What is a monster?
Is it a creature of nightmares, or something far more dangerous?
My mother once told me that monsters are not born, they are made. I used to take that very literally. Believing that, somewhere, monsters were being sculpted like clay pots and thrown into the world to terrorise us all. As I grew older, I realised what she really meant. I watched from a cage as my brother strangled her to death. That made him a monster. I heard the yelps of my father as my sister cut him with shallow slices, ensuring his last moments was as painful as possible. That made her a monster, too. But one man’s monster can be another’s hero. Monsters are like beauties, they fit into the eye of the beholder. My brother and sister are monsters to me, but not to others. The slaying of my mother and father brought about a new order to our small corner of the world. Cultists, a group with a single burning desire to appease their own monsters of the underworld, took control of my brother and sister, and indeed every inch of land under the rule of my family.
Our kingdom sat on a luscious peninsula on the western corner of the world. The joint that linked us to the mainland was narrow and set atop towering cliffs, as were most of our shores. An impregnable iron gate; set between thick stone walls, kept our kingdom out of the reaches of the wilder folk that lived in the lands outside our territory. For where we had water and life, the world stretching beyond was baron; an arid desert of sand and bone. Many had sought to take our kingdom; marauders, desperate and unhinged. All had failed to break the gates or climb the cliffs, but that’s not how the cultists seized power. Their words, not weapons, won them their war. They poisoned the minds of my siblings. They came as traders; allowed passage through the gates because they carried no weapons, nor spoke no ill but offered great knowledge and riches.
Their disguise was perfect. Once inside, they sort to corrupt all three children, but not all could be taken in. I quickly grew suspicious of their fixation on death, rituals and monsters, and I was cast aside for it. My younger siblings were not so apprehensive. I warned my parents, but they dismissed it as a phase; exploration of the mind and spirit, my father said. They’d become so used to the threat of the sword, so condition to the stupidity of the marauders of the desert, they’d lost sight of how wars are truly won and lost. Over the course of two years, my sibling’s minds were turned. Slowly, subtly and very carefully. I knew why, of course. As the eldest, I was adopted as the people’s royal. I was involved in everything that went on in our peninsula. While my parents governed, I was the face of the family. My younger siblings were not needed, and they found it hard to find their own place in our world. Pushed aside by the family, and ignored by the people, they had very little worth in themselves.
Then, somebody offered them something meaningful, and they took it.
I don’t see them often anymore, I’m not sure what role they play in the cult, but when I do, they use the word ‘spared’ a lot. I don’t feel it’s a word that summarises their choice in keeping me alive. Imprisoned would be something of an accurate description; captured, perhaps. They keep me on the furthest northern shore, with most of the other tributes. Our numbers grow day-by-day, the cultists allowing those who once attempted to attack our kingdom, the marauders, passage and sanctuary, in return for service to their unholy activities. Their existence within our world has made it a very different place. Before the cultists took power, our peninsula was populated by a few thousand people. Mainly farmers or fishermen, civilised and peaceful. Now, as the dregs of the desert have bled inside the walls, it has become a very different place. A culture of barbarism followed them. Brutish and violent. They drink, they fight, they murder in the street. When people like that meet with the civilised inhabitants, the barbarians win. For a time, the streets were mayhem. Our peaceful little villages transformed, from well kept thatched homes with beautiful flowers adorning the windows to places of ruin. Families were kicked out of their homes, which were then ransacked and torn apart. Tents sprung up across villages and its outskirts. Before long, my particular settlement looked more like a war camp than the picturesque little fishing village it used to be. Most villagers had fled further inland, to some of the quieter areas of the peninsula, though none were truly safe now the gates were firmly open. But I couldn’t leave. I lived in a cage, the same cage I’d spent most my days inside since the cultists overthrew my family. I was here, along with those residents who’d also been forced to these shores — most of which were loyalists to my family, given the choice of death or ‘tribution’ — for one purpose: to slay monsters.
