There isn’t a common name for the magical community—other than that cumbersome phrase, I suppose—which is unfortunate because it’s a tower on a hill. A bastion, a keep, a prison. It gets its fair share of tourists, of course, but those who stay tend to make it a lifestyle more than a hobby. It permeates their identity. The closest thing to it that I can imagine is the taking of holy vows. Once entered, one has difficultly approaching life in any other way except through, as it were, the keyhole of Solomon. Which is why, incidentally, there is so little mixing. Like with the races, our identities are formed as much by the beliefs others as by our own.
I had not only witnessed this first hand, I had succumbed to it—the superiority of difference. Ideologues the world over also look down on the rest of the world, but rarely does mere ideology also determine your clothing, your occupation, your diet, your pastimes, the manner in which you move through the world, how long you live, and so forth. Liberals and conservatives are both sports fans and fashionistas and software engineers. But if one is a druid, or a geomancer, one engages with the world in no other way.
It wasn’t always so, not until the priests and astrologers erected towers to study the heavens, and having ascended them, turned round to look down on the world of men. And to believe they were more.
The shamans, on the other hand, who served man before the wizards, took the world as it was. They lived with the people rather than atop ziggurats—albeit usually outside the village, if only to protect their community from the dangerous spirits that routinely visited them—and their trade was eminently practical. They were expected to know both the white and black arts and to employ whichever was necessary to cure the sick and protect the village. A shaman was to do whatever worked, the chasing of spirits an the summoning them close, even where that put their own lives at risk. And so it was said, he who serves a wealthy man desires to be wealthy. He who serves a community desires to be rich.
I say all of this only to qualify my reaction to young Etude. He fascinated me. He was so unlike any of the grand old men I’d served, which is why it was so easy to mistake him for a charlatan at our first encounter, where he approached me cordially wearing simple clothes rather than dressed in robes and speaking from the other side of a tinted Mercedes window. But once I began to see past that, once I began to feel his soul was deeper than I could readily grasp, I was in awe. Here was a young man who, regardless of his age, had a repertoire of skills that would put any of the High Arcane to shame, and yet he employed no attendants to prepare his mixtures. He had no disciples or cult of hangers-on, nor even—most surprisingly—a cadre of benefactors seeking to profit from his talent. Like any good shaman, he took the world as it was and he did whatever worked, which meant he employed not only the dark arts, but also science as well as magic, a fact that did more to distinguish him from our unnamed community than any other single trait.
To be honest, I don’t remember much of our first journey up the mountain. Even the parts I’ve already related have been pieced together from later conversations and subsequent visits. I know we walked through the tiny village. I can see a faded pink house with flower boxes on the windows standing at the end of an empty field of cobblestone paths, as if God Himself had reached down and picked up all the other shops and houses. I can see a disheveled man in clown paint holding a pinwheel, but in my mind, he is both ministering to laughing children who are not there as well as watching Etude and I pass with a suspicious eye. I have no idea which is true. I have no idea how long I wandered the forest of forgetting, trailing the cord that was tied around my waist. I have no memory of ascending the steep slope I must surely have ascended.
For what I do remember—clearly—is standing confused near the top of the crevasse that cut through the far slope of the mountain at the very moment Etude came up behind me, following the cord. He touched my shoulder as I stared in confusion at his marks on my palms, having totally forgotten what they were and how they’d got there.
Seeing my face, he removed the vial of muskroot oil that hung from my neck, opened it, and shoved it under my nostrils again. I stepped back and coughed. My eyes watered. And it all trickled back. Pieces anyway.
I looked at the wistful leaves of the wood that surrounded us, rustling softly on the breeze, and recalled that the forest of forgetting had stood guard over the cemetery for one and a half thousand years. Think on that. One and a half thousand years. Sowed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in what was then the barbarian fringe of the world, it was built to keep weapons and artifacts confiscated from the marauding Turks. In their destructive centuries-long march westward from their ancestral homeland in central Asia, the Turks amassed an arsenal of the occult, which elicited from the Byzantines much the same reaction modern peoples have to chemical or biological weapons, and the Emperor ordered that all such weapons should be disposed of, and for all time.
But it would not be so easy. Justinian and his generals soon discovered that many of the artifacts were merely containers of evil and so had to be preserved unmolested. Others simply couldn’t be destroyed, for no one knew how. And so a secret place was chosen, a crevasse in the mountainous frontier of the known world, carved long ago by waters that no longer ran. It was consecrated and ceremonial graves were dug, and around them, the old forest was cut and a new one was planted, grown from seeds that had been dipped in the river Styx. And so it became a place of forgetting, a secret place where secrets were buried—anything the world wanted to forget had ever existed—where those who wandered in wandered blissfully out again.
But one path was kept, its entrance and meanderings a carefully guarded secret, known in our time only to the High Arcane. And they used it only to inter the fraught and the deadly such that what was feared would be forgotten, and what was lost would stay lost.
And so it was. For one and a half thousand years.
One and a half thousand years.
Until, one bright afternoon, the forest that couldn’t be traversed was traversed by a young man of barely twenty.
I stood there, watching him as he scrambled down the narrow crevasse, which near the top of its course was nothing but a slope of boulders resting at angles against each other. The safest path down was along a V-shaped gap, but without a flat surface below us, we had to walk with our shoes wedged carefully so as not to break our ankles.
I steadied myself on the steeper of the two boulders as I moved one foot in front of the other along the line. “You did it . . .” I breathed.
