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SHADES OF NIGHT ARE FALLING (29 August 2008)

The message came as they always did, hand-delivered to Abigail’s cubicle at work by the gaunt gray-suited messenger, inscribed in black ink on thick creamy paper. It was just after lunch. She was able to finger the sealed square for a moment, enjoy the ridges and dips of its subtle texture under her fingertips before she had to carefully slit it open with her letter opener and read the contents. A single unsigned line, as always, the letters ornate and flowing.
Tonight 7:00 PM.
Her hands trembled only a little as she fished the shiny aluminum lighter and matching ashtray out of the back of her center desk drawer. The paper flared with quick, almost supernatural, brightness, and she held it until the last second, until there was nothing left but a tiny flaming corner which she dropped into the ashtray. The remnant burned as it slowly spiraled to earth, leaving almost no ash. She automatically sprayed a little air freshener from the waiting canister, then got back to work, typing rapidly at her keyboard, her skin twitching under her clothes.
________________________________________
Her day's work finally finished, she meticulously packed everything away in its proper niche and left her spartan cubicle (no pictures of husband or children, no clipped-out cartoons, no posters of puppy dogs for her...) Said her automatic good nights to her neighboring cubicle-dwellers: mousy little Emily, tall gangling Reinhold, vaguely handsome Alfred. Down the echoing hall to the bank of elevators. Down to the lobby, the insipid musak as always cheerfully blurbing from the speakers. Switching to the second elevator, down to the company’s underground garage, flashing her shimmering badge to get her car and herself out past the odious little troll who lurked in the booth beside the front gate.

The city was changing shifts. The gray-suited workers piled into their carpools and sleek trams for the long trip out to the endless sprawling suburbs, while the more flamboyant night-dwellers emerged from their various bolt-holes to take their place on the streets. The clusters and strings of lights were coming on, spiraling their multihued way along the wide streets and up the graceful slopes and ridges of the skyscrapers. Abigail did not join the other workers, going mostly north and south, but instead drove east, her back to the still-busy harbor, her car's dying shadow stretching out before her, an arrow pointing into the heart of darkness, in more ways than one.
Her destination was out on the very edge of the city, a rambling multistoried monstrosity surrounded by street after street of... not yet slums, but tired worn-down buildings, block after block of washed-out gray, half-dead victims of some architectural vampire, still clinging by their fingernails to the light of day. The mansion itself slouched its way across a good portion of a block and was by now mostly a dark turreted outline, with only a few scattered lights burning in the upper floors like patches of swamp-gas. The grounds were an odd mixture of rampant overgrowth and tight pruning, the sharp invisible dividing lines between the two following some complex pattern that was not obviously apparent. This was all fringed by a high wrought-iron fence which was in uniformly good repair, the bars straight and rust-free, the twirled spires freshly sharpened and dipped in toxic platinum. Beyond the fence, on two sides of the house could be seen the slouching graves and crypts of the long-neglected eastside cemetery.
There were oddities in the fence as well, for there was no gate, simply a wide unprotected gap through which the driveway passed. As she drove in, she saw that as always a jumbled collection of vehicles was parked in the curving paved space front of the house, each car sitting a different unaligned angle. With two of the cars, the driver’s door stood open. And on one these, a sleek fire-red convertible, the headlights burned dimly.
She parked and got out of her own brown vehicle, pausing for a pointed moment to close the econobox's door before tottering up towards the front door on stiff and wobbling legs. From the bare oak trees which surrounded the house, masses of crows watched her in silence.
Bare. Spring had been a very long time coming this year; most of the people in the office followed the lead of the city’s papers and blamed the current administration, but Abigail personally had other suspicions.
As she climbed the six steps to the door, the tall dark portal abruptly opened and another woman stepped out into the chill air. Abigail arrived on the flagstone porch and straggled to a halt, studying the new figure. An intensely black woman, the opposite of Abigail’s pretty but rather drab corporate conformity. The woman wore a long flower-splotched gown, had her hair done up in a complex red and yellow turban-like wrap, dangled large golden rings from her ears. In one hand, she clutched a short but lethal-looking spear, made possibly of bronze. She held the weapon as one would hold a dead rat, by the tail, well away from her body. The spear’s razor tip quivered almost subliminally in the dim light. Abigail looked into the woman’s eyes and saw there the same thing which looked back her every morning from the cracked mirror in her tiny bathroom.
