KaktusKontainer II

These Wretched Strings
The Department of Abnormalities


1965

The woman’s eyes darted cautiously across the small room. Her greying hair was wrapped in a tight bun behind her head, and her tanned forehead was beaded with sweat that she occasionally flicked away with the back of her hand. A fan sat on the desk near her, but it offered little relief. The air in the back corner of this building was thick and stale.

The door swung open, and two men entered; a man who looked to be in his forties with sandy blonde hair and thick rimmed glasses, and a twenty-something woman with short black hair and blue eyes. As they sat, the blonde man introduced himself.

“Mrs. Grün,” he said, his crooked smile genuine, “my name is Adam Bright, and this is my associate Anastasia Lament. I’m sorry for the accommodations - we’ll get you out of here as quickly as we can.”

The woman smiled awkwardly, and struggled to find the words in English. “No problem, it- uh, it- not-”

“You can speak naturally,” Anastasia said in German, “I’m here to translate.”

The woman sighed in relief. “Thank goodness, my English is not so strong. Please, call me Birgit.”

Anastasia nodded. “Thank you, Birgit. The officer you spoke to earlier said your son had gone missing. What can you tell us about his disappearance?”

Birgit shifted uncomfortably. “My husband, Norbert, works in Bonn. Sascha is out of school right now, and he and his friends like to run off during the day. They said they were going to go out to the forest, there’s an old manor house there they like to play pretend in. Six of the boys went in yesterday, and only four came out. My Sascha and another boy, Tripp, didn’t come back. The other boys were hysterical, they said they’d found something in the manor house.”

Adam nodded in acknowledgement as Anastasia translated her words. “Did they say what it was?”

Birgit wiped a tear out of her eye. “They didn’t seem to be able to say, one of them thought it was some kind of instrument, like a guitar, but another couldn’t even say that. They just said something horrible had happened, and that Sascha and Tripp were taken by someone.”

Anastasia leaned in. “Did they say guitar? Or violin?”

Birgit hesitated. “They- maybe. Yes, it was definitely violin. They just kept talking about strings, so many strings. I don’t understand it - why would a violin have anything to do with them being taken?”

Adam pushed out his chair and stood up. “Don’t worry about that, Mrs. Grün. We’ll work on getting your son back. Just try and relax for now.”

He nodded towards the door, and another man came in with a large flashbulb mounted to a curved stand in one hand, and a bottle of clear liquid in the other. While the man set up the flashbulb on the table in front of her, Adam took the bottle and emptied some of its contents out onto a rag.

“This is just something for your nerves,” he explained as Anastasia translated. “Just take a deep breath and look right at that light.”

The woman’s eyes grew wide, but before she could resist Adam had the rag up to her face and her head held tightly in his hands. She squirmed for a moment, and then began to relax. As she did, Adam nodded at the man behind the flashbulb, who hit a button that caused the light to quickly flash three times. He nodded again, and the man flashed the bulb again, three times. Birgit’s body went limp, and she slumped down into her chair. The man with the flashbulb hurried out the door, and two more men came rushing in to grab her.

“There’s an empty room down the hall,” Adam said as they pulled her out the door, “down there next to one of the boys. Put her in there for now.” He looked at his watch. “We’re going to be cutting it close. When did we put the first kid down?”

Anastasia gathered her notes. “Forty minutes ago.” Finished, she looked up at him. “You think this is our violin?”

Adam shrugged. “Most violins don’t abscond with children during the middle of the day. Either we get there and we find what we’re looking for, or we get there and find out what happened to the boys. Neither are terrible options”

Anastasia nodded in agreement, and the two were out the door.


The sun hung lower in the sky, with twilight just an hour away and the air cooling from the heat of the day. A small caravan of vehicles with Adam’s car in the front was parked on the edge of a dense forest of trees that stretched back further than anyone could make out. As Adam jumped out of his vehicle, he pulled a younger, tanned man out with him.

“Come on, Rodrigo,” Adam said, ushering him towards the treeline. “Let’s see what we can dig up today.” He paused, thinking. “Read me again from the last section, Rodrigo. The part about Hauerhaussen.”

