Somebody’s Nightmare

The world is full of daylight places that remain the same irrespective of what time or state you visit them in. However, there are also places that thrive in the shadows and on the edges of reason, and that you can only ever find in the darkest corners of night. The Bazaar is one of those places.

“Nightmare Outlet”, the sign read. Its rusty relief letters provided less information than they raised questions, and he wasn’t really sure what had even lead him to this lonely storage building in the middle of the night. He only knew that he was here now, and that he had come to the right place. This was the night when his life-long nocturnal torments would finally end.

The guard at the entrance eyed the newcomer suspiciously before letting him through, and once he was inside he understood the precaution. The vast space between the tall walls was cluttered with tables, stands and small tents. It looked like one of those places where people came together to sell old stuff they’d dug forth from the darkest corner of their garages, and this impression was not entirely wrong. Only this garage sale had a more sinister alignment.

This was a dark market, but not your everyday such. No, this was the darkest market, because the currency of the Bazaar was fears and night terrors.

It was hard to see very far into the hall, both because of the dense crowd but also because it was very dark. Still, many of the traders had decorated their stands with small lanterns in a wide variety of colours, lighting the darkness afire with dim sparks of eerie red, spectral blue and ghostly purple. The murmuring backdrop of the mysterious scene suggested that the newcomer was far from the only visitor tonight, but the gloom prevented him from seeing more than three or four yards in front of him.

The stand closest to the entrance was occupied by a small, grey man who eyed him up and down before shooting him a sinister smile.

“Are yah sellin’ or buyin’?”, he croaked.

“I’m… just looking around”, he replied nervously.

The little relic of a man nodded and raised his wrinkled hand to wave the newcomer along, but then seemed to change his mind.

“Say, lad, are ye havin’ nightmares ye can’t get rid of?” His mouth stretched into a grin that did not make him look any more friendly at all.

“Well… Yeah, I guess”, he answered after a moment of hesitation. “I guess I have”.

The man nodded knowingly. “A pain they are, those little buggers. Indeed…”

He chewed his worn pipe and seemed to consult with himself for a moment. Then he continued, in the manner of the experienced haggler: “Would ye be interested in ridding yourself of those, for a small price?” His smile widened and seemed suddenly to cover more space than his face should possibly be able to allow for.

The newcomer didn’t like the look of this smile, and excused himself as politely but hastily as he could. As he fled deeper into the building the little man shrank back into his shadows, shaking his head sullenly.

Having left the salesman by the entrance behind, unsettled by him in ways he could not explain, the newcomer strolled along one of the paths between the stands and witnessed wonders he had never imagined in his waking state. Salesmen whispered or yelled from the darkness beyond the light of their colorful lanterns, trying to draw attention to their unusual wares. The things up for sale were contained in jars, bottles or other transparent containers, and varied in color as much as the various lanterns that illuminated them.

He stopped at a stand where many people seemed to have gathered. He could not see what had drawn everyone’s attention; to him these particular flasks and cans looked no more or less mysterious than all the others had done that he had seen so far. Nevertheless, the path that led past this particular stand was clogged almost completely – to the obvious irritation of the salesmen on either side, who vainly tried to catch the attention of the curious congregation.

A radio played a steady but quiet rhythm of drums and sleepy flutes. As the newcomer stretched to see what was so special about this stand, he saw its serious looking owner holding forth a large, corked bottle containing dark, rippling smoke.

“…and this is a night spook springing directly from the mind of the man who brought us the tales about the sleeping Old God himself”, the salesman exclaimed gravely as he held the bottle up for all to see. “You will not get this one cheaply, but it is well worth every single one of the cars you’d have to sell. And better yet, it is one of the inexhaustible ones. You can dream it every night for years, and still it will not dry out. Of course you’d have to be incredibly lucky not to walk gibberingly mad away from such a repeated use of it, but” – the last word was a loud cry that made the first row of people jump – “you should not let that deter you from the deal of your lifetime, ladies and gentlemen! Do I have an offer on this fabulous nightmare? The bidding starts at…”

The newcomer was no longer listening, but had begun pushing through the crowd to reach the less cluttered space beyond this seemingly very popular stand. Once he had broken free he jogged a couple of steps to avoid getting sucked or pushed back into the assembly again.

“Not interested in archaic, eldritch horrors, are we?”, a voice laughed right next to him.

He jumped and turned. To his right, not two steps away, there loomed a narrow but tall stand, occupied by a hunched, robed figure whose face could only be glimpsed beneath the hem of a deep hood. The stranger had a low, rasping voice that managed to be ominous and humorous at the same time. On the table in front of him stood several empty decanters and a few curved bottles filled with a pale pink liquid that bubbled like soda.

The newcomer eyed the figure and decided that he was harmless. “No, sir. I’m tired of such things. Quite to the opposite, I’m actually looking for a way to rid myself of a few.” He put his hands in his pockets and regarded the man tryingly, anxiously waiting for the answer.

The figure chuckled and raised his head so that two piercing, white eyes met the ones of his customer. “First timer, eh?” He showed off some too-sharp teeth in a wide smile and rubbed his hands together. “Very well then. Let’s cut to the chase then, shall we?”

He then produced several bottles from beneath his table, all of them filled with dark liquids moving around like smoke inside their containers. His customer regarded the collection nervously, secretly preparing to run away at the very first sign of this being some kind of sinister trick.

The salesman noted this. “Be not afraid, lad. The corks are in and the contents are sleeping safely right now.” His customer flinched slightly as a bottle of swirling dark liquid was pressed into his hands. “Now look at it closely!”

And the newcomer did. The darkness inside was swimming around sluggishly, forming and reforming in cloudy shapes that sometimes seemed to resemble terrible things just outside the reach of his imagination. Suddenly a small, red eye blinked sleepily open and regarded him menacingly from the other side of the glass, only to then slowly close again and disappear into the smoke. He hastily returned the bottle to the salesman, deep horror stirring at the back of his mind. “Very… very nice”, he stammered unconvincingly.

The salesman regarded him with an amused expression. “Do you know what it is?”, he asked as he put the bottle back on the table. The customer shook his head and the salesman nodded knowingly. “I didn’t think so. These, lad”, he said and made a gesture comprising both the dark bottles and the pink ones, “are dreams. The darker they are, the more horrible.” He grabbed one of the light bottles and held it up so that the glow from his yellow lantern shone through it, revealing the soft shapes moving around inside. No evil eyes in this one.

“The light ones are good, nice dreams. The kind that your average sane person would want to have at night. The best ones are white, or even silver. I once heard of a one that was golden, but that kind is very rare.”

As he spoke he grabbed one of the empty bottles and shook it, revealing it not to be empty at all but filled with what seemed to be plain water. “This is not water, you know”, he continued in a low voice, as if having just read his customer’s mind.

“No?”, the other managed to squeeze out. “What is it then?” But he suspected he already knew the answer.

“It is a no-dream, that’s what it is. Ever had one of those nights when you don’t seem to have had any dream at all? Well, this is one of those nights, all bottled up and ready. Of course, the no-dreams are one use only, since there is nothing to save about them. They just are. Some dreams are more durable, and others still are inexhaustible – even though that is a very rare quality in a dream. People and minds change, you know.”

