Seabound – Introduction & Chapter I

Edvard_Munch_-_The_Mermaid_(1896)
Edvard Munch – The Mermaid (1896)

 

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

 

Introduction:

 

Eliza Coldwell lived in isolation and so the tragic circumstances of her fate were only discovered when a mail carrier, troubled by an increasing number of unretrieved parcels, reported his concerns to the local sheriff. Investigators found no signs of life within Coldwell’s manor and continued their search among the thorny overgrowth of the backyard. There they followed a trail of bent and broken brambles leading to the edge of a coastal cliff from which Ms. Coldwell’s wheelchair still dangled.

 

Had she survived the shattering rocks, there was simply no escape from the undertow. As the sea was content to keep its secrets, her remains were never recovered. The coroner would ultimately decide the nature of her demise in absentia, concluding that her disappearance and presumed death was the result of suicide.

 

When word of her death reached the town, few showed even the slightest indication of shock. She was regarded as cold, distant, and even strange. It was known that she remained unwed by choice, having attracted many suitors in her youth only to spurn them all. Her asocial lifestyle garnered wanton speculation with rumors ranging from the mundane to grossly outlandish.

 

Gossiping fishwives spun scandalous tales of sex and murder; their envy preventing even the consideration of a reasonable explanation. They convinced themselves that her manor was once a high class brothel from which men never returned. The fate of these men was debatable but the two most popular theories claimed they were robbed and thrown from the cliffs or pressed into the service of less reputable sea captains.

 

To several generations of children, she was the sea witch who cursed trespassers and transformed them into minnows. It was her property that they would dare each other to enter. Though all returned unscathed, they remained convinced, even into adulthood, that they had barely escaped with their lives.

 

There were no signs of foul play within Ms. Coldwell’s abode; nothing had been stolen and everything was intact, but the contents of her manor told the story of a life unknown to the public. Like a private museum, the parlor was fully furnished with glass curio cabinets displaying the taxidermied remains of unidentified aquatic species, as well as primitive artifacts carved from red coral, whale ivory, and igneous rock. The library was host to a vast collection of maritime themed tomes, exploring subjects ranging from contemporary scientific treatises on ocean biota to old myths, legends, and assorted esoterica.

 

Given the former splendor of her estate, Ms. Coldwell’s bedchamber was unusually austere. Though spacious, it contained only a bed, a dresser, a writing desk and a chair. There, resting upon that desk, barely visible against the age-worn mahogany, was a solitary journal.

 

Part I: The Girl

 

I was known as Eliza. It is a dead name; one discarded the moment I shed myself of this shadow. I leave it here, alongside the husk of my former life. Woe betide any who immortalize it in requiem or stone.

 

l am forever bound to her; forever bound to her and those deep dark waters. I squandered decades in search of answers but now see how the way had always been open to me. When most speak of the call of the sea, they speak metaphorically. For me, the call manifested as a song born from lips of flesh and blood; a song that first came to me when I was young.

 

These words will no doubt be used as evidence of my madness. It does not matter; none of this matters – and only the mad would ever believe me. I have no kith or kin among humanity – no earthbound soul to which I owe any explanation.

 

And yet here I find myself, a slave to this compulsion.

 

Am I collecting my thoughts before the final plunge? Or is this a letter addressed to my former self? All that I know is that these thoughts must be transcribed immediately, for neither ink nor paper await me where I intend to go.

 

The seed of my metamorphosis was planted in the Summer of 1867.  Though our primary residence was in the city, we summered at an attractive Jacobean three-story on the coast, which as an adult I would claim as my permanent estate. It is the only place to which I associate any happy memory and where the most formative influences on my life would occur. The other seasons brought only tribulations and despair but these were the halcyon summers where I could, for a time, escape from misery. The manor had been built atop a towering drumlin and cast a long, oppressive shadow over the lowland hamlet. The villagers below regarded my family with a curious mixture of fear and reverence – opinions natural to a society obsessed with social hierarchy, where greetings rife with honorifics were followed by grumbled profanities out of earshot.

 

My father owned a shipping company and would be absent throughout much of my childhood. I believe he cared for me, in his own way, though it was a tenderness not shown until already too late. The same could not be said of mother, who displayed a consistent and cruel indifference to my existence. Wanting nothing to do with me, she relinquished all parental duties to the servants.