Of course, all the mirrors in her new apartment were cracked.
The two women kept their gazes locked and silently circled each other like hostile alley cats, before the black woman broke off and disappeared down the steps into the gathering darkness. Standing on the tasteful brown welcome mat, Abigail closed the door before turning and giving the ornately-scrolled doorbell button a slow firm push. ‘Doorbell’ was not actually a strictly accurate term since there was no sound, but instead a vague sensation of shimmering light and movement, far away, at the very edges of the senses, vast machinery either starting up or shifting gears with a clunk...
Abigail stared at the angular teak shapes expertly inlayed into the door panels, and heard one of the cars behind her start up and drive away. Silence. Stillness. Another moment or two passed before the door was opened by a familiar figure: a tall attractive woman, far paler than Abigail and thin in both body and face, wearing a velvety maid’s costume. Strapped as always to one of her hips was the long sword, resting snugly in an oiled leather scabbard as black as the wearer’s uniform. A massively-faceted green gem glowed in the sword's pommel, giving it all the appearence of the eyestalk of some enormous insect.
The weapon and its owner had been here as long as Abigail had been coming to this place, and Abigail still didn’t know her name, or even if she was capable of speaking. Seeing who it was, the Maid mutely stepped aside and let the visitor enter. The woman’s long mass of inky black hair swished freely against the back of her silk-clad knees as she moved, seeming to be more alive than her face. The cracked-mirror look was in her brown eyes, much deeper than with Abigail or the black woman.
The door opened onto a long carpeted hall which stretched away into vaguely cobwebby gloom. By the door stood a circular umbrella stand, fashioned of rich mahogany and filled with, yes, umbrellas, along with a couple of elaborate canes and metal-bound walking sticks. As the Maid watched, Abigail slipped out of her gray pumps and kicked them into the good-sized collection which was already piled haphazardly around the base of the stand, as if the stand and its contents were being prepared for ritual burning in a shoe fire. This task completed, she padded on down the hall in her stocking feet, past the enormous gold-framed canvases which lined the walls. Drippingly rich portraits of cloaked figures with piercing eyes and widow’s peaks in their black hair, posing dramatically in high-vaulted rooms, enormous red-eyed ravens perching on their wrists. Ebony castles and towers high on hills, overlooking gashed river valleys. Half-human shapes cavorting lewdly in tangled banyan groves. A bottomless red rose, resplendent in a lumpy clay vase tightly wrapped with thorny strands of silver wire. Behind her, the front door was closed by the Maid and numerous locks were thrown into place, heavy steel bolts sliding into place all the way around the sturdy frame.
Arches opened onto large rooms on either side of the hall, all leading onto further darkness. In some rooms, the vague shapes of furniture were visible, mostly covered with white sheets. Others were entirely bare but showed the same selectivity as the garden; there were precise shapes and layers of dust, art made over long months with a vucuum cleaner.
She came to the staircase, and immediately started to climb. Twenty-two wide carpeted steps, ending in a switch-backed landing on which was positioned a long table. Abigail put her slender purse on the table, again adding it to a pile of similar items. Twenty-four more steps. The stair-rail was sturdy and wooden, slick and well-oiled with age and human contact.
A new hall. Instead of arches, there were now imposing doors in the walls, all closed and dark and spaced at regular intervals in the silk wallpaper. The paper was endlessly filled with a triangle-and-circle pattern, various shades of gray. She walked past the doors, staying in the very center of the hallway, until finally on the left there was one portal showing a sliver of yellow light beneath it. She opened the door and stepped through without knocking.