The newcomer nodded, even though he was far from sure he had understood half of what had been said. “So… Are you saying I could get one of those good-dreamy-thingies, and not have to have nightmares anymore?” He stopped, suddenly realising how childish he had just sounded. “I mean, not that nightmares bother me, you know. I am not afraid of the dark or anything… It’s just that–”

He was interrupted by a burst of amused laughter that stopped as abruptly as it had sprung up. The salesman eyed him smilingly. “Son, there are nightmares, and then there are nightmares. Anyone with their sanity in the right place would go jumping and screaming from one night with yonder cosmic vistas of uttermost horror.” He laughed and nodded towards the crowded stand a few paces away, where the other salesman was still yelling his lungs out about his dark and inexhaustible dream. “I don’t judge anyone, I just trade.”

The other did not answer, but only looked longingly at the lighter bottles on the table. The salesman saw this, and continued without waiting for an answer.

“I see that you are in need of a change of environment, as far as dreaming goes. Very well. I do not buy and I do not sell, money and earthly favours interest me little. So you’ll have to trade with me, son. What do you have to offer? The darker the dream, the higher the value of it. The black ones are the best, of course”, he added with a sarcastic laugh.

The newcomer answered with nothing but a confused look.

“Ah, you really are a first-timer”, the salesman mused. “See, this is how it is done: you describe your dreams to me, and I try to evaluate them as far as trade value goes. Then I make an offer based on that evaluation, and you chose whether to accept or to continue bargaining. It’s as simple as that. How the… transaction is done, well, that part is simple, which you’ll see for yourself when or if it comes to that.”

He eyed the customer curiously and made a beckoning gesture. “Well, what’re you waiting for? Describe your dreams to me!”

The newcomer hesitated. Then he said, with nothing but pure defeated honesty in his voice: “I don’t think I can… When I wake up the dreams are always clear in my memory, but then they fade. The only thing I know is that they scare me out of my wits and that I wake up screaming more often than not.” He looked again at the light bottles on the table, but his hope of ever owning any of them was fading by the second. “I’m sorry, but this kind of trade is probably not for me”, he said and prepared to leave.

But the salesman just chuckled. “Boy, you don’t have to leave empty-handed. Some people just can’t remember dreams, that’s natural. We have certain other methods for tackling that. Come here!”

He produced a thin tube from somewhere beneath the table, and held it out toward his customer. The latter, in turn, eyed it wonderingly. It was attached to a hand-held mirror with small levers and regulators fitted all along its metallic handle and frame.

“This is a hypno-gauge – an instrument that measures dreams. It works best when the subject is asleep, of course, but will do the trick in situations such as these as well.”

The customer accepted the end of the tube and looked at it in confusion. “So how does it work? What do I do?”

“You just breathe into your end of it, and my end will show me what I need to know. And don’t worry, I change mouth pieces between every use so it’s perfectly hygienic.”

The newcomer hesitated only for a moment before following the salesman’s instructions. Then, as soon as he started blowing air into the tube, the entire instrument started hissing and buzzing mechanically.

“Just keep it up, son, I’m getting a picture here”, the salesman muttered. Then his eyes grew wide. “What the… No, no don’t stop!” He waved his free hand frantically as he stared at the mirror’s surface.

His customer was starting to become really freaked out, however, and let go of the tube. “What is it? What did you see?”

The salesman kept staring at the now dark glass pane for a couple of seconds before putting the instrument down on the table. When he looked up again there was something new in his eyes. Fear? Reverence?

“Boy”, he said slowly, “it’s been a long time since I saw something that dark in the mind of someone alive and breathing. Bottled up, sure, but never directly from the mind that dreamt it up. If I were a lesser man, I would probably scam you for those dreams, but I’m not. I’ll tell it as it is, son. You’re sitting on a treasure trove with those nightmares of yours.”

“A… treasure trove?” He eyed the little man sceptically. “I’m sorry, but I’m finding it really difficult to believe that anyone would be prepared to pay anything for the terrors I endure every night. I for myself would give anything to get rid of them.”

But the salesman only shook his head. “No, you don’t understand. You see, ordinary nightmares are cheap, anyone can have those. But real darkness such as this, well, that’s a poison reserved for truly open, sharp and poetic minds. Many of them go mad, of course, but on the road to that fate they more often than not produce wonderful art, thoughts and poetry. Incredibly dark such, of course, but wonderful nonetheless. That’s why some people would pay dearly to acquire such nightmares; to make themselves better artists.”

“So you’re saying…?”

“I’m saying that many of the people in this building, customers and traders alike, would definitely be prepared to sacrifice their left and right hands both to secure the dream you have just shown me. Hell, I would sacrifice my hands for it, and my left ear. Selling it forward would make me rich beyond compare.”

“So… Why don’t you just take it? I don’t want it, so I guess you’d be doing us both a favour by relieving me of it.”

The salesman looked tempted, but still only shook his head again. “No, that would not be fair. Not to anyone. You see, taking on someone else’s nightmare, especially one as potently dark as yours, is a dangerous thing to do. The mind that originally dreamt it up has often developed an immunity of sorts to its more maddening effects, but another mind has never had a chance to do that. So selling it on to someone else would do them more harm than good. And I’m not that kind of vendor that puts my customers in danger for my own gain”, he said and continued:

“Besides, I also suspect that it would not help you overly much even if I took this one dream from you. A mind capable of summoning up something like this once would most likely not have the least bit of a problem doing it again. The dark dreams would probably only grow right back. On the other hand, I’d like to think that you’d be able to make great use of your dreams yourself, if you so wished.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is this: That stand you passed earlier, where the dreams of that famous author were up for sale? Well, this nightmare you have here is definitely in league with his. And though that man went crazy in the end, he created fabulous worlds and stories that inspire awe and jealousy in readers and writers even today. If you just let them, your dreams could well lead you to create art just as great as his – art that would in turn inspire awe and jealousy in readers and writers during your own lifetime, and long after you yourself are dead and gone. You could become immortal, in a way. You have a gift in these dreams, and I would hate to see you throw it away due to something as childish as a fear of the dark. I will not be accessory to that, in any case.”

“So you will not help me?”

The salesman sighed. “I will not take the nightmare from you, but I can offer you a good night’s sleep free from it. One night.”

He grabbed one of the lighter bottles and held it forth. “This is a good dream, a happy and positive one. Just as so many of its kind, however, it is also nondescript and weak – and as such, it will deplete after one use. Take it, dream it, and get some rest from your darkness. But then I would advise you to dare that same darkness and let it guide you. Write. Paint. Make music. Do whatever it tells you to do, but for gods’ sake don’t remain silent – you have a rare gift, son, but it will kill you from inside if you don’t find a vent for it.”

The customer accepted the light bottle and turned it in his grip. “But I’m not a writer, a painter or a musician”, he said. “I’m just a guy with bad dreams. I don’t know how to do any of those things.”

“Then learn”, the salesman said. “It’s either that, or you’ll go mad well before your time. Your choice. But now, I’m afraid, the morrow approaches. If you want to have any calm rest tonight, I suggest you drink that light dream right away.”

“Drink it, just like that?”

