By: Alex Claw
Monster Joe looked down the graveled road and saw something strange. Smoke rose ahead of him, a black smoke that stained the otherwise clear blue sky. He knew it wasn’t cooking smoke for it came thick and billowing. Something was burning.
A cold fear gripped Monster Joe as he dropped his bag of tools and began lumbering down the road. His long legs chewed up the distance toward a small cottage that lay off the side of the main road leading to Shadow Briar.
He stopped as he saw the cottage burning. The thatch roof was gone, the stout wooden pillars he had set into the ground were skeletal hands reaching for the sky through terrible flame.
“Mother!” he roared and raced toward the flames.
The inferno forced him to keep his distance, to shield his face with his good arm, and to watch with helplessness horror as his home burned.
“Son,” a weak voice cried.
Mother sat in the grass near the garden, her back against the stout trunk of the apple tree. Her face wasn’t lit with the usual bright smile and warmth Monster Joe had known all his life, instead it was ashen and sad looking.
Mother smiled weakly. “Joe…”
“What’s wrong, Mama?” Joe crouched down beside her, his good hand enveloping her own. He saw the growing red stain on her abdomen.
“I’m dying, Joe.”
“Mama, no. What can I do?”
“There’s nothing you can do for me, son,” she said. “You have to tell the others. Mutants, Joe. The Wastelanders are attacking…”
Monster Joe saw the pistol in Mother’s hand, the old flintlock she kept in her dresser drawer. He picked it up and discovered Mother had reloaded the weapon. Near the house, lying in the flower bed was a body. Monster Joe rolled it over with his heavy boots.
It was man shape, but
“There are more, Joe. Many more.” Mother coughed and winced, blood leaked from her mouth. “Tell the others. Tell the town.”
Then she stilled.
Captain Mayor Jonas Senna sneered at Monster Joe. He stood in the center of the council chambers, surrounded by half the folk in Shadow Briar and most of the soldiers belonging to Senna in attendance.
“You’re going to believe this monster?” he demanded.
“Joe does not lie,” a voice spoke up, Councilwoman Shade. The older woman stood up among the gathered townspeople. No, Monster Joe corrected himself, she wasn’t a councilwoman anymore.
Senna rose up from where he sat before the crowd. The blue, red, and gold flag of the Thirty Star Union that hung from the wall seemed to grow about him, like wings.
“Lies! Never trust the words of mutants. They’re disgusting lying creatures!” Senna roared, staring hatefully at Monster Joe. “This abomination should have been tossed from the nearest cliff when it was born as we do in the Union!”
“Joe is apart of this community, as was his mother!” Shade said. “He is an honest lad.”
“A witch and her mutant son,” Senna sneered.
“This has nothing to do with any of that!” Shade snapped. “If what he says is true, if the mutants are on the rampage again. We must take this threat seriously.”
“I’m not taking the word of a mutant,” Senna stated.
“Then send out your soldiers. Have them go to Rose’s farm, to the outlying farms, and see what is going on out there,” Shade said.
Senna snorted. “I’m not wasting my soldier’s time with this nonsense.”
“No, because they’re too busy harassing everyone at the gates, eating our food, and lodging in our homes! They look great in their shiny armor and they’re tough harassing poor farmers, but where are they now when a threat is at our door? We might as well draw up the old militia and deal with this problem ourselves!” Shade snapped. There was a chorus of agreement from the crowd.
The sneer on Senna’s face dropped away to show anger. “You’d best stop your yammering, old lady. You speak treason.”
“Treason?” Shade scoffed. “A year ago we didn’t know your Union existed. Now you occupy our town, you disband our council, and you claim you are here to protect us. My friend, Rose, is dead. Her son says there are mutants coming. Yet you sit there on your little throne and make threats?”
A murmur of fear raced through the council chambers as two armored soldiers detached themselves from the wall. Monster Joe saw the people around Shade form up and their faces set into determined lines as they faced the armed men.
With a crash, the doors of the council chamber were thrown open and a figure stumbled in.
“Stop!” a soldier yelled after the figure.
A woman staggered into the chambers, Monster Joe recognized her as Avery Lawson’s wife, Marsella. Blood streaked her clothing and she had a wild look about her.
“Mutants!” she cried. The two soldiers pivoted from where they were marching on Shade and made to grab the woman.
The soldier from outside raised a baton as he neared Marsella. Monster Joe moved, for all his great size he moved very fast, and grabbed the raised arm. The soldier stared at him, then winced and dropped the baton as Monster Joe squeezed.
