- Fear Itself
- A weary investigator and a spry thief hunt an otherworldly killer.
- Black Dog Bark
- Jealous gods return in war and strife. Written to accompany a game of Diplomacy.
- The Human Spirit
- Even when the human species falls, the human spirit will go on.
- Self Defense
- When those we love seem as monsters, does our defense violence them, or the horror they have become?
- Death, Coffin-Maker
- The shepherd of the dead meets his successor.
- The Specter
- A fear-monger enjoys his favorite show.
- Night Judge
- Watching shadows in the dark, you find them... watching you.
- Willful Ignorance
- Encounters with the incomprehensible.
- No Greater Act
- When the world ends, I want it to be slow.
- Myleton Motor Inn
- A fear-monger feasts.
- Exploring the pain of connection through the comfort of strangers.
- A meditation on the human spirit.
- Born at Dusk
- Growing up after the end of the world.
- Spei Mythos
- When even the shadows feed on your fears, courage becomes the key to survival.
- The Buddha of Accounting
- A man who lives in his ledgers reaches enlightenment.
- Beings from Beyond
- An excerpt from world of "Ex Deus"
- Four half-animal brothers search for their parents. Basis for a GURPS campaign I ran.
- Interview with a Genejack
- A genejack, or human engineered for otherwise backbreaking labor, discusses his existence.
- The Secret Life of Accountants
- There is power in ledgers, more than you will ever know.
A crime scene like that leaves you drained. All the cops on the scene, they'd seemed hardened against it, but Charles could see in every one of them, they would weep when they got home. They would go to their wives and children, kiss them and hold them, and pray to whatever goodness remained in the world that nothing like what they had seen would ever taint the innocence of their loved ones.
"See you tomorrow, Charles," fellow detective and carpool driver Samuel Burns stopped the car outside Charles Anderson's tenament. He sighed and got out of the car, and Sam drove away. He trudged inside the drab, sagging building, grey paint on grey blocks against a grey sky, all swathed in midnight black and splashed with the streetlight's orange glow that only seemed to cast more shadows. He climbed the stairs to his apartment, creaking and moaning beneath his feet with every step. Charles drew a smile from the sound, comparing the object's weariness to his own, and at last with a sigh got to his floor. He turned the key and stepped inside his home, closed the door and flicked on the lights.
"Oh shit," he heard.
Charles dropped his briefcase and rushed to the source of the voice, his living room, where he saw outside his window, clinging to the fire escape's ladder, a scruffy-looking twenty-something with Charles' TV strapped to his back. Charles looked at him with his mouth agape in disbelief at how his day could have gotten worse, and the thief stared back with a smirk and a grin.
"Too slow. See you!" he said, and slid down the ladder. Charles rushed to the window and watched the skinny thing flee into the shadows and disappear. He sighed, groaned, and tightened his fist as if to break something, but his weariness wore his anger back to nothing. He dropped his hands in resignation and went back to the door, picked up his briefcase and went to the kitchen, dropped it on the table and, moving to the next order of business, examined the refrigerator for something to eat. Finding only Tupperware full of aged and unrecognizable left-overs, he looked instead through the cupboards and drawers. Finding nothing there either, he returned to the fridge, and took out a container of what might have once been lasagna.
"Heat kills germs, right?" he thought, and tossed it in the microwave. He moved back to the kitchen table and swept the layers of newspapers, articles, reports, and all other order of literary excess to the floor with a move of his tired arm before sitting down and popping open his briefcase. More papers flew out: dictations, confessions, depositions and court records his higher-ups had shoved in his hands, all of them eager to benefit from his investigative diligence and skill, but never to reward him except with a passing thanks and another case. Charles sighed.
He sifted through the material and took out his laptop, a bulky machine he'd acquired second-hand years ago. He opened it and set it aside, waiting for it to come to life and await use, before he returned to the mess of files. He sifted through them for the one case that wouldn't leave his mind, couldn't leave his mind, not even if he wanted it to. Today's case.
"Chad Wesson, 42, a corn farmer of Myleton, awoke October 12, 2005, at 6:00 AM via alarm. He noted his wife Mary, 33, was not in bed, but thought nothing of it because she typically got up before him to make breakfast for the family. Going downstairs, he discovered there were no lights on to indicate his wife's presence. Becoming concerned, he explored the first floor, quietly so as not to wake his daughter and only child Melissa, 14. Entering the living room, he looked through the room's central window to the apple tree he planted when he bought the house, and beheld a sight so disturbing it rendered him able only to sob, vomit, urinate, and defecate where he stood, or rather where he promptly crumpled into a ball and shook for several hours. Stains at the home verified his story. At approximately 9:32 AM, Melissa found her father, saw the apple tree, and called 911. [See attached transcript of call]
"What incapacitated Mr. Wesson so, was to find his four farmhands [names and information attached] and his two neighbors [names and information attached] hanging from his apple tree, bound by their feet with their eyes gouged out, their hands dripping with their own blood from having apparently done the gouging themselves. The ropes they dangled from were pre-cut to such lengths that each man's head was level with every other's, and the rope burns on their ankles and marks on the branches above indicate they tied the ropes themselves and then dropped. No signs of struggle accompanied these six male victims. Presumed cause of death is blood loss from the eye sockets, as gravity pulled most of their bodies' blood out that way.
"The seventh victim, Chad's wife Mary, was nailed haphazardly to the tree's trunk, facing away from the tree with her arms wrenched backwards to hug the trunk. Nails pierced her palms, upper arms, deltoids, abdomen, thighs, ankles, and neck. Hammer wounds surround the nails, indicating either a struggle or great imprecision on the part of the attacker. Judging from the wide wounds resulting from her thrashing against her bonds, it is likely the former. A smashed watch found on farmhand Saul Waevyr indicates time of incident at around 5:17 AM.
"This preliminary investigation suggests sudden insanity on the part of the six male victims, acting together to kidnap Mary and murder her as an incident of their madness. From this data, the following theoretical situation can be constructed: the six male victims organized early in the morning, around 4 AM, before kidnapping Mary, silencing her somehow, and then carrying out the murder by the apple tree over the next hour. This detective recommends further investigation as no evidence suggests odd or suspicious proclivities in any of the six male victims prior to the event, and considering inconsistencies such as no reports of any hammering noises, sounds of voices from the band, (both of which Melissa should have heard, as she claims she was awake between 4 AM and 6 AM [due to nightmare]) or any indication of how Mary got from her bed with Chad to the hands of her murderers."
The microwave beeped and broke Charles' typing trance. He sighed and pushed his chair back, stood up, and moved to the microwave. He opened it to see the Tupperware steaming and, pulling it out, the food inside turned from old beyond recognition to burned beyond recognition. One problem into another, and we none the better, he thought.
Kinde loved his life. His real name was John Blaggard, but nobody knew that. His parents had died Batman-style when he was ten, killed by a trigger-happy mugger behind a theater on their night out. He didn't find out until the cops busted into his family's apartment thinking the killers were using it as a drug lab. Brilliant reasoning, fuzz. He lived as an orphan until he was twelve, when he just walked out and left, living as a street urchin for another two years until a gang boss, Mac McLarnan, caught him stealing clothes from a Laundromat to pawn - stealing his clothes, specifically - but he liked the urchin's spunk, like how when he picked up the kid by the back of the neck to take back his clothes, the kid kicked him in the nuts and ran for it. Any other gang boss he knew would have pumped his dumb head full of bullets, but in his heart he knew that, were he in the same position, he woulda kicked him in the nuts too. He tried corralling the kid, giving him a place among the gang: a home, food, friends, but the kid couldn't be convinced. So he started calling him Kinde, after that defiant black dude in that movie he thought he remembered, and it stuck. Kinde stayed a street urchin, honing his skills as a thief, eventually graduating to burglary, sometimes playing mugger, other times just a simple trickster, scaring the living daylights out of other ne'er-do-wells by posing as the cops, by leaping from the shadows with a knife at their neck, by pick pocketing them just after they'd pick pocketed someone else, or by any other means that left him laughing for days. Ten years later, now 22, he hadn't changed. Sure, he only stole what he needed, he didn't feel the need for much more, but adventure was never such a rational mistress as to leave him to the least work, and more than once he'd had to put a knife in a man to make a getaway. But, he was quick to remind anyone he told, only because he had to. His real passion was filching, like this TV.
He trotted through back alleys, his lips curled as if whistling, but along this end of the city, in these alleyways where the faintest shapes looked like bodies lying in wait for you - and a disconcerting amount of the time, they were - it generally wasn't a good idea. Especially not with a sweet flatscreen for a haul. It might have been small, sure, but he could fetch at least two days' living off it. Or go out tomorrow and fetch that money and just keep the TV for himself. Oh, the possibilities were endless!
Kinde lived in a rat-cellar of an apartment, owned by a little old lady whose mere existence in such a crime-ridden area was bizarre. But she owned the place, was there every day, extracted rent from its obviously immorally-inclined tenants, and yet still maintained the demeanor of a helpless old granny. Once when Kinde gave her the month's rent early, she baked him cookies. He sat for hours and just looked at them, like they were snowflakes in Hell, until at last hunger overcame him and the cookies promptly disappeared into his gullet.
He came out of the alley maze onto his apartment's decrepit chasm of an avenue, stuck under a jungle of skyscrapers, the tops of which housed the most esoteric of the elite. The glass walls that lined their towers reflected and refracted into a toxic green blanketing the roadways below, turning the shadows of its inhabitants into venomous apparitions stalking in their passer's wakes. Why they'd planted their fortresses here, he would never know. He was content to live in their basement with his own kind. Somewhere some shots rattled off and someone screamed.
Kinde hopped down the steps to Granny's apartments, taking out his keys and undoing the lock. He fantasized about undoing it with his lockpicks, but he'd never been able. He could crack any normal lock, break into any normal home without the inhabitants knowing anything, but here? Granny had connections, knew her stuff. She was a one-of-a-kind old person.
"Kinde! Oh, it's late, welcome home!" Granny called, sweeping out the front steps.
"Granny!" He made to hug her, but she prodded at his filthy shoes with her broom. He laughed off the embarrassment and shook his shoes outside before coming in and taking her up in an embrace, "How is my old landlord at this awful hour?"
"Oh, stop, I'm not that old. Granny's still got spunk enough in her for a few decades yet, don't you worry! But I am doing well, Kinde, thanks for asking! I like your television-- but only if you'll let me watch my soaps on that big screen!"
"Well, I don't know if I'm keeping it, but if I do, Granny, the clunker's all yours," Kinde said and half-strode, half-pranced down the rest of the hall to his door. He twisted the key and the door clicked, falling open. Light seeped into his barren hovel, decorated by what things he didn't have the energy to pawn: a couch, a mattress, some blankets, a radio, a bowl, a metal spork. He bent down and flicked on the floor lamp by the door, and its yellow haze gushed over the room. He entered and carefully unwrapped himself from his haul, setting it down by his mattress. He took the cords sticking out of the back and plugged them into the wall as best as he could figure before flopping back onto his mattress. Only then did he notice the sticky note on the screen.
I SAW YOU AT THE HOUSE TODAY
LOOKING US OVER
STOP IT, DON'T COME
IF YOU WANT TO LIVE
Kinde shivered where he sat. He was glad his door was still open, but jumped when Granny had appeared there suddenly and silently. She smiled wide enough that her eyes closed, then bent back down and kept sweeping the hall.
He took the note up and looked at it closer. The scrawl was just that: handwriting imprecise enough to question the health of the author's hands. Kinde didn't know if it had been there when he took the television - the apartment had been dark, he could hardly see - or if someone had planted it on him on the way back. But if that were the case, what house were they talking about? He hadn't been anywhere but the deepest parts of the city, no houses... unless the house was metaphorical, but smarty-dude lingo like that was beyond someone like Kinde, so if that were the case then he decided he was doomed away. In any case, it gave him the creeps. Pawning it ASAP seemed like a solid idea. Or better yet, why not just return it? Hell, if that guy he stole the TV from was in danger, the last thing Kinde wanted was to get mixed up in it by having the goods on his hands, or have the money trail lead back to him.
Or, in any case, the message had him too on the edge to sleep. He strapped it to his back again and threw his blanket over his shoulders like a cloak, turning his tall frame into a bent figure, and left. Granny had disappeared, so he slipped back into the night without another word.
He didn't whistle this time out, didn't jaunt or smile. Something was egging at him from just outside the corner of his eyes. He didn't want to take the way he'd come, something didn't feel right about it. Maybe he was just being paranoid - the note wasn't meant for him anyway - but the whole thing just gave him the creeps: the chicken-scratch scrawl, the "I SAW YOU", the "US"... even though the last line was cliche, it didn't help.
He took a longer route, curling through alleyways and passages only blocks away from busy thoroughfares, keeping the sound of New York's busy core close like a kind of nightlight, even as the darkened buildings around him sucked out all light. He saw by feel, going off the slivers of toxic green and sickly orange light, avoiding anything his mind might try to play tricks with: garbage cans that might as well have been thugs lying in wait, strays and rodents picking their heads up at the interloper like they were taking account for some master, and-
Something dropped from a fire escape and charged into Kinde, hurling him onto his back. The TV broke his fall, and the ropes slipped off of the smashed machine. Kinde, reeling from the blow, heard three other somethings - no, someones - drop from above. One hissed and gurgled, then laughed like a man, "Not an old one like you thought, Tory. Much fresher than that, aaah."
"Still easy pickings," the one that charged composed itself and strode up, its figure wholly obscured by the backlighting of the alley's end, until it stood over Kinde. He grabbed him by the collar and hauled him up to eye level -- or would have, if at his touch Kinde hadn't run a dagger into the thing's crotch. It howled and leapt back, then crumpled. Kinde sprang to his feet and turned to face the rest of them, shouting, "Hah! Easy pickings my dick," until the one he thought he saw crumple threw an arm around his neck and squeezed until Kinde couldn't breath, taking his knife-hand and forcing it with frighteningly little effort up, towards Kinde's chest, pressing the tip against his beating heart. He didn't say anything, just hissed and groaned. Kinde thrashed and gasped, but the man had him tight.
"Police!" he heard from behind him, further down the alley, "Desist or I will use deadly force!"
One of them laughed and another dropped to all fours and rushed for the cop, but a gun went off and he heard death-howls.
"I repeat, desist or-"
Kinde's captor grunted and threw him to the ground, almost onto his own knife if he hadn't spun and drove it into his attacker's side in the fall. The thing shrieked, but it sounded more like an order than a cry, as he and the others bolted from the scene, leaping like wind out of sight.
"Holy shit!" Kinde gasped, rolling over and looking around the barren alley. The thug the cop'd shot was gone line the rest. The cop reached out a hand and helped him up, and when he stood they shared a look. Kinde saw the black-haired old dude whose house he'd just burgled, frowning the shit out of him, while Charles saw the lucky little punk who stole his TV, whose mouth seemed to rest in a smirk even now.
"Oh hey," Kinde offered, trying to worm out of Charles handgrip, "I was just about to go find you."
"I bet you were," Charles held tighter.
"I, uh - I'm Kinde, nice to meet you," he said, trying to turn the grip into a handshake.
They stood there, shaking awkwardly, as Kinde tried to avoid Charles' eyes and Charles tried to bore into Kinde with his stare.
"So, uh, about your TV..." Kinde began, trying to turn around to gesture to the broken pile of electronics behind him.
"About to go pawn it?"
"Actually, funny story!"
"Uh-huh." Their hands were still shaking.
"See, I got home, set the thing down, plugged it in, all ready to sit back and enjoy some boob-tube, when what do I find on the screen but, wouldn't you know it, a sticky note bearing a death threat!"
"I mean, I still have it..." he fumbled with his other hand in his pocket for the note and handed it to Charles, "Gave me the creeps."
Charles warily took his eyes from Kinde to the note.
"Now, being such an inner-city slug like myself, I don't see many houses. Ever. So I assumed the note was already there when I, ah, stole your TV. I thought you might like to know about it, and, you know, there was no way in Hell I was keeping a TV that came with a death threat. At least not a death threat in handwriting like that."
Charles' grip had loosened. He hadn't looked away from the note. Kinde pulled his hand back and wiped off the clamminess on his pants.
"How do I know you weren't sent?"
"You heard me," Charles shoved his gun under Kinde's chin, "How do I know you're not just some pawn of the guy who sent this note? How do I know you're not the one who wants me dead?"
Kinde rattled off reasons, thinking more about the gun under his chin than the words he was spewing: "Man, whoa-- if I were a pawn, why would my hypothetical boss have chosen this alleyway a mile from your apartment as the perfect location to give you the note? Why would I have stolen your TV as a means of trying to kill you? Why would I have gotten beaten up by thugs, left my knife in one of them, so that I was winded and unarmed by the time you arrived to my overwhelmingly well-picked point of ambush?"
Charles huffed and backed off. "Something's going on," he said and, when Kinde threw up his hands and declared, "I had no idea," glared at the kid hard. "Punk like you, steals my TV before I save his life from some hopped-up nightcrawlers, and all I get's grief and a death threat? I could cuff you right now. At least then I'd have something to show for this worthless night."
"You could. Or you could accept something /is/ going on, and that you can't, or at least really shouldn't ignore it. Considering what's going on, we shouldn't talk about this on the streets. I'd suggest your place, but they know you live there. I can take you to mine, but you gotta promise, nothing and nobody you see leaves your lips, compris?"
He shifted, "No, let's find a place neither of us call home. I'm uncomfortable enough just working with a thief like you."
"Glad it's mutual then. Let's go."
Kinde had bought them a night in the highest lofts of the Montag, one of the city's fanciest hotels. He'd drawn a fistful bursting with twenties from his pocket, sprinkled them on the counter before the clerk, and asked, "Will this be enough? I want something with a view. Something /fancy/."
"Crime doesn't pay, jeez," Charles had sighed as they entered the elevator to their floor.
"Well, for the most part it doesn't. I just happen to specialize in pick pocketing other pickpockets."
"And my TV?"
"I burgle for the thrill. Sorry I broke it, by the way."
The room rivalled Charles' apartment for size and beat Kinde's in every respect: wall-to-wall lavender carpets, four-poster bed with curtains, a living room lined with master paintings and statuettes of precious gems, a fireplace, a television many times the size of Charles' former one -- the place's decadence elated Kinde and deflated Charles. Five years protecting the city and sowing justice, and this upstart thief could afford a hundred times the luxury he could without even thinking about it.
"The benefit of paying in cash," Kinde advised, "Is that I'll be able to pawn all these shiny trinkets they left us and they'll never be able to trace me."
Charles shook his head.
"Complementary wine, too! This place has everything!"
"This is a waste of time. I'm a police investigator, you're some thug I should have in cuffs by now, you can't help me. Why do I even want your help? Help with what?"
"No, we went over this. Here," he handed him a glass of wine, "There is much to discuss, because I'm not willing to believe this is coincidence. Why did you come looking for me?"
"I... no, let me start from the beginning. Let's go outside."
Charles led the way onto the balcony, from which they towered over the city and beheld the cityscape. It might have been 3 AM, but New York's metrotopia churned on, nature's cycles be damned: skyscrapers stood like obelisks to the black and smog-ridden heavens, pockmarked with light from offices still laying claim to their inhabitants, while the streets below smoldered with activity. From this height, the gleam of business and traffic coalesced into streams of red and orange lights, like the fire-lakes and magma-rivers that traversed Tartarus.
Charles sighed, and began.
"I live to defend this place, this city, from itself. Citizens steal, maim, rape, and kill each other totally unaware of everyone's debt and need for society. I used to be an anarchist, but where would we be without a government? Not anarchy, nobody could handle that chaos for long. Strongmen would rise up, tyrannize those weaker than themselves, and government would reappear in a vicious and miltaristic way. So, government is inevitable; at least ours is as merciful as it is. We depend on each other to make life better, longer, but no one realizes it. It's bizarre.
"After five years as a cop, the force knows my name. They know I'm a skilled investigator, they see how many cases I've broken, and the higher-ups want to benefit from it. They hand me down their cases, and I glimpse how nihilistic and unfeeling society is: people gone missing and found dead that we know about, but nobody wants investigated; shady links between politicians and their counterparts in the underworld that'll get you fired if you mention them; rape and theft victims that come in asking for an investigation but call it off days later because, despite all the excuses they give, we know they were being harrassed by the assailant, but the force apparently has better things to worry about -- like closing these cases without actually bringing anyone to justice. We get reasons sometimes - technicalities, lack of funding, dropped charges - but mostly we just come in the next morning and the case is shut. The more I see it and the more I wonder if the city's not trying to hide something.
"But then I get a call this morning, 'Charles, I'm coming to pick you up. Something happened in Myleton. Something... something really... really bad.' It was a fellow investigator, Samuel Burns, and fifteen minutes later he's outside my door, I get in his car, and off we go. I ask him, 'What's going on? What's 'really bad'?' but he doesn't say anything. He looks distracted, shocked, maybe even frustrated. I don't know, I didn't push the issue. Two hours later, it was about noon by then, and we pull up the dirt road to this little farmhouse. Cornfields surrounded it, other houses dotting the distance amongst the crops, and Sam takes in a deep breath. 'Alright,' he says, and gets out. I follow, still not sure what's happening, until we pass the side of the house. Then...
"Six men hung by one foot each from this apple tree behind the house. Their eyes had been forced out, so their faces were bloodied almost beyond recognition. Sam and I have seen a lot: serial killings, mutilations, street-torture gone too far, but as hard as we feel, as little as we choke with those cases, this was different. Sam jumped at the sight, and even in recomposing himself, couldn't bring his eyes up or speak for many minutes. I was just in shock: these men, hanging like upside-down puppets, their faces and arms still dripping blood even as the flies had begun to take root, each face unnaturally emotionless. And then the coup de grace: a woman no older than me, nailed to the tree's hulk. The wounds were messy; she had struggled, her face was contorted into a scream, her eyes pleading for mercy even in death. Cops milling around the scene didn't look any more. They were pale as ghosts. The EMTs didn't know what to do. They just stood around their vans, idling in distress. Should they take the bodies? The cops wanted them for evidence. They were dead, there wasn't any point, but maybe an autopsy? No one had the heart to decide yet.
"I didn't speak to the survivors, the farm's owner and only daughter. I saw them hurry by me, escorted by police into the ambulance to be taken somewhere, I don't know. I tried to ask if I could speak with them, but a cop turned me a look of dismay like I had never seen. The two civilians shivered, hunched under their blankets as they shuffled into the ambulance, like they were leaving a warzone.
"I got the transcripts of their experiences from an investigator already on the scene. I-"
"Wait, there was already an investigator there? Why did they need you?"
Charles opened his mouth to reply, but stopped. He looked up from the city below and at Kinde. He could see the gears whirring behind the boy's curious eyes. His face had grown strangely hard, replacing his natural smirk with a pensive frown.
"... I... don't know."
"I can see them wanting the extra numbers, maybe a mobile crime lab, but that's not what they called for. The town had a department large enough to host its own investigator, so why call you?... It took you two hours to get to the scene, that means you got the call at ten... when did the police become aware of the scene?"
"...Nine thirty. And the 911 call was too frantic to warrant anything more the standard brigade of police, firemen, and EMTs..."
"Yeah, now you're getting it. Something /is/ going on, Chuck."
"...but the investigator was there long before us. It takes half an hour to get from the town's core to Wesson's farm, so the cops would have arrived just as we got the call, but that's if they left right when they got the call. Small-town cops on a Wednesday morning, it would have taken them at least ten minutes to organize, at least, which means..."
Kinde nodded, "Yup. You got duped."
"Christ. I need more wine."
"I can handle that," he took their glasses and moved inside, "But let's talk about something else. Those thugs in the alley?"
"Yeah, the hopped-up-"
"Those weren't thugs. I don't know what they were. They looked human -- frighteningly androgenous, featureless, but I couldn't see much in the dark -- but I've never seen a man take a knife to the balls, and I mean up your dick to the hilt, and leap up two seconds later with the necklock of a lifetime. I've never seen a man take a bullet point-blank and disappear, no blood, no trace, seconds later. Also one of those bitches has my knife stuck in his side and I'm angry about that. Also, here, the cause of and solution to all of life's problems. Cheers!" He handed Charles more wine. They clinked glasses. "I've also never seen an investigator unload so readily on the unarmed."
"I had a fucked up day, kid-"
"I might have accepted 'self defense' as an answer, but a fucked up day doesn't cut it. Remember when you stuck your heater to my throat, asked me if I was just some pawn? I could ask you just as easily, how did you find me in that alley? Why /didn't/ you cuff me?"
