Miasma

This story is paired with “The King in Yellow (Suite)” from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 


The smell of the hospital clung to Dani, even half an hour after she had left. Acrid antiseptic mingled with the sickly sweet odor of decay that hung around the cancer ward like a guest who had overstayed his welcome. Despite the winter chill, Dani rolled down the driver’s side window, welcoming the fresh blast of clean air that forced its way into her lungs. She parked the car, breathed deeply, and began to relax. Spending six hours with a dying woman, even one who spent much of her time sleeping, tied Dani’s entire body into a knot.

A movement outside the car caught Dani’s attention. She peered into the darkness of the campus parking lot, vacant except for the small cluster of cars near the theater building. The door to the practice space was open, a golden light illuminating the pavement. The only other light came from the flickering lights on the parking lot, two-thirds of which were burnt out.

Reading one of Lucas’s horror comics while at the hospital had probably not been the best choice before waiting in a dark parking lot for him to finish play practice. It was just the wind in the trees. She forced a smile, but still rolled up the window and retrieved her cell phone from the cup holder to see if Lucas had responded to her texts.

As the phone’s screen lit up, Dani saw another quick movement, and looked up in time to see a figure in a light colored hooded robe running toward her.

“Jesus H!” she squawked, dropping her phone. She jabbed at the power lock button repeatedly, even after hearing the locks engage. The rectangle of light on the floorboards of the car told her that her phone was there, but she froze, staring at the robed figure, who had stopped about a car length away. The robe was tattered and grimy, even in the parking lot lights. Dani couldn’t see the face of the person wearing it, but the hairs on the back of her neck rose.

A long moment passed, and then the figure raised its hands and pulled back the hood. “Hey, Dani!” Karl shouted. “What are you doing out here?”

Dani shook her head. She reached down to retrieve her phone, and then climbed out of the car. “What the hell, Karl? What are you doing?”

“Oh, uh.” He looked around, confusion evident on his face. “This is my costume. There’s a scene where I’ve gotta run from one side of the stage to the other, so I was making sure that it’s got enough leg room for running.”

“And so you ran out into the creepiest parking lot on campus? You nearly gave me a heart attack.”

“Sorry. But why are you out here? It’s cold!”

Dani sighed, rubbing her nose. Karl was a fantastic actor, but he had a few habits that caused the loss of more brain cells than he could really spare. “I’m here to pick up Lucas.”

“Oh, right.” Karl jerked his head toward the open theater door. “He’s inside.”

“I know.”

Karl opened his mouth, but said nothing at first. Then he frowned. “You should come in.”

Dani nodded. “Yeah, okay. Wasn’t planning on it, but I may as well now that I’m scared out of my mind.”

“Hey, you’re not in any shows right now, are you?”

“No, I haven’t had much time.” She reached back into the car to grab her backpack.

“Ed’s still casting this one.”

She straightened back up. “Ed? Who’s Ed?”

“New director. I guess he’s an adjunct or something, When Marcie went on bed rest, they brought him in to put together something for the end of the semester show.”

Dani frowned. It was odd that she hadn’t heard any of the theater department scuttlebutt. But then again, she hadn’t exactly been a great conversationalist over the past few weeks. In fact, she was fairly certain that her conversation with Karl was in the running for the longest she had had in the past month that wasn’t with a medical professional.

“What’s the show?” she asked.

“Le Roi au Masque d’Or.”

“He’s doing a French play for the winter show?”

Before Karl responded, Dani stepped into the theater building and felt the blast of warmth from the space heater near the door. The stench of burnt dust masked the normal mildew smell of the theater. Lucas was on stage, a cheap plastic crown on his head at a rakish angle, over his mass of shaggy black hair. Opposite him stood Heather, wearing a similar crown, but with more dignity. A few other students sat in the front row of seats, and a few rows behind them were two men, one familiar and the other not. The unfamiliar head shone in the dim lights of the practice space, with not even a wisp of hair to cut the glare.

“It’s not French, just a French name,” Karl said. He had lowered his voice, but it was loud enough that the other man, the familiar one, turned and looked straight at Dani. “I’m sorry, D. I should have told you that Thom is stage managing.”

“Thom?” Dani scoffed. “You mean Tommy?”

“He’s insisting on being called Thom now.” Karl made the silent “H” very apparent.

