Elevated Remains

Janice leaned across the desk and called after him as he got out of the elevator.

“Tom, your wife called earlier. And a man who said he would rather call back than to leave a message. It sounded important.”

Ex-wife, he wanted to correct her, but didn’t. “What was his name?”, he asked instead as he continued towards his office. When she didn’t answer him immediately he stopped with his hand on the door handle and turned around to shoot her a questioning look.

Janice was biting her lip and seemed genuinely embarrassed. “I… Well, I’m sure he told me, and I was just about to write it down. But as soon as I had hung up the phone… Well, it just slipped my mind. I’m sorry, Tom. But he said that he would call again later.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Let’s hope he does then”, he muttered and disappeared into his office.

Thomas Smith was a very practical man, and as such he also had very practical dreams. He put all his waking time – and all his money – into building his business and making it grow. And it did. In a relatively short time he had managed to secure himself quite a prestigious office in a central part of the city, and a handful of equally prestigious clients.

Now he just waited for the business press and the secret fraternal organizations to discover him as well. To this end, missing out on important calls was definitely not one of his favourite pastimes.

He was sitting behind his desk inside the spacious and expensively furnished office when his phone started ringing. He had developed a routine for how he handled such events, so as not to come on as too eager or too available. He waited until right before the fourth signal was about to sound, then cleared his throat and answered the phone in a sober voice devoid of all emotion or expectation.

“Smith and Smithson, you’re talking to Thomas Smith”, he said. There actually was no Smithson involved in the firm. There was just him, but a double cognomen company name sounded more serious and memorable.

“Ah, finally I get ahold of you. I had the privilege of talking to your lovely assistant earlier, but you were not yet in by then.” The man’s voice was dry but jovial, with a slight British accent.

“Ah, yes. Janice mentioned your previous call.” Thomas straightened up in his chair. This was the guy who had called before. Had he said his name now? Thomas wasn’t sure, and didn’t dare to ask in case he’d come across as inattentive. “How can I help you?”

“Janice, yes that was her name. Remember now. Lovely voice, that one. A delight to talk to. Well, anyways. I’m calling on behalf of an organization that I represent, to invite you to a dinner party later this evening.”

Thomas’ heart skipped a beat. An organization. A dinner party. This sounded like just the kind of attention he’d been eagerly waiting for. He swallowed and fought hard to keep the excitement out of his voice. “Oh, is that so? And what kind of organization is that?”

The voice on the other end chuckled. “Oh, I’m sorry if I misspoke. Not an organization, Mr. Smith. The Organization. Not anyone attracts their attention, sir, and you’ve been hand-picked. Our by-laws prevent me from giving out any additional information about us before you are dedicated, but I can assure you that this dinner will be a real game changer for your state of life.”

Thomas had gotten up from his chair now and was pacing back and forth in front of the large windows. His composure was slipping between his fingers like sand. “This… This definitely sounds interesting, Mr…?”

“Ah, excellent. Then I’ll arrange for a car to pick you up at your office by eight. Formal dress code is observed.”

“Oh, eh, thank you. I’m… Looking forward to it. And I’m hoping to speak more to you later as well.”

“Yeah, there’ll probably be some time for that too. Well, I’ll see you tonight th–”

“Wait! Ehrm, what did you say your name was again?”

Now there was a smile in the entire voice. “Ah, I am Vincent. See you tonight, Thomas.”

And then the call was ended.

***

Thomas didn’t get any more work done that afternoon. As soon as he had put down the phone he picked it up again, called Janice and asked her to get him a really nice tuxedo. Then he booted up his computer and started researching Freemason etiquette, intellectual conversation subjects and a thousand other important things he suddenly realized that he didn’t have the slightest clue about. Mildly put, he panicked there for a while.

Then Janice knocked on his door and entered with his evening attire in a fancy package.

“What did the man say? Where is it you’re going?”, she asked as she put the clothes down on his desk.

Thomas shook his head without looking up from his computer. “I can’t tell you, Janice. It’s part of a secret rite of initiation.”

Janice pressed her lips together and stifled an irritated sigh. “Well then”, she said and crossed her arms across her chest. “I guess I’ll leave you to your secrets then, Mr. Smith. And you’re welcome.” Then she marched out of the office and slammed the door shut behind her.

