Sunday, May 31, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Five

“What about the winter?” asks Pinocchio. “Do you like winter?”

“Not really,” sighs the Little Pig. “There’s too much snow.” He squints against the afternoon sun. They’ll have to camp soon.

“I’ve never seen snow,” says the wooden boy. His eyes brighten at the prospect. “Is it nice?”

“No. I told you, it’s very cold... what was that?” Something in the brush, an unexpected rustling. The Little Pig whirls around, a hammer clutched in his tiny hand.

He oinks in dismay at the dark specter rising from the grass. A trifle embarrassed at having been heard, the Big Bad Wolf grins slyly.

“Hello, Piggy.” He theatrically brushes a grass stem from his scraggly shoulder. ”Fancy meeting you here.”

“We don’t want any trouble,” says the Pig.

The Wolf darts his yellow eyes to the hammer, notes the Pig’s trembling arms, and his toothy smile widens. “But trouble always seems to come knock-knock-knocking at your door, doesn’t it?”

He strolls closer, one long stride, and the two skitter backward a few steps.

“Speaking of which,” says the Wolf, “what are you doing outside your nice, safe house?”

“We, we’re going to the Castle of the Door,” stammers the little puppet. To Pinocchio, the skeletal, stinking wolf is as tall as a giant. A fanged, clawed giant.

The Wolf pretends to notice the wooden boy for the first time. “Oh, really? And who might you be?”

“I’m Pinocchio... sir.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Pinocchio.” He holds out a massive paw, and the puppet is obliged to take it. The Wolf doesn’t let go. There’s something about the boy - the buzzing, tingling smell of fairy magic - that he instinctively dislikes.

Bending low to Pinocchio’s level, the Wolf finishes his introduction. “You might’ve heard of me, kid. I’m the Big Bad Wolf. I’m 'trouble,' you could say.”

“Oh, yes, sir, I’ve heard all about you.” Pinocchio struggles to remove his hand from the Wolf’s unyielding grip.

“I bet you have.” With a black-lipped leer, the Wolf quickly releases Pinocchio, forcing the boy to fall backward. He rubs his paw on the leg of his ragged trousers.

The Little Pig’s icy glare goes ignored by the wolf. Still holding his hammer, he rushes to Pinocchio’s side.

Unfolding to his full height, the Wolf slowly circles the two, casually kicking up dust from the road. “So, leaving the kingdom, huh? Pretty good idea.” The Pig has to constantly shuffle around to face the Wolf, lest his back be exposed.

“But then again, you were always one for good ideas, weren’t you, Piggy?”

“It isn’t safe here anymore,” coughs the Little Pig.

Nodding wisely, the Wolf says, “Yeah, you never know what trouble you might run into out here.” He leans forward and smiles, all teeth.

“It isn’t safe for any of us,” says the Pig pathetically. “Even you.”

The Wolf starts to roll his eyes, but then he thinks better of it. “Maybe you’re right,” he says in a syrupy voice. “It’s dangerous out here. Maybe I should go with you,” he offers grandly, and lounges a long arm around the Pig’s shoulders. “Safety in numbers and all that.”

“I, uh, I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” begins the Pig, but once the Wolf’s arm begins to tighten painfully, he adds, “but you’re more than welcome to join us.”

“Yeah,” says the Wolf. “Yeah.” He smells the Pig, and a drop of saliva drips from his dirty muzzle. “After I’ve eaten, of course.”

“We’ve got food,” squeals the Little Pig quickly, and the Wolf laughs.

“You are food, Piggy. First I’ve seen in weeks.” He leans forward.

There is a meaty thud, and the Wolf falls backward. The Pig ducks beneath his flailing paw and scuttles away.

The Wolf touches his stinging cheek, and is astonished to find he’s bleeding. He stares, wide-eyed, at the defiant puppet below.

Pinocchio already has another rock in his hand, ready to throw. “You leave us alone,” he says, in a low voice quite different than his usual lilting tone. “Or you’ll be sorry.”

Shocked that someone so small would dare stand up to someone so big, the Wolf decides to take a different approach.

He huffs and he puffs, and the stone flies into his sunken chest with a rib-splitting crack. The impact knocks the Wolf to the ground, and for a stunned moment he sits there, unsure what to do.

