And, for the third time...
Where does madness start? In the flame of a candle, fluttering despite closed windows and doors? In the light reflected in dead eyes that never held any when they were alive? In the wish to touch cold, dead skin just to know it is real?
It sat on the table before him, in the flickering light of the candles. They guttered in a wind that should not exist. Or was it merely his breath? They formed a tiny shallow pool of light in a darkness too deep for even his superhuman eyes to penetrate. The glow of the candles was golden and warm and fading, and cold and blue and sharp was the stasis field. The hololithic recorder sat on the edge of the dark stone table, a sphere of dull bronze, almost swallowed by the tenebrous air, holding a promise never to be fulfilled.
Inside the field sat his brother's head. Eyes open, skin white. Black hair turned grey, pooling on the bottom of the crate, like a threadbare pillow. He reached for it, out of instinct, his fingers stopping millimeters from the field. Blue sparks arced from it and played over his golden armour. He would not be seen outside his armour in his brother's presence, he would never trust again. Not even now that the other had been claimed by death.
Where does madness begin? When eyes can no longer be relied on? When only the touch, and the smell, the sound of dripping blood can convey the inevitable?
Dead eyes stared. Pools of blackness, reflecting the candles’ flames. Black blood crusted in the lines around a thin mouth with milkwhite lips, where teeth filed to fangs had cut into skin, in or after death. Sharp cheekbones strained against skin like parchment, white and chalky, casting shadows over gaunt and hollow cheeks.
He deactivated the field, and the blue light vanished. Now only the candles remained. They guttered, and two of them went out, extinguished by the release of trapped air. Or was it something else that had smothered them? And the eyes continued to stare at him, now free of the distortion of the stasis field. But their gaze wasn’t the only thing that had been freed...
The smell then hit his enhanced olfactory apparatus: dead blood, starting to go rancid, but preserved inside the field: coppery, rich, intense. Far different from human blood. Impossibly different. The sweetness of decomposition was yet absent. Softly, the smell of the dead man as he had been in life crept in, became noticeable over the overpowering scent of his blood. Sweat, unwashed hair. A faint suggestion of lapping oils from armour that had been like second skin. Mould and dust, the faint odor of decaying feathers. Where did that come from?
Where does madness begin? In the whispers of the dark, burning on fevered imagination? He relit the candles, to banish the shadows pooling in the dead man's eye sockets.
Slowly, they withdrew, evaporating with sirupy reluctance. Black eyes were revealed, staring into the distance. Black in black, bloodshot and bruised. Full of...
Nothing. His fingers were cold, despite the environmental systems of his armour being fully operational. He yearned to touch the cold, pallid skin of the corpse, to feel the reality of his brother's death.
A death he had ordered. A death met willingly, as the final validation of a life lived in service to an ideal. An unspoken denial in a redundant gesture of his hand. There was a faint tinkling sound as the recorder rolled off the table and fell to the marble floor. An unnecessary valediction. He was held spellbound by a dead empty gaze alone.
Where does madness start? In flinching from accusations nobody will ever voice?
He turned away, bending over and picking up the bronze sphere. It was tiny in his massive fist, dull against the shining gold of his gauntlet. The surface dented slightly as his fingers closed around it and after a moment of stillness, he carefully placed it on the table, inside the circle of candles. Such a little thing... It rolled forward, only to be stopped by a dead man’s jaw.
Where does madness begin? In imagining the feel of cold, hard skin, white as marble, stretched over black veins?
On his armour the flickering lights danced. With one hand outstretched he stood, still as a statue. As the wind played with his lank grey hair, the severed head had more life than him.
Where does madness begin? Speaking to the dead? He was silent, his mouth firmly shut.
The dead man's smile was a thing of shortened muscles and differing temperatures. The candles' corpselight gave an illusion of life to a skin that had looked as pallid, as lifeless when still covering a body with beating hearts. Pointed teeth protruded between bluetinged lips. Delicate grooves cut into flesh that had never been soft and now looked like stone.
A finger gently pushed a strand of hair back, where it lay over a black eye. The skin was cold, sensors embedded in his armoured fingertips told him. But not as cold as his. An inane caress.
Where does madness begin? In images in the dark, given life by one’s own fevered mind?
He stood back, closing his eyes. He had feared he might see his brother's face as it had been in life, might see his accusation, his triumph. But he saw only darkness. Once more, lightning struck, and the tower fell. For the last time.
Under his tread, the marble floor cracked.
The door flew open, and the guards jumped, taken aback by his ferocity.
"Take it away."
Words: 942 without title.