Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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This Quintessence of Dust

by Mary-Jean Harris




I knew something was amiss when I spotted Louis talking to a scruffy man with greasy hair and a long goatee that he was twirling about with his fingers. They were off in a corner of the library at an ink-splotched table, speaking in earnest confidence.

Neither Louis nor the man noticed me down the hall, watching them through an archway. They were seated amid the shelves of Canterbury's historical records, a place few frequented. Thus, only those neglected tomes were privy to their conversation, frowning down on them beneath brows of dust.

I could hardly believe what I was seeing: if Louis was to be found at the library, he would certainly be buried in Berkeley or Kant, not conversing with a living, breathing human being. Along with myself, he is a member of the Order for Investigations into Curious Metaphysical Phenomena, a society of practical metaphysicians who investigate into peculiar occurrences-or rather, I investigate into peculiar occurrences, and the others formulate theories about my results, though on occasion, Louis or another member will join me. The phenomena we study lie beyond natural explanations. They fit into a more encompassing reality including the soul, dreams, the angelic hierarchies, and the place of our world within the cosmos.

So I wondered if Louis had discovered something peculiar today. I tucked the well-worn volume of Leibniz's Monadology under my arm and went to join the conversation. The library was an old building, built nearly a century ago in 1767 by the collector Wilfred E. Scott. He'd favoured a gothic design with dark wood, pointed arches with roses engraved at their centers, and now-musty red and blue Turkish carpets beneath the tables. It gave me the impression of being in the Middle Ages, the Near East, and the eighteenth century all at once.

Upon beholding me, Louis leapt from his seat as if caught in the act of treachery. He had a mighty impression of guilt upon him, and when he rose, light passing through the red stained-glass of a high window shone upon his light curls and gave his youthful face a bloody hue.

The other man was entirely unconcerned by my arrival. He was remarkably tiny, and his feet did not quite reach the floor when he sat. His hair and goatee looked like black knots of seaweed. He wore a red Eastern European hat and a brown felt coat that had certainly seen better days, or perhaps I should say, better decades. A red cloth was tied about his neck, and I noted a fine pewter pin of a fox on his breast.

"Good afternoon, Louis," I said, then nodding to the man, added, "Sir."

The man gave a curt nod back, though his arms remained across his chest.

I went to stand beside Louis, and was about to give him a nudge when he sat back down and said, "I've found something that needs investigating."

"Yes, I figured as much." I set Leibniz's Monadology on the table and took a seat next to Louis. "But perhaps you could first introduce me to your companion."

"Oh…yes," Louis said, that guilty look crossing his face again.

I sighed inwardly. Philosophers are notorious for not remembering their manners, and metaphysicians perhaps the worst. Louis, who favoured the idealism of philosophers such as Berkeley, was perhaps the worst of all.

"This is Magister Bruxtel," Louis began. "He told me about another magician, who's making a homunculus!"

"A homunculus?" I said. The image of a filthy little sorcerer, not dissimilar in appearance to this Magister Bruxtel, was conjured in my mind. I imagined him leaning over a fire and stoking a pot of grey sludge, out of which the little figure of a human was emerging. I shook my head, and realizing that even I had forgotten my manners, looked across to Bruxtel, who appeared far too smug for my likings, and said, "Pardon me. My name is Edwin Galbraith. I am a philosopher."

"You both are too young to be philosophers," Bruxtel said, not without some scorn. He spoke with a thick Russian accent.

I was not sure how young he thought I was, but I was not nearly as young as Louis.

To my surprise, Louis spoke, quoting Epicurus: "Let no one delay the study of philosophy while young nor weary of it when old. For no one is either too young nor too old for the health of the soul."

Bruxtel frowned, and I tried to suppress a grin.

"And you, I believe Louis implied, call yourself a magician?" I asked Bruxtel.

Bruxtel grunted and started to twist his goatee again. "I have a rival," he said, as if only magicians had rivals, so that would identify him as one unquestionably. "His name is Lucifer."

Louis and I exchanged glances, then looked back to Bruxtel.

"Not that Lucifer," Bruxtel continued. I noticed that when he moved, his legs kicked back and forth as if trying to touch the unreachable carpet.

"He is a man of many arduous works based on the teachings of the Kabbalah," Bruxtel said, speaking this with an air of disdain, though I could detect some reverence, as if he had also endeavored to learn this mystic Jewish teaching, but had failed. "He created the Philosopher's Stone last year. And before that it was a blood ruby of Venus. And now…" Bruxtel scowled. "He is creating a little man. A homunculus."

"I see," I said. I was not convinced that these reports were true, but I could tell that Bruxtel believed them wholeheartedly. "And if you do not mind me asking, Sir-"

"Magister."

