General Disclaimers: While it features no ‘on-screen’ sexual activity or explicit adult situations, this hypnofetish story does contain examples of fictional characters doing illegal, immoral and/or impossible things to other fictional characters. If you are under the age of consent in your community, are disturbed by such concepts, or want graphic sex in your pornography, then for goshsakes stop reading now!
Permission granted to re-post for free to any electronic medium, as long as no one's being charged to view it, and this disclaimer and e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) are not removed. It would also be nice if you told me you were posting it.
Copyright Voyer, 2001.
Specific Disclaimers: Set in the same universe at ‘Shades of Night Are Falling’, ‘Cut Off’, et al, and you should really read them first.
Dedicated to Shub-Niggurath. (Ie! Ie!)
It was raining down out of a thick night sky, the city’s patented endless drizzle, and a cool wind was blowing in off of the sea. It sent the narrow gray boat up and down, into and out of the deep troughs of the waves. The dark man at the oars was hunched over, his long black cloak fluttering uneasily around him as he pistoned his arms. His motions were odd; he was obviously very strong and he made steady progress, but it somewhat jerky progress, as though someone were using expertly-fashioned tools in a slightly ill-suited way. This man’s arms were clearly not meant to be rowing boats.
From the depths which swirled between his knife-like shoulder-blades, he looked out over the stern of the boat where the many lights of the city were spread in a thick messy smear along one half of the horizon. Scattered in front of them across the dark waters of the harbor could be the seen the smaller clusters of lights which were other, larger, vessels. Most were stationary, but a ferry could be seen churning its slow way across the harbor, headed for one of the larger outlying islands. The man in the boat scowled and ground his teeth together (rattling, scraping...) as he dropped his gaze down between his legs. Something had been wrapped up in lengths of damp gray blanket and lashed to the floor and the seat of the boat with long pieces of rope. The knots were perhaps inexpertly made, but they were very tight.
Evidently reassured, he twisted impossibly around and shot a glance over his shoulder, in the direction he and his battered craft were slowly headed.
The darkened lighthouse towered up at the very end of a long narrow finger of land, one of the many ends of a small and jumbled collection of rock that just managed to poke itself up above the crashing waves. The ‘house had been there for many decades, and was still standing even though the clipper ships and passenger liners it once used to guide into the harbor were long gone, replaced with the blocky computer-driven slabs that currently rode at anchor closer to the shore. In the daylight the tower was white, slender and graceful, chased at the top with tasteful trademark bands of the city’s gold and green. At the moment, however, it loomed dark and deeply ominous, pointing skyward as if the island was the first unearthed hand of a long-buried skeleton, and the lighthouse was a jutting forefinger. The man turned the grimace upside down, then stowed it away, back down in the festering shadows.
He rowed on, finally sculling into the relative calmness of the small semicircle of rocks that made up a sort of mini-harbor at the lighthouse’s base. Relative only; it was still a chore to jockey the boat up alongside the wooden-planked dock which jutted its narrow way out over the slopping waves. He was practically on top of the dock before he saw there was already a boat there, very much like his own, neatly lashed to the dock by two ropes and bobbing rather smugly up and down in the waves. His scowl came and went again, a white jagged bat battering for a moment against black windowpanes. He steered his boat alongside the opposite side of the dock from the first, his fingers digging into the barnacle-encrusted wood like eight tiny boat-hooks. Razor sharp. Grabbing on to objects was clearly one thing he had been designed to do. Having manually dragged the boat into position, he fumbled up a black-stained rope and looped it around a nearby post. This accomplished, he began ripping free the ropes in the bottom of the boat, torn manila fibers wafting in the breeze. When it came to lifting the object up out of the boat, however, he was suddenly care personified, moving with slow exaggerated caution. Even though he seemed to float along, the wet boards creaked a little under his feet.
Stepping off the dock, he wafted past a large weather-beaten sign, the black-on-white words barely visible in the gloom despite their size:
HUMPHREY ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE.
This means you.
The narrow rock-strewn path up from the dock was wet, treacherous and resolutely unlighted, but he hopped casually along from knoll to crag without any sign of trouble or discomfort, even as he hauled the bulky thing in his grasp. There was a screeching sound somewhere higher up in the rocks, metal on metal, and he came to a stop, his cloak swirling around him for a long moment before it too came to a rest. The same screech again, and then a second figure could be seen, appearing out of the deepening gloom, and moving downward with the same careless grace as the man. A short slender individual, wearing a (gray) cloak and a hood that completely concealed the face within. The first man tested the air with the thing that had caved in the middle of his face, and his mouth cracked apart once again, not quite smiling, not quite frowning. The hooded figure came closer and stopped as well, clearly not surprised, simply studying. The rain fell and the wind blew. The sad whistle of the ferry came dimly across the water. The man was the first to speak.
“You.” Cool and frozen, rotten ice glistening in the very bottom of a pit.
“Me.” Cool and frozen, bright moonlight on sparkling snow. The cloaked figure shifted a hip and stuck a pose, spreading sharp fingers to gather in much of the rain.
“For shame, my lady. Is it not past our bedtime?”
The cloak and hood instantly melted into a stance of mock-contrition.
“Oh yes, dearest lord. I’ve been ever-so naughty on this dark and stormy night. Perhaps I will be spanked when I finally return home, and then sent to bed without any supper.” She placed the back of a hand more-or-less to her forehead, careful not to disturb the hood’s shadows.
