“I am certain you are eager to claim your reward.”
GM: Em’s been to Clay Square a literal lifetime ago with Cécilia. It’s a tiny, block-sized park in the Garden District that consists of a green field surrounded by trees and an iron fence. There’s a few benches and tables to relax and enjoy picnics at.
There’s a children’s playground, too, and a paved area to play sports on. Cécilia thought it was romantic to do that ‘too-old couple playing on the swings’ scene.
On the other side, everything is shittier. The withered grass is dry and lifeless. The trees are barren. Anything metal is rusted, pitted, and bent out of shape. The catcher’s enclosure, or whatever the fuck it’s called (Em wasn’t big on sports) looks like a hungrily yawning maw.
Rain starts to fall from the black sky. It batters relentlessly against his corpus, but Em doesn’t feel cold. His legs don’t feel sore. He doesn’t feel hungry. He doesn’t feel like taking a piss.
He doesn’t feel anything.
He’s not sure how much time passes. It feels like a while. It might be an hour. It might two hours. It might be twelve hours. He supposes time doesn’t matter as much when you’re dead.
The dead have nothing but time.
Emmett: Em enjoys these moments of silence. He didn’t have many of them when he was alive, and now his existence is such that they are his only luxury. Well, not his only luxury.
He has the dreams.
Em doesn’t know either when he realized that’s what they are, the phantom FX he can conjure on a whim. But that’s really the only way to describe how he conjures them. He dreams, and his dreams make themselves seen.
He measures the time in stories, now, half-imagined fantasies and fancies that he makes swirl around him. There a couple dance, the prince dark and cackling, the princess grinning and fanged.
GM: He does have so many to choose from.
Tall and blonde? Darker and shorter? Dusky-skinned and poison-eyed?
Emmett: None of these. Frankly, the princess looks more like him, which he’d rather not think too hard about.
Other stories abound. He does not focus too hard on any one of them, and so the gloom of the Shadowlands about him is suffused with the endlessly shifting story-lights, all greens and purples and golds, Mardi Gras decorations given shadowy life.
The stories are not easy to follow. They don’t have to be; he is the audience. When he was a child, he could sometimes spend hours in a daydream, perfect loops of fantasy and meaning that he could not separate from himself until somebody said his name and the bubble popped, the dream vanished.
This is no different than that, really. There a ghost outwits a vampire. Here a father embraces his son. There a hitman sticks his gun in his mouth as (for convoluted reasons Em hasn’t entirely thought out) his enemies conspire to keep him alive.
A dozen idiot, ignoble stories. Smears of color in an ugly, corpse-colored world.
He’s still there when they come upon him, floating cross-legged in a mist of fantasy and idle nightmare.
His expression is almost peaceful.
GM: Applause echoes through the gloom.
Rain and fog part to reveal Doc Brown’s grinning face. Ectoplasmic blood leaks down his torn-open throat. He claps his hands as the illusions play out, spots of color in an afterlife of cheerless blacks and grays.
“Isn’t this a pretty little show! There’s just nothing like a splash of color in a world with so little, now is there, Emmett?”
Emmett: He shrugs as he rises himself. “We all do what we do. You bring the merchandise?”
GM: “We all try to bring a little cheer wherever we can,” the doctor agrees, smiling widely. “I tried to bring some to your bedside when I treated you, you know! Research shows patients in happier moods recover faster and more fully.”
The sounds of footsteps and the clink of chains grow audible past the downpour. Along with moans.
Emmett: “I remember.”
GM: Em sees the first of them, a broken-looking man with vacant eyes, and an iron collar fastened around his neck. Chains link it to another collar and another broken soul behind him, another man whose mouth has been… Em can only describe it as fused shut. His eyes are numb with despair. Another chain followers behind his collar. It links to another, and another behind it. As the shuffling line of thralls emerges from the fog, Em can see over a dozen souls held in bondage, all told. Some are men. Some are women. Some are men. Some are young. Some are old. One looks no older than 12. Some have had their hands chopped off. Some have had their mouths and eyes fused shut. But most numbly shuffle along without any visible restraints save for the collars and chains. Bob and Mark stroll along their sides, armed with long knives.
“Oh, I’d be surprised if you remembered everything,” the dead doctor winks.
“And here they are! I suppose you should lead the way, Emmett. Where are we headed to this merry night?”
Emmett: He gets to his feet and starts to walk, smiling vaguely.
As they proceed into the Garden District, past ruined villas and manors, Em asks, “What don’t I remember, Jared?”
GM: They are already in the Garden District, but Em’s path starts to carry them to 1415 Third Street. The softly moaning convoy follows behind them, chains clinking in its wake.
Doc Brown just grins. “You were in and out of it. And out of it for quite a bit. The hospital staff can get very playful!”
Emmett: “Including you? You always had a bit of a reputation for, ah, playfulness.”
They’re close, now. Em keeps his mind on maintaining a leisurely pace, on leading his fellow dead to their doom as calmly as possible.
Plus, he’d like to get a straight answer before Brown becomes chow.
GM: The doctor chuckles. “My goodness no, Emmett! You did have AIDS, after all. I certainly didn’t want to risk catching that. No, the two of us had to have fun in other ways.”
Emmett: “Don’t get prudish with the details now, doctor. We’re no longer in the flesh.”
Just around the corner, now.
GM: “That’s right, Emmett,” the forever-bleeding doctor grins, his dark eyes twinkling.
“We’re so much more.”
Suddenly, the fog stirs like a monster’s exhaling breath. Mark and Bob grasp their weapons.
A pained, inhumanly low noise as though the earth were screaming splits the air. They come out of nowhere. At least half a dozen figures, gaunt of figure and grim of visage, with cruel-looking weapons drawn at the wraiths. They emerge from patches of solid midnight, dark shadows clinging to them like cobwebs.
“Make this easy and you’ll be thralls. Make this hard and you’ll be soulslag,” sneers one of the figures.
“Look at ‘em all! We’ve hit jackpot!” whoops another one.
Emmett: Em keeps his calm, though it’s touch and go for a moment. A glance at Jared tells him the doctor isn’t surprised.
“You know these gentlemen, Jared?”
GM: Doc Brown’s smile notably dips.
“I can’t say that I do, but I suppose it’s no shocker someone would want to rob this many thralls.”
Emmett: He nods, then raises his voice.
“Howdy there. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
Egotistic pricks love the whom. Really gets their dicks hard.
GM: Outnumbered at least three to do one, Bob drops his weapon in seeming surrender. Mark sprouts molting wings and takes to the air. Several of the figures collide into him like flashes of dark lightning. He hits the ground hard, but Em can’t see what happens next as the shadowy figures fan out around Em and Doc Brown, attempting to shove them to their knees. Two other pry open steel collars. Soft moans waft up from them.
One of the figures walks up close to Em.
The shadows run off his face like water. Em sees a slashed-open, bleeding throat. Like Doc Brown’s, but neater and tidier.
Along with a familiar face.
“Still honored, cuz?”
Emmett: Hey, Gasper. Can you talk to his Shadow and find out what our cousin needs more than anything right now? I’ll make you stronger for it.
“Jermaine,” Em says out loud. “I’m honored by my luck. Small underworld, huh?It’s been a while, cousin.”
GM: “Pretty big, actually,” his cousin replies with a mean smile.
“Bet you’re wondering why you’re running into me here.”
He holds up a forestalling hand to the shade with the collar, but the kneeling Em and Doc Brown are swiftly surrounded by Jermaine’s apparent friends.
“Well, you’ve been wandering all over the afterlife like an asshole. I thought about just jumping you, the first time I saw you.”
“But that lacked something. Being dead’s taught me to be patient. And I thought, what kind of man is my cousin?”
Emmett: “A forgivable man?”
GM: “I guess we’ll see how forgiving you are in a bit.”
There’s that same iron-hard and iron-sharp smile.
“But my cousin’s always got a hustle going. He’s always running some kind of score.”
“I waited. And you led me right here.”
His eyes sweep out across the mass of chained thralls.
“What a score. Whole shipment of Hierarchy thralls.”
Yawn. I’m already gonna be the strongest Shadow in the Underworld after you feed all those assholes to dear Maman.
Emmett: Sure, but that only happens if this conversation goes the way it needs to.
“Not compared to what we were about to spring,” Em replies. “The thralls are just the buy-in to a much, much bigger game.”
He spreads his arms, as if to welcome a hug.
GM: Oh, you’ll find a way, Emmett. You always do. I’m gonna need more than ‘make you stronger.’
“Really,” says Jermaine.
His cousin doesn’t look in a very hug-giving mood.
Emmett: That’s preposterous. Everybody wants a hug.
