ASH: Coherent Super Stories #18 - "Black Buddha of Bhutan" featuring Jack of All Trades

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Wed Nov 4 12:28:17 PST 2009

     [The cover has a banner in the upper left reading "HIGH CONCEPT #4".
The cover art is an homage to pulp style, with an adventurer in a torchlit
cavern, fending off shadowy attackers with a torch in one hand and a pistol
in the other.]

 .|, COHERENT                                            An ASHistory Series
 '|` SUPER STORIES                       #18 - The Black Buddha of Bhutan
        Featuring Jack of All Trades     copyright 2009 by Dave Van Domelen

Dearest brother,

     I'm afraid that the matter of the so-called "Black Buddha of Bhutan"
will have to fall on the "or not" side of the fence.  As you'll see from the
statuette accompanying this letter, it's not actually a Buddha, it's more of
a pot-bellied pig demon of some sort.  I found it in China rather than in
Bhutan, and the thing is no longer black.  Still, it's an interesting piece
of art, I'm sure you'll find a place for it in that mansion you bought just
before I left.
     I've enclosed the relevant pages of my travel journal.  I haven't had
time to copy them myself, so for heaven's sake don't lose them!  You may want
to get someone you trust to make copies and send one off to our wheelchair-
bound acquaintance in Chicago.  This all seems to have been his sort of
affair.  (It would have been nice to have had his gizmos along!)

     Jack Ripley
     Lhasa, Tibet
     September 12, 1935


June 5, 1935

     The safe-passage from General Eight Ox proved to be well worth the
bribes, we haven't been significantly molested by the local bandits.  Out
here in the Himalayas, the Japanese invasion, the Nationalists, the
Communists...they all seem like fairy stories.  General Eight Ox is the law
of the land, and will remain so until someone is willing to devote the energy
to ousting him.  Still, for a warlord he's proven fairly honorable.
     Today we reached the village where the "Black Buddha of Bhutan" is
reputed to have been removed to shortly before Bhutan's monarchy was put in
place in '07.  I haven't broached the subject yet, as its dire reputation is
likely to tighten lips.  Making things more difficult, no one here speaks any
of the dialects of Mandarin I've already learned, so we're having to make do
with written communications for now.  
     I wish handshaking were universal!  It would make life so much easier if
I could make physical contact with one of these people and pick up their
dialect with my "knack".  I could listen to their unguarded conversation
during that period where they think I can't have learned their tongue yet,
and...ah, I guess I'm too greedy.  Anyone else would have to learn these
things the hard way, like I had to before that incident at that shrine in the
Deccan in '25.
     I suppose if I'm being greedy, I should wish that my knack let me take
memories and not just skills.  Then I wouldn't need to ask questions in the
first place.
               *              *              *              *

June 8, 1935

     I managed to contrive an "accidental" skin to skin contact that avoided
giving offense.  It wasn't long enough to pick up more than the language, but
that will do for now.  I expect most of the skills available in this village
are things I've already acquired from my porters.
     They're still assuming I don't know how to speak their dialect, and
we're communicating via the written word.  Based on what they're saying, they
seem to have bought our cover story that we're working for a British company
that seeks to find a good path overland from Bhutan to China.  They know just
enough about the outside world to be guessing that we're planning to support
those who are fighting the Japanese, and they don't seem to care.  The war is
rather far off when you're limited to foot travel through mountains, I
     We've started some general surveying as part of the cover, and we might
find some interesting rock formations worth sketching for Robert's books.

               *              *              *              *

June 9, 1935

     When they think I can't hear them, the villagers sometimes offer
blessing in the name of a "dark lady" rather than Buddha.

               *              *              *              *

June 11, 1935

     I finally found a way to casually bring up the Black Buddha, and that
we'd heard it had come this way.  They claimed it had been in their village
many years ago, but been taken elsewhere after only a short stay.
     One talent I've never needed to acquire with my knack has been my
ability to read people...and the village elder was lying through his few
remaining teeth.  Hopefully he can't read me as well as I could read him, but
I think I have a pretty good poker face.  I simply moved on to another topic,
as if my interest in the Black Buddha was a passing fancy.
     The glances of the villagers have become somewhat more wary, however.
Maybe even a little hostile.  I've told my people to not let their guard
down.  Hopefully it's just my imagination.

