Part I: “Capture”
Jonathan knew he’d broken his leg upon impact, and he knew it to be quite serious. There was a sound in the bushes, the horse had bucked, reared upright on its hind legs and sent him spiraling through the air in a morbid pirouette. He hit the cobblestone (a rare luxury lain in the wealthier regions of Northern California territory; only afforded by a financial influx the area had seen in the wake of the great gold rush) in powerful and precarious fashion, bouncing once before coming to rest in a wave of pain and bright white light: sprawled in an awkward position which no human body may rightfully contort. His leg was a twisted mess. Although he’d landed on his back, belly up, his kneecap was warped in a nauseating spin, facing the very stone in which he lay upon, a complete 180 degree shift. His tibia had split in half, vertically, not horizontally, and two jagged yellow tinged ivory shards protruded from either side of his upper calf, having shredded his flesh in jagged eruptions, tearing the fabric of his slacks. The bones protruded like a horrifically inconceivable pair of identical stalagmites of ages old, the dripping blood a thawing ruby ice.
Plasma slowly spilled around the wounds, not a staggering amount by any means, but it made for a disconcerting piece of imagery as it quickly congealed within the wedges of the cobble. Jonathan’s head spun as he craned his neck to assess the damage, he screamed out, a vulnerable cry of pain and terror. His stomach grumbled as the day’s meals threatened to swell in his gorge. Jeremiah, who’d been riding just paces in advance when his horse too had taken scare, came trotting back to Jonathan’s side in a rush, panicked by the melee, frightened by the yelp that emanated from Jonathan’s deepest recesses. He dismounted swiftly and ran to his brother’s side.
“Christ almighty, you’ve shattered the thing in a thousand places brother!” Sweat spread across his forehead instantly, pooling in the arch of his brow bone. He shook, and fidgeted uncontrollably as he examined the extent of the injury, wondering how in the world he’d manage to get his brother to safety without seeing the appendage shred away to dangling tendons and torn flesh, hanging on by the human strands typically disguised by the body’s skin. “I don’t know what to do Jonathan! You’re broken to Hell!”
“Doc Turner, ‘Miah. Go get to Doc Turner. He’s only half a mile back the road. Tell him to bring his assistant Thomas and their carriage… gonna have to carry me away from this one, and it isn’t happening on any horse!” His body had lapsed into mild convulsions and his skin had gone clammy with an ice cold sweat. He shivered, entangled in the day’s waning warmth.
Without hesitation Jeremiah did as he was told. The elder of the two, he’d still always been the smaller, weaker of the brothers. He’d let Jonathan bully him on countless occasions when they were boys: beatings in the back garden, beatings on the front lawn, manipulations he could not counter. He’d always been the physically and mentally inferior of the two. But time had witnessed both mature into fair men, who cared deeply for each another. The days of abuse faded as manhood and honor had become introduced attributes embraced by both. They’d grown into the boots of integrity. Each worked at Grigsby’s Bank in the center of town, and by all accounts, though Jeremiah was still the physically feebler of the two, he made every dime his brother took in, if not more, and earned respect as an intelligent business man, from local clientele, the townsfolk and his family. Retribution for years of an inferiority complex that once restricted his head to palm, shame a visible illness.
Business – and respect for that matter – bore no relevance to the issue at hand.
Jonathan and Jeremiah had gotten off work as the clock struck 6 pm, and after loading up their notes (piled high due to numerous new accounts acquired after the recent completion of the First
Transcontinental Railroad), they’d headed for their horses, that rested under the bank’s wooden awning out front, already saddled (a task bestowed upon Christopher, the banks latest hire) and waiting in the stoned street. Their prized steeds would guide them home, through the gorgeous mountain bends of Northern, California, where the trees loomed, the beasts howled and the wind whistled a sharp tune that comforted the tormented and haunted the innocent. It would have long since passed dark by the time each had made his full trek home (half an hour for Jeremiah, an additional quarter hour for Jonathan), and the truth is, given the severity of this unexpected debacle, Jonathan was fortunate to have endured such an accident on the mere outskirts of town. Had he been deeper into the rural setting when his mare had been spooked, he’d be left an entangled mess, far from the aid of anyone, where no light, save for that of the moon, graced the rocky path. He could be trampled to death for God’s sake… or worse: the animals of the region were not all docile. There were killers within the thickly wooded land.
