Today Sacred Chickens is publishing the third and final winner of our writing contest. Be sure to check this and the other posts out! Happy reading!
Third Place: "Master of the Marshes" by Danny Cove
We are still newcomers to this swamp, but I would venture to call it home. Little has been built, of course, but that is owing to our very rocky start. But soon that will change, as this particular clearing will become the homestead. Each family will build their house from whatever they can find – most likely mud, clay and driftwood which hasn’t yet rotted – and once they finish they’ll help out those who are still building. I began construction of my own house yesterday, drawing out its foundations and laying a floor of red clay that I’d dug from one of the banks that vanished into a mire. It should be dry by tomorrow morning, and then I’ll start work on the walls. All-in-all, there are seven families and eleven singles to form our community. It’s very small, and our original numbers – twelve families with twenty-three singles – were not so much greater. But this clearing gets enough sunlight that it should make for a good homestead, with some gardens between the houses and an adjacent clearing for more diligent farming.
I mentioned our rocky start, and I that’s something worth talking about. In a few generations, when our descendants are the true masters of this place, our beginning will likely be considered only a legend, a myth to terrify our young. But I assure you, there is no falsity in the terrors of our beginning, for the creature has forever imprinted itself upon our darkest of dreams.
When my people first entered this swamp, we thought little of the stillness, noting only what seemed to be the sublime quietude. This was a place, we believed, where we could be alone with God, to hear his voice in the silence and discern his will in the isolation of the forest. But three days deep into the swamp, that stillness was broken by the distant rumble of something we could not quite identify. Our leaders drew conjectures but there was no truth that we could tell from them. They were simply ideas meant to calm the nervous flock of people seeking to claim a new home for ourselves.
The rumble grew louder, and then stopped at times, only to resume a few hours later, louder than before, as if something was moving toward us, or us to it. Then, finally, on the evening of our fourth day trudging through the muck, the rumble was powerful enough to knock our elders off their feet. In a moment I will never forget, the trees themselves seemed to part, as if they were sentries allowing for the entrance of their king. From the shadows between them emerged a great creature, reptilian in nature, with a rounded snout and a series of hard, black ridges going down its back. Later estimates put its length at over thirty feet, perhaps as much as forty, but somehow this was not able to hinder the megalithic beast as it weaved among the trees. Seconds after its arrival, it had already gripped two of our elders between its jaws, which snapped shut with a loud crack.
Our party fled, with everyone running in seemingly different directions, trying to avoid those opening and closing jaws, trying to stay standing as the ground seemed almost alive beneath our feet. I heard screams and cries, and a horrible hiss, and then nothing. As quickly as it had appeared, the creature had vanished, leaving no rumble but the sound of screams and cries. My people regrouped and found five missing. None were wounded.
A similar attack happened about an hour later, and then an hour after that, each time the beast claiming more lives and leaving no wounded. After that third attack, we were forced to fully stop, as the beast’s ambush did not wane this time. Seeing no alternative, each of us grabbed a tree and climbed as high as we could, higher and higher into the canopy of the gargantuan trees which towered over the reptile below. I remember watching as it looked at us with its cold, yellow eyes, each traced with rivers of red and black, then turned and disappeared into the muck, its ridges blending into the driftwood and mire before it vanished altogether.
We spent days in those trees, scarcely moving, eating what little we had and lashing ourselves to the limbs so as not to fall whenever we fell asleep. We were far too terrified to climb back down and risk a run-in with the creature. Occasionally, one of us would see it – or think we saw it – swimming in the muck. I don’t know if it ever was the beast, but the fear…that was more real than the creature itself, and enough to keep us imprisoned on high.