The room beyond somewhat resembled the halls recast in miniature: long and rather narrow, lit by an overhead string of bulbous golden lights. Unlike the halls or the other rooms, it was entirely and meticulously cleaned and orderly, with no overtly dark corners. The air was laced with a thin sweet smell, an unscratchable itch nibbling at the base of her skull, making her thoughts buzz and swim. Most of the walls were lined floor-to-ceiling with shelved books, ranging from bulky leather-and-metal bound volumes down to row after row of garish paperbacks, many of the latter neatly and individually bagged in clear plastic. Immediately next to the door, one corner of the room was filled with an enormous black birdcage, round-topped, constructed of the same iron and in the same style as the fence outside. Perched on the swing in the center of the cage was a tiny fragile-looking blonde woman. She kicked her bare shapely legs as she lilted endlessly back and forth, her head tipped slightly to one side, her smile placid and empty. Both her masses of golden feathers and her pearly talons seemed to glow with their own light. Abigail closed the paneled door behind her, and it clicked into place with a muted but final sounding thud. This task completed, she waited, and the caged woman long studied her with violet-cracked eyes, her head moving in little jerks. Finally the bird-woman spoke, her voice music and softly falling snow and slicing razorblades.
“Hello, Abigail!”
“Hello, Lorelei.” Abigail kept her voice calm and grave.
“You are welcome here.”
“Thank you, Lorelei.”
Lorelei went back to her swinging, and Abigail wafted further into the room, down the richly elaborate Oriental carpet which rolled along under her feet like a deranged treadmill. The carpet was covered with intertwined masses of snakes, woven of crimson and gold thread, their eyes bits of captured fire. On one side of her was a bulky free-standing globe, the splattered continents picked out in featureless steel, the seas in thousands of slivers of turquoise, the polar caps in a crust of diamonds. Above it all, an ivory copy of the moon floated on the end of a endless platinum hair. Satellites buzzed industriously around the main globe, clusters of silent metal gnats. On her other side crouched an unnervingly life-size and lifelike statue of a stereotypical, almost cartoonish, witch-doctor, carved from a single tattooed block of red-black wood... maybe it was wood... and wearing an elaborate scowling slit-eyed mask which covered its head and most of its bony chest. Mounted between the eye slits was a familiar triangle-and-circle shape, now black and white, interlocked obsidian and ivory. In one deformed hand the statue brandished a long blackened spear, while in the other it held a genuine human skull like a bowling ball, fingers poked through three neat holes drilled in the skull’s crown. The bone of the skull was covered with a thin plating of alabaster, while enormous rubies plugged the eye-sockets. The rubies mangled the gold light in odd ways, giving the skull both pupils and a sly, knowing expression as it grinned across at the globe.
Abigail moved on, the skull seeming to follow her with its gaze for a moment as she crossed its field of vision. There were various other expensive-looking knickknacks scattered tastefully around: tall porcelain vases all filled with thickly fragrant purple blossoms, which contributed some of the miasma which permeated the space. A clumped collection of small marble figurines, depicting a pipe-playing satyr surrounded by wildly dancing human women. The leering satyr was supremely, hideously, ugly, while the women's faces were all literally blank, unmarked with eyes or mouth, only a suggestion of a nose... A couple of comfortable-looking low-slung chairs, one of which was occupied with an contentedly comatose orange cat. The cat’s twitching tail was broken and long-healed in the vague shape of a lightening bolt. The next large piece was a grandfather clock festooned with carvings of intertwined vines and flowers, very decadent and tropical, a clock carved not by some Swiss craftsman, but a voodoo priest deep in some island swamp; in fact, it appeared to be made of the same wood(?) as the statue. Behind thick crystal, sparking spring water bubbled through endless tubing. Golden wheels ticked and buzzed and whirred. The clock’s swinging pendulum flicked back snatches of the light from the wide stone fireplace, which still lay ahead. As she passed it, the clock came to life and began to sound out the hour, the chimes more a rumble in the soles of her feet than a sound in her ears. She gave a small internal shriek of surprise, but no sound came from her lips.
