Sun and Snake on the Isle

This Week’s Prompt: 85. “For has not Nature, too, her grotesques—the rent rock, the distorting lights of evening on lonely roads, the unveiled structure of man in the embryo, or the skeleton?” Pater—Renaissance (da Vinci).

The Prior Research: She’s a Viper

Chasing Austin’s invitation to his new studio-home—several miles away from a small island town several hours away by boat from his well our old home—ended up costing me an third of my rent for the month. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that I was in something of a bitter mood. Austin had been insistent I come out to see him. I had convinced myself that it was only to save on postage that I was visiting, but it had been almost a year without seeing him or sharing a coffee.

The boat ride was calming at least—the sea has that effect on me. It is too vast for concerns and anxieties to stand in it’s presence. Austin and I had tried with both our arts to capture that vastness, but it defies capture. It is too big for words and pigments, except in the hands of a master. Still, it was a nice image to wake to in the morning, enjoying coffee on the misty deck.

There was only one other companion out to greet the morning sun. He was an old man, Patrick Seoriseson, who would strum a guitar at the dawn and hum some song I’d never heard of. We didn’t talk much—not that he was bad company, but he was…well. Strange. He looked in his sixties, but his hair was bright blond, and his face and eyes looked young. Like someone grafted a twenty year old’s head, fresh before college, onto the body of their own aging grandfather. He had a beard, but it was blond too—not scraggly hay blond, folded and woven silk blond.

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As unnerving as he was, another presence on that chill morning, as the island rose from the fog, was a welcome one. We had, turning back to see the homeland, made it just in time. Behind our ship, dark clouds had formed. A storm was roiling, and I was suddenly glad to have no pressing business for several weeks.

It was getting dark when I finally set foot on the land—my sea legs taken three steps to return to their land-bound cousins. I bought a large bottle of water, and set my phones secondary charger—the house was a good five miles from town, a nice hour or so walk to gain my composure. Austin had been very clear about getting to his house as soon as I could—apparently whatever he had couldn’t wait. And while small coastal towns are welcoming to some, to me they are always a tad unearthly. They all feel drenched with age by the sea.

The road to Austin’s house was a somewhat paved, at least the first half. As the sun began to set into twilight, I was walking on more rocks and dirt. The shore had splits and crags, streams of salt water rolling inland. Eventually, I saw his house come into view—two luminous lights, shimmer on the horizon.

I thought it was his house, anyway. I didn’t check my phone, and well. I nearly walked into the tide and rocks.

And saw the lights in four different directions.

Whatever was going on in the atmosphere, my GPS hadn’t failed. And that I could follow, cold from the wind, back to the path. And at last, I found his house. A collection of lights from the house—square, instead of the lying spheres I’d seen on the way. It was a nice looking house. As I got closer, I saw the paint was peeling. There was something acrid in the air. As I walked up to the house, I saw someone shuffling inside—their back was bent pretty far but when I squinted they were walking fine.

I rang the door bell, but there was just a fizzle. Austin probably forgot to fix it. So instead, I gripped the knocker—an lion headed one, old iron—and rapped on the door. There was a bustle, papers unseen falling to the floor as Austin came to the door.

He was a bit thinner, still catching his breath as he held out his hand.

“Jeffery, come in, come in. Gods I thought you’d abandoned us.” He said, stepping out the way after a brief shake.

“It is a bit out of the way.” I said, looking around. The walls were nice—the wood floor was oddly smooth. “And there’s…some sort of rave outside…I think. Have you had problems with lights?”

“Lights? Oh, come now Jeffery. A will-o-wisp never hurt anyone who had their wits about them.” Austin said, laughing. I didn’t laugh as he lead me to his study up the stairs. The house creaked as it settled, and the steps spiraled at a bit of an incline.

“You have a cat out here, Austin? Seems more like dog country.” I said, looking down at the steps. “This groove to drain water or something?”

There was a foot long indent along the stairs, running down the middle. Perfectly even at a glance.

“Oh, no, no, old owners lived here a long time. I think they might have evenly spread it–”

There was a crash, first of thunder then of a dropped pans from the kitchen. Austin’s face went pale for a second.

“Its quite alright, I’m sure!” Austin shouted after me. I had already rounded into the source, the kitchen—door half open. I threw the door open and–

And she nearly put me through the wall. I felt claws on my shoulder and saw dozens of enraged and startled serpent eyes. As she held me on the floor, I heard the warning rattle from an unseen scaly tail. My eyes were distracted by her fangs bared at me.

“Its alright, it’s alright!” I heard Austin shout. “Dear, please, your both high strung! Storms do that.”

“Austin, I think you forgot somethings!” I shouted, eyes fixed in hers. Her face was hidden by a veil of snake skin.

“Did he now?” The woman said—with all twenty snake mouths that made up her head, her face unraveling and rem-emerging from the masses. It was when she moved that I realized my legs were trapped—feeling slowly returning to my feat, little bites marring my pants.

“Well, dear, how would you explain it.” Austin said defensively.

“…You better think of a quick way to explain it Austin.” I said, slowly pushing my self up into a chair.

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Austin’s explanation was full of poetry and phantasms and whimsy. I will abbreviate it here, as I was not in a whimsical mood. He had acquired the house from a man in town, at first to rent but then bought outright. The house was the man’s great aunt, and something about it’s perpetual disrepair had spoken to Ausitn. Fallen age of man, decay of empires, Adam’s sin, artists of his type always seem to love decaying bodies.

Never seem to ask why the place is full of dead things, and maybe that dwelling on such things is dangerous.

Of course, Austin, the fop he is, found the notion of a haunted place alluring. He loved the idea of will-o-wisp, of changelings, of entertaining morbid faerie guests. I’ve never found a reason to want such things—stories rarely make them pleasant. Had I been Austin, the strange rustling outside, the flash of scales in the bed room, the sight of dozens of serpentine eyes down the hall? Those were signs to flee.

But fly he did. Into her arms. Well, not at first. There was some back and forth. She hadn’t had someone react quite like Austin did. Asking her name—Tengra Dudana They became friends the way most people did. Shared food.

Of course, she asked questions. Why was he here, what was he doing. The two became fast friends, once they started talking. She enjoyed his artistry, he enjoyed her singing and laughter—he insisted that a hundred serpents singing was a choir I’d have to here.

Austin had a knack for friends. His art improved also—her rippling serpents inspiring thoughts of the sea more perfectly realized then before. Austin elided if they had ever left the boundaries of friendship—but he grew sheepish enough for me to decide.

Thunder continued to boom outside as Austin talked. Thunder and storms put her on edge—she was suspicous of everything on dark nights like this.

“It was not a typical romance.” She said, encoiling her body around the chair. “But a pleasant one.”

I nodded, nervously sipping the tea.

“Well, I—I imagine.” I said slowly.

“Yes, well, I had…hoped to show you the gallery first.” Austin said. Tengra rolled her eyes.

“He thinks pictures are a good start. They are wonderful paintings, but…they are not good preparation.” Tengra said, unwinding herself and sinking to the floor, then reforming as a singular woman—a rather tall one, her skin only rippling slightly as coils found their place.

“I would not oppose seeing them.” I said, placing my tea down. My nerves were slowly waking up from their stunned silence.

The paintings were…good. Yes, good. The paintings were acceptable, they captured some of the motion of their subject mater that, without first hand experience, would have seemed unbelievable. Tengra seemed fond of many forms, but there was something in the shape of the cliffs and moors that carried her image as well. By day, I’d have to see the originals nature had carved—whether she had woven Tengra into the hills, or whether that was some inspiration of Austins I cannot say.

There was one picture, however, that I paused at.

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“Austin, who is this?” I said. I pointed behind the cross of interwoven snakes, to a man on the hill. There was something about his shape I recognized—his golden wave beard and hair.

“Oh, some vagrant I think.” Austin said, shaking his head. “Well, a rather well off one maybe. He’s been around once I think.”

“Did you talk to him much?” I asked. Austin frowned, and I noticed Tengra seemed to be paying more attention.

“I…don’t think I did. It’s strange I hadn’t considered him much, but I think I talked a decent amount with him. He’s some sort of musician I think? He’s from across the sea though, I didn’t think it much important.” Austin then paused again. “No…no, not across. He said the strangest thing. He’s from the ‘other side’ of the sea.”

Austin raised a finger upward, imitating the memory.

Tengra hissed a bit.

“He is a strange man. You should have pointed him out to me, he might have been squawking.”

“You mean gawking?”

“That as well.” Tengra said.

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The next morning, me and Austin had arranged to have coffee on the porch—Tengra was sunbathing somewhere, warming her scales.

“So…so what do you think?” Austin asked, sipping his coffee slowly. I put down mine, steam still rising from it.

“The house needs work. The fence is rusty, I’d start there.” I said, flatly. Austin blinked.

“I meant about–”

“I know, I know. Uh. Well.” I said rubbing my head. “Your in love with a swarm of snakes. I…Look, I don’t have the tools to process this at the moment. Like, I’m assuming she’s not holding you hostage right? Not hypnotizing you with her eyes, like that Disney movie?”

“…the Jungle Book?”

“Yeah that one.” I said, scratching the back of my neck. Austin burst out laughing.

“No, no, she’s just a wonderful person.”

“Made of snakes.”

“Made of snakes.”

