This is a bad fucking idea.
Emmett Delacroix’s Shadow
GM: Try to go home and I’ll drop you in a harrowing.
Or maybe see if I can push away Hannah.
Which would you hate more, scale of 10?
Emmett: Kinky. Sure. Not there. Not even if I agree to give Dad a nasty surprise?
GM: Like what?
Emmett: Not very imaginative, are we. Unless you really don’t want to kill those damn dogs.
GM: Ha. Hahahaha.
Emmett: Oh, that might just be my better nature trying to tell me this world will be a better place without either of those flea-stinking, housebroken fucking monsters.
GM: Okay. Let’s kill the mutts. They were always his replacement for us anyway.
Emmett: Couldn’t agree more. After I talk to Dad.
GM: What the fuck even about?
Emmett: He knew that other ghosts. Which means he knows about ghosts. Think dear old dad may have been holding out on us. I want to know what he knows. I had enough of him knowing shit I didn’t when I was alive.
GM: So what? He’s just a human. He doesn’t know anywhere close to as much as I do.
Kill his dogs and might be I’ll feel in a talkative mood.
Emmett: That’s a good point. But let’s be even about this. One before. One after.
GM: Okay. One question now.
Wait, how the fuck are you even going to kill his dogs? Last I checked, the most we can do in the real world is fog mirrors and make spooky images.
Emmett: We’ll find a way. Or rather, I will. Can always scare a neighborhood kid into doing it. But one question now: Lamarck was holding back something about how to get juice. You know what that might be?
GM: Yeah, you’re getting jack shit until you find a way.
Go pop in on the neighborhood brats, I guess.
Emmett: I’d fly, but I’m a little low on juice. Tell me how to get some, and I’ll head over.
GM: Fuck you.
I’m sick of helping you out and getting nothing but promises.
Emmett: Sick, are you. Wow. That must be tiring. Fine, we’ll walk to the neighborhood. It’ll take a long time and it’ll be more dangerous. Moment it looks like I can get a kid to grok one of the pooches, though, I want my answer.
GM: Yeah, except I think it’s funny watching your ass land in the fire, so win for me.
Emmett: You can literally tell I’m not planning to fuck you here, so you holding out is nothing but making you wait longer.
GM: It annoys you, though.
So that’s worth it.
Emmett: If you’re not okay with me doing that, though, no reason to go after the pooches.
GM: Then you can live without answers, fuckwad.
Or I guess ‘stay dead.’
Emmett: He takes a deep breath. A deep, deep breath that shouldn’t be necessary.
Then he decides to make a bad decision. It’s been a few minutes since the last, after all.
He orients himself, and then starts walking to the Garden District.
GM: It’s a long walk from the Quarter to his destination. Em passes scene after scene of decay and morbidity. The CBD looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the soaring skyscrapers little more than bombed-out, blasted husks. Indistinct penumbral shapes seem to flicker and cavort among the too-dark spaces between the ruins.
But nothing disturbs Em along his journey.
He has the nagging sense that his destination might be more perilous than anything he runs into along the way.
Emmett: Not just nagging. All but screaming.
But where there is danger, there is opportunity also.
GM: The Garden District is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city, or at least the living city. The live oaks have an almost architectural presence. They reach to the sky, like living buildings, huge and thick, with large, twisty branches, forming leafy canopies over the streets lucky enough to have them as neighbors. Strolling through is like visiting a sculpture park. Each tree is an improbable explosion of form. Branches run perpendicular, for feet at time, only to dip down, retake root in the ground, and then resprout, like a subdivision of the original tree. These gravity-defying limbs—every bit as structurally challenging as anything by Frank Gehry—prove difficult to resist. They invite exploration, especially by the young (and the young at heart).
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Here, though, the branches are barren and lifeless. There is not so much as a single leaf. The trees are dead husks trapped in eternal winter, and the jungle gym-like branches do not invite exploration, but fear. They seem like a crone’s clawed hands, sharp and withered and covetously grasping at everything within reach. The longer he stares at them, the more they seem to twist under his vision like some elaborate optical illusion. They seem less like hands and more like tooth-lined, noneuclidean maws, inviting him to but step inside before they snap shut around him. Would that be such a terrible thing?
