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 The Long Walk

 

          There was tremendous oddness about that day, as it was chronicled later. The sky above the town of Brezdo glowed in a surreal and beautiful haze of orange. It was November, late enough in the season for snow. Indeed, the temperatures had been well below freezing, and a few soothsayers had forecasted such a storm. However, the frigid afternoon was instead filled with a lifeless rain, thick and heavy.  

            Along Malborni Avenue, no person could be seen, though the hour would have typically promised pedestrians and customers in hoards. No one strolled on the boardwalks; no one sat under the numerous eaves; no carriage rolled along with commuters. The avenue was in a word, empty, for every townsfolk had been drawn elsewhere that mid-day.  

            Nearly two miles west of Brezdo lay a long path, dug several feet down into the earth, and paved with multicolored stones. The hours of steady rainfall had turned them darker. Damp moss covered the brick walls, which enclosed both sides of the path. Water could be heard rushing and draining into well-hidden sewer grates. Above the deep walkway hovered every resident, traveler, and visitor of Brezdo. Dressed mostly in black shawls, every head, eye, and nose remained bowed beneath an umbrella. They had gathered long ago and merely waited.  

            A single carriage eventually approached, coming from town.  

            No eye lifted. No umbrella raised. The only movement among the spectators were puffs of breath, wafting briefly in every direction before then vanishing.  

            "Woah!" shouted the driver of the coach. He clicked twice with his mouth while pulling on the reins. "Woah!"  

            The carriage, wheels, and spokes crammed with mud came to a gradual halt in front of the stone path. The doors swung open, inside out. Two men stepped down from the box on to the start of the stone path. Both were tall and dressed in identical grey overcoats, wrinkled black trousers, and brown leather-strapped boots. The first of them, Kifer Nikov, aged forty, wore a brown brimmed hat. He was short but broad-shouldered and clearly well built. The other man, Razum Ivanov, was far younger and possessed a neatly shaven face. He wore wire spectacles and a simple black check cap, pulled tight over his ears. His brown eyes darted back and forth, scanning for trouble.  

             Meanwhile, Kifer turned and leaned into the compartment.  

             "Come on, now," he said dourly.  

             A few moments passed under the rain. Silent agitation swayed through the crowd. Kifer raised a foot, intending to step on the box, when a pale hand immediately shot out and aggressively waved him back.  

             "By myself," said a voice, hoarse and muffled.  

             Kifer nodded. He settled his feet once more on the stones. His eyes abruptly fell as he rested his hands together on the small of his back. Thoroughly soaked from his head to his boots, water dripped off his brimmed hat in sheets. He had no umbrella. His profession did not allow for such comfort. Another man then stepped out of the carriage. He dismounted from the box to the wet stones, holding his arms out to steady himself. Among the crowd, only a few people strained their necks, attempting to capture a view of him.  

             Alyosha Rasnost, the third and final passenger, stood before everyone with trembling arms. Formerly large and taller than his two companions, his body now seized in fatigue. The thirty-year-old man stooped over, thus appearing considerably shorter than his full height.  

             The weary Alyosha took a small shuffle step forward and moaned in pain.  

             The two guards immediately pressed around their prisoner in leg irons.  

             "By myself," repeated Alyosha with exasperated conviction. "By myself."  

             The prisoner moved forward again. A red light at his feet flickered in response. The shackles now began to glow, clanking, cutting his ankles with every shuffling step. The two guards followed closely behind, but without an arm to aid.  

             All three walked along the path, the stones shifting and crunching under their weight. Despite the sewer grates, several puddles had formed. Each step into them produced brown water splattering and arching into the air. Meanwhile, each spectator above, suspended in their own grief and hatred for Alyosha and the monstrous crime committed, had not the strength to watch the condemned man pass and kept their eyes shut. However, while Alyosha continued ahead, an awareness, lurking inside each soul already, began intensifying with every step of the "Long Walk." Gradually, one by one,  

they opened their eyes.  

             The ritualized walk had long lived up to its name. Every condemned soul took precisely five hundred cursed paces to the stone block. Each step proved more torturous than the next, for the enchanted shackles fashioned both physical and emotional pain. Fear and grief possessed the spirit of the condemned prisoner, intensifying as they approached their imminent execution. Purposefully, there was no salvation from this torture. No matter how great the pain, no matter how great the urge to escape, the prisoner in shackles had no choice but to continue forward. The spell gave them just enough strength to reach the end.  

             This colossal agony had indeed crushed every individual who had previously taken the "Long Walk." Each prisoner that had come before Alyosha had been guilty of some vile, socially audacious crime. He himself had managed to remain strong as the day and hour of his execution neared, sitting alone without any visitors in his pygmy cell, holding on to one simple fact. He was not guilty.  

