“Duct tape, lighter, drill bits, water bottle full of kerosene, knives, copper wire, strippers, a handful of shitty drywall nails, pliers, chisels, and about a half dozen other things I threw in the bag in a panic.” Garth sat back, studying the contents of his hastily assembled bag full of things from his closet he thought might come in handy in the heat of the moment. What would really make him feel better was a gun.
“One point three guns for each American, and now I’m the jackass without one.”
Garth could have headed deeper into the city to search for some guns, but that seemed like a good way to get shot or eaten, or both. There were sure to be looters and people with guns roaming the streets even now. It wouldn’t calm down for days. Going back into the city was suicidal, so he had to use what was in the bag to survive.
All told, the bag weighed almost thirty pounds. It had slowed him down on his trek into the woods, made his shoulder ache and put extra weight on his bloody feet, but Garth was glad he had it now. He’d hiked barefoot through the spring woods until his left foot was as bloody as his right, and now that the sun was going down, he could see his breath on the air.
Garth shivered and wrapped the bathrobe tighter around himself. If he’d been wearing a full set of clothes under the robe, he’d be fairly comfortable right now wrapped in the fuzzy polyester, but as it stood, each piece of skin in his legs and arms, chest and neck that strayed outside the embrace of the robe, sapped away a little more body heat.
He glanced down at his muddy, bloody feet, studying them with exhausted detachment. Forgetting to grab a pair of shoes was a rookie mistake and it was probably going to get him killed. Of course everyone was a rookie in a monster apocalypse. ‘Cept maybe doomsday preppers.
The piece of glass was still in his foot, surrounded by mud from the hours of walking through the woods. That was probably going to get infected. Garth needed to disinfect and bind the wound, and he needed warmth, new shoes and a weapon.
He raised his head and looked around. He was in the middle of the forest with no idea where he came from. He was also lost.
“One problem at a time.” Garth shook his head and stood, looking around the forest for a dip in the ground. He needed to make a fire. He spent the next half hour limping around, picking up fallen branches and rotten logs, setting up a tiny little fire in the hollow side of a tree with a splash of kerosene. The trunk and roots made three corners of a wall, protecting sight from what Garth assumed was the direction of the city.
Garth settled in front of the fire to make the fourth wall, setting his tool bag down beside the fire. Garth set the blade of a knife in the fire, cut a few strips out of his robe and doubled them up, placing them on the ground beside him. The heat from the fire was barely enough to ward off the cold, but Garth didn’t dare make a large flame and attract monsters to him. Or anyone for that matter.
People in life or death situations had a switch flipped, and they settled into two kinds: Those who were at their best, most noble, and those who sank to their worst possible low, with no in between. Meeting other people ran the risk of running into the latter. Those kind of people tended to live longer. If Garth could get himself in a situation where he could run if he had to, he’d be more inclined to meet other survivors.
He needed to meet with some eventually. He needed protection when he slept, food, water, shelter, and god willing, some sex. The lone ranger bullshit works on T.V., but humans didn’t become the masters of Earth by wandering away from the rest of the monkeys, walking up to a lion and saying ‘come at me, bro’.
They did it by sticking firmly together in large tribes, and using their heads. This was no different. The human named Garth needed a tribe, or he was going to get eaten.
A tribe. A family.
Garth’s parents were halfway across the United States, sleazing by in New York. They were probably dead. His younger brother was the quarterback at his ivy league, perfect-teeth, 4.0 GPA mega-rich school on a scholarship and his parent’s last dime. Jim might still be alive, but fuck all of them, when his parents hadn’t had enough money to send Jim to Harvard, they’d stolen from Garth’s fiancé. Garth had moved to Oklahoma to get away from the backstabbing assholes.
When her family found out, Garth was left penniless and alone. He’d bailed shortly after, just bought a train ticket to anywhere.
A degree in electrical engineering was a marketable skill. Able to get a job anywhere, he’d thought, but Garth had spent three years working as a handyman, doing everything from plumbing to carpentry and knocking down wasp’s nests for helpless young women. Perhaps the bitterness from his last breakup had been a palpable scent, because after Natalie, no woman seemed to give him a second glance.
