A solitary bluejay happily chirped as it flitted back and forth between the treetops, its wings gracefully carrying it along the air currents. The overcast sky filtered faded sunlight through the leaves, producing patches of white across which the bird bounced, like a primal game of hopscotch. Something shifted in the distant foliage, and the bluejay turned in alarm, its beady black eyes flickering bright red for a split-second.
Suddenly, a small, round object whistled from the bushes, striking the winged creature’s skull. Its head exploded, showering the tree trunk behind it with bits of glass, metal, and oil. Wires protruding from its neck stump sparked a little, and the decapitated body tilted to the side, entering free-fall before colliding with the forest floor below.
As the dust settled, the Nomad rose from the ground, returning her slingshot to a pouch on her hip. She stepped forward, her patchwork layers of tattered clothes brushing up against the branches as she examined the bird that was not a bird.
Another robot, she thought to herself. Are all the birds here fake?
A distance trickle reached her ears, and she turned her head in the direction of the sound, heading cautiously that way. As she approached, she saw thick, thorny bushes on the ground, and paused, drawing a pair of long garden shears.
“Not here,” she murmured. “Thorns are bad around here.”
Scoping out the foliage, she worked her way in a circle through the trees, orienting herself towards the trickling sound until she eventually encountered a small creek. She sheathed her shears, retrieving an old bottle she’d taken from an abandoned campsite a few weeks ago, along with some of the clothes she now wore. Holding the bottle down to the creek, she filled it with water, licking her dry lips. Once liquid began to pour from the top, she jerked the bottle to her mouth, gulping it down. After it had been drained, she began to fill it again, looking at her reflection in the water.
A dirty, smudged face stared back at her, the head obscured by a thick hood and a cloth strip that usually covered her mouth and nose. The rest of her attire consisted of an old brown coat, oversized flannel shirt, and torn khaki pants. The laces of her stolen boots were tied extra tight to avoid them slipping off. Still, here in this world, she needed all the protection she could get.
The pitter-patter of large paws drew her attention from her reflection, and she glanced up to see a large rat, about the size of a car engine, scurry up to the creek. Rather than alarm, she felt calm, and she smiled at the animal, waving. It squeaked in acknowledgement, dipping its face down to the creek to lap up the water. The Nomad sighed, screwing the cap back onto her refilled water bottle.
The rat shifted its stance a little, its foot touching a slimy, purple, dinner-plate-sized flower growing up from the creek bed. Immediately, the flower’s long, thick petals stretched out in the rat’s direction, ensnaring it. The petals grew and thickened, becoming more like octopus tentacles, and the stem rippled as it began to drain the creek dry to support the accelerated growth. Squealing in terror, the rat pawed at the flower tentacles, but its claws could not penetrate the vegetation.
“Hey!” The Nomad yelled, producing her shears once more. “Leave it alone!”
She lunged across the creek, enclosing the two sides of the shear blades around the tentacle that squeezed the rat’s waist. Pinching the shears together with all her weight, she snipped the tentacle completely off, and it relaxed its grip, unspooling around its prey. The other tentacles released the rat, cringing backwards as if responding to pain. The Nomad saw the rat hurry back into the woods, and she smiled.
Her victory was short-lived, though, as one of the other tentacles ensnared her ankle, lifting her upside-down into the air. She reached up, trying to free herself like she’d freed the rat, but another tentacle appeared, cracking like a whip to knock the shears from her hand. She swore, watching the main flower’s stamen peel back to reveal rows of tooth-like thorns in a tunnel that led down into the flower’s roots.
Not today, forest, she thought, retrieving her slingshot. Notching a large, smooth pebble with her other hand, she pulled back on the makeshift device, releasing the stone. The projectile whizzed through the air, colliding with the side of the flower’s mouth like a bullet. It squealed, the tone shrill and piercing, and the tentacles released the Nomad, dropping her unceremoniously to the ground.
Scrambling to her feet, the Nomad dove through the mass of squirming tentacles, sprinting past the trees and beyond their reach. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the flower grow still, the tentacles retreating back into petals once more, the thorn-filled stamen sealing closed. She slowed her stride, sighing, and leaned against a nearby tree, gasping for air.
