The Paintings Burn A Crimson Red
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The crowbar smashes into the balloon-like head of what used to be the hotel bartender, scattering thick, purple sludge across the walls and roof of the abandoned bar. A figure in a white, hooded cloak, decorated with a set of metallic wings on the hood, lets out a sigh of relief after having been surprised by the now dead Strange. Circling the loudly breathing mouth on the floor, he walks over to the bar and vaults over it. A cloud of dust skitters away from the first boots they've seen in years and his cloak sends a lapel pin shaped like a pentagram clattering on the floor. He quickly pockets it.

"You don't mind if I borrow this, do you?" he asks the bartender while snatching a bottle of vodka from behind the bar. The corpse does not respond. He looks down at the bottle, the light of his eyes reflecting off the glass. 'Mirage, from the Spirit Co' reads the faded, green label. The man chuckles upon seeing his name.

"It's a match made in heaven," he says as he unscrews the bottle and chugs it down, only to be met with the all too familiar taste of iron.

"Fuck!" he spits, throwing the bottle on the floor. "Every time! Can a man not get a proper drink in the apocalypse?"

Stepping away from the pool of blood forming around shards of glass, Mirage goes and sits on the edge of a giant hole in the wall, setting his eyes on a familiar sight. Tall buildings with flickering neon signs, a purple sky, from which a giant, yellow eye stares down at the city, and a large sign in the distance that reads 'Welcome to LAS LOST VEGAS, Nevada'.

He leans forward and lets himself fall.

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As soon as he detaches from the ledge, Mirage is met with a barrage of winds, their invisible, puny fists punching him in the face as he plummets. He grasps at the corners of the cloak fluttering behind him, and spreads it taut into one large wing. The punches turn into gentle grazes, and falling turns into a peaceful glide.

With trained hands, he constantly adjusts the cloak ever so slightly to adapt to the winds, and to reign them in his command.

The sky is peaceful. Safe. High in the air, Mirage feels detached from the city that sprawls underneath. That jungle of crumbling concrete and ash. An unsatiated graveyard of civilization, its fires still burning after a millennium. When the threads that support reality began to fray, Vegas, already sprawling with the anomalous, was one of the first to fall. The tumultuous expanse of magic was devastating, causing the city to shift and change in all sorts of terrible ways. Humans who weren't changed either died or fled, and now only the Strange remain.

As strange as the city is, a passing glance from up high might betray your eyes. Many of the lights are still on. There's music coming for the casinos, and cars on the street, though they no longer move. Once you train your eyes and look closer though, the nature of the city reveals itself. The ruby lights of eternal demonic revelries catch Mirage's eyes, beaming out of windows as they cast silhouettes of lost souls trapped in a never-ending dance. Drifting above, he can spot the tentacles of the Shifting Sands of Mandalay Bay peeking out of sewers in search of new things to add to its growing mass of sand and bone. The bloody graffiti drawn by the lions as prayers to their dark, golden gods, and the neon ghosts zapping in and around Neonopolis, the jewel of Fremont Street. Like the white spot in the center of an abscess, the huge shopping mall sticks out of the surrounding ruins in all of its multicolored glory.

Allowing himself into an increasing descent, Mirage pivots to the right, riding the current as he encircles the complex in a tightening spiral, until eventually tucking his feet in and rolling safely on to the roof.

Descending into the building itself, Mirage makes his way through maintenance corridors like he has a thousand times before. It doesn't take long before the dark, tight space emerges out into a hall of massive proportions, illuminated by dozens of signs, billboards and a large, swirling mass of stars and nebulae in the ceiling. Things have fallen mostly into disrepair, but the lights are still on, advertisements are still up, and operational screens still portray the same old messages that they did since this all started: "The Government has declared a State of Emergency. Make way to your local shelters", "All life in New York has mysteriously disappeared. Will you be next?", and "All is fine. Trust in Us. You have no need to worry. Just come up and touch the screen and we'll tell you everything you need to know. You know you want to. Then you can just sit back and relax. Trust in us." Mirage does his best to avoid eye contact with the latter.

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Rest of the way has been permanently etched into his muscle memory. He goes past the axe throwing ground and ducks, a sharp gust of wind whipping his hood as a hatchet thrown by an angry poltergeist sails overhead. Then he quickly scampers past Heart Attack Grill. Trying to not be noticed by the rolling mass of fat and eyes and mouths serving an infinite wave of burgers to emaciated ghouls desperately trying to consume them, as muffled screams escape from a giant beating heart in the corner. Mirage is actively trying not to theorize where the meat in the patties comes from. Next is the Toy Shack, a vintage toy shop. A cymbal monkey sits in the display window, its round, unblinking marble eyes following him as he goes past. Now approaching his destination, he trains his ears, hiding every time he hears cycling accompanied by the hissing of a crocodile.

