05 Jun Media Darlings
“Media Darlings”Written by The Vesper's Bell Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 17 minutes
The man found himself in complete darkness, but that’s not what concerned him. He wasn’t alone in the darkness either, but that was also of no concern to him. The others were captives, like himself, presumably bound with silk cords to a bolted-down chair, like he was. He had heard two other muffled voices so far, a man and a woman, screaming and cursing and threatening and weeping, demanding to know what was going on until their voices were hoarse. He had so far not made a single peep to alert his fellow captives of his presence, or his captors of his wakefulness, and he was beginning to wonder if that was the problem.
His captors knew he was awake though, he had no doubt of that, but perhaps they wanted to see all of their prisoners squirm in their seats for a bit before they would reveal themselves. Or worse, his silent stoicism was making them suspicious.
“Live from In Glorious RetrovisionTM Studios, just outside the space-time nexus of Follywood, California, it’s time for Fun & Fatalities!”
The man’s train of thought was violently interrupted by an upbeat, though horrendously distorted, instrumental theme song playing on overhead speakers. Multiple colored spotlights raced around the studio, a conglomeration of nine monitoring screens began flickering static before displaying the show’s title in black and white, and a large, vertical game wheel flashed with red and black strobe lights as it lazily spun about.
“And now, let’s all give a big hand for our hosts; the atrocious, the malicious, and the disgracefully depraved James and Mary Darling!” the announcer cheered.
The spotlights turned white and settled on the stage, where a pair of smiling young adults walked arm-in-arm to the podium, waving jovially to the audience. Both had dark black hair and bright blue eyes, and looked so much alike they were undoubtedly siblings. James had his short hair slicked back and wore a black suit and bow tie, while Mary wore her hair long and coiffed, along with bright red lipstick and a glittering red sequined dress with matching heels. Together they looked formal and presentable, almost old-fashionably so, and had they not first kidnapped their guests and bound them to their seats, there would have been nothing to tip them off that they were in for a very, very bad time.
The first two captives were understandably baffled by the revelation that they were on a game show, but the last contestant, though he had not been expecting it specifically, wasn’t surprised in the least.
“Good evening, everybody, and thank you all so much for joining us tonight, both here and at home. It just means the world to both of us. It really does,” James spoke into the microphone as the music died down. “For any new viewers, as well as our lucky guests who didn’t know they were going to be here tonight, I’m your host James Darling, and this magnificent creature next to me is my sister and co-host, Mary Darling.”
Mary blew a kiss towards the audience, and canned cheers and cat-calls began playing over the speakers. The actual audience, the vaguely humanoid silhouettes filling the dimly lit bleachers, didn’t make a sound. They barely moved, but there was just enough shuffling and jostling and rocking to and fro to make it clear that they weren’t dummies or cardboard cut-outs. Something was in the audience, watching the show.
“We have an amazing show planned out for tonight, don’t we James Darling?” Mary asked rhetorically, her smile turning nefarious as she leered hungrily at the three unwilling contestants in front of her.
“Oh, you bet we do, Mary Darling,” James agreed with an eager nod. “Why don’t you walk our contestants and viewers through how the game works before we get started?”
“Gladly, Darling,” Mary said as she strutted over to the game wheel. “It couldn’t be easier. My brother picks a victim, then I –”
“Contestant, Mary,” James corrected her with an exaggerated finger wag as canned laughter filled the air.
“Oops, sorry. My brother picks a ‘contestant; wink-wink, nudge-nudge,’ and then I spin the wheel,” Mary explained. “It lands on a challenge, and if a contestant survives a challenge, they move on to the next round. Each challenge can only be used once per game, and the game goes on until either there are no more contestants, a final contestant survives the last challenge, or all the challenges are used up with multiple survivors left who must then face off in a Battle Royale until there’s a champion!”
“Well, as fun as that might be, I really don’t think any of today’s contestants have it in them to make it through until the end of the game,” James lamented, cueing moans of disappointment from the speakers. “Mary Darling, why don’t you show them what sort of prizes they can win so that they have a little extra motivation to give it their all?”
