Seeking a cure for cancer, a scholar hunts the archane.
In an era of space flight, atom splicing, and now the nascent science of genetic tinkering, one would assume that such a prosaic complication as cancer would pose no challenge to the modern medical arsenal. Yet for me nothing can be done. The cancerous growth, which had begun as a mere cyst in my throat, has become a bold battalion laying siege upon my defenseless body.
They say I have three months to live. Well, nothing motivates like the inexorable march of eternal rest. Fortunately, however, my prospects include avenues unknown to the day lit world of convention. There are sources of knowledge that lay too great a demand on the community’s ability to suspend disbelief. And these arcane texts dating back to antiquity which I have recently come across can only be seen by these acolytes of all things modern as quaint superstitions of a far more primitive society.
My pursuit of knowledge has led me down a different path. In the course of my procession towards my doctorate in the history of Byzantium, cum Constantinople, cum Istanbul, I have learned of arcane texts that hint at the existence of powerful forces which may be unleashed with the proper incantation and forced into obedience through the proper words.
When I first came across this scroll with its incantations and descriptions of horrid and powerful things, the fires of hope swelled within for the first time since the diagnosis. How brutal hard it is to hear from your doctor— your sole protector from the gates of death— declaim in that flat voice which seals your fate far faster than the words he utters, that the cancer is inoperable and extolling that I should do what I’ve always wanted to… except to go on living.
In a desperate attempt to hold fast to denial and hope— which we all so often wrap about our eyes the better not to see the looming reaper, scythe in hand, laughing the cruel and satisfied chortle of the executioner looking down upon the condemned— I poured myself into my research.
The texts unearthed in Istanbul, but dating back before Constantine claimed the ancient city of Byzantium, refer to dark places well beneath the city’s lowest catacombs. There, according to these scrolls— cloth browned with age and partly rotted away— was the resting place of what was ominously called the Bringer of Blight. Referred to also as a daemon of great power. I knew enough of the lore of Byzantium to understand a daemon to be a dark and powerful spirit that derives singular pleasure from creating terror and causing death.
I was apprehended by a cold paralysis, my tongue numbed, my hands shaking. The thought came unbidden to my stunned mind that if I were to have any chance to survive I must resolve to follow this path to wither it would go. Bereft of the security of the ivory tower wherein these dark words have no power but can be bandied about in comfort and safety, the weakness of a character that had never been tested closed my consciousness down completely, protecting me for the moment against this terrible choice before me.
A deep labyrinthine catacomb beneath the cisterns of Byzantium had recently yielded up its secrets to a persistent archeologist with whom I had a warm professional relationship. It was his speculation on the lost arcane that had first ignited my hope. Upon gaining access to the depths wherein these treasures were hid, my friend welcomed me onto the research team, knowing as he did of my secret need.
Over a bottle of scotch a bargain was struck. Well did we understand both the opportunity and peril involved in awakening this evil. As was explained to me, a force such as this has no natural corporeal body, but rather takes upon itself whatever form it deems most likely to instill the greatest fear. It was more of a force than a being, in that it is wholly driven by either malice or compulsion. It is a thing of intelligence but in the manner of an addict. It brings its resources to bear wholly and solely upon its need. Our quarry had only two objectives: the exercise of its will or the escape from another’s. It is the purpose of the words to ensnare the creature and barter its freedom for a boon. Done properly one may re-seal the prison in which it has been bound these past millennia.
The bargain we struck was thus— that we should encounter this evil together, reciting the incantation as one and demand the same treasure in one voice. Our demand, very simply, would be life and health eternal.
Days we spent in the lowest depths of mans' earliest reaches into the earth, hunting by flashlight for the entombed daemon. Day and night gradually lost meaning as we followed the path ever downward. Our preparations had included a supply of provisions enough to last us a fortnight and so we had days before we would need to consider resurfacing. Our scientific perspectives protected up at first from the smothering darkness, the architecture that was at once crude in design and macabre in the depictions of the earliest imaginings of the realm of death.
Our modern relationship with death can in no way prepare for the understanding these ancient peoples had of the everlasting dark. The passageways through which we traversed were embossed with hideous and otherworldly depictions of what I can only assume were their mythological understanding of an afterlife. There’s must have been frightful lives, lived in fear of night stalking predators and the constant reality of violent death. The humans were invariably depicted in varied states of torment, some rent asunder, others devoured by winged beasts. There was no cohesive patterning to the etchings, but rather a mosaic of haunting images. Demons and spirits preying upon mortal men and women, and these creatures were not wholly original, but shared characteristics with creatures of the night found in other cultures, here the winged valkyrie of the Norsemen, there dragons of Chinese myth, but most common were what I would at first call a Christian devil, a mans’ eviscerated form framed by arching membranous wings like those of a bat, skeletal faces and rending claws. The one consistency in all of the images was the terrified powerlessness of the mortal victims.
