For a second, the air seemed to go so quiet, you could’ve heard a pin drop. Then, in perfect synchronization, the kids charged.
Alex met them without fear, lashing out left, right, and center with the bat, and sending any he missed flying backwards with sharp kicks from his piston-like legs.
Watching Alex stand there like a rock splitting a river, bodies piling at his feet, I had to remind myself to breathe. What the hell was this guy?
A kid got behind him, sinking her teeth into his hand. Alex didn’t cry out, he simply lashed out with his bat, driving the end of it into her stomach, causing her to double over, gasping. A quick rap from his weapon ended her struggle.
And then, it was just Alex, bruised and beaten but standing tall, and on the other side of the field of bodies, his brother Victor.
“C’mon Victor, lets go.” He smiled softly, approaching his brother.
“You can’t!” Victor shrunk back. “There’s no escape. You play the game, or you become his toy.”
“To hell with that!” Alex yelled out, grabbing his brother by the wrist. “I know there’s something he doesn’t want us to see, and its right on the other side of that junk heap. I’m getting out of here, and you’re coming with me, even if I have to carry you!”
“It won’t work, it won’t work!” Victor crouched down, cradling his head. “You can’t fight him, once he gets in your head!”
“Damnit Victor,” Alex’s voice softened as he dropped the bat, grabbing him by the shoulders. “We’re brothers! If we don’t have each other’s backs, who will?” He looked at his younger brother face-to-face, the eyes behind the toad mask wide with fear. “It’s this mask, isn’t it?” He growled, gripping it with both hands.
“No, don’t do it Alex!” Victor cried out, holding onto the mask with a death grip. “Don’t take it off!”
“That’s not you talking, Victor!” Alex yelled back, tugging harder. “Don’t give in!”
With a final tug, Alex ripped the mask from Victor’s face.
And he screamed.
I looked over to see, and for the rest of my days, I prayed I hadn’t. I opened my mouth to scream, but all that came out was my supper.
“I tried to warn you.” Victor oozed.
Alex just screamed.
“Sounds like someone removed a mask.”
I turned to see the masked man stroll towards us, showing no signs of his earlier injuries. After briefly taking in the situation, he locked eyes with me.
Or at least, I think he did, behind the mask.
“Better get running, Ted.” He muttered. “The Master’ll be here soon, what with how Alex is carrying on. Run, and escape this damn game.”
I needed no second bidding. I turned and ran past Alex and Victor, being careful not to look in their direction. Scrambling up the pile of hub caps, I turned back to look at the masked man.
It was at that moment that “It” rounded the corner, bounding towards the now catatonic Alex.
That was enough for me. Leaving the Regis brothers to their fate, I dove down the side of the trash heap, landing in a painful tangle at the bottom. Rising to my feet, I looked around. Heaps of trash walled me in on all sides, showing no hint of the path. This was it, the center of the world!
“Three players left.”
The announcement made me jump. Poor Alex, he deserved better.
Of course, better him than me. I staggered to my feet, nearly falling on my face as a wave of exhaustion washed over me.
Right, I forgot because of the ever-present twilight-dawn, but it was well into the night now, judging by how much time seemed to have passed. I’d been getting by on adrenaline, but that was running out fast. Steadying myself against a bent stop sign, I tried to keep myself upright as I surveyed my surroundings.
The clearing I found myself in was oddly devoid of trash. Instead, large ornate red doorways, each easily 12 feet high, formed a rough circle in the center around a low altar of sorts. Squinting my eyes, I noticed numerous bowls lay on the altar, each seeming to be holding something different, though what exactly their contents were, I couldn’t tell.
Then, just as I felt my strength coming back, loud cussing and the sound of a struggle caught my attention. Throwing myself against the wall of trash behind me, I crept behind a broken billboard for canned peaches, and held my breath.
I didn’t have to wait long. With a final round of expletives, a very angry Martin tumbled over the top of the garbage wall opposite me, rolling to its base where he lay a while, catching his breath.
This was bad. Judging by what I knew now, Yvonne, Martin and I were the last ones alive, and of those three, I was definitely the lowest in the ranking. Better to stay hidden.
As I looked on, Martin picked himself up and began to wander about, taking stock of his surroundings. Fearing he might notice me if I kept watching, I retreated behind the billboard, straining my ears to try and figure out his location. He certainly didn’t make it difficult for me, what with him stumbling over every can and bottle pile he could find, it seemed.
Deciding to chance it, I peeked out again, from the opposite side of the billboard this time. Martin had stopped gawking around, and was now checking out the altar in the center of the clearing. Specifically, he seemed very interested in the bowls, and their contents. Then, as I looked on, he reached out and…
“Don’t touch those!”
A familiar, if surprising voice interrupted Martin, causing him to turn around. Climbing out from beyond the edge of my vision, Yvonne cautiously approached Martin, her mask nowhere in sight.
“Or else what?” Martin responded pugnaciously, balling his fists.
“I don’t know.” Yvonne admitted, moving closer. “But we already presented our offerings to him, I can’t imagine he’d appreciate any take-backsies.”
Wait, those were our offerings in those dishes?
And…who was “he”?”
By now, Yvonne had nearly closed the distance to Martin.
“Hey, that’s close enough.” He cautioned her. “Where were you this whole time?”
“Oh, Martin!” She cried out, collapsing into his arms sobbing. “It was horrible! That…thing came out of nowhere, and I had to find someplace to hide, fast. If I hadn’t stumbled across this place…” She shuddered. “Nobody told me this would happen!”
“Oy, Yvonne, get a grip!” Martin faltered, trying in vain to keep her at arm’s length.