“Yes, open the bottle and drink. Don’t spill any of it, or you will have very confused and incoherent dreams.”

“But, shouldn’t I pay you?”

“As I said, I don’t buy or sell. I’m a trader, and what I want from you in this trade is remembrance. If you actually decide to create something, weave a piece of me into it. A mention or a quote. Creatures such as I cannot die unless forgotten, and being remembered in great art could well grant us immortality. Do this small thing for me, and we’re even.”

The darkness of the room, the sweet incense on the air and the salesman’s low, melodic voice created a surreal atmosphere that made it hard to think straight. The newcomer was confused. I came here to get rid of my nightmares, and now this man is telling me to use them. Is it possible that he is right – could I really create great art? He found himself nodding slowly to the other man’s words, and before he knew it he had made a decision.

“I will”, he said, and uncorked the bottle with the light liquid inside. He made sure not to spill the smallest drop as he downed its contents in a single, long draught.

The salesman nodded approvingly and rubbed his hands together. “Good”, he said. “And if you’re ever in lack of inspiration, don’t hesitate to come back here. I’ll gladly provide you with whatever kind of dreams you could possibly find yourself in need of.”

He might have said something more, but in that case his customer didn’t hear him. Because the edges of the scene had begun to blur, its colours to fade and its noises to warp into a single drone without any sense or rhyme. And then the bazaar and all its traders and customers were suddenly gone, replaced instead by good, happy and very, very nondescript dreams.

***

He didn’t wake up screaming the next morning. In fact, he awoke feeling more rested and awake than he had done for longer than he could remember. The memories from his happy, light dream faded as soon as he opened his eyes, but the feeling from it lingered with him the entire morning.

Still he knew deep down that what he was feeling was only a loan; this was somebody else’s happy dream, and however calm and restful, dreams such as this were not for him. He did not know how he knew this, or why he associated the knowledge with some half-forgotten memory of a bazaar he was sure he’d never actually visited. Maybe this was a memory from another dream.

This one peaceful night, however, had given him a respite from his prevailing sleep deprived despair, and suddenly he knew exactly what he had to do.

He made himself a cup of tea and booted up his computer. He was not a writer, a painter or a musician, just a guy with bad dreams that were slowly driving him insane. He hadn’t created a meaningful thing in his life, but somehow he now felt that this was a good day to start. It was almost as if someone had told him so in a dream, but that was of course impossible.

“The world is full of daylight places that remain the same irrespective of what time or state you visit them in”, he wrote.

It just felt like a good beginning.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-03-17

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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.

The Missing Limb

When John put his mother’s ring on my finger we both knew it was not a promise of a future together. I harbored no illusions of that kind – I knew he only dared do it because we were both aware, deep down, that we were never going home. We were going to die out there in the cold trenches, together or separated, and did not have to worry about conventions, laws and consequences.

I wish I still had that ring.

The war had been going on for ages, or so it felt. When I was first sent to the front I was young and stupid with my head full of star-spangled dreams and lies. When I met John what felt like a lifetime later, we had both seen, felt and heard enough to have learned that this was not our war – that it was no-one’s. And still we fought in it; I because I was afraid of the alternative, John because he had nothing to go back to.

I wish I could say that we gave each other hope, that us being together made the terror we lived more bearable, but that would be a lie. We suffered and we wept and despaired, and when there was pain that pain was not to be dulled by anything except sleep or death or the poisons we drank to attain one or both of them.

But John sang to me when I was drowning in panic, and I told him stories from my childhood when he hurt too badly. And we grew to love each other in a way reserved for the mad, the desperate and the dying.

I have never loved anyone since like I loved him.

It had been raining heavily that night, and when dawn came the world was drenched in mud and blood. This was the morning of long dreaded advance, of finally pushing desperately forward. The secret solace from the night before seemed like a long ago dream, and not even the ring hidden by my left glove could fully convince me that I had not in fact imagined it all.

It did not matter, however, because everything was to end very soon. I just did not know it at the time.

We left the relative but treacherous safety of the dug trenches and moved forth. I tried to keep close to John in the stealthy turmoil, but repeatedly kept losing sight of him. The sun rose behind the clouds and suddenly there was fire and explosions everywhere. We had been sighted. Our numbers scattered without any real semblance of order, and despite my best attempts to keep calm and sharp I found myself lost and terrified. I panicked.

That is how John found me. He screamed through the clamour that our unit was falling back and regrouping, that we had been ordered to take shelter in the ruins of a nearby church. He grabbed my left hand and started running, leading me towards safety.

It was then that the ground around us detonated, and everything turned into panic, pain and blackness.

I awoke to blindness in a world of horror and agony. There was not a part of me that did not hurt, and I could not see at all. Half convinced that I was in fact dead I lay there on my back, listening to the moaning, hurting voices of my compatriots all around me. Part of my mind realized that it must have been a bombshell or a hidden mine – the rest of me did not think at all.

Until I felt John’s firm grip on my hand again, that is. The pain in my entire body was excruciating when he helped me to my feet, but his warmth was so relieving that I almost did not acknowledge it.

“I can’t see”, I said. “Please don’t let go.”

“I will never let go”, he replied.

And then he led me slowly, carefully through the nightmare that I could not see, but the sounds of which will haunt me to the end of days. People were dying everywhere around us, screaming for help or relief or for people long gone. If someone had told me at that time that we were in fact walking through the fires of Purgatory, I would have readily believed it. Sound becomes a merciless paintbrush when employed on the canvas of the unseeing.

At long last we must have left the battlefield behind us, as the voices of the dying slowly faded into the distance. I was growing weaker with every step, and the steady flow of warmth down the side of my torso told me that I was bleeding badly from the explosion. Without John’s hand I mine I would have been terrified of fainting, falling or getting lost, but he never let go. Instead he firmly and calmly guided me across the uneven landscape on the other side of my personal darkness, stopping when I needed to but never for too long.

Then, suddenly, I began hearing voices again – but not those of the dying. I recognized those voices, and the relief I felt at hearing them is not to be described in words. I realized that we must have found the church that John had talked about in those final moments before the world ended. Someone called my name, another called for assistance and now, finally, my legs would not carry me any longer. I collapsed there in the mud and felt consciousness drifting away, even as running steps approached along with voices shouting medical commands.

I did not die that day, but was later told that it had been very close. I remained unconscious for a very long time, floating in an endless blackness only occasionally interrupted by brief spells of blurry, partial wakefulness. The only thing that kept me sane and calm during those short, confused moments was John’s reassuring and safe grip on my hand as he kept faithful vigil beside my sickbed.

Then, finally, I awoke one day and the darkness was gone. I blinked in confusion, and everything was made of sharp, searing light. At least almost everything; however intensely I tried to open my left eye, it simply would not obey me. A silhouette was standing in front of me, and at first I thought that it was John. But then the man spoke, and I realized that he was a doctor.

He told me that I had been lucky, that the shrapnel had only punctuated one of my eyes and that they had thankfully been able to save the right one. He then told me about several surgical operations and a long, long time of insecurity as to whether I would have the strength to wake up again. He told me that us even having this very conversation was a miracle in its own right. It was a riddle to all how I had managed, bleeding, blind and dying, to find and trudge my way back to safety.

