THAT SLEEP OF DEATH



THAT SLEEP OF DEATH, by Mary-Jean Harris

 

There is no religion higher than Truth,” Lady Wickham spoke as she raised her lace handkerchief to her eyes.

Before I could comment on the great sensibility of such a phrase, she exclaimed, “Isn’t it blasphemous!”

As a philosopher, I could by no means agree with that, but seeing the state she was in, I said, “I’m sure it could indeed be used for the wrong purposes.”

Lady Wickham scrunched the handkerchief in her hand, evidently trying to keep control of herself. We were speaking about her son, Philip, whose future she was quite adamantly invested in. When he had joined the Theosophical Society of Canterbury last week, she had taken it upon herself to put a stop to it. Although I had explained to her that we philosophers at the Order for Investigations into Curious Metaphysical Phenomena study strange occurrences that lie beyond the speculations of both the police and natural philosophers—such as the nature of the soul, spiritual entities, and objects which possess strange powers—I had never met anyone from this Theosophical Society, so I told her that I would investigate. For even if I could not convince her son to leave, I might very well discover some curious metaphysics.

It was half past ten in the morning, and Louis and I were seated in Lady Wickham’s drawing room with red Turkish carpets, tall draperies with golden flowers embossed along the top rods, and three divans with floral patterns, one of which Lady Wickham was seated upon across from us. A cup of tea on an elegant mahogany side table was ready to revive her, should she require it. Louis, the youngest member in our Order, was sitting next to me on the divan.

“I cannot imagine why,” she continued, “any son of mine would get involved with mystics.” She turned her sharp nose in Louis’s direction. “Would you join such a group?”

I gave Louis a glare in warning, but he only brushed his fair curls from his eyes and said, “If they did philosophy, I—” He flinched when I elbowed him in the ribs. “Probably not,” he concluded.

“Oh!” Lady Wickham sighed. “Will you bring him back to me? Every day he speaks of nothing but those terrible theosophists and their peculiar ideas. He is so taken in by it all that I fear he may renounce his studies in finance, and ever since his father died I have been so careful that he wouldn’t come across the wrong sort of people, and now he is with the worst lot imaginable.”

I had to wonder where vagabonds and assassins would have fallen into her classification if theosophists were indeed the worst she could imagine.

“And what’s more, I fear…” She licked her lips. “I fear he may renounce the Church.”

There was a significant pause, as if she expected us to gasp in horror. I, however, knew many men who had renounced the Christian Church, notably philosophers. I exchanged a glance with Louis, but he didn’t appear particularly concerned either.

When our disdain was not forthcoming, Lady Wickham continued more firmly. “Philip has a meeting this evening, and I want you there to stop this nonsense.”

“I will have to see what these meetings really entail,” I said. “After all, it might be perfectly harmless—”

“No, Mr. Galbraith, I think not. You should have seen his excitement, and when he pronounced that terrible motto, I knew just the sort of people he was dealing with. I will pay you handsomely if you return him to me.”

“Does he not still live with you here?”

“Yes, he does, but he goes out just about every evening—here, take that.” She pointed to a small piece of paper on the side table, so I stood to retrieve it, and then returned to the divan and held it out for Louis to read with me.

At the top of the page was a symbol formed of the letters T S C intertwined in curling script, below which was written the date, 4 September 1876, which was just over a week ago. Beneath this was written: Philip. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance at Attwater’s Bakery yesterday. Please consider yourself invited to our meetings held every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at half past eight in the evening at 21 Orchard Street. – Ashlar Kaye. Along the bottom of the page in tiny text was the motto, There is no religion higher than Truth.

“Ever since he received that letter,” Lady Wickham continued, “he has cared for nothing else. Oh, if only I hadn’t sent him to Attwater’s for those lemon scones!” She pursed her lips as if she would never eat a lemon scone again.

“Louis and I will investigate,” I assured her. “We will speak with Philip after the meeting. But I can make no promises.”

“Just try, try to your utmost,” she implored.

“I will do what I can.” Unless, I thought, it was a legitimate organization. And why wouldn’t it be? Theosophists, those mystic philosopher who study the esoteric nature of reality, might have a poor reputation in England, but this seemed largely due to the fact that the Theosophical Society had originated in America, and so was not purely British.

We soon took our leave of Lady Wickham, and after Louis and I discussed our plans for that evening, we parted ways. Louis headed to the library to get caught up on the latest philosophical treatises on Idealism, and I went home to write a letter to Arnold, the leader of our Order, about our latest assignment.

***

It was nearly half past eight when Louis and I reached Orchard Street. I had been hoping to arrive early to explain to Ashlar Kaye that we were considering joining, and wished to attend a meeting to determine whether or not we wanted to proceed. However, instead of meeting Louis at eight, I needed to drag him from a paper he was reading about a new interpretation of Kant’s theory of the mind, and we had to jog across town to make it just for eight thirty.

The house at 21 Orchard Street had walls of small rounded stones and dark windows on the upper level. Curling tresses of ivy hung down from the roof, and lichen grew between cracks in the stone, a pale white in the moonlight.

“Now Louis,” I said, catching my breath as we approached the house. “Just let me do the talking until we see what sort of people these are.”

I straightened my black frock coat and Louis checked his pocket watch before slipping it back into his dark orange doublet and brushing his hair from his eyes.

“Will you really try to get Philip to leave the group?” Louis asked, whispering now that we had reached the front steps.

“That depends,” I whispered back. “If it is an earnest organization, I would not presume to prevent a young man from pursuing it.”

“And if it isn’t?”

I knocked on the door with a brass knocker in the shape of an owl’s head. “Then perhaps I’ll encourage him to join the Order instead. But it’s not as though I can force—”

I stopped upon hearing the door being unbolted from within. Presently, a tall man opened the door. He was so tall, in fact, that his top hat brushed the top of the door frame. He wore a dark green waistcoat over a white tunic with its sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His green eyes were bright and curious behind his rectangular spectacles, and he had a beard of hazel brown flecked with grey. He was holding a bellows in one hand, and I thought looked like a natural philosopher.

Seeing his surprise at our arrival, I said, “Good evening, sir. My name is Edwin Galbraith, and this is Louis Earnshaw. We are philosophers, and were hoping to attend the Theosophical Society of Canterbury’s meeting tonight with the intention of possibly joining.”

