PERCHED ON THE RIDGE of the red tile roof of La Biblioteca Nacional de México, next door to the Real y Pontificia Universidad de México, and across the street from the south entrance to Status Civitatis Vaticanæ or in Lingua, the Vatican City or City of God, Asa Stern, a cadet major in the Black Robes’ military academy, smelled rain.
Leaning forward over the roof’s ridge, he watched bruised clouds gather in the north, then roll south toward the mile-high plateau, where he and the rest of the population of the Pope’s City of God waited.
A sizzling crackle of lightening and the smell of ozone filled the air, as he pulled back from the ridge and stretched out. “I can use the storm to cover my escape,” he mumbled.
Below his hiding place and across the rough, red cobble-stoned alley, in the lengthening shadows of the three-story law school, two of his cadet classmates waited with drawn daggers for him to leave the library and return to school before his leave was over. Sunday was their day to hunt the half-breed Argyll, who polluted the purity of their school.
At an hour before closing, four hours before curfew at his school, the racist aristos knew from past experience that the blue-skinned half-breed would be on his way back to school. A victim of his own discipline, each Saturday and Sunday for the past year, Stern worked on his entrance thesis for admittance into the War College and then ran the gauntlet his enemies set for him on Sunday night.
He was the only one in their class with such ambition and it was just another excuse for them to hate him. He knew that if he were late and missed curfew, the school might expel him or maybe the War College would refuse him entrance. If things got out of hand and they killed him, then so much the better for them. For six years they had harassed him, bullied him, punched him and terrorized him. But time was running out for all of them. Graduation was a month away and the Argyll would either escape into the War College as an ensign or into the Army as a Brevet Lieutenant.
Each time over the years when he thought they had him, something intervened: sometimes he eluded them and sometimes the school took his side against them. No matter what happened, their anger had now reached new levels of frustration. Carlos Mendez, the one responsible for the continued abuse and harassment, had begun to wonder out loud who or what was protecting the Argyll. “He should be living in the barrio like all of his kind, not attending classes with some of the richest scion in all of La Ciudad,” he often said to his schoolmates, loud enough for Asa to hear.
Now, from the roof, Stern heard Juan Guttmann call out to Mendez, “Rain is coming. I think we missed him.”
“We didn’t miss him,” said Mendez. “He is still in there studying away like the grinding little puke he is.”
Fat cold drops of rain splattered sporadically on the cobblestones to contradict Mendez. “Damn,” he hissed, moving closer to the building to seek shelter under its eaves. He knew, just as Stern did, that if his uniform were wet when he arrived from weekend leave, it would be a demerit. And he already had too many of those; he was close to being expelled from the school, and if he were expelled again, he might not graduate. And if he didn’t graduate, his father, a colonel in the Imperial Lancers would punish him severely. So Mendez moved out of the shadows and shook his head, demonstrating the incipient rage he felt against the Argyll. “This is entirely his fault,” he muttered. “I hate that puta.”
Lightening split the black clouds that now hung low over the zocalo, followed almost immediately by thunder that shook the tiles on the roofs. Clouds opened and drenched the three cadets.
Asa shivered and pulled his hood over his head. Unlike the two below, he wore a dark green cape over rough, homespun Argyll clothing. Unlike his classmates, he had changed out of his uniform upon leaving the school on Friday afternoon. Wearing mufti was against the rules but he thought it necessary.
Several months before, when Mendez and his henchmen almost caught him on the street near the library, he realized the struggle between them was escalating. They were no longer hazing him in good fun as they did other schoolmates; instead, the bullying had taken a nasty and often violent turn. So he changed his routine and viewed the conflict as a real war that he had to win. Part of that war involved stealth and subterfuge.
Mendez stamped his feet and signaled for Guttmann to follow him. Stern remained on the roof, watching them running down the narrow alley to the main artery leading into the zocalo, where they would try and find a rickshaw to take them back to the school. But with this rain that would be nigh impossible.
When he was certain they were gone, he started off over the roof, bending low, watching each step. Over the last few weeks he had mapped out an escape route from the library to the nearest metro station. He slid down a drain pipe and then followed a long alley south that ended in a fence, which he climbed, worked his way through a tenement, then crossed a wide street and descended into the metro and caught a train to the zona rosa, the red light district of the city.
