Lach-Roemar Pt. 3

•April 10, 2009 • 2 Comments

The battle-priest muttered one last sacrament, then scattered a tincture of acidic liquid upon the green, bloated corpse of the mutilated horror.  The liquid caused black smoke to rise from the stinking collection of bones and meat, disturbing an army of enormous swamp flies that had been sedately feasting upon the carcass.  The priest’s motions and utterances were controlled and practiced, his ruddy complexion seemingly undisturbed by the rotting smell that assaulted Jonath’s senses.  Perhaps a lifetime ministering to the fallen of countless battles, working the last blessings that the dead would receive amongst the collected, mortal refuse of war, had tempered the priest.  Then again, Jonath mused, perhaps partaking of another sort of sacramental tincture gave the priest the kind of composure that nearly had the knight jealous.

Jonath stepped away from the bloated, rotting mess and shouldered his way past the collection of pale, wane watch deputies—each looking as if they regretted eating anything within the last few days.  The deputies gladly stepped aside and many took the opportunity to follow the Warden of Lach-Roemar as he made his way across the small, tilled field to the black-garbed figure seated lightly upon a moss-covered, ramshackle wooden fence.  Behind the figure, beyond the fence, the tilled soil gave way abruptly to the dense foliage, brackish water and dark, over-hanging trees that marked the swamps of Lach-Roemar.

The smell closer to the brackish water and rotting vegetation was not much better than that of the bloated, rotting carcass in the field.

Sphinx looked up as Jonath approached, then looked past the Warden to eye the motley collection of sickly-seeming deputies.  Jonath glanced over his shoulder, his hauberk metallically sibilant, and signaled the deputies to keep their distance.  The assortment of lightly armored humans and halflings, short swords and pikes at hand, forlornly came to a halt, milling around, glancing with disturbed eyes at the priest and the thing in the field.

Jonath removed his gauntlets and used them to wave away the cloud of swamp flies that had followed him from the corpse.  He noticed with annoyance that the flies—indeed, insects of any kind—seemed to ignore Sphinx.  Damned elven blood, Jonath thought, wiping his brow.  He noticed as well that the elven archmage seemed comfortable and cool despite the steady warming of the season.  Granted, within a few short hours, the swamp would grow preternaturally cold, dense fog rising from its depths and dangerously obscuring its borders, but Sphinx sat lightly on the fence, wrapped in belts and black leathers, weapons near at hand, no trace of sweat on his brow, as if he were simply sitting at home, in a fresh breeze that smelled of neither swamp nor monstrous death, sipping a chilled goblet of wine.

“So,” Jonath ventured, “what in the name of the gods did you do to that thing?”

“Asked it a few questions.”

“With an army of hammer-wielding, dwarven smiths?”

Sphinx simply smiled.  “Nothing so subtle, I assure you.”

Jonath glanced back, past the motley deputies, toward the priest, who was beginning to bundle his sacramental tools into a stylized leather bag.  He turned back to the elf.  “And you’re sure that’s the thing you detected at the Gull and Sail?”

“Without a doubt.  When I sensed the creature lurking in the common room I performed a quick sending that marked the thing for ease of later…inquiry…so to speak.”

“Inquiry with the vengeance of an elven mage who’s had his potential dinner interrupted at a local, run-down tavern?”

“Essentially, yes.”  Sphinx smoothly dropped from the fence and began walking up the narrow path that led toward Lach-Roemar.  Jonath fell in beside him.  The deputies—now joined by the priest—followed at a short distance.  Sphinx looked out over the field.  “Shall I send someone to take care of the remains?”

“No, I’ll have the Mayoral Council pay the owner of the field to do it.  Besides, it’s better to let the locals have a hand in ridding their community of a beast like that.  What was it, anyway?  I’ve never seen the like.”

“Something from the lower planes, I believe.  I made copious notes before it, ah, ceased being a creature from the lower planes.  You can read them if you like.”

“Perhaps later.  What did you learn?”

“The obvious, really.  You appear to have made some enemies.”

Jonath absently adjusted the Sash of Office over his hauberk.   “And they’ve decided to take them out on the owner of the Gull and Sail?”

