The whisper, which was quite likely the killer himself—split personalities were as common as colds after the Darkness—had already silently departed when I heard the first sirens. I was surprised to see the throngs of police cars and other emergency vehicles. I had traveled the wilds between cities for so long I had almost forgotten about the formal consequences of murder.
As for the whisper, he was no one I recalled, but the sheer scope of his work spoke to a thoroughly practiced monster, well versed in the ways of killing and vanishing. And I must admit that, at first, his brushstrokes seemed hopelessly uninspired, merely the feral craft of a common thrill-killer. But when I was instructed to look out from that high vantage, beyond the crows and corpses, it all came together into a finely woven tapestry of death and solidified purpose.
The killer had deliberately recreated a scene from one of my memories. No doubt the image had been somehow preserved within the dream the killer had stolen from me. The memory seemed to be a selection from some portion of my dimly remembered past, as it possessed no context, just texture—bodies and ruins and fire. It was a distant and time-yellowed recollection, and carried with its remembrance the smell of burning flowers. It was clearly a wonderful day.
All I recalled beyond the image and the fragrance was that my mother was present. Even now I can clearly see her standing atop a distant flowered hill, surrounded by fire and death. Her lips were glistening with wet twilight reds, and her eyes swallowed the sunlight into bottomless oceans of blackest ink. Delicate burning flower petals blew across my view of her, and she smiled at me. The rest of my family was there, standing at the top of the killing-hill, the sun burning behind them all, turning their silhouettes into the blackest shadows light can conjure.
The unknown killer had proven that his reach extended all the way into my past, and there was nowhere I could hide from him. Or at least, that was what he would have me believe. In truth, I was grateful for the artistic recreation of my memory. And the method of its execution did high honors to my family, as I was certain they were as impressed by the feat as I was.
The unknown killer had, in addition to stealing a glimpse at my memories, deprived me of a clear view of my own prey. (It was strange to think of a mythological figure as prey.) I could see that the mechanics of the killing game were ever changing, tightening, better enabling the separation of wheat from chaff.
However, the dream that I had presumably taken from Tom Hush had not been entirely stolen, as I had awoken with only a small portion of it still intact. The dream seemed less like the nocturnal art of the legendary horned demon and more like a dream that merely included imagery of the creature. So I returned to my original thesis—Tom Hush was merely a pretender to the otherworld, not the supernatural entity itself. If true, then I was seeking out a man, which of course was a tremendously disappointing hypothesis.
Despite my compelling analysis, the partial dream did contain something wonderful, and most likely beyond the simple imagination of a killer, regardless of his pedigree. There was something terribly vital about the thing that drew near the edge of the forest-inside-a-dream, and I couldn’t deny the possibility that the actual daemon may have been treading the fleeting soils of the ephemeral woods. Where exactly that thought left me, I didn’t know. I would need a more complete view of my prey, and for that I would need to pry my dream from the jaws of a particular and toothy whisper.
That I am a dreamer of no small skill should go without saying, as I am the only man to have ever trespassed into the nightmared lanes of New Victoria—both its waking and wakeless incarnations—and lived to contemplate the experience. So, when I lay down to sleep the night directly following my encounter with the whisper, I had good reason to believe that I might find a way to preserve my dream from the predations of a fellow monster.
My sisters laid in my hands, laughing at the moonlight that danced about their beaming smiles, as I fell into sleep. And the baleful eyes of my father lit the way into contested nightmare.
I set foot into a room filled with cages that hung from a water-damaged ceiling. In each rusted cage huddled a dead-eyed child studying me from behind the bars. One of them started to speak. “You know our names— “
My father’s giant hands seized me by the shoulders and thrust me beyond the words of the small boy, aiming me toward a gigantic wooden door.
I did know their names.
The door was nothing to me, my dream-carved hands tearing it away with ease. The darkness that replaced the door was pierced by a single amber light. I surged toward the light, my family walking by my side. I realized that the light was a window that looked down upon a now familiar fantastical forest.
We stood before the window, staring out. My sisters were fogging the glass with their breath and drawing strange shapes upon the misted panes. The hot light from my father’s awful gaze fought with the moonlight attempting to frolic atop the canopy of the wondrous forest. Finally, his inhuman glare illuminated something that I had apparently missed the last time I had observed the dream—a small straightjacketed man was seated on the ground near the entrance to the woods. As before, the forest began to hemorrhage woodland animals. I needed to know who the man was. My father’s axe was almost to the glass when we heard something from behind.
A door had opened from the shadowy depths of another hallway that also converged upon the window. I had initially failed to notice these details, as is the way of dreams. Something was strolling boldly toward us, soaking up the darkness.
“Hi,” said the whisper.
“Hello, little whisper. Have you come to again deny me what is mine?” I asked.
“I’m afraid he has,” said the whisper. “You really should have run. This can only go badly for you.”
“So you’ve intimated, through memory and fire and death. Thank you for that, by the way. It was quite lovely. I’d like—"
“ENOUGH OF THIS STUPID BANTER! LET THIS FIRST DEATH BE A TASTE OF THE DEATH TO COME, WHISPERING FOOL!” My father’s hateful eye-light fell upon the whisper, revealing a corpulent and unusual man. He was covered in stiches, straps, ropes and staples. Even his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears were painfully sealed off from the outside world, leading me to wonder how the whisper managed to whisper at all.
“Oh, no. Now you’ve gone and done it. He’s coming,” said the shivering, sealed-up man. The sound of straps stretching and stitches ripping apart began to fill the corridor.
“Who—or what—is coming, whisper?” I asked.
“I’m pretty sure he’s the end of the world,” the whisper said, sadly. “I’ve tried to keep him locked away, but I’m afraid he gets out from time to time. You should see the awful things he’s done, before I’m able to coax him back inside. But ever since he killed me, he’s proven much more difficult to put back. Goodness, is he ever a foul, foul thing. I’d wake up if I were you. He’s all the more terrible inside a nightmare.” Just then, a bleeding seam in the man’s abdomen tore open. Eyes the color of blood ignited, pushing back against my father’s burning gaze.
“WHAT A FANTASTIC NIGHTMARE YOU’VE BROUGHT ME, MARVIN! AND YOU’VE EVEN MANAGED TO CORNER MY NEXT VICTIMS! HOW DELIGHTFULLY THOUGHTFUL OF YOU!” The terrible voice blasted into the room, washing the lingering echoes of my father’s rage from the air. The tearing and snapping sounds intensified, as “Marvin” began to swell and split, firing blood and flesh and staples and stitching into the shadows of the nightmare. Something was stepping from beyond the ruined curtains of Marvin’s dreamed flesh. “The end of the world” was as monstrous as it was marvelous.
Heedless of the unearthly transformation and the doom and pain it foretold, my sisters and I advanced. But before we could engage Marvin’s lovely counterpart, my father’s massive arm swept us aside, clearing the way for himself. He roared with laughter, stepping before the monster Marvin had become. “I DIDN’T EXPECT THE END OF THE WORLD TO BE SO PUNY, WHELP!”
“COME, THEN, YOU FOOL!” Marvin raged back. “DO YOU REALLY EXPECT TO DEFEAT THE END OF ALL THINGS WITH AN AXE?”
“WITH THIS AXE,” my father bellowed, holding up his giant killing tool in front of his burning eyes, “I DO, INDEED!”
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