Fort Stupid

Whatever was calling to him, Zero was certain he liked it. The further he went toward whatever the thing was, the more of them he came across. And the more of them he came across, the more of them he got to burn.

If only he could get a damned vehicle to work. None of them worked. It didn’t matter how much gas they had, or what kind of condition they were in, they simply did not work. Damn all this walking. Walk walk walk walk walk. He wasn’t even sure how many days he had been walking.

But there were more of them to burn in this direction, and so he kept walking.

He walked through cities as much as he could, wading through the debris and ruins imagining what each building must have been like before.  He passed a family-owned auto-body shop. It’s too fucking bad they can’t fix any of this shit. Oh, and look, another playground. And there’s little Johnny getting picked on again. He passed an old house that had no business being in the middle of a block of apartments and he imagined an old man and woman living there. The old woman had a frying pan in her hand and she bashed the old man’s head again and again. The bashing matched Zero’s steps. Step-bash, step-bash, step-bash.

He walked on.

As he made his way through a small town, a large rat passed too close to him, not knowing what a mistake that was. Zero had a fine meal of roasted rat that night. Even better, he found some old stale beer in the trunk of a car, and he drank every last bit of it. Stuffed more so than he could recall since before the world ended, he lounged on the hood of an old car, stared at the night sky, and waited for sleep to take him. He would not sleep, though, which happened sometimes. More than sometimes. Too often, to be honest.

That night was different; the calling seemed stronger than before. He felt sure there were some of them to be burned close-by, and a chance like that, he could not ignore. He leapt off the hood and began walking in that same direction; the same direction he had been walking for days. Or maybe it had been weeks. Hell, it could have been months. It didn’t matter.

He made his way through a small woodland to emerge in a clearing of some sort, and holy shit he had hit the mother-load! Hundreds of them. So many to burn!

Tears and snot and spit poured from his face and he was so dizzy, he could not tell which way was up and which way was down. He didn’t care. He let the flames take over. They burst out in all directions. He didn’t care where they went. He ran through the hoard, burning and burning as he went. He laughed heartily and marveled at the ash they left behind as it sparkled through the sky.

Oh shit! Look at that big fucker over there! I bet he wants to be burned, too!

And burn he did. He took a bit longer than the others, but he burned. They always burned. He would never be satisfied with the aftermath, but the moment of the burning was enough for Zero. Enough for that moment, anyway.

He continued dashing back and forth like a mad man, burning as he went. He was a mad man in that moment. He knew he was mad, but he didn’t care. He gave himself to it. Their numbers dwindled as most had been burned to ash and smoke, but he would not stop. He could not stop. He continued his flaming rampage.

A blinding blue light broke through his flames and he felt himself being choked. His flames died in that same moment, and he saw that the blue light was a girl. A young girl. A young girl in armor. A young girl in armor with blue fire in her eyes that held him by the throat and squeezed. He realized he couldn’t breathe.

She released him and he collapsed on the ground, gasping for air and laughing hysterically at the same time. It took him quite some time to regain steady breathing.

“What the fuck, girl? Why didn’t you squeeze a bit harder and for a bit longer?”

She stared down at him with cold anger and seemed to grit her teeth as she clenched her fists. “You have burned most of our supplies, all of our food stock, and you almost burned half the people. And you laugh. You laugh still.”

He looked up at her. “Well, maybe you should get the fuck out my way.”

She punched him square in the nose. It hurt. A lot. It was certainly broken. He tried to summon the fire in retaliation, but alas, he could never do that unless it was directed at them. Oh well.

The armored girl walked away and in her place stood an even younger girl. This one squatted next to him.

“Hey! Who are you? What’s your name? Where do you come from? That was amazing what you just did, and I’ve seen some amazing things. Would you like to hear about them? You really saved us just now, you know. Does your nose hurt? It’s all crooked now, I’ll have you know. Don’t look in a mirror if you can help it. If you come up to Fort Hilltop, I’m sure somebody will patch it up and straighten it up some. Though, you’ll have to wait in line. Many of the others are either hurt or dead. Or hurt and dead, I suppose, but I don’t think the dead ones care that they’re hurt. I think Mr. Otis is dead and I really liked him. Oh, and we have food. Sure you got most of the food, but there is some left despite what Alice said. Are you hungry? Why were you laughing like that?”

