Wednesday, November 19, 2008

From The Valley Of Lost Projects: The Mask of Gold -- A Complete Short Story Posted In The Comments

After the great wave swept away the atolls of his kingdom, Kanatanka fled into what he thought was
an endless ocean --

Only to find himself in a strange land --

Filled with strange creatures.

In the distance he sees it...

The Black Tower

About a year or so ago I started working on what was intended to be an online adventure comic strip. In order to make life easy on myself I decided to do something simple and familiar. (Note to self -- this never works.) There are certain tastes of mine that are like malaria -- I can go for years without thinking to indulge them and then they resurface and I'm swept away on a feverish tide.

In this case it was Sword & Sorcery. When I was a kid back in the seventies there was a revival of this form of fantasy, spearheaded by the work that Lin Carter and L. Sprague deCamp put in on Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Ballantine Books has recently republished all of Howard's Conan stories (among others -- the Soloman Kane series being a particular favorite) and going over those rekindled my interest in this very minor sub-genre.

(As an aside, in a lot of ways this revival was fueled by the population of the Lord of the Rings -- even though the Weird Tales crew was active long before the Inklings. Conan predates Frodo.)

Here are two different ways of looking at S & S. First is that it's the fantasy equivalent of hard boiled fiction, that it was Howard taking the more mannered tradition established by William Morris (yeah, that William Morris) and Lord Dunsany and giving it a gritty, here-and-now perspective. The characters are going to be gutter-dwelling underdogs before they achieve greatness, and they're more likely to be motivated by a need for drinking money as by destiny. Magic isn't so much the organizing principal of the cosmos -- it's more like a Saturday night special. And so on.

From another point of view S & S came about as the result of Howard combining two genres -- historical adventure and horror. Howard's setting for the Conan stories was a thinly-veiled Europe, Africa, and Near East and his historical precedents were taken from any time that struck his fancy -- everything from the Neolithic to the Edwardian period.

I've always wanted to try my hand at that stuff. But I wanted a non-Eurocentric background -- a big part of my pleasure in fantastic literature derives from a sense of exoticism and other people have been playing in Howard's sandbox for so long that most work modeled on his stuff is dull, dull, dull. I wanted something different.

Hmmm. A vague pre-historic setting with a wild mix of creatures and cultures... Hey, you know where and when they had a great mix of critters just begging to be used in this kind of story? Miocene Central America. This would predate the evolution of man -- but this is a freaking fantasy, man. And there are rumors of everyone from the Polynesians to the Chinese having left their mark on prehistoric Central America. So I decided to go the Howard route and include anything that felt like fun rather than construct something that was intended as serious speculation.

Thus was born Kanatanka -- AKA Conan the Samoan. As a young king, his forbidden love led to the destruction of his island home. Fleeing the destruction, he finds himself in a strange new land...

The initial story, Tribes of the Black Tower, was partially inspired by my brother-in-law, Aubrey Ankrum. He was telling me about a show he'd seen about cairn builders and their practices of worshipping their ancestors. As he described how they'd creep through the narrow passages into the chamber where the bodies lay I found myself vividly imagining the experience and when we got to the part where they reached the chamber...

Well, the idea of what would happen to people breathing the gasses of decomposition came to me in a fashion that was not subtle.

"Dude," I said, "they were totally huffing corpses. They were getting high off that shit!"

And there was borne the degenerate cult of the Black Tower.

I wound up having to ditch Kanatanka as the novel proved too demanding. But as part of the experiment I tried writing a story using the character and setting. Aubrey thought it was the best thing I'd ever written; Rob thought it was the worst -- that it lacked the anger and fear that grounds the majority of my work. I can't figure out where to send the damned thing so here it is, in the first comment section. Hey, everyone, free story!

I will say that it was about as much fun as I've had with fiction. I didn't write it so much as sit back and transcribe the movie I was watching and when I was done it needed almost no edits to get it into its current state. So put yourself into a seventies state of mind -- picture Kanatanka airbrushed on the side of a van -- and read The Mask of Gold.

