by Peter Schranz
"Actually, its nest is very close," answered the shepherd. "Regrettably close. It carried away one of my rams last night. Thank God I didn't lose my mind."
"Did you see it?" the monster hunter Dorle asked.
"I already told you I saw it. Weren't you listening?"
Dorle didn't like the shepherd, and she adjusted her bandolier menacingly to communicate this to him. Maybe I have things on my mind, she thought as the shepherd described his missing ram. I sure wish I could just wander around all day with sheep, but you people always seem to be in peril and I'm the only one who bothers to take care of you.
"Can't you get out there before sunset? Cax sleeps in the day."
"For the fifth time, its name is Cax. In my grandmother's language it means heap or lump. It lives in a place called the Nidus of Cax on a rock a half mile or so past that copse of oak. Can I repeat anything else for you?"
Dorle turned silently from the shepherd and made for her quarry. Cax is probably not technically a heap-monster, she supposed as she filled her all-purpose rifle with fungicidal ampoules and walked. That liar didn't tell me its name five times. That's one thing I'd remember. Besides, these poor confused shepherds don't know the difference between myxomyoides, which don't appear this far south, and true myxomites.
She passed the silent, birdless copse and spotted the rock, the only earthen protrusion she could see on the Plain of Sheep. No monster appeared for her to fell, which indicates to me that it is not a species of myxomyoides that I have been assigned to dispatch. The thing would have tasted my presence and come sludging at me by now.
She circled the rock several times. Then, as though Cax had actually heard her think Of course, petroides!, it stood, being the rock itself.
"You're a little one!" Dorle called up to schist-tumid Cax. For a moment she hoped it would answer her. Cax did not sludge towards her but rather it chunked. Its stilted gait made it very easy for Dorle to drain the impotent ampoules from her rifle and refill it with a transparent corundum round.
The round transformed Cax's leg into dust. The monster tumbled to the grass of the plain, and its remains were nothing more than a few small rocky hillocks on which, much later, children would often climb.
A host of shepherds approached Dorle cautionlessly and smiled at her and patted her on the back and offered her strange little baubles made out of sheep bones.
"So you do consider yourself a workaholic, then," Doctor Jason informed Dorle during their session.
"If you saw all of the things that I've seen," she said, "your mind would wander, too."
"As usual I'm maybe a little too dense to understand your answer."
Dorle turned her head from its comfortable position on the couch to look out the window. Here in the city the birds were plentiful. Doctor Jason's office was on the edge of town, and she could see the Plain of Sheep from the window. She thought, looking through the space between two skyscrapers, that she could make out the new hillocks of Cax, but she could not. They were much too distant.
"But you said that your hunts focus you."
"When I'm here, I'm thinking about monsters. When I'm hunting monsters, I'm thinking about monsters. Have you ever had earworm, Doctor Jason?"
"Do you mean the musical phenomenon or are you going to tell me about some vermicular prey of yours?"
"I feel like I have mindworm. I thought about Cax on my way back to the city. On my way out I thought about the Men in the Marsh."
"They weren't real men, were they, Dorle?"
"What? No, they were anurites. Very froggish chaps."
"Oh, anurites," said the doctor, inspecting his nails. "There was a thing in the paper about them the other day."
"I'm going back tomorrow."
"Back to Graymarsh."
"I got my B.A. at Graymarsh U, you know. Lot of real brainiacs down there."
Dorle hardly knew he was speaking. "When I came home from the plains I found a letter that said they're having monster-issues there again."
"You only come back here to see me," Doctor Jason explained. It was ten to five, so he added, "Time's up."
"I hope you're ready," Polly said seriously to Dorle at the Limpkin. Both women swigged their beer at the same time. "You seem distracted. The marshes do that, I guess." Dorle didn't answer. She was staring out the window, seeing only night. "Thanks again for responding to the letter and meeting me and everything. I hope the check was reasonable. I know the Limpkin isn't the best bar there is, but it's the only one in town."