“Today’s champion will be walking away with their very own In Glorious RetrovisionTM television set!” Mary announced as she gestured dramatically to a rising curtain, revealing several distinct 1950’s style televisions sitting on podiums, all of them displaying harshly buzzing static. “Each television set is a unique custom build by the master mechanist Volodya Dragovic himself, capable of picking up a wide variety of occult and paranormal transmissions while doubling as an Orwellian telescreen. You never know who’s watching when you’re watching an In Glorious RetrovisionTM! With only a few hundred known to exist and access restricted to the underworld market, each and every Retrovision is priceless, making it a beautiful and valuable addition to any home.”
“I’m not sure if I’d called them priceless, Mary Darling. If I recall, Dragovic sold them to us for the very reasonable price of one assassination a piece,” James remarked.
“True, but I think our contestants value human life a little differently than we do,” Mary smirked.
“Well let’s find out, shall we? Time to meet our first contestant!” James asked as the theme music started playing again. Grabbing the microphone in one hand and some cue cards in the other, he headed over to the female contestant, who was now trembling under the spotlight. “Hello there, young lady, welcome to the show. Let me tell you how this works. I’m going to take your gag off, and you’re going to play along, or this is going to get much, much worse for you. Do you understand that?”
The woman looked up at James with terror-stricken eyes, and saw that any façade of cordiality had vanished from his face. His expression was stern, uncompromising, and deadly serious. His eyes were utterly void of mercy, and she immediately lost all hope in begging for her life. She quickly glanced towards Mary, and saw that she was staring at her with the same pitiless countenance. She looked back up at James and, with a fearful swallow, gave a broken and despondent nod.
“Fantastic!” James beamed, the insincerely effervescent smile returning to his face. He pulled off her brightly colored gag and gently laid it over the back of the chair. “What’s your name, Miss?”
“P-Petra,” she stammered softly.
“And are you excited to be here, Petra?” James asked, his smile growing from ‘enthusiastic game show host’ to ‘psychopath off his meds’ in an instant.
“Extremely, James,” she whimpered.
“Outstanding! That’s what I like to hear!” he exclaimed. “You were paying attention a moment ago, weren’t you? Mary spins the wheel, you do what it says, and if you survive, you move on to the next round. You got that?”
Petra nodded as enthusiastically as she could with gritted teeth and tear-stained cheeks.
“You heard her, Mary Darling! Spin! The! Wheel!” James instructed. The pre-recorded audience repeated his request, while the actual audience remained as eerily silent as ever.
Mary spun the enormous wheel as hard as she could, sending it revolving in a dizzying whirlwind of red and black lights. After several seconds it slowed to a crawl, the pointer arrow passing over one torturous challenge after another until finally settling on ‘Bloody Mary.’
“Looks like our first challenge is ‘Bloody Mary!’” James announced to more canned cheering and applause, though his sister’s excitement appeared to be genuine. “Petra, ‘Bloody Mary’ means that my sister gets to do whatever she wants with you. Do you think you can handle her?”
Based solely on her appearance, most people would probably assume that Mary’s physical and behavioral capacity for violence was minimal. But given the circumstances, Petra wasn’t willing to make any assumptions about anything.
“Do I have a choice?” she asked.
“Not if you want to win that TV!” James laughed.
“Or live!” Mary added, impatience clearly creeping into her tone.
“Hear that, audience? Mary Darling doesn’t like to be kept waiting!” James said loudly, before bending over to whisper to Petra. “Trust me; the angrier you make her, the more fun she’ll have with you. What’s it going to be?”
“Yes! Yes, I’ll fight her, or whatever!” Petra nodded.
“That’s the spirit! It’s always better for ratings when the women go up against Mary; gives the illusion of fairness,” James remarked. “Mary Darling, what are you going to do with our brave Petra here?”
“I think I’m going to have to go with ‘Twenty-One Knife Salute’!” she answered, turning the wheel so that the arrow landed on her preferred challenge.
“‘Twenty-One Knife Salute’ it is!” James agreed, pulling out a vintage TV remote and pressing one of its many round and gleaming buttons.