What the hell, is this punishment of some sort? Why couldn’t that other girl just finish me off? Zero stood up and walked toward the hill.

He was hungry from his bout of madness. It had taken a lot out of him and he was famished despite the roast rat and beer from earlier. He didn’t expect to get any food up there unless he just took it, but he walked toward the hill, anyway.

As he approached the hill, he could see that the size of the group was quite small, but he was pretty sure this was the largest group of normals he had come across since the world ended. Some of them were at work cleaning up the wreckage of whatever storm had just blown through, and others were weeping openly, loudly even. It was annoying. He wanted to leave.

An older man approached him wearing anger on his face and malice in his clenched fists, but he took one look at Zero’s nose, thought better of it, and turned around. Zero sat down on the ground. He didn’t like this. He didn’t like these people. He wasn’t sure he liked people at all, anymore. He wanted to leave. But, that girl had broken through his flame like it was nothing and he hadn’t thought that was possible before that moment.

He lay back on the ground and it occurred to him that whatever had been calling to him was in this area. He knew that meant more of them to burn, and he could not pass up that opportunity. Maybe he would stick around a day or two to see what happened.

He awoke to the feeling of being kicked in the ribs. A small boy was doing the deed and giggling about it between each and kick. When the boy saw Zero open his eyes, he ran off exclaiming, “I kicked the fire man, the fire man, the fire man with the crooked nose!” Fucking kids. Zero hoped his name was Johnny.

He concentrated on the pain still in his face when he noticed what sounded like an argument on the other side of the tent-thing he was lying behind.

“You told us we’d be safe here! We trusted you god damn it!” It was a man’s voice, rough and angry.

A gentle feminine voice answered, “She told you it was the safest place we had found. That’s all. Nobody knew they could burrow underground.”

More voices, “I want to go back to the city.”

The gentle feminine voice seemed to be directing the answers. “We left the city because there were too many places for them to hide and too many places for them to surprise. You all know that. Alice cannot always detect exactly where they are.”

“But there was food in the city!”

“And my Otis would probably still be alive if we hadn’t come out to this godforsaken hill. And poor little Marco!”

“Fort Hilltop! Get it right!” Zero recognized the young annoying girl’s voice.

The angry man was not amused. “Of all the fucking shit, you just shut the fuck up! And that name is fucking stupid!”

Zero had to agree with that one. Fort Stupid should be its name. It wasn’t even a fort. Why in the hell were they calling it that?

They argued for a bit about going to the city or staying on the hill. Zero grew bored. He looked at the small shack and imagined it had once been a whacking shed for young boys in the area. Coming and going every moment they could sneak away, or rather, entering the shed, coming, and then going. The shed probably had a collection of nudie mags, but all the pages were stuck together. Their desperation at seeing what was on the pages drove them to spend hours trying to pry the pages apart without damaging them.

The mention of himself brought him back to reality.

“And where is that son-of-a-bitch that burned everything? He needs to pay.”

There was some agreement among everyone. Zero didn’t care. He wasn’t paying shit.

There was a small moment of silence as if a hush had befallen the arguers, and Zero heard a frail voice, barely above a whisper.

“We are alive because of him. I summoned him here, and he will not be the last.”

Fort Hilltop

“Twenty-one adults and five children, all present and accounted for, ma’am!” Jasper was always so formal.

“Good, now go get some rest, and please do not call me ma’am.” Alice knew that last part would be ignored, as always, but she said it anyway.  She couldn’t help but like Jasper. He was eager to learn, willing to work, and hadn’t yet adopted the doom-and-gloom attitude of most of the rest of the group.

Erin was another exception; constantly running about asking questions. She seemed in high spirits regardless of the situation. She often claimed to be afraid, but never showed any signs of it. Indeed, Alice had never seen Erin in an anything-less-than-cheerful mood. Something wasn’t right about it, and Alice cycled through all her memories of Erin trying to put her finger on it, to no avail.

