A man’s voice:
Children are merely the larval dead, Donald, waiting to bloom into full-fledged corpses, dried and colorless. While in that larval phase, they are fat with the stolen nectars of lost dreams. The conserve it, I now believe, for their long crawl across the face of a dead world, finally draining the last of that wonderful elixir to grow transparent wings and forever worry at the flaccid and rotted bosom of Mother Death. It’s a rather sad and senseless journey, really, but it’s that rote effort that supplies us, you and I, with the brittle bones of our frailest hope. We take their burden from them, you see, ending their painfully protracted and wholly pointless metamorphosis. And unlike them, we employ that potential to a purposeful end—we create wonder. Like the magician devil standing upon the shore of the burning lake, dipping his fiery hand into a bottomless black hat, we conjure flowers for the damned. This is our art, Donald—to spite the world by painting all the corpses the color of dreams and defy death with the beauty from another world. Just you and me, my boy.
Am I ever going into the gallery? I can feel myself getting older. I don’t want to go to waste.
A man’s voice:
Oh yes, certainly. But not just yet. I still have need of you in this world, my little wolf in sheep’s clothing. After all, I must have supplies if I’m to conjure miracles.
Why do the other children hate me? Is it because I tricked them, like you taught me, to make art for the artless?
A man’s voice:
It’s because they don’t understand the importance of what we’re doing. They are such little flies anyway, the lowest hanging fruit, really. You shouldn’t pay them any mind. They’ll thank you once they’ve gone into the gallery, I promise you.
I had a dream last night. I dreamt that mother was coming to visit us, but she looked different. Really different. She was dressed in the prettiest fire, and when I hugged her I didn’t burn. She said she was coming to see you, and that she was going to give me a new father. Oh, and I had little sisters, too! You should have seen how they smiled at me! Can mother even come back from the gallery?
. . .
I woke up. I was standing in the middle of a hallway choked with red debris. My father was in my right hand, covered in steaming blood. My sisters were asleep at my sides, exhausted. Every muscle in my body burned, and I could hear the echo of my father’s terrible laughter disappearing into an inner darkness, where he waited to lay his giant hands upon the world. On the other side of my senses, there was the smell of burning flowers. My mother’s perfume.
As I stood in stunned silence, mentally pushing away my insipient and desperate curiosity, I watched the pale hands of moonlight struggle through the gore-sprayed windows, sifting through the devastation, slightly reddened by the journey beyond the blood. I could feel the killing-dream lingering over me. Tom Hush was still alive, nearby.
I heard a vehicle start. I ran in the direction of the sound, toward a barred window. As I dashed across the corpse-littered floor, I heaped darkness and silence upon that raw reopened memory, hoping to drown it away, forever. The sound of my flesh overcoming steel bars and concrete did well to mute the shouting children, cursing me. The ruin of the wall was swept up in my wake, following me out upon the rooftop, three stories above the ground. The reawakened memory was right behind me, burning with a merciless recollection.
Below, I could see a single pair of headlights piercing the night. I leapt into the darkness, my father stretched out in front of me. Forsaking silence, I roared through my parched throat, a sound like thunder falling down a mountain. I watched my shadow soar across the pavement beneath me, framed in moonlight, closing on what I quickly recognized as an ambulance.
My father and I crashed through the cab of the vehicle, my body raked by the riven steel and glass. The back of the vehicle smashed down upon the road from the weight of my fall, calling up a geyser of sparks. Glass and steel fragments were still turning through the air when I returned my father to his rest. I plunged my open hand beyond the small window into the driver’s compartment. My fingers closed over the intervening steel partition, tearing away the divider as if it were paper, revealing the driver—a hapless professor of folklore, overfilled with the unwholesome essence of a god of secrets.
Tom Hush produced a handgun and emptied its contents in my direction.
He laughed hysterically, calling out to me above the din of screaming, sundered steel and shrieking rubber. “Do you feel their hatred, Donald? Their righteous rage reaching out from your own broken mind, demanding retribution?” The god’s aim was terrible. A shot struck something volatile behind me, causing it to explode, splashing fire and glass and serrated steel into my back. I didn’t care.
The ambulance careened out of control and skidded into a tight knot of traffic. The weight of the barreling vehicle prevailed over the smaller cars caught within its zigzagging path, smashing them into the moonlit darkness where they wheeled and corkscrewed. The impact hurled me through the windshield, but not before I caught hold of Tom. We tumbled through space, my fingers passing through the flesh of his shoulder and alighting upon bones that broke like twigs beneath my grip.
My other hand punched through the hood of the flaming ambulance, catching us before we could be thrown from it completely. The roar of the engine spoke of a stuck accelerator as we screamed through the wreckage and continued barreling through the streets. I drew him close to me and growled, “I will crush whatever lives you hide behind, creature, until there is only yours left to kill. But before I’m finished with you, you will know pain beyond skin and screams. This I promise you.”
Tom’s stolen face twisted into a blistering expression of hatred that outstripped his host’s ability to articulate. The pale coating of the erudite professor was shred into gory flaps of hanging facial flesh, revealing the death-mask the antlered god was far better known for wearing.
When the meat of his face had all but retreated from his cleft, glistening skull, Tom’s cracked teeth and bloody tongue came together around the words of his counter proposal. “I will forget your name moments after you fail, little killer.”
Before I could sink Tom’s new face into the steel of the vehicle’s hood, the ambulance struck an oversized truck and flipped, rolling over and over, finally crashing through the glass façade of a luxury hotel. It came to rest within its glittering lobby, and I finally relinquished my grip upon vehicle and god.
I rose from the conflagration, glaring at the antlered god standing inches away from me. His wavering smile was barely serviced by his scarcely remaining flesh. More gunshots rang out as Tom produced another handgun. Bullets roared through my mangled and smoking flesh. Still, I didn’t care.
I didn’t care about the Shepherd’s Game, or the approaching police sirens at my back. Not even the terrible memory that burned through the halls of my mind like poison fire gave me pause. All I desired was currently backpedaling away from me in the ruined skin of a folklorist, who wondered how a simple man could rise from a bloodstained alter, bearing fire and vengeance against the gods.
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