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Crows. That’s how the nightmares all began. Now they’re chronic. That’s how the nightmares have become – chronic. I say that because I believe the nightmares are an illness. Not an illness in me. An illness in the world. Or, even more accurate, an illness between the worlds. At first the nightmares were brief flashes no more than glimpses. Always of blackbirds. They were either fluttering, cawing, or worst of all, just looking at me. Those little ebony eyes were volumes of secrets of what was to come.

Then they grew longer in duration. That’s when I began to take notice of the land. Dark, desolate, and heavy with an ominous weight of oppression. It was always a path leading through sickly trees. No leaves. Just jagged, angulated limbs and branches writhing in the wind. A path, the trees and those damn crows.

The path led up a hill. Each time I arrived here it was a struggle in my soul. I knew there was something terrible lying over that hill. Something dangerous. Something horrible. Something monstrous. But I also knew that my only chance of overcoming this illness was through whatever was over there.

Each step was like wading through eternity. With each, sluggish step the crows grew more agitated. More anxious. And the tension ratcheted up in a crescendo of discordant shrills.

And then, one night, I made the summit. The crows flapped. They cawed. They tore at each other in chaotic anticipation. I strained. I screamed with my eyes squeezed shut as long as I possibly could with all my will. Then I felt his hands on my face prying my lids open. And I heard his voice through his mask whisper into my ear, “Behold.”

And I cried as I looked upon the Land of Nod.

****

It’s absent of any colors. That’s the first thing that strikes me about this world. Yet, somehow, this makes the gradations of gray to black seem more impressive. A shadowy and smoky dream world that seems to envelop me. One usually speaks of going into a dream but this dream comes to get me. It’s like a predator stalking its wounded prey. And my wounds aren’t the usual kind, either. Not physical – hell, not even mental; my wounds are spiritual wounds. Like an old parchment page whose edges are eroded all around, that’s how it seems to be. The bite has taken hold of the edges and they will slowly die away. It’s like a virus gnawing away ever so slowly.

I guess that’s why this place is ruled over by the Lord of Pestilence. He’s a hive of contradictions. But isn’t every virus? It devours its host. I mean, killing your host to live just hoping that you can jump to the next host lest you die too. Killing yourself to live. But I was talking about Old Crow. He calls himself by many names, but the one he’s the fondest of is the Plague Doctor. See the contradiction there? He fancies himself after those doctors of the Dark Ages who thought they could cure the plague, yet he fuels it.

Did you know they call a flock of crows a “murder”? No Lie. A murder of crows. Seems very fitting considering he loves those bleak birds. Always surrounds him like a nebulous, shifting cloud. And he’s like their great big old king. He calls them by their names too. Crow, Raven, Blackbird, Rook, Jackdaw, Magpie. Didn’t know the damn things had so many names. They’re his messengers. His eyes. His ears. His harbingers of doom. And they come to get me to show me Her plan. For, his is just a small part of her nightmarish machinations.

When they come to get me it’s always so damn dramatic. He’s dramatic, I should say. He appears to set the stage for the night’s entertainment. He reminds me of that serious fellow that used to introduce every episode of the Twilight Zone. You know the guy, in his 60’s black and white suit all intense and morose, surround by a swirl of cigarette smoke while he introduces the night’s dark morality play. Only what he introduces me to is always the same horror. The only things that ever change are his damned monologues. They’re always full of nihilism and bleak hopelessness. About how the world is pointless, meaningless and everything is headed down a path to nothingness. It bores into my brain, those things he says. Just like the virus eating away at the edges of my soul.

And then the real horror begins. I find myself in the middle of a ruined metropolis. The sky is dark and overcast. Roiling black clouds blot out any sun that might be somewhere out there rolling through the vast darkness of space. The buildings are all jagged husks of their former grandeur. Skyscrapers that look as if the tops had been ripped off by some great giant. The air is thick and sooty.  I struggle to breathe as ash and debris float around me in this twisted, metallic wasteland.

Then his minions come. At first, I just hear their agonized groans and hear their shuffling feet. Then the horrid smell of decay and death fills the air. I know what’s coming next. The chase. Then the zombies are everywhere. Like ants streaming out of an anthill that has been disturbed, they come from every direction. Every building, every doorway, every alley, every dark nook and dirty cranny. And I run.

