Thursday, 27 February 2014

Doorway - Pictonaut Feb 2014

So another month has come where I have found time and inspiration to post a story for Crazy John Steele's Pictonaut challenge. This month, the picture was quite a simple one, and as such gave me pretty much free reign to come up with some proper weird stuff. This is what I manage, a cautionary tale of the problems with too much power. Remember, with great power come even greater bastards!

30 - Feb 2014 - Barrow Door

Mud, blood and sweat. This had been the life of the Last Warrior King for almost as long as he could remember. Fatigue had long since left the King behind, it was as a near forgotten memory now. He was propelled forward by habit, a well learned muscle memory to put one foot in front of the other and push, without aim, without will, moved on by some power other than his own. He had all but forgotten his quest, the great purpose that had allowed him to overcome adversity for how many long years? More than he could count certainly. The King tried to recall his final goal now, yet he struggled. He had been walking, searching, but for what? He had fought, but against whom and over what? The King clutched hard against his sword. That was important, but why? It had gone, decayed over time until only the memory of a memory remained, or was it the memory of forgetting? The King had no more an idea of where he had come to than where he had been and felt uncertain that he had ever known where it was that he would ultimately arrive. Then it was over. He had failed, although he knew not at what. Without aim, without a goal, without a quest he was nothing and could be nothing. He would crest this final hill and let the end come to his frail and failing body.

The Last Warrior King rounded the crest of the mound on which he trod and gently guided himself down the opposite slope before coming to his knees and resting his back against the gradient of the grassy bank. Yet his rest was perturbed, for his back did not fall against the softness of dew laden grass, but against a rough cut wooden frame. With what strength the King could not tell, he lifted himself once more and turned to face this singular object, a door set in the side of the hill in this deserted woodland many many miles from anywhere and anyone. He stared upon the wooden gateway and he began to remember.

Taking his mighty sword in both of his hands, he lifted the heavy point towards the door and struck it, not to destroy but to knock it, a request of entry. Yet as the sharpness of the blade scratched against the soft, rotten wood, the door gave way and cleft into a prefect pair, cleanly splitting along where the weapon had drawn across and the two halves fell away to reveal the passageway that lay beyond. Staggeringly, the King proceeded into the darkness before him. As he went, what strength that remained within him faded. Each step down into the earth along the tunnel he now walked was like a step onward towards his own grave, for such it was.

The Last Warrior King came to a vast cavern, familiar to him and yet alien. Where once the slain bodies of his victims had lain, he was surrounded now by his kinsmen and women, his predecessors. The decaying remains of those proud Warrior Kings and Queens that bore the sword at his side before he had were strewn all around the chamber. Three of these he recognised from the offerings with which they lay. He had seen all three interred hundreds of miles and a life time ago, yet here they were now, to lead him to his rest. He stepped on, over skeletal heads and limbs, over rusted armour and shields, over riches and the dust of long gone garments. The last Warrior King found a small hollow along the single encompassing wall of the cavern and secreted himself within it. In a last moment of pride, he drew the hilt of his sword up to his chest and pressed it against his heart. He had succeeded, he had prevailed. The sword had been returned to its home and the curse had been lifted. No future King would wield this dreadful weapon at such great consequence to himself. No future Queen would suffer the torment of the rule of the Warrior Blade. For there would be no future King, and no future Queen. The dynasty would end. With the loss of the sword, his kingdom would fall, but for the best, he knew. For the best.

The Last Warrior King lay back and closed his eyes, allowing darkness to come to him - his final sleep in the living world, a world he left at last free from the tyranny of the sword, a world he left to change - for the best. It was always for the best.

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Doctor Claire Cooper did the best that she could to wipe the dirt from her hands to her already soil stained overalls, achieving little more than the redistribution of filth, before taking the hand of the reporter who had just gotten on-site. The newspaperman shook it willingly despite its state, a symptom of trained diplomacy, and smiled warmly at the eminent archaeologist.

"So, this is a big one?" he asked, as he took pen, paper and recorder from the satchel at his side.

"The biggest," Claire Cooper answered. "At least for many decades, and easily the most important find science has ever had out of this region."

"I can quote you on that?" said the reporter, pen now at the ready.

