The thing that sat across from me was nourished by purest darkness, and I could hear the kindle of shadows surging through the metal coils and tubers that slithered, coal-black and primal, every-which-way about the being’s armored exterior. But for all of that, my host was perfectly pleasant, and even offered me a beverage. I declined, of course. I was all too familiar with the sweet blackberry wines that were derived from the dark fruits of the deep forests, where the eldest Dark-hats are known to pray to strange gods. The inky beverages have been suspected, by some rather prominent occultists, to contain spirits of a decidedly non-alcoholic variety.
Without conversational nuances, such as the simple pleasantry of exchanging names, my host began his exposition. “The Shepherd of Wolves is a type of being called, by my kind, an ‘Unbegotten.’ These creatures are without beginning or end, and seek nothing but the limits of their own pleasure. They have been known, from time to time, to put on a semblance of definition, merely a trifling whim on their part, I would imagine. The Shepherd has made a prodigious sport from giving the impression that he is greatly preoccupied with the fate and function of murderers, and has even fashioned games of death to satiate his fascination with killing and killers. Surely, this last bit is why you have sought us out. You are playing one of his games, are you not?”
“I see. In the past, the Shepherd’s contests were very small, consisting only of a handful of participants and taking place across a relatively minute killing-field. But since the Darkness, all that has changed. The powers behind the night have been given substantially greater license to tarry beyond the threshold of our solid world, to more completely master their desires. The Shepherd has gathered together some of the greatest of your kind, and he means to see them outline mankind’s darkest nature in blood and death.”
“I know most of this. What I came to know is nothing short of the meaning of the game. What is the purpose of it all?” I said, somewhat ashamed of the banality of my question. My words trailed into the silence, leaving small, whispering motes of insecurity as they traveled outward, over black peaks and graven anthracite.
“The last time a winner was declared, tens of thousands of people were found impaled upon the leafless, winter branches of an entire forest, and only so far from death as to allow a few prayerful moans to escape their mouths, which had been snapped open and filled by an untold sum of sparkling, gold coins. Every dead man, woman and child yawned with jaws overfilled and dripping with gold, which littered the forest floor like yellow leaves during the height of autumn. At the time, there was a killer well-known for hanging his victims from trees and filling their mouths with gold-painted, wooden coins. That killer, it has been assumed, won the Shepherd’s game.”
“Nearly every greedy child has been forced to know, at some time or another, the cautionary tale, ‘The Golden Leaves of Winter.’ Although the Shepherd of Wolves was not mentioned in any of the iterations of the tale that I’ve ever heard,” I said, not completely sure I believed what my host had told me. “However, I will admit that all of this is very interesting, but it’s far from the definitive answer I was hoping for,” I declared, beginning to understand why the supplicants of the most ancient darkness were willing to meet with me.
The being from the deep darkness continued, “But you understand what might come of such a game, specifically one that reaches its conclusion after the Great Darkness?” I could feel the darkness around me tighten, trying to hold me in my chair. I decided to answer the creature’s question with all the honesty I could muster.
“Certainly. Entire populations of people could die. Perhaps even something on the order of a country-wide die-out. I know only the identities of two other living players, myself and Jack Lantern…and I can only imagine the dreams that might spring from our killing fields. I can see it now, a nearly endless Halloween, burning dim and orange across half the world, with clean-carved smiles glowing from every window. And then there’s the possibility of an art gallery, its exhibits filled to bursting with lost dreams, spilling weird and wonderful from coast to coast, immortal and explicit. But you don’t care anything about that, do you? Your only concern is that Nighthead might come under the knife, yes? You don’t need to say anything, as I already know your answer. You wish to end the game by destroying its players, thereby sheltering your own wicked industries from the Shepherd’s touch. It’s a purely logical move for your kind to make, after all. And I’m quite sure that, somewhere upon your person, perhaps hidden in some strange metallic compartment, there are the murder-lists you’ve taken from the fallen players of the Shepherd’s game, players your kind hunted down and killed. And now you would have my list.”
The bizarrely attired being rose from the table. Once standing, he pushed a button that was located on his armored forearm. And then, with a tiny hiss of steam, a compartment on his belt opened…and out tumbled no less than three kill-lists. I decided to continue with my honesty.
“I certainly can’t hold any of this against you. And if it might make you feel better about attempting to halt the progress of this wonderful game, I will tell you that I had no intention of leaving here without tasting the shadows that swim through your veins, as my visit to Nighthead could very well be my last time in your magnificent city, should I fall to Jack Lantern, or some other player. I just couldn’t leave without showing you my art…and basking in your unsurpassed darkness.”
By the time the vison of the under-city, the rooftop, and the man clad in solid shadow had been stripped from my sight, I had already memorized my surroundings. My father was fuming with stolen darkness as I roused him from red dreams. And while the alien dark was somewhat constrictive, it was not immovable. With some effort, I lifted myself from my seat and prepared my next move.
I knew that the surrounding shadows were like the well-laid webs of a spider, alerting their master to every movement that took place within them; and while I knew well enough my surroundings, I also knew that darkness and time would grant a serious advantage to my opponent. So, not wanting to allow my opponent the luxury of moving too far from where he last appeared to me, I rushed to the spot I assumed he still stood, my father burning within my hands.
As I had assumed, the being wasn’t the fastest of creatures, and so hadn’t moved far from his seat at the table. My father collided with the armored darkness, and sank deep beyond the layers of steel, into a near-ethereal body of shadow. The being cried out, simultaneously loosing what sounded like gunfire, which no doubt emanated from the many recessed weapon-systems that lined his armored suit. I was already behind the creature when the worst of its weaponry had discharged. It wasn’t terribly difficult to pull the cables out from the creature’s gigantic helmet, cables that fed the darkling his nourishing pitch.
And then it was over.
When I sought out a dead body within the deep spaces of the armored suit, I found nothing; there was merely a silken darkness that weighed slightly more than the surrounding silence. With my aspirations for art dashed, I took up a new idea.
I replaced the cables to the back of the armored suit’s comically overlarge helmet, put on the armored suit, and breathed in a darkness I could have never imagined.
And then, like some deep sea explorer, I began to probe the primordial depths of the dead-black city.