Illustrations and photo-illustrations by our illustrious head-devourer and long-time contributor Elytron Frass. Find them @Elytron_Frass, and lend an eye or more, or a compound(ed) one or many, to his projects such as the groundbreaking ero-guro graphic novel “Vitiators”: https://www.guerrillaconcepts.com/vitiators.
If you haven’t yet, carefully fold some money and put it inside the gushing beheaded hole over here: https://gnomebooks.wordpress.com/2018/02/13/liber-exuvia/. If a human comes out of the experience, send us a method of contact as soon as possible. The tummy aches to be sated, it’s been so long… and you need some acid.
Photography by yours truly. Which is which? That’s not my problem. You can find us in at least one and a half simultaneous(?) hells at all times.

Black Rainbow

Invisible scars lashed devoid of violence,

sang the tune descending from the stars.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

But that wasn’t the end. Never finish on a high note, it is known nowadays. Even when the high note has already dissipated, a sequence of lower notes are produced until the silence begins to impose itself and the string of sounds slowly fades into infra frequencies until gone for good. Or so it happened before we knew better. Now we know that even after this, a middle tone must be procked, then halting the settling stasis of the ensuing slumber common as a result of said antique process on the ears of past savages. No, we must go beyond.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Beyond the cracked sidewalk and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, and the patch of dry brown grass… there stood a ten-foot-high concrete block wall, caked with dozens of coats of paint. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with burnt-out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti-filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Not knowing of anything else, not thinking much like it used to – it now, what was it before? The most familiar thing is a trail, one that appeared as it moved, like a tray of invisible gas, invisible only due to having all the colors in it, coming off of it. A smell. A smell, the only thing that remains when all else is forgotten. And if it has legs, what to do if not follow it? If there isn’t anything else it might think of because, well, you’re it now. And it smells of pizza. It doesn’t know what that is, but it likes it. So it follows it as it becomes visible just before disappearing again inside its moist black nostrils.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

This is not the story about how a guy became a dog, but one about what happened after that, about how he became it before becoming a she – and of her loyal companion.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

A completely dark body, pitch-black like a blackhole. First, the kid found her hidden below a colorful rainbow sprayed across a mural graffiti-style, or she was the one painted rainbow-like, he does not remember it now. Maybe it was both. She was small, and the rainbow, on the wall or her body, made her look like that rainicorn from Adventure Time, the kid thought, but then quickly forgot again, just as simple as washing her thick bristle fur, the colors spiraling away in the drain, all becoming colorless, or invisible, as he liked to see it. She was all black, black coat, black eyes, black paws, and under the paws – even her nails were black. How black you are, my new friend, he thought. I will take care of you until you can choose a home for yourself, he said out loud, but he did not know if she could understand him, his memory wasn’t the same.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Now he does not remember too well. But he remembers how everybody likes pizza. Working at twelve, that he remembers, or was it eleven? Delivering pizza, family business? No, probably a neighbor or family friend. Small town, after all, and still is, but it was smaller. He does not remember much nowadays, not even family, everyone was family in small towns like that, and families fight sometimes. And grow apart, just like towns grow into cities. He sacrificed most of his memory in search of something, or perhaps it was taken away from him when it happened, when the little black rainbow appeared – better yet, trying to remember, when it disappeared, out of nowhere, too. Many a family fight has gone past since, and many a family he forgot since then. The only thing he remembered was the colorless color, that rainbow black, and a voice, but whose voice? He always wanted to know, still does. And a smell, a smell that nobody seemed to smell besides himself.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Then the smell got stronger and stronger, but were those his memories? Who was he, what even was a he, or a who, or a what, what? What was that who going to prove him, or that him who was going to prove what… all became vapor like that, and it followed that vapor, it wanted that vapor, something below its smelling-thing watered, the smelling-thing commanded the watering-thing that was already opening and closing, eating air, getting closer and closer, and closer and closer…

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

 “What do we have here? Are you lost, tiny thing?” Its mouth opened once, then twice, something came out, something invisible that made the two pointy things above rotate, and some strange thing seemed to be moving fast and faster behind it, in its back, what is that. “Poor thing. Yeah, that’s your tail. Are you lost? Do you like pizza?”