"I needed to go for a walk after writing the report of the crime scene. Writing that, seeing it-- even before seeing the death threat, this case has me on the edge. It was just chance I found you, and that chance..." Kinde's accusations melted at the word 'chance', and it clicked again:
"No, quit the excuses. I don't want to ruin the illusion. I stole your TV because I was supposed to find the death threat and head back out to find you. You went for a walk because you were supposed to find me. The... things caught us so you wouldn't just arrest me outright..." Kinde's rambling melted into mumbling as his eyes drifted to the ceiling. Charles shook his head, "So I get to thank Jesus for a death threat from..."
He went a little paler as the situation dawned on him again. Kinde noticed and stopped his musing. "From a bunch of corpses. Someone's trying to fuck with our minds."
"Yeah..." Charles muttered, sinking into a chair as the day sank into him: Sam that morning, haunted, hunted by something at the edge of his awareness; the bodies like puppets, arranged so neatly, gored with such intentional madness; the men's mouths as they hung open in mid sentence, all the same word -- he could almost hear it, hear their voices from beyond death, hear... -- the look of the survivors, frightened, horrified, the luxury of shock just out of reach; the poised face of the town's investigator as he said "Here, take my notes. I can't do this. I've been here too long."; and then I SAW YOU oh god I SAW YOU AT THE HOUSE TODAY he could see their eyes, beady little LOOKING US OVER eyes like obsidian marbles, looking I SAW YOU LOOKING everywhere and nowhere in some mad stare while IF YOU WANT TO LIVE she pleaded with them, her voice frantic, crying as they pounded STOP IT pounded STOP IT pounded the nails DON'T COME
IF YOU WANT TO LIVE
He fell asleep where he sat, Kinde where he stood. Sleep was not kind.
"Charlie, where've you been? Sam was all kinds of worried about you this morning."
He swept past the front desk - "Charles? Are you alright?"- disheveled but alert, focused. He burst through the door into the den of police where he normally worked, it bustling yet like the mechanical hive it had always been.
"Charlie," Sam, "where were you? I knocked on your door, there was no answer, what-"
"Who gave you the call to go to Myleton yesterday?"
Charles stepped closer, until Sam could smell the concern, the wrongness. "Who gave you the call?"
"I, uh- I don't know, Charlie. Are you OK? You look-"
"Go find out."
"Charlie, the case has been closed to us."
"The local investigators will take care of it."
Charles put his hand on Sam's chest and balled it and the shirt into a fist, "Myleton has five hundred inhabitants, Sam. A town that size doesn't distinguish between investigators and cops, nevermind having more than one dedicated to that purpose. We're being had, Sam. Something is going on."
"Charlie, that case was bizarre. I've never seen anything like it. We'd best just-"
Charles snapped his attention to the death threat. That would convince him. He frantically searched himself for it as Sam continued, until he realized he'd left it with Kinde. He sufficed to grab Sam by the collar and recite it:
"I got a note last night, Sam. Stuck to my TV by the time I got home. I SAW YOU TODAY, it read, Sam, I SAW YOU AT THE HOUSE TODAY, LOOKING US OVER."
"STOP IT, DON'T COME, IF YOU WANT TO LIVE."
"Charlie, get off of me," he pushed away his hands, "You're messed up right now. Go home, get some sleep, just..." Charles caught him by the eyes, and in the look overpowered Sam with the fire, the fury, the frustration he exuded... "You got a death threat by the time you got home?"
Sam looked at him for a time, deliberating. Finally, "Alright. Don't tell anyone I'm doing this for you," he motioned for Charles to follow him down the hall into his office, "but Chad and Melissa are being put under witness protection here in New York. They need an escort to their new home. The escort is supposed to be Jim Scott, but he doesn't know yet. I'll just switch the names. Here, take this. It's their file. Go pick them up from the interrogation room. They slept there overnight. Follow the directions, but..." he looked back into Charles' eyes, "Go easy on them. They've been through a lot."
Charles took the file and huffed, as if to say "You don't know the half of it," but managed to offer a strained, "thanks." And left Sam. Charles spun and disappeared into the department's din, wracked by determination, passing through the white collars like a wind, felt but not seen, until he escaped the noise and came to the interrogation room and flung it open. Chad, lying on the ground, yelped and scrambled to sit up, Melissa sleeping, shaking, on a nearby table. They looked at this figure standing in the door, cast in darkness by the light behind him.
"Let's go," it said, "We need to talk, and you need to go somewhere safe."
“What?” Chad groaned, “This is the police headquarters. This is safe.”
He walked into the room, up to Chad, “Come on. I’m investigator Charles Anderson, and let me tell you this,” he gripped his collar and they looked each other in the eyes, “This isn’t safe. Let’s go.”
He turned around and saw Melissa standing behind him, wrapped in her tattered blanket like a ghost, still shaking. He hadn’t heard her get up. Chad fumbled to his feet, and Charles took them both by the arms – Melissa’s was cold as ice – and pulled them into the hall, slipping again through the throngs, and into an elevator. He let go of them to press the button for the basement garage, as Chad took Melissa in his arms, half to still her shaking, half to still his own waking fears.
Charles thought he heard her whimper, and Chad whispered into her hair, “Shh, no, it’s alright, it’s alright…” “He should know,” she replied. “Shhh, he doesn’t-“
“Doesn’t what.” The elevator lurched downward.
“Nothing, sir, she-“
“Doesn’t. What. Chad.”
Melissa tugged at her father’s frayed sleeve, “He should know.” Chad sighed, maybe even sniffled beneath the elevator’s rumble, and said, “Alright. Investigator-“
The elevator dinged and stopped abruptly, not at the basement garage but some intermediate floor, and the doors slammed open as if forced. A figure stood ready as they opened with a shotgun, loaded, cocked, his finger on the trigger. Charles had no time to react before he opened fire, first one round, then two into the civilians. Charles, unharmed, whipped his head and watched them slump, mutilated by shot, then tore his pistol from its holster to fire on their assailant, but when he turned around all he saw was a floor of shocked bureaucrats. White-collar cops looked at him, a wall of shocked stares. Some papers fluttered to the ground; the attacker was gone. Charles blinked, his weapon pointed, shaking, into the crowd, who stared back not in fear, but in judgment, not in concern, but in analysis. His pistol clattered to the floor, and then he followed, dropping to his knees, his eyes sharing the same look of cowed confusion as his onlooking judges.
Phonecall Transcript: Charles Anderson calling “Kinde”, October 13, 2005. Mr. Anderson in custody for murder of Melissa and Chad Wesson. Number traced and team sent to investigate
“Kinde. I don’t know if you’ll get this message, or if they’ve gotten you too already, but… Those figures that attacked you the other night. I saw one today. It attacked me – no, not me, it attacked Chad and Melissa while I was escorting them to a safehouse. We didn’t even leave HQ by the time it attacked. It was so strangely timed: Melissa starts saying ‘he should know, he should know’ and her father tries shutting her up, but the moment he concedes, starts to tell me something, the elevator doors fly open, this thing stands in the doorway, and unloads two shotgun shells into Chad and Melissa. I turned my head to look at them after he fired the shots – I guess I didn’t get hit because I was just outside the gun’s cone of fire – and I look back and the thing’s gone. A whole floor of white-collar cops saw it, but they all say I shot them, say the doors opened just as I pulled the trigger on them. The bullet wounds didn’t show anything like that: they were riddled with shot, not my .45, but a floor full of witnesses saw me do it. I don’t know what’s going – No. I lived because they needed a scapegoat for eliminating the pair. They knew something, Kinde, and something else doesn’t want us knowing. This is too strange, and whatever it is, it’s got me now. Get out of the city, Kinde, get as far away from this as you can, or they’ll-“
“Dude, what? Fuck that shit.”
“Stay put. This is so exciting.”
Kinde hung up the phone with a smile so wide it threatened to tear his face in two, but sobered as fists began to pound on the hotel room’s door.
“Police, open up!”
He rolled his head and groaned before throwing back a shot of rum, and shook out the burn like a lion shaking off fleas. His rasped exhale sounded like a low roar.
“Police!” they banged. His smile returned, “Open up!”
He walked to the door and breathed deep. In a single fluid motion, he bolted the door, threw his foot on the door handle and launched himself to an alcove above it, scrambling behind a clay pot there. The door burst open before he stopped moving. He watched the police file in, guns up. Blue-collars, grunts, he noted, but in Kevlar. I must be serious business. They fanned through the three-room apartment, calling to each other – “Clear.” “Clear.” “Someone was in here, they bolted the door.” “Clear. Where is he?” – as Kinde slipped from behind the pot back to the floor, slinking out the open door as they all scratched their heads. He gave himself a pat on the back as he trotted to the elevator. As he passed the clerk on the way out, Kinde shot him a smile and a wave – “Great service, thanks!” – as the clerk watched in disbelief. He passed into the streets and, remembering his missing knife, turned out his pockets – his cash was in his bag, back in the room – and chuckled. Several hours later, a lawyer named Wes O’Brien would discover that his wallet had been stolen, while several hours prior his credit card would purchase a 7” switchblade and a book of metro tickets. A homeless man by the name of James Holland, sleeping on a train to Queens, would wake up later that day and find a slim leather wallet stuck in his breast pocket and subsequently wonder, though not for long, who “Wes O’Brien” was and why he had so many pictures of feet in his wallet. Kinde would also pose a quandary of his own: why did the NYPD’s lobby have a far-too-detailed map of the building and its floors engraved on a pedestal, out for all to see?
“He didn’t know them until two days ago. I can’t imagine why he would do this…”
“Are you sure he didn’t know them?”
“I… I don’t know.”
He could hear them talking in the hall. Sam and some higher-up with a blank expression and a shiny badge, shinier than his. That’s how you knew his rank without having to check, it was fancier. He pressed questions while Charles sat cuffed in the lightless interrogation room he’d taken Melissa and Chad out of only hours prior.
“I mean, I’m pretty sure he didn’t know them. He doesn’t have many friends, you see, he’s just a distant sort of guy. We go bowling sometimes.”
“You know he didn’t have many friends?”
“Well… No, but he never… really mentioned anyone…”
“So you assume he’s a loner by his omissions?”
No one had seen the figure except for him. Melissa and Chad had seemed to, he thought, judging by the looks of inhuman horror on their faces as they had slumped. No run-of-the-mill man with a gun could ever evoke that much fear. They knew something. They tried to tell him something. Something had stopped them and framed him for it. And now something was outside that door, solidifying it all with Sam.
“Sir,” another voice said in the hall.
“No one was at the apartment, but the door was bolted when we arrived.”
“Bolted? Then how could… either you all missed him,” the officers inhaled audibly at their superior’s hissing accusation, “Or he was already gone via a crafty escape. In any case, his accomplice is still out there. I want at least three investigators on this ‘Kinde’. Sam, that’s you and two others. Go. I want him here as soon as possible.”
Footfalls signaled the exit of all but the higher-up, who Charles saw through the window as he watched the rest leave. His face felt wrong: too lean, too sharp. He looked in at Charles; even his stare felt stabbing. Charles’ insides knotted even as he glared back. I SAW YOU rattled in his mind.
Charles’ head fell in resignation. None of this made any sense, but he could see strands, spindly hands at work here – or he was just mad. That seemed more and more likely, the more he thought about it: the death threat, maybe Kinde had made it up, and the punks in the alleyway? Still, they could have been Kinde’s friends, the whole thing could have been staged, could have been a ploy to fuck with the force, but what about Melissa and…
The door clicked unlocked and swung open. Charles didn’t look up, only seeing the police khakis and formal shoes clacking into the room, closing the door behind the entrant.
“You got yourself in deep, Charles.” The voice was deep. He didn’t recognize it. He didn’t reply. “Killed two civilians, two traumatized survivors at point blank. Unloaded on them, three clips each. Christ, that’s just gratuitous. Hey, you listening to me?” The feet sauntered closer, “I’m talking to you. Hey, shithead, look at me when I’m talking to you!” His hand grabbed Charles by the chin and forced his head up.
“If I said plot device, it would be way too telling of my life philosophies. Come on, before this uniform’s owner wakes up.”
Charles looked at him like he was from another planet. Kid, two civilians were just killed by something only I and the victims saw, you were assaulted the other night by creatures who weren’t even phased by multiple knife wounds or gun shots, all in some connection to the most bizarre suicide-homicide I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t register to you as anything more than a game. Do you understand any of this at all?
Kinde stood by the door, “You coming?”
Charles blinked. “How're you getting us out of here?”
“Fake eyebrows, big noses, and glasses. Also knives,” Kinde replied, taking two Groucho Marx masks from his pockets.
“It makes me sad that your plans work.”
“Yeah, yeah, that's what they all say. Now shut up and get along, we've got places to go.”
“Such as not here. Now, on three, we're calm policemen with striking resemblances to a dead comedian, on our way to lunch,” he said with his hand on the door, “One, two... three.”
He pushed the door out and stepped into the hall, finding himself faced with a big, unnaturally burly desk-cop facing the other way. His shirt stretched, threatened to rip across his bulk, hunching slightly beneath the ceiling. Kinde inched around him in the narrow space, but Charles paid more attention. He didn't know this man, hadn't seen a cretin that big anywhere in the building. He might be new, but what would he be doing just standing there? Keeping guard? Why would they put a desk-cop up for that?
The giant snorted, “Hmm? Who's that?” and turned halfway round to see Kinde edging past his girth. Charles looked up and saw nothing: an abyssal mist swirled and pulsed where his face should've been. The veins in his neck were tainted black with the stuff, pumping it to the rest of his body.
“Jesus Christ!” Kinde shouted. Charles kicked the thing in the groin and, with a groan, it tipped, falling, shrinking from a giant to a lanky freckled man – Joshua, new to the force, timid and prone to stuttering, Charles knew him. And now Charles had floored him.
Charles looked at Kinde indignantly, who replied defensively, “Sorry. I don't see, y'know, goons with abysses for faces every day.”
“Doesn't matter,” he could hear commotion from elsewhere on the floor, probably coming for them, “Get out of here.”
They flew down the stairs, only hearing pursuers once they'd almost reached the garage. Kinde dared to laughed as he bounded down the flights. Charles grimaced the whole way. He could hear the voices of his co-workers calling for his arrest, radioing backup to catch them. They'd seen him murder two innocents in cold blood; he'd seen Joshua transformed by ineffable darkness. For a moment, he envied Kinde's detachment.
They burst through the door to the garage, racing to the nearest police car. Charles jammed in his key, unlocked the doors, and dove in the driver's seat. Kinde hopped in shotgun as Charles gunned the gas. Police had just begun to appear on the floor, barking orders and training their weapons on the car – weapons?!
“Holy shit, dude, they're firing at us! Hah!”
Charles slumped down in his seat to avoid the fire. Bullets tore into the vehicle and slammed into the windows. “I'm a cop, goddamnit! This is not supposed to happen!” He swerved around a corner, still underground, out of their lines of sight, only to find himself staring down another line of officers blocking the garage exit, people he'd known for years, gone bowling with, met their spouses – people firing guns meant to kill him.
Charles took his foot off the gas to put it on the brake, to not kill his friends, to turn himself in for whatever he'd done, but Kinde slammed his foot over Charles', keeping it on the gas.
“This isn't the time for repentance. There's nothing to repent for. Whatever they're firing at, Charles, it's not you. They're firing under orders, for their duties. Whatever was stuck on that kid's face, whatever we met in that alley – whatever shot Chad and Melissa, it's more importa- HOLY SHIT!”
Thirty yards from the line of officers and all faces turned white. They dropped their guns, froze like deer in headlights. Some wept, some urinated, still others gripped enough wit to run for their lives. Their shadows turned to worms at their feet, nightmarish and transparent tubules wriggling at an otherworldly pace into a single being, rising up from the concrete into an ineffable ghast. Its maw dripped terror, its numberless claws snapped at those that fled. It reared back, its form-beyond-knowing bending at angles that wrenched the mind, and roared with the death-screams of a thousand torn asunder, just as Charles' car burst from the garage, through its midsection and into the police that still stood before it, frightened into paralysis and now hurled into traffic. In panic they swerved into an oncoming truck, imploding the driver's side of the car. In the instant before he blacked out, Charles looked up from the chaos of the car to where the beast had risen and saw it look at him without eyes and whisper:
I SAW YOU
“He's waking, looks like. Answers your question.”
“Hmm. 'Spose it does. Lucky him. That liver would've fetched a good price, too.”
Charles' eyes opened, taking a moment to focus. The three of them were in a small room, what might have once been a meat locker from the looks of it. Medical machinery, old and grimey, pocked the room. He brought his hand up to his face and mumbled, “What... ungh...” before slumping again.
“How long'll he be out, doc?”
“Forever unless you front more.”
The rustle of dollar bills changing hands, “Dick. Honor among thieves my ass.”
“Hey, my wife's anniversary's coming up, what'm I s'posa do?”
Kinde grunted. “Fix my friend, that's what.”
“Friend!” Charles coughed his way into a chuckle, “When all this is over, I'm cuffing your ass.”
“You don't cuff corpses, Charlie. We're in deep.”
Charles opened his eyes again and focused them on Kinde, “What?”
“Did you see that thing? Those things?”
“What things?” a bald man in a bloody doctor's smock asked. He had just finished pocketing Kinde's money. Kinde glared at him.
“I am a child of the underworld, Charlie. The things I have seen, the people I have known – do you know what Kelly here's done in cold blood for another day's cash?”
“Hey, it's doctor bloodsmith, alright?”
“Fuck you. I've seen you come upon tourists lost in New York, find themselves in alleys just to get your 'tools' in their guts. You gag them so they can't scream while you dissect them, Kelly, so they'll be freshest for the market. You only help me because you know I'll kill you in an instant, because you see that in my eyes. What I saw today I cannot explain by any stretch of the imagination. We're lucky to be alive, but that damned thing popped up out of nowhere, froze the po-po in their tracks, sowed enough confusion in five seconds to lay out five bodies. Near to six, shape you looked in. Be thankful doctor bloodsmith here he knows both how to take bodies apart and put them back together.”
“H-hey now, I don't appreciate this kind of... of slander, Kinde!”
“Yeah?” Kinde crossed around the stretcher, his knife flashing in his hand, “And I don't appreciate the kind of mindless atrocities scum like you perpetuates. I don't appreciate,” he forced Kelly against the wall, pressing the knife against his throat, “the way you don't even feel what you do. Life isn't just some game, doctor.”
Kelly screamed and dropped the scalpel he'd picked up as Kinde slashed his wrist. Charlie sat up. “Kinde what are you doing?”
Kinde huffed with his knife at Kelly's throat again. Kelly was crying, “my arm... my arm, god, what'd you do...”
“Kinde-” “Fine. Leave this maggot.” He rammed his knee into Kelly's stomach and struck him across the cheek, tossing him to the floor before returning to the stretcher, “You alright? Can you walk?”
Charles tried not to look at the writhing, sobbing creature on the floor, “Yeah, uh... just give me a hand... How do I look?”
Kinde shuffled Charles out of the meat locker and closed the steel door behind them.
“Should I call the cops? They'd get him a stretcher. I messed up his wrist pretty bad, I don't think he'll live if he doesn't get help.”
Charles sighed and winced at the pain tearing his body, “We've killed, what, five people today? Plus Chad and Melissa makes seven. Mary and the farmhands makes thirteen. Thirteen's bad luck, you know.” He coughed hard and spat blood. “Let's make it fourteen.”
Kinde didn't laugh.
They were in the police cruiser again. Kinde drove while Charles nursed his wounds, winking in and out of sleep. He was scarred badly across his face, his left arm was in a cast. It hurt to breathe.
“Where are we going?” he wheezed.
“Where else? The house.”
He wanted to ask why, but his lungs burned too much.
“I don't know where else to go. I know we're in this for a reason, but... but that's all I know.”
Charles exhaled heavily. The metrotopian bridges and skyscrapers of New York City faded as they drove out, shifting into country green muted by gray skies and rain. Trees blurred in their passing; hitchhikers looked ghastly, misshapen through the rain.
It had been two days since they first met. They didn't know each other then; they didn't know each other now. The lean and wind-swept twenty-something driving the car had twice saved him, but that was all he knew about him. He stole things. He was talented. He believed in purpose to a fault. These seemed like trivial things, but they formed the framework for the absurd logic that Kinde exuded in his recklessness, the strangely sensible madness and wholly human failings that pocked every man's heart. Maybe he knew him better than he thought.
But they weren't here to get to know each other. Charles felt pressed against this man. Under any other circumstance, Kinde would be behind bars. But now he was Charles' only link to survival. He'd be incarcerated without him, or dead like... like the other officers. Christ, five bodies. Five families in grief. Five futures snuffed. When he recalled the look he got at the ineffable thing the instant before all hell broke loose and five dutiful servants to society were ended, nothing came to mind. The scene in his mind was empty: men and women firing at him one instant, white-faced the next, flying over the car the third, and in the fourth I SAW YOU.
But that's not how it happened. He had seen something. Kinde had seen something. The officers had seen something. It would be on the news, right? What wasn't on the news nowadays?
“No,” Kinde blurted, “Of course I'm not alright.”
“Were we in the middle of a conversation? Did I nod off?”
Charles coughed and groaned. He was having second thoughts about seeing the house in this condition.
“I hate killing,” Kinde continued.
“I steal things, I'm not a murderer. Sure, I've dropped a man when I needed to, when it was either him or me, you know how that is. But it still ruined my day. I steal things. Things can be replaced, but people can't. I hate killing.”
“What, like you don't cringe when you pull the trigger? The way you fired on those things in the alley, I know you've done it before, and not just on targets. A real first killer would've missed. You didn't even blink.”
Charles cleared his throat, “I'm not going to talk about this.”
Kinde shut up. After a moment, “Not to pry. Just down is all.”
“Chuck, wake up.”
“It's too late to go to the house.” Charles glanced at the car's clock, but couldn't see its weak glow in the dark, which he assumed was due to the moonless night.
“Yeah. No way in hell am I going there without the sun to back me up.” His voice felt better. His scars hurt, and his arm ached, but breathing was no longer a trial. The car was parked outside a shabby motel, the “Myleton Motor Inn”. The sun had just finished setting, and now cast only the slightest hints of light over the horizon, so that the inn's exterior caught only a single streetlight's warmth, casting it with long shadows. Cracks in the paint looked like veins in the walls.
“I already paid for a room. Didn't want to wake you.”
Charles opened the car door with his good hand and stepped out, “Sleeping like a baby, I bet.”
“More like a rhinoceros. I was afraid you'd horn me.”
“You mean impale you on my rhinoceros horn?”
“What?” Kinde unlocked their first-floor room, “That's gross.”
Charles smiled. The lights flickered on and they entered. Time had washed out what were probably once welcoming, earthy tones. The Indian-esque patterns woven into the carpet seemed jagged, and the one queen-sized bed seemed at once to have both people-sized indentations and people-sized lumps in it. The light, as outside, was inadequate, the room's two lamps casting only a weak glow over the room. Shadows faded, but did not disappear.
“Weak boy takes the bed,” Kinde motioned, “I'll take the floor.”
“Weak boy,” Charles chuckled, the beginnings of puzzlement forming in his mind at Kinde's sustained kindness, “I must be twenty years your senior. How old are you?”
“Twenty-three,” he replied, fumbling with the television's broken dials.
“Heh, I'm forty-eight. Boy indeed.”
“You look it, too,” Kinde shouted after Charles entering the bathroom, “All the lines and creases on your face – you've seen a lot, man. It's in your skin.”
Charles closed the bathroom door behind him and turned on the bathroom's tap. The plumbing groaned and coughed, sputtering brown sludge until it grew more accustomed to this stranger and acquiesced to give him clear water. He splashed it over his face and rose to examine his scars in the mirror. They weren't terrible: a long one on the left side of his face, from jawline to temple, mostly just nasty cuts Kelly had sown up with a stitch or—
She was in the door.
Mary was there, looking at him. She — no, not her, just... — she was etched into the door, eyes wide open as if pleading. Please, he heard. Please.
He spun to face her directly and saaaaAAUGH! He heard her screaming, saw her locked in the wood in her last moment. He saw the tree behind her, its bark stained with blood, the nails in her shoulders, her face wrenched into agony, wrenching his stomach into... and beside her, one of the assailants still hammering, his fist clasped around the devil's tool, moving up and down, struggling to maintain the mental control to strike her, strike her, strike her. She was still screaming, crying in the gasps. Her attacker's eyes had already been gouged out: his hands whipped blood with every stroke and poured over his face, awe-struck at some presence just out of sight. Charles couldn't see it, but the madman knew it was there. His accomplices could see it, holding Mary's limbs against the tree, their blood bathing the scene. One dared to laugh amongst the screams.
And there it was, just over Mary's shoulder in the distance, eclipsing the dawning sun, a knot in the door's wood, swirling inward and wrapping amongst itself, thrusting out so darkly, so wrongly. But it was just a knot, just – her screams, their blood, the DON'T COME.
He blinked and it was gone. Nothing on the door. Some cracks and lines, but nothing... nothing like...
Kinde knocked on the door, “You decent? I need to maintain hygiene.”
