Three popes struggled for the throne of Peter, each putting forth his claim, and beneath them struggled the archbishops and bishops, not all of whom were the holiest of men. The clerics in their halls whispered of the charges of heresy and sorcery that the two pretenders (for so they called the antipopes) were versed in, and those whispers found their way to the ear of a certain archbishop, and a want entered his heart.
So it was that somber monks went forth under quiet orders, and went among the demi-monde of cleric-conjurers that surround the courts, where they traded in poisons and prophecies, hand-scribed books with hoary histories involving potent magi from exotic lands, and favors strange and obscene. These monks went forth on their errand and returned, in time, bringing with them three bookmen in their wake, to stand before the archbishop with heads bowed and strange, curious eyes.
The archbishop was on the older side of forty, and not unlearned, but his was the body of a man that rode the horse to hunt, and found greater exercise than casual genuflection, even if the wine and rich food had left a softness to hang about the hard muscles and the jowls of the face, and the dark hair on the head had given way to a natural tonsure, though normally hidden by cap or miter. He was seated upon a high chair in his private rooms, dressing for Mass - for, as all three suddenly remembered, it was a Sunday.
"The heretics are versed in sorcery," said the archbishop, with little preamble; for while the mind beneath the miter was keen with the whole spectrum of truth, yet he dared not be less than blunt, "and all the books of necromancy gathered from monastery and exorcist are but empty leaves of paper and yards of leather. I wish for a true book of magic, and I commission you three to produce one for me - whoever does so shall receive a talent of gold and another of silver."
So saying the men bowed their head, and the archbishop returned to his dressing for Mass.
Many Sundays passed, and the archbishop thought on his book of magic, not so much for the powers it would give him or the knowledge it might contain but for the mere sake of owning it, so no other could say they had one, and hold that over him. As the grass turned from green to yellow, there was no word from the three bookmen. So in time there went out once again the stern-faced monks went forth in their habits, and in time they flocked back, each with their charge in tow.
Now the first of the three was the eldest, and had been longest at his trade; schooled in law of church and state, master of languages, he had studied abroad with Jew and Arab, Greek and Italian, and would have found a home in court or university, or perhaps fame at some other institution, save for certain blights upon his character that kept his shadow swift and moving before the rumors caught him. Well versed in magic was he, and so he stepped forward to proffer his book of magic.
"Oh your Grace," said the eldest bookman, and he held forth in both hands a mighty tome as thick as a Bible, "I have plumbed the grimoires of many lands, and plundered the libraries of all around, and so compiled the greatest collection of spells and formulae as ever there was. Yet this is not all, for I have studied long in the occult arts myself, and know that it is the books themselves that have a certain power, so I have made this book in the old way, from virgin parchment and rare inks, scribed by my own hand as the moon and planets and stars deemed it was right, in their days and their hours, in rooms of the associated color, and only after I fasted and repented and purified myself for seven days beforehand. Yea, I have consecrated this book by every ritual I know, and bound it up with curses for those that would steal it, and dedicated it to guardian angels to watch over you who possess it, and so it is charged by all the decans and angels in the name of God, which gives it great power. It is a book of magic."
The archbishop was pleased and a little awed at this, but then the second bookman stepped forward. He was the youngest of the three, and lately come from Germany; he was learned in strange and new arts, and had more in common with the students at university than the greybearded wizards of elder days, and had learned mathematics from Egypt, Italy, and Moorish Spain. He brought forth a curious octavio that was strangely bound.
"Oh your Grace," said the second bookman, "put not your faith in the old fakery; for did you not commission us because you were tired of such lies and obfuscation? See here this book, which is written all in code though it looks to be but a meditation on the mysteries of God as written in your own hand, for only I can show you the secret of, and inks which show only under the moonlight or when wet with wine, when they shine like blood. Look now, as I turn the book this way..." and he folded the book along one edge "...and it reveals another book! For in truth this is eight books together, bound as one, and each has their secrets. Come, take this and open it to any page, and I will show you its power!"
So saying, the archbishop took the book, and opened it to a random leaf, and his eyes fell on a strange word - and yet the second bookman proclaimed, without looking at the book, what letter the word began with! This was only the beginning of his marvels however, for he had the archbishop turn the book this way or that, to read this passage one way and this one another, and with each demonstration showed that the book was a marvelous work of craft, written and constructed as a great puzzle with all the technical art that a printer and binder could possess. "All its secrets, I can show to you," the youngest bookman promised, "but tell me, is this not a magic book?"
The archbishop weighed the two books carefully in his mind, but at last he turned to the third bookman, who seemed neither scared nor anxious, but slightly bored. He was lean and strange of appearance, with long locks and a noble nose; like the bust of Caesar in the garb of a ruined king of the old empire. No one ever knew his business, except it involved the trade of favors, and he knew men and women of every station, and the books he dealt in were presumed by many to be the way to the stake or the gallows, though none knew which.
"And have you brought me a book of magic as well?" said the archbishop.
Wordlessly, the final bookman produced from a pocket at his side a very small book - a duodecimo - bound in some undyed hide like shagreen, but otherwise severely plain and without title or ornament, and passed it to the archbishop.
With care, the archbishop opened it to the first page, and his eyes fell upon the first lines, and all present saw the color drain from that great face, and the eyes widen and the nostrils flare.
"You..." the archbishop said to the final bookman, though his eyes never left the small book in his great meaty hands, "...what have you done?"
"Oh, your Grace," said the final bookman, "it is not what I have done, but what you have done. Is that not what you asked for, when you called us together? Were you not tired of the hollow evils of the old necromancies, the sad little perversions of bookish men that never lived, yet thought they knew every demon by name and color? Tell me, as you turn the page," and here at last the final bookman smiled, "is this not a book of magic?"
The Inquisition came, in the end, and put the eldest and youngest bookmen to their pointed questions. They swore that the final bookmen had taken the little book from the archbishop's hand as he lay dying, the other clutching uselessly at his chest where his Grace's heart had stopped. They swore he smiled the entire time, and did not trouble the monks who rushed hither and yon for doctors and to aid the fallen prince of the church. They swore too that right before his deadly fit, the archbishop had done as the final bookman had commanded, and turned the page.
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