“Well. I, I guess there are worse things?” I said, sipping my coffee. “She’s not French or a fascist, so a plus all around there.”

“She can sing in Gaelic.” Austin piped up.

“Talented. Creepy, I’m not going to lie, but talented.” I said with a laugh. The storm hadn’t cleared yet, but in the distance I saw the sun rising—the ship back wouldn’t have a problem. I’d need to make my exit politely, this needed some thought.

It was while I was mulling this over and talking a bit on art with Austin that something caught my eye—like those will-o-wisps, a flash of light. But this was bright, metalic light. Turning my head, I saw a car rolling up the road. There was a boom of thunder, a flash of lighting in front of the sun as out walked the man with the golden beard.

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“Hey is that…” I said nudging Austin—and then I saw it flash, briefly. A long backward curved blade, that he was examining beneath his coat. “Austin, we…we should get inside.”

Austin took a moment to register—maybe sleep still lingering on him, but he saw where I pointed. Across the way, Patrick waved. He was smiling, perfect white teeth catching the sunlight.

“Oh, yeah, its…that guy. Come on, Jeffery, lets get some more coffee. Ask him what’s happening.”

“Austin he has a–”

“Hello there, fine sailor and artist too.” Patrick said. He’d…moved fast while we where talking.

“Oh, well…Hello.” Austin said. Patrick laughed. His laugh was surprisingly deep—his slightly higher pitch giving way to a low rumbling laugh. “Can…Can I help you?”

“Serendipity says so, yes. I’m looking for something old among the cliffs—older then will-o-wisp and banshee and them.” He said, gesturing behind him to the road way. “Something with fangs and scales, an old something.”

“Well, there aren’t snakes on islands.” I said, standing up a bit.

“Adder, smooth snake, grass snake, corn snake, and viper all round the King of England’s crown.” He said, as if that explained anything. “Only emeralds really snake free, my friend. Only emerald, and that’s at least part from me. Now, have you seen it?”

“No.” Austin said, getting up. “I haven’t seen–”

The man held his hand to Austin’s face, tilting his head. He hissed behind his teeth.

“Nevermind that, never mind me.” The man said, turning now to the hills, hand reaching in his jacket. There he held that knife. “You stay here, I’ve got business. I think I can enjoy myself from here.”

I reached out to grab his arm—Austin reached for his back. The next moment I was against the wall—his fore arm was under my neck, while Austin had been tossed onto the roadway. His knife was drawn, blade facing away—it was was curved somewhat, with a straight edge on the inside, away from me.

“Friends, this seems unbecoming of men of art and wonder. Lying in the underbrush like savage hunters to catch the noble deer—very unbecoming.” He said, pushing back against my neck. I gripped his wrist—I couldn’t breath, and I felt the wall behind me cracking. My entire back was bruising—and then he dropped me on the floor. I slumped over, breathing heavy, eyes closed from sudden exhaustion. When I opened them, he was walking after a scrambling Austin—who, god bless him, was shouting a warning for Tengra.

I pulled myself up—my legs and back were not fond of the predicament. His hat flew off as the wind picked up, the storms weeping overhead. It was strange. I thought the man’s coat had looked pitch black before—now it seemed to be roiling gold and white and red. He had so many eyes. Why did his coat have so many eyes?

I threw the door open and stumbled inside, sitting behind the door frame. I heard thunder rolling, and hissing outside. I didn’t look, so this I cannot report on directly. The sun had risen only a finger when I was able to rise again— and see an empty roadway, no sign of Austin, Tengra, or the man. I hobbled out, calling Austin’s name along that cliffside road.

“Jeffery, Jeffery is that you?” a shout came from a large stone on the edge. I ran to it, and found him there—slumped against the back, holding a long snake skin to his face, sobbing.

“Austin, God in Heaven, your alive.” I said.

“Oh, not in heaven, and how alive? She is gone, Jeffery, she is gone!” He said, batting away my outstretched hand.

“Gone? As in gone or gone?” I asked, looking around. “And that man…is he gone with her? We need to leave Austin.”

“Gone, both gone! Oh the fire, the eyes, it was like Apollo wrestling Python! Oh it was dreadful–”

I decided that was enough and pulled Austin up. This time, he didn’t resist. He just kept up his mourning, about how she had vanished, how that strange man had seemed so much larger, how helpless he felt when he’d been thrown against the stone—thrown, yet lived! The man has no taste for practical miracles—how could he face the dawn without her, how could he paint without her and so on.

“Well, you have some of her scales.” I said, sighing as I lowered him on the porch. “So that’s something.”

It was apparently only a small consolation. Austin swore, swore as he lay there, holding to the skin tight, that he would find her somewhere—somewhere, in earth an heaven, or whatever was on the other side of heaven. I nodded politely—and reminded myself to never again agree to any of Austin’s wild adventures.




If there ever was a story that warranted more writing and expansion, it was probably this one. The central mystery needs more time, and the final confrontation with the Apolloian hunter needs more build up. I’ll file it away for next year.

Next week, however, we return fully to our horror roots. It’s time to go inside a book, into an old house



 

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The Eye

This Week’s Prompt: 83. Quotation “. . . a defunct nightmare, which had perished in the midst of its wickedness, and left its flabby corpse on the breast of the tormented one, to be gotten rid of as it might.”—Hawthorne

The Resulting story: The Magi and King Morgan Pt 2

This weeks quote is from the novel, the House of Seven Gables. The novel follows a number of themes—contrasting old, aristocratic and isolated living with more fashionable and mercantile living. The dangers of superstition, particularly of witch hunts. The futility of the past, the nature of architecture as a haunting, family feuds both within and without, fears of mesmerism, corruption of government authorities. It is a Gothic book in all but name. So, what are we to start with today, with such a wide text?

I am loath to continue with the nightmares and witches. While, yes, certainly there are creatures that I haven’t touched upon regarding dreams and nightmares—Lilith and the lilitu, for instance, or the use of dreams to take on animal forms and combat evil—I suspect those particular topics will be reached anyway. No, I’d rather focus on a different portion of the book and of Gothic literature obsession. The gaze.

In House of Seven Gables, we are introduced to two families. The Pyncheon’s and the Maule’s, a rich and poor family. The Maule’s land is robbed, by means of a witchcraft accusation. This accusation, which carries down the generations, lays at the feet of the Maule’s many supernatural capacities, not the least of which is the evil eye, which we will get to shortly. However, Hawthorne connects the power of the eye to the then modern practice of mesmerism, a science dealing in animal magnetism and hypnosis. The gaze to Hawthorne has the potential to harm—it isn’t merely a passive action, but rather a potentially malicous one.

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This notion of the importance of sight can be found in a number of other foundation Gothic texts. We can consider Vathek, a story that focuses on a wicked Caliph. Among the Caliph’s powers is his gazed which—when enraged—can kill a man with hatred. The Caliph’s story, including as it does demons, magical swords, and a quest to hell, is worth a read for a fan of the Gothic. We can also consider importance of vision in Frankenstien—here the eyes of the monster are what gives away it’s character to the more mortal participants and are the source of horror. Dracula like wise has a commanding stare, as do most vampires in Gothic tales—the Count of Monte Cristo is noted for his eyes, and Dorian Grey’s painting suffers when veiwed at all. The power to see and be seen are dangerous in these stories, to the last. Even the other Great American Horror Author, Edgar Allen Poe, included a fear of vision—the tell tale heart after all stars a most terrible, vulture like eye.

Where does all this fear of vision come from? Well, it is not without precedent. One of the most fearsome folklore ailments is the evil eye. Under various names, the evil eye stretches from Scotland across Europe and into parts of South Africa and Middle East. The evil eye’s effects are almost universal: a person with the evil eye can afflict another with a curse—either misfortune or ill health—with nothing more than a stare and evil intent. Particularly fearsome examples refer to mummifying their targets Often the effect is most feared among children, and so numerous precautions are taken to avoid it.

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In Macedonia, clothes were worn inside out to avoid the evil eye. In Palestine, blue glass was used to ward it off. Various charms are described by Etruscan witches to keep it at bay. In Greece, at various times, blue beads and blue string have been used to ward it off from animals and other human beings a like. In Persia, rugs were sometimes woven with complex designs to avoid the evil eye, and for this purpose one author speculated Celtic notes were made to confuse the witches eye.

Who is liable to use the evil eye varies from location to location. In Ethiopia, it was often ironworking artisans who made use of it—particularly against clients who failed to pay or who were more successful then they were. Among the Suk people, one possessor of the evil eye was a rather rich rancher—however, do to his capabilities, he was avoided at all costs.

The evil eye’s spread in the states, and in New England in particular, is documented with the case of one John Godfrey. John Godfrey, as a renowned witch, was accused during one of his law suits of speaking freely of witchcraft in order to shock victims. He would say that the witches merely reported to the devil who had displeased them, and then stare at whatever they wanted dead—cattle, man, child, what have you.

That a New Englander would bring such beliefs is not surprising. In every part of England, the evil eye can be found. We have talked before, at length, of the power witches in Shropeshire had. There we have witches who nearly waste away a yougn woman by “overlooking” them, cases of a horse being used to dectet the witch in the case of Kitty Williams, and our man who fixes his enemies in place with a glance. In Lanchshire, there were stories of the evil eye again used on cattle—but frequently tied to other interactions. Outsiders couldn’t use the evil eye if they were avoided, and excessive admiration was thought to also bring on the evil eye through envy.

