‘My young love said to me, “My mother won’t mind,
And my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind.”
And she laid her hand on me and this she did say,
“Oh, it will not be long, love, till our wedding day.”
And she went away from me and moved through the fair,
And fondly I watched her move here and move there.
And then she went homeward, just one star awake
Like the swan in the evening moves over the lake.
Last night she came to me, my dead love came in,
So softly she came that her feet made no din.
And she laid her hand on me and this she did say,
“Oh, it will not be long, love, till our wedding day.”’
(She Moves Through the Fair, Traditional English ballad)
A map of Averoigne by Tim Kirk.
Anacleto awoke hot and bothered from his troubled sleep, rubbed his reddened, sleep-deprived eyes and blinked to refocus. Despite the chill of the autumn temperatures outside his room at the Inn of Haute Esperance, he felt uncomfortably warm and sweaty. He had just awakened from a nightmare where he was being smothered by a dark shadow which pressed upon his chest and sucked the vitality from his immobile body. The sensation was alternately erotic and yet terrifying. As waves of divine agony rippled through his prostrate form, he felt the smothering brume engulf his face as the darkness took the silhouetted form of a woman and uttered his name, “Anacletooo…” Waking with a gasp, he muttered an inaudible oath under his breath and hyperventilated. That girl!–that damned fairy girl!–he couldn’t get her out of his mind. Every time he shut his eyes she was there, waiting for him; slender, sultry, and white as a ghost, with auburn hair and absinthian eyes, of an albescent green. In fact, he wouldn’t have been surprised if she also had a bit of the green fairy in her blood somewhere.
When he first saw her, earlier that evening, in a claret-colored velvet dress, looking like a lady from an anachronistic role playing troupe, gliding through the stalls at a local blue cheese festival in La Frenaie, he thought of the English folk ballad “She Moved Through the Fair”. He stared at her so intently that he didn’t realize at first that she was staring back. Startled and not a little embarrassed, he snapped out of his amative trance, and quickly looked away. She laughed, a sound which reverberated like a knell, still dissipating in his ears when she suddenly appeared at his side. She addressed him in a language, which he was not familiar with, but which sounded to him a bit like what he knew of Catalan. He answered in his best French and she laughed again, then responded in kind, saying “Ah, you are not from these parts, I can tell. Your French is passable, but your accent is a bit off. I assume that you are either Italian or Spanish, from the southern parts no doubt, with your dark, handsome looks. I daresay you have a touch of Moorish blood in you, n’est-ce pas?”
“I am Spanish,” he replied, “from Andalucía; my name is Anacleto, may I know yours?”
“No, you may not–ahahaha!” Again, that eldritch laughter, then she continued,”What are you doing so far away from home?”
“I am a student of Brichester University, in England; which used to have copies of the rare tomes essential for my studies but, after a religious zealot burned several priceless grimoires in the early aughts, access has become very limited to them. I wondered if I could do some of my own original current research, so I decided to take a week from my tiny dormitory, and from writing my thesis about the prevalence of sorcery and diabolism in the Moyen Âge, to visit France and travel through the region of Averoigne to see the various historical sites in person and to delve into the local lore first hand.”
“Oh? and what have you found mon cher?”
“Well, yesterday I found some rare accounts of the Bishop Azedarac of Ximes which do not paint him in such a saintly light as he is historically remembered.”
“Azedarac? The blackguard–I forbid you to speak of him again in my presence!”
“Surely you jest,” Anacleto scoffed, “you speak as if you have some personal gripe with him, but the Bishop Azedarac’s haloed cranium has been dust for almost a millennia by now! Additionally, I have been looking into the legends of Sieur Hugh du Malinbois and his chatelaine, whom were notorious sorcerers and also rumored to have been vampires.”