“Not exactly,” Sphinx replied, stooping to snap a small, berry-filled branch off of a large shrub that was growing out of a break in an old, tumble-down rock wall that had once separated some long-forgotten landowner’s domain from another.  The elf popped several berries into his mouth, then offered the remainder to Jonath, who refused, his stomach far from settled after the inspection of the bloated, monstrous corpse.  “It seems,” Sphinx continued after swallowing, “that No Lady Maef—the proprietress of the Gull and Sail—wasn’t actually the target of the creature.”

“Who was?”

“The Sail itself.  And Seri, the human girl who helps tend the tavern with Maef.  The creature was sent to watch and report—and more than that in the girl’s case, if it’d had its way.”

Jonath stopped, his hauberk jangling, his sheathed longsword smacking his side.  “The serving girl?  A girl about the same age as the girl murdered by Marzell and dumped in the garbage pile behind the very same tavern where the serving girl works?”

Sphinx turned and cocked his head, swallowing a mouthful of berries, his black eyes alight.  “I see you’re beginning to catch on.”

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Du Bist Im Labyrinth

•April 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Given that there are only so many things a man can count, Jerrod was lost at that finite point when the geometry of the alley-maze formed a sort of geodesic hyper-real extension of the shrub-lined, narrow paths that wound through the scrub barrens behind his childhood home.  This is not to say that Jerrod, a man of no mean intelligence, mistook the alley-maze, with its garbage heaps, detritus, rats and human baggage for the scrub barrens, but when, as a boy, he had wandered into the barrens and become confused by the tangle of the narrow trails and dense, dry flora, the feeling of rising panic that he felt then, he felt now.

And like then, as now, he lost all sense of time; although, unlike as a child, as an adult lost in the alley-maze, he was, more or less, able to keep his heart from racing, breath from gasping, mind from whirling in panic.  Despite this, he felt once again the odd sensation that his very identity had been left behind, back with the notion of knowing one’s way.

As such, Jerrod was quite a surprised to round a corner, stepping past a pile of moldering cardboard that had assumed the color of stale bread, to find himself facing a dead end:  a rough brick wall ruddy with age-old human waste, decay and, oddly, scrawled writing that spelled out, in German, Du bist im labyrinth!

“Klopf, klopf,” he muttered, the strains of Neue Deutsche Härte reverberating through his subconscious.

He let out a deep, focusing breath.  He felt himself wet with sweat and, almost for the first time, recalled the warmth of the day—the day that apparently resided beyond the temporally stagnant alley-maze with its eerie, yet apropos German statement.  He shook his head and checked his cell yet again—still no reception but an accurate digital log of how long he had been lost in the maze.

Twenty-seven minutes—although that only reflected the point he had first queried the phone, several minutes into confusion.

A scuff sounded on the asphalt.

He turned to find a small boy standing behind him.  The child was Hispanic, probably around nine or ten, dressed in stained khaki shorts and a blue and red superhero t-shirt.  Absurdly flashing back to a college visit to Ensenada, Jerrod half expected the boy to emphatically ask, “Chiclet?”

Instead, the boy just said, “Hi.”

“Uh, hi,” Jerrod replied.

“Are you lost?”  The boy asked.

“Yeah, how could you tell?”

“You aren’t from around here, that’s all.”

Well, that’s true.  “Do you know which way it is to Corning Street?  I’m supposed to meet someone at a book store there—of course, you didn’t need to know that, but…yeah.”

The boy shook his head.  “No, I don’t.”

“Oh.  Ah.  Okay.  Is your mom or dad ’round here?”

Another shake of the head.

Jerrod blinked at that.  “Where do you live then?”

The boy smiled and simply pointed behind Jerrod who turned, somehow surprised to see the rough brick wall still behind him.  His eyes fell to the German graffiti.

Du bist im labyrinth.

“Okay, right.”

He turned back.  The boy was gone.

Lach-Roemar Pt. 2

•March 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

No Lady Maef—who, by her own emphatic admission, was “No damned lady!”—had run the Gull and Sail for as long as most people could remember and, except for those long-lived few who bothered with the place at all, none could remember when the Gull and Sail had anything to do with the docks, longshoremen or even a lost gull.  Why Maef had never changed the name—or more to the point, kept the name despite the lack of any evidence of a nautical relationship—no one knew.  Yet when the rare event occurred that a stranger to Lach-Roemar would come in and take a seat, look around, frown at the lack of sailors, sea-wenches, old nets, fishing-spears, rusted anchors or even the tell-tale skeletal rib of a coracle, then ask, the Gull and Sail would usually fall to a deep silence.

