In the inner sanctum of the forest, the humidity hung lower than the trestlework of vines embellishing the canopy and drooped in a panting languor. Gabe, waving his piercing eyes aimlessly about, delved deep into the heart of this breathing entity. It was not audible, but the waves of heat, so startling given the outer tundra, seemed to ebb and flow as though there was actual breathing. The trees were gnarled and horrendous beige arms striking into the heavens, clear and blue, with devilish audacity. Falling from them were networks of succulent branches, like thick fingers of wooden aristocrats dictating reprimand for the trespasser. The ground crackled wickedly with dead leaves and forgotten carcasses buried deep under, exploits and victims intertwined into the tragedy of this forest and its fanfaronade that sounded with silence of mourning and the evening roar of battle. It hissed with steam encompassing Gabe’s body, slithering into his throat and grabbing his heart so that he would pant and moan with an odd sensation. He felt stirred.His legs turned steam into combustion and he plowed through the veils of the trees, of the delicacy of the draping vines, with the sweeping vigor of conquest.
After a few moments, he realized that he should record this sensation into his journal and so he pulled it from his behind his belt. He beguiled the leather exterior with the soft stroke of his finger, caressing the paper ever so gently.Yet, when it opened, he saw that the heat and the humidity had run his writing into a maddening mascara smearing. The pages were translucent, the words muddled and confused, and the thoughts ruined. He went mad. He flapped through pages with an impatient rage, his fingers hardening into painful poses, and his jaw locked angry breaths within. Unfortunately, such a tantrum was for naught.He threw his book against a nearby tree, cracking the spine and killing it. He unhinged his jaw and bawled thunder of a tumultuous heart with stormy tears. The gales of passion had thrown him to a manic depression. Then the creatures of the forests, the great demons that prey on those who have found themselves wrenched from their strength, found him. However, these weren’t towering abominations of folk legends or Grimm imaginations.
Rather, it was a small plant, a sanguine orchid, that nestled its flower against Gabe’s forehead, wracked with a tempest of thought, and inseminated him with its seed.This seed penetrated the flesh with a grinding noise and snuck into the skull where it planted itself in his brain. It germinated violently, as it was a nurturer of violent thoughts, and shredded through his neural pathways, clogged his receptors and consumed it whole. Networks flooded with thorny ramparts and blood burst from the surrounding blood vessels, flooding and clotting and dying. Gabe had lost his mind within a matter of minutes.
He never noticed the ravenous conquistador beyond that simple kiss. He had only stared at the flower while he imploded, aneurysms killing him peacefully. By the time he was dead, ‘he’ being the pronoun referring to all characteristics and known intricacies belonging to the person known as Gabriel Read, there was a hush over him. His face was serene in staring infinitely at this crimson flower;the kindling of his eyes was set out into a dull gloss. His body slowly withered like a brilliant spring flower wilting under duress of winter frost and losing all its color until the greyness was all that was left. Gabriel Read and all his future thoughts were drowned in the tsunami of cracked arteries and steaming pipes of an overloaded mind, and so he would no longer transcribe his thoughts into his notebook. The notebook disappeared into the coffins of leaves beneath them, garbled and indecipherable.
Suddenly,the seed finished germinating, and Gabriel’s carcass lifted itself off the ground. In the distance he heard the cries of Luke and Ben looking for him,braving the perils of the forest with very little supplies. He set out for them.
