‘A BLACK CAT AND A BAD DREAM, PART 2’

The sensation of sinking is always unsettling. Gone are the little round windows of the quaint cottage. The two children and their sick mother have vanished from my sight, but not from my thoughts. I know what I need to do here, in the dream world.

That is what this place is: a world of dreams inside of the mother’s imagination. Almost everyone has dreams. Every dreamer stands on the doorstep of the infinite. That said, not all dreams are equal. Some are more in touch with their dreams than others. Some have big dreams while others have little dreams. All these things are reflected in the world that manifests itself inside the mind. Most have no control over their dreams and wander aimlessly.

I am an exception. Dreams are my domain. Nothing here is outside of my influence.

I am not the only exception though. There is another being here with power. The ignorant refer to something like this as a nightmare, but Morosia is more than that: it is a curse. Those afflicted are doomed to be consumed by a cunning parasite that preys upon their inner turmoil. When left unchecked, the victim will suffer and sleep until thirst or starvation claim their due. Any attempts to intervene through material means are hopeless. The only way to cure Morosia is to remove the parasite. That is what I am here for. My prize.

The sinking sensation stops, and I open my eyes to a cold world devoid of any sort of color. Surrounded by dismal houses and buildings, obscured by thick mist – could this be Hithe? It is hard for me to tell; after all, while in the waking world, my eyes can only see magic. The earth rumbles beneath me, signaling that the game is about to begin.

“Athos!” I call out and snap my fingers. A handful of falling feathers announce the arrival of my familiar: The Three-Eyed Raven, Athos. The vibrant violet sheen of his rich plumage provides a stark contrast against the dream world’s ubiquitous grayscale. I can feel three sets of talons dig into my skin, but I do not wince or cry out because I am familiar with pain and its purpose.

“At your service, my Queen.” Athos responds with his trademark orotund, gentlemanly tone as he settles onto my shoulder. Colors mix with the scarlet ink drawn from his talons before sweeping down to dye my clothes back to their original sky blue and cloud gray hues. The cobblestone street beneath my feet remains ashen and flat. Again, the earth grumbles impatiently and I infer that the mother has little time left alive.

“Keep your eyes peeled. I can feel it nearby.” I punctuate my statement by drawing my katana. The weapon introduces itself to the world with its telltale chime. The steel blade glistens and begins to pulsate iridescence as I tuck the scabbard into my sash. Holding my sword with both hands, I begin to walk down the street one careful step at a time, ready for the resident of this realm to reveal itself and attack. All is silent save for the soft plodding of my sandals against the road as building after non-descript building pass us by.

A cat meows. I stop walking and sweep the empty streets with an attentive gaze. I see nothing. Athos ruffles his feathers and remains silent. We stand and wait. Another meow, faint and yet still distinct, beckons us towards a tall building in front of us. The building is in the center of a square and looms head and shoulders above the others. Judging by its size, I guess it to be the town hall, or perhaps a court of law, if they were not one in the same. The cat call sounds again, more urgent this time. I glance at Athos out of the corner of my eye.


“What do you think?” I ask him. He ruffles his feathers and makes a clicking sound with his beak.

“I believe it is inside, my Queen.” He responds, then adds. “Be careful.” I nod in response and we slowly approach the massive wooden double doors of the town hall. I swipe my sword to the side and the doors swing inward as a sudden squall nearly rips them off their hinges. There is no hesitation on my part as I stride past the threshold with quiet confidence. We are greeted by a large, empty room filled with vacant benches facing a central altar. Perched atop the podium is a black cat leisurely flicking its tail, with its back turned towards us.  

“It is as you think, my Queen.” Athos identifies the unassuming feline as the source of the corruption. I point my sword at the parasite.

“There are two ways we can go about this, but they both end up with you as my pet.” As I speak, my voice begins to swell in volume until it reverberates throughout the entire hall. The feline seems unperturbed and does not respond. I march forward, staring the parasite down behind the length of my weapon. The earth begins to shake again and this time it does not stop.

“Submit to my power!” My shout rips through the hall and the windowpanes crack. The cat cocks its head back to stare at me with eyes that smolder like burning coal. Its lips peel back nonsensically wide and reveal not one, but four rows of stained black teeth.

“What power?” The cat’s fiendish smile remains fixed in place as a rasping, guttural voice booms throughout the hall. It hisses at us now, and as it does, it undergoes a monstrous growth spurt. The grinding of bone against bone fills my ears as the cat’s limbs elongate and contort one after another, then its chest swells like a balloon. The wooden altar soon collapses under the weight of the now enormous feline fiend. The demon turns to face me and its eyes ignite into a pair of bright orange flames. Stripes of fire send smoke signals up from its black pelt and its teeth click together as it chomps the empty air with its maw. My eyes narrow as I tilt my head back to meet the fiend’s gaze with a glare of my own, unperturbed.

“Goblin Cat.” I murmur to myself in a matter-of-fact tone. I recalled the name from a story Trent had read to me once about a wandering medicine vendor. Athos clicks his beak twice to signal his agreement: it is a Goblin Cat.

“My master told me you would come… too bad you and that squawking retch are barely a meal!” The parasite growls and the faintly perceptible tremors of the earth grow into a steady quaking. The roof of the town hall vanishes, revealing an inky, starless sky overhead. Next, the walls melt away, replaced by sheets of flame. I now find myself standing inside a towering ring of fire: a fitting arena. The tip of my katana points towards the floor as I assume a low guard.

