Author’s Note: This was written live on stream, with the tone being determined by the numbers under minesweeper tiles. The audience could bid tokens earned in stream to reveal random tiles. A mine hit results in the death of all characters, unless they are temporarily saved by a lump sum of tokens. If characters make it to the end of the stream, they survive to be seen another day. Join us at twitch.tv/blainearcade if you wish to participate.
1-peace 2-alert 3-escalation 4-action 5-tragedy 6-world-changing
A world lies in ruin, its debris drifting on a bottomless sea. Its remaining people, from all places and periods, have one chance of survival. One world will take them, but they must make the journey on their own. Between the two lies the minefield: a vast varied expanse of debris both magical and scientific. Salvation is on the other side.
Three figures emerge from the fog of their sputtering world: Park Ranger Maddy, Susan the devilist, and big-beard Byron. They see the minefield before them, knowing little, and walk forward.
“Hold on you two,” big-beard Byron requested. Apparently, part of him, the most valuable part, was still stuck in the husk of their old world. His beard extended ten feet back into the fog they’d emerged from. He tried to wrench it free, but there was no give.
Park Ranger Maddy spat on her hands and rubbed them together. She was thick of waist and bicep, so if any of them could pull him loose it was her. Susan the devilist just stood by and watched, clutching her black book close to her heart. There was a strange symbol on its cover: a golden crown with a pitchfork passing through it.
“One, two, three!” Maddy said rhythmically, with both of them tugging on the beard. It was messy and gray, like Spanish moss, but they were able to get a tight grip on it. It came loose, but the end of it didn’t emerge from the fog. It merely… continued. Byron took a few steps forward.
“Strange,” he said, scratching his bald head under his floppy hat. “I’m pretty sure it wasn’t this long before.”
“There is magic afoot,” Susan offered. “Clearly. Your beard didn’t make it through in time, but you did. The two of you are connected, so the magic is making sure things stay the way they were.” The other two shrugged. It was as good an explanation as any. There was nowhere left to go but further into the minefield, so they walked. The beard stretched as they went, never hanging low enough to touch the ground.
They weren’t completely alone. To their surprise, a group of pine trees eventually joined them, protecting them in uneven rows of six or seven on each side. The trees moved through the grass like it was water. They each had their guesses as to why they got an escort through the minefield.
Maddy assumed it was because she had protected the trees most of her adult life. These slightly magical ones were just returning the favor. She hadn’t been protecting them in the last moments of their world though. The park was having a festival to celebrate all the good times the trees had offered. Maddy had been watching the guests, which included her two companions.
Byron and his incredible beard had served as one of the attractions, while Susan thought it a good chance to convert people to the red and gold glories of devilism. Normally she had to go door to door, but in the open air of the park nobody could slam anything in her face. Or in the minefield for that matter.
“Dang it. Hang on again ladies!” Byron called. The beard wasn’t snagged this time, but now it was somewhat tangled between three of the trees that brought up the rear. He tugged on it futilely.
“Alright, I think it’s time Mr. Byron,” Maddy said. She brought out a hunting knife from her belt and put the blade against the thick rope of hair. Susan considered asking if she could do it. She was very skilled with a knife. Sure, the park ranger had probably filleted her fair share of salmon, but could she dispatch an animal sacrifice with a cut so swift that the only sound they made was the pouring of blood?
“Hang on! Hang on! Hang it up!” Byron said, holding his palms out. “You can’t cut it! It’s my livelihood! This beard’s worked harder than any of us. We’ve shared so many knots.” A tear came to his eye.
“Can you go any further?” Susan asked plainly. Byron tugged on it again, but there was no give. “We could cut down the trees.” The foliage around them shuddered and bent outward, dropping needles in their offense. “Calm down; we don’t even have an axe.”
“You have to make a decision here,” Maddy agreed. “Either the beard goes or we leave you behind. It’s just hair. It can grow back.”
“No it can’t!” Byron insisted. “Not at this length. I’m forty-nine years old and I started this fella when I was sixteen. I don’t have enough time left to grow all of him back. We’d be cutting him off at the knees!”
(Audience-Chosen) Mine! (Maddy and Byron Saved)
“Ooh! I have an idea!” Susan said, suddenly wild-eyed and giddy. She flipped her black book open and it somehow fell to the perfect page. She placed one red fingernail upon a passage and whispered it. “As you’ve likely guessed, I’m a high-tier devilist. There’s a spell for this sort of thing. We can separate the bead, bring it to life, and make it your familiar!”