"Yes, Magister." I tried to say it without sarcasm. It was not that I doubted that some great men could perform magic-on the contrary, I had witnessed some myself-but Bruxtel hardly looked the part. "What I wanted to ask was this: how does this concern you? And why were you telling Louis about it?"

"I can tell you where Lucifer lives."

"So you have heard of our Order. You believe we should investigate."

Bruxtel nodded.

I leaned back in the chair and laced my fingers together. Of course I wanted to investigate this, for whether or not this Lucifer were a real magician himself, and whether or not he had succeeded in creating a homunculus, this might turn out to be the most curious metaphysical phenomenon I had yet encountered. Yet I didn't trust Bruxtel. Nor did I understand why he and Lucifer were rivals, something that seemed pertinent to the case at hand.

I looked sidelong at Louis, and saw that he was eagerly awaiting my reply. It was hard to say whether he wanted to go with me or not: certainly the idea of going on a dangerous inquiry was undesirable, but when an investigation was underway, he looked nearly as content and absorbed as when he was reading Plato.

"Magister Bruxtel," I began. "This is all interesting, but is there a reason you've come to us? I would have thought that the less people who knew about your rival, the better."

Bruxtel leaned forward in his chair, grasping the armrests with his stubby fingers, one of which was adorned with a tarnished signet ring jammed within the folds of his skin. "You investigate things like this-you'll find out how he made a homunculus."

"Yes, though our investigations are for purely philosophical purposes, to understand the universe and our place within it."

"We can make a deal then," Bruxtel said. He nodded to Louis.

Louis's eyes widened, but he managed to say, "He…he wants us to tell him what we find. Otherwise he won't tell us where Lucifer lives."

"And I assure you," Bruxtel added, "you won't find him in any register."

I nodded. So Bruxtel wanted to make a homunculus himself. The chance of him succeeding in such an endeavor hardly crossed my mind; it seemed so unlikely that I did not conceive of it. "I can make no promises," I said. "Should Lucifer offer me no information whatsoever, I would have nothing to report to you, and no way to repay you."

Louis nodded solemnly, silently agreeing that, as we were philosophers, we had no money. Indeed, the library is perhaps the only thing that stands in the way of philosophers becoming thieving vagabonds. We need our Kant, Schopenhauer, and Locke, not to mention the Ancients. Indeed, I know many philosophers who would have become crooks in order to possess a volume of Plato's dialogues had it not been available at the library.

"I'll take the risk," Bruxtel said gruffly. "If you will."

"Yes," I said, perhaps a bit too hastily.

A flicker of a smile crossed Bruxtel's rusty red lips. No, I certainly didn't trust this fellow, but it was my duty to seek out these matters, and not just the duty given to me by the Order, but something that ran deeper, something inherent to my very being.

"Lucifer lives in Thanington before the Larkeyvalley Woods. House at the end of the lane. Don't go after dark. In fact, go this afternoon. You might catch him before he does anything…irreversible."

I glanced to Louis, and he forced a nod, his eyes wide.

"Then it's settled," I said. "We will do what we may, Magister. I sincerely hope that you are in accordance with furthering knowledge, and not engaging in dark plots."

"Yes, yes, no dark plots," he assured me, while the flicker of a burgeoning dark plot seemed to cross his eyes. "Meet me here in two days' time."

"We shall," I said, thinking that if we discovered anything too dangerous, then we could conceal it from him for the sake of the greater good. At the same time, I silently apologized to Kant and his moral laws. "And thank you, Bruxtel. I believe this may prove useful for our Order. Perhaps when we meet again, you could tell us about the magic you perform."

Bruxtel's expression came across as something between constipation and dismay. I realized that I would have to take what I could get from Lucifer.

Louis and I then left the library and set off to find the supposed homunculus. We came outside to a cobbled street lined with coaches and hansom cabs awaiting gentlemen whose many books prevented them from walking home, and whose purses could afford such luxuries. Naturally, Louis and I set off on foot.

Halfway across town, I noticed that Louis was walking slower and slower. I glanced about, expecting to see a bookstore, or perhaps a visiting member of the Royal Society who he wished to ensnare in some idealist scheme of his. But there was nothing of the sort, and I doubted that Madame Lambert's Linens or the silverware stall was distracting him.

I stopped, and he did likewise. "What is it, Louis? Are you nervous about meeting Lucifer?"

He shook his head, then caught himself with a slight frown and said, "I…I want to get something first."

"Oh? And what might that be?"

"Alex…" He trailed off upon beholding my expression.

Of course he wanted Alexander the Great's sword. It was the Order's heirloom: old, rusty, and fragile, but girding himself with it had been the only way to get him to come on previous missions.

I sighed. "Alright. We'll get Alexander's sword."

