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Almeric had not slept ever since the death of his wife whose murder was committed by his hands. He could not imagine what madness had impelled him to spill the blood of someone so pure and innocent. Nevertheless, the guilt manifested itself in his dreams as her angelic likeness haunted him in his sleep. The remembrance of her pained him to the soul. Therefore, he vowed to never sleep again lest the memory of her be conjured.

The night, like a murky sea, drowned the light of the moon and star which shone faintly in the skies above. Below, along the country roads, Almeric trod, lifting his leaden legs while his arms hung beside them.

After the murder of his wife, he had been on the run from the law for weeks. In the guise of an unemployed laborer seeking work, he hopped from town-to-town. Having grown out his beard and dressed in ragged clothing, and with a muscular frame attained through years of practicing gymnastics as a hobby, no one could trace his identity back to the man who worked as a bookkeeper in the city of Malneant—so he hoped! Paranoia prevented him from settling in one place for too long. He had yet to see any signs that he was being chased. Regardless, he always kept a step ahead of his phantom pursuers.

The weariness of his travels and sleep deprivation took their toll upon his mind and body tonight. His eyes, under the shadows of his brow and above the bags beneath them, were glazed red as they stared through the dark into oblivion. He meant to arrive at his destination well before nightfall, but his tiredness slowed him. This delay forced him to walk exposed on the open roads rather than through the cover of the thickets and wilderness which, under the blackness of night, was no longer feasible. But, in his exhausted state, he no longer cared about being caught by the authorities and answering for his crime; in fact, he felt it might alleviate his guilt. Yet, at the same time, his fear of facing the consequences urged him forth. And so, on a drunken man’s knees, he lumbered on.

He did not know where he was going. Vaguely, he recalled consulting the map and choosing a town (whose name he could not remember) to take refuge in next. His mind was clouded. He could only hope his legs steered him in the right direction.

Despite his weariness and guilt-ridden thoughts, he felt a morbid sense of serenity out here alone in the countryside during the darkling hours of the night. The soothing silence broke only to the soft thud of his footfalls and the occasional grumble of his stomach. The dark silhouettes of the trees leaned against the sky. He gazed up at the few stars twinkling about and breathed in whiffs of the cool, sweet air.

A dreamy mist gradually rolled in and enveloped him, obscuring his vision. He stopped in his tracks. Then, the pealing of bells sounded up ahead, faint and afar. Like the singing voices of sirens, they lured him, ringing louder and louder, with ghastly familiarity, as he proceeded in their direction.

The curtains of mist rolled away. Gray clouds now blanketed the sky. Behind them, the moon shone brighter than before and with alien remoteness.

Almeric halted and, bending over, gripped his aching knees while staring in bewilderment at the sight before him. A bridge spanned across a ravine to the gates and frowning walls of a city—the city of Malneant! What devilry led him to the last place he would even think to visit?

His fears renewed. He felt the unwanted stares of phantom eyes hiding in the shadows. He was about to turn back and run when the bells, continuously tolling in the background, transfixed him with their alluring chimes; and to further ease his worries, he reasoned that the last place the authorities (just as he) would expect to find him at this point of the chase was the place of the crime. Like a moth drawn to a flame, he crossed the bridge.

The gates creaked and raised open seemingly on their own. A thin layer of fog veiled the narrow and winding streets of cobble. Almeric passed underneath the shadow of the buildings whose windows, like scouring eyes, made him uneasy—that and the disquietude of the city where not a single soul was to be seen. Presumably, everyone was asleep at this hour of the night, though how could anyone sleep with the incessant noise of those bells?

Longing for something to relieve his parched throat and fill his empty stomach, he knocked on the doors of a few inns and taverns but each time received no answer. Now, he sorely regretted his decision to enter this forsaken city and cursed fate for bringing him here to begin with. He had not eaten the entire day and drank little. Upon realizing that his next meal would have to wait at least until the morning when the inns and taverns would hopefully open, the pit in his stomach widened, the lump in his throat grew, and he became dizzy.

