By Gustav Kollmeyer
There’s no wind. Even a little gust would free me from the relentless mosquitos. The horse I ride continues to trod west through the Kansas Territory grasslands. The horse given to me by Kurtz follows behind with its infernal package.
It’s early October but sweat is pooling in my boots. The unnatural heat and daily rain storms have turned these plains into swampland. An dense fog persists in the tall grasses around me. Despite the heat, the mists never burn away. I haven’t slept more than a few minutes at a time in four, maybe five days. I keep catching myself slipping into unconsciousness and sliding out of the saddle. I should have packed coffee instead of whiskey.
Things around me start to get blurry. My own thoughts begin to trail off and the world turns sideways before everything goes black. When I come around, I’m face down on the ground and feel like I’ve got a knife buried in my head. The headache is bad enough that everything around me looks dark and blurry still. I paw at my head and realize that it isn’t the headache that’s making everything look like the other side of a whiskey glass. There’s blood in my eyes from a gash on my forehead. I must have actually passed out and fallen off my horse. Where is my horse? I turn over and see it standing above me. I also see my foot still strung up in a stirrup iron. I pull, but the foot won’t come loose so I pull it out of my boot. My leg hits the ground with a thud. I sit up and rub my eyes waiting for things to come into focus.
It’s night time. No rain for the moment, and no bugs either. I would enjoy it if it weren’t for the headache still ringing in my ears. A full moon tonight has cast everything around me in a pale blue glow. Looks like I fell off the path the horse was following into a large brush of long grass. A wall of grass, blue in the moonlight, towers all around me. I move to get on my feet before realizing that the leg that was held up in the stirrup is completely numb. I fall back on my ass and decide the hell with it. This is the first night since the trip started that hasn’t been uncomfortably hot. It’s even a bit cool under the moon. Chancing the knot on my head, I decide to get some sleep.
The man who owns the stomach I just shoved my bayonet into is gripping the forestock and barrel of my rifle like it’s going to save his life. I can hear the cracking and scraping of his teeth pressed hard together. He is clenching his jaw so tight those teeth are about to start popping out of his head. I unload my gun into his belly and the force pushes him back. He trips over the rubble that used to be the roof of this clay building and falls to the ground, dead. My heart feels like it’s kicked up all the way into my throat and sweat is sliding down my brow into my eyes. I don’t hear a lot of gunfire any more, but that could be due to temporary deafness from firing my gun in an enclosed space. I wipe my face off with the stained sleeve of my uniform, and walk towards the dead man on the floor. I make a mistake. The man on the floor isn’t dead yet. He pulls himself into a half-sitting position and has a gun pointed at my face. He starts howling like a coyote.
My head jerks around and I sit up panting and sweating in the cool night air. I’m back in the grass of the Kansas Territory three thousand miles away from Cerro Gordo, Mexico. All that distance and ten years away from a bunch of dead Mexicans. I’m used to those dreams, but they had never been so vivid before. I can still see the bright red blood on that man’s green uniform. Still smell the gunpowder and bricks before I shake off the dream and try to get a grip on my situation. Head still hurts, but the bleeding has stopped. Leg feels fine now. I stand up and can hear real coyotes howling in the distance. Horses are spooked, but they’re tied together so I figure they couldn’t agree on a direction to run off in. Lucky me. They aren’t far. I make a clicking noise with my tongue and say a few words to try and calm my horse down. He is still a bit jumpy when I approach him, but I get a hand on his head and another on his mane and he starts to calm down once the coyotes shut up.
The moon is putting off a lot of light, but I have trouble seeing much more than a few feet. I spot the other horse and to my surprise it isn’t panicked at all. It’s just laying on the ground with its head tucked back by his legs. Doesn’t seem to care about the coyotes. Strange horse Mr. Kurtz gave me. I check to see if the package I’m supposed to be transporting is still attached to Kurtz’s horse. It is. Can’t decide if I’m relieved it’s still there or irritated that I have to keep pressing west towards the Rockies. Five hundred dollars at the end of the trip is a lot, and I’m in no real worse shape than I was before this trip started. Only a day or two more to Larkspur.
I decide to press on through the night, but the morning comes late. My watch tells me it is near ten o’clock before I see the sun. The fog that lingered before in the long grass has now reached high enough that I can’t see the sky. The sun is no more like a dim candle sometimes, and completely unseen other times. A tailwind has taken away all the mosquitoes but brought with it a terrible stench. It smells of a corpse long forgotten in a flooded cellar.
