Part One of Conn McCloskey’s first story for The Gown. Photo Source: Fresh Eye Solutions.
Conn McCloskey, Contributor.
The king descended the ruins of the tower to find nothing. And it was strange and beautiful. With misty eyes he blinked as the brightness overwhelmed his virgin sense, causing him to draw his hands to his eye of the day that was and the eye of the night that is. Slowly he fell against the broken door and slid down it with the sorrow of a dead world on his shoulders. The tears flowed freely from the eye of day as he idly brought his hand down the broken steps to the water that covered the vast emptiness that he beheld before him. He found it no deeper than a few inches and cool to his staved fingers but for it and the ruins of the tower he beheld nought. Where once an army of thousands did battle on the green hills, there was little but the dull reverb of his own throbbing pain in this new land to replace them.
The King spent some time within the tower as he ran his hands across its blackened stone. He left his sword there, for it was bent and gone to rust, but with him he brought a knapsack that had belonged to Brougha, whom he saw expire on the steps not one hour before as his life energy poured away, staining them crimson. Never again would he hear the booming laugh of the big man. He was gone now, his body lost in the same timeless void as everything else, but the stain of his blood remained. As a memento he brought the eye-patch, left strewn in the same place that the other King had torn it off him. He ran his fingers along the rough leather patch, marvelling at how something that had once so defined him, even becoming his namesake, was now useless to him. Placing it in his knapsack he began the journey into nothing. He also kept the small locket tied around his neck, for he would never part from it no matter where he went in life or death.
When he pushed the massive ruined wooden doors aside from the opening of the tower to better make his way out, he was able to fully comprehend what lay before him. The darkness of the sky above was horrifyingly defined by its lack of stars. In contrast, the flat, watery ground that extended as far as the eye could see was completely white. He did not know for how long he walked in this abyss, but the sloshing of the water as he did so was his only companion as time eluded him and his mind became aimless in its pursuit of a single purpose. He pushed thoughts of pure nihilism aside, the faces of his friends, countrymen and world dancing across the threshold of his mind’s eye, only for him to quickly bury them under the one prevailing thought he had left. Revenge.
The King oft brought his hand to the eye of night as he journeyed, for it hurt him dearly and he was unaccustomed to the renewed vision it granted him. He had lost his eye some ten years ago and had been called One-Eye ever since. He supposed that such a name was no longer fitting for him. The gift from the enemy was burrowed deep into his socket, it’s black claws no doubt spreading its power over him even as he walked out of the shadow of the immense, ruined tower. What it would do to him, he did not know. He would have to wait and see. With one last solemn glance over his shoulder, he witnessed the place of his failure as it faded from his view. He knew then that he would never see it again just as he would never see anything else like it from home. His walk across the flat watery terrain continued for hours, the scenery unchanging as only nothing can.
A great dread began to fill the King on this journey, for he had begun to realize that it was here that he would die and with him the last remnants of his home would leave from the collective memory of existence. It would be as if none of it was ever there, as if it never existed and that it held no purpose. He sank to his knees and sighed as the cool water soaked his torn gambeson, leaving his underclothes heavy. They had become uncomfortable as he wondered in them, and so he removed them from his tired body. He had no use for the armour, so he bade the dented material farewell as he continued his march. It was soon followed by his torn cloths until he was left only with his loincloth and the locket on his person. He lay down in the water and washed off the grime and sweat from his body, tying his lank dark hair back behind his head. Drawing a canteen from his knapsack, he knelt down and filled it to its brim with the water of this new place and drank heavily from it, for but some time ago he was in battle, cutting his way through the Kaldenans in that last mad dash.
It had been the end for them, twenty years of war and the last of the Fall would be taken by the iron cannon of the Kaldenan. He had promised them salvation atop the tower. He had lied. At some point he continued in his journey, walking to the point of exhaustion, he lay down and, using his knapsack as one would a pillow, laid his head upon it. He gazed into the sky, as he did so, mourning for its loss. He, the other King, had taken that away atop the tower. The King and the others had believed him when he said he wanted to help and had taken him as a messiah come to deliver them. Instead he brought them damnation.