***

It was early evening by the time we'd retrieved Alexander's sword-having backtracked most of the way to the library-and had found our way to Thanington. Lucifer's house was at the end of a lane that had proceeded down a gradient from well-ordered round cobbles to gritty stones and eventually dirt. Shrubbery had been left to grow wild, and jackdaws pecked within patches of droopy grasses at the side of the lane. The houses here were modest, hovering in indecision between the country and the town, and not quite achieving the better qualities of either of them.

Lucifer's house was no exception. It was a three-storey stone manor with a roof that had once been black pitch, though now only hints of that were discernable beneath the pale green lichen that frosted the roof and the stone walls. Some of the mortar was white and crumbling, yet the house stood proud, and it certainly wasn't going to crumble any time soon.

I glanced about the yard, which was large and partly forested with hawthorn and small spruce trees. There was a herb garden and numerous species of wildflower in the tall grass: bluebells and cowslip, primrose and brambles.

I noticed that Louis's hand was already on the hilt of his sword, so I shook my head. "Now Louis, you'd best let me do the talking. In fact, you'd best let me do just about everything. Though if you think of anything important, don't hesitate to tell me. Yet do hesitate from using that sword."

He nodded, reluctantly removing his hand from the sword. Frankly, I was surprised the piece of metal had remained in one piece for so long.

"What if there really is a homunculus?" Louis whispered as we headed up the clover-dominated walkway.

"I suppose it would be controlled by Lucifer," I whispered back. "In that case, we really only need to worry about Lucifer himself."

I knocked on the door, and was surprised to receive an answer only a short moment later. A towering, broad-shouldered man appeared in the doorway with a surprised expression. He had a noble bearing, his nose long and Roman, his dark eyes confident. His hair was a dark reddish amber that set about his head in heavy curls, and he had a cropped beard and slightly curled moustache of a lighter shade of amber. He wore a black scholar's robe, though there was no insignia from any university upon it, and despite his remarkable height, the robe was long enough to trail on the floor and entirely cover his feet.

"Good afternoon. My name is Edwin Galbraith, and this is Louis Earnshaw," I said. Getting the right introduction was paramount in obtaining someone's aide, especially those who call themselves magicians or mystics. "Are you by any chance Sir Lucifer?" I coughed. "Magister Lucifer?" I corrected myself.

The man's expression of surprise had not left him, but he smiled now. "Yes, yes, I am Lucifer. I daresay no one has called me that for years."

"I beg your pardon, but that is what I heard."

"Oh, Lucifer is fine, Lucifer is very well. Come in, come in." He swept his arm aside, the long sleeve of his robe swooshing like the wing of a bat. I was surprised-and pleased-that Lucifer seemed to be a fine gentleman, not at all as I'd imagined. Though I was aware that this could be a ploy. Bruxtel might have been in league with Lucifer, and had established a plan to trap us. But as the only real investigator in the Order, I had to put myself into dangerous situations. I had a limit, but as of yet, was far from reaching it.

It was pleasant enough inside the house, if one ignored the putrid stench down one corridor, and the smell of burnt wormwood in many of the rooms. This was the home of a true man of learning. In other words, books and philosophical instruments took precedence over human beings. There were glass vials, specimens in jars, herbs, gemstones and metals, and a mirror of concentric circles with gold Hebrew words upon the surface. A great metal pot with the painted Hebrew letter "Shem" for fire had unlimited access to a small sofa in a room we passed by.

Lucifer led me and Louis into a dining room at the other end of the ground floor. A Sephirotic tree was painted on one wall with words inscribed in each sphere, and arrows were drawn in charcoal between the spheres.

There was no space on the table, this being occupied by glass lenses, eyedroppers filled with red fluid, and a complicated-looking chart drawn on a large sheet of paper.

Lucifer hesitated when he saw this, and then gathered it all up in his arms and started from the room, saying, "Take a seat; I will return shortly."

I went to sit down, and Louis went to the other side of the table to do likewise. Yet when he pulled out the chair, he gave a little yelp, and his hand clutched his sword.

"Wait!" I said, motioning for him to keep the sword sheathed. I came around to his side of the table to see the cause of his anxiety. Upon the chair, sitting squarely in the centre, was an enormous slimy creature that was something between a frog and a newt.

"Is that…" Louis started.

"No. Absolutely not."

We looked at each other hesitantly, and I don't suppose my eyes were any less saucer-like than Louis's. This was not the homunculus, for homunculi are human-shaped, and this was anything but that. The creature was red with yellow flecks on its slimy skin, and it turned its round head up to Louis and flicked out a dark blue forked tongue. Louis held his ground, but I could tell that he wanted to bolt.

Fortunately, Lucifer returned before we had to deal with the matter ourselves. He glared down at the creature with more surprise upon his brow. "My, a thousand apologies!" He picked up a nearby fork and poked the creature with the end of it.

The creature only grunted, but after more prodding, rolled itself off the chair and landed on the stones with a splat before waddling off to a corner of the room.