Tyler had fallen to the back of the group, securing the rear with his M16 rifle and his bottle of Jack Daniels nestled comfortably in the flak jacket’s front pocket. In the middle was Ben surveying the forest with a nod of admiration for the wooden giants. His suit was unscathed in the entire ordeal, much to the shame of its blandness. Luke held the vanguard, calling Gabe’s name again and again in hopes that his friend would just suddenly appear from the foliage, lost in both way and thought in a very childish manner. Although, he had a deep foreboding, the longer he called out, that his friend may be more than merely lost. He fumbled with his skorpian firearm incessantly and cursed underneath his breath the whole way into the center. Ben had his dragunov imposing a striking juxtaposition to his drab demeanor with it strapped calmly to his backside. His face did not shift expression and never spoke his mind, unless it was that his mind was actually so banal as though not having any expression. Tyler fumbled about, the dizzying effects of the alcohol finally catching up with him and drowning his clarity. He let slip out a boisterous burp that rattled the branches around him. Ben turned on him, the butt of the dragunov perched against his shoulder and the dark barrel pointing out Tyler. “Tyler! I swear if you don’t stop, I’ll shoot it out of your hand. I don’t care either if I get your hand either.”
“Hey man. I’m just trying to lighten up. Boring as fuck out here. And now we have to look for Gabe, who thinks it’s just fine to run off wherever he damn well pleases. I’m sick of taking care of his dumb ass!” He staggered forward,tripping on the lurking roots breaching the ground. Ben put down his weapon and turned back to the path before them, where Luke had already made considerable headway. He couldn’t be dealing with Tyler in his condition. It was acceptable at the hideout, but the incident with the beast had propelled them forward and alcohol finds no greater pleasure than its own company. So, there was Tyler,his face flat in the filthy patches of dirt and leaves for Ben to pick up and babysit.
Ben found himself bored, fed up with the nuisances of his company. He was also preoccupied with fantasies of the vast riches rumored to be at the heart of the forest. At this very moment, a cavalcade of masked investors and corporate warlords awaited at the fringe towns outside the forest for Ben’s expedition to hand off the returns of his success, their investments paid off. They waited with avaricious palms holding worlds and souls festering in the cauldrons of their eyes where the Fates played Russian roulette with a loaded gun at whomever crossed them. They sat in other people’s homes, built their armies and called themselves saviors over afternoon coffee and portfolio briefings. Ben needed Luke and Tyler to shield him into the innermost sanctum of the brooding atmosphere, almost imposing itself on its occupants from all over. Now, he had to deal with Tyler’s drunkenness, Gabe’s mood swings, and Luke’s reticence. He would do them off shortly, he reassured himself, granted they don’t do themselves in first.
He lifted Tyler, bemoaning the humidity and heat. However, something caught his eyes in the clearing far to his right. He captured his objective, a lean man with tatters of clothing falling at his side and the proud waves of chocolate hair inundating his aura as moistness was exhaled from his body. His head was slightly tilted as his proud jaw struck forth in an audacious dare to the world around it; his eyes, shadowed by the darkness of the forest floor, shivered in their stare. “Gabe! There you are! I can’t believe you ran off like that! Get over here, boy.”
Gabe looked to Ben’s left and saw Tyler, struggling to focus his sight on his friend. The sight of Tyler elicited no response. Tyler called for Luke to comeback, that they had found him. “Luke.” Gabe slowly moved his head in the direction where Tyler had called for Luke, muttering the name again and again to himself. Tyler jokingly aimed his rifle for Gabe, claiming he would shoot him if he didn’t return to them immediately. He found it in good taste, unsurprisingly.Gabe, absent in thought and gaze, uttered Tyler’s name now. Every name was uttered with a mild confusion to it, as though the faces were familiar homages to a dream he once had. Although, when Tyler lifted the barrel of the rifle to meet his gaze, Gabe remembered all too perfectly his contempt. The seed hacked into these memories, these cruelties he tried so hard to keep sunken leagues underneath the meditative exterior of his mind, and relished in them. It found them and raised them to the forefront of everything, bringing their contained torridness screaming to consciousness and boiling every thought he had. He was nothing but hotheaded and primal now. At this point, the seed had contaminated and empowered his entire body: every muscle, every ligament, every neuron, and every cell had become an accelerated reactor moments from exhausting all its fuel.
