THE TESTIMONY OF JESTER THOTH
by Scott J Couturier
Due to the torture-backed insistence of certain avid and arcanely inclined historians, I endeavour here to set forth a brief chronicle of my life. Herein the reader should expect no depictions of unparalleled valour, no account of daring escapes and mystical interludes; my existence is that of a jester, a clown with malformed limbs and spirit. Once my soul was bright, but time and circumstance have worked their perfidies, leaving me a drooling, shambling husk. Where once I savoured the ecstatic poetries of hallowed Xeru, now I spout profane limericks and crude, perverse jokes. I leer and belch and fart and shit on the floors, to roars of profane amusement. My motley is smeared with faecal matter, my hair home to a thriving microcosm. Yet once—once I was a lover, and even before that a child.
I shudder to recall such things, yet recall them I must. The probes of the Mysteriarchs await me should I fail in my task to properly record how all this came to pass.
I was born in a small village in a primeval wood, just north of the once-sprawling ruins of Eld Sama. I was raised simply, by simple folk. They taught me how to gather herbs and sing songs, showed me the Great Wheel and the names and interrelations of the telling stars. The slow, mumbling river T’Pua (its name in after-eras) flowed past the village, curving off sinuously through halls of virgin oak and ashwood. My people had no writing or concrete symbol-language, yet they maintained a vigorous trade with other communities up and down the river’s length. Transactions were marked on small clay tablets, hen-scratchings predating the most elemental mathematical thought; again, I find myself uncomfortable recalling these things. Both the world and its inhabitants have changed unutterably since that distant age. I quiver in horror to think that I have lived through each permutation, each cycle of life and death, still bound in this same debased, infernal flesh—truly, jesters are never allowed to cease their capering.
There was an old mystic in the village, a teller of fortunes and curer of ailments. Some called him a wizard, but there were many half-formed words for his vocation. My mother simply called him Grandfather. I became closer to him as I grew to manhood, drawn in by the webs of his stories and chants. Often we wandered the great forest together, seeking the deeper haunts of its vast green dream. Some of the trees and animals could speak the language of my people, while others only spoke in tongues ancient or wholly foreign to the mind. Wise beasts and strange, half-material spirits haunted the inner gloom; the air was full of a constant, capricious muttering, as if the very wind conspired to mischief. Frequently we strayed across mouldering ruins or circles of vast, vine-choked stones, their surfaces graven with images half-worn away by the march of time and element.
The legends Grandfather told me hinted at the origin of these places. He said they were the work of another race, alien and long-vanished. Once, he took me into a small chamber beneath his hut, showing me a collection of curious objects bound in mummified leather. “These are books,” he said, the unfamiliar word flooding me with an inexplicable elation. “The ancients recorded their knowledge in this way.” He opened one of the objects, and I saw that it was full of yellow sheaves with weathered, time-blackened edges. “Paper,” he told me. “Made of pressed wood pulp. The symbols on the paper represent speech.”
I was enrapt. The idea that words could be preserved in an imperishable form obsessed me, and after making careful study of the books I began developing my own written language, intent on capturing the quicksilver speech of our people. In the process I came to work very closely with Grandfather, and share in some of his darker, deeper secrets; suffice to say that ten years later my alphabet was complete, and I had become a magician.
In that time I also fell in love. Her name was Ilas; she was beautiful, skin dark as the New Moon, with the promise of regeneration in her laughter. She often haunted the banks of the sleepily moving T’Pua, the lilt of her golden voice luring eager fish into her nets. For this reason she became known as Fish Singer.
Inspired by the title, I worked for many days and nights to design a symbol expressing her use-name. Revered ancestors were called upon, bones cast, the spirit world inveigled. When finally I had the symbol, I showed it first to her, then to the other villagers. All were in awe, and immediately began demanding their own personalized glyphs. I had much toil advancing my alphabet, though Grandfather helped me when he could; my initial scratches and marks developed with rapidity into a bewilderingly complex hieroglyphic system. As for Ilas Fish Singer, she became my much-cherished wife.
