Part 3: The Beauty Beneath

Chapter 8: The Blind Leading the Blind

Flashing teeth, hungry mouths, sightless eyes, hooked claws: the only things I saw before my blood augmented the already considerable amount of red that had been supplied by the struggling sun. They came from the high grass, quiet and vicious. They might have been dogs, or even some kind of wolf, but I wasn’t sure. After they tore me apart, they withdrew and crouched down somewhere in the field, where I could detect them only by their inhuman breathing. My once astonishingly rehabilitated body was now laid wide open, as I was now only a clutter of ruined flesh that hung in gory flaps. Breath still haunted my lungs, but my strength was nearly gone.

The very tops of the grass seemed aflame with the last touches of twilight, and a calming breeze played against the savagery of the previous moment. The creatures, whatever they were, seemed to be waiting for something. After a few minutes had passed I heard footsteps coming toward me through the field. It was a calm gait, and one that possessed only two legs. I think that the approaching thing might have even paused a moment to appreciate the spectacle of my blood mixing with the dying rays of the sun. The movement of the approaching creature was light and graceful. It was a woman.

I gathered the silence of the field, inhaling it while I listened. The night began trickling into the field as the sun grew colder. My sisters began to giggle softly, like children deliberately betraying their hiding places. Large storm clouds tumbled gray and ominous through the distant sky, mumbling. I determined my target: what I took to be the leader of the pack of monstrous things, as its breathing was the deepest and most measured of the horde. But I was too eager to see what was planned for me, so I coiled what strength I had managed to recover, and waited.

“You travel like a thoughtless bird, Family Man, straight and unwavering…and wholly predictable. The train is one of the last ways to access the city. I really didn’t think you’d take such an obvious route, but she assured me that you would. I should know by now not to question her. Did you really think she wouldn’t know you were coming? Where did you think your dreams were going? After everything I’ve heard about you, you turn out to be nothing more than a simple-minded brute. You lack the cleverness of your art, monster…Well, I’m certain that you must know about us from her dreams, so it should come as no surprise to you as to what’s going to happen next. Or were you arrogant enough to believe that you would have the honor of being devoured by our mother?”

My heart was heavy when I surprised the massive beast from behind, as I had crept beneath the sound of the woman’s monologue to get to the thing. Its strength was monstrous as it tried to struggle free of my grip, but my strength was more monstrous, still. The creature’s neck snapped with such a loud crack that I half believed that lightning had struck somewhere in the field. The other creatures rose from their hiding places, surprised by the sound of their leader’s sudden death. I took a moment to look at them. They were so beautiful that I almost forgot how it was that we all came to prowl the red fields. They were like wolves from another world. Their eyes were opaque and blind, and their teeth and claws were designed to hunt prey far larger and fiercer than any earthly deer or elk. They were the size of mountain lions and the color of summer storms, and they moved with the killing grace of predator insects. My heart broke when they decided to attack me.

My father met the first beast in the air. The creature became nothing more than a shriek wrapped in blood. A second monster wished to test my balance by lunging at my knees. The sharpened tip of my father’s handle passed through the creature’s brain, continuing through its lower jaw and down into the earth. Still another beast leaped at my back. I spun around and sent my deadly forebear howling into the thing’s ribs, chopping the creature from its trajectory and sending it, bleeding and tumbling, into the distant and obscuring brambles. As I was busy at my work, I detected the nimble retreat of the woman who had spoken at me, as she had wisely determined that her pack of deadly things were not likely to outlive the dusk. The last two monsters tried to assist the woman’s escape by rearing up in front of me, attempting to frighten me backwards. My sister passed between their heads and plunged into the fleeing woman’s back. She stumbled into the limbs of a dead tree that stood just outside the point where the field met the woods. She tried desperately to steady herself using the lifeless branches, even as many of the limbs speared through her hair and poked at her flesh, but they kept snapping off in her hands as she slowly collapsed to the ground.

I wanted very badly to spare the remaining creatures, but I couldn’t let them apprise Miss Patience of anything beyond what my wayward dreams had already let slip. The beasts came at me almost passively, as if they had nothing left to fight for and wanted only to discharge their lives as quickly as possible. I made their deaths as quick and gentle as I was able. My heart was dust, and my tears felt hot against my skin, hotter even than the blood that still flowed from my many, many wounds.