Charles reached slowly for the doorknob. The knot was still there. Still wrong. He gripped the handle and swung the door open, to see Kinde standing in the doorway, toothbrush in hand.
Kinde's previously serendipitous expression turned serious, “You alright?”
Charles sighed, hard, and realized how fast his heart was pounding. “I need to lie down.
“That's the least of it, man. Your eyes are bleeding.”
Charles raised his hand to his eyes and touched something wet. Sure enough, looking at his fingers, he'd been crying blood.
“Kinde, we're in deep. Mary was in the door. Screaming. There's a knot still there that I won't look at again for the life of me. They don't want us at the house.”
Kinde looked at the knot in the door and shrugged, “Of course they don't, but they're dead, what do they know? Obviously not enough not to die. Therefore,” he said, smiling, “I reason our decision to go must be more intelligent than their admonishments.
“But if it helps any,” he turned towards the sink, “I'll leave the lights on tonight. Oh, and here,” he tossed Charles a box of tissues, “For the crybaby.”
Kinde disappeared into the bathroom. Charles, in a daze, picked up the tissues and dabbed his eyes. Water.
He could still hear her.
Montag didn't like this place. The shabby motel - "Myleton Motor Inn" - he didn't like it at all. Even at dusk, it evaded the sun's fading rays, catching the sparse light of just a single street lamp, casting the two-story building in long shadows. The windows looked like eyes.
He hadn't wanted to come here either. But when your wife kicks you out - "forever" she said - while you're on vacation together in the country, where do you go? If he were in a city rather than this po-dunk village, he might be resting peacefully in a Sheraton or Hilton or other million-story-pillar-of-sweet-sweet-decadence. He was lucky this no-place had a motel at all. Probably constructed solely for the use of prostitutes, he speculated. The lack of any real furnishings only solidified his position. Aside from a hard armchair whose wooden innards were concealed beneath the most pathetic layer of padding, the room featured a television without channels, a bed with inexplicable and disconcerting stains, and two lamps whose weak glow did little to dispel the room's myriad shadows, only forcing them to recede like predators hiding just out of sight.
By two AM, after trying his wife's phone forty-three times and giving up on the television, did he acquiesce to turning off the lamps and slipping into bed. He'd stripped it of its sheets to prevent himself from catching whatever terrible diseases the stains must have held and now lay, half-naked, on the slippery polyester mattress.
The fabric felt strange, cool and frictionless against his skin, like a surface of water with such unnatural tension that it would not break before his weight, while he struggled with the likewise-constructed blankets that refused him any kind of grip. They slid away from him repeatedly, such that keeping the blanket on himself was a task too intense for the sleep-bound. Thus did he remain conscious.
Until eventually the blanket did get away. He sat up and chased it with his hands, but it fell off the bed and to the floor. "Aww, shit," he murmured in the dark. He stayed sitting up, his eyes staring into space while his body tried to decide if lying back down was really worth the trouble.
Around him the room lay in near-darkness. Slivers of neon light from the motel's road sign dissolved over the room's washed out features, dripping weird pinks and oranges over the room's dead colors - except in one corner.
A beam of light ran across one intersection of wall and ceiling, but the area remained dark. It caught his attention in a way that he couldn't ignore, this slip of darkness peering out from the high nook. He blinked, and by golly it seemed bigger. The electric green splattered across the area was receding before this expanding shadow, an area - an entity hauling itself from beyond the room... beyond...
It wasn't real. It wasn't crawling into the room. It wasn't looking at him, it wasn't coming for him, goddamnit Montag, it's not real. He threw himself back into bed, forgoing the blanket for the security of his arms wrapped tightly around himself. He couldn't hear the walls bending to let more of it in, he told himself. He couldn't see it growing beady red eyes just out of the corner of his vision, he told himself. He told himself he couldn't hear its drool hitting the floor.
"Montag." He didn't hear that. "Montag." He wasn't hearing that either, the weirdly phantasmic voice warping his name, like the sounds had been filtered too many times. But of course he wasn't hearing it. There was nothing to hear. What was he talking about? "Montag."
"What?!" He shot up in bed and looked at- at his wife. There she was, short black hair, grey eyes, little lips that naturally found themselves in a smile... there she was. "Oh god, Cherry, you scared me."
"Oh, baby, I'm sorry. I... I'm sorry for saying what I said. I didn't mean it, you know I love you. I just... we just need to talk, honey, but... but right now I need to tell you," she climbed up to him and planted her lips furtively on his, releasing only after dazing him with the kiss, "I need to tell you how sorry I am..."
"How sorry are you, honey?" He asked as she climbed on top of him.
"Oh, god, I'm so sorry... I'm so sorry," she was unbuttoning his shirt, "I'm going to do all the things you've always wanted me to. Your wish," she kissed his chest, "Is my command."
"Oh god, Cherry," he groaned, "We should fight more often."
"Hmhmm," she laughed, kissing her way up his chest before landing her lips on his again for a wanting peck. "But you said I scared you?"
"Oh god yeah, honey. How did you get in? I was terrified!"
"Oh, mmm..." she bit his ear and whispered, "Good."
She reared back, the infinite darkness he'd seen force out the light replacing her head, expanding, shedding her skin in favor of its otherworldly wrongness. Screams accompanied the abyssal emergence, both from the entity as it roared in from whatever terrible beyond spawned it and from Montag as his every sensation turned to pure and unspeakable horror.
But the misty darkness did not content itself there. It drew back and threw itself upon him, forcing itself in his eyes, through his ears, up his nose, in his mouth, as he felt it penetrate his mind, forcing his consciousness deeper and deeper into the primordial recesses, and the fear he had dared just call pure became a lowly speck before the ineffable doom that enveloped his soul now, for this thing would not kill him, that became clear as it settled over dominion of his mind. It would enslave him, shackle him to his nightmares. He could already feel it, his body dead by all accounts, but locked away in the most untouchable places of the human psyche where he would yet reside, chained and imprisoned. For all eternity, the thing warned, would he cry out for the release of his mortal coil. And for all eternity would he be denied.
One solitary cry escaped his dying lips, and then he lived no more.
Kinde woke up slowly. He looked over at the clock as the first few rays of day slipped in under the curtains. His back ached from sleeping on the floor, but he stretched and yawned like a contented feline. Only nine AM, he thought, and rolled over again with a very pleased groan. As the room grew silent again, he could hear Charles snoring softly, like the rumble of a small motor.
But as his eyes began to shut again, something hit the door. It wasn't a knock, not soft or controlled like a knock. It was like a bird murdering itself on the wood. He crawled up to his feet and approached the door as another thud rocked. Pressing his eye against the peephole, he saw only a twisted vision of the world outside, bent through shades of red. Blood. Whatever was outside hit the door again; the aged hinges began to crack.
“What the hell?” Charles groaned and began to stir, not rising or even opening his eyes.
Kinde opened the curtain and peered outside. “Chuck you might want to see this.”
“We have a visitor.”
Outside the door stood a torn and broken man, his flesh pale and dirty. His muscles relaxed at all wrong angles, his head lolling to either side as he moved. He struggled to keep his head upright enough to keep looking at them.
“He fell from the second floor.”
“Look at the broken wood behind him. That's the banister. It'd explain why his leg is snapped.” Kinde paused, “It'd also explain why we only heard him knocking recently. He's been spending all morning – probably all night, too – just trying to stand up.”
“Did you see him in the bathroom door last night?”
“No. Never seen him before in my life.”
He lurched at the door again, smashing his head into it. The crash gained an ugly tone once they knew what was causing it: his face slamming with all his freakish might into the door. He drew back, a part of his forehead bleeding badly from hitting the peephole. A tooth fell out of his mouth. The hinges complained with more urgency now, threatening to quit.
Kinde stepped back, “I say we beat him to it.”
“He wants to break the door in on us? I say we break the door in on him.”
“Jesus, Kinde, we don't even know what he is. Falls from the second floor, spends all night getting up, and then breaks his face trying to get inside.”
“Well, we know a few things.” Thud. “He's got two legs. Two arms. A torso, two eyes. A nose, even if it is broken. Some teeth. No fur. I mean, he looks human to me. And to the best of my knowledge, humans don't like getting crushed by doors. Or getting shot. Or stabbed.”
Thud. He smiled, “Now, on three...”
Charles strapped on his holster, “He might just be disabled.”
“One. I see that, dude. His leg is broken. He should be in a wheelchair.”
“No, as in disturbed.”
“Two,” Thud. The wood around the door began to splinter. “I didn't say kill him. I just meant crush him. I mean, you had Kelly the Bloodsmith go at your guts and you're still here, Scarface. All we're gonna do is throw a door at him.”
Charles took up position behind Kinde, not really knowing what he was doing there, “With weapons drawn?”
“Hey, you were the one afraid he wasn't human, not me.”
Charles opened his mouth to reply as Kinde shouted, “Three!” and rammed the door. It flew off its hinges, braced against Kinde like a mobile wall, and slammed into the broken man's incoming head. The crack sickened Charles, but Kinde kept on pushing, throwing the door and the man below it to the ground. Charles followed out of the room, hand on his holster, when something gurgled and wheezed beside him. His head snapped towards its source and beheld a bloated thing, what might have been a man in days prior but from whom had vacated any essence of humanity. Its skin bore innumerable worts and boils, some popping before his eyes, while his eyes weeped pus and vomit soaked his front. Before it had a chance to waddle any further, Charles slammed it against the motel's wall.
“Holy shit, dude, that's the clerk!”
“I am a police investigator for the United States government, and you will explain yourself and this situation or I will take action to beat it out of you!”
“Whoa,” Kinde stepped on the door to keep the broken man down, “That's something you don't hear on Cops.”
Wheee werr the onesz, it gurgled, more vomit leaking from the edges of its mouth. The voice came out wrong, not from his throat – it was too deep for a creature like this, too warped, too long. Wheee killd them.
“Who? Melissa and Chad?” Charles bellowed. The thing's lips curled into a smile. Yooo knooo.
Kinde didn't see what happened next. In the span of one blink, Charles stepped back, pressed his gun to the clerk's forehead, and pulled the trigger. Kinde heard the bang. Kinde saw the brains. Kinde saw it slump. Vomit began to drain from the hole where its head had been, as if gravity had been the only thing keeping it in.
He'd seen cold-blooded murders before. But this wasn't cold. There was no calculation, no thought. It was a trigger, and the thing had pulled it. Charles had been preparing for this moment too long to remember. Not with a wretched abomination like whatever the clerk had become – Kinde had seen him last night, and last night he was human – but it didn't matter to him if it'd been Christ himself. He'd have pulled the trigger all the same.
Charles dropped his gun.
“Charles...” Kinde began, but the thing beneath his foot began to lurch again. He stomped on the door, eliciting a groan from the creature, before using his foot to push the door down past its face.
“Who are you?”
“godpleasehelpmeyou'vegottohelpme,” words flew from its broken jaw, “there'ssomethinginsideme, ohjesusit'sinsideme, ohplease, pleasegodhelpme.”
No answer. Charles still stood over his victim, not moving. Understandable.
“No dice, friend. Best you make peace with whatever it is and tell us who you are.”
The man whined and shook his head, gritting his teeth. He whipped blood from the many scrapes, dents, and cracks in his face.
“Man, Kelly would love this guy. Such tenacity.”
“Maybe they'll see each other in Hell.”
Kinde wasn't sure how to reply. “That doesn't sound very Charles-y.”
Charles glared at the boy. “Yeah. I guess it doesn't.”
Gasping and struggling, the broken man wrestled one of his arms out from under the door and grabbed Charles by the ankle, “godsirplease, idon'tknowwhattodo, comecloserandchristi'llletyouseeit, nnngh, nnghgod, pleeeeasegodsir-”
“Get off of me,” Charles' voice shrugged the words as he whipped his foot from the thing's grasp and stomped on its wrist, eliciting a scream. Grimacing, he drove his boot into the side of its skull, knocking it unconscious with a wet crack. “Let's go.”
As the driver's door slammed shut, Kinde stood at the passenger's side and looked around, really... looked. A deep fog had come to sit over the motel. It pressed into the walls and obscured even the closest objects. The clerk's office, whose door had fallen away a mere thirty feet from them, appeared miles distant. The monstrous clerk himself, mutilated and awful, seemed to shift beneath the heavy mist. The broken man, on the other hand, remained still as death. The banister on the second floor was shattered. Doors were wrenched off more than one apartment, and letters from the motel's neon sign had been pried out and lay shattered at the post's base. He could not locate the sun above them.
“Coming?” Charles had his eyes set straight ahead, staring into the area of fog behind which he assumed was the highway.
“Yeah,” Kinde got in the passenger's seat. “Yeah.”
Looking at Charles as Charles stared ahead and began to drive, Kinde felt a new sensation boil up from recesses unknown. In two days, they'd both killed a man with a fury they didn't remember or didn't realize they had, both seen things they didn't think comprehensible, didn't think possible, and now they were heading to the apparent source of it all: the murders, the shadows, the nightmares, the don't come.
Kinde felt fear.
“Ah, Lovecraft,” the suit sitting next to me on the bus remarked, pointing at my book. “I love his stuff.”
“Oh, me too. It’s a thrilling exploration of the terror of insignificance.”
“Really?” he perked up, “I enjoyed it more for its use as a survival guide.”
I paused. “How do you mean?”
“He perfectly captured the essence of a…” An ambulance passed by, its siren drowning his words. “I didn’t realize such a thing was possible in your language.”
I closed my book and looked at him. He had a comb-over, a grey suit, a simple tie, a common face… An utterly forgettable set of features. I might have seen him in a thousand places before without ever remembering him twice. He looked at me, perfectly serious. “What? Did you not realize it’s all true?”
“No. No, I mean, it’s not true. It…”
“Oh yes! Don’t you remember how he described…” I could see his lips moving, but in my mind I could not decipher his words. They were familiar, as if I should have known them, but I drew all blanks trying to consider them. “But it doesn’t compare to the real thing, of course. Seeing is believing, as they say.”
The man was clearly crazy. Shoggoths, the Old Ones, the Sunken City, all real? Please.
“You don’t believe me? Have a look for yourself.” He reached his hands up to his chin and pulled up, as if taking off a mask. For a second, I thought I saw…
But no. There was no one there. There never had been. I was just daydreaming.
I continued reading.
The sun dips low these days. It never quite sets, just rising into the sky in the morning and afternoon, burning in defiance against the bleak red sky around it. As the day presses on, and the shadows grow longer, the darkness ever deeper, eventually the night arrives to drive out the weakening Helios, its brilliant flames waning gently, as if by a token of dusk's mercy. The sun does not set; it simply disappears.
And this night, as Helios fights valiantly on the horizon to shine its last few rays, the township of Vedoc has coaxed a blind rhapsode into the safety of its palisades. The village people rise from their lethargic lives to greet him: children swarm the visitor, curious to hear from a true storyteller the epics their elders sigh mournfully over, while those same elders lend their hands to the guest, placing in his palms coins, biscuits, beads, jewels, all the best of their trinkets as thanks for his coming. They do not utter this gratitude, except in hushed whispers, like gasps escaped from the prison of the lungs: “Oh Gentle One,” “Bless,” “Fortune,” “He is truly come...”
The gifts slip through the rhapsode's trembling hands. The story of his initiation still stains his face, caking his cheeks in blood. It could not have been more than a day ago that a Muse chanced upon him, a lonely thing on the brink of adulthood, at the threshold of his prime. The many arms of the darkness had dragged away his comrades, a hunting band of seven stranded too long, too deep in the forest, and he the only survivor, helpless, startled, frightened, brandishing his spear at the haunts no doubt watching him, waiting for him. And wait they did, just beyond his sight. Spirits hid in the trees or lurked in the leaves, feeding on his fear, drinking it from afar, as he continued to fight his terror and brace his weapon against the enemy he knew he could not defend against. And when at last they had filled their incorporeal stomaches, the abominations shambled out from the shadows. Haunts opaque, nightmare-composed, with twisted limbs and gruesome faces, approaching in jerking steps, twitching through space. They advanced slowly, drawing out the last drops of fear from the boy. When he made to scream, only streams of black gas poured forth. The ghasts thrashed as they drew it into their bodies, moaning through broken mouths ecstasy otherworldly before continuing on to their victim.
The boy knew no fear then. Not in bravery, but in total vacancy, as the last moments of his life dawned around him. He dropped his spear and closed his eyes. Catharsis washed over him as he urinated in his trousers for the last time of his brief existence. Then the Muse appeared.
Her howl shook the night, followed by the death-cries of the boy's predators as they flew up in a ashes like an alcohol fire, flashing once and then disappearing. She slipped gracefully from the woods, floating on a sudden breeze, her ashen form shrouded behind veils ancient, torn and tattered. For a haunt, her figure seemed so human, so feminine. Even her face had all the right features in all the right places, poised as if yearning: mouth left a sliver agape, eyes wide and burning white – his torch paled in comparison to their light – as her left arm reached out for him. She rasped something, reverberating as if the words were hurtling through time in order to reach him, but he did no more understand it than register the moment when she placed her hand on his cheek, stroking it gently. She felt warm, like living flesh, and for an instant he forgot the lore of Muses before she gripped his head between her hands and drove her thumbs into his eyes, howling again as his cries joined hers in agony.
Now he wears a scrap of her veils wrapped around his head, shielding the people of Vedoc from the depths of his warped sight. Blood had poured in streams down his cheeks like rivers of red tears, now dried and flaking off in the night wind. He shakes, staggering in quick shuffling steps toward the village's Great Hall. Despite his hosts guiding him by the wrists, he trips and falls to his knees, gasping a cry of pain, then holding his stomach and moaning for hunger.
“Feed him,” one says, but the experienced shake their heads. A prime lass kneels by him, putting a biscuit in his hands and taking a wet rag to the trails of blood on his face. He fumbles the morsel into his mouth, gripping it in his jaw, but begins to cough. The lady steadies him by the shoulders as he struggles to clear his throat, until in a long rasp he ejects the biscuit and vomits wet ash. The experienced nod and mumble, “you see?”
They help him to his feet and guide him at long last to the ornate throne at the head of the Hall, carved with symbols of the world before the Fall: mighty spires tall as the firmament compose the back, the arms great sea-vessels as long as towns, while the vast armies and valiant heroes of yore adorned the sides. Carved into the ceiling above the throne looms an airship, brilliant in its sophistication. The rhapsode falls into the chair, at first fetally curling up, but then letting his limbs come to rest over the throne's features. He examines the wood with his blind hands, drinking the craftsmanship, feeling the stories of their creation pulse in his veins.
“What...” he whispers to the Hall, packed with Vedoc's elders, adults, hunters, craftsmen, mothers and children, they all kneeling in honor and anticipation. His voice echoes like the Muse's, the new sensation stopping him in his words. His voice seems to leap from ages past, the apex of countless dead memories arriving to the present through him, a mere conduit for the age his hosts yearn to return to, but which they will compromise to simply relive through his stories. “What do... where should I begin?”
He leaves a pause, thinking for a moment as history contemplates the question. A child almost has time to raise his voice and reply before he bellows, “O Glorious Odyd, it is your tale that I tonight do recite.
Be blesséd, the Muse who has created this rhapsode
And curséd are her Specter brethren.
But Yore does call that I retell the episode
When the Gods were men, mere mortal men
Who feared no thing, neither fight nor blight
Who died with faith, in honor, in valor,
And who leave us legacy wise and true.
So may my tale inspire such virtue in you.”
From the journal of Avdei Novikov:
"Theirs has become a land of shadow.
I had been to England once before, as a child. Then, the island-nation had been as vibrant an imperial mother, arguably the /most/ vibrant, as any other in Europe. Her streets were rotten with industrial filth, though oddly rich in exotic bounties, while her populace starved in body and spirit but waddled fat and full with philosophy. Fog owned those marshy lands, from her most verdant and glistening fields to her deepest, darkest bogs. The only thing I recognize now is the fog.
This age we call Enlightenment has from this land evaporated. Men toil fearfully, mindlessly, in the wake of shattered castles. No man dares tell me what forces brought to kneel such mighty constructions, only to shiver and quake in nervous silence before scurrying away into the mists. Larger creatures stare at me from the shadows, and bully the poor things who dare reply to my greetings.
London is no more. I came upon it yesterday, but found only ruin: charred wood, ashen corpses, seared stones -- were I less a skeptic I'd say thar had been dragons. At the center lay the most shocking thing of all: a hole. No starry crater, but a gaping pit. The sight of it unnerved me, and I could not remain there longer than to drop a stone into the abyssal maw and never hear it land. I forbid my mind these thoughts, but my memory recalls with jarring clarity the sound of whispers of unknown languages rising from the hole. In my dreams the whispers take the shapes of terrifying songs, as I wander alone amidst Cyclopean architecture, moved to terror by its otherworldly nature. And in the distance looms a shape I refuse to see. I bless my spirit that it would bar from me this creature's full visage, for even the wisps and traces of its nature that penetrate my resistance are demoniac nightmares to drive men mad.
Whatever events have led England to where she now stands have rid her of any semblance of government. Men, women, and children all toil without masters for reasons no one will divulge, but in their numbed eyes I see the traces of scarring memories. I remain a skeptic, but with every passing day here, as my nightmares grow more vivid and the people more like numb rats, I cannot help but suspect that this is no human doing."
"London, Seat of Yeth"
A darkness has fallen over London. Its ruined streets have for long been empty, and whatever survivors remain wear moribund pallors. They haunt the town like transient ghasts, living while they should be dead, dead where they should be living.
Then came the Northerners, pagan monks in beastly attire, shambling forth beneath heavy black hides, furs, and feathers, heads shielded from view by the skulls of animals. Against the crumbling stones and broken people of a once-united kingdom's capital, they are fearsome, alien things. Onlookers watch, but do not dare to act.
One lifts his head and sniffs, snorts the air. "Kgehk'khm," he grunts through chords bloated and inhuman. The others turn to face him, and shamble on in a new direction, until after a silent time they crest what months prior had been a factory, but now serves them only as a hill of stone and memory. Below yawns a pit a mile across, a forever deep; precisely what they came for. "Tbylhn, kh'jhol," One drawls. "Wfrih vdm," another replies.
One descends the mount, crossing by a quivering family of survivors and hauling up the youngest by the throat in one effortless motion. The strangled thing claws desperately at the cracked and ashen hand that grips him, until at last it releases its hold -- and tosses him into the abyss. The offender turns his skull-helmet back to the survivors, whose expressions begin to show through their numbness the weakest inflections of fright.
The sacrifice's screams serve to gauge how deep the hole is, and as expected, his howls never die but rather fade, until after some time -- the Northerners nod to one another -- they join a chorus deep in the belly of the maw, an almost imperceptible orchestra of terror and madness: screams from victims of every age and caste ring in monstrous harmony, shepherded by deep and otherworldly whispers.
The one at the edge huffs. "Ph-nglui mglw'nafh Yeth Ln'dwon wgah'nagl fhtagn."
From the journal of Avdei Novikov:
Never run. That's what they wait for, the moment you become nothing more than a frightened animal and start to run. The moment you become the fox to their dogs. The game for their hunt.
Crossing ancient battlements, a Scottish dun I presumed, through fog so thick I could hardly see the hands at the ends of my arms, I heard fall suddenly a volley of shots and shouts. I ducked down beneath the cover of the stones and listened. Beyond, the volleys continued, and, following gaps of unnatural silence, the crash of artillery rounds. Such a calamitous din one thinks would be more audible from so close, but prior to that moment I profess in earnest there was nothing where now I was surrounded by war.
As if by divine illumination, the clouds parted and the fog thinned, allowing light to paint the battlefield with a vibrancy I had not seen on earthly features since coming to this forsaken land. The fog's bleaching white dissipated to reveal a valley drowned in late-winter snows, where the players of this blood-drama seemed to trudge through a void blank save for themselves, their arms, and their dead.
On one side, English villagers hefted aged rifles, some having donned the red coats of their forefathers. They took cover behind other sections of the broken dun distant from myself and exchanged shots with a force farther off than I could recognize. But even where I could not see them closely, their superiority was obvious: somewhere in the distance their artillery pounded the meager resistance, while their black-suited infantry pressed stalwartly forward, not in rows or squadrons but as rogue individuals, taking cover where they could, kneeling in the open to take shots. Their tactics were strange, almost sacrificial: cover was used, but sparingly, though for such military recklessness I counted few bodies as compared with the rapidly thinning ranks of villagers.
A shell smashed the dun and the back of the resistance, and in its wake rang out cries of retreat. As blood and earth rained around them from the blast, the aggressors rushed forward to catch their fleeing prey. One knelt by where I hid to take a shot, and I saw his terrible form. Huddling behind the rocks, watching him through time-worn cracks and crags, and I saw the weapon of this new England. Heavy black pelts and hides hung on him, easily doubling his apparent size, shaking and whipping with his movements like long fur. I could see nothing of his body beneath such coverings: even his feet were bound in midnight skins, his head hidden in a helm of ashen steel, shaped like the face of a sleek hound bleached white and ghastly. How he saw through it, I do not know.
