By Ed Chaney
Image by Tithi Luadthong
“We must burn the books!” The junior librarian of Alexandria cried, in supplication, creating a spectacle before Cydas could usher him away.
He had soot and ash smeared across his legs. His khat was stuck to his brow, nearly in tatters as it held his hair back from his forehead. He stank of sour brimstone and the hem of his plain, linen tunic was soaked to the knee with blood caked over in dust. He had all the markings of cataclysm.
Fearful Apollonius trembled before the Head Librarian, Cydas of Thebes, on the limestone steps leading to the main hall. Cydas had taken the junior librarian’s keys, including those to the gates of Osiris section.
“Burn the books?” Cydas repeated. His voice was a drop of water falling from a poppy leaf, ripples of horror echoing across a river of rage. “We-“ he whispered, his indignation and reproach redoubling, word by word, as he spoke. “We-“
“We are the greatest repository of human knowledge in the world!” said Cydas of forgotten Thebes, the once golden city, who could barely contain himself at this request. It was hard to distinguish which part of him was more furious, the Thebean, who had seen the anxious decline of greatness, or the librarian, who was experiencing it afresh.
“It is here we hold the first book of Dionysius Thrax! Here we preserve the finest medical writings of Herophilus and Erasistrus, which changed our very understanding of the corporeal form! Already we lose scholars. Tyrannion is gone and Romans crouch like crocodiles upon our harbor, our queen in the throws of passion with the imperator- and Pharoah Ptolemy warring in- the-”
His voice strained to grow louder, to deride the lowly librarian, anxious Apollonius. His forbearance held him, as did the sight of the common citizenry as they pervaded the arched sandstone entrance hall of the library. The shiny, taut skin of his ancient hands gripped the solid iron of the ring of keys. He shook them in his fist and finished with a hushed voice.
“Should we burn our great Geographika? Defenestrate Archimedes’ great plans for his screw conceived in these very halls! No, junior librarian Apollonius, we do NOT burn books here!”
Old Cydas finished with righteous fury and marched up the pale steps of the Library. Scholars and citizens of the city remained to watch the drama. They could see the junior librarian, tenderhearted Apollonius, undeterred and waiting. He’d kept his gaze upon the older man’s shining scalp as he ascended the steps. Even as his hope dwindled, as the last light of the day no longer shone upon the gleaming pate, as Cydas passed into the shadows of the main hall.
“Please,” Apollonius pleaded, his voice trebled with hope, arresting further passersby. Cydas was aghast, his dark complexion scarlet at the impropriety of this new tableau. To be made the villain upon the staircase.
“It is the Ptolemistod Order which has killed and massacred the citizenry. The blood of Egyptians and Romans and Hellenes soaks the streets. Surely that is enough?
“They’ve used the books in the Osirian wing to conjure demons and djinn from the underworld. Surely that cannot be condoned?
“For they will continue to use our hostage knowledge for demon mongering in the marketplace, continue to unleashed devils upon women and children and people like myself, helpless to escape the throng. Surely, surely we must-“
“We must what?” Cydas asked, smiling at the audience. He held his hands out at once, to adjure them, nothing amiss. He fell upon a familial air and familiar rhetorical treatise.
“Will we destroy all we do not agree with? Censor the Sapphic writing, which offends the Memphites? Purge the commentaries critical of the Greek’s beloved Herodotus? Where should we end the purge of distasteful or offensive material?”
Apollonius wiped his sweating face with the tail of his hanging belt. Cydas was descending towards him, his expression beatific, political, while, quivering Apollonius but endured the curious attention of the crowd at his riposte.
“Lock them, then. We needn’t destroy them. There is a civil war, as you say, and armies on our harbor and in our quarters. Achillas waits for Caesar on the hills outside the city. Bar the books-“
The Head Librarian put a fatherly hand upon the much younger man and led him into the heat outside. The impromptu theatre was disbanded. Saddened at the dissatisfactory resolution of the scene, they continued on with their errands.
“I know that you are hurting, that there is great evil done this day in our city, but there is no evil here, only scrolls and books. These scrolls are controversial, to be sure, and their reading shall be more closely guarded forthwith. I will command it. But we should not destroy antiquity based on the assumptions of the present, for I have seen destruction like that first hand.