Garth didn’t exactly put himself out there, either. Some women were suckers for a sad man, but Garth didn’t care to put that kind of baggage on display at the local bar.
Thinking about it objectively now in the face of death, maybe he should have.
Long story short, his family could fend for themselves.
“Guess I’m one of those people at their worst,” Garth said, thinking back to the apartment building he’d burned down in his escape and hoping everyone had gotten out okay. He hadn’t even thought about anyone else at the time. Maybe they hadn’t had to escape. The guy on the T.V. had said the population had been split into half and…wrapped around their universe. What the hell did that mean? Was his apartment building empty or not?
Were the ghouls the other half, people who hadn’t been chosen, or were they the Kipling that the guy had mentioned? Both?
He fell into silence as his mind chewed the small bits of information he’d been given while he worked. The man said survivors would be chosen to join the Great war. Was being chosen good or bad? He need more information, but first he needed to get the bit of glass out of his foot.
He wiped as much of the dirt away as he could before securing the splinter of glass with his pliers and carefully pulling it out. A bead of blood pooled on the sole of his foot as he threw the shard into the crackling fire, dribbling onto the forest floor a moment later.
Garth squeezed his sole to force a little more blood out of the puncture wound. Never hurts to get more out of it. Garth carefully watched the amount of blood oozing from his foot and decided against using the knife to cauterize it. That was in case it bled like crazy, but the little dribble wasn’t bad. A little pressure and time and it should scab up nicely.
Better not to add a burn wound on top of a puncture wound if he didn’t have to.
He put the strips of polyester robe on the bottom of his foot and secured it with duct tape, creating a makeshift moccasin/bandage. A minute later he had one on his other foot.
Hungry and thirsty, Garth cut a tree just a bit smaller than his wrist down, carving away the branches before he used one of the drillbits to laboriously hand-carve a hole into the top before turning the bit the other way and lashing it in with some duct tape. Weapon done.
Three days without water would kill him. It was starting to sink in at the end of the day, as his body ached with thirst while he lay in front of the fire, waiting to fall asleep. Garth wasn’t afraid of something sneaking up on him because the entire forest floor was covered in dry leaves. If something could move silently from tree to tree like The Predator, Garth would rather die in his sleep anyway.
He said that to himself, but it was a long, fitful time before his aching body finally relaxed into the dirt and fell asleep, curled around a homemade spear.
Garth found himself standing in darkness. No matter which way he turned his head, there was nothing for his eyes to lock onto, but he could hear the whispering of thousands of people, in front of him, behind him, everywhere.
What’s going on? He thought, unwilling to speak out loud, for fear of attracting the attention of whatever was in the forest with him. How could it be pitch black? There was a moon, stars. Without electricity, the sky should burn with the light of the milky way.
“Rank 35216, come forward.” Garth heard a rumbling voice, and a door opened in front of him, inches away from his face. The light that spilled out from the door blinded him for a second, and when he opened his eyes again, he stood in the center of a circle, surrounded by fantastical looking men and women of every shape and color, their arms resting on a wooden table that encircled him. Directly in front of Garth was a greying old man with a long beard who sported a well-muscled frame despite his age. He wore a strange grey robe gilded with gold.
Garth himself wasn’t wearing anything, but it didn’t seem to bother them.
To the old man’s right and left was a woman with flaming clothes, her hair dancing above her head, and a mountain of a man dressed in leather, showing the handle of some monstrous weapon over his shoulder.
There was a well-dressed, thin man with a snide grin, a voluptuous woman who seemed about to spill out of the leafy green clothes that barely contained her, a severe man in heavily dented plate armor, a young man and woman who looked nearly identical seated beside each other…. The list went on.
These dozens of people looked down at Garth with a critical eye, measuring him.
“What’s happening?” he asked, craning his neck to study all the beings watching him while he covered himself with his hands.
“The man is a coward, and only killed the kiplings to save his own skin. I abstain.” The man with the great weapon said, drawing Garth’s attention.
“What do you mean…” Garth’s mouth hung open as the giant of a man faded, leaving an empty spot where he had sat.
“I do not sense a ruler, I abstain.” The grey haired man in the center spoke, vanishing like the man beside him. What was going on?
