When I was a kid I wasn’t just afraid of the dark, I was terrified of it, to the point of paralysis even.
One night, as I lay shivering in my bed, my jaw aching from grinding my still-developing teeth into dust, my bedroom door opened slowly and a massive figure stood in the half-light for a moment before entering. My grandfather didn’t switch on the light, he simply burned through a few minutes of precious time watching my eyes dart between him, the closet, and the floor in front of my bed. Then he pulled up a chair, sat beside me… and stared.
(As you may imagine, that didn’t calm me down in the least, but I wasn’t about to argue with a hulking Polish immigrant who worked as a bouncer in the toughest dive bar in St. Catharines.)
An eternity passed before my grandfather finally shattered the silence with all the grace of the proverbial hopped-up bull in the world’s unluckiest china shop.
“There is nothing to fear in the shadows. All things have a purpose, a role to play… even those that dwell in the dark.”
My grandfather was incredibly, almost inexplicably, well-read, but that statement still seemed highly suspicious to me, so I dug deep and found the courage to speak at last.
“Even the monsters?” I squeaked.
“Especially them,” he replied. Then he spoke the words that would dictate the course of my life from that point on. “How would you recognize good without evil? And never forget, mój słodki chłopcze, those you call ‘monsters’ are just creatures who cannot resist the darkness that lives in all of us.”
“So I shouldn’t be afraid of them?”
“Oh no, your fear should never be denied! It’s been put there to make you faster, stronger, and so determined to live that you fight harder than you ever would without it. Good must always stand against evil, that is the only way the Balance survives.”
“What is the Balance, Dziadek?”
“It is the reason the world as you know it exists. God created the Balance to ensure neither good nor evil rises above the other.”
(You just know I had to ask, right?)
“What would happen if they did, Dziadek?”
“It would be the end… of everything.”
“So since we’re good… we have to always fight evil?”
It was clear he had enough of them, but my grandfather considered my question nevertheless, as though he knew the answer would open a door that could never be closed. And then the night got even stranger.
“Who said we were good, chłopak?”
“You mean we’re evil?” I said in a gasping voice as my eyes grew five times larger.
My grandfather rarely laughed
(especially while sober)
but he chuckled while giving me one last answer. “We are not evil, mój kumpel… nor are we good. No… we are something else entirely.”
The memory of that night is never far from the surface of my troubled mind, and the same could be said of William Nemesis – especially as he and his newly-acquired “allies” stood outside the Film Center Building, also known as 630 Ninth Avenue, a 13-story office building on the east side of Ninth Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets in New York’s appropriately named Hell’s Kitchen.
An NYC landmark, the Film Center Building was a rectangular structure largely made of brown brick, with windows on all sides. although the ground story had a marble façade, and the second story had a white-stone façade. The main entrance on Ninth Avenue led to a rectangular vestibule, which in turn led to the lobby.
“My friends are being held in Hell’s Kitchen?” Golden Lad had to express his disbelief out loud. He couldn’t believe this possibility never occurred to him before. His hands were clenched so hard blood seeped out between the folds. After decades of assuming they were as dead as disco he finally had a chance to free his comrades – and the source of his power, the Heart of Gold, was nearly inert.
“It gets stranger, Tommy,” I put a hand on his vibrating shoulder, knowing full well a comforting touch from the man who turned his world upside-down wasn’t going to make a bit of difference… but I figured it couldn’t hurt. “Wait ’til you see where we have to go to get to them. I hope you have a sweet tooth.”
“Why do men always talk so much in this day and age?” Madame Strange questioned as she waved a hand in front of the Film Center’s doors, reducing them to H2O. Her far-from-subtle hocus-pocus had already dispersed the crowd that followed us from the Empire, removing the possibility of collateral damage and proving there was a source of compassion beneath that frigid exterior.
But her patience wasn’t wearing thin at this point, it had snapped.
The group made their way through the main lobby, an elevator lobby, and a passageway leading to a series of secondary entrances. The lobby’s walls and ceilings resembled tapestries. The Center’s stair risers, ventilation grilles, directory signs, and elevator doors were designed in a multicolored scheme. The upper stories contained offices, which were initially used largely by major film companies. Now they sat empty, as did the rest of the building, though the Center still housed nearly 100 film vaults, all of which had been converted to hold various treasures seized by this world’s conquerors.
“This place is empty,” Tommy remarked, his voice echoing through the 13-storey structure.
“Your grasp of the obvious is most impressive, Golden Lad,” the Madame countered, her haunting eyes focused forward at all times. “The enemy knows we are coming, Nemesis. How will your scheme deal with that?”
“Unclench… both of you,” he responded, trying to sound as commanding as possible as they stood before the most popular confectionary retailer in this metropolis. “We have a few moments. And besides, we’re here.”
Sadly, William’s attempt at reigning in his band of heroic malcontents was far from up to snuff. Strange remained irked beyond measure; you could actually hear her growl if you listened closely.
Admittedly, Tommy and Nemesis didn’t help matters by stopping to stuff their gobs with as many Schmackary’s cookies as they could shove down
(he may have been a grown man now who was once a kid in a grown man’s body – but deep down he was still a kid)
before Strange cast spell after spell at the back wall of the store – to no avail.
Unfortunately it was William’s job to break the bad news. “Yeah, the creatures behind that wall have always assumed their barrier would hold against any assault. That’s also why we haven’t seen them. They don’t consider us a threat.”
