Truths are vile beasts with needle-like fangs. They prefer to nest in the dark, but once they mature and come to light, they grow exponentially and devour all creatures in their path. The cold-blooded, lizard-like monsters have even been known to eat their young. They remind me of my mother.
When Lord Ian McCoy asks me why a daughter of the House of Montenegro chose the life of a truth hunter, I offer the same answer I give every pompous man who asks me that question. I lean across my desk and smile wickedly. “Because it’s fun.”
Unimpressed, he raises one bushy gray eyebrow at me. His long mustache quivers as he speaks. “My Lady, surely, you’re inclined to find a less…dangerous…pastime.”
I lean back against my plush chair, one of the few pieces of furniture I have left in my nearly empty office, and pour myself another scotch. “I’m not the type for soirées.”
I recall all the women I once knew—painted, doused in perfume, trying to impress the intelligentsia so they could become the master manipulators in a game with no reward and no end—the memory makes me want to retch.
“Indeed,” Lord McCoy says. He hasn’t touched his own scotch, which glints amber in the afternoon light. I had pulled out my best bottle the moment I’d seen his horseless carriage, still rare in this part of town, putter down the cobblestones and stop outside. I’d assumed such an affluent guest would appreciate the gesture, but he’s either a teetotaler or an ingrate. I’ll pour it back in the bottle later.
His gaze travels around my sparse office and settles on Sam’s empty desk, an unwieldy mass of hand-carved oak which I haven’t yet been able to sell. “What of your partner, Sam Doyle? Where is he?”
“Good question. If you find out, send him my regards.” I take a sip. “On second thought, don’t. That cur doesn’t deserve my regard.”
The lord’s whiskers bristle. “I was under the impression that the business of Doyle & Montenegro was still intact. Is this not the case?”
“It’s Montenegro & Doyle,” I correct him, “and the business is certainly intact. Mr. Doyle has merely relinquished his ownership in order to pursue other interests.”
Interests with full lips, rosy cheeks, and fleshy bottoms that aren’t toned from the active life of a hunter, I assume…though it would take a lot more scotch for me to say this out loud.
The sad reality is that I’ve sold off most of my assets, but I still don’t have enough money to buy out Sam’s half of the business, and my debt to him has kept us tied together. I can’t afford to let a customer like Lord McCoy walk out the door, but I also can’t afford to let him know this. The only real bargaining chip I have is my stellar reputation, one which relies on a perceived lack of availability to keep my prices high.
“Besides,” I continue with calculated boredom. “I’d venture that it wasn’t Doyle’s name you were given.”
He concedes by assessing the numerous truth trophies mounted on my walls, some with fangs as long as a finger. Their scales range from blue-green to grayish purple, the larger ones more pale and translucent, almost ghostly in the afternoon light. Their black glass eyes gleam, their wedge-shaped maws stretched wide. One juvenile, about the size of a cat, sits on my desk. It gave me a surprising amount of trouble before I bagged it in a magister’s cellar. I had it stuffed and posed as if it’s about to strike, its long violet body and pointed tail curled, its six clawed limbs splayed wide, its gaze intent on the space where my guest now sits.
Lord McCoy grips his cane more tightly. “I’ll be blunt, Lady Montenegro. Had you not come so highly recommended, I would have gone elsewhere. I prefer to deal with truth hunters of more…substance.” He says the last with only the slightest hint of a sneer.
“Substance?” I’m annoyed, yet unsurprised. Before Sam left, I never realized how helpful it was to have a strapping man by my side during negotiations. People like to think they’re paying for brawn, as if that has anything to do with surviving a truth hunt.
A part of me wishes he were still here, standing in his usual spot behind me whenever we would size up a new client, giving McCoy the one-eyebrow-raised rundown that he’s so good at. I can still see his muscular arms folded across his broad chest, smell his scent of leather and shaving soap, and hear his amused grunt whenever I make a clever quip.
But Sam’s gone now. He left me to fend for myself, and so I have to close the sale with this bombastic bully all on my own.
I down the last of the scotch and slam the tumbler down on the table. I stand and slowly roll up my left sleeve. “Have you ever been bitten by a truth, Lord McCoy?”
He shakes his head, wise enough not to boast falsehoods.
“You never forget the pain. It’s not just the fangs as they slice through your flesh, though that’s bad enough. It’s the undiluted venom. It burns you from the inside out.” I finish revealing my left arm and no less than six pairs of fang marks.
I start on my right sleeve. “It twists your thoughts and ideas, your beliefs, your values. It makes you question everything you know.” One huge scar becomes visible across my right arm in mottled pink, punctuated by indentations and a missing chunk of flesh.