Of course, the locals were simply awaiting Maef’s reply, which, by then, they could have recited along with her:  “Well sho as I ain’t no lady, that sho ain’t no business o’ yours.  Now, what ya want?”

Long ago, the locals would then guffaw and, as one, shout out suggestions from the menu—hock stew, black bread, ‘tatoe cakes, beer, ale, elf cider—until Maef eyed them all to silence.  Later, however, they simply chuckled quietly and went back to their business.

Now, though, not even locals came to the Gull and Sail.  Maef actually found herself more often than not leaning on the old bar and sipping the local rye that old man Sendis and his sons made in their cellar on the other side of Ferric Green.  She would sip and stare at the empty place, at its dusky corners out of reach of the glow of the hearth or any of the glass-shuttered lanterns burning on a few of the tables.  She knew she should have the boys clean the soot from the inside of the lantern hoods, lighten up the place, but she never did.  The walls needed scrubbing, too, and some of the junk that had found its way to hanging on those walls should probably be sold off down at the second-hand stalls, but that never happened either.

Since the body of that poor girl had been found in the heap of garbage out back—and since the new warden had fingered Marzell for dispatching the poor child—no one came around the Gull and Sail.  No one wanted part of that mess—what they saw as a little, nasty war brewing between the mercenary outfits trying to lay claim to parts of Lach-Roemar and that fine-looking Jonath of the Battlefield.

“No way he’d step hisself in hyuh, that’s fo sho.”

“No way who’d step hisself in hyuh, Maef?”  Seri asked, walking in from the kitchen carrying a tray of sliced black bread.

“No one, chil’, jes thinkin’ out loud.”

Seri put the tray on the bar and looked around at the empty room.  She sighed, somehow world-weary at such a young age—Maef winced at the thought of Seri being no more than a day or two older than the poor child they had pulled out of the midden heap.

“Ya go t’ the hangin’?” Seri asked.

“No, chil’, hangin’s and killin’s were never right for ol’ Maef.  Who’d they hang?”

“Marzell, o’course!”  Seri stared at Maef in honest disbelief.   “Him and three of his soljers!”

“Oh.”

Seri just looked shocked at this.  “Well, that means biness’ll be back up soon!  That new warden sho made hisself right at home, dint he?  Copped Marzell ‘n’ his boys right quick!”

“Hush, girl!”  Maef spat.  “Talk like that like to bring a world o’ trouble!  Marzell was only the top o’ the heap—sumun’s bound t’ move up and that warden aint’ none too popler with ’em.”

“Why not?  Hangin’ Marzell made room.  Next boyo’s got t’ be grateful.”

“Until the warden hangs him too.  No, girl, this ain’t fo the likes o’ us.  Keeps’ur heads low, we will—or else gets ’em lopped off.”

“Oh, yer jes mean an’ sour!”  Seri dodged as Maef made a grab for her.

“Git in the kitchen, girl!  Stop talkin’ back!”  Seri danced away and Maef plodded after her, cursing youth and ignorance until she vanished through the door.

In the corner farthest from the hearth, wrapped in shadows both natural and unnatural, the thing that been sent to watch the Gull and Sail, a thing that hungered for both Maef and Seri, chuckled to itself.  Avoiding the hearthlight, it detached itself from its unseen position and moved towards the kitchen.  Halfway across the room, however, a sound from the kitchen caused the thing to stop, its senses pricked forward.  A door had opened and the voices of the two humans had ceased in surprise.

Then a new voice sounded.  “Good evening, Seri, No Lady Maef.  I hope I didn’t startle you.”

“Why no, M’ster Sphinx, we’s not startl’d a-tall!”  Seri said brightly.

“None tall,” agreed Maef.

“Good.  Forgive my entering through your establishment’s back entrance, but I was just out examining your midden heap.”

“That’d be why you’ve a sour face, init?” Seri laughed.

The thing, growling to itself, its hunger buried beneath its anger and a certain rising fear, ignored the newcomer’s response and silently faded from the room.

Lach-Roemar Pt. 1

•March 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Talking to the dead was difficult at best.