Still, he folds his arms. “Well, if you want to be skeptical about it, that’s fine, but I’ll tell you the same thing I told these fine reapers,” Em says, flourishing his arms from the ground, his palms open and appeasing. “There’s a woman who has more oboli than you could stuff in a fridge, just aways down the road. 1415 Third Street, actually. You ever been?”
GM: “Suppose I may in a bit,” says Jermaine.
“They must’ve been about to sell her those thralls,” says one of the other figures.
“Could do that ourselves,” says another.
“Or just take her oboli and keep the thralls.” A third.
Emmett: Em gives him a pair of finger-guns.
“She’s expecting me. I’ll be happy to introduce you. Help you take her by surprise. And maybe, in return, you could keep my share of the take, seeing as how we’re both victims of circumstance, ultimately.”
It was very circumstantial, your murder.
GM: “How convenient,” Jermaine says flatly.
“How about your friends here?”
Doc Brown’s smile looks more entreating than sinister.
Emmett: Em studies the nails on his dead man’s hand. The few of them that remain, anyways.
“Well, that depends on who you work for, Jay. That, and how they feel about the Hierarchy.”
GM: “I work for the same guy I’ve always worked for, cuz.”
Emmett: “Wouldn’t have it any other way. What do you think of the Hierarchy, boss-man?”
GM: “Hmm. So we can let go four wraiths, who I’m sure will be happy to get robbed in return for not getting slapped with Nhudri’s embrace.”
“Or we can just collar them and sell them without any risk of getting stabbed in the back.”
“Try harder, cuz.”
Em sees it in his eyes.
Jermaine is enjoying this.
Watching him squirm.
Watching him try to talk his way out of trouble.
Emmett: “Who said anything about letting us go? I’m just saying we’re wasted as thralls. I’m more the kind of help you employ. Look, I’ll make you a bet. You like bets, right?”
GM: “When the odds favor me.”
Emmett: “Okay, well, let me give you a win-win. Let me show you to the place. We’re not ten minutes from it. I won’t bolt, we both know I wouldn’t make it around the corner with this many guys on us. I’ll bring you to the lady these upstanding gentlemen had decided to rob. We’re on good terms, and she’s loaded—and she’s looking for friends on this side of the Shadowlands. Let me introduce you. If you don’t make more oboli from shaking her down than you would a few extra thralls, I’ll give you something more valuable to you, still. The name of the bitch that made me kill you, and how you can find her. And, you know, you’ll enslave me and cut off little bits of my corpus and feed them to me, and all that.”
“But, if I win, and you admit you’re satisfied, then I’m not your enemy. I’m your second. Your personal Sandman. And then I can start making you lots, and lots, and lots of money.”
He’s so close. So close to getting them where he needs them.
He only needs his cousin to bite.
GM: Jermaine stares at him.
He doesn’t smile.
Em probably can’t make him any less pissed off about his own death.
But directing that anger onto something else? Someone else?
That he can do.
That’s something he knows how to do very well.
He spent his whole life (or at least adolescence) pouring self-hate into external hate, after all.
His cousin extends a wordless hand to the prone wraith.
Emmett: Em takes it.
As he rises, he glances at Jared and happens to catch his eyes.
“Oh, and these lot have a whistle on them that summons legionaries, I’d get that off them, Jared over there looks very… whistley.”
GM: Doc Brown chuckles.
“My goodness, Emmett. Those things do have a limited range, you know.”
“But I suppose while we’re speaking of legionnaires… "
“Collar them. Now,” snaps Jermaine.
Suddenly, dark shapes materialize from the fog.
They’re humanoid shapes, garbed in heavy gray clothing under armor resembling that of the Roman legions. Their helmets mimic human skulls. Cruel-looking swords bristle from their arms.
Wordless war cries go up from both sides. Blades flash, biting deep into spectral flesh. Jermaine’s sword sends a legionnaire’s head tumbling from his shoulders. Doc Brown stabs his hands into a wraith’s face, laughing as the corpus comes apart in oozing chunks. The one menacing Bob gets basted off his feet by an unseen force. Mark vanishes into a patch of shadow, then reappears behind one of Jermaine’s crew, knife slashing across the wraith’s throat.
A few ghosts in the mass of bound thralls try to run, tugging desperately at their chains, shouting for the others to make a break for it. Many just stand there apathetically, literal dead weight against their fellows, but the chained mass starts to sluggishly move away.
Emmett: Em, for his part, works to ensure both that Jermaine’s team comes out ahead, and that the huddled masses stay conveniently in place. A nightmare mass of glaring, spectral eyes and fanged mouths straight out of a horror game (Domestic Wickedness 3: The Blob-Things, to be exact) burrows from the ground and scatters the encroaching legionnaires, allowing Jermaine’s crew with their lesser numbers to regroup. Then said blob menaces the straggling thralls, making them stumble over and entangle each other in blind panic.
Nothing’s ever allowed to just work, is it?
GM: Em’s conjured nightmare conjures dread indeed among the thralls. The ones trying to escape shriek with terror at the sight of it and try to flee back the other direction. With the battling wraiths behind them, and the weight of their more apathetic members dragging the more animated ones down, the desperate mass of damned souls gets nowhere fast.
Jermaine’s outnumbered crew, however, fares worse against the Hierarchy’s legions. Ear-splitting shrieks split the gloom, loud enough to make Em feel like his head will explode. Blood rains from the sky, melting corpus on contact. The wraiths on both sides are relentless warriors, fighting past gaping wounds, past loss of their limbs, past all the frailties of living bodies. There’s one particularly vicious Hierarchy wraith, adorned in a featureless steel mask, whose sword cuts down three of Jermaine’s crew. Shrieking black voids yawn up to swallow most of the defeated, though a few collapse to the ground and writhe with pain as their foes clamp collars around their necks. The battle comes to an end when Jermaine gives it up and dives into a shadow.
Emmett: It’s not the first battle he’s been in the middle of.
It is the messiest, though. His corpus drips with ectoplasmic ichor. He weaves and floats and dances among from the carnage, his only priority his survival and not letting that steel-faced brute catch him; the featureless figure seems to be looking at him intently, for some reason.
Probably jealousy. It’s often jealousy.
GM: “Don’t go a-running now, Emmett! We still need to meet the nice lady together!” smiles Doc Brown as the masked legionnaire lunges after Em with a collar.
He can try to still deliver the Hierarchy to Abélia in chains.
Or he can flee a free man.
Lamarck: There’s no such thing as an easy come up, but why does it always end up like this around him. Ever blood-soaked, ever spiraling further into madness. Death sacrificing death. He can see it all, the brutal slaughter, the gory explosions of wraithly forms, the terrible pull of the nihils on the bodies of his fallen combatants. No one could blame him for losing his focus in the tempest.
But in this darkest, most important of moments, his sight becomes as sharp as any one of the Hierarchy’s soulforged daggers.
And in the crystal clarity he sees one of Jermaine’s men with fury in his eyes staring directly at him. He’s a boulder of a man, and his black, veil-like clothing is draped over stone-grey muscles that shift like quaking tectonic plates as he takes a thunderous step forward in the carnage.
The hulk of a wraith opens his gorilla-like maw and starts to roar something at Emmett, ectoplasmic spittle already hitting his face, and then he is silent.
The eyes of the tank go painfully wide as his jaw drops and two ectoplasm-soaked blades stab through his gut and pull up, tearing through his dead entrails. The blades stab in and out of his form again and again, tearing two windows through the dead man’s insides.
The gore-spattered blades run him through and through, and then they go further, and they don’t end at hilts but arms, which stretch out a man-sized hole in the unfortunate wraith. The blade-handed man crawls like devilspawn out of his womb, and stands proud in the dead corpse, grasping a length of its intestines and biting into his trophy.
As he steps past the soon-opening oversized nihil that the corpse falls into, not seeming to notice the dead conman, Emmett catches a view of the mad butcher’s blood-soaked face.
It couldn’t be. But it has to be. He wears the same predatory grin he did when Emmett put on that terrible collar.
Emmett: When it’s all over, though, he can count. It’s five against one.
Oh, and Lamarck. Because why not. He accepted long ago that God, fate, the universe, whatever, was determined to quash his hopes and dreams.
“Let’s talk about this,” Em says, and then the collar snaps shut around his neck.
GM: The pain is as horrific as it was last time. Searing hot flames and powerful surges of numbing cold rip simultaneously through his mind and corpus. Even his Shadow screams inside his head. A shrill chorus of agonized shrieks seems to simultaneously ring from the collar’s dull surface.
“Ah, today is a good day! So many new thralls!” smiles Doc Brown.
Emmett: He screams.
A part of him knows he deserves it.
GM: “I presume you’ll want this one for yourself, sir,” the doctor addresses the masked wraith.
Emmett: “Marck,” he gasps, at some point in between the screams. “’La… Marck. The… collar. I took off… your… collar. Chains. Not collar. Please.”
