This Week’s Prompt: 110. Antediluvian—Cyclopean ruins on lonely Pacific island. Centre of earthwide subterranean witch cult.
The Prior Research: Taboos and Makutu
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The oars of Abasi’s trade ship cut into the wine-red sea, the boat heavy with gold from Egypt, destined for Ionia. It was a pleasant day, the wind at their backs and the sky clear of storms. A short stop in the southern coastal towns of the Hitites would perhaps be doable without losing too much time. Nestor, the quartermaster, was concerned they would be lacking provisions if they did not make the stop. He and Paimu got into a small debate on the matter, when there was a cry from the front of the ship.
No man aboard had seen such a thing. It resembled a great crocodile of the Nile, but with limbs that ended like a monkey’s, with claws that were as long as knives. Its mouth grinned and was wide like a shark, and its tail flicked about like a perverse lion. In a moment, it set upon them—first catching Yohannes between its jaws, then bounding to slash the throat of Menmu. Abasi himself drew his bronze khopesh, that had run red with pirate’s blood, and watched it bend and break on the armored hide. Nestor and Paimu, startled, rushed back as the beast dove, its head shattering the boards. Nestor took his heavy club, for killing fish when he cast his nets, while Paimu took up an oar.
Both waited, looking over the ship for the beast—and then felt the ship shake. And slowly the water rise. As the two men realized what was happening, the beast remerged—smashing apart the boards beneath them, its claws grabbed their throat. Yet neither perished- the claws held back from slicing their necks. Instead, both felt the chill of the Mediterranean, and faded into unconsciousness.
When the two men came to, they found themselves in a large circular room, with a great hole in the ceiling. Paimu stretched his limbs, and found them sore—and as he started to stand, a sharp pain came from his neck. He traced a small wound on the nape of his neck with his finger. Shallow cuts ran down his spine, Nestor rising to check his own.
“Some sort of…brand perhaps?” Nestor murmured, looking around the room. Huddled masses slept against the walls, some asleep with eyes wide open.
“That doesn’t bode well…there, that man Nestor…does he not look to be from north of the sea?” Paimu muttered, pointing to a pale redheaded man. “And that woman…I have seen her kin in Babylon I think…and some of these people are from even farther shores.”
Nestor, for his part, walked down the step and looked around. There were no chains here, and it struck the Hellene very strange that none should be here. If this was a place of bondage, did they not fear some would try to organize an escape? None the less, his sailor’s eyes were drawn to the sky light. How the owner of this structure had built a perfectly circular roof, with a hole at its center like some sort of wheel escaped him.
The sight of the stars, however, were unfortunately familiar.
“That and this neither…those stars ought not rise until winter.” Nestor pointed upward. “I see the twins far too high in the heavens, even in autumn.”
Paimu heard the sound of steps first. They looked at one another—the two of them had been in such binds before, by pirates and thieves of the sea. Yet, so far from familiar shores, things might not be in their favor. Before the men could seal their fate, a great horn was sounded. And searing pain ran down their limbs, seizing them up in agony. The other prisoners in the room bolted awake, and the doors were thrust open. Each had a long wooden staff, tips lacquered with with strange swirling signs, and armor wrought of a strange dull silver.
They barked orders that neither Paimu nor Nestor understood—but like children, they imitated their fellows, who formed neat lines a followed the two men out of the building. They found themselves now on a path, carefully covered in stones—each seeping and glistening. Great mountains rose about them—or at first they mistook them for mountains. But to their shock, they saw the careful markings of brick work and mortar. Columns rose of such craft that the tops of the mountains seemed to be floating island. And their summits were not shrouded by great clouds—no by mists that marvelous statues breathed into the sky. Through the mist, gardens could be seen.
Along the slopes, they saw more of those fearsome beasts that had stolen them away, but other wonderous things—men and women with avian aspects, who’s songs intermingled with distant screams. They stayed close at hand as they joined a greater throng, and marched out of the city—past gates with hundred headed guardians and spider sentries hanging from the ceiling, past cyclopean laborers carving great obelisks of stone, past the monolithic inverse mountain that was silent—to vast orchards.