****

It used to be that there was a clear demarcation between reality and these forays into the Land of Nod, but things have become more . . . blurry. When I was a kid my dad had an old Ford pickup truck. It had the gear shift on the column – for some reason that grinding sound of him shifting gears sticks out in my mind. Anyway, he was driving that old Ford pickup and I was with him. I don’t remember where we were going or anything but we were heading down this country road when a dog darted out in front of us. It was a mutt. Just an old tan dog. It scared the crap out me but dad didn’t even try to swerve or brake. He just ran right over the dog’s back. The truck bucked and I heard the crack of the dog’s spine through my open window.

Dad cussed as he finally decided to slam on the brakes. I looked back at the dog and it was writhing around yelping in the most horrible pain I had ever heard. We both got out and I just stood there staring at the poor dog while dad stood over it rubbing his chin. “Dumbass dog,” was all he said. I asked if he thought we could save it and he just said, “Nah, he’s a gonner. Might as well put him out of his misery.” Then he told me to get in the truck. Dad retrieved his shotgun from behind the seat. I couldn’t watch. I just closed my eyes and waited for the blast. Boom! And then the yelping stopped.

I see that dog in my nightmares. It’s different than the rest of the things around me too. It’s like it’s more concrete. More palpable. Whenever I see the writhing dog and its pleading eyes, hear its cries for salvation, I know that a part of my own self-defined reality has taken a foothold in Nod.  But that’s not the most disconcerting thing because it goes both ways.

The other night I was driving through the city. It was late, so late that I guess you could really say it was early. When I can’t sleep or just plain don’t want to sleep, I drive where there are people. Even then, there’s still an isolation there. People think that individual souls haunt places, but I’ve come to realize that places have souls too. And certain places have passed away. You know, seen their heyday, or whatever. People may go right on living there and building stuff there, but the deceased soul of the place haunts it and makes it – not right. That’s how the city feels at night.

So, I was driving and the buildings were there; empty and dim. Some of the lights were on in the office buildings but it was a faint light and no one was working. Something in one of the offices caught my eye. It was a figure sitting at a desk. It was the Plague Doctor. He caught my eye and rose from his desk. That was the first time someone of his caliber came over.

****

Whenever I get ripped out of Nod there’s always a moment of hope. It’s probably the weirdest part of the trips. It’s so nebulous a thing to pinpoint. Maybe it’s because it’s certain knowledge that I have no account of where it came from or what it means. I just know that behind me lies the City on the Hill. I struggle so hard to turn my head just to catch a glimpse of it but it’s like I’m barreling away at such a great speed that my body won’t budge. But I know the City is there. And therein lies the hope. If I could just figure out the solutions to all the riddles I know I could get there. But there are so many symbols, people, places, figures, archetypes, and mythologies that I don’t know if I will ever unravel it all before they have made the boundaries disappear. But there is hope. And when all hope is gone, death isn’t far behind. So I have to believe that one day I will see the City.

****

How did I find out about her? The Plague Doctor mentioned her one time. They’re all scared of her. From what I gather, Nod is her realm. They’re just lesser rulers of each portion. That’s all I really know. I don’t know her name or what her role is, but she stinks of fear and power.

****

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time that I began to converse with the Nodders – that’s what I call the denizens of the Land of Nod. The first ones were the birds: Crow, Raven, Jackdaw, Rook, and Magpie. One of them is always near at hand. That’s because they’re the Doctor’s sensory extensions. I knew this all along.

****

I heard a story one time about the cursed huntsman. I don’t remember the particulars of how he acquired the curse, but it had to do with vengeance. His hatred consumed him to the point that he was forced to hunt his victims using these five hounds. Each hound represented a different sensory organ. He could smell the scent, hear the chase, feel the earth, see the victim, and finally, taste the blood. It was a horrible, wretched ordeal. Each chase left him sick and disgusted, but the hatred would slowly grow in him to the point where he would lose control and send the hounds out again.

