Black turned to gold, which in turn became red, as if he were staring into a very bright light with his eyes tightly shut. Bridge recognized the progression, had made his peace with it long ago and now allowed it to happen without interference. There was no point in fighting it. It was out of his control.
The red that surrounded him soon made way for other colors as his vision cleared, the sound of the harsh wind picking up in his ears. Now there was bile green and the purple of angry bruises, pus yellow and a black so deep it threatened to suck all others into it, each of them writhing up and down in waves that stretched all the way to the horizon and beyond.
Then there was the moaning and the crying and the screaming. With them came a clarity that was unavoidable. This was all flesh, everything in sight. There was a veritable sea of it, manufactured out of indiscriminate mounds of multi-colored muscle and bone heaving up and down, and it was all but impossible to tell what was or was not consensual, every action and reaction steeped in violence.
From within the crowds, only the occasional head reared up—teeth gnashing and nostrils flaring—before its owner was dragged back down into the endless orgy. Bridge stood inured to the sight of it. All these years later and he still couldn’t say he understood it, but he’d come to accept it for what it was. Otherwise, he would have had to abandon the idea of sleep altogether.
For what it was worth, it looked as if the festivities were still in their infancy. Not only was there plenty of energy, but the bloodshed remained at a minimum. Not that it mattered much. Unlike Bridge, the inhabitants of this place weren’t bound to a mortal plane. Try as they might, they couldn’t do any permanent damage.
That would defeat the purpose.
With no real landmarks besides the rise or fall of the land itself, Bridge found it difficult to determine his exact location. He looked up to the skies and the six blazing suns, but their positions were routinely blotted out by a flock of black winged shapes that would swoop down and extract a participant at random, only to drop them from on high somewhere else. The victims were already broken by the time they hit ground.
In the end, he often found it was more productive to look for familiar faces, to know the neighborhood by his neighbors. None of them would notice him, much less recognize him. Even if they were capable of picking him out of the crowd, it wasn’t as if they’d offer to buy him a beer and catch up. By sheer force of will, Bridge moved forward through the masses, his eyes scanning for certain details, ignoring others as best he could. Whatever psychological damage could be done to him had been done so long ago that now it was nothing more than scar tissue.
This was no more distressing than the average high school reunion.
There. Bridge saw what he was looking for, who he was looking for. Five times larger than the average man and covered in a kind of translucent skin, the individual appeared to possess internal organs that were in active rebellion against him. Intestines twisted inside his body and poked at the enclosure as if testing for weak spots. He was covered head to toe in servants no taller than Bridge’s knee, and they were busy as little bees, a low hum coming off of them as they slaved away.
However, unlike the rutting animals around them, these little workers weren’t servicing their master. They were eating him. And the master was guiding their progress, directing them to their next bites.
It wasn’t his real name, but then who could pronounce his real name? Not Bridge. Over time, he had come to understand the words of this world well enough, but the speaking of the language was strictly the province of those with forked tongues. So everyone received a nickname, a little something to remember them by after he’d left them behind. The little bastards that were crawling all over Skinny had no individual designations. In the grand scheme of things, they weren’t important enough. Bridge called them shylocks.
It was the lot in life of this particular tub of guts to continue to have his guts grow tubbier, no matter what measures he took, just as it was the lot of the shylocks to cannibalize him. With crude tools or their claws or their teeth, these shylocks would each take their pounds of flesh, consuming until their stomachs burst and then dumping the still steaming contents out onto the ground. After a brief respite, they’d have room for more and would dig back in, not unlike Sisyphus, by way of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Given his “condition,” Skinny didn’t travel much and as such acted as a kind of constant for navigational purposes. Bridge was ready to locate his second touchstone when his eye caught something falling from the sky. He would have guessed it to be another victim of the winged beasties, but the object wasn’t large enough to be an individual. Or at least not a whole one.
When it dropped onto the backs of an amorous trio, it failed to interrupt their vigorous intercourse. A quick glance identified it as a severed leg. The bone stood out in glaring relief against the meat of the thigh, indicating that its removal had been both quick and recent. Bridge was still observing it when an arm—presumably from the same source material—crashed down nearby, followed by a head, its eyes wide with shock.
Turning away from Skinny and the shylocks’ meal, Bridge looked toward a rise that became a hill. The raining limbs appeared to be coming from beyond it, and he found himself drawn in that direction. When he reached the summit, he peered over to see an empty plot of land, some five hundred feet wide and scorched black, its perimeter ringed by observers. In its center stood a single figure, his back to the hill.
As Bridge watched, the individual gestured—either right or left or forward—, as if calling out to one of the many loiterers at the edge of the dead circle. When chosen, the loiterer would then run to the center only to be torn to pieces when he arrived, the scraps then flung away in various directions. Despite the results, there was never any hesitation on the part of the next participant.
Straining his eyes, Bridge examined the killer more closely. He was half Skinny’s size, and where Skinny had been nothing but fat, this individual was solid muscle through and through. The definition shown from within the self-made contraption he wore, a skeletal structure held together with sinew, most likely constructed from the remains of his victims. It draped over his shoulders and flowed down the length of his back, and there was something in its movements that felt funereal. For lack of a better name, Bridge dubbed it a bone shroud.
For all its brutality, there was a kind of beauty in his action—the summoning and the destruction—that kept Bridge riveted, unable to move or look away. Not even when Bone Shroud’s hand pointed in his direction.
Although Bridge stood alone on the hilltop, he refused to believe he’d been singled out until he heard his name—or rather his job—being spoken aloud, the word pouring like honey into his ear. Never would he have guessed that Bone Shroud could possess a voice so… inviting, but then why else would the masses have lined up for their own wholesale slaughter?
It seemed to him that Shroud was just on the verge of turning his countenance toward him when something slammed into Bridge’s left cheek, slicing into him, and breaking whatever hold he was under. The world of infinite colors dropped away from him as he opened his eyes to find himself surrounded by the drab gray tones of his office. After he lifted his head off the desk, he touched his face and the hand came away bloodied.
Less than two inches away, Spade was staring him straight in the eye and licking fresh blood off his paw. In a tone that implied Bridge should be ashamed of himself, the cat said, “Wake up. We’ve got work to do.”