This Week’s Prompt: 40. Warning that certain ground is sacred or accursed; that a house or city must not be built upon it—or must be abandoned or destroyed if built, under penalty of catastrophe.
The Research:The Ground Under Your Feet
“A what?” Maxmillian said in a hushed whisper.
“I don’t know what, but it was large and fast. Must have been the thing you saw.” Sofia said, carefully cutting her eggs.
“And you chased it?”
“Is a noblewoman not to defend her castle? If I went to you, it’d have escaped.” She said, glancing over at Heinrich Oberherrscher, who’s back was clearly still pained. Whatever miracle cure there had been for Tobias had by all accounts expired.
“Well, I—Hmph. Fair enough I suppose. I doubt they’ll give me much trouble, though watch yourself. Whatever is causing this seems to prefer you remain a maid.”
“It can rot then.” Lady Halberg said with a chuckle.
“I’m serious! First it attacks your fiance, now it interrupts your rehersal and nearly kills your father in law. Be wary, or it will kill you.”
Maximillian himself found it easy to be excused from the exercises that day. The elderly Oberherrscher from his long seat and footmen waved him away when he explained he wished to get some air. The footmen he found somewhat more vexing.
“I’m quite fine, thank you.” He had said to the latest pair that improvised themselves as escorts to his walks through the castle.
“Yes sir, if you feel safe and certain.” The men with lion helms said, leaving again. Each patrol had said so, and each time Maximillian worried it was less concern and more menace. Still, he made his way down the path his sister had charted, into the depths of the castle. As he approached the underground, he took up his own torch. There was no sun below after all.
He found the wall quickly, and found it still hot to the touch. Not as burning as his sister said, or perhaps his skin was tougher to the threats of the fire. Running his fingers across it, he found it easy to remove some of the stones, making an opening that he could duck through. The burglar, he noted, must have been swift fingered to open and close such a passage before his sister seized him.
The interior of the room before him was…well, it was wonderous. Gold and iron lined the walls instead of bitter stone. Carvings along it, broken into the rusting iron between the gold showed saints painted softly, small figures in the presence of veins of metal and well worn works. And the heat was greater, the air thick with burnt incense and a dull hum.
Maximillian gripped his sword as he went in deeper. As he walked through the tunnel, he saw sarcophagi on the side, with faces as much lion as man. Writing ran across their faith, and on their chests was carved a foreign sigil. No sign of cross as tall, except the guard on the sword that ran to its feet. But footsteps below drew Maximillian deeper.
Deeper and deeper, in caverns that glittered in the torchlight, until at last he came across a vast cavern. It had the look of a chapel, a great altar in the center and rotting pews lined for service. They had been cleared back for another massive cyst. It was brass, lined with gold, with a face made of silver. The form showed a large prince, attended on all sides by impish creatures and locusts. Written along it’s bottom was the name “Dahak, Master of the World”. Beneath it names unfamiliar to Maxmillian: Agraes, Bael, Marbaras. As he inspected the shape, he heard a laughing shot from above.
Raising his torch, he saw it crouched on the bone like beams that ran across the ceiling. Defaced images of angels and saints sat in judgement behind it, a hunched over mountain of a man. He had a beard that ran down his chest, and eyes that shown in the dark. His laughter was bitter, and as he rolled his head back, Maximillain saw a thin iron cross hanging from his neck.
And he spoke, in hoarse tones.
“So you are the boy they send now to rout dear Marbrason? Come, good forign man! Test your strength! The Lord will see you slain far from home!”
“I have absolutely no idea who you are.” Maximillian said, drawing his sword, “But if I am slain in defence of my sister, then the Lord is not the one who has decided this bout.”
“Your sister? You are the brother of the bride to be, the bearer of inquities? Then our opposition is one of bad faith,” the man mused, stroking his long beard, “for your sister is one of the many I hope to save.”
“Save by tossing statues at her?” Maximillian shouted up at the man. “You’ll pardon my lack of faith in your benevolence.”
“Not at her you fool! At those who would do her the worst harm man can imagine!” the man said. “The Oberherrscher scheme new malices for you and yours yet. For they have spoken with what works in the older house. They appeal to deeper powers.”
“And who are you, to know so much of the Oberherrscher’s comings and goings?”
“I am Marbarson, as I said. Or is your listening poor?” The man said from the rafters.