The man’s face alighted. “You don’t say! Come in, come in, we’re always looking for new members. Though I’m afraid we’ll have to test you. Just the protocol, you see.”

“Of course,” I said, following him inside. I glanced back and saw Louis hesitating at the door, so I gestured for him to follow and hoped that he wouldn’t do something too ridiculous.

The house was unlit, and before my eyes could adjust to the dark, we were descending a staircase that creaked nosily at every step like the screeching of gulls. A wonderful protection, I realized, against anyone who might try to intrude upon their meeting. At the bottom, we were able to see properly again, though this was only facilitated by a few candles that gave the room a tepid orange hue.

We had entered a room with a low ceiling that was only just tall enough to fit the man’s height. Instead of finding what I had expected, namely, a large table with distinguished-looking men seated around it with stacks of philosophical treatises, there were only divans, all of different colours, and a small table at the end of the room that held a few peculiar metal instruments, the candles, and a pot of Grecian design that was emitting whitish-grey smoke, presumably the source of the heady scent of frankincense permeating the room.

I tried to imagine how one of their meetings would unfold. Would they lie on the divans and discuss their ideas? Seeing as none of the couches were close together, I couldn’t help but imagine the members shouting across the room to make themselves heard. This certainly did nothing to foster the group’s credulity in my mind.

The man turned to me. “My name is Ashlar, by the way. Ashlar Kaye. You may join us today, though bear in mind that if you wish to return, we will have to test you.”

“Yes, and thank you, Mr. Kaye. I am curious about what your group does, and in particular, the metaphysical—”

“I’m afraid we haven’t the time to speak now,” he said, starting toward the table. “The others haven’t yet arrived, and I don’t want us to be late for the meeting.”

I wondered if he meant that they were going to head out together to meet in some other location, but seeing Ashlar concentrating on blowing a small amount of air from the bellows into the incense pot, I refrained from asking him. I noticed that Louis was frowning, as if he was trying to make sense of this. I too was not without reservations, but I was more excited than wary at the moment.

Shortly later, the telltale screech of the staircase signified another arrival, to which Ashlar muttered, “About time.” Presently, a young man with long dark hair leapt down the remaining stairs and jogged in, his black frock coat swishing behind him like a raven’s tail feathers.

“Terribly sorry, Dr. Ashlar,” he said, stopping at the centre of the room. “I was going to be on time, but I thought that Jocelyn might want a lift, so I took the carriage to Acacia House, but she was being waylaid by her husband, so I thought—”

“Yes, Philip, I am sure your intentions were noble,” Ashlar said, setting his instrument down on the table. “But do remem—ah, Jocelyn!” This latter exclamation was directed toward a young lady who had just entered the room.

“I apologize, uncle,” she said, much more calmly than Philip. She was in about her mid-twenties, was a few inches taller than Philip, and her fair hair was held in a bun with a few loose strands curling at the side of her heart-shaped face. She wore a pale blue gown with white sleeves and lace about the waist and neckline.

“I hope Jeremy wasn’t giving you trouble,” Ashlar said.

“Not much,” Jocelyn replied, coming into the room swiftly. She glanced at Louis and me standing off to the side, but made no remark to us. “Though he doesn’t approve of the fact that our meetings have become more frequent.”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures!” Philip announced.

“I hope he hasn’t asked to join us again,” Ashlar asked Jocelyn.

Jocelyn smiled. “Not since his gentleman’s club was switched to two of the nights we meet.”

“Excellent, excellent!” Ashlar said, rather gleefully, as if he had been the one to orchestrate this convenient time change. “But do get going, both of you. We have two visitors today.” He nodded at Louis and me, and we introduced ourselves to Philip and Jocelyn. Philip was particularly enthusiastic about meeting us, and shook our hands energetically. He was not much older than Louis—who was nineteen—and was not very tall, but well-built like an athlete. His eyes were a hazel grey and brimming with curiosity.

“They are philosophers,” Ashlar added, and to us, said, “Jocelyn here is quite the philosopher herself.”

Jocelyn nodded modestly.

“Then perhaps, madam, you could tell me about your group’s metaphysical theories?” I asked.

“I could,” she said, and with a smile, added, “but would you not like to see for yourself?”

“Yes, indeed, we must get going!” Ashlar insisted. “I will show Edwin and Louis how it is done.”

Philip and Jocelyn hastened to separate divans, Philip trying to take the one next to Jocelyn, but at the last moment, she changed her mind and retreated to a divan at the far corner of the room. He didn’t follow her, but appeared disappointed.

“Now, come here,” Ashlar told us, gesturing to two divans on the wall opposite to Philip, each of which had two identical brown cushions. In fact, all of the eight divans in the room had the same kind of cushion, and it was upon these that Philip and Jocelyn rested their heads as they reclined upon their divans.

“Lay down and relax,” Ashlar said.

Louis, as if catching the gist of what was going on, shook his head and said, “I’ll just watch.”

“Suit yourself. But while you wait, do not touch that pot!” Ashlar said, pointing to the table.

“Are we supposed to…” I began. “Dream?”

“Oh, no,” Ashlar said. He gestured for me to lay down, and I did so tentatively. “What is the use of dreaming when you can understand reality?”

“Quite what I thought.” I lay on my back and adjusted the cushion behind my head, feeling a bit ridiculous.

“Dr. Ashlar,” I heard Philip call from across the room. “Where is Mr. March?”

“Mr. March comes when Mr. March wishes to,” Ashlar said. “But believe me, he would not miss the Council for the world.”

As a matter of fact, after a short burst of screeching wood that marked his descent, a man who was as remarkably short as Ashlar was remarkably tall scurried inside. He was quite advanced in years, was thin and frail, and wore a navy coloured suit that was far too large for him, the legs of its trousers touching the floor at his heels. A scruff of grey hair crowned the top of his head like a clump of dust yet to be swept away.

“Ah, Mr. March,” Ashlar said, nodding to him.

The old man, however, did not speak, reserving his energy to propel himself toward the nearest divan, upon which he collapsed and buried his head in the brown pillow. This all appeared very peculiar to me, and I was becoming more inclined to agree with Lady Wickham. But I was drowsy, so I wasn’t sure what question to pose to Ashlar.

