The Sea Dane

This Week’s Prompt: 125. Man abandon’d by ship—swimming in sea—pickt up hours later with strange story of undersea region he has visited—mad??

The Prior Research:Under the Sea

The fishermen did not know what to do, when they pulled their strange haul onto the deck. For it was not often that a man in mail and byrnie. He took ragged breaths as he came to on the ship, his fingers gripped tight around a well worn key of finest gold, his beard so long it reached down to his waist. It was only after some effort he managed to stand and speak at all. And all he would ask is if the sun was still in the sky.

The Dane of the Sea, as the Bretons called him when he was out of earshot, was taken in to gather warmth and wits that day. His dress gave him away as a man a viking, but his state was strange for one—for he had no sword or axe or spear, and while he had rings to pay his stay, they had a strange cast about them of green-gold. What drew him, more than the strangeness of his voyage.

The Dane of the Sea was one of many who had sailed along the coasts of the mainland, laying pillage to the abandoned fortresses of Romans and cloisters of monasteries by river and sea passage. It was after ransacking one such monastery that the storm came.

The waters churned and the waves crashed against the long ships, the sky as dark as night. It had come with such speed that the crew did not have time to go to shore until it was upon them. They turned and rowed with the waves towards the shore, aiming away from rocky coasts—but misfortune had more in store for the Dane of the Sea than just the surface could offer.

No instead, the waves battered on and on—and some great force pulled down at his legs and arms, the darkness coming over his vision, fearing he died a drowning death as he struggled. Something coiled about him and down he plunged.

The Sea Dane awoke in a room with heavy furs and a crackling fire. He was on a great bed with heavy wools.  A window covered by animal hides, although what he saw seemed to be the glimmering scales of fish as big as a hand. As he stirred, he door opened and a maid greeted the Sea Dane.

“Ah, the good sir yet lives.” She said, in her hands a wooden tray with a cup of painted peach wood and a meal on a platter, a  smoked fish mixed with rice and pasta and strange fruits.

“Do I? And where, pray chance, do I live?” The Sea Dane asked the maid as she laid his meal before him. The maid smiled as she stood.  “Last I recall, I was embraced by dread waves and soon to be nothing more than memory.”

“You are on the Isle of Ker Is, in the hall of the great lady Dahut. She will tell you more, when you have the strength to see her in her hall.”

The Hall of Lady Dahut was bedecked with perfumed candles. The Sea Dane was struck at once by the lanterns hanging from the ceiling and the candelabras that lined the walls and were born by youths and maidens around the hall, light dancing on the dark blue tapestries. The play of light and shadow gave the serpents and warriors and boats a life of their own. Most impressive was the singular ruby that hung on a chain of iron above the high seat, for it gave off a red light like the sun as it set over the sea.

And beneath this crimson light sat the Lady Dahut herself, a woman of beauty that surpassed any woman the Sea Dane had seen. Her hair appeared like fire in the red light, the straw blonde playing against the piercing red of the ruby as she shifted. A cloak of dark blue wraped around her dress, a crown of studded silver rested on her brow, intertwined serpents of gold worked across it. The light caught on the crown and spread over the hall, illuminating every shadow the candles and ruby did not reach with it’s radiance.

And her voice, as she greeted him, was like a radiant song.

“We see you have recovered from the worst of the sea, stranger. We had worried you slipped through to the land of the dead.” She said with a smile.

The Sea Dane bowed and greeted her in turn.

“If it were not for your blessed isle, I perhaps would.” He said as he rose. “I admit, the sea took quite a bit from me.”

“We would be remiss to turn a guest from our home while they are still groggy from the depths—although, we do object to calling our isle blessed.” She said, rising from her seat and walking down the hall, beckoning the Sea Dane. As stepped out from the crimson light, he saw the carved rings on her fingers, coated with gems—and she lowered from her hair a vail of emeralds  the size of raindrops. She went down, taking a candelabra where each branch was a carved warrior, their spear rising out of the candle and purple smoke rising from the tips of their weapons.

And he beheld a great city of stonework, paved roads like the romans laid and towers rising with gilded rooves. The riches of the city were cast in night, illuminated only by lanterns—and at a gesture to the sky, the Lady Duhat told him why.

“Our Isle is far from blessed—Ker Is was, when I was young, cursed.” She said, and the Sea Dane saw the heavens darker than the night—for there were no stars or moon, nor the subtle shades of clouds. An endless dark rising forever up, an abyss without end. And distant from the city, it came down to earth. There were great whirling shapes, winds of horrific might that snarled light itself as the swirled.

“A lecherous priest came to our land, and tried to persuade my father to wed him despite my will. When I rejected his proposal, in his spite he cursed our isle to never see the sun again. And so, a storm has assaulted our shores in the years since. We survive by means of my wisidom, and many scholars who know how to yet draw life from the ground and fish from the waves and storms.”

At the time, the Sea Dane believed the curse was nothing but storms and winds—he did not see the churning mass that the so called winds pushed. He did not at the time wonder how seamless the sky overhead was, without fault in the clouds—except when some vast shape seemed to shift and churn close at hand.

“Well, when I regain my strength, perhaps I can set myself to finding a wiser man to lift the curse.” The Sea Dane said, stroking his beard. And here perhaps the audience would jeer some, that Lady Dahut’s beauty was what drove him—and not, as he protested, his hospitable nature. For when one is taken in from near death, offering a service seems only fair.

“Perhaps, when your strength is yours again. But there is no need to rush things—the sea and storm will wait for any man.” She said with a smile. “And it has been long since we have entertained a guest from afar—surely you have tales to tell.”

And so the Sea Dane spent his days in the halls of Lady Dahut and her court. He was provided a harp, and played it well as he sung the songs he knew. At this point in his tale, the Sea Dane told the people of the Bay a different story every time—and how Lady Dahut adored it, and her court applauded the tales he wove. Often they were of family and feuding and oaths and tragedy. And this was the bulk of the difference in each telling, that story the Sea Dane told Lady Dahut in her cursed city.

Each time he told the tale, the Sea Dane would sigh and say he told many more than he had time that night, and that the true matter was yet at hand. For the Sea Dane had spent many nights—or he took them for nights—in the halls of Lady Dahut, and yet he felt none the stronger. He suspected something was amiss.

One night, when all else went to sleep, he slipped from his chamber—hoping in the deeper darkness to find some clue to his predictiment. He moved with practiced skill, out into the halls—he avoided the guardsmen with their fish-tailed helms, making his way out of the hall and into the streets.

The city was full of riches, palaces of pearl and coral. There were large stone works, like the churches of Romans he had heard of but not yet seen—or perhaps those of Greeks, farther afield, and the old temples they once worshipped in. These were well lit, although the carved faces on their insides were unfamiliar to the Sea Dane.

But it was when he approach the storm that he grew suspect—for here was a line of those candles commonly held in the palace. Around the so-called storm, there were rocky walls that had been smothed over, and clouds of incense rising upward and back. The winds must be terrible, the Sea Dane thought—but he was curious. So he reached forth and put his hand against the wind—and felt the rush of water, the freezing cold of the bottomless deep.

Starting back, he stared upward and saw, for the first time, the shape of a dread leviathan against the waters. A serpent, a vast one as long as two boats from tail to head, that coiled in the water and watched him with golden eyes. The Sea Dane was a brave man, but the sight of such a creature—drawing close, lowering it’s head through the waters into the air, chilled his soul.

It’s jaws opened, revealing teeth like knives, and out poured gold and jewels, vomited forth in front of the Sea Dane. And as it withdrew, the Sea Dane looked down at the green marked gold. And no longer did he wonder at how the nobles lived so richly here, with so little visits from the world above.

It was on the return to the palace, however, that the Sea Dane learned the truth of his imprisonment. For it was while skulking through the courtyards that he found the Lady Dahut and her maid walking in the darkness.

“Why let him live much longer, your grace? He is of those that in the past we made prey of—if we had but said the word, serpents would have dragged down the whole of plunder from that ship, and we would yet rejoice.” The maid said, as her mistress walked ahead. Lady Dahut hummed as she examined a thorny rose bush that grew at the base of an apple tree—both nourished by unseen powers.

“A few more gilded trophies would bore us swiftly.” Lady Dahut said, examining the apple before plucking it. “And none of that haughty priest’s bones were aboard the vessels—whatever magic his kind have learned that so enscroll their bodies with immortality, it was out of our reach. So, instead, we have now an exotic pet. And he is not so harsh to look upon, nor is his voice unpleasant.”

“Still, do you not fear he will grow restless? He was a wanderer.”

“Let him.” Lady Dahut waved her hand. “If we bore of him, he will drink an enchanted Draught and become a new man, forgetting all else. And we have not had a new member of our court in some time.”

The Lady produced a dagger from her dress, shaped like a snake’s fang. She dug it into the apple, slicing it carefully and handing it to her maid.

“Be certain he eats three of these—any less, and he may find strength to swim away from our shores into the abyss.”


And there we must cut off the Sea Dane’s tale. It is late on Tuesday evening, and I wanted to  ensure this part at least was finished. The idea of a gothic horror series struck me with stories of mermaids beneath the waves and a reversal of the normal animal bride affair—not an entirely original notion, but I thought one that was potentially horrific and fitting the genre. We might return to the Sea Danes tale next time, as we come now to stranger islands and the rare flora that grows on them—perhaps the Sea Dane encountered other places before washing into the fishermen’s nets!

