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The Angel of El Escorial
The notes in the pages that follow are a secret to all but God the Father and their author, Epifanio Artemio Felix, servant of the Holy Mother Church and bearer and translator of the Holy Scripture in the name of Bishop of Rome and the Father General of the Society of Jesus. That I have kept the contents of this pamphlet a secret is my greatest sin, and I have begged forgiveness from the Lord for my cowardice. In the name of my life, my reputation and my station, I concealed the marvel that we discovered in the foothills of Sierra de Guadarrama. In my defense, however feeble, I feared the impact that the entity would have on an empire that stands on a foundation that even still erodes. My prayers are that this information be found in a time of stability when the information can be used to the greater glory.
The notes that follow this testimony are, I admit, tragically brief. They are but my feeble attempt to record a series of vocalizations that, to my knowledge, belong to no language in the temporal sphere. It is a crude and incomplete document, written without any efforts at further study or reasoning. Perhaps in my younger days I would have endeavored to solve the riddle myself, but the spirit of adventure has long since departed me.
Perhaps it is nothing short of God’s will that I was led to the entity. I have lived apart from my countrymen for a number of years, leading a comfortable and quiet existence in the highlands that surround San Lorenzo de El Escorial. To be sure, a few of the young acolytes know the location of my cottage, and from time to time they arrive at my threshold with gifts from the gardens they keep and ask for a consultation on some matter or to hear a tale of my travels. Most days, though, are as silent as the cells that were home for the first few years of my orders. The temporal world does not bother me here. Even that morning, as this nation’s vast navy neared its grim destiny at Gravelines, there was only silence.
Then came the knocking at my door, a loud and frenzied cadence. “Father Felix! Father Felix, I must speak with you at once!”
I raced for the door as swiftly as my hobbled flesh would allow. Standing at the threshold was a young man that I dimly recollected from the countryside. “What do you require, my son?”
The young man fell to his knees before me, trembling and fighting through tears. This was not supplication, but the exhaustion born from overwhelming emotion. “Father Felix, I would not have disturbed your peace so rudely, but we have a situation that demands your gifts.”
“Calm down, my son. Might I ask your name?”
“Alvaro Hernan Jiminez, but do not concern yourself with the name of the groveling dog before you.”
“What do you require? If you have need of absolution or if there is one in your company who requires anointment, there are many priests who can assist you.”
“My problem…our problem is unique, Father. The others would be ill-suited to handle it.” Young Alvaro scrambled back to his feet. “As a boy, I studied under the Society in a school not far removed from here. They held you in the highest esteem, Father. The educators spoke of the fearless Father Felix and his journeys, his missions to carry the blessings of civilization and the Word of God to the distant corners of the Earth. I know you have voyaged through Arabia into the Mughal Empire, through the Far East, and even beyond the seas to the still wild lands of Peru. You have surely witnessed all that exists under the Lord’s eyes.”
“You flatter me, my son, but you should know that there was not such glory as you imagined.” This was no false modesty; the people who sought my council often assumed that I had witnessed bizarre and alien rituals or as-yet unremarked upon wars in my journeys, but these voyages were always of a more intellectual nature. Even the injury that ceased my travels was mundane. Contrary to the rumors of the time, it was not an ambush or torture that ruined my leg, but a simple fall that could well have happened in the abbey.
“I am not seeking glory, Father. I am seeking your experience.” Alvaro took me by my sleeve. “You have seen far more than any of us, Father, and you have heard more. When they did not speak of your piety, the teachers testified to your brilliance. They speak of the great translator Epifanio Felix, who speaks the Word in many tongues, and aided others in their mastery. This is why we need you, Father. Please, the journey is not far.”
“Very well, my son.” I did not question the young man’s urgency. My assumption was that some visitor from a distant land had arrived at his doorstep, perhaps injured or even dying, and he needed a confessor who could comprehend a foreign tongue.
Alvaro’s home was but a short trek from my own doorstep, along a concealed path that snaked almost invisibly through the trees. It ended at a cottage that had suffered for lack of repair, the home of a family that had known better days. From the disturbances in the ground around the cottage, it was clear that a crowd had amassed.
Alvaro pointed to a spot farther up the mountain where the trees had been mysteriously disturbed. “It was there, Father. I learned astronomy from the Society, and though I have no money for a telescope, I still find pleasure in walking into the mountains to observe the heavens. On my walk last night, I witnessed that gap in the trees and went to investigate. There, I found something I still cannot reckon.”
“Please, Father, I am not versed in the mechanical sciences. But there was…I don’t know what it was, but it behaved as though it was in pain.”
“You speak of an animal?”
“I know of no animal that can speak as it does.” Alvaro nudged open the door of his cottage. “I summoned a doctor and then went to find you.”
My curiosity only grew with Alvaro’s strained attempts to describe what he had witnessed. I did not hesitate to follow him into the cottage and into a crowded scene that I can scarcely describe better than Alvaro had. The entity was laid out on the ground, scarcely moving, fighting against its clearly shattered body to draw breath – if, indeed, this is what it was doing. At first glance it resembled a man, small in stature and covered with wiry and dense muscle, but no human was ever born like this. The skin was a mottled mosaic, shifting in color from a tone the color of rich soil to a green-gray reminiscent of the sea on a stormy day. The arms had many joints and they were curiously placed. The head was free of hair, instead revealing a bony crest that ringed the skull and, above that, a series of symmetrically arranged nodules.