In those first months our bounty was great. Fish Singer was soon with child. Having dispensed with the task of divining symbol-names for my clan, I turned to more esoteric pursuits, roving naked and fasting through the ruin-littered forest for days at a time. I slaughtered small animals, daubing new-wrought symbols onto my flesh with their blood, and at each full moon sacrificed a stag to the orb’s awesome power. Gods had not been conceived of yet, let alone God-the-singular; these were some of my later innovations.
I pause here to doff my many-belled cap before the reader, with a bold release of flatulence. I am grotesque to look upon, hideous to sight, touch, smell, taste. For untold millennia I have loathed my own image, loathed this deathless flesh that I cannot disinhabit. In writing of my past, my origin, I find old memories and sensations awakened, flickers of feeling I’d thought lost to atrophy. When I think of Ilas, tears gather in my eyes. Yet you will not see them staining these pages.
She died, did my delightful Fish Singer. Down by the water, at night, alone. I could only comprehend that she had been murdered; a fine swimmer, she was found floating face-down, her bruised body forced against an embankment by the river’s sluggish flow. I wept and shrieked and cried out, draping my senseless body over the blue bulge of her belly. I dragged her corpse back to my hut and kept it overnight, chanting strange songs that came unbidden to my fevered brain. Grandfather protested, calling my impulses abominable, but I would not listen. When morning came the other villagers stormed my hut, respectfully restraining me as they bore Fish Singer’s body away. I kicked and hissed and spat at them, uttering a hex that struck blind all those who touched my beloved. My hair went from auburn to shock-white, half of it falling out at the roots. It was then that Grandfather forced me to choke down a rich, heavily herbal fluid. I collapsed into slumber.
Days later I awoke to find myself bound. Grandfather was at my side, as were my brothers; they told me they had taken Ilas’ body and burned it. I feigned acceptance of their tale, knowing that, according to my people’s belief, burning a body consumes the spirit inside. When I had recovered enough sense to convince them to free me, I began roving the forest by night with a dowsing rod, seeking my wife’s burial place. I was not disappointed. They had not burned her, risking her soul’s dissolution, but inhumed her between two great roots of an oak tree. When I disinterred her she was reeking and half-rotten, her eyes and tongue gone, belly split open to expose the gelatinous remnants of our child.
In recent months I had made some headway in translating the books of the ancients. How I cannot say; I knew no practical means of deciphering them, but long hours of meditating on individual words and symbols led to certain inexplicable revelations. I understood, or thought I understood, the purpose of the great stone circles and the humped, black-stained altars they invariably circumscribed. The ancients had perfected a complex system of controlling nature that they called Magic—the stone circles were augmenters of will, connecting-places to other spheres and influences. There was much talk of raising the dead, of the hunt for a divine stone that imparted the possessor life everlasting. Life everlasting... my body trembled as I secreted Ilas’ befouled corpse in a narrow, deep cave some distance from the village. I spoke to her as I carried her, went back to retrieve one of her legs when it tore free on a bush. I loved her. I still love her, though now it means less to me. Jesters must never take the cosmic joke too personally.
Over the next few weeks I sealed myself up with the rotting corpse of my wife, blocking the cave mouth with heavy stones until no sunlight or intruder could penetrate. I pored over the ancient texts, reading by brazier-glow, and made offerings in deep pits below the main cavern, operating out of some hideous instinct. The magic of the ancients unfolded before me, until I could read the books as if they were written in the tongue I had devised. Frantically I began a translation, seeking any means of returning Fish Singer to life.
The villagers were alarmed by my absence. At first they assumed I had gone mad and wandered off into the forest, but Grandfather sensed what I was doing. He led the villagers to the disturbed grave, then gathered his divining tools and set out in search of my secret workshop. He was aware, it seems, of certain shadowy prophecies from up-river, portents of doom spewed from the lips of a famed oraculist’s severed head. Why he kept these auguries from me I can only guess; not that the knowledge would have deterred me. Destiny has an odd way of fulfilling itself, especially when propelled by the torments of base mortal grief.
