Foreword and Author's Note
These are a series of short stories in progress, collectively called "The Adventures of Altenglisch Hans Cuxhaven". A long name for a little character, whom I have been given permission to feature in these stories of adventure, horror, some comedy, and a little dumb luck. An original creation of my girlfriend's (soon-to-be wife), who also has an account on this site (email me privately for details). These stories take place in no particular order at various junctures throughout Alteng's life. Any similarities between characters described herein and any persons living or dead is of course not only coincidental, it is indeed nearly impossible.
Part adventurer, spy, thief, pirate, knight errant, and misunderstood man-with-no-name, he wandered the world treating action as its own reward. Many times he actually managed to right wrongs and bring events to a conclusion that benefitted those around him, but he was no infallible superhero-sometimes the fates were against him and he was lucky to escape a setback alive. Occasionally he was even seen by the world at large as a villain, though he never saw himself that way. He was more like a knight in not-so-shiny armor, doing the right thing when he could, but accepting the reality of the complicated chaotic nature of the world- that things often can only be changed superficially, and even then but temporarily, and if one cannot cheat death then one should at least minimize suffering and face death as swiftly and painlessly as possible.
With his life's outlook learned from a combination of the sentiments of the Age of Reason combined with the thrill of adventure promised by the discovery of new lands and civilizations during the Renaissance, all held in check by the last superstitious vestiges of the Dark Ages, we find someone with a conflicting personal moral code (and an outcast from his own people) that somehow manages to rise above his imperfections and for the most part makes the world a better place.
Midnight at the Crossroads Chapter One
Somewhere in the world, a clock chimed at midnight. In the world that once was, there was nothing significant about this, except to those who wished to mark that time for some mundane mortal endeavor. It had been happening since the dawn of recorded history, the desire and the need to accurately track the passage of time. But in the old days, time was the same everywhere because the sun traveled through the ether and revolved around the earth which was flat. It took millennia for the truth to not only be discovered but to be at last believed, and even then there were some holdouts from the old world who believed it was blasphemy to think man could ever fly or that something long predating humans like dinosaurs ever roamed the earth. But the world got bigger over the years, with new continents and seas discovered, with all its new life ready to be catalogued and exploited. Time was no longer the same everywhere at the same time, and time zones in the interest of science and commerce had been agreed upon and created by world powers. Not everyone followed the new ways, however.
There was a little country in this century that was almost an empire. The world shook under marching feet and the terror of invasion. One man almost made time go back to an age of backward living and superstitious paranoia, using modern technology along with a futuristic pseudoscience, twisted by a fanaticism rivaling the Spanish Inquisition. In a few short years by the reckoning of these new times, those plans were undone and the dictator was dead, but for better or worse he left his mark on history. The country he ruled (but was not native to) was a very beautiful land, full of history and wonder, and home to some of the most famous and best loved persons in history who advanced the betterment of the human condition by their genius and tireless work.
But to a native of this land, parts of what was left of it were unrecognizable. One old city in particular was firebombed into incineration, and the town's dead more than doubled the number that had been killed by a single fireball in another city on the other side of the world at around the same time. The wild country was disappearing, partly because of the Great War, but also because of the encroachment of civilization. Some remnants of the older land had remained untainted by human interference, but their numbers were dwindling.
Clocks around the world tolled the hour, whatever it happened to be at that moment, then life went on as usual. But there was a place in the world, in this once pristine woodland, where life was moving in a more unusual way. The earth lay blasted and barren around a lone figure who walked among it at this time of night. Time had not been kind to the land he had grown to be comfortable in. Four years of recently ended warfare had turned it partly into a wasteland. Miles of pits and trenches had been dug by the combatants of both sides, scarring the landscape like the raking hooves of the four apocalyptic horses. Fumes and strange poisons, mixed with the rot of human bodies, rose from the depths and helped to breed disease. Weapons of war, large and small, lay abandoned throughout the countryside, some still charged and waiting to be fired or stepped upon to ignite. There was nothing glorious about war or fighting of any kind. It was mere survival, or at the very least it was killing as many others as possible before you yourself were killed. This was part of the Old World wisdom of the figure in faded maroon who picked his way among the wreckage of progress, Alteng Hans Cuxhaven.
