Twilight Warrior – Tansey Morgan

The French Quarter was quiet, dead, devoid of life and sound and people, leaving only that awful, open drain smell that seemed to always fill the air. My feet felt light as I walked along the oddly smooth ground, as if it were made of felt or fabric rather than cracked stone. Above me, the sky was churning and turning, dark, full, and pregnant with rain. The more I walked, the more this place took on the appearance of a foreign, alien landscape, one that almost looked like the real thing, but wasn’t. As I walked, I noticed the bars on either side of me. All of them were open, but dark and silent. In one bar, the name of which I didn’t get—not because I didn’t have the ability to read, but because my brain wasn’t digesting the words in front of me and giving me something I could work with—the flickering light of a TV flashing static caught my eye. I tried not to look at it and turned my attention back to Bourbon street, watching it stretch and elongate in front of me. The sky grumbled, and the first pattering of rain touched my shoulders. I gripped the scepter more tightly and took another step down the street, watching myself move through it a speed much faster than my pace would have suggested, until a sound caught my attention. Someone was playing a piano. The keystrokes were faint, the melody escaped me, but I thought it was coming from a bar up ahead and to the left; on the corner of an unnamed street I didn’t recognize. As I approached, the source of the sound moved so it no longer sounded like it was coming from that bar on the corner of the street, but from one further down, around halfway up the block. I swallowed and kept moving along the desolate path, always going forward, never going back because I couldn’t go back. Not in here.

The outside of the bar where the music was coming from was blue, and chipped; faded and damaged by the ravages of time. Something pricked my neck, and I slapped the spot instinctively. My hand came away red with blood, and parts of a mosquito that was too large, too alien, to be real, and yet somehow it was real. The piano music stopped. I walked closer to the bar, keeping my distance from the double entrance and peering inside. There were two pianos by the door—dueling pianos—where two musicians would take turns battling each other for tips and the affection of the crowd. Both seats were empty, the bar itself was empty, there were stools arranged around the place, but no one was sitting on them. In the back, there were two daiquiri machines, each of them roiling the cold, red liquid inside that I hoped wasn’t blood. The tip jar sitting between both pianos was full, not with coins, but with tiny brass balls. As I examined the bar from my vantage point on the street, my eyebrows meeting in the middle, I felt my heart start to race, and then I heard another sound.

The jingle of bells. I spun around on the spot, throwing my stare at the path I had just come from. Much of it was dark, but I could see all the way to the last intersection I had crossed. There, walking around the curb and disappearing behind it, was a tall, slouching figure, draped in darkness. My heart continued to thump, threatening at any second to leap out of my chest and explode. I heard the jingle again, this time coming from the other direction—the way forward instead of the way back. When I turned, I saw the figure again, only this time it was running, sprinting between from one side of the street to the other. I ran toward it, feet pounding the smooth stone, feeling like I was flying and yet making very little progress as I went. The figure’s footsteps made no sounds at all, but the jingle of bells was there, always there, following it as it moved. It disappeared before I could reach it.

What was worse was, I felt like I hadn’t moved at all. In fact, no, I hadn’t moved at all. The sound of a single key being played on one of those pianos, high and sharp, with enough pitch to make my teeth rattle, caused me to turn slowly and face the bar I had been standing in front of only a moment ago. I really hadn’t moved, and when I saw the back of the figure sitting at the piano closest to the door, I knew why. It hadn’t wanted me to move. I swallowed as I turned, trying to wet my dry throat but not succeeding at all. The thing sitting at the piano played another rote, then another, and another, rapidly gaining speed until it was playing an actual song. At first, I thought it may have been playing Für Elise, or maybe Green sleeves but there were too many sharp notes, too many dissonant chords, it was like listening to a song you might hear playing from one of those haunted house attractions at a fair. The creature—the Death Jester—loomed over the piano not so much like a pianist tickling the ivories, but like a mad scientist cutting someone open on his operating table, it’s terribly long arms moving at awkward angles and stretching easily to catch any of the keys on the piano should they need to. As the jester played, the bells on its cap and starry collar jingled and twinkled.

