In the Garden Where Monsters Grow

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Alison Reeger Cook

Naturally dyed eggs
Photo Credit: Tarehna Wicker

Cudwad cast his gaze back and forth among the various embryos that hung like morbid glass ornaments from the thorny vines. “Uh, which one am I looking for?” he called.

Gnawbone sighed irritably. “The salamander. The blue one with the bright red fringes.”

Cudwad finally found the one that he had been sent to harvest, a cobalt blue creature that looked more insect than amphibian, and with gentle, gloved hands, he plucked it free of the Mothervines. “Found it. What does this one do again?”

“Burns memories. Drowns lost children.” Gnawbone grinned slightly. “Bites idiots.”

Cudwad furrowed his brow, and looked down at the peacefully sleeping beast. “I still can’t get over how Lady Nightmare grows all these… things. I mean, she doesn’t seem very motherly or welcoming… but she ‘loves’ all these monsters.”

Gnawbone shrugged. “You’re trying to apply human tendencies to Lady Nightmare. Don’t worry, once the Taint absorbs into your blood a little while longer, it’ll make more sense to you.”

The young boy—although, not much longer would he be a human one—glanced at the veins showing through the skin of his arms. Already they were several shades greener than they had been the day before. He had also noticed that morning that his ears were a bit pointier at the tips, and his once-blue eyes were slowly shifting to a moon-silver. It was pretty cool.

It was also necessary.

Without the Taint, no normal being could be in the garden for long—not before the poisonous spores, or the mind-rot fumes, or the plentiful carnivorous insects that were drawn to untainted blood would do them in. The garden itself was an embodiment of Lady Nightmare’s soul, or lack thereof.

Cudwad cradled the salamander, biting his lip. “Do you think she’d let me keep one, sometime?”

“Keep… one of these? For what, a pet?” Gnawbone laughed. “Just do your job, Cud. No one bends the lady’s rules here.” He pulled back the shaggy white hair by his left temple, showing the deep scars there. “And this was from her being mildly irked, and not for anything I did.”

Cudwad gulped, but then spotted something at Gnawbone’s feet. “Careful, there’s a tiny one right there.”

“Where?” Gnawbone looked down at the spot Cudwad pointed to, and then he bent down and picked up a dull, yellowish egg that fit comfortably in his palm. “Odd, this wasn’t here this morning. And there haven’t been any other layings today.”

“Ooooh, do you think something else laid it here?” Cudwad, still cradling the salamander in one arm, reached out for the yellow egg with his free hand. “If it’s not Lady Nightmare’s, then I can have it! Please, don’t tell her it’s here. I’ll take good care of it. It’s probably just a regular old bird. She’ll just feed it to the monsters if she finds it. Please please please, let me have it.”

Gnawbone scratched his chin, looking the egg over. “Hmm, you know, I bet I could pawn this off as a phoenix egg… I could get some good money for this at the Charmers’ Market.”

“No, don’t sell it! Give it to me!”

“I’m older than you, so I get first pick of—”

The arguing, of course, woke up the salamander in Cudwad’s arm. Waking a fire salamander should be a slow, careful process, lest you anger the poor thing. Being jostled about in Cudwad’s arm with all that yelling going on was not a good way to awaken a salamander for the first time, proven by the fact that he coughed up a ball of acid before he squirmed out of Cud’s grasp and slithered away among the tangled Mothervines.

The sudden attack by the salamander caused Gnawbone to drop the yellow egg in surprise… right into the pool of acid that the salamander had belched up on the ground.

The two caretakers watched, petrified, as the shell of the egg began to melt in the acid, and it peeled back to reveal something unlike anything they could have ever expected to come from such a tiny, unassuming egg. In other words, it was definitely not a bird… not a reptile or amphibian… not even a monster, which would have been a more pleasant alternative.

“Cud…” For the first time that Cudwad had ever seen, Gnawbone blanched as pale as Death’s horse. “Cud, run…”


“Which one of you found that egg?”