"Honey," Cooper condescended to the reporter - a bad habit of hers that she made sure to take full advantage of. "You can quote me on anything. I want an open book here. Everything is to be recorded, documented, understood. That last is most important. I don't want this turning into some sensationalist rumour mill. You've got all access available to the site, so long as you stick my one rule."

"And, what is that?" the reported queried, not hiding his suspicions of what might be hidden in the other shoe.

"I thought I made that clear, mister..."

"Jeffreys. Mark Jeffreys," Mark offered.

"Right. Honesty, Mark. That's all. Just tell the truth and we'll get along fine. This way."

Claire led Mark through the forest that made up her dig site, along a dense region that carried with it a looming silence - the ghost of all the sounds that once played out there, but never would again. It was certainly, Mark thought, the atmosphere for discovering ancient secrets, and also for inflaming the imagination. A reporter's dream. He switched from his notepad to his camera and took a few picturesque shots of the locale.

"Nothing of interest here, Mr Jeffreys," Claire said. "Just some trees. Save your memory for what's to come."

"Oh, don't worry, I've got plenty of cards with me," Mark offered.

"We'll see," Dr Cooper said, smiling to herself.

The reporter was led to a small clearing made up by a bank of grass that raised itself up out of the ground like an oversized mole hill. The trees seemed to clear themselves away from the hillock, almost out of respect, bowing away from it, leaning radially outwards from its centre in reverence. The human element showed far less of such a humble countenance. Bodies crawled all around the place, boots stomped up and down the mound; the grass was already being worn away in a path from the operations base at the north edge of the forest round to the southern face of the mound - a path now followed by the reporter and his guide. As they rounded the clearing, Mark could see the focus of attention of the site in the form of an opening into the side of the small hill, at which people passed in and out of the ground like so many ants. Claire exchanged pleasantries with most the people who passed her by before motioning Mark over to the side of the excavated entranceway to the mound.

"So, things start to get interesting straight away with this site," she began explaining to the reporter, who she was fully aware would not even begin to share her enthusiasm for the minutiae of the external surroundings, but she wanted to tell him away. Make them squirm a bit, get them bored, then they're all the more impressed later on.

"It looks like a burial mound," Mark suggested, and was answered by a saccharine grin from the archaeologist.

"Quite right, well done," she said. "But it's not quite like any other I've worked on. See here for instance," she pointed out an area of soil that had been cleared away at the floor of the entrance. "You see these patches here and here," she continued, taking up a nearby trowel to mark out in the soil the areas she had meant. "They're of a slightly different shade. There would most likely have been wooden posts to hold a relatively light wooden door here. We can see similar markings in the soil around the walls of the mound, which is remarkably flat just in this area, again indicating a doorway that has filled itself in over time."

Mark saw nothing of this. It all just looked like dirt to him, but he wasn't about to let on and make of fool of himself so he nodded sagely and attempted an intelligent question.

"And that would be unusual, to have door on a grave like this?" he tried.

"Generally speaking, in this area, yes. At least, one so insubstantial," Claire explained.
"You see, they'd normally be large stone coverings to ward off grave robbers from the treasures within. Or be covered over entirely with soil."

"I see," Mark said, which was true, more or less.

"And then there's the position of this tomb," Claire went on. "We are near no known settlement from any age, at all. Let alone a period where burial mounds were commonplace. This is out in the middle of nowhere and yet, apparently, very important."

"Important?" The reporter's curiosity was piqued. "What makes you say that?" He'd suffered enough, Claire decided, and her impatience to get to the true wonder of the sight was getting the better of her. The media bomb primed and ready to go off, Claire indicated she would escort Mark down into the belly of the beast with an open hand motioning towards the doorway. Mark nodded and went ahead first.

"The first real surprise of this place," Claire said, whispering perhaps out of respect, but more because nothing greater was required in the cramped passageway that the pair now found themselves in. "Is the scale of the thing. I mean, it's... Well, see for yourself."

The couple came to the end of the passageway and into the hall beyond. The rather rapid slope of the path they had followed told Mark that they were significant meters beneath the ground already, yet still, the sheer expanse of the cave that lay before them now seemed impossible to the reporter. And the floor, a rough circle that must have been a mile in circumference, was covered with the neatly laid out remains of hundreds of human skeletons.

"My god," Mark Jeffreys exclaimed, dropping his pencil.