Louis was clearly horrified, but I was intrigued. "What a strange creature," I said.

"Indeed," Lucifer replied, leaning down to wipe the slime off the chair with the sleeve of his robe. "And deadly poisonous, if you ingest its slime."

"Is it…a frog?" Louis asked. He had migrated to the other side of the table and had taken a seat in my chair, so I suffered to sit in the residue of slime across from him.

"A perforated fenrin," Lucifer said. "A member of the newt family, though few know of its existence."

I nodded. "Curious. Though to be frank, Lucifer, I came to enquire about a certain magical endeavour I heard you've been working on." I paused, and Lucifer did not speak. He only stood there with that perpetual surprise of his, as if he still hadn't come to terms with the fact that there were people visiting his house. "I heard that you are creating, or perhaps have already created, a homunculus."

"I have."

"You were successful then?"

"I was. Would you like some tea?"

"No, I don't think…well, yes, if you insist."

Lucifer smiled, and with a little bow, left the room.

"I don't like him," Louis muttered once we could no longer hear Lucifer's footsteps.

"He seems fine enough, though very peculiar."

"If he made a homunculus, then where is it?"

"It could be anywhere in the house. I don't suppose he sets it loose to roam about." Not that I knew much about homunculi, but I'd heard stories: a man created alchemically, grown inside a glass jar over an alchemical fire, or, I had read, in a pile of horse manure. The homunculus would function like a normal human being, for unlike creatures of clay, commonly called golems, a homunculus was grown from a seed. Whether a homunculus had a soul or not was another matter, one which I intended to ask Lucifer about.

I heard some bangs upstairs, and wondered when the last time Lucifer had made tea was. I assumed he'd just put the kettle on.

When he returned, he stood next to the Sephirotic tree as if he were going to conduct a lesson.

"Could you perhaps tell us about how you created the homunculus?" I asked. "I had doubted whether such magic was possible."

"Yes, it is quite uncommon," Lucifer admitted, clasping his hands behind his back. "But not impossible, if one studies the Kabbalah in earnest."

"I'm somewhat familiar with the Kabbalah myself. Though from a more philosophical point of view."

"Oh," Lucifer said, his eyebrows arching, as if notion of a philosopher doing philosophy was rare indeed.

Before he could speak any further, there was a bang from upstairs, in the same place I had heard it before. Lucifer cleared his throat as if to cover it up. "The creation of a homunculus is…" He coughed when the noise sounded another time. "…quite lengthy and not for the faint of heart." He coughed some more as the noise ensued, but was getting quite red in the face, for as the noise was getting louder, he too had to cough louder. Though I still heard the banging beneath it.

"Perhaps you ought to check the tea," I suggested.

"Tea! Indeed!" he gasped before walking swiftly from the room, his cloak swooshing behind him.

I doubted that there was any tea in the first place. I didn't like this, though I couldn't quite put my finger on what was wrong. Perhaps it was the noise from above, or Lucifer's peculiar personality, or his openness to people he knew nothing about.

I was about to ask Louis when he slowly got to his feet and started from the room. "Where do you think you're going?" I asked.

Louis looked back to me with that wide-eyed, guilty expression of his. "I'll be back soon," he said, then darted off before I could stop him.

I started from my seat to go after him, but then caught myself. If Lucifer returned and there was no sign of either of us, that would be far worse than only having one of us missing. So I sat back down and looked at the perforated fenrin in the corner. It flicked its blue tongue at me lazily. This was ridiculous, I thought, as more bangs ensued from above. I couldn't make out what it was, though the noise might have been from a stick being rapped against the wall. Images of imprisoned homunculi crossed my mind uneasily.

Shortly later, Lucifer returned, and again, there was no tea.

"Dreadfully sorry," he said, pushing aside a loose curl that had fallen down the centre of his forehead. "It will be ready shortly." He paused, and glanced about the room in surprise.

"Louis has just stepped out for a moment," I said.

"Oh, I-"

There were clear footsteps upstairs, and this seemed to give Lucifer the greatest surprise of all, so much so that he seemed to entirely forget what he was about to say.

Before I could endeavour to impose some order onto the situation, Lucifer left the room. All the while, the footsteps continued above. Louis, I thought with a shake of my head. I knew I shouldn't have let him go off like that.

This time, I didn't hesitate. I went off after Lucifer, spotting his tall figure skirting down the end of the hallway, and hearing the creaks as he ascended a staircase. Few realize how swift I can be when the situation calls for it. This time, Lucifer's surprise was well-warranted when he found me at his back before he reached the top of the narrow stairwell.

"What is going on?" I demanded.

"It's the tea, just the tea…" Lucifer said before running off again.

"A rather lively kettle you have," I said, keeping pace behind him.

