In the fifteenth century, the Spanish Inquisition spreads terror throughout the land, with Prior Tomás de Torquemada serving as the ultimate judge of who will live and who will be consigned to the purifying flames. Never has Torquemada questioned his own faith or his sacred duty to rid the world of heretics, blasphemers, and nonbelievers. Now, however, an extraordinary volume has come into his possession—an ancient book that radiates pure evil. The prior realizes this abomination must be destroyed along with anyone who has come into contact with it, for it is surely the devil’s work, corrupting and possessing all those who touch it. But whom can Torquemada trust to help him achieve his mission now that The Compendium of Srem has passed through numerous hands . . . including his own?
F. Paul Wilson is a writer who is at home working in many different genres, from medical thriller to science fiction to mystery to urban fantasy to horror. Now he travels back centuries in time to explore the secret history of a book of great and terrible power, an ancient volume of eldritch lore that plays a substantial role in the author’s popular Repairman Jack series of novels: The Compendium of Srem.
The Bibliomysteries are a series of short tales about deadly books, by top mystery authors.
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The Compendium of Srem
By F. Paul Wilson
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2014 F. Paul Wilson
All rights reserved.
Tomás de Torquemada opened his eyes in the dark.
Was that ...?
Yes. Someone knocking on his door.
"Who is it?"
"Brother Adelard, good Prior. I must speak to you."Even if he had not said his name, Tomás would have recognized the French accent. He glanced up at his open window. Stars filled the sky with no hint of dawn.
"It is late. Can it not wait until morning?"
"I fear not."
With great effort, Tomás struggled to bring his eighty-year-old body to a sitting position as Brother Adelard entered the tiny room. He carried a candle and a cloth-wrapped bundle. He set both next to the Vulgate Bible on the rickety desk in the corner.
"May I be seated, Prior?"
Tomás gestured to the room's single straight-back chair. Adelard dropped into it, then bounded up again.
"No. I cannot sit."
"What prompts you to disturb my slumber?"
Adelard was half his age and full of righteous energy—one of the inquisitors the pope had assigned to Tomás four years ago. He seemed unable to contain that energy now. The candlelight reflected in his bright blue eyes as he paced Tomás's room.
"I know you are not feeling well, Prior, but I thought it best to bring this to you in the dark hours."
He fairly leaped to the table where he pulled the cloth from the rectangular bundle, revealing a book. Even from across the room, even with his failing eyesight, Tomás knew this was like no book he had ever seen.
"This," he said, lifting the candle and bringing both closer. He held the book before Tomás, displaying the cover. "Have you ever seen anything like it?"
Tomás shook his head. No, he hadn't.
The covers and spine seemed to be made of stamped metal. He squinted at the strange marks embossed on the cover. They made no sense at first, then seemed to swim into focus. Words ... in Spanish ... at least one was in Spanish.
Compendio ran across the upper half in large, ornate letters; and below that, half size: Srem.
"What do you see?" Adelard said. The candle flame wavered as his hand began to shake.
"The title, I should think."
"The words, Prior. Please tell me the words you see."
"My eyes are bad but I am not blind: Compendio and Srem."
The candle flame wavered more violently.
"When I look at it, Prior, I too see Srem, but to my eyes the first word is not Compendio but Compendium."
Tomás bent closer. No, his eyes had not fooled him.
"It is as plain as day: Compendio. It ends in i-o."
"You were raised speaking Spanish, were you not, Prior?"
"As a boy of Valladolid, I should say so."
"As you know, I was raised in Lyon and spent most of my life speaking French before the pope assigned me to assist you."
To rein me in, you mean, Tomás thought, but said nothing.
The current Pope, Alexander VI, thought him too ... what word had he had used? Fervent. Yes, that was it. How could one be too fervent in safeguarding the Faith? And hadn't he previously narrowed procedures, limiting torture only to those accused by at least two citizens of good standing? Before that, any wild accusation could send someone to the rack.
"Yes-yes. What of it?"
"When ..." He swallowed. "When you look at the cover, you see Compendio, a Spanish word. When I look at the cover I see a French word: Compendium."
Tomás pushed the book away and struggled to his feet.
"Have you gone mad?"
Adelard staggered back, trembling. "I feared I was, I was sure I was, but you see it too."
"I see what is stamped in the metal, nothing more!"
"But this afternoon, when Amaury was sweeping my room, he spied the cover and asked where I had learned to read Berber. I asked him what he meant. He grinned and pointed to the cover, saying 'Berber! Berber!'"
Tomás felt himself going cold.
"Yes. He was born in Almeria where they speak Berber, and to his eyes the two words on the cover were written in Berber script. He can read only a little of the writing, but he saw enough of it growing up. I opened the book for him and he kept nodding and grinning, saying 'Berber' over and over."
Tomás knew Amaury, as did everyone else in the monastery—a simpleminded Morisco who performed menial tasks for the monks, like sweeping and serving at table. He was incapable of duplicity.
