Chapter 1 | Chapter 2Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

"The Affair of The Reticulated Box"

by Renfrew Werfner

Chapter III

"Through The Hairless Gates of the Brazen Key"

(Within The Labyrinth)

by Mike Herndon

Originally to be printed in Coenobium #16
Printed here for the first time with the kind permission of Ed Martinez

Back issues of Coenobium are available from:

A labyrinth of a different type appears in the 'Emblems of Quarles' (eg., in the 1635 edition, bk iv, no.2).  In this case we are shown a woman walking away from the center of what looks like a tall hedge maze, which has its path on top of the hedge!  With one hand she holds a staff and in the other a cord, the distant end of which is held by an angel located at the summit of a round tower some way off.  A winding path proceeds from this tower to the gateway of the labyrinth.  Here and there one sees unfortunate beings who are slipping from the wall into the deep crevasses below.

- W. H. Matthews, Mazes & Labyrinths, their history and development

"Misery's Canticle" - photo by Alex Reed Images: The Horror Stories

"How did Beane get the box?"  I asked, as we followed our seemingly demented client further into the dark and intricate branchings of the corridors.  "Mr. Beane is a tricky fellow, "  Herms replied, "I had slipped it into one of my pockets as we entered this place, and he picked my pocket quite neatly.  I was tempted to return the favor, but was curious  as to what he would do."  "Herms," I began, "Your curiosity, while laudable..."   But I was interrupted by a cry from Beane, who had paused in a sort of balcony overlooking an interior room.  "It's impustulating tendrelomas exfoliated liquinoxiously!"  Beane shouted, pointing into the room.  He was shaking to and fro, greatly agitated.  "It... it... it..."  Finding his explanations difficult to comprehend, I stepped up beside him and peered down into the room below.  For a moment I could understand nothing of what I saw, so strange it was.  

Within the room was a shape that appeared to be molded of colored light, intricate, spiky and complex like a tropical flower or one of the more elaborate relatives of the starfish.   Writhing slowly, it manipulated an array of many objects that turned in slow orbits about itself - and though it looked like nothing I had ever seen, its motions were those of something alive and purposeful.  My heart gave a sudden jump as I realized what the objects were.

The Engineer

by Mike Herndon

"Herms..."  I said, turning.  But I stopped as I saw that we had been joined by a sinister figure.  This being was somewhat Human of aspect, though pale as a fish's belly; and encased in a horrific garment of barbed wire, welded together in harsh yet ornamental patterns.  Though several sizes too small, so that it pressed deeply into his flesh, and of an altogether unconventional material, the care taken in its design and construction somehow conveyed an unsettling feeling of nattiness.  Herms, leaning on his stick with the deceptively casual look he assumed at times of great peril, greeted the newcomer with a nod.  Nodding back, this personage regarded us sternly, a smile-like rictus upon his face.  "The Engineer is not to be disturbed,"  He told us.  He bowed, slightly and ironically, "I am Cage, chief security officer for the fitting rooms."


by Mike Herndon

"You are most appropriately named,"  I replied.   He laughed a rattling laugh.  "Yes," he said, "I am the master of this structure (here he tapped the net of wires), which encloses the tiny portion of space that I do not fill, and in which you tiny creatures run around.  You are from that even tinier place inside it, from what you call 'the world.'"  I pointedly inspected the charring from the welds, the gouges that the barbs worried open in the flayed flesh.  "It is not comfortable,"  I asked, filling all that 'outside' space?"  "My 'discomfort' is beyond your puny comprehension," he retorted.  "It takes great discipline not to be distracted by such agony, and from discipline comes power.  Great power."    Herms seemed undismayed.  "I too have sources of power," he said.  Cage shook his head.  "Wander around as you like.  You'll be found sooner or later, and fitted.  But do not disturb the Engineer."  He turned abruptly, and stalked off down a corridor.  

