Prologue- Conscious is sculpted by experience. William has suffered much more than any sane person would willingly accept, but the suffering has made him strong. His prepubescent body is covered in uncountable scars and aura pulses from them, glittering gold before ripping open a dimension that doesn’t exist. A Nightmare crawls from a glittering lake of fire, humanoid only in it’s capacity for cruelty and violence. It mostly resembles a hound standing four meters tall, rippling with burnt flesh. Madness leaks from every pore as the Nightmare screams out it’s challenge. It is tormented by reality, and it will complete the task set before it to end the agony existence brings. It does not move in space as move space, the madness bringing unknown rules into reality. The nightmare latches onto the Wendigo prime with golden jaws, the wounds healing already around the maw that shreds the body. The Nightmare bends reality to its whim, gravity crushing everything around it with thousands of times more force than normal. The earth simply condenses itself into a hole around the combatants as every bone in the area shatters as easily as the stone beneath. The shockwave is still making the earth reel like water when the Nightmare begins to fight, jumping like mist into the broken Wendigo opposite it before recondensing and landing as a seventy seven thousand kilogram burning nightmare ripped from Hell. The body simply slops in pieces down around the massive demon, unable to deal with the damage inflicted. The demon joyfully flays the Wendigo with a second of thought before launching the body at several thousand kilograms per hour almost straight out of the condensed hole before the horse-dog snuggles back into Hell. The Nightmare brings the skin to show the others, the only wounds sustained from contact with reality. William will remember none of it, thankfully. There is only so much you can suffer before something breaks deeper than bone. Chapter One- “He had also learned long ago to be greedy with the little things.” Stories often drift away from reality, William had found. In an ordinary world, William had lived an ordinary life for only a decade before true disaster had struck him senseless. Unmoored and in pain, William drifts towards his impossible goal. He still has to cross over nine thousand kilometers of acid water at the wizened age of eleven years. During the long walks through a destroyed world, his dead sister had taught him a single lesson. She whispered into his ear with every horizon crossed, “Your suffering has meaning. The world punishes out of ignorance, and it is difficult to interpret that meaning when the world cannot comprehend itself. Prayers unanswered, you watch those you care for die, over and over. This moment is the most important one.” Williams bones seem to crawl like ants at the mention of death, but he is close enough that he will kill himself before stopping now. “This moment is where we begin to think we mean nothing to the world, and that the world has earned the right to our punishment.” The dead girl floats behind William, and his insanity sets a hand on his left shoulder. “But this is knowledge, and like all knowledge, it contains a lesson. Absence of understanding is not an absence of meaning.” Williams square toed moccasins crunch in crusted sand and bone that a slaughtered ecology left on the shore a thousand years past. William is seeing the ocean for the first time, beautiful dark green waves acidic enough to eat through his skin in four hours. “You mean something, William. You are something. All of it is steeped in meaning.” William watches the water appear blue as it thins to crest waves, listening to himself. “Everything means something, William. Even your suffering has a crucial role to play. You were taught how to handle this.” William is tired, but it is the earned exhaustion that claims you at the end of a marathon. He sets up his weathered tent in a valley three hundred meters from the ocean, low enough to keep a fire without digging and high enough to block the salty wind. William has accepted his insanity for several years now, but it is still disarming in the way it seems completely normal. “The problem with the dominated soul,” she continues as he starts a fire, “is that great revelation escapes their comprehension until that crucial moment where it is too late to act.” William no longer responds to the barbs, he has learned in his long journey that indulging the madness makes it grow. Only one thing cures real insanity. William decides to look at his most prized possessions tonight instead. They are the only possession he owns that none can steal, stored in a home that none can invade. He steps into his mind with a single breath. The jaw seems to come alive, William thinks, when you are starving. It forces you to chew on something, anything, for in that simple act is satisfaction. This is the thought William uses to go to the beginning. It is a difficult mental technique, the palace, but one that holds a kingly position in his path forward. With an effort of will, he loses himself as an observer and becomes the starving child chained to the wall before him. The pain burrows into him like a worm when he drops a long practiced technique, the one for withstanding pain. It is William's oldest technique. William knows how starvation works, that chewing his disgusting bedroll will only weaken his damaged body more. He stands and studies his body in the thin pool of water leading down to the drain of his concrete encased cage. He is nine years old today, and it has been thirty three days since he last had a meal. He compares himself with the mental image that he remembers when he was put back in the cage, his scars stood out more and the fat made his features seem softer somehow. He is one and a half meters tall, lanky for his age although he knows this is odd, he should be shorter from the lack of food. Williams' long brown hair frames a wide yet diamond shaped face, dark brown irises pitch black in the reflection from the hose water dripping through pitted iron bars that serve as his window to the outside. The farmhouse is built on sloping mountainside, rocky grass and barren dirt leading down to a few ancient trees and the copious thigh thick vines that make up the wood Williams family owns. The farm's single outbuilding stands about ten meters away from the iron bars that serve as a window, though they are difficult to see out of, too close to the ceiling for the energy use now and he can imagine it just as well as his eyes could see it. The building is a squat concrete barn with a metal roof, housing delicate old world designs that his family uses to grow meat for sale at market. Now that the Nightmare lives here, it is also used to hide the drugs. The Nightmare is William's step-father and his first purpose in life. He will kill the Nightmare, he promises himself. William knows that promises will help his heart harden to bear the challenge ahead, just as he knows it will be the hardest thing he will ever do. He has only been starved like this once before, five years ago when it arrived. The Nightmare had first given the Corpse a drug after a social event Grandfather asked her to attend as a single mother, for her