There's light under the earth, if you know where to look.
If you know how to look.
I don't need light to see. Not anymore.
My eyes only ever saw in degrees of darkness, but the sight I now have shows me much more than I ever knew was possible. Now, I perceive colors that don't exist in nature, as well as hues and shades that reveal how the walls keeping the monsters out aren't solid at all—they're as thin as a painted backcloth hung by a performing troupe.
Sometimes I wish I didn't see the things I do, but then I remember that I'd have died a long time ago if I hadn't adapted to life down here.
And sometimes I wonder if dying would have been better.
The man I'm dragging behind me doesn't see like I do. In fact, he's pretty much blind in the darkness. The only light is the faint glow smoldering in the bulbous pods growing out of my shoulders.
Not nearly enough light for human eyes to see clearly, at least not at the speed we’re moving.
He's scared and stumbling with every step he takes.
Down here he's nothing, but on the surface he's a leader, the hetman of a desert settlement.
That's why I took him. He needs to see the danger of what's down here, to fully understand how much danger his people are in.
I'm half dragging, half lifting him, which would be hard if it wasn't for the strength my living armor gives me.
It clings to my skin, all across my body, as if a thousand tiny hooks are digging into my flesh. I'm not even sure where its undulant yet rigid surface ends and I begin, anymore. It used to be painful, and I used to hate the rasping, cat's-tongue feel of it enfolding me.
But now I don't mind it at all, because it means I'm never truly alone.
I used to think I could hear it whispering in my head as it grew and spread across my body, but I think that was just my own voice trying to keep me from going mad from pain and loneliness.
At least, I hope that's what it was.
The rock beneath me is smooth and glassy, made so not by the flow of molten rock, but by the passage of the things that live deep in the earth as they ooze up from below like worms through a rotten.
The people on the surface name this underworld by what it does, by what it is.
I’ve been down here long enough to know that name doesn't even begin to capture the true threat and horror of what lurks in the darkness below—of what the Void really is. The monsters that reach the surface to hunt and kill are just the vanguard of what lives beyond, and they aren't like anything the people above can understand.
If they really knew the truth, they’d never come within a thousand miles of where Icathia once stood, but mortals are so very good at forgetting. The passing of years lessens the horrors of the past. What was learned in blood and suffering now lingers mostly in travelers’ scary stories told around a fire, or in folk traditions. Hang some Pearls of the Moon over your hearth, say a prayer to to watch over your home, or leave some goats out to appease the beasts’ monstrous hunger.
But the creatures of the Void aren't like ordinary predators.
When I was little more than a babe in arms, I remember seeing a swarm of pack-hunting kmiros bring down a wounded skallashi. I cried my eyes out, but I didn't hate the kmiros for killing the gentle giant. It was just their nature. The creatures of the surface kill to eat. They're hungry, not evil.
The Voidborn will kill you just because you're alive.
“Please,” begs the man behind me. I'd almost forgotten I had hold of him. “Please let me go.”
He lets out a wracking sob as I stop and press him hard against the wall.
I can't decide if he thinks I'm going to kill him or let him go.
A violet glow swells around my hands,.
Their sudden appearance shifts my vision and I see the radiant threads of magic in his blood as it flows around his body.
Wisps of it lift into the air with every panicked breath and every tear that rolls down his cheeks. It's faint, almost nothing, but the Void predators will sense it, and be drawn like sand-flies to dung.
My armored skin wants to feed on him, and I recoil as I realize a part of me wants to as well.
He's weak, like everyone on the surface. It would be a mercy to just plunge my blades of light into his body than to have his soul be unmade by the monsters below.
No! I protect the people on the surface. That’s why I’m the girl who came back.
I push down the murderous urges of the suit, and the glow fades from my stiffened fingers. I take a shuddering breath, closing them into fists.
My vision returns to normal, and I look around to see we’re not where I thought we'd be.
We’re much closer to the surface than I expected, which makes what I'm seeing doubly dangerous. The rock of the tunnel shimmers like a cave ceiling over an underground lake, rippling with light from a dimension unknown to the races of the surface.
We’re at the edge of a depthless abyss where the boundaries of two realms ebb and flow like the sand seas at Zoantha. It looks like a glowing ocean of sickly light, swirling in a constant state of unraveling and renewal. It churns with titanic energies that sometimes form hideous outlines—like the submerged leviathans said to dwell beneath oceans I’ve only ever heard about in stories.