               *              *              *              *

June 13, 1935

     Lost two men to an "accident" on the trail today.  Villagers claim to
have seen it happen, that the men lacked the skill needed to walk where they
were going.
     I know that to be a lie.  One of the two was McGinty, and I took my
mountaineering skill from him.  I could handle that particular section of
mountainside easily, so he should have as well.  Can't say for sure about the
porter with McGinty, but he's a mountain man from Bhutan, so should have had
no troubles.

               *              *              *              *

June 14, 1935

     I confronted the elder, and used my agitation over the deaths of my men
as a pretext to grasp his hands long enough to copy all of his skills.  I got
nowhere overtly, the elder simply suggests that we might seek a safer route
for our road.
     Now that I've had the time to assimilate my new skills, there's some
very interesting points.  For one, he can speak Bhutanese, so it's fairly
safe to say he's heard enough from our porters to know we're not actually
surveying for a road.  For another, he's quite the occultist.  I now know a
whole raft of rituals regarding the Dark Lady they've been whispering about
at the edge of hearing.
     I can't say I LIKE knowing exactly how to best drain the blood from a
sacrificial victim.  But I like even less the prospect of that particular
skill being used on me.
     I expect the next entry in this journal to take place after the matter
is resolved, if this isn't to be the last entry ever.  Normally, I'd take
some precaution to make sure word reaches my brother in the event of my
demise, but we're too isolated.  If we send a runner back to Bhutan, there's
every chance he'll be intercepted and bled out for the Dark Lady.

               *              *              *              *

June 27, 1935

     Finally able to stop long enough to order my thoughts and put pen to
paper.  We've been running for nearly two weeks, but finally met up with a
unit of General Ox's troops, who obligingly gunned down the last of our
pursuers.  Apparently the troops were from the area, and had little use for
the worshippers of the Dark Lady either, but avoided their village when
possible.  Something tells me the General knew all about this, but let us
blunder into a trap to see if we could deal with the problem for him.  My
estimate of his sense of honor has dropped slightly, but my estimate of his
cleverness has gone up.