Rodrigo fumbled with a journal hanging from his hip, flipping rapidly towards a dog-eared page. “So, uh- let’s see… yes, Isaac Hauerhaussen had six violins accounted for in his belongings after his execution in 1946, and the belongings were transferred to… a Soviet agency that began moving artwork and artifacts out of Berlin the next year. Of the six violins, five were sold at private auction between 1947 and 1954, and the sixth only showed up at auction once, where it didn’t sell. It was later sold to a private collector for an undisclosed sum, and then it was moved to a gallery at-”

“-Bonn.” Adam finished his sentence. “That gallery was the Tagliaferro Galleria, originally opened by an American businessman who died back in the 20s. When the gallery burned down, all of the remaining pieces were moved into storage at one of Tagliaferro’s estates.”

Rodrigo peered into the woods. “The manor house?”

Adam nodded. “The very same. I suspect our violin made its way there as well, and those two boys were unfortunate enough to run across it.”

Anastasia walked up behind them, followed by a shorter woman with brown hair and a backpack on, and a taller man with neatly trimmed brown hair, a tight beard, and long metallic orthodox cross hung across his back. Following behind the three of them were a handful of police officers armed with guns. Adam gestured into the woods without looking at them.

“Six boys ran across something strange in these woods, and we’re going to go in there and find out what it was.” He looked back at the men with guns. “You’re going to see some things in there that you’re going to have a hard time believing. Trust me when I tell you that it’s better to ask questions later. If you see any dark figures that seem to be moving too quickly for their size, look away and let Dr. Hiram or Mr. Aktus here do their work.” He patted his pockets. “Ah, damn. Joshua, please, a crucifix, if you would.”

The man with the orthodox cross on his back reached into a breast pocket and pulled out a small, wrought-iron crucifix. “You really need to start remembering to carry these,” he said, scoffing. “Eventually I’m going to run out.”

Adam waved his hand at him idly. “Yes, yes. It probably just fell out of my pocket in the car.” He pointed towards the woods. “Let’s go, then. We’re on a timer here before those folks back at the station start waking up.”

Without another word, the group entered the woods, and were out of sight entirely within a minute.


The canopy overhead was thick - far thicker than Adam had hoped. The light of day, even from the setting sun, was antithetical to this sort of entity, and the smallest sliver of it might have been an incredible fortune. Nonetheless, the group continued unimpeded, save for the darkness that had comfortably settled around them and forced them to light their hand torches.

“It’s quiet,” Joshua said after a few moments of wordless travel. “Where are the birds? Or the insects?”

“It’s very queer,” Adam said, nodding, “but it may very well mean that we are nearing our target.”

One of the officers spoke, and Anastasia translated. “They want to know what we’re looking for.”

Adam paused to leap nimbly over a fallen branch. “Two boys, specifically. And beyond that, something a little less concrete.” He ducked under a spiderweb. “Around two-hundred and fifty years ago, a man named Gregori Malkovich mentioned in a letter he was sending to an acquaintance of his that he had sold a violin to a popular Italian composer at the time. See, Gregori was-”

He paused again, this time to peer at something illuminated by his light. Seeing nothing unusual, he continued forward.

“Gregori was a bit of an occultist, and the violin he said that he had sold was something of a magical artifact. History hasn’t named this violin, but it has named some of its owners. Generally collectors of the strange and unique, occultists and arcanists, that sort. Each and every one of them dying horribly.”

Anastasia frowned. “I’m not going to tell them that.”

Adam laughed. “Better they know now than later!” He sidestepped another fallen branch. “What’s the most strange to me, I think, is that every single one of the violin’s owners dies in a horrific way, except Vivaldi. Isn’t that right, Rodrigo?”

The young man nodded, flipping through his notes as if to certify something. “Even Tagliaferro burned to death in that fire - and he didn’t even have it in his possession.”

“Did Vivaldi have any ties to the arcane?” Joshua asked, brushing a leaf out of his face.

“None that we know of,” Ilene Hiram interjected. “At least, none publicly. If he had any such ties privately, he did a stellar job of hiding them from the historical record.”

Adam nodded. “Indeed.” He stopped again, holding his flashlight high above his head. “There. We’re here. Look.” He pointed off in the distance, where the faintest shadow could be seen behind light reflecting off the trees. “That’s the manor house.” He looked back at the officers. “Tell them to shoot anything that moves, unless it’s a kid. Then only shoot it if it moves in a way it shouldn’t.” Anastasia relayed the message.

