Tuesday Fiction: “The Princess and the Shadowspawn” by Ben Godby
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Ben Godby. Ben writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.
This is the story’s first publication.
The Princess and the Shadowspawn
Along the banks of Big Kruarnoth, factories compete to make the loudest din: the forges hiss, assemblies drum, meatpackers scream.
Black hills, gray skies, and fishes witness. It’s been ten thousand years now—unabated.
* * *
A shitty afternoon like all the rest, a rider—lone—emerges. He sits astride a thundercycle: big wheels, big boots, black shining leather ideals. His hair is loose and flies free in a windsphere, a paraphysical channel he has conjured up, a force he summons with his demon speed.
But otherwise, the air is dead round Big Kruarnoth.
The rider’s name is Scorn Defeat. His heart is hard, but wasn’t always: his mother and his father placed a spark, a flame, inside his infant chest, and now—like an oyster—a stone hides in the folds of living flesh. He grips the handlebars with molten knuckles and chivvies the accelerometer in his brain, for he’s brought only one bit of wisdom with him: that you must go very quickly to get nowhere, if from all worlds and landscapes you seek escape.
The thundercycle spits and screams, while the banks of Big Kruarnoth quake and shudder, and call his name.
* * *
Beneath Scorn’s wheels, the desert turns to glass.
Long behind him are Big Kruarnoth and her tributaries, the hills of moldering chlorophyll and those volcanic cliffs of scree, those bracken thickets, hedgerow deadpools, and the chasms of sparkle-deadened gneiss and blackened basalt bands. The earth has become an aqua-mendicant, and yet a river’s tongue still ebbs and flows, and eddies in the pockmarks of Scorn’s soul—not quite as forgettable as the rider once believed.
“Turn back, Scorn,” here spits the sun. “This world is always only wasteland; all ruined hearts and ruined dreams.”
The rider wonders, thinks, denies; his thundercycle laughs, then screams.
The sun, a disc; the sky, a wheel; a blade that’s blue and black as ice, strapped to the back of Scorn Defeat.
* * *
The earth metastasizes at the desert’s end: erratically, black life perfuses. The ochre dunes begin to slip, then stumble, rear, and march toward an ocean that, beyond the bleeding sun’s horizon, stinks of salted bones. Silted tendrils comb the limbus; trees lift their legs out from the muck—unsure, unsown.
The rider has been lulled by lengths of red and yellow sand, and on this border of the land the change is jarring, jolts him awake, though still too late. Scorn’s wheels spin; the heavy metal chassis starts to sizzle, splutter, spark and steam. The rider is immersed in green water that, when he stands, rises barely to his knees.
Scorn spits, and swears, and drags himself beyond the sopping marrow of the bog. Insects titter, and the daylight bats that hunt them pause, rest their eyes upon this interloper, and consider. He stands to let the water sluice free of his jacket, but he can’t stop the swamp-juice leaving stains.
Somewhat drier and halfway calmer, the rider climbs the shallow hill, where he parts the bracken and the boughs and gazes up at the enameled road he just blazed across the sands. His path forms an iridescent track, a highway betwixt the dunes that, soon—as those stolid hills begin to shift—will crack.
He wonders if, along it, someone might follow; if he, or if this swamp, holds something that maybe someone wants. He thrusts his hands below the waterline, sifts the muck, then sniffs it once.
Nothing but the putrid. If something’s here, it’s buried deep. He looks toward the sun, now wrapped in a corona of clouds and atmospheric gauze.
“Perhaps there’s something, down below, for you,” says Scorn. “You have, I think, the time to look.”
He pulls the vehicle from the swamp and drains it. Its pipes piddle on the sodden grasses; its gas tank, never filled, burps with approval. Then, unconcerned the sun was unresponsive, Scorn climbs aboard his cycle, lights the engine, tests the boiler, then through the mangroves and the deadfall passes.
* * *
Twilight descends just as Scorn finds the town. At first he thinks it must be an illusion. Wooden frames, thatched roofs and gables; water pumping, cattle braying; Scorn finds himself amidst a panoply of village sights and village sounds.
In the face of this domesticity, he kills the engine, slows his thundercycle down.
“BONEDUST,” reads a sign. And: “WARNING: THOSE THAT LEAVE SHALL NOT LEAVE ALIVE.”
Scorn wonders how the village ever got its name, when it’s so near those fens of groundwaters deep and soils moist. He’s seized by an instinct: he tests the blade that the sun made upon his back, and tastes its ice.
That, too, a riddle—though only such as life.
The sun is setting, yonder, among the rifts of distant hills: a yellow hulk, and midnight mounds.