As he flickered in and out of consciousness, he focused on the pure darkness above him and pictured the stars, pointing at where they ought to be, drawing them. He recalled them all, for when he was but a youth, his father had had him learn all manner of constellations for “if you ever lose your way”. He would still beat him for forgetting the difference between the Soldier and the Hermit. He never learned to tell the difference. He got halfway through his catalogue of constellations before he stopped, his exhaustion finally taking over him. He dreamed of long-gone lovers and long forgotten nights spent together as he tossed and turned against the still water. The supposed comfort of his dreams brought him no quarter, for each ended the same way.
The other King stood atop the ruins of the tower, bringing about his domain. The King, and those who were still alive, had their battle-weathered faces stained with tears as they witnessed the stars go out one by one and the other king continued his silent roar. Brave Loeg had tried to stop him, but the other king had impaled him on his wings and Brave Loeg had died. Black Barra had roared in rage, but the other king had bitten his head off, silencing him, and Brougha, his closest friend, had ran the other King through with his blade only for the other King to grab him with one of his many claws and dash him upon the floor. One by one the others had fallen as unspeakable horrors were released by the other king on the world below, swallowing the triumphant Kaldenans, the surviving Fallmen and the entirety of the world until it was gone in its entirety from all traces of existence.
The King still remembered the look he had given him as he had lounged on the broken remnants of towers masonry, daring him to try and change what he had wrought. He was gone now, they all were, and it all was. A mirage cleared in front of him as he continued his advance, and for the first time in what must have been days, perhaps even weeks, he saw something other than the thin sheen of water before him. At first, he thought it to be the light playing a trick on him, or that his mind was simply slipping into a state of relapse as it failed to comprehend the constant nothing. But it soon became clear that as he approached it, the shape was a tree. As he neared it, he was able to see that it was a dead one, its dry branches reaching mournfully into the white above. From this pale branch there hanged a noose. Grey and rotted, it too had shown its age in that it had split in half with the weight of time and its burden. The said burden lay below, a man, turned to bones with time. He lay perched against the tree, noose hanging from his neck as he emptily gazed across the vastness.
The king sat himself down next to the dead man and joined him in his silent vigil before closing his eyes for the first time in weeks. In his dreams, the eye of night burned, and he saw a man in a strange sandy land, defiantly standing before a great winged beast, the ender of worlds. The Pale Dragon. The man fired his glowing weapon fruitlessly as it devoured the night sky, leaving naught but a tree in its wake. The man was surrounded by an ocean of dead, and to the king, it looked as if it heaved as the waves on the frozen shores of his home once did. The dead rocked in tandem with the many wings of the beast above, until they finally collapsed, consuming the defiant man and the light of his weapon with them as the world fell to darkness…
When he awoke his head was on the shoulder of his fellow watcher. His companion still gazed blankly across the vast openness and he was loath to leave him, however knowing he could not simply stay here, he arose from his position and made ready to leave.
“I am sorry fallen one, but I have need of what you no longer do”, he said as he reached for the dead man’s jacket. They were the first words he had spoken since he was flung into this realm. From the man he took a sturdy pair of boots with spurs like those worn by the Kaldenan cavalry men in that last great war, but of a different shape and make. He also took his trousers, complete with a belt of an unfamiliar material that was smooth to the touch and a rough spun shirt that he slipped over his bruised shoulders. The greatest prize of all was the dead man’s jacket. The long leather piece snuggly fit over his body and provided a comforting weight, the likes of which he had not felt since his own armour was torn asunder atop the tower. Finally, and most strangely, he found a weapon like the pistols that many Kaldenans infantry men had used in the later years of the war to profound effect, but the make was unfamiliar to him. It glowed strangely, the blue pulse emitting dimly in a thin line along the long barrel of the gun. He decided to experiment with it and found the trigger and mechanism in order, but the fashion in which it fired perplexed him. He could not find a gunpowder pouch on the man and, much to his surprise, the cylinder he opened dumped out six oddly shaped rounds he took to be bullets. As he loaded them back in, he concluded that this was a design of similar purpose to the pistols of the Kaldenans, but of a more advanced calibre. This, and the skeleton lying before him, were from another world doomed to similar fate as his own. He felt a profound sense of comradery with the one before him. Perhaps he too had tried desperately to stem the tide of doom that befell his world and perhaps he too failed. The King believed that the man before him had been forced to wonder in this realm for some unknown amount of time before finally ending it all. Perhaps he too had sought revenge before giving up…
Briefly, he considered the fact that he too may share the same fate one day, but he dispelled such a thought from his head. It was too early for that. He had to try. With one final nod to his kindred spirit, he left the tree in the dead man’s clothes as he continued his journey. The pistol fit snuggly into a holster within the jacket and, as he walked, he searched its many pockets to keep himself occupied. He found several other strangely shaped bullets (which he stuffed back in), an advanced looking, but still useless Compass (which he tossed away) and a sheathed knife that he hung from his new belt.