I fended off Grandfather’s seeking for weeks, weaving a cocoon of bewilderment about my hiding place. The books were translated at a frenetic pace, my hand gripping the stylus with such force blood leaked from beneath my fingernails. Autumn had come, imparting a brisk, numbing chill to the air; I started coming above ground after dusk to seek the nearest fully erect stone circle. My plan was to use the coming night of Sowen, as it was later called, to summon a considerable amount of energy from the Outer Spheres. The books insisted that the reanimation of long-dead tissue was possible under such rarefied conditions, and I didn’t think to question them. Already I had used incantations gleaned from their pages to reverse the aging process of Ilas’ corpse. She lay in a shallow depression in the stone, her skin blue-tinged and waxen but unblemished by decay. I had removed the leavings of our child from her womb, and painstakingly stitched up her belly and severed leg with all the prowess of a latter-day mortician. I slept by her, in those rare instances that I slept; often I would talk to her, and sometimes I made love to her.
Do you recoil, gentle reader? Never forget that, as the jester apes for your amusement, it is you who are mocked above all! I have told this part of my story often in the black courts of my mistress, and it never fails to elicit a certain appreciation from the rutting hordes. The undead pretend offense, of course, citing their disgust at the conjoining of deceased and living flesh, yet I know more than a few among them who maintain vital harems. That these toys are eventually drained, turned, or devoured does not detract from the hypocrisy of such affected disdain.
As Sowen drew near, I readied the unclean instruments of my craft in secret. This demanded most of my focus, the glamour of bewilderment weakening from negligence as a result. My oversight inevitably drew Grandfather’s attention—such a wise, well-meaning old fool. Gathering the men of my village, he led an assault on the barrier of confusion veiling my workshop, the troop singing wordless ancestral songs to maintain orientation and focus. I was, I will confess, now wholly consumed by a spirit of rank necromancy—a puppet of the grave, unwitting servant to Death Divine. Yet, there were no words for these things among my people, no true fear of the dead returning to life. It had been an innocent age before Grandfather showed me the books; I, in my thirst for knowledge, plumbed atavistic pathways long given over to the Abyss. What I discovered in those blackened straits was a recrudescent power, ancient and malefic, hungry for a vessel to contain and express it anew. Yes, yes, eternally a pawn of greater wills—such is the jester’s plight. Perhaps my chosen profession is becoming more coherent to you.
At any rate, I repelled Grandfather’s attack. Summoning a trio of demonic genii, creatures long-banished from the world, I destroyed the men of my tribe, wiping out utterly the masculine flower of my own generation. So dedicated was I to the resurrection of Fish Singer that I saw only more resources to use in the upcoming ritual—truly, I was driven to a black madness by my grief. Little did I suspect this grief had formed a wound, through which something ulterior had bled and infested…
Infusing the fallen dead of my tribe with a rude animacy, I set them to work preparing the stone circle for Fish Singer’s resuscitation. The eve of Sowen came two sleepless nights later. In the distance I could hear the wailing of the women and children of my village, carried on the chill wind; rather than stir my humanity, their lamentations drove me to a frothing rage. That night I dispatched a legion of my rotting kinsmen back to the village to silence their caterwauling, compelling them to return with fresh corpses for the ritual. As they embarked on their loathsome errand I descended down into the cave, to attend to Fish Singer’s body and read a final time from the Book of Power I had tirelessly worked to pen in that abysmal place.
Writ on mummy-flesh made pliable by vivifying sorceries, bound with a spine of inhuman vertebrae pilfered from the crypts of Eld Sama, the words and symbols recorded in the book were almost wholly exotic to my waking mind. Frequently I found the need to consult my own hastily recorded revelations, yearning to catch a glimpse of what had, for the briefest of flashes, appeared so clear and succinct. I had recently donned my first suit of jester’s motley, moving perhaps on some subconscious recognition of my own self-created doom. Here too I innovated a new role, or rather resurrected one long-forgotten, for there were no jesters among the people of the river. Strong and sublime and young my race had been, free from the avaricious oppression of gods and daemons, magicians and emperors; yet now, my desperate love for Fish Singer had summoned up the world-marring powers of a lost aeon. I was as helpless as the corpse of my beloved to alter what happened next.
