“People can be talked into some stupid things when they think they’re getting what they want.”
Emmett: Em flies souls, mad and howling and entirely too heavy, to Maman’s. He makes six flights, back and forth, his corpus aching from the effort of feeding three enfants to the house of nightmares like a low-rent Angel of Death.
As he does so, he appeases his Shadow. He’s got most of the raw wit, if the display with Cecilia demonstrated anything. He amuses his worst instincts, and does what he can to calm waters he needs to bear him forward.
He can’t fight his Shadow, not in the short term. So instead he tickles it.
GM: Em might think his corpus would ache. It doesn’t. He doesn’t sweat. He doesn’t hear his heart pumping from exertion. He doesn’t feel anything. The enfants are heavy, so the process takes longer, but that’s about it.
It all plays out like it did the last two times. He drops the victim by the gates. The house of nightmares yawns open like a venus flytrap. Its tongue of liquid midnight shoots out. The victim disappears to whatever fate awaits inside.
Em thought they were brain-dead. They didn’t struggle or resist on the flight over, besides twisting in his grasp to act out the motions of their deaths.
But all three of them scream as they’re swallowed by the house.
They aren’t like human screams, with human emotions behind them. It’s just a loud, ceaseless vocalization, like an animal makes. Bereft off sapience but brimming with instinctive, soul-deep terror that’d make the hairs on his neck stand up if they still did that.
Gasper laughs and laughs every time.
Emmett: And how does Em feel about it? To look at him, probably nothing. His eyes don’t water. A body is seventy percent or so water—less, actually, Lena told him once it was more around sixty. A corpus, he assumes, isn’t. His arms do not complain as he drags the imbecile souls to their Oblivion. One at a time, like the afterlife’s most handsome pizza boy.
Em never falters. Never hesitates. To do so will make the choice he has already made all the more perverse. For all his aloof silence to Gasper’s guffawing, Em has heard what the Shadow itself has told him.
To stop caring is to lose all he has left. So he feeds lost souls to a monster, but he does not look away as they are devoured. He does not justify or excuse the atrocity, and never for a moment does he seriously allow himself to consider stopping.
But he makes himself watch, and he cares, for all the good it does him.
GM: That never gets old. Never ever ever.
The house still hurts his head, when he looks directly at it. Tries to take in the full shape. Tries to apply any shape or fixed definition of physical matter to the midnight blackness that simultaneously swallows and caresses its pristine white walls.
But it feels… pleased.
The front door yawns open, though neither does the gate slam shut behind him.
Emmett: He flutters in, his corpus all but colorless.
“Madame,” he says, bowing low as his shoes touch the floor, his wings stretched behind him. “A privilege as always. I hope my offerings continue to please.”
GM: Silence answers the wraith. He overhears voices, though, from deeper within the opaque-walled house. Cécilia’s and her sisters’.
Emmett: He approaches them, unless he is stopped. He does not try to conceal his presence.
GM: They’re cleaning up what looks like lunch. Simmone, Abélia, and Caroline are not present, but all of the others are, along with three of the family cats. The sisters ignore Em completely as they chat among themselves over things like school, TV shows, boys, and (for the younger ones) being tired of being cooped up in the house. Cécilia and Adeline say it’s important they hang in a bit longer.
The family’s eldest daughter seems the others off, then turns around to regard the house’s unseen guest.
“Hi, Em. Sorry that took a little. You’d wanted to see me earlier?”
Emmett: “I kept busy,” he says simply. “And yes, if you wouldn’t mind my presence. I owe you an apology, for what happened last time. And for your kindness afterwards.” He smiles faintly. “I also have a request, in the interests of preventing… something like that from happening, again.”
GM: “Accepted. I know that wasn’t really you,” she smiles back. “What did you have in mind?”
Emmett: “I… heard something, from another ghost. He may have been talking nonsense, he tried to sell me into slavery later, but he told me that if we slumber with the things, or people, that we stayed behind for, it gives us… I don’t know what to call it. Energy. Juice. The stuff that lets us do stuff. And my only other way of getting it is through the other guy.”
He glances meaningfully over his shoulder at the shadow he casts.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” he says quietly. “But, it would… it would make things easier. Until I find another place to sleep.”
Em adds, quickly, “I could also… I could make it up to you, if you wanted me to. There are some perks to being a ghost. Some ways to give back.”
GM: “Pathos,” says Cécilia. “Essence.”
Her brow furrows a bit.
“But you mean… sleep with me? I am engaged, Em… "
Emmett: He holds up a hand. “Not… not like that. Just, like, in proximity, I think. Under the bed would work, for all I know. I’d be unconscious the whole time. And it’s not as if I would even be, um, corporeal.”
He looks torn for a moment, then shakes his head, the fragile hope there retreating. Of course it’s too much to ask. Of course she won’t let him nap at the foot of her bed. That’s a spot for beloved dogs, not bothersome spooks.
“But I get it. You need boundaries, and… and your Maman wouldn’t approve, probably. I can scavenge for cauls, or something. It was wrong of me to ask in the first place. I won’t keep you from your family.”
He shuffles his wings, turns lopsidedly from her like a scared bird.
GM: “Well… let’s think about this,” Cécilia says, ponderingly. “Am I the only person you could sleep with, in that way? Are there any others?”
“Or, sleep near, as it might be.”
Emmett: He looks pained. “It’s… complicated.” True. “My sister’s in the hospital, but there’s something… predatory, there. I don’t think I can sleep with her reliably, and I’m worried about somebody finding me through her. Then there’s… somebody who’s made it plain that they don’t want me around, and who I can’t afford to antagonize. And I have a cousin who… I think she’s under the control of one of Caroline’s type. I don’t really know where she sleeps, either, and I’m worried that if I ask her she’ll tell her… friend. And then there’s my parents, who my shadow’s keeping me away from altogether.”
“This place is safe.” Safe like a dragon’s lair. “It’s secure. Nobody will look for me here. And…”
This is the hard one. The real reason. The thing he’s scared to say.