I reach for some hardtack from my saddle hoping that something in my stomach will ease its pains. It is then that I hear it for the first time.
I don’t have words to rightly describe the sound. It is something vile that digs its way into my thoughts through my ears. It is long and deep. An animal. Nothing human. My mind tears through memories trying to understand. My body, on the other hand, reacts instinctively. All of the sudden I feel a great pressure on my chest. Adrenaline hits my heart and blood goes thumping through my veins. My entire body seizes up and once again I’ve fallen off my horse. The sound wrecks any proper thoughts I try to form like being hit over the head repeatedly. There is only fear.
I start convulsing on the ground. An unknown fear has risen up inside of me. I can think of nothing other than trying to get away. My arms and legs flail uselessly. My stomach starts to churn and the world around me appears to swell and shrink in a sickening manner. All this time the howl is still rattling around in my brain. I vomit behind clenched teeth and begin to choke on my own sick. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the sound stops. It does not fade out, and there is no echo. It just stops. All that is left is the sound of me coughing up bile as my body has finally come back under my control.
In the eerie fog everything becomes quiet. There is a ringing in my ears drowning out even the sounds of my own coughing. But that too becomes silent. Then there is nothing. There is no sound of tearing grass as I rip some from the ground. My boots make no thud when I bang the heel on the ground. I can feel the vibration in my throat when I speak, but there is no sound. I touch my ears and they are as cold as my fingers. I continue to try and produce some kind of sound from my mouth but nothing comes. Only dull vibrations in my throat.
A small measure of panic takes root in me. Why can’t I hear anything? What happened? Then I remember. I remember that only a minute ago I was convulsing on the ground under the punishment of that sound. That sound. What was it? It is as if not being able to hear has wiped the memory of it out of my mind. I try to remember but each time I do my mind feels like it’s trying to do too many things at once. That small measure of panic begins to grow. Out there in this Godless fog is some creature that has rendered me deaf with just a scream.
I quickly pick myself up off the ground and look for the horses. They are still tied together, though my horse is terrified and desperately trying to pull itself away from the other. Kurtz’s horse is unnaturally stoic. Its head moves this way and that as it is yanked around, and makes no visible attempt to resist. The rest of its body simply remains motionless like it were made of stone.
My horse wants to run. I second the idea, and move to the beast to try and calm it down. Not a lot of good that does. My hands are shaking and I can’t tell if what I’m saying has any reassuring sound to it. I grab the bridle tightly and pull the horse’s head down. This catches it off guard and for a moment it forgets what it was so afraid of. I get up in the saddle while it’s calm for a moment. I take my knife and cut the rope connecting the two horses. I couldn’t care less about Kurtz’s horse and package. Larkspur is closer now than any other place on my map and hopefully far enough away from whatever is lurking in the fog.
I’m not sure how long and how far I push the horse. It is nearly impossible to tell night from day in this damned fog, but eventually the animal collapses. I beat it long enough to realize that my throat hurts from cursing at the thing. It doesn’t move. It just breathes heavy laying on the ground. Saliva and mucus cover its nose and mouth. His eyes are wide but not focused on anything. I imagine it is making an awful sound there on the ground, panting and wheezing. Silence and stench surround me.
My hands are no longer trembling, but that is only because of my exhaustion. My entire body aches, but I’m afraid that if I rest, I risk falling asleep and letting that thing catch up to me. I don’t even know if it gave chase, though. I can’t see more than ten feet in any one direction, the same putrid rotten smell makes it impossible to catch anything on the wind, and I still can’t hear a damned thing.
Another frightening thought reaches me. How do I know that I’ve managed to go the right direction in my panic? There is a good chance I am lost somewhere in the middle of nowhere. But before this thought sets in, my stomach starts tying itself into knots again. My legs turn to jelly and my vision goes blurry. Fear. That overpowering fear from before takes hold in my mind once again. I puke up bile this time, but my body isn’t convulsing any more. I manage to make it to my feet while my head’s still spinning. I move to my horse, brain barely able to function. I fall over my own feet, and crash into the side of the animal. I manage to retrieve my shotgun from the saddle holster. I muster what little power of will I have left and force myself to get back up and start moving. I can’t hear the howl, but my body knows it’s happening. I pick the direction my horse fell in and hope that it’s west.
