have to imply your death, however, that choice tends to make things less complicated.” Bishop didn’t like how matter-of-fact he sounded, but he’d held this commission long enough that the speech was simply standard.

Louis stared at Bishop with increasing pain. He slightly lifted the hilt of the dagger he still held at his side and murmured, “This ensured that I’m dead to them all.”

“You didn’t have to go that far, you know,” Bishop said with a frown. He did not like curses coming along with his recruits. Unnecessary detritus getting in the way, dark business, all of which he could sense like invisible luggage floating along behind the man, dense, troublesome cargo. He would have to actively separate it from himself and his home, making sure nothing followed across his own threshold. Nothing could get close to her.

“This item may be of use in my work.” Dupris replied.

“Be sure it doesn’t become our problem. Keep what you’ve done and its ramifications to yourself. The commission asks nothing of you but your talents; it does not ask for your soul. That’s between you and whatever God, or lack thereof, you acknowledge. Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir. This responsibility I take on wholly myself.”

“See that you do, or I’ll not hesitate to send you back into that priestess’s arms.”

Bishop saw the small tick in Dupris expression as he wondered how Bishop knew where the blade came from. The Senator enjoyed planting the idea that he was not to be trifled with; that ultimately, his power had nothing to do with the government position he’d managed to hold longer than any of the colleagues with whom he’d started.

“You will join the team already assembled in Manhattan. We will not travel together. Your residence will be provided, noted on your itinerary,” he said, reciting another rote speech.

“Have you made progress, then, on a cure for death?”

The Senator looked around for spies or listening ears, then shook his head. “We are… at an impasse. Science has not kept up with our imagination.”

Louis smiled. “You have to bend science, then, to imagination. Force theory into law.”

Bishop returned his smile. “Your confidence and passion, young man, is why you intrigue me and I think you’ll bring just the right… spark to our stalled crew.”

“How many?”

“Four men from differing background, supported by a small research staff that looks into improbable things, whatever may relate to the principle of immortality.”

“Your ‘Eterna’ commission, as you mentioned last night,” Dupris clarified. The Senator nodded.

They’d met the night prior in a fine absinthe parlor not far from where they now stood, Bishop’s instincts having drawn him in after spotting the man on the street. For an hour, Bishop waited patiently, noting that the man took no drink, just watched the crowd with a scientist’s eye. When he’d gone for a breath of fresh air, Bishop had followed. They’d struck up a conversation on the upper balcony, gloved palms resting solidly upon the wrought iron railing as they stared at New Orleans below and spoke of human nature.

“What were you about to do to me before I ran out, last night?” Louis asked. “You leaned forward about to take my hand. And I know you’re not of that persuasion, so what was that about?”

A smirk tugged at the Senator’s sculpted lip. “I’ve a few tricks, Mister Dupris. I didn’t want you remembering what I’d said to you. I sensed you were about to run, and I couldn’t have you darting about this delicious city with such sensitive material in your head.”

“You were going to affect my memory?” Louis asked eagerly. “How?”

“Need to know basis, Mister Dupris. For now, memory doesn’t have to do with immortality, and until it does, keep focused on the tasks I lay before you. You’ll be my guest at a ball the night you arrive. Do you have fine dress?”

“I do, sir.”

“Good. Dress sharp, then. And you’ll only speak to those you’re introduced to.”

“Are there dangers I should be aware of?”

The Senator’s defined lip curled downwards. “Everywhere and everyone.”

 

Louis bit back a grin, feeling what he thought his twin must feel when undertaking his various affairs; a surge of wicked excitement. Though for Louis’ part, it was about intrigue, not conquest. Which is why Bishop’s next caution caught him off guard.

“And, as I tell every one of my new employees, my ward is off limits. She will be in attendance. You will not be introduced.”

“Is she very pretty, then?”

“Yes.” Bishop said matter-of-factly. Louis thought he glimpsed a slight clench of the older man’s jaw. Devastatingly pretty, then.

“May I ask how old she is, that she must be so protected?”

“Twenty-seven.”

Louis blinked a moment. “Too old to remain a ward.”

Bishop lifted a finger. “Too pretty and clever not to.”

Louis smiled. “Do you pique all your employees’ interests so?”

At this, Bishop turned away and Louis could see that the heretofore gamesome and enigmatic gentleman’s closest nerve had been struck.

“Forgive me,” Louis said earnestly. “I did not mean to—”

“See that you don’t mean to, Mister Dupris,” Bishop said sharply, his charismatic warmth gone.

They walked in silence, at a quick clip, to the Rue Royale, where Bishop stopped across the street from the Dupris home. Louis was unnerved that Bishop seemed to know far more about him than he should after such short acquaintance.

But there was no turning back. He’d left a woman cursing his life and death upon the river bank. He had no choice but to make his new bed in Yankee territory. New England. A new world. When he’d been so comfortable in the old ….

Panic seized him. Was he doing the right thing or had he damned not just this body, but his eternal soul?

“You will take the 9 AM train, Mister Dupris,” Bishop said, reaching into an interior pocket of his fine coat and withdrawing a small sealed envelope which he handed to his new hire. “Here are your train tickets, the addresses to which you are to report, and a key for the doors. Please commit the location to memory and discard the information.”

Louis took the envelope and tucked it carefully into the pocket of his coat, which, though well tailored and made of good fabric, was less fine than the Senator’s.

“Thank you, sir.” He began to cross the street, then turned back and asked, “Will I see you on that train, Senator?”

“I try never to travel with my employees. I’ll fetch you before the party so I can advise you on the pit of vipers I’ll be sending you into.”

Louis allowed a partial smile. “I don’t mind snakes, sir. They may be of medicinal use.”

The Senator grinned. “Ah, if I thought of the party that way I’d enjoy it far more. Look for me at your door by eight. I’ll escort you to the mansion.”

Louis nodded. “I look forward to it. Thank you again.”

The Senator proffered a tip of his top hat and vanished around the corner with impressive, near liquid speed. Behind him, as if it were a force in his wake, a breeze rustled fallen leaves along the golden, gas-lit street.

It was a beautiful night in New Orleans; alive, awake, rich with sounds, smells and excitement swirling hot and spicy in the food and the cultural milieu. His last night in his beloved birthplace.

That night, Louis’ regular diet of wild and verdant dreams was supplemented by a keen pain in his chest, something carving, splitting his flesh and burrowing into his spirit, something desperate to pry his soul from his body and devour the space between….

Chapter Two

Clara Templeton sat surrounded by precarious towers of paperwork. This was unwise in her gas-lit office, where she liked to keep her prized, brand-new, Tiffany gas lamps trimmed high. That way it was easier to marvel at the bright, exquisite colors and the stunning textures and effects the artistic genius and his workers wrought on lamp-shades and sconces. Nevermind the fact that the whole place could burst into flame with the least tip of a stack of paper; Clara never felt happier than when she was entirely surrounded by interesting things.

Curiouser and curiouser were Clara’s general states of mind. This hadn’t wavered much since childhood, and now at the age of twenty-seven, working in a career that was entirely unheard of, especially for one of her sex, she felt the quality was her most vital asset.

Franklin, her partner in the Eterna Commission office, would have thrown a fit if he’d seen how she was keeping the place, but he wasn’t there. She had taken the liberty of spending the entire day giddily abandoning his fastidious principles of organization.

Clara was infamous for collecting everything, throwing nothing away, and making an ornate mess of things. To her credit, she knew where every item within the mess was, and could find anything in impressively short amount of time, if asked. Eccentric flair notwithstanding, she had an eye for décor, so even though the place looked a bit mad, it maintained a distinct style.

Her taste in art was cutting-edge; her gold-framed Pre-Raphaelite paintings, lit by the Tiffany lamps, made the place a treasury of rich colors and bold, iconic sentiment that nicely offset the dark mahogany of the office paneling.

Talismans of luck and power resided in an overflowing curio cabinet near her desk. If she felt in particular need of protection, she would hang up a number of the pendants and icons, tacking them to the window behind her desk. Today was one of those days. Something was “in the air,” so she guarded her delicate, sensitive’s sensibilities with care.

Early in their work together, the impeccably neat Franklin had knocked over yet another of Clara’s carefully stacked piles in a maze of notebooks and papers and burst out with, “May I ask, Miss Templeton, why you keep everything that comes into your hands? I try to keep our office from falling into the state of an unmanageable hoarder’s den, but it’s hard to keep up the pretense, let alone some kind of cataloguing system.”

She remembered blinking up at him from behind a precarious stack of ledgers topped by a small stone gargoyle that looked out in scowling protest of his surroundings. In an earnest, childlike voice, she replied; “because all of this means something to one of them. I… don’t know how to let go of any of it.”

