By Victor Milán
The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. From the darkly brilliant imagination of Victor Milán, the novelette “Evernight” takes readers down to the depths of the Parisian catacombs.
Candace Sessou is known to be many things: the ace known as The Darkness, a skilled negotiator in the field of diplomacy, a refugee with neither home nor family after fleeing a war-torn Congo. When she hears that her brother Marcel also survived but is now on the run as a wanted terrorist, Candace tracks him to the Parisian underground… only to strike a deal with dangerous forces in order to save both their lives.
Candace walked between walls of stacked bones and skulls, and was afraid.
It wasn’t the darkness that scared her. Though it was the total darkness of a place light never touches, her eyes saw clearly, if in tones of gray. She could see even through her own Darkness, as nothing else on Earth could unless she temporarily shared the gift. Darkness was, if not her friend, her intimate and tool.
It wasn’t the bones that scared her, either. She put out a hand and let her fingertips trail along knobbled walls of crania and condyles, and felt nothing: they were stones to her. She knew death too well. Through her actions, if not directly by her hand, she’d left a few rooms’ worth of bones to bleach beneath the African sun, herself.
For five years Candace had known her brother was dead. Then last night, in a dive bar in Atlanta where she was doing a job for the Miami Mob, she’d seen his grown-up face on CNN, wanted for a terrorist attack in Paris.
Getting an entrance visa and a ticket on such a crash basis had blown much of the roll she’d been saving to buy her way out of that employment, which she’d entered unwittingly. But she wasn’t thinking of that now.
She feared for Marcel. She feared the unknown she was walking into. She feared what the children of perpetual night might be doing to Marcel—and what he might do to them. Because she knew from her own experience the rage that bubbled within him.
It was that fear that drew her irresistibly on, through the domain of the dead.
Chill water sloshed around the ankles of her hiking boots. She stayed out of it as much as she could. She told herself it was leakage from the city above, not seepage from the sewers that laced Paris’s underside even more completely than the ancient limestone mines and the ossuaries which took up a small part of them did. But the smell suggested that wasn’t the whole truth, sadly.
She also smelled death. It had been since the Catacombs’ mute, dismembered occupants had come here for even that persistent stink to linger. But Candace knew her death-smells, of every stage of decay. Death was here. Recent death. Probably of a rat or cat. But death, all the same.
She smelled mildew and mold and rat turds. She smelled stale human grease and dirt, and the rot that afflicts people who are still alive, if often in such an existence as not to merit the term living. And all of it—the smells, the closeness of the walls, the unfamiliar sensation of uncountable tonnes of soil and cement and stone hanging almost on top of her—conspired to give Candace Sessou, The Darkness, internationally wanted terrorist ace, a raging case of the creeps.
The Catacombs of Paris was a tourist destination long-popular because of the macabre overload induced by the spectacle of hundreds upon hundreds of meters of walls made from the dried skulls and bones of literally millions of the dead. The walls had a special name: ossements.
But this wasn’t the underworld’s tame tourist district. Candace wasn’t here to sightsee. And she was well aware that she was entering a domain claimed by a being of a power so fierce and expansive that it terrified not just the civil authorities, but the Corsican Mafia—and their rivals, the atrocity-loving, erstwhile secret-police and terrorist Leopard Men.
“Okay, this is actually kind of cool,” she said out loud in English, which she’d gotten used to speaking every day, as she hugged a façade of faces void of eyes and flesh, trying to skip over a wide spot in the stream and succeeding somewhat.
Something stung her left ankle, above her hiking boots and thermal socks, inside the leg of her pants.
She jumped and failed to entirely stifle a most un-terrorist-ace-like squeak of startled terror. Do they have scorpions down here? Venomous spiders? Before coming down here she would have ridiculed the very idea that Paris, the ultra-civilized heart of sophisticated and homogenized Europe, could possibly harbor creepy-crawling horrors to compete with what she was accustomed to finding even in the well-manicured and prosperous Kinshasa suburb where she’d grown up.
The sting had forcibly reminded her that almost literally anything could be living down here among the dead.
She caught herself thinking, Well, I might and I might not. Followed at once by, Where the Hell did that come from? She looked around uneasily. She saw nothing but bone walls and the water flowing along the limestone floor. She was actually tempted, briefly, to whip out her burner iPhone and use its flashlight app to look to see if her darkness-piercing vision was missing any nasty bugs.
Was that a ripple in the water? She squelched an urge to hop away. Just your imagination. You’re letting the stress get to you.
But the stress was real. She had no idea why her brother had defied the Leopard Men’s current policy of avoiding overt terrorism in favor of pursuing lucrative, conventional crime. If he’d even been behind the midnight bombing of an empty bus kiosk, which seemed pretty pointless any way she looked at it.