“Ah, we can only hope. I would love to be there to witness it, but alas, I have duties which clamor for my attention.”
“Alas.” Two violet eyes glittered somewhere inside the hood.
“Until we meet again.” He moved aside, clearing the path. He gave an elegant little bow, unhindered by his burden. The hooded figure curtsied silently in return, and went skipping down the path, almost but not quite flying from point to point, the same points he had touched, cloak billowing. Then she was gone, at least from sight. He turned back to climbing the hill, even in the wind listening to her flit down onto the dock, and out into her boat.
At the abrupt end of the path was the base of the lighthouse, and the door. The arched portal was made of riveted iron, and it was huge, towering up to twice his height. He put his burden down between his legs on the bare smoothness of the stone doorstep (no welcome mat in front of this door...) and any last trace of his levity fell away. He looked up, his hands dropped to his sides. Scratching restlessly. The stone blocks of the lighthouse loomed high over him, punctured with occasional narrow windows that gave forth not the slightest glimmer of light.
He lightly traced the dimensions of the door with his fingertips, perhaps following patterns not immediately visible to the naked eye. He tapped here and there with long nails, lightly. Then, without knocking, he grabbed the heavy latch and pushed the door open, shoving with all of his strength. It squealed and swung reluctantly inward on enormous hinges, opening into more and greater darkness. There was only a small hollowed-out space beyond, just enough for the door to open, and a flight of stairs curled up the inside wall of the tower, disappearing around the bend. He again scooped up the object and started upward. There were no doors on the interior wall, and still no lights. Something throbbed and rumbled under his feet, pounding up through the stones. The door swung itself shut behind him with a hollow boom.
The stairs ended before they should have, only perhaps three-fourths of the way up the tower, where they opened out into a circular room which was packed with a clutter of polished brass machinery, most of it towering and obscure in the dimness. A few flickering gas jet finally provided some light, and both electricity and steam pumped everywhere, through a tangle of cables and wires and gleaming pipes, connecting to a wild array of monitors and teletype machines which were stacked everywhere and mounted on the walls. Dimly visible between two particularly large banks of fuses and vacuum tubes was a metal ladder reaching up out of sight, towards the invisible ceiling.
In the center of the room under a single bright electric light was a woman, wearing a kimono-like garment and sitting cross-legged in a tall metal chair.
She was thin and smoothed-skinned and quite old. Her long gray hair hung very straight and clean, held in place with a single silver clip at the back of her neck and jarringly counterposed by the stub of a smoldering cigarette dangling in one corner of her mouth, the one grubby thing visible in the entire room. She did not look at the newcomer as she spoke in a clear if slightly rusty voice, continuing to type rapidly on one of the many keyboards arranged before her, bank on bank. The stub bobbed in time with her words.
“Another one. You’d think that I was running a damn aviary out here. Which of course I’m not. What do you want?” The keyboards were built like those of a cash register that you might have found in a backwater country store of a half-century previously, clunking loudly as she bashed at them. The cloaked man glared at the back of the gray head, at the clip, and again ground his teeth. When he spoke, however, it was with careful politeness.
“I have a question, my lady.”
“Of course. Everybody has questions. Bother bother bother. It’s a miracle that I ever get anything done around here.” She flicked a distracted hand in the general direction of a large steel table which was piled high with an assortment of mismatched objects: A potted plant bearing clusters of strange golden fruit. Some kind of tanned animal hide, enormous and deeply rippled. Dozens of boxes of expensive candy bars. And, despite her comments about aviaries, a goodly-sized bird crouching in a wrought-iron cage. The caged bird was coated in brilliant multicolored plumage, but it studied the two others in the room with flat black reptile eyes. The cloaked man studied it back with a matching gaze, then put his burden on one of the few clear spots on the table.
“Would you care for me to unwrap it, my lady? It is a mag-”
“Leave it. I know what it is. It’ll do. For one and only one question. Which is?” The woman continued to type. Clunk clunk clunk.
The other fished around inside his cloak, which spread in an unpleasantly wet sort of way, wet on the inside and not from the rain. Finally, he produced a single slick sheet, a slightly-blurred photograph which he held out to her.
“My Lady. My question is this: What happened to this man?”
For the first time the woman turned around, her high-backed padded chair spinning with a slight pneumatic hiss. She wore a pair of enormously thick glasses which appeared to be riveted to the sides of her head, and she was suddenly holding a long silver stick with a delicate pair of padded graspers at the far end. With this latter object she took the photo and studied it for only a moment before passing it back. The stick clicked open and shut like the keys on the keyboard did.
“Oh, yesss. I remember him.” A small snort. “That was amusing.” She slid the grasper back into a waiting slot with another, deeper click. The cigarette stub came out of her mouth, and was flicked at a small hole in a nearby panel. There was the sound of a distant vacuum cleaner, and the stub was slurped out of sight. She poised her fingers, then typed for a moment. One of the larger monitors wheezed and lit up, filling with gibberish, a swirl of color. There was also a new sound, a building buzzing somewhere back in the walls. She spun to face in a new direction, where there was a large rack of thick glass lenses, lined up on edge in neat unlabelled rows. She took two from different racks, seemingly at random, and clipped them into waiting slots in the frames of her glasses. She then raised her eyes, and studied the screen and its colors and its sounds. After a moment, she began to recite, her voice changing, becoming more mechanical, almost sing-song. As she talked, she pecked at a single key with her forefinger, over and over.
The woman in the chair abruptly shifted her voice back to normal for a moment, still watching the screen.
