As I crossed beyond the entrance to the nearby forest, I quietly asked the trees and the cool babbling brooks if they might keep my presence a secret. For incentive, I promised to unpeel them all from the solid world should I manage to win my war against waking. Only seconds passed before the forest had completely embraced me, taking me into its confidence and revealing to me all of its secret paths. I quietly thanked the woodland as I rushed through its ancient darkness—a silken gloom that had been hidden and nurtured since time immemorial, passed between shady meadow and benighted thicket, to be preserved against the day forever. Yet despite the forest’s best efforts, I could detect from somewhere within those undisclosed lanes a Wolf keeping pace with me, deciphering the confusion I left in my wake, avoiding my every trap and predicting my every feign. The Prince of Smoke was a formidable hunter, indeed.
A hollow in the woods yawned wide as the Prince, preempting the path I would take, rose from the mists directly in front of me. He showed me his hands, clad in black leather gloves, and began moving them with an awful celerity. He thrust them out in front of the darkness that held his face from sight, beneath a hood seemingly stitched from the gossamer of shadows. Instantly, a swarm of fat flies swept out from between his dancing fingers and splashed across my face, the entire cloud trying desperately to bury itself in my eyes. An enemy silence bloomed all around me, turning my vigilant senses aside and inviting a blade deep into the flesh of my back.
I followed the pain to the exact point at which my skin ended and the Prince’s knife began, hoping to seize it. But my hands only clasped the trail of a mist that twisted in the moonlight. My renewed silence closed the wound as the blade vanished, and I called the shadows to reveal the void where hid my opponent.
My fist followed where the shadows led and the magical murderer spat his broken teeth onto the twisting coils of ancient tree roots. The conjoined triplet backpedaled into his strange and magical silence as I sunk into my obedient darkness. Not even the searching songs of crickets and frogs could find the silence through which we stalked, nor could the gloom of moonstruck swamps foreshadow the savagery we intended to impart to one another.
Cold whispers from the pursed lips of the Prince would drift across my path, searching me out, saying, “Come and see what wonderful magic tricks I’ve yet to show you, my friend. They’ll wrap you in wonder and allow you to see by the most wonderful and secret lights.” I can’t deny that I found the offer nearly irresistible, but my sisters were in dire need.
At last the sun began to stir at the horizon and the sky began to pool at its most distant edges with drowsy amber light. I assumed the Prince, if he was any kind of a hunter or at all like myself, would likely postpone our dealings until nightfall. I found a cavern filled with wolves hidden deep within the woods, replete with the recent kill of a large deer. I slew the wolves and lined the earthy space with their soft bodies, providing myself with comfortable sleeping arrangements. After I had filled my belly with fresh deer meat, I slept.
I was finally allowed to sink into the depths of dream my previous earthly accommodations had made all but impossible. And as is usually the case, there was something waiting at the bottom.
“Shall I be forced to come find you, Family Man? With the dwindling number of contestants, I’d thought to get things done and over with. I’ve all but sent you a written invitation to my whereabouts, so I’m curious if you’ve reconsidered your chances of victory against me. Perhaps rather than face me, you’ve elected to hide in a hole somewhere.” It was the Skinner of course, calling out to me from our shared dream. I couldn’t blame him for his impatience, or even his theory concerning my prolonged absence. It would certainly seem that I’d reconsidered my bid against him.
“My most sincere apologies, Mister Hide,” I said. “I have been somewhat detained as of late. Have you ever heard of the Prince of Smoke?” I wondered if my most recent opponent was as famous as he would have me believe.
“I have,” replied Hide. “He’s a bit of an escape artist, is he not? I believe he was responsible for the mass killing of a number of convicted murderers reposed within a maximum-security prison facility, a structure quite famous for its impregnability. Quite the feat—if the story’s true, I mean."
“From what I’ve seen, it seems likely to be true,” I said, ruefully. “I have to admit my initial impression of the creature was a bit lackluster. However, that impression has since been revised, and considerably so.”
“I can’t say I’m not disappointed he hasn’t killed you,” Hide said. “I see our meeting going rather poorly for you, and with precious few stand-out moments to satisfy me long after your pelt has been treated and hung. When you get right down to the bones of the matter, You’re little more than an inferior version of myself. Your chief attributes are all similar to my own, only less refined and powerful. It seems to me the Prince of Smoke could do you the favor of sparing you an awful lot of humiliation, while providing me with a more diversified and thus challenging opponent.”
“Your obsession with your swollen muscles is disappointing,” I countered, smiling. “I’d hoped you’d be a bit more refined by way of an operating philosophy, which is precisely why you and I are not very alike at all. You see, my primary attribute is my artistic sense, a particular quality that seems wholly lost on you, regrettably. And there’s the fact that you’re clearly the smaller and weaker creature between us.” I desperately wanted to yield to at least one of the baser temptations I’d experienced that night—though truth be told, I was much more interested in the Prince’s advertised magic show.
Up to this point, the dream was largely unformed, merely a dark place at the bottom of a murky ocean. After my poorly veiled insult, the waters began to churn with the blood and body parts of ferocious beasts. Each of the sundered creatures were entirely undressed of their skins. Moments after the water had been all but replaced with blood and bodies, I could see the burly shape of Mister Hide as he came wading through the dream-borne gore and corpses. Though the dream had grown quite hostile, there was little that the two of us could do to each other—the dream forbade physical contact. Yet the skinner drew up to me with a calculation of movement that suggested he had forgotten that fact. Just before something sharp plunged into my arms, I noticed that Mister Hide seemed much deflated, as if he’d lost a considerable amount of his vaunted mass.
When the once massive killer spoke, it was in a much different voice. “You’ve chosen a poor place to hide, Family Man. Magic within a dream is so much stronger than beneath the sun, or even the moon, for that matter.” The Prince of Smoke stood before me, from the bottom of a Red Dream, from behind the poached dream-skin of a massive serial killer.
The Prince laughed as my body was overcome with a thousand points of pain. Suddenly, I was awake, covered with the dead and drooling wolves I had slain earlier. I threw them from me, crushing out what life had been smuggled into them by the unclean magics of the Prince. I saw a familiar mist gathering at the mouth of the cavern, giddy from its most recent assault upon me.
“You are a fine opponent, Family Man,” said the Prince, “and I now feel that if I’d continued to dangle you out as bait, I would have denied myself some of the grandest fun ever known. Most importantly, you seem to have a unique appreciation for my craft. I can tell by the way your eyes retreat from the world as you marvel at my tricks. And unlike so many, you never seek to look behind my apparent chicanery. You stare into my mystery with the wide eyes of a child, accepting everything and questioning nothing. As a magician, I can prize nothing so highly as your ceaseless wonder. For that, I must thank you.”
It was a sincere gesture and I received it in the intended spirit. But this would not stop me from tearing him limb from magical limb, trickster from triplet. I would not relent until all of them were so much indecipherable ruin, their true magic left to fend for itself in a world of two-way mirrors, false-bottomed boxes, and eyes that could never behold wonder.
My sisters would have it no other way.
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