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.
The Laughing God Chapter One
I am Altenglisch Hans Cuxhaven. It is now late summer in the year of '36, and I am currently on a return voyage from the equatorial regions of the Americas. I have tried to keep a personal journal with the express purpose of recording my exploits for posterity, partly in the hope of elevating the family name, and partly for the pleasure and glory of living my life at large in the world. Most others from my homeland would not understand my desire to restlessly roam, nor indeed would they care to undertake the labor of reading about my wanderings and adventures even if they were enlightened to the true meaning of my calling.
The motivating factors responsible for me giving up the comforts of home and hearth to take up a life of danger are many, and are difficult to explain. My wife has an inkling of my inner workings (sometimes to my annoyance), and I have stopped trying to keep secrets from her, since she has a hard time keeping a secret herself. Turning a long tale into a short synopsis, I have been lucky enough to stay alive this long, and I often wonder how I managed it. I have at times been wayward in my eagerness to tread my own path in life, and I lost my way despite myself, but I eventually got back on track again. I have been reckless in some of my associations with lowly and ignoble folk of subversive motive and scandalous reputation. I have sought my fortune, had a fruitful marriage, weathered the death of one wife and endured the acquisition of a second, and even puzzled over the inheritance of a brother I didn't know I had.
I have said in the past that life at times seems to make no sense, that it's all a cruel joke. Now that I have spent all these years running around the globe (yes, it is officially round now), I can tell the reader with certainty that my first impressions were my best ones. Life really is beyond comprehension. There are things in this world that do not make sense, they have no discernable purpose, they shouldn't even exist. Yet, here they are, for better or worse. Things beyond our understanding that don't obey the laws of nature or of any gods, irrespective of the concepts of good and evil, content to weave their own plots whether they make sense to anyone else or not. Was there an unseen purpose for me coming to the New World to seek out the unknown? Did I accomplish some great good even though I was eventually forced to flee the country? I don't think the answers will be revealed any time soon, but I would like to think that if I made so many enemies during this excursion, I must have done something right.
The Cult of the Laughing God first came to my attention about four months previously, all thanks to my overly-inquisitive friend Josef Preetz. Josef is rather small, but he makes up for his size with his enthusiasm for non-stop conversation (whether it's wanted or not). He spends his days researching the unknown, and the rest of his time telling everyone else about what he's learned. Some would call him a scholar or, at worst, a dreamer and idle tinkerer. I like to think of him more as an addle-brained meddler of things best left alone.
Josef and myself, along with my wife Narrinda and my brother Deutsch, had lately returned to Europe from the southern coast of Arabia, where we effected a successful eradication of the pirates of Blood Island, though there were some that still lived to seek vengeance on us. In Athens several of them had nearly attained their goal, and the inn we were staying in was set afire, but we were out that evening. A week later I sent one of those stray rats to his end just outside of a little village in Austria, though I learned little of the movements of his fellows.
It was under these circumstances, with all of us on our guard and watching every shadow, that we returned to the regions more familiar to us and not many miles from our manor house. We were spending the night in Bonn, and from the balcony of the second floor room located in that quaint little inn known as the Drunken Dormouse, the city was rather charming when gird with its golden evening lamps. Despite the odd name, the inn was no mean stable, but a respected establishment in one of the business districts which had the good word of foreign travelers as reputation for being a worthy way station for weary tourists and merchants. At this time we had plenty of money to spare for the lodgings (and other luxuries), courtesy of the trove of booty lately claimed from the robbers of the waves back on Blood Island. The landlady marveled at the sight of the strange coins we offered, but she was more than happy to take them since something of such exotic appearance must in her estimation be of uncommon value. Personally, I don't have much use for human coinage. It's good for getting me some of the goods I occasionally require by way of commerce, and I have learned over the years to keep plenty at hand in my dealings with men because most of them only deal with tokens of exchange rather than barter for raw goods, but my kind doesn't place much value in money. We value property and land holdings over shiny trinkets (thought they still look nice on the person of a young eligible female).
It was late at night and I was pacing around in our room, pondering the next move of our enemies that may or may not have been shaken off in Austria (since they hadn't made their presence known for some days), while at the same time trying to avoid the ravenously lusty clutches of the wife who sometimes felt the need to consummate her desires whenever we were left together with no one else around. Though she tried very hard to impress me with some new undergarments that she procured lately from a shop in the merchant district, they would have probably worn much better on the underfed prostitute they were originally tailored for, and they didn't look right on a respectable wife. The reader should make no mistake- I have a fondness for my second wife which is somewhat unlike what I felt for my late first wife. Though Narrinda really has become dear to me in ways I thought I could not imagine, I have never known her passionately, and we have no children together. Sometimes I wish fate was different (especially for her sake) and were she able to bear children I would happily relent and do my duties as both husband and father, but life just doesn't work that way and you cannot wish your problems away.