“It was John”, I said in a voice rough from disuse. “He led me by the hand the entire way.”

I tried to squeeze John’s hand in mine, but I could not move my fingers. I wanted so badly to look at him, to see that he was alright, but my left eye was blind and my neck hurt too much to move.

“John Curtis?”, the doctor said, and even though I could only see him diffusely the tone of his voice betrayed his concern.

“Yes”, I said and even managed a defiant smile. Then and there I did not care what he knew or thought about us. In that moment I could have bravely and foolishly made John all those promises we had been too afraid to make before, and more. I hoped that he could hear this in my voice – that they both could.

The doctor was silent for a long time, and when again he spoke his voice was grave and worried.

“You must be mistaken”, he said. “You came alone. I saw it myself.”

At this I laughed and shook my head, actions both of which sent pain shooting through my body once more. But I did not care, this was all too absurd. Still smiling broadly, I turned finally to my left to meet John’s gaze. But he was gone. I stared in confusion, knowing that he had been there, holding my hand, just a moment ago.

The doctor, mistaking my sudden silence for something else, hurried to my side and put his hand on my right shoulder. “I am sorry, son, I should have told you sooner. You must have lost it in the explosion, and when we found it the day after it was too late to do anything. But everything has healed beautifully, and with some training you should be able to–”

But I was not listening to him anymore. I had let my gaze wander downwards to where my left arm should have been, and was now staring in shocked disbelief at the bandaged stump that had now taken its place.

“But… But John, he was… Right now, I…” I realized that I was rambling, but my thoughts simply would not come together. He had been sitting there, right beside me, holding my left hand. And now they were both gone.

“I am terribly sorry, but John Curtis is dead”, the doctor interrupted me. “He was killed in the explosion that took your arm. In fact, that was how we found it. Even in death he was holding on to your left hand.”

***

They sent me home after that. I do not think that they would have reinstated me into service even if my body had been intact, since it must have been so painfully apparent that my mind was not. I do not know what happened to the ring, and have only presumed that someone must have stolen it. It was never returned to me, at the very least.

I went to John’s funeral and met his estranged parents and siblings. I told them that I was a friend, and saying those words hurt more than I had thought it would. I exchanged a few polite stories with the grieving family, but left soon after when it became painfully clear to me that we were not even talking about the same person.

This was all a long time ago now. I eventually learned to live with one arm and one eye, and nowadays I barely reflect upon the loss at all. The only reason, however, that I am able to live with a heart irrevocably split by sorrow, is that I know that the other half of it is never far away – just as despite all I still know that John Curtis saved my life on that cursed day.

Because every day and every night since then, however far I walk and wherever I may go, as soon as I close my eye I feel it; John’s strong fingers lacing together with those of my missing, left hand, as he walks beside me to the end of days.

Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-18

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

The Underground Kingdom and the Living Dead Statue

This story is part of my ongoing dark urban fantasy series about the character Vanessa Riley. You can find the previous installments here: IIIIIIIVV, VI,VII and IIX. It is also part of my #NaNoWriMo-project for this November.


He wakes up, and the whole house is eerily quiet. Devin Murdock smiles widely and lies back against the pillows again for another couple of minutes of wonderful snoozing. He has just had the first night of undisturbed sleep in a very long time – ever since he came back to L.A, in fact. The house has been silent the entire night. No mournful moanings or wailing whispers have woken him up from his well needed sleep.

That weird character Seth Pascal has definitely done their job well, Devin thinks. And this despite the fact that he or she definitely lacks even the most basic sense of humour. He shakes his head as he remembers the exorcist – or freelance priest, as Seth him- or herself was very particular about being called – walking around the house with a ball of incense and calling the ghosts out by name. How the hell did they even know what to call them? Anyways, the job has been done. No ghosts have bothered him since the priest left the house just before midnight, and no ghosts can be seen or heard now. Win.

He looks at the clock. 1:42 P.M. He’s overslept slightly, but to hell with that. He feels he needed it. As he puts his feet down on the cold floorboards he half expects icy, skeletal hands to wrap around his ankles. They don’t. As he walks across the room he is still not able to entirely shake off the paranoia that he has always felt in this house, ever since coming here. Still he stops in front of the large mirror next to the stairs and meets his own gaze in its hazily reflective surface.

Carlito had warned him last week as he gave him the keys to the house: “Don’t look into mirrors. Don’t turn on the TV. And don’t, for fuck sake, ever go into the upstairs bedroom. The old woman sleeps there.”

Devin hadn’t broken any of these rules, and still the ghosts of the house had plagued him for days up until Vahri’s sudden appearance at his gate. And he had not actually been into the upstairs bedroom until she, as well, had informed him about “the woman upstairs”. Tonight, after Seth’s departure, he had slept in the huge four poster bed for the first time – just to prove to the house (and himself) that he could. And no old, bony woman had made him company. Not that he is aware of, at least.

Fuck you, he writes across the dusty mirror with his index finger. Then he pauses for a moment and listens closely. The house creaks silently in the autumn wind, but no indignant ghosts retort with a creepy comeback. He hopes that this is not for lack of coming up with one, but that that ghosts have actually left the house. He hurries down the stairs before he can be proven wrong.

***

He sits in the kitchen with his bag turned over in front of him. Books, notes and pictures lie scrambled on top of the table with not even a real semblance of order. Devin picks up one note, page and image after another, studying them and taking notes in a worn notebook.

Visiting Teneo’s last known haunt was the first thing he had done when he had returned to Los Angeles one week earlier. Of course he had found nothing useful there, apart from lethal traps and empty potion bottles. Teneo had not been known for making things easy on his wards when he was alive, and Devin had not expected his old master to be any less difficult as a dead man.

Having ruled out that place, Devin had gone on to visiting all the previous hiding placed he knew Teneo to have frequented over the years. That had not given him much to go on either, except the knowledge that nothing was to be found there.

Now he sits here studying every bit and piece of information about his old master that he has been able to collect. Photographs of Teneo together with different unknown people, verses on rhyme found scrawled inside books Devin has stolen from the man’s old study and lists of names of people that might know something.

In his hand right now, he holds a picture of John Harpist. Devin feels his teeth clench together at the mere sight of the man he once called “brother”. John had been Teneo’s other apprentice. He was about the same age as Devin, and they had learned about the darkness and the forbidden but omnipotent Abyss together during endless nights of Teneo’s stern tuition.

Sure, there had been competition and some jealousy between the two of them concerning their master’s attention and approval, but Devin had trusted John with everything. With his secrets and with his life. All the more terrible had been the blow then, when John Harpist sold him out to the city’s coven leaders.

Devin will never forget the evening when the large, dark car had pulled up in front of his door. Out had stepped five just as darkly clad mages. They had forced his door open and dragged him with them into their vehicle. Ha had not been able to do anything to stop them.

Then there had been a trial – of sorts. The coven leaders had accused him of being in league with “dark forces”, of being a sacromancer, as it were. They knew this because someone had tipped them off. It hadn’t taken Devin very long to figure out who this someone was.