“The feed becomes a bit garbled for a moment at this point...” She made adjustments, typing and twirling knobs without looking at them. “There. That’s better...”
Clunk clunk clunk.
The screen stopped shimmering and howling, went back to showing a spiral test-pattern. Piston-sounds in the background. The woman removed the lenses, one by one, stowed them back on the proper racks, then gave a wooden crank a few turns. A piece of paper came clattering out of a nearby slot, and she ripped it off, leaving a sheet with a jagged end which she absently passed it to her visitor. He took it with a snatching motion. A picture of a woman, printed in lines of cheap ink and somewhat pixellated. She gazed out of the page, cool and detached, with an elegant if rather harsh bone structure, black eyes and matching hair. She in fact looked very much like a younger, taller version of the woman in the chair. The cloaked man stared at the image and then at his hostess, his claws moving on their own, crumpling the sheet and poking six small neat holes in it. When he spoke, the ice was cracking down in the pit, and black slimy things were poking their way out...
“The little rats took him? They helped the prey, and they took him?”
The old woman had already turned away, and was already typing again.
“Your question’s been answered. Unless you have payment for another, which I doubt, go away and quit bothering me.”
The cloaked man snarled silently, and gave a quick painful bow. He turned, and he was gone, his not-cloak fluttering around him like a tightly-banking cloud of angry locusts. The woman continued to type, even as the door below screamed open and shut for a last time.
After several long moments, there were new noises, bangings and clangings from above, and a figure came sluffing down the ladder, wheezing just a little. An elderly man wearing a one-piece worksuit with many bulging pockets, his body gaining pounds and shedding hair. He had a spiked leather collar around his neck, giving him the vague appearance of a bulldog. Reaching the floor, he strolled over to the table and took a candy bar from one of the boxes, which stood open. He peeled back the silvery wrapping from the bar, ripping the White Witch’s face in half as he did so. Munching away, he ambled back across the stone floor to stand behind the woman. He spoke through a mouthful of chocolate and hazelnuts.
“Whadda they want?”
“Him? The usual crap. Her... she was actually a bit more-” She finally glanced up at him in abstracted irritation, seeing what he was eating. “That’s mine, you old fool. Get your own damn candy.”
“Make me, woman.” Both of these statements were spoken absently, with no real venom. He swallowed the bite before going on. “There’s gonna trouble on them both, ain’t there?”
“Of course. There’s always trouble. Trouble trouble trouble. Why anyone would want this...” For the first time, she sounded a little tired. He silently broke off a piece of candy and passed it to her before disappearing back into the gloom. She chewed thoughtfully with one cheek and stared the screens around her, still typing. After a while she lit up a fresh cigarette, and for a time, she sat and watched the smoke curl up out of sight.
Even now, how it began was hazy and jumbled. Marcella had only gradually become aware that something was wrong, horribly wrong; feeling more tired and drained nearly every morning, horrible orgasmic dreams that were misplaced as the sun rose and she couldn’t find or piece them back together no matter how much she tried. Day and nights, especially nights, disappearing in rapid succession down some vast black drain. Far more than it frightened her, it enraged her; her whole life she had been able to slowly and surely bend the world around her to her will, working her way out of the dirt and up into the glittering heights, and now, something was slowly bending her, breaking her, and she couldn’t stop it. She couldn’t go to a doctor, or say anything to anyone about it. She found herself covering the small ghastly bruises with makeup, and going into the office every morning, smiling when she was supposed to, ripping out the usual hearts as events dictated.
Perhaps she had ripped out a few more than was entirely necessary.
She also wasn’t sure what finally snapped things open, started her up out of the pit, but forever after she remembered the moment with vivid clarity, snarling down the Way in her convertible, flashing past the grimy little peddler-carts and the street preachers and all the rest of the city’s riffraff, when it hit her and she stopped, pulling over to the curb in a scream of rubber. There were a few angry honks and swerves as the traffic sorted itself around her car, but she didn’t hear them.
This can’t go on.
This will not go on.
I will not allow it.
She clutched the leather-wrapped wheel. Not to work now. That was out of the question.
Not the apartment either. Not at night. That’s when...
I could leave the city. Just pack and go.
But no. They weren’t going to win, whoever they were. She was staying. No matter what happened, she was staying. This was her home. She had made her claim.
In a much darker corner of her mind, she wondered for a moment if she could leave even if she wanted to.
Moving decisively, she peeled back into traffic, driving down to one of the large hotels on the waterfront. She rented a room high up, overlooking the harbor, and called in sick to work, for the first time in her adult career. (Diseases simply didn’t dare and try to enter her system.) Then she sat in one of the padded leather chairs for several hours, into the evening, and stared out over the water. The ferries churned back and forth, and the white finger of the lighthouse scratched the sunset. She reviewed her life, and ignored the disgusting plaintive voice clamoring the back of her head.
go home go home its dark its almost time go go please
Marcella Wellington had been born and had grown up in a farming town on the east side of the mountains, one of a thousand nameless collections of silos, apple-packing houses and cheap truckers’ motels that clustered alongside the freeways heading even further east, off towards little but more farms and desert. Her father had worked in a garage, her mother had been a waitress in one of the motels’ greasy spoons. Their two sons seemed likely to follow in their footsteps. Their daughter had gotten out at the age of 18, come west over the mountains in her rattletrap car (definitely not a convertible then, oh no...), leaving all the other scraps of her old life lying abandoned in a ditch on the top of Keleborn Pass.
go need it want it go go
She sold the car a month later to one of the smarmy employees of a man who appeared in ads on TV wearing a moth-eaten gorilla suit. (And not just during the ads, if certain rumors were to be believed...) She got a menial job in one of the bottommost offices of Justin Takamara’s skyscraper and started working her way up towards the building’s owner, one painful floor at a time. Five years later, she was about halfway there. She had seen Takamura in person a couple of times; another two or three years and she might even have occasion to speak to him. She had met many other, lesser, men, dated some of them, slept with some of those when the mood or the need arose...