Dani rolled her eyes. “Pretentious little …” She trailed off as Thom rose from his seat after a quick whispered conversation with the bald man and headed toward her.

“I need to go talk to Freddie about the costume,” Karl said, hurrying away.

Thom strode up to Dani with purpose. “Hey, Dani. Are you doing any shows this semester?”

“Hi, Tommy … er, I hear it’s Thom, now?”

“That’s right. So, are you?”

“No, I’m not. I got a waiver for the semester.”

“Oh,” he said. “Your mom?”

Dani nodded as the tension crept back into her shoulders.

“Sorry to hear about it. She was … she’s a wonderful person.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“If you wanted to get some credit for a production, you could get this one applied to next semester. Ed is looking for one more woman for this show.”

Dani scanned the front row of actors again, trying to pick out the other cast members. It was hard to say for certain, so she asked Thom. “Only two female roles?”

“Yeah.”

“Much as I’d like to, I don’t think I can,” Dani said, forcing enthusiasm. “I’m booked three nights a week till 9.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“No, not okay.” The bald man stepped out from the shadows behind Dani, and she jumped. She hadn’t seen him get up from his seat, let alone loop around behind her. She supposed that perhaps Thom had blocked her line of sight, but the small theater was a creaky old space. Sneaking around wasn’t possible.

“Pardon me,” the man said, bowing formally. “We haven’t been introduced. Edward Brownley, but please, just call me Ed. And I wish that you’d reconsider. We can adjust the rehearsal schedule to accommodate your standing engagements.”

Dani shook her head, stepping back from both Thom and Ed. “I appreciate the offer, Mr. Brownley, but I don’t think … I haven’t auditioned for any of the shows this year. Why do you think I’d be good for this show?”

“Ah, I can tell. You have something of Cassilda within you.” Ed smiled, though the smile didn’t move beyond his lips. His eyes remained cold and flat, almost like a shark’s.

Dani chewed at the inside of her lip. She had run across directors like Ed before, and she hadn’t enjoyed working with them. Anyone who expressed enthusiasm over an actor without seeing them act was probably a complete hack. But she knew that the best way to get out of this situation was just to take the script, then avoid the theater for a week or two, which was easily done. She could bus to and from the hospital, and let Lucas drive himself.

“Who’s Cassilda?” she asked. “And do you have a copy of the script I could look at tonight?”

Thom laughed and Ed chuckled softly a moment later.

Dani looked back and forth between them. She shook her head and forced a smile. “I’m sorry, I’m missing a joke somewhere.”

Thom stopped laughing. “It’s just that there’s no script. Well, there are tidbits of a script, but it’s mostly getting up there and improving the bits that come between.”

“Oh, got it,” Dani said. “Avant-garde French?”

“Something like that,” Thom said, his gaze darting toward Ed as he did.

“Well, that does make it a bit harder for me to commit,” Dani said. “I suppose I can watch the rehearsal, and get the gist of it.”

“We’re done for the night,” Ed said. He turned and repeated himself much more loudly.

Dani shot Thom a look of annoyance, shaking her head. Thom shrugged in response.

As Ed moved toward the stage, Dani took a step toward Thom. “So what, I just agree to it sight unseen?”

“Talk to Lucas about it,” Thom spat back. “That’s what you were going to do anyway.”

Before Dani could respond, a chorus of voices rose from the stage.

“Along the shore the cloud waves break,”

Ed and the assembled cast spoke in unison.

“The twin suns sink beneath the lake,”

Thom turned away from her and approached the others, joining in the eerie recitation.

“The shadows lengthen in Carcosa.”

Dani was beyond done with this entire debacle. She stormed outside. Once there, she took a deep breath of the cold air to calm down. Thom still made her furious. He had behaved like such a baby when they broke up at the end of the previous school year. Although the reason for her waiver from needing to have production credits this semester was her mother’s help, a part of her was glad that the timing had allowed her to get some distance from Thom. As soon as that thought crossed her mind, she felt awful about taking any joy in her mother’s suffering.

She trudged to the car as Lucas called her name.

“Hurry up already,” she called back as she opened the door. “It’s freezing out here.”

Lucas jogged across the parking lot, twirling his ridiculous plastic crown on his wrist. He slid into his seat and gave Dani a quick kiss. “Thanks for waiting for me.”

“You’re welcome. Is there seriously no script? And what is up with that chanting?”