At this last intelligence, she became all of a sudden very serious, her pallid visage became rutilant and her eyes trembled as if they would burst from their sockets. Grabbing his face gruffly, she then kissed him deeply and passionately with her red, fulsome lips, and in a sepulchral voice that echoed of incantations in midnight realms she intoned “I have been watching you, I have chosen you, and so now you are mine. When I call for you, you shall hear me wherever you are, stop whatever you are doing; then, listen for the piper and he will lead you to me.”
Her message delivered, she cooled back to her colorless, comely self, pinched his cheek and said “Now, my studious little Spaniard, you have been kissed by a fairy. Au revoir, mon bel espagnole!” Smiling, but still maintaining eye contact, she stepped back toward the woods and disappeared into shadow, leaving Anacleto stunned and speechless.
“What nonsense”, he thought now as he paced his room in the darkness, and he was a fool to even give her proclamations any credence, much the less allow them to upset him so. His friends back home at the university would laugh at his gullibility and make much sport of his having fallen under the spell of some eccentric country girl. He also needed to return to sleep tout suite if he was ever going to be able to wake up at a reasonable hour to visit the Abbey of Perigon and seek permission to access their great library of rare tomes and precious manuscripts for his research on the weird legends behind the ruin of the Chateau des Faussesflammes.
Perhaps if he let in a little of that autumnal airflow into his stuffy room, he would sleep a little easier. Taking a nip from the bottle of the local vintage on his nightstand to calm his nerves, he then threw open the latticed casement windows of his little room, and inhaled deeply of the chill nocturnal breeze. In a rush of the current, he could smell the fragrance of the forest flora which grew just below his windowsill followed sharply by a noxious odor of mixed dampness and decay accompanied by a strange music carried in on the wind from the sparsely-litten road through the forest.
Soon afterward he noticed an open window light up in a small cottage across the way. In a moment, the front door burst open and a young well-formed woman walked out into the weird nocturne in her nightgown and disappeared into the forest. In the room adjacent to his own, the windows flew open and the innkeeper’s son climbed down an ivied trellis in his undergarments and headed toward the forest. Between the gnarled, pedunculated branches of the ancient oaks he could see silhouettes of other young men and women, arms outstretched, feeling their way in the darkness whilst deeper shadows flit and flew around them.
Watching the grotesque farce play out from the vantage point in his room, he felt a persistent urge to join in. Realizing that it must be some form of dark enchantment at work, he reached for the crucifix, which he wore about his neck and for a moment he felt that he could resist the pull. Gaining confidence, he began reciting some protective prayers he had learned as a boy from his devoutly catholic abuelita, but all to no avail, once he espied the emergent shade of the Black Piper.
Rising into view, his shadow grew long onto the road, snuffing all light in its path. Even at a distance, Anacleto could feel the Piper’s marmoreal gaze upon him. His reptilian eyes were mesmerizing, and lacking in emotion as much as in color. Like a translucent creature that lives in the deep light-less recesses of a great cavern, not even the roseate hue of underlying capillaries, so prevalent in albinism, was present. On his narrow crown he wore a tri-horned jester’s cap with miniature bells that tolled woefully as he pranced and capered. His straight white hair hung like a pall on his knobby shoulders, which were clad, as was the rest of his lanky frame, in a costume that at first glance appeared to be of a solid black color. However, as Anacleto’s eyes were drawn to the person of the Piper, he could discern a piebald pattern of diamonds alternating in degrees of blackness; the darker of which was a shade so profound that it drew it’s observer, almost magnetically, into its nigrescent depth. Indeed, Anacleto felt that were it not for the intermittent interruption of the lighter shade, one might be sucked into the atramentous void of the darker. His long, skinny arms jutted out from his body like the pepipalps of a whip spider, and in his pallid hands he bore a bone flute on which he played his mournful tune.
