The Shifting Temple

This Week’s Prompt: 80. Shapeless living thing forming nucleus of ancient building.

The Prior Research: There Is Nought But Chaos

The valley of Olim sits along the bubbling river Syper. The river runs down from a mountain, littered with cracked stones, and across a number of misty hills, before arriving through the path of it’s ancestor—the glacier Euroni, who’s ponderous mass filled the valley—and reaching out into the sea of the dead. The river in truth carries through many more places, but those are not of important to this story. The valley of Olim is nurtured by the river, and like many such valleys and rivers, a number of people have come to live on its shores.

As a young man, I traveled to Olim when it’s walls were still covered in ever thickening layers of ivory. I had come to study architecture—the carvings and burrows of the people where fascinating to me, their carefully made stone work wrapping around the great trees and rising from the marshy banks. In part, I wanted to understand how they had built such stable lives on unsure footing. More accurately, I wished to understand the great temple that sat at the center of the city, astride the river.

The temple was a bulbous shape, a great dome atop with a blossoming flower of many colored jades and metals. The temple without is remarkable, yes. Its walls resemble tree trunks, with roots and branches for soaring rafters and buttresses. Along the roof is a great garden, surrounding the dome in a halo of life. Pumps run river water around it, four waterfalls careening back off the temple top into the sea.

Formless Temple 1.png

To the architectural mind, the most frustrating matter was the interior. The great temple is a single wheel shaped structure, with an interior column running up the middle. This column contains a stair well—and if one enters the stair well, it leads upwards, without branching or changing. Yes, I’m sure your amazed that the most simple functions of a stair way still operate. Nonetheless, the reverse is not true—go down the stairwell and you will find yourself in another room from where you started.

This fact was reported to me before I came to Olim. I considered it at first to be a clever trick of the column. Surely, it rotated or shifted the stairs around while the visitors were not looking. This would explain how the priests and attendants knew how to move about the tower—there was some clockwork gears and contraptions moving the stairs. It might shift the walls slightly, so that their length hid the illusion.

I decided, on my first day—well, second. My first day I spent recovering in the house of my host, as something disagreeable had come into the water I had. Regardless, my first real day I went to the temple. I saw the great murals, the offerings left behind. Straightening my cuffs, I tried my best to avoid attention. The smoke that rose out of the altars helped.

It was an unpleasant experience. The air was thick with mist and incense, and even in the relatively cool and isolated stair case, it felt like a sauna. I wondered if this was a part of the illusion of the temple. To get visitors in such a confused state that its operations would go entirely unnoticed. I went up the stairs as best I could—the walls were decorated here with total abstractions. Pyramids seemed to gradually come into view, and fractal squares and circles continued to blossom all the way up the corkscrew—until I arrived at the top. I stood and stared over the winding river and forests. The wind was a relief as I stared sat in the sacred gardens. I breathed deep, to clear my mind.

And then set back down again—counting my steps, and carefully watching the walls for shifts both subtle and vulgar. And I walked down, feeling each step, until at last I stopped—before an eyeless statue of Joni, the Watcher of Paradises Gate. I frowned, and turned about. There were little statues lining the hall. There were priests intoning prayers drawn from a bowl. It was certainly a shrine. I turned to the door—the stairs lead down again, but none went back up to the roof. I continued down, and found another shrine—to Delia the Traveler—and then another, and after the fourth I reached the bottom again.

Wall 1 Temple.png

After withdrawing to consider all the events, I concluded that the first room had occluded my vision. I would need a more definite way of navigating next time. So I examined my cartographic and measuring supplies, and removed a set of nodes—small pyramids, with compass orienting tips. I had about three dozen to leave carefully on the stairs. Then I’d use a compass to navigate back. That should help against any tricks of the temple priests.

