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Short Stories

Echoes from the Mountains

For the inaugural post on my blog, here is a short story that I wrote when I first visited Oregon. It’s the first in a series of Cosmic Horror shorts

I am not a strong man. I am not a man who seeks attention or fame. This account is meant as a record of events that now haunt me. Every word is true, as bizarre as it might seem. I write them down in the hope of purging them from my memory, yet I know they will always linger like an undigested poison in my mind.

It began three days before I was to leave my home to visit my sister. She had moved to the rugged and wild mountains that mark the border between California and Oregon. For what reason, I still can’t really say. She had felt drawn there somehow. I was to stay with my sister and her new husband, a man I had never met, in their home in the forest.

My sister was always impulsive. She met and married a man who worked at a local lumber mill soon after moving to a little town called Woodville, which lay several miles away from any settlement that could be called a city. She was happy, by all accounts, so I didn’t really question it at the time. 

Three days before I was to fly north, I was out on a walk, as was and still is my habit. I strolled down a path I often enjoyed because of its large trees and plentiful birdlife, when a dove fell from its perch somewhere above me and landed with a thud on its back quite close to where I stood.

It flapped its wings uselessly to try to right itself. The sound of its wings smacking against its body as it rocked back and forth, spraying its white breast with mud. Its small black eyes glared at me accusingly.

I  went searching for a stick or something so that I might tilt the poor creature upright. By the time I returned, the dove was dead. I looked for some bird of prey that might have knocked it to the ground, but the forest the forest had gone eerily quiet. 

I hurried home, thoroughly disturbed by the sight of the dove, laying flat and still, its black eyes staring emptily at the canopy above it. The shock of the even did lot leave me for many days.

The day of my flight came soon enough. I was to arrive just at sunset on the day after Christmas; my work prevented me from arriving any earlier. It was a small, propeller plane barely large enough to hold the sixteen passengers that were crammed inside. I clutched my single piece of luggage to my chest as the small aircraft droned its way through the sky like some monstrous insect. 

We landed at an airport that seemed barely larger than a football field. I disembarked, grateful for the feeling of solid ground beneath my feet, and made my way through the terminal to where my sister and her husband were to be waiting. A harsh, chill wind whipped through the loading area outside the airport as I stepped outside of the terminal. Cold cut to the bone and I pulled my jacket close. 

My sister greeted me and waved me over to a large truck covered in mud. She was dressed in a thick coat with gloves and a knit hat pulled down around her head, obscuring her features. She handed me a scarf. I took it with a grateful thanks and turned to finally meet her husband. 

He was a tall man, with wide shoulders and hands like knotted wood. His face dominated by a large beard that came down to his chest. It was trimmed and well-kept and was a dark black. He wore a bright orange cap that came down to his bushy eyebrows. From beneath them came his two eyes, a bright, almost shocking blue.

He reached out and took my offered hand in a firm, but not crushing, handshake.

“Good to have finally met you,” he said, his voice deeply resonant. “I’m Dustin. We better get going. Don’t want to be stuck out here when the freezing fog hits.”

I nodded, not quite sure what he meant, and I clambered into the cab of his truck, wedging myself between the driver’s seat, which Dustin occupied, and my sister. 

We drove for a while on the highway before turning off at an exit that read ‘Woodville Pop. 1300’. We slipped into impenetrable darkness. Fog surrounded us, drawing down the world to only that which the headlights of the truck could illuminate. My sister pointed out the main attractions of the town as the truck’s lights hit them, the downtown being all of a block consisting of a barbershop, a bar, a gas station and the town hall. We turned down a small, two lane road that plunged us into the forest. 

Tall pine trees loomed precariously over the road. Blackberry bushes, leaves frozen and gnarled, choked the bases of the trees. At times a low hanging branch would smack against the truck with a great whack, or else scrape with a sinister sound against a door, setting my teeth on edge. If either of them noticed when I would jump, neither said anything, thankfully. 

We turned sharply down another road. This one was narrow enough for only one car. I clutched harder at my bag as we bounced along it, hurtling headlong deeper and deeper into the forest. 

