I was close. The monster was ahead of me, almost near enough to touch; certainly close enough to smell. Musty, stale sweat that whispered of forced movement and desperation. To be honest, I couldn’t be sure whether it came from me or the beast.
I tried to peer through the undergrowth, to get a look at the creature that had been my quarry for the past five weeks. The ever-present mist rolled across a desolate landscape that was punctuated by the haphazard shadows of strange, crippled trees that loomed above the scrub. There was a vague familiarity to the scene but the damn fog that had blighted every day of my quest had caused me to lose my bearings and I wasn’t at all sure where I was. But one way or another, it ended here, today.
When I had accepted the challenge everything had seemed so easy, so simple. I had flicked through the details with the cocky air of an accomplished adventurer and set off with a swagger that, in hindsight, made me wince. I had been ill-prepared, paying no heed to the difficulties ahead, to the graves I passed. Each one may as well have had “Bad Idea” as an epitaph. But for days I was full of good heart, making progress towards a goal I thought I understood.
The creature, on paper at least, had sounded rather straightforward. Easy pickings but with the possibility for a little sport. I hadn’t even waited for my usual wilful companion, who had wandered off whilst my attention was elsewhere. Either she would catch up with me or I would accomplish my task alone, the glory all mine.
It was only after three weeks that I began to have my first doubts. This was taking much longer than I expected, although even then I never believed I would fail. But in the last few days failure had become a very real possibility. I had misjudged the task. My quarry had grown from a simple creature into a cunning opponent, out-witting my every plan. In my mind it now took the form of a hideous monstrosity, toying with me, luring me deeper into recklessness. I was past caring. We would do battle and only one of us would see the sun rise in the morning.
I moved forward slowly, my hand resting on my weapon, my eyes scanning the phantasmagorical scene ahead of me. Somewhere, behind the layered sheets of fog, the sun was setting. A glimmer of vermilion played upon the broken gallows and gibbets that I had taken for twisted trees. My eyes widened in surprise as I realised where the monster had brought me. I had been here a few times before, fighting gruelling battles to overcome the enemy. But those had been encounters of swift movement, strike and counter-strike. Never had I been lured here with barely a sight of my quarry.
Something scuttled away to my left but by the time I had focused it had gone to ground. A soft, slow chuckling ebbed through the mist. I would have called out a challenge but my mouth was dry. In any case, it was time for action, not talk. I unsheathed my sword and began to walk towards the point where I believed my quarry lay hidden.
A deep sigh exhaled ahead of me, merging into words that wormed into my head. “Give up.”
I stopped, unsure what to do. Those were supposed to be my words to the creature. I glanced around, checking for any indications I was walking into a trap. Perhaps I already had.
The chuckling began again. “You’re not going to win, you know,” rumbled the voice, the sound flowing around me like the mist.
I stood my ground, chin jutting forward like a belligerent child. “I don’t care. I’m still doing this.”
More laughter. “You think you can overcome me? You’re just going to be wasting your effort. And time. You do realise where we are?”
Of course I bloody realised. “Yes. Near Deadline.”
“Yesssss,” hissed the voice of the beast as it slowly unfolded from the earth. It felt like a never ending sequence of articulations and straightening until it towered over me, daring me to strike. “What’s the matter? Do I seem bigger than you thought?”
“They always do. I despatch them all, nonetheless.” I hoped I sounded confident but I knew that previous encounters had begun well before this point and I hadn’t yet laid a stroke against my foe.
The creature half turned and glanced over its shoulder. “All I have to do is make it to Deadline. Whereas you,” it glared at me with white heat, “you have nothing. You are too late and your Muse is nowhere to be seen.”
“I’m not giving up!” I bellowed and drew back my arm.
The beast took a step forward and met my first blow. Black patterns splattered across its belly. With a roar it turned and began striding towards Deadline. “You have nothing!” it repeated, “nothing you can finish in time!”
I raced after the monster and leapt on to its back, feeling a rekindling of energy, the spark that had been missing for weeks. I struck again and again. The actinic bright white of the creature began to darken as the words came quick and free. It howled as I delivered the coup de grace.
The creature lay transformed. No longer a simple mission turned sour, but a finished heroic tale.
The change in my fortune was suspiciously rapid. I looked around and saw my Muse sat in a stunted tree. She looked cross but also a little smug.
“Did you miss me?”
OK. So here’s the explanation. This was for a 1000 word fiction competition with the theme of Giving Up. Easy, I thought. But as the days turned to weeks I realised that every idea I had was terrible. I was being vaguely influenced by Alan Moore’s murderous cybiote, The Fury, which had the recurring tag of “it never gives up” (until it meets its match and has its spine ripped away, finally giving up – see this for an earlier snippet of the story).
So, I wanted a monster. But for the life of me I couldn’t make anything click in my head. Everything I considered was corny, or overly simplistic, or didn’t go anywhere. The deadline loomed and I had nothing; my muse had deserted me. Perhaps I should just give up, I thought. This is a battle I can’t win.
Give up? Give up the battle to write a short story about giving up?
[ Light bulb moment ]
So this is dedicated to all those writers out there who pull something from the jaws of defeat in the nick of time. It might not be my best piece of writing, and as predicted it didn’t win (enjoyable but a bit too offbeat, apparently) but it was rather cathartic and I was pleased with how it turned out.
And thanks to Diana Wallace Peach and all the muse-bewitched followers of her blog. The various discussions of unruly muse behaviour certainly percolated through to my predicament and gave the story a proper end. 🙂