In the darker recesses of Spindle, whiteward of the Drink, but before you reach the skin farms, there is a door. There is nothing to distinguish this door in particular from the many doors in Dark-of-the-City save for an outline of red chalk that runs around the jamb and a peculiar symbol (but then, what symbols in Dark-of-the-City are not peculiar?) that closely approximates a needle piercing an eye, also in red, painted above the handle. It is not a warning, nor is it a salutation. It is simply a mark.
Of course, this is only how the door appears to those who have not been told. Those who know what to look for see something rather more conspicuous. Beams of light trace figure-eights in the sky above a grandiose theater in the old style, with electric lights of rich purples and reds framing a grand marquee, the text of which never changes. It reads, and has always read, as follows:
TONIGHT’S ENTERTAINMENT: EXPLORE THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE AND THE ESOTERIC! THE ABSOLUTELY UNIQUE! EVERY NIGHT A DIFFERENT SHOW! EVERYNIGHT THE SAME SHOW!
On this particular night, the boy arrived on the street in front of the theater. He saw its true edifice, not the façade, for he had been given directions to the theater scrawled on the back of a greasy bit of parchment. He had nearly rubbed the words off of the page with the nervous fidgeting of his sweaty palms, but they remained more or less legible and while there was little doubt that he had arrived at the correct place, he still felt pangs of anxiety as he neared the garish glow of the sign.
The boy, of some fifteen years, knew only than that he was here for a job. It was, he had been told, very important to find a job in Dark-of-the-City. The jobless were prime targets for quieting, and despite never having experienced it, he was quite sure he had no taste for slavery. It couldn’t be any better than living under the thumb of his father; that had been enslavement enough. He crossed the street, taking care not to trip on the uneven cobblestone, looking both ways, the way he always had back in Ohio, wherever that was. Unlike in Ohio, there were no cars here, only carriages, and those weren’t particularly dangerous as long as you remembered not to look the destriers in the eye.
He was beginning to grow used to the everlasting midnight of Dark-of-the-City, with its uneven streets that struck out in seemingly random directions, forming a nearly incomprehensible web of urban sprawl; its bright stars in unfamiliar constellations that nevertheless seemed to call to him like the wind chimes on his back porch at home; its circus of grotesque and seedy inhabitants that skittered about the streets in clusters like rat-kings or blood clots. He had been here three nights, and he still did not know what “here” meant, exactly. Nor was he sure how he got here–he remembered the train pulling into the station, and before that… only vague notions of blurry memories. It was a comfort, however small, to know that he was not alone in that. Most everyone he encountered had arrived the same way. On the other hand, he wondered how long it would take for him to adopt the same look of weary resignation he saw in the ringed eyes of other humans in the City.
The entrance underneath the grand marquee was hardly lit, save for a flickering bulb in the box office. In the intermittent light he could see a short, pear-shaped man in a velvet vest and red bowtie behind the glass. The man, who couldn’t have been more than four feet tall, looked as if he was just about done with life–he stared out over the boy’s shoulder at something, or more likely nothing, in the distance.
“Uh, hello,” said the boy, trying to conceal the trembling of his hands behind his back. “I was sent by St. Ignace at the Scouting Agency.”
“Of course you were.”
“I–I was told to speak to the proprietor.”
“Could I speak to him? Her? It? I’m sorry, they didn’t tell me much, and I’m new here, and–”
“The show’s about to start,” said the pear-shaped man, as if this explained everything. He scratched at the wiry stubble that lined his chin. “You’ll have to wait.”
Behind them a lanky woman in a veil and long, elegant black evening gown lowered a parasol and entered the theater with a quick nod to the pear-man.
“Can I watch?” asked the boy.
The man shrugged. “Do you want to?”
“I suppose so. How much does it cost? I don’t have much.” He had arrived in the City with a few coins in his pockets. He wasn’t sure where they had come from, but he had been too frugal to spend them on anything until this moment.
