by Serena W. Sorrell
Miss Red was so called for the shade of her hair; the shine of her nails; and the sheen of her heels. She considered herself a collector of rarities, the obscure and the odd. In actuality she was a collector of monsters. Natural or man-made, it made no difference to Miss Red. She had hundreds upon hundreds of creatures. Each horror more horrible than the last. And that was her goal. Her strongest desire. Her lust. She was ever-seeking nightmares for her gruesome gallery.
Which is how Miss Red, along with two of her cohorts, found their way to a small mountain village. The whisper of a monster beyond horror, beyond terror. It was too much for Miss Red to resist. Rumors said the beast was so ferocious and grotesque it stayed sealed away at the bottom of a deep, dark hole in the faraway village high in the mountains, but if rumors were true every step would be worth it. Miss Red’s heart danced at the thought of such a monster. She would have it, no question and not up for debate. It was up to the village, and the couple guarding the beast, whether Miss Red left easy, or the village more red.
Along with her predilection of monstrosities Miss Red, to put mildly, was not a nice person. She got what she wanted. She paid well when she offered. She never asked twice. You took what she gave, said thank you, and blessed your lucky day when Miss Red walked away. She dabbled in mayhem and skirted the law with great cheek. Few were the cities and towns that didn’t know Miss Red and her men, Blade and Bullet, so called for their favorite tools. Her other men she called for her favorite toys. However, this was a trip of business and not pleasure. Here she had need for Blade and Bullet’s expertise. Or, so she had foreseen.
Miss Red, Bullet, and Blade were monsters of a different breed. They had no claws or fangs, no poison or curses, but Miss Red and her friends were monsters nevertheless, and they had arrived, at last, to the sleepy, mountain town. Miss Red would not be leaving empty-handed or disappointed. The three twisted souls lurked to the homely cottage, though grandest by far, in the center of the village. It was there, inside that house, the deep, dark hole waited with monster in hold.
Though, they were indeed criminals of all the worst kinds, each of them wanted for any crime imaginable, yet they stayed free. However, even criminals such as Miss Red, Bullet, and Blade had their manners. They had sent a letter of inquiry ahead. Namely, to ask what manner of monster did their town house? How much gold did they fathom it to be worth? And, P.S., do expect Miss Red and associates to be visiting soon.
This village was high in snowcapped mountains, as previously stated, and here, far from the world, no one knew the name Miss Red, or the red she often spilled when in a mood. However, visitors they had experienced. Their monster quite famous had earned their remote village travelers and coins. Gold enough that the house with ownership of the deep, dark hole and its horrible contents was a grand structure of shining wood, with woven grass floors, and painted tapestry walls. Gold enough every house in their village prospered, though not as splendid and grand. They shared the bounty the couple’s creature had brought.
To detail the monster itself was a difficult thing. Not that miss red had not tried to get a proper eye witness account. Descriptions varied too much, some who saw it went mad, others feared an echo of voices rattling inside their head. Though the rumors seldom agreed Miss Red had learned, through extortion and torture, three rules to keep her and her men safe from the creature’s wrath and power.
Never look into its awful eyes.
Give it water to drink.
Feed it bland crackers and soft cheese.
This final rule perplexed Miss Red more than the two before. Monsters with terrible eyes which should never be met, she had fifteen. Monsters which needed water to survive and thrive, thirty-seven. But a monster who wanted crackers and cheese? Not even one in her entire bestiary would eat those things before they devoured the arm which offered them. Still, she had brought, by the physical strength of Blade and Bullet, enough water to satisfy a kraken, and enough crackers and cheese for a herd of goats. She did hope it wasn’t a kraken, for she already had two. Although, Miss Red had never heard of a kraken living at the bottom of a deep, dark hole high in the mountains and the thought cheered her immensely.
However the fact remained, Miss Red had no inkling what sort of beast this might be. The thought excited her, frightened her, but most of all, it made her impatient. An impatient Miss Red was a dangerous Miss Red. Even Bullet and Blade followed five steps behind, stomping through knee-high snow, while Miss Red seemed to melt through every snowflake. At last, they arrived at an open eye painted on a door to a house in the middle of the village. Inside, just moments away, waited the deep, dark hole. Miss Red swooned and dreamed, wondering at what sort of horror it could possibly be?
Bullet and Blade however, shifted their weight, ready with a very different reaction. With Bullet on her left, and Blade to her right, Miss Red pulled a woven rope that let out a great chime.
A shuffle of rapid steps, a muffle of quick words, and the wooden door cracked. Light spilled onto the snowy steps and across the ruby of Miss Red. She became a splatter of the red she was renowned for and stained that white, white snow. She ascended three wooden steps and met two smiling faces. They were not unusual, well-fed though, Miss Red forgot their features each time she blinked. These were the owners, the protectors, of the deep, dark hole. Miss Red walked into warmth, Bullet and Blade at her sharp heels.
