Friday, July 3, 2020

The House of Oreander

For Artemus Jaxson, the close of visiting hours meant his job had just begun. This latest excavation at Pompeii had caught his notice in a journal of history, leading him all the way from England to hide behind stacks of amphorae. Whatever the horizontal urns had once held was long gone, as was a reputed magician called Oreander who dug this basement. But there was a third sub-level Oreander wrote about in his cryptic notes. A scholar like Artemus was able to worm out the details of period Latin, right down to local idioms and current events of the day.

Hearing the gate shut above in the atrium, Artemus crept out of hiding and headed for a boxy stone, on which a corpse sat pensively considering the disaster which had befallen him. When this chamber was cleared of ash, excavators scanned for signs of body-shaped voids. This they carefully worked around, leaving intact a realistic shell complete with melted facial features.

Artemus played his light over the mud mummy. "Sorry, old boy, but I must disturb your master's repose." He set about searching the base for a hidden panel. There he found the lever for an ingenious counterweight, and the gruesome sculpture grated aside to reveal a round hole. Dank cold air rushed out, along with (perhaps imagined) a sepulchral sigh.

Spiral metal stairs reached down to a secret well. Dripping water echoed along a stagnant concourse barely ankle deep; the pending eruption of Vesuvius had dried up the city's water supplies. Artemus tucked his nose into his shirt against the cloying swamp odor, sweeping his light in both directions. Stygian voids presented at either end, but the niche he sought emerged from the gloom.

Carved from rocky soil, the arched chamber featured recessed shelves stocked with rotting tomes, braziers, and a desk. A figure had hands on it as if in the act of rising.

"Quintullus Oreander," Artemus said. "I've come to see what you have bequeathed the world." He tried not to look at the specter, whose toga hung in tatters from parchment flesh. Upon the desk lay an open scroll. Artemus blew away the dust, recognized the writing as an incantation. As he spoke the words, reality shifted.

He was looking down a forum littered with bodies and overturned carts, looming from a nightmare world of black snow. Animals brayed, dogs barked, people shrieked in despair. North, past the old ruins of the temple of Jupiter, there appeared the author of this apocalypse. Vesuvius sent tongues of flame into a black sky that danced with sheet lightning, the roaring thermal vents giving notice of the pyroclastic flow that would soon end all life.

No one paid heed to the oddly-dressed man who staggered under a hail of pebbles and pumice, who crawled toward the dubious shelter of the cloth maker's guild. Artemus had to laugh at the trick played upon him.

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Authorities were perplexed by the man in rich period costume who emerged from the House of Oreander. He only spoke Latin, leading them to suspect he was a deranged history buff. Yet the man wasn't at all bothered at being detained, exhibiting a childlike wonder at everything around him. One of the guards joked about the guy having been asleep for two thousand years.

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