* * *
Two steel rails run straight from nowhere and onwards through the village square. The railroad rests on ties of timber, stained with blood, and the ballast is of bones. They are the diplomats of industry, and Scorn hates the feeling he feels of home.
The village is now settled with a silence deadly (long gone, or never were, those phantasmagorical pastoral sounds). Shadows rule the alleys which are more numerous than the dwellings, from which windows lurch and shudder as though their casements were alive. The shopfronts yawn, awaiting produce, and the rails run too plumb and narrow—as though modeled on some equation straighter. Beyond the limits of the village they enter forests hot and deep, and, somewhere beyond them: a castle on a rotten hillside, very dark.
A cuckoo-clock goes off somewhere, chiming nine.
The forest’s lips grumble, smack, and lick—then open wide.
“Help!” a weak voice cries. “You must save me, interloper, or else surely I’ll die!”
Scorn cuts Bonedust’s welded air with his blade, sending azure tracers through the sky. He ponders this gutless reaction without conclusion before he looks; then, there, in that window of that tower, that slender claw of black and broken stones that stands from here not very far (a dozen steps from anyplace would get Scorn there), he sees her drift among the lintels, like a curtain: nocturnal wisp, a midnight willow, some unfortunately fallen star.
The rider wonders if he hasn’t been equipped just for this—if Providence is not an overarching plan, but rather like a guiding fist restricted to the heroes and the heroines of myth. The sword, his thundercycle, and Big Kruarnoth refute all other explanations, and, like a mollusc wrenched from water, Scorn’s flesh—for better or for worse—tastes air.
“I wouldn’t think, if I were you, of doing anything so daring.”
Scorn spins, his weapon once more fighting for him. A man in black—cowled, leering—stands just beyond the village clearing.
“Who are you?” snarls Scorn.
The cowled man pauses, smirks, considers. “Azdrobanus?” he says at length. “Mecrathanthum. Gillee-Talril, or maybe Est-Ton-Bal-Rol.”
The sun has set quite completely now, and a sudden cool sets Scorn’s blade to dripping. His fingers clench the frozen hilt. The creature laughs.
“More important: lord of Bonedust, and chief engineer.” He stamps the railway, which straightens. Then he again considers. “Necromancer. King of Darkness. Enemy of All That’s Living. And my daughter, Sweetly, is not for the taking.”
“Help me, Scorn!” the princess screams—his name written on his face like in all ages.
For that one moment—the duration of her sylvan voice—Scorn feels transported. The clatter, the hammering, the ignominious deafening, that din, that song, that wretched hurlyburly known as Big Kruarnoth that roils in his heart is then dead, and buried—its grave site lost.
“You cannot stop me,” says Scorn Defeat.
Azdrobanus moves too freely, his body melding angles easily; antiquity is painted on his face like some infernal scar. “If I can’t, well… they surely will.”
Scorn looks around. The moon passes over Bonedust luminously, and in the village alleys, shadows… scraping sounds. Yellow pupils in green setting; mouths breathe fire, begin to glow.
Scorn shivers. The sword has been reduced to snow-leather grips and hoarfrost crosspiece: the nexus of an implement not present. The princess leans out from her window, but he can’t bear to see her now.
“Leave and don’t come back,” says Azdrobanus, “or they’ll remove you.” He grins slyly: lupine teeth in goblin visage. “Please don’t make me tell you how.”
* * *
Beyond the edge of Bonedust village, Scorn Defeat lies tossing, turning, and in certain lucid moments dreaming. The starlight wheels; his cycle purrs while gently sleeping.
“Why did I come here?” wonders Scorn. He stands and looks east, south, west and north: so many variations on the path he might have taken.
And yet his destination, he wonders—thinks—denies—believes—could be no different.
In his chest, a spark—a flame—is licking at live flesh again. What was it that his parents said—so ordered, clipped, regurgitated? Spoken in the language of machines, a dialectic that some men and women esteemed godly lore. An explanation: how things ought to be.
“Louder, louder,” and, “always, forever;” until the day a thundercycle rode up the banks of Big Kruarnoth, bearing Scorn Defeat. Across moldering hills, volcanic cliffs, bracken thickets and deadpool hedgerows, chasms of sparkle-deadened gneiss and blackened basalt bands, unto these midnight porticoes that stand just beyond the sands.
Scorn leaps to his feet and kicks his vehicle alive. His hilt spits a blade of fire, now; the thundercycle roars, and, with a voice of pistons pounding, Scorn cries.
“The future will burn what’s come before!”
* * *
The town of Bonedust lies silent underneath the waning moon. Nocturnal vistas propped on alleys are predicated on blind ends, and stir in languor; the air that winds around in cul-de-sacs snaps and snarls its own heels, while Scorn’s thundercycle’s engines boom.
