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The Pleading Prophet

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If one just knew where to put them, the candles would usually light themselves.

Another pentagram was drawn on the floor. Stolen candles from all sorts of places in the lower floor of the cartoon studio were placed on each of the star’s corners, and then one candle was placed in the middle. The candles came alight on their own, pulsating and flickering with an orangey-yellow warmth. It was a comforting contrast in color to the otherwise bleak whites, browns, and blacks of the studio’s interior. An inky hand grabbed a small stack of papers held together in the corner by a paperclip, pinching the clip between his thumb and forefinger. He held the papers above the middle candle’s flame, letting the fire lick at the papers. It was an old composition. Beyond the Gates of Kingdom Come. That was his lord’s kingdom, Kingdom Come. One of the creators had told him this was so. As the flames ate away at the papers, he began to chant under his breath. Perhaps it was a prayer. Perhaps it was an old song. More likely, it was a mix of the two, making some blend that made sense in his own mind. He kept the prayer / song up until the papers had been eaten away entirely, at which point he whispered “Amen.” He tapped his forehead (or, more accurately, the top of his mask), then his chest, then his forehead again, tracing an arc from his forehead to his throat and then from his throat to his chest. The letter ‘B’. The candles all went out, smoke spiraling to the ceiling. He went from sitting on his haunches to sitting on the floor, hands folding in his lap, waiting in silence.

He did this every day. It wasn’t always musical compositions that he let the flames consume, though recently that was becoming common. Sometimes he sacrificed leftover cans of soup, seeing as he didn’t need to eat anymore. Sometimes he burned away notes and reminders, some in familiar penmanship, some unfamiliar. Once, he took a clock off the wall, a clock bearing his savior’s face and eyes that twitched back and forth with every passing second, and sacrificed that. Sometimes, he’d sacrifice...Messier things. He didn’t care what he had to sacrifice, or how much of it he had to give. It was all in the name of his lord, and he would do anything in the name of his lord.

The silence of the room was soon broken.

Golly! That sure was a nice one, I remember that song. Y’even got to use the bassoon! I know how much y’loved that bassoon. Thanks a bundle, Sammy-boy!

A prophet should always be able to hear the voice of their lord. Sammy Lawrence was a prophet. Therefor, hearing the dancing demon’s chipper voice echoing inside of his head didn’t scare him in the slightest. Instead, it made him smile. “You are welcome, my lord. I am humbled to have pleased you.”

Sometimes, he wondered if the demon’s voice wasn’t the voice of his lord at all, but just a construct of his own mind. He didn’t like considering that his lord could possibly be imagined . Such an idea was sacrilegious, preposterous, absurd. He knew the god was real. He knew what it could do, what it could bring. He knew he could please it every day, and remain devoted, and perhaps someday...

Y’know somethin’? You’ve been reeeeeeal honest an’ loyal with me, haven’t ‘ya been, Sammy-boy? Every day, a new present, all for me! Ain’t ‘cha a hard worker? I think ‘ya should get a prize for all that!

His head twitched up. “...A reward?” He wasn’t sure he believed what he was hearing. For a moment, elation spread across his face--But he was quick to repress it. “Serving you is it’s own reward, I can ask for nothing more--”

Aww, don’t play all modest! You deserve it. Just one little thing y’gotta do for me, alrighty?

“Anything.”

Why don’cha go out an’ play me a song or two? Nothin’ you made, though. I wanna hear somethin’ new. You go do that, I’ll give ‘ya somethin’, got it?

...Play?

Sammy couldn’t remember the last time he sat down and played on an instrument. He was hesitant, but he could not reject a request from his lord. He nodded, rising to his feet, then slowly making his way to the empty orchestra room. His eyes swept over the instruments. Then his eyes went down to his own hands, shiny, softly dripping ink onto the floor. It had been so long, yet his body hadn’t congealed or dried out. Like this, he certainly couldn’t play bass, or banjo, or violin. His fingers would be too clumsy. He also couldn’t play anything that required he blow into it--Piccolo, flute, clarinet--For fear of clogging it. His fingers curled in, then Sammy looked up, gaze landing on the piano. The foot pedals would be a bit of an issue (he wasn’t sure if he had proper feet anymore), but he felt confident in his ability to both play and not ruin the instrument. He grabbed a chair and dragged it over to the piano, then sat down and positioned his hands on the keys.

