The candlelight died in an instant, compliments of the filthy breath of the newborn . . . thing. Just as quickly, I brought the lights back with the two pistols that lined my jacket. Wicked often found a way to segue into a blather-fest about the utility of his killing knives, proclaiming, “A knife needs no reloading and only jams when poorly placed between the ribs. It’s always there, lean, thirsty and ready for anything.” No doubt why he hastily lent me his spare blade, but I preferred banking on bullets to get me out of my current jam.
The strobing light of gunshots revealed the clowns in different mocking positions—clapping their hands, high-fiving, rubbing invisible tears from their eyes. It made me want to aim the next shot at my head. I’d rather lose my mind to a bullet than this smiling, cackling fear. I placed my shots carefully but I didn’t see a one hit its mark, and the newborn terror was getting closer.
It felt like I was firing blanks, so I switched tactics. Backing toward the staircase, I singled out the “child,” hoping to at least knock it backward into the clowns. They kept yucking it up like a bunch of stooges, not a care in the world.
The thing soaked up the last of my rounds, thankfully seeming a little put out by my efforts. I slammed the door shut and practically threw myself down the stairs.
As I half-tumbled down the steps the door exploded outward. Laughter, the honk of clown horns and the monstrous wail of a hungry infant chased me as I fell.
The stairs seemed longer in reverse, if that’s possible. Fear consuming me, I jumped the railing—taking the quickest way down, whatever the cost.
I don’t know what broke my fall. Hell, I don’t know how long I fell. Two seconds? Twenty? I reeled to my feet and kept running, the circus freaks bouncing merrily down the stairs. Ducking into a corner, I dropped my guns and took out Wicked’s blade. Fucker’s always right, damn him.
I forced myself to take long slow breaths, calming my crashing heart as I tried to stay silent. A sudden shock of lightning lit the street beyond a nearby window, where crowds of clowns and children silently celebrated. It was a snapshot from Hell, frozen in time and space. My courage ran dry as I sank into the corner, shrinking myself down as much as I could. The silence returned, not so much as bruised by the festivities outside. In the darkness, I began to wonder if I was huddled amidst one of the gatherings, surrounded by grinning clowns and wide-eyed children, all of them closing in on me. I was sweating so much I began to fear it was making noise, calling attention to me. Scars of past frights were reopening, bleeding cold across my skin. Screaming forever seemed my only option. I was on the verge of insanity but something wasn’t budging, stubbornly clinging to lucidity as it always had.
That’s when I called out to it.
“Get me the fuck out of here,” I hissed into the darkness. Slowly the heavy sound of paws emerged, followed by wet rank breath. It was the dog of the dead come to take me away. There was a bit of whispering at first, even some giggling. Eventually, it/they/whatever spoke to me. The creature growled, “Follow us.”
As it led me through the darkness, I kept stepping in puddles of what must have been the creature’s drool. I could hear it slapping the floor wetly. The smell was nauseating. We reached a door, softly lit by a few bulbs dangling from bare wires. A giant paw pushed me backwards. “Quiet,” said a leaky male voice. I fell silent and watched from the shadows.
The dog was never in plain view. Even the hanging lights only hinted at its actual appearance and dimensions, which were nastier and larger than I cared to consider. This made for quite a fucked up moment for me. I was huddled in shadow at the behest of an undead dog filled with equally undead serial killers (however inept), hiding from roaming packs of nightmare clowns and their demonic children, hoping against hope that my serial-killer buddies would arrive to spring me from a house of hell. All in all, it was shaping up to be a pretty strange day.
A clown stumbled through the door, smiling and searching. My hulking guard dog snatched it into the air like a doll, shaking it once in a single violent blur, sending rancid saliva splattering against the walls. Above the wet splashes, it sounded as though each bone in the clown’s body snapped at once. It was more than limp, hanging from the dog’s dripping maw like a brightly-colored water balloon that wouldn’t burst. Little toy horns lay scattered about, the clown’s alarm going unsounded.
The liquid corpse of the clown came sliding up to my feet, pushed softly across the room by a giant wet nose. An offering from my guardian, a rubber ball returned.
I was lead into a narrow hallway which was as usual, sparsely lit. Yet the darkness was growing on me now. I didn’t know if it stemmed from my desire to avoid seeing any new horrors full-on, or because I began to like the feel of shadows moving across my skin. Likely both, I guessed.
My hand tensed around the hilt of my blade when the silence was broken by tiny footsteps running across the floor above us. Something fell to the floor, likely knocked over by whatever was doing the running. Then silence again. The monstrous dog’s movements became more cautious, signaling fresh new hells to come.
The hallway ended with a large set of double doors. I could sense the atmosphere thickening, ripening, preparing to take the bow off another sick surprise. My rotting, stinking companion slunk into the shadows of the adjoining hallway, all but vanishing. A heavy clawed paw pushed open the door, as if pulling back a magician’s curtain.
An expansive ballroom appeared, starkly lit by a source somewhere high in the vaulted ceilings. It exuded age and atrophy, a place out of time yet touched by a kind of subdued madness. Intricate chandeliers were blackened with soot that dripped from the crystal, disappearing midair. The massive tapestries on the walls were cracked, their color drained, yet they appeared to crawl with movement from the corner of the eye. Rich curtains and decorative banners, thick and tattered, the non-color of dust and age, hung limp in the heavy air. Petrified tables and chairs surrounded the center dancing area, the floor seamless and smooth as glass but the color of concrete.
The room must have registered for me on some level, but I have no idea how. My attention was very much elsewhere, mainly on trying to keep my shit together at the sight of what lay in the middle of the dance floor. It was a woman sort of, like the poor thing that had birthed the doe-eyed nightmare. Except this one had given birth to something far larger. Her mutilated womb dominated the entire floor space, sprawling and spilling and heaped on itself like a deflated hot air balloon covered in blood and birth fluids and viscera. She was ripped apart from the inside, the bones of her torso scattered every which way, jagged pink sticks that rose slightly above a sea of gore. And her face. Good Christ, her face. It was madness wrapped in pain, stitched together with mindless tangles of laughter. Her eyes were laid open like weeping voids, as empty and dead as outer space. I suddenly realized why the air was so heavy. The remains were actually steaming. My new companion smelled like roses compared to this. The stench clung to my throat like a living thing as I tried not to scream, or run, or collapse.
My lumbering pet had his head down, sniffing the scene earnestly, unperturbed. Hand to my mouth I followed his path, picking my way through the mess. We soon found the footprints—giant fucking footprints, leading away from the wet stew of human remains, marching down a massive flight of stairs at the far end of the ballroom. I couldn’t speak, so my trusty undead companion spoke for me.
“Curiouser and curiouser, eh, Alice?”
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