FP400 – Understanding: a Blackhall Tale, Part 3 – The Hag
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred.
Tonight we present Understanding: a Blackhall Tale, Part 3 – The Hag
This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Mob
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Thomas Blackhall – master frontiersman, student of the occult, and grieving husband – completes his tale regarding the beginning of the end, and the woman who stole his wife’s cadaver.
Understanding: a Blackhall Tale, Part 3 – The Hag
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Vengeance outweighed the woman’s grief, and the consolidation of her power began even before her boy’s reanimated body had fully let go of its living warmth.
Setting the child to dancing a shadow of a jig, she sent the riderless pony to town, as an omen of what would follow, then made her way west.
It was her intention that his cavorting would keep him close until such time as she discovered a method to properly raise him. However, a life filled with emergencies – shattered limbs, reluctant births, fickle curses – had left the Hag with a keen mind for priorities, and, as a python is said to eat an elephant, she began with the tail of her problem and moved ever forward to overtake her goal.
First she returned to any who had imparted wisdom to her custody, so that she might demand any secrets they had held in reserve. Though none of her former teachers furnished a solution for true resurrection, fraud, extortion, and flattery would eventually bring her a deep knowledge of the three forms of magic.
The school of the written word and inscribed sigil soon covered her body in images of power and deception. It was from an Egyptian book collector that she collected the pattern that imbues longevity, but it is only due to his phantom that I was able to pass that same design on to you.
She’d approached him as a broken soul in need of opportunity to correct her tragedy, and his own timeless greed for education made him too quick to sympathize. The Hag, however, was a woman who insisted on absolute discretion, as she demonstrated by slitting his throat and removing the flesh of his back.
Longevity is not invulnerability, as his ghostly lips later informed me.
I myself learned, in nearly two decades in the bush, that a life of endless walking leaves too much time to obsess; too much time to over-think. I can not imagine the effect magnified by a century’s span.
By the occasion on which she again crossed Ibsil, her transgressors were long dead – she cared not.
In exchange for his freedom, a mute friar locked high in a coastal tower had taught her many phrases of destruction. In his youth his transcription work had carried him across a decaying tome seemingly forgotten upon the shelves of his remote cloister. Unthinking, he had hoisted the volume and begun the penitent process of re-copying its text. It was under his breath that he whispered the tones that pushed out the monastery’s eastern wall, but he had, by then, already achieved the majority of his reproduction.
Even after the removal of his tongue, the memory of the index had followed him into the tiny room that marked the fate his brothers prescribed, and a lifetime’s confinement had left his recollections too close to his quill fingers.
Once his furtive letters were written, though, his freedom lasted as far as a mile offshore. Then, as a noose-tied-stone was lobbed overboard, the sloop he thought employed for his escape was revealed to be the vehicle of his demise.
The ruination of Ibsil began with a chortle and a word like a thunderclap.
Within seconds the streets were filled with those attracted to the noise and dust of the collapsing masonwork that was once the town’s church, and so The Hag spoke of plague, for those who would hide, and of fracturing, for those who could not.
Her tongue parted the gathered like a violent wave, and she formed corrupt sentences whose shapes and sounds called forth arcane energies to snap limbs, rupture eyes, and cleave architecture.
In a week she’d flattened every residence and stable, flushed out every farmhand and cellar dweller, and set flame to anything that might provide a safe haven she’d missed.
Finally, when the townspeople of Ibsil, ruined by contagion and violence, no longer had life enough to writhe on their own, she raised their shattered husks and set them to dancing for the supposed amusement of her son’s uncomprehending corpse.
This continued for a fortnight, with any unlucky enough to wander into the remote village joining the festivities, and it only stopped when the cadavers she most favoured began to tear and sunder under her rough treatment.
Yet her real desire, the secret of true resurrection, eluded her.
Centuries rolled beneath her feet. The world shifted about her, but the Hag, and her mystically preserved boy, continued on.