Marcel’s likely mental state worried her too. As a child he’d always been afraid of the dark, with a touch of claustrophobia. She’d never been—until now. This place was enough to get to even an ace-powered nyctophile.
And who was hunting him, to make him desperate enough to seek refuge in a realm called Evernight? She knew why to fear the Leopard Men: they’d stolen her from her childhood and tortured her until she either died or became an ace. What Paris’s African refugee community had told her about the antiterrorism unit GIGN didn’t make them seem much kinder.
She started moving forward again, staying as close to the ossement on her left as possible, and avoiding the water as best she could. She also feared what he’d found down here. Or what had found him.
A thing which she knew was trying to find her own way towards. No pressure.
Navigating by touch, keeping her eyes on what she hoped was the naturally rippling stream, she made her way toward the Queen of the Underworld’s likely seat of power.
She had lost six hours already to the need to sleep. She’d also eaten up precious time to use her phone for some research, followed by some tentative connection. Two groups defiantly explored the Parisian underworld’s hundreds of kilometers of Catacombs, mines, and sewers forbidden to the public. The Urban Experiment—les UX—considered themselves cultural vigilantes, restoring lost and neglected areas of the great city above ground as well as below. As paranoid as the UX abbreviation they went by was precious, they’d refused all communication. The Cataphiles, though, were cheerful urban explorers, ever eager to share their illicit experiences with outsiders. Some were more than a little publicity-hungry. As lamentable as Candace found that as OpSec—if the cops really wanted to shut them down, it’d take an afternoon—it served her well.
They’d responded readily, first to her also-disposable Gmail account, then by texts. The Cataphiles and the UX had come to terms with the mysterious joker-ace queen Maman Nuit-Perpetuelle and her shadow domain. She preferred to use the English word Evernight for her domain as well as herself, they said.
Candace’s day job—the one she was trying to get out of, and had now stuck herself back deeper in—mostly involved negotiation. Deals were made.
Luckily, Mama Evernight wasn’t eager to kill or disappear anybody. She had ways of warning trespassers—and not just when they were actively in her domain. Many of her “children,” as they called themselves, spent some or even most of their time aboveground, engaged in panhandling and petty thievery—as well as in spying and serving as emissaries for their secret queen. But if you pushed her—you went down into the Dark, and were seen no more.
“I just hope Mama doesn’t think I’m defying her,” Candace said out loud. Though she’d long thought herself a loner, she was starting to feel too much alone, here, with only dead-people parts for company.
Something stung her again, this time in her right ankle.
She let out an involuntary yip of surprise and fear. Looking down, she saw to her horror that something sinuous and thin had snaked out of the ripple of leakage-water and up inside the leg of her slacks.
Wishing desperately for a knife, she tried to tug free. More tendrils came dripping from the water. She felt them slither up her leg, around it, their touch slimy on bare skin that tried futilely to shrink away, gripping with remarkable strength. The stinging sensation hit again, stronger than before, a fire in her nerves.
I have your attention now, little one. Calm yourself. If I wished you harm, I’d have caused it already. Now state your business aloud.
The words formed in her head as mysteriously as the stray thought had before. This time there was no question it wasn’t hers. Is it coming through the tendrils? “I’ve come to see my brother,” she said. Her voice was steady, or mostly so.
She knew the voice in her head was right: she was had, here and now, and no mistake. And while she was a long ways from trusting its intention—Well, if this isn’t the creature I’ve come to see, it’s the creature I need to get past to do so.
Good. I taste your honesty in your blood, your nerves.
The stinging stopped. The horrid grip relaxed. The tendrils, now a skein, thrilled their way back down her bare leg, across her socks and boots to vanish beneath the water.
Ahead of her a yellow glow shone around a curve in the walls of bones. Three figures appeared, at least approximately human. Each held a torch overhead. One held two, and still had a hand free.
“Come with us,” said the three-armed, meter-and-a-half high being covered in living, writhing slugs in a mellow baritone voice. “Mama Evernight wants to see you.”
What first drew Candace’s eyes, in the high, echoing dome-shaped chamber of skulls, deep within the twist of the secret Catacombs where outsiders never came, were the three figures who sat on plain wooden stools by the far wall, staring at her with wide eyes. Their silent, motionless regard and the skeins they held put her in mind of the Fates from Greek mythology she learned at primary school.
The middle Fate, a gaunt waif of a woman with lank dark-blonde hair, silhouetted by what seemed quite ordinary utility lights on stands by the hollow-eyed walls, spoke to her. “Mama Evernight bids you welcome to her domain.”
“Thanks,” Candace said, right before it hit her.