“Reverence” is an interesting word, often applied more discriminately than other words of its caliber, for whatever reason. So when the young man I had come to see used it to describe his feelings towards his dreams I felt inclined to listen to him a bit more carefully. He said, “There is wisdom within my dreams, beyond the pull of standard reason and logic. It’s crafted from experiences that have not been filtered through the waking senses, and so persists as a knowing without conventional form or substance.” The man barely moved. He just laid there on his bed, looking at the moths orbiting a naked, glowing light bulb. (Where the power came from to produce the illumination, I have no idea. But while the city was in ruins, I’m sure it wasn’t suffering from a paucity of energy sources, no matter how gruesome and unearthly.)
“Moths,” he began again, “They are so much different than butterflies. They remind me of the difference between waking and dreaming. The butterfly is a beautiful creature, but only and ultimately explicit, wearing its colors upon the dust of its wings. Such a creature can only decorate the world like a living bow tied whimsically around a gust of wind, fluttering beautifully, pointlessly. Like most things, the butterfly is really just a dried up dream that’s lost its connection to the other side, and so has become an exhibition without substance or source. A moth, however, is a great adventurer and night-thing; it is the custodian of uncommon desires that, presumably, outstrip the need for aesthetics and spectacle. It’s not content with only its wings and the open air, but requires more, and so it drowns itself in the night, every night, looking for something. What it seeks no one knows, not even the moth; it simply knows that what is, is all wrong, and that there must be something greater hiding behind the night’s darkness, something more wonderful than even tireless wings and an infinity of night could ever provide. It’s as if the moth’s entire life were designed for a singular purpose: escape. Or, perhaps it’s merely designed to believe that it exists in a place that needs escaping from, and that its nightly passions are somehow sufficient to locate a way out. A dream is so much like that, you see. It takes wing into the unknown, traveling and never arriving, always searching for an exit, and rarely finding one.” (Obviously I disagreed with his characterization of the Deadworld, as it could never be decorated; it can only ingest beauty, leaving behind the dry bones of devoured dreams. But the man’s expertise lied in dreams and not the waking world, so I forgave the mistake. Although his characterization of the butterfly was absolutely correct.) That’s when he looked away from the whirling moths and stared straight at me, smiling slightly. Finally, after his smile had run its course, he said, “But you didn’t come here to talk about butterflies, did you? No, you want to know about the moths—about those strange dreams you’ve been having.” After I nodded, his eyes took on a strange energy, as if they were likely aglow in some other spectrum of light (or some other spectrum of darkness). He then directed his invisibly radiant gaze beyond the gaping hole in his roof, freeing his vision into the wet, black sky.
The rain was coming down only very lightly, and its soft patter blended easily into the gentle breeze. The man started up again, “This whole place, the entire city, has rested upon the very precipice of some dim and forgotten dream world ever since the daemon sleep arrived from beyond our furthest nightmares. I’ve been dreaming myself closer and closer to that world every day and night, stealing into its pallid and high-walled lanes, eating of its food, and spending my living years on dream after dream of a world that is precisely not this one. Do you think I leave this bed to eat? Of course not. I sustain myself there—within the grey, drifting fields broken only by spindly trees and the ruins of visions long since passed. I partake of the whispering fruit and drink the weird smoldering waters that tumble across the endless sky like herds of rushing ghosts. And what about this body of mine, this youthful weight that lies before you? It’s only a point of reference. My mind has spent so little time here that my body has barely aged. But I’m far from young, farther still from truly old. I say all of this only to inform you of the paths that I must walk to know what I know, and that I know what I know quite well.” I said nothing, but only waited for him to continue.
