Titanic moans reverberated across the night sky like the death rattle of a dying god. The clouds themselves seemed to shiver and cower with each echo. A breeze had picked up, carrying with it the dead leaves and the dust of long-dead centuries, like a vanguard of the horrors to follow.
The merchant wanted to shudder but instead tried to ignore the impossible noise. Her feet carried her down the hill into the high grass, away from the laager, crunching fallen leaves as she walked. Away. She just needed to get away, get away and clear her head. She wouldn’t run, she wouldn’t allow herself to go mad like Wilkins. The old wain driver had been half off his rocker, anyway. She was lucid. She was clear of thought. She knew she had to finish this, for her family, for her father.
More echoes of that terrible sound quaked through her and she winced them away. Grateful that it was at least warm. A chill would have only made it worse. She hated the cold, and was glad that this autumn’s unseasonable warmth had kept it at bay.
She looked up. Jostling clouds loomed above her, their bellies full with the promise of rain. Her father had always called her a summer child and now she understood why. She already felt miserable and it was warm; she couldn’t imagine trudging across the rolling hills of the upper Territories in early winter.
By the Firsts, father, she thought. Why you chose a Lovatine caravan company, I will never understand.
She had argued with him about his decision, but he had been adamant. People said that they were some of the best, and he only hired the best.
Dwelling on the old argument, she marched through chest-high brown cheatgrass and looked for a spot to squat and relieve herself. In places, the grass extended above her head, forcing her to brush away abandoned cobwebs.
From somewhere in the distance she could hear the sound. The sound that had followed them westward from Meyer's Falls, the persistent howl their unwelcome companion.
It was chilling. Half moaning, half howling. Rusty laughter. Sound made of machine engines and fleshy voices. Louder and more disturbing than the brays of wild wolves in the mountains back home.
She set her jaw and kept moving away from camp, far from that fool of a caravan master. She needed to pee but she needed the distance, too. This whole journey, this whole ordeal, had become some mad errand. She had wanted the Big Ninety. Wanted the familiar open road. Fate had deemed that impossible.
The road priest hadn’t helped, either. His words of doom, the way his hands shook, those frightened yellow eyes peering out from the shadow of his hood. Those damn eyes. She couldn’t forget the dread that poured out of them.
Her father was no Reunified, she wasn’t raised in the Church—despite her mother’s protests—but they had taught her to respect the road priests. They were men of the cloth, servants who labored for the traveler, to the benefit of both the caravaneers and the ranchers.
His warnings rattled in her head. Some town to the east. The bodies. The dead. A whole forest of them. What had he called the place? What was the word he used? Something old. Something poetic.
She stumbled over a stump, falling in a stand of coarse grass. The ground punched her in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. Groaning a curse, she rolled onto her back and stared at the sky.
The moon’s muddy-green glow emanated from behind a curtain of clouds. Wet drops pelted her face. More early autumn rains. More mud. It’d slow them down. Slow the whole caravan down.
They had contracts in the city. Merchants in hungry Lovat wanted her produce, but that window was closing. Merchants were fickle. If she was late, they’d find their apples elsewhere. The time spent idling away in watering holes in Syringa had placed her livelihood—her family’s ranch—in a precarious position.
Rot was going to become a danger. The fruit would turn, you couldn’t stop that. Some of the apples had already started turning, their flesh losing the crispness desired by merchants. It would only get worse, especially with this rain. Rain soaked into everything, and rain brought rot.
Losing the harvest would be devastating. Her father would be disappointed, even ashamed. She remembered the look on his face when her older brother Clint lost his arm to a stampede along the northern line. He had overcorrected and fallen from his saddle, dropping beneath the hooves of the stock. Broken ribs, shattered knee and arm. He had lost that arm. Still, he was lucky.
After, father had trundled into Clint’s bedroom, frowned down at his bandaged and broken first-born. There was concern in his eyes, but buried under it was something else, something sadder.
His eldest had let him down. Let the family down. Father wouldn’t forget. He never forgot. He hated disappointment.
What had he told her, those long months ago? She remembered him seated in his throne-like leather chair in the living room, feet propped up before the big stone fireplace. A tumbler of whiskey in his huge hand reflected the oranges and reds from the fire.
“You’re the family’s only hope.”
The words had tumbled out, slurred. Half praise, half frustration. She could see the truth in his glassy eyes. He had set her older brother aside—labeled him a cripple, abandoned any hope in him—and now turned to her as his heir apparent. His voice had been gruff and emotionless as he had spoken. His mustache sagged further as he took another sip.