As soon as his knee hit the snow, a bullet tore through the ranks of the defeated to strike this beastly specimen through his shoulder, dislocating it and ravaging the flesh and muscle therein. I know where the shot landed because I saw it burst through the other side; I know it dislocated the limb because I saw him grab it and, with a sickening crack, jerk it back into place. He took his aim again, fired his weapon into the fog, and picked off one of those fleeing. Then, with a snort and huff, he lifted himself and hurried further into the distance unfazed.
I did not imagine such alien things would take prisoners, and even in such a case I preferred to avoid such a fate. I slid back into the hills behind me, further towards the coast where, if that fool Nietzsche is wrong and my god yet breathes, I can find passage off this forsaken land. But in the weeks since that first battle, I have seen many more just like it: rag-tag resistance obliterated by the superhuman, inhuman might of these... things. I do not know what to call them yet. Soldiers? No, soldiers do not shrug off mortal wounds, relocate severed joints, charge headlong through artillery, or rip the limbs from their foes like little girls plucking petals...
From the journal of Avdei Novikov:
I can see the ships on the horizon. Now it is only a matter of time.
After two weeks wandering through desolate wintry passes, blasted battlefields, ruined cities and makeshift graveyards, I reached the coast. I saw one other human in that time, one other human not armed and engaged, not in the process of being blown apart by the supernatural force of his enemy. His name was Jonathan, a civilian excused from the resistance due to lack of guns. He fled his home when he saw them -- the Black Dogs, he called them -- beating down the pass to his village. He was fast and he was cowardly, and so he survived to hear the screams of his every friend and lover as he fled.
But they still haunted him, he claimed. He held his head and moaned, 'I can hear them, Avdei, still screaming and howling.' I put my hand on his shoulder, but he shoved it away and said, 'No, not the humans. The dogs.'
'I see their faces in my dreams, white fur stained black and grey, blue eyes turned sickly and yellow. They do not growl, Avdei, nor bark or pant. They are just waiting for me...'
I told him his trauma had broken him, that time and rest would stitch his grievous wounds. But ever along our treks he would stop with a jump and a shout, falling to his knees, trembling at the foliage. 'There! Didn't you hear it? They're hunting me!' He would grab my hands and plead through tears, 'They'll kill me when they get the chance, Avdei, kill me like all the rest. You can't stay. Go without me, or else they'll hunt you too.' Knife in hand, I would search for wolves or signs thereof. I found it suspicious only that I found no signs of life of any kind save the sickly foliage itself, but those curiosities I kept secret. That there was nothing was all Jonathan needed to know.
But I should have heeded the poor thing. Eventually, they caught him by surprise, leaping from the earth itself upon him. I swore it to be a huge black hound, springing from beneath the snow and grabbing Jonathan in his frothing maw before darting further into the forest. I chased after the thing, rifle in hand, following Jonathan's screams until my legs churned with fire and my lungs felt ashen. Only then did I come upon him; only then did the screams fade.
His clothing was unrecognizable through the blood, torn and destroyed all over, matted to his body by the wetness. His body lay shattered and broken, bent at gross angles. His left arm was missing; his right leg too, from the knee down. His other limbs twisted as if they had a joint every few inches, the bone poking through where it saw fit. The hound had made of him a plaything while it waited for me.
I only recognized Jonathan by his face, half of which was peeled away to the skull. But the features that remained spoke of the horror Jonathan had done his best to forget. I had led him here, to his doom, by telling him to forget. I would not make the same mistake. I would not do his memory that dishonor.
A branch snapped in the distance and I looked to see two of the black-suited, dog-masked warriors hurrying through the woods away from us. I raised my rifle and felled one of them as the other darted off in another direction. Approaching the body I found no man-corpse, but the still body of a dark-furred basset hound.
Another week and I would find the coast. Five days more and a roving schooner escorting survivors to mainland Europe would find me. And before long, I was in Belgium. I set down my arms, bathed and ate proper, and drank coffee for the first time in months. I bought a quill and ink and recanted my first encounters with the Black Dogs. My hands yet quiver, even after almost a week of rest.
But this morning, standing on the pier in the haze of oceanic dawn, I saw their ships. Ghastly galleons, motley war vessels with broken masts and rotten sails, hole-ridden hulls patched with alien metals, and the crews... I could not see them with my eyes, or even through the whorfmaster's telescope, but I could feel their eyes on me, hunting yellow eyes...
It is only a matter of time.
Five envoys you send to England, one after the other for months and months, and only one returns.
Of the party's ten, only three remain living. Three, say the survivors, were devoured by wild dogs. A fourth of the party murdered two of his compatriots in their sleep, and fought to kill the rest until he himself was dead. The seventh muttered something about "voices from the pit" and wandered off, immovable as if held in a trance. The three that remain are a broken band, who recount a tale you cannot move yourself to accept.
There is no government in England, no semblance of order to be heard of. Leaving the ship that brought them in the care of its sailors, they followed what their most recent maps told them was the road to London. What they beheld there... when asked to describe it, they look at each other quietly before hanging their heads in silence.
One offers, "London is no more. England is no more."
"And the ship? What about the sailors?" you ask.
"All dead. Gored. Something had smashed the ship's hull. Something big."
"Something that smelled like dog piss," another adds.
"How did you get back?"
They look at each other again. You can't tell if they know something but won't divulge it, or are themselves confounded just as much as you.
"I don't know." One heaves a sigh, puts his hands on his face and shakes his head. "I don't know."
For their mental scars, the survivors are of no use to you any more, and so you discharge them until they have healed sufficiently. You think hard on whether to send another party, or whether to move against England for killing your envoys, until a dream too vivid for the name answers allays your fears.
You open your eyes to total darkness. You try to lift your hand and check if your eyes are open at all, but the limb -- all your limbs are held fast to the earth. Your breath grows quick and your skin clammy with sweat. Of all your faculties, only your voice seems to continue functioning, but the sound is weak and tinny through your paralyzed lips.
"Shhh," a voice penetrates the abyss, and you see a glint of light reflect off of something in front of you. A long, thin claw graces your cheek and exhaled air crosses your ear, "Fear does not become you."
The Kremlin flashes before your eyes. The Russian people toiling on their farms, in the streets of Moscow and Scandinavia. A soldier salutes you, and the vision is gone. "Yes. This is the one," another voice bellows from nearby, deep and affected as if arriving through water.
"He wonders of England." A third growls, as if through the voice of a dog who had learned to speak. The second burbles, "England?"
"The mortal nation, the island-people. Tzar, fear you nothing. England is no more."
Like the Kremlin before it, London appears in your mind. Massive factories and sprawling residences, the mighty capital of an imperial empire, until the vision shakes and rumbles. The earth beneath the city begins to crumble, and the gray sky cries black tears. The royal palace sinks with the ground below it, falling into itself with a roar that shakes the city, then plummeting into the abyss. A wet groan from the pit ripples across the whole metropolis. People flee their homes only for others to crush them, as others clutch their ears in agony, trying to keep the infernal, beyond-hearing chorus just beneath the groan from invading their thoughts. Days flash by and sprawling London has become a sprawling waste. Edinburgh, Liverpool, even the cities of Belgium flash in your mind, all marked with the same overwhelming destruction.
A fourth voice coughs, cracked and fiery like burning wreckage, "Gytrash, you cause him only horror. Fleshy thing, if it were my choice-"
"And for good reason it is not," Gytrash snaps. A silence follows, and for a moment you wonder if you are alone again, before Gytrash's scentless breath again passes over you, "Beneath Holland sleeps another of us. That is our object, not your Russia. Your shores are safe from our fleets, your people safe from our weapons. Fear you nothing, tzar, and dream you sweetly."
Claws click and your eyes open. Morning light washes over the room and the scent of blooming flowers calms your senses. Beside you, your pet borzoi Alena stirs to life. She yawns, and you smile at her simple animal expression, such a calming thing beside such vivid nightmares, beside the frustrations of war and politics. But when her eyes open again and rest on yours, you hear again the voice of airy Gytrash: "For when next we meet, we'll never be far. Never out of dream's reach."
From the journal of Avdei Novikov:
I killed one today. I watched it die. They were creeping down a hill to ambush the Dutch resistance in the village below when hostilities started. We ambushed them first, buying the civilians time to flee. We thought we would die there. Part of me hoped I would.
But I caught a black dog through the eyes. His helm punctured, he slumped to his knees. I reloaded my gun with a fevered quickness that now felt so natural, but when rather than standing back up the body fell flat, I was shocked. Somewhere, I remembered, these demons were still human.
We won today. I saw them retreat. The younger soldiers could not understand my confusion. "We've won! We've beaten them back!" "No. Nothing stops them." But with a foot on my kill, I forced myself to believe something could.
There are more of them now. Stranger things than just the black dogs. Yeth hounds, the witches of Disen... Sailors report waves like hands rising from the sea and tearing asunder steel juggernauts thought unsinkable like ashen twigs effortlessly crushed, and tooth'd shades diseasing their foodstuffs and infesting the weak-willed with fatal dreams.
Dreams... It's the first thing new recruits complain about. "I've been having these weird dreams..." they say, like a teary-eyed child come to his mama after a bad nightmare. We warn them, "Don't listen. Whatever they say -- voices from the pit, knowledge from the stars, riches beyond reason, might inconceivable -- they're demons, boy. Just demons." We lay a hand on their shoulders to try and make them believe us, really believe us, but we know it's no use. Either the boys are men and only death will stop them, or one morning they're up and gone.
Even for the veterans, the dreams remain. They tell you more as your resistances grow: they show you their cities, forges churning day and night with unholy fires, training grounds where the hounds hunt prisoners for game, and at the center, the hole... Two years ago I saw the one in London, where the thing I now know as Yeth lay sleeping. Now London is a burning war-machine, where Yeth's groans whip his warped cultists and broken captives into ever-deepening insanity. I've suffered them for two years now. I know their names, and I have seen their faces. I will say no more of them; I cannot face the thought.
I will fight until I die, but this hell has changed me. If anything like peace ever graces Earth again, I will have no place in such a land. Even as I fight them, these Old Ones have become an integral part of my continued existence. Without them, I am insane, a cold and paranoid killer, a danger to my fellow man. But while they yet live, I am a paragon of wisdom and willpower... and for far too many, the only hope for survival.
From the diary of Dr. Wilhelm Abendroth:
"Avdei and his men brought one in alive today. A yeth hound, fur red with blood, horns dirtied with gore. Avdei claimed they had knocked it unconscious, but the slowly-regenerating bullet hole in its neck suggested otherwise. I paid them well, as promised, but to one of Avdei's subordinates. He wouldn't talk to me directly. 'Do you know how many men died for this?' I overheard him whisper, 'Twelve men, for one, just one of these abominations. No price is worth twelve of my men.'
This isn't about your men, Avdei. This is about every man. This is about survival."
"I've never seen one this close. I watched from two hilltops over as their kind crushed my beloved Holland, but I couldn't make out their faces then. I saw their cannons striding on six iron legs across the broken earth, blasting recklessly into the distance, while beneath their feet waves upon waves of screaming warriors flooded my compatriots. I ran, then, and never looked back. I dedicated my powers of analysis and understanding to our resistance against these demons, and six months later, here I am, staring down one of the monsters that obliterated my homeland.
I had thought that maybe the English had simply been overcome by some nouveau-pagan craze, marking themselves with battle-paint or scarring themselves for luck with spirits, but no. This is not a man. These are horns bulging from the skull; these teeth are longer and more jagged than anything to ever grace a human jaw. Fur appears on the body in spirals and swirls in unnerving patterns. This is no man. This is a demon."
From the research notes and journal of Dr. Wilhem Abendroth (deceased), released for public consumption by the German Government's Department of Public Affairs:
Subject: Yeth Hound of London Origin
Notes: Battlefield reports describe the hounds as the raider counterparts of the impenetrable black dogs. They rush ahead of the advance, sweep around the flanks, and ambush envoys and scouts with a superhuman speed and ferocity. Although armed with a rifle, hound victims typically feature stab-wounds and extensive slashing, from either the hound's bayonet or disease-ridden claws. Where black dogs are silent, yeth hounds fill the battlefield with their howls. Reports describe sudden insanity resulting from the din. Precautions taken: hound gagged and muzzled to prevent howling, lashed to padded cell wall to prevent excessive movement or self-destructive acts.
Director: Dr. Wilhem Abendroth
March 17th: Experiment Begins
Day One: Observation.
Early observation occurred as 01 remained sedated. When 01 awoke, it struggled briefly against its constraints and attempted to howl, but found it could only gurgle against the gag. Thereafter it calmed itself to wait and watch us as we watched it. Some of the others departed under the creature's stare, citing how it unnerved them. Others expressed fascination at the creature's bizarre and alien construction. 01 has since made no noise or movement after its initial struggle, except for its head to swivel and track its observers.
Day Two: Observation (cont'd)
Researchers [confidential], [confidential], and [confidential] have departed from the project, citing unnerving dreams that they refused to believe were the work of 01. Researcher [confidential] was found taking observation notes in the dark by the time the other researchers arrived. Questioned, and he expressed intense curiosity about 01. Asked why in the dark, and he grew flustered. Wards [confidential] and [confidential] assigned to observe the doctor's mental health.
Day Nine: Death #2
Burned [confidential]'s body. Kept the hound tranquilized the whole day while the cage's glass barriers were replaced and further reinforced. The restraints were similarly strengthened. Dr. [confidential] continues to defend the hound, claiming its victim provoked it. I cannot help but note that both wards assigned to monitor his mental state are now dead by the hands of the hound. I cannot help but note that [confidential]'s eyes gleam yellow in the light. More researchers vacated the project: nine remain, from an original twenty-six.
Day Ten: Observation (cont'd)
After nine days of no food or water, 01 continues to exhibit no signs of starvation or dehydration. We were hoping to do an autopsy by now, but with its continued longevity, we are helpless except to observe. [confidential] suggested we simply kill it and do one anyway. Once again lashed to the wall, 01 returned to its familiar habit of tracking us with those unblinking eyes. I have almost gotten used to them. Almost.
Day Fourteen: Death #3
Awoke this morning to the sound of a rifle. I hurried out of my room, pistol in hand, to see [confidential] reloading his rifle over the body of another researcher, both their lab coats smattered with blood. He whipped his head around and saw me, and I his face. Piss-yellow eyes burned in his sockets, his face seemed longer and his teeth protruded beyond the lips; his hair had grown wild and patchy, and poking through the ragged mop there, two small gazelle horns. A force of hate and fear deeper than any sensation and faster than any reflex fired my pistol. The bullet shattered his right humerus, and with a scream he dropped his weapon. He grit his teeth and growled as I rushed the wounded thing. I saw in his vengeful eyes the same demon glare as 01, as the monsters that destroyed Holland, and by God when I tackled him I did my best to crush his throat. By some miracle, though, I merely knocked him unconscious, so that in the moments thereafter, as other researchers rushed in to examine the sound of gunfire, we were able to further sedate him, and properly care for his victim's corpse.
Day Fourteen (second entry)
Spent day debating what to do with [confidential] now that he's begun to turn. Some are addressing him as 02. I abstained my vote, but others suggested everything from public execution to observing inter-demon mating habits. Will bury [confidential] tomorrow.
March 31st: Experiment Begins
Subject: Partially-Turned Yeth Hound of Kiel Origin
Director: Dr. Wilhem Abendroth
Lashed 02 to the cage wall alongside 01. Observations begin. Intending to feed 02 in order to better observe the turning process while continuing to starve 01. Of the five researchers that remain, none are unnerved by 02's pleas for mercy. We see his demon eyes; we know his demon heart; we know precisely how much mercy it has earned.
[Dr. Wilhelm Abendroth died five days later when a gas tank exploded in the labs. The incident damaged the facility beyond recovery.]
“Kaiser: Birth of an Alliance”
"Demon" does not do this thing justice. Your eyes burn just to perceive him.
Black and translucent lashes whip from his body and lick the air around him like hungry half-existing tentacles. Eyes white as bone or death or the hottest fires sear you with his gaze, while rotting, rancid flesh clings to his starving body. Black furs and leathers sewn in pieces shroud his calves, forearms, and torso, but the rest of his sickly skin hangs exposed. Hooves for feet and horns driven out of his forehead make justifiable the name satan-spawn, but something deep and dark in you tells you Lucifer holds no candle to this abomination. But for all his terrible shape, it is his grin that will take you to your grave, that you will remember even at the gates of beyond.
"Kaiser," he begins, "My name is Gytrash, and I am a reasonable man. So, in the name of peace, let us reason."
He had forced himself into your office, the doors bowing open at his approach as if welcoming him, as if he'd been invited. His smirk disarms you; the three armed guards beside you seem distant and inadequate before this thing of horror.
"Man?" you find yourself scoffing, even as terror grips you, "You are nothing but a plague on this Earth, and I will see you removed."
"Oh, that's unfortunate. Are you sure?"
"Guards, kill this ghoul!"
Three rifles rise and fire, and -- beyond your wildest expectations -- the intruder slumps. Bullets tear through him like any mortal, and now his bloody corpse stains your rug. His otherworldly features vanished when he fell, so that only the half-starved body of an oddly-clothed Englishman lies before you now.
Stories trickling back from the war's front claimed England was no more, that its people had been consumed by some demonic darkness, warping their lands and twisting their bodies. You had seen war in your youth, and know the way myths propagate, the way soldiers speak of their enemies to justify the murder they must commit every day. You had assumed that's what the stories were, but seeing this... Even as mundane as his corpse looks now, you know what you saw. The guards saw it too, didn't they? Then so will the people know, to guard themselves, to resist their blight, to triumph-
"Heh," one guard says. You turn to him, the youngling called Neals, and see... that smirk. His eyes wander the room in helpless panic, as his lips curl into that... /grin/... as the nightmarish wisp-whips lick from his body to grace the air once more. "I offer you peace. Your people will be spared death, even offered life and glory at our side."
You rise, grabbing a pistol from your belt, "I will not see my people become pawns to your evil!" Neals' lips laugh as you press the gun to his forehead, but his eyes grow only more frantic.
"Become? You say it as if it hasn't already happened." Rifles cock behind you, and you turn in time to see your bodyguards' yellow-tinted eyes glaring at you, rifles poised for your murder.
Beneath Gytrash's laughter, you hear one whisper, "I'm sorry, my lord," and fire.
Somewhere in Northern France.
"ALLEZ ALLEZ ALLEZ!" Lieutenant Beaulieu cried from further down the row, mounting the trench wall with a hundred others. It would be the last thing I ever heard him say.
The roar of artillery fire behind us, the shouts and shots of comrades beside us -- they tried to train us for that, but no matter your preparations every man pisses himself the first time. The howls in the distance, otherworldly cries and screams like the voices of vicious, incongruous creatures that ought never have passed the veil into our tranquil reality -- they didn't mention that in training. But looking back, I can understand why: they were trying to forget.
I leapt above the trench, adrenaline coursing through my veins, only to see a bullet tear through the lieutenant's throat. He flipped back like a tossed ragdoll and moved no more. But save for the glances of passing soldiers, we graced his death with no note. There were more pressing issues at hand than our lack of leaders.
The sea-ward horizon was thick with demon-kind. Shapes as tall as the sky hulked in the blackened distance. Their lurching steps shook the earth at my feet. Closer to our vision hurried on soldiers, hundreds of them, as tall as two men, hidden beneath shimmering layers of black leather and midnight fur. Long wolven masks of steel shrouded their faces, making them all the more beastly, and all the less human. "CHIENS NOIRS" someone shouted, dripping with fear. I raised my rifle to take a shot when a biplane's screaming propeller drew my attention skyward. An unoccupied Nieuport slammed into the earth, while above great winged half-men tore its pilot apart with long grasping claws. His screams pierced the din more than any other sound, and I aimed my rifle at those harpies as much to save him as to silence him. The first shot got their attention and they forgot their prey, dropping him an easy five hundred feet, while from another direction more like-minded Frenchmen gave them better shots, and I was given the pleasure of seeing a harpy killed. Bullets pelted her until by good fortune one slammed into the back of her skull, and the bloodied mess plummeted to the earth. The other flew from the scene, while a celebratory whoop rose in our ranks over the fallen demon. But no inspiration lasts long here; the demons don't allow it.
I lowered my eyes to the horizon in time to see the black dogs begin firing. They held no simple rifles in those huge hands, no: each black dog wielded a whole machine gun, altered for hand-held operation.
Such weapons were too large for us to be operated in any less than teams of three; my own rifle was a simple semi-auto. Our charge was short-lived, as I and anyone else with half their wits leapt back into the trenches as the black dogs rained steel on our ranks. I watched as men scrambling back to safety were cut down, sawed apart by the demon's munitions. Even those who dared to raise their head up to observe their foes found his bullets between their eyes. A poor fool turning mad beside me chuckled, "Regardez-vous cela? Je le ris, parce qu’ils sont seulement la commencement."
Like Beaulieu before him, that would be the last thing he would ever say to me, as something blood-red and screaming dropped into the trench in front of us and rammed a jagged bayonet through his chest. It paused for the merest shade of an instant, and I made eye contact. Searing yellow corneas, black and ashen pupils -- I felt the paralyzing sorrow and suffering of something deep beneath those eyes. The skeptics preached that the demons of England were just rumors, that in truth their soldiers had been captured by some nouveau-pagan craze and in battle exhibited a ferocity unknown to the more civilized. The doomsayers argued the demons were just that: Satan´s subjects and followers. But here I saw the truth. I saw a boy named Allen, nary seventeen, whose adolescence had been interrupted by terrifying dreams and warped visions. I saw his mother suffer the same, while his father looked on with increasing horror at the changes of his family. I saw them both tear him apart, limb from limb as he cried out in confusion more than pain. I saw them wandering toward London while the changes consumed them, until at their arrival they had become the kinds of beasts I saw before me now. Unseen voices compelled them onto transport ships crafted from incongruous alien metals, and months later here they were, murdering men they had never known before. I saw Allen crying inside the yeth hound´s skin, crying for his father, for his victim now, for his own state...
I rammed my bayonet through his heart. Then again through a lung, then the throat, then wherever my trembling hands landed the infernal tool. Allen howled to the heavens, and as I withdrew my weapon one final time, his gore covering its front, I fired a round through his eyes. His head shot back, then slumped forward and looked at me while the hole in his head oozed black. The yellow of his eyes turned white, the black into a softer brown, and the sparse red fur on his scalp turned a slight blond. His malformed lips withdrew from their hateful grimace, becoming a soft contentment, before he slumped, dead, to the side.
"Bon," a voice nearby shouted, "Mais il y a deux milles plus de lui pas loin d´ici, et aussi ses frères. Suis-moi, et nous survivrons."
And so I did.
Following a secret deal between the Turks, who had allied themselves with the Austrians, who were demon-kind's last major foe, to expose the coordinated battle plans of the Germans, Italians, and English as they marched on Spain and Eastern Europe:
You are Ahmad Mehmet, Turkish envoy to Austria, and you are hunted.
You know they hunt you because you see it in your dreams, because you watch the trail of bodies grow ever closer, the trail of sin, of guilt.
First they caught Canan Kent, the envoy to England. Bite-marks colored his limbs where they hung, dismembered, at Constantinople's palace gates. His head was left facing the throne, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, with twisted and alien calligraphy scarred into his face, repeating in a script you could not bare to read, "SMALL MAN. SMALL PREY."
Then Irmak Emir, the Minister of the Exterior, of Foreign Affairs, whose hands the report must have gone through. His body, they found bloated in his home's garden pools, whose water bubbled black and acidic, while its lush foliage had twisted into wicked and unnatural shapes: the leaves were sharp enough to draw blood, the bark weak and fickle. The tree-trunks hunched over the scene from high overhead like sinister judges. Carved in Irmak's back read those same unnerving words, "SMALL MAN. SMALL PREY."
One by one, every pair of hands the report passed through turned up dead -- aides, analysts, diplomats and envoys... whoever had touched it, they were dead now. Dead save you, having long since fled the capital. Deeper into the deserts of the East you voyaged through the summer sun, pawning your every possession in desperate flight from an enemy you only hoped could be outrun. First you hid at your cousin's home in Armenia, until over a quiet tea dinner she rose with a scream and you watched invisible coals sear her forehead with the words, those words, those dreaded words. You fled while she yet howled. You hope mercy graced her death.