“You’re about to have a new master, furball.” I challenge back with a smirk. That sets it off; it begins to hiss, enraged, and I can see a light glowing from inside of its open maw. I recognize it as fire just before a massive tongue of flame erupts from behind its rows of razor-sharp fangs. My sword carves a semi-circle in the air before me and a shimmering sheet of ice springs up from the ground below, shielding us from the burst of fire without issue. The tip of my blade dances high over my head before it falls in a graceful stroke, shattering the wall of ice into little knives and propelling them towards the Goblin Cat.


“Pathetic!” The Goblin Cat leers back and swipes one massive paw through the air, leaving a lingering trail of fire in its wake. The ice fragments melt before they reach their target. Now the fiend plants both of its front paws against the ground and the circle of fire surrounding us flares up. A bead of sweat drips down my brow as the temperature climbs and I recognize that the walls of the arena are constricting. This is turning out to be a fun game.

“My Queen, the ground!” Athos cries out in warning. Lava. The ground beneath the Goblin Cat’s paws melts into molten lava and begins to creeps towards my feet. Time is running out.  I raise my sword overhead now, assuming a high guard, ready to bring it down with all of my strength. The Goblin Cat does not try to close the gap but instead maintains the distance between us, eyeing the iridescent blade wearily. Interesting. It must know the secret of my sword. Fortunately, I have many more.

“Ascend, Athos!” My command is issued. With a burst of purple feathers, Athos and his wings expand outwards, suddenly reaching several arm’s lengths away on each side. Warmth envelopes me as his talons fuse into my shoulder. I crouch down, and as the molten cobblestone is about to entrap us, we take off into the air with several powerful gusts from Athos’ wings. We’re not out of the clear yet – as we soar higher and higher with each flap, the wall of flames surrounding us seems to grow taller. I continue to ascend straight up into the sky, piercing the ink’s dim veil. Higher and higher still, until finally…

“The Moon.” There it is. A full moon, glowing boldly above the parasite’s miasma. I outstretch my hand and it begins to grow larger, not because we are continuing to fly higher, but because I am pulling the moon towards us. The Goblin Cat’s howls grow faint, blotted out by a new sound: the rush of flowing water. I look down from our lofty perch in the sky, glaring at the dot of fire burning in the darkness below. Dreams are my domain, you worm.

“Drown.” My lips part to utter a single word that shakes the entire world. The moonlight illuminates an amorphous mass surging far beneath us: a tidal wave sweeping the land below, large enough to be seen from thousands of feet above. The waters dwarf the pitiful ring of fire and the Goblin Cat’s frightened yowls are dashed asunder as the tsunami breaks and crashes. The water spreads and soon there is no earth beneath us; only calm waters reflecting the light of the moon back into the sky. I remove my scabbard from my belt and hold it with one hand as I hold my katana in the other.

“Release.” I issue my order to Athos. My wings disappear and I so I plummet. I let gravity pull me down, headfirst towards the water’s surface. The wind whips about me and as I fall, I shed my clothes like a snake shedding old skin. I press my legs together as they fuse into a tail complete with two iridescent fins and matching scales. My lungs grow gills. Not a moment after my transformation is complete, I pierce the water’s surface with the tip of my katana and slide into the icy depths, now a mermaid with sword and scabbard in hand.

“Find it.” I issue my command to Athos by speaking directly to his mind. Moments later, a pillar of illumination penetrates the deeps. Propelled by my powerful new tail and fins, I dart through the water towards the light like a shark approaching prey. Then I see it come into view – the Goblin Cat, floundering helplessly in the depths of this all-encompassing ocean. Gone are its stripes of fire and its eyes, once burning with malice, are now wide and fearful.


“It’ll be over soon.” I taunt the terrified parasite. Its head snaps towards me as it frantically claws at the water, trying desperately to mount a defense. A futile gesture; as I hurdle past the parasite, I cleave its outstretched paw clean from its forearm. Crimson blossoms from the wound, dissipating into the water, and a mass of bubbles erupt from the Goblin Cat’s maw as it cries out in pain. No longer able to hold its breath, it begins to inhale the icy water and drown. The blade of my katana, once iridescent, now begins to turn blood red. I turn, facing the Goblin Cat once more and pointing the opening of my empty scabbard towards it, concentrating. The blade of my katana is now a bright, burning crimson color. It enjoys the taste of magic.

“You’re mine now.” With those words, the Goblin Cat begins to shrink as it is pulled towards me by the undeniable force that is my will. It continues to paw the water helplessly until its silhouette deteriorates into a dark, shapeless cloud of malevolent intent. The spirit is drawn into the sheath of my sword much like a helpless ship caught in an epic whirlpool. Once the Goblin Cat is inside, I slam my sword back into its sheath.

A blinding light causes me to squint and glare: the setting sun. I’m back in the cottage now, staring down at the golden mirror resting on my lap. I blink twice before I look up to meet the gaze of the little boy and the little girl who had implored me for help. I take a deep breath and taste the crisp, autumn air. A pang of regret as I realize I no longer have gills, scales, or a tail. This is quickly washed away by the sight of the mother, now sitting upright in bed, gasping for air. The two children immediately rush the bedside and throw themselves on top of her, smothering her with affection. I allow myself a small smile as I look upon the reunited family with a melancholic gaze.