Now it was moving its feet as it played, pressing on the pedals to the beat and bobbing its head from side to side. What the fuck is it playing? For the second time I found myself gripping the scepter more tightly, so much so my knuckles were turning white. I raised it and pointed the head of the Talisman—also the face of a jester—at the thing playing a melody that would haunt my dreams for months. The jester suddenly slammed its hands against the piano, creating an explosion of sound that hurt my ears and seemed to echo off into the distance. The sky above grumbled again. “I grow tired of you, child,” the creature said, its voice like silk. It hadn’t turned to look at me yet, was still hunched over the piano, its shoulders rising and falling as it drew breaths and exhaled. “Why do you insist on bringing me here? You owe them nothing.” “I won’t let you kill people,” I said, though my own voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere else. “Tell me, Harlequin, what would they do for you? If you were the one caught in the path of the hurricane with no means of defending yourself, would they come to your aid? Would they help? Would they give as much to you as you have given to them?” “It’s not about that.

” “I suppose you’re fighting for what’s good and right in the universe. Let me fill you in on a little secret; there is no such thing as good, and evil, there is only death, and it comes for all of you. Today, I am the reaper. Tomorrow, a knife in the dark, a plague, a fire. Let me feed, Harlequin, so that I may sleep… you can’t keep fighting me forever; give up, and I’ll spare you and the ones you care about.” I clenched my jaw. “I’ll fight until I’m dead.” I watched one of the jester’s hands slide off the piano as it turned on the stool it was sitting on. Slowly, the profile of its face came into view. Before long, I was staring at the thing’s white, porcelain mask, the roiling sky and even my own body reflected on it.

The jester’s painted lips were red and turned up into a smile, its eye sockets were black, but from deep within I saw two red dots glowing dying stars out there, in the infinite void of space. “Let’s get started, then,” it said, those red lips never moving. It raised one of its hands, pressed its index and middle fingers against its thumb, clicked, and the world around me exploded. Light, sound, smell, it came at me all at once, flooding every last one of my senses. There were people shouting, music playing, whistles rattling. I could smell beer, sweat, cologne. People were crowding all around me, pushing, and shoving, and yelling as if they’d been swept up into some kind of riotous frenzy, but it wasn’t a riot; it was a carnival. I struggled to right myself, moving with the crowd as it tried to sweep me further down Bourbon street. There were people in colorful costumes everywhere; women wearing two-piece showgirl outfits covered in feathers and wearing incredibly flamboyant hair, while men wore the traditional outfit of the jester, complete with caps and bells. People holding sparklers and beer bottles pushed past me as if I wasn’t even there.

Children screamed and laughed and sang with their parents. One bald man had decided to go shirtless and was racing down Bourbon street, his chest covered in bead necklaces, screaming not with the voice of a man but roaring like a lion. To my right I saw a trio of women pull their tops up and flash their breasts at the guys standing on a balcony above them. Neither the men nor the women had faces. When I felt like I had my balance, I searched for the jester, the one I was here for, but there was so much color in my eyes, so many people pushing all around me, it was difficult to draw a clear line of sight to it. It wasn’t sitting at the piano anymore. In fact, there was a guy in the jester’s place dueling with another guy sitting on the piano opposite his. A crowd had formed, and people were throwing money at them—not bills, but coins, as hard as they could, some coins drawing blood where they hit. The current of people carried me along, pushing and shoving me as if I were a piece of driftwood caught in the frothing rapids of a violent river. I tried to push one woman away from me, but she turned and slapped me hard enough across the face that I saw stars.

