Friday, 27 February 2015

Final Pictonaut: The Lord of the Underworld and Shadowmist

Well my friends, we have come to the end of an era. My good friend the Rogue Verbumancer has decided to bring his Pictonaut Challenge to an end after 42 glorious months of wordascopes. I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil, but I do have a distinct case of the sads. Perhaps I could have managed more wordascopes, but now we will ever know. I hope that after a few months to recuperate our good friend Sir Glempius will be back with another challenge to pry some fiction out of us every month.

Since this is the final chance to get in a Pictonaut, I wanted to do a little something special. Not only did I manage to double my usual word count, I actually wrote two pieces. I will be over in the corner feeling a little smug if you need me.


The first peice, The Lord of the Underworld, was inspired partly by this post over at terribleminds about how there aren't enough female characters who are assholes. This is my contribution to the asshole lady genre of fiction. The second piece, Shadowmist, is heavily inspired by all of the Yoon Ha Lee short stories I've been reading lately. If you've not read Conservation of Shadows yet, I highly recommend it. I'm not certain I've done justice to the sheer poetry of her words, but I'm pleased with it nonetheless.


Farewell, Pictonaut challenge. You've been a good egg.


The Lord of the Underworld

The wind was hot and foetid about her nostrils as she stood at the prow of the boat. It didn’t bother her because she honestly hadn’t expected anything else. This was the river to the underworld after all. Most people feared to travel this waterway; would do anything to delay this passage. But not Kerys.
There was no reason for her to fear either her destination nor the journey. This was how it was always going to end for her: she was always going to end up in hell. And though she had arrived a few years before she’d expected to she wasn’t afraid. This was where she belonged; with the stench of sulphur and the screams of tortured souls.
Kerys was not what you would call a nice person. In fact, she was about as far from being nice as it was possible to be. In her too-short life she had done things few would dare to. She was a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel and a thief. But above all else, Kerys was a murderer. More than a murderer, an assassin. You wanted someone dead? Kerys would take care of it… for a price. Some people did it just for the money—the cash certainly didn’t hurt—but Kerys did it for the love of killing. There was a hot in it for her that she couldn’t find anywhere else.
For her, murder was an art and she had strived to elevate it to its highest form. It wasn’t enough for Kerys that she simply get the job done, no. She revelled in finding the most brutal and sadistic ways of ending a person’s life. She purposely took jobs that came with special requests and certain conditions to fulfil. Even on simpler jobs she loved to exercise her creative side. One of her personal favourite jobs was the time she pumped a target full of anticoagulants and let them bleed out through a tiny cut on their finger. They had screamed for days. Flaying someone alive was always fun, and had become something of a speciality for Kerys. The longer the pain lasted the target the happier she would be.
For her victims these moments were terrifying and painful but for Kerys they were happy memories. So no, there was no doubt that she would end up in hell some day.
It made her smile to reminisce about her past killings; she wondered how many souls now resided here because of her. How many angry spirits would be thirsting for revenge? She’d have to watch herself, be careful, but she knew she could handle herself. She reached into a pocket and took out a slightly bent cigar, bit the end off and spat the remains into the ghostly river. The spirits that resided there were vocal in their displeasure but she ignored them, lighting her cigar on a passing sulphurous plume.
There was nothing to do now but wait. She would meet her destiny soon enough.
After what felt like an age the hull of the boat finally made contact with something solid. They had arrived. Kerys stepped onto the stone wharf with the air of someone about to do something enjoyable rather than that of a person about to meet the lord of the underworld. The ferryman looked at her expectantly as she disembarked, no doubt expecting some sort of compensation. Unfortunately for him, Kerys had neglected to save a penny for the ferryman, nor had they agreed a price upon embarkation. Kerys stubbed out her cigar on his outstretched palm, spat on the ground and walked off.
