Human connections - Editor
A Man of the Past
by George M. Farris
Antan held an alchemical lamp in a trembling, outstretched hand, staring into the darkness of the archives. He walked lightly, shelves housing thousands of books towering above him on either side, as though he were afraid of waking someone. But it was past midnight and Antan was all alone in the archives, all alone to index and catalog as was afforded to him in his position as an apprentice monk.
At least he thought he was all alone.
“No, no,” the monk muttered to himself, his robe brushing at his ankles with each cautious step. “It must have been nothing. Must have been a mouse. Maybe a breeze from somewhere.” The archives were housed in a sprawling building that rivaled the Thorn Palace. So it was not so unlikely that a gust of wind issued forth from some forgotten corner, window, or passage, or at least he liked to believe as much. But he knew every square inch of the Vandorian Historical Archives where he labored and no such nook or cranny existed.
Attributing the phantom feeling to a potent combination of the late hour and imagination, Antan returned to the small desk where he indexed and cataloged new additions to the archives. In addition to his duties indexing and cataloging, he had endeavored, as did all of the other monks, to cross-reference every single work in the archives. It was a monumental task. It would take a lifetime, a hundred lifetimes. And it would still never be finished.
Antan returned the lamp to the desk, and he took a deep breath to calm himself. Though still jittery he resumed his duties, and before long he became so absorbed in his work that the thought of some unseen thing skirting by faded away. Still he could not shake the cold feeling that crept up his spine from time to time until dawn came.
In the past couple of weeks, candles were extinguished as if by breath, loud crashes led to thousand year old tomes lying upon the floor, glimpses and glances hinted at specters, and the faint awareness of an unseen other was ever present. Now, somewhere in the darkness of the archives, far back in the ancient stacks containing volumes on folklore, magicks, and songs from the glory days of Vandoria the sound of turning pages could be heard. The world around Antan muffled, the storm becoming little more than a dull murmur. Only the sound of his beating heart and the crisp rustle of old pages existed for him.
As he rounded a corner deep in the archives, his breath caught in his throat and the lamp nearly fell from his hand. Sitting on one of the many benches scattered throughout the archives was a ghostly apparition, a man washed in a hazy, transparent blue. The apparition appeared lost in thought, not doing as much as sparing a cross look at Antan. The monk stood motionless and finally the apparition, taking notice of Antan for the first time, jerked his head up from the thick volume upon his lap, setting his wide eyes upon him as though he had been startled as much as the monk.
“I - ” Antan wheezed dumbly, his throat dry and stomach somersaulting under the gaze of the specter. He wanted to turn and flee. He wanted to scream, scream for help, scream for somebody, scream for screaming’s sake, but paralysis rendered him immobile and void of any speech. The specter slowly closed the volume he held and gazed curiously at the monk.
“You can see me?” the apparition asked suddenly, setting the volume aside with great care.
Still incapable of any intelligent communication, Antan nodded.
“How curious,” the apparition mused. His voice was pleasant, containing a pure, melodic quality that seemed to wash over Antan. It struck him as the queerest experience of his short twenty-some-odd years of life, but he suddenly found himself relaxing, his fear melting away.
“What...what are you?” Antan finally managed in a cracked voice.
“A historian,” the specter replied.
Antan blinked, his mind racing to catch up with a thousand thoughts.
“Well, I was a historian,” the specter chuckled. “I still am I suppose. I’m just...dead now.”
“Yes,” Antan said in a measured tone, an attempt to control his voice in this strangest of circumstances. “A historian in the archives - that much makes sense. However, the dead part...” The monk’s voice trailed off, his implied question evident.
“There will be time for questions later,” the historian offered as he rose from the bench. Almost subconsciously Antan stepped back, but he caught himself before he took another and halted. He believed he had nothing to fear from this ghost, even though the notion seemed to go against all of his natural instincts. The historian moved close to Antan, holding the tome he had been reading when the monk stumbled upon him. The monk could not help but marvel at the vision before him, a tall handsome man with nothing setting him apart from the living except for his blue aura and semi-transparency. He wore a wide smile and a cheerful expression that Antan found both genuine and disarming in equal parts.
“I’m in need of locating some specific texts,” the historian said, the warmth of his voice flowing over Antan. “I hope that you’ll be able to assist me.”
“What is your name?” the monk asked almost reflexively.
“I don’t know,” the historian answered with a smile.
Over the next fortnight Antan busied himself pulling books both ancient and new for the historian. The two spoke at length about a great many things, and the historian’s appetite for knowledge regarding the current time, his own being separated by some seven hundred years, was insatiable. However, when the historian poured himself into a book he became as tight-lipped as a man harboring a deadly secret and refused to speak for hours. During these times Antan would reluctantly resume his normal duties, his thoughts always returning to his ghostly visitor. At times the historian would simply vanish, sometimes for two or three nights, but then he would return as chipper and joyful as ever.