I think I may have to go back to Tribes of the Black Tower when I'm done with the rest of the novel...


Sean Craven said...

Sean Craven
For Lin Carter.

The Thunder’s Ghost floated in darkness; the moon was below the horizon and clouds overhead hid the stars. After sunset the black night had been broken only by gleams and glows from the creatures of the sea. Now, hours later, the pirates saw a light on the horizon as though the sun was rising early.
“Raise the anchor,” Captain Tzen said and drained his cup of red millet wine. They’d taken toll of a merchant vessel from the Central Kingdom two days before and at first Tzen had been delighted to have a taste of home. Now the thick sweet liquor only reminded him of what he’d left behind.
He looked around the deck at his crew; Tzen was a scholar and before fleeing home his prospects had been bright. He still wore the wispy beard and mustache he’d been entitled to as a candidate for magistrate. Now he was an ocean away from the province he thought he’d govern, surrounded by renegade soldiers, peasants still stinking of pig shit, and the barbarians of this strange land.
There were diminutive Brave Folk, cheeks pierced with the white and gray feathers of sea birds instead of blue and red from macaws, rangy long-haired fishermen from the mangrove villages, Qannon cultists with their headdresses of waxed linen and gentle smiles, eager to deliver souls into the arms of the Mother of Mercy. Worse, there were half-men like the insolent giant Kanatanka in his brightly patterned kilt and the sloth-bearded demon with spotted red skin and hair the color of straw. Tzen felt a wave of disgust wash through him and he longed for the company of his own folk and the conversation of poets and courtesans.
Kanatanka rose silently and tapped the red-faced demon on the shoulder, mimed what he wanted him to do. As they turned the squealing winch and pulled the stone anchor from the ocean’s bed, Captain Tzen turned back to stare at the light on the horizon.
Since they’d anchored the Thunder’s Ghost had tugged anxiously at the cable. Once freed the ship caught a current and drifted silently towards the golden light. Ma Chu, the first mate, held the tiller loosely, letting the ship take its head. It was as though the Thunder’s Ghost was being pulled by the Captain’s gaze.

The light came from a barge, a temple, a golden island. Square and stepped like the pyramids of the northern jungles, larger than any ship Captain Tzen had seen or read of. It was covered in gold, gold inscribed with strange geometries, lit by the flames in the eyes of hundreds of masks of men set in its walls.
Xabalanque and Hunapu, twins nearly five feet tall who towered over the other Brave Folk, whispered fiercely to one another and then Hunapu spoke in liquid words like a mockingbird imitating a stream.
Kanatanka listened, nodded. He’d been repairing his sword, an arc of gleaming wood, its blade made of shark’s teeth bigger than a man’s hand. He set the weapon down on the deck and approached Captain Tzen.
Tzen looked up at him; Kanatanka was more than a foot taller than he was, with the smooth massive build of a seal or a dolphin. Broad, flat nose and a wide thick-lipped mouth, long black hair tied back with a strip of leather… Tzen stepped back.
“Captain,” Kanatanka said and gestured towards the pyramid of gold. “This was made by green men, tree men. I know.” Tzen bristled at the giant’s voice, bothered both by his foreign cadence and his clear pronunciation – the tongue of the Central Kingdom had no place in that mouth. “We wait for morning. This is…” Kanatanka waved his hands as he searched for the right word. “Things are not dead here.”
Captain Tzen then drew his own sword, the only metal on the ship. It sang from the sheath in a motion too quick to see and then Kanatanka’s chin was balanced on the tip of the blade.
Kanatanka was still. He looked down the gleaming blade at Captain Tzen, the calm in his eyes an insult.
“Do you think you command Thunder’s Ghost?” Captain Tzen’s words came in a fine spray of spittle. “Insolence! Insolence!”
Kanatanka spoke slowly. “I have been told of this thing. It is not safe --” He jerked his head and the blade bit into his chin as his eyes darted towards the golden pyramid.
Tzen’s eyes followed and in that moment Kanatanka leapt back. Before Captain Tzen could give an order the giant had crossed the deck and was over the rail. The ship shifted in the water as the crew went to the side to look but the big man was gone.

