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Ballad of the Behemoth MAG
The forest was dimmer than they had said, and everything in front of me seemed dark and dreary. Everything, except for the leafy-green lures where the light caught and then wriggled, like flies in a spider web. There were no owls crying, which frightened me more. There would be larger predators here.
Godmother had been adamant that I wait without complaint, like the high-class young woman I was. Obedient I had to be, especially to her. Then again, Godmother was good at lying to suit what she wanted; it was part of her faerie magic.
“Stay until the light leaves,” the matronly pixie queen had commanded me. But I’d heard many things about the crimes committed behind her crimson castle curtains. Not that my assumptions left me anywhere – the sun was still setting and I had nowhere to go in these suffocating woods.
I stepped forward, and cringed at the dark mud seeping into my shoes. Already I could feel the glow of rats’ eyes following me, their bodies rustling through the thorns when I did not face them. I fought the urge to recline on the seemingly innocent tree branches. Godmother had warned me about them – their twiggy limbs enchanted by beasts looking to grasp and coil around any living thing within reach.
“You always avoid those, Faye. You don’t know how malicious those monsters are, putting up traps for any beautiful girl on a quest. I remember them myself.”
Then, of course, I thought. If the vines were truly dangerous and I’d waited, I’d have been fresh meat for the seeds. Doubting Godmother’s personal sense of morality, I reminded myself to not touch anything with menacing spines, but equally to forget her odder advice. It did make logical, sociopathic sense, however; what kind of girl could be good enough for this role if she didn’t even think twice?
I wasn’t very far into the forest when large mushrooms bloomed from the dirt, flaunting their unnatural, diseased spots and irregular caps. Little one-eyed frogs loomed beneath the mildewed trees, and the fireflies shone red as rubies. The crickets sang, but hesitantly, chirping softly for fear of being noticed. Godmother had landed me smack in the middle of the Beasts’ Realm, noting that while training, I’d been rather handy with tanning and hunting. She did love games and tension, for she knew full well I couldn’t remember whether anything was edible.
I didn’t even exactly understand why she’d wanted to test me; one of the girls who’d survived ended up poisoning her prince with the flowers she’d found here. Nobody could mention her anymore, and the nobles stated Rohesia had never been a person, and that we were all confusing tales and imaginary characters. There hadn’t been a queen for 13 years, so now the Beloved Godmother was to choose another girl to carry the throne that had “clearly never” sat a murderer.
Rumors spread often that Godmother never even liked Rohesia, and that the other candidates had all torn pages. Tearing pages was failure, a disgrace to the kingdom. Those girls were forgotten, too, and were much less easy to think away than the charismatic never-queen. I was always slightly unnerved by the families of the torn, so legitimately excited for when another girl would be chosen.
I shook my head, trying to forget all the ugly history we were taught in school. I dug into my hemmed pocket for my flashlight or the faerie wings encased in a dragon’s egg shell. “Don’t fret,” the trader had winked at me. “It’s only the prison supply of the small ones. Too many sprites complain to the Queen about heeled shoes. Awful things for wee ones of that stature, and she just can’t take them ingrates.”
Remember the steps for mental erasure, I told myself, reciting the teacher’s lesson mentally. It was an attempt to contain my fear as shadows overtook the last rays of sunlight. First step. If one is without pixie dust for tranquilizing spells, then use logic – whatever you are remembering is a falsehood. It did not exist. Side effects of the Thoughtful Queen’s spells are mass hallucinations.
But when the faerie wings spilled out more magic, the buzzing vulture moths and filthy ground-rats didn’t exactly soothe me. Holding the flashlight with my left hand, I stepped forward through cavities in the underbrush, avoiding shark-flytraps and man-sized pitcher plants as well.
As I stumbled through the shrubbery and toxic verdure, I fantasized about the impeccable life I was supposed to enjoy (along with the allotted riches for royalty only). I thought of the soon-to-be unflawed, faultless existence with my prince.