****

Now I find myself carrying on conversations with ghosts, skeletons, mummies, and all manner of creatures caught between worlds. Last night I cowered in a culvert while a golem told me about Frankenstein. He is the ruler of this particular area of Nod. Most people confuse the man with the monster. Frankenstein never named his monster because he detested what he had created. It’s weird to feel fear and sympathy all rolled together like that. But I felt like I could relate. I was made to be hated. Made to be reviled. Made to be a puppet that is paraded through a melancholic tragedy. I can’t decide if it’s the Yellow King in the City on the Hill who is the one to blame or if he has just allowed her to do this to me. Kind of like Job was given over for the Devil’s amusement. Either way, I can’t see how Job could absolve God of any wrongdoing. When I make it into the City, that will be the first order of business with the Yellow King.

****

Patterns. It’s all about recognizing the patterns. That’s the only way humans can say they are above the other animals. The problem is that we are so good at it that we do it even when there are no patterns. Nevertheless, I think I’ve connected enough patterns to figure out the nature of the Land of Nod. I had to visit several landscapes to do it, though.

****

The Plague Doctor rules the zombies. They are one type of undead. Count Orlok rules the vampires. They’re another type of undead. Dr. Frankenstein rules the golems. They’re yet another type. The Shadow Man rules the ghosts. And so on.

****

Nod is a land of undead. Those that fall between the worlds of life and death.

****

The first time I was hauled off to Santa Muerte’s realm I was sure that I had finally met Her. But Muerte isn’t the Big Beast who rules over Nod. I asked Muerte and she told me. She said that the skeletons are her subjects and that is all. I found Muerte to be quite beautiful in her white, frilly dress. Like a bride. She knew too. Knew that I was captivated by her dark beauty.

Then she told me that Life-in-Death was terrible. There was no beauty in her at all. She was mighty and horrible to behold. Just the sight of her would drive a man like me insane. And I knew it to be true.

And that’s how I learned that it is Life-in-Death that rules over the Land of Nod.

****

He’s the worst one so far. The night I encountered Nyarlathotep I cried. He was hatred incarnate. Wicked and evil to the core of his being. Throughout the tortures and the taunts he would pause long enough to recite from a large tome. In that litany of foul blasphemies that spouted from his mouth there was one refrain that I could understand. One refrain that I recognized from some ancient poem.

“Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.”

And then I found myself in a vast underground labyrinth that I knew to be that fabled city of Iram. The Atlantis of the sands. The thoroughfare that I traversed had once been a grand road where the gigantic statues of beast-headed gods glared down at processions of slaves and citizens offering obscene obeisance to their megalomaniacal pharaoh – their god incarnate.

But now that great road was dark and cavernous. It was littered with the debris of once majestic structures. Slave-hewn blocks that dwarfed me and made me to feel the oppressive weight of the Egyptian eons.

As I trudged the sands of this ancient, buried empire I gazed in wonder at the immensity of the ruined architecture looming over me. And then the mummies came. Swirling funnels of sand that coalesced into the forms of withered, long forgotten priests. Here was one of Anubis. There one of Bastet. There one of Sobek. And here one of Thoth. Each one intent on dragging me down into the darkened crypts of the Sahara where dwells the foulest mysteries of ancient mankind.

****

All these dream chases take a toll on me. Even though they end before the actual attack, they are nevertheless full of struggle. Invariably, I am always snatched back to reality with a violent flight and the struggle to glimpse the City.

No matter how drenched in fear and running for my life, I still notice certain patterns. The patterns are always in my mind. Patterns hold the key to my salvation. There’s always an appearance by “Old Yelper”. That’s the name I’ve given to the dog with the broken back. There’s always the going down. A descent. A driving of me, the prey, into a lower place. No matter how hard I try to lead the chase to higher ground, the futility frustrates me. There’s always the symbol of the half-closed eye. I don’t know what it means, but it is always there – only during the chases. There’s the appearance of the clock with the same time on its face. And the sound of the insects chittering in their infernal language of madness.

If I could but piece these things together. Weave them into a coherent fabric from which to crack the code. I could begin to erect my path to the City on the Hill and present myself to the Yellow King.

****

Last night in Nod I was taken to the castle of Count Orlok. His vampires closed in on me but I knew this wasn’t the chase. There was no going down. No insects or other signs. It was more of an invitation. There was fog and an old forest clinging to craggy mountains. An occluded sky and the ancient castle looking as if it had always been a part of the mountain.

