The Monsters We See

Shiv clambered up the rough stone of the mountain, panting lightly, sure in his grip and footing. Sunlight glinted in the rocks and burned at his exposed neck, arms, and legs. Below him, Dharin followed, her long hair held fast in a bun. He paused for a moment to admire the elegance of her movement, then pulled himself up onto a wide ledge, set his pack down, and rested. He sipped from his water skin and waited for Dharin to catch up.
“We’re close now,” said Dharin as she scrambled up onto the ledge, beads of sweat clinging to her brow. “Can you feel it?”

Shiv nodded. The mountain had loomed over them as they climbed, a constant weight upon them, but in the last stretch the sense of towering distance had faded. There was now only the present face of rock before them, and open sky above. He held the skin out for her and she took it.

“I believe this must be the final ascent. We should make ourselves ready.” They had climbed with their armor slung behind them in their packs, and now they donned the thick leathers and dull grey steel. Dharin strung her bow and tested the string, then checked the heads on her arrows, counting them. Shiv adjusted the straps on his shield, then examined his spear. When he was satisfied with the binding of spearhead to haft, he pulled a stone from his sack and honed the short blade he kept at his waist. There was an energy between them as they worked, silent and calm: the shared anticipation of battle. When there was nothing left to test or adjust, they packed away their things for the final climb.

Shiv’s vision flared bright for a moment, and the world buzzed gently around him. “Shit!” he said, “not now!”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Dharin said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll be right here waiting for you. The Dragon isn’t going anywhere, either.”

Shiv looked at Dharin and the gentle, patient smile that she gave him. Her voice and the weight of her hand reassured him. Why was he always afraid to leave? Why was he
afraid he would not see that smile again?

“Okay, just promise you won’t slay it without me.” He smiled at her, and then closed his eyes as he submitted to the force pulling at his mind, pulling at his grip on the reality before him.

When Shiv opened his eyes, Dharin was gone, as was the cliff, the mountain, the sky, replaced by the row of pods across the aisle, shaded orange by the translucent membrane of his own pod. As always, the shift from open world to the tight confines of the pod filled him with a crushing claustrophobia and threatened to suffocate him. He closed his eyes and pressed his arms against the gelatinous cushions of the pod, waiting for the feeling to pass. When it did, he removed the IV sleeve from his arm, opened the pod, and slipped out, naked, into the aisle. He pulled a clean robe from the conveyor belt that ran along the aisle and slipped it on. The fabric was soft but thin and did little to conceal the fragile human frame beneath it. He avoided looking at himself as he moved; gone was the muscular, tanned body he felt at one with. In this place he was skinny, pale, and weak.

Shiv fell into line with the others on his schedule, looking at them without seeing them; they were ghosts, like him, of the real people in another world. Who are you? he often wondered but would never ask. Had he met them before, somewhere in the system? What did they look like, and what talents did they possess in those other worlds? Shiv pushed the thoughts aside. These bodies are no one. This body is not me. This is another place, this is a dream, this is the price that we pay. But why did they have to pay a price? What where they paying for? He didn’t know.

Shiv followed the line into the mess hall, where he received a tray on which was served a spongy yet dense brick of alga-tack, the nutritious super food that they were required to eat every wake cycle. They received the rest of their nutrition intravenously, but because of the ancestors’ desire to keep their digestive systems running, this ordeal was a mandatory part of their lives. And it was indeed an ordeal. While the flavor of the dark brown bread wasn’t awful—though neither was it pleasant—Shiv’s weak jaw made chewing a chore, and the solid food was always a mild shock to the stomach.
After the meal, Shiv went with the others to the bikes. Six hundred rotations later, damp with sweat, Shiv returned to his pod. He shat (a hard, painful lump), rinsed his body, reattached the IV sleeve, and laid his head back onto the neural pads. He took a deep breath and logged back into the System.

The sun was setting now, and Dharin lay with her back up against the rock wall. “Ah, Shiv,” she said, her voice lazy with sleep, “it is so good to see you again. I hope you did not miss me too much.” She smiled at him, and he at her, and all was well again. The bad dream was even now fading from his awareness as the woman he loved and the quest before them came into focus.