GM: The masked wraith doesn’t say anything. Just folds his arms and stares at Em.
Bob laughs and glances at Lam.
“This one stole every artifact to your name, didn’t you say?”
Emmett: “Spared… the… collar.”
Lamarck: The ectoplasm-soaked butcher’s boots squelch against the wet ground as he lands his gaze on Emmett. He smiles sickly, sharpening the blades extending off his arms against each other. The metal shrieks.
Bob’s words don’t seem to affect him, perhaps it’s all water under the bridge.
“Zis von, ist very klever. Very klever in-deed.”
“But terribly foolish. And so green. I vould hef had gut use for you too, Emmett, but ze commander insisted. You vould hef made gut entertainment, zandmann.”
Emmett: Ah, well. Worth a shot.
A distant corner of his soul, untouched by the freezing agony, watches. And waits.
Waits for them to make him walk, and lead them to their doom.
GM: The masked wraith brushes a hand against Emmett’s cheek, almost tenderly. Em feels wet ectoplasmic blood against his skin, from the taller figure’s glove. It doesn’t smell like any blood he’s been around before. It doesn’t smell like anything.
Emmett: Bad touch, he would say if he wasn’t screaming.
But he is, sadly, screaming.
GM: There’s soft laughter at his cries. Then the figure takes off the skull-patterned mask.
He smiles fondly. Like a father being reunited with a long-lost son.
Or a daughter.
Emmett: Called it, Em thinks.
Out loud, he says, “FUCKUNTABITCH!”
GM: Em would say his former john looks good, but he doesn’t. He looks dead.
“My sweet little boywhore,” he murmurs, pulling Em into an embrace that’s almost warm. Em feels too-cold steel against his chest as Mark brushes a hand through his hair.
“I’ve missed you so much.”
“I’ve spent seven years thinking of you.”
“Thinking of the things I’m going to do to you.”
“There are so many, many things.”
“I’d say I don’t even know where to start, but I do. I’ve spent seven years thinking about where we’re going to start.”
Emmett: At least now he knows that if he doesn’t pull this off, he’ll literally be a sex slave. Nothing like a good incentive.
Em looks to Doc Brown. “Rich… make you… rich.”
GM: The doc just laughs. Rivulets of ectoplasmic skin and fat run down his chin, mingling with the blood spurting from his slashed throat. He hasn’t even bothered to clean it off.
“Oh, we’re all going to come out of this rich, all right.”
“First, we’re going to visit the masquers,” says Stines. “There are some really good ones in the necropolis here. They’re going to give you an enormous pair of tits. Just enormous. They’ll be so heavy you can’t even walk with a straight back. They’ll give you long hair, makeup, giant eyelashes, fat dicksucking lips, the whole nine yards. They’ll also get rid of those clothes you have on, and replace them with something frilly and lacy that ends with a skirt, which they’ll fuse to your skin. I’m going to tell them to make the entire moliating process as long and painful as possible. They’ll be able to make it very painful, though not as much as what comes next.”
“All of that will just be the appetizer.”
Lamarck: Lamarck shakes his head at Emmett’s vulgarity with a smile that carries a certain almost paternal pride. Boys will be boys. And what’s the harm when the boy is under excruciating, debilitating pain?
But when the commander starts talking, his expression shifts, like that of a child taking their first bite out of a lemon their their parents promised would be sweet as sugar. No one cleared him on these details, it seems. He holds his tongue for the moment, but his grin transfigures into a grimace. Before the commander looks back, he hides his disgust behind his dead stare.
Emmett: Talk, talk, talk. Em doesn’t bother to listen to it. If it ends up happening, he won’t need to spoilers, and if it doesn’t, he’d rather not know to begin with.
GM: Stines just smiles and pulls back, brushing Emmett’s cheek again.
“Because once you’re dolled up, once we’ve got you looking ready for one of our dates again—and you’re going to look like that forever, the process is permanent—we’re going to visit the soulforges, you and I. I’m going chain you down to a low table, with your legs spread, and stick your dick right into those furious white flames. The artificers will get to work with their hammers and anvils, and they’ll forge it into a little keepsake for me, while it’s still attached to you. They’ll only slice it off at the very end. Do you have any idea how painful that process is? Just any idea? Getting your attached penis soulforged is most painful thing I could think of to do to you, and I’ve spent seven years thinking of painful things to do to you.”
“That little keepsake made from your dick is going to be a collar, by the way. Just like this one, and just as painful. But it’ll have a little tag that reads ‘Mark Stines’ pet bitch.’ Or maybe ‘dicksucking faggotgirl.’ I actually haven’t decided. It won’t even come with a lock. I’m going to have them weld it around your neck.”
Emmett: Is he still monologuing? Jesus fucking christ, you’d think a dead man would learn to appreciate how little anybody actually cared about what he had to say.
Still, almost feels rude not to give as good as he gets.
Em howls and hacks and sputters, but sways desperately close to Stines and looks him in the eyes.
Then he smiles, a pain-fueled grimace, a smile only a corpse could wear.
“How’s… the… wife?”
He even winks. Well, winces. But only with his left eye.
It’s wildly impudent.
Mark can see it in Em’s eyes, then. The worst thing a man like him can ever see in a victim’s eyes.
Em thinks he’s funny.
“Hehheh… heh… heh.”
His laughter turns into a scream. Or maybe the other way around. It’s not a nice noise, any which way.
GM: Stines’ cheeks don’t redden. There’s no color here.
Instead, the dead man’s ashen-hued face turns black with rage. Literally black, like someone spilled paint over it. Paint distilled from seven years of pent-up, fetering hate.
Stines belts him across the face, hard, crunching in his nose with a bloody spray. He throws Em to the ground. Falls on top. Brings down his fists again and again and again, beating Em until his face is a mashed-up, bloody ruin.
“Hey, you beat him too bad-” starts Bob, with a dubious look.
“SHUT UP!” roars Stines, his eyes bulging with hate.
He beats Em some more.
And some more.
His soldiers frown among themselves. Doc Brown trades a glance with Lam.
They’ve collared and chained up all the wraiths who didn’t flee or plummet into those black rents. Everyone is just standing there, waiting, as the commander throws his tantrum.
Emmett: It hurts.
But fuck, everything hurts, and every blow that lands tells him that Stines still knows Em’s winning.
Yeah, that’s what this is.
“Ah’ll neVer… shOw yah where shh, she iS…” he hacks, between the howling laughter. "No o-bo, oboli, for yooou… "
Give Stines something to take from him. Something to bully him into.
GM: “1415 Third Street, Emmett,” smiles Doc Brown with a tsk-tsk tone. “You did say so, yourself!”
Emmett: He shakes his head. "Need me… to int, introduce… " but Stines is beating him and he’s screaming.
Lamarck: Lamarck looks on with disgust at Stines’ weakness. It’s a weakness he bore himself. Cut on Emmett’s sharp tongue. And collared as well. It’s disgraceful.
When Emmett brings up the oboli, he breaks his quiet by sniffing the air around Stines’ body and recoiling.
“Ze smell of his Shadow ist thick viz him, gentlemen. Es ist mein professional opinion zat ze dear commander ist under ze influence of his Shadow as ve speak. He’s undergoing catharsis. Ze Shadow might ruin his mission and throw away all our oboli if ve don’t take action to reshtrain him.”
He gestures to the collar that hangs around his belt.
“I might be able to calm him. But only ven he is reshtrained.”
Looking to Emmett writhing like a maniac on the floor, some part of Lamarck still has hope for himself. Maybe this is what altruism looks like. That’s what it is, after seventy years of enslaving the freshly dead, he’s turning a new leaf.
Bullshit. Of course not, whispers the Shadow into his ear. He’s doing this for himself. For money. And he can’t afford to fail. That’s why he calls on his Shadow when it offers it’s wares, and sells off one more bit of himself to his greatest weakness.
GM: The soldiers look at one another.
“Too many fucking times,” says one.
As one, the armored legionnaires yank Steins off Em and hold him down. He howls and bellows orders until they snap a collar around his neck.
Then he just screams.
“Regs are clear, sir. I’m assuming command,” says one, a grim-faced legionnaire missing his left eye. There’s just a steadily weeping pit of gray where it used to. “You’re relieved until the pardoners can calm down your Shadow.”
Oh my god, I think I might literally die from the pain. AGAIN.
GM: He looks at Lam. “Can you do it here, or do we need to take him back to the necropolis?”
Lamarck: Lamarck takes a moment to look at Emmett as the legionnaires wrestle and collar the degenerate rapist.
Lamarck a pardoner. Perhaps he was more ‘unharrowed’ than they expected.
He turns back to the new commander and responds,
“It’s likely best vor us to press on, acting kommander, unt let him tucker himself out. I vill check up on him every zo often, but I don’t vant to let zis effort go to vaste if ve don’t hef to.”
