The Endless Night
by John W. Steele
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Like the needle of a compass, his head swiveled and he stared at the path the clergymen had told him about. William studied the ice-crusted river, its water frozen solid clear to the bottom. His eyes measured the glacial debris and shifting mounds of talus slop that littered the fabled trail. A gnawing sense of demise ached in his skull.
He pushed his boots firmly into the toe irons of his skis and tightened the clamps. The only way home loomed before him: a straight line made crooked by an age-old expeditionary pioneer named John Thule.
Trailing his sticks behind him, Becker crouched and skied on the ice crusted undulations that formed the winding pass along the banks of the tributary of ice.
The thought of going home filled him with a sense of hope. Surely the bearded men knew the lay of the land. Sometimes the pure of heart appear eccentric and unbalanced, he reasoned. Martha had probably wandered back to the car. There was no need for alarm.
Like a fist made of ice, a harsh wind slammed into his face, landing squarely on the tender pad of flesh between the cheekbone and the bridge of the nose. Becker cringed and his body tightened against the frigid blow. This was no time for hope; the temperature would not allow it, and the darkness now moved with malevolent alacrity. Becker sensed if he did not find his way home soon, a door would close, and seal him forever in this dreadful place.
After he had journeyed for what seemed like days, a blurred shadow appeared in the outer dark. The image grew in form until it resembled a disjointed Cubist fragmentation composed of fading lines with indiscernible borders. William tapped into his dying bits of energy and sped toward the hypnotic apparition.
A drab picture window stared like a cataract-encrusted eye from the front of a dilapidated cabin. Inside, a figure with a large head peered through the glass and quickly vanished.
Becker removed his skis and climbed the squeaking steps that lead to the deck; their treads were curled, and the risers were cracked and broken. At the end of the ramshackle veranda stood a warped and weathered entry door. Mounted like an afterthought inside its casing were several dingy glass windows; two windows were cracked, and the lower one was broken. Becker pressed his forehead to the clearest lens and cupped his hands around his eyes. He squinted hard and looked inside.
A gaunt figure stood still as a monument in the middle of the room.
Becker swallowed hard and pounded on the door. “Hello, I’m lost and hungry. It’s bitter cold out here. Can I come in?”
The thing inside did not respond.
“I can pay you,” Becker said. “I have plenty of money.”
As if possessed by an unseen hand, the door groaned open. A cold stench of decay hung in the air like the subtle odor of embalming fluid in a mausoleum. Becker felt nauseated and his stomach churned. He took a deep breath and crossed the threshold.
Inside it was quite dark. William stared at his host. It stooped with long arms dangling at its sides. It wore a dark shapeless suit, threadbare and ill-fitted for the cold. Its jaw hung agape exposing large broken teeth. The incisors were gapped, and the corners of its mouth curled into an eerie cataleptic smile. Despite the twilight darkness its eyes glared with imposing presence; dead grey eyes that bulged from their sockets. For a moment, the damned stared at each other.
“Are you John Thule?” Becker asked.
In a slow deliberate gesture the gaunt man shook his head. “Why would you ask a question like that?”
“The ministers in Purgatory said you came out this way.”
The cadaverous figure tilted its head, and its neck made a crunching sound. “Why would you believe them? Not one of them ever journeyed outside of their program, let alone ventured into the endless night. My name is Adamas. I alone control the destiny of all transient forms.”
Becker lowered his eyes in denial of the terrible premonition that paraded through his mind. He patted his mitts together and cradled his arms to his torso as if there were something there beyond all warming. “It’s so damn cold. How do you stand it? Have you no fire?”
Adamas nodded at a cast iron stove parked in a corner of the dismal room. A stack of sapless logs lay strewn along the wall. “A thought is allotted but so much fire... Feed the flame if ye so desire.”
Becker walked across the creaking plank floor and opened the lid of the stove. A sulfur stench belched from its belly and the pale aura of an amorphous orange flame licked the wood inside. He removed his mitten and lowered his hand into the furnace. For long time he held his palm over the lifeless embers. He could feel no heat, nor did he sense any pain. Like a man duped by a carnival huckster, William slammed shut the stove plate and it sounded with a dull clang.
“The fire is useless,” he said.
“Sometimes it takes a while to accept,” Adamas replied.
William drew a deep breath and frozen emptiness flowed into his lungs. “I’m starving. Do you have anything to eat?”
The ancient jerked his head vaguely toward a battered tin box that sat on a sagging wooden shelf. “There’s meat in the locker. Eat all you want,” he said.
Like a ravenous predator, Becker charged towards the container, his fingers flexed and grasping like the claws of some odious rabid beast. He ripped off a chunk of the blackened flesh and forced the grizzled tissue into his mouth. The meat had the texture of rawhide and he worked his jaws in a circular motion against the sinuous fibers.
The food had no flavor but he chewed madly on the unassailable tendons. When his jaws would no longer move, he forced a gob of fibrous cartilage to the back of his throat in an attempt to pump the bolus into his gullet. But his esophagus lay stiff in his neck like a corroded pipe with one end welded closed. Becker spit the pulpy mass on the floor and retched until tears dripped from his eyes. “What is this place? Where is John Thule?” he cried.
Adamas locked Becker in his gaze and ambled toward him, his gait stiff and awkward. One of his ankles ended in a cleft hoof.
At the sight of the deformed appendage, a jolt of terror ran down William’s spine. He tried to run, but his will had abandoned him. His legs would not obey and he stood mute and petrified.
The demon raised its arm and slapped a calloused hand hard across William’s face. “How dare you ask a question like that? You’ve known where you are since your application expired and your heart collapsed on the trail.”
William felt nothing at all, but he rubbed his cheek in response to some subliminal Pavlovian impulse.
“No, I don’t know where I am. I want to go home,” he cried. “Where’s John Thule? Wise men don’t lie. John Thule made it out of here and so will I”
The ancient fixed him with a cold eye. “You still don’t get it, do you? John Thule never existed, you mindless idiot. He’s no different from you. The wise ones told you of him so you’d have something to cling to.”
The lips of the immortal one stretched tight over his teeth and his eyes shifted in their sockets. “You’re nothing but a figment of imagination, Becker. Even when presented with irrefutable evidence you still cling to the notion that you are real. Face it, you egocentric moron, there’s nothing you can call your own... except me.”
An imaginary tear trickled down William’s cheek. “What happened to Martha?” he asked.
The ancient’s face hardened and his eyes shone like opals from deep in his skull. “Her wave form expired. She’s been extinct for nearly ten thousand solar years.”
William trembled and his voice quavered. “You’re a liar! You’re not real and this is nothing but a terrible nightmare. When the darkness breaks I’m going to get back on the trail and head for Watertown.”
Adamas walked over to a spike driven in the wall. He removed a black robe that hung there and drew the vestment over his suit. A battered wooden table stood beneath the window. He went to it and sat in a feeble creaking side chair. The ancient coughed a phlegm-filled rattle, and his breath flowed white in the air. “I don’t care if you follow John Thule forever. You’ll never find your way back to Watertown.”
The changeless one drew the hood of the robe over his head and, like a shadow, blended into the darkness.
An angry wind blew a gust of ice crystals through the door. William walked over and stood at the entry. Like a shattering plate glass mirror his mind began to fragment.
William sighed a virtual sigh. His body grew as stiff as granite, and his joints locked rigid in their sockets. The last bits of code drained from his awareness, and he flowed into the endless night.
Copyright © 2011 by John W. Steele