Or perhaps his escape from Lady Dahut’s clutches will wait until a later date. We will see. See you next week, with more research at the ready!

Under the Sea

This Week’s Prompt: 125. Man abandon’d by ship—swimming in sea—pickt up hours later with strange story of undersea region he has visited—mad??

The Resulting Story: The Sea Dane

This week’s prompt returns us to familiar waters for the Undead Author Society: Strange and terrifying sights beneath the sea. We’ve touched on undersea creatrues, regions, and even peoples before. We talked about the most famous, Atlantis, here. We discussed undersea bishops and mermaids here.

Now, this recalled to my mind another flooded ancient city of Northern Europe—specifically, Ys. When I first heard the story of Ys, I was traveling in Ireland. The tour guide told a version that said Ys was sunk by druids to protect it—and if anyone found the golden keys to the city, they would inherit its power and it would rise again.  The key was under an unmarked grave in Ireland, and hadn’t been found yet!

The version I was able to find more documentation of is slightly different. Ys is found off the coast of Brittany. The King of Is or Ys is Gradlon, with his daughter Dahut. The city is built on reclaimed land, with the golden keys to the dykes holding it fast during the day. Gradlon’s daughter Dahut takes the keys, in most versions, and opens the dykes to flood the city. The reason she does so varies—in many versions, she is impressing a flatterer or lover, and drunkenly mistakes the dykes for her palace. In others, a man with a red cane and beard has come to the city and stolen the keys to flood the city. As the city floods, a saint or holy man comes and tells the King to flee—offering his horse to escape with. As he flees, his daughter jumps on the horses back, and the horse stops. And only be throwing her off does he escape.

Some versions suggest she in turn became a mermaid, bringing us to a full circle of our story from the Netherlands. To this day, at low tide, the ruins of the city can still be somewhat seen. The ruins are again attributed to Roman builders at times, at others to ancient sources. At least one suggests the devil danced on the dykes, mocking the king with his keys. A source I couldn’t confirm (it is in French) has Dahut build the city with korrigan aid and command sea serpents to serve every citizen of the city, building wealth with raids and oceanic diving. This wealth made them cruel, and soon they drove beggars and others out of their homes and streets. And so they were buried by the sea. It is said, in some versions, that that Is or Ys will rise again, and the first to hear its bell toll will become king.

A comparable Welsh tale modifies things somewhat. The drunkard is now the steward, and there are references to an overflowing well instead of the sea that creates a lake around the city. Still, the King escapes and is the sole survivor.

Bomere pool was likewise formed from a flood. The village that once stood there turned back to idolatry and the worship of Norse gods, only mocking the Christian faith. When the priest warned them of God’s wrath, fish bones were sewn to his cassock and children pelted him with stones. This did little to dissuade the priest, and his endurance won over a few back to the faith. However, in December the rains began to fall.

The priest, walking one day, saw that the dykes were about to burst. He ran down to warn the feasting pagan people, but was dismissed for his kill-joy croaking. One might expect, when the flood came on Christmas Eve, he and his followers would be safe on their hill. But no—the waters hit them first, rising over the altar, and washing away the entire village. You can still, they say, hear the ringing of the Sanctus bell over the pool.

A variant of this story exists, however. It was placed back in the Roman Empire’s reign. In this version, the warning comes from a Roman soldier, sent by God to the town. However, only the daughter of the governor will listen to him. The rest of the town beat him and mock him, as they did the priest in the other story. The soldier would have married the Governor’s daughter, but it was not to be. On Easter, devastation came to the city—a flood so massive it wipe the city out entirely. It is said the Sun rejoiced and the cattle prayed to God in thanksgiving. The solider was spared, but his love was not. He can be seen when the church bells ring, rowing a boat looking for his lady love to this day.

Amusingly to me, one version of the story sets an even pettier reason for the flood—that a farmer was harvesting grain on Sunday.

There are stories in Shropeshire where greed is the ultimate cause: Ellesmere was once a great meadow, with a well of pure water in the center.  People came from all around for the drink, until a churlish man purchased the land and demanded payment for the water. The next day, his wife found the meadow turned into a vast, worthless pool. And the price the man had to pay was kept high, for his poor conduct. 

Donegal Bay has a number of tales of sunken and undersea cities as well. A castle, with fields of cattle, is said to be visible in the morning—and that its inhabitants dress in old and strange clothing. When a marquis went to reclaim some land, he found the sight and ceased all work on the project—if it was due to the beauty of the city or something else we don’t know.

Another nearby castle emerged for reasons that are by now familiar. The local chief was holding a feast and advised by a saint to invite the poor as well as the rich into his hall. When he refused, the saint cursed him and the waters flowed up from the well and over the city, drowning it—in another case, the wicked chief held the saint prisoner and the well water rose up to over take them.

Another Donegal Bay story tells of a visit to the undersea, but not how it came to be. A man was riding at sunset towards a lake, when he found himself on a mirrored surface. He continued until he came to an underground room, and was asked by many hosts there to eat and drink. However, for once, our hero remembers his folklore and flees—seizing a bottle as proof. He emerged onto shore and was so frightened by what he had experienced he died within the year—but he had proof.

Another hero did not listen, however, when he pursued his sheep into an undersea kingdom. Here he married a red headed woman and lived a happy life—before deciding after three days to return and tell his family. Sadly, he learned that time is different under the sea—and he had been gone three thousand years.

Moving away from the British Isles, we can find underwater kingdoms farther abroad in Nubia. Here we have the Aman Naltah, river inhabitants who live in castles beneath the Nile. They will regularly, reportedly, drag persons down into their world and gift them with divining powers upon returning them. They also cause halluncinations or amnesia by dragging people beneath the river, aid in exorcisms, and so on. But they are not the only inhabitants of the Nile.

There is also the Aman Doger. These creatures also inhabit the Nile, but are much more tangibile. They have donkey like legs, log tails, big ears, and burning vertical eyes that are the only visible sign of them during sun rise and sunset. They do attack people, particularly women, to acquire gold for their taxes in their home country or to gain food. Robbery is not their only trick—they will lure people to the shore by calling their name, and then suck breath and blood from their nostrils, draining their strength. Being nocturnal and terrifying creatures, they prey on children of course. And most terrible of all, they will break vehicles and steal dates.

The more fascinating part for our purposes is the purported origin of the creatures. In one instance, a travelling sufi was rejected by pagan peoples. He cursed them to a terrible form as punishment, in a way familiar to the above. In some cases, this was the fate of all the original inhabitants of Nubia. Another, more modern-set origin says that when the British colonized Sudan, one tribe would not pay their taxes and rebelled. Sadly, they lacked gold and guns—so they made use of their sorcery to become river beings. Tragically, their sorecery was their undoing—they lost not only their wits and appearance, but became forever hungry and in need of wealth to pay their new overlords beneath the waves.

At least one story has such a spell lifted by a sword being cast through the Aman Doger, who afterwards retursn to Sudan to take up work as a merchant. It should be noted that, as a bewitched tribe, the sorcerers of the region have power over them. And as monstrous creatures, the appropriate verses of the Koran will disperse them.

Further from the Isles still is a tale from Micronesia. The handsome son of the chief of the Lugenfanu on Losap was on a boat to Truk when they came to a group of whales. However, these whales were actually girls in disguise and one of them, taking a fancy to the boy, knocked him overboard. The men on the boat did not notice, and so he was left swimming.

At least one text refers to them as dolphins, which is more reasonable and thus less fun.

He preformed some diviniation magic to learn which direction was preferable for him to travel. When it favors none, he asks if diving down would be best—and the magic says it is. So he dives down beneath the waves. There he found a clean and wonderful island, with a large pool in the middle, deep and wide. He hid in nearby bushes to see if anyone would come to the pool and bath. And soon the whales came, and each leaped into the pool from the salt water and removed their skin, revealing themselves to be beautiful girls.

Now, this story being an animal bride story (in a way), the boy finds the skin of the prettiest and steals it, for he is intent on making the prettiest of these whale women his wife. Unlike many such thieves, however, he quickly reveals he has the skin and that he hid it so the two of them could talk. After learning his story, she invites him home—sorry that she was the whale to knock him overboard.

At the home, her sisters arrive. The woman hides the boy, promising to keep him safe. The whale girl in turn ask why they can smell a foreign human in their home—with some agreeing to be his friend if he is a boy, others saying they will hate them regardless of boy or girl, and others promising to beat and murder him.  At least the first time—the second time they ask, they agree to be friends or even marry him.

So they all marry him, and agree that one will stay with him at all times while they are about. And in this time, the boy teaches them cooking for they did not know how to cook meals and hade been eating raw fruits. AT last, the prettiest girl’s turn comes again and the boy asks to be taken home again. The sisters are deeply unhappy, but they hold a feast to send him off and teach him how to revive dead whales, should they awash on his shore.

The undersea realms are thus places of many wonderous magics, where one can drift without being entirely aware. It is not surprising that shipwrecked sailors might dream of them—we have comparable cities in stories of the Flat Earth, where lineages of magicians have dwelt beneath the sea.

