This is the third story we have posted from Al Bruno III, and I am pretty sure he is the only author we have posted stories from. But this is only because I love his short stories PLUS he is the only author who alerts us when he writes something we may be interested in and allows us to repost them here for our readers. So if you stumble upon any dark writing out there or an author with stuff you think our readers may be interested in, let us know and we will be happy to post it here for our mabazillion of fans. As for this story, well it is a doozy. I’ve not read all of Bruno’s work, but this one is longer than the other two we have posted (“In Memory Alone” and “Roadside Burials“) and more disturbing. It deals with a Lovecraft-ish mythos of Bruno’s own creation that he calls a “mythology on progress”. This one a story of a world where both dreams and monsters lurk in the shadows, where love and forgotten rituals fight for control of the human heart.
“There are CREATURES that come from beyond reality
From beyond the realms of TIME and SPACE
Beware THEM for THEIR purposes are unfathomable”
The Kriely Fragments
Sheku Banjah tried to keep the class busy but the children were tense and distracted. He stood at the front of the one room schoolhouse, framed by the maps of the African continent and Sierra Leone on the walls. He kept the questions easy and gave away pieces of candy for each correct answer. The schoolhouse had been a farewell gift from the Peace Corps workers that had visited almost a decade a go. The people of the village of Kono did their best to keep it in repair, doting on it with the same amount of care and reverence they had for their place of worship.
Usually the classroom was loud and busy but today Sheku’s students were all nervous glances and halting replies. The adults of the village had tried to shield the children from the chaos erupting in Freetown but they knew; they heard whispers of the wholesale slaughter committed in the name of the Revolutionary United Front. They snuck radios to their beds and listened to the news from under the covers. They had all seen that man stagger into their village a week ago, his dark skin pallid with blood loss, his arms and lips hacked away.
The schoolhouse window was propped open with a length of wood, warm air and the bustle of the spring afternoon wafted in over the lesson. Fathers and older brothers were coming back from the fields; mothers were out and about, talking and keeping busy. Anyone with a time to while away congregated on the steps of the church. The priest, Father Warrick, had left some two weeks ago claiming he had business back in Rome but Sheku suspected that the stories of he Revolutionary United Front had been too much for him. Of all the things that were happening now, that had left the children the most unease. After all if even God’s messenger was afraid what hope could there be?
But in truth, Sheku Banjah was glad to see the back of Father Warrick. All the man ever did was carp on and on about the end times and the book of Revelations. He told everyone that 1999 was their last year on Earth and the last chance to repent their sins. It always amazed Sheku that someone supposedly schooled in the hope of Christ’s resurrection would be practically salivating at the thought of the apocalypse.
He asked them another math question and one of the girls had the answer- it was Fatou, she always had the right answers. Sheku liked to imagine that someday she would leave Sierra Leone to study in Europe, just like he had.
“The ancient people had a name for THEIR kind — the DARK GODS
The Beings from Outside”
The Kriely Fragments
From his vantage point in the shadow of the foothills of the Loma Mountains, Major Ishmael Mayta watched his troops make ready. Battle hardened men and cold eyed children took long drinks from plastic jugs filled with wine and other spirits. For the more jaded or weary there were methamphetamine and crack. The officers had a little bit of everything and knew what to dole out and when.
Mayta was in his fifties with thick muscular arms and a swollen belly; a decades-old bullet wound marked his right cheek. His uniform was stained with sweat, dirt and blood. He stood in on the drivers’ side of his battered old jeep and stared through a pair of binoculars, tracing a path down the dirt road to the village. His glance flickered from the overworked, arid fields to the small, sturdy houses that clustered around the schoolhouse and church. Everyone was going about their daily routine, children were rushing home from school, and men were coming home from the fields. Smoke from a cooking dinner slowly wafted up from each chimney. Mayta wondered how many of those houses in the village might have guns.
Not that it really mattered, in over a dozen raids he’d yet to meet one community with the will to defend itself. He put the binoculars down and turned his attention back to his troops.