The manor house was dark and thoroughly overrun with vegetation. Windows, long since broken out by adventurous young people with too much time and even more loose stones now played host to winding vines and creative saplings, each craning out from their resting places to find a place they could see the sun. The brick foundation had collapsed near the front steps, and from where they stood a room in the basement was visible, though its entrance was too small for a full grown man.

The group crept slowly up the front steps towards the open door, which hung lazily off to the side, slowly creaking back and forth as the weight of the house’s newest guests rocked the doorframe slightly. The front hall was empty, save for a single overturned desk and a stack of broken picture frames. Adam and Anastasia took point, each surveying the scene with a careful eye. After a moment, Adam turned towards the rest of the group.

“Spread out,” he said, “if you see anything unusual, give out a shout, and we’ll come running.” He paused, considering. “Though, don’t shout too loudly. We don’t want to frighten whatever ghouls have taken up residence here.” He gestured to a radio hanging on his belt. “Give the radio a ring if you must.”

The group split up, with Adam and Joshua Aktus moving down one of the long side hallways, Anastasia and two of the police officers heading towards the kitchens, and Ilene, Rodrigo, and the other two officers moving up the stairs towards the second story rooms. As the rest of their group moved further away, Adam and Joshua could hear less of the patter of their footsteps until they had disappeared entirely.

The rooms off the long side hallway were full of boxes, many overturned and ransacked, but others full of pieces of artwork that had hung in Tagliaferro’s gallery. Many of the walls were adorned with similar pieces, though the rambunctious youth had made quick work of defacing them. As they searched through the ruined frames and canvases, Joshua scoffed at them.

“Just piss poor luck, I think,” he said, holding up another painting that had been speared through with a long stick. “Any one of these crates could’ve been holding Vivaldi’s violin, and anybody who came in this place could’ve found it.” He tossed the painting back into a box. “Unfortunate.”

Adam agreed. “That’s how it is with so many of these things.” He lifted the lid on another crate to inspect the contents. “The first artifact I ever found, back before I started working with Hiram or Westhall, was this Aztec box that they say has Montezuma’s face in it. It had been sitting under a major archaeological site for hundreds of years, and one poor son of a bitch had the misfortune to see it and open it up.”

Joshua followed Adam back into the hallway. “What was in the box?”

Adam grimaced. “I never saw personally. By the time I got there the damage had already been done, as it was. I put a lock on it and promised the local priest to never open it again.” He looked through another door into an empty room. “See, that’s where the Foundation is misguided. We’ve been putting things under microscopes for so long, hoping for some breakthrough that never comes.”

He jimmied the lock on another door, causing it to pop open. “But - hang on - there we go. But sometimes things can’t be put under a microscope. I’m not going to pretend that I had the idea first - there was another doctor I worked with who mentioned sealing away some dark things with blood magic, and he’s basically who I drew inspiration from. Everett was his name, though for the life of me I can’t remember his last name.” He squinted into the dark. “He’d be about my son’s age, maybe a little older.”

They continued looking through boxes. “We set up an exploratory committee to look into it, you know. Maybe you weren’t around yet, but your brother was. He was an assistant to some research director or something then, but I definitely remember him being there. They even mocked up what their Vault would look like, built a prototype, the whole deal. The amount of research we did into the arcane was wild - drove the scientists crazy, they absolutely hated the notion. Most of them, anyway - Ilene was an exception.”

“What happened to the prototype?” Joshua said, opening a closet door.

Adam scoffed. “Paranoid bastards. They realized they’d just built one of the most secure facilities in the entire world, so they tore down Site-0 and moved all of their resources to the prototype, starting calling it ‘Site-01’. That’s Overwatch Command now. Dead serious, they shuttered the entire project and mind wiped everyone who knew anything about it. I was fortunate to have a few friends in the Antimemetics Department, otherwise I’d have been mind-wiped too.”

Joshua frowned. “There’s an Antimemetics Department?”

Adam waved him away. “Don’t worry about that. Anyway, I managed to scavenge up all of the arcane research we did and ran off to build one even more secure than their prototype. Not a vault, a-”

He was interrupted by the chirp of his radio. “Doctor Bright,” it was Ilene’s voice on the other end, “we found another entrance to the basement, and footprints in the dust. I think this is our way in.”

Adam smiled a crooked half-smile. “Excellent, we’ll be right there.” The two of them set off towards the main stairwell.