“You’re the only one who knows what I am. And the only one who’ll know I’m there. And it would be nice to sleep where somebody doesn’t mind me being there. Otherwise I think I’d just be alone.”
He doesn’t like that word. It’s not one he thinks of a lot.
It’s not a very useful one when it describes you.
GM: Cécilia seems to think on all of that. Her expression has more than a touch of pity at his last words.
“Well, okay. I’m sorry things are the way they are with your family, for whatever that may be worth, but I don’t want you to feel alone. I’m going to go work in my office for a while, so you could sleep there.”
“I don’t think that’d be anything for Luke to complain about when we’re not actually sleeping together.”
Look at you. Begging for scraps, from her table.
Like, this isn’t even a pity fuck, it’s a pity not-fuck.
Enjoy it while you can, I guess. She’ll be married to that Malveaux pretty soon.
Think she’ll still let you sleep at the foot of her bed like a stray dog then?
Oh, wait, she isn’t even letting you now. You’re not even good enough for that.
You never were. She didn’t even let you fuck her.
What are the odds she’s let Caroline’s idiot brother stick his dick up her, you think?
Emmett: He ignores the taunts. “Thank you. It means a lot.”
A part of him bristles with old indignation, old envy. But he silences it, for now.
Best not to think of such things, in a dragon’s den.
GM: Cécilia leads him upstairs to a home office space. There’s a couch, desk, bookshelves, printers, a landline, and various essentials, along with a framed MBA on the wall. She opens a laptop and gets to work. The things on the screen look like boring business stuff with lots of numbers.
“Well, make yourself at home,” she says. “I’d offer to get a blanket, but I don’t imagine that it would do anything for you… ?”
Fact is, Em, you’re not good enough. Not for Maman. Not for her.
Why don’t we think of the reasons? Is it just because you’re from the wrong family? By which we mean ‘money.’ Too poor to buy her a ring with as many zeros on the end as Caroline’s brother. Those ‘get rich quick’ schemes never did amount to much in the end.
Maybe it’s because you’re too stupid. Won’t ever have a degree on the wall like that. You couldn’t even finish high school. She probably thinks she’s smarter than you, and she’s right. She’s too ‘nice’ to gloat about it, but everyone likes to think they’re smarter than someone else. Just happens to be objectively true in her case.
Maybe it’s because she doesn’t forgive you. You did lie to her, after all, completely shamelessly. So many lies. She doesn’t think she can trust you over anything, but being ‘magnanimous’ here is just her excuse to pat herself on the back for being a good person.
You tell me, though. Why doesn’t she think you’re good enough to stick your cock in her?
Emmett: Besides it being made of ectoplasm?
He leaves it at that. Better not to engage, overall.
He stretches out on the couch, and drinking in her presence and acceptance of him as much as he can without embarrassing himself, and closes his eyes to sleep.
GM: Em doesn’t think he’s ever had such a deep sleep in his life. He’s out like a stone. His dreams are deep and primal, as though he’s slumbering at the bottom of a vast ocean.
It crushes him beneath the impossible weight of its midnight depths. His dreams are terrifying things, though he remembers little of them, save for the feeling of his dead stomach twisting with a nameless, formless dread.
Then just like that, he surfaces. His head emerges from Cécilia’s head, his arms from her arms, his chest from her chest. He peels himself out of her body like a snake shedding its old skin.
Emmett: As he wriggles from her like a ghostly butterfly shedding its cocoon, Em blinks and shakes himself from the strange, too-deep slumber. He flinches, too, at the unexpected intimacy to his one-time… whatever they were. He separates from Cécilia in a hurry.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—I thought I was on the couch, when I went out.” Em pats himself down, making sure everything’s still there. His arm is still gangrenous and mortified, his clothes still unruffled in their funerary elegance. There’s still an evil bastard in his head.
Oh, and Gasper too.
GM: Cécilia doesn’t answer Em.
Instead, she stops kissing Luke, who’s sitting on her bed with his arms around her.
Caroline’s brother frowns. “Everything okay?”
“I’m sorry… I’m just not in the mood, right now,” answers Cécilia.
There’s a condom and lube bottle on the bedside table.
Saving herself until marriage, huh?
Looks like you just weren’t good enough.
Emmett: He knows better than to linger. Bad for him. Awkward for her.
Really bad for Luke, if he processes his feelings too quickly.
Out the door with him. He isn’t as rejuvenated as he expected. But that’s okay.
GM: Maybe this is why.
Bet they were gonna do it up her ass, Gasper continues as he heads downstairs. What else would they have lube for?
Did you figure her for an ‘up the ass’ kind of girl?
Or at least, tries to.
He’s stopped by the solid door.
Cécilia gets up and opens it without looking directly at him.
Luke looks confused.
He walks up and touches her shoulder.
“Are you sure everything’s okay?”
Emmett: Em figures he never really knew as much about Cécilia as he pretended he did.
He nods politely to her without meeting her eyes, doing his best to irradiate respectful detachment. A polite, meaningless pretense they both know is false.
But he tries to mind his manners, in this place.
GM: How loud do you think she is, when they do it?
Do you think they do it doggy-style?
Do you think she sucks his dick? Do you figure she spits it out, or swallows?
How much do you think she likes wrapping her lips around his cock? Like, does she just do it in return for head from him, or does being on her knees with a dick in her mouth really turn her on?
How many other guys’ dicks do you think she’s sucked?
Emmett: He bows at the house again before flying away from the garden.
GM: Maybe you could give her tips. You sucked a lot of dick for Stines back in the day.
Emmett: He flies, launches himself into the boundless and formless skies. He circles the wreckage of the New Orleans that awaits the newly dead, considers the corpse-city and the infestations that writhe within like maggots in a mass grave.
He knew this city well in life, including her worst faces, the quickest paths to an early Louisiana grave. Those paths are useful to a dead man searching for souls more lost than him. He couldn’t have been a better truffle pig if his name was Wilbur.