Our story would then follow the mad sailors story, their descent downward into this realm of magic and wonder, and their eventual return to the surface. Would it be a land of fish men, sorcerers, fae, or even the dead? What world will he return to? What treasure or proof will he steal? Come and see next time!

Bibliography

Doan, James. “The Legend of the Sunken City in Welsh and Breton Tradition” Folklore, Vol. 92, No. 1 (1981), pp. 77-83. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

Kennedy, John G. “Aman Doger: Nubian Monster of the Nile.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 83, no. 330, 1970, pp. 438–445. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/539665. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.

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

Meder, Theo. The Flying Dutchman and Other Folktales from the Netherlands. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

Meehan, Helen. “Underwater Worlds of the Donegal Bay Area.” Béaloideas, vol. 71, 2003, pp. 1–12. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20520823. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.

Mitchell, Roger E. “The Folktales of Micronesia.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 32, 1973, pp. 1–276. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177461. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.

A Lost Limb

This Week’s Prompt: 124. Hideous secret assemblage at night in antique alley—disperse furtively one by one—one seen to drop something—a human hand—

The Prior Research:Left Hand Left Behind

Michel Donner rarely set foot outside his home in the wee hours of the morning. Even the small lights of dawn seared his eyes and made him break out in sweats. A pleasant sensation at sunset, when the intensity was fading, but in the morning it merely exaggerated his exhaustion. Still, last nights…peculiar gathering had forced him out into the light.

He paced down the alley, a one eyed stray hissing at him as he approached. Michel bought him off with a small bit of fish, tossed carelessly aside. They had been mostly silent, the strange men. He now could see, clearly, the strange symbols spray painted onto the walls of the alley. Circles and geometry patterns from school. Strange, kids these days. He amused himself at the dress up occultists of the day, before his attention was drawn by the familiar glimmer of gold on the asphalt.

It was a small band, pushing free of packaging paper. A ring, simple band—and it was as he lifted the package that Michel realized it was still attached to a hand.

Michel paused for a moment as he lifted the package, feeling the dense muscle and bone beneath it’s paper layer of skin. He hefted it for a moment, inhaling sharply.

And returned without a word to his home.

The Donner house was an abandoned building before its current owner, Michel, had arrived. It was secluded among the mostly forgotten old town buildings. There were people, but none that would be bothered by his activity in the depts of the night. None who asked many strange questsions or invited him away.

Michel carefully placed the hand on the kitchedn table, unwrapping it delicatel. It was a pale left hand, with a golden ring still on its ring finger. There was a red tattooed flower on the wrist, the edge of the stem with the letters “hen” in cursive on it. Michel retrieved a pair of tweazers and carefully removed the ring, examining it slowly. On the inside, good fortune had delievered him a name.

“Dorthoy Windsor.” He said slowly, placing the ring down and continuing his examination. “Assuming this isn’t pawned.”

A name was all he really had. Nails painted red, no blood or the like under them. There were…splotches of blood elsewhere. Sadly, she had not perished with her wallet or an identification card in her grip. Unsurprising.

That left examining the wound. Now, removing a hand is not the easiest of tasks. The tendons at the wrist had been severed, but the wound was not…clean. There were marks of hacking on either side of the incision—but the wounds were clean. She had passed before her finger hand was cut, although of hat was hard to say with merely a hand.

Someone might have advised Michel to call the authorities, and report such an atrocity in his own backyard. But Mr. Donner was a very private man, even without his condition. He never enjoyed when officers were involved in his affairs. So instead, he consulted the white pages—being one of the few to still regularly receive those tomes.

The name Windsor was luckily relatively rare. Locally, anyway.

Michel hated driving during the day. The bright light overhead were distracting—and it gave him such an awful headache. Still, he knew better than to ask for a private meeting in the late hours of evening. Such pains could be endured, with proper pills. They had been before, they would be again.

The Windsor house, unlike the Donner house, had a healthy and verdant lawn surrounding it. Even dandelions poked through the pavement on the way to the door. Michel had pried the ring free of the hand, leaving the gruesome trophy in the back of his car. Explaining that he found a gold ring was better.

Or would be, perhaps, if there had been an answer to his persistent knocking. After twenty minutes of silence, Michel took it upon himself to find the inhabitants of the home—or, judging by the contents of his car, the remains of them.

The lock to the backdoor was of poor quality. It was very expressive—the sign of someone who cared deeply about the appearance of security, but lacked the knowledge to appreciate actual security procedures. Michel’s method for opening such locks was not exceptional—any number of odd books on hobbies could uncover them. After about a moment, the backyard was open to him.

*

He was apprehensive at first, as he walked over the grass. The bright light of the sun was especially bad, reflecting off a pool below as well as from the sky above. There was a large tree, previously hidden by the house, branches hanging down over disturbed ground. It drew his eye, how the grass was so thin in this one spot.  

Lucikly for Michel, there was a shed nearby. Dorothy had been a gardener, and had a fine enough trowel and set of gloves. Her shovel was rusted and the nails holding it to the shaft were loose—well used, perhaps a handy me down. Still. It would suffice later on.

Gloves in hand, he surveyed the rest of the yard,straining to see in the bright light.  Nothing peculiar. Dog house, but no dog. A doll house being painted on the table. Or maybe a diorama. Regardless, Michel made his way to the back door—and found the lock already opened. Not just opened—the bolt, upon opening the door, had been removed.

Michel sighed with relief as he entered the Windsor home. The room closest to the back yard was a kitchen with a tile floor…and a shag carpeting floor adjacent to it, for a couch and living room.  Michel never understood the appeal of carpeting, it seemed all the harder to clean.

The kitchen was missing a few knives. That was something Michel checked on impulse these days—the exact number of knives present. Steak knives were missing, nothing terribly exotic. They made decent enough weapons.

The living room had a leather couch, and a pair of…connected seats. A couch for people afraid of appearing intimate, perhaps. Playing with a lever on the side, Michel ascertained they were recliners. Nothing stuffed in them.

Moving through the home, absent mindedly, he did notice a picture slightly ajar. A normal man or woman, or even child, would have passed it by without thought. But Michel was gripped by the paranoia of the night deprived. He removed it carefully, with gloved hands, looking to see what caused the slight change in weight. And there, presed on the frame, was a small rectangular piece of lead. Engraved on it was an eye, and characters unfamiliar to him at this hour. Characters and shapes he recalled dimly, like the writing one sees in a dream.

He stole that cursed tablet of lead. And he continued in the home that wasn’t his home.

*

There was a second floor to the Windsor home, a large loft and several rooms. Nothing of note, which itself was suprising. Michel was under no illusion he was the first to trespass here. No blood, no stains. No one had died here.

There was an office upstairs. He found a collection of business cards, Dorothy Windsor, private therapist. A number, an address for her office. He pocketed it. A list of patients. He took a photo of that, a small camera he had with him at all times in his jacket.

A through search, however, found a few other business cards. Intended to be discarded, it seemed. These had two names printed. Stephen and Dorothy Windsor. The office was the same, but of course a second number was printed. A lead then. He noted the pattern of a rose on this old card. The tattoo.

With that all gathered, he looked down at the yard from the office. The strange patch remained.

*

Michel was exhausted even before he began digging. He dug a few feet, until the metal of his shovel struck wood. A box, about ten inches by eleven inches. There was a loose chain around the lid, and a small lock. Lifting it out, Michel saw there were two—one lock on the chain, and one lock on the lid proper—a combination lock.

After placing the dirt back in the hole, Michel placed the box in the trunk, next to the box with the hand.  He’d have supplies to break it open at home. And he could use the rest. It took all his power to get home, and secure the boxes before collapsing onto the bed.


This story was difficult, and ends I think at the end of the first act. I had some personal issues crop up while writing this, and ended up scrapping an earlier draft that featured the hand at the midpoint. I think expanding on this story will be easy in the future—Michel’s strange condition and behavior is a bit of a joy to write.

Left Hand Left Behind

This Week’s Prompt: 124. Hideous secret assemblage at night in antique alley—disperse furtively one by one—one seen to drop something—a human hand—

The Resulting Story: A Lost Limb

This story has a number of potential prompts. First, of course, there is the secret assemblage gathering in an ancient alleyway–each member leaving, and one leaving with a human hand they drop. The first thing that comes to mind here is we have borne witness to the careful dismemberment and scattering of a body by a group of strangers. We will go into what purpose this might serve in a  moment. The second thing to note is that it is a hand that is left behind. Something we can examine in detail as well, as there are one or two uses for a hand that come to attention.

In general, it appears that these strangers have murdered someone and departed with various pieces of him for their own purposes. It hardly takes a leap in imagination to suggest that they have done so for occult purposes, whether magical or scientific. We have discussed various uses for the dead before–relics here, the hand of glory here for instance–but there are many more that remain. 

In the more disgusting is the Bezoar, a concentration of human hair that forms within the body. Bezoar’s were collected as a cure for any poison, instead of an ailment or tool of murder. The strange, almost rocky things, were believed to somehow filter out the toxin as it passed. Alchemists further described various rituals as the bezoars of celestial bodies, and in Goa there was a business of manufacturing such objects. Using hair, fossils, teeth, and gems, they were used for much the same purposes.

