The Final Monster I Fight

Standard

Digital drawing. Composite of several figures in silhouette. Bottom foreground left and center, two figures from chest up with various missing limbs and digits reach to the right. They are zombies. Bottom foreground right, a figure from chest up holding both hands against their head. Shadows representing gravestones lie at angles behind them. Left moving into frame is a ghostly cloud in which the outline of a face and a hand are visible. Right of frame, sitting on an outcropping, a werewolf howls against a glowing moon. Top center at a distance, floating in the sky, a vampire wearing a cloak and reaching out. At center from back, a hooded figure from torso up holding a long stake propped over the right shoulder. Upper left corner, a patch of stalactites.

The final monster I fight.  It won’t be long now.

Curses and cures.  Curses and cures.

I’ve tried everything.  Like most people in my position.

Everything reasonable that is.  I didn’t think I’d run out of options this soon.  I only started seeing the signs a couple of weeks ago.  Of course I’ve known it was coming, but I also hoped…I might be one of the exceptions. 

I was in denial for about thirty seconds when I spotted those first flecks of blood in my eye.  And then, right beside that one white hair that’s growing where my hairline begins, I spotted a dark purple one.  It was hard to see being as how most of my hairs are still black.  I only saw it because I looked for it, in the sunlight.

I reported it right away, of course.  I am “old reliable” after all.

I spotted a few sad and shocked looks around the table when the announcement was made.  But then we got down to business.  There’s been a lot of activity in our region this year, so, busy, busy.

Right after is when someone handed me this book and this aggravating task.  I had completely forgotten about this part of the ritual.  This final assignment before I retire.  This final requirement for me to set down in my own words the account of all my actions, and thoughts, and my hard-earned wisdom, for future generations of hunters. 

We keep field journals, mind you.  And while a few are allowed to use their preferred notebook and pen, most of us have joined the current century and chosen to digitally record our valiant and victorious deeds.

So why do I still have to do this?

Won’t I be suffering enough?

***

Hunting monsters for too long, getting in too deep, has consequences.  Injury and death are the obvious ones.  But there’s something more if you can manage to avoid those.  There’s something worse in a way.  You start losing your humanity. 

We’re lucky—I’m lucky—that there are warning signs we can look to, so we can prepare.

Prepare for the end of the road.

When I was young, I figured I’d live until my eighties or nineties.  Back then I was planning on going all the way in school, getting some letters after my name, and becoming a professor or something.  I didn’t really know what was involved.  I just pictured myself standing in front of an auditorium full of young people, passionately lecturing about…something.

I’ve actually done that.  I never could have imagined though that the subject of my lecture would be “The History of the Application of Science and Magic in the Reanimation of Inert Biospiritual Entities.”

In other words, was it actually possible to do what Dr. Frankenstein did in that most frightening and compelling of stories?  Let me be coy and put the answer at the end of this account.  (If they’re making me do this, I might as well have a little fun with it.)

You know, that lecture was fun, come to think of it.  I should have done more of that.  I don’t know why I didn’t.  Maybe if I had…anyway that’s a pointless thought now.

When I was very young, I was also very dumb, and I thought it would be a romantic thing to die young—not too young, but young enough to show just a touch of old age approaching. 

I’m not ready.  I want that known.

If I were just retiring, that’d be one thing.  I’m glad and grateful that I’m a modern hunter living in an age where we have choices for how we can handle the change when it comes.

But I…am not ready.

But if I were, if I were, it would be so good to see Jasper again.  I should stick some of my old pictures of him in here.  The one when he was a puppy and looked like a little black ball of fur.

It would be good to see Selena-auntie too.  I didn’t know her well, but it’d be nice to let her know that I used most of what she taught me.

Especially that one time when we went after that nest of vampires (and let me pause now to spit at the ground).  It wasn’t just Jasper and me.  They sent a whole team in.  We cloaked the scent and sound of our blood using a concoction that I learned from Selena.  No one had heard of it before.  It sounded too good to be true.  No one expected it to work.

Vampires didn’t just stay asleep when they sensed the arrival of potential prey.  When they were awake, their ears could hear the pulsing of blood over the sound of concerts and crashing waves.  But even asleep, they would hear our hammering heartbeats.  When they were awake, they could smell a drop of blood—inside or outside the body—from miles away.  But even asleep, the sharp smell of blood from a dozen living human beings would have shocked them awake.