Lurking behind a corner, Mirage watches as a four-eyed lizard on a unicycle rolls past, long snout looking for prey. After making sure that the wheeled beast is within a safe distance, Mirage scampers towards a somewhat welcome sight. A pair of broken glass doors with a sign above them that reads "The Metropolitan Gallery of Las Vegas". Upon entry, Mirage lets out a long sigh of relief, which turns into a pronounced 'harumpf' of frustration near the end, as he sets his eyes on the same old, faded paintings for the who-knows-how-manyeth time. His rapid footsteps echo through the corridors, mixing with seething muttering.

"Physical paint, how arbitrary and boring… these are not even 3D. Where's the pizzazz? Where's the danger? Nowhere I can see, but here they are. In a gallery for all the world to see, and the world accepts it like a herd of sheep. Nobody appreciates real art anymore…" he says, unknowingly fondling the cracked crystal hanging off his belt.

Tucked in the most remote corner of the gallery is a sleeping bag, a small table, an assortment of water bottles and canned foods, and a cracked mirror. The reflection of his light bouncing off the silvery surface, Mirage catches a glimpse of his hooded face. The glowing eyes that constantly bleed a black ichor, the stretched mouth, the hooked nose. With a sharp inhale, he turns away. With forced intent, he refocuses on unloading the contents of his satchel, which are mostly comprised of even more food cans to add to his collection.

"Fuck," Mirage curses as he notices to have accidentally grabbed a can of tuna. "Not falling for that anymore. Almost drowned the last time". He rolls the can down a corridor, before collapsing on top of the sleeping bag. He closes his eyes, hoping for the elusive creature known as sleep to catch him. Waiting, he idly watches as the green and red shapes swirl within the darkness, pulsating and flowing, following the movements of his eyes. A while passes and the shapes begin to congregate and merge into new shapes and colors, like the pieces of a puzzle slowly coming together, until eventually, their form becomes recognizable. Soon the backs of his eyelids are plastered entirely with images of the paintings that taint the walls of the Metropolitan. The same old fucking paintings that he has had to look at for years, day after day. Those goddamn paintings that stupid idiots enjoy more than his art!

Screaming, Mirage shoots up, grabbing his crowbar. With determined, large steps, he marches to up to the aisles. Tossing the weapon in his hands, he walks slowly down the corridor, staring at both walls from under his brow, like sizing up an opponent. Then, he stops, and with a swift blow to the side, decimates the frame of a painting. It flops front down onto the floor with a defeated thump. The rest of the paintings on the wall rattle from the impact, as if shivering in fear.

The relative peace the paintings have enjoyed for a millennium, quietly hanging and fading away, is broken as the fury of a pissed off artist turns into a whirlwind of metal and rage. Paintings, carefully crafted for weeks are shredded into slices and wooden frames brake into a hail of splinters and fragments. They stick in Mirages hands and face like pins and needles, but he is too distracted, too enveloped in his own screams to notice.

"Take that, Sean Scully! That's what you get for hogging the spotlight!"

Grabbing a storage container, Mirage hurls it across the room, paper and art supplies flying out as it does. A temporal anomaly causes some items to slow down, flying through the air at a cumbersome pace, while others stop entirely. Snatching a bottle of spray paint, Mirage rolls the striker of his lighter.

"It's all just physical!
Nothing but colors!
There is no effect,
no risk,
no reward.
Just a bunch of pretty pictures!"

He screams as a gout of flame bursts out of the can like the breath of a dragon. The fire catches on the remaining paintings and the debris in the air, turning the inside of the gallery into a roaring firestorm.

Pushing through smoke and flame, his white cloak coated in soot, Mirage grabs his crowbar again, as he sets his sights on a marble statue standing valiantly against the destruction. With large, powerful swings, he brings the quickly heating metal down again and again again, as more and more pieces of rebar crumble and collapse.

"You would think that when the Veil broke, us anartists would finally get the chance to shine but nOoOo!" he screams through the smoke starting to fill up the room and flood into his lungs.

"It was still just Picasso that, Monet this.
Well, Picasso!
Can!
Go!
Fuck!
HIMSELF!" he shouts, each word accompanied with a furious whack.