“Yes, but who is that? Surely you cannot be a man. I saw your work with stone, no man could do that. Not alone.”
“Aye, I’m not enitrely a man. My mother was of Eve’s line, but my father was of a crueler kin.” Marbrason replied, pointing down towards the unbroken earth. “For that fool’s reign, it was courtly fashion to be attended by infernal dukes and princes as if they were foreign dignitaries. And of them I am begotten.
“Well, if you are a child of the devil and a woman that would lie with him, why should I trust your words at all?”
“Because it was not my father in flesh that raised me.” Marbrason replied. “No, his kind feel no compassion for their offspring. I was one of many wild calibans, through blackened and charnel wood, amazed at the wars and wonders waged by impish legions overhead. But I had a single stroke of happy fate, despite the rest of miserable kind.”
“You, a happy fate? You forgive my disbelief.”
“Ah, but it was belief! For I found a man loathed by my father’s ilk. He was old and broken and had naught but one possession, a simple book. A commentary on what was left of holy scripture. This man taught me the things that spirits of greed and inquity were loath to think of. Voiceless he was, his tounge removed by dogs of the crowns then. But still I learned enough of holy words then, and kept the book close, as I hid in this dim chapel.” Marbarson said, gesturing at the cavern. “For it was only towards the end of darkness that my father’s mechanical engines and his compatriots breaking earth were able and willing to pierce it’s halls, to be a tomb for the Prince who brought them. Then I was driven to further flight. But it was near enough the end.”
“The end? Which? A hundred crashed and desolate castles lie like bodies around this hill.”
“And all of them and more fell to the Turk’s sword. As much as my father resented them, they came as holies on the land. I saw the saints riding with them. I saw them, shining horses and firey swords.” Marbarson said,tracing one of the saints above him. “The ilk of my sire fled before them. And I saw my sire, with his dread designs and plauges attempt to escape into the earth, to emerge from the tomb when it was free. That I could not allow. So I spoke words from pslams as best I knew them. Now, he lies imperfetly bound beneath the earth.”
“And so, for the sake of a prisoner you make attempts on the living?”
“Bound not silent! Listen, lordling, and you may hear him breathing in the gold that lines halls. No, I assail the living to send them fleeing this place, lest they be seduced by him and his. And for years, I succeeded. Centuries passed without a word. But this family.” Maximillian swore Marbarson shuddered. “They knew some fell art from backward hills, and were able to break some of the bond. So they have their legion of imps, who take on the guise of footmen, and fell powers to send me back below. They have become partners in Marbras’s scheme, with your sister at it’s center.”
“So, not only am I expected to believe that one of hell’s legions lies in these halls, but that the Oberherrschers are in league with powers infernal. Have you any proof of this?”
“Have you seen their footmen? How they all seem much the same?”
“A uniform does that, creature.”
“Then look about this hall. Look at how the ore grows, wrapping and weaving around.”
“The world is full of wonders. That ruins become beuaty is no secret.”
“Fine! Then tell me, princeling. Where are the priests?” Marbrason asked, leaning over.
Maximillian paused. He thought over every man and woman that he had seen in the halls. The Oberherrschers had made no mention of chapel the Sunday before, but Maximillian had assumed modern notions of piety had penetrated this far. The ritual however, and the ornateness of the castle seemed suddenly at odds with that. Biting his lip, he finally hit upon a point.
“Ah! But there is a priest coming, for the wedding! Perhaps they must invite one, but they are not afraid of holy men!” Maximillian said, stabbing at the air with his sword. The incence shook with the laughter of Marbrason.
“Even a demon can wear the clothes of a holy man. But if it will not persuade you, ask them. Ask them about this priest. See how much he is, for I swear by all that is holy, they have no concern or intent on the sacrament of marriage. But leaving that aside, what think you of Tobias?”
“What of him? He is strangely formed and sickly—a”
“And ought to be dead.” Marbrason said, tilting his head. “Buried beneath stones that shatter bones. But he is walking, utterly unharmed. I have watched him from afar, but you must have noticed. Not even a bruise.”
“Say I believe you,” Maximillian said, frowning, “say I trust you that these men of rank and power are creatures of hell and servants of darkness. What would you have me do? Flee, with my sister, and tell the world this story?”
“What you do is your own will. You seem eager to use your sword for your sister’s defence. Put it proper.” Marbrason said with some remanent of a reverend’s authority. “I will endevor by all means to undo these beasts that call themselves men. For I cannot allow my sire to free himself, nor by means foul create more of those creatures wise men call nephilim and fools call giants.”