To his surprise, he found something else in the wasteland after what could only have been a few more hours of travel. It was a red metal contraption of some sort, similar in a way to a carriage. The King knew it was used for transport but could not fathom how it functioned. The four wheels that held it up were badly slashed and the vehicle itself had been savagely damaged by some unknown assailant. The king approached the crimson coloured carriage and inspected it. The roof of it held the distinct markings of some animal’s teeth, the force of which had punctured it. Flung away from the scene was the remains of one of the doors to the inside of the oddity, again punctured by the same powerful teeth of the same unknown animal. The king was perplexed by the markings, as he was unaware of any animals that could do such a thing to what appeared to be metal. Not even the mighty Red Bear could work such destruction.
Peering inside, the King pushed his way through the shattered glass of the window to find the seats covered in blood. To his horror, it was fresh. Leaning away from the ominous scene, the King reached the only conclusion he could have come to. He was not alone in this realm. And not only was he not alone, the other presence had a taste for flesh. Finding nothing of use around the rest of the area, the King proceeded in his endless journey and left the grizzly scene behind him, but he took with him a renewed air of caution. The once tranquilly silent realm that he occupied had been transformed into a ticking time-bomb, with danger always present on the horizon. Perhaps he would not meet whatever destroyed the vehicle and slaughtered whoever was in it, but he doubted that would be the case. Perhaps whatever it was, be it animal or some other monstrosity, was stalking him at this very moment. But never the less, he beat on in this tension filled landscape, hoping to find something, anything else.
He fixed the wide brimmed hat he had taken from the hanged man atop his head as the scene behind him faded back into the horizon. But find something he did not. Not for many days, or perhaps even weeks did he come across anything else in the land. He was left with nothing but the memories of the past; memories of meadow fields in peace and of torn ramparts in war.
He remembered the first man he ever killed as a young Prince; a Kaldenan officer whom he had run through with his blade in their first invasion of the Fall. He would not be the last to fall to him, but he would never forget the look on his face as his mouth formed a silent “O” before he slipped down into the mud, never to say another thing. He had searched his body later, finding a locket with a delicately hand drawn picture of a young blonde-haired girl smiling sweetly as she looked forward. The words “Betheny, my love” were carved on the other side. He had lost that locket in a game of cards, but he never forgot it. He sometimes thought that perhaps the officer did not want to invade the Fall, perhaps he would have been happier staying home with his Betheny and raising a gaggle of squalling infants with her, rather than marching into some frozen, bog ridden land. Perhaps Betheny would have liked that better too. Perhaps she waited and waited for the officer to return to her and was instead left with a box of his belongings to bury.
The King was saddened by this thought. He did not relish in the deeds he had done in his life, but he told himself that now it did not matter. Say that the officer did stay home with his Betheny, they, and whatever squalling infants they did have, would still have disappeared with the rest of the world like everyone else and nothing would have changed. The officer simply got what was coming on the horizon sooner than any other before him. Either by his blade or the workings of the other King, it made no difference in the end. The King said this to himself, but he did not mean it. The memory would always remain as a bitter one.
