Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chapter Eighty-Two

Calmly, he pads through the forests of Neverland. Nose and whiskers quiver at the scent of his enemies. The smells, though different from the Wildlands, are still familar - life and death, prey and predator.

And yet, everything tastes different from his homeland, or the cobblestoned city, or even the castle of the Beast. This land smells alive, alive in a way even the Wildlands could never hope to be. The bursts of greenery and air from the salt-scented sea combine with a wondrousness, a dreaminess that only exists in memories that never truly were.

He inhales deeply.

The stink of corpses is there, but buried and faint. The plague is here - he's seen that firsthand - but most remains untouched and alive.

Some thing - some things, rather - have marked their territory with tiny spurts of urine. Not that it matters. They are small creatures, their squabbles over territory and shelter are beneath him and hardly worth the hunt.

More interesting are the bits of spoor he finds here and there, smelling of a bountiful diet of fish and berries. Something strange and large. Best to be avoided, if possible.

And the most unmistakable smell of all - the scent of Men. Their marks are faint and aged. They haven't been in this area for some time. Still, he notices a strand of stray hair, long and black, and a bit of worked metal lodged into a tree.

When the wind is favorable, he can smell red fire to the north, and he changes course.

He walks on, ever alert for the crunching of twigs or the throaty groans of the dead, but he remains alone. There is water to drink when he is thirsty, as several brooks make their short journey to the sea, and he’s grown used to being hungry.

In some ways he is lonely, in some ways he is not. He tries not to think of the boy and the pirate ship and the abandoned Clock. Such distracting thoughts are driven from his mind by concentrating on his surroundings - where he is, where he’s come from, where he will eventually stay - and then the inviting shade of the forest breaks off suddenly, and he is amidst familiar grass, long and yellow.

So similar is this wide field to his home that he looks around with a start, thinking perhaps all that came before was a dream or a fantasy, but behind him, like a gentle wall, is the green forest. Ahead of him are the yellow grasslands, and further beyond them are brown, rocky hills.

Truly, this is a land that never was, that never could be.

He stops short. Death is nearby. Even if it weren’t for the smell, the buzzing of flies - how they seem to prosper in this time of plague - gives the intruder away.

The grass, long an ally in the art of concealment, now hinders him, and he bounds from the forest toward the hills. The broken, hungry thing cannot match his speed, and it's a small risk in order to better see his adversary.

It follows, slinking down into the grass, but still visible. In its excitement, its tufted tail, a broken reed, sticks out sharply. A lion, of all things. Male, from the smell. And large.

In no time at all, he’s reached the edge of the yellow grass, and looks up at the sturdy brown stones that grow quickly into a mountain. Plenty of time to choose his spot, which he does with ease.

The corpse lion drags itself on three legs after its would-be prey, closer and closer to the web of its demise. Finally, it looks up, fangs permanently bared - its lips and muzzle have been chewed away.

Calmly, he presses and leans against a heavy rock. It teeters and falls and tumbles, and the dead lion does not blink or flinch, even as the stone crushes its skull.

His enemy defeated, he looks out over the yellow grasslands and lets out a roar; full, mighty, happy. There are, he’s smelled, other lions on this island. Living ones. Females. They should know of his presence.

And with this large male killed in combat, that means a change in the social order. Hopefully, it hasn’t infected the rest of the pride, but he is ready to take care of such a matter.

He thinks of the future. Perhaps the Men, those still living in the north, can be reasoned with, and might use their weapons of metal and wood against the child-corpses that still roam the forests and grasslands and beaches of this island. Perhaps they’re hunting them already.

A smile crosses his scarred face and the Lion roars again. In time, he will destroy the Doorway out of Neverland, tear it apart with his claws, and let no invader, living or dead, intrude upon his island, his kingdom, his home.