It began in shadow.
And it came to pass that, in the city of New York, in the county of New York, in the state of New York, the news of the dawn of the Great War first came to the vagrants. These were not the merely unhomed, or the low and often insane class of vagabond known as bums, but true-born vagrants: descended from that ancient lineage of unfettered hermits known to themselves as the Concealed Order of the Illustrious Chosen Path, and to the rest of the world as Hobos. And though it has been many years since the last Boxcar War and the most recent death of their Eternal King, the vagrants of New York still possessed many of the forgotten secrets of their hobo ancestors. They remembered the knack of whistling the taxi-men to rest, the three words that will tame a five-toed alley cat, the secret language of rats, and the hidden underground paths to use in avoiding confrontation with the shrieking damned that dwell in the tunnels below the city. By secret sign and ancient cant they remained canny to distant happenings, and when the Word reached their ears, they convened a great Vagrancy, and departed the city by unknown means. But they warned no one, and their passing was not understood, and many remarked how much better the city smelled, and wasn’t there ever so much less urine around these days?
The second to hear the Word were the wind-dancers, who dwelt in the city’s unkept lofts and buckled on wings of canvas and wood and twine to their arms and played in the sleek thermal asphalt-updrafts between Gramercy and Tribeca. The news came to them on the first light of dawn, and they folded their winds and skimmed to earth and scurried to share the Word: that Dame Hilary’s army had disappeared. After a year and a half of relentless siege, she had packed up her forces – immense stone-throwers, armored and barded war-cattle, and the woad-encrusted, axe-bearing barbarian warriors from the Highland clans of North Jersey – and departed in the middle of the night. Only the ashes of their cookfires remained in the stark morning light. Ashes, and one other thing: a great shadow like a wall of hanging darkness on the western horizon.
As the days passed, the shadow grew ever closer.
The people were troubled by these signs. They sought to know whether these events boded good or ill, and if this fate could be avoided by supplication or prayer. In their terror they turned to their liege lord, the Thane-Mac-Ferr, the Ironbranded Giuliani, and they begged him for solace. But the lidless, bloodshot, ever-watchful eye of the vigilant Lord was directed elsewhere, and he heeded not their cries but continued to sit and brood on his rusting throne beneath the shadow of his crumbling towers.
And the people of New York grew fearful, and the rich, and the mighty, and the captains of industry, and the brokers of Wall Street, and the artists of SoHo, and every free man, and every bonded man, hid themselves in the dens and in the basements and in the lobbies and beneath the awnings of their mighty steel towers. And they said to the earth and the towers “Fall on us, and hide us from the coming wrath, for the advent of a great darkness is upon us, and the day of our Doom is at hand.”
And the earth cried out, and the buildings cried out, and the awnings cried out: “No hiding place!”
So the people grew even more fearful, and some fled into the tunnels of shrieking wind beneath their city, and some fled into the choking, noxious sewers: some were taken away by the screaming damned, and many were eaten by vicious wereodiles, and none were seen again. But some among the people kept their heads, and they suggested that the citizens turn to those on whom they had always ultimately depended: the Celebrities. These were the golden caste, those clean-limbed, fluorescent-toothed youth of a thousand dreaming nights, who bided their days reclining on velvet cushions, who were redolent of scented oils and flowery unguents, and whose every wish and craving were catered to in the hope that they might bestow a fleeting smile or passing remark. So the people gathered up their gifts of golden statuettes and ostrich feathers and aromatic palm fronds and entreated their celebrities for help.
In those days the foremost among the golden caste was one called Depp, and he calmed their fears with soft words and mournful smiles. He bid them return to their homes, and to rest easy in their beds, because he vowed that he would consult the Oracles and return with tidings.
Depp’s journey was long and difficult, and many times did he brush with death. With great stealth he slunk through the shadow of the Towers, beneath the fiery eye of the Thane-Mac-Ferr. With a silver tongue did he bargain with the ancient warlocks of Chinatown for a six-demon bag, and with the aid of his demon-bag he distracted the shadow hounds of Chelsea, and so passed beneath the arched gates of Hell’s Kitchen. Depp skirted the smoking piles of rubble that adorned the borough until he stood before the yellowing alabaster tower of the Oracles. He defeated the Oracles’ guardian, a berseker black unicorn with steaming flanks and smoking eyes, in this manner: transfixing the unicorn with his stare, he plucked 12 hairs from his ragged goatee and, making a lasso of them, he threw it over the unicorn’s head, rendering it docile. And ever after the unicorn loved him and served him, and was his eternal companion.