Clara had an uncanny sense of how many times her individual soul had made its rounds about the world and through time. And while she tried not to let her current life get too busy with all the others, sometimes the past selves were terribly sentimental. She simply had to honor the things that reminded her, variously, of home. She was her own living graveyard. While others might find that morbid, Clara found it endearing.

“What are we missing?” she asked the room, the papers, the items scattered atop her desk, the gargoyle, her army of talismans, all her various and sundry tokens of ritual and meaning.

It was her passionate belief that something would finally tip the scales; a powerful object, an important tract, an infused pendant. At some point she would reach critical mass. If she could only gather enough interesting things in one space, like spontaneous combustion, inspiration would simply coalesce, in a roaring fire of world-altering truth.

“We’re missing the spark for the fire,” she said aloud. She had long ago felt the room listened when she spoke—she was fond of viewing buildings as entities and she imbued them with identities. “We’ve lost spirit. And that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Spirit? How can we seek to gain the right of immortality without addressing spirit? The body is one thing, but the spirit… that’s got to be the ticket…spirit. Spirits?

“Thoughts?” she asked, turning the little gargoyle atop the spire of ledgers to face her. He gave no answer save his continued, open-mouthed scowl of protestat. No winds of change took to the room at her query—which was for the best, considering what mess would be made of her labyrinthine stacks of papers if they had.

While Clara, due to certain health concerns, was not as practiced a medium as some of her friends, she had followed interesting leads from the beyond down proverbial rabbit holes. She had the distinct sensation that however much she knew about the world, there was always something more. For a soul that had gone around as many times as hers, this was like the fountain of youth. Curiosity. Learning. The chase of discovery.

Maybe that was something to include in the Eterna Commission. Could death be staved off by a ravenously hungry mind?

“The Thirst for Knowledge,” Clara scribbled in her idea book, a leather-bound volume which contained more doodles than complete sentences. A few gems stood out as she flipped through past musings: thoughts on emergent technologies such as electricity; on elder curiosities like the fountain of youth; on ethics associated with historic and present-day blood-drinking, and examples of same; and on the balance between the corporeal and the spiritual.

The Eterna Commission was something Clara Templeton took quite personally.

After all, it had been her idea.

Well, as much of an idea as an excitable twelve year old could muster in the presence of a grieving first lady. That single meeting had birthed an entire government office.

Mrs. Lincoln had asked for Spiritualist counsel after the assassination of her husband. Senator Rupert Bishop was well-known to be an open practitioner, and he had brought Clara with him on that fateful visit. The girl had suggested that perhaps persons in an elected office such as the presidency should be given some kind of cure or protection that would ensure no one could so cruelly remove them from their hallowed positions.

Clara’s parents had died one directly after the other; her father, a doctor, had simply faded once her mother had gone. It was terribly romantic in its way, but left young Clara somewhat bitter, abandoned as she was. There was no question that she would end up in the care of the family’s dear friend, Rupert Bishop, then a young Congressman from New York. As she grew, her psychic gifts blossomed, but unfortunately, so did her ailments.

Thus, out of a widow’s—and a nation’s—grief, out of the words of a child who was already no innocent, a commission was created. Bishop was at the helm, and Clara was widely considered, by those few who knew of Eterna’s existence, to be a figurehead. Women of good breeding did not work. However, per the Quaker principles of the Bishop and Templeton households, Clara was highly educated, and the Senator, as he now was, knew of and honored her desire to be useful and independent despite periodic ills that rendered her entirely helpless in seizure.

Bishop deemed it vital for Spiritualists to maintain the core of the search for death’s cure, for the simple and singular reason that Spiritualists believed in the continuation of the spirit. They were living proof of life beyond death; they communicated with it, they looked at the body as merely one form of a living thing. Who better than Spiritualists to ask such questions and to take on such tasks? They did not need a cure for death, not in the same desperate sense as a terrified person panicked that the end of this incarnate life was the end of all things, that once one’s coffin was laid in the ground, all was lost.

The hope was that Spiritualists would keep a balance and keep the Eterna Commission on task; maintaining the union of the Union. Not for personal gain, not for indefinite immortality, but as a matter of national sanity and security for a president’s terms.

It was a grave, grey area, but one Senator Bishop held absolutely firm. Clara respected immeasurably that all his influence and insight had not made him greedy. If anything, he had become all the more cautious. He made her feel a great many things, but most of all, safe. She did not dare put this in jeopardy, so whatever her feelings for her guardian, she did little to affect their status quo.

At long last Clara Templeton found herself back home, having quickly traversed the few blocks of quiet downtown Pearl Street, where gas-lamps flickered at the entrances of fine buildings, both offices and residence.

She slipped in and, knowing where to step on each wooden stair so as not to make it creak, made her way up to the second floor of the townhouse she shared with the Senator. Their housekeeper knew never to wait up for either of them but would nonetheless scold Clara for her late hours in the morning.

Alone in her room of burnished cherry paneling and rose colored walls, Clara donned a night-dress layered to utter absurdity with lace and frills. Her dresses for the office were neatly-tailored, simple, and efficient, but at night she indulged her inner, pampered—perhaps spoiled—aristocrat; a mercurial and treacherous emotional beast.

She decided that she would write out, in her diary, a list of things that wearied her and spoke aloud as she wrote:

I am tired of knowing things I can’t see.

I weary of seeing all the iterations of my soul’s past paths and incarnations in pristine detail and not being able to, for the lives of me, see this present one clearly.

I wish the dead, when I hear them, would deign to tell me something useful, give me perspective about my own existence. Instead, all I hear are their needy cries for resolution of their past affairs. Ghosts are so terribly self-absorbed.

I am tired of being self-absorbed.

I wish Rupert would come home from New Orleans.

I hate that I so often wish for space from him, then, when he’s gone, I wish him home.

Do be careful not to whine.

Clara looked at the list and tossed the lined notebook upon her bed.

Rupert Bishop had always respected her and given her everything she wanted or needed. He sought ways to challenge her and employed her in ways that made her feel useful. She knew she was loved but Bishop never made her feel that he had any designs upon her. Now, at the age of twenty-seven, she sometimes wished he would. At least she thought she did.

She picked up the notebook once more and scribbled:

I believe I am on the cusp of something wonderful or terrible and I’m not sure I’ll know which until it’s too late to reverse course.

Where is the value of lives lived before except in lessons I can use in this one?

What if I tried to live a moderately normal life for a woman my age… Perhaps went to a soiree. A nice gown might do wonders for my excitable nerves…

Clara looked up in alarm.

“Saturday! The ball!” she exclaimed. “Lord, what in the world shall I wear…”

She looked back down at her journal and wrote:

Furthermore; a new hat.

There were matters weighing upon Clara of grave, potentially world-changing, psychological and spiritual import, but sometimes it was a relief to be suddenly seized by the throes of fashion.

Chapter Three

Louis took to the speeding system of rails that would whisk him north with the scream of steam. He stared out the window and pondered all he’d left behind as the chug of the finely appointed train, with its polished brass, etched glass, and dark, smooth wood ushered in his new era.

His trunk was stowed above his seat in the small sleeper car. He didn’t realize how tightly he was clutching the papers that would instruct him on the matters of his new world until they made a sound of protest, creased and crumpled in his tightening palm. He hadn’t known how much he’d miss home until he was watching it roll away from him. But then, what was home without any family left to call it such?

For a time the Dupris family had moved fluidly in and out of society, depending on what captivated the quixotic Helene Dupris, a stunning woman who drank deeply of this world and who passed out of it while painfully young and beautiful. Andre had never recovered, taking a rakish turn, while Louis waxed more poetic. He looked forward to seeing dear mama again in some far away place, where she would be surrounded by the finest French fashion and an endless retinue of angelic admirers.

Francois Dupris had taken on Helene initially just as a lover, without intention of marrying her, a woman of the most beautiful Creole stock. But there was no denying that woman anything. Soon he had given Helene his name, his fortune, which had been earned in the silk trade, the world and more. And enjoy it she did, until consumption took her, fading her unto the spirit lands with a morbidly romantic, slow snuff of her candle. The Dupris fortune had suffered from her extravagance and from the attentions of the many doctors Francois had enlisted to try to save her. The fact Helene had given him handsome twin sons with skin lighter than hers had been recompense enough, at first, but after her death, Francois Dupris found the boys reminded him too much of their dear, dead mama, and once they were old enough to fend for themselves, he returned to Paris, leaving them behind in the Crescent City.

Andre had taken on their mother’s penchant for excess, Louis her inner passions and secretive spiritual practices. That she had been what northerners would mistakenly call a witch was something only known to Louis for most of the twins’ childhood. Once Andre found out, he demanded spells for fortune and luck. Helene denied him, saying he was not old enough to wield such tools wisely, and he had never forgiven her. After Helene’s death, Louis had pursued her practices with careful reverence, well away from Andre’s notice.

