Sleep of a Ruined Age Chapter One
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, 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.
A small solitary scarlet figure crossed the threshold, through a doorway beyond earthly dreams. He had traveled far over many lands to be here, deep in some tropical forest untouched by civilization since the construction of this one reminder of its intrusion. Mist hung in the canopy of the trees, whose height was so great that their tops could not be discerned from below. The top of the great entranceway to whatever lay beyond was likewise hidden by the mists, for it was perhaps hundreds of feet high. He had been accustomed to the size of human dwellings since his childhood, but the dimensions of this entrance surpassed even human imagination.
Despite the arrival's diminutive size and childlike appearance, he had the bearing of a being from centuries past- he only needed polished armor to complete the profile. He could never be mistaken for a native of this land, for his dress and mannerisms were too foreign. There was no doubt that he was of European descent, and in this part of the world he displayed his cultural difference from the masses as a badge of honor.
He stood about hip-high to a man, with shoulder-length brown hair that curled slightly (especially in damp weather). In the face he appeared both young and old, as a child who had an early adulthood thrust upon him through unforseen hardships. The left half of his profile especially bore the marks of a cold cruel world- a scar peeked out from beneath the eyepatch that covered the area where his left eye should have been, and it hopelessly marred an otherwise blandly handsome face. A part of his left ear was also missing, sliced off during one of his many battles from years bygone, but ordinarily this fact was unobserved due not only to the style and cut of his hair, but also by virtue of his tendency to wear hats. He had a fondness for wide-brimmed styles rather than bowlers or caps, especially when they were topped with over-large feathers that rivaled his own height in their length.
He had one other impediment- he was missing his left hand, the result of a treacherous act on the part of a relative during his childhood. In its place was a classic version of the iron hook, perfectly applicable to the look of pirates everywhere (which he had been on occasion). If anyone were to judge him based on superstition, they must in the end deduce that the left side of his body must have severely offended the powers that be for them to ensure that those parts of him would be taken away a little at a time.
At this time, he found it expedient to wear a grey three-cornered hat complemented by a huge red feather of gaudy majesty. In his own country time had marched on without him (for the most part, though he did return occasionally from his many travels in order to rest and commit his exploits to writing), and his choice of hats, and indeed his entire manner of dress, had lately become "dated" and only old men still clung to the habits of their youth. Three-cornered hats had lost favor to top hats and derbies, and breeches with knee-high stockings had been replaced with ankle-length trousers. But in the end, time was somewhat unimportant to him and his kind, who might live practically forever unless they met with an accident, acquired a severe medical condition, or were murdered. His race was of Germanic lineage, known as the Kobolds (also known under various names in different countries throughout Europe), and they were master mine-smiths and laborers (though the less savory of their race were unabashed cutpurses). This singular Kobold was a self-nominated representative of his race's honor, seeking to elevate the family name through the fame of his adventures, and his name was Altenglisch Hans Cuxhaven.
His dress style was that of a gentleman of the late eighteenth century, though it was now the middle of the nineteenth. Dark pants were tucked into black knee-high riding boots, which were caked with mud from days of traveling in rugged tropical terrain. He wore a shirt of a light grey color with much unnecessary ruffling at the collar and sleeves, complimented by a vest of a darker smokey grey tint with an abundance of brass buttons, all topped off by a knee-length overcoat of bloody crimson hue with yet more of the aforementioned brass finery. A dagger (which would have only passed for a pocket knife to a human) was safely hidden in his right boot, and he kept a loaded firearm in one of the deep pockets on the inside of his coat (though this was to him a mere tool, useful for hunting food in a time period when the bow and arrow was falling out of common use).