“Go home, good Apollonius, see you to your family and your rest. We will address this with clear minds, tomorrow.”
The junior librarian, grieving Apollonius, bowed his head and let himself be led out into the street and put on a canal boat home. He knew there would be no convincing the librarian, that he would have to pursue other avenues to see his task accomplished.
Apollonius found he couldn’t sleep. I would find a way to seal the section, he told himself at night, when the hooked claws of his terrors came stealing between the curtains. He would remove the occult tomes from circulation, even if he had to speak with Cleopatra to do it.
He had walked with his partner and son that mornings, taking the garden thoroughfare from his home in the Jewish quarter down to the bay. They walked along the bay until the great library rose before them, it’s sloping sides and carved pillars towering over the masts of the ships as they bobbed at anchor in the bay. One last time.
“You must restore yourself to your library,” his partner posed, as they drifted along the promenade.
“Party to his inaction? Despicable!”
It was a chilling dawn, the day the library would burn; the wind from the Great Harbor blowing from Pharos’ Lighthouse and smashing across the Lochias ridge. The freezing air was polarizing; every man and woman wrapping themselves tightly and cursing the jet stream in the morning, only to seek it out and accept it in the afternoon heat.
As they walked that morning, blocks from the Library still, his son asked incessant questions concerning the Roman triremes as they languished close at hand. He begged to walk the great land bridge out to see larger quinqueremes, with their rows of oars and gleaming bronze battering rams as they towered outside the bay like a floating city wall.
“They still don’t know if he’ll stay or go,” Apollonius’ partner, Melpomene, told him. She was as forthcoming as she was arresting. A scribe to the queen’s vizier, she ended every story with: “Akantha says as much.”
“He,” of course, was the assailed Caesar. He’d been nursing his wounds in Alexandria, stalling for relief from his allies in Pergamum.
“Apparently, they speak of an escape to bring aid from Antioch or Cyrene, but of course you didn’t hear it from me! Seems like the whole navy is out on the docks, so who can foretell?”
“At least they keep the Roman peace by the waterfront,” Apollonius said, glumly. “Do you know there’s talk of the Order copying scrolls? Each cohort has loads of their own demon mongers, you know, who are trained-“
“What can we do, Apo? Should we train as soldiers? You could do more from your library!”
“Without the decree of the head librarian? Not much. Had I your station—“
“You’d not be so opportunely placed, I think. She holds few books within her chambers, and none so lethal. What is accomplished moping along bazaar?“
“Abate! Desist! I go now to confront the tyrant and-“
The street was littered with chariots and camels and horses. Miles, Roman soldiers, and the city guard mingled. The Roman cohorts and centuries played dice and ate figs and melons. There were craftsman and artisans milling around workshops in the square, and errand boys running notes and letters between city offices. Several boys led squat mules carrying covered trays laden with breakfast breads from the Jewish quarter. Rye, spelt, and wheat bread covered in dates or pistachios. Their fingers were still dusted with flour from stealing snacks from their master’s tables.
And, suddenly, there was also Ptolemistod Order.
Apollonius felt he was sinking. His breathe hissing in and out. He felt the gravity of his head was distorting the body beneath it, as he thought again and again, “Is it now? Will they kill again and take me and my lover and my son?”
There was a sizzling in his ears and his lungs began to rattle like castanets.
They wore papyrus cards with hieroglyphs of elephants, to commemorate the Ptolemy I’s conquest of India. They had on drab, desert colors, with white hats to protect their scalps from the heat. Most had long, tangled beards with close-cropped hair above, nearly shorn to their skin. Some of them had their hands full with scrolls, most with rods or stones. They were crowded under an awning, a market stall, perhaps to drink exotic tea, perhaps to discuss the news from the north. Their leader, Ptolemy XIII, was avowed to retake Alexandria from Caesar, of course, by assassination or war.
Some of the Roman soldiers, those who might have kept a wary watch, were chatting with the guards and seamen before duty. It was a single story brick guardhouse, spare and unadorned without even exterior stuccoing.
A trierarchus was organizing their assignments, the night shift relieving the day. Apollonius drifted away from his family and the garden path, towards the guardhouse. His voice was rising in his throat, even as his partner draggedtheir bawling son away from a stall of dates. He began to cross the crowded square.
