All day we had followed the beast, over the rocky heights of the pass, and now, in the late afternoon light, its spoor was so clear that I knew it could be only a short distance ahead. And once or twice I even fancied I could hear it, a moaning call like a trumpet echoing faintly in the surrounding hills.
“It is very close,” the guide confirmed, his voice shaking.
I scarcely bothered glancing at him. He was one of the villagers of the mountains, short of stature, broad of shoulder, uncouth of speech, and utterly in awe of the beast, which of course he had never seen. I knew well enough that but for the enormous amount I had already paid his chief, and promised more, he would never have agreed to guide me.
“Are you afraid?” I asked quietly, my eyes on the path. Up ahead, where the walls of rock reached higher still, there was a hint of movement, as though something had just passed. But surely we couldn’t be so close, not yet; it must have been my imagination.
“It will kill us,” he said. “When we catch up with it, it will kill us both.”
“At most,” I replied mildly, “it will kill me, only. You can make a run for it.” We spoke quietly, but there wasn’t much of a point of maintaining silence. The creature was aware that we were on its trail. It had been aware for years.
“I’ve been chasing it for many years,” I had told the chief in the village, while trying to persuade him to give me a guide. He had been obdurate at first, maintaining that he would not send any of his men to certain death, no matter how much I was willing to pay. “Ever since I was a young man, I have been determined to hunt it down. And I have a commission to destroy it, from the king.”
He had looked at me queerly, his wispy white beard waggling over the cup of greenish tea. “You have been so?” he had asked, in his thick accented dialect, which I still could not manage to understand completely despite the years I spent hunting in these hills. “You tell me something. Why?”
“Why?” I’d paused at the question. In all the years of my quest, it was the first time anyone had asked it. Down in the cities, the answer might be assumed to be self-evident. “It’s an evil beast,” I’d responded, “a cruel, devouring monster. It has devastated whole provinces, and must be destroyed.”
“Hunters have tried before,” the chief had said, surprisingly clearly, and not for the first time I’d wondered if his thick rustic accent weren’t partly assumed. “Over the years – the decades – many hunters have tried. Some had commissions too. You know what happened to them.”
I’d nodded in acknowledgement. “I know. But I am prepared, as they were not. I have hunted down the creature for years, and I am still alive. And you can see that the beast flees before me, until I am only a short way behind it. A few days only, and I shall have it in my power.”
He’d glanced at my great crossbow, leaning against the wall. “And you will kill it then – with that?”
“Yes, my bolts are treated with the warlocks’ poison,” I’d informed him. I remembered the warlocks’ hall in the capital, where the black-robed mages had hovered over ancient grimoires and bubbling cauldrons, quenching the ivory-tipped bolts in nameless potions until the heads were dark as pitch. Ivory, they had told me, was the only way to break the beast’s skin; metal would do it no harm whatsoever. They had also done other magic, which they said would keep me from harm until I had found the beast. Once I’d caught up with it, though, I’d be on my own – except for their poison bolts. “You know the poison will melt flesh off bone, even such flesh as the creature has.”
“Aye,” he’d acknowledged. “So it is said. But do ye know that even if ye kill the beast, there will be another to take its place?”
I’d noticed that he was slipping back into the dialect. “There’s but the one,” I’d told him. “Once there were many, but they were all killed, and this is the very last. Only one in the whole wide world, and when it’s slain, there will never be any more.”
He’d shaken his head. “Ye know nothing,” he’d mumbled. “There was always but the one. There will always be one.”
“Well,” I’d said, beginning to get impatient, “will you provide me with a guide?” I’d been growing tired of the village, which was little more than a circle of mud-walled huts roofed with skins; tired of the chief, his wrinkled wife, and of his round-faced daughter, who’d been sitting on the far side of the fire staring at me with her tiny eyes, as though she’d never seen a city man before. Probably she hadn’t, come to that. “You know that the king’s commission means I can access the royal treasury. I am able to pay as much as you should want.” That wasn’t only an appeal to his greed, but a reminder that I held the commission, and that there were – penalties – for obstructing me.
Slowly, very slowly, he’d nodded, not looking at me. “I will have a guide for you in the morning,” he’d said. “Today, it is too late for that.”
I’d not slept well. It wasn’t the surroundings themselves – the chief’s house was the best in the village, and of course I’d been given the best room, which had been cleaned out for my sake. Of course it was still flea-ridden and grimy, and stank of old mildew; but I’d slept in worse in the years I’d been chasing the creature. It wasn’t the fact that the chief’s daughter tried to sneak into my bed in the middle of the night; I’d been expecting something of the sort, and sent her away with a promise to look in on the way back, a promise I had no intention of honouring. No, it was the proximity of the beast itself, the feeling that it was at last almost within reach.