She hadn’t gotten far into this process before she realized that things were very different in the city. Different than ‘home’ in all the right ways, colors and lights and sounds and people who were actually alive and thinking, but different even than the other cities back east that she later visited on behalf of Takamura Enterprises. Along with all the rest, there were rumors and whispers, clustering in every arched corner and hanging from the sculpted metal street-signs, for those with the eyes to see them. Not just gossip about morons in gorilla suits, but a warning overheard during a cocktail party, or drifting out of a cluster of people during a gala premiere at the Panopticon. Don’t walk around here after dark. Don’t go there at any time for any reason. If you want to have some real fun and don’t have a whole lot of scruples, try the other place...
And people occasionally disappeared, just as if the earth had suddenly opened up underneath their feet and swallowed them.
And nobody seemed to care too much when this happened.
go go stand by the window
All of this made Marcella cautious, even more cautious than she had been, but none of it scared her. If anything, it exhilarated her even more than had her first glimpse of the city’s skyscrapers, rising high and glorious with the sea as a backdrop. There were secrets here, secrets in abundance, and secrets meant power. Secrets were the key to the heights. If she just kept her head, kept her eyes open, stayed out of the dangerous places until she was ready for them...
But then something had gone wrong. She had missed one of the warnings somewhere, and something had come out of the dark, one of the secrets had come to her to make her one of the ones who disappeared, and now she had to deal with it. Kill it. Take it in her fists and grind it to powder.
need it want it go go
So now Marcella Wellington sat in front of the window, and gazed out at the lights on the water, methodically sorting the rumors and the stories she had collected. Her knuckles were white on the arms of the chair. There was nothing describing her exact problem, but there was one nugget that had come up more than once, and finally her attention spiraled in towards it, a mental vulture coming to rest on its prey. One of her conquests had even mentioned it one night, as they lay together in bed in his apartment. She couldn’t even remember now which one it had been. Freddy? Stephen? It didn’t matter; it hadn't mattered while they were doing it.
Stories about a man in the International District, who had unusual connections in the city’s sprawling underground. Who could maybe get stuff you needed, or help people with serious problems, for a steep price.
The night, the night alone in the hotel room, had been bad, very bad,
go home go stand by the window black and empty and horrible DO IT NOWbut she had made it through, drinking endless cups of coffee ordered from the carefully-incurious room service and pacing back and forth across the carpet, keeping her eyes open and driving the whispers back into the darkness beyond the blazing table-lamps and the drawn curtains. She realized in a gut-clenching way that she could do it for maybe one more night if she had to, be away from that most special and black of windows when the sun went down, but after that... the whispers would find her again, really find her. She had at most two days to prepare.
DO IT Do It do it do it.....
An eternity later, the light of the sun came oozing up from behind the mountains and she drove home to her apartment. There was an ugly stuffy smell in the air which filled her rooms, like a building thunderstorm, like someone had been inside pawing and sniffing all over her things, leaving their stench behind. Hostile terrain, layered with land mines, and the far end, the window, huge and black even in the morning sunlight. She had moved in here only a couple of months previously, and it occurred to her as she stood in the doorway that might have been when the troubles had started. The old apartment had of course been smaller and shabbier, but she had slept well enough there at night. No black-eyed dreams.
Whose territory did I enter? Whose attention did I attract?
It didn’t matter. Not at the moment. She gathered what she needed, and went to the International District. The window glared at her, a dead mad eye, and it took all her strength not to snatch up one of her heavy brass sculptures, and hurl it through those malicious glittering panes...
As it transpired, the first step was the hardest. The man had been exactly were the stories had said he would be, but that was running a small nameless shop in some tiny back alley, selling... nothing in particular really. Nothing tangible, anyway. No one knew exactly where he was, or would admit to it. She drove around in circles for what seemed like hours, a dog chasing her own tail, chasing rumors past stores selling minature pagodas and live chickens, past stores selling very dead hamburgers wrapped in plastic, past warehouses with boarded-up windows and purple spirals spray-painted across the boards. Then, early in the afternoon, there she was, standing in the rotting shadows of an ancient bank of apartments, not near anywhere in particular. There was no name over the door, and the shop was filled up with artfully arranged shadows that made it appear cluttered, but only around the edges of your vision. If you looked straight at something, anything, there was nothing there worth absorbing light rays into your cortex, much less buying. Even so, there was no magic here that couldn’t be found on the fringes of legality in any city anywhere on the planet. Even her hometown had possessed at least one these stores, albeit in a provincial form. She had gone there a time or two, during her high school years...
The man behind the counter was the same way; you had to look at him out of the corner of your eye, speak sideways to his shadow or he turned to nothingness. But he was there, and he had what she wanted, or so he claimed:
“It’s not easy. It’s not safe. But it may help you. That is, they may be able and willing to help you, when not many folks could or would. After all, you got it bad, Missy. Even I can see that.”