Lucas chuckled. “It’s in the play. The whole cast has to be able to do it in perfect unison, so we start and end with it.” He paused. “Thom talked to you about the part?”

Dani sighed. “Yes, and so did Ed. That guy … I thought Rick was the weirdest director in the program. Ed’s got him beat by miles.”

“He’s eccentric. There are some script pieces. I think it’s sort of a work in progress.”

“He only gets to be eccentric if he has money.”

“He drives a Jag.”

Dani shot Lucas a look of disbelief before she pulled out of the parking lot. “Why would you take a teaching job here if you have a Jaguar?”

“I dunno. But I’ve seen it. It’s bright yellow, but still sweet.” He paused. “So, you going to do the show?”

“I shouldn’t,” Dani said. “I don’t have the time, and I have my waiver. I should be getting my shit together for next semester.”

“Did they tell you it’s going to get distribution?”

“What? Distribution for a college play?”

“Yeah, apparently Ed’s got some connections. They’re going to film some of the rehearsals, and piece it all together. It’ll be like some bad art house film. I love it.”

“They didn’t mention that.” Dani frowned. This production continued to get more bizarre. But it piqued her curiosity. She wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t involved to see what they thought of the whole thing.

“You should do this. It’s either going to be amazing or so bad that it’s amazing. And who are you to turn down a train wreck?”

Dani chuckled. “I think that says something about you more than me. I’ve got to think about it.”

“Tell you what. I can take over your shift with your mom on Wednesdays. I’m sure Ed’ll be fine with me skipping one practice a week if it means he gets Cassilda.”

Dani stiffened. This was the first time that Lucas had given any indication of his willingness to help with the vigil that her family was keeping with Dani’s mom. She wasn’t sure how to feel. On the one hand, it was a sweet gesture. But on the other hand, he could have made the offer sooner, and taken some stress off of her. “Alright, I’ll do it. I’ll go talk to Ed with you tomorrow. Can I see what script there is tonight?”

*   *   *

Dani was on edge as she and Lucas pulled up to the theater building. She’d read through the script before bed, but everything seemed disjointed and nonsensical. There were more notes on the lighting (as dim as possible, brightening only when the titular character was offstage) than there were complete scenes. From what the script did contain, Cassilda was a decent role, the only one who noticed that the King in Yellow was an otherworldly parasite. But the feeling of the script pages in her hands had been disturbing enough that she had showered until the hot water ran out.

As Lucas parked the car, she put a hand on his arm. “Lucas, are you sure about this play? It all seems weird. Like, maybe scammy weird.”

He shrugged. “Scammy how? It’s not like he’s asking us to pay for anything.”

“Exploitive, then, maybe. Like he’s using college kids because we don’t need to get paid for our roles.”

“You’re just nervous,” Lucas said, patting her hand. “You don’t have to audition. You’ve got the part. It’s going to be fine.”

Dani nodded. “Alright, let’s get this train wreck started.”

They hurried across the parking lot and into the practice space. Along with the wave of heat on entering the building, something fetid hung in the air just past the threshold, different from the usual odors. Karl’s costume hung from the overhead pipes, just as filthy as it had been the night before.

Within the theater, Thom waved to Dani and Lucas. “Hey, guys, good to see you.” Dani could see that he had his smile plastered on.

“What’s up with the stinky costume?” Dani asked.

“Airing it out a bit. It gave Karl a weird rash last night.”

Dani blinked. “Have you considered washing it?”

“Ed said there’s something in the dye process that isn’t colorfast.”

Lucas had moved to the stage, his back toward Dani. His posture was strangely hunched, though he was still upright. He muttered under his breath, but not audibly enough to make out his words. Assuming he was rehearsing, she turned her attention to Thom. “So, are there any notes for Cassilda that aren’t in the script?”

“She’s a queen in the first act, so imperious and demanding, and then there’s a slow descent into madness and terror in the second act.”

“And Ed took one look at me and decided that I was the only one who could play that part?”

“I told him you’d be a great fit for Act 1. I figure you can handle Act 2.”

Dani glared at Thom, but a loud thud on stage drew her attention. Lucas had collapsed, and was convulsing. Dani shoved past Thom and rushed toward the stage.

Lucas’s eyes had rolled back, the stage lighting turning the whites yellow. He was still murmuring in the same cadence as earlier, but still unintelligible. His limbs jerked as though they were attached to a puppeteer’s strings.