I found myself seated at a large table. Orlok entered and sat opposite me with his long, bird-like fingers laced together in front of him. He told me he just wanted to help me understand the nature of things. At first I found this to be just a ruse, but it did plant a seed that made me aware of more things back on the other side of Nod.

I’ve now begun to look at Dr. Redding in a new way. A more sinister and suspicious way. I’m beginning to see that Nod and the Waking World are not really so different. The Waking World is more complicated and yet in many ways less dramatic. The Waking World has its archetypal rulers of its realms too. And I believe that Dr. Redding is one of them. His minions are the staff. They don’t chase me – at least not physically. But they are still preying upon me.

The one thing that I am thankful for is that Dr. Redding doesn’t know about this dream journal. I’ve been reluctant to talk to anyone about Nod until I figured more of the patterns out. Now I see that it would be my undoing to tell them about Nod. I must now take great care to hide the journal lest it be discovered by them. And Redding must be undone. Count Orlok said that if he makes it to the Land of Nod, Dr. Redding will be too powerful. There is concern by the Nodders and I now see that I could use this knowledge to make a deal with Her!

****

I had a regular dream and found it quite funny. Even though it would be considered a nightmare to most, it was still funny. I was at Amelia’s funeral again and I was dreading the viewing. The line was long and people were wracked with grief. Many were crying. Some were wailing. Others were just forlorn and silent. But it was taking so long and I just kept dreading seeing her. The anxiety was suffocating and the tension was building. I finally was able to get close enough to see her. Amelia looked so peaceful. So pale and pretty. Then she opened her eyes and sat up. The people ahead of me in line opened the bottom part of the casket and helped her out. She looked at me then and took my hand. She smiled and gestured to the casket. She was leading me to get in. I resisted but the mourners crowded round and pushed me towards the coffin. They were chanting some morbid nursery rhyme about “lying in a grave” and then I woke up.

I sat there in the dark and thought back to the dream. There was no patterns, no archetypes, no power structure, and then it hit me. No fear. I wasn’t scared at all. It was just a flat effect. I began to chuckle thinking about Amelia in the dream. That turned into a real laugh. A loud, belly laugh. And I fell asleep humming the nursery rhyme and giggling.

****

I don’t think I’ve told you about the Shadow Man and his ghosts. They are a frustrating bunch. It’s impossible to talk to them. I mean, I talk but they never talk back. I guess it’s because they can’t. Shadow Man is a master of implications, though. What he refuses to or can’t say, he conveys through symbols.

His realm always brings me to the Cemetery on the Outskirts of Town. It’s never the same cemetery but it’s always the same pattern-wise. Thus the name of the Cemetery on the Outskirts of Town. You see? Anyway, one time I was in the cemetery and I was groping my way amongst the tombstones waiting for Shadow Man to appear when I came across a grave marker that had the name of “Samuel H. Redding, MD” on it. I gazed upon it and then Shadow Man rose over it.

He then led me to another grave where the tombstone had fallen over and I stood over it and looked down. On its surface was etched the face of a Ouija board. And I understood that he wanted me to ask.

Finding the planchette lying beside the stone, I asked, “What does Dr. Redding want?”

The wooden, heart-shaped planchette began to move: S – A – M – E – A – S – Y – O – U.

“Do you mean the City on the Hill?”

It moved to “Yes”.

“But what is there in the City? Is it the Yellow King?”

Again it moved to “Yes” but then it spelled: W – A – N – T – S – T – O – K – I – L – L – K – I – N – G.

“But why?”

But he didn’t answer. Instead a chill wind stirred the trees and Shadow Man fled. And that’s when I decided that Dr. Redding must die.

****

Dr. Frankenstein loves to sing the Dies Irae – or, I should say, he loves to sing the first line and then he just hums the rest. I guess he has forgotten the words after “Day of wrath and doom impending”.  He loves to watch his golems torment me too. I usually get to hear an earful of his humming before the chase ensues.

The last time I interrupted his humming to ask him who was more powerful, Life-in-Death or the Yellow King.  He stopped abruptly and studied me like he was studying one of his horrific science experiments back in his lab. Then he began to laugh maniacally and said, “Don’t you understand? That depends on you and how you handle the Redding situation.”

And so now I must act quickly or else the City and all of Nod will fall.

