Chapter 5: Allies

Stride awakens against a tree.

“How long was I out for?” He asks disoriented.

Frantically he moves his body, afraid that he has become one with the tree. He is safe, far from the forest of moths. Yet hopelessness overtakes him as he is too weak to stand and find help. His body is bruised from the fall, and his wound stings in his side.

His worries and the stress on his body make him oblivious to his surroundings. He casts a gaze around him.

Three hunched over grey creatures wearing cloth around their waist face him. Their pitch-black eyes stare right through him. He’s frightened. Never has he seen these creatures.

“What–do you want from me?” he asks anxiously.

One of the creatures lifts his arm and points toward Stride… He awaits the creature’s action in fearful anticipation.

The creature turns, gesturing Stride to follow him. For the first time, Stride is not being threatened with his life nor does he feel danger.

They understand me… finally, help has come. 

 

His vision fades as his body turns numb.

“Haaah,” he exclaims as he awakens.

The pain… it is gone! Stride thinks in amazement.

As he looks down, he sees one of the grey creatures apply a mixture of plants to his open wound.

The plant the grey creature applies to his wound turns a dark red colour, absorbing the blood in his body. The grey creature smears a mixture of herbs on the wound and by a miracle the wound seals.

They understand medicine!

Stride has passed these plants numerous times in his travel. He stayed away from them in fear of the unknown dangers.

One of the grey creature’s even brought something that resembles fruit. Stride excluded the idea of food long ago. To avoid the temptations in his mind.

This is amazing!

As he chows down on the watery exterior of the fruit the sweet and succulent flavour of a peach comes to mind. Once he got to the middle, the consistency hardened something akin to a coconut. The taste becomes richer and creamier.

It is the first time he smiled in a long time.  

Still struggling to walk, he follows the three grey creatures. In their travels, they made sure he could keep up with their pace, never losing sight of him. He notices that one of the group members walks ahead, scouting for danger. The forest feels safer in their midst, as they move with deliberation.

During their travels, the ‘grey men’ as Stride began calling them, would climb high up to the canopy. Their ladle-like hands have a powerful grip to easily scale the tallest of trees. Here they would retrieve the fruit that he had eaten prior. Food that he could never reach on his own.

There was barely time to rest. However, they made sure to tend to his wounds until his condition improved.

With his returned strength, they help him up the trees. As they enter the canopy, the tree branches become thicker and safer to walk across.

He finally made it to the top of the trees as he revels in the glorious view of a grand ravine. The wind flows through his hair as he absorbs his environment with a sense of awe. He makes a bow toward the grey men, to honour them for giving him this experience.

There is this feeling of camaraderie and safety with these creatures. As physical equals, their way of life resembles that of a human who would survive in this world. Using your own strength and the tools that are given to you. It is truly a blessing to come across these beings. They saved my life. 

“HEEEEEELP”

These cries for help can only mean one thing.

“HEEEEELP ME!” The shouts get closer and closer.

As he look around, the grey men are nowhere to be seen. A strong force presses down on his shoulder as he lowers to the ground. It is a grey man. He hides next to them behind the logs.

They know of the calls… of course they would.

The centipede runs through the ravine below us. The grey men keep a close eye on the creature. Seeing the beast from above shows how truly powerful it is. At least five metres in length, it carries three heads on its back. Its pincers are darkened by blood. 

It must be a recent hunt. Stride thinks, worried.

It matches the speed of a horse as it charges through the ravine.

A giant skeletal beast jumps out of hiding and catches the centipede with a single strike. He pins the centipede to the ground in that same motion. The centipede curls up in defence as it lunges its pincers at the beast. The beast does not seem to mind its attacks, even when its sharp fangs try to take bites out of its face. To no avail. The centipede is unable to penetrate its thick, boney skin.

“SCRRIEEE”

An agonising, high-pitched screech echoes through the valley, trembling Stride to the bone.

The skull beast rips through its exterior shell. Feasting on its flesh while the centipede is still alive.

Even in this world, there is an order, a hierarchy that cannot be crossed. The hunters can become the hunted.

He looks at the beast in both horror and awe as helpless squirms are smothered by the sound of breaking bones. 

He focuses too much on the slaughter and fails to notice the grey men trying to hold in their laughter and joy. Perhaps they too have suffered thanks to the centipede. 

When the centipede finally stopped showing signs of life, a forceful ‘hand’ on his shoulder urged him to move. The grey men continue their journey as the threat is neutralised.

We rest on fallen tree trunks, high above the canopy. One of the grey men scouts the area for danger as the other two rest on a different log. 

Their gaze does not leave my sight, something I have grown used to in these past few days of travel. 

“You probably cannot understand me… but thank you-for everything.” Stride said. The grey men just stared back stern faced like usual. Stride has tried talking to them on multiple occasions during their journey, but their expression did not change. They only respond to his body language when he is tired or when his injury got the better of him.

When I washed ashore on this god forsaken land, starved and exhausted, I would have never expected to see the horrors that I did. And I never imagined that I would grow accustomed to them this quickly. Not that I had much of a choice to begin with. 

“Acceptance happens when we challenge our perceived reality, isn’t that right father?” He said to himself.

The following day their journey continues at dawn.  

He travels high across the trees and valleys giving him a view of the vastness of these lands. The distant mountains span as far as the eye can see. 

The high ground provides safety in their journey. No longer is there a need to hide for the monsters that inhabit the forests below. The grey men know their territory well and are quick to react at any sight of danger.

“Safety,” he says in disbelief, as the ‘home’ of the grey men is in sight. 

