By Lena Worwood
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 55th contest was Black Horror.
CW: abuse, assault, genocide, demons, PTSD, references to Byzantine church history
Southern Kuliakia, Anno Mundi 7502 / 2001 Global Calendar
Nobody was surprised that the inhabitants of Kipsaina were dead. It was worthy of a reference on the regional news, the Kuliakian State Broadcasting Service would do a piece using archival footage to avoid having to personally go there. Across the Union of the Nine Diamonds, it was dog bites man news - part of the regular cycle of life in a region people preferred not to think about. Except -
Except there was something wrong about how the villagers had died. Sure, U9D prejudices saw the Kirinyaga as essentially pagan barbarians who hated Christianity, and tended to view the Bantu in general as animals. But -
But, well. When Christian paramilitaries inevitably carried out a reprisal attack on a neighbouring village they’d force them to dig their own mass grave and shoot them into it. It was the common courtesy of seismic shifts in the fault line between the two civilisations. They wouldn’t mutilate the corpses. There wouldn’t be bite marks - huge chunks ripped off and. And. Gone. They wouldn’t leave one girl alive and traumatised.
The Kuliakian State Broadcasting Service didn’t mention any of this. It was in their interests to report a massacre and make the Kirinyaga look bad. A few miles down the road the Malindi National Television Service would do the same for the reprisal. But there were rules. The rules had been broken in such a way that even mentioning it seemed-
Nobody wanted riots in the cities. Tit for tat raids on villages was one thing. But peace had been hard won.
So that left a child. Nobody wanted to know what she had been through. People asked. But only to be polite. To carry out government mandated therapy. To prescribe anti-traumatic medication. And appetite enhancers. She didn’t seem to be eating.
So nobody really asked what had happened. Not to the extent where Gudit’s story about Kirinyaga partisans would be questioned. Even if it had been, Gudit said nothing. She never mentioned the nine foot tall monster with a face like an exe blade and limbs that creaked like old trees shaking in a thunderstorm. How it had attacked at night starting with Gudit’s family, carried her with it and made her watch as it killed everyone, tore chunks out of their bodies and ate them. Tossed the remnants like garbage so hard that the bones cracked and smashed on impact as they skidded along the ground or cracked into walls. Hunted the survivors as they ran and took special pleasure in making sure their deaths were lengthy and painful. And once it was done-
Once it was done it placed the eleven year old down in the centre of the only community she had ever known and said. “If you tell anyone about what you just saw, I will punish you in ways you can’t imagine. You know that I can.”
Aksum, Ethiopia, Anno Mundi 7511 / 2010 Global Calendar
Gudit never found it difficult to forgive the Kirinyaga. In fact in the past few years she had found it very lucrative. She didn’t mind. The Kirinyaga had, after all, never done anything to her. Of course she never mentioned that. It would ruin her one marketable skill. Besides -
Besides. It didn’t matter what some monster had said, far away in the south on the very edge of Nilotic Christendom. Whatever it was, it was a demon of that far away and chaotic place. Probably something that the Kirinyaga she met would have to deal with, but she was safe now. There would be no room for a ten foot tall ogre in Aksum. This was a global city - it had more in common with Baghdad, Byzantium, or Paris than it did with supernatural ungodly horrors in some uncivilised frontier. Even so -
Gudit kept her secret because not mentioning the monster was profitable. She kept her secret because nobody would believe her if she told the truth. She didn’t keep it because of what that thing had said. But -
But Gudit had grown up distractible and skittish and secretive. She didn’t trust easily. The only reason she lived with flatmates was because it was the only way to afford to live in the big city. And because it was nice to have people around. Gudit hated being alone. Sometimes she even considered taking a lover just so there’d be someone else to keep an eye on the shadows in the corners of her room.