****

INTERLUDE – The Statement of Bo Smith

I was an orderly at Rathbone Asylum for six years. In all those years I saw many sad, warped, confused, and degenerate people. I also saw some pretty horrible things that these people did; but one of the most horrible things was when a patient named Jimmy Branner savagely attacked Dr. Sam Redding. Branner was never violent before that incident. When he first came in he was still traumatized from the death of his girlfriend Amelia. He would sit in a despondent state crying, wailing, and talking to her as if she were right there. He was very apologetic as if he were somehow the cause of her sudden death. After a couple of months he quit those episodes and became very withdrawn, barely acknowledging those who spoke to him. He was never disruptive or displayed any behaviors that would lead one to suspect that he was capable of any harm. Then, out of the blue, he snapped. Dr. Redding was on the ward; he was actually sitting with a different patient when that attack occurred. Branner appeared suddenly and went right after Dr. Redding. It was horrible. Branner literally tore out Dr. Reddings throat with his teeth. Like a wolf attacking its prey.  I was one of three orderlies who responded to the attack. It was nearly impossible to get Branner off of Dr. Redding. It was like wrestling a panther. Branner was vicious. Bruce, one of the other orderlies was the one who took a chair to Branner’s skull. None of us were exactly gentle but I never resorted to force beyond what was necessary to subdue a patient. I’m not condoning what Bruce did in this instance but Branner was the fiercest patient I had ever encountered. I came away from the fight with numerous scrapes and lacerations from his hands and mouth. Still, I think Bruce overreacted. While it was maybe necessary to render Branner unconscious, Bruce continued to hit him until Leroy and I had to get between him and Branner to get him to stop. When all was said and done, Bruce lost his job.  Dr. Redding survived although he was severely maimed and could never speak again.  And Branner? Well, he survived although he was in a comma for over six months. When he did awaken he pretty much went right back to his former withdrawn state as if the attack and the coma never even happened.

****

Bells. Deep, dark, full, earthy bells that reverberate from some distant place. Slowly the darkness gives way to a dim, twilight world of malformed shapes. Trees swaying. A chill wind and the smell of moist leaves. I struggle to shake away the confusion until a realization creeps into my mind. I’ve been away for too long.  Far too long. Nod feels different somehow. I sit upon the ground and heave a long sigh of weariness. Did I succeed? I don’t even know if Redding is dead or alive. Did he survive and make it to the City on the Hill?

A certainty comes over me that I cannot shake away. I was banished from Nod but I’m back now. Does that mean that I failed or succeeded? If I succeeded, then why was I banished? If I failed, why am I back?

Confusion. Weariness. The bells tolling on and on.

****

Nyarlathotep was the one who explained things to me. He brought me to Nod and placed me in his great labyrinth underneath the sands. Deep inside some great structure that was the tomb of some long forgotten god-king. It was the first time I had seen him in his true form and I cried in fear for a long time telling him I was sorry for whatever transgressions I had made. I groveled. Tears streamed. He bade me to stand and listen. And so his deep, sonorous voice filled the dead spaces of the crypt and I learned the horrible truth of Silent Redding.

He told me how I had failed to kill Redding. But I had at least given Nod a reprieve. I lay in a coma unable to enter either world. While I floated in Limbo, Nod was left to carry on with neither me nor Redding coming nor going.

The Yellow King was flummoxed. Life-in-Death was perplexed. How would the fate of the Land of Nod ever be resolved?

And then I had awakened. Things were prepared for my return. Nyarlathotep, Dr. Frankenstein, Count Orlok, Santa Muerte, Shadow Man, and the Plague Doctor grew anxious. Their followers were stirring and restless. But then something happened.

A full moon appeared in the sky over Nod. It was a blood moon, full and foreboding. And then Silent Redding was seen in various parts of Nod. Fleeting, elusive, like a portent of doom.

****

Her name is Shelly and her allure is one of melancholy. I only know her name because I’ve overheard it. She reminds me of a gray dove amongst a murder of crows. We’ve never spoken. When we make eye contact she just makes a slight, sad grin that lets me know she’s aware of my struggle. She’s of the Waking World. I wonder how she would like Nod. Maybe she’s already been there.

****

I can’t help but stare at Santa Muerte’s face when I’m in her presence. It’s captivating. She led me into a church in the forest – it was a small, brick church with a quaint graveyard beside it. Once inside she told me that she wanted to show me something and that I would have a choice to make. Then she led me to a tall piece of furniture covered by a cloth that sat in front of the pulpit.