The back wall of the Black Robe School abutted the boundary between the zone and the military district. With the help of his friend and mentor, Markus Raab, a history teacher at the school, he had rented a maid’s room under the eaves of an aged apartment building overlooking the school’s gardens. Over the last few months, he entered the apartment house on Friday evening, changed his clothes, and then exited as an indigent Argyll. On Sunday, he cleaned up, dressed in his uniform and nonchalantly crossed the narrow street as a cadet.
Today, he pulled on a black oil-skin cape issued by the Black Robes to wear in inclement weather and exited the back door, walked around the building to the school’s front gate and saluted the Duty Officer before he crossed the threshold. As he entered the school a rickshaw stopped at the front gate and two rain-soaked cadets—Mendez and Guttman—climbed out and saw him.
Standing under the roof of the guard house adjacent to the gate, smoking an Azteka cheroot, Stern watched as the Duty Officer, Lieutenant David Maldonado, issued the two cadets demerits. Exhaling a puff of the blue smoke of the indio weed, he flicked ash toward Mendez, who turned toward him and growled. The Duty Officer broke the malicious spell between the two men by ordering them to their barracks to change into fresh uniforms. When they were gone, Maldonado said, “Do you think it wise to taunt them?”
Stern reached into his tunic and extracted a slim box of indio cheroots and extended it to Maldonado, who smiled and said, “No thanks. I have my own.” Fishing a pipe from the pocket of his tunic, he asked for a light. Stern lit a match off the sole of his boot and then moved toward Maldonado and held the match over the bowl. Maldonado puffed until the sweet pipe tobacco glowed red and then indicated for Stern to sit in one of the wooden rockers next to the stone chimney.
Stern removed his slicker and hung it on a peg next to the door, returned to the rocker, while Maldonado recorded the demerits in a leather-bound black book on the Duty Officer’s desk. “You know they will be coming for you soon?” he said, as he finished his transcription. The Argyll took a deep drag on his cigar before answering and said, “I figure it will be tonight.” He extended his long legs and crossed them at his ankle. “Mendez hates me so much he has begun to lose all perspective. I don’t believe he has the patience to wait.”
The Lieutenant took a seat in the chair next to him. “I have made a notation that they were following you today. The Commandant is well aware of the hazing.” Stern stopped rocking and threw the butt of his cheroot into the fireplace. “How do you know that?” he asked, fingering another cigar out of the box.
“We talked about it. I told him I was concerned the level of violence was escalating.”
Stern leaned forward and turned toward the Duty Officer and said, “And he chose to ignore it?”
Maldonado pulled the pipe from his mouth and responded: “He is not ignoring it but there are only two ways he would intervene: either you file a written request for an investigation and hearing or they harm you.”
“And if I filed such a request, my chances of being accepted at the War College would be non-existent.”
The Duty Officer nodded and added: “You know the faculty expects cadets to handle their problems. The way in which they handle these matters reveals their character.”
Stern scratched the skin under his right eye and then opened his hand and covered his mouth. “What happens if I challenge them to a duel?”
Maldonado sighed and said, “You know that dueling is against the code of conduct. You are also aware that dueling in La Ciudad is a crime punishable by death.”
‘Not in Leone,” Stern said, referring to the major seaport of Mexico.
“I suppose you could do it there but if you killed one of them, you would be finished. The army wouldn’t touch you.”
“What about the Black Robes?” he asked, leaning back in the chair.
“Maybe they would take you. You are one of our best students and an Argyll; a rare bird they probably could use in their nefarious intrigues.”
“So you don’t think much of the idea,” said Stern with a laugh.
Maldonado emptied his tobacco into the fire and then began refilling the bowl. “You have to come up with something else. You only have a month before graduation and then you are off to either the War College or the army and they are on their way to the Lancers.”
“The Lancers,” Stern repeated. “It must be nice to be rich enough to afford a string of horses?”
Maldonado tapped down his tobacco and then stood next to the boy and patted him on the shoulder. “The cavalry is for idiots. If you go into the army, you will join the engineers. That is where the best students end up. And if you are in the engineers they will send you back home to Maya-tan to build fortifications.”
“My father was a Black Robe,” he said dully.