“He shows no piety, whether to his family or himself. I abstain.” A wizened old man with a bald skull spoke before vanishing.
So to get this straight, they were quoting things about Garth they didn’t like and then abstaining. If they were abstaining because they didn’t like something about him, that meant they would stay if they did like something. Meaning, whatever was about to happen here would be good for him, as long as a few didn’t abstain.
Unless they like eating virtous people.
“I liked his use of fire to dispatch the kipling,” the blazing woman said with a smile on her cherry-red lips. Was it color or temperature that caused them to glow that color? Garth was curious.
“Hastia, the goddess of fire, destruction, power and beauty will sponsor this one.”
Sponsor. That couldn’t be a bad thing then.
“His fate before the Kipling was a weak one.” The twins said as one. “We abstain.” They vanished.
“The chaos he caused in his escape was delightful.” The snide man said, a sneer on his face. “Entramond, the god of chaos, opportunity, swiftness, and greed will sponsor this one.”
After him, a long string of gods and goddesses abstained one after the other, leaving only the voluptuous plant-covered woman watching him with watering eyes.
The other two sponsors watched her from across the now empty table.
“Beladia?” Hastia asked.
“Oh, it’s just so sad,” The plant-covered woman, Beladia, Garth supposed, said. She wiped her eyes with the edge of the leaf covering her front, exposing her titanic breasts for a timeless instant that made Garth’s mind go blank.
“What?” Garth asked, shaking his head.
“You poor thing, you used your hearth to kill the enemies of the sphere, and now you have no home. I felt the longing for love in you, like a knife in my heart the moment you entered. No love, no family? It’s awful! What can I do to make you whole?”
The enormous woman began to bawl into her hands, while Hastia crossed her arms. Entramond rested his chin on his hand and began drumming the table with his fingertips.
“Please,” he said, a hard edge to his voice. “Make your choice. We have another sixty five thousand to get to tonight. The others may be snatching up good candidates as we speak.”
“Beladia,” Beladia said between sobs. “Goddess… of…Hearth, nature…love and fertility will sponsor this one.”
“Finally.” Entramond rolled his eyes.
“Now,” Hastia said, turning her gaze to Garth. “Who do you choose?”
“May I ask… what happens when I choose one?” Garth asked.
“You may ask.” Hastia nodded. “You will be sponsored by one of us. You will be granted a boon, granting you more power than your contemporaries.”
“For free?” Garth asked. One of his father’s slimy adages that nevertheless always rang true was that nothing was truly free. Not even love. Beladia burst into tears again.
“I like the way you think,” Entramond said. “It’s not free. If you are sponsored by one of us, naturally, you represent our interests. You will contribute to our power with a tiny fraction of your own, think of it as our investment in you paying dividends, rather than simply letting you die. if you gain a great deal of power, the tiny fraction we draw from you will be far greater than the initial investment.”
“You guys are like franchise owners, then.” Garth said, thinking. “What powers do you plan to give me, exactly?”
“You may only choose one of us, and we will grant you an aspect of our domains, for example, when you choose me, you will find yourself quick of thought and action, favored by the roll of the dice, or on the road to becoming a wealthy, powerful man. Do not discount my sponsorship easily.”
It was true, luck was a huge factor in staying alive. Someone who was careful and lucky had a great shot at not kicking the bucket.
“I will grant you an affinity for fire, making any flame magic you cast far more powerful. Or perhaps you would like to be stronger of arm or fairer of face?” Hastia said.
“Flame…Magic?” Garth repeated. She just said the magic word. The M-word. Sign me up! Blowing stuff up with your mind was a boyhood dream that ranked up there with becoming an astronaut, creating a real Jurassic Park, and nailing multiple playboy models at the same time.
Garth was the kind of guy who couldn’t help but run a wizard in every pen and paper game he ever played. D&D? Wizard. Cyberpunk? Wizard. Gritty detective noire? Wizard. A few people had banned him from playing wizards, in fact.
“Wait!” Beladia shouted, dabbing her eyes again, causing Garth to avert his eyes from the jiggling goddess.
“My blessing! I swear if you choose me as your patron, you will have all my blessings! You will never want for food and shelter, any plant based magic you cast will be far more powerful, and you will find love!”