In an instant, Petra went from being restrained in her seat to being restrained to a human-sized game wheel. Mary stood exactly twenty-one feet away from her, which she knew because the floor between them had been delineated in one-foot increments.
“What? What?” she gasped, unable to comprehend what had just happened.
“Magic of television,” James explained nonchalantly. “Now don’t you fret, Petra; this is one of our easier challenges. What happens here is I spin you round and round, and Mary Darling throws a few knives at you.”
“Twenty-one, to be exact, James Darling,” Mary added as she held up a bejeweled ebony dagger for the audience to get a good look at.
“She’ll throw them one at a time, starting at the one-foot marker, moving a foot backward after each throw,” James explained. “All she has to do is miss once, and you’ll win the challenge. Even if she lands all twenty-one shots, but none of them are fatal, you’ll still be declared the winner. Are you ready, Petra?”
“I…wait, she starts at the one-foot line?” Petra asked in dismay.
“Of course, Duckie. A good game gets harder the further along you get,” Mary said with a sickly-sweet smile, now somehow standing only a foot away from her without having traversed the intervening distance. “Give her a spin, James Darling!”
“Spin! Spin! Spin!” jeered the pre-recorded chants of the audience.
“No, wait, please!” Petra pleaded, but with one strong push, James sent her spinning rapidly.
She screamed as she felt the first knife pierce her flesh, as the audience chanted out “One!” Mary hadn’t needed to throw the knife at all, given how close she was. She could have just thrust the knife straight ahead, but instead, she had thrown it slightly to the side and impaled Petra’s left wrist. Her right wrist was next, as the audience cried out “Two!” With “Three!” and “Four!” her ankles were impaled as well, and when her left forearm was pierced at the cry of ‘Five!’ it became obvious that Mary had impeccable aim and was targeting Petra’s outermost extremities, moving inward in a clockwise spiral.
The audience kept counting up, and soon a combination of the pain and vertigo had Petra retching. With each throw, Mary did indeed take a step back, but it didn’t seem to affect her aim at all.
“Seventeen!” the audience cried as a knife penetrated Petra’s abdomen and skewered her left kidney. With four knives already in each limb, Mary was moving on to the torso.
“Eighteen!” was her right kidney, of course, and “Nineteen!” was her stomach. “Twenty!” hit her just below the diaphragm, and she knew there could be no doubt where Mary would aim next. The blood from her wounds splattered down into her face as she continued to spin around, and the pain in her limbs was starting to give away to a cold numbness.
Mary seemed to be taking longer to make her final shot, and a drumroll sound effect played to add to the suspense.
“Please don’t. Please don’t,” Petra wept, unable to muster the strength for any more substantial final words.
“Twenty-one!” the audience cheered as Mary’s final knife impaled Petra’s heart, ending her life instantly. Mary bowed graciously to the audience as celebratory music played and colorful lights flashed, then casually walked over to the spinning corpse to retrieve her knives.
“Well, that’s a pity,” James said insincerely as he checked the body for a pulse.
“Darling, please. You don’t know the meaning of the word,” Mary smirked as she took a long, savory sniff of the blood-coated knife in her hand. She tossed it into the audience, and the mass of silhouettes finally showed some interest in something, lunging for it like it was a foul ball at a major-league baseball game. A sizzling, staticky noise arose from the crowd like they were a hoard of rattlesnakes, and the studio lights flickered for a moment as they absorbed their sacrifice.
The second contestant’s eyes went wide in confusion and terror at this bizarre behavior, but the last contestant had to suppress a look of joy before the Darlings noticed.
He’d found what he’d come for.
“Well, folks, Mary Darling sure did give us one humdinger of a performance for the first round, didn’t she?” James asked as he took his place at the front of the stage. “Let’s give her a big hand, shall we?”
There was more canned applause, but this time the sizzling static sound of the real audience could just barely be heard beneath it.
“It’s just too bad our first contestant couldn’t stick it out for another round,” Mary said as she skipped back to the game wheel. “Hopefully, our next contestant is made of sterner stuff.”
