Ill Met by Starlight
April 9th, 2024
Despite their best efforts, the music had continued to play through the radio. Even turned off and unplugged, the same unearthly music was pouring from the speakers unabated. Aurelio and Syblla had gone to the radio tower to find the source, while Angel had left to secure more of the city, leaving Nora, Echo, and Lenore in Nora’s townhouse to begin work on finding out exactly what it was that was driving the city into a frenzy.
“I don’t know if this music is enchanted or not.” Nora said, tipping the large wooden radio box to this side and that, as if looking for some hidden switch labeled “Sinister Cult Music” flipped to the “On” position.
The music certainly sounded supernatural. It was the chanting voice of a single woman, harmonizing with separate tones that waxed and waned in and out with her voice into a tune she couldn’t recognize, singing in a language she didn’t understand.
“But it’s definitely giving me a headache.” She said, rubbing her temples.
There was a loud crunching sound of breaking wood and metal striking metal as the music ceased. Lenore’s knife had come smashing down on the radio set, disabling the rogue signal permanently.
“That,” She said simply. “Was quite enough.”
Nora rolled her eyes. “Well that solves the issue for us at least, but we can’t exactly smash every radio in Rome.”
“The radio is not our goal.” Lenore leveled eyes with her, and Nora couldn’t help but feel a shiver run down her spine. Lenore had been recovering well, better than even Nora had hoped for, but she was far from cured, and when her mind was focused she seemed possessed by a strange sort of…intensity.
“Our mission right now is to solve the problem of this cult. If we are correct and this is their master stroke then we are rapidly running out of time.”
“She’s right,” Echo said comfortingly, placing a hand on Nora’s shoulder. “We have new information now, it’s time to use it.”
“New information,” Nora nodded as she started sorting through the books they had dragged down into the living room. “We have a ghostly music in a non-Indo-European language, uppity cacodaemons, and a black moon.”
“It’s not a black moon anymore.” Lenore said, taking a glance out the window through the drawn curtains.
“Oh, good,” Nora said. “Is the moon back to normal?”
“The opposite, I’m afraid,” Lenore said with her usual flat delivery. “Sunrise was a half an hour ago.”
“…” Nora stared at the window; it was still dark outside.
“It is as you feared,” Lenore said. “And as Angel predicted. A Black Sun over Rome.”
“Let me see.” Nora said quietly as she and Echo hurried to the window, pulling the curtain open.
The street outside was dark; where the sun should have been tinting the eastern sky with yellows, oranges, and reds, it was instead cast in a deep blue more suited to the ocean than the sky. The sun itself, that ball of brilliant white light, was black. This was not the black of an eclipse, rather the sun itself had been drained of all light, leaving it spreading black arms of shadow across the heaven, leaving only the starlight to light the streets.
And there were so many stars. Nora had never seen so many stars before, even outside of a city like Rome. They filled the sky in patterns she did not recognize, and around the fringes of the black sun, new stars that should have gone unseen burned with eldritch light.
“Well…” Nora muttered under her breath. “This is going to be a very busy day.”
She felt Echo shudder beside her, and placed a hand comfortingly over her back.
“What do you feel?” She asked. If anyone they knew would be affected by cosmological events like this, it would be Echo.
“It’s wrong…” Echo said “And I mean…more than just looking wrong. It’s…chaos…disorder…ancient beyond imagining.”
“What it is our next clue?” Nora said, going to her books as she tried to stifle the hammering in her heart. “The Black Sun…that narrows things down, though not as much as I’d like.”
She began piling books, scrolls, and tomes on the table in the room.
“The occult, hermetic alchemy, mysticism…the idea of a black sun isn’t new, and it’s not unique to any one culture or religion…” She muttered, as much to herself as others.
“It’s prominent in German neopaganism, might register with the Hour of the Wolf connection…Nazis were a big fan apparently.” She mumbled, flipping through pages.
“Don’t forget the music,” Echo said. “And the term Butterfly…”
“None of this is really adding up…” Nora sighed, throwing another book over her shoulder. “I’m missing something, something big.”
“Well we might have more information coming,” Lenore said, glancing out the window. “We have company. A wolf.”
“Well then,” Nora said, slamming the book shut. “In defiance of all childhood fairy tales, let’s let the wolf inside.”
Lenore nodded and opened the door just as a loud knock struck the wood, revealing Giovanni in their doorway, a package tucked under his arm.
“Come on in,” Nora said. “Get comfy, have tea, you caught us in the middle of trying to figure out what might be the end of the world.”
“Good,” Giovanni said hastily. “Because I might have some information on that.”
Nora raised an eyebrow “Let’s hear it; we’re getting desperate at this point.”
Giovanni gently placed the bundle in his arms onto a clear space of the table and undid the cloth wrapping around it.
“I brought this from the archives,” He said. “So do be gentle with it; it’s quite likely almost as old as I am.”
Nora watched as he revealed what looked like a bundle of animal skins. Only when he gently folded the top one to the side did she see that they were pages.
It was not a traditional western book, instead a series of stiff animal skins bound one edge to another to form a single long canvas of pages, each a square of hide about thirty centimeters in across.
“Giovanni what is this?” She asked as the opened page revealed colorful images of abstractly human and animal figures.
“A possible solution,” Giovanni said. “The legends of the old world have given us nothing, so it is time we looked to the new. I had few suspicions until I saw that black sun overhead…When this document came to Italy, it made its rounds through some of the religious elite. I heard rumors of it then, tales of a place in what would be called New Spain and later still Mexico, of Black Suns and the eclipse, of monstrous demons that came from the stars.”
Nora moved her fingers over an open page, resisting the urge to slide her fingers over the ancient hide.