These were not monsters like my siblings, these were monsters of the sea. The cultists worshipped a few gods, but the greatest of them all was a giant with an unpronounceable name. The fanatics believed that, if fed the most monstrous creatures of all, the giant would step down from above and walk in the realm of the living. Fish wouldn’t feed him, nor would corn or even cow; it would take true monsters. What would feed him were terrifying beasts few had ever laid eyes on. The task before them was simple: hunt the monsters and bring them back to be laid before the God as a feast worthy of deities. If they failed to feed their God, his wrath would be terrible, so they said. He would destroy the heavens above, leaving nothing in the afterlife but darkness. This was how they justified their mission; or rather, their control. Thus, the monsters sought monsters to awaken a monster. Well, that wasn’t strictly true. They never sought the monsters themselves.
I woke to a hot streak of blood lashing my cheek. Above me, two men stood, in the midst of a fight. One held a makeshift dagger in his hand, its blade glistening with blood, while the other clutched his wounded arm. The two were circling, waiting for the other to make a move, kicking up dust from the dirt floor at each other, before feigning lunges and springing back into place. Gripping the cold metal cage bars on which I leant, I heaved myself upright and strode right between the two men. They were both bald and slim; like every man kept in these cages. Skin and bone, but with broad shoulders. I eyed each one of them in turn, shaking my head. My narrow gaze and stoic expression was all they needed. Both backed off each other, nodded in my direction, and then in each others, before retreating to different corners of the cage.
“Drop it,” I said quietly, but a firm inflexion. The man wielding his makeshift blade opened his palm and let it fall to the floor. Too late was my intervention though. The overseer had arrived, rattling the cage.
“What are you rats doing?”
The overseers were from the lands beyond the wall, further even than the marauders. We didn’t have many here, but they made their presence known. Seven feet tall, their faces were rounded and their bodies effortlessly muscular. They had a brutal look about them; dangerous. This one had wild yellow eyes, which flickered around the cage to all eight occupants. He let out a snarl from his curled lips, the corners of which had two, very small tusks poking out from beneath tough and dry mounds of skin. Carefully, he unlocked the door to the cage, bent down and entered, a large cleaver in hand. The overseers were a weird sort of person, thought to have been mixed with another species somewhere in their ancestry, although nobody was quite sure what. This one alone could easily take us all on without his weapon. He glowered around the cage, catching sight of the wounded man.
“Fightin’s for dogs!” He roared, smashing a fist twice the size of a normal man’s against the rusty bars. He spotted the makeshift blade on the ground, before casting another, even angrier look around. His eyes came to rest on me, and the blood on my cheek.
“Does the princess need lessons in making friends?” He said, in a sharp, vicious tone. I watched as he lent over to pick up and examine the blade and soon I found him towering over me. I saw the attacker, the man who had whittled the makeshift knife and slashed our cellmate, rise to claim responsibility. Out of sight of the imposing figure, who’s malicious gaze was fixed on my face, I raised a hand and gestured for him to stay quiet. The blame was on me now, another’s voice would just enrage the half-man, half-beast more.
“The arms are valuable.” The overseer bellowed, splattering my face with spit. “Next time…” He gripped the handle of the knife tightly, before ramming it into my thigh. “Go for somewhere less important”.
Withdrawing the blade, he swiftly left the cage, slamming the door shut. Clutching my bleeding leg, I slipped to the floor. Looking up through bars to the grey, turbulent skies above, trying to leave my agony on the ground and lift myself out of this prison. It didn’t work. The pain was overwhelming. I gritted my teeth as the man responsible for the knife’s existence came to kneel beside me.
“I’m sorry”. He whispered.
“Why did you attack him anyway, Bolo?” I asked through seethes of agony, hoping to distract my mind.
“He ate that rat that kept coming into the cage.”
“Hornball?” I exclaimed. I glanced a look over to the other bleeding member of our pack of caged men, he too was clutching his knife wound with a pained expression. “I hope that hurts!”
Bolo sat beside me. “You can see the way we look up to you, right? How every one of us looks up to you.”
“Stop.” I moaned, I knew where this was going.
“We’ll follow you. All you have to do is lead. We can take our home back, I know it.”
“I can’t do it.” I breathed with a fragile note. “So many would die. If not us all. I cannot bear the idea of costing one man his life, let alone hundreds.”
“Life? What life is this?” Bolo gestured around the cage. Men in rags slung up against bars. Bruised, malnourished and dishevelled. “I remember what life was like before this. It’s all I cling to.”
“You know I would gladly give my life for this place to be free, Bolo. But not theirs.”