But the evil eye is not the deadliest or oldest concern with gaze. We can find a more fearsome sort in Ireland, for example. There the evil eye was known as Balor’s eye for sometime—and perhaps was it’s lesser cousin. Balor was a great lord of giants who inhabited Ireland, and had an eye so vast that it took seven men to lift it’s lid (or it possessed seven lids, and each took a great effort to raise). It was said when Balor gazed upon a field it withered, men died, and stone suffered. It is said sometimes that when Balor was slain—and he was of course in time slain—that his eye burned a lake into the ground where it rests to this day.

The other famed European example is the Basilisk or Cockatrice, a pair of related creatures that appear to be either a snake or a rooster. The gaze of these creatures was said to be murderous and paralytic, naturally leading them inhabit vast deserts in Northern Africa.

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They shared this prowess with a less well known, but equally frightening creature: the Crocotta. This creature was accounted for living in Ethiopia or India, and was believed to have a number of qualities. When it’s shadow touches a dog, the dog is struck dumb. When it gazed on a person or animal three times, it froze them in place. It was also capable of imitating the voices of victims, and was invulenerable to steal weapons. Later additions in Medieval bestiaries added gem-eyes that, if held under someones tongue, could provide visions of the future.

Moving to the Americas, we find a number of comparable creatures. Here we enter a difficult space—I did contact a modern member of the Cherokee to confirm these stories, but my abillity to find linkable sources was hamstrung. The one I’ll focus on is the Uktena, a horned serpent—the description I found said it was as wide as a trunk, with deer antlers, and a fire jewel in it’s eye. This jewel has a number of traits: it is magical, oracular, and if a hunter looks at this jewel, they are blinded and run into the serpents mouth. Other traits include that the Uktena can only be slain by firing an arrow at it’s seventh stripe—beneath which sits its heart and life. And impressive for our discussions, looking at the Uktena will kill not the hunter, but his entire family. Combined with the creatures poisonous breath, and the Uktena is a terrifying creature to find in the woods. Nonetheless, there are stories of a man managing to slay one, and making off with the jewel.

From the Cherokee to the Lakota, we have a very distinct water creature with deadly vision. The Unk Cekula is one of a pair with Unk Tehi. The two creatures came from the north, and proved hazardous—if they reproduced, they would endanger the entire world (an origin that resembles some stories of Leviathan). So one was slain. The creatures properties are notable: She has eyes of fire, skin of stone, and claws of iron—this last trait a post-colonial addition I think—and to look upon her was death. First a victim would go blind, then mad, and finally die. Like Uktena, her weakness relates to the number seven (the seventh spot instead of stripe) and she has a magical crystal within her. A pair of brothers slew her, one blind, with the help of a medicine arrow.

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Bear Butte, which was created after a fight between Unk Cekula and a great bear.

The Hero Twins of the Dine leave a number of dead monsters behind them, but one that is worth our attention is Binaye Ahani, who slays people with their eyes. These monsters dwell in a cavern shaped like a house, with a great family. When the Monster Slayer arrives, they attempt to kill him with their gaze—the text refering to it as “lighting” shooting from their eyes. The Monster Slayer’s armor, however, protects him. Perhaps it uses the same techniques as mirror armor. Their eyes eventually stretch out with effort, and burn on their own fire. All but two are killed, and the spared youngest become birds of fortune and beauty.

We could go on—the dangers of sight on statues and icons were discussed before, and the dangers of seeing a god’s true form in some mythologies are known. But I’d like to step out of folklore and ask what it is exactly that people fear. Why is staring or being seen dangerous? Why is it assumed envy should have power here?

I think a sincere part of this is that a gaze, a glance, is a connection. To make eye contact with someone or something is to connect with them, to reach out in an unspoken way and show understanding—and that this understanding isn’t always wanted, mutual, or equal. To see something is to interact with it, and by interacting with it, be changed by it. That change can be dangerous, lethal even! Especially with wicked intent.

Our follow up story will incorporate some of this of course—we can easily weave the work of dreams and gaze together, slumber with the trance of mesmerism. The creation of illusions by the wizard and the power of a gaze by his heir seem appropriate to bring together.

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Biblography:

Abbot Richard. Macedonian Folklore Cambridge, England; Cambridge University Press. 1903

Beech, Mervyn Worchester Howard. The Suk; Their Language and Folklore. Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1911.

Bowen, Barbra M. The Folklore of Palestine. Grand Rapids , Michigan; Wm B. Eerdmans publishing co. 1940

Coote Lake, Evelyn F. “Some  Notes  on the Evil Eye Round the Medterrianian Basin”. Folklore Vol 44, No 1, March 1933, pp 93-98

Demos, John. “John Godfrey and His Neighbors: Witchcraft and the Social Web in Colonial Massachusets”. The William and Mary Quarterly. Vol 33, No 2 April  1976, pp 242-265.

Finneran, Nial “Ethiopian Evil Eye Belief and The Magical Symbolism of Iron Working”. Folklore, Vol 114 , No 3. Dec. 2003 pp 427-433

G.H.K. “Stray Donegal Folklore”. The Folk-lore Journal,Vol 5 No 1, 1887, pp 66-68

Jackson, Georgina F. Shropshire Folklore. Edited by Charlotte Sophia. Burne, 1883.

Leland, Charles Godfrey.  Etruscan Magic and Occult Remedies. New Hyde Park, New York. University Books. 1963

Vulkanovic, T.P. “Obscene Objects in Balkan Religion and Magic”. Folklore, Vol 92, 1981. pp 43-53

Samson And Delilah

This Week’s Prompt: 79. Horrible secret in crypt of ancient castle–discovered by dweller.

The Prior Research: A Dreadful Day For A Wedding

The marriage was the biggest spectacle Delilah had ever seen. Her wandering fiance Samson  had brought in far away wine, musicians from eastern lands where dreams made up the desert sands, fire breathers and jugglers from the circus, food and fowl from northern mist clad counties. Her mother was so proud to see her in a wedding white. Her husband had been strangely silent in his suit, smiling without ever showing any teeth. Delilah drank another glass.

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It was probably nerves about the wedding night. She had them too—her mother had tried to explain to her what could happen on wedding nights. Of course she’d already known—she had married friends who, when a bit tipsy or tired or angry, confided about the bedroom. And their husbands were far less fine then hers.

The night carried on for a time, and at last the guests began to leave. Delilah hugged her mother close—her mother wept on her shoulder. She was so proud. Delilah never heard her weep that her daughter was gone from her forever. Never heard the silent curses as the house, small as it was, grew all the quieter.

Delilah and her husband walked home, across the old white stone roads the Romans laid. They came up a hill to his house—a house she’d seen often as a child, though always in an abandoned state. She had assumed for years that no-one lived there. But three months ago, it was as wondrous as the prince’s palace—its walls clean and shining green, with roofs of bright purple and gold. Servants were mulling about, its gardens full of blossoming flowers. When she asked a friend who lived nearby, she was told that the great house had a new heir. It’s base was set like a wide disc, with a tower rising from the center.

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And that Samson now took her by the arm and up to the gate. He smiled dat her, his proper smile now. Teeth glittering white in the moonlight, reaching from his lips to his green eyes. They walked threw the evening mist and dew to the great oak door. Its leonine knokcer gently thudded as a footman opened the door—into the candlelit hall, with its great fountain at the center. Suits of restored ancestral armor, with there ceremonial armor and jeweled swords, stood guard at the stair case. And above, on the ceiling, was painted a whole host of angels.

 

“Well, that was certainly an affair.” He said as we walked up the steps.

“Was it? I thought it rather lovely.” Delilah said smiling and carefully minding my steps.

“Even with the stories?”

“Well, Anne couldn’t let me get married without making sure everyone knew what I was like at three years.” Delilah said, giggling a little. “I’m sure yours would have done the same.”

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“Well then I count myself lucky they had business away.” He said, laughing. Delilah felt a pang of guilt—she knew little of Samson’s family, but they rarely saw him and seemed to care little of him. She hoped that such distance wasn’t normal among such wealthy personages—Lord in Heaven, she wouldn’t be so distant with her own children.

Up the stairs they went—Samson’s servants opening the doors ahead. Pale ivory doors parted like moonlight deeper and deeper in. At last, behind a well wrought door of silver, was the bed chamber. Four lion heads held up the top of the bed, grinning faces of gold looking down. Delilah had often heard of wedding nights.

*

The next day, the two parted. Samson entrusted Delilah with a set of keys—golden, each with a glittering gem at the top. Every door in the house had a key, Samson said, marked with the inlaid gem. It was all hers to see and take in.

“I don’t want you getting bored or complacent—so entertain yourself with each room, and you will find delights that never end.” Samson said, as he put on his coat and hat. “But please, do not go into the room marked with two gems—cat’s eye and the other one..”

He held out the key, who’s stones looked like eyes of glass and was carved with a lion and a wolf. He shook it almost in front of Delilah’s face.

“Not this one. It goes to my own chambers, the only place of privacy in my entire house—when I am there, do not bother me but be patient on my return. Do not worry too much when or how I come there either—it is a place of mine. The rest, however, are ours.” And with that, and a kiss on the cheek, he left.