"After that, I gave Brother Ramiro a quick look at the cover, and he saw Compendio, just as you do." Adelard looked as if he were in physical pain. "It appears to me, good Prior, that whoever looks at this book sees the words in their native tongue. But how can that be? How can that be ?"
Tomás's knees felt weak. He pulled the chair to his side and lowered himself onto it.
"What sort of deviltry have you brought into our house?"
"I had no idea it was any sort of deviltry when I bought it. I spied it in the marketplace. A Moor had laid it out on a blanket with other trinkets and carvings. I thought it so unusual I bought it for Brother Ramiro—you know how he loves books. I thought he could add it to our library. Not till Amaury made his comment did I realize that it was more than simply a book with an odd cover. It ..." He shook his head. "I don't know what it is, Prior, but it has certainly been touched by deviltry. That is why I've brought it to you."
To me, Tomás thought. Well, it would have to be me, wouldn't it.
Yet in all his fifteen years as Grand Inquisitor he had never had to deal with sorcery or witchcraft. Truth be told, he could give no credence to that sort of nonsense. Peon superstitions.
"That is not all, Prior. Look at the pattern around the words. What do you see?"
Tomás leaned closer. "I see crosshatching."
"So do I. Now, close your eyes for a count of three."
He did so, then reopened them. The pattern had changed to semicircles, each row facing the opposite way of the row above and below it.
His heart gave a painful squeeze in his chest.
"What do you see?"
"A ... a wavy pattern."
"I kept my eyes open and I still see the cross hatching."
Tomás said nothing as he tried to comprehend what was happening here. Finally ...
"There is surely deviltry on the covers. What lies between?"
Adelard's expression was bleak. "Heresy, Prior ... the most profound heresy I have ever seen or heard."
"That is an extreme judgment, Brother Adelard. It also means you have read it."
"Not all. Not nearly all. I spent the rest of the afternoon and all night reading it until just before I came to your door. And even so, I have only begun. It is evil, Prior. Unspeakably evil."
He did not recall Adelard being prone to exaggeration, but this last had to be an overstatement.
Adelard placed the tome on the table and opened it. Tomás noticed that the metal cover was attached to the spine by odd interlacing hinges of a kind he had never seen before. The pages looked equally odd. Moving his chair closer, he reached out and ran his fingers over the paper—if it was paper at all—and it felt thinner than the skin of an onion, yet completely opaque. He would have expected such delicate material to be marred by wrinkles and tears, but each page was perfect.
As was the writing that graced those pages—perfect Spanish. It had the appearance of an ornate handwritten script, yet each letter was perfect, and identical to every other of its kind. Every "a" looked like every other "a," every "m" like every other "m." Tomás had seen one of the Holy Bibles printed by that German, Gutenberg, where each letter had been exactly like all its brothers. The Gutenberg book had been printed in two columns per page, however, whereas the script in this compendium flowed from margin to margin.
"Show me heresy," Tomás said.
"Let me show you deviltry first, Prior," said the monk as he began to turn the pages at blinding speed.
"You go too fast. How will you know when to stop?"
"I will know, Prior. I will know."
Tomás saw numerous illustrations fly by, many in color.
"Here!" Adelard said, stopping and jabbing his finger at a page. "Here is deviltry most infernal!"
Tomás felt his saliva dry as he faced a page with an illustration that moved ... a globe spinning in a rectangular black void. Lines crisscrossed the globe, connecting glowing dots on its surface.
"Heavenly Lord! It ..." He licked his lips. "It moves."
He reached out, but hesitated. It looked as if his hand might pass into the void depicted on the page.
"Go ahead, Prior. I have touched it."
He ran his fingers over the spinning globe. It felt as flat and smooth as the rest of the page—no motion against his fingertips, and yet the globe continued to turn beneath them.
"What sorcery is this?"
"I was praying you could tell me. Do you think that sphere is supposed to represent the world?"
"I do not know. Perhaps. The Queen has just sent that Genoan, Colón, on his third voyage to the New World. He has proven that the world is round ... a sphere."
Adelard shrugged. "He has proven only what sailors have been saying for decades."
Ah, yes. Brother Adelard fancied himself a philosopher.
Tomás stared at the spinning globe. Although some members of the Church hierarchy argued against it, most now accepted that the world God had created for Mankind was indeed round; but if this apparition was supposed to be that world, then the perspective was from that of the Lord Himself.
Why now? Why, with his health slipping away like sand—he doubted he would survive the year—did a tome that could only be described as sorcerous find its way to his quarters? In his younger days he would have relished hunting down the perpetrators of this deviltry. But now ... now he barely had the strength to drag himself through the day.
He sighed. "Light my candle and leave this abomination to me. I would read it."
"I know you must, dear Prior, but prepare yourself. The heresies are so profound they will ... they will steal your sleep."