I’d lain awake through most of the night, imagining it somewhere in the hills above the village, perhaps knowing how close I was, perhaps sensing its imminent doom. It was far from a stupid beast, crafty and cunning, and it had evaded me many times over the years when I’d imagined it was at my mercy. But now I had mastered all its tricks, and driven it up into these hills, the ancient home of its kind. It had nowhere to run.
Lying awake, I’d almost imagined that it was outside, prowling the stony lanes of the village, sniffing around locked doors, trying to find me and destroy me before I could find it. But the village dogs had been silent, and the night was still. Not even the wind which blew through the chinks in the wall by my head made a noise.
At last, in the early hours of the morning, with dawn already a promise in the eastern horizon, I’d fallen into a fitful doze, and into a dream. Much of it I’d forgotten when I woke, but what remained with me was less a dream than a memory – a memory of a village I’d seen in the far south, years ago, which had been attacked by the creature.
I’d arrived the morning after the beast had done its work and departed, leaving the village in ruins, the people – all but one of those that hadn’t been devoured – huddling miserably in the woods, praying piteously to their pathetic little gods. There were few enough of them, perhaps a dozen at most. They’d looked at me without hope, and I hadn’t had a word to say. What could I have told them? I’d looked around, marked the spoor of the creature, and started again on its trail.
It was on the way out of the village that I’d met the one exception who’d neither been eaten nor fled. It was a young woman, in the tattered remnants of a maidservant’s dress. She was sitting by the side of the road, on the rotting trunk of a fallen tree, softly singing to herself, a song in a language I’d never heard, with a tune strange and compelling. When she’d heard me coming, she’d looked up at me, her eyes fearless in her dirt streaked face.
“Don’t you dare try and touch me,” she’d said, breaking off her song. “I’m warning you.”
For some reason I hadn’t felt like laughing. “I don’t want to harm you,” I’d said. “I was just listening to that song – and wondering why you sit out here while the rest of the village is dead or hiding.”
For reply she’d turned so I could see her back. The cloth hung in ribbons, and the skin below was raised in ugly long weals, so clear that I could almost hear the slash of the whip that had flogged her. “What happened?”
She’d told me the tale, haltingly, breaking off at intervals to sing snatches of that song. It was a familiar enough story, of a girl from the poorest of the poor forced to work as a servant for a family slightly higher up the social ladder. There was a master who was overly familiar, and a mistress who became first suspicious, then jealous, and blamed her for leading the man on. Finally, the woman had confronted her husband, who had blamed it all on the girl, of course.
“The two of them pulled me outside...” she’d said, staring up at me with her fearless eyes. “Then he held me down, and she started whipping me – and whipping...I knew they were going to kill me. I heard them talking about it. The rest of the village – they were watching, but nobody said anything. And then –“
She’d broken off to sing, and would not talk to me again; but I’d been able to fill in the next bit for myself. The beast had come then, and devoured the man and woman. It had spared her, though, and moved on to deal with the rest of the village.
I’d left her still sitting on her log, and walked away. The last I’d heard was her voice, still raised in that strange, compelling song.
I’d come awake, shaking my head. What had brought this buried memory up, after so many years? I’d found others afterwards that the beast seemed to have spared, for reasons unfathomable. I could only guess at its motivations, and that made not the slightest difference to my quest.
When I’d got up and stepped out of the hut, I’d stopped in my tracks, my face growing cold with shock. Just outside the door was the mark of an immense foot, sickle-shaped slashes of claws digging into the dirt. The beast had been here, just as I’d imagined. And it had been silent – so silent that not even the village dogs had got to know it was there.
For a moment I’d wondered why it hadn’t simply broken down the wall and entered. It was big and strong enough, and the hut was flimsy enough. I’d shrugged. It only meant that the beast hadn’t used the hours of darkness to run, and that only brought me closer to tracking it down.
Now, crouched on the trail next to the guide, I looked up the pass. “Are there caves in the walls of the pass?”
“No, but there are...ledges. It’s not easy to see what’s on top, from below.” The guide hesitated. “Maybe we make camp here tonight and go on in the morning?”
“No!” It wasn’t just the fact that I knew he’d use the darkness to try and sneak away, back to the village. I could taste the nearness of the beast, could almost feel the tingling in the hairs on my arms. “We’re going on.”
He looked at me with an expression filled with such fear that I realised he wasn’t scared of the monster as much as he was of me. “All right. We go on.”
The sun had set behind the top of the hills by the time we entered the pass, the shadows falling over us like a thick purple blanket. The sky above was still porcelain-blue, though, and there was enough light to see. I knew we’d better locate the creature before darkness fell, or we’d be helpless in these narrow confines. It could decapitate us from above in an instant, with one swipe of its claws – or impale us on the tip of its stinging tail.
I suppressed a shudder at the thought of the tail. That was the one thing about the beast which had never ceased to unnerve me.
“We must find it before dark, sir,” the guide said, echoing my thoughts so exactly that I was filled with sudden fury. I was about to round on him when something caught at the corner of my eye.