"And why on Earth is there a gift shop? Is that what art is to you people? A business? Just an advertisement for merchandise? Do you think you're cool yet? Do you think you're so fucking cool you little piss babies?" he asks, but only echoes answer. He lifts his crowbar high for a final blow.

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"I am the coolest around here!" The crowbar comes crashing down on the head of the sculpture, exploding it like a melon. Pieces of stone fly outwards in every direction, a particularly sharp piece slicing into Mirage's cheek, a line of crimson trailing behind it. He leans back and lifts his foot up high. Everything slows down. Mirage sees the fire and the smoke dancing amidst one another, mixing and forming into shapes and scenes. The smoldering remains of canvases float in the air, like fireflies in the night. His foot, on a slow but unavoidable collision course, pierces through the ever-shifting visual cacophony of light and dark, as it presses against the statue with a force that nearly sends Mirage sprawling. The leverage force separates the statue from its pedestal, and it falls backwards. Displacing embers that escape around its sides it crashes down, like a meteor burning in the atmosphere. Finally, after being stuck in a descent for a short eternity, it hits the floor. It breaks into thousands of little pieces that slide across the surface, and disappears into the smoke.

Regaining some of his sensibility, or what was left of it in the first place, Mirage finally realizes that everything is not fine, that he is in danger, as his head begins to spin. Smoke and embers burning his eyes, he scampers to what he thinks is the direction of the exit. Through either muscle memory or sheer luck, or perhaps the decision of some entity with a sense of humor, Mirage forces his way through the heat, until his intake of breath no longer consists of fire and carbon monoxide. The air ripples, as he jumps out of the glass door and breaks through the time dilation. After getting within a relatively safe distance, his legs decide that they have done their work for the day, and refuse to move, while his upper body still attempts to push forwards, causing him to fall on his face, coughing his lungs out.

"We never were cool, were we?" he whispers from between cracked lips as some of the smoke clears from his brain. He drags himself across the floor to a wall, where he sits for a while, simply staring at the smoke pouring out of the gallery. Out of his home. The closest thing to it anyway. Too tired to think, too tired to speak. Time passes and the flames begin to die down, as he shakes his brain fog away.

"You know what? Fuck that. I am so damn cool. I am the coolest motherfucker alive!" He stands up, and begins to flail wildly as he points his crowbar at people who aren't there.

"And I am going to show all of you just how cool I am! I will show you how pathetic you all are by learning how to paint and painting the greatest painting anyone has ever seen! Then you'll see, then you'll all see!" He grabs his crystal and storms out of the gallery, as his maniacal laugh fills the halls of Neonopolis.

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The wasteland of Lost Vegas spreads around Mirage, as he walks through the smoldering streets. Rusted cars lie on top of cracked concrete, and dark shapes move in the windows off the tall buildings that sway in the wind. Crawling on the sidewalk, a man is constantly shifting between solid, liquid and gas, screaming incomprehensibly.

"Tsk tsk. Poor chap, been drinking too much dead Elvis piss," Mirage says as he walks past, eyes set on the huge green building ahead, shining in the night like an emerald amidst a dark sea. The MGM Grand Hotel.

Upon reaching the courtyard, it does not take Mirage long to realize that he is not alone, as the shadows begin to growl.

"Come out, come out wherever you are!" he shouts, and as if on cue, a creature leaps from a ledge, landing in front of him. Its shape is like that of the lions of old, but it has no fur. Instead, it is covered by a thick grey hide. Its face has no eyes, but the whipping tentacles that make up its mane have plenty.

He hears another emerge behind him, and then another, and then another, and more, until he is completely surrounded by a growling and salivating crowd of Strange beasts. He spreads his hands as he turns to greet them all.

"What an absolutely stunning audience just for me. Can I say that you all look just magnificent today?" Compliments do not slow their approach, so Mirage opts for the opposite. "Shame you're all such arrogant little pricks who can't stop whining about their god though." If a lion could gasp, then a crowd of them would have just done that. There we go, Mirage thinks as the beasts halt.

"GOD IS GOOD. GOD TELLS US TO EAT YOU FOR YOUR BLASPHEMY!" one of them screams into his mind.

"He better come out and do it himself, then. I'm seeking an audience with the Golden."

"IF YOU WANT TO SEE GOD, YOU MUST CONVINCE YOU NOT FOOD," says another.

"Do I look like food to you? Do you see this?" Mirage asks, pointing at the continuous stream of liquid tar from his eyes. "Does this look appetizing to you?"

