Chapter 1: Beloved
Night follows me closely, nipping at my naked heels, spurring me forward as smooth pebbles shift mercilessly beneath my bruised feet. Stumbling, I manage to keep moving, wishing I could remember where I was, or perhaps where I am supposed to be. The wind sinks its fingers through my hair, a lover that will not be denied. I dare not turn back to face it, but pull myself away. The path, fickle at the best of times, narrows and then disappears into the underbrush, deserting me for good. A structure suddenly rises out of an outcropping of trees much too short and much too small to have contained it. The strangely smooth walls of the tower shine with a black radiance, as if absorbing the last fragments of twilight.
Have I been here before? The place smells of wet moss and iron, a combined odor that seems familiar, but I see nothing that I recognize. Behind me the wind howls lustily, preparing its final charge. It seems I have always been running, and part of me longs to lie down here and let the meaningless journey end.
A door opens, groaning with age. Rust falls from hinges spoiled by moisture, speckling the moss that surrounds the foot of the tower with red. Within, the darkness grows opaque.
The pale faced guardsman searches me as if he were reading a map, the stiff collar of his uniform scratching at the soft skin underneath his chin, then turns, nodding. A key clicks into a lock and light buzzes into existence. My companion’s feet dominate the silence, large black boots rebounding from an unwilling floor that shudders with every step. His pasty and hairless head, devoid even of eyebrows, wavers from one side to another, his wide mouth clamped into a quizzical expression that, combined with his bug eyes, gives him a comical air. I feel myself propelled forward, expecting a staircase leading into the upper chambers. The hallway remains level and impossibly straight.
After what feels like half an hour, we reach a door marked with a large cerulean dot. His hands brush lovingly over the mark, four long digits without fingernails. He has no thumbs. The door panel slides away, but I remain transfixed by his oddly shaped hands, which, aside from their deformity, appear far too smooth for a simple doorman.
He swings his head in my direction and begins to chirp and squeak. It takes me a few seconds to understand that he is speaking to me. His voice is eerie and high, full of strange music and clipped syllables. “I have kept them here for you until you grew into them. The invaders…” Here I begin to shiver, awash with an inexplicable fear, and he lays a thumbless hand on mine with a look of desperate apology. The flesh is moist and inexplicably cold. “They asked me to smuggle them, saying they would sell for a pretty penny outside of the wood. I refused, having no desire to become a faceless monster by taking what was not mine.”
His expression is now a mask of anguish, his breath ragged. He pauses to calm himself, gulping heavily. “It was I who let them in, when you found yourself betrayed. My curiosity begged to see the monsters, to define what they were.” He pulls up one dark blue sleeve to reveal a tapestry of scars. “I have paid the price.” He adjusts his uniform and the cruel embroidery disappears once more from view.
“Sir, I do not remember you, or this place. All I know is the night and the wind.”
“Yes,” he answers with a vague smile, the skin around his mouth webbed with fine lines that begin to crack open. “It was best this way.” With that, his eyes roll back into his skull and he crumples into a small pile on the floor. I have the strangest sensation that the tower is pleased, somehow victorious, as it takes on a deeper shade of sable.
I cry out, but there is no longer anyone to hear. Touching him gingerly, I perceive that his body is a mass of old wounds, punctuated by bones that jut through his emaciated frame. He is already cold. The invaders, whoever they were, left his long, bizarre face untouched, along with his lily white hands. The deed they had left undone time and hunger have finished at last.
Behind the dead man, if he was a man, is a stack of dirty packages. One stands slightly apart from the others. I reach out to touch it and pull my hand back, immediately repulsed by a spongy, unnatural texture. To my astonishment, the package shifts and falls open at my feet. The grey sponginess parts to reveal a pair of running shoes, shapely and narrow, striped lengthwise from toe to heel in iridescent blue and green. As I stroke a marvelous shoe, the stripes undulate gently in response, colors darkening and brightening. They begin to vibrate softly, and I realize that they are purring. In awe, I lift the pair from the floor. Across each black sole is written a single word.
Image: Woods, Public Domain Image via Pixabay
We are republishing the first three chapters of Beloved’s Journey. It is our goal to continue posting a chapter every Saturday until the novel is finished.