“That’s not even the worst of it.” I place my fists on the table and lean toward him, making sure my scars—and the ones on my collarbone that peek above my shirt—are directly in his line of sight. “After one minute of pure agony, your heart tends to explode. POP!” To my satisfaction, he flinches. I know I’m going overboard on the dramatics, but sometimes all these fools understand is their own grandiloquent language.
“I’ve been bitten nineteen times, Lord McCoy.”
“Good heavens,” he mumbles under his breath.
“Why am I still alive? Because I have more substance than all your other hunters put together.”
He sighs. “Very well, Lady Montenegro. You’ve made your point.”
Satisfied, I sit with the right amount of swagger to show how offended I am, but just enough interest to imply that he hasn’t blown the deal quite yet.
Of course, my real advantage is a bit more strategic than mere “substance.” One can build up an immunity to truth by practicing the four anti-venoms; first is deniability, then defiance, then justification. Finally, if all else fails—and they usually don’t—there’s acceptance. Most people never practice the fourth technique as it can have a profound and permanent effect on the psyche. I’m probably weakest at acceptance, but I’ve also never had to use it.
McCoy’s grip on his gold-tipped cane relaxes, then one meaty hand slips inside his coat pocket and produces an envelope stamped with the royal seal. He hands it to me. “Her Majesty has been informed of a very large truth nesting in the Caves of Windermere. Do you know the area?”
I nod. Windermere is a small, muggy island in the southern reach of the empire that once boasted the largest truth den in the known world. “But Windermere was cleaned out ages ago, there are no truths left.”
“Apparently the population has resurged, and left unchecked for so long, one has grown to a distressing size.”
“Why would The Queen worry about a remote territory like Windermere? It’s just trappers and traders, hardly anyone lives there anymore.”
“Her Majesty wishes for all her subjects to have the freedom to develop their belief systems naturally, rather than have truth forced upon them. She takes that responsibility quite seriously, and such a large truth is a danger we simply cannot ignore.”
I almost snort with amusement. I wonder if Queen Lorena is aware of how much truth venom gets sold illegally on the street every day in her own city, let alone the empire. Truth dens sprout like weeds and quickly fill with chasers looking for their next fix. No one forces them to inject diluted venom, they enjoy the horrifying thrill of epiphany. Most chasers wind up insane or dead eventually, but the Queen likes to believe that they exist only in the troubled colonies, rather than right outside her front door.
I don’t care either way, as long as I get paid.
I snap the wax seal on the envelope and scan the contents of the handwritten report folded inside. “A truth the size of a locomotive engine? This must be a joke.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“It’s already come to light, then?”
Lord McCoy shakes his bulbous head. “It hasn’t left the caverns.”
“Come on, man. No truth can grow that large in the dark.”
His jowls tremble defiantly. “We lost a man while verifying the report ourselves, which is why Her Majesty is counting on someone to dispatch the beast.”
I take the hint and decide not to argue any further. “How much is Her Majesty counting, exactly?”
He hands me another envelope, this one unsealed. I thumb through the banknotes within and whistle appreciatively. It’s almost everything I need to pay Sam off for good.
“The other half will be paid upon proof,” Lord McCoy says.
It takes all my willpower not to kiss the old goat right there. I recover and give him my most congenial smile. “Tell Her Majesty that famed truth hunter Allegra Montenegro is delighted to assist.”
The entrance to the Caves of Windermere is a yawning throat of the earth that looks like it will swallow all who enter. Compared to the muggy scent of the island air, the breeze that emanates from within is cold and empty. Some of the most famous trophies in history were taken from this den, so I’m eager to see what treasure it holds.
I pull my frizzy hair back into a tight tail, turn on my headlamp, and navigate down the rocky slope into the void. “It’s like descending into Hell, isn’t it, Sam?”
Ever since I started hunting on my own again, I’ve picked up a nasty habit of talking to Sam as if he’s still behind me. It’s pathetic, but for some reason it calms my nerves. I suppose I miss having a companion.
I don’t miss Sam, though. He accused me of being like my mother. I really do hate the bastard.
The caves are only about five kilometers long, so it shouldn’t be hard to find the beast. But if the population has truly resurged, the walls should be swarming with truths already. At the very least, the ground should be littered in the tiny pink bones of their prey, turned soft and rubbery from partial digestion. “Where are they, Sam?”
