Despite the utter lack of a third of its construction, the train car somehow fortified the darkness against the sunlight, shielding its innards from the normalizing rays of the sun, maintaining the integrity of the dream that was now only a collection of carved bodies and heads. I replaced the mask of the Mad Mercenary, slipping it gently over his faceless face—a thing that had no meaning beyond the gas mask that obscured it. I reached down and gathered the engraved remains of Janus’s three now-grinning faces. I took the heads of the two monstrous killers and hung them from the ceiling, far from the other assortment of dangling and whittled heads. Wolves have no place among the sheep, which is almost certainly true in life, and most definitely the case when it comes to the care of their respective corpses. Perhaps Janus would have conceded at least that much, if not the larger analogy concerning killers and wolves. Although, if I’m being honest, I’m none too fond of the analogy myself, as no wolf was ever possessed of the powers of an artist, let alone the vision of a dreamer.
As I made my way to a seat within the train, I imagined my blood as the only weight holding me to the earth. As it leaked away, I began to fear that I might drift away into the sun, where yellow gods stared out from their infinite boredom, laying their sick-warm sight upon dying and dead worlds that have long since rusted into their orbits. I grasped the armrests of the seat as I descended into it, affording myself an additional anchor to the world. Once I was firmly invested within my new location, I gazed casually around the train. Poor Janus, what has the world lost with your passing? I wondered, looking at his three faces, each one spilling its collection of chaos across the floor. I hoped that whatever was lost from Janus had been conserved within Jack. Of course, my hopes were the same regarding the Mad Merc and myself, but I felt only shame—nothing of the unique forces that had made a monster out of a common killer-for-hire. I had hoped to at least learn the means by which one might enter that delightful place he had mentioned, but I was no wiser for having held his head in my hands.
I wasn’t sure if the blood loss had affected my vision or whether the previous dream had continued to swell like some contusion upon the skin of reality itself, but the passenger car in front of me seemed to house some remaining particles of life. (As far as I knew, all the previous occupants were now only the wet ornaments of Jack’s holiday.) I could see dark shapes drifting through the aisles moving away from me, apparently engaging some greater and more distant darkness closer to the front of the train. Having nothing better to do than bleed, I decided to follow them.
The second I moved from my seat, I knew I was dreaming. My body fell into a current of invisible movement that pushed me forward. As I glided, I spied a group of strange young women standing on both sides of the aisle in front of me. Every one of them was raven-haired and possessed of the lightest blue eyes, which appeared like glimmering beads of water that defied gravity by the sheer force of their beauty. The tallest of the group, whose height was only slightly less than my own, spoke to me. “Have you any idea who conducts this train? As many times as I’ve tried to ascertain that fact, I’ve never learned.” Her eyes were rainstorms. I could hear the water of weeping skies falling across a world of tender young leaves. I almost forgot to respond.
“I have no idea, but I’m sure they’re competent. Certainly, you have no cause for concern.” My words seemed lost to the rain, and I was curious if I had spoken at all. The woman smiled at me—as if I had given precisely the answer she desired—and quickly withdrew behind the shadows of the train. Before I could begin to contemplate what had happened, invisible hands pushed me onward, far away from the women, where I felt compelled to refocus my attention upon the line of wandering shadows. In service to my new obligation, I observed that after each shadow crossed into the next car, the darkness beyond the threshold deepened, gaining the appearance of a massive hole that extended beyond the dream of the train. I drew up behind the last shadow in line and waited my turn to move into the next world.
The opening did not lead to some other dream, but into a supernal synthesis of darkness and silence, which I theorized to be the product of the shadows merging together. The hybrid substance approximated the closest thing to a fully realized oblivion, and all of it stitched together from the rootless bodies of sacrificial shades. Within that near-nullity I could detect the absence of memories and dreams, and most importantly—I heard the sound of something about to begin. Swiftly, but with the caution of a mother lifting her child for the first time, the darkness enfolded me. It was at that moment when the silence broke upon a sweet and breathy whisper that said, “The silence before the womb and beyond the grave, it’s all for you, my son. Seek out the quiet of lonely places, and death may not hear you.” It was my mother’s voice. However, I was quite certain she was still sleeping, so I determined the whispers must have come to me from some distant memory, sealed up within a void that required the death of several shadows to reacquire.
I thought I was about to exit the makeshift oblivion when another sound entered into the nothingness, unapologetically and sloppily scattering muffled voices as it blundered about. Again, I could feel the burning eyes of my family, throwing fire and trying to force me to ignore some scorned thing that dwelt within sleep. Or was the sound coming from someone else’s dream? (With all of the dream-swapping going on, the question was as valid as any other.) The sound became progressively more distinct, and soon gelled together into the pathetic cries of a child. This was quickly accompanied by another sound, which emotionally was nearly equivalent to the child’s sadness but composed entirely of rage.
What surprised me most about the second sound was that it actually frightened me, and yet it was nothing more than a man’s raised voice. “STOP WHINING AND HOLD STILL! IF YOU MAKE ME RUIN ANOTHER PAINTING, I’LL HANG YOU IN THE ROOM WITH THE REST OF THEM!” An image tried to follow on the heels of the voice, but it was blocked out by the high-pitched sound of a train whistle.
I woke up on the floor of the train—it appeared that I hadn’t even managed to make it to one of the seats. The train was in the process of exiting a tunnel, and as it remerged into the light, the shadows were stripped of their plump inky flesh, leaving behind only the boney silhouettes of solid earthly objects. I rose to my feet. There was no pain and no blood. I opened my coat, looking for what should have been an abundance of ruined tissue. There was nothing, not even a scratch.
The day was dying into twilight, the direction of the train bound for the source of all that wonderful crimson. The failing sun splashed bloody light across my skin, confirming my lack of injury. I walked deeper into the light, certain that once the dusk was more concentrated upon the areas where I had been shot and cleaved, there would be a mark. Yet there was still nothing. As I stared at my woundless body, something stood briefly in front of the red sun, throwing a rectangular darkness into the train. The shadow belonged to a large sign that read Black River City. The location of Miss Patience’s first recorded kill was finally at hand, and I was apparently no worse for the wear of my travels.
The doors of the train opened as I reached them, but before I departed I looked back into the vehicle. As my sight moved into the darkened passages and over the empty seats, I knew the train was far from vacant. The means by which it moved was not solely dependent upon the steel of its tracks or the fire of its engine. My eyes lingered upon the swinging faces of the two fallen wolves as I disembarked.
The only thing that identified the train station was a small wooden platform with a tall metal sign. The sign displayed the name of my destination, with an arrow pointing in its general direction. As I began walking the thin path that rambled among the high grasses, a strangeness seemed to gather within the twilight-soaked meadow that swayed to a slight breeze. For the briefest of moments, I mistook it for a whisper. It was the Deadworld trembling, I thought. It seemed the more I played the Shepherd’s game, the more the world became like a dream.
I closed on my destination, my head filled with images of mountains drifting through the air like dandelion seeds, and dimly glowing oceans being tugged along by the gravity of moons made of foxfire. In retrospect, I should never have left the train.
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