The hall was lined with a thin white carpet, and there were various rooms on either side of us. The third door on the right was ajar, and it was this room that the noises originated from.

I heard voices, and recognizing one as Louis's, I skirted around Lucifer to reach them, though not without receiving a slap from Lucifer's flowing sleeve in my face, which was covered in the fenrin's slime. I wiped it off and did not ingest the slime, so fortunately, did not die on the spot.

I saw Louis in the room with Alexander's sword dangerously far out of its scabbard. He stood before a bed where an old man lay beneath a quilted blue and white coverlet. I quickly noted a diamond-shaped window, just in case the need arose to escape.

Upon seeing Lucifer and me charge into the room, Louis danced away from the bed, his feet nimble, but not at all sure where they were going. He looked at Lucifer in confused terror.

"You…" Louis started, but Lucifer had already reached his side, and was taking a broad swing of his arm, apparently to clobber him whole.

"Hold!" the man in bed cried hoarsely.

I recognized that voice, and when I turned to regard him more closely, I seemed to be seeing both Lucifer and an old man at the same time. His voice was remarkably similar to Lucifer's, if more crackly, and his features were such that he could have been Lucifer's father. Yet he was so similar that he might have been Lucifer himself, only older, with his red hair now white, his broad frame weakened from so much time in bed, and his cheeks flabby and hollow.

At the man's words, Lucifer swung his blow wide, avoiding Louis's head, the perpetual surprise upon his face now sharing company with frustration. Louis, having been unable to keep the sword sheathed, now held it in both hands, staring at Lucifer in fear, but also with determination.

"Drop your sword, boy," Lucifer said simply.

I was about to encourage Louis to do the same when I noticed that Lucifer was reaching his right hand into the end of his left sleeve, delicately, deliberately…

Louis swung his sword, though not to kill. His speed took Lucifer by surprise, and caused him to drop a tiny vial of red liquid from his sleeve. It smashed onto the floor and erupted in a hissing grey smoke that obscured both him and Louis. I started forward, but realizing that the fumes might be deadly, went back and called for Louis to get out of them.

From within the miasma, I heard a thump, a gasp, then a crash as Lucifer fell out and collided with a side table, which he knocked the side of his head on. He fell to the floor with an enormous thump that not even the mightiest of coughs could have concealed.

The mist was fortunately clearing, and Louis leapt out of it then, holding the hilt of the sword-but there was no blade in sight. He looked down at the hilt in horror.

I rushed over to Lucifer, who was unconscious, and had a bright trickle of blood running from his right cheekbone toward the hollow of his mouth.

"I didn't mean to break-" Louis began, picking up the blade of the sword from the floor.

"Oh, befuddle the sword!" I knelt next to Lucifer and put a hand on his wrist to ensure that he still had a heartbeat. It seemed normal, and I could see that he was breathing from the slight rise and fall of his chest.

"He's the homunculus," Louis said before I could berate him any further.

I stood and dusted off my trousers. "I don't know what has possessed you, Louis, but this is the very same magician we were visiting downstairs. Lucifer."

"I am Lucifer," the old man spoke from behind us.

I turned to face him. Despite his aged voice, he spoke with a deep rooted power. As if he were a great tree, and this other man was merely a branch. That image came unbidden to my mind, and it felt that there was more truth to it than mere metaphor.

"I beg your pardon," I said, "but we were just downstairs with this man, and he claimed to be the magician Lucifer." I approached the foot of the man's bed, studying him closely. He was very aged, perhaps over ninety years old, and something was weakening him from the inside out.

"Your assistant is correct. He is my homunculus," the old man said, gesturing to the man on the floor. "He sometimes gets…carried away."

I glanced back to the man, or rather, homunculus. How impeccably human he had seemed, how he moved with no irregularity or stiffness! But was it true? "He looks as though he could be your son. Or yourself as a younger man."

The old man nodded. "I created him to be as I was in my younger years." He spoke firmly and to the point, not at all like the homunculus.

"I knew it from the start," Louis spoke up. He came to stand at my side, the old, rusted blade in one hand and the hilt in the other. "He mirrors whoever he speaks to, right?"

"Yes. Clever you are, to have seen that."

I became disturbed, for I hadn't noticed this.

Louis endeavoured to explain. "When we first met the homunculus, I was looking at something in the yard, so I didn't see him. I thought you were talking, answering yourself, but it was him. He was talking the way you do."

"Just like me?"

Louis nodded. "And when he said something to me, and he spoke differently. Like…" He shrugged.

"Yes, I remember. He was noticeably curt. But what about his 'surprise' at everything? Surely I'm not besot with similar expressions." I hoped not, at least.

Lucifer chuckled faintly. "He has some unique traits of his own. That is one of them."

"I see." I noticed that Louis was far more comfortable about Lucifer-the real Lucifer, that is-with the homunculus insensate on the ground.