While Jeremiah headed back in the direction from which they’d come, back toward town, Jonathan broke down. A rugged man of great pride, he hadn’t cried in well over a decade, but the tears came upon him, and they splashed like a California river run wild with rapid waters all rage and tumultuous churning. The pain was unbearable. From his toes to his head his pulse pounded a rapid, unrelenting menace that brought pain with each pulsation. His hair clung to his forehead as he perspired profusely. Sweat and tears shrouded his face and he tasted the bitterness of both as the combination of fluids leaked into the creases of his mouth. Ironically, his throat, and only means of drawing the attention of anyone in the near vicinity, was dry as dirt. Rendered completely useless.
For long drawn out minutes he gazed at the deepening purple of the sky: a foreboding omen. Darkness was on the way, and the thought left Jonathan’s senses swimming frantically. He’d never feared blackness. There was a peace in the still of the night, the insects humming in masses, a strangely melodic tune. But tonight, there was no peace.
He was attempting to shift his mangled limb when a branch snapped in the distance. Blue, his mare, again reared, this time back pedaling, turning and running right past Jonathan (barely missing his motionless body, which would have been nothing more than mush had Blue miscalculated his retreat) into the distance: headed home. “Damn it,” he croaked, and the dense foliage responded: another branch cracked. Jonathan went quiet, trembling in pain, growing increasingly frightened. What the hell was in the woods? Those weren’t twigs cracking; those were branches, snapping in two. Another crack pierced the silence of the darkening night and Jonathan let out a yelp in accord. He was not alone, and what stooped behind the shroud of green vegetation was not welcomed camaraderie.
“Who’s there,” he bellowed to the best of his ability, and an odd fluttering sound offered immediate response. It was, to Jonathan a sound not unlike a moth’s wings fluttering near a candle’s flame…but it was much, much louder. Moth perhaps, but if moth were the case, there must be a million of them clustered together, thrusting their wings upward, downward, upward, downward in absolutely perfect synchronization. Jonathan knew it not to be true.
The sound came again, from his left, beneath the dip of the road where the rock gave way to dirt and the earth took to a fatal slant: an unforgiving mountainside. More rustling about had Jonathan’s heart beating at his chest like a trapped animal whose instincts ensure an inescapable and gruesome death. It could explode at any minute.
More disturbances in the brush, this time further to his left, but far nearer the road. Whatever animal that had decided to stalk wounded prey was advancing and Jonathan had no way – save for a small blade he’d kept tucked into a discreet belt holster for miscellaneous chores at work or home – of defending himself. Never had he thought of being forced to actually use it in order to protect himself: but now, in this moment, that blade seemed his lone line of defense and hope. It failed to ease his anxiety.
The sun had nearly disappeared in its entirety. It slunk slowly below the tree lines, miles off in the western distance; slipped behind the walls of the rocky terrain. The blackness continued to close in, and the fluttering sound too continued, now, much closer: a thick drum that Jonathan’s heartbeat seemed force to match. A cricket chirped loud and shrill. An owl let out its announcement to the world: evening had descended. Jonathan closed his eyes, a silent prayer issued.
More disturbances followed in the grass, and Jonathan’s heart sunk. Not only could he hear the earth being disturbed, he could now see the grass that bordered the road swaying back and forth. A hulking mass jerked against the backdrop of the ascending moon. What is it? Whatever it was moved awkwardly, a seemingly uncontrollable, yet simultaneously agile quality about its frighteningly fluid shifts in the night caused Jonathan a great deal of confusion, furthering his uncertainty as to what type of animal he dealt with. What the hell is it?! The weeds parted. There was no order in this animal’s approach: just a frenzied, anxious accosting… and yet, to Jonathan this monstrosity seemed so graceful in its movement. A pitiful squeak escaped his lips: all those years as the alpha Belmont and he’d been reduced to a helpless weasel prepared to beg for any measure of mercy.
Mercy, he would not get. Not on this night.
An elongated limb slipped from the brush, and reached out onto the cobblestone. The arm, the… paw! Jonathan thought: it’s all wrong! And indeed, it was. Two crooked talon-like fingers, perhaps ten inches long reached for a firm grip, while what looked like a thumb (also grossly sized) – webbed to the creature’s inner finger – came down to form a firm hold on a rock. And then the forearm followed, and it echoed the image of the hand: long… unbelievably elongated – two feet at least – slowly emerging from the grass. It was thick with muscle and fast-twitch fibers. In the moonlight Jonathan could see that it lacked any form of hair: only sinewy muscle stood out and seemed to pulsate against the leathery skin. The forearm collided with a joint that seemed too intricate to actually be required by any living thing: instead of a single elbow, the natural point of flexibility appeared to be comprised of three separate elbows, all sharp points that enclosed to form a singular spike when the monster extended its limbs to full capacity. It crawled, but not as a cat on the prowl would crawl, as a disfigured tarantula might crawl. The creature’s obstinate jerkiness immediately reminded Jonathan of an overgrown – much overgrown – praying mantis… with clawed talons and the muscle mass of a half dozen men.