At the entrance, there were piles of workman’s gloves, made of smooth leather, with wards written on their finger tips. Both Nestor and Paimu followed the lead and donned the gloves, and watched as others all took baskets—and began the work of harvesting the delectable fruits of the trees. The two were cautious moving away from the others—who spoke to each other in a strange tongue, one that they stumbled or mistook, a tongue born of a hundred peoples trapped under one boot.
“Mere slaves…seems a waste to send such beasts to capture men only to work their fields.” Nestor said, the fruit coming free with ease. Paimu shook his head.
“Did you not see the wonders of this city? We are in some enscrolled place, who’s to say the logic of poisoners and their kindred? What if they have some pact that only people of certain nations may work their fields, to hold their power over death and spirits?”
“Perhaps. Still.” Nestor looked over the orchard and pointed lazily outward. “I see the sea. That at least is some comfort, that she is not too far away.”
Paimu followed his gesture but his eyes caught something else. He let out a gasp, and pulled the finger down. For there, they saw one of the other prisoners had stuck his glove on a thorn. As such, he laid a bare hand on the tree—and before their eyes, boils and blood ran up his arm. Shaken from his stupor, the man began to scream and stumbled—laying his bare shoulder against it’s truck. In a moment, his screaming stopped—the twisted and withered remains of his body fell against the roots and began to rot.
The two men were not total strangers to death, but the sight of one so painful and wicked was chilling to them both. Worse still when the scars along the man’s back—ones that no doubt mirrored their own—crawled free, a dripping web of blood and poison. In an instant it pulled low to the ground and then flew off—springing into the air like some horrific hawk or buzzing insect, back to unseen master of the orchard.
“…You are right, Paimu, this is a poisoner’s hold…more than one surely.” Nestor murmured.
“We must be cautious, if we have any hope of seeing Crete again.” Paimu agreed.
“But also, swift—I do not wish to be as dead eyed as the others here.” Nestor said, turning back to removing the fruits. “I do wonder how they taste.”
Times came and went, seasons changed—or seemed to, as the great clouds over head shifted and the winds grew colder somewhat, the stars shifting slowly over the deep prison. They learned to speak some of the tongue of their fellows—some were from Athens or the Nile, and spoke some of the trade tongue that Paimu and Nestor knew. They learned that this isle, as far as others knew, was a great hold of hundreds of dread wise men—men who knew the secrets of making death into a metal, of working poison into every shape, of causing boils from afar and command spirits of ruin and power.
None had any hope of escape, only surviving past the coming day. For in a few months, there would be—according to the older prisoners—a great congregation at the upside-down mountain. There, sorcerers and witches from the world over gathered, having expanded the dominion of the island. They would have revelry and preform many offerings to their ancient spirits—the screams and blood of men and women would run deep, the gods of death and curses, the poisonous lizards and bleeding beasts, and other monsters would drink deep.
Paimu and Nestor, having some sense between them, resolved not to merely hope to survive. No, such a day when the bestial celebrants would descend on the many holds of the slaves was a day when they must escape. They learned from others how they might find the docks—for the sorcerers maintained many boats in secret places. Why they had need of such craft, when they might take to the wind, neither Paimu nor Nestor know—perhaps they enjoyed fishing.
Still, not all the knowledge had stayed among the sorcerers. Paimu had watched the guards closely, and listened to their speak. Nestor had paid rapt attention to the drawings on the gloves and arms. They knew little of hidden arts, but they knew enough to imitate them. With stolen rags and careful pricks of blood, they wove their own attempt at charms. Paimu knew some words he had heard priests say before, and they shared those secrets for good measure.
It was late in the day, when the march back to the orchard began, that they made their escape. They broke off from the marching order, past the dogs with serpents for colors and scorpion tongues. Paimu scattered ashes gathered from a dead man, confounding the watch-beasts’ senses. Nestor spoke words of reverence to secret gods he knew from the Myceneans, who wore helms of darkness and hid from men on the pass way. And with crude carved stones they found, ones that had no voices, they broke the locks on the old ships. The ships were strange, long and thinner than their old trading vessels—but the small ones were simple enough that they set sale, kelp sales catching an evening wind as they quietly rowed out.