The man looked, brow askew, as if he hadn’t been asked that question in decades. “Son, you’ve already paid.”
The boy pushed on the tall, heavy brass handles of the front doors, entering into a plush if somewhat musty lobby. It was how he would have imagined a theater from the turn of the century to have looked–everything either aglow or made of velvet and brass, richly colored and full of history and grandeur. Even the ashtrays were works of art in the form of a winged creature holding up the bowl as if it were a supernatural burden. Murals of gods in togas were splayed across the ceiling overhead. A crystal chandelier sent chaotically beautiful refracted light across every surface. Organ music piped overhead, spritely yet unsettling in its innocence. In the boy’s experience, nothing in Dark-of-the-City was so innocent or carefree. He had already learned the essential first lesson: always second guess. The new arrivals to the City, lambs though they might be, were quickly stamped into cynics, whether through work, persecution, homesickness, or worse.
The lobby was entirely empty. Even the usher’s podium stood unmanned. From here the boy could hear a low murmur beyond the doors, the buzzing of scattered conversation. The show must not have started yet. He ascended the steps leading to the theater doors and, finding them unlocked, slipped inside.
On the other side he was greeted with faint outlines silhouetted against the dim blue stage lights and a single torch set on a pole in the center of the stage. The boy realized the organ music was live, and when his eyes followed his ears to its source his breath caught in his throat. The pipe organ looked like the skeleton of some terrible creature, a leviathan sea-beast or some Old God perhaps, strung up in grotesque display, its limbs dangling rigid from hooks, and the organ player some kind of biologist poking through the entrails that lay on the floor. The incongruity between the instrument and the joyful art it produced sent a chill through the boy. It didn’t seem right. It wasn’t right. And yet there was something beautiful about it.
He took a seat in the back row and settled in. As his eyes adjusted he could make out individuals in the crowd–a jostling froth of thrill-seekers and folks battling boredom, nobles and bottom-feeders alike. The conversation was excited and electric, and for a moment the boy almost forgot the constant and throbbing terror of each moment in Dark-of-the-City. For a moment he felt almost as if he were somewhere he belonged, at least as much as everyone else in the audience. He held on to that feeling as the lights dimmed and the chatter died down.
The curtains drew and the show began.
A woman entered the stage–beautiful, of course, and with eyes still gleaming with innocence, which the boy could see from the back row, and which he did not question. Such was the performance. She wore a robin’s egg blue dress with an orange belt of ribbon and carried a wicker picnic basket. The dress began to ripple about her as if blown by a breeze, though from where the boy could not tell. Without notice the basket became a lantern that cast an orange glow across the wooden planks of the stage. The boy gasped–the only one in the audience to do so. He immediately felt foolish and resolved to keep his mouth shut for the remainder of the show.
This resolution did not last long. The woman crossed the stage, not seeming to notice the transformation in her hands. Then grass began to sprout from the planks, bursting out like bubbles in a tar pit, carpeting the ground wherever it touched with lush greenery. The girl shrieked and retreated to a fast-shrinking island of wood until even that disappeared and she landed in the grass on her knees. When the grass did not consume her, she sighed in short-lived relief (along with the audience), clutching her lantern to her chest until her breathing slowed.
Then the walls and ceiling of the theater buckled and were uprooted and flung into oblivion. The boy jumped out of his seat, stepping on the toes of the woman next to him, who gave him a dirty look that softened once she realized by his expression that he was a theater virgin. This time he was not the only one to react; several others were on their feet or on the floor, while many who were still seated simply chuckled, as if they were watching a child fumble with his first bicycle.
Where the ceiling had been now surged with swirling, violent clouds of purple and gray, bits of ash fluttering to the ground from an unseen heavenly conflagration. The woman screamed again, but her voice was lost in the sudden explosion of noise. It had to be a trick of some sort, the boy was sure of it. It was as if the entire building –in fact, the entire city — had been tossed aside by a giant. As far as the boy could see in every direction there was only desolation and storm. Finally the noise of the storm died down, calmed by the hand of some divine conductor quieting his pit orchestra. The boy could hear whimpering from the stage. The woman stood, but the lantern in her hands did little against the descent of darkness.