 

What I desired most was love but that was something my parents could not – or would not – provide. Numerous miscarriages preceded my birth but it was obvious that what they truly wished for was a son. Though I was essentially a tomboy, my character and interests did nothing to satisfy their yearning for a male heir. The effect proved quite the opposite, as they ardently sought to subdue my hoydenish nature.

 

There were signs of things to come. The denizens of that seaside hamlet, already a superstitious folk, exhibited certain singular behaviors. Loose rocks had been rearranged to form primitive altars where offerings of scrimshaw, meat, and even jewelry had been placed, despite the abject poverty of the community. Strange fetishes of wood and bone decorated the coastline, silent harbingers of her arrival.

 

My family and I observed these oddities from our carriage while passing through the village en route to the manor. Mother muttered something disparaging but father assured that the bizarre displays represented some manner of festivity – perhaps a holiday unique to the region. If this was a holiday then its celebrants wore an inappropriately grim facade. We summered here for as long as I could remember, arriving the same time in late June every year, but never before had I encountered something of this nature.

 

It is somewhat amusing how certain aspects of these rituals remain in practice to this very day, though I do believe I am the last to truly understand the meaning behind them.

 

There were six of us in total, though the manor was fully capable of housing a platoon. The household included mother and father; the housemaid, the cook, father’s valet, and myself. My family also employed an elderly groundskeeper but he resided in a shack closer to the water and intentionally hidden from the view of the manor. It could at times feel empty, even outright abandoned, depending on which section you resided.

 

I would spend my days exploring the coast, maintaining a wary distance from the locals. I did not care for the way they looked at me; it was disdain for the privileges I enjoyed, all by virtue of who birthed me. Perhaps they would have regarded me differently, had they known how much I hated it. Not that I was ever so naive as to envy their lot in life, for though the town is still impoverished, it simply cannot compare to the level of destitution at that time.

 

At dusk I liked to ascend to the widow’s walk and watch the stars; they were so much clearer here than in the smog-choked city. One night, a week before that fateful day, I witnessed a band of locals loading a large sack into a skiff. I quickly turned father’s spyglass upon the furtive group who surely believed themselves unseen. As they rowed out to sea, I could not help but notice how the bag seemed to writhe. The three would return, lit by the light of a lone lantern, with one carrying the now empty sack over their shoulder. I would ultimately observe this covert exercise repeated an additional four times throughout the Summer. During each instance, something stirred beneath the burlap.

 

My life would change one tempestuous night in early July. Sleep had come easy that night thanks to the sedating patter of rain against the windows. The rain presaged a powerful tempest and I was later roused from bed by a blast of thunder that shook the very foundation of our manor. Unable to return to sleep, I simply listened to the storm and began to notice something strange – an inexplicable sound that had no place in nature’s cacophony. I focused my attention on the quiet interludes between each roaring cannonade. Therein I encountered harmony – a song, beautiful and inhuman, that came from outside.

 

Opaque clouds obscured the moon and stars, yet something glimmered across the glass of the seaside window. The light was soft, at first almost unnoticeable, and resembled the living fluorescence of lightning bugs and foxfire. I pulled myself out of bed and crept through empty hallways, my steps careful and deliberate, so as to not alert the household. Following a shortcut through the kitchen, I arrived at the southern terrace overlooking the water.

 

I chased the melody, running barefoot through the wet grass and towards the headland. The horizon opened wide as I neared the cliff, revealing milky blue-green lights dotted across the ocean’s dark expanse. The song, now a chorus, overwhelmed and extinguished whatever apprehensions I should have felt. There I watched the waves roll in and out, the strange lights unmoved by the ocean’s churning.

 

Then, devoid of thought or hesitation, I dove into the water.

 

The sea was black, cold, and seemingly infinite. Though cognizant of my environment, I had been rendered senseless and made no effort to breach the surface. As the darkness pulled me under, I remained oblivious to my own drowning and slowly succumbed to a death-like sleep.