“Conceive you that he himself clever thinks, Medea to his Jason?” Apollonius heard one Roman declare in broken Egyptian to a guard who was smoking and shaking his head. Both had long black tattoos across their forearms and thick scrolls, like wagon spokes, hung on their belts. They walked in a parallel path across the bazar, making for the guardhouse.
They spoke, of course, of the betrayal of Pompey, earlier in the campaign, by Ptolemy. Pompey was invited into the city and then murdered to suit Ptolemy’s wishes. While Pompey and Caesar were at cross-purposes, they had been a triumvirate once. He was a Roman citizen murdered in a foreign land, and Caesar’s pain was taken up bitterly by his soldiers.
“Please, Optio Alesius,” The city guard said. “Let’s not retrod this path. It is the simplistic shell projected upon an important issue.”
Apollonius ceased his forward march, in fear and anticipation, to look back at the Order. He could see that within the crowd of Ptolemistod men there was a smaller huddle.
Apollonius could hear his son, who was arguing he should be allowed to seize fruit with both hands.
He heard his partner call him.
A Ptolemistod man with a long beard got out a black scroll from his satchel. An Osirian text.
He heard the clack of the guards rolling dice, heard a woman laughing as she called her win.
He heard empty porcelain cups clattering as several boys carried trays from a brick building.
Everyone seemed at their ease. All were enjoying the freezing breeze from the Mediterranean; enjoying their lives.
Apollonius returned to his partner mid-diatribe as the air grew still and stagnant, a vibration from beneath tickled his bare feet, and he took her hand and his son’s.
“Apo, speak to your son! I will cudgel his gourd this instant! It is up to us to keep him safe, no matter what he may want-“
“Melpo!” He whispered hoarsely. “Take him and go now.”
“My Apo? I’m sorry if I wounded, but I-”
“Go now,” he said and pushed them away. He could feel the rumbling moving through the square, a mosquito looking to penetrate the flesh of reality.
“Papa!” Erastothenes cried, grabbing his father by his tunic, but he pushed away his son’s grasping arms and ran towards the guard station. He ran, haltingly, across the busy square, praying to Hera they wouldn’t rip his family apart. He could hear his partner, harried Melpomene; hear the urgency with which she spoke to their son.
He was running to warn the officers, but Erastothenes began to shout and bawl. The Ptolemistod heard the cries, their black eyes casting suspicious glances across the crowd. They found Apollonius, mid-stride, conspicuously dark beside a pale caravan of desert-dwelling Garamanteans.
“Death to Caesar!” A man on the fringe of the square, under the awning, shouted. If the distant guards heard, they were frozen in their places as a black mass was pulled up from the stones around them.
“Harken!” Apolllonius finally screamed out, drowned out by the clopping of the passing horses. The traffic in the busy square nearly paused; faces in the crowd turning quickly. Apollonius could see their terror as his previous thoughts occurred to them: “Why today? Why should I have to live through another massacre?”
“Death on the foreign parasites!” The man from the Ptolemistod screamed. The black cloud coalesced, pounding into the guard building, sending bricks flying at the crowds as they screamed. A demon, a vermillion giant with the head of a crocodile, pushed its way up from the rubble, seizing a woman selling pottery and perforating her to pieces with its jaw.
The miles ran, diving over the small retaining wall, their scrolls already in their hands. The Optio, whom Apollonius had seen, jumped from a window in the crumbling guardhouse, catching the demon’s attention. Yellow eyes gleamed as the chimera stepped forward on the legs of a lion, his chin and lolling tongue smearing with blood.
“Chapter and verse!” the Optio shouted. His hair was askew, blood running down his face. “Ell ex three! Diviciacus six and three!”
The demon lost interest in the officer, who hid behind the small wall. Instead, it lunged for an errand boy, scrabbling over the demolished guardhouse. Apollonius could see the miles were already beginning to read and whisper as one.
A bolt of green lightning split the sky. There was a hissing, rushing wind. Green ropes began to twine themselves around the demon, which rolled its maniacal eyes and laughed, a deep vibration Apollonius could feel in his chest. The ropes crawled up the demon’s bulbous torso, but it ignored them. It thrashed and rolled, snapping at camels and mules. It rolled back over to the men, straining against the chasing bonds, and smashed the retaining wall. It caught the Optio around his foot, for a moment before the end of the ropes split apart. Each strand had the head of a viper and they bit into every part of the demon.
