The second I fell asleep, I had the distinct impression of plummeting into yawning jaws, red-dimmed and opening beyond blackest horizons. But the voice of the dream sage was quick to correct our course, guiding all of us to less terrible pathways—which isn’t saying a lot, believe me. It can’t be overemphasized just how awful the dreams in and around New Victoria truly are. While we pussyfooted around some of the ghastlier imagery, it was all still monstrously visible—the nightmared ruins of entire worlds hovered a hop, skip, and a jump from dreams of cracked-open closet doors weeping countless shadows into children’s darkened rooms. Occasionally a dream of getting lost in a shrouded maze would rub shoulders with visions of illimitable pits filled with hundreds of shrieking, tumbling dreamers, every one of them bound for a bottomless nightmare, never to wake up.
Wicked looked like a kid who had snuck into an R-rated movie, just a face full of grins at each and every obscene sight. Baron was stone-faced, as usual, paying careful attention to the sage as he brought us through the forest of horror. The path we walked appeared as a dirty hallway stretching between rooms of nightmare, each one either hatching in the head of its respective dreamer, or bloating the guts of slumbering, unsuspecting mothers-to-be—the price of womanhood in good ol’ New Victoria.
The evil of the Wakeless was every inch an industry as much as a nightmare. A ruthless efficiency inlaid each phantom pregnancy and nuanced every horrible image, all of it to terraform, so to speak, the world of the waking into an eternal haunt for demonic dreams. I wanted to feel for the figures falling and flailing in hopeless sleep, but much to my surprise, all I felt was a sort of kinship and competition with the Wakeless. My ascent to monster granted me an awful perspective, where heartless predation and wanton slaughter became only useful metrics for calculating the strength of the competition. I couldn’t help but see the Wakeless running the same rat race as myself, trying to smuggle their darkness past the finish line. Every human soul that crashed down into hopeless nightmare was just a polished coin in the creatures’ coffers. Perhaps far worse, I began to think of my companions as reasonable adjuncts to further my ascent—pawns in my quest to become . . . God-knows-what. But the witch and I were almost on the same page now, or at least we’d cracked open the same book. (The Prince, perhaps?)
Suddenly, the going got much weirder, and the walkway became a narrow bridge across churning emptiness, a pronounced disconnect within the Wakeless enterprise—an island in the sea of evil sleep. It seemed like we were climbing the face of an untried mountain, its true height masked by twining shadow, an untold story afloat in the void. The uneven steps grew more navigable beneath our feet as the rough stone organized itself into a flight of polished cement stairs, and the darkness became a staggered horde of vague organic shapes.
We were entering, as far as I could tell, a combination of a torched art studio and a smoldering forest. Sooty lightbulbs hung like dirty stars just above and slightly below the naked, seething tree limbs, their grimy light sloughing down from above, dimly illuminating strange canvases and sculptures that slumped and bubbled from smoking scrub brush and thickets. The “art” was a nightmare composition of repurposed body parts, each one married to the next with supernatural, if ultimately sick, skill. Yet, despite the obvious similarities to the Family Man’s work, there was something overly deliberate about the themes that seemed to miss the existential mark, as it were.
Wicked noticed immediately. “These don’t belong to Donald, Veeve. These are lost opportunities, diamonds that never quite escaped the rough. Merely indelicate—though amusing—caricatures of sickness. The artistic Neanderthal to Donald’s Cro-Magnon, if you will.”
“Pearls before swine,” spoke a male voice from within a nearby cave. Hazy lighting mixed with a rising fog directly in front of the yawning stone. “My art has nothing to do with exalting my subjects, but only magnifying my will within the world, bringing you all beneath the inimitable sway of my personal vision. Art as power, I suppose you might philosophize. But, I invite your comparisons with my son’s work. His successes are my own, after all—it was I who instructed him.”
The sage quickly moved to the rear of the group, eschewing the business of monsters. The mental preparation for killing was automatic—our blades and smiles slid out like cat’s claws, informal and silent. “I’m afraid we know enough about the man to realize where his skills came from,” I said. “Show yourself—now.”
The man sounded shocked. “Why, you’re here. You poor, murderous bitch. I see that you too have failed to survive our wonderful son’s company. I told you so, did I not? I wonder where the other three of you got to? If I had to guess, I’d say they’re dead. I’m right, aren’t I?” His words weren’t aimed at me—but within me, at her. I could feel fire catching. “Oh, don’t fret, my darlings,” he continued. “I’ve no stomach for fighting, just killing. And only as it applies to my craft.”
A confusing shape moved from the mouth of sleeping stone, like the whisper of a thousand paint brushes working rough canvas. The scorched light fell upon a burning shape of broken bearing, its flesh the torn, sullied fabrics of a yellowed canvas, its eyes the boiling red of bloody paint. Within seconds, the inks and oils of its shadow merged with the surrounding blackness, and the dream became an artwork of purest sickness. The creature rose to its full height and bowed with mocking protocol. “I am the Red Ouroboros.”
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