By Morgan Argor
For as long as I can remember, the only one who ever defended me was my father’s dog.
The old man hated that I named him Jankó. Naming a beast after a man was a sin unforgivable, father always said. So around everyone else, I simply called him Komondor. The king of dogs. The dog of kings: Whatever false meaning they attached to his name, it suited him all the same.
To me, he would always be Jankó.
It was the name I remembered from the countless lives he walked by my side before the so-called gods spat me out here—the name as close as the grass I trampled beneath my boots, yet as far away as that dream I could never relinquish: The Free Worlds. The Dread Reaches of Igvarmord.
Across the star-pocked expanse of horror that in their infinite ignorance, the townsfolk call “night”, I remember the crystalline darkness encapsulated outside time: Where the stars glimmer eternal off glaciers cold and black, whose rivers run gold, flecked with blood.
My forefathers, as simple as the flocks they tended, would have thought that the Free Worlds were Heaven. But from the moment those twisted spires pierced through the haze of my childhood memories, I was drawn back to Igvarmord by something that blazed brighter than any flame I’d ever seen—even the ones that burned the false lord’s castle at the edge of the moor on that night of all nights, setting all Carpathia wild and free again.
If only I knew then how short-lived that freedom would be . . . I would have cauterized my memories of the Dread Reaches with the same metalloid fire stoker with which I tended the flames every night: The flames my father fanned with his tales of a better life across the ocean, far away from the whispers of yet another Eternal War.
I would trade it all—the lonely centuries of so-called freedom, and the visions of splendor beyond imagination out there in the blackness, where I belonged—every hour I ever wasted in that Otherworld of gilded lies . . . If only I could tend those idyllic, silent moors again with Jankó at my side for a single hour.
It was something of a family legend that Jankó had been with us for seven hundred and seventy-seven years—an angel number, my father always reminded me—even though no one in all Magyarország believed us. Perhaps they would in the Free Worlds, if we ever made it back there.
The idea crept up on us slowly, but with a cruel and merciless intensity and a sharpened metallic grin. Before long, I could no longer remember if I schemed of crossing an ocean of salt to another continent, or that ocean of stars from my childhood dreams . . . To where, I know naught but Igvarmord: The bliss from which my soul sprang at the birth of time, and the hellscape whose siren call would inevitably drag me back down its throat at the end of the universe.
The obsession gnawed so relentlessly that the only thing that kept me in Magyarország was Jankó. I knew that the ships that sailed to the Otherworld would never take him alive, with his white curls perpetually mud-slicked from all these endless, lonely hunts. After all, he returned night after night, year after year, white coat sticky with the blood of any man or wolf that dared to encroach upon our flock.
He guarded it so well that the guilt gnawed my mind as raw as my longing to feel the sands of the Otherworld across the sea for the first time. He’d brought prosperity to my family, despite the relentless stench of war that hung over all Carpathia. My father agreed, spinning fireside tales that in his youth, before Jankó had evolved into the apex predator of our village—the protector of the weak and the murderer of the strong—the flock was but a tenth of the size that it was now.
I believed him. There were no dogs like Jankó, not in Magyarország or the Free Worlds or the Ends of Time. When he rested his huge, heavy head on my lap at the end of the night, taking my father’s place at my side by the fire, a chill of dread ran through me. How could I leave him, in all his morbid glory and loyalty without end? As I ran my hands over the brutal coils of his fur, my fingers burned brighter than Igvarmord in its final hours.
It never crossed my mind even once until that moment, but I suddenly feared that his thick leather collar would cut me. Though it was pale and worn from countless wolf-bites, its spikes never tarnished the slightest bit, and their acuminous tips reigned forever vile over the Carpathian hills.
The bane of wolves or kings, I would never know. All I knew for sure was that my father made me promise me to protect him with my life, and to never walk those wilds without him in a thousand years.
But though the flock sprawled endlessly across those ever-verdant hills, I tired of those endless hours beneath the cold blue skies of Carpathia. I grew weary—oh, so weary—of staring out over the town and wondering why I’d been doomed to provide the meat on their tables, the wool for their clothes, without any of them even knowing my name of my story. I was close enough to hear their church bells toll grim all winter long, and merry through spring, yet far enough away that I grew lonely—so, so lonely—that I finally accepted that my destiny lied in breaking the promise I’d made to my father.