“Don’t call me Missy.” She spoke like a mountain, hurling down enormous jags of ice on the huddling peons in the villages below. “Who are these people? What do they want in exchange?”
“People?” He laughed, but the sound never quite reached her ears. None of his words did; voices after all can be identified in court. “That’s one word for ‘em, I suppose. But they’ll tell you what they need. What they want, and what you’ll want.” He handed her slip of newsprint torn from the Times, with an address scrawled on it.
She looked at it, sliding it between her fingers.
“I’ve never heard of this street. Like the bridge?”
“Exactly like the bridge. It tends to get left off of most maps.” He smiled and for a moment he was almost solid.
“But you have one that you can sell me, of course. A map.”
After that, it all happened with surprising ease, and Marcella somehow kept from falling into gibbering insanity throughout it. She had found Harrowstone Avenue, and then the abandoned tunnel mouth which was 1423. It gaped like the window in her bedroom, while the bridge of the same name loomed almost directly overhead, She entered, walking down into the darkness with the flashlight she had purchased at a nearby hardware store, on the advice of the shopkeeper. The sounds of her heels echoed hollowly in the underground space as she walked, slow and steady on the smoothed stone floor, sloping downward at a fair clip. The powerful white beam from the light bobbed in counterpoint to her movements, showing the rust and corrosion of the jagged walls. Water dripped everywhere, both from long-shattered pipes and from black cracks in the ceiling, and there was a steady rumbling sound; the cars and the trams going by overhead in the slightly more mundane world.
She suddenly came out of the tunnel, into a wider space where the walls opened up and disappeared into the blackness. There was a long moment, then a voice spoke, and she came to a jerky halt.
She quartered the room with the flashlight, methodical and patient even after everything. There was nothing, then movement from one distant corner. A shape, coming closer. She nailed it with the beam and it too stopped.
Definitely an it. The hooded figure was mostly gray rags, and it scuttled, hunched over and grinning amidst the twisted clumps of its long dirty hair. Marcella spoke, managing to stretch herself to keep her voice cool and calm.
The thing laughed, a deeply unpleasant sound that chittered around and around the space on mad threadbare wings. It held its arms curled up into claws, in front of its chest. One of those grimy hands clutched a large wrench, which gave off well-polished sparkles in the light. When it spoke, there were odd echoes, somewhere far off in the distance. Laughter? Music? Both?
“You’re a brave one. That’s so very good. He likes the brave ones most of all.”
“He?” Marcella kept the thing pinned in the light. She slid her free hand around the handle of the pistol she had always carried in her purse after a (relatively mundane) mugging attempt a couple of years earlier.
“The one whose help you were sent here to seek. The lord and master of us all. The one who teaches, the one who guides. The one who wields the blessed whips and the spurs in the dark places. Perhaps you will even meet Him before the end. But perhaps not.”
“Who are you? What are you?”
“His servant. One of many. Or to you want a name? What is the point of names, Miss Marcella Anne Wellington? They are just labels applied arbitrarily. If you care about names, go talk to the one who walks, or one who watches. It is said they share your pre-occupation.”
The gun came out of her purse, and her eyes had gone very hard. She had taken lessons after buying the gun, and practiced regularly at a firing range, and it was centered squarely on the gray figure. The handle felt good in hands, cool and balanced.
“And just how is it you know my name? There is no way you could know that, unless this is a trap. Is this just part of it all, part of whoever it is that is coming in the night?”
The thing shrugged, unflinching before the barrel’s black mouth.
“Everything is part of everything else. Even Him. But no. We are not part of your immediate problem. He is not in league with your tormentor. If anything, the opposite is true, or will be before this has played out. We simply had word you were coming to see us. The...” it seemed to grope for a phrase... “...ones who dream told us. They told us your...”
“Your label. Your size and your shape, your black eyes and your fine clean bones. If you do not believe this, then leave now and do not return.”
“And who exactly are these dreamers? Are you saying that man in the shop called you?”
“Him? The one who sends people here? Ah no. In the end that one sees very little beyond his cash register and his stock portfolio. The... dreamers are the ones among us who see.” A sweeping all-encompassing gesture. “The ones who are connected more fully than the rest of us could ever hope to be. They are precious, and He seeks them eagerly, just as all the others do. Even the one who walks looks for them, although he would probably deny it.” Another swooping bat-laugh.
She looked at the thing in the beam and she considered. The world waited for her decision.
“Fine, servant-of-Him.” She lowered the gun but did not put it away, not by a long shot. “I was told by a man that your... His assistance is available for... hire.”
“Hire?” Yet another of those laughs. “Oh, yes. He has His price. As do we all. One that you will probably be quite willing to pay. But it will not be easy, and it will not be certain. To start with, you will have to be the one who actually cuts the cord.”
“Cord? What cord?”
“The cord that has been wrapped around you, Miss Wellington. Wet and black. It is getting tighter and tighter, isn’t it? Across your throat. Across your eyes. Around and around your heart and inside your mind. Every night the one who tied it there comes back, and he takes a little more from you. Tightens the knots. Soon there will be nothing left between.”
“How do I cut this cord?” The light may have wavered, just a little.
“With a knife, of course. Your gun will not help you, not with this, no matter how well you can aim it. Find a knife. Find a good sharp one. One designed for killing in the dark. I’m sure one such as yourself can find such a thing.”
She considered. The stories for once had been quite clear about this particular point.
“Yes. I know exactly where to get one.”
