Polybius

I like video game history, I like urban legends, and I really like seeing people put a tremendous amount of research and effort into their videos.

With that, I present you Retro Ahoy‘s documentary on Polybius, one of the most prominent myths of the video game world.

First a summary: according to the story, Polybius was a mysterious arcade game available for a brief time in Portland in the early 1980s. Descriptions of the gameplay are vague, but was said to be abstract and strange, combination puzzle and shooting, supposedly highly addictive despite its abstract nature. However, those who played it began to experience odd side-effects such as nausea, amnesia, night-terrors, and behavioral changes. Then a few months after its first appearance, mysterious men in black appeared and wheeled the machines away, never to be seen again.

The rumor is that the game was a CIA experiment: testing mind-control or personality-alteration technology on the general population.

The video goes into greater detail of the story, its history, place in video game culture, and (most impressively) seems to track the legend back to its source. Though even then, there’s still a potential mystery left unanswered to tickle the fancy.

It’s a long video (over an hour), but well-worth it.

I recommend you check out the rest of Retro Ahoy’s channel: the guy puts a ton of research into his work, especially for his longer videos. If you have any interest in video games or video game history, he’s well worth the time (his equally-long and in-depth documentary on ‘The First Video Game‘ is also a must-view).

AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movie Quotes

Obviously don’t completely agree with this line up (nothing from The Princess Bride? Ghostbusters? No “Like tears in rain”, no “I am your Father”, no “You all think I’m licked”? Seriously?), but it’s a respectable collection. In any case, the editing and accompanying music is excellently done.

Enjoy

It can also be found here.

Saturday Music: Skillet

I’m not musically inclined, so I’m not really qualified to discuss the objective musical quality of any band. My criteria for music that I like is a purely subjective enjoyment and / or that it sparks some creative juices or gives a good emotional charge.

The result is that I only rarely get attached to actual bands; I mostly go on a song-by-song basis. But one of the few that I regularly return to and find a reliable source of songs I like is Skillet.

I’ve mentioned them before, but the short version is that they’re a rock band with Christian sensibilities. Or perhaps a Christian rock band. Or a rock band that happens to be composed of Christians. Some of their songs are explicitly religious, others are just rocking awesomeness or gooely emotional.

But whatever the subject matter they have a tendency to hit just the right note for my tastes. I go to them fairly often for my Appreciation videos and have a few other creative ideas for their work down the line.

If you haven’t heard them before, I offer a selection of some of my favorites of their songs for your enjoyment.

(There are two versions of this one: one with a growl, another without it. This is the one without, since that’s what I prefer)
(This one pretty sums up my feelings about Progressive movements)

Mst3k Assignment Venezuela

Kind of busy right now, so for today’s Saturday entertainment, here’s a small Mst3k treat.

This was a short that wasn’t connected to any specific episode. Instead it was created for the planned ‘Mst3k CD-Rom’ project that was never completed. The short, however, found its way into the fan community and eventually onto DVD. I now present it to you (excuse the substandard sound and the big time indicator in the upper left).

The short tells of an American engineer working for Creole oil and his experience of relocating to Venezuela and discovering all that that then-vibrant and growing country had to offer. From our perspective, it’s actually a little heartbreaking: this is what Venezuela used to look like before Socialism.

But even with that, the riffing is still firing on all cylinders. Enjoy!

Budweiser Swamp

In the mid-late-nineties, Budweiser beer started a new advertising campaign, consisting of a trio of frogs just croaking the syllables of their name. It became hugely popular and all-but iconic. Then, after a few variations, an actual story developed, played out over the course of the commercials (especially during Superbowls), involving a self-impressed lizard named Louie scheming to take the frogs’ place.

The surprising thing is that, if you string the commercials together, it’s not a bad little short film, largely due to the great voice acting on Louie and Frankie the lizards (courtesy of actors Paul Christie and Danny Mastrogiorgio) and some strong dialogue (“All my hard work has paid off!” “Louie, you hired a hitman.” “…Yeah, with my own money!”).

On top of that, you have a pretty decent example of basic story structure here. We open with a false order (a status quo that seems stable, but contains the seeds of disruption): the frogs are the champions of Budweiser and Louie is jealous. There’s a rising action: Louie lets his resentment of the frogs lead him to increasingly heated rhetoric and finally desperate action. There’s a chance to turn back via his buddy Frankie’s repeated warnings. There’s a turning point that changes the status quo from false order to disorder: Louie hires a hitman to assassinate the frogs. There’s a unexpected result – the assassination attempt fails to kill the frogs, but leaves one of them incapacitated, allowing Louie to get what he wants after all. Then there’s the climax and logical result of the action, where Louie achieves his dream…only to ruin it through his own personal flaws, the same ones that led him to such desperate measures in the first place. Finally, Louie receive his comeuppance, first by being beaten up by the frogs and then by seeing himself replaced by the character he respects the least and never bothered to take seriously, but who ends up outdoing him completely while being a more reliable performer, thus restoring the status quo to true order.

As Frankie says, this isn’t Shakespeare, but as a bare-bones and very funny illustration of story structure, you could do worse.

The Temple of the Night

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“Magnificent!”

The young Englishwoman gazed out over the deep, mist-filled gorge. The mountains crowded in on all sides, their grey flanks dyed red in the rising sun, while the valley below was so deep and so narrow that what little could be seen through the breaks in the blanket of mists was lost in shadow. It was as though she were looking down upon a second sky.

She stood a moment upon the edge of the cliff, as still as if the light had turned her into a carved figure of ivory. Then with the quick, precise movements of a bird gathering its treasure, she swung the heavy pack off of her shoulders and pulled out a sketchbook and some pencils. Seating herself crosslegged upon a rock at the very edge of the precipice, she began to draw the scene, seemingly heedless of the thousand-foot drop immediately before her.

This – though perhaps few of her acquaintances in London would have believed it – was Lady Emma Worthing, and she looked as out of place sitting on a rock on a mountain deep in the Peruvian jungle as it was possible for a person to look. Every line, curve, and tone of her spoke of fashion, society, and elegance, from her perfectly fitted, custom-made clothing to her upright, well-trained posture.

She was tall and graceful with a fine figure. Her face was aristocratic, with a Roman nose (one she thought a trifle too big) and large eyes that glittered like opals whenever she was eager or excited. Down her back ran a long, tapering line of braided hair that was so deeply black as to appear blue in places.

Her clothing was entirely done in varying shades of white, save for the black of her hiking boots (now sadly scuffed from many days of walking), and she wore a white pleated skirt in lieu of trousers. This had raised many eyebrows and several people, including her hired guide, had tried strenuously to talk her out of it. But she would hear none of it.

“A lady must always look her best, whether in society or the jungle,” she’d insisted.

When Lady Emma sat down to commence her sketch, the two men accompanying her took off their own packs and stood waiting for her to finish. By now this had become quite a routine. During the course of their three day trek through the jungle, Lady Emma had already stopped at least a dozen times to make sketches and notes for paintings she might like to make once she had the chance. That she should do so even now, just as they had reached their destination, was only to be expected.

One of the two was an elderly, upright figure with heavy jowls and a fringe of perfectly white hair under the rim of his hat. The other was young, handsome, and with the lean, lithe air of a wolf about him. He smiled rather fixedly on the young woman as she sat sketching.

“Do I take it you came all the way to the Sombra Gorge merely to draw it, Senorita?” he asked

“One might do worse,” she answered carelessly. “Though as it happens, I have something else in mind. But do be quiet; I want to catch this light. One must be quick about such things.”

The Peruvian cast an expressive look at the old man, who did not return it.

“As you wish,” said Malveda, with a shrug. He leaned back against a tree and began to roll a cigarette, watching the young woman as she drew. Truth be told, he didn’t much mind the interludes. He still had no idea what had possessed this English lady to insist on being brought all the way here to this little known and less visited formation in the mountains, but she had money, and as long he was being paid, he wasn’t about to complain. Besides, a man might have to go a long way to see a woman better worth looking at.

The other man was George Nicholson, butler to the Worthing estate. He had watched over Lady Emma from the time when she had been young enough to believe his name was “Nibbles’em,” and he accompanied his charge wherever she went, always as straight-backed and dependable as he had been as a young batman to her father in Burma some forty years before.