child. It was autumn then as it is autumn now, chill wind bringing the water he slurps from the smooth concrete floor a cold bite. The Nightmare gave her what William now knows is called sighted, a tiny parasitic worm egg that when smoked gives feelings of happiness. But if not burnt when the eggs enter the body, they grow in your lungs until the parasites are old enough to swim up the bloodstream and begin to devour your brain tissue. The worms always take the memories first, and victims often die with worms swimming free from the nares and ears, holes chewed along the shortest path to freedom. That last fact had taught William that not all knowledge is good, that ignorance can protect and hide. William knows that soon, the door will swing in on enforced hinges and inside will stumble the Corpse that heralds the Nightmare. William has to steel himself now for the eyes, ice-blue and filled with world ending hate. The eyes are why he decided to call it a Nightmare. Nothing human lived inside that body, and he doubts he could kill the thing if he thought it was human. No crimes can be committed against a demon, after all. As if opened by the force of his thoughts, the door swings inward squealing in torment. The Corpse walks in carrying a silver dish that William was scolded for even holding not a year past, bearing his own torment, a massive dog’s head that has been roasted. Beef, the name beats away his prepared defenses like the child William is. The smell of burnt hair and cooked meat strikes him harder, the drool in his mouth shaming him just as it was his body preparing for the dry heaving that accompanied it. His body has abandoned him under the gaze that was coming from the hall, eyes more of a threat than a blade drawn across skin. The Corpse leaves at a deep grunt from the hall, door crying in protest again as it locks again. They didn’t need to close the door, the thought skittering numb across his brain. “He’ll watch for hate now...” his dead sister whispers from behind him. This is the first moment that breaks Williams' psyche. The insanity seems so normal to him on reflection. Williams' brain is doing everything to not perceive the cooked, severed head of his only remaining friend on the serving dish. The rage swells with the smell, and the head is still steaming. The hate comes then, consuming William and driving his thoughts forward. William believes he will see the world shatter before he will let go of this hate, burn everything to put the Nightmare to death. Strength swelled molten in his limbs, feeding his muscles even as they starved for fuel. His dead sister speaks again. “Why so reckless with your hate? The Nightmare will crush any weakness to remake you.” ”He already has,” trying not to focus on the fact that the insanity made her feel like she was really just behind William. The head cooled before he had gathered himself enough to look at it, sunlight dimming through iron bars. William collects himself by reliving the memory of when Mom had given him Beef, the horse-dog. He was already two meters tall sitting straight up, coarse brown fur the same color as her warm brown eyes. They had bought him for farm use, as a labor animal -his size meant he was too big to grow in their farm vats. Beef and William had taken to each other immediately, the fifteen centimeter nub of muscle that was Beef’s tail digging a furrow into the gravel drive as it waggled. William and Beef had made the property look like Grandfather had, all proper from the road, even if you couldn’t see the house because of a small hill. And then even his memories were inhabited by the Nightmare, and William fled to his other haven, knowledge. Every experience is a lesson, Love always told them before class started. “Purple boys like quirky puzzles!” His dead sister ignores even these boundaries it seems, as she sings into Williams head. He focuses on the meaning of the mnemonic device, a classification system of the varieties of gene-animals. Pure species are the original, extinct animals William lectures to himself, focused on retrieving the relevant knowledge. Bi species are two sets of genetic material, one size and one shape in that order for naming purposes. Tri for three sets of genes and so on, up to primes. Anything above two were function genes that genes could express, but almost none did. Beef was a bi species, a dog the size of a draught horse, the thought hitting him like a whip. With nowhere safe from the facts confronting him, William was left with no resource to use but his hate. It is common knowledge in every heart that hate is a useful tool, but a dangerous one just like any other weapon. William arrived at a couple of conclusions as the head of his best friend cooled to cage temperature. One, he has to make an attempt to kill the Nightmare, or William would cease to live. Like the Corpse now, he shuddered. Two, William had to strike before he was ready. The Nightmare will know if William is in a position to hurt it, and will hurt him before that opportunity. Like truths floating in the ether, these conclusions slide into Williams' soul and join the foundation of his soul. Every experience is a lesson was the deepest belief engraved, tempered with the blood of his suffering. But the conclusions didn’t connect to that cornerstone, they connected to the rage he felt rushing through him, carrying the fiery strength of hatred to his limbs. His Grandfather had been a warrior, and William believed he took after him. William was a warrior to his core, and defeat did nothing at all but stir him to greater action. The head was nothing but frozen meat in the autumn chill as William peeled pieces away and ate his best friend. Hate could strike in all directions, and it had beaten his consciousness to the corner of his mind. William had learned in the first few weeks of beatings that he could slip out of his body as it shrieked around a bloody fist. He would watch his body until the conflict was over and then he would slip back into it, like putting on a cloth consisting of pure pain. He watched his body chew the frozen meat from that hidden place, slipping back in when the cage door swung open. Ice blue eyes that spilled with hate appraised him before tossing in the key and stalking away. William groped for the key, unlocking the large padded bracer that kept him chained to the wall. William swings his right arm freely for the first time in thirty four days with joy. He had also learned long ago to be greedy with the little things. Chapter Two- “so he did what children often do when confronted by failure-he pretended” It’s a Saturday afternoon, evidence in the addicts littering the floor of the large farm house. William steps over them to the bathing room on his immediate left down the only hall, where he finds fresh linen and clothing left next to a steaming bath. William tears up, thankful, before his dead sister sulks “This is what it thinks Beef was worth to you.” The hate swells before William catches it and pushes it back down, teeth turned inward on his weakness. William spends thirty seconds mastering himself even after he is done bathing and dressing, hiding himself in falsehoods. Then William is in his old room before he realizes it, hands already choosing a book. His grandfather had bought the books so he would ‘stay out of trouble.’ He selected one based entirely on how the weight felt to him, falling into the story and bed in a single motion. Books had been Williams favorite form of escape for as long as he could recall. There was immense comfort in trusting another person to think for you, to guide your perceptions. Reading was abandonment of self, of soul, to another's whims and morals. Reading was how William prayed. Time melted away with his concerns until the sun rose, his sense unpinned from the immediate until the light began to brighten the room. The sunrise always made him feel small, William found. He spent the next four hours cleaning and watching the nanotech assemble meat from thin air, aside from a few well timed syringes of genetic serum to influence texture and taste. He scraped the meat from the frames before the meat grew enough to form an animal, carving it into small cubes and placing them directly into cold storage. At midday, he changed into his town clothes and went to talk to the Nightmare, as he had for the past five years every Sunday. “You finished earlier today than you normally would, even without your...diet.” Predator eyes rake across William. “I attempted to mimic your work ethic, father.” Flattery with a touch of normalcy, the perfect response to avoid conflict. “Come here.” Eyes down and domesticated, William moves into range of the Nightmare. This is why William misses the backhand he would normally have been able to dodge or soak. The hand hits him across the right cheek hard enough to summon blood in his mouth, head snapping to follow the force. William realizes the blow has knocked loose a tooth as the hand tightens like a vice around his throat, designed to choke life from little boys. “Clean the house first next time, I don’t like looking at the mess.” Ice blue pools of hell hold him as the hand relaxes, and William finds he preferred the hand. William looks at the center of it’s forehead and whimpers out “Yes father.” “Go to school, but wear something that hides your frame.” William bows low at the waist as he thinks the meeting went easier than expected. Relief sags into William as he clears the crest of the hill, hiding him from the Nightmare. He focuses on running, Love will have already begun the class and he despises missing even a fraction of it. Love is what William aches for in a father, kind and above all, loving. Love is ever true to his name. Love seemed to revel in teaching others, but he did not demand learning. He had things he wanted to share, but only if it was through a place of understanding. He taught with memory techniques and tools, stories and knick-knacks acquired in his years of being a traveler. School was what everyone called apprenticeship, and the traveling teachers would come by and teach the young unacquired their trade. Once a month, for those without a master instead of daily. Love was the only teacher that asked for nothing in exchange. Williams' favorite dreams were where he attended school like they did in the age of glory, five times a week for the sole purpose of learning. He arrived out of breath at the inn where Love liked to teach. When he was less winded he entered and ran into Rachel, the waitress. “And what do you want to eat, late bones?” was out of her mouth before she recognized William in his oversized clothing, almost swimming in his pants. “Beef and bean burrito!” Rachel shouted over her shoulder to whom William could only assume was her mother. William inclined his head in thanks as she leaned in, saying “Love saved your typical seat.” The pity on her face when she observed him ignited the rage again, forcing William to walk away wordlessly to the seat she had pointed out. The chair placed Love in front of the inn’s fireplace, casting him in fiery light. Love towered over the children, ebony skin and wild gray beard, taller even than Beef. William whisks the tear away and focuses on the bass of Love’s voice, carrying him into whatever Love was teaching the other assembled children. “King Ambition was the twenty fourth generational trillionaire from his family, and he was named well. Ambition ruled over more people than live today on Earth, his every wish granted by hordes of people. He wished to forge a legacy so complete as to render him immortal, greatest of all in the age of glory.” Love leans back, letting the fire cast him in shadow, a wonderful storyteller. “Ambition had his scientists secretly assemble a teensy robot, one than could make more of itself and do all other sorts of tasks. This robot made more and more, until they covered the entire planet.” At this, an image of earth appears between Love's hands, silver and marked in an unknown script. Appropriate sounds of awe echo from the audience, a few children are on the very edge of their seats, eyes open wide. The image fades away like wind is blowing across the surface. “And then something happened.The robots had gotten sick from somewhere, and they were so small they could do almost anything when they worked together. “They crawled,” large ebony hands with rough calluses dance like a spider up a nearby student's arm, ”into the brains of people all over the word and started eating them!” The jump of a man Love’s size is not to be underestimated, and the wooden floor trembles a little as he lands. Several students jump in their chairs with him and Love smiles at them with bright teeth. ”The robots have very small mouths though, so the robots just made the brain inflamed, like an infected wound. Everyone on earth was very angry because of that except for the few people that were so high or deep that they escaped. Those people worked day and night, and on the third day were able stop the robots, but the damage was done. Almost everyone died in those few days, but the people in the age of glory were so great, they survived even this horrible event. They had learned that the cloud cannot be destroyed, the robots build too fast and destroy everything around them as they do. But they could be switched off, as speckles of silver disappear in the air above his hands.” The story has taken too long, and the younger boys have turned to fighting with carved toys in the second row, so Love tells his audience to talk about what they think happened next. Love turns his emerald colored eyes to William, concern written on his face. “You’ve lost weight since the last time I saw you, William. Two months is a long time, even for me. Why did you miss class?” Love studies and compares the child before him to the one he last saw, at least 10 kilograms lighter. The weight loss allows him to easily read the child's facial muscles. He is pretending to be happy for Love, based on his pupil dilation, but the loss of muscle tone across his face combined with a minor pinch of his brow... William is sad, and trying to hide it, but the muscles that move faces are universal and readable. Compassion stirs Love to action, plans forming rapidly unseen. “Oh, I had to put in a lot of work at the farm and we had a scraper break down so I had to work by hand.” A complete lie, and no child hides something so effortlessly without danger being present, Love thinks to himself. “Suffering in the now