“You must decide if the chase will continue,” she said. My blood raced! Of course I wanted the horrible chase to end. There was no question about it. Then she continued, “You must understand that the chase serves the purpose of strengthening your soul so that when the time comes, you’ll persevere and overcome the push to the City. But if you choose to forego the chase, there is no guarantee that your soul will be ready.”

“Right now, your soul is afire with the chase. Look now into the mirror and see what happens when your soul is not ready.”

With this, she pulled the cloth from the piece of furniture and a tall, ornamented, full-length mirror was revealed. A wave of fear spread through me because I didn’t want to see. Santa Muerte took me by the shoulders and guided me in front of the mirror. I instinctively clenched my eyes shut. Then she gently, with her boney fingers, pried my eyes open and I beheld my face transformed into a gaunt, sad specter of my former self. But it was the eyes that horrified me. They were empty, deep pits that swallowed the world into an abyss of hopelessness. I stared for what seemed an eternity into their depths of depression and tears began to stream down my face. Finally, I wiped the tears and it was enough to break the spell. It was then that I noticed Santa Muerte’s reflection behind my shoulder. Her skeletal face was replaced by a face so hideous that I screamed and tore myself from her grasp as I threw my fists into the mirror. The glass shattered and Santa Muerte threw her head back in laughter at my antics.

“Continue the chase,” I managed to say through the panting and the sobs and the blood.

****

I found myself in the midst of one of the ruined cities where I knew the zombies were lurking. It was just a matter of time before their presence was announced. But, suddenly, the Plague Doctor appeared above me on a balcony, his retinue of crows fluttering about him. He laughed through his strange mask and said, “I heard you’ve made the hard choice.”

“What choice did I really have?” I retorted.

“True. True. Still, it was a choice you made and all. I need to tell you, though. Things will change as a result. You’ve grown a bit complacent through all this.”

“What do you mean? I haven’t even been here for so long.”

“That doesn’t matter. You have figured out too many patterns and that leads to expectations. I’m here to help you. I have the remedy. I’m here to treat you.”

He said the last as if he were relishing the task.

Later, as the zombies tore my flesh I thought back to my childhood. I used to dread the dentist. Most kids do. But this dentist was a sadistic bastard. His name was Dr. Zeigler. One time he didn’t give me enough Novocain when he numbed my mouth for a cavity to be filled. Of course, I began to flinch when he hit the nerve. I remember him growing irritated at my wiggling and wincing. I pushed his hand away and that just made him madder. One of the nurses made a comment about me needing more local anesthesia and he merely said, “I’m almost finished, just hold him down and I’ll only be a second.” I couldn’t even cry properly as they held me down and forced my mouth open. And, of course, it took Dr. Ziegler much longer than a second.

****

My journey through the Waking World is now an escorted journey. I am never without one of the ruffians who stopped me from my mission with Silent Redding. Because of this, it makes it difficult for me to talk to Shelly. But I did manage an exchange. It left me exhilarated and I’m sure she felt it too. I was walking by the table she was sitting at when she dropped her doll. It’s a little dark-haired double of her that I suspect is her messenger. I gathered this from the fact that she sent it into my path by the table as a message that she wants to make further contact. I picked it up and went to hand it back to her when the goon on my left intervened. But she took the doll and said, “Thank you.” It was spoken so soft and warm. I said, “You’re welcome.” And we stared at each other while the goon dragged me back to my room. Hopefully she can send her messenger to me again.

****

I’m always fascinated by Dr. Frankenstein’s work and the things in his laboratory. I was peering into one of the tall beakers filled with some amorphous, fleshy object submerged in a bubbling, yellowish liquid when it struck me that colors had ever so slowly crept into Nod. I never noticed it before and it saddened me for some reason. I suppose because I failed to notice something so momentous. Suddenly a question flashed into my mind and I blurted it out to the doctor.

“Why can’t I look upon the City on the Hill?”

“Ah, my young boy, you aren’t ready to yet. When your will is strong enough, you will. And when you do, the site of it will tear you down again. But don’t worry, the tearing down will be a release. A rebirth.”

I pondered this while I browsed his lab some more. Then I asked, “Who is the Yellow King?”