I start to worry that I’ve been sent on a merry chase, when about two kilometers in I finally get my answer. A cave-in some time ago tore a cleft in the earth above, opened Windermere to the sun and rain, and transformed it into a narrow valley with high, stony walls. Seeds fell in and sprouted to form a dense, underground forest. Birds flit from tree to tree, and small mammals scurry in the undergrowth.
No wonder the beast hasn’t left yet—there’s no need to seek the light when it comes directly to you. With an ample food supply and plenty of places to hide, Windermere is once again a truth’s paradise.
I shoulder my rifle, wrap the sling around my arm, and wade into the dense undergrowth, keeping an eye out for any sudden movement.
Something skitters through the grass. I whip my rifle around to see a mature truth, about one yard long, dash for the wall.
One shot, and I blow its head off its neck. Its body writhes viciously and its jaw snaps over and over as it bites angrily at the world.
Once the flailing stops, I pull out my extraction kit and siphon the venom from the glands above its maxilla. When I hold up the vial, I’m struck by the clarity of the gold-tinged liquid. Something about this environment must do wonders for their venom. A sample this pure will sell for four times as much as any farmed venom to the truth dealers back home.
If Sam were here, he’d never let me sell wild venom to a den. I can picture how he would glare at me, his disapproval tinged with disappointment. I can’t help but construct a defense to give my imaginary companion. “Why should I care about a bunch of lazy venom chasers?” I say as I add a drop of stabilizer to the vial and shake it vigorously. “They would rather buy their epiphanies than seek them out. Someone has to supply the demand.”
Satisfied that the venom will keep until I can get it into cold storage, I wrap the vial securely and place it in my kit.
“It’s not my fault if they can’t handle the truth, Sam.” I shoulder my rifle again and return to the hunt, eager for more. “Besides, at this rate I’ll have your money by breakfast. Just don’t ask me how.”
I pass through the next kilometer with no more sightings, then my foot squelches on something slick and soft. I lift my foot and see my boot’s indentation in a ribcage as large as my own. I kneel to inspect the strange bones. They’re soft, and a translucent brownish-pink. I realize that they’re the half-digested remains of a truth skeleton, and one of the largest I’ve ever seen. Easily twice the size of the one I just bagged.
I stalk forward carefully, finding more half-digested bones hidden in the tall grass. No wonder this place isn’t swarming with truths. Juveniles and adults alike all nourished the cannibalistic beast while it grew, providing more sustenance than the birds and other small creatures could. It occurs to me that its food supply may have just about run out.
My logic wrestles with my curiosity. The former screams to get out while I still can, the latter wants to see how big a truth can get. Besides, I can’t afford to walk away from old goat McCoy’s money, nor can I deny the allure of a nice bonus that may come with this prize: the bigger the truth, the more potent—and valuable—the venom.
As I move in deeper, the cleft in the earth above finally closes. The cavern fills with shadow and the forest thins until my boots echo on bare rock again, the valley becoming a cave once more.
I can imagine what Sam would say in this dark place strewn with bones. He’d make me turn back, chivalrous fool that he is. He’d put a strong hand on my arm, his skin warm and calloused and so familiar. He’d lock onto my eyes, those brown orbs intense under his furrowed brow. He’d say something caring and cliché, like, “I don’t want you to get hurt, Allegra. Not even the mother of all truths would be worth seeing you dead.” I scoff at the thought. If he valued me at all, he wouldn’t have walked away from what we’d built together. He wouldn’t have accepted my offer to buy him out.
“It’s your fault I’m here, Sam.” I press forward.
The ground suddenly drops away, and I lose my footing in the darkness. My rifle flies from my hands and skitters down a steep slope as I follow, scraping over slick stone the whole way. My headlamp tumbles after me, casting frantic shadows in the darkness.
My fall is softened by a sea of pink bones that squelch when I land. I push myself up and come face to face with a rubbery human skull, jaw wide open as if screaming. This must be Lord McCoy’s missing man.
I hear something else slither against the stone. I scramble for my rifle and the headlamp and train them around the room, but I see nothing.
Something drips on me from above. A face peers down at me from the ceiling. Black shining eyes ringed by ghostly translucent scales glint dully in the skewed light, fangs bared. Through its skin I can barely see the beating of its barrel-sized heart. If this is the truth I was sent to kill, it’s grown much larger than a mere locomotive engine.
We dart at the same time, but the truth is faster. It stretches its long neck toward me. Fangs slice through my thigh. My scream reverberates off the walls and assaults my ears.
I’m wrenched into the air upside-down. The momentum rips the rifle from my hands. My sling catches around my shoulder and the stock bludgeons my cheek bone, but the pain hardly registers compared to my flesh being split apart by fangs the length of my forearm.
