They were climbing toward the edge of time and space.

More chapters from Night Side of Dark

A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark

Episode 17

Ambrose Lincoln had no idea where was going and wasn’t  sure there was any place else to go. But he did know that his odds of escaping an encounter with the second death were diminishing with every moment he remained locked inside the massive cultural arena. He kept his arm wrapped tightly around Celia’s shoulder as they made their way cautiously across the third ring of the circus stage.

He could hear heavy breathing around him. It wasn’t a threat. The heaviest of the breathing smelled of fear and stale beer. The shadows were rolled into balls and pushed into the corner. The smaller ones belonged to the clowns.

Only the clowns weren’t laughing.

The entrance would be blockaded. Lincoln was convinced of it. And perhaps that was the only way in or out. He looked on the bright side of his predicament.

He was alive if, perchance, he was still alive.

He wasn’t sure about that either.

Only one thing was for certain.

The dead could die again.

And old men were dreadfully fearful of the second death.

Then again, they had been fearful of the first one as well.

Ambrose Lincoln had never considered himself to be agnostic, but he had always believed that when a man departed this life, he simply closed his eyes and stepped into the darkness.

He wasn’t wrong about the darkness.

He was about everything else.

A man gently took his arm.

A tall man.

Barely visible in the dark.

His face was narrow as an axe blade, his body a gallery of tattoos.

Lincoln ripped his arm free.

“Don’t be afraid,” the man whispered.

Lincoln remained silent.

The blonde stifled a scream.

“I have a way out,” the man said.

“Who are you?” Lincoln wanted to know.

“Does it matter?”

It didn’t.

“You must come with me,” the tattooed man said.

He was talking louder now. He had to.

The laughter had not died away.

It was growing even louder.

The sound was maddening.

Behind them, a shot fired.

Then another.

A woman screamed.

A child began to cry.

The rifle fired again.

The smell of burnt gunpowder reached Lincoln’s nostrils. It burned his lungs as though he was drowning in caustic acid.

“This way,” the man said.

Lincoln tightened his grip on Celia.

He did not trust strangers.

He followed anyway.

He had no other choice.

A shot fired again.

It was closer this time.

The taste of gunpowder burned his throat.

The tattooed man led them back behind the stage and down a winding corridor so narrow that all three were forced to walk single file. Celia’s breath was hot against Lincoln’s neck. Her fingers were clutching the folds of his jacket.

The laughter was fading behind them.

“Where are we going?” Lincoln asked.

“To the edge,” the man said.

“The edge of what?”

“Time.”

Celia was breathing heavily.

She stopped abruptly and fell to her knees.

“I can’t go on,” she said.

“You must,” the tattooed man said. “If you don’t leave, the General will hunt you down. I’ve seen what he does to those who defy him. You are far too beautiful to have a face like that.”

“Like what?”

“Mine,” he said.

“I can’t see what your face looks like,” Celia said softly.

“It’s better that way,” the man said. He lifted the blonde back to her feet. “Come now. The town will soon be behind us.”

He turned back toward the darkness.

An ominous silence had replaced the laughter.

“Why are you helping us,” Lincoln said.

“It’s what I do,” the man said. “You are condemned to be here. You are not condemned to stay here. We are imprisoned in a vortex of time and space, all of us caught in a tiny wormhole that lies dormant in the universe. There are cracks, and there are crevasses through which mankind can go. They open and they close. They are here and then they aren’t. They are doorways to somewhere else.”

“How did you find the escape hatch?” Lincoln asked.

He caught a glimpse of the man’s face.  It was no longer a face, simply threads of loose and rotting flesh hanging limply to the scraped bone of his skull. Lonely eyes stared out of their sockets, and his front teeth had been sharpened like the points of ice picks.

They eased through a crack in the cultural arena wall and stepped out into a chilled rain. Ice splinters stung their faces, and the warm winds were melting the pellets before they reached the sidewalk.

The shadows watched them queerly as they moved quietly toward the outer perimeter of the town, and and they became part of the shadows.

The tattooed man was dragging his right leg as he walked. His foot and knee moved in different directions. His arms were long, and he was wearing a sleeveless jacket. Scenes from the Christian crusades had been needled in purple and green into his skin, and they ran from his shoulders to his wrists. He wore a black fedora and leather gloves. He was whistling by the time they turned down an alley and headed into a district where only fools walked after dark, and it was almost always dark.

At the end of a deserted street, the tattooed man knelt and motioned for Lincoln to help him move a pile of metal slag from a railroad smelter.  Beneath the pile of scrap, the tattooed man raised a round and rusting lid that had been covering a hole. It was blacker than the dark, and a strange smell of garlic and cheap perfume rose out of the ground.

It was sweet.

It was sickening.

Lincoln had smelled it before.

It was the odor from an open grave.

The tattooed man stepped gingerly onto a narrow iron ladder and began lowering himself down into the hole.

He didn’t say a word.

He didn’t have to.

Lincoln held Celia’s hand until she was able to balance herself on the ladder, then he climbed down behind her.

He paused just long enough to drag the lid back over the hole.

The sudden shard of light startled him. The tattooed man had a torch no larger than a pencil. Its beam was not much wider than a needle, but it made scalpel incisions in the darkness.

Lincoln looked down.

He did not see a bottom.

The air was stifling.

Celia choked and almost gagged. The smell of garlic and cheap perfume grew heavier the deeper they climbed. The sides around them were cold layers of gray concrete, poured but never finished.

Lincoln glanced at Celia. She was gritting her teeth. Celia had come to the same conclusion that he had drawn.

They might as well keep going.

Dying here was no different from dying above.

Here they might have a chance.

Above them, the General was waiting.

He was in no hurry.

An eternity could be a long time to wait.

Chapters of Night Side of Dark will be published on  Saturday and Sunday.

Please click the title, Night Side of Dark, to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his novels on Amazon.

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