Josef and Deutsch had gone out for the evening to do some city sightseeing, and they had been gone for a couple of hours. I was mildly worried that they may run into trouble, especially if we were still being followed by agents of Captain Hamal, the (presumably) late ruler of Blood Island. It was rather a pity that Josef was forced to sabotage their new weapon like that. It was a fearsome new thing that might destroy many people with one fell blow, but the rumor of its terrible power and the implications of the horrid results of its use had the potential to ensure political stability in the region, if only it had been in the keeping of more ethical humans. But it was not, and so we reasoned that its time had not yet come and men were not ready to assume the responsibility of treating it with the fear and respect its mere existence deserved. Luckily we were far away when it finally exploded, but the light of its burning turned midnight into noon for several moments. Josef was actually downcast that he had at least indirectly contributed to so much loss of life (however little the lives of villains and killers of the innocent mean to me). I took him aside and we had a long talk, about what it means to do the right thing even when it isn't pretty, and I had to convince him that in the most desperate situations the end sometimes does justify the means. If that weren't true, there would be no more need for wars, revolutions, or public executions.
I was watching Narrinda from across the room as she admired what was left of her in the mirror. I'm sure that in life she might have struck a fine posture. I never saw her face in life, but I let myself imagine that she very well could have had rather handsome features, full breasts and child-bearing hips. But now, all that she retained of her former self was her long black hair, a mark of demonic influence to my people, but she didn't care because even when alive she was not one of my race, though her race was similar. Mortal humans couldn't tell our two races apart- to them we all are small, sharp-featured folk. But among ourselves, we are as different as the human Caucasian of Europe and the African Negroid.
Narrinda looked my way as she checked herself from the side. "Teng-teng" she chimed, "Will you comb my hair for me?"
"If it's not as much work as washing your back, I might" I answered. "Are you planning on going to bed soon? You don't usually fuss over your hair until bedtime, unless you plan to impress a stranger."
She moved to her baggage to retrieve a large oversized brush. Despite her request of me, she began to comb out her hair without my assistance. "Actually I thought you might like to take me out to dinner tonight."
"Are you serious?" I queried sharply. "All the food in Bonn won't do you any good."
The brush almost left her hand to come hurtling in my direction, but she restrained herself. "I just wanted to go out and see a little bit of the town with you, is that too much to ask? Josef and Deutsch are gone already, having their fun. Come to think of it, Deutsch will probably be the life of somebody's party tonight, but I can't imagine what Josef would do for fun."
I turned sidelong in my chair. "Oh you know what ought to amuse him; rat-catching, poking about and prying, minding other people's business and all that nonsense. I predict right now that Josef will somehow help to give us all a bad name in the town before we leave."
"He has been useful to you lately, you know" she reminded.
"Yes I know and I suppose I owe him, blast it. His mind is sharp and he is a veritable fountain of information on nearly any subject you would care to quiz him on. I just wish he would not treat everything like a laboratory dissection once in a while."
The subject of our conversation burst into the room with such suddenness that both Narrinda and I jumped. Josef entered without knocking, and he immediately strode across the floor to his own baggage and without acknowledging us began to rummage through his things, until he at last found what he sought- a weathered-looking book that was rather oversized, which forced him to carry it under one arm. It was in fact the ship's log written in Captain Hamal's own hand. Personally I was not terribly interested in it, but Josef had lately come to be protective over it and, when asked why, he would merely state that he had research to do regarding it and would say no more.
But it was obvious to Narrinda and myself that tonight would be different, and he would unwind the thread of his thoughts for us at last. He drank some water and began to sit down in the chair opposite of me, and my brother Deutsch arrived as Josef began to speak.
"Sorry I'm late" Deutsch said, while reaching for the water jar. "Josef ran back before me so fast I couldn't catch him."
I was frankly surprised that they had returned this early. "Where have you two been?"
"At the museum, though it wasn't my idea" Deutsch announced proudly. "Josef seemed to be intent on getting in there tonight at all costs. We had to get in through a third story window, but once we were in there was no one inside and we had the place to ourselves."
"Better tell them the rest" Josef muttered glumly.
I looked from Josef back to Deutsch suspiciously. "Did you get into some kind of trouble again?"