It's dangerous to be this close, but I need this man to see.
Soulless, black eyes coalesce to stare up from below.
Spirals of matter take horrid shape.
Hunched spines unfold, grasping limbs stretch, and hooked claws form in the liquid insanity, lunatic evolution weaving translucent monsters into being with shrieking, piercing birth-screams.
“Open your eyes,” I tell the hetman.
My voice is distorted through the molded mask of the suit—a wet, animal snarl that sounds like no mortal tongue. He shakes his head. He can't understand me.
The words sound like I'm choking on blood.
With a thought, the chitinous plates of my helm peel back, sliding over one another as they unfold like the carapace of an insect retracting its wings.
“Open your eyes,” I say again, and this time he understands.
He lets out a cry of fear as he sees my human face.
What do I look like now?
Am I so different than I was? Do I look like I belong down here?
I have not seen my face in such a long time. I hope it still looks like I remember.
The light swells and he turns toward the abyss.The swarming, growing things within it are reaching up to us, and his eyes widen in fear as he finally sees why I brought him here.
Thousands of chittering monsters, rising from an ocean of madness that reaches to the heart of the world and beyond. I don't know what it really is or where it comes from.
All I know is that it births an endless horde of misbegotten nightmares that claw their way up through the rock with the implacable urge to kill and unmake the world above.
Their tide is on the rise, and I'm the only one who can stop it.
I lean close to the man and say, “Do you see them? Do you understand?”
He nods in terror and I let him go.
I watch the hetman scramble up to the light of the surface, then turn as I hear the scrape of claws on rock behind me. Arms that would be impossible in nature hook over the edge of the abyss, dragging a monstrous horror of rasping armor plates, bony protrusions, and flesh the color of something stillborn. It's still wet and glistening from its arrival into this world, but it has infinite malice in the black eyes that ripple to life on its upper carapace. Blade limbs unfold from its pallid belly, and a lipless mouth tears open across its throat, a wide gash of gleaming white fangs and drooling ichor.
Others quickly follow it, smaller, but just as vicious. Their very presence distorts the air, and slivers of dissolving matter rise like black smoke from the rock beneath their claws.
The stink of their nearness is horrifying, and furnace heat spreads throughout my body.
Threat response fills my limbs with power.
Once, I fought such urges, but I understand now that they kept me alive, that they allow me to fight back.
The carapace mask draws down over my face. My vision shifts again.
It used to be jarring, this transition, but now I welcome it.
I see in light. In life and my prey's vulnerabilities. I am a predator again.
The plates molded to my shoulders shift and reshape as the glowing pods snap up. Blinding light builds within them, and I shriek as a painful flurry ofstreak toward the creatures.
The smaller ones instantly detonate in explosions of purple fluids and unnatural flesh.
Their blood splashes me, and the curved plates of my armor greedily drink it in.
My gorge rises in disgust, even as it nourishes me.
I, snapping my arms out and wreathing my hands in blades of light. I vault into the air, pushing off the tunnel wall to blast the larger horror with pulsing streams of violet fire. Its body tears open and tar-black ichor spills out.
It screeches in pain, lashing out with its impossibly angled limbs.
I land in their midst and roll under its blades, rising to a crouch and unleashing another. They burn its flesh with incandescent fury, as though fire conjured from their own kind is more lethal than any other.
I flip backward as its body crashes down, but it's not dead... whatever that means to the Voidborn.
It draws the blood of the smaller creatures up into its limbs, drinking their very essence. Webs of light and twitching matter knit its flesh together, like a weaver sewing a torn blanket. Its huge bulk convulses, rippling as it reforms wounded flesh and pushes out new limbs, hardening areas of weakness. Burning tendrils of dark light spray from its splitting flesh, cracking like whips against the ground.
Solid rock runs like wax as its very permanence is undone. One lash glances against my knee, and I stumble as a portion of my armor bleeds off in a bloom of black smoke.
I see my skin beneath, bleached of life and vitality, like the blind reptiles that make their burrows beneath the desert crags. It sickens me to see it, but I can't tell if that's because the flesh looks dead, or because it reminds me of what I used to be.
The thought has slowed me.
Only for an instant, but that's enough. The Voidlings and hunter creatures swarm me.
