Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Hills Have Eyes

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom ruled by a king that saw all things.

There is a place where the hills are paved with cobblestones. You can walk among them, each foot pressing against each stone, and climb each hill's gentle slopes. Sometimes you will come across a building (also made of cobblestone) and inside will be a roaring fire (for it will be quite cold, even though the sun is shining brightly) and a pint of your favorite alcohol waiting for you.

As you wonder whose house it is and if perhaps they would be angry if you had some of the pint, a man and woman emerge from a door inside the cobblestone house. "Oh, I'm sorry," you say, "I should have knocked, but there was no door-"

And then you stop because of what you see: this man and woman, this couple who are smiling at you, have no eyes, nothing but empty sockets. "Oh, hello," the man said. "We've been expecting you. Come, have a seat. Have a drink." He motions to the hearth and the pint.

Since there are no chairs, you sit on the ground and take the drink, even as you try not to look at their lack of eyes. And then you remember what the man said. "What do you mean, you've been expecting me?" you ask.

"Oh, we saw you coming a while away," the woman said. She is holding a rag and wiping down some of the cobblestones, though you don't know how she can tell if they are clean or not.

"You...saw me coming?" you asked with confusion in your voice.

"A figure of speech," the man says. "I realize our appearance is somewhat disconcerting. The fact of the matter is, without eyes, we can hear so much better and we were able to hear your footsteps on the path as you walked."

"Ah," you say. You lift up the cup and take a slow drink. It tastes delicious. "If I may ask, about the state of your, well, eyes."

"Yes," the woman said. "Our eyes. It was better we put them out. They were of no use to us here."

"No use?" you ask. "How so? Surely it is better to see than be blind."

"Our king sees for us," the woman says. "Our king can see all."

"Ah," you nod. You have heard of such megalomania – leaders claiming that they are omniscient and omnipotent, but you hadn't yet encountered subjects that truly believed those claims, not until now. You lift up your drink again, but when you look down, the foam, unbelievably, has formed into the shape of an eye. You set it down. All this eye talk is getting to you. "Would you mind if I stayed the night here?" you ask. The couple is creepy, but any shelter is better than none.

"You may stay," the man says. "Please, rest."

You take off your pack and use it as a pillow. You are awfully tired. And the fire is very warm. You start to fall asleep in front of it and as sleep overtakes you, you think you see the flames form the shape of an eye.

You wake up in the middle of the night. The fire has gone out, leaving only a ring of ashes and a dark spot in the center, like the pupil of an eye. There is a bright light outside, however, and you stand up and walk through the doorway and see a raging bonfire. The man and woman and many others are standing around it. You slowly notice that all of them are eyeless.

"Come," the woman motions for you. You do not know how she saw you – not only does she have no eyes, she wasn't even turned in your direction. Perhaps her hearing really is that good, though how she could hear over the crackling of the fire, you do not know. "Come. I told you we were expecting you."

You walk over to the bonfire. "It is time for the judgment," the man says and the rest of the eyeless people around the bonfire nod. "It is time for him to meet our All-Seeing King."

The woman turns to you and motions to the sky. "It has a thousand eyes," she says and you look up.

"Those are the stars," you say. "It's just the night sky."

"Look again," she says and you do. And you see.

All the stars. Every single one. They are eyes. Eyes looking at you. Thousands and thousands of eyes, all of them looking at you, looking into your very heart and soul. You turn away from the sky, but still you see eyes everywhere. There are eyes in the fire, eyes in the cobblestones, and now there are eyes in each and every one of the people's faces. All of them look at you.

"A girlfriend in his hometown," one of them says. "Broke her heart."

"Left his mother," another says. "So lonely. Died alone."

"Stole food," the man says. "Took another's livelihood."

"I was hungry," you say. "I had no money. And the girl and my mother...I was young. I was stupid."

"No excuses," the woman says. "No reasons. Only judgment."

You feel the pain of all of your mistakes, all of your crimes as you feel the eyes of the All-Seeing King stare at you. There is no escape from its gaze. There is only you, the eyes, and the fire.

The fire. You can feel its heat. It is your punishment. It is your judgment. You feel the people around you take hold of you shoulders and you do not resist. They push and you go with it and you fall into the fire.