I run until my legs are numb and my lungs are on fire. I slow down and walk until the spit in my mouth tastes like nails. A small break in the fog reveals mountains up in the distance where I’m headed. I’ve got no real way of knowing if that thing is close behind or back where I left either horses to die. I haven’t puked or collapsed in a while, so I hope that is a good sign. Strange that I can’t hear anything but my body still reacted the same way both times. Or, hell, maybe I’m just sick or crazy now. Never heard of anything short of the devil that can let out a howl with those kinds of results.
Different ideas continue to rattle around in my skull until I notice the fog retreating. I’ve managed to walk into what looks like a quarry. Outside the fog I can see that it is late in the afternoon. The sun is setting behind the mountains in the direction I’ve been traveling. One small break in the insanity I’ve been running from. To the north of me is a cliff wall that has been dug into the side of a tall hill. Boulders as tall as me are littered here and there. No other signs of quarry work being done though. No picks, no scaffolding, and no people. All the cleared ground looks to make a square about three hundred feet from one side to the other. I walk over to the wall of stone, making a winding path through the boulders. I find a spot to sit down and put my back against the earth behind me. I can see all the way to the other side of the quarry and anything that might be coming my way. One other small miracle: I’ve got a canteen of water still hanging around my neck.
Sitting under the cliff, exhaustion wins out over fear and paranoia. I struggle but eventually my breathing slows and my eyes start to droop. Thoughts start to drift in and out of my mind. I’m choking on the fog under long grass that stretches all the way to the sky. I see myself distorted in the reflection of my horse’s unblinking eye. I’m as still as it. I dream of Kurtz. He emerges from the cellar underneath his crooked white house. He’s got the package wrapped in worn and stained leather in his right hand. His left hand is a fake. He secures the package in his horse’s saddle bag, then he walks over to me. His left side shakes a bit as he walks. Something is choking me again, holding me up in the air above Kurtz. My boots don’t reach the ground, and something fat and scaley is around my neck. Squeezing. Coiling. Kurtz and I are speaking in his study. We sit. All the walls are filled with books, and Kurtz has one sitting in his lap. It’s black. As black as oil. He hands it to me. I take it but he doesn’t let go. I tug. His arm is yanked about. I pull more. The horse’s neck gives no resistance as I thrash his head around trying to get it to move. I let go and the head falls all the way to the ground, neck completely limp. It makes a dull thud. I walk away, but the horse walks behind me, head dragging on the ground between its legs.
I wake coughing and gasping like I’ve had my head held under water. I struggle for air in silence. Still exhausted, I look around and see that the fog has closed in on this place, and the sky is again dull and grey. I look through my pockets for my watch while trying not to gag on the horrendous stench that has returned with the fog. My hand finds it in my back pocket and I frown. I take it out and small pieces of glass fall to the ground. The face is shattered and the hour hand is missing. I throw it aside. The bags under my eyes are heavy. They pull down on my eyes as I scan the quarry. There is a taste of salt in my mouth and I can feel my eyes moving in their sockets. I reach for my canteen and take a long drink.
Some of the water goes down the wrong hole when I spot a dark figure about thirty feet away from me in the fog. My heart begins to pound as my fingers search for my shotgun. My boots scrape across the rocky ground as my legs try to push my back up the wall behind me. I manage to get to my feet and start shouting incoherently. The figure begins to slowly sway to the left and right. It starts walking towards me. I fire a shot into whatever horrible mass of flesh might be there in the fog. The recoil in my hands is surprising without the sound to go along. The horror takes the impact of the buckshot but keeps walking forward. I lift the gun to my shoulder to get a better shot when some of the fog clears and I see the beast for what it is.
At first I see the body of a horse without a head. I can feel heart pounding in my throat. The monster moves closer and I try to shout but feel the words get caught in my throat. My fingers have gone numb as well. Then I see that it’s not missing its head. The head is at the bottom of the horse’s limp neck. It drags along the ground between its front legs as it approaches me. And I see a pack on its back. Leather and red. Kurtz’s package still kept on his horse. Am I still dreaming? My throat loosens and I feel myself begin to scream. I scream and shrink back down against the wall as the horse keeps moving closer. I scream until I can barely breathe. My head is turned to the side and my eyes are clenched shut. I cannot see or hear the beast, but some deep and afraid part of me knows that it’s still coming. The smell in the air changes. It is cold and… empty. Like something long buried. It is not putrid or vile like the winds all the days before. The smell feels like the end. Like a pit is forming in my stomach and being filled by a great and heavy weight.
