The Gilded Skulls In Shadows Over Avalon

Out now from 18th Wall Productions is Shadows Over Avalon, an anthology of Lovecraftian Arthurian stories featuring Dylan Freeman, Richard Sheppard, Josh Reynolds, Simon Bucher-Jones, Ethan Sabatella, Timothy Williams, Tim Mendees, Tim Hanlon.

My own offering, The Gilded Skulls, is a Lovecraftian take on the story of The Black Hermit from Perlesvaus, AKA The High Book of The Grail.

It takes place shortly after the loss of the Holy Grail (as depicted in my Arthurian novel The Knight With Two Swords) and follows Sir Gawaine, the pagan lord of the Castle of Marvels, as he investigates a strange black stream running through his lands, corrupting the fish and surrounding plant life. Following the stream to an oddly constructed castle, Caer Delex, he encounters his own sister Clarissant and a weird group of nuns bearing a reliquary wagon laden with jewel encrusted skulls, there to stop the master of the castle, The Black Hermit, and his army of knights in eyeless helms from despoiling the land of Avalon. But Gawaine and Clarissant can’t do it alone, and seek out an unlikely ally, the Christian knight, Sir Percival de Galis, whose father Gawaine slew long ago….


Clarissant tapped her teeth with the end of her finger.

“Whatever this Percival’s reputation, his sword is the only thing that could break the Mad Helm of the Black Hermit. But where is he?”

“Alas, I don’t know,” said Floree.

“He quests for the Lost Grail,” said Gawaine, “as do most of the Round Table. He could be anywhere. We might spend ages crawling over the hills and dales looking for him.”

“Then we need the eye of one no longer bound by hills and dales,” Clarissant said, and moved over to the sack containing the head of Ampflise. “Floree, bring me The Revelations.”

Floree rose and went to the reliquary. She began to rummage inside.

“I thought you’d had your fill of Christianity when they bricked you up inside that chapel wall,” Gawaine said teasingly.

“That was a misunderstanding on my part,” she said. “And I didn’t say which Revelations.”

She removed a number of candles from a bindle, which she set around the corners of the linen cloth.

She undid the fastenings on the sack and reached in to take the head of Ampflise from within. Her eyes narrowed.

“Gawaine,” she said, an edge of urgency to her voice. “Bring your sword over here.”

“What’s the matter?” Gawaine asked.

Clarissant stood and shook the sack from the head. When it fell away, Gawaine nearly pitched back on his culet.

The head of the Lady Ampflise twitched and shook in Clarissant’s hands. The black webbing that had spread from the arrow in its eye just beneath the flesh, had sprouted a mass of similarly black tendrils from the neck. These snaky protuberances writhed and wound around Clarissant’s wrists.

“If you’re doing that, stop it,” Gawaine said gravely.

“Of course I’m not doing it! Cut it, Gawaine! Use your sword! Cut it away!” she said, with an ever-increasing air of panic.

Gawaine drew Galatine and stepped toward his sister, unsure of precisely where to cut.

“Hurry, Gawaine! It’s….tightening….”

Gingerly he reached out and gripped one of the black tubers encircling Clarissant’s wrist with his gauntleted fingers. He was shocked to find them quite hard and unyielding. They were not roots or serpents at all, but a kind of animate metal, somehow hard as iron or stone and yet pliant.

Floree came over with a thick, mottled book bearing strange markings, and a blue velvet bag which she dropped in surprise. The bag opened, spilling its contents; a mortar and pestle, a tinkling bell, a brush, and a set of iron tongs.

“Oh!” Floree exclaimed, putting her hand to her mouth.

Gawaine pulled at the coil of black metal around his sister’s left wrist as much as he dared, and slid the blade of Galatine between it and her flesh, eliciting a sound of squealing metal against metal as he worked it down. He wasn’t sure if he could cut the stuff, but to his surprise, the edge of Galatine parted it easily. The severed portion fell to the grass and whipped about, the cut end glowing a bright emerald color.

