Posts Tagged ‘Bite’

A Messy Divorce (Short Story Excerpt)

January 18, 2017

1.

Happy birthday to me, James Jefferson Ruddock—“J.J.” to his friends, “Jimmy” to his family, and “James” to his soon-to-be-ex-wife—hummed to himself, setting a small cake on his kitchen table. Happy birthday to me—

Scowling, J.J. let out an awful belch.

Haaappy biiirthday, dear J.J….

Another pause, this time to let out a long, mournful sigh. J.J.’s wide chest rose and fell with the effort. His shoulders twitched. His chin drooped. He stood there, all alone. A great big bear of a man, half drunk, feeling every wretched moment of his age, trying like hell to find one thing—just one—to feel happy about. Anything at all.

Happy birthday…to meee!

“Alright,” J.J. grumbled, clapping his large, calloused hands. He reached for his half-full—or half-empty, in J.J.’s current state of mind—bottle of Wild Turkey, swallowed a good-sized knock, and belched again.

“Another year older, J.J., ol’ buddy! An all by yourself on your birthday. How fantastic is that?”

Quivering with rage, J.J. cast his eyes to the dark ceiling and ran his free hand through his thick, black, forelocks. He wore his hair long, and at the end of its swoop J.J.’s hand closed around the rear length and tossed it from his shoulders. That felt better. Not much, but less disheveled. The wayward hand then swung around and smoothed the front of his beard. He kept that long, too. Long, but well-manicured. Not bushy. J.J. couldn’t stand the sight of wild facial hair.

Huh! Call me an animal, after all I did for her!

J.J.’s left hand tightened around the bottle. His right hand curled into a white-knuckled fist. His jaw clenched. His lips twisted into a feral moue. At that moment he would’ve given anything to have his soon-to-be-ex-wife there with him, bound and gagged, just within arm’s length.

Sneering at his own pain, J.J. grunted. “Damn you, Brenda.”

Sighing, the bitter celebrant lowered his chin, took another swig of whiskey, and paused to admire his dessert. A plain, round, German chocolate cake, frosted with coconut. He’d bought it at the grocery store along with a pack of blood-red birthday candles, then arranged the candles to show his age. It had taken eight of them to form the 3, and another eight to form the 9. With the lights out, the flickering flames spelled out the exact number of years he’d been alive to the shadows and anyone else who cared to know:

39

And beside that glowing cake sat a plain business envelope, addressed to James Ruddock, with the words:

OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS

stamped in red ink across its face.

J.J looked from the cake to the envelope, then back again. “Some birthday present,” he muttered, raising the bottle to his lips. The whiskey stung the tip of his tongue, creating a shaft of pleasant heat which ran from the top of his gullet to the depths of his large belly. He took in half a mouthful, but didn’t swallow. Relishing the flavor. The sting. The heat. The approaching stupor.

Damn that woman, anyway…

Standing there, swaying on his feet, J.J. stared into the candles on his birthday cake. Their hypnotic glow soothed him almost as much as the whiskey, leaving him oblivious to the surrounding shadows. Beneath his beard, a grin formed. The urge to spit that cheekful of Wild Turkey at the flames came on strong, and in his mind he pictured a majestic fireball erupting from the wanton act.

But, no; that wouldn’t do anything except ruin the moment and the cake.

Flicking his eyes back to that loathsome envelope, J.J. felt another wild urge. Why not just snatch the damned thing up and hold it over the candles until it caught fire? Why not just stand there and watch his troubles go up in smoke?

But, no; that wouldn’t do anything except delay the inevitable.

Pondering those sad facts, J.J.’s eyes began to glisten. From the whiskey, of course. Not the searing heartbreak. Not the dull pain in his uncompromising heart. Not that.

No way.

Screw it! J.J. thought, throwing his head back and gulping the whiskey into his stomach. “An screw her!” he finished aloud, slamming the bottle down beside the envelope—

Thunk!

J.J. grimaced from the knock, then leant forward, planting his rough palms on each end of the small fold-up table. The ring on his left hand glimmered in the candlelight.

Whoo-eee! Strong stuff!”

It took a moment for J.J.’s mind to clear. Eyes shut, face bunched, he shook his head, causing hair and beard to splay as if hit by a sudden gust of wind, then belched again, causing the miniature flames to dance as if hit by the same gust. “Now,” he said with all seriousness, his glassy eyes open and alert and fixed upon the blazing 39…

“What should I wish for?”

J.J. lived in a doublewide trailer home, parked in a shabby trailer court. He’d lived there since dropping out of college due to a severe meniscus tear. Up to that point, from the age of six, football had been his entire life. He’d played all through elementary, middle, and high school. How he’d loved slamming his shoulder pads into the wannabe tough guys at every high school in the state. And he’d found it even more satisfying on the college level. The rush of adrenaline, the roar of the crowd, the thrill of victory after battering everything in his path; it all made him feel like a winner. A gladiator. A true beast among men.