Three suns rose and set before I did anything else other than eat, sleep and relieve myself through the bars of my cast-iron prison. I dreamt nightly of being free of this place. Away from it all. It was all I wanted. I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t want to rebel. I just wanted to be free. The grey clouds had started to clear, and the cold sea air was starting to warm just a little bit. As dawn broke on the fourth day, the overseer arrived, flanked by a marauder, to march the tributes down, through the dilapidated old town, to the docks. There we met with other overseers, marauders and a small army of prisoners, and were loaded into a group of ten rowing boats. Each boat was manned by eight rowers, four on each side. At the bow of the boat was a large, mounted crossbow. The formidable piece of weaponry fired a single bolt. Thicker than a human leg and tipped with a barbed, serrated arrowhead, these machines of death existed for one purpose: to slay giants. The crossbow was operated by a marauder, with an overseer sat in the middle of the boat, ready to load the immensely heavy metal bolts, should they be needed. They very rarely were. Not in all my time at sea had I seen anything that needed such a bolt.
Once aboard, the prisoner’s legs were chained to the floor, but arms kept free to manoeuvre the ores. I watched my wounded cellmate warily as he sat down. Our injuries were recovering, slowly, but I was still struggling to walk and I knew this trip would take its toll on him. I hoped the overseer would show mercy, although I wasn’t confident. He stood there, a long, curled whip in hand, cleaver attached to his belt, watching as we pulled away from the harbour in unison with the other boats and headed out to open water. Behind me was a new member of the crew, a young lad from north of the peninsula, taken into service of the cult; probably for some horrifyingly unjust reason. I didn’t like to ask how people ended up in the cage anymore, it didn’t help and it just made my blood boil. The cultists were getting ever more desperate for a meal to offer their God, bringing in more and more people to their hunt for less and less meaningful reasons. Some of the followers were growing restless, with a number of executions having taken place over recent months of those calling the leaders of the cult false prophets. With ‘heretics’, marauders and subjugated locals under their rule, the cultists lead with an iron fist. Life in the cages, and the villages in which they sat, seemed rough, but from the stories I had heard, life beyond them wasn’t that pleasant either.
We spent all afternoon bobbing up and down, seeking out a prize worthy of the cult’s demands, and finding nothing. The sound of the ocean sloshing against the boat was only broken by the paddling of ores, the groans of men and the crack of a whip when somebody’s pace fell behind. I could see the wounded man beside me, struggling through the pain; red-faced and dripping with sweat. Eventually, it was too much. His wound was oozing blood, he let out a yelp of pain and hoisted his ore out the water, leaning against it so it wouldn’t drag the others back. The boat started listing off course without his input. Growling, the overseer gripped him by the throat and squeezed. Tears streaked down the man’s face as he choked.
“If you didn’t want to deal with the pain, you should have moved faster!” The overseer bellowed, throwing the man down against the deck. “Now row!”
Another crack of the whip followed, with that in turn followed by an agonising scream. Blood streaming down his shoulder, he kept rowing. The sight of him tore me apart inside. It was impossible to watch. The pain must have been unbearable.
In the distance, the tip of a mountainous island loomed above a fog that surrounded it. The marauder pointed to it “Steer clear of the mist, we run aground in there and we’ll all drown”. The boat started to turn, running parallel to the mist that lazily rolled its way towards us. Suddenly, the boat jolted sideways.
We’d been hit.
The hump of a massive creature — an animal that must have measured some seventy foot, out matching our little boat by about four times — rose out of the ocean, knocking our craft, before disappearing into the surf as the beast dove into the depths. As it slid beneath the waves, two spined fins on either side of its body cut through the water, creating dramatic looking ripples like somebody had just run through it with a sword. Moments later, another beast broke the surface nearby, then another behind us, and two more ahead of us. We were in the thick of them; a group of the massive animals heading straight for the mists of the island.
“Is this what we’re hunting?” The newest member of our crew asked, peering out at the impressive looking animals as the last one disappeared under the shimmering blue ocean.
“No.” I answered quietly, “These are what our monster hunts.”
“They’re going into the mist” The marauder shouted, snapping around to look at the overseer.
“Well…” The overseer grumbled. “What are we waiting for? Follow them!”
