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It was a twilight of weird magnificence. The walk to the Harbor Lights witnessed the cloaking of the sun and the sky, the light taking them through some of the most run-down buildings of New Mondian. Half of them were deserted, half of them just appearing so, few daring to live amongst the dregs of humanity that eked out a wretched existence amongst the refuse of the harbor. From coughing windows to fuming stacks, the pockets of the few with money in their pocket never dared to show themselves until dark brooded itself into dawn. What was left in the night hour were those who were too ill or apathetic to care and those who preyed on them.
‘Hurry,’ he urged, forcing them on as fast as his little legs could go.
The fetid wretchedness of the city only became truly manifest in the half-light, Ganthrell thought, eyes drawn to the roofline vague but still distinct. He craned his neck to look beyond, the sky darkening, solidifying into shadow, everything about to be reduced to the stain of oppression coming from the never-resting spume of chimney’s cloaked within the gloom of the slag-heaps unseen.
He didn’t need to say to him soon he wouldn’t be able to see anything, pulling Crestan by the hand, who did what he could to keep up. Crestan knew. Crestan had seen the the depravity before. He only knew too well, the poor child.
He paused to look up again, judging how much time they had, being less than he would have liked. The blanket had lowered, he noted grimly. A grey oppression as relentless as time, soon to smother cornice, rail and even the echo of footstep on cobblestone. Beyond, he could hear the distant throb of the last of the air barges, where somewhere a dozen propellers would be beating the smog into eddies in an effort to make a break for clean air and what was left of the day. He shifted his attention to what lay ahead, to the shifting incandescent pallor of the gas lamps. A streetscape composed of shadows, puddle-cobbles and an all-pervading grayness that grew and darkened with each passing step.
‘Grandpa, we have to hurry,’ Crestan said, taking the lead.
Ganthrell looked down and nodded. ‘Sorry. Yes.’
‘Why does it come?’ The boy said, following his searching gaze.
‘Greed, Crestan. It’s the pallor of greed,’ he said with a sigh, as the mantle kept on descending towards them.
It enveloped anything and everything, obliterating sky, soon to swallow the townscape in a shroud impossible to penetrate. This it did each and every night when the temperatures dropped and the city closed down, merchants and workmen giving way to gangs and stalkers, robbers and thieves who used the smog to hide their very existence. Above them, the criss-cross girders of the railway now silent waiting for another industrious day, the arches interlacing patterns of silent iron dripping in the fog that blended with the coal dust: Dark forms looming threateningly before disappearing within the underbelly of the smog that hung suspended, a blanket of foul air that seemed to settle lower and lower with every passing step.
Ganthrell marched forth, footsteps amplified off close-by brick walls shining dully by an approaching gas lamp suspended on a bracket mounted across the corner to the main street. It hung unevenly, he noted. One of the bolts mounting the bracket to the wall must have come loose, it being only a matter of time before the weight of the lamp would pull the single remaining bolt out of the brick. It was dark now.
Forth he strode until he noted it with dismay it was too dark. He paused, uncertain and peered into the darkness. Nothing. He held his cane out before him and kept on walking until he could make up a tall wall of dark red bricks that blocked off the alley turning it into a dead-end.
‘They’ve walled it up,’ he cursed. He turned and noted with dismay the mantle of smog had descended to a little higher than head height, lowering by the weight of the cold, a moving mantle that touched the top of Ganthrell’s head, the thin wispy lines of his thinning hair soon lost within. The old man limped slightly, back stooped to see before all visibility was lost to them, marching, pulling the boy he hardly knew until they re-emerged back into the light now blanketed, losing it’s strength. A handful of strides later the smog descended to his chest, so far he could no longer see beneath it. A distant cry of a gull. ‘Which way is the harbor?’
The boy could still see from his height. Crestan let go of his grandfather’s hand. ‘Over there,’ he said pointing unseen.
‘Sure?’ Ganthrell asked, blind.
Ganthrell took the boy’s hand once more and strode forth with an energy that belied a hidden, youthful vitality even at his ripe old age. He kept his other hand clasped to his cane that he trailed across the damp brick walls making a ticking sound, pausing as they passed shuttered windows until the light deceased, replaced by another, fouler air that stank of rotting fish and tar. His hand left the wall, heading out into open space, the echo of footsteps relieved by the slapping of water against planks of wood. In the background, a muffled sound of revelry.
He made for the opposite direction, wanting to avoid meeting anyone, emerging out of the night smog to where it was little lighter where it made contact with the silent still waters of the harbor.
‘Come on,’ he nodded towards the looming shadow of the building framing the street unseen as from somewhere across the silent waters a seagull let fly a melancholy cry.
‘I don’t like being here,’ Crestan said.
A peel of drunken laughter filtered past the flickering lights.
Of course he didn’t. Ganthrell looked down. ‘Neither do I. Now let’s stop dilly-dallying.’ He nodded towards the faint glow of golden flame. ‘That’s where we’re going. It’ll be all right.’
They set off again, accompanied by the occasional light rap from the man’s cane on stone. The glow of light, flames invisible.
For a moment, a glowing swathe of light erupted, the piano filling the space around them to be extinguished, replaced by a solitary laugh emerging out of the grey veil returned. The laughter repeated itself, the indistinct outline of a women, soon followed by a man wearing a top-hat catching up to link arms. He took hold of her shoulder, swayed on one leg as the other poised unsure what to do with itself, steadying himself as his mouth sought her ear, his breath swirling in the mist about them, their clothes steaming. The boy look up startled as she shrieked, her head tilted backwards, followed by a cackle of laughter. On they marched, stumbling and laughing as they made for the buildings across the dockside road. Looking up, the woman saw the two figures had stopped in the street to look at them, grey tangled hair cascading around a black shawl pulled tightly across sloping shoulders
Crestan looked quickly away.
The man stopped, both feet planted as he swayed. He stepped forwards, eyes clinched in a look of suspicion. ‘What ya lookin’ at?’
‘Look away,’ Ganthrell whispered. ‘Come.’
‘Oy! Don’t you know it’s rude to whisper?’ The dreaded sound of footsteps.
Just go away, damn you.
‘Stay where you are,’ the voice said, words slurred by grog.
‘Come,’ Ganthrell turned, dismayed to see no one at all, the smog already descended to cloak the street.
He could approach to within five space and he wouldn’t know it, the flickering lights suddenly all too vague and unreachable.
‘This way,’ he pulled Crestan desperately to the side. But it was too late, a shape emerging out of the vapor topped by a tall hat, then another emerging from behind the first and he knew then it had been a mistake to come after the smog had settled at all.