Days, if an unending blanket of silent darkness can warrant the term, passed without reprieve. The void around us held at bay by the weakness of our spelunking lights gradually had its affect upon our minds. My dreams took on an aspect I can only describe as the sense of being prey to an unseen predator. My colleague and I gradually stopped communicating, so overcome were we with this lost hell we were set on desecrating. We continued in this manner for five days, winding down stairwells crossing long passages, always with a sense of circling in on some unknown objective.
It was on this fifth day, midway through our supplies, that we came finally to a circular room, one I would have termed a cavern had not the arched ceiling been so geometrically spherical. The space within the room was dominated by a great empty chasm circled about by a narrow ledge or walkway. Our lights couldn’t penetrate the gloom of the pit, yet there was clearly a hewn stairwell descending circuitously down into the depths. Another feature unique to this place was the multitude of sculpted fiends evenly dispersed along the rooms’ perimeter. Each one unique, but all otherworldly, beasts that stood like men, but with hideous visages in place of faces. Leering eyes and malevolent sneers, some with those same bat-like wings, others more strange, vaguely resembling arachnids and other insect forms, all easily twice the stature of a man.
Without need of discussion we understood ourselves to have arrived at out objective. Down within that pit lay ensnared the power that had inspired all that we had seen. I admit, had my life not been in immediate peril from this disease I would have turned and retraced my steps back through these catacombs to the clean air and life giving light of the sun. So it was with small surprise that I turned and watched my colleague flee this place.
Without his reassuring presence and now utterly alone I was gripped by such terrible fear that I was forced to seek out some crevice where I might sit alone and recover some of the fortitude which had gotten me thus far. I forced myself to weigh this terror against the certainty of my impending mortality. Hours I sat motionless, breathing, attempting to consider my choice. I knew that in the end I must descend into that darkness and confront this beast below. What man can choose death over the slightest chance for survival? It was in this moment that my will to live drove me up off my knees and demanded that I choose risk over despair. Had I been less consumed by this primal force I might have counted this amongst my most noble moments. As it was, I could do no more than clutch this ancient scroll to my chest and seek that first step down into the pit.
The descent was surprisingly steep and seemed to go on for an impossibly long time. I was constantly in peril of stepping too far towards the center and plummeting to what lay below. At last though, I reached a floor, only some ten or fifteen feet across. Directly in the center was a slab of stone, circular with unrecognizable runes and symbols adorning it. This then must be wherein the daemon lay imprisoned.
I unraveled the scroll and reviewed it once more. I was struck not for the first time by an oddity I had not previously given thought to. The scroll was in two parts, the first, and far older, described the daemon and it’s state of captivity as well as the words which had been used to contain it which, I was given to understand, could release the daemon if said in reverse order. The second and far younger component of the text described the words I was to use in order to control the creature.
Not knowing if any significance could be read into this discrepancy, I steeled myself to my purpose and in a strong voice began to recite in reverse order the incantation detailed in the first part of the scroll. How long I struggled to frame these foreign sounds was lost to me, nor could I say with confidence that the sounds I uttered bore any resemblance to those intended by this strange script. Had the results not been so immediate and unequivocal, I might almost have laughed at the sheer idiocy of standing in a cave deserted for eons, trying to sputter what sounded to me like a child’s first comic efforts at language. Yet I had barely completed my recital when a coldness swept around me. It did not push like wind, but simply touched my skin as though a deep sense had registered imminent danger. I could see nothing, yet I felt an overwhelming sense of being watched, being vulnerable and weak. A quick shift of my light to the right and then to the left exposed nothing and I resolved to assume that the first part of my purpose was complete; that with me in this dark hole was a ghastly force of evil. Feeling pressed for time, as prey does when the hunter is ready, I unfolded more of the scroll and began the second section, the part intended to bind this evil. I stumbled over the sounds, making a greater wreck of the language than I had before, but I had only begun when from behind me a voice spoke.
Hearing my own name spoken just behind me was more than my nerves were prepared to resist and I turned with a scream, dropping the scroll to the floor. My flashlight, being affixed to my hard hat, aimed directly at the place from which the voice had come, and what I saw before me was terrible enough that I instantly recalled what I had learned of how this creature chose its form. Before me, looking towards me with half rotten, unfocused eyes, was my own doppelganger; in my clothes, wearing my face and hair, but ruined as though I had been dead already for several weeks. The skin loose and in places already fallen away, and my mouth-, for even in this moment I must own this creature as myself- forming an expression that was both a malicious leer, and the accidental grin of the uncovered bone. I cried out again for this indeed was my greatest fear, the fear that had driven me to this place only to meet it in a way that was more horrendous and cruel than my darkest dreams.
And then the laughter began, and I could stand no more. I tore my attention from this apparition and groped upon the earth for the scroll. Bringing it up I began to recite the words of this second, newer addition, rattling the words out in desperation. I spoke them until the gnarled skin of my own dead hand wrapped about my throat and I could speak no more.