That was when the faceless things emerged from the black with singed flesh and misplaced limbs. Their heads were featureless and pulsating orbs of flaking skin, and their limbs moved with palsied frenzy as they clawed their way toward the woman. Knots of anxiety tightened in the boy’s innards. He felt as if he might vomit, though whether from disgust or fright he could not tell, if indeed there was a difference.
The woman fell right back to the grass and began to crawl away from her attackers. She froze as she set her hand down–the boy could not see why, until she lifted from the grass a great silver claymore. As she realized what she had, her frailty melted away and she was on her feet before the boy could register what had happened.
She took a swing at the faceless things. Missed. Swung again. Another miss. The claymore was a heavy implement, too much for her to handle. Her swings were wayward and strained. The things hissed; the sound was muffled, coming from somewhere inside what seemed to be their heads.
Another swing–flesh split and viscous liquid issued from the wound on the torso of one of the faceless things, congealing on the ground as soon as it left the body. She swung once more to finish off the faltering creature, but another leapt in front of the blow, taking it directly to the head. The boy cheered under his breath, but stopped halfway–the woman was not drawing the sword back from the wound, though not for lack of effort. The creature sucked the sword into an unseen orifice as the woman struggled to draw it back out.
She held stubbornly onto the sword grip, so much so that her hand was engulfed, followed by her arm, before she realized it, all was lost. She began to cry out in the most terrible anguish. The boy shouted at the scene before him–the exact words were lost to him. It did not matter. It only mattered that he shouted something.
The woman’s screams grew somehow louder as she was further devoured by the thing, that horrible thing, whose mouth grew to absurd proportions to wrap around its victim, unhinged like a snake’s jaw. The screams grew louder, and louder, and louder, and louder.
And then stopped.
Once the show had ended and the theater had returned to normality, the boy was left in a state of exhausted ecstasy by the performance–once he had come to terms with it as such: a performance rather than a memory. Adrenaline lit up his every nerve. He felt purged. The sensation might have been described, had the boy been some years older and more experienced in the finer things in life, as post-coital. A thin line of sweat formed under his scruffy hairline and on his neck.
A mass exodus of the audience followed, each man, woman, and thing chittering excitedly about the sheer visceral intensity of the evening. To a one, they looked haggard but cheerful, with weary smiles on their faces. It was the happiest he had ever seen a crowd in his three days in Dark-of-the-City. Indeed it was the happiest he had felt since his arrival, the first reprieve he had felt from anxiety and dread. For a moment he was not worried that he might never see his family again. He was not worried that they might believe him to be dead. He was not even worried about what would happen to him in this strange, hellish place. He was simply glad to be breathing. He felt as if he could take on the City now.
He was confused, naturally. He had just watched a woman devoured alive by unspeakable monstrosities the memory of whom sent chills down his spine. They had all watched the same horrific event. Why then, should they all feel so content?
Soon the lobby was cleared except for the boy, who mulled around awkwardly, and a severe-looking woman in black clothing who mounted the stairs leading to the backrooms and offices of the theater. He was about to call to her when his nerves got the best of him and he hesitated. The woman had the demeanor of a poet laureate or a mystic; there was a sense just from looking at her that she knew things that others only wondered about, that she had answers where others had only hunches. And indeed, at the top of the stairs, the woman stopped and turned to face him, a pleasant smile on her lips.
“Well,” she said, “come on.”
She led the boy into her office. It was a tight space, not because it was a small room but because every possible surface was piled with knick-knacks and miscellanea. In the corner sat a small wood-burning stove, quietly smoldering. The woman deftly navigated around the piles–books, clocks, masks, dreamcatchers, teapots, paintings, scrolls, stones, statuettes, maps–and sat by an equally cluttered desk. She gestured toward a pile of junk near her, and it was only upon his second glance that the boy recognized the shape of a chair next to the heap. He took his seat.