“Giovanni…” She said quietly. “This is Aztec, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Giovanni said. “The Codex Borgia, one of the few documents that survived the Spanish conquest, and I believe that somewhere in all of this…madness…is the face of our enemy.”
Nora stood up straight, pulling Giovanni’s hand from the document as well as she turned to the others.
“Echo,” She said. “I need you to get gloves for us and every book I have on Aztec mythology, should be in section “M”.”
Echo nodded hurriedly and scurried form the room as Nora turned to Lenore. “Lenore, I want you on the roof, eyes on the sky. Tell us if anything strange…well, stranger…happens with that sun. Understood?”
“Right,” Lenore nodded as she quickly moved to the stairs to ascend to the roof.
Echo returned with the gloves first, and Nora pulled them on as she began to gently turn the pages. “You know the Vatican Library has a digital database of all this, right?” She asked Giovanni. “I mean, I love the originals, but you shouldn’t be dragging legitimate relics across town in an emergency situation. Just bring a thumb drive or something.”
“The Vatican doesn’t have the best IT right now,” Giovanni said sheepishly. “They keep telling me the servers are down and I don’t know how computers work.”
“Fair,” Nora said, resisting the urge to pet the flustered wolf. “This might be the better resource anyways.”
One by one she moved through the pages, examining the imagery within. It was at once a work of utility and one of supreme art. There were no written words, merely symbols and images representative of calendars both terrestrial and astronomical, works of divination, and images of deities and rites.
The abstractness and styling of the Mesoamerican art was as impressive as it was macabre. She was used to a more realistic style that could be found throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Even with the various art styles of Norse, Persian, and Egyptian, all images of gods could be identified as human, or at least humanoid. With the Aztec markings, however, there was no such familiarity.
The images of humans were small and crouched in worship before images of, to her eyes, monstrous deities. Beings with many arms and legs, clawed and striped like animals, with skeletal faces and plumed crowns, bearing claws and swords and serpents wreathed in darkness, water, and flame.
Soon Echo returned with books and reference guides which Nora used to guide herself. Together the three of them worked to pronounce the names, titles, and domains of each figure as they appeared. Echo seemed to physically recoil at times, particularly at images of the various rites and rituals, all of which seemed to involve elements of death, dismemberment, and possibly cannibalism.
“Barbaric…” Giovanni muttered under his breath.
“Through our eyes,” Nora said. “This was the way of the world in those times, no stranger to us than ours must have been to them. Besides, all religions from the Greeks, to the Romans, to Muslims to Catholics at one time or another celebrated ritual murder, even if it was killing heretics or the disavowed or just enemies of the state. Is sacrifice so different?”
Nora frowned at a particularly visceral illustration “That said, I’m all for cultural relativism but if we’re dealing with an Aztec cult in the present and in the middle of Rome…”
“Then they need to be stopped.” Giovanni said.
“Agreed.” Nora nodded.
“Ergh…” Echo shriveled. “The thought alone…”
Nora nudged Echo comfortingly with a shoulder. “We know what we’re facing a little better now. We can put a stop to it soon enough.”
They had reached the sixtieth page or so, going through most of the thick manuscript, but finding nothing that quite matched what they were looking for. Nora’s finger passed over the image of a horrifying deity-figure, its face a skeletal visage of striped white, black, and red, the face framed with what she assumed was long black hair matching the stylized jewels and dress upon their body. Their arms and legs were those of jaguars, spotted and fiercely clawed, and from the back sprouted broad depictions of abstract wings.
“Well, our next contestant on this little tour of horrors” Nora said sarcastically, hands sliding just over the page. “We have this skeletal god…dess? With some images of sleeping, dead, or blinded people next to a weird tree…dragon…thing? Spewing blood everywhere.”
Nora sighed. “I get that I’m supposed to take the symbolic meaning and not the literal but…come on.”
“According to the guide,” Giovanni said, looking through their reference. “That’s…”
His words gave way, leaving them in silence.
“Who is it?” Nora asked.
“Her name is Itzpapalotl,” Giovanni said. “The Obsidian Butterfly.”
There was a very apparent silence that passed between them at the name as all of them stared down at the goddess drawn across the fading animal hide.
“What else does the guide say?” Nora said in a hushed voice, as if scared to speak louder.
“She comes in many forms, sometimes that of a beautiful woman, other times she looked like…well, that. She was a member and leader of several orders of spirits. The cihuateteo, fierce spirits born from the souls of mothers who died in childbirth…she was their leader and the savior of such spirits in times of cosmic stability…”
“And in times of cosmic instability?” Nora asked. “Such as the last two years or so?”
“She takes on her terrible form, and leads the tzitzimimeh to descend upon the earth and spread chaos and destruction as they feast upon the living.”
“What the hell…” Nora said slowly. “…is a tzitzimimeh?”
“Well umm…” Giovanni flipped through a few pages. “That looks like the plural, singular is tzitzimitl…they’re…associated with the cihuateteo but during events like a solar eclipse…”
“Or this black sun.”
“Or that…they descend from Itzpapalotl’s afterlife world of Tamoanchan and work to bring about the end of humankind. They are embodied in the stars, particularly those that hide behind the sun… Imagine a three meter tall skeleton women wrapped in seashells and snakes…”
“And this goddess, Itzpapalotl, is their queen?”
“In a way yes.” Giovanni nodded. “If this source is accurate.”
Their conversation was interrupted by Lenore hurrying down the stairs.
“Everyone in the basement.” She said, with a command in her voice Nora hadn’t heard since they were children.
“Why?” Nora asked, the anxiety in her chest growing into fear.
“Something is descending from the sky,” Lenore said. “It’s like the stars are falling.”
As she spoke, Nora became distinctly aware of a new noise outside that she had at first brushed off the wind, a sound like howling that rattled through old bones.
And it was getting louder.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=59&sl=372