h1

forest run; nightmare (take 2)

May 14, 2007

The air at four in the morning is colder than any air at any other part of the night, Sebastian had decided. He’d been awake at all hours of the day, and in various clothed and inebriated states, and this hour was by far the coldest. His teeth clattered together, which he clenched tight to stop, and his hands were numb almost to the delusional point of feeling warm again. Heavy black boots worked already sore calves into desperate fatigue. His breath was labored, and he strived to keep it as quiet as possible. No sound was to be tolerated.

This was a night march. A slow, silent trek through the Fickston National Forest, in which at any moment, they could be ambushed and killed by the roaming soldiers of the Fae that had stationed themselves between Rochester, Colorado and the roaming city they called “home.” The ambush would be swift; the death, severe. It was a matter of life or death in many ways, and this was simply how it had to be.

They, the Reality Liberation Front, stalked in shadows between trees. They numbered twenty, having divided into two squadrons for this mission. The other thirty or so had elected to stay back in their hometowns in order to maintain the daily surveillance of each identified invader. Seb suspected they were merely pussing out. He could have elected to stay at home, but that meant working his normal job, keeping up with bills and generally staying in the modern life time-stream, which he rejected.

Many luscious, drug-induced nights were there. The times when he’d seen too many things at once, or witnessed so violent a Twisting that he blacked out, unable to process so much information. The Blue Jean Parade. The Oracle of 15th and Yorkshire. Red-headed Johnson. All the facts of reality were going away, and all the proof of that had remained back in Havensee, TX. Here, though they tip-toed for their lives, a leaf was a leaf, a tree was a tree, and every squishy patch of soil would not suddenly become a den of rats under his feet.

Also, Tori was there. Nothing they’d said to each other one week ago tonight was kind or easy to hear. The witnesses to the fight, some of which were on the night march, could attest that it was indeed a fight. Fists flew, mostly at Sebastian. Words were exchanged, and it all ended when Tori landed him hard in the left eye with her right fist locked hard around a roll of quarters. Seb lightly touched the fan of swelling blue and purple on his cheek where the stitches were starting to fray. He remembered how the blood pooled in his vision, and how Eric’s dark driveway faded quickly into black. He also remembered how much his head hurt when he woke up on Eric’s couch hours later.

“Sebastian? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Sebastian groaned. “Get me a beer.”

“No, you should probably go back to sleep. Actually, we probably need to get you to a hospital.”

Seb quickly realized he still couldn’t see anything. Heavy sighing, even in realization, hurt too. “Yeah. Probably.”

The doctor that stitched him up had been an asshole, and obviously was doing a pretty bad job. The stitches Seb had from so many other fights never hurt this bad, and none of them seemed to come apart so quickly. He worried that the laceration might break open at any point. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, even with a first aid kit, he worried he’d be blind and useless.

He took his hand off his eye, remembering his aunt’s persistent advice not to pick at it, and immediately remembered other scars and scabs he had all over his body, which he treated very roughly. There were many wounds, some self-inflicted, some the inevitable consequences of having too much fun.

Behind him, near the back of the line, a leaf rustled. All twenty liberators froze, not even turning their backs to identify the one who vandalized their cover. Not that they had much time.

The longest second Seb had ever experienced ended abruptly as the six people directly behind him burst into flame. Seb exploded into motion.

Trees to his right started to glow a bright purple, following Seb through the dense woods like a string of Christmas lights. Two oaks up ahead, just as Seb and the four others before him pushed between them, splashed purple together like hot gelatin. It was a flash in his vision, but the sputtering drops that flew through the air as they collided into him burned a hole in his camouflage hoodie, all the way to his skin. He fought a scream, and leaped just in time to miss the feline column of ice that toppled from above.

The forest around them was going through a pubescent change, sprouting awkward body parts, legs, heads, phalluses, each grasping in his direction. Long locks of blond hair erupted from a nearby pine tree. Someone running behind him—somehow not hurt—let out a short chirp as the tree plucked her up into its now prehensile bough. Sebastian kept running, kept moving. The terror of surrealist fiction was spreading behind them like wildfire, and the only way out was to run. Get to the Hidden City, just beyond the forest. Get inside its limits, and they would stop following you. Those were Eric’s orders.

Screams followed from where the train had divided. A resulting shower of sparks exploded over Sebastian’s shoulder, confirming the fates they were told to expect. At this point, silence was no matter. He screamed for the rest of them to run faster, faster, go, go. Eric, leading the pack, yelled in affirmation, and was suddenly a lot further ahead of the five people behind him than he was moments before. Sebastian, last in the line, knew he had to keep up, or die.

The woman directly in front of him, Marta, Sebastian remembered without thinking, was not going to make it. She was overweight, hadn’t trained quite like she’d been instructed, and her labored breathing and limping gait were testament to it. She puppy-yelped when she tripped over a vine she’d not spotted, and took a hard fall. Sebastian didn’t budge his speed except forward, and used Marta’s back to propel him up over a large trunk stump. He felt her head push down into the wet peat, and could hear her crying for help, just before a deeper silence filled the air behind him. Sebastian considered his hesitation to save anyone, but remembered the words of someone wise: “The weak die first.”

Just in front of him, Seb could hear Olette crying out loud. He closed in on her a little, uneasy being in the back. Her face, or what Seb could see of it, was coated in tears and sweat, and, now that she’d ditched her heavy denim jacket, he could see blood smeared on the back of her neck. She cried something about how fucked up all of this was. It came out of her mouth in machine-gun rapidity and accuracy, over and over, bulleting against her tight jaw. Seb wanted to agree, but he was too busy running to think.

