She's in her closet, taking short, shallow breaths into her blanket to muffle the sound. She thinks she'll be safe.
She is mistaken.
Death is in the air.
The air waves and cyberspace have been rife with breaking news from all over the world along with wild speculation about what terrorist group (or opposition party or enemy country) is behind the host of deaths.
The first body was found five days ago: the chest, gouged and torn, the heart crushed and silent.
Since then, the body count has surpassed the population of several countries. If it weren't for the rather violent nature of the deaths, one might be forgiven for believing it was some kind of pestilence.
But, really, what kind of sickness can rip out a heart?
Each person died with eyes wild and open. Despite the apparent impossibility, autopsies indicated no weapons were used. Flesh was found beneath and hanging from the nails of each victim, which, initially, gave hope to law enforcement and the public.
But, alas, it was their own flesh, their DNA alone that was found.
Mass hysteria ensued. The leaders of nations took to their podiums to calm and soothe. They may have had some success, were it not for the one who spoke from his private office. Alone with his computer. He ripped out his heart on camera.
I did so want to keep from becoming Instagrammable.
Some thought it an elaborate hoax.
Until it happened to someone they knew.
Fingers, and guns, pointed in all directions. Threats of retaliation for attacks as yet unproven and unexplained abounded.
Everyone was suspect.
Yet, none was guilty, at least, not for stilling the beating hearts.
That was me.
If I could laugh, I would do so...heartily. I've waited so long to make my presence...felt.
Beware, for death hovers, invisible, in the breeze that just caressed your cheek, tickled your nose.
None save the unborn, perhaps, lacks darkness within. Evil. One might even say the seeds of evil. My seed. I seek only to reclaim what is mine.
The innocent need not fear.
She takes a breath. I seep into her brain and whisper. She does as she is bid.
Get it out. You have to get it out. Scratch, Scratch, rip, rip, dig, dig, pull, pull, Squeeeeeeeeze.
Canyon of Death
One Year Ago, Somewhere in the Sahara Desert
Sunset was making its inevitable approach as the caravan worked its way into the opening of the wadi. Days of travel across bleak wind-blasted terrain sweltering beneath the harsh Saharan sun had left the entire expedition exhausted. Everyone was looking forward to a night sheltered from the biting sands and ruthless heat.
Tristan Beaumont stood on a rise at the rear of the column, peering into the developing gloom of the canyon ahead. Beyond the limits of his vision awaited the discovery of a lifetime. One that had the potential to rewrite the history of human civilization in the Sahara. Those implications were why Tristan had to claim it first.
The area of geological upheaval stretched over fifty-two thousand square miles, roughly three times the size of Switzerland.
Never mind the myths of ancient curses, giant guardians, and lost treasures.
Every lost city or tomb seemed to come with a requisite list of ominous names and terrifying curses that would befall those who entered and touched anything. Giant spiked filled chasms and crocodile filled moats just did not exist like they did in the movies, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any real dangers. There was a better than average chance that they could be waylaid by marauders and the entire expedition would be swallowed up by the sands, never to be heard from again.
Tristan was willing to risk the dangers, both real or fantastical, but not for a mythical treasure or world fame. He had enough money and celebrity because of his heritage. It was hard to stay out of the public eye when you were the son of a billionaire. He hated it. Acute awareness of his fortune—he had witnessed so much greed in the corporate world of his Father—was why Tristan had decided to devote himself to philanthropic pursuits. Not for personal vindication or validation, but because it seemed like the right thing to do. It was his calling, his true purpose in life. That was why he was here in the middle of the desert, thousands of miles from home, about to enter the so called ‘Canyon of Death’.
He laughed at the cliché.
Tristan saw the caravan creep to a halt before the open mouth of the waiting ravine. Progress was slow by modern standards, the remote and unyielding landscape—and the lack of service stations—did not allow for the modern convenience of vehicles. The expedition was forced to rely on the biological Land Rovers of the Sahara, dromedary camels. The temperamental beasts, with their long slender necks and regal air, helped get them this far without incident. To the people of the desert, camels were part of their lifeblood.
Shouts echoed out of the canyon as the caravan ground to a halt. Camel and man alike were bunching up against the towering rock walls ahead. Something was wrong, they were stopping too soon. Sunset was still several hours off, more than enough time to make progress into the canyon before they set camp.