Emma’s pencils flew over the paper. She wished, as she always did in such cases, that she had more time. There were always details she was missing, always some element of the scene that didn’t quite come out. But then, that was the nature of beauty: one never could quite catch it all.

At last she decided the sketch would have to do. She put the last stroke to it, packed up her pencils, and stowed the whole apparatus back into her pack.

“There we are,” she said, producing a small compact mirror and examining her face. “Oh, bother this humidity….”

“Now that we are here, senorita….” Malveda began.

“Yes, yes; I did promise to explain once we reached the gorge, did I not?” she replied, brushing some dirt from her forehead and shaking her head at her own reflection. She snapped the mirror shut and tucked it into her pocket. “It isn’t anything especially exciting, I’m afraid. You see, I am something of an amateur antiquarian. It is a hobby of mine to recover rare and lost pieces of art.”

“Is that so?” he answered. “And you think you will find such a thing in the Sombra Gorge?”

“More or less,” she said as she unfolded a compact, single-strap bag from the large backpack she had been carrying. “Nibs, be a dear and get this ready for me, will you?”

“As you wish, your ladyship,” Nicholson answered. He wore a look of faint disapproval, but his charge seemed not to notice it as she checked the knife and the revolver buckled around her waist.

“It is said that no one has ever entered the Sombra Gorge alive,” Malveda said.

“I should think leaving it alive would be the tricky part,” Emma answered, peering into the depths. “But I do not intend to go all the way in. If my information is correct, there is a small cave in the cliff wall a short ways from here, around the other side of this hill.”

She nodded at the looming side of the mountain that overshadowed their little shelf to the north, forming one wall of the narrow, doubtful pass they had traversed to find the gorge.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the Javias people? They occupied these mountains many centuries ago and were conquered by the Incas. It’s said they had a certain temple that they kept an absolute secret, and then when the Spanish came….”

Malvedas’s whole attitude changed abruptly. He stiffened, like a dog that had caught a scent and look sharply at his employer.

“The Temple of the Night? The cursed idol of Yectclo? That is what you seek?”

“Oh, you have heard of it,” Emma said, drawing a long coil of rope from one of the packs and slinging it over her shoulder. “Yes, that’s the one.”

“Who in these mountains has not heard that legend? But…but what makes you think it is here?”

“That’s rather a long story, but the short version is I came across some notes by a Professor Luis Rondon, who pieced together the information back in the 1890s. He, unfortunately, never returned from the jungle, but I think his reasoning was sound. I’m merely following his footsteps.”

A hungry, wolfish look slowly spread upon Malvedas’s handsome features, like the dawning of some evil sun.

“And the idol,” he said. “Is it true what they say, that it is as a valuable as a mountain of gold?”

“It is supposedly an absolutely unique piece of ancient artistry,” she answered. “One can’t really put a monetary value on that, though certainly I would pay a good deal for it. In fact, I would say I am doing so,” she added ruefully, wiping the sweat from her face. “Sacrificing my poor, poor complexion in the name of preserving art. Are we ready, Nibs?”

Nicholson handed her the bag.

“May have a word with you, your Ladyship?”

“Of course. Malvedas, will you see to the tents? Back a ways from the cliff, if you don’t mind.”

Malvedas nodded, his eyes still gleaming wolfishly as he carried the packs a little ways down the trail.

“Are you quite certain of your plan, Lady Emma?” Nicholson asked once they were alone.

“I hardly would have gone through the discomfort of the past few days if I hadn’t been sure enough,” she answered, slinging the bag over her shoulders. “Do you have something to say, Nibs? If so, please do so. I’m in rather a hurry to get started.”

Nicholson hesitated, his jowls growing perhaps a trifle more pronounced as he frowned at her.

“Only this,” he said. “Do please, please be careful, your ladyship.”

“I am always careful.”

“With respect, you certainly are not,” he answered. “You are, if you will permit me, far too reckless. I have said it before and I shall repeat myself now: there was no reason whatever for you to undertake this expedition on your own.”

“If you mean I should have invited Lord Peter to come and hog all the credit….”

“I mean that you take far too many unnecessary risks, and late though it is, I must beg you to promise me that you will not take any such during this endeavor of yours.”

Emma gave a slight, musical laugh.

“How can I promise such a thing, Nibs? I don’t even know fully what the risks will be!”

“And how shall I ever face your father when my time comes if any harm comes to you?”

Emma’s smile vanished and she blinked in some surprise. Just for a moment a breath of guilt swept through her heart. Nicholson had promised her father on his deathbed that he would keep her safe. Now she was about to go and risk her life where he couldn’t be there to make good on that promise.

The feeling passed almost as quick as it came, leaving nothing but a slight chill. Her smile returned, warmer than before, and she hugged him.

“Nibs, dear, you’re doing all you need to. And for your sake I will promise to at least not run any unnecessary risks. But really, if you didn’t let me enjoy a little danger now and then I should die of boredom. I really should. Now don’t you worry any more of those lovely white hairs away: you’ve not got many left to spare.”

He did not look mollified, but his face softened a little.

“Just be sure you come back safe,” he ordered.

“Naturally,” she said. And with that she set off along the edge of the cliff, following the curve of the mountain.

Professor Rondon, following God alone knew what ancient sources, had pieced together a detailed supposition of the temple’s position and layout. In the Javias mythology, the night god was the master of magic, divination, and other mysterious arts which only the initiate were permitted to know. Therefore, his temple, where the mystery rites were performed, was hidden where none could find it and only the bravest could approach.

The summit of the mountain was only a few hundred feet above the pass where they were making their camp, and Emma was able to circumvent it fairly easily, keeping as far from the sheer drop as she could. On the far side there were several stout young trees growing near the cliff’s edge. Emma took hold of one of these and against leaned out over the cliff to peer down into the gloom.

Just as she had hoped. About forty feet down from where she stood there was a very narrow ledge, no more than two or three feet wide if that. Harsh grasses and small plants eked out a grim existence in its soil. It ran along the line of the cliff to where the side of the mountain curved around in a kind of oxbow, forming a narrow bay between its steep grey walls. There, barely to be seen beneath an overhang of the cliff, was a cave.

That cave was her destination, and the only way to reach it was the ledge. For here the mountains became so steep as to be impassible, and no one but a mountain goat could have found his way up and around to a spot directly above the secret cave.

Emma took the rope from her shoulder and made it fast about the tree, tested it, and swung out over the thousand-foot drop. She climbed down, hand-over-hand, her feet braced against the cliff-face. She was an excellent climber and soon set her feet upon the narrow, downward-sloping ledge.

Even as she stood with one hand on the rope, trying once more to squint down into the gloom to catch a glimpse of the ravine floor that it was said no living man had ever set foot upon, she was uncomfortably conscious of the tug of gravity pulling her feet towards the edge and seemingly endless empty space below. With its covering of mist and unseen bottom, Emma had the suddenly idea that if she fell, she would be falling upwards, into the endless depth of the sky.

The thought thrilled more than terrified her. Emma was not and never could be afraid of heights. From above, everything took on a new aspect and a new loveliness, lending beauty even to things that looked quite commonplace and squalid from the ground. Nothing that did that could ever frighten her.

And besides, as she had told Nicholson more than once, she rather liked danger. All things, life included, had their own proper beauty, and to her mind a dash of peril now and then added just the right texture to life.

She released the rope and keeping one hand on the cliff wall began to walk along the slopping narrow ledge, putting one nimble booted foot ahead of the other. The wind was high here, compressed by the canyon walls and it whipped her skirt about her legs and at times felt as thought it threatened to tear her from the wall. Here and there the ledge narrowed so much that she was obliged to creep along sideways, her back pressed to the wall, her feet half hanging over empty space.

Then came her first real check. About halfway along the cliff she came to a gap of perhaps four or five feet where there was no ledge at all.

Emma paused a moment, considering. The ledge both here and on the other side of the gap was about as wide as it ever was, though it looked to be steeper on the far side. To her left was a solid, sheer wall of rock. To her right was empty air and racing wind.

What was behind her didn’t matter, since she didn’t consider going back for even a moment.