But they didn’t detect us, until it was too late for them.

The concoction worked.

It worked that time, and it worked again the next time.

A whole team of hunters came home practically unscathed from a raid of a vampire nest.  We freed the two dozen people the vampires were holding hostage.  One of them didn’t make it.  I later learned that she lived long enough to see our shadows descend on the nest.  (I’ll have to remind someone to take over leaving flowers at her grave marker.)

I don’t need to include that concoction’s recipe here.  I shared it right away and we passed it around as far and wide as we could.

Knowledge like that gets learned and lost, and learned and lost.  So I guess it could be useful that I leave this record.  In case there are things I’ve forgotten to pass on until now.

***

My joints have started to ache, and sometimes there’s a sudden twinge of pain.  Is this what people with joint pain go through?  Or is this different?

We’ve had our in-house specialist monitoring my condition since I first reported it.  She won’t tell me how quickly I’m progressing.  The truth is she can’t tell me.  Because each case is different.

Her face is unable to hide the occasional flicker of sorrow.  She’s on the research team that’s still trying to find some treatment, cure, spell, or something to at least slow the process down, reverse it, cure it, or best of all, prevent it.

Sometimes, a few of us are going through the change at the same time.  They say it helps a little to have the company of those who understand what you’re going through, especially at the same time you’re going through it.

But I’m the only one right now.

***

My vision has started to flicker.  Sometimes the world turns violet and the shapes are sharper.  Sometimes the world fades altogether, goes dark, even during the daytime.  But I still perceive something, something looks like a star field.

And then it comes back in a few seconds. 

I’ve always had questionable posture, but I think it’s getting worse.  I stand in front of the mirror every morning trying different poses to see if I can spot any difference in the curvature of my spine.

The closest I came before to experiencing this strange sweaty anxiety that I’ve been waking up to is when I thought I got scratched by a werewolf’s tooth.  I’ve heard that’s all it takes for some people—I mean sensitivities differ.  Just because you’re strong and healthy doesn’t mean you won’t be that one person who doesn’t need to be bitten by the full jaw. 

This current change isn’t happening to me because I’ve been bitten or poisoned or cursed or punished.  It’s happening because it’s the natural order of things.  But sometimes the natural order of things is a terrible, terrible thing.

***

They’re the only dangerous monsters that I have some feeling of regard for—werewolves.  Not many people wonder how it is that they came to be.  They know it’s a curse.  But where did the curse originate?  How did it come to be? 

Envy was the cause. 

I haven’t bothered with envy in a long while, but I’ve started feeling it again.  Envy…and resentment.

When I walk down the street and see people just throwing away what I’m about to lose.  And yes, yes, I did choose to go down the path that led me here, and yes, I knew where I was headed when I signed up.  There was a light coating of sugar on that truth.  That was enough for some to completely ignore it, but I tasted the bitterness underneath.

Thanks to my auntie, I knew where I was headed when I signed up. 

Anyway, I lost the thread there.  Envy was the cause of the curse that birthed that first werewolf.  Envy of the close bond of friendship that was starting to form between humans and wolves.  I’m sure it can’t be the only such friendship in all of the cosmos, but then again I can attest to the specialness…well, I had a friend like that once.  Descended from hunters.  Refined in the forge of friendship. 

A dog.  Jasper.  And yes, he was noble. 

Unless they are trained otherwise that is their tendency.  To be noble.

I still believe that’s true of us too…humans. 

Even though we are the ones responsible for every monster that walks and stalks the earth.

We either made them, or invited them here, or…or we became them.

Jasper was so noble that he was even noble in the face of monsters.

Even the worst of the worst of them.

***

Once, we two were alone when we caught the trail of the most depraved and sinister monster of them all, a vampire.    

Seduction should be a playful thing, an exciting thing, a game where all who are playing are on fair footing, a wondrous thing.

But those eternally hungry devouring pieces of…they turned seduction into a dirty, filthy thing, a crime.

Jasper was faster than me, of course.  But he could also run fast enough to catch a vampire.  Someone told me once that he must have had some enchantment in his bloodline that made him so fast.  He was a born monster-hound.