Then, on one cold autumn night many years ago, another beast had slammed into him at a bad angle, causing him to fall the wrong way. And with all that weight toppling down…

“Son,” Dr. Tolbert said after the surgery, “you’ll be able to play again, but you won’t be as fast. And another injury to that same knee might leave you with permanent damage. Get me?”

Yeah. J.J. got him, alright. When a man’s forced to swallow all his pride in one gulp he’s always afraid he might choke. But J.J., in true bestial fashion, chewed his up real well before turning in his helmet and cleats. And there went his football scholarship, too. Still, he couldn’t complain. The construction business had been good to him over the years. He owned his trailer free and clear, owned his truck, and felt comfortable knowing that he had no debts.

Except one.

Brenda Rose Galway. He owed her a broken heart.

So. The time had come at last. What the hell should he wish for?

Still leaning over the small table, still staring into the ornate row of hot, orange-yellow tongues lapping the air, J.J. sighed, trying to focus his beer—and whiskey—addled mind. Brow furrowed, lips pursed, his cold blue eyes took on an odd gleam; catlike; reflecting a fire within, and the fire below. He looked deep into those tiny flames, past them, and into the murky haze of his dying marriage…

J.J. remembered the moment he first met Brenda Galway; walking into the Quickie-Mart near downtown to buy a six-pack and fill up his truck. She’d worked there as a cashier, and smiled as he came in. How young and sweet and innocent she’d seemed back then…

J.J remembered one night in the throes of passion when, quite to his surprise, Brenda had made a strange and unnerving request. “Bite me, lover!” she’d whispered, clutching his thick neck with both arms and burying his mouth into her shoulder. “Bite me hard!” At first, he’d been reluctant…but her insistence overcame his timidity. So he’d bitten her. Just hard enough to leave marks in her pale flesh for a day or so. And from then on that strange act became a semi-regular part of their lovemaking.

An what a sucker I was for not bitin’ her throat out when I had the chance!

Shaking his head, J.J. remembered the day when it all began to unravel. The day he’d found out what Brenda had been doing behind his back. The day he’d found those pills in her purse and confronted her in the very kitchen in which he now stood. Oh, God, that long, miserable, contentious day when he’d found out what a lying, conniving, heartless, woman he’d married all those years ago—

“Yeah, I found out, alright. Found out a lotta things. I found out what you really are. An I found out what I really am, too. Nothin’ but a big goddamn dummy.”

The bear grunted, bared his sharp shiny teeth at the birthday cake.

“Yeah, Brenda, why don’tcha come on over now? I’ll be more than happy to clamp my jaws on your…warm…throat…”
J.J. paused, letting his words drift off like the smoke trails from the candles below. A moment passed, gravid with possibility, then he grinned.

“That’s it! That’s my wish!”

Then he laughed. Long, loud, and hearty. A cruel, vengeful, satisfied sound which shook his massive frame and brought tears of a different sort to his eyes. The culmination of eight years’ rage and regret. And when the last chuckle and snort passed over his lips, J.J. Ruddock closed his wet eyes and made his thirty-ninth birthday wish:

“Hey, uh, God? It’s me, J.J. I prayed to you a lot as a boy. I prayed before every game, remember? But seein’ as how it’s my birthday an my wish ain’t too holy, an seein as how it’s Halloween an all…well, I guess I better direct this prayer to the other guy. The guy with the horns an the pitchfork, ya know…

“Please forgive me. Just this once…”

An now, here’s goes nothin’.

“So, uh, anyway. Devil, can ya hear me? I’m callin’ out to you tonight, an it ain’t the whiskey talkin’, neither! I’m aimin’ to get your evil, undivided attention. You hear? It’s your night, ain’t it? Halloween? Spooks an ghosts an witches an vampires, an who knows what all roamin’ around?

“Well, it’s my night, too, goddamnit! My birthday! An I want my wish!

“Do ya hear me, son? I WANT MY WISH!”

Coughing, shaking from the fury in his words, J.J. squeezed his eyelids as tight as he could, afraid that if he opened them even for a second the feeling would be lost and the spell would be broken.

“Alright, Devil. I’m sure ya got my point so I’ll get on with it. What I want, what I need, is to somehow get Brenda back in my clutches…so I can bite her one last time. So I can sink my teeth deep into her fleshy ass an chew it up to my heart’s content. Raw an bloody, just like that steak I ate tonight—”

Again, this bear of a man laughed. Again, he belched. And with each exhalation the flickering flames danced ever higher, as if reaching for J.J.’s breath; as if wanting to be extinguished so his wish could be fulfilled.