He leaned down over me and said, “We will meet you there shortly.” He smiled, his green eyes seeming to catch a flicker of candlelight.

Louis, on the other hand, regarded me apprehensively. It was not that he doubted the veracity of these theosophists’ practices, but rather, he seemed to believe them all too well. Thinking that perhaps I had been careless, I glanced about the room, though couldn’t find the energy to actually sit up. Mr. March was out cold off to my left, Philip appeared to be sleeping peacefully across from me, and Jocelyn and Ashlar, reclined on divans further in the room, seemed to be asleep as well.

I breathed deeply, inhaling the strong incense, stronger, indeed, than what had been wafting from the pot at the end of the room. It smelled of sandalwood, a scent I could identify from a previous investigation with a clairvoyant, as well as benzoin and dittany of Crete.

“Edwin,” Louis began. “Maybe we should go.” His voice seemed to emerge from behind a glass wall, muted and far away.

“No, I’m perfectly alright,” I said, though my voice sounded muffled even in my own ears. My eyes blinked heavily, and it would have been simple, so simple to fall asleep. I let my head drop to one side, figuring that I may as well close my eyes for a few moments to regain my strength. I inhaled deeply again, but by this point, I was already gone.

The last thing I thought was, It’s the pillow. That’s where this new incense is coming from.

***

Just as I drifted off, I awoke again with full alertness. I was standing in a hallway with large, dark marble tiles lined with bands of gold, and on either side of me were black walls. Although there were no candles or gas lamps to illuminate the passage, it was perfectly bright, for above me, there was no ceiling, and the walls blended into a mass of white clouds that entirely covered the sky.

“Ah, you’re here already,” a voice beside me exclaimed.

I turned and saw Philip.

“Dr. Ashlar went ahead to the Council with the others,” he continued. “He’s sitting at the front with Malik today, so he didn’t want to be late.”

I noticed that his clothes had changed: he wore a fine silk shirt with shining gold buttons, a perfectly folded handkerchief emerging from his doublet pocket, and a black cape over his frock coat. His long hair was tied at his neck with a gold clasp.

“Where are we?” I demanded. “Is this some sort of shared dream?”

“Not quite. This is the astral plane, or rather, one of the countless astral planes that lie above our world. They are only a hair’s width away, and with the right incentive, the soul can travel there. This is the truth we were speaking of!”

I looked about, excited, but I also found this place disturbingly silent. Besides our voices, everything was devoid of sound. In fact…I pressed my fingers to the side of my neck to feel for a heartbeat. There was nothing, nor did I have any need to breathe.

“If we aren’t here physically,” I began, “then why would our souls look like this?” I gestured to the two of us.

“It is memory, we believe,” Philip said. “Having inhabited a human form for so long, the soul is inclined to keep it, even if it is only an image. And your astral body still has some connection to your physical body. But you can change it if you wish.” He spread his arms wide and bowed to display his fine attire. I also remarked that he appeared taller than when I had first met him. “I wouldn’t try anything too ambitious to start. Don’t go remodeling your face or you might botch it up. But you might as well give yourself some proper clothes.”

I glanced down at my attire and found that my coat and trousers had become vague, lacking any sharp details, as if I were a watercolour painting that had been left outside to spoil in the rain. “How peculiar!” I exclaimed. “How do I go about changing it?”

“You just have to imagine it. Don’t forget the details, but don’t take too long or we’ll be late for the Council.”

I nodded and looked down at my body. Unsure what everyone else at the Council would be wearing, I imagined a suit not dissimilar to the one I was really wearing—or rather, my body was really wearing—though it took a few minutes to get it right. I added a few silver buttons and a matching pocket watch to top it off.

Philip nodded in appreciation. “You were quick with that. Most of us ruin it the first time. But really, we must get going.”

“What is this Council?”

“It is a gathering of hundreds of theosophists, philosophers, and mystics. It is truly international, and we discuss a great many things about the Earth, the astral plane, and the beings within it. It’s just at the end of the hall.”

The hall, however, appeared to go on indefinitely in both directions, and in the direction Philip had gestured, I could only see a tiny point of white to mark the end of the passage, which might have been miles away. “We won’t make it in time,” I said.

“Oh, we will be there in a moment,” Philip said. “Just imagine the opening at the end.” He pointed down the hall. “As if you’re there already…yes! You’re good at this, Edwin!”

Sure enough, the two of us were standing at the threshold of that opening, beyond which was a cloudy expanse like the sky above.

“I suppose that’s one way to do it,” I said, glancing back down the hall. I was careful, however, to keep my thoughts steady so I wouldn’t transport myself someplace else.

Philip stepped out onto the cloudy expanse, so I followed suit, cautious at first, then more confident when my feet sunk only an inch into the ethereal substance. After walking a few paces, we came to a large hall with that same black marble floor and with clouds still surrounding us on the sides and above. The floor extended over a hundred and fifty feet in each direction, and occupying the majority of this space was an enormous table. At first glance, it appeared to be round, with various throne-like chairs encircling it, most of which were occupied.

Yet as we approached closer, for Philip was leading us to a spot with two empty seats, it seemed that the table had different layers, so that part of it curved upward to form another level of seats, with the people on the curve seated sideways, though they appeared to take no notice of it. I could see three layers in all, yet there might have been more that my mind couldn’t properly grasp. But even the people on their sides appeared to be right side up when I looked at them from different positions, and some people who were having a discussion were at one moment sitting next to each other, and the next, appeared to be upon different layers entirely. It was enough to give even the most imaginative philosopher a headache.

“This is the Hexarota,” Philip explained. “There are six layers you can sit on, but they’re all really just part of one circle twisted in many dimensions. It’s a bit disorienting at first, but it’s necessary or else you won’t be able to hear people from the other side of the table and see the Councillors up close.”