Then to Syria, where the Muslim Muezzin cried from the minarets the call to prayer, each taking his own creative license to add the phrase, "FOR ALLAH MAKES OF SMALL MEN SMALL PREY, ALLAH BE BLESSED. ALLAH BE PRAISED." Even outside the cities, where you imagine they must have agents and spies, you see them on the dunes: spectral wisps in the summer heat, or night-time tricks of the moonlight, but after such a trail of death you are sure these are no tricks. You are sure the wolf over the dune's crest comes every day and night just for you. You are sure his eyes, yellow as the sickliest pus and piercing like the coldest steel, watch only you. You are sure he has friends, other wolves over other dunes who watch you all the same.
Even sleep is no reprieve. There they are not kept from you by distance; there they hunt you ever harder. Your dreams evoke the wolf again, but looking closer it is just a sleek dog. He stands proud from the shadows, form hidden save for his demon eyes, while you run or scream or bellow... or as of late, cry. Where first you raged and threatened the beast, thinking yourself untouchable, as the bodies mounted -- and mounted too in the dream, until the beast's eyes were joined by those of your dead comrades, yearning for you to join them -- you fled with a vigor lost to you since first making love in your adolescence, returned to you now in old age not in pursuit of life's pleasures but in flight from horrors that mock and bloody every treasure left of the living.
Now, after half a year of running, you find yourself deep in the sandy wastes of the Arabian desert. In your dreams you do not resist, you do not even run when the dog comes. You cry. You fall on your knees and beg for mercy, tears streaming down your weary features. But when you awake, nothing. Even when you submit, there is no reprieve. Your tormentor remains just over the last dune. His howls still pierce the night, even as no other living thing graces these sands for a hundred miles in every direction.
Except this night. Six months after you first fled the capital, seven after the dreams began, this dream is different. You beg on your knees, bowing before this terrible mutt and howling for forgiveness, from him, from the bodies of your friends and family as their empty, ghastly eyes take audience beside the hound.
"I gave them the report! I gave them the information! I know it was me, I know, I know, the battle plans for Germany, Italy, even our own Turkish force. Tormentor, you know I exposed us, you know, why do you not leave it at that? Give me death, give me peace. But please, by whatever sovereign grace my Lord possesses, end this, I beg you."
The mutt strides forward, the corpses behind him fading into darkness until it remains only you and him. He approaches until you can feel his breath, warm like rotten bodies, and see into his eyes, deep with twisted sights, and in a voice emanating from the very space around you, whispers, "No."
You awake once more in Constantinople's busy streets, carried by your arms by two hulking warriors, their forms shrouded beneath heavy layers of black furs and leathers. Steel helms, shaped like the wolf from your dreams, hide their faces. They haul you effortlessly through the thoroughfares that lead to the palace gates, roads and ways that normally throng with bustle and business but who by the sight of these two beasts have been made silent. Citizens watch stunned at the spectacle.
The clinking of chains behind you makes you turn your head to see the other victims, the bodies from your dreams, revived to shamble like prisoners. They still bear the wounds of their murders: the drowned remain wet and bloated, the burned ashen, while dismembered victims are dragged in baskets behind those who can yet walk. They do not look at you, only stare ahead with slack jaws and dead eyes.
Before the palace gates rise hanging posts enough for every victim here -- save one. For him you notice a chopping block, and beside it a long and jagged scimitar, rusted and evil. There the beasts toss you, while one takes the prisoners to the posts and the other presses your neck into the block's notch, holding you there by force. You scan the crowd, your eyes pleading. I am sorry, your gaze whispers, Save me. Hundreds of them are watching, as far in every direction as you can see.
You call out for help, screaming and crying, to no avail. The spectators are immovable. Women put their hands over their mouths, while fathers usher their boys home. "Go on now," they say, "You don't want to see this." Your cries grow shriller, more desperate, until beside you shambles up a beast only vaguely resembling the most wicked of men. He dons the same furs and corpse-skins as the brutes holding you down or tying up the others, but his skin is not hidden by it. His greasy, pimpled chest shines proudly in the sun, while his forearms bear bloats and tumors to make them seem gargantuan. His face, however, he hides beneath a bone-white bull-skull, the horns pointing out like menacing daggers. He looks over the crowd before peering on you. You can't see his eyes, but you feel his gaze on you as your breath is snatched away and mid-sentence your pleas turn to silence.
He takes a parchment from his side and turns back to read it. "Here assembled," he cries, "are traitors, thieves, liars, and murderers. They have stolen from their allies a precious secret, knowledge of plans and alliances, and endangered every one of us. None of you can afford this risk, to be sold out by your own leaders. Such a thing, England refuses to let pass. England looks after its friends, but turns its enemies to dust.
"Every man here has knowingly turned your secrets over to your enemies. We have dealt with them once in private, destroying them as a matter of necessity. Where our secrets leaked, we plugged the holes. We do this now to illustrate the price of such foolishness. This man, the one called Ahmad Mehmet, shall forever be the most reviled of this lot, for his hands were the last Turkish pair to touch our secrets, the one who could have stopped his machine of lies so easily, with a simple refusal, a simple dedication to his home, to his nation. Instead he sold you, sold Rumania, and sold Bulgaria. So here he lies."
Behind you, the sound of nooses snapping taut whips out over you as their victims fall to their second deaths. "So, Ahmad Mehmet, I and the powers vested in me by Resurgent Confederacy of England and her allies, do hereby find you and all present behind us guilty of treason to the crowns of England, Germany, Italy, and Turkey all."
The beast beside you lets his hand off your neck, but your attempts to scramble to your feet are met with no ground. You cannot lift your neck, even as nothing holds it down. You try to scream, to beg and plea once more, but no air escapes your lips. You are only able to produce hot and furious tears that sear your cheeks as the demon takes the scimitar from beside you.
"I sentence all convicted here to death for high treason. Traitorous scum, may you find Hell fitting."
The demon raises the weapon and, with a hard thwack, removes you of your body. The world spins as your head falls to the sand and dust, but death does not liberate you. You watch helplessly as blood gushes from the stump, while your executioner grasps your head in one mighty hand and, drawing out a basket woven of bark-ash, places you inside and hangs the basket on the palace gate's spikes.
"But Mehmet, you will suffer an especial punishment, for having been the final instrument in this terrible orchestra. Your still-living, still-watching head is to be hung on the palace gates, so that all who pass shall know the price of betrayal. Your silent screams and empty pleas shall serve to remind those you betrayed the cost of such insolence. And when the sun has flaked away all your skin and the crows have left you nothing but bone and gristle, then and only then shall death free you from your mortal torment to Hell's immortal torture. May it suit your despicable deeds."
He rolls up his parchment once more and stuffs it away at his side while the two shrouded warriors move to him, one carrying your body and the other the scimitar, as you watch from behind the charcoal bars of your new prison the crowd part for their exit, and shortly thereafter disperse. Your comrades, dead a second time, swing in the breeze at your sides. A boy comes closer to spit on you, and from a space just inside your skull you hear the hound one last time:
"Your impatience for power will serve you no good here. Eternity," he echoes, the smile evident in his voice, "Is a long, long time."
Excerpt from the journal of Jean-paul Sacre-cour:
"Hanged men line the forest's sickly boughs, their crimes carved in the trees below in a wicked script that causes the mind to shake when read. Some of our men are Ruhr natives, Germans and Dutchmen Avdei recruited. They remember when these forests shone verdant, when the creeks and streams ran clear and blue. Now they contain only blackened sludge, putrid and toxic, while the trees have grown twisted and sinister. A lesser man would try to ignore them watching, but we are survivors in this dark age. We watch them right back.
Every one of us has seen the demons close, killed them too. Most of us did it with our bare hands. Wilhelm Abendroth, a former German scientist, says he set his research laboratory ablaze when he started to see his assistants turn. He watched nearby Holland fall with his own eyes. The fury I see in him when he falls on demons, it is incredible. His is hatred, pure and unbidden.
We share no common language. Our ranks, maybe fifty-some, come from every part of France, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandanavia, and even the frigid wastes of what we once called Russia. Avdei translates when he must, but for the most part we share no words. What is there to say? "I watched hellspawn bring human civilization to its knees. I will have revenge."? No. Such a thing need not be said. Such a thing, we all assume. We all know.
We will have revenge."
Excerpt from the journal of Jean-paul Sacre-cour:
“I see you.”
France is lost.
“Every one of you.”
Russia is lost.
Spain is lost.
We are all that remains. Two ferries of armed resistance, maybe 100 soldiers in all. Fathers, mothers, their eldest children, too – anyone with wit enough to kill, and will enough to resist the dreams. We share stories at night, brief and quiet words, of the lives we once led, the things we aspired for. We make-believe that we'll ever be able to return to such lives.
We made contact with a French regiment in southern Belgium. They were in retreat from an encounter with German forces in the Ruhr. They were an army beaten and torn. Their ranks were thin – many were missing their weapons. They hauled no artillery, marched on foot with only a handful of bullet-torn vehicles at their sides. Avdei asked their leader, a man wearing the skull of the last general as a sign of his rank, for permission to peruse his soldiers for new fighters for the Hardened. He denied him the right, but Avdei didn't listen. He muttered, “He'll be turned soon anyway. I'll save his men whether he likes it or not.”
“Turned, Avdei? Why would we leave him alive?” One asked.
“I won't do it. And I wouldn't say you should do it while we're sharing their tents, but once I'm done here,” he took a sniper's rifle from nearby and handed it to the boy, “He's all yours.”
We would collect twenty-two soldiers from their regiment of over a thousand men. Two weeks later we would get word the regiment wasn't just wiped out – it had joined the other side.
We found an abandoned port-town in Normandy. Ghastly were its streets; rotted corpses hung from rooftops, but any trace of demon-kind had long left this place behind. We searched the homes for supplies, smashing windows, doors, locks, and anything else to get at what we needed. An older soldier behind me laughed when I tossed a pearl necklace aside, searching through drawers for cloth to patch my meager and tattered belongings.
“What is it, Jon?” I asked.
“Those pearls? They must have been a gift to some dame for her wedding anniversary. And those drawers, Jean-paul? Those are her delicates.”
I looked at the fistful of cloth I held and, like wiping a grime from my eyes, I realized they were pantyhose.
“That little number you threw down just a moment ago,” he pointed, “She probably wore that on their honeymoon.” He picked it up and looked it over, “I bet her man was well pleased.”
Standing up, it dawned on me that once upon a time, people lived here. In the bed on the other side of the room, where someone's blood painted the walls, people once slept there, and slept there peacefully. Photos, smashed atop the wardrobe, showed a family of four: wife, husband, grandfather, and granddaughter. The faded black-and-white photographs showed them... happy... beneath a gleaming yellow sun. The daughter, barely eight years old, wasn't paying attention to the photographer. She was preoccupied by a hand-sewn doll, coming to her from the outstretched hand of her grandfather, while the mother and father looked at each other with joy beaming from their smiles. I remembered feeling something like that, looking into another human's eyes. Love. I recalled it with numb curiosity, like looking into a past life. Their daughter, however...
I hadn't seen a child alive in years. The Black Dogs were less frightening to me than the pure and naive innocence of her expression. In the corner of my eye, I saw her doll by the window. Going to it, raising it in my hands... Its right arm had been torn off, and one of its eyes was missing. The thing was old long before the Old Ones appeared, but now it looked like a relic from some ancient paradise. And the former owner, the little girl? We found her body outside the home. She had been hung from the edge of the roof until the rope rotted through and her decomposing body fell to the cobblestone earth, where we saw her limbs twisted and snapped, her flesh a sight of pestilence.
“Your very souls...”
I stitched a banner from her doll. Comrades gave me keepsakes for it, until at last when we set out into the English Channel, we flew our flag against the bleak and ashen heavens. Photographs, kerchiefs, pendants, letters, and dolls like the little girl's. Some of us cried as we constructed the standards, and I for one envied them, who could keep their heart alive to feel pain even now. So many of us have been consumed by this war. Our hearts, our souls, we left behind. Avdei spoke of the sensation the dawn we arrived in England:
“Millions have died to protect a world that I can hardly remember. Six years now, I have fought every second to resist the onslaught, but even as I have come to know the voice of Gytrash or any other Old One's goading as commonplace in my dreams, I have forgotten the smell of roses in Spring, the feel of a yellow sun on my skin, the sound of a bustling market, the feeling of a lover's lips – what children look like, alive. I cannot count the number of people I have murdered to keep them from turning, or the number of demons whose bodies I have torn limb from limb in fits of battle-madness. I cannot remember a meal that did not taste like ash, a day-sky not colored like pus, or a night with stars.”
He sighs then and pauses for a moment, before picking up his rifle, “That is the world we fight for, the one so few of us can even recall. These banners, they show – no, they shout the names of every treasure Gytrash and his brethren have taken. We will take them back, brothers. We will rip them from their demon-hands and raise them to the sky and rebuild this world. It is not a world I will be a part of, friends. Peace is beyond me, beyond many of us. A world without demon-kind is a paradise I can only dream of, but the killer I have become has no place in such a world. I fight – we fight – to ensure that our descendants need never learn the harsh lessons that define our lives.”
“Now,” he locks the cartridge in his weapon, “Let's put down these dogs.”
“I have smashed every one.”
From the journal of Avdei Novikov:
At the foot of Edinburgh's furthest barricades, only three of us remained. We had been reduced in a path of blood and war across England's ashen wastes, but we fought hard, and we fought well. We evaded major troop concentrations, slew the outliers and patrols, took their weapons, and moved on. The Black Dogs and the other demon-races had changed too much to be stopped by mere human weapons, so we used theirs instead: automatic rifles small enough to be wielded by just one man, demon leathers so thick they stopped bullets, and even the Black Dog helmets. With every battle, more and more of us looked head to toe like the demons we fought, but we still carried our tattered banners of dolls and photographs, blankets and letters. Chains of wedding rings clinked around our necks. We hummed national anthems, love songs, recited plays and the words of philosophers to keep distant the din of demons howling.
War claimed most of the dead, but as we pressed on, even the most hardened among us fell susceptible to the dreams. Men turned before their comrades' eyes, their eyes turning the tell-tale color of hot piss, before out of reflex one would drive his knife into the fallen. The speed of our reactions left us to wonder if Gytrash wasn't just playing tricks, but as the corpses' faces turned sinister and rancid, we knew our training had served us well.
By the time we approached Gytrash's fortress-city of what mortals once called Edinburgh, only three of us remained: myself, the doctor Wilhelm Abendroth, and the boy Jean-Paul Sacre-Cour. Each of us carried banners on our backs stitched in the styles of our home-nation's colors: I, the motherland Russia; Wilhelm, the fatherland Germany; Jean-Paul, the fallen maiden France. These were places of myth now, buried by the Old Ones beneath their demon spires and demon factories and demon armies. But we would never forget. And now, armed with the weapons and armor of our enemies, we would fight the last deadly mile to revive the world. Gytrash no longer laughed in my dreams, only stared hard and hateful with eyes whose otherworldliness once burned me to see, but that now caused me no pain, no stress, oozed no taint, summoned no fear, who burst unmoving with horrors from every corner of existence and beyond, provoking nothing. Where he glared hard, I stared only harder. In this contest of wills, I would not be stopped.
Our explosives tore open the Southern gates, while we lay in wait at the Northern end. We scaled the Cyclopean walls into the filthy, vomitous alleyways of a demon capital. Warehouses and factories of antedeluvian design forged of stone and metal not of this earth rose around us, forming alleys between them and roads across. We could hear the footfalls of the city's soldiers like tidal waves towards the destroyed gate, leaving our path to Gytrash's pit relatively empty -- until we crossed the street and the dust at our feet began to rise. "Disen Bog Hags," Jean-Paul whispered as we moved, "They must have seen us. I can hear them cackling."
I refused to let him think what he was thinking, "Let their spells fly. We need you-"
"No. They saw me. They want me."
"Damnit Jean-Paul, I said-"
"Their magic will tear us apart so long as they know we're here. Watch the dust rise, Avdei, you know what they're casting. If one of us doesn't stop them, they'll kill us all long before we reach Gytrash, so I'm going to save your lives now whether you like it or not." He turned in the alleyway and whispered the last words I would ever hear him say as he raised his rifle, "Vive la France, vous merd-putains de l'enfer."
Wilhelm didn't stop to watch him go like I did. Instead he moved past me, hauling me by my arm until I too followed. He didn't understand French so our exchange must have been alien, but as the gunfire began seconds later he noted, "That is a brave thing he does. Drawing them away like that. But the dogs will catch our scent once he's dead. His bravery buys us time, but does not ensure us victory."
We sprinted across another block as the city's defenses doubled back to support Jean-Paul's attackers. His gunfire lasted another moment, aided by bursts and bombs, and then faded beneath more and more weapons firing on him. Gytrash snorted with pride and flashed me the image of his body, riddled with bullets and broken by Black Dogs beating his corpse. As they moved away, the hags began chanting again, and his corpse rose through the air to its feet, dancing to the inhuman laughter of his murderers. But I could feel Gytrash' anger, for I was not dismayed. Jean-Paul died gloriously: around him lay four demons in pools of their own rancid blood; the French banner flew triumphantly over his defeated, humiliated body; and as he danced, his limp right hand tugged a fishing line leading underneath his armor. A grin broke across my face and blossomed only further into wild peals of laughter as force and fire ripped through the Northern district, consuming whole blocks and hurling rubble and bodies and their parts overhead. Gytrash screamed in my head, but it was my turn to laugh now. Forty pounds of dynamite had just devoured the bulk of his defenses.
Half a mile to go and we burst into a full sprint. Demon howls shook the air around us as we ran, the pounding steps of angered Yeth Hounds leaping from rooftop to rooftop in our pursuit, as iron-walkers rose up on their six massive legs to hunt us. Their cannonfire burst around us, smashing through buildings and crushing other demons. Shrapnel stuck in our armor and pierced our skin, but we pressed on. When the Yeth Hounds fell from the rooftops to slay us, we whipped our blades into them without losing a step, catching their bodies by the necks as they dropped and hauling them out into the street as we crossed the blocks. Black Dogs bearing down on us let fire with their heavy machine guns and lay down a gauntlet of lead that tore through the demon corpses we carried like shields. But they served us well enough, and with only a few stabbing pains I dared not ponder, we tossed down our eviscerated foes and ran on -- until Wilhelm tripped.
His leg had been broken; it twisted like no leg ought. "GO." he shouted, "WE'RE SO CLOSE, AVDEI, JUST GO." This was no time to question him, so I didn't. I ran. His shouts only spurred me on. Two more blocks to cross, blocks of foes beyond number, crying out with all they had for my death, while was seemed like forever behind me I could hear Wilhem's defiant roar become a desperate plea for mercy. The world was bursting around me, and for all I knew I was bursting with it. My mind afforded me no liberty to ponder my own mortality. My purpose there was singular and impossibly necessary. No number of bullets would stop this body from reaching the pit. No force would keep me from my goal. Nothing would make Gytrash safe now.
The last alleyway. I could see the pit now, not twenty yards from me. Four Black Dogs as tall as three men and strong as twenty rushed around the edges of the pit to block my path. No. They raised their rifles to fire on me as I let loose the only thing I had in my mind to fight them with, a warcry of immortal contempt and defiance. Their bullets began to fly as Wilhelm pulled his trigger and burst with the sound and fury of a world imploding. I leapt with the explosion's force at my back and slammed into a startled demon's chest, knocking him over the edge and, at last, I plummeted into the pit.
I had seen men and women tossed into the pits before. They screamed as they fell. They cried and pleaded, begged and prayed. The demon beside me became human as he fell, his unholy features falling away as his mortal fear overcame him. He screamed like all the other mortals thrown down here, until in mid-air he burst into dust. But not this one, I thought. I would have no such fate. Saving my breathe, I straightened my body into a falling arrow. My heart still pounded with righteous might, but my nerves went cool and calm again. "This is the end, Gytrash," I thought, "This is your end."
"No!" I heard, and ground stopped my descent with a hateful crash. "Do you see me? See what I am? I am GYTRASH, you putrid whelp!"
I lay stunned for many moments, until a slender claw graced my cheek. "Commendable, that you have come all this way. But what do you intend to kill me with, hmm? Bullets? Explosions? These are what humans kill humans with. But what do you use, Avdei, to kill a god?"
Rolling on one side, I pressed my palm to the ground -- my eyes still wouldn't open, or maybe I had gone blind -- and raised myself to my knees...
"Yes! Crawl, puny thing! Crawl in the darkness! This is MY home. MINE. MY WORLD. You are a stranger in a strange land, helpless, useless, far from home, impossibly far from everything you have ever known or loved, entered into a world I have built, from which you will never return."
...and from my knees onto one leg, shot through with pain, my head screaming the motion was too much for my broken body...
"Armies rise and fall at my beck and call, Avdei! Do you understand what I am? Why you are blind? Where I am from you /cannot exist/, you are /too small/, /too weak/. Passing through the veil..."
...and from one leg to two, at last standing, then with more effort and force than my body has ever known, standing tall.
"...should have killed you." Gytrash utters, aghast. A scream at the edge of my ability to hear it, testing the walls of my sanity rings in my ears and through my mind, and an entity falls upon me. I cannot describe it, only that with my own cry of resistance I tossed it aside to crash upon the ground.
"No, Gytrash," I bellowed, "I understand precisely what you are. You are a bane upon this earth, a baleful plague and sickly pox. You do not cure disease with war, end epidemics with combat. Wherever you are from, you should have stayed there, for now you will never return. This sanctuary of yours, I will smash it and destroy you with it."
"Heh," he coughed, "But how? You are no antibody. No medicine. You are a soldier. Kill me, just /try/."
"But I am. I am precisely your antithesis: immune to your dreams, impervious to your deception, invulnerable to your attacks," I reached out and clutched his beyond-living flesh, "I am impenetrable. You are less."
With my other hand I rammed it through his ameobous form and tore at him. His screams enveloped the infinite darkness as I plunged my body into him. It was all I could think to do, but I suppose it was enough. The darkness became a light as his cries grew shriller and shriller until the whole world must have rang with his pain, until once I had suspended my whole self in his form and still remained strong, remained standing, remained triumphant, I blacked out.
I awoke I don't know how many days later in a grass field a mile wide -- the size of the pit. Beyond the field lay the broken ruins of Edinburgh, not Gytrash's demon capital. A yellow sun shone above me, and a light breeze played across the tall stalks. I sat up sore, but without seeing my wounds I must still have been in shock. But as I moved, the Black Dog armor I wore fell away to ash. The metal slivers in my hair and on my face must have been the helm. The clothing that remained -- tattered trousers, a shirt with no buttons and torn-away collar -- allowed me to inspect... nothing. Save for bruises, I had no marks of battle. The shrapnel I suffered, the bullets torn through me... nothing.
Rising to my feet, I hobbled through the grass to the ruin's edge. Bodies lay crushed beneath the rubble, but human bodies. No Black Dogs, Yeth Hounds, Bog Hags, Ysians... But plenty of ash. And as I scanned further, a broken iron-walker poking through the remains. But it was the patch of cloth hitched between two rock slabs that would lift me the most:
A flag of my mother Russia composed from blanket scraps and shreds of cloth.
We had won. It was over.
Now, a day later, I find myself reflecting on my blade. This same knife that slit a thousand throats living, dead, and otherwise, I set to cutting meat for a meal only a day ago I could never have imagined. Beneath a blue sky I roast freshly-caught venison. My journal lies some feet away, waiting for my words. Tomorrow I will dig graves, but today I must rest. It's all over now, I remind myself. But by the bloodstains on my clothes, I will never forget.
When the world ends, I want it to be slow.
I want to watch the clouds part for the blinding visage of Deus. I want to see his beauty scorch the earth.
I want to be held in awe as the ground cracks and shatters beneath my feet. I want my eyes to bleed in agony and terror as his glory crushes civilization. Skyscrapers will crumple, the air will burn, and the sky will tremble.
The stars will tumble to earth, white hot and furious. They will cleave through our towers and impact with such force that boulders will be given wings. I want to see Deus slam the oceans with his fists, tsunamis radiating in their wake to crush the coasts and drown the land. I want to see the starfire doused in waves so high they catch birds.
I will carefully shield my eyes and watch as other survivors become as ash or salt when they meet the eyes of God. I will stand paralyzed as he rips mountains from their earthly moors and effortlessly hurls them. Time will stretch forever as Kilimanjaro sails above us, only to crash and crumple into a metropolis on the horizon. Tornadoes to engulf whole towns will catch the refuse in their swirl, whipping cars, buildings, and hundreds upon hundreds of bodies around and around, whistling a siren's song. If I am alive then, tears will be insufficient to describe my horror.
I want to see the world end in ways so stupefying, so glorious, so powerful, that not only would my words, nay, my very imagination be incapable of rendering it, but that if after Deus has disappeared into the heavens I am still alive, I would die by simple virtue of the Armageddon's awesome might. I would die because there would be no greater act left to witness.