“Of course,” he called from the scramble. “I said as much.”
“Yes, but . . .”
It was incredible. It was legitimately amazing. He’d done what even the grandest wizards were sure was impossible—so sure, none of them had ever bothered to try. He’d done it with less than a month’s preparation. And he’d done it with science rather than magic.
I saw him toss something from his backpack into a crack between the giant rocks.
“Come. The cemetery is hidden. Just there.” He pointed down the crevasse.
I followed, and as we passed the boulders, the slope lessened and a crack in the mountain opened, like a small canyon, at most two meters high, where a narrow patch of flat earth stretched between the rock faces. It was covered in dead leaves and ran for no more than ten paces or so before there was another slope of boulders and then a longer stretch of flat, again inside a crack about three meters high. The trees of the forest lined the top of the short ridge and bushes and shrubs grew from pocks and holes in the rocks such that I was certain nothing of it was visible from the air. Passing in a helicopter, it would look like any of a thousand nearby ravines.
But it wasn’t. Walking on the flat earth, I saw ancient stone markers under the rocky overhang, half hidden by bramble and dead leaves. Vivid green moss covered more and more of the crevasse the further we descended, and in between periodic rocky interruptions, the crack widened and the overhang grew more pronounced until it was almost, but not quite, possible to walk underneath it, if you stooped. Here were mossy gravestones, so old the carved inscriptions had all but weathered away. Gnarled roots of ancient trees, which had penetrated the gaps in the cliff over centuries, poked up from the tree-covered earth, and there was a sense that we were disturbing something. I felt like I had walked into the bedroom of a sleeping lover, someone I knew I had woken but who pretended to be asleep and who wanted only for me to stop making noise so that they could return to their slumber.
A narrower crack broke off from the central passage, a tributary of the waters that no longer ran, and my eyes—my soul—were drawn to it. The gap in the crag left barely enough space to shuffle sideways, and it was covered in lichen. The footing was covered in wet leaves, for the sun never reached it directly, and so waters gathered, and it stank of rot.
I was about embark therein when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“No,” he said. “That place you must not enter. Come.”
I turned back once again and noticed the wasp that flown from it and, intentionally or not, right at my face. I squealed and swatted my hands in the air, back and forth, as my feet danced on the soft, leaf-covered ground. I was aware that the wasp was around my head, as if it wanted to nest in my hair, and I shivered and danced and moved about making gibberish sounds with my eyes shut tight.
Then I was aware it had stopped, and I saw Etude drop the crushed wasp from one of his now-bare palms. I looked at my own and wondered what would have happened to me just then had I approached that place without benefit of his protections?
He called to me again, and I followed, determined to stay on the path. We traversed another field of gathered boulders, but smaller than before, at most thirty paces, whereupon we reached our destination, or so it seemed. Under the now-high overhang of the crevasse, Etude had found a cracked and pockmarked sarcophagus that had been buried by the centuries to within half a meter of its lid. Dead leaves surrounded it, but the top had been cleared of debris down to the dark crumbles of freshly disturbed earth. Something had been buried there recently. Or perhaps I should say re-buried.
He set to work immediately. He pulled a folding shovel, not much larger than a spade, from his bag, unfolded it, and started scraping the surface as fast as he could. It took longer than I expected, and since I had no tools, I leaned against a rock and looked at the sky. I felt a deep longing for the woods and quiet spaces of my youth, and I reminisced indulgently, despite that I knew it was the stupor of the forest falling down on me as I stared.
A heavy, hollow THUNK brought my attention round to our quest. He had reached something, a coffin, clearly much younger than the half-buried sarcophagus that held it. Late 1800s, I’d say. It took him a bit longer to clear around the lid, but soon it was done, and he lifted it until it hit the rock overhang. He stepped in, using his bent back to prop the lid while he dug through the contents.
I stepped closer.
Stacks and stacks of books. It was a grave of secret knowledge, and it was the only resting place in the entire cemetery that had been disturbed in years.
But the sarcophagus was deep, and full, and soon Etude started throwing ancient texts frantically onto the ground one after the next without care.
I watched them bounce across the damp leaf bed. One cracked and opened and nearly disintegrated in a cloud of dust.
“Should you be doing that?”
“It’s not here!” More books flew, two and three at a time. He was chucking them out with both hands. After a moment, I heard fingernails on bare wood. He pounded it. Then he came out from the grave. The lid of the coffin fell with a thud as he looked in all directions. “It must be here . . .” He started scrambling over the rocks again. He scowled at me.
“What are you doing?” he yelled.
“Taking a break,” I said.
I was leaning against one of the rough and immovable fragments of the mountain that poked up from the deep ground. My legs were tired, as if I’d been walking for hours, and I realized then that I probably had. He’d neglected to tell me how long it had taken me to traverse the otherwise narrow stretch of forest that ran from the tip of the ridge to the meadows below. I was famished, which I mentioned three times. But it was still a good hour before the echo of his mutterings stopped and I found him collapsed on the ground further down the crevasse. He was holding his head in frustration.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He turned to me. His face was so forlorn. But it wasn’t just sad. It was fearful. “I’m not ready,” he said.
“Ready?” I was confused. “Ready for what?”
“It has already begun.” He turned back to look over the crevasse. “It has already begun.”
After all his work, all his preparation, the book was nowhere to be found.
rough cut from the final course of my forthcoming occult mystery, A FEAST OF SHADOWS.
cover image by Michał Klimczak