“Good. Good. But that is not enough. If you kill him, the others will come. It is their nature. But with His help... You cut the cord, and we will cover over the traces. The others will not find you. Not by the scent at least, since the cord will be broken, the trail washed away.”
“And you... He is going to do this out of the goodness of His heart?”
“In its way, that is more true than you might realize. But, no. The body. After you cut yourself free. He wants the body.”
“Whose body?” Even as she said the words, Marcella had a flash, a figure wearing a robe, or a cloak, something black, with joints in subtly the wrong places, and eyes...
“The body of the cord-tier. The one in the dark window who is eating your soul.”
“Can’t get one on your own?” Her voice came out a little ragged at last.
Coming through the window...
“Alas, no. But with your help, He will. At last. It is one of the more minor things He desires to possess.”
“What else? Do you want from me, I mean. I don’t care what else your master wants out of life. There’s more. I’ve done enough deals in my time to know that.”
“He wants your help. He wants you.”
“Me. Become like you?” Marcella laughed, a very unpleasant sound in its own way. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh, no. No no. Not like me at all. You will stay up on the surface. You will live your life as you always have. But there are times when He needs eyes, and ears, and hands up under sky, walking down the Way in the bright sunlight. He does you a favor, and you do him one in return.”
“I see.” Another consideration. “Very well. But I don’t make any promises about this favor. You ask me to go around killing people or something, you can forget it.” She thought, and she almost smiled. “Unless they really, really deserve it, of course.”
“Good. He his glad.” The thing capered a little, rags flapping, then held out a hand with arm-snapping motion, something dropping down and dangling from it, back and forth like a hypnotist’s watch. A whistle carved out of some ugly green-white metal.
“Take this, Miss Wellington. Take it and after you have cut the cord, blow it. If you are within the city, we will hear it, and we will be there. But it will work once and only once, so be sure when you use it. Be very sure.”
Marcella took the whistle, and looped the chain around her neck, under her blouse. It was very cold against her skin.
“And when you need this favor of yours?”
“When He needs to... ah... hire you, he will let you know. Until then...”
The thing faded back into the darkness once more, and the whispers and the music which had surrounded it stopped with a click. Marcella stood for a long moment, feeling suddenly irresolute. Then she shook herself angrily and began the long climb back to daylight, more than a little of her wanting very badly to strip off the whistle and then take a bath in liquid nitrogen.
And so it had happened. She slept for a few hours in the rest of the afternoon, and spent another night curled up in the corner of a different motel room, biting on one of the cheap white towels to keep from screaming, tying her own legs together with another to keep them from walking away, running away, running to the window and hurling herself through, down, down into his black eyes, his touch...
She parked the car in the basement garage at work. As soon as the sun was up, she was stalking down the Way on foot for almost the first time in her life, until she found a certain cart loaded down with birdcages and pushed by a weather-beaten woman with something vaguely unpleasant lurking in the very back of her businesslike expression. Marcella recognized the look and she approved; after all, she saw a close variation of it every morning in her mirror. She spoke without preamble.
“I need a knife.”
“Of course, ma’am.” The woman with the cart nodded, unsurprised and unsmiling. She flipped up a wooden panel of the side of the cart, revealing her second line of wares. “Could you give me an idea of what kind you are looking for?”
Marcella crossed her arms and looked at the choices for a moment before speaking. The other carts and pedestrians continued past them, a never-ending stream even this early in the morning.
“I need to cut cords in dark places. Or so I have been told.”
The woman nodded again, and immediately handed Marcella a long slim thing made of glistening metal. Marcella tilted it in her hand. It fit there very well, far better than the handle of her pistol, and she nodded.
The daylight fluttered past, and the window loomed up before her, cold and black and vast.
Greetings my dearest dove. Shall we dance?
“Hello, Miss Wellington.”
Marcella turned sharply, her hand automatically dropping into her purse and closing once again around the handle of the pistol. (Comforting as always, but not that knife, not by a long shot...) She had just come home from the office, back to her new apartment in a very different (if equally upscale) section of the city, on the proper bank of the river.
The figure which had spoken was lurking the woven shadows of a corner, watching her avidly. So many corners in this city, and so many shadows. It came forward in the usual scuttling motion, its gray rags shifting around it as the pieces of darkness broke apart and slid back into their proper places. It held a silver carnival mask, on the end of a stick. Marcella relaxed, but only the tiniest fraction. Her eyes narrowed to icy black slits, and her hand did not come out of her purse.
The thing giggled. It was a less unpleasant sound up in the daylight, but only just.
“Not me, Miss Wellington. Him.”
“I suppose you’re here to collect your... His favor. That was quick.”
“Oh, no. The favor comes later, and you will be more than happy to do it. Or so the ones who dream now believe. He sent me here because...” An eye-rolling glance towards the windows and the setting sun. “They know. The ones who fly in the night. They have found out who you are. They are looking for you, and even though you were wise enough to come to this new place they will find you in the end, as surely as He did. They will come after dark, and they will bundle you up and whisk you away. They may just trade you to the one who was already dead for another handful of their precious silver, but far more likely they will take you up, up to their Parliament under the cold hard stars, where you will at least gain the heights you seek so desperately. There too, you will learn true pain and suffering, for countless nights on end. Dry pain. Very dry and very very cold.”
“I see.” Deeply unimpressed. “And how did this happen? Our deal was that you would cover the trail. Cut off the cord.”