We took our seats, and I clasped my hands on the table, which was made of thick white marble with golden swirling filigree adorning the edges. I spotted what appeared to be the centre of the circle where three people were sitting on thrones upon a dais. There were easily two hundred people in the room, most of which were engaged in conversation. Although Philip had claimed that the Council was international, a quick scan of the room proved that the British were by far the best represented. Most people wore elegant suits and gowns, many of which could have suited royalty, not just belonging to our own era, but many others back to even the Middle Ages. I spotted Jocelyn off to my right, wearing a red queenly gown with golden brocade and a flowing headdress of red silk, with some other young ladies dressed in equally rich attire. There were few children: the only ones I spotted were three Chinese boys no older than ten wearing identical dark brown robes. Close to them, there was a handsome man dressed as a king who was laughing with some ladies. He had golden tresses of hair, a curling moustache, and was crowned with a coronet of sapphires and emeralds. An ermine-lined cape was draped over the back of his chair. There was something familiar about him, though it took me a few moments to realize what it was.

“Is that…” I began, nodding in the direction of the man.

Philip laughed. “Yes, that is Mr. March. He claims that he looked like that in his youth, but I can hardly believe him.”

I wondered how many other old, haggard faces hid behind youthful ones, how many imperfections were simply imagined away. What a distraction this place must be, I thought. How much more pleasing it would be to live out one’s life here. Yet if what Philip had said was true, then one’s astral body was still connected to their real body, so if their body died of starvation or some illness, then surely their astral body would be destroyed as well.

My speculations were interrupted, however, when one of the men on the central dais spoke. “Let us begin,” he said in a sonorous voice with a Scottish accent. Although he did not shout, I heard him as if he were seated right next to me, no doubt thanks to this table of higher dimensions. The man who had spoken was seated on the largest throne; to his right was Ashlar, and to his left, a lady.

“That’s Malik McAllister,” Philip whispered, “and the lady is Demetria Michelakis. They’re the usual Councillors. The third seat is reserved for a different leader depending on what Malik wants to discuss.”

Ashlar appeared as he had in the physical world, only now he wore a green coat to match his doublet, as well as a golden medallion with an image of an owl in flight on a chain around his neck. The man at the centre was large and powerful, with broad shoulders, a thick neck, and arms that could have surely lifted a few men at once. I didn’t suppose his lump of a nose and ridged forehead had been remodeled for the occasion. His face was framed with long twists of dark grey hair, and he was dressed much more simply than those about him in a black tunic, vest, and trousers. By his subtle expression of disdain, seen only in his small but penetrating blue eyes, he didn’t appear to think too highly of those adorned as royalty, as if he considered this a pageantry that would, at the batting of an eye, reveal itself to be no more than fancies of the imagination.

The lady to his left might have been the goddess Demeter herself, at least, that was how she chose to appear. She had curly amber-brown hair upon which rested a coronet of golden laurel leaves, and she wore a pale blue sleeveless dress cinched at the shoulders with golden clasps in the shapes of leaves. She was studying everyone about the table calmly, and she strummed the arm of her chair with her long fingers as if conveying some melody from the gods.

The conversations died down shortly after Malik spoke. The three Councillors seemed to be perfectly visible to everyone around the circle, even those who were, from my vantage point, behind them or seated sideways.

“Greetings, my friends,” Demetria spoke, her voice misty and calm. “I sense many new souls who have come to venture to these haunts. So to those of you who have not yet joined the Council of the Hexarota, welcome.” She glanced about the table and nodded to a few people, one of whom was me, so I inclined my head back to her.

“And remember,” Ashlar spoke up, “there is no religion higher than Truth. It is here that we join as a Brotherhood of humanity in pursuit of the truth of the Universe and the powers within ourselves.”

“Yes, thank you to our mystic and theosophist,” Malik said, though he didn’t sound particularly appreciative. “Now, we have important matters to discuss. The demon Attila has not been accounted for in over a month.” He paused as a murmur of voices arose in concern. “As most of you are aware, the Seishin Ken monitors the activities of the demons to ensure that they do not impinge upon the mortal world. Most demons have no interest in humanity, but those such as Attila have wrought havoc in the past. We shall not have that happen again.” He glanced about the room sternly, as if that had been intended as an order to everyone. “Ashlar, you may tell them your tale,” he continued, nodding to his right.

Ashlar cleared his throat. “Yes, well, I began the Canterbury branch of the Theosophical Society five years ago as part of my investigations to expunge a demon from my father, the late Mr. Andrew Kaye. That demon, which Lady Demetria has aptly named Attila, caused him to act quite peculiarly, notably, he would parade about town with his rifle—”

“Ashlar,” Malik said deeply. “We have limited time.”

“Yes, of course. To make a long and rather tedious story short, suffice it to say that we eventually expunged Attila while in the astral plane. Yet ever since then, Attila has been attempting to re-enter the mortal world. Were it not for our illustrious Seishin Ken—” He nodded to a group of Japanese men and women wearing white and black patterned kimonos, who, as one, inclined their heads back, “—we would have been unable to monitor any demons whatsoever.”

“Have you checked the Eighth Key of Telmar?” Malik asked the Seishin Ken.

A man in the centre of the group with a long moustache said, “Great Councillor, we have searched all twenty-four Keys of Telmar, as well as those of Rosgole and Feriza.”

“And the planes of Zaparon?”

“Yes.”

Malik rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Has anyone else spotted any disturbances?”

I glanced about the table. A middle-aged woman dressed like Queen Victoria said, “When I was in the Gardens of Alora, I noticed an unnatural breeze.” She swished her hands about as if to illustrate her point. “It was very cold, like a demon.”

Malik looked unimpressed. “Are there any other more concrete signs?”

“Actually,” added a young man with dark skin and a golden vest embedded with jewels, “I did happen upon the demon Nero last week. He was looking for Attila to finish some business with him.”

“Where was this?”

“I was in the Nether then.”

“Then that is useless.”

“Excuse me, Malik,” Demetria spoke up, “but that does show that Attila is not only hidden to us, but to the other demons as well.”

Malik was silent.

I wondered what these demons really were and what powers they could wield against us. Of course, the very name ‘demon’ was hardly comforting, and I realized that these astral travelers might play a vital role to the world, securing it against the infiltration of demons.

“Lady Demetria,” one of the ladies sitting with Jocelyn spoke up. “Perhaps you would listen in the Pass of Darkness.”