Louis’ desire to elevate his mother’s beliefs to the privileged halls of science was his loving epitaph. He hoped Helene—and the heavens and all the ancestors—would forgive and understand what he’d had to do to get there.

For much of the journey Louis was happy to give himself over to the rocking lull of the speeding train, often nodding off, only to awake to a new wonder. He felt he was flying north, cutting in and out of mountains and along river banks, crossing forest and plain, hill and valley, the great, tumultuous landscapes America offered in vast variety. All were laid bare along the rails, a catapulting buffet of riches, state by state. His few transfers took place in arched, echoing stations he was too groggy to fully appreciate.

Once the train left Philadelphia and the last leg of the trip was upon him, presented as a series of dramatic hills and tunnels, Louis felt as though threads of lightning were reaching out to him, throbbing with the pulse of the country, drawing him ever closer to the economic machine at the base of the Empire State. That great heartbeat whispered down the rails as cities grew, as open space was obliterated by brick mortar, green was forsaken for wall and spire, and iron and industry rose.

New Orleans had its own inimitable character and bustled with trade from around the world, so Louis was hardly daunted by a large metropolis.

But here, in the colder, greyer northern light, New York City appeared far more dangerous; a sprawling leviathan, a thumping, clattering, churning system of cogs and wheels powered by countless bodies. All orbiting around one sliver of an island; a centrifugal beast from which all manner of art, industry, and aesthetic and cultural mélange spat forth. Entering this maelstrom via a speeding train, Louis felt magnetized to the core, terrified and exhilarated.

Attending a Manhattan ball would suit Andre far better than Louis, but Andre was gone to London on some sort of sordid business. Louis was unsure what kind of party he was attending; glancing at Bishop’s itinerary, ‎he quailed at the word Vanderbilt. But he tried to look at it like his mother might, that only someone who had truly drunk deeply of the well of life dared wield any sway over death. He had to pursue all things with the wide, hungry eyes of a child.

He made his way, via train, ferry, trolley, and finally on foot, each mode of transport showing him different aspects of the city and its wide range of pulsing life. The address to which he had been directed was a basement-level set of rooms near garment factories, adjacent to the famed Union Square. No one awaited him and the building was neither squalid nor grand, merely entirely nondescript brick on an inconspicuous block. The small silver key Bishop had given him unlocked the windowless wooden front door and allowed him entry into an unlit front hall.

Louis fumbled for matches in his pocket and struck one, then saw a lantern upon a hook near the front door. The building was gas-lit, he discovered, not a uniform convenience in any city but one he was glad for. He turned the key to the simple sconces, revealing a tiny receiving parlor, an alcove of a kitchen, and a back bedroom with a small window that looked out onto struggling greenery of an unkempt patch of garden.

It didn’t take long for Louis to unpack his single suitcase. He hung up his one fine suit, frowning as he noticed the creases. Hoping they would work themselves out by evening, he placed his few shirts, trousers, and waistcoats in the modest wardrobe and his toiletries in the small restroom. Adequate plumbing was an additional, much appreciated luxury.

Unwrapping a few small icons and two candles from a soft silk scarf with great care, he made a small ledge in the bedroom into a modest personal altar, hoping that time would adorn it further.

His labor done, Louis took a few moments to sit upon the edge of the bed, trying not to regret what he’d left behind. He’d traveled with such speed that he assumed any curse would take a while to catch up. In the meantime, surely he could reverse it by the nature of his work, by his good-hearted prayers, by channeling the Mystères….

Pressing the protective talisman he wore on a cord around his neck hard against his sternum, Louis roused himself from worry and put on that fine suit. The thrill of embarking upon new ventures gripped him for a moment. Then, as he tucked away the pendant, a stone carved into a bird his mother had given him, and inspected himself in the mirror, he saw a wide-eyed man who had a lot to gain and a lot to hide, and sank again to the mattress.

A potent memory took him; his mother insisting that all his interests in faith be used for good and transcendent purpose, speaking as though she had foreseen this very moment. Louis knew he was not hungry for power; he wished only to honor tradition. Yet here he was, far from home, far from tradition…. The shrill ring of a bell startled him from his reverie.

‎            Senator Bishop stood at the door, looking dapper and suave, his silver hair gleaming in the flickering gas lamp at the stoop. His presence bolstered Louis and reminded him that he was here for reasons beyond himself. Without a word Bishop ushered Louis towards the large black carriage waiting in the street.

Once both men were seated with the door closed, Bishop spoke.

“We are meeting at the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the man who has been consolidating railroads, for a party celebrating his industry. This ignominious tycoon stands at the pinnacle of a twisted mess of rails that he grabbed as if his was the wrathful hand of God, wrenching and bending the companies to his will by oft questionable means. This is the fete of a king crowning himself, a party of pure vanity.

“New York’s economy has taken a horrific tumble these past few years, but men like Vanderbilt remain unscathed. Those in attendance tonight will either be those who answer to him or those he hopes to assert himself over. I’m planning our arrival to occur after the Commodore has made his little speech, once the dancing has begun and the champagne has started flowing.”

“May I ask why we are to attend?”

“‎I attend as a mediator; a man of peace, reason, and persuasion. Some of Vanderbilt’s underlings are some of my colleagues’ staunchest supporters. None of us, for various reasons, can afford make an enemy of the man. Thusly, I must keep glasses of champagne from being launched in the fellow’s disagreeable face.”

Louis smiled. “I admire your diplomacy , Senator.”

“Don’t admire me too soon,” Bishop replied wearily. “It’ll be very hard for me not to launch a glass myself. It’s good you’ll be there, Dupris. Keep me accountable. And just so you’re aware, simply nod and smile no matter how I introduce you, and don’t be offended if I don’t.”

“Fine, as long I’m not introduced as your servant,” Louis retorted, “else I’ll launch champagne in your face.”

The Senator laughed. “Fair enough. I appreciate your assertiveness, my friend, and would have it no other way. And now, are you ready for pure pretention in all its insidious splendor?”

Louis chuckled. “Do I have any choice?”

The Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue was large, unavoidable, and indomitable, lording over nearly two entire city blocks.

A footman took charge of the Senator’s carriage; Bishop watched it go with a pained expression on his face, as if he expected he would next see it in some lot for resale. Dupris had heard tales of ruthless Commodore Vanderbilt, but he hoped carriage stealing wasn’t among the man’s list of abominable business practices.

The pointed eaves of the building jutted high into the evening sky. Far more windows were lit across the span of the building than Louis felt were needed for a soiree, undoubtedly another of Vanderbilt’s countless displays of immense privilege.

The Senator had timed their arrival just right. There was loud music playing and the imposing Commodore, whose likeness Louis had seen many times in the northern papers, was holding court with paunchy men in a corner of the ballroom.

Louis and his sponsor were soon surrounded by a throng of tired, irritated men who seemed mighty glad to see Rupert Bishop and didn’t give a whit who he, Louis, was. That was just fine with Louis; as per the Senator’s warning, he was not introduced. A flurry of political talk commenced, the nuance of which eluded Louis, as the New York political landscape was as foreign to him as New Orleans was to the rest of the country. He imagined he’d soon understand the lay of the proverbial land if these gentlemen were always so loose-lipped.

When there was a momentary lull, the Senator grabbed glasses of brandy off a tray offered by a passing maid and handed one to Louis. As the Senator absently toasted his glass, Louis dared offer an observation:

“You’re a very prominent man, Senator Bishop,” Louis murmured, “for someone who heads a covert government office.”

“I’m not one for skulking in the shadows, Mister Dupris,” Bishop stated. “Unsavory characters might linger there. Sycophants. Lobbyists. When one is out in the open, it is assumed one has nothing to hide. What one guards,” he said, indicating a woman across the room whose back was turned to them, presumably his ward, before continuing, “is different than what one hides. It’s a distinct difference you’d do well to understand.”

“Yes, sir…” Louis replied. Bishop gave a curt not as if he felt himself sufficiently heard and strode off to shake the hand of a mustachioed man in an ostentatiously striped suit.

Louis wasn’t sure if he was jealous of or inspired by the senator. He supposed he could be by both. He was most certainly compelled by him. Then, as he turned back towards a confection table for something with which to busy himself, she turned into full view.

She was a painting come to life. A muse. A gallery treasure.

She lit the chandeliers and sent music swirling through the air.

She was all angles, with sharp collarbones and distinct features, a classic face, one he’d seen at the Louvre in many iterations. She was dressed in the modern fashion, a pale green dress gathered and bustled in beautiful proportions, with a generous helping of smooth fair décolletage in view, her bust-line accented by starched lace and a pendant glimmering from a dark ribbon. Looking at her, Louis knew in that instant that contemporary style notwithstanding, she was an old thing.

