Excerpt for The Secret of Mount Haile, Episode 2 - NGLUI.2. by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Secret of Mount Haile

Episode Two

By K.M. White


Copyright K.M. White 2017

Smashwords Edition


Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn


NGLUI.2.

When I was little, I believed in monsters. This accounts for over ninety-nine percent of all children, though, so I’m not special in that respect. What was so weird was the intensity in which I believed in them.

I was a fragile flower of a child if I’m going to be honest. Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, arguably one of the tamest, safest movies ever released to theaters, made elementary school-me bawl like I was watching a family pet being put down. I don’t care how nice the little purple one was, Pooh and Co. talked a good game about the heffalumps being scary as hell. On top of that sort of thing, sleeping in my bed the whole night was Dad’s unreachable holy grail—my little sister Melissa had been doing it her whole life, and I was still crawling underneath the covers beside my father at eight years old. It got to the point where Carol broke down and claimed she would give me a hundred dollars (one hundred whole dollars! Eight-year-old me had never even seen that much money!) if I slept in my bed the whole night.

I never saw that one hundred dollars, because there were monsters under the bed. I was adamant about it: there were, indeed, massive slavering monsters lurking underneath my bed, waiting for me to slip up and poke a foot out from under the covers so they could tear my leg from its socket and rip the flesh from the bone. No matter how much Dad or Carol tried to dissuade me, I would not budge. The monsters existed, that was final, and I didn’t sleep in my own bed the whole night until I was ten. Carol fucking hated me for it, I’m sure.

And you know what? Staring at the bloodshot yellow goat eyes peering in through Dad and Carol’s bedroom window, I instantly believed every single one of those nighttime monsters had existed all along.

It’s come full circle. I’m back in the cabin, awake at midnight. I’m in my sweatpants and t-shirt, staring out the window at something that shouldn’t be there. The difference is, this time, I know what it means.

My shoulder throbs again, the weak painkillers we had managed to scrounge up dying off at the perfect time. I put a hand over my mouth, shaking, hoping the darkness of the room conceals me from sight. The blanket I had pulled around my shoulders drops to the floor without a sound. It can see me, I’m sure. These things are made of darkness, there’s no way it can’t see right through it. My knees are weak, and I bite down on the skin of my hand to distract myself and—

It’s not looking at me. It’s looking at my parents. Jesus Christ. Okay. I duck behind the edge of the bed, pressing myself up against the cold metal frame barely obscured by the bed skirt. Waking them up isn’t an option. It’ll notice for sure. Just—just get to the door, then get downstairs and pick up the fucking radio again. God, the search-and-rescue has to have heard, they have to be coming, there’s no way they’re not.

The boot-in-mud sound of the monster—the shoggoth, I remind myself, what the woman in the gas mask had called them—blinking makes me grit my teeth. Don’t vomit. It’ll hear. My shoulder isn’t helping.

I press myself down on the floor, my arm bent painfully underneath me, doing everything I can to ignore the disgusting wet noises of blinking and writhing fat tentacles falling against the side of the cabin. The radio is downstairs, sitting on the living room table. I know where it is. I press my face into the hardwood, breathing in the dust and grit crammed between the planks. It’s disgusting down here. When was the last time anybody cleaned?

Maybe it’s my neurons misfiring out of fear, but the only thing I can think of as I shuffle out to the second-floor hallway and balcony is some vague feeling of thanks towards the bullshit public school system for teaching us how to army crawl in middle school.

As soon as I’m in the hall, out of the line of sight of the window, I stand and cradle my arm to my chest. The cabin isn’t silent. The generator in the basement hums, the light over the kitchen sink flickers and hisses, the radiators rattle and clank. Something clicks like a branch tapping against the window, and the fact I know what it is makes me choke on my next breath. Fuck, goddammit, Ruthie, get it together. Get the radio. You survived a shoggoth once, and you stabbed it with a stalagmite.

Not that the stalagmite did much of anything, but it’s the thought that counts.

There’s a small walk between my room and the stairs. There’s the other bedroom and the upstairs bathroom to worry about, and I spend the few steps staring off the balcony to downstairs. A large column stretches from the floor to the ceiling at the top of the stairs, large enough I couldn’t put my arms around it if I tried to hug it. I put my free hand on it to steady myself, leaning against it as I steal a peek down the stairs.

There, down at the very bottom, coming around the corner from the foyer, is a single tendril of gelatinous muscle.

Fuck. I jerk back and press myself against the column, grabbing my hair with my free hand to pull it around my shoulder in case the bright blonde stands out against the shadows. My shoulder burns, an incessant reminder like a toddler pulling at my pant leg. A fat and heavy sound drags itself up the first few stairs, soft and wet and sloppy.

I start keeping count. Two shoggoths. I want to close my eyes but I know if I do, the shoggoth will be two inches away from me when I open them again.

Can I make a break for the bedroom again? No, there’s no way I could make it. What about the bathroom? The second floor isn’t that far of a drop, is it? And I can outrun a shoggoth, I proved that in the mines, as long as I have enough of a head start. I clutch at my hair and it crunches between my fingers as the wet sounds get closer and closer. I could bolt. Just bolt. Do it. Your mother was the toughest, strongest, and meanest bitch this side of the Rocky Mountains. I could do it, I could, and I could go for it, I—

A mass of pitch-black flesh sits, half-curled, on the top stair. Fuck. Don’t move, don’t fucking move, don’t move and maybe it won’t see you. You know that’s bullshit, goddamn right it’s going to see you, but maybe it—just—won’t—

As the flesh starts to creep up the wall, eyes opening on the wallpaper in the corner of my vision, a sound like thunder rolls in from outside. The eyes snap to the side and disappear again, skittering down the stairs and back out to follow the echo. I stifle a wheezing breath and peer over the balcony again. Gone. It’s gone, the front door hanging open a crack.

