Wishmonster

I went to the cave alone, arriving shortly after dark.  They say you have to come alone; they don’t say why.

I didn’t tell anyone I was coming; I figured my brothers might prank me.  It wasn’t empty paranoia—I’m a rabbit, so I do have a lot of brothers, and it only takes one of them to come up with an idea before it takes off among the lot of them.

With fifteen brothers, last I counted, the odds were always against me.  I stayed out of the house, as much as I could, usually hiding out in the library—while the boys may be inventive, actual books are like kryptonite to them.

It was in the library I first learned that the stories they told of the cave might be true.  There was an archive on an old DVD, telling the story of a turtle who’d contracted a rare metamorphic disease, taking on at random all sorts of shapes that came into his head, the features blurring together into an incomprehensible hybrid form, and still always changing.

Then there was a video that someone had managed to capture—all bright lights and tentacles—snouts—unidentifiable things—and growing three stories high, the monster burst out of the hospital where it was being treated, its remains crumbling around it.

That was the last day the monster was seen in public.  After that, it was all tall tales about the cave—the cave where the monster was said to have disappeared to.

The cave I was outside now, in the new dark of night, somewhat worried.  I had studied all the stories, and come prepared to explore the darkness; I wasn’t able to find one of those little miners’ hats with the light mounted on them, but I did have a flashlight.

It seemed the cave was already lit, though, a warm yellow glow from strips mounted along the rock walls, and the unexpected amenity threw me off guard.  What else might I be unprepared for?

I entered the cave.

The passage descended quickly into the hillside; the steeper portions actually had stairs in place.  Not roughly hewn out of the rock; not rickety and full of gaps; just solid, ordinary stairs like you might find in an office building.

My worry only increased.  I remembered the story of the man who had, in one of the very old videogames, built friendly dungeons to explore…and then out of love for the craft, had changed into a dungeon himself.  I tried not to imagine that I might actually be walking through the body of the monster even now.

I knew I was being silly.  This hill had always been here.

Fairly sure, anyway.

The passage eventually leveled out and turned at a corner.  Now, this was the part I was ready for.  All the stories said the monster made its visitors go through a trial or test before they could see it.

I straightened my glasses, adjusted my pack, and approached the statue of the sphinx that that stood couchant in the center of the room.

“Good evening, little one,” said the statue in a deep, quiet voice, its lips unmoving.

I don’t get called little often.  I may be a little shorter than average but I’m pretty fat—fatter than my brothers, which may be why they tease me like they do, but that’s all the more reason to never change; I’d never change for them.

“Hello,” I said.

The sphinx said nothing further.  I waited, counting to one hundred before I figured maybe it was up to me.

“Please,” I said. “I wanted to see the monster.”

A hungry-sounding rumble emanated from the sphinx.  “Those who come to see the monster must come fully prepared.”

“I know my wish,” I said, “I have brought a food offering, and am ready to answer your questions.”

“Failure to answer the sphinx’s questions…” the sphinx began.

Failure to answer the sphinx’s questions,” the sphinx repeated, this time somehow managing to make its voice echo ominously, “will result in your death.  The monster will devour your flesh and send your bones home, to your family’s eternal shame.

Those consequences had not been mentioned in my research.

It is not too late to return and be forgotten.

Was my wish worth my life? I knew immediately it wasn’t.

I began to panic.

Decide,” said the sphinx.

“I am ready,” I repeated, my voice breaking, “to answer your questions, if they are fair.”

They are more than fair,” said the sphinx, “As am I. Turn and receive your last chance to flee a gruesome death in the belly of the monster.

There was a grinding noise and I turned to see a slab of stone slowly sliding into place to cover the entrance I came through.

Run, said every animal part of my body.

It isn’t worth the risk, said every rational part of my mind.

Food offering, said a confused thought.

What?

Gears turned.  My ears twitched, a bit, as the fear dissipated.  I turned back to face the sphinx.  “I don’t believe the monster will eat me.”  It felt right; I was sure.  “From what I learned, the monster didn’t seem to want meat in its offering.”

You do well not to believe everything you hear,” said the sphinx.  “But so likewise do many people.

99% sure.

The hard part is to make sure you listen to the right voices.

75% sure.

The grinding behind me stopped with a boom as the stone panel fell into place, sealing the exit.

35% sure.

No, wait—

“The monster destroyed a hospital,” I said.

That is not evidence in your favor,” the sphinx said.

“But it was never seen again afterwards,” I said. “It didn’t go rampaging.  So either it was afraid—and I don’t think anything with the kind of power I saw could ever be afraid of being caught by anyone—”

The first rule is to be brave, even if you are weak,” the sphinx said. “You are doing very well.