Rubber screeches on the pave-stones, leaving black tracks on the graying monoliths. “Princess!” Scorn Defeat goes crying. “Princess Sweetly, trapped in yonder tower tall!”
The girl appears, a ragged mist; her face is neither energized nor listless. She seems to brighten, shedding lumens, gathering a blood-fresh humor, coinciding with the vision of this black-clad hero at her prison door.
“Have you come to rescue me?”
“Of course. My heart is melting! Never have I ’til now been living. Now let a ladder down, or else open up this wooden door; and flee, we shall, from Bonedust and our fathers’ stolid worlds, together, on towards a future without ceilings, without floors.”
“Scorn!” the Princess cries, now pointing. Scorn turns to watch the dancing yellow dots and listen to the scraping sounds—picking from the outside, inward—that, moving quickly, thwart the village square, spelling doom.
“Come, night monsters!” calls Scorn Defeat. His hands hold nothing, though he wields his sword, and his hair flies freely in a windsphere—a channel conjured by his motions and his striding forth. “I do not fear you. This princess shall be freed, and we shall live in peace forevermore.”
“Kill him!” Azdrobanus shouts. His voice echoes and assaults the air as though spoken from a thousand mouths—even though, at this late hour, he’s no more visible than a mote of dust, some fungal spore.
Skeletons and zombies crawl, and stagger-shudder, invite each other in their myriad droning mutters to come along on this their midnight stroll. They’ve been frozen, preserved, re-animated, and now enact their master’s vicious commands.
But Scorn’s got the breath of life inside him—the kind of life that’s stronger for once being dead.
With battle cries he cuts them down, and bludgeons them and strips their bones. There’s a fire burning somewhere, and a rod of ice that gleams; but at this late hour his sword is no more solid than his sorrow, or his shame.
Bodies pile in night’s shadowed corners; the ballast of the railway is buttressed more. Scorn stumbles through the shamblers, creepers, revenants and all these ghosts of yore, and fights his way back, returns to the base of the tower and its door.
It is Azdrobanus, his body taking shape.
“I’ll kill you, too,” says Scorn, a rictus scowling. “I’ve cut through all your deathly lore.”
“I’ll kill the Princess,” says Azdrobanus, grinning black through midnight’s spoor. “You think I wouldn’t? I hold her breath, just as you are master of your sword. Bonedust is my realm, Scorn, and you are just a wanderer within it.”
“I don’t believe you could kill her,” stammers Scorn—not sure what it was that clenched and tightened in his chest. “No, not your daughter. That would be worse even than fratricide, or the killing of my parents. There’s limits even when it comes to hate.”
“Ah, Scorn, your words are fine, but you understand it all too well—the bond that links a parent and their children, and how those ties do ebb, regress, and flow. Now look!”
From the window, some feeble cry: the Princess dangles, her body limp, her eyes wide and harrowed.
“No!” cries Scorn. “What are you doing? Without her, life is not worth living.”
“Is it? I wouldn’t know. But I’ll trust to your judgment if you trust mine. See, you can help me. Scorn, please understand: through that forest yonder I must pass. And yet, there’s something, some diurnal aberration, an abyssal darkness too unlike and like me, that guards the way to that very castle’s door.”
Scorn slowly turns, now unbelieving, to regard the sloping, wooded maw. He sees, as dawn begins to pale, the bodies strewn across the forest floor. Twisted rails and shattered stumps tell the tale of their work so far.
“Find me some way up that hill… and the girl is yours.”
“You’ll keep your word?” Scorn says, desperate.
“I will, if you can keep your life.”
Scorn ponders this and thinks it’s fair: better, yes, by far, indeed, than to live alone or on the banks of Big Kruarnoth, making noise with breath and deed.
He leaves Azdrobanus and his kidnapped daughter in his wake, and walks upon that ill-conceived and dreadful road with his pace now unsteady, now unsure. The castle looms, beneficent in all benighted glory. Scorn looks back toward the village.
“What did you say it was?” he shouts back, brushing icicles from his whiskers and his face. “This thing, this monster lurking in the forest?”
“I do not know,” says Azdrobanus, his voice a whisper swept upon the wind. “You’ll tell me when you’ve killed it.”
Scorn considers, disappears.
“Oh, Father,” mourns the wispy child, her virgin bosom heaving now. She still is crooked, strange, and brutal, hanging from her window like a ragdoll, the spell still cast. “What if Scorn Defeat does not return?”
Azdrobanus doesn’t answer… shrugs.
“Then another, we must assume, will come along.”
* * *
The wood stinks of must and loneliness; of rusted iron, calcified verdigris. There’s rotting matter lying on the ground, that—with time—will seep into the earth, and revivify it.