“So let it be written, so let it be done! Be it known that on this day, October thirty-first, All Hallows Eve, my birthday, The Year Of Our Lord, Two Thousand an Thirteen, beneath a full moon, I, James Jefferson Ruddock, do hereby wish for vicious, awful, blood-drenched vengeance upon my soon-to-be-ex-wife, Brenda Rose Galway-Ruddock!”

Another pause, but no laughter, no belch. Just silence. Solemn. Dreadful. The sound of judgment passed; of verdict given; after the gavel falls but before it strikes the pad.

“Amen,” J.J. finished. “Amen.”

And with that, this great big bear huffed, and puffed, and blew his whiskey-breath over the cake, over the shimmering 39, flexing his belly, straining his lungs, trying with all his heart to extinguish every last flame in one symbolic act.

But J.J. needn’t have worried or strained. The candles went out with ease, one by one, as if they wanted to die. As if their deaths had been ordained by some higher—or lower—force.

And…as the last candle shuddered out, a single tear fell from J.J.’s left eye.

2.

With the candles extinguished, J.J. found himself in darkness. Not total, unrelenting darkness, but shadowy, phantasmal darkness. The glow of a streetlamp bled through the kitchen window, and pale moonlight shone through the cracks in the blinds in the living room. Just enough radiance to make out shapes of things around him, yet just enough to play endless tricks on his whiskey-burdened mind.

But darkness didn’t scare J.J.

Never had, never would.

Still leaning over the table, the big bear shook his head as if he’d just been whacked on the jaw. Gotta be the booze, he decided, blinking the sudden grogginess away.

That, an gettin’ myself all worked up…

Thin tendrils of smoke wafted up from the spent candles. J.J. coughed, then straightened to his full, monstrous height. In silhouette he looked like a great, hairy ogre standing in the kitchen of an ordinary man’s house. Indeed, the top of his head almost touched the ceiling.

“Well,” J.J. grumbled, snatching his Wild Turkey from the table, “here’s to gettin’ all worked up!”

He took a slug from the bottle and grinned as sweet flames lit up his throat.

“Goddamn, that’s good! An now, nothin’ left to do but cut the—”

Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump!

J.J. jerked and jumped at the jolting sound. He wheeled around, swaying on his bare feet, and faced the living room. Whiskey sloshed in the bottle at his side. His hand tightened around the neck.

“WHAT THE—?”

Thump-thump-thump!

And then he understood. Halloween night. A tiny fist knocking at his abode. A tiny fist attached to a tiny boy or girl craving something sweet and good to eat. Trick-or-treaters! J.J. realized, grinning a more satisfied—and malicious—grin than when he’d cursed his soon-to-be-ex-wife…and began creeping toward the front door.

3.

Ugh!” Colin Ryerson sighed, knocking for the second time—

Thump-thump-thump!

—and suppressing a yawn. How had he, of all the rotten luck, gotten stuck chaperoning his younger sister and even younger cousin? Easy. Lame parents. Lame parents who insisted he come along to visit his grandparents at their ghetto trailer court, and, oh, gosh, wouldn’t it be great if he’d take the girls around while the grownups sat around yapping about nothing?

Yeah, great. I could be home right now, making out with Audrey “B.J Queen” Lang and actually enjoying life. But nooo. Mom’s gotta have a shit-fit over the girls’ costumes and go see Nanny and Poppy.

“Maybe no one’s home,” Nina Ryerson said, turning to her brother. She’d dressed up as an 80s glam-rocker; frizzy pink wig, big yellow Elton John sunglasses, a neon blue leotard, and to complete the ensemble, a plastic guitar; hot pink, hanging from her shoulder by a rainbow strap.

“Duh!” Colin answered. “That’s a good bet since the lights are off, geekazoid.”

“Well, you don’t hafta be mean about it! You’re just mad cuz you couldn’t stay home and play kissy-face with you’re bimbo girlfr—”

“Audrey ain’t my girlfriend, dork.”

“God! I swear, you think you’re sooo cool just cause you’re fourteen.”

Colin shook his head. “Aw, shut up. Let’s go.”

Gertie Torino, Colin and Nina’s seven year old cousin, frowned at them. Why did they have to fight so much? The little girl had worn a tutu and dancing shoes, her soft auburn hair in pigtails, and at that moment looked like the saddest ballerina in the world.

“Come on, guys. Stop arguing. There’s only one more house left on this row, anyways.”
Nina turned to her cousin and smiled. Both girls clutched orange plastic bags decorated with cartoonish vampire bats, and looked forward to sharing their bounty once they got back home.

“Okay, Gertie. Let’s go.”

“Great idea.” Colin stepped between them, left hand falling upon Nina’s left shoulder, right hand upon Gertie’s right shoulder. “Now move it.”

But just as they turned to leave, the front door swung inward and something leapt from the darkness onto the porch—

RAAAHHHWRRR!