The animal in me finally overwhelms my broken rational mind and I scramble to my feet. I run. The canteen. The shotgun. Any mortal means of survival are left behind as I flee once again into the fog.
Though it did little for my mind, the rest I got against that wall has given new life to my legs. Fear and instinct fly me away from the quarry. The fog is still thick, and the light still dim, but my feet find well-worn road eventually. The thinking part of my brain clicks back on at the faintest glimmer of hope. A road means people. Am I so close to the mountains? How far and how fast have I run? I stop. Control of my body is once again given over to the man in me. I begin to pant. My chest heaves, and I look up at a single candle. It is set in a lantern atop a sign painted to say: “Welcome to Larkspur.”
I actually smile, and an inaudible laugh escapes my mouth. It’s over. The fog is thinner here, and I cannot smell anything wretched or cold. Though starved and nearly broken, I have arrived in Larkspur. I walk slowly to the candle burning in its glass cage. The flicker of the flame is inviting. As I get close the wind behind me picks up. The flame is snuffed out, and a familiar bile stench encircles me. I reach out for the lantern on the sign. I grasp the lantern and shake it furiously. The glass cracks in my hands and I throw the thing at the sign with “Larkspur” painted on it. The sign crumbles as if it were made of sawdust. My jaw clenches and my teeth grind on each other. My gums start to bleed right before, once again, my vision blurs. My stomach ties itself in knots. My legs give out. And my thoughts turn to swill.
From somewhere far away the sound of the beast stabs at me again. Another sound comes with it, though. It is faint at first, and like the wailing horror it builds and builds in my mind. A man’s voice. Screaming. It is not the sound of a frightened animal, nor even of a madman. It is a scream simply trying to get out. I hear it this time. I can’t hear anything else, but I can hear again. A rush of other senses brings me back to a wakeful state. I gasp for breath but my lungs are exhausted. All of me is exhausted. I get a handle on what I can see and find myself curled up on my side on a moldy wooden floor. There are large gaps between some of the boards as they are twisted and warped. I reach out but retract my hand at once when I feel one of the boards. It is swollen and wet. All around me carries the smell of wet wood.
I sit up and am both relieved and concerned by the sound of the boards creaking underneath my weight. I can hear again, but all of what I’ve heard so far is more cause for worry. I have no idea where I am, or how I got here. I only remember collapsing in front of the sign that said “Larkspur.” Am I there? What of that thing back in the quarry? My mind starts to buzz and I toss the thought out.
The room I am in is dark save for the faint light coming in through an open window. The light is pale and gives the floor it falls on a sickly green glow. I try to stand, but my legs suggest that I have been drinking. I keep one hand on the wall and manage to get up and walk slowly to the window. I get a look outside and hope that wherever I am isn’t where I’m supposed to be.
There are seven or eight buildings lining a central throughway. I am on the second floor of a building at one end of the street. Everything in front of me is lit by the same pale glow giving the entire town a sickly green and blue color. Like the days before when I was riding through the fog, it is difficult to tell the time of day. There is a light in the sky, but it is too bright to be the moon and too dull to be the sun. It casts shadows all the same, though. All of the buildings are in a sorry state. Many have large holes casting pale light into bare rooms much like the one I’m in. There are hitching posts and wagons here and there but neither look to have been attached to a horse in a hundred years. Everything made of wood is swollen and twisted. Those few things made of metal are all rusted nearly beyond recognition. Everything is completely still. There are no signs of people anywhere save for a single line of footprints leading to my building. A smell of salt water is carried on the wind.
I hear from behind me: “It’s not much to look at, but it is a kind of home at least,” followed by the striking of a match.
I almost let out a cry as I spin around. “Who… who’s there?” I stammer out the words. I see the profile of a human figure outlined by a light coming from its other side. The flame flares for a moment throwing shadows this way and that across the room. It settles down and the figure turns to face me. The person is a small and very old looking man dressed in a robe that is long enough it drags across the floor. The robe is crimson and stained with dirt. His hair is white and his face sags. He has a stern look on his face and features that remind me of someone. A glimpse of a fevered dream flashes through my mind: me suspended over Kurtz. The old man brings his face close to mine and holds the lamp up between us. His eyes, faded and milky, run over my features.
“Yes,” he says. “You are the one my brother said you would be.” His voice is ragged and it sounds like he uses too much air when he talks. He continues to stand uncomfortably close to me with the lamp throwing light in both of our faces.
I try my best to shrink back against the wall. “Kurtz?” I ask.
“One of them,” he says.