He was very short for a man, mainly because he was not a man at all. He was part of a race of ancient beings who had seen wars come and go in their little country, and who had largely ignored the petty squabbles of men. But this war was particularly virulent and impacting. Nothing would ever be the same as it was, for those of the old world or of the new. Now this little being Alteng Cuxhaven was of the old world, and he still held to many antiquated ways and customs, and the fruits of modern life left a bitter taste in his mouth. Even his clothing, though immaculate and of no small value, would be considered badly outdated and indeed absurd in this day and age- he wore a white silk shirt with much embroidery and ruffling at the collar and sleeves, with a silk vest of grey and complimented by a deep maroon overcoat of wide lapels and many buttons, matching pants tucked into black knee-high boots, and all topped off by an oversized grey three-cornered hat with a large feather that in sheer size and majesty resembled a peacock's plume. A saber of elegant design hung at his side, and a brace of four small single-shot pistols were tucked into the cummerbund around his waist and hidden in a couple of pockets within his coat. Shoulder-length brown hair was pulled back and tied by a black silk ribbon, revealing a face that was both young and old- a few wrinkles brought about by a long life spent outdoors with all its cares, and noticeable old injuries like a scar that began at the cheekbond on the left side of his face and disappeared under a dark eyepatch, and the missing upper half of his left ear. Alteng was also missing a hand- the left one, and in its place was an iron hook of sinister appearance. Evidently some omnipotent being desired for Alteng to be relieved of bits of the left half of his body over the years, one piece at a time.
He had lived a long time, outlasting his wives and children, and nearly all of his friends were dead. Alteng was alone in the world, and the world was so much bigger now that he felt the widening of the void in his life. The years of the twentieth century seemed to become an endless succession of dreary and grimy landscapes keeping time with the grinding dull beat of the industrial age. There was technology aplenty along with applied science rendered abstract and psychotic, but such things held no interest to someone like Alteng. He was a creature of old habits that were too hard to break, and there seemed (at least to him) to be very little left in the world which was left unmarred by the machinations of man. All he had to do was to take a look around him at the land he once knew, to see how fragile this world really was.
He walked around slowly, apparently in an aimless shuffling manner, but he was scanning the ground around him. He happened to know this locality well, for he had once lived here. Long ago this was a woodland, and a great old house once resided here, where he had dwelt with his family (in a relative way) for years uncounted. Though the peace of home life was occasionally upset by various strangers, villains, and the odd ghost or vampire, for the most part it was a sanctuary of relaxation from the world outside.
But for Alteng, the lure of the road often proved too great to resist, and so off he would go hunting some wild beast to feed the family for the winter, or he would venture to the human cities to observe the ways of men. He had particularly enjoyed seafaring, and he became intimate with some fondly remembered sailing men (along with a few dark-hearted scoundrels). He had even come to adopt the dress of the sea merchant and the pirate, and at times (like now) he still looked to be a throwback to the days of the privateers. He was considered a colorful, popular character on the ships where he served, like a favorite mascot. Being not human but a kobold (a name among many from different nationalities used to denote the same genus of small, elf-like creatures who existed symbiotically with humans in homes, farmsteads, and mines by doing everyday chores or by acting as sentinels against danger to the household), he was taken on by the ship enthusiastically as a good-luck charm. On behalf of his captains, he would act as spy and messenger (but he was hired on to be the housekeeper), and he had been known to stand and fight with his crew mates when necessary.
Something shiny caught his eye. There off to his left lay a brass doorknob that was once attached to the very house he had called home. He had not bothered to return here for many years, but now that it was too late to enjoy the comforts of his ancestral home, part of him wished he had not always felt the need to wander so much. He was just an adventurer as long as he had a home waiting for him to lay down his head in at the journey's end. Now he truly was homeless, and he didn't like the feeling.
Familiar faces danced fleetingly in his mind, before he managed to shove them out to avoid recollecting how much he missed them now that they were gone. His first wife, Ther, had died in childbirth about three centuries before, and he ached for her terribly at times. She was his princess, the prize won at the end of hardship, and he hoped that she waited for his return on some grey hither shore, much as she often waited for him to come home in life. He had been young and of restless spirit, but for her sake he quit his wanderings and settled into family life after they married, and he proved to be a capable and even-handed father.
Many years later, after the death of his first lady, he married again. Narrinda was a woman of a different sort, both figuratively and literally. To be frank, she was quite dead in body- but not in spirit. She could be quarrelsome, pesky, and downright unladylike. But she was such the polar opposite to Ther that she turned out to be a perfect match for Alteng, who had taken up the ways of endless adventuring once again after Ther's death. Ther was Alteng's lady love once upon a time, but Narrinda became his pal.
When Narrinda was destroyed, the experience unexpectedly drove him almost to madness. He always believed she would outlast him, and he took it for granted that she was near indestructible, but she didn't quite make it to the twentieth century. The time that stood still as he watched her body crumble to dust as she shrieked in otherworldly agony never really ended for him, and he blamed himself for being unable to save her. All he could do was avenge himself upon her killers, which he did with all expediency and cold justice, but with neither fanfare nor mercy. To a defeated enemy he might have shown mercy if they begged it, but to any member of his peoples' culturally sponsored organization of puritanical lawmen (known as the Enforcers) he brought uncompromising death. What hither shore would she be fated to walk? Alteng feared that for Narrinda, all amends she tried to make and all the good that she and Alteng managed to accomplish over the years would not have been enough to grant her spirit amnesty from either the punishment of the underworld or her soul's ultimate destruction.