“Tea?” asked the woman.
The boy nodded. “Thank you.”
The woman retrieved a kettle from inside the stove and poured two glasses of a light-colored tea into cups inlaid with intricate runework. The boy took a sip and felt as if he was drinking some magical elixir, lighting his insides with arcane warmth, but somehow he knew that, no–this was simply tea.
“So,” said the woman, without taking a sip of her own drink. “What did you think of the show?”
The boy considered his words carefully. “I thought–I felt like I was going to throw up.”
“And once it was over… I felt like I had survived something. I was glad to be alive.”
“Mm. From the mouths of babes. You have hit it right in the smacker. Ignace, as always, is right about you. You see, this job requires a certain level of metacognitive awareness. You must have a great intuitive knowledge of the workings of the sub-conscious–not the kind of thing you can learn in school or from books, mind you, but something writ on your own soul. It is easy to enjoy our performances, to reap the rewards of, as you called it, survival. But to create them, well, that is something entirely other.” Finally she drank, and then, sniffing the aroma wafting from the mug, said, “My name is Madame Nocnitsa, the founder and owner of The Nightmare Theatre.” The boy knew it was not her real name. No one in Dark-of-the-City used their real names, if they could even remember them. To use one’s real name was dangerous. It attracted the Quieters like blood in the water.
The boy leaned forward. “How do you do it? Create the performances, I mean. They seemed so real.”
Madame Nocnitsa smiled. “I’m glad you asked.” The lights went out, all except for a small desk lamp next to the Madame. Her harsh features were lit in ghoulish chiaroscuro. “It’s very simple,” she said. “And infinitely complex. Like cooking or painting.” Her face split into two halves that began to separate and bend at angles, like a Y forming from the stem of her neck. The boy could see the cross-section of her brain, her sinuses, her mouth and tongue glistening in the lamplight. She continued speaking, both halves of her head synchronized in uniform motion: “It’s all in the details.”
Her head reassembled and she raised her hands, splaying her fingers wide. Suddenly there were twelve fingers, then fourteen, then thirty. Then ten, once again. With each transformation the bones in each hand restructured themselves to accommodate the new physiology. It was like watching evolution in timelapse.
“Is it real?” he asked.
The walls evaporated in a puff of smoke and the boy and Madame Nocnitsa sat in a field of sunflowers. It was the first time the boy had seen sunlight since his arrival, and it blinded him.
“Yes and no,” said the Madame. “Mostly no. Some of the children who find themselves in Dark-of-the-City discover soon after their arrival that they have new talents, you see. All of the performers here at the Nightmare Theatre found at some point that they were hypnogagists.”
“Hypno-whats?” He had never heard the word before. This was not unusual; over the past three days he had heard many words for the first time.
“Hypnogagists. They can create images in the minds of others. Tell me, have you ever experienced times in your life when you tried to will an image or thought into someone else’s head? Did it ever seem to take hold?”
The boy considered the question. There had certainly been times when he had wanted someone to feel a certain way or think a certain thought–a girl, usually–but no, it had never seemed to work. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
The woman nodded as if this confirmed her suspicions. “Well, no matter. There are other uses for the less… gifted. This theater provides a very important service. As you have no doubt come to realize, life in Dark-of-the-City is difficult. Frustrating for many. Impossible for some. Rage, anxiety, jealousy–these emotions build up inside our neighbors and countrymen on a daily basis. When given an outlet, most of them manage to continue with life. When there is no outlet for them, however, they often turn to less pleasant alternatives–fire, trains, tall buildings, rope. Or they turn it against others. Tell me, do you know the story of how Butcher-upon-the-Drink got its name?”
“No…” And he wasn’t sure he wanted to.