“Ze castigation process is kvite energy-intensive, unt I very vell might reqvire zat strength to finish zis mission. Ve kan get him some longer term treatment ven ve’re back if it appears necessary,” he assures.
GM: “All right,” says the one-eyed legionnaire. He motions at the others. “Chain them.”
The remaining legionnaires attach chains to Em’s and Stines’ collars, which they hook to the thrall first in line. Stines’ face is a mask of agony. He doesn’t resist the other wraiths.
But he still manages to shoot Em a look of pure, murderous hate.
Lamarck: Lamarck absentmindedly sharpens his blade-arms against each other, thinking, and then he approaches Emmett, and asks the now chained conman,
“All right, zo, vat ken you tell us about vat ze vun at ze address ist expekting of you? On a normal trip hier, vat vould you be doing to approach?”
GM: Bob laughs.
Emmett: Em screams and gesticulates wildly to his collar.
GM: “Why the fuck would he tell us anything close to the truth now?”
“I take it back, you know. You’re not my kind of scum.”
He delivers a swift kick to the screaming wraith’s flank.
Lamarck: “Because Bob, wiz ze oboli ve ken collect from a successful operation, unt ze delivery of ze ozer thralls, ve can afford to offer zis von a chance at mercy. He ist a being of opportunity. Unt right now, beink honest ist ze only opportunity he has if he vants to get zat collar off.”
Emmett: Em gives a thumbs up.
He doesn’t stop screaming.
GM: “Or he could just lie,” Doc Brown smiles.
“Well. More, that is.”
His grin spreads.
“I’m afraid your only future is as a large-breasted sex toy, Emmett.”
Emmett: He shrugs. Pleads, with his hands.
But mostly screams.
GM: The doctor laughs.
“What a sissy,” says Bob.
“Well, it does take them some time to get used to,” says Doc Brown.
Lamarck: “Vat ze commander vishes to do viz him ist zomething he can handle upon ze castigation of his Shadow. For now, I vant ze oboli. If zat takes taking off his kollar, zen so be it.” Lamarck reasserts.
“Unt he should know,” Lamarck says, holding his literal sword-arm up to Emmett, “Zat I am proficient in zat kapacity az vell. If he gets any ideas, I’m happy to demonstrate.”
Emmett: Em manages to stop screaming long enough to squeak out a particularly high-pitched “Please!”
GM: Bob kicks him again.
“Enough,” growls the one-eyed legionnaire.
Emmett: “Enough,” wheezes Em in agreement.
GM: He looks at Doc Brown. “You warned us about this one. He was behind the illusions?”
The doctor nods. “Struck a deal with the renegades, too.”
“This was a setup?”
“Spontaneous, it seemed like.”
He looks at Em. “Well, renegade, tell you what. Answer our questions, and we’ll let you go. You won’t get any of the spoils, but you won’t be a spoil either.”
Em’s told enough lies in his time to smell another one.
“Anything you hear from him is suspect,” cautions Doc Brown.
Emmett: Em tries to disagree, but finds himself screaming instead.
Somebody should really take off that collar.
GM: The one-eyed legionnaire gestures to two others with an irritated look. They shove Em to the ground and pin him with their arms and knees. But the acting commander unlocks the collar. The sheer relief hits Em like a gut punch.
Emmett: “Oh thank fuuuuck,” he practically sings as the soulforged torture-steel leaves . “Okay! Okay, in order of importance. I’m not a ‘renegade,’ I’m just a prick, all right? I just look out for myself, like everybody else does. Nothing more to it than that. These fine gentlemen captured me, I told them my situation and how they might make some oboli and they let me go. We were on our way to the deal, my jerk cousin showed up and made like I was about to be soulslag. So I sold them down the river to him. Now you lot are in control, so I’m on your side again. Look, it’s not fucking ideological, I just really like my own skin, is that so wicked? Now, what do you want to know?”
Tongue like a fucking turbine.
Lamarck: “All right. Zo, first zings first. On an average meeting, vat’s your approach?”
Emmett: “I fly in and bow in the yard. I say whatever flowery shit comes to mind. Then the doors open. I go in. She’s normally waiting in there. The Devillers witch.”
“I don’t know what she is, exactly. Not dead. Not alive. Not a lick. But she’s got oboli. Whopping big safe full. And she’s, um, well, she doesn’t like you lot very much. The Hierarchy. She sent me out to feel out some recruits. Potential, I guess you would call them renegades, but she pitches it using words like ‘opportunity’ and ‘ground floor.’ You know, she’s looking for ambitious Caspers who don’t like wearing the uniform or getting their wanking hand turned into a cutlass.”
He chooses to wait, at this point, for questions.
Lamarck: Lamarck chews on that answer like a goat would his cud, long and slow.
“Ah, I see. Unt zer ist no one zer to open ze doors? Zey just open? You think she can see you from inside? Hev you ever tried to open ze doors yourself, without alerting her?”
Emmett: He shakes his head. “She’s got some kind of power over the house. She won’t be easy to surprise there. I know she can be lied to, though, I’ve done it before. Let me walk you up there. No chains, no collar, or she’ll know something’s off.”
The bruises and bleeding inflicted by Stines’ beating are already fading, his corpus restoring itself and his face to its usual charming proportions.
“Look, I get that I’m scum, you can’t trust me, whatever, but that’s just the best way to get her to come out on our terms. It’s not like I’ll be able to get away from you if chucking you down that elevator shaft didn’t do the trick. I’ll behave. I mean, it’s five of you against her. Like I said, earlier.” He nods to Bob. “I’m scum who can count.”
GM: The other wraiths don’t immediately reply, seemingly content for the pardoner to finish his questioning first.
It’s a tough-looking audience.
When isn’t it?
Lamarck: “So, no shneaking up on her, or her oboli. Ve hef to get her to open ze gates of her own volition. Zen ven ve’re in ve’re good to get her. Zat’s ze deal? Like ze Trojan horse. Ve just need to get through ze gates.”
His sword arms scrape against each other further. Emmett can’t help but notice how honed the edge has become.
“Unt vat vill she think ven zer are armed wraiths and legionnaires at her doorstep viz you? You don’t hev a horse to hide us in, do you?” he asks with a hint of humor.
Emmett: “I was kind of imagining y’all would do your shadow-teleporting thing and swoop down from above. Once we get there, you can get into position.”
Lamarck: “I see.” He chews on that thought too. “Do you know her to have any particular blind spots or veaknesses? You’ve lied to her? Vat does she fall for?”
Emmett: “The same lies anybody believes, Lamarck. Ones about how she’s the prettiest woman you’ve ever seen and how she’s got you wrapped around her finger. She’s smart, but arrogant, like.”
Lamarck: “Vell, zat ist all very helpful. Your ko-operation ist noted,” Lamarck says with his permanent smirk, before turning back to his fellow wraiths for their thoughts.
GM: The one-eyed legionnaire seems to consider all that he’s heard.
“What about his Shadow?” he asks Lam. “How large a threat do you peg it?”
Lamarck: Emmett sees Lamarck turn towards him once again, lean close, and inhale the dead air around him. The skin around his nose wrinkles and he slowly withdraws.
After seeming to consider it for a moment and looking back to ensure Emmett’s still held down, he answers, “Es ist qvuite ze stronk Shadow. It requires purifikation before ve kick zis off. Ve don’t vant it sabotaging ze operation.”
“I aem prepared to do zo, but I’ll need extra pathos to sustain my corpus in ze process.”
He looks to the one-eyed legionnaire.
“Akting kommander, ef I rekall correktly you are shkillt in usury. Vould you be villink to facilitate donations durink ze purifikation process?”
GM: “If I had a reason to throw pathos after this one,” the legionnaire answers levelly.
“Just snap a collar back on the fuck,” agrees Bob.
Emmett: “I might be better placed to distract the lady and give you gentlemen the opening you need if I’m not screaming in agony,” Em suggests.
GM: “Who the fuck cares what the pardoner says, sir. Let’s just get a damn move on,” says Bob.
“I suppose we aren’t getting any younger, are we now?” smiles Doc Brown.
“Cute,” says another legionnaire.
GM: “We’ve already gone to all the effort of lugging these thralls here,” says another legionnaire.
“Caught a few more, to show for it,” says another.
The one-eyed legionnaire looks at Em. “You’ll approach the house to sell the thralls. Brown and Norman will go with you. We’ll also give you some extra incentive to stay loyal.”
He produces a dull-looking knife and stabs it right into Em’s heart. The blade pierces Em’s corpus like it’s made of clay, and the sensation doesn’t hurt as much as Em probably thinks it should, though it isn’t a comfortable feeling either. A dull chill seeps through Em’s chest after a few moments.