Finally, an eternity later, the end of the room. The heavy gray curtains still stood open, the windows showing even in the gathering dark of the evening an enormous panoramic view of the cemetery and its rows of dead trees. Like the pendulum, the large elaborate rune etched in the careful center of each windowpane caught the firelight, turning itself to gold. The fireplace squatted long and large, the tight-fitting rectangular blocks the same shade as the curtains. Mounted over the fireplace was an elaborate coat of arms, the figures of which made her stomach squirm. Curled up in front of the flames on a large padded cushion was yet another woman, this one sporting a sunburst of flame-orange hair and three matching scraps of fabric, strategically positioned. A seamless black leather collar circled her graceful neck. She was evidently asleep, like the cat curled up and occasionally giving a little twitch down the length of her well-toned body.
Abigail could delay the moment no longer. She turned.
He sat as he always did when she came here, in his towering leather chair, his long pipestem legs crossed, his bald angled head gleaming in the mellow light cast by both the fire and a nearby reading lamp. The lamp was carved of some smooth white material and shaped like a slender Asian woman. The figure smiled with perfect bow lips, wearing a long gown and reaching up to hold the shaded bulb between two graceful hands. As Abigail approached, the man in the chair looked up from his book and smiled cheerfully, removing the curling black pipe from his expressive mouth and putting it in the crowded rack beside him. The pipe continued to send tendrils of fine thin smoke into the air, completing the smell of the room. The clock finished sublimating the hour up through the floor. With the air of a ritual, he took off his small pinch-fit glasses and put aside the book on a waiting table, the deeply-stamped title visible for a moment: “Plumbing the Northern Abyss,” by S. K. Ingersoll. He spoke, putting the glasses into a black case and sliding the case into one of the many pockets of his expensive vest.
“Ah, Miss Croftan! You received my message. Excellent. And right on time, I see.”
She stopped and crossed her hands in front of her. Her knees trembled, begging to cave in, collapse into boneless rubble, smashing the snakes even flatter under the debris...
She remained standing, the solitary trickles of sweat rolling slowly down the small of her back, the back of her knees.
“Yes, sir.”
“No doubt you are wondering why I asked you to stop by?”
“Yes, sir.”
She couldn’t bear to look at him as she spoke. She couldn’t bear not to look at him. She compromised, as she always did, by staring fixedly at his narrow feet. They were currently covered with black socks; one of the toes had been neatly and prosaically mended.
“I have something for you, my dear.” Abigail twitched, but said nothing. His deep silky voice continued in musing sort of way. “No. Let’s be accurate, shall we? It’s not for you. But I am putting it in your care, for a brief time.” He finally rose and glided to the large blackwood cabinet which filled much of the space between the fireplace and the large windows. As he moved, he extracted a bulky keyring from one dark trouser pocket and flipped through it, the keys clinking together like the chunks of ice choking a half-frozen river, before he finally settled on a long iron shaft which fit neatly into the cabinet’s heavy lock and turned with a solid thunk. She remained in her place, her head still bowed, following his actions from the corner of her blue eyes. The cabinet doors opened on clusters of well-oiled hinges to reveal a bizarre display of objects, cluttering shelf after shelf and all half-reflected in the wavy funhouse mirror which lined the entire back of the cabinet. Intricate self-winding clocks. Organic things floating in squat stoppered bottles. Cut and polished geodes set into equally polished wooden stands. A cheap white metronome, made of plastic and suffering heavy scorch-marks down one side, to the point that the plastic had been half-melted in places. Tidy stacks of thick gold coins. A small stuffed toy, a biped with a hide of slime-green felt, bat wings and a face full of glass goat eyes and curling mouth-tendrils. Other, even less identifiable things, many of them locked up in bizarre containers.
And it was one of these last items which the bald man took. Moving with the same easy grace, he plucked a small box from one of the shelves, his fingers closing around the object like the legs of a spider grasping a luckless bit of prey. This particular box was perfectly square and made of narrow strips of some dark wood, heavily inlayed with squiggling bits of pink and red seashell.
He turned to her, holding the box in both hands, and she twitched again.
“Now, Miss Croftan, I need you to prove your loyalty to me.”
She lifted her thousand-pound head with a groaning effort. His smile grew wider, half of his long sharp face lit by the fire, the other half dark. She started to say
“I don’t understand, sir.”
but before she could form the words, something shifted inside her and she gagged, felt it rise up her throat, settle on the back of her tongue. Her mouth fell open as he loomed up over her. He looked inside her.