DelilahReading.png

Delilah considered the keys. She set about through the rooms—each with it’s gemstone. In the red coral room, there were wondrous arms and armors—the heads of great beasts from the hunts, armor shimmering with decorations, hilts with eagle wings of bronze. The heads of great beasts were stuffed along it’s walls, from bears to deer to great wild cattle. He was a brave warrior and hunter, her husband. Or, Delilah thought, perhaps his family was. There were fine silks as well, and chests overflowing with treasures. Plunder and spoils it seemed.

The room with the diamond was more her suiting however. Here were portraits lining the wall—eyes all fixed on the center. There a column of women stood, carved of marble. Delilah gripped her shoulders as she paced the incompete pillar—for there were still portions unworked around the edge. The statues were painted ever so slightly. A small blush, the tiny glimmer of jeweled eyes, a faint bruise on the skin, a thin scratch. The artistry was in the dress though. Delilah found it unnerving to see the clothes…she could not tell without touching whether they were exquisite stone carvings or the women’s own dress. There were desks, with many mirrors arrayed around them. If she pulled the curtains close behind her, the eyes of the portraits and statues didn’t glimmer back at her as she examined the jewelry. Another place to explore, she decided when she had more time.

The next room had a great pearl on it’s top—and within she found many treasures indeed! She found works of poetry and a number of paintings—these of luschious landscapes and forests, instead of persons, full of animals in the hunt or watching with curiosity at the painter. Several were still finished, including one of her—or she assumed of her. The seat was there, and she settled into the pose she imagined Samson would remember her in. She wondered if she would be carved into the pillar as well—and now frowned. Where those past wives of his, or the women of his family. They had seemed all rather young.

She considered but moved along to the emerald door. Here she found shelves upon shelves of scrolls and books—how well read Samson seemed! She barely knew her letters, her family never had the money for education. But she could learn to love these treasures as well. There were some held open to illustrations of holy men or of teachings she remembered from priests in town or tales her parents told. Btu not many so clear.

Beside it was the room with a yellow gem. The lock took some working this time—and inside Delilah understood why. Like the emerald room, this was a room full of shelves—but on each was a crown, carefully wrought of gold. A small image was above it, recounting no doubt the lineage of Samson’s family. And at the center was a display—a great golden mace, with gems along it. Behind it was a flowing robe and cape of heavy wool, gold woven with the cloth. There were gems along as buttons—shining diamonds and amethysts. Purple and gold, a royal coat in deed. But hidden away—Delilah was under no illusion that her husband might be heir one day to some royal family. Not anymore anyway.

Still, perhaps one day there would be an inheritance to the crown. They were strange crowns, admittedly—most had ivory spikes rising from their heads, and all of them were rather old fashioned. They looked like the crowns on fallen statues in the woods, not kingly images the tax collectors carried or that were stamped on the occasional gold coin she had seen.

Some older place then, or some far away land. Still. A noble king and scholar, a warrior and perhaps a poet.

And then there was the door with it’s two gems—a red stone and a yellow one that glimmered like a cat’s eye. The red stone was in the right hand of a man, the yellow in the left—his own eyes stared back out with glimmering opals. It was an enticing door, with his pearlescent smile and glimmering eyes. But Delilah ignored it, and pushed on to the room with the sapphire—embedded in a skull, yes, but still it had been granted to her.

And in that room she found copious bones, gilded and held in metal boxes. Each had pictures atop it, and Delilah recognized the lives of a hundred saints in this gallery. Saints from as far as mist covered marshes of Wales to the distant east where their own saints left rainbows in their wake. Holy tools from a hundred places the world over. Some were petrified eyes, some where finger bones, some were nails. And at the center, enshrined with images of four beasts at each corner, was a carefully suspended spearhead. It was stained blood red on one side, the other was washed clean and stainless. A curious relic. Not one she was familiar with. She would ask about it in time.

*

And so Delilah continued along the spiraling house of Samson. He did return, tired but lively, a few days hence. She heard the sound of footsteps in the halls, and managed to catch him closing his study door. She pestered him with questions—about his auspicious lance, which he explained as a relic of a very distant ancestor, that had been blessed by holy blood. He agreed to teach her some letters.

“And until then I can of course read you the stories and romances, and some of the poems.” Samson said nodding. “Or have a servant do so when I am away.”

“Ah, only some? Why only some of the poems?” Delilah asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Because a man has the right to bury his shames, and many of those poems record my shames.” He said. She laughed at that.

“Oh my, did my husband leave his heart on the page? How awful.”

“To write one’s passions is not shameful—but perhaps to articulate them as a youth would leaves something to be desired.” He said, joining her in laughter.

Well, she reckoned she could find a servant who would tell her of those youthful poems.

After a time, Delilah tired of the house. With Samson’s permit, she sent a carriage back to town—to learn what had become of her friends in her absence, and how affairs were ordered. Only Anne was willing to visit her, although Delilah never learned why. She delighted in showing the rooms to Anne, and enjoying tea.

The subject of the married life and the house came up again and again during their conversations over tea. Delilah even gave Anne a wonderful broach from one of the rooms, to mend the many struggles between them. Anne’s curiosity was mostly sated, until she asked about the two-jeweled door. To Delilah’s surprise, Anne’s face fell at the explanation of the door. She shook her head, and placed the cup down on the table.

Anne and Delilah.png

“Oh, poor Delilah. Poor girl, what will your mother say when she learns what you’ve married?” Anne said, shaking her head.

“A scholar and a prince? What’s to be ashamed of that?” Delilah said, folding her arms.

“Do you believe it? No, truly, you and your mother have been tricked by a sorcerer. Go into the two faced door—there I wager he keeps his arts and secret magic to raise the building and enthrall you. You must go in at once, when he is far away. You’ll find proof no doubt, that all this is but a game for him.”

Delilah considered it, even as they moved on to other topics of gossip—the affairs and arguments of old flames, rumors of scandal, and more. When she eventually returned home, she found a note from her husband—he had left for business for several days, as his erstwhile family needed him. She was free to herself again.

She paced from each of the rooms, taking in all their delights. But still the twin gems haunted her. Day and night she stared at the door. Its grin taunted her with secrets—surely it was only a matter of time before she would learn its contents from her husband. Surely it was only a matter of waiting—surely, that room held nothing more viscous then rumors.

She crept quietly—she was unsure the servants would be forgiving. The door opened easily, the lock clicked silently as she stepped into a darkened room, candle in her shaking hand.

The room was bare stone. A window marked with claws let the sunlight into the forbidden room. And with its help, Delilah saw a dreadful site—her husband’s empty skin was on the wall. Below, bloodstained table. Beside an iron cauldron lined with grease. A drop of blood fell on Delilah’s face. She did not look up at the hundred empty eyes. She did not look up. She closed the door, silent as a cat.

But the lock would not click shut. To Delilah’s horror, the lock would not shut. She strained with the key—if her husband came home, and found it open, Lord only knows what he would do. She tried and tried and tried to click the lock shut. The smiling door mocked her efforts until at last she forced the key free.

At once, Delilah called for a servant to fetch her a carriage—she wanted to see her mother, she said. She managed anyway. Her face was as pale as a corpse, her eyes full of terror. The servant, perhaps wise to what had happened, shook his head—there was but one carriage befitting a lady. And her husband had taken that to his relations.

Before she could ask for more, Delilah heard a clatter from the halls. She turned to the noise—poor girl, she turned to see her husband. His eyes glittered like gems. And now she saw how his skin seemed ill fit. It hung loose around his neck. He had put it on in a rush. His wrist seemed wrinkled, as it bent a saber.

BluebeardfinalImage.png

“Ah, Delilah dearest—did you enjoy your day?” He asked, smiling like the moon. Delilah opened her mouth to speak. The words caught in her throat as Samson reached into his coat—and produced a single shard of worn gold.

“Delilah, dearest, I made one request. I found this, stuck in my study door—the tooth of my keys.” He said, shaking his head. “I made but one request.”

Before Delilah could speak, there was a flash of steel. Her body fell to the ground, as Samson held her head by her hair.

“And she was so lovely—I’ll have to hang this one well.” He said. With a wave of her sword, the blood was stopped and the floor was cleaned. “Her mother…is she passed already?”

The footmen, taking Delilah’s body in his arms, nodded.

“Well, that is for the best I suppose. Had she any friends? I would rather not leave so soon.” Samson asked, tilting his head.

“The lady was visited by one Anne from town, sir. She seemed wiser.” The footman replied.

“That settles it—Send for her soon. I would hope to have a wife last longer.” Samson said, shaking his head. “A few months is hard to savor. Light the iron as well—My hunt went well, and now I want to eat away my sorrow.”

And so Anne and Samson lived happily ever after.

***

This week’s story is a bit long, but was fun to write. I don’t have much insightful commentary–I’m pretty sure sticking close to the origin was a good decision here, and didn’t find much to improve on the original format. I hope it was enjoyable! Next week, more lively foundations!

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A Dreadful Day For A Wedding

This Week’s Prompt: 79. Horrible secret in crypt of ancient castle—discovered by dweller.

The Resulting Story:Samson and Delilah

This week’s topic brings us to a common Gothic horror theme—the buried and forgotten secret. Especially in an ancient castle, who’s revelation undoes their very identity. Whether ghosts and bodies buried in the deep, or more recent atrocities, the dangers of things forgotten and buried is great. We discussed—in one of our most popular articles—the burial of persons beneath foundations. This sort of secret will take us to many other places. Mostly France though.

