An Ill Fated Boat Ride

This Week’s Prompt: Phleg′-e-thon: a river of liquid fire in Hades.

The Research:River of Fire

The river was great drain down the side of hills, a bright reddish brown even on the best of days. A dead snake constantly inching it’s way down, Mel would never normally go down near it. But she and Donna had made the promise to go and see if it was really true. If past the old statues, through the bent woods, and right before the lake that had somehow kept it’s clarity, on a moonlit night with no clouds in the sky, you really could see the dead.

You know it’s a rock formation, right? There’s a bunch of those. Or some mist or something.” Mel said, putting a white mask on as she got aboard the boat with Donna. They’d considered renting one, but the only boat at night was run by Mr. Gills. And Mr. Gills had one eye, kept three barely tamed dogs, and looked at people like they were meat. Donna was convinced he’d killed someone before. So they “found” an old rowboat.

Or swamp gas, maybe. But come on, what if it’s not?”

We’ve traveled down a dangerous river of slurp and who knows what to see the dead.”

And that’ll be awesome. C’mon, I borrowed a knife and got a new can of mace for this.” Donna said from the old boat. “We’ll pull over on the lake and see the moon at worst, and then trek back, and you can blog about how we wasted a night on an adventure! Or seeing the dead, now come on!”

Mel frowned, looking down the sides of the river, checking for the tenth time that she had her phone and keys. And then the began down the river.

RedRiverCover.png

The moonlight seemed to foul on the water. When you could make out it’s reflection, it was an outline of rotting cheese instead of the orange disk overhead. Mel saw some distant lights over the hills, probably a summer camp bonfire. It was oddly cold along the river, the summer heat sucked into the porous earth.

And who’s that?” Donna asked, shining a light on a marble calvary man covered in moss, his head having fallen off.

Judging by the…colorful base.” Mel said, squinting at the layered graffitti. “He’s at the least had an eventful love life. Name starts with an H…Henry?”

Henry, huh?” Donna said, shining the light at where the head would be. For an instant there was a face in the branches, grimacing from with flashing eyes and fading translucent skin. The tree lines became veins of invisible wounds along a shadow of a face. Mel blinked, and it was gone.

What war did we have that’s got a statue these days?”

Plenty?”

Okay, but which one that people leave in the middle of the woods?”

Mel had to pause at that. Yeah, you’d think a place that could afford a statue would move it. But they were drifting into older parts of town, which were more wild than others.

Maybe they tried. I read about that, back in Spain, that saint statues went back into the wilds if you tried to bring them back.” Mel said, pointing her flashlight into the nearer woods. The sudden movement of the flashlight caught some of the branches and a few birds fluttered away, cawing at being disturbed from sleeping.

Yeah, I would rather be asleep too, Mel thought. But a deal’s a deal.

That’s dumb. It’s a statue. Just move it back again.” Donna said frowning, her light catching on glittering cans that poked above the river’s sludge surface. With a flashlight instead of the moon on them, the metal became rusty detrius again. Mel wondered if stars worked like that. If you saw them too clearly, were they no longer beautiful?

I think the idea was it was the saints that moved them.” Mel said. The river had carried them past the last of the statues now. The gray and red iron of the cemetery was coming into sight now. Probably, Mel thought, the statue was a grave not a war memorial. Probably, the idea was that the cavalry man buried beneath would stand in an unstained, well kept forest of stones and sarcophagi. Maybe even surviving family or service men would visit him.

The Old Town cemetery had been so thoroguly reclaimed by the forest that there was burial a tombstone that could be read. Some tomb stones and family lots were knotted together, moss layered over them like a blanket over a group of hiding children. Some of the longer stones had croaking frogs on them, large white eyes reflecting the light perfectly back at Mel and Donna, little lanterns on the edge. And of course there were spider webs. Spider webs from branches to roots, among graves that could still be seen, running as a second fence between the iron one. Some spiraled, some just ran straight, a net of silk to catch flies that no doubt had been plentiful from all the bodies once.

Maybe the reconstruction club should do something down here.” Mel said.

The reconstruction club?”

The Historical society, the ancestry commune, I don’t know. People who have money to fix old stuff.”

Huh. Wonder if anyone related to the old town still lives around here. They’d probably want their grandparent’s old stuff fixed up.”

Charon's Boat.png

Mel nodded, before glancing over the hill. A dim orange light was starting to rise in the distance. It couldn’t be sunrise already, could it? No, no they’d been out here only a few hours. It must still be that bonfire. Man, that was a long party.

