Private Jacob Kurtzberg stood at attention wanting nothing more than to find a dark, dry, quiet hole somewhere and sleep for days. He locked his gaze forward, hoping to avoid eye-contact with Major Loomis to escape yet another reprimand. He focused on the ever-familiar map of the countryside, taking comfort in the pleasing geometric shapes created by the dozens of blue pins that represented the villages liberated by F Company, and the red pins marking the scrimmage line on the Seine River that denoted Nazi-occupied France.
The reminder of their victories in the last couple of weeks almost took Kurtzberg’s mind off his swelling feet, trapped in water-logged boots, and the pulsing ache that crept along his back. F Company was supposed to bivouac for forty-eight hours rest before the next offense in Operation Overlord. Kurtzberg had just prepared his temporary bunk under the perfect tree near a soft patch of grass when Lieutenant Potts ordered him to report to the command tent for additional orders.
Major Loomis paced the length of the tent while intently studying a worn sketchbook. The gruff officer snorted and then flipped a page. He turned the sketchbook towards Kurtzberg pointing a gloved finger towards a drawing of the German barricade surrounding a village near a river. “Where did you draw this, Private?”
Kurtzberg studied the sketch, struggling to remember the name of that particular village. It must have been more than a week ago, but since Normandy all of the funny little towns across France blurred together into one gestalt memory. “I think that’s Bar-sur-Seine, sir. There were German snipers organized along the barricades giving our guys the business, and this was the only way to get a fix on their nests without being shot.”
Major Loomis waved away the explanation. “How is it that F Company came upon this particular tactic?”
“Film takes too long to develop in the field. Scouts have to relay the information quickly and accurately. Lieutenant Potts heard that I used to draw comic books before the draft, sir.” Kurtzberg kept at attention, not wanting to give the superior officer a reason to bust his chops. “He asked if I would take scout duty and draw what I saw for the snipers and gunnery crews.”
“Yes, sir. I drew Captain America.”
“If only we had a real super-solider to fight what we have to face in the days ahead. At ease, soldier.” Major Loomis gestured to a chair near the opposite side of his desk. “Get comfortable; I have more questions.”
Kurtzberg quickly plopped down into the chair and groaned with relief. “Thank you, sir.”
The Major laid the sketchbook out flat and pointed to Bar-sur-Seine. “You just strolled through the town dressed in your civvies, then came back and drew this? In less than an hour?”
Once he realized he wasn’t in trouble with the brass, Kurtzberg allowed himself to feel pride at his work. He relaxed in the chair and shrugged. “You don’t get paid if you don’t make the deadlines, sir.”
“You’re part of F Company from the 11th Infantry, correct? General Patton has need of your talents, solider. It’s dangerous duty, but that’s nothing new to you.”
Kurtzberg swallowed. “I’ll do what I can, sir.”
The Major turned towards the map of France and tapped his finger on the final objective of Operation Overlord. “Intelligence has reported something wrong with Paris.”
“You mean aside from the Nazis occupying it, sir?”
“According to local intelligence, the landscape is wrong.”
“Wrong how, sir?”
“That’s just it, Private. We just don’t know enough to plan for the next phase of Operation Overlord. We’ve sent some reconnaissance missions out into the field, but the men returned burned and mumbling about strange yellow lights on the horizon. We tried developing the film from their cameras, but somehow it melted. I’ve been assured that heat that could have caused that should have set the film ablaze.”
“You want me to sneak into Paris to sketch the landscape?” Kurtzberg asked incredulously. “How do we know that whatever happened to the scouts won’t happen to me, sir?”
“The French Resistance is sending an expert that they swear can sneak you and few others into the city without triggering any problems.” Major Loomis leaned forward and whispered. “We’ve intercepted messages indicating the German High Command hasn’t received any information from their partisan troops for nine days. Hitler is furious.”
“Could the French have retaken the city?”
“That’s what we want you to find out, and then sketch out what you see. The reports we heard from the scouts couldn’t possibly be true. Frankly, we’re worried about hallucinations. There’s been a rumor of new form of mustard gas. We’ve had some information on Paris over the last year, and nothing suggests that the Germans have been making big changes to the skylines; what would be the point at this stage in the war? It’d be a complete waste of resources. We’ll send along a couple of escorts for your protection. We need to get an idea of their barricades and where best to plan artillery strikes without excessive civilian casualties. Patton wants to take Paris intact for the war effort. I don’t need to remind you how important this is.”