The one-eyed legionnaire looks at Brown. “Say ‘command word’, and he’ll get what’s coming to him.”
“With pleasure,” smiles Brown.
“We’ll be watching you for any illusions, too, Mr. Sandman,” says Bob.
The one-eyed legionnaire makes a signal, and just like that, they vanish again into shadow. Em and his two ‘companions’ lead the fettered thralls up to the Walter Robinson House. It’s a short trip. The gates are closed when they get there, but Em can see through them to the other side, unlike last time.
Also unlike last time, the house’s yard consists of dead and withered grass rather than skulls. The living darkness smothering the building is also absent. The property appears as ordinary as any of its neighbors.
“Knock knock,” smiles Doc Brown.
Emmett: Dammit, dammit, dammit. One more fucking hoop to jump through, eh? Well, stick a tail up my ass and call me a bunny.
“No worries, Bob,” he says as they approach, the house’s participation in his chicanery only vaguely registering next to the knife in his heart. “Got me cornered, you have. No more tricks up my sleeve.”
Gasper, you still want me to shove these pricks down her gullet, yeah? I need a favor to make that happen, if you’re game.
Knock, knock, go his dead man’s knuckles against the door. He expects it to sound like knocking on a coffin.
GM: I’m game to cut a deal.
Em’s hand passes through the translucent gate like so much smoke. Bob and Brown trade amused looks as they follow him up the house’s front steps, their line of weakly moaning thralls in tow.
But the house itself is opaque to the wraiths’ sight. When Bob gives an experimental knock, the door silently swings open. The inside is pitch dark.
It feels like opening a coffin.
“There’s too many to bring inside,” frowns Bob. “Get her to come out.”
GM: The two wraiths look impatient.
“There’s a collar back there with your name on it, if you can’t,” growls Bob.
Emmett: “Uh huh,” Em says.
Get Brown’s Shadow to pull him into a harrowing, I’ll let you decide what we do to him when he pops back out. Even shit I’d normally fight. Plus, I’ll make you stronger, obviously. Deal?
“As you wish,” he says aloud, and steps into the perfect pitch black of the house.
GM: Bob plants a hand on Em’s shoulder.
“Yeah, leave you to go warn her we’re out here, or lead us into an ambush. Maybe you should just try yelling it’s you?”
Uh huh, I’m already gonna get a lot stronger, and there’s nothing I’d do to that smiling fuck you also wouldn’t. Swear to kill Lena, on your soul—which I’ll get if you try to weasel out—and I’ll get the good doc’s Shadow to play ball.
Emmett: You know that’s a nonstarter. Nightmares about her kids dying, take it or leave it.
Em shrugs off the hand. Worth a try.
“Madame,” he croons, “I have brought you your thralls, and those who would sell them. They shan’t fit in the house. Would you deign to meet us outside? I told these gentlesouls your beauty could make a garden bloom, and I quite look forward to being proven right.”
He glances at Brown.
An idea blossoms.
“And if she would join us… your eldest might find the company invigorating.”
GM: Em’s Shadow does not answer him.
But the darkness does.
A figure steps out. It looks like Abélia, down to the pale skin and black hair, but that’s where it ends. The cheeks are a bit rounder, the smile less knowing, the eyes less dark. Her dress looks like a real dress, moves like a real dress, rather than a living extension of the night itself. The figure looks exactly like her, but somehow robbed of all that she is.
The facsimile smiles.
“Hello, gentlesouls. I bid you welcome to my home.”
Even the voice sounds off.
“My eldest shall be along momentarily… I’m afraid she can’t see you, but perhaps you might find her company invigorating?”
Emmett: And just like that, the game is still on.
Em keeps his face composed even as he ponders his next move.
“How could we not, when she’s your spitting image?”
GM: “How could we not, if she’s as lovely as you, madam,” smiles Doc Brown. “Aren’t you going to introduce us, Emmett?”
Emmett: Em lets a moment pass so the copycat compliment can linger like the bad fart it is before he speaks.
“Madame Devillers, Dr. Jared Brown is an old associate from my breathing days and currently employed as a thrall-hunter by… well, I’m sure he can list his credentials more precisely than myself. Oh, and that’s Bob. His sidekick. Bob, Jared, this apparition is Madame Abélia Devillers, and her needs for spectral muscle are, as I’ve mentioned, substantial.”
He glances at Bob. “That means ‘large.’”
GM: “Cute,” says Bob. Em gets a very mean-looking smile.
The facsimile gives an airy laugh. “It’s my privilege to make both of your acquaintances. And you’ve some thralls to sell, I hear from Mr. Delacroix?”
“Why yes, madame. A whole 22,” smiles Doc Brown. “We’re hopeful that many of them will meet your needs.”
Emmett: “Enfants mostly, I expect?” Em cuts in breezily.
GM: “A corpus is a corpus, at the end of the night,” smiles Doc Brown. “Though there aren’t many things as satisfying as snapping nhudri’s embrace around the neck of an arrogant older wraith. We certainly have a few of those!”
“I am certain they will serve splendidly, young and old,” smiles Abélia. “Please, take me to them.”
“We’re going to ask that you bring your oboli with you, ma’am,” says Bob. “Standard rule for prospective customers.”
“Why, of course… I’m certain you’re used to dealing with all manner of unscrupulous sorts,” agrees the facsimile. “A moment, please.”
She disappears back inside the house.
Doc Brown and Brown both smile at Em.
They’re smiles as nice as is typical for the pair.
Emmett: “She’s nice, isn’t she?” Em smiles back. “And wait ‘til you meet the daughter. You’ll like her, Brown. I did. Bob, she doesn’t have any sons, but you can probably get a handy from one of the thralls. You know, as a going away gift. If the doc gives you permission, I mean.”
GM: “That’s also cute. Still not as much as you’re going to be with a giant pair of tits as the commander’s fucktoy,” leers Bob.
Emmett: Em grins.
GM: “He’s been fantasizing about what he’ll do to you for years. Had a lot of stories down in the necropolis.”
Emmett: “Yeah, and I bet you listened to all of them, eh? You’re right, Bobby boy. You’re not scum like me. I’d rather get fucked by your boss in the taint than spend my afterlife choosing to follow him around like a dead fucking groupie. At least Brown knows why he’s a rapist. It’s because he likes the power. You don’t even realize why nobody needs to put you on your knees. It’s because you wind up there your own damn self.”
He just needs Brown to crack a smile. To break ranks for a moment. A snicker will be enough, if he’s got Bob’s number right.
And he knows he has. The schmuck’s deathly garb is a wife-beater. He won’t like being laughed at.
Well, then again, nobody really does. Not even the dead.
GM: The other wraith’s face can’t turn red. But his eyes turn furious. Absolutely furious.
“You’ve got some lip on you. Command wo-!”
The knife flies out of Em’s chest.
The blade turns solid black, then explodes in a shower of glassy, bleeding fragments. Em doesn’t want to think about what that would have done inside his corpus.
Dr. Brown shoots the other wraith an equally black look.
“Couldn’t leave that alone, could we, Bob?”
“Couldn’t wait all of five minutes?”
Emmett: Em stretches, his chest suddenly feeling miles lighter. “Don’t be too hard on him, doc. We can’t all be as cool as you. And let’s not get too worked up, eh? The lady’ll be back soon. And we have a sale to make.”
He regards the pitch darkness of the house plaintively. “Command word,” he scoffs. “Nobody ever bothers to change the factory settings, do they?”
GM: He’s heard of bondage couples who use “safeword” too.
And also children’s show critters.
Bob just glares.
Nobody talks. The facsimile eventually re-emerges, though, along with Cécilia. She looks straight past the three wraiths as if oblivious to their presences.
Several chests on little carts follow along with Abélia. They’re heaped high with colorless coins stamped with a masked figure and bearing a reaper’s scythe. Low moans go up from them.
Emmett: “Shall I bite one?” Em offers.
GM: “Seems like you’re pretty used to experimenting with things in your mouth,” says Bob.
Abélia only smiles and gazes out at the line of fettered thralls as if noticing them for the first time.
“Please, tell me of them. This white-haired one looks of exceptionally fine stock?” she inquires, looking towards Mark Stines.
Emmett: “I can certainly vouch for his stamina. Easy to manipulate, though,” Em chimes in.
“Of course, that might be a pro, not a con.”
GM: “Very good,” smiles the facsimile.
“I shall be happy to purchase all of these thralls.”
Doc Brown smiles back at her, then blows his whistle. It sounds like the screams of the damned. Dark shapes suddenly materialize out of nowhere, clad in the Hierarchy’s skull-and-bones armor. They fall upon the facsimile with collars and chains, burying it beneath the weight of their numbers as they bind it fast.
The facsimile, Cécilia, and the carts full of oboli abruptly dissolve into oily black sludge.
Some of the legionnaires’ gazes turn sharp with surprise.
