Writing Prompt: 50 years ago, a team of mages tried to create life only to fail gruesomely. Now the local lord has sent you into their old lab to clean up their mistakes.
How long was I out? Kali woke up rubbing his temples, head aching, chest heavy. This can’t be healthy. He’d woken up the day before in much the same way, only that had been due to drinking – excessive drinking, thank you Budny. This time the aches had come from exhaustion. Kali had only some short hours ago expelled the risen spirit of Lady Hafner from her dilapidated home. Hungry work that was, too! Though I can’t stay for dinner, it’s time to leave now I think. Kali took a last look under the four poster bed – nope, no doorway there – then left in a hurry for his room at the inn, not once looking back to gaze upon the Hafner’s ghastly estate.
“Hunz.” Kali cried as he strode through the bars batwing doors, “I could kill for some eggs.”
Hunz, a giant of a Dwarf with flame-coloured hair that matched his eyes, gave a hard cough, “Kali…”
“Yes, yes. I know. I’ve dealt with Lady Hafner (Gods rest her soul, at last), amends have been made! And now I’d really appreciate a plate or four of eggs, a warm mug or five of ale, and a decent fortnights sleep.”
“Kali…” Hunz grunted again, trying to gain the Bard’s attention (a difficult task at the best of times).
Kali was already sitting himself down at a table in the corner; a rounded booth with cushioned chairs that stood beside a window overlooking the village’s fields. Winter be kind, be short if you can. Kali prayed. The fields for now were dusted by a light covering of snow, it had been eight Moons – eight Moons already! – without a decent warmth or harvest, the third longest winter on record.
Before Kali could speak again his request for some eggs and some ale two familiar looking guards seated themselves at his table, one to either side of him.
“Is this you?” the first guard asked with a smug grin, laying on the table a sketch of the Bard with the words Warrant for Arrest printed in bold above his head, “We think it might be, you see, and on account of all the trouble that was caused at Lady Hafner’s (Gods rest her soul) his Lordship wold very much like a word.”
“That’s not me.” Kali folded his arms defiantly, casting a quick glance at Hunz.
The Inn Keeper shrugged, shaking his head – you got yourself into this mess, you can get yourself out – before disappearing somewhere below floor.
“Sure looks like you.” the second guard nodded, leaning in to stare at a sketch he’d already studied several hundred times over.
“Please,” Kali protested, “the nose is far too big!”
The first guard held Kali by the back of the neck, holding the sketch up beside him, “Take another look Durran, real careful this time.” the guard’s grip was slowly tightening around Kali’s neck, “Do you think this is our guy? Because I’ll have to say, I’d be really disappointed if it wasn’t.”
“You know what Frooge, I’m not too sure.”
Frooge’s grip was tightening by the second. Durran leveled his eyes with Kali’s, grinning as he watched the Bard turn strange shades of purple and blue.
“Alright, alright. You’ve made your point.” Kali wheezed between breathes, “It’s me! It’s me…”
“Come on then,” Frooge hauled Kali to his feet, “let’s not keep his Lordship waiting.”
It would have be a long walk to the City, but thankfully the guards hadn’t come entirely by foot. At the far edge of the Juniper Forests were two healthy looking Mare’s awaiting their arrival. Thick shouldered stallions with earthly manes and eight muscular legs upon which to gallop.
“You’ll have to ride up back.” Frooge said as he turned to Kali, “No room in the saddles.”
Kali’s face dropped, “You can’t be serious? There’s room enough for twelve in those saddles!”
“Afraid not.” Durran shook his head in sarcastic sorrow, “We wish there was another way, but… there isn’t.” he took from the back of his own Mare what looked an awful lot like the lid of a garbage can, and tossed it over to Kali.
Kali groaned as the lid flew into his stomach, “What in Hell’s Fire do you expect me to do with this?”
“Ride it.” Frooge suggested.
“In these?” Kali presented his wrists, bound by shackles, “I’m likely to die before we ever reach the City.”