Emma squared her shoulders, lifted her skirt, took three quick steps forward, and jumped. She soared deer-like over the empty shadow and landed lightly and nimbly on the other side. She stumbled for one breathless moment as her feet slid on the inclined surface, then she caught herself on the extreme edge of the precipice, sending several small stones tumbling into the mists below.

She let out a long slow breath, looked back, and gave a satisfied nod. The ballet training she had received as a girl served her well yet again.

The cave drew nearer without appearing to grow much larger. Emma found she had to duck to enter it. As soon as she did so she was conscious of a foul, musty odor. Switching on her electric torch, she played it around the walls of the cavern and soon found the source. At first glance, it looked like a moss-covered rock. But there was something off about the shape. She edged closer and nudged it with her boot.

It was a bag. A very old bag, almost completely rotted in the jungle humidity. Nevertheless, Emma felt obligated to open it, though she shuddered at the touch.

It came apart almost at once and a large number of insects spilled out, agitated by the sudden disruption of their damp home. Emma grave a cry of disgust and stepped back, brushing a few off that had gotten onto her clothing. The bag, it seemed, had once been full of tools and rations, but everything was mildewed, rusted, and molded to the point of being utterly useless.

This, she thought, must be Professor Rondon’s bag. So he had gotten that far at least. But that meant it had been lying there for about ninety years.

And what had happened to its owner?

That Emma felt queasily certain she would soon find out.

At the back of the cavern was a pit, more like a well than anything else. Emma leaned over it, squinting into the deep darkness. She got out a small flare and dropped it. It fell about twenty feet, disturbing a number of bats that came fluttering up and once again caused her to back away in disgust as they flittered about, seeking to escape the light.

Once the bats had departed, Emma secured a rope to a stalagmite that stood not far from the well’s edge and climbed down into the Temple of the Night, the flare casting its red light up at her.

At the bottom, her feet landed not on bare stone, but on a carved floor, unweathered by the many centuries that had come and gone. Emma drew out her torch and looked around her.

Demon eyes glared out from every direction. The light of the flare and torch sent a riot of jagged shadows upon the carved walls, while the jeweled eyes of figures long lost to knowledge gleamed as if alive.

“Gentlemen,” she said in a voice with only a sleight tremor in it. “You will please excuse me: I’m only passing through.”

Emma dusted a few cobwebs off of her shirt (trying not to think of the state that her hair and clothing would be in after this, nor about the possibility of a spider or two having hitched a ride) then examined the chamber she had dropped into. It was fairly small, perhaps ten feet square. The stone was primarily black, or perhaps a dark blue in color, edged here and there in white. A similar coloring prevailed upon the floor.

On three sides the walls were covered in carved geometric imagery, similar in style to that used by the Incas, though in a heavier, more angular style. Between these figures were lines of strange, eerie designs: not exactly writing, but not quite pictures either. They were spiky, almost spidery marks that made the hair on Emma’s neck prickle. She almost thought she could detect human figures among the designs, though what they were meant to be doing she couldn’t begin to conjecture. They were mixed with other, stranger characters that she thought must represent writing, being too odd and too spindly to depict anything that could exist in real life. She resolved, if there was time, to come back after she found the idol and copy some of these images for further study.

The remaining side of the room consisted of an incline leading up to a doorway flanked by stone figures. Both figures were holding their hands up as though in warning.

Emma made straight for the doorway, her sharp eyes alive for any sign of a trap. The legend said that it was death for any but the priests to enter the Temple of the Night, and she had long since learned to pay special heed to such legends.

The doorway seemed to have been carved through about two feet of living rock. On the other side was a rectangular chamber some twelve yards long. Here too the walls were carved in flat, intricate designs, with the same dark colored stone, and here too jeweled eyes gleamed in the torchlight at the invader. The floor was checkered in an intricate pattern of green, blue, and white tile in alternating patterns, so that one row would show red, blue, then white, and the one next to it white, red, and blue. This made a rather kaleidoscopic impression in the narrow light of the torch.

As she entered the chamber, Emma’s foot landed on something hard and round. She stepped back at once, looked down, and clutched her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream of horror. What she had stepped on was the skeletal remains of a human hand!

A skeleton, dry and covered in dust lay before her, its hands outstretched as though reaching for the door. Its skull was crushed and most of its bones broken, its dried up clothes half rotted away. The dead man seemed to have been cut down in the very act of fleeing the room.

Professor Rondon, I presume, she thought. My God, what happened to you?

Slowly, she played her light around the chamber, but saw nothing that looked as if it could have killed him. All was silent and empty, unless you counted the glittering eyes of the carved figures on the walls.

Emma felt a stream of ice run up and down her spine. For a fleeting moment, she wondered whether those stone images had come to life and struck down the man who had dared to trespass in their domain, guarding the secrets of the dark priests even centuries after their disappearance.

She chided herself for thinking such nonsense, but drew her revolver nonetheless. There was some kind of trap here, some protection against thieves. She could feel it. As she crossed the room, Emma kept her keen eyes wide and alert to any sign of danger.

She was not quite careful enough.

She was about halfway across the chamber when she felt a tile sink slightly under her foot. There was a heavy click, and a moment later a low rumbling sound, like a huge mill wheel grinding flower. Emma looked behind her and cried aloud as she beheld a stone door lowering over the entrance from whence she had just come. She turned and darted back, seeking to escape before she sealed in, but she was far too late. The door settled into place even as she reached it and beat the butt of her gun futilely upon it. There was neither handle nor keyhole; it was nothing but a solid block of cold gray stone. Turning around, Emma saw that the exit had similarly been sealed. She was trapped!

Her heart hammered and her breathing came fast. Buried alive, left to suffocate in an airless tomb! That had been the fate of Professor Rondon…or had it?

For she suddenly became aware that the low rumbling that had accompanied the closing of the doors had not ceased. As she puzzled over what it might mean, she felt something drop onto her head. Reaching up, she found it was a little bit of stone or gravel. Then she turned her torch upward.

The ceiling – the vast, solid, stone ceiling, as black as the night sky – was descending slowly, but inexorably over her head. It had been about twelve feet heigh when she’d entered. Now it was closer to ten.

“Oh, my God…”

A flash of panic blazed through Emma’s mind, but only a flash. She caught herself before it could take hold of her. Now, if ever, she needed every ounce of wit she possessed.

Furiously, she tried to think. She examined the edge of the door, but there was not the slightest possibility of her lifting it or breaking through it. Rondon had tried that. He had died clawing at it.

Emma glanced at the crushed remains of her predecessor. Soon, she thought, that would be her fate: smashed to jelly under that massive weight with nothing but the pitiless eyes of those stone devils for company. Left to rot where no one would ever find whatever remained of her body.

And what will this do to poor Nibs….

Suddenly, she caught hold of something in her mind. Rondon had sprung the trap and died beneath it. Yet she had been able to enter the chamber. That meant the trap had somehow reset in the meantime.

Had someone, some hidden guardian of the temple come and restored the chamber? No. Even if that were at all probable, they would have removed the body. That meant – it could only mean – that there was some mechanism for automatically resetting the chamber.

Emma struggled to think while the destroying stone mass continued to descend from overhead. The skeleton was crushed, but not crushed all the way. The narrower bones – the arms and legs – were intact. That meant the trigger, whatever it was, had to be such as to be sprung when the ceiling was perhaps an inch or so off the ground. It have to be some kind of lever or spring that would be pressed when the trap reached a certain point. If she could find it….

Emma began searching along the wall, shining her light upon the floor, looking for anything that seemed to rise above the level of the stone tiles. The thought occurred to her that the trigger may well be somewhere in the upper reaches of the destroying machine, built with God-only-knew-what ancient engineering techniques. She pushed the idea aside and focused all of her considerable powers of concentration upon the search.

Meanwhile the descending stone was now low enough that she could have reached up and touched it.

With a cry of relief, Emma found what she sought: a stone foot belonging to one of the square demons that stuck out perhaps six inches from the wall and three high. A closer examination revealed that it did not rest upon the floor, but sank into it.

Emma dropped to her knees and pressed her full weight upon it. But it didn’t so much as wobble.