“So that is what a happy family looks like…” I murmur to myself.

“Yes, my Queen. Your magnificence is unlimited.” I can hear the voice of Athos addressing me using our mental link now and I chuckle inwardly. While a bit corny at times, Athos is certainly a marvelous retainer fit for a queen. I look down at the mirror in my lap and nod. For a brief moment, I see the shape of a bird as the light catches upon its surface. Then, I see the shape of a small cat beside it. That’s right. I have a new pet. A new pet needs a name, too. After all, Goblin Cat is not very catchy.

“You as well, Athos. Please introduce yourself to our new companion, Aramis.” I think, then stifle a yawn. I look up at the reunited family with tired eyes.

“Do you mind if I take a nap?” I ask, my eyes growing heavier by the second. Without realizing it, I find myself drifting off into a deep slumber of my own. Perhaps I will have a better dream this time.

A BLACK CAT AND A BAD DREAM, PT. II
Written by Jungle.
© 2021, all rights reserved.


Click to continue dreaming of SELES…

‘A VISITOR’

I know this place. Four white walls, a white ceiling, and a matching floor, all smooth and spotless. A bare cot in the corner of the room illuminated by one lonely lightbulb. How long has it been since I left this shithole? “Wake up, Celestria.” A monotone voice addresses the room with its grating drone.…

DAYBREAK

If you would let me hold your hand,
I promise not to let you fall. 
I'll do my best to understand,
I'll be the pillow where you land.

If you let me into your heart,
I will always answer your call.
If I see it begin to part,
I'll glue it back before it starts.

If you reveal to me your mind,
I will wander its many halls.
I can get lost in your designs.
I can learn your ways over time.

‘A BLACK CAT AND A BAD DREAM, PART 1’

I can’t fight it anymore. It’s too much.

“Oh… !” I let out a quiet gasp and pull my arm across my chest, hugging myself tightly. My toes curl as the muscles in my thighs and stomach tighten involuntarily. I bite down on my lip hard enough to draw blood. No! I won’t lose! I never lose! But… it feels so good. Why can’t this go on forever?  

“Fuck you and your-“ My partner cuts me off with his tongue’s expertise: he knows I’m close and he’s playing to win. Another gasp escapes my lips and I can feel his long, soft hair brushing against the inside of my thighs as they clamp down on him. Wave after wave of golden euphoria ripples up from where my lover quietly prays to me, his goddess. I try to squirm away, but his hands weigh like iron on my hips, holding me steady, pressing me down against our shared bed: a bale of hay in a dusty old barn. He continues unabated, even as my soft sighs quickly climb to a climax. Everything in sight explodes into a rainbow of psychedelic ecstasy before everything goes quiet save for the sound of my exasperated breathing.

“I win.” His tone is smug and why shouldn’t it be? I can’t see his face, but I can imagine his cocky smirk, his flashing slate eyes, and his long, flowing locks of gold. His merciless assault continues before I can catch my breath: I can feel his lips, soft and full, planting wet little kisses on my shoulder and slowly traveling up the side of my neck, towards my earlobe. Now I can feel his hand cup the bottom of my thigh and scoop me up onto my side, holding my leg aloft. I grind my chest against his, reveling in his warmth as one of my hands finds a firm hold in his hair. I pull down hard enough to lift his chin towards me.

“You are like… a fucking rabbit… you know that?” I manage to chide him as I continue to catch my breath. My heart is still racing. It’s not enough. I want more! He chuckles knowingly: my lover is teasing me now.

“Bastard…” I whisper. Now he stops and tenses up.

“Did you hear that?” He seems serious now.

“Stop teasing me, Trent!” I growl at him. My entire body is still throbbing with excitement and anticipation. That’s when I hear it, too. It sounds like a faint whisper at first, but the voice is somehow… familiar.

“Seles…” I sit upright now. That wasn’t Trent’s voice. Is someone else here?

“Celestria… Celestria…” I feel the blood drain from my face when I recognize that name. Suddenly, I can’t feel him next to me anymore. I’m alone now. Where did he go? The voice grows louder and more discernable as it continues to chant.

“Celestria!” The barn doors burst open and then she barges in, announced by her shrill shriek. This presence, this voice… I know them, alright.

They belong to my mother.

I wake with a start and sit bolt upright in my borrowed bed. My heart is still pounding away and my cold sweat feels like an icy frost in the cool morning air.

Knock, knock, knock. Before I can decide whether I’m too terrified to be horny, somebody quietly knocks at the door. Could it be the old pervert I borrowed this shack from? No, not likely – it will take at least another day for him to break my spell and return here. That is, if he even returns. Who knows what sort of horrors he will find out on the road? Fuck it, he deserves it.

My eyes are still ‘waking up’, so to speak, and so everything around me remains shadowed and blurry even though I can feel the sunlight’s warmth tattooing my face. I sit up and grope around blindly for a few moments before my fingers close around something smooth: I instantly recognize it as the handle of my sword. I scoot out of my bed and plant the end of the scabbard firmly against the ground; it is a sword, yes, and it is also my walking stick.

Knock, knock, knock. The rapping at my door is persistent, but somehow polite. No, this wasn’t the old perv. Who could it be then?

“Who’s there?” I call out to the stranger without a hint of fear.