“I—” I shook my head. “Anyway, if the monster is not afraid, then it must be ashamed, or remorseful, for causing the damage.”

For killing the people.

“For—” Of course a hospital would be full of people, and exactly the sort of people who wouldn’t be able to escape a collapsing building very well at all.  “So I think—I think the monster could only be a monster on the outside.  I don’t think it wants to hurt me.”

The sphinx didn’t answer.  I waited again.

After counting to a hundred again—“Um, excuse me?” I said.  “I am ready for my questions.”

(I really wasn’t.)

What is your name, little one?

“Scratch—Scratch Myrrhampton.”

And how old are you, Scratch?

“Nineteen,” I said, fidgeting a bit as my nervousness levels rose.

You see the shame that would come from not answering these questions.

“What?”

The stone sphinx was already moving, sinking into a square hole in the ground beneath it.  A blue light shone up from the opening, and when the sphinx had disappeared from view, a set of stairs appeared from below.

I descended the stairs automatically, still somewhat bewildered.  The stairs led to an enormous cavern filled with the blue light.  At the back of the cavern, sitting in a large chair that was probably trying to be a throne, was the monster.

Come closer, little one,” it said.  The voice was the sphinx’s.  The echo came from the monster speaking from three heads at once.

Oh yes, it had three heads, vaguely canine.  They looked small in proportion to its body, which was huge; it must have been nine feet tall, burly and very fat.  It was mostly ice-blue all over, thickly-furred where its turtle’s shell didn’t cover, with darker but still very light blue stripes down its four arms, its legs, and its long, thick, scaly-bottomed tail, which stuck out between its legs.  There was one feathery wing on its left shoulder.

The middle head, which had horns that looked like they were made of wood—one even had a leaf on—watched me steadily as I approached.

The other two heads were rather less attentive, but caught my gaze occasionally.

“You’re Muke?” I said.

“Muke, with a ‘long’ U,” the head on its right said. “Like ‘mule,’ ‘mute,’ ‘muse,’ ‘rebuke’—”

The monster’s upper right hand reached up and pushed the talking head against the one in the middle, which nuzzled into and shushed it.  “Muke, and some fragments thereof.  I call this one Lex,” it said, motioning to the head it was holding, “and the other one Art.  Turn around for me, little one?”

I turned all the way around till I was facing the monster again.  I still didn’t quite feel comfortable.

“Your tail is adorable,” Muke said. “The whole bottom half of you, really, those thighs, that rump—”

I was a little unnerved, not just by the intimate yet hungry nature of the remarks, but also by the way the monster’s body rippled as it spoke, like it might try to—to become me.

The central head shut its eyes.  “But no, I think I am good for now—I think we both are safe from that today.”  It opened its eyes again… and I half-thought their color had changed—at least, they were not the bright yellow and green of its other heads’.

It got up slowly from its chair and approached me.  It was indeed very big; at my height I only came up to halfway up its belly, the massive gut that filled my vision.

“You said you brought me food,” said the monster tentatively, its voice coming from my right—from Art, I supposed, though I could not see it speaking from around the curve of its belly, which was inches from my face.

“Not yet.  First, touch me,” said the monster.

“What?” I said.  “I—”

Touch me,” the monster repeated, louder.

“I—”

“Without touch, people die,” said the voice in front of me.  It wasn’t pronounced as a threat.  “Maybe only on the inside, but they die nonetheless.  You need it no less than me. Touch me.”

With extreme apprehension I reached out slowly and put my paw between the monster’s legs, not at all certain what might happen to me, though my hopes were not high.

The monster’s lower left paw took my hand and gently pulled it away from its body.  It sat down in front of me, staring at me face to face.  “You are still being brave,” said that central head to me, “but you are no longer being intelligent.  Just moments ago you were arguing I was not a monster on the inside, and now you think I want to take advantage of you.”

Its upper left paw covered my muzzle before I could respond.  “Don’t apologize for offering more than I asked. Forget it happened, and try again.” It lowered its paw.

I tried to calm my blush a moment before stepping forward, straddling the monster’s belly and leaning forward to stroke Muke’s headfur. The central head leaned in and shut its eyes, and I stroked it gently behind the ears and horns.  After a moment the other two heads leaned in against it and looked up at me pleadingly, and I gave them attention as well.

The monster’s arms reached up around me, and I flinched at its touch.  It embraced me tightly, anyway, rumbling out, “Receive love gracefully. It’s rare enough to find at all, as I’m sure you’ve learned.”

So I didn’t fight it, and let the monster hold me, all its big paws down my back and shoulders.

And then the voice in my right ear again: “You said you brought me food…”

One of those big paws started rummaging through my pack.  “What did you bring me? It smells nice.”  Really it couldn’t get more than a couple of fingers into the bag.

