They stood within a cloud of flies, stared at the stinking bulk before them.
It was the carrion wreck of a cow, prone on the browning pasture and surrounded by gore-stained scrub. Flies spiraled to and fro from the hollow of its ribs and belly, torn open and bereft of innards.
"I found her like this, my poor querida," said a weatherbeaten man in a felt cap, somber. "Please, help me repair things." The others, a pair of cutters, looked at him quizzically
"Farmer Jamaro, you know we'll help…," said an oily-haired man. He held a handkerchief to his mouth, breathed shallow in distaste.
"Provided you pay," added the third, a pale woman with a long nose.
"But we can't put your cow back together."
Miserably, the farmer shook his head. "No, no. Señori Louis, Clovette. My Firlish fails me. I beg you repair my relations with the lemures."
"The whats?" said Louis.
"The lemures," said Jamaro. "The shades, dark spirits. They have surely done this, for they are angry with me and my family."
Louis raised an eyebrow. "The spirits killed your cow and absconded with her innards?"
Jamaro bobbled his head, shrugged. "Si."
Above the kerchief, an eyebrow raised. "I suppose we can try. Why do you think these, eh… lemures, are angered?"
The farmer gritted his brown teeth, shook his head. "I have no way of knowing. We, my family, have always been in good terms, making lemuria often, to please them. Very good terms. Never bad."
Louis gestured with his free hand. "Where do they live, the spirits? Can we speak to them in any way?"
"They live in the sea caves, the sacred grottoes, but none are allowed to see them."
At this, Clovette perked up, worried. She tugged on Louis' sleeve. "Good Messieur Jamaro, allow us a moment to strategize." She took Louis by the arm and pulled him away.
Louis looked at her askance. "Qu'elle?"
Clovette spoke covertly. "Louis, we are dumb salauds. Remember, when we killed the ugly creatures in the caves?"
"The stupid fishgut beasts? Who smelled of liver? We killed them for the swag the drunkard mentioned."
"Yes. In the sea caves."
Louis's eyes widened. "Merde, we are dumb. We killed the spirits."
"And angered the rest," said Clovette.
"Wait, wait," Louis screwed up his eyes. "We can still make bank at this, I am certain."
"Messieur Jamaro," said Louis, turning to the farmer, smiling. "How do you propose we appease the lemures?"
"Oh" said Jamaro, frowning. "Only a great lemuria would suffice."
"Lemuria," said Jamaro. "An offering of food. A great one, for they seem to be angered deeply. I would do so, but I fear to show my face to them."
The cutters met eyes. "Bring the uglies food. Not hard," muttered Clovette. Louis raised an eyebrow, nodded.
"We can do it," he said.
The farmer smiled, clasped his hands. "Bien, bien. I will tell the butcher."
Clovette frowned. "For what?"
"For the offal, the food."
The cutters met eyes, grimaced. "Figures," muttered Louis, swatting a fly off his cheek. "Maybe we wo–"
"Where do we offer it?" interrupted Clovette.
"Deep in the spirits' home. In the cavernas, the halls of the dead."
"What?" startled Louis.
"The deepest sea grottoes."
Louis looked as if to speak. Clovette cut him off. "We will do it at twenty-five percent more."
The farmer shrugged, sadly. "I must see the lemures appeased, for my family. I must pay."
At this, Louis huffed. "It will be done, Messieur Jamaro," Clovette said. She stepped to shake hands over the dead cow. Flies alit upon their wrists.
The cutters set off. Louis looked sour. Clovette spoke lightly. "Mon ami, it is like we have generated our own fortune, with this job. Do not worry yourself over his talk of caves."
Louis shrugged. "You are right, bien sûr. We have faced the lemure spirits already. Only have to feed them, now."
"'Spirits,'" said Clovette. "How tough can they be?"
With confident step, they set off across the scrubby pasture, through the buzzing wrecks of a hundred gutted cows.
A summer's breeze slipped through the kitchen window, through hanging pans and swaying sheafs of basil. Heady, sedative, laden with sea salt and the sweetness of orange groves in full fruit. Neath the window, sprawled on a countertop, dozed a fat ginger cat. By the hearth, in a crooked chair, slept a plump old woman. Nary a hint of black remained midst the grey of her nodding head.
The kitchen door banged open. A young boy in oversized boots charged in, waved a floppy hare overhead.
Nonna grunted, blinked awake, smiled at him. "Digo, cucciolo. You have had luck."
Digo swiped a lock out of his muddy face, presented the kill to his grandmother. "Snared him by the gully. Please, can we have a stew?"
"Yes, but you must let me teach you to butcher it."
Nonna rose with effort, beckoned Digo to the counter. She lifted the cat by the belly, and, as he protested and wriggled, moved him to the floor. With lined, thick hands, she brushed off the worn wooden surface, retrieved a pair of shears and a knife hanging overhead.
"Give it to me," said Nonna. Digo did. "And pull up that stool and watch."
Stool legs scraped over stones tiles. Digo perched beside her, nearly taller even while sitting.
Nonna took up the hare, felt and bunched the skin about its legs. "You gather it up, the skin, and cut here." She pointed with the knife and did so, at the ankle joint.
"Both legs. You can tear it, if you are strong. Then down the belly." She gripped the skin, and, with force, shucked it free of the pink carcass. Digo watched, nodding. The cat circled below, meowing atonally.
"You just snip off the feet and head." The shears crunched as she did so. The latter she took, shook before the excited cat, and tossed out the open window. A ginger flash followed, purring. Digo grinned.