“Mutants!” Marsella cried. “They’ve taken my children!”
Monster Joe stared at the burned out farmhouse with an ache in his heart. It looked so similar to Mother’s house that he nearly shed a tear. The house was a blackened husk, the outlying buildings were untouched, but the livestock had all been killed and taken. Monster Joe spotted the piles of entrails where the animals had been butchered and the bloodied trail as they were hauled off
Avery Lawson had been nailed to the barn, his wiry frame stripped of clothing and covered in cuts and burns. They had tortured him before he finally died.
The Lawson’s had been neighbors, they had been friends of Mother. She had delivered the Lawson children and Monster Joe worked the fields during the planting and harvesting seasons. Avery Lawson also had been teaching Monster Joe the art of blacksmithing.
He should have come here first, he knew. He should have told them and then gone to the town. Now Avery Lawson was dead.
“By the Sacred Mother,” a soldier whispered in horror.
Monster Joe crouched and looked at the tracks in the grass and mud.
“Twenty mutants,” he said. “They come in from the west and leave east. Twenty two leave.”
Captain Mayor Senna snorted. “How the hell do you know that?”
“He’s a good tracker,” a voice piped up. Roger Kellgore.
“They take the children,” Monster Joe said.
Captain Mayor Senna glared at Monster Joe for a moment, then he pulled out his sword.
“Tell us what you know, monster,” Senna hissed. “Are you working with these creatures?”
“He ain’t got-“ Roger began and a soldier punched him in the mouth.
“Shut up, damn you.”
“You know too damn much about what happened here. Mutants stick together, isn’t that right? Did you go out to them, tell them to come here and attack these people?” Senna snapped his fingers and the other soldiers began to converge on Monster Joe.
“No,” Monster Joe said.
“I’m not going to let some mutant spy in our midst. Put him in chains, boys!”
“Leave him be!” Shade cried. “He’s got nothing to do with this!”
The gathered crowed roared their agreement. Captain Mayor Senna turned on them and glared. “He’s a mutant. He’s one of them and he’s their spy!” he yelled.
“Then you’re a bigger fool-“ Shade began and a soldier struck her in the stomach with the but of his rifle.
“Shut up, old woman.”
“We’re going to take him and question him. See what he knows about these mutants! Grab him!”
Monster Joe turned and ran. The soldiers shouted and fired their muskets. He heard the deadly whizzing of the lead bullets but as he rounded the barn he didn’t feel any of the pain that came with being shot. Avery’s blacksmith work area came into view and Monster Joe paused, picking up a heavy hammer with his good arm. How many hours had he spent with Avery here, working the bellows, hammering out iron into tools.
He hefted the tool and then crashed through the brush surrounding the farmhouse and into the woods. The musket fire ceased and Monster Joe paused, looking up at a patch of sky. He turned and headed east.
It did not take an expert tracker to follow the tracks the wastelanders left behind. They were not afraid of being found out. Monster Joe stood before a great brick wall, it stretched several hundred feet across and vanished into the thick brush.
The brickwork was beginning to crumble, but Monster Joe knew the look of old things. Mother had taught him that the world had been different long ago. That a great city had stood where Shadow Briar existed. War had come to the ancients and they had toppled and now their ruins dotted the landscape.
There was a great opening, Monster Joe guessed it to be ten strides across and five tall. From it a small trickle of rancid water flowed and even standing with the wind at his back, Monster Joe could smell the stench of rotting flesh and death.
The nest of the mutants, he knew. They had taken Lawson’s children, they had killed his mother, they meant to destroy them all. He hefted the blacksmith hammer and walked into the darkness.
The townspeople called him Monster Joe his entire life. It wasn’t just his great size that set him apart from the townspeople, it was his single good arm, a massive trunk of an arm that was corded with muscle and great strength, it was his skin that was pebbled and rough like a reptile, the yellow eyes that glowed in lantern light, and his keen senses.
Monster Joe peered through the darkness, his eyes adjusting. Where a normal man would be stumbling, Monster Joe saw clear as day. Twisted malformed tracks lead deeper into the tunnels, the death stench grew stronger, and Monster Joe began to spot the gleaming piles of bones, bird, animal, human.
There were side tunnels everywhere, an underground maze of ancient construction that could lead anywhere. Yet the trail that Monster Joe followed was still easy to spot, the muddied footprints of mutants, and among them, two pairs of small bootprints. The children.
As he reached a junction of tunnels, a great creature arose from one of the dark tunnels. Monster Joe stepped back and saw his exit was blocked off by more mutants. They swarmed out of hidden holes and hatches, carrying their metal tipped spears and hissing in unison.