But the elven archmage who stood before the newly reanimated, still-shriveled corpse looked as if he felt his best was the least he could do.  The mage’s oiled leathers, black in the flickering torchlight, were criss-crossed with belts and buckle-secured pouches; a long knife was strapped to each thigh and the leather-wrapped hilts of two archaic swords—one short, the other long—formed a V over his left shoulder.   His silver hair was tied back, his black eyes shining with power.

Speak, the corpse whispered in a gravel-laden voice that reeked of moldering earth.

The elven mage looked at his human companion.  “Well?”

Jonath stepped closer, the mail of his hauberk uttering a sibilant, metallic hiss in the cool night air.  “Ask it who killed the girl?”  The elf simply stared at him.  Jonath met his gaze, stopped short.  “What?”

The elf turned his body towards the human, glanced at the shriveled, reanimated corpse then spoke in hushed tones as if concerned with offending the dead thing in the chamber with them.  “I hardly think that the girl’s murder is the most pressing question at hand.  It was—is—a pity, but Marzell and his soldiers are a little more important, if I do say so myself!”

“Which is why you were not appointed warden of this district,” Jonath replied, running his gauntleted hand, palm upward, diagonally along his torso, emphasizing the red and silver Sash of Office he wore over his thread-bare tabard and battle-scarred hauberk.

The elf gaped, scoffed, shook his head, spat on the dirt, debris-covered floor then turned back to the corpse.

“His majesty, Jonath of the Battlefield, knight of Drilithae, hero of countless songs, wooer of goddesses, slayer of dragon-lords, and newly-minted warden of the district of Lach-Roemar, would like to know who killed the child whore whose body was found in the midden heap behind the Gull and Sail tavern on Ferric Green.”  The shriveled corpse almost seemed to wince at the sarcasm in the elf’s voice.

After a long moment, the corpse spoke.  Marzell.  The elven mage turned back to Jonath, who simply smiled.

“After all these years, Sphinx,” Jonath chuckled, turning to leave the rot-infused burial chamber, his heavy boots kicking up dirt, dust, and fragments of human detritus, “you would think you would begin to trust me.”

Sphinx watched as the knight ducked through the stone-lined entrance and vanished into the fog-heavy night.  “I can’t image why I don’t,” he whispered quietly.  He glanced back at the waiting corpse, cursed quietly then flicked his thin fingers.  The corpse, its reanimating magic dispelled, crumpled to the ground.  He eyed the fallen body, toyed with the idea of returning it to a more respectful pose before simply whispering a word of power.  The flickering torchlight was swallowed by heavy shadows.  Silently, the mage made his way out of the chamber.

The Madness Club

•March 8, 2009 • Leave a Comment

They called it the Madness Club.  They met every other Thursday down at the old Metropolitan Hotel, a five-star extravaganza long gone to the seeds of a one-star dive.  Still, the old conference room was cheap to rent, and if one could keep from succumbing to the ambient scents of ancient cigarettes, alcohol and mildew, the atmosphere in the Met’s conference room was rather homey.

I didn’t know much about the so-called Madness Club the first night that I was invited to attend.  I also didn’t really have any clue why I was asked to attend, but Eric Benchly, my roommate at the time and president pro tem of the Madness Club, thought that perhaps an evening with the Club would be a welcome change from my usual after-hours repertoire.  Online games, cold beer and reheated leftovers from whatever lunch I’d been able to scrounge during my hectic day apparently either didn’t rate very highly as a social activity to Eric or was prime contender material for a membership in the Club.  Either way, after a modicum of needling, I decided to chuck the stale Mexican take-out I’d brought home, grabbed my coat and followed Eric out the door.

Once we were seated, Eric introduced me around.

Monica was in her late teens, had dyed black hair and wore a velvet corset.  She announced that she was a manic-depressive.

Steve was in his early twenties, wore his bleach-blond hair in spikes and had spiked leather cuffs on his wrists.  He announced that he suffered from satyriasis. Someone coughed not-so-quietly at this.

Alan was in his late teens, his hair dyed black, his long coat wrapped tightly about his spare frame.  He announced that he too suffered from satyriasis.

Bethany was perhaps no older than sixteen, her auburn hair was undyed but was done up in an archaic style that matched her archaic black dress.  From behind school-marm glasses she announced that she was bipolar.

