He passed through a few more landings. He felt as though his ascent would go on for eternity, but his surroundings were clearly changing.
A chaotic area with a violent gale blowing wildly. A huge sheep's skull and horns - each roughly the size of a baseball ground - joined together in huge numbers, and yet another absurdly-sized building up above.
Finally, Vincent arrived in an area that felt uneasy and sublime, eerie and majestic all at once. At first, he was flung down onto the bottom level of chaotically-stacked blocks. The area around him was encircled by round beams that reminded him of planetary rings, and may well have been about the same thickness as one. Columns perched on the beams, supporting more beams above. The columns were impressive, seeming to be several hundred times larger than those of ancient temples. Angel statues stood in between each pillar, extending their chubby arms and holding up the beams aloft. From each radiated a divine glow.
Outside of the beams was a world enshrouded in clouds. The clouds gleamed as though illuminated by the light of dawn, flickering again and again like a breathing creature.
"What a place..."
"It appears as though you were victorious over your companion," boomed the voice that seemed to shake the world. "But have you lost your nerve at this late stage?"
Sensing a presence, he looked over the edge of the block and peered down. His instincts had been right. Something was emerging from out of the flickering clouds. It was Mutton. Wearing his usual white tuxedo, he was seated on a luxurious single-seater sofa. The sofa itself moved towards him on a spiral-like trajectory.
Something wasn't right. The scale of him and the surrounding building didn't match up. It felt like he was looking at an unnatural composite photo. He wondered why, but the mystery was quickly solved. Inside the dream, he was a giant. He reminded him of a beast that appeared in an old monster movie. The fact that his appearance was otherwise the same as usual only made him look all the more eerie.
"Greetings. We meet again," Mutton said with a hearty laugh. "Truly, it is a surprise that you have made it this far. It seems as though you are quite the mountaineer. However..."
Mutton and the chair rose higher. He made laps around the levels of blocks, circling him as if observing an insect inside its prison. A movable support was attached to the bottom of the chair. It was like the crane chair used by movie directions or cameramen.
At the ends of the armrests were gigantic sheep heads. Likely unconsciously, Mutton stroked the tips of their noses.
"It seems as though the ones who came before went a trifle easy on you. For tonight's main course, I'll give you a little taste of me."
Vincent tutted. So this giant Mutton was going to get in his way, too? So far he had been attacked by a mechanical baby and his girlfriend turned into a monster, but Mutton topped them both in terms of his aura of intimidation and the absurdity of his being.
"More importantly," Vincent replied. He was trying to force down his fear by talking. "You remember your promise, right? You're gonna let me see her again!"
"I told you - there is nothing to worry about. Tonight, a dish of my finest Mutton will take your breath away for good!"
"'Finest Mutton'? Stop screwin' around."
"It truly is a shame, but don't go losing your head."
The chair carrying Mutton circled around to the underside of the layers of cubes, his movements like that of a bee buzzing around nectar.
At that moment, he saw something terrible lying on Mutton's lap: an old-fashioned revolver, and the kind of hammer that a judge might use. Mutton held one in each hand. His fingers held onto the grip gently, almost caressing it.
"There's no way he's just holding onto those." He was going to use them for sure.
"Let's get started!" he yelled, despite - or perhaps because of - the desperation he fell into.He didn't wait for a response.
In this area, the blocks were stacked in a comparatively orderly fashion. He hurried over to them, leaping up and grabbing onto the edge of the upper surface with his fingers. He pulled himself up as if doing a push-up, quickly hooking one leg and twisting himself around and putting the sole of his foot on the top of the block. He stretched out his leg and pulled his whole body up. He took a few steps as if falling forwards, then jumped again and grabbing onto the previous block.
Feeling Mutton's eyes on him, he continued like this for a while until his way was blocked by a cliff about three levels high. There was no need to panic. He pulled out a block from the first level and climbed on top of it, then pulled out another block from the second level. He temporarily climbed back down, this time sliding the first extracted cube to the side. This left him with a total of three levels of stairs, the first roughly the height of a person. He began to scale them in order. A dreadful laugh roared.