GM: For all the Big Easy’s violence and crime, the 9th Ward’s and Central City’s mean streets are still amateurs next to the city’s #1 place to die.
Lena had told him that much. 1/3rd of all deaths in the country occur in hospitals. Most Americans say they’d like to die at home, ideally also surrounded by loved ones. But your odds of dying in a hospital are still 1 in 3, no matter what you say your last wishes are.
Like many things everyone says they want, a lot of people don’t get it.
Emmett: Not him, though. Say what you like about Em, he’s the 66.6%.
He died in a prison, his killer the state.
They tell stories about the Lead Room on street corners and in the drunker hours of dog fights. Em sold acid to a guy who’d been there once.
“Is it true then, about the things that happen there after dark? Whitecoats cutting out some poor bastard’s kidney and selling it on ice before the sun comes up again?”
He had been joking, in his moribund and blazed-out way. But Dougie (this was Jackpots Dougie, not two-toed Dougie) had gone real pale and not said anything the rest of the buy, and Em got the message:
The story might not be real, but the monster is.
He figures it’s a good place to look for ghosts.
GM: Amelie met at least one there.
When aren’t the monsters real?
Miserable rain weeps over Em’s corpus as he retraces his flight back to Tulane Medical Center. The living look like glowing motes from high up. Colorless fireflies.
The hospital is some seven stories tall. Em flaps up. He can see dozens of glowing souls through the walls, all going about their business or lying in bed. Hospitals are always busy.
He flies through the walls, beds, and several scrub- and coat-wearing medical personnel who don’t move aside at the invisible man’s approach. He can see the ward known on the street as the Lead Room from pretty far off.
There’s a man in a bed. Older. Black. Disheveled-looking, with an unkempt “homeless man” beard and the haggard facial lines of a hard life with few smiles. The old man’s eyes are closed. The living might not see anything different about him, from one moment to the next. But Em is there to watch the pitifully faint glow around his body finally gutter out—that feels long in the coming—as he sloughs off his mortal coil. A translucent, tranquil-faced copy of the old man floats up from his chest, standing ‘inside’ the fresh corpse.
No sooner does it do so before rough hands tear off the enfant’s caul and snap an iron collar around his neck. The newborn wraith falls to the ground, screaming and clutching at his neck as though he’s being burned alive.
Doc Brown chuckles.
“Well, this one isn’t pretty, but a fine day’s work, gentlemen! I’d say we have more than enough for the next shipment, now.”
Two other figures around the doctor—both solid to Em’s sight, both lacking the telltale glow of the living—offer grim smiles.
One is a man dressed in a police officer’s uniform with a slowly oozing bullet wound in his gut.
The other one is a middle-aged man dressed in a wifebeater and jeans with no readily apparent cause of death. He hooks up the screaming enfant’s collar to a length of chain and gives it a sharp tug.
“Move it, thrall!”
None of the four turn to look at Em.
But it looks like he’s not the only wraith to go where the deaths are plentiful.
Emmett: For a moment, he wavers.
Defeat after defeat has been his life. When the credits rolled on that mess, Magadon’s murder meds turning his blood to ichor and him into a corpse, he had recoiled from the light, a final act of puerile cowardice framed as rebellion.
His afterlife, thus far, proves little different. Every success rendered null by his worst tendencies; every tenderness denied to him.
But for all his weariness, Emmett knows a room full of marks when he sees one.
Does he dare? He wonders.
Yes. Yes he does.
The Sandman puckers his lips and a word slithers off his tongue and becomes sonorously intimate. A syllable of undiluted Halloween terror whispered into every ghastly ear.
“BOO,” says the ghost.
When they whirl, he’s studying the nails on his dead man’s hand, such as they are.
“Gentlemen,” he croons, his expression widening in a smile that would spook a clown. “I was told I’d find you here. Dr. Brown I already know. Tom, would you like to tell your friends who I am?”
GM: The suddenness of the dreadful noise clearly startles the four. Em might even say half to death, around another audience.
They whirl towards its source. Even the collared thrall jerks towards it with bulging eyes.
Doc Brown’s eyes take Em in before his face settles into an indulgent smile. “It’s Jared, actually. Seems dying hasn’t been too good for someone’s memory!”
Emmett: His eyes widen, and when Jared Brown meets them, he titters. “I’m sorry about your name, Jared. You, uh, you look like a Tom.”
GM: The doctor smiles back and gestures theatrically. “Mark, Bob, this is Emmett. He was a patient of mine, back before we crossed over. I’ve tried to collar him once already, you know, and the little bugger dove right into a harrowing!”
Doc Brown’s smile widens, as if this is all an amusing joke. Blood freely leaks down his torn-open throat.
“And he’s had the bad luck to wander back into Hierarchy territory, all by himself! Places like this are where hardworking reapers like us earn our oboli, Emmett. Did you know that?”
“I don’t think he did,” says the police-uniformed wraith with a nasty smile. Drip-drip-drip goes the bullet hole in his belly.
Doc Brown chuckles, more ectoplasmic blood running down his stained coat. The newly-collared wraith on the ground just moans at the wifebeater-wearing one’s feet.
His captor just eyes the knife on Em’s belt with a look of undisguised greed.
“That’s true, I rather suppose he didn’t,” smiles the deceased doctor. "You’ll fill out our shipment quite nicely, Emmett. We’ve got more enfants than we know what to do with! You’re about to join them, and us, on a fabulous trip down to the river city. You’re going to make so many new friends there who’d be just dying to meet you… "
He flashes a huge grin.
“…if they weren’t already dead!”
The other two wraiths just offer the same nasty-looking miles.
“Dibs on his knife,” says the one in the wifebeater.
The police-uniformed wraith produces another iron collar.
“That’s the lay of that, anyways!” chuckles Doc Brown. “Any last words you’d like to say as a free wraith?”
Emmett: “That’s what she said you’d say,” Em says, shrugging. “She also said you’d get all hot and bothered when I told you about the oboli she has for you. That she pays better than the Hierarchy.”