The palace of the lord of the underworld was an impressive structure. Kerys decided she actually quite liked the décor, which mostly consisted of piles of human skulls. It was very her. She already felt right at home. The steps leading up to from the docks were unnecessarily long, and flanked by some sort of gargoyle-cum-dragon things. It was difficult to tell with all the acid erosion and the crusted on blood. The gates of the palace were flanked by skeleton guards. Kerys marched passed them with no problems; they didn’t even try to stop her. In fact, she managed to march right up to the throne room completely unchallenged. Obviously she was expected.
The lord of the underworld lounged idly on his throne, the master of all he surveyed. She had his full attention from the moment she strode in to the throne room, which was hardly surprising; it was a rather dramatic entrance, walking into the halls of the lord of the underworld without so much as a by-your-leave. He stood to greet her, a genial yet somehow sinister smile on his face.
“Ah, Kerys my dear. I’ve been expecting you,” he said, his tone more suitable for welcoming one to a dinner party rather than eternal damnation in the darkest pits of hell. “I must admit though,” he continued, “I had anticipated you might wait until you were dead before gracing my halls with your admittedly lovely presence. Call me old-fashioned, but it is rather traditional.”
Kerys shrugged. “What can I say? I’ve never been very good at doing as I’m told.”
“Indeed,” said the lord of the dead, his lips twitching with amusement. “Now, my dear, what can I do for you? You wouldn’t have come all this way still wearing your delightful corporeal form unless you wanted something from me. So, what is it that brings you to me before your appointed time?”
“I heard there might be an opening for queen of the underworld,” said Kerys with false nonchalance.
He raised an elegant eyebrow. “Did you now?”
“I did. And if I’m honest it was about time she left you. She was never happy down here, even us mortals know that. You need someone who complements your talents, who can appreciate you for you.”
“And that person would be your fine self, would it my dear?”
She shrugged non-committally. “I think you could do worse. And you have to admit I am delightfully awful; just your type.”
He smirked evilly. “You are quite right my dear, I grant you that. And you have sent me so many of my favourite souls to torture. Not to mention the fact you came all this way in your mortal form to make this proposition. How could I possibly refuse such an offer from such a delectably wicked woman as you?”
“So you accept my proposal? I am to take my place as your queen, where, if we’re both honest, I have always belonged.”
“I will make you my queen, yes, and you will rule the underworld by my side. And, oh! such a queen you will be.”
“I’m so glad we agree.”
“You understand, of course, that as a god these things are a little more informal than you might be used to my dear. There will be no signing of contracts, none of that ceremonial nonsense you mortals seem so fond of.”
“I think I can manage to trust the word of a god. Besides, I intend to seal this particular deal the old fashioned way.”
He quirked an eyebrow at her quizzically. Kerys said nothing in response. Instead she sashayed over, grabbed the front of his robes and yanked him to her, kissing him hard. Their teeth clashed and she tasted blood from a bitten lip—she didn’t know whose–but that only heightened her pleasure. Her hand slid down to grab at his groin. He was already hard; it was no surprise that a god would have exquisite control over every part of his anatomy, but she allowed herself to believe it was due entirely to how much he wanted her.
“Shall we take this elsewhere?” she asked, finally releasing him. “Or do you actually like the idea of fucking in your throne room?”
“Perhaps another time,” he said with a smirk across his blood stained lips. He clapped his hands and suddenly they were in a sumptuously laid out bedroom. “Now we have enough privacy to do whatever we want to each other.”
“And you brought all my favourite toys as well,” she said casting her gaze over the racks filled with sharp implements almost certainly intended for torture. “How thoughtful”
“Only the best for my queen,” he said, only a trace of mockery in his voice. “Now, should we get down to business?”
Kerys picked up a rather vicious looking knife. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Morning found them sprawled across each other, on the bed completely naked and covered in an assortment of cuts and bruises. The room was an absolute mess; all the equipment that had been so neatly laid out the previous night was now scattered across the bed, the floor and any other surface in the room. Feathers from the now ruined bed stuck to pools of blood and other bodily fluids. Despite the fact the room looked like the scene of a particularly brutal murder, the bed's occupants looked peaceful and extremely pleased with themselves.