And the fire burns you away.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Isle of Secrets

Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by a king with red eyes.

There is an island out there hidden from normal eyes. Some seek it out and never find it. Some stumble upon it blindly. It has been called many names -- the Island of the Unbidden, the Obscure Isle -- but the name that most use is the Isle of Secrets. Legend states that the island is littered with the secrets of dead men, maps of hidden riches, accounts of untold treasures.

You are one of the few to find the island. The sand crunches underneath your foot as you step forward, past the trees, when you see a road. It starts from nowhere and seems to go nowhere, but when the sunlight hits it, you see a shine of metal. Hurriedly, you step foward and pick up a coin -- small and dark, probably made of copper, it can't be worth more than a pence. You pocket the coin and walk on the road, careful to check and see if there are any more coins littering the ground.

Soon, you come across more of the coins and you pick them up, worthless though they are. Surely there will be better treasure than this, you know. You have heard all the tales of this island. You know what you could find here. The images of gold coins and jewels as big as your fist rise up in your mind. However, the next object you come across on the road is neither gold nor jewel. Instead, it is a dagger, sharp and bloody. You pick it up and pocket it, not really knowing why.

There are more worthless coins scattered on the road, but you leave them be, because you see something better. There is a chest made of wood and bronze in the middle of the road. You race towards it and try to open it, but the chest is locked. You take out the dagger and pick at the lock until it springs open, but there are no treasures inside. It is filled with dozens of letters bound together. You discard them and close the chest again.

You do not know how long this road lasts, but you continue walking along it. The sun, which beat down so much on your shoulders, is now going down under the horizon and night is finally descending. There are no more coins on the road, but you see something ahead and rush towards it. In the dark it is hard to see, so you lean down and pick it up. It's a piece of rope, twisted and turned into a noose. You throw the noose back on the ground and continue your walk.

The road is ending, you can see. No, wait, it doesn't end -- instead, it appears to intersect with another road you had not seen before. It is a crossroads. And in the middle of the crossroads, you can see a pile of objects. This must be the treasure, you think, and rush forward. But the night makes you blind and there is something in front of the pile, in the exact center of the crossroads. As you slow, you see it open its eyes, its blood-red eyes.

You try to stop and stumble, you trip and fall onto the ground. The Red-Eyed King stands above you on four legs. You can hear its growl, like the rumble of the earth. It is larger than you ever imagined.

You pull the dagger from your pocket and brandish it in front of you. Blood drips from the knife. Where did the blood come from? You remember now. This is your dagger, the dagger you used to kill. The letters belonged to the man you killed, the writings of a life cut short. And that was your noose, the noose that you should have been hanged with before you left. Before the island found you. Before the Red-Eyed King found you.

The Red-Eyed King looks you in the eyes. It has taken all of your secrets. This is its treasure. The pile behind it, you can see now, is not gold nor jewels, but the bodies of men like yourself. You feel its breath on your face and you feel tears crawling down your cheek.

The Red-Eyed King steps forward and opens its jaws.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Fountain of Forever

Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by a king who wandered.

Once upon a time there was a king without a kingdom.

Once upon a time there was a king.

Once upon a time.


Hello there. Sorry to interrupt your story so abruptly, but I noticed you were starting to speak of the Wandering King, yes? Why, I know that story so well, I could retell it in my sleep. Ah, the adventures I could tell you, the tales of treacherous mountains that would crash into one another, of storms that could tear the flesh from your bones, of rivers ruled by fearsome jaguars.

But you wish to know about the Wandering King. You wish to know about the King Without a Kingdom, the King Within and Without. Well, alright, let me tell you the story.

Once there was a king whose kingdom was prosperous. He had everything that he could ever have wanted -- and therein was the problem. He had no need for money, no need to go out and seduce women (what with his generous harem), no need to do anything. So he stayed in his castle and wished that there was something he still needed, something he wanted. You of course know the saying that you should take care of what you wish for, yes? So you can probably guess what is going to happen next.

