And all the world with him (freewrite fiction #14)
As the road wore on, the car took to smelling like her, the old her, whose name had been abandoned inside a million other memories, none more important, yet somehow taking precedence anyway, for thus is the way of time. It wasn’t some perfume, he didn’t think, it smelled too soft to be. Too soft to be soap either, or perhaps it was just a different kind. The soap he’d grown accustomed to, smelling her in secret, like a thief. The soap of his youth was harsh, intended to scrub all the dirt out of him, but never quite managing to.
Her skin had smelled like mangoes, like something exotic and ripe and welcoming. It was a simple smell, a kind smell, though not particularly jarring and yet, it had wrapped itself around him tight and had refused to let go. Perhaps he’d called her, in a desperate bid for safety. For in his truth, the man of lights was scared of what he might see come tomorrow, of who he might find. The possibility of calling on the Others for help had always existed, in the back of his mind, but up till now, it had only persisted as a dream. A fantasy, yes, an interesting one that he indulged in on occasion, speculating as to what the Others might be like, on how they might welcome him in their midst, but never more than that. The truth was, he’d always known his place and had been content with it. He’d done right by coming, for the job had been meant for him, had beckoned for him ever since he was young. Even as a boy, he’d had the most peculiar fascination with the passing of lives and the way we store memories. So when the time had been right and the car had shown itself to him, he’d been ready for the task at hand, but never more.
He could never be like her, could never live inside a house built on pain and souls nibbled to a few strands of dust. Pain had never fascinated him, though it had always been there, a dull throb even in his earliest recollection. And among the Others, he could imagine himself even less, for they acted on different rules than he. Although they masqueraded as mortals, they never would be, never would understand what it felt like when regret was the only thing left. For all their games and their alleged knowledge of human beings, they hadn’t seen what he had, hadn’t been there to watch all those souls crack under the weight and unfold, only to be left behind, in his dust. Only to stand up and walk again, even though they weren't fit to.
Along the years he’d done this, the man of lights had found himself with a profound respect for humanity, remembering at times, with pride, that he had been one of them at some point. As a race, of course, humanity was doomed, but as individuals, they carried on their shoulders such astonishing domes of glass that he couldn’t help but admire them.
There were no procedures for what had to be done, no addresses at which he would find those that he looked for. There was just a feeling, a small hope that the car would know what to do under the circumstances.
They drove for a long time, so much that he lost the count of hours, that passed into minutes, that passed into seconds. And when they finally did stop, the man of lights found himself standing in front of a nightclub, loud and obnoxious even from out here, and he knew, from the way the chill air curled around his arms that he’d never been here before, on this time-plane, and it unsettled him.
He stood outside, on the pavement, questioning, wondering – would the person he looked for know he was out here? Would they come to him or would he have to go inside and look for them? He didn’t much like the noise, it drove him restless, forced him to wonder if he’d taken the right path after all, but he couldn’t afford to think this way, so he forced his mind to become still once more. Waited.
And the doors opened.
Two women, in flimsy coats that barely hung down to the tops of their thighs. Cold and drunk, holding on to each other so as not to fall, and thus risking to fall down together. They were not who he was looking for, but he watched them anyway. Perhaps they’d crossed his path at some point. If not, they would undoubtedly cross him in the future, that is, if there was a future to look forward to.
And even if they did cross him, would he help or fail them?
‘Oh, stop whining already, it doesn’t suit you.’
He turned slowly, for he already knew what he would find. One of the eldest stood before him, a man with a long, thin nose and a firm grasp on his jacket. Even demons must protect themselves against the cold. His eyes were sly but he seemed good-humored enough. He regarded the man of lights with a grin on his face, always a promise in his eyes. It was what he did best.
‘You know me?’ the man of lights asked, more than a little impressed.
'I know of you,’ said the man, taking a step closer, his eyes filling up with moonlight. ‘I knew your predecessor. A horrible, gaunt fellow.’
‘He was not meant to be likable,’ the man of lights said quickly. He had no right to be angry, he knew, and yet he couldn’t help but dislike this stranger’s mocking tone.
‘Good,’ the man said simply. ‘He wasn’t. But he did his job well and I suppose one can’t ask more than that, can we?’
