Junya was still
struggling impotently, exhausted and hopeless, when the monster
landed. It released its grip gently, letting him slide from its mouth
down to the ground without hurting him. He was too exhausted from his
struggle to run away or try to fight it, curling up into a ball and
playing dead in the vain hope that it would leave him alone. God, was
it going to eat him?
It rattled at him, clicking its shell before walking away calmly. He couldn't just hear the buzzing now, but feel it, deep within the ground, all around and never ending. He didn't need to be told to know – this was the hive. He waited for a moment, catching his breath, bracing himself, but nothing horrible came. No great pain as he was devoured, no deafening hiss of that thing getting ready to strike.
Carefully, hesitantly, he looked up. That monster had lost interest in him, and was climbing the shining white wall. Shining white wall? Junya sat up, whole body telling him not to, and looked around. He was on a balcony: a beautifully smooth, polished thing with manicured stone railings and flowers climbing across it. Set in the shining white wall, which itself seemed to have been hewn from the hard rock of the mountain face, was a set of glass doors, the bright colours held together by some dark resin. The doors stood open, and from them beautiful string music played.
The overwhelming smell of flowers hit him from within the room, thrown too and fro by the strong, cold breeze. He looked over the balcony edge: they were at the top of the mountain, the rock and dirt stretching down and out, covered in pockmarks and holes. He swallowed hard. Long way down. In the distance, he could still made out the dark form and unnatural straight lines on the landscape that was the gorillas city. He thought they had travelled further than that, but without the forest and hills and fields in the way it looked vulnerably close.
Getting to his feet was hard work, his bad leg aching from the strain, but he managed, taking it an inch at a time. He felt braver on his feet. His serious limp threatened that illusion, but he tried to stand straight, holding his leg carefully. He looked back up the wall, but the monster wasn't interested in him at all now, just pottering around up the mountainside. No up, no down: his only option was through the doors...
He limped over, as quietly as possible, and peaked through. The stone room inside was wide and airy, full of flowers of all sorts and sizes in a rainbow of bright colours and perfumes, balanced in vases and baskets on the top of the lacquered wooden furniture. On the table lay a selection of fruits in exquisite bowls, far more than any one person could eat before it all rotted. There was a bed, a wardrobe, a chair... the place looked like a ladies chambers, the kind you find in storybooks for little girls. It was most out of place on top of the insects hive, and it set his teeth on edge.
He crept in, stepping from the stone balcony to the dark hardwood planks. Everything was still, even the wind staying outside, not ruffling a petal. There seemed to be no-one at all around, but for the music that seemed to drift in from no-where. There wasn't even a door, as far as he could see. There was an archway on the far wall, through which he could just see towels and a bathroom sink, but no other way out of the room. Was there a door through there? It would be an odd place for it, but there were weirder things going on right now.
His bad leg flinched violently as he placed it on the cold hardwood, causing him to stumble. The doors rattled in alarm as he grabbed them to stop himself from falling, swearing under his breath.
The music stopped.
Junya held his breath. There were no footsteps, no scraping of chairs being pulled back, no voices, just painful silence and stillness. Using the doorway as an anchor, he hoisted himself back up straight, edging further into the room. Not a speck of dust or pollen moved. There really was no-one...
He leapt clear out of his skin, nearly falling back to the ground, as he was called. He spun around, stumbling, heart stopping: the Insect King stood on the balcony. With all the talk of him being a monster, Junya had forgotten how beautiful and elegant he looked, his long silver hair draped over one shoulder, light silk robes sitting perfectly on his slender frame.
The king smiled at him, the afternoon sun shining behind him like the light of God. It wasn't the mocking smile he wore before, all sharp edges and coldness, but one far more gentle, like he was genuinely happy to see him, gold eyes glistening with joy.
“You're early.” he pointed out “I didn't think you'd be here for another few days.”
“You were expecting me?”
The king stepped forward. Junya stepped back. He hit the table, going cold when he remembered there was no other way out of the room. The king walked into the room, ducking a little under the doorway before closing the doors behind him. Junya noticed immediately: his hand had grown back. It looked noticeably different to the rest of him, pure white and fluid looking, filled with dark veins like something out of a nightmare.
“With your bad leg, I thought it would take you two weeks to get here.” the king elaborated, voice as silky and smooth as his clothing “I haven't finished the preparations yet.”
Why had he been expecting him? Did he know the gorillas were going to attack? Was this all part of some plot? It would never have taken the company two weeks to get here if they knew where it was, so why would he think.... Wait, the curse! Had be been cursed to seek him out? Hadn't Zuberi said something like that before? But, to what end?
“What preparations?” he asked ”What did you do to me?”
The king stepped right up to him, reaching out his newly grown hand. Junya physically couldn't move from the terror as the king plucked an errant leaf from his hair, tossing it aside.