The three supply trucks were being arranged in a circle, one carried scavenged food, the second weapons and ammunition, and in the third the camp wives crowded together. The camp wives- women and girls as old as fifty and as young as fifteen were kept manageable with Quaaludes and malnourishment. The clustered together in the back of the truck, trying to keep as far as they could from the stinking bloodstained burlap sacks they had to share their space with. The wounded and older men would be left behind to guard the wives and the supplies. They knew that Mayta would call them down once the village had been pacified and The Cuttings had begun.
“Seems a lovely little town.” A voice rasped, “Do you even know its name?”
“Such things are not important.” Major Mayta glanced at the emaciated man in the passenger seat. The ragged yellow cloak he wrapped himself in barely hid a faded gray uniform; the mask he wore was snout-like and the color of bone, the clear glass eyepieces revealed pink skin and dark eyes. If any of Mayta’s loyal soldiers or conscripts could see the figure they gave no indication.
“These empty gestures, I expected more from you.”
“These are my orders.”
“Orders from above. I understand.”
Mayta had been seeing the shape for weeks, ever since he found the book with the image in it. At first hovering on the outskirts of battles and celebrations, fading in and out of focus like a wisp of smoke until Mayta had begun to worry about his sanity. The shape had drawn closer and closer over the days and nights until finally Mayta found the figure in gray and yellow waiting for him in his tent.
“In the end, how many villages with you burn?”
“As many as it takes. Until the nation is strong and secure again.”
“And what about the people?”
Mayta made a dismissive gesture, “The people are weak. They voted for full bellies now and famine later. They must be shown the error of their ways.”
“A nation is an eye blink in the lifetime of a world.”
The shape called it the Hierophant. Mayta reading the name in the book but he was sure he had heard it before; a white man’s word for a white man’s demon.
Mayta thought of the promises the specter had made the allusions and prophesies. One had saved Mayta’s life but still the questions lingered, “What is it you want? Do you enjoy watching what happens? Would you like a hatchet so you can try it yourself? Maybe I should take a hatchet to you.”
The Hierophant shuddered and blurred for a moment, it reminded Mayta of a film being mis-threaded through a movie projector. When the Hierophant spoke again his voice- and it was a man, Mayta was almost certain- his voice was stronger, “You already attempted that Ishmael. How many bullets did you fire? Did it matter? I live in the future, how can I die in the past?”
Mayta bristled at being called by his first name, “What do you want?”
The jeeps and troop transports were lining up; a few of the officers were fussing over their video cameras and burlap sacks.
“I am searching…” The Hierophant juddered, “…for a vision of the future.”
“Know THEM as BODGE LOYAR — the harlequin in rime;
ANZON – - pallid and murmuring;”
The Kriely Fragments
The RUF moved with the sunset. The child soldiers led the way, jittery eyed and firing wildly at anything that moved, Major Mayta’s regular troops moved in after, blocking avenues of escape. By the time the inhabitants of the village of Kono had realized what was happening, they were trapped. Already a handful of villagers were lying dead in the street or slumped over in their doorways.
With practiced efficiency, they herded the citizens from their homes and forced them to the center of the village. The officers moved from house to house, filling their pockets with anything valuable. Other officers had video cameras; they jokingly interviewed their captives, asking them who they had voted for in the election. One of the older men of the village was shot in the face by an eleven year old boy. No one knew why.
The officers separated the prettiest girls and women from the rest and told them they would be the camp wives. They ordered them to strip, their camcorders at the ready. Mothers and fathers began to scream and sob, but none of them moved forward.
Fatou resisted, tried to run away. The RUF made a game of recapturing her until finally a tall rebel soldier dragged her back to the center of the village by her hair. Her face was bruised and she was bleeding here and there. She was ordered to strip again. She told them no, she dared them to kill her.
Major Mayta frowned, in situations like this hope and bravery were best dealt with harshly, “Kill her then.”
“No!” Sheku Banjah broke free of the crowd, immediately there were a dozen weapons pointed in his face, “Don’t do this. This proves nothing, this gains you nothing. These are children.”
“Who are you?” Major Mayta walked up to the smaller man.
Sheku tried to stand his ground, “I… I am the schoolteacher.”
The supply trucks were slowly approaching the village; one of the officers was placing a chopping block near the church steps.