“It’s been a month since we came here, and two weeks since they attacked, and you still refuse to rest.” Sarah had climbed the makeshift lookout tower. “You need sleep.”

“Be that as it may, I can still feel them. They are everywhere and yet, apparently nowhere.”

“Well, you certainly picked a good spot to set up this thing, whatever it is. Erin has named it Fort Hilltop. She’s so creative, that one.”

Alice smirked. “Yes, and I heard Jasper refer to it that way, as well. Though this is definitely not a fort; we have no defenses.”

“We have you.”

They stood in silence for a bit, surveying the land. Their camp sat on top of a hill in what used to be an ocean of grass. They had burned all that, however, so that nothing could approach the camp without being seen. A series of shelters encircled the lookout tower on top of the hill. Some were tents and others were little more than blankets tied to whatever they could find to use as poles. Their lookout tower was an old tin shack that had been sitting alone atop the hill. Its roof was missing, but the rafters remained.

“It’s rare that you’re away from Micah this long. Has anything changed?”

Sarah sighed. “No. He still can’t see. He still hasn’t said a word. I think he was asleep when I came up here.” She shrugged. “But it’s so hard to tell.”  She paused a moment. “He does tend to wander, now, so I suppose I’ll be going.”

Alice nodded.

“There’s no harm in letting someone else keep watch for a while, you know. Jasper would do it gladly, and so would Ben.”

Alice continued studying her surroundings.

“Well good night, then.” Sarah started down off the rafter, but then stopped to wait for a response.

Alice turned to her and nodded. Sarah smiled and dropped to the ground below and set off toward Micah.

Alice had no desire to lead a group of people. Never did she imagine she’d be doing anything of the sort; her thoughts had always been on fighting whatever it was that was coming. All her preparation and training had been bent on the fight. She was younger than most of these people, and she feared more than a few of them were on the edge of that insanity that seemed to have gripped the rest of the remaining populace.

Most of them seemed afraid of her, and she thought it comical, since they had yet to see Sarah’s capabilities beyond that third attack, and Sarah had held back during that one.  She had held back quite a bit.

The ground rumbled, soft and hollow like a stomach that has been empty for too long. Alice thought nothing of it, at first, but it happened again. And again. It was louder the next time, and louder still the time after that. Alice, on full alert, darted her eyes back and forth in all directions, but she saw nothing. A scream erupted from a tent below.

Alice was in the tent in an instant. Several of them had emerged through the floor after having ripped through the bottom of the tent, though they were different from any she had seen before. The lower half of Otis was on one side of the tent, and the other half was nowhere to be seen. His wife, Pam, screamed and waved her limbs around wildly as she backed herself against the other side of the tent as they seemed to be trying to take hold of her.

Alice didn’t pause, her sword had been out the moment she heard the scream. The trio didn’t stand a chance, but that was only the beginning of the chaos. The entire camp erupted in a panic as more of them emerged from the ground. Alice could feel them in every direction all at once. There was too much commotion for her to gauge the best course of action, so she tore through the camp slicing the tops of every tent and makeshift shelter and pulling the freed fabric to the ground. In the next instant, she was back up the lookout tower to study the ground below.

It wasn’t the ground below that drew her attention, however, it was the expanse of burned plains surrounding the hill. Hundreds of them in all sort of varieties were charging the camp. And, in their midst was the largest of them she had ever seen. It was easily four times the size of the largest she had yet encountered. Fear took her and she could not focus it.

It was then that she noticed Micah standing next to her, and he opened his mouth to speak.

“He has arrived.”

The Bathroom Window

When I was a boy, I shared a room with my brother.  We lived in a small square house. I’m not kidding, the house was remarkably square from the outside.  I’m pretty sure it was the exact same dimensions on each side, but that’s not important.

My room was across the hall from my parents’ room.  They were the only two bedrooms in the house.  The hall was tiny, about twice as long as it was wide, and had one of those old-timey floor heaters in it–the kind that’s basically just a huge grate in the floor.  I still don’t know how those heaters worked, I just know that I used to stretch my legs across it in the morning to get warm in the winter. Our bedroom was at one end, my parents’ at the other, and in-between them was a bathroom.  Imagine a small room about one and a half the width of a doorway, and twice as long.  That was the hallway.  The bedrooms were on the ends, the bathroom in the middle, and the other doorway opened into the living room.   The bathroom was the only one in the house.