In itself it wasn’t much – a deeper shadow, a flicker in the deepening dusk, as of something which had just turned round a far corner of the path. Instinctively, I paused, staring. “Did you see that?”
“Yes...” His voice had sunk to a whisper. “What is it?”
“The flap of the beast’s wings – got to be. It’s just gone around the turning. Come quickly.”
Without waiting for him, I began to run, tugging the crossbow off my shoulder. The pass was narrow, so narrow that I knew the beast couldn’t spread its wings to fly properly. Not that its wings could carry it far, of course; for all their great size, they weren’t big enough to do more than lift the great weight of the monster’s body a little off the ground.
Running as fast as I could, I rounded the bend and came to a halt so sudden that I stumbled.
Before me, the pass straightened out, into a stretch so long that I could only just see the far end. And even in that dimming light, I could make out that it was empty.
But that flicker of wing I had just seen...
A slight sound, above and to my left. Slowly, as drawn by invisible hands, I turned.
It crouched above me, silhouetted against the darkling sky. Its immense wings were outstretched above its heavy shoulders, its face contorted in a silent snarl which revealed its rows of teeth. Behind, almost invisible in the gathering gloom, its barbed tail switched from side to side.
It was terrible, and beautiful, frozen in the moment of stillness before it sprang, its shoulders like boulders against the sky. The head was a carving, a great evil god, before whom generations might bow in silent terror, their lives dependent on its caprice of the moment. The legs were pillars of muscle, tipped with diamond claws, which dug into the cliff face so tightly that they carved grooves in the rock. It crouched, an endless moment, before its legs bent under it and it launched itself off the cliff and at me.
Time seemed to stop. I watched it hang in the air, as it came down at me, and I was also frozen, it seemed, my movements slow as treacle. And then the beast was down, on the floor of the pass, close enough to touch. It threw its head back, its jaws gaping, and it made a noise.
It took me a moment to realise that it was singing. It was singing the song the maidservant had sung, so many years ago.
Suddenly, everything was moving, and at top speed. The beast reared, its huge forelimbs stretched towards me, great claws extended, swatting. But I’d already ducked beneath the creature’s clumsy swipe, and my crossbow was up, my finger on the trigger, squeezing. At this range I couldn’t possibly miss. And I didn’t.
Even as the beast crashed down on the rocky ground, transfixed by the bolt through the heart, it kept singing. Even as it snapped up at me with its rows of dagger-like teeth, it sang, the lilting tune resonating through me, drawing me to step forward, fascinated, even as I reloaded the crossbow. It was still singing as, at the last moment and too late to do anything about it, I saw its tail whipping round at me.
I never felt the impact itself. The darkness seemed to suddenly close in, like a tunnel, and the last thing I heard was the beast, still alive, still singing.
I do not know how long it was till I awoke. It cannot have been too long, for the light was not completely gone from the sky above, though the pass was plunged into darkness. But I could see, well enough – the rough stone walls, the strip of stone that comprised the floor of the pass, I could see it well enough.
The body of the beast lay beside me, seeming oddly shrunken, as though death had robbed it of some essential quality that had given it its size. As I raised myself, painfully, on my arms, it seemed for a moment as though the whole world had shrunken too – as though the pass was narrower than I remembered, the walls more constricting.
I was still gathering my strength together when I heard voices. The next moment, there were torches shining on the rock walls, and my guide was leading a group from the village round the bend of the pass.
I clambered up off the rock to show myself, that they should know I was alive. We must have seen each other at the exact same moment.
They screamed, in terror, their high wailing voices bouncing off the rock walls, and then they were sprinting off down the path, the torches thrown down, sputtering off the rock. I opened my mouth to call out, to tell them to wait, that it was all right, I had killed the monster.
What came out of my throat was song. It was the same song. Rising and falling, it echoed off the cliffs, bouncing off the rock again and again.
I looked around. My wings were flapping, slowly and unsurely, but they would gain strength. My tail was switching back and forth, the stinger at the tip already full of venom. I raised my head, and felt the mane heavy on my shoulders.
I howled, pacing, pacing, the length of the pass. After a while I followed the path down towards the village, but I passed it by. Don’t ask me why – maybe it was because I wished to spare the chief’s pathetic, cowlike daughter.
I passed it by.
That was a long time ago, longer than I care to remember.
I am the manticore.
I go on now, through the land, sowing terror and devastation in my wake. When I can, I bring justice, ravaging the strong and sparing the weak. They hunt me too, soldiers and hunters and peasant levies, and sometimes I have to fight to save myself, for my time is not yet come.
One day it will come, though, I know. One day, when I am very old and beginning to weaken, some hunter will come, filled with the skill and determination to track me down, and I will let him find me. I will face him, and I will let him kill me - but not before I teach him my song, and sting him in my dying.
And then there will be another manticore, and after that, another, till the kingdoms are dust, and then beyond, till the end of time.
Men will live, and men will die. Cities and nations will rise and fall.
The manticore will go on.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013