June 30, 2018 § Leave a comment
The Austrian town of Hallstatt is beautiful. Slightly touristy, but still beautiful. It sits on the edge of the Hallstattersee, where pleasure cruisers entertain the holiday-makers who haven’t ridden the funicular up to the salt mines that pock-mark the looming mountains.
As evening falls the tourists leave, their coaches heading onwards to Salzburg or Vienna. A few of them, perhaps, will have walked to the edge of town, to the Chapel of St Michael and the small building that sits beside it with the word ‘beinhaus’ written in stark, black-letter text above the entrance.
I arrive in Hallstatt later than expected so have to rush along the single main street, against the flow of tourists heading back from the closing shops, to get to the church grounds before it is closed to visitors. The church itself is an angular building but I have time to do little more than glance up at its white-washed walls and black slate roof as I crunch along the gravel path to the beinhaus, the ossuary. The door is guarded by a stern-faced, middle-aged man who glares out from above an impressively Teutonic moustache. The clock hasn’t yet struck six so I chance my luck. “Fünf minuten, vielleicht?” I ask him. “Nur zwei,” he replies. It seems unwise to haggle further so I nod and duck into the small, stone building.
I’ve been to ossuaries before, many of them in many parts of the world. They all have their own impact; some stern and cold, simply collections of bones rendered meaningless by quantity, while others, like the Sedlec ossuary near Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic, have a humanity to them that is almost comforting. The ossuary of the Chapel of St Michael, small as it may be, is beyond any of this. I gasp as my eyes adjust to the candle-haunted gloom.
March 13, 2016 § Leave a comment
Not long ago, in a village not far away, a little girl was born to a farmer and his wife. She was the finest product of their meagre farm and grew unlike any crop of theirs had done before. The sun and moon themselves counted out her years, as she ran through field and forest and furrow. The farmer used to chase her, a mock-crown of ivy on his head and laughter in his throat, but always she would dart away from his outstretched arms. The farmer’s wife looked up from her tasks, sharpening tools or mending a cloak, and smiled to see them silhouetted in the evening’s light.
Yet one day, as crisp and bright as could be hoped for, the farmer stopped chasing his daughter and she looked back to see that a man much thinner than she remembered was waiting for her. “Father,” she called. “What is wrong? Why do you not chase me as you used to?” The farmer smiled quietly before replying in a voice like dust. “I am old now, daughter, and I have chased you as far as I can. My breath is spent. Go home to your mother, dear child, and I will rest here a while.” With that he rested and moved no more.
So the girl left her father and ran back to their little cottage, where a woman much thinner than she remembered was waiting for her. “Mother,” the girl called. “What is wrong? Why do you not sharpen our tools as you used to?” The farmer’s wife smiled quietly before replying in a voice like smoke. “I am old now, daughter, and I have sharpened as much as I can. My strength is spent. Go out into the wide world, dear child, and I will rest here a while.” With that she rested and moved no more.
So the girl left her mother and ran to the nearest town, her legs strong from years of running with her father, and she worked hard, her hands nimble from years of working with her mother. One day she had a husband, and later a daughter, and she gave life as it had been given to her. One day, a day as crisp and bright as could be hoped for, she found that she had given as much life as she could and she smiled quietly to herself. With that she rested and moved no more.
Death is not a skeleton, not a withered body lying in the cold ground. Death is not the cough of lungs grown dry or the creak of bones grown stiff. These are the products of Life, because Life is always giving and gives until the very end. Death is a miser who takes everything, gives nothing.
Death is a miser and misers are to be pitied, not feared.
“I shall take the very breath from thine breast,” sayeth Death. “Thou canst not take what hast been freely given,” sayeth Life.
January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
I went up to see him, like we all did, strapped into his swinging gibbet-cage on top of Dancers’ Hill. The thin, withered corpse naked but for a wrapping of black iron banding, its bald head angled back in a scream of agony – or of fury – with eyes plucked from the sockets, left hand hacked off at the wrist.