Perched on the bottom step, all three children flinched, screamed, and fell backward. Going down, the girls flung their precious bags into the night and wrapped themselves around Colin. The boy hugged them close, still thinking of their safety despite his own panic, and tried to cushion the fall for all of them—

Thud!

The startled children landed in a heap. Colin felt the impact on his tailbone, both girls scraped their elbows, but nothing serious. The resultant cacophony of squeals, shrieks, and yells echoed down the dark street.

“Jesus, girls! Run!”

Nina and Gertie scrambled to their feet, both now bawling in terror. Poor little Gertie had almost wet herself from the shock. That growl hadn’t sounded human! So bestial, so sinister; something like the buzz of a chainsaw crossed with a lion’s roar. Enough to send two small girls scampering for their very lives.

Holy shit!

Eyes wide, heart hammering, Colin rolled to his knees, scuffing up his designer jeans. He saw the shape on the porch, outlined in shadow, standing very still. A man, after all. A big man. Either wearing a wig or possessing quite a mane of hair. Getting to his feet, the boy’s temper exploded:

“Hey! Just what is wrong with you, mister? You just scared the crap outta my sister and cousin!”

“An you, too, I bet,” the giant shadow replied in a deep, truculent voice. Then it began to laugh. A big, satisfied, belly-laugh; too loud; too long; the guffaw of a dumb redneck who’s had way too much whiskey.

Maddening to the indignant boy’s ears.

“Yeah, real funny, jerk! I oughtta call the cops on your retarded ass right now!”

“Jerk?” the ominous shadow repeated, snorting more laughter. “Cops? You really need to get a sense of humor, kid…”

Okay, moron.

Smirking, Colin reached into his pocket to retrieve his phone. He had two numbers on speed-dial: Audrey “B.J. Queen” Lang, and 911. “Oh, I got your sense of humor…right…here…”

But the threat—which he’d meant to enforce—never left Colin’s mouth. Because the man had just stepped forward into the light, exposing a face Colin wished he’d never seen.

Oh, shit!

“That’s right, kid. Just what I thought. Now get on home before I jerk you up by the throat an spank your narrow ass. Hear me? An tell your ol’ man he better not come a-knockin’ or else I’ll do the same to him, only ten times worse.”
Then the savage man smiled. An awful, demonic smile which Colin never forgot.

“Trick-or-treat, huh, kid? Whaddya say?”

Oh, screw this!

With an odd exhalation—not quite a groan, not quite a whimper—Colin Ryerson forgot about calling the cops and started running. What he’d just seen had frightened him to the marrow and he couldn’t get away fast enough. Away from that crazed, evil-looking man who liked to scare little kids. Whose eyes had glittered like yellow diamonds in the moonlight; like a feral cat he’d once seen in his backyard. Whose teeth had looked like razor sharp fangs; not fake vampire teeth, either. And whose hands looked more like claws, capable of cleaving him in two with one swat.

4.

Aw, hell! J.J. thought, feeling a sudden pang of regret at his cruel prank. Poor little girls lost all their hard-earned candy…

Nice move, jerk.

The big man had taken one step down his porch when it began. His bare right foot emerged from shadow, looking very much like a mastiff’s paw; twice as much hair as before. But J.J. didn’t notice his foot—or the extra hair which had sprouted on his forearms—because he’d begun to itch all over. A deep, burning itch, far beneath the skin. J.J. wanted to scratch, to tear, at his own flesh as a sudden dizziness came over him.

“What the…?”

J.J. groaned, staggered, and caught himself in the doorway. In his newfound agony he also didn’t notice the extra length of his fingernails.

“Christ!”

Now a fever set in to compliment the burning itch, as if J.J.’s internal temperature had shot up into the danger zone. Much hotter than he’d ever felt before. Like being roasted from the inside out.

“What…what’s happening?”

The bear took a deep breath, felt his stomach clench as if rejecting the crisp night air. He grunted, falling to his butt in the threshold of the doorway. For a moment J.J. thought—and hoped—he’d puke up whatever had caused the pain.

I’m screwed here! Royally! Gonna need an ambulance!

But screwed didn’t quite do J.J.’s situation justice. Every bone in his body ached. The muscles in his arms and legs burned. He itched from head to toe. Pain stabbed at his eyes. His teeth throbbed. His tongue felt thick and useless. Every inch of the big man suffered in some way; steeped in misery, right down to his very soul.

Oh, for Christ’s sake! What in God’s name is…?

But the thought died away, replaced by a dreadful certainty. J.J knew what had happened, and why. After all, he’d called out to the darkness—

Do you hear me, son? I WANT MY WISH!

—he’dmade that vengeful plea—

Raw an bloody, just like that steak I had tonight.

—and he’d blown out the candles, sealing his own fate.

“Oh, no! No, no, no! I’m crazy but I ain’t that cra—”

Again, J.J.’s stomach clenched, cutting off his useless appeal for mercy and making him scream.