At this, Dr. Frankenstein stopped his work of sewing an appendage onto one of his flesh golems and looked at me. “He is the Savior. The one who will set things aright. The Repairer of Reputations. The one orchestrating everything behind the scenes. He walks freely between worlds and affects everything he touches with true sight. He is your salvation from Her. But you already knew this didn’t you, Mr. Branner?”

I just nodded my head.

****

I have to admit that the Shadow Man has taught me how to communicate without uttering a sound. I use that knowledge to “talk” to Shelly. She is very good at it too. But today we actually were able to have a real conversation and I now feel as giddy as a school girl experiencing her first crush. If all of this anguish and torment have been a prelude for our fates to intertwine, then it was all worth it. Every second of every torture, pain, and immolation.

****

The most amazing part is that she approached me. That just confirmed that my infatuation with her is equally reciprocated. Of course the ruffian who was escorting me intervened when she approached our table, but she asked him if she could speak to me and he agreed as long as we remained on opposite sides of the table. Then she sat down. “I just wanted to thank you for picking up Sarah,” she said indicating her doll.

“You’re quite welcome,” I said winking at her knowingly. “I know your name is Shelly. I’ve overheard them say it. My name is Jimmy and I find you simply captivating.”

She bent her head smiling but I knew she was just being coy. “Thank you. How long have been here?” she asked.

“I lost track of the time a long while ago. I remember my family was somehow terrible.  I remember a funeral of a girl. But she’s not really important.  I remember drives around the city. And then the city grew haunted so they brought me here. I know about many things that they hide from me. I also know about things many of them don’t know or can never know. I wish I could say more but . . . not right now, at least. How about you? Why are you here?”

“I would rather not talk about it. It’s very hard. I would rather talk about nice things.”

And so that’s what we did. We talked about all manner of frivolous things. But I know she really wanted to talk about things that we couldn’t mention in front of others. Still, it was wonderful. It was pure bliss.

****

It was freezing cold and sleeting when Count Orlok met me on a darkened road in the woods.

“Come, She wants to talk to you.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was finally going to meet Life-in-Death. I grew weak and Count Orlok had to assist my shaking body into the horse-drawn carriage waiting for us.

Her abode was majestic. It was a mass of contradictions of life and death. Great pillars of bone. Clinging vines upon gray, dead statuary. Giant bas reliefs etched into dull stones depicting scenes of struggle between the living and the dead. The most prominent symbol in all of this orgy of architecture was the large, looming half-closed eye.

We entered the great hall of the fortress and a tinkling as of small chimes played above me. Looking up I beheld a vast web of memento mori, each suspended by a thread from the darkness of the ceiling and ending in a casing of a silver frame.

And then She appeared. Walking from the far end of the hall, she greeted us. It was the strangest visage I had ever beheld. She had golden hair flowing out of her fleshless skull. Inside the sockets were bright blue eyes and cherry red lips adorned the mouth. But these seemed alien upon the ivory of the bone and somehow stood out in starker contrast than if they were on a normal face.

She wore a flowing, green gown that reminded me of lichen or moss and from this ornate dress her bony, delicate hands protruded. Each bony finger ending in a finely painted nail.

So many questions had been humming in my brain but they all vanished into silence in her presence. I was struck dumb before her elegance.

“We finally meet, James Branner. I am Life-in-Death, the Lady of the Land of Nod. You’ve overcome so much to get where you are but something has come to light of such importance that I felt you needed to hear it from me. Will you walk with me?”

I managed to produce a cracked “Yes”.

She dismissed the Count and then she led me out into a strange garden of bizarre vegetation juxtaposing gorgeous flowers with ruthless weeds.

“You well know that Silent Redding has been sowing discontent throughout this land. But he has not been idle in the Waking World either. By the way, I don’t blame you for not killing him. You did the best with the circumstances you were given. It’s just unfortunate, however, because now, you still must deal with his handiwork.”

“His handiwork?”

“Yes. And he is more devious than I had imagined. What I have to tell you, James, will surely come as a great shock, but you must overcome the denial and the anger to find the truth. For it is certainly true.”

“What is true? What must I do to reach the City on the Hill?”