The priests did grin when I returned and asked if I needed anything—my face must have given away my determination, if not my frustration. I waved them off for now, and set up to the gardens. Every ten steps, I let one of the pyramids fall—pushed against the wall, to prevent them from being noticed and taken. I consulted my compass as I walked up, to see what might have changed behind me—and the compass shifted somewhat as I went. But it went in a spiral, like the stairs. So that was expected. At last I emerged onto the beauty of the garden from the heated tunnel below.

I breathed, stretched, and immediately went back down into the depths. Like clockwork, I found the first pyramid. My compass lead me to the second—and then the twelfth. I frowned and examined the small pyramid again. Perhaps, I reckoned, I had missed the early ones. Heading back up, my eyes caught a waver in the air as the stones shimmered. I found the fourth, the fifth, the third…and so on. I paced up and down the stairs, finding my pyramids now at the entrances of shrines I did not know or alcoves and libraries unfamiliar. It took the better part of an hour, by my count, to locate all thirty and arrive back at the bottom.

Perhaps…perhaps what happened next was rash. Honestly, it was a dire mood that came over me. It wasn’t the sort of rash frustration that one fumes about and is free of—it was a driving force that possessed my best faculties. I turned and left, wordless as I examined my own notes. There was something amiss, I reasoned, with a stairway like that. The core of this building—no, it was built in correctly. It was built wrong and if I could understand how it was built so wrong, I could improve on it.

I couldn’t hope to do it during the light of day. The priests knew many strange prayers, but an architects tools were likely to draw attention. And surely, surely, they would refuse to allow their ruse to be undone. More importantly, my work was likely to involve a more destructive habit then they were used to. I had to tear through that column, see their clockwork mechanisms. I had to see how they did this. What arcane secrets powered this nonsense miracle. And that might be objected to.

So it was that in the dark of the night, in a heavy jacket and with a sledgehammer I slunk in. I looked the part of a lone iconoclast. But my goal was not the statues, the paintings, the other trappings and decorations. The jewels of the temple I did not take aim at. No, with chisel and hammer, I went for its holy heart.

When a priest asked my purpose—the poor neophyte, new to his orders, but perhaps guessing my goal—I told him I was here to carve a new shrine into the alcove. Hence my tools. Yes, it was an unusual request, but the god in question could only be honored in the night. The sunlight would ruin my tools, I explained. It would make them no longer capable of working with the sacred. And so I went up the stairs without further objection.

Once I was sure I was out of earshot, I struck hard and fast at the central stone. I struck that cured fractal eye—exactly in it’s pulsing blue pupil. It cracked. I heard a commoiton down the stairs—the neophyte had reported the strange sculptor no doubt. None the less, I needed to know what was at work here. What diabolical sorcery had they employed.

The cracks formed quickly—the stone was thinner than I expected. Another whack and another. On the tenth, the stone chipped. I had made, with careful precision, a triangle in the wall. And now, as I hear steps rushing up to stop me, I pull it out. Crowbar in hand, I gazed in.

Into a shimmer skin, a membrane that is all the colors of the rainbow. It appears like a tree’s bark one second, a cows hide the next. I see the glimmering eyes of a spider, then a drifting flock of birds. I see the steps whirling in other parts of it—space itself digested and shaped by a vast pulsing thing. I saw worlds and shapes floating in it’s jetsam. For a moment, I saw all the million shapes of life.

Wall 2 Temple.png

I saw and I could not understand.

And in the next moment, it stopped. Petrified, bubbling stone was all that was left. Gas sighed out, and screams broke out. There walls cracked as stairs collapsed from unseen room. I saw shrines buried in it’s skin trapped forever. As the priests laid hands on me, I understood that the temple had died that day. And that something was lost.

A dozen or so parishioners died that night. Or we assume they are dead—the rooms they were in are no longer accessible. A hundred or more shrines are stuck, unable to be found anymore. Others are being excavated as best they can from the interior. I have been banished from the valley—and from three other towns, once my reputation found its way out of my wine stained lips. The ivy does not grow in Olim. The woods have begun to recede. Every year, they say, the river grows more gray.