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

When the ride ended, she was lifted again. The kid slid her body onto a soft pile of clothing among the boxes in the garage. He pulled an old coat over the top, creating a cave that emanated the sweetness of old ladies who frequently powdered themselves—a light rose motif that played ironically well in the deep recesses of Rainbow’s ancestral brain. The pizza kid lifted her head to help her lap water from a hubcap. He broke bits of pepperoni and crust into bite-sized pieces and left them where her tongue could reach them. Much later, she heard him practicing his orations like songs. Like monks chanting in the distance, they were a comfort.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

He stood there, arms not too open, holding the no-pedigree dog like that mandrill from The Lion King held baby Simba, but the smile on his face was cold even though ecstatic, for in that moment, that frozen instant, he doubted himself, and kept fingers tight across “her” belly just long enough for the first deject to hit his leg, then his shoulder, then the dog, then, only then, his face, slapping him across the cheek before disappearing into the shadows behind without a noise.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

It wasn’t supposed to go like that, right? So how was it supposed to go, then? He thought he saw the dog’s eyes say. But now he could not think, too, and a mass of colorful but still invisible gas began to sprout from the heap of people below as the people below became the gas. Was that it? Was it happening? But he could not remember – he could only smell. How can anyone navigate like that?

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

 “Welcome to my world.” He heard a voice say. Could it really be?

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Disease everywhere. Even the spork’s handles are diseased. Undying sick man as if you were a dog, imagine that. A strange hand comes out of nowhere to surprise your ear with the sweetest of warm scratches. It feels good like that. Careful who you throw a bone to, though. If it still has some meat, worse. If you’re going to throw it anyway, at least clean it cautiously.

Homo homini lupus, he thought, with a slick air of envy glistering in his eyes he stroke a front paw over pulpous strains of muddy lichen; almost to shiver if not by his fur coat; almost to back away and let everything behind if not by his drooling mouth and rumbling gut. He needed stomach for that, and right then he had only but half a dozen of abrasive— aggressive —glances given towards. That and the oozing smell of fresh meat with no bone. He was dreadfully hungry yet he couldn’t, one more step and he would be the fresher meat with bone; he would never eat again —or howl to the moon. Moon which wasn’t particularly beautiful— but was big —just like every other night there it wasn’t something worth losing for mere food; for simple, even trivial, survival, yet he would.

The wolf is the wolf of other wolf, he thought. yes, this seemed more truthful now than ever as strange eyes shone fear over him— to back away, menacing the only possible outcome —and, being strangled by the yellow moonlight, regaining breath under black green leaves, he cowardly retained his life in retreat march; soon to be dead anyways, if food couldn’t be found. The legacy of his memory, containing short pictures of blurred blood dripping teeth and the smell of communal grace— bloody be it —would last a bloodmoon’s night’s time. Landscapes below, dying from inside out, kneading the vermin that will eventually eat me, he thought. Long strides, several steps ahead. Fatigued, eyes losing their blue to the feverish yellow of the moon and to the flavor in the air; every more distant. On and forth plateaus, ahead drool spots, deep snores… labored fogging cornea: symptoms of a ‘soon-to-be-dead’ thought. But this he didn’t think, once the wind blew strong below, showing what any would call a miracle: A little noisy circle full of sheep. He was starving but he wasn’t dead yet, and with the last string of strength left— sheer will to continue —he fought the ladder towards that flickery hope with lethargic stomps about a streaming shore, shimmering golden waters near the man’s snores; surrounded by chirping crickets and all kinds of nocturnal creatures besides himself.

The battle had begun, a silent descent with his slender body slithering through the short field no care was enough, the man had a dog. As in a samurai contest of spirit: whom gets noticed first loses, the presence of fear is the advent of death, that’s how it is played, the pure instinct of an old rag of a wolf versus a trained, domesticated version; but at least a rested and well-fed copy. A poorly mutated atrocity. They say, like gods, “go fetch”, throwing twigs into the horizon with a dumb expectant smirk hanging on their faces and those soulless—little monsters—positively respond to it, gobbling anything they are ordered to. Poor unnatural creatures, he thought. Cold breeze, pale faded clot to charge: curvy vertical movements, swift descent. A peak then again — Boiling blood, a couple of jumps, thin air, accelerated heartbeat; all in the game — a dash in midair. Matter of a moment. A second. An encounter. One charm. Finally. Strokes of blood painted the white green ground, two piles of coat dancing in zigzag one above the other in turns. A brief moment to stare: reddish spots expanding over fur, fearsome smell, bended ears and sharp fangs— eye to eye —glowing. More silent stares reflected a barking beast. The chill floated as of waiting suspension— another clash, now upside down. They changed positions as the half-arch of light, incomplete, shone over massive heavy bites penetrating flesh and live tissue. At dawn, the sun blossomed centerfold ripping the fabrics sky, warming every frosty point of his fur; nourishing his still-life body as a pagan’s god’s eye opening for the first time through, over, in… front of a man — first revelation of a sacred knowledge. It was so, he thought, it was so because soon it would not be anymore; there wouldn’t be anymore. Nevermore. And he bathed in the sunlight as it was the last time, because it was, and he felt pure and saint— for this was true. Night: truly worth a lifetime for a glimpse of one’s own personal truth, of one’s own and one alone. Not to become two, not to die none, but to finally be one alone.

