Short Stories

This blog is the home of some old short stories I'd written five or six years ago for "challenges" (contests) at the Writers BBS. In such challenges, someone else sets the topic, genre, word length limit, and time in which to complete the story.

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Lorcan's Second Chance

This story was written for a Fantasy Challenge on the subject of a magical object

Long ago in Ireland

The air of the battlefield, heavy with the sharp tang of spilled blood, was rent with the cries of the wounded and dying. Sparks flew and metal shrieked as my friend Cormac and I circled each other like stiff-legged dogs, each testing with our weapons for the other's weakness. Although true vassals to our king, Matholwch of Ireland, we ignored our rightful enemy, the Welsh, and sought to slay each other instead ... I had slept with Cormac's wife, Chevonne, and now death alone could lie between he and I.

By evening and battle's end, our desires had been met and we lay on the bloody field in a grotesque embrace, our weapons sheathed in each other, our souls tethered to life by the merest thread. It seemed I floated above my body, dispassionate, as the day's wealth of corpses was gathered by King Matholwch's men ... I thought, for burial ... I was wrong.

My almost-corpse was dragged along with Cormac's and others to a clearing behind our lines. There, under burgeoning stars, stood a huge black cauldron, bubbling. A pinprick of unease penetrated my serenity as I watched one dead warrior after another dismembered with an ax, the resulting body parts tossed into the cauldron to be sucked below its roiling surface. Within moments, I lost my final remnants of apathy as I watched something unnatural rise slowly up out of that cauldron.

* * * * *

Present Day Wales

I sat on the stone bench in one of Cardiff University's gardens and closed my eyes. The warmth of the sun on my face, the caress of a gentle breeze ... it didn't matter how many lives I'd lived, the solace to be found in nature's beauty never seemed to pall.

"Lorcan?"

I opened my eyes to gaze into others bluer than my own. Professor Ravenwood's graduate student, Judith. She bore a countenance as open and lovely as a flower, so sadly reminiscent of Chevonne. I suppressed a sigh, reminding myself of a lesson not easily learned ... the body, even one as compelling as Judith's, was naught but a temporary shell. Then I smiled ruefully ... I could not deny that despite my misgivings, Judith was indeed becoming the star by which my heart sailed.

These thoughts were banished by the arrival of Ravenwood, the archaeology professor with whom I'd been in contact these last few months. It was with his help that I planned to redeem the lives I'd wasted since that first mistake with Chevonne. I rose to shake his hand and soon we sat at the desk in his office, staring down at photographs of an archeological dig.

"So, it's true. Welsh mythology's cauldron of rebirth has been found." I stretched out a trembling hand to tentatively touch the images.

"So we think. A recent seismic event in the mountain range north of us opened up a large fissure in a defunct copper mine ... some cavers were the first to discover the artifact. But keep in mind, Lorcan, the excavation is in the preliminary stages. Nothing's yet been authenticated," the professor temporized.

"You have doubts?"

"I'll know more when we visit the dig site next week. You're accompanying Judith and myself? After all, your financial support made much of this possible."

"I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Dr. Ravenwood was late for a lecture, so Judith walked me out. As we passed the stone bench, she grasped my sleeve, pulling me down to sit beside her. I raised an interrogative brow.

"I just wanted to thank you," she said. "The professor's research was going nowhere until your money and suggestions gave it new life."

"No thanks are necessary. My motivations were purely selfish."

It was her turn to give an inquiring look and as I let my eyes roam her face, I felt drawn to confide all. She seemed so receptive ... a blank slate on which to record my strange history.

"You know the legend of Arawn's cauldron of rebirth?" I began.

"Of course. The Mabinogion, a text of Welsh mythology, states it was given to the Irish king by Bran, the Welsh leader, as a wedding gift. Later, they fought and the Irish used the cauldron against the Welsh in battle ... they put their warriors' dead bodies into it and over night they were reanimated. Some say the cauldron was destroyed in that battle, others hold it was returned to the underworld's lord, Arawn. "

Disturbed, I turned my gaze away, barely hearing Judith's last words. Reanimated ... what a pale description of the horror I'd witnessed, experienced that night so long ago. When my body had been dismembered, the last shred that bound me to its flesh was severed. Still, in the time it took my spirit to dissolve, I beheld my reconstituted corpse slither from the cauldron, soulless. Without my volition, I began my spiral of rebirth ... a soul in search of a new body ... and only the Gods knew what had transpired with the undead shell I left behind.

"So, we've found the cauldron, have we?"

My head snapped around, eyes locking with those of a stranger now sitting on the other side of Judith. Swallowing dryly, I recognized Cormac. A new body, yes, but the same old soul. A soul that had relentlessly hunted me as I hunted it, remorselessly murdered me unless I slew it first, lifetime after lifetime.

"What do you want?"

Cormac smiled pleasantly. "What I always want ... your death."

Disturbed, Judith stood. "Sorry, I've a class. I'll see you next week, Lorcan, at the excavation site?"