The Little Pig looks down at the familiar sight of a defeated Wolf. Slack-jawed and dazed, his old enemy can’t bring himself to meet the Pig’s gaze.

“Be careful,” says the Pig coldly. “It’s dangerous out here.” He turns toward the dirt road and begins walking. Pinocchio, after picking up another rock, follows his friend, though he continues to glance back distrustfully at the Wolf.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Four

At first, it wasn’t so bad. He and Junior had kept to the forests throughout the entire mess. There weren’t many of the dead back then, and the corpses that entered the forest were easy to avoid – their stink always gave them away.

The pickings were lush in those days, as well. With the hopeless battles waged throughout the countryside, some people thought the woods, dark and deep, might be a safe haven. They were wrong. Poorly guarded travelers, unused to the mysteries of the forest, made for many an easy meal. But as the seasons changed, the swell of people dried up, shepherded to the safety of Sherwood Forest.

Even the animals were disappearing. Most had fled into the heart of the Great Woods, over the seven jeweled hills, beyond the seven waterfalls, to a place of safety. Though he wanted to follow after them, nastier things than him lurked in the Great Woods - ogres, witches, black magicks. Perhaps it was because of his dark heart that he couldn’t hear the call of Snow White’s resting place, and like all wicked things, he instinctively shunned her hallowed glade.

And still he needed to eat. Moss and lichen, abandoned beehives, even the occasional frog came too few and far between for his and Junior’s appetites.

It happened one night, when he awoke from a particularly delicious dream about a banquet table to realize the dead had finally gotten the drop on them.

In the old days, he would have heard them, would have smelled them, would have snapped out of that delightful dream, but he was so weak and hungry!

Though he could still huff and puff and blow them away, that would leave him breathless for minutes, unable to run or flee. If even one got ahold of him, that would be the end of his tale. So huffing and puffing was not an option, not for a survivor like him.

He tried to wake his son, who only started crying and mewling. Junior refused to uncurl from his ball, too exhausted, too tired to run anymore.

He thought, briefly, about carrying the small cub, but he didn't know how long he might have to run, or how many of the dead would follow, or even where he'd go, and so he decided that Junior was old enough to take care of himself.

And ever since Junior had been taken, he’d traveled alone.

Until now, finally, he’s laid eyes and nose and ears on living, breathing meat.

He creeps along beside the road, under the cover of the trees, skulking through the high-growing grasses. Neither of them have any idea that he is close by, and little wonder – they’re more concerned with the dead. They don’t expect to be hunted by someone who remembers how to hunt.

Finally, when he can hear what they’re talking about, the Big Bad Wolf decides he’s close enough to break from his hiding place and attack.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Three

The Wildlands are no place for men, but the Hunter has adapted himself well. He’s gone several days without shaving and he hasn’t eaten since he chanced upon that papaya tree, but he’s never felt better.

These creatures, whatever they may be, are easy to hunt. They make no pretense of camouflage or deception, so he always hears them coming. Most are slow and clumsy, no longer a match for a predator such as himself.

But, he reminds himself, they’re far from harmless. The damn things never sleep, never give up chasing him. And he’s fairly certain that more and more are following after him every day. He hears them crashing through the woods, sees the footprints, even catches glimpses of them from time to time during his steady retreat to the Doorway.

It’d be a simple matter to settle into the fork of a tree and blast them back to Hell, but the Hunter doesn’t care for such a strategy. It isn’t a matter of bullets – he has hundreds left – but he’s quite sure that the sound will attract the rest. Shooting one, though satisfying, would guarantee that dozens more would take up the hunt.

It’s quite strange, being both predator and prey at the same time.

Thank heavens for the machete. It’s made cutting a path to the Doorway ever so much easier, and these stupid monsters don’t ever realize they’re being attacked.

They always come towards him, hoping to eat, some of them performing a parody of their own hunting methods, but even that panther was no match for the Hunter. That had been a bullet well worth firing, though – it still seemed too agile to take on in hand-to-hand combat.

He stops short at the wet banks of the river and regrets that the canoe was left behind at the camp. Had to be done, unfortunately. Not much time to pack when you’re running for your life.

