Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Aldred Takes a Seat

It's an admirable coil of rope that Aldred finds wrapped around himself when he regains consciousness. Silken, pliable yet firm, glowing white: it looks as if it would be at home on the deck of a very expensive boat. Aldred reflects that if one must be tied to a chair, waking slowly from the effects of an expertly delivered blow to the head, this is the rope to be tied with. It almost makes the blinding pain worthwhile to associate with such quality goods. Almost.

Groaning, he cranes his neck around, trying to get a sense of where he is. There's not much light besides the pool centered around the chair, and that's dim. He can tell that the floor is concrete, of the cracked and old variety. As his eyes begin to adjust he can just make out a gleam that would appear to indicate a tiled wall. He makes a little experimental shout, and hears a series of rapidly repeating echoes bounce away from him. Finally, he gives a good sniff to the air and nearly gags. The quality is unmistakable, an unpleasant musk reminiscent of urine and exhaust in an overheated urban space. He's in an abandoned subway stop.

How unspeakably gauche.

Aldred tries to remember how he got here. He had been on the beach. His plan had been to take a brisk stroll up to the lighthouse, but he had been distracted along the way by a horseshoe crab shell of unusual fineness. The carapace glistened in the morning light in a way that was simply impossible to resist. Aldred, usually firm of purpose where brisk walks are concerned, had stopped to bend over and examine it. The blow came seconds later. Reflecting now, he has a nasty feeling the shell was set out as bait, by somebody who must know him entirely too well.

Back in the subway tunnel, he hears footsteps and spies a flickering light in the distance. Soon he can make out the figure of a tall thin man carrying a five branched candelabrum. Aldred recognizes the healthy and handsome face of...well, he supposes Mountford is his nemesis, but the word is so freighted with melodrama that Aldred would rather avoid it. He prefers to think of the man as his competitor, his very aggressive and very talented competitor.

Aldred is full of apprehension. After his last encounter with Mountford, he needed to spend six months in Lapland living in near complete isolation while he herded reindeer and tried desperately to remember his name. His aggressive and talented competitor had nearly succeeded in obliterating Aldred's identity entirely. It was not the friendliest of competitions. Granted, it was a fascinating experience, but it wasn't something that Aldred was keen on going through again just yet.

Mountford stops a few feet away from him. He sits down on the floor, placing the candelabrum between them. Silently, he studies Aldred over the flames. Aldred returns his glance, and notices there's something different about Mountford. Even in this dim light, his pupils shouldn't be as dilated as they are. Aldred finds himself with the unshakable impression that while Mountford is here, his eyes are somewhere else entirely, somewhere even darker. After a few more minutes of silent contemplation Mountford speaks.

"You know, they say it's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, but to my mind it's best to light a candle and curse the darkness. That way you're cursing from a position of strength."

Aldred forces himself to lock eyes with Mountford and a charge immediately begins to build in the air. Tendrils of consciousness lash out from both men and begin to grapple with each other. As they clash, shared images are formed in each of their minds: an apple tree shattered to splinters by a sudden lightning strike, a ragged pillowcase stuffed with fresh cut heather, the slag heap from a radium mine glowing faintly at dusk, a broken broom on the shoulder of a six lane highway, an incompetent exorcist being tossed from a haunted clock tower...Dozens flash by, none of them lasting for more than a fraction of a second, each man flinching occasionally as a particularly vivid or freighted image deals him a blow.

The flames on the candelabrum have been rising slowly throughout this exchange and are now almost a foot tall. Aldred sweats under their heat but Mountford seems scarcely to notice them. A small smile rises at his lips but doesn't quite make it to his displaced eyes. He's winning: he knows it, and Aldred knows it too. Mountford's images begin to dominate the stream, and Aldred finds himself knocked aesthetically sideways by the idea of a green cube sitting in a brown field. He doesn't have time to recover before Mountford conjures the sun rising in the west over an abandoned farmhouse, which Aldred weakly and only partially counters with a stone obelisk half sunk in an ornamental pond. Mountford snorts with contempt and builds a grand vision of a glass sphere the size of a planet shattering into billions of pieces while still holding its basic shape.

Aldred screams in terror, utterly defeated. In desperation he conjures the image of himself being carried off on the backs of a herd of reindeer. Unlike the other images, this one lasts for more than a split second. Indeed, it sustains for the better part of a minute, the imagined Aldred dwindling into the distance as the seemingly endless herd thunders across the frozen plain.

When the image finally fades, Mountford finds himself sitting before an empty chair, the coils of rope still wrapped around it. He howls with laughter at Aldred's cowardly retreat, an absolute indicator of the complete victory he would have had if the contest had played to its true end.

It's only when he stands up and begins to walk out of the tunnel that Mountford notices that something seems to be off with his vision, as if his depth perception was...gone. A terrible suspicion begins to form in his mind and he runs back to the abandoned stop. He hops up onto the platform and frantically searches for a reflective surface. He finds it in the form of the chromed top of an old trash can. He leans in with the candelabrum, already knowing what his distorted reflection will confirm: that bastard Aldred stole one of his eyes when he ran away.

Mountford's curses can be heard echoing out of the subway for the next five hours. The candles give out after three.

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