Yes. In fact, on that count… she was terrifying. He’d never seen another woman with that kind of air, one that transcended time itself. He couldn’t help but notice that the men who regarded her did so with clear apprehension. Even if they did not know what they sensed, they obviously felt something; they didn’t stay away out of mere fear of the Senator’s wrath if they approached the woman he, Louis, had been instructed to keep quite clear of.

In a rare moment of passionate compulsion, he resolved that he had to talk with her. He waited until the Senator was engrossed in heavy conversation—about money, campaigning, and “the scourge of Tammany Democrats”—leaving Louis rightly ignored.

The woman had drifted away from other party guests; she turned, scowling, toward a corner of the ballroom that was entirely shadowed… a perfect place to make an entrance…

 

Clara was used to balls, fetes, soirees, premieres, speeches, inaugurations, to all manner of pomp and circumstance. She had been at the right hand of a powerful, persuasive Senator since she was a young child. She rather enjoyed the social rituals of state.

But something about tonight felt different. After numerous attempts to ask the right questions, she believed something was about to answer. That prospect was far more interesting to her than appearing in society, especially here.

Clara didn’t like the Vanderbilts any more than her guardian did. While the daughters were interesting, they didn’t redeem the father in her eyes; a dour, selfish, self-righteous noveau riche of the most heinous stripe, one that forged ahead and pulled drawbridges up behind him. None could forge further or compete; the man had created a monopoly that threatened the very principles upon which American society’s financial and opportune fabric was supposedly based. And during New York’s present financial woes, a party like this made Clara feel ashamed, as if she were condoning that which she could not abide. She caught herself frowning and turned away from the room.

It would seem the spirit world wasn’t any more fond of the Vanderbilts than Clara was; she could feel a press of anxiety, a certain negativity oozing through the air. In this place, too much good will had been squandered, too much entitlement displayed without graciousness. The atmosphere was so riddled by unsettled ghostly energies that it might trigger an episode if she wasn’t especially careful.

In making her rounds of the ballroom earlier, she’d passed an alcove that would shield her from the view of the public. Barely had she sought refuge there when a shadow moved and her breath caught in her throat. A handsome, olive-skinned man in a fitted black suit suddenly blocked her path.

A man moving in so close might have constituted a threat, but she sensed genuine warmth in his regard despite the chill of ghosts in his wake. Clara didn’t like to overestimate her gifts, but she could often ascertain whether a person wished her well or ill. She was in no danger. Not physically.

His piercing hazel eyes bored into her with more intensity and mystery than she had heretofore experienced. She was taken aback in a welcome way.

“You’re in my path, sir…” she said quietly.

“So I am, Mademoiselle, and forgive me. If you are who I believe you must be, I’ve been instructed not to introduce myself,” the man began, in a rich, deep voice. “And while I do value my new job with my life, my life would be forfeit if I did not at least tell you that you are, by far, the most interesting creature in this entire room, if not this entire city. Save, perhaps, your guardian, my employer, who insisted you were quite off-limits. This would make any woman all the more fascinating. You are so utterly time-stopping, I now understand why the Senator is so protective of you.”

She laughed. “Did my dear Bishop employ you merely for flattery?”

“No, my lady, he employed me for theory and faith. How I might apply spiritual concepts and principles to the quest for immortality as pursued by your department.”

“Ah, you’re one of ours!” she commented brightly. The fact that she was expressly forbidden by Bishop from talking to Eterna researchers made her want to all the more. She was flooded with thrills at this covert encounter and checked the angle of the alcove to be sure they could continue to speak  unseen. “You’re new. Where do you hail from? Your accent is distinct.”

“New Orleans, my lady, a distinct city indeed.” He bowed. “Louis Dupris, at your service, Miss Templeton. I hope my overtures do not offend. I doubt I can ever speak with you again, as I value my work—and the Senator—deeply. But there are times when a man must speak or forever regret the lost chance, and you evoke that prescient timeliness.”

Something about this man spoke of a turning of tables and a long needed change. She could feel her past selves, all those whom she had asked for help, leaning in. Would she make the first move in this new game? She would. Her boldness was a newfound delight. Cocking her head to the side, the plumes of her fascinator rustling, she laid down the gauntlet.

“You should come to call, Mister Dupris.”

He stared at her and she watched as desire and fear collided on his face.

“I… couldn’t,” he insisted as if convincing himself. He set his jaw. “I can’t, my dear Mademoiselle.”

“But you should,” she insisted sweetly. He looked increasingly conflicted. She chuckled. “In secret, then, if you’re worried about the Senator’s wrath.” She batted one silk-gloved hand, enjoying this new distraction more every moment, secrecy making it all the more important and vital. “Come stroll with me through Greek and Roman relics at our glorious Metropolitan Museum. Tuesday, at two. Tell me about spiritual disciplines I know little of.”

With that, she swept off, as she prided herself on never overstaying her welcome. Besides, she needed to be near an exit, should the symptoms of an episode become more clear. As the strains of a waltz filled the air, she saw Senator Bishop take the hand of the widow, renowned psychic, and personal friend of the family, Evelyn Northe. Clara felt her warm face cool into the masque of indifference she presented to the world whenever those two danced together. Evelyn was aunt, surrogate mother, and unwitting rival all at once. Clara cursed herself as shame and fury rose within her. The temperature around her plummeted, as if whatever spirits might be present were drawn to her inner embarrassment.

“It’s complicated and always has been,” she murmured to herself, desperate to understand the nuances of her own heart. Seeing the weight of the stare between Northe and Bishop, she was reminded that they had participated in hundreds of séances together over the course of the last two decades. She had been excluded due to her “condition.”

Thanks to her keen senses and the irrepressible memories of her past lives, usually Clara felt ancient, not twenty-seven. But when she looked at Rupert and Evelyn dancing, she felt very young and small.

And a bit dizzy.

Horror of horrors, everything spun and she lost control. She hadn’t been paying enough attention to her symptoms. The floor was hard when she hit it.

 

The elegant woman dancing with the Senator noticed before he did; her gaze whipped toward the other side of the room just in time to see Miss Templeton crash to the ground. With the slow, agonizing grace that horror can bring, almost as if it was a new step in their dance, she and Bishop broke apart and rushed toward the younger woman.

“Clara,” Bishop barked, catching her as her head lolled back. Evelyn Northe darted to the confection table, seized a spoon, and rushed to place it in the chattering mouth of the woman who, a moment ago, had been lithe and lovely.

What a woeful transformation, Louis thought from his position in the alcove; a body that could easily be prized for its nymph-like qualities suddenly compromised, shuddering and seizing. Louis’ heart lurched with a pity he was sure she’d despise.

His every instinct was to rush to Miss Templeton’s side, but the Senator’s threats froze him in the shadows, feeling suddenly guilty for having directly disobeyed orders on his first night in the city. Andre must have been rubbing off on him, even in absentia. Did twins become more alike through the passage of time? Heaven forbid….

The Senator gazed around the room in an accusatory fashion, as if looking to pin Miss Templeton’s collapse on an external factor. Louis doubted he’d find cause, as far as he knew, this was the kind of condition one merely had to endure.

But, perhaps there was more to it… Some kind of a spell? He’d seen religion-driven “fits” in his day. More, all the hairs on the back of his neck were on end and it was now drastically cold in the room, though the temperature had been perfectly pleasant moments before… He shifted further into the shadows and said a prayer of protection over the beautiful woman who had so captured his interest.

 

The Senator closed the carriage door and offered Clara the blank, patrician stare he gave to everyone he respected.

“Clara. You mustn’t be—”

“Mortified? How couldn’t I be?” She held his gaze for a moment before looking out the window at broad, fine Fifth Avenue in all its grand shadows and gas-lit glow. The carriage moved off, the Vanderbilt mansion quickly fading into vague pointed spires against a darker sky. Tears streamed unchecked down her sickly-pale face and ran into her bodice, splotching the light green fabric with dark pools of moisture. She pressed her warm forehead to the cool glass, letting her head swivel and vibrate along with the clip of hooves. “Just when I thought I could go out in society again… Is it my fault? Did I bring it upon myself?”

“It’s always been related to your gifts,” Bishop replied gently. “Did you sense anything before you went under?”

She’d been looking at him and Evelyn. Before that, the compelling Mister Dupris… None of which she should mention. “No…”

“I felt a chill. Someone may have brought uninvited ghosts along.”

“Perhaps. The Vanderbilts themselves have earned little good will among the dead.”

“Then I too ignored my instincts,” Bishop said ruefully. “I thought it just the living people who were ill at ease with the man. I’m sorry, Clara, I should have alerted—”

“It’s my responsibility, not yours,” Clara snapped. “I should have left.”