“JESUS! Please stop this! I-I cant take no mo—”

Another spasm. Another scream. Another worthless prayer.

“Naw! This ain’t how I meant it! This ain’t even—

GRRRAAAHHH!

This time, J.J. rocked back, falling into the shadowy recesses of his home. Snarling. Whimpering. Tearing at his clothes and writhing like a rabid dog. But before he collapsed, J.J. saw the last thing he’d see with human eyes on this soon-to-be-gory evening:

The moon.

Full and bright, peering at him from the darkness like some lidless, alien eye. Silent. Stoic. Not passing judgment, yet working the malignant will of hell.


“A Messy Divorce” is part of the collection: Living The Nightmare.

Available for digital download @ https://books2read.com/u/4NR629

Available in paperback through Amazon.com @ https://www.amazon.com/dp/1986415325

Thank you for reading!

JLR

Blood & Stuffing (Short Story)

March 26, 2015

blood-stuffingFrom the journal of famed adventurer, Max Condor, circa 2015:

Have you ever looked into the eyes of a velveteen nightmare? Well, I have–and I assure you, it’s not pretty. The first time you’re cornered by a vicious, rabid Plushie, and you have to stare into its black, beady gaze, you know the true meaning of the word fear. And here on Teddy Bear Island, fear is woven into the very atmosphere. You breathe it like oxygen. You learn real fast to either embrace it and let it motivate you to survive, or it’ll clog your lungs like mothballs and force you underground.

Strength through fear, or death through unwillingness to adapt and survive. On Teddy Bear Island, that’s the only choice you get. Luckily for me, I made my choice a long time ago.

But…who are the Plushies? What are they? Where did they come from? How did they come to power? I guess nobody knows; nor does anyone know who built that accursed Teddy Bear Temple. For myself, I just know that I’ve lived in that evil Teddy Bear shadow my whole life. And from everything I’ve seen and experienced in this place, I can honestly say one thing for certain: the only good Plushie, is a dead Plushie. Because that’s the bottom line. We humans are now the hunted…so it’s us, or them…in a war to the death…

That’s how I’ve come to find myself hiding in this musty cave a few miles south of The Temple. No food, no water. A tight ball of fear in my stomach. Waiting for death, so I can join my comrades in the afterlife.

You see, I’m the only one left. One of three. Max Condor; brigand, scout, and expert with the longbow. Phoenix Kline; adept of the mystic arts. And Raven-In-The-Wood; warrior, and master of the sword. I’d known Phoenix since childhood. Raven I met one day while exploring. The three of us quickly formed a partnership; venturing out to wage a guerilla campaign against the Plushies. We’d figured at the time that three was the magic number. Too small to draw much attention, but enough to get ourselves out of any trouble we might stumble into. Three was perfect for splitting the overnight watches on our campouts, and each of us felt safer knowing he had two other professionals watching his back. Not to mention that our combined talents made us more resourceful than twice as many average explorers.

In short, we were the best. We made names for ourselves very quickly. Everyone knew us, far and wide, though very few actually knew our faces. We gave the others hope. Hope that the Plushies wouldn’t prey on humankind forever. Hope that one day all of the evil on Teddy Bear Island would be vanquished. And with every mission, with every success, the flame of humanity began to burn higher, and ever brighter.
But this time, something went wrong.

It began with the amulet. Early in his training, Phoenix had heard whisperings of the “Baal de Fuego,” a powerful amulet that gives its possessor ultimate control over fire. Phoenix, in his study of mystical lore, had specialized in the summoning of elements. Wind, lightning…and fire. Especially fire! Nothing scares the hell out of, or utterly ruins a Plushie quite like an open flame. Unfortunately, summoning elements is quite taxing and dangerous to those who wield those powers. But, supposedly, this Baal de Fuego grants its owner the power to summon, control, and intensify any fire with frightening ease. Only a trained spell caster can touch it without erupting into flame, and in the hands of an elemental sorcerer it could turn our war against the Plushies around.

I have to admit, I lusted after that amulet almost as much as Phoenix did. I love the smell of charred Plushie in the morning.

So, after many long hours of poring through ancient spell books, contemplating the riddles offered by his mentors, and studying maps, Phoenix–and subsequently, Raven and I–came to believe that the Baal de Fuego had been either lost or buried somewhere within the web of caverns in which I now hide. It didn’t take long for us to agree on the course of action which ultimately led to our destruction. But there was no way to know that at the time. All we knew was that the Baal de Fuego belonged in no wizard’s hands save Phoenix Kline’s, and we meant to find it!

Fortunately, the caverns we sought were but three days journey from Canary La; a small village we’d passed through many times before. The locals knew us, and our reputations could buy most anything we’d need at a fraction of the cost. So we made our way there, slowly, carefully, avoiding trouble and rationing our supplies. Once at Canary La, we rested for two days, stocked up, and finalized our plan.