Crossing the river is a risk - it won’t do to get his rifle or bullets wet, and who knows what threats lurk in those dark waters - but the Hunter decides it’s one worth taking. The water might mask his scent, and if he can cross over - which shouldn’t be too hard, this being the dry season - his pursuers should turn back once his smell fades away. He is quite sure they don’t have the wits to investigate both riverbanks.

It’s a well-played move, and the Hunter is right. Nothing crosses the river, and that night is the first time he finds himself alone in the Wildlands in quite some time. There aren’t even any birds anymore. Probably driven away by a brushfire, he supposes. There is smoke in the air, after all.

It takes another three days for him to finally reach the Doorway, carved into the side of a great, ancient tree. Beyond it lies the civilized world. Safety.

Only, and this is odd, there’s a hyena standing in front of the Doorway. It pants and giggles to itself, behavior not unlike normal hyenas, and it’s a welcome change from the somber monsters that have trailed him for so long.

The Hunter wonders what it’s doing there, but decides it’s easier to just put the thing out of its misery – if it isn’t dead now, it will be eventually. He’s slightly disappointed that the first real animal he’s seen in ages is one without a valuable pelt. Still, a bullet to the brain is the easiest way to go, what with times being the way they are.

As he brings the rifle to his shoulder, the Hunter doesn’t notice the silent creature stepping behind him, the one that’s been watching him for a few hours now, following him to this great and special Doorway.

Unlike the monsters, this lion is very much alive. And hungry. And stealthy. He decides to wait until the man uses his gun to kill the hyena, so he won’t have to share the meal.

The Hunter fires and feels that momentary satisfaction that comes with a bullet well shot, but his victory is short-lived. He senses the lion as it pounces upon him, forcing all its great weight upon his back and neck, and the Hunter is dead before he hits the ground.

For the first time, the Lion eats the flesh of man. He finds it to be a most exquisite delicacy, if lacking in quantity. Much better, he decides later as he crosses through the Doorway, than the taste of his loyal hyena.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Two

The Dwarf pushes back his bowl with an unsatisfied grunt. It wasn’t much of a breakfast, but he can’t fault the girl - she barely has any food. And rain water and barley mush is better than nothing, so he ate it.

“Well,” he growls, “thanks fer the food.”

“You’re welcome,” says Cinderella, and she takes away his bowl. “I suppose you should be going,” she says evenly.

“And what about you?” he asks, in a tone that indicates he doesn’t care.

“Oh, I’ll stay here,” says Cinderella, and she turns her back to the Dwarf. “I have to wait for my family’s return, after all.”

There’s a snort as the Dwarf surveys the room. “In this place? It’s a trap.”

“I think it’ll be all right. The town is mostly cleared, after all, isn’t it?”

“Mostly?” He stands to his full height and glares up at Cinderella. “I took down every damned one of those things within earshot, I guarantee it. But there’ll be more, there're always more, roaming the countryside, lookin’ fer their blasted dinners.”

Pretending to ignore him, Cinderella looks around the room, and gives a satisfied nod.

“I’ll just move some of the furniture from the staircase. Barricade the doors and windows. It’ll be nice to have the house to myself again, instead of being cramped in the attic.”

“Bah! Look around you, woman. Too many windows. Not well-defended. Too much open space. If they come for you, where are y’gonna go? How will y’fight?” He can’t believe this girl. Decent cook she may be, she doesn’t know anything about survival.

“Well,” says Cinderella, feigning exasperation, “what am I supposed to do? I have to stay here until my family returns. I was told to watch after our home.”

“Aw, wake up an’ open yer eyes. They’re not comin’ back, they’re gone. Fled with everyone else. And I see why they didn’t bring y’along. Yer too buffle-headed to be worth a damn.”

Something about that rings a little too true for Cinderella. Her eyes cloud over with tears as she bites her bottom lip.

The Dwarf immediately regrets saying this. He doesn’t know what to say, so he says nothing. During the silence, he fingers the curtains and scowls at their lushness.

Her eyes remain downcast. “Well, that may be, but it’s my duty. Just like it’s yours to find this prince, even though that sounds rather buffle-headed to me.”

The Dwarf bristles, but he doesn’t have the heart to retort in anger. She wouldn’t understand. No one would, unless they’d met Snow White. “If you could bring someone back from th’ dead,” he finally says, “you’d do it, too.”