A saber of ornate design and deadly rumor hung at his side, and he had always taken great pride in its upkeep, for it had been one of the main tools of his trade for many years. He had won it the hard way from a defeated enemy (who later became an ally) in some long-lost time in a far off land beyond the mists. Grey as a slab of slate, with a keen edge and a slight curve, it nevertheless retained a dull luster without reflecting any light cast upon it no matter how often it was polished, and Alteng treated it like a prized horse. Incomprehensible runic cuneiform inscriptions traced themselves along both sides of the blade (and were especially visible when bathed in blood- Alteng did like his reading lessons on occasion). In the past Alteng attempted to have the writing translated by the educated on many occasions, but without success, and so its origins or any superstitions surrounding it were lost to time. He only drew his sword when he intended to use it, but he acquired a temper as a teenager which had abated but little in his maturity, and he took to using it more often than was necessary (or healthy). At times he became so enraptured by his own battle lust that he quite believed it was an extension of his own soul, a blade to force the truth and the law on those unable or unwilling to heed his wrath. Once drawn, the sword remained in lightning-fast motion until all opposition was destroyed. He would sometimes refer to it as his "hand of justice", and he was proud to relate tales of his youth to his wife and friends regarding its frequent use. It was the killer of the Hon. Edward Rydell, the evil mastermind of eight daring jewel thefts. It destroyed the undead alchemist known as the Elemental Fiend (a learned but greedy man in life who became so obsessed with the secret of eternal life that he lost his humanity, and even forgot his own name). There were many other adventures over the years besides these which started (or ended) with the drawing of his sword.
Then, upon a time, in the heat of a duel, he unintentionally killed a dear friend. To his deep-seated guilt he continued to fight until all foes were dead, before he came back to try and save the one life he had not meant to take, but it was too late. It should be noted that he did not draw his sword for many a year after that night, in an attempt at self-proscribed penance for his thoughtless action. But it should also be noted that he could be stubborn, and he was too proud to live without it at his side.
Alteng had been forced to fight again, in the year that the Lazarus Plague appeared. It came from nowhere human, concocted for no good purpose but to spread itself among the living and the dead. With help from one of his scholarly friends (along with his own wife) and unbeknownst to the populace at large, together they prevented the contagion from coming to Europe, but at a price. His friend had become infected and in desperation to find a cure he took himself out of the vicinity, and Alteng to this time had received no word on his fate. But one day about two months before, he dreamt that he found his friend again, that he was alive and unharmed. Alteng saw the colors of the stars too vividly (and the darkness between them) to believe this was anything other than a very real vision. His friend wandered for a long time, enduring in growing agony from the slow debilitation of the diabolical unnatural wasting disease that would eventually take him over and reduce him to a twisted bloodthirsty corpse. It was seemingly by chance that he learned of a doorway to worlds beyond, and he had found his peace, but he would not return. What made the revelation more painful for Alteng was that his friend had obtained this knowledge from one of their old enemies, a man named Juin Li who was known for being a mystic and sorcerer dabbling in dark lore. Alteng never quite figured out what to think of Juin Li- he had worked against him in the past, it was true. But the old wizened mystic had also indirectly helped Alteng on at least two occasions, as when he consulted the K'hulamic Group-Mind to restore the souls of all the crewmen of the ship known as the Agamemnon. It was then that Alteng vowed to seek Juin Li and the portal, and attempt the deed of returning his friend to his rightful place.
From his home in northern Germany (at this time just another part of the Prussian Empire), it took him several weeks of land travel to reach Istanbul, Turkey. There he learned of Juin Li's passage, but the news for the most part was old, and he was directed southeastward. Later, near the ruins of ancient Ur, he became aware of being followed by persons unknown. He hardly slept during this part of his journey, and the sites he saw in the Ottoman lands only reinforced his sense of foreboding and dread of secret peril. He had passed through these lands more than once before over the years, but the silence of the land along with its lack of modern refinements always made him imagine that the place was cursed long ago, but no one alive could tell you why. The remnants of great old cities whose names are unpronounceable or unremembered, hints of civilizations vanished eons since along with their assortment of slumbering and insane patron gods, drove him on all the more to pass through these lands as quickly as possible, and through all of this the strangers continued to follow.