 

I lingered in a state of unconsciousness; I cannot say for how long but I remember waking with a spastic jerk. Rolling to my side, I coughed and heaved until every last drop of seawater had been purged from my body. Choking, gasping, I struggled for air and blindly reached for some surface to clutch and regain my composure. Too dark to see, I was forced to depend on my other senses. I heard nothing; neither wind nor rain nor thunder reached this place. The damp air reeked of the tides; it tasted stale, recycled. I lifted myself to my feet and began to walk – rather, stumble – across the barnacle encrusted floor, leaning against the rightward wall and waving blindly ahead with my left hand.

 

Despite her neglect, I did what any child would do, and called out for my mother, driven by an instinct I could not possibly understand. When my voice echoed back, I began to piece together the truth. I knew not how but it was evident that I was trapped within one of the many sea caves that dotted the lower cliffs. Escape was conceivable and emboldened my steps. That fleeting hope died the moment I felt the undeniable sensation of flesh on flesh.

 

A scream had barely escaped my lips when I found myself muzzled by a wet, almost slimy hand. Never before had I known such fear, such sheer, bloody panic. I kicked and screamed and thrashed about to no avail. My captor was undeterred and responded by singing softly into my ear, lulling me into a state of limp surrender. As my head rolled back, I was met by a pair of yellow eyes, which gazed deep into my own, gleaming with intelligence and literal fluorescence, before blinking through two distinct sets of eyelids.

 

I wrestled with the unnatural calm and soon slipped free of my captor’s grasp. In desperation I crawled into the darkness, only to find my egress denied by solid rock in every direction. Trembling in terror and with my back against a cavern wall, I slowly turned to face my pursuer and was granted my first full and unobstructed view of the creature.

 

What I next describe, I do with the benefit of intimate knowledge, for at the time of our first encounter, it is likely that many of the following details eluded me.

 

The creature was not as large as I had initially anticipated and only eclipsed my petite frame by virtue of its serpentine lower-half. Long, supple arms hung listlessly to its sides, ending in wide palmed hands with spindly fingers attached together by a thin membrane and tipped with bony claws. A pair of whip-like appendages extended from the waist down, appearing similar (if somewhat thinner) to its sinuous tail, but displaying the prehensility of tentacles.

 

An osseous crest spread from its brow to the top of its skull, where it separated into six sharp points. From the back of its head hung a Medusan mane of bioluminescent tendrils, which coiled and writhed as if by their own volition. The cavern was now bathed in a pale, spectral glow and I came to the forlorn realization that this monstrous, possibly hostile entity was also my only source of light. It continued to stare in my direction, its gray lips parting to reveal a gaping maw lined with three rows of shark-like teeth.

 

Strangely, it was not its monstrous aspect that was most astounding – at least not when compared to just how human it appeared, for the creature bore a visage of youthful femininity.

 

These traits were undeniable; my captor was a girl, like myself but from a world completely alien to the one I thought I knew. She reminded me of the merrow – the sea-folk of Celtic legend. Among my family’s servants was an elderly Irishwoman, the widow Mrs. Kelly, who, acting as a surrogate to my mother, regaled me with tales of these fantastic creatures at bedtime. Even as a child, I never imagined them to be more than fairy-tales and make-believe. It was, in retrospect, a trifling resemblance, but “merrow” would remain my preferred nomenclature for the species. Sirens and finfolk, naga and lamia, and a full bestiary of others; every culture with an affinity for the sea had tales of mythic species bearing these singular traits and the very reason as to why was right before me.

 

Through the sidewinding slither of her serpentine body, the merrow came nearer. I was paralyzed, too uncertain of her intentions to act. At various times she would retreat, disappearing as she dimmed her light bearing flesh. After several minutes playing this “game”, the merrow wrapped herself around me and opened her mouth, increasingly wider, until the jaws parted far beyond its lips and eventually separated from ear to ear. Slowly, deliberately, she engulfed my entire head within her gaping maw. I remained perfectly still; too consumed with horror to scream, I merely whimpered. The ordeal lasted only a few seconds before she pulled away and returned her mouth to its original size and shape.

 

It made no sense to me at the time but I would later understand the meaning: “I could devour you but I choose not to.” I occasionally wonder if the human smile originated to express a similar intent, or lack thereof.

 

Like an excited child on her first playdate, she took my hand into hers and dragged me off. At first I stumbled, for though her light allowed me to see her, I was otherwise blind to my surroundings. She had the strength to take me by force but instead showed patience, perhaps even empathy, and slowed pace in response to my struggles.