“My French isn’t that good, sir.”
“We have some local help for you. Are you part Italian? That could be useful.”
The Major coughed uncomfortably. “Not something to say in the field. Not with the Germans.
Lieutenant Potts blew his whistle in three short bursts. F Company grumbled but slipped on their helmets, readjusted their boots, and packed their gear. Kurtzberg fell into formation and allowed the steady rhythm of the march clear his mind.
The tall Nordic blond from Michigan, Mitch, whispered and yammered most of the trip. He pointed to a tall oak that provided a brief respite of shade. “That’s a Marron Glacé Oak. These trees make good lumber for furniture. That wood would be a fortune back home.”
The short Texan, Buckley, grumbled. “Ah jeez, is it bad that I’m hoping to get shot so I don’t have to hear about these goddamn trees?”
Kurtzberg mumbled an acknowledgement and hoped that they didn’t have to march all of the way to Paris.
A long whistle signaled the company to halt. Kurtzberg gripped his M2, then sighed with relief at the short follow-up beeps indicating that the company was bivouacking for the night. He collapsed next to his fellow soldiers on a warm patch of grass and slipped off his helmet.
Lieutenant Potts shook his head. “Not you, Kurtzberg. Same goes for you, Mitch and Buckley. You’re on escort duty for our artist friend to Paris. You three need to load up on supplies and change into your civvies.”
“We’re a little far from Paris, L.T., aren’t we?” Mitch often went on the scouting missions and always handled the maps.
“I didn’t ask for a geography report, Private,” Lieutenant Loomis retorted. “We’re here to escort Kurtzberg to his guide for a special mission from HQ. Direct from Patton.”
Kurtzberg didn’t have the energy to argue or gripe. He dug into his pack and found the bundled set of clothing he used for scouting missions. Anyone wearing green would get shot at. He had scavenged the shirt from a village in Bar-sur-Seine and the trousers from a church that had been grateful for the assistance against the Nazis. He was a thin man and finding clothing that fit him was difficult at best.
Mitch somehow managed to secure clean clothing that didn’t smell like feet. He had the classic hero’s jawline so he didn’t have any problems with local ladies and there were plenty of widows seeking to get rid of clothing that reminded them of dead loved ones.
Buckley had a long, dark blue pea coat and an old cap. Solider uniforms were often picked clean and as long as Buckley kept low-key he could pass as just another refugee.
They joined Potts near the bank of the Seine where there was an old cattle barge berthed. It smelled like a slaughterhouse, but then Kurtzberg figured it was likely used to ferry cattle and meat to the cities along the river.
A slender French woman wearing a white blouse, black trousers, and a scarf that covered her brown hair greeted them with a wave. Her voice was deep for a woman, with a thick accent, but not at all unappealing, a mixture of German and French. “’allo!”
Potts returned the wave, but kept his other hand on his holstered pistol. “Addie?”
“Oiu. I’m here to see Steve Rogers.”
That must have been the passcode, Kurtzberg figured, since the lieutenant dropped his concern and turned towards the men. “Gentlemen, this is your ride. We’ll wait here for forty-eight hours. Make the best use of your time.”
“Is this safe, sir?” Buckley asked. “She’s a girl.”
“Addie has worked with the Resistance and Command for almost a year now. She has all of the routes memorized, and the Nazis never bother her.”
She smiled sweetly, as though she expected objections. “You’ll be safe as babes in my care. And I’ve even brought coffee and sandwiches.”
Addie could have been a Nazi sympathizer sending them all to their bloody deaths and Kurtzberg wouldn’t have cared at that moment, as long as he could sleep on the way.
The barge drifted slowly, carried by the current of the Seine under a canopy of branches of orange, yellow, and fading green leaves. The last rays of sunlight penetrated the foliage causing the river to glitter.
Kurtzberg found a comfortable nest to the rear of the barge under a partial shelter on the poop deck. He closed his eyes and tried to allow the soft hum of the engine lull him to sleep.