Sara stated that she was sixteen, had blue plastic strips tied in her dark hair, wore silver goggles strapped to her head and kept a pocket watch in a tight, velvet vest.  She wore a red cravat.  Along with her age and name, she announced that she suffered from psychotic tendencies.

I was beginning to see a pattern here.

Eric, of course, had no need to introduce himself yet he did.  As usual, the twenty-three-year old programmer had his head shaved, wore a stylized, sleeveless straight-jacket and, like Monica, was manic-depressive.

That left me.  Mike, twenty-nine, wore his hair short, his tie loosened and his slacks pressed.  Although never diagnosed, was certain he suffered from hyper-tension and figured he would have an ulcer by thirty-one.  The rest of the district attorney’s office still called him Rook.

I smiled at all of them then looked at Eric.  “Why am here?”

“Come on, Mike,” Eric smiled nervously.  “We figured you might like hanging out with us.  Something different for a change.”

I laughed then glanced at my watch.  “Eric, you’re not a trained therapist which means this is nothing but a social circle.  That means that in an hour and a half at least two of your friends will be breaking curfew.  Now I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve got a long day tomorrow.”

“Look,” Monica cut in, “you’re an over-worked, under-paid lawyer.  Eric thought that maybe you’d like to unwind here tonight.”

“With the Madness Club,” I said.

“Mike, please,” Eric said.  “Look, we need your help.”

“What?”

Eric glanced around him at the young, gothed-up faces.  He looked back at me, his mouth open.  Yet before he said anything, he glanced away and clamped his mouth shut.

Sara cleared her throat, made a show of checking her pocket watch then glancing at the closed conference room door.  “We really do need your help,” she said.

“It’s about one of our members,” Steve said.

They glanced at each other and I could tell that behind their pretentious, arrogant collective mien, they were all very nervous.  I looked at Eric who had his eyes down cast, avoiding me.  Then one of them spoke—I don’t remember who.  You would think that in my line of work I would be able to pay attention to what people say, but, to be honest, what was said was so absurd that I think I virtually erased the memory.

A tiny voice said, “She’s raising zombies and she’s gonna come after us.”

The whole room was silent for a long time and then it dawned on me.  “Is this your larping group, Eric?  Cause this isn’t very funny.  You know I don’t role-play.”

Eric was on his feet, his face beet red.  “This isn’t a game, Mike!  We’re fucking serious here!  We’re in danger and we need your help!”

“With zombies?!”  I asked, on my feet as well.  Eric was a good guy, a pretty decent roommate.  When my fiancée and I had split three years ago, I’d advertised for a roommate to help split the rent she’d left me with.  Eric had applied and he’d moved in.  We both liked computer games, science fiction and German industrial.  He liked table-top and live-action role-playing games.  He also liked ecstasy and pot, but although the games were allowed at the house, the drugs were not.  An up-and-coming DA could only turn his head so far.

Now this.  I studied Eric for several moments.  He was serious.  He was angry and he was scared.  If he had come to me like this with a problem with drugs, a deal gone bad or something, it would have made sense and I wouldn’t have walked away.  But this was not drugs or money or whatever.  This was serious psycho stuff.  Zombies.  These kids, my roommate included, had gone over the edge.  Maybe they really did have the mental illnesses that they wore as monikers and maybe that altered reality had brought them to the Met’s conference room, but I didn’t care.  Maybe it was drugs and I still didn’t care.  I growled at Eric that we would talk about this when he got home.  Then, with the pleas and shouts of the Madness Club following me, I stormed from the room.  I’d had to shrug off more than one grasping hand on the way out, but I did.

And as the door closed, God help me, I heard sobbing coming from that room.

Forgiveness

•March 6, 2009 • Leave a Comment

He shifted.

The bitter drink in his hand, the metal goblet cold against his over-hot skin, sloshed forlorn droplets to the battered, grime-covered stone floor.  The runes that had so artfully been etched into that floor centuries ago, once glowing with a power so far beyond comprehension as to be almost laughable, had long since been worn away, chipped and lost.

Despite the lack of clarity in the ancient runes at his feet, despite the sloshed drink, its pungent-yet-sweet bouquet almost tangibly visible in the cold air, the thing before him writhed in agony and begged, in myriad languages that had not been heard by the ears of man for more than three hundred years, to be released.

