The Sword of Stone

So last year I submitted a story for the Swords Against Cthulhu anthology from Stoneskin Press. It did not make the cut, although they said it came close. I’ve since shopped it around a bit to try and sell it but after a few rejections I’m done with that. I don’t need the money but I do need people having emotional reactions to my work. And also, it’s not my BEST work, which makes it harder to keep selling. And I’m not going to try to fix it because I’ve moved on. So now it’s yours. It’s about 4000 words so I’ve put it in this Read More thang  I tried to but I couldn’t get it to work so just scroll, babies, scroll.

The Sword of Stone

I am Kei, King of these Islands, and the seventh king to bear that name. I am Kei, son of Ialo Longspear, and blood-borne to the great Kei the first, Kei of the Sword and the Slaying. Through him, I claim my right to the kingdom. His and mine are the Crown of Coral, his and mine are the Sword of Stone. I am called Kei the Brave and Kei Sharktooth, and also Kei the Sorrowful, and perhaps other names come my passing back into the oceans. l write this, my life-book, so my final legend may be known, and my people may learn the truth of what happened in those caves, with those dark enemies.

Since the time of my grandfather, each king has told his own lifebook in the symbols cut in wood or bone; we have given over the way of skalds to make the words for us, for then who can trust those words be the facing truth of a king? I am a scholar like my father and wise in words although I am wounded and sickly now and my hands shake to make the signs. I will do all I can to record what has passed though I may not have strength left to turn the madness I have seen into a clear tale.

Like all of the People of the Islands, we know our origins, and tell them in every life-book. We know the world was a dark and still pond and then Kree the Nightbird saw a shining stone below. Diving, he picked it up with his beak, and dropped it in shallow water, and this became the earth. But the things of the sea were jealous, and sought to swarm this new land. So it was that Kraa the Daybird swooped down upon these things of the sea and pecked at their eyes and their tongues and their fleshy parts until they were beaten back and Kraa’s belly full. 

But then Kraa saw us with no shields like Crab, no speed like Dolphin, no spines like Spinefish, and he took pity on us and allowed us to reach the shore. And Crab taught us to make shields, and Dolphin taught us to make boats, and Spinefish to make spears. But while all were watching us, the Shadow crept ashore.

Or so the stories go. As I say, we knew nothing of them for so long. Nothing in the words of the lifebooks or the lore of the hunters. No words in the poems or the deeds of kings. Not until Kei the First, who revealed to us the danger of the Shadows and gave us the Sword of Stone. The legends say that Kei travelled beneath the sea and saw a great city below made of stone, and there a thousand thousand Shadows dwelt and they raised a great demon, the hunger from Beneath, that would swallow all the Peoples above the water. But in that city Kei also found the Sword of Stone, and striking at the heart of the thing Beneath, did slay it. Yet Kei was mortally wounded and died that same day, passing the Sword to his scion, Kei the Second, assuring him that the thing Beneath would come again, for the Shadows never rest and perhaps do not even die. To his son, the legends day, he whispered the warning that came with the blade: it is eternal, and it hungers. And we the People know these words, and hold them close.

But that is legend, and I am a scholar, like my father and my father’s father. I write my lifebook with no skald to make the words. I read the lifebooks of my ancestors with my own eyes. In my pride, I declared I would know the truth of these tales, not the words of mystics and poets.

From the time of Kei onwards, we have known more and more war against the Shadows. They come at night and take those on watch leaving nothing but horrifying tracks in the sand that match no beast we know. When all our known enemies of the land are far distant, in times of peace, they burn our walls and poison our crops, leaving those same tracks. They come into our caves despite our guards and take babies as they sleep and drive their mothers mad. Or is that more legend? The children are gone, we know, and no one of us would do such mad violence upon our own young. But who takes them, we never see.