“I would,” says Cinderella, and she thinks of her real family – her mother, long dead, and her father, gone too recently. Leaving her alone with her stepmother and stepsisters.

“I would,” she says again.

They stand apart for a long while, until the Dwarf thinks of something to say. “Well,” he says in a loud voice. The only way he knows how to apologize is to change the subject. “Yer not safe here, that’s fer sure. ‘Tis better to be out in the open than to have them come crashin’ in at you. Y’better come along with me.”

He knows he’s going to regret this, but he doesn’t want another dead, defenseless girl on his conscience.

“Besides,” he adds lamely, “I don’t know where the prince of these lands would be found, and I could use yer aid as a scout.” He is bad at lying; the castle lies atop a hill, and the entire town spirals up towards it, impossible to miss.

Cinderella smiles a little, but her eyes are still hurt. “Very well,” she says. “I’ll go get my things.”

She’d already prepared a bundle the night before. They don’t amount to much, just a thick coat for when it gets cold, a tiny locket containing the silhouettes of her mother and father, and a small package of her remaining food. That’s all she wants to take from her old life.

As they leave the chateau, Cinderella is surprised to realize she doesn’t care if she never sees her stepmother or stepsisters again. But it still pains her to understand how they’ve felt about her all along.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Chapter Twenty-One

Though they do not know it, Pinocchio and the Little Pig are being watched.

It’s easy to follow them – they keep to the road, out in the open. But even if they were to risk the woods, he couldn’t lose them – the odor of pig flesh and pine is too strong to miss.

The two walk toward the Castle of the Door, an unlikely pair on a long and lonely road.

“It’s the only destination that makes sense,” the Pig had said, back when they set off on their journey.

“Why?” asked Pinocchio.

“Because,” said the Little Pig, “if your father is still alive, he would have fled the kingdom long ago, like everyone else seems to have done.”

“Why?” asked Pinocchio.

The Pig’s patience was stronger back then. “Because it’s no longer safe here. Those monsters are dangerous.”


“They just are.”

And so they departed from the house of brick, not looking back. The Little Pig left behind his two brothers – one buried in the cellar, the other still stumbling in his fishing net. And though the pig of straw, rotting and ruined, tried to follow, he was soon lost behind.

The Little Pig tries to enjoy the sun on his face, trapped as he was for so long in a room without light, but there’s little warmth in the autumn air.

“Did you have any pets?” asks Pinocchio.

“No,” says the Pig.

“Why not?”

“Because I didn’t want any.”

“Why not?”


“That’d be funny, wouldn’t it? For a pig to have a pet?” Pinocchio mulls this over for a moment, then asks, “Are you hungry?”

“No,” says the Little Pig automatically. It doesn’t surprise him - the tool belt across his waist is now tighter by several notches. He’d lost most of his appetite after his second brother died, and it has yet to return to normal.

“I’m not, either,” says Pinocchio.

The Pig accepts this never-ending conversation with an odd mixture of gratitude and annoyance. Although he’d never been one for idle blather, he does not miss the days of solitude and silence in his house of brick.

After a few hours on the road, the Little Pig had learned everything about Pinocchio’s life story. Constructed by his father the toymaker, granted life by the Blue Fairy, forced into slavery by a garlic-smelling foreigner, finally escaping during the riots, and now searching for his father.

Once Pinocchio had exhausted his own tale, he started a string of endless questions about the Little Pig’s past, and days later, he shows no sign of slowing.

“Who was that other pig?”

“My brother.”

“Did you have any other brothers or sisters?”

“Just one other brother.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s dead.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Are you the youngest?”

“No, the eldest. There are some monsters up ahead.” The Little Pig pulls a hammer from his tool belt, just in case.

“I’ll be back!” Pinocchio smiles at the Pig and skips down the road toward a cluster of the dead. A dozen armored knights, intrigued by the clanking of the others, chase one another in a forever game of Follow the Leader.

Pinocchio knows what to do. He dances around them, leading them far, far from the road, almost to the edge of the woods. Then the puppet falls to the floor. After a moment, the dead are distracted by the rustling leaves and the smells of the forest, and they disappear into the foliage.