Tristan watched the stocky form of Kevin Sawyer—his business partner and photographer on this expedition—charging towards their Toubou guide, Hassan. Kevin had a short fuse and was not the best person for a rational negotiation, even when things were going well. Kevin’s voluminous voice boomed back to Tristan on his overlook. Better get down there before he starts swinging.
“We can't stop here man! There's still at least two hours of good light left,” Kevin said, waving his meaty hand in the direction of the canyon.
“We stop here. Men go no further in the dark. Bad place to be at night, much worse up there,” Hassan said in broken English. He crossed his arms, standing firm, though his eyes sought the ground.
“Why? What could make it worse? No one lives here and if anything, we'll be less exposed in that canyon.”
“What's the problem gentleman? Why have we stopped so soon?” Tristan asked, unwrapping his tagelmust, a Tuareg headscarf. Life in the field was much more bearable when you followed the practices of the people native to the regions in which you found yourself. He had learned that from Tahoe, among many things. Besides, thousands of years of living in the desert had to count for something.
Kevin turned, his patience worn thin, and inclined his head at Hassan. “Ask him.”
“Sir, we go no further this night. Bad place. Very bad place. Cursed.” Hassan shook his head and stared back at the ground, apparently finding it harder to stand up to the man writing his paycheck. Tristan had paid the tribesman half upfront to take them into the mountains and withheld the other half until they were brought back.
“Explain yourself.” Tristan said. “Wouldn’t we be better off sheltered inside the canyon?”
“That's what I told him,” Kevin said. “He’s probably trying to squeeze more money out of us.” Both of them knew that superstitions and other tricks were often invoked to incur a greater salary from ignorant travelers. Tristan was not as direct as his friend in asking. If this was a negotiation then it would be better to work the truth out without a direct accusation. It was a fine line to walk between being an effective leader and keeping the porters happy enough to prevent a mutiny.
“Well then Hassan?” Tristan said, keeping his voice patient, yet firm.
Hassan looked up and met Tristan's gaze, fear flashed across his face when he replied. “This is the place of the Noso. We do not come here. Especially at night. It is cursed.”
“Bull shi--" Kevin’s outburst was cut short as Tristan held up his hand to silence him. His curiosity piqued by the unfamiliar term. “What is Noso?”
“Noso are the guardians of the old ones, they who lived here long ago and brought waters from the ground.” Hassan said, as if that sounded perfectly normal. Terrifying, but normal.
Guardians again, just like in the legends about the city. Just like the journal…
“What a load of shit.” Kevin Sawyer shook his head and muttered.
“Kev, most superstitions are seeded with a grain of truth. Even the Canyon of Death got its name somewhere.” A twinge of guilt gnawed at Tristan for not having told Kevin everything that was written about the Canyon in the journal, though he didn’t really believe it himself. In fact, there was a lot he hadn’t told Kevin. It wasn’t entirely his fault, he did have to make a rather hasty escape from his previous business partner and there was no time to note anything except for the map. “These old ones might be some ancestor to the Toubou or maybe the Garamantes. We’re getting close.”
“I know the Garamantes were known for cultivating the desert using water they brought up from aquifers, but they weren’t this far south and I’m pretty sure they didn’t have any legendary lost cities,” Kevin said, not attempting to keep the skepticism from his voice.
“Not that we know of, but who can say for sure how large of an area their civilization extended over or who preceded them. How much history has been buried beneath the sands?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
Tristan was seized by the thrill of discovery and he took Hassan by the shoulders, eliciting a yelp from the desert man. “We are going into that canyon with or without you and there’s only one way you get paid. Just think of what your wife will say if you come home empty handed. Which curse is worse, huh?”
Hassan flashed a grin at the comment and nodded his head in solemn compliance. “Very well, we go. Either way I lose my head.”
“That's the spirit! Let’s push on then.” Tristan returned the grin and slapped Hassan on the back.
Hassan began shouting in Tedaga, the language of the Toubou people in the north, informing the other porters that they would proceed. They did not look pleased. They looked frightened. Tristan began to feel a hint of unease in how serious Hassan was regarding the Noso. After all, this region of the Tibesti was almost entirely uninhabited. Maybe there was a real reason behind the ominous myth.