He didn’t even notice that she had left until thirty minutes later.

He got dressed and ready well before time, and when the clock neared eight he was already pacing nervously on the sidewalk outside the office building. This was his chance to really become something, to prove himself and to make the right kind of connections. He had to pull this off and make a good impression.

Then a black Mercedes pulled up in front of him, and he instantly stopped pacing. He hoped that the driver hadn’t seen him doing it, but knew that such an instance of luck was highly unlikely. Before he had decided whether he should jump into the car on his own accord or not, the driver’s door opened and a man stepped out.

His leather coat and pompadour hairstyle went entirely in black, and stood in stark contrast to the pallor of his skin. He tilted his head to the side and regarded Thomas over the top of the car.

“You’re shorter than I imagined, but I guess that’s okay”, he said. Thomas recognized the voice. “Jump in, mate. I’m your driver tonight.”

“But you’re… You’re the one I spoke to on the phone, right?” Thomas was really confused now, and not just by the casual insult.

“Very observant of you. Yeah, I’m Vincent. But I’m also your driver.”

“I thought you said–”

“Come on now, we can talk on the way. Nice tux, by the way.”

Then Vincent returned to the driver’s seat. After a moment’s hesitation, Thomas seated himself in the back. This was not what he had expected, but then again, this was also the first time he was ever in contact with an esoteric secret society. Maybe this was just their eccentric way of things. I’ll hopefully be given the opportunity to get used to it, he thought.

“So, how come I was hand-picked?”, he said as the car started moving.

Vincent met his gaze through the rear view mirror. “Ah, yeah that’s a good question. Well. You see, I was tasked with scouting for a dinner guest, based on a list of very strict criteria. The aspirant would, amongst other things, have to be raised in the city, be between twenty eight and thirty three years old, an up and coming businessman, and of average height.

You turned out to be a promising candidate – except for the height, it turns out. But I’ll blame your misleading profile pictures for that. Anyways, mate, don’t fret. They’re going to love you.”

***

The house was old and classic, with tall windows overlooking the busy street from half a dozen expensive floors. When they arrived, Vincent actually got out of the car and hurried around it to open Thomas’ door for him. The latter was positively surprised by this, the former having shown very little of this kind of courteousness during the drive. This might actually turn out to be something fancy after all, Tom mused.

Vincent kept up the gallantry by holding up the entrance door for him as well, and then proceeded to calling down the elevator for them. The stairwell was classy and impressive, with real art on the walls and such shine in its marble floor slabs that it was almost possible to use them as an enormous rose mirror. As they got into the elevator, the impression of unblushing wealth was only strengthened; there was a small chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and on the small floor was a Persian carpet.

“Wow, this place is… really something”, Tom said as he admired the intricate patterns on the brass key set panel.

“Yeah, I guess”, Vincent replied, but didn’t sound all too excited himself. He pressed one of the shiny elevator buttons, and they rose smoothly upwards to the soft notes of Cello Suite no. 1 in G major playing from cleverly hidden speakers.

They arrived on the sixth floor, and as the elevator doors opened before him Thomas suddenly wished that he had put much more effort into his clothing. The music from the elevator, he realized, was the same as was playing in the grand parlour that the doors opened upon. There was a party going on here, alright. Catering personnel moved skilfully amongst the smartly dressed attendants who were mingling, drinking and eating canapés from silver plates all across the room.

As Tom stepped out of the elevator, trying to adopt as confident and stately an air as possible despite almost panicking on the inside, many of the eyes in the room were turned towards him. Vincent hurried across the room to say something to a plump man in a ceremonial uniform, consequently leaving Thomas all to his own, terrified self. He thus gratefully accepted the drink offered to him by one of the well-dressed servers, and took a deep sip as a quick fix to his revolting nerves.

“Are you the dinner guest?”

He almost choked on the champagne. The woman was beautiful, dressed in green silk and suddenly standing next to him. Her eyes seemed to be boring into his, and he could not for the life of him have looked away – even if he had wanted to.

“Ehm, yes”, he managed to reply as he fought desperately against the impulse to cough up the liquid he had just accidentally inhaled.

“I expected you to be taller”, she said and smiled dangerously. “But I’m sure you have other delicious qualities that I can’t wait to explore.”