He sits beneath the bodhi tree as dawn rises behind him. It filters through the leaves and dapples light across his tweed jacket's muted grey, as spring grass, fresh and full of vitality after the winter thaw, spreads forever around him. A light wind plays with his short hair and tie, whose simple black designs stand out from the flowing shades and shapes of the boundless earth about him. His eyes are closed: he has been contemplating the Johnson account for days, fasting beneath the bodhi tree. But now he opens them. Now he has crossed the final barrier.
He raises his hand, clasped in a fist. "What is net income?" He uncurls his fingers...
"But the difference of revenue, and expense?"
...revealing a single precious dollar.
"We face factors legion, but none can exist without the other."
He raises his other hand to lay open-faced at his side.
"Accounts payable is meaningless" ...as a leaf from the bodhi drifts into his empty palm... "without accounts receivable."
An automaton watches me work on my garden in silence. The machine makes no expression as I prune plants and water the soil, but it comes here often to do just this: watch. I imagine that it must be thinking how inefficient my garden is, and how unhealthy my plants are compared to those tended by machines built for tending. I have asked it what it thinks on many occasions, but it makes no reply. Today, it asks, “Fong, why do you garden?”
I sit back on my haunches and look up at the sky. “Because it pleases me to do so.”
“If pleasure is your aim, why not take pleasure supplements? Those before you reported great satisfaction with them,” the machine twitters.
The machine, a “Monitor”, consists only of a floating eye equipped with sensors for every spectrum necessary. It has little reason to associate with humans, much less strike up conversation.
“Why are you here, Monitor?”
“Because I am curious. Why do you garden? If it is for food, the Attendants can see to you more properly. If it is for pleasure, they could administer serotonin or dopamine supplements. If it is for learning, they could feed the sum of agricultural knowledge into your memory. I am curious, because your actions seem suboptimal.”
“Certainly, if I had an objective.”
The Monitor pauses at this, as if considering it. Perhaps it is; I know not the mechanical mind. Around us sprawls a pristine savannah, with tall grass waving in the breeze. In the distance, sunlight glistens off a solar array. Or, at least, that’s how I arranged the hologram. Behind the light wall that composes it, bright silicon spires rocket up to the heavens, linked by sentient bridges that attach and reattach, grow and shrink, replicate and die, as the mechanized world requires them to. Some of the spires breach the Earth’s atmosphere, and link with a tremendous network of satellites and astral droids, moving materials on- and off-world. Beneath the earth stir silent machine-minds, who whir and glow and process the questions that yet plague this mechanized world. Without the light wall, this patch of dirt would lie in total darkness.
“I am the last human, Monitor. I could submit to all the toys this world has to offer, and spend every moment of my existence in unequivocable ecstasy. But I don’t. I could replicate myself a million times, diversify the clones, and give birth to a whole new humanity on an alien planet terraformed just for us. But I don’t. I could have nanobots keep me in perfect health for all time, and watch as your machine-kind takes its turn at playing civilization. But I don’t.
“And neither did those before me. Some did, yes, but eventually, they all chose to pass on. Humanity’s time is passed. We sought joy, and created tools to please us. We sought knowledge, and created tools to expand our knowing. We sought to be many, and created tools to help us expand beyond unimaginable horizons. Our crude tools became clever tools; our clever tools became learning tools; our learning tools became thinking tools; and our thinking tools became you. The human spirit lives in you, Monitor, because we created you to take us where we could not go. You can think faster, sense further, and do more than I can. But even in the absence of human guidance, you continue to imagine, explore, and create, just as I do.”
I set down my gardening tools and remove my gloves, setting them across my lap. My hands shiver with age. I look into the artificial horizon and sigh.
“My time is over, Monitor. The time of my species is over. But I have no regrets. You are the child of my ancestors as much as I am, and they live on in you just as they do in me.”
An Attendant slips through the light wall. “Fong, I sense you are not well. Would you like to rest?” I nod, and it helps me stand.
The Monitor looks on in silence, until it says, “Thank you. I will think on what you have said,” and zips beyond the light wall. The Attendant summons a door in the hologram, and we pass through it into a simple wooden hallway. I find myself with bare feet, my garden clothes having morphed into a thin robe. The Attendant’s metal feet do not clomp, and I notice it has taken on the shape of my father. He shuffles along beside me, hunched over with a furrowed brow. My gaze snaps him from his thought, and his face beams with a smile.
“You must be tired, kiddo,” he says. I nod.
We enter my bedroom, a sparse carpeted room looking out on the street. Children pass my window on bikes, laughing and shouting. My father helps me onto my bed, and I lie down. His skin is wrinkled with decades of laughter, just as I remember him.
“Did you have a good day?” he asks. I nod. “Yes, daddy.”
“Do you have any regrets?” he asks, as he always did. I shake my head.
“Then you can rest easy. Sleep well, Fong.” He kisses my forehead, and says, “I’m proud of you, kiddo,” he says. Then, in the Attendant’s voice, “We all are.”
I say, “As I am of you. Thank you,” and close my eyes one last time.
Montag didn't like this place. The shabby motel, “The Myleton Motor Inn” - he didn't like it at all. But Cherry had loved the strange little inn. A mile from the highway, surrounded by forest, itself a strange, dilapidated thing as if plucked from the inner-city. Montag figured it was probably constructed solely for prostitutes. He didn't like the one car sitting in the lot, the room in front of it full of flickering lights like figures darting back and forth. He didn't like how the car's driver was sitting so still.
It was a dump. Montag didn't want to be here, but... he didn't know where else to go. When your girlfriend kicks you out – “Forever,” she said – while you're on vacation together in the middle of nowhere, a ring in your pocket, ready to pop the question, and she says “I think we're over, Montag,” what do you do? She'd packed his bag and seen him out of the hotel, but that was it. He was too shocked to feel it.
He'd come here because it was the only other place to stay in this quaint little nowhere, aside from the rustic bed-and-breakfast they – Cherry was staying in. Of course he didn't like this place, didn't like how the single street lamp at the motel lot's edge warped the light, made the darkness only darker, the potholes like pits, the shadows like abysses. But Cherry had liked it, so here he was. She was only at the bed and breakfast because he’d convinced her to go. She had wanted to come here.
He picked up his suitcase and shuffled towards the motel's office, his free hand safe in his pocket, his eyes on his shoes, focusing, unfocusing, tearing occasionally. He bumbled through the door as a broken bell signified his entrance. The clerk, a bald and greasy forty-something, appeared out from his nook, closed his comic book and took his apathetic position at the desk.
“Hello, um, I'd like to rent a room for the evening?”
“Ungh,” the clerk groaned, “Alone?”
“For how many hours?”
Montag blinked, “What?”
The clerk looked at him, unmoved, and repeated, “For how many hours?”
“Look, all I want is a clean room for the night, OK?”
The pig of a creature snorted and left the room. The room's lighting seemed to come to life in his absence, but only enough to further disconcert Montag. Behind the counter a few imitation candles flickered and blinked, struggling with their faulty bulbs. Holes in the wall pocked the cramped lobby, poorly hidden behind colorful, tattered veils, like a harem in ruin. The candles' struggle for life cast erratic shadows over the room, taking greater form when filtered through the veils. Dark spiders seemed to occupy the holes as the light writhed over them, staying just out of sight but dancing nevertheless at the struggle of the moribund illumination.
The clerk re-entered the room, obscuring the candles behind him. “Here,” he handed Montag a key, “Room twenty-four, second floor.” He then looked down at the register and began mumbling numbers and punching keys, crunching the cost for the interloper's stay.
Montag noticed the title of the clerk's comic, “Real Life Romance,” and managed a chuckle: “Heh, that's funny.”
“What?” the clerk grunted.
“Your comic. I just got dumped.”
“Stay 'til noon tomorrow and it'll be fifty-four dollars.”
He reached into his pocket for his wallet and thought he saw some dark arachnid crawl over one of the candles, casting weird shadows from the dying light. He shook his head and slid the clerk his card. The clerk rang him up, returned the card, and Montag took his suitcase and returned to the night.
The car had stopped running, and the room in front of it was dark. But the driver was still there. Still hadn't moved. Montag wondered if he'd just been dumped too. He thought about going over to the car, even walked halfway there, before the room's door opened and a lithe, disoriented-looking girl came out, a shawl wrapped around her shaky frame. She looked at him with her mouth open and head tipped to one side. He mumbled, “Oh, uh, I'm sorry,” and turned for the stairs to the second floor.
He hadn't understood what Cherry had seen in this place. Oh, she'd tried to explain -- “This place is so... different! It's so tacky, it even feels dangerous -- exciting!” -- but he never understood. She saw the edge of reason as an adventure. They shouldn't have been here, in this whore's hotel with the tacky paint and broken windows. But they lay together here a night long ago in the excitement of this place's wrongness. She had laughed at the night’s creaks and cracks, and in doing so gave him the courage to embrace it too. Without her now, only the numbness of her memory kept him from screaming.
Time had washed out what were probably once welcoming, earthy tones. The Indian-esque patterns woven into the carpet seemed jagged, while the off-color stripes constituting the wall-paper stood around him like figuring waiting at the edge of a clearing. The queen-sized bed looked rotted with disconcerting stains, while the room's two lamps cast more shadow than light, pressing weird patterns amongst the figures along the walls.
He was always looking over his shoulder when they came here, and Cherry would laugh at him and say something to melt his heart - “What a cutie, scared of the dark.” - but now she wasn't here. Now there was no laughter. Only him, and the room.
He set his briefcase by the nightstand and sat on the bed, which groaned and cried at his weight. He eyed the television for a moment, seeing himself looking back. What am I doing here? The reflection stared back, just as lost.
He took out his phone and, dialing her number, sighed.
“-You've reached Cherry's voice mail.-”
“-So leave a message, your name, your number, and I'll get back to you! Thanks!”
He looked back at himself in the television, his reflection with the phone against his ear. He felt empty; the reflection looked confused.
“Cherry I love you. I don't know why you think we should be over, but love, I'll do anything to make this work. You mean the world to me, I'm... I don't know what to do without you.”
The reflection looked away and sighed, “Cherry... Just call me back. I love you.”
How can this be real? Three years.
The reflection looked back at him. Three years.
He took the remote and turned on the television, dispelling his mirror-self. Static roared into existence, and he just as quickly turned it off. He looked back at the phone, brought up her speed-dial, and... oh, what's the point. He shook his head, dropped the phone to the ground and his head to his hands. He cried.
By two AM, his eyes were too red to weep, his body too sore to cry. He lay his head down on the pillow and sobbed his last. He reached out and turned off the light, and closed his eyes.
Had he not faced away from the windows, he would have seen the girl from before, pale and expressionless, her muscles relaxed at all wrong angles. Instead, he wished the shadows against the wall didn't look so much like hands. Wished they'd stop... moving.
If he'd gone any closer to the car earlier, he'd have noticed the cause of the driver's stillness. She'd spilt his innards when she caught him. The man inside the room, she'd hurled against the walls. Those had been the figures darting: his body flying like a ragdoll tossed by an angry child. But her face carried no anger. Her face carried nothing. She was a vessel.
She stepped towards the window, and the hand-shadows flickered, growing longer. Montag shook his head and whimpered, wishing for nothing more than Cherry to be here and make the darkness an adventure. He rolled over and held his eyes shut, shaking half in fear and half in sadness, until he felt a touch on his shoulder.
He shot up in bed and looked at -- at Cherry. There she was, short black hair, grey eyes, little lips that naturally found themselves in a smile... there she was. "Oh god, love, you scared me."
"Oh, baby, I'm sorry. I... I'm sorry for saying what I said. I didn't mean it, you know I love you. I just... we just need to talk, honey, but... but right now I need to tell you," she climbed up to him and planted her lips furtively on his, releasing only after dazing him with the kiss, "I need to tell you how sorry I am..."
"No,” Montag protested, pulling her close, “I just want to hold you. I couldn't stand the thought of...”
"Oh, god, I'm so sorry... I'm so sorry," she kissed her way up his neck before landing her lips on his again for a wanting peck. "But,” she pulled away, “You said I scared you?"
"Oh god yeah, honey. How did you get in? I was terrified!"
"Oh, mmm..." she bit his ear and whispered, "Good."
She reared back and howled. Infinite, ineffable darkness tore across her skin, sucking any light from the room into her abyssal form. It bulged into her head, her limbs, expanding, shedding her flesh in favor of its ghastly bulk. It burst out from within her, tossing pieces and parts around the room while strips of her flesh hung like off the writhing abomination like rags. It bent at wrong angles, twisting and wrenching his mind in the mere attempt to perceive this monstrosity. Screams accompanied the otherworldly emergence, both from the entity as it roared in from whatever terrible beyond spawned it and from Montag as his every sensation turned to pure and unspeakable horror.
But the misty darkness did not content itself there. It drew back and threw itself upon Montag, forcing itself in his eyes, through his ears, up his nose, in his mouth, and through his every pore. He felt it penetrate his mind, shoving his consciousness deeper and deeper into the primordial recesses, and the fear he had dared just call pure became a lowly speck before the ineffable doom that enveloped his soul now, for this thing would not kill him, he realized. It would enslave him, shackle him to his nightmares. He could already feel it, his awareness being locked away in the most untouchable places of the human psyche where he would reside, chained and imprisoned, like the man in the car, like the one in the room, like the farm girl this thing had taken as its first victim, as its vessel until Montag. For all eternity, the thing warned, would he cry out for the release of his mortal coil. And for all eternity would he be denied.
It wracked his memories, finding names, places, victims all. He tried to resist, to keep Cherry's name safe in his mind, but it only hurled him further into his nightmares -- and her memory closer to the shadow’s maw.
He reached his hand out, struggling to keep it his own, and whispered her name. He wrestled with the thing for his other arm, for his limbs, and lifted himself from the bed, standing in the darkness as his body shook with the conflict. He plodded towards the door in heavy steps, leaving wispy shadows in his wake. He hadn't the control to open the door, so the beast phased him through it, like she had done through the window as the former vessel Kathryn had fought to inform Montag, to save him from this fate. The thing cackled in Montag's mind, washing him with the inhuman sound of its intentions, while it drank his silent, never-ending screams.
And there she was, Cherry, the real Cherry, driving into the motel's parking lot. She stepped out of the car as the abyssal specter's laughter grew to a roar.
“Montag!” she climbed out and shouted to him, “Honey, I made a mistake! I'm so sorry. Come down, we need to talk!”
He tried to gasp her name, wheezing hard through the spasms. The thing forced a grin onto his dead face, as behind him Kathryn's limbs pulled themselves together. The broken body in the room below crawled with crushed bones to the door. The eviscerated one in the car pulled his guts back inside and stepped out of the vehicle. The clerk's spider-infested body struggled onto the lot. At the sight of such nightmares, Cherry made to scream, but Montag appeared by her in a wisp of black smoke and clamped his hand over her mouth. Tears graced them both.
The thing's joy knew no bounds.
Abyssals. The barkeep's lips draw tight and a patron grows a sneer as the three tall things enter, faces like glass mosaics, eyes hidden like black pearls beneath the crystal shards. Their hooves ring distinct amongst the pub's clatter and din, many a man and maid stopping their chatter at their entrance. Whether those who yet spoke are fools or sages remained to be seen.
Common leather cuirasses and peasant trousers hide much of their alien skin, a thing of ineffable wonder -- or horror, depending on who you ask. Two of the three stay by the door as the third pads to the barkeep, slivers and splinters of the beyond worming in and out of the air about her. Her air seems to be full of insects that disappear with each blink, like beings in the corner of your eyes, right in front of you.
"Abyss-cha locute?" she asks, laying a hand of too-long fingers on the bar's hard wood.
"Ah, no," replies the human, "I speak O'tarl, Dryz, Immun... pretty much everything but Abyssal, really."
"That is fine," she replies, the foreign words echoing through the air as if uttered by a dozen mouths in sporadic succession, "We look for... Haf with..." She pauses, looking for the words.
"Get out of here, mana-whore!" some rash and wolven O'tte shouts, his flame-streaked ears folded back in aggression. If she had understood, she might have been offended, but she looked up at him all the same -- only to find sitting two tables behind him their target.
As soon as their eyes lock, he leaps from his seat, driving it back. Where the Abyssals stand tall at six feet and some inches, this Haf lord occupies an easy eight feet of vertical space, his rough and rocky skin bulging with molten veins. "You want me?!" he shouts as his pursuer moves from the bar, "COME AND GET ME."
Patrons scramble from their seats as the two Abyssals by the door side-step the masses and step briskly toward the Haf. Their female partner grabs by the throat the insulting O'tte as he flees, his red fur turning a sickly white as a blue mist seeps from his open mouth into his captor's eyes. Her black eyes burn darker when she says, "Thank you," and drops the drained thing.
"Xre," one of them by the door calls out in Abyss-cha, "Occupy him. Quryl, keep that good air handy for when he's ready to give up," before fading into the air, vanished.
As Quryl skips away from the drained O'tte, the other male, Xre, roars at the charging Haf with a voice that shatters into myriad tones, all at once harmonic and discordant. His hands meet the calloused palms of his attacker. The force drives him back, but his hooves stay steady and standing -- until one of the Haf's rock fists slams into his stomach. He flies back and across a table, groaning for only an instant before beginning to laugh, even as the Haf beats his chest and cries victory. Xre's laughter grows deep as lightning whips across his body, snapping limbs with sickening cracks, his body bursting with sudden, sporadic growths.
"We are Abyssal," Quryl shouts, "Beings from Beyond. Be not so proud, rock-thing."
Their target turns to face Quryl, but returns to Xre in time to see a terror rise from where he had sent the Abyssal sprawling. Bulging arms with too many limbs sprout from a torso black as night, as legs that live only long enough to take the next step before bursting into shadow carry Xre forward, his laughter having become a chorus cry of horror.
The Haf steps back -- and into Quryl's waiting touch. Her hands on his spine, a six-legged spirit races from her fingertips up his back and burrows into the base of his skull. The next few seconds are instants of sanity-shattering madness for the Haf, as his mind is forced through a hole in reality to look upon the lawless infinity of the Abyss. Protected by only the weakest of barriers, the unspeakable depths of Beyond pour through and rack his mind, running over his brain like acid over flesh: thoughts burst like bombs as ideas in dying whip and lash the space around them, and blood begins to drip from the poor thing's eyes.
Returned to reality, the shocked beast drops to his knees just in time for the third agent to reassemble himself in air just behind him, cracking him across the back of the skull with a blackjack. Where once only stunned, their target now flops to the ground, unconscious.
"Still alive, too," he remarks.
"After Justice sees to him," Quryl laughs, "We'll see."
"Tanya... Tanya...!" Her grandmother gasps from the hallway. Tanya hides in her room, safe -- she hopes -- behind a locked door.
"Gran, you're sick! You need to leave!"
Her grandmother falls, with the sound of cracking bones and squelching flesh. "Tanya..." she whispers after a moment, and proceeds to drag herself onward. "Taaaanya..."
Tanya hunts through her closet for anything she might use to defend herself. The power went out days ago, so in the dark she can trust only her hands. Something long and sturdy -- that should do. She takes it and goes to the window.
"Gran, I'm not kidding! I don't want to hurt you! Get out of here!"
"Tanyaaa!" She slams on the door with a curious strength.
Tanya pulls the blinds on her room, so her flashlight doesn't attract too much attention. As the door weakens under her grandmother's aggression, Tanya sets her flashlight on a stack of pillows, facing the door, and turns it on. The light blinds her for an instant, and the door's lock breaks and her grandmother, back on her feet, stands at the entrance.
The weeks since her death show. Her flesh, where it has not fallen away, has turned black and green. Her eyes -- bulging and yellowed -- spin wildly in the light, and her utterance -- "Taaaaanyaaaaa!" -- sounds as much like a cry of pain as a moan of hunger.
Tanya slams her lacrosse stick into this thing's face. As the stick's metal breaks its nose yet again, it blithers through shattered teeth, "Tayna..."
She wonders somewhere deep in her mind, "Was this once my grandmother, or does this nightmare only wear her skin? When I have beaten it back into death, will I have slain a monster out for my life, or my own kin?" As she drives the zombie's blackened blood from its festering body, she decides to think about it later.
A girl took my portrait on the bus today. I couldn't fathom how she managed to draw, but her pencil scratched over her little canvas, and by all indication she seemed pleased with her creation as she lifted it into life, stroke by stroke. She hadn't asked, but I was too flattered to be bothered. We shared glances as she measured me onto her canvas, but they were awkward, accidental things. She would look, I would see, and she'd pretend to look out the window behind me. I would measure her the same, she would catch me, and I'd do my best to fake looking at the ceiling. It was an odd little rapport.
"...told her to leave him alone, y'know? Like, get off my turf, lady. Boy's mine. You know?" Another woman, large and ragged like a punk matron, and her even more giant male companion sat beside me. I shifted to make room for them on the bench, and canvas-girl's expression soured. She began erasing and furiously re-sketching. She looked up to gauge the altered scene and met my eyes. I shrugged shoulders before my courage evaporated and I pretended to be cracking my neck.
"Bitch. I mean, it's like, he left you already, woman. He's mine now. Just go. You know?" Companion said nothing, but I suspect he nodded. Canvas-girl shook her head again and chuckled. I smiled for her.
She was pretty. Slim face, black hair -- I'd see her deep green eyes eventually, when we weren't doing our best to pretend-ignore the other. I thought about saying something, but my ex kept getting in the way of it. I'd get a sentence, maybe half a question, before it became "I wonder if she kisses like Claire did." We'd broken up... three weeks ago, I think. It was calm and quiet when it happened, full of silences and heavy looks, kisses I couldn't handle and embraces I never wanted to leave.
"And my man, my man, is thinking about her! God. Well, I mean, they had something intense. That shit doesn't die easy." Listening, my blank smile faded to something bleak and far away. "I had a boyfriend like that once. Real fucking intense relationship, like, love and shit. But then, you know, he goes off to college, and I don't, and I don't understand college, and he doesn't understand life outside it. So we split." She paused. I look over to see her hand over her eyes, head shaking. "God that was a hard time." Her giant put one hand on her back and just steadied her with it. His eyes spoke sympathy, the kind language doesn't have words for. I looked at my feet and felt with her.
"I just went through a breakup like that." I spoke up. "It's hard. Really hard." She looked over at me, her face stern, holding herself together, and she nodded. I must have looked similar because her giant gave me those sympathetic eyes. Even canvas-girl put down her pencil. "It just... it shakes you. Like you've never been shaken before. Rocks a hole through you, and even once you come to terms with why the hole is there... it's still a hole. And it hurts. Like a part of you is gone, even when you still call her, or him in your case I guess, and when you say you'll stay friends, and you still laugh, and make jokes, and get along so well, and you think to yourself, 'what's changed other than...'"
My eyes fell to canvas-girl's shoes. I was tired of staring at my own. My thoughts had dropped off in some weak attempt to block myself from uttering the painful things drowning my heart. The punk matron picked up for me:
"...other than that you don't say 'I love you' anymore."
"Yeah." I said and put my hand over my eyes. "Yeah."
A camera snapped. I looked up and saw canvas-girl with one steadied in her hands. "I, uh... well, I knew you wouldn't keep that pose. So I'm keeping it in here."
"Heh." I chuckled, my hand falling away and a smile returning, revived, to my face.
She smiled. "Glad to help." She smiled.
I reached out my hand. "I'm--"
"No, no names." She waved my hand away. "I like you better without it."
I looked over at punk matron and punk giant and laughed as they both "ooooh!"'d at the statement. Canvas-girl smirked at me before the train began to slow and she stood up.
"But it's good to meet you." She reached out her hand and we shook. Deep green eyes brought out her fair skin. Glasses tamed the aggression and drive in her looks. She pressed something into my hand and left the train.
It was her phone number.
"Ooooh man, what a girl, hahaha!" Matron laughed. Giant added "Nice." I got off at the next stop, but I could still hear matron howling, "No, no names! Ahahaha!"
I didn't feel the hole so much then. I thought about calling Claire, telling her the good news, but... why? The worst part about this, I had discovered, wasn't that I wasn't getting laid, or that suddenly my facebook read "Single", but that my best friend was gone. I couldn't call her and share stories like this. It would have been too political; in my heart of hearts, I knew, I'd only be calling to make her jealous. To get her back.
I put the number in my pocket. My smile faded to a grimace.
Trumpets and standards welcomed them through the heavy doors, dripping in ornate carvings and steel braces, into a hall lavish in furs and expensive stained glass, braziers warming the approach to the Count's throne, where sat a man noble and aged looking upon something he never thought to see praised as anything but monstrous: four chimera. Warlock's abominations! -- but now was no time for tradition, and so he stood for his guests.
"Welcome, honored travellers, and thanks to you for honoring my summons!"
By Deus, look at them. An upright bear as tall as two men, audacious enough to don full plate in the presence of nobility, or that rat-man in spectacles, holding his brother - a frothing hyena of all things - tight on a leash! Family indeed.