Society would be loathe to soon see her trotted out into it again. Perhaps that was for the best. Clara didn’t like being scrutinized or gossiped about, and she was sure this little paroxysm would be the talk of the town for some time to come. Dear God. Dupris. He would’ve seen it too; her quaking like a mad creature, helpless and pathetic. Her cheeks burned bright.

“While you were under, did you receive any messages?” Bishop asked.

When she’d first begun attending séances, she’d quiver when receiving a message. Due to her Quaker upbringing, this was at first considered a connection to God. But her physical reaction grew more violent through the years, while the spiritual information lost clarity.

Clara shook her head. “Not a thing. Darkness. Nothing useful,” she said. “A painful fit, if vision could be gained, is one thing. For nothing but mortifying embarrassment? It’s infuriating.”

Not to mention it was terrifying to be open and vulnerable to all manner of things. She prayed this did not herald more frequent paroxysms in the future.

She thought of the way Mister Dupris had looked at her from the shadows, the way his handsome face became more handsome when he smiled, the glint in his eye that showed she had affected him. Her heart lurched again.

Did she dare meet him as planned?

No. Her true nature had shown itself, warding all eligible bachelors off.

Far too many—even educated persons—thought people who seized as she did were not only defective physically, but spiritually and mentally; plagued not only in body, but by, God help her, the devil.

Maybe this latest “fit” was as much punishment as it was anything else. A lady wouldn’t arrange to meet a stranger in secret. She was growing tired of secrets; her whole life had been filled with them. The fabric of her reality was shackled. She and Bishop were tangled in bindings of good intentions on behalf of poor, grieving Mrs. Lincoln.

“I know I cannot take away how mortifying it was, Clara, but I hope you won’t take it too hard,” Bishop said, helping her out of the carriage and nodding to the driver before escorting her up the stoop to the townhouse.

Clara shrugged, inconsolable, imagining what people saw when they looked at her in that state; conjuring before her mind’s eye their expressions of disgust, pity, discomfort, and other unpleasant emotions.

 

They were night owls, the Senator and his ward. Their housekeeper railed at their wasteful natures, but orders were to keep all lamps trimmed, no matter the hour. That way they wouldn’t bump into things as they drifted like ghosts through their home. It was in this vein, torn between twin urges to hide and to seek company, that Clara, some hours later, decided to wander the house.

Clara often heard the Senator talking in his study, generally rehearsing a speech he’d soon give on the senate floor or perfecting a few talking points he’d offer on the election circuit. Now and then it seemed she heard him speaking with a ghost. Sometimes the conversation might be with none other than himself.

This night, she crept to the threshold of the study and peered past the door frame, spotting the Senator at the window. Bishop’s frock coat was off and had been tossed over the back of his desk chair, revealing his long black satin waistcoat, large black buttons cinching the back snugly against his tall, lean torso. The bright white of the moon practically glowed upon his tousled head of hair, which had gone wholly silver oddly early in his youth. His shirtsleeves were rolled up, his forearms tense as he pressed down upon the window ledge as if his hands were talons. Tonight, he was talking to the city.

“Sleep, New York”, he murmured. “My nets are all cast. Advice given. Poultices applied. Plots afoot. Courses corrected. Purposes set in their various motions. Who keeps watch, then, if I lay me down to sleep? Who keeps awake to see all your many, mighty troubles…?”

Clara found herself fighting the urge to raise her hand as if she were in class, ready for him to call upon her, suddenly wishing to make him very proud of her indeed after all the care he’d taken to help raise her. “I am awake, Rupert,” she murmured quietly, not knowing if he would hear her. “Rest. I shall watch over all you have wrought.”

His head tilted slightly, though he did not turn to face her. When he spoke, it was with great care, hitting consonants as if he were sifting through a great tome in his mind before spitting out carefully curated words.

“Why, so you are, Miss Clara. Awake. Awake. Good.” Still without looking at her, he moved to the narrow archway between two bookcases that led to his bedroom and disappeared.

Whenever the Senator felt the weight of the world upon his shoulders, his usual tender kindness would vanish, replaced by a cool distance. Accustomed to these shifts, Clara usually knew better than to take them personally, but after tonight’s episode, she assumed she was simply another burden to him. Perhaps it would be better for him if she moved out, set up her own household somewhere.

Perhaps Louis Dupris could be her way out. It was a rare man who caught her eye, after all…and hadn’t she felt she was on the cusp of something? The way Monsieur Dupris spoke about his work, she felt s if the very world was cracking open.

No. He’d seen her collapse and flail like a dying fish. No man would take on such a pariah. Women like her could be found in institutions all around the great city.

Clara had to hope differently, and pray for further unfolding of her life’s purpose.  While she doubted Monsieur Dupris would come for her, she had to put fate to the test.

Chapter Four

Louis arrived at the Eterna research building at his appointed time, easily strolling the few blocks west from his home. In his breast pocket, wrapped in soft cheesecloth, bulged the small dagger.

Near one of Manhattan’s westerly industrial areas, the building’s grand arched façade was cast-iron, pressed from a mold and tacked to a brick frame. The neighboring storefronts were similarly fancifully decorated. But where they were open for business, the ground floor of the building Louis sought to enter had been made to look abandoned, windows dark and shuttered.

After entering and locking the door behind him, Louis crossed the dim entrance hall, drawn to an open back room by the sound of men’s voices. There he found two other men, both wearing long, black, tunic-like vestments, concentrating intently on the contents of a glass flask that they slowly swirled before them.

“Hello, gentlemen,” Louis offered. “I’m here to join your coterie.”

“Bishop’s new recruit, eh? said one in a German accent. “Come, look at what Barney merged. These two solutions have never bonded like this before. Isn’t it beautiful?” he said rapturously.

Other than those remarks, the men ignored Louis entirely, so he turned his attention to the room itself. His fellow commission members were seated at a large table. That table and the stools around it were the room’s only furnishings, save for a few bookshelves which held random items that Louis had could not identify at first glance. Intrigued, he approached the shelves.

Barney called after him gruffly, “If you’re placing an item of import on the ‘in progress’ shelf, label it, please. Don’t touch our things, we won’t touch yours.” The man placed a lit match into a glass tube and sighed in contentment, watching it burn.

“Understood,” Louis replied, and set the wrapped dagger in an empty wooden box on a waist-level shelf. Noticing a stack of small cards and a pencil nearby and assuming these were for anyone’s use, he wrote, “Property of Louis Dupris in honour of the City of New Orleans,” on a card and placed it atop the box.

The shelf above held a number of large, beautiful leather-bound tomes, some bearing titles familiar to Louis. Seeing that they were otherwise unlabeled, he assumed anyone could examine them, so he took down a 17th century manuscript on the occult that he’d never had the pleasure of reading. One of the bay windows had a window-seat; he ensconsed himself there, where just enough light to read by came through the thick shutters, and lost himself in theory.

A few days passed in a similar manner; a mix of contemplation, sporadic chatter, deep silence, reading, writing, and transcendent reverie. Louis pored over reams of equations and notes, discussing them at length with Malachi Goldberg, who was somewhat of a wizard in botany, and Barnard “Barney” Smith, an American-born chemist. He learned that two other teammates were traveling on research.

It was a rare blessing, Louis mused, to be solely engaged in the employment of thought. He believed passionately that spirit and science were not at cross purposes but were two distinct dialects of the same language. Bridges were meant to be built, just like that gorgeous Brooklyn behemoth that was rising, stone by stone, to unite two great cities.

Absorbed by ideas so big they threatened to split his whirring mind in twain, Louis nearly lost track of the passage of time. He never was sure what made him suddenly realize it was Tuesday, but he shot up from his perch upon the shuttered window-seat, terrified that he was going to be late.

A good shave and freshly laundered clothing were in order, for he had a secret rendezvous alongside carved stone gods. Feeling full of life and possibility, he was confident those icons of ancient power would look upon him with fond favor. Whether the woman would deign to keep the appointment was anyone’s guess….

She was a woman of her word.

Louis found her among the Greek and Roman statuary in the city’s new Metropolitan Museum. She wore an elegant burgundy dress with black piping; cocked at a sporting angle upon her shining hair was a small black hat that supported a veil and feathers. A parasol with a sharp tip leaned against a pedestal. Miss Templeton seemed to be staring at one of the museum’s descriptive plates; Louis watched as she took a pencil from the beaded bag hanging from cords looped around her wrist, crossed out the description, and began writing new text below the old.

At the sound of Louis’ footfalls, she paused. Without turning around, she said;

“It’s wrong. I am doing my moral duty as a patron of the arts to correct it.”

“And how do you know it is incorrect, Mademoiselle?” Louis asked.

Miss Templeton turned around and was visibly surprised to see him in the instant before she smiled.