Then came the morning when the man appeared. Moving erratically, as if uncomfortable with his limbs, he hobbled out from the muck, which clung to him barely enough to cover his nakedness. His hair was wild and stuck out in all directions, and his fingers were blackened by the mud, giving the appearance of terrible claws rather than rounded digits. I remember him stopping in the clearing around which we all hid, and he yelled out in a voice harsh and grating, but also deep, rolling out to us in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. The man yelled at us to leave the swamp, to run away. He said that we all would die if we remained. And then, as quickly as he appeared, he left, disappearing back into the mire, but not before turning in my direction, giving me a look at his cold, black eyes, black as pitch and bugging nearly out of his skull, eyes which only added to his apparent look of madness. And then he was gone.
Four of my people chose to follow him, carefully untying themselves and dropping silently to the ground. These four disappeared among the trees, trying to track the mysterious man. We waited in terror for them to return, fearing the worst, that more of our party had met their end by the beast. But after a few hours, two of them returned. Only two. They spoke nothing that first day, but by the second, they started to give away little bits of their story: how they had followed the man’s tracks until they disappeared, how they had tried to return back to us only for two of them to be pulled into the swampy waters by an unknown force, the other two fleeing through a chilling darkness until they reached us. To this very day, those two missing men have never been found, and even the beast will not speak of their fate.
Realizing that the trees could not be our permanent refuge, we began to move among them, crawling like apes from branch to branch, using rope when needed, helping those who were the weakest as we moved like some strange pack over thirty feet above the forest floor. We went the way the two haunted men had gone, but the way became more difficult as we felt starvation beginning to set in. One of our members, a girl of marrying age, swooned and fell from the trees, her body disappearing into the waters and sinking before any of us could rescue her. Another, a much younger girl, almost joined her, but we were able to grasp her at the last moment and keep her safe.
When my people were nearing the point of mental dereliction, we at last found ourselves on the outskirts of some strange half-island, an outgrowth of land out in the waters. And on that island lay the strange man who had tried to warn us away. What is he doing here? We wondered. But I remember that first moment, that cold and isolating breaking point in my mind, when we saw him for what he was, for we saw what he had begun to do. From our vantage point in the trees across the waters, we saw as the strange man’s eyes began to brighten, colors swirling into them. The mud that clung to his naked body seemed to grow over him, the fingers turning stubby, with his arms and legs soon following suit. As we watched in horror, the man’s face elongated as he fell onto his belly, and a mighty tail grew from his back, spreading out beyond him, and he started to grow with it. Horned ridges lined his back and we began to recognize that terrible beast which had so mercilessly attacked us over and over again. Somehow, by some dark means, this man had become the beast. With a hiss that carried on the wind, he slithered away and vanished into the waters on the opposite side of his island, heading away from us.
We were all speechless at first, and then came the whispered questions, the muffled cries, the silent prayers. Eventually, a name arose, Mann-dingo, the man-thing. Manndingo was the name we gave the beast, and that name seemed to pacify much of our anxieties, for we now had some focus for our fears. All our terror rested upon Manndingo.
It rained that night, a cold and desolate rain. The higher in the trees we hid, the harder the rains seemed to reach us, so we were steadily forced lower and lower, and closer and closer together so as to try and stay as warm as possible. It stopped, and then came on and off throughout the night. In the morning, two of our numbers had died, of cold or starvation, or both. We began to wonder who was the most blessed of our people: those of us who still lived, those who’d died in the rain, or those who’d died in the jaws of the creature.
With no other recourse, we finally set our feet on the ground and set guards to watch the island. The beast had been gone since his transformation from the wild man, and we hoped with all earnestness that he would go back to that island rather than exploring its populated vicinity. Those hopes were dashed as the rumbles began again, and quickening at a pace unprecedented. Before any of us had a chance to react, the trees parted as they had before and Manndingo, in his terrible glory, entered our presence. He did not attack immediately as he had before, but simply waited, lifting his head first toward the canopy and taking in a deep breath, which he then breathed out in a hot cloud. Then, his terrible, yellow eyes fixed upon us, he began to charge.