Before Maximillian could respond, Marbrason bounded down atop the tomb and made to leave through the tunnel again. However, as his feet set down on tomb, the cloud subsumed him, devouring him whole. Maximillian started back as a large lion rose from the earth, a glowering appraition with purple eyes rushed upwards, disheartening between the rafters. He made a hasty retreat at once.
While her brother had his encounter below, Sofia Halberg was walked through the halls to the lion’s chamber. With repairs on the second hall, and her own concerns about the uncertainty of the structures there, Tobias and the elder Oberherrscher had agreed it’d be best to move to the closest thing the old castl had to an chapel in this day and age.
The Lion Room was the image of magnificence. An elaborate statue of a lion bearing tomes of law stood in the center, flanked by serpents. The elder Oberherrscher explained in brief that the lion was for John, bearing with a lion’s roar the gospel all the way to the old castle. The men who became the Oberherrscher line, he said, found something prefferable to the Gospel as John told it then to the others.
“It was an eternal supposition, not some nonesene of prophecy, but a taste of the immortal walking among us and spreading out, a plauge of goodness on the world, roots of a grand tree that was planted in the beginning.” The elder Oberherrscher said. “Nothing of kings and geneologies, nothing of infants and fleeing. Pure beatific visions of the cosmos.”
Lady Halberg was not so caring on the matter of gospels, though the large statue of the lion was imposing enough. The room was lined with gold and glass, a great mirror on either side giving it and it’s fountains a sense of eternity. The fountains, Tobias explained, were ingenious designs of his ancestor. The water itself came from a fairly distant spring, and was run using a set of pipes, pumps, and pulleys. Once a month, some of the servants dealt with the manual portions of the system, insuring the water was always fresh and shimmering like silver.
“Used to be actual silver, but we lost that bit of the work didn’t we.” Tobias said, turning to his grandfather. The grunt neither confirmed nor denied what Sofia assumed was jest.
“What was this room for back then? It’s so…much.” Sofia said, faining a loss of words.
“It was the chapel, when we were properly pious. But Heinrich hated church, I suppose.” the eldest said frowning. “Tinkering with machines from France and the Orient. Dangerous nonsense, it was. But the room is fine for it’s older purpose. Better even, I’d say. More intimate and yet, with the mirrors, all the more vast.”
An illusion of vastness, Sofia thought. An illusion and little more.
“I must admit, it will be quite close with all of your family here,” she said, turning to Tobias.
“Well, a bit. But it won’t be that bad, we have enough room for all the portions. And it is more convient, look, the altar is already here!” Tobias said, leading Sofia around to see a large pair of winged lions bearing up the flat surface. A footman, who had entered silently as far as Sofia could tell, set the ritual cup and plate on the table.
“Now, let us rehearse once more. You two will say the old vows, and as the closest thing to a priest left in this building, I will ask you if you invite the greatest of spirits into your lives. You will, of course, affirm for that is the only way for this all to proceed.” the eldest Oberherrscher said, slowly wobbling towards the altar. His preferred chair had been left in the hall, to not impose on the room.
Sofia nodded along as the steps were traced again. A little dance done in celebration, the Oberherrscher explained. A tradition from the country out West, before they had come into the illustirous estate of ruin.
It was around the second go of the dance, hands locked with Tobias’, that Sofia heard a rumble in the deep. In the mirror, she saw a lion with the eyes of a man staring into her own, eager and hungry. Its teeth were bared in a grin that seemed unnatural. She started, breaking the grip as it’s mouth widend to a silent roar. She felt her face grow cold and pale.
“Ah, anything wrong, my delight?” Tobias asked,glancing behind him.
“No, no.” Sofia said, regaining her composure. “It’s just so sudden, all of this. To think, only another night and I will be wed.”
“Oh, of course. It’s natural to be nervous.” Tobias said, smiling. There was something in his grin that reminded Sofia of the lion. Something hungry in his eyes.
They were excused by a mildly annoyed senior. Sofia was surprised to find her brother returning so soon, pale and slightly bruised from his expedition. He silently waved away any discussion of his activities, instead joining Tobias in a discussion on the virtues of the hunts locally. The conversation turned to rival hunting stories, which Tobias and his grandfather had in abundance. Boars were a frequent nuisance it seemed to the peasantry and serfs around them. In their nobility, the Oberherrscher family took to hunting the creatures at every opportunity, by means cunning and bold at times.