He turned around and saw Mutton holding the hammer aloft in his left hand. However, it was far away from the current level of cubes. The hammer wouldn't be able to reach him.
"What the hell are you doing?" Vincent said, and within an instant Mutton brought down the hammer on the chair's armrest.
The entire area shook. His legs were taken out from under him, and he tumbled forwards. He quickly grabbed on, hurting the bone in his wrist. Skin peeled from the palm of his hand. But he had been lucky that it hadn't been worse. If he had been hanging from a block, he would have fallen for sure and been gobbled up by the abyss.
And then he noticed it - several of the cubes were emitting a bizarre glow. It was the kind of glow that emanated from amidst flames when something metallic was being heated. It affected the cube right next to Vincent, too.
The glows converged. He prepared himself for an explosion, but it didn't come. The surface of the block was morphing. For some reason, a pattern in the shape of a human mouth was emerging on it. No - it wasn't a mere pattern. It was a real mouth, about a metre in width. The mouth twisted into a grin, licking its lips. It was moving all by itself!
He hurried off sideways, stumbling as if leaping into water, the cube with the mouth passing by his side. It immediately came to a stop, licking its lips again, and this time went grey all over.
"What the hell?"
He timidly approached it and touched its side. It didn't seem like it was going to be doing any more moving around. Steeling himself, he climbed on top of it. He used it as a step on his path upwards.
"I'm going to get out of here, no matter what."
Several other blocks had morphed, too. It must be the influence of the hammer. There were even blocks made of ice that would cause him to go skidding around the moment he set foot on them. Depending on their location, some of them would send him directly plummeting into the depths of the abyss.
Vincent focused on the cube in front of him, but also remained constantly aware of Mutton's actions. He had no idea what he would do and when.
The next moment, his fears were realised. Mutton readied his gun. At first glance it had looked like a slightly elongated revolver, but in reality it was even bigger than a tank's cannon.
"Here we go!" said a cheerful voice. "Head goes boom!"
Mutton squeezed the trigger. A bullet big enough for him to grab onto it was let loose. It spiralled towards him - or at least, that was how he pictured it. He couldn't actually see it, of course.
Move. Just move.
Vincent jumped blindly. A ferocious noise resounded behind him and cubes were blasted into powder. Fragments flew towards him, themselves having the momentum of bullets, hitting the face-down Vincent in the back of the head, back and backside. He was hurt all over again. There were holes in his boxers.
"Bang!" the voice repeated.
Vincent got up. He looked around him frantically, but there were no blocks he could make his way straight to.
First of all, he hung from his own cube. The block itself burst. This time, his defenceless chest, stomach and inner thighs were pelted with the shards from right up close. The larger side connected with his stomach. He doubled over amidst the pieces, falling and tumbling without being able to break his fall. His eyes widened due to the pain. He even wondered if his eyeballs were going to pop out.
Vincent held his stomach with both hands, standing and following the wall with his shoulder. He proceeded onwards on the verge of collapse.
"Bang! Bang! Bang!" Mutton said joyfully, firing shots one after another.
Blocks crumbled above and below, to the left and right of Vincent. Shooting away an entire cube was unfair, he thought. The footholds he'd worked so hard to create were gone, just like that. He would have to start climbing all over again from a different spot.
"How can you kill someone with a stupid line like that?" he spat through gasps, taking his hands away from his stomach.
He grabbed onto a block by both sides and pushed it forwards. It slid to the side. He persevered and continued climbing.
"You just won't die." Mutton's voice was tinged with irritation.
"So I'm doing a good job of dodging you?"
A faint hope welled up within him. Despite the fatigue and pain tormenting his whole body, he just about managed to maintain consciousness.