The left hand of Aux-Çevoires, the Alchemagos. The Poisoner of Melhaut, the Breathstealer, He-Who-Walks-In-Fog. The hand that I had seen only once, when he jabbed its discoloured fingers at my eyes before leaping through the stained glass of Our Lord Abiding’s rose window and down into the canal below.
So I went up to see him, like we all did, but I went at dusk when the night-mists begin to settle in the hollows and the sounds of the City are softer, distant. I went at dusk, to be alone.
I went at dusk, like a fool.
The walk is not long, but it is hard. Dancers’ Hill rises quickly from flat moorland on the far side of the Choke and its cover of thick gorse is left to run wild as a deterrent to the casually morbid. In the slow darkening of dusk, and as your breath begins to catch from effort, it feels as if your own life is ebbing away with every step of the climb. Yet suddenly, always suddenly, you are stood on the small tonsure of bare ground at the hill’s crown. Behind you the City’s lights glow amber and ignored. In front of you is the Dancing Master; the bent and blackened tree, impossibly ancient, that stretches out one arm to dangle the final home of the treacherous, the wickedly insane or the simply evil.
Aux-Çevoires was all of these so we hunted him down, across decades, until a time when the Dancing Master could offer him a lesson.
Nobody knows when he came to the City but it is likely that it was during, or sometime immediately before, the White Plague of AB412. Perhaps he was a young man then. Perhaps he has always been as old as he looked when I last saw him alive. Perhaps he was never even a man but simply a husk, animated by something unthinkable. Whatever he may have been, he was a murderer. A vampire, feeding off the fear of his victims.
The infamy of Melhaut is well-known; the bloated victims leaking and bursting as they staggered drunkenly in the streets; the escalating quarantine measures that couldn’t stop their screams echoing through the night; the very buildings themselves infected with malignancy, even all these years later. I remember hearing a shout go up and seeing the figure of a woman, still in the early stages but obviously lost to infection, run howling along the shallow incline of a gambrel roof. A Boxer took her with a shot from a trycklock and she burned as she fell into the streets.
Yes, Melhaut is well-known but Melhaut was a war and its atrocities on a scale that made them mercifully incomprehensible. It is the smaller crimes that make my throat burn with bile and wake me in my sleep; the candlemaker, almost suspiciously healthy in himself, whose corrupted sweat caused every 18th candle to gout yellow, choking fumes when lit; the mother who unwittingly killed her babies, driving herself into collapse as she tried to feed them more and yet more but ignorant of the fact that it was her own tainted milk that poisoned them; the sewerman, no longer aware of the difference between night and day, who went to work as the full moon rose and was found, reduced to a small pile of teeth, by the morning shift.
Yet the worst crime he ever committed was to kill the hope, the peace of mind, of thousands. The backstreet jack-a-knife can be avoided or struggled with. Hunger can be prevented with hard work or thrift. Even old age can be balanced against a life well-lived or the sight of a grandchild. When all this can be taken away on a whim, without reason, then life becomes meaningless. He killed many without lifting even a finger of his filth-stained hand.
So I went up to see him, like we all did, just to make sure that it was actually him, that it was finally over.
I looked up at him as I thought all this and realised that I’d been holding my breath. I let it out and with it came all the horror of the years gone by, all the faces pleading with me to save them when I couldn’t. I wept and howled, beating the cage with my fists until my strength left me and I fell to the ground, into blackness…
I awoke to cold seeping into my bones and a bright half-moon hanging high in the night sky, silhouetting the gibbet above me. Something tugged at my hair. A rat, no doubt, drawn by the smell of decomposition. I clutched at it, flinging it from me. Its claws raked out, leaving sharp lines of fire across my throat. I cursed it, I cursed the foolishness that had drawn me here and I cursed, as I had cursed so often before, whatever passed for the soul of Aux-Çevoires. I turned to spit but my throat was dry, hoarse with curses, so I simply glared up at the corpse.
