Mr. Leiber’s Collection

 

Illustration to accompany "Mr. Lieber's Collection" Copyright (c) 2016 Bradley K. McDevitt.  Used under license.Story by Brandon Ketchum/ Illustration by Bradley K. McDevitt

 Mr. Johann Leiber collected odd jewelry. He preferred the antediluvian to the beautiful. The story behind an artifact counted more with him than its monetary value, and when a bauble’s history was unknown, his imagination ran wild with possibilities. Sparkle mattered little, and might prohibit him from purchasing a piece. Tarnish was more valuable than gold, age more precious than diamonds. Peculiarities, the strange twist of a torque, the weird setting of a pendant’s stone, drew his curiosity. As Leiber had purchased such relics for more than forty years, his collection was as vast as it was eccentric.

Having moved to Legionville, Pennsylvania a year ago, early in the nineteenth century, Leiber had few options for obtaining his treasures. He relied entirely upon one Mr. Setton, a clerk at the General Store. Setton, a small man with shifty looks, had himself moved to town from parts unknown only a few years prior to Leiber. No one trusted Setton much, a tight-lipped outsider unwilling to divulge anything about his past, but he struck shrewd bargains and could track down most any item. Leiber never asked Setton where he found so many bits and bobs, and the shady man never offered explanations.

Setton had just provided him with a ring. At first Leiber wanted no part of the silver band, untarnished and plain. Setton directed his attention inside the ring, though, which displayed a minute stamping. His interest piqued, Leiber pulled a loupe from his vest pocket and used it to examine the mark. An engraving of a most unusual sigil met his eye: an eagle seated upon a burning crown in the fore, with a capital X, as in the roman numeral, behind it. Now Leiber knew his jewelry, and he remembered no other, similar Roman artifact; the Romans had not fashioned their eagles in such a manner. Something about the symbol tugged at the corners of his mind. Leiber had heard or read of it before, but not on any jewelry. It sufficed. Without wasting time trying to recall where he’d seen the symbol before, he bought the ring.

When he arrived home, Leiber went directly to his inner sanctum, which served as both his library and as home to his collection. The large room comprised half the house, with two windows to provide light. Every other inch of the wall held books. On the shelves with the books, and on pedestals and small tables around the room, rested his collection. There were necklaces, pendants, bracelets, nose rings, and more. Cracked ivory, rusted iron, copper dross, dull brass and more made up the individual pieces. His collection may not have been stunning to the normal eye, but to the ever-curious Leiber, each and every item held its own special tale.

Leiber strode to a large writing table in the center of the room, bedecked with candlesticks, and set the ring upon it. He then perused his library, rummaged through the books, selected a few, and brought them back to his table. Leiber knew his books held the key to unlocking the ring’s secret, but met with no success. He continued this process, returning volumes to the shelves, selecting more, browsing through their contents, but it was no use. Exhaustion had taken hold, and he found nothing relating to the curious ring, or the odd symbol stamped on it.

Promising himself an early start, Leiber went to bed straight from his study, without dinner. Not a religious man, he said no prayers before climbing onto his mattress and under the covers. He took to bed with him only thoughts of the silver ring, hoping perhaps his dreams would revive his drowsy mind and unlock the eagle symbol’s secret.

In the blackness of his dreams, Leiber heard marching boots, thousands of invisible feet shuddering through the vibrant cobblestones that sprang up beneath him. Looking up from this shadow road, he spied a standard bobbing in the distance, following the road, approaching him. The marching beat continued, became louder, but he saw no one; it was as if a ghost held the standard aloft. He tried to step off the road, but the void to either side held him captive, and the road ended behind him.

The standard advanced, its fiery cloth trimmed in gold, fluttering in a sudden breeze, as if it were a fire burning toward him. Leiber did not at first make out any other details, but as it moved closer, he noticed a large eagle perched atop it, carved from what looked like solid gold. The eagle’s base, gold as well, formed a crown topped with flame, giving birth to the eagle, reminiscent of a phoenix.

The standard had almost reached him, brandishing a giant black X, and Leiber thought of nothing but a Roman curse, a twisted legion of ghost demons driven by hatred and blood lust. Then the material enwrapped his body, the X flapping in his face, the eagle clawing at his eyes, come to life to destroy him, the interloper in this wicked realm.

Leiber awoke, waving his arms before his face to ward off the eagle’s talons. It took him a few moments to realize he had been dreaming. Sweat glistened on his brow, and his labored breathing slowed to a normal pace as he calmed down. Dawn had saved Leiber from his nightmares. With those terrors banished to memory in the soft morning light, he once again felt an insatiable need to study.