 


This story was fun to write, if a bit short. I drew more from the Taoist texts then the great beast stories–I found the story of Hundun espeically interesting to approach. All in all, while I could have stretched this story some, I think I’ve captured the main thrust here. Did you have a different approach to the prompt?

Next week, come and gaze into dreaming stones and inspiring muses! …not as bad as last time I promise, these muses are kinder.

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The Bride and The Bridge

This Weeks Prompt: 62. Live man buried in bridge masonry according to superstition—or black cat.

The Research:All Walled Up

I remember that fateful day, down by the bubbling stream. We left the crumbling remains of stone all the more bitter than before, as bits of men and mortar were washed away again. The command had come down, from the voice of the river herself. The bridge would not rise, until someone had died.

First she asked for a pair of twins, named Strong and Sturdy. I went out, with the King’s ring and funerary pay. I searched in the valleys and fields, in the woods and riverbeds. I went between hill and vale, through moors and mountains, but not a sign of them. The children were gone. Maybe they already lay as corner stones to some other bridge. Or maybe the river was cruel, and delighted in struggle.

We despaired, until we found a stranger on our roads. Then we delighted, and slipped some belladonna in his drink. So we set about building again, tossing the traveler we found on the road into the hole. He was unawares as the soil filled up around him, and the stones were laid above him, a tomb of strong masonry if nameless. The good Lord would recognize him on judgment day anyway.

The stone bent, the wood snapped as the river roared to life. We saw her then, the ala rising from the waves like a storm swirling out of the clouds. She towered over the three of us, myself the chief mason, the King and the Duke. She made her demands more clear this time.

The Bridge1.png

“You give us not twins, but one, not a friend, but a stranger, buried in his sleep, that none my know? And you thought by this we would be sated?” She boomed on the winds and spray. “A hundred bones will grid my stones, unless a new offering is brought. Bring us not an old man, not an orphan, not a stranger, not a widow, not an ill man, or grandmother. Bring us a mother, a wife still young that we will hold them close, in the stones of your bridge.”

With that, she crashed as a wave onto the rubble, and washed away men and mortar.And so we three, wind biting at our cloaks, made our way to the hills, clouds hanging round our thoughts. Between us, we each had a young boy, and a wife. I knew in my heart, as the wind as chilled as my blood, that there would be much mourning soon.

“How should we decide,” The Duke asked, examining his nails with his thumb, “who will suffer this terrible fate?”

“If all is to be fair, we should cast lots.” I mused, unable to meet their eyes. My sweet summer flower, buried beneath the stones, weighed heavily on me. It seemed that giving fate the knife and telling her to cut the line would at least make it bearable.

“That is too vulgar for something like this…” The king said, staring back at the river. “Let us give it all unto God, and the masons, so we cannot cheat the river. I will go among them. Whosoever’s wife brings their meal tomorrow morn, they will wall up below.”

We each shook on the arrangements, and made our way, thoughts of doom lingering long over our heads. The fog rolled up the hills, as we all took our beds, for what might be the last time. I smiled at dinner with my Dmitri and Katrina. They had condolences over the failure of the bridge, although by then…well, it was hardly surprising. The stew and bread were warm, and hearty, and dread wore me down to sleep swiftly.

Ah, that dreadful day, when the sun came over head. My flower sweet Katrina woke, and went with the others to fetch water. We came quietly to the masons camp and waited, looking on the horizon. The fog was still there, the dew still wet when we saw her, my lovely wife in white, her head scarf held tight with a basket of bread and a pail of water.

“Sweet Katrina, why do you come alone?” I asked, my heart heavy. She smiled with rosy cheeks as she came down the hill. The masons took their bread, as did the king and the duke. With their iron shovels, they began to dig.

“Ah, her Majesty fell ill. And the Lady Duchess took to bed with a fainting spell.” my sweet Katrina said. “So the work was left only to me. The load was heavy, but I knew the hunger would be heavier for my husband.”