“Mark, was it? She’s the one who gave me this knife. She can give you more, too, sharper and colder, if you let me introduce you. Bring your shipment. She’ll be impressed, and pay you up front for them. You know how these rich New Orleans mothers are… "
“Or you could just take me, now, and deliver your shipment. I understand if you’re spooked.”
“She likes men with badges too, officer. You might even know the Devillers name.”
GM: The police-uniformed wraith doesn’t put away the collar.
But he doesn’t try to fasten it around Em’s neck either.
“Who’s she?” asks the wraith in the wifebeater.
“Rich cunt in the Garden District,” says the cop.
He considers Em.
“I haven’t heard of her crossing over. Or being rich on this side of the Shroud. Where’s she get her oboli?”
Oh, this is too good.
One of these losers has a Shadow trying to talk to me. You want to give me a boost, I could ask it questions… like how many oboli a slave actually goes for.
Emmett: “Rich in one world, rich in the other,” Em says. “She never crossed over. She’s been around a long, long time. Like one of the vampires, only she doesn’t drink blood.”
What had Fizzy said they’d done to his brother? Melted him down into some damn oboli.
“She makes hers the same way they make theirs. By melting down spooks who can’t offer anything. She’s good at it, too. Efficient. You heard about the break-out from the Giovannini pen in the Quarter? She’s already hired most of us who made it out.”
Hit me, amigo. If this works, Gasper’s going to come out ahead anyways.
“I mean, the ones she didn’t need to smelt, obviously.”
GM: Okay. One fresh-reaped soul makes one obolus. One thrall goes for one obolus. Stronger souls can be smelted into more than one. Pretty rare to get souls worth more than a couple each.
Emmett: “And when I say efficient, I mean she cracks two oboli an enfant.”
Em seems to hesitate. “Is that actually good? She told me it was good.”
GM: The ‘Giovannini pen’ seems to spark some recognition on their faces.
“And why oh why is she so generous to buy thralls at a loss?” smiles Doc Brown.
Bullshit alert, if you meant smelt. You can’t make two oboli from one soul.
One soul like yours, anyway.
Emmett: What if I want to lie to them that she can? Which is what I’m trying to do.
GM: They don’t think that’s possible. They say it’s ‘making two pies with one pan.’
They say a lot of thralls get auctioned off. Like, bidding at markets, for the better ones.
Slavers like these losers sell their thralls to the auctioneers. Who sell to other wraiths at a markup.
Emmett: “You’d have to ask her,” Em says plainly, shrugging. “I’m just her messenger boy, Dr. Doom and Gloom. I don’t go with her to the auctions when she takes the scrappier ones she doesn’t melt down, so I don’t know how much she makes off them, but she seems pretty happy with the arrangement. I’ll tell you what, though. If you don’t want to do business with her, I’ll just go. Enjoy your work. I’ll catch the next caspers sick of dragging corpus for the Hierarchy.”
He turns, starts to flap away.
Whether they give chase or follow, he still wins.
GM: Molting black wings sprout from the cop’s back as he streaks towards Em.
The wraith with the wifebeater instead pulls out a steel whistle.
“You can stop right there, Emmett, or one blow can have this place swarming with Hierarchy legionnaires!” smiles Doc Brown.
Wow, you’re an idiot.
Emmett: “What, for little old me?” he yawns. “I’m sure that would reflect well on you fine soldiers.” He evades the cop’s grasps with some gracious flapping, but doesn’t actually leave.
That whistle could be fun to get my hands on…
“Look, gents, I’m not interested in trying to sell you something you aren’t interested in buying. Mrs. Devillers is patient, but she likes me to deliver results, not half-hearted interest. Blow your whistle if it’ll make you feel safer. The offer will still be on the table, but the pay might get spread a bit thinner.”
He sighs. “Look, I can see you’re nervous. Good things don’t come along to those on this side of the grave without work, do they? Well, let’s be clear— Mrs. Devillers keeps me very busy. But at least I get to spend most of my time recruiting people instead of chaining them up. Mrs. Devillers has oboli, but she wants Caspers, you see. Caspers to fight. All the better if you’ve seen the inside of the Hierarchy. With her, you can get in on the ground floor of something new. You probably won’t even have to quit your gig hustling for the H-men. She’s the kind of woman who’ll pay handsomely for secrets.”
GM: The cop slams into Em’s corpus and tackles him to the ground. He drives a knee into Em’s back and pins his arms there too.
It’s not the first time he’s been in this position under a cop.
Doc Brown smiles and kneels down to Em’s level. He takes the other wraith’s collar and pulls it open. Low moans sound from the cold steel.
“Let’s talk a bit about this Mrs. Devillers, Em.”
“If she’s never crossed over, tell me what she wants with thralls and oboli.”
Emmett: Oh, big scary Jared. Em would be scared if he hadn’t seen this movie before. But he knows enough to pull out the wide eyes and nervous laughter. He can make the predators feel powerful, complacent.
They don’t know what they’ll meet later.
“Come on, Jared, I didn’t mean anything by it, you know that. I’m just a prick trying to make money, just like when I was alive. Devillers, she—ghosts make useful gofers and spies. She’s interested in softening up the Hierarchy, running her own spooky little kingdom this side of the river. And she’s got enough oboli in her basement to throw some around. "
His voice lowers. “Between you and me… I kind of like being one of her only spooks on payroll. Besides the knife, she fixed me up with some chains, a dope bag… and then there’s her daughters.”
He giggles a lecherous, dead man’s giggles. “Her daughters are very pretty, Jared. You’d like them.”
Seven glowing figures dance through the air above Em, smiling and entwined. The picture of innocence. Helplessness.
“She doesn’t mind if we watch her daughters.”
GM: The dead doctor looks at the seven blonde beauties.
He gives a very ugly grin. A dark shadow seems to spread over his entire face.
“I don’t just watch, Emmett.”
Emmett: “Well, if we catch her while she’s awake she’ll probably quote you a price.”