The house was old and had been placed there, not built, or so I’d been told.  It was off the ground, sitting on a frame of those big concrete bricks, about three feet off the ground.  There was a crawl-space beneath the entire house, that usually only my dad would go into whenever there was a problem with the plumbing or something.  None of that is relevant to this story, though.  Not really.  But now you know what the house looked like I guess.

I had nightmares most of my childhood and would sneak into my parents’ room almost every single night.  I was terrified of what I imagined in the dark.  I always slept with a light on, as well, and that didn’t end until I was in my teens.  But it wasn’t without reason.

The bathroom had a small window.  The house set high above the ground, the window was high enough that it was above chest-level, and the neighbors were across a ditch that my dad had planted a row of trees along, and so there was never really any need to have a covering over the window.  Oh how I wish there had been one, though.

One night after I woke up and was on the way to my parents’ room, I looked at the bathroom window as I walked by, and there was a fucking face staring straight at me.  Excuse my language, but I’ll never forget it.  I was maybe five or six at the time.  It was plain and I couldn’t tell its gender.  It didn’t move and I couldn’t see any hair on its head.  In fact, I couldn’t make out a head, really, because it was so dark.  I thought I might be imagining something, but then it blinked.  It blinked slowly.  I didn’t even get to finish seeing its eyes open all the way because I got the hell out of there and dove between my parents in their bed and cried the rest of the night.

That wasn’t the last time I would see the face.  It wasn’t always there, and I didn’t always go to my parents’ room because I was too scared of the bathroom.  When the fear overtook me enough that I had no choice but to go to my parents’ room, however, I always made sure to run by the open bathroom door.  Sometimes the face was there, sometimes it wasn’t.

After that, I refused to go to the bathroom by myself.  My brother was almost exactly ten months older than me, believe it or not, and we were still taking baths together. We still always peed together, too, though mostly because I made sure to go when he did.  If I never had a chance to go with him, I’d just pee my pants.  The same went for number two, which we couldn’t do together, for obvious reasons.  As gross as it was, it was better than going into the bathroom alone, and so I would just wear it until somebody figured it out.  I was young enough that they would help me clean myself up, and thus I wouldn’t have to be in the bathroom alone.  I would also wet the bed no matter whether I was in my room or parents’ room.  I’m sure my parents just loved being peed on.  I’d try to keep it in my space, of course, but they’d always roll over into it eventually.

I never asked my parents to put a curtain or something over the window.  We were poor and I had learned to never ask for anything.  Plus I never wanted to inconvenience someone, especially my parents.  I was pretty sure they hated me do to my overbearing shyness, my peeing and pooping problems, and my being scared all the time.  I’m not even sure it ever occurred to me to put something over the window, until that one night.

On the very last night of my life that I went to my parents’ room, I woke up staring at the bathroom window.  I don’t recall walking there.  The face was not there, however, and instead, it looked like the sky was falling.  Stars and other shapes streamed down from the sky, or across the sky, really, but away from me.  I’m still not sure why, but that sight somehow gave me the courage to face the face.

The next night at bath time, as my brother again whined about not wanting to take a bath with me, anymore, I granted him his wish.  I said I would take my bath alone.  I was terrified, sure, but I had decided to face my fear.

Right after I shut the door to the bathroom, the light flicked off, and there was the face in the window, again.  I panicked and tried to escape, but the door would not open.  I banged on the door, but nobody came to open it.  I screamed at the top of my lungs for help, but it was as if nobody heard me. I turned toward the window.

The face was saying something and I still don’t know what.  I ran to the window, took the towel I still had in my hand and draped it over the window.  The house was old, and there were small gaps between the window frame in the wall, and the towel caught there and stayed.  The lights flicked on, and I found that I could open the door, again.

When I walked out, my parents wanted to know why I hadn’t taken my bath.  I asked if they heard me screaming, and they told me to stop playing and go take my bath.