“Are you the Witch?” A frail and timid voice responds. I take a deep breath and push aside the lingering thoughts evoked by my dream. Focus. A familiar sensation envelopes me, like facing a winter wind with eyes open wide. Colors creep into the void. The outlines of all living things slowly become visible; the tufts of grass peeking up through the broken floorboards, the spider weaving its web in the rafters, and even the two children standing on the other side of the door. Two children?

“Open the door and come inside. Close the door behind you.” As I speak, I impart a little bit of my power into my words. Only a little magic is needed here. The two children do as I say and they shut the door behind them without a sound. Once they enter the shack, I can see their essences clearly: one boy and one girl. Both of their silhouettes are drenched in a deep Lapis blue – the color of grief, tinged with a bit of fern green, the color of apprehension, bordering on fear. The puzzle pieces have been set upon the table now.

“Give me your hand, little girl.” I speak out loud and extend one hand out towards her. She hesitates at first. I shake my head.

“Give me your hand, little girl.” This time I speak to her mind directly. She gasps. I inject a little bit of magic into my command and so she steps forward and places her hand in mine. No hesitation this time. I place my other hand on top, sandwiching her tiny little hand between mine.

“Now relax.” I can feel the girl’s trepidation begin to melt away, leaving only the color of grief behind. As she does so, a flood of images and sounds begins to pour into my head, impossibly fast at first: I am watching the girl’s short life unfold before my eyes. As we approach the present time, things begin to slow down until I am left watching a short scene with the two children standing at the bedside of a middle-aged woman: their mother.

“Your mother is sick?” I turn to the boy, knowing the girl will not be able to answer while entranced. The little boy’s essence pulses green with fear before returning to lapis blue and then he nods his head a few times. I release the little girl’s hands. When I do, I can’t help but marvel as her essence radiates a sky-blue hue, the color of amazement, followed by an emerald green: the color of admiration. I smile at the two now.

“Take me to her.” I speak my command aloud to the children. They look at each other and for a moment, their shades begin to lighten in color: no longer grief, but sadness tinged with a hint of hope.  

It takes us just over an hour to reach Hithe, one of the larger settlements I’d come across. As we approach the town, I am quick to draw my hood. We don’t need any unwanted attention today. The little boy leads me by the hand through the town and I find myself gritting my teeth. So noisy… an angry maelstrom of thoughts warbles about inside my head like a buzzing beehive. As much as I loathe the boredom that accompanies solitude, I would not be able to live in a place like this without losing my mind. Thankfully, the children’s home is tucked away on the edge of the town, far enough from the idle thoughts and wants of its citizens for me to regain my bearings.

We come to a stop in front of a dark mass – a house, maybe? I borrow the boy’s sight for a moment and see a quaint little cottage with symmetrical round glass windows on each side of a simple wooden door. I wouldn’t mind staying in a place like this. The little girl opens the door and the boy guides me inside before his sister shuts the door behind us.

“Morosia.” My quiet murmur fills the room as I cast my gaze upon their bedridden mother. Sure, I was already certain of the diagnosis when I’d read the little girl’s mind, but seeing it in person, through my eyes revealed that this was not a typical case. Her essence is dim, but I can make out its color: a mixture of violet tinged with sapphire blue and ruby red. Remorse, contempt, and hatred. I had my work cut out for me this time, but with risk comes a reward. The boy releases my hand and I approach the bedside.

That’s when I notice it.

“Do you have any pets? Like… a cat?” I turn my gaze towards the children. They both shake their head in unison. I look back at their mother, lying in her bed, barely breathing. I can see the imprint of a cat’s paw on her cheek. The fact that I can see it this clearly means it is bleeding. A fresh wound. I doubt that a cat could have gotten in while they were gone.

“Have you noticed any cats hanging around the house?” My question remains unanswered for a moment as the children think about it. Both of them shake their heads again and this time the little girl speaks up.

“Mommy hates cats.” She says timidly. The boy nods his head. Another puzzle piece falling into place. Turning away from the bedside, I take a deep breath and prepare to address the children.

“Your mother is being haunted by a ghost from her past. If she cannot come to peace with it, she will sleep here, in this bed, until she dies.” Even though I am trying to soften the news, I can see the children’s silhouettes fading back to the deep blue associated with grief and sadness. Fuck. I was never any good at this. As I speak, I reach into the satchel hanging at my side.

“I can save your mother, but only if you follow my instructions.” My fingertip slides across the smooth surface of polished glass – the face of my golden mirror. I pull the little mirror from my satchel. Although its golden frame remains dark and shadowed to my eyes, the reflecting surface of the mirror appears as a brilliant sheet of iridescent pearl. The children don’t respond but I know they would do anything for their mother, even seek out a scary witch miles away from their home.

“Lock the door. Don’t open it. Close the windows and draw the blinds. Keep them closed. Last – no matter what happens, you must not touch your mother and you must not touch me.” I rattle off my instructions to the children and they are already moving to follow them before I finish. Good. These children love their mother. That means she’s been a good mother then. That may end up being enough to save her.

“Now bring me a chair.” As soon as the words leave my lips, I can hear the boy sliding an old chair across the wooden floorboards. I sit down in the chair and rest the golden mirror, face up, on my lap. Before I begin, I look up at the children one more time.

“Do not forget what I said. If you do, not only will your mother die, but it’s likely that the three of us will die as well.” I can hear the little boy gulp audibly and the two children shake their head in unison once again.