It was averted in a matter of seconds, but the pieces of crushed men and animals were strewn in heaps around the once somnolent square. The lagon, the snake dragon, was wrapping the laughing demon in endless layers, its heads striking anywhere they could find purchase.
Sick, Apollonius tore his eyes from the spectacle and vomited.
“Ptolemy will save our city!” he heard someone shout. Apollonius spun, so nauseated his vision smeared and swam, searching for the voice.
He could see a crowd of nearly twenty, discernible because they moved together. He could see the flaps of the black scroll, torn in half. An old man was speaking.
“He will wash this foreign filth from our streets! It’s up to us to carry out his purposes.”
Too obvious in their desert camouflage and papyrus icons, the men scattered to escape the guards and miles, which had formed up around the dead demon and were advancing across the square.
Appollonius chased after the closest Ptolemistod, turning this way and that in the chaos, until he came out of the alley on to the Market Street. He could see a contingent of the Ptolemistod making their way down the crowded thoroughfare. At the end of the street, tall and strident upon the hilltop, was the library.
“Close the library and lock the Osiris section! There are radicals who would enter and use the knowledge there against our city.”
Apollonius spoke to a Hellene scholar, Hermokrates, in the grand hall. Apollonius knew that the man knew him, even after his absence, but he still labored slowly.
“I should have to clear it with Cydas,” the scholar said.
“Truly? Give me the keys, then, and I’ll lock the section,” Apollonius gestured to the keys on Hermokrates belt. The scholar glazed over, closing his mouth as footsteps echoed behind them. A cohort of Roman soldiers was gathering around the room. They took casual strides, the susurrus of their boots whispering across the stone floor. Their armor, strips of overlapping steel, the gleaming lorica segmentata, caught the sunlight from the hallway mirrors.
“We are, then,” said a soldier in a cape and helmet. It was broken dialect of the Optio, limping slightly from his confrontation with the demon only an hour past. He held his head high, peering down the slope of his imperious nose at them. “Along just from the Port District coming, which was attacked. Agitable scholar, what truly is there to contemplate? The Ptolemistod are maladroit murderers and they are here.”
The scholar glared at the miles, disapproving of their presence in the library. He was an ethnic Greek and had strong feelings concerning the upstart imperials. He glared at the Optio from beneath his thick brows watching as the guests in the main hall around them were shuffled away, clearing their scrolls from the sandalwood tables and carrying them away like banners.
“Cydas must okay the closure of the section, as it is available to all free citizens of the city.”
The Optio, Alesius was his name, stepped forward and the scholar retreated immediately, clutching the keys.
“How can you require thought? Inaction? Show you those who’ve been apart torn by the Ptolemistod, I might. Their bodies linger in the street, casted out into the harbor, they bloat and fester-“
“Close the section, Hermo!” Frantic Apollonius cut in. He held out his hand to his colleague. “Let me close it before they can take more and do worse!”
“Locking the gates won’t change a thing!” The scholar said. “This knowledge is freely disseminated, already it flies freely. Your actions would accomplish nothing to halt it!”
The soldiers were walking in loosely gathered groups as they talked, ushering out any remaining patrons. The miles were casually surrounding the scholar until their practiced hands seized him. The Optio cut the keys from the scholar’s belt with his short pugio.
“Hear then, volatile Hermo. Cydas will you tell of the dangerous men within the House of Muses. Upon him impress the necessity that this house be evacuated. Caesar commands we are to preserve the human sanctity of the citizens of Alexandria. We will seal the gates.”
The scholar huffed, shaking his head in consternation. He tried to shake off at the soldier’s hands, which held him easily, and croaked when they did not release him. The officer stepped forward, wincing from his wounds.
“Of Regent Alexander’s response to the Maedi think, scholar. Underlings might move slowly, and the dissemination of knowledge is great, but if we do not even stem the tide?” Optio Alesius said, Roman to Greek. The scholar studied the older man.
“Yes, I will warn Cydas of the military action in the Osiris wing. But it will be reckoned upon Caesar, should any harm befall our citizens, extremists or not.”