Go.

I run down the stairs, vaulting the last few with a hand on the banister, and land painfully on the arch of my foot even though I bent my knees to lessen the noise. The shoggoth isn’t visible out the front window. Nothing is visible out the front window, really. This much closer to the basement, the generator is even louder, and I get the sudden urge to turn on all the lights before realizing a shoggoth wouldn’t give a single fuck about how bright it is.

Sitting on the side table in the kitchen is the radio, like a beacon. I flip it on and pick up the handheld walkie-talkie attachment.

Static. That means it’s working.

I press the talk pad. “Hello?”

Nothing. Just more static, the tschhhhh of dead air.

“Hello? Anybody?”

In the middle of the static, there’s a small word. “In.” And then it’s swallowed back up by the white noise, and I shake the radio like it’s going to somehow make it work any better.

“Hello? There’s a family on the mountainside, in the rental cabin, you’ve gotten a call from us already—where are you? There’s something—”

Another drumroll of thunder. It’s closer this time. No lightning, but the sky is cloudy and there’s nothing else it could be. I drop the walkie-talkie in surprise and it hits the table with a loud enough sound to make me jump halfway out of my skin. I try to grab the radio to take it upstairs with me, away from any open space, but it’s connected to the wall. The walkie-talkie is connected with a spiral cord.

Something dark shifts outside, and I don’t have any more time to debate. I can’t grab it. What I need to do is get the shoggoth away from Dad and Carol. It would be stupid to circle around to the back—they do better in open spaces, while somebody as small as me would fare better in more cramped quarters like the cabin itself.

Where are you?” I ask the static one more time, and break for the stairs. I take them two at a time despite the ache in my foot from landing wrong, holding my arm to keep from jostling my shoulder. It’s not working very well, and tears are welling up in my eyes again. At this point, I’m surprised I have any left. I push the door to Dad and Carol’s bedroom open and…

Stop.

The bed is empty. The covers are thrown onto the floor and the window is wide open, with the curtains blowing in the frigid winter wind and my phone having fallen from the nightstand to the floor. I didn’t hear it. It landed on my pillow. I pick it up, because it’s the one thing I can think of to do, and my hands are shaking so badly I almost drop it again. It’s down to twenty percent battery. I don’t have anywhere to put it, so I hold it, tucking it against my chest.

There’s blood everywhere. It’s on the floor, the walls, soaked into the bedsheets and the mattress. It smells like it, too, that terrible copper smell. I’m stepping in it, tracking it across the floor, and it’s still warm. For some reason, it doesn’t connect. There’s a mental gap. It’s what’s keeping me walking.

There’s one other thing: a scrap of bloody clothing torn off on a rough, unsanded section of the windowsill. It’s Carol’s plaid fleece pajamas. I pull it off the splinter and stick my head out the window, my hair blowing in front of my face. There’s nothing below me. In the dark, it’s hard to tell, but I think the snow underneath the window is beaten down and mussed up. I have to squint to tell.

I almost yell for them.

I almost do. My mouth is open and I’ve taken in a breath but a terrible heaviness slams down on my lungs and I can’t do anything except lean out the window and stare and press my phone against my collarbone.

Fuck.

FUCK.

The woman in the gas mask was right, and this is…this is my fault.

Another boot-sucking sound comes from what has to be the next room over, and I jerk back from the window and almost stumble back onto the bed. I can’t be here. She said they could “sense” people like me, right? Whatever that means? Fuck. I did this. I…

My brain shuts that shit down as quickly as it can.

I circle back around the bed and peer out into the hall again. Empty. Where even is there for me to go? Could I even make it back to the cave? God, would the woman in the gas mask even let me back in after the shit I pulled? I bite my lip hard enough I feel my bottom teeth start to break through and tears spring up in my eyes. No. She has to. I can’t start thinking like that. Find a way to get to the front door, get my boots (fuck my jacket; if I can’t get to it in time, I can goddamn deal), and get out and to the cave.

That’s the plan. It’ll have to work. I have no other option.

I duck out of the room and down the stairs again—no vaulting this time, I learned my lesson—and peer around the edge of the landing to check out the foyer. It’s clear. My boots are sitting by the door and my coat is hanging in the small closet like it should be. I jam my feet into the boots and tug the laces as tight as I can, half-bent over with one eye still staring out onto the raised front porch. It’s so goddamn dark out there.

Another boot-sucking sound. It’s still upstairs. My heart pounds in my throat as I force the second boot on and yank open the closet door to grab my coat. I can manage. I can get it.

Something moves in the window.

My head jerks up. It’s getting harder and harder to breathe, and my chest aches and I can feel my heart beating against the flesh of my chest. My coat is almost in my good hand, and if I want to get it on I need to start putting it on now, there’s no way I can get it on with my shoulder as fucked as it is—

It moves again. Something big, a massive dark cut-out against the night outside. God, it could breathe on me, it’s close, it’s too close. I can’t run. The two things blocking me from it is the window and…the closet door.

The closet door. I press myself into the cramped room, stepping over shoes and scarves and gloves and wiggling my way between heavy winter coats, and shut the door behind me. Everything is pitch black. Where I could make out my hand in front of my face before, where the faint light of the moon was reflected by the snow and trapped behind the clouds, there’s nothing. I can’t even see the coat hanging in front of me. It’s pure darkness. My mouth is right up against one of the coats, and my breath is hot and blowing back onto my face. I turn my head further back into the closet to get fresh air. I’m standing as still as I can. I’m standing half-on, half-off a shoe and it’s making my ankle ache but I absolutely, absolutely cannot move.