"YES," comes the unanimous answer. "ALREADY MARINATED. LESS PREP WORK."

"…What?"

"NOT HEARING REASONS WHY YOU NOT FOOD." The circle of mouths tightens as the lions continue their advance. It is just now that Mirage realizes how many there actually are, as he notices the thousands of points of light, glittering in the surrounding dark. He feels something cold and coarse touch his hand. The crystal. Unknowingly, he has placed his hand on it.

I could use it, but it's been a while. Do I even know how to anymore?

A few of the nearest lions lower their front, preparing to pounce.

No time to think.

"Oh, for crying out loud. Fine. Would you fine gentlelions like to see a trick?" Mirage asks as he grabs the crystal off his belt, and jumps on the head of the nearest lion, using the momentum of his other leg to swing himself even further and higher, as he grabs on to a flickering light post.

Mirage lifts the stone in the air, and it stays put, though a little wobbly, as he lets go. Lifting his hand and focusing, his neurons alight. Becoming one with the crystal lattice, his mind shifts and molds to fit every curve, every edge and structure within the stone. He feels a fire he has not felt in a long time, as light enters the crystal. The movement of photons is mimicked in his head as they bounce around, like fireflies in a lantern. Like many times before, he attempts to align them, reigning them in his control, but they struggle against him. Damage and lack of practice has made them insolent.

Fuck it, let's just go with something simple then, he thinks as he arranges the photons in a single, thin line. A thin, red beam shoots out of the stone, landing in a red dot a dozen feet away.

"Look! What's over there?" Mirage shouts, pointing towards the dot. Turning their heads, the herd immediately bolts in the direction of the dot, nearly stumbling over each other. Mirage makes sure to keep it constantly moving, laughing as the dumb beasts chase after it. His laugh is short however, as a presence makes him choke on his own breath. Like a wave, it washes over him, causing the hairs and feathers on his back to rise and ruffle. He looses his grip on the post and falls.

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Mirage turns, as the center of the MGM Hotel begins to shift and change. In a cascade, each floor slides to the side, as a giant face emerges in the opening. It is that of a gigantic lion made of pure, glistening gold. Immaculate and polished, its skin is like a mirror and its eyes burn with an intense, emerald flame. As the last floor slides out of its way, it steps out. A paw the size of a van lands on the courtyard with an elegant graze, nevertheless sending ripples through the ground. The air around the lion distorts and flows in unnatural ways, pulling on its surroundings like a black hole, drawing rocks and cars and trash into an orbit around the creature. Mirage feels a force tuck at his very soul, as it looks at him. With nothing but a glance, it negates his enchantment, causing the crystal to drop on the ground. The lions, upon losing the dot, notice their god and lay prone on the ground. The god opens its mouth and a deep, rumbling voice booms out, resonating with power.

"Bro. Not cool," it says. "Why you gotta put my acolytes panties in a twist like that, man?"

"I don't feel like getting eaten today." The god shrugs.

"Eh, fair. At least it wasn't a cucumber. So, what do you want my dude?"

"I want to be able to paint. You're a god, so I figured you could help," Mirage shouts up, hoping to not get smitten down.

"Yoo you want to paint, bro? That's siiick. Totally radical. Love a good painting. I used to originally be a piece of art myself and all. Still am, if you catch my drift." It lets out a series of short rumbles that Mirage assumes to be an attempt at a chuckle.

"Anyway, that's not really my expertise. Think I can paint with these mitts? Nah, bro. Nah. Sorry. But you can like, totally learn how to paint at the Wanderer's Library. You just gotta find the nearest Way and give a little knock, right?"

"The Wanderer's Library?" Mirage asks. "That still exists?"

"Sure, bro. Can't feel the Serpent no more, but his crib should still be around."

"Huh."

"Yeah man. There you'll find all the information in the damn world, including how you's can learn how to paint, my dude."

"But how do I get there? All the Ways I'm aware of are dead. That's why I assumed the Library was too."

"Oh yeah, the whole apocalypse thing did a number on the Ways. A lot of them collapsed or changed places, but there's some that remain. The closest Way to the Library that your homeboy here is aware of is the one in the middle of the city of Adelanto."

"What's the Knock?"

"I don't know, man. You're gonna have to figure that one out yourself." The Lions stretches its giant shoulders in an approximation of a shrug.

"Well, as much as I enjoy chit chatting with an over-sized cat, it sounds like I should get going. It's a long way to Adelanto," Mirage says and turns to walk away.

"Good luck, my dude."

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