She was nominally taking a professional secretarial degree in Aksum Third Technical College. Sometimes she even remembered to hand in the essays. Mostly, she was a professional victim. The Peace Process in the borderlands had reached a celebratory stage. In Kuliakia and Malindi there were people doing the hard work of sorting out who had killed who and why. But up in Aksum it was all friendship tours and cross cultural exhibitions. The politicians liked to have a few genuine victims for that sort of thing. It didn’t pay well, but it was catered.
That was why Gudit had found herself having to kill time in a small museum that she’d never been to before. There were enough of those - Aksum had been the centre of Christian civilisation in East Africa and the whole city was a repository of historic treasures from across the Nine Diamonds, some of which had even been given willingly after unification. You couldn’t move in Aksum without running into a museum dedicated to some dead king or abun. This one seemed to be dominated by an ancient dhow, its sails removed to save space. Gudit couldn’t be sure if it had been captured from the Musims or donated from Yemen. It didn’t seem to matter. Today it was largely in the way, an obstacle for people to walk around while they looked at the usual collection of Kirinyaga and Kuliakian Orthodox folk art.
Gudit tried to show an interest. She’d seen a lot of traditional art and this was certainly some of it. Nothing particularly stuck out. It wasn’t even always possible to see where one monotheistic religion started and the other ended. That was sort of the point, she supposed. In Aksum, Kuliakian Christianity was Greek Orthodoxy watered down with far too many folk beliefs, and Kirinyaga was folk beliefs educated by a surprising amount of orthodoxy. Both were equally valid, which is to say, both were somewhat primitive and the main thing was to stop them from killing each other. This was normal. It was bland. And it would have stayed that way, had she just not looked at one damned picture.
It was in a completely unremarkable corner of the museum. It meant nothing and hadn’t been placed there and probably even the curator hadn’t thought about it too much. An aging drawing of a giant monster holding a human child. Its face was shaped like an axe. It had four eyes and gnashing teeth and hideously wooden arms. Before Gudit could stop herself, she’d seen the descriptive plaque helpfully next to it. “The Bulgu - a demon in Malindi and Kuliak folklore…” there was more after that. But Gudit couldn’t breathe. Her monster had a name. She didn’t want it to have a name, she didn’t want it to be here, because if it was here, it could be anywhere, if it was here -
The damned place was filled with trauma specialists, of course. These peace missions so often were. Before Gudit had fully realised that she was having a panic attack, someone was trying to coach her through it. Asking questions. So many damn questions. Did they know what had started this? They must have done - she had seen the Bulgu and she had reacted - stupid! But she hadn’t said anything - they couldn’t know. They couldn’t. They couldn’t-
Gudit had been forcibly extracted from the event. The organisers of these things knew her well and had never seen her so much as break from her polite smile. They would assume-
Gudit didn’t know what they’d assumed. She hoped they’d keep inviting her to these things. She hoped that she hoped that, she needed these events. It was the path to a job. What? Was she going to have to survive on her academic record alone? Oh God - had she fucked everything up? What if they’d seen?
She was in a taxi now, and the driver was playing loud music. Something from some European band from the Cape - Gudit couldn’t speak French. It was meaningless noise. But so was the driver’s constant talking. Was he trying to make her feel better? It was pointless. As Gudit slowly came back to herself, she found herself at least aware of what was being said.
The taxi driver started off asking about the event, her college, where she was from. He liked her dress, apparently. Gudit found that the easiest thing, in these situations, was to get the person talking about themselves. Most people were far more interested in their own lives than hers and it was easier to have a conversation with someone who didn’t expect her to do much talking. She smiled when it was polite to smile. Laughed when it was polite to laugh. And only noticed too late that they weren’t going the direct route back to her’s. By the time she realised that they were in an industrial and largely abandoned part of the city, it was really too late to try and deflect or call out or-
-She had her phone - she could send a message. But should she - she was so out of it. He must have known that she was out of it. She realised that the car door was locked and she couldn’t get out. But he did - he walked to the passenger’s seat, unlocked the door, gripped the handle, and-
-And there was no more man. Where was the man? Gudit heard a crunch and looked around and -
-And the Bulgu was the size of a building. It held the man in its mouth and shook its head, cracking every bone in the man’s body. He spat the man out. Gudit realised that the door was unlocked. She darted out as the Bulgu’s fist landed on the car, as she ran it called after her - “If you tell anyone about what you just saw, I will punish you in ways you can’t imagine. You know that I can.”
