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charlemagne

another short piece of fiction i wrote some time ago. never been quite sure what to do with it. i don't really see expanding it into something larger, or offering a greater explanation of what's going on. so it'll rest on my hard drive, much in the state it is now, for as long as i feel like keeping it. and now, it's immortalised on the internet...

charlemagne

There is a curl of smoke in the air, the acrid scent mingling with the hint of early winter frost. That smoke is illuminated for a moment by the sodium glow of the street light on the corner, standing sentinel a few feet off, its partner at the far end of the street flickering lamely, falling asleep on the job. The moonless sky rises above the gloom of the streetlights, expansive and empty and cold. Night has closed in.

He is standing at the corner, the noncommittal slow turn of his head revealing how hesitant he is to proceed in either direction. He thrusts his hands in his pockets and pulls his coat a little closer around him, a barrier against the chill air. The night gets inside you, makes you cold from the inside out. He will not wait. He leans in one direction and then in the other. He wants to move.

The noises of the city, the din of fights and revelry are muffled and distant here. They exist somewhere close, but a wall separates him from that now. But as solitary as he may look, he knows he is not along. He is longing to be alone. He is aware of a hundred eyes on him, hungry and wild, there in the shadows, those whispers hidden in the shifting of the air. He is not alone here. He is simply left alone for now.

He steps down the dark street, head down and thrust forward, guiding him through the grey forest of shadow. The whispers are not so quiet now, those accented voices, growls and cackles, are bolder, now that he has started to move towards them. He does not know what they say, does not understand their demonic language; he only knows that those who pass down here, those who run the gauntlet, even during the day, are theirs.

They are behind him, their shuffling steps and sadistic laughter right behind him, but he will not look, will not challenge their anonymity by turning to face them. He feels the weight of their breath on his back, so close they are, many of them, always in a pack, hunting for sport along these streets. More of them running, hurrying to join the others as if they could not take him down alone. Are they smaller and weaker, too unsure of themselves to risk a fight with him? Do they need dozens of themselves? He does not turn to find out, because to turn would slow him down. He wants to go faster, but the smoky air is in his lungs, heavy air, weighing him down, pulling him back. He has to fight to move fast, has to fight to keep the amaroidal atmosphere from dragging him all the way down. Even battling forward, he slows a little, his step drags more. Their voices, their saccharine, garbled, mocking voices are slowing him, casting sticky webs in the air.

Their voices are not whispers at all now, but a clatter of tongues. Not screaming but a steady surge, a nerve-rattling tide of unintelligible clucking and those horrific, sardonic laughs that were in the distance, no longer distant. He cannot hear the city now. Familiarity is lost, swallowed in the expanse of unstarred sky hanging above him.

The surge recedes, like a wave sucked back to the ocean, the voices thin and grow lower. Have they decided he does not warrant their attention? Are his fears groundless after all? The air lightens a little around him, his step quickens perceptibly. Of course. What challenge does he present to them, alone, unarmed, defenseless? He does not threaten them, runs from their challenge, does not defy them. Why would they waste their time? And yet, they do not let him free entirely, because he can hear them just a little further off. They are still there, still hanging behind, focusing on him, those unseen eyes in the dark.

His lungs are straining, his heart pumping to move forward. He feels a dull pain in his chest from the exertion. He aches with the effort of staying ahead of them. He is warm now, lets his coat fall loose, so that the air can cool him. Perspiration forms, slimy and rank on his arms, his chest. Then the cold sets in again, clinging to him on the beads of sweat.

Ahead, there is a sudden flurry of shadows in the alley that backs on to the street. A ruffle of voices and that chilling laughter just out of sight. It stops him dead in his tracks and he can feel the wall of figures beside him sway backward to avoid his eyes. They hang close, so close he can smell their rotting breath and feel the steam as they exhale in unison. They have not let him alone at all, in the end; they have only let him rush a little further, a little faster, into their trap. They were waiting for him all along.

And so he stands, poised to move, unable to see clear passage in front or behind, the long dark tunnel between the streetlights extending infinitely in each direction. The dark figures clamor around, almost touching, almost grasping, hanging back to observe, to see which way he will try to make his escape from them. Their shadows thicken the night and make the air dense. And against their number, when they choose to fight, he will be nothing. Against them, the fight is hopeless and he has no more energy left. No energy and no hope to speak of. So much easier to rest and gulp dark breaths and think of rest, of lying down and letting their filmy bodies overwhelm him in a tide.

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