Scold me, hold me, I'll be yours to keep
The only thing I beg of you: don't make me go to sleep
(Terrance Zdunich, "In all my dreams I drown")
The Third’s priest-kings are sharpening obsidian knives in anticipation of dinner.
The First’s priest-king is polishing silver spoons in expectation of a guest.
"Come to us, scrumptious morsel. We are so hungry. Your flesh is tender, your blood is warm. Such a lavish feast, such an appetizing taste. We will pick your bones clean and suck out the marrow and carve your poems upon them. Come to us..."
They are emaciated by centuries of insatiable craving. Their filed fangs blacken and crumble. Their eyes burn with desperate thirst, willing to settle even for such a scrawny prey as the Fidgeting Writer.
The one who comes at night is nothing like them: white teeth of an eerily persistent grin, an appraising gaze of a fastidious connoisseur. But he desires him just as much.
"Come to me, dear child. Your nightmares are so unforgettably vivid. Such an exquisite horror, such a sweet madness. Your tormented mind is a work of art. Give it to me, and you will suffer no more. Come to me..."
The Writer would do anything to make it stop. He is right in the middle of a tug-of-war. There’s no escape either way.
And no choice. The God-Eaters will tear him to pieces like ravenous piranhas; the Hotel swallows whole and alive.
He could have resorted to their first victim. He could have burned himself out with cursed candle flame so neither would get him. But this way is more fatal than any death. But this way is more reckless than any insanity.
He is screaming in his sleep. Trying to hide under a blanket like a little boy. When his throat gets hoarse, only a whisper remains.
"Please, no... I beg you, leave me alone..."
Useless. How naive it is to hope that they will spare him for the sake of mere words. Exhausted, he weeps quietly into a pillow while a shadow of the unforgotten past is reaching out to him.
"What’s wrong?" His wife's voice, no less frightened. She touches his shoulder with loving concern.
"It’s you..." Relieved, he slowly comes to his senses. "My god, again. Nightmares. Bloody nightmares."
The God-Eaters sit around a table, their feathery headdresses combined with evening tuxedos. The Manager sees to them personally, all red-and-gold splendour and charming smiles and white gloves. "Ah, this is one of my favourites," he says. "Would you prefer him well done or medium or raw?"
Laudanum is the only solution then. But how he hates to depend on this vile substance that provides such a brief respite for a heavy price of his will and health. And memory too — after all, he should have remembered that he was never married...
He wakes up. Alone in a cold bed.
Or does he? Or not alone?
Better to be left at the mercy of the unambiguous and understandable hunger of the God-Eaters than this ominous uncertainty which the Merry Gentleman wears like yet another elegant accessory.
"I am not afraid of you," the Writer says to the silent darkness. An obvious lie. His lips are trembling with every word.
"Of course you’re not," the answer comes from behind his back. "In your beautiful language this is called mortally terrified."
It takes the rest of his strength to simply turn his head. There will be no second chance to pretend, as always, that he heard nothing.
The man in a top hat waits patiently, leaning on a cane, with a smile that gleams as brilliantly as the signet ring with the Royal Bethlehem Hotel’s golden monogram on the finger that beckons him.
To surrender voluntarily or to endure this excruciating suspence every night? The Writer chooses the former. He gives in to the open embrace and closes his eyes.
"I can’t bear it," he sobs. "They are driving me insane. I tried to distract myself with work, but the more I write, the stronger they get. No one will appreciate you save for us, they say when publishers return rejected manuscripts. Take me. I don’t care anymore."
His heart flutters like a bird caught in a cage of ribs. No matter how all-consuming despair is, it doesn’t want to stop.
"Poor darling." The Manager’s glove wipes a tear from his pale cheek. "Over the past centuries they have become rather less picky, I see. There’s hardly any meat on you. Well, you won’t be starving under my care, I promise."
"Empty hopes. We will not leave you even there. It’s only simpler if we know where you are. It’s only better that he will fatten you up. Succulent, plump, delicious..."
"Futile dreams. No one dares to hurt my beloved ones. These walls see everything. He is mine. He is mine!"
Torn apart by ancient forces, the Fidgeting Writer whimpers helplessly.
"Shh, it’s alright." The winner holds his trophy tight. "They won’t get to you. You will be happy. What do you need for that, my precious diamond? What do you want? I’ll give you anything. And you will forget everything else."
"I know you’re merciful," the Writer mutters. "End me. But not like they would. Quickly and without suffering. While I’m sleeping..."
Shadows from the Garden of Nightmares are greedily licking their fangs too, scratching the other side of mirrors with sharp claws, glancing pleadingly at their master. The latter laughs quietly, as if at a friendly joke.
"The only time I’ve raised a knife at a beating heart is when I was saving it from death," the Manager whispers in his ear. "The only time I’ve willingly stained my hands with innocent blood is when I was granting eternal life."
"...Cut and flay and slice. Rip with bare teeth if blades get blunt. You will be ours, little treat. You will be ours all the same..."
"...And yet I am so much more cruel than them, sweet child. Because I won’t let you give up."