“Well then, shall we get going? I hope you haven’t gotten too comfortable lying there.” Dharin rose to her feet and stretched her arms. “No, not too comfortable,” she said, and they set off. Once again, they toiled up the steep ascent, slower now, encumbered as they were by their armor.

They reached the top as the last half of the sun boiled away on the horizon. They stood a moment by the edge, panting and enjoying the view; the valley below was darkly lit, the colors of forest and field rich in deep greens and purples, the lazy patterns of wild streams and hills pushing against the orderly plots of farmstead and town. Shiv thought he might put his arm around Dharin and felt the beat of his heart skip just so, but as he gathered his courage Dharin lifted her arm and pointed out into the valley. He followed her gaze and forgot his desire when he saw the blackened ruins.

It had been a castle, full of life and commerce. The Lord there kept the peace of the valley and was well loved for the justice of his court. A horseman under that Lord’s banner had delivered to them the plea for aid, but they had arrived too late. Still, justice was worth fighting for, and the threat of winged, fiery doom still hung over the valley. That the king and all his people were simulated constructs did not matter; the thought did not even cross their minds. Shiv drew his spear and shield. Together they turned and moved onward, walking now with the gait of jungle cats stalking their prey.
Before them yawned the mouth of a great cave, deep in its darkness. “Shall we go in to meet it, or draw it out?” asked Shiv.

“I dislike the idea of going in. We have no light, nor protection from its fire. However, out here it may take wing, and we cannot fly.” They stood outside the cave, silent in thought.

“Perhaps we might draw it out, yet deny it the chance to fly,” said Shiv. “Look, see the shape of the cliff face? I could wait on the overhang there above the cave, and leap down upon it.” Dharin saw the wildness in Shiv’s eyes and the grin that split his face, and she thrilled in it. She nodded. He began to climb.

When Shiv was in position, spear drawn and held ready, Dharin placed herself before the entrance to the cave. “Dragon!” she called, “Terror of the valley! Come forth and meet your doom!” For a moment there was silence, and then the mountain trembled. Shiv staggered against the rock, and Dharin lost her footing, falling to one knee. She felt the rush of air and saw the flash of light, and she threw herself to the side as a torrent of fire poured from the cave. There was the sound of wind soughing along the rock faces, and then a roar. Shiv felt now the fear, not for himself, but for Dharin, who lay sprawled out to the side of the cave. Below him a serpentine head adorned with thick horns emerged,
and his resolve hardened.

Truly it was a monster, birthed from the dark depths of some fell mind; to call it a dragon would be but half the truth. The chimeric beast had not one part that fit the whole—Shiv could see from his vantage the leathery wings of a bat fused to the shoulders of an elephant, and from that leathery hide sprouted the scaled neck and triangular head of a serpent. As if in defiance of nature, it began to laugh the insane cackle of a hyena.

Dharin looked up to see the gleaming feline eyes staring at her from the snake-head, laughing, it’s jaws opening wide as wings unfurled behind it, bright black dagger-teeth displayed before her when she saw the flash of steel; Shiv plunged downward from his height, silent, no war-cry yet to reveal his strike, and now the hellish scream tearing out as spear descended into flesh.

His spear stuck fast where it struck deep in the shoulder, and Shiv gripped it hard not to lose his perch. The beast’s cry went through him like lightning, and he thrilled in the clarity of the battle rush. The fanged head whipped around, and Shiv leapt forward onto its long neck so that he might avoid the snapping jaws. It cried out again, and Shiv saw Dharin, kneeling now, her bow before her, releasing arrow after arrow into the dragon’s winged flank.

Shiv gripped the trunk-like neck of the beast as it turned once again to Dharin. He felt the dragon’s throat bulge as it took in air. No you don’t, he thought, and with his knees gripping the neck pulled the long dagger from his belt and plunged it into the dragon’s throat, finding some soft place in the scales. As he drew the blade back across, pulling with all his might, molten blood and flame poured from the gash. The dragon reared up, pushing upwards with its hind legs, clambering for the sky with eagle talons; and it fell, crashing, backwards. Shiv, now slick with hot blood, lost his grip, and as the great beast fell so did he. He hit hard against rock, and scaled flesh crashed down upon him.