A thing almost twice my size barrels me from my feet. Its claws tear at my chest, its teeth snapping shut over my head. Its teeth cut deep grooves in my faceplate, and I look down its thrashing, tooth-filled gullet as its proboscis tongue seeks a way in.
I jam my fists against its body and blast a torrent of purple fire into its body until it can contain no more. It explodes in a welter of bony cartilage and unnatural meat, and my suit feeds on the unleashed energies of its death.
Claws and teeth slash and bite. I roll aside, more violet flame jetting from my hands. I leap and twist away from their attacks. Sheer weight of numbers works in their favor, and more of the creatures are swarming over the edge of the abyss.
A boiling tide of organic plates, claws and fury that will swiftly overwhelm me.
My shoulder pods erupt with increasingly powerful streams of killing fire, but it won't be enough to stop them. I don't know if the Void is capable of hate, but I feel like these monsters hate me. They see me as something of their world, but also as something they must destroy.
I wonder if their perception of me is so different from that of the people above.
They surround me, and I remember the skallashi brought down by the kmiros.
But I am no prey animal. I can fight back.
I spin on my heel, drawing a ring of purple fire around me with my burning fists.
Its power drives them back, giving me space to breathe. I see a path, and take it. I weave through them, leaving a trail of sundered bodies in my wake. My speed is uncanny. I see the creatures around me moving as if they're in a stupor. They can't keep up with me, and I kill them with every pummeling blast of flame and every strike of my fire-bladed hands.
Then I'm clear.
Turning, I sprint from the abyss.
Not so fast as to lose them, but fast enough to stay ahead.
I lose track of time.
Down in the dark, that's easy to do.
I sometimes forget what the sun looks like, or how we used to follow the shadows to know what part of the day we were in.
For someone born of the burning sands to forget the sun makes me want to cry. I have memories of its blazing light reflecting on water, of a golden eye in the sky, and joyous heat filling my chest with every breath.
But they don't feel connected to me anymore.
It's like I'm remembering a thing someone told me, not something I knew or felt myself.
I push the memories away.
They're distractions that’ll slow me down and get me killed.
But I can't help it. The core of me, the part that's still a little girl, keeps showing me these things, keeps trying to remind me of who I used to be.
The creatures from the abyss are still after me, filling the tunnels behind me with their screeching, clawing bodies. I’ve been leading them away from where I let the hetman go, drawing them into the deeper desert, back toward the lost land they came from.
I’ve done this many times before, and this won't be the last time.
I fight and I run, never letting them surround me.
It's a dance. One that never ends.
Their hunger is palpable. I’ve killed so many of them, but there's always more.
I try not to think of their endless numbers. To think too much about that would sap my will to fight, and I can't let that happen. Not while there's still people in the world above I care about.
Like the sun, their names and faces are drifting further away from me.
But I know they're still above me. I go there sometimes, just to remember what it feels like to see the sky above me. Or to breathe air that isn't wet with the bitter flavor of somewhere terrible and utterly hostile. It's been a long time since I ventured to the surface. The longer I spend there, the more I feel its air start to burn me. I'm afraid I'm becoming more used to the darkness, that the sunlit world above doesn't want me anymore.
I remember when I met a girl up there.
She was young, like I was once, and she didn't hate me. She saw what I was and she didn't run in terror like most people do. She saw who I used to be, but that's not what most people see.
They see the suit, and feel its primal urge to unmake them simmering behind my eyes.
They can't help it, and I don't hate them for it, but it hurts.
It hurts to know I used to be just like them, and now...
Now I don't know what I am.
But for all that I’ve changed and become something they hate and fear, I'm still holding on to what makes me human. If I can just hold on to the part of me that was a little girl once, I can turn the awful things that have happened to me into something good, something noble.
But I can feel it slipping away.
What will I be when I can't remember her?
A change comes over the Void creatures.
I sense it almost immediately, a turn in their purpose. It's hard to know what changes, but it's clear that their pursuit of me has shifted, like they don't care about me anymore.
Like they have better target for their ferocious urge to destroy.
A terrible suspicion fills me, and I surge away from the creatures behind me.
My armor makes me faster than them, and I move through the tunnels like a ghost, taking the crooked paths that only I know about. I feel the ferocity of the chase fade as I circle around, climbing back to the surface and feeling the hot tension of the world above.
I'd been trying to keep the monsters close to me, trying to lure them away from the settlements on the surface, but when I emerge into the sunlight through a hidden cleft at the top of a solitary spire of bare rock, I see how horribly wrong I’ve been.