I did not see any way we could disturb the presence in the room we overlooked.  The floor was far below, and had no visible doors, only many high windows.  When we turned, we found that the way we had came was blocked by a wall with a dark doorway,  "As good a way as any."  said Herms.  So, carefully, we stepped into the dark.  As we entered the room, torches flared along the walls, revealing a vast hall that seemed cobbled with red stones.  Then we saw that 'the stones' pulsed rhythmically.  Had we taken another step, we would have trodden on a carpet of living human hearts sewn together, artery to vein, glistening as though freshly plucked from sacrifices atop towering step pyramids by feathered-bedecked priests wielding glimmering, wicked daggers of obsidian.  Beane bent, seized by spasms of nausea, as I examined the careful stitch work.

"Gentlemen," said Herms, here comes the one whom all these hearts were lost."  And, in fact, someone was approaching us across the tapestry of hearts.  A figure emphatically female, garlanded with wounds like jewels, wearing thin straps of spiked leather that concealed little of her shaven, cicatriced body.  As she drew nearer, it became apparent that the spikes were not fastened to the straps, but, sprouting from her flesh, pierced the straps and held them in place.  With each step, her mound  pulsed and writhed, pulling open to reveal the gleam of serrated steel.  Planting her feet firmly upon the hearts, she she strode up to us and reached out her arms in a gesture of welcome, smiling strangely.  Then she spoke:  "There is no lover like Leviathan."

Prickly Acolyte

by Mike Herndon

"Like great mollusks, the gaping valves of the chamber of transformation sucked me in, holding me as close as a seamless garment of leeches, as tightly as a hydraulic press.  As I hung splayed and spread-eagled upon the table of tines, his hooks and hammers caressed me continuously, unceasing; hissing and humming, his spinning edges open me wide, and in a thousand places he entered me, spreading me, filling me up, perfectly and snugly, no inch neglected, no cavity not flooded by the spurting of his fluids, burningly cold, sweetly corrosive, permeating every cell, laving every nerve like salt, like acid, like black lava, like a million kisses, kisses like lions give their prey, a kiss of teeth, a kiss of razors, a kiss of rasps and grindstones. 

He suckled at me like lampreys.  And I became, became, and became!  No mere mortal could give me such agony - pain that it would take lifetimes to feel elsewhere was mine each minute of the years his attentions spent remaking me.  Endlessly he probed me, shaping me to him, giving me new ways to suffer, never known to human bodies.  Deep into me he went, again and again, teaching me the agonies of a god.  Now he is always in me, and I within him.  The chamber opened and spit me out, reborn, christened in blood and baptized in slime, and it goes elsewhere, hunting, ever hungry for someone new to fill it, someone worthy...  But its touch remains upon me, a never-ending rain of steel-wire whiplash, bone-crushing cams, white-hot irons...  Every moment Leviathan is taking me, every moment he is moving inside me...  Every moment..."

Prickly Acolyte

by Mike Herndon

She stroked the needles protruding from her crotch with one hand, those haloing her nipples with the other, and moaned.  From the juncture of her legs came the sound of steel blades snapping together, then sliding along each other; and little, high pitched whirring sounds...  "Now you shall learn,"  she whispered, "now I shall teach you what Leviathan taught me!"  Always eager for new knowledge, I started forward, as - a moment later - did Beane; but Herms, grabbing us by the arms, stepped rapidly backwards, out of the room.  The light of the torches vanished, leaving the doorway dark once again, and only silence within.

Herms released us.  After a moment, the true import of the situation became clear in my mind, and I shuddered.  Herms smiled, and knowing what was coming, I smiled back.  "In a way," mused Herms, "she reminds me of the lovely Shuna, a woman of penetrating wit, though a bit sharp-tempered."  "Yes," I replied, "She was indeed been a bit prickly, but... inclined to stick to her man."  We laughed.  Beane looked at us as though we had taken leave of our senses.  "Laughter," Herms explained to him, "is a great defense against evil.  We have just had a narrow escape.  Fortunately, that was only another acolyte: a being, as it were, not yet fully transformed.  We should not have gotten out so easily if we had faced one of the true Cenobites."