Ma Chu had served Captain Tzen for the last five years and had come to have a sense for the tides of the Captain’s moods, their ebb and flow and surge. The First Mate had never seen him in this state before. It was as though the Captain was asleep and walking, called by a silent voice.
Others heard that voice; as the Captain made ready to board the golden barge he spoke no orders; his will was obeyed nonetheless. The two boats were made ready and then lowered into the water. As the Captain started down the ladder he looked at Ma Chu and Ma Chu followed him in spite of his fear.
The First Mate liked nothing of this. Who built this thing? Who tended the masked lanterns? No one was visible and Ma Chu contemplated Kanatanka’s words with a shudder.
Things are not dead here…

Kanatanka floated in the water, clinging to the hull of the Thunder’s Ghost, invisible in the shadows. He watched the boats settle into the water and offered a prayer to his ancestors, those kings and queens of his drowned homeland, and thanked them for the familiar taste of the salt sea on his lips.
He listened as the splashing of the oars faded and blended with the lapping of the waves, and then heard another splash, closer. It was his sword. He looked up and saw Xabalanque and Hunapu looking over to the side. He swam to the sword floating hilt-up and raised his hand to them; they waved back and laughed. Kanatanka smiled to himself – those two would laugh at their own deaths -- then fastened the sword’s leather thong around his wrist. His kilt clung to his thighs, heavy with water, and his war club was tucked into the waistband. He was quiet as he rounded the Thunder’s Ghost, moving only by frog-kicking underwater. He watched the ship’s boats tie off against the golden pyramid.
His mind went back and he remembered his green family, his days with the tree folk in the Land of White Maples. At first they’d looked like iguanas or caimans to him but by the time he’d left they were people, the same as any other. He remembered Creche Brother, an old man gone red-brown down his spiky back and tail. He remembered the tales he told. The story of the golden pyramid.
Creche Brother and Kanatanka reclined in a nest lined with leaves, far above the ground. Creche Brother’s eyes were cloudy and Kanatanka wanted to peel the old skin from them; it would wait until they went to the hot springs.
“When you roundheads first came we did not know what to make of you,” he said. Kanatanka nodded.
“Some thought you were demons, some thought you were gods, others said that you were monkeys the same as the big black howlers or the golden marmosets. Cults sprang up to explain or exploit the few roundheads we were able to befriend or capture.
“One of these was led by Gold Priest. He saw roundheads gather the gleaming pebbles of gold from the streams and rivers. He left our lands and found that they had tribes and nations. He looked to the future and saw roundheads and their love of gold.
“So he said that if the green people were to thrive in those coming days they would have to rule. On the great river he made a floating temple of wood shaped like the roundhead’s temples; he covered it with gold worked with images of the roundheads and with shapes and patterns cleverly laid out to trap a roundhead’s mind, snares for the soul. He made himself a mask that would speak to the roundheads and fixed it to his face and left it there. He gathered our foolish children in his golden crèche and told them that if they would live they would have to take on the nature of the roundheads. Cruel things he did to them and strange. His magics let those children live despite his actions. One hundred years he lived and two and finally we saw that he would not die.
“Then we had enough and we called for rain. It rained in the mountains, praise the spirits, and the great river rose and took Gold Priest’s temple as though it were a leaf in the flood and swept it out to sea. To this day it floats, calling out to those who would listen, offering promises of gold…”