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Blackness greeted the New King when he awoke, and silence. Somewhere there was the glint of sun on steel, somewhere there was the crash of metal on bone, somewhere there was the smell of iron, somewhere there was the warmth of blood, but not here. Here it was dark and quiet and still. Here the King was, though he knew not where.

The great leader lifted his mighty armoured body slowly from the ground. He had been lain out on his back, though he knew not when or how. His sword was still at his side, now in his hand as he raised himself with its support, the sword of the true Warrior King. He felt powerful with it nestled in his gauntlet. Yes, he was King, this he knew well. He had slain the usurper just moments before and now the kingdom was his. But it did him no good lost in the dark.

The King tested his full weight and strength against the floor at his feet, once, twice, thrice, hearing the ringing of his spurs echo around his head. Dark and damp and hollow, he was certain to be in some cave, and it rang out large - very large indeed. The Warrior King could see little - a sketch of dull, diffuse grey - but what he could see at least gave him a target and, with uncustomary caution, he stepped out towards the light.

As he approached the hazy charcoal lines that made up his whole current world, the King began to make out something of the form before him. A rough hewn circle of jagged lines, undoubtedly the entryway to a tunnel, and as he came up to this portal, the tunnel that lay beyond came faintly to his vision, with what appeared to be the outline of a doorway, away and above him at its end. With no other action apparent to him, the Warrior King headed for the doorway, intent on finding some enlightenment, his clutch on his sword tightening as he went.

The Warrior King did not allow himself to stumble as he moved through the darkness. Presently, he came to the door and, placing his outstretched hands gently against its knotted wood, he slid his fingers over the planks until he came to the cool smoothness of a metal handle. The Warrior King twisted and pushed and the door gave way without resistance.

As the light of the world beyond flooded into the cavern, the Warrior King shielded his eyes instinctively and grimaced in pain. His retinas burned as though he had been trapped in the darkness of the cave for decades. The King moved his hand aside. He was aware of the figure before him before his eyes had fully adjusted to the brightness of the naked sun, and his sword was raised in an instant. Soon, the cloud of formless colour around the King sharpened into true forms. Green turned to grass and leaves, grey to rock and brown to soil and bark. And tan turned to muddy, blood soaked flesh as the vision of the former Warrior King, thought slain in battle, now stood before the true King, bold and upright. Without a thought, the New Warrior King brought his sword down in a wide arc upon the head of the pretender before him. The blade of the Kingdom is mighty indeed, and the solid stone was hewn in twain without a shiver from the sword which passed right through the apparition of the dead King.

"Foolish!" the once King cried. "Fool! You will doom my kingdom with your rule."

"It is my kingdom now, ghost!" the King replied. "And it has no place for the spirits of dead kings."

"Your kingdom, true enough," the once King said. "So long as you hold the sword. But I have my place within it, as the king before me still has his."

"You speak in riddles, ghost. Where am I?"

"Please, allow me to be more plain." The spirit King lowered himself onto the rock split by the mighty Warrior Blade. "You are King so long as you hold that sword. But the sword shall not suffer the King to rest."

"More riddles!" the Warrior King expelled, swinging his sword in pompous outrage.

"This shall be your home in resting times," the spirit King spoke over him. "As you sleep, so shall your soul be transported here, into this cave. The door will not give out a second time. In the cavern you must remain." The spirit King was up on his feet now and pacing around the true King.

"Your body shall sleep but no rest shall your soul know. It shall reside in this cave until you awake."

"Then I shall sleep here," the Warrior King retorted.

"I did not. And neither shall you! Sleep does not come here. Sleep is of the body and your body is not here. Not yet. But it shall be when you perish, just as mine is now." A vision flashed across the eyes of the Warrior King as these words were spoken. The King saw his adversary slain on the battlefield. He saw his body displayed with reverence for the people to see before it was finally interred in its grand tomb; the tomb of a King. And he saw within that tomb, an empty casket and now a flash, and the body of the once Warrior King, laid out to rest in the dark belly of the cavern in which the true Warrior King had awoken not moments before.

"Impossible!" the true King spat. "Lies!"

"The truth! And as your soul is left to suffer through your sleeping hours, know you this. You shall not be alone. For every body that comes to be from you, every corpse created by your rule, shall lie there with you. And I shall be here always to tell you of wherefore they come to lie with you."