 

The merrow brought me before a briny pool and slithered into the water. She waited half submerged and watched me expectantly. My mind was racing, leaving me dizzy and dumb. It was a potential death trap and I knew that once I entered there would be no possibility of escape. As I untangled my thoughts, it occurred to me that the merrow had many opportunities to kill me yet never made an attempt; if killing me was her intent, she would have already done so.

 

Accepting my choice, I climbed down into the water. The merrow looked at me and smiled, and I smiled back; unable to contain my anxiety, I fell into a fit of nervous laughter. My noises seemed to delight the merrow, who gaily slapped the surface of the water. I pointed to myself and told her my name, distinctly enunciating each syllable. She tilted her head, seemingly perplexed, but revealed an understanding of my aim with her following actions.

 

The merrow lay both of her hands upon her chest, closed her eyes, and sang the aria of her true name. The harmony called forth visions; nay, whole experiences – all closer to real than any dream. I imagined myself floating through the murky shallows of mangrove and among coral gardens in unknown tropics. I tasted blood in the water, as ancient reptilian instincts awakened, if but only for a moment.

 

It is a name beyond the human tongue; a name no system of writing could ever capture. I would, in later years, endeavor to transcribe her song, only to create something so shameful, so utterly profane, that I had no choice but to consign it to the flames.

 

I would instead call her Muirgein, meaning “sea-born”. It was the Christened name bestowed by St. Comgall to the legendary mermaid Lí Ban as part of her baptism. Though it ended with the mermaid’s death and ascension to heaven, it was her aquatic adaptation and angelic voice that stuck with me most over the years.

 

A flawed, all too human name for such a magnificent being. It would have to suffice, for even lingering on the memory of her true name excites my mind with the anguished longing of a dipsomaniac for the bottle. I sweat and shiver even now, failing to hold it back. If you heard what I have heard, knew what I knew, you would do the same.

 

I let go of the edge and drifted towards Muirgein and into the pool’s center. I remember the curious way in which her gray lips curled – almost mischievous. She would again take my hand, drawing me so close that I could make out the pulsating flutter of her gills below the water, before pulling me under. I do not know why, perhaps it was the influence of her voice, but I made no resistance and heedlessly capitulated to her whims.

 

Muirgein was, in what should come as no surprise, a phenomenal swimmer. I had not yet even begun to struggle for air when we breached the surface. The sky was a welcome sight, tumultuous as its darkened clouds were. What I now knew to be the light of her kin still filled the sea. She took me to the shore, where we would spend the rest of the night at play.

 

The language barrier, as well as the barriers of culture and species, were only minor obstacles to our amusement. We swam, gathered shells and driftwood, built palaces from stone and sand. At dawn we parted; I waved goodbye and she mimicked my actions, though I cannot know whether or not she understood. I rushed home, quickly bathed and dried myself, and returned to bed. Exhausted, I feigned illness in order to catch up on sleep.

 

Muirgein abhorred the daylight, a trait emblematic of her species, and so we came together exclusively under the cover of dark. Mother and father would remain ignorant to my nightly departures. The storm had passed and the moon was waning gibbous, leaving me less reliant on my companion’s nocturnal vision.

 

One particular night stands out among my memories. I had led Muirgein, who swam in the water parallel to me, along a lowland peninsula and to the old lighthouse. It was hardly Pharos of Alexandria but it was one of the few man-made structures to ever really call to me and I wished to share it with her. Once we arrived at our destination, she climbed up the rocks to join me, employing all five of her appendages with hypnotic grace.

 

The lighthouse was different from how I remembered it. Windows had been boarded and wooden stakes formed a palisade around the base of the tower. Though clearly raised for defensive purposes, my young mind failed to connect the enclosure to the arrival of the merrow. Inside the lighthouse, a man recited a litany of prayers.

 

That was when I heard a mournful dirge from across the bay, drawing my attention back to the sea. The song belonged, not to the merrow but rather their quarry. A great whale had been lured into shallow water, stranding and bloodying itself upon a reef. Pelagic hunters swarmed the trapped leviathan and though the finer details were beyond my sight, predator and prey alike glistened crimson beneath the moonlight. I have heard that whales are notoriously difficult to finish off; knowing this, the beast’s lament was mercifully short. The merrow were, if anything, efficient killers.

