Part 1: The Path of Wolves

Chapter 16: A Meeting of Artists

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I was at last face to face with the darkest dream of Hayden Trill: a thing known only as “The Crucifier”. By the time the creature charged at me from the deep blackness beyond the light, my sister was already grinning through the shadows, whispering a warning from between her metal teeth. I took several steps backward, placing my attacker in front of the candles, providing me with a glowing silhouette for a target.

A hammer descended upon me, and I seized the arm that held it. I tossed Mr. Trill back into the darkness that obeyed him, hoping to cow the shadows that might rise up against me at his behest. In the distance, I heard his hammer fall to the floor, far behind the candlelight. The hunter bent low, avoiding flashing teeth, and lunged at me with the force of a bull. I did not move, but only let his momentum shatter across me like breaking glass. After he stumbled backwards, I delivered him into the hands of gravity with several well placed blows. Then, as if thrown from the floor, my opponent was back on his feet and brandishing a small silver blade; it hissed like a snake as it coiled and struck-out all around me. My sisters greeted polished fangs with steel smiles, filling the air with their glittering laughter. I assessed my opponent’s strength from our brief collision; it was zealous, and conditioned well beyond ordinary limits. However, our respective might was an extension of our dreams, and mine was the night-terror to his nightmare. Realizing this as well, he attempted a formidable retreat, drawing a bladed arc in his wake that nearly opened up my retina. I would have happily allowed him escape (call it a courtesy exchanged between predators), but he was on my list.

When The Crucifier had all but disappeared into the darkness I had stolen from him, my sister left my grip, flying across the room and finding his spine. His bested body fell at the feet of its own shadow – stretched long and twisting by the dancing candlelight. His eyes were bottomless with fury, raging at a body that would no longer rise and kill. I loomed over him in my new darkness. I let him see the shadows filling my eyes. No words were exchanged, for really, what did we have to say to one another? Then, from upon my back, I could feel a terrible unrest: Father was awake.

I lifted my great father from his resting place, swinging him high above my head, his edged face gleaming with the amber glow of candlelight. The massive ax passed through the crippled hunter so smoothly that I thought I had missed him entirely.

Part 1: The Path of Wolves

Chapter 15: The Shepherd Of Wolves

The dead men and their crosses looked like gigantic, crumbling flowers as they emerged from the rich soil of darkness that covered the cold floor, and the dusky basement of the church seemed like a greenhouse designed to foster the development of those wonderfully dead florae. The whole place was nothing short of a garden of shadows. The darkest flower loomed above me; it had thorns in the form of an eternal and cutting stare, and exuded a heady fragrance of withered rage that filled the air around it. The crucified hunter’s shadow fell across me, and I tumbled into the icy hollow left behind by his terrible dream.

The garden was pruned and pampered, carefully arranged and loved with the force of a doting mother. I wondered what kind of thing could want me to destroy such an artist. And yet there was a sense of preservation and escalation to what I was to do with Mr. Trill and his dream, as if the beauty of the man’s work required my intervention, to allow it to spread and take root.

There were books and journals scattered across a nearby table, and, perhaps rudely, I began to read from them. The books were all so very pious, bordering on pretentious. However the journals were not difficult to tolerate. They were the reflections of a man who lived inside of a cold obligation, a mechanical penance that unfolded with small emphasis upon its material effects. The reward for his labors was intangible and withheld, merely the hope of reward. His deathly garden was not an end, but rather, a beautiful and necessary side effect of his means. He was an unconscious artist—perhaps the most powerful kind of artist—one who forgets themselves entirely within their creation, becoming the purest medium for dream.

I didn’t need to read through the journals to realize the identity of the man I hunted. He was known as “The Crucifier.” It was a much less subtle title than my own, and I’m fairly certain that it missed the point of his undertaking, entirely (as much as the name given to me, subtle or not). According to one of the journals, he saw himself as the reincarnated fifth prefect of Judea: Pontius Pilate. His profession was nothing less than the destruction of all false prophets, which, from the number of his works, were more numerous than I would have expected.