“Well then. Let’s begin.” My final words before beginning the dive.

A BLACK CAT AND A BAD DREAM, PT. I
Written by Jungle.
© 2021, all rights reserved.


Click to continue dreaming of SELES.

‘A BLACK CAT AND A BAD DREAM, PART 2’

The sensation of sinking is always unsettling. Gone are the little round windows of the quaint cottage. The two children and their sick mother have vanished from my sight, but not from my thoughts. I know what I need to do here, in the dream world. That is what this place is: a world of dreams inside of the mother’s imagination. Almost everyone has dreams. Every dreamer stands on the doorstep of the infinite.…

‘THE STRANGER’


Stay away!

“Well met, traveler.” Meaningless words accompanied by a shallow smile from some blonde meat puppet. I look him over: mid-twenties, strong, scrap armor, metal blade, and a revolver on his hip. Another dumb adventurer. He’s also alone. Guns make people so confident…  

“Hello.” I wait a moment before I offer a hollow reply, then bow my head for a moment.

“Are you here for the bounty too?” The man flashes me a toothy grin. Bounty? That’s news. He looks me up and down, sizing me up for a moment, then looks away dismissively. Yeah, I probably would too.

“Bounty?” My ears hear my own voice and I barely recognize it under the feigned naivety. The bounty hunter nods in response. I’m already watching his hands.

“They village to the south is convinced that there is a – fuck, what did they call it – a dargon? Yeah, something called a dargon keeps burning their livestock.” The man’s gaze drifts away from me and towards the distant horizon. There are no clouds in the sky today, just a sneering sun leering down at us from its perch.

“Not familiar with that word. Maybe you mean… a dragon?” My eyes inadvertently drift towards the revolver on his hip and away from his hands. Craftsmanship seems alright; it might be reliable. Best not to take chances then.

“Dragon? Yeah, that might have been it. A dragon. Do you know anything about it?” Now the man’s leaning in towards me, making frequent eye contact. He wants something from me. Everyone wants something from me. Sometimes they are polite, but more often they are not. What do they offer in return, though? Nothing. Nothing at all.

“My throat is parched… do you have any water?” A fake cough here as I act like I’m clearing my throat. I already know he has water. Nobody travels without water. Whether he wants to give me any is a different story. Let’s see if he passes my test.

“None to spare, I’m afraid.” His response is quick and now he turns away, like he’s hiding something. Failure.

“Might be hard for me to talk then…” Continuing to feign naivety here but he’s not buying it. I’m watching his hand drift towards his revolver now. Definitely a bounty hunter. Not a hero.


“Listen… the people in that village will starve if this thing is allowed to run free. Why don’t you just tell me what you know?” Now he’s starting to show his real colors. I know he doesn’t care about those people. Why should he? He just wants to get paid, after all. Just another selfish prick. I remain silent and fake another weak cough, then steal a quick glance at the man. Furrowed brows, pursed lips, flaring nostrils. He’s not buying it. He’s impatient, too. Now I’m the one scowling.

“Tell me what you know.” Just like that, he’s drawn the revolver. As I hear the click of the hammer being cocked back, something inside of me stirs. Disgusting… fucking disgusting! I’ve seen enough. Now my eyes lock onto the gray gun metal of the revolver like the jaws of a mad dog and I picture it in my head for a moment. In my mind I can see how the pistol grip is beginning to glow a scorching red, the sizzle and smell of burning flesh… all of the things I crave. The man’s eyes grow wide and he suddenly drops the revolver in the sand. He doesn’t seem to understand why his hand has a giant red skid mark across it now: he’s shocked.   

“What’s wrong… ?” I can’t hide my grin or confidence anymore so I snicker. Sweat beads down my forehead. I feel little needle pricks all over my scalp. I’m thinking about that scrap armor now. My eyes widen as I picture it melting onto his skin, mingling with it, and dripping down the front of his torso, taking all of the flesh with it, revealing what lies beneath the skin. My chest feels warm. The man starts to scream as my thoughts manifest themselves into reality. He tries to take off the armor, but how could he take it off when the buckles are too hot to touch?

A roaring flame, now. That’s what I’m imagining. A towering inferno swaying uneasily, billowing black clouds. Right on cue, the man’s screams intensify as he bursts into flame and begins to flail around before falling to the ground, screaming his guts out the entire time. I’m sure it would be enough to make anyone else’s blood curdle, but not mine. I’m not like other people, after all. I’m the Stranger… and you are just another log for my fire.


THE STRANGER’
Written by Jungle.

(C) 2021 All Rights Reserved.

‘THE WOLF MOTHER, A FLOATING FOREST, AND MANY WAYS TO MURDER’

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.
© 2021, all rights reserved.


Click below to keep tracking Roré…

‘THE HUNTRESS AND THE LOST CUB’

Trust yourself. Believe in the vision. I crouch in wait at the base of an aging birch tree, drawing the gray fur of the Wolf Mother around me to ward off the chill. The familiar smell keeps me calm and drives away the anticipation of the hunt. Even still, I am cold. Off in the distance, I can see the great stone wall marked by a crescent moon. Behind it looms the True Moon, full and bright. With or without its light, I see all –…

‘THE WIZARD AND THE PRISONER’

“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.

THE WIZARD AND THE PRISONER
Written by ‘Jungle’ (NFN)
© 2021, all rights reserved.