They found Ilene and Anastasia at the end of a second floor corridor, one that ended in an opening that had been smashed into the wall. Beyond the opening was darkness, and a spiral staircase that descended into the house. As they approached, Anastasia held up a single finger towards them, and one to her own lips. They all listened quietly, and from somewhere far below them a faint, unsettling sound could be heard. It rose and fell slightly, each time sending a chill down Adam’s spine. It was the the shrill but unmistakable sound of a violin.

“Sounds like that’s what we’re looking for,” Adam said, creeping closer to the staircase. “That’s a pretty narrow approach.” He glanced at Anastasia. “Tell two of them to stay here and guard this entrance. If they hear violin, and then shouting, and then no more shouting and more violin, tell them to run and never come back here.” Anastasia relayed the message, much to the confusion of the two officers staying behind and the horror of the two tasked with following them.

Joshua lead the group down the staircase, though he had to unstrap the massive metallic cross from his back and carry it at his side in order to fit. The stairs held, though at times it seemed just barely, and they were thankfully quiet throughout the approach. As the sound of the violin drew closer to them, they each felt an unusual and unsettling pain in their chest - something akin to fear, but slower and more meticulous in its approach. Something that only Adam had felt so clearly before, an existential sort of dread.

The stairwell did not stop when Adam figured they had reached the main basement, and continued down what felt like another five stories. It did eventually end, though, and they exited the stairwell into a long corridor with a low ceiling and a single door on the far end. On the walls were lit torches with green flames that cast an almost obscene light across the entire room. As Joshua took his first step into the corridor, the sound of the violin stopped.

Look,” Ilene whispered, pointing towards one of the torches.

Beneath the torch was something that vaguely resembled a body, though whose it had belonged to they could not say. It was covered in long, thin lacerations that ran across it from head to toe, splitting its clothing and flaying its skin. One of the officers immediately retched, turning towards a corner to vomit while the other looked ready to faint.

Ilene approached the body carefully, pulling out a camera as she did. She took a few quick shots, and then turned back towards the group. “What were the two boys wearing?”

Rodrigo flipped through his notebook again. “Sascha was wearing a green shirt, and Tripp was wearing a denim jacket and black shirt.”

Ilene nodded. “This is Tripp. Or, it was Tripp. These cuts aren’t too deep,” she showed them by pushing two pieces of flesh apart to show the depth, “but there’s no blood.”

She stumbled backwards as the figure on the ground took a gargled breath, its eyes flying open and its mouth moving frantically. Anastasia crossed the room in a blink, throwing her jacket around the shredded child and handing him to the single standing officer. She said something to them in German, and the two men took off up the stairs with the boy.

Adam nodded towards the door at the end of the hall. “I expect we’ll find our culprit in there.” He pulled the crucifix from his pocket. “Steel yourselves, friends.” The other four followed behind him as he strode across the cobblestone floor of the basement and into the cracked door at the end of the hall.

The room inside was dark, and as they crossed the threshold of the room their lights each went out. Adam squinted into the darkness, where the vaguest outline of a figure was visible hanging in the air across the chamber.

“Sascha?” he asked.

The figure’s eyes opened, and from within those orbs came a fetid green light that spilled out of Sascha’s face and cast a grotesque shadow on the wall behind him. The boy’s face was gaunt and stretched and his arms hung akimbo out from his body, which seemed to twist unnaturally with each step they took towards it. His hair stood on end and blood leaked from his eyes and ears, and when he opened his mouth a freakish cacophony took the place of his voice.

Joshua was the first to notice the violin clutched in the boy’s left hand, and the bow in his right. Before he could shout out a warning, the boy had whipped the violin up into his chin and pulled the bow across with a horrible screech. Each of them recoiled, and as they did glowing green strings began to appear across the chamber, snapping towards them and whipping across their bodies. One of them caught Adam’s wrist, pulling him to the ground, and another nearly struck his face.

As Sascha continued pulling on the bow of the violin, Anastasia began calling out to him in German.

“Sascha!” she shouted, “come down, Sascha! Your mother is waiting for you. Come down, now.”

Sascha’s eyes turned towards her, and more strings whipped towards her from the ether.

Life,” the entity replied, its voice hoarse and desperate. “Life forever.

It began to close distance on Anastasia, who felt a cold dread begin to build in the base of her spine, traveling slowly upwards towards her skull. Sascha’s mouth began to open, tearing at the sides as it did, and from within the maw Anastasia could see another face, one that stared at her with an obscene fixation. The boy’s arms fell to his sides and he stopped playing.