“A schoolteacher?” Mayta smiled, “I consider myself something of a teacher as well. You see these children here? I have taught them more about the truth of things than you ever could.”
“Don’t do this.” Sheku said again, “Don’t.”
“I think I will teach you a lesson too.” Mayta called out, “Where is my Princess?”
A girl approached them, she was short and chubby with narrow eyes; unlike the other child soldiers she was completely sober. She wore a white t-shirt with ‘Princess Cut Hands’ scrawled on the front. She carried a worn but sharp-looking hatchet in one hand and a burlap sack in the other; she looked to be almost twelve but she might have been younger.
The older men were chanting “Princess! Princess!” over and over again while they dragged the schoolteacher to the chopping block. The girl had not always been Princess Cut Hands, there had been another name but she worked hard to forget it. When Mayta’s men had come to her village they had mistaken her for a boy. She had always hated when that happened but when she saw what Mayta’s men had done to the other girls she was glad. It had given her a chance to prove her mettle. The boys of the village were given a choice, conscription or the hatchet. To prove their loyalty to the RUF the boys were ordered to chop off their fathers’ hands. Most of the boys wept at the very idea but Princess Cut Hands had found it easier than she’d thought.
By the time someone finally had realized her gender Princess had added a dozen hands to the burlap sack that held her father’s. Mayta had laughed long and hard at this, but she understood was not mocking her. With a single embrace he had made her his Princess and treated her like one.
She traveled with the officers in relative comfort. One officer had taught her about guns and tactics, another made sure to keep her hatchet sharpened. They all brought her gifts scavenged from other people’s homes. In truth jewelry and dolls meant little to Princess Cut Hands but she liked the attention so she made sure to reward each one with a hug and a kiss.
The schoolteacher was screaming and struggling. It took five men to hold him down. She stood over him listening to him beg. Princess Cut Hands asked, her voice gentle, “Are you right handed or left handed?”
She twirled the hatchet, “Right handed or left handed?”
“… right handed.” He said with a defeated posture.
With a single, well practiced swing Princess chopped off his right hand. Then she took his left. His feet took longer, the bone was thicker and he kept thrashing. Then she asked one of the officers for a bayonet and she took out the schoolteacher’s tongue and turned his eyes into a weeping ruin.
Princess Cut Hands could feel Major Mayta beaming with approval. They brought a pregnant villager before her and Princess asked for the bayonet to be fixed to a rifle.
“KRESSOR – - who wanders in the void through worlds;
DELPHANOS — the broken seraph of desire;”
The Kriely Fragments
One by one the men and boys of Kono were led up to the chopping block; many of the men had to hold their sons down for the hatchets before lying down meekly themselves. The burlap sack slowly began to fill, just like all the others. The men and boys that screamed too much or cursed the rebels had their faces mutilated or their ears cut off. A few of the boys were given the chance to join the rebels if they could muster the brutality to win Princess Cut Hands’ approval. After the hatchets those that could stand were told to run to the next town and see if the government could give them new limbs. Most collapsed in the town square, broken and bleeding; their last sight was of their daughters of wives being passed from rebel to rebel by the light of their burning homes.
The older camp wives had learned to keep themselves busy at moments like this, otherwise they might be forced to join the rebels’ parties or worse yet, to be found tiresome and killed with a bayonet to the throat. The camp wives took the farming implements the officers had set aside for them. Using picks and shovels they dug a shallow trench and dragged the bodies of the dead to it; the school teacher, the village elder, the defiant girl and a half-dozen others were piled atop one another without ceremony. Major Mayta always nodded approvingly at such initiative, he liked to burn the dead before his troops moved on.
A number of his men were standing guard on the outskirts of the village, men with no real stomach for the work being done here or men that had displeased the Major in some way. They kept watch for government troops or UN forces, there had been a few close calls recently; escapes marked by gunfire and human shields. Sometimes Major Mayta wondered at the expressions on those troops faces were like when they found the remains of his work, when they heard the stories of the survivors. He liked to imagine a line of anguished faces, one after the other leading all the way back to President Kabbah.