Stride arrives at the camp’s entrance and is guided by the grey men to follow him. A fortress with high walls decorated with massive tusks leads to an open field. Grey men sit squatted atop the castle high walls as they glare down at the young man.  

For a second, he stops to look at them, something about their demeanour feels off. A coldness in their gaze. 

Is it just my imagination? 

A hand on his back motions him forward.

The mountain walls serve as both a defence and a home for the grey men, as burrows with carvings of a window can be seen from a distance. Many of the grey men leave their homes to investigate Stride’s arrival. Others watch from the mountains.

“It cannot be…,” he says as he hides his disgust. 

As a form of sick entertainment, he sees the grey men use the moth’s as a hallucinatory drug. They grope, defecate and defile themselves as they reach for another moth to continue their activities.

The camp site has a gloomy atmosphere. The cold eyes follow him wherever he goes. Still, he reminds himself to be grateful for their help during his journey. And he still requires their aid as his body pushes its limits.

As he continues, two things stand out to him.

What can only be described as a ‘Giant’ sits atop a massive wooden stool. It holds a blade at least five times his size in his left hand. Its dark beady eyes pierce through him like the gaze of a wild bear. Then, it stares at the grey men and inspects them all the same.   

This monster must be why they can survive here for so long. The meagre bodies of the grey men cannot compare to the creatures that wander these forests. The giant is why they can afford to live here. It is just like a man receiving protection from his lord.

What does it want from me…?

And…

What are they hiding in there?  

He thinks to himself as his eyes wander upon the wooden shrine behind the giant. For whatever reason, he becomes transfixed to the hut. Its attraction is so strong, that the giant, the grey men and his surroundings fade away into obscurity.

“Release me…” A voice calls from afar. 

What was that? Was it my imagination? Or–is there someone in that hut calling for me? 

A forceful tap on his shoulder brings him back to reality.

The grey men instruct him to raise his arm to formally greet the giant. Stride complies. Still, something does not feel right.

“If these creatures are so helpful towards humans, why have I not seen another person in this camp?”

All the signs were there, but it is in weakness and despair that they found him. How could he have known? For all the kindness that they have shown. 

The moment I realised that we are physical equals, it should have been a sign of danger. Their way of life resembles that of men, and in my despair for survival, I forgot what it means to be human. 

When humans are strong, they oppress, wage war and conquer. In a world where humans are weak, they are cunning, willing to do whatever it takes to survive. 

Because so have I…

*SLASH*

In one swift motion, the giant cleaves Stride’s arm right of his body. The blade slams to the ground, spreading around debris.

It moved so fast that Stride took a second to register what just happened and could realise what he felt. 

“AAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!”

The grey men that travelled alongside him burst out in laughter. They openly break their facade as they watch him suffer and squirm in pain. 

Loud cheers can be heard as the entire camp bursts out in laughter. They all anticipated this outcome. 

The giant grabs his hand, and in combination with some of his adhesive spit, ties it shut to other arms in his collection. He makes a necklace of arms. Its dull, joyful expressions reveal that the giant equals the intelligence of a toddler. 

Stride crawls in agony, as the world starts to fade to black. An indescribable pain overwhelms his body. 

One of the grey men stands over him, whilst he grovels in pain. The grey man who tended his wounds, fed him, and kept him safe from the horrors of this land, now belittles him in his suffering.

What… is

Even louder than the laughter is the longing for whatever is hidden in the wooden shrine. Concentrating himself to the shrine, a voice calls for him. 

“Release–me…,” it says in a low whisper, as if it speaks into his mind directly. 

Even if I die here today… I will find out what they are hiding in that shrine. 

He palms his hand and springs up at the grey man. His fist lands against the soft skin of the creature and so does his chain. The chain carves through its eye, cutting open its forehead. 

Without a second thought, he runs toward the hut with his remaining strength as a trail of blood and sweat follow him. He desperately attempts to cover the bleeding with his hand. 

Barely conscience, he walks up the ramp as the entrance is now at arm’s length. Fuelled purely by anger and adrenaline.

“Let’s see what this is all about…,” he huffs as he clenches his teeth. 

He enters.  

It is pitch black, no light from the outside enters the shrine. As if he stepped into a dream where the rules of reality do not apply. Where is the voice that called for him now? Is there nothing in here after all, was his imagination a ploy for survival? 

He reaches for his mouth, but no moth creature has induced him into hallucination. 

A white light flashes in the dark, only illuminating itself. Blinded by desire, he stumbles to the light.

A head

Its eyes are closed as it rests on a wooden plinth. It draws him in, and his longing makes his pain subside. 

Is this what called me… 

Its eyes open. 

“Finally… I was tired of the worship of these misbegotten creatures.” The head says in a deep voice.

I can hear it. It speaks to me! Stride thinks in astonishment. 

“I can feel your desires. Your thirst for blood, the yearning for vengeance.” 

“Come to me,” the head commands. 

“Who are you?” Stride asks as he fights his urge to comply. He wants to fight back for their betrayal, to take revenge on the other humans who have been lured into the camp of these monsters. But how can he trust something in the heart of their fortress? It must be another trick, it cannot be that easy. 

“Come to me and all of your questions will be answered, young one.” The head replies. 

He hesitates, but there is no time. His arm and the direness of the situation outside makes him take a step. And then another. Till he is close enough to stand face to face with the head. 

The head lunges toward him, widening its mouth. Too weak to step aside, Stride throws a desperate punch. However, the arm he uses to strike is no longer attached to his body. 

In a single bite, it takes of his head.

His decapitated body falls to the wooden floorboard. The head closes its eyes. 

He’s dead.

End of chapter 5.