I smiled as best I could. Oh, a fool I was to trust other men with promises of fair play, when their loves and lives were on the line. One of the workman put his hand on my shoulder, a wieght holding my ghost from escaping. In the years since, I’ve not forgotten his words.

“The bridge is ready for the lady.” He said grimly. My smile fell, my face felt hot.

“What’s this? You prepared the bridge again for me?” My sweet Katrina said with a laugh.

“Yes…The river wants a burial.” The workman said. I couldn’t even speak, I just hung my head.

Coward I was, to not set upon them then and there, and fight the call of the tide. I saw the Ala in the winds watching then, waiting. The bridge was still a fragile thing. It would bend and break.

“Oh, and it’s to be me?” My Katrina said with another laugh. The workman nodded, and the two of us lead her to the opening in the foundation. We wrapped around her eyes a blindfold of white, and a red cloth for the angel of death around her neck.

We lowered her gently down to the stone floor. It was a deep, slanted hole in the earth, smoothed walls on every side. As deep as a grave, as wide as three men side to side.

“Well, its not the most comfortable, but the stones have been harder.” My Katrina jested. She smiled up at us for moment…until the workmen shoveled in dirt. She shouted and cursed at the bruises.

“That’s enough of that! What kind of game is it to throw dirt at a wife?” She said, as the dirt began to cover her feet. She ran her heads on the pit’s walls, but they were smooth. I looked away.

“What civilized wit you have, to make a show of a woman like this. But please, I’m sure the point is past, you can stop now. I’m going to need some help getting out of this.” My Katrina said, the dirt up to her waist, as she pushed up despite the flowing dirt.

“What have I done for this? Please, what have I done?” She cried out, as her struggling arms were covered to the elbow. “What have I done to die like this?”

The dirt rose to her neck, the workman silent as they set stones around her.

“God take you! Should your brothers trod on my bridge, you cowards and monsters, I hope they are smashed into the river rocks and drown! The plague take you by the throat, you and all your kin!” She shouted, full of venom.

TheFoundation.png

“Even if it is your own brother?” The mason asked, the last dirt in his shovel.

“Where is he now?” She hissed back. And then was silent ever more.

The bridge still spans the river, unbroken yet. The ala stays silent beneath, shaking occasionally but no more than from wind and rain. The clouds seem to linger over head, longer than before, obscuring the eye of God from what we have done.

I come to visit her often. I lay flowers by my Katrina’s stone, with my son beside me. I wonder too, where her brother roams. It does not matter. He is too late, and my gifts are too little. She is restless in the earth now. In my dreams and waking hours, I hear her cry out. But as then, I do nothing.


 

This story was fun to right, and figuring the perspective was the most difficult part. It could be expanded–originally the tale ended on a note of vengeance on the deceptive Duke and King, but that was taking too long. At this brief, I think it works well.

Next week, we go to a new prompt! Names of Power and Praise!

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The Severn Valley

This Weeks Prompt: 58. A queer village—in a valley, reached by a long road and visible from the crest of the hill from which that road descends—or close to a dense and antique forest.
The Resulting Story: The Pale Hound

Mr. Lovecraft’s love of isolated, small communities is well documented. And given one of his original sources of inspiration, Arthur Machen, it’s not too surprising to see a fondness for the wilderness and great forests. But what to make of this hidden village, that we didn’t perhaps already do with Saint Silvanus? Well, this strange village is hidden. Perhaps it is stranger than it seems.

We discussed hidden lands to some length with Irem, but I believe we can yet go farther. The village is visible within a valley, and I think to keep it separate it will be a valley not a forest, isolated and away from the world. In the world of Mythos, there is a particular valley that this brings to mind. The Severn Valley.

The Severn Valley is, of course, a real location. It is, appropriately, in Wales and is run through by the river Severn. Folk etymology suggests that the name comes from a drowned nymph, a…curious notion. Alternatively, there is also a Celtic god Sabrina who may be responsible for the name of the river.