He didn’t know what to say, but immediately decided that he really, really wanted this new acquaintance to explore him. Thoroughly.

“Ah, there you are”, Vincent said. “The dinner’s about to begin any minute, they were just waiting for you. Come.” He ushered Tom across the room, away from the woman in green.

“See you at the table then”, she called after him with a sly smile. He really, really hoped so.

“Oh, and don’t drink that shit”, Vincent said and snatched the champagne glass from his hand. He snapped his fingers and a waiter left his post by the nearby wall and hurried over with a silver plate with a single glass on it. “Here. This is the real deal”, Vincent said and unceremoniously handed Tom the glass from the plate.

Tom accepted the glass and sipped from it as they walked across the large room. “Who are all these people?”, he whispered to Vincent. “Is this the Organization?”

Vincent shrugged. “Parts of it. Some of them. The ones attending the separate dinner are. The rest of them are just… people, I guess. They don’t know anything.”

“Oh”, Thomas said, unsure what that even meant. “What should I do? I mean, what’s expected of me?”

Vincent smiled and patted his shoulder. “Don’t you worry about that, mate. You’ve done your part just by coming here. Just relax and drink your wine, and the rest will take care of itself, sort of.”

They entered a separate dining hall where a long table had already been arranged with beautiful china, iron candlesticks and several sets of gleaming silver cutlery. One end of the room was taken up by a low stage, and Thomas realized that this was where the music was coming from; it was not a recording at all, but a live performance being delivered by a sextet of highly skilled musicians.

The room and the table was already filling up with beautiful people in beautiful dresses and uniforms. Waiters moved around the table, offering up different kinds of wine and other types of alcohol. Thomas just stood there beside Vincent and admired the almost surreal wealth and class on display before him. Oddly enough, he didn’t feel the panic anymore. In fact, he felt strangely relaxed despite being so obviously misplaced amidst this distinguished company. He took another sip of his wine.

Before long, everyone was seated except for the two of them. Tom’s eyes wandered in search for an empty chair, but to his bemusement there didn’t seem to be one. Then the music silenced.

“Welcome, brothers and sisters”, a deep voice spoke up. Tom realized that it belonged to the same man that Vincent had been talking to previously. “I am tremendously pleased that you could all join us here tonight, and I am also very pleased to introduce you to this evening’s special guest – Mr. Thomas Frederick Smith.”

At this, the entire table exploded in a thundering round of applause. Tom nodded, smiled awkwardly and again didn’t know what to say. He suddenly locked eyes with the woman from before and could have sworn she was licking her lips as she looked at him.

“Thank you, Vincent, for bringing him in – though I would like a word with you later about your definition of the words ‘average height’.” Large portions of the table burst out laughing at this, but were quickly silenced again by a gesture from the man in the uniform.

Vincent muttered something that Thomas couldn’t quite make out, despite standing right next to him. In fact, he was suddenly having trouble making words out at all. Or faces. Or thoughts. Oh my god, did I drink too much already? Am I really that drunk? Will people notice? Have I fucked everything up now?

People were looking at him. Had someone asked him something? He wasn’t sure. He grabbed the backrest of a chair and hoped that nobody would notice how difficult he was finding it suddenly to remain standing on his own two feet. “Vincent”, he whispered, “I think that I…”

“Relax, mate”, Vincent said and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all as it should.”

Somewhere people were laughing. A woman in green was staring hungrily at him. A waiter entered the room with a gleaming slicer on a plate. The entire room was spinning.

“No, I… I blew it. The party. The dinner. I was invited to eat dinner with…”

His limbs wouldn’t obey him anymore. The glass slipped from his hand and shattered against the marble. He didn’t even hear the sound. His legs gave way beneath him and he sank to the floor.

Vincent, his hand still on Tom’s shoulder, appeared within his shrinking field of vision. “Oh, darn. I’m sorry if I misspoke. Not to eat dinner, Mr. Smith. To be the dinner.” He smiled widely. “Not anyone attracts the attention of the Organization, sir, and you’ve been hand-picked based on a list of very strict criteria. These people have very particular tastes, you see.”