In his ears Anacleto heard the sound of drumming–a dry, flat sound of derma-bound drums, swelling in a crescendo, pounding like the pulse of some cthonic beast, rising from its subterranean lair. Then came the bombards and the bagpipes, dissonantly skirling and twisting their way through the air in a sonneurs de couple, transmogrifying into a banshee’s wail, to summon the fey souls; like Hamelin rats, they are drawn by the strain, stirred to rise from their beds and walk, falling into file upon meeting their spellbound brethren on the darkened roads, marching . They came from miles around, on forgotten roads, from nearby towns, like gossamer strands, that all lead to the center of a spider’s web, and Anacleto could do nothing but yank the crucifix from his throat and fall in line, following the Black Piper and his band of phantom minstrels.
This particular web came in the shape of a quaint, yet forgotten hamlet within the bosky region of Averoigne, which is reputed to be the home of many a bête noire. On the outskirts of the the settlement the marchers were corralled by the Black Piper and his ghostly band, who lead them in a cortège to the gates of the secluded Hameu de Malinbois. Hidden deep within the center of the forest this settlement consisted of thirteen small, simple domiciles and a sprawling cemetery. There were no farms, nor was any trade plied therein, but the denizens appropriated whatever they needed from the nearby towns; and what they needed had just arrived in single file, led by the Black Piper and his darksome coterie.
Greeting them at the gates were a bevy of beautiful, pale-faced beings with livid smiles and hungry eyes. Foremost among them was Anacleto’s fairy girl, who greeted him with open arms and a hearty salutation of “Bonsoir ma bel espagnol!” The enchanted walkers, recognizing their own sweethearts rushed into their respective embraces as the Piper and his band struck up a lively tune. The couples reeled around a great brazier to the music and laughed the way young lovers do. After the dancing was done, the guests were treated to a feast of exquisite foods, which they washed down with many bottles of the hearty regional wine. Buzzing from the rich food and the heady drink, the paramours broke off into darkened corners, where they giggled and sighed in delight.
It was at this point that Anacleto’s lady-friend spoke to him in confidence. “My name is Ambrosine du Malinbois. Yes, I am of the family whose reputation you are trying so hard to besmirch. I cannot allow you to do this. We have lived in this hamlet for centuries hidden from the prying eyes of outsiders who would do us harm. And why? Because of superstition and ignorance! Yes, we have taken lives, but what are the lives of a dozen dullards to the life of even one adept? We don’t waste our time consuming the idiot entertainments of the masses, we use our protracted existences to probe the secrets of the Universe which your clergy and academics fear and guard so niggardly.
” I was told to watch you and see what your intentions were, and to stop you if you learned too much about our hamlet, but you seemed harmless enough, and you are so beautiful mon amant sombre, I could not allow them to hurt you. I pleaded with them to spare you and they condescended to allow me to bring you here to the fete. Now our future, if there is to be one, is in the hands of the the Dark One.
Anacleto, incredulous, sputtered, “W-wait, what??? What do you mean by all of this?” Grabbing her arm tightly, he continued in a desperate tone, “Amb-Ambrosine, what is going on here? What dark enchantment is being woven here? How is it that my will ebbs at every cacophonic note that is spawned by that demon’s pipe? Ambrosine, if you truly love me as you say, please let me go from this accursed place!”
“No my love, it is too late for that, there is no escaping your fate. You must either stay with me or go with Moribond, and that decision belongs to neither you nor me. Hush now my love, do not weep, I have made oblations to the Dark One and have asked permission to claim you as my helpmate. We shall learn his verdict soon with the distribution of the soul cakes.”