The evidence had been overwhelming. There had been no chance in hell – or the Abyss for that matter – for Devin to get himself out of the situation with a cleared name. The judges had been somewhat swayed by his tear-filled act of remorse, however – and also by his pledge that he had been tricked into it by some dangerous sacromancer mastermind. He did not name Teneo, of course, and also refrained from giving them John. He was not a snitch, after all. But he had given them the name of the poor, half mad magician living on his street, in whose basement he had some time previously hidden some highly compromising materials.

The so called trial had ended with the coven leaders condescending to sparing Devin’s life, granted one condition: that he leave the city and never return. And Devin had grudgingly honoured that exile for several years, all the while plotting his revenge on John Harpist. Teneo’s sudden death had given him the perfect excuse to return.

Sitting by the kitchen table in his until recently extremely haunted house, Devin Murdock now puts down the photo of his sworn nemesis and lights a cigarette. He never smoked indoors while the ghosts still shared the house with him, but now there is no one he needs to accommodate. He needs to think.

Who knew Teneo well enough, apart from John, to know where he might have hidden his secret stuff? Who, apart from John, might even know where Teneo has been buried? He didn’t keep many friends when he was alive – rather his closest ones had been enemies he’d been wise enough to keep close. No one he might have told about his deepest secrets.

Then Devin sits straight up when the thought suddenly strikes him. Ade. Teneo’s old servant has always been around, and the old sacromancer has probably told him everything there is to know. Because Ade can’t snitch – Ade is undead. Teneo dug him up and brought him back to life during one of his many sick necromantic experiments long before Devin and John had come into the picture. None of them knew what Ade had been in life, or if his name had really been Ade back then or if it was some sick joke of Teneo’s, but there was no uncertainties about what he had become after being brought back from his early grave: an undead serf without a will of his own. If anyone has been let in on Teneo’s last wishes and thoughts, it is probably him.

Devin gets up from his chair and hurriedly sweeps all the notes and photos back into his bag. Since he has not been able to find even a trace of Ade in any of Teneo’s old dwellings, and since Ade has done nothing to contact him with information, only two plausible possibilities remain. Either John has already found Ade and laid claim on all his knowledge about their former master, or Ade has gone into hiding.

Something tells Devin that if John Harpist had found the undead servant already, he would not have been able to refrain from gloating about it. Devin knows John well enough to be pretty certain about this. This makes him dare to hope that Ade has actually fled the field and bunkered up somewhere. If that is the case, there might still be time for Devin to find him. And he knows just the place to go for such intel. He rushed out the door and hopes against all hope that John has not gotten there first.

***

“The Back Shack” is a place that really lives up to its unflattering name. Located at the end of an unhospitable alley in a rather dodgy suburb, Devin cannot imagine the video rental shop gets many weekly visitors. The fact that the shopfront window still displays old, bleached VCR-tape boxes only adds to this suspicion. If Devin had not known what really drew profit to this place, he would have ruled it off as a front for some mobster money laundry operation. But he knows better.

The little bell above the door chimes as he walks into the shop. It is like entering another world – or at least another time. The shelves are lined with the boxes of old VCR-blockbusters and on the walls hang faded posters of by now faded movie stars. The place even has a not-so-discrete porno section, where the pictures on the boxes show underwear stretching so far above the hips of their victims as to remind more of wardrobe themed horror than anything else.

Behind the counter stands Roland, and he’s staring intently at Devin.

“Hello Dev. Have you come to return Highlander two?”

Devin just stares back at him for two entire seconds. Has he ever borrowed that lame ass movie? Or is this some kind of test? “No”, he says then and walks up to the counter. “I’ve come to pay you well for information.”

Roland scratches his bearded neck and seems to struggle to come up with a comeback. Devin can clearly follow the process of battle, failure and resignation on his face. “Okay, then”, Roland mutters finally. “But you’ll have to say the password.”

“For Christ’s sake, Roland. Aren’t we past this already?”

But Roland stands firm. “Password.”

Devin sighs. “Alright.” He puts his elbows on the counter and leans closer. Roland’s breath smells of old potato chips and Mountain Dew, with a tinge of alibi toothpaste. “Yippkayeh motherfucker”, Devin whispers and immediately feels like the most embarrassing idiot alive.

But Roland seems pleased. “Good”, he says while nodding annoyingly complacently. “Now follow me into the back room, and we’ll see what we can do you for.”

Devin walks behind the counter and watches as Roland starts pushing one of the IKEA shelves to the side. The big man breathes heavily as he struggles with the apparently heavy piece of furniture. When a gap forms between the shelf and the wall, Devin can see that there is a door behind it. Not until now does he remember that there has always been a door there, and that it leads to the basement. He thinks that this is a very impractical solution for someone who uses the door often.

“Nice secret door”, he says, voice oozing with sarcasm.

“Thanks”, Roland says and brushes his hands together after finishing moving the shelf. “I came up with the idea myself after watching The Cube.”

Devin has seen The Cube. This door is nothing like it. “Ah”, he says in lack of a better response.

“Come now”, Roland smirks and opens the basement door. “You’ve only seen the top of the ice berg.” And he starts walking down the stairs.

Devin sighs, shrugs and follows.

***

Anyone questioning the profitability of the video rental store called The Back Shack would be entirely correct. Even though every month or so someone actually (and for some strange reason) does come in to rent an old tape, Roland would never be able to make ends meet by running the store exclusively. But while the uninitiated might be inclined to accuse him of running some kind of criminal money laundry scam, the truth is far stranger than that.

The basement of the video store is another story entirely than its outdated ground floor. Here the shelves are new, and obviously carefully chosen to follow a strict sci-fi-modernistic look. They form something of a corridor or pathway – Devin would rather call it a labyrinth – leading this way and that until it finally drops the visitor off in front of a wide desk made of black glass.

Behind the desk, a dozen flat television screens are aglow with images from an assortment of news channels, both local and international. Just as many video recording devices are humming in the background, saving everything that happens on the screens onto their enormous hard drives.

Roland Hayes has built his own kingdom down here, beneath his derelict video rental store. Here he gathers information about everything that is reported in the global media that can, even if it sometimes takes a tremendous knack for imagination and make believe, be interpreted as traces of the supernatural. Ghosts, witches, zombies, vampires, were-people – you name it.

Here he keeps folders upon folders containing newspaper clippings about everything from strange light phenomena and haunted apartments to eerie echoes on the phone line and uncanny family relations in isolated back water towns. He records every TV broadcast from a chosen selection of the world’s major news stations and then carefully filters through them each night to decide what passages are keepers and which ones are not. Those that are chosen are then meticulously sorted into digital folders on one the many external hard drives that line the back wall.

Roland doesn’t need his downtrodden video rental store to generate any income for him; he gets all the money he needs, and plenty more at that, from selling the information he gathers down here to anyone who might be in need of it. Vampire hunters, paranormal investigators, jealous undead relatives and over informed goth kids all find their way into his store sooner or later – and as long as they have been let in on the secret password by someone who trusts them, Roland is not a picky seller. Not at all, actually.

So though he might not be the prettiest or most socially adept young man (or not so young anymore, but you get the drill) on the surface above, down here in the basement of the Back Shack Roland Hayes is the uncontested king. Devin knows this, and has used his services once or twice in the past. Now he hopes for his help in locating the undead servant Ade.