“A spirit of the Hellenic era told me so. The museum really should employ me. Spirits can’t bear to see their history mistaken and thankfully the ghosts treat me very gently while I correct it for them. Hello, Mister Dupris. I confess I did not expect you to come.”

“Why ever not?”

She stiffened and raised her head proudly. “I assume you saw what… happened at the soiree.”

“I did. Why should that dissuade me from a rendezvous with the most interesting woman I’ve met in a very long time? Mind you, I’m from New Orleans, where everyone is interesting.”

She smiled again, the angles of her face softening, and gestured for him to walk with her. The tip of her parasol clicked along the stone as they passed below faces and body parts that once stood whole and proud, now mere fragments of elder glories. The ruins made Louis melancholy. Much like that spirit correcting its relic via a talented, gifted woman, he wanted to make sure history would tell the story of his arts and interests without bias, the beautiful truths untainted.

“What makes you special, Mister Dupris? What do you bring to the Commission?” She put it to him gamesomely, but he could tell she truly wanted to know and expected him to be confident in his answer.

“My areas of interest lie in the spirit realms,” he replied. “As I mentioned, I want certain spiritual practices, currently upheld primarily in New Orleans, to not be exotic and misunderstood to outsiders, but to be made as legitimate as any branch of the sciences, arts, or humanities.”

“Lovely. My talents also lie in the spirit realms, though at times I pay quite a cost.”

“I make up for raw talent by respect and adoration of tradition. These past few days with the commission theorists have been wondrous,” Louis said excitedly. “You’d surely adore our conversations, Miss Templeton, and I’m sure you could add to them—”

She turned away and Louis feared he’d somehow said something wrong. He knew theirs was a man’s sphere…but she was obviously capable…

“I am not allowed,” she said.

“Why is the Senator so protective of you?” he asked quietly.

Her pale cheek flushed with red shame. “He is protective of situations that might trigger my… incidents.”

“Ah. I’m sorry,” Louis offered gently. “I didn’t understand what you meant by ‘cost’.”

“We don’t, entirely, either,” she said mordantly. “The seizures aren’t regular, nor are they easy to predict. It seems that various psychic or paranormal phenomena can trigger them. As much as I have an aptitude for a séance, attending and or conducting one is quite a hazard for me. A single ghost, I can take. If I open myself up for anything and everything that might want to communicate, it’s a grave danger.”

“That must be so difficult, to have your health and your talent at such cross purposes,” Louis said earnestly. “That doesn’t seem fair.”

She looked up at him, her golden eyes warm. “Thank you for understanding. It is a rare person who does.”

Another turn. Another promenade through broken limbs.

In that soft silence of footfalls upon marble, it wasn’t that Louis felt awkward or at a loss, he simply didn’t want these moments to end. There was a gravity between them, a magnetism that threatened to drag him off a ledge.

“May we make a habit of this, Miss Templeton?” Louis dared ask, biting back his own nerves to do so. “Of a stroll through a forest of bodily stone?”

“I have been instructed never to make a habit of anything, Mister Dupris, save for virtuous discipline and hard work,” she replied coolly. “Those in my office and those in yours would be wise never to engage in a predictable routine.”

“I would like to see you again. Must I leave it to chance?” he pressed. He couldn’t let her go. She was the spark to a certain fire. “Or may I construct a science in order to better my odds at a favorable outcome?”

While this beautiful woman didn’t look at him, he thought he could see her smile.

“I believe in chance as much as I do science, Mister Dupris,” she said, artfully coy. “We’ll have to see which wins.”

She looked up at him with a sparkling, mischievous grin, then turned quickly and walked through a shadowed archway. When he followed, he found himself in an unfamiliar hall and quite alone. Miss Templeton was nowhere to be seen.

There were several doors ahead of him, all closed, which he assumed led into various areas of the museum. He chose one at random, but found no sign of Miss Templeton beyond it. Louis wandered farther through the halls, eventually finding a stair that let him out a side door, into the glory that was Central Park. But the living goddess who had strolled with him amidst stone idols was gone.

Compelling work, plus a lovely face and a keen mind to quicken his heart, Louis thought, as he took to the busy streets for a seemingly endless walk downtown, his mind’s eye focused on her golden gaze. Could a man ask for anything more? Purpose and desire. The scales of an exciting life in perfect balance.

If fate was to eventually punish him, he would enjoy the treasures placed in his path while he could.

 

 

Louis and Clara found ways to meet, purposefully lost in a bustling city easy to hide in. Their burgeoning passion seemed to escape Bishop’s notice, despite the Senator’s perceptive nature. Perhaps this was no accident—he had, after all, taught Clara well, making her expert at hiding her thoughts and emotions when she wanted or had reason to. Or, if he did suspect something, he chose not to confront her.

Sometimes when the lovers could not contain themselves, they made their way to Louis’ basement apartment, where they indulged—intelligently and carefully—in forms of pleasure that would not get Clara into any sort of trouble. Marriage, even if desired, would have been impossible. Questioning and curious as always, they explored many types of pleasure and sensation.

Beautiful Green-Wood Cemetery, where Clara’s parents had been laid to rest in a modest mausoleum, was a favourite haunt for the pair. Once, a unexpected confluence of spiritual forces around a recent interment brought Clara’s nightmare to the fore and she was taken by a seizure.

Louis dealt with her admirably, duplicating what he’d seen Bishop do: he calmed her, soothed her, made sure she did not bite her tongue, choke, or hurt herself. Once she recovered, he acted as though nothing had happened and continued their walk and conversation, though with slightly less focus on the spiritual and spectral. She was grateful for his tact. He did not make her feel like an invalid or a mistake of nature and so her greatest fear was allayed, as all other men who had orbited her sphere seemed to pause at this “defect.”

Louis was more forthcoming about the fact that the Eterna theorists seemed to have stalled with Clara than he was with Bishop or any colleague. With Clara, he could be honest and share his frustration that they were all wasting their time, that they could not develop immortality any more than they could wrestle spiritual matters into the constraints of scientific methods.

Chapter Five

There came a knock at what would be the front door of the Eterna research offices if they used that and not a side entrance so as to attract less notice. All the Eterna researchers whirled toward the sound at once. No one should know where to find them, save for Senator Bishop, who hadn’t been to check on them in some time—and if Louis recalled correctly, he was out of town, campaigning.

Malachi Goldberg scurried to the door and opened a panel in the shutter. With an indeterminate noise of irritation, he slammed the panel back against the pane, slid closed the pocket doors that separated the front rooms from the dark, narrow, entrance foyer and scurried to Louis’ table with wide eyes.

“Mister Dupris, there is a man outside the door who looks exactly like you,” Malachi said warily before he quickly, nervously returned to whatever leaves he was turning into a stew at his work station.

Louis hid his surprise, guessing who it must be, as he strode towards the hefty front door and opened it to reveal none other than his twin brother, Andre, looking rather sheepish on the front stoop.

“What on earth…” Louis murmured, ushering him quickly in and glancing out to see if anyone else noticed his arrival. New York was the perfect city for minding one’s own business.

“Hello, brother,” Andre replied, stepping into the building and standing stock still in the shadow of the closed front door.

While the two men looked identical—close shorn brown hair, olive skin, bright hazel eyes that had been the ruination of many involved with Andre—their style and manner were vastly different. Louis was dressed in work clothes—shirtsleeves, suspenders and black pants—but his usual attire wasn’t much more elaborate save for the necessary layers of waistcoat, frock coat, and top-hat, generally in black or deepest blue. Andre fully embraced the colorful character of New Orleans and seemed presently to be playing at his French surname, as his finely tailored ensemble in beige wool with some flocking in blue was offset with a rather loud, silken ascot bearing golden fleur de lis.

“How did you know where to find me?” Louis hissed. He did not invite his brother further inside, instead blocking him at the mouth of the hall.

Andre smirked. “A very angry woman, missing a very precious little blade, had a very clear vision of you. She is an all-seeing eye, brother. You’re such a nice boy, why did you have to infuriate an acolyte of Queen Laveau? Glad it’s not me she cursed.”

“You bring plenty of curses on yourself,” Louis grumbled.

“She said if I returned the dagger, she’d forgive all,” Andre said eagerly.

Louis rolled his eyes. “But you don’t believe in her ways.”

Andre made a face. “At this point, I’ll try anything.”

“I’m not returning the dagger,” Louis growled. “I tried to explain it to her. I’m trying to elevate the discourse, allow for greater tolerance and cross-cultural understanding—”

Andre waved his hand as if bored. “If you’re not returning the dagger, then you’ll have to house me.”

“What? I can’t,” Louis cried. “I’m in hiding.”