Demetria nodded to her in appreciation and turned to Malik. He gave no more than a flick of his eyebrow, as if he disapproved of what she intended to do but wasn’t going to stop her. Demetria smiled and closed her eyes, holding her hands together in her lap and breathing deeply. Everyone became silent as she ‘listened’ in this Pass of Darkness. Although it would have been ludicrous at any meeting in England, no one here seemed to harbor the slightest doubt about this mystical practice. Perhaps it was no wonder, for the arts that brought them here were largely mystical in nature.

After many minutes, Demetria opened her eyes, which, for a moment, were dark and pupil-less. “He is gone. Not even the Arch-demons know of his whereabouts.”

“Which means,” Ashlar added, “only two options are left. Either he is inhabiting an astral body, or he is already within the mortal world.”

This created a frenzy of exclamations and discussions. I turned to Philip and asked, “Does this mean that one of the people here could be possessed by a demon?”

Philip nodded.

“How could we know?”

“It depends on how good the demon is at hiding himself. He can remain undetectable in a person for ages, for we have no direct way of detecting him unless he’s out roaming as a spirit. Most demons are loathe to possess a person’s astral or physical body—it’s only a few rebels who make people believe that demons are perched on the edge of reality waiting to leap in to snatch our souls, when in truth, they find humans to be repulsive creatures that they would really like to have nothing to do with.”

“I see. That is strange.”

At this point, Malik slammed his fist on the arm of his throne, causing a reverberation about the entire table. “We will turn the Council to discussions momentarily,” he said once people were silent. “But remember: I want you all to watch each other. Do not let your comrades sleep easily. When you return to your bodies, be alert to any disturbances. I will have this demon found in a fortnight, and then—” His eyes rested upon an intimidating-looking man whose proportions reminded me of a street lamp, which was all the more pronounced by his greasy orange hair and a face that narrowed to a point at his nose. “—I will hand him to you, Mr. de Witt.”

The man twitched his tight mouth as if to confirm the fact.

“Now,” Malik continued, his tone much less sinister than when he had spoken to Mr. de Witt. “Any insights from further discussions will be reported to Ashlar, who will in turn inform me if it is important. I leave it to Lady Demetria to close the Council.”

Demetria stood and raised her arms, the palms of her hands faced upward to form a V. A trickle of light emerged from the mass of clouds above and touched the floor of the dais at her feet. When she lowered her arms, a sphere of brilliant light expanded from the spot, and I felt it wash over me like a strong wind. I blinked the room back into focus, and the light was gone.

Without further to do, various discussions began about the Hexarota, some people switching seats or moving to stand off in groups. As for the Councillors, Malik vanished after a few words with Ashlar, and Demetria went to speak with a man wearing a toga. Ashlar spotted Philip and me and came to speak with us.

“Well, Edwin,” he said. “I don’t imagine that you expected to come here, did you?”

“Not at all,” I admitted, standing.

“I hope you have found things to your satisfaction.”

“I can hardly say. I know so little about this place that I feel like a child entering a great fortress whose passages are wholly unknown to me.”

Ashlar laughed. “Just how we all feel! Now, I must speak with that young man who saw the demon Nero, if you will excuse me. You might wish to leave—the first time here always gives you a terrible headache after you wake up, so you’ll want some time to recover.”

“I see.” I felt as though he should have told me that before sedating me with a pillow and sending me to the astral plane. But in any case, I still would have come. What was a little inconvenience compared to the great heights of knowledge here? I would have to return to explore this place, to discover what this really was and how it was connected to the “mortal world.”

When I turned around with the intention of asking Philip more about it, he was gone. Scanning the table, I saw him approaching Jocelyn and her group of ladies. I started toward them, but my legs felt airy. I struggled on, swinging my arms to try to gain momentum, but it was all in vain. The people around me were becoming less distinct, as if water was smearing not only the dyes of their clothing, but their faces as well. It was only a short moment before I could no longer hear their voices.

And then, the Council was gone.

***

A soft object with a strong scent hit my face. It hit me again, and again more forcefully. I instinctively batted it away the next time it came down.

“Edwin!” I heard Louis exclaim.

I squinted my eyes open, finding myself lying on the divan. My head was pierced with a sharp pain as if dozens of tiny needles were embedded in my brain, and at the slightest abrasion, would cause excruciating pain. Louis was standing over me with one of the brown pillows in his hand, ready to strike me with it again should I prove unresponsive.

“Wait,” I said, raising my hand. “What are you doing?”

Louis lowered the pillow and said, “I was just waking you up. It’s been over an hour.”

I rubbed my eyes and craned my head to look about the room. The others were still lying comatose on their divans. I swiped the pillow out from under my head to prevent me from returning, for although I was tempted to go back, the thought of a headache even worse than my present one was too much to bear.

“I was at a council,” I began, lying my head back on the divan. I closed my eyes.

“In a dream?”

“It seemed to be the astral plane.” I was going to tell him about the incensed pillows when I realized that I would be better off waiting until I felt more myself.

“How did you—”

“Louis, I need to rest. Just give me twenty minutes. Yes, you have your pocket watch; wake me then.”

I squinted my eyes open and saw Louis frown. “But how is the astral plane accessible?” he asked. “Is it in your mind, or—”

“I will tell you in good time. Wake me up later.”

At last, Louis stopped talking, or if he did continue, I was too drowsy to hear it. I was going to tell him not to hit me with the pillow again when I fell asleep.

***

The next time I awoke, it was to the voices of Ashlar, Jocelyn, and Louis. I felt a bit better than before, so I forced myself to sit up. When my vision steadied, I saw that Philip and Mr. March were no longer here. As I had intended to speak with Philip after the meeting, I inquired as to where he was.

Ashlar smiled and said, “They left half an hour ago.”

“But I couldn’t have been asleep for more than twenty minutes.”

“Ah, well, I told Louis to let you sleep for another hour to wear off the headache. But don’t worry: we’ve been having a fine discussion, and Louis may join us next time.”

A glance at Louis’s uneasy expression quickly confirmed that Ashlar was quite mistaken.

“Perhaps,” I said, “we could return for your next meeting.” I decided that it would be best to think things over the next day, and then I would be ready to speak with Philip.

“Quite so,” Ashlar said. “Philip told me you were quite skilled in transforming your attire and were not at all given to panic. We shall do the test, then. Do not worry about it; it is quite straightforward.”