My sister lived in a cabin on a large tract of land that covered most of a mountainside. As we pulled up to the cabin, I began to understand my sister’s attraction to this place. The cabin was charming, picturesque in almost every way. It had a large deck extending out in front of the front door, and had two stories with a chimney climbing up the side. Merry amber light streamed from the windows through the fog, warming me more than the truck’s paltry heater. 

As we mounted the stairs that led to the deck, a sudden, terrible scream came echoing out of the forest. It started low and droning — almost like the sound of a motor straining to start — and crested to a high, banshee-like wail. I froze, my eyes glued to the fog-shrouded trees. 

“A mountain lion,” said Dustin, as we rushed in silence inside. The expression on his face told me that it was a sound foreign to him too. 

They settled me into the guest bedroom located on the second floor. We spent the remainder of the evening in the large living room downstairs. A fire crackled merrily in the hearth as we sipped on glasses of whiskey. My sister, the ever-busy host, spent most of her time in the kitchen, hastily bringing out small trivets of snacks or else refilling Dustin’s glass when requested.

I hardly could get a few words from her. She still wore her thick coat, despite the great warmth of the fire and her obvious discomfort. When pressed, she said that it was awfully cold in the kitchen. An unconvincing lie if I ever heard one. 

Dustin was just as quiet. I, being foreign to both the land and his profession, asked what I could about the health and status of the area. The county was on hard times. It was unseasonably warm. The snow on the mountains had been late in coming. That was all he really told me. I busied myself mostly with the entertainment of their two beautiful dogs, Jed and Lucky, hunting hounds each. 

Finally, I broached the subject that had been stalking about in the shadows of my mind. 

“What was that noise we heard outside the house?”

“I told ya,” he said, “it was nothing but a mountain lion. You never heard of one.”

“No,” I said truthfully, “but it seemed rather close. Should we be concerned?”

He chuckled, “A puma’d be more scared of you than you of it.” 

He sucked down the last of his whiskey and waved away my sister carrying the bottle. She smiled briefly then vanished back into the kitchen. 

“Tell me, Mr. S—,” he said after a moment of silence, “are you the type who enjoys ghost stories? I mean, tales you tell around the campfire.”

I admitted I did have quite a weakness for folklore. It was my minor for the first year of college before my father forced me to change it. 

He leaned back into the armchair and said, “Well, then, I’ve got a story for you. Something about this night put me in the mood for thinking it. They say that in Mt Pitt sleeps a giant, terrible bloodthirsty creature. He is chained beneath the old volcano, you see, but his malevolence can emerge to wreak havoc. It descends like a thick black smoke, practically invisible in the night. It can howl like a thousand screaming souls, tearing up trees and splitting boulders in two. Children and women go missing. Men are found with their heads twisted round. 

“Some called it a punishment for the white man’s treatment of the natives. Others, a government experiment gone wrong. But I hear tell it is older than mankind, older than the mountains. People go missing in these hills. Sometimes they’re found, and when they are, they have a look of sheer horror twisted across their faces. Gruesome stuff. Maybe too gruesome for you, eh?” 

I had gone pale. The sound of that terrible cry echoed faintly in my brain. 

I smiled grimly and said, “You certainly have colorful folklore around here.”

He laughed and nodded. I excused myself to go to bed, feeling the weight of my travels upon me. 

Just before I was to lay in bed, I realized the shades to the window were open. The absolute darkness of the night beyond the glass yawned like an abyss. I hurried over with the intent to swipe the shade shut, when I felt prickling at the back of my neck. There was something out there in the darkness, watching me. I, in an uncharacteristic act of bravery, squinted and tried to look into the inky black. 

I could have sworn I saw a figure walking away from the house into the woods. Who it was, I could not say, As the figure reached the edge of the trees, it vanished. Spooked, I closed the shade and practically leapt into the safety of my bed. 

The next morning, I went to the window and after collecting my breath opened the shade. I half expected to see some horrible creature plastered to the glass. Instead, there was a beautiful vista of the mountains shrouded in fog and the sun peaking through. I laughed at myself and dressed. 