Giving way to mortal needs, Leiber allowed himself time to wash his face and bolt down a meager breakfast before returning to his library. Although he never recalled seeing an eagle like the one on his new ring in any Roman literature or art, he knew his stratagem from the night before had borne fruit. By depriving himself of his evening meal, and keeping the ring and its symbol in his thoughts when he went to sleep, Leiber had pushed his psyche into revealing knowledge about it. He had been mistaken the day before; the ring must be Roman in origin, given his dream’s content. With this new information in mind, Leiber attacked his Roman sources with anticipation.

Unfortunately, he found not one reference to an eagle atop a burning crown, or any eagle formed in a manner similar to the one on the ring. Baffled, Leiber leafed again and again through these books, certain the ring must be Roman after all, but by the time evening fell, he admitted defeat. It was not Roman, for his books encompassed every last crumb of knowledge he possessed on the ancient civilization.

Famished, for he had forgotten lunch, and thoroughly frustrated, Leiber had dinner and went to bed early, grumbling as he settled in to sleep. He no longer counted on his dreams to lend any subliminal clues as to the sigil’s origins, so he hoped for a dreamless slumber to refresh his mind. What he experienced in dreamland instead morphed his curiosity into an awful drive to find the truth.

A medieval knight strode into a cold, dank hall, his spurs scraping on stone mingling with the rustle of the rushes strewn across the floor. The knight wore plate armor, and the familiar eagle symbol with an X stood out on his breastplate. He carried a great helm under his arm, a bastard sword at his side, and his mouth twisted in a disdainful sneer.

As the knight paced with determination along the hall, Leiber noted three men seated behind an elevated table at the far end. Clothed in crimson, prominent crosses dangling from their necks, these men were cardinals, Princes of the Church. They sat with arms crossed, their own mouths thin and drawn.

No one spoke when the knight stopped before them. The three cardinals leaned forward, their eyes, like daggers, piercing the knight with accusatory stares. The knight, unimpressed, hawked and spat in the middle of the table, spittle dotting each of their cassocks. For a moment they were carved from stone, they sat so still. Then, as one, the cardinals raised their fingers, pointing first to the knight, and then behind him.

Leiber turned, and found himself in a different scene. The cardinals were there, standing behind another man, clothed only in dingy breeches, stained with dirt and sweat. Arrayed about the room were implements of torture: a rack, an iron maiden, pincers, pokers, braziers filled with burning coals, and many others. The filthy man stepped straight to Leiber, who could no longer move in this dream form, and fiddled with his clothing. Flabbergasted, and not a little afraid, Leiber watched as the man pulled the knight’s breastplate away from his chest. He had become the knight.

Within minutes, his armor had been removed, and Leiber stood before the cardinals naked, mute and unable to resist. One of the cardinals gestured, and he was pulled to the rack and tied fast. As the machine pulled him apart, countless ghostly forms took up tools and destroyed his flesh.

Leiber screamed and screamed, and screamed himself awake.

Once his panicked thrashings and terrified shouts ended, Leiber considered this latest nightmare. Yes, he would dig through his religious texts, focusing on Catholic theology and the Inquisition, but he had a more important task to undertake first. He hastily washed, dressed in his finest suit, and left the house.

Even though Leiber had never been a religious man, he felt a compulsion to change his beliefs. He had disdained the Christian faith as a superstitious sect of hypocrites his entire adult life, in light of the Church’s ancient adoption of pagan rites and rituals into its own practice. As a child, however, his devout parents had insisted upon attendance at regular services, and a strict regimen of religious education. Those days were but a hazy memory, yet Leiber now worried about his nightmares, and what they portended. He had an overactive imagination, one of the reasons he so loved to collect ancient bric-a-brac, and he feared his soul might be in jeopardy. Ever a practical man, Leiber thought it time to take the most prudent course to protect it.

Kneeling in church, Leiber reflected upon the nightmares visited upon him. Although at first, he had suspected the symbol to be Roman, he now believed the ring may have roots in Christianity. After all, the Romans had cruelly oppressed the Christians. Might the Christians not have twisted the Roman eagle into a symbol of rebellion and defiance? This line of thought gave Leiber even more ideas for research. Firing off a quick Our Father, he knelt in the aisle, crossed himself, and hurried home.

Again, Leiber met with defeat in his library. His research had entered the realm of the absurd. His private library, most likely the largest in all Western Pennsylvania, had been tailored specifically to the weird and obscure. Why then should it not elucidate the history of the symbol stamped inside his silver ring?

Leiber labored well into the dark hours past midnight, driven to discover the smallest tidbit of knowledge about the symbol, yet driven also by a more primal motivation. His nightmares had become the source of such horrific fright he was loathe to dream again.

Inevitably, though, Leiber knew he must sleep. Otherwise he would soon experience hallucinations in the real world, a fate far worse than nightmares; ultimately, he would perish from sleep deprivation. Thus, with trepidation nevertheless gripping his heart, Leiber reluctantly lay down to sleep. Closing his eyes, he abandoned himself to his dreams.