Mitch and Buckley simultaneously volunteered to remain on watch above deck with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Kurtzberg didn’t comment. If he hadn’t married Roz just before he left for the war, he might be right there beside them fighting with them for Addie’s attention. If she objected to their constant flirting, she failed to show it.
The conversation continually pulled his mind back from the precipice of sweet unconsciousness. Sleeping wasn’t always easy in the field, even when exhausted. It wasn’t just that they were talking loudly enough to be heard over the barge engine, but that the low of the conversation felt intimately familiar, as though it could have happened at the movies or a greasy spoon in Jersey.
“And you say that you’ve never ridden a horse before?” Addie laughed sweetly. “I thought every man from Texas was a cowboy?”
Kurtzberg imagined Buckley’s face turning red as it always did when this topic was discussed. “I’m an accountant from Houston,” he complained. “Or I was before the war. There’s a lot more to Texas than you see in the pictures. I don’t own a cowboy hat and I’m allergic to horses.”
“And you are from Wyoming?” Addie asked.
“Michigan. We’re near the great lakes. My family runs a furniture store,” Mitch explained with pride. Kurtzberg wasn’t sure that he had ever loved anything, including drawing comic books and Roz, as much as that mook loved carving wood. “Never thought I’d see New York, much less Paris. People really are the same all over, even if they have funny accents.”
Their voices slowly faded from his conscious. All that mattered was the warmth in the nest and the hum on the engines. He imagined himself safely nestled into a womb.
It was the fear in Mitch’s voice that first stirred Kurtzberg. “My God! The stars! What happened to the stars?”
“They’re black!” Buckley muttered. “How’s that possible?”
“The world changed where Paris once stood,” Addie explained in a weary tone that suggested she understood the horrors of the world.
Kurtzberg shivered. It was dark in the hold, and quiet like the inside of a seashell. He patted his chest blindly in the dark until he found his army-issued, tin-plated lighter right next to his favorite pencil. He sparked a tiny flame and peered around. His breath fogged the air before him.
What happened to the engine? He pressed his hand against the wooden hold of the barge, surprised by the lack of vibrations. The wood was hard and cold like an iceberg. How did things get so cold in early September?
He slipped on his helmet and poked his head above deck. Mitch and Buckley were crouched near the upper deck peering over the side of the barge. “Why’s the engine dead? Are we there already?”
“The engine won’t work here.” Buckley shushed him. “There’s something out there watching us.”
“Yellow eyes in the tree line,” Mitch confirmed.
Kurtzberg looked up at the alien sky, where the night was a foreign wash of swirls of deep purple, blue, and yellow. Black stars shimmered in strange patterns never imagined by human eyes. Twin moons, cracked and desolate, dominated the horizon. “What happened to the sky?”
Mitch was the first to speak. His voice cracked with terror. “The sun went down and the sky turned dark. We thought it was just the night,” Mitch explained, “and then we looked up to see things that shouldn’t be there.”
“It is always night in the City of Yellow Lights,” Addie explained. “We tried to tell the Allies, but they didn’t believe me. The Hollow Men came and nothing was the same.”
Kurtzberg shouldered his M2 and climbed above deck. Mitch and Buckley stood watch on opposite sides of the barge. They aimed the barrels of their M2s on the railing while keeping their eyes trained at the shadowy landscape. “Hollow Men? What’s going on? Why didn’t you knuckle-heads wake me?”
Mitch turned from the horizon. His jaundiced face had slimmed to a gaunt shell of its former baby-fat glory. It was as though the horrors of the war aged him a decade in the last few hours. “The world is broken.”
Buckley’s face appeared as though his cheeks were loose, as though the life was literally being drained from his flesh. “Addie walked us through it, Kurtzberg.”
“Paris is gone,” Addie revealed. “There is now only the dream of Carcosa. We need you to capture this moment with your talent. Show those on the outside what we suffer.”
“How is this possible?”
Addie gestured Kurtzberg to come closer. “I was born in Alsace Lorraine, a small valley on the west bank of the Rhine River and east of the Vosges Mountains.”
“The disputed territory between Germany and France?”
“Oui. When the Nazis took Paris, it was very important to them that the two nations appeared to be friends. Alsace Lorraine was a place of two nations, and Germany wanted France to be one with them. They say Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels himself ordered a festival of plays to showcase this new brotherhood.”