relieves suffering later, William. I remember having nightmares about my first job.” William nods before he finishes the statement, eyebrows drawing closer together and higher, a response to fear. “Nothing like that for me!” William leaps into the crowd of children encircling Love, jumping directly into an argument about animal fights. Love sighs, trying to decode the event that just occurred. He will not be in time. His dead sister laughs his shame to the front of his mind as he plunges into another conversation to get away. Ryan and Andrew are arguing about a death match between a bear-wolf and an elephant-snake, but William can do nothing but hope he has escaped. William thinks it a miracle that makes it through the remainder of the class without Love talking to him again, but the looks he gives William throughout the ordeal is of concern and pride. William is still trying to put the pieces of that together when he knows he should have already left, his anxiety throughout the day erasing his chance to learn. Williams' walk home is cold and heavy as a result, and as he glances at the drive, he sees something unexpected. The Corpse is greeting him, standing to the right side of a gravel road leading up the hill to his home, maybe twenty meters from William. The air glows with firelight at the crest of the hill, which means the party has already started. Fear dances through William with the cold autumn wind guiding it. The Corpse is waiting and wearing his mothers face. “Good Evening, mother.” he says without a glimmer of despair. “He wants to see you, told me to wait right here for you.” The Corpse stares at him with dull, unblinking eyes. It always has a slight smile on its face, just enough to glimpse the rotted teeth gained from frequent beatings. It doesn’t shiver in the cold, though it wears little clothing. The corpse doesn’t urge him to resolve, it just shuffles from foot to foot, craving more. “Lead the way, mother.” He’d be a fool to not take it back to the house at least, adults will let him have much more freedom if they think his chain is held in another’s hands. William's mother was his first failure in his mind, and so he did what children often do when confronted by failure-he pretended that his mother was still by his side, helping him along the path. The feeling it evokes will help William overcome something terrible tonight. Image: Firelit Hill, vivid with color and darkness. Keep finished in D:// Chapter Three- “Terror grips him for a split second as a premonition enfolds him, that The Nightmare doesn’t sleep, that it would be watching the curtain open slowly.” The spit holds the rest of his best friend, turning over a low fire in the front yard as they approach the farmhouse. The spit is manned by an addict William has never met, but the man's face etches itself into his mind. “Plate for you here, Will. Your Dad said you had gotten over your illness and you’d need something to eat when you came home, but damn! Little Twiggly!” The addict wiggles his fingers in his face before laughing at his own joke, trying to maintain his high. William thanks him and enters the crowded farmhouse, where he knows the Nightmare wants to watch him eat. He sits alone at his kitchen table, strangers milling around him in conversation as William feels the eyes land on him. His hate is burning and aimed at inwards, forcing William forward. William clears his plate before picking at his teeth with a finger, flinching away from the loose tooth he had forgotten. A flinch from harm, and he realizes the mistake as he can feel the eyes focus like a predator. That’s when William sees the snare tighten around his throat, as the Nightmare commands the Corpse to take him downstairs. Love watches through the balcony window of the home thirty meters away, his massive frame huddled on top of the gene farm roof that William maintains. His vision of the boy is crisp enough that he can see the fear inside him and knows the instant the boy has resolved himself to murder as his mother ushers him downstairs. It shouts from his expression and body with a hateful glee, but he masters himself quickly. Love now knows that someone is dying tonight, and cannot help but already grieve. The tears cloud his edited eyes before he takes control, but he does not banish the grief. Instead, he leaps fluidly from the far side of the roof down to the grass, his focus on his objective. It is not yet time for tears. ‘Rage is your weapon,’ the boy’s dead sister speaks into his mind. The insanity is back, but William cannot muster the energy to do anything but restrain the hate a little longer. The Corpse guides him downstairs, almost running to the eggs kept there. They waltz past his cage into hers, where the Nightmare keeps his drugs. The cages look much the same, but this one has fine glass windows where pitted iron bars occupy his, and the room is full of the people who deal the eggs for the Nightmare. He sits in his designated spot, a small metal folding chair next to the throne. “Hold him still.” Hands and words bring him out of his thoughts, head suddenly leveraged to meet his fathers gaze. “You did well tonight. I thought I would have to force you to eat, but I see my training is having some effect. But that tooth weakens you, so I will remove it. A single night, and two weaknesses ripped from my heir. It is a good night.” Unseen pliers are in his mouth already, his tongue too weak to keep them away from his teeth. He can taste iron, but is unsure if that’s from the pliers or the tooth that they hold. The tooth shatters in that grip, and pain seizes him as the Nightmare pulls the broken tooth out by the nerve. Eyes rolling in animal panic, William cannot help but reveal his hate as they lock eyes. “A second loose tooth?!” The Nightmare clucks his own tongue. “Bad luck.” The voice rings with sympathy, and the eyes with malice before William is gagging around the pliers again. This time, he knows it is blood that he tastes as the pliers pick an adult molar on his upper jaw. His head wrenches back to make the pull, and William loses the tooth with his consciousness. Love stands behind a lone dead tree in the backyard, barely large enough to hide him even in the dim light. Love can see something occurring, but his gaze is drawn to the throne in the same room. It is visible through the windows that occupy the entire lower floor, aside from a space directly across from the lower entrance to the home. The throne mimics the ivory of long extinct pure species, the cushion a fake designed to echo the real royal purple made from the last members of a species of sea snail. His rage is potent enough to reveal himself, so he instead drills into his mind for another resource, cold tactical logic. He drops into meditation, letting the screams and whimpers in the background carry him away. Love listens from another place as two people drop the unconscious boy in the next room over at the command of the father, head bouncing off concrete loudly to signify their care. They remain in the lower room and smoke drugs for another three hours before the party starts to die, and they drift to sleep in the corners like vermin. The target stands from his fake throne, kicking a sleeping addict in her stomach before