“I mean, she’s always awake, I think. But she’s not always in a good mood.”
GM: “What if we just take her oboli?” muses the wraith in the wifebeater.
“She wants to go up against the Hierarchy. Okay. Bet the governor wouldn’t mind us hauling her ass to the citadel.”
Emmett: “You—but what about me? Come on, guys, I’m trying to do you a solid here. Jared, would you really do me dirty like that after I tried to get you a gig?”
His lip protrudes like a toddler’s.
GM: Doc Brown runs a hand through Em’s hair, gently tousling it.
His grin just spreads.
“Fuck this ‘softening up the Hierarchy,’” says the cop. “We can get a nice reward bringing in some renegades to the bosses.”
“Mmm, maybe,” says Brown, not taking his eyes off of Emmett.
Emmett: “You won’t find her place without me,” Em lies straightforwardly. “Cut me in on the action, and I’ll show you the quickest way there.”
Simple, direct, ruthless. Clean as the cattle cars chugging along to Auschwitz.
GM: The wraith in the wifebeater scowls.
“Might not be a loss,” muses Brown.
“How you figure?” asks the other wraith.
“This whole thing about not crossing over, and still dealing in oboli… not even the leeches do that,” Brown says with a thoughtful frown.
“I think we may have stumbled across something interesting, gentlemen. Maybe something we could sell in Stygia.”
GM: His Shadow doesn’t answer.
“That ain’t half-cocked,” muses the cop on top of Em. “Could be some lords or guildmasters there who’ll pay more than the Hierarchy here. They want to collect all the weird shit in that place.”
“Okay,” says the wraith in the wifebeater. “Here’s what we do.”
“We go see this Mrs. Devillers. She looks like she’s worth something, we snap a collar on her, bring her back to the river city. We sell the thralls we’ve got there and buy passage to Stygia.”
“You don’t need to buy passage,” says the cop.
“Fuck that,” says the other wraith. “I’m not riding along naked through the Tempest.”
“The Midnight Express is free,” says Jared. “What does she look like, Emmett? Would she stand out in a crowd?”
Emmett: “She’ll be suspicious if we don’t come with the thralls y’all have gathered,” Em warns. “She’s not ignorant. She knew you would probably be here, after all, and that’s why she sent me.”
“And she’s beautiful, Jared. A real MILF. Eyes like ocean deeps. I can show you the way to her house. If your friend here wants to hold on to me while I bring you, fine. I just want to come out ahead.”
Hmm. Stygia sounds like it could be fun.
GM: “Okay, we bring along the thralls. Whatever,” says the cop.
“That does sound very pretty, Emmett. I mean does she look abnormal enough someone might try to steal her. We’re obviously not taking the Express if-”
“-fuck the Express,” says the wraith in the wifebeater. “We buy passage on an actual fucking ship. And not one of those navy liners. I mean, the dreamboats. You ever been on one, doc?”
“He gets off all he needs in the hospital,” leers the cop.
The doctor just smiles.
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” says the wraith in the wifebeater. “They’ve got masquers there. Any girl you want, any way you want. Sandmen with nonstop shows. I hear, the entire thing is in color. You can almost feel alive again, when you’re inside. There’s gambling, too.”
Emmett: “Really?” Em begins.
GM: “What, you haven’t been either?” asks the wraith in the wifebeater. “Christ, am I the only one who actually spends his fucking oboli?”
Emmett: “I’m a sandman, is all. Sounds fun.”
GM: “When did you die?”
Emmett: “Early 2016. You?”
He sort of fidgets under the cop. “Also, can I get up? You’ve established dominance, very… dominantly. I’m not going anywhere.”
GM: The other wraiths look between each other for a moment.
The cop gets off, but remains close by.
“’84,” says the other wraith. “We used to have a dreamboat back when this was a free city. This relic Mississippi steamboat. Hoon and Toole were involved. You can thank the Hierarchy we don’t have it anymore.”
Emmett: “But you’d rather work for them anyways than end up a thrall, huh?”
GM: “Biggest game in town after the maelstrom,” shrugs the other wraith. “They hold the necropolis. They hold the citadel.”
“That was the maelstrom,” says the cop. “That wrecked the dreamboat. Wraiths can’t just blame the Hierarchy for everything. They gave this city some law and order back.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know who pays us.”
“Forget how we get to Stygia,” says Brown. “First we need the merchandise.” He looks at Emmett. “Can four wraiths take her with surprise?”
Emmett: “She’s older than she looks, but… I dunno, probably,” Em hedges. “And five even more so. She seemed pretty hopeful you’d be willing to talk. I mean, I’m scum, but I’m scum that can count. If you guys rush her, I’ll join. Now, shall we? I can help carry the cargo.”
GM: “Less money split five ways than four,” scowls the cop.
Emmett: “I can also accept not being enslaved in lieu of payment.”
GM: “Yeah, and just let us enslave your meal ticket,” scoffs the wraith in the wifebeater. “Four is you, unless you thought we were counting this guy.”
He kicks the collared and softly moaning enfant underneath him.
“We’ll haul off all the oboli she has, and sell her. Split everything between us four, 25%.”
He leers at Em. “Scum like you and me don’t stab someone in the back for nothing, now don’t they?”
Emmett: “Oh. I’m apparently scum that can’t count. And yeah, sounds like you’ve got my number. Which means I’ve got your back.”
He makes finger pistols. They’re accompanied by gunfire and muzzle flashes.
“Let’s stick it to the one percent.”
GM: “You don’t get anything from the other thralls,” says the cop. “We caught those, not you.”
“Well why the fuck would he?” says the wraith in the wifebeater.
“You always want to be crystal fucking clear when it comes to money,” says the cop.
Emmett: “Jared, how much you make as a doctor? Not including the free pussy. You’re going to be in the big leagues again. You too, Mark and Bob. The real big league. Post-mortem championships.”
If there’s no further questions Em is eager to proceed. Do they keep the “shipment” in some kind of container, or just a long line of chained wraiths?