Jerusalem, Outremer Union, Anno Mundi 7523 / 2022 Global Calendar
Gudit liked being able to look out of her bedroom window and see a truly big city. The Union of the Nine Diamonds was fine, but it was, really, a second tier power focused around a second tier global city. Jerusalem was the real deal, a focal point of all the world’s civilisation.
From her apartment she could make out the Jewish Temple, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, the Zoroastrian Temple and Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Taoist and Humanist Missions. Closer to, in the African District she could point to the offices of the missions from the Kirinyaga, the Vudoo Association, the Olorun, the Tuareg, the Catholic Cape, The Dissenter Churches, the Maliki Muslims, the Coptic Church, and of course the Nine Diamonds with their nine national churches. Gudit felt as safe and protected as she had ever felt in her life - nestled in between nine major faiths, nine African traditions, and the nine churches of her home country. Every faith in the world was represented in Jerusalem, and every one of them had every reason to lead with their respective deities to protect the city and the religious arm of the Global Council. If one defense failed, there would be endless others.
Gudit had a secretarial job in the Kulianian Church mission. It was the least and newest of the East African churches - their chapel was small, and nestled down a narrow alley between the Nobatian and Alodian churches. If anyone had asked her to explain how those three churches had differed theologically, she couldn’t have done it. But nobody ever asked Gudit to explain things like that. They asked her for minutes from the last meeting, or whether their expenses had come through. Gudit didn’t mind, because Gudit didn’t care about those questions.
Her religious beliefs were more pragmatic and immediate. They were there to stop her from going insane. Gudit was practicing her beliefs tonight. Every trinket and spell and amulet was on display. Even the ones she would never personally admit to believing in. Especially those ones. If there was a sigil of protection from evil in the world then you could find it in Jersualem and if it could be found in Jerusalem, it could be found in Gudit’s flat. She sat in silence in the centre of it all and focused on the screen of her phone, passing the time with a game specifically designed to require absolutely no mental effort. She was still losing. She was trying not to think.
She was trying hard not to think about what had happened yesterday, or the dangers she was now -
But it would be fine. He was an expert and he would be fine. He obviously knew enough to handle this because she hadn’t had to tell him. She hadn’t had to tell him but -
She had told a man about the Bulgu, yesterday. The man had claimed to be an ambassador from the U9D to the Global Council but really, he had called himself a debtera - an itinerant holy man and master of magic. Gudit supposed that it was difficult to get more itinerant than working in global diplomacy. But still, debteras were usually slightly eccentric people the church paid to do a bit of folk dancing and go away. It was unnerving to see one with an expense account and a government contract.
Not many people talked to Gudit, she was a secretary and not really there to be seen. But the Debtera had smiled at her and said “You’re haunted. I know what haunts you. Do you want me to name it?”
She had been terrified. Even thinking about the Bulgu for a moment was like standing on the edge of a deep and dark abyss that would swallow her. Simply thinking about the - that monster - had cost her months of her life to depression and anxiety, She’d lost jobs simply because of that. She couldn’t afford to do that now. But she had found herself with a man who seemed able to push her over the brink.
“It’s okay.” He said. He passed her a pair of scissors. It was a strange gesture. She was confused and even thinking about it now - she was confused how he had known to bring them. The Debtera had asked for a lock of her hair and when she had it he said “I can kill it, if you want me to. But first I have to name it.” She had just about managed to nod.
“The monster haunting you is the Bulgu.” The Debtera told her. “Nod if I’m right.”
