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A curse took hold of the world four centuries ago, massacring almost the entire human population and corrupting the survivors, twisting their bodies and turning them into rabid monsters whenever the night falls. No one escaped unscathed. Now, the surviving population is either running wild or living beneath the reign of a Tyrant in one of the few surviving cities, desperately fighting to eek out an existence in their cursed world. Our story begins when a stranger arrives at one of these cities w

Chapter One

A grasping miasma seethed over the treacherous water, clutching at the cold, black depths with a jealous loathing as the murmurs of a song whispered through the dark, "Grab your rope and grab you twine, tell the lawman we got a six foot boat that needs fillin'."
A voiceless ripple arched over the dead surface, stirring the mist and betraying the Ferryman's arrival. The low swish of a stone paddle soon followed, once, twice, thrice before the song began anew. "We have out tree and we have our ax, we have our preacher and we have our boat."
It was a low, haunting tune, carried far by the water and its own deep voice. Then came the Ferryman's shape, with its tall, crooked hat, tattered coat and hunched silhouette. Last, came the Ferryman himself, a leering, ghoulish creature with pallid, deathlike flesh. "So gather 'round friends, gather 'round and watch this liar pay his due. Just remember, dear friends, to put him on the riverboat when he's through..."
The stone paddle dug into the water again, its clawed tip burrowing into the lake floor and dragging the rotting craft forward. Brackish water spat up from the coracle's floor, sloshing over the ferryman's naked feet and soaking into the black lichen. The boat rasped ashore and the ferryman leaned on his paddle, scraping a strand of fetid gray hair from one pockmarked eye socket. His second maw grinned, spreading torn lips over a forest of cracked teeth and a single, crooked tongue as he finished his song, "...and to pay the Ferryman his due." The Ferryman lifted the brim of his hat and squinted his one good eye, "What brings a mister like yer self out here in the dark O' of the night, don't you know it's a dangerous hour to be a travelin?"
"Dangerous? Hardly. The Dyin's mostly done for tonight; all that's left are the scraps." Noir's lips twisted in a look that was as much contempt for the dying as disgust for the Ferryman's putrefied appearance.
"Well, no matter; I guess you be a wantin' to cross the lake?" The Ferryman's lower mouth spread itself in a toothy grin as the upper licked its lips avariciously, "That'll be one Black Coin for one Black Boat, as they say." He smacked the side of his coracle with one skeletal hand and widened his leer.
"Of course," Noir lifted a hand of silken darkness, his fingernails glinting silver in the prevalent moonlight. A ripple passed through the shadows that hung recumbent on his clothing and person like a legion of courtiers, a summons that called them up from their transient perches to pool in his hand and solidify. A heartbeat passed and the Shadow-Debris dissipated with a puff, revealing a large coin of silken darkness. The still night rung with a bitter note as he flipped the black coin to the Ferryman, its revolving edges revealing first a grotesque kraken then a luminous siren.
The Ferryman's leer vanished, replaced by a visage of mingled uncertainty and belligerence. He caught the black coin nonetheless, his hand terminating its arching trajectory with stern surety, "Welcome to the city of Umbras, Master, domain of Lock & Key." He drew back to the prow of his ferry, doffing his hat and bowing at the waist in a gesture of facetious reverence.
Noir's black lips curled into a voiceless snarl at the Ferryman's truculent obeisance, barring steel teeth and a hint of the fettered brutality lurking in his heart. The Ferryman straightened, his own lips spreading in a tenebrous growl and his hands tightening of the black staff. Noir stalked forward, violence coalescing about his person like the embrace of an old friend.
Don't kill him, he probably didn't mean anything by it and I don't want to be the one rowing us ashore.
Noir hesitated, one heavy boot on the ferry and one pressed into the moist earth of the lake.
Fine, but don't blame me if he suddenly decides to go for a swim in the middle of the lake. Noir released his gathered tension and advanced fully onto the ferry with a dismissive gesture at its proprietor.
Like hell I won't, it makes no difference if you kill him now or halfway across, he'll still be dead and I'll still have to row. Noir grimaced. Besides you should know better than to antagonize him, the night makes everything escalate exponentially.
I am not going to subject myself to whims of every idiot I come across. Noir grimaced, his eyes closing to venomous slits at he took a seat on the ferry's solitary bench.
The Ferryman noted this look but turned away all the same and dipped his paddle into the water. The barge held still for a heartbeat and then lurched forward, rocking with the lake's subtle currents and coughing fetid water through its many cracks and punctures.
Noir leaned slowly back against the ferry's rim as water sloshed across his boots, his eyes scouring the malleable darkness and assimilating every detail of Umbras and its countless, knifelike skyscrapers.
It's been awhile.
The Ferryman's head turned to look back at Noir, twisting smoothly around in the macabre imitation of an owl, "Might I ask what brings you out here? Most people come in the day when there isn't a fee for crossing."
What the hell does he think Black Krakens are for? "Only if you want the Undertakers pulling you out of a tree come morning."
The Ferryman's head twisted back to the front, "Just askin' Sir, ain't no harm in that."
You'd be surprised. Noir looked away from the city, his eyes staring vacantly into the distance as his metallic fingernails tapped on the ferry's side, mirroring the slow, heartbeat like, rhythm of the lake's currents.