Roland walks behind the back glass desk and sits down in a high backed chair, rests his elbows on the table and puts his fingertips together in a business like fashion as copied straight from some fictional villain in a movie. The transformation away from the slightly socially lost video rental guy from upstairs is complete. Devin just stands there, feeling increasingly awkward in the middle of this nerdy display of power and status.

“Dev, Dev, Dev”, Roland muses theatrically. “What have you gotten yourself into this time?”

“What, what do you mean this time? I never told you about… Roland, are you just making lines up now to sound cool?”

Roland retrieves a cigar from a drawer in his desk and puts it at the corner of his mouth, but doesn’t light it. “Anger doesn’t become you, Dev”, he says calmly, as if he were the Godfather and Devin a young and unruly nephew. “Ease down and tell me how I can help you.”

Devin draws a deep breath and slowly counts to ten. No, fifteen. People don’t tell him to “ease down”. Not if they want to keep their faces intact, at least. But he needs Roland’s help, and so he tries his best to keep his face composed and his voice calm.

“I need to go through your files, Roland. All the weird that’s happened after October first.”

Roland raises an eyebrow. “Globally?”

“No, just L.A. I need to find someone who’s probably gone into hiding, but can’t possibly be very good at it.”

“Ah”, Roland says and rises from his chair. “I think I understand. You’re looking for Tenoe, right?”

Devin flinches. “It’s Teneo. And no. And what the hell do you know about that?”

“Chillax”, Roland says as he walks over to one of the closest shelves and starts browsing through the folders and boxes that fill it to the brim. “I just heard his name being mentioned by some customers recently, that’s all. Sounded like he was up to something… dark.”

“Something dark, alright”, Devin snorts. “He’s dead. Must’ve been that you heard.”

Roland flashes him a perplexed look. “Yeah, well…” He hesitates, then turns his attention back to the shelves. “Must have been that then, I guess”, he mutters.

But he has gotten Devin’s attention now. Can I be so lucky…? He walks up closer to Roland and leans against the shelf next to him. “But who was it that you heard talking about him? And what did they say?”

Roland just shakes his head. “Nah, didn’t say much actually. Not about anything. They talked briefly about this… Teneo guy as if in awe. Maybe a little scared, I don’t know. They weren’t here for intel about him though, of course. Must know they wouldn’t find it here anyways, he is – was – too sharp to leave traces in the news.”

“But what were they after? And when was this?”

Roland smirks and shakes his head. “Oh no, buddy. You know I don’t give out information about clients. Like, ever. If they’re not in the paper, that is. And these two certainly weren’t.”

“Ah, so there were two of them?” Now it’s Devin’s turn to smirk.

Roland bangs his palm against the side of the shelf. “Damn it, now I remember why I shouldn’t talk to you. Okay, there were two of them. But that’s all the info you’re getting on them from me. Okay?”

Devin nods. “Okay”, he says, still feeling that he has tripped upon an important piece of information here. He’ll save it for later, for when he has time to properly contemplate it. He makes a mental note to do so, and then turns to Roland again. “So anyway, how’s it going with those files?”

Roland seems enormously relieved again at the change of subject, and hastily pulls out a large file folder from the shelf in front of him. “Ah, here it is”, he exclaims and operosely carries the heavy binder over to the desk where he then lets it down with a heavy thump.

Devin follows him, and then stands there watching as Roland hums and flips through the pages until he seemingly finds what he is looking for. All the pages are filled with glued on newspaper clippings, and this one is no exception. But Roland points to a handwritten note in the corner and smiles contentedly. “Here you have it – the first of October this year. If you don’t find what you’re looking for here, I’ll fetch you the latest binder as well.”

Devin nods and then immediately sits down in Roland’s chair and starts reading.

Roland seems a little taken aback by being so hastily brushed aside, and remains hovering at the corner of Devin’s eye for another hesitant moment. Finally he clears his throat. “Do you want my help, or should I–”

“Just leave me in peace, will you, Roland?”, Davin says without looking up. He is already irrevocably engulfed in the newspaper clippings on this first page of many that he will have to go through today – every weird news report that has happened since Teneo’s death. He is hoping that Ade will have happened to revealed himself somehow and gotten the attention of mortal society.

Roland huffs a little indignantly. “As you wish, sir”, he then snaps and withdraws into the winding labyrinth of sci-fi-modernistic metal shelves that make up his uncontested underground kingdom.

***

Devin sighs. He’s been sitting crouched in this gods forsaken basement for over four hours and his back and his brain are starting to ache. The sun seems to have set behind the dark screens covering the small windows by the ceiling, and the sound from the humming drives and servers in the room is all but putting him to sleep.

He empties his eleventh cup of bad machine coffee and makes another note in his already almost full scrawled notebook. He’s found several interesting pieces of news already. Most of them he’s been able (or forced) to rule off as unrelated to his search, but he’s still saved some of the most thrilling ones for later; he might still be able to find something worthwhile by investigating them closer.

Three newspaper clippings have been able to entirely catch and sustain his attention, however. He has put them in front of himself on top of the black glass desk, symmetrically lined up as if this could help him determine if any of them is the answer to his questions.

The first of the news pieces is dated almost two weeks back, right before Devin arrived in town. It is illustrated with a rather large colour photo depicting the outside of an apartment door, closed off by police tape. The headline reads: “Mysterious Murder Confounds the Police: ‘The Doors Were Locked and the Safety Chain Was On’”. There is a small chance that the dead body is Ade, and that someone has found him by accident, mistaking him for a dead and abused body. Devin doesn’t really think so, but every clue is worth looking into at this stage.

The next piece is dated one week ago and has no picture attached to it. It is just a short text informing the reader that the police has received several calls from worried citizens, reporting that nightly screams and noises could be heard from inside an old and boarded up hotel building at the outskirts of the city. The text says that the police has looked into it, but have been unable to find anything that would explain the worrisome sounds. Devin doesn’t know what to make of this one, but since the place described in the article seems to be located close to one of Teneo’s previous laboratories it might be worth looking into it.

He gets to the third and final news piece, and when he takes a closer look at its picture he immediately knows that he has struck gold. The headline reads: “Fabulous Living Statue Impresses Locals”, and the black and white image shows what looks like a marble statue of a man standing in the middle of a small square surrounded by cheap barber shops and aesthetically questionable pizza shop windows. Lots of people in different ages are awalk in the picture, probably on their way to or from their respective shopping rounds. But some of the people have also stopped in front of the statue, taking photos and throwing coins into a hat at the statue’s feet.

But it is no statue, not a real one at least. It’s Ade Handma. Devin has no trouble recognizing Teneo’s old servant, who has aided Devin in so many of his experiments and failures in the past. The only differences from what Devin is used to are the colour of Ade’s skin and the style of his dress.

Ade the living statue is covered from head to foot in some kind of white paint or powder, that gives him the marble like appearance of an actual statue. The picture is not very good, but it is still evident what kind of clothes he is wearing. A knee long trench coat and high legged boots – and a tall top hat.

Devin shakes his head in disbelief. Of all the places and weird hobbies, you’ve really taken the prize. He collects the three newspaper clippings and stuffs them between two pages in his notebook. Then he raises from the chair and leaves the basement.