The woman was still breathing, as I had intended. I moved to look upon her face. She was blind and terribly beautiful. Her eyes were a marriage of glass and spring rain, and I immediately recognized her from my dream. “To be more specific, I move like an eagle, as an eagle has nothing to fear. And you will find no critics of the eagle’s tactics among the littered bones of his former prey,” I said in an attempt to renew my passion for the shepherd’s game. I had intended to probe her for insights into the mystery of Miss Patience, but I had destroyed far too many beautiful things to summon any lingering sense of purpose. I couldn’t bear to look at her, but even as I turned away I could hear the rain falling behind her beautiful, sightless eyes. She gathered what breath I’d begrudged her, and spoke.

“I didn’t know… eagles could…cry.” The blind woman died at almost the very instant the night rose. The fledgling darkness drifted across me, washing the remains of the sun from my skin, and I sank into the darkened field, defeated.

Part 3: The Beauty Beneath

Chapter 7: Gathering the Shadows

Despite the utter lack of at least a third of its construction, the train car was somehow fortifying the darkness against the sunlight, shielding its innards from the normalizing rays of the sun, and maintaining the integrity of the dream that was now only a collection of carved bodies and heads. I replaced the mask of the Mad Mercenary, slipping it gently over his faceless face—a thing that had no meaning beyond the gasmask that obscured it. I also reached down and gathered the engraved remains of Janus’s three, now grinning, faces. I took the heads of the two monstrous killers and hanged them from the ceiling, far from the other assortment of dangling and whittled heads, as wolves have no place among the sheep, which is almost certainly true in life, and most definitely the case when it comes to the care of their respective corpses. (Perhaps Janus would have conceded at least that much, if not the larger analogy concerning killers and wolves. Although, if I’m being honest, I’m none too fond of the analogy myself, as no wolf was ever possessed of the powers of an artist, let alone the vision of a dreamer.)

As I made my way to a new seat within the train I imagined my blood as the only weight holding me to the earth, and as it leaked away I began to fear that I might drift away into the sun, where yellow gods stare out from their infinite boredom, laying their sick-warm sight upon dying and dead worlds that have long since rusted into their orbits. I grasped the armrests of the new seat as I descended upon it, affording myself an additional anchor to the world. Once I was firmly invested within my new location, I gazed casually around the train. ‘Poor Janus, what has the world lost with your passing?’ I wondered, looking at his three faces, each one spilling its collection of chaos across the floor, and yet I hoped that whatever was lost from Janus had been conserved within Jack. Of course my hopes remained the same regarding the Mad Merc and myself, but I felt only shame, and nothing of the unique forces that had made a monster out of a common killer-for-hire. (I had hoped to at least learn the means by which one might enter that delightful place he had mentioned, but I was no wiser for having once held his very head in my hands.)

I wasn’t sure if the blood loss had affected my vision, or whether the previous dream had continued to swell like some contusion upon the skin of reality itself, but the passenger car in front of me seemed to enclose some remaining particle of life (as far as I knew, all of the previous occupants were now only wet ornaments for a displaced holiday). I could see dark shapes drifting through the aisles, moving away from me, and apparently engaging some greater and distant darkness somewhere closer to the front of the train. Having nothing better to do than bleed, I decided to follow them. The very second I moved from my seat I knew I was dreaming, as my body fell into a current of invisible movement that pushed me forward. As I glided, I spied a group of strange, young women standing on both sides of the aisle in front of me. Every one of them was raven-haired and possessed of the lightest blue eyes, which appeared like glimmering beads of water that defied gravity by the sheer force of their beauty. The tallest of the group, a woman whose height was only slightly less than my own considerable stature, spoke to me. “Have you any idea who conducts this train? As many times as I’ve tried to ascertain that fact, I’ve never learned.” Her eyes were rainstorms. I could hear the water of weeping skies falling across a world of tender, young leaves. I almost forgot to respond.

“I have no idea, but I’m sure their competent. Certainly, you have no cause for concern.” My words seemed lost to the rain, and I was curious if I had spoken at all. The woman smiled at me—as if I had given precisely the answer she desired—and then quickly withdrew behind the shadows of the train. Before I could even begin to contemplate what had happened, invisible hands pushed me onward, far away from the tall women, where I felt compelled to refocus my attention upon the line of wandering shadows. In service to my new obligation, I observed that after each shadow crossed into the next car, the darkness beyond the threshold deepened, gaining the appearance of a massive hole that extended beyond the dream of a train. I drew up behind the last shadow in line and waited my turn to move into the next world.