And that is when I heard it. Under the whispering of a night-time breeze, under the creak of the settling gallows-tree, even under the distant murmurings of the slumbering City was a sound like dust falling on paper. I became silent, immobile and focusing every ounce of concentration on that sound. It became rhythmic, rising and falling like far-off waves. Like a memory of breathing.
Or of laughter.
Another sound, louder now and close by, made me spin around to see the vague smear of something crawling in the shadow of the Dancing Master. The rat I had flung into the darkness? No! Not the rat but a spider, bloated and dragging itself along the ground. Dragging itself out of the shadows and into the light…
I howled denial into the cold, uncaring night as the moonlight shone down on the horror that crept towards me. There had been no rat. There had been no spider. Crawling slowly, impossibly, in jerking movements and with fresh blood, the blood it had scratched from my throat, glistening on its talons was a blackened, distended hand.
The left hand of Aux-Çevoires.
I fled, crazed and unthinking, as the paper-thin laughter echoed in my mind. With no distinct direction to follow my limbs took me home, back into the City. I should have disappeared into the Fen, taken this death out to the monsters and abominations that haunt the horizon. But I did not, and now I am too weak to move. Fire fills my head and my eyes steam like coals. My lungs gurgle with every breath. My hands are bound tightly with cloth but still they swell and drip with thick, grey fluid. Soon I will no longer be able to hold this pen. Soon I will be dead.
I write this note as an apology. I caught the Alchemagos, brought him to trial and to punishment, but I am his final victim and, in being so, I continue his work. I will die. I will seep foul fluids into my clothing and belongings, tainting them irreparably. I will blossom spores into the air of this room that will waft through cracks and crevices, into the lungs of others. I will be found and will be removed, spreading the infection like the soft touch of autumn mist.
It is a mist that preludes a storm, ushered in from beyond death itself by the left hand of Aux-Çevoires.
Apparent final note and confession of Procurator-Medico Alnstein. Found amongst personal effects, post-mortem. Immediate quarantine procedures instigated on discovery. 1,203 related deaths confirmed as of time of report, including 57 officers and related auxiliaries. 721 further possibles. 3 Boxer units subsequently deemed inoperable or lost-in-operations.
Recommend noted area be sanctioned Red/Black immediate, full disassociation.
January 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
Picture Yourself on a chair, feeling drowsy. The fire crackles slowly as Your head fills with cloud. And Your eyes start to buckle, start to falter and darken. And You’re floating off softly into Space, into Time, into past-felt adventurers of a child. Of a You.
Of a You that was once and was once not long ago now. When Your eyes were much clearer and You saw what was there. And You stood in the garden, saw the things past the hedges. And You stood on the doorstep, saw the thing in the hall.
But they told You that You shouldn’t and You mustn’t so You didn’t and You wouldn’t until You couldn’t and You can’t anymore. And that’s when they lost You. Down the gaps and through the doorways. Out the windows that are open and the wind blows in cold.
Out the window, out the window. Is there something out the window? Always something out the window but it means nothing now. There’s a You by a doll’s house looking in through the window. Looking in at the doll’s room and the doll’s lying there.
And a You feeling drowsy is feeling drowsy no longer because a You feeling drowsy is awakened, with a small sigh. And You’re looking at the window, at the window that is open. When You look up at the window there’s an eye looking in.
There’s a river round the doll’s house and a garden and a mountain but the garden’s full of stones now and the mountain’s hollowed out. And the stones sometimes are moving, sometimes weeping, sometimes moving. And the stones have hollow voices and the mountain leads the song.
There’s a wind-vane on the rooftop, always creaking as the wind blows. With its wings stretched and its claws out and it sits there, watching still. And a man lies in a bedroom, in a cellar, by the cold stones. And they lie there and were lied to and in lying, Truth’s found.
What it is now, what it was then, there’s no difference. Nothing changes. When You’re stood there in the doll’s house, as the wind blows round about. And the old man on the doorstep isn’t leaving ’til you’ve paid him. And You pay him, like they all do, with the first-minted coin.