We did discuss, in our work on cannibalism, the idea of monstrous bandits eating hearts of children for occult powers. They are not the only ones who sought power through cannibalizing human beings. The idea of criminal organizations harvesting organs can be found throughout the world–particularly the organs and eyes of children in the 1980s to 90s in Latin America. And we have talked about cannibals here as well. 

On a mythic level, eating the body of the holy monk Xuanzang during the journey to the west supposedly granted numberless boons–including immortality for the one to do so. Of course, the result of a demon devouring a divine personage was never seen in the story–the monk made his way across in safety. The threat remains, however, and reminds me of a Japanese story about eating Ningyo–by eating one, a given person might live forever. The most famous example of this is a buddhist priestess who lived to be 800 years old before taking her own life. Perhaps this congregation in an alley was dividing up leftovers?

One of the more esoteric and surprising suggestions of uses comes from the Magus, Book 1. This book of magic instructs that, by using a Grimoire called the Book of Pluto, one might generate animals from the bodies of animals. While it does not specify generating something from the body of a man–although it does generate a man from a hen’s egg–it is not beyond the realm of possibility to do such things. These creations have unique and potent powers–said man is a mandrake, a creature with an infamous song. The virtues a full grown mandrake might have were sadly not listed in the Grimoire in question. Still, we might imagine that the parts of a man might create something particularly potent and ghastly. The body parts of gods, in the Classic of Seas and Mountains bring forth their own divinities. 

The hand in particular is interesting, going back to an iteration of the Bluebeard narrative. In a version recorded by the Grimm Brothers, The Robber’s Bridgegroom, a woman marries a man only to see him and his comrades beat and dismember another woman at night. They leave behind a finger with a wedding ring still attached–and this becomes the incriminating evidence against the robber. This of course gets the robber slain by her brothers. A number of Bluebeard myths feature the grizzly dismemberment of the body.

There are also cases of the Hand of Glory. We touched on this here, but I’d like to expand somewhat from that. For those unfamiliar, the hand of glory is the hand of a thief, where one finger has been replaced with a candle made from the fat of a hung man. Its powers are many–it opens locks, it opens heavy doors with ease, it cannot be extinguished except by milk, and it can put to sleep entire households. In more than one case, it is lit by the fire place of the house the thief intends to rob–perhaps subverting the traditional power of the hearth.

Each light represents a sleeping member of the family.

In Germany, there are stories of thieves lights–similar criminal tokens but made from the fingers of unbaptized children. These light at the thief’s thought, and are visible to him only–everyone else sees only darkness. Further, anyone sleeping in the same room as a thieves light will not be woken, even by heavy storms.

In Poland, the finger of a hanged criminal preserved in a jar will bring about successful businesses. Sadly, he was caught by his own servants and arrested for possession of such a grisly device. His business did not survive him afterwards. Perhaps it was the lack of magical prowess…perhaps instead it was the rumors that a finger was preserved in his basement and the very public arrest. Who can say, precisely?

Another grizzly example of dismemberment comes from a Pope. Pope Sylvester II supposedly, as discussed here, made a deal with demons for his position or for his knowledge. The condition of a long life and knowledge was he not set foot in Jerusalem. When he fell ill after giving Mass at the Church of Jerusalem in Rome, he asked that after death his body be cut to pieces and scattered throughout the city. Why is unclear–I briefly wonder if something about an intact body of a pope that made a compact with the devil would have left it open to possession. Another version leaves out the dismemberment–instead Pope Sylvester simply had his body taken out of the city by a cart, and buried where the horses stopped.

I would love dearly to now pivot to a story by Lovecraft that features this strange and ghoulish gathering–but sadly I cannot trace this story to its fruit. The closest I can find is a story about an alleyway where, eventually, a group of Russian communists plan a coup on Independence Day. That story…is so terrible, that I don’t think it makes for particularly compelling material.

So instead, I shall point to a better writer. Tanith Lee’s ghouls meet underneath the ground, every now and then, and feed on the bodies of men like ours do here. They also scheme and plan, and hold something comparable to a witches sabbath. Those too were marked by murder and canniblaism in stories past, which could leave behind a hand or eye for someone to find. 

The meeting here then has a number of gruesome implications. There are notions of ghoulish cannibalism, perhaps, but also perhaps occult attempts at preventing the living from returning from the dead. The construction of ritual objects of dark power. The prosperity of business at the expense of lives. 

Our character is no doubt an unintended observer–someone who one night stumbles upon this scene of terror. Perhaps they see it out their window, or maybe they see the alley when they are walking home. Given the phrasing, it is in an old part of town. I am inclined to think a mostly abandoned part of town–and given they leave one by one, and seem somewhat confident in their efforts. 

What can be done with a hand however? At best, at the very best, one might extract identity from finger prints. Maybe a ring or glove left behind, that is especially notable? But how to go about finding out who this victim was, without the authorities? And if it is with the authorities, how to involve them without them taking over the stories? Perhaps the sign isn’t entirely unknown ahead of time.  We will have to see.

Bibliography:

Burnell, F. S. “The Holy Cow.” Folklore, vol. 58, no. 4, 1947, pp. 377–381. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1257194. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

Samper, David. “Cannibalizing Kids: Rumor and Resistance in Latin America.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 39, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–32. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814829. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

“The Hand of Glory.” Hand of Glory Legends, University of Pittsburgh, 19 Jan. 2019, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/hand.html. 

A Night At The Museum

This Weeks Prompt: 123. Dried-up man living for centuries in cataleptic state in ancient tomb.

The Prior Research:On Display

Fisk locked the museum door behind him. The curator had placed a notice outside, that do to a recent incident, the museum was closed for the day. The News reported an ongoing investigation into a robbery.  Of course, to Fisks’s chagrin, they mentioned that the exact items stolen were not disclosed—meaning speculation ran rampant.

“Last thing this place needs, a new round of theorists.” Franklin said as Fisk passed him a coffee.

“To be fair, Frank, this is a new kind of problem.” Fisk said, as they walked back to the Lost Treasures exhibit. The two of them looked over the crime scene, such as it was. The case for the new exhibit was open, sarcophagus closed. There was another body, the mystery mummy, fallen on its back near the door.

Well, mummy was a bit much.

“Look, I hear cocaine rots you inside out. Maybe he’s on some new shit?” Fisk said, scratching his head as he walked around the body. The body was wearing a black t-shirt, a light jacket, some gloves to stay warm and a hankerchief. The baseball cap that was a foot away—knocked over when the body fell over—was probably his too. The problem was  the body itself looked like someone freeze dried an entire person. The skin was stretched tight over bones and muscles were atrophied, eyes shut against the floor, hands crumpled where they’d hit the ground.

“Right okay.” Franklin said, walkinga round the body and up to the open exhibit case. He pointed at the carefully opened plexiglass latch. “So, this—this seems like someone tried to lift the thing out of here. Right? Opening the case at night, and cameras all bugged out.”

Fisk walked over to the rotating security cam. It was a cheap thing.  Probably didn’t actually get good image anyway.

“That adds up.” Fisk said, waving at the security guard.

“So he breaks into the museum, comes in to lift some stuff and then…what? Suddenly paralysis?”

“Heart attack?” Fisk said, walking back to the body. “I mean he can’t have been in good health, looking like that.  Here’s a cat or something, and bam!” Fisk clapped his hands together. “Drops dead. No exit wound, nothing.”

“…seems strange, just dropping dead like that.”

Not that there was much such gentlemen of the law could say. They took their notes, and had the body sent away to men who’s work was dealing with the dead instead of creting them. Morticians are well versed in the art of preservation and decay, to determine and ascertain the most probable cause of the end of their fellow man. And Douglas considered himself one of the finest in such a regard.

Which made the mystery of the exterior exceptionally frustrating. As the police had suspected, not a singular exit wound was left in place. Nor entrance wound. There were some scratches made by nails, but they seemed like the itches made by fidgeting not struggling. The fingers were brusied, and their tips were even smashed—but that was due to the other, frustrating fact that Douglas struggled to explain.

Douglas, before working as a coroner, had spent some time as a mortician. And he would never imagine such a well preserved body would exist outside such professional circumstances. The skin was dried, the insides had long lost their moisture as well. Which was unusual during a cold, wet winter season.  Perhaps, Douglas considered, the man had taken some preparations for his demise. Or maybe it was the result of a freak diet.

It made the incision somewhat more difficult process—the skin being tough and leathery, instead of smooth and easy to cut. The mysteries of the surface could be solved by going underneath…he thought. Until he found the organs.

He almost admired the handy work. It took skill to preserve them this way. Perfectly still, resembling dried fruits stuffed into a leather bag. Even their flaws were there—the mar of regular smoking on the flattened lungs, the build up around the heart valves. It was like the entire body was filled with fermaldhyde.

That was one thing, however, that felt even more out of place. The smell. There was a certain smell corpses have. Rot, decay, even preservered they smelled disquieting. This one, this one smelled sweet. Almost like lavender or honey.  Douglas did take a sample of a strange, light golden substance forming around the throat—perhaps a toxin—and wrote off the strange smell to that.

As he scraped the maerial into a vial, he felt the first twitch. The spiderweb of nervs around the neck twitched back—muscle long too stiff to respond to the pulsing attempt at movement. As Douglas sat upright, he saw it again. Another twitch, a flicker of light down into the arm. It wouldn’t be until the afternoon that he confirmed it—despite all odds and sense, there was something alive on his desk.