‘THREE DUCKS AND SOME BROKEN CUFFS’

“Better keep up with me, punk.”

“Piss off. It’s been a long week.” My comeback gets the angry reaction I expect: my captor jerks me around with my restraints. I lost track if it was Jeb, Jed, or Jef speaking. All three of them looked and sounded the same anyways: identical triplets, little piggies in uniform leading me on a leisurely trip through the Bloody Sands. At this rate, we’ll hit Palladia before sundown.

Unless I can bust out of these cuffs first.

“Dash? That’s your name? Hah.” I think it was Jeb speaking now, but who knows. He spits in my general direction – definitely Jeb – and I dodge to the left and remain silent for the moment, thinking. They’re still trying to butter me up. As if.  

“Is that supposed to be… a joke or somethin’?” Jeb responds. I could tell Jeb apart from his brothers because he’s the only one of the three that packs chew and he’s always gnashing away on some of it, too, always spitting that brown shit juice my way. Bet he’s the brothel’s best customer – probably one of their favorites, too.

In, out; done, paid. Fucking pig.

“Keep poking, little piggy, I make my own opportunities…“ I mutter it under my breath. Jeb must have made out the word ‘piggy’ because he stops and turns suddenly, fist already cocked to throw a punch. Before the punch comes in, we get interrupted. Somebody was approaching us. One of the brothers grabs Jeb and spins him around by the shoulder.

“You see that Jeb?” The brother says. Process of elimination says this is… Jef? Or maybe Jed. I don’t care.

“Another one?” The third of the brothers now replies. Now I can see it, too – a shape in the heat haze becomes clear and as soon as it does, we stop. We stop dead in our tracks. Whoa.

“… You seein’ what I’m seein’?” I’ll go ahead and say this was Jed speaking, although I may never know. My brain is doing backflips as it tries to process the signals my eyeballs are sending it. And what exactly are my eyeballs seeing, anyways? I think it’s a person. Yeah, it’s definitely a person, but he looks more like a walking statue, I guess. Yeah. Like a big bronze statue, almost. A big naked statue.

Wait, what? I try to rub my eyes even though my hands are cuffed together. I cock my eyebrow and gawk. Yup, no doubt about it, that’s a naked guy. At least, I’m assuming that’s a guy based on what he’s packing. I wonder if he’s worried about the sunspots? This is a desert, man. Well, maybe he doesn’t burn, after all, he’s dark too – not as dark as me, but his skin is brown like driftwood, and so my guess is he doesn’t burn easily. I don’t know what a sunburn on your dick would feel like but damn, it’s not something I want to think about for too long.

I glance over at the three bullshit brothers. It looks like they’re still digesting this. I don’t blame them. I think all four of us learned a bit from the anatomy lesson here. The newcomer seems totally oblivious in every way, though, like he doesn’t even realize he should be wearing clothes to begin with. Nope, totally natural as he strolls towards us in every sense of the word. He doesn’t change directions and he doesn’t speed up or slow down, he just keeps on going like we’re not even here.

“… The fuck?” Good ol’ Jeb breaks the silence and spits, but he’s so absent mindedly staring down the newcomer’s package that he ends up drooling a bit of that shit water down the corner of his mouth and it leaves a nice shit streak down the front of his uniform. Haha. I think Jeb just figured out he has a small dick. I laugh out loud now, like really laugh for a second.

Damn. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I’ve laughed like that. That thought sobers me up a bit.

“Well, boys, looks like we’re bringin’ two back to King Klash today.” I’m just going to go ahead and say this one is Jed. The three brothers nod at one another and without warning, I find myself being jerked along by my chain once more as we set off on our crash course with the nudist. It isn’t long before we collide. My initial take – a living statue – really wasn’t that far from the mark. This guy is built and I mean really – this guy is built. You can see every single muscle on his body. Literally. He’s still naked, after all. His hair is black, like mine, but his is a lot more… feathery? No, not feathery… what’s it like? Flowy? Yeah, flowing… it’s more like…

At that same moment, I catch him looking over at me and I meet his golden amber stare with my one good eye. For an instant, a picture of a black lion flashes through my mind. Who is this guy?

“… You from around here?” Saw it coming; Jeb is the first one to taunt the newcomer now. The guy looks at him with these big, unassuming eyes and a really dumb grin.

“What do you mean?” He’s speaking, but his voice is loud and booming. Much louder than the Enforcer he’s addressing. Uh oh. Jeb is stunned for a second. This guy is definitely not from around here.

“Where … do … you … live?” Jeb repeats, raising his volume to match the newcomer’s and spacing out his words and emphasizing his lazy drawl. The newcomer seems kind of deaf to this little shouting match, but not to Jeb’s words. Nope, seems like he’s wrapping his whole brain around the question – I can tell by the way he’s staring off into space. My eye flashes towards Jed and Jef. They’re losing interest in me and starting to focus on the newcomer now. Good.

“Hmm…” The newcomer continues to ponder the question. At one point, he pulls his dark mane back over his ear and glances back over his shoulder, in the direction he wandered in from. Then, he turns his head back towards the three Enforcers.

“I live here…” He starts, pointing towards the ground beneath his feet and pausing to let his point sink in. Then, he touches his chest before finishing, “… and here.”