             Unfortunately, while his innocence allowed him exemption from the shackles' emotional pain, there was no relief from the enchantment's physical torment.  

             At length, the path's walls receded and opened to a simple cemented platform, not terribly high off the ground. As Alyosha neared it, his shackles suddenly turned to a deep crimson hue. He stumbled to the rocks. His knees struck the stones, and he screamed in immense pain. Both Kifer and Razum rushed to his side, raising him to his feet and holding him. There was a moment when Alyosha nearly blacked out. However, the shackles flickered. The spell renewed his consciousness. He then summoned the strength to stand.  

             "My friends, thank you," said Alyosha, turning and looking at both men, tears running down his cheeks. "But, by myself."  

             Each guard swallowed hard and stepped away from the prisoner.  

             Alyosha took a deep breath, stared at his feet, and began to take the three steps of the platform. At the top, his vision blurred, but he shook his head fiercely, bit his tongue, and his head cleared. He then noticed kindling, wood, and debris were strewn along with the platform. A path remained in the center. He followed it forward and eventually reached a stone block and thick wooden post. Both guards helped guide him up on to the block.  

             "You may leave us," said a voice, coming from behind the post.  

             Kifer and Razum stood in silence for a long moment. Doubt had found its way into their hearts. But, eventually, Kifer nudged his younger companion, and they both walked away. They reached the staircase, went down, and remained at the bottom.  

             "Face the crowd."  

             Alyosha recognized the voice. He turned his face toward the crowd without protest. He felt his arms move. He looked down. No one physically touched him. Nevertheless, his hands were brought behind him and bound together against the post. The same invisible force mercifully unbound his shackles. The immense physical anguish which had been his companion for the last five hundred paces immediately lessened. Alyosha would have felt relieved if not for the impending anticipating of being burned alive.  

             The voice chuckled.  

             Alyosha forced his eyes closed.  

             "Tell me, savior," said the voice. "Why is it that you persist with your charade?"  

             Alyosha kept his eyes shut.  

             "Look, your precious people!" said the voice. "They come for you."  

             A murmuring soon was heard. All the spectators from town now filed toward the platform, one group on either side of the path. They eventually stood together, crowded unpleasantly close. They turned their eyes toward Alyosha. A man, somehow camouflaged from everyone until that moment, now stepped into view from behind the execution post. He may have been forty years old. Others said he looked younger, but he was certainly tall, standing over six feet. He was clean-shaven, had a chiseled jaw and a broad nose. His eyes were restless and dark. His hair was black. Some of it had tumbled over his forehead when he stepped forward, but he now pushed it back as he cautiously looked at the people.

             "This man before you, he has confessed his guilt," said the mysterious man, addressing the townsfolk. "But, I tell you now, and I tell you here, he is not guilty."  

             Gradually a look of perplexity came over the crowd standing below the platform. Several people began to mumble with each other, shaking their heads as though coming out of a drugged delirium. An excitement rose. Some of them began to push against each other. Kifer and Razum stepped toward the crowd, attempting to calm them down.  

             "Get your hands off me!" shouted one voice.  

             "I can't move!" complained another.  

             The mysterious man winced in pain and rubbed his head. At that moment, the rain suspiciously began to settle into a slow drizzle. The man then put his hands into the air.  

             "Silence!" he bellowed.  

             And at once, a hush fell over the crowd.  

             The man grinned, showing his perfectly white teeth.  

             "Much better," he said, relieved. He looked up a moment as gathering his thoughts. "Now, where was I? Ah, yes, I was telling you, townsfolk, that Alyosha is not guilty."  

             Alyosha kept his eyes shut but said, "I am! I am guilty!"  

             The crowd dismissed his plea.  

             "If he's not guilty, then who is!" shouted a voice from the crowd.  

             "Yes, yes, tell us, who's guilty!" demanded another voice.  

             The mysterious man grinned purposefully.  

             "Desante, of course," he said.  

             The people looked at one another, confused.  

             "Who is Desante?" asked a person.  

             The man bowed a moment and then stood straight. "I am! I am your executioner!"  

             Alyosha could no longer restrain his anger. He opened his eyes and shouted, "No! I am guilty! I am guilty!"  

             Unfortunately, it was by then too late. The spell of ignorance that had protected the people of Brezdo was broken. A loud buzz filled the air. The crowd was now galvanized with hatred and frenzy.  

             "Kill him!" shouted one voice.  

             Several people again began to push against Kifer and Razum. One finally succeeded in getting past them. A few more people rushed forward. Kifer pushed them down and unsheathed his sword. That action was sufficient to hold the rest of the mob at bay. Razum faced his partner, his eyes wide and startled.  

             "What do we want me to do?" he asked, impetuously.  