“And so might you be but only as a last resort.” Maldonado blurted out. “The Black Robes are not for red-blooded men with a future in front of them.”
“I don’t know,” said the boy. “Sometimes I don’t think there is a future for a half-breed.”
“As I said, you are one of our best students. You speak Argyll and lingua. Your father was a Black Robe and your mother was an Argyll princess. There is value in that.” He shook his head and asked for another light.
Stern handed him a match and then walked to the open door and watched water cascading off the steep tile roof of the school. He followed several minutes of silence with a sigh. Then, he said, “a lot to think about, Lieutenant. I thank you. But I guess I need to figure out how I am going to survive the night. After all I am just a poor orphan.”
The Duty officer did not say anything. He just rocked before the fire because there was really nothing he could say or do for Moses Stern’s half-breed son.
Suddenly, Asa turned and pulled his slicker from the peg.” I will see you tomorrow in class, ser.” Pulling the slicker over his head he plunged into the pouring rain and headed for the barracks.
As a senior cadet he no longer slept in the open barracks with his class. Instead, the seniors had their own small rooms. He felt certain that Mendez and others would attack him in his room tonight and he planned to be prepared. He could not hide because the Duty Officer checked the rooms twice each night for head count. He would have to be there but a thought was planted in his mind as he stood looking at the rain fall. The embodied voice that had been talking to him since he was five-years-old said, “You can be there but not be there. Go to the library and find the book I told you about; find the Grimoire of Shadow.”
As he walked through the rain toward the library, he thought about the voice that guided him. He didn’t hear it all the time; just at those times when he was in danger or when he had to make a decision that would be life changing. At first, he thought he was going crazy. Then he had the idea that it was the father’s voice. But later, when he was twelve, the voice introduced itself as Kokabiel, a demon from Elysium, the airy plane, and told him that he had been sent by Moses Stern, his father, to protect him. From then on he tried to elicit information from the voice about his father but it told him nothing. Most times it was not even present. Only at times like today did it make itself heard. Nonetheless, the voice had never failed him in thirteen years; saving him repeatedly from Mendez and other racist bastards, who hated the blue-skinned Argyll cadet.
The library closed early on Sunday and he only had an hour. Texts on demonology were stored in the basement in a restricted area. Other than a general idea of its location, he had no idea how he was going to retrieve it. He simply relied on the voice to guide him. He had faith in the demon.
The library was his favorite building on the campus. Not because of its architectural beauty but because of what it contained. That was not to say, however, that the school was not beautiful because it was. Built over seven hundred years ago by order of Benito Juarez, it was not only one the oldest buildings on the campus but one of the oldest buildings in La Ciudad.
Before entering he pulled off his slicker, shook off the rain, then pushed on one of the tall, heavy oak doors that opened onto a high-ceiling foyer with parquet floors. An attendant, one of the younger cadets, ran forward and took his rain coat and hung it on a wooden peg. As he handed him a claim chit, he said, “We are about to close.” Then he pushed his thick black hair off his face; an obviously nervous gesture.
“Time to get a haircut, Galanos,” said Stern, pulling rank on the young student. “Is Cardenas working tonight?”
“Time to get a haircut, Galanos,” said Stern, pulling rank on the young student. “Is Cardenas working tonight?”
Galanos nodded, “Yes, cadet major. He is upstairs in the science section stacking books.”
“Would you mind finding him for me?” asked Stern, walking over to some chairs against the foyer wall to wait for Cardenas.
Cardenas was one level below Stern but they had both arrived at the school at about the same time. Both were orphans and wards of the Black Robes; and, as a consequence, they felt a certain affinity toward one another.
As he waited for his friend to arrive, he thought about the first time he had come to the library. His father Moses Stern had been with him; as well as a Black Robe, one of the teachers, who acted as their guide. If he remembered correctly his father was tense. The Black Robes wanted him to do something for them and he had initially refused. Something, however, changed his mind and he had agreed to travel North on the condition they allow his son to board at the school while he was away. They agreed and his father delivered him into the Black Robes’ charge. He never saw his father again. The official record said Freedmen in the city of Camaron captured and killed him. Asa had no reason to doubt the report until the voice appeared. According to the demon his father was still alive and someday he would see him.