The coracle rasped onto the steel shores of Umbras shortly after that, jarring Noir from his posture of repose. The Ferryman turned from the boat's bow and settled on his oar, "Well, here we are. Is there anything else I can do for you fine sir?"
Noir stepped from the coracle with a splash, his ragged boots submerging in the black water up to his heels. The Ferryman watched him as he strode past, his boots clomping first on the metallic lakebed then on grate floor of Umbras. He felt the Shadow-Steel beneath his step, perceived its willingness to change at his behest. All of Umbras was made from Shadow-Steel, which made him an artist in a sandbox or, more appropriately, a god.
Noir turned back to the Ferryman, his hooded eyes gleaming with a potentially dangerous deliberation. Unsettled, the Ferryman roused himself, "Well, if that'll be all, I'll be on my way." Noir moved with sleek brutality, lunging forward as the fingers of his right hand closed into a blade. The Ferryman drew back with a snarl and struck at Noir with the serrated blade of his oar. But, Noir was already past the sweeping oar, his hand already piercing the Ferryman's leathery flesh, impaling his body, and snapping his spine.
I never figured you for the spiteful type
I didn't kill him out of spite. Noir straightened and stepped back, his arm buried in the Ferryman up to his elbow.
Oh? Then why did you kill him?
Because if gossip could kill, then Ferrymen would be the second Apocalypse. Noir strode back onto the shore, making his way toward an extinguished lamppost. First light was only a couple hours away.
If you didn't want the Ferrymen talking about you, you should have come during the day.
I came at night because I don't want anybody knowing I'm here. Noir arrived at the lamppost and hefted the Ferryman's corpse up. The shadows at his feet swirled up his legs, darkening as they thickened and hardened.
Doesn't killing a Ferryman defeat the whole purpose then?
They won't know it was me. The shadows coiled about the Ferryman's neck, tightening as they solidified fully into a rope and wrapped around the lamppost. Noir withdrew his hand, leaving the Ferryman to rock gently back and forth, like a hanged man in a tree.
There, all done. It's perfect, not at all conspicuous.
They're supposed to find him. Noir moved to the thoroughfare that opened up a short distance to his left. They can't rez' him if they can't find him. A gasp of hot steam burst up from beneath the grating, flecking his skin and clothing in moisture. He continued onward, unmolested by the water, his gaze meandering over Umbras.
A vast, interconnected matrix of piping clung to every skyscraper and coursed ubiquitously through the undercity. Another exhaust burst to Noir's right, eschewing further steam and thickening the already prevalent white haze.
A corpse appeared from the mist, its ghastly ichors dripping through grate floor to hiss and evaporate on the piping underneath. Noir glanced at it as he passed, observing its mottled skin and quadruped form disinterestedly. Something large had killed it, using brute force and natural claws: a Bellua.
Noir proceeded deeper into the Umbras, giving no thought to the monstrous corpse he passed. Every skyscraper housed a series of doors, and without fail, every door was locked and barred from the outside. The only exceptions were those that had been broken from within.
The ground took on an ascending gradient as he strode deeper into Umbras, leading him toward the stunted palace that squatted on the city's axis. He could only see its general shape, however, the night, the fog, and the distance all conspiring to obscure it from him. Noir glanced left as one the innumerable locked doors rattled weakly on its hinges, betraying a long night of struggle. You'd think that after so many years of being locked up, they would realize they can't get out,
But they can get out, as evidenced by all those bodies you've so callously walked past.
That's entirely due to luck and brute strength. Most of them have never seen Umbras at night and they still try to break out. Hell if I know why.
A rumbling thud and shudder drew Noir to a halt. He listened for a moment, and then heard a second step. He spun slowly, his eyes lidded and his ears perked. The mist refused to betray that nature of its patron however, it simply allowed another thundering step to interrupt the silence with a faint rattle of door chains.
It's a Bellua type.
What else would it be? Noir returned his hands to their respective pockets and resumed his journey. A subsequent step warned him that he was nearing the unseen leviathan.
Aren't you going to go around it?
Why? After a full night, the thing's probably dead on its feet. It'll want nothing to do me. Both Noir and the labored steps continued their on their way until a shape began to form amidst the fog. Another blast of steam concealed it momentarily before it stepped through. The monster trudged toward Noir, lacerations, blood, teeth, and claws adorning its ravaged form. One massive hand clung to the adjacent skyscraper, its gory talons weakly clutching a two-foot wide pipe. Noir paused and stepped to the right, making way for the creature. The creature heard his footfalls and reared up with a hiss, its six eyes and vaguely apish head twisting to look at him. "Don't even think about it, punk."
The beast cowered away and slunk past, leaving a trail of ichors in its wake. Noir waited for it to vanish in the fumes before resuming his journey, his hands never having left their pockets. It might have been kinder to kill the poor bastard.
Why? Because he wouldn't have to live with all those scars?
And you didn't kill him because you're a...Pacifist?
It was too much of a bother, there's better things to do than kill random Belluas.
You are a paragon of restraint, an inspiration for-
Oh, shut up.

The End

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