"I grow tired of your madness," the Warrior King announced wearily. Unable to vanquish his ethereal foe, the New King walked off into the forest beyond the cave, leaving the dead Warrior King ranting to himself.

"I will see you again, Warrior King. I'll see you in your dreams!"

As the true King walked, the forests around him grew dark. He had at first believed night to be falling, yet he could still make out the sun high in the sky, fading into grey with the rest of the world around him. Soon all was blackness and silence once more.

Then there were sounds - metal on metal, the slicing of flesh and bone, the rallying cries of a victorious army. The Warrior King opened his eyes to find himself on the battlefield once more, his enemy slain at his feet, the victory, the sword and the kingdom his. The King led his army to clear away the remaining resistance and take residence in the great castle of the capital. He drank heavily of the store of the wine cellar, ate heartily of the beasts of the land, and bedded enthusiastically the women of his people. That night, he laid his head to rest on goose feather pillows, wrapped himself in silken sheets and he slept.

The Warrior King awoke and he despaired as he saw around him a great rock cavern, not dark this time, but lit by an unearthly light; the light of justice, the light of the dead. Around him were strewn countless bodies, bloodied and rotting. The stench that rose from them was overpowering. But beyond all this, above the horror of the corpses at his feet, more terrible than the death stares of the faces that would not turn away from his gaze, the spirit King rose high, standing above him, taunting him, laughing at him.

The spirit of the slain Warrior King led the living Warrior King through the chamber of the dead, pointing out this one, whose wife caught the eye of a thug in her village and whose only protection in an uncaring world was her husband. Of that one, a mother, whose daughter would seek revenge for her death; more than likely he would see her here soon. Of this one, who suffered for hours at the hands of a quack surgeon, trying to remove his gangrenous limbs, before finally coming to a terrible fever and dying. Of that one, pregnant as she died, the child the last hope of redemption for a useless and alcoholic husband. He too would visit the cave ere too long.

And the Warrior King was forced to listen, to hear every terrible story of every terrible death that was by his hand or by his order. He suffered and he groaned with each more terrible tale, a sad lament for himself, for those dead around him, for every king there had been that had gone through this awful torment, and for all those that were to come. And thus, he came to decide there would be no more, his one quest would be to end this cycle of pain and fear, to give freedom to himself and to his people, to finish this terrible curse. He would be the last to wield the Sword, the Last Warrior King.

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With the reporter gone for the day, Doctor Cooper was enjoying herself, getting grubby, putting the feel of soil amongst her fingers. She loved field work, and despised when her heightened station took her away from it. Now she was one of the few left on-site, the light failing, not that this was an issue as the site was covered in electric lighting. Claire was digging away with a small trowel in a concealed nook in the cave. The soil was of a different quality here, and offered the tantalising suggestion of a further chamber beyond. As she dug, her trowel struck against something solid, metal. Dr. Cooper swapped the tool for her hands, fearful of causing any damage to the object she had discovered. It was the work of ten minutes to reveal to her the hilt of a sword. Excited by her find, Claire threw her usual cautious, scientific character to the wind and dug furiously, wrenching at the handle of the weapon until it came away, in one clean motion, from its earthen grave.

What Claire saw astounded her. The blade of the sword glinted in the electric torch light as though it had been just forged, the gleam playing elegantly of an edge as sharp as a fresh razor. And it felt magnificent. Claire could feel the power of the weapon in its weight; hear it in its ring as she swung the sword through the air. She watched the reflections on the pristine metal of the blade. They faded slowly as she cut through the atmosphere, as though she were severing the light itself from the aether. Looking up, she realised that the light had indeed faded. That the glint she took for a reflection seemed now to be emanating from the sword itself, and that she was entirely alone in a cave now devoid of bodies, of artefacts, of electric lights. She glanced around in the oppressive gloom and saw that she was not, after all, alone; that she was visited by a ghastly apparition, a haggard and beaten old man, translucent and with horror in his eyes. He merely stared towards her in fear and disbelief. Steadily, Dr. Cooper took a few steps towards the spirit of the Last Warrior King, until he held his hand out to stop her and opened his mouth to speak. And when he did, he whispered the dusty quiet of the long, long dead.


"What have you done?"