A Place for Madness
It had been too long since I had the opportunity to put on my dreams. It was like slipping into a brook at the height of summer, renewing and cool. I was pleased to see that the collective dream was still in place, still populated by the players of the Shepherd’s game. The dream was an almost seamless whole now, having coagulated from time and persistence and many, many deaths. I wandered careworn and filthy warrens, urban hidey holes, attics heaped with old bones, and extravagant murder chambers fit for mad kings. I sensed many eyes upon me, peering out from secret killing places. I wondered if any of them belonged to a certain pumpkin-faced killer.
Although the dream had been designed for the Shepherd’s hungry flock, it had clearly attracted the dreams of other killers, who for whatever reason had not been invited to play. For a fleeting second I gazed clearly upon the Darkroom of the infamous Spirit Photographer. How many of his subjects had been found posed in deep forests, deserted belfries, dank cellars and other abandoned places? Fifty? Seventy-five? They were all bleached white by a flash powder which released a light that did not stop at the skin, that snatched souls into the wicked spaces behind the photographer’s lens. (Or so the legends say—correctly, I’ve no doubt.)
A few moments later and I watched the pitchy waters of an ancient lake retreat behind a toothsome shoreline, where were stacked the blazing forms of countless dead—all of which had briefly come to know the wicked hands of the killer known only as Pyre.
I even made the mistake of stumbling into a very singular dream, filled with dying screams and frenetic pain-inducing machines, all of them housed within a gigantic inhabitable torture chamber—or Tortuary, to those familiar with the legend of Agatha Pain. I saw her staring back at me from the blackened dream. Her wickedly hooked and bladed armor, her steel gloves bristling like a thicket of knives—she was a true vision. She was indeed a player in the Shepherd’s game. In fact, her dream was a dismal recollection of what she had done to the last Wolf on her list. He was bound and lowered into a glass tank of slow-acting acid, naked but for an oxygen mask and goggles. She looked on as her victim felt himself slowly dissolve into an opaque broth, her smile as sharp as any worn by my sisters. When she discovered me looking on, her hungry smile lowered to a grin. She only gestured to her melting tank, as if offering me a place within it. Her dream quickly disappeared behind a rush of dark new visions, and I loosened my grip on my sleeping sisters.
I came upon the blacked-out dreams of the recently murdered hunters, still caught in a web of nightmares, mindlessly replaying forgotten shadows. I could detect a tilted silence emanating from the dead places, where a strange nullity upended simple emptiness. These dreams were not merely dead, but were something else entirely—something more than dead, perhaps.
With some searching, I found the den of the Skin Switcher. I felt him waiting somewhere among the neat lines of hanging hides, each skin a symbol for a sin that had once been hidden, but now stood revealed and properly affixed to the appropriate sinner. I entered the chamber slowly, the uninvited guest of an exclusive gallery. I should take a moment to remark once more upon the quality of my adversary’s craftsmanship. More so than could be appreciated outside of a dream, Hide’s creations nearly shined with moral relevance—it was as if each creature had been merged together with its exact form of original sin, exemplifying and overcoming the distance between Eden and present day. Sin and skin married with such delicacy and precision as to have been combined by a song. These were not merely revelatory symbols, but whole and entire archetypes.
I knew Hide was aware of my swelling admiration for his work, smiling quietly from somewhere within a sea of stolen skins.
“I came to offer my apologies for the delay,” I said. “I hate to keep my appointments waiting. I hope you can see past my indiscretion, but rest assured, Mister Hide—I am coming for you. Soon.” There was only silence in response, as I knew there would be. Yet my rudeness needed accounting for. My detour from purpose could not be interpreted as a sign of frightful hesitation. My father would not allow it.
The night was soft and kind, and I was thankful for the gentle delivery from sleep. My awareness soon seeped into my recollection. The abandoned cabin where I rested was mostly destroyed but for the single room I occupied. A modest storm moved across the sky just above me, weeping rain upon the forest. My family slept quietly beside me. I had forgotten how much I had missed them, how much the separation had hurt me. I gathered them up and departed into darkness and silence.
The city of Willard would soon be upon me, and I relished the thought of seeing it for the first time. It had come by its insanity many years prior to the Great Darkness. Some believed it was a dry run for the greater madness to come, a staging ground of sorts. Whatever the source of the city’s malady, it was undeniably host to a uniquely binding madness, restraining the common sense of thousands of people—and as history had documented well, these were not idle lunatics. Not in the slightest.
There were signs my destination was not far. I began to encounter the country dwellings that prefaced the formal portions of the city, dwellings that had clearly known the ridiculous clutch and titter of madness. I saw chimney stones stacked into the shapes of great yawning mouths, exhaling thick smoke into the dull sky. They crested slightly above the treetops, and at first I took their exhaust to be a stronger vein of storm, descended low over the forest, angry and black. How those fires continued to burn with no one to tend them was just another mystery I had no intention of ruining.
I came upon a vast swath of forest that had been cleared to make way for a man-made lake, beneath which lurked monstrous shapes hewn from yet unidentified species of crystal and glass. I wondered if glassblowing facilities comprised the throats of those spewing chimney-mouths. Some of these creations broke the placid surface of the water, peeking out from the depths, blending their translucent bodies with the mist, holding ephemeral shapes as potent as any dream. Beneath the water they dwelt, meandering and serrated, nearly invisible due to their faint composition. Their silhouettes had more than once been revealed by the swirling blood of those who dared enter the water. This was Willard’s infamous Lake of a Thousand Spirits.
So much beauty, and I had yet to even enter the city.
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