The world fell away. Gudit nodded.
“It eats people but it feeds on your silence, your fear. It takes the form of a giant monster but you feel most in how it forces you into small places - into places where you feel most protected, even though that protection is a lie. It hates to be named, and now I have named it, it will try to kill me. And that’s the trap. Go home, tell nobody what happened here, and wait. When it is done. I will call on you.”
That was it. It wasn’t until later that Gudit realised she hadn’t given him any contact information. It didn’t seem important. A man who fought the Bulgu and forgot to ask for phone numbers would be dead anyway.
When he knocked, she jumped. Gudit wasn’t sure how long had passed, her tensed up on her bed, in her shoes, ready to move, ready to run. The Debtera was waiting for her. He seemed -
His shirt was ripped. He had a cut on his hand, and he was smiling. “It’s done.” He said. But she already knew that. He looked around, at the trinkets and talismans and minor relics. “The Bulgu has haunted you for a long time, hasn’t it? It must have been horrible, to live so long, needing so much protection. It’s over now. From now on, you won’t need any of this.”
Gudit followed the Debtera and realised that he was leading her into the Kuliakian mission. How had the Bulgu arrived here? How could it even fit into the tiny door, through the narrow alleys. Gudit realised she was thinking too literally. The Bulgu wasn’t the kind of monster she’d been fearing. The giant monster, the violence, the axe head - none of that mattered as much as the silence it had forced her to live in.
“You are capable of so much more than the Bulgu has allowed you to do.” The Debtera told her. “I hope, now you’re free, you’ll join me? I need someone to travel the world with me. The world is so full of evil and suffering. There’s a place for you out there - a destiny. If you’re ready for it?”
“I-” Gudit began. “That’s a big thing, I mean, I like Jerusalem, and-.”
“But you want to travel.” The Debtera said. “Don’t worry, I’ll make it easy and request you transfer over to my team. There’ll be a pay rise, you’ll see the world, and you can finally do what you’re meant to do.”
Gudit smiled, and wondered if she had a choice. She wondered if she really wanted one. It was scary, but as they stepped into the church, she was prepared for the rest of her life to begin.
The Bulgu was still dying in there. It was big, too big for the small room, and its blood was everywhere. Gudit felt sick. Its face -
The Bulgu’s axe head face had been peeled back - the armour cracked open and splayed cross the room, four naked eyeballs stared at her fitfully from the blood. It tried to choke out words, but the Debtera stopped it by simply holding up a hand. He grinned.
“Your monster. Gudit.” He said. “One of them.”
“Imagine the pain it must be in - I’ve already taken out its vocal chords.” The Debtera said. “This is the fun part. Tomorrow, Nine Diamonds Science Ministry will be here to clear up and take samples and add it to our collection. Today, though, today we can have fun.”
He took her hand, and Gudit realised she wasn’t breathing as he placed it over the creature’s chest and-
-and how do two human hands pass through a chitinous carapace? Shouldn’t there be some point of resistance? Something? Gudit couldn’t move - but she could be guided. Their hands clasped around a still beating heart and she was forced to drag it out, into the world, and-
-and she couldn’t close her eyes as the Debtera ate it.
His hand guided hers in again and dragged out more organs. Were they meant to move? Were the meant to pulsate? Was the Bulgu-
Oh God, the Bulgu was smiling. The Debtera motioned for her to eat its raw organs and the Bulgu was smiling. She couldn’t stop herself, she was on the precipice again. She was falling. The mangled and writhing parts of monster tasted of rot, and iron.
“Tomorrow, we fly to Paris.” The Debtera told her. “You will fly with me, and we will meet politicians, and you will arrange the itinerary and tell everyone how lucky you are, to have a job that lets you see all the greatest cities in the world, with the best boss in the world.”
“And if you tell anyone about what you just saw, I will punish you in ways you can’t imagine. You know that I can.”
Lena Worwood is the author of Who will Speak for England?