I cradled my cheek for an instant then stared at her. She was yelling at me, but I couldn’t hear a word she was saying. Before I could act, someone shoved me from behind, pushing me right into the back of the bald man that had been roaring like a lion. He turned around, screaming vitriol and hatred at me, and went to take a swing at me, but I brought the scepter up to block his attack. Muscly arm and metal collided with a loud ping. Before he could hit me again, I pulled the scepter back and swung it at the back of the man’s knee, sending him to the floor as if he was about to propose. I then brought the scepter around for a back-swing, this time into his face. The scepter smacked the man square in the what would have been his mouth with a loud whack. When I spun around, scepter poised and ready to strike, the crowd around me moved back like a school of fish separating at the sight of a shark. A small, circular clearing opened around me, creating a gap between me and them.

A whistle rang out, and one of them came at me. I braced myself, anchoring my body with my right foot and then launching the scepter first into the stomach of the charging man, and then into the side of his face. He went down quick, but then a second one came for me. As I twirled around to hit him, wielding the scepter like a baton, I noticed his clothes were the same as the other guy’s. In fact, there was nothing about this one that was different to the last one. The scepter crashed into the side of his face with a loud crack, and he went down too. When the third one sprang out of the crowd and came toward me, I ran at him, vaulted into the air using his shoulders for support, and hurled myself across the street, at an impossible distance. I landed with a clear space roll, when I turned around the group of people that had been surrounding me had now turned to face me. They yelled, and pointed, and then the entire carnival brought its eyes to bear on me; hundreds and hundreds of eyes, some attached to faces, others attached to faceless heads. Without thinking about it I started sprinting down Bourbon street, taking a hard-left turn at the next intersection.

The street was quiet save for the roar of the crowd at my back. They were coming for me, they were going to hurt me, and as I tried to outrun them, I remembered that the reason why I couldn’t see the jester was because they were the jester. This wasn’t the first, fifth, or even fifteenth time I had faced off against the jester within the Twilight, but each time it was like I had to learn some of the rules all over again. Though I remembered every detail of what happened to me while I was inside the Twilight, it seemed that information was only available to my waking mind. Coming back into the Twilight carried the risk of forgetting something important, something that could help me while I was in here. I wasn’t sure if that was just another one of this place’s rules, or if that was the jester’s doing, a way of protecting itself the way some animals throw clouds of dirt into predators’ eyes. I continued to run along the side street, with the simple goal of reaching the next street in my mind. If I could do that, I thought, I would be safe. At least, without that huge crowd at my back, the jester would have to try another trick to get me. The roar of people followed me as I ran, like backup vocals to the music of my heavy breathing.

When I reached the next street, I took a tight right, and then everything changed. The people were no longer after me, their voices just gone leaving only a slight ringing in my ear. I wasn’t running anymore, either; I was walking casually. And I wasn’t in the French Quarter anymore—I was walking underneath a purple banner with illegible writing on it, and into the mouth of a quiet, dead, fairground. It was like waking up all over again. The memory of what had just happened faded into the recesses of my mind, where they would resurface once I woke up; if I woke up. Now I was walking through the fairground, the scent of cotton candy invading my nose, the sound of squeaking metal joints and the squawking of crows pervading the air. I thought I could hear music again, distant and faint, but it wasn’t a piano this time; it was an accordion, and it was also playing an imperfect, lopsided melody. I walked past an unmanned food cart, the contents of which were rotting and covered in maggots. Nearby, the wall of a shooting range wasn’t just covered in tiny pockmarks from where small metal pellets had been hitting for years, but also splattered with blood.

A rusted Ferris wheel which looked more like a death-trap than an attraction towered above, its carts swaying gently with the wind, its joints groaning. A crow squawked, drawing my attention across the fairground. The grey sky above rumbled, and this time it opened, unloading a torrent of rain on my head. I watched the drops fall, my eyes following them as if they were coming in slow motion, then I saw the bodies. There were hundreds of them scattered across the fairground, some laying on their backs, others on their fronts, all of them were covered in blood that was pooling beneath them and running as water fell on it. I walked forward, stepping lightly around them, careful not to step in any blood if I could help it. One man, I saw, had his throat ripped open and blood was pouring out of it. A woman’s eyes—these bodies had faces—had been gouged out, and blood was running down the side of her face and out of her mouth. Everywhere I looked, there was death, and blood. Most of the people here I didn’t know, but some I did.