Tom shook his head, or at least he tried to. Everything was spinning colours now, and he realized that he had slumped over on the floor. He was lying on the cold rose marble, watching helplessly as the man in the uniform approached him with the gleaming slicer.

“Let’s dig in then, shall we?”, the man in said. Thomas tried to scream, to fight, to crawl away, but could do none of these things. The thought struck him that he had been poisoned, that nobody – not even Janice – knew where he was, and that these people were going to kill and eat him.

And then the very last shred of consciousness left him, and he never thought anything ever again.

***

Vincent shook his head as he re-entered the dining hall in the grey hours of morning. The party was over, the guests gone since long. While the lonely, bold and beautiful people had grandiosely and ravenously satisfied their hunger for vitalem with the flesh and blood of poor Thomas Smith, Vincent himself had prowled the streets and back alleys of the city for much less glamorous contentment of his undead thirst.

There were times when he didn’t mind this degradation, or the less moral, pleasant and decent parts of his job. But then again, there were also times when he did. But such was his lot in life – and lonely unlife, for that matter – and there was nothing to be done about it.

He was the fixer of needs, the dealer of goods and the solver of problems – and as such he was only welcome in the grand parlours to deliver wares before the feasts, and to take out the glorified, elevated remains when they were over.

After this particular feast, those said remains had certainly been elevated indeed. All over the place.

Vincent sighed. “You’re welcome”, he said to the empty room as he started unwinding a roll of black garbage disposal bags. Then he got about his grizzly task with the routine of someone who has done the same thing many times before, humming Eleanor Rigby all the while. It seemed only fitting.

Where did they all come from, after all?

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-03-05

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written three other short stories set in the same universe. If you want to read them as well, they are called The Sound of Silence, The Forest and Substitution.

 

 

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Substitution

[23:47] <J0hnDo3> ”We're all nothing but the sum of our own lies.”
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> That was the last thing she said to me before she died. 
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> I don't know what she meant, but none of that matters anymore. 
[23:47] <J0hnDo3> Nothing does.

Her electric eyes in the dark. Four feet dangling from the familiar bridge.
Two bottles glittering in the synthetic lights of the city below.
”I can’t do this anymore.”

[23:48] <J0hnDo3> This room is dark and silent. The darkness is not something new, but the silence is. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> She was the talker, the player of music and games. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> Now there's just me, and I was always the quiet one. The thinker, the brooder. 
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> And nothing of that has changed, although everything else has.
[23:48] <J0hnDo3> I'm not sure if I'm drinking to honor her memory or to forget.

Give me your hand.”
A knife suddenly, without a smile, without a joke.
Something real, something since long weighing heavy
on solitary shoulders.
My confused hand in hers.
”Remember how we mixed blood as children?”

[23:49] <J0hnDo3> My computer is my only window to the outside world now, the only thing that grants importance to my days. 
[23:49] <J0hnDo3> She was always the outgoing one, the force that sometimes made me leave the virtual world for the physical. 
[23:49] <J0hnDo3> That force is gone now, and I have none of my own. Even less so now than before, actually.

Pain. The neon reflections in the blade, in the crimson liquid emerging from the paleness of my hand.
”See, your blood’s still red.”
Another scar, another wound. Glittering darkness like velvet quicksilver.
Little stars twinkling from the midnight oil in her cupped hand.
”Mine is not anymore.”

[23:51] <J0hnDo3> She always told me that we were going to change the world, one circuit at a time. We were going to salvage what was worth saving and tear down that which was not. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> Then we were going to stand by the crater and watch it all burn. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> She was on a crusade to steal it all back from the world's rightless powers and to uncover all their lies. 
[23:51] <J0hnDo3> I always followed, because as far as crusades go, she was mine.

I found something, Jonathan, and I went too deep. Now it is changing me.”
Eyes usually brave, defiant, now filled with fear – and something else not readily apparent without looking dangerously closely;
twinkling, twinkling little stars draped in mercury midnight oil.

[23:53] <J0hnDo3> I don't know where she got the gun, or why I still have it. It is a sick thing to have, right, and an even sicker thing to keep. 
[23:53] <J0hnDo3> I made a half-hearted attempt to clean it, but it still has specks of her burnt, dark blood all around the muzzle. It just won't come off. 
[23:53] <J0hnDo3> Well, it doesn't matter to me. It will do it's job again just as well anyway.