Fires flared in the decrepit, long-forsaken fanes of the Black Gods as the night of Sowen drew down, lit by no human hand. As the Great Moon hove zenithward I unsealed the cave’s entrance and made for the readied circle, the rigid body of Fish Singer clutched tenderly against my breast. I made love to her, implanting life’s seed, as the dead of my village gathered in a reverent ring inside the standing stones, women and children now among the men—ah, still I hear the wild, orgiastic shivering of the bells on my new-stitched cap! Once-innocent ornaments, fashioned by a peaceful tribe downriver to adorn their painted canoes... raising my hands and intoning a series of incantations so horrible the words seared from my mind even as I spoke them, I appealed to both Nature and the Grave to overturn the finality of their rulings. I tempered my supplication with copious sacrifice, offering up several virginal youths brought yet living from the village. Winds howled, and the gathered undead moaned in a despicable chorus, their voices catching and reverberating among the stark menhirs. The corpse of my love lay in glorified repose, her midnight skin now laved in blood. Crying out a final word, I leaned down and kissed her, imbuing her body with the Black Breath.
I felt something leave me, departing forever, while at the same time something entered me, never to depart. Reeling back, I stared down into the ebony face of Fish Singer, her exanimate beauty now distorted by a fresh, baleful life. Rising from the altar, the black-gleaming body of my love parted her lips to reveal a set of fulsome fangs. Her eyes gleamed with an otherworldly abhorrence, multifarious fires displacing the lifeless glaze of death. It was not Ilas Fish Singer that peered out at me; some monstrous intelligence had transplanted itself into her meticulously prepared vessel, something that should never have known material incarnation in this sphere.
The half-mended rift dividing my race’s brief paradise from the recondite past was torn wide and weeping. The Black Goddess had returned, but she did not come to haunt the heavens, to inflame the minds of seers and tyrants, to build great temples through the vicarious labour of devout flesh. Instead, wearied by her great decay in the Outer Dark, she came to rule. And for that, my lover’s body was chosen as her sovereign containment.
From here, mere summary should suffice. Surely the Mysteriarchs know enough of the Necromantic Night to make my recounting trivial. A thousand years of perpetual darkness, wherein a culture of decadent, aesthetic undeath evolved and flourished. The Bloodlords reigned from their onyx-paned pleasure eyries, enrapt by primal night unending, whilst lich-lords animated swarming kingdoms of the dead and set them to toil at tasks of boundless, insentient ego. The perpetual night was no place for living creatures: rats were dug squealing from their holes, drained or devoured nearly to extinction. The blood of lepers was considered a rare (and ambitiously cultivated) delicacy. Humanity was bred in caverns under the earth as bloodstock for Death’s unceasing appetite, countless generations spawned in a deep-sunk warren called The Marrow. Those few chosen to receive some variant of the dark gift were singled out accordingly, but the mass served foremost as fuel for the Bloodlords and their underlings.
Over all this profanity presided the Black Goddess, incarnate in the hideously reanimated body of my love. I, in turn, found myself hideously alive—Death departed from me forever in the moment I kissed the body of Fish Singer. My heart beat, my mortal hungers persisted, yet I was beyond mortality, as such being unpalatable to the creatures my monstrously misguided sorcery had unleashed. Dressed in my jester’s motley, I became a fixture in the court of the Goddess: the progenitor of words, the first human maker of symbols and sorceries! It gave the assemblage great delight to mock at my capering. A living man doomed to abide forever amid the debaucheries of Death—what hideous fate, you may say. Yet I performed my jests and slaked my yearnings as readily as I was able. The dark sorceries I had mastered, the written language I constructed were burned out of my mind, leaving charred remnants fast-subsumed by a centuried decadence. For a time I became a genuine madman, an unaffectedly gibbering fool. I watched the civilization of Death rise and fall, spawning poets and despots and dreamers and lovers and dull fools as assuredly as any mundane mortal cycle.