I nodded and she walked off, casting a last puzzled look my way. I turned back to Cormac and in his presence it seemed the sun dimmed, the breeze died ... that we were once more under the stars, the black cauldron's macabre stew bubbling to life. Since that night, we'd not only been aware of our successive rebirths, we'd been linked together by our antipathy. I sighed, daunted by the predictability of our situation. "So, you still want to kill me. Don't you tire of our endless death match ... I know I do."

"It was your betrayal that earned us this."

"Is there to be no forgiveness, then?"

Cormac's eyes widened in surprise for we'd never yet had this conversation in all our many lives. "Are you saying you regret what brought us here?"

In truth, I'd been wild and proud in that distant past, regrets the last thing on my mind. But after a millennia of lifetimes, I'd gained some perspective on both passion and friendship. "What I'm saying is that I'm weary of the waste I've made of my string of lives. With the discovery of the cauldron, I can use its powers to gift others ... grant to everyone an awareness of life's offer of unlimited second chances."

"Unlimited second chances?" Cormac's laugh was bitter. "People don't want knowledge of their serialized immortality ... such an awareness would only drive them mad. They want a beginning and an end, a heaven and a hell. And then there is what Iwant ... the sweet nothingness of oblivion. I must deny you possession of the cauldron, Lorcan, for the nothingness I seek will only be found once I've destroyed both the object and the two of us as well. Meet me this evening at the excavation site. If you need incentive to comply, know that your young woman will be joining us."

"No! I..."

My protest was cut short by a blow from Cormac's fist that brought with it unconsciousness.

I stood at dusk on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa ... Mount Snowdon as the English name it ... gazing into the deep blue waters of Lyn Glaslyn. I would have thought it beautiful had I not known it to be dead, its brilliant color a symptom of the copper salts leeching into the lake from the abandoned Britannia copper mine on its shore. It was off of one of these deep mine shafts that I knew I would find not only the excavated cauldron and Cormac but also Judith, for true to his word, he had taken her.

Casting a final glance at the surrounding peaks, I approached the roped off entrance to the mine, wondering where the security guard might be. My question was answered directly I entered the shaft ... he lay unconscious and bound just within ... Cormac's doing. I took a deep steadying breath and watched it form a visible vapor as I exhaled into the cold dimness. About to switch on the flashlight I'd brought, I felt the chill hardness of metal pressed against the back of my neck and heard the snick of a pistol's safety being snapped off.

"Lorcan, how good of you to come," said Cormac from behind me.

Light suddenly blossomed from his lantern as I turned to face him. "Where is Judith? Have you harmed her?" I asked.

"The woman is unhurt and awaits us at the excavation site. Shall we proceed?" He punctuated his suggestion with a wave of his pistol.

I made no initial resistance but instead turned my mind to forming a plan which would undo Cormac. However, as we traveled down through various tunnels into the very roots of the mountain, I found my thoughts overwhelmed by my new environment. A dank breeze ruffled my hair, carrying with it the scent of secret places and here and there, Cormac's lantern exposed the fantastic brilliance of crystallized ore, the deeper darkness of bottomless pits.

"A fitting home for a magical cauldron. Perhaps it truly does lie with Arawn, lord of the underworld."

Cormac snorted in disdain. "You've come to believe in Welsh gods?"

"You can't deny the cauldron's power ... we're living out the results of the transformation it accomplished. How can you possibly hope to destroy such an object?"

Cormac did not deign to answer but pushed me roughly forward and within a short time we approached what seemed to be a deep chasm in the floor of the shaft. Heat radiated from the fissure and as I looked down into that abyss, I felt the torrid kiss of sulfurized air upon my face. Far below, a thin line of molten gold wound its way through living rock ... magma!

Cormac saw my confusion and smiled grimly. "To answer your earlier question, it's my belief that if you and I re-enter the cauldron as the object is cast into that conflagration from the bowels of the earth, we shall finally rest in peace."

Horrified, I watched Cormac's face as he spoke and saw there exhaustion, despair, the beginnings of madness. I shouldn't have been surprised ... each lifetime we'd shared had ended this way, one of us losing control and taking the other along for the ride. I'd wished this lifetime to be different, though. For the first time since that initial life, I felt deeply for someone. By bringing the cauldron's power to all, I'd hoped to repay my debts and spend enumerable lives linked in affection to Judith.

"Come," said Cormac.

He turned away from the chasm, his vigilance momentarily relaxed, and I took my chance, tackling him from behind. We landed heavily, the lantern rolling away to lay on its side, the wick sputtering. Cormac tried to bring the pistol to bear and we frantically fought over its possession, heaving back and forth, mere inches from the chasm's edge. There was a sudden muffled retort and we froze ... the pistol had gone off. I watched Cormac expectantly and it was only when the cold hard floor rose up to slam into the side of my head that I realized I was the one who'd been shot.