And in his last dream he saw glistering deep green eyes, soft winter white coat, a king’s port; promises of a composed night that only gets clearer. Shimmering despair, shivering spine, starving musculature; heavier than yesterday’s field day; lighter than the light shining down as gravity’s aggressive attraction. Drops of red over paper, wine bottle — broken pieces scattered on a desk –, finger base bruises; a night full, a full moon outside the window. Crescent as an arc, non-Euclidean object. Decaying roses ornament the insides of old books, sweet memories enveloped in rot smell, a beating heart; ‘for how much’ is the illuminating question not asked. Imbued in throbbing veins, blurred lenses out of life but pulsating with instinct to survive — to walk the lightened path as it is due time. Due to give his breath of life, to inspire a solution and to expire the synthesis – solve et coagula – sovereign trembling hand that holds the pen, that marks the yellow with jet blue ink: Sickly scythe slithering my neck. To have its grace revealed as death. That conceals the continuous presence of that. That is utmost vital to the final. That, in the suffocating presence of the moon’s shine, erases itself out of time; never to be remembered. A drink to that. A drink to death. To the labored breath into the dark; hiding from the – always so eager to be found – light. Frosting paws, aching nose; soon to slumber the dreamless swallow of red slobber. Sip of red wine, sour gazing night. Cold indifferent, silent. Seconds turn to minutes, minutes turn to hours. Hours pass, a day becomes two and then a week and everything passes and we grow old. He remembers the kid ramble in drunken swirls of semi-conscious agony. It is as true as the frost coalescence about the ankles – the sketch of a crimson fever of a night. Hours can’t turn back to minutes, seconds can’t last enough: and the air freezes all around and the skin burns, but the moon remains silent in her stare; gracious romantic tragic stare. Not all the alcohol in the world could warm you up now, or set you on fire as an act of mercy. The green word that escaped your eyes now contaminated yellow — sickly scythe slithering through cold autumn, to harvest the hopes of the lamb in wolf’s cloth. Time to die. As you lay bleeding, accept the gift, for time has come for you to cast in the skies as a newborn star, and cast back on earth all your light.

“Is he going to die?” Asked the little kid.

Some would imagine some kind of disgust, some negativity to be erected around that situation, but, oddly, the kid smiled in awe. Those last breaths of the bloodied wounded animal touched deeply into them — not inspiring sadness, but rather wonder. And the wolf gazed back, each inhalation weaker, it deemed the scene fit.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