He sipped from the bitter drink, its sweet kick of an odor filling his nose, threatening to close his throat.

What would you have of us? The myriad voices asked in countless tongues, each playing on the back of his skull, threatening to overturn the ambient glow of the bitter drink.

“Forgiveness,” was his simple response, his voice barely audible in the frigid air.  The tightening creak of the leather gauntlet gripping the hilt of the ceremonial blade, sheathed at his hip, echoed just beneath that single utterance.  He forced himself to relax.  He forced himself to quell the fear he felt for the thing before him—a thing so far removed from physical reality that it could scarcely take a form that even light would embrace.

He forced himself to quell the fear of the desolate path that he had chosen to walk.

Forgiveness! Its voices were metal-sheathed claws raking his spine.

“Yes.”

We do not understand!

“I know.”

The ceremonial blade slipped from its scabbard with a single flourish—he was proud of that move, something he had spent hours, days drilling.  There was nothing, his old masters had said to him time and again, like an elegant first draw to cause the blood of your opponents to freeze.

The thing before him, maddeningly unseen, screamed, its ravaged voices a dissonance that made the most destructive, howling storm seem nothing more than a mewling kitten.  The blade, now glowing, rent the air and he felt its imbued metal bite deep into the unseen, insane thing, the thing that called nightmares paradise, death and destruction simple playthings.

He swung again and again, his goblet and its sickeningly sweet contents all but forgotten, the liquid spilling to the cracked and worn stones beneath his feet.   The blade began to burn bright red and the invisible, molten life force of the thing ran down to the ornate hilt, splattered around the nearly empty room, its traces leaving smoldering pocks in the stone.

When he was finished, his breath a collection of gasps, his sword-arm useless from fatigue, the blade itself a melted hunk of unrecognizable matter, the thing, still unseen, dead at his feet, he staggered backwards.  He raised the nearly forgotten goblet to his lips.  For a moment, he was stunned to find the goblet empty before remembering its lost contents on the stone floor.

He dropped the empty, battered goblet—it clattered and rang on the chipped, pocked stone.  He dropped the useless blade next to it.  He turned and slowly made his way from the room, his booted heels loud in the sudden silence—a silence that was itself almost as loud as the myriad, ancient voices that had been silenced, forever, by his hand.

Forgiveness was all he had asked and he knew that the thing had not understood.  For how could it, locked away by an ancient mage’s curse, locked away from its only home, its only family, its only chance of sanity, locked away for hundreds of years, vanquished to a place of such desolation that its own humanity had long been forgotten—how could such a thing have ever dreamed that the one man sent to free it, return it to its rightful place on the throne of a morally bankrupt empire, whose very remaining hopes and dreams had rested on the saving grace of a ceremonial blade, would, instead, elect to destroy that dream, shatter the prophecy and doom an entire world to complete and utter, destruction.

Curvilinear

•March 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

We start, you and I, facing each other. Slowly, I reach for your face, touching you slightly, my fingers red-hot, tracing sensually painful lines down the nape of your neck. My finger tips burn their way between your breasts pausing over your heart. I lean forward to kiss you, at the same instant plunging my hand forward through you, to grip your beating flesh, curling elongated fingers into a vice, both stern and forceful.

You gasp, your breath, your heart in my grip. We rise then, me in the lead, you unbidden, pulled by my grasp on your existence. Drifting, you and I, within the curvilinear vulva of space, my free hand rises to burn a path along your thigh, stopping above the essence of your reality.

I pause, our eyes locked, eons echoing between the longing beat of your pulse, before slipping my free hand into you, up into the tan t’ien that molds your Universe. You are completely mine.

We change. Folding in upon ourselves, bones tearing, fleshing healing itself with the energy of my breath–for I will not let you flee now! The things we become, your heart still beating at my discretion. Things of unreality, things that bite and flow, things that scratch and maim, things that discard sanity as if sanity could dissolve with bitter aqueousness.

Howling, we shift, phases locking, pleasure and pain mounting in manifolds of quintessence. I scream my self into you.

Your heart, in the final moment of entropic dissonance, beneath my etheric grasp, fades to a point, winking to oblivion.

You, with a final, sobbing gasp, shudder to a halt, formulae fading from your skin as I gently kiss your forehead and close the door behind me.