Fleeing in a maddening dash, we ran away from the creature, pressing through foliage and fleeing among the trees. Then something appeared in the gloom ahead, something rugged and gray. As we neared it, it became clear that we were at the bottom of some sort of rock wall, which looked as if it had burst from the ground and reached as high toward the sky as possible, a craggy hand grasping for Heaven. Moving as one, my people sprinted toward it, hitting it like a wave before finding the strength in our exhausted bodies to begin its ascent. I saw the first of us crawling and scrambling up the face of the rock, getting beyond the reach of the predator with surprising quickness. For the first time in over a week, I found my heart strangely warmed with a hint of hope. If we could ascend that cliff, we would be beyond Manndingo’s grasp, or at least we would have enough of an advantage to recover ourselves and press onward for safer lands.
I stayed near the back of my people, pressing the weaker ones forward in an effort to ensure that none were lost. But so invested was I in this endeavor that I lost my footing in the thunderous shaking of Manndingo’s mighty steps and I tumbled sideways into a shallow pool of water that extended out into the swamp. Rolling into a sitting position, I recognized that I’d lost too much ground, that if I stood to my feet, the creature would be on me before I could make it to the cliff. Recognizing where the beast’s focus lay, I saw my opportunity and scrambled out into the water, following this small lagoon as it wound around a series of trees, deepening as it went. Within seconds, it had become waist-deep and I was forced to swim, putting more effort into silence than in speed. I swam quietly for a few minutes before I saw something opening before me, some great and vertical chasm in which the stagnant water seemed to float. Hearing the snapping jaws from the direction of the cliff, I pressed toward that dark opening and soon vanished into its depths.
I moved slowly inside the cave, most of it cast in pitchy darkness and wholly indeterminate to me. But there were a few places in the ceiling which had holes through which sunlight peered in, giving me just enough light to see by. The water was to the level of my chest, so I walked very slowly, my back always against the stony wall so that I could have a view of the opening in case the monstrous form of the creature were to suddenly block it.
In that shaded half-light, reflected off the oily sheen of the water, I could see strange things in that cave. There were walls which seemed too flat, corners too sharp. In some places there were small islands toward the center, the rock of them worn flat and smooth as of centuries of use. And up in the ceiling, I could see dark patches, the kind one would see beneath the settings of candles or, more likely, torches. And in those watery depths, I found my mind beginning to wonder at the possibilities of the beast. Could this cave – if it really was a cave – be his ancient dwelling place? If so, what about the island upon which we’d seen him relaxing? Perhaps this cave was something else, a retreat, or maybe even the home of other… My heart began to beat faster at the thought that Manndingo might not be alone in this swamp. But we had seen no others, no multitude of enormous creatures fashioned from transformed men. In our weeks in this swamp, we had only seen the one, the violent and hungry lord of this place. He had attacked us from his island and forced us to the cliffs. Surely, there could be no more than him in this dark realm.
But a creature of such magnitude must come from somewhere, for surely the swamp itself does not birth such horrors. It would only seem natural that a race of creatures like Manndingo had once walked this swamp, had once dragged their giant, scaly forms through these very waters and across this very rock, becoming men and women as they pleased, lighting torches to last them through the dim-lit night where they hid from the darkness, which…well, surely the darkness could hold no more hideously terrible forms than they. But if such creatures had ever existed, a powerful race of beings like that which had so terrorized my people, then how could the human race have survived at all? Unless something had happened to them, some dark and malignant force from God had eradicated all but Manndingo himself, leaving him as the last, the single creature standing vigil over this long-dead swamp.
My mad thoughts on this subject vanished as I felt the vibrations echo through the rocks upon which I stood. Small waves crashed against my chin as I hunkered down, and a great and awful shadow stretched across the cave, blotting out the twilight which had descended almost prematurely upon the swamp. The great beast had come home.