The truth opens its jaws and twists me in the air, then snaps them shut again around my torso. It holds me captive on the ceiling and waits for my heart to explode.
The venom works fast—it fills my blood stream within two rapid heartbeats—and the familiar heat of realization sears me, passing quickly into euphoric terror.
Sam didn’t leave me, I left him. I shut him down and I shut him out.
Thoughts flood my mind, unbidden and unstoppable. Their power is immense.
I run from everyone that loves me because I’m afraid. I do all of this—the hunts, the bravado—because I want to prove that I’m not a coward.
My deniability isn’t working. Justification, defiance—they’re all as useful as a parasol in a hurricane. I feel helpless as the venom ravages my mind.
It’s because of Mother. I mistook her spiteful attention for love. If that was love, I never wanted it. Even Father knew better than to stay. I left that life to avoid becoming her, but I am her.
“It’s…not…TRUE!” But it is. This venom supplied no superficial epiphany. It didn’t skate on the icy surface of my psyche. This one broke through like a bullet and went straight for the pain-rich shadows at the bottom.
I want to pay off Sam to unburden myself of the guilt, but Sam doesn’t want my money. He wants someone who will dare to love him back.
I grit my teeth and writhe. My muscles are so taught they’re hard as stone. My heart races—faster, faster—it won’t be long now.
Mother didn’t want me, she wanted a daughter more like her. If Father wanted me, he wouldn’t have left. I drove Sam away, so he must no longer want me. I don’t even want me. I’m well-practiced at being alone. I tell myself that I like it, but it’s all a lie.
The agony makes me scream again. I know where the thoughts are going. I can’t stop them, and they will kill me.
I don’t want to be left all alone like Mother, yet I’ve ensured it…because I can’t admit that I love Sam Doyle.
There’s only one chance to save myself. To prevent my heart from exploding, I have to let it break.
The tears come, and the burning sensation subsides to a horrible ache. I accept it. I don’t hate Sam, I love him. But I have no idea how to love, and I am a stubborn fool with no capacity to learn the art of trust and affection, so no matter how hard I try, I’m bound to wreck it all. I’ve known this the whole time. Sam was right, I am my mother—cold and aloof, and destined for a bitter loneliness of my own design. But unlike her, I feel regret. The only thing that I owe Sam is a bit of vulnerability, and if I die here, I’ll never have the chance to give it to him.
The grief of acceptance finally slows my heart, and the venom runs its course. The beast blinks in confusion, wondering why its prey is not yet dead.
I strain to look it in the eye as my hand twists around the stock of my rifle. “Because I’ve got substance, you bitch!” I fire a round into its cold, black eye.
Gore explodes over me. The truth roars like a storm. I hit the ground hard and roll aside, narrowly avoiding the massive creature as it crashes down from its perch above.
I shakily retract the bolt to load a new round as the beast thrashes and whips its head from side to side in pain, then finally focuses on me with its one remaining eye. It opens its jaws wide, its fangs ghost-white and dripping.
I fire. The bullet flies into its gaping mouth and rips through its brain to kill it mid-lunge. The head lands a hand’s breadth from me, jaws wide, teeth bared.
I scramble away and stare at my prize.
I’ve done it.
I’ve just killed the biggest truth trophy in history.
I am also quite sure that I will never come back here to bag another one. In fact, I’m swearing off the whole endeavor of truth hunting from now on.
It’s astounding that the fangs didn’t pierce my artery. I’m going to survive, albeit with some impressive new scars. After I bind my leg, I pull out my extraction kit, then hesitate. The bigger the truth the more potent the venom, but for the first time I wonder if I should even harvest it. “Aww hell, it’s too valuable to pass up, Sam. I’ll sell it to the Royal College, alright?” This satisfies my guilt. Academics won’t pay a sixth of what it’s worth, but they’d probably rip out their own tongues to study this stuff. At least no one will overdose on truth because of me.
The head is too large to carry, so I’ll need to hire some help to haul it back and fulfill my contract once I manage to crawl out of this cave. I can afford it. Perhaps Her Majesty will even feel inclined to add a tip on top of my fee, considering this kill is so much bigger than they thought. I can’t wait to show Lord McCoy, the expression on his face is sure to be a delight.
First though, I need to find Sam. I still owe him a debt.
Thea Cooke has been a storyteller since childhood, but has only recently become not terrible at it. Her writing usually involves a lot of magic or math, often unintentionally. She lives in Colorado with her son and two frolicsome felines. Her musings about story design can be found at thearetical.com.