Sabastian’s fingers danced along the shelf that held a dozen codices owned by his friend, Pablo.
“You know how much I envy you your collection. Twelve volumes. A sizable number for our station,” he said, referring to their mutual status as merchants.
Pablo’s ire twitched at the implication that they were of the same class, but he let the comment pass. “Yes, Sabastian. It has taken me many years to collect them.” He watched as his friend admired the spine of an illuminated bible.
“I beg you again,” Sabastian continued. “Please let me borrow one of these masterpieces, to have it copied properly by the monks at the abbey.”
It was a conversation they’d had many times. “You know I can’t part with such a valuable possession, but you are always welcome to read them here, at your leisure.”
“Yes, and I thank you greatly for that pleasure. But today my request is more of a business proposition than a favor.”
“I propose that I lease the manuscript; that I pay you rent for the time it will take for the monks to copy it.”
“It’s an interesting offer, my friend, but what if there is loss or damage to my original during the process?”
“I will cover the original cost of the manuscript if anything should damage or destroy it while in my possession.”
Pablo stroked his chin as he considered this new incentive. He didn’t believe Sabastian could raise the money. “I am inclined to accept. When will you have acquired the deposit?”
“Splendid!” Sabastian reached into his jacket and offered a leather pouch with a letter to his friend. “I have it here.”
A surprised Pablo took the letter and reviewed the agreement they had just discussed. It contained a written contract and an insurance agreement. He reached for the pouch. It contained enough silver to cover the lease terms. Reluctantly he waved a hand at his library.
“Which in my collection interests you?”
Sabastian knew exactly which one. He had perused each book of the collection before, in some cases sitting for hours in Pablo’s library to enjoy entire volumes.
“I have always been drawn to this small one here.” He removed it from the shelf. “Book of Night Hours. As you know, I often have fitful nights’ sleep and I believe having a prayer guide for the quiet hours would allow me to spend the time in respectful devotions.”
“And so it is. When would you like to take possession of it?”
“I have already consulted the Benedictine Abbot about scrivener services. He approximates a four-month process for the copying and binding. With a little extra persuasion,” Sabastian gave a knowing tilt of his head, “they have agreed to start immediately.”
“I see.” Pablo rose from his chair and took the book from Sebastian’s hands. He leafed through it cursorily then handed it back to Sabastian. “I have never read through the entirety of it, not being all that interested in nighttime prayers.”
“I’m not surprised. Every standard Book of Hours provides ample attention to the spiritual needs of most people during the day.” Sabastian accepted the codex with reverence. “I shall have it back to you in the absolute least amount of time.”
After their goodbyes, Sabastian headed directly to the monastery on the hill.
The bells of St. Augustine Monastery rang before dawn. The brothers filed into the chapel for matins and then to the dining hall for porridge and dried fruit. Most of the scribes would pocket the fruit for later, when their focus would falter and the risk of error was greatest, usually just after terce prayers. The process would be repeated at the noon meal with a piece of bread or maybe a slice of cheese. If Prior Machello caught them though, it would garner them a solid strike on the back with his focusing stick. Any oil or crumbs on the parchment would eventually cause discoloration resulting in a reduction in payment if caught by the codex’s commissioner.
Brother Silas was not like the rest of the scribes, devoted to the holy work of passing on God’s word. On the contrary. He resented the work; resented the abbot; resented the brethren. Some days he resented God himself. What possible offense to God had he committed at the age of five that his mother would drop him off, never to return?
The abbey had taken him in begrudgingly, putting him to work first as a houseboy, then assisting with mixing inks and making parchment for the scribes. By the age of ten, he was copying hymnals for the local parishes. What started out as satisfying work, or at least better than scraping hides for parchment till his hands bled, quickly felt like servitude with long hours of standing, broken only by repetitious prayer and meals. Eye strain caused almost constant headaches. The material so redundant that it nearly crazed him.
In place of a formal education, the brothers had been sure to beat the fear of God into him as a child. He had grown to hate them all. Despite the abbot’s refusal of classes, Silas had become fluent in the Latin, Hebrew and Greek of most codices and longed for the opportunity to copy something other than religious texts. Fortunately, he had developed a gifted hand at accuracy with unusual scripts which were more often scientific or historic in content.
This morning, Prior Machello approached him with the long confident strides of someone who perceived himself superior.
“I have a new project for you Brother Silas.” Prior Machello began.
“Yes, Prior. I offer my services in any way God asks of me.”