However, mortal cycles came in due course. The power of the Goddess inevitably waned, the Great Darkness dispelled by new gods manifesting via the minds of certain prophets among the bloodstock, wreathed in flame and cleansing wrath. I admit, I had fallen into the habit of absconding to The Marrow, performing nonsensical shadow-plays for the chattel as a sick amusement. From these humble origins sprang the triple-godhead of Viran the Just, Salann the Liberator, and Chron the Virtuous. Let the Great Wheel mark, when finally I expire, how I have time and again—all unwittingly—greased its rapid turning.
There was open rebellion, and the sun shone anew on a starveling landscape, blighted and lean as a corpse. I went into hiding in the deep places for an unreckoned span, hunting blind cave crickets to appease my hunger, my own eyes eventually devolving to become gelid, useless orbs. For a time I was parted from the Black Goddess. I thought her material form destroyed, Fish Singer’s long-blasphemed flesh finally laid to rest.
However, after several thousand years of stinking darkness and protean grasping, I was called by the faint-but-irrepressible whisper of my mistress, into whose service I had sworn my pathetic soul. I crawled forth to jest in her court through three later renaissances before the sun’s eventual dimming, though none could match the Necromantic Night for sheer arch-depravity. It was betwixt these latter periods of service that I most regained my human-ness, even managing to shed my garments of self-mockery for a spell. I revered Beauty, listened to the poets, and even aspired to become one myself. For a brief while, in the halls of Xeru and later imperial Philatia, this idiot jester laid aside his motley and dreamed of becoming something more. I did manage some fine verses, but none that will outlive me.
It was all at the whim of the Black Goddess, of course. Cold, cruel, and potent she reigns, a creature of inhuman tastes and unclean passions—often I caper and cackle merely to distract myself from the utmost profanation I have wrought, all for the absurd sake of love. Sometimes, though rarely twice in a century, I am taken to grapple with Fish Singer’s infernally imbued corpse. During these nightmarish sessions of lovemaking the demon will pretend to recede, exposing flickers of the woman I so long ago adored. Inevitably I appeal to Fish Singer as if she were truly present, only to have the Goddess’s foul laughter pour discordantly from my dear lover’s mouth. The deep whorling scars marring my flesh are the result of her talons. Still hideously in love, I have spent uncounted nights dancing and gibbering for her amusement... even now, as the world advances into its final benighted age, I remain her willing, or rather willingly will-less, slave. Needless to say, profanity has long since displaced poetry in my mind.
I have endured it all. Through pestilence and bounty and exile, through unnumbered wars... waves of generations I have seen go to dust in my dirge of protracted existence. Again and again I behold the cyclical aegis of civilized idealism collapse weeping into the tarn; I have seen the indignity and cravenness with which the deathless die. Severed from the universal fate of all life, I at turns have courted madness, meditation, magic, art, sex, and sybaritic release as balms, though nothing has long assuaged the endless malady of my living.
Now, confronted with an ultimate end, I can only cry relief to the livid firmament. To finally not be myself... a haunting and enticing possibility, sweet as cool water to a throat eternity-parched. As the world grows sere with unending cosmic night, I am called to make this testimony to a congeries of interdimensional magi, who have threatened me with torments unknown in even my detestable expanse should I fail to adequately record my part in these matters. Currently I fulfil my sacred purpose in the court of the Black Goddess, who reigns in faded majesty over the last feeble Necropolis of an already-dead world. The sun glows a dull umber, swollen to a size that eclipses half the sky. I only pray its continued expansion will finally burn away the hideous weft of enchantment that binds me to this flesh. But perhaps, after the world itself is annihilated, the particulates of my body will yet cling to consciousness in the new-made void. And perhaps, too, those culminant fires will purge the Black Goddess from my love, and our disparate matter can at last commingle in a serene, silent oblivion... but, these are a jester’s dreamings, and as such of perilously little import.