The first day went smoothly. We left just before dawn, invigorated by the slight chill, and comfortable in the shadowy wilderness. Most of the creatures around us were asleep, or drifting in that direction. The trail was familiar and well-worn, and nothing arose to disturb us. As we walked, Phoenix kept watch straight ahead. Raven, bringing up the rear, watched behind us. I, of course, kept my gaze slightly elevated, scanning the trees for any Plushies crouching on the limbs. At midday, we stopped at a clearing and ate. When we finished, the sun had moved, and we found ourselves walking in the shadow of the Plushie Temple. And though we’d grown used to it, the deep shadow served as a constant reminder that walking death lay all around us.

That night, we all felt so good that we walked an hour past our agreed stopping point. We made camp in a small grove near several large trees. After dinner, we extinguished our fire and camouflaged our makeshift beds with leaves and sticks. Raven, spry as the devil, had taken first watch, followed by myself, then Phoenix. Each of us slept soundly in our allotted time, and awoke refreshed and ready.
I can’t speak for my fallen comrades, but I know that first night I dreamt of fire. A whole mountain of flames, cascading down like an avalanche and sweeping up every last Plushie in its scorching wake.

It was a good dream. Probably my last.

The second day, things changed. It had been warm and sunny, but a certain stillness settled around us. The woods were silent. No wind. No birds. No Plushies. We all felt uneasy, but ultimately chalked it up to good fortune. No obstacles meant we’d find the Baal de Fuego sooner.

A few hours in, the trail we were following…just…ended. Disappeared; as if no one had ever gone any further than that desolate spot in the forest. Here, we found ourselves at the base of a small hill. Nothing we hadn’t tackled before, though. So we dug in our heels and made our own trail. The ground became rocky about halfway up, dust swirled around our faces, and still…no signs of life anywhere.

We’d planned to stop and eat at the peak, but that quickly changed.

At the base of the hill lay a short field. Beyond the field was another dense wood, leading to our destination. We’d expected the hill. We’d expected the forest. What we hadn’t expected, was the carnage below…

Looking down, we saw a horrid sight. Truly horrid. It looked like a dumping ground for corpses. Not human, thankfully. But, perhaps more disgustingly, Koboldian. To me, Kobolds are nauseating creatures–even when alive. Short, mongrel-headed, bestial, and smelly. And now, I was facing a small field littered with their remains. Bodies piled upon bodies. Some of them headless, with large, ragged wounds adorning their necks; as if their entire skulls had been bitten off. Severed arms, legs, hands, and feet strewn about the blood-soaked earth. A massacre. A slaughter. And pervading this grisly tableau, a gigantic cloud of black, buzzing, flies.

“We stand at the threshold of hell!” Raven cried, recoiling from the sight.

“Steady!” Phoenix soothed, placing his hand upon Raven’s shoulder. “Once we’ve passed through this wicked place, and the Baal de Fuego rests in my palm, I shall set it all ablaze! We’ll watch the filth burn to ash and be scattered by the four winds!”

And I? Well, I simply stared in mute shock and fought to keep my gorge from rising. But then more unpleasantness arose. It brings to mind the Zen riddle about the tree falling and no one to hear it. Ascending that rocky hill, we’d heard no sound whatsoever. But standing there, gaping at the fly-speckled field, we heard a sudden roar of insect wings. It felt as if we had thousands of flies, mites, and bees buzzing inside our heads, and it struck us all with preternatural fear.

From stone silence to a whirlwind; as if the haunting sound only manifested once someone actually saw the grotesquerie on display.

Pondering that still makes me shudder.

I shall now spare you, dear reader, of the horrors–both visual and nasal–that we endured whilst trekking through that plain of rotting Kobolds. Suffice to say that we did this with great alacrity, hurrying with all the zeal of scared rabbits at the sound of thunder. And, disturbingly, once we’d slipped across the threshold into the dark forest beyond, the terrible buzzing faded from our ears as if it had never been. Out of sight, out of mind. No one to hear it any longer.

And from there, things only worsened. The wilderness we found ourselves in was dense with gnarled trees, sharp rocks, and a putrid, rotted smell. Like a dry swamp. And all about us, the sounds of a savage jungle. Skittering behind every bush. Fluttering in every tangle of branches. Snarls and growls echoing in the distance. The odd sound of heavy footsteps thumping into the earth.

“Merciful fate,” Raven whispered. “I have never felt so menaced as I do now.”

Silent, Phoenix and I nodded without looking at our friend. We’d heard the fear in Raven’s voice; neither of us cared to see it in his gaze.

What Raven had specifically referred to was the undeniable feeling of being watched. Something out there was stalking us. Something big and deadly. Tracking our every move. Perhaps more than one. Perhaps we’d been surrounded and just didn’t know it.

