This life is nothing more than the process of rationing a very small quantity of hope. In this unspectacular, unchanging hothouse, there are only a few patches of clean glass amid the thick grime spread across its dirty windows, where we might occasionally spy the wilder world beyond our rote, geometric lives. Those moments of vision are few but inspiring, lending to us our notions of immortality and granting our dreams and expectations for ourselves a ridiculous overreach, and within those exaggerations we gather hope—against death, against vanishing, against oblivion. Yet in the end, we are exhausted and become dust.
Darkness, on the other and greater hand, is that recalcitrant part of us that cannot sink to its least desirable depths—where the world becomes vacant and complacent, merely a blithering stupidity of artificial imperatives, where wonder perishes of starvation and all power attains only the nullity of its purpose. Darkness is the Devil’s clay—the malleable power of the self, unrestrained. Once possessed, it can grant a forbidden arrogance to its wielder, allowing them to do whatever they choose rather than whatever they are told. Darkness is to accept that we are dangerous, and intent on being so. All of this was the Great Darkness, and my belief as to why we forgot its savage raptures is that we were too much for ourselves—our raw, unseasoned truth was too terrifying. Yet how glorious we must have been, to have frightened ourselves so.
Now I am overflowing with hope for the first time. I saw, if only faintly, a very small but astonishing scene from the Great Darkness. The stolen dream was so much more than just a play of memory and shadow, with the least of its importance falling upon the specifics of the lovely Miss Molly Patience (at least not her, per se). Here was something precious and singular, like the fleeing Golden Hind caught somewhere within the brambles of my mind, only to be lost again to the forest of recollection and forgetfulness. This was a decaying fragment of utter and incarnate madness, a clear memory of the Great Darkness. I saw what the world had become, and could perhaps become again. I witnessed the defeat of the Queen of the Dead. I saw her corpulent dullness scattered like ashes across a world of resurrected dreams. Was this the purpose of the dream— to advertise a possible reward for a game well played? Or was it in truth merely a parenthetical slideshow of the next name on my murder list?
However parenthetical or primary, the dream had appreciably lightened my desire to eliminate the subterranean cannibal, for she was pure monster—forged from a daemon darkness beyond recollection, a mistress of dark hordes, and a hunter of fiends. Alternatively, I was ecstatic to meet her monstrous legions and stand before her bleeding smile, which could easily pass for one of my sister’s lethal grins. I would have liked to believe that I had some choice in the matter, but in truth I had none. I was in love with the drift of inscrutable purpose and the power of endless possibility. And as an artist, to see your work actually affect the world . . .
The train slowed as we approached a line of mountains that shambled in from the east, the sky hosting sweaty clouds and legions of crows. The next stop was listed as “Orphan.” As the train finally came to a halt and opened its doors, I peered out the windows intently, hoping to glimpse the species of creature that afforded the city its strange name. However, the train lingered at the boarding platform and a tinny voice announced there would be a two-hour layover before the train resumed. I happily disembarked, eager to explore.
There were few passengers departing from the other cars. Exactly twenty people, all told, with not a stitch of the remarkable about any of them. So, I took to the shadows of the path we all followed into town, not giving the small crowd a second thought. The town itself was trivial and quiet, but the echoes of horrors past still sounded within its darker spaces, always reminding those who were sensitive to such reverberations that past is prologue. Yet beyond its connection to plague and death, it was a quaint, if only slightly haunted, little hamlet.
There were sights in and around the city if you knew where and how to look for them. For instance, after I followed the silence of old death, I located a wonderful and well-hidden mass grave. It had apparently been feeding a collection of the most monstrous trees I’d seen since I traveled the back roads about Autumn City, near the infamous September Woods. I even managed to find a small smokehouse that had been repurposed as an art gallery, hidden fairly deep in the forest. The lingering darkness must have found a willing supplicant somewhere in the city—it had called upon them to recount their darkest visions in pig’s blood, and to paint those images across the dried skins of deer and bears. The gallery was fresh, as some of the paintings had dried only recently. There was one particular piece that caught my eye—a tall, gaunt man had been painted against a background composed of many hundreds of knotted serpents, and he wore a dainty crown fashioned from small snake bones. The words written below the slim figure read, “The Prince of Snakes.” Yet despite the one mature work, the rest of the pieces were still those of a fledgling. The animal materials satisfied an embryonic art that would soon call for more blood and skin, of a species that would require a gallery less easily stumbled upon by persons wandering through the forest.
After drinking from a cold stream, I made my way back to the train. I reached the station and detected that the small crowd returning from the city had grown by one member. The new addition seemed out of place, trying too hard to blend into the gathering. Entering the passenger car, I took a seat behind the man who wished to move unnoticed in his travels. I watched him for some time before realizing he was looking back at me through the reflective chrome that wrapped around a handrail.
“I have no head for this sort of game,” the man said, our eyes locking upon the reflection of the other. “I’m far too impatient. It’s the chaos I’m chasing. The faster and faster I go . . . I just love it. You?” I said nothing. My sister was already near to hand, and I couldn’t deny how badly I wanted to express the artistic inspiration gained via my sleeping glimpse into The Great Darkness.
The man slowly—as if knowing that any untoward movements would lead to his death—lifted and displayed a piece of water-stained paper from his front pocket. He unfolded and briefly held it within my view. It was a murder list, replete with crossed-off names and numbered entries.
“See? I don’t think you’re on here. Or at least, you’re not next on my list. I’m embarrassed to say that it took me some time to finally know the true face of my next playmate, and you certainly don’t look anything like the Breathtaker. And from the fact that I’m still talking, I’m going to assume I’m not on your list, either. Are we permitted to kill out of order? If so, I suppose we may have a problem.”
“You would have the problem, I’m afraid,” I said, effortlessly sliding my sister through the fabrics and plastics of the seat between us, gently resting her deadly smile against his back. “But I’ve had no inclination to pursue the names out of order, thus far. However, there does seem to be an implicit formality to all of this. So, for now, I’m willing to consider the order of the names as something of an unspoken rule.”
“It’s the order and formality that has me wanting to quit this awful game. As an artist, I’m sure you must feel the same, yes?” The man knew who I was. That interested me.
“Why do you think you know who I am?”
“You’re gigantic, with what could easily be an enormous axe wrapped up and strapped across your back. To be honest, I’m not sure how you’ve lasted so long with such an appearance, and traveling ostentatiously on a public vehicle, no less.” He still hadn’t turned to face me. “Do I have you at a disadvantage, my friend? Have you no idea with whom you’re speaking? I wonder how many faceless names you’ve already scratched off that list of yours, all the while having no idea as to the legacies you’ve destroyed. That is what we’re doing, isn’t it? We’re being made to thin our own ranks. Or have you a grander explanation to share?”
The man was intriguing enough to warrant a response. “I’ve known of a few of the persons on my list. The others weren’t permitted a proper introduction, I’m afraid. As to the nature of the game, I’ll keep my opinions to myself. And while I admit to a temporary loss in our little naming game, your interest in names and legacies tells me more about you than the fact that you won’t show me your face—or whoever’s face that is. Even the muted sunlight falling from behind me can’t reveal the unmoving portions of dead skin that make up that wonderful mask you’ve constructed. Although, as soon as you’re on the hunt again, you will turn it around, revealing a face on both sides of your head. Am I correct . . . Janus?”
The man laughed. “That’s the reason you’ve proven so elusive! You’re a clever fox, indeed! Yes, you’ve guessed correctly!” Still laughing, the masked killer finally turned to face me, and I stared into eyes as lethal as the dagger that swiftly knocked aside my sister’s gleaming smile.
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