The scholar was released and swept grandly away. The momentarily casual motions of the soldiers formed into regimented movement, and Apollonius realized he was alone in the main hall, surrounded by a Roman cohort.
“You then,” Optio Alesius said, speaking to Apollonius. “You chased the evil men to the halls of the Library and sought out this scholar with familiarity? You have some knowledge of this place and these skills are required.”
“I can lead you, yes,” Apollonius answered, holding out his hands for the keys. These were given to him and he led the cohort down the stairways and under the archway into the Osiris wing, the angelic smiling relief of its namesake above them. The few people they met in the hallways were soaked with sweat and in terror. At the gates, the junior librarian was halted.
“Lock us in, they are below,” the officer commanded and Apollonius shut the gates behind them and turned the key. He tied off the keys to his long belt.
“There may be patrons in the halls beneath us,” he said to the Optio, who nodded. “You swore to their safety.”
“In aesculapian work, the Bellum Justum is followed. We seek to remove the rot, but our first order is the safety of the larger body and the destruction of the disease. We go to do this work, you together with us.”
“And will we re-emerge? Are we Orpheus or Eurydice?”
The Optio regarded the locked gates behind them. The light of the day was between them, the dark passageway ahead.
“We have disaster and sorrow seen, and I fear for we will see more. I want to tell you each that we are foolish Orpheus, but untrue, we are all fair Persephone and you are our Charon. Come, let us cross over.”
The unit moved as one. Apollonius was in the rear with the keys, guiding but not leading. The soldiers took torches from the sconces, gladii in their hands, the passages from their scrolls already committed to memory and ready to be uttered. The foremost group was tasked with forecasting the order to attack or defend to either flank. They would monger first and decisively, acting as their training dictated.
They came to a large hall with stone tables in two rows down the middle of the sanctuary of ancient writing. These tables were refurnished embalming benches, basins with holes at the end for the draining of fluids. They had flat petrified wood set in stacks to hold down the ends of scrolls and curved racks for the wooden dowels around which the papyrus scrolls were wrapped.
It was at these tables that the Ptolemistod was gathered. They had a scroll laid out and held down with gray stone wood. The charcoal black dowel on the rack looked like a burnt wagon’s axle, the hubs enameled with golden hieroglyphics.
The men themselves looked like a gathering of dead palm trees, draped in khaki and brown tunics with their long tangled beards. A light, a beating pink glow, came from the scroll and drew frightening silhouettes of the Order across the shelves. These specters looked like demons in crowds, in churches, in shops and restaurants; dangerous beings painted everywhere, all the time, crossing every walk of life just before its oversoon cessation.
The foremost group of miles called out their spells in hushed voices and the ground shook as hoofs clopped against the stone. A herd of minotaur wearing bright lorica segmentata with thick-fingered gauntlets reached forth from the shadows between the shelves and ran for the Order. They took hold of the neophytes as they tried to scatter.
The beating pink light increased ten-fold, blinding all of the Roman contingent and Apollonius as well. Something, a demonic colossus beyond any that had reached into this world before, was pushing through. The clawed hand, once a burning pink, now turned white-yellow. It was covered in writing, leaking new scrolls and new weapons as it billowed forth. It touched a minotaur, setting it aflame in a moment. The monster bellowed, smashing its own skull to put out the flames, writing crawling over it in scorching script. It fell with a crash, destroying an embalming table beneath it, leaking spells and calligraphy across the hall. Demons rose from these words and more minotaur stepped from the shadows to take its place.
Members of the order snatched up errant scrolls from the shelves and intoned the first words they saw.
“Caesar is a foul coward!” One of Ptolemistod laughed, as the great-clawed hand reached upwards to scrape the sycamore beams of the ceiling. “He will fly north soon enough.”
A great vulture dropped from the ceiling and began to sidle towards them, flanking the phalanx of Roman soldiers. Its eye was an eager bloodshot sphere above a hooked beak the size of a ship’s prow. The folds of its raw red face and neck shook as it hopped around them, searching for purchase.
“The antiquities, you fools!” An elderly voice cried from the doorway behind them.
Apollonius, surrounded by the half-circle phalanx, found the Cydas, the head librarian, in the doorway, aghast as the first scrolls began to wrinkle and burn. Unheeding of the battle, Cydas seemed to act on instinct. He pulled a scroll from the folds of his tunic, raised a wind spirit, and sent the surprised phalanx tumbling before him.