"I doubt that Brother Adelard." In his years as Grand Inquisitor he had heard every conceivable heresy. "I doubt that very much."
But no matter what its contents, this tome had already stolen his sleep.
After Adelard departed, he looked around at his spare quarters. Four familiar whitewashed walls, bare except for the crucifix over his bed. A white ceiling and a sepia tiled floor. A cot, a desk, a chair, a small chest of drawers, and a Holy Bible comprised the furnishings. As prior, as Grand Inquisitor, as the queen's confessor, no one would have raised an eyebrow had he requisitioned more comfortable quarters. But earthly trappings led to distractions, and he would not be swayed from his Holy Course.
Before opening the Compendium, he took his bible, kissed its cover, and laid it in his lap ...CHAPTER 2
Tomás read through the night. His candle burned out just as dawn began to light the sky, so he read on, foregoing breakfast. Finally he forced himself to close both the abominable book and his eyes.
As he slumped in his chair he heard the sounds of hammers and saws and axes and the calls of the workmen wafting through his window. Every day was the same—except Sunday, of course. Main construction on the monastery—Monasterio de Santo Tomás—had been officially completed four years ago, but always there seemed more to do: a patio here, a garden there. It seemed it would never be finished.
The monastery had become the centerpiece of Ávila. And that it should not be. It had grown too big, too ornate. He thought of the elegant studded pillars ringing the second-floor gallery overlooking the enormous courtyard, beautiful works of art in themselves, but inappropriate for a mendicant order that required a vow of poverty.
It housed three cloisters—one for novitiates, one for silence, and one for the royal family. Since the king and queen had funded the monastery, and used it as their summer residence, he supposed such excess was unavoidable. The queen was why he had moved here from Seville—he had been her confessor for many years.
He opened his eyes and stared at the cover of the Compendium of Srem. He wasn't sure if Srem was the name of a town or the fictional civilization it described or the person who had compiled it. But the title mattered not. The content ... the content was soul rattling in its heresy, and utterly demonic in the subtle seductiveness of its tone.
The book never denounced the Church, never blasphemed God the Father, Jesus the Son, or the Holy Ghost. Oh, no. That would have been too obvious. That would have set up a barrier between the reader and the unholiness within. Tomás would have found shrill, wild-eyed blasphemy easier to deal with than the alternative presented here: God and His Church were not presented as enemies—in fact, they were never presented at all! Not one mention. Impossible as it was, the author pretended to be completely unaware of their existence.
That was bad enough. But the tone ... the tone ...
The Compendium presented itself as a collection of brief essays describing every facet of an imaginary civilization. Where that civilization might exist—or when—was never addressed. Perhaps it purported to describe the legendary Island of Atlas mentioned by Plato in his Timaeus, supposedly sunk beneath the waves millennia ago. But no one took those stories seriously. It portrayed a civilization that harnessed the lightning and commanded the weather, defying God's very Creation by fashioning new creatures from the humors of others.
But the tone ... it presented these hellish wonders in a perfectly matter-of-fact manner, as if everyone was familiar with them, as if these were mere quotidian truths that the author was simply cataloguing for the record. Usually when imaginary wonders were described—the Greek legends of their gods and goddesses, came to mind—the teller of the tall tale related them in breathless prose and a marveling tone. Not so the Compendium. The descriptions were flat and straightforward, almost casual. And the way they interconnected and referred back and forth to each other indicated that a great deal of thought had been invested in these fictions.
Which was what made it all so seductive.
Many times during the night and through the morning Tomás had to force himself to lean back and press the Holy Bible against his fevered brow so as to counteract the spell the Compendium was attempting to weave around him.
By the time he closed the covers, he had dipped barely a fingertip into the foul well of its waters, but he had read enough to know that this so-called Compendium of Srem was in truth the Compendium of Satan, a library of falsehoods fashioned by the Father of Lies himself.
And the most profound lies concerned gods, although he didn't know if "god" was the proper word for the entities described. No, "described" was not the word. The author referred to two vaporous entities at war in the aether. The people of this fictional civilization did not worship these entities. Rather they contended with them, some currying favor with one so as to help defeat the other, and vice versa. They had not bothered to name their gods, and had no images of them. Their gods simply ... were.
But reading the Compendium was not necessary to appreciate its hellish origin. Simply leafing through the pages was all it took. For the book had no end! It numbered one hundred sheets—Tomás had counted them—but when he'd leafed to the last page, he'd found there was no last page. Every time he turned what appeared to be the last page, another lay waiting. And yet the sheet count never varied from one hundred, because a page at the front was disappearing every time a new one appeared at the rear. Yet whenever he closed and reopened the book, it began again with the title page.
Sorcery ... sorcery was the only explanation.
Excerpted from The Compendium of Srem by F. Paul Wilson. Copyright © 2014 F. Paul Wilson. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Boreing not worth the money starts out interesting foor a few pages then but never achieves its goal dead in the water