“A local merchant is requesting a copy of this codex.” He opened a small book to expose simple pages.
“Are there no illuminations?” Silas asked.
“There appears not. And it looks to be a strange variety of Latin. You won’t understand it but do your best to copy exactly.”
“As always, Prior, I offer my best to God.”
“Yes. Yes,” Prior Machello waved him off. “Begin immediately.”
Silas resented the assumption that he wouldn’t understand it. That was Prior Machello trying to hold onto his fragile position.
Putting his attitude aside, Silas inspected the codex in his hands. A Book of Hours. How pedestrian. How many of these had he copied over the years. Tens certainly. His anticipation waned until he opened the front cover where the title was augmented. A Book of Night Hours. Well, he mused, that was unusual. Maybe this new project would keep his attention after all.
He got to work and soon understood the comments by the Prior. There were unusual words and phrases embedded in the text. Some were altered, some were completely unknown to him. It had kept his interest throughout the day, when he looked up and realized that he was alone in the scriptorium and the hour was quite late. He mumbled a few curses he’d learned from the Greeks and stumbled to his cell knowing the morning bells would come much too soon.
Dispensing with the usual evening prayers, he decided to invoke a new devotional using a prayer from the Book of Night Hours. He repeated it over and over as he invited sleep to come.
Just before dropping off to sleep, he was disturbed by a noise in his room. Generally noises, though rare, were confined to the occasional rodent getting at some of the straw that lay on the stone slab of his bed. This night the sound was different. A clicking jingle of things tapping together aroused his sleep.
He reached for his tinder box and struck a spark. In the dim light of the brimstone, he beheld a woman, if such could be said for the apparition that stood before him. In ragged dress, she swayed on skeletal feet, barely able to contain them in tattered shoes that matched the dress in poverty. The face and hair were those of a corpse long dead but its eyes showed a slight glow that was the most disturbing of all.
Despite his fright he addressed the thing. “Who are you and what do you want of me?”
She moaned as if struggling to speak.
“What curse do you bring upon me, I say!” Silas demanded.
When he reached for the cross around his neck, the vision vanished and he was left alone in his room wondering if he had dreamed it. Resorting back to the usual evening prayers, he eventually fell into restless sleep.
The next morning brought the same matins and porridge, the same procession to the scriptorium, but today Brother Silas felt an urgency in his chest as he approached his table. He recalled his recitation of the strange prayer from the night before. What was this book of night hours? And what of the strange dialect that appears woven into the text? With both apprehension and excitement he sat down to resume his task.
The bells that marked breaks in the work day now felt like an unwelcome interruption. An aggravation. When the day was finally over, Brother Silas was still hard at work.
“Brother,” Prior Machello approached him. “It is time to rest. Go.”
“Prior Machello, with all due respect, since I am scribing prayers for the night hours, would it not be prudent to do so at night?”
“That would require additional candle wax and an expense for the monastery.”
“Yes, Brother Machello.” Silas intentionally left off Machello’s title. He knew it irked him. “But I also know that you received an extra donation, maybe a personal one, to expedite the process. No?”
The Prior’s back stiffened. “As you will, Brother Silas, but work till dawn and be back here following the noon meal.”
“In grace and gratitude, I thank the Lord for my opportunity to serve.”
“Hmmph.” Machello turned on his heels and left Silas alone in the scriptorium.
Silas refocused his energy then went to his task, carefully copying letter by letter. When he got to a word or phrase he didn’t understand, he spent some time reflecting on its possible meaning. When he finished a particularly obscure line, he read it out loud.
“Ad Dominum nocte sanctificationem meam,” he recited out loud.
“To the Lord at night I make my devotions.”
Out of the shadows of the scriptorium moved a specter, the woman who had visited him in his cell. Tonight she had more body to her, less translucence. Silas was frightened but not as much as before.
“Who are you and why do you visit me?” he asked, tipping over his stool as he backed away.
“You call me,” the apparition replied.
“I most certainly did not,” he insisted.
The specter pointed to the codex. “Dark not night,” she whispered as she slipped backwards and dissolved into the darkness.
“What? Wait.” Suddenly, he didn’t want her to go.
After a moment, he righted his stool, shook himself off and sat back down at the desk.
“Dark not night. What does this devil mean?”
He looked down at his most recent line.
Ad Dominum nocte sanctificationem meam.
To the Lord at night I make my devotions.
“Dark not night.” He substituted the words.
