Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Black Maria

Porto Liure is infamous as a haven for pirates and privateers, but in truth, its infamy is even deeper still.  Known as particularly—and even peculiarly—picturesque, it has drawn artists, poets, the idle rich and other "sensitive" types for generations, who wander—hopefully carefully, given the towns' somewhat exaggerated (but not entirely) lawless reputation—its cramped narrow streets, and its sultry seaside views.

Black Maria in life
While the Mezzovian is warm, particularly the smaller Chistau Sea which makes up the shores of the port city, cool sighing winds blowing off the hills west of the sea, and when the cool air from the heights meets the warmer air of the harbor, it coalesces into a drizzling rain or persistent fog.  Strange voices are often heard in this fog.  Skeptics say that that's just what happens in a busy city when you can't see and sound is either muffled or curiously amplified and carried in turns, but the locals who live in the poorer parts of town are not skeptics.  People disappear, or are found dead and curiously bloated, mummified, slashed or drained of blood or otherwise mutilated and desecrated.  Again; skeptics point to the lawless nature of the town and find explanations for these bizarre murders in gang warfare or other more mundane solutions.  And soon enough, the murders are officially closed and forgotten; there is enough mundane murder done in Porto Liure as it is, and few miss folks from the poor neighborhoods anyway.  But the locals know that Porto Liure's infamy as a nest of pirates is secondary to its less well-known but eternal nature as a haunted place, ruled in secret by ghosts, spectres and other supernatural entities.  This had led to the nickname many locals give to Porto Liure; Port of Ghosts, or Ghostport.  Anyone who uses this nickname is almost certainly a local from one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, but as a picaresque nickname in literature, folklore and stories told abroad, it is also gaining popularity.

One of the most famous of these in old tavern tales, beside that of Dog, is Black Maria.  Although her original identity is unclear and there are many claims, most see her as the today unrecognized first daughter-in-law of Jacobo Bernat himself, the architect of Porto Liure's free city-state status.  Maria, the fifth daughter of an ancient Terrasan house, was as decadent as they came, and the story goes that she kidnapped, tortured and killed up to 500 young girls, drinking (or even bathing in) their blood.  When the hue and outcry came to be more than old Bernat could ignore, she was put on trial, hanged, drawn and quartered, and her spiked head was put on the city gates—her "quarters" thrown to sharks in the harbor.  Nonetheless, the story of Black Maria doesn't end there.

Claims of sightings of Black Maria's ghost were intermittent throughout the next few hundred years, and a few deaths were even ascribed to her—especially young, female victims who died without apparent cause or motive, especially if they complained before their deaths about being unnaturally frightened or disturbed in some way—usually by advance sightings of the ghost, it is presumed.  But twenty years ago, when the face of the moon became a skull, things changed.  Now, whenever the moon is full and passes directly through the triangular configuration of the legs of the constellation Herne, Black Maria is said to make a much more substantial revival.  In whispered voices, the locals will say that once the legs of Herne were another constellation known as the Black Pharoah's Crown, and when the moon is thus "crowned" the brides of the Black Pharoah—the ghosts of witches and worse the world over—walk the earth to kill again.

It is unclear if this superstition has any basis in reality or not.  True, nights when the full moon is in the crown (which happens on average three times every two years) a number of girls go missing.  But since they are usually unreported, only those who have eyes to see and pay attention to the signs believe there to be any pattern.  Associate lecturer Enrico Sançez at Porto Liure's small Academy is the foremost expert on local folklore.  He's a taciturn, bookish fellow—suspicious and uncommunicative, and prone to easy frights.  But when drunk, he occasionally talks in private of his suspicions, theories and speculations about many of the supernatural goings-on in Porto Liure.  His pet theory about Black Maria is that the torture and murder of all those girls wasn't just to satisfy her sadistic urges, but was a ritual designed to grant her eternal life.  It wasn't ever completed before she was put to death, but it had been sufficiently advanced that the grave had only a tenuous hold on her, and when the moon died, as the expression goes, she was able to transcend her death at certain times.  Her goal now is to finish the ritual as quickly as possible and return in full to horrible unlife as an eternal predator on the lives of mankind.

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