There was Evelyn, her fiery red hair caked with dark red blood, her face looked like it had been savaged by an animal with sharp nails. A few feet away was Lucia, lying on her side with a stab wound in her stomach, blood trickling down to the ground. My parents were there, people I used to work with were there, people who lived in my building were there, everyone had been killed somehow. Then I saw the only body that wasn’t on the floor; it was hanging from a lamp-post at the foot of the Ferris wheel, the breeze gently pushing it this way and that. I approached, my heart hammering against my temples, my fingertips, because I knew without seeing, without truly knowing, who it was hanging from his neck from that lamp-post, and I could do nothing but walk toward it, because I couldn’t walk back, and staying still meant death when the jester was around. Like a moth to a flame, I was pulled toward that body swinging lightly from its neck, drawn inevitably to it until I saw his face. Damon. His skin was pale, deathly pale, his eyes were bulging, his mouth slack, lips blue. My heart wrenched at the sight. I wanted to stop, to turn away, to wretch, but I couldn’t, because if I reacted, then the jester would get what it needed from me, and I would be feeding it with my own fear, my own pain.

“Andi,” a voice called out. I turned my eyes up as the Ferris wheel started up, whining and protesting as the massive metal structure began to turn. There, sitting in one of the cars, was the jester. It was waving a gloved hand at me as if it were a royal waving at the peasants that worship it, then it pointed across from where I stood, and I found myself powerless to stop from turning and giving my attention to what it wanted me to see. Eli. He was upside down, shirtless, and strapped to a giant wheel. Embedded in his chest, his shoulders, his legs, were knives that had been thrown at him, lines of blood dribbling from each of the wounds. His eyes were open, his mouth, like Damon’s, was slack and open, his eyes also open but drooping and lifeless; all of the light had gone from him. They’re just pictures, I thought, but I couldn’t think this away. They weren’t just pictures.

The jester was imprinting, infecting, my mind with not only the images, but also the doubt that I was even dreaming at all. It seemed impossible that this creature could do that considering I knew exactly where I was and what I was doing on a logical level, but people always have a layer of doubt that they’re dreaming when they’re deep inside; whatever is happening is real enough to make you feel true joy, like holding onto a check for a million dollars, or true fear, like being chased by a demon down a dark hallway. “Killing them was fun,” the jester said, and though it was far from where I was standing, its voice was close enough to my ear to make the hairs on the nape of my neck stand on end. “This one squealed the most.” Again, my attention was pulled, this time toward a carousel which had been dark and quiet, until now. The lights flickered on, the busted old PA system came to life, and a twisted ratchet came through the speakers that sounded like two organs fighting each other for the right to create the most messed up, nightmarish music; if you could call it music. Horses impaled to the top and bottom of the carousel passed by, the odd train and car floated along, and then there was Logan. Like the horses, he was also impaled and suspended in the air, bobbing along with the rest of the carousel. He was facing the floor, his shoulders were slumped, knuckles dragging. The pole entered through his back and came out through his stomach, the underside of which was covered in blood.

My stomach twisted like a rag over a sink. I wanted to hurl, to scream, to run, but I couldn’t. I had to stand where I was, had to try and push the images back, make them disappear, stop them from closing in on me like walls—on three sides Logan, Eli, and Damon, on the other, the Death Jester. I turned around again, using every ounce of my willpower, and brought my eyes to bear on the Ferris wheel. The jester was there, it had stepped out of the car and was carefully dancing around the many, many dead bodies scattered around the fairground, its bells jingling. “I hope you like what I’ve done with the place,” it said, its voice smooth and soft, “I made it just for you, Andi.” I swallowed hard and dug deep. “Do you think this scares me?”


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