I never saw the face again, but I always made sure to cover the window with something before shutting the door.  Eventually, it became habit, and I found myself unable to close the door without covering the window, first.  Often, the towel I would hang there would just remain there for days until my mom would take it down to wash it.  I always made sure to put a new one up before closing the door, though.

After I grew up and moved out of that house, I thought about the face less and less, and eventually figured it was just my overactive imagination.  That is, until I was out drinking with my brother one night, and I casually mentioned the face in the bathroom window as a joke.  He went white as a ghost and whispered, “You saw the face, too?”

The Three Cycles

Eliador was the purest of the Dùsgatàlaidar, being both pure of mind and of intention. Boundless creation existed within her and she became its symbol amongst the Dùsgatàlaidar and amongst all the planes of existence. Her wisdom was only surpassed by her husband, Entassada, with whom she shared an unbreakable bond.

In the elder days before the days of men, she walked among the mur (now known as trees) and elves and fey of what is now the mortal plane, befriending and teaching as she went. Life poured forth wherever she walked and she traversed the entirety of Everlast in those days, greatly extending the lives of the mur, fey, and elves. The mur were the first to endeavor their own creation and thus the bushes and grass and flowers and all the smaller greenery of nature were born.

It was when she walked among the hills of Belgaduin (now knows as Crimson Valley) that she came across Baeleir, a most peculiar woodland elf. Baeleir took great delight in the mur, feeling more akin to them than even his closest of elvish relatives, and he spent most of his days among them, befriending, teaching, and learning, whilst also caring for their creations. Indeed, the creations of the mur would not have been possible but for Baeleir, for their creations were unable to grow roots long enough to reach the Fothalamhbiadh: the great life-giving stream coursing deep below Everlast. It was Baeleir that first created the isgeacha, the first irrigation system, delivering nourishment to the mur’s creations from nearby lakes and rivers.

Eliador marveled at this new creation and Baeleir’s love of a species not his own. She befriended him immediately and taught him much in the ways of the wisdom of the Dùsgatàlaidar. She labored alongside him to maintain his isgeacha, which was toilsome and never-ending. Baeleir did not mind the toil, however, for he was glad to be of service to his beloved mur and their creations.

After a time, Eliador began to miss her husband and longed to see him. It had been many years since she had returned to him. But, she was reluctant to leave Baeleir to toil alone, and so, upon gazing into his heart, she took leave of him and sought him a mate that might toil with him. She again walked the entirety of Everlast peering into the hearts of all she came across, mur, elf, and fey alike. However, in so doing, something happened she did not intend; she began to learn that not every being is pure of heart. She saw jealousy and malice and sadness and all the negative things for which we are now so accustomed, and she saw them in the hearts of all mortals, be they mur, elf, or fey. She began to despair. This newfound knowledge had been hidden from her somehow, or else she had been unable to see it before, for she realized that it had always existed so.

Little did she know that Entassada had begun to yearn for his wife, and had begun searching for her within the mortal plane. It was at the height of her despair that he found her. She did not speak. She did not look at him.

“My wife, my love, my purist of light! You have seen that which you should never have seen! You have come to know that which you should never have known! The purity of your being is such that it cannot contest with these evils from which I have tried to protect you. I fear you have been tainted beyond mending! Woe for the planes that be for the loss of my dearest Eliador! Woe be the Dùsgatàlaidar for the loss of my dearest Eliador! My love, you must rise! You must walk! You must search your being for the rectification of your purity!”

Entassada wept as he left her, for he knew naught else could be done. No help could be found for Eliador, for no other soul was so pure. The reconciliation of her purity and this newfound evil would have to come within herself. And thus, she wandered. She wandered for years as if in a daydream. After a time, she found herself back in Belgaduin, Baelier still toiling away with his isgeacha as if no time at all had passed.

Enceilg of the Dùsgatàlaidar, then also known as The Curious, also walked the mortal plane at that time, and shortly after Eliador’s return did he find her together with Baelier. He too marveled at the creations of the mur and the isgeacha of Baelier, but he also saw the flaw overlooked. Water in those days was a finite resource, and Enceilg knew that it would run out eventually, and he began to wonder about things. He saw the sadness and despair of Eliador and knew of her purity and an idea began to grow within him, and his excitement could not be contained, and so he presented to her his idea.