After dinner, which the Lord and Lady Oberherrscher attened in silence, the two Halbergs exchanged their experiences. When the potentially infernal nature of the Oberherrscher family was proposed, Lady Halberg hesitated over the rites she had been instructed in.
“It simply sounded like an antiquated form of communion…but it is vaugely worded.” She said, thinking. “No doubt something is intended. Why, if there were a devil behind it, it would be Faustian almost, to invite in a ‘greatest spirit’ but not specify that it is holy?”
“Possible. And if he is bound into the ground, like the poor Marbrason said, then consuming the earth…”
“Yes, it is an invitation to possession. But how are we to escape the trap then?” Lady Halberg said, pacing. “Have we any means? If we attempt to way lay them, their legions of footmen will rush to their aid. And I doubt politeness will prevent their endevors now, so close to whatever heinous aim they have up on me.”
“No, no, a frontal assault is foolish.” Maximilian agreed. He paused for a moment. “But if we act swift, we might not need it.”
“At the wedding, we shall be in that wretched Lion’s Room?” He said, glancing around now for unseen ears.
“Yes, in all its gold and mechanism.”
“Well, then we need not worry much about striking. They will be crowded in. If we act swiftly, the whole lineage might fall in moments.”
“Can demons not dance on a needle’s tip in thousands?” Sofia said, sitting on her bed. “They might wait invisible in hundreds of swarms upon the whole place.”
“The caliban made mention that devil hands cannot assail a priest, and seemed by his iron cross to escape all but the worst. I will descend down into that place again, and make off with an image of a saint to protect me. If that fails…” Maximillian stared into the moon. “If that fails, we will be forced to reckon with the forces a scholar of Hell and his servants can muster.”
“Then let us see how best we can handle them.” Sofia said sternly. “I will see if my gown can hold a letter opener in it’s sleeve. We must be of stern stuff tomorrow, for good and ill.”
And so they came to the fateful day in the Lion Room. No window entered, no light from the sun fell on Sofia’s face as she stood before the altar. Tobias was dressed in the red coat of his family, his millitary sash and honors underneath. The Lord and Lady stood beside him, in rapt attention. Footmen stood at the door, eyes peeled for ‘the nameless assaliant’ that Lord Oberherrscher swore was stalking them. His veiled grandmother sat beside them. And behind the altar, dressed in a long red and white robe, was the eldest Oberherrscher who sermonized the needs of commitment and loyalty to one another. Sofia noted that for his religious pertentsions, Oberherrscher was careful never to mention any word of God in the room.
Her bother noted that and more beside her. He noted that Tobias carried a sword, though whether decorative or not he couldn’t say. Heinrich was still aching from his back, and if Maximilian could come from the side, it would slow his turn. Both women were an unknown matter, and bounding over to slay the mostly infirm patriarch was equally questionable. After all, the apperance of fragillity might mask something darker.
They waited until the vows. Maximillian watched through the mirrors as Tobias promised to be faithful in marriage and strong in her defence, to provide her needs and wants. He slowly rested his hand onto his blade as Sofia replied. As she promised to obey the wishes of her husband, her wrist felt at the small letter opener stuffed into the sleeve of her long white gown. And as she promised to do so in health, she took the bread and wine.
Held them both in her mouth as carefully as she could. Tobias seemed utterly unaware, as elder Oberherrscher asked if he accepted the greatest spirit upon him. Tobias nodded fervently. He then turned to Sofia.
“I accept the Holy Ghost into my soul.” Sofia replied, spitting the bread and wine onto Tobias’s face. There was an instant of confusion and then outrage across the Oberherrscher family’s faces, replaced by alarm when suddenly Maximilian sword plunged into Heinrich’s side. The elder let out a shout of agony, falling over in pain.
Maximillian wasted no time, perhps infected by the swords purpose long ago, and turned his blade on the Lady next, who fled behind the lion statue in the center of the room. Carrying on with his stroke, Maximillian struck down the matriarch of Oberherrscher instead. During the panic, the footmen outside entered and drew weapons of their own, the Lady Oberherrscher quickly pushing behind them.
Sofia was having her own misfortune, however, as she tried to drive her letter opener into Tobias’ chest while he was distracted by wine in his eye. But his hand was quick and his build did not dissapoint. Swearing, he grabbed her wrists and held it back for a time, his grip began to hurt.
