The Parliament of Bones

There are said to be several authorities sitting above and beyond the justice of human laws, the strangest to whose existence we can speak might also be the most vicious.

Unconcerned with the transgressions of mortal or moral laws (absent and apart from any religious or spiritual surety about the sources from whence justice flows) some acts and offences are so heinous, so catastrophic, as to draw the attentions of a court like no other. Rare as its interventions are, this authority - which in the absence of any more certain, definitive or plainly declared name has come to be known as The Parliament of Bones - is often regarded, mistakenly, as being something between a myth and a cautionary tale to those whose ambitions lend to overreaching. Nonetheless, and in spite of the contradictions in such evidence as proves it, it exists, and its history and appearances are bound, inextricably, with the pursuit of the impossible; with the stories of those whose works have reached farthest into the dark depths of our ignorance.

Legion in number, the individual members of The Parliament are human skeletons; their bodies held together, moved and motivated by forces as yet unknown. A stark and singular vision (greying and rotten bones garbed in heavy robes of black velvet and golden brocade), many believe that they are a disguise for some far more unearthly intelligence; an inhuman and immortal will cast into a form designed to strike a primal chord of fear and dread into their victims. They hold court from the seat of their power - a vast subterranean amphitheatre carved out of gleaming red marble that seems to sparkle in the blazing light of white-hot pyramids of fire, bobbing gently and inconsistently high above The Parliament’s proceedings - sending out their bailiffs to drag plaintiffs and witnesses from their beds and down to face their judgements and their punishments.

These bailiffs are as devilish as their masters but, having to walk the mundane and mortal world in performance of their duties, look quite different. More uncanny than unnatural, at a distance they may appear like ordinary men dressed in drab black clothing under non-descript overcoats. This is a lie which falters and fails with proximity: Their skin is ashen, a pallor not earned through death (they never lived, and so could not have died) tinging an opaque and waxy jelly that bears little real resemblance to flesh. Unearthly strong, and always with the added advantage of surprise, their success is inevitable once they lay hands on whomever the court has instructed them to apprehend. Mute and utilitarian in their work, inured against pleas and protestations, they drag their targets into the nearest underground space and through doors that were not there before and are not there thereafter.

Once the demanded person or persons are brought before The Parliament of Bones, usually held as fast by their terror and confusion as they are the bailiffs, the entrances are barred and proceedings begin apace. Announced by the click and clatter of their jaws, the members of The Parliament begin their deliberations: They speak in an assonant language that remains as-yet unidentified, the hollow and airy echoes of their voices overlapping in audible discord and disagreement. These discussions can last for hours, rising and ebbing in pitch and fervour as arguments are made and rebutted with no apparent need for the testimony - at least not given audibly - of either the accused or any witnesses that may have been taken. Eventually a pattern, a consensus, begins to emerge and the members of The Parliament begin to speak in concert until there are no dissenting opinions, until their verdict is rendered and delivered.

Impassive and cold and absolute in their resolve and in their resolution, of those determined or believed to have been taken before The Parliament only a scant handful have survived to share their experiences. Even those taken as witnesses are in mortal peril, their actions or inactions often taken as an innate complicity in whatever unspecified crime or cosmic upset the defendant is being accused of. It is from these rare accounts, as few and sometimes frantic in their recitations and recollections as they often are, which we draw our understanding of The Parliament of Bones - of the horrors they can enact on those brought before them: They brook no defences and offer no appeals and their known punishments represent a creative gamut of agonising fates from which death, if and when it comes, must come as a blessed relief.

Following the pronouncement of their final ruling, The Parliament of Bones falls still and silent. Leant forward to stare with empty, eyeless sockets, their anticipation hangs thick in the air; a tense and bloodthirsty eagerness to see the sentences which they have passed down being carried out, to see those they have judged being cowed and broken by their punishments. The bailiffs - doubling both as the executors of The Parliament’s will and as their executioners - bring the accused forward to stand alone, their last moments before a brute and unforgiving judgement is meted out. In our world, and even with the proper knowledge and care, the human body can only take a certain amount of disfigurement and pain before giving out entirely. The Parliament of Bones does not respect such limits, does not extend such mercies, and can keep a person conscious throughout unimaginable torments.

Whatever the specifics of the punishment, the bailiffs set about this final aspect of their duties without hesitation or remorse. Though the nature of what comes next varies with each story, the tortures seem to have certain consistent elements, namely exposing or removing the victim’s bones. Sometimes this is slow and methodical - flesh flensed away over the course of agonising days until a whole and bloody skeleton lies somehow still screaming in a pool of its own blood and viscera - sometimes it is violently abrupt - bones broken and wrenched from ragged wounds. Other accounts detail more elaborate cruelties; a decapitated head in a too-small cage fashioned from its own ribs and a man choking, but never dying, in a noose made from his own spine are among the most lurid. Around a dozen other stories are generally accepted as legitimate testimonies, all with equally bloody endings.

Anyone whom The Parliament of Bones deigns to spare (this being something of a misnomer, given the trauma of the abduction and the likelihood that they saw horrors most could never comprehend) is removed from the court by the bailiffs. Abandoned unceremoniously once they are beyond The Parliament’s bounds, most - although physically unharmed - never put the trauma completely behind them. This is, at least in part, because of the uncertainty and fear: Fear that they could be taken again, fear that they might somehow transgress against whatever unknowable law The Parliament of Bones enforces. In that way, the fear is infectious: It permeates through the truth and into legend, becomes a caution to those who encroach on The Parliament’s domain. It might be that this is as much their true function as the trials they conduct, but a definitive answer does not seem likely to be forthcoming.

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