Jonathan began to scream, pleading for some random stranger or a distant neighbor, any evening traveler that might hear him and rush to his aid, but as the creature emerged from the roadside, he knew there would be no saving him. Not tonight, not ever again.
It was a massive mound of flesh, most certainly leathery in nature, and wired top to bottom with muscles that a full grown lion might envy. Its chest stretched and contracted with its breathing, but it reached astounding proportions on both spectrum ends: when inhaling, it seemed the beast’s chest stretched to a full six feet wide, yet when it exhaled it somehow had shrunken down to no more than a foot in width. The beast’s torso was long, and curved inward which affixed a strange horizontal exaggeration to the creature: it seemed to Jonathan, to be at least ten feet long. Feet that matched the creature’s gnarled talons rested on the cobblestone, a steady hold on the rock below. Jonathan stared silently, frozen to the spot in amazement and sheer shock. The creature’s legs bore the most memorable difference between what Jonathan saw that night and any other living creature he’d seen in his 28 years in Europe. Rather than two primary bones, the tibia and the femur, this beast seemed to have three major bones within the lower extremities, resulting in not a single functioning joint, but two: each distanced by a foot of thick bone encased in wiry muscle and flesh, jagged and torn from past hunts, no doubt. Jonathan stared in petrified awe for a moment it looks like a kangaroo that had its legs broken and never had the chance to see them heal properly. It was a fair comparison. The head however, the head was something directly from a H.P. Lovecraft tale, the things nightmares are truly made of. The things that no grown man should ever be forced to acknowledge as tangible substance, and Jonathan felt an unrelenting wave of nausea overtake him as he gazed at the beast in all its morbid menace.
The town square had already taken on an ominous silence. A few drunkards wandered the streets, tucked under advertisements and awnings. Aside from those random vagrants, the town seemed an ideal sanctuary for the undead. A ghost town in all its glory.
Jeremiah approached Willow’s lone medical facility and leapt from his horse, mounting the stairs to Doc Turner’s place two at a time. He plowed through the front door, which rattled miserably on its hinges, the small sectional glass panes threatening to shatter. “Doc,” he bellowed. The secretarial portion of the office, located directly to the right of the building’s entrance, was empty, “Doc!”
Doctor Benjamin Turner rounded a corner at the far end of the hallway and shouted, “Jeremiah Belmont? Is that you?”
“It’s me Doc! It’s Johnny! Horse bucked him. He went flying! Whole damn leg is ripped and twisted up like a French whore’s braid. Bones poking out everywhere,” his voice quivered as he screamed, frantic, panicked, a child again. He desperately wanted to appear calm: cool and collected as Jonathan would have been. Johnny was always cool when the kitchen heated up, but here he was, the same nervous wreck he’d faced in reflections his entire life. Sometimes he hated himself.
The Doctor moved slowly through the building of his practice, slinking into the secretarial region of the building, rounding his desk, beckoning for Jeremiah to follow. His office offered a strange sense of comfort. Books lined triple tier shelves behind the doctor’s desk, and along the walls. A candle’s flame flickered, threatened to find premature extinguish and leapt back to life in a high flame of orange and blue. “Okay, okay… relax Jeremiah. Tell me, slowly, exactly what happened and where Jonathan is.”
Jeremiah reached into his deepest inner recesses and found a small measure of composure, soothed by the rich atmosphere the room afforded. He was anything but relaxed, but he was in better shape than the moment he’d nearly taken the doctor’s door off its hinges. Still shaking, envisioning the strangely shiny white points and edges of Jonathan’s split bone, he braced himself to tell his tale.
Five anxious minutes later and Jeremiah had relayed his rendition of the early evening’s accounts, which amounted to a whole lot of pain and terrible torment, but beyond that, nothing too outlandish. Certainly not life threatening. It was an accident really, a terrible, terrible accident, but other than that, nothing screamed foul play. At least not to Jeremiah who now sat in the warmth of the small medical facility just adequately fit to service a town of 400. He was far away from the intolerable discomfort Jonathan was enduring at that very moment, but that didn’t mean he’d forgotten it. That was hardly the case, and while he enjoyed the soothing sensation of the doctor’s burning candle and homely decor, he still quivered. And he still pleaded, “Please Doctor Turner, we’ve got to help him as soon as we can. Really doc, he’s in terrible shape!”