“Take me back to the Free Worlds,” I whispered to the empty gaps between the stars.
Of course, no one ever did.
That was why, one starless night when all but the faintest lamplights of the village burned out, I patted Jankó atop his matted head for the final time. Strange: His fur was wet with fresh blood, even though he’d sat with me in peace for hours. But I had no time to ponder the mysteries of whatever vile magic kept him eternally hunting for the perfect slice of meat. I didn’t need him anymore. I knew the only way I’d ever learn if the Kvarner Gulf was legend or truth was to travel there myself: Somehow, some way, without regard for risk or reason.
So, as one final, grand farewell that man nor beast could ever forget, I kissed him on the head and stole his collar.
I knew that the journey was arduous by the way the roads slick with blood and littered with broken bodies still flashed through my mind in the Otherworld. But I recalled only the blurriest snippets of my blind rush to the Adriatic Sea. I don’t remember crossing the ocean, either. Judging by the scars that still shined thin from my fingertips to the hollows of my back, I was one of the lucky ones. Lucky to have arrived, and lucky to not remember.
By the grace of some god I’d never prayed to—or stranger yet, luck—I ended up on a farm in the hills of a land called New Amsterdam.
By the time I began to question any of it, my children Andar and Imre were growing old, and their children tended the sheep and worked the lonely fields as I had. But oddly enough, I never seemed to grow a day past seventy-seven.
Two minor wars had passed, and a third was well underway. This one chilled me to the bone in a way that made the others feel like nothing but the tickle of a warm spring breeze. I hoped the New World—or the Otherworld, as my sheltered former ghost would call it—would stay kinder to me than the star-crossed shores of Igvarmord . . . Or . . . Magyarország . . .? The two of them blended together, and what once felt like the valley split by rivers of honey at the gates of heaven quickly boiled over into the nightmare I’d always feared. Why couldn’t I remember how I got here?
Imre said they called it “missing time” here the Otherworld, but I spat upon the audacity. It was an insult to Jankó. Time meant nothing. Without him, I’d had a missing life.
But if I hadn’t broken the promise and abandoned the lonely groves of Hungary, I would have died with the flock. For the airwaves brought stories of sick fireballs raining down through the mists of Carpathia: Of villages burned to the ground, leaving no memory but gutted craters. Of entire lineages smeared into the hills like clay as the Eternal War overtook the Earth again, just as it nearly had in my youth.
But this time, the false king’s palace never burned. And I realized he was but a shadow puppet in someone else’s game—a pawn, a human meat shield crowned only to hide the true lords from the peasants.
I always wondered what became of Jankó; if he made it back to the Free Worlds, so one day we’d meet again when my time finally came. Despite my father’s vengeful hiss every time the thought crossed my mind, I knew that by all logic he’d likely died in his six hundred and sixty seventh year. Not in the hellfire of war, or even in the despair of the famine that followed—fresh meat was the least of his worries—but because I’d stolen his collar on that cold, black night.
Its spikes still gleamed strange and wicked, always at my belt—crudely fashioned into the strap of a pouch that not even the boldest thief would ever dare to snatch. Not only was it my good luck charm, but it was what kept me alive when I should have rotted decades ago, just as it nurtured sweet Jankó.
Perhaps I grew superstitious in my unusually old age: But I knew my theory wasn’t so twisted when my firstborn, my dearest Imre, succumbed to a long and grueling illness that kept her confined to her bed for several years. With her light snuffed forever, Andar soon followed.
Their children kept the farm up, six in total, and the world grew unrecognizably strange—the vapor trails of the interlopers were a routine sight, even out here in the heart of nowhere. The airwaves grew quieter by the day, and instead I watched the flames of dead Magyarország burning yet again on strange projectors the children brought up from the city.
The Swabians, as they called them back in old Carpathia, had made quite a name for themselves after the interlopers took their Panzer division’s side. The faces on the screen began to blather in a strange fusion of their guttural tongue, which I recognized from rare visits to the city in my youth, and the twitchy, indecipherable clicking of the ones from beyond the dark. All mankind would soon speak the otherworldly filth of their union, or so the children claimed.