A museum at night is a particularly eerie place. A home has familiar shapes in the darkness—chairs, couches, moonlit windows. But a museum lives on the unusual silleuhette. On the strange shape that even a child can tell is not of this time. In a normal home. Finding such a compression of history would be alarming. In the halls of the Geogrestown museum, stepping through a doorway and finding yourself back a century is part of the appeal.

It isn’t exactly a hard to place to get into. You’ll see movies, with laser tripwires and pressure sensors and people rappelling down from the ceiling. Its all very fancy, very expensive to film, has room for tension and comedy all of that. And there’s some museums that can drop enough cash to actually install those things. Really, it’s a locked door—which exists to make things a modicum more difficult—a security guard—granted, they don’t let folks who signed up day of cover night shift—and a trip alarm. Maybe a motion sensor near the big exhibit. Some cameras for the guard at the control desk.

No, what stops most robberies at museums is probably the logistics. Its pretty hard to get an ancient bronze shield out of a building without anyone noticing—not because there’s tons of eyes on it, but because we sadly don’t live in an age where you can walk around with a giant bronze disk and not get asked strange questions.

The other added layer is what is actually on display. A lot of what you see these days are replicas—specifically to prevent people like me from reaching in, grabbing something, and ducking out.  Which, well, sucks because your stuck with a cheap copy of something you can’t even really sell unless you find a dumb as hell pawn shop owner. Not that those are exactly in short supply but…

Luckily, the odds of the Georgestown Museum faking an entire mummy are rather low. I mean they could, but I’m pretty sure no part of town has enough money for that on a dime. I put my duffle bag on the floor and looked over the body. The security had, I admit, been a bit of a hassle to work around.  A cruder sort would’ve just conked him hard on the head. A smarter sort might have hacked the cameras or something.

Me? I just dropped something in his drink, let it run its course. Walked in, turned off the cameras, walked out. Kept my mask on just in case I show up on the news.

It was cold, probably an extra layer of preservative or something. The sarcophagus looked small on the news—it wasn’t like any that I’d seen before. It was only about four feet long, two feet wide, looked like some sort of big egg. Unscrewing the top of the glass took some special tools—and that wasn’t accounting for clicking the motion alarm underneath.

I figured the thing was pretty solid, pretty heavy. I’d considered trying to pop it open and moving just the mummy—but probably that’d break in the bag. Still. I had to check, before I made off with it—if the sarcophagus was just an empty box, well. That would be bad for any follow up work or pay.

The lid was a thinner than I expected—but I got a good grip on the cold stone, and with some scratching managed to lift it up. And there he was—curled up like a babe, thin as a chicken. His hands were clasping…something close to his chest.

It was shiny, whatever it was. Looked like some sort of…emerald maybe. I leaned down to get a better look at it. That’s when I realized it was looking at me.  Empty eyes, staring at me.

***

This story hit the actual drama towards the end. I realized too late that something like the Autopsy of Jane Doe—a film I forgot until writing this—would actual serve much better than a crime procedural.  If or when I rewrite this, that’s probably the direction I’ll lean into more. Next time, we delve into secret gatherings seen at night—and what they might leave behind!

On Display

This Weeks Prompt: 123. Dried-up man living for centuries in cataleptic state in ancient tomb.

The Resulting Story: A Night At The Museum

The prompt here is one of the rare ones that genuinely frightens me—the thought of being buried alive has always unnerved me, and more than once I have looked up what to do if you were buried alive and needed to escape. And here we have something…even more terrifying. Not only being buried, but trapped in an ancient tomb as a mumfiied state.

We can consider this a sort of inversion of our sleeping figures we discussed here, or perhaps an extreme extension of sleep paralysis. Here we have a man alive in this state—a state induced by supernatural means, as obviously a cataleptic state does not stop the need for food or water—as time passes away in an ancient tomb.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Catalepsy is a state in which one has a wax like rigidity—limbs stay where moved, but can be moved—and a numbness to pain. While some body functions are slowed, such as breathing, the sort described here takes things to an entirely new level. The theme of catalyepsy leading to being buried alive is a recurring one in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The Fall of the House of Usher and the Premature Burial both address these.

The horror of the situation is apparent, but the scale of time makes it strange. The shock of awakening, unable to move, and the slow and inescapable decay of the mind. But centuries are vast and terrible oceans of time—it is hard to convey their passage in a few thousand words. The alternative is that such a man, living in his state, is discovered and manages to somehow awaken.

St. Dionysius of Zakynthos

The pharsing dried up does separate this state from the more common states of eternal rest or life, where a person has explicitly not decayed. I think, for instance, of walking saints of Greece. These saints are entombed, but they remain there—and they supposedly are free to wander the earth for quiet some time. There are other states that are comparable—the state of a princess in Balkan stories of vampires resembles a cataleptic state. She remains apparently both dead and alive, but rises from her tomb to feed on those left to guard her. It is only the advice of another vampire or a saint that spares the hero of her predations.

Indeed, perhaps the fate of this individual is to be at first mistaken for a corpse, put on display like many others. Then he could be revived from his slumber, freed of his state somehow—if not in the physical, perhaps in the unseen realm. Dreaming or projecting his consciousness outward, using the same secrets that preserved him for millenia—trapping someone else in his body. This would fall into the grotesque acts of hypnosis that we have seen earlier this year.

A slightly amusing work might look at the obsession with illness, fainting, and general…death appearance that the Victorians had and play with that here, given our gentleman resembles a corpse or death itself in a far crueler way. 

I couldn’t find a good Creative Common images of the Buddhist Mummy

I’m reminded of something….else as well, a bit outside of folklore. There was a story on a number of websites of the discovery that a Buddhist statue actually contained a monk who had self mummified in an effort to become a living buddha.  A special diet was undertaken to make this process easier—food was eaten to strip fat and moisture, toxic liquids were drank in order to repel insects, and so on. But a number of post mortem practices were preformed on the meditating monk—the replacement of organs with paper, for instance. Some Buddhists believe that the meditating monks are not dead but are, like our own subject, in a deep state of consciousness.

This concept has a bit more pop culture pull then might be expected, as a similar concept appears in Dark Soul’s Monumental, beings who have become meditating guardians and statues like stone. These beings spend their time pushing back against a terrifying, existential creature of fog and lost perception—the Old One, a Lovecraftian entity as old as mankind itself.

A similar fate befalls the immortals in Death’s Master, who after gaining immortality lose all drive and will—and slowly become so stagnate that they are overcome by coral as their city sinks into the sea. One such man is returned in Night’s Daughter to a much stranger disposition on life. Another man becomes one with the stones, for very similar reasons—having lost all drive and passion for the world, he slowly mummifies in a cavern atop a large column rock. His name I’m afraid escapes me, although I remember he was in love with Simmu. I believe he was in Night’s Master.

Peder Winstrup, the Swedish Mummy in question.

While looking into that story, the story of another preserved pair of bodies in Sweden. Here, illness preserved the bishop’s body, along with the cold of winter at the time of his burial. However, more fascinating was that he was not alone in his coffin—underneath his body was a still born child. Why such a burial was preformed is unknown as of writing—perhaps it was in hopes that the child would reach heaven with the bishop, as they died unbaptized. Perhaps it was to hide the child’s existence.

There is a story that appears to have sprung from this prompt: Out of Aeons features a very life like mummy and a metal cylinder being brought to a museum in the 1800s. After being placed in a museum, it attracts attention as relating to a little known myth about a man going to see the gods and becoming a statue. This leads in time to attempts at a robbery, which ends…poorly.  You can read the story in full here.

There is another pulp story that this calls to mind, which is the story The Hour of the Dragon where a mummified ancient sorcerer is revived for a plot to overthrow the king of Hyboreia, Conan.  Conan triumphs in the end, with unexpected allies saving him both from execution and the supernatural might of tyrant from the past. You can read the story here. While seemingly only tangentially related, Mr. Lovecraft and Mr. Howard were correspondents. In fact, references between the two bodies of work have only grown. And it does play into the genre tropes discussed—associations with mystical power and the inevitable danger of such a body reanimating. Granted, there is a world of difference between a monk and bishop and a wizard out of time. But given our nature as a horror blog, perhaps the distance between those two poles of knowledge can be lessened somewhat.

I think the story’s basic beats—the discovery of a mummy, the attempted robbery from a museum before something terrible happens, and then the discovery of its true nature—are fairly strong. I think of course that merely rewriting the story is a bit…much. Zooming in on the robbery will keep the story focused, I think, and while something of the surprise at a body becoming animate is lost, not much of that remains anyway. This does make the story something of a bizzare mummy’s curse story. The Mummy’s curse is often laid on those who disturb its tomb, where as here it seems the robbers are the ones to fall victim. Perhaps including a bit more of that to the beginning, the mysterious deaths surrounding the mummy might even be a motive to rob it.  A curator, realizing that such a thing is cursed and bringing doom upon those around it, might wish such an image “tragically lost” from the museum’s collection, for instance—or perhaps the employer of the theft wishes ill upon its recipient and hopes to pass the curse onto them.

What do you think? What long preserved corpses would resurrect?

