The Drifter

This is a new short story I’ve been working on. It diverges from my usual fiction writing style and you can perhaps categorise it as a noir-sci-fi-fantasy-thing. The idea of this singular figure drifting across a wasteland has been playing in my mind for some time, and I thought it would be interesting to frame it in some sort of narrative. You can read more of my thoughts on writing this, and why I consider it a threshold between my first manuscript and the new novel I’m about to embark on, at this link here. Enjoy.

The Drifter

The Drifter had walked these roads before. He had been subjected to this hell of placelessness, namelessness, facelessness… he moved like a dark shadow across the grey landscape, gliding like a phantom through these parts.

The towns he passed looked the same: single roads, dusty streets, broken windows in falling-down buildings. An empty existence. All because of the One.

The One who had started it all.

The One who he tried to stop.

The One for whom defeat was never a word.

The One.

A shiver crept through the Drifter’s thin frame, rattling his very being. He stopped.

The town lay before him, just like the countless others he’d experienced.

But there was something different about this one… something he couldn’t quite place just yet.

A single street, flanked by crumbling structures.

Dust billowing in the afternoon gust, the buildings bathed in dusk’s golden light.

*

First there were the glitches. The tiny fragmentations of reality, hinted by conspicuous bursts of a shimmering haze. Almost like a heat haze. But the Drifter knew otherwise. He knew this wasn’t some thermodynamic phenomenon.

Over the year, the fragmentations grew in frequency, and reality started to crumble piece by piece around him.

Until…

Until there was nothing. Emptiness. Darkness.

That was the world he lived in now. That was the world that the Spectre had crafted, and that was the world he was seeing.

The Drifter knew this was unnatural. That no human was meant to see these things. But once that first glimpse of nothingness caught his vision, he couldn’t see anything the same again.

He was forever haunted, a phantom coasting these desolate lands.

*

The bar was just like any other he had been in, in countless towns in countless barren lands. Dust was suspended in the air, dust caked the empty tables. Desolation. Utter nothingness: the Spectre’s spell cast over these lands.

He walked slowly into the dimly lit room. Silence pressed against this hollow chamber. He sat himself at the long wooden bar that stretched across one end of the place. Before him were dirty tumblers and drink taps that hadn’t been used for years.

The place seemed to be devoid of life – not unlike the hundreds of towns he had visited before this one. Yet the Drifter knew this was it; this would be the end of his journey.

He sat hunched over the bar, his face cast in half-shadow.

And waited.

Sure enough, there came the distant sound of footsteps on beaten-up wooden flooring. Life, finally.

The Drifter felt the presence before he saw the being. As expected.

The Drifter smelled the odour before he saw the creature. As expected.

The Drifter looked up, and stared into the grey eyes. Grey: as expected.

This was Him. The One. The Spectre.

Finally.

As expected.

*

He learned of the Spectre shortly after the glitches. It was apparent that the two were inextricably linked; the Spectre was the one who caused the glitches. The Spectre created them.

One night, whilst still a part of the fragile world that was slowly crumbling around him, the Drifter struggled to rest, his mind constantly on the glitches that were consuming him.

The glitches… The strange force that was tearing apart his reality. That was when the Spectre appeared: a gust of wind, a sort of vacuum as air displaced in an irregular pattern, and the mysterious aura of some ancient entity descending upon the space.

Terror gripped him as witnessed the frightening sight: a being not from this world, a being he knew instantly to be connected to the phenomena he had just experienced.

It was a dark entity, a form that constantly shifted its shape, never the same thing with each passing second. Its voice spoke not from a mouth , but through the very air… It spoke from within the Drifter’s very mind.

“You have been chosen…” it said. “You have been chosen…”

Eyes… Red, bright, piercing, suddenly materialised from the shapeless mass hovering before him. They tore into his mind, as if searing the message into his brain.

And at once, just as suddenly as it had begun, the Spectre disappeared.

From that point onward, the Drifter was born: not physically, but in a mental state: he would forever be condemned to a life of rootlessness, never able to stay in one place. All because the Spectre had chosen him to bear witness to the true reality.

He would forever walk these plains, barren and desolate, searching for some wisp of that past, veiled vision that could validate his existence and lift him from this haunting spell. 

That blurred existence that had once been his was brighter than this discordant reality.

*

“What will it be?” the voice belonging to the grey eyes asked.

It was a provocation, not a question. The words were not asking, they were tempting… taunting the Drifter’s predicament.

The Drifter sighed.

“An end would be nice,” he replied quietly.

The room suddenly chilled. Whatever light permeated the space extinguished itself at once. Cold pierced the Drifter’s back like shards of ice puncturing his skin. He screamed out. The barman had disappeared… and then the voice spoke from within his skull.

“An end? That’s what your want, then?”

A swirl of black smoke twisted its way around the room, like a tornado preparing its onslaught. It circled the Drifter, who was now standing in the centre of the dusty barroom. He stood as still as possible, a statue immune to the fear the Spectre was trying to conjure.

He had failed to fight this entity once. He would never allow himself to do so again.

Reaching into the depths of his jackets, he withdrew a slender object: it glowed silver in the darkness. The swirling mist slowed, then withdrew into itself, the Spectre taking on a shimmering, shifting form, both a defined shape and yet still incomprehensible.

The two red, piercing eyes suddenly looked… afraid.

The Drifter allowed himself a slight smile.

In a single move that he had seen played out in his mind countless times through countless landscapes of endless walking, the Drifter thrust the blade into the mist that was the Spectre. The blade went straight through, but the shriek from the thing it pierced was deafening.

The Spectre’s form became solid, then vapour, then solid again… each time the leathery skin cracking, a horrible red liquid oozing from the cracks and then suddenly disappearing as it changed its state of matter. Finally, it turned to smoke, and gently drifted off in the breeze that crept into the barroom. The darkness went with the Spectre, and the Drifter found himself standing with his arm still thrusting the blade into empty air.

It was done. He was free.

So why did it feel like he was still in chains?

*

The road stretched on to infinity. Flat land flanked it. The Drifter stood in the middle, looking out at the endless expanse of asphalt.

The Spectre was dead. He survived. But this was his only existence – the only thing he knew now. The thing that had silently tortured him for so long, now haunted him. 

The promise of light rested just beyond the horizon…

So the Drifter began his journey once more.

©2014 Rahul Dowlath

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