Tristan turned to Kevin, who was staring off to the north as the wind picked up around them. “See, that wasn't so hard, was it?”
“Your father certainly would be proud,” Kevin said, enunciating each word sarcastically.
“Yeah right! His only son and heir abandoned the Beaumont family empire to pursue philanthropy with his trust fund, falling in with mercenaries, thievery, and international intrigue. What’s not to be proud of?” Tristan eyed the sandy ground and shook his head, his enthusiasm wavering at the mention of his father. “Besides, I'm practically disowned. Cassandra took my place in the family hierarchy. She can keep it.”
“Well, he should be proud. Not every man can claim his son is going to save an entire ecological region from evil industrial machinations.”
“Industrial machinations are his specialty. And don’t you think you’re over selling it, just a little? We haven’t done anything yet.”
“Not yet, but we’re not the only ones fighting for international protection of this place. That one German geologist was lobbying for the Tibesti to be recognized as a natural and cultural UNESCO World Heritage site.”
“We don’t know how long that is going to take. Plus, Chad is under a lot of international pressure to exploit their natural resources.” Tristan closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to stay positive. “If we open the gates to Zerzura then they’ll have to protect it. Right?”
Kevin did not respond, his gaze remained fixed to the west on a developing cloud bank.
“I think we need to get moving into that canyon,” Kevin said as he whipped around. “I mean now!”
“What? Why?” Tristan found himself slow to uptake the implications of Kevin’s panic even as his eyes laid bare the truth.
“Sandstorm!” Kevin barked as he ran forward with surprising speed for his squat frame. He gathered up his camera while donning a pair of sand goggles and began taking photos.
With alarming rapidity, the wind jumped from a gentle whisper to a roaring howl, whipping up grains of dust and sand. Tristan re-wrapped his tagelmust and risked another glance towards the west, where the sand clouds had turned into a roiling mass which began to mask the failing light.
The porters were becoming frantic, reloading the little equipment they had removed from their camels, shouting and urging one another to move faster. Toubou men understood what it meant to be caught in a sandstorm without shelter. Disorientation, blindness, suffocation, and death.
Kevin ran back with his camera in hand, snapping more photographs of the oncoming maelstrom. “Bloody good shots here! Never expected to see one so deep in the mountains.” He was forced to shout as the wind's intensity picked up.
“Thought you said we had to go,” Tristan yelled back.
“Can't miss this opportunity, I'll catch up, don't worry.” He continued to blaze away with his camera. “A sandstorm in the mountains! Spectacular!”
It was unnatural for such a large storm to strike so far from the sand seas outside of the Tibesti mountains. Tristan’s sense of unease deepened; something was off about this.
The grains began biting at their exposed skin with increasing intensity, like thousands of unrelenting flies. The porters were jogging with their mounts into the relative safety of the ravine. Their apprehensive looks made Tristan think they should do likewise. The wall of sand was bearing down on them as if the desert had risen up to overthrow the invasion of modern man and hide its secrets forever.
“Kevin!” Tristan took his heavy friend by the arm and started pulling him away. “We’ve got to move!”
A sudden furnace hot gust of wind punched into them, forcing the pair back a step beneath the assault. Kevin’s eyes widened behind his sand goggles as the precariousness of their situation dawned on him. With one more snap of his camera, he began to retreat towards the last of the porters. Tristan made to follow his friend when he caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye. He paused his flight and scanned the rock outcrops high above the ravine's mouth. In the face of the deteriorating visibility he could make out the vague shape of an animal slinking between the boulders and pinncacles. Probably just a Barbary sheep, one of the few creatures to call the desolate Tibesti home, but it did not help to ease his suspicion.
Tristan again shrugged off the strange feeling and ran ahead, reaching the protective embrace of the rough sandstone walls. The enraged howl of the wind and rumble of thunder echoed between the rocks as cool darkness closed in around him. Buttresses of sheer rock stretched hundreds of feet into the darkness on either side bufferning the interior from the sandstorm’s full strength. The storm shattered the retreating sunlight and natural dusk added its weight to the supernatural gloom of the canyon.
When his eyes adjusted to low light Tristan realized he was alone.