His pondering was a way of keeping him on track with his march, but it was soon broken by a sudden realization. Since he had arrived he had not eaten at all and had but once drank from his canteen. Sleep too had become meaningless to him, slowly losing importance and ultimately being eliminated entirely as time advanced in this drab place. The King did not know what the cause for this was, perhaps it was the rules of this realm or perhaps it was the dark work of the eye of night, weaving its influence over his body. The King did not care. It was one less thing for him to worry about. The time would come for him to deal with his eye of night, but the time was not now. Without even realizing it, he had taken his eye-patch out from the jacket and was absentmindedly rubbing it. With a reluctant sigh, he placed the eye-patch back into his pocket and continued his journey.
Finally, after an uncountable amount of time, he saw something on the horizon. At first it was nothing more than a speck, easily dismissed as his eyes playing tricks on him, but as time wore on and he approached it, it became clear that it was something tangible. It was a person, the likes of which he had never beheld before. As the two approached each other, the King fumbled with the knife at his belt, slowly drawing it and holding it at his side. The man, indeed if it was a man, before him uncovered its head from the hood that had concealed it. Its face was covered entirely by a strange leather mask with two black, bug like glass eyes, while its mouth ended in two round, metallic cylinders. The figure said nothing, as its dark attire was dangerously framed by the paper ground, and the King said nothing. They simply looked at one another and whatever conclusions each drew, he kept it to himself.
The figure carried and was defined by a large rucksack on its back. It was covered with pots and pans that clanked against each other as it began to stride away from him, bug eyes never leaving his own as he passed the King. With no incident, he passed. As the figure marched away from him in the direction he had just come, the King gazed after him, noting that strapped to his back were also a variety of swords and other dangerous looking objects. He was unsure of what he had just seen pass, but he had no desire to peruse it. A man wandering should be left to wander. So, he turned away from the disappearing figure and followed his own path.
Nothing happened for the longest time. In his constant walk, he sang songs until his throat was raw, snapped his fingers until they tired and whistled until he bored of it. He even mumbled prayers, the likes of which he had not said since he was a child. He prayed to gods that were dead or never existed. He prayed because it was something to do. He did everything and anything to keep his mind from slipping on the long journey. But fate would soon come to his aid, and he was delivered.
His destination once more lay on the horizon, rising above it like a mighty, glass pillar. It was hard for him to tell at such a distance, but the structure was a behemoth the likes of which he had never seen before. His father and Brugha had told him of Kaldenan palaces and how they built them higher than mountains, (as a way of hiding the minuscule length of their manhood’s Black Barra would snicker after) but such tales had proven false when they took Garveno in the war. The Palaces had been big yes, but no bigger than any one of the hills in the Fall. But this structure was all that the Kaldenans Palaces were not. Its angular peak reached into the emptiness above, and if it were any other realm it would penetrate the heavens itself. Glass panels artistically decorated it, shimmering in a deep green as if the sun still shun on it. The King was in awe as he entered its shadow, so much so, he did not see what else was on the horizon for some time. When he did, it was already bounding towards him at an impressive speed, knocking up a plethora of water as it did so. To the King, it appeared to be a metal monstrosity of some kind, with six mechanical legs moving a solid body with an oddly shaped, faceless front adorned only with a powerful jaw and rows of twisting teeth.
It was then that he knew that the hunter had found him. Immediately the King, realising the danger, sprang into action, running diagonally across from the beast as he readied his pistol to fire into it. Squeezing the trigger, he expected the front of it to explode but instead was left with a sense of dread as the gun let out an audible click. The King only had time to curse for within moments, the beast was on him, giving him only enough time to leap to the side as it barrelled into him, knocking him over. The King pushed himself up from the ground, water seeping into his clothes and started to scramble towards the tower, where he could now make out a strangely shaped oval door that would surely be too small for his pursuer to pass through. His escape, however, was soon cut short as the beast knocked into him once more, putting him back on the ground and knocking the hat from his head as it did so. The King was able to roll onto his back as he narrowly dodged the great, gaping maw of the beast slamming into where he had been moments before, only for one of its legs to catch him in the shoulder, pinning him to the ground and forcing the breath out of his chest. The King held on to the appendage and attempted to wiggle himself free from it, even banging the edge of the gun in his hand to it as he fruitlessly struggled under it. The leg began clicking and whirring oddly, the gears twisting and turning within the beast as the King let out a gasp of surprise followed by an excruciating stab of pain as a long blade jutted out of the appendage and right through the Kings tissue, muscle and bone. The blade finally ended its savage, crimson stained streak out the other side of his shoulder, making the water red with its impact. Howling in pain now, his vision went as red as his blood in the water. The King savagely continued to bring the gun fruitlessly and somewhat desperately against his assailant’s appendage as it slowly brought its maw to his head, fitting it around him and nuzzling him almost affectionately as its teeth clenched around his unprotected face.
