I can see the sun peeking over the eastern horizon. I can smell soil and grass just a few inches below my nose. Marty lies at my side covered in olive drab from head to toe. We raise our heads high enough only to see what’s ahead: barren, empty flatlands surrounding a mossy green cityscape. The Ivy City.
“Farmlands?” I ask.
“Likely. No crops though.” Marty replies and shifts his weight to one side.
“Abandoned?” I return.
“I don’t think so. Look.” Marty nods. I look in the same direction and spot something out in the distance. Barely visible. The benefits of experience are one reason I picked Marty as my bodyguard for this mission.
“Is it a person?” I study the shape. It could be.
“They haven’t moved.” Marty’s response is quick.
“A scarecrow?” Marty responds to my question by reaching into his kit bag and retrieving a set of binoculars. He raises them up to his eyes and scans for the scarecrow, centers, then makes some minor adjustments. I see him freeze up.
“Take a close look, Cliff.” Marty pauses before responding and then he hands me his binoculars. I prop myself up on my elbows a bit higher and raise the binos up to my face. I start scanning. I stop on the silhouette. I zoom in further and then my jaw goes slack. It’s no scarecrow. No, it’s a cruel warning: a human corpse, well past rotting and decayed, impaled from one end to the other on a large wooden stake jutting up from the earth. Not just one, either.
“They aren’t scarecrows. They’re markers. Territory markers.” Marty’s voice is low and ominous at first, but then it gets quieted by my own thinking. What about Robb? Robb is why we came out here in the first place. I zoom out and start scanning from left to right with the binoculars. The binoculars come to focus on another cadaver. I scan the corpse for any clues, any hints that might indicate that this one had once been my brother, Robb.
“That’s their way of saying… this is… ” Marty’s talking to me again, but I can barely hear him over the sound of my own thoughts. I’m still scanning the fields, checking each corpse. Is this one Robb? No. What about this one? Wait a second.
Marty stops talking. I can feel his hand on my shoulder for a second, then I feel nothing. Big, heavy breaths now. The sound of my heartbeat fills my ears. Tears well up in my eyes but I can still see through the binoculars. Is that him? He’s not facing me. Those are his clothes. Is that him? I can’t tell. I have to get closer. As I start to stand, I let my hand fall to my side, then I drop the binoculars in the grass. Marty hisses at me like a snake. It doesn’t matter. I have to see. Is that him? Is that my brother?
I stumble out into the field and start to run. My legs start to pump. The figure looms larger. Then it hits me, like someone light a fire inside my chest. Something ripped through me. White hot pain. I can’t feel my legs now. What was it? I look down at my chest: blood, bright red, spurting out from a fresh wound. A flash of recognition: I’ve been shot. I’ve been shot! Am I starting to fall? Yes, I’m falling backwards now. I hit the ground hard but there is no more air for the earth to slap out of my lungs. My chest is warm. That’s all I can feel now. Laying on my back, I watch a hungry blue sky devour the world until there is nothing left. I have to get up, I have to know. I have to…
We should have approached when it was dark. That’s what I kept telling myself. We should have approached when it was dark. I should have left Cliff at home. I should have known what we’d find and that he wouldn’t be able to handle it. Mistakes were made. I’m still alive though. I want that rifle, too, and I’d be happy to cut that asshole’s throat in his sleep if that’s all it takes to get at it. He deserves it, anyways.
Patience is a virtue though. I look over to my side and make sure that my back-up, Kris, is managing to keep up with me in the dark. He’s one of the older survivors, like me, but he’s a little sloppy and kind of careless. He’s hard, though. Not like Cliff. Cliff and Robb were still green and the world has got no patience for that. Kris, on the other hand, was someone you could bring with you if you needed to cut somebody’s throat. I wince as he absent-mindedly kicks a large rock and it makes a loud thud.
“Low and slow.” I growl at him under my breath.
“This place is fucking creepy.” He hisses back at me in an angry whisper.
“You’re better off being scared than you are being dead.” I remind him with a sneer; those were Quade’s words coming out of my mouth. Kris snorts and we continued to work our way across the field, hunkered down low to the ground. The night sky is full of clouds and so there is hardly any moonlight to cast shadows around us. I think I can make out the shape of some of the scarecrows.