I pressed myself against the wall as hard as I could, trying to be little more than a painted image upon the wall. I slowed my breathing until it hurt, but I kept my control, knowing that the closing of those jaws around my torso would hurt a thousand times worse. The rumbles continued as Manndingo wandered into the cave, splashing water as he moved, his scaled legs and long, horned body coming to within a few feet of where I waited. There was that heavy breathing which seemed to fill the cave with a rotted stench and a misty fog, dissipating what little light passed through the ceiling and reflected off the dark green of the monster’s back. My heart had never beat faster in my life as the tail swished through the waters, smacking the rock immediately to my left but pulling back just barely enough to not hit me. Then, as powerfully as he’d come, he disappeared around a corner in the cave.
I still remained there for what felt an eternal span of time, my lungs burning, my heart pounding, my skin beginning to shiver as the cold from the waters began to settle into my bones. And still I refused to move, fearing that the faintest splash would draw out the monster that would spell my doom. I tried to distract myself from my wretched condition, tried to focus on the sights of the dimly lit cave, tried to see what I could from the safety of the dark shadow in which I hid myself. There were dark forms upon the walls, shapes which stretched and twisted, looking almost like the images of crowds of men around a crocodilian, his form seeming simultaneously to nuzzle and to snap at them, to show affection and to harm. I blinked a few times and the images seemed to blend back into the rock as the light streaming in started to dim. Were those paintings drawn on the rock? I asked myself. Or have I lost my mind and started to imagine things, perhaps some hopeful or desolate future?
As I waited, I heard the distant rumble of thunder, and the flashes began to illumine the cave. Fearing lest my hiding place be made known to the master of the cave, I slowly lowered myself into the water, but in my special place it barely reached my calf. But still, I lay down low, hoping the water would cover as much of me as possible. Steadily, it began to, and I realized that water seemed to be pouring into the cave while simultaneously dripping down from the holes in the roof as well. The waters were beginning to rise, to move into the cave like a growing river. Soon, the grimy water covered my hips and reached my waist, then eventually became shoulder-deep, and without any sign of letting up, I started to wonder if I could swim out the entrance, or if the flood coming in would press me back inside, into the waiting jaws of the dreaded beast. But deepest of my concerns right now was the fear that if the flooding did not cease, then I would surely drown.
Deciding that facing death outside would be far better than waiting for it to enter the cave and find me, I slipped beneath the waters and started swimming toward the entrance to the cave. I surfaced only rarely, to take as silent breaths as possible, and I desperately clung to the rocks on one side, pulling myself against the weak current that the bottlenecked opening of rock that created it. Behind me, I heard a strange sound, like some sort of sucking sound, followed by a scrape, but I dared not look back, dared not give the current a chance to pull me back into the blackened shadows of the monolith. Finally, pale light began to light up my vision and I pulled myself around a bend in the stone, out of the current and to the side of the cave’s entrance. Within seconds, that same scraping sound followed, and I saw the spiked form of Manndingo gliding gently out of the cave, his back driving shallow gashes in the ceiling of his enigmatic retreat.
I hid myself behind the rock, tried to hold my breath as I had before, desperate not to let the beast know that I was near. It seemed to work, as it continued its leisurely motion toward the shore from which we’d originally come, and as it approached that shore, I saw again the transformation beginning, the metamorphosis of beast to man, but before I could see the final production, he had disappeared from sight. I turned to go another direction, to flee anywhere far from this dank cavern, but I realized with a fatalist despondency that the cave seemed to block all other directions in this quagmire; the only way was the way of Manndingo, so in that direction I began to swim.