He felt a curious wind pressure. His hair and boxers fluttered, the flesh of his cheeks sinking. Mutton's huge body approached. He could easily distinguish the stitches in his white tuxedo. He could even discern the discharge accumulating around the eyes of the sheep on the armrests, as well as each and every one of their teeth and the bizarre creases in their tongues.
"What're you up to...?"
Mutton extended one leg. The sole of a leather shoe - or what looked like one - filled the whole of Vincent's vision. It was soft and smooth. The tanned leather gave off a dull lustre.
"My, my. You had better move."
Mutton energetically stretched out his knee. A wind in a different league from the one before overwhelmed him. The sole of the leather shoe followed after him, filling his entire range of vision.
Vincent was absorbed in scaling the blocks, running for as long as the level surface continued. His intuition prickling, he forced himself to come to a stop. His whole body was screaming, but he wheeled around and climbed back onto the previous block. The air trembled with an impact and roar more severe than that of the hammer or the revolver. He fell over, slamming his forehead straight on the ground. He had no chance of breaking his fall this time.
The tremors didn't subside quickly. Vincent looked up, holding onto his forehead. Behind him, a leather shoe the size of a bus or large truck stomped on the wall of cubes, crushing them. Mutton quickly drew his knee back. Remnants fell in chunks.
"What the hell? He's kicking it?"
This attack dealt damage across a wider range than a bullet. That meant that it would be harder to evade.
"Do I just have to run away!?"
He tried to come up with a counter-attack. Nothing came to mind. Even an axe like the one the red sheep had had probably wouldn't help him. Even if he managed to score a blow, to this Mutton it would be no more painful than being stabbed with a toothpick.
Preparing himself for the worst, he ran around in search of an escape but continued climbing, trying to put any possible distance between them. He dodged innumerable bullets, evaded kicks and reacted to the blocks as they continued to morph.
"How the hell high does this thing go?" he cursed. He could tell, however, that he had climbed a considerable way up.
"Ngh..." Mutton, too, was starting to get out of breath. "You truly are light on your feet for a philandering cheat."
"Fucking duh! I'm not screwing around, here!" he yelled, provoking him. "You said I'd die for sure, but am I not almost at the goal?"
"Whaaaaaaaaat are you talking about!?"
Mutton swung the hammer haphazardly. The roar rattled his eardrums. He wanted to cover his ears with his hands.
"I may have underestimated you a little!"
The blocks around him changed colour again. Vincent returned to a low position, looking up and surveying the piles of cubes. It seemed as though their nature was changed at random by the hammer. That meant that Mutton wasn't consciously choosing their types. He carefully looked over the changes in their effects.
He had been watching and waiting for this chance all along. One of the blocks now contained a unique, spring-like mechanism. He had climbed onto one of these, which hadn't previously existed, several times over the past few nights.
He approached it, pulling himself up and rolled sideways. Its surface sank under Vincent's weight. A second later it sprang back forcefully, Vincent's body being propelled into the air. Up and up he climbed against the wind. The wall of cubes flashed before his eyes, sinking downwards.
His limbs flapped noisily. He somehow managed to maintain a sense of stability and equilibrium - but not without effort. He surveyed the position of the wall. That was all that mattered.
His ascent reached its peak. His body began to fall and accelerate - this, at least, seemed to be the same as it was in the real world. But before he could begin to fall properly, Vincent reached out for the wall. His right hand connected with the edge of a cube, killing the momentum of his fall.
He quickly moved his left hand into the same position. He just about managed to dangle from the cube by both hands. His hands suddenly taking his full body weight, his elbows were stretched to their limits. He thought his fingers would be torn off.
He almost continued to fall, but moved his legs in a kicking motion and managed to grip onto the block with the tip of his toes, barely managing to locate a protuberance and grabbing onto it with his big toe. He had managed to stop his fall. Not only that, but the block that had acted as a trampoline had saved him three or four levels of climbing. He pulled himself up and continued on.
"I was just giving you confidence!" Mutton raged.
Serves you right.
He made past the landing. He wasn't scared any longer.
