An alien forest collapsed and burned, dying in the midst of morning. A dragon of smoke ascended to block the sun. Half a mile north of the blaze, a group of six watched the flames of their arson. The group consisted of a pale young man, a capable elderly woman without teeth, a twitching fellow with tired bags under his eyes, a man with a sack over his head that had two eye holes cut out of it, a short and stout bearded man who wielded a heavy flamethrower with a shark’s face painted on it, and the slim and tall leader with greasy black hair and a shabby jacket. The leader’s eyes were shut, and he was reiterating rhetoric to his flock.
“This world is a vile attempt at the end of humanity. It is not our world, but a reminder of what we have lost; an infestation, a disease. In order for humanity to rise again, we must purge this planet of its foreign filth . . . scorch the landscape and be reborn amongst the ashes.” He ended with his eyes still shut. Suddenly, a twig snapped in the surrounding wilderness, and shadows began encroaching from behind tree and bush, branch and thicket, and vine and slope. The arsonists looked around in a panic while the leader remained still with his eyes sealed shut.
The great fire patiently crept closer in the background, enjoying the consumption of forest.
“Come on out, friends. Share with us the delights of liberation,” the leader announced aloud. Not a moment later, a platoon of heavily armed survivors emerged from the surrounding veil, snickering and bloodthirsty. “Hello brothers, have we staggered into your territory?” the cult leader acknowledged politely.
“You sure have . . . and you set our backyard ablaze. Why would you do something like that?” a young warlord asked as he approached through his company with a leash in hand, dragging the slack through the dirt. Attached and following without any resistance was a chained reptilian monster topped with a spiked shell. The creature’s tail was coiled up and weighed down by chains behind it. The warlord’s face was dirty, and his attire was hardened by dried blood. A pair of gruesome blades that looked like the fangs of some primordial cat hung off his belt, and a black Beretta M9 rested in his shoulder holster. The scars scrawled onto his exposed skin told stories of his sanguinary past.
It was Slugger, leader of the Last Men, and his beloved pet Marge. The arsonists and their leader directed their attention toward him.
“You think you can just—” Slugger stopped abruptly as he glanced into the leader’s wide-open eyes. “What the fuck? Who are you looking at? Can you even fuckin’ see?” Slugger barked. The leader remained silent; his eyes were black and permanently directed inward, stuck in place. “Seriously . . . I completely forgot what the fuck I was gonna say. So, your eyes are just, stuck like that?” Slugger continued.
“I have strabismus, but I can still see . . . and what I see is a sham,” the leader replied calmly.
“Hey now, you’re talking about our home,” Slugger snapped with the ends of his mouth curling up.
“Your home is gone; buried under this altered landscape, this . . . abomination of science. Don’t you see? We wash it away with fire and dig our old world out from below, so civilization can rise from the ashes like a phoenix,” the cross-eyed leader implored.
“Honestly, you’re probably saying some crazy ass shit, but I can’t even pay attention with your eyes like that. Are you looking at me right now?” Slugger antagonized. The arsonist leader regarded him quietly. Slugger eventually lifted his gaze from the man and scanned the rest of the group. When his gaze fell on the pale adolescent, he smiled. “This one. You’ve crossed into our lands before. I seem to remember giving you the utmost hospitality, and this is how you repay me? ’Course, we sent dogs after you to find out where the rest of you were hiding, but you got away, and that was gonna be that. But not anymore. You messed up. This is our world . . . and now none of you get to be a part of it.”
“Heretics! Come to test our fire?” the bearded man bellowed and aimed his flamethrower at Slugger, who simply let go of Marge’s leash. The chains dropped with a weak chime, muffled by the dusty impact. He then clicked his tongue twice, and his beast charged at the threatening target.
The stout man torched the dragon, but it leaped through the flames, unscathed, and pounced on him. Marge then began to eat the man’s face while he screamed; part of his beard caught fire and smoked and smoldered like a nest. The twitchy arsonist with bags under his eyes attempted to run away during the commotion, but a hidden sniper took him down. The rest of the small group cowered—with the exception of their eccentric leader.
“No one’s leaving!” the deranged warlord exclaimed with delight.
“Brother. Why do you slay your own kind?” the cross-eyed leader asked.