There are a few stories that relate to crypts bearing terrible secrets. One worth considering is the story of Lancelot and Dolorous Guard. Here a secret is discovered on a literal crypt—the tomb that Lancelot must be interred in after he dies. The majority of the revelation was joyous, however, as it revealed the knight’s heritage and true name. And that this castle was his. All well and good.

Lovecraft has his own story about the discovery of ancestry—the Rats in the Walls, where in our narrator learns of his heritage. His version, of course, is much more horrific. Without spoiling that story, I’ll leave a link hereThe origins of the Gothic Genre include underground churches and revelations of idenity in the Castle Ortanto—again, the revelation there is less of a horrible secret than the justification of the protagonist.

More pressing stories include those of monsters locked within castles. Here we go to France again, but later in time—the Age of Charlemagne. Here, we find Rinaldo who quests to forget his heart break over a lady love. He finds a land, where he sees a castle in a great pit. An old woman tells him a beast in the castle is kept from terrorizing the countryside, by regular sacrifices of flesh. Rinaldo agrees to venture forth and slay the beast—and attempts to do so. However, he fails at first. It is only when his love returns, and assists—over his loud protests—that the reptilian creature dies (it may be a dragon, but the description in Bulfinch does not specify. All the better I suppose.)

In Scotland, there is a similar story around Glamis Castle. There a secret chamber was used, according to tales dating back to 1840, a deformed and possibly vampiric child. Some accounts call the child a “human toad”, others as simply a strange shadow. The creature’s nature may never be known—at least one guest, the Earl of Crawford, suspected that the family invented the stories as they went along.

There is a creature that resembles this in Lovecraft as well—Byatis, a creature of Campbell’s creation that lives in the Severn Valley sealed in a stone vault beneath a great tower. The toad is a terrible creature, and knows many truths of the world that are worth keeping secret of course. The Edgar Allen Poe story, the Fall of the House of Usher, relates to a dragon as the obstacle of owning a shield and castle as well.

A more common revelation however, is not a monster locked away but a monster about. The folktales of Bluebeard in particular. The story of Bluebeard is a common one through out the world. A young woman marries a powerful and rich noble. He must leave for business shortly after their wedding, and forbids she enter one room. When she ignores him, she finds the many bodies of his prior wives. Bluebeard then either kills her, or she escapes and her family avenges herself on him.

bluebeard1

I mean he looks just lovely. Okay the eyes look maybe a bit crazy.

Variants of this story can be found the world over. In India, there is a version that features a tiger instead of a man or giant. The tiger fools the local brahmin, and marries his daughter. He abuses her at the home, threatening to reveal his true shape and devour her if she does not prepare meals based on what he hunts. And of course, being a tiger he hunts men and women in his woods. After a time, and a child is born—also a tiger—she sends a letter to her mother via crow, telling of this injustice. Her three brothers set out, and after some mishaps, rescue their sister and murder her child—and later her husband, when he tries to steal her back.

Among the people of Northern Canada, there is a similar story of a cannibal husband. Here the husband does more than demand food—he insists on feeding his wives salmon and nothing else to make them too fat to move. His latest wife, Mianna, outsmarts him however by eating ice and eventually making a dummy of ice to distract him. In time, she and her brothers kill Ímarasugssuaq, ending his rain of terror.

bluebeard2

Here old Bluebeard looks a bit creepy but less crazy.

In England, the story of Mr. Fox has a similar ogre of a man—who’s wife to be catches him kidnapping her replacement at the end and lopping off her hand! She sees this the day before their wedding breakfast, and is horrified at each step of the way. At breakfast, she reveals the grizzly reminder of the other bride, and her brothers slaughter Mr. Fox.

And there are so many forms of this story to go through! I’ve linked a collection of these folk tales here, for further investigation. The origins of the French version are debated—there is for instance, a common assumption that they relate to the serial killer Gilles de Rais. Gilles de Rais famously served with Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years War. Afterwards, he went a bit…strange. A rampant child murderer and accused occultist, Gilles lost much of his fortune perusing contact with a demon called Barron and alchemy. He eventually, after kidnapping a cleric, attracted the attention of the local Bishop. After his crimes came to light, he was executed.

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Gilles De Rais needs more urban fantasy about his terrible alchemical experiments.

The other possible inspiration is Conomor the Accursed. Conomor is a Welsh or Breton king, known for his wanton cruelty. His own story begins after murdering three prior wives—and moving to his fourth, Trephine. Trephine refuses at first, due to Conomor’s reputation. However, the king threatens to invade her fathers lands and ransack them if she does not marry him. As Conomor is away on business, she uncovers the secret room containing relics of the dead wives. After praying for their souls, she learns that Conomor will kill her if he finds her pregnant—a story has warned him that his own son will kill him.

When he returns and makes the attempt, Trephine is saved by the three wives. They rescue her, and she gives birth to her child in secret—hiding him before Conomor finds and kills her.While St. Glidas does retore her to life—and her child becomes St. Tremorous—Conomor sometimes kills his son anyway. Other versions have St. Glidas and an array of thirty bishops march on the Accursed and anathemize him. Conomor then falls ill and his soul is swept up in a river of blood. In some variations he is so wicked, neither heaven nor purgatory nor hell will have him, and so he still wanders the earth.

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There are more stories that resemble it. The story of Three Crowns, for instance, has a forbidden room and a set of keys given to the daughter of a king by an Ogress. However, in this case, the revelation is not wicked, and in fact is what gets the daughter returned to her family. The story of Agib in Arabian Nights also features a forbidden door in his travels—this time by comely women, not an ogrish brute. The door hides something strange as well. But unlike Bluebeard, it is a wonder that punishes a lack of self control—not a pile of bodies from the owner.

The message of Bluebeard stories is often debated. The most overt is a condemnation of female curiosity, in the vein of Pandora’s Box. That woman who are asking to many question get killed. However, these stories are sometimes taken in a different light. Rather than warnings against curiosity, they are warnings of the danger of husbands. In this way, they might be similar to Beauty and the Beast stories but with a much darker ending. Certainly, the horror of the story—that a fortunate marriage, which a family is in someway dependent on, turns out to be to a monstrous—is not one that has faded with time.

And then there are the similar stories of monstrous and secretive husbands that are reversed. We can talk for instance about the woman who married a crab or a dragon or a toad or even a Dog—these stories feature a similar prohibition, usually related to seeing the host. In Greece for instance we have the story of Eros and Pysche.

Pysche and Eros.png

Pysche is told that she will marry a horrible monster if left on a certain cliff. The winds carry here to a wondrous palace, where an invisible set of servants and invisible husband await She is told never to look at him—but comes to enjoy his visits, his singing, and his presence. In time she becomes pregnant. Her sisters eventually worry about not hearing from their own, and go to meet her. Having heard from Pysche the arrangement, they persuade her to look upon her husband at night with a wax candle—however, upon finding her husband to be the beautiful god Eros, Pysche lets wax drop on his skin waking him. Eros flys off in a rage. Aphrodite, his mother, then gives Pysche a set of tasks to complete before she can regain her husband.

Another instance of this sort of story the story of the Tibetan Woman who married a dog. A single mother with three daughters receives tsampa from a dog—the dog asks they not eat it. The four of them eat it after three years, however, and the dog returns the next day. He asks for one of the daughters as a wife in compensation—which the mother relents to. The first two daughters who marry him hate him and are sent back. The third and youngest however is polite. After having two puppies by the dog, she passes a palace and wishes she lived there. The dog goes to the palace to beg and is “killed”–after his skin is stripped, he reveals himself as the king of the palace and the two puppies become children. A happy ending to the tail.

From Italy there is the story of the Dark King—which fuses Eros and Bluebeard. A young girl wanders into a cave, and finds it full of luxuries. Invisible hands serve her food, bath her, and dress her—it is so relaxing and wonderful that she forgets the entrance of the cave has vanished. After three months she meets the Moor king of the place, who gives her keys to all the rooms save one. After another three months, she has seen all the wonders of the place, and asks to go see her relations. She is allowed, on the condition that she return.

bluebeard3

Yeah, there’s a weird trend in illustrations to make Bluebeard vaguely Middle Eastern? Like that’s clearly his hair, but it’s also totally meant to be a turban right?

Appeasing her relatives and friends with gold, she enjoys herself and comes back. Three months later, she leaves again—this time, however, she boasts of the wealth in the palace. Her friends are eager to see. They suggest, when she explains that her husband won’t allow it, to kill her husband instead. They suggest sneaking in at night—and doing so, she finds him unsightly. When she goes to kill him, however, hot wax falls off her candle. He wakes and is saddened. As he dies, he offers her three hairs. When burned, he will save her from whatever danger she is in.

She, after an incident of cross dressing, mistaken identity, seduction by a queen, and imprisonment by a king, does burn the hairs. These bring about an army to save her from execution and even restore the Dark King to save her. The two are then married—and the Dark King becomes a beautiful prince, who’s kingdom was enchanted until he was wed with consent.

woodcutbluebeard

Seriously, there’s some gruesome images on the Wiki commons–I didn’t feel like sharing them here.

…I’m personally going to assume he stayed dark skinned, because that makes the ‘twist’ ending more palatable.