In shock, I felt little pain and was able to calmly watch Cormac rise, retrieve the lantern and put the pistol in his waistband. I was faintly surprised to see an expression of concern on his face as he bent over me but then I remembered ... he needed me to be at his side in the cauldron when it met its end in that underground river of lava.

"A chest wound," Cormac commented. "With any luck, it should take a few hours for you to expire ... plenty of time to fulfill your part in the plan." With that dispassionate assessment of my condition, he hefted me up over his shoulder and headed for the excavation site.

After a quarter of an hour, we had reached the dig. Cormac put me down, propping me against the mine shaft's wall as he took out his pistol. A small chamber opened out before me from the shaft and a lantern had been left burning within it. Peering through the opening, I saw a grid of squares laid into the chamber's floor, marked off with wooden stakes and string. A topographic map of the area was tacked to one wall and spades and brushes lay in a pile near some unearthed artifacts. The air was thick with the smell of sulfur and heavy with mist ... a large volcanic steam vent clove the back of the chamber. Near the vent, the ancient black cauldron I so fearfully remembered protruded balefully from the earth.

I spared one disturbed glance at that magical object and then glared at Cormac. "Where is Judith?"

With an oath, he rushed into the chamber and had barely crossed the threshold when a shovel seemed to swing out of nowhere and connect with the back of his head. He dropped bonelessly to the floor, unconscious. Judith appeared from behind an outcropping of rock, shovel in hand. Seeing me leaning precariously at the opening of the chamber, she ran and embraced me, eliciting a gasp of pain. After a moment, I held her away from me, scanning her anxiously. Her hair was disheveled and damp, her eyes wild but, she appeared unhurt. It was then she noticed the blood that now covered us both.

"Lorcan, you're hurt!"

I ignored the comment. "Help me into the chamber, Judith ... I must see the cauldron."

She didn't move. "Forget the cauldron. You need to get to a doctor."

"Not yet," I answered. Pushing away from Judith, I used the walls as support and slowly approached the cauldron, my skin crawling in a kind of atavistic dread. It had been almost entirely freed from the earth and rested upright, fully chest high and quite wide. As I drew closer, an odd smell, reminiscent of cooked flesh, emanated forebodingly from the object. Then my eyes widened in momentary shock as it seemed a dark liquid frothed within the cauldron. With a shuddering breath, I relaxed ... it was naught but an optical illusion caused by the lantern's flickering light.

Judith was at my side again, urging me to leave. I gazed into her blue eyes, smelled her hair, kissed her, held her close ... and sighed, heartsick, because it wasn't enough. Not even the heady power of passion could stand against the profound wrongness that radiated in tangible waves from that black ageless object. Cormac was right ... it needed to be done away with.

Unable to force me into leaving, Judith ran from the excavation site, determined to bring help. I let her go. Then I set myself to pushing the cauldron towards the gaping steam vent which appeared to connect at its depths to that molten sea of magma moving through the mountain's core. After fifteen minutes of agonized and largely futile efforts, I slumped, weakened by despair and a loss of blood. Then I felt the cauldron move under my hands and looked up through tears to see Cormac at my side, pushing. Together, we accomplished the task.

As the cauldron teetered precariously on the edge of the vent, nearly obscured by sulfurous steam, Cormac carefully climbed inside it. I reached out a hand to stay him but he shook it off. Then he just sat there, a smear of dried blood giving his face a vulnerability I'd never before noticed, and stared at me beseechingly. He didn't need to ask ... I knew his wish ... that I give the cauldron the final necessary push and then join him within the object, embracing what he believed would be a death to outlast all previous deaths. I did so.

* * * * *

Long ago in Ireland

The air of the battlefield, heavy with the sharp tang of spilled blood, was rent with the cries of the wounded and dying. Sparks flew and metal shrieked as my friend Cormac and I circled each other like stiff-legged dogs, each testing with our weapons for the other's weakness. Although true vassals to our king, Matholwch of Ireland, we ignored our rightful enemy, the Welsh, and sought to slay each other instead ... I had slept with Cormac's wife and now death alone could lie between he and I ... or so it seemed.

Yet as I fought, the fragrance of Chevonne's perfume still on me, I began to lose my conviction. And where before I'd seen only rage in Cormac's face, I now found confusion and hurt. As my opponent reeled back under my weapon's latest thrust, I hesitated in making the killing blow. Instead, surprising even myself, I drove my sword into the ground before me and fell to my knees beside it. As Cormac raised his blade to dispatch me, a few words spilled from my lips, drawn it seemed from the very depths of my soul.

"What I did was wrong."

A gentle breeze blew back my long dark hair, baring my throat to the one I'd harmed. A strange serenity washed over me and turning my face up to the sun, I closed my eyes and waited calmly for the blow that would serve me what I had earned. It never came. When I finally chose to look, there was no sign of Cormac on the crowded field. I left the battleground then and the village as well, never to return. News of the conflict I'd deserted reached me on the road ... weird stories of magic cauldrons and necromancy. I paid them no mind, my own story of betrayal and forgiveness fantastic enough for me.