Drinking from a bottle of wine Major Ishmael Mayta watched the fire spread from house to house like a living thing, dancing and licking at the air. Something was screaming in one of those houses, high pitched and keening- it was either a baby or a pet that had been forgotten in the chaos. He offered it a toast; after all didn’t we all burn in the end?
Mayta glanced over at the church and the schoolhouse, they would both have to be razed to the ground, along with the fields; nothing salvageable would be left behind.
A shape was moving in the schoolhouse, flitting like a shadow. Mayta told one of his officers to keep watch over things and headed towards the building. Just in case, he kept his sidearm ready. Mayta didn’t see the Hierophant until he closed the door behind him. The cloaked, masked figure was whispering to himself; he held a piece of chalk in his unsteady hand and drew his sigil on the blackboard with practiced care.
Mayta drew closer, “I wondered where you had gone.”
“I found it all so very tiresome.”
The Hierophant glanced over his shoulder, “Do you and your men think this is original? Do you think that transgressions like this haven’t been committed before?”
“An entire generation will remember what happened here. A hard lesson but a necessary one, they will have to deal with us and address our demands.” Mayta glanced out the window to watch his men, “Besides, the government troops are no better, I know what they do to rebels when they capture them.”
“A nation of browbeaten cripples.” The Hierophant turned, “Is this your goal?”
“What I want is for you to give me that power you spoke of- or stop haunting me.” Mayta approached the figure in gray and yellow. He cursed himself for ever glancing through that book. It had been months ago, when his forces had been smaller and they had been forced to hide from a regiment of government troops. Up in the mountains they had found refuge in an old house that seemed to be left over from the colonial days. The windows had been boarded up and the walls scarred with marks from an old fire but the walls and roof looked solid enough so Mayta and his not quite a platoon of soldiers had taken refuge there.
The old house had been stripped of anything valuable, they only room they had found furnished was on the second floor. One of Mayta’s officers had found it while scouting for snipers. It had been a study, with fireplace a mahogany desk, and an entire wall of books. The desk however had begun to warp and rot, its drawers now holding only nests of spiders. The chimney had long ago collapsed into the fireplace. The books had been in a dozen languages but Mayta found that most fell apart the moment he tried to page through them. There was only one that he found legible and untouched by age- Broken Pantheon: A Socio-Archeological Reexamination of the Kriely Fragments.
Mayta had only glanced through it, just enough to learn about the so called Dark Gods and their Hierophant. Then he had tossed the book aside and gotten back to the business of keeping his men alive and the government troops at bay.
In the end the entire regiment had passed them by, it had almost been as though they hadn’t even seen the old house. Mayta wondered if somehow that had been the work of the figure mocking him now.
The Hierophant looked away from the blackboard, “And what would you do then? How would you change the world?”
Mayta grinned, “I would take what I wanted and live like a king, and the rest can go to Hell for all I care.”
The Hierophant laughed, “How petty. How banal. No wonder you need children to perform your cruelties for you.”
Snarling Mayta raised the pistol and fired, emptying the clip. When he recovered his senses he found the blackboard riddled with bullets but the Hierophant was gone. Mayta cursed under his breath.
“ELDRAD — the dismembered harbinger;
NOGGAR-DALLIEON — the shapeless and everlasting;”
The Kriely Fragments
One of the other child soldiers was a scrawny boy named Joseph. He had been traveling with the rebels for almost two years; first with another group that had been wiped out by a government mortar assault and then with Mayta’s men. He was quiet and efficient, the officers frequently trusted him with difficult and dangerous tasks. They had even pinned a makeshift medal to his shirt as a reward for courage under fire.
Princess Cut Hands had lured him out of the village telling him that they needed to bring the men on sentry duty fresh water. Then when she had known they were alone she had shot him twice in the back.
She stood over his dead body, trying to understand the strange fluttering in her belly that seeing him still made her feel. She glanced back to the camp, to the screams and the fires, wondering what she should tell the Major. That it was an accident? That Joseph was a traitor? A deserter? She wondered if she should just say nothing; drink and drugs often left the men with foggy recollections of what had happened the night before. Princess Cut Hands decided to do just that, let the adults make sense of it.