I couldn’t remember which generation these ones were: For just as the flock my family tended so fondly had multiplied, it seemed there were twelve of them now instead of six. I only knew that Imre and Andar had passed so long ago that I recalled their faces only as one might glimpse a lamplight burning low in the cold.
But I still remembered every matted coil that hung from Jankó’s rugged, wolflike body, wet between my fingers in the Carpathian mud.
His eyes burned with the with the crisp, ragged hate of a sniper who never missed a shot, even on the darkest night of nuclear winter.
The hills roll ever-verdant and the sky is always red . . . In the sunset of my mind, in that sterile hell men call Carpathia.
In my dreams, my father’s warning never dies or grew old like him. Every time we meet beyond wrong and right, he stares off at the empty gaps between the stars, still unpenetrated by the dreadnaughts of Igvarmord and the Terrorboric fury they rain down on the Earth.
It’s beautiful: So beautiful that for a moment I forget the wandering flocks, the ever-burning fire, and even the promise we sealed in blood when he handed his Komondor down to me.
“Give a weak man the faintest twinge of power, and he’ll dig a hole so deep that once you push him in, he’ll break off his own claws choking on dirt before he climbs his way out,” my father warned me with the bleeding stump of a sheep’s severed head flickering strangely in the mirror of his eyes. “But a man born into power . . . For him, someone else needs to dig the hole.”
An acrid, sickly shame always bubbles up my throat as Jankó nudges up against me with some strange urgency, as if he finds the idea wise, or even amusing.
“Me?” The naïve child I once was asks, with a mix of guilt and desperation.
Laughing, father’s eyes fade back into their usual forlorn winter storm—weathered, as tired and well-tended as the fire that casts eerie shadows across the pine grove we huddle in night, after night, after night.
“No one destined to rewrite history in their favor would ever claim such a thing, little Sandor.”
Why did the venom behind that laughter still stalk me even then, all these years later?—long after our sanctuary of pine had become a graveyard, and even the most far-off descendants of that lost flock of my youth had long-since become one with the flattened hills of Magyarország?
“That’s why we wouldn’t take you back to the Free Worlds, Sandor. You always thought you were something special, but a black sheep among black sheep is just a sheep.”
I would have recognized him as a casualty of any Eternal War, in any far-off timeline, in any broken multiverse: That fierce Komondor, that king of dogs and men. How many years had passed since I watched—smiling—as he tore wide the throats of wolves, mixing their blood with mine as he lapped at my wound-drenched fingers with a trust I’d never know again? Jankó, the only one who ever really loved me. My father’s dog and mine, the one that I’d abandoned.
Jack, the children called him. It rolled off their tongues far easier than his true name, especially after they grew accustomed to all the clicking.
The twins swore to the one true God—the ones the interlopers raised from the guts of the Earth—that they found him in the woods, but I knew the truth. For a while he’d gone back where he came from when I stole his collar: His one true source of power on this world, gilded with the only real resource Earth had to offer.
But from the moment he scampered up to me in the body of some mottled farm dog, even before those eyes—blacker than the cancer of my betrayal—drifted straight to my belt, I knew they were lying.
Cities burn, peasants die, and kings are eaten by worms: But a good dog always returns to his master—even all the way from the Free Worlds and back again, to this prison planet called Earth on the fringes of space and time.
In front of the children, we pretended not to know one another, maintaining a cordial relationship between farmer and dog. But that night, we met in the black groves on the fringes of the forest, just as I always dreamed we would at the end of all time.
A single tear ran down my cheek: For I always imagined we’d reunite not on Earth, but in Igvarmord.
“Hello, Sandor. It’s a good thing you left Magyarország before the Swabians caught you with red hair.”
My mind flashed ecstatic and livid with old wounds torn forever new. Even though Hungary and the rest of Europe had crumbled into the ocean centuries ago, in my mind, I was back on that hill staring down at my ancestral village.
