Of course, it was my father who began the festivities. Jumping high into the air with a roar, he brought the power of his weapon to bear directly into the center of the ranks of man-beasts and beast-men. The result was a hellish detonation—his strength, augmented by the surrounding nightmare, was transformed into searing fire and death. During the cacophony of blood and flame, my sisters slipped silently into the shadows, smiling and killing and dancing. I can never stress enough just how wonderful a pair they truly are.
The Skinner and I were like two stubborn oaks that had just survived the sweeping fury of a tornado, standing solemn and straight amid the ruin of lesser flora. The din of ceaseless violence rang out everywhere, but Mister Hide chose to contrast our surroundings with some pleasant conversation. “This shared dreaming business is all very well and good, my friend, but the violence you’ve brought with you is entirely uncalled for. There’s no need to rend my secrets from my sleep—I’ll gladly tell you where I am. For beyond my location and my real name, I haven’t any other secrets for you to take.”
I can’t say that I wasn’t a bit disappointed with my adversary’s lack of enthusiasm for our first confrontation, but I supposed it was refreshing to see that he was an especially collected individual, even if his calm bordered on indifference. “So, you would have nothing from me, your future opponent, to afford you some potentially valuable insight into the violence and killing to come?” I asked, hoping to rouse the killer. “Am I supposed to be impressed by your disinterest?”
“You may be precisely whatever you choose, Family Man. I’ve little use for mock battle, as I can’t skin a dream, now can I?” He made a good point. Regardless, if he chose not to seek my measure in dreamed combat, he would be ill prepared to fight me to the best of his ability within the waking world, and I would be given an unfair advantage. I do not enjoy victories that are only half gained, and unfortunately, my art would reflect as much. So, I decided to press him.
“I certainly understand your reticence,” I said, “as you may need some time to determine how you might wear my skin, given that I might hang a bit too large on you.” A base taunt, to be sure, but the killer’s physique was chiseled and polished—well beyond his needs, whereas my own was simply the byproduct of my craft. There was vanity in the man, and I would seek it out.
“You disgrace my body when you compare it to your own, little man. But I shan’t fall for your jeers, as anyone with eyes can see you’re the smaller between us. Besides, your pelt is so riddled with scars and sunburn that I’d never stoop to wearing such a wretched thing. No, I see your skin better worn by a stray dog. A feral, three-legged mutt.”
I smiled. “In that case, my skin suits you perfectly. But you are right, there’s no sense in banter or battle, so I will have whatever you will surrender to me. I will take your one remaining secret, and then I will leave you to your much-needed sleep. Also, I shall not make any assumptions as to the strength of your mind, given that it can carry only two little secrets.” From over the Skinner’s shoulder I saw my father bathed in battle and aglow with the heat of killing, smiling his approval at my tactics.
“I’m losing my patience for you, Family Man,” The giant growled.
“Is it because your patience grows too heavy for you to heft?” I asked, still grinning.
The beast dressed in human leathers was finally beginning to show its teeth. The Skinner fell silent, and I could see his movements take on precision, a well-oiled grace that could steal a man’s skin in as little time as it took to bleed.
“I’ll not waste any further words on you, whelp. I’ll let my actions do the talking,” he hissed as he slowly stalked toward me, blades in both hands.
“Indeed, let’s have a conversation,” I said. I marched forward to meet the killer, blades in both hands.
Sparks danced as we came together in steel, muscle, and dream. We locked our blades together as his rage poured from his bloodshot eyes, and I could feel the raw power of the dream that guided him. His was a quest to perfect the collective body—a skin for everyone and everyone in their right skin. He was a corrector of botched geometry—not some simple exchanger of skins. I could feel his anger at a world that failed to be honest with itself, concealing vice under virtue, hiding ugliness beneath beauty, and smuggling death behind the veil of life. He would strip the earth of its dishonesty, reupholstering the entire world with sewn-together skins cut from raw truth.
I felt as though I were pushing against a brick wall—as did Hide, no doubt. Yet unless it was just a figment of my own vanity, I thought I began to feel his wall cracking. Unfortunately, before our contest could conclude, we were interrupted by a soaring beast-head that one of my sisters had gleefully liberated. The severed head collided with our knot of blades and we stepped back from each other, evaluating.
The atmosphere had become nothing short of fire and fierceness and screams, and I felt as if we were standing within the very eye of a dream-born tempest, yet my opponent seemed as placid as a puddle after the rain. He was reassessing me, no doubt—just as I’d hoped he would. He would take no chances when next we met, for he would remember my strength and the willpower that funded its fire. He would remember my eyes, for they had shown him the darkness I concealed—and they dared him to cut it from me. For my part, I learned that I was wrong about the man. There was no vanity within him, just the desire to put the world right. He was built from the stone of his conviction, every muscle declared the strength of his truth, and their polish and preen spoke to the excellence of his purpose. He was in his proper skin.
Finally, after staring at me through the frenzy of monsters and killers that spilled all around us, he said, “You are no beast, my friend, and you are no man. I will have to think long and hard on what I will do with your skin.”
As the world between us faded and the dream began to flee the dull crush of waking, I heard the Skinner say, “I will see you again in the town of Willard, and we will finish our conversation."
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