“What is this test?”

“I’m afraid that is impossible for me to tell you. Otherwise, you might influence the results: I am sure you saw how receptive the astral plane is to thoughts.”

“Yes, but why is that?”

“It is simply that there is nothing physical to get in the way like there is here.”

Louis, listening intently, frowned at the lack of philosophical rigour and said, “If there’s no matter there, then is it all thought?”

“Spirit, young man, it is spirit. But do listen to Jocelyn, for she is the philosopher.”

Jocelyn, who was no longer dressed as a Medieval queen, said, “They are unformed spirit energies, the very stuff our thoughts can mould. It is not thought itself, but if thought is a paintbrush, then these energies are the paints with which we create our artwork.”

Louis nodded. “How is it that you can go there?”

“It is not far from us in distance, but is here all around us on another plane of reality. Our souls can reach it because the soul is always in every plane at once, even though it is usually restricted here in a body. We have found means of putting the body in a sleep-like state while the soul, now unfettered, can travel to that plane. There are other planes in the astral world, though only great sages can reach the higher ones.”

“So,” Louis began, “how did these planes get there? How were they created?”

Ashlar laughed good-naturedly. “Why, you philosophers ask the finest questions! Yet when you ask how the astral planes came into being, so too do you ask how the universe came into being, and would that our greatest philosophers knew the answer to that.”

Our discussion came to an end shortly after this, though Louis still tried to ask Jocelyn a few more questions while I confirmed with Ashlar that we would return for their next meeting in two nights.

When we left, it was nearing midnight, so Louis and I arranged to meet at the library the following morning to discuss my findings. As I headed home beneath a waning crescent moon, whose light flickered across the damp cobblestones, I hoped to be able to sort out a few things about this demon Attila.

***

My discussion with Louis the next day was hardly conclusive. He found it far more exciting to speculate about how the existence of the astral world could support the philosophy of Idealism, which took the better part of the day, interspersed only when he ran off to fetch Kant’s and Berkeley’s writings to clarify his position.

When we did talk about Philip and Lady Wickham—which, I kept having to remind Louis, was the point of us investigating the Theosophical Society—Louis was insistent. “We can’t just tell him to stop,” he said.

“Precisely what I was thinking. But Lady Wickham is correct that it is dangerous, especially with those demons.”

“I don’t think there are real demons.”

“Oh really? You should have heard them at the Council. They made quite a case for it.”

Louis shrugged.

“Will you come to the astral plane with me tomorrow?”

Louis glanced off to the stained glass window above us, lost in some abstract thoughts. The light passing through the window was filtered red from the scarlet glass panels that formed a Celtic wheel outlined in gold. I wondered what was bothering Louis, for he had come on plenty of missions with me before.

Eventually, he said, “Perhaps.”

***

It appeared that “perhaps” quite quickly became a definite “no.” The next day, he brought our Order’s heirloom, Alexander the Great’s sword, to the Theosophical Society of Canterbury’s meeting. The sword was an unreliable piece of rusted metal that, nevertheless, always gave Louis confidence in unknown situations.

The evening, however, proceeded just as the previous one had. Ashlar, Philip, and Jocelyn—Mr. March made no appearance—were to meet me in the astral plane for my test. Although I felt slightly leery, I reminded myself that if I did not pass this test, there would be nothing lost, and if I did, I had made no commitment to join the Theosophical Society, so I could refuse membership if I wished.

Again, my senses were pervaded by the incense from the pillow upon which I rested my head. This time, I didn’t resist it, so I awoke in the astral plane much more quickly than before. I found myself in the hallway of black marble lined with gold, its surface so polished as to reflect the clouds above.

Ashlar, Jocelyn, and Philip stood before me, and were pleased that I had been able to get here so quickly. “You’re quite the natural!” Ashlar said.

Although the three of them wore their usual clothing, Philip was certainly taller than usual, about an inch above Jocelyn rather than an inch shorter.

“Are you ready for the test?” Ashlar asked me.

I nodded, though as I had no notion of what this test entailed, I can’t say that I was being entirely truthful.

“Good, good. Jocelyn will tell you about it.” He nodded to his niece appreciatively.

Philip seemed ready to jump in to say something, but he held it back when Jocelyn began to speak.

“We want you to close your eyes and take us somewhere,” she began. “You know how this world is so receptive to thoughts and states of mind. But you must clear your mind first. We don’t want you to decide where to take us. Just let it come naturally.”

“But since I don’t know any places here except the Hexarota, won’t we just end up there?” I asked.

“Actually,” Philip jumped in. “That’s the beauty of the astral world: you don’t have to know about the marble gardens of Finartin to get there, just as you need not know a thing about the mountains of Slivett with mists that form all sorts of great visions!”

Jocelyn raised an eyebrow his way, but didn’t question him.

“Alright,” I said tentatively. Seeing that they were waiting for me to begin, I closed my eyes and tried to think of, well, nothing at all, which was not as easy as it sounded. I figured that they wanted to see what power I had in this world, of perhaps what place I was inclined toward, be it for good or ill.

When my mind was as empty as a British philosopher might hope for, I heard a sound behind me like running footsteps. But the next moment, we had transported again, and I opened my eyes. To what, exactly, was not at first apparent, for we had appeared in a land swathed in filmy mists that brushed through the air like the trailing cloak of a giant spirit.

When some of the mists cleared, I saw Philip next to me, and Jocelyn and Ashlar partially obscured in the mist a few paces away. In the distance, there was a series of tall, snow-capped mountains. We were standing on a narrow stone path on the slope of one of the smaller mountains.

“Sorry about that,” I said. “I must have been thinking about those Slivett mountains.”

“No, it is no problem,” Jocelyn spoke, her voice seeming to arise from far away. “You did the right thing.”

“But I was obviously influenced by Philip’s description.”

“No problem, no problem at all,” Ashlar said calmly.

I couldn’t make sense of this, so I turned to Philip to see if he had anything to say. He only grinned, and with a flick of his eyebrow at the other two, told me, “Come, we have places to go.”

“Is this part of the test?”

“Of course.”