“I’ll need you to take the harvest to the city. With the loss on the north line, it’s all we’ll have for the season. You need to make sure we break even this year. The family is counting on you.” He had paused, his eyes flicking up to meet hers. “I’m counting on you.”
He had been drunk, but he was serious. She wanted to make him proud; prove she was the right choice. That she could run the ranch if need be, instead of her arrogant brother. She would take the harvest to Lovat and sell it for twice their typical return. That would prove her worth to him.
At the time, her head had lolled automatically in a nod as she accepted, not realizing what the delivery would entail. Not realizing who it would entail. Bell Caravans. Lead by the cocksure caravan master with the dusty eyes and the sardonic grin. He wasn’t her only problem. There was the lanky maero partner with the crooked jaw, the fiery Reunified priestess, and the overbearing chuck that refused to call her by her proper name.
If she had known these were the people her father would be hiring, she wouldn’t have agreed to accompany the delivery. She’d have turned it down, let his disappointment shift on to her as she stood aside and watched him send Clint, the one-armed disappointment. She'd have watched as he turned and waved his childlike wave, his stupid half-smile expressing more arrogance than intelligence.
That’s how you lost your arm, Clint, she thought. Your arrogance. Arrogance you encouraged, father.
As she lay in the grass, she wondered what her old man’s reaction would be if her thoughts could reach him. She sighed, realizing that he’d tell her to get her ass up and get his harvest to Lovat.
She rose, pushing herself off the ground, feeling the ache in her legs and backside. Her shirt and jeans were damp from the moisture held by the cheatgrass. She tried to brush the dirt and mud off her pants, her face, but didn’t think she achieved much more than smearing it about—damn the night.
The sound rose to a howl now. Filling the sky like thunder with its wavering groan that curdled her stomach and sent gooseflesh running down her back. She fought back a shiver and tried to ignore it. It was terrifying in its duality, both natural and unnatural. It scared her. Though she wouldn’t mention that to the caravan, not even to the cousins who had accompanied her.
On the heels of the sound came nightmares. Horrible pictures that flashed unwanted in her skull as she slept. Hooded figures. Menacing faces. Shattered ruins. Above it all, the dimming sun, cooling as its fires were extinguished. Nightmares more vivid that anything she had ever experienced. She was sleeping less and less, but it barely mattered. Awake, she faced the sound; asleep, she faced the nightmares. She could not decide which was worse.
She had considered talking about it with her cousins. Chance had a good head on his shoulders, was family-oriented and focused; he might even have good advice. Range, on the other hand, was young, too young by her count to even be out on the roads. He wouldn’t understand. Would probably quake in his boots.
Laughter bubbled up from her guts. Some part of her suspected that she was going mad. She found herself spending most of her time under the cover of a tarpaulin or in the back of her prairiewain, trying to block out the sound, but desperate to stay awake.
She had started to realize she wasn’t the only one. Others were awake as well, sitting in the dark, hands over their ears as the sound roared on. It had exhausted the whole caravan, sapping strength from body and mind. She could see it in the caravan master’s dust-colored eyes, could see the lines forming beneath them. He was growing weary.
If the sound came during the day, he would often pause at the head of the caravan, cast a bleak expression at the dimanian priestess; or stop and stare at the clouds, as if they spoke secrets only he could hear, ignoring the column that rolled past him.
With a lungful of fresh air, she kept trudging despite the failing light. Casting a glance over her shoulder, she could still see the circled laager of cargowains on the crown of a hill that formed the caravan’s camp. A fire burned at its center, as it burned every night, carrying with it the scent of the chuck’s cooking and marking the crest of the hill to fellow travelers.
Or serving as a beacon to bandits, she thought darkly.
The chuck’s words were a bitter memory. “I told you we shouldn’t have continued this way, Maggie. The sound should’ve been our first clue something was wrong. This road ain’t fit for travel. I thought it’d be fine at first, but I was wrong. I said as much. But you couldn’t be dissuaded. You knew better than a company of seasoned caravaneers.”
She hated her. Hated her moon face and her cackling laugh. She had made a call, and she stood by it. With the Big Ninety closed, and the Low Road impossible, they had little choice. Syringa wouldn’t buy her produce and she had only a handful of weeks to fulfill her contracts in Lovat.
The road priest’s plaintive message rose again in her head as she walked. “The road ahead is not meant to be traveled by living souls. It is a wicked place. Condemned. God is not here. He has long abandoned this road.