The opening did not lead to some other dream, but into to a supernal synthesis of darkness and silence, which I theorized to be the product of the shadows merging together. The hybrid substance approximated the closest thing to a fully realized oblivion, and all of it stitched together from the rootless bodies of sacrificial shades. Within that near-nullity I could detect the absence of memories and dreams, and most importantly—I heard the sound of something about to begin. Swiftly, but with the caution of a mother lifting her child for the first time, the darkness enfolded me. It was at that moment when the silence broke upon a sweet and breathy whisper that said, “The silence before the womb and beyond the grave, it’s all for you, my son. Seek out the quiet of lonely places, and death may not hear you.” It was my mother’s voice. However I was quite certain that she was still sleeping, so I determined that the whispers must have come to me from some distant memory, sealed-up within a void that required the death of several shadows to reacquire.

I thought that I was about to exit the makeshift oblivion when another sound entered into the nothingness, unapologetically and sloppily scattering muffled voices as it blundered about. Again, I could feel the burning eyes of my family, throwing fire and trying to force me to ignore some scorned thing that dwelt within sleep. Or was the sound coming from someone else’s dream? (With all of the dream-swapping going on, the question was as valid as it was inevitable.) The sound became progressively more distinct, and soon gelled together as the pathetic cries of a child. The child’s crying was quickly accompanied by a new sound, which, emotionally, was nearly equivalent to the child’s sadness, but composed entirely from rage. What surprised me most about the second sound was that it actually frightened me, and yet it was nothing more than a man’s raised voice: “STOP WHINING AND HOLD STILL! IF YOU MAKE ME RUIN ANOTHER PAINTING, I’LL HANG YOU IN THE ROOM WITH THE REST OF THEM!” An image tried to follow on the heels of the voice, but it was blocked out by the high pitched sound of a train whistle.

I woke up on the floor of the train, as it appeared that I hadn’t even managed to make it to one of the seats. The train was in the process of exiting a large tunnel, and as it remerged into the light I watched as the shadows were stripped of their plump, inky flesh, leaving behind only the boney and black silhouettes of solid, earthly objects. I rose to my feet. There was no pain and no blood. I opened my coat and put my hand to where there should have been an abundance of blood and ruined tissue. There was nothing. Not even a scratch.

The day was dying into twilight, and the direction of the train seemed bound for the source of all that wonderful crimson. The failing sun splashed bloody light across my skin, confirming my lack of injury. I walked deeper into the light, certain that once the dusk was more concentrated upon the areas where I had been shot and cleaved there would be a mark, and yet there was still nothing. As I stared at my woundless body something stood briefly in front of the red sun, throwing a rectangular darkness into the train. The shadow-castor was a large sign that read: Black River City. The Location of Miss Patience’s first recorded kill (if only the writer of that article knew what Miss Patience got up to during the Great Darkness) was finally in reach, and I was apparently no worse for the wear of my travels.

The doors of the train opened the very second I reached them, but just before I departed I looked back into the vehicle. As my sight moved into the darkened passages and over the empty seats, I knew that the train was far from vacant, and that the means by which it moved was not solely dependent upon the steel of its tracks, nor the fire of its engine. Finally, my eyes lingered for a moment upon the swinging faces of the two fallen wolves, and then I was gone.

The only thing that identified the train-stop was a small wooden platform with a tall metal sign sticking up from it. The sign displayed the name of my destination and its arrow-shape pointed out the direction one should travel to reach the designated location. As I began walking the thin path that rambled among the high grasses, a strangeness seemed to gather within the twilight-soaked meadow that swayed to a slight breeze that, for the briefest of moments, I mistook for a whisper. It was the Deadworld trembling, I thought, as it seemed that the more I played the Shepherd’s game, the more the world became like a dream. As I closed on my destination, my head filled with images of mountains drifting through the air like Dandelion seeds, and dimly glowing oceans being tugged at by the whispered gravity of moons made from foxfire. In retrospect…I should never have left the train.

pumpkin heads
Jack Lantern’s amazing gallery of human pumpkin-heads
A bit of news.
A bit of news.
Part 3: The Beauty Beneath

Chapter 6: Blood Train

The four of us joined our silences together, and the resulting void was so fragile that a moth’s shadow could have shattered it. The train seemed to vanish, leaving nothing but shadows and motion. The earth shrank to the size of blades, Tasers, and masks; and eight cold eyes rose like killing moons above the surface of the diminished world. The shadows chose their champions and gathered around us, cheering.