“While you were away, Silent Redding was busy putting things in order for your failure. He knew, after you tore his throat out, that you had the drive, the desire, and the wherewithal to end his quest to replace the Yellow King. Did you really think he would just forget that?”

“No,” I whispered.

“Oh, No, he didn’t. So when I tell you that he meticulously contrived to plant his agent in your path, he did so with the utmost evil in mind. He has beguiled you with that vixen Shelly. She is his agent who is even now working her way towards your demise.”

“No!” I screamed. I clamped my hands over my ears and fell to the ground screaming at her to stop spouting her hated lies. I spit at her, cursed her, and tore my hair in anger. But she only shook her head in sorrow for me.

Eventually, my ranting turned to sobbing and wailing. Then, bending close to my ear she whispered, “You know what you must do, James.”

****

Conflicted in my emotions, I approached my interactions with Shelly with great caution. The greater part of me was drawn to her allure and refused to believe that she could be an interloper sent by the vile Silent Redding. But the small part that whispered in my mind to remain vigilant for any sign, any slip, or so much as a hint of her complicity in his twisted machinations would prevail.

It happened one day when she was trying to make small talk. The stooge was monitoring us, of course. Shelly said, “What are you writing in your little black book?” And that was it. My heart plummeted down a bottomless pit. I excused myself as waves of conflicting emotions slammed into me.

****

My last night in Nod was both immeasurably sad and breathtakingly exhilarating. It began on the path to the hill overlooking the ruined city. The Plague Doctor emerged like a proud bird from the shadow of the trees and greeted me.

“I heard the unfortunate news and I pity your plight, but I think that you are prepared. Your soul has been tempered in the crucible of this land. You know what you must do and all it will take is an unshakable will and the City on the Hill will welcome you.”

It was hard to hear these words. Tears welled in my eyes because I knew what he said to be true.

“I want to give you something before you go. My psychopomps Raven, Crow, Rook, Jackdaw, Blackbird, and Magpie shall see you off. Goodbye, Jimmy Branner.”

And then I felt the familiar tug as I began to be drawn away, but this time the crows pursued me like a flurry of black smoke. I sped up and the crows managed to keep pace. When I got to the point when I could sense that the City on the Hill was behind me I tried one last time to glimpse it just as I had struggled every time before. But this time the crows rushed towards my face and I despaired that I had been tricked by the Plague Doctor.

The crows crowded upon the left side of my face and I then realized that they were not trying to occlude my vision, but trying to assist my efforts. I grit my teeth and strained and the crows flapped and fluttered, pushing me ever so much more than I could on my own accord. It was just enough for me to catch a glimpse before I entered the Waking World.

Words can’t describe that momentary vision. It was the most incredible sight I had ever beheld. I awoke drained both physically and emotionally. All that I could do was smile and cry tears of rapturous joy.

****

FINALE – The Statement of Lenny Hubbard

I was down the hall when the commotion broke out in the Activities Room. I heard people screaming and yelling and as I ran towards the sounds, people were already running away from the room. I reached the door and saw that Branner man with the knife. Now, I didn’t see the attack on Johnny, the orderly who was monitoring Branner, but apparently Branner had somehow gotten a hold of a big kitchen knife and used it to slice Johnny’s throat. Anyway, I reached the door and saw Johnny’s body lying on the floor. There was blood everywhere. Everyone had pretty much ran out of the room except for Old Charlie who was still sitting at one of the tables. He’s pretty much checked out and was oblivious to what was happening. Old Charlie and that girl Shelly. She was back against the window looking scared as a deer caught in headlights. Branner was advancing on the girl with the knife in his hands and I saw that there was no way for me to stop him before he reached her. I tried anyway, though. I sprinted across the room dodging tables and chairs and just before I reached him I saw him take her hands, wrap them around the knife’s handle and then he grabbed her hands and stabbed himself right in the heart. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. As he did he said something to her that I couldn’t hear and then he just fell down and died. That poor girl was beside herself with shock. I reached her and pulled her away trying to shield her from the sight of Branner lying there with the knife sticking out of his chest. And just as we got about halfway across the room, I heard this loud noise at the window. I looked back and there was all these crows flying right into the window. Then, all of the sudden, the window pane cracked and shattered inward. All of them crows flew into the room and landed right there by Branner – like they were inspecting the body or something. It was damn crazy. And then they just took off back out of the window.

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