On cue, a dissonant trill interrupted the lull in the reveling and feasting, and quickly arrested the attention of those present, in particular Anacleto, who flinched at the sound. It was the Black Piper again, his long, arachnid limbs moving in hypnotic time to his infernal air. Once everyone had settled down and turned their enchanted gazes to his soulless countenance, he stopped playing and stretched out his lanky arm toward an elevated wooden stage with a podium, lit on either side by torches, where stood a hooded figure, clad in black. White lissome hands sprouted from the sleeves of the robe and pulled back the hood to reveal a startling creature; a female, who, like the Piper, seemed to bear no coloring or pigmentation on her person. She bore the appearance of an ivory statue which, like Pygmalion’s Galatea, had come to life. The one distinguishing feature in her alabaster mien was the presence of a black stain on her lips, that cascaded from her bottom labium stopping about halfway to her chin. She surveyed the hushed ensemble with an unsettling glance then addressed the crowd in a voice which bore none of the charm of his companion, yet all of the wyrd. Her voice was feminine, yet deep and hollow, and her tongue, like her lips, were black. The words she spoke appeared to be for the benefit of the denizens of the hamlet alone, and not their guests, for it was in a language which only they seemed to understand, and it was not any language Anacleto had heard before, not even the Occitan dialect used by his strange new friend when she first addressed him. The woman opened a musty tome laid out before her on the podium. Turning the brittle pages to a particular passage, she set her translucent eyes to the page and began to read aloud its contents. Although he could not understand the specifics of her words, he feared their import when he recognized the name of a certain fearsome entity, Iog Sotot, being invoked, to which the assembly responded likewise. Then she read another passage wherein she invoked a name he had only just heard Ambrosine mention moments before: “Moribond”, the French word for being at the brink of death. Closing the book, she nodded to the Piper, who, signaling his band to join in, played a tune which might have been considered jaunty, were it not for the minor key.
“What did she say? And who is this Moribond?” Anacleto asked his companion.
“She was reading from the Livre d’Eibon, she read a passage which speaks of Iog Sotot, the soul eater, and Moribond, the sheaveman who collects the souls for Iog Sotot’s consumption. Yearly, during the autumn equinox. we pay tribute to Him with the sacrifice of 12 young souls, one for each month of the year. A 13th soul, selected by a game of chance, is granted life eternal with the coven to replace the fallen and the adepts whom have moved on to higher levels of consciousness to become like the gods themselves. I can say no more, I am fearful for the outcome.”
The young people left their guests to select a single cake each to bring to their paramours. Offering the cakes with great ceremony and anticipation. The young men and women still clad in whatever they were wearing when they were summoned, accepted the cakes with some trepidation but with no real will to refuse. They were encouraged to consume the cakes, some were hesitant, but complied after minimal coaxing, and all finding the little loaves to be quite tasty, gobbled them up right away. All save for Anacleto that is, who found a little faceless figurine made of a nigrous translucent mineral in his cake.
Noting this, Ambrosine grabbed his hand and raised it up triumphantly as she shouted enthusiastically, Ma belle espagnol et moi avons gagné ! At which the other young people solemnly kissed their paramours and stepped back towards the podium stage and into a circle of chalk inscribed in blood with arcane symbols and names like Azathoth, and Zhothaqquah and and sprinkled with rock salt. Ambrosine elatedly kissed Anacleto, then lead him up the steps of the stage to the circle and told him tenderly, but firmly, “Look away my love and do not look back or move a muscle until I tell you to do so.”
Perceiving the gravity of her instruction, Anacleto closed his eyes tightly and turned his face away from his compeers. The dry beating of the drums reprised their mesmerizing rhythm and the Black Piper lead the other winds in a dirgeful tune as the denizens of the hameu began chanting a word, the name “Moribond…Moribond…Moribond…”
At the center of the boneyard stood a large tumulus set with two massive limestone doors, decorated with the usual memento mori imagery of death’s heads and winged hourglasses amidst an array of cabalistic symbols, from which came a rumbling that jostled the doors forcefully as a dark brume escaped between the crevices like over-brimming pots. Bursting with a crack of doom, the doors flew open and vomited a noxious vapor from the newly revealed aperture, which billowed into the cemetery and was carried on a foul wind to Anacleto’s nostrils, causing him to wince and gag, but he made sure to keep his eyes closed tightly. A thunderous clopping rose from within the tumulus of colossal hooves clacking on a stair as two red points appeared within the mephitis, followed by the muzzle, crest, and body of a gargantuan draught horse the coat of which absorbed, rather than shone the dappled moonlight struggling in vain to break through the shadowy lacework of the gnarled and knotted trees, which stretched their bare withered branches outward like writhing souls in Purgatory, seeking succor and deliverance.