I’m tapping into the world of light more every night. Not heaven nor hell, just electro – no, no, not that either. It defies abstractions. It is… folds and realms of… the beasts that ride over wax… or explode in the horizon, the slaves of so many… big cities, field or… house, or…. inside lamp-lights at streets or in homes, unnoticed until gone, over in the ceiling as halos of our own. Immobile, until gone. It seems to be only in my dreams that I see them, in the day they’re what make me see, making them nothing. Until they’re gone. Then they become hope, Imagination, Reason. They become screams of terror in the absence. In our despair, they’re free. From it to they to it again, that is what they do, what it does. My only truth is that it got me. It leered me. It looked at me with those almond eyes like a puppy in need of affection from an owner who had gone puff, just like that. And returned with an even bigger puff in a bigger out of nowhere. And, just like that, It crept over my bottom, never to take those hypnotic bulbs out of my sight. Whispering, as if out of terms with the yearning – the longing for the abuse that had become tender in previous times. It ghosted its way into my current home, not as a vampire like it once was, but as a specter of a possible future, and, before it could be meditated, it was staring at my ‘what-have-I-done’ face with a double-edged smirk in satisfaction and faux surprise. Among the blood, It smiled. It, among the cloth, cried in pain moments before going puff again. Just like that. I call them, it, these things… what are, is they called again? Nevertheless visions, Visions of a flea’s ghost dancing around a stage, beneath preternatural stars, bloodsucking the insides of my brain like a parasite. Seldom repugnance of my tainted soul for I am as much a ghost — though of a human. And even though I may try to run and fight in these woods, it won’t last. It will eventually catch me. Engulfing itself on my sour spelt blood, drinking till the last drop with avid, stained paws with fingers that, long as they are, defy sane passage of time; possessing no earthly growth and the shine of a thousand and one. Speaking in riddles now… Don’t struggle, dear. It’s here. It said it won’t hurt — that I might even enjoy it. Lies. The shadows flee away from me, hiding below rocks and trees. They are tired of my lurking in their bodies, through them. It’s over. A parasitic intent once and damned to hell I am. Forever doomed, like the small flea I am. A modern Jonah, only the whale is dead, the fish is rotting on the ground, and its smell, its ghost, is lurking in the shadows, in the corner of his awareness. He has a two-way condition: the anxiety of waiting for that whale to come and the paranoia of suspecting being already trapped inside a dead fish. And there is no Whiteness of the Whale, and the Whale is not the ghost of anything, it is dead, just dead, and its ghost is not white but invisible – with momentary flashes of hollowed transparency. And it was in his suppurating hate inside that bus, looking at all those people chattering or evicting each other, wanting them all to disappear with the smog filling the smoky-grey sky, that a foreshadow germinated in the belly-mind of interactions that formed “him”: For there will be a time of non-human verbosity, a time of critical access, of epiphanies inside habits and habits out of improvisation. But now, first, the hate has to almost consume him as millions of virtual needles pierce his anxious skin. There, in the future, there is no skin – only the needles. But Samsara is law and you must survive; or maybe die – depends on the view and the date in which karma passes, if it will. Now the needles pluck and the pores ooze prickling goo turning black in the way out like caviar gushing out of a big-ass fish that is actually a school of them swimming like needles out from the skin again.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Consecutive humming: string of C notes in an optimistic rhythmic flux layered with the ambient’s base, stuffed by the harmonious melody of swift movements of a pair of hands through smooth surfaces; like a slug slithering over a rose. Each intoned hummmmm echoing about a much bigger and continuum scenery — where the grass is fresh and the sunlight masks the bags under his eyes; he didn’t sleep last night instead crept the impossible structures of the dreamland of K, whose incomprehensible geometry he always tried to reproduce in the wake world, always failing by his own standards. With a slight change in pitch, up and down the scale, he approaches the edges in crescendos of tension applied to fingertips. Modulating the curvaceous spots in an engulfing haze, thoughtless, completely absorbed in the craft. On the expanded plane, tridimensional pictures too old to hold its own arms: Venuses and Apollos with severed limbs and perverted tendrils coiling up their necks. Ant-farms proliferating under their feet, scavenging the way up. Not a single flickery sparkle of life in their eyes; but astonishingly life-like skin and pose, even more alive than the average salaryman or housewife — people whose dreams are of visiting distant places, places where these statues reside; people desperate for a startling vision or insight of change into their boring stagnated lives. Down to E buzzing quick intervals — clouds hiding and coalescing above the garden, nebulous. Through the pale eyes of the statues, endemic conglomeration of hermetic ratios, vague glances into nothingness, little has changed over the centuries: trees remain the same, more or less, the air only but a slightly fogged from pernicious distant city’s smog; not much has changed indeed. Not that they cared — or could do anything about anyways. They are simply “The Observer…”. Almost to sing, first words in the span of two wake days after a particularly long night come out gruffly. He almost choked and coughed a little, contemplative sneer, clumsy pirouettes to juggle the morning’s glass of red wine slipping out of sweaty palms. Up to B, perhaps a forced smirk stuck on the nails, not the right angulations for a trembling hand holding a goblet; even less to a steady one holding harsh self-criticism… of the heavier type, the physically abusive. The melody goes sinewave as the wind strikes strong dragging along his forehead drips of sweat, horizontally blowing the neurotic distilled guilt off his face.