Kurtzberg scoffed. “The Nazis tend to be fickle with their affections.”
“We knew this to be true, but what could we do? We endured because it was our only choice.” Addie shivered. “There were stories of a mad German solider that stayed in Alsace Lorraine after the Great War. He took a French name, Hildred Castaigne, and began to write players.”
“Never heard of him. Is he important?” Kurtzberg asked.
“He wrote a play named Le Roi en Jeune. The King in Yellow. They say he gouged his own eyes out after writing it. It was only shown once in Paris. There were such terrible truths told that night that the audience tore into each other’s flesh until the pain of their suffering was extinguished. The authorities seized all of the copies and burned them in a public bonfire. Except for a single copy. It was hidden away in the national archives in the district of Le Marais.”
“What does this matter? How does it relate to those black stars?”
“The play is the thing! The official explanation was that a strange poison in the grain of the meal served before the show that caused hallucinations. The director was hanged. None of the actors were ever found. But the truth was more insidious. The play was a trap. A doorway.”
“A doorway to what?”
“Dread Carcosa, from a galaxy far removed from ours, where live ancient monsters.”
“I can’t believe in all of this.”
“You know that this is true. You can feel the dread here. You can see the stars and know that they are wrong. There are monsters in the shadows watching us even now, and hungering.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“It’s my fault. I filed at the archives. I heard the stories, and when Goebbels sent his men to find a play that had a German author, I thought maybe I could strike back at them. Or curse them with bad luck.”
“They were delighted to find a play registered in the national archives by a German author and they commissioned that it be played immediately. We heard terrible things about the production. The first director hung himself. The actress that would have played Cassilda slit her throat. The Nazis insisted that play continue. I hoped…”
“You hoped that they would kill each other.”
“I underestimated their tolerance for evil. For the dark things inside the human soul.”
“The play was performed.”
“Oui. Only this time, the audience delighted in the carnage and the dark moment of the soul. They survived the performance long enough to be hollowed into the court of the Carcosa. They wait for the King in Yellow to come now and supplant the royal family. The story has become real and the citizens of Paris have come to believe that there has never been anything else. They await the King to come and punish the wicked royal family, and for all of them to ascend to the pleasure of Hastur.”
“That sounds like Bastile Day.”
“It is of another flavor. The story is about a wicked royal family that refuses to pay homage to their god, and thus the city suffers from their depravity until they are punished by the Phantom of Truth.”
“If Paris is filled with these Hollow Men, then how did you escape?” Kurtzberg asked.
“The only ones that seem safe from the effect of the yellow light are the artists.”
“Those that fill their soul with the spark of creation. I wanted to paint. I tried. I lost myself in the stories of the archive. Others resist, but we were already defeated by the Nazis.”
“What do you want us to do?” Kurtzberg asked.
“Just what the brass wanted us to do, Jack,” Mitch answered. “We need you to sketch what you see. Resist.”
“If the engine won’t work here, how do we know the guns will even fire? What good would a couple of M2s do against a whole city? What good can we actually do here?” Kurtzberg asked.
“You can draw Paris as you remember it.”
“I’ve never been to Paris, Addie.”
Addie gestured towards the horizon. Kurtzberg followed her gaze towards a halo of sickly yellow light bubbling from a vast city with webbed walls and gleaming black spires. “Even better. You can draw it as you dreamed it. Anchor it in the dreams of what it once was.”
“And then what?”
“The doorway isn’t locked open yet. When the French Resistance heard about you, I knew that you could help us. You create dreams. If you can anchor the city, we might survive long enough as ourselves to do what must be done.”
“And what’s that?”
“Destroy the last copy of The King in Yellow, and hope that the world repairs itself.”
The black waters of what was once the River Seine fed into a still, dead lake nestled along the City of Yellow Lights that was neither Carcosa nor Paris. Architecture from inhuman minds had crept over buildings of stone and brick with alien flesh and bone-like foliage. The familiar Eiffel Tower bent slightly to the left, weighed down by the strange monstrosities that grew from it. A swirling fog of yellow mist tainted the city, illuminating deep shadows in the secret folds of the alleys and streets. Grim galleys with black sails and impossibly heavy oars littered the lake, as though they had come from other times and faraway places.