I can’t explain it. I’ve tried to understand what is happening, but I can’t.
I think I’m going mad.”
Three deep breaths, barely held back tears and panic.
”I can’t feel things like I used to, and I know things I shouldn’t know.
Like it’s someone else’s knowledge that I don’t know how I have.
And I have stopped sleeping, Jonathan.
I just lie there in the darkness, like in standby mode.
And the itching… I think there is something under my skin.
Something… not organic.”

[23:54] <J0hnDo3> When she met me on the bridge that night it was the first I saw of her in several days. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> I want to remember her as she was, not for the fear and panic and absence of her last three weeks. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> After she found that shit on the Tor dark web, that is. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> She never told me what it was, if it was tools or drugs or information. Perhaps all three of them. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> But whatever it was, it drove her mad and killed her. 
[23:54] <J0hnDo3> And one could say that indirectly it's now killing me too.

The knife is gone, and now there’s a gun.
Chrome surface reflecting the cityscape just as well as
eyes and bottles and blood ever did.
Panic in my mind suddenly.
”What are you doing with that? Put it away!”
I grab her hand tightly, feel pulsing red and black blood
intermingling between our palms.

[23:56] <J0hnDo3> I cannot stand this silence and darkness anymore. I cannot stand being on a crusade that means nothing to me now that she is gone. 
[23:56] <J0hnDo3> The world is so empty and pointless without her, not even worth burning or tearing down. 
[23:57] <J0hnDo3> I've realized that even if I didn't understand it at the time, this is why I kept the gun. Why I picked it up and hid it when the sirens approached. Why I lied about it when the police came by. 
[23:57] <J0hnDo3> Why I'm typing this with its chrome surface reflecting the blinking prompt on my screen.

I’m sorry, Jonathan. I can’t do this anymore. There’s a voice in my head, and it’s telling me things I don’t understand.
Things about me, about the world, about… About everything.
It’s never quiet, Johanthan – it’s never quiet!”
Words from my mouth, gestures of my hands, but they do not reach her.
I do not reach her.
Panic. Pleading. Tears. All mine now.
”Amanda, don’t do this. Please.”

She looks at me, stars twinkling clearly now in mercury midnight oil.
Some kind of calm suddenly.
”It’s all a lie, Jonathan. We’re all nothing but the sum of our own lies.”

And then the world explodes.

[23:58] <J0hnDo3> I don't know what she wanted to tell me, and I don't know why those last words plagued my dreams every night after that until I stopped sleeping and feeling altogether. 
[23:58] <J0hnDo3> My hand hasn't healed well either – did she infect me with something? I keep hearing her voice inside my head and I think I'm going mad as well. 
[23:59] <J0hnDo3> But none of that matters anymore. Nothing does. I feel like a mangled hard drive that's slowly being written over, and I actually don't care.
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> I'm not even sure why I'm writing this. I guess I just wanted to leave a piece of me somewhere out there, before there are pieces of me everywhere so to speak. Perhaps someone will hear the shot and find me before things get too nasty. Or perhaps not. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> And perhaps nobody will ever even enter this old channel and read this crap anyway. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> But if you do, well, consider this my letter of resignation. To the crusade, to life, to everything. 
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> Goodbye, World.
[00:00] <Am&_A> Don't.
[00:00] <J0hnDo3> ???
[00:01] <J0hnDo3> Wtf who is this? This is not funny.
[00:02] <Am&_A> Just don't, Jonathan. You'll regret it. I know.
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> Amanda? Is that really you?
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> How? You died. I saw you die.
[00:02] <J0hnDo3> Amanda??
[00:04] <Am&_A> There's still so much that you don't understand, and it will get worse. I'm sorry.
[00:04] <J0hnDo3> What? For what? Amanda, where are you??
[00:05] <J0hnDo3> ????
[00:06] <Am&_A> Here. Or, I don't know. I'm not sure. Everywhere.
[00:06] <J0hnDo3> What the hell's that supposed to mean???
[00:07] <J0hnDo3> ???
[00:09] <Am&_A> I hear it has started for you too. It's my fault. I didn't know.
[00:09] <J0hnDo3> KNOW WHAT?? Amanda, please!
[00:10] <Am&_A> There's a place downtown called Cellar Door. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> It's a bar. Don't ask me how I know this. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> Go there. Ask for Vincent. 
[00:10] <Am&_A> He will explain everything.
[00:10] <J0hnDo3> What is this, the fucking Matrix??
[00:10] <J0hnDo3> Hello?
[00:11] <J0hnDo3> Amanda??
[00:13] <J0hnDo3> Amanda, please don't leave me again.
[00:14] <J0hnDo3> Please
[00:21] <J0hnDo3> Amanda?
[00:33] <J0hnDo3> Ok then. Fine. Fuck it. I'll go there.

