The Book Thief by KA Masters

Enjoy an exclusive guest post from KA Master author of “Per Aquas Ad Astra” featured in our ON TIME anthology.

Amidst the whirlwind of lightning and swirling ash, the ship’s lookout heard the desperate cries of a drowning man somewhere in darkness ahead. They soon pulled the man out of the sea and deposited him at General Gaius Plinius Secundus’ feet. As the general knelt down to investigate the stranger, the barely conscious man vomited up bloody sea foam, cradling his mangled arm against his chest.

Plinius wrenched free the strange object that the stranger was clutching. It appeared to be a saddlebag made of a material the general had never seen before: an odd mixture of glass and leather. It was tough but supple, waterproof and completely translucent. Although he could not open the bag, Plinius could clearly see its contents, and instantly recognized the handful of scrolls that had belonged to his friend’s library. Plinius scowled in anger at the thief’s choice of books. 

Tossing the loot aside, the general turned his attention to the smoldering manacle that had burned the wretched human’s wrist. His captor must have been rich, for the manacle was made of shining silver, not the usual iron. Like the pumice and rocks raining down upon them, it glowed with a white heat, burning the prisoner’s flesh as it pulsed with some unknown source.

Suddenly the stranger bolted upright, shrieking in terror. Plinius’ guards ran into the tent, ready to subdue the man, but Plinius waved them back. They reluctantly left the safety of the captains’ quarters and trudged through the ankle-deep ash to return to their stations on deck. 

“Help! Please help! We need to get out of here!”

“Thief,” Plinius sneered. “How did you manage to escape your master? Where is the ship that brought you out this far to sea? There are no other ships on the horizon, and no signs of wreckage of a shipwreck. Where did you come from? Is your master in danger? If you help me save him and his crew, I will spare you from crucifixion.”

The man shuddered, panting in pain. He reached for the scrolls with his good hand, but Plinius kicked them out of reach.

“Please,” he begged. “You don’t understand. You need to get out of here. The volcano is going to destroy everything in its path.”

Volcano?” the general asked, not recognizing the word. 

“Mountain,” the man clarified. “The fire it spits will kill everything. We are not safe here. The cities at the base of the mountain are already destroyed. You need to escape now, General, or you’ll perish as well.”

“You speak the truth, I’m afraid. It is a shame we could not do more,” Plinius sighed. “We are heading to Pomp–“

“No!” the prisoner shouted.

“Pomponianus’ house. It’s not far from Stabiae. We will regroup, and see if we can help the survivors of Pompeii in the morning.”

“There won’t be survivors,” the man wept. “And we need to hurry.”

“You are not in a position to make demands, slave,” Gaius grumbled.

“I am trying to save your lives! The fire mountain will kill all of you if you don’t hurry. Look, I recognize you, and I don’t want to see you hurt. I value your life and your Natural Histories, Pliny.”

The general eyed him narrowly. “No one knows of my histories except my close friends. And I do not know you. Is this a plot? Are you here to steal my works, like you did Asinius’?”

The man laughed in despair. “It’s no use lying anyway–I’m already dead. Do you see this?” He pointed to the bloody welts on his arm. “It’s poison.”

“They coated your manacle in poison?”

“It’s not a manacle. It’s my chronometer. It’s broken, and the poison that makes it work has already leaked inside me. I’ll be dead in an hour.”

 “How do you know this?”

“Because I’m a scientist, just like you.”

Plinius shook his head, not understanding the word. “‘Scientist?’”

“A philosopher,” he clarified. “But you study natural history, and I study history. I’ve read your books—all thirty-seven volumes. They give us amazing insight to help us understand Roman thought.”

Plinius’ scowled. “Why do you want to understand us? Are you some enemy? Terrorist? A rising Hannibal or Mithridates? Did you use a siege engine to wake the fire mountain, to attack Rome and her ports?”

“No. I’m a traveler. From Ventura—the things to come, the future. I was born nearly three thousand years after this date. I am a historian who traveled here to rescue part of your friend’s library, to save it from the destruction of the town.”

“You saved his books, but you didn’t want to save mine?” the general huffed, his pride wounded.

“Well, no. We already have your books. They are beacons of Roman knowledge,” he added, to soothe the general’s ego.  

“Then why did you want these? Asinius Pollio? He isn’t very good.”

“He is lost to history. And he gives us a chance to better understand the past.” He sighed. “But it doesn’t matter. I waited too long to return, and the ash interfered with my chronometer. It broke and now I’m stuck here.”

“Can you not fix it?”

He shook his head. “I am a historian, not a mechanic. I cannot fix the chronometer, and the radiation inside it has poisoned me.” He clutched the scrolls to his chest and wept.

“What’s your name?” Plinius asked, sympathy rising.

The man shrugged. “Does it matter? I’m dead anyway.”

“So you are from the future? Do you know if we are going to survive this night?”

“If you head to Stabiae, you will,” the man lied.

“But you won’t?”

“I have about an hour,” he groaned.

Plinius opened the pouch. “What do you call this, viator? What is this bag made from?” 

“It’s called ‘polymer.’”

Plinius ran his fingers over the texture in awe. “Marvelous!” A moment later, his reverie ended and he added, “If you have an hour left, I suppose you shouldn’t die in vain. Here, I will read to you. Spend your last moments with your beloved Asinius.”

He unrolled the first scroll of the lost historian and began to read aloud.

“Thank you,” the dying man nodded, closing his eyes in peace.


KA Masters is a fantasy writer who specializes in twisted fairy tales and zombie-infested historic fiction. She attributes her passion for Greco-Roman mythology and Germanic folklore to her alma mater, Dickinson College. Her debut novel, The Morning Tree, was recently published by Indie Gypsy.

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