Of course, I went about reading the journals in an attempt to convince my prey that I was taken well off my guard, too absorbed in the matters of his dark dream to pay any attention to his approach. But then I found something inside one of his journals, something that truly stunned me: a drawing of a crowd of demonic, hungry wolves. It was as if the artist had transferred the image directly from my own dream into his notebook. However the picture included an alien figure, as standing in the middle of the sea of wolves was a solitary creature, hooded and gripping a red crook, and the words scrawled above this strange being read, “The Shepherd of Wolves”.

Unfortunately, my contemplation cost me my vigilance: I had committed a potentially fatal mistake. Something came at me from behind the shadows, dressed in a hunter’s silence…

The darkest rose in the garden of shadows
The darkest rose in the garden of shadows
Part 1: The Path of Wolves

Chapter 14: Where Angels No longer Tread

The church was deserted, long since abandoned by the lord and his flock. I entered through the front door and beheld the silence; it was old and unbroken, and grew up from a desert of dust that lay across the altar and pews. I moved to the rear of the church, leaving the silence as I found it. The rooms in the back contained nothing of interest, save for the pleasant comfort of forgotten places, slipping quietly beyond the boundaries of memory and tumbling into oblivion. I moved to what I believed was the door to the cellar, as I could feel the cold of underground places lapping at my feet. Strangely, the door was nailed shut from the opposite side. I wondered if Mr. Trill had some idea that I would be calling on him. Perhaps he received a warning from something that walked behind the world—an opposing force to the thing that invited me to transform Mr. Trill—allowing him to prepare for my coming. However, if nailed-up doors were all he could offer…

I returned outside to find a way into the cellar. locating an entrance proved more difficult than I had expected, as the ingress was cleverly concealed beneath the ruins of an old shed. I opened the hidden door and a new silence overtook me: the sound of waiting, the sound of a hunter. It was everywhere. The darkness and silence belonged to someone, someone who had cultivated it, trained it, owned it.

I had carelessly allowed a thin blade of moonlight to slice past me when I opened the door. The cold light cut into the subterranean darkness, stabbing deep into the cellar. I quickly and quietly closed the door, repairing the darkness, but the master of those deep places would already be alerted to my intrusion, yet I pressed on.

I gave little thought to why all this was happening, and focused exclusively on what was happening. But it was clear that what I was stalking was no mere human, but a man-of-prey (whether he was a true artist remained to be seen). I joined my silence with that of the hunter’s, and I moved through the gloom to the bottom of the stairs. Somewhere, deep in the labyrinthine cellar, a weak light flickered. It was candlelight. The unexpected lighting was either a distraction or another signpost. The smell of burning wax was thick, so I knew the candles were lit long before I entered the church. I was also fairly certain that the candles would illuminate more than just a room, so I moved closer to the flickering radiance, careful not to be surprised, as somewhere, wrapped in obedient shadows, was the other. He would be waiting for me to make a mistake. I would make none. The darkness was not my own, but it would serve me none the less.

I slipped behind the shifting shadows inside of the candlelit room. the chamber was large and crowded, as the trembling light revealed the bodies of 17 crucified men. They were arranged in no discernible order, and most were little more than crumpled paper dolls of desiccated skin. Death had frozen horrified and pleading expressions to all the faces, save one. The most recent victim (a corpse less than a week old) wore a death-mask of an entirely different disposition—rage and indignation. The crucified man was fierce even in death, and his sunken eyes still held an echo of a terrible and interrupted purpose. My host-in-the-darkness had killed one of his own. Hayden Trill was indeed an artist.

My Father
My Father
Part 1: The Path of Wolves

Chapter 13: Nightmares and Church Houses

Before I headed to the church I decided that I would sleep in my recently acquired apartment, as I was eager to revisit the strange dream that had vanished from the balcony (before it disappeared too deeply into sleep).