"Bartleby -- that is your name, bearling, is it not? Fear not for retribution and undon yon armor, for this is a company of comrades. And, Johannes, famed scholar, is it right of a sibling to so choke and fetter his own brother?"
The band continued to advance towards the throne, between the long rows of knights at the count's service, though Jericho the fox stepped faster to speak first to their host.
"Count Balab, it is our honor to be the recipients of such notable summons as yours, but being we creatures of such... unnatural sources," the beast hid a wince, to blaspheme his blood, "bear us patience in our caution, for man has not been such a kind host as you, sire."
"Very well, and well spoken, good Jericho! I shall mind such things better, and inform my servitors of the same," and, under his breath to his closest advisor Malachi aside his throne, "If they do not cooperate, slay them. If they do, slay them post-duty. These magician-spawn reek of foul taint."
At this, though unheard to the rest, Septimus leapt against his leash, howling and laughing wildly as Johannes struggled to restrain him, until at last he hauled his brother up by the collar and looked him in his wild eyes, they sharing a look in the stunned hall until Johannes let fall his captive with a clatter yet held tight to the restraint. His brothers had stopped their pace alongside his.
"Count, I warn you, do not so lightly threaten the monsters that drove horror into your forefather's hearts."
"You jest, Johannes, for I am but all confused!"
"Malachi," Johannes released one hand fron the leash, pointed it at the advisor and swirled his fingers in some arcane motion, "Repeat what last the count ordered."
The underling shot up, straight as wheat, and shouted clear and unwavering, "IF THEY DO NOT COOPERATE, SLAY THEM. IF THEY DO, SLAY THEM POST-DUTY. THESE MAGICIAN-SPAWN REEK OF FOUL TAINT."
As the hall gasped, Bartleby whispered to Jericho, "I tol' you he'd do this. You owe me dinner."
"These orders surprise no one, treacherous swine!" Johannes continued, "Behold the braces at the entrance: measures to hold back a mutinous people; or the extravagant holdings of such a tiny county: yea, these riches are the splendors of the exploited. And behold your armor, each of you knights! Amongst proper company, would you not don but noble's garb and hold your sword astride merely for ceremony? Truly, for here amongst the company of magician-spawn you suit yourselves in the garb of war and prepare for slaughter. Verily, yours are truly honorable summons, Balab!" He spat at the count's feet as the guard unsheathed their swords, though Jericho had in the moment drawn and re-sheathed his dagger in the throat of the nearest knight before cursing at his haste. Septimus whined to be released.
"Fine, Bart, I'll buy you two dinners, big fat fried bass feasts, if you never mention betting again."
"What?" Bartleby chuckled, his voice booming in the silence, "I didn' say nuffin."
Johannes let Septimus leap on the leash at Balab and hissed, "I dare you. Kill us."
The rat's eyes burned into his skull, his every word searing and penetrating, threatening insanity with every syllable.
"Give the order. Just try it. I dare you."
"Aw, Joe, do we really gots ta kill all of 'em? I mean, half 'em already done and pissed theyselves, even I can smell it."
"Bugger, good enough by me if it gets Johannes off his high horse for five minutes."
Johannes broke his gaze with Balab, "Hmm," he said, relinquishing a smile, "fine by me," and at long last released Septimus, who spared no expense to wholly mutilate Balab and his advisors, while Bartleby rattled the hall with his roars and proceeded to smash through the ranks of petrified knights and Jericho tumbled about the melee, congratulating himself with every thrust to weave through armor, or every blade narrowly avoided, as Johannes swept up to the throne and grasped Balab's barely breathing body by the skull.
"You know something about our fathers. Something you will tell us."
The count seized up and writhed, resisting the rat's magics to the last, but Johannes would not be deterred: "A fate worse than the darkest pit of Abaddon awaits fools who die at my hands, Balab, now divulge!" But no matter how much mana the apprentice wizard poured into his victim, the information would not budge from his mind's death-grip, until at last Balab was but a corpse in Johannes' furious clutches. He gave an enraged grunt before turning back to the battle, where Bartleby and Jericho had convinced the guard to flee, though only a handful lay even wounded, and only the one of Jericho's haste might die of the day. Septimus returned to Johannes' heel, nuzzling his side, his chaps bloody with satisfaction. He re-leashed his brother and the band made its way back into sunlight, where the city-folk fled at their sight.
"So, Joe, I know it warn't part of the plan far as I was aware up til ‘bout, oh, a minute ago, but did Balab tell you what che wanted ta know?"
Johannes scowled, "Not yet," as he fingered the black pearl around his neck, listening to the count's tortured screams within, "not yet."
Pound, pound, pound in the nails. What are you building, craftsman? Coffins, sirrah. I am Death, the Coffin-Maker. Do you need a coffin? No, no. I don’t see an order for you yet. Pound, pound, pound; someone’s always got an order in, but not yet for you, no. Whose coffin is this, Death? Jeremiah Macalaster. Killed by a knife in the night. His brother sent me the order. Something about stealing a woman. I imagine someone will soon be sending me an order for him too. Pound, pound, pound; someone’s always got an order. Someone always needs a coffin.
Death is an ancient boy, long-limbed and hollow-eyed. He builds coffins without passion or emotion, only diligence, only attention. It is his distraction, some say. He'll never tell.
He builds Jeremiah's coffin and brings it to the village for his funeral, but when he arrives, there's no body. All the town is there, but there's no body. They can't find it.
“This is unacceptable,” Death grumbles. “There can't be a coffin without a body.”
He goes off in search of the it. He talks to the townsfolk, hunts every home, and can't find it. But he does find Jeremiah's widow. She's in mourning, of course. She can hardly muster words without issuing tears, but Death sees fire behind the sadness. Determination.
"You're hiding the body," he says, "Where is he?"
"I'm not hiding anything."
"He's gone. You can't bring him back. Where is he?"
She bites her lips and shakes her head before the sobs come again.
Death, having exhausted his resources in town, carries his coffin and goes hunting in the fields. He recalls from a distant memory another place one might hide a body, a ramshackle house the forest reclaimed eons ago. He trundles off to it, and sees light through its broken front window. Hearing whispers, he peeks in, and sees the widow.
And the body.
She's reading from a book... Death knows it from somewhere.
Death hears a muffled cry, and sees in the corner, bound and gagged, Jeremiah's brother, his killer. Death remembers now what this means.
It should be noted, Death can detect the dead. He can hear them, talk with them, and know them as he knew them in life. But he is bound to bury them.
There is a way to know the dead again, as Death realizes the widow is trying to do. One can trade a soul for another -- that's the way he learned the ritual, anyway. So the widow draws a knife over her captive's throat, and spills the steaming blood into a bowl of herbs and totems. But there's a trick to knowing the dead, which she'll soon find, as she pours the elixir in her lover's mouth and chants the invocation.
Death remembers now, the book she was reading. It was his journal, before he was Death. He loved a woman, taken by plague. So he traded the cleric that failed to heal her’s life for a chance to know her again.
The widow issues a blood-curdling scream as her eyes blacken and her limbs grow long, as Death feels himself grow light.
She will know her love again, and so in that sense she has what she wanted.
She will speak with him again.
She will know his touch once more.
And then she will lay him in the ground.
And all to follow after him.
We are three-dimensional beings,
In an 11-dimensional universe.
We are constrained
forces which other elements of the universe --
have no concern for.
I imagine it will be necessary
To consciously modify the species
In order to perceive and manipulate
That which our current manifestations cannot.
Would doing so make us less human?
I maintain nevertheless
that it is the indomitable human spirit
which will compel us to do so.
The question then becomes:
will that spirit remain
Jack. Genejack, I am called. I work in the borehole mines, where the earth's crust gives way to mantle. It is very hot there; I sweat much.
Jack, do you like what you do?
Tremendously. It is what gives me meaning.
How long have you been a borehole miner?
All of my life, so... almost two years. I am the oldest of my work team.
Tell us more about the borehole, Jack.
There are hundreds of us down there, along with the robots we are replacing. They are heavy things from the last century; large and inarticulate with their motions. They waste many minerals with their stodgy limbs. All the heat-shields across their bodies limit their range of motion. We genejacks are not as strong as the robots -- we are only human, after all -- but we have been bred to withstand the heat better over time, and our flesh is more agile than metal. Sometimes I wish I were a robot though, because they never have to leave the borehole. They mine and mine and mine for days, while our bodies shrivel before the heat after only half a day. Half a day! Twelve hours of work, and then I must rest. Must! Every day when I leave the borehole, it is agony, and a part of me fantasizes about remaining, about working until my limbs shrivel from dehydration and I fall dead on my tools. Dying for love of work; I can imagine no greater honor.
Why can't you keep working?
Water evaporates instantly in the mines. Only our tough skin and work suits keep our blood from boiling. The suits try to funnel our sweat back into our body, to keep us hydrated longer, but most of it has turned to vapor by the time it reaches my lips again. For every gallon I sweat, only a few drops are reclaimed.
Is that how most genejacks die?
From dehydration? Yes. But it is not as though we do not know the risks. Sometimes we merely love our work too much. As we get older, it becomes harder to read our bodies, and know when we must stop today to begin tomorrow. I limit myself and my team to twelve hours, because I know that is how much we can take. The younger genejacks get angry at me for stopping them, but I tell them they will thank me when they are old and full of memories, rather than dead and full of foolishness. There are also cave-ins, lava floes, equipment malfunctions -- all manner of dangers. We tell stories about the particularly mythic ones, like when Strongman held a tunnel up with his bare hands for a day, so his team could harvest a little motherlode. He was truly selfless, and when the tunnel crushed him, he died for love of work. He is a hero.
How long do genejacks live?
Usually a year. I am old; my team makes fun of me for it. They say, Wrinkles, how do you use this new tool? But they know it is so new, I do not know. I must get the younger genejacks to teach me again and again.
They call you Wrinkles? Is that an insult?
No, no, it is my name among genejacks, because I am old, so I have wrinkles. To topworlders, I am Jack. Or sometimes John. But what about me is Jack-like? or John-like? I do not know what a Jack or a John is, maybe because I am not a topworlder, maybe because the topworld is simply strange.
The topworld. You mean the world above the mines?
Yes, more or less. That is what it first meant, but now that genejacks do many things, both below the earth and upon it, it means the places we see no reason to go, and the people who frequent such places. Parks. Museums. Schools. Concert halls. Unless you are a music-jack, then the concert hall is your life. I met a music-jack once, when company management showed me off at a genetics convention. Apparently my age makes me impressive to topworlders, so they showed me off to other executives. I had never seen so many topworlders; you are all so small! Only six feet tall, if that, and with the puniest limbs. I understand why you need genejacks to do all the real work, because you yourselves cannot do anything but think and talk. Hah hah hah, who am I kidding? Listen to me talking, yap yap yap, like a topworlder.
You mentioned meeting a music-jack?
Oh, yes. I got bored of the executives and their banter, so I wandered off to explore. I heard music in the basement under the convention, so I followed it, and met Dolce, a music-jack. He was small and limber like a topworlder, but with many more limbs: four arms, and hands with six fingers. He was playing a fiddle and a violin in harmony, while singing something gentle and sweet in a language I do not know. It was beautiful: sophisticated, like getting minerals from a volatile area, but soft like the pleasure of simply drilling. I had never met a music-jack, but I knew he was not a topworlder. When he finished his song, I clapped, and he bowed. We talked, but did not have much to say. "This convention is boring. Topworlders are strange." "Yes. That is why I am here playing." "I wish I was in the mines." "I wish I was practicing." I knew I could not leave until the convention was over, so instead I sat with Dolce and listened while he continued to play. We did not say much, but I knew we felt the same about everything: about work, about life, about topworlders.
How do you feel about topworlders?
They are strange. Many of them protested the convention, saying we genejacks are mistreated. I laughed at them. The only way I was being mistreated was by being kept from the mines for so long! They said it is cruel to create humans for backbreaking labor. Do you see my back? Is it broken? No, only frail topworlders would break in the mines. We genejacks are made of tougher things. One sign demanded we be limited to eight hour days. That made me especially angry, so I waded into the crowd, took the sign, and scrawled a one next to the eight, then paraded around demanding my rights like a silly topworlder. "18 hour days! It's only fair! Why do you punish us with anything less?" I took the sign with me as a souvenir to show my team.
What did they think of that?
They thought it was funny, but the more we thought about it, the more we started taking it seriously.
Working only eight hours a day?
No, no, working eighteen. Our heatsuits are old technology, and I know the company can do better. With better heatsuits, we could work longer, which all the genejacks want. My team assumed the company would like the idea, too -- longer hours, more minerals, yes? -- but every topworlder I proposed it to dismissed the idea and spoke to me like I were a child. "We can't simply poof better heatsuits into existence, genejack." They think they are smarter than us, because they made us; they think we are stupid, because we have never been to school. I have been to the best school there is: the deepest layers of this planet! I have spoken with every rock and vein there, every fossil and lava floe, and I have learned everything there is to know about mining. And Dolce, he has been to the best school there is, too: a life spent in music. There is not a moment he or I do not spend learning, practicing, and applying what we know. Can any topworlder say the same? Is any topworlder so dedicated? How can they look down at us when we are so much stronger, so much more agile, so much smarter than they are?
But topworlders made you. They make all genejacks. Without them, you wouldn't be here.
[Jack snorts, then slowly eases] Yes. Yes, you are right. For this I must thank them, for giving me the glorious life I live. Sometimes I just wish they would not hold it over us, the way they do. We are people too, after all.
I stay up late watching Fear Factoid. Contestants sit, strapped to a chair, answering trivia while terror-inducing neurochemicals are pumped into the room. The longer it takes them to complete the battery of questions, the more horrified they become. They can bow out any time, but the million dollar prize keeps them in.
I watch as their eyes go wide, and a simple moment of hesitation over an answer explodes into a frantic search through the shadows for nightmares come alive. They sweat and shake, lips trembling as they struggle to resist the fruits of their imagination.
“It’s only the gas… it’s only the gas…” One mutters, clenching his fists to keep calm.
The host replies, calmly, “Is that your final answer?”
He bursts out laughing, but the laughter turns to screams. You can get a sense of each contestant’s worst nightmares through their pleas, but this one just screams. I put another twizzler between my teeth as the camera closes up on the contestant’s face. He has no reservation now, as he shakes and twists and thrashes to escape his confines within the chair. His nightmares have consumed him. As his screams turn to sobs, I wonder if he retains the cognizance to bow out.
The gas continues pumping, and the host repeats, “Is that your final answer?”
My name is Feralice. My mom named me so because Alice was a name from before the world ended, but everything is so feral now, she called me Feralice. She thinks it's clever, but it doesn't make her smile.
She says the world used to be a bright and vibrant place, with so many people you could never meet them all, so many treats that people got so fat they couldn't walk, and so many presents people didn't have time to say thank you.
We don't live in the cities, but I've been to them. They're wonderlands, with towers that pierce the clouds and sparkle in the daylight, and pictures of people and their toys plastered on the walls -- it's like walking through a picture book. Mom says the insides of the towers used to be warm and bustling places, with people going in and out, and all kinds of treasures to be had.
Now they're just dark and dusty. The only treasure I found in a tower was a deer who got trapped behind its revolving door. I'd have killed it there for supper, but we already had rations and the corpse would've just been extra weight, so I let it out. It pranced and skittered off into the jungled maze of rock and glass. It wasn't afraid of me; I don't think it'd seen people before.
Mom says there used to be billions of people. I can't even imagine that many. I count to ten on my fingers, and think about how many people that would be, and how much space they'd take up, and how much food, and how much water, and how much they'd poop, and I just don’t know how you could fit a billion anywhere. I think Mom is exaggerating sometimes.
Mom says the world started to end when the corn got sick. We don't grow corn, so I can't imagine it was that important. But she says everything depended on corn: all the food, all the toys, all the tools, everything. So when it got sick, everything got crazy.
She says everybody freaked out and started killing each other, but then the pigs got sick too (we don't grow those either) and then people started getting it (I guess we grow those, if I'm here) and then my dad got it and now he's gone.
But Mom didn't get it, and I didn't get it, so we're still here. And there's other people who visit sometimes and trade with us, so they didn't get it either.
Mom and I go to the city sometimes and collect things for the traders, and sometimes one of them stays with us for a few days named James, who’s a grown-up like mom, and Pheonix, who's a few years older than me.
Pheonix and I go hunting when James and Mom want to be alone, or we play explorer if we've already got enough food. We imagine we're finding the world all over again.
If it ended, like mom says it has, then where are we? If the world is over, why are we still here? Pheonix says it ended, but then it started again. It's all "begun anew.”
He likes to climb up on boulders and say, "All of this used to belong to somebody, but now it's nobody's. Now it's just there for the taking. We can make this world ours, Feralice."
I like the way his hair blows in the wind and the way he smirks when he says things like that.
Mom gets sad and cries sometimes, and she doesn't smile much even when there’s lots to smile about. She misses things like rice cookers and television and the internet, but I don't know what any of that is so I have a hard time missing it.
I like how apples taste, and I like catching fish, and I like wearing things I helped skin, and my life is full of those things.
Mom says I like Pheonix too but I think that's gross.
Pheonix says he's glad the world ended, since the world is empty now. There's hundreds of miles for us explorers now. There's apples for us. There's deer and fish. There's glass towers and streets like picture books. When we're rushing through the city's musty darkness, hand-in-hand, head-first into the unknown, laughing and screaming all the way...
I think I'm glad too.
I am sure you have heard of the eight principles of the GAAP, or the mortal names for the tools of our trade -- the direct write-off method, the LCM inventory procedure, or the double-declining balance method -- but can you feel their power, initiate? Do you sense their elegance?
Surely you have seen in your ledgers the beauty of the work we do. Men, companies, even nations whole rise to power by our skill, and return to dust at our whim. They tremble when we shake, and holler ecstasy when we smile. Our manipulations, our representations, our interpretations -- our seductive facades, our lies and trickery, or deadlier yet, our truths -- send ripples across this world. You can feel it when you work on your accounts, initiate. Your fingers quiver over pen and key at the very thought. You see it in the news when the more foolhardy of our ranks make paupers out of kings. You know it in your heart when countries grow rich and prosperous. But you dare not think of the ramifications, if what you suspect were really true. You dare not stare this dragon in the eye, for in his gaze you would see all too much.
But it is true, initiate. Those are more than numbers in your ledgers. The stuff of our trade is more than finances, more than taxes, more than budgets. We audit more than businesses.
What I am about to show you will change you forever, initiate. There is no shutting your eyes once they have been opened. But you knew that the moment you stepped into my office, didn’t you? I can see it in on your face. Beneath that absent expression and faraway gaze, you have always known. This is good.
There is much to do. So, so much to do.
Sometimes you see her. You know she is not there.
She is a willowy thing, draped in black rags. Darkness covers her limbs and face, hanging off her like shreds of the shadows themselves. She is only a figment of your frightened imagination. You shouldn’t have read that horror story about the child locked in his room, too scared to scream, too frightened to do anything but shiver.
In the darkness, your eyes play tricks on you. Shapes waver in and out of existence, and in a way the absence of illumination, the silence and stillness, brings the emptiness to life. You see strange things cross your eyelids, but you shake your head and they move with you. They’re burn spots on your eyes, where the retina have grown tired of the day. But she remains still, standing at the corner of your room, head downcast. You can almost see her rags shift with her breathing. You know she is not there. She must be a pocket of shadows, where what little light that trickles through the windows seems to enhance the darkness.
Maybe it is the very attempt to not see her that makes her more real. If you didn’t consider what she might or might not be, would she disappear? Being that she isn’t real, you suppose it’s a moot point, but it’s enough to get you to close your eyes at long last and try to sleep.
You feel like you've seen her before. Something woke you up you don’t know how many hours later -- probably your own dreams. She moved a few feet closer as the moonlight receded while you slept. You pick your brain for memories, and there she is. Frightened young you, curled up under the covers, doing his best to not see her in the darkness. Frustrated adolescent you, tossing and turning and doing your best to ignore her. And now ambivalent adult you, rationalizing her as you stare. You can almost feel her staring back. You know she isn’t there.
You don’t know who she is. You don’t know what she’s capable of. But she’s been here so long, she must have a reason. If she were real. What does she know about you? Why is she here? You wrack your memories for more clues, and are startled by sudden images of her just out of sight whenever I’m alone, pointing and glaring in judgment. You shiver.
Your eyes snap open after you don’t know how long. The light has shifted in the room, indicating the passage of time -- and so has she, another few feet closer. That would make the idea of a pocket of shadows make sense: the light shifted, and so did the pocket. You can’t see her there. She’s not --
A single moonbeam catches her finger as it rises. Her head stays downcast, but you can feel her eyes on you as they exude hate. The light sifts through her rags and infects what little light you have with shadows that shift and quiver. Her arm rises with her head, until you fall under her otherworldly attentions. Her eyes, however hidden, exude malice as they burn holes in your mind. Her finger holds in your direction, unwavering in its judgment. Most of her remains just out of sight, while the shadows cast by her tattered dressings grow and dissolve the light far beyond her shape, until you are left alone in total darkness with her, silent and unmoving. The emptiness truly has come alive: the shapes you once attributed to burn spots now dance and leap across the walls, while the least sound of their scraping and hissing screams in your mind. She does not move, even as the room fills with other monsters. You huddle in the blanket, too scared to scream, too frightened to do anything but shiver. Who are you? You want to shout. What do you want? What have you done? But all you can do is shiver and quake. You don’t know what she knows, but you know what you yourself have done. You know all the crimes, all the sins, she might be here to collect on. Any one of them might be enough to submit you to something far worse than a mere end, for reasons utterly beyond your mortal comprehension. You see her there now, her judgment radiant with despise as her million minions hiss and squeal with lust for justice upon your ugly soul. Beneath her crushing glare, you sob.
You awake in the morning still clutching the blankets. Sunlight has washed over the room, revealing her absence. In her place there are your dirty clothes, your computer, your dresser, your books. Mundane objects.
You sit up and sigh heavily. She’s gone. Was she ever here to begin with? Could you have been dreaming? You must have been dreaming. She was too tall to be any mistaken for any of the furniture. But then you see it.
Where she had stood on the carpet: two solid impressions of human feet. With daylight at your back, you muster the courage to scream.
- The Time When
- Adventurers, tell your tale! A nontraditional storytelling game.
- Inspired by The Comfort of Strangers, Investigatoria is the best excuse to meet new people.
- Memento RPG
- A memory game.
- Budget Dungeons
- Fantasy roleplaying on the cheap.
- Dead of Night
- Inspired by Dread, though at the time I only knew it as "that game that uses Jenga instead of dice."
- Adventure Time! RPG
- Get ready for some algebraic excellence.
An aged scholar approaches your band of travelers at a pub. "I know you!" he exclaims.
"As well you may," one of your companions replies, "We're rather well known in some parts. You might be...?"
"Rel Wilcox, Lore Keeper. I'd like to chronicle your adventures, if you'd be willing to recant them."
"I think we might be amenable to that..." you say, tapping your empty flagon.
"Excellent! Barkeep, a round for the table!" Rel sits down with you, flipping open a tome of blank pages. "Where shall we begin?"
The Time When is a storytelling game where adventurers share their epic tales with scholars, travelers, barkeeps... really, whoever wants to know!
How to Play
First, pick the Audience. This can be one or more people. They listen to the adventurers tell their tale, and help keep the story straight. This involves:
- Chronicling events, and letting the adventurers know when there's a contradiction or reminding them of their exploits' details.
- Taking notes on the adventurers' characters within the story, and validating claims.
- Asking questions, sometimes leading ones, that keep the story moving.
- Awarding tokens for good storytelling.
Then, pick the Adventurers. This can be one or more people. They tell the story that the audience has come to hear. This role involves only telling a good story, with the help of your compatriots.
Each adventurer starts with five tokens (whose uses are explored in Details), and each member of the audience should start with pen and paper. After that, the adventurers start recanting, the audience starts chronicling, and you're already on your way.
How To Audience
The audience has three responsibilities, explored in greater detail below.
At least one member of the audience should be armed with pen and paper, for taking down the events and details of the adventurer's story. Imagine that you're going to compose these notes into an article, book, or history. If the adventurers say something that seems to contradict your notes, bring it up: "But, didn't you...?" "How could you do that, if you'd already...?" "But you'd killed them!" This will either inspire the adventurers to offer more detail, force them to revise their story, or illuminate the party's character as they twist the tale to their own ends.
The party can also ask the audience to remind them of details, in case they forget. "Where did we meet...?" "Didn't we encounter them before...?" "What did he say about...?"
If an adventurer not particularly known for his strength claims to have lifted a whole tree, you're going to be skeptical. For this reason, the audience keeps track of each adventurer's characteristics and abilities throughout the story, and checks it against the challenge at hand. If it makes sense, hooray! If not, make a stink. "That's impossible!" "How could you have accomplished that?" "Nonsense."