“Kevin?” He called out, seeking a sign of his friend or their party. “Hassan!” Nothing. No response. Maybe they could not hear him over the echoing tumult, but how could they have gotten so far ahead? He had only been a few seconds behind. They should have all been waiting just within the opening as there was plenty of protection from the wind and sand. Hasan may have just been overly cautious and moved them in deeper, but Tristan thought he should have heard someone or seen some signs of their passing.
Tristan delved deeper into the canyon to seek some answers. He kept his right hand along the southern wall as a guide, pausing now and then to listen for his companions. It took several minutes before he heard a muffled yell in the void along with the panicked bleating of camels. The others must have been separated in their haste to escape the storm and were now trying to regroup. With the limited visibility they had probably just lost sight of one another and wandered up side canyons to wait for better conditions. There was some solace to be found in that simple explanation, even when his mind tried to suggest the worst. Hassan and Kevin would have attempted to keep the expedition together, unless they too had gotten lost. In which case he had better try and catch up and get them organized before more people wandered off.
When he went to step forward his foot tangled on something solid, yet yielding, sending him sprawling face first onto the sand. He spit sand out of his mouth as he rolled over onto his back to catch his breath. Massive stone walls on either side of him stretched hundreds of feet into shadow. The near stygian darkness was almost like being in a cave, so it was no wonder he did not even see what had tripped him.
In his haste to find the others, Tristan had forgotten that he had a flashlight in his bag. He laughed at his own foolishness and fished the flashlight out and clicked it on, illuminating the darkness with the crisp white LED light. He swung the beam back to where he tripped and the laughter died in his throat. Through the motes of sand and dust he saw it. A body.
The grisly ruin of a human body, the sand around churned up and soaked with blood.
“Jesus Christ!” Fear and panic rose in his gut as Tristan crawled over to see who the poor bloke was. He turned the body over revealing a series of massive lacerations extending from the tattered remnants of Hassan's throat to the grotesquery of his chest. A wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him. He looked away and closed his eyes, driving down the fear, knowing he couldn’t stop now.
Tristan jumped to his feet and scanned the surrounding darkness with his light. The search yielded two more bodies, both having met the same horrible fate of Hassan. His heart was beating as if he had just run a marathon; cold sweat trickled down his back. He was on the verge of taking his chances with the sandstorm when the sharp crack of gunshots reverberated down the canyon.
Someone was alive out there.
Tristan hardened his resolve and stole forward to the other bodies. He needed a weapon if he wanted a chance in hell of saving someone, including himself. He didn’t even know what he was saving them from. Rooting through their satchels produced an old revolver with a handful of cartridges. Tristan stuffed them into his pocket and checked the revolver cylinders for ammunition. Six eyes of loaded brass stared back at him from the chambers. It was loaded.
The reassuring weight of the revolver in his hand was the final dose of courage he needed to propel him towards the gunfire. Tristan jogged ahead, holding his flashlight in his offhand and the revolver in his right. The steep rock walls of the narrow ravine slanted imperceptibly upwards and a small dry river channel ran along the northern wall. The defile stretched for a few hundred meters before giving way to a more open amphitheater of stone. The open ceiling allowed the raging winds of the sandstorm to claw their way back down below the cliffs.
Tristan entered the tempest, hunching low against the powerful wind and stinging sand. The air was alive with static electricity and jagged bolts of orange-hued lightning lit up the night. Tristan could feel the energy tingling against his skin. He only made it a couple yards when he saw a flash of movement to his right. It was quick, a deeper shadow moving within the storm, but the profile looked human. A very large one. Had anyone in their party been so large? Tristan could not be sure so he grasped the wooden handle of the revolver tighter and pushed on, head held low.
A few more yards produced the prostrated form of another porter, his throat a ragged bloody mess. Tristan stopped dead when he heard a low menacing growl from beyond the veil of flying sand. He swung his flashlight back and forth, revealing several pairs of luminous eyes. The sudden bright light made the creatures vanish back into the veil, as fast as they had appeared. Their silent retreat denied him any evidence as to their identity, but Tristan knew their purpose. They were hunting him.
Tristan broke out in another cold sweat knowing that these creatures were stalking and killing off the expedition members one by one. The camels, the porters, Hassan, and Kevin. His friend. They were probably all dead and he was next. It was all too much, the panic that had been threatening now overwhelmed him and Tristan Beaumont ran for his life.