As I settled down upon the bed, I proudly looked upon the congealing piece that I had created earlier, and drifted into slumber. Unfortunately, sleep did not bring me any closer to the desired dream, but it did manage to supply me with a glimpse of something that slept beneath the city. First I saw the strange coffins nestled into the dirt, waiting like monsters under a child’s bed, and then, far deeper into the black soil, within a stratum of earth so old it was little more than liquid darkness, I spied a casket the length of the entire city. The dream conducted my vision beyond the petrified wood of the coffin’s construction, allowing me to peer at the thing stretched out within. Rotting and waiting within that damp, titanic box was an entity as ancient within the world as it was utterly alien to it. The sound of the creature’s patience was bottomless and beckoning. I could only guess at what earthly death could transmit life to something so far beyond all of this blowing dust. I immediately understood why the White Gaia had pressed the thing so deeply to her bosom, for if life might reach such a thing…

As I drifted away from the timeless sleeper, a now familiar gaze burned into my dream, looking at me with bottomless and beckoning impatience. I could feel the scorching hunger of countless wolves wash across me like a searing wind. My dream was melting down from the mounting heat, rendering voluminous visions into a single surging stare. The dream was no longer my own, and the dreamer was crushing me into the shape of a wolf. A monstrous hunger began to overfill my new dimensions, and I couldn’t contain the emptiness. I sprang awake in a slick of sweat, and with an endless hunger. I moved from the bed and collected my family. They seemed every bit as ravenous as the wolves. We would all need to feed, soon.

The dream of hunger was no longer new to me, but now its appetite had escaped from sleep, and had taken refuge within us all. My sisters were near frenzy, begging me to take them to the church. Finally, my father’s powerful hands took me about the shoulders and pushed me from the room, out of the apartment house, and into the night. I forced myself to slacken my pace and absorb the sights as I traveled. From the moon-frosted meadows I could better see the corpse of the city splayed out amongst the encroaching forest. The town was like some dead-brown and drying serpent’s husk, who’s crooked, gambrel spines occasionally broke the surface of the treetops, revealing the places where it had fallen so many years ago. I tried to find time to wonder about Mr. Trill—and the lost dream he would finally recall—but my father’s strength was greater than my own, and I quickly found myself lifted into the shadows that surrounded the church. My hunter’s silence spread out all around me, and my thoughts disappeared into my sisters’ bright smiles.

The Fate of Suttercraft?
The Fate of Suttercraft?
Part 1: The Path of Wolves

Chapter 12: Hiding in Plain Sight

I gained the balcony in but a few moments, and inched around the flickering sheet of light that spread out around the lantern. Unlocking the balcony door took just long enough to break my stride, and then I was inside. The room was drab, sparsely decorated, and hadn’t been cleaned for some time. Everywhere was sprinkled with simple, stupid details that spoke to nothing save for an occupant of the least imaginative variety. And after a thorough investigation, all that I had discovered was that, for some reason, a power beyond the bid of nature desired the death of a man, who, for all intents and purposes, was only alive in the most basic of definitional ways. Doubting my conclusion enough to inspect the room a second time, I searched through its every detail, interrogating each pore of pointlessness. Mercifully, something stood out during my second look. The room was too eager to convince, betraying a confidence born of proven skill. It was all wrong: The furniture, the decorations, everything. Like a smiling corpse, the room was an expression without emotion. The interior appeared exactly as it should, but there was a precision and restraint to it all – a deliberate calculation to its dullness. The room was a mask.

I searched with new eyes, looking for the edges of the disguise, hoping to pull it back if only a bit. Of course, I felt like a fool when I realized the difference that distinguished the apartment from all of the other wan spaces hidden inside the fading house: the balcony. After a quick inspection it was clear that the balcony itself was not altogether interesting, but the view it afforded its occupant was. The lofty vantage delivered a fine view of a small church that leaned into the woods, where the brambles pulled at it, attempting to submerge it within swarming legions of leafy saprophytic fiends.

Just as I turned to make my way to the church I detected the echo of a dream shrinking into the spaces of the balcony, faintly traced in the silence of lantern light and coiling shadows of ivy. The fragment was still slightly alive, smoldering like ashes after a fire. The dreamer would not be far away (the church was less than a mile distant). There was something different about the dream—it was unusually strong, like the prehistoric dream of Venus that had impressed itself so deeply into painted limestone, or the ancient visions that hefted enormous stone idols to the shores of Easter Island.

