The creature known by the few who had reason to speak with him as Cervin stood unflinching still amidst the saturated jaundiced rooms of Level 0, his heavy boots sinking into the damp and pungent yellow carpet. From a distance, Cervin looked a bit like a large, lanky man in a long, weathered coat and a deer-skull mask. Up close though, the illusion of humanity was quickly lost, as it became obvious that what looked like a mask was actually growing out of his face.
His neon-green eyes glared with mild contempt at the mustard-coloured walls in front of him, his deliberative breathing the only sound other than the flickering fluorescent lights above him. The only definite sound, anyway. There might have been whispering, but there always might have been whispering, so he did his best to ignore it. The lights flickered again, and in the corner of his eye, Cervin thought that he saw something that was a slightly different shade of yellow than everything else, but he didn’t react to it. There was no point, and he knew it.
The Backrooms were filled with all manner of ‘what-was-that’s and ‘who’s-there’s, and greater fools than Cervin knew those were questions best left unanswered.
Each year, thousands of people inadvertently found themselves trapped within The Backrooms, usually on Level 0. Many, maybe most, of those people never made it beyond that and died alone within the sickly yellow rooms that Cervin found himself in now. Despite that, no human had ever found a corpse within Level 0.
It was the things that might have been whispering, that Cervin might have seen in the corner of his eye, that were responsible for this.
Cervin tilted his head slightly to the right, the first whiff of a dead body having reached his nose. His olfactory senses were so powerful, he effectively had binocular smelling, able to judge the distance and direction to something simply by the difference in strength between one nostril and the other.
Once he had the scent, he burst into action, sprinting through door after door towards the body. If he wanted to claim it first, he wouldn’t have much time.
Following a scent through Level 0 wasn't as straightforward as it would have been in The Frontrooms, since the entire infinitude of rooms was non-Euclidian and two rooms never lead to one another twice, but Cervin had been at this for a long time. Navigating The Backrooms may not have been easy, but it could be done.
It took hours, but he did eventually find the room where the body was. It was a tiny, skeletal thing lying in a fetal position in the corner, its face buried in its arms. It took months just to die of thirst in The Backrooms, entropy being a very weird thing there. That was nearly always a curse rather than a blessing, delaying death and extending suffering beyond anything that was naturally possible.
Somewhat less explicably, the body was covered in strange marks, similar to the ones that might be left by the suckers of an octopus. There were also three pairs of slight indentations in the carpet around it, vaguely resembling inhuman footprints, but not quite enough to undeniably be anything other than depressions in the carpet.
Cervin ignored these oddities, in the same way he ignored the sounds that might have been whispers or the shadows that might have been movement. Unfurling a large burlap sack, he grabbed the corpse by the scruff of the neck and shoved it in.
Then, and only then, did he hear the door furthest from him creak open.
He looked up, and standing there in the doorway was a scrawny teenage girl. She was noticeably underweight, and had likely been in The Backrooms for a while, but she didn’t look like she was about to keel over just yet.
Her eyes went wide when she saw him, but she didn’t scream, and she didn’t run. She just stood perfectly still, staring at him, seemingly not knowing how to react.
‘Well, that makes two of us,’ Cervin thought to himself sardonically. He was probably the closest thing she had seen to another human since she had got there, and was so desperate for aid and companionship that she was willing to give him every benefit of the doubt before trying to flee.
He slung his sack over his shoulder and rose to his full height, looking the girl up and down as he did so. She was in no shape to outrun him or fight him off, so he could do with her as he pleased. He could kill her, but he couldn't bring two bodies back at once without his bosses knowing something was up, and he had no idea if they’d want her dead anyway. Even if killing her wasn’t a violation of any rule, leaving her corpse to rot definitely would have been.
And the thought of deliberately sacrificing someone to the things lurking at the edges of his vision made his stomach roil.
He could just run off and pretend nothing happened, but there was always a chance that she would escape Level 0 and tell others about what she had seen. No, trying to pretend this never happened would only make things worse for everyone in the long run; including him. He needed to report to his bosses to see what they wanted to be done with her, and the girl needed to come with him. He could have just grabbed her and slung her over his other shoulder, but why make more work for himself than he had to?
"Follow me," he said, firmly but softly enough that it was closer to an invitation than an order. He set off through the nearest door, and sure enough, he heard her soft footsteps in the carpet pitter-pattering after him. "What's your name, girl?"
“Nami; Chinami, actually,” she said, her voice hoarse and metallic from lack of use. “What’s yours?”
“Cervin,” he replied curtly. “How long have you been here, Chinami?”
“I’m not sure. I lost count a little after the first month, and that count was based on the assumption that light-dark cycles here are twenty-four hours,” she told him. “The, the body – the body in your bag. Did you, did you –”
“No. I just clean them up,” he answered truthfully. Chinami sighed in relief, and picked up her pace to stand a little closer to him.