“He knew it would be you.” A voice started her from her thoughts. She turned to see a stooped shape resting against a tree. A pale mask covered its face; a yellow cloak was draped over its body. “He always knew it would be you.”
Princess Cut Hands drew closer, “You’re Mayta’s ghost. I hear him talk to you sometimes.”
“He thinks he’s discreet but someone always notices.” The Hierophant watched her, “You should know that. Someone always notices.”
“No one saw us.” She glanced back to the village again. The schoolhouse was burning now.
“Someone will put the pieces together and understand.” The Hierophant drew closer, “And then what?”
“They won’t care.”
“Are you sure?” Mayta’s ghost cocked its head, “You don’t think you’ll be punished?”
The Hierophant moved closer, the yellow cloak gliding over Joseph’s body, “If you had the power to change the world what would you do?”
“A wish, if I had a wish?”
“Perhaps… perhaps something better than that.”
“I would go back.” Princess Cut Hands said, “I would make it that Mayta went to some other village and found some other girl. I would make everything like it used to be.”
“That’s all?” The Hierophant slouched a little, “You could have anything.”
Princess Cut Hands walked back over to Joseph’s remains and gave them a savage kick, “You don’t understand. He made me kill him. I didn’t want to… I don’t… why did he make me do that?”
“DAMIEA — she who writhes
In THEIR madness they are never cruel; in THEIR wisdom they are never uncertain”
The Kriely Fragments
Barely able to breathe, choking on old blood he awoke. Sounds rattled through his head, full of fresh screams and past conversations. Phantom agonies wracked the jagged stumps where his hands and feet had been. Blinded, he felt the remains of his eyesight running down his face like tears. Sheku Banjah couldn’t believe he was still alive, he couldn’t believe this wasn’t all some impossible nightmare.
He tried to shift so he could catch his breath but a soft weight held him fast. Twisting and pushing, he felt limp arms and faces brush across him.
How far down deep was he buried? How many bodies were atop him? He felt himself almost giggling at the question. Was that Fatou pinning his knees? What old friend was crushing his chest?
Leveraging one of his elbows against the crumbling wall of the mass grave Sheku started to crawl. Dirt tumbled over him, sprinkling into his gaping eye sockets. The bodies pressed down on, pushing him back. If he had a tongue he would have cursed them, he would have cursed the world.
He thought that perhaps in a way Father Warrick had been right. Perhaps after two thousand years, all humanity deserved was judgment and fire. As he struggled up through the bodies, Sheku imagined himself passing sentence on the entire world; on the West for its meddling and its greed, on the government for its ten years of blundering, on the rebels themselves for their pointless campaign of terror and mutilation. Even the people of the village of Kono would find his wrath. Were they so afraid of dying they were willing to suffer such tortures? Their daughters were being raped and their sons turned into monsters and they did nothing but weep.
A waft of cool air filled his nostrils. It smelled like smoke and cordite but it sent a shiver through him. The sound of his own struggling breaths filled his ears as he pulled himself over and through the dead; their skin felt clammy and rubbery to the touch, fluids and waste slicked across his skin. He wondered madly where their blood ended and his began.
If I could, Sheku thought, I would teach them all how to weep. Everyone in the world, the sinners and the pure. I would flay the skin from their backs and leave them living. I would see them eaten alive and split in two. I would watch their cities burn and crash around them.
Sobbing and exhausted he pulled himself free of the shallow grave and dragged himself worm-like over the ground.
The Hierophant was waiting for him, “Schoolteacher?”
Sheku gurgled and hissed as blood and bile lolled from his mouth.
The Hierophant nodded with approval, “I share your vision of the future.”
“THEY are less than MANKIND and THEY are more than US
THEIR dreams are our FLESH; OUR dreams are THEIRS”
The Kriely Fragments
By the light of the burning village Major Ishmael Mayta of the Revolutionary United Front watched his men dance drunkenly and sate themselves with the new camp wives. From where he sat in his jeep Mayta could see the three boys from the village that had been found acceptable and conscripted; they were lying passed out on the ground in a stupor on the ground. Princess Cut Hands stood guard over them, her eyes, puffy and sullen.
