The dreaming beast never slept.
In Kala, on the Emerald Rim of the Sundered Lake, the beast’s hooves pounded against frost and lichen-encrusted earth. The white plumes of its breath steamed hot against the striped black-and-gold of its hide. A gleaming grey fang jutted from the beast’s jaw, a broken absence where its twin should be.
Across the clear waters of the cratered lake, in the shadow of the Pink Elm, the fang’s missing twin pressed against the muscled brown chest of Rudgar the Rook. A plain leather sheath hid the shine of the blade’s crooked length, naught visible of it but the ugly black moonrock hilt it had been affixed to. If the Rook had once been known as the vainest of warriors, little of his vanity had survived the journey. The gold varnish had been worn from his fingernails, and the cut of his mane no longer bore any semblance to society’s fashions. Rudgar’s shirt had rotted away weeks ago, exposing a bright orange pelt that had long forgotten the kiss of a razor. The breeches he wore would likely soon follow.
“We made it,” Rudgar said, staring up at the tree’s tourmaline-like leaves.
Morgolo the Mercenary Prince grunted, scratching at his cauliflowered ear. His hairy belly hung over his chain-mail breechcloth. “You’re really planning on going on alone?”
Loa twined around him, wondering the same thing, but Morgolo didn’t look down. He only had eyes for the Rook.
Rudgar glanced down at his nearly naked frame. “I have nothing to pay you with,” he said. “You agreed to accompany me to the Pink Elm and no further.”
“Ask me to come with you,” the blade-for-hire begged.
“But I have no more—”
Morgolo spat on the ground. “Why does that matter?”
Rudgar held his arms out in confusion.
Disappointment set the Mercenary Prince’s mouth into an impenetrable line. “Watch your balance,” he growled, counting out old maxims on his fingers. “Toe the line. Don’t forget me.”
“I will. I will. And I won’t,” the Rook promised. He knew that he’d missed something, something that would have made Morgolo stay.
Morgolo crudely groped Rudgar’s buttocks and then turned his lash-scarred back to the Rook for the last time.
The Rook looked down at Loa, the foxen champion, her gilded teeth keener than either Rudgar or Morgolo’s blades.
She leaned her huge forepaws on Rudgar’s chest to say goodbye, nuzzled his cheek with a cold nose. This didn’t surprise him; the silver-furred Hero knew her obligation to her people. She must prepare her kingdom, in case Rudgar failed. The dreaming beast had always been a bane to the foxen people.
And then Rudgar stood alone.
What was he without the Mercenary Prince and the Hero of the foxen people? He would have to find out.
The monk came, and Rudgar submitted to his attentions. He shivered as the monk painted his calves with blood; he bit the hilt of his dagger as the monk tattooed his eyes with ink; he flinched as the monk pierced his nipples with silver hoops. With these three adornments, he bore all of the marks of the annointed pilgrimage. As forfeit for these marks, he entered his name into the Dull-Eyed Goddess’s sacred book.
When it was over, and they’d shared a meal of seasoned boar, Rudgar brought the monk to bed. The man proved voracious, his mouth heavy with piety as he took the gift of the Rook’s backside. Rudgar didn’t notice when the monk rose from his bed and made for his trees and he couldn’t know that his touch would bring the monk’s death.
Instead, Rudgar slumbered. Even indolent, the Rook’s body demonstrated the rigour of his training. Sweat clung to his belly, his spent loins. When Rudgar’s hulking arm reached out for his missing lover, it clutched only at a rapidly cooling bedroll. He rolled over in his sleep, dawn gleaming on the copper hair that covered his sore ass, only to yelp in pain and awaken himself. His chest was still swollen and sore. If he didn’t succeed in his quest, the wounds might never get the chance to heal. Tiny prayer beads clattered on each hoop, engraved with the two syllables of the dreaming beast’s unspeakable name.