From Turkey, there is the story of a Padishah, who marries his daughter off to a horse—as she is the only one that the horse allows to feed her. Unlike other stories, the husband immediately reveals himself as an amazing hero—when the daughter’s sisters mock her for her lack of a husband in a tournament, he appears and triumphs. He only asks that she not reveal who he is. Like the Dark King, he gives her three wisps of hair to burn when she needs him—and on the third day, she reveals his secret.

Her husband is taken away—his hag mother plans to kill her daughter-in-law as well. The daughter finds their dwelling at the end of the earth, on a great mountain. The mother is tricked into accepting her without murder—but still tries, with impossible and confusing household tasks to kill her. With her husbands help, the daughter triumphs each time.

Eventually the two flee, and are pursued by his mother and aunt, both witches (although with her snake whip, the aunt resembles a Fury). With some guile and magic, they escape and return home to live happily ever after.

These we might consider similar—they suggest that what at first appears monstrous is not as frightening as it seems. Indeed, the difference between a Beast and Bluebeard is the presence of genuine danger—Bluebeard is here to kill you. The beast isn’t.

We also can talk of the reverse, although it is less a horror story. That of men who take immortal wives, and defy their rules. Selkies and swan maidens are chief among these, but fairy brides are almost as troublesome.

The tabletop game, Bluebeard’s Bride highlights how effecting such a story can still be. And I think in this case, the tale needs little modification—this is the rare form of horrific knowledge that is genuine in its monstrous form. A hidden child or lost ancestry is less easily disturbing. But discovering one shares a home with a serial killer? That still has power. That has visceral fear.

So, we’ve talked a lot about one of the most horrific forms of folklore—finding a monster in your old home. What will we make of it? Well, come back next week to see!

Bibliography

Buck, Rachel Harriette. Roman Legends: A Collection of Fables and Folklore of Rome. Estes and Lauriat, Boston 1877

Chopel, Norbu. Folktales of Tibet. Ltwa, 2006.

Kunos, Ignacz (Tr. Bain Nishbet). Turkish Fairy Tales and Folk Tales. A.H. Bullen, London 1901

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The Court

This Week’s Prompt: :78. Wandering thro’ labyrinth of narrow slum streets—come on distant light—unheard-of rites of swarming beggars—like Court of Miracles in Notre Dame de Paris.

The Prior Research:The Court of Miracles

Dear Mariam

It is a happy lie to presume that the current state of affairs will continue, uninterrupted, forever. In Berlin, I was introduced to the notion among some brahmins of India, that the world was always cycling and shifting. Some suggested that every moment was distinct and novel, others that the world was a great wheel among a multitude of other wheels. I find such notions endearing. They suggest, ultimately, that this state of being we enjoy will in time come again and again.

I was in Paris last week—a city with wonders and bohemians alike. A city that has seen its changes and reversions, its miracles and blasphemies. Are there a people as resentful of good governance as the French? We will see—the future holds many secrets. It was a long night when I decided to retire home, coffee and wine having mixed in my head a bit strongly. I was aware, despite myself, I was critically aware of all my senses as I walked towards my home for the visit.

Wheel of Fortune.png

 

I was keenly aware of the stones that felt through my shoes, of the lights on the streets, I could read them all very well. Despite this, my mind was drunk as a sailor. All the senses in the world are nought if the mind is gone—and so I found myself now moving through back roads, convinced that I had found some short cut or another to home. Yes, your dear brother still has not learned to hold his liquor. And Paris, lacking as it is in pea soup, is still a city designed by madmen for rats more than for the intellectual and rational mind of an inebriated university student. Some Cretan must have felt quite clever building up it’s walls and streets haphazardly and in rounds.

I reached that edge of the city, the halo of darkness that marks the seemly from the misbegotten. The penumbra of the city of lights I suppose, where even in my disreputable state I was aware danger was about. The bark of a stray dog alerted me, and I turned to see two men slumped on the side of the wall—talking and pointing off in my direction. The alley over had a mangey hound, low to the ground and bigger than me by a good amount. One of the men shouted something at the dog, who barked again at me. My heart in my neck, I turned and headed away, along the outer roads.

The light was scarcer here—the buildings in disrepair. Notre Dome still towered in the distance, but her bells resounded on empty streets. My own foot falls were most of my company, and the faint outline of my long shadow among street lights. The night was oppressive, and the haze of wine was wearing thin. I grew more aware of my danger, so far from where I was—in fact, I barely knew the names of these avenues. And yet, as my mind returned to its fullness, my senses receded away. My eye began to fail me, and I saw strange shapes shifting—I heard noises from nowhere, and caught whiffs of the party long past.

So there I was, fumbling in a darkened street—certain it was empty, but hearing movement just out of my sight. The occasional meow of a cat or warning bark of a street dog kept my on edge as I started back—I would head towards places I knew, but find the streets and alleys turned me around again. In these valleys of darkness I felt condemned to wander until dawn—at last I saw a light, strange and ferocious in the distance.

My sister, you must think your poor brother a fool for approaching a strange light in the middle of the night, far from home and in places of danger. And you may be correct— but in my defense there is I think some human instinct to seeking out things to see, and that instinct over came my good sense. I do not regret it. If it was foolishness, then I have become one of God’s own fools now.

The source of the dancing lights was apparently shortly after I started after it—a fire. Open, on an autumn night. That alone was not surprising, I reckoned. No, what was shocking about the flames were their size. It was a bonfire, surrounded by all sides so that the buildings hid it from authorities. It wasn’t until later, when I recounted to my friend the shape of the place, that I learned I had been at the most infamous court in France—where bandits and beggars commingled. And I saw them, I did. Around the fire, speaking and dancing, planning and training in the method of their profession.

Cours De MiraclesThe Voice.png

The moment my eyes fell upon the crowd, I made towards the edges. Do not fret, sister, I was not immediately spotted as a man of means who might be extorted. The benefit of the lifestyle of a student is that I am used to appearing impoverished. So I made my way, carefully and slowly, around the crowd.

For the land of miracles, little wonders failed to happen. I heard children laugh, yes, but also weep. Babes cried out, and comforted by mothers. Bellies rumbled hungry . Men shouted, cursed, talked of God and damnation. Some spoke of great cons on the local priests—how they might get more meals yet from this or that source. But slowly, I heard one by one the topic turn to ‘the nightly business’.

It was as I was on the edge, that they appeared—the nocturnal crew. A group of three or four, with one shorter man at the head. At the center of the fire, a dull drum beat began that silenced the crowd. I turned and listened, as a figure began to speak, in a voice as low as thunder and rumbling like flame. He spoke at a length, and I cannot repeat it here. Not only for concern of my sister’s sensibillities, but because the whole of the speaker’s tongue was lost on me—at times, French, yes, but at times in Spainish and German or even languages in the East. The finery of his words were thus lost on me—as was the outbursts and shouts from his fellows. But the thrust, that I understood.

There is an old Jewish story I heard once, about four men who saw the face of God. One went mad, one died, one became a heretic, and one became holy. I found it an amusing understanding of the truth, but little more. Now I cannot say which I am. I sit writing this letter, having heard a man—and still, I am uncertain if he were a man, woman, or angel—recount the suffering of the world. I have seen his hand point towards me, however incidentally, and recited the crimes of the world.

He talked of starving children, of thieves and murders in palaces of bone, of the blood watered sugar canes, of the shots that rang out in town squares. He talked of lives that never could be, of villages and peoples trampled undnereath, of the four horsemen unleashed—how following conquest had come the ills of war, famine, and plague. And how now, now at the turning of the years, it would finally end.

Judgement Day.png

I fled at once, away and no longer caring that I drew attention to myself. I found my way, stumbling, wheezing—yes, your dear brother has yet to learn proper exercise—to an officer of the law. To a street that, I realized, was well lit. To a place, a place where I could find my way home.

 

That was a week ago. Yet the fire, the fire still burns on my skin. It holds some space in my head, it murmurs in my ear. That Judgement Day may come at the hands of man and not God is a terrible thing. That it might seize me, at any moment—surely this has driven men mad.

A man cannot bear that great weight—I expect the cracks to form soon. It is coming soon, it is winding down the wheel of fate soon. When judgment comes, will it be our last? Paris, my sister, Paris is kindling. Perhaps it won’t come soon—I pray I do not see it soon. For the righteous are against us, and I see no recourse or escape. The sea will not take me, and even in Berlin I know those words will haunt the streets.

I wonder now, when I have the patience and mind, if this tribulation has happened before? Has the wheel of fate turned past, or is the end of all ends coming for us? On that day, will my name be called? Will the dull thud of the razor resume, the old heart of Paris restored? Will they cheer when my head rolls free? Or worse, will I be swallowed up—nameless in the flood?


 

I’m not fond of this story. I think it came out unfinished, and that it was both too politically overt, and too vague in it’s horror. It feels like perhaps the pay off to a larger build up or  a story where the ‘threat’ is so clearly the hero, that it’s hard to be scared with the main character. Aw well.

Next week! Secrets beneath the castle walls! What is waiting in the forbidden room?

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The Harvest Moon Shines Down

This Week’s Prompt: 77. Unspeakable dance of the gargoyles—in morning several gargoyles on old cathedral found transposed.