“Hello?” a young girl’s voice suddenly called out nearby. “Is someone there? Please help me!”
The Nomad pressed her head against the tree bark, squeezing her eyes shut.
No, she thought. Not again. Don’t fall for the spider’s tricks.
Lifting her head, she peered exasperatedly at the tree cover, through which a grey sky periodically sparked green.
Still, she silently continued, the forest is better than those things on the streets.
Humming loudly to drown out the creature’s call, she moved forward once more, sipping from her water bottle.
A few hours later, as the Nomad had paused to tighten her shoelaces, she heard new voices echoing through the brush. Frowning, she stood up, retrieving her slingshot and drawing a pebble back against the elastic. She crouched, inching ahead to identify the source of the chatter. It only took a moment before she reached the edge of the treeline, looking across a wide clearing.
Before her stood a small graveyard, the names on the evenly-spaced headstones written in a language the Nomad couldn’t read. The grass was bright green here, though it seemed a bit overgrown; not unexpected for an old graveyard in the middle of the woods. The overcast sky cast a gloom across the graves, and the Nomad expected zombies to pop up at any moment.
Rather than the undead, though, she saw something even worse: The living.
Four men and one woman, all pale-face, red-lipped, and seemingly in their early twenties, circled one of the graves, shovels in hand. A massive pile of dirt next to the grave indicated to the Nomad that they’d dug it up, and her suspicions were confirmed when she saw a sixth person – another woman – pop up from the hole, waving around what appeared to be gold jewelry. Two of the men helped her out of the hole, and she showed them a satchel strapped to her body.
“We pawn this, we’ll be set for a long time,” she chuckled, her voice low and raspy. “No one ever comes this far into the forest anymore anyway.”
The Nomad shifted her stance, and a twig snapped beneath her heel. The six graverobbers spun to face her, and she quickly pocketed her slingshot, stepping out into the clearing with her hands up.
“Who are you?” one of the men hissed. “You with the Sleep Police?”
“I don’t know what that is,” the Nomad admitted. Reaching up, she pulled back her hood and face covering, revealing a tan, feminine face with short, choppy hair. “I’m kind of new here.”
The graverobbers balked, and one of them whispered, “She’s from The Overhead!”
The Nomad took another gentle step forward. “My name is Alyssa Little. I came into your world by following some kind of flying jellyfish through the filter of a swimming pool. Do you know how I can get back to . . . what did you call it? The Overhead?”
The woman with the satchel stepped forward, eyeing Alyssa. She turned back to the others, addressing them. “How much do you think the Sleep Police would take for her?”
One of the men chuckled in response. “Sleep Police? Why let them have all the fun?”
She elbowed him in the ribs. “Stop thinking with your dick. We’re here to make a profit.”
Alyssa sighed, creeping backwards.
This is why I hate people, she thought to herself.
“Hey!” the other woman yelled, pointing at Alyssa. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Alyssa turned to flee, and the graverobbers took chase.
The trees blurred past her as she sprinted through the forest, her boots crushing the grass and leaves beneath them. Behind her, she heard the pale-faced antagonists cackle and scream, taunting her as they threatened to catch her. In a moment of inspiration, she adjusted course, following the thorns along the ground until the sound of running water reached her ears once more. When the creek appeared in front of her, she leapt across it, dropping a pebble back on top of the tentacle-flower she’d previously encountered.
Immediately, the plant sprung to life, and she looked over her shoulder to see its tentacles ensnare two of the pursuing men, lifting them into the air before pulling them towards its open mouth. Three of the others stopped to try to help them, pulling helplessly at the tentacles. Smiling, she turned her attention back to the woods . . .
And the woman with the satchel appeared around a tree trunk, swinging a shovel that sent Alyssa spiraling into darkness.
Alyssa awoke with a start, her forehead slamming into some kind of wooden surface. She cringed, reaching up to touch her head, but more wood on either side of her body restricted her movements. Opening her eyes, she saw nothing but blackness, and as realization struck her, she began to take deep, panicked breaths.