Cardenas arrived and shook his hand. “What can I do for you, Asa?”
Stern rubbed his tongue over his very white teeth and said with a slight stutter, an affectation which told anyone listening he was lying. “I need to see a book in the restricted area down stairs.”
Cardenas’ eyes widened. And like Galanos he nervously ran his hand through his hair. “You must have written permission from the head master.”
Stern shrugged and Cardenas said before he had a chance to continue, ‘But of course you know that. That’s why you have come to me.”
“I am sorry Raff,” he said, truly feeling embarrassed he was putting his friend in this awkward situation. “I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t a matter of life of death.”
‘Whose life and whose death?” asked Cardenas with a slight smirk. He thought his friend was exaggerating.
“Mendez and Guttmann have threatened me and I think they intend to attack me tonight after lights out.”
“Those shits,” said Cardenas with a sneer. ‘Let’s get them before they get you.”
Stern smiled and said, “no way I‘m getting you involved; except, of course, by asking you to break the rules and let me in to the restricted area.”
“How in the hell will a book protect you from Mendez stabbing you in your sleep?” asked Cardenas with a laugh.
“I know this sounds crazy but I am looking for a book of spells to set a ward to protect me while I sleep.”
“Holy Mother,” said Cardenas. “You are right that is crazy and dangerous.” He looked over his shoulder to see if Galanos had heard them. “If the Black Robes heard you they would have one of the Inquisitors down here, twisting your fingers and toes.”
“I know that, but I’m desperate. I just have one month left and then they are off to the cavalry and I am in the War College.”
Thunder shook the stained-glass windows and the rain began again. “Damn rainy season,” thought Stern.
Cardenas checked his watch and shook his head, as he uttered an epithet. “Follow me,” and keep your mouth shut. If anyone asks what we are doing let me to the talking.”
They passed through glass doors to the ground floor, pass the circulation desk, and headed toward the rear of the library to the stairs leading down to the lower levels. An iron door sealed the lower levels and Cardenas used his keys and then held the door slightly ajar while Stern passed into darkness.
“A lantern to your left on the top shelf,” whispered Cardenas, as he entered.
“This is a bit primitive isn’t it?” muttered Stern, as he fumbled with the glass of a lantern.
Once it was lit, Cardenas allowed the door to close and pulled a lamp for himself off the shelf. Stern handed him a match and then started down the stair to the first level of the basement.
Halfway down the stairs, the demon said, “the Grimoire of Shadows is on the third lower level.”
“We must go to the third level. The Book I want is there.”
Cardenas said, “How the Hell did you know that? The third level is off limits to all students.”
He did not answer; instead, he waited on the first level to allow Cardenas to lead the way.
On each level, Cardenas lit gas lamps that illuminated the floors and the thousands of books stored there. On the third level, however, there was only one library shelf of books, approximately two hundred volumes inside a wire cage. The remainder of the floor was empty.
Cardenas lit the gas lamps around the floor that cast an eerie light in the almost empty space.
A solid oak library table and four chairs stood near the wire cage. Stern dropped his leather book bag onto the table and then moved to the cage door, as Cardenas opened it.
“Now what?” said Cardenas.
“Good question,” said Stern. “I only have the title.”
“And it is?” asked Cardenas.
“Grimoire of Shadows,” whispered Stern, not really understanding why. They were alone several feet below ground in a locked basement.
“Well, go look for it,” said Cardenas. “I am not taking one step into that room.”
“What are they?” asked Stern, hesitating at the door in a feeble hope that the demon would intervene and point him toward the book and the spell he needed to protect him from Mendez and Guttmann.
“As I said earlier, they are forbidden texts, preserved for study by the most holy of our professors. They are not available to students.”
Stern took a deep breath and crossed the threshold of the restricted cage. Suddenly the shelf of books was illuminated and he could see every title clearly. In the distance, he heard the muffled voice of Cardenas calling him but when he turned he could not see anything outside the cage, all but the cage was darkness, blacker than any pit of Hell. He stood in a sphere of light and silence.
He scanned the shelves and noticed the books were in various languages; some he could read—lingua, Latin and Greek—but many he only recognized-- German, Italian, French, Farsi, Anglo, Hebrew and Egyptian—and others he could not identify.