marching towards the stairs on the other side of the lower floor. The boy is awake now, and it is time for murder. Tears cascade down Love’s face, catching in his wild beard, his back to the tree. Love will spend fifteen minutes reintegrating violence into his soul, and when he rises he will kill everything but the boy, just like he used to love doing. It is not the time for tears. William’s consciousness snaps him awake in the cage, hazy with the loss of time before his mind has caught up to his situation. Instantly, he is on his feet and running to the door before the chain snaps taught around his right forearm, the fabric inside the shackle rubbing his skin raw and slamming him onto the ground as he loses balance from the lost momentum. Williams panic locks his eyes onto the door of the cage, but the door is blessedly open. He runs his tongue along the inside of his mouth and finds the Nightmare stopped at two teeth. He stares at his right arm, shackled to the far wall of the cage. He knows he isn’t strong enough to pull the anchor out, but William also knows how fragile his body is in comparison to the world ending hate he feels. It takes William three deep bites in the meat of his forearm before the blood soaks his bindings enough to become slick. Beef did this once, after a visit from his father he thinks as he watches his body struggle to escape. The blood slickened the chain loop on Beef’s left leg enough for him to break the bone and try to escape. His body cannot break his wrist alone, it shakes holding his right hand in the left. He slips back into his body just long enough to experience the break, he was more fragile than he had expected. In a memory William will hold forever, he slips the shackle from his right forearm, hand a fleshy purple. He weeps for his release as his insanity sings a song with his mother’s voice. Unrestrained, he leaves the cage for the final time and does not look at it again. William enters the throne room first to retrieve the object he will use to kill a Nightmare. William meant to practise the swing in here, but a deep fear forces him to abandon the darkened room. Instead, he practices on his way to the bedroom upstairs, stepping over the sleeping people that seem to infest his home. The heavy iron bedroom door greets him like the sentinel for death itself, but Beef deserved more than the meagre life William offers in trade for justice now. William opens the door so slowly he can barely perceive the movement, but nothing betrays him to the sole occupant. The large bed occupies the center of a large room, curtains drawn shut around three sides to keep out light. There is no noise beside the rush of his blood as he stalks to the bedside, ashtray raised in his left hand as he cradles his right closer to his body. Terror grips him for a split second as a premonition enfolds him, that The Nightmare doesn’t sleep, that it would be watching the curtain open slowly. Instead William sees the Nightmare, his step-father, sleeping peacefully with his long curly black hair tumbling around his handsome features. It’s skin is pale enough that in the ambient light William can see the shadow of his irises through the eyelids, tracking something in a dream. The Nightmare smiles even in his sleep, the cant of his lips lending him an angelic quality. Hate swells in Williams' heart, tidal in scope, as he brings the roughly carved quartz crystal into violent contact with that beautiful face. The crystal shears the skin in a ragged sheet from the right side of his brow down to hang loosely over his nose as the eyes flick open. Suddenly, the nightmare is awake in the body before William, and the kick that connects to his abdomen launches him across the room to land in a pile in front of the iron door. The Nightmare has risen, posing even now, over William while waiting for the child to roll over and look him in the eyes. “Too weak.” The first stomp breaks his right forearm, raised in defense without mind of the already sustained injury. The second stomp catches the flat side of Williams head, flashes of light carried by the shattering force as he is forged into contact with the floor. The third consumes Williams' vision, in a wave of golden glittering void. William wakes with peace in his heart, knowing that he is dead and that his long tribulation is over at last. He lets go of the regret of being unable to take justice for Beef before he even opens his eyes. An empty void greets his senses, a place without place. After a few moments in hanging eternity, blue-white specks begin to collect at an immeasurable distance from William, being able to perceive the distance only with the addition. William recognizes the shape assembling near instantly, dragons are one of his favorite animals. It’s not a pure species, like most of the animals Love told him about, but a long dead quad. Dragons died out almost 300 years ago, when the nobles stopped being able to find Quetzal genes in the ruins, Love had told him on one of his first visits to town. ‘Chemical, Quetzal, Mammoth, Komodo!’ he sings to himself just as Love did. The mountain sized glittering constellation of points that form a titanic dragon turns to survey William with eyes made of void. ‘A favorite among favorites, for our guest.’ a mothers voice echoes from the constellation of light, although William is unsure how he knows this fact. Wings the size of cities lift and the dragon poses, Four legs sturdy, neck stretched, wings held too high. William is still reduced to awe, that wonder that makes people small. The dragon peers at him from a mile long neck held like a tower. ‘Out of the infinite possibilities available, I never thought a human would grow in my mind. I am Nature.’ The dragon stalks forward until it looms above him. The head is a castle of teeth, now resting on the ground, eyes of void still feet above William. ‘Odd. It is not often I am wrong. You are not my creation.’ Ice blue eyes flash into being and meet his own dark brown. These eyes hold William with such tenderness that he knows they have to be a product of his insanity. Even so, William knows better than to not respond to the primordial creature before him. Image: Tender eyes of cyan in void, large. Keep finished in D:// Chapter Four- “For a second, William is disappointed he was not allowed his third wish for everything valuable on the planet.” “I tried to murder a Nightmare and lost.” William said. “He killed your friend.” The tears come then, and bitterness William didn’t know existed follows. “Beef deserved more. He suffered every day that I knew him, and deep down I was glad for it.” A bruise deep ache is the only thing holding him up as he sobs around it, as William watches his tears slip away into the empty void below him. “Every day the Nightmare hurt him, I had less to suffer. So I kept him chained.” Rage has abandoned William, and grief remains. Every child knows that a mother can help with grief. “I wouldn’t let him go because I knew that it would hurt me.” Laughter bubbles to the top of his pain. “Stop the pain. Please.” “No. You too have a right to life. You seem to have misunderstood something. I am ‘the’ Mother Nature, a conscious Concept elevated above mortal life.” A glimpse of understanding echoes even