James sauntered over to lucky contestant number two, a very large and muscular man who looked like he might indeed put up more of a fight than Petra did.
“And what’s your name, sir?” James asked as he took the gag out of his mouth.
“You sick son of a bitch!” he spat. “Let me out of this chair, you fucking coward! You think you’re hot shit, torturing a helpless woman to death? Untie me, and we’ll see how tough you are! You and your psycho-bitch sister!”
With one hand, James lifted the chair up in the air, pulling it out by its steel bolts, then violently slammed it back down into the floor. The contestant, both winded and stunned speechless by the superhuman display of strength, said nothing as James loomed over him with a look of barely restrained rage.
“Don’t ever talk that way about my sister,” he growled before turning back towards the stage. “Mary Darling, spin the wheel!”
The game wheel, now missing both the ‘Bloody Mary’ and ‘Twenty-One Knife Salute’ challenges, started to spin once again.
“Say, Mary Darling, what happens if the wheel lands on an empty slot?” James asked with a theatrical flourish towards the camera.
“Not to worry, James Darling; it’s rigged!” Mary assured him, the canned laughter playing right on cue.
“It’s a good thing you freaks have a laugh track; otherwise, I’d have no idea this shit was supposed to be funny,” the contestant wheezed sardonically as he caught his breath.
With a deathly cold grimace, Mary immediately stopped the wheel.
It landed on ‘Feed the Pigs.’
“Excellent choice, Mary Darling!” James agreed, pulling out the TV remote once again.
With the press of a button, the man found himself free of his restraints, but now trapped in a stage pit of some kind. Behind a steel gate, there were three large, black, vicious-looking pigs, all of them squealing hungrily and fighting to get out.
“Mary Darling, would you mind explaining the Pig Pit to our viewers, please?” James asked, he and Mary standing side by side as they peered down from the edge of the pit.
“Not at all, James Darling,” Mary smiled eagerly. “You and I have always accumulated bodies faster than we could eat them ourselves, and at first, all we did was let them pile up in this pit here. Boy, did that stink something awful! Selling our surplus human meat on the underworld market brought in some much-needed capital, but we still had a lot of corpses and body parts that weren’t exactly ‘retail quality,’ shall we say. That’s when we first got our little piggie pals here. Pigs eat pretty much anything, including all our leftovers. I started breeding the ones that were most useful to us, and before I knew it, I had myself a breed of man-eating monster pigs!”
“And you sure outdid yourself with them, Mary Darling. Just look at how eager they are to get our contestant here!” James said, holding up the remote control so the man below him could clearly see it. “Listen up, ‘contestant who couldn’t be bothered to tell me his name when asked and shall thus die nameless.’ When I press this button, the pigs will be released into the pit, and they will try to eat you. Your only chance is to fight them off with your bare hands. It’s not a good chance since each of them outweighs you and has been bred for ferocity, but it’s the only chance you’ve got. Understood?”
“Fuck you!” he screamed, his eyes roving around the pit wildly for any possible means of escape or defense.
James snarled at him, and forcefully pushed down on the remote. A harsh buzzer sounded, the gate flew open, and the three squealing pigs charged into the pit, jostling with each other as they scrambled to be the first to play with their new chew toy.
The man screamed and took a running jump towards the wall of the pit, hoping to build up enough momentum to run up the wall and grab the edge. This didn’t work, and by the time he hit the ground again, the pigs were upon him.
The first pig chomped onto his ankle with its full bite force, crushing the bone underneath. He screamed and fell to the ground as he tried to kick his foot free, only to succeed by severing it from his leg. He watched in helpless horror as the pig joyfully munched away on his dismembered foot, followed by his blood gushing out onto the floor.
With his remaining foot, he tried to kick the pig away, but a second pig jumped onto his chest, savagely crushing his ribs under its weight. He tried to scream, but his lungs had been perforated by his own broken ribs, plus the mass of the pig on top of him wouldn’t let his lungs expand anyway. He desperately tried to push the pig off of him, but before he could even get his left arm in position, the third pig sunk its teeth into his forearm. With one sharp tug, it pulled the arm out of its socket and started gnawing on it like a dog with a bone.