He fled headlong into the rock amphitheater, heedless of the storm and oblivious to the secrets it held. Shadows rushed along at his left and right, trying to flank him and finish him off. Or were they herding him? Fear overwhelmed instinct and the pistol clasped in his hand remained silent.
Tristan reached the other side of the amphitheater and slowed, struggling to catch his breath through the cloth of his head scarf. He leaned against the rock wall panting, his sweat soaked clothes clinging to his skin. His eyes burned and watered from the dust, but through the obscurity of sand and dusk he saw the haunting figures of man and beast, dark giants emerging from the diminishing storm.
Tristan stood terrified, like a cornered animal ready to make a last stand knowing that escape was now impossible. Maybe he should have listened to his Father, if he had he wouldn’t be in this mess. He wasn’t ready to die, alone and lost in the desert. He had to fight.
Tristan remembered the revolver and raised it in his trembling hand, aiming from the hip for the nearest man. The figures stopped, as if responding to his threat, waiting for Tristan to make the next move.
Or so he thought.
Warm liquid droplets spattered on the back of his neck from above. Tristan reached back with his freehand, tentatively touching the spot. When he pulled it back, his fingers were smeared in crimson. As he took in the realization, something dropped to the ground with a sickening wet thud. It bounced twice and rolled through the sand before coming to rest at his feet.
Tristan looked down at the object.
Kevin Sawyer's lifeless eyes stared up from his severed head. His face was frozen in a final scream of fear.
Before Tristan could comprehend the savagery, something massive collided with him. Massive claws sank into the flesh of his back, like meat hooks into a side of beef. Tristan screamed as he was driven to the ground and fiery pain ripped across his back. A deep, feral roar resonated through the air and was answered with a primordial intensity from every direction.
Tristan was pressed to the sand beneath the enormous weight of his attacker, his pistol was beyond reach. Not that it would do him any good now. The shock and pain made his head swim and his vision waver, but he could discern the shadowed figures of men stepping into the circle of light made by his flashlight.
His last sight was of man and beast standing together. Of massive fangs and slavering jaws coming towards his head. Then pain erupted in his skull and the world went black.
The Sanguine Queen
Cold pane of glass separating us,
Though you would never know unless
You called my name three times,
Then summoned my maid right after.
How I'd smile as I leap out,
Dragging black nails against your neck
As I pluck your eyes out and drink
Deep, rich Protestant blood
While you cry to the wrong God.
God can't save you now, darling,
Since we made that pact that I can
Devour every elementary school kid
That dares utter the name, Bloody Mary.
They seem harmless.
It starts with one.
She offers you help.
Promises to lead you.
out of the dark.
Her eyes covered with fabric.
Her head an inch above her neck.
Her skin translucent.
She leads you on for days.
You see a glimmer of light.
You see eyes in the shadows.
You ignore them
More smiles greet you
till there are hundreds.
All their heads floating.
all their faces, smiling.
Then you remember
the little poem.
that should have saved you.
Should have kept you
just like them.
exactly like them.
Your head now floats.
dried black blood stuck
to your neck.
Your empty eyes covered.
your's on a peg.
Lost sheep, dead sheep
Jospeh had found his lost sheep, but it did little good to him dead. Something had killed it and had already eaten most of it. Mange, the name of the sheep, Joseph was working on naming most of his flock, was covered in her own blood with its neck and most of neck missing. Her face had been eaten off as well, Joseph surprised himself by not vomiting at the sight of it, or the smell. Joseph sat in despair, he spent most of the day looking for Mange, having left the rest of his sheep under the care of Ben, the other shepherd. Ben insisted Joseph take a weapon with him, but Joseph refused. He had no skill with any kind of weapon. So Ben stayed and guarded the flock alone with his sling."Poor Mange, what monster could do this to you?"Wait, what did do this to Mange. Joseph had seen a few other sheep killed by wolves, it was very common in their neck of land, but this did not look like a wolve kill. The tracks were different, there were no wolf tracks, and the tracks were huge. There were also a few giant feathers scattered aound Mange's corpse, feathers too big to belong to any regular bird.