The Foundations

This Week’s Prompt: 122. Horrible things whispered in the lines of Gauthier de Metz (13th cen.) “Image du Monde”

The Prior Research:Mapping the World

The lady at the front desk looks at me funny when I hand her some cash instead of a card. Probably waiting for my nightly company to show up or something, but she doesn’t say a word about it. Wonder if the scuffed suitcase helps.

I pop it open on the desk and start sifting through the papers, setting up my own little computer lab as best I can. Being faceless if not nameless has become a necessity in my work. You see the world-famous detectives fall off the wagon or off a bridge enough times, you learn to leave justice blind. That said, this isn’t anything quite as big. Right now anyway.

Juan Albert. Went missing near a new construction site—the latest, biggest exhibition of Andrew Doyle. Doyle building another eyesore in the middle of fuck off nowhere wasn’t that weird—state money ended up in his projects, the projects made cheap and quick. Never worked, never turned a profit, but Doyle tended to walk off with a cool pay out.

Of course, things get shady all the time with Doyle. People go missing, yeah. Regulations get flouted, people get hurt in construction, unions get busted by private investigators who are looking for a paycheck. Probably living more comfortably. Striking back costs your face, first, then your name. Then probably your life.

Juan’s family, though, caught me on step two—my name got passed along to them as someone who wasn’t too worried about consequences of tussling with rich men’s guard dogs.  After looking over everything, I pack up. I place a few small recording devices under the bed and desk, in case it’s searched. It’s never been searched yet.

And I head out, to have a word about what’s gone wrong around this town.

Juan’s sister doesn’t meet me at her home address. Town like this, everyone knows everyone. And while some gossip might start about talking to an out of towner, worse would come up if I was seen at her house. Plenty new people coming in to build Doyle’s new structure—a review of the project calls it some sort of broadcast station or something. No one bothered explaining why it was in the middle of the desert, about an hour even from here.

So she met me at a mostly abandoned mom-and-pop café. It smelled more like tobacco than coffee, and that tainted a bit of the taste, I won’t lie.

“Never talked about any trouble at work.” She said. She looked exhausted, and given the weird hours, this was probably a between jobs meeting. “You know, normal ‘wish got paid more’ and ‘working long hours’ stuff.”

“No one outside of work who might have…taken an opportunity?” I said, tapping my chin. “Any fights before or people who might have a grudge?”

“Not that he talked about.” She said, shaking her head and stirring the sugar in her coffee. “I mean, I guess I never know right?”

I nodded and looked over the notes again.

“Did he talk about…hm. How to say this…” I said tapping my chin. “Did he stay out late or talk about meeting someone? Things can go bad after hours, especially in construction work.”

She thought for a moment after that. Took a sip of her coffee—it’d gone cold already.

“There was a meeting or two he went to. Apparently they were organizing a soccer thing after work or something. Blow off steam you know, there’s always someone pushing for everyone at the office to be a team.” She said, looking at the cup a bit more.  “I don’t think he’d get killed over that though. I mean, folks get heated over that stuff but like. Not that heated right?”

It probably wasn’t soccer. I mean, they might have played soccer, but if there was a meeting that got him murdered, it wasn’t a soccer league. Murders like that, they happened yeah. But there wasn’t a clean cover up, and usually there was a bit more pissing and moaning. If I wanted to get to the heart of the matter, it was time to take a look around the last place he was seen.

The concrete monument rises about an hour outside town. Hexagonal rooms jut out form the side, the wall not yet wrapped around them. It was like looking at the cracked core of a giant bee hive, all around the pale concrete bone of some giant. The sky was dark grey, the clouds dimming even the bright lights of the sunset.

I had tried figuring out what this was, before I set out to poke around. But even parking my car and looking over it—guards mostly gone for the day—I still had no idea. It was supposed to be offices, but this many offices in the middle of the desert was nonsense. More likely, Mr. Doyle had placed some research or monitoring out here. Something that needed peace and quiet.

I walked in through the back, moving through the unfinished skeleton. Passed the iron fence, there were deep pits into the ground—given the iron girders that spiderwebbed in them.  I peaked down a few and well. They were weird. All pointing inward, not cross hatching at all. Looked like a giant iron toothed worm had died trying to escape the ground.

I’m not an architect, but I don’t think those are meant to be like that. The lack of any sort of…anything really to stop someone from just falling in felt off. Yeah, OSHA was a joke when it came to men like Doyle—that wasn’t news, he probably had an automatic withdraw to pay the fines when they came up. But this seemed dangerous, wasteful, and weird—usually you only get two out of three.

That said, no body, no bloodshed, nothing that seemed out of the ordinary. So, clicking my flash light on and tapping my camera, down into the deep I went. Past the silent mixers and looming crane, past the packed up drills and machines, scanning the shadows for any signs of life or light. It had been days. There wasn’t likely to be much here. But you have to check…just in case someone missed something.

The insides weren’t finished, although they were far enough along that you could see the outlines of familiar places. Front desk, elevator shafts bare and open, restrooms without doors or toliets but shaped like restrooms. It was all mundane, all the same as you’d find in a hundred other business parks.

It made the center stand out.

There was a wide hole in the center of the room, around the bare concrete and tiling. It was lipped, probably to hold some corporate seal. But there was wooden 2X4s over the thing…and tapping it, it rang hollow.

Ripping up the floor of a building under construction is…well, it’s the sort of thing that blows your cover wide open. I paced around the edge, looking for any bits that were loose enough—until I realized the easy option. The elevator.

Now climbing down an elevator shaft at night is not safe. Climbing down an unfinished one is even less safe. Climbing down an unfinished one in hopes you’ll find something incriminating is down right dangerous. Still, down I went.

It was a long climb, down past the unfinished parking lot and storage areas—all empty, identical rooms, the elevator doors not even put in. No, the first set of closed doors was all the way at the bottom—and crowbarring those open took some work. Still, I got into the long and empty room beneath the seal.

It was some sort of office, or workshop. Lots of measuring equipment, papers pinned to walls—papers I took a quick pick of, circles and measurements and so on. There was some…well, weird equipment too. Scalpels and gem cutting tools, a set of microscopes and magnifying glasses at the center. Sheets of gold leaf and silver and copper. Some weird coins hanging from the ceiling.

I took pictures of all of it, as close as I could. And it was in the flashes that something else caught my eye. It was the reflected flash in a ruby—a ruby set in a pushed aside model, of a city surrounded by a circle.



So this took forever, and not because it was good nor because the story in question was particularly hard to work with. It’s been sometime since I worked on a mystery, and frankly it was a bit too ambitous and placed in the wrong point in a story to work in 1500 words. That and the holiday season really extended this much longer than it needed to.

I will see you next Wednesday for the last bit of research for the year!

Mapping the World

This Week’s Prompt: 122. Horrible things whispered in the lines of Gauthier de Metz (13th cen.) “Image du Monde”.

The Resulting Story: The Foundations

It took more time than I’d like to admit to track down a digital copy of Image du Monde in English. Even then, I found a prose version—not a poem. Still, I think the main points of the poem are kept intact. It is a summary of all the kingdoms, animals, plants, places, and so forth of the world. The poem explains in the first the beginning of the world, posits some theories on why the world and heavens are formed the way they are, and then moves onto to describe the inhabitants of the three continents it recognizes (the poem refers to India, Africa, and Europe—but India is better understood as “all of Asia”).

The book examines both the real and the fantastic—and sometimes both. For instance, it describes the repeated story of a lion restoring their young with tears, and it’s description of a tiger—a blue furred cat with clear or white spots—is strange. At the same time, it endevors to explain customs and beliefs elsewhere, although through a Christian centric lense—the author makes no secret his opinion of those who confess their sins in public and think fire caries them to Heaven, for instance.  There are other allusions to classical works—we even have reference to the tale of Atlantis, struck down by God in this case.

The book has some peculiarities—most of which are apparent and outlined in the introduction I had. One key difference is the break with where the center of the earth is—most books and bestiaries of the time place Jerusalem as the center of the earth. Here instead we have the city of Arym or Aaron, a city with round walls. This city has some Islamic mythical roots as the city where Iblis dwells—although to my frustration I couldn’t find another source on this that I could access. If anyone else can find a copy of what this references more directly, I’d be happy to review it.

There are otherwise a number of fantastic events. People cursed with tails for mocking a saint by tying fishtails to his clothes, for instance. And we are told that Aether, the element of the stars, shines because it is too pure to be gazed upon by those with sin. Which of course, all men are presupposed to have. We have stories of unicorns, manticores, basilisks, and others. Amazons and other fighting women are accounted for. Going through each would be a bit tedious, so I will present a selection of them here. We are informed of how long Adam has been walking towards Heaven, a journey he began after Eden (a few thousand years left).

We are also told that the founders of the liberal arts foresaw the coming deluge and a second destruction of the world by fire, and so they raised up two pillars. The first of iron to withstand the waters, the other of brick to withstand the flames, and on these they wrote down the ancient knowledge. This I think has plenty of Lovecraftian echoes of strange wall writings and the like—although the preservation of such knowledge by human hands is a bit rarer.

Magog and Gog are accounted for, the great giants who were sealed away by alexander and who’s tribes fight to this day. Also accounted for are nations of cannibals, sun worshipers, and men that are part beast. One nation is called out as especially fearsome, of men with the heads of dogs who have terrible claws that they can slay any they get their hands on. They have the voice of dogs, yet are notably clothed—these fierce men are then more akin to wild men then beast.