One of the officers was discussing plans to rendezvous with another branch of the RUF. He was eager another run at Freetown but Mayta didn’t think much of the idea. The government would defend Freetown to the very end, they only way to win the nation now was to break the spirits of the people.
Every village they raided sent more and more frightened citizens fleeing to Freetown and the military garrisons. It strained resources and put more pressure on the President.
A scream sounded from one of the trucks. A handful of the camp wives that had been lying low ran spilled from the vehicle. Dark shapes clawed at them, crawling over their bodies. Mayta was about to shout orders when each of the burning buildings extinguished; their fires snuffed out as though they were mere candles.
Lost to darkness, the village of Kono was suddenly filled with fresh screams and flashes of gunfire. Mayta took cover behind his jeep. What was this?
Impossible, they would never make an appearance without air support.
It was too organized for that, stealth had never been the regular army’s strong point.
A scuttling sound roused Mayta from his thoughts. Something was scrabbling under his jeep. He drew his sidearm and looked down.
At first he thought is was a rat or some other small animal, but there were too many limbs for something like that and the shape was blunt and headless. It moved like an insect in starts and fits.
Then he realized it was a hand. A severed hand, half gone to rot.
More of them were scrabbling their way over and under the jeep, blind and purposeful. Mayta stood waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Rebels and prisoners alike were dying around him; their faces clawed away, their windpipes crushed.
Mayta thought of the three burlap sacks filled with hands he was saving to bring back to his RUF commanders for the sizable bounty they had promised.
How many hands? Sixty? A hundred?
“Hierophant!” Mayta screamed the name half in outrage, half in fear, “What is the meaning of this?”
Hands leapt, fingers raking the air. Swatting at them Mayta got up and started running. All around him the ground was alive with the things, they darted this way and that. Firing at them in frustration Mayta called for his men, for anyone.
Princess Cut Hand’s voice was shrill and pleading, Mayta turned to see the girl being dragged into the shallow grave; pale bloodless limbs grasped at her, the bodies that had lost their hands made do with their teeth.
Years of experience on the battlefield had taught Mayta to know when to retreat. He spared the girl a moment’s glance and then moved on. The supply truck was on the outskirts of the village square. He knew if he could reach it he could be away from here, a short drive would bring him to one the rebel bases or perhaps he would just right across the border to Liberia. All that mattered was finding his way back to a place where the world made sense again.
Near the supply truck, the schoolteacher was waiting. His wounds that still bled something like smoke; he stood without feet, he glared without eyes. When he spoke his voice was a gurgling nonsense.
The sight of him froze Mayta. This was the power the Hierophant had spoken of; the power to change the world. Mayta raised his sidearm and pointed it only to have the thing that had been the schoolteacher begin to laugh.
“Sheku Banjah has a vision for the future.” The Hierophant stood nearby, “He so wants to share it with you.”
Mayta could hear skittering sounds all around him. He thought of the strange book with its strange gods, was this a dismembered harbinger? Or a broken seraph? How could a bullet kill such a creature?
With a single, swift motion he jammed the pistol under his chin and fired.
A disappointed howl escaped from Sheku Banjah, his tears were smoke.
“Don’t mourn him.” The Hierophant said, “Not when there are such terrible wonders before us.”
They faded into the darkness as the village of Kono began to burn again, the fires snarling back to life. The legion of severed hands climbed over the body of Major Ishmael Mayta like ants; tearing and pulling at his remains with mindless determination until the sun began to rise. Then they began to sputter and slow like clockwork toys, until they stilled; their bodies pulling into a clawed rigor.
When the government troops arrived they found only the schoolhouse standing. There was anger and outrage and vows of retribution. All throughout the grim business of gathering up and accounting for the dead, The Hierophant’s sigil remained unnoticed on the blackboard.
Tags: cracked spine, Horror, Short Story
“In the wake of THEIR passing into the secret places a HEIROPHANT was left behind
HE safeguards THEIR memory”
HE will choose mark FLESH and DREAMS with his sign. HE will make THE WORLD ready.
The Kriely Fragments