When he reaches the top of the stairs he finds the door to the shop closed and blocked. For the blink of an eye he panics, thinking that Roland has deliberately locked him in – maybe to sell him out to some of his enemies. But then he hears noises on the other side of the door, and realizes that Roland has customers – normal ones this time, judging by the sounds of it.

“No”, he hears Roland say in a muffled voice, “we don’t stock DVD:s or Blue rays. Why? Well, why don’t you have a VCR player? It’s just the way things are, dude. Life’s a pain, get used to it, as Geena Davis once said. What, you don’t know who that is? Then just leave. Get out of my sight.”

Not until he hears the doorbell chime as the customer – or customers – leave the shop does Devin knock on the inside of the door. He immediately hears something heavy being dragged outside, and soon the door opens to let in a stream of painfully bright light.

“You find anything?”, Roland says as he lets Devin out.

Devin nods and walks around to the right side of the counter, not wishing to smell Roland’s musky breath more than necessary. “Yeah”, he says when he has put a safe distance – and a piece of furniture – between himself and the other man. “I found some stuff that will probably help me. How much do I owe you?”

Roland leans against the counter and fixes Devin with a knowing and unpleasant gaze. “That depends”, he says.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” He tries to sound unaffected, but he is actually getting worried now.

Roland sucks his own lip theatrically. “Well, I would say it depends on how much you want me to keep quiet about you having been here. I just found out that you are – how do you put it? – slightly incriminated in the eyes of your magic law system, ain’t that right?”

When Devin doesn’t say anything, Roland continues in an even more smug voice. “You know I don’t talk about my clients, but you know how it is. Sometimes I slip. It’s only human, after all. But I could try a little extra to keep your visit a secret. And what you asked me to help you with. But it will cost you.”

Devin feels his face heating. Nobody threatens him. Not if they want to stay alive, at least. One, two, three… He takes a deep breath. “I should just kill you”, he whispers.

“You certainly could”, Roland says calmly. “But you should know that I’ve recently joined the Paranormal Workers’ Union, PWU. If you touch me, I can promise you they’ll get in touch as well.”

“I don’t know who the fuck those people are.”

“Oh, trust me, you’re better off that way. So, do tell me, would five grand be a reasonable price for my silence?”

Devin quickly contemplates his options. He could kill this obnoxious mortal, but that would certainly create more problems for him than it would solve. Even counting out this weird Union, disposing of a dead body is not something he has time with right now. He sighs deeply and makes a decision.

“Alright”, he says and retrieves his wallet. He has started counting the bills when Roland clears his throat.

“And then there’s the payment for the information”, he says and produces a calculator from a drawer. “First we have the starting fee, that’s eighty k. Then you were down there for… let’s see… going on five hours. That’s fifty more. And I suspect you’ve stolen some of my material? Then that’s another seventy. So you owe me, including of course the no-snitching-fee, a total of…”— he silences as he puts the numbers into the machine – “five thousand and two hundred dollars.”

Roland looks up at Devin and smiles victoriously. Devin stares back at him, unable to entirely mask his provoked anger this time. He slams the bills down onto the counter without saying anything, and then turns around to leave.

As he puts his hand on the door handle he can hear Roland clearing his throat again.

“What?”, he says without turning around.

“I hope you realize, Dev, that this was only the first down payment.”

Four, five, six…”Fuck you”, Devin says and leaves the shop.

***

It’s the middle of the night now, and the small square is almost empty. Some drunk teenagers occupy a collection of benches at its far corner and an old lady is playing the accordion outside one of the pizza restaurants. Other than that, the scene rests in silence and solitude.

At the middle of the square stands the statue, dead still in the cold autumn air. The trench coat flutters a little in the wind, but other than that nothing gives away the fact that this is no statue at all but a living being. Or at least something that used to be one.

Devin approaches silently, walking slowly across the darkening square as the first drops of a gentle autumn rain starts falling from the cloudy skies. Ade has not spotted him yet, as he has his back turned. Devin watches his coat move in the wind and the white paint run slightly in the places where it is hit by tiny raindrops. He looks so lonely. So… sad. I guess that’s what you get when you are brought back from the dead, abused for years and then left suddenly on your own without purpose.

Not until he is right behind him does Devin address his old friend – if you might call it that.

“Hello, Ade”, he says and drives his hands deeper into his pockets. The weather and the temperature are really making themselves difficult.

Ade reflexively breaks character at the mention of his name and quickly turns around, a frightened look on his face under the thick layers of white paint. Then he seems to recognize Devin, and the fear in his eyes turns into horror, then panic. “No”, he screams and starts running, his coat waving behind him like a flag and his tall hat falling off his head.

Devin is not late to pick up the hunt. The few people still populating the area turn their heads to look in fascination as the famous, white painted living statue is chased from his usual spot by a stranger all dressed in black. Devin realizes this must be quite the sight for them, but right now he doesn’t care – he’ll deal with potentially dangerous witnesses later. What is important at the moment is catching this overdue corpse and find out what he knows about Teneo’s legacy.

Ade is fast, despite his undead state, and they are well off the square before Devin catches up to him at the mouth of a dark alley. Ade has just rounded the corner when Devin reaches out and grabs hold of the collar of his coat. The sudden stop makes Ade lose his balance and fall backwards. The pull of the fall in turn makes Devin lose his grip on the by wet paint slippery collar. With nothing to break or block his fall, Ade falls onto his back amongst the trash and rubble with a painful thud.

“Please, please don’t kill me. Please don’t…” Ade lies on his back in the midst of broken bottles and suspiciously smelling plastic bags and protectively raises his hands in front of his face. As if Devin was out to hurt him – and as if that useless gesture would help him if that had been the case.

Dev steps around a box of broken lightbulbs and is now standing over the terrified Ade, hands now back in his pockets to conceal the fact that one of them is now irritatingly covered in smudges of white paint.

“Please….”, Ade whimpers again.

Devin studies his tragic form for a heartbeat. Although Ade’s entire body is covered in paint, he can clearly tell that the man has not aged a day since he saw him last. Not surprising, of course – the dead don’t age. He still looks to be a tall and slim male in his early forties, short and tidy haircut and intense grey eyes. Now, of course, panic has his face transformed into something less impressive than what used to be the case when he was the respected head servant of the notorious sacromancer Teneo. Pathetic… “Do you really think that I’m here to kill you?”, Devin says.

Ade pauses and stares at him, seemingly taken off guard. “You aren’t?”

“No. Although I guess I should. It’s not your place to run away just because your master is dead. Those like you are part of the inheritance, you know. I could count this as stealing from me and… John.” The last word comes with a bitter aftertaste. He’d really like to get his hands on that bastard as well. All in due time…

Ade crawls into a sitting position with his back against the wall. Devin is certain that were it not for that wall, this desperate defunct would be up and running away from him again in no time. “I’m so, so sorry, master Devin. I–” Devin slaps him across the face.

“No True Names, remember? Jesus, I should just kill you. You’re a walking liability. It’s Dev, you know that.”

