He put his hands on the antique oak counter. “This is a book shop. Not a help desk.” He pointed to the sign high on the wall behind him:
THIS IS NOT A LIBRARY
“I’d recommend Massius Crane’s seven-volume history,” he said. “At the end, you might begin to have some faint appreciation for just how immense a question—”
“Fine,” I said, turning to leave. “Whatever. Say hi to Granny for me.”
I made it halfway to the door.
He had a very slight sneer of disgust. “You’re a devil whose name escapes me.”
He moved his lips again like he had the same bad taste in his mouth. Then he walked around the counter and to the front, where he locked the door and hung the CLOSED sign. He stepped to the glass-encased bookshelf against the left wall, lifted the keys from his belt, and unlocked it. I watched him remove a large text from a set, the second in a series of seven oversized volumes with old-style cloth binding. The spines all had the title, The Reign of The Masters, printed in metallic gold letters over the name of the author, Massius Crane. The final volume was quite a bit thinner than the others, as if unexpectedly short.
“When they showed up, in secret,” he said, “on a small island in the Adriatic, they would have been wearing heavy robes and John Knox caps. The local workers who lit their path with torches would have been told not to speak of their arrival, upon pain of death.”
Anson brought the tall book to the counter and flipped through the pages slowly. “Mr. Crane suspects their aims were modest—at first. Just as Jesus did not set out to establish the Roman Catholic Church, neither did the five old men who wandered up the rocks that day seek to change the world. They were merely answering the call of the most powerful monarch in Europe at the time, Philip IV of France. The so-called Iron King.”
“Philip had just executed the last members of what had once been the preeminent military force across the Mediterranean world, and a threat to him: the Knights Templar. The king’s men immediately descended on the Templars’ secret fortress, hidden on that small island, and emptied the treasury, but they were Christian men with Christian spirits and what they found in the lower crypts both perplexed and terrified them, and none dared enter.
“So The Iron King sent for the wisest men from across Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Nine men. One refused due to ill health, two perished en route, and one turned back when he heard news of their deaths, which he took to be an ill omen. So it was that only five stepped from the rowboat that took them ashore, where the illiterate Italian peasants who greeted them felt obliged to show respect to their superiors, as was the custom of the day. But since they hadn’t been told a proper title, it all being a terrible secret, the peasants referred to the men with the simple honorific of their language, i maestri.”
He spun the book and pointed to a black-and-white illustration, like something from the Victorian era. It was a grand stone chamber. Great columns ran along the sides and held up the heavy roof, all but a shadow overhead. At the end was an impressive stone edifice, like a freakishly tall judge’s bench, behind which sat seven robed elders, the one at the center a little higher than the others. Above them on the back wall, an eye-shaped cavity had been cut into the otherwise smooth stone. Inside it, just a bit off center, a giant crystal radiated spearlike shards in all directions.
“What’s that?” I pointed to the top of the image.
“The source of their power. The Great Eye, forged at the dawn of civilization, two and a half millennia before Christ, by the high priests of Sumer for their lord, Annemundu, the first god-emperor in history.”
I looked closer. “What are these rays coming out?” I traced a finger along one.
“The Eye is—or rather was—a seeing stone, a great crystal whose gaze pierced all. Annemundu used it to discover and destroy all who plotted against him—or even maligned his name in secret. He despised deliberation and enforced a uniform order, a perfect orthodoxy without argument or dissent, where everyone agreed on everything. He called it peace, for there were none left to oppose him.
“Stone carvings from the era suggest that Annemundu’s rule was lengthy and absolute, but that in the end, he died, as all men do. Mr. Crane believes that the Eye was smuggled out of Mesopotamia by wealthy families close to the emperor who feared another despot. Some say it was buried in the deep desert and that the men who buried it were buried themselves. But no one really knows. All we know is that it disappeared from history—completely—for the better part of three thousand years, until, in the thirteenth century, it was discovered in the Templars’ crypts. They seem to have stumbled upon its hidden resting place while on holy crusade and taken it as plunder without realizing its purpose or power.