At some point he wandered into lands unmarked on any maps, where the natives spoke in an untranslatable tongue and had strange social and religious customs. Something beyond mere human sacrifice in exchange for prosperity was ingrained in the populace, unspeakable rites with all manner of sadistic violence and unnatural debaucheries. The humans didn't even look quite human anymore, but many instead appeared rather devolved and mutated with sickly greyish skin that perspired an oily sweat that stank of melted fat, over-large heads complimented by wide-set bulbous eyes, and other birth defects. The affluent attired themselves in strange fabrics that scintillated in an ever-changing pattern of colors whenever they moved, but the poor dressed in scanty rags, or more often nothing at all. They all were sensitive to sunlight, though it didn't burn them if they were exposed to it. As habit they slept the day away in dark cellars and crevices, and came out of hiding after the sun had sufficiently set. Strangely enough, they seemed to delight in moonlight, and were very active in their religious fervor around each full moon. Images of the moon in its various phases adorned their vestments, on great rock walls in the nearby area, and even carven into raw earth measuring many feet across in a few of the fields around the village, but Alteng immediately noted that while they always appeared to have accurate representations of craters and maria (though they were few), their version of the moon did not always show the same face, and the lunar features were rotated with each different phase, and there were depictions of great fires. At new moon they shuffled listlessly about their nightly existence of harvesting tuberous roots that were much slimier in texture than a typical potato, or if they had nothing better to do, they merely stood around and stared out into space for things modern man could not see. They especially loved to stare at the moon, as if they were actively looking for something, or trying to look into it. It made Alteng feel like he was not in another country, but indeed on another world if that were possible.
It was in this ill-rumored place that Alteng's stalkers finally made their move. It turned out that they were seeking revenge for the death of one of their leaders a few years before on the other side of the world. Quite honestly Alteng didn't even remember killing the Slavelord at first, until he recalled how he had some of his hair singed by fire during the confrontation. Alteng fought bravely against four grown humans and managed to kill one, but he would have fared badly were it not for his surviving the collapse of the mill he had been followed to.
The mill was not very complex, just a one-story building with some primitive levers and gears, and two large wheels embedded with metal spikes that hinted at something more sinister than sliced bread. To his disgust he discovered that the mill did not process grain, but it was used to grind up bodies into a gruel that was re-distributed among the population. The whole situation made a particularly unsavory impression on him because it reminded him of scenes from his youth, and he set about dismantling it. But as he was completing the final necessary adjustments to the structural integrity of the building, he was attacked. During the ensuing fracas, the mill began to crumble around them all as they climbed among rafters, slammed into walls, and generally caused further destruction. The expert mining part of his nature helped keep him alive and he managed to crawl his way out of the collapsing building, but the rest of his enemies were buried in the rubble, and were not seen again.
But there was some profit for him in the end, for the name of Juin Li had been heard even in this vile place. He had come alone not many years before, as an elderly hermit, and he had not only dared observe the obscenities that passed for religious ceremonies here, but had participated as well. Under the pretense of trying to assimilate into the culture, he stole the secrets known only to the hierarchy, and he imbibed the drink of the privileged called the Blue Sleep. Then he saw the things he wished to see and remained in the state of deep repose for several days, but when he returned to himself he knew that he must travel but a little longer, and he was eager to be gone. The locals did not hinder his leaving, for they had come to fear him a little, but they no longer trusted him and gave him no ceremony upon his departure.
Curiously enough, the people of this community treated Alteng differently than the humans in his homelands did. They acted rather cool and disinterested in his appearance, and it was explained to him at some point that they had been familiar with his kind (or at least a species similar to his) for generations untold. It was only when Alteng pressed them for more stories that they would invariably grow quiet while displaying a look of agitated sensibilities, and would say no more.
Through rites of arcane mysticism which he did not fully understand (and was uncomfortable with because of its use of three different bodily fluids to make the drink which was used to commune with the unknown), he wasted no more time in the seeking of Juin Li, The locals gave him no grand send-off, but did not hinder his leaving either. They seemed content to let a breath of modern life come blowing into their lives, only to be shut out by their desire to continue their far beyond ancient, incomprehensible ways. And in a way, Alteng couldn't blame them. How much progress would it take to totally undo the world he was familiar with? He had heard of the coming of the Iron Horse, the rampant industrialization of men and their resultant earth-moving polluting ways. The days of the swordsmen had nearly passed, replaced by the gunfighters, and Alteng deep down felt his days in this world were numbered. So, in defiance of his fate (which would be sealed in a final act of violence, followed by regret and depression in some as-yet rather distant future on another continent0, he just carried on.