“Was it difficult to get through the forest?” he asked, almost apologetically “No-one lives around here anymore, so it's a little overgrown. Would you like a drink? You must be parched.”
“Don't fuck around with me!” Junya snapped, slapping his hand away “What did you do to me?!”
The Insect King chuckled, flexing his fingers like the antennae on a bugs head.
“There's that fighting spirit.” he teased “Are you hungry? It must have been a long trip. Let me run you a bath, you absolutely stink of gorilla.”
“Answer my question!”
“I will.” the king promised “But first, what do you think of the room? It's nice, isn't it? The stained glass took a while to get right, I'm very proud of it.”
The king spread his arms in a bragging fashion, eyes shining as he waited for praise. He wanted Junya to praise him? What kind of game was this? What was the penalty if Junya didn't play along? He needed to buy time: maybe if he kept the king talking he could find a way out and back down the mountain. He steeled his spine, swallowing hard.
“I'm so glad you like it!” the king declared, perhaps not having picked up on his tone “Is the bed comfortable? Come over here and try it.”
“No thanks. Back to my question-”
“I wanted this room to be comfortable.” he went on, voice wistful as he looked around it “You're going to be here a while.”
Junya flinched as the Insect King turned those gold eyes back to him like a mantis observing its prey, still looking honestly happy.
“You're a little early.” he repeated “Your body's not ready yet. But it does give us time to have some fun together!”
The king dashed forward and grabbed Junya's hand, holding it like he was his sweetheart, soliciting a horrid shudder right down the foxes spine
“You must meet my mother!” he declared “I just know you'll love her!”
Junya was grabbed around the waist before he could argue, hoisted off the ground once again. The doors flew back open as the Insect King darted out with a single leap, flying up into the air with the effort of a grasshopper as he jumped toward the top of the mountain. Junya tried desperately not to scream, even more desperately not to cling to the only solid object in reach, but his efforts were in vain.
“Hold tight.” the king ordered, teasing smirk in his voice.
The robes on the Insect Kings back started to slither and write. They broke apart, swinging back in the air and transforming into great dragonfly wings. He held Junya tighter as he started to fly, carrying like he was weightless to the top of the mountain.
From the air, Junya could see the entire mountain was riddled through with holes, and caught glimpses of something squirming deep within them, that monster cicada crawling in and out, twitching. The king stopped moving his wings, allowing them to go into free-fall. He laughed happily when Junya held onto him for dear life, screaming at the top of his lungs.
They plunged down, slipping expertly into one of the holes, and kept falling through the mountain. They fell through the darkness, illuminated only by random columns of light, sounds and smells Junya couldn't begin to describe surrounding them. The king suddenly extended his wings again, catching the wind and allowing them to float safely the last few feet to the ground.
He released Junya on the safety of the ground, and he immediately jumped away from him, slipping and stumbling on the loose dirt.
“You utter bastard!” he yelled “I thought I was going to die!”
“I won't let that happen.” the king assured teasingly “I'd never let anything bad happen to you.”
Junya had heard something very similar to that not long ago, and it didn't make him happy to hear it again. The time for subtlety and saving face was long gone, and if he was going to die here, he was damn well going to know why first.
“What the hell is going on?!” he demanded “Why did you curse me?! What does the curse do?! Why me?!”
“I told you I'd explain.” the king repeated “But you have to meet my mother first – it'll be so much easier for you to understand then.”
Junya didn't want to meet anyone. It was dark and warm and moist and good god that smell! It was like earth and dank and blood all mixed together... The Insect King moved as if to guide him down the earthen tunnel, but Junya jumped away from him – he didn't want to be touched by him ever again!
The king seemed oddly un-insulted by this, instead gesturing politely the way he wanted him to go, wings still fitting themselves back into place. There was a wretched noise, one that could hardly be described in simile, as a grub crawled its way out of one of the tunnels, shaking, convulsing and flailing around. It was even bigger than that monster cicada, its great white mass stumbling around blindly in the dim. The King ignored it, even as it struck horror in Junya's very being.
Good god, there were more of them. Junya's breath caught as his eyes adjusted to the limited light in the tunnel – the walls crawled, slithered, writhed with being. Every surface was alive with insects. Grubs, maggots, chrysalises, cocoons, long squirming shaking fat crawling flying things, every last one of them only just visible in the dark. They were all over his feet...
He jumped as the king laid a hand on his shoulder.
“This way.” he urged.
Junya was struck dumb by the repugnance of his surroundings, allowing himself to be led away from them. They were right in the belly of the mountain now, the light getting dimmer and dimmer, the stench of dirt and god-knows-what surrounding them entirely. He didn't want to imagine how much dirt and rock was balanced above them. The tunnel led them in further still.