The front door jiggles. The latch rattles. And then silence, and I let myself relax for a second. It’s nothing. No big deal. I can—

The window opens. It shuffles and then slides upward with paint scraping against paint, slamming against the frame. A pause, and then the shuffle of…cloth? Cloth and boots coming in through the window. My stomach leaps into my chest. Dad? Carol? Hell, is it Melissa? Or something else entirely?

Boots thump on the hardwood floor, pausing outside the door. My ankle starts to move from aching to hurting where I’m standing on the shoe and twisting it, and I’m facing away from the door with my eyes squeezed shut and waiting. Waiting for something to happen.

Another boot-squelch from upstairs, and the door to the closet flies open. I jerk back and try to pull myself out of reach of whatever’s out there, but a gloved hand closes around my good arm and yanks me out.

I find myself face to face with a gas mask.

“There you are,” the woman in the gas mask whispers. She slings her arm around my shoulders to pull me against her and half-shuts the closet. “Come on, come on, come on.” She yanks open the front door and a gust of frigid air blows in. I duck my head against the wind. There’s snow piled up on the front porch, with drifts almost reaching up to the windows.

The thunder from earlier must have been her shotgun. It’s slung across her back, menacing even in the utter lack of light.

The world is empty. Snow covers everything, uneven and ruined from the monsters that had been surrounding us. The SUV is swallowed by the drifts and the tires are covered. Trees loom over everything, and if there were eyes on them I wouldn’t haven’t been surprised. There’s no moon anymore. My face is pressed against the woman’s side with my bad shoulder tucked beside her and her hand is on my arm and this—

This is the safest I’ve felt in what feels like days.

She stops when her boots touch the ground, her head perking up like a pointing dog.

“Wait,” she says. I shiver and she holds me a little closer. “They’re close.”

“Should we run?” I whimper.

“No.” Her voice is so sure and calm. The pure lack of emotion is comforting now. “We hide. Is there space under the porch?”

“I-I think?”

“Good. Go.”

She lets go of me and where she had been touching me feels so much colder as the wind blows in to fill where her hand had been. I push away the drifts of snow with my food and uncover a space under the porch where the snow hasn’t filled. When I glance back, her shotgun is in her hand and she’s staring off into the darkness.

“Found it,” I say, and she half-turns to me before following. She waves me on, and I clear a bigger hole before dropping to my knees and dragging myself through. My teeth chatter, my hands bury themselves in the snow, and I pull my legs in behind me as I sit against the foundation of the house. The woman follows, army-crawling in and turning around so she can pack in the hole she made with the smallest opening for the barrel of her shotgun and her sights to peer out.

“Hey,” she says. “You alright?”

I pull my legs up to my chest and warm my hands between my thighs. “I…” I say. “I don’t know.”

She nods and settles against the slope of the snowdrift, the butt of the shotgun resting against her shoulder. I grudgingly take one of my hands away from the other and reach into my t-shirt to pull out the rainbow dog tag resting against my chest. It’s getting frigid and I don’t want it touching bare skin.

“Are you cold?” she asks.

“A little.”

After a second, she sets the shotgun down and sits up a little bit. We have a good bit of headroom under here—it’s a tall porch—and she straightens up to unzip her parka and shrug it off.

“Here,” she says, handing it off to me. She’s wearing a hoodie underneath, a grey thing patched with random scraps and a piece of string instead of a proper zipper handle. The hood is pulled up, revealing the straps of the gas mask and all the lumps and bumps of her scarf and everything else. A strand of long, dark hair rests in a gentle curve against the side of her face. What little I can see is streaked with grey.

I reach out for the parka, and when my hand brushes against it, I scramble into it to keep the body heat from escaping into the air. She helps get one of the sleeves onto my bad arm and tugs it around my collar as I fumble to zip it up. It’s huge on me, and I have to push the sleeves up a few inches to get my hands out to use, but it’s warm and if I could bury myself in it like a turtle I would.

“Better?” she asks.

“Yeah. Thank you.”

Another nod from her, and we’re back to silence again. Now that I can see the rest of her, some proof there’s actually a human under the mask at all, there’s one more thing I notice besides the grey streaks in her hair. The golden-bronze skin of her neck is splotched with discoloration, like some sort of reverse vitiligo. Instead of turning lighter, the spots across her throat are darker—and not a darker brown, but a sickly grey. It makes me think of a disease.

My own neck feels a little itchy.

She settles back down to cradle her shotgun and peer out the little porthole in the snow. I lean against the foundation of the house, staring up at the underside of the porch. It’s cramped under here, but warmer than I had expected—not only do I have the parka, but the snowdrifts are blocking the wind. I huddle into the fur lining of the coat, tucking my hands into the sleeves.

When my eyes start to feel heavy, I shake it off. The woman is still there, unmoving, watching. Even without her coat, she’s a big woman. She’s nothing but sheer power and muscle. She checks on me every few minutes, mainly when I cough or sniffle, and behind the mask I can feel her watching me. It’s not as ominous as it had been before.

It’s…comforting.

The next time I want to fall asleep, I let it happen.

XXXXX

Wind whistles through the small holes in the snowdrift insulation surrounding us, and that’s what wakes me up. I stretch my good arm and lay my legs out flat, wincing as my knees pop and ache. The woman rolls her shoulders.

“Awake?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “Ugh. Shit. What time is it?”

“Almost four.”

“In the…?”

“Morning.”

I rub at one of my eyes. “Are they still out there?”

“They are.” She sits up and stretches her neck and sets her shotgun in her lap. “They won’t be gone until sunup. Still got a while to go.”

“Oh. They don’t like the sun?”

“Nope.”