The trees all dangle, hunchbacked and calloused; the ferns bunch in groups, except for the occasional stray that’s wandered off in a desperate bid for solitude, or in response to some socio-botanical ostracism. These loners are sometimes fuller, capturing the forest’s paucity of nutrients for themselves; but alone, still, they are less impressive than the groups.
The air is cloying, and the rails run, run on, and run out.
Shadows play in dawn’s faint light, but as yet they spawn no interlocutor for Scorn to face. Ahead, the forest rises, sweeping up the hill like a blanket covering a giant. The castle rears, stoic and hard, a block of masonry that from where it sits atop the hill will not be moved.
The broken ground is fixed again, nature having reclaimed the spaces that the workers fought for. Scorn goes further; then, losing himself in the forest dawn, slugs the air. It covets him with heat and sweat, though inside he cannot warm enough. He tears apart his jacket, casts the leather down; ties his hair up for a moment before unleashing it again, for now he’s cold. This particular stretch of wild has something in its makeup, as though the very atmosphere were unclear.
He climbs up the slope, unsteady still, until he’s reached the top. The castle looms, a morning shadow; a low keening flies from darkened windows, some kind of din, fantastic and quite overbearing, that seeks to crush his spirit, turn its vane against the wind.
Or only, perhaps, to invite him in.
Scorn scowls, grabs his chest, and pries it open. Meatpackers scream; the pistons deep inside it growl and grind his name.
* * *
With dawn breaking over broken hills, and sunlight chasing undead ills, the forest groans and spits forth a warrior clad in black.
He looks the same, all chains and leathers; and still the grime of riding long and hard—without purpose, goal, or tactics—stains the space along his inner thighs. His hair is windblown and his cheeks are frozen fast.
He comes along the path to Bonedust, ignores the wizard at the lintel, and goes inside to gather up his Princess, Sweetly, for all time.
* * *
“Is something wrong, Scorn?” the Princess asks. “Something eating at your mind?”
Scorn stares out the window, toward a castle dark in deep forest; but all he hears is pistons, clanging, hammering out his name.
The Princess sighs and slumps in her chair. The dark tower with its broken fingers, its ragged claws, she has remade. There is fresh white wash across the stones, wainscoting, countertops, and brand new devices imported from the banks of Big Kruarnoth—across the wild land and the desert’s inland sea.
“What’s wrong, Scorn? For God’s sake, tell me! Ever since you slew that thing, that spawn of shadow…”
“That was nothing,” Scorn rasps, half-dreaming. His eyes are drifting, gaze ranging out the window—toward the rumpled, broken land.
“Nothing? Not at all! It had trumped my father—bastard though he is—for far too long. And you, with your bravery and guile, your aptitudes heroic, did defeat it.”
Scorn laughs. Then he chokes, turns to gaze upon his wife. “Nothing there,” he whispers.
“Nothing there?” The Princess pales. “Whatever do you mean?”
“There was nothing there!” screams Scorn Defeat. The whole tower shudders, shivers, quakes—though not for Scorn nor for his anger, but rather on account of falling beneath the yonder castle’s gaze. The sun, falling through the window, casts its blade upon the hero, that icy rod of puissance mighty; but on the hill that fortress waxes under spells still darkly—each brick mortared with a sticky shame.
“There was nothing there,” he whispers again. “Just the forest… some clever ruse…” He looks at the princess with hooded eyes. “Some aspect incomplete.”
“Then what…” The girl is fearful; swallows. “What happened in those dappled maples, among the darkling shrubs and bushes?”
“Look in my eyes, girl, and tell me, please: does anything—anything, anything at all—still remain?”
The Princess is backed into a corner by her husband’s deep gunmetal eyes. In them—in all their swirling grayness, flecks of whiteness and their pupils’ utter blackness—is surging the waveform crucible of that song: the banging, slamming, ringing tones of maritime manufactory. The banks of Big Kruarnoth, dread and total, in his eyes even while he sleeps.
And in the shadows of those surging verges, fishes watch, and something spawns; though the Princess, bless her, will never—ever—quite know how to speak its name.
“Yes, Scorn, my very darling,” the Princess whispers (shrinking further), “I think that something—something—must still, forever… always… remain.”
* * *
Along the banks of Big Kruarnoth, the factories compete in many games. The spark of life and screams of death are, to them, just One, and Same.
The tower down in Bonedust will one day begin to crumble, its stone-cut tendril-fingers reaching for the village floor. A castle, mired amongst the forest, casts its shadows over lands now listless; and a princess, on the hilltop, has been buried there in vain.
And of Scorn Defeat, his princess, and the Shadowspawn that bound them, one wonders whether something, anything, or nothing, might be, or has been, or will one day still remain.
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