He awoke to the pain that adrenaline had shielded him from, the ache of bones crushed into organs, of suffocation and obliteration. His heart pounded violently in his chest, threatening to burst from his frail body. When the pain began to subside, he opened his eyes to the twilight of his pod. The pain of this death was ordinary in its severity, and yet utterly unique in its specificity; it was the kind of thing that one could never get used to. He wiped away bitter tears and booted the system back up, this time navigating through menus and loading screens. He could not return to that world, but of course there were others. He made his choice and sent Dharin an invite.

Shiv now stood within a forest grove; tall trees thick with vines surrounded him, and before him, amid mossy rocks and wildflowers, was a clear, still pond. Shiv lay down among the mosses and waited. Technically, he could return to the place of his death atop the mountain, but that was not how he and Dharin operated. The glory of battle was greatly diminished if one’s death was without consequence, which was also why the pair of them kept their pain reception at maximum.

He thought about Dharin, envisioning the fierce calm of her face as she relentlessly assaulted the dragon with arrows. The vision filled him with longing. They had shared many adventures, victories, and defeats since they had first partnered up. He could remember with vivid clarity the day they met; it had been as part of a group quest, back in the days when the worlds were less immersive. Back then, the worlds all came with quest labels and recommended party sizes: The Terror of the Great River (8+). This particular adventure ended in a battle with a massive river serpent, and when it was over, Shiv and Dharin were the only ones still alive. They had gotten to know each other in the aftermath of the battle, the only people they could really talk to as one-dimensional townsfolk celebrated and showered them with food, gold, and lavish praise. After that, they had stuck together, pushing and encouraging one another. They had shared everything, from the highs and lows of battle to the calm of the long journeys in between. There was a comfortable intimacy between them, but Shiv wanted more. He would kill a dragon for her but could not muster the courage to tell her he loved her.

Sometime later, Dharin appeared in the grove. She smiled down at Shiv where he still lay. She was garbed, like him, in a loose robe. “My dear Shiv, it is so good to see you alive and well,” she said. He began to stand up, but before he got his balance, she shoved him forcefully and he tumbled into the pool. He came to the surface, sputtering and bewildered. “What was that for?!” he said. He looked to her in confusion and saw that there were tears in her eyes.

“Do you know how many times I have buried your body? Even once would be too many, Shiv, and it has been many more than that. Do you know how it feels, to see someone you love die over and over?” Shiv was stunned; no, he didn’t know. He knew the fear he felt for her safety: it was for her sake that he risked his life. Yet she had never before said that she loved him. He pulled himself from the water and stood before her. “I’m sorry,” he said. She pressed her face into his chest and sobbed. He put his arms around her and held her tight.

And then it was over. Dharin wiped her eyes as a smile retook her face. “Look at me, being silly. You’re right here, there is nothing to cry about,” and she laughed, a bright sound that bubbled up through the air. Their embrace was broken, and Dharin was telling him what he had missed: “There wasn’t enough dirt up there for a proper burial, so I built a cairn of sorts, with your helm and shield on top as markers of the fierce warrior who gave his life to slay the dragon. Then, and I know you’ll like this part, I cut the dragon’s head from its neck, and placed it before your cairn. Just imagine how it will look once the flesh decomposes! And of course the cave was full of priceless treasure, but that will be the reward for whatever valley folk muster the courage and make the climb. And I would have been here much sooner, but then I had to log off and hit the bikes.”

“I didn’t know you felt that way,” said Shiv stupidly. His arms were still out, holding the ghost of their embrace.

“What do you mean?” she said, an innocent smile playing around her lips.

“You said you loved me. I didn’t know.”

She blushed fiercely. “Why else would I keep partying up with someone who has such a low survival rate?”

It was his turn to blush. “I just thought we made a good team.” She looked away. “What I meant to say,” he stammered, “is that I love you too.”

They came together again, and this time they did not break apart too soon. They held each other, and they kissed, and when that was still not enough they tumbled to the earth and made love on the forest floor.