The spell of the bells wore off, and their constant chiming grated his ears. With nothing to do, he followed the sound of the bells, more curious to determine their source than anything else.

After wandering the lonesome streets for what felt like hours, he arrived at the city square. Atop a cathedral, obscured in the thickening fog, the bells rang. Of course, he thought to himself that the pealing of the bells with their familiar chime came from this cathedral where he and his wife got married. He wondered why that took so long for him to deduce, but at the sudden mention of his wife, he dismissed the matter entirely and expelled any notion from his mind.

He finally caught sight of other people. The tail of a congregation slipped inside the cathedral through the front doors. He went after them, feeling like a stranger in his home city.

The crowds took their seats upon the rows and rows of pews and filled the air with murmurs. They were all clad in black, dressed like shadows. For some reason, Almeric could not discern the details of their faces and apparel. Nevertheless, his gaze was fixed at the end of the room where in front of an altar, beside a priest, a woman wearing a snow-white wedding gown stood.

Almeric’s eyes widened in disbelief. His heart skipped a beat and so did the bells. Time seemed to slow as his wife turned to face him and smiled, flashing her pearly teeth, clasping her small ivory hands to her heart.

Tears welled in Almeric’s eyes. Seeing his wife back from the dead struck him as the most bizarre and perplexing thing tonight. He knew not whether he wanted to run away out of shame or fling himself into her arms. The look on her face conveyed forgiveness and the promise to start a new life together. But was a brute like him worthy of forgiveness and worthy of her love after what he had done?

Almeric gulped. As the conflict within him settled, he took slow, deliberate strides down the lane. With each step, the bells rang almost in synchrony.

The torches dimmed. Darkness flooded the space but receded around his wife whose lithe figure emitted a heavenly glow.

As Almeric neared her, he had a premonition that some ill fate was set to befall him. Still, he could not resist her beauty and tenderness. He yearned to repent for his sins.

His footsteps quickened and so did the tolling of the bells, ringing louder in his ears until he could not even hear his own thoughts. His head throbbed.

He reached the altar and stood facing his wife, feeling a confused mix of joy and trepidation. An awkward smile sprouted to his lips as he regarded her, but it quickly curled into a frown upon closer scrutiny. His face turned ghostly pale.

The woman standing before him was not his wife. Moments ago, perhaps she was. But now, in her place, there stood another girl whom he recognized. His infatuation with this girl and the fear of their adulterous affair being publicized spurred the death of his wife.

Again, his heart skipped a beat and so did the bells. A cold, clammy sweat drenched his brow. Tears flowed down his cheeks, and he shook his head, muttering unintelligibly to himself. He stumbled away from the girl in revulsion, but then, the priest, as if issuing a geas, made them exchange vows.

The bride leaned in for a kiss. Impulsively, and under the influence of the same spell as before, he did the same. Their lips intertwined. He loathed how sweet she tasted and loathed himself for savoring the kiss. After he withdrew, however, a metallic taste was left in his mouth.

Suddenly, a burning sensation erupted in his chest. His knees buckled, and he folded onto the floor. The bells tolled faster and faster at an erratic rate, and, for the first time, he heard his heart pounding in tandem with them. His vision turned red. The world dissolved before him. A horrible chill permeated throughout his body before darkness consumed him whole, and he sank into an endless, dreamless sleep.



Rafique Shabbir is a Canadian writer from Toronto, Ontario. He specializes in writing short stories. His unique writing style brings these stories to life through the use of rhythm, vocabulary, and various poetic devices to push the boundaries of the English language and create sensory experiences. Two of his short stories, "Wonderful World" and "The Book of Raul", have appeared in the Slate and Spectatorial magazines, respectively. His story, "The Beggars of Talif," has also been published in Short-Story.Me. His favorite authors who have had a profound influence on his writing include JRR Tolkien, Clark Ashton Smith, and Ray Bradbury.


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