The King refused to let his journey end like this, not yet. Thinking wildly, he dropped the pistol and brought his now free hand hurriedly down to his sheathed blade, and with a roar equal parts rage and pain, thrust it into the side of the beast. Miraculously, the blade drove past the metal and into the inside of the automaton, causing a black substance to gush forward and into the water below, dying it black and staining the king’s hand as it poured out. The pain in the King’s shoulder faded and was instead replaced with an even more excruciating one in the eye of night as it throbbed in reaction to this black ichor. But the King was rewarded for his efforts as the beast reared up and made an almost hissing noise in pain, releasing the blade and a torrent of blood from his shoulder as it did so. The King quickly grabbed the dropped gun with his uninjured hand and scrambled to his feet, once more making a mad dash for the tower. The pain throbbing from his eye was so intense that he stumbled as he ran for his life, only catching himself at the last moment. Heaving for air as he continued in his run, he caught enough of a look at the bile that the beast had spewed forth on to his hand to see that it was as black as tar. Dismissing such a worry for another time, the King continued in his mad dash to safety, free hand clasped to his eye while the other hanged limply to his side as blood poured freely down it.
All too soon he could see the water shaking and hear the splashes caused in reaction to the beast once again charging after him. In his near delirious state of pain, the King could have sworn that as he ran ever closer to the door, he could hear his pursuer almost roaring as it got closer and closer to him. The sound reminded him of a bull he and Brougha had found once many years ago. The locals had called it a demon and so set about torturing it, driving burning branches and prongs into it as it bucked wildly. The same noise that poor animal made in its pain was almost echoed by the one pursuing him. Daring to look back over his blood free shoulder, the King was horrified to witness that the beast was indeed gaining on him at a terrifying pace, leaking a black, foamy liquid from its mouth as it did so.
The beast was close, so close he could feel its legs nearly clipping the back of his heels. But the door was closer. With a last, horrifyingly painful gasp, the King flung himself into the doors and, mercifully, they fell open for him and ushered him onto the cool marble floor. His moment of respite, however was taken from him as the Beast burst into the doors, swinging them open as it shot a green flame into the hallway from its unhinged jaw, causing the King to fling himself behind a nearby pillar. The beast ceased emitting the flames as it attempted to strain its mighty frame through the narrow doorway, bellowing all the while. In an almost berserk like state, it groaned mechanically as it snapped its maw at the King, lunging itself forward as it did so. Three times it did so, and three times it got closer to grabbing the edge of the Kings foot and dragging him back outside and having him share the same fate as those inside the crimson vehicle. This close, the King could see the red stains that could only have been the blood of others covering the monstrosity’s mouth. He tried to drag himself away from the oncoming doom, but the strength had deserted his body and he was left only the ability to tiredly gaze on as the beast finally flung itself forward with a mighty shudder.
The King shut his eyes, waiting for his end to be met. But it never came. Instead he heard three loaded blasts and was blinded by a pale white illuminating the hall. The mechanical scrapes and clicks of the machine as it dragged itself desperately away from the door way soon replaced the other sounds in the room. When he cleared the haze from and opened his eyes, it was gone, leaving the doorway busted and full of scrapes. Instead standing before him was a dusky woman with short black hair, tied up neatly, holding a long metal gun of some kind that had smoke rising from it. Before passing into unconsciousness, he was able to see her turn around to him and say:
“All guests are under staff protection so long as they stay at the Hotel Parnell.”
End of Part One