Hope swelled in their hearts as they saw the light of the moon, shining on the blue waters. Nestor looked up at the familiar stars—there was no way to know how far land was from this blasted and twisted font of poison. But at last, the two sailors were on their old friend and foe the sea, and the strange beasts behind them.
Then smoke issued from their backs—smoke that smelled sweet, yet burned their skin, causing Nestor to fall over and grip his stomach. Paimu turned, and in a moment caught sight of what the smoke had called. When a drop of blood falls in the water, sharks swim across the ocean to the source—so to do the dread creatures of the isle chase those things or persons who try and escape the tight grip of their masters.
Paimu drove his oar into the water, yank the sail that always caught the wind to turn the ship to the side—hoping that the swerve would delay the chase as he ran to the front. Nestor, the old quartermaster, gasped out in pain but pulled himself upright. From the sides of the ship, he cast the nets he found—nets that cut his fingers when he cast them, boils spreading up his arm. The sail suddenly clattered—the winds having heard some unspoken word, and now drove the ship to the shore, closer to the waiting jaws of the beasts. Paimu saw death before him. Nestor, feeling the end draw near, took hold of Paimu’s shoulder.
“Leave a sculpture of me in Knossos—and do me good with my kin, when you come to them again.”
And with those words, the old Hellene tossed himself from the ship—and as Paimu turned he saw the host of beasts set upon his thrashing form, the body of Nestor becoming a flotsam of pus and blood in glittering jaws. The ship crashed onto the rocky shore, shaking Paimu from his terror. He clambered onto the rocks, the beasts now devouring the boat behind him. Alone, he found his way to the great cliffs, paths marked with inscrutable signs—and there a cavern in which to hide. For Paimu had been told that the sign above the caverns prevented the beasts from entering, so that the stores of the sorcerers were not eaten. Among the strange blind fish, Paimu cowered and hoped this at least was true.
The sun rose over the shimmering sea, ships setting sail with unseen crews to harvest the glories of the sea. Guards dragged men and women to harvest from the orchards. Birds with brilliant feathers begin to sing. The smell of smelted iron and burning wood covered over the land. And the sorcerer Tane Baalbadur walked the shore, looking over the crashed and ruined remains of vessels from far off lands. His mount was a great red horse, with legs that bent like a spider and a serpent’s mouth. It hissed as it crawled over the cliffs. Baalbadur listened to its speech with amazement. Surely, the old sorcerer thought, no man had managed to hide in one of the treacherous caves and escape the demons of the sea. But his steed could not lie to him.
Baalbadur’s voice was what Paimu awoke to—the sorcerer in his finery, with a crooked staff of drift wood and many gems hanging from his jaw, staring down at him. The eyes of the sorcerer considered him, exhausted and with the scars on his hands from his flight ashore. Baalbadur clicked his tongue, his pallid fingers examining Paimu’s wrists.
“What we have here I believe,” Baalbadur said, in words that Paimu could not understand. “Is an error in accuquistion.”
Paimu struggled, mind blind by exhaustion and the aches of last night—his mind felt split by a great ax, his heart was pounding still from the terrors of the night. Still, he managed to strike out against the sorcerer, mustering every ounce of strength he had. The blow fell limp on Baalbadur’s shoulder.
“And a crass misunderstanding of our current condition.” The sorcerer continued—his nail jabbing into Paimu’s skin. Paimu felt a rush under his skin, as if his blood was replaced with the very wind. The sorcerer lifted his nail, and Paimu saw a knotted, tumorous mass hanging from it—like a fishing line covered with algae and blood. The burning in his back, from his poisoned brand, stopped.
I’m not happy with this story. It is, frankly, incomplete—it ends at what I intended to be the half way point. But after two weeks, the stress of the pandemic, of personal and professional issues, and of completing the story became too much. I’ve cut it off here—perhaps we will return to Paimu’s trials on the isle another time, under a different prompt.
Next time, we will return to Louisiana and discussions of voodoo!
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