A selection from the first Lore of the Underlings episodes,
now freshly revised with up to 35% more poetry (by volume)!
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I’m delighted to the point of tears to bring you this translation of the Lore of the Underlings, which is, at best, a rat’s nest of strange and so-so tales from heaven-knows-where. Now I’m sure you’re saying, “Hurry up!” and, “Get on with it!” Who can blame you? Why pick at these crumbs while tasty cheese awaits ahead?
Well, it turns out that this is our lucky day. I’ve just come into possession of a very special document, the notes of an earlier unknown scholar of these mysterious stories, which will no doubt spread the sunny smile of knowledge over every word to reveal their origin and meaning and so on. This is exciting. Let’s read it together for the first time:
One winter noon now long ago, I woke buried under a blanket of snow in the woods I had wandered as a child… tucked into by something wicked… wild… lost and found out in the bitter cold…
The sting was the first thing to hit me. The fire on my frozen cheek. Rough bark pressed against my skin with the bite of a dozen angry bees.
I tried to make sense of what I was…
This face mashed into a fallen pine.
Hair matted with sap and dried blood from the scalp.
Knees bruised and aching, toes numb, feet wet.
Trunk quaking, hunched over a bed of broken bottles that stunk of a drunken night.
Dizzy and sick, I rolled to my back and to the sound of cracking glass felt something press against my chest.
My eyes were swollen to narrow slits, blind but for a blur of white and diamond light cast in ice on the snow like some kind of pixie dust. Still I discovered a place to slip a few of my deadened fingertips… in between the buttons and under the thick of the musty coat that covered me up. This old patchwork overcoat was not mine, nor was the secret it hid beneath — a soft, palm-shaped pouch upon my heart. It gripped me by the ribcage in a mesh of skin-like strings, strong skinny things with fingery tips.
My hand recoiled then felt again. It seemed to tremble at the touch, holding tight like a frightened child. I grabbed the pouch to pull it off, but something made me stop.
Instead I crawled away, to the east I hoped and bound for home.
By evening I had made my feet and staggered through the trees. But as we passed the way of darkness, the fingers on my tender flesh turned into claws that latched on strong. They pierced and pulled me, digging deep with each step. I ripped the coat open and pried my best but tore at the thing in vain. Bowed in pain I cried out loud, “God damn you! No! Let go!”
And to my wonder, it did… a bit.
We went on. Before long, the forest gave way to open fields and the fields to the flickering lights of town. I was glad to find the streets deserted, to sneak unseen by the born and still living. All were asleep or in the square where, despite the witching hour, the church glowed yellow-warm and bright against this winter’s bed of white. Christmas Eve was soon to turn into Christmas Day.
My breath turned to a crystal cloud that vanished on the icy wind.
We reached my door as midnight came and the church bell tolled of joy. But the palm pouch shivered at the noise. It let go like an unclenched fist and dropped stone-cold in the snow. I pulled it inside then fell as well to the floor in a heap and deep, deep down into a troubled dream.
Hi, me again. Pardon the interruption. (This might be a good time for a snack break if you need a little something to carry on.)
I’ve got to say that I’m not a big fan so far. I mean, personal anecdotes and travelogues have no place in a serious study of bookly things like this. God bless him (or her), but talk about self-indulgence!
Anyhow, I’m optimistic that the good part with citations and footnotes is not far off. I can feel it. Let’s press ahead. Chin up!
Half-awake I washed my wounds each day expecting them to heal, but instead they wept on fresh and raw. Foolishly, against all sense, I turned to the lifeless sack. I held it in my hands and felt every edge of its velvety skin, almost like leather dyed rich gold and brown. I found no way in, no seam or flaw to reveal what it hid.
So I cut it, but it would not cut. I tore but made no tear. An axe could not split it. Lit it would not burn. It blocked my attack at every turn, tormenting me all winter long.
It opened with ease, like a beautiful rose, as I dozed on the eve of spring.
The pouch unfolded a fan of leaves, by the thousands and thin as can be, each one adorned in enchanting runes in the colors of every jewel. Sapphire, ruby, emerald green, marks of a nature not ours, unseen, as if shapes from another time and place all but too small for my sleepy eyes. And somehow I knew they were more, something prized. Both language and lore intertwined like vines, woven words I could feel but not read.
I kept this treasure to myself and gloved the open palm by day. At night I hid from all I’d loved and dwelled a secret world away, walking with ghosts through the leaves. And I believed. My fate to set them free, the millions sealed in silent cells among the stems and veins.
Years passed yet they remained each and every voice enchained, bound by a phantom melody, to a tongue-tied tune I could not hear. The key eluded me. No sweet music in my ear but the bleating of a heart of gold gone bloodless, black, and cold.
Then one haunting autumn eve living half alive, turned old, I stumbled on a musty keep of moldy promises unkept. Tripped, I tipped a table top, the very place the palm pouch slept, and it tumbled to the floor upset, its fallen leaves face down. I raised my foot to pound it flat. “God damn you,” and “Take that,” I spat. But something made me stop. Instead I stooped to cup it up, my bag of burdens, in both hands.
For the first time since forever ago, its skin felt warm like flesh. The fingers of the palm fanned out, flexing, plying, trying their best to pull invisible things from the air. Then they made the signs of the runes in pairs as a childlike voice called out crystalline clear, “God damn you! God damn you! God damn you!” It sang a mocking song.
The curse on my tongue gave their language new life at the price of a withered soul. The palm pouch took a long, deep breath. The hollow swallowed my frail mind whole. The last of sanity I’d see. I knew this was my destiny.
So lock cracked the locksmith and I became key. Into the keyhole turned mad, mad me.
Again, blah, blah, blah. This is surely nothing to write home about. Let’s skip to the end and see if there’s at least an Executive Summary with a nice wrap-up of the key points. Hold on… just a minute… Ah, here’s something, some loose sheets stuffed in the back:
winter night time time to go… go in high high high high snow to place of wood where did me woke and take the gifties, three to you… me like, you no soul, far gone fool…
gifty one… sorrow sack… sack be gone, you, back back… back to forest came you from, bad joke… unholy… you next one, no luck no lucky one…
gifty two two bottles… drink no think… drunk me drunk it up me think… no, oh so sorry, oh so so so…
now gifty last be gifty three… warn to you by eerie me… hear me voice be hear me ghost… come for you too must…
Yikes! I apologize for that. (Someone could have used an editor or at minimum a spellcheck.)
Anyway, I wish you could see the rest. The pages go on yet they’re wordless and stained, some of them bitten or chewed. The last does not look human-made, being scratched out red and crude.
Now maybe I’m just a worrywart but — doesn’t this have an ancient evil written all over it? And don’t you agree that would not be good news? You know what a big mess evil can make once it starts to spew. Is it really worth the risk? There’s only one way to find out. Do you dare to take the chance? You alone must read on or run.
But perhaps you’re tempted by the hope of treasures in these tales. I hear tell of shiny things on the road — nuggets of truth, pearls of wisdom, precious gems. We could seek them if you like and bring a sack for what we find. Some say there’s gold enough for all, but we must choose the golden rules from gold for fools and false profits. Be careful what you pick and your heart will lead you home in time, awake and alive, with a wealth the dream of any king.
Come then, turn the page. Let the lore begin!
There’s more Lore in store…