“Ah. Excellently done, my dear.” He reached into her mouth between her full lips, his fingers very smooth and cool, as if his skin had been peeled off long ago and replaced with pinkish-white rubber. She tried with all her might to bite down, hard, shuddering at his touch. Her jaw remained slack, the expression of an idiot. He took the sliver of delicate sliver between two fingers and extracted it. It was another key. As soon as his fingers were free, her mouth snapped shut with a click, and her chin started to drop again. “No, Miss Croftan. Keep looking at me.”
Her chin came back up. He held out the key, still between two fingers.
“Take it.”
Her hand rose up, took the key. The metal was very slick, as oily as the staircase railing. She had the momentary but almost overwhelming desire to pop it back in her mouth and swallow it again; there was a hollow burning place down inside of her now. Instead, she used the key to unlock the box which he held towards her, again with both hands. The box’s narrow lid popped open and up as if spring-loaded, revealing a velvet-lined interior. Nestled into the velvet was...
She looked at the thing, and managed to make a small noise, a terrified whimper. He didn’t laugh, but simply smiled in a sad way that was somehow far worse.
________________________________________
They had met at a party. That much she still remembered, but she couldn't say now how long ago it had been. Months? Years? Decades? She had come with a date... Eddie Somebody-or-other from the publishing house a couple of buildings down the Way from her own firm’s building. The Imperial Hotel ballroom had been packed with elegantly-dressed people that gray drizzly night, talking and drinking and dancing. She had entered through the main doors with Eddie and quickly sized up the scene. Up on the wide central dais, the hotel band cheerfully blasted through the latest dance tunes from back east, polished horns swinging gaily back and forth, drumsticks flashing. Off to one side, a magician ("Silverstone The Great", according to his prominently-displayed placard...) was performing for an appreciative sub-crowd; he had two female party-goers rigid and levitating, their feet pointing up towards the ceiling at an angle, their heads pointing at his waist, spinning slowly around him, the whole bringing to mind the image of a bizarrely broken propeller, or perhaps the blades of a blender. In a secluded corner lurked the ubiquitous Ruston, the society reporter from the Times, scribbling furiously with a red felt pen in his black notebook, which was covered with matching red runes and was attached to his bulging waist via a sturdy-looking steel chain. The pudgy man’s rimless circular glasses caught disapproving crescents of light. In a second corner, Madame Greene held forth, her hornrimmed sunglasses dark and sparking, the tip of her slender cigarette glowing as red as her lips, her famous laugh bright and tinkling and dripping poison. The tuxedoed bodies of her latest conquests were strewn around her in profusion.
Eddie had snagged her a tall drink of her own from one of the many scantily-uniformed servers, something pleasantly golden and fizzy, and she stood sipping.
It was the last party she had ever attended, it was the last glass of alcohol she had ever consumed, for she then looked into a third corner (the original builder of the Imperial, it was said, had been a great believer in corners...) and suddenly he was there, the natural center of a cluster of people, a head taller than most of them. He talked with animation, lots of slashing hand gestures. He laughed and his audience laughed with him, those that didn’t look queasy and slightly ill, cautiously edging away to somewhat safer parts of the crowd when his black gaze was turned elsewhere. Laughing still, he turned and saw her looking at him. He broke off and studied her for a long moment. Then he smiled anew and her glass crumbled to sparkling dust in her hand, the spilling liquid sloshing cool against her suddenly-burning skin. His teeth were normal enough by themselves, but there were a few too many of them and the movement of muscles stretched his skin a little too far. He came, grinning and black-eyed and malignant as he crossed the room towards her, the crowds casually parting around him. She had tried to run, to scream, but those eyes had skewered her, driven large nails into her feet, filled her jaw and joints with cement. And then he was there and she was answering his questions, all his questions, those horrific rubbery fingers curling themselves around her skull, tangling with her short blondish-red hair...