Some of the early legends talk of kings and warriors fighting these Shadows in full combat, yet tell little of their nature. They say in single combat against a Shadow was Kei the Second slain, despite bearing the Sword. In the time of the Aleau Kings and the Wars across the Islands, the lifebooks of kings tell of the foreign mystics bringing forth from the oceans black creatures, walking like men, but terrifying to look upon. These may be the Shadows as well, or so I thought. And if they walked as men, I began to wonder if they could not look as men also. The kings of the Peoples have been betrayed more than once. The lifebooks tell of brothers turned against brother; and of kings turning to madness and bloodshed, dooming all to war where a day before there was peace. Was the War of Brothers founded by some trickery of these Shadows, infecting minds and taking forms of friends and kinfolk? Kei the Fifth was slain by a lucky spear throw, but was it treachery within his own ranks? It was said the Sword of Stone was found not on him, but besides a fearful traitor who took it from his body. Gala First-Queen took poison of her own will, when all her children were dead, but was there some Shadow invisible that poisoned her instead?

Perhaps I jumped at nothing but moon-shadows. Perhaps when I read the poems and lifebooks I saw demons where they are none. But what I know now makes all my previous paranoid dreams seem entirely too small, and I wonder if I and my people were better before I began my quest to seek the truth of these things.

But I am a scholar, like my father and my father before me, and I am the blood of Kei the First, of the Sword and the Slaying, and I did not believe that Kree and Kraa gave us birth to wait in our caves for our doom to come while yet knowing nothing of what they are or how to save ourselves. So I took my kingship to be a gift from far-seeing Kree to seek to know our enemy. To see its true face and its true flesh, so I would not be just a Swordbearer, but a Slayer. 

I sent my scouts to the furtherest extents of our kingdom, and beyond. To the land of the Far Peoples, to the Dark Islands, to the Shoals of Blood. I had every mystic tell me every tale, every skald recite every poem, I read every lifebook and every death-shield of every king. I pieced together tales of the Shadow as things that walked and moved as men, that come from the ocean depths, that hunger eternal for our blood, and that drive men mad to look upon them. They feast primarily on those of noble blood, as if they would sever the head of our kingdom for the body to die. Or perhaps it is only those records I find, but surely the theft of children or the unnatural murders of even the lowest would be recorded? I found no mention – only deaths of kings and their men, their guards and warbands, in our high rock palaces and our secret chambers. Is there something in our bloodline that drives them to us? Do they seek revenge on those descended from Kei the First, who slew their great God? Or for stealing the Sword from their city below?

The Sword itself held no clues for me. Black as the ocean depths, one single piece of some stone I have never seen; perhaps coral or some ancient bones of some other leviathan. Some claimed to have seen such stone in their life times – washed up on the beaches or bound into some trinket but nobody possessed any such object, nor any craftsman to have moulded it, nor any smith to have fired such a stone. It seems perhaps formed by no human craftsman: the shape of hilt, pommel and blade, but not shaped by hand; instead extruded by some sea-beast or hollowed by the passing tides. It is a dark thing, my Sword, not unlike the Shadows itself, and there I began to see clearly how the paths would run together, but not yet in full light, like finding the grey sea line at the edge of dawn.

It was Faro who found them, far-seeing Faro my best scout. When he returned, I was lost in my sorrow, for my wife had died in childbirth, her abdomen scored and torn by some terrible power the healers could not understand, slaying babe and mother at once. I fell into a darkness then from which no hunt nor call for battle could raise me. My waking days were a stupor of despair; at night I dreamed unending terrible nightmares of blood and death which I could not recall on waking. Later I wondered if they were the ancient kings calling me back to my quest, to avenge their deaths and destroy our ancient enemy. Whatever the case in the end those nightmares coalesced into thoughts of revenge and that passion brought me out of my despair. Did the Shadows kill my wife and son as well? I would make them pay for it then also.

Faro’s journey had been long – sailing weeks and months past the Shoals of Blood, across the Endless Ocean to the west, through the land of savages who rub their white soil on their faces and hands and know nothing but slaughter. Faro had slipped between them but for my party to do so we would have to show force and I was well-minded to do so. My bloody dreams gave forth to bloody plans and bloody means and we taught those savages to fear the sight of us. They called me Kei Sharktooth because I moved through the water, the Sword of Stone at my head, and tore everything I found to pieces and left the waters scarlet with blood. I do not boast of my sword skill – I am no braggart. The savages had no art, no skill, only their battle-crazed rituals, and we matched them easily in fury, and far outweighed them in our art. And truly, the world is better for the slaughter, and better for those savages reduced to nothing but a remnant of scattered weaklings cowering in their caves. 

