“Boss” by Kurt Hunt
It is dark, and I hunger.
There is little food. Only rats and the occasional unwary minion.
Something screams far above me, through tunnels and up curving stairways, past traps and unclean domiciles. It screams for mercy in a young language. Not one of my monsters, then. One of the soft creatures, come to kill me. An “adventurer,” seeking glory or gold and finding only the fetid remains of his predecessors and endless beasts beneath the rock. Gnashing teeth; rending claws; mindless milk-white eyes.
My attention wanes, but there is an unexpected sound: axe on bone. Then footsteps.
The creature has escaped.
I strain to hear every rumor the tunnels whisper. He runs, and I dare to hope—does he draw closer?—for I hunger, and everything is pain.
All I can do is listen, hunched and motionless. Water trickles onto my back and wings through a crack in the ceiling. The stone burns like acid where I press against it, curled and cramped in a throne room too low for me to stand in.
And, inevitably, the dungeon is silent again.
I wonder what this one looked like. I wonder if he was brave as my cousins defiled him.
The warlock had been brave when he lured me and, oh, the things he promised. Islands of carrion. Oceans of tears. Such things to make me rigid and blood-eyed.
New creatures have infiltrated. Two of them. I hear them at the gate, whispering and snuffling like animals. But with them comes an unusual smell and my nostrils rise with it.
Magic. Powerful magic.
So often they smell of nothing more than leather and iron and oil, and they have no more chance than a stray worm or a sparrow, lost in the dark. But this pair is capable and protected. One of them, the biggest, says something in a grim voice about love, and there is an embrace. Strong arms clutch against armor. I hear the muscles flex; I smell the sweat.
To feel that touch… to run my hooked tongue across the mingling sweat… for those arms to wrap around my throat…
Hope returns, cruel.
Soon the lovers prove their mettle. My skin chills as my underlings are cut down or burned—more than a dozen, and the adventurers have hardly slowed. I shiver at the thought of the hateful monsters that surround me, split open like rotten fruit at the feet of two beautiful creatures shining in silver mail.
Carnage, carnage, the herald of freedom.
I smile and lift my head back. My horns scrape the rock in a burst of sparks.
“Are you content?” I shout into the surrounding darkness. The warlock used to watch everything and delight in the conflict. Does he still watch? I don’t even know if he is still alive.
I hope he is. I hope to lick the marrow from his bones for what he has done to me.
He never told me his name, and I never asked. My mind immediately distorted with lust for his magic. It percolated from every part of him.
And he said such beautiful things—wove his spell right before my eyes and bound me. And then the things I did for him under that spell… the power I harvested for him, only to be discarded.
The adventurers are learning the lesson I learned long ago: there is only one way to escape.
One of them has died. The big one, impaled on one of the traps of the fifth level. I heard his kidneys pop, and his companion, a woman—the one with the magic, I now realize—is calling out his name and sobbing. The wretched grief makes me despise her so I savor it, even more so because I know her cries are a light in the dark for the worst things that creep through my dungeon. They are crawling, through cracks and across the ceiling, drawn to her agony, and as one they swarm.
The echoing violence exhilarates, but when I beat my wings they crash into the walls and the carvings rend my membranes. Pain defines the edges of my cell—call it what it is—and I forget myself and rage, mixing my blood with the dust and pebbles raining down around me. A minion rushes forward in an impotent flurry of concern, like a dog barking at a fire. His panic exhilarates; his bones satisfy.
Above, everything pauses and listens. The swarm has lost. The adventurer’s heart beats faster—she heard my voice and fears me. But still she comes to me.
Did he look sad when he locked me away? I can’t remember. It was so long ago. But he must be alive. He can’t have forgotten me.
He wouldn’t have left me here.
The adventurer bursts in, a howling, ragged creature, driven by loss. Perhaps if they were still together she would have a chance. But no. It is only her, and she has only her magic.
And magic, like everything else, has an end.
As she approaches, staff raised, she flickers, twice, and her shield fails. But even exposed she shouts out words, so much harsher than the words that keep me here. Ugly and utilitarian—loveless syllables. Her spell burns a starburst onto my chest but cannot penetrate.
Revulsion, loathing, disgust… I am consumed. I hate her for her helplessness without him. My jaws gape open. My talons reach out. Blinded by the illumination of her magic, I cannot know what I do. I simply strike, my mind filled with an apparition, tall and dark, his eyes red like a dying star.
Even before I finish lapping her sodden remains from the floor and walls and ceiling, the gate screams. Voices and heartbeats—a thief, a few scrappers, a rogue magician, whispering lust for my hoard with each breath.
Perhaps one of them will be my hero.
|Kurt Hunt was formed in the swamps and abandoned gravel pits of post-industrial Michigan. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming at Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, PodCastle, PseudoPod, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and more. He is also a co-author of Archipelago, a serial fantasy adventure soon to be collected in an ebook anthology. You can find more of his work at kurtrhunt.com.|