“We did. We wiped it clean and sterile, just as we promised. More complicated than just what you saw that night. But there are other ways, so many other ways, of getting information in this city. His followers and the ones who glimmer have the Underworld stretched tight between them, but your precious Heights... they, ah they are commanded by ones over whom even He has little influence. And they all have their dreamers, just as He does.”
“I can deal with this myself. I didn’t understand before. I wasn’t ready. I already owe you one favor, and that’s more than enough.”
“And still you do not understand. You cannot, for even now, you do not remember how easily it began with the one who flies in the night. And you fell under the thrall of only one, when he was only amusing himself and feeding. You have not met the entire flock, when they are enraged and seeking vengeance. But we can help you again, Miss Wellington. He can help you, and only He. You must see Him and petition Him for His aid.”
“Get out. If you ever need your rotten favor, come and get it over with. Otherwise, I never want to see one of you again.”
“When you are ready, when you have realized the truth, if it is not too late, come and seek Him. Seek Him in His palace, as you did before. He will help you, and He will raise you high in His service. He needs ones like you. For the Quest. For the Purpose. For the Battle that is to come.”
And then the ragged thing was gone, lifting the mask to cover its face and melting back down into the shadows. Marcella noted absently that the mask was shaped like her own face. She walked to once again stand by the window (no, no, just a window) and to stare out over the rooftops of the city.
Like before, whispers started bouncing around the crudely-carved space, coming in from the edges of the cavern. More and more of them, thicker and thicker. Against several of her instincts, something prompted Marcella to turn off her now well-traveled flashlight and let her eyes adjust. Dim electric light did trickle down from somewhere overhead, just enough to see. The same(?) guard as before had greeted her, and now more and more of the gray ones were filing into the chamber, in groups of two and three. Every one of them carried some sort of tool or implement. Shovels. Picks. Enormous steel hammers. Long iron hooks, sharpened down to razors. Whatever the type, they were all as clean and shiny as the wrench the first one had been holding. They drifted in and out of the slanting light, none of them coming near her or even seeming to look at her, but all circling her and jabbering back and forth to one another. Whispers. Whispers turning to music, a tune played on pipes.
She felt not even a twinge of fear, not toward these things. The truly scary things had come bursting into her apartment, turning all of the windows black and bottomless... She could reach out and swat all of these mutated Munchkins, and they would break apart...
Like dry twigs cracking on pavement between the trees
Amidst all of the activity and sound, Marcella noticed something or rather someone off to one side, her eyes drawn to them as soon as they appeared on the scene. The newcomer was standing between two of the... ones-who-were-gray.... who each carried a long wickedly-pointed spear. A prisoner or another... No. You quickly became adept at reading body language when you’ve successfully navigated the corporate battlefield, and there were security guards who were guarding, and there were guards who were escorting. The figure being escorted was one who did not fit in at all with the rest of the gathering crowd. It... she?... was tall and horribly pale and white, even glowing perhaps, standing very straight and still where all of the others hunched and skittered. Like them, however, it was dressed in rags and long hair, and it held one thin hand curled protectively to its chest, with something there that definitely glowed, bloated and pale. Seeing that it had caught her attention, the dead thing stretched its lips into a vague grin-shape and wiggled the long, long fingers of its free hand at her in a gesture of greeting. Its eyes...
She deliberately repressed a shudder and she did not turn away. The thing’s grin grew wider.
I’ll remember you.
Which of them thought it? Both?
Are you the one who was already dead?
Again, she wasn’t sure if it answered her somehow, or if she was hearing echoes of her own thoughts, in between the notes of the music.
The one who was already dead, whoever she is, lives out in the sunlight. In the Heights. Up near the Parliament of the ones who fly in the night.
Then it came, and everything else was forgotten. More music, more pipes, almost howling now, and He came, lumbering slowly out of the deepest and longest of the darkness on creaking joints, appearing to be partially propped up by two more of the figures who moved along on either side; they were more erect and human-appearing than the rest of His followers, and they were both clearly women. The thing shambling between them was towering, enormous, but spindly and fractured. Something she took at first to be a long thick tail dragged out behind it. Metal gleamed inside some of the cracks at the joints. It was literally held together with spit and baling wire, and its enormous pale eyes were worse even than those of the emaciated dead thing still grinning (glimmering...) in the corner, horrible stagnant cave-pools, and it grinned as well, with a wide mouth full of rot and contagion. It looked out into the darkness for a moment, then down at her. The music became an orchestra, and the colors started to flash, flash everywhere...
Again she did not look away, but glared defiantly.
One of the propping women spoke, smiling with white teeth. Her hair, and the hair of the other, was strange and coiled in a thousand small springs, very pale but not white, flourishing but somehow deformed... Her voice was high and sweet.
“Good. Very good. This is what He wants. This is what He needs.”
“What are you talking about?” Marcella did not even look at the speaker as she replied, keeping the Thing in the center of her attention.
“Pawns for the Battle He has in endless supply.” It was the second woman who answered this time, waving a hand at the cavern around them. “The land above swarms with them, to be harvested when needed. What He needs are more knights and rooks and bishops. He needs more queens.”
As this woman said this, Marcella became belatedly aware that she was holding something against her side, a large silver egg with a curling hose attached to its front. The hose slithered up into the air, a thick white cave-snake, and He held the other end in His long mottled hand. It terminated in something long and ominously pointed, a nozzle, a syringe? Something else? She gave a small snarl.
“I haven’t agreed to anything.”