I yawn and tuck my face into the fur of the parka to excuse not putting a hand over my mouth. It’s cramped here, underneath the porch, and the drifts block off all light. Every now and then, the wind blows or we hear some other noise that makes us tense and go quiet, but it’s impossible to pretend we’re not terrified. At least, to pretend that I’m not terrified. I don’t think she has to pretend.

“You know a lot about all this,” I say as some fumbling attempt at conversation.

“Mm.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“A while.”

That could either mean a year, or it could mean ten years. With the grey streaking her hair, “a while” could mean a whole lot of things.

“Do you have your phone with you?” she asks.

“Why?”

“Check the sunrise time.”

“Um…” I go to pat my pockets before realizing I don’t have any. I thought I had my phone, though. I had it when I was in my parents’ room, didn’t I? Shit, I must have dropped it when I ran into the bed. I shake my head. “I don’t. Sorry. It’s probably dead anyway.”

She turns to peek through a small hole in the snow. Her gas mask is heavy and dark and every now and then, I can catch a glimpse of a reflection in it. Somehow, it suits her.

“Can I ask what your name is?” I say.

“What?”

“Your name.” I shrug with my good shoulder. “You…you saved my life. I want to be able to thank you properly.”

“You can thank me without knowing my name.”

I blink.

“Right,” I say, averting my eyes. “Thank you, then. You were right. I should’ve believed you.”

“What’s done is done,” she says. “There’s no use worrying about it now.”

“But…”

I sniffle.

“But that doesn’t mean I didn’t fuck up,” I say. She turns the slightest bit to meet my eyes—I can tell despite the mask. My voice breaks, although it’s hidden by the shiver. “All of this happened because of me.”

“Not true.”

Those two words are the first time she’s said anything comforting at all. It hits my chest like a punch.

“W-what?”

The woman shakes her head. “Nothing’s anybody’s fault,” she says. “It’s always everybody’s fault.” She mulls over her shotgun for a second, humming at it, before pulling a shell from one of the pockets of her jeans and pushing it into some hole in the middle of the gun I can’t see from this angle. “Your mother for existing. Your father for existing. Them both for meeting. The developer for building the cabin. The agency for renting it out. Me for not stopping you. You for doing it anyway. Everybody for anything.”

I blink at her. Her voice is rough and strained and I can tell it’s been forever since she’s said so much.

“Doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like it.”

There’s a long silence, and then she nods.

“Yeah,” she says. “I know.”

I bury my face in the parka again. Parts of the fur lining are starting to go cold.

XXXXX

Slowly, ever so slowly, the sunlight creeps in. It comes in a little bit at a time. The places where the snow is thinner lights up with bits of bright white and yellow, and the grey in the woman’s hair is a little more visible than it had been before. She runs a hand over her hooded head and peers out the hole.

“They’re gone,” she says.

“…they’re gone?”

She nods and starts clearing out a space to crawl through. I huddle deeper into the parka—I’m warm where I am, and moving is going to let the cold air in—but when she shoos me out first, I don’t want to be stubborn for the sake of a little warmth. I shiver at my knees and hands in the snow and stand up as fast as I can, my sweatpants soaked all over again and snow dusting the woman’s long parka. It’s knee-length on me, at least.

The butt of the shotgun sticks out. “Hold this.”

“Um.” I take it, holding the stock like one wrong move could set it off. I’ve been to a shooting range once or twice, but that was years ago and I can’t remember the proper way to hold anything other than a pistol. At least that sort of thing is giving me a solid and healthy respect for the weapon I’m holding.

I hand it back as fast as I can anyway. The woman snorts.

“Let’s go,” she says. “If anything comes by, we don’t want to be here.”

A part of me wants to ask what would come by in the daylight, but the rest of me doesn’t want to know. We stand there for a second, and when she cradles the shotgun against her chest like she knows what’s she’s doing, I realize I want her to put her hand on my arm again. It had made me feel so safe and right now, I need something like that.

I glance over my bad shoulder towards the cabin. The front door is still open.

And then I break away from the woman and start up the stairs.

“What—” she says behind me, and I break into a sprint. “Hey!”

I fling open the front door of the cabin and take two steps inside before my eyes start to prickle and burn. Fuck. My breath catches in my chest and when I try to exhale slow, it stutters. My lip quivers.

I don’t care what the woman in the gas mask said.

This?

This is all my fucking fault.

When the first tear comes, there’s no stopping it. I stumble forward another step or two, out of the foyer and into the living room. The woman is stomping up the porch stairs behind me as I walk in a daze between the coffee table and the couch and side tables.

“Hey!” the woman snaps. “What are you doing?”

I pick up the radio resting outside of the kitchen. It’s splotchy and old in the early morning light. I turn it over in my hands, feeling the weight, and notice the severed cord.

“We have to leave. Let’s go.”

The cord dangles from my fingers. Bits of copper poke out from the wire like split ends of a hair. How long had it been like this? It’s hard to see and I have to brush tears from my eyes to make out what’s in front of me.

A hand grabs my good shoulder. “Girl, if you don’t—” the woman snaps. It’s not in the gentle way her hand had been on me before. It’s a harsh come on kind of grab, and my first reaction is to push the hand away and turn around and shove the person it’s attached to.

The shove doesn’t do much of anything. I don’t have any upper arm strength whatsoever. Chicken nugget arms, Dad used to call them with a stupid half-grin. Thinking about it makes my lip quiver again. The woman in the gas mask stumbles back a half-step but that’s it. She’s so cold. We’re both so cold.

And for a few seconds, we’re both silent.

Just staring at each other.

I’m the first one to move. I back away and circle around her like some sort of prey animal avoiding a rabid wolf, and she watches. There’s the shotgun. The axe. The pistol. And…and then there’s me.