We have in the more monstrous category the aforementioned animals—but also the Salamander. Intriguingly, the salamander is mentioned as having wool that if woven into clothes will make one immune fire proof. There is a mythical panther, who’s coat appears painted, and who’s breath is so sweet that it lures along other animals—except serpents, who the breath kills. We have also strange nations marked—the land where Sodom and Gomorrah are, which are noted as barren and uninhabited. After the Amazons, there are mentions of warrior women who’s skin is pale as snow and who have teeth like a hounds.

Fascinatingly, an entire section is given over to Ireland—more than to anywhere else in Europe. We hear of a part of Ireland where men cannot die—and they leave this land when they grow too old and feeble. We have reports of six month day-night cycles—which is astounding and quite unlikely. There is also a place called St. Patrick’s Purgatory. Here, if a man enters and hasn’t confessed his sins, he is liable to wonder forever, never finding an escape.  And if he has, he will escape but feel nothing but misery and woe for the rest of his days. The writer finds this…unlikely, which is somewhat amusing considering the rest. Still, it highlights a belief existent already back then—that once the world was more wonderous than it is now.

The last thing I’ll note is the mention of a river that makes fire “Greekish”, which means it burns forever unless put out by sand. The idea of an entire river of what amounts to napalm is frankly terrifying in a number of ways.

But more interesting to me is the similarities this work has with a certainly unrelated work from China.  The work, The Classic of Mountains and Seas, has a number of similarities, recounting strange creatures, stones, and rites of various lands. While they are distinct in a number of ways—Classic does not recount the start of the universe, and has stories scattered through out in a more regular way—they both attempt  to account for all the world, its strange peoples, practices, and virtues.

Some oddities of the Chinese Classic  in the Western Mountains includes the serpent named plump-remains. This serpent has six feet, four wings, and brings drought wherever it flies. No other animal lives on this mountain. On Mount Smallnext, there dwells a similar foreboding animal. It resembles an ape, with scarlet hands and a white face and brings war wear it goes. Another war sign comes from the Sky God at River Overflow—he resembles an ox with eight feet and two heads. Not far from him (A mere four hundred leagues) is the Great God’s City Here Below, where dwells Land My. He resembles a tiger with a human’s head, nine tails, and tiger claws.

Moving away from the animals, we can see just as strange nations recorded from this end of Eurasia as well. Again, in only the West we have reference to people with three arms and one eye, two headed people who resemble pigs,  and people who ride creatures that look like foxes with horns on their back.  We find fewer mentions of customs or anthropology here—an odd mention on if people eat millet, or if they cook. Frankly, they are more fantastic at times—Satefire country is inhabited by people who breath fire for instance, or the people of Neverdie who…well, you can guess. There are places with archers who shoot snakes, or have no guts.

Of course, there are some shocking similarities. Places with cyclopes, or peoples with only one leg and arm and eye. Places with multiheaded persons, monstrous man eating tigers—or tiger eating horses, and so on. The traits of specific stones and plants are even noted in a more detailed fashion. If I had a longer research period, reviewing the descriptions of what are roughly the same areas and contrasting the styles of presentation seems like it would be fruitful. But alas. This is already late.

So what sort of story does this text provide? Well, it feeds somewhat into the notion of other Lovecraft works, of hidden or suppressed truths known in ancient times. Here, however, I would suggest such knowledge is alluded to and not part of the main text. It instead works better as the catalyst—some sort of shaping or knowledge or perhaps prophecy that has fallen into wicked hands and is now being attempted. Or perhaps the location of a treasure that someone launches an expedition to go find. Perhaps some mystery that by medieval means was unattainable, but by more modern methods and technologies can be unlocked.

Bibliography

Birrell, Anne. The Classic of Mountains and Seas. Penguin, 1999.

Caxton, William. Caxton’s Mirrour of the World. Early English Text Society. 1913

Seeking Wisdom

This Week’s Prompt: 121. Photius tells of a (lost) writer named Damascius, who wrote “Incredible Fictions,” “Tales of Daemons,” “Marvellous Stories of Appearances from the Dead”.

The Prior Research:The Last of His Kind

Oil lamps illuminated the faces of the Muses, painted eyes watching over the scrolls of lore. It was my honor to attend to such texts—the Imperial archives, surviving riot and war, time and time again.  Sophia smiled on us still, we her sacred stewards under the Aquilla. Still, even among such scholars, neophytes whisper. There are old texts here, of course. There are texts that were penned by ancient men, in times of light amongst the dark.

But the stories that linger around men of learning. The common folk say we peddle in secrets that can cure warts, that can send misfortune on our enemies, that can alter the fate of princes. We do know many things, lost to most—collections of lore on the body, how the stars can effect the fates of persons upon birth, the histories and philosophies of leadership. But there is nothing wicked about such knowledge, rightly gained and earned.

Still, such stories color ones mind, when a man enters the hall, his hood pulled over his veiled face, hand covered by a falconers glove. In the light of the oil lamps, his white robe caught the shadows—it looked pockmarked. Something about his gait alarmed me—my eyes went around his robe, looking for signs of grease, catching a feather caught at the bottom of his robe and dust stains lining the edge. Repulsive.

Still, he approached. When he drew close, I saw that beneath his veil was a mask—a mask of well-worn ivory, with carved carnelian lips. His voice was weak, like the wind moving through the reeds of the river.

“Honored master, I have traveled far and long.” He said in practiced tones, stumbling slightly in his Greek. “I am seeking wisdom that I have heard is in your house. I ask for some sanctuary, that I might cultivate in myself better virtue.”

Practiced words, practiced pleas. Hollow and rotten from over use, no doubt. No, no there was something wrong with his manner, his gesture. No, he was here for some other reason. An ill wind followed him in. But it would not behoove a man of learning to dismiss a man without reason. So I drew up my conviction and waved my hand to brush aside his request.

“I am afraid, supplicant, that this honored library is in need of more than sophistry. We cannot permit you entry on such grounds.” I said. The man’s left hand shook at his side—a strange convulsion, but sinister.  He bowed his head and stepped back slightly.

“I see, I see. I shall return then; I shall return with more promising requests.” He bowed slightly, turning to leave. Even his gait, staggered and creaking like a broken automaton, was unsettling. I gave a brief prayer, and returned, hoping to forget his visage by morning.

It was alarming, then, when he returned the next day. This time he came, shambling mass, with a scroll in his hand. I took it quickly—and inside found a commendation from a scholar I spoke often of in Athens. The speed was surprising, until I saw the date so inscribed—this abhorrence had traveled far it seemed. That at least was not a lie.

“This is quite impressive, but we are not open to all—this place is under imperial aegis.” I said, shaking my head. The man inhaled sharply, hissing like a serpent as he stared at me through veil and mask.

“This is unreasonable, teacher. I wish to read only a tome, for my own understanding. Is that not the purpose of wisdom, to share it like the light of heaven?” he said—before coughing into his robe and glaring at me with hate. “If you fear I am here to make off with your scrolls, you may attend me—even a man such as you would be able to over power me in this wretched state.”

This…was true. His form seemed light, robes hanging from his frame like they would from a dying oak. And unobserved, he might make off with some texts for some distant Persian. I sighed and nodded.

“Very well. What wisdom drives you to such lengths?” I said, gesturing at the many, many shelves of scrolls. The man seemed contented, leaning back some.

“It is a text by Damascius of Athens, last of that pagan line. Marvelous stories of Demons is the title.” He said, scratching at his chest. I caught a glimpse at his wrist beneath his gloves—how many sores were on his arms. Some seemed to ooze pus and blood. Maybe it was the oil lamp.

“Well, I think I know that text.” I said, taking a moment to consult the inventory before leading him back, deeper and deeper. His steps followed, stilted and scrapping on the stone. Such a broken wretched shape—but he had come with commendation with Athens. And I could not turn him away, not yet for that.

But his coughing, his hacking and wheezing. It was stifling, and seemed to douse the lamps momentarily with the phlegm he spewed. At last, not to far from the entrance, but when we were alone, I turned to face him again.

“Sir, please, you must leave. You may be a scholar of good intent, and wisdom you do profess, but I cannot risk that you will riddle these halls with your misfortune. Plague and bile spews from your mouth—go now, before a black death comes to the wise and learned of this house!” I said, pointing out ward, my own lamp held high. He recoiled at the light—but in silence acquiesced. And gone he was, from this house of wisdom, even if the air of his presence remained.

Of course, he returned. Like the pestilence that clung to him, he returned. An old itch on a royal thigh, with a letter of health from many a doctor—many of repute, who attested not only his health, but that whatever illnesses and conditions he had, they were not present in the miasma. He had many herbs sewn into his cloak now, to keep the stagnant air at bay.

“Now, at last, may I seek my text?” He asked, his irritation clear. I acquiesced, biting my tongue. It seemed no matter the documents or proofs I needed, he would find them. So at last, we returned to those muse lined halls.

He coughed hacked, but no mucus was left in his wake. Perhaps there was something to the assertations that these outbursts were like the twitches of muscle memory. He staggered, he stumbled, he cursed. But this would get him free of my hair, so we sought his book.