Nonna chuckled. "Everyone gets to eat."
She took up the knife, pointed at the pink and veiny hareflesh. "Watch carefully at this. The gutting. Cut here, through the bones." They split wetly under her blade. "And tug the guts out from here." Nonna picked out the entrails, piled them neatly on the countertop.
"For the cat, too?" said Digo, grinning, swinging his legs.
"No, no" said Nonna, gravely. She took up a lidded wooden bowl, scooped the pale innards inside, and covered them. "We put them out tonight. Very important."
Nonna looked to him, gestured with the bowl. "For lemuria, Digo. For the spirits." She put the bowl down, nodded seriously.
"Everyone gets to eat."
In the warm, seaside hills of Alagór's southern countryside, where ancient spiritualism still mingles in equal measure with Avethan faith, folk believe in spirits.
Lemures, they are called. * Shades of the restless dead. Revenants, clad in cobbled flesh and coiled organs, who come at night from their chthonic sea-cave haunts** to demand food at the doors they knew in life. They mill and they moan, banging on walls, lowing wetly for succor. If they find what they want, a simple offering of spare offal, they will depart. If they are denied, they'll take their meal another way: Violently, from the bellies of selfish folk and their livestock.
To placate the lemures, village folk practice a modest ritual offering: They leave a portion of spare entrails, saved from the week's meat, in a bowl on the doorstep on sabbath-night. By morning, it will be gone; taken by the lemures. This offering is known as lemuria.
The smallfolk of the south have practiced lemuria since years immemorial. They hold it among the central tenants of their faith. To feed the departed is less a burden, less an action taken under threat, than it is an act of charity. To them, the spirits are pitiable things; wretches who suffer in a cursed afterlife and know no better than to beg and to hurt. To offer them a spare chicken liver once a week is the smallest, the only possible gift. Charity to humankind is among the requisite dictates of Aveth, and, to those who believe, lemures are still human.
The Southerner's Lemuria is not unlike the traditions of the superstitious Awnish of the far North, who leave gifts in respect to local älves. Though, unlike älves, who may provide good fortune in the form of surreptitious favors, offerings to lemures offer no benefit sans freedom from harassment and predation. Also, unlike Lemuria, the traditions of Awn are viewed by outsiders as harmless idiosyncrasies, bereft of spiritual meaning. *** Offerings to the lemures, however, are viewed rather differently by the wider Coast.
To visitors from other lands, lemuria seems a bizarre practice indeed. The countryfolk's charity to miserable spirits looks, to the wider Coast, like the willful feeding of bonafide monsters.
To them, lemures look appear as departed ancestors, but parasitic, shambling organisms that both consume and construct their bodies from entrails and assorted carrion. † The Southerner's ancient, charitable tradition occurs as a perverted solution to the problem of a millennia-long monster infestation. A solution not for humanity's favor, but for the benefit and nourishment of lemures.
As scholars would define it, lemures are a sort of parasitic scavenger. Vague, headless skeletons of cartilage and weak muscle which depend on surrogate tissues to function. Driven by rude instinct, lemures cloak their weak frames in found tissue; cobble together a rude, personal anatomy.
By what physiological power lemures fuse offal into a functioning, gross whole, none can say. What can be said is that it doesn't work for very long, as lemures hunt constantly to replace their decaying body of organs. Only a lemure's soft, headless skeleton remains and grows. That, and its long claws, attached to both hands and feet, suitable for handling and harvesting flesh. To delay their decay, lemures hide from daylight, most often in the depths of sea caves, where the salt soothes them, or in the dark of abandoned structures.
Much to the dismay of the countryfolk who fed them, lemures have become a popular target for errant cutters in recent years. The sea caves where the squelshy spirits make their hives, having been revered and undisturbed for millennia, are quite full of treasure from both modern days and ages past. The lemures, who often drag bodies back home in order to break down their organs, have inadvertently collected a wealth of pocketed gold. Smugglers and pirates, long ago wise to the shades' spiritual falsity, have also made caches there for centuries by luring the monsters out with piles of cow intestine, then depositing their swag behind for the beasts to inadvertently guard. For the temptation of gold, cutters would certainly drive lemures to extinction.
In response to sudden predation after comfortable ages of hand-feeding, the lemures of the placid Alagóran countryside have begun to adapt their behavior. In some villages, rather than quietly accept lemuria every week, the monsters are instead hunting. Slaying and gobbling villagers and beasts alike, and, on the nourishment and strength of their entrails, growing terrifyingly large.
Hulking lemures, trailed by coveys of smaller kin, are now rumored to wander the hills and olive groves even in daylight, militant and hungry. Cutter gangs, town militias, and monsters slayers face them with equal surety, though their losses are higher than ever before. Despite losses, few long for peace with the lemures.
Few, save the countryfolk and their modest charity.
* From the old Nor stem lem-, referring to the gut or gullet. Observers of lemures reliably describe them as being made of cobbled guts and innards.
** In old Southern myth, sea caves are often portrayed as gateways to the realm of the dead. This has only a modicum of truth, as such caves are rarely gates to the real underworld, though they are indeed home to monsters aplenty.
*** Northerners are stereotypically atheist, apt to look upon the followers of Aveth and other religions with confusion and mild superiority. Conversely, the Northerners observe a battery of superstitions, most of which are known to the pious Southerners as odd hypocrisy, if not heresy.
† Sir Gemus of Ire, among the first biologists to address lemures as an object of study, describes the creatures as being primarily composed of a substance like piled, raw liver and coiled gut.