Ade nods eagerly, fearfully. “I’m sorry, master… Dev. It will not happen again, I swear. And… And I am truly sorry for running away as well. Or, in fact, I was not really running, although I can see how it might have seemed like that. I was just–”

“Looking after our best interests, I’m sure. Listen, Ade. Cut the crap already. Your little vacation is over. We’ll get you into something more suitable, and then we’re going to talk. And you’re going to tell me everything you know about Teneo’s death.”

And the one called Ade Handma only continues nodding in fear as Devin reaches down and carelessly pulls him back onto his feet. “And no funny business this time”, Devin says as he leads him out of the alley. “Teneo’s not the only mage ever to learn Arcana Excessum, death magic. I could turn you back into a rotting pile of meat before you’ve had time to blink. You’d do well to remember that.”

Ade’s shoulders drop even lower. “That’s just what master John told me”, he sighs heavily.

Devin freezes and roughly turns Ade by the shoulders to face him. “What, John came to you?”

Ade stares at him, panic growing in his eyes again. “Yes, yes he did. I thought you knew. Right after Master passed away. He… Well, this was before I left the mansion. I wasn’t going to, see. I didn’t plan to. It was John who told me to leave. Master Teneo had ordered me to stay where I was and wait for the two of you, to direct you to his grave. And master John was the first of you to come.”

What the actual… Anger and frustration are bubbling through Devin’s blood stream now. “So John came? You mean, John has already found and taken all Teneo’s books and artefacts? You showed him right to them? You fucking undead fuck!” He’s almost screaming, and shakes Ade by the shoulders so hard that the servant’s head is bobbing back and forth.

“Please, master Devin, please, you–”

“It’s Dev, you idiot. Dev!” For his inner eye, Devin sees himself choking the sorry creature before him with his bare hands. He sees himself tearing him limb from limb until nothing remains but twitching shreds of what was once a resurrected man.

“No, I beg you”, Ade whimpers. “Please, I only did what–”

“Why wasn’t I informed, huh? Why was it only John who got the news of Teneo’s death, and not I? Why did I have to hear about it from him, of all people? Can you answer me that, huh?”

“Because” – Ade’s body is being shaken so hard that every syllable sounds like seven – “Because you were not. In. Town. Because you were hi–hiding. Not easy to… to find.”

Devin pauses for a moment. This is actually true, he realizes. Ade finding him where he had been holed up during his exile would have actually surprised him in the extreme. “Okay”, he says hastily. “But you still gave everything to John, didn’t you? All the stuff that was my legacy to claim as much as his. Mine even more, I´d say. John is a fucking snitch and traitor, everybody knows that. You know what he did to me, right?”

“Yes, yes of course I know about that”, Ade says hurriedly. “And I am extremely sorry that you have had to live through all that, young master. I truly am. But, young master, I have given nothing to master John except for information about where to find the grave. Just as the Master instructed me before his death. I swear.”

Devin stops shaking him entirely now. “Wait, you didn’t give him anything?”

Relief growing in his eyes, Ade shakes his head vigorously. “No, nothing. As the Master lay dying he instructed me on what to do after his death. He told me to bury his body in the old mausoleum and then send for the two of you, for you and master John. Then I was to stay put in the mansion and wait for one of you to show up. He didn’t tell me anything about any books or artefacts, he only wanted me to tell you where he was buried. So you could go pay your respects, I reckoned.”

“And then John showed up?”

“Yes, he did”, Ade replies. “He came, and I did as I had been instructed. He, too, asked me about the books and the other things, but I told him the truth – that I didn’t know where Teneo had hidden them. I instead told him where to find the grave, and that I had of course sent for you as well. I suggested that he wait for you, and that you go there together. I was thinking that the Master would probably have liked that, for the two of you to make peace finally.”

“But he didn’t wait”, Devin says coldly.

“No, he didn’t”, Ade says and suddenly looks away – seemingly afraid to continue meeting Devin’s gaze. “And before he went to find the grave… Well, he told me – no, ordered me – to go into hiding. To leave the mansion, find a place to hide and to wait for him there. He said that he would come and get me as soon as he had claimed Teneo’s heritage. I would serve him just as I served Master before he died. And I was also to… He told me not to contact you, or tell you anything – even about the grave. He said that he would kill me if I did.”

“I’m sure he would”, Devin mutters. “But he didn’t come back, did he?”

“No”, Ade says gloomily. “I hid completely for several days, in the woods and completely off the radar. But then the rain – and the animals… Master Dev, I simply had to get a roof over my head. But I had no money and I knew nobody, so–”

“Thus the marble act, I get it. I hope you realize that you’re not very good at keeping ‘off the radar’, Ade”, Devin says and produces the statue newspaper clipping from his pocket. “This is how I found you.”

Ade stares at the black and white picture and the headline and swallows hard. “Oh. Fuck”, he whispers.

“That’s right”, Devin says sternly. “A walking liability, that’s what you are.” He puts away the piece of paper again. “But it could have been worse. You should be happy that it was I who found you, and not a paranormal investigator or some stupid witch hunters.”

“Yes, of course I am grateful for that”, Ade says in a voice that’s hardly convincing at all.

Devin, however, doesn’t care about Ade’s questionable gratitude. “Come now”, he says and starts dragging Ade along again. “This alley – and you – are stinking. And you have a grave to show me before I decide what to do with you next.”

And the two of them leave the alley and walk into the waxing city night, both entirely unaware of the pair of piercing, amber eyes that have been watching their entire exchange from the shadows.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-11-09


You can find the next part here.

Seven Deadly Sins I: Superbia

This poem was originally published as a Twitter thread here. You can find the next poem, Seven Deadly Sins II: Avaritia here.


I found the village sleeping
or that was what I thought
But when I dared edge closer
the sight had me distraught

For all across the hamlet
the people were awake
Indulging in vain antics and
conceit of every make

Some locked in front of mirrors
some by indignant frays
And others yet were lost inside
a supercilious craze

And all this madness hailed from
the village center square
The music drew me closer;
I knew I must go there

I clenched the crystal tightly
and sent a prayer up high
Aware it was an angel,
though fallen, I’d defy

And then I entered boldly
into the market place
Heart racing quicker than my mind,
a stern look on my face

The villagers had seen me,
and armed they closer drew.
But then a cold voice stopped them:
“Ah, I did wait for you”.

And suddenly before me
the angel in his might
Surrounded by an aura
of blinding, humbling light

I stood there as if frozen
Too shocked to fight or flee
For there before me towered a
perfected form of me

Again now spoke the angel
“I’ll grant you what you see
and all the fame you covet if you
pledge yourself to me”.

And shamefully it tempted,
it almost made me slip
But then I felt the crystal burn
like fire in my grip.

I raised my hand and watched as
bright rays of light burst out
to engulf the hubric angel
before he could but shout

And dawn broke on the village,
the townsfolk shocked and dazed
Like all had been a nightmare
now gone without a trace

I left in the confusion
and thusly it begins:
I walked off in the sunrise on
the hunt for six more sins.


This poem was written in response to a hashtag game series by Marc Tizura/@areyouingrenin. The theme was “The Seven Deadly Sins”, and this day’s particular prompt was Pride – Lucifer. The Twitter hashtag is – go find more flash fiction there!

More of my other  texts will be uploaded on this page before long. Here is one: The Mothman Prophecy.