The next morning, birds sang and twittered, joyous in the burgeoning light cutting sideways through the trees. Rudgar gathered the remains of his clothing and savoured the well-earned pains of his pleasure. A perfect pink leaf, serrated and veined, fell from the legendary tree that had sheltered him, and landed in his hair. Rudgar rolled it and tucked it into the sheath of his knife, that he might remember this place.
The Rook did not know that his lover had been stalked and hunted through the darkness. He could not hear the dreaming beast as it tore the meat from the monk’s haunches. He had not realized that the other man had come to his bed with this intention—that he might carry Rudgar’s scent into the woods, and give the Rook more time to rest.
Instead of knowing these things, Rudgar peered down at the beads resting on each of his tits and laughed at his own attempts to read the indecipherable script aloud. For who besides the monks had been able to read writing of any kind in recent memory? His monk’s advice had been clear: Rudgar should face the beast on the Wretched Peak, the gnarled and sand-blasted place where the creature was said to have been born. With that in mind, the Rook jammed his weary feet into his boots and struck new ground.
Rudgar had not travelled alone for some time. He missed sleeping in a warm pile. He dreamed of Morgolo’s mouth. He dreamed of Loa’s warm weight at his side. He even dreamed of the monk’s sweet attentions. Anything but the dreaming beast, and the tales of how it ruined the countryside with its wicked appetites and ever-changing visage.
In the Mirrored Hills, Rudgar travelled alongside an inky river and flinched from naked shadow men who wore his face. The dreaming beast of Kala knew better than to confront its own reflection, and skirted the hills from afar. The shadow men thrust at the Rook with lewd crotches and clawed at him with jagged nails, both filthy with ichor and pus. He swiped at them fruitlessly, meaty fists plunging through their silhouettes like air, only for another to gouge away at his back. If Loa had been here, they never would have gotten the upper hand. Instead they plagued him, no end to their assault, until the Rook remembered the second sign of his pilgrimage. Rudgar closed his eyes and called out to the Dull-Eyed Goddess for her favour. The monk had tattooed her sign, a glittering pair of Xs, on each of his eyelids. Only then did he see the twig-people. They hid in the trees, dangling puppets in his image in front of cursed torches, such that they made his shadows dance and hunt him.
Rudgar tore them apart with his bare hands and snuffed the fire of their terrible torches with his piss. He drank the wicked twig-people’s sap for sustenance. He tended his dirty wounds in the river of ink.
When ink gave way to ash, the Rook knew that he had come to the Waning Ravine. An ending place. A crevice that bore the black of nothingness at its base, a far cry darker than soot. Bone scaffolding crisscrossed the slick cut it made through the earth. Tiny grey succulents sprouted from the exposed marrow of the bridges. Not a handhold to be seen.
Rudgar tied his boots together and wore them around his neck, the better to grip the slatted ribs with his calloused toes. But halfway across, the Rook realized his mistake: the stain of boar’s blood painted on his calves had long since faded, little of its blessing remaining. It should have made him impervious to the wind whipping across the gorge. Instead, each breeze cut him like a knifeblade wrought in the void. A strong gust nearly knocked him from his perch, but Rudgar fell to his knees rather than topple. The frantic motion of it loosened his boots from around his neck, and Rudgar forlornly tracked their descent into the ravine until they were too tiny to see. The Dull-Eyed Goddess could not save him from such a height.
“Watch your balance. Toe the line. Don’t forget me,” Morgolo had said.
Rudgar remembered holding the other man in the night, Morgolo’s back pressed against his chest and the pulse in his neck beating beneath Rudgar’s lips. The Rook remembered the hunger Morgolo stirred in him, and how it scared him. How could the touch of one man make him feel so good?
Rudgar had already failed at the first two promises, which made any sweetness from the third unpalatable. He closed his eyes to the darkness, unable to will himself to rise. The cold brought chilblains to Rudgar’s flesh and threatened to numb his hands so much that he couldn’t keep his grip on the bones that he clutched. He would die here, he decided, as he fell in and out of sleep, awakening in a panic only to ensure that he still held the bones of the bridge. Nothing else could be done: he would let the cold bludgeon him until he lost his grip, and then fall forever. His road ended here.