“Miss Red, I presume,” spoke the man in a nasally way, “we received your letter just yesterday.”
“On such short notice we’ve been rushed to make every preparation,” intoned the woman, bland, fattening whatever offer Miss Red was calculating with complaints of trouble.
She would play their game. For now.
“You two guard the creature then?”
When Miss Red spoke it was honey, it was silk, it drowned your breath and squeezed around your neck. She wove commands with that voice, made easy demands in that voice, she made men beg with that voice. She always got what she wanted with that voice. The man and the woman looked at one another, unaffected by Miss Red’s honey or silk. Their brows furrowed and, almost angry. Blade breathed a hair closer, Bullet a fracture back.
“Guard? No. We own it, and keep it. This here’s my missus, and I’d be father of the house. The monster listens to us, and only us.”
“We mean to give you a show like no other before, show you our demon. You’ll leave aside any trouble, I hope, for your sake. We’re simple folk here. This monster has been our curse these seven years, but curious travelers such as yourself make the beast worth keeping alive. It has its uses.”
Without a word more Mister walked the long, padded hallway with Missus at his elbow. Miss Red walked down the center, behind the couple, with Bullet on her left and Blade on her right. A series of beautifully painted doors slid apart as they passed down the grassy corridor. A tiger, a dragon, a unicorn, a phoenix, a leviathan, the creatures grew in terror and ferocity as they continued their walk. Miss Red’s heart sped with the excitement of meeting this nightmare. Where would she keep it? Would the couple sell the creature without coercement? Would it really do as they commanded? How could such a pair shackle the monster at the bottom of the deep, dark hole?
The last wall split, down the center in a straight line. Each side slid apart and there lie a heavy, flat stone, somewhat circular, on the floor. A ceramic bowl of water and some crusts of bread pushed against a wall like those for a stray. They kept it hungry. That was why it listened. Was that the secret of the monster’s loyalty? Already Miss Red’s mind spun with ways to usurp their hold on her ghastly beast.
It took the married couple’s combined power to lift the stone. Heavy as it was the rock could still be lifted by a middle-aged mister and his missus. Mister leaned down and grabbed a thick rope tacked inside the lip of the hole. He attached the end to a crank and wheel with nimble fingers. The crank stood over the deep, dark hole on four legs, and Missus set the contraption into place.
The hole stared, unblinking, at Miss Red. She almost shuddered. It was indeed deep. It was indeed dark. However, Miss Red doubted if Bullet and Blade would fit inside, even nose to nose. It was not a very wide hole as far as terrible deep, dark holes went, but she’d come for the monster, the demon, the ghoul. What was a small pit if it could deliver her disgusting obsession?
Mister turned the handle, over and over, and over and over. Again and again, and it seemed like forever. The ravel of rope was a testament to the depths where the monster dwelled. Perhaps it favored icy rock or blistening veins of magma to boil its insides. Whatever it liked best was what Miss Red would give it. Her monster. And still the bobbin of rope swelled with rotation after rotation. A light sheen of sweat had broken out across Mister’s high brow, and Missus swiped every drop away. She patted his back, encouraging her husband’s strength.
A tiny voice, weak, frail, tremoring, not so very distant decimated any expression on the woman’s face, and stilled the man’s turning.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It’s been so long. Please, just a drink. I’ll listen. I’ll be good.”
With these promises Mister went on winding, though Missus left him to it. She stood apart from the deep, dark hole. At the back of the room hung a gauzy curtain she began to draw apart to show all manner of baubles and trinkets, weapons and tools, bowls and mirrors. Miss Red’s pulse dropped as a sunken face lifted out of the deep, dark hole. It couldn’t be true. Not after all the stories she’d heard. The proof and the rumors had to mean something in between both existed. A monster! She’d been promised a monster! A demon! Ghouls and banshees, sirens and succubi!
But this… this was a child. Skin hung limp from the sharp edges of bones. Fingernails gnawed short, bloody, infected with pus. Patches of rough scabs and rashes bloomed where hair ought to flow. The pallor of this child, pale was too dark, she was translucent. Blue veins mapped across her body, hid under rags or scars or scabs. The eyes though, yes, there was something alive in those eyes even if her body was practically dead. Eyes so blush pink she could hide among a rosebush.
“Take your water then, fiend!” Missus commanded from the curtain. “Our patrons have come a long way to watch you perform.”
The child hobbled for the barely-filled bowl of water, fell to her knees and raised the bowl to parched lips. She savored every meager droplet and reached for a crust of bread. Mister gave her a solid kick to the ribs.
“My wife said you could have a drink of water. Are you so greedy as to disobey us? Do you need reminding what happens——”
The child fell to the floor, body prone, arms splayed in worship. “I’m sorry. I remembered the rule. I get a crust for every trick. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to forget.”