On past there, past where all our maps end and they say the sun touches the earth and sets everything ablaze. Then at last we beheld what Faro had seen: a great obsidian edifice of undreamed size and inconceivable dimensions, breaching the water like some tidal reef, if a reef could rise a hundred feet into the air. Before we grew close enough to touch it, I knew its black form was the same of which my sword was made, and that this was like the undersea temple that Kei the First had visited. Here, I would end the tale he had begun, and send these Shadows to bloody deaths beneath the sea.

As we grew closer we saw shadows shifting in the haunted crevices far above us. If I had been wiser then, I might have known more fear to see them, but I felt myself at the end of my quest, not the beginning. My war party were not so fearless, I heard men curse and gasp at the shapes, black rippling darkness shifting like nothing human. I heard one, Old Rangi, whisper Kei’s old words: It is Eternal, and It Hungers, as if that black reef itself were what those words spoke of.

Afasa broke the tension with a suggestion that Rangi spoke of the mosquitos, and we all laughed. Those buzzing insects were truly fierce upon us there, yet there seemed nothing feed them. Closing in we saw upon the reef’s surface great clouds of them, swarming across the surface, giving to momentary flights in great hazy clouds, then alighting back on the stone in some other space. The crawling made the surface ripple as if like flesh, the flights like hairs, rising and falling as if a breathing beast asleep.

I lacked an army to mount a siege against this strange tower. We would need to return with more men, more supplies, more fire. But I would not leave with just the sight of this place. I was determined to go within, and learn everything I could, to see my enemy up close, and make just one of our enemy feel my blade. Perhaps I was rash. But I am king, and it is my right to be bold.

I chose a small raiding party, and we waited for night to fall, so we could slip into the strange rising monument without raising alarm. We made little plan beyond scouting and blooding our enemy, and seeking to know his numbers, though we had knowledge of that soon enough. Once sunset arrived the Shadows began to move. Like blood from a poisoned wound the dark shapes snuck from the pores in the tower, sliding in and out of view as they descended, until, reaching the rising waters, they sloughed into ocean. At first we thought they were a party come to destroy us but once they hit the surface all sign of them vanished I put Faro to counting them, and by the time he made twenty score the light had faded too far for even his eyes. What became of that force we never knew, but I feared some beach nearby would see tracks upon their sand the next morning, and kings of distant lands would find their kinfolk taken. Or perhaps those swimmers were beginning a long journey to my own land’s beaches. It seemed impossible that such things would or could swim so far, but so much that was impossible may be countenanced now. Such thoughts made me fear for my friends and family and remember my lost wife, and drove us to seek swift justice, and then make haste home.

At first we thought to catch a rope to the tower and climb to the top but we soon surmised we could be cut to pieces on the sharp surface, and lose what gain of speed and secrecy we might have. So we swam over to the sandbank built around it, and slid into the strange puckering holes at the water’s level. I led the way, Sword of Stone in my hand.

Inside the reef was the beginning of a nightmare, and if this is read by any other living soul you may begin to doubt my senses and my recollections. When my eyes adjusted, I found it lighter then it should be within that maze, but could not easily describe where I was in any way a man could understand. Above and below like twisting vines the reef stretched – if it was a reef. Touching the surface added no greater insight into its nature – between slick seaweed and sharp oysters the material was cold as stone but ridged like a shell. The water gushed through it with each surging wave but I also had a sense that the whole thing was moving too, swaying back and forth in the current. I steadied myself by sliding into a rock pool, and then they came, no doubt attracted by the splashing of my arrival, shadows detaching themselves from somewhere above me, curling out like some hidden tentacles until they dropped from the ceiling into the form of men. Men I say, but they were nothing like men I have ever seen, nor dreamed of seeing. There was something of Spearfish of them, something of Turtle, something too, of us, but nothing natural, nothing that Kree nor Kraa could have made nor could countenance to live. If I had fetched up a fish with that face I would never fish in such a place again, to see such a face level with mine, staring with eyes that seemed to speak of some kind of awareness, some kind of mind…at such a sight all my will failed me and I could find no strength to strike or even stand.