The man’s gaze returned to the room and back to to the wheeling moths. Then, with no small amount of concentration, he began a new tale. “Quite a few dreams ago I was wandering a damp passageway constructed from interlocking basements, each one opening into the next by way of a different type of subterranean entrance, when I encountered an entity that referred to himself as the ‘King of Cellars.’ He was an affable old fellow, and so I visited with him beneath the weak illumination of old and crusty light bulbs. We were having quite a pleasant time, talking and philosophizing as we drank from our chipped cups of softly sweetened tea, when from deep below we heard the savage bluster of numerous, and doubtless enormous, wolves. The Lord of Basements remarked on the sounds only when he saw the frightened look upon my face, saying ‘Mine is not the deepest kingdom, for far below us there is a pit deeper than any space could ever hope to admit, and those that inhabit the great depression are nearly as old as the machines that gave emptiness its color and numbered the dust. The great company of the pit are generally a quiet lot, but recently one of them in particular has been quite busy. I can hear the strange sounds of it’s dark enterprise, occasionally.’ When I asked about the sound of demonic wolves, he said only, ‘The industrious one that I mentioned is lean and voracious, and the wolves are its voice. It speaks stolen breaths into hungry sentences made from packs of frothing wolves, wherein each ravening word can hunt and kill. It is speaking, now, but to whom I cannot say’. My host would say no more, and I was relived to move past the topic at the time, as the deep sounds nearly startled me awake. However, after I departed the Kingdom of Cellars, and its charming ruler, I resolved to learn more about this creature that possessed a voice filled with wolves. Eventually this ‘pit-dweller’ became a point of some fascination for me, and so I dreamed as deeply as I was able, to find some trace of this ‘pit’ the under-king made mention of. After many dreams of unsuccessful questing I finally found an old nightmare, drifting alone in a sea of pitch silence, replaying its bloody misfortune over and over again. The dreamers of this nightmare had been many and monstrous, but apparently long dead. Strangely, as I explored the contents of the dream, it appeared that the dreamers had not only shared the same dream, but had actually killed one another in some strange contest, orphaning the nightmare that still held an echo of baying wolves. I returned to the dead dream many times, always departing with some new insight. However, on the last occasion I visited the dream, all was not dead. The nightmare was filling up with the shadows of fresh wolves, and the dream became hot with hunger and blood. These new wolves began falling upon one another, rending flesh from bone; and the dream had been removed from the depths of forgotten silence and lifted into red pools of human sleep. As I departed, something watched me go, something whose age was nearly as deep as the pit it looked out from. When its sight had fallen entirely upon me I felt my dream-self nearly explode from the heat. I awoke that night to blankets of fire.” The man threw his gaze at a hump of burned sheets piled crudely in one of the distant corners of the wrecked room. “But before I woke, I caught a passing look at the thing that could cast fire from slumber. It wore the likeness of a darkened shepherd and bore in its left hand a bleeding, crimson crook.”
I still remembered the picture that the Crucifier had drawn within his yellowed journal, and so submitted my only real insight. “You speak of the Shepherd of Wolves, do you not?” The man looked a bit irritated, as if I had disrupted the rhythm of his carefully planned diatribe.
“Of course. He is the thing that calls out to you…and to all of the rest of your kind.” He waited, smugly, for the words he knew I would speak.
“I have no ‘kind,’ dreamer. I am no wolf. I am a repairer of dreams, an artist. Everything else is merely parenthetical, provisional—nothing more and nothing less,” I said with measured indignation.
“Are you an artist, indeed? I will say this for you—you are different. But you have no idea of precisely what you are, you poor beast.” Some of his words were like the distant notes of a weakly remembered song. His remaining words were offensive. But again, his was the knowledge of things that walked the distant shores of dream, not of matters concerning the business of firmer worlds, and so he was again forgiven, or at least ignored.
His smiled returned to light up invisible worlds. The man on the bed was quite pleased with himself, as he was performing quite impressively within his role as sage. “You have no choice but to play the Shepherd’s game, and you have every reason to play it well, my gigantic friend. You see, the Shepherd is one of the ‘Unbegotten,’ and his will, even from down within so deep a hole, is as inevitable as silence. He cannot be denied his sport. He wrote you an invitation in blood and twilight, and means for you to join him and all of the others he’s invited, into a game that can displace stars and conjure worlds from whispers,” he said with a bit of awe caught in his throat.
“And should I win?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Who’s to say? The Shepherd is as mysterious as the nightmare that dismembered Boston and raised New Victoria from its riven corpse. The wills and ways of such things are not for us to know. We simply symbolize their powers, in the same way ink symbolizes our thoughts on paper. Although, we are not the ones holding the pen.”
“Then I have one more question for you, dreamer: what do you know of the dreams of Sara Kane?” The man’s grin almost exceeded the boundaries of his face.
“You mean, of course—‘Black Molly Patience.’” Another name scratched into my murder-list transformed into a wickedly beautiful thing. She was a poisonous one, that cannibal who walked under the world, serving her darkest appetites. Her underground tunnels, sweet venoms and secret trap-doors were the very stuff of children’s nightmares.
I’m certain that the man’s secret vision could see the soul of my own smile, testing the limits of his neglected room.