though the void seems to eat even sound. Williams skin crawls as if stuffed with ants, and he realizes he stands before something resembling God, able to grant any desire, and he cannot repress the need he feels for that power. “I will not return Beef to you, he is happier as part of my whole.” The dragon cannot be said to do anything but smirk at the child as the confusion and sadness jumped into his features. “But I owe you a debt, and I pay all debts. Come.” Some form of pure cat species, still made of void, lazes in an alien room containing a single white fountain. He knows that reality has adjusted to the whims of a Concept, the same one he is speaking to. Awe washes back over William, and he is shocked to discover he feels...content. William is whole, happy, and comfortable, sure of himself and his strength. Tears of joy bead up in the corners of his eyes, cheeks scrunched up with a maniacal grin. “You were rather upset when you arrived, William, so I found your default feelings in your newly structured fate. Fate is such a useful Concept, but she can be a real bitch.” “I...I feel like this in my life normally?” The cat nods lazily. “...Gratitude. Just knowing this is enough reward.” “Do not discount your worth so readily, little human. Is that knowledge alone worth the loss you feel?” “No. It is not.” The words shock William as they tumble from his lips. The cat notices as it eats brightly colored fruit that simply appears just before she bites and disappears as she relaxes. “I am stronger than Deception, his influence cannot touch you here.” “Where is here? Am I dead?” “You are currently being beaten to death, and this is a small dimension perceivable to you and I only due to the freak trauma your brain is experiencing. It is my soul space, a term you will be familiar with shortly.” she says.“I -I see. Will I survive?” he responds. “A piece of another Concept is in the process of…’saving’ you. Thus your survival is assured, and we can resolve the aforementioned debt.” Reality shifts in the water of the fountain, and he leans forward from where he is standing to peer into it the image it contains. Love is standing in the lower floor of his home, rapture evident, as golden vines pop into existence and crawl towards the sleeping bodies. Each strike from the vines is terrifyingly fast and obviously lethal. Love begins to move in the image, but at a much slower speed than the vines, as he turns to the stairs. “How many revelations can you bear?” his dead sister says from behind him. “Can I help him?” William asks. “You have your own enemy to defeat. Do you not want to end the Nightmare?” White-hot anger presses to the surface of Williams' soul. “Yes. How do I finish it so that it understands?” The knowledge that William will use blooms into being at the back of his mind as he focuses on the cat. “What is that?” He points at the body the concept wears. “This is a Jaguar, and not the company, obviously.” The jaguar is midnight black now, rippling with muscle and smiling with a mother's eyes in that eerie ice blue. William asks “Is it a pure species, or something like the dragon?” A shiver ripples through him, and the cat smiles. “This is what you would call a pure species. Extinct in your reality, reduced to genetic material floating in carbon nanotube syringes for expression by the nanomachine cloud covering your planet.” The cat shifts into a large, alien looking being with 8 limbs and square pupils, again made of flesh instead of void. Then the creature frowns. “Some realities cannot abide the competition I offer them, and eliminate natural growth.” she sulks. “What about that? That definitely has to be at least a bi species.” William cannot help it, he will always leap toward knowledge. “No, this was all me again. It is an Octopus, and lived in the oceans before they were acidic in your reality.” The octopus dances as it asks him, “Would you like to know what you’re missing? About the Concept of nature, I mean.” She winks at him as she turns into a small four legged furry animal, with a small beard and fur that reminds him of Beef. “Yes!” Understanding flows into him then, a slew of vividly colored images and accompanying thoughts.”Flowers were real?!” “They are, and they could be everywhere again, depending on too many things to discuss right now.” Williams' train of thought grinds to a halt as he realizes what a Concept of reality can do. “I want to remember anything I want.” William imagines that this must be the trick that it will use to keep him from this priceless treasure. The goat sighs as she says “A wish I cannot grant, that is a gift to be granted by yourself.” Surprise and suspicion grows inside him. “I want to know why you are helping me.” “Yours is an extreme case of luck, a Concept so old that even I cannot help but shudder in his presence. He appears to think that you could manifest as a Concept yourself, grown powerful beyond your world.” The Dragon is back, made of flesh and shrunk to match his scale. She locks eyes with William. “If you have the possibility to influence Luck, what chance do I have of standing before your apotheosis?” “I could...be like you?” “No. You could be yourself, but with power I could not match.” Williams palms itch as he realizes that this Concept believes it cannot stop him. “How?” In that moment, William feels as if he is a dragon, collecting a horde of unimaginable wealth. “Another will guide you to that.” “Then I want a dragon.” Williams' palm sweat with the fact that this… Concept could obliterate him. Instead, the dragon nods as if she expected it from the beginning. “I give nothing but the opportunity to bond, but you will likely find that more than enough. She is my sister, and I expect her to be in good spirits when we next meet. One last boon to settle our debt and I have chosen it for you, William. Even I have trouble comprehending how young you are. I give you the power of control, to be echoed down your line. It is a gift that all Mothers must give, but what you will find important about it is the opportunity it provides you to become yourself.” Williams' vision distorts as his reality refocuses on his broken body. “Are you ready?” For a second, William is disappointed he was not allowed his third wish for everything valuable on the planet. William spends a second to focus on the task before him. “Thank you, yes.” William sees his grandfather, the warrior, clad in ancient bronze armor appear in his soul space just before time resumes violence. The Nightmares foot rockets down on what was supposed to be a child's head, but impacts the hard floor below. Pain explodes up his right leg as he refocuses on the child. The pain seems to be solely from the impact with the ground, so the Nightmare shakes it off before taking a step forward. The child cringing at the foot of his bed explodes into motion in response. Swinging an object quick enough to catch even the Nightmare off guard, his weight shifting to his right foot to fire a kick that will kill a man, much less a child. Instead, he is falling, his leg collapsing due to a torn tendon as he meets the eyes of the child. The nightmare sees only hate, and feels only joy in his twisted mind as the object connects with his head again, and he loses