“I haven’t seen another person since I got here, but I might have seen something. I’m not sure, I thought I was going crazy, but… you’re not human, and you’re real, aren’t you?” she asked hopefully.
“As real as anything else here, which isn’t saying much,” he said glibly, making four sharp ninety-degree turns through four clustered doors that should have led him back to where he started, but of course didn’t.
“What is this place?” Chinami asked hesitantly, as if she was afraid of what the answer might be.
“These days, most of your kind call it The Backrooms; a manifold of nested pocket dimensions that split off from base reality aeons ago,” Cervin told her. “This is Level 0, and it’s looked like this since the sixties, but I remember it when it was a medieval labyrinth. It’s almost impossible to get off of this level if you don’t know what you’re doing, and most mortals that do get out just got lucky.”
He stopped suddenly for no apparent reason, holding up his hand in a commanding gesture for her to stop as well.
“And you, young lady, are very lucky indeed,” he said as he held up a long key, the bottom portion of a smile visible beneath the deer-skull portion of his face.
With his other hand, he reached out towards the wall. There, Chinami saw that there was a small panel, like the ones used for light switches and electrical sockets, painted the exact same shade of sickly yellow as the wallpaper. She doubted she would have noticed it if Cervin hadn’t drawn her attention to it.
He flipped the panel open, revealing a keyhole integrated into some sort of mechanical contraption. He deftly inserted the key, and then turned it around and around like he was winding up a music box. When he removed it, the device began to unwind, causing the walls to slide open and reveal a small, brown room behind them.
Chinami stumbled backwards and brought her hands to her face in shock; the earthy brown tones of the chamber before her was a desperately needed change of scenery after so long on Level 0.
“Is that, is that…” she croaked, too terrified to finish asking the question.
“It’s a service elevator, accessible to staff only,” Cervin said as he casually stepped across the threshold, then turning around to face the control box. He placed his hand on the lever, cocking his head towards Chinami before pulling it down. “You coming?”
She jumped into the elevator as fast as she could, desperate to finally escape that dreadful and desolate level. He pulled down upon the lever, and the doors slid shut, an angry yellow form dashing towards them just before they closed. Chinami recoiled in shock, but Cervin didn’t react at all.
“Did, did you…” she mumbled pathetically, certain that she was just crazy from her long ordeal.
“Yes. I saw it,” he assured her.
With a gentle lurch, Chinami could feel the elevator begin to ascend.
“Congratulations, you’ve just escaped for Level 0 of The Backrooms,” Cervin said dryly. “Listen, I’m not a hundred percent sure what they’re going to do with you when we get to Processing. I’ve only ever brought them dead humans before. You’ll be better off up here than down there though. Just do what you’re told, keep your nose clean, and you’ll be fine. Got that?”
Chinami nodded emphatically.
“…Thank you,” she said, very softly and very sincerely, tears flowing down her face.
“…You’re welcome,” Cervin replied, turning his head back towards the doors.
Within seconds they were open again, revealing a cavernously large room made almost entirely from uneven, russet-brown bricks. Numerous conveyor belts lined the opposite side of the room, each leading into an enormous machine of dulled brass and rusted cast iron. Distantly, Chinami could hear the faint dim of blast furnaces and industrial machinery, but she hardly noticed it over the much nearer sound of rain on glass.
She looked up and saw there were large windows lining the breadth of the room, and she could see rainclouds of the same sickly yellow hue that she had spent the last several weeks staring at down on Level 0. The rain itself was brown, and stained the glass as it ran down its surface. It was hardly a pretty sight, but it was the only view of the outdoors that Chinami had had for a very long time, and it was enough to bring her to tears once again.
She followed Cervin to one of the conveyor belts, where he casually dumped the body he was carrying onto the rollers. He inserted some sort of yellowed punch card into the control console and pulled a lever, stamping both the card and the corpse with a date and serial number. The machine then whirred to life, and the conveyor belt swiftly rolled the corpse into the impervious black box at the end of the line.
“Do… do you know what happens to the bodies?” Chinami asked meekly, gazing up at the massive contraption in muted horror.
“Yes,” Cervin said flatly as he pocketed his punch card. He turned around to leave, only to find that a man had suddenly come out of nowhere to block his path.
The man was lean and short, though not as lean and short as Chinami. He was completely hairless, and his skin was abnormally smooth and pale. He was dressed in an ornate three-piece suit and cravat, and clasped upon the bridge of his nose was a pair of opaque spectacles with brass rims.
Despite his inferior stature, it was clear that Cervin was unnerved by the man’s presence.
“Taskmaster Ichmann; how are you, sir?” Cervin asked, standing as straight as he could and clasping his hands behind his back. “I was just depositing my latest –”
“Who is the fräulein, Herr Cervin?” Ichmann asked impatiently, eyeing Chinami with suspicion.
“Yes, I, ah… I ran into her on Level 0,” he confessed. “She walked in on me right as I was bagging a body. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, so I brought her back with me.”