Bob just roars,“GET HIM!” and tackles after Em.
Emmett: “Sorry, boys.” Em deftly weaves away from Bob, retreating back towards the house. “You bet on the wrong horse. Or beat the dead horse. Because we’re ghosts? Get it? Oh, never mind, I bungled it.” He sprouts wings and flaps into the air, stares down at his old tormentor. “Hey, Doc Brown? You really should have stopped smiling.”
He spreads his arms wide, the pitch-black doorway looming behind him.
“Your larder, madame.”
GM: The house ripples as though from a mirage’s heat waves.
The ground beneath the wraiths does too. The gates and fence suddenly grow solid and opaque to their deathless eyes.
Lamarck: Lamarck catches Emmett’s eyes from beside the mass of legionnaires. The blade-armed man sprouts two great wings which unfurl as he twirls into the air. At first he seems to grin, but then as the illusion melts melts away, so does his levity. There’s an unstated question in his gaze, Please.
Emmett: Em spots a certain Kraut in the crowd. “Maybe leave that one. He’s all sinewy. He’ll behave, won’t you, Lamarck?”
GM: An abyss yawns wide over the house. Enormous, tree-sized tendrils of dripping darkness squeeze about its walls, whose geometric angles seem off and no longer fully euclidean. Staring at them makes the wraiths’ heads hurt. Black, tar-like blood runs down the building’s side like oily tears. The ground is no longer dead grass, but row upon row of human skulls and flesh-picked bones.
But its true shape is but the precursor.
Lamarck: The Amerikan kraut doesn’t hesitate a lick at the offer. Maybe it’s that they’ve ran into a trap and only Emmett seems comfortable. Or maybe he’s developed a soft spot for the young sandman.
Either way, he flies before Emmett to brandish his swordarms in his defense.
“Of kourse I vill, Emmett.”
Emmett: It’s definitely the first one.
Lamarck: Perhaps Lamarck was surprised at first how comprehensively Emmett’s soul was tainted. So young, so struck with naiveté about the world of the dead. This very same soul even tried to save him from his own sins and even offered him a way out.
One glimpse at the true form of the mistress he serves dispels any and all such illusions. He averts his eyes immediately and looks to Emmett gravely.
“Vas ist das, mein Freund? Mein Gott in Himmel.”
There’s no power to his voice, no outward presence at all. Just a cold, concentrated mixture of fear and awe that flirts with Oblivion.
Emmett: “That’s my madame, Mr. All-American. Now shut up and watch the show.”
GM: The doors burst open, vomiting out a tidal wave of pure darkness. Shapes swim through it, like a spider’s writhing hairy legs, a shark’s gnawing teeth, and a kraken’s grasping tentacles, all at once, as though the night itself and all its terrors were come alive with hunger. The black tide floods over the wraiths like a vast web enveloping a cloud of flies, then sucks them in.
No one is spared. The legionnaires, the thralls, Doc Brown and his associates, Lamarck, Em: all souls are food for the void past the house’s yawning doors. The legionnaires hack away with their swords, slicing off chunks of dripping darkness that transform into scuttling spiders and writhing maggots as they hit the bone-lined ground. Em and Lam watch as their corpi blacken and rot before their eyes. Wholesale chunks disappear as though gnawed away. Em looks down where some of his used to be, and sees himself in his old apartment’s dumpster, screaming over his lost legs. He and Lam struggle and beat their wings, taking advantage of the house’s preoccupation with so many other victims to extricate themselves. Lam fights like hell and tears himself from the darkness first, coated in oily-smelling black bile. Em suffers far worse before he’s spat out, his legs resembling blackened bones gnawed clean of flesh.
A few of the legionnaires cut themselves free, too. The one-eyed legionnaire tears off Stines’ shackles and shouts something indistinct before his head disappears beneath the nightmare tide. Bob just screams as he’s sucked past the house’s doors. He does not reemerge. Mark rips open a dark tear in the ground and prepares to dive through, then screams as black tendrils explode from the rift and drag him inside. The other legionnaires, shouting not to open nihils here, sprout wings and take to the air. The house ravenously drags back several, including the one-eyed legionnaire. Each wraith is swallowed through the house’s awful doors. Stines and Doc Brown soar furiously towards the starless sky.
Emmett: It take the last drop of Em’s powers to restore his wrecked corpus, but restore it he does, as his wings propel him upwards after his fleeing foes. He has no intention of letting the two biggest fish off their hooks.
He doesn’t even have the juice for an illusion. So he’s reduced to soaring within shouting range and hollering at the fleeing wraiths at the top of his lungs. The sound seems to carry all right, though. He supposes air isn’t so much a factor.
“That’s right, you limp-dicked FAGGOTS! Fly off! You think this is where it ends? I’ll find your fucking families and give them dreams about their cowardly casper cunts! You’ll remember that I fucked you harder than either of you fucked anybody, and you’ll remember it for-FUCKING-EVER!”
Bit crass, but he’s still reeling from the tentacular rape of his corpus. Luckily, they probably are too.
GM: Doc Brown flashes Em a humoring smile but seems to have no intention of flying back to certain death. After all, Em hasn’t actually done much of anything to him.
But the same can’t be said for Mark Stines.
The hate on the other wraith’s face is as black and festering as his ravaged and half-destroyed corpus. With a wordless scream, he launches himself back towards Em as he throws a punch, frothing and spitting (though no spittle flies from his dead lips) about the unspeakable things he’s going to do.
“YOU COCKSUCKER SISSY FUCKHOLE _YOU’RE MINE!”_
Emmett: Eh, he’ll take it.
He lets Stines get close. Too close. Dangerously close.
Then he tucks his wings and falls, plummeting from the skies like a sickly angel, forcing Stines to dive with him—
—so that the dead legionnaire can see Em’s grinning face fade away like a bad dream, the grin lingering behind as his rapist enters the house’s orbit once more, and a tentacle slithers around his blackened corpus.
“Bye, Stines,” the real Em says, just a few tantalizing feet out of reach. “It was nice seeing you again. Enjoy Oblivion. I hear it’s quiet.”
Lamarck: Up in the sky, as Doc Brown smiles down at Em, Lamarck beats his wings once again, spiraling with the quiet of the dead towards his hopefully unsuspecting quarry. He can’t let him escape, not after what he saw Lamarck do.
Lamarck’s corpus is fully healed. He escaped in time. This man was too busy ogling that woman—that thing’s daughter to have gone unscathed. That means he’s weak, and for Lamarck, there’s only one thing weakness can be met with.
He readies his last collar and then his arms shoot out from his body, stretching like endless vipers before clamping the cold steel around the resident rapist’s neck. A lengthy chain, held firm in his hand, extends from the collar to let the wraith’s tortured form hang from.
GM: Jared writhes and screams as the collar clicks shut around his neck. Both Lam and Em well recall its pain.
Blackness washes up from the house like a cloud of ink expelled into the sky. Nightmares roil within the surface, teeth and claws and less identifiable terrors out of mankind’s darkest memories. Doc Brown, already free-falling through the air as his wings cease to beat under the collar’s pain, is helpless to avoid his fate. The chain is yanked out Lam’s hands as Brown hits the cloud’s ‘surface’ and sinks into it like quicksand. He struggles and flails, but it only seems to make him sink faster. His arms disappear, then his hands, and finally his head.
The last the other two wraiths see of it, he isn’t smiling.
Mark Stines’ fate is little kinder. His mouth opens in alarm. He beats his wings and tries to pivot, but he’s too slow. Darkness flows into his mouth. Stines gags and chokes, but when he tries to pull it out, his hands pass through like smoke. The darkness pours out of his ears, his nostrils, and his asscrack, and his screams get shriller. He stares at Em and Lam with terror-mad eyes. Finally the darkness bursts through his pores. The wraith splinters into a thousand pieces like shattered pottery. Em and Lam hear his screams echoing from each one.
Then the darkness washes over them too, and there’s only silence.
The black cloud hungrily flows up around Lam. Thicker tendrils lined with gnawing teeth and madly swiveling eyeballs shoot up to ensnare the wraith.
Lamarck: Lamarck’s form ripples and flows as the primeval blackness begins to surround him. His visage is wrought from an unholy mixture of yellow gall and freshly invigorated blood which show easily through his stretching ectoplasmic flesh and scraping bone. The old wraith roars and thrashes against the threat of Oblivion, his skin stretching to cover every vulnerable orifice and sprouting dark scales. Grasping hands erupt from his back wielding jagged blades which slash at the gnashing mouths that bite at his clawed feet.
Wings, once feathered and corvine sharpen into powerful skin-sails stretched over a spiny osseous frame. This crop he reaps is far from free. It comes from feeding the darkness within, fueling his Shadow. But oh is it worth it. Anything as long as those rapists get what they deserved, anything to see another day, even if it cuts into his soul.