GM: “We’ve got them stashed someplace,” the cop answers vaguely.
Em’s been around his share of drug dealers, when he wasn’t one himself. The wraith’s tone sounds like the same kind that one a dealer asked where his supply is might take.
“How many will look convincing to Mrs. Devillers? It’d be a pain in the ass to bring them all.”
“Wait. Do you know where she keeps her oboli?” asks the wraith in the wifebeater. “Does she hide them?”
Emmett: “She wanted a lot,” Em said.
Fill my larder past satiation…
“If we can bring ten in one go, it’d be ideal. At least five, though, show we’re serious.”
He parries the question about oboli neatly. “I’ve seen the safe she keeps them in. Spooky thing in her… I guess I’d call it a lounge? We can probably make her open it.”
GM: “Could we open it?” asks the wraith in the wifebeater. “Or could she with a collar on?”
Emmett: “I’ve used a key with a collar on. I expect she could turn a lock. And we can always make her tell us the combination. Take the safe, if it comes to that.”
GM: “Okay,” he says thoughtfully. “I was gonna say, if we couldn’t get into it, we should bring all the thralls.”
Emmett: “What’s your thinking there?”
GM: “We’d give her a look at the merchandise and ask for payment. When she brought it out, we’d jump her. Since if we couldn’t get into the safe, we’d obviously want her to bring out more money for the extra thralls.”
“Well didn’t that turn out to be a completely stupid idea,” says the cop. “We’ll bring five, then just hurt her until she tells us how to get into the safe. You always overthink things.”
“I’m not the one who died getting shot,” says the wraith in the wifebeater.
Emmett: “That’s still a good plan,” Em says, just as thoughtfully. “If we can get her to open the safe first, it might go quicker. I still think bringing more’s a better idea. How much of a pain to transport are we talking?”
GM: “It’s a pointless plan,” says the cop. “Unless she’s paying everything that’s in there for the thralls, and she’d need way more than that if she’s serious about challenging the Hierarchy, we have to get into the safe anyway.”
“You ever transported thralls, Emmett?” smiles Doc Brown.
Emmett: “In small numbers,” he acknowledges. “I wasn’t sure if the finest minds of chattel slavery had come up with something I had missed. I’ll tell you what, though. Let’s bring a solid showing—we can probably bring her ten between us. We can bullshit her for a little, feel out her actual funds, get her to open the safe herself before we try to jump her. If we do it fast enough, saves us needing to drill her about the combination or have to carry the damned thing—I don’t know how heavy it might be. Plus, more thralls we parade in front of her the more distracted she’ll be.”
GM: “She’d be an idiot to open it right in front of us,” says the cop.
Emmett: “People can be talked into some stupid things when they think they’re getting what they want.” Trust me. “More’s gonna be better to put her off her guard, at least.”
GM: “How many other wraiths are there?” asks Doc Brown. “You can’t be the only one working for her.”
The eyes of the wraith in the wifebeater shine with greed. “We could take them as thralls, too.”
Emmett: “There’s like three other freelancers, but I’ve never seen more than one there at a time. They’re running errands for her around the city. We could definitely lie in ambush, though, once we’ve taken her.”
GM: “Maybe we should just bring them all, to be safe,” muses the wraith in the wifebeater. “It’s inconvenient, but it can’t actually hurt.”
“I guess not,” relents the cop.
Emmett: This is gonna be fun.
“That’s settled then,” Em says cheerfully.
GM: “Settled,” smiles Doc Brown. “Okay. We’ll need a little to get them ready.”
The wraith in the wifebeater claps Em over the shoulder. “This guy’s my kind of scum. Let’s celebrate how we’re all about to make a shitload of money together, with some dreamwhores in the river city.”
“We can screw some whores after we’ve got more oboli in our pockets,” says the cop. “Didn’t you want to take a dreamboat to Stygia, anyway?”
“Yeah, but there might not be one in port for a while,” says the wraith in the wifebeater.
“Rather celebrate when the job’s done,” says the cop.
Emmett: Em smiles back at the man he’s about to feed to a shark. “That sounds like a lot of fun. But it’ll still be there after. Mark, right? Nice to meet you. Call me Em.”
It could be a beautiful friendship, in another afterlife.
GM: “Bob,” he says. “I know the best whores down there. But I guess you’re right. Still be around.”
“Where do we wanna meet back up with the thralls?” asks Mark.
Emmett: “Here’s good for me if it’s good for you.” If it’s not, Em names a park close to the Garden District.
GM: “Okay. We’ll meet at Clay Square in 24 hours,” says Doc Brown.
He shakes Emmett’s hand in his. The doctor’s huge grin pulls the tear along is throat open wider. Blood steadily leaks down as the collared enfant at their feet moans.
“And may I say it’s been a pleasure doing business with you today, Emmett.” Brown’s eyes crinkle upwards.
“Even more than treating you as a patient was!”
Emmett: Em laughs along. He can wait for 24 hours for them to learn why it’s really funny.
Comedy is all about timing.
Emmett: Hey. Gasper.
Em floats through the ruined city, too lazy to fly properly but too fastidious to touch the blackened and bare ground.
Thanks, for coming through back there. I know it was a trade. But thanks.
He pauses for a moment. What did you think of what Hartford back there was talking about?
Emmett: I got all the trivia, I guess. The wifebeater guy. Mark.
GM: I got all the brains, I guess. He said his name was Bob, idiot.
Emmett: I think that’s more a function of those two having interchangeably bland names, but besides the point. Anyways, what did you think of what he said about dreamboats?
Distract yourself from how shitty the (after)life is with whores and movies and gambling. That doesn’t sound at all familiar, does it?
‘Death changes things.’ Uh-huh.
We could’ve ran into those two losers in a million places when we were alive.
Emmett: Maybe so. But it might be nice to run a joint like that. Or even start our own. Could try and work one for a while. See what it’s like.
The postmortem Ritz Carlton looms ahead, a leviathan’s bloated ruins infested with little glowing maggots—people.