The minotaur, as if suddenly feral, began to fight amongst themselves. One took another by the horns and threw him into a shelf, reducing the shelf to a jumble of splintered timbers, torn metal, and bull blood. Another creature self-immolated, accepting the clawed hand’s touch until it became a bonfire. It continued with new demonic life, eyes glowing black as it began to gather the Romans and the Order into its arms, each man screaming as they burned like old palm branches.
“Form!” Optio Alesius shouted. He limped forward, calling the men, even as the minotaur stampeded. They trampled the soldiers underfoot and tossed Cydas away like a rotten fruit. The head librarian crumpled against the bookcase nearby the vulture, which was gobbling at the viscera on library floor. The Optio took up his scroll and a bone white statue rose from the sandstone. It took hold of the vulture’s neck, even as it beat its wings hopelessly against it.
“Optio!” shouted Apollonius as he ran to him, trying to avoid all manner of demons conjured from the air and earth to kill one another. The officer grasped him by his tunic, leaning against him as he held on.
“All is lost, good Apollonius, we call must for retreat. Give the command, I cannot draw strong breath.”
“No! Burn the books! Stop the mayhem, remove the weapons, and end the endless cycle of massacres!”
Men called out to them as they came, those who were left. They were shaken, whittled down to a scant handful, but their death was on their faces. They returned to their commander, their expressions in askance, ready for his final commands. They came, lining up with their backs to Apollonius and their shields facing the melee.
“Strong Apollonius!” the Optio wheezed. “We will do as you ask, but I will not sacrifice us all.
“Men, it is up to you to escape and tell the world to take up our mission. Mongery is too dangerous for the common man, for the most powerful good will turn to evil in the wrong man’s hands. You must go and say what I cannot.”
Then to Apollonius, he said, “Lock the gates and seal the abbatoir.”
The small circle of men surrounded Apollonius, pressing him tightly between their bodies, hot and damp, metal slick with blood and soot. Smoke began to billow even as mounds of scrolls burst into existence. The pale white hand was flailing for purchase to pull itself into this world.
“It is up to us to keep them safe, no matter what they may want,” Apollonius thought, recalling his wife’s words. He took a torch from the floor and threw it deep into a bookshelf. It lit from behind, like a tandoor.
Optio Alesius was driving his statue forward, casting aside all manner of hawks and bees as it ran for the rift and the hand. The officer was braced behind a plank of wood from a broken shelf, hiding from a great bull elephant. He croaked commands to the statue. It took up a broken stone table and began hacking the hand off at the wrist. Gouts of flame poured out as it worked, blackening the face of the golem and melting the murals painted the ceiling.
The last Apollonius saw of Optio Alesius, he had his gladius in hand and had run it through the cheek of the elephant. He had taken out his pugio and began to pry away the trunk when the flames rushed towards the retreating troops.
“Here now!” A soldier called, and the miles began to run in step, driving Apollonius along before them.
They ran from the fire and through the section to the gates. Apollonius could sense his freedom beyond the burning hand and burning minotaur and marching sentinel. The damned tomes would burn; he and his family need not live in fear any longer.
He began to rush beyond the soldiers, sprinting around corners and flinging himself up stairways, waiting for the barred gateway at the end of the final hallway.
He turned the last corner, nearly breathless found Cydas standing before them, touching them gently with his fingers. In a moment of panic, he reached down expecting to have lost his keys again, but they were still lashed to his belt.
It was a gruff Roman soldier, resolute and furious. In the hallway behind the junior librarian, the soldiers were backing away as a bright flame lit the passageway. A hot, bitter stench billowed over the heads of the miles. A face rose from the hallway, the burning minotaur, a seething mass of poisonous flames.
“I’ve lost my keys!” Cydas shouted at him from the other direction. “Soldiers! It is your duty to preserve lives!”
Cydas had, in his hands, under his arms, and jammed into a great pocket he’d made by rolling up his jacket, a collection of black, gold-embossed scrolls. He had twenty or thirty of them, of all sizes and shapes, and he was careful not to let any slip and fall as he stood tapping his foot.
As the minotaur advanced, the men formed together into their interlocking shield, last of them turning to Apollonius. He stared at the demon, his breath sour and his armor filthy.