Before I could contemplate the dream any longer, it died into a portentous calm—a powerful and brooding absence, like the silence of dead kings. Something was coming. Then, just for a moment, I could feel eyes pushing through me, searching for something. It was as if the waxing night had come alive, staring at me with coldest darkness, until finally pouring its blackening gaze into the spaces of my mind and body. Having located whatever it sought, the presence melted back into inanimate sheets of falling night. I was stunned. I had no idea what was happening, or why. But it was all magnificent.

The night watches...
The night watches…
Part 1: The Path of Wolves

Chapter 11: The Crumbling Abode of Mr. Trill

I found Mr. Trill’s residence easily enough, as it was plainly advertised in the phone book I found in an empty library. My prey lived in an apartment building that was strangled by thick ivies, which, no doubt, were conducting the last of the building’s metropolitan juices through its hungry, green tubers. The overall result was nothing less than a house half-eaten. There was a wide, cracked balcony set high within the concrete crown of the dwelling, and a massive tree waved its arms over it creating a leafy rooftop. A single lantern dangled from one of the overhanging branches, whispering amber light at the pooling shadows. I knew that the balcony coupled to the room of my prey – why else would it be there?

I traveled well out of sight, moving behind the monotony of restless dying, allowing the germinating emptiness of the city to erase all traces of myself. The shadows had barely stirred from where they rested when finally I stood within the foyer of the building. A warm breeze wandered the overlarge room, seeking its escape and gently disturbing the billowing curtains that fell like filthy fabric waterfalls from the tops of the tall windows, and spilled in ragged waves across the unclean floor. The spacious lobby held a single note of choking desolation that played continuously, outlining the labors of nullity. I moved upon the stairwell, drifting softly upwards like a whispered prayer. There were persons, after a fashion, ambling through the dim hallways – living and moving for reasons that no one could ever care to know. The dust in the air was thick, and it played like lethargic gnats between the fading bars of light that projected against the floor from the soiled windows. I felt as if I were haunting the spaces of an ancient murder-house, merely the deathly echo of a forgotten hunter, eternally condemned to chase the dust of his victims through endless halls of stumbling shadows.

I entered the room next to the apartment with the balcony. It was like a water damaged photograph recovered after a flood, colorless and faint. There was an old man inside, dried and crumbling beneath the bitter weight of too much time. I didn’t want to kill him, as he was perfectly pointless – no one would mourn him, and no one would be forced to remember my work. However, I was feeling charitable. I chose to allow him to see what shape the pale flesh of his washed out existence might have enclosed had only he been fashioned by the songs of fallen angels, or by the bright nightmares of children. I cleaned myself off in the tiny cove for a bathroom and proceeded out the window and onto thick tendrils of ivy.

An old man or an angel of old places?
An old man or an angel of old places?

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Part 1: The Path of Wolves

Journal Entry 1: The Dream Under the World

Attempting to escape the rain, I stole into a small library for shelter. After I made myself comfortable, I spotted a curious tome calling to me from across the room: “Suttercraft: A Recent History”.  I opened the book to its bookmarked page and was thrilled to read its contents:

“It’s no secret that the people of Suttercraft often spend their nights in strange places, but know this: we do not intend to.  It’s from the slipstream of sleep that we’re abducted, pulled into the gravity of a dark dream, and forced to drift in and out of its shadow like circling moons.  When we wake up—thrown back into the warmth of our corporeal selves—there is a piece of us, however small, that does not completely return from slumber. It’s as if that part must remain permanently chained to some fate beyond sleep, possibly beyond death. In the beginning no one spoke of these strange dreams.  Perhaps we feared giving life to some horrible nightmare, granting it the capacity to escape from its home within our subconscious to find accommodations among the waking. Yet despite our silence, and shortly after the Great Darkness of 1999, our dreams yielded tangible horror.