“I don’t remember that many…” I mumble to myself. There were more of them. More scarecrows. I try to focus so that I can concentrate on the task at hand. My mind wanders anyways. Is Cliff out here, watching me with pecked out eyes? Did he find his brother in death? I shake my head and snap myself out of the spiral. This is bad. Whoever this is – he likes to play games and he’s not alone.
“What’s wrong?” Kris must have noticed me tense up. He pauses for a second and I end up in the lead.
“There’s more bodies out here. It’s only been a few weeks.” I whisper back. Kris responds the way I want him to, by shutting his mouth and starting to get serious.
We continue to creep through the abandoned farmlands and before long, we are less than a stone’s throw from one of the totems. That’s when I start to notice it. The smell. The stench of death fills my nostrils, all lukewarm and noxious. I grimace and can’t help but be reminded of that time our generator malfunctioned and all the meat in our cooler spoiled. I shove that memory aside and we continue to creep towards the scarecrow. Something doesn’t add up. We’re not down wind. It’s only one cadaver. Why does it smell so bad?
“Damn! Do you smell that?” Kris raises his voice in disgust and it startles me, a bit, I turn to look back at him over my shoulder as I continue to creep forwards, across the field. I notice he’s fallen a few more steps behind me now. Maybe I was wrong and Kris is a coward.
“Smells like shi-IT!“ My voice spikes into a yelp as I place my foot down on something that is not solid earth. I feel myself falling forward and I hear the scraping of dirt and soil around me. Then it dawns on me: a trap. That’s when an army of wooden spikes and concrete rebar rush up to meet my flesh. At first: pain. Blisteringly hot pain. Pain-like-never-before pain. Overwhelming pain. I never hit the ground. I can’t breathe. I try not to move anything but my eyeballs and I look down to see that I’m impaled. I’m choking now, choking on the smell of shit. Unmistakable. I try to breathe in – sharp pain. My lungs won’t fill with air. I use my remaining breath to try and scream but it just dies in my chest. I try to flail but I can’t feel my arms or legs. My eyes continue to dart around: everything is dark now. Dark and quiet. I can feel my own blood starting to soak through my clothes. I can’t breathe. I try to twist and flail, but I just sink deeper onto the spikes. I’m getting numb. I can’t die here. Not here. Anywhere else but here, in this fucking ditch full of shit, please, I’m begging you, anywhere else but-
“Fuckin’ Marty, man!” I cry out a bit as I stub my toe on a big rock in the forest. Fuck! Why did I ever agree to go with Marty that night? I wish I had told him to go fuck himself instead!
“Watch it, Kris.” Logan grunts back at me. He’s still bent out of shape over Marty, I think. Bastard. Don’t blame me for Marty. I wasn’t going into that fucking pit to save him. He was dead. Period. Even if I got him out of that pit – it was filled with shit. Literally – it was filled with shit. There’s no way he would have fucking survived the infection so I put him out of his misery. I had to!
“Fuck off, man, bastard could have got me killed with his dumb ass idea.” I growl back at him.
“Yeah, well, Marty’s dead now.” Now Logan’s the one growling. I feel a little bit of the fear prickle up on the back of my neck.
“There was nothing I could have done for him. I told you. Drop it already.” I whisper back, trying to defuse Logan. I didn’t want to fight Logan tonight. Not here, in this creepy forest. Not now, in the dead of night. Logan doesn’t respond and so we continue to make our way through the forest without any further discussion. I glance off to the right and through the patchwork of trees I can see barely make out the field a ways off.
Quade was a clever guy. I mean, he must be, or else why would we all gather around and start following him? When I told the boss what happened, he showed me this spot here on an old map – big patch of green. I forgot what he called it – one of those long words he likes to use, anyway, Quade told us to try and approach through this forest at night instead of crossing the fields and so here we are, tripping our way through the forest in the dark. A branch cracks off a ways.
“You hear that?” It’s Logan again. He stopped moving, so I stop too. Then Vito stops.
“Probably nothing.” I whisper back.
“It didn’t sound like nothing.” Logan growls.
“Shh, listen guys.” Now it’s Vito’s turn to enter the conversation after remaining silent the entire trip. Vito puts his hand to his ear for a second.
“Damn, for a second I thought you forgot how to speak, Vito.” I quip. He shushes me and I can imagine him scowling at me in the dark.