Would Rudgar have spent his time differently if he’d known that those snatches of sleep would be the last he ever had?
The Rook felt the growling first. The bone bridge shook. The knife at his chest quivered like a leaf. His eyes opened and still he did not see, because the dreaming beast’s great mass had blotted out the sun. Only when the beast’s stinking mouth, still stained with the blood of Rudgar’s lover, snuffled at the Rook’s face, only then did he know what danger had befallen him.
The beast sank its teeth into Rudgar’s shoulder and dragged him across the Waning Ravine like a ragdoll. Like a stunned antelope. His skull thudded against every bone, every slatted rib. And on the other side, the beast dropped him. It danced away, and then returned, swatting at Rudgar’s face with a massive paw, connecting with his jaw like a sack of stones.
Rudgar could hardly breathe, aghast at the beast’s beauty. Its striped haunches coiled with hard muscle, its eyes tracked his motions from an incisive amber stare. He wondered what the creature thought of him. Without its name bound to his body, written on the silver rings that cut into his flesh, a touch from the beast’s claws would have brought hot decay, rendering him into rot within moments. Was the beast grateful to have a toy that stayed alive long enough to hunt?
“Let’s dance,” Rudgar said, clambering to his feet.
The beast replied with a pounce before springing away, dumping Rudgar onto his back. The Rook roared and followed, each step biting into his unbooted soles. Some panting minutes later, as the elevation shifted, he realized that the dreaming beast was leading him toward the Wretched Peak.
The Waning Ravine’s surroundings had been foreboding, but certainly no worse than any number of other horrible places that the Rook had gone. Not worse than the beast. The slope leading to the Wretched Peak gave Rudgar pause in a different fashion. No barren plain, these mountainsides. Moss that reeked of gravedust and bone-white heather grew from the dirt. Possessed of a foolish notion, Rudgar tore a handful of the colourless flowers and looked closely at them: each bulbous flower bore the pitted black eyes and cavity of a skull. He threw the wretched things away from him with a scowl, but still his fingers burned with a searing cold.
Still climbing after the beast, but now cursing his own stupidity, Rudgar recalled the serrated leaf he’d taken from the Pink Elm and withdrew it from his sheath. The leaf was hardly more than dust now, so he smeared it between his fingertips. He stopped the cold, perhaps, or at least kept busy until it ran its course. The Rook picked his way further, choosing handholds with care, as the mountainside grew more and more steep. Soon his fingers were in ribbons, and the torn leather of his breeches could scarce be called a loincloth.
The Wretched Peak bore no dagger-like summit. Instead, it became a ragged plateau, littered with macabre scrub and an uncanny lack of wind. The black needles on the stern pines and conifers that bore witness there did not even shiver. The air hung thick and heavy. Every hair on the Rook’s body stood at attention. A thin patina of cloud covered the sky with a rancid pallor; the sun’s insipid disc shone wanly behind it.
While he’d clambered up, the dreaming beast had disappeared, so the Rook moved across the Peak with great unease, his body desperate to be given succour. When he spied the pool, his stomach spasmed. Could any good come from drinking in this awful place? And yet, he would not triumph without sustenance. He thought of Loa, and knew that she would have bent to drink, stoic even in this likely danger.
Rudgar saw that the trees’ reflections in the pool were nothing but pine and coneless skeletons, so he dashed its stillness with a stone before cupping his hands to it. The water of death was cool and refreshing. He drank evenly, careful not to overindulge, then splashed his sore body until he’d gotten somewhat clean. If his reflection was marred with sepulchral hollows and meatless cheeks, well, he’d looked away as best he could, hadn’t he?