He roared Tyler’s name and shot through the clearing with lightning ferocity. His arms dangled behind him as he ran, relying solely on the locomotive rotation of his legs to haul his rage to the company. Tyler, robbed of his right mind,figured that Gabe was merely kidding about and so, to reply in jest, fired off his weapon. He began dispersing foolishness across the forest floor to scare off the belligerent man. “Tyler, what in the world are you doing? You’re going to hit him.” Ben didn’t motion to stop him, but merely stood feigning control with his posture and staunch glare.
“Nahhh.Don’t worry.” As Tyler said that in an attempt to reassure Ben, a few stray bullets kept honest to Tyler’s drunkenness and struck Gabe across the chest, collapsing him onto his knees. Unable to capture what had occurred, Ty squinted his eyes and began walking towards the body. He held his weapon close to his chest, treading carefully so as not to trip. He shouted for Luke again.
Ben distanced himself from it, shouting at Tyler all the while, “You hit him! I can’t believe you actually shot him, Tyler! What the hell were you thinking firing a semi-automatic weapon drunk? You killed him!” His tirade never seemed to end with his machine gun stream of insults and derogation and criticism, the mouth running faster and more vicious with each complaint. His exhaustion with Tyler was near nigh and he pondered pulling out the dragunov at that moment where emotion finally seemed to cloud his judgment. Greed pulled the strings on his hand to his weapon.
Tyler turned to Ben, insulted but unaware of his intentions. He missed the slight movements of Gabe behind him, twitching fingers rattling excitedly at desires of retribution. He had hot wrath coursing into his heart’s chambers, crashing hard against the septum. This anger coursed underneath the mantle of his bones with an unseen sweltering of magma heat. He was close to eruption.
Luke, well beyond the other two, finally heard the call for him and raced back down the golden slopes of dying grass,hoping that they had found him. He anticipation carried his speed into an unknown finesse as he leaped over fallen trees and strode effortlessly along the distance he left his friends. The glaring golden eye peeking at Luke through the trees burst into blinding shimmers that struck arrows through the branches, attempting to strike Luke’s eyes down, to slow him down, and perhaps to save him. Luke waved the rays from his sight and continued down the makeshift path. He could not be distracted nor kept from this reunion.
Finally, he entered into view of the scene: Tyler spraying his weapon wildly and drunkenly amidst the forest floor,unable to hit Gabe as the beast rushed into his former friend. Brandon’s jaw clenched with a frightened mother’s embrace that tried to console his distraught head. His eyes caught and lit sparks of fury with the focus of a traumatic flashback. His hands trembled from the scene as his fingers attempted to grasp his Skorpian, but yet he had no idea as to what to do with it. His instincts just barked at him for the weapon, again and again, as time was spent before him, counted in the clatter of bullets.
Tyler discarded his weapon as Gabe zeroed on him and bore his knife, a jagged and demonic chunk of metallic terror. It was the encapsulation of his soul. He made lustrous strikes and lunges,catching Gabe’s monstrous blows with a bloody parry. Tyler managed to outmaneuver the flurry of Gabe’s strikes with the good fortune of his stumbling, always rising back up with a no bars held slash of his knife. It was a drunken ballet of dazzling kicks and dizzying spirals; it was the majesty of a long suppressed tension bursting forth like repressed sexuality. Ben just watched with his sniper perched on his arm.
Unfortunately, it had to finish and fights seldom carry the interest of all participants. Gabe ducked under another of Tyler’s vicious rises and grabbed his arm, squeezing it until the bitter juices began pressing to the skin like surfacing methane fires. Gabe used his other hand to hold Tyler’s elbow in place and slammed his hand downwards,snapping his arm. The resulting sound burst like sonic waves and struck the mind of everyone around it, buckling their sanity with the image of Tyler’s dangling limp arm not even registering, the breaking was so invisible. It was such a sight watching the thin flesh hang so unnaturally and that Tyler could not even see, a trauma missed in a blink, was truly breathtaking. Before he could even realize that he had no more control over his arm, literally seeing the knife dropping to the floor before his mind could even shatter at the intense pain, Gabe impaled his fist into Tyler’s concave chest so horrendously that his organs experience a blackout. The depression, where his sternum should have been, collapsed. Tyler was still so very unaware of what was occurring to his body as bile and blood and chyme and ureic acid began leaking from their respective organs into the collective tragedy that was a maelstrom of an inhumane retribution.