Pinocchio soon skips back.

“Where are your parents? Are you married?”

All sorts of childish nonsense, thinks the Little Pig. His brother probably would've gotten along perfectly with this little boy.

That thought makes the Pig sigh. He'd never truly gotten along with his brothers. They were content to laugh and sing the day away, never a thought toward tomorrow, and look where it had taken them.

He, on the other hand, had lived a life of hard work, and look where it'd taken him – to an abandoned country with a small puppet for a companion. He isn’t sure who to pity more.

And so they continue to walk, unaware that all this time they are being watched.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chapter Twenty

"Not a bad haul, eh, boys?" drawls the Sheriff of Nottingham. He appreciatively paws through a chest of coins and sorts them into three piles.

His vulture lackey chuckles and nods his head. The other keeps watch over the side of the castle wall, so he doesn’t notice the Sheriff give him a slightly smaller cut of the take.

“Best idea I ever had, if I do say so myself.”

It had been a difficult decision – spearheaded by the cowardly Prince John – to flee to the Lands Beyond, but the rest of the worlds had to be warned about the growing undead hordes.

And though this kingdom would be abandoned, someone would have to stand guard at the Castle of the Door to help the countless refugees. Surely they couldn’t be left behind to be slaughtered.

But who would stay? Who would make that sacrifice?

All the heroes offered; it was only natural of them to want to help the helpless. But the Sheriff begged and pleaded and, truth be told, pulled a bit of rank on the ol’ uppity-ups. He is a sheriff, after all. The seven princes are royalty and must be kept safe, whereas his job is to protect the realm.

Sir Ector fought against it, said it was his duty as a knight in good standing to do the chivalrous thing, but the Sheriff pointed out that the old walrus had a family to watch over.

Ector’s son Kay, who was almost of age and would soon be a knight himself, took insult to this. To prove his manhood, he’d challenged the Sheriff to a duel, but in the end, cooler heads prevailed and the Sheriff got his way.

Robin Hood cast a suspicious eye, but as a wanted outlaw, there wasn’t much he could say. He and his flea-ridden cohorts returned to their forest, promising to escort any survivors back to the castle.

The Sheriff wasn’t sorry to see him go, and so far, none of the Merry Men had returned. Good riddance.

And once he had free reign of the Castle of the Door, he could raise the drawbridge and implement a toll. No one could refuse his price, and he’d quickly accumulated a king’s ransom. Jewels, gold, artwork, fine garments, there was even a Magic Mirror tucked away somewhere.

“Not a bad haul at all,” the Sheriff rhymes. A lot of money from a common coachman. Probably extorted the fees from his passengers, so the Sheriff doesn’t feel too badly about charging such a high toll.

“When this whole thing blows over,” says the Sheriff, “we’ll be the richest folks in the kingdom.” He tugs on a gold bracelet, a bit feminine, maybe, but it’s of such fine quality that he’s determined to make it fit over his flabby arm.

“Yeah, but what if it doesn’t blow over?” asks one of the vultures. He lazily checks to make sure his crossbow is still loaded.

“Boss,” says the other vulture suddenly. “We got company.”

“Well, fly down there and give ‘em the spiel.”

“Not that kind of company.” He raises his crossbow, and then the Sheriff hears it – a strange bouncing noise coming from the grounds below.

“What in tarnation is that?” asks the Sheriff. He clambers for his own crossbow and waddles forward.

“Aim for the head,” one guard tells the other, and he fires his weapon. The bolt zips through the air, but it misses its target. Something small and orange flies over the wall and crashes into the vulture’s head.

The other vulture points his crossbow and pulls the trigger. A moment later, he pulls the corpse off his companion. It’s a small bear, no bigger than a child, with candy-colored fur and dressed in fanciful clothing. The bolt protrudes from the back of its skull.

“Boss, I think that’s a…” says the guard, but the Sheriff shakes his head.

“Naw, can’t be. They ain’t real. They’re just children’s stories.”

But the bouncing noises below say otherwise. More of the dreadful, colorful creatures leap over the wall. Five of them, matted fur, filthy clothes. They aren’t alive, but yet they move.