“Come now, that kind of squeamishness won’t do here,” said Madame Nocnitsa. “Working with nightmares every night can take a lot out of you. You’ve got to be willing to really rub your nose in the bad stuff. Suffice it to say that the Butcher is perhaps the most dramatic example of a man driven to madness by the City, flailing around desperately for purpose. Quite the body count. Hm, and such a fine looking man. Tragic.” She switched instantly from wistful stargazing to a fiercely focused stare. “We provide a kind of catharsis that is hard to achieve outside of more violent pursuits. Tell me, do you often dream?”
The boy did. It seemed as if every morning–at home and here in the City–he woke up somewhere new, with a fresh pantheon of horrors burned into his mind. Yes, he was quite familiar with dreams. “Yes, I do. Most nights, actually.”
“And these dreams–they have continued since your arrival in the City?”
“Yes, so far.”
Madam Nocnitsa beamed. “Excellent, excellent. That’s very rare, you know. Many people find that they no longer dream once they arrive in the City. That’s a large part of the reason we’re so important–and popular. Come with me.”
She led him back to the stage where several others sat in a circle of folding chairs, beer and cigarettes in hand. Most of them had the same aura as Madame Nocnitsa–like a cadre of bohemian wizards, equal parts absurd, admirable, and terrifying. This was a look behind the curtain. The boy could see the beautiful woman from the night’s show. A cold sweat matted her bangs against her brow, and she was wrapped in an afghan covered in woven images of legendary monsters. She looked like she had been through something, all right.
The hypnogagists barely acknowledged the boy’s entrance. Madame Nocnitsa clapped her hands to bring an end to the scattered conversation and get down to business.
“Right,” she said. “Everyone, great show tonight. Halcyon, especially, fantastic work on the clouds. But tomorrow night is fast approaching, and the City is a harsh patron, so we must not rest a moment more than necessary. What do we have for tomorrow’s show?”
A man in a felt trilby cleared his throat and unrolled a bit of parchment. “Got something special lined up. Existential terror–very relatable, very eloquent.”
“Who’s the dreamwright on this one?”
“Twenty-something, handsome, came from money. A poet.”
“Ah, one of our very own. Creative types always do seem to have a penchant for that extra zest of delicious detail.”
“Shall we bring him in?” asked the man in the trilby.
“Absolutely, absolutely. I’m eager to see what he has to offer us.”
Two of the group disappeared backstage for a moment. Madame Nocnitsa turned to the boy. “You’re going to love this.”
A hush fell over the stage, and after a few seconds a distant scream broke the silence. The boy started, but saw that no one else seemed concerned and resumed his earlier resolution no to stick out. He could hear a scuffing noise, something brushing against wood, growing louder alongside multiple footsteps. The two hypnogagists reappeared from behind the curtain. Between them was a thin, pale young man with foam dripping from his lips and blood on his wrists. The man screamed again, sounding more like a wounded bear than a frail little man. The men flanking him threw him down in the middle of the circle of chairs. He lay in the fetal position for some time, twitching, sweating, silent. After this he raised his head and glanced around at the circle of onlookers. His gaze met with Madame Nocnitsa’s.
“Hello, darling,” she said.
The man’s response began as a fit of sputtering and gibberish. Then: “Hello.” He sounded, more than anything, tired.
“Are you going to cooperate, or are you going to be a nuisance?”
The man glared at her, then spat at her feet pathetically, with what little vigor he could muster.
“A nuisance, then.” She turned to the boy, the first person to pay him notice since the meeting began. “Would you kindly hold our dreamwright down? He shouldn’t give you too much trouble.”
The boy hesitated. He wasn’t sure what was about to happen but it didn’t take a sixth sense to know that it wasn’t going to be pleasant. His first instinct was to refuse, but before he could voice his objection, he knew that he would go along with what she asked. He was too scared, too unsure of his place in this new and terrifying world to stand alone.