“Countless men lose sight of their own principals, Sandor.” His words lacked even the faintest hint of Swabian brutality, and he spoke in an unearthly series of clicks that I somehow understood with perfect clarity, though I knew not how. He wasn’t a mottled farm mutt anymore, but a monstrous version of his former self, stalking across the grove upon two legs and seizing me by his old collar.
“Maybe they were lucky enough to go through life with the odds unfairly spun in their favor,” he hissed, his broken teeth metallic and whole again. “Or maybe, like you, they got lucky.”
Jack ripped the timeless band of spiked gold free from my waist. The leather shredded effortlessly between his claws, and I finally realized that the lining of skin was but a crude illusion to hide the priceless, gleaming treasure within: A band of solid gold, embedded with rubies that gleamed in a way that nothing of this Earth could ever outshine.
“Nothing makes a poor man forget his honor faster than a stroke of luck—or better yet, opportunity.”
His massive head, heavier and ten times denser than six human skulls welded together, loomed just as close to mine as it always had in my youth.
“But what about rich men?” I taunted the monster, my voice unwavering. I remembered my father’s last words in that sacred grove of memory and dreams that had long since evaporated into the firestorm of the dying Earth. To this day, I never understood what he meant when we made the promise.
He stared at me silently, eyes bulging red like the sheep’s blood in my father’s eyes. In a way, I almost wished he would kill me then and there. I may be a thief, but I’d face my death with honor if it came at the hands of my dearest, oldest, only friend.
“We chose this world because it was overrun by those who deserve to suffer blindly and without reprieve,” Jack finally answered, fastening his old collar around his neck. His entire body surged with a golden wave of astral radiance. “After all, look how easy it is to drive its denizens to atrocity, out of nothing but the thoughtless desire to conform—your ‘Swabians’ are a shining example”
“Your allies . . .” I muttered, reaching out to stroke the familiar, matted tufts of his long white hair, now braided uniformly, beautifully beneath the smirking moon.
“Those who kill in the name of false kings with a sword to their neck are no allies of ours.”
They were using them, I realized, staring out at the matrixes of multiplexed electrons fusing the sky and the Earth, somehow sparing everything except my own silent slice of hell. Even when I heard tales of mushroom clouds raining down upon faraway islands, so many centuries ago, I knew that mankind could never spawn such evil—that’s not to say they wouldn’t, if given the capability—but part of me always suspected that their feeble minds were puppeteered by some unknown judge to serve as the executioners for crimes they cannot begin to comprehend.
How I knew this, I did not know. But the lost, lonely shepherd who still writhed somewhere, deep inside my heart, swelled with joy: At long last, against all odds, he was right.
“Tell me, Sandor,” my old friend demanded, wrapping his triple-jointed claws around my neck and preparing to snap it. “If you hadn’t run from Magyarország with your tail between your legs, would you have cut your own throat and returned to Igvarmord, clean of conscience? Or would you have soaked your hair in silver nitrate and backed over the faces of your fellow men in a Panzer, again and again, forever?”
No matter how desperately I clawed for the words, I couldn’t find an answer. The only thing I choked out that made even the faintest lick of sense was, “Take me back to the Free Worlds. I’ve waited so long, Jack. I’ve watched the entire Earth unravel from the inside out. Generations have come and gone, but you’re—”
Wordlessly, he ripped the collar off his throat and strapped it on me. As he tightened it relentlessly, mercilessly, with his invincible metalloid claws, the last thing I ever heard was:
“Oh, Sandor . . . You should have listened to your father. Back in Magyarország, you had me. Maybe if you hadn’t stood idly by and let the pyres of mankind’s mass graves cauterize your tongue and burn out your eyes, you would have known all along: FROM THE MOMENT YOU TOOK YOUR FIRST STEP, YOU CRUSHED THE DUST OF IGVARMORD INTO PLANET EARTH. These were the Free Worlds, Sandor, although you were too blind see them right before your eyes! And they would have remained so forevermore, if only cowards like you hadn’t stood by and watched them burn.”
TO ALL THOSE WHO DIED AT THE HANDS OF PAWNS WHO CARRIED OUT BLIND ATROCITIES IN THE NAME OF FALSE KINGS; AND TO JACK, THE GREATEST DOG I’VE EVER KNOWN.