“That makes two of us. Brilliant.” Andre leaned against the wall, resting an elbow on the ledge of the wooden paneling of the hall. “Tell whoever is hiding you whatever you need to in order to keep you, and me, safe. As long as none of them are British.”

“Why,” Louis asked warily. “Who in London did you offend?”

Andre looked sheepish again. “England.”

Louis set his jaw. “The whole of England.”

Andre smiled. “In a way, yes.”

“It is a wonder you’re not dead.” Louis sighed and ushered Andre down the carpeted hall toward the research space at the rear. “Whatever we decide to do with you, you know nothing about any of what we do here. You’ll not offer your opinion, what I say is law, and you’ll not be ruining my life.”

Andre shrugged. “Do what you will, brother.”

Louis reluctantly introduced him to his fellows, who just as reluctantly greeted him, but no one objected to Andre taking a room for himself in the empty upstairs.

“Thank you gentlemen,” he said humbly. “I’ll stay out of your way. I’ve no interest in your magical oddities,” he continued, gesturing around at the contents of the lab. “I’m just asking for a home. I can’t return to my darling New Orleans, much as I’d like to. So finding a home has become all the magic I need.”

Louis’ eyes lit up suddenly. “Home… magic… Andre, take off your shoes.”

“What?”

“Do it.”

He did. Louis took a scalpel and scraped dirt out from between the creases of his boot, cupping the silt in his hand. Next he yanked an errant thread from Andre’s jacket cuff, then a hair from his head, causing a yelp.

Louis rushed over to a table where a glass tube awaited, with one of his compounds-in-progress inside. The vial contained several items of his own person: hair, skin, threads from a favorite item of clothing. He sprinkled in the new ingredients: a bit of earth from their native land, a bit of his twin’s base matter.

“Localized magic isn’t theoretical, it’s literal,” Louis said excitedly. “You can never go home again but home might be brought to you, and when it is… it can be welcomed as transformative.” He gestured at the vial. A soft glow illuminated the seemingly lifeless vial of liquid and detritus. “Reaction.”

Malachi and Barney clapped,, then began furiously writing notes and studying the properties of the changed material.

“I wish I understood you, brother,” Andre said earnestly. To Louis’ mind, Andre had never wanted nor tried to understand him; perhaps that would change now due to Andre’s forced circumstances, necessity being in this case the mother of fraternity. Louis knew he had to be careful not to expect too much of a brother who had so often proved not even a friend, let alone brethren.

“I don’t expect you to understand what I aim to do,” Louis replied carefully. “But you must respect it.”

“I’ll do anything you say, provided I can stay within your sphere, safely.”

“Of course, brother. It is as it has always been,” Louis said patiently, and Andre turned away.

But the air around them was changing. Louis could feel it. Magic was pressing in. Closer and closer. For better and worse. He needed to make further progress before it darkened beyond a comfortable shade and turned dangerous. Perhaps deadly.

Chapter Six

Louis spent nearly every waking hour of the next many months in the Fifth Avenue laboratory. Andre would hide and sleep there during the day, before lurking about the city at night. Louis felt he’d given safe haven to some kind of vampire, but it was better than leaving his brother for dead. If Louis lived under a curse because his priestess didn’t understand how he wished to elevate his ancestry, he’d do right by what family he had left.

Andre managed to keep well out of the way in an upstairs corner that the researchers didn’t need, and while he didn’t ask many questions or make his presence much known, he kept them all in fresh supply of tea, coffee, and alcohol from stores Louis didn’t dare ask the source of.

Their relationship remained guarded as it always had been, with little in common other than an identical face. But they were friendly enough, a vast improvement on their past antagonism, and that, for Louis, felt like he was honoring their mother.

The team continued to make small discoveries that built on what Louis had realized by adding Andre’s base material to his own. Tethers to the tactile realities of one’s world, along with spiritual and talismanic import, imbued with meaning in the right quantities, seemed to have an effect worth continued exploration.

The researcher Feizer remained on leave for far longer than expected and the team heard nothing from him. They feared something terrible had happened. Louis wanted to talk to Bishop about it, but since Andre’s arrival and the burgeoning of his forbidden relationship with Clara, he felt avoiding the Senator entirely was best. In any case, he had little opportunity to worry about the missing mentalist. His work with Barney was at too critical a juncture.

But Malachi… Malachi was a growing concern.

There had been a change in the nervous, fastidious man. Even Andre, who was oblivious to the moods of others—or if not oblivious, frankly didn’t care—noticed the shift from nervous to darkly paranoid. After months of increasing unease, Malachi insisted that the team move their laboratory from the Fifth Avenue townhouse into his own home on West 10th Street. This, the man claimed, was neutral territory and well-guarded, where no government could find them.

Louis bid Andre keep even clearer of Malachi than before, so Andre stayed on in the old laboratory, with instructions to let them know if any government operatives put in an appearance.

What had begun as endless possibility in terms of what Eterna could bring them all had begun to turn a bit sour. Barney was increasingly setting things on fire. Louis’ localized vials were having less and less effect, especially in Malachi’s home, which, while it had been cleared of belongings and character, felt, to Louis, soulless and cold. Like something was wrong with the building itself.

Louis bid Andre begin hiding some of Louis and Barney’s work in various locations lest Malachi, who had taken to wrecking things in the laboratory if his experiments didn’t yield a specific result, destroy their work too.

The only consistent light and joy in Louis life came from Clara.

 

Clara began to consider her stolen moments with Louis the cherished prize of her days even as she continued gathering paranormal material.

He often waxed rhapsodic as he held her in a jumble of their disheveled clothes, and his musings began to shape his further understanding of personal, specific, local magic, of safeties and Wards, of the sacred made tactile between two hearts in a given space.

“Humans and ghosts are tied to things and places of meaning. Therein lies huge, untapped power,” Louis said, kissing Clara’s collarbone around the open lace of her blouse while her body responded with heated shudders. He had unbuttoned her while discussing metaphysical balance. “It is thrilling. So much is waking up. So much is possible…”

“Alongside unseen dangers in the shadows,” Clara added. “Sometimes I receive dark premonitions, Louis, in dreams and on the vague whispers of ghosts before I have to shut them out lest they cause me a fit. Promise me that you’ll continue to take care.”

“I will. Wherever there is progress, all kinds of unseen and unknowable things notice. Like spectral predators sensing blood, various energies and forces might be on the prowl. You must take exquisite care yourself, Clara, in turn. While you appear too brave to be daunted by danger, you must not be blind to it.”

“I’m not. I protect myself.” She smiled. “I’ve been taught by the best. Rupert has given me many tools.” Her gaze flickered to his as she swiftly added, ““And thanks to your instruction in shielding, too… I’m stronger than ever.”

“Danger loves to take advantage of pride,” Louis cautioned. “I’ll not be responsible for another of your fits. I cannot bear to see you suffer one wince of pain or vulnerability.”

Clara smiled and suddenly blurted; “I… love you.”

Louis gave her a look that was pained, a look that made him seem a stranger. She knew his dreams and his thrills, she didn’t truly know his heart…

“You say that you love me,” he replied gently. “And yet I wonder if I’m merely exotic and exciting to you, and you mistake that for love—”

“No, truly not,” Clara said, indignant. “I respect all that you are. Your lineage and your spiritual mission—”

Louis continued. “Secondly, I wonder if this sudden declaration of love is, in fact, simply rebellion against the Senator. I think about him often. I avoid him, because of you, but I wonder… there is such fondness there. Him, of you, and you, of him. It’s a rare conversation with either of you where the other is not mentioned.”‎

Clara stared at Louis, wide-eyed. She knew she should say something but she was so surprised by his statement that she was speechless. Louis had posed a question she wasn’t sure she could answer. Her emotions regarding Rupert were a complex knot with no beginning nor end.

If Louis was upset by her stunned silence, he didn’t show it; his face was as elegant and gentle as always. He continued, a man ever on mission.

“I have to leave soon, Clara. I have to get back to the lab. We are at a precipice. I’ve a compound in the vials that might be a new breakthrough.”

“In city sovereignty?” Clara asked eagerly, having long supported his ideas and postulates on localized magic.

“Indeed, but I have to keep it out of the hands of Malachi. He just doesn’t seem to take to any thing or any idea anymore. In the beginning, he was so vivacious; these days, utterly skittish. He simply is not himself. Did I mention we moved the laboratory into his home? He cleared everything out of the place. It’s eerie, really, to have an empty parlor as a laboratory.”

“Was not your last building a former home? I know the commission tried to make sure your spaces fit into neighborhoods, that no one would suspect there were laboratories in their midst.”

“I suppose,” Louis nodded. “But this building hardly feels right. Whatever feeling of home it once held for Malachi, now it’s cold and lifeless, while we’re supposed to be dealing in extending life.”