Jeb is standing with his back to me now and still, I can imagine that piggy’s little pink face growing redder by the second. This is going to get ugly. I figure worst case scenario, I’m digging a hole in the sand for this guy’s body and best-case scenario, I’ve got someone to bullshit with until we get to Palladia… unless this guy knows how to fight. Unless this guy knows how to fight? I mean, it’s three on one. That doesn’t seem likely. Plus, these pigs have armor and weapons. This guy is unarmed. Well, unless you count his, uh, you know, meat mace. Will I really see someone die with their dick in their hands today!? Holy shit!

“… We got ourselves a big JOKE teller guy. A real clown here. Listen here, Mr. Clown, do you think you’re a funny guy? You one of those joke tellin’ guys like this one ‘er?” Now Jeb’s changed gears from ‘confusion’ to ‘frustration’ and ‘annoyance’. Jeb takes a couple steps towards the newcomer but he doesn’t flinch. Instead, the nudist looks over at me and we make eye contact again. He breaks it to look down at my handcuffs, now. For just a second, the newcomer’s nostrils flare. Was that anger? I feel a prickle on my spine.

“What are those chains for?” The newcomer asks and his gaze settles squarely on Jeb now. A tiny dust devil picks up a cloud of swirling sand and dances across the forgotten highway between the two men like it was drawing a line in the sand. Jed and Jef start to fan out and make a circle around the nudist, crossing that line no sooner had it been drawn. Yup, it was going to get ugly. This guy must have gotten too close to a sunspot. How else would you explain him walking around the desert butt naked? Either that, or he ate something he shouldn’t have…

“Listen here, fella…” Jeb took another step in towards the newcomer now. I’m sure I can hear him licking his lips, too, and I shudder. This guy’s luck was shit. Guess we have that in common.

“I’m gon’ ask the questions here. See this badge?” Jeb gestures towards an iron plate on his uniform; a simple circle, cut no wider than a tape measure, stamped with the letter K. The newcomer nods to signal that yes, he does, in fact, see the badge, but I can tell that he doesn’t get what it means. I have so many questions for this guy if he doesn’t die right now.

“This means I get to ask the questions. I’m the boss now. So, I’m gon’—“ Jeb starts to continue his little speech, but he gets cut off.  

“Tell me why he wears chains.” The newcomer’s voice is just as loud as it was before, but now it seems somehow more… commanding. There’s an edge that wasn’t there before. His eyes narrowed, too, but his hands are still at his side. I reel in my slack jaw here. This guy can’t be right. He must be sick or something. This is a death wish.

“Ain’t it obvious! She’s wearin’ the wrong clothes! Are you steeewpid!?” Jeb hasn’t quite exploded yet, but he’s malfunctioning now. That circuit was going to blow pretty soon – I could tell because he’d grabbed the baton off of his belt loop to ready it. Blatant foreshadowing of an ass whooping to come. I sigh – not just out of pity for this guy, but also at Jeb’s own ignorant insistence that I am a woman. I am not a woman. I am a man. How would you know, anyways? Only I know what I am. Not you, not them, not Klash, not anyone else. Just me, you dumb piece of shit.

“I’m not so sure. You there…” Now the newcomer was addressing me directly and I meet his golden amber gaze for a third time.

“Who are you?” He asks me. Jeb looks back over his shoulder at me and I can tell by his sneer that he does not want me to answer this question. Of course, that just pissed me off more so I decided to answer the guy.

“I’m Dash! The man, the myth, the wizard!” My voice is loud enough to blow back the newcomer’s mane and I do not break eye contact. His eyes widen in genuine surprise now, then his head tilts to the side for a second, rights itself, and finally, he begins to nod. He doesn’t stop nodding. He’s grinning now, too. His pupils dart upwards and I can tell he’s definitely thinking about something else and not about how Jed and Jef have also readied their batons, too. I want to go to whatever party is happening inside this guy’s head right now. For real. He’s grooving. Does he not realize he’s about to get his ass beat to death by three pink piggies with clubs?

“Cogito, ergo sum…” The newcomer mutters something I can’t quite understand. Is this a magic spell? Maybe I’m in luck and this guy is an actual wizard! Shit! That would actually explain a lot of this, too. Is he a wizard? I wait for fire to leap out of his eyes and melt the Enforcers down to their boots. It doesn’t happen. He speaks, instead.

“You know it to be true… and so it is.” The man makes eye contact with me one more time as he delivers this statement. Excuse me? I feel my jaw sinking again. Who the hell is this guy? He looks back at Jeb now.

“Release him.” There it is – that sudden gravity surprised me again. The newcomer’s nostrils flare once more. I catch him clenching his fist for a second. This is it now. The calm before the storm. I wonder who’s going to make the first move? Bet it’s Jeb. Yup, Jeb. Jeb couldn’t wait to take a swing at this guy and I could guess why – jealous pig.

Smack! The newcomer catches the club with his bare hand. Stone cold.

I can’t see it, but I’m imagining Jeb’s scared face right now and I can feel myself start to grin. Jeb’s grabbed onto his baton with both hands now and tries as hard as he can to wrench it out of the new guy’s grip. New guy still hasn’t flinched. Neither has the club. Jeb looks like a scared kid compared to the hulking nudist. I notice that the guy stopped grinning, too. Nope, he looks serious as fuck now. Alright, yeah, maybe this guy can fight… or make a distraction for me.

