Young Donald: Why are you hurting them, father?
Donald’s 1st father: Honestly son, what harm can really be done to the dead? Do you think those children alive? You’ve so much to learn, my little apprentice. There’s no life in those little corpses. They’re merely the freshest cadavers this dead world has to offer, nothing else. You see, my art is very much like blood magic, in so much that it draws its strength from the most vital sources that can be had. And here, where people are only plastic and dead, the youngest corpses are the most useful corpses, as they are the only things likely to furnish even a speck of vitality. The dust of their dreams is what gives my paints, clays, and canvases their true colors—not the dull, lifeless combinations of earthly constituents.
Young Donald: But they cry for me to save them. How could they be dead?
Donald’s father: They have no idea they’re dead, son. They woke up in the middle of their sweet dreams, spilling out cold and lifeless into this land of unloving, shuffling strangers. They—we—are all at best only ghosts. At worst, corpses. I pray we are the former, for that means there’s still a chance that life—and by life, I mean dream—can again dawn upon us all. But for that to happen, I must play god, which is the purpose of any artist worth a bucket of paint. I must reconstitute life from loam. The only thing those little creatures can try to save is their skin—the webbing that constricts their dreams, anchoring them to this alien graveyard. What you hear is the dead pleading to stay dead, nothing more. Do you want those poor children to stay dead forever, Donald?
Young Donald: No.
Lilly’s face lacked even a shred of understanding—it merely hung dead and vengeful, long lost to the tides of pain that had stayed her soul from oblivion. Neither she nor the rest of the dead children understood what had been done to them, for them. And while I didn’t share my father’s particular views concerning the role of children in art, I was nonetheless sympathetic to his efforts, if not his methods. However, my sympathy was not shared by the deceased children standing before me.
“I did not allow you to die, little ones,” I said gently. “I had been given to believe, incorrectly, that you were being made to truly live, as once we all did before all this death became us. I am so truly sorry that my father’s efforts failed you. But, I am afraid I cannot be the inheritor of his sins. All I can do is hope that my efforts will be more successful than his. Perhaps you might assist me in my efforts, if you truly care to rid yourself of all that aforementioned death. I want nothing more than for you to learn to dream again, little ones.”
I knelt down before Lilly and the little corpse searched my eyes, finding only death, dream, and truth. I could feel the dead flower of her soul take strength from my conviction, blooming in the darkness of her tiny, beautiful sadness. She threw her arms around me and sobbed into the shadows. One after another, the dead children came to me. With each new embrace my strength swelled, joining with the power of the Red Dream. Their fragile, wonderful hugs were so filled with hope, even after death. It was that rootless little hope, in amalgam, that powered the undead giant known as Junior.
Lilly placed her blackened, twisted hand to my face. “You poor, poor monster. So broken, so beautiful. Go to them. We will tend to these fools for as long as we are able. Find your family, Donald, and avenge us all for being so rudely awoken from such a beautiful dream.” I kissed her upon her spoiling forehead and rose from the gathering of undead children, renewed.
My tears held the smoke from my eyes as I strode through the fire, crushing the shadows that rose against me. I now moved through the hordes of soldiers with a new conviction, a new burning dream—dead children lifted from grave to glory, thrilling through black skies, with bits of rolling thunder surging through their hopeful hearts.
I reached the last door—a fabricated drawbridge, barred shut by a length of red-hot iron. Standing before it was the Prince of Smoke, holding a dagger in each hand, laughing.
However, the laughter was not the property of any one single triplet, but rather the conjoined cackling of the lot of them. “I see you are finally coming to understand things, Family Man—if only slightly. Yet secrecy is ever the magician’s prerogative, is it not?”
I clenched my fists, every fiber of them aching from the absence of my sweet sisters. “I’m rather relieved to see you’re not nearly so dull as I had been lead to believe via our many conversations together. Regrettably, like the many interesting individuals before you, I must remove you from my kill list. And because of what you have done, you will be removed with great and painful prejudice.”
The Prince twirled a dagger and smiled. “Out of respect for the Game—and no small amount of fear of consequence—I’ve not inspected your kill list. However, I’m fairly certain it isn’t nearly so extensive with crossed-out names as mine. Soon, you will discover why that is.” The men of one body vanished in a thick plume of smoke.
Wrapped in the Red Dream and the hope of lost children, I moved to the massive door and seized the glowing steel bar that held it shut, snapping it in half with my bare hands. My hands caught fire, allowing me to augment the blow I struck against the Prince as he appeared behind me, knives in hand.
The composite man was knocked into roaring flames, but I knew it would take more than fire to finish him, just as it would take more than a predictable sneak attack to finish me. “If the extent of your magical prowess is limited to performing such cheap tricks, you may have oversold yourself, Your Highness.” The magician fell silent, allowing his soldiers to answer my taunt.
The Prince of Smoke wasn’t the only one who could vanish. The killers’ gunfire failed to find me as I loosed myself into a strong current of shadow and silence, disappearing from sight. Within moments I had gained the courtyard surrounding the false castle. I could hear my sisters’ weeping like never before, the sound filling me with even more fire.
Just before I merged into the nearby woods, I cast my glance backwards. The Prince was standing in the sky, apparently held against gravity by only the plumes of smoke that rose out of the burning castle. His gaze pushed against the darkness by which I traveled, and I could feel his strange power reaching out for me. I threw out a cloud of silence and disappeared anew.
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