     Things reached a head at a ceremonial dinner they threw for us on the
15th.  I've acquired enough knowledge of poisons that I recognized the drugs
they attempted to feed us, but I was unable to warn more than a handful of
the party without forcing the villagers' hand and bringing out more
immediately deadly weapons.  Isolated, yes.  Totally backward, no.  Several
of them had perfectly functional rifles that looked to be surplus from the
Great War, and while we might have won an initial gunfight...well, I doubt
the overall outcome would have been in our favor.  So I pretended to eat the
drugged food and feigned a trance.  Jones wasn't a very good actor, and they
ended up force-feeding him once everyone else had passed out.  That left me
with only Owens and Barr conscious as help as they trussed us up and took us
to be sacrificed.
     I dared open my eyes only occasionally, but it was enough to tell that
we were being taken into a cavern, the entrance of which must have been very
cleverly camoflaged, since we hadn't found it in the week of "surveying".
They stacked us like cordwood, giving me enough cover that I could observe
what happened next.
     One of our porters was chosen to be the first sacrifice, for reasons
known only to the elder.  He was placed on a short altar in front of a small
statue that could only be the fabled Black Buddha.  It wasn't merely black
like ebony or ink, it drank in light as if it were made of a slice of the
night sky.  The darkness blurred its outlines, washing out any details there
might have been.
     The porter's hands were untied and one was carefully placed on the Black
Buddha.  I could see that none of the villagers touched it themselves, and in
a moment I saw why, as the porter was shocked awake and into a scream!  He
struggled to pull his hand away from the ebon statuette, and I could see him
withering away before my eyes until only a mummified body remained, released
by that horrible idol to slump back onto the altar.
     Suddenly, the context of so many of the rituals I had learned made
hideous sense.  None were necessary in order to feed the Dark Lady, mere
contact with her token was enough.  And once she had fed sufficiently, the
ritual killings would begin, spells to curry her favor and gain specific
     The porter's corpse was tossed onto a firepit, where the dessicated husk
caught fire like so much tinder.  A second unconscious Bhutanese was being
dragged over to the altar.  Now I could see that they were saving the
"special" visitors like myself for the rituals.  Low-class laborers would
serve for the initial feeding.
     All that time I'd been working out of my bonds, thanking the time I'd
shook hands with Harry Houdini shortly before his death.  I'd also managed to
locate the ritual I wanted, and when all eyes were upon the victim I surged
from the pile and made my move!
     Hurling the villagers aside with some jujitsu, I grabbed the elder and
pushed him against the Black Buddha, shouting out an incantation in words I
didn't understand...meaning that the elder hadn't understood them either.
They'd been passed down without meaning, perhaps because their meaning was
too terrible to contemplate.
     As I'd hoped, the blackness in the elder's own soul clashed with the
Buddha's own, and there was a powerful pulse of...un-being is the only way I
can describe it.  All in the room were stunned, but when I recovered my wits
the elder was nowhere to be found and the "Buddha" had lost its shadowy
cloak, standing revealed as an ebony carving of some sort of demon.  Only the
softening effect of the shadows had allowed it to pass as a Buddha.
     The villagers must have been more intimately connected to the power of
the statue, for they remained dazed for long enough that Owens, Barr and I
could rouse the rest of our party and escape.  We took as many of their
weapons as we could quickly grab, but it was still a harrowing time fleeing
through the mountains with angry villagers on our heels.  Gunfire from out of
nowhere would sometimes fell one of us, but we got our own back whenever one
of them showed his face over an escarpment.
     Now I sit here, as safe as I suppose one can be after having earned the
emnity of a dark goddess of some sort.  I hope she doesn't look like her
idol, though...this is a very ugly pig-demon statue.
     All that effort and all those deaths, and I doubt more than a handful of
men alive would even believe it.  Robert will, of course, he's seen things
equally strange in his own travels to the Orient.  A few men in the
government would like to know about this, I expect.  But rather useless for
the old BION, yes?  Very much "or not" this time around.
     Of course, if they were all believable, I suppose I'd get bored fairly
quickly, and that wouldn't do.  After all, once you've mastered all the
skills known to man, what's left but to go after the skills NOT known to man? 


Author's Notes:

     This story was written for High Concept #4, "the kitbashed superhero"
aka "trolling for Dave to write".  I decided to go for a subtler effect and
write about someone who modified himself by acquiring skills rather than
actual powers or physical parts, which in turn suggested a pulp setting where
a guy with all sorts of skills could be impressive.  I was originally going
to title the story "Jack of All Trades" until I remembered that I used the
name of the character as part of the Coherent Super Stories logo, so I
switched to the story's macguffin as the title.  The macguffin itself
underwent a slight name change as well, originally being the Black Gold
Buddha, but I decided that alliteration of "Black Buddha of Bhutan" worked
better for a pulp-style story.
     Jack Ripley is a fictional brother to real life Robert L. Ripley, of
"Believe it or Not" fame.  In the ASH Universe, Jack Ripley was born in 1903,
and made his first serious trip outside of America in 1924-26, a few years
after Robert's first round the world voyage.  In 1925 he had his origin story
in India (the Deccan is part of India), unlocking his paranormal talent.  In
the decade that followed, he acted as his famous brother's agent in matters
where publicity would be counter-productive, seeking out those things at the
fringes of the world that might or might not be believable (regardless of
whether they were true).
     Robert Ripley died in 1949.  Jack Ripley may or may not have survived
past that...odds are good that he got rather mixed up in OSS matters during
WWII, which would have significantly raised the odds of him predeceasing his
older brother. 
     General Eight Ox might be the ox spirit who becomes Premier Niu in the
2020s.  Early ideas for this story had Eight Ox as the main antagonist, in
which case I would have had to make it clear one way or another, but as a
background character I can safely leave the question unanswered until such
time as I want to use him at center stage.  :)
     The wheelchair-bound acquaintance mentioned in the cover letter is Harry
Parker, AKA the original Beacon.  Beacon's story is mostly told here: (he had largely retired from
the costumed phase of his career by 1935, and wouldn't go back into action
until the war started, but it's still reasonable to expect Jack would recall
him in connection with darkness cultists).


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