“That’d be a real shame.” Durran agreed, “I’m sure his Lordship will mourn you.”
Filthy grunts… first chance I get I’ll… I’ll… truthfully Kali wasn’t entirely sure what he would do.
The ride was endless torture for Kali. His sled had been tied to the larger of the two Mare (Durran’s), and not particularly well. He was thrown up and over, cruising into ditches, bobbing over dirt hills, ducking under reaching branches. He’d lost count of how many times he’d hit his head, and his hands were throbbing for how hard it was to keep hold of the rope tying his sled to the Mare.
Kali tried to pass the time by counting Pharatooke – two headed, bullish creatures with large eyes and bellies quite literally covered in udders – but it was an unbearably dull task he’d set himself. He did, however, spy in the distance a wooden Caravan propped up on two spindly legs, roaming the hills under watch of a pointed shadow that peered out from the Caravan’s porch. Strange. Kali had thought at the time, only to receive a nasty whack to the head that caused him to forget all about it.
“He’s a bit battered and bruised, m’lord.” Frooge had said.
“His own fault, if you’ll forgive my saying so. He ain’t any good at riding.” Durran had added.
Kali was, by all accounts, very much battered and bruised. In fact his face was swollen, his lip split, his hands red raw from the rope and his blue shirt and trousers had been torn beyond repair. Only his lute and his self-dressing shoes survived the ride unscathed. Thank the Gods for that at least.
“You may leave us.” his Lordship (Lord of the Opal Eye) waved the two grunting guards away, focusing his attention solely on Kali.
These two were now alone in a grand hall decorated by pillars that stood in shallow pools of water. The ceiling was a glass dome that looked up into the now starry sky. All around the room ran a balcony, upon which various nosing faces would gather. Streaming banners baring the Opal Eye fell down from the balconies, and from the heart of the glass dome ran a silk-like chain that held a sort of disco-ball chandelier. And at the very centre of the room was the Lord’s throne, a throne mounted upon a metal ball so that it could turn to face any direction it desired (below the ball there were mechanical arms that could carry the seat if necessary). Above the Lord’s head there sat an enormous Opal jewel which seemed to blink as if surveying the room.
“M’lord, there’s been some kind of mistake…” Kali had been working on a speech for a good part of his ride here, but the Lord of the Opal Eye was in no mood for speeches.
The Lord raised a fist, looking down upon the beaten Bard, his gaze piercing from beneath the cowl of his hooded cloak, “I will talk, and you will listen. If you can manage that, you will live. Not only will you live, but I will allow you a bath, a meal, and fresh clothing before you leave.”
“Leave?” Kali stammered, quickly throwing a hand over his mouth. He thought of apologising, but soon realised what a mistake that would have been. Keep your mouth shut, listen to the good man, and then he’ll let you leave. Kali smiled, broadly, his gums bloodied from a few too many knocks to the face. He gestured for the Lord to continue.
“I have been watching you, Bard, and quite an un-extraordinary affair it’s been…”
“…that was, until you encounter at the Hafner estate. How exactly did you manage to open that doorway I wonder? Please, don’t answer that, I will come to know soon enough. But still, a quite magnificent feat, even if the hag you conjured was… somewhat lacking, shall we say?” although Kali couldn’t see the Lord’s face beneath the hood, he knew the man was smiling, gloating even, “And with such proficiency you sent her back, remarkable work, truly.”
You almost sound sincere. Kali continued smiling, nodding along politely.
“Now comes the bargain, the favour I’ll ask of you, Bard. In return for this I’ll spare you, set you free.”
“Under the law of the land, my land, to awaken the dead is punishable only by death. A life for a life, and balance is restored. However, as you have returned the Lady Hafner I will forgo such formalities as having you hanged…”
Formalities? That’s stone cold murder!
“…if you will agree to investigate the late laboratory of Ivor Hertz.”
“The fifth?” Kali couldn’t contain himself. Was that excitement? Or fear?
“The very same.” the Lord confirmed, a rising agitation in his voice, “So, Bard, what say you?”
