It was horrible for me, coming back to the Deadworld. It wasn’t merely that I’d been exposed to the utter cancelation of dream, washed away beneath a wave of boiling black pavement, made solid and soulless, an idle statue abandoned to a forgotten basement. It was the thoroughly sickening revelation upon my return that I was grateful for having been renewed within the lands of the dead. I was relieved to see the acrid smoke of industry, the grey pitch of ash blowing across eons, the unchanging ugliness. The realization nearly killed me all over again.
I was fortunate however, that my next destination was one of the more dream-haunted locations of the world, playing to the calm timbre of forfeited confidences in solidity and sanity. Willard, a place of glittering madness, a jewel tucked into the throat of a corpse. It would be my temporary reprieve, and hopefully—my redemption.
Cutting in half my swelling disgust at my reincarnation was the most recent entry into my journal, the words of my greatest adversary—Jack Lantern. There was a guiding light to his logic, if only the dim foxfire of a darkened swamp, doubtful and misleading. But at the very least his paradigm was cogent and internally consistent, if ultimately incorrect (despite the alleged scrutiny leveled at my exposed dreams). There is value in delusion, especially if it should have absolutely no part in logic or material truth—a waking dream in many respects.
The soul-carver had peered too long into the eyes of the White Mother, convincing himself of the bottomlessness of her kingdom, that only masks could make the world suitable for living. I am not a mask, Jack—I am fire. I will set this corpse-world aflame upon the pyre of my art, or I will die trying, very likely at the glimmering edges of your own exquisite carving knives.
But first there was the wonderful Mister Hide, that connoisseur of swapped skins, reflector of inner truths via the display of their more honest exteriors. Again, and to import a fraction of my criticism of poor Jack Lantern—there is little use for truth in graveyards. The only truths that lurk there consist of the certainty of death and the displacement of dream. All else, as they say, is mere window dressing. Even if that dressing were made from the most skilled fashioning of once-living tissue.
Despite a certain contempt of self, I was grateful for having dealt a decisive blow against the Mistress of Corpses, felling her miserable son. But there was much more work to be done before I could completely smother her in dream. And I would be a fool to count Mister Hide among the tombstones.
The road to Willard was a long one, and nicely decorated. Shade trees lined the trampled paths that looped around thick stands of thorns, and the sun fell in honeyed pools which made the day mercifully tolerable. Granted, the Deadworld expresses no pure, unfiltered beauty, yet the woods—these woods in particular—hung close to bygone dreams, for reasons I would not care to fathom for fear of spoiling their secrets.
I’ve forged my bones from mystery, and so the suspense of my journey was especially revitalizing, growing wonder as potent as the hemlock I crushed underfoot. I made stops, of course. Places hewn from the shrouded wisdom of the Darkness, when men and woman existed without pretense or pride—our great meditation of the shadow within us all.
One location was especially handsome, shaped as much from forbidden imagination as from stone—The Grey Crowd. Unfortunately, due to the society’s custom of burying the dead, the skins that once dressed the thousands of limestone statues were removed and placed into the earth. But even without their clothing, the statues still lurched purposelessly through the woods, which I took as a criticism of life before the Darkness—rock-solid souls weighting down dead skins, men and women stumbling through the world like listless corpses. Despite the statues’ current state of undress, I was glad to know that a tradition had sprung up shortly after the close of the Darkness. On the eve of that grand day’s anniversary, the statues had been found year after year once again repossessed of their skins, if only those of animals. And despite certain constabulary efforts to quell the practice of this new ritual, it had persisted. Though there was once an idea to demolish the statues—ridding the world of their biting reproach once and for all. But when the skins of those persons most vocal about supporting the effort were found decorating a number of the grey lurchers, the public seemed to lose all interest in the proposal.
It took my chance meeting with the shambling figures to reflect a moment on my next adversary, to truly appreciate his art for what it was. While I found the rearrangement of skins to be a rather wasted enterprise, as Hide’s efforts seemed less about revealing truth than merely fine-tuning it, I began to see the dream in it. The Skin Switcher’s vision wasn’t necessarily expressed within his product, but rather through his process. It was my opponent’s ability to reshape the humors of nature to match his dreams that truly intoned the man’s creative power—a force that stitched morality to flesh, simultaneously cultivating the lies and truths of his subjects. In a way, the giant killer was like myself, if only on the basic level of intent. We both would see the world dressed in our dreams—but that was as far as the comparison went. While his vison is fulfilled by sculpting flesh to reflect scruples, my art is a tireless invocation of dream—to unmake facts (moral or otherwise) and replace them with the seamless wonder of lost worlds. So, I suppose you might distinguish our dreams by their respective extents—mine trips beyond the world while Hide’s remains trapped within it. Now, I’m certainly not fond of the qualification of dreams, but I must admit—some dreams are better than others.
Apart from the boundaries of his vision, the products of Mister Hide’s process are marvels to behold, and would dignify any nightmare in which you might encounter them. It is perhaps the intrinsic limitations of his calling that allows for Hide to so completely encompass its nuances and elevate its character, lifting the art of skin-swapping to the level of visual philosophy. Skin should be so lucky as to come under his knife.
Again, and likely not for the last time, the Shepherd’s game would force me to destroy a kindred spirit, and my heart was heavy for it. But wolves must be wolves, even those who would rather be artists.
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