“It was the five maestri, diligently cataloging all the treasures—and terrors—the knights had accumulated over two centuries of conquest in the Holy Land, who finally saw the truth. Whether they feared what the Iron King would do with it, or whether they succumbed to its lure themselves—perhaps both—The Masters, as they were called, soon betrayed their lord. They sent false reports and provided him trinkets and stale relics in place of the mystic hoard they alone now possessed.
“The five forged a brotherhood pledged to protect that hoard from all who would abuse it. And so they did. But . . . as generations passed, their successors grew increasingly restless with mere custodianship. They had learned much from its contents, that’s for sure. At some point, they began modestly referring to themselves as the High Arcane. Soon after, they took to using the Eye. Rarely at first, but with increasing rapacity.
“By the seventeenth century, some four hundred years later, five elders had swelled to seven and included representatives from all the major civilizations on the earth, from the Far East to the New World. Any man who sought power on any continent—not political office, mind you, but real power—had first to earn their favor. The politicians of this world are, or were rather, princes only. The kings had no name. It’s no accident that the men who built the modern world were all members of secret societies steeped in the occult. Many of the Founding Fathers of this very country were inducted into the secret order of the Masons, pledged vassals of i maestri. Those who resisted, or simply opted out—the remaining woodfolk, the night maidens, the free practitioners of wildcraft—were labeled witches and burned alive.” He looked to me for a reaction.
“Why?” I scowled. “Power?”
“We all want what we don’t have,” Anson explained. “The Masters had power. What they wanted was order.”
He closed the book and retrieved another from the shelf, a later volume in the same series. He flipped to another page. “Here.”
It was like a scene from an old epic, the Iliad or the Ramayana or something. I saw an army of men carrying round shields and snub swords, a line of archers, flying monsters, an army of skeletons erupting from the earth, a giant bull raging through the clouds, a mounted king, a lightning bolt from the sky striking a giant three-tailed scorpion, a magic hammer, a blind priestess, a bearded wizard and his seven acolytes, and on and on, all locked in a great conflagration that filled a long swooping valley from mountain to mountain, while at the peaks, standing rings of fire—one white, one black.
“The world as it was in the beginning,” he said as I studied the page. “You think it’s an accident that every ancient civilization, from the Greeks to the Japanese, told stories of ghosts and monsters and great heroes with magic spears? How do you think Alexander conquered the world? Or Genghis Khan? With the stirrup and a handful of sweaty barbarians? Magic is power. Real power. Over the self above all. It is a way to touch the divine, for whom magic is blood, to participate in something higher, something real, ineffable, transcendent.
“And The Masters took it all. They used the Eye to discover objects of power, then sent their agents to collect. In place of magic, they gave mankind the Machine. Machines are predictable, you see. They can be controlled—measured and changed. But magicks defy periodicity. They’re immeasurable, uncontrollable. And accessible. Remember, Merlin was a peasant boy, and he crowned a king.”
“So what happened?”
“For a long time it seemed as though the High Arcane would rule forever. Until . . . in the aftermath of the war, driven by greed, men penetrated the last soft places of the world. Out of the clear-cut jungle—out of nowhere—a young man appeared, half naked, with ocher skin and eyes painted in blue dye, born of a people spared the ravages of history. A man who could make magic. Not the repetition of some crusty old spell, mind you. Real magic. New magic.”
He slid the creased computer printout over the book.
I looked at it, at the face hidden by a tree. “So . . . this guy’s a wizard?”
“NO!” Anson slapped the counter. “Have you been listening? He’s not a wizard! He doesn’t build flying contraptions and anoint lusty fools with magic swords. He’s a shamanic sorcerer! A world-walker. A true agent of chaos. The very last, in fact. Which is why everyone has been happy to leave him locked away in his sanctum all these years.”
I squinted at the photo. “Then why come out now?”
Anson simply shook his head. “I’m sure I wouldn’t want to know.”
Snippet from my five-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.
cover image by Ryan Lowe