Kurtzberg helped the others guide the vessel with long wooden poles to the Demhe vista, which has a series of stone steps leading to the city.
Hollow Men dressed in antique clothing from an era that never was marched the streets, passing the three of them by without a glance. They wore yellow armbands marked with a white sigil of three interlocked spirals resembling a horrible, tentacled creature. If he squinted at just the right angle, Kurtzberg could imagine it as a twisted version of the swastika. “No wonder the Nazis wanted to see this play performed so badly. This must have seemed like a dream come true.”
Mitch coughed. It was wet and nasty. When he looked at his hand afterwards it was covered with sickly yellow phlegm. “Can you feel that? It’s like everything inside my skull is pounding, trying to break out.”
Buckley simply grunted as though he had lost the power of speech. Addie patted both of them on the shoulders. “Remember what I told you. Concentrate on the things that make you happy, that give you hope even in a place like this. We just need to make it to Opera House.”
Kurtzberg tilted his head. “My stomach feels a bit queer, but no more than on any other scouting mission where I might get horribly murdered. And I need to sleep.”
“You will in time. We must let you sleep as long as possible to isolate your mind in the Dreamlands.”
“Why? What’s so special about me?”
Addie blinked surprised. “You create art that inspires. That’s the most powerful weapon here. It isn’t their ancient power that allows them to conquer this city. It is the power and fear of their story.”
A hot and humid wind swept through the winding back alleys of the city, billowing Addie’s trousers. The walls seemed to be some sort of finely polished rock. They ventured forth amongst the strangely-garbed strangers with thick beards and questioning eyes. Kurtzberg avoided gazing directly at their hopeless faces.
The strange language the people spoke felt harsh, somehow, and alien to his sensitive ears. A veiled woman with bright green eyes pushed past them with indifference. The people of this dark city moved with great alacrity, carrying large trays covered with lush delicacies, as though they were preparing for a vast celebration.
Mitch and Buckley pushed through the crowd, sometimes not-so- gently nudging pilgrims out of their way with the butts of their M2s. Kurtzberg began to feel the ache in his head. It was as though the very thought of submission would free him from any suffering. When he dared to glance toward the sky, he imagined twin black eyes glaring down upon him.
Addie gestured towards a gargantuan, winding marble staircase that led to the Opera House. It was guarded by a company of golden-skinned soldiers in royal tunics. She turned to their leader. “Mighty Castellan, this lowly servant has brought an artist as a present to the Court of Carcosa.”
“What?” Kurtzberg didn’t like where this conversation was heading. “You didn’t say anything about this.”
Mitch pushed him with the butt of his M2. “Quiet, Artist!”
Buckley merely grunted and held firm his gaze.
The large man with streaks of white in his black mane of hair sniffed. “He does not appear to be trained properly, my lady.”
“With permission, we will attend the artist to ensure that he behaves.” Addie turned towards Mitch and Buckley. “See that he is contained. We would not wish to embarrass ourselves before the princess.”
Mitch and Buckley each seized one side of Kurtzberg, locking their arms around his, lifting him upwards. The castellan smiled coldly and nodded his approval to the soldiers. Addie curtsied and then led them upwards to the Court of Carcosa.
Queen Cassilda was seated demurely upon her dais made of the bones of her fallen enemies. She was a regal woman with dark hair and a sharp nose, and glowering hazel eyes. “Princess Camilla, you have returned with a present for this court.”
Addie bowed. The Court of Carcosa nattered their approval. “I have brought an artist to capture the beauty of Carcosa, mother.”
“Princess? Guys, we’ve been had like yesterday’s lunch.” Kurtzberg struggled against his friends’ seemingly unbreakable grips. “Don’t you see that we don’t have the whole story?”
“Release him!” the queen commanded.
Addie turned towards Kurtzberg and presented him with a new sketchpad. “We who are born under the Yellow Sign are doomed to forever play these roles until freed to serve another sigil.”
“The Phantom of Truth shall come once more and destroy this city, and cleanse this world. We shall move along to the next, and the next. Forever trapped to dance the same steps.”
“You lied to us!” Kurtzberg accused. “You said if we destroyed the manuscript that the door would close.”