"Cenobites!," I exclaimed incredulously, "monks?  Is this a monastery then?"  "In a manner of speaking, yes.  There is at least one religious order devoted to Leviathan and composed of those he has converted from humanity.  This order comprises both communal religious, or cenobites (from koinobiotes , those who share a common life), and solitary ones, or anchorites.  Both the Servants of Leviathan and the Keepers of the Gates (and also, I believe, a military order), are not as the monks and hermits you know.  Immortal, eternally dedicated, and possessed of supernatural powers, they implement only their Master's purpose."

"And what is that purpose?,"  I queried, "is Leviathan indeed a demon, then?"  Herms shook his head.  "We may be in more than mortal danger, old friend.  Leviathan is no mere Shape of Darkness.  I fear that he is one of the lost Archons - a shard of the ancient protocosm itself."  "Do you mean the Archai , Herms, beings of the seventh order?  That would indeed be formidable."  "I mean one of the archontes, Jekyll, but of what order I am uncertain.  Hobbes thought Leviathan was of the Archai, the particular flavor of Leviathanic corruption upon our Earth being typical of the seventh order, but from what I have observed here, we may well be confronting a sixth-order Power*, a planetary spirit of crystalline form, involuted and corrupt."

* A sixth-order being has been commonly calculated to be ten thousand million times as powerful as a tenth order being.  Of course, as Herms has pointed out, Human beings are vastly more powerful than fleas or microbes...  Are Cenobites perhaps the antibodies of Hell?


by Mike Herndon

"An Exusiai!," I exclaimed, "Herms, that is...  is simply monstrous.  Such beings are normally concerned with order, mathematics, logic, natural law... Why would a Lord of the Vortex concern itself with tenth order creatures such as ourselves?"  "A vital question, Jekyll!  Would that we knew the answer."  So saying, he drew from an inner pocket a packet wrapped in silver-grey silk, which, opened, proved to be the nameless trumps of the Deck of Darkness.  Tapping the cards thrice, he turned the top one over.  It depicted a hooded figure with a begging bowl, seated upon the steps before a sinister pyramid wreathed by the seven lightnings.  "The Dweller on the Threshold," Herms declared, "Hazardous Change.  Hardly surprising.  Well, we shall want some protection."  He tapped again, and turned three cards.  

The first was a man with bronze-red skin on a throne of pale-veined alabaster carved like many unfolding wings.  Dark, blurry lines moved about him, close to his body, forming a sparse, abstract pattern.  

Second was a woman, lily-pale.  Her onyx throne looked made of serpents, or tentacles, ending in boneless, sinuous hands; and the lines orbiting her flesh were of red fire.

Finally, seated upon a throne of red garnet was an ebon being of lion-like countenance.  The throne, painted  so as to seem to glow from within, was depicted carved all over in a design of enormous, staring eyes.  The dancing lines glowed white hot.  

"The V'shants!," I exclaimed, "Rulers of death, life, and change; of space, time, and the unmanifest.  Or, some say,  Adam, Eve, and the Serpent."

Herms picked up the third card.  It now showed a crimson-pelted hybrid of bull and man lounging upon a throne of jet shaped into a pattern of whorling tounges.  Moonstone-gleaming lines coiled about him.  The other two cards were changed as well.  "According to an ancient tradition,"  Herms replied, "the beast was Eve's lover during the eons before Adam was created for her.  This is, of course, symbolic of a greater truth."  He put the cards down again.  The figure was now ivory-fleeced, goat hooved and horned, her jutting breasts and heavy thighs caressed by streaks of  smoke upon the vine-carved carnelian throne.