My legs dump me on the kitchen floor and I let them. The refrigerator is frigid against my back and I lean there and stare up at rafters I can’t even see. Fuck.

I did this. I did this.

The day I got into my first real fight with one of my friends, I had been in ninth grade. I’m an avoidant motherfucker, and everything I did was either shutting down an argument or getting the hell away from it. But I hadn’t been able to get away from this one. The girl, I can’t even remember her name now, had wanted me to go to her parent’s vow renewal. She said she wouldn’t know anyone there, and apparently, when I didn’t want to go, I was being a bad friend. A small thing to say, yes, but it felt like a punch to the chest. I came home crying. And Melissa, barely in middle school, had come upstairs and hugged me and given me a Capri Sun because they always cheered her up and thought one would cheer me up, too. Who cares about the fucking horse figurines.

If Carol was good at one thing, it was knowing when there needed to be a good meal in the house. The first and only time Dad ever snapped at me, we were both teary and awkward and shut ourselves away on different floors of the house. Carol put her fist down and made the best macaroni bake we had ever tasted, just to get us both at the dining room table. We were two bites in when he sprung up from the table to give me the biggest hug he could, and the whole time Carol was smiling like she was watching her firstborn walk all over again. Who gives a fuck about anything else.

And Dad? Dad was the best thing that had ever happened to me. He taught me how to ride a bike, how to drive, and how to do long division when I realized I had forgotten halfway through my senior year of high school. He taught me how to get my shit together and that you can get anywhere in life as long as you look like you know your shit. He was the best dad he could ever be, explaining everything he could and never telling me “I’ll explain when you’re older” and even if he did muck up once or twice I would give anything for him to be here.

Now they’re dead. They’re all fucking dead. The woman was right—I shouldn’t have come back. I was a coward, I was scared and went back for only a handful of hours of comfort just to have them gone. Because of me.

The floor creaks under her heavy footsteps and I have no idea how long I’ve been sitting here. My knees are tucked up my chest and my eye socket is pressed against the bone of them so uncomfortably that I want so badly to move but I know the moment I do, I’ll shatter.

So fucking sue me if I wanted to see Dad again.

“This is my fault,” I say. My voice is a broken croak. “I don’t care what you say.”

“…okay,” the woman says. Her voice is coming from somewhere above me, and her shadow and the tip of her boot are in the very corner of my vision. I sniffle and pick up my head. “Okay.” Her shotgun is back at its place hanging at her back, the axe set in her belt, the pistol tucked into the straps across her thigh. With the next words she speaks, it sounds like she’s coming to a sort of realization. “So maybe it’s your fault. That’s okay.”

“No, it’s not!”

“Yes, it is.”

I cough. It’s a way of distracting myself from the tears streaming down my face. I’ve always been an ugly crier.

“I don’t know your name,” she says. “But I know what you are.”

“A monster.”

She shakes her head. “S’ghna. There’s a difference. Some of us are. Most of us aren’t.” She kneels in front of me. “And the fuckers that did this deserve to die.”

“I can’t—”

“You can.”

“But…I’m me.”

“Exactly. You’re one of us. And if anybody can kill a shoggoth, it’s us.”

She holds out a hand. It’s large and covered in a thick work glove that’s burst at one of the seams and white woolen filling pokes out like it’s sniffing the air.

“The shoggoths took somebody that I loved more than life itself,” she says. “I decided that I wasn’t going to sit around and let them get away with it. The world needs a few less monsters, and that’s why s’ghna are here.”

I start to reach for her hand, then stop.

“And we’re s’ghna?”

Her smile is almost audible in her voice. “We are. You’re gonna take a fuckton of work but I can tell you’ve got something in there.”

And that? That almost gets me to laugh.

I put my hand in hers.

“Grh’ghna,” she calls us, and the word floods me all at once. It could mean so many things. The lone Corruption is literal but isn’t it. What it means, what it should mean, is powerful and swells my chest with pride.

The rogue children of monsters.

“We,” the woman in the gas mask says and clasps my hand, “are going to make those fuckers pay for what they’ve done.”

XXXXX

“So,” I say. “This is going to sound like a stupid question, but can I ask it anyway?”

We’re walking back to the cave, now. The woman has a hand on my shoulder, the good one, and it takes all of my willpower not to lean against it for support. I’m still sniffling, still shaking—there’s a numb little spot in my chest that feels heavier than ever. Neither of us stayed at the house any longer than we had to. I changed my clothes and put on my own coat so she could have hers back, and then we were off. Moving and talking and keeping on is what’s keeping me from breaking down again, and the woman seems to be humoring it.

“Of course,” she says.

“What exactly is s’ghna? How…how accurate is it?”

The woman sighs. “I would say that it’s a lot for you to take in,” she says. “But you already have. I have no excuse not to tell you.” And then she shrugs. “But I’m not going to, yet. Not here.”

“Any reason why?”

“Again. No good excuse.”

“Can I ask what your name is, instead?”

“Maria.”

Maria. I mull over it for a second.

“Is that it?”

“Maria Benavides. Why?”

“I want to know. I need something to call you.” Maria slides down the small slope I had tripped over when searching for Melissa, and I jump down instead. I don’t want to risk a fall. I’m not the most coordinated of people. “I’m Ruthie Sivan. Well, my actual name is Ruth, but I prefer Ruthie.”

“How are you feeling?”

I wish she hadn’t asked. “Like shit, I guess,” I say. “I mean, I’m holding up pretty well considering, but don’t ask me again unless you want me to cry?” Maria turns to me, and I swallow. “Sorry.”

“I won’t ask again,” she says.

“Thank you.”

I’m tearing up anyway. I wipe my eyes and brush off the moisture onto my coat.