The new guy makes his move. In less than a second, Jeb is yanked forward by his baton directly into the new guy’s straight right and I cringe again because I can definitely hear Jeb’s jaw get completely pulverized by this guy’s massive fist, like it’s a steel sledgehammer blowing through a loose cinder block. Jeb’s head snaps left and rebounds right, his helmet tips and rolls off of his head, and I wonder if that sound I just heard was actually his neck breaking. In any case, Jeb’s out on his feet. If he’s even alive.

The nude dude is not out of the clear yet though. Right on cue, I hear the sizzle of Jed and Jef’s stun batons firing up. Not good. How would he deal with this? He can’t catch it, like last time. What’s he going to do? Maybe I can get the key off of Jeb while they fight…

That’s when this happens.

Jed and Jef go ahead and swing their electric batons at the new guy. New guy doesn’t even bother to face them, he’s still holding Jeb up by his baton. Not even a flinch from the new guy, so why did the batons stop in mid-air? Wait. What? I blink. What just happened? I cycle back a few frames in my memory reel here. Is that what happened? Holy shit! Déjà vu.

Now Jed and Jef are struggling to move their batons, but it seems like they’re frozen in place. Weird. Am I still alive? Is this a dream? Then, the statue speaks.

“You should not have done this.” His words are massive. This must be a dream. As soon as he drops that one line, he follows it up by dropping Jed with a vicious kick to the midsection that launches him from his feet and onto his back. Ouch. In the meantime, Jef decides to let go of his baton and wind up for a big haymaker. The guy is wise to it, though – he ducks back and lets Jef clock Jeb before Jeb finally tumbles to the ground. Before Jef can recover and square up with the new guy, he gets caught with a brutal roundhouse kick to the head. I can see his eyes go white for a second and I wonder if I just witnessed Jef’s ghost waving goodbye to his body. That’s two. Damn. This guy knows how to box. I wonder who taught him? Wait a second. What about Jed?

OH SHIT!!

I don’t think, I just act. My bare feet pump against the sand as I kick the earth as hard as I can, trying my damn hardest to close the distance to Jed now. Time slows to a crawl as it drags behind my adrenaline dump like a two-ton trailer. My eyes are riveted to one thing right now, and that’s the hand-made revolver that Jed is trying to pull from his holster. I jump on top of him now while he’s fumbling with the holster’s snap safety. He flattens out, prone beneath me, and I start to brain him in the back of his head with my manacles. I swing, I swing, and I swing my clasped hands together like a maul, making sure the edge of my handcuffs hits his skull with each blow. Crack. The old, rusty handcuffs break and at the same time, Jed stops his struggle. He’s not quite dead, but he might as well be.  Good riddance. I pat down his pockets and zap, what do I find? Handcuff keys. Free at last. A few clicks later, I can feel the sensation of cold air on my bare wrists, ankles, and neck again. Feels like freedom. I straighten up and face the newcomer now.

“Thanks man.” I offer him a nod, tilting my chin up towards the hungry desert sky. He meets my nod with one of his own, dipping his head down towards the earth and offering no words.

“You got a name?” I ask him now. I don’t bother to hide my curiosity, either. After all, this guy is like some sort of living legend that can stop batons with his mind. Speaking of which – why is that baton still floating in the air? As my gaze drifts away from the newcomer, the baton seems to hear my thought and it falls to the sand. I swing my one good eye back towards the new guy, now.

“My name is Arden. It is nice to meet you, Dash.” The new guy, Arden, now bows his head towards me again and this time, he offers me a smile. I smile back.

“Don’t take this the wrong way man, but uh… you don’t seem like you’re from around here. Around here, there’s guys like this…” I pause, gesturing towards one of the Brothers Bullshit lying nearby and continue, “And if they catch you walking’ around like that again, they’ll probably try to take you.” I finish the statement and purse my lips, imagining myself shaking my head grimly. Once again, Arden’s silent and unphased.

“If you want, I could show you a safe way? It looks like we’re going the same way anyways, right?” I continue now, getting a little bit unnerved by the fact that this guy doesn’t seem to have any tells or any real reaction to what I’m saying. I don’t like not being able to read this guy. He’s too dangerous to not be able to read.

Another silence as seems to turn this proposal over inside his head.

“You are a handsome man. I agree.” I can tell he’s a man of few words. That’s fine, though. Wait, did he just say I’m handsome? Huh. Cool. I like this guy already. He might make a good sidekick.

The real question is… what will the others think of him?

THREE DUCKS AND SOME BROKEN CUFFS
Written by Jungle.
© 2021, all rights reserved.


Click below to keep fighting with DASH & ARDEN

‘THE WIZARD AND THE PRISONER’

“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.…

SHADOWS

Will my eyes betray me
if I look too closely?
Battered by missing wings,
will you just fade away,
like wavering smoke rings
broken in the bold breeze?

What will the sun reveal?
Shadow cast upon steel
stitched to both my heels: 
the thoughts that I concealed, 
my hurt that had not healed, 
a harbinger so surreal.

Changing shapes, give and take,
toil in the soil and sand.
No silent helping hands.
Now I can understand
there was no guardian
waiting for me to stand.

Flip the switch, close the door,
watch it consume the floor,
multiply into more
sunken depths to explore:
my every eyesore
washing up on the shore. 

PILLOW

One thing that I know:
for your cheek, my chest is so
the perfect pillow.

NAP

Take a nap with me.
Let the sound of our breathing
carry you to sleep.