The first pig, having already finished with the man’s foot, decided it wanted something a little less boney instead, and went straight for the groin. It took his testicles, penis, and a good chunk of the mound off in one bloody bite, then mashed his manhood to pulp between its powerful molars. Intestines starting pouring out through the gaping wound, and the pig helped itself to those next.
By now, the man knew he was done for, and just hoped that the pig on top of him would go for the jugular and end it quickly, as any decent predator would. But Mary had bred and trained her pigs not to go for a quick kill, and instead it bit off his nose and a good portion of his upper teeth. With the next bite, it tore off his entire mandible, and still he lived as all three pigs ate him alive. It wasn’t until the third pig starting gnawing into his left side and the one on top crushed through his skull to get at his brain that he finally lost consciousness, along with the challenge.
“‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which,’” James quoted pompously as the man beneath him was reduced to an unrecognizable smear of gore and viscera.
“Huh. I don’t think that quote’s as profound when the reason you can’t say which is which is because the man’s been mutilated beyond all reason,” Mary remarked chipperly.
“Fair enough!” James agreed, putting on a big smile as he spun turned to face the cameras. “Well, folks, it looks like our second contestant isn’t moving on either. Just as well. We can’t have someone who uses such foul language polluting our airwaves. It’s obscene! I’d like to think of this as a family show.”
“Hmmm. Not sure I’d want to meet that family, James Darling,” Mary mused as she resumed her position by the wheel. “I don’t know about you, but after those last two kills I think I might be feeling sated enough that our third contestant could actually have a shot at winning.”
“Did you hear that, contestant? Mary Darling is feeling sated, which is as close to merciful as she and I get,” James said as he walked over to the final contestant. He undid his gag, and surprisingly he did not curse or cry, but instead remained as stoic as he had been for the entire ordeal. “And what is your name, sir?”
The man didn’t answer immediately, and just as James opened his mouth to threaten him, he was interrupted.
“You know, I was worried that I may have underestimated you, that you were actually just stringing me along and had some ace in the hole but…you really don’t know who I am, do you?” the man asked with a wry smile.
James, Mary, and the live studio audience all cocked their heads at this remark. It was rare for any of their victims, regardless of the setting, to act so calm and collected, and his comment legitimately put them off their guard.
“We’ve met before, have we?” James asked curiously.
“Just once, but I had thought I would have left an impression,” he replied. “It was at Chamberlin’s Halloween party, on Pendragon Hill. Surely you remember that, don’t you?”
The man smiled wider now, and dense black vapor began exuding from every orifice on his face. James immediately backed away while Mary rushed to his side, for now they did indeed realize who they were dealing with.
“Is someone actually watching this pathetic little snuff film of yours?” the contestant asked, examining the unmanned cameras that had all turned to focus on him. “For those of you just joining us, my name is Emrys the Eternal. I’m the physical avatar of an extra-dimensional cosmic entity summoned here last year in a botched ritual, and in my spare time I enjoy collecting and studying rare occult artifacts, practicing dark magic and rose gardening.”
The laugh track was triggered, but glitched and just repeated the same few seconds of audio over and over again.
“Emrys,” James murmured in disbelief. “You…let me catch you? On purpose?”
“My dear Darlings, how long have you been at this now?” Emrys asked condescendingly as he effortlessly rose from his seat. The illusion of a mortal man fell away, and they beheld the visage of pale, gaunt, bearded Emrys, clad in furs and bound in silver chains, a triple ouroboros tattoo upon his forehead. “Sixty years, at least? Luring mortals in here and playing with them like cats with mice, all while remaining completely immune to the violence you so delight in? Pitiful. I think it’s well past time that you pick on someone your own size.”
A very rare look of terror was plastered across Mary’s face, but James let out an arrogant laugh at the challenge.
“You want to fight us? In our playroom?” James scoffed. “You may have bested us at Chamberlin’s mansion, but we’re gods in here!”