After that things became hasty and confused, the night filled with coolly numbing mist and sweet-smelling darkness, alternately swirling behind his eyes. He had taken her from the party, to his mansion in his black limo with the gaunt gray wraith heavily chained behind the wheel. Poor little Eddie had disappeared at some point and she had the vague impression that something very bad had happened to him, but whenever she was able to summon up the strength to think about it, all she could see was a mud-splattered wooden door set in a high stone wall, slamming shut with violent force, followed by wet stroppy sounds. The door had dozens of criss-crossing scratch marks in it, as if some enraged beast had been clawing at it.
Or maybe he had just sent Eddie home. Maybe Eddie had been hired to bring her to him. It was all so hazy and jumbled. Afterwards, she’d never seen Eddie again, and she never bothered going to the publishers to find out. She had been rather fond of Eddie, but what was the point?
Because after that door slammed shut she had been alone in an underground chamber with gut-twisting figures, a ring of enormous glyphs hacked into the damp bedrock of the walls, hacked deep and then thickly smeared with some viscous red-black paste. Golden lights gleamed mellowly overhead. At the edges of the room, rivulets of water trickled soothingly into esthetically-pleasing pools, from which purple blossoms bloomed. She had knelt there on the stone floor in her long white evening gown for an eternity , her bare arms locked behind her back in each other’s grasp, her slender body unable to move, her mind gradually unable to think, just whimpering and running around and around in tight, tail-biting circles, narrower and narrower...
And then that ghastly door had slammed open again and she had been with him and there had been nothing but his eyes and his hands and his voice, all of them reaching out towards her as he came burbling across the room, a hundred times worse than before riding the night breeze with whip and spurs and opening her up and stripping her clean and turning the remains inside out, again and again and again...
________________________________________
A very long period of blackness.
________________________________________
The next memory was of sitting on the edge of a narrow bed in an equally narrow room, a windowless chamber with a sharply slanted roof up under some eaves. She was wearing a simple cotton robe, and her feet were bare, resting on the coolness of the scrubbed wooden floorboards. Her hair was damp but clean and combed, her body equally well-scrubbed and smelling faintly of expensive soap. The bed was the only piece of furniture and the walls were stark and whitewashed, except for a single large piece of artwork mounted directly across from her on the opposite long wall; it resembled a square wooden-framed mirror which had taken an artistically-minded bullet directly to its center; a silvery radiating sunburst. Bits and pieces of her cracked reflection were visible as she stared into the center. She sat very still, and felt something pulse inside her, down near her core, deeper than her heart. The solitary silver sliver which he had carefully wedged inside her before closing her back up for the last time was already beginning to sprout and grow.
The door to the room opened. Again there was no warning or preamble, but this time it was done smoothly and carefully. The Maid appeared, carrying a legged serving tray with both hands. Abigail had seen her before that moment, some time during that long, ghastly night, but the exact details had already been washed away. The woman hipped the door open wider, crossed the room and placed her burden in front of Abigail, departing in silence. The felt-lined door swung shut behind her. Her sword had never once gotten in the way as she had done these things; it was a part of her.
Only after the Maid was gone did Abigail look down at the tray. Arranged across it was a large breakfast: toast, scrambled eggs and mushrooms, thick slices of meaty bacon, tall glasses of milk and orange juice, a bowl of fresh fruit, a pot of tea, various seasonings. In a slender clay vase was a single large red rose. She spread the white cloth napkin across her lap. One of the seasonings beckoned to her hand, and she took it, a small stoppered jar. Three careful drops went into the orange juice, where they sent out twisting roots and vanished. She placed the resealed jar on the bedspread beside her and began to eat and drink, chewing and swallowing. The food was expertly prepared, perhaps the best breakfast she had ever eaten. The tea was her favorite brand. The orange juice was freshly squeezed. The burning inside her made it all taste like cold ashes in comparison and she had to concentrate on every jaw movement.
She ate it down to the last scrap, wiped her mouth, and went back to sitting, staring at the silver sunburst, trying with some success to think about nothing at all.
Finally the Maid had returned with a pile of tasteful and rather expensive clothes, all her size and neatly laundered. On the top perched a pair of shoes and a new purse, containing her pocketbook and other personal items. Abigail had dressed and gone home, the one vial going into the purse with the rest.