What was he even supposed to play?

For a dreadfully long moment, Sammy was still and silent, staring at the keys on the piano. He tapped a few of the keys, looking for the right pitch. He began to attempt to play a song he’d heard on the radio a long while back. It used to be a hobby of his, trying to learn by ear. It filled the time. Then he tried to sing along. Sammy was a tenor, not a particularly good one in his own perception, but if it was to please his lord he would sing. “ I hate myself for being so mean to you…

His name was Samuel. Samuel Horace Lawrence.

...Strange. Sammy couldn’t remember the last time he’d ever thought of himself as anything other than ‘Sammy’ or ‘it’s prophet’. His fingers hesitated on the keys, which made the thought itself begin to fade. A beat, then he went back to playing, to keep the thought in his head, to see where this was heading. “ Like an eenie-meenie-miney-mo, I broke your heart and I let you go…

His name was Samuel Horace Lawrence. He liked the bassoon best of all instruments. He owned a variety of records: Eddie Morton, Helen Kane, Cab Calloway. He was surprised to be hired for his compositions. He had an older brother. He was friends with Susan Campbell and Norman Polk, at least for a while. He liked his job, sometimes. He could remember spending time with the creators and making music for their drawings, he could remember being snuck alcohol after their first cartoon was finished, he could remember pride and joy and other such feelings that stuck to his chest.

He could remember. He didn’t know when he became unable to dredge up these memories, but they were there now, they were back . Was this his lord’s gift? How generous! A smile came onto his face, and he picked up the tempo a bit to see how far this gift would go.

As he sang, as his fingers went across the piano’s keys, he could taste something. Taste. He hadn’t tasted anything that wasn’t the overwhelming flavor of ink in what felt like an eternity. He could place the taste, too: a very specific brand of cigar. The taste made him think of the janitor. He didn’t like that man. Clumsy. Scatterbrained. Obnoxious. But he would loan out his cigars if somebody looked stressed, and that had to be why the taste was in his mouth now. Overworked--His fingers messed up on the keys, and he hastened to correct the note-- Always overworked. There was an achingly familiar feeling at that thought, one of spite, negativity. How could that be so? He was only working to please his lord, after all, and nothing made him happier than that. He shouldn’t feel anything negative. He lived to please.

He lived to please…

The thoughts and feelings were already starting to slip away. Sammy found that in his excitement-induced tempo increase, the song was actually ending faster . He grit his teeth, abruptly changing the sequence of notes into a segue leading into the chorus to a different melody altogether. “ Masculine women, feminine men! Which is the rooster, which is the hen? ” If his lord asked, he could always call it a medley. More songs were better than one. It wasn’t a lie. He would never lie to his lord.

Susan Campbell, Norman Polk, Samuel Horace Lawrence...Wallace Franks, that’s the name he was missing, the janitor, the one with the cigars. Susan Campbell voiced what seemed like everything but was particularly fond of the angel character (the notes of a harp-based leitmotif entered his head, which momentarily messed up his song). Norman Polk was working off debts from gambling. He was still two names short, however. The creators. One wasn’t around for very long. The other wasn’t happy the first one left. He could remember insistence that the cartoons, and by extension his compositions, had to be better . Had to make more money. Always an emphasis on money. Some of that came from the stress of a stock market crash, though Sammy couldn't shake the feeling that that wasn't all there was to it. Money. Deadlines. Letters in the post. Photographs. A card with a picture inside and very careful, neat cursive making up words. The only words that came to mind were names. Two sons, a wife, a husband. Franklin Rosborough Wright. Oliver Martin Wright. Olive Bonnie Wright. And then a final name, a name associated with bitter things: Henry Fauntleroy Wright. In his mind’s eye, he could see the creator burn away card and picture alike in the flame of a candle.