The Prior Research:We Can Dance If We Want To

Ever since Lena was a babe, she’d loved the moon. It hung in the sky, shifting slowly through the months—a pale or yellow orb smiling down. Less harsh than the sun, it was kind to Lena. It didn’t blind her and its rays of light didn’t weigh down on the backs of her parents. Not that anyone worked under the moon, of course—Lena had to sneak out to stare up at it during the night, because everyone else slept. And moonlight was a comforting pale light, even more calming than a warm fire.

She went among the hills, to get a good look at it. She passed over stone shapes—the broken remains of a long buried cathedral, craggy gargoyles sticking their heads out. She sometimes found other bits of the old town—even the old well, overgrown now. Her parents told Lena to avoid the well water—something had died in the well, a long time ago. The death lingered in the water. They had abandoned everything, to escape that water.

The other children said that a well man had moved in, a specter that had started collecting the souls of dead things down there. Father Mitchell, the old priest, couldn’t get rid of it—so they moved the entire neighborhood and the church as well, stone by stone. Except the gargoyles, buried somehow. Others said that one day, all the stars in heaven had smashed it down. They were so sick, they needed a new place to stay. Others said that a great bird had blown it away with its wings, and secretly made its nest over in the mountains near Windgift.

Even as a child, Lena doubted that story. She became well acquainted with the shape of the old town—it was the best place to see the moon from. Most was rubble…but gargoyle heads poked from hillsides, and pillars rose from the broken sections of road. Her parents knew she wandered at night, especially on full moons. They did not mind. Such wanderings were good for her soul, and gave her appreciation of the world—and nothing dangerous lived in the hills. No wolves or specters or bandits could bare it anymore.

Harevet Moon 1.png

There was one exception, however. During the first full moon of autumn, Lena was kept inside the house. The first time this happened when she was eleven, she merely assumed her parents were tired of her escapes—and so stayed inside for a few nights more, hoping they would forget. The red light that flowed into her room did not trouble her much then—it never really did. But over time, Lena realized that her parents were rather deliberate. Her doors and windows were locked firmly, and nailed shut. Her father waited in her usually routes. Her father waited at the edge of house, eyes like a hawk. The tree’s branches were trimmed, and in time iron bars locked her in. Eventually, Lena silently agreed to not go out on that first autumn moon.

The day before, her parents would place boards around it. This infuriated and frustrated Lena, all the way until she was a young woman. She occasionally spoke to her friends about it, but none had seen the first full moon of autumn either. But to them, it was no mystery. Their parents had been forthright—the first full moon of autumn was a deep crimson, and when it rose, the gargoyles of the church woke up and danced in the old town. As did the specters and fae of the woods, and the well man, and the other creatures of the night. And those dancers stole away anyone who saw them.

From age twelve to sixteen, Lena slept soundly although still annoyed that her parents hid the moon from her—she never noticed the shifting shaking of the floor, that her door once closed was now ajar. The red light of the Harvest Moon never woke her—it was oddly pleasant. When she woke with the rising of the hateful sun, a book was moved, or a glass of water on the edge—nothing particular over those three nights. But when she was sixteen, the earth shook more violently—and her glass did shatter.

Lena found herself upright and reeling. Her room seemed to be convulsing. Outside were shouts and songs and flickering lights—but they died quickly. Poor Lena had only glimpsed the infinity of the Harvest Moon Night. But she wouldn’t forget what woke her—and on her seventeenth year, she schemed to slip free and see what all the ruckus was about.

Lena began by stealing supplies from the yard that day, her steps as silent as a cat. Spent bullets near the edge of town, and stones that glimmered in the sun. Gathering these in her bed, she next made off with a kitchen knife—the better to begin carving away at the bars on her window. Her parents had put faith in those iron bars, and allowed the nearby tree to grow again. It’s branches would supply her steps. Lastly, she mapped her path. She would go around and back, working her way through the old roads and forgotten paths. And then she waited.

The Moon Hills Harvest Moon.png

When her mother was asleep, and her father standing guard, Lena carved out the iron bars. She lay them one by one on her floor, before the earth started to roar. Then, a gargoyle on the windowsill, she tossed the stones and bullets with a sling made of curtains—they crackled against the boundary stones, stray hunter shots. She paused. And sure as sunrise, her father ran after them.

Lena lay her tools aside, and held her cloak tight as she leapt and scrambled onto the tree branch. Knife at her side, she felt the branch begin to give and crack—she was not as light as when she was a lass. Still, she had the time she needed, to scramble down the trunk. As she felt bare felt touch grass, she raced past the house, up and around the roads to the old town.

By then, the earth began to groan. Its belly shook lightly after first, a hungry moan. But as Lena moved between trees and hills, it grew to a dull roar. And then she saw the dance.

Around the old well, a many colored flame grew—sea green and sky blue and sunset purple. Around it they danced, two dozen gargoyles in a troupe. Their wings flapped and clapped together as they bounded and whirled. An unearthly rhythm formed from their circle, over and around the fire true. And the ground seemed, in that unearthly illumination, to rise and fall with the troupe in their crumbling ruins. Lena was intoxicated by the sight of the fire, swirling with softer cooler colors, and the crimson moon that lay over head.

The Harvest Moon Fire.png

And then the ground buckled, and seemed to break—for something great shifted beneath it and left tremors in its wake. It was vast and graceful—it called to mind the snake that a traveling flute player once tamed. A hundred Typhonic heads reared themselves around the beast—its skin was cobble stone streets, made shining like gem. And as it uncoiled from the hills, this mammoth of a thing, it sang a thousand songs—songs in hundreds of languages, all in harmony but still a grand cacophany. Those songs, from all sides and all places wove themselves through Lena’s ears.

Then they snap shut around it, a gorgon’s trap around her mind that pulled her limbs forward. She understood the approach of other great shapes from the sky and ground—the shadowy being that pulled itself from the well, surrounded by birds and cats and other things; the stars that came to earth, with wolfish heads and howled as they danced; the glittering wings of the great birds, who’s feathers shone as infernos; and of course the moon.

The Red Faced Moon.png

The lovely moon, her white veil cast aside—a figure with blood red skin, tooth and claw, and a throne of pale bone that descended down to dance that night with Lena. Lena who had always loved the moon.

The children say Lena died that day—drowned in the well. But her parents and the elders know she instead went somewhere else. Up to that lowliest of heavens, where the strangest of angels do dwell—she has joined them now, who were moon lovers.


 

This story was delightful to write–It’s a bit more atmospheric I think, and much smaller in scale. I forgot some sections of the original prompt–the gargoyles, for instance, are not noted as transposed, and the cathedral here is a crumbled away ruin. But I still like the general arc, and I don’t feel like I have much more to add to it–I could add dialouge and expand it much more, but it feels rather self contained.

Next week, we take a trip to a miraculous court, and I try to work in some folklore that most people don’t hear! See you then!

 

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The Fire Breaks

This Week’s Prompt: 75. Black Mass beneath an antiquated church.
The Prior Research:Witches Sabbath

Part 1:The Black Mass Gathers

I watched as the blue and green lights on the mountain faded. They slowly went away, leaving nothing but strange scars in the side of the stone, and from the window even theses were barely there. I was transfixed a little longer—not much, but a little longer. I felt eyes on me, from those mountains—something strange and numerous gazing at me as I quickly packed my things and left. I locked the door behind me, and went down the by now mostly empty roads.

Mrs. Lorain’s cooking would clear my mind—she often made a stew or soup that was something else. Walking down the path, smoother than I remembered, I saw a few more new arrivals chatting in strange tongues while buying bread. Two women and a man, dressed in outrageous clothing—like something out of century old painting, stretching itself into parody. One was tossing something like dice, but shaped strange on the table as they talked. Suddenly, one of the women looked at me. Her eye was bloodshot and black. It stayed fixed on me as she resumed conversation. It didn’t blink.

BlackSabbathElderbir2.png

I hurried along, avoiding the other crowds of strangers and costumes. The eye was still lurking on me some. It was a bit hard to breath when at times they pressed close to me. But at last, I arrived at the Lorain house.

“Peter! Why, aren’t you late. Did the students give trouble?” Mrs. Lorain asked from the kitchen. I collected myself for a moment. I slowed, staggered onto a chair and managed a smile.

“No, no, but the cold air caught me. I thought a storm was coming, so sprinted home.” I said, waving at the sky. It was cloudier outside then normal, but the storm had resisted raining for at least a week so far. Such is dawn of Autumn.

“Ah, well, I reckon it’s got a couple days before it rains and washes away some of the rubbish.” Mr. Lorain said, looking up from his almanac. He read it daily for such predictions. “Weather’s rather regular when you look at it all the way, Peter, you should know. Why, its almost enough to set a clock by.”

“Maybe, maybe. I thought for a moment I saw lighting on the mountain.” I said, cautiously expanding into my fears. I was unsure what to make of the sighting—there were accounts of seeing a woman in the Mediterrian and of course in Ireland and Scotland stones took on strange forms on misty mornings. Flashes of light as the sunset…were not necessarily strange nor significant.

“Ah, probably just some kids with some of the fireworks or something on the hill.” Mrs. Lorain said, as one of the guests—who introduced himself as Rinaldo, but would not give his family name—came down the stairs.

“What already? Their getting faster.” Rinaldo said, his necklace of feathers and bird talons bouncing a bit as he stopped. “Yeah, thunder and lightings an old trick on the mountain. You get some iron bowls or pans, you drop the right firecracker in them with in the old caves and it looks like the devil himself is in the woods.”