Although no explanation was forthcoming, I followed Philip along the mountain pass, heading down the cliff toward one of the valleys. Ashlar and Jocelyn kept some paces behind us, though it was hard to make them out in the fog. We seemed to have travelled for quite some time, navigating over crumbling stones, pressing up against damp, mossy cliff faces when the pass was too narrow, and cutting through thick vines that hung down over the path like a necklace of dead pythons. I began to believe that this was some sort of endurance test, though I found it strange that I was becoming so tired when my body was actually lying on a divan.

At last, when I was hardly able to keep my breath steady, Philip stopped where the path branched off to a promontory that overlooked a valley. Airy columns of mist arose from it, entwining about one another to form fanciful dream-like patterns as if we had entered a kaleidoscope of mist. Philip jogged to the edge, not at all out of breath, and I followed wearily. I glanced behind me and saw Ashlar and Jocelyn remaining behind. I found it odd that they too didn’t appear fatigued.

“Isn’t this a fascinating place,” Philip mused, placing his hands on his hips and overlooking the expanse.

“Yes,” I agreed. “But I can’t understand why I’m so tired.” And not just tired, but my breathing and heartbeat were irregular, and I felt that, if I had to carry on, I might faint. I could hardly make sense of it, for I was used to running about town on strange missions, and was even quicker than Louis, who was ten years my junior.

“Strange, isn’t it,” Philip said, still gazing out over the valley, “how the astral body reflects just what the physical body is undergoing.”

“Well, it seems to be the opposite in this case.”

Philip turned to me. “Is it?”

The expressionless way in which he spoke made me wary. “My body is lying on—” I stumbled, but fortunately caught my balance before tumbling over the edge of the cliff. That made me wonder: what would happen if I died here? Would I simply wake up?

I asked Philip the question, and still unconcerned, he said, “Yes, you’ll wake up. But don’t leave just yet. We’re almost finished.”

I looked back to Ashlar and Jocelyn, but they were largely hidden in the mist. I knew that something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“Soon,” Philip said, grabbing my arm roughly when I started back to the path, “there will be no need for you to wake up.”

I tried to shake him off, but felt too weak. “What are you…talking about,” I demanded, though I hardly imagined that I sounded assertive.

“When the body dies, there is nowhere for the soul to return to. You’ll have to stay here. With me.”

“You…”

Philip smiled, his eyebrows narrowing like hoods over his eyes. Eyes that were now entirely black.

“Attila,” I muttered.

“What a human name they call me!” He laughed. “That fool of a priestess can hardly be blamed, though. How could she have known that my powers were so far greater than anything a human could muster?” The demon was changing at every moment, becoming taller, and his skin seemed to be encrusting over with polished alabaster.

I tried to step back to Ashlar and Jocelyn, but when I looked their way, the two of them dissipated in the wind. “They weren’t here,” I said. “How long—”

“Oh, ever since we arrived at Slivett,” Attila said, extending his arms outward on either side of him until his fingers curled into long claws, sleek and white like his skin, and pointed like incisors at the end. “One of the benefits of this mist: you couldn’t even tell their images from their astral bodies. But they couldn’t have come here. No, Slivett is beyond the capacity of their little souls. Only great souls may enter here.”

“Then how did I get here?”

“Isn’t it obvious? You were just the one, one of the few who could make it here. That was the test—my little test—to confirm my suspicions.”

“That was why you spoke of this place. To implant the thought in my mind.”

“Yes, clever indeed. I have been planning this for long, long months. When I was able to latch onto that boy, I knew I had you.”

“Wait a moment,” I said, hoping to keep him talking so I would have time to think of a way out of this. “How could you have known that I would come to the Theosophical Society? I wouldn’t have found it if it hadn’t been for your—Philip’s—mother.”

“But I knew about you. The shrewdest investigator of the esoteric in all of Canterbury, and perhaps all of England. Am I not a curious metaphysical phenomenon? All I had to do was wait, and you would find me.”

“But why do you want me here?” My headache was worsening, and the mist about me seemed to reflect the churning, chaotic state of my mind.

“You are a great soul, Edwin. More than a simple philosopher. You could very well be an orb of Malcuvian. I had to get you before she did.”

“Sh—she?”

“My rival.”

I started toward the edge of the cliff, having decided that jumping was perhaps the only way to wake up, but Attila’s long arms were swift. I was ensnared a moment later, my torso held in a cage of claws.

“Give it a bit longer,” he said. “We want to make sure your body is really dead—”

“Edwin!” I heard someone cry behind me.

Attila snapped his head toward the mountain. I craned my neck and saw Louis rushing out onto the promontory, Alexander the Great’s sword in hand. Though here, it had no trace of rust and decay, was twice as long as our Order’s relic, and flashed in some unseen light.

“How did you get here?” Attila snarled.

Louis only continued running.

Attila braced himself, still holding me secure, but when Louis slashed out at his side, he was force to release me to defend himself. But this distraction was all we needed. Louis threw the sword at Attila, which, although it did the demon no harm, delayed him long enough for me to grab Louis and jump off the side of the promontory.

Attila flew after us, but it was too late. It was fortunate that our leap hadn’t been powerful, for instead of falling hundreds of feet to the valley below, we collided with sharp rocks protruding from the side of the mountain after only a few seconds. There was no pain—for us, at least. Though the roar from Attila was a testimony to his own mental agony, echoing throughout the land like a gong of fury sounded by the god of war.

***

What happened next flickered in my vision like a dream in the firelight. I had returned to Ashlar’s house, though this time, I was not just suffering from a headache, but my breathing was ragged and my chest tight. It was all I could do to roll over to see what had happened to the others.

Everyone’s pillow was on the floor, and Jocelyn and Ashlar were sitting on their divans, or rather, were propped up on them sufficiently to prevent falling over. Standing before the table at the end of the room was a man in a long brown robe with a thick mahogany cross about his neck. He was letting some drops of a pale orange liquid from a tiny vial fall into a glass of water.

“This should ease the effects of—” The doctor was interrupted by a cry from Philip, who had previously been asleep. The doctor dropped his vial, and it crashed to the floor with a high-pitched clatter.