Now here he was, alone and friendless, in a world gone mad from the ravages of the worst in the human spirit, where death was now mass-induced and where any bodies not blasted to bits or vaporized were tossed into mass trenches and buried with steam shovels, and where one grave marker would do for all, nameless and unremembered. To think he might be the only one in existence who might recall how pretty this little corner of his past once had been, it made him want all the more to seek out the one he expected to soon find. It was not far now to the old parting of the ways, where an old country lane once bisected another cart road a few miles to the south. Little used and ill-repaired it was even when he was young, and when he finally found the path he sought, only his expert tracking skills assured him that it was the right way to go at all.
The meeting of the roads had originally been carved out of the wilderness by various Teuton tribes several thousand years ago, and it had followed a game trail. Centuries later, the Romans had found a use for the roads by moving troops and slaves from eastern Gaul to the Swiss Alps and back, and for some years the road was well maintained and irrigation ditches had been dug. After Rome was sacked some time in the fourth century, the roads fell into disuse, and in the new darker times old superstitions resurfaced in different guises and some crossroads were to be avoided as an ill omen. Wild stories about demons and witches colored the local tales, and crossroads became the places to hang criminals or for spurned lovers to commit suicide and haunt the roads at whose nexus their bodies had been found.
Alteng knew from past experience that at least one of the old wives' tales about this particular crossing was entirely true- it was in fact frequented by a powerful (some would say evil) supernatural being. She went under many names at different times to different people, and even Kobold lore made mention of her ancient cult and the grisly rites that were performed for her favor at the crossroads of the world. Alteng and his race knew her as the Lady of Secrets, and in ancient times she was called the god of the Dark Hunt, goddess of Meetings, the Nightwatcher, Dolora of the Whispering Eyes, and the Reaper's Wife. The grey owl, the ash tree, and the north wind were sacred to her, for her voice spoke on the wind that rattled the boughs, and brought strange dreams to any traveler camped near a crossroad enshrined to her. To chop firewood from any living ash in the vicinity (rather than collecting from the ground) invited bad luck, and to hear the screech of an owl at night in such a place was a death omen. Bridges were on occasion sanctified to her, since they crossed the pure running waters which she shunned. The Lady of Secrets avoided running water, because it possesses knowledge of the deepest secrets of the earth, which the north wind cannot penetrate. Likewise she holds in jealous disdain anyone who is attuned to the earth (whether man, beast, or kobold) because of the affinity they share with those secrets she cannot have.
In form she was commonly portrayed as a Raven-haired female, though sometimes as hermaphroditic, symbolizing the meeting of opposites, in the crudest of terms both the entranceway and the key to open it. Images of her, made of straw or carved from the wood of the gender-changeable ash tree which she held sacred, were used by her worshipers ages ago and staked into the center of a road's intersection (or sometimes hung from the low branch of a nearby tree, but never buried- burial was fit only for the mortal dead, not a deity). Archaeologists had recently discovered evidence of her cults as far away as India and the near Orient, which predated most European lore by several millennia. In these aspects she was the hunter of lost souls (those who could not find their way to the afterlife either because of improper funeral rites, divine curses against their spirits, or sheer contrariness at not wanting to be dead). In most European legends the Lady of Secrets was much darker- she was the guardian of secrets and universal truths too dangerous for mortals. She killed those unlucky enough to be caught near the crossroads when she hunted, and she was the punisher of their souls. Visions bestowed by Dolora's whispering eyes frequently brought insanity to those who were ill-prepared to receive them or unworthy to understand. The Nightwatcher was held in esteem by outlaws and highwaymen, and assassins prayed to her for luck.
The Reaper's Wife was followed in Eurasia in a twisted type of fertility cult. In a late-night gathering at the time of the leaves' first coloring, a young woman (or less commonly, a child) was ritually sodomized at the crossroads and staked to a tree, where it was believed her spirit would be trapped within the body, ensuring a good harvest in the fall and many children for the female populace by the following spring. This sacrificial female was thus turned into a mortal embodiment of the goddess herself. Dead yet still undying, her consciousness bound to her decomposing body while unable to free herself from impalement, she became practically immortal, though almost assuredly insane. Only when the victim's body rotted away enough to fall from the tree on its own and fell to earth was the spirit finally free to leave this world, and by late summer a new sacrifice would take her place.
It was the dreams Alteng had in Kathmandu those few weeks ago that brought him here tonight. What would he give to have someone he cared for returned to him? How could he avoid Narrinda's fate when he had made so many enemies in his lifetime (some of them immortal)? What lay in wait for him on the other side of life? The Lady of Secrets had the answers, and all would be revealed if he returned home swiftly. And so, here he was at last.