For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Beholder
HAILING FROM THE FAR REALM, WHERE YOUR MOST SECRET TERRORS AND DARKEST DREAMS BECOME A BALEFUL REALITY. FLAWLESSLY CONCEIVED AND BORN OF THE MIND OF THE GREAT MOTHER, THE MIGHTY BEHOLDER goes to the optometrist to have its eyes checked.
“What’s better, A or B? A, or B?”
“I SUPPOSE-, I SUPPOSE B.”
“And what about now, one or two? One, or two?”
“A, I MEAN, ONE. MOST CERTAINLY ONE.”
“So where are you from originally?”
“I asked where you were from?” The optometrist laughed lightly. “Sorry, I hope that didn’t sound rude. You’d think I know better, I’ve been asked enough times. I say that I grew up around here and people say, no, where are you really from? Sorry.”
“I PERCEIVED NO INSULT IN YOUR QUERY.”
The optometrist was relatively tall for a human woman, with long, dark hair and features of Chinese ancestry. To the beholder, all human beings were equally disgusting and it didn’t understand why they felt the need to separate one another into a multitude of narrow racial categories. They seemed to have many complex and delicate social mores attached to said categories as well. She had introduced herself to the beholder as Dr Tracey Cheung.
“I HAIL FROM THE FAR REALM, A REGION OF SPACE BEYOND YOUR DIMENSION THAT DEFIES HUMAN COMPREHENSION. WHERE YOUR MOST SECRET TERRORS AND DARKEST DREAMS BECOME A BALEFUL REALITY.”
“Uh-huh, and A or B? A, or B?”
“OH, UH, I MUST SEE THOSE AGAIN TO BE CERTAIN.”
“A or B? A, or B?”
“A, I SUPPOSE.”
The beholder hovered above the chair in Dr Cheung’s office behind a complex apparatus designed to test its eyesight. Roughly a metre across and round as a beach ball, the unearthly creature had a heft and weight to it that belied the way it defied gravity. A gaping maw filled with dagger teeth parted beneath a single eyeball the size of a grapefruit. Chitinous, green plates overlapped the beholder’s dark red flesh. Eight wormy tentacles poked through gaps in the armour with a smaller eyeball on the end of each one. Everything about the beholder looked alien. Its voice reverberated, as if echoing down a long tunnel.
“Three or four?” Tracey adjusted the lenses on the phoropter in front of the beholder. “Three, or four?”
“THREE OR FOUR?”
“Three, or four?”
Phoropters, even the kind used for humans, tended to look like gargantuan steampunk goggles. Lenses and levers bristled off the heavy casing. The phoropter used by the beholder, with its singular primary eye and swarm of eyestalks, was all the more complex. It hung in front of the beholder on the end of a mechanical arm. Tracey moved and stretched to make adjustments. The rest of the office looked clean and white, sterile but soft. An eye chart was reflected by the mirror directly across the room.
“Do you have any family back where you came from? Or here?”
“ARE THESE QUESTIONS NECESSARY FOR THE DIAGNOSTIC PROCESS?”
“No, just making conversation.”
“I SPRANG INTO EXISTENCE PERFECTLY FORMED FROM THE MIND OF THE GREAT MOTHER. SHE CAST ME EXACTLY IN HER IMAGE FROM PURE THOUGHT.”
“So you’re close to your mother then?”
“WELL, UH, YES, YES, I SUPPOSE.”
“Any brothers or sisters?”
“ALL THE OTHERS ARE IMPERFECT COPIES! DEGRADED, INFERIOR SHADOWS OF THE GREAT MOTHER, PRETENDERS TO HER AND I’S GENETIC IMMACULATENESS!”
“Ah, golden child, huh?”
“Sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t make assumptions! I just get that, you know? My brother and sister resent that my parents treated me like the golden child, but they didn’t get the pressure it put me under either.”
“I DON’T THINK HUMAN FAMILIAL DYNAMICS ARE REALLY-,”
“Sorry, totally unprofessional of me! You’re just really easy to talk to. Of the lines on the chart, can you read the bottom row?”
“OF COURSE I CAN! A, FOR ANDROMEDA, Z FOR ZACHARIAH, UH, THAT’S AN O, AN-, E.”
“Okay, how about the row above that?”
“WELL, THAT’S A-, SEVEN?”
“How about we try the third line from the bottom?”
“FINE. THAT’S AN S FOR SLEEP, A P FOR PARALYSE, AN E FOR ENERVATION.”
“Very good!” The optometrist made an adjustment. “And how about now? Do you think you could read the line below that now?”
To get through all nine of the beholder’s eyes took a while. The optometrist, Tracey, remained upbeat throughout the entire process. Her questions, and the beholder’s difficulties with the charts, kept it slightly off-balance. Eventually, Tracey shifted the arm of the phoropter aside.
“Alright then, and just a small test to see if you or any of your eyestalks are at risk of glaucoma.”
Bobbing through the air, the beholder followed. Tracey tossed her hair back and toyed with it, smiling over her shoulder. She led the beholder to an adjacent room with another piece of equipment, a bloated, white cylinder with an obvious place to rest one’s head at the front.
“I hadn’t even asked you what you do for a living.”
“ARE YOU ASKING ME NOW?”
“Yes? I mean, you don’t have to answer.”
“I HAVE A LAIR. AND I STAY THERE AND I GUARD IT.”
“A lair, huh?”
“THAT IS CORRECT.”
“Just you? Guarding your lair?”
“OTHERS WOULD TRY TO STEAL THE GREAT WEALTH AND MANY POWERFUL ARTEFACTS I HAVE ACQUIRED DURING MANY MAGNIFICENT BATTLES.”
“I AM-, WHAT? I AM NOT LONELY.”