Neither of us liked the cold, so we lived in a warm place.  But we were away from home that time, and it was winter, and I saw Jasper run on the snow.

And I mean it when I say he was running on the snow.  On top of it.  His paws didn’t sink in.  I could have sworn it.  But later when I mentioned it to the other hunters, and they dared Jasper to walk around outside the cabin, he went out.  He walked on the snow, his paws sinking in with each step, and with each step, he looked over at me as if it say, “You got me into this.  It’s time to get me out of it.  Now, now would be good.”

I called him over and told everyone else that I guessed the speed of the chase had tricked my eye.  But when I caught Jasper’s eye, well I could have sworn he winked at me.

Anyway, that’s a whole different thing.  What I meant to say is—about the vampire—that Jasper brought down that vampire.  Impressive, especially considering he was using the old-style collar triggers, the ones that didn’t have automatic aiming.

But that thin wooden stake was lodged directly in the heart of that vampire as it lay crumpled at Jasper’s feet.  I came huffing and puffing along.

Jasper looked over at me.  And I saw something in his eye that stopped me in my tracks.

I knew what I was seeing.  I’m fortunate enough to know what compassion looks like in someone’s eyes, what pity looks like.  But I’d never seen…in a dog’s eyes? 

I credited Jasper with a lot more…sentience, I guess I’d say, than a typical dog. 

But this was, well it would have been incredible and wonderful, if it wasn’t for…

Jasper looked away from me and back down at the unmoving vampire.

That compassion, that pity in his eyes, it was for the vampire.

The snow at Jasper’s feet started turning red.  He was hurt.  He’d been bitten. 

He wouldn’t turn.  That only works on humans—for those who aren’t aware.

But he was drained.  I could see that.  He’d been attacked and fed on. 

And still…

The worst of the worst, and he had pity on it.

He had pity on all of them, I came to find.

Zombies.  They used to make me shudder.  Looking human, but completely stripped of everything that makes a human being a human being.  I couldn’t handle them at first, but I learned better soon enough.  They’re dangerous.  But they’re not evil.  Half the monsters I’ve hunted have not been evil.  Just dangerous.

But the ones that were evil, especially the ones that pretended to be harmless, they were the most dangerous.

A vampire is not a victim.

They’re the worst of the worst.

I would never think otherwise, but I would respect my friend if he did.

***

I wonder if I’ll become evil.  Or if I’ll just be dangerous. 

In far ancient times, there were different rituals among different peoples, for how to deal with a monster-hunter who had become a hunter-monster.  An honorable death at the hands of their fellow hunters was a common custom.  But there have always been those who’ve looked for other ways, better ways. 

Damage to the soul was the cause of it all.

Some thought, or hoped that if the hunters anchored their souls during life, and if the anchors were good enough, strong enough, then at worst the hunter would die as they transformed.  The hunter would never become a monster that got loose and endangered others.  The best hope was that the hunter’s soul would be so well-protected that they might never transform.  There are cases where this worked.  I haven’t seen it personally, but I’ve heard about it from people I trust. 

Some of these anchors are things that probably every person needs in their lives.  Ties to family, friends, and fellows.  Ties to nature.  And in modern times, check-ups of our mental and physical wellbeing.  Then there are things that are specific to hunters.  A continuing study of philosophy.  Minimum annual spirit cleansings, and so on.  It’s in one of the manuals.  I won’t rehash it all here. 

Sometimes, despite all these elements anchoring a hunter to a world that was better and brighter than the one they daily inhabited, the hunter would still feel the changes coming on.  Changes not resulting from any bite or sting of a monster, not resulting from a whispered curse, or an evil object left in their possession.  It would just happen, as if the residue of what we faced seeped into their souls, and collected and festered there, corrupting the soul and then, seeping back out, in the form of a physical transformation.

So by the time the physical signs were seen, the soul was already lost.  It might not feel that way to the hunter.  They wouldn’t suddenly have the urge to do evil deeds.  That wasn’t typical anyway.  A lot of times a corrupted soul just meant that it wasn’t strong enough to hold life in the body, not strong enough to even hold itself together.  If the transformation of the body was allowed to complete, the soul would fall apart and be lost forever.

