The sunlight didn’t immediately alert me to the fact that the man sitting in front of me was wearing another person’s face over the top of his own. The precision of the mask’s fashioning was clearly exquisite, even superhuman—but the fit was too perfect. It was as if the victim had been genetically designed to blend into the features and nuances of the killer’s face. Yet I knew the artist known as Janus the Two-faced had been host to many faces, and the mask’s fit was likely due to the skill of its designer, not some shared biological element.
The dagger that deflected my sister’s smile quietly tore through the headrest of the seat in front of me, stopping just beneath my chin. The dead skin of the mask smiled at me, somehow obeying the movements of the living skin beneath. The mask only slightly betrayed its inanimate nature via a small solitary crease from the right corner of its pale lips to the right eye-hole. Visible only when the wearer smiled, I assumed his smile must have occurred in quantities sufficient to cause the crease in the first place.
Janus said, “Speed is, of course, as essential as cleverness. Now tell me, Family Man, what do you know about all this monkey business? Try as I might, I’ve only heard from this person or that of a weird little shepherd who has an affection for herding wolves. The general thrust of the title suggests the shepherd is some kind of master of murderers, and we’re all his angry little hounds. Now, while I’m a big fan of wolves, I’ve never considered myself a suitable analogue for the hairy things. Besides, everything boiled down, we’re all just predators. And it should go without saying that any living thing could be, from the right rhetorical angle, analogized to wolves. It’s really quite a lazy comparison, if I’m being honest.
“Wolves have more in common with killer robots than with me. They’re programmed, from embryo to corpse, to hunt and kill. I choose to do what I do, and I just love everything I’ve done. But please, do me the favor of not mentioning my ‘genetic trajectory,’ and all that rubbish. I have a choice in all of this. I must. Its chaos that moves my blades, not chromosomes. Do you think evolution would have me wear your face? Do you really believe that a mere genetic aberration would let me make such masks, and with such incredible skill? No, it’s a brand of lethal chance—a murderous chaos that slips madness into monotony. I give it a voice, and I give it a face. It’s staring at you right now. Honestly, I ask you—what could all of that have to do with simple wolves?”
In principal, the killer said nothing that I fervently disagreed with, as his reasoning was sound enough. However, I did take issue with the blade he had placed beneath my chin, as that would certainly need to be rebutted.
I used my free hand to wrench the seat in front of me sideways, jerking the knife away from both my neck and the killer’s hand. As his knife fell to the floor, I plunged my hand through the hole in the intervening seat and grabbed the killer by the wrist. I pulled his arm through the hole, twisting it into an unnatural position, disallowing him access to any more surprises.
“Strength is also an asset,” I said, “and when combined with cleverness and speed, you have a rather effective trifecta indeed. But to answer your question, yes, I do know something about all of this. However, and as I’ve already stated, I will keep that information to myself. Now tell me, Janus of the Two Faces, have you dreamt of him, this shepherd?”
Janus laughed. “My, you are rather strong, at that. My arm feels like it’s trapped by steel serpents. But if you don’t intend on killing me, I’d greatly appreciate it if you would loosen up just a tad bit. Otherwise you’ll give my next scheduled opponent an unfair advantage, as I’ll only have the effective use of one arm. Anyway, I can’t say for sure that I’ve had a mystical visitation in my sleep—I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re getting at—but I have had a few unusual dreams. The first occurred just before I acquired my most recent appearance. I was looking over the face of a terribly perturbed sea when I quickly realized the whitecaps were completely unjustified. There was no storm to cause them, not even the slightest breeze. So, I bent close to the water, trying to sneak a peek beneath the foaming waves. That’s when I saw the wolves under the water, thousands of them, biting, frothing, and killing. It was their battle that stirred the waters, and let me tell you it was quite a fiasco. I was enjoying the show, when from the middle of the sea there emerged a figure. Now, I’m not all that knowledgeable when it comes to what a shepherd is supposed to look like, so who’s to say what the being actually was. Although he did have one of those lovely curving rods that I know shepherds sometimes carry about. “Anyhow, the rod was the color of freshest blood, and he lifted it from the water and up over his head. After a few seconds, he slammed the tip of the rod back down into the water, which seemed to have the effect of transferring the blood-red of his staff to the color of the sea. The waves rose and swept me into the depths, where I joined with the wolves in their war. Now, if only he’d asked me politely, I might be more amenable to this game, but as it stands—I pick my own faces, and I’ll not tolerate them being chosen for me. Again, my arm, please. I’ll be needing it all too soon.”
He was right, so I slightly loosened my grip, for which he thanked me. I had no desire to rid the world—or even injure—yet another muse if I didn’t have to. It was at that point, when we were fully joined in conversation, that we both noticed it—a cold blast of silence. It was coming from the car in front of us. I released Janus from my grip, and we both slid into the shadows to investigate.
When we entered the next car, we discovered a space of darkest dreams—headless bodies, overstuffed with additional organs leaking like lolling tongues from their carved, smiling stomachs, and tiny flames hopping and shivering from within an assortment of hanging and brightly grinning heads. The carved jack-o-lantern faces were just open windows to the small lights that barely burned within them, illustrating a fact beyond flesh. It was clearly the work of the artist known as Jack Lantern. He was in the passenger car beyond us. Emerging from that distant darkness, I could hear the methodic sighing of a busy blade, occasionally punctuated by the small ticking sounds that spoke to the fine adjustments of a knife working bone.
Jack Lantern was perhaps the most notorious living killer of all. Unlike so many of us, he hunted the same killing grounds, haunted the same city—with his wonderful human jack-o-lanterns—evading capture and spreading nightmare. Not since our great forbearer, Dooley Hines, or Sleepy Head, who nearly enveloped the entire city of New Victoria within his killing dream, had there been such an artist. I suddenly found my chances of winning the shepherd’s game lessened—if only slightly.
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