“To the Lord at Dark I make my devotions.” No, that wasn’t quite right. He turned to the original. “To the Lord of Dark, of Darkness. To the Lord of Darkness!” Silas gasped. “Lord have mercy on my soul!” He turned the codex over to the front inside page. “The Book of Dark Hours,” he whispered and blessed himself with the sign of the cross. How many hands have scribed this book assuming it to be a book of God? What was it a book of?
Sitting at his desk contemplating this turn in the translation, he began reviewing other points in the text where there had been an unusual reference or word not quite right. When seen with a new understanding, the book became clearly a worship of Darkness. The more he thought about it, the less distasteful this prayer book seemed. He needed to know more. The woman could tell him. He repeated the invocation.
Ad Dominum nocte sanctificationem meam.
Ad Dominum nocte sanctificationem meam.
Ad Dominum nocte sanctificationem meam.
Slowly, out of the shadows, the woman appeared with even more substance than before. This time he was not afraid.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“You call me,” she whispered.
“Are you the Lord of Darkness?”
“Angel of the Lord,” she answered.
He noticed distinctly that her skin looked healthier, the rot had been replaced with flesh, the naked bones no longer visible. Even her clothing seemed to mend itself.
“Of the Lord of Darkness?” Silas asked.
She nodded slowly.
“What does the Lord of Darkness offer that the Lord of Lords and the glory of God has not already bestowed on me?”
“You mean answers prayers.” He said it as a statement.
She shook her head. “Any wishes.”
Silas suddenly remembered all the beatings, all the hungry nights, all the unanswered prayers, every time the abbot struck him in the name of a God that, Silas now realized, had abandoned him.
“What must a disciple of your Lord do to merit such a gift?”
The specter raised her hand toward the codex and pages flipped over as if from a breeze. The book lay open to a page with a single line.
Detur voluntas pro anima commutatio.
“A wish will be given for the exchange of the soul,” he read out loud.
He considered this then asked, “Must it be my soul?”
The woman shook her head. “You free it.”
Silas spoke slowly as understanding dawned. “I must free the soul from its flesh?”
She nodded again and gestured back to the codex. Again, pages flew.
Sic recitans: Hanc animam devote offero tenebris. Suppliciter peto…
“Reciting thus: I devoutly offer this soul to darkness. I humbly request…”
When he looked up again at the specter, she was looking out the window at the first inkling of dawn on the horizon and slowly faded back into the last of the night’s shadows.
Brother Silas quickly copied a few more pages to satisfy Prior Machello then headed to his cell to sleep.
It was a fitful sleep as Silas repeatedly awoke recalling what the woman had said and thinking of all the times he had prayed that God’s wrath rain down on the abbot and brothers to no relief of his suffering. Could he do it? Could he take the life of another in the name of vengeance? That he did not know the answer to this question disturbed him.
He arrived back at the scriptorium after the noon meal and resumed his work. With heightened concentration, he scribed page after page, copying the unusual Latin dialect exactly. He dared not recite any of the words as he wrote, but he thought over and over about what the woman had said and what she had shown him. He couldn’t help but read the lines as he scribed. The codex described a ritual of worship for Mephistopheles, the controller of the Darkness. Page after page revealed in great detail the power wielded by this Lord and the indulgences granted to his disciples.
Silas prayed hard day after day for his God, Lord of Lords, to release him from the curses of this codex, but no relief came. Again, God had abandoned him. Then one night he came across the incantation again written in the pages he was scribing. Before he knew it, he was chanting aloud.
Ad Dominum nocte sanctificationem meam.
Ad Dominum nocte sanctificationem meam.
Ad Dominum nocte sanctificationem meam.
Sure enough, she emerged from the shadows. He stared at her. She still held the vestiges of a rotting corpse and yet, seemed somehow more pleasing to the eye. She might have been attractive in life.
“Are you an angel of the Dark?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Will you show me the ways of the Dark?”
“Yes, mmmm,” she purred. Her visage became cleaner, almost tangible.
“What must I do to garner the pleasure of your Lord?”
“Mmmmm,” she responded and gestured to the codex whose pages flipped one leaf further.
The open page was only half filled with text. He ran his fingers over the letters as he translated aloud. “The bond to the Lord of Darkness is forever and eternal. No man nor God shall break the contract. The worship is one soul grants one wish.”
He looked to the specter, “If I do this will the Lord of Darkness grand me any justice I seek?”
“Yeesssss,” came the breathy voice of the specter.
He continued reading aloud. “Signo juramentum sanguinis. I sign the oath of blood.”