In the distance, mere yards ahead, the light of a village glowed. That was it, Seb told himself with an inward smile. We’re almost there.

Eric shouted for more, more, let’s go, let’s go, and Seb followed orders. Adrenaline tunneled his vision about then, and it was only moments before the dim glow of the village became the radiantly dark pulse of a city hidden in shadows. The thick grass and spongy earth fell away from his feet, and he now pounded hard, dry farmland. His feet traced out a trail between rows of what could have once been corn or cotton or some other unimportant vegetable. The air was fresher here, but it didn’t matter; nothing mattered but getting into the City. Eric was still far ahead of Seb, Olette, and two other men whose names he didn’t remember. They pushed hard to catch up. Seb winced at the sounds behind him, small ruptures like houses creaking and bones popping.

He glanced over his shoulder again to see that the forest was not the hundred yards behind him he was certain it was. He saw the vines creeping out of trees that also gave chase as they shot from the ground, fully grown. He saw birds and bobcats bolting out of solid stone. The forest itself was drawing nearer at a steadily accelerating speed.

He refocused on the space in front of him, seeing the city growing larger and closer all the time. He closed his eyes, frightened more than he thought possible, and said a silent prayer to a god he’d abandoned years before he knew he was godless. Beneath his lids, his eyes were met with a flicker of red, bright and furious, wearing the face of a young girl, who whispered a word to him. He couldn’t make it out, the face or the word, in the brief half-second he was blind, but that didn’t matter. The girl uttered the word, and Seb quickly realized how tired he was, how far he’d run, and he collapsed, hard, into packed dust and stone, the forest closing hard behind him. He couldn’t see it, but he knew he would soon be dead too, if only he could reach the city. If only…

His brain told him to reach out and touch that which he wanted to be much closer, but he simply couldn’t. All went black.

The next time he opened his eyes, it was daylight. The thatch over his head told him he wasn’t in the forest. The excruciating pain jetting down his right side told him he wasn’t dead. The voice that called out to him wasn’t familiar, and it told him he wasn’t alone. He closed his eyes again.

Nothing moved in his mind. No sounds, no oddities. Not even the single thoughts that had once pierced through the veil of slumber nights before. The killing silence felt warm to his barely-realizing brain, and he relished it as a dream he’d wanted for years. Being this far from consciousness had its merits, he decided.

Like a wedge placed between cracks in the grains of dry timber, fingers jutted into Seb’s view. Long red-tipped blades, nail-less hands ripped open the black before his eyes revealing a pale green shine surrounding a figure he recognized, but couldn’t place the image inside any previous memory. The fingers grew into pallor arms and shoulders, pouring through the narrow slit as though it were not vertebrate, or even exoskeletal. Eventually, the oozing form displayed a head full of spikes piercing through cheeks and eye-lids, the nose broken in two places and the prominent structure of the face seeming to slump around the jaw line. It maintained some humanoid features: two eyes, though both seeping a jaundiced puss; a mouthful of rusted incisors, ears that disappeared where the lobe might have been suggested, and a single lock of blood-red hair that matched the sharp ends of its horny hands. It fully pried open the darkness, and stepped inside.

“You have the damnedest time with us, don’t you, Sebastian?” The words formed in its maw, solidifying as seemingly written language. Seb didn’t recognize the words, but understood them clearly. The words fell out of the monster’s lips and collected at its calloused hooves. “Don’t worry, though,” it spilled. “We’ve been ordered not to let you die. Not yet anyway.”

Its lope resembled a cartoonish stalker, reaching slowly outward, gently touching the hard surface below, but never getting far. Its other bodily motions resembled the way water sloshes in a bucket when you kick it lightly. The creature was out of shimmering, seeming unstable. Even the light that emanated from its body played across its body like water reflections. The pulse of its skin glow felt like a cushion of morning breath, uncomfortable, too close. Sebastian remembered this sensation to be indicative of a Fae underling, or, as it referred to itself, an Agent. If Seb could have rolled his eyes or propped his feet up on an orange crate or ottoman, he would have. This dream, however, left him bodiless.

“I won’t stay long. I’m only the messenger. However, I do have to tell you something important.” Seb wanted to respond, but couldn’t, not even in an omnipresent, self-aware way.

“Your friends have been collected. All of them are dead,” it pushed closer to Sebastian splashing the words at its feet against something hard, causing a residual vibration to shoot in all directions in a dull buzz that could hurt your hands, “but for the one. Mallory, I do believe.” It wasn’t Mallory. There was not a Mallory in their group. Never had been. This was all a lie.

“We will release you from this hospitable home in three weeks. Hopefully, she will survive whatever we can think to do to her until then.” With that, it reached down and collected itself up in its own arms, pulling itself tighter and tighter until it sucked into a vanishing point. The peaceful black returned.

Seb knew this was they way they worked. Symbols, exaggerations, falsities pulled from the subconscious. They had no others tools. And though this was not vital information, it certainly had helped him deal with all the nightmares that had come long before this one. Something about the Agent’s words weren’t true, yet they weren’t completely false, and that was the rub. How can you expect to make any sense from a creature that lived only in the extremes of imagination, pulling all the factual information it could muster from whatever bits of neurochemical jargon it could get its grubby claws on at any given REM moment? Not the most efficient way of working, yet highly effective, given the situation. Luckily, he had a supposed three weeks to work out any details he could fathom.

Seb rolled his proverbial eyes back to face what would have been eyelids, and let himself drift in the void of his own mind.

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