"Cursed lamb! How could this be? How could this be!?" Mutton seemed even more furious than Vincent had anticipated. "Very well. This is waaar!"
The clouds surrounding the support pillars, exterior and air began to blacken. Mutton's chair sank beneath them, and immediately a different entity rose from within.
Mutton's body vanished, his head alone bloating further and making sharp rotations as it ascended, the same size as his whole body had been before. His hair and skin were a dull, metallic colour. The left side of his face had collapsed as if festering, his skin and hair completely fused. The places where they connected hovered unnaturally like flames.
"Are those... sheep!?"
The part of the left side of Mutton's face that looked like it was festering was made up of a fusion of dull-coloured sheep. These were not ordinary sheep, but rather upright ones like those that Vincent had met in the nightmares. They all moved around of their own volition, desperately linking hands so as not to be thrown off. Even still several of them let go, unable to withstand Mutton's sudden movements, and plummeted with voiceless screams.
"By the name of Dumuzid, King of Sheep, husband of Ishtar, I swear it!"
Mutton's remaining right eye glared, glinting like a searchlight. Ishtar? Dumuzid? He had no idea what the words meant, but Mutton wasn't human. He would be more knowledgeable and sensical than a person. His dark grey mouth opened.
"I'll finish you off this time. Get reaaaaady!"
He made his declaration of war in a voice that reminded him of the rumbling of the earth, or perhaps the sound of a volcanic eruption. But the more emotional Mutton became, the calmer Vincent felt. Mutton's loquacity was proof that he was losing his composure.
He may have been the one who created this world, but it didn't seem to be so easy for him to simply change up its rules. That meant that he was unable to move the place that had been designated as the goal. Was that why Mutton was unable to keep his cool? Because Vincent was going to make it out alive?
"Just a little more. Just a little!"
Vincent began to run. He couldn't see any other sheep - aside from those who comprised the side of Mutton's face, of course.
The stacking of the cubes around him wasn't too complex. Even though Vincent was becoming accustomed to it, too, he proceeded more easily than he had in the past.
"Ahhhhhh, you're making me angryyyy!"
Mutton's gigantic face moved as if floating. Each time his right eyeball shone the blocks would change, just as they had whenever he brought down the hammer, but it didn't serve as a fatal obstacle.
Vincent continued on in silence. Over and over he pulled, then pushed. He jumped on blocks that resembled jumping apparatus. They were like damp cloths, but he bounced on them and grabbed onto cubes on higher levels, using blocks with tongues that poked out suddenly as footholds.
"Prepare yourself, underpants brat!"
Vibrations rattled through the air. He could see a stronger glow dwelling in Mutton's eye. His entire face was convulsing.
Mutton spat out yet another line without a hint of tension in his voice, a ray of light the same thickness as his eyeball stretching out from his eye socket. In accordance with Mutton's movements, the beam sliced through the piled up blocks. They were right below the cube that Vincent stood upon. All of the cubes that had been exposed to the light went red hot, unbelievably evaporating in a cloud of steam. The area around him was enveloped by an intense heat and foul odour.
"There's way too wide of a gap between the things you do and the things you say. You're too goddamn evil!"
Choking and with tears streaming from his eyes, he hung from a nearby block. Everything beneath him turned into nothingness. As he pulled himself up, he happened to notice that the scenery around the levels of blocks had changed, too. He was no longer in an area surrounded by angels, supporting columns and ring-shaped beams. Now, he could see the summit of a dome-shaped roof, decorated with ornaments. The roof was probably large enough to snugly fit an entire town, but that wasn't the issue right now.
The roof curved upwards. That meant that the space was a finite one. He was finally, truly approaching the terminus of a climb that previously seemed like it would go on forever.
He grabbed onto the next block, doing a mental fist pump.
Mutton let out a beam of light as though crazed, not aiming at anything in particular. Cubes evaporated one by one. The rising steam and stench were so intense that he couldn't keep his eyes open, but he knew which way he had to go.