He looked to the specter who nodded and purred, now nearly normal in appearance.
He transcribed this next page into the working copy and paused. He’d never felt so ready for anything in his life. Once the contract was signed and the blood was dry, those who had hindered his happiness would be out of the way. He lifted his penknife and hesitated. Out of the corner of his eye, something shifted. The specter was at his elbow.
“Well?” she murmured, “Why do you wait?”
With confidence, he gently sliced the tip of his finger and pushed on the flesh to elicit a large drop of blood. Dipping his quill into the droplet, he signed his name to the codex.
Brother Silas continued to scribe into the late hours of the night as he considered his next actions.
He needed to understand exactly how this new power worked. He needed to free a soul and make his wish. So, he planned as he wrote that the next night, when he was sure the abbey was asleep, he would leave the grounds to wander in the seedier part of town.
Silas soon came across an old man sitting in the gutter, mostly out of his mind and homeless. This would do. Silas approached the man.
The man looked up with hope at the monk. “Brother, pray for me for I am surely a lost soul,” the man pleaded.
“Of course, my son. Let us pray together.” Silas knelt down beside the man, his heart racing with fear and excitement. With a swift swipe of his penknife, he slit the man’s throat.
“Hanc animam devote offero tenebris. Suppliciter peto…I devoutly offer this soul to the Darkness. I humbly request that Brother Machello be smitten with unremitting boils and rash for the remainder of his life and that the putrid smell of his wounds forces him into isolation.”
He left the man in the alley where he had found him and returned to the scriptorium, where he copied a few more pages, before retiring at dawn.
The following morning, Prior Machello was seated quietly on the dais at the front of the scriptorium when Silas arrived after the noon meal. This repose was unusual for the monk, who typically walked the isles with stern dissatisfaction.
Silas couldn’t help himself. Before he took his seat, he approached Machello.
“Good noon, Prior. I hope you are well today.”
Machello squirmed slightly, then barked, “I’m quite well, brother. Mind your business and get to work.”
“Immediately, Prior,” Silas replied. He bowed as he backed away before turning to begin his work. As he passed his desk mate he whispered, “What evil irritation has befallen the Prior that we should bear the brunt of his temper?”
“Pray, I might have heard that the good brother has acquired an irritation of the skin that raises his ire,” Brother Thomas answered without looking up.
Prior Machello growled from the dais, “It would be God’s will for you to confine your attention to your work, brothers.”
“Let us pray for him and for us,” Brother Thomas added.
Silas pinched himself to avoid grinning.
Silas found it difficult to remain focused on his work. His mind kept playing out the events of the night, the current condition of Prior Machello, and the possibilities for the Abbot. It was three days before he could once again escape the monastery unnoticed.
He made his way to the other side of town, near the docks, where he knew drunks and maids-for-hire wandered the streets. He was soon approached by such a woman who was eager to please him for a coin and a prayer. He had never laid with a woman before and decided to take advantage of her offer. He felt some regret as he strangled her afterward, invoking the dark power.
“Hanc animam devote offero tenebris. Suppliciter peto…I devoutly offer this soul to the Darkness. I humbly request that Abbot Peter Matthias Benedict be stricken with unremitting pain in his joints such that he gets no rest and no relief.”
Within days, rumors abounded about a sudden illness that struck the Abbot causing him pain and limiting his attendance at prayers.
As Silas’s copying of the codex was nearing its end, he wondered if his new power required that he be in possession of the actual manuscript. Reluctantly, he notified Prior Machello of his completion of the project.
“Good work, indeed, and quite fast. For your sake, I hope it is satisfactory work.”
“I assure you, Prior, it is my best yet,” Silas replied.
“Report back in the morning. I will leave the next task at your desk.”
A week later, Silas was called to meet the Prior in the visitation area of the church.
“Brother Silas, this is Mr. Sabastian Cabot. He is the customer for whom you copied the Book of Night Hours codex. He wishes a word with you.”
“Of course, Prior.” Silas turned to face Sabastian, near panic. Did this man know of the true nature of the codex? Or was this just a grateful patron?
Sabastian began, “I wanted to thank you personally for your work. The codex has become a quick companion for my restless night’s sleep.”
“I offer my services to the Lord, Mr. Cabot.”
“Yes. Of course. The devotion of the Benedictine monks is legendary and beyond reproach.” Then, in another surprise moment, Mr. Cabot turned to Prior Machello and asked, “Prior, might it be possible for me to have a private conversation with Brother Silas?”