“So you’ve arrived, Brother Felix.” I was so taken aback by the entity that I failed to register the one familiar face in the crowd – Gaston Inocencio de Leon, a member of a healing order whom I had known as an acolyte. He spoke without looking up from his vigil over the entity. “Such strange circumstances.”
“Indeed, Brother de Leon.” I took a seat on a stool next to Gaston, watching as he did his best to attend to the entity. “I’ve never witnessed anything such as this.”
“It is a shame, as I’d hoped you might have seen the kin of this creature in your travels,” said Gaston.
“There were no others?” I said. “None where you found it?”
“No, it is the only one of its kind,” said Gaston. “Did the young man explain why we wanted you present?”
“Only that the thing can speak, but in a strange tongue,” I said.
“It does not respond to Latin, not to prayers or invocations,” said Gaston. “Nor does it seem to comprehend Spanish or Portuguese.”
Perhaps the entity, while not understanding our speech, sensed a change in the environs, for at that moment it replied, issuing a response in a strangled tongue. I have endeavored to capture the sound in the pages beyond, though in this area the limits of my skill reveal themselves fully.
“The wounds are mortal, I suspect. Our time may be very short.” Gaston turned to me. “Brother, I know you must be shocked, but surely you have some thought, some insight?”
In truth, I was afraid, more so than I had ever been even on my travels over what I knew was hostile ground. Though I have spent my life in service to God, my specialties have always concerned strictly temporal matters. The world unseen is an enigma to me. I have been cursed many times by lost souls who did not appreciate my teachings, but the fell spirits they called upon never appeared before my eyes. In time I grew to recognize this as superstition, and in turn I came to acknowledge folk fiends of my homeland were likely myth as well. But the presence of a creature so alien to my experience made me question this foolish notion of rationality. Had I doubted the power of the Enemy, and made myself vulnerable?
“Brother Felix, please.” Gaston grew ever more impatient. “I need your council.”
“You mislay my knowledge,” I said. “I can offer no meaningful advice on this entity, except to advise that you steel yourself in its presence.”
Gaston rose to his feet, his eyes ablaze with a revulsion that I’d never imagine could exist within this humble healer. “Brother Felix, surely I have misheard you? You speak like some witch hunter!”
“Of witchcraft I know nothing, save that I should keep a healthy fear of it,” I said. “And I am filled with fear now.”
“Surely you jest!” Gaston bellowed with a righteous fury that drove back the onlookers. “I thought I had summoned a man bestowed with the gift of reason!”
“And I am exercising that gift, as should you,” I said. “You do not know the nature of this thing, and you must know that the land is thick with inquisitors and witch hunters. Have you no concern?”
“I do,” said Gaston, his rage quelled. “I am concerned that I will one day be called to stand before the Father and made to explain how I allowed one of His creations to perish in indignity.”
The entity, which had been lying still, stirred abruptly as though it could grasp our conversation even through the language gap. Its hand landed upon my ornate pectoral cross, the tendrilous fingers wrapping around the filigree arms. It was then that I noticed that it had an object in its other hand, a rolled-up sheet of something akin to paper but with an unearthly metallic sheen. Once more the entity tried to speak, but while I could not comprehend the precise words I could intuit that it meant me to examine the object. Taking it from the entity’s hand, I cautiously unrolled it and examined it in the dancing light.
“What is it, Brother?” said Gaston.
The surface of the object was covered in writing, not inked but burned or etched by some process unknown to me. “Some manner of message. There are many language, I recognize more than a few.”
Alvaro, who had been cowering in a shaded corner, cautiously crept towards us. “Father, can you read it?”
“Yes,” I said. “I can read several lines. Each is the same message.”
“And that message?” said Gaston.
I could not still my hands from trembling. “It reads…’We do not seek death, but only the sacred soil of new life. I mean no harm.’”
There was blessed silence for a moment before Gaston spoke. “Brother, I am prepared to perform the rites. Will you not record its confession?”
“I will do as my skill allows,” I said.
The entity spoke for a few minutes more before it passed beyond the material world, and I have aimed to record its confession via this imperfect instrument. It is unlikely that I will ever comprehend this final message, as my days are clearly growing short. Thus I will never know if these words were indeed a confession, or if this entity even had an understanding of God. I do believe that it died in a peaceful state, having achieved some small part of its own quest. This is but my own belief – one might say my hope – and it is to my shame that I have hidden this knowledge from the world. This fearful vanity is my weakness and I shall spend my remaining days struggling to shed it. But when night falls, I can at least take some solace in knowing that I helped another explorer in his travels.
Edited by Steve Hovland
Born in rural western Kansas, Andrew Johnston discovered his Sinophilia while attending the University of Kansas. Subsequently, he has spent most of his adult life shuttling back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. He is currently based in Hefei, Anhui province. He has published short fiction in Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures and the Laughing at Shadows Anthology. You can learn more about his projects at FindTheFabulist.com.