"Now, how did you discover me and my creation?" Lucifer asked.

"Yes, I apologize for that," I said. I then explained about the Order and the sorts of things we investigate. I was pleased at his interest, and the fact that he didn't object to his work being scrutinized in such a manner. He did, however, lapse into a coughing fit at the mention of Bruxtel, so I quickly skirted that topic and said, "Is there anything we can help you with? When we were in the dining room, we heard banging from upstairs."

He shook his head.

"You're dying," Louis said.

There was a silence. I expected Lucifer to deny it outright, but he surprised me by saying, "Yes. And there's nothing to be done about it. But no matter: you came to learn about my homunculus. I seem to have gotten your attention by hitting the wall. I wished to tell someone of what I have done, in case the homunculus got carried away after I died. Come, I will tell you." He gestured to the side of his bed, which Louis and I approached, though there were no chairs, so we remained standing. I noticed Lucifer eyeing Louis's broken sword, but he seemed more amused than unnerved by it.

"Now, you mustn't tell the details to Bruxtel," he said.

"Oh?" I said. Although Lucifer seemed far more trustworthy than Bruxtel, I was not comfortable with breaking my agreement so easily.

Lucifer nodded. "He could use it to create servants to do evil deeds," he said simply, as if that possibility were certain.

"Yes, that would be terrible. Though Magister Lucifer-"

"You may call me Erasmus."

"Then Erasmus," I continued, liking that name much better. "We need not know the details of how you created a homunculus-this, I assume, is what Bruxtel wishes to learn-but rather the philosophy behind it. Perhaps I could ask you a few questions."

Erasmus nodded.

I glanced to Louis briefly, as if to say, There. That's how it's done. Not knocking someone out with an ancient sword, but he wasn't looking at me.

"First," I began, "what is the purpose of creating such a creature?"

Erasmus coughed roughly and swallowed before saying, "It is alchemy. I have created the philosopher's stone, but the years of life it offers is not much more than what a healthy man might hope to live. The stone is only as potent as the soul of he who creates it. If Bruxtel made one…heh, I don't believe it would give him a year longer. If my soul were greater, nobler in its spiritual enlightenment, I might be near immortal. But I am not. And it is too late for that now. But I have more to accomplish before I leave this world. Oh, so much more. And I have yet to write what I have learned from the Sefer Yetzirah. And so-here is your metaphysics-I need another body. But something I'm used to. I could not simply release my soul into the universe in the hopes of reincarnating, but I needed to have a body ready, fully suited to live another forty years, or more, if I can create a finer stone. So that is what I did."

"Fascinating," I said. "Yet how can you ensure that your soul will migrate to the body of the homunculus upon your death?"

"It seems reasonable. I ensured the body was as close as possible to my own, only younger. My blood is within its veins. My soul will have an affinity to it, so I believe it will go there first."

"But to stake your life upon it? To…oh. I see." I saw it in Erasmus's eyes. This was his last hope. He was going to die anyway, so if there was a possibility that it would work, he had to seize upon it. "Though I must ask, have you seen a doctor?"

"I am a doctor. My prognosis is simple: I'll be dead by morning."

I was impressed by the way he spoke of his impending demise. He was being a natural philosopher: he had discovered something undeniable, and had proceeded in analysing it as best he could.

"The magician, or practical philosopher, doesn't deal with certainties, but probabilities," Erasmus explained. "I've tried all the tonics known to man, but none will cure my dying heart."

"I have heard of some who appeal to…well, I know not if this works, but they appeal to angels."

Erasmus scoffed. "I am no mystic. My work is of the flesh and blood, the roots and soil, the clay and stone, all their natural and magical properties. Besides, no angel will aide a man who challenges God himself in his creation."

"You mean the creation of life?"

Erasmus nodded.

"But is the homunculus really living in the sense that you and I are? He has a body that functions as any creature on Earth, but does he have a soul?"

Erasmus grumbled something about philosophers.

I tried another question. "Supposing the homunculus does have a soul, does that make you, his creator, a god?"

"I do not create souls, as far as I am aware. But whether a soul has chosen to inhabit that body, I do not know. We'll find out, won't we? If the homunculus has no soul, could mine not inhabit that body unimpeded? No book of magic tells me, so…" he coughed, and I noticed that his eyes were laced with spindly veins like a spider web of blood. "…so, you will have to see…"

"Don't speak now. Rest. Would you like something?"

"No. Take my new body to the parlour downstairs and care for it." He gestured to the homunculus. "Ignore this…" He raised his hand feebly.

I didn't know what to say to that. His level of confidence about the matter was not quite clear, for he seemed to have to force himself to say 'my new body', though at the same time, he also had a measure of pride with his alchemical accomplishments.