Antan kept quiet about his meetings with the specter. Even if the senior monks believed him, he very much doubted the historian would appear for anyone but himself. He also feared that the White Hand, the exorcists of the church, might be called in to banish the historian; the church did not take kindly to spirits left roaming for they were no longer in the realm of the goddess, but instead dwelling partly in the realm of shadows and the realm of the living. It was an egregious sin, and Antan was bound by his vows to report it but he relented even though he was devout, more so than many. Something about the historian held sway over him. He could not explain it. His thoughts always made their way back to the apparition, this man come from beyond, and he wished his waking days away for the nights in the historian’s company.
One night the monk sat with the historian at a far removed table in the rear of the archives. The specter was immersed in the journal of a Vandorian philosopher and early metaphysicist. Antan sat opposite from him.
“You’ve been here for more than three months, and I know as little about you now as I did when you first appeared,” Antan admitted, breaking the silence of the lonely archives. “I know what period you hail from, but I’ve not had the courage to ask...certain questions of you.” The monk smiled nervously, butterflies alight in his stomach.
The historian looked up from the journal, looked thoughtful for a moment, and then closed the cover of the brittle book, gingerly.
“Tell me what you’d like to know,” said the historian in a show of willingness to share he had thus far neglected. Antan’s giddiness at the prospect of learning more about his mysterious visitor was scarcely contained.
“How have you come to be here?” he asked instantly, almost breathlessly. The question had long been on his tongue and awaiting its opportunity. He tried to fight back an embarrassed smile stemming from his sudden outburst.
“You’re not one to mince words are you?” the historian replied with a laugh. He took a moment to collect his thoughts for a thoughtful answer. The moment dragged on and finally he shrugged his shoulders. “I cannot say exactly. I know that I died. And I know that from that moment I ceased to exist. But somehow, though I did not exist, I did.”
“You speak in riddles,” the monk replied, his curiosity evident.
“Perhaps, but I speak true,” the historian said as he ran a hand through the long hair that framed his face. The color of his hair was not discernible, not in his current state, but Antan was sure that it must have been very beautiful during his living years. The historian continued, “I cannot say with any certainty how this came to pass. I could see glimpses of time, images of people I did not know, and things I did not understand. This place was among them.” The historian took pause, as if trying to understand something that eluded him.
“I am not sure, but your archives seemed more real to me than anything else. All of the other images and places were only temporal, but this place stood out like an island in a sea, outlasting the fleeting visions and flashes of lives that were not my own. I strived to reach, to come to this place for so long. Then I was here.”
“And when you disappear?” the monk asked.
“I am back there,” the historian said flatly with a gesture of his hand. “Somewhere between what is real and isn’t. Somewhere between existence and non-. And it becomes much more difficult each time to return, and so I intensify my search that much more for fear that at any moment I may be cast back into that shadowy world and have no means of returning.”
“Yes,” Antan said somewhat hurriedly. “This search, all of these books, these volumes you have me locate – I must know what it is all for. What is the aim of this search?”
The historian chuckled as though the monk had asked a question to which the answer should be obvious. After all, the monk had seen the books he had requested, works concerning alchemy, magicks, metaphysics, even necromancy. A look of mild irritation crossed Antan’s face and the historian raised his hands in a placating gesture. The monk’s expression softened and he allowed a smile, and the historian returned it.
“The aim of my search,” the historian said somberly, his countenance shifting to something far darker than his usual demeanor, “is to find a way to return to this plane.” Antan looked on blankly, and the historian added, brightening somewhat, “To return to life.”
Antan carried four heavy books before him. One he had suggested himself, Terra’s The Waking World, was penned during the last seventy years or so and Terra, Saint Terra now, had a divine insight and knowledge concerning the hereafter. It was an obscure text and had taken him some time to determine whether it would be of any use and even longer to locate it. It had only arrived by messenger from the far away West Walls in the neighboring duchy of Kurtz that morning.
The monk’s excitement had been mounting, for after months of diligence the historian believed he had found a method to permanently return to this plane, and to life. It would be a delicate act, he had cautioned, and much research would still be required. If he were to fail he would be trapped in a hellish limbo, neither here nor there.
It would be an eternity of torment. The mere thought of it unsettled the monk greatly.
He pushed all of his unpleasant thoughts away and continued to where the historian waited. Antan arrived, craned his neck to peer around the stack of books he carried. Then he stopped and the books toppled to the floor.