Emmett: Probably not. But the trees will be here later, if he survives the meeting ahead.
The lesser of two evils will always remain.
GM: The rest of the neighborhood’s dead reflection is much the same as the trees. The grand old mansions are rotted husks all but screaming to be used by the dead as haunted houses. Statues’ pitted faces are set with cruelty and hate. The flowering gardens are shriveled abattoirs of brewing poison. The water from the fountains is stagnant and brackish. Few luminous figures are visible along the cracked and poorly maintained sidewalks. The hour seems late indeed.
He finally comes to his address.
1415 3rd St.
Emmett: A number etched into his memory with nightmare letters since he was seventeen. The last time he was here. The last time he ever entered this place, cocky and high on his own ego, his own certainty. And when he ran from here mere minutes later, the world upside down and shattered like a glass in a bar fight.
This place, where he learned that monsters were real and that sometimes they had families.
The dead man squares his shoulders, lets out a corpse-breath he didn’t know he had been holding, and strides forward into Château Devillers.
GM: In the real world, the Walter Grinnan Robinson House is one of the most beautiful homes in New Orleans. The palatial Antebellum mansion incorporates a sophisticated blend of Greek Revival and Italianate styles with a Neoclassical cast iron fence adorned in delicate shell motifs. It feels like a throwback to an earlier age of opulence. It’s far from the only multimillion house in the historic neighborhood to feel that way.
Viewed from the street, the house presents an impressive sight. It’s far back on the lot, sideways to the street, with a Palladian carriage house and iron gates. The impressive scale of the house results from its two nearly 16-foot stories of equal height. Double galleries with curved ends, an essential feature of Garden District homes, adorn the façade. These feature Doric columns on the first floor and Corinthian on the second. Cast iron panels in a somewhat heavier than normal pattern link the columns and blend well with the feeling of solidity which the building gives. The southern exposure has double galleries framed in ironwork of a lacy design, which effectively lightens and gives delicacy to the whole of the building.
The snow-white mansion is also one of the largest properties in the city, covering close to 14,000 square feet if one also includes the 1,500 square foot carriage house that likely served as servant quarters when the house was first built.
The spectacular grounds have a beautiful pool. Outdoor features include multiple balconies/porches, a Neoclassical fountain, and formal gardens with weeping willows, palm trees, and vibrant flowerbeds of roses, violets, magnolias, and other sweet-smelling blossoms. Neatly-trimmed green hedges and a wrought-iron fence make the home’s privacy tastefully but abundantly clear. Access in is controlled through an intercom by the gate.
But all of that is in the real world.
Here, in the gray purgatory where dead people go, the snow-white manse itself looks mostly the same. It isn’t rotting and dilapidated, like the other homes in the neighborhood are, or half-translucent to Em’s sight. On the contrary, the house looks pristine and corporeal, as if someone plucked the structure that exists in the real world and replicated it here in the Shadowlands.
The similarities end there.
Most of the home isn’t white. It’s pitch black. Deeper than black. Em feels like he’s falling into an abyss just staring at it—and prevented only by its shape. Enormous tendrils of inky, dripping darkness are wrapped crushingly tight around the snow-white house like protoplasmic pseudopods, a kraken’s tentacles, or a spider’s million-stranded web. Em is not sure which. They seem to pulse and ripple as he gazes upon them, defying definition as either strand, limb, or amorphous appendage. The house’s geometric angles seem off, too, the longer he stares at them, and increasingly non-euclidean, as if his mind is unable to fully take in the sight before it. His head is already starting to hurt. Part of him wants to look away. Part of him wonders how much good it would do. The black morass drenched over the house feels almost alive. Em could swear he can hear it pulsing like a beating heart as it caresses the smothered, strangled home. He can hear the wet pools of black, tar-like blood (how does he know it is blood?) running down the house’s side like oily tears. Em cannot tell where the blood ends and the tendrils (tentacles? pseudopods? webs?) begin. All is darkness. All is night. The snow-white house stands tall before him, but it is gone, no more than a memory. It is the darkness that gives this home its form and substance. To enter this house is to enter a gaping maw.