We were very near that wicked Temple, which only added to our unease.

Still, we pushed onward. Stealth no longer mattered, so we picked up the pace, marching single file toward our destiny. With every step, the ground became harder, the stench worsened, and The Temple’s shadow darkened. Time itself began to unravel. Night descended upon us like a tidal wave, and before we knew it, we were huddled around a fire, eating quietly and struggling to keep our fears in check.

That night was a mellow disaster. Nothing came alive or attacked us, but we were weakened, nonetheless. All of us slept fitfully, and our watches were plagued with incident. For Raven, it was an extended flurry of those heavy steps, as if several Plushies were hurrying toward us. It prompted him to rouse Phoenix and I, only to be embarrassed when we heard nothing save the night wind. For Phoenix, a dreadful moaning arose from the shadows, as if someone desperately needed help. Refusing to wake Raven and I, the sorcerer resolved to find the source of the anguish without aid, allowing himself to be drawn further and further away from camp…’til at last he realized his folly and rushed back. For me, I had to contend with the appearance of a large viper near the fire pit. How it slithered in unnoticed, I shall never know. As luck would have it, however, I caught the creature as it coiled near Raven. It bared its fangs and struck as I approached, but I dodged and beheaded it with my trusty dagger.

Thus, tired and aggravated, Phoenix, Raven, and I greeted the dawn with sighs of relief, packed our gear, and trudged on.

Unfortunately, nothing in the hellish forest had changed. In fact, it had worsened. The gnarled trees looked gnarlier. The sharp rocks were sharper. The putrid reek was the apotheosis of putrescence. Skittering, fluttering, snarls, growls, thumps in the distance; as if every living thing was agitated at our presence. And still, we saw nothing. Still, we felt watched.

How my flesh crawls just remembering it!

Ah, but the allure of Baal de Fuego drove us onward. Once found, we believed, the Plushies would fear our merry little band and we’d be the saviors of humanity. It was an honest, exalted dream, but ultimately doomed to fail. I just hope that within our failure others may find something of value to learn…

So. With our failure not quite realized and our dream intact, Phoenix, Raven, and I reached what seemed like a suitable clearing to stop, rest, and eat. Here, the terrain seemed less menacing, less…hostile. Yet we still felt ill-at-ease as we dropped our packs and settled down for a hearty meal of bread, nuts, dried beef, and water. Normally on our treks, we’d hunt for edible leaves and berries along the way. But there, in that terrible place, none of us dared.

And what happened next was my worst nightmare come to life.

No sooner than we’d fished out our provisions, there came a thunderous roar. All eyes snapped upward. All jaws dropped. A massive pink body hurtled toward us, followed by gray, then powder blue. A Plushie sneak attack. Bunnies. Floppy eared, buck toothed, and clawed. Huge. Enormous. The biggest damn Plushies any of us had ever seen. But the insidious thing was that they’d been stalking us from the trees. Some unholy charm had rendered them invisible, and only then, at the moment of attack, could they be seen.

“Hellfire!” Phoenix screamed, raising his arms.

A moment later, Pink landed, knocking Raven over with a sweep of its gigantic claw. Phoenix and I leapt to our feet as Gray and Blue thudded into the earth. Phoenix had no time to begin a spell, so he pulled his short sword and, in one deft maneuver, sliced Blue’s left floppy ear off and dove into a nearby bramble for cover. Blue howled in agony and stamped its ugly feet. Bow in hand, I notched an arrow and, with one eye on Raven, fell into retreat.

All would-be adventurers take note: Plushies are strong and vicious, but slow and dimwitted. So I, not being the most formidable warrior, rely on treachery. And as Gray lumbered toward me, I spun and sank an arrow into Pink’s back as it swiped in vain at Raven. Pink straightened, screamed, and Raven seized the opportunity, drawing his broadsword and leaving a large gash in Pink’s chest. Gray, meanwhile, rushed me as I notched another arrow. Raven’s face already showed signs of the heavy blow he’d taken, but otherwise my friend was in rare form, ducking Pink’s claws and dealing savage blows in return. I managed to sink an arrow in Gray’s belly and thumped his head with my bow, but paid for it when his claw swept my right leg out from under me. And Phoenix, as usual, had scurried off so that he could put his sorcery to good use. One-eared Blue, however, had turned its attention toward the battle between Pink and Raven.

It should here be noted that Plushies don’t die easily. One of my arrows to the chest would kill a man, but these giant, stuffed, monstrosities must be hacked and slashed several times over to stop them. It’s the main reason they’re so tough to fight. But I digress. The end is night; let me get these words onto the page before I lose my chance.