All the while,

Invisible scars lashed devoid of violence,

 sang the tune descending from the stars.

When I heard it, a voice.

It said to me that…

…people will be born out of giant wombs — collectively, somewhat of worshiped. They were initially artificial but, being biologically engineered, evolved. All the while vaporwave plays in the background:

My father’s voice is so powerful it’s like a lion’s. I sit thinking like a statue set in flesh – immobile, but in transit – about the air that fills my lungs, the odor that exudes from my body, the fruit was in my hand; I exhale the air, then come back to think. Am I, the man, flesh and bones, the water that pours out of my body? Am I the food in process of putrefaction on the ground? Where does the world end, where I begin? The world is as I, an infinite tubulation of hollow, of holes – and where does it begin or end doesn’t matter. Me / / The World / / Me / / The World It is as it was said: Ó pó da Terra Tu que me criastes Como continuação de sua missão Falhastes, então Não sois tu Mas ao pó voltareis E um dia Quem sabe, então Tu sereis Pó. To care – here, prostrated, – where death begins and life ends. For what? I’m everything, the Universe could emanate from me, but a purposeless god is as good as none, and I failed your—my mission. May be due to fill my role and, as any other failure of a god, start a creation. One neither good nor bad, just in the mold to share my shame. They are to fail with me as I failed with you, and this maybe, just maybe, will be enough to survive. But

It tried to teach me:

 See my body twist – always music, be music. Watch my skin twirl – If you’re frozen, struggle to melt. My ankles opening. If you’re trapped, struggle to flee. As my bones crackle. Even if motionless. And I contort jumping. If you’re alive, struggle to die. Enjoy the view. Never stop moving. Enjoy me. Even when you’re not moving. And don’t let it go, even if you want to sneeze. Rest right, move right. It will end, everything does. Be ephemeral, be right now. And you will miss it, sighing every time you remember. Release trapped birds. But I don’t want that. Melt the glaciers – die with them. With the earth – be music. But

it was too late.

The sun settled. His mother called him only one more time. Didn’t say goodbye. Stood up, ruthless this time. Left me there. Without direction. Without way. Ungodly. Like a good dream. A nice dream. That ends early. He was gone.

And I cried anyways.

…The halo of light hummed and an extraordinary event happened as Stephen stared into the investigation lamps. A surge of energy blasted up his spinal cord and crested in his brain leading to a long series of ramblings and incoherent messages that were recorded in detail by those present. He recreated himself and the others out of the very words that got them there in the first place…

…automatic response of disinfectant, laughing. I see you all drowning between the step ladder and walls…Those are not even real camels are they? That taste in my mouth from before…was that from eating a camel or smoking a Camel? My head is injured (again?)…a blow of insane secondary thought, my friends from the edge of this coffee bucket. Everything is clean and ready for use if you would be so kind as to let me express myself in the easiest possible way. Eating fucking oranges…citrus fruit is dangerous, don’t you think? I demand answers…

Someone shouted: You are not in condition to demand anything, Stephen!

The rambling continued, as Stephen didn’t seem to acknowledge anything from his sudden dissociative state…

…the system is wiped, tables and files destroyed in the process. Snorting noise off the table, hahahahaha! We’re all stuck here…INSIDE the orange.

As suddenly as Stephen had entered the strange headspace that turned him into an incoherent mess, he blacked out on the floor.

“Are you or are you not?”

42mph = 67.5924kmh

Top speed of a camel.

Camel’s odd & uncanny legs make it capable of 42mph in short bursts.

The vulva of a Volvo.

Odd-legs indeed.

Sexy legs.

Stephen repeats… data, information.

The interrogator has had enough. She is ready to waterboard Stephen. “Are you the saboteur codenamed Agent Orange?”

“Orange you kinda sexy,” Stephen says with a gin-and-tonic grin.

Stephen knew that the Kraken would come after him. He had flown under the radar for far too long. All his life… he knew… he knew he was getting away with something. Never quite sure what. He was faking his existence. People would find out.

Stephen would be exposed. Stephen would be rearranged. 

“Bring the orange crush!” Lily-D yells.

“No!” Stephen cries.

A bucket of orange crush is poured over Stephen’s head. He cannot breathe. He cannot speak. He cannot think the thoughts he thought he could think. Stephen is a vegetable. A mineral. A fruit.