             Kifer turned and pointed at the stage.  

             "I'm good!" he shouted. "Get the stray!"  

             Razum nodded and dashed up the steps. When he reached the top of the staircase, a fantastic site greeted him, an image so impressive that it would have remained with him until he was old and wasted, had he himself lived any longer than the next several moments. A man, not more than twenty, dressed in a black shawl and grey trousers, hovered in midair. Desante, who had held a hand stretched out, now dropped it to his side. The mysterious man grinned at anyone who watched, which was frankly everyone, including the prisoner, Alyosha.                     

            "Kill him?" asked Desante. He lingered, pretending to think, and at length spoke with a majestic and emphatic tone. "Such a delightful proposition! Let us begin! First, I will need a sword!"  

            Desante paused and surveyed the crowd. They looked back at him with a mixture of fear and perplexity.  

            "Come now, my audience, I will need a sword!"  

            No one from the crowd offered one. He pursed his lips and feigned disappointment. He then produced a most disingenuous surprised look that looked both odd and frightening. He opened his mouth, and his eyes rolled bizarrely fast in their sockets. Desante snapped his fingers with one hand and pointed the index finger of his other hand in the air. He then snapped his mouth shut, turned his neck, and looked squarely at Razum.  

            "Good sir," said Desante. He now pointed the index finger at Razum. "May I borrow your sword. I am afraid you will no longer be needing it."  

            The most curious thing then happened. Desante twirled a finger, and Razum's sword flew out of its sheath. It hovered nearby in mid-air, motionless. Sparse sunlight gathered at its metal and dazzled where it struck droplets of rain. Razum stared in awe at his own weapon. He even chuckled in delight. Desante then guffawed, and with one smooth stroke, the sword cleaved the head off of its former master.              

The crowd, nearly one hundred in total, screamed as one. Fountains of blood spurted up from the severed arteries in Razum's neck and ran down his shoulders. The headless body collapsed forward into the spectators. Most were able to move out of the way, save one unfortunate soul who had now become trapped beneath the motionless corpse.  

            "Save me!" cried the trapped person.  

            "We can't move!" shouted several people.  

            "Save us!" shouted others.  

            Desante shrieked with laughter as he surveyed his work and considered it well done. The crowded townsfolk was effectively immobilized. Even Kifer, who had been surprisingly immune to his witchery, struggled to move from his spot at the base of the staircase.  

            "Now that we have disposed of one meddling man!" bellowed Desante. "Shall we  

we move to a second!"  

            Desante returned his gaze to the twenty-something-year-old man who had initially run out on stage. He still hovered in midair. Up until that point, he had kept his mouth shut. Now it opened, but only unintelligible gibberish came out. Desante threw his arms up into the air with an exaggerated gesture.  

            "Bah!" he said. "I forgot. Let me help you!"  

            Desante waved a hand in front of the terrified man.  

            "Save me, someone!" screamed the man, hysterically, his voice returned to him. "Save me!"  

            "Well, ladies and gentlemen, my most auspicious audience from Brezdo, shall I save him?" asked Desante, turning to the crowd, speaking with an odd cadence.  

            No one from the crowd spoke. Desante grinned.  

            "There you have it, young man," he said, shrugging his shoulders.  

            Razum's sword then rose from the platform. It glided toward the helpless man and stopped. Desante sighed and grabbed the hilt of the sword.  

            "I feel this needs an old-fashioned touch."  

            He positioned the sword against the man's neck, breathed in, and then swung it backward slowly. He took slow and careful aim, then lunged the weapon forward.  

            "Enough!!" screamed a voice.  

            The sword flew out of Desante's hand. Screams came from the crowd of helpless spectators. An intense light, both blue and red, then flashed and blinded everyone. A thud was heard. Gradually, the light and screams faded.  

            When the chaos finally settled, Desante heard the rush and crashing waves. He opened his eyes and found himself in a familiar but distinctly different setting. An ocean and jagged rock shore lay before him. A blackened sky rolled above.  

            "Will you never cease your business?" asked a voice from behind him.  

            Desante smirked arrogantly. "Never, my dear brother."  

            "You will not succeed," said the voice.  

            Desante turned around. Rocks and pebbles moved aside for him, but his younger brother did not. He remained still and stared back.  

            "Alyosha," said Desante. "I shall succeed one day. You will attack with hatred in your heart." He squinted. "And on that day, you will become like me."  

            Alyosha swallowed, fighting back both tears and doubt.  

            "Goodbye, brother," he said, shaking his head.  

            His eyes flashed a dark blue. Alyosha then vanished.  

            Desante growled, breathing heavily. His mouth slowly turned into a grin. His eyes flashed red.  

            "And on that day, I will become immortal."  

THE END