“I’m not talking because I’m trying to listen, Kris.” First Logan, now Vito. Both of them are pissed off and growling at me in the dark now. Great. As I go to take another step forward, I miss the earth I expected to feel under my foot and freeze in sheer panic as my mind flashes to Marty’s final moments. Squish. My foot finds a mostly solid earth a moment after I expect it to, but it’s squishy. And it stinks.
“Shit again?” I ask with a sigh and pick my foot up. My glowstick casts a weak, faint red light over what looks to be a pretty fresh pile of shit. Damnit.
“Yeah, that’s a pile of shit. That means there are animals here, Kris. Now shut up.” Logan asserts his dominance as the point man now. Lead the way, prick. He starts walking forward again and so we follow a few paces behind. I wonder what kind of animals live in these woods? Judging by the size of that pile, it wasn’t a small animal. No, not a small animal. I gulp. Another branch cracks in the distance. This one sounded closer. I don’t realize it right away, but Vito froze when that branch cracked. Logan and I continue without him for a few paces. Logan notices first.
“What’s the problem, Vito?” Logan looks back and asks in a whisper.
“We’re being stalked.” Vito’s response sends shivers down my spine.
Now all three of us have stopped. Logan and I start to look around. I can hear my heart beating faster now. Vito was right; I spot a pair of yellow, feral eyes glinting in the darkness for a moment. The rustling of dead leaves and branches accompany little footfalls that seem to echo through the forest. We’re already surrounded.
“Just some fucking mutts…” I grunt. I hear Logan thumb the safety off of his rifle so I shoulder my shotgun now, scanning the darkness for another pair of eyes. The flashlight on Logan’s rifle starts cutting through the darkness around us. Before I can find a pair yellow eyes to blast with my shotgun, something sings through the air and harpoons my calf. I can feel my calf muscle start to curl in on itself and my knee buckles as I drop to the ground.
“AHHH MY FUCKING LEG! MY FUCKING LEG!” After a second or so, the realization hits me like a stone wall. I can’t help it. I scream. I scream to let out the pressure, to bleed away the pain, to get the adrenaline pumping. I struggle to stand but I can’t find any strength in my leg at all. Looking down, I can see why: a huge arrow has pierced my calf and pinned it to the ground. I lower my gun for a second so I can try to pull on the arrow and free myself.
That’s when a massive missile of fur, bone, muscle, and sinew tackles me to the ground. I can feel my neck in its jaws. Time seems to slow down as the jaws clamp down on my neck like a vice and the teeth rip through the tender meat there. The adrenaline is not enough to dull the sawing pain of its fangs ripping through my skin. I scream as loud as I can. As the dire wolf shakes the life out of me, my eyes barely register the other sets of teeth digging into me, the shadowy figures clumping up around me, or the terrible smacking sounds of Logan being eaten alive right beside me.
Then I hear my neck snap. What a fucking sound.. !
For the second time I find myself in this fucking forest. Yes, this forest right next to a fucking haunted sniper city. Yes, this forest where I saw Kris and Logan get eaten alive by a pack of fucking wolves. The forest of fucking death. You know, you hear about that sort of thing happening these days: someone wanders away from camp, they never turn up, maybe in a few days you find some of their clothes strewn about and you just figure eh, that’s nature. Seeing it with your own eyes is a different story though. I saw Kris and Logan get torn apart by huge timber wolves. I know I did.
I didn’t want to come back here. Quade insisted on it though. I knew what that meant. So, sure enough, here I am, sitting in the back seat of this pick-up truck as it rolls through the forest. Except it’s not really a pick-up truck anymore. It’s more of a tank or uh, what did Quade call it? Some fucking big word he probably made up. Anyway – we welded a bunch of thick iron plates to the truck to make it bulletproof. Yeah, it makes it harder to see out the front and drive around, but it’s better than getting shot dead. Should keep the critters away too.
More thoughts run through my head as we work our way through the forest, towards the Ivy City. Why am I still alive? That one stumps me. Other questions too – like why didn’t Kris just fucking shoot the bastards? I knew I shouldn’t have let him carry the shotgun. Fucking idiot froze and got himself and Logan killed. What a chickenshit. Oh well. At least I lived through some miracle. Pretty soon my pondering is interrupted as we approach the edge of the forest.