“The Bellum Justum is followed,” the miles quoted.
The phalanx held their shields to block the demon, its flaming hooves carving runes into the floor with every step.
“Open the gates!” Cydas pleaded. “I’m sure the city guards will come to put out this fire and preserve what is left! I can even hear them coming down the stairwell!”
In the hallway, Apollonius turned away from Cydas, towards the demon. He took out the keys.
“I won’t let any more of this knowledge out. It’s safer without it, without this repository of evil. It is up to us to make the children safe!”
“Fool! You’ve nary curtailed a thing! All you’ve done is destitute your woman and child and damn yourself to slow demise. Men beget violence. Withholding these texts from them will do naught to correct the flaw within mankind. The scrolls do no evil; they are incapable of doing so! What you do will not stem man’s violent nature anymore than that creature can send you to paradise.”
The older man dropped the scrolls and began pawing through them, searching for a spell to destroy the gate or kill the demon. They rolled away as the demon came on; the hallway aflame in moving words and figures. The miles backed away as the demon advanced.
“Number and verse!” the soldiers cried.
“I must do something!” Resolute Apollonius told his master. “To demonstrate that evil, that mass murder, can’t be allowed to go on in perpetuity! That inaction is not the correct recompense for needless slaughter! If men decide to kill one another, then they will not be able to do it half so efficiently as they might with these weapons!”
His final words spoken, Apollonius flung the keys at the flaming demon, which charged the remnant phalanx and the doomed librarians.
Cleopatra sat up as she was carried into the ruined hall. She commanded to be set down, even as her servants protested the fouling of her incarnate form upon the blackened floor. She stood in the ashes, amongst the glistening viscera of the scorched skeletons. She raised a hand for her scribes and began to dictate.
“By my words, these scrolls are banned from my city, and those with this knowledge, or copies thereof, mandated to submit them to the city sentries-“
“The bandits and pirates and zealots, as well?” a man interrupted.
“They will be liberated from them, my Imperator.”
Gaius Julius Caesar scoffed at her words, communicating with a look to his retinue how soaked in naiveté he found these decrees. He strode forth, his cloak and boots pulling ashes along behind him.
“Will your mandated freedom lessen the discord and harm within your kingdom? And to what purpose? Pandora let her spirits out into the world and argues we let them proliferate, for good soldiers will always triumph over lesser extremists.”
Cleopatra held out her hand. Sets of Roman armor, scorched and melted, were strewn across the tables and floor. An officer, strips of charred melted to his skeleton, skewered on the tusk of an enormous elephant.
“Behold your triumph, dictator perpetuo. Here your miles won their great victory.”
Gaius inhaled deeply, his retinue receding.
“You are right,” he said, nodding but not smiling. “It is on my head that this calamity has fallen. I take responsibility, forthwith, and will no longer carry a tome on my person.
“But,” he said softly. “I will employ my demon mongers, those trained to defend by long study, because the last Roman guest who walked unprotected remains here eternally in glorious Alexandria.”
“As you say,” the queen answer, trading his barbs for her own. “And with them by your side, you have no need of my walls.”
She bent to pick up a man’s skull and found it crumbled between her fingers. A manservant wiped her fingers as she gave orders for the corpse of the Osiris section to be buried, and climbed back aboard her palanquin.
“What next!” Gaius said, his voice loud, reverberating through empty shelves, halting the servants as they bent to lift the couch. “Will rulers fear cobblestones and horses? Tremble at chariots? Any queen, as any Caesar, should fear demon monger as they might stones, or fools, or knives. A ruler understands these weapons; they needn’t quake at common scrolls nor shriek at household cutlery.”
But the queen was lifted and carried out, her words carrying down the hallway, wanting always to have the last word.
“Will rulers forget the burning of Alexandria’s Library, or the demonic cause? I will leave it to historians, then, to prove your preeminence. For what foolish ruler would fear scrolls, or stones, or knives?”
About the Author: Ed Chaney teaches in California. His short story, “Anointed,” was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Press May/June 2018 Short Story Award for New Writers contest. More recently, his essay “How rain puddles don’t taste like chocolate milk, and other key weather facts” was published in my local newspaper, The Fresno Bee. https://twitter.com/EdChaneywrites
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