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The Dark Breathes

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It was night when Crien made his way to the castle on the mountain.  He pulled his great cloak tighter around his thin frame.  Ever since the disease had stricken him two years earlier, his muscles had withered to nothing, and his fat was non-existent.  Under the thick great cloak, he was little more than a skeleton draped in human skin.  The wind howled and tore at him like an angry spirit, threatening to knock him from the nearby cliff and into the hungry waves that crashed against the rocks below.

The castle’s gates were made of two impossible slabs of bronze, with no outward facing handles in sight.  The hinges alone were as big as Crien, who, though skeletal, was considerably tall.  As the man reached out to knock, the great doors opened, letting out a rush of stale air that stung at Crien’s eyes.  Dust flew out into the mountain, caught in those terrible winds.  Crien looked into the dark abyss of the doorway that lay before him, like the yawning mouth of a serpent of yore.  He gazed into the void, unafraid, his life already in a hospital bed a thousand miles north. Still, hesitation gripped him.  He called out a greeting into the blackness, but was met with imperturbable silence.  For a moment he stood like that, staring into the deepest dark, but then his call was answered.  A blast from above, far past the dome of the castle, woke him from the night’s call to rest.  Black clouds, invisible against the night’s sky, had gathered, and were bringing down lightning.

Crien felt the first silent drop fall against his shrunken face and stepped into the doorway for shelter.  To a man of his condition, rain spelt death.  Now inside the mouth of darkness, Crien relaxed.  He was in, he was doing this, finally.  This castle, a maze of unknown corridors, would be his salvation.  Somewhere, within the strange, heavy air, was something the world had never known – a cure. It was with ineffable assuredness that Crien knew this, one which bordered on instinct.

Now the darkness enclosed around him, and unease began to boil within Crien’s emaciated gut.  His hand drilled into a pocket, pulling forth a book of matches.  These flimsy cardboard tools were all that stood between him and the inky night.  With fumbling, gnarled hands, Crien pulled a stick free and felt the rough strip along the book’s edge.  He struck, fingers close to the head and the faintest of lights came from his hand.  Flickering against the indomitable blackness, the light withered and died, revealing only a hint of the room.  Behind him the wind howled and rain began to enter sideways, so Crien leaned his frailness against the doors of bronze in an attempt to close them.  After what seemed like ages of heaving and huffing and breathing the stale air mixed with the humid outside, the doors closed.  And now he was alone.  Alone with the dark.  He reached back into his pocket for more matches, only to realize he’d dropped them while straining against those massive doors.  Praying he had not dropped them foolishly into the wind’s grip, Crien fell to his hands and knees, feeling in the gloom for the matchbook.  The floor was freezing cold, wet from the rain.  Crien began to doubt the matches would not be soaked by the time he found them, if he did find them.

It was then that he noticed the warmth behind him.  The steady breathing of the castle.  Crien turned slowly around, still on all fours, and saw nothing.  Still, the breathing persisted.  He shook his head and turned back to his search.  After a few moments, his fingers brushed against the matchbook.  Squeezing it between two yellowed nails, Crien picked it up and held the tiny thing to his chest.

With a quick sigh of relief, Crien turned to face the breathing.  Now quivering with anticipation, he struck a match.  From what he could see of the room, it was bare.  The floor was stone, grey, and dry except for the bit near the door.  Of furniture there was none, just bare, cool walls.  Crien no longer heard breathing, just his own tired gasps.

Soon the stone walls faded, and the floors became that same inscrutable dark again.  As shivers went down his spine, Crien began to hear breathing once more. A pulse, not unlike a heartbeat, began to emanate through the castle.  Crien heard it through the walls as he felt his way along, pulsing through the floors he stepped on, and he began to sweat.  From the corner of his dying eyes, Crien saw something move.

The corridor was straight, and Crien felt his way with the walls, which were terribly cold.  The pulse was erratic, fast, but also weak.  Though Crien felt the castle beat through his whole body, he knew it was suffering from some kind of affliction.  Just like him.

All of a sudden, Crien was pressed against a wall before him.  The straight hallway gave way to a dead end.  Crien pulled another match from his book, feeling to count how many were left. Three, not including the one he held now.  Knowing he had little time left, he lit the match, hoping there were no more dead-ends like the one he’d come to.

It was a solid wall.  There were no turns, unless he had passed them already.  Crien started back the way he came, happy the breathing and beating had left him again.  He moved too quickly, with too much excitement and anxiety, and the match in his hand went out.  The beating returned, louder than before.  It was faster, repulsively erratic.  The breathing was heavy, harsh air blew into Crien’s face.  He stepped back, startled, and reached for another match. He struck, but the match broke in his hand.  Luckily, it did not break all the way - the head hung by a thread of brown.  Crien felt this, and struck the head against the strip again, gripping it tightly.  His fingertips got seared, and he dropped the burning match to the floor. Crien was granted vision briefly from the match head, and an even briefer reprieve from the beating and breathing of the castle.  Soon, the light would fade, and only dark would remain.  Knowing this, Crien tore another match from the book.  His last match.

He held the head down, touching it to the still burning head of the other match.  It took, with no need to risk another break from striking.  As the first match died down, however, the last did nothing to stop the castle’s death throes.  Crien, though consciously aware he was to die no matter what happened in the castle, was afraid.  Then, after a few painful moments of throbbing and breathing from the walls and floors, all was silent.  A soft, cool gust of air blew out the match, and nighttime prevailed.  Within that all-encompassing shadow, Crien was swallowed. The dark around him became warm, material, and engulfed him.  He felt like a boy in his bed again, warm, safe, comfortable, and without pain.

With a smile on his twisted, wrinkled face, Crien leaned into the darkness, let it hold him, and, finally, the beating stopped and the breathing stopped, and the castle was empty again.

“It came here just for me,” Crien thought happily as he drifted to sleep.

Out in the storm, a bolt of lightning came down on the mountainside, illuminating the cliff and the castle.  Only, there was no castle, just crumbling ruins, and scattered stones.

Elsewhere, an old, sick man with no relatives or close friends died quietly in his sleep, comfortable in a warm hospital bed.

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