Head down, without making eye contact with anyone in the room, least of all with the man on the ground, he stepped forward and placed his hands, one at a time, on the man’s shoulders. “Like this?”
“Yes, that’s fine. If he starts to make a fuss, you’ll want to wrap your arms around him and squeeze tight.”
“Please,” muttered the man, only loud enough for the boy to hear. “Please.”
“Shush, my sweet boy,” said the Madame. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Aged, veined hands gripped the man’s head. Madame Nocnitsa stood over both of them with lustful anticipation in her eyes and on her lips. “Show me,” she said. “Show me your fear.”
Then they were in the night sky, the City shrinking away below. The City became just another star among thousands, millions, billions of tiny points of fire in the cosmos. The overwhelming nothingness between the stars seemed to consume them, slowly at first, then increasing in speed, swallowing the sky until none was left.
The boy realized he was now alone. Physically, metaphysically, spiritually. There was nothing on which to hook meaning or purpose, because there was nothing.
He wept, though for what he was not sure. There was, after all, nothing to weep for. Such was the performance.
He lay in bed that night, watching the shadows of the passers-by play on his ceiling. Madame Nocnitsa had put him up in a hotel in the Spindle–not the best, but serviceable, and several orders better than the one he had been staying at in Posh and Turnip.
The streets were bustling as the first-nighters marched drearily home from work while the second-nighters made their commute to offices, factories, farms, bordellos, wherever they had been lucky or unlucky enough to land a job.
The room had been paid for by his first week’s advance. He felt guilty holding the pouch of coins on the walk from the theater–the bag was heavy with blood money. He wondered how long it would take for the image of the dreamwright’s drained, blank face, soulless and still, to leave the forefront of his memory. If it ever left. Mostly likely it would be replaced by worse images in the years to come. He didn’t sleep that night. How could he? As soon as he closed his eyes, the ghost was there, flanking a projection of his own death playing on infinite repeat. The man, shrieking like no creature should, full of infinite and terrible pain at the pointlessness of his own existence, of everyone’s existence, etched on every pore of his face. And then he had fallen over, released by Madame Nocnitsa, his face reverting to expressionlessness. Quiet. Dead. No longer afraid.
The boy had waited for the catharsis to come, for the release, like that which had followed the night’s earlier performance. But it did not–he was behind the curtain, where there was no respite. But wasn’t that the way it had to be?
No–the boy did not sleep that night, save for about an hour right before the bell rang, signaling first night. In this stolen snatch of sleep he dreamed, as he always did, but this dream had a new immediacy. In this dream he sat in the audience at the theater, watching someone else’s nightmare play out on stage. The stage was burning, and the hypnogagists floated about the stage with tongues of fire dancing from their robes. The boy watched in horror, while the audience around him began to smile and clap their hands in delight. The flames consumed the first rows of the spectators, and they died grinning and cheering. The wall of fire crawled toward the boy, and he could not move. He was transfixed upon the spot as if by glue or nails or sheer weakness. Everything red and orange and hellfire–the searing pain so real–flesh bubbling, eyes popping–his own?
And then he woke up.
The boy was not surprised to see Madame Nocnitsa’s bittersweet smile when he arrived at the theater the next first night. Nor was she surprised to see him. They both knew who the theater’s next dreamwright had to be.
He could have run. Perhaps he should have, but he didn’t. This was his job; there was no running from that. Try as he might, he could not outrun his purpose. He could not outrun the Nightmare Theatre.
“Hello, darling,” said Madame Nocnitsa.
“I had the most terrible dream last night,” said the boy.
“Well, Ignace is never wrong,” said the Madame as he walked into her cool embrace.
Nathaniel Berens is an author from Royal Oak, MI. In addition to his short fiction, he has written an as-yet unpublished science-fantasy novel. He has also contributed to gaming magazine The Escapist (www.escapistmagazine.com) and currently writes reviews for Adventure Gamers (www.adventuregamers.com). You can follow him on Twitter at @nrberens.