He understood that now to be a sacrifice to his (and presumably the creator’s) lord. He hadn’t understood it then. May his lord forgive his blindness.

Henry Fauntleroy Wright was a name that brought up many things. The memory of being snuck alcohol came to mind again, but Sammy was quick to disregard it. No time for redundancy. Smiles, real smiles, not the kind of smiles the remaining creator had that were dissonant and hiding something. Bitterness. Anger. Traitor. He was a creator, the one who left. His lord had said it a million times: both creators were traitors. It never elaborated as to why, and it didn’t need to, for whatever it said Sammy would always agree with. No prophet disagreed with their lord. Memories of the remaining creator were still too obscured in his memory, save for insistent words. Everything had to be better. Appease the divines. What was wrong with the coffee?

Everything was smearing and blurring and fading in his memory. The song was ending. Faster this time, though with arguably an even sloppier transition, Sammy changed songs. Play a little slower. Get the most out of this song that he possibly could. Who knew when such a blessing would be bestowed upon him again? He glanced slightly away from the keys and out towards the audience, noticing one cut-out of the dancing demon watching his performance. “ Oh, I wish I had someone to love me, someone to call me their own…

What was wrong with the coffee? He could taste it again. Strong. Bitter. The remaining creator had a custom of giving him a cup of this terrible liquid every single day. Why? It didn’t help him to work any better. Was it out of friendship? The taste dissolved in his mouth, replaced with the flavor of ink once more. No. No, it hadn’t been. His fingers slipped, sliding from a black key to white. He knew it wasn’t out of friendship; or, more accurately, he now could remember that. It wasn’t quite out of malice, though. And Sammy wouldn’t believe it was out of mere ignorance. Still, he kept drinking that coffee. The patches kept appearing on his skin. Sammy’s gaze was suddenly extremely fixated on his hands. How stupid that he hadn’t made that connection. He thought he could cover it all up with his clothes, with jackets, with gloves.

The ink overflowed over the lip of the gloves, bubbling, trickling from his wrists. The ink stained his clothing, the ink smeared all over his work, the ink was everywhere.

Sammy felt angry again. Angry, scared, and bitter, all in some weird mixture. Thick emotions, ones he wasn’t meant to feel. Yet he didn’t try and stop feeling them, not this time. In the corner of his eye, he could see one cut-out become three, in a sort of arc.

It hadn’t been a quick process, either. Not at first. The patches would appear at their own leisurely pace, consuming whatever skin they pleased. The creator never seemed to see how uncomfortable he was, always hiding it. The creator just smiled and gave him another cup of coffee. A cup of coffee every single day. He hadn’t known why back then. But now--He pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth, tasting that eternal flavor of ink--Now he knew why.

The creator thought he could poison Samuel Horace Lawrence, right under his nose.

Not poison with an intent to kill, or even to harm. Nothing was ever that simple. He’d entered the creator’s office with hopes of getting a sick leave. Back then, the blotches hadn’t overtaken his hands. They were on his back, his chest, his arms. Infernal, inky masses, swallowing skin. Getting a sick leave couldn’t be so hard, he’d thought, foolishly. He’d pushed open the door to the creator’s private office…

Damn it all. Fading again. The segue between the last song and this one was practically nonexistent, the man fueled only by the need to keep this memory coming. “ Bill collectors gather ‘round and rather haunt the cottage next door …” There was someone else singing alongside him on this song, a cheery and cheeky little voice. The little devil’s own, in fact. Sammy didn’t want that. He needed to focus. He shut his eyes and let his fingers move on memory alone, hardly thinking about the words to the song or the voice in his head. Focus. Focus.