Soon, every boat in the convoy was being rowed into the fog. It clung low to the ocean’s surface at first, but as we got deeper in, it built into an all-consuming mass that surrounded us. Eventually, we couldn’t even see the boat closest to us, all swallowed by the freezing grey mist. The air felt thick in my lungs as I, along with the other rowers, slowed the pace to carefully drift through the dense patches of fog. Both the overseer and the marauder were looking around warily, for sight of monster or rock.
The silence was striking. In the midst of the fog, seemingly alone, with enormous sea creatures hidden somewhere beneath the dark water below, even in the boat I felt vulnerable. For a while there was nothing, we just floated gently, in a state of tranquil unease. Again, the creatures started to rise from the water around us, before dipping back below. They seemed totally uninterested in our being there. They also moved very slowly, not in the frenzied state of an animal fleeing for its life. There were no monsters to be found here.
Then came another knock, as one of the beasts surfaced right beneath the boat. We lurched backwards in its wake. Before the boat could steady, the marauder lost his footing and was thrown forward and into the icy depths. The overseer immediately jumped up to reach for him and in this moment, I was overcome with instinct. I caught sight of my wounded crew member. Looking faint, weak and helpless. His armed coated in blood, his face pale. I saw in my mind, the overseer as his drove a blade into my aching leg. I pictured the cages, I thought of my brother and sister. Of my home that lay in ruin. Without another thought, without hesitation, I snatched the cleaver from the overseer’s belt, raised it high and slammed it into the overseer’s neck. Still leant over the side of the boat, he let out a muted gasp before slumping over the side and falling into the water beside the marauder. I kept my hand clutched onto the cleaver, wrenching it from his body as he fell.
“What are you doing?” Came the cry of the marauder through splutters of water. Quickly, I hacked at my chains and broke free. As the hand of the marauder clenched the side of the boat, I took off its fingers in one, bloody swipe. The man fell back into the waves, his howls of agony broken by choking and desperate coughing. Standing over the side of the boat, I heaved the bolt that was wedged into the crossbow under my shoulders and threw it into the water. It was so heavy I could only hurl it a few feet, but it was enough to come crashing down on the marauders head. I couldn’t tell if it knocked him out or killed him, but it didn’t matter. He floated limply, head down in the water, beside the body of the overseer. If the blow didn’t finish him, the water would.
After so much panic and noise, there was now silence. I stood and watched as the bodies floated away, disappearing into the mist, as if being pulled into the afterlife. All that was left was a trail of blood floating on the surface of the water.
I turned to greet the stunned faces of my crew. They watched me with a mixture of expressions. Most shocked, others scared, but soon the atmosphere changed.
“Yes!” Bolo grinned. “Yes! It’s time boys!
Bolo sparked something in the men. A sense of freedom filing their minds. They looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for some speech. I didn’t know what to say. This wasn’t a rebellion. Was it?
“We must be ready. Someone may find the bodies or see us without an overseer.” The words were clearly not what the men expected, but they were unanimous in the nods and grumbles of agreement all the same.
Cleaver in hand, I broke Bolo’s chains and helped him to his feet. Together, we slotted a bolt into the crossbow, while the others watched on. As we winched back the firing pin, something caught my ears. I beckoned for all to fall silent, not that a word was being said or sound being made.
Through the silence, we could hear the paddling of another boat. It was getting nearer.
“Stay low, let them get close”. I said, dropping down, so that I could only just see over the top of the artillery. The others followed my orders without question.
Creeping through the fog, I saw a lone boat heading towards us.
“Hey!” the marauder manning the crossbow called out. “You see anything?”
The boat drew nearer.
“Hello?” they called out again.
In a quieter voice, carried over the water, I made out the words: ‘Looks like there’s nobody in the boat.”
The sound of ores breaking against the water grew louder and faster as a whip crack sailed through the air. They were nearly upon us now, soon they’d see the men lying in the boat, the lack of marauder and overseer and me, a prisoner walking free, manning the crossbow. Spinning the weapon around so it was directed at the boat, I sprang up to check my alignment and release the firing pin.