There was a sloshing not far behind as they passed the graveyard. A black boat gradually pulled up along side them. Mel and Donna exchanged looks as the growl of an angry dog was heard from what was clearly Gills ship.

Well, row! Mace probably won’t reach that high if he’s gonna kill us.” Donna said in a panic.

Mel began as best she could to push faster along the sludge. The larger boat moved along, foot steps echoing on deck as their smaller shipped slowly pulled ahead. At last they seemed safe, a good distance established. Unless, of course, he had a gun.

If he had a gun, we’d be screwed anyway.” Donna muttered when Mel mentioned it.

Maybe we should land?” Mel said, looking to the side of the river. The coast was a thin outline of reeds, but she could still make it out from the pebbles on the shore.

No, no. No. He’d just jump us there.” Donna said, not taking her eyes off the boat. “Damnit, what assholes is he bringing out here.”

Maybe he just sails down river at night?” Mel said, still catching her breath.

What, in the midlde of the night in this–” Donna stopped as Mel gestured at their boat with her hands.

Okay, but we have a good reason.”

We’re chasing a ghost story.” Mel groaned.

Look, I just-Oh shit, he’s started again. Paddle!”

You paddle.” Mel said, lying back and looking at the handful of dim stars in the sky. “I’m tired.”

Donna groaned, but grabbed the oars and began driving their boat back away from the ceaseless march of the more proper river boat. Mel watched as a figure came out with a lantern in hand on the prow. It seemed extremely reckless to sail without anyone steering. Donna’s rowing pushed them ahead again, past the cemetery and far from the boat.

Is he still following us?” Donna asked, sighing.

No…No, he pulled off, seems to have run ashore.” Mel said squinting. The orange on the horizon was growing behind the ship. Mel now heard the hiss of steam. The smell of burning filth came down on the wind ahead of the stream of fire that was snaking it’s way towards them. Fire full of smoke and dancing shadows, tongues of flame licking the sky.

Oh god, oh god.” Mel said, pointing vainly over Donna’s shoulder. Gills boat sat in front of the fire, back-lit by it as he waited by the side. The thick smoke and fire was gaining steam as Mel grabbed the oars from Donna and started peddling towards the shore.

River Of Fire.png

Adrenaline was pumping the oars, giving Mel’s arms any strength. Furious movement away from the fire was the best she could manage some of the water splashing over and into the boat as Donna turned herself to see the encroaching light. As Mel felt exhaustion take its toll, as the boat bumped against rocks hidden in the river, ruins of some long forgotten damn and bridge, the flames seemed alive. A mass of red and green and orange and blue teeth teetering over the water through pumes of smoke that masked it’s true bulk. It was almost transfixing, fire having that special power that it does over terrified and desperate minds.

The boat hit a final rock and Mel felt it slipping out from underneath, rolling onto it’s side. The water tasted worse then it smelled as Mel tried to swim out from under, flailing vainly towards the shore. There was a brief, panicked comfort in the cold water, even as a branch clung to Mel’s leg. Kicking violent, Mel pulled herself free at last and pulled herself to the shore.

RedRiverCover1.png

Only then did she turn back to see the branch, slumped in the river, overcome and lit by the fire. The smell of burning flesh filled her nose as she saw the dead floating down the stream.

****

Midterms put a great deal of temporal stress on this story. I like the idea of playing with the reality of the horror vs the literal tricks of light and shadow, but the ending is rushed and to be honest it doesn’t have the symbolic resonance the story deserved. But it was either wait another 2 weeks perfecting it, or sending this out. I’m disappointed that the fiftieth isn’t my best work, but that is nature of things sometimes.

Next week, we journey to a strange garden with stranger shadows.

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The Storm Comes. The Dragon Roars.

This weeks prompt reads: 26. Dream of ancient castle stairs—sleeping guards—narrow window—battle on plain between men of England and men of yellow tabards with red dragons. Leader of English challenges leader of foe to single combat. They fight. Foe unhelmeted, but there is no head revealed. Whole army of foe fades into mist, and watcher finds himself to be the English knight on the plain, mounted. Looks at castle, and sees a peculiar concentration of fantastic clouds over the highest battlements.