“Do I have a choice?”
And with that simple yet finite exchange plans were set in motion for Kali to be escorted to the late Ivor Hertz’s laboratory.
Kali received, as was promised, a bath, a hot meal (of backed beans and a jacket potato, not an egg to be seen unfortunately) and fresh clothes, in that order. He was relieved to find that his new clothes included a cloak, natural green with leaves woven into the pattern, a saving grace in times of winter (though it wasn’t a thing like the Bard’s own cloak, stowed safely away in his room at the inn). He was too provided with a bed to sleep in, albeit a bed of hay that was out in the stables. Regardless the rest was welcome (what little rest he found, that is, for Mare are far from quiet room mates).
Come noon of the next day Kali was back on the road, this time being carted off inside a cage – can’t blame them, I’d cage a Bard too… when it comes to acts of heroics we’re not exactly known for sticking around. The journey took a half hour, but what an interminable half hour it was. Kali’s escort was a man named Jebb, and by the Gods could he talk, about nothing in particular.
In the short time Kali knew Jebb he learned the man was on his third (and final, so he claimed) marriage, trying for his eighteenth child (a boy, if the Gods be kind to us, sixteen already are girls), living in a humble shack (by the grace o’ the good Lord, for he don’t charge us rent), was tasked with feeding, cleaning and maintaining the Mare’s (not that you’ll want to know what maintaining the Mare’s means – though Jebb had gone into this in great detail with Kali anyway), was a keen fisherman, an aspiring Ski Instructor (if only he could find the time to practice more often… in actual fact he’d never once been skiing in all his life), and (among many other things) was a subscriber to the Church of Comings Round (as in, what goes around, comes around, and ain’t Karma a b*stard at that). All in all Kali was out of that cage and deep inside Ivor’s laboratory the first chance he got.
Ivor Hertz the Fifth;
Ivor was a self-proclaimed magician, not known to have studied in any particular school or discipline, though it was rumoured he, and a number of his colleague’s, had been working on developing life. Life from out of magic. This was the thought that housed itself snug within Kali’s mind as he descended in the chuntering elevator. Lights flickered overhead and a constant crackle ran through the intercom. I didn’t think magician’s much cared for machines? Kali tried not to think about that too much, and instead focused on ignoring his reflection.
It was likely installed as some sort of security measure, Kali had noticed it the moment he stepped into the elevator, and immediately turned away. A mirror, encompassing the entire back wall of the elevator box, only it wasn’t an ordinary mirror. Imbued with magic the mirror was designed to pray on whoever would stare too long, and in order to keep the onlookers attention the mirror would deliberately trip up when mimicking them, missing a move, a wave of the hand, a blink of the eye, nothing major, just enough to keep your wondering, wondering and watching. What happened to those that stared too long? I really don’t think we should talk about that.
Ah, saved by the bell.
Kali’s institutions were to investigate Ivor’s work, extract the truth from the rumours of this creating life from out of magic. And if he wouldn’t mind terribly, to clean up whatever mess the old magician and his friends had left behind. No, your Lord, of course I don’t mind.
It wasn’t too much unlike any other laboratory Kali had ever seen. There were the craning lamps for lights (not too bright nor too dim), desks piled to the ceiling with papers, charts on the walls, chemistry kits strewn across entire tables with Gods only know what inside their vials (there is a certain science to magic, some magic).
A projector had been left lit in the corner of the room, displaying the image of – what exactly is that? – on the ceiling. It looked like a toad, certainly amphibious, webbed feet, but with too many eyes… and a tail? Kali powered down the projector – something tells me the rest of those slides are best left unseen.
There were closets spaced around the room, one for each of Ivor’s assistants. Kali only searched the first before deciding it was an awful idea to continue. Abraham the name on the closet had read, and it seemed Abraham had failed to leave the confines of this laboratory alive. There he was, inside of the closet, strung up by a rope around his neck and twirling silent circles in the gloom. And here I thought Ivor was pro-life.