For a second, she doubted: might this not be the trigger? Then she came to her senses. Of course, the designers of the trap would have considered the possibility of their victims doing exactly what she was attempting to do. The trigger was built to be moved by the immeasurable weight of the descending stone. But by the time the stone reached it, Emma would certainly be dead.

Unless she could trigger it early. Even just a little early.

She rose to her feet, ducking as her head brushed the descending stone. Throwing off her bag to make herself as thin as possible, she darted back across the chamber to where the skeleton lay. With no time for niceties, she grabbed a handful of his dried up arm and leg bones and scrambled back to the lever. She was now bent almost double: less than five feet to go…

Breathing quickly to try to steady her hands, Emma wrapped the strap of her bag around the bones and braced them upon the lever – if lever it was.

Then there was nothing to do but wait as the descending death closed the final few feet to the topmost bones. From having seemed terrifyingly quick while she was racing about trying to find a means of salvation, it now appeared to her agonizingly slow as waited for it to render a final verdict upon her plan.

The bones were, of course, all different lengths. The longest two, the leg bones, were reached first.

Crack!

They splintered and fell from the mass. Emma lay flat on her front, holding the grisly bundle with all her might. In desperation, she drew her hunting knife with its thick, steel blade and ivory handle and jammed it in alongside the bundle to lend it every bit of strength she could give it.

Crack! Crack! More bones broke away before the destroying roof. There was barely more than a foot of clearance. Emma pressed herself against the floor and whispered a prayer. She felt the cold, heavy stone settle onto her back….

But even as she did, the lever shifted at last. A moment later and there was another heavy click. The ceiling ground to a halt, pressing Emma to the floor. She gritted her teeth, eyes shut tight, unable to move even if she had wanted to, scarcely able to breathe.

Then the rumbling resumed, and her heart skipped a beat. But now the ceiling was ascending, rising as slowly as it had sunk. The terrible weight lifted from her back, and Emma let out a long, slow breath. Only then did she realize that she had been holding it.

She rose to her knees, trembling and trying to catch her breath. That had been much too close, even for her taste!

Once again at liberty to be conscious of what she was holding, she laid the remaining bundle of bones upon the floor with a slight shudder and wiped her hands gingerly against her skirt.

“My apologies, professor,” she said with a deprecatory gesture towards the crushed remains at the front of the chamber. “Under any other circumstances, I would not have dreamt of taking such liberties. I’m sure you understand.”

Then she sheathed her knife (now considerably blunted), holstered her gun, and gathering her pack and torch made her way to the far side of the room. She carefully felt each step as she went to avoid triggering any further traps.

Passing through the far door, Emma found herself in what could only be the holy of holies, the central chamber of the temple. The roof was high overhead, and there was a long, narrow shaft through which a faint ray of sunlight, brought from who knew how far through the side of the mountain cast a dim, twilit glow upon the room.

And there, on a pedestal in the middle of the chamber, was the idol of Yectclo.

It was completely different from any Mezoamerican idol that she had ever seen. In place of the heavy, squared-off shape that so many of those had, this one was more slender, more curved, the form more naturalistic. It was overall in the shape of a human being, though the head was shaped like a crescent moon, curving back over its shoulders like a cresting wave. The features were carved with remarkable skill, the god seeming to gaze upwards in contemplation of the heavens, its slender, almost-stick-lick arms crossed across its chest, its palms held up and outward to either side. From either shoulder the figure bore great, curved wings, like those of a moth, and its legs, which were drawn up to its elbows as though it were squatting, were very long and very thin.

The whole figure was perhaps nine inches high. Even in the dim half-light, it shone silver and bright, as though it were illumined from within, save on the inside of the wings, which appeared to be lined with obsidian and had the same spindly semi-pictorial writing she had seen in the entry chamber carved upon them and inlaid with silver.

Emma approached the figure, awed by its beauty and craftsmanship. Though even this work of art couldn’t quite eclipse the fright she had just had, and she went cautiously nonetheless. But no traps sprung in this chamber, even as she walked straight up to the pedestal and gazed at the statue.

Seen up close, the strangeness and uniqueness of the image increased. She had thought at first that it was made of silver, or more likely of stone or wood lined in silver. But she didn’t think so anymore. The material was not quite the color of silver: its white had more of a pinkish tone to it, and it seemed far too lustrous in the half-light.

Whatever else it was, it was an exquisite work of art.

Carefully, she took hold of it and lifted it gingerly from the pedestal. It was much lighter than she had expected. With a leap of her heart, she stowed it safely in her bag. She had done it!

But even as she slung the bag back over her shoulder, Emma realized that something was wrong.

There was a heavy thud, as though of a great stone gear sliding into place. Then, at the far end of the chamber, the wall buckled suddenly. The stone cracked, and from every fissure rivulets of dirty brown water clawed forth, advanced tendrils of the monster to come.

Emma understood what was happening in an instant and she wasted no more time. Turning like a deer that has scented a predator, she raced from the chamber and back into the trap room. She was halfway across before another terrible roar behind her warned that the wall was giving way.

But she didn’t dare look back, for in the wildly waving light of her torch she saw the stone door was descending once again. In her haste, she must had triggered the trap once more without realizing it. But this time was different. This time she had a head start. She could make it….

A rush of water poured in, half stemmed by the descending door on the far end, but enough to nearly trip her up. She caught herself, saved once again by her excellent balance, and put on a burst of speed. The door was descending rapidly. It was halfway closed, but she was almost there. She dove forward, sliding on her front upon the wet floor beneath the descending stone and into the entrance chamber. She just had time to whip her legs out of the way before the stone settled into place, sealing the chamber once more.

Emma scrambled to her feet, breathing hard. Another much too close call, and now she was soaking wet with badly scrapped arms and, what was more, in absolute darkness, her torch having fallen from her grasp as she dove for safety. But at least the trap chamber would hold the destroying water back for a time. With luck.

She felt her way across the lightless chamber to where the rope still hung and began to climb. A short distance up, then back along the cliff, and it would all be over. Over and successfully done!

Emma pulled herself over the edge of the pit with deep sigh of relief, thankful especially for the faint light coming in through the entrance. She rose to her feet, trying in vain to knock some of the dirt off of her clothes.

As she lifted her head, she was suddenly dazzled in the light from a torch. Squinting and holding her hand up to try to shield her eyes, she realized that she was looking down the barrel of a pistol.

“Hola, Senorita.”

“Malveda!” Emma exclaimed. “What on earth do you….”

“Did you get it?” he demanded.

“What do you mean?”

As her eyes adjusted, Emma saw that the man’s face was flushed and his eyes were gleaming with that wolfish light. He was breathing hard, and the hand holding the gun shook slightly.

“The idol,” he said. “Do not play games with me! Do you have the idol?”

Rapidly, Emma’s mind began to work. She would certainly never be able to draw her own gun in time. Once Malveda had the idol, he might well shoot her anyway. In fact, that would be the only sensible thing for him to do. And she doubted he would believe her if she flat out denied it.

The best play was to stall for as long as possible.

“See for yourself,” she answered. Slowly, so as to give him no reason to fire, she unslung her bag and set it on the floor.

Malveda hesitated, looking from her to the bag as though making up his mind whether it was a trick. Then, before he could decide how to proceed, Emma made her desperate play. In the split second his eyes were off of her, she grabbed at the gun, trying to twist his away from her. There was an ear-shattering bang as the weapon went off. Malveda was far the stronger, but Emma was stronger than he had expected her to be, and that was enough to break the gun from his grasp. It bounced upon the stone floor and clattered away into the pit.

With a snarl of angry Spanish, Malveda drove his body against Emma’s shoving her backwards. She felt the ground disappear beneath her and clutched out for the rope, catching herself about halfway down, crying aloud as the rope burned her hands.

Emma had barely had time to steady herself when she saw the guide looming over the edge, his face appearing almost monstrous in the harsh electric light, his machete in his hand. She had only just enough time to realize what was about to happen before the blade fell and the rope went slack in her hands.

She fell straight down, curling her legs under her to absorb the impact. She landed, rolled, and tucked her head. The experience of landing was no joy, but nothing broke. Trying to catch her breath, she looked up to see Malveda blow her a kiss.