Life forever. Life forever.

Suddenly, Joshua came running from behind Anastasia with the handle of the now-flaming orthodox cross gripped in both hands. He wound up, muttering a blessing under his breath, and swung it flat-side-out towards the floating Sascha. As it struck, the metallic end seemed to pass through the boy, and when it came out the other side it carried with it the grim spectre of something that was once human. Its baroque wig sat crooked on its twisted head, and its face was little more than a death mask. The entity opened its mouth and howled, and the violin reappeared in its hands with a green flash.

Joshua took another swing from the left, but was caught by strings that appeared around his wrists and pulled him up towards the ceiling. Anastasia appeared next, clutching Adam’s crucifix in her right hand, and attempted to drive it into the spectre’s heart, but she too was caught in a web of strings that cut into her flesh like the blades of a motorized saw.

And then, there was another light in the room. The entity shrieked, and dropped both Joshua and Anastasia, as a bright amber light flooded the stone chamber. From the back of the room, Ilene held aloft a smoking urn, with light shining through its grated sides from something burning within. As she did, Rodrigo stood beside her, his voice mixing with her own prayer as he read aloud something from his journal.

“Terribilis Deus Sanctuario suo, Cernunnos ipse truderit virtutem plebi Suae, Aradia ipse fortitudinem plebi Suae!” he shouted, swinging a thurible full of smoking incense above his head.

The spectre hissed and drew the bow once more across the violin, which shrieked with an abhorrent peal that drove Anastasia to the ground, clutching her ears. Sickly green strings appeared from all around them, and the darkness in the chamber seemed to grow darker. Adam scurried across the chamber, holding his bloodied wrist to his chest, and grabbed Anastasia with his good hand to pull her away from the cords now whipping out of the entity.

“Benedictus Deus, Gloria Patri, Benedictus Dea, Matri gloria!” Rodrigo shouted, his voice rising above the din of the violin. The spectre recoiled, but continued to saw feverishly on the violin’s strings as more strings whipped out of its eyes and screaming mouth. The strings, which moments earlier had been cut down by the light coming out of Ilene’s urn, now began to push back against it, sizzling and smoking as they drew closer to the two of them.

And then-

“Hey asshole,” Joshua said, Sascha clutched in the one hand that was not holding aloft his giant silver cross, “you should’ve stayed dead.”

There was an audible whistling sound as Joshua brought the cross down on the spectre and buried its tip into the stone floor. There was a sickening crunch of bone and wood as the spectre was slammed into the ground. An instant later, the entity squealed out in panic, and then disappeared in the blink of an eye. Laying on the ground where it had fallen was the violin, and crushed beneath Joshua cross was the bow, now snapped in two.


In a long hallway deep underground, a metal door slid quietly open. The chamber beyond it was dimly illuminated by a single overhead bulb. Adam Bright crossed the chamber with a parcel wrapped in black white cloth tucked under his arm. Joshua stood near the doorway, and outside they could hear Ilene Hiram muttering something under her breath as she spoke curses and darkness into the stones. Adam paused for a second as he reached the wall, and then unwrapped the violin and set it in the corner, dropping the broken bow on the ground beneath it.

Both he and Joshua stepped outside, and with no small effort Joshua turned the heavy locking mechanism until it clicked, and then shuttered closed. Ilene stepped back, satisfied.

“It’s funny,” Adam said, adjusting the collar on his jacket, “all this time I assumed it was the violin that Vivaldi wanted, and never considered it was something inside the violin.” He shrugged. “I hope whatever it offered him was worth it.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small metal nameplate, which he slid into a fixture on the front of the door, just beneath a sliding metal hatch covering the viewport. Once it was set, he pulled out a hammer and pounded two small rivets into place, sealing the nameplate shut.

Vivaldi, huh,” Joshua said, bemused. “So where are we going next?”

Adam nodded pensively. “You and Ilene are going to join Rodrigo in Venezuela. He’s found a lead about something that I think will be right up our alley.” He smiled. “You’re probably going to want to bring your St. Andrews cross with you, I think.”

Joshua laughed. “And what about you?”

Adam rubbed at his bandaged wrist. “Until this heals properly, I’m of little use to you. Besides, I received an interesting phone call yesterday from a Mr. Skitter Marshall about something that he thinks will interest us.” He sighed, and shrugged. “The work continues.”

They both nodded. “The work continues.”

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