So, the king, having made this wish, is suddenly confronted with a visitor to his kingdom. Now, normally this would not be such a big deal, because his was a prosperous kingdom, so it had a lot of visitors. But this visitor was different -- he had approached the king's palace without making a noise and asked to speak with the king about his most fervent wish. The king looked at this visitor and noticed his ashen skin and sickly demeaner and wondered if perhaps he had escaped from a leper colony. "What makes you think you can help me?" the king asked the ashen man.

"I know of one thing you cannot have," the ashen man said. "One thing that you wish to possess, but which you can never possess."

The king stood up at this thought -- was there such a thing? "Speak of this and I will grant you anything in my kingdom you want," he said.

"I want for nothing," the ashen man said (and the king believed this for the ashen man looked as if he was on the edge of death's domain). "I do, however, wish to lead you on your journey."

"Journey?" the king said. "To where?"

The ashen man smiled. "To the undying waters. To the place where death is no more. To the Fountain of Life, your majesty."

And so the king was hooked. He had everything, but it would not last. Nothing would last, not the jaguars or the rivers or the mountains. But by drinking the waters of the Eternal Fountain, well, he would last forever; he would outlive his wives, spend all his money, do everything he wished and it would not matter, for he would always be able to do more. So he agreed: he would go with the ashen man to the place where the Fountain was and both he and the ashen man would drink in its deathless waters.

What followed was a long, harrowing journey that would last many pages if I decided to write it out completely. Needless to say, the king and the ashen man traveled for many months, following the map that the ashen man had memorized long ago. He told the king he had seen the Fountain once, but he had been a young man then and thought immortality was not worth it. This was all the backstory the ashen man would give the king, even though the king would ask many questions during their quest. The ashen man would often refuse to answer; the king never even learned his name.

Finally, after a year of travel, the ashen man stopped them and said, "It is here."

The king looked around, but could not see any fountain. Instead, he saw what looked like ruins and the burnt remains of villages. "Where are we?" the king asked.

"Where?" The ashen man said. "We are inside your kingdom. We have traveled in a circle, your majesty. We are back to where we started."

The king looked around and saw that the ruins were of his own castle and the burnt villages the villages of his subjects. "What has happened here? What happened to my kingdom?"

"What do you think?" the ashen man asked. "After their king went away, they were invaded and pillaged by their neighbors. Your subjects are dead or scattered now, their lives ruined by the wishes of their king."

"I did not mean this," the king said. "And why are we here? You promised me you were taking me to the Eternal Fountain."

"I did," the ashen man said. "And I keep my promises. Look there." He pointed and the king saw a small pool of muddy water. "This is your Fountain of Life. It will grant you everlasting life once you drink of it."

"You lie," the king said. "You have ruined my kingdom for mud and water."

"I do not lie," the ashen man said. "And you have ruined the kingdom yourself. The pool will grant life, I tell you. Just drink."

So the king lowered himself down to the ground and drank the muddy water, while the ashen man stood over him. "Everlasting life," the ashen man said, "all you have to do is drink, drink and let me in." The ashen man then collapsed to the ground, while the king rose. "Life," the king said. "Everlasting life. Of course."

And so the king walked away from the body of the ashen man, who had now embraced death. And the king discarded his crown and, after a while, his skin turned sickly and gray.

Did you like that story? Did it amuse you? Then my work is done. I will return to you your regular storyteller, but not before I leave you this warning: the Wandering King is still out there, still tempting people with eternal life. But eternal life does not mean you will not start dying; it merely means you will not stop.


Monday, October 17, 2011

The Kingdom of Heaven

Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by a king without flesh.

You find the entrance to this kingdom is a pair of gates, rusted and broken down. Beside the gates, there once was a sign that read 'IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE DEAD.' However, time has eroded the sign, wearing down so many letters that now it seems to read 'EMBRACE THE DEAD.' You walk through the ruined gates and into the kingdom proper.

At first, you see no buildings, just mounds of earth. Soon, the mounds of earth become larger and become mounds of earth and stone, tumuli, barrows for the buried. These barrows become bigger and bigger and then soon they are cairns, mounds of stones four feet high. The cairns go away, however, and become simple markers. Tombstones made of natural fieldstone, then soon granite, limestone, marble, sandstone, slate. There are no names carved into these tombstones, however -- no inscriptions, no epitaphs. Nothing to mark who was buried here or why.