consciousness. This is when Love enters the room and William can see his expression clearly. Love shifts from rapture, to horror, to grief, and settles on love as he looks at William and his broken body. Without realizing, William has fallen. William stands and watches the bloody drool refuse to break it’s connection from the hard floor to his face. He braces himself over the unconscious Nightmare, gently handling the quartz crystal ashtray that his mother carved. She had carved part of Beef, with his large eyes carved into the bottom still filmed in ash. It was the last thing she made before the worms ate her mind, so it is doubly fitting. William judges his Nightmare, who is just now conscious based solely on the level of malice present in the eyes. William aims at the already exposed skull, where he nicked the bone on the first attempt. It cracks the skull this time, and he feels something splatter against his face. The Nightmare has spit on him, William realizes, mocking him even now. He brings it down three more times before the skull caves inward and he can hammer at the demon himself. He watches as the Nightmare leaves, making sure it understands how William has felt in these long five years. The Nightmare dies with a nightmare smile on the handsome face, and William will have to find a new purpose in life. William has no memory of collapsing, only his victory. William wakes again when Love tenses carrying him outside, leaving him feeling like he’s cradled by steel instead of like an infant in Love’s massive frame. Love is standing at the top of his hill to look back at the home, and he watches Love scoop silver light into the air, a shining sphere containing his whole farm. As Love closes the hand, he watches the sphere collapse inwards, leaving a hole where a home used to be. The silver sphere pulses bright white when it reaches four meters in diameter before collapsing like a soap bubble, the ash of his previous life floating away in a large cloud. Williams' last thought is how he was never truly tired, he had not fought past his own effort and determination, the very edge of his limits. “Now I can begin”, he slurs aloud, as he sank quickly back into a slumber that had no Nightmares. Image: Nightmare eyes, black and white, small. Original image vivid color and large, reduce to effective size for use here. Keep finished in D:// Chapter Five- The boy would not interrupt Love if he was bleeding to death. “But they have a steep cost, William.” William is jarred awake as the sensation of his skull and jaw aligning to proper form scrapes a sound inside his head. He is laying on a small firm mattress in a structure of some sort, cubbies present across the room seemingly carved from rock. Small knick knacks fill the shelves, as William puts the puzzle together and realizes he is wherever Love stays when in town. “You’ve been unconscious for two days, William, we’re in a ruin near the peak of Kendall Mountain that I like near Silverton. I injected you with a salamander syringe, let me know immediately if you have any pain.” Love speaks slowly yet fluidly, and Williams' mind races with this information. “I need information, William, so I can help you. Tell me what you can, skip around if it feels like too much. You’re my son now, and I need to know how to help.” William sits up so quickly that stars appear in his vision and his revelation jarred brain tells him the Concept is manifesting in the cave-like home, but the stars fade as he stares at Love. It takes the entire third day of Williams' freedom to tell his tale, and he stops several times and walks outside at Love’s suggestion. The wind at the top of the mountain is crisp and cold, and it calms him to simply breathe and look at the town he’s lived just outside of his entire life. Silverton is a town so old that none remember if silver referred to the mineral or what the founders thought of the stone color, but it is beautiful when viewed on high. He can see the massive meeting hall, the amphitheatre in the far corner and a spiral in design from above. People the size of ants scurry about, oblivious that a murderer watches them in the distance. William ponders that thought while he concludes his tale and Love kindles a fire nestled next to a large stone that occupies the center in the single room structure. William has left out the part about the concept, so sure it was a product of trauma. “You have told me the story of a warrior.” Love replies when William finishes and Love knows that he has selected the correct path that William wants to walk, his face a beacon of joy as he hears the words. “As I have told you every time I have seen you, pain can and will relieve deeper pain. In order to guide you truely, William, I want you to close your eyes and listen to what I tell you now. This is the beginning of your path.” William sits ramrod straight on the sleeping roll Love placed him on when they arrived, and closes his eyes. “Imagine you are in a seat of the amphitheatre, seats all around you and a colorless beam of light on stage. A nod suffices to tell me to continue.” William nods slowly, as if testing his neck. “William, inside of that beam, I want you to place a copy of yourself, no color at all present. When you can see yourself in that beam, I want you to rise up out of your body in the seat, high enough to see the spiral design and both bodies.” A second of hesitation as William moves in his soul space, flying and feeling distinctly insane as he performs the instructions. Image: Amphitheatre design with scene, bodies in shadow. Keep finished in D:// “Wonderful. I want you to play a movie, the kind I taught you about. Remember, you’re safe up above all of this, but still close enough to hear the sound from that beam movie of black and white.” Another nod from William, more relaxed now. “I want you to play the movie of all your memories of the Nightmare. The movie runs faster than normal, but you can see the whole thing play out, and the black and white you in the movie is the only one feeling all that rage and pain.” A hesitant nod, Williams posture has already softened and Love cannot help but smile. “It’s hard to get to the end.” William says. “Speed up the movie more, let it loop again and again until it’s finished.” A nod. “Was that comfortable, watching that movie?” William opens his eyes and looks Love in the eye, making Love’s heart leap a little in pride. “It was a little uncomfortable.” “That is normal, William. In a minute, I am going to ask you to do something, but don’t start until I ask you to. I want you to float back down closer to your body in the movie but only at the very end of the movie, when you feel comfortable to approach. Then I want you to step into the movie and play the entire movie backwards, this time with color. I want you to be inside the movie just like you’re experiencing the movie again, but backwards so fast that it only takes two seconds. It’ll make a weird sound, like Zeuurrrpah.” William smiles and nods, before closing his eyes. “Begin.” It takes William three seconds to experience the rewriting of his memory, healing him. “Did you make it, William?” “Yes, it was just a little odd in the beginning.” He shakes his head, brown hair following his face. “Do it again, a