A middle-aged woman stood before him, dressed in antique finery, with blood spattered on the wall behind her. Her slit throat yawned at him, bubbles of blood gurgling babbled words, sounds that should have been taken for nonsense, but which Leiber knew to be damned language. Her forehead showed no wound, but was ringed with crimson liquid. An eagle squatted on the crown of her head, screeching maniacally. Behind the woman, scratched into the wooden paneling of a wall, he saw a crooked X. She stepped forward, toward Leiber’s psyche, for he had no physical form in this dream. Flames sprang up behind her, outlining the woman in glowing light. As she approached, she held her hands up toward him, as if in supplication. Leiber’s attention drifted inexorably to her left hand, and there on the walking corpse’s third finger sat a ring, a silver ring.

Leiber woke up with a start in the middle of the night, fairly drowning in sweat and nauseated past the point of endurance. He fumbled on the floor for his chamber pot, but could not find it. Realizing he must have left it in the corner, he crawled across the floor’s wooden slats. His knees scraped painfully as he progressed, and splinters stabbed into his hands. The humiliating and painful search for his chamber pot came to nothing, however, as his stomach gave a final lurch. He vomited on the floor, retching out his terror. After dry heaving for several minutes, he sat back on his haunches and tried to catch his breath. Leiber’s mind was racked with unshakable horror, his bloody hands palsied with dread.

Once he managed to stand, Leiber ran directly to his library, for he finally realized which tome held the answer. He pulled from a shelf a more recent volume, one written within his own lifetime. A quick flip of the pages brought him to the account he sought, one he both did and did not want to read, although he must.

The chronicle told of strange disturbances reported in an isolated village located just outside Logstown. At first the locals only thought these villagers, members of a strange religious sect, and as Pennsylvania had been founded as a religious haven, opinion about them amounted to a live and let live mentality. Soon, however, strange cries were heard in the dead of night, and the conservative people of Logstown observed bonfires burning nightly at the witching hour. These were not the acts of a God-fearing religious group, and so the Logstown magistrate raised a party to investigate.

What he and his men found within the ghastly confines of that damned encampment almost shattered their sanity. They had stumbled upon a murderous cult, whom they caught in the act of consuming the fruits of their blasted rites. Yes, they had been eating the burnt flesh of human sacrifices, in broad daylight, having given them to their pagan gods the night before. The bonfires were for cooking flesh, and the chants were prayers, paeans of unholy fervor offered to their demonic deities.

They lynched the cultists, men and women both, and gave their children to the orphanage. Each corpse had been found branded with the tattoo of an eagle atop a burning crown in the foreground, with the roman numeral X in the background. They were buried in consecrated ground, but the cemetery soon became haunted, and there had been murmurs of the cult living beyond death. Logstown opened a new cemetery, and since no one took up the evil rites again, the memories of the wretched atrocities were buried forever.

He slammed the book shut, his face drained of color as his eyes stared sightlessly ahead, mind turning upon itself in dread. Leiber knew without question he was in mortal peril. He muttered prayers under his breath and crossed himself over and over again, but found no comfort. Leiber’s heart fluttered with fear, and he did not feel God’s blessed presence.

Leiber had to get rid of the ring, had to return it from whence it came. He went to a shelf where an old brass crucifix dangled by its chain from a nail. He pulled this over his head and felt the reassuring weight of the item settle upon his chest. Casting his gaze about the room, he knew of no other Christian items in his collection. He cursed his stubborn refusal to return to his religious roots for so many decades, which meant he did not even own a bible. Without bothering to dress or clean himself, he set out into the night in his robe.

No one in the town, steeped now in blackest night, observed Leiber hastening across the village green. Slipping around the side of the General Store to the back, he cursed under his breath at finding the door locked. Leiber put his shoulder to the thin door without hesitation, forcibly pushing the lock from the wood that held it.

The sharp crack of yielding wood caused a stir of movement inside the dark building, but Leiber entered before anyone could object. He knew his destination, and a few quick strides brought him to Setton’s small living chamber.

Setton knelt on his pallet, shaking hands setting a box of matches down on a crate as he picked up his lit chamberstick. At the sight of the frothing Leiber, dressed in sweat-soaked bedclothes and stinking of vomit, crucifix swaying on his neck, Setton cried out in fright and cowered away.

“Mr. Leiber, why have you turned burglar?” Setton shook, leaning back against the wall and holding his chamberstick before him, as if to ward off the devil.

“Setton, Setton, my God man, where did you get the ring?” Leiber heeded nothing of what the other said.

“Lord save me, Mr. Leiber, what do you mean?”
“The ring, where did you get the ring?”

“Ah, bought it, as you like,” Setton said, licking his lips, the chamberstick interposed between himself and Leiber.

