Part 5: Carnivals and Killers

(The Family Man) Chapter 2: Down the Rabbit Hole

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?”

“Precisely.”

“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.

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Part 5: Carnivals and Killers, Uncategorized

(The Family Man) Chapter 1: Who Goes There

The door in the alleyway was hardly visible beneath the heaping shadows of the city, and seemed incapable of leading to anything but the lowliest of accommodations. Once beyond the door, I encountered a species of darkness that I had come to expect from the forgotten corners of the city, having some portion of its construction owing to an elder blackness that, should it choose, could stand firmly against even the brightest light. However, these shadows were not to be trusted, as they answered only to the lords of Nighthead.

The tunnel was winding, and remarked upon the basest kind of usage, sporting litter and dampness just as a chameleon would put on the colors of its surroundings, tempting one to put aside curiosity and to accept illusion. And only after I had traveled further than any accidental or casual observer would have, the hallways began to offer up small hints as to its ultimate destination, along with the possible identity of those who were conducted down the darkly rambling course. Granted, normal eyes would never have seen past the alien dark, and even with the assistance of artificial light, trespassers would have been confronted only by the masks that ancient darkness can put on, tricking all but the most attentive of inquiries. But I spoke some small portion of the shadow’s murky lexicon, and so the darkness admitted a sliver of my vision into the primordial places hidden away behind solidified shadow.

There were ‘batteries’ filled with darkness at every turn—objects that had set for miniature eternities beyond even the weakest touch of light, filling-up with the pitch that defied the stars. Everything here had been infused with the oldest shades. The stone of the floor had been inlaid with grave-dust, and pressed into the walls were forgotten toys recovered from crumbling attics and cellars, alienesque bones that had lived longer under the earth than mankind had walked upon it, and some of the oldest funerary idols ever offered to the groaning bowels of the world: things that magnified the common darkness into otherworldly bastions for the “Walking Dark,” the true high priests of the Order of Nox.

When I reached the end of the tunnel, I encountered a man sitting within a large seat hewn from a great protrusion of onyx, which projected from a gigantic, open mouth that had been carved into the distant wall. The man was nearly part of the enshrouded atmosphere, and I could feel his eyes open upon me from every pore of gloom that haunted the deeper recesses of the chamber we occupied. His voice was the sound of nightfall and of the spaces hidden beneath beds and of forgotten openings into the earth.

“Stand there,” he said, gesturing to a small platform to his left. I said nothing, but only did as I was instructed. When I assumed a place upon the dais, the man rose from his seat and pulled a lever that seemed to simply appear from the wall. Within seconds I was descending deeper into the earth. How long I traveled or how deeply I descended I cannot say precisely, save only that I was lowered to a depth where the caverns beneath Lastrygone would have seemed like the shallows that flit about the rim of the deepest sea.

At some point during my descent, the walls around me disappeared, giving way to a vastness that, like the titan ghost of some long-dead prehistoric sky, opened dark and primal, offering black heavens to the dead and damned. There was also movement all around me, and I was reminded of sharks gliding casually around their intended prey, waiting. And regardless of how much I strained, even my eyes failed to pluck shapes from the surging void. I was hesitant to summon my sisters, despite their pleading, as I had been invited to this place, and a show of arms would be poorly received, I reasoned.

After the platform settled atop something solid, making a sound that was immediately reflected within great emptiness that unfolded all around me, I was unsure how to proceed, as there was but oblivion and silence to greet me.

It wasn’t long before cold words floated up to me from below.

“I shouldn’t be impressed that you chose to come, being who and what you are, and yet I am impressed, none the less.” The voice seemed inhuman, but not for a different arrangement of vocal mechanisms, but rather the odd modulations affected to the speaker’s tone by way of, what seemed, an intervening mechanical filter. I could feel something drawing closer to me from somewhere below, and I could hear the careful and repeated contact of metal meeting stone.

“No. You certainly shouldn’t be impressed, but if you choose to be there is nothing I can do about it. And I thank you for meeting with me. Few others would take such a risk,” I said, seeking to match the speaker’s level of insinuated menace. I could still hear the sounds of a metallic stride catching in the wide silence around me, suggesting something rather large was approaching. I muted my instincts to kill, and I could feel the silent and searing reproach of my family.

“I’d guess we both know, to some extent, who it is that we are dealing with, which is good, I suppose. And as far as your reason for coming to us is concerned—yes, we do know something about the entity you mentioned, the Shepherd of Wolves.” His words were now drifting down to me, as he was speaking from a height well above me. “Let us sit and talk, now.” As he reached the end of his sentence, the darkness shifted into intelligible shapes and discernable distances, but not through the ordinary medium of light, but by means of some alien wavelength of darkness, which did not expand on what could be seen, but only revealed what my mind was allowed to know.

The darkness showed me my host—a gigantic and apparently mechanized thing that stood well over eight feet tall. Tumbling from its back were great lengths of black cable, which fell across the ground and slithered down a great stone stairwell that unraveled into oblivion. All told, the thing looked something like a vintage deep-diving suit, replete with the round, iron helmet. The creature noticed my curiosity at its appearance and offered me a small justification for its attire. “The dark, even at this depth, is far too bright for the likes of me, and so I must channel the stuff of purest pitch through the mechanical apparatus that you are now admiring. But now let us discuss the matter at hand, shall we?”

I hadn’t at that point adequately absorbed my surroundings within the underground world, and as I seated myself at the small table that had been put out for our meeting, I realized that we were situated atop a great, black skyscraper, of sorts, and apparently carved from the dullest anthracite. It was but a single structure within a never-ending crowd of the things, each one made from darkness as much as it was from stone. This was a city that surrounded us, and one that was made to the specific comforts of living shadows.

I was at last in the darkly fabled City of Unduur.