Kali nosed through several reports, a few dissertations on re-incarnation, a paper on the embodiment of the soul, and a study on what it means to be alive. Not one scrap gave any real answers as to what Ivor and his team had been up to down here. He was about ready to leave, when he heard the shivering cry of something wet.
“Hello?” Kali called out, unnerved by his own echo, “Is anyone down here?” he decided to add, “Anyone alive, that is?”
The crying seemed to stop, but only for a second, and then it was on the move. First running behind the walls, then climbing within them, up them, and digging its way through the metal shafts that clung to the ceiling. Kali’s eyes followed the shafts to a circular machine with an iron grate for a face. The machine began to shake, slowly at first, but the shaking was fast growing. Behind the grate the sound of crying seeped out into the open light of day (or the open dark of the laboratory if you like). Two dull, grey eyes peered out from beyond their iron cage.
What are you? Kali crept as close as he dared to the creature, crouching before the grate a good few feet away. Tiny hands clawed from within, frail, hairy things, six of them in all. The eyes regarded Kali with wonder and with fear (in much the same way Kali had regarded the name of Ivor Hertz the Fifth). No, not what are you… who are you? A man obsessed with life, devoting his own to answers on death, on what comes next. Could it be…
Kali jumped at the sound of a rising shutter behind him, he whirled round on his heels and saw the entire back wall of the laboratory was being lifted up into the ceiling. When he turned back to look again for the creature with the grey eyes, it was gone.
Maybe it’s best I leave that out of my report. Kali felt there were a lot of maybes that were best left alone today.
But this, this I can use. As the back wall rose it revealed something far more telling than any paper report. One half of the wall was a tank, divided into smaller chambers inside of which indescribable things lurked about the murky waters. Labels had been stuck upon the front of each chamber, categorising the creature(s) within. Only something was off, the waters were bubbling, and the creatures inside seemed sluggish. The heaters. Kali realised. Whatever had been keeping the tank warm had been left on, to do so indefinitely.
The other half of the wall was draped in cages, some tall enough for a Bard to stand inside of (and there were bones to attest to that fact), and others small enough for little more than birds or mice or even baby monkeys. That was partly the science of the magic, then came the magic itself. Despite what should have been true, everything that lingered inside of these tanks and cages was, and remained to be, alive.
The sluggish creatures should have boiled, yet they fought on, claiming their vile victory over death. The bodies of men and women subjected to foul torture should’ve lay perfectly still, and yet they twitched, some pointing and others even glaring without eyes. The mice, the birds, the monkeys-that-were, they should have starved long ago. Yet they remained to be, withered impressions of their former selves, sitting endlessly in the dark.
That’s about enough of that. Kali shook his head, disgusted by what he’d seen, yet it was more than enough to take back to Lord of the Opal Eye. This was as thorough an investigation as he’d hoped to give. Now to clean up. Kali was provided with the means to send Ivor’s laboratory on to the High-Heavens above, all of which was waiting topside with Jebb. Oh Gods, Jebb.
But first Kali felt an obligation to Ivor’s experiments, as a Bard he had the means to end their suffering. Taking up his lute he played to them a song of endless sleep;
Close now those tired eyes of old,
Let magic leave alone thy soul.
Here now comes the sweet relief,
Of undisturbed and endless sleep.
What magic there was seeped out from within these creatures in a great flurry of putrid light. A light that carried the foulest stench. Close now those tired eyes of old, let magic leave alone thy soul. Then one by one the creatures faded from the World of the living, settling down to take their rest eternal. Here now comes the sweet relief, of undisturbed and endless sleep.
Yet even once the Bard had finished there still remained the sound of a faint sobbing, haunting the laboratory forever more.
Well, there won’t be a place for haunting soon enough. Kali headed for the elevator, just about ready to leave. So long as I can keep Jebb quiet long enough to ask for the damned fireworks! With the gentle ring of a bell the elevator began its ascent, and Kali waved farewell to the laboratory of Ivor Hertz the Fifth.
Copyright © K R Perry 2019