“Yes, yes you have. By coming here you agreed to everything.” A third more-or-less human woman with more of the strange long hair, off to one side, drifting calmly closer as if being pushed on wheeled cart. “But even so, leave now if you desire it. Leave and never return. But they will find you again if you do. Even now, they are racing down your trail, circling closer and closer, sharpening their teeth and their claws. You know it, or you would not have come. Down here, with us, joining us, joining Him, you will be safe and protected in the dark of the night.”
“And during the day?”
“He has plans. You will rise high. High as you have dreamed, Miss Wellington. Higher even perhaps.”
Marcella said nothing, standing and looking into those eyes. The whispers and the music cut off, the colors strobed hideously, and the world hung in suspension for a final time, await her decision and her reply.
“Very well.” The song started up again, joyful and triumphant. The color spun themselves deeper and deeper. But still Marcella glared up at the figure which towered over her, grinning and peeled. Pieces dropped off it, curling flakes. She raked her long fingers against the fabric of her silk pajama bottoms. (She never, ever wore gowns or robes...) “But never forget this. I will always hate you. No matter what happens. No matter what you do.”
As before, it was one of the three women who answered, not the figure itself.
“You still don’t understand, Marcella. My dearest sister.”
They were clustering closer around her now, not just the more human ones, but the shadows as well, the ones scuttling around back in the darkness. They spoke, the words hopping from mouth to mouth, but never breaking flow. He just grinned and grinned.
“We hate Him just as much as you do.”
Hands closed around her, grips of gentle iron, pulling away her hastily-snatched purse and the flashlight.
“We hate Him even more.”
“We hate with a passion.”
“A fiery burning passion that will never ever die.”
She was dragged closer.
“And we love Him.”
“At the same time we love Him.”
“Oh, how we love Him.”
“We love Him so much.” The first women cuddling next to the Thing licked the gnarled flesh, slow and lingering, her eyes horrible and swirling. “We love Him more than life itself.”
“We love for Him.”
“We scream for Him.”
“We die for Him.”
“Until the end of all things.”
“As will you.”
“After today. After tonight.”
“But you get to go back up. You get to spend your days back up.”
“In the sunlight.”
“Enjoy it. Enjoy it while you still can.”
And then He caressed the tube, and something came out, a twirling thread of green glowing toxin, arcing down to her. Something grabbed her head, a thousand invisible fingers, and tilted her back, prying her mouth open. The honeyed poison dribbling down from the heavens was crawling down her throat, and she choked and gagged and was unable to scream. She swallowed and swallowed, and it spread inside her and it was never enough. She screamed in her head.
She screamed for Him.
Something new was thrust into her hand, a long solid tube which was far more slick and cool and silver than the gun or the dagger or anything could ever hope to be. Its surface remained flawless and incorruptible, but nevertheless things came shooting out of it, roots and tendrils digging into her, racing up into her brain and
They led her down, down into the colors and the music which lived and flourished forever in the dark places.
Afterwards, she was taken to a room that was almost hideous in its straight-edged normality; a bed, a dresser, a desk with a working light sitting on it. She stretched out on her back on the soft covers of the bed, clutching the silver thing with both hands and staring up at the ceiling with her dark eyes. In past few hours, she had learned many labels, and much history stretching back into the mists, and secrets beyond count.
And still there were vast patches of blackness that not even He, beloved hated He, had yet penetrated, and the Heights were veiled in the darkest clouds...
She twisted against the surface in her palms, felt Him and the others inside her head, and she did not smile.
But neither did she frown.
The two men stood near the entrance to the cavern and watched the crowd of frolicing figures fade slowly away into the darkness and the silence. When they were gone, the younger of the two was the one who broke the silence between them.
“It saw us. It knew we were here.” He tightened his grip around the thing he held in one hand.
“Of course He knew.” The older man’s voice was sad and mild. His own larger burden rested in a long-worn groove against one of his hips. “He knows most of what happens underground in this city. And He also knew we wouldn’t interfere. But even so, we shouldn’t overstay our welcome. Let’s go.”
They started up the tunnel. As they trudged back up the slope, the younger man muttered, almost to himself:
“You said watching that would help me understand.”
“It didn’t?” Mild curiousity.
“No. Yes. A little. Seeing it all from... from the outside... yes.” He gestured with his free hand, his fingers long and expressive. “That helped. With the details, if not....”
“The big picture.”
“Yes.” Silence for a moment. Dripping water. Footsteps. “And... You were involved in all this, weren’t you? I saw the traces on her.”
“Yes. Very good. You’re learning quickly. I was.”
“And He knew that as well, I imagine?”
“Why? Did you help her, I mean.”
“Because she deserved... somewhat better... than what was happening to her.”
A sharp glance from under a brimmed hat.
“You have your philanthropic moments, Father, I know that better than anyone. But that wasn’t the only reason. It wasn’t the only reason with me, either.”
“You are both of more use where you now are.”
“Use to whom? You? Your friend? The universe in general?”
“A little from column A, a little from column B.”
“I don’t understand. I still don’t understand any of this.” The younger man’s voice was more resigned than angry.
The smaller man reached up and patted his companion between the shoulderblades.
“When you get right down to it, my son, neither do I. Nor our friends. Nor... I more and more think... anyone else in this city.” He glanced up, as if observing an invisble audience somewhere. “But perhaps we all shall. Before the end of all things.”
“I can hardly wait.”
They emerged out of the tunnel just in time to watch the swarm of cloaked men descend on Marcella’s car. The flock ripped it apart with their bare hands, and the pieces sparkled in the streetlights as they were hurled far into the night.
To be continued?
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