“That sounds great!” Byron said. He knew the work of god was just charity and light-beams, but the devil could really put on a show, and his whole life had been a show anyway. “You have my consent! Make me a barking bounding beard!”
Maddy backed up and stored her knife away. It was their business now. She leaned up against a tree and watched. She’d broken up plenty of devilism ceremonies using her park illegally, but this wasn’t her park.
Susan began to chant, low in her throat like she was trying to cough something up. Eventually she succeeded, and the devilish spell emerged from her mouth as a ball of green flame. It dove into Byron’s beard and disappeared rather than burning it.
She didn’t get the chance to see if it worked. Susan had assumed there was no longer a price to pay for any of her spells. After all, the devil and his realm were just as destroyed as the rest of the world. That was not the case. There were still pipers that needed to be paid. A flick of green flame remained on her lip, and then quickly engulfed her. She didn’t feel pain, she’d trained herself out of that, but her life was still eaten up. A moment later she was a skeleton upon the ground.
Maddy and Byron weren’t sure if she had deserved it. She seemed nice enough, devilism and all. Maddy picked up the black book and stored it in her bag. Byron got his wish. The beard hopped off his face, arranged itself into shape rather like a sheepdog, and bounced up and down around its creator. At least they were still three.
Maddy, Byron, his beard, and their personal escort of pine trees continued on through the minefield. It was a good thing they decided not to bury Susan’s remains. There was a chance that something followed them, perhaps one of Susan’s masters dissatisfied with the payment.
They heard the roaring a great distance behind, but the roaring got louder every once in a while. Something was behind them, and of course it moved in the same direction because there was only one reliable thing to follow in the minefield: the rolling flow of the goldenrod clouds.
They were getting tired, and the vicious sounds were still behind them. Maddy and Byron had sweat through their clothes even though there was no obvious sun overhead. The park ranger wasn’t quite forty yet, but her hip joints certainly felt ninety-eight at the moment. They started to pop as she tried to pick up the pace.
It seems it wasn’t fast enough for their woody bodyguards. A few of the trees sank into the ground, enough to put thick branches under their legs. They pulled forward, forcing Byron and Maddy to sit. They ween’t concerned with the beard, but it scrambled into a branch on its own anyway. The trees rose once more and increased their speed, hoping to outrun their pursuers.
Eventually darkness came, but again with no indication of its associated heavenly body. The trees moved even swifter, which defied Maddy’s expectations. It generated a strong wind that help cool them. The tail of Byron’s beard trailed behind the trees like a flag in a gale.
“Do you want to make some sort of pact?” Byron eventually asked her. She blinked at him. “I know we were just in the park at the same time, but we’ve already lost one. We could shake on it. Agree to look out for each other, that sort of thing.” He smiled anxiously, displaying two brown teeth.
“I don’t know,” Maddy said. As if to encourage her, the tree she rode on swiveled, bringing the refugees closer together. Byron’s smile faltered. “It’s not you Byron. You seem like a solid man. I’ve just always cared for myself and my forest. Other people complicate things. The number of exes that told me… never mind.” She chuckled.
“That! Byron exclaimed, pointing at her, nearly falling out of his tree. “We can talk about that! I’ve got plenty of exes too. What do you say? I can go first.” He looked around, thinking about tying his beard around the branch as a safety line, before remembering it was off lounging in another tree.
“Okay fine,” Maddy relented. She’d already made up her mind. If his romance horrors weren’t as bad as hers, no pact. He could roam the new world with his beard and be totally fine. She was certain of that, even with the loud but clearly fierce things following them.
“There was this one time,” Byron started. His beard leapt into his lap and he braided its loose edges while he spoke. “Her name was Veronica. She had hair down to her waist, beautiful stuff, chestnut. The only problem was, she was jealous of the beard.” The beard yipped in his lap. “She tried to take shears to it in the middle of the night! We were over after that. Super over. I considered filing charges, but the police didn’t consider attempted barbery a crime.”
“Your turn,” Byron said, after licking his hand to address one of the beard’s cowlicks. “I’ve got one for every hair in this scruffy thing, so don’t hold back.” He chuckled.
“Fair is fair,” Maddy said with a sigh. She looked up, hoping to see stars, but the minefield had none to offer. If it did, they would be as lost as everything else. She kept her eyes there as she spoke. “I had an ex who told me I was worthless all the time. I never had the strength to refute them, until they went after my work. Kind of like you, I suppose. They knew it would get me right in the heart, like a hundred toothpicks in the aorta… they told me that a recent forest fire was my fault because I wasn’t vigilant enough.”