“Here, the complete writings of Damascius.” I said, holding the lamp to the collection of scrolls. The man’s hands shot up like a coiled viper. Grabbing a scroll, he opened it swiftly, and placed it to the side. Another, another like a grotesque hundred limbed spider seizing flies.

In moment’s he had emptied the first shelf, and was panting with effort.

“There is no need for such strenuous—”

“I seek neither your opinion nor consul.” He said in a low growl, as he turned through another book. “Where is it, where is it? It must be amongst these, somewhere, somewhere.”

And he began to pull free the second set of scrolls—but in that moment his arm froze. His other hand gripped his chest and he panted. He swore in some alien tongue, his finger nails dragging on the wood as he collapsed before me. My heart, normally an open wound, felt nothing as he expired.

And then the next moment, alarm struck me. As man became corpse, before my eyes, fear struck me. There was a dead man in my house of knowledge! A man who died seeking my understanding! A morbid and frightful curiosity came over me, as I stood over what was once so wretched. I saw he had fallen, his mask knocked askew. And beneath, I saw something foul.

It was as if to stare into death itself. How had such a man, more miasma and malformed rot than flesh, survived to seek me? What had driven him, that this apparition of Hell did not stall or stop him?

I wrote a letter with this inquiry to my college in Athens, who spoke so highly of the man. It was my embarrassment to not know his name—nor did any of the doctors, who wanted him out of their offices as fast as they could.  But he was so striking, that I was sure my colleague would remember him and his miasma of rot. It rattled my brain, how my emotions were quickened when he expired. Should it not be the reverse?

Why should I feel more sorrow for a corpse than a man?

My friend’s missive came in its time, almost a year since the stranger’s passing. He was distraught at the death of his friend, a fellow he knew well—destined for the priesthood, he said, and a bright young philosopher. He had some accident in the woods of Macedonia, my friend said, and had been seeking cure to his affliction. Fate had turned her face from him, and the Devil had filled him with afflicitons.  

He had no known cure, and concluded that some spirit of the woods—perhaps some old phantom of a bygone age, still trapped here on its why to the beyond—was quarrelling with him. Especially as illness seemed to afflict him, and sleep fled him. He hoped that whatever affliction it was, it did not follow him still into the bosom of the Lord.


I wanted to do another historical piece, and found the idea of a character seeking the work I myself couldn’t find appealing. This definitely drew more from ideas of misfortune bringing demons then anything else. I’m rather content with this one. If I rewrite it for Patreon, it will probably take a radical new direction–or expand on the ending, having the confused master of the library seeking what caused the illness. I also would have done more historical research on the actual running of an ancient library!

Next time, we will discuss a 11th century story of the fantastic! I will see you then!

The Last of His Kind

This Week’s Prompt: 121. Photius tells of a (lost) writer named Damascius, who wrote “Incredible Fictions,” “Tales of Daemons,” “Marvellous Stories of Appearances from the Dead”.

The Resulting Story: Seeking Wisdom

This is another citation that, with some work, can be directly sourced. Photious provides a catalogue of books, including the following entry under Damascius:

Read a work by Damascius in four books, the first of which, in 352 chapters, is entitled, On Incredible Events; the second, in 52 chapters, On Incredible Stories of Demons; the third, in 63 chapters, On Incredible Stories of Souls that have appeared after Death; the fourth, in 105 chapters, On Incredible Natures. They all contain impossible, incredible, and clumsily invented tales of wonderful things, foolish and worthy of the impious and godless Damascius, who, while the light of the true religion spread over the world, remained steeped in the thick darkness of idolatry. The style is concise, clear, and agreeable, which is not usually the case in such stories.

This is the only information I could find on these texts—although I’m amused at the fact that genre fiction was listed as a writing reference even a millennia past. So instead, I turned to Damascius’s own writings. Looking over Wikipedia, there were a few routes to pursue. Damascius himself was a Neo-Platonic writer—and one who was “irreligious”, neither mystic nor paying head to holy texts. His summation of God then was as an infinite and indivisible being—and thus an incomprehensible one. The traits we attribute to the divine are only made by inferences from its actions, not from understanding its true nature.

Damascius’s life highlights a few other interesting facets. He was the last head of the School of Athens, before being fleeing to Persia to escape persecution by Justinian the First. He spent a year in Persia before returning as part of a peace treaty between the two emperors of the known world. Much of his work is lost, of course, and while he taught students, he did not found a school outside of Athens. His commentaries on Plato seem to deal with, from the excerpts linked on Wikipedia, the inherent immortality of the soul as a source of light—comparable to how fire is a source of heat in Platonic thought.

He also briefly met with a politician, named Severianus of Damascus. This man is mostly know through Damascius, and lead his own varied life in politics—as a governor, a strict and draconian one at that, then returning to Athens. Emperor Zeno offered him a high post on the condition he convert. Instead, he helped a pagan  murder plot on the Emperor, which failed.

Pseudo-Dionysius

This alone is enough for a cosmic horror story—but I wanted to go a bit further. Wikipedia notes that one researcher has suggested Damascius is the author of a collection of works called the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus. This collection of works has import to the history of the church that drew my attention for further investigation with this quote from Wikipedia:

“All names and theological representations must be negated. According to pseudo-Dionysius, when all names are negated, “divine silence, darkness, and unknowing” will follow.”

Creation and definition by lack—the void itself as divine, empty of anything but silence, ignorance, and darkness was a striking image counter to popular descriptions of the divine as a light from heaven, a source of revelation, and heavenly choirs. Reading through his descriptions of the Celestial Hierarchies, we see that this isn’t precisely the case. Angelic minds have something of a knowledge of God—and they in turn seeking deifying knowledge, so they may better imitate God’s nature.

He describes these hierarchies as dancing around the center throne of god, in a way that reminds of me the image of Azathoth around whom elder gods and musicians dance. He goes on to note that the comparison of angels to flame is due to the presence of flame in all things, moving between all things easily, hidden for most of it’s existence—here we must note that there is flame and there is fire, and that flame appears to mean the elemental flame that might erupt from any moment. Heat might be a better, more modern term for the sensation and energy he describes.

He enumerates natures of various implements, and their symbolic meaning—angels have human heads to indicate they are thinking, they where geometric garbs to show both wisdom and the foundations of creation, they wield weapons to divide, they hold scepters to unite. Each of these are key symbols in the perception of the divine.

So we have the last of a pagan school of philosophy, discussing either an incomprehensible god or, if we grant the Dionysian corpus, a god that is defined not by the heraldry of angels but instead the darkness of night. And one who’s interest lied, at one point, in the Platonic theory of the immortal soul that goes through cycles of reincarnation. This covers, I think, the appearances of the dead, but what of the notion of demons?

A daimon of good fortune in the shape of a snake.

Demons in this context perhaps better refers to the Greek daimon, which acted as an intermediary between gods and men. The meaning of this term of course changed with time, but it was generally understood that they were not divine exactly—nor were they visible. Demons were thus forces at play, invisible intermediaries and divine presences. In some works, the constructions of shrines were done so that they would not wander far—and they would keep their blessings nearby. Other cases posit them as the souls of dead men from the Golden Age, now guiding humanity—a characterization that resembles, in part, the fate of the Nephilim in some rabbinic texts—and thus positive. In royal cults, whether Alexander the Great or Augusutus, it was this daimon, this numen, this divine nature or spirit that was revered as opposed to the specific person (although the distinction blurred often).

The change into demons as we understand came from translation of the Septugaint from Hebrew to Greek—and thus changing the word shedim to daimon. This connected the name with wicked spirits, and this in turn lead to the quite literal demonization of such beings. Still, in some texts we see that the idea wasn’t entirely new. In Pythagoren works, they prove capable of infecting others with dieseases and misfortune, while the Platonic ideals gave them a moral character—that some were allotters of wicked fortunes, others good fortunes.

The stories of Damascius then would draw on a tradition of invisible spirits, allotters of fortunes, both wicked and wonderful. Or perhaps of a lost age of heroic peoples, now wandering the world at the will of Zeus. Either way, of beings invisible and ancient—although, unlike Mr. Lovecraft, not altogether malevolent. Indeed, one suggestion for daimon’s popularity in Plato is to bridge the gap between the unintelligible Divine Forms and stars, and mortal person experience with divine. So, what do we do with this?

Well there are a few routes I think. One is to center on the lost works themselves—in the same way that art in Lovecraft is often a window into secret knowledge with the paintings of Pickman and the play the King in Yellow, so too could these lost works be gates to powerful and forbidden knowledge of some dangerous sort. Of course, dangerous knowledge itself is…not a trope that I am exactly fond of. It needs more elucidation.

Another path is to take up the idea of invisible spirits that act as messengers for an incomprehensible being—servants and whisperers of the universe. They might bring messages to our character, stir up fortune or misfortune, acting like a living curse or blessing for those that disturb their shrine or home. The fact that some daimons remained at shrines as a sort of home leads me to consider the destruction of such an ancient place, unleashing an angry and powerful invisible spirit. Not one that is mortal, or mortal as we understand it, but from some bygone time out of time.

Knowledge of such things then might become the cure. A man hunted by a spirit forgotten by all must seek out these lost works, to learn how such a thing can be appeased or dispelled even as it harrows and haunts him. That I think gives us a better grip for how to use the knowledge angle of this prompt then the cursed knowledge.

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