As I neared the shore, I heard cries of alarm, shouts and screams which I feared to be another attack upon my people. Why have they come down from the cliff? I wondered. They should have been safe up there! But as I came to the shore and sprawled myself upon it, my body aching, exhausted and, above all, cold despite the temporary cessation of the rain, I saw a crowd gathered in the clearing that broached the beach. Unable to move further, or to lift myself from the mud that formed the barrier of land and marsh, I was unable to hear much of anything, but what I saw…
My people had gathered as one, had come and, rather than fleeing the beast, had actually called for it! They were all motionless and resolute, facing the wild-looking man that stared at them with eyes that I could only imagine being as black as the day he’d issued his only warning to us. The people are holding torches, or what used to be torches, though only one of them was still lit. It was held by a strong man that I recognized, a stout and squarely-shaped man named Versohnen. His clothes were dripping, but his torch was blazing bright, and he took a firm step toward Manndingo, calling out in words too distant for me to understand. Then, in a motion more dramatic than may have been necessary, Versohnen tossed his torch to the side, allowing it to be extinguished by a nearby pool of water. The shadows seemed to grow in the absence of his light, but he continued to approach the monster-turned-man, and more words came from him.
Desperate to see the resolution of this meeting, I gathered what little strength I still had and crawled closer, dragging myself eventually to my feet, whereupon I stumbled to the nearest tree and leaned against it for support. I was no longer shivering, which was not a good sign, but I was more focused on the meeting of man and beast. I needed to know what would happen.
“We do not wish you harm,” I heard Versohnen saying when I was within earshot. “But neither do we wish to die. We could try and find a way to destroy you, for which I have little hope of success, but even if we did, we would lose far too many of our own to justify such action.” To this, Manndingo simply stared, his eyes black and his expression one I couldn’t pair with any emotion. But my heart seemed to drop away at Versohnen’s final proposition. “We want you to join us, not as a neighbor, but as a friend. Become a part of our colony, live with us and together there can be peace.”
Manndingo eyed them warily, his eyes squinting momentarily as if in pain, but then he brushed some of his wild hair from his eyes and looked at my people. His gaze finally settled back on Versohnen, and our once-enemy responded to the entreaty in his deep and gravelly voice. “The solitude of my swamp makes for a dark and terrible friend.”
“Allow us to build here,” Versohnen answered him. “And my people…will be your people.”
Without a word, Manndingo nodded and then turned, leading Versohnen and the rest of my people further into the swamp. Despite my exhaustion, I followed, shivering as I did.
That was months ago. Since that time, we have prospered and built our homes in the swamp, planting our crops in the fertile soil and creating clean springs from the formerly mossy pits and pools that lie all over. Manndingo still lives on his island, though he visits our colony regularly, often daily. His cave, though…well, that has never been discovered by anyone; I have made sure of that. I’ve come to regard it as a sacred place for the creature, a place not meant to be violated by any but himself. As such, I have made it a point to never mention to him that I was there, ensuring that that is a memory I carry to my grave.
I never discovered what it was my people discovered at the top of the cliff. I know they found something up there, something which pushed them back down, something which gave them the courage – or, perhaps, the fatalistic need – to face the lord of the swamp with nothing but a few torches. Versohnen, in particular, has grown far more sage-like, and yet simultaneously distanced from the community. I once overheard that Versohnen was the first one over the peak, and the one to press furthest. It was said that he was changed by what he saw. But no one will tell me of that, nor will anyone breathe more than a few words about the experience. Whenever I pressed, explosive tempers would result, or a sullen withdrawing from the conversation. After a few weeks, I finally gave up, assuming it to be far too sensitive a memory for any of them to revisit. I could identify with that.
On this particular day, there is no rain, no cold, no clouds, only the golden glow of the sun piercing down through broken parts in the canopy far above us. This creates illusions in a few places, the appearance of golden pillars shining from the mossy-green soil at our feet. They are so beautiful, but fleetingly momentary, and sometimes too strong for me to perceive directly. But still, I look.
As I walk through what will become our homestead, ruminating on the past as I often do, Manndingo himself walks up to join me. He is dressed in most of the raiment of our people, a buttoned shirt but no vest, dark trousers with mud stained on the bottom, no shoes. He looks far more civilized than the madman who met us in our first days here. But even with his hair pressed down and his beard trimmed, there is still that look of wildness in his charcoal eyes, a look as of thoughts not meant to be voiced, thoughts borne of pure instinct and sensation. He says nothing to me initially, instead simply walking beside me in silence. At last, he breaks it. “Are you thinking of what once was?” His voice is still that hoarse, gravelly tone more akin to the beast than to the man.