The steed was of the same super-black color as the darker diamonds on the Piper’s raiment from its poll to its feathers, the only other color present being the red of its eyes, which glowed with an infernal luminescence. As the beast emerged from the fog, its rider came into view, and the fey guests stared in awe at his grim countenance, as the white woman at the podium bellowed in an archaic, yet to the learned Anacleto, still recognizable French dialect, “With the countenance of Iog Sotot there are no limits to our unyielding quest for knowledge, and there are no secrets we cannot discover. There are darker things than we in this plane and in the other realms of existence, but we are vesperal beings, so our sight is not hampered by the mirk, and the trained adept may see beyond this world into the benighted Vale of Pnath where sightless ghouls revel in a charnel banquet as the resultant ossuary tumbles and shifts at the burrowing of cyclopean worms. Night-gaunts carry the offal from our sacrifice to these ghouls for their funereal feasts, snatched from the chaff threshed by He Who Sheafs, Moribond, the Harvester of Souls, and Iog Sotot is appeased for another year. Come Moribond, accept our sacrifice for your master!”
The rider, Moribond, was an animated skeleton of gigantic proportions. Around his dull pate flew a ring of unnaturally large inky flies, with red peering eyes, which orbited his skull like infernal satellites; their crimson compound eyes watching in all directions and continuously relaying their observations though stridulation, back to the ever absorbing consciousness of Iog Sotot. In his teeth he clenched a sole chrysanthemum, which drooped from his jaw like a predator carrying his senseless prey. He had minimal gear, just a saddle, a bag and a holster in which he kept a massive scythe, all made of black leather. Beneath his saddle was a black cloth emblazoned with a white chrysanthemum . Coming to a halt, he regarded the relinquished lovers, all of whom where hypnotized by his stultifying gaze, which swirled constantly with thanatotic images that he projected into the minds of his prey. Alighting from his perch, he pulled the flower from his teeth and tossed it with a derisive bow to the podium. Returning his attention to the task at hand, he raised his scythe and in quick movement mowed through the sacrificial offerings in “one fell swoop”, as per the idiom, sending a profuse spray of blood into the crowd at the podium, most of whom did not flinch. Moreover, Anacleto dared not move, nor open his eyes. Momentarily setting his scythe aside, Moribond stared intently at the quivering carcasses, which bled copiously in their dying spasms. Projecting a dark ray from his murky eye sockets, he spied the glittering souls of his victims as they were exposed in his caliginous glare, then swiping a phantom manus through the lot, he collected them all in a supernatural grasp, after which he bound them in a black ribbon and stuffed them in his saddle bag. Blowing a repellent kiss to the white lady, he mounted his melanistic steed and slowly trotted back to the tumulus and the charnel underworld from whence he came. The citizens of the Hameau de Malinbois did not stir, however, as the ritual was not yet done. The noisome atmosphere was soon stirred by the noiseless flapping of coriaceous wings. Faceless, rawboned devils the color of midnight flew out from the tumulus to retrieve the remnants of the sacrifices, which they bore to the light-less Vale of Pnath. As the last of the creatures dove into the mirk of the burial mound, the inhabitants of the hamlet exhaled in relief and flew to lap up the gory residue of their belated guests.
As he stood, aghast, the splash of his compeers warm blood still dripping from his face, Ambrosine laid her lily white hand on Anacleto’s shivering shoulder and licking the blood from his cheek, she cooed and whispered in his ear, in Franco-tinted English “Oh, it will not be long love, till our wedding day.”