We duck under the low-hanging rock serving as the entrance to the cave. It’s the one I had gone in at the start of all this, and Maria waves me through first. She pauses inside to cover up the entrance with piles of snow and a few sticks piled off to the side. I frown. Those hadn’t been there when I found the place. Maria stands up with a huff—her grey hairs are hidden by her hood again, but I’m reminded of them as one of her knees pops.

“Ow,” I say with a quick wince.

“They do that,” Maria says.

It’s warmer in the cave than it is outside. It’s a perfect shelter from the harsh wind.

“So you live here?” I ask. Maria nods.

“Something like that.” She starts walking, and I manage to fall in line beside her. After a second, she pulls a flashlight from one of the massive pockets of her parka and turns it on. What A bat squeaks in annoyance and flutters further down the mine shaft. “Found it, decided it would be a good place to stay.”

“Did you make all the marks on the walls?”

We approach one of the branching parts of the mine, and I reach out to touch the two straight lines carved into the wall. She nods.

“I did.”

“It’s a good idea.”

“You used them to get out, didn’t you?”

“Followed the threes.”

“Smart girl.”

Oh, good. Something else to talk about except all the shit that’s going on here. I grab onto the opportunity. “Well,” I chuckle the best I can, “I was a straight-A student in high school, after all.”

“Was,” Maria says. “How old are you?”

“Uh, eighteen?”

That actually gets her to pause. Her head is tilted like a confused dog—the best way to show confusion with her entire face concealed.

“Eighteen?”

“Do you not believe me?”

“I believe you,” she says. We’ve taken the path to the right instead of to the left, the marks on the wall become threes and not twos. I wonder what the difference is. “You just don’t look it.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I get that a lot. How old are you?”

Maria snorts.

“Right. Bad question. Never ask a lady how old she is, right?”

And that? That gets her to laugh.

XXXXX

Maria slides my coat off my shoulders and sets it off to the side, tossing it onto the mattress. There’s a fire crackling in the pit, and the smell of burning wood and charcoal has never been so good. I huddle a little closer to it, trying to keep my mind on anything else as Maria grabs her backpack full of medical supplies again.

“How’s it feel?”

“Hurts like a bitch,” I say.

“It usually does.” She unzips the bag and then sits back a little to size me up. “Choice: cut off the sleeve of your shirt, or take it off.”

“Um, what?”

Maria gestures at my shoulder. I had put on a different shirt with long sleeves—a simple red thing with a scooping v-neck because it was the first thing I grabbed—and she’s now pointing at me with surgical scissors.

“Cut off the sleeve,” she says, “or take the whole thing off.”

I open my mouth to protest that I can roll up the sleeve, but…

Jesus Christ. The last time I took off my shirt in front of anybody, it was KC. It had been winter break, almost a whole year ago at this point, and it was us and nobody else. She had been staying the weekend for no reason in particular. The heater was on full-blast in my room and I was in the middle of taking off my sweater (nothing else but my bra underneath) when KC said she quite liked the view she was getting. I threw the sweater at her and told her there was nothing to ogle anyway, my bra was nothing more than a pair of cloth triangles taken from the kid’s section of Target, but that didn’t mean I was roaring to put anything back on.

It was nothing like this now. Still, I have just the one shirt and I couldn’t risk it being torn up by those surgical scissors, so I nod and take it off as carefully as I can. There’s a faint moment of some distant humor when I realize I’m wearing the same exact bra as I had been that day.

The shirt catches on my bad shoulder and I hiss in pain. Maria sets down the surgical scissors to help me out of the tangle. She’s not wearing her old gloves anymore, but the splotches on her neck smother her hands as well. I’m glad to get out of the shirt even if I am hyper-aware of the cold and the thick smoke of the fire and how damn large her hands are. Goosebumps run up and down my arms and the cold makes my shoulder feel so much worse.

When she starts unwinding the bandage, I turn away and stare at the fire. It crackles and embers float up towards the stalactites scattered across the cave ceiling before cooling and disappearing into nothing.

“Those monsters,” she says as she sets the gauze off to the side in a ball. It’s sitting on top of one of her gloves so it doesn’t touch the dirty cave ground. “They’re called shoggoths. You know that.”

“Yeah.”

She takes another roll of gauze and moves my arm away from my side. I bite my tongue. It feels like all the different little shreds of skin left are being torn in two all over again. Her free hand presses against the flat expanse of skin above my breasts, right beside my heart, as if trying to calm me. Her hands are frigid.

“Stay still,” she says. “The thing is, shoggoths live in caves, in the swamps, in the grottos. Places they know humans hate. Places where humans usually go in groups, but places where humans will always go alone.”

“Like up in the mountains,” I say. She lays a clean cloth over my shoulder and it hurts more than it should. “Like here.”

Maria nods. “Exactly,” she says. “And what they did to your family is what they do with everybody they can get their hands on.” She shrugs almost amusedly. “Or tentacles.”

“So this has happened before?”

“It happens all the time.” She reaches for another roll of gauze and starts wrapping it around my chest, of all places. Her hands duck under the straps of my bra, and I shuffle awkwardly. Even KC hadn’t touched me all that much. “Your family isn’t an isolated incident. The shoggoths weren’t accounting for you.”

I wish I knew what the hell was under the gas mask of hers.

“Shoggoths aren’t the only ones,” Maria says. She pulls the gauze around my back and then to my shoulder. “There are other things like them, things related to them. But in the way sharks are related to minnows.”

“Like what?” I ask, even though I know I’m going to regret asking for sure.

Maria sets the gauze down for a second to pick up a pair of tweezers and pull something from one of the dozens of wounds. I tear up.

“Like Nyarlatothep,” she says. “Like Yog-Sothoth and Hastur and Azathoth and all the rest of them.” She shakes her head. “Most of them don’t give a single fuck about us. Most of them have forgotten we even exist. We don’t intend to remind them.”

