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This was it; twenty years of training, studies, and testing has led me up to this very moment. I barely even cared about the odd looks I was getting from the crew on the ship, or the whispering behind my back that plagued me for the last five months since I announced my intentions to come here. Ever since the wars ended in full and the general acceptance of the entities that now occupied a third of the world as real, living beings, there was a general desire for someone to actually go to the invaders metaphorical doorstep and observe them, if only as a way to understand what they were.
Oh, of course bodies were obtained and looked over during the first wave, but they were puzzlingly uninformative. Too many parts of their biology didn’t match up with what modern science recognized as life, and there was evidence of non-biological substances being implemented in several specimens.
But that didn’t mean that they couldn’t communicate. Even if they were utterly, inhumanly hostile to human life, it was remarkably easy to contact their leaders and organize a sort of "cultural exchange," I could only guess at how much pre-planning this very trip was costing the NUN.
But enough of my rambling, for the boat landed.
The settlement we were given approval for visiting was a seaside settlement now known as Nyuoin-eda Ynnudksti, or, at the very least, that is its name according to one of the few texts the invaders gave up to mankind when the time came for peace to be made. The signs of former human rule was easily apparent: buildings of the past leaned on each other like the abandoned results of a child’s play with wooden blocks. The great buildings, of course, were only standing because of the shear amount of overgrowth that covered them; colorful vines the size of the trees in the habitats of mankind and flowers that could support the weight of a family of four.
The beach the boat was stopping by for only a few moments was surprisingly bare of any signs of the presence of the invaders, for a place distinctively marked on a map several decades-old. But the boat landed and I carefully jumped off it hastily, knowing that, regardless if it was the right spot or not, it would be back in a week’s time for me, dead or not.
I carried all I could in a oversized backpack; mostly food and drink, uncontaminated with the tainted chemicals that were the trademark of the entities I was to spend a week's time with. I carried no phone; given that electrical devices were unreliable in a place like this, and the general state of the government wireless service system, such communication was deemed unnecessary. I was alone in a hostile area, for all intents and purposes. Five years ago, I would be dead in minutes if I was to be in this very spot, but here I was, clad in NUN ambassadorial cloth and with a week's worth of food and drink on my back.
I watched the boat leave, and a small part of me knew this wasn’t a good idea. Scouting missions, and this was one, were to be done by professionals. God knows how many trained sub-divisions the collective armies of the world have that exist solely to survive and map out areas like this one.
But I only had a simple pistol at my side. I only had some amount of basic combat training.
But this wasn’t a combat mission. This was diplomacy.
At least, that is what I told myself as I waited for some sort of entity to locate me.
It was a woman, or something close to one, that greeted me.
At first glance, she looked like a rather pretty little office worker, clad in working clothes, khaki shorts and a little white blouse almost the same color as her skin. She was roughly pear shaped, which I took notice of immediately (What can I say, but that I am a man?) Her hair was a thick blond curly mop, and it framed her face quite well.
But when she got closer, after making a few submissive gestures with her hands to get my attention, I knew that, even if she was human, the taint of the invaders was running in her veins.
Her face was pretty; fine jaw, blue eyes, unblemished skin; a perfect example of the archaic physical features of the area formerly known as Northern Europe. But her teeth were off: they were too small, like a child’s set, and they were all flatly topped and even, not the slightest bit of discoloration. There were no molars or canines, just a set of identical small teeth, lettuce-snipping teeth. Her body was also an indicator that she wasn’t part of baseline humanity: her hips were simply too wide and there was a distinct shuffle in her walk that was caused by, if my knowledge of anatomy was correct, by the shifted nature of her lower back and spine.
“Ah, hello,” she said, sounding remarkably cheerful for what seemed to be a Type-3 Degenerated Human. “Mr. Ghing. My name is Anna, and I am quite glad to see you today! I have a tour mapped out for you. We shall start here and end at where you will be staying.”
I nodded, wincing lightly at her butchering of the English language. This was a sort of insult on my host’s part, no doubt; to dress up what was effectively livestock and call it my guide. Truly, I was a lucky person.
“I suppose you have some way of conveying I am not to be harmed?” I said carefully, looking past the human-shaped creature and looking out, towards the city.
“Oh, do not worry sir, as long as you have that knife, it should be a safe trip,” Anna said happily.
I fiddled with the sheath of the blade at my side, knowing that she was correct, in a way.
“I suppose you are to lead the way, then?” I asked, taking note at the sky, which was clear as any I have seen before.
“Of course, Mr. Ghing,” she replied swiftly, like a well trained parrot. “Oh, of course!”