The remaining route was formed into simple steps. It was about two rows high, but all he had to do to climb up without hindrance was to pull out the first row and use it as a base. It was like heading down the path to glory. The light that burned away the cubes was menacing enough, but not so much as the bullets or kicks from earlier.
"This victory belongs to me, Mr. Mutton!"
Lying on his stomach, he used his whole body to clamber up onto the cube. He was red all over with cuts and bruises. Most of his toenails were cracked and peeling off, but he could still walk.
"I... I can't believe it!" Mutton shrieked in astonishment, but Vincent didn't turn back.
The hand that reached out to climb onto the next block was met with nothingness. He looked up. His vision expanded. A chain hung down from above. From it end hung a larger ring than he had ever seen before. With trembling legs, like that of a newborn lamb, he stood on tiptoe and pulled on the ring.
He pulled it down as if embracing it, then collapsed to the ground. He felt like he heard several sounds of impact. He seemed to lose consciousness, just for a moment. Sitting up, he could see a stack of blocks whose surfaces were covered with a red carpet. Mostly subconsciously, he crawled his way up the steps. The red carpet carried straight on ahead. On either side were flames in iron baskets that reminded him of the Olympic flame.
This place was like the other landings he had made it to but, instead of the usual confessional, there were huge double doors. Symbols depicting a man and a woman were carved into them.
"Is it... over...?"
"I won't allow it..." Mutton's groan overlapped Vincent's mutter. "I won't allow it, you brat!"
Vincent flipped over from his position on all fours, sitting with his legs splayed. Mutton's head rose up from beyond the red carpet in the direction from which he had just come.
"Are you a moron!?" Vincent snapped in reply.
He had made it this far. He hadn't done anything underhanded. He had survived an unprecedented level of absurdity, held on desperately through it all, and come out victorious. There was nothing for him to be complaining about.
"Just admit that you lost, fair and square!"
The gigantic head swayed like a pendulum. It didn't seem as though he was able to reach the landing. It might take him time to return to his human form. Mutton's assembly of sheep hovered in mid-air.
"I w-won't let your conveniences get in the way of your race thriving!" he said through clenched teeth.
"Are you still goin' on about that!?"
Vincent slowly moved each of his joints one by one, standing up. Perhaps due to having sat down for a while, his fatigue had intensified. He didn't think he would be able to run any more. He hoped he didn't have to.
"Hey, Mutton. Nobody..." Vincent turned his back but spoke quietly, putting one foot in front of the other. "Nobody is born for any specific duty in life, right?"
He arrived in front of the doors. As he got closer, he could see that they were several times Vincent's height. He placed his hands against their surface and turned.
"Humans aren't just a flock of animals."
"I-insolent fool!" Mutton began to say in objection, but Vincent cut him off and continued.
"I may not be enough of a stand-up guy to be saying something like this, but I think it's our freedom as humans to be able to choose how we live our lives."
If the most important thing in life was the prosperity of the species, they were as good as wild beasts. To be forced to live that way would make them little more than cattle. Vincent looked Mutton straight in his single eye.
"Anyway, I'm the victor here!"
He pushed hard on the door. He was at the limits of his strength and didn't think he could push or pull anymore, but with a clunk the door practically opened by itself.
"I've had to play along with your dumb tricks night after night..."
Light spilled in through the crack in the door, widening and beginning to illuminate the landing.
Mutton turned his face away, as if twisting his body around. Vincent pushed the door further open.
"I'm gonna do what I want from now on!"
Light filled the entire area, engulfing Vincent and the fires in their baskets that were placed at intervals, then enveloping the enormous Mutton.
Fissures spread across Mutton's metallic face. The fissures began to expand like a spider's web. The sheep, running out of strength, released each other's hands and were swept away by the breeze, drifting through the air like fluff. The landing itself began to crumble from beneath Mutton. Everything lost its form.
Vincent turned his back on the dream world and stepped forwards.