I sat back on the monster’s gut and pulled out the savory cakes I’d made for it.

Art’s eyes lit up.  “Feed me?”

I hadn’t quite thought of the size of the monster, so I couldn’t see how the offering could be satisfying, but its tail was nevertheless thumping the ground in anticipation.

I offered one of the cakes to the hungry head, which leaned in and ate from my paw.

The monster resumed rubbing over my back as it chewed and swallowed.   “Rrrh, is that jelly-filled? I could totally be… jelly-filled…”  Its firm gut began to slosh under me, and immediately Muke leaned in against Art, muttering something soft in the other head’s ear that I couldn’t quite make out, but after a moment the monster’s belly had resumed its normal consistency.

The central head leaned in against me next.  “You know your wish.  Know there are some things you can’t get back.  And if you wish for something… abstract… you may get something you don’t understand.  I don’t know how to help you if that happens.”

I fed the other cake to the monster’s hungry-looking head after it had finished with the first one.

“Rub my belly,” said the monster.

I slid down the monster’s gut and knelt in front of it, my paws sliding through its fur to touch its belly.  The monster’s fur was quite soft but its gut’s roundness was very firm, now that it didn’t have jelly on its mind.  It began to rumble softly at my touch, and its lower paws reached down to knead my shoulders as I started rubbing over the monster’s massive stomach.

As the monster purred happily, I thought about my wish. You’ve noticed, of course, that I haven’t mentioned it yet.  I’m still kind of ashamed of what I originally went to the monster for—I don’t plan on telling anyone, not for my family’s weight in gold.

So I got to thinking.  What shall I wish for?

Something that would have been worth my life, if the monster hadn’t been a paper tiger.

A small white light appeared at the edge of the monster’s belly and started moving in a large circle around its circumference, shining through its fur.

I didn’t know what to wish for.

What is important, really, out of concrete things?

The light spiraled in around the monster’s belly, closing in on my paw.

String! said an incredibly stupid part of me.

World peace!  —sure, but how was I gonna get that out of a monster?

More wishes.

The monster’s massive paws pulled me in close, pressing me against its firm belly.

Mmm… not more wishes exactly, but—

The light flashed across my eyes.

The monster’s arms held me in its warm embrace as its body started rumbling louder.

The monster lifted me up, then stood, setting me down and turning to face where it had been sitting. I turned to look myself, and there was an egg about the size of my head, ice-blue, and spotted in a darker but still very light blue.

“Your wish will be inside,” Muke said.  “You can open it here or take it with you.  Leave the way you came.”  It turned towards an exit I hadn’t seen.

“You don’t want to know what I wished for?”

The monster stopped but didn’t turn back around.  Its right head, the one I hadn’t fed, said “It’ll either be the same as everyone else wishes for, which will be depressing, or it’ll be something new, which will be dangerous.  I don’t need any more changes today.”   It started to leave again.

I wasn’t even sure what would actually be in the egg when I broke it open.

“Muke, stay…”

Are you sure?

“It’s for you,” I said.  I held out three collars that had been in the egg.

What?

“Here, sit down.”

The monster sat.

I came around behind it, took the black collar with the name “Muke” engraved on the buckle, and fastened it around the monster’s central neck.

The next collar was bright blue with a silver tag.  “Arthur.”

The monster’s left head turned to me.  “Me!”

I put it on.  The third one – “I can’t read this one,” I said. It was like Art’s but the letters were unfamiliar.

Lex leaned in.  “That’s my name.”

I put the collar on Lex’s neck.

“You’re coming home with me,” I said.

The monster spun around where they were.

No,” they said.  Muke went on— “Even if you wished for me… I’m not safe…”

“I didn’t wish for you,” I said.  “Though I did wish something for you.”

“What?”

“You should be okay now,” I said.  “No more breaking out in snouts or anything.”

Snouts!!” yelped Lex, and the three of them covered their muzzles.

I worried for a moment too, but after a few seconds, the alarm in their eyes faded and they looked up again, without having changed from before. “No snouts?”

“No snouts.  No more worries.”

The monster grabbed me up and I was surrounded in burly arms and smooches from all directions.  I embraced as much of them as I could.

When their excitement had abated they put me down.

“Will you come home with me now?” I said.

All three heads seemed to think about this for a while.

“I don’t want to leave you,” Muke said, “but…”

We do have a home down here,” said Art and Lex.  “It’s nice.

“Maybe you could stay with us?”

“It’s… it’s a cave…” I said, looking around at the rough walls.

The monster shook its heads and took my hand, standing up.

“Come with me, little one,” Muke said, “and I’ll show you what my dreams have been building.”

They led me through a dark passage in the wall of the cave, and into a bright light—


Return to library?

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