Dani knelt beside Lucas and unbuckled her belt, tugging it free of her pants far less fluidly than she had hoped. She held it taut between her hands, trying to figure out the best way to put it into Lucas’s mouth.

She heard Thom come up behind her, and said, “A little help?”

“Uh, so what do I do?” Thom stammered.

“Just hold his head.”

Thom knelt beside Dani and placed a hand on either side of Lucas’s head. Lucas stopped thrashing before she got the belt in place.

He looked up at her, confused. “What are you doing?”

“You were having a seizure,” she said. She nodded at Thom, who released his hold on Lucas’s face. “We need to get you checked out. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“I was just running lines. There was a weird flash …” He trailed off and looked up at the lighting rig. “Weird, I thought something must have blown. Anyway, there was a flash, and that’s it.” He sat up, and Dani held out a hand to steady him. But he didn’t waver.

“Okay, we still need to go …” Dani began. The theater door slamming open interrupted her.

She turned to look at the entrance, and saw that Ed had arrived. She turned back to look at Lucas. He was on his feet, holding out a hand to pull her up.

Dani looked up at Lucas’s face. The whites of his eyes still looked yellow, and she wondered how awful all of the dim amber lighting was going to look on film. But she accepted his assistance.

“You’ve agreed to the part,” Ed said as he approached the stage.

“Yes, but I have to get Lucas checked out before I can start rehearsing. He had a seizure, which is odd. No history of that.” The look on Ed’s face suggested that he didn’t care about the details she was sharing.

“By all means. Thom, you can take him to the clinic, yes?”

“I’d like to take him myself,” Dani said. “We won’t be long.”

Ed shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. Now that I have my Cassilda, we must begin our preparations.”

“He’s right,” Lucas said. “Cassilda is what’s important.”

Dani looked at Lucas, dumbfounded. “You just had a seizure!”

“Our master awaits you.”

Dani put her hands on the sides of Lucas’s face. His skin burned beneath her hands. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“The King.” Lucas raised a trembling hand to point toward the theater entrance.

Dani looked over her shoulder. Where the costume had been hanging, where Ed had been standing, had been replaced a sky the color of an old bruise and soaring black spires that seemed architecturally unsound. Something about the vista made her dizzy. She stumbled, releasing Lucas’s face as she did. Once she was not in contact with his skin, the image flickered and faded.

She looked at Thom. His gaze was fixed on the same spot. She turned so that she could no longer see the lingering effects of … whatever that place was. Lucas’s expression was identical to Thom’s, and he had begun speaking the nonsense syllables she heard during his seizure.

Dani snapped her fingers in Lucas’s face. He didn’t flinch. She tried the same gesture on Thom, and Thom jerked away from her hand.

“Turn around,” she said. “Help me get Lucas out of here.”

Thom turned, but he moved slowly, like an insect trapped in honey.

Dani grabbed Lucas’s shoulders and tried to turn him around. He was rooted to the spot on the stage where he stood. She shoved him, but he didn’t even waver.

“Cassilda.” It was not Ed’s voice. It sounded like speech formed from the rustling of turning pages, or the scattering of autumn leaves. “Cassilda, you are needed. Turn around.”

“No,” Dani said, a whisper at first, and then louder. “My name’s not Cassilda.”

“It is your true name. Ask your mother, before she leaves this world, and she will tell you that you have always been Cassilda.”

Dani shook her head, tears forming in her eyes. She glanced at Thom, who had turned enough away that his eyes had refocused. “Help me get Lucas out of here.”

Thom grasped Lucas’s arm and pulled, but Lucas did not move.

“Let him go, you bastard,” Dani shouted.

“If you leave, he stays. If you stay, I will allow him to leave.”

“I don’t know who you think you are …”

“I am the King in Yellow.”

Dani shook her head, her arms beginning to tremble. “That’s the play. It’s not real.”

“It is most certainly real. You shall make it real. If not–” The voice made a clicking sound, like a tongue snapping against teeth. “–your friend won’t survive.”

Dani looked at Thom, and then looked pointedly at the backstage area visible in the wings. She dared not tell Thom to leave to get help, but she hoped he could read her expression. He nodded, just barely, and began to move off the stage.

“So if I stay, I live?” Dani asked. She needed to stall the madman if Thom was going to find any help.

“Not only do you live, you will rule, by my side.”