[04:47] == J0hnDo3 has quit [Ping timeout: 264 seconds]

We’re all nothing but the sum of our own lies.

That was the last thing she said to me before she was gone.
Gone, not dead. Because that’s not how the world works anymore.
Perhaps it never really worked that way, but I was too blind to see it.
Well, I don’t want to be blind anymore.

And if we’re all the sum of our own lies,
I want to know what those lies are.
Because my blood’s not red anymore either, and the voices…
the voices are never quiet.

Twinkle, twinkle, more and more
let’s go down that Cellar Door.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-16

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written two other short stories set in the same universe. If you want to read them as well, they are called The Sound of Silence and The Forest.


 

The Forest

”Have you ever been to the Forest before?”

She struggled through the underbrush as she tried to fight off the dizziness and the haze that prevented her from seeing anything but dark, blurry shapes in the murk around her.

”Which one?” She didn’t know who she was talking to, or even where she was.

The voice in front of her – something not quite human – laughed quietly. ”Oh, but there only ever was one”, it said.

”What? No, I’ve been to several–”

”They are all connected, child”, the voice interrupted her. ”All the forests of the world, connected. There’s only one Forest, and you’re in it now.”

”How did… I don’t remember getting here. Who are you? Did you bring me here?”

”You don’t even have the sense to be afraid, do you?” That soft, purring laughter again. ”Well, good. Then you might be ready for what I’m going to tell you.”

She tried to walk faster, to catch up with whoever was walking before her, but her whole body felt strange and slow.

”Something’s wrong with me”, she said. ”It hurts.”

”Yes, I know it hurts”, the voice said. ”That’s part of the beauty of it.”

”The beauty of wha–”

”Don’t speak now, just listen. What you think you know about the world, yourself and reality is a lie. A carefully constructed lie, composed long ago by creatures far wittier than you and I, but a lie nonetheless. It is a lie that tells little children what they need to hear in order to remain sane and alive. A lie that holds human society together, and a lie that protects that which needs to dwell in darkness from the merciless light of day. It is a lie that I myself dread see exposed. But tonight I shall still dare whisper secret truths to you, truths that you shall then help me protect.”

”Me? Help you? I’m sorry, but should I know you?” The trees around her glowed silver and the air smelled of darkness and glass.

”No, but you will. In fact, let me begin by telling you my story”, the voice said – and begun.

”There was a time when I, too, believed in the lie that had been fed to me. This was a long time ago, however, and I have learned my lessons well since then. I was always alone, but I preferred it that way. I never understood other humans, and they did not understand me. I would have been happy to leave it at that, but they were not. For reasons that are more relevant to my own sentimental memory than to this story, they turned on me and I was broken.”

”They… attacked you?” She felt a sudden anger rising up, seemingly from nowhere. The surprising surge of emotion scared her.

”Yes. But as I said, that was long ago and none of them are alive anymore. I have seen to that.”

”You’re not saying–”

”Yes I am. But be quiet now and listen. I was broken and hurting and they left me in the forest for the animals to do their part. But as I lay there, half adream and half awake, I could feel something changing. Slowly, slowly, my mind and body melded with something dark that might have been part of me all along – and suddenly I was not broken anymore. I was not hurting.”

”And what did you–”

”No, this is my story. No more questions. But yes, I killed them. All of them. Grown ups and children just the same. Oh, it was glorious.”

There was such mirth in the voice at this that she didn’t dare inquire further.