He’s content to wait for somebody to get into the elevator and ride past the floor of his destination.
No use hurrying when you’re already late.
GM: Probably shitty, like everything.
It’s a short enough journey from TMC to the Ritz-Carlton. The rotting and decaying hotel looks just as inhospitable as the last times he was there, full of glowing people who are incomprehensibly still hanging around. They don’t see how the dust on the cracked and grime-streaked windows looks like screaming faces. They don’t see the black and festering cancer-tendrils spreading through the smokers’ lungs like hideously misshapen plants. They don’t see the dried blood lining the stairs. They see none of how awful it all is.
Em supposes he could have taken the stairs. It’s not like he gets tired.
People don’t try to hold the elevator for him. The doors literally close through his face as he steps on. He gets off at Sami’s floor. He sees people watching TV, reading books, or having sex through the translucent doors and walls. In one of the rooms, he sees a middle-aged white man strangling a crying and sputtering black woman who looks half his age. She tugs weakly at his hands. Em can feel her death closing in like vultures circling a dying animal, but that’s nothing new. There are plenty other people in this hotel stained with death, be they smokers or fat people or diseased or just plain old. He can see the black spreading over their souls.
Some might check out sooner than others, but in the end, nobody stays checked in forever.
Emmett: He stops for a moment to scare her attacker, rolling up his eyes and sticking out his tongue at the would-be snuff artist.
Oh, except he’s hanging from a spectral noose. That can’t help the laugh factor much.
GM: The man looks up and screams, his face immediately draining of all color. The girl scrambles away as his fingers slacken, barely pausing to grab her clothes before barreling out the door.
Emmett: Would have been nice to get some juice from her caul. Too add another face to his little circle.
But he’s been a whore before.
He continues on to Sami’s room.
GM: The man scrambles back too, across the bed, and falls off, sheets tangled amidst his feet. He looks back up at the spot where Em appeared with incredulous eyes.
A few people in the hallways are staring and gawking as the girl pulls her clothes on. The man just stays rooted to the ground. His face looks like he’s questioning his own sanity as his chest laboriously heaves.
Emmett: Let him question. This ghost is busy.
GM: The inside of Sami’s rotted, dust-caked suite proves less than busy. She isn’t there, and neither are the hourglass, sacks, chains, collars, or other spooks. Even Kione is gone.
Bet they were happy to dump you. I bet you weren’t away for an hour before they all went running.
Hannah clearly wasn’t your biggest fan. I bet she roped along the others.
Had a while to talk with them by herself, hasn’t she?
Em’s a liability, can’t control his own Shadow…
Emmett: He takes in the emptiness with a stare, wondering if time had gotten away from him. Bad habit to fall into, given how despite nobody in the Shadowlands seeming to be very capable of telling time reliably, spooks still relied on scheduled liaisons.
Em searches the room briskly and efficiently, looking for something to salvage from their apparent desertion.
GM: He finds dried blood painted on a wall in messy handwriting.
Talk to Sami to find us
Emmett: “Now that’s just unfair to the staff,” he quips.
He tries to remember if it seemed like Sami returned here often. If not, no point sticking around.
GM: Em doesn’t see anything that looks specifically like hers.
Admittedly, everything here looks like it’s been abandoned and left to rot and fall apart for years.
Agreed, though. There’s not.
A gaping black void screams open beneath Em’s feet. He hurtles down.
GM: He lands in a fancy office room. There’s full bookshelves, framed degrees, expensive-looking furniture: the sort of place that would never be his in life.
Lena is sitting in a chair across from an oakwood desk. Caroline sits on the other side with a somber expression.
Em’s sister looks good. Leagues better than she did handcuffed to a hospital bed. She’s lost weight, but her skin no longer hangs loosely about her face. Her hair’s longer and done back in a bun. She’s dressed in a white doctor’s coat with a stethoscope hanging from her neck.
Or, wait, is it a doctor’s coat? Just a normal blouse and pants. Must have been a trick of the light. It’s still an upgrade from a hospital gown.
She doesn’t look at Em. Caroline doesn’t either.
“…so you said you had news about my kids?” she asks. Her eyes are full of hope, but also wariness. It has probably been a long time since she heard truly good news.
“Temper your expectations, Mrs. Merinelli. It’s bad news,” Caroline replies.
Bert Villars walks in, carrying two bulging duffel bags. He dumps them on the desk. Pulls them open.
They’re the headless corpses of two children. The naked bodies are covered in so many wounds they look like they’ve been fed through a wood chipper and glued back together. They look like raw hamburger. There’s nothing but tears and gashes and gouges and festering open wounds for as far as Em can see. Bone is visible through the reddened meat. Em can’t even tell which body is male and which is female. The crotches look like they’ve been through a blender. Blood leaks everywhere. The smell is unspeakably foul.
“I’m afraid this is all that was left,” says Caroline.
Maggots burst from the bodies, hungrily devouring all that’s left.
Lena gives a choked half-wail, half-gagging noise, and flies from her seat like it’s on fire. Caroline stares coolly after her.
“Too late, I suppose, Emmett,” Abélia’s daughter remarks.
She gets up and walks out the door. Instead of a hallway, they emerge into a gawking crowd gathered near Crescent City Connection. Lena’s standing at the edge of the bridge with her arms raised. Wind and rain whips back her hair.
“Oh don’t do it, Lena, you have so much to live for,” calls Caroline in a bored voice, like she’s reciting lines for a high school play she doesn’t want to be in.
“Yes, you have… very important things, to live for,” adds Christina Roberts.
“You really should thank Caroline, you know,” leers Bert Villars. “You could’ve been in prison. You could owe me money. You don’t need money for anything, because of her!”
“You should be more thankful for the things you have. Your situation is considerably improved from what it might otherwise be,” states Judge Underwood.
“Isn’t she married?” asks Sue.
“We killed ’er man too, Sue ma doll,” smiles Bud.
Cash Money smirks his puffy-lipped smirk and takes a pull from a beer bottle. It’s coated with blood from Em’s temple.