With that, she turned around fully and started to make her way up the sandy hill, inland. After a few moments of guilty observation, I followed.
“Tell me, Anna, how have you survived?”
The pale young woman gave me a utterly baffled look, even as we made a distinct turn right into what was once a road, rusting greenery-covered heaps that were once motorized vehicles dotting our path like black-headed pimples on the asscrack of creation.
“Survived, sir? I don’t know what you mean,” she replied cheerfully, blankly.
“Ah,” I said in turn, sounding glum. She was born here, of course. She couldn’t be more than twenty. “Excuse me.”
And so, we continued into the city, sidestepping every so often to avoid patches of ominously swaying greenery that bent and twisted in our direction as we passed.
There was no wind blowing. This I knew. I had seen the pictures of what happens to those who touch the hungry grass.
When I saw the deer, I had to resist the urge to stare in awe.
I wasn’t a city boy: I knew what a deer was. You could still hunt them in reserved areas; it was pricey, but the meat was tasty and the trophies are quite the eyecatchers.
But this was a deer in the same manner the teacup dogs of Old California was a wolf.
It was easily a story high, not counting its antlers. Its hooves were as thick as my torso. It was eating the leaves off a tree, taking careful, measured bites. This was the ur-deer. This was an animal that was the very embodiment of the effects of the invaders, all their terrible glory.
It shouldn’t have been capable of supporting itself with legs like it had, nor should it have been able to lift its head, crowned with a mighty rack of horns that had to weigh a hundred pounds each. More physical laws were broken with every step it made then what I could name off the top of my head.
And it noticed me.
It didn’t seem to even care that Anna was near me; it was looking at me. Two big eyes the size of softballs; colored like chocolate, distinctly aware of itself, more than any animal has the right to do so, simply met my own.
For a brief moment, I thought everything was right with the world. This is what the first humans must have felt, before they built cities and began to hunt the things of the wilds with guns from helicopters.
Anna made a minor gesture with her hand, one that beckoned me to stand back.
I am glad she did so, otherwise I would have gotten chunks of deer in my hair.
The great beast, that thing that would have caused religions to grow up around its bones if it was found a hundred years ago, made a startlingly weak sound, like a dying babe, before it suddenly fell to the ground. From my crouched position behind a descript overturned truck, I could see why, unfortunately.
Its stomach exploded outward, making a sound akin to a water balloon being popped as it did. From within, thousands of little flying things, buggish in the same way a hummingbird is, started to swarm outward and onto the beast itself.
I closed my eyes then, but Anna made no comment on the scene, content in that bovine fashion she shared with all the other specimens of degenerated humanity I have encountered.
When I opened my eyes, the deer was gone. Mostly. There was still some blood left.
But otherwise, there was no sign that the deer was ever there. Nothing besides a few splatters of blood and some shards of bone. The swarms of thumb-sized insectoid creatures fluttering overhead did nothing as we passed, presumably uncaring about the two of us because of their feast.
One did fly in front of my face, and its damnably infantile form meant nothing to me as I swatted it away.
It squealed like a pig when I crushed it under one of my boots.
I felt a faint sort of satisfaction.
“Tell me Anna, what do you eat?” I said, after a hour or so of walking. My feet ached, by my head hurt worse.
“Fruit of the trees, silly,” she said slowly, like a drunkard. “Isn’t that what you do?”
I looked at one of the trees that grew up under the buildings like ribs on a whale carcass. They were lush and bright, and were utterly bulging with delicate, tender fruit.
I took one of the granola bars I had taken with me and consumed one, rather methodically, in front of the mildly astonished Anna.
Mama didn’t raise no fool.
We hit the markets before I even realized that I could hear the sounds of footfalls and talk.
Note that I use the word "markets." There might not be another phrase that would better describe them.
Besides "open air slaughterhouse," anyway.
The ground was a dark wine-red, almost paint-like color, the results of hundreds of gallons of blood seeping into the cracks in a concrete road over years and years. It was arranged in a way that one might call bazaar-like, with many shops set along a single winding road, closely packed and filled with all sorts of oddities. It reminded me of the pictures I once saw of Cairo, if vaguely.
“Stay close to me, Mr. Ghing,” she said softly, like a child.
And so I did, and so I did was not noticed by any of the abhorrent beasts I was surrounded by, nor of the horrid cannibalistic wares that were on sale.
This was it; I was in the middle of the enemy, probably the first human to do so outside of a combat zone alive.
There were malformed humanoid things, squat things the size of cars with three-fingered hands and mouths like frogs. Ape-like abominations that could only be said to have the bodies of bears, arms like clawed gorillas, and horns like an elk's, vines and wood intertwined with bark-like flesh and mossy skin. I was astounded by the way they moved: it was generally assumed they were bio-organic constructs that had no actual ability to support themselves, like certain kinds of insects.
