Thursday, July 21, 2005

Chapter 2: Dawn of the Black Flame

Upon kindly suggestions (CHW, Satisfied75), I've decided to serialize this story, at least for the time being, and see where the action leads. If at any point it starts to suck, please let me know. Also, if it's any good, don't steal it.

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I was once like you, a man, sensing, feeling and fearing. My heart was full of guilt at the everyday indignities of which men are capable, but I was idealistic and convinced that life had a purpose greater than the sum of foraging, sleeping and respecting my elders.

My neighborhood as a child was small and easygoing. People smiled and winked at each other on the street, neighbors and friends, kin and comrades. Most problems were settled in town hall meetings, the old guard, all of them mustachioed and oiled with drink, would drown out quarrels with simple propositions, mules for grains. After the women and children retired for the evening, those nights would end, more often than not, with outrageous card games and empty boasts of female conquests.

I worked as a fireman, a vocation stemmed from the broken heart I’d suffered as a little boy, orphaned and abandoned when my family burned to death in the town’s legendary three-day fire, a black eye on our collective history. I’d been sleeping that night, across the room from my brother, rest him, and could only remember running through red, blinding light and fierce heat. I can still feel the sweat coating my body, even today, soaking my lips and softening my face. I ran through the anguished screams of my parents, turning and twisting away from debris and dirt and dust and smoke. I’d landed in a patch of garbage, unsure of how I made it out, but coughing and streaked with char. My lungs hurt for weeks after, as I sat speechless in the town square, watching an unremarkable fountain bubble, wishing I could have had that water at my disposal when it mattered most.

My accident left me with many scars, emotional and physical, but two marks took precedence above all else. The first was a deep-seated respect, or more aptly fear, for fire. Every thought in my mind managed to whittle itself into a reflection on fire, the sizes and shapes of flames and the awesome power to burn and blot out life with heat. I became somewhat of a pyromaniac in my adolescence, refusing to back down from what I saw as my arch nemesis, the taker of innocence. This bizarre obsession with fire fueled my professional decisions, with the added catechisms of altruism and the desire to prevent tragedy from befalling other families lending extra motivation.

The second factor, and by far the most important in the story of how I came to be what I am, was the set of matching burns I received around my ankles. On the night of the blaze, I wore pant length pajamas, and though I know not how, I managed to throw on my slippers before my mysterious, frenzied extrication from the house. Aside from face and hands, my ankles were the only exposed portion of my body that night, and as the floor beneath my feet smoldered and seethed into unstoppable intensity, my slippers melted away and the balls of my ankles were ringed with congruent puffy scars. Though the pain was excruciating, the freak blisters left me with unimaginable gifts.

As the skin around my ankles healed, the muscles tightened and my feet became preternaturally strong. Before long, my running and jumping prowess was unrivaled among the other miserable orphans and hinterland street kids I knew. I used it to my advantage in making first impressions over the years, as I my life involved constant displacement from town to town and orphanage to orphanage. I was wise enough to keep this ability under wraps from authority figures, however, as my greatest worry was bringing too much attention to myself, a lesson learned easily in a childhood where abuse often disguised itself as care.

Being fleet was handy, and a source of pride, but my scars hid the secret of another, more formidable quality. Many years passed before I discovered it, and many more before I learned what it was. But one late afternoon while I was sweeping the carpentry shop where I apprenticed, my feet began to pulsate and shake. They made no sound, and they didn’t hurt, but there was a clear sensation, a rhythm beneath my soles. I pulled up my pant leg and saw that the feeling was no imagination, the scars glowed, and I felt a pull towards the shopfront.

I ran outside and stood in the street, feeling the cool night air. The wind hissed, but nothing else moved. My surroundings suspended and time stopped. It was still early evening and the street should have been bustling with activity by then, but all my eyes and ears received were silence and suffocating blackness. The smell of mold became strong, and the stores and building facades looked slippery, viscous. Trees were withered, paved walkways dilapidated and cracked. The town seemed just an echo of a rotted civilization. My own clothes felt tattered, and weakness overwhelmed my senses. I stood alone, afraid and exhausted, with only the pulsing of my injured ankles reminding me of my own presence.

Then I heard breathing from behind me. Hoarse, gruff breathing, like that of a rabid beast. The sound permeated everything, and the street grew darker, and hotter. I turned and saw an immense shadow, growing and blanketing me in the empty roadway. My instinct was to run, but my legs offered no response to any mental urging. I was confined to one position, and I felt my mind rise above my body until suddenly I could look down from above and see myself in the street, frozen in a shocked cower. What bore down on my figure was a dark mass, flanked with reaching, foggy tendrils. A single blue light pierced its silhouette from the center and stared at my crumpled form like a spotlight. The heat was staggering. Powerless, I tried to scream, but again, nothing. I watched in stark horror as a dark inferno overtook the body that was, only minutes before, my own, and then deep, reverberant laughter reigned over my thoughts, branding a black flame on my vision. Then everything was nothing.

I regained consciousness a few hours later, though it seemed like days, and found myself lying on the shop floor next to pile of filth and refuse that I had swept into a heap. I learned the next day that, while I slept on the floor, a lightning storm had savaged the town, destroying many homes and businesses and taking with it several dozen lives. The townspeople remarked in whispers about the oddity of the carpentry store being the only building on its street block that was utterly untouched by the storm’s calamitous reach. I felt ashamed.

A small black film began to grow on my scars that day, and it has since never left, despite rigorous washings. It wasn't much longer before I found out why.
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