Ichmann clucked his tongue in irritation as he evaluated Chinami.
“Herr Raubritter doesn’t want anyone to know about his operation on Level 0,” he said. “She and I will need to come to an agreement before we can decide what’s to be done with her.”
“She’s in no condition to enter any kind of contract right now; she needs food and water,” Cervin insisted.
“Oy. You Union types, always going on and on about your ‘food’ and your ‘water’,” Ichmann threw up his hands in frustration. “Yes, fine. Come to my office. We’ll get her fed first then.”
The two of them followed him up a flight of stairs to his office on the administrative floor, where they were left alone and waited on by a four-foot-tall, bat-eared, vitiligo afflicted servant in full livery. Cervin had expected for Chinami to be fed only a penny’s worth a gruel like the Foundry workers, but to his surprise, they were each presented with a bowl of creamy vegetable soup with crackers, bread and butter, cheese, Genoa salami, chocolate truffles, and sparkling strawberry water.
Chinami was understandably overjoyed at the feast provided to her, and devoured it ravenously.
“It’s not like Ichmann to put out a spread like this for a Bagman and a beggar,” Cervin said to her when she had nearly finished. “It seems that he wants you in an amicable mood. I don’t know what he’s up to, but be very careful with any deal he tries to make when he comes back.”
Chinami swallowed and nodded understandingly, then gazed out the brown-streaked window to the yellow clouds outside.
“Can I ever go back home?” she asked timidly. As she expected, Cervin shook his head.
“No. But you don’t have to go back to Level 0,” he assured her, trying to soften the blow. “There’s plenty of other levels, some of which aren’t half-bad.”
“Why do you go back, then?” she asked. “Why work as a Bagman?”
Cervin wrung his hands as he considered his response.
“You said that when you were down there, you thought you saw something, but you weren’t sure, and that you thought you might be going crazy,” he began slowly. “Those somethings are called ‘The Kings In Yellow’, and they’re what tried to attack us before the elevator closed. They’re not real, in the sense that they can’t exist in baseline reality, and even here they can’t interact directly with real people. You’ll catch glimpses of them in your periphery when you’re not paying attention, but never enough to be sure you saw anything at all, or hear them when you’re not sure what the sound was or where it came from. The MEG’s file on Level 0 says it has a minimal entity count, but they’re wrong. The Kings In Yellow are everywhere down there, stalking every single person unfortunate enough to fall into their web. Every time you went to sleep down there, they were standing over you, watching you, waiting for you to die.
“They’re the ones who created Level 0, I think. The rest of The Backrooms were just an unintentional byproduct that grew from that, inhabited and shaped by all manner of strange beings the crept in over the millennia, but Level 0 are the Kings’ hunting grounds. They made a labyrinth where they could trap people, isolate people, starve and stalk them until they went mad and after an impossibly long ordeal, finally die. They can only interact with you directly when you’re dead, and that’s the whole point of all of this. I don’t know why they need or want human corpses, just that they do, and that they’re the reason it’s so rare to find dead bodies on Level 0.
“And that’s why I gather those bodies. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that what Raubritter does with them is respectful, but it’s better than letting the Kings have them. I hate those bastards, and every body that I get to first is a win. I don’t know if it will actually make any difference in the long run, but the thought that I might actually be a thorn in their side is enough for me.”
Chinami grew sullen as she processed everything he had said. She thought back to countless days of lonely wandering, knowing now that she wasn’t crazy, and that something had been hunting her all that time. She had a name for them now, and that name conjured up images of tall beings in yellow cloaks and golden crowns, standing behind her and reaching out a necrotic hand, desperate to touch her but never quite able to.
It disgusted her, terrified her, and most importantly, enraged her.
The office door swung open and Ichmann returned, tossing a manilla folder onto his mahogany desk as he sat down.
“I’ve spoken with Herr Raubritter, and as this is the first time one of our Bagman has ever been found by a wanderer, we’re not willing to credit this to mere luck just yet,” he said, leaning back in his chair and pensively folding his fingers together. “The good news is that this means we’re not going to kill or even harm you, but the bad news is we’re not willing to just send you on your merry way. Now, the amount of oversight on our part depends entirely on how cooperative you’re willing to be. I can’t offer you a position on the factory floor, since the necessary augmentations might affect whatever led you to Herr Cervin, but there are perhaps less intensive jobs that you might find more agreeable than a prison cell? Fieldwork, perhaps? You can get out, meet people, see the rest of The Backrooms. How does that sound?”
Chinami swallowed nervously, mulling over her response for as long as she could before she finally spoke.
“How can I be of use against The Kings In Yellow?” she asked firmly.
Cervin twisted his head at her in dismay, but a wide, avaricious grin immediately spread across Ichmann’s pale face.
“Yes. Perhaps you could be of use to us in that department.”
Written by The Vesper's Bell