She began that very day the process of liquidating most of her possessions, sending the profits to a bank account whose numbers were blazoned across her mind. She found a smaller apartment, a smaller car, and more money went into the account. She went back to work in the office, same as always.
And she began going back to the mansion, for her assignments.
And one by one, the mirrors in her new apartment began to crack.
________________________________________
The thing nestled down inside the felt of the box was a perfect sphere, a bit larger than a baseball and made of flawlessly clear crystal. Trapped inside were swirls of mist, thick and white, going endlessly around and around. And then... down inside the mist... hiding itself behind the mist... there was something lurking, something horribly alive, impatiently scrabbling clusters of black spiky tendrils against the endless curve of the sphere's interior.
“Take it, my dear.”
She gave another small interior shriek, as her free hand reached itself out and took the thing. It was sickeningly cool and slick, almost frictionless, a ball of frozen mercury.
It was very heavy and it throbbed. Part of Abigail wanted to hurl the thing from herself, hurl it at him, hit him right between the eyes, drive slivers of bone deep into his brain. The other part wanted to hold it closer, hold it against her heart, feel the throb... feel it alter her body’s rhythms... as she knelt before him, staring at his feet, knelt in grovelling worship... She did neither of these things, but continued to hold the thing in her hand, much as the statue held the skull. She spoke.
“I don’t know what to do with this, sir.” The words came thick and heavy.
“Don’t worry, Miss Croftan. Part of you knows. And when the time comes, I have no fears that you will let me down.” A pause and a smile. “You won’t let me down, now will you?”
She trembled all over at the thought, the sensation cutting through the throb. “No, sir. I’ll die first.”
“Good girl.” He patted her absently on the head, and the bottomless spirals of black rotted pleasure exploded in the back of her eyes. In between the spirals, she flashed images of clawing out his eyes, ripping him limb from limb with her bare hands, loving him, pleasing him, bringing him burnt offerings in wide metal dishes... “I’ll talk to you when I have another little assignment for you. You can find your own way out, I trust?”
“Yes, sir.” She turned and left, the thing in the sphere pulling her eagerly from the room, turning her own arm into her leash. As she stumbled along in its wake, she put the silver key back in her mouth and swallowed it, felt it slide back into its place inside her, filling her again. The alternating pulses of the two objects stretched her mind between them, and she went back to her room and her bed in a silvery mist, floating her above a sunless sea of ecstasy and pain.
________________________________________
After she had left, he snapped the lid shut and stood for a moment, twirling the box in his hands. The sharp click of the lid woke the woman in front of the fireplace and she rose to her hands and knees. She gave a graceful little stretch and slinked her way to his side, slowly rubbing her head against his leg and giving off a meek little trill with the back of her tongue. He absently fingered her hair, then looked over at the statue, at the skull, while she twitched in pleasure.
After a very long moment, the skull turned in the statue’s dead grip, looked back at him, still grinning. He spoke.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me what you’re going to have her do with that ghastly little... friend of yours? Or, to be more accurate I suppose, what you’re going to have it do with her?”
The fleshless grin somehow grew wider, and one the rubies dimmed for a moment. The skull winked at him. Its jaws cracked apart for a moment, and a thin purple tongue slithered across the exposed teeth before darting back out of view.
“I see. Well, have it your way then. As you always do.”
The skull turned back to studying the globe, watching the satellites spin, tasting their emanations. The man positioned the box back in its spot on the crowded shelf, closed the self-locking cabinet and walked back towards the window, absently picking up his pipe as he passed his chair. The woman followed at his heels, still crawling. He stood in front of the window, and the lights and the fire both began to dim themselves, while the woman decorously arranged herself at his feet, stroking his black pantsleg. Darkness. Stillness. Except beyond the fence, where a cluster of slender figures were now moving in the cemetery, all wearing flowing gowns and carrying bright spheres of white light dangling at the end of long silvery poles. They wafted back and forth, among the dead trees.
The man at the window again stroked the woman’s hair, and she looked up at him worshipfully, through wide eyes that were so deeply cracked their original color was no longer clear. It might have been green.
He quirked his mouth.
“Ah well. No matter. Whatever happens now, it should be interesting...”

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