“Those sound…familiar.”

“They should. Remember H.P. Lovecraft’s stories?” She chuckled a little bit, but the chuckle didn’t sound very genuine. “He was the first one to write down their names.”

“H.P. Lovecraft was s’ghna?” I ask.

Somehow I’m not too surprised. She wraps up my arm the rest of the way and pins it into places with a little golden clamp.

Maria said, “He knew too much to be human. There’s a reason we had to alter everything he wrote.”

When she lets my arm go, I very slowly lower it back to my side. It hurts like a motherfucker. I want to cry.

“So we’re not human,” I say. I am taking all of this shit surprisingly well, to be quite honest. Not that I intend to put the cart before the horse—give me a few hours and I’ll be freaking out about everything like expected.

Maria shakes her head and stands. “We’re not,” she says. “Well, it depends. Would you call a mule half-horse or half-donkey? Then we’re half-human, half-syha’ya. If you’d call a mule a mule, we’re s’ghna.”

Syha’ya. The Outer Gods. The Great Old Ones. The word itself fills me with dread.

“I’m related to a shoggoth?” I ask. “To the syha’ya?”

“We both are. In the most distant of ways.” Maria packs her bag and sets it off to the side, and I just watch. She stands to put another log on the flame. “We’re the ones who can survive looking at a shoggoth at all. And…” The fire springs to life once more as she sets down the dried chunk of wood, and more embers shoot up into the air. “That’s why we’re here. To stop what happened to your family from happening to as many people as possible.”

I stare at the flame until my eyes hurt and when I turn my gaze elsewhere I can still see the colors flashing, burned into my retinas. My good arm is hugging my knees. Strands of hair, flecked with my blood and matted with fear-sweat, fall in front of my face and I don’t have the willpower to move and brush them away. Maria tugs at the filter of her gas mask, like she’s trying to get a breeze in past the seal. I can’t blame her. God knows how long she’s been wearing that thing.

“Is that possible?” I ask. “To…keep it from happening?”

“There are a lot of us out there,” Maria says. “Not enough, I’d say, but a lot. The thing is, they fear us.”

I swear I can hear her grin, and she says:

“As they fucking should.”

XXXXX

Maria tells me to get some sleep while she keeps up repairs on her scrap-metal rooms. The place isn’t built to last and seems to fall apart every few weeks.

I don’t sleep very well.

Panic attacks tend to do that.

XXXXX

When I wake up, I have no idea what time it is anymore. It doesn’t matter what time it is. Maria makes breakfast—something with meat this time, and it tastes gamey like the deer my grandfather used to hunt. She’s not as imposing today. Watching her sit in front of the fire, her coat resting around her shoulders and her bare hands stretching out towards the fire, she’s more…human than she had been before. Granted, human may not be the right word considering what she had told me yesterday, but the statement still stands.

“I was half-expecting you to run away when my back was turned,” she says.

“I thought about it,” I admit.

“You would’ve died out there,” Maria says.

“Well, I figured that.” I stretch out my legs and my sneakers are a little too close to the fire but I don’t mind it much. “And it’s not like I have anywhere else to go.”

Maria straightens up a little bit.

“How about I show you something,” she says. Her voice sounds raspy and tired. Maybe it’s the voice coming through the gas mask but I don’t think that’s quite it. Her voice is like a piece of machinery that hasn’t been used in ages and is still creaking and fumbling as it tries to dust itself off and get used to working again. “You finished with that?”

I had kind of been hoping she would say what meal it was, but day and night and time itself doesn’t matter when there’s no sun to track it by.

“Yeah,” I say, and then knock back the rest of the broth. It’s a picky eater forcing herself to down whatever she can—a little trait that’s never endeared me to anybody. I have a feeling it’s going to be the part of this I like the least, besides the shoggoths and the throbbing pain in my shoulder and my dead family.

My brain has a fucking morbid sense of humor, because for some reason that’s funny to me. At least having gotten the panic attack out of the way is letting me think a little clearer now.

She puts the dirty dishes in their little basin again before putting on her parka and picking up her bag again. And her shotgun. And her axe. And her pistol.

“…what is it that you’re showing me?” I ask, watching her strap the holster to her thigh. It takes me a little bit to realize I should unfold my coat and put it on again.

“Two things, really,” Maria says. “One of them is something to help your shoulder.”

I shrug with my good one. “Alright, I like the sound of that. And the other?”

“You’ll see.”

“That’s not very reassuring.”

“I know.”

Maria looks at me, and I look back. There’s not much to say about it. She snorts after a second and waves me on behind her as she starts walking further into the cavern, away from the blue tarp and the markings carved into the stone walls. She picks up a lantern from the back of her scrap metal rooms and turns it on with a click.

It’s a cave. Nothing too interesting. Dad took Melissa and Carol and me to all sorts of cavern tours during our family vacations, and I remember a few of the formations from the tour guides’ chipper voices. Stalagmite and stalactite, of course—stalactites hanging tightly to the ceiling, the way I remember it. The guide would always chide us about touching the stalagmites, so I run my fingers over one as I pass it. It’s cold and a little slimy. I don’t know what I was expecting instead. There were things like soda straws and cave popcorn and a bunch of other silly little names, too.

“Watch your step,” Maria says.

The lantern sways as she moves and the shadows rock from side to side. It’s almost comforting as we make our way further and further back, stepping over ancient puddles of water undisturbed for what must be hundreds of years and odd rises in the stone. The ceiling begins to slope down, and the stalagmites and stalactites meld into massive stone columns.

“Whatever’s going to help with my shoulder is down here?” I ask.