“Stay frosty. They got rifles. Real rifles. Traps, too. Try to stay on the concrete whenever you can.” I issue a warning to my crew. Quade sent me out with three real ones this time, all handpicked. Not only that, but he sent me out with one of his trucks, too. I could tell he really wanted some intel. He must have fancied that sniper rifle. I bet he wanted the guns that Logan, Kris, and Marty lost, too. Quade was always big on any ‘old world’ toys. There were probably more in this city. Might be a ticket to get into his good graces…
Soon we break the tree line and our truck lurches out into the open as it fails to find traction for a second. Four- wheel drive saves the day and we kick forward, churning through the dead grass and onto the cracked concrete. Massive, multi-story buildings loom up in front of us, all of them draped with different shades of green: dark green moss, pale green ivy, bright green vines. All of the buildings around us were made out of bricks and concrete, and everywhere there were bricks and concrete, there were green things growing over them.
“This place is crazy…” Mark is the next person to break the silence. I look over at him; he’s sitting in back with me, peering out the little peepholes in our makeshift armor, taking it all in. I look around the inside of the cab. Everyone else was on the same page as Mark.
“Guys! Look! Guys that’s a fucking tiger!” Suddenly the jeep swerves as Jomm swings the wheel to keep the feline in view. I don’t get to see it – the armor obstructs the view. A tiger? What the fuck is a tiger, anyways?
“What the fuck, Jomm, are you drunk or something?” I chide our driver, Jomm, for a second.
“I wish!” He shrugs and replies with a smile. I shake my head. The truck rounds a corner and we roll forward down one of the main roads that traversed the length of the city. That’s when we see it.
“Whoa!” Mark yelps and points straight ahead. I had to shake my head for a second. Didn’t we just leave the forest? Sure enough, it looked like a whole section of the city, seemingly centered around a massive, six story stone building, was now some kind of hybrid, a fusion of nature and old world architecture. Everywhere huge trees jut up from the breaks in the road, even through the buildings and out of the windows. The center building was even more unbelievable: the trees continued to grow up from the roof. It was a forest, surely, but instead of growing out like most forests did, it grew upwards, somehow aided by this massive stone structure.
“What the hell is that?” I think out loud.
“It’s like a forest growing out of a castle.” I lean forward so I can hear Phil, who is riding shotgun; his voice is hardly louder than a whisper. He’s awestruck by what he sees. We all are. We’ve never seen anything like this forgotten city. That said, we’re the only people besides Quade to ever set foot inside the limits and tell anyone about it.
“I thought it was a flying forest at first.” Jomm confesses. I make a mental note never to let Jomm drive me anywhere ever again.
“It’s not natural. Not natural at all.” Phil continues in his awestruck whisper. He has a point, too. It’s not natural… but was it made by humans? I notice the truck start to pick up speed now.
“I want to take a look. What if there is food growing inside?” Jomm says, leaning over the steering wheel and peering through the slats in the armor. Greedy fuck. Before I can get a word in, Mark speaks up.
“Maybe it’s a grow house.” He speculates. I look at Mark for a second and I end up considering his theory. Maybe it is a grow house? It wouldn’t hurt to drive closer. Quade wants intel, after all. A large sign catches my eye as we approach it: garage. Jackpot. Garages are full of old cars, most likely in disrepair. I took a mental note here; even if they were scrap, they might have parts we could use to fix other, working vehicle.
“Slow down!” I order Jomm and he obeys. We resume our leisurely crawl as we approach the garage. I lean over Mark and peer through the window, trying to look inside and get a sense of how many cars were in there.
“I said slow do-“ I start to bark another command and then the glass windshield and windows all explode around us as a massive shockwave bores into my gut before dissipating into the seat behind me. Time crawls by for a second. Two seconds. I manage to look up – a huge chunk of concrete as wide as the truck has collapsed the hood of the truck. Steam billows up from the hissing front-end of the truck. Jomm is slumped against the bloodied driver’s wheel while Phil screams and claws at his eyes and face.
A second chunk of concrete caves the front half of the roof in. Phil’s screams are silenced as both he and Jomm are completely crushed under the massive weight of the concrete. Instincts take over now. I rip the handle and hurl myself against door, bursting out of the car. As I find my feet and start to stand and run, a third concrete block crashes down where Mark and I were just sitting. No need to look back; the truck is wrecked. I start to wheel as I pick up speed, quickly accelerating to full sprint, orienting myself back towards the way we came from. As I look up, I see Mark is up ahead of me by more than a few paces. Shit! I struggle to keep up with him as we sprint down the street, away from the wreck. As I look down at the concrete to catch myself from tripping on any cracks or obstructions, I start to see them: shadows passing from one side of the road to the other. I look up and a massive shape blots out the sun behind it as it passes directly overhead.
“GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME!” I turn and scream, trying to raise my rifle in time. Too slow; I feel a sudden, sharp pain in my chest, just below my sternum carried by a weighty impact that sends me flailing into the air. I gasp as the back of my head slaps the concrete and I see stars dancing in front of my eyes. I look up at the sky from my back and then I notice it: the massive wooden shaft of the spear that just fucking impaled me. I wretch and spit out some blood onto my chin and neck. Footsteps, now. I can’t breathe. I keep trying to, but my lungs won’t do anything. That’s when it appears: the monster. I continue to gasp and suffocate.
“Do you know why we keep one alive?” It speaks. It’s speaking to me. I try to focus my eyes even as I feel myself fading away. The beast stands impossibly tall over me. Is it human? It looks more like a wolf than a human. My eyes start to close before I can get a good look, but what the hell do I have to lose? I force them back open and try to look it into the eye instead. Two eyes stare back at me. One is bright yellow. One is dark blue. I’m staring at a human face. My jaw goes slack. It’s not a monster. It’s a woman.
“To tell our story.” These are the last words I hear before her heel comes crashing down on my skull.
“And how did you survive, Mark?”
I look up from my lap and across the table. Quade is sitting across from me and as soon as I make eye contact with him, I regret it. His eyes are dark charcoal, almost obsidian, and his pale white skin makes them even more apparent. I look down at my lap again.
“I ran. I ran as fast as I fucking could. That thing wasn’t a human or an animal.” I responded, choosing my words carefully. Silence fills the room for a moment, but it’s broken when some of the officers sitting behind me begin to chuckle and jest in amusement.
“Then what was it?” Quade says as he gestures for silence from the officers. The sound of wood scraping on wood creeks through the room as he pushes his chair back and stands up. I swallow hard.
“A monster.” I manage to croak. Silence, again. I allow myself a little bit of optimism: it seems like Quade is taking my story seriously. Who gives a damn what the others think, it’s Quade that runs the show; as long as Quade believes me, I’ll be alright. I’ll be alright.
“I see… a monster.” Quade picks up something off of a nearby shelf and begins to examine it. It looks like a small box, maybe a shoebox? I can’t really tell. I can’t see what’s inside it, either. As he stands there and peers into the little box, wearing his olive-green fatigues, the room stays silent.
“All of you are dismissed except for Mark. Mark, you have a seat.” Now I can feel the blood as it freezes solid in my veins. Oh no. I look down at the table in front of me as the officers file out, murmuring, and Quade continues to stand with his back towards me.
“Do you know what I think, Mark?” Quade speaks once the door shuts behind the last exiting officer. His voice grows softer; disarming, even. He begins to leisurely pace around the room. My eyes follow him nervously.
“What do you think, General Quade?” I respond. He suddenly turns towards me and makes eye contact with me again. His left eye bulges a bit as a grin sweeps across his face.
“Our enemies are not monsters. They are humans, like us, and our enemies are more than just a bunch of primitive savages. They have numbers. They are organized. They clearly have a leader. That leader just sent us a message.” My eyes continue to follow the general as he explains his theory. Soon the General circles the room and I can no longer see him without standing up from my seat, but I’m too scared to do that. The hairs on my neck stand up now. He seems to believe me. Doesn’t he? If he believes me, I should survive this, but why do I feel this sense of dread then?
My gut tells me that one wrong move is fatal here.
“Mark, have you told anybody else about this?” I hear Quade’s voice from behind me now, nearly in my ear. I can hear it dripping with malice.
“N-No, General Quade.” I croak again, then swallow hard and compose myself before continuing, “And I promise I will keep it-“ Now I feel Quade’s hand pressing down hard on my shoulder. I look up and find myself staring into the muzzle of a gun.
“Keep it secret? Of course you will.” I hear Quade’s voice one last time before he pulls the trigger, releasing a loud, sharp hiss.
THE WOLFMOTHER, A FLOATING FOREST, AND MANY WAYS TO MURDER
Written by ‘Jungle’ (NFN)
© 2021, all rights reserved.