“Sorry, I just mean, by yourself all day, all alone, in your lair, it sounds lonely! I couldn’t do that, I like working with people.”
“WELL, IT CAN BE A LITTLE BIT ISOLATING.”
“So what you need to do is rest your chin here and first put your main eye up to the opening. Um, do you have a chin?”
“OH, OKAY.” The beholder sank a little lower, swivelling and staring into the barrel of the machine.
“Is there, you know, a Mrs Beholder?”
“WE ARE NOT DEFINED BY HUMAN GENDER CONSTRUCTS.”
“Of course! I mean, who is these days? I just meant a partner, someone to share your lair with?”
“THERE IS NOT. NOT FOR-, SOME TIME.”
“If you could look into the machine, you should see a hot air balloon above a field of green. Do you see the balloon?”
“I SEE A HUMAN HOT AIR BALLOON. A CLEARLY LUDICROUS MEANS OF TRANSPORTATION.”
“I want you to focus on the balloon, okay? And you’re going to feel just a little puff of air on your eye. Just a little puff, I want you to hold your-, body, as still as possible.”
The beholder hovered steadily, focusing on the image of the hot air balloon. Its other eyes squirmed around its bulbous body. After a few seconds of anticipation, a gentle puff of air hit the beholder’s gaping eyeball. The beholder jerked backward, surprised and unable to stop itself. A disintegration ray exploded from its primary eye, scything through the machine. The equipment erupted into sparks, and the beam carved through the wall behind the machine as well. Tracey jumped backward, letting out a small shriek.
“OH, UH, SORRY.” The beholder recovered its composure, as the machine and the craterous hole behind it wafted smoke.
“That’s-, that’s okay, it catches most people by surprise.” Tracey clutched her chest, steadying her breathing. “That’s our only machine, so, you know what? It’s fine, you probably don’t have glaucoma.”
The beholder followed Dr Tracey away from the ruin of the machine. Outside the office was a sales area with walls covered in racks and racks of glasses. Sales assistants and other customers bustled around.
“Okay, so you’re a little nearsighted in your main eye. Your eyestalks, well, there’s a mix of either nearsighted or farsighted among them. We can fit you with glasses, or contacts? Although in your situation it might be a little difficult to keep track of which contacts go where. I don’t know if you’d be a good candidate for laser eye surgery.”
“THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE! I CANNOT POSSIBLY NEED GLASSES, SUCH A THING IS PREPOSTEROUS!”
“I know, feels that way sometimes, right? Getting older, ack!”
“MY FORM IS PERFECT IN EVERY ASPECT! I AM THE VERY DEFINITION-,”
“Personally, I think you would look really cute in some of these frames over here.”
“Oh, for sure! Very debonair, suave.”
The beholder considered this seriously. The human doctor, like all of her kind, was a grotesque sack of meat wrapped in greasy skin and hair. Her opinion should have meant less to the beholder than the beating of a cockroach’s wings. Yet, it found itself oddly intrigued by the assertion that glasses might not only improve its vision but its physical appearance as well.
“I SUPPOSE I COULD DEIGN TO TRY SOME OF THEM ON.”
Tracey helped the beholder try on various collections of frames until they settled on a style it liked. It turned left and right, admiring itself in one of the mirrors. The optometrist cooed over how they looked and the beholder felt surprised by the odd sensation of warmth her attention engendered. Shortly after, she dismissed one of the store assistants and rang the beholder up herself at the front counter.
“You know, I really shouldn’t do this, but-,” Tracey bent over the counter and scrawled something on the back of a business card. “This is my personal cell number, give me a call if you ever wanted to, you know, talk?”
“REGARDING ANY CONCERNS I MIGHT HAVE WITH THE PRESCRIPTION EYEWEAR?”
“About anything, really! Maybe you might want to grab a coffee sometime? Or dinner? Do you eat, like, food? A date, if you ever wanted to go on a date.”
Tracey held the card over the counter. Both of them hesitated as she seemed unsure of where to put it. The beholder’s eyestalks writhed around its head.
“Uh, I don’t really know where to hand this?”
“THAT’S OKAY. JUST LET GO OF IT AND I WILL RECEIVE IT TELEKINETICALLY.”
Tracey let go and the card remained floating in mid-air. The beholder drew it closer to itself and held onto it using its telekinetic abilities.
“So, maybe I’ll see you around sometime? Or not, whatever, it’s cool.”
“AFFIRMATIVE, IT WILL BE ONE OF THOSE TWO OPTIONS.”
The beholder left the optometrist office and drifted out onto the quiet sidewalk. Pausing for a moment, the beholder floated the business card around in front of its body. Its primary eye and most of its eyestalks studied the name and number written on the back of the card. The optometrist had nice handwriting for a human, it decided.
She had been right about one thing at least, sometimes the lair did get a little lonely. It might be nice to have some company once in a while. Someone to talk to. Even if they were a vastly inferior intellect housed within a repulsive, clumsy, awkward, foul, reeking, unwell, just plain wrong body. Actually, as humans went, Dr Tracey Cheung hadn’t been so disgusting. Almost tolerable in fact. Possibly, given time, cute, like a pet.
After all, beauty was in the eye of the beholder.
Sean: I really like this one and am tempted to just write a bunch more monsters doing extremely ordinary things and having conversations about their lives. It reminds me a bit of my other story, Henry, with its mix of the mundane and the fantastical.
Set aside some time if you want to catch next week’s story because it is an absolute chonker. Longest short story I’ve written for All There in the (Monster) Manual so far, edging up toward novella territory actually. Actually it’s another also another real ‘core’ D&D monster like the Beholder, but a very, very different story.
Next Week’s Inspiration: Mimic