“What is the meaning of this?” Entramond demanded. “Why would you would offer so much of your power to one human that might well be dead by the next nightfall?”
“In all the humans that have come to us this night, not one has chosen me over the others!” Beladia said. “This system of only reviewing the hundred thousand who have contributed the most to the war in a single day favors bullies, vicious, hasty men, and tyrants who cause nothing but destruction! My power is nothing compared to yours because these men care nothing for plants and love! What am I to do when the men and women I want to help spurn me?”
Beladia paused for breath, fanning herself off, her breasts shaking beneath her leaf. Her face crumpled again.
“And he’s just so looonelyyyy!” She sobbed.
“I’m not that lonely.” Garth adamantly denied.
Hastia sighed and rubbed her temple, flames licking up the side of her face. She turned to address Garth.
“Which do you choose? Your first patron is an important choice, so choose carefully.”
“Beladia.” Garth answered without hesitation.
Beladia gasped, her eyes lit up with joy, and Garth was afraid she’d jump over the desk and smother him, like an overbearing aunt.
Entramond scowled and disappeared without a word, while Hastia regarded Garth a moment longer.
“It’s a decision I made with my head and my heart. I need food and shelter more than the off chance I’ll get magic before dying of exposure, but more than any of that, I need a reason to live. A blessing of love implies that there will be someone out there that can give me that reason, and you can’t put a price on that. Like the Beatles said, ‘can’t buy me love’.”
“Are these Beatles great sages of your world?” Hastia asked.
“They’re rock stars from the sixties.”
At Hastia’s frown, Garth corrected himself. “They’re musicians…minstrels?”
“I shall have to investigate your world’s music.”
“Don’t bother, most of it requires electricity and is about sex, in some form or another.”
Hastia smiled. “Until we meet again.” Then she vanished, along with the round table separating Garth from Beladia.
“Oh, thank you!” Beladia shouted, rushing over to him. The goddess must have been seven feet tall, towering over Garth’s reasonable five ten. She swept him up in her embrace, her soft flesh wrapping around his with a tenderness that sent electric shocks through his brain. He felt buried in womanflesh. It was better than sex.
Garth’s eyes were rolling back in his head as the goddess of fertility held him, vaguely wondering if he could accidently get her pregnant with just a touch.
“OH! we have to perform the ritual to bind me as your patron before we run out of time.” She said, her expression worried.
“How do you perf-mmm!” Beladia sealed Garth’s lips with her own. Against his skin, he could feel the leaves covering her peel away, making her whole body pressed against his own. Garth’s member stood at attention, despite the strangeness of the situation.
The goddess gently laid down, keeping him wrapped in her embrace. Her legs spread beneath him, accepting all of him into her as they wrapped around his waist. The pleasure of the intimate contact sent shivers up Garth’s spine. As if she could feel them, she stroked the back of his neck, sending the shivers and goosebumps down his waist, where they magnified and traveled back to his head, making his vision fill with dots of white.
“Oh, my god.” Garth blurted between kisses that seemed to be pushing some sweet, honey-like sensation through his sinuses, into his very nerves.
“Each god bestows their gifts differently. How do you think I do the ritual?”
“I think I’ve got it figured out.” Garth said, thrusting forward, abandoning his sense of propriety and all rational thought as he sought to lose himself inside her.
“Yes,” She said, pulling him deeper. “That’s perfect. I’ll take everything you have to give, and give you everything you can take. Love, and the power of life, of reproduction.” Her voice sent waves of pleasure through his ears to his lizard-brain.
“You’re almost there,” she whispered in his ear. “Take my blessing for yourself.”
As hard as Garth thrusted, and as good as the goddess beneath him felt, he felt like he had whisky dick. He just…couldn’t…finish. He sped up, faster and faster under the tender ministrations of the woman beneath him, his mind going blank, growing ever closer, but never reaching his climax.
Finally, the sensation stole his mind, and his vision went white. Garth roared like a beast as he felt intense power rushing into and out of him in staggering waves, passing through the boundary between the two bodies as though nothing separated them, magnifying and growing as it went.
For a brief instant, Garth’s mind exploded outward, and he was everything, all life at once.