Em knows. He knows, all the way to the bottom of his shriveled soul.
This place is evil.
The wrought iron gates yawn invitingly open.
He knows it then like he knows that this place is evil.
This place knows he’s coming.
It welcomes him, even if only to a darker and more dismal fate than the one he currently inhabits.
Turn back, whispers whatever thinner-than-paper buffer of instinct that separates Em from his Shadow. The tiny part of him that just wants to exist.
Turn back, and just stop trying so hard.
But he is already dead. Hannah had struggled to say it, but he knows the truth: he has less to lose now than he ever has before.
Em looks at the house that looks back, stares through him like, well, a ghost. He cannot win a staring contest with it. But he can capture its gaze.
He can enrapture it.
Em gives himself a tuxedo, dark as the shadows this place casts, complete with a bowtie that twinkles when he smiles. If he dropped dead the night he met Cècilia, he might not have looked like he does now, his corpse-face scraped clean of the stubble he so often wore in the last days of his life. He considers adding a hat, but decides against it.
Nobody dies with a fucking hat on, and they don’t do it so they can wear one after.
Dressed for a dance, Emmett Miloud Delacroix walks into the Devil’s Den.
GM: The Devil’s gates clang shut behind him.
A white path stretches before him.
He almost wonders how he missed it. How he could possibly ever have missed it.
The house’s lawn is white. Em only somewhat sarcastically supposes most people born and raised in this city wouldn’t know snow if someone dumped it down their shirt, but he’s been to Denver in the winter, back when he thought he could solve his problems by running someplace else. (After all, if your problems are you, a change in scenery won’t do much.)
It crunches under his feet, like thickly-packed snow crunches.
But snow comes in smaller flakes than ones he can pick up with both hands.
Snow doesn’t stare up at him with two black, empty eye sockets and death’s rictus grin.
There are dozens of them, he realizes, as he stares across the home’s white lawn. Hundreds of them. They come in all shapes and sizes. Stripped clean of flesh, one and all, with naught left but gleaming bone. Most of them have at least vaguely humanoid anatomy.
Some of them don’t.
But all of them make the same sound.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
Emmett: It’s not exactly how he would decorate. He’s more of a cactus person.
He takes a step, and another step, and then he steps into the air and floats over the other dead things until he reaches the door.
He knocks three times, gentle but insistent.
GM: His spectral flesh raps solidly against the door. He can hear his knocks.
There is no response.
The door merely swings open on silent hinges.
Past its threshold is nothing but pitch black.
Emmett: That gives him pause. That emptiness. That clear, final warning.
Last chance to fold before the showdown.
GM: This is a bad fucking idea.
Emmett: And then his Shadow speaks, and he feels himself grinning savagely.
Find her unnerving, do we?
Man, if only I was talking to Kione right now, right?
Ooh, OOH! Or with the Knights?
Or maybe talking to my dad.
GM: I’m just stating the obvious.
We never met a bad idea we didn’t like.
Emmett: Ain’t that so.
Well, Em never lost a game of chicken.
He steps over the threshold, and into the darkness.
GM: There’s a sensation of falling. Vertigo. Butterflies in his stomach.
Squirming, burrowing maggots in his stomach.
He doesn’t feel his body limbs spreading. He doesn’t feel air resistance tugging against them.
There’s just. Falling.
His feet hit the floor. His footsteps seem to echo for miles.
Shapes emerge from the gloom. Outlines. He’s in a bedroom with a four-postered bed. Cavernous windows yawn open to a howling black void. A storm rages out there, but it’s none he can see.
A shape lies on the bed. It’s clad in a flowing dress of purest midnight. Em can’t say where it ends and the room begins. There’s no one in the dress, but it bulges as if filled.
The clothes have no emperor.
A young girl lies on the bed. Her face burrows against the dress’ bosom. Her form glows white with the telltale aura of life. A cord trails from her back, like Amelie’s, but pitch black. It looks less like a cord and more like a spider’s grotesquely overlong stinger, stabbing deep into her heart. Em can see viscous, tar-like black blood sluggishly crawling through her veins with every inhalation and exhalation of her chest.