Hear an organ playing music, playing softly. Never-changing. But You’re changing. Growing dimmer, getting lost in the fog. In the fog made out of cobwebs, music boxes and of old news. Out of whispers, out of soldiers, out of children, out of stares.
So the dust motes start to gather but You can’t even see them with Your dew-slick eyes blinkered by old, wrinkled skin. And the breaths come but sharply. Longer pauses, little wonder. Little hands clutching here-there with their nails black and long.
Until it doesn’t any longer and you couldn’t if You wanted but now it feels like You don’t want it so it doesn’t and it’s fine. For a moment, just a moment, there is sunlight for the first time in a long time and You’re flying through the window and
October 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
Man lies on bed. Stares. Wall. Plaster peels, partly. Echo of rain on tin, on wood, on tin again. Always noise yet not-noise persistence of indefinite sound. Hand moves, retreats. Wind on glass, glass on frame. Creak of elsewhere. Rafter. Laughter, perhaps. Old dust and webs. Thin blanket of age. Left, lost life. Guttering.
Man lies on bed. Stares. Ceiling. Plaster peels, moreso. Shadows sit, soft. Rust rhythm, removed. Grasp of light, gasp of lightness. Twilight. Darkness. Warmth fades, cooling.
Man lies on bed. Stares. Nowhere.
Plaster peels. Crumbles. Collapses.
October 6, 2013 § 1 Comment
The City stretches boundlessly and there are none who, if not exactly welcomed, are not tolerated under the great munificence of our Lord. From the winding alleyways of the Riddle to the open plazas of the Limbic Quarter, in the huddled camps out by the Sleeping Cliffs to the clamouring throngs of Dyall Square; diversity is victorious.
Yet, even these places are commonplace next to the great City within the City; the eerily glimmering necropolis of Whither.
Behind black-iron gates, gates that are locked from the inside, lies this rarely mentioned Dark Borough. No tombs or catacombs stand here, no gravel paths lead through weeping yews, for this is not a place of eternal rest. Shadowed boulevards stretch into the gloom whilst glowering townhouses line their routes like stern-eyed pallbearers. Perpetual fog lurks under leafless branches, ignoring the changing seasons as it has for time out of memory.
Occasionally, as dusk falls on some quiet evening, a black hearse will draw up to the Whither Gate and the Master Undertaker, paler and more aged than his calling perhaps demands, will step down onto the cobbles. His assistants will bring out a bundle – sometimes large, sometimes small – and place it on the low, worn stone by the gate. They will pull the black, horsehair cord above and retreat quietly, quickly. There will be no reply, no acknowledgement, and for this they are grateful.
By morning, the bundle will be gone. By morning, a pledge will have been fulfilled. Only one man has remained, on a youthful wager they say, to watch the bundle be accepted. He does not speak of what he saw. He does not speak of anything, any more.
Our Lord’s honoured grandfather, long may he be remembered, saw the Whither’s existence as a snub against his rule, an island of silent independence in a place of otherwise universal dominion. Before dawn on one cool, spring morning he sent the militia to storm the gates and reclaim the Borough in his name. No man who crossed the threshold made it more than a dozen steps before collapsing into the gutters, grasping at their throats in silent torment as eyes bulged and ears bled. Our one-time Lord, many honoured even now, is said to have risen from sleep in his chambers ashen-faced and gaunt with a parchment clutched in his shaking fist. This parchment, written in his own hand but with signed addenda in perfect copperplate of unknown authorship, outlines what has become known as The Agreement; Whither will never again be assailed or otherwise defiled, a seat will be made available at the Conclave for any ambassador that Whither may wish to send according to their whim and there will be a tribute offered to the Lords of Whither by the Lords of the City.
Though a chair sits waiting in the Rose Office even today no ambassador has ever issued from the Borough, much to the relief of all sane men. Yet Whither remains unmolested and the tributes, delivered in bundles on demand, continue