Heavy wings beat against the dark and spiral his ever-shifting form out like a missile shot out of this hell.
A monster roars.
GM: Lam’s herculean struggle send the black cloud roiling like jello in a bowl. Black tendril after tendril lashes towards the wraith and plummet through the sky after he slashes them off, trailing their own small clouds of inky blood. Dozens of hungrily gnawings maws gibber incomprehensible blasphemies. Lam beats his wings mightily and soars higher, only for one last tendril to snake around his ankle. Needle-like teeth bite deep and the wraith’s corpus blackens as ugly veins spread up from the wound. More tendrils snake up from the black cloud. The starless sky stares pitilessly down as Oblivion’s siren song sweetly beckons. Why does he fight?
Emmett: “Madame! He’s served you tonight. Spare him and he will again!”
GM: The darkness rises up Lam’s legs like quicksand, heedless of Em’s words.
Emmett: Well, he tried.
Lamarck: Lamarck’s herculean task continues. He cannot give in, no matter how sweet the sound Oblivion is. It is a falsified rest, built from lies. Oblivion is the end of all that is good, the erasure of all hope down here. He’s fought over seventy years to reach true peace, to get his last works in order. Instead of fighting that fight, Oblivion has made his afterlife into an awful death march, ever growing closer as the necessary deeds he does strengthen the darkest parts of hos soul. Today is not the day he succumbs to its lies. He is sure of it. He wills it.
As he thrashes wildly to escape, further ectoplasmic blades erupt from his legs and attempt to excise the vile tendrils.
GM: The spikes draw gouts of inky blood as Lam slices through his assailant (assailants?). Coils of darkness roil towards him like striking serpents, one after another. Lam desperately tries to drive them back, pushing his soul and corpus to its uttermost limits. Black blood splashes his face like fast-flowing oil as his clawed hands rip and tear and whir through the air.
But he is too slow. Too small. The midnight tide rises higher and higher, an avalanche that can only be postponed, but not denied. The ex-pharmacist attempts a risky gambit and tears open a nihil in the sky. He dives for safety. Darkness pours after him.
But he is too slow.
Darkness envelops him like a tar pit. Phantasmal mouths assail him from all sides. Incomprehensible blasphemies ring in his ears. The former cab driver opens his mouth to scream, and then he vanishes into the darkness just like Brown and Stines.
Another soul to sate Maman’s hunger.
Emmett: And that’s that, then. The board is emptied, but for Em and all the fallen pieces. The sandman perches on the privacy wall of the house across the street, knees pulled to his chest in a crouch that would be uncomfortable if his muscles were corporeal, bat-like wings folded around him in a chiropteran shroud.
Emmett Delacroix watches the carnage he has wrought, listens to the screams of souls whose names he does not know being torn asunder. The thing in the house gorges itself on his gift.
Perhaps he expected to feel something, some satisfaction at the destruction of Stines and Brown. Both rapacious bullies who sneered at him when he was in their power and never conceived of how he might ruin them—and now they are gone, their souls ravaged and devoured, and he is here, dead but not dead, haunting the house across the street from the devil.
And he feels nothing at all, except relieved that he doesn’t have to think about them ever again.
He can feel Gasper swelling, pushing out whatever parts of him aren’t already cast in Shadow. Good. That way he doesn’t have to feel the guilt, the doubt, the parts of him that are worth saving but too painful to live with. Die with. Whatever. No more jokes, not tonight. There’s nobody to make laugh, anyways.
There’s just the waiting. So he waits.
GM: That’s it, Em. Just a little longer, and you won’t have to feel anything at all.
The house spares little thought for Lam as he escapes.
Not next to the feast before it.
They’re all there, still. The score of chained, doomed souls. Suspended in the morass of darkness just beyond the doors, hanging from it like flies caught in a spiderweb.
Some of them look like people Em could have known. Many of them, in fact, from all walks of life. Some look like party kids whose dreams of being young forever both came true and were forever denied. Some are older adults like his parents in sensible, grown-up clothes. Some are children clad in pajamas; Em wonders how they died. Some look like old men and women who died in their beds, still clad in hospital gowns. Some look like victims of drive-by shootings or gang violence. Some have slit wrists and look like they killed themselves. Some have blackened veins in their arms like he did, perhaps dead from one shoot-up too many.
Some of them beg and plead for their lives. Unlives. Whatever those are now. Some futilely tug at their fetters. Some scream, their voices mad with terror. A few accept their fate with bleak resignation.
In the end, all stand equal before death.
All stand equal before the death after death.
The house’s doors yawn cavernously wide. The damned souls shriek their final pleas and lamentations, or just scream with pure terror. It doesn’t matter. The universe doesn’t care. It never has. Bad things happen to good people and bad people and all people, because Em was right to Miranda, all those years ago. The world is sick and broken and it will take everything from people who don’t see it coming.
It’s impossible for the score of wraiths to escape, chained together as they are. What happens next reminds Em of the way someone might suck up a long piece of spaghetti. Just like that, the chained mass of wraiths is swallowed through the doors. Just like that, a score of existences are snuffed out without so much as a soul to mourn them.
Yet, even as the house feasts, Em can all but physically feel his Shadow swelling in his chest. Like oil in his veins, it blackens everywhere it spreads. It screams its exaltation over this feast of sin.
It’s not an unfamiliar feeling.
Em remembers back to one night after a “date” with Stines.
Stines pounded Em’s ass until it bled and he could barely walk in his high heels. When he sat down in Ray’s car, the guy who drove Christina’s escorts to and from their clients, it felt like someone was stabbing him there. He stumbled up to his apartment and looked in the mirror, Celia’s makeup messily smudged over his face. In his reflection’s blank expression, one utterly indifferent to his or any other person’s suffering, he saw a terrible yawning emptiness that would swallow him whole if it was not immediately filled.
Some girls said he was a slob, that he didn’t know how to cook. But the truth was he did know how. He was capable. He just never applied himself. Like in so many areas.
He’d gotten the idea from a MeVid video. Pizza, but with a crust made out of chocolate chip cookie dough. Surface lathered with Nutella, for tomato sauce. Cream cheese, butter, and marshmallows for cheese. Extra Nutella on top. M&Ms and other candies for toppings. Bake until golden brown, then spread the gooey warm surface with frozen double fudge brownie ice cream, and lather with even more Nutella on top. Em ate and ate and ate. There was enough fat in that pizza to stop his heart and enough sugar to give him diabetes.
He drowned his emptiness and depression and self-hate in sweetness.
But it wasn’t enough. No matter how many messy, gooey, Nutella-lathered slices he crammed into his mouth, it didn’t fill him. It didn’t plug the whole. It was just another way to kill himself. So he ate himself, desperately, into a sugar-induced coma.
Then he woke up the next morning, still dressed in his whore clothes, feeling fat as a whale with a splitting headache and a bleeding ass and wanting to throw up and just shrivel up and die, if he weren’t too fat to do anything besides stew in his own misery.
He remembers, because that’s exactly how he feels now as Gasper gorges his fill.
OH, FUCK, YESSSSSS!!!!
Almost there, Em! Oblivion’s right around the corner now!!!!!
Emmett: Right around the corner, huh? Em starts snickering.
All that, and you can’t even cross the finish line.
There’s so little of him left. Almost nothing.
But that which is there cackles in defiance, and he can feel its heat chafing at Gasper, holding him back from the edge.
Ha. Haha. Ha.
GM: Oh, guess I wasn’t clear.
I can fuck you over whenever I want.
Like, right now, before you get to talk to dear Maman. If I want to.
Emmett: That’s not going to change no matter what I say. Are you asking me to apologize, or are you just swinging your dick around for a physics lesson?
GM: Huh. That’s a good idea too.
Yeah, why don’t you apologize. Make it good, because it’d be pretty funny to hear you scream if you weren’t able to collect shit from her.
Emmett: I’m sorry, Gasper. You deserve better than disdain.
Em can’t do much about the hate seething behind the words, though. Probably makes it better, anyways.
GM: Good boy, Em.
Emmett: When it’s all over and done, and the house starts to look like it’s regular horrifying self, he takes to the air, until he hovers a dozen feet above the middle of the ruined boulevard. He’s reminded, absurdly, of a nature documentary factoid about crocodiles and a certain species of bird. Not filmed around here; there’s only gators in Louisiana, and gators don’t get along with anybody. But not so the crocodiles in (was it Egypt? Probably Egypt, they’ve got all kinds of mad shit down there) the documentary, who let the birds pick rotten flecks of meat from their teeth. The bits of carrion too small for apex predators to bother with.
And now that he’s staring into this evil bitch’s teeth, Em’s appreciating how much smaller to her he is than a bird is to a croc.
