|Splotch Scrunch Cruelty-Shaped Cruelty
By Mark Lax
It was a splotch upon the swamp, having the outline of a drop of ink fallen from the sky. When looked
into, its horizon would display a distant black domed structure. You saw this from the same perspective
on all sides, just as you saw the same street surrounding the same black, boxy structures no matter
what angle you approached it from. All in all, it was about a quarter of a mile square.
Outside its black outline, the swamp was the swamp—the same as it had been forever. In no way had
the splotch stopped the birds and bugs and frogs from chirping. None of them ventured inside from the
swamp, however. Thus far, nothing had ventured out of the splotch, either. What the splotch may have
replaced, what it was physically obscuring or sitting on, no one could recall. It was probably another
anonymous chunk of swamp.
There was a perimeter to it, invisible in its boundary, hanging in the air. Beyond this, no color passed.
Everything inside was grey, black or white. Looking up, through it, the sky was clear and ash. If you
backed off and looked from a distance, the sky above it was clearly still blue and overcast, with the
regular gathering clouds of spring. It was only from the perspective of looking into the splotch that the
Unlike the choppy area around it, the ground inside the splotch was perfectly flat and even. Six three
story black buildings, all made from perfectly uniform black bricks were inside; seemingly a little village.
They were in a circle, surrounded by a broad perfectly black avenue. On either side of the road into the
splotch, which followed you no matter how you attempted to circumnavigate around the perimeter, were
the walls of two black buildings, which you could not see in whole. A wooden slat fence, about six feet
tall, was on the other side of the encircling street. Beyond this fence, some ways away, was the large
domed building. You could not get a better angle on any of this.
“Put a fence around it if you are really concerned,” the foreigner Wyvern said to me. “So far it’s not
hurting anything. Maybe it will just go away?”
Why had they sent for him? We had our own miracle people. Had there been a line dividing this swamp,
the splotch would clearly be on our side. I was always of the mind that the swamp was mine in its
entirety, although that is not strictly diplomatic policy.
Not mine, as in my possession, but rather mine as in my charge to look out for.
My assistant Brixan was playing at the air, watching as her finger tips turned white. Wyvern was twenty
feet behind us, surveying the scene from a tall clod of earth. Next to him was his winged white horse with
its gaudy purple sash and jewel encrusted bridle.
I always thought Wyvern was more suited for a parade than work. Not at all like our Brixan, with her
broad shoulders and scuffed kit. How she can stand to share a shadow with this clown without snapping
is beyond me. She is like our country, undiluted and naturally fine.
Except for this splotch, which it is my intention to dispatch, discipline or conquer. I turn to Brixan and ask
“Are you ready, my dear?”
“Yes, your worship,” she says, tilting her face and narrowing her eyes. Her hand goes to the hilt of her
“Bishop, you’re not serious,” Wyvern says.
Stepping in the splotch’s direction, Brixan asks “You want I should go first?”
His voice rising, Wyvern says as if I didn’t hear him the first time “I don’t like this.”
“Then don’t like it where you are,” I snap. “After me, Brixan.”
We step in and the world goes silent. Neither of us cast a shadow onto the black as night road. The
buildings which were supposed to be to either side of us are now gone. Brixan’s skin is now white as
opposed to its normal light pink. Her brown shoulder pads become black, their scuff marks transformed
into white cross hatching. The long golden tresses flowing from her helm are now white and her simple
metal skull cap is black. My own armor is now black. The dark brown of my skin is now grey.
We take another two steps in to accommodate the following Wyvern. He does not bleach out. His silver,
winged helmet stays that way, as does his royal blue armor with the animated crimson flying dragons
upon it. His matching flared red gauntlets, cuffed boots and long diaphanous cape remain the same.
Who knows what his master the Dreaded Baron has infused him with? I like Wyvern even less at this
moment. As if that were possible.
There is sound here. We heard Wyvern coming. But we do not hear the birds or the frogs outside.
Instead we hear a distant claxon, holding one long low note before striking again.
The road is now a curve, running around the buildings to the right and the left. Over Wyvern’s shoulder,
I can still see the swamp, with all of its greens and browns and the blue sky above it.
I say “Brixan, you go left, I’ll go right.”
Wyvern says “Split up? Genius move.”