 

This wild hunt was horrifying but it was even more fascinating to behold. Though I pitied the beast, I could not avert my gaze. I had to see this – I had to understand – that there was no evil, no cruelty in the hunt; that this was the way of all living things.

 

I learned this lesson well.

 

Alas, these nights of joy and adventure could not last. Though I dreaded my family’s return to the city, it would be the merrow who were first to leave. I waited by the shore, gazing at a sea of stars, but Muirgein never came. One by one, the lights disappeared and I was left alone to wonder if it had all been a dream.

 

I waited years for her return and my patience was rewarded upon the sixth.

 

 

Mordecai

[This is taking from an old novel draft (one I haven’t touched in about 8 years) for a post-apocalyptic series, titled Whimper. This is from the point of view of one of the novel’s antagonists, the Grand Templar Mordecai. He is a high ranking member of the Holy Dominion, a theocracy which governs the wasteland that was once middle America.]

 

 

Monks infested the antechamber. Blind, deaf, and mute – their faces ritually erased. They swayed and trembled with ecstatic fervor, unaware of Mordecai’s passing. Joshua, his youngest son, once asked: “Where does their food go?” He was unable to provide an answer, despite his high rank within the church. An innocent inquiry, it was nonetheless a heresy to question the nature of the faceless. To spare the rod, Mordecai knew, was to spoil the child. Curiosity, like good intentions, paved the road to hell, and it was crucial to curtail its development at an early age. Corporal punishment taught Joshua to substitute free-thought for simplistic and easy to repeat aphorisms – not unlike his father.

 

The faceless served with mindless devotion, tending to the diverse and often singular desires of His Holiness. They approached tasks with unrivaled zeal, compensating for their lack of intelligence through avidity. A heathen ambassador from the Atlantic Trade Consortium once referred to the monks as “lobotomites”, a term Mordecai was unfamiliar with.

 

He entered the Eternal Sanctum, closing the door behind him. The interior was composed of black stone, polished and seamless. Decorating the walls of the spherical chamber were golden vines and jeweled flowers. Windows of stained-glass, four in number, depicted biblical legends.

 

The Forge of Eden: The place of man’s creation. Adam and Eve. Hammer and anvil, sword and sheath. Tools of immutable design and purpose, the story represented the cornerstone of Dominion ideology. Coiled around the base of the anvil was a familiar serpent, the same burned in effigy during the high holidays.

 

The Binding: The composition required significant use of red tinted glass. A lesson in obedience and sacrifice. The Word of God transcended that of man, their laws and ethics. Isaac was a good son. He loved his father and looked upon him with adoration. He loved him even as he felt the blade inside. Tender thoughts and tender flesh. Loved him even as it plunged again, and again, eviscerating him upon the altar.

 

The Flood: A reminder of the fleeting and inessential nature of humans. To be broken and discarded at a whim of its creator. It reminded him of a thought, a forbidden thought born during the naivety of youth when confronted with contradictions. The question died before asked, existing only as a momentary sense of cognitive dissonance.

 

The Fall of the Blasphemous Tower: Obsidian shards arranged in the image of a colossal spire. The highest tier formed a hand, its fingers wrapped around a crimson orb. Man sought to conquer the heavens. To see what lurked beyond even the stars. The Red World became a symbol for their godless hubris, a false idol of logic and reason. God toppled the tower and blackened the sky. He cloaked the stars in darkness, forever hidden from man’s covetous gaze. This world alone was their gifted domain, never again would they desire another.

 

A black tendril caressed his face, the sweet touch of an angel.

 

“You may approach.” spoke a voice, dissonant and disembodied. “Bask in the glory of my presence.”

Midas Touched

[An old draft page, one possible story for a setting I could never really settle with]

 

The Hölle District was constructed in the name of progress, the apotheosis of civilization, and was, by necessity, a place of fire, steel, and transmutation. When hell poured into Berlin, none could have imagined a positive outcome among its flames and darkened keepers.

 

Here, along one of its red-brick sidewalks, a faun advanced with singular purpose. A young woman, no longer a child but hardly yet an adult, shadowed her cloven hoofed master by a few steps behind. A handkerchief over her nose and mouth was of little defense against the sulfurous odor of tortured elements.

