A hearth not of fire, but of the cold moon might well have been the wretched prisoner’s sole comfort. Certainly, this window served the only constant of mention. The stones in the walls simply infuriated him, for they never seemed to remain consistent in their rows for any length of time. For that matter, neither did what would emerge from them. Why could insects and arachnids not emerge from the same holes? Every time, it must be another crack or crevice, another means of escape beyond the same tunnels their comrades had burrowed before them. Was there no order, no faint imagining of consistency among these barbarians?
Certainly not. Their wit was not near that of his own; how could they possibly understand that such deviation wasted such time, such precious time they might make far more efficient use of, nibbling upon his toes or finding havens to lay their countless spawn. Certainly, even one of greater intelligence, another creature capable of this reflective and analyzing thought, could not comprehend what matter this could make either.
No, certainly not. So rather than talk sense to these walls and beasts that would see no reason, he focused always instead upon the hearth-light of his cell window. There at least, order may reign. The moon may shine for the light does reflect. The clouds may flow for the winds do blow. Ah, out there lay none of this petty will and such that dictates what these beasts may do, or where the stones may fall to build a prison; only dear logic and what happens by the means of all sense. Oh, gods, let me be one with that wonderful order that is inanimacy!
Such, of course, was not possible by any means. Twelve-million and seventy-two times he had considered what options lie before him; twelve-million and seventy-two he understood there was but no means of escape. Perhaps if he lay as another prisoner, his situation would be far different, but as he hung as though crucified, arms outstretched and hung by chain-braces from the ceiling, he faced next to no power over anything within this confined world.
“My, oh my! If only I lay like the good prisoner painted upon the pages of dear Dumas’ story. I could carve out the stones one by one, and if not design my freedom, at least I would see more of that reign beyond my window!”
As too often before, he slumped once more into his chains. At least nothing but the slightest obsession might disturb me here.
Something, however, did. The slightest breath, perhaps, yet surely by these long years it lay far out of place. His eyes rose from the ground to the far cell wall, and there lay a shadow where none before had lain.
“What is this?! You do not belong there! Out, I say! Do not dare defile what fragile consistency might reside within my home!”
The man did not answer. He remained against the stones, slumped backwards without an ounce of order to his posture.
“Do you insult me, heathen of order?! I said leave! Only just had I begun to accept some uniformity of the stones in that wall before you interrupted!”
With silence still he answered, that stranger by the wall. No movement shifted his body, not from his hidden face, yet a single sound came all too harsh upon the hanging prisoner’s hearing.
The sound of shallow breathing behind the stranger’s mask.
Such a mask he truly wore, without metaphor: a helmet, a face, carved of rotting wood. Its cheeks drew solemn and tight, its hair curled back around its wearer. Below its crooked nose pursed lips thin and cracked, open softly in the formation of a question never asked nor answered.
Its eyes, however, they remained open to the void beneath them. There they lay like black whirlpools into the man behind, denying moonlight the passage to his face.
“You mongrel! At least face me with your true face! Cast aside that mask and let me see the face of my enemy!”
The stranger’s breathe dragged from his throat, growing louder, slower and agonizing to the ear.
“I see it now, then,” cried the hanging prisoner anew, “You mock me; is it not so?! Yes, you bear that freedom that I so long for! You may walk or move, lie or sit as you do now, while I, I am bound forever to hang from these chains! Curse you! Curse you and your mockery of my agony!”
The air whistled and rasped between the lips of the mask, rattling between the cell walls. The hanging prisoner cried out to the darkness, writhing in pain at the sound upon his ears. His chains would not give him even the mercy of silence as they held him from reaching his head, and upon his struggling they creaked and rattled with even fiercer noise.
The hanging prisoner slumped and fixed a glare of blood upon the unmoving stranger. “You… you… you fiend of a man. You destroyer of worlds. Perhaps I bore no peace, but upon your entrance, the single comfort of silence was stolen from my grasp. You have destroyed my one sanity in this world, but far worse, you would not respect me with a word, nor even a glimpse of your wretched face. What do you seek, coward?!”
Without an ounce of effort, the hanging prisoner slipped out of his chains to the floor.
“Do you seek my sanity?” He advanced upon the stranger. “Take it, I’ve none left! Do you seek my peace?” The stranger’s breathing wheezed and choked with every step the prisoner took. “Take it, it’s been gone for years! But if you seek my pity,” He came right up before the resting man, whose solemn mask almost screamed with the breath roaring through its lips.
“If you dare seek my pity, surely will you not get it! What, do you think I feel sorry for you?! You’re nothing but bones and dust! Nothing but bones and dust, and a mask rotten with the ages since you lived! What use have I for pity for a corpse, a skeleton, blessed with the freedom to die where he so pleased, when I hung there from those chains for all eternity?! The winds and the rain will come one day, and these stones will fall away by the merciless force of nature! Your bones, your ever echoing breathing, and your putrid rotting mask will be washed away before such majesty! Do you hear me?! WASHED AWAY!”
The prisoner leapt against the window and its iron bars, and tore at them with such ferocity the moon itself quaked in the darkness.
“Do you hear me, sea, sky, prison of my home?! We will all be washed away by the storm!”
He cackled and screamed, wailing through the prison, but no one would hear him. Nothing had lived for centuries within those walls. Not the wardens, not the prisoners, not the breath behind the mask, nothing. Certainly, of course, neither had he.