Soon the gravestones start to become larger and change their shape, becoming more and more elaborate. They form into crosses, stars, anchors, crowns, horseshoes, skulls, laurels, hourglasses, and even angels, their hands covering their weeping faces.

The elaborate tombstones come to an end and beyond them is a field of urns. Row upon row of urns, the ashes within safely tucked away. Still no sign of names or dates of birth or death. There are urns made of wood, of stone, or metal. Iron urns and bronze urns and even urns gilded in gold. The urnfields end and after comes the vaults, the monuments, the crypts and shrines and sepulchres, row after row after row of them.

Astonished, you walk among this kingdom, where you have not yet seen one living soul, surrounded by stones and the dead.

The crypts get larger and larger as you walk past, growing into mausoleums and burial vaults and then, suddenly, they come to an end. No more buildings, no more structures, no more urns or tombstones or cairns. Instead, in front of you, are huge stones, megaliths, tilted so that they stand around creating a pair of triangles. How someone could have moved them into that shape, you do not know.

Inside the shade of the megaliths, you see something move. Curious about what would live in a place that seems to worship the dead, you walk forward inside the triangle that the megaliths have made. As soon as your foot steps within, he appears to you -- a man, around your height, wearing dark clothes strewn with dirt. He must be the one who digs the graves, you think. His face is covered with a strange mask, probably to help block out the smell of decay and rot.

He looks at you and you realize that you are wrong, so very wrong. This is no man. This is the Fleshless King.

You move backwards, trying to get away from the Fleshless King, but you trip over a stone and hit your head upon the edge of one of the megaliths. As darkness overtakes your vision, you see the Fleshless King approach.

You awake inside a wooden coffin as you hear the sound of dirt raining down. The Fleshless King has provided you with a single match and, as you strike it, you see the words etched above you: embrace him.

As the earth covers your grave, you feel the knife beside you and you realize: you are going to die. Now you can only decide how you will die - suffocating in the dark or by your own hand?

You grip the knife and decide.

Above you, the Fleshless King stands and waits for the dead.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Valley of the Dolls

Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by a queen that was made of wood.

You walk into the small kingdom, which is situated in the middle of a valley. There are decorations all around, with streamers and lanterns strewn everywhere. You see a young woman placing a lantern above a doorway and ask her why she is doing it. "It is for the festival," she said. "It's nearly dark -- the festival will soon begin. Come, stranger, join us in our festivities."

Others come out of their houses as the sun dims. When it finally goes below the horizon, there are crowds of people outside talking and laughing. Someone lights the lanterns and suddenly the night is lit up and the evening becomes beautiful. Music begins playing and the talking turns to singing and dancing. You smile. Your recent travels had been very difficult, but this is the kind of place you could see settling down. Someone passes you a wine jug and you take a hearty swig before passing it on.

As the night draws on, you meet the young woman again and ask her what the festival is celebrating. "The festival is for drinking and singing and dancing," she says. You ask what the festival is supposed to represent. "Must it represent something?" she says. "Can we not simply dance because we like dancing?" You ask her if they do this every night. "Every night She lets us," is the reply. You barely hear the quiver in her voice.

The night wears on and eventually you join in the dancing with the young woman. You are enamored -- even though you do not even know her name yet -- and you consider that perhaps your journey is at an end. Then, when the dance is over, the woman says, "The night is almost over. You must leave now, stranger." You try to ask her why, but suddenly a man in a red mask stands up in the stage and addresses the crowd.

"Everyone gather round!" he shouts, his voice booming. "It is time for the story of our Wooden Queen. Bring out the Punch and Judy!"

The woman you were talking to has disappeared, but you approach the stage. It has been a long time since you have seen a Punch and Judy show. The red-masked man laughs as he pulls two puppets onto the stage. He snaps his fingers and the puppets sit up -- and you realize that they are not puppets at all, they are people dressed as puppets. One man and one woman -- and the woman is the one you had been talking to. You realize this must be some sort of tradition.

The red-masked man waves his arms and the man and woman dressed as Punch and Judy stand up. There are strings attached to their limbs leading somewhere, but you cannot see where. The red-masked man does not appear to be making them move, but their movements don't appear to be made by them. Each limb is pulled by a string and made to move -- even the movements of their faces is tied to a string.