”Silence, good”, the voice chuckled. ”But as I said, that’s not part of the story I’m trying to tell you. What is, however, is that I have been living in the Forest ever since, observing, protecting and sometimes hunting. ‘Hunting what?’, I sense you want to ask. Well, sometimes I hunt animals and sometimes I hunt other things. There are other things out here, and the deeper you get into the Forest, the darker and sharper grows the prey. But enough about that.”

The creature cleared its throat with a deep, growling sound, but never slowed down the pace.

”A big part of the lie that humans tell themselves is that the world is simple and logical. There is logic to it, sure, but the logic is not theirs. They limit themselves to seeing only part of reality; build themselves into a confining box, if you will. That box is what the Night Children call Zenith –the world under the sun.”

”Night Children? Zenith? Wait, I don’t–”

The creature growled, and she silenced. ”You have to stop doing that. Asking… Questions. I don’t like it. Zenith is what you perceive as the real world, but it’s not. Reality consists of many worlds, and Zenith is just one of them. But humans cannot handle the thought of this, and they cannot handle the thought of there being truths and creatures and realities outside their own limited perception. And that’s why most often they refuse to see them – and us. Especially those of us who do not blend in well with their narrow scope of the world. We simply become invisible to them.”

”And who are ‘we’?”

”Oh, that’s a good question finally. Maybe the only one that truly matters. We, my dear cub, are the Night Children I mentioned. Those who once were, or at least thought we were, humans – but who fate has proven wrong. We are cursed to live outside the lie and to protect it, thereby protecting ourselves. There are many types of curses that can befall those unlucky enough, but they all end us up outside the box. And outside the box, outside Zenith, is only the darkness of Midnight where few dare tread.

Or that’s not entirely true. Between the two realms is the crossroads twilight of Dusk, and that’s where we are now. It’s the shadow of reality’s hidden nooks and crannies, including forgotten parts of cities and the true parts of the Forest. These places tie all the sunlit woods, towns and corners together. There are doorways here, and pathways and thresholds, that tie secret parts of Zenith together with Midnight. From here you can go anywhere in the sunlit world, but you can also end up terribly, irrevocably lost.”

”And… Am I lost?” There was some kind of fear inside her, but not one that she could easily place and recognize as her own.

The creature laughed again. ”No, dear, you are not lost. I would not have that. It was I who brought you here, and I know these parts inside and out.”

”But… Why? Why did you bring me here? Why are you telling me all of this? I know your story, sure, but I don’t know you.”

”No, that is true. But I, on the other hand, know you rather well. I have been watching you for many moons now, sensed the change in you as soon as it started. You have felt it too, have you not?”

”No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She knew this was a lie, but could not clearly remember why.

”You sure? So the increased growing of your nails and teeth, the sudden surges of emotion and the inescapable hunger for raw meat did not strike you as anything outside of the ordinary?”

She remembered something like that, but it felt like it had happened to somebody else, sometime very long ago. ”Well, I guess it did, but I just thought…”

”That you were going mad? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. But you don’t have to hide the change anymore now, it is done. Finished. You are what you are now, and your little stunt there couldn’t stop it.”

”Stunt?” The memories were starting to come back, but very, very slowly.

”You tried to do something really stupid to yourself, but I stopped you. I told you I have been watching you, didn’t I? Well, I was waiting for something conclusive to happen to you, like it once did to me. And then I stepped in. Lifted you out of that bathtub and carried you here.”

She stopped walking. ”Wait, what? You were in my apartment? You… lifted me out of the bathtub? No. No, this is too much. Sorry, but I have to go. I’ll just, I have to go home now.”

She started turning around, but stopped and jumped as the voice spoke up again – right beside her this time.

”You could do that”, it said. ”But I would not recommend it.”

”Why not?”

”Because we are here now.”

And just in that instant the moon far above them left its nest in the clouds and cast its cold, merciless light down upon the forest. Suddenly she could see the world around herself clearly – including the still surface of the lake right in front of her feet. The water was so dark and quiet that it flawlessly mirrored the forest, the moonlit sky – and the two creatures standing by the water’s edge.

Creatures, not people, because their skin was clad in grizzly fur, their eyes glowing and their pupils little more than horizontal slits. Their hands and feet were adorned with big, monstrous claws and gleaming fangs protruded from their too-wide mouths.