Machello was as caught off-guard as Silas. “Yes. Of course,” he stuttered. “I’ll leave you here. Brother Silas will see you out.”
Machello closed the door behind him. Sabastian gestured to the two pews that lined adjacent walls. “Please, sit, that we might talk frankly.”
Silas, still nervous, sat stiffly on the pew as Sabastian took the other seat.
“I admire the work that you put into the codex,” he began.
“Thank you, kind sir.”
“At the risk of intruding, I have asked the monsignor of your history with the order. He tells me that you did not come to your vocation in the traditional way.”
“That is true,” nodded Silas.
“You are now well beyond legal age and yet you stay? May I ask why?”
Silas eyed him. He answered cautiously, “Where is a scribe to be but in the monastic life?”
“And if there were an alternative?” Sabastian offered.
“I’m sure I don’t understand.”
“The world is becoming more literate and the demand for manuscripts of all kinds is steadily increasing. There are a few commercial scriptoriums but they are staffed with mediocre scribes at best. Everyone knows, there is no comparison to monastic reproductions.”
“You have my interest,” replied Silas. “Please speak frankly.”
“I would like to open such a scriptorium, here in the city, and would like to offer you the first position if that is not offensive to your faith.”
Silas was stunned. Was this the Lord finally relieving him from his bondage, finally answering his prayers. Relief washed over him.
“I dare say, Mr. Cabot, that the offer is not offensive in the least. It is, in fact an answer to my prayers. I have not felt at home here for some years.”
“I understand. You can start as soon as the Abbot releases you from your vows. You can find me at the docks, Merchant’s Building, office number eight. I’ll leave you to your business.”
Silas walked Sabastian to the outer doors where Machello was waiting. Silas hurried the departure before Sabastian could say anything more. “Thank you, Mr. Cabot, for your kind appreciation. Please give us the opportunity to assist you in the future.”
Sabastian picked up on the tone.
“Thank you, again, Brother Silas.” Sabastian bowed before stepping out onto the church stairs.
Prior Machello eyed him suspiciously. “What did he want?” he demanded.
“Simply to express his gratitude,” Silas replied.
“Well, if that expression took the form of coins,” he leaned towards Silas with a grimace, “it is the property of the monastery and is to be turned over immediately.”
“Of course, Brother Machello. However, the gratitude was in word only, and a request that I scribe more for him as the opportunity presents itself.”
“Indeed!” Machello backed off. “Return to your work then.”
“Happily,” Silas replied.
He headed back toward the scriptorium until he was out of sight of Machello, then took a circuitous route to the office of the Abbot, Monsignor Peter Matthias.
Silas arrived two days later at the office of Mr. Sabastian Cabot, Importer and Actuarial. He was still in the robes of the Benedictines. The Abbot, displeased at Silas’s departure, had refused him any other clothing or belongings, save what was on his back.
“Brother Silas, welcome,” Sabastian greeted him with a warm handshake. “I see you are still in robes. Are you still affiliated with the monastery?”
“Regrettably, Monsignor did not feel possessed to offer me any alternative clothing.”
“I understand. I will have common clothes for you by this afternoon. Is your obligation to the order completely severed? Is there any further business you have with them?”
“Unfortunately, the Abbot was extremely unhappy about the turn of events and has terminated all ties I might have. There is no return for me.”
“Unfortunate indeed to sour such relations but a great opportunity for you for a new life. Let me show you your work station.”
Sabastian led Silas through the offices and down back stairs to the warehouse. “I’m afraid the only space I could carve out for the moment opens to the alley.”
“I am ever grateful for the opportunity, Mr. Cabot. I assure you I will be happy here.”
Sabastian led him to a desk and stool along a back wall with light from a large window.
“Have a seat. Try it out for height and comfort. I was only guessing at measurements.”
Silas did as instructed, inspecting the meager supplies on hand. “I will need a few more items to provide you with the quality you are asking for.”
“Not to worry. More things are ordered. They’ll be placed here.”
Sabastian circled around behind Silas, pointing out where future things would be in easy reach of the work surface.
Silas was listening intently, admiring his good fortune when suddenly he felt a constriction around his neck. It quickly tightened to an alarming breath-stopping grip. He grabbed at the cord frantically, unable to gain any leverage. The last thing he heard was Sabastian’s voice.
“Hanc animam devote offero tenebris. I devoutly offer this soul to the Darkness.
This story previously appeared in Tales From Shelf 804, 2023.
Edited by Marie Ginga