 

“Katja,” The faun maintained a steady saunter as he spoke. “What do you know of Hölle?”

 

“That it’s hot and smells of rotten eggs.” she replied, her dreadful tone betraying misery. How anyone could live here was to her a mystery.

 

He sighed, rolling his horizontal pupils. “A comfortable environment has resulted in an entire species of whiners. Truly, you are the epitome of your race.”

 

Clearing his throat, the faun returned to his original point. “Kobolds were the first non-humans to be encountered by the German people – and they arrived with a bang. The ground ruptured, breathed fire, and grew to resemble the hell of human myth and superstition. Devils, your people thought, and your doomsayers for once seemed validated. Humanity struck first, though I am able to understand how they would have seen things differently, and thus ensued a dreadful bloodba-”

 

“The Massacre at Mitte. Falkenrath taught me about it.” she interrupted.

 

“Good! You’ve actually learned something, if not manners. May I please continue?”

 

“Of course, Mr. Pox. I apologize.”

 

“Right then. As I was saying…” he paused, narrowing his gaze at a gathering of kith. “Eh. I’ll save that tale for another time. I do believe we’ve arrived at the scene of the crime.”

 

Golems and pickelhelmed constables barred access to the alleyway. Faces grim, they moved aside to allow the pair to pass without speaking a word. The officers barked orders at the crowd, their demands for dispersal inadvertently luring more to the scene. Katja saw their gawking eyes peeping through the gaps between black uniforms and man-shaped metal.

 

It was early, her tired eyes red from lack of sleep and the brimstone fumes of industrial transmuters. She suddenly stopped in her tracks, an audible gasp escaping her lips.

 

“You’ll get used to this,” said Pox, donning a pair of rubber gloves. “Eventually.”

 

Katja was paralyzed. Her stomach churned and she covered her mouth against a rise of vomit. Loose skin and viscera cloaked the victim but a radiant light reflected from various fissures. Retrieving surgical scissors from his side satchel, Pox proceeded to snip through strings of sinew. The remaining epidermis unraveled with a sickening schlop, revealing a maiden of gold, preserved mid-contortion.

 

Averting her gaze, Katja leaned up against a soot-stained wall. Pox had already begun to speak while she scrambled to find a notebook and pencil.

 

“Decedent resembles a human female. Dark hair; fair skin; facial features unrecognizable. Clothing has merged with what little flesh is left. I am able to discern the remnants of a corset among the mess. Possibly a skirt as well. Nothing else. Soles of the feet are well preserved; heavily calloused and blackened by grime. I also detect the heavy aroma of cheap perfume – something obnoxiously French. Victim was likely a prostitute and one that was fairly active in this district. Will likely find many who were familiar with her, if there was only some way to identi- ”

 

Pox stilled his tongue, shifting all attention to the soft remains which he lifted from the ground and unfurled, letting the flayed hide flutter like a banner in the wind. Katja turned to the wall and vomited.

 

“Toughen up, girl. Take a closer look.” said Pox, responding to the noise of slurry on stone.

 

Katja wiped breakfast from her lips. After a moment of mental preparation, she turned to face his ghastly display. It was a grotesque effigy of the woman that once was, distorted by lack of shape and substance. Pox pulled the skin, rendering it taut and its details more perceivable. There were deep cuts and lesions; they had not healed well but they had at least healed.

 

“Scars?” She hoped her answer was enough to satisfy that persnickety old goat.

 

“Explicate. Remember what I told you before.”

 

“Scars…” She paused, mindful of his expectations. “Scars tell a story. They represent the history of an individual and their relationship to others, as well as their environment.”

 

“Close enough but what do you see? Read the scars. Be precise.”

 

“The scars aren’t too distinctive. Lots of cuts – probably from a knife. This woman likely lived a traumatic life. And what’s that? Above her left breast. It doesn’t look like the others.”

 

Pox turned over the husk and studied the mark. His yellow eyes narrowed and then abruptly expanded. “A brand.”

 

“Someone branded her?”

 

“Quite crudely. It appears to be the letter M.”

 

“But why?” A question almost childlike in its innocent naivety; it felt out of place among the blood and flesh and that auric enigma.