Severn River VAlley.png

Some notes, however, from Welsh folklore as recorded in the 1800s. Particularly hills. Hills have a couple of associations in the Severn Valley. Giants are said to have built them, particularly the large hill Werken. The inhabitants of the hills and stones are often giants, and attempts to build churches are frowned upon by these large natives. Often, stones were thrown at the churches, in an effort to destroy them.

Such giants in their constructions often carved out sections for water to flow through, making the rivers and causeways, with their massive spades. On a few occasions, they turned theses spades on each other in fratrcidal murder. Such is giants: Grand, mighty, and quarrelsome with each other.

An even more bitter resister of the churches is the arch enemy of mankind. The devil himself often disassembled churches that were raised on hills, until at last the builders gave up and went elsewhere. The devil also built a vast roadway, which he rides. His horse is pale, like all ghostly Welsh animals, and he has a cow’s horns and feet. Should he find a sinner on his old, Roman road, he will scoop them up and carry them off.

The devil also sometimes sits atop the Stiperstones mountains, hoping to send them back into the earth and in doing so doom England. He has, of course, not managed it yet. But the devil is nothing if not persistent.

Devil's Chair.png

Other mountains are haunted by Gywillion. The Old Woman of the Mountain would lead, by voices and cries, travelers up the mountains and leave the trapped in the wilderness. Other mountain faires frequently take the forms of goats. One Cadwaladar was taken away by such a goat-fae, to the meeting of such fae. He was promptly knocked off the highest mountain in all of Wales.

Further, the hills near Vicorium held once a wicked city, a heathen city that denied it’s prophet. A nearby mountain erupted and sent fire down, while the river rose in flood. The prophet survived, but searched for the governor’s daughter, who he loved. But she had drowned. And now, still on Easter, the figure of such the prophet, a Roman solider, can be seen rowing. Looking distantly for his beloved forever.

From another mountain, a Saint saw the land of a faerie king. Enraged at the faerie king’s presumption, he toured it, seeing armies with weapons of hot and cold, and dispelled them and their galmour with holy water. This apparently sufficed for him.

Alternatively, an antique forest. Faeries of the wood eat poisoned mushrooms and lead based butter, wear gloves of sedative leaves and lurk in every corner. In their ranks are the faerie fires, sometimes the will-o-wisp, sometimes the pooka. The will-o-wisp is often merely a luring fire, while the pooka takes many forms to taunt it’s prey.

Pooka

A Pooka, as illustrated by a Welshman

Some of these locations are haunted by ghostly dogs and pigs, often pale things without heads that bark or growl or hound their prey. The association of the color white with terrible creatures extends, as we have seen, to the mount of the devil. And it associated with a great hero of the region, Wild Edric. Edric, according to historians and folklorists, was a resistor to William the Conqueror.

Wild Edric’s traits are like many golden age kings. Eventually, however, he made peace with William. His lands, however, failed to stay in his family. He has since taken up residence…elsewhere. Some stories place him in a lead mine out west. Others say he rides in a wild hunt on a white horse, and if emerges during wartime, the war will be dangerous. His condemnation is said to last until the English are driven out, and all is repaid. Edric further made that awful mistake and married an elf maid. His sword is currently held by a fish-knight in the river, waiting his heir.

WildEdric.png

So what have we then? A haunted landscape, of ghosts and faeries and lost cities and giants. Much as can be found in any place. We need now what makes the village weird. What is it, from the hill or forest, that makes this small village that is hard to see from without, strange or bizarre?

Another facet to strange here is the role of ghosts and fae as ominous. Sightings of unnatural or bizzare creatures are often signs of greater dangers or terrible fates. And there is a peculiar event that I have wanted to include in a work of weird fiction or horror for sometime now. The Carrington event, which disabled electronics around the world. Aurora’s were seen all the way in the Carribean, with those over the Rockies being bright enough to wake gold miners from their slumber.