Gawaine kicked it into the fire, where it flared green and melted instantly away like candlewax.

“Floree, pass me the tongs!” Clarissant called, as Gawaine gingerly sawed the other tendril from her wrist and again, hastily toed the cut portion into the campfire.

Floree handed her the tongs.

Clarissant put her palm to the severed head and pinned it to the ground, avoiding the mass of snaking metal tubers groping beneath the neck. She pinched the shaft of the black arrow in the tongs and pulled it from the narrow opening of Ampflise’s eye socket.

Gawaine watched in sickly fascination as the mass of tendrils were drawn up into the neck, the eye socket bulged, and the whole affair came bursting out of the wound, a disgusting, gleaming black mass caught like a squid in the pincers of Clarissant’s tongs.

Immediately the arrow shaft lost its rigidity and began to writhe and whip about like a thing alive, as if it had only been masquerading as an arrow.

Gawaine raised his sword to slash at the thing, but Clarissant swiftly turned and held it in the fire.

Floree set the book down and took up the mortar.

The black thing curled and undulated like a ball of snakes in pain over the flames, then ignited as the cut halves had, in a strange, green flash, dissolving too quickly for any natural metal. It liquefied like emerald mercury, and Floree was there to catch the drippings in the mortar, where it cooled instantly into fine green shavings.

“What is that stuff?” Gawaine whispered.

“The raw material of R’lyeh. That in which the Architects work,” said Clarissant. “Metal and stone, alive and dead.”

She went to work pulverizing and mashing it down with the clinking pestle, muttering under her breath words Gawaine could not understand. They surely weren’t the Latin spoken in the Christian masses.

Clarissant laid aside the tongs and took the mortar from Floree, who in turn, picked up the book with the mottled cover and knelt before Clarissant, holding it open, a human lectern.

Clarissant stirred the brush in the green stuff, reading in a loud voice some incantation from the strange book. She then turned and began to paint sharp, intricate green symbols on the severed head of Ampflise with the brush.

When she had covered the woman’s entire face and scalp, she sat back on her heels and dumped the remaining pigment in the fire, where it flared an angry green before being consumed. She set the painted head of Ampflise in the center of the linen and lit a candle at each corner. Then she put her forehead to the ground, spoke more words, and rang the bell three times.

The slack, painted face of Ampflise began to twitch, a horrid sight, around the gaping, ragged wound through which the black metal thing had been pulled.

Gawaine’s neck hairs uncurled and gooseflesh rose on his arms.

“What is….,” he began, but Floree hushed him.

He stepped back and stared wild-eyed at the magic proceedings, gripping Galatine for all his worth and wishing it was morning. Every shadow around the edge of the fire seemed pregnant with all manner of horrors, demons worse than that in Caer Delex, manipulating the dead face of Ampflise with unseen hands, like puppeteers of indecorous humor.

Clarissant addressed the head, but the only words Gawaine understood was her name, Ampflise.

The unmarred blue eye, which had been drooping in the dead face, rolled and focused finally on his sister.

Gawaine put the edge of his hand in his mouth to keep his teeth from clicking together. He bit deep into the leather between the steel joints when a low voice answered from the pale lips of Ampflise, echoing as though it came from somewhere far off.

Clarissant and the head conversed this way for a few moments, and the eye of Ampflise darted about as though searching for something. Then Clarissant rang the bell three times more and touched her head to the ground.

Floree shut the book. As soon as it closed, the animated face sagged lifeless once more.

Clarissant blew out the candles, carefully, reverently wrapped them up with the head in the linen cloth, and then stood and dropped the bundle in the fire.

“Sir Percival rests at the hermitage of Elyas on the River Luce,” Clarissant announced. “Do you know it, Gawaine?”

Gawaine sighed.

“It’s not far from here.”

Published in: on August 24, 2022 at 10:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

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