“What makes me so perfect that you’ll … Okay, is this like a Labyrinth moment? Or Blair Witch? Do I tell you that you have no power over me, or are we just waiting for the legend to get debunked?”

“This is real.”

“Why would I want to rule by your side?” Dani steeled herself and began to turn back toward the King in Yellow. The surreal scene was less disorienting now, and she scanned it for any indication that it was a projection. None of the tell-tale signs were there, and the figure dressed in tattered robes looked very real.

“You would be a queen.”

Dani chuckled. “If I’m going to be a queen, it’s going to be in my own right.” She reached under the collar of her sweater and pulled out her necklace. She brandished the charms that hung clustered together at the center of the black cord–an ornate knotwork cross, an Eye of Horus, and the eight-pointed star of Eris. She felt like an idiot for trying it, but she was grasping at straws.

The only response from the robed figure was a chuckle. “I am not some thing of legend who can be banished by mere trinkets. I am far more than that.”

“But you thought banished when you saw them. Which tells me that you can be.”

A loud cry from behind her drew Dani’s attention away from the King in Yellow. Karl, a folding chair raised over his head, rushed past her. Before he reached the edge of the stage, he stopped dead in his tracks. Dani looked backstage, and saw Thom wincing in the shadows.

“That was your plan?” she scoffed. “Unleash Karl?”

“Do you have a better one?” Thom asked.

“How about getting Karl unstuck from whatever the hell is happening?” Karl sounded like he was doing a bad ventriloquist act.

Dani turned back toward Thom. “Script. Now.”

Thom fumbled the script from his back pocket and slid it to Dani.

She stooped to pick it up. The paper was somehow damp and brittle at the same time, and it took all of her willpower to not throw it back down as her fingers brushed across the pages. She had no idea what she was doing. She spotted the lines that the cast had chanted at the last rehearsal, and scanned them to see if there was any indication as to what they meant. She somehow knew that they were a ritual that had summoned this King in Yellow. All around them were the notes on the lighting.

“Lights,” she muttered under her breath. Letting the script fall to the stage, she backed up toward Lucas, until she felt his too warm body behind her. Then she fished his phone out of his pocket. She tore her gaze away from the King in Yellow long enough to punch in the passcode and find the lighting app that the theater used.

Dani smiled as she found the light programming for Before Sunrise, the last production she and Lucas had collaborated on. The lines she had read the previous night came to her mind as she brought up the brightest of the lights in a sunrise pattern. “Let the red dawn surmise what we shall do, when this blue starlight dies and all is through.”

The floodlight cast a burning red glow across the seats, all the way to where the King in Yellow stood. The strange scene began to fade, the edges disintegrating like paper thrown in a fire. The King in Yellow thrashed and wailed. “No, no, not when I was so close!” And then, with an audible pop, the entire vista collapsed in on itself.

A faint odor of sulphur hung in the air. Something clattered to the ground where the King had been standing.

“Whu …” Lucas mumbled. “What just happened?”

Dani turned and looked at her boyfriend. “No big deal, just saving the world.”

He chuckled. “Oh, so a normal Tuesday?”

“Exactly.” She looked at Thom and Karl. “Everyone alright?”

Karl nodded, but Thom didn’t respond. He stared at the aisle.

Dani stepped to his side and looked at what held his gaze. On the floor lay a brittle yellow mask. “We should …”

Before she could finish, the mask crumbled into a pile of dust that was swept away by an unfelt gust of wind.

“Oh, that’s not terrifying at all,” Thom muttered.

Dani shuddered.

*   *   *

Dani pushed open the door to her mother’s hospital room. The lights were dim, but she could hear her mother breathing faintly. The antiseptic scented air was almost welcoming after the smell that lingered over the theater. She moved as quietly as she could, setting her backpack down beside the armchair before dropping into it.

“Hey, mum,” she said. “Saved the world today.”

“Oh, that’s nice, dear,” her mother murmured.

Dani jumped, and then chuckled. She was still on edge, but the hospital felt safe now. “Sorry, thought you were sleeping.”

“She is.” The voice still sounded like her mother’s, but Dani heard the whisper of paper beneath the familiar sounds.

She stiffened as her mother turned her head and opened her eyes.

Her horrible yellow eyes.


NBR5VogelsmallDawn Vogel is a short fiction author and editor. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, helps edit Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.