“So you two are brothers?”
“Good job,” he says with a slightly higher pitched voice. “I only had to tell you that for you to figure it out.”
“What am I doing here?” I ask. “How did I get here? Where even is here?” My heart is starting to beat a little bit faster.
“Lark-” he begins to say but twitches. The lamp shakes a bit and the man bites at nothing in the air beside his face. I can see the muscles in his jaw pull tight as he clenches trying to regain his composure. “Larkspur,” he says finally. “I’m sure you saw the sign. That’s where I found you, after all.” He is motionless once again.
“I remember the sign,” I say. “And I remember being chased by…” my voice trails off. I remember that dead horse approaching me in the quarry. I remember running like a madman into the fog until I reached the sign with a candle on it. I remember the sensation of falling. And I remember something chasing me. Something terrible and able to make a sound that took my hearing away.
“What is that thing?!” I burst out. “Who are you, and what the hell is going on?” My heart is beating a hundred times a minute now. Everything from the past few days is starting to resurface in my memory and almost none of it makes sense. “What the hell am I doing here?”
“You were the one my brother decided would deliver a book to me.”
“A book?” I interrupt him but he doesn’t notice.
“I didn’t think you would make it, but then again I never put a lot of faith in your kind.”
“What book? Do you mean that package Kurtz gave me? Listen I didn’t open it if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Proper transporters are becoming more and more difficult to find.”
“What?” I ask. My voice is shaking now and I slide down the wall back onto the floor. “What is going on?”
The old man continues to look at the wall where I was for a moment before shifting his gaze slowly down to where I’ve retreated to. “You heard it, right?” he asks me. “Well you must have to get here.”
I know all too well the terrible nightmare he is talking about but I can no longer find any words.
“I haven’t heard the bays of that creature in so long. What a thing.” He sets the lamp down on the floor. “But I’ve been a bit rude. I should at least tell you what is happening. Or at least what has happened.”
“You were given a package intended for me. You were told to ride to the small town of Larkspur on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. You have arrived in Larkspur, but not the one you thought you would reach. To get here,” he pauses, “you had to take a slight detour.” He kneels down bringing his face close to mine again. “That sound. Do you remember it? It helps men get to where they shouldn’t be.”
I can only stare back at him before finally asking, “Am I dead?”
“No, no,” he says. His face shows no emotion. No concern. No malice. When he speaks it is like he is looking through me. “You are not dead. But like death, there are many places you can go to and never come back from. Larkspur is one of them.” He stands back up as he continues to speak. “You did your job well enough by bringing me my book. Or at least well enough that the horse was able to follow you here. Horses,” he says with a bit more enthusiasm. “Now there is an animal you can count on.” The man stretches and straightens out his back. His shoulders roll underneath his robe, and the lamp light flickers throwing distorted shadows across his features. He grabs the wrist of his left hand with his right, and with a yank a small popping noise comes from beneath his robe. His left hand falls to the ground. Fake and made of wood, it makes a dull thump on the ground. I manage only to whimper as something unnatural starts to writhe under the man’s robe.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “you are now a broken man. Useless. Even if you were to leave here you could no less return home as you could stop the sun in the sky. What is more likely is that the beast would finally catch up to you. But we can’t have that. Must keep it hungry.”
At these words, what looks like the body of an enormous snake falls out of the old man’s robes where his left arm used to be. It looks to be as big around as he is and much longer. A good length of it is spilling out and coiling around itself onto the floor. No head of a snake ever falls out though. Instead the thing looks like it runs all the way up and merges with the man’s shoulder. To Kurtz’s shoulder. With an unnaturally quick movement, the appendage snaps out towards the left. It straightens itself before the length collides with the wall and deals substantial damage to the wood.
I flinch but am unable to bring myself to move.
The serpentine arm relaxes a bit before Kurtz brings it around my shoulders. Every part of me wants to run, to scream, to do anything, but I am still.
Slowly, yet irresistibly, the thing makes its way around my neck and begins to tighten. Kurtz lifts me up as the fat mass of scales and muscle gets tighter and tighter around my neck. I am choking as I look down on Kurtz. My feet sway gently as my vision starts to fade.
Blackness seems to carry me away. There is no memory, no waking vision to speak of. The sound of the beast echoes in my mind. This fear in me carries from deeper than anywhere my waking or dreaming mind can go. Farther than any vestige of some kind of soul. There is only fear: spinning around and eating itself. Whirling. Whirling in the blackness of Larkspur.