When I finally achieved a decent look at him, the nightmare standing before me was finally revealed as a killer of some repute; he was simply called the “Mad Merc.” The killer was rumored to have once been quite a wicked mercenary, possessed of a lethal wisdom and physical skills sufficient to translate such knowledge into fierce action. His last known act as a sane killer was the paid investigation of a city block that had suddenly, and quite mysteriously, appeared in the middle of the City of Nailwood. No one knows precisely what happened after he entered the mysterious location, but a good many persons are frightfully aware of what he did after he exited it: he murdered and mutilated from one side of the country to the other (apparently free of charge). I had once acquired a small bit of rumor that suggested that his victims were supposedly the same age, height and weight. I also believe that I heard something about his victims having their eyelids removed. Now, there was certainly some kind of madness upon him—in him—but it was frozen into a killing thing, disallowed from spilling out uncontrollably, and channeled by skills that had been perfected during a lifetime of hired killing. Whatever his past, at that very moment, while he stood before me—silent, and thick with lethal devices—he was little more than a volatile shadow, holding a Taser at his side and smiling via a painted grin scribbled across his otherwise generic gasmask.

He may well have been magnificently insane as well as incredibly crafty, but he wasn’t particularly fast. My left hand was crushing his gloved fingers around the handle of his weapon even before he could draw his next breath, and my other hand was almost instantly busy denying his windpipe’s capacity to take the aforementioned breath. I held his neck firmly in my right hand, slowly lifting him from the floor (such displays are certainly not necessary, but I do enjoy the opportunity to enjoy my own strength). His instinct should have been to move his free hand to his neck, but instead it moved to the machete strapped to his leg. The weapon cleaved into my side, which was more than sufficient to send large quantities of my blood rushing down my leg and across the floor. For whatever reason, I was not amused by his willpower or even by his resourcefulness, so I threw him high and far into the darkness, hoping the resulting impact with the floor might take the fire out of him. He landed quite gracefully for a man clad in so many layers of Kevlar; he even went so far as to allow the force of my throw to assist him in a sort of backwards summersault that culminated with the killer rolling back into a standing position. Unfortunately for him, while he was rolling across the floor my sister was flying through the air. Just as he stood fully upright she took him by the throat, within the small gap that formed between his armored plates. I had detected that particular vulnerability while his neck was in my hand. I was unsure if my sister had managed the appropriate killing-depth, but my secondary target had also been struck: the breathing hose to his mask. I surged forward. My remaining sister laughed as his machete tried once more to taste my blood. She leapt into the oncoming blade, sliding merrily down its length, and then turned it away from me. When the killer’s blade was deflected far enough, my sister reversed her course and hissed across his fingers, sending at least one of the plump things, along with the machete, tumbling to the floor. In an effort to pull away from me, he thrust the Taser to the wound in my side, but despite the bursting light and exploding pain I was in no mood for writhing and falling. (Looking back, I think I was far too interested in Jack Lantern to focus fully upon the merely infamous serial killer.) I crushed the Taser and the hand holding it. I could hear his snarling, broken breath beneath his mask, all the while his own knock-out gas was sipping leisurely at his consciousness (which, curiously, was having little effect on me), and thick streams of blood spouted from the hole in his neck. He was nearly finished. I tore the mask from his face and held him close to my ear, and said, “What did you see, in that place that should not have been? Tell me quickly so that I might put the memory to good use, after you are gone.” The elicited memory seemed to stem the flow of his gushing blood and renew the continuity of his desperate breathing. The mercenary wrapped his crushed hand around the back of my neck and pushed his bloody lips closer to my ear.