It was the Sword alone that saved me. Held aloft, the sight of it gave them pause for a moment too, some ancient memory of awe or reverence giving them fright or doubt and they stood unblinking at me in that wet cave for a second before descending with reignited hunger. Their second was my second too, and I raised my sword to meet them. There was a sound of a dying seal as I slashed a wide circle and forced them back. Still my stomach churned to look at them, but they feared steel, and they bled too. Then Afasa behind me slid into our receptacle, knocking both fiends flying back. I was up in a flash. I stabbed down hard overhand on the first. Shining pink with gizzard I turned the blade to meet his rising fellow in his neck – or some fleshy mass below his eyes, at any rate. Again that terrible screeching as he died.

The blooding returned me to my focus, and I pulled Afasa to his feet. Old Man Rangi was next, then the rest, just eight of us, and before the last I was already descending beyond our perch, for there was a slime-slick staircase of sorts that allowed even those lacking monstrous appendages to proceed. Down we went, until we waded in sea water, and then further when the water seemed to drain away, and the levels below were dry by some magic I could not know. What were those puckered entrances above were now strung across with some thick membrane preventing the sea breaching yet still allowed some light to filter through – a fact we knew for a light – blue-tinged and ghostly and unnatural as everything else – filtered up to us from below.

We all soon reached the same conclusion – that we were deep beneath the ocean and our safety now captive to the magic of this place. As one we stopped our descent and stared at the walls and ceilings, watching them move in the current, feeling they would burst or crash upon us at any moment. One man of our company, Karka by the sound of it, cursed the gods. I heard others breathe heavy, afraid and uncertain. But where else could we go but down having come so far? 

The staircase spiralled three more times and then opened into a wider area fed by other passages and in the middle just what my men needed: enemies to slaughter. A dozen perhaps of the abominations, slurping some unnatural language of alarm or alert. We wasted no time. I sped to the right, knowing Afasa behind me would go left, dividing their attention. I struck low, severing one monster’s leg at the knee, slicing upwards to split his brother’s belly. Turned to face their first attackers their sides were exposed to my remaining warriors, who stabbed deep with spear and sword. These Shadows knew no tactics, they were surrounded and confused – but they had strength and fury and three surged at once at Afasa, teeth and claws gnashing, falling, puncturing his arms and then terrible strength ripping him in half. Three came at me to try the same trick; I kicked and sliced wide arcs to break their advance. I raised my blade point higher, realizing their giant staring eyes were the better target than bellies and in a slice I popped half a dozen. Blind and wailing, I popped their bellies below.

Rangi slipped on the slime and an overhead claw split his head, but Faro caught that one through the face with his spear. He drove forward, forcing the blade out the other side and into another of the monsters. Panicked and too close to each other, their numbers were dragging them down as our blades penned them in. That same seal-shrieking echoed far above as their bodies fell. One stood with that same stunned fear I had seen upon arrival and seemed almost willing us to cut it to pieces. Two more ran – or slid, or waddled, or flopped or crawled – they moved in no way I could describe, except it was away from us. One side of this large cavern gave way to another curl-stair leading ever downward. Mindlessly the things descended; mindlessly I followed. Someone grabbed at me to stop me. Angrily I shoved and slashed, and I heard Karka shout with pain. Blood for those who would stop me in any way.

It seemed as if the reef was some upended funnel, with the cavern beneath this even larger, larger than any cave in any mountain, yet I could see all sides as the same sourceless light burned in unseen incandescence. One of the Shadows I caught in my charging descent and my blade went through his neck like it was nothing but sand. Chasing the other, I raced towards yet another central hole which dropped it seemed into a cavern even larger again. I slipped down on one knee in haste, and half-crawled in pursuit so that the vista below came into my eyes slowly, as if some mercy protected me from beholding all of it at once.

I am yet not mad, I believe, but the scene I beheld would drive any to become so, and those men who left the reef yet alive would conclude nothing else from my ravings and my actions after. Yet I swear my mind was clear as ever, my senses heightened from battle, and I never felt as if I was dreaming. I am a scholar like my father before me, and I write it here as I saw it, and what I did next in truth.