“Good morning,” Kerys purred when her partner’s eyes finally fluttered open. “Would you care for round two, my lord?”
His lips twitched with amusement and anticipation. “Rounds two, three, four and five I should think. I have nothing pressing planned for the day and it has been a while since I have had this much fun with such a capable partner.”
“I live to serve,” she purred sarcastically, moving to straddle his hips. He groaned appreciatively as she sank down onto him. “But it’s my turn to play with the knives,” she said.
“Whatever you want my dear.”
She picked up the wickedly sharp knife and used it to tease his skin as she fucked him. No part of him was safe from her sharp little toy; she gently drew it across his nipples, his stomach and his arm and each time was rewarded as blood welled up in the knifes’ wake. Within minutes he was covered in fresh cuts and was gaspingly close to climax. Her hand was around his throat, squeezing just hard enough to be pleasurable. He shuddered as she drew the orgasm from him and just as he reached his peak she slipped the knife between his ribs.
Ecstasy turned to surprise on his face as she jerked the knife violently upwards towards his heart. He struggled to breathe, caught in the the throes of both climax and death. He scrabbled at the hand around his throat, which was suddenly squeezing far too hard. It was quite something to witness a god being genuinely terrified. Kerys plunged the knife deeper as she entertained herself with puns on le petit mort. As the life drained out of him he managed to gasp a single word: why?
“Because I can,” said Kerys as she watched him go limp.
Once she was sure he was dead she swung herself off him and went in search of a cigar among the clothes she’d abandoned the previous night. She reclined in a sumptuous leather chair and smoked her cigar as she watched his body cool and the blood congeal. Only when she was finished with her smoke did she pick up one of the weapons they hadn’t used the previous night—an axe— and returned to the bed.
Her newly ex-lover looked almost peaceful in death. If it wasn’t for the pool of blood next to his chest and the hand shaped bruises around his throat he could almost have been sleeping. Turns out you can kill a god if you catch them sufficiently off guard, Kerys thought to herself. She roughly grabbed a handful of hair and with one decisive swoop of the axe, cut the lord of the underworld’s head clean off.
Neither the servants nor the guards made any move to stop her as she strode through the palace naked, an axe in one hand and the head of a god dripping gore in the other. Eventually she made her way through the labyrinthine corridors to the entrance by the docks where she’d arrived the previous day. Without saying a word she confiscated one of the skeleton’s spears and wedged it in a crack in the stone before firmly placing the lord of the underworld’s head on the spear. Much better, she thought. A fresh skull on a spear was exactly what had been missing from the décor.
Her task complete and the head now serving as both warning and notice of change in management, Kerys returned to the throne room. Still naked apart from the blood spatter, she ascend the steps she took the throne for herself. The stone was cold against her skin, but it felt right; she immediately made herself comfortable and commanded one of the servants to bring her wine, food and a cigar. They bowed low and immediately went to do her bidding. At least there was an upside to gods tending to things the old-fashioned way: there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the throne was hers by right of conquest.
She broke her fast eagerly, all that sex and murder had really worked up her appetite. Fruit and wine had never tasted as good as they did sat on that throne having conquered the underworld. As she lit the cigar her new servant had brought her she thought that this truly was where she belonged; not just in hell, but ruling it. Alone.
There would be chaos among the gods after this, of that she had no doubt. Kerys like chaos. She thrived on it. And there wasn’t a goddamned thing anyone could do to get her off this throne short of killing her, and she was prepared for that. She would not prove such an easy target as her predecessor. In the meantime, she had an eternity of torturing the souls of the damned to get on with. There might even be a few old friends she could look up, who would no doubt be ecstatic to learn that she was now in charge of them. Forever.
Kerys took a long drag on her cigar and leaned back on her throne, smiling. The old place already felt like home.