In all honesty, the man of lights had never met his predecessor, for such interactions were forbidden, not to mention impossible. A successor would be named only as the one who’d gone before took his last breath and not a moment earlier. He knew that when his own end came, the car would find its way to another, as it was meant to.
Among their kind, there would be no instructions, no last words of wisdom. It was, by definition, a lonely job and it had to be borne as such. The Queen of Shadows had taken him in, taught him everything there was to know and ultimately robbed him of his caring.
‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ the tall man said.
‘Have you, indeed?’ the man of lights looked up, narrowing his eyes, already searching his face for trace of a lie.
The stranger grinned. ‘No, but I thought I’d say something dramatic. That is, after all, what you’re expecting, isn’t it? Some all-knowing entity? Someone who will tell you I know why you’re here and how to make it all okay and you need not worry anymore? That is what your kind is always looking for, it seems.’
‘I am of my kind no longer,’ the man of light said, a grim grin on his lips.
To his chagrin, the stranger laughed. A sneaky laugh that got under your veins and hooked you awake in the early hours of the night. ‘Really?’
A challenge, but one the man of lights would not take. ‘Might I know who I have the pleasure of speaking with?’
‘You don’t know. Of course you don’t, but I bet your car does. Why don’t you ask her?’
‘It’s a car, sir, an “it”, not a “her”, and it will tell me nothing. I’m afraid if you don’t speak for yourself, no one will.’
The stranger leaned in and the man of lights sniffed the sour stench of alcohol on his breath. ‘It’s a “her”, how else do you think your car knows where to go? There’s part of her soul trapped in it, there always has been.’ He appeared to take some pleasure in the look of wonder on the man of lights’ face. ‘Well, since the last master of the House of Lies, anyway, but that was in times before knowledge. Very well. I am Worros, King of Pleasure and Goodwill, is it not obvious?’
He held his hand out in a mockingly magnificent gesture, which gave the man of lights the slightest bit of courage.
‘I would’ve thought you to be rounder. Jollier, too.’
Worros, King of Goodwill and Pleasure, scoffed. ‘I am a King of the Old World, boy, not some puffed up Santa Claus, and I will know why you’ve come here.’
The man of lights told him and the King of the Old World listened, the shadows of the night dancing around his eyelids, his eyes darting across the door of the nightclub ever so often, to check, perhaps, on his courtiers.
‘I have come,’ the man of lights concluded, ‘to summon the Others to a council, for the matter is grave.’
And to his astonishment, King Worros responded by laughter once more. ‘But you are in no way fit to summon the Others, my boy. It simply is not something you can do. The Others will not be summoned by the likes of you. Ask your queen, perhaps she’ll wish to help.’
‘She won’t. She’s angry with me.’
‘Perhaps I wronged her,’ the man of lights said bitterly, seeing in his mind the shadow of the queen of lights towering in the window.
‘Perhaps, though she’s not as mad as you think, otherwise she wouldn’t have brought you here,’ the King nodded toward the car.
‘Please,’ the man of lights pleaded, through gritted teeth, for such words had never come easy to him, but now, he saw that one way or the other, they must. If he lost the ear of the Others as well, then he would be lost and all the world with him. ‘I may not be able to summon them, but you sure are.’
King Worros looked at him, a strange look in his eye. He was a handsome man, when he wished to be, bore the profile of an old king indeed, a man of barbaric times and similar dispositions. But his eyes changed with every second, playful one moment, and ready to have your throat slit the next.
He threw one final look toward the nightclub – where a young girl was standing, hesitant, an unlit cigarette clutched in a trembling hand – and gave a magnanimous smile.
‘Very well, I suppose I can tear myself away from my duties for a moment or two.’
And judging by the look he threw the young girl, the man of lights reckoned he was doing the whole world a favor.
He turned to walk back to his car and, seeing only the driver’s door had slid open, made as if to pull the other one, which prompted yet another swift, merciless laugh from the old king.
‘No, I would not travel in that if the whole world depended on it, boy, and it well might. It is not fit for others to ride in and you should know that.’ He paused, fixing the man of lights with his narrowed eyes, enjoying his discomfort. The man of lights hastened to draw himself a shield, so that the king could only see a blank wall behind his eye. He would not have the memory of Noah Mermont disgraced in such a way.
‘I will make my own merry way to our little meeting,’ the King of Pleasure smiled. ‘And I will see you and my brothers in two days’ time.’
to be continued