The bolt flew straight and true through the still air, spearing the marauder, spattering the crew with blood, and sending him flying backwards. The bolt split the hull of the small boat and water soon poured in. The boat was sinking quickly, the overseer looking around wildly, trying to plug the leak. He hoisted the impaled marauder up and threw his blood-soaked corpse into the ocean; which was a mistake. Even more water poured in, the rowers were panicking, their feet chained the boat. They scrambled helplessly, trying to undo the locks, crying out in fear, pleading for help. I watched helplessly, as the boat sank further and further down. I was frozen, shocked by the horror unfolding before my eyes. In a mighty show of strength, the overseer gripped the side of the boat, tore off a piece of wood and leapt into the water, using it to stay afloat, leaving the trapped crew to die.
“Save them!” Called out a voice from behind me, but I knew it was no good.
The chains were beneath the waves now. No strike, no matter how precise, would slice fast enough through the water to smash those chains. There was nothing to be done but watch as the boat dropped lower and lower beneath the water. Soon, the panic-stricken men took their final, gasping breaths, before behind dragged under. The last one to go locked eyes with me. Eyes full of nothing more than utter terror. My body, my mind, my heart; it was all numb. I watched him slip beneath the water, moments later, bubbles rippled on the surface, then all was quiet.
“You!” bellowed the floating overseer. “What have you done?”
Quietly, without a word or show of emotion, I leaned over and beckoned for Bolo to hand me another bolt. He did so, silently; he wasn’t smiling anymore.
The whole boat was silent, unable to process the horror they had just witnessed.
“Break the chains,” I whispered as Bolo hoisted the bolt into my arms, handing him the cleaver.
Whilst I loaded the weapon, he moved around, cracking the chains of all the crew. I drew my focus upon the overseer, who was not ignorant to my plan. He hurriedly started kicking his feet, trying to move away and into the safety of the mist. But he was heavy, cumbersome and very immobile in the water. In the time it took him to turn, I had the weapon loaded. It wasn’t a direct hit, but the bolt was so heavy it cracked his skull as it slid over his head. More blood poured into the water as he drifted lazily away from his wooden raft.
I turned, sat and faced the crew, tears streaming down my cheeks. They said nothing. No words of condemnation or consolation. They just watched me with stunned expressions. Then, the sound of more ores.
“We have to move. Try and free more”, came a quiet voice from the back.
“No.” I sighed, defeated. “We cannot risk it.”
“But, our freedom?” Bolo protested feebly.
“Are we not free?” I retorted, rattling a broken chain in his direction.
“The people? Our home?”
I said nothing. I just got up, sat by my ore and started to row. Slowly, the others joined me. My whole body shook. I expected to feel pain, anger, anguish, guilt. But I just felt nothing. My body and mind were numb.
Soon, we found ourselves leaving the mist behind, and left with a choice nobody wanted to make.
“What do we do now?” asked Bolo.
I didn’t know what to tell him. After a long pause, It was our new crew member spoke up.
“We should follow the coast south, make landfall outside the wall, find some-” But his words were cut short. Heading straight towards us was a figure, a beast of the ocean, but this wasn’t another of the giants we’d seen today.
It almost slithered across the surface like a snake, moving from side to side. Only its scaled back could be seen, along which ran three long jagged ridges. It only just poked out of the water but was clearly far larger than what we could see. The creature’s length was near impossible to guess, but as it passed us, seemingly oblivious to our presence, the shadow beneath the waves looked to be larger than any warship I’d ever seen. Twice or three times that, in fact.
The monster descended, its back slinking beneath the surface, as it headed off towards the island shrouded by mist.
We all watched on, unable to believe our eyes.
“That’s what we were hunting,” Bolo said to our newest crew member, after another long silence.
“Must have been drawn by those massive fish things” the young man mused.
“Or blood,” I uttered coldly under my breath.
We carried on rowing, following the plan of heading south and finding shelter on the coast away from the reach of the cultists. I couldn’t help but think, as we gently sailed towards freedom, about monsters.
The massive creature, hunting its prey.
The outcast brother and sister who betrayed their ignorant family.
The fearful cultists appeasing a vengeful God.
The supposed Prince of the people, whose bloodlust left his men without a hope and took others to their grave; not before he abandoned those left behind to servitude as he sought his own freedom.
I wondered, if monsters were not born but made, if I just crafted one that could satisfy the hunger of even the angriest of Gods. Was I the biggest monster to haunt this land, even if I were not the size of great warships?
Looking for more stories? Explore the best new fantasy books of 2019!