I thought I was leading the monsters away, truly I did.
A giant skull has been set upon a boulder atop the spire, a marker of sorts.
It's a warning. A sign that these lands are not safe.
I know that's what it is, because I put it here.
One foot on the skull, I look down at a settlement full of people.
My helm unfolds from over my face, and I see with my own eyes.
Beneath me are neat and ordered streets, running between finely made buildings of sun-baked bricks. At the settlement's southern end are the silken awnings of a bustling market, and I see a disc of gold on the roof of what I think is a temple. The sounds of laughter drift up to me on the spire.
I smell roasting meat, animal dung, and the heady aroma of spices.
They are the smells of life, the everyday texture of the world above.
For a second I'm transported back to my half-forgotten youth, and the corners of my mouth curl in what might be a smile.
Then I remember what lurks beneath the sands, and the half-formed smile falls from my face.
My heart pounds in my chest and I fight to draw breath.
Don't they know the danger they're in?
The inner surfaces of my armor clamp down hard on my flesh, and I sink to one knee with the pain of it. It's hungry to feed, and I wonder how much of my path has been chosen by me, how much by its design.
My senses are finely tuned to the denizens of the Void.
They're close, so very close, and rising to the surface. Somewhere out in the desert.
I feel the imminence of a breach like the pressure in the air before a storm.
The mask slams back into place, filling my vision with patterns of light and heat.
I look back to the settlement as I hear the clash of steel, and a shouting voice.
My gaze drifts to a martial field set at the settlement's edge, where scores of armed men and women are lined up. I watch them, confused as to what they're doing until it hits me.
They're training to fight.
A man is shouting at them, filling their hearts with courage and their souls with fire.
I can't hear his words, but I can see his face as clearly as if he were standing right next to me.
It's the hetman I dragged below the earth.
I vault from rock to rock as I make my way down to the settlement.
The nearness of the Void creatures is a building pressure in my skull.
It won't be long before they're here.
I leap through an animal enclosure, scattering the livestock as they catch my scent, and panic.
The people of the settlement don't notice me at first. Then I hear the cries of alarm spread as they see my armored form in their midst. I'm heading straight for the hetman, and I already feel anger pounding in my veins.
I showed him! Why didn’t he listen? I took him to see the horrors below. I wanted him to feel the terror of their very existence and to carry that terror back to his people.
But all I’ve done is strengthened his resolve to stand and fight.
Every person that dies here will be my fault. Their blood will be on my hands.
I wanted to prevent this, but I’ve made their deaths inevitable.
Men and women scatter before me, terrified despite the weapons they carry. The hetman's face hardens. The last time I saw him, he was terrified, but his terror has turned to hate.
His eyes tell me he thinks I'm here to kill him, and maybe I am.
My mask snaps open as I come to a halt before him.
“Why are you still here?” I scream, tasting the hot desert air. Underneath the smells of the settlement, I feel the growing presence of the Void. It's like biting on a copper coin. “Go!”
“Back, demon!” he snarls. “You are a herald of the beasts!”
For a moment, his meaning is lost on me. Then I understand.
“You think I bring the monsters…?”
“I know you,” he spits, advancing on me. “You are the Void’s daughter. Wherever you walk, the monsters follow.”
I shake my head, ready to throw his accusation back in his face...
Then I wonder if he's right.
I fight the Voidborn wherever I can, wherever I find them.
I hold my hand up before me, seeing the hair-fine threads of violet light shimmering in the sculpted plates of my armor. Until now, I have always thought it was part of me, that I controlled it, but what if my control isn't so complete as I thought? I assert my will, and the veins of light fade.
Is it possible? Are the creatures of the Void drawn to me?
No, I would know. I'd know if I was somehow drawing them deeper into the world.
My doubt turns to anger, and the blades of light brighten around my hands.
“I escaped you once before,” said the hetman, raising his sword. “And we will fight the beasts you command.”
“You escaped me?” I say, incredulous. “Is that what you think happened?”
He swings his sword, but I block it easily. He's not skilled with a blade, and it's easy for me to dodge his attacks. I circle him as he swings again and again. The townsfolk are gathered around me, screaming at their leader to strike a deathblow. My armor responds to his every attack and their aggression, filling my body with the urge to fight, to kill.