The Resulting Story:The Battle of Timalt Tower
Welcome back, brothers and sisters of our esteemed order! We apologize for the delay, but tests must be taken and some recovery was need after dwelling on the abyss for too long. So we begin this week looking at something a bit new. A dream again, of a great battle worthy of the father of fantasy, with dragons and swords and duels and inhuman powers! So, let us take it a part bit by bit and begin.

I will not begin by examining the nature of the color yellow. That is a doomed rabbit hole of hundreds of cultural contexts that might not lead anywhere. I will, however, begin by addressing Mr. Lovecraft’s most famous character in yellow: The King in Yellow. The King in Yellow and his city of Carcosa actually predates the works of Lovecraft.

Yellow Sign.png

The King in Yellow is in fact a play initial, about the arrival of the King in Yellow from his realm of Hali. The book it is found in deals greatly with many horrifying concepts, but chiefly the play is famed for driving those made with truth at the end. The King in Yellow comes as a revelation, a terrible truth that will expand his realm over into Carcosa. The book as a whole focuses on similar revelers, artists and decadents.

For these, the King in Yellow is also often associated with decay, decedance, and entropy. And the allies of the men in yellow, the great red dragons, are similair. While the term dragon has grown to apply to just about anything vaguely serpentine (as giant applies to all things big, and fairy to all things magical), there is something of a concrete definition to be found. In general, a dragon is a serpentine creature, possessing magical powers, and often legs.

This includes a variety of creatures of course. The dragons of the Journey to the West, who are lords of vast treasure and the undersea realms, fit the mold as easily as the great wyrm Fafnir, a transfigured dwarf of the Volsung saga. It also includes perhaps the Feathered Serpent (a proper deity, who we will discuss on article only to him and his kin), and my favorite dragons: the slavic Zmey, who have three heads and spit thunder and occasionally have children with mortals.

zmey

Best dragon.

But these dragons are known to Englishmen, and are brilliant red. The color is the key here. And as I would not try and unearth all the secrets of the color yellow, I will likewise not do so with red. But a red dragon? That symbol is known. The red dragon, as those who play various tabeltop games or read Biblical lore might know, is the most fearsome of all kinds. For that is the beast of revelation, the great dragon with seven heads and seven crowns upon it’s heads, and a blasphemy on each crown.

RedDragonRevelation.png

So we have an allegiance of somewhat diabolic forces, and an air of enchantment. For if this story is to have weight, I would certainly not permit a dream to be the focus of an entire plot. Thus we have the last section, the strange clouds floating over the tower. Strange clouds and storms are often means of transportation and conscious movements.

But storms also have a second role: They are marks of strange and dangerous creatures. The Umu dabrutu, the Zu, and Pazuzu of Sumerian mythology, for example, are terribly and chaotic storms bearing weapons into battle. The Maruts form another host, underneath the greater storm gods. The thunder birds are kinder creatures, but still, beholding one forces one to do all things backwards. The storm, as a symbol of power among many a high god, is also a dangerous and chaotic force at times. In more recent times, ariel spirits are often counted among the ranks of demons and horrors.

lighting-sprites

In other news, these were seen above hurricane Matthew. Delightful.

Thus we have something of a notion of what is at stake. There are great forces of desolation and diobaltry on the rise, threatening to overcome the English dead. There is some strange sorcery on the tower, kindly or no. Perhaps some wizard has switched places with the leader of the english, in order to save them. Perhaps it was some working of the enemy leader, who possesses some magic if he’s able to hold a form without a head or body.

This would be where I dwelled a great deal on the formation of our story…but it is again rather plainly laid out. Likewise, we have a protagonist and narrator already. So again, we will leave it be with these wondering on the things themselves.

What relation to these yellow tabard men have with the dragons? Are the dragons their beasts of battle, or are they the dragons servants? They are willing to engage in a duel on foot, and appear to be proficient at their swordsman ship. The dragon might bespeak a welsh character, or even a Norse, with the dragon as a flag or figurehead on a ship.

somersetflag

What is the history of this war? Is it recent? Is it habitual, for men in yellow to assail England from some country unseen? We are told this is a group of Englishmen, not a group of men from any particular reason. This places it probably after the Norman Conquest, or shortly before it. Interestingly, if we take the terms metaphorically (and thus in a way that I, dear brothers and sisters, find incredibly dreary), we find that a flag of such resembles the flag of Somerset. Of course, Somerset is distinctly and definitely English. Still, perhaps that will be useful for your reconstruction.

We will come again next week, then, with this English leader’s corpse. And all will be well.

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