This story was inspired by an odd thought: what happens to the monsters when mankind is gone? Enjoy!
The sky was a gray shroud cast over a graveyard landscape of ruined cities and scorched earth. Trees grew in twisted clumps, those that grew at all, and the wind rattled their dead branches together, until it seemed the landscape was haunted by a band of invisible castanet players.
Eleanora grasped the broomstick thrust between her thighs and squinted below her, at the bleached bone earth. Nothing moved, that wasn’t pushed about by the wind. Adjusting the goggles she wore over her eyes, to protect them from the ever-present grit, she flew in an ever-widening spiral, searching the world for any signs of life.
She found none. Neither bird nor beast, neither fish nor fowl seemed to have survived the long winter. The world had been wiped clean by fire and madness.
Idiots, thought the old witch.
Gripping her broomstick, she whirled sharply and headed for home. The sun was sinking, the meager warmth that penetrated the clouds fading from her skin, and she wanted to be in doors before the night’s brutal cold arrived.
Home was a cave in the mountains, far from prying eyes and, as luck would have it, falling bombs. She had been sleeping when the war happened and, except for some spectacularly bad dreams, had not otherwise been affected by it. Her cavern home was deep and dark, sealed by stone doors that had kept out fallout and acid rain, the ravages of the long night and who knew what other manmade horrors.
Eleanora had woken from her long sleep, stiff and aching, with the absolute knowledge that the world had changed. But until she had climbed out of her cave and seen the state of the place did the enormity of that change strike home.
She alighted on the hard rock outcropping just as the hidden sun began to vanish behind the world’s curve. Broom slung over her shoulder, Eleanora descended into the dark earth.
The great stone doors opened at her approach, and green flame sprang into being on her meager hearth. She emptied the pockets of her long, drab dress tossing bones into her cauldron. The world was full of bones, a graveyard and banquet all in one. Eleanora would not starve.
As always, the first thing she did was check under the bed. It was empty. If there were any monsters left in the world, they weren’t hiding under her bed.
Perhaps there aren’t any monsters left, thought Eleanora.
It was a sobering notion.
She shut the stone doors of her little cave and crouched over her cauldron. The bones simmered, long and short, human and animal. She whispered to them, strained to hear anything answer back, but the bones remained quiet. As dead as the world she’d plucked them from.
Sighing, Eleanora sat back and pondered her next step.
She’d flown as far as she could on the broom, and still be able to return to her cave. If she flew further away, she’d have to take provisions with her, find shelter against the cold. And it all seemed so much bother.
Glancing around her cave, she spotted the pile of broken glass lying in a corner. She frowned. The glass had belonged to a magic mirror, an old and cherished item, that had not survived the war. It had tumbled over during her sleep, breaking into a thousand pieces. Eleanora could have repaired the glass easily enough, but the enchantments woven into it were beyond her.
She regretted not storing it more safely. The mirror would have let her search the whole world from the safety and comfort of her home. Now, she had to do it the hard way.
And what was she even looking for? Mankind was dead. Gone the way of the dodo, or so it appeared. And if they weren’t dead, what then? The survivors would be a scabrous lot. They would probably be a thousand times worse than the wickedest monster-under-the-bed.
No, mankind had never been satisfied with mere frights. They hungered for blood.
Well, thought Eleanora, they had gotten their full of it with their damned war and it drowned them.
Why was she hunting for them? For anything?
It wasn’t loneliness. Eleanora had always lived away from men, away from the others of her kind. She was solitary by nature and not sentimental in the least. So why was she hunting for survivors?
Maybe, she thought, I just miss their noise. Their airplanes and automobiles, their trains and cell phones. Mankind had filled the world with busy noise and, since their absence, the world had been quite as a tomb.
Perhaps, thought the witch, I just want someone to talk to.
At this point, Eleanora would have tolerated the most inane vampire, the most brain-dead zombie to ever crawl out of its grave. If only for five minutes.
But vampires, who preyed on humans, were now as dead as their food source. And zombies had never managed to survive very long, even under ideal circumstances. Eleanora doubted any of them had made it either.
There could, she postulated, be some witches left. No doubt others, like her, had been deep in hibernation when the bombs fell. Some would have survived, probably in isolated, out-of-the-way places like Alaska and China and the Gobi Desert. Perhaps she should pack up the broomstick and tour the world, hunting for her witch-sisters, rousing the sleepers.
But to what end? To have one last great party beneath the skeleton moon? To stalk through the cindered forests, the ruined cities, noting the folly of man? To listen to the endless pontificating, the rampant theorizing about how and when mankind had gone collectively mad?
The more she thought about it, the less appealing the scheme became to Eleanora. She looked around her cave, lit by crackling green firelight, and realized that she had everything here that she had ever wanted. Now, she just didn’t need to worry about hikers or spelunkers or wandering vagrants.
The witch settled herself by her fire, stirred her cauldron full of bones and smiled.