Emmett: He approaches the glowing girl. Tries to make out her face.
GM: She looks like a Devillers. He cannot say which one, beyond prepubescent. They all look so alike. Oily black tears slowly leak from her closed eyes.
When Em leans close, he can see tiny, mouth-like bubbles popping open in the tar-like substance.
He can hear them, too.
Emmett: “Simmone?” Em mutters softly. He thinks that was her name, Abèlia’s youngest.
He turns his attention to the screaming bubbles. “Souls?” he muses, too weary to pity them. “Hmmm. Guess you aren’t a vampire, then. Didn’t think you were, but never heard of one doing that.”
He looks back at the girl, at her tears. “Is she in pain?” he asks, again aloud.
GM: Emmett’s only answer comes from the howling void. Windows rattle in their frames as he feels a shadow draw over his soul.
There’s something out there.
Emmett: But his soul is a dark place already. A greater shadow is a novelty.
He turns to face it, his expression turned to a faint smile, his ruined, gangrenous arm lifting in a dead man’s salute.
“I’ve come to talk,” he says to the thing outside.
GM: The void only continues to howl.
Emmett: He reaches out a finger and pokes the stinger-like protuberance.
GM: His finger passes through like it’s not there. He feels another small part of himself wither and die, but cannot even name what he lost.
Emmett: He hisses, clenches a fist.
“Okay. Don’t like to be touched.”
He reaches for the dress next, touching its torso, seeing if it folds under contact.
GM: It depresses under his touch. Oily black blood leaks out. It smells violet, cool, and creamy. Perfume lathered over the death of innocence and the rape of hope. The sound of the seeping liquid is almost hypnotic.
It’s like babbling, watery laughter.
Emmett: For a moment, he is alive and seventeen again, and his heart is pounding, his forehead bristling with sweat and disbelief and Louisiana heat as he runs from this place, and that laughter outruns him and waits for him to catch up.
But only for a moment. Then he is dead again, and dressed for dancing, and he says, “I’ve come with a wedding gift.”
GM: The blood seeps across the black stretch that is the not-floor. Em doesn’t know where the room’s lights came from, but he knows when they die. The storm in the void shrieks against the windows. Motion suddenly ripples underneath Em’s feet, like quicksand, and he’s flung face-first onto the bed. It splits open like a hungry maw, with jagged bits of wood for teeth.
The violet and creamy perfume scent wafts up his face like a monster’s breath, but the rot underneath is impossible to mask. It smells like prison—semen, blood, iron, and stale sweat, over something even blacker and fouler.
“WhY, hOw tHoUgHtFuL oF yOU, yOunG lEMuRE. i HOPE YOU HavE ChOsEN With CaRE.”
The voice is warbling and discordant, like dozens of people trying to talk over each other at once through broken jaws and shredded tongues.
“YOuR CoRPUs WoUlD aLSO mAkE aN aCcePTAblE gIFt, anD SaTE MINE APpEtiTeS FOR A TimE.”
Emmett: I don’t know what you’re talking about, Gasper. This was a great idea.
The smell would make him gag if he were living, but as a dead man it merely curdles his smile—but only for a moment. He reclines on the bed with his elbows supporting him, his eyes wide with awe but his voice rapt, eager to please.
“Then you are in luck, madame, if you find it lacking. Though methinks—” she seems like she’ll appreciate ‘methinks,’ “—you’ll enjoy it, for a time anyways.”
He slips a hand beneath his jacket and it comes out with a tall, bright red-wrapped present tied with purple ribbons.
He offers it to the darkness to open.
GM: The ribbons pull themselves free like writhing worms as the present sinks into the bed. The jack-in-the-box with Em’s face pops out. It lunges at him like a striking snake. Maggots crawl from its open, drooling mouth.