Burt Cummings unearthed the first coffin while he was digging a grave for one of his dogs. It was sleeping beneath the soil like a dirty secret awaiting discovery, eager to blight the world. Word spread quickly and soon the whole town came out to view the solidified contents of our collective nightmare—a coffin hewn from midnight and trimmed with a glowing silver that seemed more like frozen moonlight than metal.  But it was only after we opened the coffin-from-beyond-sleep that we truly understood what dark conspiracies had hatched just below our feet. Stretched out before us, wrapped in strands of black leather, lied proof of devils: a monstrous humanoid corpse that could only have been conceived by forces that partook from no earthly source.  It was then that we knew—as our dreams had always foretold—that our souls would never escape the earth, but instead be reborn into the darkness of underground places, mastered by some dread purpose that human minds can never realize.

More grim discoveries soon followed. Sometimes we’d find the coffins beneath freshly plowed fields, or the below the flayed earth of rock quarries. One of the evil things was even found lodged inside the throat of an old well.  Naturally, rumors of impending doom began to circulate, chewing into our psyches like hungry locusts.  Some people even began dreaming of a city beneath the earth, haunted by monstrous things that were once citizens of Suttercraft. Of course we tried destroying the coffins we found, but as soon as one was destroyed another would be unearthed. We eventually abandoned any hope of ridding ourselves of the coffins, the corpses, and our fate of mastering the unholy darkness under the earth.”

After reading the excerpt I was eagerly looking forward to sleep, hoping for the smallest glimpse of the dream that lived underground. I also found it somewhat humorous that the people of this dying little town believed they were being reborn into alien shapes—as they were most likely being graciously returned to their original bodies.

Part 1: The Path of Wolves

Chapter 10: The Sleepy Little Town of Suttercraft

When the Town of Suttercraft came into view, I could see that it was in the process of being fed upon. Trees rose up like stalks of towering fungus erupting from the spoiling flesh of the city, and green waves of hungry woods had eaten away roads and parking lots. Houses and businesses were hollow and broken; this place was merely the rotting trunk of a dead city, and the people inhabiting it were no more than tomb-worms. I quickly determined that the place would pose little threat to me, for it was already dead.

The city was not at all unknown to me as I had heard of its penchant for producing strange black coffins from the churned earth of planting fields, freshly dug-out basements, and other deep places. And I was also aware of the dreadful bodies that were removed from those coffins, looking much larger and fiercer in death than any human has in life. However, beneath all of the chatter about caskets and corpses, there lurked an even more fantastic tale: According to certain dreamers, the souls of the deceased citizens of Suttercraft are systematically reborn into those inhuman corpses, and, once returned to life, they must rise to take their places within some vast and wicked enterprise beneath the earth. Such stories, if at all true, give me hope that one day dreams won’t be forced to hide behind sleep, but might find their way upon the earth to do the good work of completely abolishing this dead world.

I made my way through crooked streets, between pinch-tight alleyways, and through the fog, which lent to the city the odd appearance of being partially erased from the paper of time and space. I stopped momentarily to listen to church bells sound out the hour; they cushioned my thoughts with their overstuffed tones, better allowing me to bridle my mind by lulling to sleep those shadows whose voices would not be called upon.

As I voyaged through the city, my fascination with Hayden Trill began to swell. What weird and wonderful thing might result from killing him? (I wouldn’t normally work on a subject lest the outcome was, in that spectacular but fleeting moment, the embodiment of a forgotten dream. However, my feeling is that I have been invited to work on a much grander art project, in which Mr. Trill will be merely a single, masterful brushstroke.)

As I paused within the rippling shadows of a cluster of Weeping Willows, I reexamined the mystery of Suttercraft. I was suddenly very curious about the number of times I might have to end Mr. Trill, as well as the depth into the earth I may have to dig to finally finish him.

A citizen of Suttercraft, reborn
A citizen of Suttercraft, reborn
Part 1: The Path of Wolves

Chapter 9: Food for Thought

I stayed in the decaying shack for many nights, steeping in twilight and sleeping within caches of secreted darkness. I dreamed into the structure’s cobwebbed corners and soft rotting wood, hoping to record the impressions of the things that walked with me in sleep—to be available for others who might be summoned to this place of old bones and secrets.