At breakfast, I got my first real look at my sister. She seemed thinner, smaller somehow. She was certainly not the rosy-cheeked, laughing girl that I remember. Her face was sallow, her eyes sunken and dull. Her hands, as she served me breakfast, seemed to be more like that of an old woman’s hands rather than those of a woman in her prime. Even her hair lacked its original sheen. 

I suspected that there was something amiss with Dustin. At breakfast there was an air of definite tension between them. Things unspoken hung between them like the fog that still clung to the trees outside. I decided to ask my sister what was the matter at the earliest chance I got. 

Unfortunately, that seemed to never come. Dustin invited me to go mudding with him; it is a popular pastime there that is mostly driving around mudpits in a truck. I initially declined, both because it sounded incredibly boring, and because I hoped to get the chance to talk to my sister alone for a while. But, she insisted I go, saying that it would be fun and the perfect way to get to know Dustin. 

So, I agreed.
We climbed aboard his truck and set off down the muddy road to a local favorite destination for mudding, Walter’s Pond. The terrain, which last night seemed so inhospitable, was now revealed to be incredibly Eden-like. Tall pine trees covered the mountains, white frost on their branches glistening in the morning sun. A pillar of white vapor from the plywood factory down by the river snaked its way toward the heavens. It struck me that it could very well be mistaken as the source of the enormous amount of clouds that hung over head. 

Dustin was a silent companion on the drive there. We spoke barely a word before reaching Walter’s Pond. It was more a swamp than anything. Great tracks of mud and chocolate-brown water set aside for this exact pastime. Dustin gave a gleeful hoop as we plunged into the morass. Mud flew up from the tires, sending it splashing against the window. 

We bounced over the pits of mud, sometimes sliding precariously close to too deep waters. Finally, we crested a hill and came to a stop. 

“Well, how’d you like that?” said Dustin, a wide grin peeking through his beard. 

“It was certainly exciting!” 

Dustin nodded. His demeanor grew somber and he wiped a hand over his mouth. He glanced out across the Pond and said, “The reason I wanted to take you out here wasn’t for the mud.”

“Oh?”

“Naw, it’s just that Anne hasn’t been acting right. Been distant, short-tempered. She hardly slept a wink this month, and when she does she always complains of nightmares. I just don’t get it.”

“I’ve never known her to have nightmares,” I said. “Perhaps she just misses home?”

“Eh, that’s what I’m hoping. Maybe having you around will help jostle her out of whatever funk she got herself in.” Dustin shifted gears and without another word we plunged down into the mud again. 

We hit a rock that was hidden beneath the murky waters. It sent us skidding into a deep pool. With a groan, he shifted the gear into reverse and only succeeded in splattering the windows with more mud. 

“Goddamn!” shouted Dustin. He tried it again, and we sunk a little deeper. 

“What now?” I said.

“Now we get out and push.” He laughed at the look on my face. “I’m only joking. Let me call my friend, he’ll help us — or maybe these folks’ll help.”

A mud-spattered truck emerged from another part of the pond. It came to a stop at the top of the ridge as Dustin waved them down. 

“Pardon me, fellas,” he shouted to them, “we seem to have gotten ourselves stuck. Mind helping a feller out?”

The truck stopped, and I saw that there were four men seated inside. They seemed to confer among each other before the one driving lowered the window and shouted back, “Sure.”

Now, I only take the time to describe these men because of the peculiarities of their appearance and the role they were about to play. They were dirty, with long black wool coats covered with mud at the bottom. Each wore boots that came up to about the knee, equally mud-covered. None seemed to mind the cold of the mud as they clambered down the slope to hitch our truck to their own. 

The driver introduced himself as Nash. He had a long scar that wound its way down the side of his face, beginning at his temple and ending at his chin. 

What made them so peculiar was their strange gaze. There was a certain reptilian deadness in their eyes. An inhuman vacancy that unnerved me. 

After about an hour, we were free from the muck. Dustin thanked them and they got in their truck and drove away in a hurry. 

When they had almost disappeared around a bend in the track I said, “That was a strange lot.”