To this day, we have not managed to figure out how to detect the first changes so that a hunter could just quit.  There’s no set age when it happens.  I knew a hunter once who was about to turn ninety-five when I met her.  I heard she died of old age.  She was extraordinary.  But for most of us ordinary hunters, once it starts, it just…well there’s no time to think or plan.  We have to do our thinking and planning before we start hunting.

***

In all my talk of monsters so far, I haven’t mentioned one of the obvious things that anyone reading this would already know, which is why I haven’t mentioned it.  But then again, what if someone who’s not a hunter reads this record someday?  It could happen.

So the obvious thing…not all monsters are evil.  I’ve mentioned that.  But not all of them are dangerous either.  Some are neutral. 

And some are even good.

We humans can be thick-headed sometimes.  It took us a long time to figure that last one out.  If we had only figured it out sooner, a lot of souls might have been saved that were lost.

There is a monster that can help us connect to the realm that our souls enter upon the deaths of our mortal bodies.  That’s all I’ll say about it.  So if there are any apprentices reading this, hoping that I’d forget that the details are restricted, and hoping they might learn secrets from the last musings of a not-so-old hunter, think again.

Oh, you heard I had a soft spot for apprentices? 

I do.

So here’s what I’ll do.  I’ll take this book to the crossover ritual.  I’ll write down what I’m thinking and feeling until the last moment of my life on this earth.  Not so you can work yourself up into a panic about what it will be like a million years from now, when your time comes.  But so that you can know that if you decide to keep going and be a hunter, there’s hope for your soul. 

***

I suppose I should record my reasons.  I think it was part of an intake form or something that I filled out years ago.  I don’t remember what I wrote.  So if my reason then was different from my reason now, well, I guess that might be interesting to someone

My skin is prickling, and I swear it feels as if it’s prickling because something underneath it is bubbling.  Is my blood actually boiling? 

My loved ones aren’t here.  They’re just outside.  I could have chosen a few to come in with me.  But I’m told that sometimes the moment of crossover can be jarring to look at.  I have no idea what that means.  I’ve never been a witness at one of these things.  But it sounded like a gross understatement, so I banned anyone who cared about me from seeing my actual crossover.

Anyway, I lost the thread again.  My reason…for becoming a hunter, despite knowing that this moment would come, and that it might have come for me when I first started. 

I don’t have a personal reason the way some hunters do.  I didn’t experience a traumatic supernatural event when I was young, or know someone who did.  I just always wanted to do something important, and something to make the world safer and better.  When I was young, I wanted to make it safer and better for everyone, everyone on the planet.  But by the time I actually became I hunter, I knew that it would still matter if I made it safer and better for just a few people, just one person.

What I did not realize until…until just recently actually, is that other people were doing that for me too.  Not just my fellow hunters.  I mean everyone else.  Maybe I would have transformed sooner if it wasn’t for the anchors that held my soul down in that better, brighter world.  It’s just that I kept willfully wandering into the terrible, horrible world.  I owe all those people for the extra years that I’ve had because of them.  All the extra years that I’ve been a human being.

I did eventually want to go.  I’ve never been afraid of death.  Pain and suffering, huge fears there.  But not death.  Maybe that’s ignorant of me.  Maybe it’s because I don’t know any better.  But I did eventually want to go.  Not like this and not this soon.  But at least I have the privilege of knowing the moment of my death.

And…now I’m finally afraid.

Great.

***

And now I’m really afraid, afraid it’s not real.  I’ve been staring, afraid to look down at this page.

I see him at the threshold, waiting for me.   I didn’t want to say this—write this down—but I had a feeling he would come to pick me up. 

It’s Jasper.  No one else can see him.  I have to go now.

So, a final message to all you future hunters of monsters.

I leave this world in your care.  And I leave you in each other’s care.  Once I cross that threshold, no one here needs to ever worry about me again.  (You don’t have to think of me either, but if you do…maybe I’ll know, and maybe I’ll smile.  Or maybe I’ll get the hiccups.)

I don’t know what comes next.  I can’t see it.  I can tell that Jasper can.  And I trust my friend to lead me.  In this life, he led me into danger.  That was our job.

But now he’s come to lead me into something else, and from that gleam in his eye, I think I know what it is.  He’s come to lead me into our next—no, our first—adventure.

It won’t be long now.


Copyright © 2021  Nila L. Patel

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