"Herms," I said "these are a most mischievous set of cards."  "Someone is being mischievous," he answered, putting them away, "but I take it as a sign that a protection has been granted; a small chance given us, involving things that are not as they seem."  "Well, Herms,"  I said, "Beane is, as you say tricky.   Among those items that the glowing creature was arranging were some I recognized.  As I suspect, you did also."  "Indeed," Herms replied, various parts removed from the bodies of Burke and Hare.  They were their usual uncautious selves with the box Beane sold them.  When we are out of this mess, we must properly dispose of their inventory before unwitting persons are injured, and pernicious forces set free.  

Not that Beane is a too-careful man himself.  As you noticed from his history, he is one who loves to place himself in danger, who craves ultimate excitement.  That, not arcane knowledge, is what he truly seeks.  When he found the box - doubtless upon one of his hazardous foreign forays - he could no more reverse the sequence than I could, and so fell among the Cenobites.  But, being accustomed to bargaining shrewdly when imperiled, he delayed his fate by promising to carry the box to other seekers like himself.

"Misery's Canticle" - photo by Alex Reed Images: The Horror Stories

"There is no telling how many times he sold and retrieved the box, though that is probably the true source of his wealth.  And after the last sale; after replacing the box where he knew I could find it; after taking Burke's personal watch-chain - such greed, Jekyll...  Ah, after that I expect he partook of certain substances that set the nerves on edge, to enhance his masquerade; though he is a talented actor in any case.  And to fool me into being his next victim was just the sort of danger he relishes.  Ordinary life is too dull for such as he:  The people of Leviathan reject no sensation, however intense, bizarre or unnatural.  Pain is to them simply part of the spectrum of feeling.  

I had, of course, assumed that Beane was not telling us everything (clients seldom did), but this explication of his full perfidy stunned me.  I glanced at him, as he wandered from window to window, brandishing the box (he had put away the useless gun) and muttering dire-toned gibberish.  "Herms," I protested, "you knew all along.  You knew everything!"  "No Jekyll," he answered, "despite the various poses I assume for the purpose of eliciting information, I am neither ignorant nor omniscient.  Half of what I have told you I knew from the first; the rest, I am still learning.  But we are, I think, near the end."

"Behold," Shouted Beane, "the owl in its mirror: The ape finds beauty in the ape, the ugly duckling is a swan, the leper white as snow is pure again!  Life merges boundaryless with death, love with hate, sighs with screams; the greatest horror holds a true perfection!"  At that point, a voice spoke, a voice like the sound of many people whispering in unison: "The tragic fates we inflict upon our gods - poor Leviathan!"  And with this voice, a figure stepped from the shadows.  The mysterious figure wore a mask of silver, exquisitely wrought, representing some doggish creature, but so stylized that I could not be certain whether it was a jackal, wolf, or fox.  A plain robe of white samite flowed about it as though stirred by an intangible wind.  Black hair fell to its waist, its skin glowed like polished bronze

The Cryptic Messenger

by Mike Herndon

"The way is not invisible, but unseen." The eerie whisper intoned, "Where one does not look, one does not find.  The door out is also the door in."  The mask loomed at me and I thought I could see the glint of intense eyes.  I have always found this sort of mystagogery irritating, and was tempted to remove the mask; but, reflecting on the unfortunate happenings in the Incident of the Tattered King, I decided to forgo that self-indulgence.  A glint of light caught my eye.  Looking up, I saw something tiny and glittering spiraling slowly out of the distance's ebon obscurity.  The metal-visaged being reached up and, plucking it from the air, handed it to me.  It was the silver bullet that Beane had fired at Leviathan.  

"The humility of the Gods," whispered the measured chorus of the mask, "is more proud than the arrogance of Man, and their mercy more implacable than his cruelty."    And the strange figure receded abruptly into the shadows from which it had emerged.  

"Herms," I asked, "Who was that masked shaman, anyway?"

To be continued in

Chapter IV

"Out of The Lips of Hell"

(Escape and aftermath)

Chapter 1
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