Becoming a Monster
A Story by Nace Phlaux
Syrell grunted and gave a weak tug on the shackles dangling him from the wall. A wiggle of his foot told him he wasn’t close to a floor, and the cold, dry air in his nostrils suggested he hadn’t left the cavern. Pain flashed across his head when he attempted to open his eyes, the purple light stabbing into his vision like a blade. In the distance, it sounded as though someone was examining the contents of his bag, mumbling as they tore through his possessions.
A voice growled and said, “Standard Wispus wares. Hmm. But what’s this?” Bottles clinked and scraps of leather rubbed against each other, the noises clear across the smooth rocky expanse. “Nice find, traveler. Very nice.” Syrell practiced opening and closing his eyes as the sounds continued, allowing himself to build a tolerance to the pain. “You awake over there yet, thief?”
A groan escaped his throat before he could contain it, and at once, something heavy stomped toward his position, the creature’s rancid breath filling his nostrils in an instant. “The wisps, boy,” it said. “Tell me about the wisps. Judging from your bag, you have a thing for jewelry, but you weren’t wearing any when I found you. So what inspires the wisps? One of these gems?” Syrell gave no response, and after a time, the voice continued, “Or what of the plants? The white roots, to be exact.” Some subtle reaction must have made its way across his face, for the beast said, “Hmm. Singed, eh? Yes, makes sense.”
The footsteps thudded away, and his eyelids lifted enough to see a stone golem crouched on the other side of the room, ransacking his satchel. Syrell’s fingers explored the shackles, as his captor examined the white roots that could conjure the flaming wisps. The golem’s voice croaked, “Those? A gift from the ancients, enchanted by sunlight. Haven’t seen anyone tear them off yet.” The monster looked in his direction, its eyes almost looking human. “The trick is in the buttons. Touch them in the wrong combination, and the fetters will tighten around your limbs, demolishing your bones. The time I discovered that was…a story. You can’t imagine the mess.” A demented laugh erupted throughout the cavern.
“Foul beast, you shall feel the steel of my—”
“Let’s stop there with the dramatics. Your tools are mostly from Wispus. You’re barely a beginner. Don’t pretend you’re an experienced warrior, child.” As the creature spoke, he examined a slave bracelet from Syrell’s bag, the ring engraved with the shape of some animal’s jagged tooth. “Although I must admit an admiration of your penchant to pick the darker of his inventory.”
The prisoner let out a scoff-turned-cough. Once he regained his composure, he said, “You’ve hidden in your cave too long, monster. Wispus and his town of Westwick have disappeared. Once word spread, his charms tripled in price. What you have before you is a small fortune, and it could be yours if you let me go. What say you?” Syrell grinned for the first time since entering the cavern, hoping he had found a way to escape.
Instead, the golem gathered the charms he recognized into a small pile between his hands and clapped them together, stomping to a position in front of the adventurer where he could pour the debris out before the trapped treasure-seeker. “Forgive me, but I’ve been in this cave for so long…Triple the price of nothing is what again?”
“Then tell me, what do you need of me? You’ve kept me alive for some reason.”
“I keep you alive to be your savior. One simple request is all I make: Stop hunting treasure. Change your path. Promise me this, and I’ll let you go. Agreed?” The golem shifted until they faced each other, the monster’s head three times the size of the adventurer’s.
“Perhaps,” Syrell said, but unbeknownst to the beast, the young man tongued the tip of his incisor three times. “But if I may, let me counter-offer with—Hamartia!” At the word, a pulse of blue energy erupted from the adventurer, causing the clamps to release his wrists and silencing the red flare that had been routinely bursting against the ceiling, possibly since the ancients’ time.
Syrell landed on his feet, stumbling as he found his balance, running toward the entrance once he’d gotten his bearings. The golem, startled at first, charged at him, careening across the stone pathway, growling threats and curses as he burst forward. Small stones fell from the ceiling as the two raced through the chambers, catching in the young man’s hair and bouncing off the hide of the beast.
As they reached the entrance to the cavern, Syrell twisted around, tearing out a seed sewn into his tunic and throwing it to the ground, shouting a word of enchantment that sprouted vines from the tiny shell. Soon the entire antechamber filled with thick green coils. The monster’s claw tore through and grasped the young man’s ankle, dragging him back through the hole his hulking mass had created.