“I’ll admit it’s probably disgusting,” Maria says. “Scratch that: it is. But it’ll help, I promise.”

“It hurts like a motherfucker, so I’ll pretty much take whatever you give me,” I say. “Unless I have to, like…eat it. I’m not going to eat anything gross. Sorry.”

Maria snorts as we start down a sloping path. I have to lean back to keep my footing.

“Think of it more like a salve,” she says.

“Oh thank god.”

The thing is, I hear what’s at the bottom of the slope far before I can see it. The sound makes my stomach churn and I regret having eaten at all.

It’s the boot-pulling-out-of-the-mud sound of a shoggoth blinking.

I freeze, taking a half-step back. Maria falters, holding up the lantern. It’s bright enough I have to squint against it.

“You don’t hear that?” I hiss.

“I do hear that,” Maria deadpans. “That’s what we’re here for.”

“W-what?”

“Trust me.”

I have no reason not to. Even though I’m shivering underneath my coat and I really, really want to vomit again, I keep going and stick a little closer to her now than I had been.

At the bottom of the slope, she holds up a hand to stop me. “Hold up,” she says, and then points at a collection of several lines drawn across the entrance. When I lean a little closer, I realize it’s a collection of powders carefully laid across the moist stone.

“Whatever happens,” Maria says, “never touch these.”

“Okay,” I say. “I guess I can do that.”

“Don’t guess,” Maria says. “It’s a matter of life and death. Don’t. Touch. These.”

This time, I nod. “I won’t touch them.”

“Good.” Maria straightens up and steps over them. The mud-boot sound comes again, and I stretch out my stride to clear all of the lines of powder. “If anything happens to them, you come tell me as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. It’s hell to replace, but it’s better than having the seal broken for too long.”

There’s a small feeling when I realize I don’t know whether or not the seal is to keep something out or to keep something in instead.

The passageway evens out, and the sounds get louder. I don’t want to cling onto Maria’s arm, but I also kind of do. There are cracks snaking across the ceiling now. They start off small and get wider and more jagged the further we go.

When we turn the corner, I see why. There’s a massive spot in the ceiling that should have held a stalactite, but the rock formation—almost twenty feet tall and six feet across at the widest point—had fallen and was jammed point-down into the ground. Instead of shattering against the stone floor like it should have, it had just…impaled it.

And impaled along with it is a shoggoth.

I stop in the doorway, my feet stumbling against each other like my brain’s desperate attempt to keep me from going any further. Maria waits for me, putting a hand on my back to steady me. My lungs are having a hard time drawing in a breath. The shoggoth’s eyes all turn to us, each blazing with a dumb, animalistic fury.

“It hates us,” I whisper.

“As it should,” Maria says.

She starts to move a little closer and sets the lantern on the ground. The shoggoth shrinks away from the light, its body transforming into darkness again and flattening itself against the stalactite. Pieces of it flicker away like shadows but it’s not losing any mass. Maria watches it writhe, what’s still visible of it glaring at her. A leech-like mouth opens up from the amorphous fat of its body and shrieks. It’s that universe-rending sound that makes me think of all the atoms of the world splitting at once. Maria doesn’t even flinch.

“You can come closer,” Maria says to me. “Just not too close.”

I don’t want to, but I do anyway. My boots squeak a little bit.

“Is it stuck?” I ask. Maria nods.

“The stalactite went through one of its eyes,” she says. “Lucky break. Ugly fucker can’t close it now.”

“Seems a little convenient,” I admit.

“I had it rigged to fall,” Maria says. “I have a lot of things in this cave rigged to fall.”

I remember the massive noise that had echoed through the chamber when Maria saved me from the shoggoth that had bitten my shoulder. She isn’t wrong. She certainly does have a lot of things rigged to fall. I hope she knows what she was doing.

And then Maria pulls the axe out of her belt. “Let’s get that shoulder of yours fixed first,” she says. She points at a spot on the floor with the handle. “Stand there. Don’t move.”

The spot is far closer to the shoggoth than I would be okay with in a hundred years. I stare at it.

“Are you serious?” I ask.

“I won’t let it hurt you again,” Maria says. “I promise. Now stand there.”

I take a deep breath and take the few steps. The shoggoth begins to solidify again, even against the bright light of the lantern. There’s a sort of childlike curiosity to it, eyes opening up across its flesh as tendrils snake forward and prod at my boot. I start to move away, but Maria shakes her head. She’s holding the axe with both hands now.

“Wait,” she says.

“I’m waiting,” I say, voice a little higher-pitched than I mean it to.

The tendril grabs my leg.

It squeezes.

A single goat eye opens up on the tentacle that’s halfway up my leg.

And Maria swings. The axe tears through the fatty flesh of the shoggoth and the damn thing shrieks again, rearing back and hissing black blood splattering across the rock. A drop gets on my boot and sizzles through a layer of rubber before dying out, and I yelp and shake the snake of muscle off my leg.

“Holy fuck! Warn me next time!”

Maria puts the axe back in her belt, picks up the tendril, and holds it out to me. More blood drips to the limestone floor, carving pits in the soft rock.

“The blood can’t hurt you,” Maria says. “We’re immune to it.”

“…wait, really?”

“I mean,” Maria says, settling one hand under the shoggoth’s half-open eyeball. The shoggoth itself is hissing and thrashing, but we’re out of its reach again. It’s still making me uneasy. “It burns a little bit, but it won’t eat through to the bone.”

With that, she jams her hand around the shoggoth’s eye and tears it out of the tendril. It’s the size of a tennis ball and bulges between her fingers where she squeezes like a stress toy. There’s no optic nerve connecting it, just a thick slurry of translucent liquid keeping it in place. It stretches between the eyeball and the tentacle as Maria pulls it free.


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