The historian’s face was warped in anguish, and a blinding light emanated from him, illuminating all of the archives, before he descended to a near blackness only to then repeat the process. He crouched upon his knees, chest heaving. Antan rushed to him.
“Historian!” he shouted. “What’s happening to you?”
“Going back,” he said, his voice weak and tainted with despair and pain. The monk stared at him blankly, a white hot rage rising in him at his inability to do anything. He was completely helpless, unable to quell the torment his friend suffered.
“It will be okay,” the monk said reassuringly, though not at all assured himself. “It’s happened before. You can find your way back.”
The historian offered a weak smile and said, “Not this time. This time is different.” He faded almost to invisibility and whispered, “It’s pulling me back...” He became scarcely perceptible again.
“No!” Antan said with a sob, allowing his panic to take full hold. “We’re so close to finding a way!”
“Thank you for all you’ve done,” the historian said, his voice weak and wavering. “Seven hundred years without a soul to talk to is wretched business. I’m glad to have at least this to remember.”
Without thought Antan moved forward to embrace the specter, this dead historian become friend and more. As he folded his arms around him, the monk fell forward, passing through nothingness, and fell to the cold, stone floor. The monk pushed himself up to his hands and knees before his body trembled and collapsed once more. Antan lay prostrate on the archive floors amongst a pile of scattered texts, deep sobs racking his body.
Antan sat in a dank tavern by Cole’s Ferry. The place was cheerfully referred to as the Sailor’s Sorrow. Antan isolated himself in the far corner of the place, nursing a tankard of ale. The lonely act of a drink shared with no one had become routine. Bleary eyed and with week old stubble shading his face, the former monk once again spent his night in silence.
He busied himself with fairly steady employment: scribing contracts for merchants, penning memoirs for nobility too important to have ever learned to write themselves, and other trivial jobs. In sparse times when his literacy mattered little, he resorted to manual labor, though he did try and avoid it as much as possible. He missed the archives sorely. And he missed monasticism.
And he missed the historian, that lovely specter who appeared only to him, even more.
“Barkeep,” Antan said, raising the tankard after having drained it. The burly barkeeper nodded in acknowledgement, and a serving wench handed the former monk another.
Later that night as Antan stumbled down the streets toward the shabby room he was letting, he thought he noticed someone close to him – someone following him. Members of the White Hand come to interrogate him more, perhaps? Antan wheeled around, almost falling in his drunkenness, and found a deserted street, illuminated with pale, sick light from the alchemical globes hanging like ghosts in the fog.
The former monk stood upon the stony bridge arching over the bubbling stream that meandered through the Garden District. Bunches of pastel-colored flowers adorned the area, washing the green terraces in seas of blues and pinks, and hedges were shaped into the likeness of the heroes of old. And though he stood in one of the most extravagant public gardens in all of the eastern realms, no joy stirred in Antan’s heart. For much of the morning, he had leaned against the bridge’s railing, his arms crossed and his chin resting upon his folded arms.
“Did any of this really ever happen?” he murmured. “Could it have?”
Then he became aware of the man standing behind him. He wasn’t sure how long he had been there, but he knew it was the same man that had shadowed him for the past few weeks. He had a vague sense of being followed, being watched, for quite some time. The White Hand, Antan thought with a grimace as he closed his eyes in resignation.
The man silently moved to Antan’s side and said nothing. The two stood there in silence for several minutes before the former monk finally spoke.
“What do you want from me?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the stream below. The man met his question with silence. Antan sighed. “Am I to be further degraded by a public trial for my secret? Am I to be further questioned about the occult? Wasn’t my expulsion enough to satisfy you all?” And again he was met with silence.
Then a soft, warm hand fell to his arm.
“It must have been so difficult for you,” the man said. His voice was soothing and beautiful, but it carried a note of pain. “I’d been searching for you.” His voice was nearly a whisper, almost lost on the light breeze the rustled the flowers and stirred the scent of spring.
Antan turned his gaze and met the eyes of a tall handsome man, his delicate face framed by beautiful auburn hair, a kiss of gold hinting at past days spent ambling under the sun. This stranger interlaced his fingers in Antan’s and gave him a knowing smile. A tear rolled down his bronzed cheek.
Antan very nearly pulled away, not knowing what to think or how to react. He began to tug his hand from the stranger when he noticed something. The sun cast its rays into the cool water of the stream, washing the man before him in reflected light, sparkling hues of blue. Then he knew.
Antan extended his arms and almost threw himself forward. A moment of terror captured his mind as he made for the embrace and then the feeling was replaced by one of joy.
He did not pass through the historian this time. This time they held each other close.