They look puzzled by the Sheriff and the vulture (who is clumsily trying to reload his crossbow. The Sheriff doesn’t waste any time. Before they can jump, he runs for the door into the castle and slams it shut behind him.

“Boss?” says the vulture, shocked, and then several of the bears launch themselves at him. His crossbow twangs uselessly.

The Sheriff pays little mind to his henchman’s screams as he pulls the heavy bar across the door. Soon there is a loud thudding as one of the bears - the fat one, from the sounds of it - bounces against it, but the door will hold.

Five of them, one bolt in his crossbow, and the Sheriff is dreadful with his sword. Better run for it, make for the Doorway, and finally join his countrymen in the safety and freedom of the Lands Beyond.

It isn’t far, just downstairs and into the main chamber. Not an impossible run, especially if they keep busy feeding on the others.

But a stained glass window above him shatters as the two youngest bear cubs leap through. Their playful bouncing echoes about the stone walls, following the panting Sheriff down the stairs.

Out of breath, the Sheriff of Nottingham turns and fires his crossbow, but his hands are shaking too much. Grimacing at the youthful apparitions of death in front of him, he tries to draw his sword, but they leap toward his face, their mouths wide, hungry, and blackened with congealed blood.

So falls the Castle of the Door.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chapter Nineteen

In the end, only the Man and the man-cub are able to wield red fire.

Even the bravest of apes and the mighty elephants are unable to hold this mysterious magic without trembling.

“I feel great shame,” says Hathi, “but this is why it is called Man’s Secret. Only Man may use it.”

And thus it must be. The ape-lord embraces his adopted mother, Mowgli says a tearful good-bye to Baloo, and the two set off to fight the invaders.

Red fire. Man’s secret. That which the Wildlands cannot fight or control, the destroyer of flora and fauna alike. It is the anger of nature. It is destruction. In a way, it is similar to the deadly plague that has spread throughout their world. Perhaps, hopes Mowgli, it is stronger.

For the first time, the Man and the man-cub find themselves looking for one of the hungry dead. Even though every instinct in their bodies begs them to flee, they now hunt.

It doesn’t take long. They smell one before it appears - not only does it carry the stink of rot and carrion, but also the unmistakable and overpowering odor of dung.

“A warthog,” whispers the Man. Mowgli nods.

Can it smell them, even in death? The Man has long since wondered. An enemy without its senses would be most vulnerable. Even the deadly cobra cannot strike what it cannot see.

However, the warthog must see the bright flames in their hands, and it drags itself through the brush, the remains of its ribcage scraping along the ground.

“It isn’t afraid…” whispers Mowgli.

“Stand back,” says the Man. He puts out one muscled arm in front of Mowgli, and thrusts the burning log toward the creature.

It doesn’t flinch. It stares at the Man, flames reflected in its empty, dark eyes. It grunts and gurgles amidst its cloud of flies.

“It isn’t working,” decides the ape-lord. “Into the trees.”

Mowgli climbs quickly, even with one hand holding his torch, and the Man lifts himself up soon after. The warthog, unable to climb, gnashes its curved, deadly, filthy tusks against the trunk of the tree.

“It didn’t work,” says Mowgli. His plan has failed. He so badly wanted to help the Council, to help the Wildlands, but he has failed. He discreetly wipes away a tear, lest the Man notice.

“It’s all right,” says the Man. He deliberately keeps his eyes on the warthog. “We’ll figure something out.“ Slowly, he lowers the torch, bringing it closer and closer to the creature, until they almost touch.

Aroused by the proximity of living flesh, the warthog pulls itself up against the tree with its two remaining hooves. Straining and grunting, it ignores the red fire just above its head. Even when its hairs begin to singe and smoke, it pays no attention.

They watch the warthog burn for many moments, until the Man snaps his head to one side. He peers into the darkness. “More are coming. The Bandar-log. We’ve got to go.”

Mowgli follows after the ape-lord, jumping lightly from branch to branch. The warthog patiently crawls after them below. As it moves through the dry brush, the surrounding grass bursts into flaming brightness.

There’s a distant whisper of branches. The Man curses in the gorilla tongue. “More are coming.”

He looks around. They could outrun the warthog... or they could remain in the trees. He is comfortable amidst the branches and vines, but so are the Bandar-log.