There was an eerie blue glow ahead, creeping along the oozing walls. As they got closer, Junya saw fireflies and glow worms dotted about the tunnel, growing in number, blinking and flashing. A ghastly coldness washed over them as they approached the end of the tunnel, like stepping into a cave. Junya could still feel those things crawling around his feet, and putrid 'popping' when he stepped on them.
They reached the end of the tunnel, the blue glow engulfing them – it was a cave of sorts, a great hollow chamber covered in glow worms and the odd firefly. They stood out like bright stars in the clear night sky against the almost black rock walls, and stepping into the cavern felt like standing on a still lake at midnight, all stillness and cold. It would have been beautiful if it wasn't petrifying.
In the centre of the chamber was a single figure, sitting on an odd, round throne. It was hard to make out from this distance, but it didn't look very big.
“Be careful where you step.” the king implored, guiding him toward the figure.
The feeling of the ground changed – it no longer writhed or wriggled, but was still, spongy, soft... what was he walking on? It was like walking on meat. He didn't want to look down, keeping his eyes straight ahead. They stopped in front of the figure, the king presenting Junya to it.
“Mother, I've bought someone to meet you!” he declared “This is Junya, Queen of the Gorillas. Junya, this is my mother.”
Junya's eyes adjusted slowly to the blue glow. He could just about make out the figure of a person, but it didn't really look like a woman. The better he saw it, the less it looked like a person at all – he couldn't even tell what manner of creature it was, as it had no clear ears, tail, or other markings, but it didn't seem to be an insect. As his vision cleared, Junya was struck dumb, covering his mouth in disgust.
It was a corpse. The shell of a person, ears and eyes rotted away, skin hard and orange like leather, thick with putrid red veins. It sat calmly in the chair, arms on the rests, staring straight forward. Was...was that a chair? It was the same sickly orange as the corpses skin, but fleshy and swollen. It didn't stop at the ground, but kept going, flowing into it... he was walking on it. That corpse wasn't on the chair, it was in it, fused to it by its flesh!
“Isn't she beautiful?” the Insect King asked, although it certainly wasn't a question.
He placed his hands gently on the copses shoulders, smiling proudly. This corpse was his mother? This corpse was... the queen? Why was he keeping it around? Couldn't he tell it was dead? Maggots were crawling in her skin! Hair-thin worms stuck out from her flesh, flailing around in the air, something unsettling slithering about in the gaps of her eye sockets. Beneath her skin, a porridge of white eggs lay waiting in patches. Junya tried his very best not to be sick.
“Mother is very excited to meet you.” the king told Junya, oblivious to his reaction “She's been telling me for some time that I need to find a wife.”
“Telling you?” Junya mumbled.
“Do you know much about insects, Junya?” he asked.
Junya shook his head. How could he say this corpse spoke to him? Above being a monster, he was a madman!
“I became king by killing my father and devouring his flesh.” he explained casually “But I saw no reason to kill my mother too – I love my brothers and sisters so! Why, you've met my little brother – he's such a sweet little thing, and he can be so silly!”
“Little brother?” Junya repeated “That great giant thing?”
“Giant?” the king laughed “Hardly!”
He took his hands off the corpses shoulders, walking around it towards Junya.
“Usually, when there's more than one possible king, they must kill each other to prove their dominance.” he explained “Hence why I ate my father. I didn't really have the heart to kill my brother, though – like I said, he's such a sweetheart, and he doesn't have very good eyesight. I decided instead to let him have this hive – there's just enough food here to last until he's old enough to become a proper king. Then he'll fly away and set up a new one.”
“Food? You mean the gorillas children?!”
“They're not children.” he insisted “They're unborn. My father made the mistaking of exhausting the previous food supply with the wolves – by then the hive was established, we couldn't move! I won't make that mistake.”
“You're leaving.” Junya realised.
“That's right.” the king confirmed “I'm going to set up a new hive, far enough away that my brother and I won't be competing for food. I was thinking on the far side of the mountains – there's more food there, although it isn't as delicious as the stuff here.”
“That's where my village is!”
“That's right – yours, the badgers, the crows, the rabbits: all sorts for the children to eat!”
“I don't understand.” the king said “Don't you want to go home?”
Go home? The Insect King was going to take him back with him? To start a new hive? Why?
“What do you mean?” he asked, backing away from him “What are you planning?”
The Insect King smiled at him again, taking his hands gently.
“Isn't it obvious?” he asked “You're going to be my new queen!”
“Mother needs to stay here until my last brothers and sisters are born.” he went on “They'll be the last of my fathers line. Then my brother will find his own queen and start his line. You and I will start our own.”
“Of course I can.”
The king had a long reach, grabbing Junya and pulling him close. His grip was firm, unbreakable as Junya started to panic. Surely he couldn't be serious! He might be mistaken for a woman, but certainly not an insect!