So there I was, at the feet of Gray. Snarling, drooling, bleeding, Gray was enraged, trying to decapitate me. I rolled; once, twice, and again, putting distance between myself and the damned bunny. It was enough. I notched another arrow, and this time I scored a direct hit to the face! Gray shrieked as scarlet teardrops tinged its fur. I then unleashed my dagger and rushed in for the kill, stabbing Gray’s soft belly again and again. Somewhere behind us, I heard Raven’s grunts of exertion and Pinks howls of misery. I knew Blue was also closing in, and though I’d often seen Raven defeat two Plushies at once, these two were enormous and no doubt able to sustain an incredible amount of damage. This I was finding out as I took another swipe from Gray. Angered, I responded by gouging its throat, and at last, Gray sank to its knees and collapsed.

Gasping for breath, I turned to see Raven in full melee with Blue. Pink’s ruined form lay behind Raven, limbless and lifeless. We’d all but won. I knew what was coming, but even so, I notched an arrow and sank it into Blue’s left flank. Blue stiffened, squealed, and was run through by Raven’s ruddy blade. Then, before Blue could even blink, he burst into flames. All thoughts of attack left Blue’s evil brain as it fell flailing to the ground. Smirking, Phoenix appeared from the forest depths, and the three of us surrounded the dying Plushie. Silent, solemn, we watched without pity as that bloodied, flaming, bunny died its slow, painful death. We could’ve hastened its end with a few quick slashes, but we didn’t.

Finally, when the flames died, we looked around, taking in the awful sights. Three dead Plushies littered the clearing, blood and stuffing all around. Grinning, we breathed a collective sigh of relief…but before we could even begin to understand what had happened, we heard a heavy thump quite near us.

“Oh, no!” I wailed. “What have we brought upon ourselves?”

What, indeed? Because there before us stood another blue rabbit. Gargantuan. Snarling. Claws flexed and ready to rend. And behind it, another Gray.

“Then the legends are true!” Phoenix replied to me. “But I never, ever would’ve believed–”

I don’t know how Phoenix meant to end that sentence. Before he could finish, a roar arose behind us. And there stood another Plushie, this one brown and just as angry as its brethren. Beside it stood an orange teddy bear, grinning that idiot grin which all teddies seem to have.

Thus, four more Plushies–with more on the way, I’m sure.

“RETREAT!” Raven yelled, already running from the horrible scene. “FALL BACK!”

“INTO THE FOREST!” I added, following Raven’s lead.

Phoenix, muttering an incantation, broke into a run beside us.

And there we went. Running blindly, foolishly, into the wilderness. Into The Temple’s malicious shadow. But also, toward the caves we’d originally sought. Flames leapt up around us as Phoenix unleashed his innate powers in a frenzy. Phoenix had poor control while in such a state, but I hoped as I ran that the flames would spread and burn the whole damned forest to the ground. Maybe even spread to that accursed Temple and burn the Plushie idol to ashes.

That’s the only thing which would make this doomed expedition worth the sacrifice.

Now, crouched in this cave as I am, starved, exhausted, and hopeless, my memory fails. All I recall from my dash through the trees–aside from the flames–is the odd streak of brown, blue, pink, orange, green, gray, and black in my peripheral vision. Roars, screams, and–oh, God–the sound of bones crunching in my wake. I ran and ran and ran until I fell and began to crawl. How I ended up in this cavern, I honestly can’t say for sure. I just know that I woke up in a pool of my own vomit; a symptom of my extreme exertion. I crawled to the mouth and found that night had fallen. A full moon has risen, granting me the light to at least write by. Luckily, my journal was still in the satchel I carry around my waist.

So here I am. For all I know, this cave belongs to one of those gigantic Plushies. It’ll lumber home soon, and tear me to pieces. I still have a slim chance of survival, I suppose, but that’s contingent upon me sleeping, healing, and ultimately finding food. At present, I’m too frightened to sleep, and too injured to even attempt to forage outside. I have no weapons. My heart is heavy for the loss of my dearest comrades, and the will to go on is waning by the second. I’ve even begun to doubt the validity of the legend surrounding the Baal de Fuego. Perhaps it was all a ruse by the Plushies to lure us into this blighted place…

Perhaps I’m losing my mind. Or have already lost it.

No matter. Before my body follows suit, I’ll again write the names of my fellowship. Phoenix Kline. Raven-In-The-Wood. Never let their sacrifice be forgotten. Never let their deeds go unrecorded. They fought the good fight ’til they could fight no more, and ’til their hearts failed to beat. Let their deaths be forever etched into the conscience of humanity, and may humanity never fall to the savagery of the Plushies.

As for me…well, who knows what terrors this night may hold?

Who, indeed…?

–March 26th, 2015


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“Blood & Stuffing” is original fiction based on the Escape From Teddy Bear Island Role-Playing Game, published by Orcs Unlimited Games.

Buy Escape From Teddy Bear Island here: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/121543/Escape-from-Teddy-Bear-Island

Thank you for reading!

JLR


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