Dustin nodded in agreement. “Yea, something was certainly off about them. And they’re headed off to the boulders. Must be drug runners, or something.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Those boulders are cursed. At least, that’s what everyone around here believes. Some time back a child was found torn to pieces there. The only people who bother with it now are either crazies or using drugs.”

We returned to the house after getting a meal at the local bar. It was about an hour before nightfall, and the tops of the mountains shone gold as the sun began its climb down. As we pulled up the driveway, we could hear the sound of the dogs barking. Lucky came racing around the corner, howling and barking like there was a fire.

“The hell?” muttered Dustin. He hopped out of the truck and called, “Anne! I told you not to let the dogs loose, unless I’m here.”

There was no reply, so we went inside, dragging the still barking Lucky behind us. Jed was in the living room, pacing back and forth before the backdoor. It hung open. Four sets of muddy footprints were left coming in and out. 

“Anne!” we cried out. I went upstairs, but found no sign of her. Nothing was disturbed as far as I could tell.

Dustin met me at the base of the stairs. “She ain’t up there either?” he said. 

I shook my head and he said, “Goddamn it, where’d she run off to this time?”

“She’s done this before?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he sighed wearily, “sometimes she’ll just up and leave in the middle of the night. Doesn’t go far. Only to the edge of the woods before the dogs start barking and I can stop her from going further.”

I suddenly remembered the figure I thought I saw last night disappearing into the woods. Could that have been Anne?

Dustin grabbed a flashlight and tossed one to me. He leashed the dogs and said, “We better start searching for her while we still got light. These woods get mighty confusing at night.”

The dogs quickly picked up the scent. They led us to a spot near where I remembered seeing the figure enter the woods, and down a narrow, slick path. The ground was wet, and as we began to climb the slope a gentle rain began to fall. The dogs huffed and strained against their leads. 

As we went, we called out to Anne. Our voices seemed to be eaten by the dripping branches and the wiry undergrowth around us. We rounded a massive blackberry bush and the dogs let out a terrific howl. 

There was Anne, prostrate on the ground beside a fallen tree. We called to her, but she didn’t answer. There was dry blood on her jacket. I feared the worst. 

Dustin reached her first and, passing the dogs to me, knelt to gently turn her over.

“Anne, girl,” he whispered. There was more blood smeared on her face, but I could see no wounds. Her chest rose slightly and her eyes fluttered. I handed Dustin my water and he poured a little in her mouth.

Slowly she came to. She said very little, demanding that we leave the forest at once. We made our way back down the path, careful of Anne. As we traveled, she seemed to regain a portion of her strength; the color returned to her face and her eyes were no longer dull and distant.

We finally reached the house. I helped Anne to the couch. I brought a cloth and helped her wipe the blood from her face. There were no wounds, and when I asked, she said she felt no injury. Not even a scrape.

 Dustin locked the windows and retrieved from somewhere in the house two rifles and a shotgun. He had a hard look in his eye. 

“What happened, Anne? Did somebody do this to you?” he asked. His voice carried a deadly edge that made my hair stand on end. 

“No,” she said softly. “Or… I’m not sure. I… I can’t remember. Oh, Dustin, it’s like in my dreams. I felt something call to me, pull me towards the woods. Then… it was like I fell into an icy river. It was dark… then angry! Something was angry. Then I fell, and I don’t know how long I was laying there, because next all I can remember is you waking me up.”

The sun set. In the mountains, it sets all at once so that in one moment you are standing in the amber light of twilight, and the next you are in absolute darkness. I moved to turn on a light, but Dustin stopped me.

“No!” he said. “They can’t know that we’re here. Use the flashlights if you must, and stay away from the windows.”

Shocked, I said, “What on earth is going on here? Do you know what’s happened to my sister?”

“Look, I don’t know nothing. Not for sure. You just gotta trust me on this one.”

“Please, Andy, trust him.” My sister took my hand in hers and squeezed it.

“We’re not safe,” she continued. “Dustin and I heard rumors — stories of people being run off their land, being murdered for a few acres. If we knew who’s been doing this you know I would be out there hunting down the bastards myself.”