Enormous shards of obsidian erupted forth from the floor to impale Emrys as he was enveloped in a vortex of white-hot fire, with massive electrical discharges arcing down from the studio lights for good measure.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concoction of plasma and fire and volcanic glass violently exploded, destroying all the cameras that had huddled around it. The blast wave was powerful enough to send both Darlings flying through the air and up against their own game wheel, where they were crucified by fragments of obsidian through their limbs.
Through the haze and debris, Emrys strode towards them, unscathed and unperturbed by James’ impotent attempt to destroy him.
“And I’m God no matter where I am,” he pontificated as he spun the wheel around so that he was face to face with Mary. “Fortunately for you, Darling, I’m not a vengeful god, as a vengeful god likely wouldn’t forgive someone who stabbed them as many times as you did. You do so love your knives, don’t you? Bygones, though, Darling. Bygones.”
She winced as he ran his hand along her face, trying her best to force back tears. She hated being afraid, and had tried very hard for almost her entire life to be the scariest monster there was, so that there would be nothing that could scare her.
“I know, Darling,” Emrys smirked, effortlessly reading her thoughts. “But in the grand scheme of things, you’re still as helpless as any of your victims.”
She felt her brother’s blood drip down from above her, and with a deep sob, she let her tears fall.
“James! James, are you alive?” she wailed.
“I am, Mary Darling,” he grunted, pained but surprisingly calm. The reason for this was that from his elevated position, he could see what their ‘audience’ was doing.
The audience was, in fact, their pet, a creature that resembled a cloud of television static. More accurately, though, it was the imaginary patterns within the static, a type of thoughtform that arose from the meaning people saw in chaos.
As the audience members silently marched towards Emrys, they merged together until they were nothing but screaming faces in a flickering, shapeless mass, rising up towards the ceiling and ready to crash down upon him like a tsunami.
“Tell me, Emrys. Why did you come here, if not for vengeance?” James asked, genuinely curious now and not sure if he’d have a chance to ask again later.
Emrys looked up at him and gave him a knowing smile.
“Lunch,” he replied simply. Spinning around, he reached out his hand towards the monster, spectral black tendrils shooting out from his palm and penetrating deep into the snowy cloud.
The nebulous creature began to writhe and shriek in agony, its amorphous form shifting wildly but steadily getting smaller and smaller, eventually leaving nothing behind but a small mass resembling a soggy, balled-up newspaper.
“No! No!” Mary screamed. “What did you do? What did you do?!”
Emrys retracted his miasmic appendages and shivered slightly, his fumes flickering briefly like static before returning to their abysmal black.
“After our previous confrontation, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to channel enough of my true form’s power into this body to achieve my ambitions,” he replied, gesturing to the chains that restricted his power. “So I decided that I would have to absorb some other entity’s power to make do until I can break these bindings. I shopped around a bit and heard through the grapevine that you two have been keeping a Voggathaust as a bloody pet, fattened up with over half a century’s worth of sacrifices! That’s some pretty potent egregoric power, and I think I’ll be able to put it to very good use.”
Emrys extended his hand and levitated what was left of the Darlings’ pet tulpa, transmuting it into a static-filled portal. He snapped his fingers, turning the obsidian pinning the twins to the wheel into smoke, and they plummeted to the floor.
“Thank you so much for having me on. It was a pleasure, really.” He beamed at them as he picked up Petra’s corpse and slung it over his shoulder. Neither of them dared to ask what he wanted it for. “Don’t suppose you’ll be inviting me back on, though, eh?”
“If you ever set foot in here again, I will bind your soul to your corpse on an atomic level so that you can feel yourself rotting for all eternity!” James threatened as he coddled his distraught sister.
With a sage nod, Emrys took his leave through the portal, only to insolently step right back across it and head straight for the prize display.
“You know what? I technically won this. I’m taking it,” he said as he hoisted up one of the Retrovisions and carried it across the portal with him. This time, it snapped closed, leaving the Darlings sitting alone in their ruined studio, their own looping laugh track mocking them in their humiliation.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available