“Ah, well…if that’s all that’s good. I was worried for my wits back there.” I said, nodding slightly. When Rinaldo put a hand on my shoulder my blood ran cold.

“Don’t worry, sir, you’ll see far greater spectacles in a day or so.” He said, smiling with his ivory white teeth.

That was not comforting.

*

During the night, I got little sleep—and when I would sleep, I was startled awake rather quickly after. At first it was just the evening wind. I sealed the window then, paying little mind to the dancing and reveling I could dimly make out by the moonlight. Then it was a scratching at the window—one of the strays around town I think. I knocked on the door to keep it away.

And then…I don’t know why I woke up. I just did, in that terribly uncomfortable place of being a wake but loathing it. I got up to pace, but my legs and arms felt like stone. Even as I slumped over to my desk, weight settled on my back to bend me over. I started writing blankly, unaware and uninterested. I waited until the small glimmers of light came through the window. I packed for work then, unshaven and disheveled as I walked down the road. I’d barely remembered to dress.

School Brick2.png

The weights did not go away as I arrived ahead of the students, into the class room. I scraped the structure of the latest writing on the chalk board, coughing a bit at the dust. Exhaustion slows even times long passage and dulls the best senses. I didn’t notice the arrival of the Tarneys until Mrs. Tarney herself gave a rather noisey cough.

“Are you alright Peter?” She asked, leaning to the side of the doorway in a blouse and skirt—black with thin white lines running down, creaking into lighting lines at the bottom. I blinked and focused more on her voice.

“I’m…yes. Had a rough night last night.” I said, resuming to diagram and map Prospero’s island.

“Oh, something disagree with you?” She said, tapping her foot. “Normally Mrs. Lorain–”

“No, no, her cooking was superb as always.” I said, shaking my head. “No, just some sickness that I suspect is at it’s end. I’ll probably not stay so late tonight. The autumn winds aren’t good for my health I fear.”

“Well, they are thin and cold up here.” Tarney said as I placed the chalk down and began to set up my other things. “You might want to start bundling up…you look absolutely pale.”

And with a click of her tongue she was gone.

The lesson for the week was rather dull as well, but not without merits. We had begun work on Shakespeare’s plays, and now came to the end of those stories. Prospero and his island on our minds, I reviewed the structure and sonnets. The children were more fond of this then other plays—the nymph and dread Caliban gave an air of wonder to it. Suitable, I think, to even the teenagers and the young children. Far more than the tragedies.

After classes were dismissed—and there were a number of classes I contrived to teach the same text, for different aims—I again settled down and started packing my things to go. After last nights…strange encounter, I thought it would do to leave early. But…but I must be honest, there was a macabre fascination with the sight that held me. I need to know—was it delusion that I saw fire on the hills? And the strange habit of Mrs. Tarney made me cautious to follow her down the hill.

So instead I waited, watching out the window. I saw the old path that wound to the mountains—a dirt road worn out when trade up the hills were common. Sitting in my chair, I saw a trickle of travellers heading up the winding path. Most were dressed…more ostentiously then before. Bright colored cloaks and dresses, with feathered collars and scaly neck pieces. Almost all wore masks worthy of Venice…although a few had masks that were so pale and untouched they looked like bone wrote in the shape of a long forgotten creature.

I paid the first few of strangers no mind. The next two or three piquied my intereast away from the hill—after all, it was not a well known route. And after a dozen or so had gone, it became clear that some gathering was going to take place. Some party no doubt—I wondered briefly it was a tradition from when these now grown guests were teens. No matter. I made a few notes of faces and particularly outrageous costumes. Most were rather macabre. But otherwise,not worth notice. Not really.

The sun was setting now, and distantly I saw…yes, a spark. And another. Just fireworks, as the young man had said. Nothing more, nothing more. With that in mind, I packed my things, and headed home.

*

The road back to the Lorain’s was oddly barren. There was a young man packing things in the bakery—which was usually open far latter than this. A cat, who seemed like a miniature tiger, crossed my path. Turning to face me, the cat let me know I was not welcome on these fair streets with a rather unwholesome noise.

Then he scampered off.

The incident was unremarkable…except stray vermin and the occasional cat were the only occupants in the whole town I could find. The Lorain’s had locked the front door to the house—although the back was open. None of the guests, nor either Lorain was home. After searching for a time, I considered if they too had gone to that strange lights in the mountains. I considered going to bed early—retiring again to make up for lost sleep. But…sleeping alone, in an unguarded home, with potential drunkards wandering back into town…If there was one reasonable fear I had, it was the descent of a hoard of drunk bohemians armed with mischief.

So I sat and read for a time by the candlelight. And as I poured over pages of Parisian lore, I lost myself. Time spun her wheel faster over my head, interrupted only by the mewling of hungry cats. Then, a loud crash—and a distant flash. Lighting and thunder outside, lighting and thunder. I nearly fell out my seat, and turned to the mountains—and there, those lights had grown. There was a great conflagration along it’s mount. Some strange shape was at it’s core—and long dancing shadows came down from on high.

Fire Outside ElderBir.png

I set aside my fears and terrors. For there, there I knew was some mischief about. I began walking up through the town—the light of the mountain cast it in morning twilight. The cats were all about, standing at attention on the main road. I walked in back streets, slipping around the strange street up towards the mountain. The roofs were thick with ravens. Red eyes followed me out of town.

The trail was only rugged until the woods—then it began to grow smooth. The remains of old Roman roadworks were visible—rocks and bits of blocks sticking up with increasing frequency. The rain…the rain had swelled the dirt. The orange dirt looked dark red in the twilight, clay pushing up against the rocks and stones. The road was better kept as I went—the stones sealed together better.

The forest was alive with lights—the great bonfire that was raging raced down occasionally, in great columns of light. And the sounds—the sounds that night. There was music, of course, drums and pipes and trumpets. A cacophony of noise, unearthly but not unpleasant noise. Except the braying—there was the occasional bray of some no doubt terrified donkey.

As I wound my way up the path, small candles—their wax dripping over stones—came into view. At the base of these candles, carved in strange shapes and colors, votives were left by guests. I saw portraits and coinage glimmering in the darkness. The exact details were unclear—but the shapes were strange, and some had writing or scars drawn on them. I stopped at one. It was a young man, with a nail driven into the portraits eyes.

As the noise grew louder and I drew closer, I was tempted to leave the road—I was not looking forward to being seen here. But the woods now seemed to alive. A thin film floated in the air, a membrane invisible that none the less divided the woods and winds from me.

At the edge of the road, just as it wound to the flame, I was assaulted by an foul odor. It was rot and burning hair and sulfur. It nearly drove me to vomit, like walking into a sewage filled slaughterhouse. Swallowing, I turned the corner—and what dreadful things I saw.

The Fiery Monolith.png

There was that roaring many colored fire—and in it’s center was a monolith. The flames made it hard to see how it was raised—it looked like a singular stone finger. And atop the monolith was a bestial thing, a man with the head of goat. Serpents came from his cheeks, as he stood with arms spread out. A woman was on all fours, a great iron cauldron resting on her back. Clouds of incense and smoke rose from the cauldron.

As I was agap at the sight, I felt hands grab me. Turning I saw a porcelian mask with tusks jutting from the mouth—the scarlet dancer pulled me in a line of dancers. Feathered veils and dresses whirled around—leonine heads and bleeding eyes. I felt the coils of serpents run up my arms and around my back as I was pulled every which way. I wanted to scream, but something choked my voice.

The Ritual Goat.png

There were other moniliths. Other men with masks of great birds of prey, of skulls, of bulls with snakes fangs lining their mouths. The dancers continued. At the gesture of the scepters and staves, they sang in bestial tones. A wicked harmony they compelled—even my own voice became rough and formless. An ectasy took hold. They dragged me into the fire’s cold grip. Up, up the winding monolith.

I saw the face of the altar, as the goat-headed priest grabbed my hand. I saw the priest’s familiar eyes. As the hands guided me, the entire crowd cheering—they lowered me into the cauldron. It burned. It hurt.

It hurt as it filled my lungs, with boiling tar.

It hurt.

*

I woke up in the small, drab room in town. I ached all over as I rolled out of bed. I stumbled a bit, pulling my coat on. It was morning—my head was pounding and my skin…my skin felt strange. It felt…heavy, like a layer of dirt was on it. I shook it off and buttoned up my jacket. It was cloudy out—an iron gray sky. The window showed a town full of mist. Slowly blinking my eyes, I went down the stairs.

The road clicked as I walked along, absently buying some bread for breakfast. I’d take it on the hill today, I figured. The rain hadn’t started yet, and a breakfast inside would give it too much of a chance. And the rain—well, it was autumn and cold winds were coming. The rain would be a fever or mold on my clothes. I’d rather avoid that.

The students piled in, and sure enough the rain started to fall. In the distance, a fire was doused. The chalk on the board blurred beneath my touch. I coughed—and blinked as a black feather came out of my mouth.


 

I’m not super fond of the ending–I ran out of time, and had to rush something to happen to Peter. But overall, I like how this story turned out. I got to write some old fashion purple prose description, for good or ill. It was a bit slow at first, and could use some  expanding. Maybe next year it’ll be voted as a rewrite at the Patreon, who knows?

Next week! Research into gargoyles and guardians of churches! Come and see!

 

If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.