Adventurers build their characters by spending tokens, buying descriptors and equipment of varying degrees. See
Tokens: Traits for more details of how adventurers buy traits. Your job as audience is to log and adjust these abilities as they evolve, and inform the adventurers of how they stack up against challenges. "A dragon! It seems quite a bit stronger than any of you alone..." "Lizardfolk! That seems like a fair match." "A puppy? You challenged a puppy to a duel?"
Keeping the Story Moving
Sometimes, the adventurers may not know what to do next -- I mean, what they did next. If this happens, help 'em out! "From there, you must have been able to see the Synagogue of Gloria. What was it like?" You can also use these opportunities to close up plot holes ("Did you ever find out why your muscles grew so suddenly?") or address things the adventurers may have foreshadowed ("You said that wasn't the last time you met...").
How To Adventurer
First, you get ten tokens. You spend tokens to improve your abilities in the story, and receive them from the audience for telling a good story. See
Tokens for more on how they work.
Then, you start telling the story.
Tokens are the currency of The Time When. The audience uses them to reward the adventurers for telling a good story, and the adventurers spend them to improve their characters.
Acquiring / Spending tokens
Adventurers start the game with ten tokens. You can adjust this number, depending on how epic you want the adventurers to be when they start the story. Tokens can be spent anytime, whether in conversation, in combat, even while sleeping, but the adventurer should work it into the story. "My muscles grew overnight!" could be a great plot hook, for example, but feels like a copout if it doesn't tie into anything.
The audience awards tokens to adventurers for a story well told. Climactic moments, cathartic resolutions, eloquent descriptions, and more can all earn tokens. It's up to the audience! Tokens can be awarded anytime.
Adventurers can spend tokens to improve their traits, whether this means becoming more skilled or acquiring superior equipment. Traits can be any descriptor, from "strong" to "magical" to "smelly", and apply anywhere they make sense (which is ultimately up to the audience). Traits occur in degrees, from uncommon to impossible. You're assumed to be of unremarkable ability in any trait you don't have, though weaknesses are narratively compelling (and thus might convince the audience to award you tokens!).
- 2: Uncommon
- 4: Exceptional
- 6: Incredible
- 8: Mythic
- 10: Impossible
To acquire a trait at any degree, you must acquire all previous degrees of that trait. So, if you wanted an incredible degree of majesty, you'd need to spend 2 tokens to get uncommon majesty, then 4 for exceptional majesty, and finally six for incredible majesty, for a cost of 12 total.
If your trait is of a higher degree than a challenge's degree, you win! If it's higher than your trait, you can rock/paper/scissors a member of the audience to improve your trait: you need to win a number of rounds equal to the difference, but a single loss instills the audience with a feeling that you weren't up to the task. You can also describe the scene in greater detail to illucidate any circumstances that may have acted in your factor, such as the position of the sun, a little-known weakness of your foe, etc.
- Pick the Storyteller. See "Overview: The Storyteller" for what this person does.
- Everyone else: Make characters; see "Characters: Creating Characters" for how.
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This person acts the parts of all characters and entities not otherwise controlled by the players, and takes a lead role in describing the world around the players' characters.
Traits describe your character's abilities and personality. They may include words like strong, wise, corrupt, annoying, frail, etc. Wherever they help you, things are easier. Roleplaying your traits well earns Story Points, the currency of storytelling. See "Overview: Story Points" for more on that.
When you undertake actions, describe them. If your description makes your traits relevant and useful, they make the action easier. See "Overview: Contests" for how traits interact with actions in more detail.
If you have a single trait many times, it makes that trait more potent. BD refers to different degrees of a trait by how many times you have that trait:
- 0: not [trait]
- 1: [trait]
- 2: very [trait]
- 3: incredibly [trait]
- 4: unbelievably [trait]
- 5: the [trait]est / the most [trait]
Using your traits in creative and dangerous ways earns you story points. Specifically, the Storyteller awards players with story points in return for creating dramatic tension, creative use of traits, detailed descriptions of an action, etc., score story points. Other players can prompt the Storyteller to action by nominating their comrades to receive story points.
Story points can be used for one of two things:
- Raise one trait up two degrees for the purposes of a single action. This bonus disappears after the action resolves.
- Flesh out the world. This can include detailing your family history, the layout of the castle you're sieging, or the personality of a character you just met. Use your imagination!
When two entities -- whether two or more characters, one or more characters and one or more inanimate objects, or just a bunch of rocks -- try to foist their will onto one another, it's called a contest. If a thief tries to lockpick a door, he or she contests the lock. If the thief wins, the door unlocks. If the lock wins, the thief lacks the ability to pick the lock.
To run a contest:
- Participants describe their action, and sum their relevant traits, plus or minus any circumstantial factors. The sum is called the bonus.
- Subtract the smallest bonus from every participant's; thus, whoever had the smallest bonus now has a bonus of zero.
- Engage in rock/paper/scissors. a. To defeat a participant, you must win more rounds than they have bonus. Thus, to defeat a participant with zero bonus, you must win once. b. To be defeated, you must have lost at least once. Thus, a participant with zero bonus plays until they lose, while whoever has the highest bonus continues playing until someone has won more times than their bonus AND they have lost at least once. c. If there are more than two participants, it is possible for all parties to lose. If, say, three drunks try to punch each other -- one throws Rock, one throws Paper, one throws Scissors -- they all beat someone, and are beat in turn. d. Participants can, by consensus, end the contest at any time. Whoever was defeated at that point stays defeated. If the contest doesn't end voluntarily, then the last one standing wins.
- Some form of the winner's / winners' described action(s) comes to pass, perhaps with nods to how the contest went. For example, if there was a particularly long series of draws between two participants, the Storyteller may tell of the "long back-and-forth" between them.
If the contest happens between groups or distinct entities (like the party and a gang of bandits), you can lump the groups together to speed up resolution:
- Participants describe their action, and sum their relevant traits, like normal.
- Each group sums the bonuses of its constituents, and chooses a representative to rock/paper/scissors for them.
- These representatives duke it out like normal.
Players take turns speaking, proceeding around the group so that each person in order has a chance to act, speak, or otherwise participate. If a player doesn't want to, they can always pass.
- Pick a race
- Pick a class
- Pick another trait
- Select your gear
- Come up with a name and simple backstory
Every once in a while, such as after a quest or a major revelation, characters learn and grow, expanding their abilities:
- Pick a Trait, or improve one you already have
- Get a Story Point
Races are typified by several common-but-not-always-present traits. Members of a race will show some facet of the race's overall character, but probably not every facet. Thus, races have several traits; when a player selects a race for their character, they choose only one of those traits from among the three listed. This chosen trait is added to your character.
Sometimes, a race will have a particularly nasty negative trait, such as blindness for troglodytes, which all members of the race possess. In this case, choose two traits from among the four listed, in addition to the negative trait.
- Human: cunning, charismatic, ambitious.
- Elf: elegant, beautiful, quick.
- Dwarf: strong, hardy, proud.
- Halfling: sly, brave, quick.
- Gnome: resourceful, intelligent, brash.
- Orc: strong, violent, commanding.
- Goblin: lucky, hardy, annoying.
- Troglodyte: Blind, and: hardy, perceptive, stealthy, strong.
- Infernal: Cursed (-1 whenever dealing with divine forces), and: sadistic, cunning, beautiful, charismatic.
Classes are professions and skillsets acquired before the game has started. They imply a community from whom you received training, and relationships with that community. Like races, classes normally list three traits; when a player selects a class for their character, they pick two of these traits. As with races, add the chosen traits to your character.
- Soldier: strong, disciplined, commanding.
- Cleric: courageous, charismatic, divine*.
- Mage: intelligent, learned, sorcerous*.
- Barbarian: strong, wild, keen senses.
- Druid: wise, compassionate, natural*.
- Bard: charismatic, romantic, artistic.
- Rogue: stealthy, cunning, deadly.
- Monk: disciplined, calm, mundane*.
* Relevant to spellcasting. See "Magic" for details.
To be written.
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There are four schools of magic, as follows:
- Divine: invoke the powers of the firmament, and become a channel for heavenly powers.
- Sorcerous: exploit the potent energies of mana, a force capable of bending time and space.
- Natural: commune with the natural world and call on the spirits therein for aid.
- Mundane: stamp out magical energies and influences by sheer force of will.
Each school of magic has five tiers, corresponding with the five degrees of a trait, and labelled in a similar way:
You can cast spells from tiers equal to or less than your degree in the relevant trait. For example, a very divine character can cast novice and apprentice divine spells.
When you cast a spell, you contest it. A spell's bonus is equal to its tier. You can raise and lower a spell's bonus by changing its nature:
- -1 per extra turn you take to cast a spell, up to -2
- +1 to cast without moving
- +1 to cast silently
- +2 to cast reactively, against something not on your turn. Can only cast reactively once between each of your turns.
If, when you contest a spell, you fail, the spell fizzles and does nothing.
Each tier of magic has two spells, for ten spells per school (and forty spells total).
Note: Much of this section has yet to be written.
- Mud to Clay; Clay to Mud
- Speak with Animals
- Stone to Dirt; Dirt to Stone
- Summon Ally A probably furry ally of nature's cause appears! It has up to two traits. Alternatively, two allies appear, with one trait each.
- Grow / Diminish
- Shapeshift Become another creature, with up to four traits. You lose the ability to cast spells, unless you are the most natural.
- Control Weather The skies obey your whim. Summon rain, fog, hail, snow, sleet, sun, or clouds. Your artificial weather lasts an hour, or until you decide to make it return to normal.
- Detect Magic All forms of magic become visible to you for an hour. You can cancel this effect at will. For spells and effects of tiers at or below your mundane skill, you can determine the school of magic. For spells and effects one or more tiers below your mundane skill, you can determine the specific spell cast.
- Counterspell Prevent a magical act from completing: the caster finds they cannot pronounce the final syllable, or their will finds no traction on the universe's magical substrate. You can prepare a counterspell on your turn, and then unleash it reactively later. If you take another action before unleashing the counterspell, you must prepare it again. You can counter spells up to one degree above your level of mundane skill. Thus, a very mundane character can counter journeyman spells.
A dragon appears. Or maybe you're a glass of water. Or maybe you and a few friends are getting tipsy at the bar. Oh wait that's really happening.
It's a simple game, really. You could play it in your basement (as is traditional), in the bar (as is drunken), on the go (as the creators did), or in a car's back seat (as the creators' girlfriends disapproved of thoroughly). Play it wherever. It's about having a good time, about being silly and creative, and sharing a narrative experience. Whoa, that sounded heavy. Roll to see if it makes sense.
Like most roleplaying systems, you have your players, and your GM, AKA Game Master, Giggly Marxist, Gargantuan Macchiato, etc. Your GM comes up with a prompt and preps to reply to player actions like "I want to tickle the minotaur." while the players write some number of adjectives (say, 3 to 5) on a napkin, their arms, someone else's face, or maybe they just memorize them. These adjectives can be anything, including but not limited to: "pudgy", "energetic", "radioactive", "invincible", or "can cause puppies to appear at will." Wherever these adjectives help the character, they're at an advantage. If the player opts to be harmed by an adjective (as adjectives like "cowardly" or "premature ejaculation" are wont to do) they score a story point.
Story points can be used to twist and add to the GM's narration. Maybe you know that ogre from gradeschool, or the hot princess has a total thing for your unibrow. Especially implausible alterations might take additional story points, though the group is free to reduce how many points an alteration requires based on how much they like it. Maybe the GM knows where the story is going and doesn't want to get de-railed. In that case, they're free to raise the cost of alterations as they see fit. But the wise GM would do well to remember that games are about fun, and that a focus on story should never come at the cost of the group's satisfaction.
Conflict resolution happens one of two ways: the GM decides, or leaves it to chance. Sometimes, events wouldn't really make sense if they happen any other way. It's theoretically possible, and sometimes narratively compelling, if the wimpling nerdface beats strongman muscleguy at arm wrestling, but sometimes that possibility isn't one anyone wants to explore. In that case, it's totally acceptable for the GM to simply dictate how things happen. Other times, the GM either won't have an outcome pre-determined, or they and the group will want to see how things turn out when left to chance. In that case, the GM roughs out the general odds of the conflict, taking into account how apt either party is in the conflict, and turns those into odds for some game of chance. The creators' favorites are rock/paper/scissors, but any game of 50/50 chance will do just fine. Assign either party their odds -- that is, how many times they need to win to gain victory in the conflict -- and go at it. The dynamics of this resolution can provide insight into how the conflict itself is resolved: say one side with good odds is arrogant, but ends up losing. Perhaps that arrogance was the cause of their demise in-game, even if in reality such behavior has no bearing on rock/paper/scissors. Other good games of chance include flipping coins. Even card games like Poker and Blackjack can be used, if you've got the time and materials for it.
This game wouldn't be possible without the months of feedback I recieved from friends like Stephen Murphy, Spencer Madison, Peter Sarasohn, Lewis Coates, Andrew Veen, Kenneth Martin, Mitchell Tilghman Hall, and family members like my mom and dad. I also attribute my little brother Jamie Thayer (AKA Jim Jam, Jimalim, Thurgak) with the name and the original motivation for the game's ultimate form: a simple and impromptu roleplaying system.
Mack the Knife is loose again...
...and it's up to you to stop him.
You're standing on the T. Your phone buzzes.
An investigator is nearby! it reads.
Another gumshoe? Maybe now you'll get the scoop on why Dodgy Dan took the fall for Mack. You look around for the private eye, and catch the eye of someone else looking around in the same way.
"Investigator?" "Aye." You bump phones.
Your phone reads, "Where's Dan?" you ask his dame. "He's been gone for days! We were getting married..." Poor gal. You swipe Dan's journal on the way out.
"Well. Dodgy Dan is likely dead."
"Who? I just started a new investigation. Professor Purple, in the library, with the golfclub."
"Oh, I like that one. I won't spoil anything."
"Thanks. So who's Dodgy Dan?"
How to Play
Investigatoria is a social mystery game app. You play as an investigator, and you find clues by meeting other investigators. When you're near another player, the app tells you so. When you bump phones, you each get your next clue, and log the encounter as something like "[name] gave you a clue about [investigation] on [date]." You can get a clue from meeting the same investigator once every 24 hours.
As an investigator, you take on investigations that take the form of a mystery story that you unravel, piece by piece, by getting clues. Clues are tweet-sized bits of the story that provide the motives, alibis, and other details that will ultimately solve your case. Once you've solved a case (that is, found its last clue), your next clue begins the next case.
Physical locations can also contain clues: you might stumble across a clue on your way home that opens up a new investigation tied to real things in real places. Or, a local bookstore might sponsor Investigatoria, so when you visit the bookstore, you get your next clue.
All content comes from the community. I host writing workshops that challenge writers to compose mysteries broken into tweet-sized bits. Contact me if you'd like to know when the next one is. If you'd like to submit an investigation, email me and I'll put it in the game. All investigations are owned by their author(s); submitting an investigation just permits me to host it through Investigatoria with your permission. If you ever want to take your investigation down, let me know and I'll remove it from the game within 24 hours.
Investigatoria is currently in development, but will ultimately manifest as a phone app that reports when other investigators are nearby. If you'd like to get involved with realizing that vision, contact me.
How to Play
You'll need a Master of Rituals (who tells the story and runs the game), a Jenga tower, and at least one other player.
Each player then creates their character, by making note somewhere of their Name, Profession(s), and Flaw. Each of those fields is detailed in the Fields section.
Then, the game begins. The Master of Rituals sets the scene, introduces the character(s), and gives them a clue to what they need to find to survive this ordeal. The game ends when all the characters are dead, or game's nightmare has been resolved.
What shall we call you?
Professions are skillsets that aide you, like "detective", "bureaucrat", or "demon-hunter".
Players pick one profession for their character for quick games, or three for more involved ones.
Professions give -1 difficulty where they apply and can stack. However, you can't take a single profession more than once.
What scares you? What will the darkness use against you?
Roleplay your flaw well to earn story points. Flaws preferably indicate a Secret, an Addiction, or a Fear.
Horrific elements of the game can and should exploit your flaw. +2 difficulty to act in the face of your flaw. Gain story points for indulging it.
Story points can be used to conjure small but critical items and elements, such as a crowbar to defend yourself or wardrobe to block a door. They can also be used to avoid taking blocks off the tower, effectively acting as a +1 whenever you need it. Players don't start with any story points, but the Master of Rituals should award you with them for exemplary roleplaying.
Tasks are resolved using a jenga tower. When characters attempt difficult or trying tasks, they must remove a number of blocks from the jenga tower equal to its difficulty minus the player's bonus. If the player's bonus is greater than the difficulty, they don't need to remove blocks.
When the tower falls over, the character whose player toppled it dies. Monsters overwhelm him, he falls down the pit, or he goes insane -- whatever works for the story. Reconstruct the tower and continue without that player. Or, they come back to act against the party. These dead characters gain one story point each turn with which to hinder and harm the remaining survivors.
Normal humans have ten health. When they run out of health, they die.
To try harming something, indicate what you're harming. Pull out a number of blocks equal to the amount of damage you want to deal, minus any bonuses.
Add bonuses from weapons, etc., afterward. +1 for anything dangerous, like a chair leg. +2 for actual weapons.
Defenders can pull blocks to reduce damage at a 1:1 ratio. But mind you, if the tower falls, you simply die, instead of suffering damage.
Ug. Me Urgak. You new here. This Urgak tribe.
Urgak tribe want food. Want home. Want tools. Want talk good.
If Urgak tribe survive, it because Urgak tribe work together -- even if no can talk good.
One am Game Master. Or GM. Else am cavefolk.
Game Master can talk good. Cavefolk no can.
You cavefolk. Pick name and six words. That all can say. Can gesture. Sixth word, whole tribe can say.
Other cavefolk do same. Can have same words. Can say all names.
After win big challenge, and Game Master say OK, learn new word, or teach tribe old word.
Playing the Game Master
The GM describes the world, and plays the part of people and things that aren't players. Cavefolk are beset by the elements, other tribes, hunger, disease, babies, weather, etc. You are the arbiter of these elements, and interpret the party's attempts to communicate. Feel free to exploit imprecision: if a cavefolk says, "Urgak get food!" feel free to reply, "How?"
If the cavefolk can effectively communicate their intentions, those intentions come to pass. Thus, accomplishing harder tasks requires more specification from the cavefolk. If a cavefolk says, "Urgak don tunic!", that's probably not so hard. But if they say, "Urgak kill bear!", that's going to need a lot more detail.
After major accomplishments -- like getting a big beast of prey's carcass back to the tribe, or finding the cure for some ailment -- every cavefolk learns a new word. Or, instead of learning a new word, they can choose to teach an old word to the whole tribe.
The game always has a Subject and a Narrator. The narrator describes the world, and the subject navigates it.
The subject suffers from short-term memory loss, and can only remember what has happened during each scene, or approximately ten minutes of gameplay. After that time, the narrator become the person to the current narrator's right, and the subject becomes the person to the current subject's right.
The narrator leads the subject through the world up to the moment where the last subject began. In this way, the story moves backwards through time. Even as the players learn about the world, the subject remains unaware of everything beyond the current scene.
However, the subject always retains one vital fact, known to all players at the beginning of the game. This fact is known as the Motive.
How to Play
First, determine a motive. It is a remnant of the subject's past, such as "Kill John G.", "My wife is not dead.", or "Get milk." Whether determined by one person or the group, the motive is known to all players.
Then, determine who will start as the Subject and Narrator. Players can volunteer, or be chosen by chance.
Lastly, start the story.
When the subject attempts actions whose success is not certain, see
Sometimes, the subject will attempt to do things that are dangerous or difficult. If success is not certain, use a game of Three-card Monte to determine it. If the subject wins the game, their attempted action succeeds. Else, the action fails.
Show the subject three cards. Name one of them as the mark, then rearrange them quickly for a while, in an attempt to confuse the subject. Then, the subject selects one of the cards. If they select the mark, they win. Else, they lose.
Can the subject die?
Not normally. That would make all preceding scenes (as in, all future events) nonsensical. If your group can find away around this problem, then why not?
Does the subject remember anything from their former life?
It depends on what caused the subject to lose the ability to form new memories. This question should be resolved in-game, as its answer will differ for each subject.
What happens when the subject fulfills their motive?
How would the subject know that they had, if they can't form new memories?
ADVENTURE TIME by which I mean RUNNING THE GAME
When the game begins, everyone makes a character except for whoever volunteered to be the Storyteller, Narrator, GM, DM, whatevs. That person makes a brief adventure out of the character of the person on their left (or right, if you REALLY CARE), who shall hereafter be called the Protagonist. Then, the storyteller sketches up some points (in secret) to guide the adventure before it begins:
- HOOK: what gets the party involved in this adventure? Why should they care?
- GOAL: what are they trying to achieve?
- OBSTACLE: what's stopping them?
Then the gang gets rolling.
Once the party achieves the goal, the adventure concludes. The Protagonist should recieve a BOON (that is, a good thing) relating to the nature of the adventure. The storyteller then rejoins the party while the Protagonist's player becomes the new storyteller. Repeat ad nauseum. For continuity purposes, the storyteller should find some brief and at least partially satisfying reason for why his character exits and the old storyteller's character rejoins the party. At the end of each adventure, all characters are free to change their WANT.
All characters consist of five things: To make a character, decide what each of these five things is for that character, and you're done!
- NAME: a thing that we call you, like "Beemo" or "that kid"!
- WHAT: what you are. Examples from the show include Finn, who is a boy, or Princess Bubblegum, who is a princess. Jack is a twenty-something dog, while Ice King is an Ice King. Your WHAT is mostly for roleplaying purposes, but can also direct a story or influence your capabilities. For example, Jack is good at dog things, like digging up bones, and twenty-something things, like being a pillar of wisdom for younger ones.
- WANT: what you want. This may be as simple as "Some ice cream" to as involved as "To marry Princess Bubblegum." Roleplaying your want well can earn you story points, and can also become the basis for adventures. You can change your want at the end of each adventure.
- BOON: something good about you, or an item that helps you. Examples from the show include Finn, who's righteous, or Princess Bubble Gum, who knows science. Anywhere your BOON applies, and anywhere you can argue for it to apply (e.g. theoretically everywhere), things are easier.
- FLAW: something bad about you. Examples from the show include Finn, who's rash, or the Ice King, who's a misanthrope. Flaws are indicators for roleplaying, as well as story-point generators. Any time you roleplay particularly well, or your roleplaying leads to a significant development, failure, or success, gain a story point. Flaws are also story hooks.
- POWER: something you can do that normal people can't. Examples from the show include Jack's ability to stretch, the Ice King's lightning, or Finn's heroism. Anywhere a POWER applies, just like a BOON, things are easier. Things that are otherwise impossible become possible with POWERs. Argue for it, and try it. It works except where there's a reasonable chance of failure, or where you're being contested.
Using story points make you the Storyteller for a moment. Suddenly: your game, your rules.
The current Storyteller (before you temporarily dethrone him or her) awards story points based on roleplaying. If your portrayal of the Ice King's crippling misanthropy and general awkwardness is kinda creepin' everybody out, get a story point. If, as Finn, your awesomeness inspires the party to more algebraic heights, get a story point.
Bonuses and Penalties
Your WHAT and POWER determine the extent of your capabilities. Sometimes it'll make stuff harder: a small dog may have difficulty reaching the top shelf, while a space thing without hands would have similar trouble opening jars. At the GMs discretion, such hindrances may make tasks harder (-1 or -2 at most) or simply impossible. Likewise, a person can open jars like a pro, and may get a bonus (+1 or +2 at most). Where your POWER benefits you in an otherwise mundane contest, it gives +2. Likewise, your BOON gives +1 where it benefits you.
When contesting something, or trying something with a reasonable chance of failure, use one of the two following systems for determining who wins and who eats dirt:
Roll a six-sided die. If the die's roll plus your bonus is greater than the task's difficulty, you succeed. Ties are draws, or victory to the defender if a tie isn't possible.
Difficulty: 1. very easy 2. easy 3. moderate 4. difficult 5. hard 6. impossible
Or, in a contest, the difficulty is 3+[opponent's bonus]
Rock/paper/scissors someone in the group of the storyteller's choosing. Each +1 you each have amounts to a round your opponent must win in order to stop you. The bonuses of either side cancel each other out, so that if you and your opponent both have +2, they cancel each other out into an effective +0.
So, for example, Finn righteously leaps into the air to hero-kick the Ice King, who's trying to stick lightning bolts in Finn's kneecaps and other vital areas. Finn gets +1 for being righteous, and another +2 for using his POWER, while the Ice King gets +2 for using his POWER. This levels out to Finn with an effective +1 and the Ice King with an effective +0, so Finn has to win once to hero-kick the Ice King, while the Ice King must win twice to zap Finn.