Cudwad shivered at the sound of Lady Nightmare’s voice. Its chill made the dead of winter seem like a mild, sunny spring. Her sickly green gaze was just as icy, set in a face that was as rigid and flawless as a porcelain mask. Hers was a venomous beauty, a beguiling toxicity.

Gnawbone stood calmly beside Cudwad, although the younger boy could sense the stiffness in his coworker’s stance. “I picked up the egg first, madam. It is my responsibility.”

Lady Nightmare narrowed her eyes on Gnawbone, and then shifted her eyes to Cudwad. “Who saw the egg first, Cudwad?”

Gnawbone put a hand on Cudwad’s shoulder, a gesture to still him, but Lady Nightmare’s influence was more intimidating. Cudwad cautiously raised his hand.

“That’s what I thought.”

Lady Nightmare cast him a gentle smile—the kind that ripples through one’s skin like tiny, writhing snakes—and approached him. “You are a very lucky boy. You found the egg of a leucrocotta, a very rare creature. I haven’t had one in my garden since… well, long enough ago to say almost never.” She brushed aside a few hairs from Cudwad’s forehead tenderly. “Naturally, anyone would want to bond with such a special monster—” She shot a piercing stare towards Gnawbone, who dropped his gaze from her. “—but only the one who sees the egg first can form a bond with the leucrocotta. It wanted to be found by you.”

“So… so it’s mine?” Cudwad felt a surge of excitement in his chest.

Lady Nightmare’s smile twisted slightly, almost as if there was some unspoken joke she was musing over. “Yes, it has chosen you. You will tend to it, and prepare it to permanently bond with you. We should go discuss it.” She put a sinewy arm around Cudwad to lead him away to a secluded parlor, while Gnawbone watched them go, his mind racing in a silent frenzy.


Cudwad found it odd that Lady Nightmare put him on a strict diet of a special curry dish that she prepared solely for him at every meal. He also found it odd that when he attempted to read up about leucrocottas in the bestiaries in the Nightmare Library, the entries had been blacked out with thick blotches of ink. Lastly—and he hadn’t realized it until some time afterward—he was more easily irritable towards Gnawbone, especially when the older boy said, “You don’t have to take care of that leucrocotta just because she said you should, you know.”

“You’re just saying that because you wanted it to choose you instead!” Cudwad would retort. “And you don’t like that Lady Nightmare’s giving me so much attention, and has forgotten about you. Well, too bad! Just go away if you don’t like it!”

When Gnawbone did walk away, and shut himself up somewhere for several hours, only then did it dawn on Cudwad how nasty he had been to his friend.

One evening, while Cudwad was tending the garden, a sudden chill—no, this was a blistering fire—crawled over his skin as Lady Nightmare appeared from nowhere with frightening speed. Without a word, she grasped his face, turning it from side to side, gazing deeply into his eyes, rubbing his pointed ears and checking his wrists, where she could see the deep green pulsing in his veins. Cudwad was startled, yet some new voice in his mind said, “Don’t question your mistress. Make sure she is pleased.”

After a moment, Lady Nightmare released him. “You haven’t been in my cabinets, have you?”

Cudwad blinked perplexedly, and shook his head. He, as well as Gnawbone and any others in her employment, had always been forbidden to go into Lady Nightmare’s cabinets, which housed the various ingredients for her exotic concoctions.

She let out a long breath. “I would appear to be missing a bottle of powdered griffin feather that is very expensive. No one is allowed to borrow anything from my collection, understood?”

Cudwad nodded quickly. But a churning was already twisting his guts, as he could imagine where that bottle could be. Probably already sold at the Charmers’ Market, with Gnawbone having gathered a plentiful price for it. In fact, Cudwad hadn’t seen Gnawbone at all since that last time he yelled at him. He hadn’t bought a ticket to run away somewhere, had he? Cudwad suddenly felt such a sharp pang of loneliness, even the thought of his upcoming bonding with his leucrocotta couldn’t cheer him up.