Madame Strange wasn’t willing to accept that. “NOT A THREAT?! YOU HAVE ALREADY ERADICATED THIS WORLD’S REMAINING ACOLYTES OF THE DARK… AND NOW I STAND BESIDE YOU! I WILL SHOW THEM WHAT A THREAT ACTUALLY IS!”
Her eyes clouded over with a red mist, she raised her arms and prepared to launch every erg of her power at the irksome boundary… and then Nemesis shut her down.
“Save your magical mojo. I’ve got this,” he announced, without the soothing stroking, of course.
(He certainly hadn’t forgotten what it felt like to be a toad.)
William stood before the blank wall and in a calm low voice, uttered a password.
(Apparently even ancient gods believe in irony.)
The no-longer-concealed gateway shimmered before turning to black dust and dropping to the floor. A frosty breeze seemed to beckon the trio and they eagerly obliged, the gateway reforming behind them. A narrow corridor made up of marble from floor to ceiling soon gave way to a grand barren chamber with a substantial transparent cylinder as its focal point. Dozens of stainless steel gurneys surrounded the cylinder in the otherwise empty space.
“The hell?” was all Tommy could say.
“This is where it happens,” Strange exclaimed. “It is identical in ever reality I’ve visited thus far. This is where Their slaves drain their prey’s collective lifeforce and send it across the Multiverse so They can use it to sustain their unholy existence, Golden Lad.”
The Lad just stared at Nemesis for confirmation.
But there was no time for explanations.
The cylinder hissed like a deadly reptile announcing it’s presence and then a barely perceptible glow caught William’s eye. “They know something’s gone wrong,” he said. “They’re sending in reinforcements to protect the assets.”
He projected a telekinetic wave at the device – but the hissing and glowing only increased.
Madame Strange was most clinical in her assessment. “Your power is useless against Their apparatus. You are less than useless.”
Nemesis wouldn’t even cast a quick glance in her direction, he simply asked her a query as Tommy Preston wracked his brain trying to figure out how he was going to survive whatever was about to emerge from the device. “Are you invulnerable, Strange?”
She flexed her immaculate chest out like a strutting magical peacock before answering. “Of course I am, you simpleton, why -”
The indignant response died on her unblemished lips. Her unequaled bod left the marble floor and collided with the celestial contraption a nanosecond later, projected by a power not her own. The bulk of the teleportation gadget was shattered, reduced to fragments.
“What do you know? There really is more than one way to skin a necromantic cat!” Nemesis gleefully exclaimed to Golden Lad.
“You do realize she’s going to turn you back into a frog – and then she’s going to crush you under her heels?” Tommy asked.
But Nemesis wasn’t overwrought with concern, to say the least.
“Trust me… she’s about to get over it.”
Sure enough, the only door in the antechamber, a polished ebony aperture, free of any hinges or knobs, fell forward, thudding with a deafening roar as it met the marble floor. An inhuman personage, freed of its confinement and conditioned to act as the ultimate junkyard dog, lumbered into view. Barely humanoid, is sported the head of an octopus, a face composed of tentacles, a scaly, oily-grey body, and monstrous claws on its hands and feet. Protracted, slim wings completed the horrifying picture.
“YOU… LTTLE… LITTLE… MAN!” Strange shrieked as she rose to her feet spasming with rage.
The Lad and Nemesis just pointed to the figure at the other end of the space.
Madame Strange flung around, screaming, WHAT NOW?” as she did so.
One nauseating glance later, a single word left Strange’s mouth…
“Technically, it’s actually Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn… but close enough,” William corrected as he steeled himself for battle most foul.
“Who said we were good, chłopak?”
As Riff Raff once said “And also presumptuous of you.”
Still getting better every time, Mr. Hook.
Your kind words mean more than you’ll ever know, Doug.
Please tell me that the story of that night in the dark with your grandfather will be included in the published version.(and it WILL be published) Writing like that must not be wasted.
Not to say that this blog is a place for wasted words…..you get it I hope…..
Trust me, you’re paying me the highest compliment you can, my friend.
And I thank you from the bottom of my frozen Canadian heart.
I have replied or commented for a very long time! COVID and life will do that to a person.
I love reading your posts! Maybe it has to do with the fact I am a long time D&D player (even at 71. Elven Ranger, here!)
I hope all is well with you. Keep on writing!
“No man provokes me with impunity” – 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland, “The Black Watch”
Your support, whether you comment or not, is invaluable, old friend.
As a D&D enthusiast, have you watched the legend of Vox Machina on Amazon Prime?
It’s not for everyone but my daughter LOVES it.
Just Wow! I love how you open the story with your grandfather.
A version of my Bolseslaw Dzieyzk appears in Into The Dark.
He was a Polish immigrant who led a life right out of a war picture.
Seriously, he killed Nazis during the war a s a member of the Polish resistance, he was thought to have been killed during a botched kidnapping in Poland, only to make his way ONTO German shores BEFORE the war ended. Once there he fell in love with a German woman who was being held at an interment camp where he was a guard.
And his life continued to be turbulent from there.
He carried a great deal of darkness within him and committed some equally dark acts – but he was also capable of generating great light.
He truly was one of The Grey.
My goodness. What a man, and what a story. Thank you for telling me.