“Is he still paranoid? How long has this change been upon him?” Clara asked with grave concern.

“It’s been a month now. We agreed to shift into his home as a temporary solution. To shut him up, basically.”

“Please take care of yourself,” Clara said, caressing Louis’ smooth cheek. “As you always tell me, shield your heart and soul, my dear.”

“I shall. And I’ll see you very soon. Take care and keep heart, ma Cherie. Each day, ever closer to new ideas and truths, is as precious as you.”

Her dazzling smile was an image he’d put into a locket if he had one.

With a soft parting kiss, he was off, remembering to button his shirtsleeves as he strode along on that cloudy day, pausing at one point to straighten his cravat and attend to other tell-tale signs of a man vigorously alive in the throes of love.

 

Perhaps Louis should have turned about and exited the makeshift laboratory that fateful day the moment he entered it. He could taste a change in the air—a sourness, a touch of something sulfuric, but dismissed it as residue from one of his colleagues’ experiments.

Indeed, when Barney handed over the note from fellow researcher Feizer, Louis should have taken his dear friend by the arm and quietly left the place, never to return to it, or their work, again.

Malachi’s mental descent seemed to have worsened since the previous day. The man sat in a shadowed corner of the room, staring blankly at a book. Even at this distance, Louis could tell that the volume appeared to be written in Hebrew…and that Malachi was holding it upside down.

As Barney came up to him, Louis thought had never seen the man look so fearful. His generally gamesome, fair face was grey and pallid, his hands trembling as he offered Louis a folded sheet of paper.

“This was left for me at the college,” Barney said. He had left his post at Columbia after the death of his daughter. The base principles of what Eterna had been founded on was too great a lure for him to ignore.

“My Dear Gentlemen,

“I have been advised not to return to the Eterna Commission. Study and practice in France has quite engaged me. Portents and divinations that directly defy the sciences to which I have devoted myself have made themselves known to me and I have made a promise to my superstitious loved ones that I will heed the warnings and omens cast my way. Every best luck to you and may God be with you.”

Feizer had signed it in shaking script.

“What do you make of that?” Barney asked. Louis didn’t know what to say or do, so after a moment’s hesitation, he shrugged.

In a rare moment of helpless anger, Barney crumpled the note and tossed it into the fireplace, where the embers from one of his ongoing, low-burning experiments ignited the unsatisfactory and unnerving resignation. Malachi did not look up or react in any way to the conversation or the snap of the flames.

In awkward silence, Louis and Barney turned to the worktable they shared.There, sets of small glass tubes were filled with items that had been sent to them from around the country, tidbits of import from various locales specific to American history. Louis had created the lists, requesting soil, air, and water samples and items of local pride or note. It was time to see if, when put to fire, the resulting compound had the qualities of patriotism and pride that might extend the life of a vital politician entrusted with the nation’s care, per Eterna’s directive.

Each vial was marked with a different city; New Orleans, New York, Salem, Washington D.C., and more. All were locations filled with rich, powerful spirits, places that could rightly be called alive. Barney readied a box of matches and pulled cork stoppers from each of the tubes.

Malachi was murmuring in the corner, behind his upside down book. Was he rocking slightly? Louis feared the man had finally lost his last marble.

“Goldberg,” Barney barked at him, “do try to hold it together. I don’t want to have to tell the government you so fear – which, might I remind you, we happen to work for – about your condition.”

The unkempt man stared at them with wide, dark, glassy eyes. In a detached tone, as Barney dropped lit matches one by one into the vials, Malachi said;

“No need, gentlemen. No need for anything anymore. This is the beginning of the end, anyway. Let it come.”

Louis shuddered at these words, said in a voice that wasn’t entirely Malachi’s. The shadows of the dim room seemed to move, as if in response, and acrid tendrils of smoke began to rise from each tube. His lungs constricted and he gasped for breath.

The choking sound of Barney’s cough nearly drowned out his own. The room was filling with smoke and shadow, and all of it seemed intent on the researchers’ throats. The whole space seemed alive with threat, as if it desired to to snuff out the idea of life and liberty that the men’s experiments represented. More haze than should have been possible, given the tiny amount of flammable material in the glass tubes, grew thick.

Louis turned away from the worktable with a shuddering step and saw Malachi, convulsing—and yet managing to reach for a wide black rectangle seemed to have suddenly been cut into the paneling. The gaping maw of vacuous darkness felt like a hole in reality itself. Instinctively, Louis reached for the precious talisman that he had so long worn against his neck, remembering when his fingers closed on nothing that he had given his mother’s gift to Clara, to protect her. Remembering how he’d last seen it, nestled between his lover’s breasts—the thought of her revived him for a moment.

He stumbled away from Malachi’s darkened parlor-made-laboratory, struggling toward the front door, which was swinging open, offering a bright escape from the horrific reaction their experiment was evoking.

When his dazzled, clouded vision cleared for a moment, he found himself looking into the horrified eyes of his brother. Andre began backing away even as Louis felt his knees give out from under him. The floor was cold and unforgiving. Louis extended a desperate hand that was not met with help. And all the rest was silence.

At least, for an interminable moment of black, suspended darkness, there was silence. Louis felt, saw, heard, nothing save for a faint sensation of being. When entirely deprived of sensory input, it is hard to have any proof of being, yet for that moment, Louis was entirely aware that he was. That he existed.

This insistence upon existence became tantamount to the sun breaking over the horizon. A glimmer of light formed in tiny, piercing beams, as profound as that most quoted line of scripture; and then there was light.

Louis found himself in a long, dim corridor. It became clear that he stood at the crossroads between two possibilities: light, ahead, and life, behind.

At one end of the corridor, the brightening star of the first light of all creation.

At the other, familiarity. Earth. Murmuring voices and busy, flickering images. He saw countless events at once, unfolding before him as a moving quilt, images of people he loved and cared for.

In this transitory state, he was now an observer in a way he had not been before. He was struck by the fact that he could see many points of his dear ones’ lives at once. The certainty that he could see and understand things his former self could not was an enervating surge through what Louis did not feel as a body but as a set of phantom limbs and traces of flesh’s limitations.

The images now appeared as if seen through windows; the squares were flanked by dark silhouettes, each leaning towards the frames with clearly malicious intent, much like the vague forms that had rustled beyond the smoke in Louis’s now-vanished laboratory.

Life itself was laid out before him, frame by frame He saw his mother, father, Andre, Clara, friends from New Orleans, beautiful glimpses of the New York he had come to care for, Barney, even Malachi. The windows had become more formally framed, surrounded by carved wood; each frame bore a label identifying the occupant. Louis was present with a panoply of those who were Most Important to or of greatest influence on him, all labeled and categorized much like the vials of localized magic that he and Barney had been using in their experiments.

They had been on to something, Barney and he. And something, it seemed, had been onto them.

The moving shadows closing in on those bright vibrant moments; it became crystal clear to Louis that he had to stand in their way. He had to warn those he loved who lived and breathed, had to somehow protect those who were gone but whose lives unfurled before him as if they still walked the planet’s surface. The corridor did not discriminate between the living or the dead, all were precious.

Perhaps that’s what this was all about, really; shielding against the encroaching darkness those shadows represented.

Grasping his new purpose firmly, Louis felt a surge of energy, like one of Barney’s struck matches flaring from its phosphorous into flame. He blinked back into the world, accompanied by a small tearing sound. He gained no sense of ground, nor feet to stand on, but became aware of familiar sights and sounds, of the motion of air, and of an unnerving weightlessness.

Louis floated in the middle of West 10th Street, a bit off the ground, and watched his brother run down the street of this fine, genteel neighborhood. Acrid tendrils of smoke wafted from below the front door of the building where Louis’s body lay in whatever state it had fallen. He did not seek to investigate further. Ashes to ashes.

There was no time for grief. The choice to remain had been clear. If nothing else, for the sake of science.

Bondye,” he murmured to heaven, “Help me be the spirit you wish me to be. Show me this grey path and let thy will be done.”

It was noble, this choice to remain in shade, Louis thought, in that echoing space of musing where more solid thoughts had once sung their songs of science and faith. If this fate was a curse due to the choices he’d made during his corporeal life, then he bid the Mystères, as fellow spirit guides, provide a map for his new journey.

In seeking proof of spirit, Eterna had actualized him into what he had wished, a truth now layered with the drive to solve what had become of him and why. He could do more good from here, he assured himself, and floated out into the busy New York day to haunt up answers to life’s unending questions, queries that did not stop with the cessation of heart and breath.

The secret to eternal life was as simple as the quest for knowledge. With that, was there anything to fear? With that, was there anything to stop him? He set off after his fleeing, misguided twin, a heart that tethered him, for there were lives yet to live and souls to shield from shadow.

Copyright © 2016 by Leanna Renee Hieber

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