“Hey dude?” I look up at the big guy, Arden, as I finish unbuckling the belt. This belt belonged to Jeb. Jeb’s dead now and I’m already tired of seeing Arden’s naked ass. I start sliding the pants off of the dead guy, but I still have to fight the urge to puke because I think Arden hit Jeb so hard that Jeb might have shit in his briefs. Either that or Jeb never bathed. I’d buy it either way.

“Yes, Dash?” The big guy responds as Jeb’s pants float over and smack his unassuming face. He has a weird way of speaking, can’t quite pin what it is though. It takes him a moment to take the pilfered pants into his hands. He looks at me with a blank expression: that’s his go-to. 

“Put those on, man. You’ll scare the locals otherwise.” I tilt my chin up in his general direction as I continue to toss clothes at him; first his pants, then his belt, then each of his work boots and last, his cape. Cape? Cape. I didn’t want my buddy here to get mistaken for an Enforcer so I left the shirt. The big guy is just standing there with a pile of clothes at his feet now.

“Those are yours.” I wave my hand at the pile of clothes. That seems to snap him out of his trance, then big guy makes this face like, “Oh, right,” and starts to get dressed. We lucked out. Jeb’s boots fit and his pants are a little big around the waist on Arden, but they are mostly a fit, kind of on the short side, and so we end up cutting them up and making some baggy shorts. I look him over once he’s done.

“Much better. We’ll get you some better clothes once I introduce you to my friends.” I talk fast as I finish looking him over. He’s still shirtless, sure, but at least now he’s got some cotton shorts, some boots, and a traveling cloak: low-key and probably enough to stay warm at night. That’ll work.

“You do want to meet my friends, right?” I look him in the eyes for a second. When he makes eye contact with me, he doesn’t break it easily and I gulp, remembering what he just did to Jeb’s jaw a few minutes earlier. He’s hard to read with that blank stare. I’m sure he’s not a bad guy, though.

“Yes. I would like that.” His response is simple and to the point, like usual. He flashes that big, unassuming smile towards me. How naive can you be? He doesn’t know who my friends are. For all he knows, I could be setting him up. Does he care? It doesn’t seem like it. Is he that strong? I mean, he did stop those clubs with a magic spell, didn’t he? I guess he figures he can handle whatever life throws at him. Then I notice him staring at me again when I don’t respond right away.

“Aren’t you even going to ask me who my friends are?” He’s still staring at me with that blank expression.

“Is that important?” He asks back. I don’t know what to say.

“… Yes? I mean, yeah! Aren’t you worried it could be a trap?” Now I’m the one who’s staring. Who the fuck is this guy? I turn away and shake my head for a second because I am in total disbelief.

“Hm.” He pauses and seems to really think that idea over before he speaks again.

“No, I do not think it is a trap. I would like to meet your friends.” That might actually be the longest I’ve heard him speak. I get a sense of the ‘flavor’ of his voice there; on one hand, it’s really deep, but it doesn’t come across as commanding or menacing because he’s really soft spoken. It’s almost like he’s worried he might come across as threatening. Hm. My new friend is a pretty interesting dude. Definitely not from around here: if he was, he’d lead into that.  

“Well… my friends are in this group called the Returners, right?” I start to explain and then I pause, taking a quick look around to make sure that we are still alone. Arden is staring at me again and nodding his head with that blank expression of his. I look up at the sky for a second; sunsets in the west, it’s sunset, that means we need to head… this way. Now I start putting one foot in front of the other. I look over my shoulder and see Arden following a few paces behind me.

“Why do you call yourselves the Returners?” Arden now asks. His expression isn’t blank anymore, either. No, he looks curious.

“We’re called the Returners because we want to return freedom to the people.” I try to say this as cool as I can and I even pause after I finish so that last word can sink in for a few seconds. There’s a lot riding on this pitch. This guy, Arden, would be a good guy to have around. Not only that, but we’re blood brothers: we fucked up those Enforcers, a crime punishable by death. That makes us outlaws. Well, if anyone saw us. Huh. If nobody saw it, did it even happen?

Wait, why did he stop walking?

“Are the people… prisoners?” Now Arden was giving me those scary vibes again. I stop and turn to see he’s got that same serious expression he had when he was asking Jeb about my cuffs. His hair is swaying but I don’t feel a breeze. Deep breath. Tell him, Dash.

“Yeah, more or less. This little jackass named King K, he tells you what to wear, what to think, what to feel. He tells you when to sleep, when to wake up, and what to do when you’re awake.” Now I’ve stopped too, turning to face the big guy. His brow is furrowed and he’s starting to breath faster. This is risky, but I press on anyways. I’ve got this. I’m Dash, the fucking wizard!

“Those guys you smashed? They’re his goons. Enforcers. If you don’t do what he wants, he sends those after you. If they don’t get you, they get the people you know.” I continue to explain the situation to Arden, even as I can see his eyes starting to cloud over with anger. His hair continues to sway and I definitely don’t feel a breeze.

“In a way, it’s like living in a prison.” I finish my explanation and pause for effect again. Now, the slow turn and I start to walk away. Wait for it. He’ll bite. Yup. I hear his footsteps behind me pick up again.

“I would like to meet this so-called king.” Whew. Okay. The newfound menace I detect in this man’s voice makes me shiver for a second. Play it cool.

“Don’t get hasty. He’s got an army of goons and he’s got lots of guns, too.” I look over my shoulder and now I am the one grinning. This guy, Arden – I don’t know what it is about him but being around him makes me feel at ease. On top of that, the thought of him punting that little freak, King K, like a football is also a pretty funny mental image. Now I look forward, at the open landscape in front of us; an ocean of sand split by cracked concrete.

“First, I’ll introduce you to the family.” I’m sure he’ll fit right in.

Written by ‘Jungle’ (NFN)
© 2021, all rights reserved.

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