“Adios, senorita!”

Emma cursed him in the strongest language she knew, but he was already gone with the idol, leaving her in total darkness.

After all her work, that precious idol would be sold for mere money like any common trinket. More pressingly, any second now the door would open and a wave of rushing water would sweep through the door and slam her against the rocks. It was certainly possible that she would survive uninjured, perhaps even be able to ride the rising tide up the shaft. But she didn’t intend to risk it, or to spend the time. Not while she still had one more card of her own to play.

Quickly, Emma unbuckled her skirt and slipped out of it. True, her primary reason for insisting upon wearing it even in the jungle had been aesthetic (trousers were simply too drab for words), but it was not wholly impractical, despite what some thought. The skirts she wore on such occasions were all custom made and of her own special design. They were, in fact, not single sheathes of fabric, but rather constructed of row after row of a light, strong material held together by strips of velcro. With a quick tug, the coils of fabric came loose one after another, and with a twist the belt buckle was turned around to form a hook. What she now had, in place of her lovely white skirt, was a long, strong line of cloth with a grapple at one end.

She swung the buckled end around, and with a practiced hand hurled it up to where she knew the stalagmite lay. Her aim, even in the pitch dark, was true. The hook caught. She pulled it tight…

And just then, she heard the grinding of the stone door as it opened, unleashing the many tons of pent-up water upon her.

Emma just had time to get above the level of the initial onrush. The water surged about her, tearing at her boots and causing the rope to swing wildly. The spray drenched her still further, but she was able to keep climbing, hand over hand, as quickly as any acrobat in the circus, heedless of the pain in her hands. The water rose beneath her, but she rose faster.

A moment later she was in the cavern. Her own revolver was in her hand and she rushed to the mouth of the cave.

Malveda had not gotten far. He was still edging his way along the inside of the cliff, the bag slung over his shoulder. He had not yet reached the gap.

“Malveda!” she shouted as she started onto the ledge after him. Her right hand gripped the wall. Her left held her revolver.

He looked back, and his face showed blank shock as he saw her. She shook the damp black hair out of her face and walked toward him, her feet firm on the narrow surface.

“Put down that bag,” she commanded. “I’m willing to forgive a momentary lapse in judgment, but I will not trust you with that artifact.”

“How did you…”

“That is not your concern at present. Put the idol down on the path. Carefully.”

He stared at her. He had lost his own gun, and to rush her with his machete on this narrow pathway would be tantamount to suicide. Even so, he seemed to be calculating his odds.

“You will not shoot me,” he said. “You will not risk its loss.”

“Much as I would hate that, I will risk it if you force me, and be all the gladder to be rid of you,” she answered. “Or do you care to bet your life that I wouldn’t? Put it down.”

As she had done mere minutes before, Malveda seemed to have made his judgment. He crouched over the narrow ledge, unslung Emma’s bag from his shoulders, and placed it upon the path, leaning it safely against the cliff wall.

“Very good,” she said. “Now back away from the idol.”

Malveda took a few steps back, holding tight to the cliff and still watching her.

Lady Emma advanced, one sure, slim foot in front of the other, gripping the cliff with her right hand and covering Malveda with the revolver in her left. The warm jungle wind drove against her, catching at her hair, but she didn’t take her eyes off of him for a moment.

She reached the idol. Slowly, she crouched over it. Now came the difficult part. With great care, she took her right hand off the cliff wall and reached for the bag. Her eyes dropped to look at it.

Malveda struck with the speed of a springing wolf. He seemed to swarm up the path and kicked at the gun. Emma cried out in pain as his foot connected with her hand and the weapon flew free. Instinctively, she snatched the bag up in her right hand and darted back up the path, leaping away from him as advanced, trusting to her nimble feet and superb balance to avoid plunging into nothingness.

The man lunged after her, but as he went his foot landed on a loose stone. He stumbled, tried to grab at the wall, missed, and with a terrible scream he was gone.

***

“Dear Emma!” Nicholson cried as she arrived back at camp, pale, bruised, and bleeding. “What happened? I heard screaming. Where is Malveda? He said he was going to watch for your return.…”

Emma allowed him to pull her into a warm, fatherly hug before attempting to explain.

“He didn’t just wait. He came down after me and…and he fell, I’m afraid.”

Nicholson looked at her sharply and his keen eyes swept over her.

“You are injured.”

“Not badly.”

“Where’s your skirt? And your gun?”

“I…had to use them,” she said with a grimace.

“Did he…hurt you?”

“He tried quite hard to,” she admitted. “But don’t you worry about that: I’m all right and he’s gone to his reward, poor soul.”

Nicholson shook his head.

“I never liked the blighter,” he grunted. “Never trusted him either. Well, too late for that now.”

He seated her firmly upon a stone he had set beside the campfire, draped her in a blanket, and set about bandaging and tending to her many scrapes and cuts.

“Did you…get it after all?” he asked.

Emma smiled, set the plate aside, and lifted the idol out of her bag in triumph.

“Yectclo, god of the night, at your service,” she said. She set it upon the ground, the two of them gazed at it from all sides. The sun had gone behind the clouds, but even so it seem to blaze with cold, silvery fire, its strangely-shaped head fixated upon the sky.

“By George, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Nicholson.

“Nor I,” she replied. “Nor, I wager, have any mortal eyes for over five hundred years, and very few before that.”

She gently caressed the figure, drinking in the strange, almost eerie effects of color and shape. The more she looked at it, the more unique and precious it seemed to become.

Emma got out some old cloth and wrapped the idol carefully in it. There would be plenty of time to formally examine the piece when they got back to civilization. She had had more than enough excitement for the time being. Now she was looking forward to warm beds, hot baths, and most of all, clean, beautiful clothes.

“My goodness, Nibs,” she said, eying her many bandaged wounds, her soaked, blood-stained shirt, and the bare, scrapped legs beneath her shorts. “Am I glad that you are the only one who can see me! I must look an absolute nightmare. Be a dear and fetch my vanity kit.”

The Green Hornet

The Green Hornet was one of the top classic radio pulp heroes, along with the Lone Ranger (from the same author -Fran Striker – and whom the Hornet was descended from) and the king of all pulps, the Shadow.

By day he’s newspaper magnate Britt Reid (back when that was a more respectable occupation than being a vigilante). When he discovers evidence of organized crime that the police cannot crack, he ventures forth as the masked Green Hornet, together with his faithful assistant Kato and armed with their various advanced gadgets – including a weapons-laden car called ‘Black Beauty’ – to prey on the criminal underworld.

Both the civilized world and the underworld believe the Hornet to be a dangerous criminal himself, which of course is what allows him to get close to the various gangsters and crooks that he takes down. Usually this involves bullying his way into the scheme and demanding a large chunk of the profit, then trapping them when they inevitably attempt a double cross. Ironically, of course, this aids in his dangerous reputation, as the crooks all know that those who mess with the Hornet end up in jail or dead.

Though the Hornet, like Batman and unlike the Shadow, typically doesn’t try to kill his opponents. Rather than a normal firearm he uses a gun that sprays a green knockout gas, though he also carries ‘the Hornet Sting’; a powerful energy weapon for blasting through barriers. And at least in the show, he doesn’t have a hard and fast rule against killing, he simply prefers to let the crooks be arrested.

My current TV diet largely consists of episodes of the 1960s television adaptation, which sadly lasted only one season. I don’t yet know the character well enough to say how faithful an adaptation this is, though it seems to adhere pretty close to what I know of the character: the gas gun, the criminal alias and newspaper magnate day job, the Black Beauty, and so on.

In any case, I think it’s great fun: a solid bit of pulpy adventure from a time where such things were largely falling out of fashion. Unlike the contemporary Batman show (which the Green Hornet had a crossover with at one point), this one mostly plays it straight as a crime-based adventure series. There’s frequent death and danger, and though the criminals often employ science-fiction conceits – subliminal messaging, advanced prototype weapons, etc. – these are nevertheless fairly restrained. Like, the MacGuffin of the first episode is a completely silent, flashless gun. Impossible, but not ridiculous like, say, the Penguin’s various umbrella-based weaponry (not hating on the Batman show, by the way, just drawing distinctions).