“Eliador my friend, I wonder how you feel toward the mur creations you see before you.”

Eliador, bearing her never-ending sad demeanor, replied with a sigh, “They are wonderous.”

“Indeed, I agree. The mur give them life, they grow and are beautiful, but they eventually die. Do you see the constant drain on the waters to sustain this cycle?”

“Of course I do, Enceilg. But I also see the ingenious of Baelier’s isgeacha in his everlasting toil to provide the waters the creations require.”

“Ah, yes. It is ingenious, indeed. However, do you not see that the waters run lower than before? Do you not see the waters recede little by little with each cycle?”

And she watched for a time. The curiosity of Enceilg being infectious, she could not overcome her desire to confirm the truth of it. And she saw that he spoke true. She understood the ramifications and she became afraid for Baelier. Again, she looked into his heart and saw the purity therein, and her fear grew.

Enceilg had more to say, “I wonder. I wonder if there might be a way to sustain the cycle indefinitely.” He looked deep into her eyes so as to appear genuinely concerned. “The life out-flowing from you is never ending and I wonder. I wonder if you might be able to sustain their cycle instead of the water.”

For this, she did not know. She again peered into the heart of Baelier, yet this time she peered ever deeper and saw the nature of his purity: that being the love for the mur and their creations and an overbearing sense of wonder at the world around him. There was no malice or jealousy within him, only love and wonder, and for the first time in many a year, she felt a sort of joy. She could not allow this creation to die.

She began to give herself over to the mur’s creations. Her life force gave them a will of their own and they drank heartily. They ended their drink of the waters and only drank of the life force of Eliador. Soon, they sprouted seeds for their own procreation and more and more of them began to grow. They spread out from Belgaduin to the whole of Everlast before they had drained her completely and she was no more. All that was left of her was an abundance of red roses that grew about the place she once stood (now known as Carda Vale). The roses remain to this day.

Upon seeing what had transpired, Baelier felt something new within his chest, and he faltered. He looked around and found the flaw in his isgeacha and knew immediately what had transpired. He then realized his love for her and he began to weep openly. At the same time, Entassada sensed the life force of Eliador drain away and rushed to the place of her demise, guessed what had transpired, and also wept openly. Enceilg fled before him. Baelier and Entassada wept for many days.

Eventually, Baelier spoke, “Is she really gone? Is there no way to bring her back?! Oh, what cruel fate for pure Eliador!”

Drying his tears, Entassada searched deep within the mortal plane for any sign of her life force and after a time, he caught a glimpse of something that felt akin to her purity. He latched onto it and studied it for a time, but alas, he saw that it was not the same.

“She exists still, though she is Eliador no longer. She no longer has consciousness, though I sense there may be memories of her. Perhaps that is all that remains of who she once was. Furthermore, her life force is still being drained by the mur’s creations. Soon there will be nothing left.”

Baelier cried out, “No! There must be something we can do!”

Entassada searched himself for an answer. He poured the entirety of what creativity was given him to the task. At last, he found a solution, though the consequences would be dire.

“This new creation is unsustainable because it requires a cycle of renewal that does not yet exist on this mortal plane. Mortals die and their bodies fade, but this must change. Death must be used to fuel new life. Water consumed must be returned and water must be made readily available in all places where creation can grow. Energy must also be consumed and returned and made readily accessible. Accomplishing this will sustain Eliador’s (and the new creation’s) existence, and in so doing, we will create a new cycle for them to consume and take part in. Yes, we. You and I must do this. For it is not one cycle that need be created, but three, and three souls must be sacrificed in the doing.”

Entassada knew that no protestation would come from Baelier and he continued, “However! In doing this, I fear that we will lose all of who we are except for the memories that exist within our immaterial beings. Our memories will be all we have left until the end of this mortal plane, when even they shall perish.”

No words needed be spoken, for Entassada and Baelier knew that they would gladly give this sacrifice for their beloved. And thus, Entassada expended the entirety of his power, the three were unmade, and in their place, was born the cycle of nutrients, the cycle of waters, and the cycle of light. The only evidence of their prior existence is the scent of their collective memories which lingers after every rain.