Rudgar knew that he hardly looked any better without the grime. And yet, the blade tugged at him, bade him travel further into the trees. The Rook refused to draw it. It reeked of a finality he wasn’t prepared to examine. So he trekked forward empty-handed. It could only be gall to think that the Wretched Peak might shake as he strode across it, so Rudgar must be terrified. The realization perturbed him. What sort of champion quaked in the presence of his destiny? If the Foxen Hero were here in his place, Loa would have stood strong enough that the mountain could lean on her.
Despite his reluctance to fight, reflex took over his hand and drew the moonrock hilt as soon as Rudgar saw the dreaming beast’s silhouette against the sky. He danced forward with the crooked blade, vigour jolting up his muscled calves, fear driven from mind. Slow moments might be his bane, but a fight still filled him with the rude stamina he normally only knew when riding a surly hunk of trade from the wrong part of town. This battle was the sort of fight that had earned the Rook his reputation: his blade snicker-snacked in clever thrusts and wild lunges, a pantomine of sex. But the beast did not tire, and soon its jaws had made their mark on him: a necklace of wounds at his shoulder, a score of lines across Rudgar’s chest.
The Rook slowed and death flashed raven wings across his eyes, no blessing from the Dull-Eyed Goddess strong enough to keep the kingdom of the last breath at bay.
When a wild thrust met flesh, and the dreaming beast fell forward, nearly crushing the Rook with its weight, Rudgar thought surely that he must be dead. In no possible future could his weary body have bested this fine creature. He hadn’t the speed or the strength, not anymore. But the heart blood that poured hot and sticky from the dreaming beast could be no vision. He had won.
The Wretched Peak shifted, then shuddered. A true quake, Rudgar had no doubt. He pushed the beast off of him and sprinted to the lip of the Peak. If he would be thrown from the foul roof of the world, he wanted to see Kala spread out before him one last time. His steps were surer than they once were, more confident. The Peak had seemed so big but now he crossed it in moments.
Kala’s beauty had changed too; Rudgar’s breath caught in his lungs. He must have failed, despite it all: the Emerald Rim had lost every last trace of green. The Sundered Lake reflected only shadows and snow. Rudgar’s breath puffed white and feathery as he panted there, his body a muscled skein of hide and wing and tail. He had no sense of it, still unwilling to understand the land below, let alone the changes that had been wrought in him. By the time he thought to check, after his fourth night without rest, his mind thick with the twisted thoughts that filled his waking dreams, he found the silver rings that pierced the dead beast’s decaying teats but still could not read the name inscribed there, only saw that it was different than that written on his own.
Rudgar knew then why the voracious monk had taken his name for the Dull-Eyed Goddess’s book. Without it, how would a hero one day vanquish him?
Soon, the tales filling Kala’s countryside would be different. The dreaming beast had a new form, they’d say, a wily one, with an eye hungry for beauty. It would find you in darkness and hold you close, matching its breath to yours. The dreaming beast would sing to you, all tender nonsense and sound. “Morgolo,” you might hear in those sounds, if you’d known the fearsome mercenary. You’d almost be comforted, if its weight hadn’t pinned you to the ground, impossible to budge. All night it would hold you. Only at dawn’s arrival, hunger unable to be held at bay, would you be devoured.
Even then, the dreaming beast wouldn’t mar your skin. It would eat the wanton fruit of your muscles, the sordid sweetbreads of your belly, then all the rest, in a slavering feast. And when the dreaming beast departed, paws prepared to skulk against the frost and lichen-encrusted earth of the Emerald Rim, it would discard the long wrapper of your flesh. Nothing left of you but the pith and the rind.
Story copyright © 2021 by dave ring
Artwork copyright © 2021 by Carrion House
dave ring is a queer writer of speculative fiction living in Washington, DC. His short fiction has been featured in publications such as Fireside Fiction, PodCastle, and A Punk Rock Future. He is also the publisher and managing editor of Neon Hemlock Press, and the co-editor of Baffling Magazine. Find him online @slickhop on Twitter.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.