There was the fire I had known from my sister. In the dim light of the flashlights, I could see it in her eyes. Gone was the meek creature of the morning, here again was my sister. 

“But what about these dreams?”

She waved her hand before her face in dismissal. “Nothing but products of stress and cabin fever. I swear.” 

I could tell she was lying. 

Then came the wild cry again. It shattered the calm of the night, cutting deep into my most basic instincts. The scream was long, growing in pitch and sheer rage as it built to a final twisting climax. The windows shuttered in their frames. The dogs cowered and sought shelter in their kennels. 

I looked to Dustin and my sister. They were white with terror. My mouth was dry and I felt riveted to the spot. 

Again the scream echoed out of the darkness, growing louder and closer with each second. There was a rush of wind against the windows, as if a sudden storm had broken outside. Something scraped against the back wall of the house, like a great hand groping for a purchase. 

The cry came again, softer now, almost like a purr. The scraping continued around the walls of the house and crawled up to the second story. 

I still could not move. I barely dared to breathe, lest it hear me and come tearing through the walls or bursting through a window. My own heartbeat seemed like a foghorn to me. 

The scraping stopped. 

Whatever it was outside murmured, like a thousand voices mumbling all at once. Then there was silence. 

I dared to breathe.

There came another cry, so loud, it echoed through the house, rattling the pans in the kitchen. I clutched my hands to my ears and cried out in pain. The horrible scream shook my very bones. 

Then it began to fade, rushing away back into the forest. 

I drew myself to my knees, trying to take deep breaths to calm my thudding heart. I looked to my sister and to my brother-in-law. They too were panting for breath. 

“What was that?” I managed after a time.

“I don’t know,” said my sister, “but whatever it is, I swear, I’m going to make it pay.”

“What do you mean?” I said, fear still crawled down my spine. 

“We have to go after it,” said Dustin, loading the weapons. “I refuse to be scared off my land by some fancy tricks and spooky sounds. We’re gonna get the bastards.”

I saw by the look in both their eyes that they were set in this. I took the gun he offered me and tried to steel myself. The rifle felt awkward in my hand. I had never held a gun before in my life, much less fired one. Still, I found a measure of confidence holding it. 

The forest had been torn apart. Trees — tall, strong ones, not saplings — were torn from their roots and flung aside, as if a train has barreled through at top speed. 

We hastened up the mountain, picking our way through the shards of shattered trunks until we reached a trail. Sometimes the trail narrowed, but it was always twisting, twisting up the mountain. 

“What could have done this?” I asked aloud.

“With a few backhoes and a couple of men, I could do something like this in a day or two,” said Dustin. “But… all this? I don’t know” 

The darkness began to press in around us. It began to rain, making the ground slick with mud. Our flashlights cast strange shadows that made me jump at every turn. And everything was silent. Even our footsteps and panting breath seemed muted somehow. 

We climbed for an hour or more, before finally reaching a place where the trail narrowed and stopped at a cliff in the mountain. 

“Turn off your lights!” hissed Dustin all of a sudden.

We did, and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness we saw a slit in the cliff face barely wide enough for a man to pass through sideways in the cliff face. It was illuminated by a dark red light that flickered and jumped. From the slit there came a sound. 

Chanting. 

At first I was not sure, thinking that it was the drumming of my heart in my ears, or an illusion of my over-excited brain. But we edged closer to the passage, there was no denying it. The voices, somehow twisted into horrible tones that clawed at the ear, spoke in a language I could not recognize. The words scrapped and shuffled against the rock, glinting like knives and as hard as the unfeeling stars above us. 

I looked to Dustin. He glanced at Anne and she adjusted her grip on the rife and nodded. They looked at me and I sucked in a breath of air to try to calm myself. I nodded. Dustin entered first.

The passage was narrow, my face almost scrapped against the rock in places. We crept as quietly as we could deeper into the mountain. An orange light flickered ahead. The chanting grew louder. Its sound dragged at my limbs, making each step more laborious than the last. 

