When Situations Degenerate

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Two old men stood before an old oak door. They had renewed the bindings, knots and spirals of blue woad and white chalk and black charcoal, as their families had for millennia. They had sacrificed a black lamb, cutting its throat with a golden sickle and letting its blood seep through the channels cut into the threshold. They had donned their battle armor: bespoke suits from Savile Row, the finest silk ties, gold watches and diamond cufflinks, handmade leather briefcases. And now each stood there, key in hand, ready to open the twinned locks that would allow them entry to an ancient evil's prison.

"Did you bring the mistletoe?" the first one asked. He was short and fat, almost obese, but his suit managed to hide most of it with its clever cut and pinstripes.

The second was tall and stick-thin, and completely bald; he held himself upright with a gold-topped cane. "Of course. Harvested it myself under the full moon last Thursday. Did you bring the brandy?"

"Picked it up from the cellar this morning. Nothing but the finest. This one was actually a present from De Gaulle, if my father's notes are correct."

"Wonderful. Shall we?"

"I believe we shall."

They stepped forward, and turned their keys. The door creaked open, revealing swirling mist; the men's eyes met, they nodded, and walked through.

A mass of flesh, two bloated bodies fused together, writhed upon silk sheets before a many-horned many-toothed altar while a city burned around it. Sex-smells, death-smells, fire-smells, a blend of foulness that overwhelmed the senses and choked the lungs. Four black eyes gazed up from the bed, four lips parted, and a two-part harmony choked out words in a language not spoken for millennia.

"By Gothog and by Carthac and by Moluch I command you! Come not in that form!" shouted the fat man, and everything changed.

A black-eyed god sat upon a throne of cold silver, a three-headed beast snarling on his right and a chained woman weeping on his left. Tormented souls were crushed beneath his feet, and the stone sky above was studded with the crystalline glow of false-stars. In a voice that filled the cavern and yet did not drown out the wails of the damned, he spoke the language of Homer and Hesiod, and drove the visitors to tears.

The thin man screamed, "I command you in the names of thundering Zeus and Poseidon earth-shaker, come not in that form!" and again, everything changed.

A dead man swung from an old fig tree, his black eyes bulging and his woolen robes stinking with the contents of his voided bowels. Below his feet, a handful of silver coins were scattered in the fouled dust, and far in the distance three men suffered on a hill, their moans carrying further than they should across the desert. He grinned a corpse-grin, and bile spilled from his lips as he spoke the language of the Visions of Hozai, the Book of Daniel, and the Seventeen Remedies for Death.

"In the name of Yeshua ben Yusuf, I command you! In his father's seventy-two sacred names, I command you! Come in a more pleasing form!" The fat man was growing hoarse, but his words were heard, and once more everything changed.

Raw data screamed past at the speed of light. No sights, no sounds, no smells, just numbers and more numbers, raw profit, stocks and currencies changing hands faster than the human mind could follow; and at the center of it all squatted a thing, an algorithmic monster, the sum of all the insider deals and picosecond advantages. And although they could not see it, they knew it watched them; and they knew its eyes were black.

"One final time I command you!" the thin man said, though he could not hear himself. "By the compacts signed by our ancestors! By the spirits and spells which keep you bound! By Medici and Morgan, by Rothschild and Rockefeller, by Croesus and Crassus and Koch, I command you! Appear to us in mortal form!" And, for the last time, everything changed.

Their senses returned, the two men found themselves kneeling on a thick Persian rug. They stood, and took in the familiar sight of a luxurious office, all dark wood and leather; a deep mahogany desk squatted in the center, a monogrammatic "D" carved into the front and accented in gold leaf. Behind it sat the man they had come there to see. Average height, average build, and forty years younger than the others; his suit was black, his tie was black, his hair was black, and his eyes, of course, were black.

Before either of his visitors had fully recovered, the man in black spoke. "Ah! Bertie and Amos! What a pleasant surprise. Please, have a seat. I'm sure you have much to ask of me."

The fat man got his bearings first. "Percy, as usual, it is a delight to see you, but there is some housekeeping to be done before we have our chat. Rupert?"

"Yes, Amos? Oh. Right. Where did I put them? Ah, here we go." The thin one pulled a bundle of mistletoe from an inside pocket, and gave half to his counterpart. They circled the room, removing nearly-dead mistletoe sprigs from various vases and urns and replacing them with fresh ones, saying a quick prayer in the sacred tongue of the Druids each time. The man at the desk watched in silence, a faint smile on his lips. When they had finished, they returned to the middle of the room, and pulled up a pair of elegant leather armchairs.

"Now," the fat man said, retrieving a bottle of cognac and three glasses from his briefcase, "shall we drink?" A generous pour went into each glass, and the men raised a toast.

"Buy cheap," said Marshall.

"Sell dear," said Carter.

"And don't give me that do goody-good bullshit," said Dark.

They sat quietly for a few moments, enjoying the brandy and each other's company. Dark broke the silence first. "So, what can I do for you gentlemen? Is this just the yearly ward-renewal, or do you need advice?"

"Well," Carter said, "there's the usual stock predictions and investment advice. What to look out for over the coming year, which hot stocks to avoid, what companies to acquire."

Dark nodded. "The Algorithm placed that information into your handhelds. Much easier than having me write it all down for you, don't you think?"

Carter pulled out his phone and swiped through a few screens. "Oh, how convenient. Distressing, of course, given what else I have stored on this thing, but I suppose you can't really blackmail me, can you?" He smiled nervously as he put his phone away. "That's all from me. Amos?"