But he’s here, now. And she’s evil, but she’s the kind of evil that keeps her word.
“Madame. How was dinner?”
GM: The house looks much as it did when Em last laid eyes upon it. Vast and dark and terrible, and actively painful to gaze upon for too long.
But it’s different, too too. The air around him is darker, as though an enormous shadow were cast over the house’s yard. Dead trees’ rotted leaves no longer stir in the wind, nor does he hear the rain’s steady downpour. All around him is silent and still.
He remembers when Jermaine slit Sami’s throat, and the part of his soul that wasn’t dead exclaimed, oh shit! like a rule-breaking kid who suddenly realized he was in terrible trouble. He could imagine his father’s wrathful, red-hued face.
But there was something almost comforting in that wrath. If you break a rule, you’ve done something wrong, which means there has to be an opposite. Something right. Dad yells and calls you selfish and horrible and lots of other angry names, but implicit in that yelling and its promised punishments was restitution. A way to make things right again, after a good chewing out.
Em knows, like he did then, that he has done something bad. Something very, very bad.
But this time, he has the snaking suspicion he has done something there aren’t even any rules against. Because no one thought he would ever break them. Could ever break them.
And he finds himself oddly unable to summon Phil’s face in his mind, or to picture what his father would say.
There is only beshadowed stillness and silence, like an exhausted Jiminy Cricket that’s finally packed all his things in a cardboard box, and decided being Emmett Miloud Delacroix’s conscience is too thankless a job.
Fluttering laughter breaks the silence.
He turns and sees Abélia Devillers standing behind him. The real one. Or the closest thing to whatever is real for her. She looks identical to her form in the Skinlands. The same pale skin, the same midnight hair and dress, the same knowing smile. There’s even color to her lips and cheeks, as though this realm’s laws affect her not. There is little comfort in that color. Only the nagging sense there is more to this ‘woman’ than he might ever understand.
“Mine appetites are sated. You have done well, my dear boy. You have done very well.”
Her dark eyes gleam.
“I am certain you are eager to claim your reward.”
Emmett: Reward. Right. That’s why he led all those souls to massacre. That’s why he razed most of his soul.
What was he going to ask for, again?
“I would ask a favor first, madame. I would put myself in your debt, and count myself lucky to be called upon in the future.” He makes a little flourish, and a flower appears in his hand. Only, it’s not a real flower, so it’s far less banal. The petals are blades of gossamer light, the bud a miniature sun.
Envy green, dragon gold and aubergine purple. A crest of a flower, painstakingly rendered in three dimensions. It smells of the Quarter, and of lilies, and innocence both of them know is not real.
He’s so absorbed in its creation that he doesn’t remember why he’s distracting himself until he’s offering it to her.
“I would greatly appreciate it if you would impart to my Shadow some of your genteel manners, madame. It needs to be disciplined. I don’t care how much it hurts me, as long as it screams too.”
He’s expecting it when Gasper tries to seize the words in his throat. And maybe the Shadow succeeds, at that.
But Abélia is no mere enfant, and he doubts she will be misled in her own home. Misled, or escaped, or restrained.
Have fun, Gasper. I know I will.
Even if you stomp me into the dirt. Even if you try to make me regret it. I’ll never stop fighting back.
GM: Ha. Haha. Hahahahaha.
I know just what I’m gonna do now.
Also, you’re wrong. You will stop, once I take over for good.
Emmett: He looks Abélia in the eyes. Strains to convey his plea.
GM: She can’t help you, Em! NOTHING can!
Emmett: He’ll fight as long as he has to.
GM: I’m YOU, dipshit! If you’re sick of me, you’re sick of yourself! And there’s just one way to fix being sick of yourself, isn’t there, that you were too chickenshit to try when you were alive?
Emmett: Oh, I’m not asking her to off you. Just to give you a makeover.
GM: You’re asking her to give YOU a makeover, idiot. There is no me! There’s just we!
Emmett: I’m down. This face is getting old. And you know the best part? So is this conversation. Which means…
GM: Abélia plunges her hand into Em’s chest and rips out his heart. The pain is incredible. His heart is a shriveled, blackened thing. It looks like it belongs to a man who’s been smoking a pack a day for all his life, then somehow got the tar to show up in his heart instead of his lungs.
Emmett: He screams.
Or is he laughing?
He can’t tell anymore.
Take a time-out, okay Gasper? It’s time for the grown-ups to talk.
GM: Guess that means dear Maman’s having a conversation of one.
Abélia smiles and holds a finger to her lips at Em’s screams, as though to shush an infant.
Emmett: Witty. Wanna back that up with a harrowing? Maybe a few phantom dicks?
It takes a few moments to adapt to the pain.
“Thank you,” he pants again, finally. “It’s a relief to talk freely.”
GM: Oh, I have something even better in mind, Em, after how strong you made me. Don’t worry. I’ll be patient. Being the Underworld’s chum bait should get pretty old, pretty fast.
Emmett: Em doesn’t bother to respond. He lets his satisfaction speak for him.
GM: Shadows thicken around Abélia’s hands. Squelching noises that sound more like screams go up from within. When the shadows dissipate, Abélia presents him with a black and unadorned heart-shaped box. It feels cool to the touch. A steady beating pulses from within.
“From the heart, heart’s desire. Take this to she who holds your heart.”
Emmett: Em takes it in his hands, staring down at it. “Your daughter?” he ventures.
GM: A fluttering laugh.
“My Cécilia can be many things, but in this matter she is unsuitable.”
“A young man as charming as yourself is acquainted with other young ladies who hold some claim upon his heart, I am sure.”
Emmett: “What would make somebody suitable, then? And what will happen when I give it to them?”
GM: The ’woman’s’ dark eyes glint as she smiles.
“Why, you shall receive your heart’s desire, of course.”
“But you know your heart better than I, Emmett. Surely, there is another daughter of Eve with some claim to its affections.”
Emmett: He wants to ask more, but if she wants to be cryptic, there’s not much he can do about it. Nothing, actually.
“Many thanks, madame. I confess I had hoped to talk to you more. Not about my heart’s desire, but how I might be a part of yours. How I might enter your service, and learn from you. Might we come to such an arrangement? Your feast was the work of a day. Your imagination is far vaster than mine. I’m sure you grasp how much more I could do for you, with time. With power.”
The flower that isn’t a flower is in his hand again, outstretched for her to pluck.
GM: Yet when Emmett does, he finds his hand empty. A dull ache throbs in the sealed-over cavity where his heart once sat.
“No power—or denial of another’s—without price, Emmett, son of Philémon.”
Emmett: He sighs. “Thought I’d ask. I’ll see you around then, madame.”
He bows before turning back as he’s about to leave.
“A daughter of Eve? A mortal?”
GM: “Eve is mother to Caine and Seth, my dear boy, and all their daughters through them.”
Cécilia’s mother smiles.
“Perhaps it is well, if an immortal daughter should hold claim to your heart. Naught but tragedy may result from a mortal’s love for one such as you.”
Emmett: “Maybe. But I bring tragedy where I walk anyways. Thanks for the doggie bag, madame. I’ll see you when I see you.”
GM: Mirth dances in the woman’s dark eyes.
“Your heart knows its way, son of Philémon. Hold it close and listen.”
Emmett: He pauses and lifts the box to his ear.
GM: Past the sluggish beating, he hears the sound of classic Louis Armstrong jazz amidst people drinking and carousing. Such sounds are not uncommon at the city’s jazz clubs, but he knows, too, that this one is the Evergreen Plantation, a posh joint along Royal Street.
Emmett: “Lovely and fruitful advice, as ever,” Em oozes, even as he thinks. The Evergreen? He’s talked his way in there for drinks once or twice, and been taken there on dates one or two times more. Nice place.
Weird fucking crowd, though. Even for the rich.
GM: “Should its master’s servants attempt to molest you, you may inform them that the LaLaurie House’s proprietor has sent you to speak with Antoine Savoy.”
“Should you reveal my nature to overcurious fools inclined to pry into others’ affairs, or to needful wretches seeking alms, know that I mislike uninvited guests in my home. Send further Lamarcks or Celias to my door, and I will devour them.”
Emmett: “Plain language is such a rarity these days. My appreciation is unbounded, and my gratitude is overflowing.”
“Should I expect my Shadow to be in state to seek revenge immediately after I, ah, make the delivery?”
GM: Abélia’s form dissolves like oily tar. The black morass seeps into the earth as the house swells, its motion reminiscent of an enormous spider bloated from a feast and stretching its legs. Soon ready to spin further webs anew.
Emmett: “…good talk,” Em murmurs, and takes his leave.
He keeps his heart under his arm, boxed up and safe.
Perhaps he should be more grateful, more gracious. But somehow, he has the distinct impression that he hasn’t won dirt.
He’s just been shown the edge of the grave.