The next evening, Lady Nightmare summoned Cudwad to her parlor.

“Is it time to bond with my leucrocotta?” Cudwad asked. “I hope I can do it correctly. I tried to research about leucrocottas this week, but I couldn’t find—”

“It’s quite all right,” Lady Nightmare replied. “I’ve prepared you well enough. It’s time for my leucrocotta to have his sacred feeding.”

Cudwa tilted his head. “But… I don’t know what it would…” The realization smacked Cudwad like a dragon’s tail to the face. “I thought you said I would bond with it—”

“And you will. A leucrocotta must eat the first living creature that finds its egg in order to grow into the magnificent beast it will become. More importantly, in order for me to have its undying loyalty, its first meal must be saturated in my Obedience spices.”

Cudwad thought of all the curry dishes he had been eating that past week.

“And since you have been eating those spices, you can’t oppose my orders,” Lady Nightmare added. “Now go out into the garden and let my leucrocotta eat you. I’m sure it’s quite hungry.”

Fear festered in Cudwad’s chest and gut like acid burn, but he couldn’t argue. He couldn’t resist, or run, or cry. His feet moved without his permission and that new voice in his head said, “You heard the lady. Go outside and get eaten before she gets impatient.”

His mind could only go blank as he walked out into the ghoulish garden, past the hanging embryos, past the frightful fruits, searching out the creature that he had wanted to be his own so desperately.

And he found it. Lying still, dead, on the ground.

Next to it lay an equally still and lifeless Gnawbone. Only it wasn’t Gnawbone—or, it was, but not the white-haired, blood-Tainted boy Cudwad knew. This Gnawbone had brown hair, normal peach-colored skin, and even appeared a bit frail. In his right hand was an empty bottle; a few flakes of some golden powder were scattered on the ground. His left hand was completely gone, the wrist a bloody bitten-off stump. That same red, sticky blood laced the leucrocotta’s pale lips.

It would take Cudwad some time to process it, but the answer eventually came. Gnawbone had taken the bottle of powdered griffin feather from Lady Nightmare’s cabinet, a powder designed to cure any and all poisons or diseases, including the Taint. After relieving himself of the Taint, he had gone into the garden to find the leucrocotta as quickly as he could—after all, he was human again, and would not be able to live in the garden for long. But once the leucrocotta bit off and ate his hand, it would have attained the same un-Tainted state of being that Gnawbone had—in the same way it would have soaked up the obedience spices that Cudwad had eaten. Without that Taint that the garden would have given it, the leucrocotta must have succumbed to the poisonous spores or fumes and died.

And Gnawbone did all this… to save me. He knew what Lady Nightmare was planning for me, Cudwad realized. But his sadness was drowned out by that voice saying, “What are you going to do? She ordered you to be eaten… but it’s dead! What will you do now?” Cudwad paused, before his old voice—the one raging like an inferno right now—replied, “She wanted me to bond with the leucrocotta. The way I see it, there’s only one way to do that now…”


After waiting a few days for the obedience spices to wear off—and after struggling to wolf down a good share of leucrocotta meat, unsure whether or not the meat was toxic—Cudwad returned to Lady Nightmare’s parlor with a newly-grown set of leucrocotta teeth in his mouth, curved claws on his hands, and a ravenous desire to hunt a fresh nightmare…


Alison Reeger Cook is the book reviewer for the Gainesville Times in Northeast Georgia. She also writes novels, her first being published by Knox Robinson Publishing in May 2013, and her ten minute play “In the Cards” was published by Heuer Publishing, Inc. In October 2010, she was chosen for Honorable Mention in Writers’ Journal magazine for her short story, “When the Bottle is Lost.” In 2011, she was awarded Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition for her stage play, “Major Arcana,” and Honorable Mention in WD‘s Science Fiction contest for short story, “Psycho Babbles.” Email: areegercook[at]

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