Such an event no doubt drew omens and signs and activity from the world invisible. It is a date in time which can ground the story we tell, as much as the Severn valley grounds it in place. From here, the encounters with these omens, and whatever really caused the auroras and activity (this is horror after all. The sun is a rather dull explanation when there are so many other options) can be disclosed. Perhaps one of the giants awoke again in the hills. Perhaps some grand hunt occurred through time and space. Who’s to say?

What do you think? What strange village lies in your writing?

Bibliography

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

Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins: Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. James R Osgood and Company, 1881.

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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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River of Fire

This Week’s Prompt:50. Phleg′-e-thon: a river of liquid fire in Hades.

The Resulting Story:Ill Fated Boat Ride
This week’s prompt appropriately enough brings us back to one of the richest goldmines that Mr. Lovecraft employs: Classical imagery and mythology. In this case, the Phlegethon, one of the rivers that runs along Hades, providing a boundary marker. The river itself is often described as alit with fire, flowing ( or “coiling”) into the depths of Tarturus, the closest thing to an infernal domain the Greeks had.

Phlegethon

Fittingly, then, Phlegethon has been maintained past the Classics into the imagery of Hell provided by Christian authors. Dante describes it as a river of blood and violence, boiling over as murderers and war criminals were forced to stay in it by patrolling centaurs. Milton places it and the other four rivers as parts of hell explored by the fallen angels, before the idea of tempting mortals is introduced. The Faeire Queene by Spencer has it scorch sinners, and even Mr. Lovecraft included it in the work “the Other Gods”.

However, as strange as a river of fire might sound, it is not alone in peculiar underworld rivers. Rivers, being natural dividers and boundary markers, often arise around the land of the dead, many with strange contents. Hubur, the Sumerian river of the dead, held dead souls in it’s depths against their will. Sillias, a river reported by a Greek traveler in India, allows nothing to float, but rather drags everything into it’s depths. The Vaitarna River is, to the sinless, a river of nectar. To the sinner, it appears filled with blood, bones, and pus. When the sinner approaches, flames appear everywhere. Those who try and cross, and are in fact sinners, will burn forever in the whirlpools in it’s depths.

Vaitarna.png

And of course there is Xibalba. Xibalba has a number of rivers. A river of blood, yes, but also a river of pus and a river of scorpions. These rivers mark the roads and borders of the Maya realm of the dead, to keep the living out and the dead within. The rivers must be crossed successfully,

These rivers often have fearsome guardians. Hubur has monsters with many arms demonic birds, the Phelegthon has it’s centaurs in Dante, and Vaitarna has hundreds of crocodiles and birds to devour the flesh of sinners before the cross.

Phlegethon2.png

Of course, rivers of fire are not merely fantastical. There are multiple records of polluted rivers bursting into flames or exploding, sometimes for shockingly long periods at a time. The resonance of damned souls burning and industrial waste igniting is perhaps not an accident. It is a potent image, fire snaking it’s way down what ought to be it’s relief, a boiling mass of suffering from what is normally life giving.

River On Fire.png

Rivers role with the dead we’ve discussed here, when talking of suicides at bridges, and here with Davey Jones. The river’s leading inexorably down to a place of punishment is not one we’ve directly addressed. However, as an image and mode for a story, flowing down a river unwittingly to doom seems as good a premise as any to describe the arc of a story. The realm of the dead is near the edge of the river, the damned are just below it’s surface struggling to be free.

I would focus on the rivers, then, and the journey down them rather than the dead itself. It can keep the story somewhat more grounded then we’ve been lately, more in the realm of the mortal than the completely supernatural. I’d suggest a borderline between the surreal but natural occurrence of flaming rivers and the wholly supernatural rivers of fire and hell would be a good place to work. A place of uncertainty, where the danger is real, but the extent is not completely clear. And the river is a good place to set such a story. Rivers are border places, where parties of either side might meet. It is a perpetual threshold between two places, endowed with motion onward.

