This weeks prompt is:15. Bridge and slimy black waters.
The Research: Water under the Bridge
It is a known fact with each age, the world becomes more finite and measured. That is the noble duty of existence, to combat the hordes of infinity and probability into certainty, and in so doing, make the world bearable. It was for this purpose, good brother, that myself and my associate Mr. Slim went out to the woods of Eastern Europe, in search of a lost land, Vathek.
A strange land, any account of Vathek will say. Or rather would say. A subject of the Turk, then the Tzar, then the Turk again, Vathek by all accounts was a middling castle on a cliff-side, defensible and alluring. It was a rich city, by all accounts we had when setting out. But the curiosity was not in the city, but in its ending. No record continues Vathek’s line past seventeen sixty, well past the time of excusable errors or time’s hungry maw. It is inexplicable that the destruction of such a place, by famine, plague, or cannon has not been marked. So we went to Vathek.
The valley was cut out of mountain by some glacial passage aeons past. Our guide, who only called herself Sibyl, told us that the forest overrunning it on all ends was older then the rocks. The woods was without green, but rather bark like dust and pitch; no light touched the trunks of the trees and no fruits grew on their branches, only endless thorns. Our guide warned us that there were no well laid paths here, people having abandon the woods for decades.
“It is a wicked place,” she replied when we asked, “full of…how do you English call them? Fae things.”
“Certainly not, there were castles here, and people,” I objected. Any local who warns you of fae in such novel places is a liar, brother.
“They were not here when the Prince ruled in Vathek. But he listened to foreign men, Turks and tartars, and turned away from God. So they came and have stayed since, by invitation.”
“That doesn’t– ah –,” I said, being pricked by the thorns, “explain a thing! The Turks can’t just make a forest spring from the ground.”
“Not anymore,” Sibyl said. I decided to let the matter drop. At last we got deep enough, that we set about making camp. The trees were so tightly packed that there was no sign of the moon, let alone the great cliff face that Vathek proper sat on. Still, wood was easy enough to find, if hard to cut free. The twigs were full of thorns and seemed to delight in stabbing my hands, while the branches were hard to break free.
Sibyl was silent and slept well through the night, but the interlocking branches made the little wind whistle greatly, a terrible harsh noise to my ears. What manner of woman Sibyl was, that such dreadful piping was a lullaby, I cannot say. But I have my suspicions.
In that darkest of nights, where star nor moon came down from above, I saw a twinkling in the distance. A flickering and fluttering light, as if some cruel child had engineered a way to trap a butterfly to a candle. To and fro it flowed, carried by the disharmonious music. They kept me wake all night, staring at them and only just not following after.
In the morn, I asked my Sibyl about the strange sight. She was greatly alarmed by the notion, crossing her heart in the Russian fashion before speaking.
“They are lantern men, who haunt these woods, hunting and waylaying travelers, witch fire that lures men from the woods into hell. Do not follow them, whatever you do. Wicked, they are, and in service of more wicked things. In these woods, they are footman to higher things.”
“Some swamp gas then,” I muttered to my companion. He had a laugh at that. Such stories, he told me, where common amongst those who grew far from noble and Providence protected sorts. The Irish, the Cornish, those near Cornwall, the French, the German all had some version. Not peculiar at all, he explained, that near such a strange place, strange stories would bubble up.
And so we drew through the woods, till at last we saw the castle, though I will not call it such anymore. It was a massive growth of stone, spreading walls like a spider web, adorned in finery. Black blocks tightly packed, great emplacements and cannons that seemed to be bronze or steel. Might towers adorned with brass and silver, iron gates and ramparts in abundance. Keeps sprouted like mushrooms off some fetid corpse, and the armaments made light moss all along the floor. The river, the river was muck and mire, with dark ash running over the surface. Hundreds of arching bridges, worthy of the Thames, stretched over it. As we approached from the shore, I felt the heat blistering off of it, the stench of spoiled eggs sputtering out.
The bridge was covered in grime, such that your hands were stained by the merest touch. We walked carefully across. Vathek proper, I believe, had either torn down the entire cliff-side, or been built so large that the cliffs themselves had sunk. Its walls were now clearly shattered, despite out growths of blade like vines and coral formations growing between the wounds.
“There, you have seen it, British, let us go,” Sibyl said, gesturing at the gate. I stared out onto ashen covered waste, glimpsing bone white at times prodding through the darkness. And squinting I saw it for just a moment. Great looming eyes of fire, on some reptilian frog rising from the deep. A low bellow rung out, a thousand moans of agony or pleasure, dulled into a sing stroke. Dear brother, I saw that strange beast belching and burning. I saw faces. I hear voices and names in that valley.
The island of our knowledge, the place of measured things, is finite and clear. For on that bridge, I heard my own voice echoing back across the shore, I felt the throat of my companion in my hands, and I smelled blood as fresh as slaughterhouses. And dear brother, I cannot say what haunts that place. It is beyond heaven and below the earth, like the ancient Greeks Oceanus or the dread Babylonian Tiamat. Fear that valley, brother, for it has stained your kinsman’s soul.
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