Shadowmist



Shadows wrap around you like fog, concealing you from sight. The oarsman are the best money can buy, and the boat darts forward with each stroke, silent as the grave. There are none who will see your coming this night. This is for the best; you have important business in the city and cannot afford the distraction of dealing with the lookouts. Out of the misty shadows lurch the strange shapes of houses the city's inhabitants build for themselves. In this area—the slums—the are mostly cobbled together out of odd assortments of detritus. It gives an unearthly aura to the already strange landscape.


At last you reach your destination, the only sound the oarsmen make on the entire journey a quiet shurshing sound as they reverse stroke, and the gentle thud of the boat striking the dock. You alight—with thanks—and carry on your journey. The oarsmen reverse stroke once more and disappear into the congealing dark; you only paid for a one way journey.


Forging forward though the shadow-mist filled streets you pull your cloak tighter around you: there is a chill in the air that seems to nip at your very bones. But the chill you feel could just be the darkness growing in your soul. The streets are deserted, the population having wisely decided to remain indoors and avoid this unearthly fog. It feels as if the city is holding its breath. The city has been holding its breath for far too long now, awaiting the full onslaught of the shadows.


Nights like this are meant for dark deeds, and misfortune will often find you if you bear ill will or no. You press on.


The shadowmists are less dense in the upper circle of the city; the Potentate had the court mages cast spells of protection around the upper circle. You can still make out the faint glow of the magical wards on the walls of the buildings. Paper shapes, intricately folded, hang in many of the windows—charms of protection. In your mind they resemble eyes, watching your every movement. You draw your hood further over your face and hurry along.


That the wards are still intact warms your heart, temporarily driving out the misty chill. You know they cannot hold out much longer; the darkness cannot be stopped by ancient symbols and folded paper. You have often wondered over the past few years if the darkness can be stopped at all. You've tried again and again to find a way to combat it, but all attempts have failed. Tonight's business is the city's last chance to survive the onslaught. One way or another, for good or for ill, the stalemate will be broken this night.


The cold in your bones grows worse as you approach the palace.


There are guards at the gates of the palace, dog tired and wary of anything coming out of the shadows. For a moment there is panic in their eyes as you approach but you are waved through the moment you are recognised. Your hands start shaking as you cross the threshold into the palace proper. The more you try to suppress it the worse it gets, so you focus your efforts on ignoring it. You have limited success.


Even at this late hour Potentate is still awake and working in the palace auditorium. Sat on his throne of jade and carved bone he looks every inch the god the people of the city believe him to be. As you enter the auditorium he gets to his feet, unfolding himself like a paper crane. He's been waiting for you.


“You've returned,” says the Potentate, visibly relieved. “I half suspected you might not. Tell me: were you successful?” There is no allowance for gentle words in times like these.


You shake your head sadly. “I could not convince the necromage to recall the shadow mists. I am sorry; I failed you.”


“You have not failed, old friend. We both knew this was a possibility when we decided on this course of action. Nevertheless, we had to make the attempt.”


The shaking in your hands grows worse then, and the Potentate finally notices it.


“Ah. I see,” he says sadly. “This too was a possibility we considered.”


“I'm sorry. I tried to resist but the necromage is too strong.” The shaking drives you to your knees and your bones feel like ice: you half expect them to shatter upon impact with the marble floor. “I can't fight it any more.”


“Then don't. Let go my friend, and be at peace. Know that I do not blame you for this, and I accept my defeat with grace.” The Potentate stretches out his hands, raising his face to the sky as though ascending to glory. On your knees before him you feel as though he truly is a god and you are worshipper. It would be better than the truth; better than what is about to happen.


There are tears in your eyes, and not just from the effort off suppressing the shaking. You take a deep, fortifying breath and relax.


The shaking stops abruptly as the thing that has been growing inside you finally escapes. Corruption flows from your hands, a black malevolent shadow. It coalesces into a vaguely humanoid shape, roiling with hatred and fury, like a demon made of tar. It strikes the Potentate in the chest, knocking him to the ground writhing in pain. You try to scramble to your feet, but the emergence of the corruption has taken the wind out of you. All you can do is lie there helplessly as your Potentate scream as his skin boils away.


When your liege lies dead on the floor the shadow withdraws, re-coalescing in the shape of the necromage. He steps over the body and glances in your direction, an amused look on his face.


“Cut the head off the snake,” he said drawing a knife from his robe. “And the body dies with it.” He plunges the knife into your stomach, causing you to retch with pain.



As your vision grows dark, the last thing you see is the necromage ascending to the bone and jade throne. The stalemate is ended, the shadowmists will disperse, and all it cost in the end were the lives of two men.

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