He had heard stories about flyign monsters like the griffen, or the roc, but he never had seen one. He looked around to see if there was any possible way to see why the creature went, but no luck. There were some scratches on some stone where it looked like the animal had cleaned its claws, but no way to tell were the monster flew off to. Sighing, Joseph gathered a few of the larger feathers as evidance before heading back to his flock.
A few hours later, just about two hours to sunset, the time when Ben and he should be taking the flock home, Joseph made back to where his flock should be. But it was gone. There was no sign of any of the roughly 41 sheep, the nanny donkey, or Ben with his sling. "Hello, Ben! Where are you?!" Michael shouted as walked around the pasture.
"Shut up, you idiot, before it gets you too!" Someone whispered loudly. Joseph jumped, startled, before he ran over to the source of the loud whisper. It was Ben, he was hiding behind a few bushes, with three sheep. Ida, Minny, and Tool. Ben pulled Joseph behind the bush so he was hid as well.
"Its a giant bird monster isn't it," Joseph stated. It was not a question.
"Yes, yes, it came back for more while you were gone," said Ben as he pointed across the pasture. There were four dead sheep, most in the same state that was Mange's was in when he found her a few hours back. There was a creature feeding off them as well. It must not have heard Joseph's yells because it the loud noises it was making. Joseph heard it before he saw it. Or more appropriately, her. It was not a giant bird. But a human figure with.. with bird wings. A harpy.
I am watching
The hiker is not afraid, but he should be.
It's dangerous to climb the mountain in the best of conditions, but attempting to summit the peak in the growing twilight is a terribly foolish idea. The hiker is not afraid, but he should be; he is not someone to be easily intimidated, but he will be. I've been following him for two hours now, and he hasn't turned around yet. He stopped once, and only once, to take an energy bar out of his backpack. Once he finished, he dropped the wrapper, left it right on the ground, right by the wildflowers.
That moment was what sealed his fate. Before then, I was unsure, uncertain as to whether he really did deserve my prosecution. Before then, he was merely a nuisance, a fool. After then? He was an enemy to the wild.
He passed tree line twenty minutes ago, the summit isn't too far ahead. Of course, he'll be dead before he gets there. He's not afraid, but he should be.
I stalk, I pad, I hunt. If he were to look behind him, he would see a nightmare. If he were to look behind him, he would see a pair of great yellow eyes, fangs like a wolf, claws like a bear, furled wings like an eagle. If he were to look behind him, he would see his death. But he doesn't look behind him, he doesn't pause to take in the twilight tundra.
To reach the summit, he'll need to scramble up a steep field of scree. I'll make my move then, I'll send him tumbling down until he reaches a great cliff at the bottom. I'll watch him die, I'll ensure that he dies.
We're nearly there, and I hear him sigh. He's tired, but he's not afraid. He should be. He starts his journey up the scree, and I let him ascend some, I let him ascend and then I push the rocks out from under his feet. I push him, I destabilize him, and he is falling, and he falls. He falls down the scree, struggling to catch himself and stop his fall, but I am there beside him, and I keep the rocks sliding.
He yells, he shouts, but there's no response, not even an echo—only the pressing silence of the wild. He is alone, he is afraid. He is bleeding now, leaving red on the rocks he falls on, and his body is breaking. His body is breaking and he is afraid, but soon he won't be, he can't be. I am sending him into oblivion.
We reach the bottom of the scree field, and there's a steep cliff, a sharp cliff, two hundred feet of emptiness. Somehow, despite his bleeding and his breaking, he manages to catch himself on a rocky ledge at the very last moment. If he were truly alone, maybe he could pull himself up. If he were truly alone, maybe he could lie there until some emergency response team comes to rescue him, risking their lives for his.
But he is not alone, and he knows it, he sees me. His eyes are full of fear. He is afraid, as he should be. He is afraid, but soon he won't be. He clings onto the ledge. I leap, I push him off the edge, my claws cutting into his chest as he falls, falls, falls. As we near the bottom of the cliff, I let him go, my wings unfurling as I watch him die. He will lay there until he is found, then his death will appear in the human news, a tragedy, and the mountain will gain additional notoriety.
Most people who visit here respect the mountain, most people who visit here respect the wild. And for those who don't, for those who tread with audacity and arrogance, I am here, and I am watching.