They see the second skin I wear, but they don't realize how much danger they're in right now.
Not from the Void. From me.
They can't see the girl beneath. They don't want to see her.
It's easier for them to believe I'm a monster.
I feel anger and betrayal harden my heart to them. Why should I fight to save them? Why do I fight to hold on to my humanity, when it hurts so much to remember all I’ve lost?
Why not just become the monster they think I am?
Wouldn't that be easier?
But then I look beyond the hetman's angry face, to the grandparents watching from the doorways of the homes they built with their own two hands. To the young mothers clutching newborns to their breasts. And beyond even them, to the thousand daily displays of love and the small acts of kindness that go unnoticed every day in the world.
That’s why I fight the monsters.
I stand for the people who cannot stand, because there's no one who fights quite like me.
Because if I don't stand for them, who will?
And what will be left of the girl who came back if I don't?
But every war requires sacrifice. I’ve made so many already—now I know I need to make yet another. This time it won't be me that pays the blood price, but I'll carry it all the same.
I turn a full circle. Everyone is looking to the hetman. He's their strength, the only reason they're still here. He's filled their hearts with courage and the will to fight an enemy that can't be fought, can't be bargained with, and which only gets stronger with every life it consumes.
There's only one way to end this without everybody dying.
I block yet another clumsy swing, and as his sword goes wide, I spin inside his guard to hammer my light-bladed fists against his chest.
Searing energy pours into him, filling his body with light. His every vein, nerve ending, and bone burns with searing brilliance for an instant before his body explodes.
It's awful, but I can't stop now. I feel the nearness of the Void as a terrible, twisting pain in my gut. The texture of the air abruptly changes, and I know the Void has climbed to the world above.
It's on the surface and it's coming here now.
I turn away from the molten, disintegrating ruin of the hetman as his body falls to the sand, barely recognizable as something that was once human. People scatter in terror as my shoulder pods slide up and fill with killing light. I feel the fiery pressure build within me, aching for release.
I unleash a, blasting a deserted grain store to blazing rubble. Burning seeds and baskets spill from the ruins. I obliterate the market with more flashing bolts, and the silk awnings rise up like the burning sails of a sand-clipper as they catch light.
Purple-white fire streaks through the settlement and explodes with devastating force. People run screaming as I destroy their homes. They think I'm trying to kill them, that I'm doing this because I’ve become something monstrous, but that's just not true.
I only destroy buildings my helm's vision shows me are empty.
I demolish unmanned walls and barricades—anything that might give them hope they have a chance against the Void.
I'm not trying to kill them. I just want them to run.
Night has fallen as I watch from the spire of rock above the burning settlement, one foot braced on the skull I left as a warning marker. The horde of Voidborn climbs toward me in a rush of snapping fangs, misshapen limbs, and inhuman forms.
It sounds like a swarm of voracious insects devouring a harvest crop.
There's too many to count, almost no way to tell where one beast ends and the next begins. It's just a mass of teeth and claws. Unbridled destruction given form.
They sense my presence here, and I make no attempt to run.
Because if they're coming for me, they're not going after the people of the settlement.
The horizon burns with a sick light that doesn't belong in this world, and forking traceries of vivid, purple lightning flash up from the sundered ground deep in the desert.
The settlement's inhabitants have long since fled, leading their animals behind colorful wagons bearing what possessions they couldn't bear to leave behind. They're already many miles west, moving in a long column like the dormun-riders of old.
They'll follow the sand roads to the new-flowing waters, moving on until they can begin again.
And that's the point. To begin again they need to be alive.
I remember their faces as they looked back at their lost homes. They pointed to me high up on the spire, and cursed me. The memory of their faces still pains me. So full of fear and hatred.
They'll carry that hate with them, telling stories of the forsaken girl who isn't a girl anymore. They'll tell how she killed their heroic leader before destroying their homes. The tale will grow in the telling, as Shuriman tales are wont to do, until I'll be known as a heartless murderer, a killer of women and children.
The carapace slides back across my face as the first of the monsters scramble onto the ledge. Violet fire sheathes my hands. I feel the familiar rush of excitement as my body fills with heat.
If this is what I need to be to keep my people alive, then so be it.
That's a burden I'm willing to bear.
I’ll be their monster.
- The "Monstrous" story was accidentally uploaded on the Universe site by Riot Games on October 22nd, 2019 before its intended release date on June 2nd, 2020.