“Don’t leave me too, Martin!” Yvonne pleaded. “Are there really just three people left? Who’s the other one apart from us?”
“I dunno, damnit!” Martin blustered. “I was just with Bax until he got caught.”
“Oh no…” Yvonne’s voice trailed off hoarsely. Trying to get a better view, I carefully edged closer, and then…
Out of nowhere, Martin drove a heavy fist into Yvonne’s stomach, driving the wind out of her as she stumbled back, clutching her belly. Something shiny tumbled to the ground at her feet, glinting in the orange glow.
“Martin…you…bastard!” She wheezed, scrambling to retrieve her knife. Unfortunately, Martin was faster, and he kicked it spinning into the trash.
By now, Yvonne had regained her breath, and she stood up to face the stone-faced Martin head-on. “Okay, I deserved that.” She smirked self-depreciatingly. “But you can’t blame a girl for being cautious. I didn’t know if I might need to defend myself.” She swept the hair out of her eyes. “Well, lesson learned; no knives. Let’s shake and find a way out together, okay?” She offered Martin her hand.
Martin gave her his fist, right in her left eye.
Yvonne reeled, tumbling to the ground with a curse as she clutched at her eye.
“What the hell, you ape!” She screeched at him, all façade dropped. “You think you can just hit me and get away with it?”
“Actually, I do.” Martin replied grimly, advancing on her.
“Screw you!” She spat back, reaching out and grabbing a sharp piece of glass from a broken mirror. However, before she could use it, Martin drove a heavy foot into her hand, grinding it into the glass as she screamed in agony. Lifting his foot finally, he reached out and, taking her neck in both hands, lifted her off her feet.
“Martin…stop…I’m sorry!” She gasped, kicking and flailing as she clawed at his hands. “You wouldn’t…kill a girl…right?”
Martin twitched. “Why should that make a difference?” He returned quietly, tightening his grip.
While this had been going on, I had subconsciously been edging myself closer, and now found myself in front of the altar in the center of the clearing. Tearing my eyes away from the one-sided fight, I focused my attention on the contents of the bowls.
Sure enough, as Yvonne had said, they were filled with our offerings, one for each of us. Ignoring the rest, my eyes strayed to my bowl. My precious treasure was still there, along with the other two of my offerings.
My hands twitched. I glanced up at Yvonne, who’s lips were rapidly turning blue. Would anyone really notice one missing offering?
Before I even realized it myself, I had reached out and reclaimed my prize.
The world suddenly seemed to lose all sound, like the quiet before a great storm. Then, an ear-splitting bitonal shriek erupted from somewhere in front of me, far off but drawing nearer. Shocked, Martin released his grip, as Yvonne fell to the ground like a limp rag, wheezing and hacking. Turning, Martin’s eyes met mine. Then, he glanced to the item in my hand.
“Theodore, the hell did you…?”
The sound of galloping feet cut him off. As all three of us turned as one to look, “It” suddenly cleared the top of the ring of trash in a great leap, glaring down at us menacingly.
“Its” appearance defied all sensibility and sanity. It appeared to be wearing some form of white suit with red and gold accents, though where it had procured such affections, I couldn’t venture to guess. Although it had seemed human in silhouette when I had glimpsed it earlier, I now saw I was sorely mistaken.
Like some action figure whose limbs had been reversed by its cruel owner, where the thing’s arms should have been stretched two legs instead, knob-kneed and gangly, well over 10 feet in length. On the ends of those legs were a pair of white leather shoes, torn open at the toes to make room for six sharp-clawed digits, which peeked out like great knife-beaked vultures in caves of bleached stone.
Conversely, where the thing’s legs should have been were two bony T-Rex-like arms, capped in six-fingered claws, jagged and barbed as if they were made to grab and not let go.
But its head, that was the worst by far.
Pale and oddly stretched thin like a flat oval, it looked like some evil wax mask, jutting out from its body on a long, segmented neck that closely resembled the body of a caterpillar.
My naïve assumptions of how the features of a face should sit, grounded in foolish reality, were quickly swept away as the thing opened its “eyes” to reveal twin pits of darkest black, its eyelids peeling back to flash row upon row of white coffin-teeth on pale, corpse-hued gums.
Darting in and out, a little red snake of a tongue tasted my fear upon the air. “It” tasted my fear and smiled, and impossibly wide smile that split its face from earhole to earhole. Lips parted over the toothless orifice, revealing a singular eye with gold iris and rectangular pupil, like that of a goat.
Though this was my first time seeing it fully, somehow there was no doubt in my mind as to the nature of this apparition.
“Yumekuzu-sama!” Yvonne croaked.
“What the actual hell?” Martin breathed. “Not this guy again!”
I didn’t say anything. I just turned and ran.
“Damnit Theodore!” Martin bellowed after me. Without a second thought, he grabbed Yvonne by an arm and a leg, spun, and tossed her screaming at the figure. Then he too ran, hot on Theodore’s heels.
Yvonne rolled to a stop and lay still. She didn’t want to open her eyes, didn’t want to look up at her dark master towering over her.
But not looking wouldn’t save her.
“Yumekuzu-sama!” She pleaded, touching her forehead to the dirt. “I did everything as you asked! I brought six others and their offerings. I even brought back your mask! I beg you, give me one more chance!”
She raised her head to find herself staring into Yumekuzu’s great eye. Its mouth-eye twisted at the corners, but was it smiling or just squinting? It reached out one twisted claw and laid it gently on her shoulder.
“Foooooound youuuuuu.” It whispered.ns184.108.40.206da2