The intricate decorations on the side of the golden pyramid made it easy to tie the boats off and at the center of each face was a staircase running down below the waterline. Chains and pendants shaped like discs and stars hung everywhere and the noise they made with the gentle motion of the sea made Ma Chu think of the clink of a wallet full of coins. Captain Tzen took the lead and the crew silently followed him. Ma Chu wished he had the courage to speak up but he had no desire to draw attention to himself.
Gold, gold all around them, the walls were gold, they walked on gold, yet no one thought to take it in their hands. There was too much. It had no meaning, or its meaning was such that it crushed the mind. Greed was helpless in the face of such wealth.
The night was warm and Ma Chu dripped sweat as they mounted the steps. They entered into the opening at the top of the pyramid and found themselves in a great square chamber. Statues lined the walls; grim statues bearing weapons, wooden swords with black glass blades and staves with great stones at their heads. Their golden bodies were those of great reptiles with human faces set in their chests.
Ma Chu was looking at one of those faces when its eyes opened and met his gaze. The statue opened its human mouth and spoke.
“So you’ve come, Captain Tzen,” the golden face said. “His holiness waits for you alone.” The statue gestured towards an opening in the floor at the center of the chamber, at the staircase leading down. Ma Chu saw gold flake at shoulder and elbow as the statue moved, a thin layer of leaf over leather… this was no statue.
His unseeing eyes fixed on something invisible to Ma Chu, Captain Tzen went to the stairs and descended into the darkness.

Kanatanka climbed from the water, looked to see that he was unobserved, and then went to move the boats. He had no idea what would happen when he went to confront Captain Tzen and this was one small advantage he could give himself in a standoff. Clink-tink went the gold around him as he pulled the boats off to another side of the pyramid.
Tying the boats off, he pulled at a chain and it came loose. He looked at it, rolled the cool weight in his hand. He remembered how Captain Tzen and others in the crew had crowed when they found gold in a haul of booty. A thought drifted mildly through his head -- I’ve shed men’s blood for this stuff. It was pretty enough, though, and someone would want it. He dropped the chain into the bottom of a boat and pulled another length loose, and then another…
Then he heard a cry from above – “Mercy! Mercy!”
It was Ma Chu. Kanatanka slipped the war club’s tether over one wrist and took his weapons in hand, then sprinted up the stairs.

Captain Tzen felt the voice moving through his body, rich and sweet as clear oil. “I am old,” it said. “I am old, Captain.”
The stairs had been dark but at their bottom burned a single lantern, guttering in the stale air. The chamber was shaped like the pyramid in reverse, square steps leading down to a pit.
And in the pit lay the Gold Priest.
Three times as long as Captain Tzen was tall and most of it tail, his head covered by a golden globe carved with the stylized face of a man. He was curled up, ribs moving slowly as his breath came in stiff constricted puffs. Tzen gazed down on the peeling scaly skin, the row of finger-long spines down the Gold Priest’s back.
Then the Gold Priest heaved himself up over the edge of the pit, held himself upright, looked Captain Tzen in the eye.
The smooth gleaming surface of the mask flowed and settled and Tzen thought briefly that he was looking at his own reflection. A reflection in gold… Captain Tzen reached out and lifted the mask from the Gold Priest’s head and set it on his own.
“That’s good,” he heard and said. He ran his hands down his body, felt the fever of a monkey’s blood run through his veins, stumbled as the lack of a tail threw him off balance. Catching himself, he looked back at the husk in the pit and then started up the stairs.
His old body was forgotten before he reached the top.