“Because your own kind can be your worst enemy,” Slugger answered, darting his gaze toward the leader.
“But we are not your enemies. We are your friends,” the leader responded politely.
“These are my friends.” Slugger opened his arms wide, referencing his vast gang behind him. “He came into our land.” Slugger pointed to the terrified adolescent. “Then he went crawling back to you after I gave him a sack of food and tells you to come here and burn it down to the ground? What kind of friend is that?” Slugger asked, playing along.
“Why do you fight so hard for a world that isn’t ours anymore? We are here to liberate you, all of you. Our world will return when this rot is cleansed,” the cross-eyed leader implored with true conviction and a touch of desperation.
“Our world will return once civilization returns you fuckin’ moron. We are building toward the future here. You guys could have been a part of something bigger, but instead you wanna whine and bitch about what you lost,” Slugger retorted. “You make me sick . . . and I still don’t even know if you’re even fuckin’ looking at me!” he yelled, then drew his hand cannon and shot the elderly woman in the head. He then proceeded to shoot the arsonist with the sack mask through the brain as well, leaving the leader and the youth as the only remaining two of their group. Marge stopped feasting and looked toward her master.
The young man, barely in his twenties, collapsed to the ground and began to whimper and cry. His leader remained still, his blank face lacking emotion as he contemplated the unknown. “Tie ’em up; we’re gonna roast ’em alive,” Slugger commanded as he walked over to secure Marge’s leash. The creature nuzzled him lovingly, smearing fresh blood on his shirt.
Over the course of thirty minutes, the gang constructed a pyre and tied their captives together in the center. “Please, no! I’m sorry! Let me help you guys!” the young man pleaded, paler than before.
“Shut the fuck up you pussy and die like a goddamn man,” one of Slugger’s men hissed in his ear. The youth, sentenced to die, whimpered and further dampened his piss-soaked pants. His leader remained silent with his crossed gaze straight, focused on nothing in particular.
Slugger’s men poured the last of the gasoline while others laughed and anticipated the execution. “Burn slowly, you pieces of shit,” Slugger muttered before tossing a lit match onto the epicenter of the pyre. The flames erupted immediately and began to eat at the pair’s flesh when the wood wouldn’t satisfy their endless appetite.
The young man screamed as his skin melted off of him, but the leader welcomed his fate, and with all his strength announced his final thoughts, “All of you will suffer worse than us, and you will forever be empty and dead, lost without a home.”
Slugger threw an empty canister of gas that struck the man in the head, silencing him; the audience erupted into laughter at the scene, while a few remained hushed in discomfort. Afterward, a brief moment of silence was interrupted as the two bodies began to crackle and pop as the fire overwhelmed their carcasses. Slugger sniffed the air of his victory and smiled, holding his hard crotch gently.
“Hey Boss, what do we do about that?” asked one of his loyal henchmen, a man with thick black dreads and a large scar over one eye. He was pointing to the forest fire heading their way.
“Goddamn it, Willie. Sometimes you just gotta give me a moment,” Slugger complained. Willie remained quiet, awaiting orders. “Fuck it, it’s not gonna reach us back home. Let’s roll out.”
Willie hesitated, then objected, “It’s gonna hit my home.” Slugger raised an eyebrow as the man continued, “All the outposts out here are gone if we don’t do something.”
“What do you suggest, we spend the next few weeks battling this thing? Digging fire breaks that might not even work? The whole goddamn forest is gone. No, fuck this, we’re going home. Take your crew if you want to salvage whatever you can but I don’t know what the fuck you expect me to do,” Slugger stated. His henchman scowled and turned to gather his crew. Slugger’s eyebrows grew heavy and he scoffed.
Suddenly, he was reminded of six faces; young faces whom he deemed his responsibility. One stuck out in particular: a pair of brown eyes rippling like wavelets in a murky pool peeking out from an overdressed guise. He froze and contemplated his options, but finally decided that it was up to them. No more would he run to their rescue. They must be strong; they must be tested.
In slight turmoil, the leader tugged at his war beast and led his gang through the woods back toward the road. The sun dropped, but they continued to tread through the moonless dark to outrun the glowing blaze and the grasp of the smoke. They eventually found the decrepit road along with their vehicles, guarded by a smaller party, and mustered the caravan to full speed.