“I saw a place that couldn’t quit the darkness…It downright refused ta go…I wanted ta stay there forever, but the things that lived there told me ta leave and ta never come back. They were so wonderful…They were in love with the mystery that was inside everything…Some of them just sat at tables, all huddled together in the dark streets, sipping cold drinks, watchin’ and applaudin’ the gigantic freakin’ things that floated around in the sky, blottin’ out the colored stars that zipped around in all directions; others were just lyin’ in the trees, gazing without eyelids, at things that were never meant to be seen all at once, if at all. You would’ve loved it…I know you would’ve. I dreamed yer dream, remember? I needed ta get back there…but the only way back was through…hehehe…Ya really think I’d let you go there insteada’ me?…not a chance, big man!” Apparently, the Mad Mercenary was doing more than merely demonstrating his gymnastic ability when he had previously and impressively rolled backwards to his feet; specifically, he was collecting one of his fallen pistols. Three bullets entered my belly, quietly. Not wanting to allow a fourth trespasser into my body, I seized my sister, who was still lodged within the killer’s throat, and sent her tearing through the rest of his neck. The killer’s body fell to the floor, abandoning its sneering head to my hand. I eagerly turned back to where I expected to see Janus and Jack still locked in their deadly contest. Jack was fully present, looking at me through an endless Halloween of his red carvings, but there was only three head’s worth of Janus—each one filled with triangles and crooked smiles—hanging pendulously from the soul carver’s clenched fist. Jack raised his empty hand and waved furiously, yelling, “Happy Halloween, Family Man!”

“Happy Halloween, Jack,” I responded with significantly less volume, but with no less sincerity. (Halloween is, after all, my favorite holiday.) We looked at each other for a little bit, sinking our gazes into each other’s souls, if only within their shallowest pools, and for only the smallest of insights. I had yet to determine if Jack intended to kill me, and so I used the moments leading up to that discovery to reach down and collect my fallen opponent’s murder-list. It was shortly after I stood back up, and after Jack’s face seemed to grow inhumanly large and comical, that I realized I was losing quite a bit of blood. I certainly couldn’t blame Jack for trying to take my life, as I was clearly weakened, and removing one more player from the game, in the proper order or not, would certainly benefit him greatly. But I was slightly disappointed that such a lean calculation could find a place in jack’s head, which I had hoped was too full of Halloween and nonsense to do anything other than to spread plump orange nightmares.

He was airborne and above my head before I’d even realized he’d jumped at me (unlike the mercenary, he was mad as well as quick). He slashed down at my head with one of his reddened carving knives, laughing like a child the entire time. I simply bent low and allowed my father, who was sleeping on my back, to intercept the knife. Jack dragged his blade across my father’s face, calling up sparks that outlined the remainder of the carver’s leap to the opposite side of the passenger car. I knew that I was unfit for a second conflict, so I raised my father and plunged him down into the floor between myself and the carver (again, my father was not pleased to be woken for reasons other than killing). I shouldn’t have even considered that my father, outside of a dream, could separate the cars of the train with a single blow, but that’s exactly what he did. For an instant it seemed to be raining train parts and carved bodies, and when the strange storm abated I could see Jack Lantern shrinking into the distance, standing at the jagged rim of the disconnected train car, clapping at me. I was glad for the adulation, and so I smiled and bowed my head.

The Mad Merc
The “Mad Mercenary”
A red gathering
A red gathering
Part 3: The Beauty Beneath

Chapter 5: Tricks and Treats

Freedom can be a terrible thing to behold. (However, it should be understood that true freedom is only achievable when the last of all of this blowing dust has been reinstated as the dream it originated as.) The principal reason for this fact relates directly to what is often mislabeled as our baser nature. You see, when one of us slips the societal yoke and abandons the world of collectivism for the ruthless environs of grueling individualism, for whatever reason, then that person becomes a monster. And what precisely is a monster? A monster is a creature that lives beyond false limits, and can empty its will into the world without reservation. Now, we’re all potential monsters, but not all monsters are created equally (as the shepherd’s game shall undoubtedly prove). One raving lunatic (freedom can be a little too intoxicating for some) broken free from human law can gather an army of persons to hunt him down, and send thousands more to lock their doors and cower into corners; but a true artist, such as myself and a select few others, can inspire a fear that disturbs the world, and which could someday become solid enough to cast a shadow (again, something that the shepherd’s game might prove true). So when I saw the pale glow of Jack Lantern’s cold blades, and his even colder eyes, I knew just how awful freedom could appear.