“You awake down there?” she heard the graverobber with the satchel call, her voice distant and muffled. “You should be by now.”
Alyssa resisted the urge to scream for help. She knew it would make no difference here.
“That Squid Flower killed two of my friends,” the woman continued. “You killed two of my friends.”
“Bitch,” Alyssa heard one of the surviving men mutter. She placed her palms on the wooden surface above her, slowing her breathing.
“We’re just about to finish burying you,” added the woman with the satchel. “We’ll be back for you in, I don’t know, a week? And then we’ll take your body to the Sleep Police. I’m sure they’ll still pay a little bit for the corpse of a girl from The Overhead.”
Dying in a grave in a cemetery, Alyssa thought to herself. How fitting.
She reached down into her pockets to see what supplies she could use to survive or escape, but quickly realized that they’d removed all of her belongings. Gritting her teeth, she stifled her tears, not giving them the satisfaction of hearing her fear.
Besides, she knew what was about to come.
“What the hell?” the other woman suddenly cried from above.
Alyssa heard a series of overlapping scratching sounds somewhere beyond her coffin. Within moments, something sharp scraped against the wood, and rapid sniffing reached her ears. The wood began to flake and splinter, falling onto her face, and she covered her eyes and mouth, patiently waiting. After another moment, she felt something break through the coffin, and cold wetness touched her hands.
Shifting up into a sitting stance, Alyssa forced herself up through the new hole in the coffin, clawing into the recently shifted dirt. She held her breath, pulling along the earth, until grey light reached her eyes. Breaching the grave in which she’d been buried, she gasped, sucking in fresh air. Her eyes adjusted, and she glanced at the graverobbers.
The two men and two women glared at her, their eyes darting down at the ground periodically. Surrounding them stood half a dozen large rats, much like the one Alyssa had encountered at the creek. The rodents hissed at the graverobbers, baring sharp teeth, and the humans waved their shovels in response.
“I’m going to kill you,” one of the men said, running at Alyssa. The rats immediately pounced on him, biting into his flesh, and he screamed, rolling around to shake them off.
“The animals here don’t seem to like it when I’m in trouble,” Alyssa explained to the horrified survivors. “Are you going to be trouble?”
Two of the remaining graverobbers rushed to help the one covered in rats, but the woman with the satchel waved them away. “Leave him. While they’re distracted, we’ll kill the girl.”
Alyssa shook her head. “I wouldn’t do that. They’ve had time to get to me.”
“Who’s had time–” began the other woman, but she screamed in pain, collapsing to the ground as something dragged her by the legs beyond the treeline, out of sight. In the distance, Alyssa heard bones crunch, and the woman’s screams faded into whimpers.
“That’s it,” the last man said, dropping his shovel. “I’m out of here.”
He turned to run, but a pair of large, feather-winged snakes swooped down from the trees, biting at his face. Crying out, he fell to the ground, and the snakes began to work their way up towards his eyes. Alyssa glanced at the last woman standing, offering a sad sigh.
“I call those egg-eaters,” she explained. “But it appears they’ll go after anything that looks like eggs.”
The man’s cries turned shrill as the snakes began to burrow into his eye sockets.
“What . . . what are you?” the woman with the satchel whispered, her bottom lip quivering.
“I’m just a girl, trying to survive,” Alyssa responded. “A nomad, without a home.”
A low hiss emanated from behind Alyssa, and she turned to see a black, faceless alligator waddle up to her side. Leaning down, she gently pet the thing’s rubbery skin, whispering to it.
“Good girl. You want a snack?”
The alligator slithered forward, and the leader of the graverobbers dropped her satchel, stumbling away in an attempt to escape. She made it ten steps before the creature caught up with her, chomping its carrot-sized teeth around her leg and jerking her to the ground.
Alyssa bent down, retrieving the satchel of jewelry, before collecting her tools and supplies and latching them back onto her person. Unscrewing her water bottle, she took a sip of the lukewarm drink, humming a tune to drown out the screams as she left the graveyard, a Nomad once more.
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