 

“Because they could. It is not unheard of for a pimp to mark their so-called ‘property’.”

 

Katja shifted her gaze to the golden statue. “Okay. So – cause of death?”

 

“Death by chrysopoeia. Human transmutation. I’ve only ever heard of them happening in industrial accidents. A worker falling into a live transmutator – that sort of thing.”

 

“Putting the ‘how’ aside for a moment – but why wasn’t the rest of her converted?”

 

“An astute observation! That, however, is outside my area of expertise. We’ll have the body delivered to Shimndglurm. That old kobold will know what to make of it.”

The Death and Resurrection of Mr. Sean McDonnell Part I

 

Daniel navigated his vehicle along a narrow and neglected road. An autocarriage was still a rarity in the area, causing star-eyed onlookers to occasionally block his path. Though time was of the essence, such delays allowed him a chance to study the neighborhood – a favorite pastime. Neoclassical and Gothic revival were the prevailing architectural styles at present and the general zeitgeist of the time called for everything else to be demolished and replaced. Impoverished communities were unable to afford to be a part of this movement for ‘urban renewal’ and their aged structures remained untouched, though hardly pristine.

He appreciated the slum as one did the ruins of a long dead civilization; a curiosity with no bearing on the present, not so different from a human zoo.

He slowed his autocarriage to a stop and locked the brake in front of a dilapidated townhouse. He pulled a crumbled note from his vest pocket and gave it a final glance before tearing it apart and casting its fragments to the wind. The air filled his nostrils with the unmistakable stench of raw sewage, rotten fish, and alchemical runoff.

Pollution, disease, and human misery – it all flowed down here.

A steady stream of visitors came and went from the building as they pleased. He must have been a popular fellow, unless I’ve merely stumbled on the best damned whorehouse in this slum. Daniel let slip a small smile before returning to the morose countenance expected of his profession.

The door was closing fast but Daniel quickly obstructed the entrance with his cane. Despite the previous flow of characters, the door refused to budge anymore than his interference allowed. Through a crack he glimpsed the glaring eyes of a pockmarked youth on the other side. The denizens of the Fort Hill neighborhood were notoriously difficult when it came to repossession. They signed the contract – what exactly did they expect to happen?

“Excuse me lad but would you kindly step aside?” said Daniel, preferring diplomacy over force.

“Back the way ye came. We don’t want no trouble but I ain’t afraid to bring it.” replied the boy with feigned bravado.

“My employer has legal ownership of the specimen in your keep. You preventing my right to collect amounts to the unlawful possession of stolen property. Legally speaking, the only ‘trouble’ here is your lack of cooperation. I would prefer not to involve law enforcement but if you leave me no choice…”

The door creaked open without further protest and Daniel entered, hat in hand. Distorted shadows decorated the walls of the candlelit interior. A forlorn congregation resided at the far side of the room, gathered around the source of their sorrow. They invoked the names of saints – Saint Patrick, Saint Peter, Saint Brigid of Kildare. Hearing those names again brought him back to a different time and gnawed upon old wounds.

Daniel cleared his throat before speaking. “Mrs. McDonnell?”

A stout woman rose to her feet and turned to face him. Her skin and posture bore all the hallmarks of hard living, giving her the appearance of someone nearly twice her true age. She stared at him with tired, bloodshot eyes, but spoke not a word.

“Can’t ye see me mum’s in mourning?” said the young man from the door. “Give us time to grieve!”

“I am sorry for your loss but time is what matters here. Monetary compensation depends entirely on the freshness of the specimen. The University will not pay for inoperative materials. The Dead Contract was quite specific.”

“His name ain’t ‘specimen’, it’s Sean McDonnell! Show the dead some respect!” shouted a middle-aged man bearing a close resemblance to the deceased – perhaps a brother.

Daniel sighed. “I get it. You’re God-Fearers. Papists, clearly. But Mr. McDonnell made a choice to sign that contract. Would you have him be made a liar? A man unable to keep his word? What you cling to is but an empty vessel. His ‘soul’ is gone. I’m sorry but that is simply what it is.

I want you to be compensated. I truly do. No doubt you’ll need it with him gone. But you’ll get nothing if you keep this up. I have an auto-hearse waiting up front. Deliver his body and I’ll pay the maximum amount I’m allowed.