“God has long abandoned us.”
As the words haunted her, the sound jumped an octave, making her wince. She had been so sure, but the priest had spilled doubt on her decision. She couldn’t imagine the look in her father’s eyes if she returned home empty-handed. It’d be better to never return home.
She turned, putting herself in a wide orbit around the encampment, keeping the bonfire at her right. The rain was only spitting and she still had to pee. She needed to collect herself, gather her wits. A clear head is clear action. She needed to feel the boil in her blood lessen.
Damn that chuck, damn her and her—
She jumped at the noise. Somewhere behind her? A snapping branch? A clacking rock? It was close—close and loud.
The sky had fallen silent. She could hear the heavy slap slap of droplets against tall cheatgrass stalks, the early warnings of a downpour.
She turned, spinning, looking for the source and growing nervous. The chuck had spoken of bandits. Had their luck run out? She expected to see a wild dog, or one of those shuffling shamblers who were fearful to look upon but as docile as one of her father’s sheep. Instead…
Only stalks of wet cheatgrass, lit by the occasional fleck from the bonfire on the hill.
There—something else. A sound she could only describe as a wet slurp. She spun, hand going to the sidearm on her hip. The silver barrel reflected meager light as she pulled it from its holster.
The darkness seemed thicker now. As if the rain affected it the way it did the muggy air.
“Who’s there?” she demanded. “Range? That you?”
“I’m armed. Show yourself!”
The response shook her.
A quiet echo of the sound that had crashed through the sky, but no less horrible. Her skin went taut with gooseflesh.
“I will shoot you,” she said, her voice cold and impassive.
She looked toward the caravan’s laager, but saw only a deep gray mist. Like the hill had disappeared altogether.
The merchant spun, her heart hammering, the images from her nightmares flashing through her mind.
Nothing. No sky. No vistas. Nothing but gray-black oblivion where the horizon once was.
A gaunt shadow appeared, shaped like a slim man. Narrow hips. Wide shoulders. It emerged from the gloom, moving towards her. One of the caravan? She opened her mouth to challenge the figure, but the words stuck in her throat. She struggled to comprehend what she was seeing. She could shout for help, but somehow she knew no one would hear her. The gloom would strangle the sound just as it had the light. Gradually the shape began to shift. His head and arms fell into himself, and he slapped forward, collapsing into a mass of… of… something. A hideous, gibbering, glopping mess of dark flesh. A crawling nightmare.
She backpedaled, her throat tight with screams.
The thing slopped towards her like a thick, crawling tar. Arms formed only to be reabsorbed as they dragged the horror along the ground. Faces with yellow eyes would appear, only to disappear back into the mass.
She fired her gun, the light blinding her as the slugs exploded out of the end of the barrel.
No effect. Its fleshy mass absorbed the bullet.
The thing continued its slow creep towards her. Mumbling that sound from multiple gaping mouths. Moaning metal, gabbling laughter.
Recoiling in horror, she turned and began to sprint, not caring which direction.
The thing picked up its pace, slopping forward with increased momentum. Pacing her, and ever so slowly gaining ground.
“Help!” she screamed, stretching the word out.
Her gun was no use. She stumbled, pressing onward, the thing right at her heels. It was intent on her, and somehow she knew that she couldn’t fight it.
It was the nightmares and the sound made flesh. It was everything she’d witnessed. The road priest was right. The chuck—damn her—was right. The Broken Road was a damn mistake.
The merchant slowed, turned and faced the approaching thing. It flowed towards her, faces, limbs, wide lidless eyes, and gaping mouths emerging from the roiling mass. It chattered the sound that was part laughter and part moan as it rushed at her.
She felt sick, but forced it back down. She would not vomit in this moment. She refused.
It launched itself at her, its ragged misshapen edges catching what little light existed in this void. It slapped against her, at once enveloping, touching her all over. She shuddered and screamed again.
The mass wasn’t damp or wet, it just was. A dark thing, a gash in reality. It sucked the warmth from the muggy air around her, it felt around, inside her, probing her. She felt its presence reach into her nose, around her eyes, penetrate her ears, violating her.
She felt her screams, but could not hear them. Felt her body convulse as the creature enveloped its fleshy form around her.
Soon it would be over. She knew it in her bones.
She felt cold.
She hated the cold.
To be published by K. M. Alexander; Copyright © 2014 by K. M. Alexander. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.