Having soaked up as much darkness as I was able, I abandoned the shack to the ghost of its past. As I wandered the woods I eventually stumbled upon the faintest scratch of a road. I moved along the path and wondered about the names on the list. I couldn’t help but speculate that the list was given to me by the Queen of the Deadworld, herself. I had, after all, just delivered one of her acolytes to the other side of sleep, returning to dream what was once stolen by flesh. Yet the whole thing seemed wholly out of fashion with the devices of her cold intents, as nothing within this silent calling felt like anything other than a warm and wonderful dream. So I began my hunt with the dying sun bleeding across my face, feeling as if my body had become nearly weightless, leaving only the artist behind—nothing but a dream of quiet knives and endless transformations.

Strangely, in the midst of a milling pack of trees, where the forest had nearly healed from the small worn path, there was a nameless restaurant. I knew it as such by the rotting plaque that hung over its disintegrating door: Come in and try our daily special. I had not yet eaten and found it to be a suitable place to enjoy my lunch, so I entered. My supplies were still ample, if the selection scant, but I was never a picky eater. I chose a place at the broken lunch counter and began to eat. I withdrew one of the articles I found in the shack and scanned it. The title read: the ‘Family Man’ suspected in the death of nine. I had once let slip, to the artist I mentioned earlier, a small particle of my history. He was a kinetic bit of art – still breathing and in awe of what he had become – and supplied my admirers with the information I had imparted, and thus my new name was born. While, clearly, I am more than the mere sum of my family’s bones (although they persist as my best works to date), I do rather enjoy the name. The next article I selected concerned a church that had been built (three years ago by the given date). One of the carpenters who had contributed to the effort was named (and circled) in the piece: Hayden Trill. ( I generally don’t do things in any particular order, but it was nice to see that he was the next person on my list.) I knew – felt – that the city with the church must be nearby and so I packed up my family and left the nameless restaurant with a full stomach and mind.

The good work of Mr. Trill
The good work of Mr. Trill
An artist at twilight
An artist at twilight
Part 1: The Path of Wolves

Chapter 8: The List

I broke apart the silence and watched it dissolve into the rushing din of my hunter’s march—a rhythm that seeks to contain the red music of prey. I could feel the big cat’s senses fluttering around me, whispering away with some of my deepest secrets. I allowed the theft as I wanted the cat to know the risk it took by confronting me. The cougar made its departure, merging into a current of darkness that surged through a distant window. I returned my sisters to their slumber and sought out that which I was meant to find.

I walked the darkness-filled rooms until the invisible threads that guided me fell away completely. I lit a match. The trembling light touched something old and dead. There was a skeleton before me, half submerged into the dirt floor as if the ground had quickly solidified around its white, flailing limbs. I removed the bones from the cold earth, examining them in minute detail. A rib bone had been shattered, perhaps by a bullet, and in its ragged pocket there was a knife and an age-chewed notebook. Within the book’s yellowed pages I found only a small list of six names, three of which had been crossed out. There were also piles of cut-out newspaper articles stacked in the corner of one of the rooms, every one of them concerned the business of murderers. My own efforts were among the many collected vignettes, and I was happy for the opportunity to revisit the work of a particular artist, whose paints outlined his dying vision of me. I have no doubt that he intended the picture for me rather than the police and the newspapers, as he was clearly grateful for the experience I had granted him: to peek behind the curtain of his own skin to see what he was truly meant to become. While his depiction was wildly inaccurate (within this world, at least), I’m pleased he thought it appropriate to render me slightly inhuman.

As I held the notebook in my hands and studied the names, it slowly became apparent that a great task had been passed to me. I knew in the same way I could feel certain shadows watching over me when I worked: a gossamer breeze whispered beneath my skin, letting me know what flesh could never tell.

I will cross-off the remaining names.

A portrait by an old friend
The list on a dead man
The list on a dead man