The red-masked man appears to be telling a story of how their Wooden Queen founded their kingdom from discarded dolls. As he speaks, the man and woman dressed as Punch and Judy move in a series of synchronized steps, like a dance. The man dressed as Punch trips over his strings, however, and sprawls on the ground. No one helps him and he doesn't move. He looks unnatural, as if a corpse. The woman dressed as Judy dances around his body gracefully, but mechanically.

Finally, the red-masked man's story has ended. He gestures upward as you realize the sun has risen and light is shining across the stage. "The night is over!" the red-masked man declares. "Now is the day of the Wooden Queen."

The woman dressed as Judy suddenly stops and you can see something in her eyes -- a pleading, a helplessness. You want to run up to the stage and help you, but something is stopping you. The strings that are attached to the woman start moving and writhing and twist around her. Men walk up to the stage with pieces of wood and they place them like armor upon the woman and they become a part of her body. Finally, the red-masked man raises up a mask made of wood and painted white. He places it on the woman's head and she slumps to the ground. Her eyes close.

Then her eyes open. You notice there are lines in her eyes -- they look like strings surrounding her pupils. She stands up and raises her hands. Her strings stretch out from her and now you know why you couldn't move, why you still can't move. You couldn't see them before, but now you can. You can see the strings.

The Wooden Queen walks forward towards you. You wanted to stay, she seems to say, so stay. Laugh and drink and dance.

The red-masked man hands you something. You look down. It's a green mask.

Be mine, she seems to say.

You stop fighting and place the mask on your face. Why would you ever leave? The festival hasn't even begun yet!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Progressed Land

Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled by a king who learned.

You enter the kingdom and immediately notice something is off. There are people around, but they are preoccupied. They don't notice you. They don't notice anyone around them. They look lost in thought.

Towards the center of the kingdom, you enter a large amphitheater. Inside, there appear to be ten concentric stone circles.

There are people sitting on the first stone circle, but they're eyes are closed and they look asleep. Going past them, you near a second stone circle with more people sitting. These people have their eyes open and as you walk past them, they follow you. Their faces don't turn, just their eyes. You say, "Hello?" but none of them answer you.

At the third stone circle, the people begin to speak. "Hello? Hello. Hello. Hello?" they repeat. You try to talk to them, but all they say is "Hello."

At the fourth stone circle, the people are moving their legs, wriggling their fingers and saying, "Hell. Oh. Oh. Hell." You try to introduce yourself, but they just stare at you.

At the fifth stone circle, the people are repeating more of your words. "My. Name. Is. Name. My. Is. Is. My Name."

At the sixth stone circle, the people say your name over and over again. You walk hurriedy past them.

At the seventh stone circle, the people are walking around, talking to each other, trying out different tones of voice.

At the eighth stone circle, the people ask you questions. "Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going?" You try to answer as many as you can, but you have to move on.

At the ninth stone circle, the people speak normally to you. Their eyes are wide and their hair is wet, but otherwise, they look normal. You feel relieved and yet, somewhere deep inside, you are unnerved.

At the tenth stone circle, a small group of people is gathered around a large raised pond in the center. "Hello," you say. "Hello," the group says your name. "Come, meet our king." You walk forward, but cannot see anyone else, just the pond and the water inside. They motion you forward, but still all you can see is the pond and your own reflection. "Meet our king," they say.

The pond swirls, but no one is touching it. It swirls and swirls and then a thin tendril rises, growing larger and larger. You realize that the pond is their king. This is the Learning King. They grab you and hold you still as the tendril moves upward. They say your name again and tell you that your words have amused them. The tendril takes hold.

The group lets you go. They go their separate ways and the people on the stone circles move forward one circle each. You stand up and walk to the last circle at the very end and sit down.

And you close your eyes.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Wilderness of Whispers

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom in the wilderness ruled by a wild king.

The Wild King did not sit upon any throne, but hunched himself on his hind legs in the middle of his court. He wore no clothes and had the palest white skin, with eyes as black as coal. When he opened his mouth, rows of sharp teeth could be seen surrounding his pale pink tongue. His fingers were long knives that could cut flesh from the bone.