He inhales. Big mistake. Inhaling is a mistake. Simulated drowning becomes… beyond a simulation. Peace. Peace in death. Peace in life.

A piece of orange. What is language? Are you satisfied with your limit-experience?

Stephen’s mind-machine spins & spins.

Wittgenstein says: If an orange could speak, we could not understand it. 

Not true! Stephen understands everything. Every word the orange speaks. Every half-thought. Every gesture.

Investigation lamps. What are “investigation lamps”? The investigation lamps grow brighter & brighter. Like three suns in a triple-star system. 

Imploding & exploding. 

Breathe, Stephen. Speak the breath.

Stephen speaks “silently” to himself. Reflection. What a technology! Phonic signals. The alphabet.

What does Stephen say?

What can Stephen say?

[i]… [i]… I am a human being.

Are you sure?

What evidence?

May It Please the Court. My name is Stephen Steeplton. I apologize for the missing “e”. 

It was not my fault.

Only a short time had passed before Stephen’s legs began berating him with queries of when and where and why this particular how had become the way? Stephen himself, questioned why they were walking and hadn’t simply taken the van? He even remembered asking odd-legs at one point, “why?” And he had answered back something mumbled and half baked about the orange taking hold.

They walked in a strange and busy silence down the road now littered with small sand dunes and garbage blown around from the storm. The buildings beside them stood with imperious-cross-armed stances, shining what little office light they dared onto the darkening paths that wore beneath Stephen’s feet. Odd-legs was prattling on about something while Stephen tried to half listen, getting wisps of recipes or vitamin lists that he couldn’t quite put into an organized construct so he just paid attention to the horizon. 

It was orange.

Or was that just the colour he demanded of the sunset’s form?

Stephen blinked several times, trying to push a lemon seed from his eye while simultaneously attempting to press the orange from his view and it made for some awkward gaits beneath his knees. He tripped a few times, stumbled, wobbled, as if his legs were getting shorter or his body were getting rounder. 

Odd-legs piped up at the two step waltz that Stephen was performing in the middle of the street but it fell on deaf ears. While trying to find a balance between walking and not walking Stephen forgot about his legs and began to wonder where the story had taken such a strange turn. When had it devolved into such chaos? Was it when he was first picked up in the cop car? Or had it been when he met the chief…? No, that wasn’t it. 

Again odd-legs perked up and mentioned again, about the orange taking hold.

“That’s it!” marked Stephen. “That’s  exactly when things got weird.”

“What?” asked odd-legs, “You mean just now?”

Along the horizon, the sun was no longer in view. Instead it rested its fiery wings somewhere around noon hour, high above the white kepi caps of the royal legion positioned at the exact centre of the desert. They were huddled around an unexploded shell sitting by the east end of their huge canvas command tent. The shell’s propeller-like end poking up from the sand cast a shadow that looked like starburst. Stephen was not three inches from the firebomb with his spectacle out and focused on the inscription on its side when the camel walked up, groaning as it rolled its head in close to the focal point of the crowd, curious too of the ammo’s intentions.

“Dammit horse, not now!” bellowed Casper, pushing the muzzle of the beast backwards to avoid any unnecessary damage.

“It’s a camel.” retorted Jonny.

Casper threw a shade at Jonny that covered all three men in a cold shower before Stephen broke the bickering.

“Could you two shut up?” he spoke while holding his spectacle in one shaky hand in front of the bomb. “I’m nervous as is. I don’t need you two adding to the anxiety.”

“Right. Sorry.” said Casper to his feet before swinging out to hit Jonny in the back of his shoulder, who jumped and apologized too.

The men had spent the entire morning pacing around the unexploded shell, trying to estimate its arrival and origin while sweating tiny plastic beads from their pores. The sun barking at their necks was adding to their irritation and the constant interruptions of camels and sand thrown by windy hands was not assisting the matter further. That, and the terrible sleep they had in the night.

Stephen kept waking from strange dreams where he had been a cannibal, a jungle plant painted cannibal with teeth for eyes and eyes too big for his teeth. In the somnolent universe of the evening, he had chased beautiful, blonde haired American women in khaki shorts through snake riddled rivers and spider strangled trees. He had cut the flesh and sinews of fair skinned maidens and chewed their bones to dust. When he woke, screaming or sweating, he woke the other two and threw bone dust at their eyes, causing them to cry for his weeping state. 

Casper and Jonny had come accustomed to the night terrors, they all had them here and there; it was a war outside. Or at least, it was supposed to be, no one had seen a bug for weeks but these night terrors, they had sunk deep. Dreams of eating another human while slowly going cabin crazy in a wide open sand dune, it struck a different rib and produced a different tone.

“What’s the range of these mortars?” asked Jonny.

“One to two kilometres I believe.” Said Casper.

Jonny studied the trajectory by the position of the dial face in the sand. “I’d guess it came from hard east,” he turned around and pointed into a vast landscape of nothing and salt. “from that direction specifically.”

One of the four camels grunted.

“What’s it matter?” asked Stephen.

“Just trying to think ahead. Maybe we should talk about scouting out that way?” Said Jonny.

“Naw.” Said Stephen. “Chief said to stay right here.” 

Stephen leaned further forward, trying to see the squiggles of the inscription as more than just little worms, his nose touched the metal and it smelled like lemon polish or ascorbic-acid and the letters that slowly formed looked a corroded green from the gunmetal of the shell.

“But if they get a foot closer, they’ll be shelling the tent!”

“I doubt it was an intentional shot, there would be others if it was.” Said Casper.

“Besides,” continued Stephen. “Chief said to stay put and so we stay put.” as the strong scent of tea in his words fell from his lips the first few words on the shell’s side began to make sense. They read… 

when the orange

Stephen’s head was a tunnel of green vine that he travelled along until the bee plucked him and dropped the seed of his eye in another flower. Then he was pregnant and then blooming and then looking from the telescope into a hazy image of himself, in another place, in another body that was the same but different. There he ate an orange and it screamed as he removed the rind. It shook and trembled as his nails dug beneath the bed of white calcium and drug ruts along the fleshy fruit below. It filled Stephen with citron and sickness, a yellow fever that compacted and lifted his organs so far into his throat that he thought he might vomit pus and ivory bile. 

He snapped his back to the desert, the heat on his neck made his skin into a sail of poltergeists and the wind dared to push him away.

“You okay?” asked Casper. “You look a little white Stephen.”

Something acrid burned its way up Stephen’s throat and he poured white onto the shell from his mouth. The water was fire and his stomach was so empty and his head so far away he almost fell over. 

“Oh my god.”

He heard someone say but it was so far in the past he couldn’t make it out as more than just a story from Grimm.

Blurred vision had split the inscription in front of him in two distinct stories but the thing that came from his stomach, the sheet of phantasm, made the words stand out and as his vision turned black he caught the last two words. 

takes hold

Gasping, Stephen struggled against the pulp in his throat. It was citrus in flavour but had the distinct shape of a noir film femme fatale. An antagonist. And a smoker.

“You alright Poc?” Odd-legs was looking at him, his eyes crescents of concern and Stephen thought he made out the soft shape of a kepi cap but it was just a halo.

Of light.

From the investigation lamps above.