Although Philip no longer looked like a human-demon hybrid, he was not normal. He tore himself off the divan, and catching sight of me, bared his teeth and charged. Yet I couldn’t move to defend myself: whatever poison he had employed to destroy my body had done fine work already, and all he had to do was finish me off. I felt as though I ought to say some last words, and wondered where Louis was. He should have woken up when I did…

Before Attila reached me, a blur of movement crossed between us and surrounded Attila, who continued to howl in rage. It took me a few moments to realize that there were three people—two men and a woman—fighting him with short swords. I recognized them as part of the Seishin Ken, the Japanese group that kept the demons under control. Yet they weren’t really here; it was as if they were ghosts, and their long robes swished about them as they slashed the air about Attila. Although they never touched his body, Attila collapsed to the floor. Yet the demon’s cry still continued, and a white mist like a breath of frost emerged from him and knocked the Seishin Ken aside.

The frosty mist coalesced into the form of a tall man with long, straight hair wearing a grand cloak. He flicked his arms out and the fallen Seishin Ken vanished. Stepping over Philip’s body, he approached me with a wry smile.

Having been convinced that I was to be dead a few minutes ago, I became even more convinced that my demise was imminent. And so it was a further shock when someone else appeared between us, this time, in a more substantial form than the ghostly Seishin Ken. It was a lady with long waves of red hair, wearing a deep blue dress like the night sky, patterned with frosty curls that glistened like stars.

The demon stopped approaching me.

“Talverion,” she spoke to him calmly. “Don’t you have more important things to do than styling yourself as a demon and snatching mortals?”

“How does that concern you?” Talverion said smoothly. “Surely an illustrious Soul Wanderer such as yourself would have no qualms with leaving this petty mortal to me.”

“Petty or not, he is under my protection. Leave now.”

“Oh, I don’t think—” He tried to skirt past her, but she seemed to have anticipated that, for she seized his arm. She muttered something almost musical under her breath, and Talverion curled into a screaming bit of mist before vanishing entirely.

The lady turned to me, and with a slight smile, said, “I will see you again, Edwin.” And then she faded from the room.

I continued breathing, and wondered if, after all that, I would live. I knew who the lady was, for I had seen her in a dream before. She was the rival Talverion had spoken of, and eventually, she would come for me as Talverion had. Her real intentions were obscure to me, and I could only hope that she had no malicious intentions.

“My god,” Ashlar said with a huff. He was still on the divan, holding his top hat before his chest as if it were a shield.

Jocelyn was crouched beside her own divan, and the doctor had fainted and was lying next to his broken vial of medicine, his arms splayed out on either side of him.

“That demon was after you,” Jocelyn said, returning to sit next to Ashlar.

“Yes…” I muttered, though I could have hardly offered an explanation even if my health wasn’t failing.

Then someone spoke from behind me. “He poisoned all your pillows.” It was Louis, and he came to the front of the divan, not at all weakened like the rest of us. “I took them away when I figured it out, and went to get a doctor.”

“But you came in to rescue us,” Ashlar said. “How could you have if the pillows were poisoned?”

“Not his pillow.” Louis pointed to Philip on the floor, who was now groaning and shifting about. “But when Edwin and Philip vanished, it took me a while to find them.”

This seemed nothing short of remarkable to me, and Ashlar and Jocelyn agreed. Louis, however, spoke as if it were a simple affair, and we could get no more information out of him as to how he had done it. As for the Seishin Ken, they had detected Talverion when he had begun to assume his demonic form, and so followed him in astral form back here. Although I had more questions, I felt that I was still in a precarious position, standing on the edge of a knife’s blade between life and death, so although the doctor was no use at the moment, Louis went to fetch me the glass of medicine on the table, which I drank eagerly. I was not ready to die yet.

The doctor awoke in a quarter of an hour, as did Philip, who, although he hadn’t been poisoned, was the most distraught of us all. He nearly tore out his hair as he paced about the room, plagued with the notion that he had nearly killed us—especially Jocelyn, who he would not cease apologizing to, even though she was convinced that it had been the demon rather than him. The others were attended to by the doctor, and I was given another tonic. But it took quite some time to heal properly.

***

For the next few days, my nights were plagued with dreams of Talverion returning to do me in once and for all, and even when I awoke, I felt as though I had only narrowly escaped his clutches. But by the end of the next week—nine days after the event—I had returned to the Order’s meetings to discuss philosophy, and even told Arnold, the Order’s leader, that I was ready to embark on another mission should one arise. But I still felt that my task was not complete. I was largely ignorant of the workings of the astral plane, and more importantly, why Louis and I were able to travel to the realm that only high souls could reach.

I brought this up with Louis one day at the library, but he only shrugged and returned to reading Berkeley’s Dialogues.

I also received a letter from Lady Wickham, and enclosed within the envelope were banknotes amounting to two hundred pounds. Surprised, I read the letter:

Dear Mr. Galbraith, most noble philosopher. I thank you for returning my son to me. I do wish that he would be a bit more jovial, but he has his wits back, and that is all that matters. Please find a little token of my appreciation enclosed. Respectfully, Lady Wickham.

“So he won’t return,” I told Louis. I wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or not. I had inadvertently completed my mission, but in the process, had discovered dozens of further questions that I had yet to answer.

Louis nodded, and then catching my pensive demeanour, frowned slightly and said, “And you won’t either.”

“Well,” I began. “There is indeed no higher religion than Truth. But what a strange truth there is to the universe we find ourselves in! With so much to discover, I will not relinquish the search yet. Surely you must be interested yourself. Would you not return there, even once?”

Louis tilted his head. “I could once. Just to see a few things I didn’t before.”

“Alright then. Come with me once.”

Louis nodded reluctantly.

But this, I knew, was only the beginning.

 

THE END

_____________________________

Mary-Jean Harris writes fantasy and historical fiction, both novels and short stories.  Her short stories have been published in anthologies and websites such as Tesseracts 18 and 20 anthologies, Polar Expressions Publishing, Allegory Ezine, and SciPhi Journal.  Four of her short stories have been honourable mentions in the Writers of the Future Contest.  Mary-Jean is currently a graduate student at the University of Victoria in Canada studying theoretical physics and has a Master’s Degree from Perimeter Institute in Waterloo.  Mary-Jean enjoys learning about ancient philosophy and loves to travel.  Her novel Aizai the Forgotten is the first in the series The Soul Wanderers.  To learn more, visit www.thesoulwanderers.blogspot.ca


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