He glanced up to see Ben, aiming his dragunov straight for them, and tried to dissuade him. He opened his mouth to shout, but instead his throat burst with blood all over himself and Gabe,slowly withdrawing his hand from Tyler’s chest. His eyes trembled, glazed somewhat from the alcohol, and he looked into Gabe’s as his arm disappeared into the flak jacket pocket. He noticed they were . Tyler opened his mouth to speak once more, but before he could await the strength in-between fountain splashes of revolting blood to do so, Gabe smashed the Jack Daniels bottle against his forearm. The golden liquid splattered indiscriminately allover Tyler’s face, showering him in a perverse baptism but only making him more impure. He took the broken glass, stripped Tyler of his uniform and dignity,and jammed it into Tyler’s chest.
Now, Tyler felt the pain. It seized his body in an electrifying paralysis and he screamed with the same fear as when he first penetrated the light of this transient world, the same fear that he tried to obscure with a distorted mind. He screamed for fear of death, for fear that he would no longer be blessed with a light to muddy and in doing so neglect its warmth. The blood raced from his chest. He was no longer alive, but instead a crimson effigy of an exodus from an empty demolition site. The blood ran alongside the whiskey as though they were kindred fluids, sharing his body and now sharing its guilt.
Ben finally found his moment and his aim.He fired a militant Hermes on a warpath. But, Gabe heard and measured the shot with his heightened senses. For the final insult, he threw Tyler’s carcass in the path of the bullet and it tore through his skull mercilessly.
“What the actual fuck, Gabe!” Ben shouted, unable to comprehend what had just transpired before him. He fired again, somehow still not belligerent but rather just slightly nervous. Thebullet struck its mark this time, impaling Gabe’s chest. Unfortunately for Ben,Gabe seemed to have absorbed the blow, a patchwork of cork roots repairing the penetration wound.
Meanwhile, Luke, petrified into a state of shivering suspension, stared onto the growing lake of crimson emanating from Tyler’s, his closest friend’s, carcass. The heat of the forest enraptured his head into a feverish panic. The heat he imprisoned and beaten in his heart began to bubble with impudence. His temper rose and his mind escaped. “Gabe!”The belting of rage incarnate sprung from Luke now, and both he and Gabe turned to each other in a moment of accordance. “Stop, Ben. I want him for myself.”Ben complied, seeing his opportunity to shed himself of all his dead weight without even trying.
Luke drew his Skorpian and unloaded his first round around Gabe, mostly missing him save a few fortunate shots. Unaffected, the possessed vessel of man poured his energy into another boar rush for Luke.
Luke’s movements became automatic as the firm hand of his focused wrath guided them; years of repressed insanity consummating into one supernova burst. He reloaded his Skorpian and unloaded another round,his last clip, directly onto the bent backside of his friend’s body, never missing a single beat in the action’s rhythm. Gabe tumbled forward and spun wildly along the floor, the momentum spurring his body forth. He leaped back onto his feet without missing a single pulse in his attack.
He approached Luke, his arms coiled back in preparation to strike. Luke discarded his weapon and unleashed his fury in a flurry of fists and charges. Gabe effervescently glided in between the blows, still unable to find an opening in Luke’s defense. Gabe turned along with one of Luke’s swings in order strike him on his ribs, over-extended from the punch. However, Luke continued the turn and launched his foot into Gabe’s backside. He rolled forward with the force of the blow and turned to meet another barrage of punches. Luke seemed indefatigable,unhindered by mortal limits, powered by a locomotive steam engine that charged on the inferno of his pain. All Gabe could do for the moment was parry and dance through the torrent of a ravaged and violent heart.