“For this world, that is true.” Addie pointed to an altar near the queen where a leather bound manuscript rested on a velvet pillow. A crimson salamander was embossed on the cover. “That is the last copy of The King in Yellow on this world. Destroy it and the door closes.”
“What’s the price, lady?” Kurtzberg demanded. “I’m from Brooklyn. I know the drill. There’s always a price.”
Addie nodded. “We need a new sign. One that can shield us from He That Awaits.”
Kurtzberg looked down at the sketchpad and an image began to form in his mind. Should he do it?
A thin figure in tattered yellow robes wearing a pallid mask called out to the court. “I have come to speak the truth of what shall come.”
Queen Cassilda stepped forward from the dais grandly. “What truth do you speak of?”
“I speak of the truth at the end of all light. The terror of knowing the secret ways of the world where black stars hang in the heavens, and the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali.”
The Phantom of Truth crept closer to them. Mitch and Buckley stepped forward, raising their M2s, preparing to fire. The stranger raised his skeletal hands. His fingers were little more than bones with sickly flesh pulled over them. He plunged his decrepit hands through their chests and pulled out a bubbling mass of flesh and bone.
Mitch and Buckley fell to the ground without a sound.
Addie joined her hands together to plead. “Please, Kurtzberg, this could the last chance.”
He lifted the sketchbook and began to draw. Kurtzberg thought about what gave him hope. He thought of his wife Roz and how she was always brave for the both of them. He thought of his friends willing to die to save a buddy.
Kurtzberg pulled his favorite pencil from his front pocket, and began to sketch an image pulled from his soul. He started with a simple geometric circle that would eventually be a shield. And in the center, he placed a star.
“Yes! Yes! We’ve derailed the story!” Addie ripped the sketchbook out of Kurtzberg’s hand and turned towards the Phantom of Truth.
She presented the page boldly as though she was warding off a vampire with a cross in one of the old creature features. The Phantom of Truth hissed, freezing in his tracks. The pallid mask rippled and blood oozed from his skeletal fingers.
The courtesans of Carcosa screamed. They had died a thousand times at the hands of the storm that came before the King in Yellow came to claim the court for the glory of Hastur.
Kurtzberg slowly maneuvered around the Phantom of Truth. He couldn’t be certain that these weren’t characters in a dream, or if they were avatars of some curse doomed to repeat itself throughout eternity. Maybe the play had been disrupted, but that didn’t mean that the curtain had been called. He ran to the altar and snatched the play script into his arms.
Fearful, he averted his eyes and began to rip pages out. He glanced upwards at the glass ceiling and again the twin eyes of blackness bellowed at him, but this time there was an angry face opening his mouth to swallow whole the city with darkness.
He fumbled through his pockets until he found his lighter. Desperate, he struck it a number of times with his thumb until a tiny flame flickered against the coming darkness. Kurtzberg closed his eyes and thrust the pages into the flame.
The road never seemed to change. Kurtzberg blinked. How did he get back into formation? “Mitch? Buckley?”
Lieutenant Potts signaled the company to halt. “You shell-shocked, Private?”
“How did I get here?”
The lieutenant adjusted his helmet. “What do you remember?”
“I went to scout Paris with Mitch and Buckley, sir? And some really strange dreams.”
“You’ve been in a daze, Private.” He leaned closer as though to avoid saying this too loudly. “Mitch died from a sniper three days back. Buckley is MIA. We’re marching on Paris now. Be straight with me. Do I need to send you back?”
Kurtzberg remembered the sacrifice of his friends and shook his head. The door must have closed, but those that died remained dead. Would Paris be the same? Was Addie real, or just a mask for Princess Camilla?
He shook his head and resolved to put it all down to paper at the next stop. If he learned anything, it was that there were important stories to tell, and that he needed to survive the war to return to Roz.
Jason Andrew lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife, Lisa. By day, he works as a mild-mannered technical writer. By night, he writes stories of the fantastic and occasionally fights crime. As a child, Jason spent his Saturdays watching the Creature Feature classics and furiously scribbling down stories. His first short story, written at age six, titled ‘The Wolfman Eats Perry Mason’ was severely rejected. It also caused his grandmother to watch him very closely for a few years. Visit his website at www.jasonbandrew.com
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Story illustration by Derek Schulze.