He was standing at the very edge of the shadows, only slightly visible, like the protruding snout of a crocodile waiting patiently within its placid hunting pool. Initially, I could barley tell he was wearing a mask, but as I strained my eyes to glimpse the face of the killer, I could just make out the dim orange of a smiling jack-o-lantern, which, of course, seemed wholly appropriate. As for Janus, I saw him for only an instant when he breached the darkness—like some toothsome shark of the shadows—and then dove back down into the black as he prowled closer to the killer from Autumn City. Somehow, within the few moments the dead-masked killer had disappeared, he managed to don his signature hunting heads: a two headed mask. One head (a goblin-looking thing) faced forward while the other (a monstrous goat’s face) looked out from the back of Janus’ head. The Two-faced killer also wore a spectacular cloak made from the continuous and unbroken skin of one of his victims (save for the flesh of the face), and from behind it gave the impression that the mask strapped to the back of his head had a corresponding and appropriately facing body. Just as I was about to join Janus in his hunt, something delightfully unexpected occurred that brought the impending conflict to the very brink of bursting: the webs of silence I left in my wake had been softly plucked, and by a careful predator who had tried almost successfully to blend his silence into my own. I turned around and burned my gaze through the imposter-silence. As I slowly made my way towards the disturbance, the suitably lilting voice of Jack Lantern filled the shadows.

“Happy Halloween, Fredrick! And thank you for bringing me to this splendidly dark train! I absolutely love trains! Autumn City has some fantastic trains, but nothing so wonderfully claustrophobic. Nevertheless, this car can barely contain all of the germinating fun that’s about to bloom, big and red, so how can it even hope to contain the garden of fun to come?” The “Carver of Souls,” as he’s also been called (I shall have to see if I can’t find a second name for myself, as I hate to be pigeonholed, even if only by a name), had come for Janus (otherwise known as ‘Fredrick,’ apparently). I was somewhat disappointed that the pumpkin-faced killer had not come for me, but when our eyes met I was certain Jack Lantern was not averse to killing out of order.

Janus snaked his response through the shifting arms of darkness that reached up from the spaces beyond the weak beams of dirty sunlight, careful to keep his words from giving away his location within the shadows. “Oh, please! Spare me your pretentious yammering’s about Halloween and dark gardens, and let’s just get on with things. And by the way, those masks of yours are pure rookie. Such hack jobs could hardly manage to conserve more than a mere crumb of chaos. Just look at all of this precious potential you’ve left to spoil, you blithering dimwit! It looks as if I’ll have to show you how the make a right-and-proper mask, and how to do so without spilling so much as a single drop of distilled chance, but I’m afraid you won’t long outlive my lesson, hahaha.”

I had slowly made my way into the slightly inferior silence of the other killer, when suddenly a gruff voice dragged against the quiet. “For such a big fella you’re plenty vigilant, aren’t ya? Even as I speak you’re sneaking sideways inta the shadows, all quiet an’ lethal. Yer almost graceful, or just plain funny; I haven’t decided which. I mean, a big dude like you squirreling around just doesn’t seem right, ya know? I can picture you slipping behind a light post with nothing of yer giant body stickin’ out, like some big, dumb cartoon character. Now, that’s your ‘sister’ you just put in yer hand, right? I can see why you like her smile so much, but ya really outta think about getting’ her teeth looked at. They look a little worn down. There ya go again, tryin’ ta hide on me. You know I can see ya, right? I caught a dream of yers the other night. It was definitely…interesting. But it definitely spilled some big fat guts about some of yer favorite huntin’ techniques and whatn’t, so I came prepared. Before I forget, that odorless gas you’re not smelling will knock ya out in just a few minutes. I really don’t want to spoil the surprise, but when ya wake up—oh, boy!” I wasn’t completely sure with whom I was dealing, but I had some ideas. Nonetheless, it was quite plain that the killer knew nothing of who he was dealing with, despite what my loose-lipped dream might have intimated to him, so I decided to make him slightly more aware of that fact.