Ben watched the two exchange blows; Luke’s insanity endowed him an inhuman advantage over the soulless vassal. ‘His strikes should be faster, though’, Ben began wondering. And then it struck him,a slight breath of emotion coughed from his eye. Somewhere in Gabe’s infection he still held compassion for Luke and that infiltrated his madness. Ben aimed his dragunov once more and with his trigger finger sought to capitalize on weakness. With his thick flabby finger he sought to capitalize on even those who trust him the most, to exploit beating hearts. He was the reaper scraping winning chips to his infinite stomach in the gamble of chance.
Gabe, seeing Ben lift his dragunov in the thick forest heat like a knife in the dark, knew the only result of this confrontation.He captured Ben’s intent in a photographic capture of his dusty green eyes. Ben was responsible for all of this: the pain and the alienation and the death and the anger and nothing more than the purest extension of an indignation that was eating away at Gabriel’s molecular composition every second with cancerous gluttony. His brain caught fire. His head was rammed through with the ornery explosion of the fully manifest parasite and his skull popped open. A thick-skinned stem slowly crept from his skull, massive in size. His body trembled with metabolic outrage slowly making him hollow.
Luke did not even hesitate for a moment;his eyes were inundated with thoughts of Tyler and memories of Gabe’s laugh and his wife at home. His eyes painted the film reel of his life crimson and it latched onto his sense of duty. The reel ran again and again until the images blurred into one another into a singular Fauvist painting and he could no longer see what his eyes transcribed, but rather the nightmares he spilled onto the parchment of his emotions. He could not die, but he felt as though he had already lost his life. Luke, taking in Gabe’s metamorphosis, swung again.
Gabe ensnared Luke’s punch, jarring him into sobriety, and jabbed him in the chest. It was nowhere as strong as what he had done to Tyler, but it disarmed his temper. Ben fired. Gabe saw the bullet and he acted. He clutched Luke’s t-shirt and with both hands positioned Luke before the bullet as a wall. It burst through his rib cage and still managed to strike Gabe in the chest. Luke, mortally wounded, collapsed clinging, with the slightest grasp, to consciousness. Gabe recovered himself and looked down on Luke. He wavered back and forth, clutching at his once pristine mane of hair,and staccato breaths escaped him. He saw the blood eclipsing Luke’s clear skin,drowning his youth.
“Luke?” His fingers trembled, anxious of what coldness he might touch when he placed them on his friend’s body. Gabe relinquished himself for one moment from the trappings of his possession, from the depravity and aggression of the forest, and he returned to his clarity, to the sensitivity of a human, once more. He buried his fingers into the blood and spread it gently with the most placid of caresses down his waist. His fingers retreated into a fist and he kissed his head with that fist as tears collected in small pools at the floor of his eye. “You said that you would look out for me all those years ago. Do you remember that? When we first met, how alone I was and you said you would befriend me? Look out for me. And now, you die at my hands. How poetically infuriating. If you’re still alive, I promise you one thing.” He looked up at Ben once more, unfazed at the entire scene. He actually was observing the two through the scope of his sniper and planning on tumbling out goodbyes through the dark mouth of his barrel. “I will kill Ben for you.”
Ben fired one last time. The bullet dug deep into Gabe’s skull, swirling a mess of gored and deformed skin on its entry. The seed replenished the wound once more, winding Gabe from the energy it required. His cells were quickly expiring. “Ben!” he roared, “I’m going to kill you! Do you understand this?! You brought us here to die for you! Now,you’re going to die for us!”
Ben took off with his life. Unfortunately, as perhaps was just one more thing on a long list of things unfortunate for him, he was quite slow. Embarrassingly so. Also, his suit slowed him down dramatically, so his sprint at this point was reduced to an awkward skipping with an offbeat pacing.It was laughable.