“I wanted a strong queen to bear my children.” he explained, still smiling as if it were a compliment “That's why I was so disappointed that all the she-wolves died out. Strong mothers make strong children, afterall. That's why I knew you had to be the one – you, a little fox, challenging the Insect King with nothing more than a tiny blade, a limp and a fighting spirit! Oh, I'm sorry.” he chuckled “A rather big fox.”
“N-No!” Junya stuttered, trying desperately to pull himself loose of the insects grip “I refuse! Absolutely not!”
The kings expression finally changed: he stopped smiling, looking genuinely upset.
“Why not?” he asked, leaning down to look him in the eye “Don't you love me?”
“What the hell made you think I would?!” Junya shrieked, pulling away from him with all his might.
“You got here so quickly.” the king pointed out.
“I had a horse!”
The king looked disappointed, pouting like a child.
“And here I thought the wings of love flew you to me.” he sulked.
He smiled again, grip still on Junya's hands, and somehow it was much worse than before.
“Not that it matters.” he said “It'll be a while before your body is ready, and a few more months to set up the new hive – there's plenty of time for you to fall in love with me.”
“That's not going to happen!” Junya swore “Let go of me!”
“You'll forget about that stinking gorilla in no time.” he promised “I'll treat you like a queen – no, a goddess! I'll bring you flowers, fruits, animals – whatever you want!”
“I want you to let me go! I refuse to be a part of this!”
The king released his hands, causing him to fall hard to the ground. Despite the soft floor, the impact hurt, his leg in particular protesting.
“Refuse all you want.” the king told him coldly “You can't leave this mountain on your own. Your body's already started to change, so you may was well accept fate.”
Junya grabbed that horrid throne, using it to pull himself up. As he struggled to his feet, suddenly exhausted, heart beating faster than he could ever remember, he came face-to-face with the corpse of the queen. The bile rose in his throat as he saw up close the dark forms wriggling and squirming through her.
“I won't.” Junya swore, voice shaking “I won't be a part of this! I'll throw myself off that mountain!”
The king sighed through his nose sharply, like he was disappointed.
“I don't need you to have legs.” he said bluntly “Or arms. I'd rather not have to do that, though – the change will make you more beautiful than you've ever been, than you ever would have been! If you don't have your limbs, it's sure to impact our children!”
“There won't be any children!”
Something stirred under Junya's hand. Something too big to be a maggot or a grub. Something moved on the edge of his vision, causing him to look directly into the face of the corpse. Its sunken eyes moved.
It looked at him.
It was alive.
“Mother,” the king sighed again “I know you're concerned, but please don't fret – my wife will just take some convincing, that's all.”
The king kept speaking, but all sound disappeared. All thought left him, all sense of conscience. This thing was alive, welded by its flesh to the mountain. It looked at him, sunken eyes milky gold and nearly blind. All other parts of it were immobile, ridden with maggots and worms.
This was the Insect Queen.
The king wanted to make Junya his queen.
He wanted to make Junya this.
“C-c-can't.” he stuttered “I can't bear your children! I can't bear children at all!”
“Oh?” the king asked, curious “Why's that?”
Junya spun around, heart right in his chest, leg threatening to give out beneath him. The king stood with his arm crossed daintily, head tilted to the side, waiting.
“I'm a man!” Junya screamed at the top of his lungs like a revelation from heaven “I'm a man! I can prove it!”
Junya grabbed his trousers, ready to pull them down and prove his maleness, hands shaking uncontrollably. He was starting to hyperventilate, covered in a cold sweat.
“I'm useless to you! I tricked the gorilla king! And I fooled you as well!”
The king was unperturbed. He smiled.
“I know.” he said.
Junya's heart stopped beating in his chest. His surroundings disappeared as the two words echoed through him.
“Of course.” the king laughed “Males and females have completely different pheromones, even foxes. I'm not surprised you fooled that simple minded gorilla, but I'm no so easy to trick.”
“Bu... I don't understand!” Junya yelled at him “If you know I'm a man, you know I can't bear children!”
“An insignificant detail.” the king assured him “I told you your body was changing.”
His body was...? The pain in his stomach... it had been the curse. His body was being changed from within. The king uncrossed his arms, holding them out as if expecting a hug.
“My queen never needed to be female.” he explained “All I needed was a healthy body to act as an incubator and genetics different from my own. Everything else is adjustable.”
The king stepped forward. Junya stepped back, stumbling away from him, away from the living corpse. There was no way out. There had to be a way out!
“Don't worry.” the king assured “The change won't take long. It may hurt, but the pain won't last. This time next year, you'll be the queen of your own hive, and the first thousands of our children will be born.”
Junya ran. He couldn't, but he did, breaking for the exit. Within seconds, a sickening crack reverberated through the air. Everything went dark.