few more times, but faster.” A single nod. “Was it easy, in the end?” “Yes, Dad.” William is more relaxed than he has ever been in his life, and he does not understand the feeling yet. “What did we just do?” “We cured you of your fear of Nightmares.” Love watches William for any response to fear, but none rises and he allows himself a small smile in pride of his own skill. “This is a technique used to remove specific phobias, allowing you to access the resources you found during those times. “I want you to imagine the Nightmares eyes now.” William appears worried, but then he realizes that he is not afraid of the eyes and gives a little laugh that fuzzes Love's vision with tears. “What is it like?” Love asks. “It’s like I’m seeing them for the first time!” William exclaims. “That place without a place you just went and placed the amphitheatre has a name. It is your soul space, where your soul reigns supreme.In time, you will use it to communicate with other souls.” William opens his eyes, and the love present somehow makes watching a murder worth it. Love raises his hand, imaging in his soul space the nanobots carve into the large instruction stone in the center of the ruin, covering the hatch. The robots carve a miniature three dimensional amphitheatre in the stone, spiraling outward in the golden ratio. The robots shine silver the entire time, Love can see the reflection and effect of his will manifest in Williams large dark brown eyes. Love has learned from William that the ends do justify the means, at least sometimes. “You have learned how to defeat fear, William. But not just you, the mind is too vast to contain any less than two souls.” Love holds two fingers up, then three and William greets this with confusion. Just as Love did when he was placed on his own path. “One soul is the master of your emotions, timeless and childlike in passion. It can experience only what you, the logical soul chained to it, allow it to experience, understanding only what you understand.” A stiff puppet-like nod from William. Love continues to speak, but William feels the hammer of revelation fall to forge a new piece of his soul in a fraction of time. “Your purpose in life is to ensure that the liminal soul is happy, and it’s job is to do the same for you. This is the reason behind the evolution for human empathy. Both of your primary souls walk a path together, and the knowledge of this other soul alone has often been enough to fill the emptiness people feel in quiet moments.” “It is my purpose as your father now to ensure that you have the tools necessary to see that path to wherever you want. This will be the focus of your life for the next few years, and you will leave this mountain equipped to do so, but not before. Do you accept my oath to guide you to yourself?” “I accept you as more than blood, the covenant of family forged.” His dead sister has told him this story, where Love swears to teach him everything he needs and wants. So many times that he knows the words to use. The fantasy of Love becoming his dad and how it would play out has kept him warm on several nights. Love is shocked, surprise writ large across his face. William cannot help but glance behind him where he knows she always is. She smiles like a dragon as he hears Love respond, “The covenant cannot be broken.” When William wakes the next day, he feels like he is seeing the sun rise for the first time. His blanket is rather warm and smelling of Love as he tries to soak in the warmth it provides. There are no doors on the structure, so he can watch the sunrise from the bedroll on his left side without moving. William examines the amphitheatre carved into the center stone in those early dawn rays, reflecting on whatever magical power Love used to make it. William stands, body whole but starvation thin and goes to inspect the carving. “That was carved with the robots in the air, you know about them.” Of course Love is awake, William thinks, his deep voice is warm and sleepy. “The people who taught me are called the Druids, and the skill is called gardening. Always remember, gold means gone and silver is safe.” William ponders this new information as his stomach protests loudly. “Let’s start.” Love is already leaving the cave . A basin for a mountain spring has been carved smoothly into the stone outside the structure that appears to be a volcanic cave from the outside, and both of them quench their morning thirst and relieve their bladders closer to the copse of vines nearby. Love waits for William just outside the cave, already finished. “The nanobots were turned off, like I taught you, but not inactivated. No one could figure out how, so they tried to hide how to control the machines.” Love leaves his eyes, lost in memory now. “Hiding the knowledge worked for a while, and then it didn’t. My sect learned how to control themselves, and as a byproduct, learned how to control the machines. So began the age of cultivation.” The boy would not interrupt Love if he was bleeding to death. “But they have a steep cost, William. If you override the previous command structure... they glow gold and eat a part of you once you stop giving them new commands.” “The vines?” Shame appears on Love's face before he masters the emotion. “Yes. When the machines glow silver, you can use them much more freely as it aligns with the command structure the robots last had. This is why it is important to learn your history. It’s a saved state, and how I destroyed the farm.” William nods to confirm he remembers. “The town of Silverton had some need for excavation and structural planning in the last age, making the aura perfect for training.” “Aura?” “It is how I will refer to the machines around us, to help you learn the control you will need. The name appeared when we learned that it was the machines growing all of the gene-species using a little energy and carbon in circulating air. I doubt any beside my master knows the meaning of the term.” Love changes the topic, “What was the first thing I told you this morning?” he asks instead of continuing. “You told me ‘gold means gone, silver is safe.’” Love's smile is itself a sunrise, radiant pride in son and student. “Correct. It is time to hunt for a meal.” Love is astounded by the knowledge the boy carries about nature. William seems to know every fungus, every variation of woody vine that has replaced the trees as an ecological powerhouse. He even recognizes the tracks of the first animal they hunt before Love does, quick with certainty. It is a bear-boar and follows the normal variation that the aura manifests, simply a very large boar based on the tracks. Limbs are always the first feature that mutates if one of creatures collects enough genetic material to manifest another species, part of the first lesson Love taught William when he arrived in town. Love taught him then that each expression can be exponentially stronger, mutating more unpredictably as they gain genetic information. “These tracks are fresh, roll your feet like this so you stay silent.” Love shows him how to move silently over the stone and debris, delight evident on Williams' face as he figures out the technique in the space of fifteen strides. The next clearing contains a dragon eating a still warm bear-boar.