He walked the length and breadth of the shelf looking for something with the title Grimoire of Shadow but he found nothing with that title. Frustrated, he sat on the floor in the bright light and stared at the spines of the books until he heard the demon say, “I can give you the gift of interpretation and speech, if you but ask for it.”
“And what will that do for me?” asked Stern out loud.
“You can speak with every creature in your universe and read every text.” He paused, as a white moth fluttered into the light and landed on Stern’s knee. “If you intend becoming that which you are, then you must possess the weapons necessary to achieve it.”
“Weapons?” said Stern. He felt drowsy and attenuated.
“Magic is based on knowledge, words really, and blood. To become a shaman or a mage you must master the languages so as to be able to speak the spells.”
“I understand that,” said Stern. “I want that.”
“Then I gift you the gift of interpretation and speech. Do you accept it freely?” He nodded and hundreds of moths descended into the light and landed on the flagged stones of the floor.
When Stern looked at the shelves again, he read every title in its own language and quickly discerned that some were not works of from his world; that some of the texts were from other planes, other spheres.
And once he knew he could read the title of the book he sought, he saw it almost directly in front of him; its title written in the runic language of Niflheim, the underworld, the ice realm of Okeanus, the watery plane.
“Demon, I have heard of Okeanus before,” he called out, experiencing a sudden feeling of fear and loneliness. “What is it?”
“It is not time yet for you to know. But you are right. You have heard of Okeanus.”
The moth fluttered and rose from the floor, as if his fears disturbed them.
“Take the book from the shelf and turn to the spell called ‘the ward of assassins.’”
He stood and waded through the thousands of moths covering the floor, sliding his feet in order not to crush one of the creatures and pulled the book from the shelf. It was a thin text, leather bound, with pure white sheets of onion skin paper. No more than a hundred pages with runic text only on the right side. He instantly loved the way the guttural language of Niflheim sounded on his tongue and he read a passage aloud, as the moths’ wings fluttered in ecstasy.
The spell he sought was near the middle of the text. Along with the words of the spell was a diagram of a ward he must draw on the floor of his room. He sat down and pulled a notepad from the pocket of his tunic and copied the spell and the diagram. He then returned the book to the shelf and thanked the demon.
The light extinguished and he awoke in the gloom of the basement illuminated only by the feeble oil lamps. His head pounded and he felt nauseous.
Cardenas held his head off the floor and he felt blood dripping from his nose.
He croaked when he tried to speak; his throat was ragged and raw.
“What happened to you?” said Cardenas, helping him to his feet. “You dropped to the floor, as if someone struck you.”
“I have to get back to my room. I'm going to be sick,” he whispered.
Back upstairs, he rushed to the toilet and threw up. His head was spinning, as well as his stomach. “Have you poisoned me, demon?” But there was no answer.
He staggered through the pouring rain to his barracks and up the stairs to the second floor where the senior cadets resided. Once in his room, he stripped off his uniform and hung the wet clothes near the coal-burning fire to dry. Nude he caught a glimpse of his tall, thin blue-skinned body, his long dark hair and almost azure eyes and understood why some cadets found him so bizarre. Many thought the Argyll beautiful and exotic but others were repulsed, terrified of their beauty. He quickly pulled on a robe, embarrassed by his vanity. How many times had cadets approached him when drunk and made indecent proposals? The military academy was a man’s world and homosexuality was a norm among the younger cadets. Later, as they grew older, they eschewed their earlier infatuations and denied the sexual underworld of the institution.
He opened his notebook and reviewed his notes. His memory of the book and the spell was eidetic; a new phenomenon for him. He suspected it was part of the demon’s gift.
Before he retired to bed, he secured the door of his room and then drew a circle on the floor. Within the circle he drew two triangles to form a six-pointed star; each point touching the circumference of the circle. At each point he dribbled a drop of his own blood from a pinprick he made in his finger, as he recited the spell from the book. Finished, he pulled his half-bed from the wall over the drawing and doused the lights of his gas lamp. Only a red glow from the coals smoldering in the grate lit the room.
The effects of the encounter with the demon were passing and he was becoming drowsy. As he fell asleep, he thought about the war in the Maya-tan and he thought he heard his mother’s voice.