"It's not like I'm troubled or anything," Dorle said. "I mean, I've seen some pretty scary stuff, but I've been doing this a long time and I know how to handle it."
"But the pond-wife is the scariest monster imaginable."
"There's no such thing as the scariest monster imaginable."
"That's not true," Polly said. "Listen very carefully, as we have little time. Our understanding of the pond-wife is a monster than which no scarier can be imagined. Needless to say, the idea of the pond-wife exists in the mind. However, a monster which exists both in the mind and in reality is scarier than a monster that exists only in the mind. If the pond-wife exists only in the mind, then we can imagine a scarier monster--that which exists in reality too. We cannot be imagining something that is scarier than the pond-wife. Hence the pond-wife exists in reality. Now go kill her."
Dorle was profoundly inattentive during Polly's argument, and when she finally stopped talking, she asked, "Where do I go?"
"I already told you, she lives in Frogthrong Pond. It's south of here, by the town of Moldy Houses. Go to her before she rises and drives us all mad again."
Dorle threw the last of her beer down her throat and rose from the chair. She filled her rifle with hook-cartridges, fixed the flashlight to the bayonet lug, and bounded from the Limpkin.
They always say their monster is the scariest, she reminded herself as she walked south towards Moldy Houses, as if that makes any difference. On the other hand, that woman who was just talking to me knew that the pond-wife is an anguillion. Who knows what she knows.
The road Dorle walked on stood just a muddy touch over the marsh. The flashlight illuminated the scales of something under the marsh's reeds. Dorle had taken to whispering to herself, and she whispered, "It's just an animal."
"Who are you calling an animal?" the pond-wife said.
Dorle hunched over her gun at once and whispered, "Who's that?" searching for the voice's locus.
"Hopefully not your prey," the pond-wife answered, her voice like splashes. "They call me the pond-wife, the animals. If you insist on naming things, you may do so as well. I should wager that the animals gave you a name, too." Dorle's flashlight found the pond-wife, whose head protruded from the marsh atop an eely body the shape of a big scaly cattail. Her face was a woman's face, but her teeth were those of a fish.
"Dorle," she said. "You talk."
"It's nice to meet you, Dorle."
"They said you were the scariest monster imaginable," Dorle confessed. "But you don't seem scary so much as unusual."
"There's unfortunately only one of me."
"They also said that you were supposed to live in Frogthrong Pond."
"May I not take a stroll through the marshes?"
"Of course you may, pond-wife," Dorle answered politely. "They were all wrong about you. They said you drive people mad."
"That's not really up to me, Dorle," said the pond-wife. She climbed up onto the road with her four amphibian feet. Her long eel-neck helped her gaze up at Dorle. "You are the first animal I've met who hasn't gone mad from me. I've longed to talk with someone."
"And you're the first monster I've met who I can talk to. I must admit," Dorle explained, "I usually have a hard time paying attention when people talk to me."
"Why don't you put that gun down?" the pond-wife suggested. Dorle did so innocently, but retrieved the flashlight. "I hope I am not betraying my ignorance of your animal customs too greatly by asking if, perhaps, you'd like to live with me in the pond."
"I can't actually live in a pond, regrettably, pond-wife, but I think someone said you live near the town of Moldy Houses."
"That someone was right. It's a fine town if you don't mind its complete abandonment by your type, and a profusion of flavorsome fish and wild rice. Perhaps you could live in one of the houses. Live in all of them. Just keep me company, Dorle."
Peter Schranz is the editor-in-chief of dailydoofus.com and the host of the podcast Flight of the Fifty Fancies. His fiction has appeared on NPR's Studio 360 and is forthcoming in the Hides the Dark Tower anthology. He also gives chess lessons to elementary school students and is trying his very hardest to learn how to read Latin.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
While I probably need advice from other fantasy writers more than vice versa, I like to be in the middle of 1.) a book of speculative fiction 2.) a book of realistic fiction and 3.) a non-fiction book on a technical subject such as biology or Latin grammar or Indian logic etc. The fiction that results when combining what I draw together from disparate subjects often minimizes occasion to wince at it.