"I will not leave you to die in such a manner," I eventually said. "But I will take the homunculus to the parlour. Actually…" I glanced to Louis, considering. "Louis will do it, and I will remain with you."

Louis kicked my ankle hard, though he tried to be surreptitious about it.

"On second thought," I said, giving Louis a boot to his leg when Erasmus started coughing again. "Louis will remain here while I stay with the homunculus. Is that alright?"

Erasmus nodded. He didn't care either way-he was hardly even here. He was fighting his own battle, and might have been looking right through us. It was as if his soul, consciousness, or what have you, was perched at the edge of a precipice, about to leap, where far below, a narrow stream wound among sharp, jutting rocks. To land in the stream was his intention, of course. But from so high up, he could hardly plan his jump accordingly.

It seemed that I too had not planned accordingly when I'd offered to take the homunculus down to the parlour. He was a tall man of nearly twice my weight, and to single-handedly manoeuver his body down the narrow staircase would have been nothing short of impossible. So Louis and I shared in the challenge, though if the homunculus had been awake, he would have surely complained the whole way down.

When we neared the bottom of the stairs, what remained of Alexander's sword caught on a doorway from where it was perched in Louis's scabbard. Louis tripped over backward, dropping the homunculus's legs. I held tight under his arms to prevent him from slipping.

"Louis!" I panted.

Louis scrambled back up and glowered at the homunculus, whom we had started to just call Lucifer.

When we finally reached the room that might have been a parlour in days gone by, we could find nowhere to put Lucifer, for the small sofa was nowhere near long enough. So after clearing up some stones arranged in a circle on the floor, we set him down on the deep green rug that was embroidered with white floral decorations. As the room was mostly occupied with philosophical instruments, not to mention a noticeably loud grandfather clock that gave a jarring crack as it counted every minute, I sat on the armrest of the sofa. I permitted myself a long sigh. By the clock, I could see that it was early evening, so I knew that we would be here well into the night.

I was about to send Louis upstairs again when a thought struck me. "Louis, I wonder how we'll know if it really is Erasmus who awakes in this body. I'm sure Lucifer could do a fine imitation."

Louis, clutching the sword hilt in his hand, appeared disturbed. "What if I go to Erasmus and we make up something he'll say when he wakes up?"

"Yes, a code. Just make sure it's not something Lucifer could guess."

So Louis was off to the dying magician, and I awaited his revival in the body he had created for himself. I felt a flickering excitement as I looked down to this man who was not really a man, but who just might wake up to be one.

***

Just before ten that night, Louis came downstairs to join me. I'd examined some of Erasmus's instruments earlier on, though had accidentally exposed some fluid in a glass vial to the air, causing it to sizzle and evaporate in a second, so I went back to sit and do what I do best, namely, think about philosophy. Now, Louis having informed me that Erasmus had been asleep for the last hour, he came to sit with me for lack of anything diverting upstairs.

I asked Louis what the code was, to which he replied, "He was kind of distracted, so I told him it would be: 'I am the paragon of animals.'"

"Well, you could have done worse."

"Worse?" Louis frowned.

"It's not terribly hard to guess, is it?"

"Well…no."

"We can only hope then. Perhaps check on him in an hour."

Louis nodded, and so together, we waited. When waiting alone, it is simple to engage one's mind in philosophy or some other interest, yet when waiting with someone else, it somehow becomes difficult. So the only thing I really thought of was about how awful it was that we were waiting for Erasmus to die.

For a while, Louis tried to fix the sword, but this proving unsuccessful, he looked around the room as I had, though unlike me, did not touch anything. We had hardly waited half an hour before Louis was bored out of his mind and seemed incapable of thinking about philosophy with the homunculus lying on the ground before him. His stomach was grumbling, and he entreated me to get some food from the kitchen, but I thought it better to avoid eating any food the homunculus might have tampered with. Louis appetite seemed to vanish after that.

Eventually, Louis walked toward the door and gazed out into the hallway.

"Go ahead," I said, seeing that he was just going to stand there. "See if Erasmus has a library."

With a grin, Louis left the room, and I heard his footsteps exploring the ground floor as I waited.

A quarter of an hour later, Louis returned with a stack of books and an expression better suited to a knight who has discovered the Holy Grail. He squeezed in next to the pot on the sofa and set the books on the back ledge. I nodded in appreciation when I saw Aristotle's Metaphysics, Plotinus's Enneads, Augustine's On Free Choice of the Will, as well as some I hadn't read. Louis had taken a treatise by Malebranche and had started to read it, and I found my hand already on the cover of the Enneads. I quickly withdrew it. No, today I was a practical metaphysician. I could be a philosopher later. Though as of late, the balance had shifted remarkably: my investigations were becoming more and more frequent, and I was far behind in reading recent philosophical treatises. Yet there was something to these investigations that not even Plato's finest could compare with. I would never admit this to anyone in the Order, for although they too were fascinated with curious metaphysics in the world, it could never compare with what they loved most and dedicated nearly every waking hour to: namely, reading, writing, and above all, thinking about philosophy. Without me, few, if any, investigations would ever occur.