The creature, a mutant for sure, roared and unlimbered it’s great arms. The body was human, except stitched with old wounds, scars, and odd growths. It’s arms were long and corded with muscle. The face was a horrible mixture of teeth and multiple eyes and long shaggy ears.
“I come for the children,” Monster Joe stated.
“You’ve come to die,” the creature said.
“I come for revenge, also.”
The smaller mutants charged at Monster Joe, their spears clattering against the walls and sticking into the muck of the chamber. Monster Joe moved fast, striking out with his hammer. The blows sent the mutants flying back, their heads snapping against brickwork and their bodies tumbling into dark tunnels.
The mutants screamed and wailed in pain, bones snapped, and heads were crushed. Monster Joe breathed deeply and felt the wave of rage overwhelming him. The hot blood splatted across his face brought on a horrible glee, a buried need to kill and destroy.
Then the great creature struck him. The blow sent Monster Joe smashing against a far wall. His hammer fell to the floor and he felt his own hot blood running down his face. The great creature raised a fist and brought it down into Monster Joe’s face.
Then there was darkness.
Monster Joe awoke with his head resting upon crumbling brick. Pain shot through his body and his face felt hot. As he raised his head, he felt it peel away from the brick, a pool of blacken blood lay where his head had rested.
He was in a large chamber, like the junction of tunnels, there were dozens of smaller tunnels leading into the chamber. Great round pillars were spaced around the circumference of the room, holding up a great domed ceiling.
Dusty sunlight filtered in through a canopy of bones. In the center of the chamber, made from timbers and metal beams, stood a mockery of a tree. From it’s rusty branches hung tattered clothing waving like banners and human and animal skulls grinning like unnatural fruit.
“Welcome,” a voice said.
Monster Joe stood up and looked around.
“Where are the children,” he demanded.
“Why do you care?” the voice asked. “I look upon you and see a mutant. A wastelander child corrupted by these weak humans.”
From the dark tunnels something moved. Monster Joe watched a creature unlike any he had ever seen approach him. It was multi legged, eight disjointed limbs propelling a massive body upon which rested a parody of a human torso.
The eight legs moved the creature in a skittering motion around the tree of bones and into Monster Joe’s line of sight. The torso on top folded it’s unnaturally long arms and the multi eyed head looked down upon him. It’s mouth of needle like teeth widening in a grin.
“Mutant,” it said. “You serve the humans, You do their bidding.”
“No,” Monster Joe said.
“You are their slave. In the wasteland, they are our slaves.”
“I am no slave.”
“You are strong, human slave. You have slain many of my children,” it hissed, moving around him. “In the wasteland we honor strength. The strongest live. The weak die.”
“Then why are you here? Why attack our town?”
“Our?” the creature hissed in laughter. “You are a mutant. You are not human. You should stand above them, crush them, kill them, feed on their flesh.”
“Your town shall be no more, slave. My children are ready to come into this world, they will sweep across this land and consume everything,” The creature hissed. “Nothing will stop them.”
Monster Joe saw that the darken tunnels weren’t so dark anymore. Instead they were packed with floor to ceiling with something, head sized round objects that glinted weakly in the dim light. Eggs. The monster’s children.
“I will stop them,” Monster Joe said.
The creature hissed in laughter. “You will see it all destroyed, then my children will feed on you, as they will the children that were brought here,”
The mutants had disarmed him of the hammer, but they had not checked him completely. They were nearly animals themselves, capable of only following direction and killing, not thinking.
Monster Joe pulled Mother’s flintlock from the inside pocket of his coat. It had been tucked against his body, almost indistinguishable from his rock hard frame.
The laughter of the creature stopped as it saw the weapon. It began to turn and Monster Joe pulled the trigger.
The flint struck a shower of sparks into the pan and ignited the powder there. A loud boom filled the room and a heavy lead bullet exploded from the mouth of the pistol. The creature barely had time to move a step before the heavy slug slammed into it’s great round body.
Black ichor gushed from the hole and the slug tore it’s way out the back end of the creature, embedding itself into the brick wall. The creature collapsed to the ground, wailing in pain.
They had left his mother dying with a gut wound, Monster Joe thought it was just he do the same.
The creature’s long arms lashed out at him, they were edge with hooked claws, but he dodged them easily. Black ichor pooled around the legs that weren’t moving anymore and the creature’s hissing came out labored.
“I will kill you,” the creature hissed.
“No,” Monster Joe picked up a chunk of brick and brought it down upon the creature’s head.