(I also like how the Hornet’s theme music is a variation of Flight of the Bumblebee)

Of course, the main reason people still remember this show is because Kato is here played by a very young actor named Bruce Lee (!!!!) in his first major role. This fact so overshadows everything else that it is Lee and not Van Williams (who plays the Hornet) who is on the cover the DVD (which declares “Bruce Lee is Kato in the Green Hornet”), and the show was even renamed ‘The Kato Show’ when screened in Asian markets.

It is a little surreal seeing a legendary, world-class talent like Lee in what is after all a rather humble adventure show like this, though everyone has to start somewhere. Lee certainly makes the most of his role by stealing the entire show every time he goes into action with blindly-fast moves and startling grace as he effortlessly destroys thug after thug. Or he doesn’t even have to be beating people up: one episode has him simply grab a reluctant witness by the shirt, but you’re still awed by just how fast he is.

This was the show the not only introduced American audiences to Lee, but also helped to popularize to Asian martial arts as such and demonstrate how effective and visually impressive they could be on screen, setting the stage for the martial-arts film boom of the next decade as well as Lee’s own mythic career (it also marked a permanent change in the Kato character, who had not previously been depicted as a martial arts master. After this, it became all-but unthinkable for him to be anything else).

(To be clear, Asian martial arts were featured before and had been long-since introduced to American culture – e.g. Barney’s Judo instructor featured in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show – but I don’t believe they had ever been shown to this level on a mainstream show before).

Incidentally, this was also where Lee learned the film business. He had done small parts before, but this was his first major role and he was paired with industry veteran Van Williams (with whom he became very good friends), who would give him tips on acting on how the business was run.

I watched an interview with Van Williams (who passed away in 2016) where he related the following story. Lee was, of course, very touchy about how his action scenes were filmed, since he took his fighting very seriously and wanted it to be shown to the best effect. So early on he would frequently argue with the stunt director about how the scenes should be done, and even tried to demand that he be allowed to direct his own fight scenes. Eventually they got the idea to give in and let him do a scene, just to show him what he was asking for. So Lee directed the scene, and then Williams and the stunt director got special permission to let him view the dailies (ordinarily actors are never allowed to see the dailies, otherwise they’d be wanting to do scenes over and over or critiquing their own performances non-stop). So they ‘snuck’ Lee into room and sat down to watch the scene.

It was a total train wreck; the lighting was off, the perspective was completely wrong (Lee hadn’t realized how much the two-dimensional film compresses depth perception), Lee himself wasn’t even visible, and so on. Everyone started laughing, and poor Lee was begging to be allowed to sneak out. So he went back to his trailer, took two hours to calm down, then went to the stunt director and humbly admitted he had no idea what he was doing and asked to learn.

That’s how Bruce Lee, future director of Way of the Dragon, learned how to shoot a movie.

For today’s viewing pleasure, I present the first episode of The Green Hornet (the entire series is currently available for free on YouTube)

PS A final bit of Hornet trivia. In the two movie serials from 1940, Kato was played by none other than Keye Luke: then-current ‘number one son’ to Charlie Chan in about a dozen films, later Master Po of Kung Fu and the mysterious shop owner of Gremlins. Mr. Luke, for those who don’t know, was an extremely prolific character actor with well over 200 credits to his name…including a role in a later episode of The Green Hornet.

Superman Cartoons

Between depression and job hunting, been really behind on writing. So instead of any new original fiction, I’m just plugging along offering you works I like. And I’ve got a treat for you today: the first three of Dave and Max Fleischer’s original Superman cartoons.

My goodness, the artistry on these old cartoons is amazing. Look at the shadows, the expressive movement. There was such a great style to these things, where they didn’t feel like they were supposed to be imitating real life, but were following more of a loose, imagination-based set of rules. These particular ones are more ‘realistic’ than most of the time, but even they keep that exaggerated, animated style. And of course the great use of music and sound to supplement the animation (the main ‘Superman’ score sounds like an embryonic version of the John Williams theme, which I’m sure is no coincidence).

The imagination on display is fantastic as well. I love those mechanical monsters: such a cool, weird, science-fiction design. And I like the way they move: like how the one just walks through the door without breaking stride.

I also like the simple, straightforward storytelling. You don’t need to know the Mad Scientist’s whole backstory, just that “people laughed at me and I will show them all!” The other villains are just after money. Simple enough, even if they use some rather extreme measures to get it. We don’t need anything else.

The Clark – Lois – Superman dynamic is nicely realized, even in shorthand. She blows off Clark and cheerfully plays dirty to try to get ahead of him (though they seem to have a friendly dynamic), while Superman anonymously keeps her safe and Clark quietly lets her take the professional credit.

(By the way, I like how Lois just grabs a plane to fly up and ask for an interview with the mad scientist. That right there pretty much sums up her character. Also love her taking charge of the crisis in Billion Dollar Limited).

This is Superman’s first appearance in cinematic form, and a key step the character’s development since this was when he gained the ability to fly (in the original comics he could simply ‘leap tall buildings in a single bound’ The Fleischers rightly judged that this would look ridiculous on screen and so just had him fly, though the influence of his original powerset can be seen in some of the action scenes, especially in Billion Dollar Limited). The streamlined origin story leaves out Ma and Pa Kent – who had been part of the comics, though their names and role varied between issues – and neither Lex Luthor nor Jimmy Olsen were yet staple characters (although the Mad Scientist in the first short is reminiscent of the early Luthor).

And in conclusion, this is another work that I’m giving canon status, and twice over. In the first place the cartoons themselves are a pivotal piece of American animation and culture: one of the Fleischer brother’s key contributions (along with Popeye and Betty Boop). Anyone interested in animation really needs to watch these.

And in the second, the Superman story as such in at least one of its classic forms is certainly part of the canon. Whether its Siegel-Shuster comics, Fleischer cartoons, Kirk Alyn serials, George Reeves TV, Christopher Reeves films, Lois and Clark, or the DCAU, or, best of all, all of them, anyone interested in western fiction should be familiar with Superman (no, Snyder does not count. And let’s just get ahead of things and say neither does J.J. Abrams).

Enough chat: enjoy pure, classic Superman.

R.E. Howard: Skulls in the Stars

For this Saturday’s entertainment, here’s one of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories: Skulls in the Stars

Credit: Guillem H. Pongiluppi, Art Station

He told how murders walk the earth
Beneath the curse of Cain,
With crimson clouds before their eyes
And flames about their brain:
For blood has left upon their souls
Its everlasting stain.
—Hood

I

There are two roads to Torkertown. One, the shorter and more direct route, leads across a barren upland moor, and the other, which is much longer, winds its tortuous way in and out among the hummocks and quagmires of the swamps, skirting the low hills to the east. It was a dangerous and tedious trail; so Solomon Kane halted in amazement when a breathless youth from the village he had just left overtook him and implored him for God’s sake to take the swamp road.

“The swamp road!” Kane stared at the boy. He was a tall, gaunt man, Solomon Kane, his darkly pallid face and deep brooding eyes made more sombre by the drab Puritanical garb he affected.

“Yes, sir, ’tis far safer,” the youngster answered to his surprised exclamation.

“Then the moor road must be haunted by Satan himself, for your townsmen warned me against traversing the other.”

“Because of the quagmires, sir, that you might not see in the dark. You had better return to the village and continue your journey in the morning, sir.”

“Taking the swamp road?”

“Yes, sir.”

Kane shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

“The moon rises almost as soon as twilight dies. By its light I can reach Torkertown in a few hours, across the moor.”

“Sir, you had better not. No one ever goes that way. There are no houses at all upon the moor, while in the swamp there is the house of old Ezra who lives there all alone since his maniac cousin, Gideon, wandered off and died in the swamp and was never found—and old Ezra though a miser would not refuse you lodging should you decide to stop until morning. Since you must go, you had better go the swamp road.”

Kane eyed the boy piercingly. The lad squirmed and shuffled his feet.

“Since this moor road is so dour to wayfarers,” said the Puritan, “why did not the villagers tell me the whole tale, instead of vague mouthings?”