Long hours passed until morning, each of them counted sharply upon the face of that odious clock. Louis had fallen asleep long ago, his head leaning back on the sofa. I might have dozed off once or twice, though I remember every hour, so it could not have been for long.

As if he were awakening after a simple night of rest, Lucifer stirred just after five in the morning when I'd opened the window as the birdsong began with the light of dawn. It was a misty light, and the air was damp as if sodden by rain, the grey clouds on the horizon stretched thin and tinted with burnished orange from the low sun.

The homunculus's characteristic expression of surprise slowly returned as he blinked his eyes into focus. Yet this soon faded, more so than was normal for Lucifer, which I took as a good sign. And what's more, there was a glint in his eyes that had a remarkable similarity to Erasmus, and-though perhaps this was merely what I wished to see-a triumph, the look of one who has achieved the impossible, concentrated in those dark eyes.

I nudged Louis awake, and he started upon seeing Lucifer-or Erasmus, I was not sure-sitting up on the carpet.

"Go upstairs and check on…" I was about to say "the body," but I didn't want to reveal anything to the man before us in case it really was Lucifer. So I just gave Louis a pointed glance that sent him upstairs at once.

I turned back to the man on the carpet. "How are you doing?" I asked, standing and approaching him.

He looked down to his hands, clenched them in powerful fists, and watched as they relaxed. He felt his face, his hair and beard, and seemed to be most amazed when he stood up, as if he hadn't done that for quite some time. He looked at me as if only now noticing my presence. He grinned widely and said, "Better than you, I'd wager!" He laughed and stomped about the room, looking through his equipment admiringly.

I was puzzled, for he did not appear to be acting like Lucifer, but he didn't tell me who he was, or give me the code.

Louis then returned, having run from the upper floor. "He's…" he panted. "Dead." When he regarded the man, his countenance became that of a white cloud about to burst with snow.

"Hardly dead, but reborn," the man said. "It is I, Erasmus, though you may now call me the Phoenix."

Louis appeared slightly less petrified, and even took a few steps into the room. "Remember last night," he said to the man, "I came to your room…"

"Yes, I remember. I remember talking to you both. I thank you for taking care of my new body."

"But I came alone and told you something," Louis persisted.

"Yes, I suppose you did," the Phoenix said. He rubbed his temples. "I was so close to death then, I can hardly make sense of anything after I told you about my homunculus."

"You're supposed to tell me the code."

"You can hardly expect me to remember something the instant before my body died, can you?" He spoke pleasantly, and he was distinct enough from Lucifer that I didn't know what to think about his not revealing the code. Of course, he had been dying, so perhaps it was unreasonable for him to remember to call himself "the paragon of animals."

"Well," I said, "what happened at your death? Or perhaps I should say, transfer of bodies? Could you sense anything?"

The Phoenix looked thoughtful. "Yes. But it will hardly give you conclusive metaphysics. When I died, it was my old heart that took me, for it eventually stopped. But I was watching myself from above for quite some time, for my soul had already left."

"Oh? And you could see, a physical sense, while you were an unembodied soul?"

The Phoenix tilted his head. "Perhaps I was a spirit projection. I was hardly thinking of metaphysics at the time. But when my body died, I perceived nothing until waking just now."

"So perhaps when the senses of your body died, they could no longer be projected into your spirit form. Yes, I see. That is curious."

Louis nodded, but the Phoenix just shrugged and said, "Fascinating indeed, but I have experiments that have been long neglected, treatises to finish, and another stone in the making. What a piece of work this has been!"

Louis and I exchanged glances as the Phoenix set to work at what must have been one of his experiments, fetching a long-necked bottle containing a golden red liquid.

We soon took our leave, though Louis accidentally took the book by Malebranche he had been reading and so went back to return it. He came back with it smiling, saying that it was a gift from the Phoenix.

I looked back to that old manor, its stones hinted with the slanting orange light peeking from the curtain of grey clouds on the horizon.

"There, Louis," I started, "is a man who might just be a human, homunculus, and god all in one. And if he keeps doing this…"

"He could be immortal."

I nodded. "And yet, what are we all but dust out of which a greater master has crafted us? Noble, perhaps, but so too are we mere dust. I thank Shakespeare for that. Indeed, what is this remarkable quintessence of dust we call life?"

THE END


Copyright 2013; 2016, Mary-Jean Harris

Bio: I write fantasy and historical fiction and am the author of the novel Aizai the Forgotten. Some of my short stories are in anthologies such as the Tesseracts 18 anthology entitled Wrestling with Gods.


E-mail: Mary-Jean Harris

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