I saw two short male creatures, one almost like a dark-skinned old man the size of a human pre-adolescent and another like a middle school child with the proportions of a toddler fight over a few scant pieces of gold.
I saw children, or what looked like children, play a game off to the side of the streets, something resembling a game of marbles if it was to be played with human teeth. One waved at me as I passed, and I noticed that its face had no eyes, or mouth. As such, I do not know how it whispered my name as I passed.
I saw slaves being led in, chained to one of the great ape-bears, naked and afraid. Pale and flabby, the visitors often stopped to pinch and prod at individual members of the convoy, hooting and snickering as its cargo jiggled every step they made to the direction of the public butchery.
I saw things that were more familiar to me, ones closer to humans in form and appearance, technically. Often, they had small cheeks and long hair, and that was the base from where they all diverged from. Some had features like plants, with hair being closer to flax than anything else, while others were bestial and furred. Those that had identifiable skin often did not have any skin color that could be associated with man, with vibrant blues and golds and reds all together in varying states of dress and undress. Nothing I had yet to see; I knew of these beings variability.
I saw things like lions and elephants, the decedents of things that once dwelled in reservations nearby, one time or another. The iron-shod hooves of a great goat-horned cat made a great clanking noise as they hit the ground, and the sight of tiny, hand-sized leathery creatures, the size of mice, really, moving around in the large cage on its back made me pause. I resisted the urge to laugh as I saw a small twiggy creature throw a handful of peanuts into the cart, and watched as the little things broke the shells with their little tusks.
A few moments later, I saw a dead fish-like thing, half rotten from the sun, being picked away at by creatures resembling the buggy creatures that slayed the deer. Insectile wings of varying sizes and shapes glittered in an orgy of color, and if one ignored the pungent smell of blood and old stinking death the entire area carried with it one could think that the things were butterflies on the backs of little grey men.
I saw two nude humanoid things, both female and remarkably humanoid, kiss at each others neck as they rolled around in a bloody pool close to one of the larger stalls, each making obscene coos as they bit and scratched at one another. At first transfixed by the sight, I quickly moved along when I noticed that Anna was growing restless and that, half hidden in the bloody muck, there was a singular arm that could not have been larger than my own hand, small and pudgy and pink.
Soon, we passed out of the market, blood sticking to the rubber soles of my feet.
The smell stuck to my nose.
I did not know when we entered the place we were to wait for the entity that was to take me to relative safety into the invaders underground forts.
That sounds like a stupid thing to say, but it is not; my body ached and my head hurt. Not only that, but this land did strange things to the mind. I was just starting to process, for instance, that I almost ate one of the little buggy creatures on a stick, fried up by some fat greasy beast. I almost joined those otherworldly women, even if it meant that I was like to die. I just passed hundreds of mankind’s greatest and only predator.
At least, I almost did.
The building was dark, and places like this affected human minds. There was a actual physiological term for it, presumably, but the name escaped me at this point. Something regarding pheromones, undoubtedly very long and very harsh to the ears.
I did not know when Anna stopped walking, but when I noticed that she did I did likewise.
When I saw the abomination sitting in the middle of the old hotel room she was looking at, however, I took a breath of alarm. It was crouched over a dead man. When it looked at me, I realized that I was in the presence of one of the most feared of mankinds foes.
It was one of the invaders first-wave troopers, or at least, that’s how I would have categorized it if I was studying its corpse back at home. It looked human enough so that it could easily pass as just another young girl if under light scrutiny, but here, in its natural habitat, it was damnably inhuman.
Her face was attractive to me, I have to admit; a tiny nose and comparatively large eyes sitting on a rather flat face. Her mouth, however, was inhuman; lips rather thin and teeth rather pointy, and the mouth was just too big for her face and her teeth were all the same needle-shape. Her limbs were also obviously wired on at different angles than that of humans, with elbows that seemed to bend at any which way, knees twisting to accommodate her stride, giving her crouching position a sort of spidery aspect.
She was thin and wiry; even standing straight up, she would not have passed five feet tall. Additionally, her arms and legs were twiggy, almost fleshless in a way. Her fingers looked oddly long, like a blind artist's exaggerated imaginings of a human hand, and her feet were small and adorned with little blunt talons, like a bird.
When it stood up, my eyes went to examining its actual body, which showed just more of its inhuman nature; these creatures did their best to look like men, but even their best efforts did not have nipples or belly buttons. Its female form was just that, a form, all the parts that made a real woman just smooth flesh.