He gestures to Mowgli, leaps down and begins sprinting. The warthog follows, birthing more fires in its wake, but the ape-lord pays it no mind. It’s the quick-moving Bandar-log that he fears.

They quietly glide through the trees, grasping and swinging from their tails. Unlike the days of old, they do not laugh and jabber from the treetops, nor do they pelt them with nuts. There is nothing buffoonish about the Bandar-log anymore.

Although they are tireless, the ape-lord is well-coordinated and graceful. But more of them are coming. And how quickly they’ve learned to hunt.

Mowgli, his night vision ruined by the torches, cannot see the growing numbers above him. He wheezes and tries to keep up with the Man’s stride. He wishes Bagheera were still alive. He always protected him. Even until the end.

More and more eyes are reflected in the light of red fire, too many to count. Like a stone that has disturbed a hornet’s nest, their torches have attracted the swarm.

“Come,” says the Man, still calm, looking left, right, skyward, then turning to the south, away from the trees. Take away the Bandar-log's advantage. After several minutes, Mowgli stumbles, and the ape-lord lifts him onto his sweating shoulders, not bothered by the man-cub’s weight.

And finally, he stops running. He’s come to the cliff. He didn’t want to come here - he’d been hoping for a spot where he could veer to the left or right. But the hunters are closing in, relentless as a pack of hyenas, and they’ve not been given one opportunity to escape.

But despite all that, the Man thinks of the burning warthog, still crawling, still etching its blazing arrow of fire onto the ground.

Time for one final gambit.

“Don’t worry,” says the Man. “Just hold on to me tightly.” Mowgli, still holding his torch high, climbs onto the ape-lord's back.

The hungry creatures come closer, a rotting mass of buffalo and ape and crocodile. He throws his torch into the horde, but none step aside. A female leopard sprints ahead of the pack, and the Man begins to climb down the cliff.

It is difficult, especially with the man-cub's legs wrapped around his chest, but his toes grip into the rock, he finds a hold and he lowers himself another several feet.

“Don’t worry,” the ape-lord repeats.

Man, born without the tools of the jungle, without claw or fang or sense of smell, has one tool greater than any: that of reason.

And the Man sees something wrong with the invaders, something in the way the warthog burned so fearlessly, the way the meerkats walked through the fiery brush, the way the crocodile allowed the torch to bounce off its scales.

They’ve forgotten, in their death, the first and most important instinct: how to survive.

If all goes well, they will have a new plan to save the Wildlands. And if he is wrong, then at least he and the man-cub will not succumb to the plague.

The she-leopard reaches the edge of the cliff and pounces. As she falls, she bites at Mowgli, but the Man ducks away. She silently hurtles hundreds of feet to the ground, where she smashes onto the unforgiving stone.

More of the dead follow: a gazelle, a lion. They step to their second deaths without hesitation, never thinking to climb, only following their desire for flesh and blood. The Man’s jaw eases into a slight smile – he was right, his gambit was a success.

As the Man continues to descend, Mowgli whimpers and waves his torch in a useless threat. The Man raises his head to see the great snake Kaa. Rather than walk off the cliff, the legless serpent awkwardly wound its way down after them.

Kaa stares at them, his blank eyes no longer trusting and hypnotic, and vacantly bites into the Man’s shoulder. It no longer occurs to him to smother his prey; that instinct was lost in death.

The pain is slight – Kaa lacks the teeth for ripping and tearing - but the Man instinctively grabs the snake’s head. A mistake, perhaps the first one ever made by the Man, but there are no second chances in the Wildlands. As he flings Kaa away, the ape-lord loses his balance. He, the man-cub, the snake, and the torch - all fall, and all are extinguished.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Chapter Eighteen

Cinderella clears away the Dwarf’s plate. He ate quite a bit – the stories about Dwarves’ appetites are true, apparently – but she doesn’t mind. After the day’s events, he certainly had cause to work up such a hunger

The Dwarf grunts and wipes his hands on his red tunic. Even after being forced to wash, he still stinks of smoke and charred flesh. He grunts again, this time in distaste at the fancy, frilly chateau, and pushes back his seat.

“Well… thanks fer dinner,” the Dwarf concludes. He hoists his pack, takes hold of his poleaxe - which was never out of arm’s length - and stumps toward the door.