“You all knew? You knew, and yet you left me alone with him?”Lily smiled as gently as she could, her mandibles marring the effect less than one would imagine.
“It was inevitable, more than that, it was preordained. That was why you were chosen.”
Steven felt his intestinal tract convulse. Mandibles? No. Red, red lips. Lips like wine. That was what they said, the poets. He felt a pain which was more than physical, sweat broke out on his forehead, suddenly feverish, he felt drops of perspiration run down his cheeks, his nose, onto his lips, his chin.
Despite himself, his tongue darted out and intercepted a few drops.
It was sour, and yet so sweet.
He stared at his companions. “Meant to eat him you say?”
Krampus looked suddenly shifty, Odd Legs was busy tinkering with the doors of the van. Lily met his gaze, with eyes that were pools of deepest black, and nodded.
Somewhere, away in the darkness, there sounded a sudden cry, sharp and yet deep, the cry of a startled goose. Stephen watched in weary understanding as Lily’s eyes flickered, deep and black, then multifaceted, compound, her face twitched, melted, swam.
Lips. Mandibles. Saw edged. Brutal.
Bubbles for eyes, holes into the blackness, the blackness which went on forever. The blackness which would swallow him and everything he knew, without thinking, without caring.
His right hand made an involuntary movement towards his throat, caught on something.
Something sharp edged. He looked down. Something shiny. His badge.
Protect and serve the Chief had said. A buried memory from his youth leapt up. Protect and survive. The sirens. Paint your windows white. Sandbags full of your parents flowerbeds. Prize blooms, loam, manure. Protect and survive. Serve and protect. When you hear the four minute warning. An old punk song screamed in his brain “It’s too fucking late!”
He swallowed, tasting the citrus flavour of his frantic sweat. “I was supposed to eat him?”
The Lily thing nodded, almost like a prayer. Praying. Preying.
“So it was oranged?”
“Arranged, yes.”
“But the poor Chief, he had such a zest for life.”
“Yes. But it is the way. It is the way. And the sacrifice is made.”
Odd Legs turned away from what he was doing and stared at her. Krampus seemed to deflate.
Did in fact deflate, with a parping noise reminscent of childhood birthday parties. His body wobbled and collapsed in upon itself and with a final ribald toot became nothing more than a scrap of coloured rubber.
Steeplton’s right hand clutched his badge like a totem. His left felt in the pocket of his coat, fumbling, searching, until he grasped a small smooth object.
Pulling himself straight, he forced himself to look straight into Lily’s face, and worse, into what it became when it was no longer a face. Strobelike, it was a face, albeit buglike, then a warm and human face, with dark and imploring eyes, then the cold mask of the insect, then a cartoonish, mad, villainish visage, then something else, all of the above, and less, and worse, much, much worse.
“Protect and survive. Serve and protect.”
Steeplton’s left hand flashed out, he felt the dry, yielding chitinous surface, felt the thin glass of the vial shatter, the acrid liquid spray out, stinging as it touched the fresh tiny cuts on his skin.
The Lily thing screeched and threw itself backwards, flashing between its forms, legs, arms, flailing, too many legs, too many arms, too many everything.
Grinning savagely, Odd Legs leapt to one side as the thing thrashed about, twisting and writhing like a moth in a flame. His hand darted to his shoulder holster and came out with a wicked looking thing that gleamed dull orange in the faint street light.
One. Two. Three. Four times the weapon spat lurid flame before the Lily thing lay still on the ichor stained tarmac. Odd legs looked down at the sprawling wreckage of Lily the Midge, his flat features registering the minimum of surprise possible whilst still looking surprised. “So Ol’ Lil was a bug huh? It’s always the ones you least suspect. I should probably start suspecting the ones that I don’t suspect, but old habits die hard. What was that you hit her with?”
“Super concentrated Citronella. It was something I was working on for my old job.”
“Oh yeah, the Chief said you used to be a fighting magician or something before you joined the force. Sounds like a pretty cool job. Like in a film.”
Stephen started to correct him, but let the words trail away. What was the point?
“It was ok I guess. Lots of routine.”
“Like being a cop then.”
“This is routine?”
“Oh sure. Happens all the time. Bugs, Balloons, Sand Devils.”
“Sand Devils?”
Odd Legs pointed down the street, to where a whirling yellowish cloud veered and pirouetted towards them. “Best hop in the van till it passes, those beauties will abrade you down to a skeleton pretty quick. And there’s some toffee in the glove box.”
Steeplton did as he was advised, and the two of them watched the miniature tornado spin along the road towards them, a low spresh spresh spresh growing louder as it advanced. It enveloped the van like an overly keen carwash, seemed to dally for a few moments as if irritated that it was unable to abrade them down to skeletons, then rushed off all at once in a fit of pique.
Silence fell, broken only by the faint sound of Odd Legs chewing toffee.
He ate very quietly, for which Stephen felt irrationally grateful. With a final elegant swallow, he opened the door and jumped out. Walking round the van he whistled appreciatively. “That’s saved us a job Poc, Ol Sandy there’s cleaned up Lily real swell. Say Poc, you’re looking better, we’d better get back to the station and report to the Chief.”
“The Chief? But…”
“Oh there’s always a Chief Poc. Always. That’s how the job works.”
He delicately scratched his neck and peered into the darkness of the sky. The smears of cloud against the gloomy greenish blue gave it the appearance of a long uncleaned aquarium. “Gonna be a long night Poc. The enemy are advancing somewhere. Or retreating. Or staying where they are. Maybe all three. We’re gonna need coffee. And we’d best pick up a few tins of sardines for the Chief.”
He settled his cap more firmly on his head and cocked an ear as if hearing something on a frequency inaudible to Stephen, then slammed the back doors of the van. “Yeah. Gonna be a long ol’ night.”