He scanned the room and spotted the hammer. It lay among a collection of dead mutants, they had all been dumped before one of the dark tunnels. To feed the children once they hatched, Monster Joe assumed.
He picked up the hammer and immediately spotted the Lawson children. They lay unconscious near one of the openings, their small bodies wrapped in rough cords. Monster Joe snapped the cords and gently woke them up.
The girl child, Melody, stared at him in recognition. The boy, Albert, began sobbing.
“Joe?” Melody asked.
“There’s a monster,” Melody said.
“It’s dead,” Monster Joe said.
Melody hugged him. “Where’s mama?”
“She’s waiting for you two.”
Albert stopped crying when he picked him up. The young boy wrapped his arms around his neck and whimpered softly. Melody gripped his hand and followed him as moved to an exit.
Behind them, something roared. From out of an opposite tunnel the creature he had faced earlier emerged. Behind it were scores of the smaller mutants. They clamored out of the tunnel, staring in horror at their dead mother.
Monster Joe pulled Albert off of him and set him down upon the ground beside Melody. He pulled to Mother’s flintlock and handed it to Melody.
“Do you know how to reload?” he asked and the girl nodded.
“Noooo!” the big creature cried. “Kill them! Kill them!”
The smaller mutants paused and stared at Monster Joe and the children, unsure what to do. Monster Joe took the opportunity to smash in the pillars around the tunnel entrance. The brickwork was old and the mortar was dust. It shattered under the hammer’s blows.
The big creature was screaming something, but Monster Joe was too busy to notice. He moved fast, smashing in pillar after pillar. The mutants threw their spears at him and charged, sensing danger in the rumbling that began to fill the chamber.
Monster Joe turned and laid about with his hammer. Skulls cracked, bones snapped, and mutants stumbled away dead, unconscious, or screeching in pain. The mutants, without their mother to guide them, began to scatter. Terror filling their eyes.
The big creature was hindered by the smaller mutants. It snatched and threw several against the wall, smashing a pillar on it’s own. The chamber resounded with rumbling, dust began to fall from the domed ceiling.
“Kill you!” the creature snarled.
Monster Joe returned to the children to find Melody shakily aiming the pistol at the creature. Monster Joe gently took the pistol from her hand and pointed it at the monster. It stared at him with hatred and the Monster Joe pulled the trigger.
Stones began to fall from the ceiling, smashing down upon the tree of bones and cascading around the dead forms of the mother and the large creature.
Monster Joe snatched up Albert and Melody and raced down the tunnel. There was a deafening crack, followed by an earth shaking rumble. The old brickwork of the tunnel began to fall away, shaken loose in the quake. Behind them the tunnel beginning to collapse. Great plumes of dust charging after them.
They reached an exit as the plume caught up with them. The vine covered exit exploded outward as rock dust, Monster Joe, and the two children tore through it. They tumbled as the earth shook around them and finally ended up in a small stream.
Both Melody and Albert where quiet and uninjured as Monster Joe helped them to their feet. Behind them a great plume of dust rose into the air and the earth still shook with old tunnels collapsing.
“Are they dead?” Melody asked.
Monster Joe looked at the dust and back at Melody. “Yes.”
She hugged him and cried.
As they reached the outskirts of Shadow Briar, Monster Joe worried about what Senna would do. Would they still arrest him? Kill him outright? He didn’t know, but he couldn’t run away. The children still clung to him as he walked down the main road.
His mother had been killed, his friend tortured, but he had avenged them both. He had slain the beast and rescued the children. What was Senna and his soldiers to what he had faced today?
“Joe?” a voice cried out.
“The children!” another cried.
Monster Joe stopped upon the road and stared at the gathering that greeted him. It appeared as if the entire town had come out, they were carrying old banners, strapped down with rusty armor, and carrying a mixture of old flintlocks, spears, and swords.
Councilwoman Shade burst through the crowd, followed by Marsella Lawson. The children saw their mother and raced toward her. Shade stood before Monster Joe, staring up at him in wonder.
“You got the children?” she asked.
Then she did something she had never done. She hugged him, even though he was covered in rock dust, mutant blood, and his own injuries. She hugged him tightly and after a moment Monster Joe hugged her back.
“We threw Senna and his men out. Disarmed them and forced them out of the town. How can we entrust those kind of men to protect us?” Shade said. She looked up at him and smiled. “We were heading to track the mutants. Everyone was going.”
Monster Joe looked up the small army of townspeople.
“The monster is dead,” Joe said.
“Thank you, Joe. Thank you. And welcome home.”