Marshall shook his head. "Nothing from me. It has been lovely seeing you as always, Percy. Same time next year?" He forced a chuckle, and Carter followed suit. They stood, collected their briefcases, and moved to leave.

Dark stared at the other men over his intertwined fingers as they stepped toward the door. "One more thing, gentlemen?" They paused, and turned around. "You aren't getting any younger. Have you selected your replacements?"

There was a long pause. Dark did not break eye contact.

Carter caved first. "Well, yes, of course, I have, that's no problem."

Marshall jumped on the end of his sentence. "And, yes, I have as well, it's just…"

"It's just what?" Dark raised a single eyebrow. "Is there some issue?"

"No, no issue," Marshall said, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief. "I've picked Chrysophilus Marshall, my grand-nephew. Lives in London. Goes by 'Skitter', lord knows why."

"And I've chosen Alphonse Cartier, from the French branch of the family, as much as it pains me. My brother's spawn are all otherwise occupied, and my sister married a woman, so no luck there."

Dark nodded. "Wonderful. And my replacement?"

Both men spoke at once. "Well-" "You see-" A short silence. "No, you should-" "Please, I insi-" Another silence. Again, Carter caved first.

"There's nobody," he said. "All the Dark lines have gone extinct."

All the lights in the office went out, except a single lamp on Dark's desk. "Excuse me?"

"There was nothing we could do, Percy! Most of them were gone before you were made Dark!"

The lamp's glow no longer reached the walls of the room. Dark's eyes were pools of blackness, and his hair and suit were barely distinguishable from the shadows behind him. "And what of the others?"

Marshall pulled a small notebook from his breast pocket. "Aaron Czarnacki finally hunted down the last of the Schwarz line, in revenge for their actions during the Second World War; Czarnacki met his own end at the hands of the Coalition, a year later. The Negrescus were purged by Ceausescu. Duncan MacDuff shot himself after strangling his wife and sons. The last of the Kurokawas was killed by Aum Shinrikyo's sarin attacks—an unhappy accident, we believe. The Lenoirs' mansion sunk into the bayou with the whole family inside. We were planning on choosing one of the brothers who ran our Hong Kong operations, Yin and Jianhong Li, but they were assassinated last June. Simultaneous car bombs. Still haven't tracked down the perpetrators." He snapped the notebook shut, and met Dark's gaze. "Your influence does not lend itself to longevity, Mr. Dark. Poor Percy was perhaps six months from suicide when you took his face."

With that, Dark dropped its mask. The last light went out, the office disappeared, and Marshall and Carter saw the chamber behind the door as it really was, for the first time since they sacrificed Percival Black to his family's demon. They were inside an ancient barrow-mound, cyclopean slabs holding back the soil, carved with the intricate knots and runic script that kept Dark contained. The niches in the walls held dozens of corpses, sacrifices made over the two millennia since he was moved to Londinium from a tomb older still, on the banks of the Tiber; the freshest, of course, was Percy's, and it was that body that sat before them, in a golden throne behind a black granite altar.

They had removed his eyes and tongue first. Then his heart and lungs, his liver and his kidneys, his testicles and his brain. The organs lay in bowls on the altar; the heart still beat, the lungs still breathed, and the brain was still painfully aware of everything that happened to its mutilated body. Holes gaped where they had taken out the organs, and in the other places that the ritual demanded they slice him open. And in those holes was Dark. It was a serpent, coiled over and around and through itself, each scale a different shade of shadow; it was a cloud of thick, black smoke, streaming constantly through Percy's wounds as though a coal fire had been lit in his stomach; it was a swarm of spiders, weaving black silk webs around the body's limbs and laying eggs in its flesh. It took these forms and more, the shapes blending into each other, collapsing and reforming, some seen only in the mind's eye, others only seen in memory; but regardless of its shape, those same black eyes stared from Percival's empty sockets, utterly without pity.

In a voice like a slave-driver's whip, it spoke. "Your insolence is not charming, Mr. Marshall. Need I remind you of the geasa you swore? They are carved into Percival's flesh, just here, if you would like to refresh your memory."

Marshall fell to one knee. "No, Mr. Dark. I remember my oaths. But-"

"But you have lost track of my children, Mr. Marshall, and let too many of them come to harm."

Carter knelt beside Marshall, his eyes fixed firmly on the ground. "Mr. Dark, there is nobody left. We cannot find a replacement. Your bloodline is no more."

The corpse's ruined mouth turned upward in a smile. "There is one, Mr. Carter. Percival was a busy beaver at university, and did not always scatter his seed on barren soil. He did not know he had a son; his son did not know his father. His son, unfortunately, has passed; but he had a daughter, and it is this daughter who will be made Dark."

Marshall looked up, confused, and met Dark's gaze. "But the compact specifies-"

The voice was the deathrattle of a sweatshop suicide. "Do not tell me what the compact specifies! The terms of the original bargain will still be followed, this I swear to you. Find the girl. Bring her to me. And your replacements will make her Dark." It paused, for just long enough that Marshall's sweat began to drip from his forehead to the floor. "You may go."

Marshall and Carter fled the room, almost forgetting their briefcases in their haste. Once outside, they threw their whole weight against the doors, slamming them shut, and locked them tight. Then they collapsed, their old lungs gasping for breath.

"Fuck me," Carter wheezed, "we forgot to ask him her name."

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