Far below on the cavern floor there were the Shadow-things, and a thousand thousand thousand of them, more than the stars in the sky, but so far from me that as they shuffled and bobbed they looked almost like the clouds of flies and mosquitoes we had seen on the reef above, undulating back and forth to some unheard rhythm or command. And as they moved or danced, they shouted in strange strangled tongues, and through the gurgling I heard the same chanted things over and over again: “Mene mene! Ktulu ikara! Fangalui mglaw’na Ktulu ikara!”  

And with each of these screams the waves of these things would surge and some of their number would be thrown up into the air to land impaled upon sharpened blades placed in a centre ring of the cavern floor, the fall tearing them apart with that same horrendous shrieking adding to the clamour and the pink sludge of their insides splashing into the green waters in which all of them waded and danced. Slaughter followed slaughter, shriek followed shriek and yet I saw even though these beasts screamed to die they welcomed it too, there was some sense of cheering and mad glee in the flinging of themselves upon these blades and the shedding of their blood, as if they pleased whatever dark god demanded their sacrifice. 

Then my fear and madness deepened as I felt the coral reef shift again as if drawing breath and the pink blood of the beasts drained away into somewhere below, and I realized it was no god they pleased but a beast, a beast that was the reef itself. The blades they fell upon were the same black stone tendrils that formed every wall and every surface, curled upwards to wicked sharpness and strength yet still, to my eye, waving like living limbs, and beneath that ring of blades – of teeth – must be some hungry beak or mouth, that sucked and suppurated at its meal. This reef lived and grew, fed by its endless monstrous servants, and it must have done so for ages upon ages. From vast windows across the cavern walls I could see into the distant ocean and the seabed stretching out on every side was covered with the black entwining spikes of this thing, this living thing, and far in the distance the field of black shot upwards into other towers, and I knew that far far across the ocean in my kingdom there lay a tower like the one in which I stood, and just one of countless it must be – countless towers across the Endless Ocean, each preying on countless kingdoms with their armies of countless Shadows, dwelling like oyster-shells on the back of the true enemy – this thing, this endless reef that hungered for blood.

Then I knew what I had to do, what must be done so none would ever return to this or any tower, or come looking for us lost ones. I turned and saw my men descending behind me, wounded and afraid. Solemnly I raised my sword and cut down Faro and his lover Kela before they knew what was happening. They screamed to stop me as I stabbed the Sword of Stone through Scarcheek but I would not stop. I would have drank all their blood if I had the strength, curving and swinging my sword to end us all, but one from behind struck me hard on my skull and my eyes and strength failed me.

No doubt they thought me dead and I should have died from the deep crack in my skull or as food for any of the beasts around me but by some strange magic their dark ritual consumed them in totality and I woke to find myself rising to the top of the ocean again, the spur of that black reef growing smaller in the distance. I had enough strength to strike out for a skerrie I saw in the distance. I assumed my men fled, back to the canoes and back again across the ocean, perhaps to raise an army to return, or just to mourn the king they lost. When or if they return I cannot say but I do know they have made their greatest mistake. I can feel it, somehow, as if it is part of me, joined to me – I know for sure they carried my sword away with them. I can feel them bearing my sword home. No doubt they will pass it to my father’s nephew, his is the right, his will be the Crown of Coral and his the Sword of Stone. And it will doom them all for they did not see all that I saw, do not know what I know.

They did not see that the Sword is part of that reef, and still lives just as that reef lives, and is connected to it forever. It is part of that reef and just as alive and just as hungry, and it cares not whether the blood it drinks comes from man or Shadow, from enemies or from friends, from warriors or from our wives and children in our chambers. Giving the blade to my nephew curses him to be like me, like all the others in our line – driven to feed the blade, to seek out blood wherever it can be found. It will call to Shadows and men alike to die upon its end, and it will never stop until it is buried back beneath the sea, united again with its whole.

I write my lifebook now as a warning, to all kings who follow me, and all the People of the Islands, of the Sands White and Stones Black. Your lives are forfeit to the blade, even unto the King himself. For I yet live, and will grow strong again, and I will come and take it from you, and blood to those who would stop me. Until you heed the warning of Kei the First, you shall never know peace, for the sword is what he spoke of, not the Shadows or the Reef, the Sword in his right hand, the Sword of my kingship, the Sword I shall take up again: It is eternal, and it hungers!

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