The other recurring image is the attempt (and failure) to cross the river by sinful souls or inquisitive dead. Xibalba is the exception, of course, having been crossed and overthrown by the Maya Hero Twins, and even then it had more confounding traps past the river. Vaitarna allows people to cross with proper preparations, offerings, or after a lengthy time of suffering. Other rivers are generally safe to the sinless, a sort of natural filter.

Charon.png

And of course, with many of these, the role of supernatural ferryman is a strong image. A ferryman who is more aware of the nature of the river and what’s around it. Charon serves this roll for the Styx, Guru’s for the Vaitarna, Virgil for Dante. These more than human guides might have a place in our story as well.

Come next week to see what corpse we pull from the boiling blood, and what it’s appearance resembles!

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The River Runs Deep

This Week’s Prompt: 38. Drowning sensations—undersea—cities—ships—souls of the dead. Drowning is a horrible death.

The Resulting Story:Drowning Deep

To drown is to die a bad death. This prompt invites us to consider many aspects, many things that one might see down among the inky black of the sea. The image of an underwater city brings to mind fantastic locales of Atlantean ruins, but more directly brings to my mind (perhaps do to the morbidity of the rest of the subject matter) to an old Poe poem, presented here in abbreviated form(Because Poetry is Amazing).

City In The Sea
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne 
In a strange city lying alone 
Far down within the dim West, 
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best 
Have gone to their eternal rest. 
There shrines and palaces and towers 
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!) 
Resemble nothing that is ours. 
Around, by lifting winds forgot, 
Resignedly beneath the sky 
The melancholy waters he. 

The poem ties the deep, undersea city with elements of hideous horror, of time, and of Satan. All topics we’ve discussed before and one’s that provide plenty of room for horror. But we’ve done them before. We also covered the notions of some nautical myths in our talk on Rhode Island, although a few more regarding ships and the souls of the dead need mentioning.

Davy Jones.png

There is of course the famous Flying Dutchman, made famous in the most contrasting roles I’ve seen: Davey Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Spongebob Squarepants. The Flying Dutchman is a continuation of sorts on the themes of the Wild Hunt Infernal: The Crew is condemned forever to plow the waves and skies. Davey himself seems to have a sordid past, either a devil himself or Jonah damning sailors yet. The souls of unfortunate sailors descend to his place, and in this way he holds all three of the elements as one.

Chilean Folklore presents another ship, however, manned by more then the dead. The Caleuche is a phantom ship at sea that contains not only the dead, but also gives instruction and transport to warlocks. To access the ship, a warlock must summon a Caballo marino chilote, a golden horse with a fishes tail. The King of The Sea would then permit transport to the ghostly vessel.

Of course, not all such water horses were kindly. The Scottish waterhorse would rather ride into thnae lakes and drown it’s rider than provide mystic aid. A plethora of drowning entities follow this route. The Siren sings to drown, as we’ve said before. Slavic Vodyanov and Rusalka drown those near their rivers as well.

Vodonyov.png

My favorite drowner, as of late, is the Ahuitzotl. The river dog, as it is sometimes known, will lurk in the river and then drag you below with the hand behind its tail. After drowning, the little beast will eat the finger nails, eyes, and teeth. And oddly specific sort of animal.

Ahuiztol.png

These drownings provide a better plot, I believe, then the undersea city itself. There is something awful and personal about drowning: It is a death that kills and isolates inequal measure and rapidly. It is also often, to my mind, associated with suicides. It is hard to kill a man by drowning intentionally, as opposed to by poison or by a simple knife. It is a death that often involves much struggle or none at all, betokens either great force or a void of anything.

I think the story will take the form of a mystery then. A series of drowning, along a canal. The same spot. But is it, our inquisitive detective will wonder, the work of a murderer? Is the place now a nexus of despair, a self perpetuating site like some bridges become? I don’t want to say too much, as I have little to say. Come by next week to behold the horror that lurks beneath the surface.

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