“Wait…” says Cinderella. “Where are you going?”

The Dwarf snorts and looks at her as if she’s half-mad. “Didn’t you hear what I said? I’m gonna find this prince.”

“But… now? At this hour? What about the dead?”

“Bah. We’ve handled ‘em under the mountains, we can handle ‘em aboveground, too. Besides, I can see in the dark better’n they can.” Foolish girl.

Cinderella smoothly rushes forward to stand between the front door and the Dwarf. She remembers her stepmother’s sudden departure and her animal friends who’ve disappeared over the lonely months.

“At least stay here tonight. You shouldn’t be traveling in the dark, especially after all the hard work you’ve done. You must be exhausted.”

“Pft, this ain’t nothin’. You should see what it’s like down in the mines. That’ll put some creak in your spine,” says the Dwarf. The girl is probably just afeared of being left alone again, he figures. And he doesn’t want her slowing him down.

He starts to push past her, and then it’s Cinderella who hmphs.

“Well,” she says, “I’ve heard Dwarves were discourteous, but I never imagined they were like this.”

He stops and scowls at her. “Discourteous? What’re you talkin’ about, woman? I ate yer food, didn’t I?”

Cinderella chuckles mockingly. “Yes, you definitely had your fill. But now you’re leaving, not only turning down hospitality, but leaving a poor girl to fend for herself after eating the last of her food.”

“I didn’t ask fer it!” The Dwarf snaps back. “And I cain’t be lookin’ after you and everyone else who’s been caged up by them deathlings. You ain’t my responsibility.”

“I didn’t say I was,” says Cinderella. She changes tactics quickly. “But if you’ll accept food but not lodgings, then clearly my home isn’t good enough for you.”

He stammers, unsure of which argument to attack first. “Yer house is fine,” he finally says. “I just… Bah. Fine, fine.”

The Dwarf steps away from the door, drops his pack, and stalks over to the settee, where he sits with his arms folded. He vows that he’ll get no sleep tonight. With his luck, the thing’ll either be lumpy as cottage cheese or full of springs.

“But first thing in the mornin’, I’m leaving,” he says defiantly. “I got a prince to find.”

“Of course,” says Cinderella. She’s learned very quickly how to deal with this Dwarf.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Chapter Seventeen

In their grief, the seven brothers constructed a glass casket, inlaid with the purest silver and gold, carved most delicate and graceful. And though Dwarven craftsmanship is unsurpassed in this world, they considered it an unworthy frame for the maiden within. And, weeping, they laid her to rest in a tiny glade deep, deep, deep within the Great Woods.

There, in silence, they stood guard over their dear Snow White, a victim of spellcraft, petty and cruel. For a year and a day, a long time for you or I, but of no passing importance to a Dwarf, they mourned the taking of such an innocent soul, and the creatures of the forest paid their respects.

The spell would be broken, the seven brothers knew, by love’s first kiss. But the days passed into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into seasons, and the prince never came.

The Dwarves, who never held much for the romantic notions of the big people, were unsurprised. The fickle love of youth, they might have scoffed.

It was the eldest of the brothers who finally broke their vigil and proposed a solution quite Dwarflike in its practicality: If the prince wouldn’t come to them, the Dwarves would go to the prince.

And so, with heavy hearts, the six brothers – the youngest was ordered to stand guard over her casket – left the Great Woods and set off in separate directions to search for Snow White’s lost love.

What they found instead were countless souls stalking through a sleeping death of their own, one much more wicked than any poisoned apple.

Not that it mattered to the Dwarves. Dragon or goblin, war or peace, the living or the dead, no vile force would stop them from helping their friend. There is perhaps nothing on Earth quite so strong as a Dwarf’s love.

And deep, deep, deep within the Great Woods, the small clearing, guarded by a mute and beardless Dwarf, remains untouched by the undead plague.

Perhaps it is too far for them to sense the presence of flesh and blood, or perhaps it is hallowed ground, blessed by the Woods itself, but they do not prey in the patient glade of Snow White.

Without knowing why, the animals sense this refuge in the wild and hungry woods, and they flee there to wait in peace for her awakening.

And Snow White sleeps there still, the fairest of them all.