Seemingly satisfied, Mister turned and nodded to Missus. Missus looked to Miss Red. Miss Red tore her eyes away from the broken girl lying prostrate on the floor. Missus at last smiled, it was as yellow as the gold which gilded her door. She motioned to the wall beyond the curtains, as though the meaning was clear.
“What is it you want to see? The creature can travel between mirrors. It can summon anything or trap anyone within those orbs. With a cup of its blood you could see the future reflected on the surface. The demon can even survive any fatal wound you inflict, except a beheading,” then she added, “we think.”
The girl crawled to her feet, splintered and swollen, though her legs were spindles of disuse. She stood there, swayed only a millimeter. Step by step, slow and thoughtful, Miss Red approached this terrible creature she’d been shown. Pink diamond eyes stared at her and darted away. Eager to please and earn a bread crust the child turned to the wall and raised her hands as a conductor warming his orchestra. Items danced in the air, they weaved and they zoomed. And as Mister and Missus’ smiles widened Miss Red’s frown deepened. The child saw the very important client’s displeasure at mere party tricks. Fire leapt from one mirror and out another, they zigged like a ball caught by frantic hitters. And still Miss Red’s frown sharpened.
“Do it better!”
“Show her something else!”
The child strained, sweat dribbled down her hollow cheek and down her sunken jaw. Missus did nothing to relieve the effect. Feats more fantastic than the last filled the room. Phantoms appeared, dancing in splendor. Real jewels appeared and adorned Miss Red’s hair. The girl swayed, dizzy, but she would not relent. One of these was surely the trick to earn a single bread crust. A dagger flew from the wall and stabbed into the girl. Red blossomed across her, again and again, the dagger possessed by her power attempted to murder its wielder. When at last the girl slit her own throat and took a bow, her windpipe winked, and with the wave of a hand she was healed.
Miss Red’s heart beat frantic, panicked, this was not what she wanted.
“Blade,” Miss Red whispered over her right shoulder. “Bullet,” she said over the left. “Open the cases of water, crackers, and cheese.”
Her orders were completed before their last syllable. A feast for the girl before her eyes. Her pink eyes were wide like a rabbit shown death. Miss Red kneeled behind the food and the drink, she held a hand open, palm up. She beckoned the girl with a voice of honey and silk, honey to nourish and silk to clothe.
“No! You’ll spoil its training! This beast has cursed us enough. We ought to reap whatever we can from it.”
“She is a child.”
“It’s a monster. Eyes like that, and able to move things, make things, and change them. It returns from death. It’s a wraith! A demon!”
A red cross marked Mister’s chest and his head rolled on the floor. While Missus sported a red spot between her eyes and one more over her heart. The bodies of the couple hit the floor at the same time with a sad, empty thump. Miss Red watched the girl. The girl could kill the three of them in the blink of an eye. She could wring out their blood, or put their insides out, or perhaps even slit their throats with her mind.
The girl did not move.
“What’s your name, dear girl?”
“I see. Well, your family is dead.”
“They weren’t,” she spoke in that frail, quavering voice of a bird. “They told me I was no daughter of theirs. I’m a demon, a monster, a beast… I only deserved scraps and a deep, dark hole.”
“I say you don’t. I say you deserve all you can drink and all your belly will hold. Slowly, slowly. There will be more, I can promise you that. Come with me then, we’re wicked and evil, but far less than this place, and we will be your family.”
The girl stared at Miss Red for a long time. Minutes stretched into what felt like years. Perhaps she meant to read Miss Red’s history, see if she would keep such a promise, decide if she meant the words. Whatever answers the pink-eyed girl found in Miss Red she was satisfied by them. She drank and drank and drank, and shoved fistful of soft crackers after fistfuls of mild cheese into her mouth. She ate and drink as if to make up for every minute spent in the deep, dark hole. When she finished at last Miss Red took off her coat and wrapped the girl. Miss Red carried her away from the deep, dark hole, down the long fearsome corridor, outside into the wintry snowstorm.
“Bullet, Blade,” she summoned the two, they seemed eager to leave and as disgusted as she, “burn it all. Every house. No survivors.”
Miss Red walked through the pillows of snow much the same way she had when she arrived in the little village in the mountain. Her steps only a little heavier for the weight in her arms, pulled to her chest. A blazing glow cast orange across the sky and mirrored on the snow. Blade and Bullet masters of their work, not a single scream followed the flames.
Ahead of Miss Red dusk was approaching. A twig think finger pointed at the colors, wiggled as if to swirl them, and for a second Miss red swore they did.
“It’s the sky, sweet girl.”
“And what’s that color?”
“That’s your name then. You’re safe and protected and no monster will ever hurt you, Lavender. I’ll keep them all away from you. After all, I’m the worst monster there is.”