“I’ve a fairly hearty constitution, friend, But I do appreciate the insight. Of course I’m speaking of the insight into your whereabouts, and not your undetectable mists. Also, if you did indeed learn everything about my particular methods from a dream, then you apparently neglected to focus on my fondness for sounds, and how I can easily determine from what direction they emanate. If you had attended to that fact, you would have realized that I’ve long since determined that you can see me, as your voice has always come straight at me, as if you’ve been looking directly into my face the whole time you’ve been speaking. If you get another chance at this, which I seriously doubt, you just might want to consider looking into fixing your own teeth, and how you might learn to keep them them from chattering on and on.” While my sister flew like an attacking eagle, she only managed a small depth of penetration into my enemy, as I quickly learned, shortly after I slammed my shoulder into his chest (which, from the sounds I heard, may have jarred a pair of pistols from his hands), that the man was wearing some kind of body armor, along with a gasmask, night vision goggles, and a number of other combat accoutrements. Almost immediately after I knocked him into, and almost through, the wall, the man tried to produce the large shotgun from the gun-sling on his back. I grabbed the firearm at once and tore it from his grip. But just as I was about to turn the firearm into a lethal cudgel, he touched me with an a object he quickly produced from somewhere on his person. There was a brief but intense flash of light and the slightest bouquet of ozone, and then my body filled with pain and fell writhing to the floor. The shock from the Taser and the effects of the knock-out gas were finally wearing me down. But then he made a new mistake.

“Now, I know that ya were awfully close with your mommy, big man. Where are her bones, I wonder? Did ya turn her inta some kind of all-bone switchblade, or maybe some kinda letter opener? Or do you save her remains fer something a bit more…nasty?” It was a base taunt, to be sure, but one that could not go unanswered. I rose from the floor and seized the man, lifting him far from the floor, but while I sent him soaring into the opposite wall, he managed to touch me once more with the Taser. As I stumbled backwards from what seemed like a kiss from a lightning bolt, I could hear the rising din of blades dancing merrily behind me, as Jack and Janus were quite busy conducting their fatal affairs. Suddenly Janus was sent bleeding and staggering towards me. I seized him before he fell to the floor and allowed him to steady himself. Then Janus and I took our places in the middle of the benighted passenger car, back to back, as our would-be killers closed-in from opposite sides of the room. I could feel laughter growing in my chest. Janus’s words almost seemed to come from the goat-faced mask strapped to the back of his head.

“Alright, damn it, I’ll admit it—this IS a rather fun game, HAHAHA!”

"Jack Lantern"
“Jack Lantern”

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Part 3: The Beauty Beneath

Chapter 4: The Dichotomous Killer

I was wrong: the sunlight didn’t immediately alert me to the fact that the man sitting directly in front of me was wearing another person’s face over the top of his own. The precision that went into the fashioning of the mask was clearly exquisite, even superhuman, as the fit was too perfect. It was as if the person from whom the skin had been taken was genetically designed to blend into the features and nuances of the killer’s face. But I knew that the artist known as “Janus, The Two Faced killer” had been host to many faces, and the mask’s fit was likely not due to some shared biological element, but rather the skill of its wearer.

The dagger that deflected my sister’s smile quietly, and every-so quickly, tore through the bottom of headrest of the seat in front of me, and stopped just beneath my chin. The smile of the man who wielded that knife was reflected in dead skin, which somehow obeyed the movements of the living skin beneath it. The mask only slightly betrayed its inanimate nature via a small and solitary crease that began at the right corner of its pursed and pale lips, and ran as high as its right eye-hole, and even that clue was only visible when the wearer chose to smile, which, I have to assume, must have occurred in sufficient quantities to have caused the crease in the first place.

Smiling through the dead, the man said, “Speed is, of course, as essential as cleverness. Now tell me, ‘Family Man,’ what do you know about all this monkey business? Try as I might I’ve only heard, from this person and that, of a weird little shepherd who has an affection for herding wolves. I mean, the general thrust of the title is supposed to suggest that the shepherd is some kind of ‘master of murderers,’ and that we’re all his angry little hounds. Now while I’m a big fan of wolves, I’ve never considered myself a suitable analogue for the hairy things. Besides, everything boiled down, we’re all just predators and it should go without saying that any living thing could be, from the right rhetorical angle, analogized to wolves. It’s really quite a lazy comparison, if I’m being honest. Wolves have more in common with killer-robots than with me. Their programmed, from embryo to corpse, to hunt and kill. I choose to do what I do, and I just love everything I’ve done. And please, do me the favor of not mentioning my ‘genetic trajectory,’ and all that crap. I have a choice in all of this. I must. Its chaos, not chromosomes, that moves my blades. Do you think evolution would have me wear your face? Do you really believe that a mere genetic aberration would let me make such masks, and with such incredible skill? No, it’s a brand of lethal chance—a murdersome chaos that slips madness into monotony. I give it a voice, and I give it a face. It’s staring at you right now. Honestly, I ask you: what could all of that have to do with simple wolves?” In principal, the killer said nothing that I fervently disagreed with, as his reasoning was sound enough; however, I did take issue with the blade he had placed beneath my chin, as that would certainly need to be rebutted.