“Harlot, you would try to slay me now? Had you not the presence of mind to try at least after our pleasures?” Tobias shouted, his voice sounding distant as he drew his own blade. Holding her hand above her head, Tobias kicked Sofia in the stomach, knocking her over.
“Of course you couldn’t, no, you guessed the game. All well, we’ve never necessarily been one for invitations, have we Simon?” Tobias said, turning to his elder. Sofia heard the blade as it left it’s sheathe, a grinding noise like rows and rows of teeth. She shouted a warning to Maximilian as he parried the footmen’s spear. With quickness granted by fear, Maxmillian avoided the blade, it’s edge like a hawks tearing claws. Tobias lazily swung again, nearly slicing the young Halberg’s head off.
“Have at you devil, in the name of the Lord!” Maxmillian said, driving his steel into Tobias’s chest.
Tobias stared at him for a moment, calmly tapping the steel blade. The silence was broken by the footmen’s cackling laughter. Maxmillian slowly dragged his sword down, tearing through Tobias’s jacket. A mass of metal pipes and alchemical vials, tubes of rubber and flickering wires that pulse in the remains of flesh stood there, uninterrupted by the blade.
“I would not invoke the Archtyrant here, boy. You’ll earn few friends.” Tobias said, slashing across Maximillian’s cheek as Maximillian was still struck by what was before him.
Sofia now began to stand. She saw the mechanisms in the mirror. Worse she saw some ghastly cloud seem to hover over them. The Lady Halberg was not used to fighting, but doubted a letter opener would suffice where a sword failed. In it’s place, however, she turned to the distracted but stationary patriarch. She advanced on him slowly, twirling her instrument in her hand to feel it’s weight, before striking. The blade found the old man’s bones softer then she thought, sinking into his neck. His head fell back, and stared up at her, eyes empty and mouth agape. Out flew a host of small things like flies, swarming onto the ceiling.
“Oh, and wonderful. Now there’s no one left to say the ceremony.” Tobias said, turning to face Lady Halberg. With a gesture, the swarm was upon her, gripping at every edge to hold her to the altar’s side. “You truly are a foolish lot, aren’t you? Here I am, offering to be the start of a new, better future, fo you to be a new Eve to a—you know what, never mind now. Marbras must be freed eventually, but we still have time to fix this my delight. Still have time.
“You, however,” he said turning his attention back to block one of Maximilian’s blows to his shoulder. “need to cease.”
With a clicking precision, Tobias—or what Sofia suspected had once been Tobias—strode at Maximillian, his clicking living blade meeting the unfeeling steel. It tore at the steel, rending off chunks and leaving them on the floor. To his credit, Maximillian held his own against Tobias and the spear men. He ducked and wove, slowly driven towards the entrance. No doubt, he realized, more footmen would come and overwhelm him from within.
“The statue!” He shouted at Sofia as he pulled against the swarm’s strength. “Sofia, by God, the statue!”
At that, and realizing her brother’s intent, Sofia pulled free of the swarm, her gown nearly torn to tatters as she slammed her shoulder into the statue. It rocked back and forth, a pendelum that finally finished when Sofia gave it another push. The weight of the golden lion descended on the two swordsmen.
Maximillian held his hands to pervent the blow, to hold off his doom futily. But it didn’t come. Opening his eyes he saw Tobias, face half construed into a lions roar, growling as he held the great golden idol up. For a moment he began to lift it. And in that moment, Maximillian made his fateful stroke. He drove his blade again into the mechanism, and Tobias let out a cry as it periced wire and vial.
And with a resounding thud, the two were crushed. The footmen shrieked in rage, as the last Oberherrscher heir died. Sofia looked over the carnage, noting that the Lady had escaped. She wondered what nightmare she might weave. But that was for another time. For the moment, she wept for her dead brother, for the terror that was finally at an end, and for what could have been but was not.
Well, this was the longest I’ve written in a while. What can I say, the prompt got away from me. I would like sometime to return to the story, as length means I didn’t have the time I felt needed to edit it. And the ending is too rushed to my taste. Still, I’m fairly proud of this one!
I will say I do have a prequel to this story, set in the time of Prince Dahak. If there is sufficient interest, I can post it. But I feel the story does stand alone.
Come by next week to see our research on Italy, Fear, and Death!