“The past, yes,” I confirm. I take a deep breath, trying unsuccessfully to grasp just what it is that connects our present with our past. Eventually admitting defeat, I say “I am glad to have you in our community.” Manndingo responds with a simple crook of his eyebrow and a look of those dark eyes in my direction. “It teaches me that there can always be reconciliation,” I go on.
We’ve left the homestead now, and penetrated more deeply into the outlying lands, those brambles and bushes and small or medium-sized pools which my people have yet to conquer. As we walk, we occasionally come upon great slabs of stone, worn smooth, jutting from the ground like enormous grave markers, or sometimes half-sunk in the murky pools. I’ve never examined these too closely, but now, for some reason, they seem to catch my eye. Some of them almost seem to form rudimentary arches, and when I peer inside these, I see what look like great chambers, with holes carved for windows and blackened stains on the underside of what would be the roofs. Manndingo pretends not to notice.
My mind begins to wonder at these monoliths, these ancient places which seem hewn unnaturally from the stone. But all over the outsides of these, the rock is worn smoother than it should, and worn almost to a glowing white, as if they were destroyed by some inhuman force, a power not derived from flesh or claw or fist, but of some capacity deeply primordial. Some of the slabs are laying on their side, atop other slabs, as if they’ve been knocked over by whatever scoured the rest.
A memory flashes in my mind, a brief thought of my imaginings in Manndingo’s hidden cave. It was a thought of an ancient race of creatures like himself, creatures which wore the floor of his cave down to a slick shine which reflected the moonlight. I had thought of such a race wiped away by some unknown power, demolished as if by some decree from the might of Heaven, leaving Manndingo, the last of his kind, alone to guard this ancient swampland. But that memory faded as I peered upon the ruins, for these ancient places seemed ill-suited to his kind, too small for such grand creatures to properly enjoy. No, the scale of these structures was more akin to people like my own.
“May I share with you a secret?” Manndingo’s gravelly voice says to me as my eyes rest upon a single, white stone half-gone in a murky pool of black water. I did not tear my eyes away as I nodded my head. I heard his voice beside me, and in my periphery, I could see him staring at the stone along with me. “There have been more people in my swamp like you. Many of them have come and tried this sort of thing, tried to build themselves a home, and even invited me along.”
“And…and what became of them?” I asked, my voice shaking ever-so-slightly.
He sighed as he spoke his final words. “It has never ended well.”
From telling ghost stories around the campfire to writing entire novels, it is clear that Danny Cove has always been a storyteller. After graduating from Indiana University, where he studied religion, philosophy, Russian, astrophysics and geography, he moved to Indianapolis to study apocalyptic literature at Christian Theological Seminary. It was there that he earned his master’s degree writing a thesis about the heavenly war within the book of Revelation.
But everything he learned was for a greater purpose, for it forms the backbone of his stories and books. Indeed, the philosophical questions that plague his characters are the very ones with which he struggled during his studies, and after coming through those struggles, he wishes to share what he has learned in order to help others grow deeper in their spiritual walk, using fantasy, horror and science fiction as vehicles for growth. He is not hesitant to blend these genres in order to do so, however. In addition, every summer for ten years, he has written a scary story taking place in the enigmatic town of King’s End, Indiana, a place where history literally walks the hallowed grounds. He is willing to share these – as well as some of his poems – with anyone willing to read them.
Mr. Cove just recently finished writing his ninth novel and he currently operates his blog, TheOutside View, in which he shares his sometimes comical, sometimes serious thoughts with anyone willing to listen. He currently lives in Pittsboro, Indiana, with his wife, Lizzy; newborn daughter, Lilly; and rescue dog, Izzy.