“Men like not to talk of it, sir. We hoped that you would take the swamp road after the men advised you to, but when we watched and saw that you turned not at the forks, they sent me to run after you and beg you to reconsider.”

“Name of the Devil!” exclaimed Kane sharply, the unaccustomed oath showing his irritation; “the swamp road and the moor road—what is it that threatens me and why should I go miles out of my way and risk the bogs and mires?”

Sir,” said the boy, dropping his voice and drawing closer, “we be simple villagers who like not to talk of such things lest foul fortune befall us, but the moor road is a way accurst and hath not been traversed by any of the countryside for a year or more. It is death to walk those moors by night, as hath been found by some score of unfortunates. Some foul horror haunts the way and claims men for his victims.”

“So? And what is this thing like?”

“No man knows. None has ever seen, it and lived, but late-farers have heard terrible laughter far out on the fen and men have heard the horrid shrieks of its victims. Sir, in God’s name return to the village, there pass the night, and tomorrow take the swamp trail to Torkertown.”

Far back in Kane’s gloomy eyes a scintillant light had begun to glimmer, like a witch’s torch glinting under fathoms of cold grey ice. His blood quickened. Adventure! The lure of life-risk and drama! Not that Kane recognized his sensations as such. He sincerely considered that he voiced his real feelings when he said:

“These things be deeds of some power of evil. The lords of darkness have laid a curse upon the country. A strong man is needed to combat Satan and his might. Therefore I go, who have defied him many a time.”

“Sir,” the boy began, then closed his mouth as he saw the futility of argument. He only added, “The corpses of the victims are bruised and torn, sir.”

He stood there at the crossroads, sighing regretfully as he watched the tall, rangy figure swinging up the road that led toward the moors.

The sun was setting as Kane came over the brow of the low hill which debouched into the upland fen. Huge and blood-red it sank down behind the sullen horizon of the moors, seeming to touch the rank grass with fire; so for a moment the watcher seemed to be gazing out across a sea of blood. Then the dark shadows came gliding from the east, the western blaze faded, and Solomon Kane struck out, boldly in the gathering darkness.

The road was dim from disuse but was clearly defined. Kane went swiftly but warily, sword and pistols at hand. Stars blinked out and night winds whispered among the grass like weeping spectres. The moon began to rise, lean and haggard, like a skull among the stars.

Then suddenly Kane stopped short. From somewhere in front of him sounded a strange and eery echo—or something like an echo. Again, this time louder. Kane started forward again. Were his senses deceiving him? No!

Far out, there pealed a whisper of frightful laughter. And again, closer this time. No human being ever laughed like that—there was no mirth in it, only hatred and horror and soul-destroying terror. Kane halted. He was not afraid, but for the second he was almost unnerved. Then, stabbing through that awesome laughter, came the sound of a scream that was undoubtedly human. Kane started forward, increasing his gait. He cursed the illusive lights and flickering shadows which veiled the moor in the rising moon and made accurate sight impossible. The laughter continued, growing louder, as did the screams. Then sounded faintly the drum of frantic human feet. Kane broke into a run. Some human was being hunted to death out there on the fen, and by what manner of horror God only knew. The sound of the flying feet halted abruptly and the screaming rose unbearably, mingled with other sounds unnameable and hideous. Evidently the man had been overtaken, and Kane, his flesh crawling, visualized some ghastly fiend of the darkness crouching on the back of its victim crouching and tearing. Then the noise of a terrible and short struggle came clearly through the abysmal silence of the night and the footfalls began again, but stumbling and uneven. The screaming continued, but with a gasping gurgle. The sweat stood cold on Kane’s forehead and body. This was heaping horror on horror in an intolerable manner. God, for a moment’s clear light! The frightful drama was being enacted within a very short distance of him, to judge by the ease with which the sounds reached him. But this hellish half-light veiled all in shifting shadows, so that the moors appeared a haze of blurred illusions, and stunted trees, and bushes seemed like giants.

Kane shouted, striving to increase the speed of his advance. The shrieks of the unknown broke into a hideous shrill squealing; again there was the sound of a struggle, and then from the shadows of the tall grass a thing came reeling — a thing that had once been a man—a gore-covered, frightful thing that fell at Kane’s feet and writhed and grovelled and raised its terrible face to the rising moon, and gibbered and yammered, and fell down again and died in its own blood.

The moon was up now and the light was better. Kane bent above the body, which lay stark in its unnameable mutilation, and he shuddered; a rare thing for him, who had seen the deeds of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch-finders.

Some wayfarer, he supposed. Then like a hand of ice on his spine he was aware that he was not alone. He looked up, his cold eyes piercing the shadows whence the dead man had staggered. He saw nothing, but he knew — he felt—that other eyes gave back his stare, terrible eyes not of this earth. He straightened and drew a pistol, waiting. The moonlight spread like a lake of pale blood over the moor, and trees and grasses took on their proper sizes. The shadows melted, and Kane saw! At first he thought it only a shadow of mist, a wisp of moor fog that swayed in the tall grass before him. He gazed. More illusion, he thought. Then the thing began to take on shape, vague and indistinct. Two hideous eyes flamed at him—eyes which held all the stark horror which has been the heritage of man since the fearful dawn ages—eyes frightful and insane, with an insanity transcending earthly insanity. The form of the thing was misty and vague, a brain-shattering travesty on the human form, like, yet horribly unlike. The grass and bushes beyond showed clearly through it.

Kane felt the blood pound in his temples, yet he was as cold as ice. How such an unstable being as that which wavered before him could harm a man in a physical way was more than he could understand, yet the red horror at his feet gave mute testimony that the fiend could act with terrible material effect.

Of one thing Kane was sure; there would be no hunting of him across the dreary moors, no screaming and fleeing to be dragged down again and again. If he must die he would die in his tracks, his wounds in front.

Now a vague and grisly mouth gaped wide and the demoniac laughter again shrieked but, soul-shaking in its nearness. And in the midst of feat threat of doom, Kane deliberately levelled his long pistol and fired. A maniacal yell of rage and mockery answered the report, and the thing came at him like a flying sheet of smoke, long shadowy arms stretched to drag him down.

Kane, moving with the dynamic speed of a famished wolf, fired the second pistol with as little effect, snatched his long rapier from its sheath and thrust into the centre of the misty attacker. The blade sang as it passed clear through, encountering no solid resistance, and Kane felt icy fingers grip his limbs, bestial talons tear his garments and the skin beneath,

He dropped the useless sword and sought to grapple with his foe. It was like fighting a floating mist, a flying shadow armed with dagger-like claws. His savage blows met empty air, his leanly mighty arms, in whose grasp strong men had died, swept nothingness and clutched emptiness. Naught was solid or real save the flaying, apelike fingers with their crooked talons, and the crazy eyes which burned into the shuddering depths of his soul.

Kane realized that he was in a desperate plight indeed. Already his garments hung in tatters and he bled from a score of deep wounds. But he never flinched, and the thought of flight never entered his mind. He had never fled from a single foe, and had the thought occurred to him he would have flushed with shame.

He saw no help for it now, but that his form should lie there beside the fragments of the other ‘ victim, but the thought held no terrors for him. His only wish was to give as good an account of himself as possible before the end came, and if he could, to inflict some damage on his unearthly foe. There above the dead man’s torn body, man fought with demon under the pale light of the rising moon, with all the advantages with the demon, save one. And that one was enough to overcome the others. For if abstract hate may bring into material substance a ghostly thing, may not courage, equally abstract, form a concrete weapon to combat that ghost? Kane fought with his arms and his feet and his hands, and he was aware at last that the ghost began to give back before him, and the fearful slaughter changed to screams of baffled fury. For man’s only weapon is courage that flinches not from the gates of Hell itself, and against such not even the legions of Hell can stand. Of this Kane knew nothing; he only knew that the talons which tore and rended him seemed to grow weaker and wavering, that a wild light grew and grew in the horrible eyes. And reeling and gasping, he rushed in, grappled the thing at last and threw it, and as they tumbled about on the moor and it writhed and lapped his limbs like a serpent of smoke, his flesh crawled and his hair stood on end, for he began to understand its gibbering. He did not hear and comprehend as a man hears and comprehends the speech of a man, but the frightful secrets it imparted in whisperings and yammerings and screaming silences sank fingers of ice into his soul, and he knew.