Gabe tampered with the tangibility of his parasite and actually, with his last few moments of energy, unleashed a series of piercing vines from his head wound in pursuit of Ben. These serpents caught him quickly, ensnaring his ankles and wrists and neck and dignity all in a single moment of conviction. The vines slinked back with their prey caught over the burial mounds of forgotten heroes, forcing Ben to rub his mouth along their filthy remains and follies, tasting the melancholy that he had been served. He was released after a short while, and so he picked himself up to face the grand emptiness of the forest. He did not want to turn around, because he heard and knew that behind him was the laborious breathing of a disintegrating man who wanted nothing more than to kill him. Only when faced with death did he even bother to pay attention to how empty it all was, this entire forest. There were no actual monsters. The trees were daunting, but sparse. There were just muted plants and the hidden armies of parasites sprouting forth from the leaf-buried mausoleum of foolish men. Of cocky men. “Ben. Are you ready to die?”
“What the hell are you even doing, Gabe?You have to let me go. Who will provide for Tyler and Luke’s families? Who will tell them the news? You wouldn’t kill me, would you?” Ben pleaded whilst turned from his former friend. His hands rummaged through his suit. “I even have letters prepared in case such a thing would happen. You know how we financiers are, prepared for every probability.”
“Do not lie to me. You cannot lie to me anymore. I’ve died. You will, too. There is no man without the threat of death breathing down his neck. The claustrophobic heat swirling around your head that snatches your thoughts in flames, or passion, as it would prefer to be called. Tobe what you call a man is to neglect those letters in your pockets, because your life already has no regard for loved ones. It has no concern for love. You would have never brought us here if you actually cared for anyone more than yourself. What you are is someone less human than even I am.” Gabe reached for Jacob’s shoulder. “It’s only fair. You lost.”
“Shut the fuck up!” Ben pounced on the touch, striking from his suit a magnum .44 and unleashing this handheld cannon’s oblivion into Gabe’s chest repeatedly. All six rounds were spent and Ben stood with no more options but to expect his executor to keel over and finally exeunt. Ben’s breath, watching the body fall, relaxed and he observed the forest chamber. He observed the death before him, considered the costs to himself, the cost of friendship’s decaying carcass, and smiled. He seemed truly content when Gabe began gurgling blood, chuckling almost. “I am so tired of your bullshit. I cannot believe I wasted all this time putting with your childish and womanly bullshit. You are just weird. Way too weird to belong, to be alive. Lucky you I was here to help end your suffering, huh?” He released this insipid monotone laughter, a humored sigh following a sharp ‘ha’. It was dreadful.
Gabe wavered on his toes a bit, gasping for breath and clutching at the wounds. They were not healing. Ben still had to die, so with his body almost spent he had the vines spiral around Jacob’s tailor-suited body, his façade of worth, and constricted the life force from him. Ben, having assured himself complete victory, was taken completely by shock. He tried to plea for mercy, but the vines filled their loopholes with his throat and tightened. There were four vines acting on this execution and they all conjoined on his throat and face, collapsing his larynx, shattering his skull and suffocating his mouth. He went out panicking, flailing the parts of his body he could still feel, trying to release his distress. But, he was muffled by his own creation.
As he died, Gabe whispered into Ben’s ear, “I may have been weird, bizarre. You may not like what I am. But,” blood trickled onto his gentle lips, “what I see myself as is so much better than what you expect me to be. What you expect is killing you right now, taking every breath from your pathetic, weak body, you waste of posterity. You never had the audacity to be anything more than lifeless.” The vines unraveled and Ben collapsed, dead. He looked the same, just a bit bruised: his eyes, his expression and his sound of being all were unchanged. Gabe, on the other hand,had let the parasite run its course and now every organ in his body had ceased in a manner that was soothing and painless. Or, it wasn’t painless at all, but he had dealt in pain for so long that it seemed trivial to bother noticing about his last suffering.
“Luke.” There was a groan.“Leave.” There was another groan, a pained one. But, this one was much more audible. Gabe smiled, the final issuance of any energy he could exert for he could not even cry despite wanting to. “When you can, of course. Go home, Luke. Go home.”