The myriad slashes from the vines’ thorns throbbed with every bang of the adventurer’s head against the stones or cavern floor, which the golem ensured were numerous. Once back to the far wall, the beast wrapped Syrell’s body in chains, leaving nothing bare save his head. In the distance, the sizzling of the rhythmic flare building up to its climax with the explosive finale returned, changing the eerie silence of the chamber to some semblance of what passed there for normalcy.
“Sounds like your counter is wearing off, boy. The ancients’ toys are returning to life. Since you so disgracefully refused my offer to renounce your path as a treasure-hunter, you’ve inadvertently volunteered to further test their…treasures.” The creature’s demented laughter filled the cavern once more.
“W-why?” the young man managed to stammer.
“I was once like you, child. Hungry for adventure. For fame. Until one of my own finds made me… this. Now I preach a new way—a way where we hide or destroy the ancients’ terrors. I offer your kind a chance to renounce my fate, but it seems that no one can sate such a hunger. So I spare you from this kind of life by tearing out what’s left of yours.”
“B-but why destroy us? Especially with the recent tales of Victor Raleigh?” A snort and hardened stare from the beast insinuated he was unaware of what Syrell talked about. “The capital is gathering relics as we speak—and their owners. Whispered lists of those who’ve disappeared grow by the day.” Getting no response, the young man continued to babble. “They’re preparing for a battle, but with their reluctance to fight against Blacklehn at Atalatha, the question is, with whom?”
The living stone rubbed his grey face and stretched out his lower jaw, mindlessly eyeing the cave as he contemplated the adventurer’s words. “Do you have children?” the golem finally asked, standing from his crouched position, stretching his body until he filled nearly all the adventurer’s vision.
“Offspring, thief. Stop your stuttering. It shadows the grace of your upcoming death.” The beast cracked his neck with a look on his face that could have been anticipation of his kill or a pain from his thick body as bits popped into place. “If not, what would you name your first son?” The thief didn’t respond with words. Instead, tears flowed from his eyes, and a ball of snot dropped onto the ground beneath him. “Come, thief, we don’t have all night.”
The boy opened his mouth, steadying himself before finally saying, “Krueler. After my uncle.”
The golem silently moved to a pile of treasure, burying his arm in the trinkets until it reemerged holding a box covered in runes and symbols of death. “Thank you, thief,” he said, pulling out what appeared to be a sort of cap with jagged metal spikes. “You’ve not only sealed your fate, but potentially my own as well.” The adventurer shouted, then screamed, then shrieked as the beast came closer. “I must warn you: This will be excruciatingly painful. Deliciously so.”
* * * * *
“Krueler? You ready, boy?” a thundering voice bellowed from the cave.
Strange shadows danced on the side of the mountain as clouds graced the soil and stones with their cool touch. The warmth came over the apprentice’s garments like a beloved memory, enveloping him in waves between the moments of darkness as he stared at the valley below. Blades of grass jutted through the softer dirt of the hill, and somewhere in the distance, the call of a hawk announced its hunt for prey.
“Krueler? You hear me, boy?” The stone golem emerged from the cave entrance, a heavy bag strapped over his shoulder. “You ready to go?”
The apprentice stood, continuing his dazed gazing of the valley, until the golem shook his shoulder. “Hmm? Hoalun?” The mention of the name brought on a wave of pain, with two different timelines battling for dominance in the poor boy’s head.
“I—I just had—It was the weirdest dream. Daydream, I guess. Hmm. You were torturing me.” The young man rubbed his fingers against his forehead, feeling the marks there. “My scars came from some device you had. You—You called me by another name. Well, not exactly. You called me a thief. But it felt like…”
“Mayhap that blackberry wine was stronger than you had figured, eh?” the golem said, dropping a satchel on the ground overflowing with trinkets and wares. “By Nerot’s fuzzy chin, you should be watching yourself. The gods know you can’t handle your drink well. You scraped yourself against the walls as you thrashed about in your stupor. Now throw that over your shoulder, and let me know if it’s too much for you. I’ll give the cavern a once-over, then we’re capital-bound, right?”
The young apprentice rubbed his temples but said, “Right, Hoalun.” The name brought another twinge of pain to the boy’s forehead, but he was unable to stop himself from pulling the satchel over his shoulder. “Ready to go when you are, sir.”