“From whom?” Leiber’s voice rose to a piercing tone as he became even more panicked.

Setton curled in on himself, almost fetal; only the hand with the chamberstick poked forth. “Some young man. He said it was his grandmother’s.”

“You lie, Setton. Tell me!”

Setton cringed even further. “I swear that’s what he said,” he whined.

“Where did he get it?”

“I-I d-don’t know,” Setton stuttered, eyes mutely pleading Leiber to accept the lie. His gaze darted toward the door, seeking escape.

As impassioned as he was, Leiber did not miss the look, and he loomed over the clerk. “Answer me, Setton. Where?”

Leiber went wild. He reached down and shook Setton’s shoulders, the crucifix bumping the clerk’s forehead over and over again. A feral gleam sprang to Leiber’s eye, which may have been the light of murder burning from within.

Setton crumbled. “The graveyard.” The word fell from his mouth like a leaden weight, rebounding off the room’s planks with terrible force.

“Which graveyard?” Leiber’s raised voice reached a screaming crescendo as he shook Setton.

“In Logstown, the old Logstown cemetery,” Setton cried out, afraid his life had reached its end.

Leiber regarded Setton for a few moments more, and the latter’s life hung in the balance. He was on the verge of a murderous madness, and should his mind snap, Setton’s neck would follow. Yet Leiber’s love for his own well being won out, and he determined to do his utmost to save his own skin, and perhaps his very soul.

A fever had overtaken Leiber, and it would not be soothed until he returned the ring to where he now knew it had been stolen from. He paused only long enough to take a shovel from the store before he raced through the night, tripping and scraping through the woods, charging toward his destination. Leiber cared nothing for these small hurts, so long as he reached the graveyard and completed his grisly act of atonement.

Once he found the graveyard, it took only minutes for him to discover the recently disturbed grave. Leiber set to with his shovel, hewing through the dirt with a madman’s strength. His already injured hands blistered and bled, but the bookish Leiber ignored the pain in order to complete the task.

In short order, he had uncovered a woman’s desiccated corpse from the remnants of a shattered, worm-eaten coffin. He recognized the moldy garments wrapped around the corpse as the same old-fashioned clothes worn by the woman in his most recent nightmare. Leiber took the silver ring from the pocket of his night robe and slipped it on the carrion finger. That done, he shoveled just as furiously as he had before, this time filling in the awful hole.

Some time later, Leiber stood over the dirt of a freshly covered grave. His hands were raw and stained red, his arms caked with dirt all the way to the shoulders, his bedclothes blackened with grime. Tired and filthy, he knew he was finally safe. He had returned the ring to its owner, buried again in sacred ground, so his nightmares would end, and Leiber would find peace. God had been with him after all.

Leiber reached up to wipe the sweat from his brow, ready to go home, get clean, and pray. As he moved his arm back to his side, he noticed it was not streaked with sweat, as he would have figured. His arm was now sticky with a dark red mud. He at first thought it caused by his bleeding hands, but no, mixing with the sweat and dirt would not have created so much mud. Puzzled, Leiber reached up to his forehead and dabbed his fingers there. They came away sticky, and a slaughterhouse smell tickled his nose. He groped his head in panic, but found no wound. A sharp pain nailed into the base of his spine, a pain so excruciating he had to brace his legs wide to keep from falling. It pulsed up and through his limbs, and Leiber threw back his shoulders and flung his hands and arms up and apart from the pain.

Then Leiber felt an incredible heat from below him. His eyes, reflecting torment beneath the burning sun, inched downward to behold the impossible. The grave he had just refilled gaped up toward him. The corpse below, wearing again the silver ring, took to flame. Fire sprung from the ground around it, twisting over the bones without searing them, winding up the grave’s walls, licking at his feet, burning, tugging, pulling at him. Rotted arms opened wide to receive him below. Leiber flung his head back and turned his eyes to heaven, pleading mutely for salvation.

He blinked in agony, a bird screeched in anger, and the graveyard stood empty. Every crumbling headstone rested under a thick layer of brambles. No fresh mounds of earth stuck out in the graveyard’s overgrown clearing. The sun beat down upon a collection of human remains, buried deep with the secrets they guarded.

— ♦♦♦ —

END


Next Week: Thumbnail illustration to accompany "Amnesty" Copyright(2) 2017 by Roger Betka. Used under license.

Amnesty.  By Chantal Boudreau, Art by Roger Betka

Next up is “Amnesty” by Chantal Boudreau.  Amnesty follows the journey of a victimized young woman to an empowered…literally, superhero.  For everyone who’s ever been bullied or victimized, this story is for YOU!  Let’s face it, we all have had times where we wish we could feel more empowered and have more control over our own destinies.

What if you suddenly discovered that you had the power within you to turn an attacker against himself?  What would YOU do?  Find out Amnesty’s origin by reading it next week.

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