Deutsch looked at Josef briefly and shifted his stance uncomfortably. "Well no, but we saw a couple of characters as we left the museum with a foreign look about them, and they have suntans too deep for a European clime."
"I thought so" I exclaimed as I threw my hand up. "If they want their money back so bad, let them come here for it."
"I'm not sure that they are interested in the money" Josef stated blankly.
There was a pause of a few seconds, then Narrinda asked "What do you mean?"
Again, it took a few seconds for Josef to say anything. "Let's say that I have spent the past few weeks pondering this book." He patted the cover of the journal that now lay propped up against the side of his chair. "Now I am done pondering, and I have seen what I came to see."
I was in no mood to endure his vague thought processes tonight. "Well, what is so special about that book? You've been hoarding it like a hen with her chicks since we left Arabia"
Josef leaned forward. "Well, I suppose now the time has come to expound upon my theory. You remember of course when we first discovered the Captain's great weapon, that the three men guarding it were made up to look like some sort of fish-men?"
"Yes" Narrinda chirped "I wondered about that, it seemed so outlandish at the time. I mean, their costumes would hardly have scared anyone in this day and age, would they? And besides, I don't recall that there were any tales from Arabia about fish-men anyway, so what local superstition were they trying to revive?"
"I wondered that too, and I could discover no legend oral or written to warrant a reason for their manner of dress. I surmised that if it was not meant for show, then it was a matter of practicality."
Narrinda was now intrigued. "Do you mean to say that you believe they were dressed that way because they needed to?"
"Exactly" Josef answered, and he continued as if lecturing a student body. "A mask is made for only two purposes, to offer either concealment, or protection to the head. Remember that their weapon was capable of producing a vigorous explosion. The suits and headgear must have been to help protect against the force of concussion, or possibly fire."
"But I still don't see what their strange suits have to do with this journal you found" I mused.
Josef leaned even further forward, as if he would make to whisper so that others didn't hear. "Did you ever wonder how those people were able to construct such a device? Well, the captain's log gives dates and locations of their voyages. They had to travel to different parts of the world to get all of the equipment needed to build the weapon. One of the places they visited was this city, and now I know why. If you visit the museum, on the first floor there is a display of a costume of religious significance that was discovered in the ruins an ancient civilization. It looks remarkably like what those men were wearing on Blood Island. That doesn't seem so important at first, until you realize the original suit was found in the New World, at an archaeological site in the northern Andes mountains. The place was by all accounts some sort of temple dedicated to Tienghufhra, a god of enlightenment and spiritual transcendence. Now why would pirates want to wear costumes from South America in a place like Arabia? Because they had to wear them in the presence of the weapon. And why did that ancient civilization wear those costumes? I tell you now that it was not for religious ceremony, but for the same reason."
I couldn't believe what I'd just heard. "You mean that this ancient civilization, whatever it was, had built a weapon like that in the past?"
"Yes, but something must have gone wrong for them, or they would now be a modern civilization. Captain Hamal somehow stumbled upon this knowledge, and he endeavored to rebuild this weapon. But thanks to us, he will never use it now."
"But that's good isn't it? We saved the world, the story's over, we can go home."
"Ah, but the story is not over. I am convinced that the only reason we were able to destroy it was that it was unstable, because it was incomplete. Something important was missing from its initial construction, and in this journal Hamal writes that he had planned to sail to the Americas to obtain the final piece of the puzzle. Once built correctly and its power demonstrated successfully, the pirates were going to sell the plan to the highest-bidding government, and Hamal would be swimming in riches. Now the machine is destroyed, but its memory isn't. Some of Hamal's cronies knew the full workings of this weapon, and I think they plan to try yet again to remake it. But we have the journal that gives the coordinates for the destination Hamal had planned to sail for. That's why we're being followed. But I think we owe it to the world at large if we go to the New World ourselves to get the secret of the construction."
Deutsch turned to Josef. "So we can profit from it ourselves before the remnants of Hamal's crew does?" he asked.
"No, of course not. I just love loud noises and fire." His joke got no laughter, so he cleared his throat and continued. "We must share the secret of this weapon with every nation, so that no one will have a monopoly on power. Maybe if every country had a healthy fear of its neighbor, there will at last be no more need for war. The end does justify the means after all, does it not, Alteng?"
I turned away from him in my chair. His purpose was noble, but in the end I merely had a hand in creating a noble monster. Maybe I was more like the pirates than I realized. Whether by their greed for money and power, or by my desire for adventure, the end might be the same for all. The deadly weapon might come into existence again, but in whose trust would it be placed this time?