He’d pushed open the door to the creator’s private office. Candles. Incense sticks. A pentagram in ink on the floor. He’d caught the creator in the middle of a ritual. He’d stood, stupidly, in the doorway. The creator was no longer all smiles and cheer, but something cold, distant, impersonal. The creator had one hand in the middle of the pentagram. There was something else in the room. A presence. A feeling. Sammy knew now to associate that feeling with the beast made of ink, the same little sin against nature that was singing in his head, distracting him. Samuel Horace Lawrence loathed distractions.

Focus. Focus.

Paralyzed by fear, he hadn’t thought to run. He’d just stood there as the creator put on a smile and lunged, grabbing him by the wrist. The creator pulled him towards the pentagram. The creator took out a knife and slashed at the palm of his hand. It wasn’t blood that came out of the wound: it was ink . The creator forced his hand down into the pentagram. The creator began to speak--Not give reminders and make insistences, but speak to something greater, something he hadn’t even begun to understand at that time.

The voice of the creator was all too clear.

Listen, Bendy, hear me. I have given him your blood. He has drank from the Ink Machine. He is to be your vessel, your chosen, your voice, your body. He is your body. He is your body. Claim him, for he has been chosen, for he is willing.

He wasn’t willing. But he couldn’t fight back. He was too scared, too confused. He’d drunk those daily cups of coffee, barely noticing how thick they were, barely tasting the undertones of ink the creator was poisoning him with. It was the creator’s fault he was this way. That demon had said it a million times: both creators were traitors. It never elaborated as to why, and it didn’t need to, for Sammy had felt it too.

And in that moment, Sammy felt...Whole again. There was no ink on his body, only skin, only a rumpled shirt and old suspenders. He felt tired, like he always used to. He felt the stinging of a fresh gash going across his palm. He felt like crying. He felt mortal . He felt like he used to feel and wanted so desperately to feel again.

It was enough to make him stop playing the piano.

The rich get richer and the poor get laid off! Sammy had ended the song before he could sing the final words. But the demon wasn’t about to stop along with him. In the meantime, in between time, ain’t we got fun! The final notes from the piano resonated across the empty orchestra room, and the final notes from the voice in Sammy’s head resonated in his brain, the two chords ringing in terrible tandem. Then the demon chuckled. Wowie, Sammy-boy! What a show! That might be your best present to me yet, if we ain’t countin’ Wally, and I ain’t. You ain’t lost yer knack for music, that’s for certain!

Sammy’s eyes opened. His hands, black and inky as ever, were still against the piano’s keys. The keys were all stained black from his playing. He let out an exhale. “...I thank you, my lord,” He said, starting to feel a bit hollow as the memories and feelings both left him.

I ain’t never heard you play with such feelin’ before! You really made me smile this time. Hope ‘ya liked my little prize, too! There was a beat. But I couldn’t help but notice you seemed pretty distracted by the end, there. Somethin’ on yer mind?

He was never supposed to lie to his lord. But right now, his mind felt all muddled. He looked out towards the audience, seeing nine cardboard cut-outs of his savior all smiling back at him. He put on a smile of his own, behind his mask. “Only you.”

Nya ha ha! That’s what I like to hear! I always liked you best, Sammy-boy, and that’s why. Always honest with me. Keep this up, an’ maybe I’ll finally give ‘ya somethin’ a little more...Permanent. Think ‘ya can do that?

“There is not a single doubt in my mind.”

Great! Now, I gotta scram--Some things I gotta take care of quick. Just remember: I hear ‘ya! I’m listenin’. You’re the best of the flock, Sammy-boy. I’ll be back for you.

Then there was nothing but silence.

Sammy’s mouth fell. He looked back at the piano’s keys. Dirty. Stained by his own fingers. Nothing should be so filthy. He’d have to find some way to clean that up. The prophet stood up, putting the chair back into it’s proper place before slowly trudging off to find something to clean the piano’s keys with.

He could barely remember why he’d played the piano so long and so passionately. How could he have allowed it to become so messy? That was unacceptable.

It probably wasn’t important.

As long as he had memories of his lord, everything would be alright in the end. Of that, he was certain.