Em throws himself off the bed, rolling to the side as the thing’s mouth sinks after him into the not-floor. It chews madly, deliriously, swallowing calcified void. Its mouth warps in on itself. It chews apart its own nose, then its eyes, then its forehead, and finally its chin, screaming in Em’s voice as the too-flat teeth madly crush, tear, and rend. A swarm of spiders hungrily sets upon the pulped remains.
Emmett: He comes up rolling in a Willy-Wonka somersault mere inches above the blood-soaked floor. A part of him is impressed with his own postmortem agility, his own ego singing. But that part of him is less loud than it used to be, and so he smells something else in the rot, the prison-stench, the monster’s wretched soul-reek.
Pain. The coppery, angry scent of open, seething wounds.
“I give you myself,” he says simply. “My corpus, but more than that. I offer you what I could not take from you now if I tried. My own afterlife. My bravado, my eyes and ears, my tongue and my powers. These things, I pledge to your eldest, and therefore to you, madame. If you would have me, of course. As a meal, now or tomorrow or in a decade, and as a servant.”
Once, he could never have done this. He had too much arrogance, took too much for granted.
But death has a way of altering your perspective.
“You seem less yourself than when last we spoke, madame, if you will forgive my presumption. You could devour me where I float, and yet you are patient enough to allow me to speak. How might I be allowed to repay you for such hospitality?”
GM: The darkness is tortuously silent. Even the void beyond the windows seems quiet and still.
“bRInG Me SOulS, LemURe.”
The floor splits open beneath Emmett’s feet. The voice booms up from the rent.
Vertigo churns his stomach as that rot-under-perfume scent wafts against his face.
The floor snaps shut. Tar-like blood creases the rent like wet drool as the scent dies. The voices emanate from behind him.
“I CaRe NOt.”
Emmett: “What about, hmm, imbeciles? Souls driven mad by their death?”
He spins like a top to receive the voices directly, ever the polite guest.
GM: A hiss like a rattlesnake’s tail sounds against Em’s right ear.
“SouLs, LEMuRE. aS MAnY As yoU caN.”
The floor feels like oil, now. He’s sinking. There aren’t any windows anymore. There aren’t any lights. There’s just the bed, floating in the gloom, receding further and further away like a lost ship upon a midnight sea.
The voices gurgle from below Em’s feet.
“saTE MinE HuNgEr, AnD i sHall saTE yoUrs.”
Simmone yawns and nuzzles her face against the empty dress. The voices boom down from the ceiling as the child disappears.
“FiLl my LArDer pASt sATiATiOn, ANd i SHaLl REndER unTo yoU…”
Fluttering, screaming laughter pours from everywhere at once like roaring waves.
“yOuR HEArt’s deSIrE!”
Emmett: Past satiation. He wonders idly what it will take. Five? Ten?
For a moment, he feels cold when he realizes the number means nothing to him.
Nothing at all.
But only for a moment.
“I will bring them,” he says. “So that you may feast, madame.”
He wonders if dogs have souls.
“Are you weary of my presence yet, madame, or would you allow me to entertain you for a while longer?”
GM: The darkness is silent.
“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy”
Up to his neck.
Up to his eyes.
“The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve a many curious things to shew when you are there.”
He was always here.
“Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”
“Em… help… me…!”
Phil screams. Tanya screams. Lena screams. Sami screams. But they feast. Rapturously. Flat teeth crush into his flesh as they bite, swallow, belch, like crazed maenads of old.
His mother bends to kiss his forehead and vomits spiders into his mouth. He tries to laugh, because it’s so damn funny. He chokes on their skittering legs and it sounds like he’s screaming instead. They’re in his stomach now, his arteries, and now his heart, devouring it piece by piece. Blackness steals over his sight, and when he tries to scream, fluttering laughter comes out.
Em smashes to his face outside the Robinson House’s front gates, weeping foul-smelling black blood from a dozen wounds.
Its gates remain invitingly open.
Emmett: He screams his dead throat raw past the pain of his tortured corpus, bleeding humors that he is not entirely sure are his own.
He’s not sure how long he lies there, broken and suffering. Or how long he screams. It doesn’t matter. His throat doesn’t actually bleed.
What. The fuck. Was that?
“…or, not,” he finally squeaks.
“Not works too.”