Kanatanka counted six of them, green men covered in gold with human faces sewn into their chests. Two held Ma Chu by his arms, bent him over a bowl held by a third. A fourth held a blood-dripping blade of black glass and approached. Another crouched over the body of a Qannon cultist, the corpse’s eyes rolled back, the soft smile still on his lips, a scarlet crescent slashed into the base of his throat. The sixth was drinking from a bowl like the one under Ma Chu’s throat, red rivulets running from the corners of his mouth.
The rest of the pirates stood still and watched uncomprehendingly. Even a beast would have recognized the slaughter of their own kind. This was not natural.
Kanatanka gave a fierce cry and stuck out his tongue at the foe… I shall taste your flesh! Then his hand snapped and the war club flew and crunched into the snout of the one with the knife. Kanatanka jerked the tether and the club snapped back into his hand and he cried out again. The green man’s head had given way under the blow like a pumpkin rotted from within; there was no blood, only brown dust and splintered bone. The green man clutched at the ruins of his skull, staggered three steps and toppled over.
Kanatanka closed with the other green men and lashed out with his war club. His foe raised the bowl he held to block the club; Kanatanka’s heavy sword swept in below, stove in his belly and broke his back like a stick. The shark’s teeth caught the stiff leather of the green man’s hide and Kanatanka stepped forward, put his foot on the dead thing and wrenched his sword free just as he caught a blow from a stone-headed cudgel.
Kanatanka spun with the impact, dissipating its force, and threw his war-club into the green man’s human face. The green man’s chest collapsed with a soft crunch and Kanatanka snatched the club back, the handle slapping into his hand.
Then the one who drank from the bowl dashed the last of its contents into Kanatanka’s face, blinding him long enough for the other two to grab him by the arms. The undead reptiles had to claw and struggle to hold him; his sword fell to the floor with a thud.
Ma Chu stumbled back. He looked at Kanatanka. “The captain…” he said and pointed.
Captain Tzen stood at the top of the stairs, risen from the pit. His head was gold and half again the size it had been before; he kept it balanced on his neck by holding it up with both hands. “Come,” he said. His voice was not muffled; it rang in the brain, not the ear. The crew fell in behind him as he left the shrine and began to walk down the steps.
At the bottom, Captain Tzen cast about, looking at the water. “Where, where…” Still holding the heavy mask in both hands he turned towards the creatures holding the still-struggling Kanatanka. “Tzen did not trust you,” the Captain said. “Tzen would ask a question of you.”
Kanatanka was hauled down to face the masked Captain. As the reptiles held his body still members of the crew, faces slack and blank, came to grab his hair, his ears, take his face in their hands and turn it to the mask…
Kanatanka’s vision blurred, rippled, vanished into a cloud of stars, of coins, of gold. Voices slithered between his ears; “Where are my boats?” Captain Tzen demanded, while another older voice whispered promises. “Tzen is foolish, Tzen is weak,” it said, “I would have a stronger vessel…”
And all was gold, gold, gold, cold and stupid and bloody. A sick rage rose in Kanatanka and with a spastic shudder he twisted and rolled, slipping out of the gripping hands and claws, sheer brute strength forcing the bodies surrounding him to give way.
Kanatanka sprang, grasping Captain Tzen in his arms and carrying him into the water. One last cry as Tzen went under and then the weight of the mask pulled them both down. As they descended they left a trail of phosphorescence through the salt water. Kanatanka dropped Tzen and watched the fading glow like a like a shooting star as the mask dragged Tzen down and out of sight.

Kanatanka looked back at the pyramid. It was fading in the distance but he could see lights flicker out and he could swear that it was starting to tip. Then he turned and looked around at the crew. Those who had gone on the boats were still groggy, fighting off whatever spell had been cast on them. The others stared at the pile of gold heaped on the deck, reached out to touch it and then pulled their hands back.
“I’m sick of this,” Kanatanka said. “I want to feel the land under my feet. I want something fresh to eat that isn’t fish. And I want to find someone soft and generous and make her pretty with some of this gold. Ma Chu, would you steer for the coast?”
Ma Chu paused for a moment, then stood and bowed to Kanatanka.
“Yes, Captain,” he said.

bigeyedeer said...

From a Conan fan of old, I think this is very nice, it really struck a chord... and K is a nice twist, a barbarian based on an Islander. Funnily enough, the "Conan the Samoan" joke actually really brought him to life for me; I know how mean those blokes can look!

Anyways, good luck with it!

Sean Craven said...

Thanks, Bigeyedeer. I had a blast with this and want to do more. Oh, and I clicked to your site...

Hey, everybody! Check this guy's site out! He's got internet cartoons of a different kind -- the funny kind. I made a small but genuine involuntary noise of amusement when I saw his Sun Tzu cartoon and smirked my way all the way down the page. Believe me, this is good stuff.