Its almond-shaped eyes, golden and slit in the dark, stared at me with mild amusement. There was a loop of intestine sticking from its mouth, and with a childish motion it prodded the thick noodly loop into the side of its mouth with one of its thin digits. She slurped it down with gusto, which made me feel moderately nauseous.
“Human,” it gurgled over a mouthful of blood and meat. “You have arrived.”
I nodded, frowning. This wasn’t a good thing. This was, in fact, one of the worst possible things that could happen to me.
As if to exemplify its status, it grabbed the corpse under it and took a great bite out from its chest, hunched over the corpse like a animal. The sounds of tearing meat and cracking cartilage was horrid.
“I have,” I eventually said, giving a nervous glance to Anna. “How do you know me?”
“The knife,” Anna said slowly, eyes boring into mine. “It is very visible.”
The scout-creature lifted its head back, and made a motion that reminded me of a bird gobbling a fish, neck bulging weirdly as it did. After a few seconds, a bit of clear fluid dribbled out from the side of her mouth, flicked with red.
“You are brave to come here,” it said after a few moments, light, mirthful voice containing some small measure of respect, white teeth glinting wetly even from the distance she was from me. “Most of mankind would have died of fright when they entered the market.”
“I have seen my share of violence and murder,” I lied, shuffling my feet slightly. I wasn’t meant to have made contact with one of the creatures like this. I was supposed to see the actual leader of this place, not some middling near-human.
As if on cue, the thing drew herself further upwards and started to walk towards me, like she was a tiger and I was a fat, tasty animal.
If only that was the case; for I wasn’t the target. When Anna started to strip off her clothing, a mixture of dismay, horror, and terrible fascination came over me when—in just a few moments—the livestock animal that happened to have a human in her ancestry laid on its knees, calm as could be.
Conditioning, I realized too late; everything here was conditioned to serve these things needs, even those that talked and walked.
As cute as she was, I didn’t do anything but stare as the not-woman delicately wrapped her hands around the front of Anne’s throat and made a sudden movement, ripping out the livestock’s thyroid cartilage as she did and popped it in her mouth.
After chewing obscenely for a few moments, it spoke, grinning bloodily.
“You got an iron stomach,” it said, almost fondly. “You know, I’ve culled a few of these things before, but nothing like that. But their throat apples are tasty, anyway.”
I blinked at the alien-ness of her statement, but I was in no mood to ruin a deadly creature’s good mood.
“You know, this place used to have a name about apples,” the creature continued to speak, taking bites of the bloody pale lump in its hand like it was just another snack. “Something about the size. I have one of your kind’s clothing that has it on it.”
I nodded. “I am here for that. To study what you have of mankind, so that we can exchange information.”
The creature blinked at me once, and for a few seconds it looked at the cooling corpse of Anna.
“I spent a year in one of your cities, human,” it said, with fondness. “I once ate fish off the back of a woman. It was fun."
The creature paused, to finish its meal.
"Would you like to experience the opposite of that here? It can be arranged.”
I scowled at her wordplay. “No. Will you take me to my quarters, creature?”
It blinked at me again, this time with distinct, mild disapproval. “Call me by what I am, human.”
I was deeply perturbed by its request. These things did have a name, one that they called themselves. But it was one that was outdated and foolish; one that flew against all scientific logic and modern knowledge, even ancient knowledge. It recalled childhood tales and spooky stories; old movies that were unfortunately in dead Romance languages like Spanish, and nicer versions in English. It recanted bad animatronics and amazing poetry and works of art.
“Fey, take me to my quarters,” I repeated dully, keeping my gaze away from the corpse on the floor.
The creature brightened. “Of course, human. Of course, of course!”
As it skipped its way towards one of the moldering entrances to the long-unworking metro system of the city that was close by to the hotel lobby, I realized that, for a few seconds, I was tempted to grab the adam’s apple from the Sidhe’s hand and consume it myself. This land wasn't natural, anymore.
I shook my head in disgust, stepping over the prone body of the cowish thing that laid beside me.
Magic isn’t real, no matter how many times a man claps his hands. But the old things that lived in the hills and forests of primordial man did, and always did, and always will exist, and the stories of child thieves are quaint compared to the real horror of things.
Like humanity, they existed as hunter-gatherer tribes out of sight of man, distant from each other. In their own words, it was only a matter of time before they advanced to a more effective form of governing their lands; domestication.
For the next few weeks or so, I will be the thing that will be wild in a land of peace; a wild animal in a place where no human has set a foot out of a contained environment in generations.
I did not know that the knife I was to bring with me was to be the thing I was meant to end my life when I left civilization, but I have since come to terms with that. Better to die a man than become something less than one.