It was fairly easy for me to use my free hand to push the seat in front of me sideways, jerking the knife away from both my neck and the killer’s hand. I timed the execution of my plan with the loudest moments of the train’s activity, although it was unlikely that the persons nearest us, a full car away, would hear anything at all. After the knife fell to the floor, I plunged my hand through the previously made hole in the intervening seat and grabbed the killer by his questing fingers. After I pulled the killer’s arm back through the hole, I twisted and secured it into a rather painful position, disallowing the two-faced man access to any more surprises.

“Strength is also an asset, and when combined with cleverness and speed, you have a rather effective trifecta, indeed. But to answer your question: yes, I do know something about all of this. However, and as I’ve already stated, I will keep that information to myself. But tell me, Janus-of-the-two-faces, have you dreamt of him, this shepherd?”

“My, you are rather strong, at that. Hahaha, my arm actually feels like it’s trapped by steel serpents. But if you don’t intend on killing me, I’d greatly appreciate it if you would loosen up, just a tad bit. Otherwise you’ll give my next scheduled opponent an unfair advantage, as I’ll only have the affective use of one of my arms. Anyway, I can’t say for sure that I’ve had some kind of mystical visitation in my sleep, as I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re getting at, but I have had a few unusual dreams. The first of which occurred just before I acquired my most recent…appearance. I was looking over the face of a terribly perturbed sea when I quickly realized that the whitecaps to be completely unjustified, as there was no storm to cause them, not even the slightest breeze, mind you. So I bent close to the water, trying to sneak a peek beneath the foaming waves. That’s when I saw the wolves under the water, thousands of them, biting, frothing, and killing. It was their battle that stirred the waters, and let me tell you it was quite a fiasco. I was enjoying the show, when, from the middle of the sea, there emerged a figure. Now, I’m not all that knowledgeable when it comes to what a shepherd is supposed to look like, so who’s to say what the being actually was. Although he did have one of those lovely curving rods that I know shepherds sometimes carry about. Anyhow, the rod was the color of freshest blood, and he lifted it from the water and up over his head. After a few seconds he slammed the tip of the rod back down into the water, which seemed to have the effect of transferring the blood-red of his staff to the color of the sea. Then the waves rose up and swept me into the depths, where I joined with the wolves in their war. Now, If only he’d asked me politely I might be more amenable to this game, but as it stands—I pick my own faces, and I’ll not tolerate them being chosen for me. Again, my arm, please. I’ll be needing it all too soon.” He was right, so I slightly loosened my grip, for which he thanked me. I had no desire to rid the world (or even injure) yet another muse if I didn’t have to. It was at that point, when we were fully joined in conversation, that we both noticed it—a cold blast of silence. It was coming from the car in front of us. I released Janus from my grip, and we both slid into the shadows to investigate.

When we entered the next car we discovered a space of darkest dreams: Headless bodies, overstuffed with additional organs leaking like lolling tongues from their unevenly carved, smiling stomachs; and tiny flames hopped and shivered from within an assortment of hanging and brightly grinning heads. The carved jack-o-lantern faces were just open windows to the small lights that barely burned within them, illustrating a fact beyond flesh. It was clearly the work of the artist known as “Jack Lantern.” He was in the passenger car beyond us. Emerging from that distant darkness, I could hear the methodic sighing of a busy blade, occasionally punctuated by the small ticking sounds that spoke to the fine adjustments of a knife working bone.

Jack Lantern was perhaps the most notorious living killer of all. Unlike so many of us, he hunted the same killing grounds, haunted the same city (with his wonderful human jack-o-lanterns), evading capture and spreading nightmare. Not since our great forbearer, Dooley Hines, or “Sleepy-head,” who nearly enveloped the entire city of New Victoria within his killing dream, had there been such an artist. I suddenly found my chances for winning the shepherd’s game dwindle, if only slightly.

Remembering the Crucifier
Remembering the Crucifier

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Janus, the Two Faced killer
Janus, the Two Faced killer