In time she fell in with the children of the Spider-God, the hooded Kar’Wickians. She was not one for friendship, but the arachnid’s spawn have many social advantages that her hermitry denied her. In exchange for her skills, and an occasional conjuring lesson, they provided her a great web of volunteers – for there was no shortage of restoration tales to authenticate, though most led solely to frustration.
Raiding ancient texts from the cult’s hidden library, she learned many of the rituals of symbolism, the most primitive of the magical schools but also extremely powerful in its elementary nature. It is much more than modest voodoo doll making. Though the age of artifact creation is distantly passed, it is said this symbolic art of material manipulation, in combination with rites from the written and spoken schools, were the forge by which the Crook of Ortez and its ilk were created.
Eventually she found her answer in one such relic, the Distilling Catafalque.
Now, there was perhaps an age when the world was so saturated with ethereal energies that the Catafalque might have taken the carrion of but three or four mystically-drenched dead to operate, but the arcane had begun to leech from the land, and naught but a few locations remained upon the globe that contained some power.
The hinterlands of the united Canadas was one such place.
I had met her twice before our final encounter. On the first occasion – well, I have publicly claimed innocence by stating that it was simple error that caused our paths to cross, but, in truth, I had come to snatch the Catafalque from her very hands. Rumours of her passage, and her collection of the dead to power the device, came from the mouths of phantoms and the whispers of the fading animal lords- but I had not comprehended the size of her rotting army, and fear had driven me off from that initial meeting.
It was not long after, however, that she took revenge at my interruption by snatching up my Mairi’s body to join her column.
I carried not but mundane tools into our final confrontation, out of concern that her attunement to the preternatural might signal my presence. The thousands of capering cadavers had aligned themselves into a whirling spiral, and I was left to creep, sweaty-browed, through the dancing rings. My pen is too weak to convey the anxiety of slipping between those exuberantly jerking, absolutely silent, figures.
At their center stood The Hag, an orb of light in one hand while the other rest on the torn and muck-covered jacket of her unchanged son’s shoulder. She was watching as each thrashing puppet climbed, in turn, atop the black-veiled platform their lifeless shoulders had carried across the face of Europe, over the salt, and through the dense wildwoods. There was smoke at each closing of the plush curtains, but no further evidence of its sacrifice’s passing.
I let out no yip or call upon my assault: No, my very heart ceased to beat so that the noise would not arouse her.
It was a whisper I had mastered that lit the fuse of my explosive bundle, and even that was almost too much.
There was recognition in her face as the payload landed at her feet, but not time enough to react. Even in the last she attempted to shield the boy from the blast, and in so doing proved that I had right to worry: Though her belly was pulled asunder by the explosion, the bones of her cradling arms absorbed the force without yielding. Still, the tattoos that formed the greater portion of her defense were but simple ink in form, and so burned as easily as the rest of her skin.
The ritual, already in motion, went on.
Though I had dared not search beforehand, it was my deepest hope that Mairi had not yet entered that eternal slumber. My boots seemed to gain weight with each step – with each face that registered as not her own – but an uncountable period of running along the still-rollicking spiral brought me to the woman I had sought for long decades.
With wet cheeks, I pulled her from the line, and, in her place, I lay the Hag and her boy upon the platform.
I will confess again that I knew. I knew the pact she’d made with the Spider-God, I knew that there was not enough power left in the world, unless the abomination might find some weak soul with which to barter the last of its vitality to plant a seed that would bloom into invasion.
I knew, and that is why, even years before the encounter, I had begun my project of apology – and I do apologize, though I can not bring myself to regret the return of Mairi to my side.
We have two hundred years to correct my error. Now, to the extent of your title’s responsibilities – and those carried by the other branches of my now sprawling legacy – the matter is in your hands, Coffin.
Yours till victory, or the rise of Kar’Wick,
Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
Text and audio commentaries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.
– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.