“My brother ruined everything!” yells Lena, her eyes red and wet behind her glasses. “He ruined my whole life, and there’s no undoing it, and everything is fucked!”
The crowd doesn’t do much more than nod, leer, and call for her to get on with it.
Emmett: Em watches mutely for the first chunk of theater. Not much he can do about the corpses, anyways. If he didn’t know the playbook by now, it would probably be rather depressing.
He chooses his moment carefully and taps Lena on the shoulder. Manifests, if he has to.
“Hey, sis,” he says. “I did. I did ruin your life. I’m trying to unfuck it, now, but that’s not enough to save me.”
He steps on to the ledge with her. It’s nice to feel the rain in his hair. He had forgotten how cool it could be. Almost like fingers running over his scalp. Almost like love, but without any of the hard parts.
“But no matter where you stand, no matter where you fall, no matter where your body lays, I didn’t stay for it. I stayed for you. And I won’t let you go alone.” He tilts his head. “Remember?”
At first the song is barely audible over the crowd’s jeers, but it swells with every word. It seems to come from the same rain-streaked winds that buffer the siblings on the precipice of mocking Oblivion.
It’s the song she sang him, back before his balls dropped and so did his soul. He wonders if she sang it to her children, after.
GM: Em sings.
Love of mine, someday you will die
Boy, doesn’t he know it.
No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied
And illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
Apparently they were. He made his own way. Like always.
In Catholic school as vicious as Roman rule
Sami said McGehee wasn’t Catholic. But he can claim some of the credit for that at Brother Martin’s.
I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black
Knuckles and other places. But he bruised her back. They bruised each other plenty.
Son, fear is the heart of love, so I never went back
Lena always thought that lyric was strange. But it might be a good thing, if it were true. Everyone’s scared.
You and me we’ve seen everything to see
From Bangkok to Calgary and the soles of your shoes
Em didn’t live all that long, but he did see a lot. More than his older sister ever did.
Are all worn down
The time for sleep is now
It’s always time for sleep. Sleep makes all your problems end, for a little while. Sleep is death in bite-sized doses. Sleep is temporary suicide. That’s why he spent so much of death row sleeping. Lena’s probably spent a lot of time sleeping, too.
But it’s nothing to cry about
‘Cause we’ll hold each other soon in the blackest of rooms
But that’s really all you need.
Death row was so much less lonely after Cécilia came.
Em’s crowd doesn’t clap. There’s not much love from this audience.
But they shut up.
Lena’s head turns towards his with misty eyes. Then stops.
So does everyone else. Frozen in place like a paused movie. Cash Money gets caught right when he’s picking his nose.
Caroline walks up to him, drolly clapping.
“Well, that’s a pretty speech, Em. Or pretty song.”
“Lots of personal meaning. The best songs all have that, don’t they?”
“Your sister looks like she’s feeling a little better. But let’s make this interesting.”
The Mississippi churns. A whirlpool forms. A black pit yawns open at the bottom.
Emmett: “I feel pretty interested already,” he ventures.
GM: High-pitched children’s sobs waft up past the churning waters.
“Your sister’s children are in there,” says Caroline. “Metaphorically. Step through, and when this little show ends, you’ll wind up wherever they are.”
“Might be someplace dangerous. Might be they’re already dead. Who knows?”
“Door #2, however… "
Em sees himself swinging from a hangman’s noose. He’s dressed in the same dark jacket, pants, white shirt with popped collar. His arm’s weeping black ichor. The only thing that’s different is the face. It’s a look of pure, undiluted arrogance, that screams a thousand reasons why Em is hot shit, the center of the universe, and everyone else is a tool, douchebag, and a thousand other less flattering names. The face says a lot without saying any words.
But Em can see it in the eyes. The too-familiar self-loathing, blacker and deeper than any pit Lena’s kids might be in. The eyes are pits of their own. He could fall into that well of self-hate and never come back out.
“That’s Gasper,” says Caroline.
“The hate really makes him look worse, doesn’t it?”
Emmett: “Maybe, but you have to admit he’s pretty hung.”
His expression is completely neutral.
GM: “Funny,” says Caroline.
The water starts to churn underneath Gasper. Shark fins slice through the surface, at least half a dozen of them. Gasper’s eyes get all wide. He starts frantically kicking and yelling for Em to pull him up.
Caroline hands him a knife.
“You can cut the rope, let the sharks get him, and be rid of him forever.”
“Or you can try to go after your sister’s kids.”
Emmett: “I find that hard to take on faith, since this seems like a harrowing. Aren’t you actually Gasper, just wearing that face?”
GM: “I suppose you could say we’re the help,” Caroline smiles thinly.
Emmett: “Go on.”
GM: “But frankly, he gets on our nerves. He’s good at that.”
“You can kill him. But only you. There are rules.”
Emmett: “Uh huh.” He glances at his hanging Shadow.
“You know, things would be simpler without him. I wouldn’t always have to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. I could finally relax in my own head.” He gazes into the void.
GM: “I’m certain it would.”
The knife remains outstretched in Caroline’s hands.
Emmett: He starts to reach for it.
Then his hand ceases.
“On the other hand,” Em says, tapping a finger against his chin, “Gasper is quite pathetic. Pitiful, really. Doesn’t really have any good ideas of his own, and he got all the learning disabilities. I’ve kind of gotten attached to him. He’s grown on me. Like a tumor, or a hemorrhoid.”
Em points to the portal. “It’ll be door number one for me.”
GM: “I guess that’s your choice,” says Caroline.
She delivers a lightning-fast kick to Em’s flank. He plummets into the churning whirlpool with a splash.
Love of mine, someday you will die
The children’s cries are mangled, pitiful things up close, even over the roaring waters.
But I’ll be close behind and I’ll follow you into the dark
No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Actually, that doesn’t seem true. The bottom of the whirlpool isn’t black at all.
It’s white. It’s bright. It’s glowing. He isn’t sinking, but floating. Rising.
If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied
And illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark