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[Published at 2022.01.22.] [5071 words]

The Wanderer And The Hermit

The rain was terrible. The already dark forest seemed almost impenetrable through the thick mist. Only a single, hardly visible road split the vegetation in half created by some long bygone travellers.

A lone shadow moved hastily through the path, its owner tightly gripping a cloak, the only thing standing between him and the horrible weather. Every once in a while he glanced around, his red eyes surveying the trees around him.

It was unlikely that anyone would have followed him here: This place was, for a lack of a better term, worthless to anyone. Yet it also made him painfully aware that for the same reason he was unlikely to encounter any foes, it was also nearly impossible to find anyone who could help him.

He let out a short sigh, which was slightly muffled by the thick mask he was wearing and trudged on. The rain deafened out nearly everything aside from his breathing, which made him somewhat worried. Forests like these house many wild creatures. Beings who aren’t above killing anyone invading their territory without second thoughts.

He really wished he still had a weapon on him, but he knew that was impossible. Such things did not belong to his people anymore. As he moved on, lost in thought, he nearly didn’t notice the streaks of light that faintly shined towards him from the distance.

“Crap! How did I not notice that?” he chided himself as he hurried behind a tree in panic. He could only hope whoever crossed his path didn’t see him through the thick rainfall.

“Is this a patrol? Did they finally find me? What am I going to do?” His mind raced as his imagination showed him more and more terrifying possibilities, if he was, indeed, caught.

The rain continued to pour.

After a few painful seconds had passed, he finally resolved himself to anxiously stick his head out to survey his surroundings. He almost fell backwards when he noticed the lights were still there.

He took a deep breath, as deep as his mask allowed him anyways, and looked again. His heart slowly calmed when he realized, what he was looking at could not be searchlights. They were far too static for that.

He waited a few more seconds before finally deciding to leave his hiding place and, with no better goal in mind, investigate the source of this mysterious illumination.

The machinery that served as his legs whirred loudly in protest as he entered deeper into the forest. It was never designed to withstand deep mud. But he already made up his mind, so he pressed on and with some careful balancing finally found his footing.

Soon the light became brighter and brighter as he approached and soon through the mist he spotted a small hut.

In normal circumstances it would have been entirely unremarkable. It was a mostly circular building, made from roughly hewn mud, its mostly smooth surface broken only by a small, finicky wooden door; two small, circular windows and what he could assume to be a chimney that peacefully billowed smoke into the harsh rain outside.

What surprised him, however, was the location of the hut. As far as he knew not a single soul lived in these parts of Mudos, so seeing such a blatant display of civilization shocked him greatly.

Still, he came this far and turning back now would be pointless, so he stepped in front of the door and knocked tentatively. Nothing happened. He sighed once more. Whomever is willing to leave their house lit up and unattended is either too dangerous or too big of a fool to be worth talking to.

He stepped away from the door, pulled his cloak tighter on himself and turned around to leave. Suddenly he heard the door’s inner latch rattle. He spun around and saw the door slowly open slightly.

“Umm… Who is it?” a subdued voice spoke.

There was no animosity in the voice; quite the contrary, the wanderer could imagine the owner of this voice be too meek to even swat a fly. Yet something also seemed very-very familiar about it that made him shudder, but he could not put his finger on it. Instead of pondering about it in the cold rain, he pushed this ridiculous feeling aside and replied with as much reassurance as he could muster.

“Just a traveller in need of a roof for the night. Can you please let me in?” he said, hoping he wasn’t sounding too desperate.

The door opened a bit more and he could spot a faded, orange eye measuring him up from behind it. Because of the light in the home, he couldn’t really make out any other details, but at the moment he didn’t have much of a choice other than accepting whoever is on the other side of the door and hoping they are not malicious.

“I’m sorry,” the voice spoke again, “but I can’t make out what you are with that cloak on.”

There was no doubt in his mind, that the voice was lying.

His kind was fairly unique, not many creatures possessed this sort of stature and red eyes like his; but he wasn’t the one to make the terms, so he slowly stuck one hand out of his garb and pulled the hood down. Even with the rain and the lack of light his features were unmistakable. The warted, yellowish-green skin; the dark, almost black mask; and of course the many tentacles that covered his face.

He was a Slig and the whole world could attest to this fact. That is, if most hadn’t considered his kind with burning hatred for the collective crimes they committed under the previous establishment. People like him were known to be the enforcers of the regime, disciplining and, if need be, executing the many slaves that served under the old world order. But that was in the past and now he hardly possessed the means to defend himself from the rightfully angry masses.

The voice behind the door spoke again, “I’m glad you are willing to reveal yourself to me. It’s only fair if I return the favor. Please, come in.”

With that the door opened fully, the voice hiding behind it. The Slig took a step back, shielding his eyes from suddenly being bathed in light and then clumsily entered the abode. He heard the door hastily being shut behind him, the latch closing in place.

The room before him was spartan, but cozy. In the middle a small fireplace burned happily, a small cauldron above it bubbled with some sort of vegetable soup. It smelled quite nice, though he wasn’t able to name half the spices emanating from the dish. A small stack of firewood sat next to the pit, waiting to be fed to the flames.

One half of the room was taken up by a bed haphazardly constructed from varyingly-sized pillows and colorful blankets, which - despite being faded from age - gave the place a surprisingly cheerful look, in total contrast with the hut’s monotonous brown walls.

A simple table stood in the other half with a chair beside it. Various trinkets lied on the table, most of which looked like small chunks of wood, carved into intricate shapes and figures. Shavings covered the floor nearby, indicating that some of the carvings must be fairly new.

Having observed everything in the room, he turned around to meet his good Samaritan. He instinctively recoiled upon the sight.

His host was a lanky and pale figure, nearly twice as tall as the Slig. His skin was of a dirty grey, only showing the slightest hint of color, but what color that was the Slig could not tell. He wore simplistic cloths that hid most of his torso, except for his midriff and a similarly puritan pair of pants, held by a piece of rope.

Most puzzlingly, however, his hands were covered in what appeared to be makeshift gloves, though they only obscured the palms and the back of his hands. His arms, feet and bald head were all marred by ancient scars.

He stood next to the door silently, watching his guest with a single burning, orange and red eye. Where his other eye should have been was covered by a simple, gray eyepatch. His face showed a complex mix of emotions: somewhere between wanting to seem reassuring, but also unsuccessfully hiding contempt.

“You… You’re a Mudokon!” blurted the Slig out awkwardly, breaking the silence.

From his point of view, it was as if even the rain had stopped pouring outside. Throughout most of recorded history, there have been few species less amicable towards each other than Sligs and Mudokons. While usually the former always had the upper hand, this time the tables were entirely turned and he was painfully aware of this.

“I am,” replied the other curtly. “I would like to know your name,” he added after a short pause.

“Are you not going to throw me out?” he asked with disbelief in his voice. There was no reason for the old Mudokon to take pity on him. If anything he should cast him into the fire right here and now. But he didn’t. Rather he only let out a soft chuckle.

“I’m glad to see your kind became a bit less cocky over the years. No, I’m not going to throw you out, but you see, it’s not very frequent that I receive guests, especially not the likes of you. I will ask again, what is your name?”

“My name is Peg. Eastern-Mudos Divison, 31st squa-“ He felt embarrassed at his almost robotic response, but his name was not something he repeated often and nearly every time it was asked was back when he was still with the army. He cleared his throat.

“Just Peg,” he reiterated, both to convince himself and the Mudokon.

“I understand. Nice to meet you, Peg. You may call me Shaman. That’s of course not my real name, but…” He trailed off for a second. “There are things I’d rather leave sleeping and my name could awaken many of them.”

Peg did not want to offend him by admitting that he has no idea what any of this is supposed to mean, so he just gave him a slow nod and then spoke up.

“Thank you, uhh… Shaman, for taking me in; but I really do not understand why you did.”

“Let’s just say it is a means of atonement for things I have done in the past,” Shaman said, his eyes staring blankly at something far beyond the brown walls.

His vision then became focused again and he continued in a more chipper tone, “I believe dinner is almost ready. Tell me, Peg, I never really knew this about your kind, can Sligs actually eat vegetables?”

“Umm… Sure, but this is really not necessary,” he said, while trying to wave him off politely, but his stomach grumbled in treachery. Indeed, he was very much hungry, but he felt weird to accept another kindness from such a person.

“No, no, I insist.” The old Mudokon flashed him a gentle smile, then got to work. He produced two bowls from a compartment inside the desk along with two spoons, then quickly scooped two portions from the hot soup, before he extended one of them towards Peg. He then gestured towards the chair, while he himself sat down on the bed.

Peg slowly moved over and sat down, keeping the bowl in his lap. Eating at the table would have been far more comfortable, but he didn’t think it polite nor smart to turn his back towards his host.

They ate slowly and in silence. The Slig was largely used to solid meals that he could easily stuff into his mouth using his tentacles, but for soup they served as nothing more than annoying obstacles. The Mudokon had no such problems, but he seemed to be lost in thought.

Finally he set his bowl down next to his feet and - without looking at Peg - he asked idly, “Do you know what year it is?”

“N-no. I admit, I have no idea.”

“Don’t feel too bad, I don’t know either. What I do know though, is that it has been over ten years since the collapse. I assume you’ve noticed those carvings next to yourself by now, “ he said, nodding towards the desk. “I make one every ten days.”

Peg wasn’t great at counting, but it did seem like at least a few hundred assorted pieces of wood lied on the table.

“The collapse,” repeated Peg flatly. He was surprised the Mudokon regarded the event, which he should by all means celebrate, with such a grim name.

“How did you survive it?” Shaman asked, while staring into the fire.

Peg wasn’t too keen on sharing his life story, but this strange Mudokon had shown him nothing but kindness and he felt like he should repay him by at least entertaining his questions.

“I was lucky. I was assigned to keep order in the frontier regions, close to the… Well, it doesn’t really matter which station. By the time the slave revo-“

He cursed himself for letting his mouth run and shot an apologetic glance towards the Mudokon, but he didn’t seem to notice the insult or care if he did.

“Uh, I mean, by the time news about the uprising reached us, the higher-ups had already been long gone. Without their orders, that simpleton, who called himself our boss, couldn’t even tell us to just continue doing what we’ve been doing for the past five months.” He switched to a mocking tone. “In case our generous employers have different wishes,” he said, while making air quotes.

Then he continued normally, “I guess by that time they were all already dead. Anyhow, I wasn’t really interested in starving to death in the middle of some desert with a bunch of idiots, so I hitched a ride on one of those big trains and tried to return to HQ. I figured whoever caused this mess already lost his head and the pencil-pushers just forgot about us. Wouldn’t be the first time it happened. Of course, by then the cities were on fire.” He suddenly came to a halt.

Under their brutal training, Sligs were an emotional species and the trauma of seeing one’s life go up in literal flames is not something anyone can just deal with. Even if it happened many years ago, the memory hurt like a wound freshly ripped open.

He stared into his bowl, which still contained a few spoonfuls of food and idly stirred it, before continuing.

“To be honest, I was very lucky. The train station was surprisingly intact and, by the time I arrived, the mob was already long gone. I can only assume they were looking for even bigger fish to take revenge on.

“I knew I had to get out of there. The fire was one thing, but then I saw the bodies. We are all taught to kill, I’ve seen my fair share of corpses before; but this was something else. Every corner you looked, it was full of them: bodies shot, beaten to death or burned to ashes; and not just adults, the kids too. Those animals were so thorough, that I could not even figure out what some of them were, before they got lynched.

“My escape was less than brave. I ditched my weapon, it would’ve been useless against a horde that was willing to go to such lengths, instead I’ve grabbed this.” Peg tugged at his cloak.

The dampness from the rain has masked it until now, but now that next to the fire it largely dried, it was painfully obvious how old and tattered it was. The words “Central Train Station” could faintly be seen on its back.

“I looted a few stores for any scraps of food I could find, then legged it until the city was far behind me. There was no place for me in the new world, so I never stayed anywhere for long. I admit, I’ve mostly survived on stealing from small, mostly unguarded cities. Survival comes before shame.” He shrugged and then ate another spoonful of food.

“But I never killed anyone!” He added quickly. “Sure, I had to knock a few of the unlucky bastards out or intimidate others into not giving me away, but you gotta understand mine isn’t exactly a welcome face in Mudos anymore.”

There was silence between them again. The fire crackled and the rain continued to beat against the walls in vain fury.

Eventually Shaman spoke up.

“I’m sorry.”

“Huh?” Peg was taken aback by the words he didn’t expect. “What do you mean? I don’t think we’ve ever even met before.”

“I’m apologizing because no one else will and because I was wrong. We all were.”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

“When we started the revolt, the only thing we could think of is that we were the victims and you, all of you, were equally guilty. Looking back, it was, of course, stupid to think that way.”

Shaman chuckled with disdain, before continuing.

“We, no, I thought once the old system is gone, everything will magically be better. It was my naivety that ultimately led to this.”

Before Peg could say a word, he raised his hands and took his gloves off. His palms were calloused from many years of hardships, but that was not what Peg’s eyes were caught on.

On the back of his hands, two large scars stood proudly in the shapes of vicious beasts, whom the civilized world once thought they could tame or at the very least pacify.

“Y-you are!” Peg yelped as he recoiled in his chair.

It suddenly felt like the room was very-very small. He shot a glance at the door, but it was still safely locked with the latch. Even if he tried to run, the Mudokon would catch him. By now he understood: the door was not locked to keep anything out. It was locked to keep him inside.

“Do you perhaps recognize me?” the Mudokon asked.

“I know you. You are Abe, the scarred Mudokon,” he whispered with a trembling voice. “Are you going to hurt me?”

His words were hardly loud enough to be understood next to the fire’s cheerful crackling.

Legends and myths about the scarred Mudokon were commonplace, even before the collapse. Whole factories either went up in flames or became devoid of life. They said the Mudokon did not discriminate and murdered everyone that came across him. Though, what the legends always forgot to mention is that they never found a single Mudokon corpse.

Many doubted the existence of him, considering it nothing more than a tool for scheming factory owners who wanted to cash in on insurance. All doubts were dispelled, however, when the revolution swung into full-force; lead by no one else but the demon that terrorized the civilized world. Soon there was no paper or newscast that wasn’t plastered full of the scars that now laid in front of Peg.

The old Mudokon sighed deeply.

“I deserve your distrust, no, I deserve your hate. I am not going to hurt you. I just…” He massaged his forehead for a second. “I never expected to see another Slig in my life. I understand my words do not even begin to fix the damage I have caused, but I really, truly want to apologize. Please allow me to explain my side of the story.” He hung his head waiting for an answer.

Peg was not sure what to say. The Mudokon in front of him did not seem like the wise Shaman he claimed himself to be; however, he also did not seem like the feared murderer he apparently was. No, what he currently saw was a broken being in front of him, who was presenting his most vulnerable side of himself.

“I… I am not sure if I can forgive you,” he said drily. “Not after all that has happened. But I will listen to your story, maybe it will give us both some closure.”

Abe traced the scar on his left hand before starting.

“I don’t know how much they said about me or how true it was, but I was never really much more than a slave. Since my birth I’ve only known the beatings, work and those minimal periods of free time where we supposedly could do whatever we wanted. Back then I didn’t even care. I waxed floors. I had a roof above me. I had a purpose. Had nothing else happened, I would have probably spent the rest of my life there as nothing more than a sentient animal.

“But that’s not what happened. I accidentally discovered that the place wasn’t doing so well. And the plan to solve the issues was to… Well. They wanted to turn us into food.”

He paused for a second, letting the words sink in for both of them. The fire crackled quietly. Outside the storm still continued its futile rage.

“One thing led to another and I was taken over by the need to survive. I’ve never wanted to kill anybody, only to save my people. But I could only do this with a power I was granted. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.”

Peg nodded gravely. One of the very few things every source agrees on is that the locations that suffered attacks from the revolution experienced sabotage that was only possible from the inside. While originally most believed this was achieved using a very sophisticated network of infiltrators, it soon became clear that it was in fact the handiwork of Abe.

“I don’t know why I was blessed… or rather cursed with this ability. No one else could utilize our chant as well as I did, but it didn’t matter. The edge I provided was enough to change the tide of the war. Who would have thought armies are so willing to shoot at themselves if you order them with enough confidence?”

Neither of them laughed at the joke.

“I never really thought about the details of what would happen after we’re done. Deep down, I guess, I just expected that everyone will simply start living in harmony.

“Of course, this wasn’t what happened. Some of my former comrades, whom I thought were my friends, began plotting behind my back. They had big ideas. A new order, where our kind was supreme.”

Abe spat into the fire, before continuing.

“When I overheard them, I felt disgusted. However, they just waved me off, saying it’s just a joke. Just how they cope with their suffering. I believed them. Perhaps if I weren’t so naive, we wouldn’t be sitting here today in this hole.

“But I was. It happened on our last raid. The Cartel’s only remaining executive’s head just exploded into gory bits, despite him wailing and begging just moments ago. I wanted to leave the place as fast as I could, but the small group of followers I had behind myself suddenly turned their guns towards me.

“‘You’re our messiah, Stichlips. Make us legitimate,’ they demanded. ‘Now, that the bigwigs are gone, it’s time we made all the others pay for what they’ve done to us.’

“I could not believe my ears, but I saw it in their eyes that they were serious. I’ve tried my hardest to plead with them. I told them how continuing the cycle will only cause more pain in the long run. They just laughed, then made it clear that the only way I was to leave the room alive was if I pledge my support and loyalty to their cause.

Peg heard an odd whooshing sound from behind himself, but before he could glance back, some of the carvings from the desk flew past his head and came to a halt suspended around Abe’s body.

“They were wrong.”

“Those morons didn’t realize that I had become far more powerful than they knew. I was just always scared to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it, so I held back.”

“This time… I let myself go.” As he spoke the air began crackling with energy and the carvings glowed with a faint blue light. In a sudden flash of light they were violently torn to pieces by some invisible force and cast into the fire.

“I killed them all. The smartest of our revolution, perhaps even our generation. They were clever enough that I’m convinced, had they not chosen this path, we’d be living in utopia.

“Despite what those lying newspapers said about me, I’ve never murdered any of my kin before that moment. But this… this was too much. I felt like my eyes were opening for the first time.

“I stared at the mutilated corpse of that bigwig lying on the ground, his blood mixing with my former friends’. He probably got rich and fat from on our backs, but did he have a choice? Was it really everyone’s fault equally? Was this the only way? I could not believe that anymore.

“Eventually I stumbled out of the room. I felt lost. I couldn’t return to my followers. I did not feel like a leader. My job was to rescue the others. There was no one else to rescue. So I did the only thing I could: I left quietly.

“I’m sure my friends kept looking for me for a while, but you’re the first creature I’ve met in years. I’ve spent almost a decade here. I hoped the world would forget about me and finally move on.”

Peg sat in silence. He wasn’t sure how to respond or if he was even supposed to respond. The fire had almost burned out, casting the room in gloomy half-darkness.

“There is only one thing left to do.” As Abe spoke, he held up one of his hands and a small compartment on the desk behind Peg opened. The Mudokon motioned him to look inside.

A single, loaded machine-gun sat inside.

“I found no peace, despite all this time. I must face judgement for my actions.”

Peg numbly stared at the weapon in front of him, then slowly reached inside. The cool feeling of the metal was familiar to his hands, as was the rough, wooden frame of the handle. He mechanically inspected the weapon. It was standard-issue, old, but well kept.

“I…” he stammered.

It felt like time slowed to a crawl. He grasped the gun firmly and aimed it on the figure in front of him. Abe closed his eyes and allowed his hands to fall to his side. The dim flames of the fire cast odd shadows on his tattoos. A serene smile crept onto his face.

There was silence for a moment. Then a bang.

Outside the hut, a tree burst into flame, struck by a wayward lightning bolt.

“I will not continue the cycle,” spoke Peg finally, as he lowered the weapon. “We’re both killers and we’re both guilty. But this world is far too deep in the crapper to add another pointless death to the tally.

“You want to be judged? I will give you judgement: stop being such a damn coward and seek your friends out already. You have been skulking here for Odd knows how long, wasting away, expecting some miracle or something, while your fellows are out there rebuilding the world. Don’t you feel selfish?

“If you really wanna be forgiven, leave this hut and face the world you have created. Goading me into helping you commit suicide won’t solve shit.”

Abe hung his head as the words poured on him.

“Yes. Yes, I guess you’re right,” was all he was finally able to muster. “I’ve been living alone for far too long.”

He stood up and picked up a few logs from the pile next to the fireplace. As they fell into the flames, sparks flew up into the air. They flickered brightly for a second before fading away.

“But, I cannot do this alone. Or, rather I should say, I shouldn’t do it alone,” Abe continued. “I want you to come with me, Peg. We both ran from our past for a very, very long time.”

The Slig merely scoffed.

“Sure, try to drag me into this. What do you think will happen? Your old buddies will bash my head in the moment we set foot in a city.”

“They aren’t like that. But, if they try anything like that, then there is truly nothing worth saving in this world. Aren’t you tired of being chased around your entire life?”

“I… guess I am,” he said, then gripped his weapon once more. He thought about the weeks he spent fleeing from place to place. Scavenging from trash heaps. Never daring to sleep too deep. “Yes, it’s worth a shot. Let’s do this.”

Outside the hut, the rain slowly began to lose its strength.

As the hours passed, the first rays of sunlight broke through the thick, black clouds. A new day had broken, welcoming an unlikely duo, who set out to accomplish the impossible.