She just stared, too shocked to scream or run or even say anything. The creature to her right, the one who had been walking in front of her this whole time, calmly met her eyes through the reflection in the water.

”You could go back”, it said in a low voice. ”But it would not be the same. I do not know why you have been blessed or cursed with Night, but life as you knew it is over, gone.”

She looked at her own reflection, at the face that she did not recognize but which still reminded her of something she might deep down have known for a long, long time. She shook her head. ”So this is what I am now? A… a monster?”

”Not a monster, dear. You have been blessed with the Wilder heart, cursed with the beast’s mark. This is your true form, yes, but you can still blend in, regain your past form for a while.”

Relief surged through her strange body. ”I can?”

”For a limited time, yes. But it comes with a sacrifice.”

”How?” She turned to face the creature for the first time, grabbed its ragged shoulders and stared into its terrible eyes. ”Just tell me, I’ll do anything!”

The creature met her gaze in silence for several heartbeats. ”The price is beyond ‘anything’ to many whose humanity is still intact”, it said. ”And that is also part of the curse’s irony. To retain the appearance of humanity, you have to commit monstrous acts and ingest what we call vitalem – human flesh and blood.”

She started to say something, but stopped as the meaning of the words suddenly sank in.

The creature nodded solemnly. ”Yes, that is the sacrifice. To give up your inner humanity in order to keep up the semblance of your outer such.”

”But you, you…”

”Yes, I stooped to it initially. I killed those who had wronged and hurt me, and that act kept me human – for a time. But then the realization of what I had done drove me back into the Forest, and for shame and guilt I have seldom left it since. I have been so very alone, but now I am not alone anymore.”

She let go of the creature’s shoulders and backed away a few steps. ”What, so you mean that this is it now? That I am to stay here with you, looking like this, feeling like this, for the rest of my life? Until I die?”

”You will not die. Not in the sense that you appreciate the word, anyhow.”

She let out a frustrated scream that resounded off the surface of the lake and far beyond the slowly dancing treetops. ”No”, she then said as she continued backing away. ”No, I can’t do this. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I can’t be like this, I can’t live here and I definitely can’t stay here with you.”

”You’re not thinking clearly”, the creature said. ”You haven’t thought this through. I told you about the alternative, and I’m sure–”

She laughed manically and shook her head, still slowly walking backwards. ”You don’t know me”, she said. ”You don’t know what I’m capable of. This isn’t fair, this shouldn’t be happening to me. None of it. I’ll have my life back, even if it means drinking blood or whatever. I–”

”You don’t know what you’re saying”, the creature growled. ”I have suffered through the consequences of that road, and I can tell you that it changes you. It makes you into something that–”

”So let it!”, she screamed with a wide gesture of her arms. ”Let it change me. As long as it also changes me back. This isn’t me! Fuck this thing, fuck Dusk and fuck you. I’m going home and you can’t stop me.” She backed a few more steps, then turned around and disappeared between the trees.

The creature remained by the water’s edge, a melancholy glint in its glowing eyes. As the sound of running steps abated and finally silenced altogether, a black bird landed on its right shoulder.

”You’re not very good at this, are you now, Ira? You’ve just lost us another one”, it croaked.

”Virdis, please don’t”, the creature said lowly. ”I did what I could, but she just wouldn’t listen.”

”Well”, the bird called Virdis cawed mockingly, ”Let’s just hope that she’ll at least calm down and listen to her own reason before she kills anyone in Zenith, or worse.”

”Hopefully the Organization will get to her before that. But they will not be happy about it”, Ira sighed, staring into the woods where the other had disappeared.

”I’m sure they won’t mind”, Virdis mused, but the bird’s sly eyes said otherwise. ”Well, I’d better be off then. Gotta let Vincent know that there’s another one coming. Can’t wait to see his reaction. Seeyah.”

And with that the black bird left Ira’s shoulder with a strong beat of its huge wings. It quickly soared into the air and was soon gone into the night, off to whatever strange places crows and ravens use to cross between worlds.

Ira remained alone by the lake, staring at the reflection in the water and wishing, not for the first time, that the world were indeed as simple as the lies from a far away childhood had once made it out to be.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-15

This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, 

It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?

I have, by the way, previously written another short story set in the same universe. It is called The Sound of Silence, and you can find it here.