Each citizen constructed their own home from the wilderness around them. Each day, they would toil in the fields or cut wood to build up their homes. They taught their children to be thankful when they awoke, for waking meant that you were alive for another day.

After the day's work was done, when night descended and the canopy of stars was overhead, the citizens of the kingdom in the wilderness would carefully look around and silently say goodbye. Then, they would lay in their beds and close their eyes and pray for sleep.

And each night, the Wild King would go from home to home and whisper. He would whisper to husbands and wives and children. No one knew what he whispered. If he found someone who was still awake, he would slit their throat with one sharp, quick cut and feast upon their flesh. And in the morning, when the citizens would find the body, they would declare the dead to be one of the Awakened, shades cursed to stay awake forever, unable to tell anybody what they know.

And the Wild King would sit hunched in his court waiting for nightfall, waiting to whisper once again.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Cold Country

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom ruled over by a king who was a child.

The Child King was a little boy who giggled and laughed at things, like boys do. But his laughter often froze the hearts of those who heard it.

The kingdom he ruled was perpetually in winter. The snow never melted on the ground and piled up into walls, forcing the citizens to plow the snow day after day. Crops wouldn't grow, so to prevent themselves from starving, they made plots inside their homes and built up roaring fires near them, so the cold wouldn't seep in and kill what little harvest they could manage.

The Child King's castle was made itself of ice. If a person were to brave the castle walls, they would find ice statues littered around, made into various poses. If one were to examine these statues closely, they might even notice that they weren't statues at all.

Occasionally, the Child King would go skipping through the kingdom, passing door after door, until he came to a home seemingly at random. Then, he would knock on the door and start to sing:

               I'm not a grown-up, I'm not a crone, 
               I know you're in there all alone.
               I'll be your friend, the one and only,
              There's no more need to be lonely.

              Open up and then we'll play,
              We'll have fun, so with me stay.
              I'll be quick and you'll be clever,
             We'll be friends and cold forever.

The door always opens and someone (man, woman, child, it doesn't matter) steps out. They take the Child King's hand and he leads them back to his castle and throne room and they are never seen again.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Kingdom of the Blind

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom ruled by a king who was blind.

The Blind King wore a blindfold over the place where his eyes should have been and a heavy cloak. He always carried with him a large tome. In this tome were the names of every person in his kingdom.

His kingdom was a strange one. When children grew into adults, they forgot their parents. They forgot their pets. They forgot all their lives before. And because they couldn't remember being children, they treated their children unkindly. They had all promised never to do so as children, but those promises faded away with the rest of their memories.

Sometimes, someone new would arrive in the kingdom. The citizens would arrange for them to be brought forth immediately to the Blind King and he would write their name in his tome. Then, they would either become a citizen themselves or leave the kingdom, wandering forever in search of what they had lost.

Sometimes, someone would go to the Blind King with a dispute over land or animals. The Blind King never spoke, but somehow things always got resolved. Men often couldn't remember what their argument had been or even what their names were.

Occasionally, however, there were some citizens who rebelled against the Blind King, even without their childhood. They wanted to be free, to be able to remember what they wanted, to be able to be children again.

The Blind King would have someone bring them to his chamber, where spiders crawled on the walls weaving an endless tapestry of lost innocence.

Nothing is known after that. Those who rebel are never seen again. And those who serve the Blind King try not to notice how much the spiders have grown.

The Wounded King

Do you know of the Wounded King?

The last owner of the Sangraal, the Holy Grail, the Wounded King is injured in the leg or groin. The King is the land and the land is the King, so as he is wounded, so is his Kingdom. His Kingdom is a wasteland, as barren as he is. He can do nothing to help, so all he would do is fish, giving him the nickname of the Fisher King.

There have been many Fisher Kings over the years. The land has always reflected them. When they are happy, the sun shines. When they are sad, the rain pours. When they are angry, the thunder roars and the ground shakes. The King and the land are one. Always.

I am but a humble storyteller and these are my stories. They are fables of kingdoms from far away and long ago. Kingdoms of the blind and countries of the cold. Stories with monstrous kings that you should rightly fear.

They are not true. Nothing is. After all, life is but a story waiting to be told.

And like all good stories, it begins with once upon a time...