“That’s horrible,” Byron said, scrunching his face together. The beard growled in response to his emotional shift, seconding his opinion. “I’ve never been the best lover, but I’ve never said anything like that.” Maddy burst into laughter. Byron scrunched his face even more. The beard did not intensify its growling as it did not wish to muss its pretty new braids.
“I’m sorry!” Maddy exclaimed, even as tears fell from her reddening cheeks. “I’m not laughint at you… not directly at you. I just pictured what it would be like to have sex with that beard getting in the way. What was it? Twelve feet long?”
Suddenly, the trees halted, shuddering back and forth slightly. The force of it threw all three of them out of the branches. They struck several others on their way to the ground. Maddy got a pine needle directly in the pupil. Its strong scent burned into her eye, forcing her to throw a hand over it as she scrambled to her feet.
She grabbed Byron and pulled him up by the shirt. They hadn’t made their pact yet, but she’d decided it was in place. The beard got back to its frilly feet as well, barking madly. Someone had interrupted its braiding. Who were they? Where were they? How quickly could it wrap around their throat and choke them to death?
The cluster of trees closed in around them; they lost sight of anything outside their ring. Maddy and Byron stood silently, listening. They were pressed against each other, the beard hot and itchy against their legs, as they calmed their ragged breathing.
They realized something else breathed, even louder, just past the trees. It knew they were in there, because it scratched their protectors: one long horrible sound of shredding bark circling around them slowly.
“The trees!” Maddy shouted. “We need to help the trees!” Without waiting for Byron’s response she climbed, bracing her limbs against the side of the narrow tube they’d created. Her muscles and eye burned as she forced her way higher and higher until she rolled out of an opening and hit the ground.
She saw the nasty white scratches across the wood, inches deep. She shouted, drawing the thing’s attention. She rushed around the side and found it, standing there, claws embedded in the trees and covered in whitish sap.
Maddy had encountered bears, mountain lions, and wolves in her park, but she’d never seen anything like that. It was all three and then some. It had fangs that doubled as tusks, fur like a driving wall of sleet and ash, and a mane, but a bestial posture that insisted it could never be ridden.
Still, Byron gave it a shot. He rolled over the edge of the trees, unaware of what was just below him, and smacked into the creature’s back. It recoiled and let the smooth-chinned man roll away. It positioned itself between the two of them and snarled, revealing gray fleshy gums and the scraps of its last meal: possible a person.
They were both certain they were doomed, but then the beard flopped down between the three of them. It was not scared of the creature. Nay, it seemed overjoyed at the sight of it. It scurried over and nuzzled the creature’s shin. The giant beast stopped growling.
“Wait a second…” Byron said. He approached the creature as well and gingerly stroked its side. It glared at him, but allowed it. “Well I’ll be darned… this is a beard too!”
“What?” Maddy said, practically belching the syllable. “It’s got teeth! Eyes! Claws! You can’t grow any of those out of your face.”
“I don’t know how exactly,” Byron said, “but feel it for yourself.” He invited her over. Cautiously she put a hand to the beast’s flank, and then a cheek. Yes, it was familiar. Some of those many exes had beards just like it. This wasn’t fur. It was, without a doubt, facial hair. They were more certain of that than anything else in the minefield.
“Any ideas?” she asked.
“I think… It’s the same sort of thing Susan did, but better. Somebody from the old world let their beard run free, let it come here. Maybe it sought us because it knew we were beard-friendly.” Maddy nodded, trying not to think about how she had nearly severed Byron’s beard a day ago.
They couldn’t ride it, it was too fierce, but it stayed with them regardless. Eventually it calmed down and seemed to stare at the gouges it had left in the trees regretfully. Some things get desperate in search of a family.
They journeyed for several days more, finding their way to the fog on the other side. Near the end there was a glut of abandoned riding animals. The larger beard chose to stay with them. Maddy and Byron wondered how many of the creatures had started as peach fuzz on some adolescent’s face.
They chose to pass through the fog wall, taking Byron’s beard with them. It threatened to get stuck once more, but Maddy flashed her knife, convincing it to wriggle harder until it was completely out of the minefield.
Minefield Traversed! Maddy, Byron, and his beard are saved! They will return someday, at some point, in a grand scheme of grand things. There are more who must cross, more stories to tell, more stories to destroy in a bitter conflagration.