The narrow passage opened into an expansive cave. The light came from a massive fire that dominated the center of the cave. Around it stood four hooded figures, their palms upraised, their bodies convulsing in rhythm to the chanting. Before them lay a massive fissure so deep that the light of the fire did little to reveal its depths.  

One stepped forward, the light from the fire dispelling the darkness beneath his hood, revealing him to be Nash. Surely the others were his companions. I looked to Dustin to see if he too recognized the man, but a howling ululation pulled my gaze back to the macabre ceremony. 

Nash had produced a chunk of obsidian inscribed with strange whirling markings that seemed to glow with a fire of their own. He struck his hand hard with the edge of the stone as he cried out. Blood welled up from the wound, as if eager to be bled. It poured from his hand and dripped hissing onto the ground. He then cast the stone into the fissure, where it streaked into the darkness like a shooting star. 

It flared briefly before vanishing into the darkness. There came no report of it hitting the bottom. 

Then, as if in a holy procession, they walked to the edge of the fissure, and, forming a line, hurled their bodies into the darkness. 

I opened my mouth to call to them, to try to stop them in this madness, but I was silenced by the terrible scream. It issued from the fissure, howling deafeningly, clawing at my very soul with its jagged sound. Something that looked like oily, rippling smoke poured out of the fissure. It reared up toward the ceiling, hissing as it did. I felt a malevolence in that roiling darkness that I cannot explain. 

“Go!” shouted Dustin. He shoved us toward the slit we entered from. As I turned from the smoke rushed toward us, engulfing and extinguishing the bonfire. Throwing down the rifle, I turned and followed my sister as we squirmed our way through. 

Halfway through I realized Dustin did not follow. I called his name, but I only heard the sound of gunshots. The monster screamed again, with something like pain and annoyance in its cry. 

We emerged from the mountain and turned to the opening. Anne still had her rifle, for whatever good it could do. 

“Where’s Dustin?” she cried.

“He stayed behind. I… I don’t – We have to go, Anne! Now!” I began stumbling toward the trees, fear propelling my tired limbs. 

Anne stood rooted to the spot. I called to her, but she did not budge. I do not know if she would have tried to enter the cave again, for in the next moment another terrible cry echoed out from the mountain. 

It tore across the valley below, shaking every bone in my body. I could hear it reflect off Mount Pitt, which stood across the valley from us. 

There came a dreadful silence. I rushed to Anne’s side and grabbed her shoulder. She turned to me, her eyes so wide with fear that I could see the whites of her eyes in the dim starlight. 

“We must leave!” I said again. There came a peal of thunder, followed quickly by a flash of lightning. 

Anne’s eyes suddenly flicked to something over my shoulder, causing her to clasp a hand to her mouth to muffle a scream. I spun around just as another flash of lightning illuminated the valley. 

In that single second of light I saw a titanic figure rising from beneath the mountain. It was so tall that its head scraped the clouds that clung to the mountain’s peak. It was proportioned like a hideous mockery of a man, its hands and arms too long and too jagged to be flesh. It turned and its eyes pierced me, full of hatred. 

There came a cry from the creature as the lightning dissipated and we were again in the darkness.  A reply. It was a deep rolling drone, like the cracking of stone. Now, in reflection, I feel that there was something reminiscent of the chant in that voice. 

We ran. Blindly down the mountain side, tripping over rocks and smacking into branches, we ran without any thought but to escape. As we were nearing the edge of the forest, the lights from the house visible through the trees, there came another scream from the forest, and when the echo had crossed the valley, a reply. 

We took the dogs and fled in the truck, speeding with all haste to the police station. The police, thinking us insane, took our report with an obvious air of disbelief, having heard none of the cries that we did. We drove to the airport and stayed in a small hotel beside it. Neither of us slept or spoke.

The next morning we booked the earliest flight to California. As we passed Mount Pitt, it looked like half the mountain had collapsed. An aborted eruption is the official word. I wish that it were true. I wish these terrors that still haunt me every time I close my eyes were mere fantasy. Somehow that would be more bearable. But the memories weigh on my mind like Atlas’s burden, and I am not a strong man. 

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