“Root yourself, then,” I say to Wyvern. My instruction to Brixan is “Call out if you need me.”
“I’m going with her,” Wyvern says.
Of course he is. We part.
A moment later, I glance back out to the swamp and it is gone. In its place is the slat fence, which I
approach. In front of this fence is a patch of well tended grasses, all short and black. In its manner it is
like a garden, except for the monotony.
The fence is what it seems to be; wooden slats, although they are rather firmly fixed in place. And they
are oddly uniform, strangely thin. Something is covering the planks, but it is neither paint nor stain. It’s
hard to tell without the color.
Beyond the fence, several acres away, is the omnipresent black dome. But what is before that? The
fence blocks the sight.
I can barely see over the fence. Surrounding the dome is a flat field of black, similar to the road. At first.
Then I see a hand, a little black hand with four fingers wave to me, reaching out of the field. I see legs
and feet. For a moment the field is spotted with tiny blinking black eyeballs. Something black flails out. It
is drop shaped, with spindly arms and legs and oversized hands and feet. And it dives back in, causing
a ripple in the black, which now moves like waves in a lake. Globes sprouting perfectly round mouths
percolate up, each opening in silent screams.
Then it is a field of black, flat, motionless and uninteresting—more of what the road is made from.
This causes me to eye the road a bit more closely before returning to it. It does not undulate or sprout
appendages. I bend down and put my hand to it. It has the feel of a liquid, but none of the give. It does
not run off. I cannot stick my hand into it. For a moment it seems ridiculous that I thought that I could.
I put a silent call up for power, but feel unaltered. Perhaps I have no need of aid?
Across the avenue, surrounded by more banks of trimmed grasses, is one of the three story buildings. A
pair of white doors is at its center. Each door has an arch of black high on its face. Before the door are
a pair of steps, appearing to be brick or stone but showing no signs of chisel or mortar.
This seamless stone is also laid in end to end planks, dividing the grass banks before the building. The
building’s bricks, if that is what they are, are perfectly uniform and perfectly spaced by mortar. I have
never seen anything like any of this, and I consider myself well worldly.
Aligned parallel to the building, where the stone path tapers down to the black road, is a long, broad
enclosed cart. It is about chest high. Or I think it’s a cart, given that it has four wheels. The wheels are
as black as the road with white centers. I can see my reflection in its glass as I approach.
Inside the vehicle are two sets of padded benches with backs. I touch the cart’s black surface. Like the
road, it feels of liquid. I knock it. It sounds hollow, perhaps metal. In a mirror, which is oddly protruding
from it, I spot something moving behind me. I turn slowly.
I see the fronts of the next two buildings down the curve. On the stairs of the second one from me is an
animal, perhaps my height at the shoulders.
The beast has the outline of a cat. A cloud of fuzzy black runs forward from its shoulders. Bones are
showing through its limbs, open to the air. All I can make of its face are two pointed ears near the top of
its head and teeth bursting randomly out through its long snout. The rest of the thing is white or grey. It
must be as long as the cart.
Presently it is rubbing its rope like tail against the steps of the building. It opens its mouth, a jagged and
hard to define thing, and I hear the claxon sound again.
I feel something through the road, rhythmic thumps growing stronger behind me. A glance over my
shoulder shows it is another beast, approaching from the way I came.
A four fingered black hand sprouts from my breastplate and slaps me. I look down and don’t see it. It
slaps me again.
I think I was about to bite it or grab it, when suddenly the beast from behind was upon me. I dove to the
It is huge and black, with ears like sails. In the middle of its face is a moving tree trunk framed by a pair
of white curved horns. The thing must be eight feet tall. It stands on bending pillars. The thing’s body is
an impressive bulb.
This creature couldn’t give a wit about me. Its shield-like head tilts not at all. This beast goes skipping,
heavily, past me, straight down the middle of the road. I get to my feet and track it as it heads down the
curve and away. The cat pays it no mind.
I decide to head in the direction opposite of these two creatures. In front of the next building are two
more of the carts, although they have different shapes.
“Bishop!” Brixan calls to me. She is across the courtyard, behind the buildings. Or that is how she
sounds. I keep my eyes scanning in the cat’s direction as I advance.
She has not called out of alarm. (She wouldn’t, even if it was called for.) Brixan simply needs my
attention and direction. It is more respect and obedience, as it should be.