As I advanced into the chapel, I could feel the ample spaces around me piling with imported ancientness—a forgotten age that covered my breath in frost and summoned spirits from the cold stone of red alters. Memories of old death wandered aimlessly around me, whispering the dust of lost, epicurean epochs into the neat corners of man’s modern-day temple to no one and nothing in particular. I nearly cheered the prehistoric shadows when they stormed against the inferior darkness of cheap passionless places, creating a stampede of lesser shades that quickly removed the contemporary darkness almost entirely, allowing the room to fill with the black shapes that death had not yet released.
My father shook with poorly contained anger, burning with such intensity that the leather of my gloves began to smolder. He was still quite indignant about his mistreatment at the secret-seizing hands of Tom Hush.
The antlered god’s words came at me from across eons as much as they did from across the room, carried within an icy current of old death that was his voice. “I’m left wondering, Donald, if truly I wish to take your secret with me. There’s little flavor to be had in the eating of a secret that’s not yet ripe. And while most secrets are tastiest just before the telling, yours seems like it would be spoiled if eaten a moment before it was told.”
“You speak as though you’ve been given invitation to eat of my secret, whatever it might be, and yet I don’t feel inclined to turn it over to you just yet,” I said. “You may find my mysteries harder to acquire than those of a dusty folklorist. But of course, you know this already.”
“Please!” The god shouted. “You face a timeless opponent, Donald. Do you truly think my violence your inferior? Your hands have gripped weapons less than a lifetime, yet I’ve been destroying life long before the universe decided to gift you mammals with hands.”
I recalled the god’s aim with a gun and chuckled at the superiority of his violence. “I suppose I grasp some measure of your problem, secret-eater, but I can see no resolution to it, save for the testing of your timeless violence, which as you can see, I come prepared for.”
Tom Hush smiled. “Oh, the violence is inevitable, certainly! I wouldn’t dream of leaving without it! But it’s the degree to which I should want to apply my violence that confounds me. I can see that your father’s anger has you far too inclined to put away the civility of a pleasant conversation, so if you’re ready?”
The ground shook beneath the approach of the god, as I assumed Tom had changed out of his earthly garb of ruined flesh and put on something far more suitable for our meeting. The darkness broke apart like shadows at dawn as the thing that was once only a mutilated man strolled into view. Surprisingly, Tom still maintained some semblance of the folklorist, stretching the dead man’s body across his monstrous spirit, in the process outlining the wickedness that was the secret-eater’s unwholesome essence.
The god may have been taking lives long before the advent of hands, but he certainly hadn’t been doing it with sharp objects—or a gun, for that matter. The monstrous creature swung his oversized claws with all the grace of a blindfolded bull, telegraphing his attack long before it was delivered. I may have underestimated the god’s alternative resources however, for the very moment Tom noticed me smiling at his combat prowess he gave me a look that carried the weight of a hammer. I found myself on the receiving end of a psychic blow that shattered my nose and cracked my already broken jaw.
My father was all too glad to return the attack with one of his own, sinking into the twisted flesh of the god with such force that he brought Tom to a knee. I could see his conundrum fade from his attention as the hateful glare from his eyes blistered much of my skin and singed some of my hair. Again, my father returned rage with rage, the blade of the axe sizzling deeper into the secret-eater and calling up flames from the wound. The god roared, from pain or outrage or both, and moved to tear the axe from where it lay wedged in his chest. I continued to push my luck, using the moment to bury my remaining sister into Tom’s face. Unlike most organisms born upon the earth, he seemed largely unbothered by the cleaving of his brain. The monster glared at me from overtop my sister’s smile and set me aflame with the power of his mounting displeasure.
The dream preserved me somewhat from the devouring flames that seemed hotter than most I’d known. I decided to ignore the fire for as long as I could and double down on my attack. I tightened my grip upon the handles of my two family members, using all the strength I could muster to lift Tom from the ground, hoping gravity might assist my relatives at achieving a killing depth. Again, Tom seemed less than impressed.
“You call these simple antics coming prepared?’” The antlered god seemed almost bored by my efforts. I realized that stopping Tom would not be a matter of finding his weakest point, but the unwrapping of his soul from the stolen flesh of the folklorist.
Changing my strategy, I tore my father free and sent him roaring down upon Tom’s shoulder, nearly severing the god’s arm. Tom deduced my new strategy easily enough and affected his own combat alterations.
Lightning split the ceiling and lashed across my arm, exploding skin from bone and evaporating blood into smoke. The pain was white and cold, making me think of a burning winter. I fell to the floor, beneath the thunder and the smoke and the smell of ozone. Tom laughed from his melted ivory maw. “You creatures are always so impressed by lightning. It’s just a toy, really.”
Another blazing lash from the sky licked at my body as thunder shook the entire building. My chest bubbled beneath the blinding touch of the storm Tom had gathered. Within seconds the swelling burst into smoke and charred skin. The dream that enfolded me was buckling, and I could feel death waiting impatiently.
“Humans are merely domesticated birds flying beneath ceilinged skies, looking out dirty windows and declaring the spaces beyond themselves to be infinite. You have no idea. You couldn’t, really. Why the Shepherd thought you and yours could interrupt me, I have no idea. If not for my interest in your affairs, you would be nothing but smoke and a terrible echo by now.” I tried to pull the darkness over me, to allow myself the luxury of a temporary withdrawal. But the shadows had already chosen a side, and it wasn’t mine.
It was after the third lightning bolt that I noticed much of Tom’s torso was missing, only a large number of smoking holes remarking upon its absence. The secret-eater’s face seemed smaller as well.
The god’s thunder had apparently masked the roar of a second, much lesser discharge—and what had been discharged proved much better aimed than even the lightning.
My second sister stood in the doorway of the chapel, feeding fire to the secret-eater. She had returned, wearing the body of a heavily armed gentleman from the angry gathering below. She was such a splendid girl! She carried two large firearms, both capable of firing extraordinarily quickly and with tremendous affect. Tom’s folklorist was rapidly flying apart, and the antlered god began to lose his grip upon the corpse of this world.
I rose to my feet and brought my furious father to bear. Still aflame and bubbling, I slowly made my way to the wrecked deity, who convulsed violently beneath the terrible storm my sister unleashed as hundreds of bullets tore through his rapidly shrinking puppet.
Just before my father destroyed what my sister had left standing, the god whispered through his broken vessel, burning me more than his lightning ever could. “She’s your mother precisely as I am a professor of folklore. She’ll show you to Hell before she’s done.
“You’re like the lightning, Donald. Just a toy.”
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