“You’re an ugly girl, Faye. Really. But you’re a noble daughter; the lords all have torn heritages, and so nonetheless some prince will appreciate you.” Godmother loved to dissuade people, and that included me. Even so, this journey was partially to defeat the forest beasts and to locate wherever my assigned companion had been placed. As Godmother often stated, looking upon the picture of her deceased king, “What is a queen without a husband?” She said so while she was sharpening knives, some of which she gained from Rohesia’s will.
An untorn survivor, now a duchess, had also told me about her story back in the castle.
“Well … it had been four days already. Unfortunately, I didn’t look very prim at that point, considering that I’d been hunting and was on the verge of slight insanity. I attempted to make myself presentable by plaiting florets in my hair, but the contaminant in the sap left me rather ill. That was when he came, albeit in terrible condition, too.” She laughed. “We were so tired and deprived that when a dry spell came, we pretended the ashes from our fire were raindrops. He called me his Cinderella!”
It was the perfect dream of romance; most teenage girls in the kingdom swooned over such tales. Campfire ashes, in fact, had become a trending hair accessory for peasant girls when mixed with liquid. From the moment I’d heard about “Cinderella” I’d longed to see who my future husband would be. Right then, I wished to see my dashing spouse as I waded through the layers of methane-scented muck.
Just not as soon as I did see him.
A beast’s cry resounded suddenly, startling all the lower predators. Even the venomous butterflies seemed to freeze. My freshly manicured hand flew to my mouth but could not silence my shriek. The monster was covered in the scales of a gecko, with human eyes dotting the spaces between its skin. A single roar had silenced the rest of the creatures.
It had been cruelly play-pouncing on an object, unrecognizable, roaring at its inanimate prey. The wild look in its thousands of eyes was reminiscient of a cat entranced by a toy – predatory and uncaring for all but the notion of a hunt. The oddest part about it all was not its horrific, fiendish leviathan look, but that it was wearing clothing. Yes, it was torn, ruined, and stained crimson, but nonetheless, they were human garments.
The monstrosity was dressed in a torn violet silk gown, and its paws were covered by half-shredded slippers. Carnelian beads painfully pinched the neck and spine. Without the spines, the eyes, and its sheer size, it could’ve looked like a girl. A teen girl, perhaps …
I could not believe Godmother. This was beyond sadistic; it was ghastly and quite literally animalistic. This was how pages were torn. I was lost, utterly frozen in the alarm and horror that when the poor beast bounded toward me, I couldn’t move until its teeth dripped warm fluid onto me.
Unsure of which eye to stare into, I beheld the vision of its teeth, sharp and jagged and broken. Its claws pushed me to the soggy earth, and the ground, though soft with mud, did not yield to my body. The beast seemed awfully hungry, starving and excited by the feast it was about to receive. In a panic, filled with hopeless thoughts of escape, the only thing I could do was turn my face slightly so that it wouldn’t be dirtied by the beast’s drool.
I couldn’t see what the monster had been doing, but all I could assume was that there would be no prince to rescue me. I wondered if the wetness on my cheek was tears or monster saliva.
As my brain scrambled to comprehend the situation, adrenaline consumed me, and I roared just like the monster had. It jumped slightly, but then went back to pinning me down. I thrashed and yelled and cried even louder, but it did not release its hold. I had no strength compared to the quadruped restraining me.
But as I continued to desperately yelp, my voice trasformed from my natural, effeminate tone to a low and menacing growl. The beast and I both paused, shocked by the change. Again, I sneered and bellowed, and though the monster did not let up, it whimpered like a submissive canid. It slowly perambulated away from me, glowering at me with all its pupils.
Reflexively, I peered at my hand, noticing that not only was my glove broken, but that my fingernails were like the talons of a tiger, yellowed and grimy. My hands were wrinkled with liver spots and what looked like salmon scales; I didn’t dare look at my feet.
Tearing pages was not just for girls who failed, who were wounded or disfigured. I hadn’t flunked, but my prince had. Now it was my time to take his onerous anathema, and live as another heathen like all the other dispirited girls in these coppices and thickets.
“Some of us are better suited to be behemoths,” Godmother had once stated taciturnly, watching me at the ball, not believing that I had hearkened her whispers.