When Depp stood before the Oracles, in the center of their shadowed chamber, he bowed low. “Oh very wise and sapient Oracles,” he said. “I bring you the three traditional gifts: bagels, espresso, and this illuminated, leather-bound book which I have written with my own hands. In return, I ask an answer to my question: What is the meaning of the shadow in the west, and does it bring the Doom of New York?”
These were the three Oracles: one was dressed in a tattered grey robe with faded blue trim, and he was cursed to speak no word that was not truth, but never would his words be heeded. He was known as the Mensch. One was dressed in a red and blue robe of finest samite, embroidered at hem and sleeve and cowl with white stars and pentacles, and he was cursed to speak no word that was not Truthy, and ever would his words be heeded. He was known as the Buffoon. One was dressed in a robe of dull black that seemed to drink the light, and he was cursed to speak no word that was not obscenity, and never would his words be understood. He was known as the Crank.
The Mensch made a strange gesture, as if to tug at an invisible collar, and said, “Yeah, about that…”
The Buffoon said, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Good news first: if you’ve recently invested in bomb shelter construction companies or canned soup, you’re about to make fat bank.”
The Crank said, “You’re fucked.”
The Mensch said, “Look, you’ve got strife and conflict in every state in this land. The Ronpaul’s death killed the whole Midwestern economy. All of Texas is burning. Huckabee is fighting zombies on the barricades in Decatur. Romney’s Raiders have been seen taking salt wives as far west as Sacramento, and Edwards’ little Sparrows rule the streets in Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro. The shadow you see is just another symbol of the underlying chaos.”
The Buffoon said, “Think of it as the first ant to arrive at a really badass Fourth of July picnic. As soon as you see one, you can bet your baby blue britches that a million more are on their way.”
The Crank said, “You’re really fucked.”
The Mensch said, “But all of those are just cutesy analogies. You probably want to know what the shadow represents. Well: the Shadow is war.”
The Buffoon said, “The Shadow is fear, and all things both liberal and ursine.”
The Crank said, “The Shadow is God’s way of telling you how truly fucked you are.”
The Mensch said, “You see, we’ve had wars in this country before – I’m talking real clusterfuck wars – but nothing like this. The thing you’re about to see in the next few months? It’s going to make Bush/Gore look like two baby kittens on ecstasy.”
The Buffoon said, “What my friend Jon is trying to say here is: cats and dogs, living together, TOTAL ANARCHY!”
The Crank nodded. “Totally fucked.”
And Depp became troubled. “How certain is your grasp of that which has not yet come to pass?”
The Crank said “Fucking certain.”
“How do you know these things?”
The Mensch said, “A crystal ball, an intern, and a pad and pencil.”
The Buffoon said, “I consult my gut. You gut is a lot smarter than your wishy-washy, pansy, elitist brain. Why do you think they call it ‘digesting’ information? The only way to learn from books is to eat them. Or use them as toilet paper. Same difference.”
Depp wept then, in a sensitive, masculine way. “Can nothing be done?” he asked. “Is there no way to save this city from the doom hanging over our heads?”
The Mensch said, “Well, I suppose you could always educate yourself about the issues and make an intelligent decision to—“
The Buffoon interrupted. “Pick a side! Pick it now! Red or Blue! You’re either a virile cleft-chinned paragon of conservative thought or a flip-flopping liberal nancy-boy in wet undershorts.”
The Crank reached up and drew back his midnight-black cowl. Beneath was not a skull, as Depp had feared, but only a jowly-looking man with spiky, graying hair and kind eyes peering out from behind a pair of tiny spectacles. He put a hand on Depp’s stooped shoulder. “It’s fucking simple, son. All you have to do is pick a side. In this war you’re either Red, or Blue, or you’re the battleground in the middle. That’s all there is. Pick a side, and try to ride it out.”
“But which side will win?” Depp asked, but the Oracles had withdrawn from the little circle of light, and the room was empty, and he was surrounded on all sides by shadow.
And when Depp brought this news to the people of New York, they were not pleased.
They were not pleased at all.