Be quick about your choice. Time is running out.”

Daniel surrendered a curtly bow before taking his leave of the townhouse. Leaning alongside his hearse, he perused the latest issue of The Boston Globe while giving his pocket-watch the occasional glance. He had already begun to make his way to the driver’s seat when a surly pair, the maybe-brother and the pox scarred youth, came out carrying the swaddled remains.

Daniel folded the newspaper and placed it underarm. The backdoor of the hearse sprung open with the pull of a lever, allowing the McDonnell kin to deliver their beloved dead.

“You made the right choice.” said Daniel.

The youth declined to make eye contact and left without further confrontation. Daniel handed an envelope to the older McDonnell, who pocketed the payment quick as he blinked. The man sized Daniel up and down before speaking.

“You’re Irish, ain’t ye?” he said.

“Aye,” said Daniel after a moment of nervous hesitation. “Family came here fleeing the Great Famine.”

“That so…” he replied, nodding his head slowly. “So ye ain’t just preying on the desperate, but ye own kin.”

“I don’t have time for this. This is progress. For the betterment of man. Our science will save more lives than your Dark Age superstition ever could.”

“Progress? I’ve seen what really happens to the dead.

Devil take ye, necromancer.”

Rembrandt_-_The_Anatomy_Lesson_of_Dr_Nicolaes_Tulp

 

A few fleeting glimpses

 

Bedlam Prophets

A corpulent doomsayer spewed forth another dread portent. Gaunt disciples sift for meaning among the vomitus. Sallow blindfolds fail to hide the weeping wounds of their hollowed sockets. “Eyes plucked by their very own hands,” went the rumors. “Saw something they shouldn’t have.”


 

The Sacrificed

War-zeppelins rain down fire and brimstone from the sky. Those below rasp profane litanies from their sulfur soaked lungs, cursing God more than any mortal. The dying drown in layers of blood, mud, and excrement; there would be many lies told in their name – lies of glory, of honor and selfless martyrdom. Another wave charges from the trenches, another wave to die to gunfire and alchemical weapons. A row of privileged officers stay behind, ready to open fire on those that refuse their suicide commands.

Black robed mystics gather around a mountain of corpses. Laying hands upon the dead, they chant words belonging to no human tongue in accents thickly Russian. The mountain trembles – the dead would soon outnumber the living.


 

The Gospel of Truth

He left a gift of candles and scrolls outside the windowless monastery. The Jesuit only wished to understand the heresy. “Take off your mask,” urged the bandage wrapped Perfecti. “And shed that cloak of Demiurge flesh. Its seams have already begun to fray – a soul eager to be born.” Those within walked on phantom limbs and spoke with phantom tongues.


 

Her Undulating Vastness

An ill omen was ignored in the night. Blame fell on the watchman, whose flayed carcass was hanged from the bow. The sailors prayed before consigning their sacrifice; silent and still, they awaited judgment from the sea.

Their judgement arrived in the form of Echidnean spines, which pierced the hull and anchored the ship in place. Thick tendrils coiled around the vessel and squeezed; the pressure caused iron rivets to burst, shredding anyone unfortunate enough to be within their path.

A throat needed to be slit and none know where to lay the blade. Straws were drawn and drawn again. A gunshot rang from the captain’s cabin, followed by a scent of blood on the wind and screams that never seemed to end.

Those that remained cast aside their straws. They passed around a bottle of whisky, followed by a tincture of cyanide.

The Drowned Kingdoms called and that abyss hid a fate worse than any death.

 


 

God’s Blind Spot 

Life was cheap in the Great Below but its denizens bred quickly in the darkness. Labyrinthian ruins were known to inspire strange blasphemies throughout Earth’s hollow and Churchmen were sent to combat the spread of heresy.

“The deep colonies were a mistake and the same can be said of this mission,” lamented the Bishop of Grayshade in his letter to the surface. “Not even the Lord’s Light reaches these depths. There are structures here older than Adam. Such ramifications give pause to even the most pious of us.”

Few remembered the Sun but the deep colonists claimed to have found another. It was said to be beyond the fungal forests and the Abyssal Sea – beyond the Pale and their hideous familiarity.