II

The hut of old Ezra the miser stood by the road in the midst of the swamp, half screened by the sullen trees which grew about it. The wall were rotting, the roof crumbling, and great pallid and green fungus-monsters clung to it and writhed about the doors and windows, as if seeking to peer within. The trees leaned above it and their grey branches intertwined so that it crouched in semi-darkness like a monstrous dwarf over whose shoulder ogres leer.

The road, which wound down into the swamp among rotting stumps and rank hummocks and scummy, snake-haunted pools and bogs, crawled past the hut. Many people passed that way these days, but few saw old Ezra, save a glimpse of a yellow face, peering through the fungus-screened windows, itself like an ugly fungus.

Old Ezra the miser partook much of the quality of the swamp, for he was gnarled and bent and sullen; his fingers were like clutching parasitic plants and his locks hung like drab moss above eyes trained to the murk of the swamplands. His eyes were like a dead man’s, yet hinted of depths abysmal and loathsome as the dead lakes of the swamplands.

These eyes gleamed now at the man who stood in front of his hut. This man was tall and gaunt and dark, his face was haggard and claw-marked, and he was bandaged of arm and leg. Somewhat behind this man stood a number of villagers.

“You are Ezra of the swamp road?”

“Aye, and what want ye of me?”

“Where is your cousin Gideon, the maniac youth who abode with you?”

“Gideon?”

“Aye.”

“He wandered away into the swamp and never came back. No doubt he lost his way and was set upon by wolves or died in a quagmire or was struck by an adder.”

“How long ago?”

“Over a year.”

“Aye. Hark ye, Ezra the miser. Soon after your cousin’s disappearance, a countryman, coming home across the moors, was set upon by some unknown fiend and torn to pieces, and thereafter it became death to cross those moors. First men of the countryside, then strangers who wandered over the fen, fell to the clutches of the thing. Many men have died, since the first one.

“Last night I crossed the moors, and heard the flight and pursuing of another victim, a stranger who knew not the evil of the moors. Ezra the miser, it was a fearful thing, for the wretch twice broke from the fiend, terribly wounded, and each time the demon caught and dragged him down again. And at last he fell dead at my very feet, done to death in a manner that would freeze the statue of a saint.”

The villagers moved restlessly and murmured fearfully to each other, and old Ezra’s eyes shifted furtively. Yet the sombre expression of Solomon Kane never altered, and his condor-like stare seemed to transfix the miser.

“Aye, aye!” muttered old Ezra hurriedly; “a bad thing, a bad thing! Yet why do you tell this thing to me?”

“Aye, a sad thing. Harken further, Ezra. The fiend came out of the shadows and I fought with it over the body of its victim. Aye, how I overcame it, I know not, for the battle was hard and long but the powers of good and light were on my side, which are mightier than the powers of Hell.

“At the last I was stronger, and it broke from me and fled, and I followed to no avail. Yet before it fled it whispered to me a monstrous truth.”

Old Ezra started, stared wildly, seemed to shrink into himself.

“Nay, why tell me this?” he muttered.

“I returned to the village and told my tale, said Kane, “for I knew that now I had the power to rid the moors of its curse forever! Ezra, come with us!”

“Where?” gasped the miser.

“To the rotting oak on the moors.” Ezra reeled as though struck; he screamed incoherently and turned to flee.

On the instant, at Kane’s sharp order, two brawny villagers sprang forward and seized the miser. They twisted the dagger from his withered hand, and pinioned his arms, shuddering as their fingers encountered his clammy flesh.

Kane motioned them to follow, and turning strode up the trail, followed by the villagers, who found their strength taxed to the utmost in their task of bearing their prisoner along. Through the swamp they went and out, taking a little-used trail which led up over the low hills and out on the moors.

The sun was sliding down the horizon and old Ezra stared at it with bulging eyes—stared as if he could not gaze enough. Far out on the moors geared up the great oak tree, like a gibbet, now only a decaying shell. There Solomon Kane halted.

Old Ezra writhed in his captor’s grasp and made inarticulate noises.

“Over a year ago,” said Solomon Kane, “you, fearing that your insane cousin Gideon would tell men of your cruelties to him, brought him away from the swamp by the very trail by which we came, and murdered him here in the night.”

Ezra cringed and snarled.

“You can not prove this lie!”

Kane spoke a few words to an agile villager. The youth clambered up the rotting bole of the tree and from a crevice, high up, dragged something that fell with a clatter at the feet of the miser. Ezra went limp with a terrible shriek.

The object was a man’s skeleton, the skull cleft.

“You—how knew you this? You are Satan!” gibbered old Ezra.

Kane folded his arms.

“The thing I fought last night told me this thing as we reeled in battle, and I followed it to this tree. For the fiend is Gideon’s ghost.”

Ezra shrieked again and fought savagely.

“You knew,” said Kane sombrely, “you knew what things did these deeds. You feared the ghost of the maniac, and that is why you chose to leave his body on the fen instead of concealing it in the swamp. For you knew the ghost would haunt the place of his death. He was insane in life, and in death he did not know where to find his slayer; else he had come to you in your hut. He hates no man but you, but his mazed spirit can not tell one man from another, and he slays all, lest he let his killer escape. Yet he will know you and rest in peace, forever after. Hate hath made of his ghost, a solid thing that can rend and slay, and though he feared you terribly in life, in death he fears you not at all.”

Kane halted. He glanced at the sun.

“All this I had from Gideon’s ghost, in his yammerings and his whisperings and his shrieking silences. Naught but your death will lay that ghost.”

Ezra listened in breathless silence and Kane pronounced the words of his doom.

“A hard thing it is,” said Kane sombrely, “to sentence a man to death in cold blood and in such a manner as I have in mind, but you must die that others may live—and God knoweth you deserve death.

“You shall not die by noose, bullet or sword, but at the talons of him you slew—for naught else will satiate him.”

At these words Ezra’s brain shattered, his knees gave way and he fell grovelling and screaming for death, begging them to burn him at the stake, to flay him alive. Kane’s face was set like death, and the villagers, the fear rousing their cruelty, bound the screeching wretch to the oak tree, and one of them bade him make his peace with God. But Ezra made no answer, shrieking in a high shrill voice with unbearable monotony. Then the villager would have struck the miser across across the face, but Kane stayed him.

“Let him make his peace with Satan, whom he is more like to meet,” said the Puritan grimly. “The sun is about to set. Loose his cords so that he may work loose by dark, since it is better to meet death free and unshackled than bound like a sacrifice.” As they turned to leave him, old Ezra yammered and gibbered unhuman sounds and then fell silent, staring at the sun with terrible intensity.

They walked away across the fen, and Kane flung a last look at the grotesque form bound to the tree, seeming in the uncertain light like a great fungus growing to the bole. And suddenly the miser screamed hideously:

“Death! Death! There are skulls in the Stars!”

“Life was good to him, though he was gnarled and churlish and evil,” Kane sighed. “Mayhap God has a place for such souls where fire and sacrifice may cleanse them of their dross as fire cleans the forest of fungus things. Yet my heart is heavy within me.”

“Nay, sir,” one of the villagers spoke, “you have done but the will of God, and good alone shall come of this night’s deed.”

“Nay,” answered Kane heavily. “I know not — I know not.”

The sun had gone down and night spread with amazing swiftness, as if great shadows came rushing down from unknown voids to cloak the world with hurrying darkness. Through the thick night came a weird echo, and the men halted and looked back the way they had come.

Nothing could be seen. The moor was an ocean of shadows and the tall grass about them bent in long waves before the, faint wind, breaking the deathly stillness with breathless murmurings.

Then far away the red disk of the moon rose over the fen, and for an instant a grim silhouette was etched blackly against it. A shape came flying across the face of the moon — a bent, grotesque thing whose feet seemed scarcely to touch the earth; and close behind came a thing like a flying shadow—a nameless, shapeless horror.

A moment the racing twain stood out boldly against the moon; then they merged into one unnameable, formless mass, and vanished in the shadows.

Far across the fen sounded a single shriek of terrible laughter.

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