Black Molly Patience had walked the nightmares of humanity since the close of the Great Darkness and chewed the courage of an entire generation down to its rubbery gristle. The thought of finding her darkness and making it my own was exhilarating. Though I couldn’t help but imagine the toll such an act would exercise upon my conscience. How could I forgive myself for such a thing? And why would this “Shepherd” want me to strip the Mother of the Deadworld of one of her greatest enemies?
A soft voice brought the broken storm-drenched room that contained me back into focus. “You are like a feral angel hunting the limits of a savage heaven. I envy you—I must sleep to find my dreams, and here you are in the middle of the solid world, hunting and being hunted by the reddest dream imaginable. But my envy goes only so far before it is replaced by pity. While you have the good fortune of being wrapped in a wild dream day and night, I have walked between the headstones of that particular dream, and I know it will not end well for you.”
“Graveyards can be gardens, dreamer, as death can be as fertile as the blackest soil. Perhaps you wandered a garden that had been poorly seeded, and was only waiting to be cultivated with better ingredients?” My insight indulged my best hopes. I knew that dreams were tricky beasts, and even the most seasoned dreamer is likely to misinterpret them. As any good dreamer knows, dreams make promises carved in smoke and speak in the hissing sibilance of snakes.
“While we’re lingering upon this issue of grim inevitability,” I said, “I would very much like to know how you’ve come to be ignored by the things that inhabit this city.”
“That is a particularly interesting topic, given your previous mention of gardens,” the dreamer said. “You see, I too am being cultivated. This very bed I sleep upon is invaluable to the creatures that dwell here. Every time I return from dream a little bit of my journey is left behind within its sheets, its rusted frame and creaking headboard. These creatures possess a kind of technology that can harvest it for their own strange purposes. I learned all of this upon the close of the first day I entered New Victoria, just weeks after the plague had begun. I had made my way through the silent crowds of shambling sleepwalkers, past the screeching birth knells of infant nightmares, and finally came to rest in the spacious rooms of a derelict house that squatted beneath a dense enclosure of trees.
“At that point, I had become far too familiar with the unearthly sounds of nightmares risen from sleep, and so failed to immediately investigate the metallic droning that vibrated the ceiling above me. Eventually, the sounds of something creeping toward my bed renewed my exhausted curiosity. When I gazed into a small patch of moonlight that fell from the bed to the floor, I could see the creeping machinations of a curious industry—throbbing semi-organic tubers were slithering across the floor and crawling up between the box spring and mattress of my bed.
“Of course, I was quick to leap from beneath my sheets and onto the floor, and just in time—a ganglionic tangle of smaller tubers descended from the unseen corners of the dark room and seized my pillow within a death-grip of extruded hooks and needles. Shortly after the creeping lengths of flesh and steel had all but cocooned my previous sleeping arrangements, the collective apparatus of organics began to pulsate with a kind of sickening rhythm, composed of an orderly exchange between slurping and chewing sounds. It took no great amount of thought for me to deduce that the strange technologies were extracting the dreams that had come to repose within the materials of the bed. Later I would determine that this technology could extract dreams from just about any object that had routine contact with those who dreamed.
“As perhaps you are uniquely positioned to understand, any dream that can survive waking—even in the minutest amounts—is a quantifiable victory, even part of a larger potential victory over all of this intractable waking foolishness. So, these things have smartly devised a means by which no amount of residual dream is suffered to waste. Since that night, the things have left me to my own devices—so long as I dream in the right direction and do not distract them from the rest of their labors.
“And with this last bit of insight I must conclude our little meeting, for as I have mentioned I am only tolerated here as long as I remain a quietly ripening fruit, not a noisy flower that gathers stinging pests.”
As a parting gift, the dreamer granted me one last bit of insight—a secret route allowing me safe escape from the city.
I walked through the damp blackness of a long hallway toward the elevator. The dimmest of lights sat affixed to the frame above the recessed machine, its illumination little more than a glowing darkness that indicated the direction of the elevator’s travel.
As I entered its cramped quarters, before its doors slid shut, I heard the piercing screams of the man I had just left to busy sleep. Apparently the Wakeless had made a calculated decision concerning their pursuit of me, its execution boding poorly for my insightful friend, waxing resource or not. I knew there was nothing to be done for the man, and I hoped the better part of his mind had somehow managed to escape into the weightless and rushing waters of his precious dreams. Sadly, the colder and more rational part of my mind knew better.
The doors opened into the superior darkness of a basement, and I took a moment to look for entities that might preside over the place in some official capacity. Yet as much as the city partook in dreams, it seemed not to include the pleasant company of Cellar Kings and their subterranean sovereignties. This was not to say that some echo of the Kingdom of Cellars was entirely absent—a wonderfully wide hole occupied a wall, opening into spaces that fled the basement and connected adjoining subterranean places. I quickly moved beyond the hole into a strange and twisting corridor that had been carved from solid stone.
Behind me I heard the “ding” of the elevator door opening again. I chuckled a bit too loudly at the idea of such brilliantly vile creatures loading into an elevator like so many office workers, tapping their clawed feet to a “The Girl From Ipanema” instrumentation. Despite the amusement the chase provided, I grew tired of being rushed. I summoned my father to my grip, and with deafening force he blasted himself against the stone of the ceiling. (I believe he was still upset about his previous failure to finalize matters between himself and a certain tongueless nightmare.) Massive chunks of stone crashed to the tunnel floor in thick clouds of dust and debris, blocking the way behind me. My father was not pleased at having been awoken for so pedestrian a task, but the freedom he afforded me made the weight of his silent reproach more bearable.
As I navigated the underground, I imagined myself as the woman I would soon hunt—I listened with pricked ears as I glided through the deep stillness that overflowed from blackest voids, waiting for a sign to call me up from the darkness to snatch my prey from the world. With my victim firmly in my grasp, I would send my venom rifling through its bloodstream and then steal away into the subterranean rooms of my home. The bones of my previous meals would gather around my naked feet as I devoured my paralyzed prey. I was so enthralled with my imaginings that I had nearly neglected to notice a light that was growing brighter by the moment. Before I knew it, the manmade tunnel had transitioned into a natural expanse of smooth rock that conducted me without the mouth of a yawning cave. I looked above a nearby hill and spied the distant rooftops of New Victoria. I had escaped the nightmare city for the second time.
As I emerged from beneath the thick shadow of the city and moved back onto the main road beyond its broken barricades, I found the Dead Mother waiting for me. She stood on the far side of the pavement, her sickly yellow light pouring down over the cracked blacktop, glorifying each pebble of artificially darkened stone. The stench of her body—a horrible mixture of tar and heat—swept back and forth across the air like clumps of dead bodies in shallow water, slowly drifting to the cadence of a feeble oily current. Her grotesque silhouette was revealed to me through the pattern of cracks in a nearby concrete wall that stood alone within an abandoned parking lot. I could feel her gangrenous thoughts pulling at the shadows around me, trying to weed them from her garden of blooming banality. Her head was buried in the sun—just an obnoxious mass of heat and dead light, spreading a sick yellow warmth across my upturned face. As she looked down at me, I thought of everything the dead dreamer had told me. I imagined the Red Dream that might spread across the world as a result of the game I played. It was then I managed to offer the Dead Queen a broken grin—a mere sample of the smiles to come.
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