Doctor Turner nodded his head in understanding, but offered a displeased visage to counter. “I’ve got to set a bone Jeremiah. Mrs. Spool broke her wrist today, which is what I was attending to when you arrived.” He noted the displeasure in Jeremiah’s demeanor. “Give me five more ticks and we’ll go get Jonathan out of trouble.”
“But we need to go Doc!” Jeremiah’s frustration teetered on anger.
“Calm down son. I understand your frustration, I really do. And as I said, it won’t take me but five minutes to finish up with Mrs. Spool. The longer we bicker here, the longer it’s going to take to get to your brother. So sit down, try to stay calm. Based on the injuries you’ve described to me, I don’t think your brother is in danger of losing his life. I’m sure he’s in a world of pain, but he’ll live, we’ll get him back here… and then we’ll fix him up.” He gazed at Jeremiah, who exhibited a clearly mounting exasperation, but relented all the same. He nodded his head and thought, no danger of losing his life… you better be right Doc.
“Thomas!” The doctor bellowed moments before a small man with a thick beard entered the room. “Prepare the horse and the flatbed. Jon Belmont’s gotten himself hurt outside of town. We’ve got to get him back here as soon as I’ve sent Mrs. Spool home.”
“But what about Mrs. Spool sir, can you finish the set without me?”
“Of course I can Thomas. I’ve done this a thousand times, and a thousand more before you were ever so much as a twinkle in your mother’s eye. Now put a rush on it. I’d like to have Jon back here within the hour.”
Thomas nodded in understanding and moved with a respectful urgency. Thomas had always been a pleasurable man who shared frequent pleasantries with the Belmont brothers: long discussions in the local pub had built a trust between the three, and Thomas had clearly not forgotten his kinship with the two.
Eyes a deep purple or perhaps black – the evening’s gloom had a wicked way of playing tricks on the eyes – the size of mangos glared down at a paralyzed Jonathan. He shook, make no mistake, but any form of controlled movement was now completely beyond the realm of possibility. His bladder had betrayed him, he hadn’t noticed. Jonathan was glued to hard rock: still aching with pain and now looking at what seemed to be the devil, directly in the face. A wide, opened mouth showcased two rows of razor sharp teeth on the creature’s lower mandible, while larger, but equally sharp flesh eaters lined the upper region of the monster’s jawbone; a single row of hot white knives. Thick strands of saliva dripped from the beast’s mouth, pouring through every fang separated by sizable gap. They almost glisten. The creature’s muzzle could best be compared to that of a horse, a dying, deformed horse: unnaturally lengthened… morbidly stretched in nature. The alcoves of its cheeks (which sat high on its disproportioned head) sunk deeply in the flesh, showing what looked to be an early case of tissue decay. Dark black holes festered in its skin, and a bright green fluid reflected the moonlight, trickling from the open sores. Oddly enough, the creature seemed completely devoid of an actual nose: deprived of one of its senses (if that was indeed the case), the monster still functioned with astounding efficiency. It had tracked him, with ease, after all.
Jonathon allowed the tears to spill from the corners of his eyes. The time to be macho was over. He completely relented, succumbing to the terror before him. He was engaged in a staring contest with the devil himself, and there was no chance of a victory for the broken man. The beast loomed over him, stooping to get a good look at its prey, it’s face just six inches removed from Jonathan’s, it pivoted its head back and forth, as though in deep thought. A deeply personal surveillance that seems to melt into the soul.
It began to change. The ruined flesh of the snout undulated, as though worms took up residence just beneath the skins surface. I’m hallucinating! Bones cracked and shifted within the monster’s face: lower jawbone cracking, twisting in a strange grimace that represented victory rather than uncertainty. The eyes swelled, bulged, and then shrunk, falling deeper into their sockets. Cheekbones ground in their orbits and the creatures head took on an almost human formation for one brief moment, before another hideous adjustment lead to an impossible stretching of the mandibles. The teeth seemed to lengthen.
There was a sound in the distance: men… horses. Jonathon’s hope swelled, and he almost smiled in both defiance and triumph. The monster retreated, a single stride, mug still transforming in continuously horrifying adjustments: it seemed incapable of deciding what mask to wear, though each modification offered heightened fear. Chatter filled the air, and Jonathan knew without a doubt that that was Jeremiah, and yes, that certainly sounded like Doc Turner in tow. The group had made it. He’d spend the rest of his life telling the story, and make no mistake: he’d revel in every moment and seize every opportunity to sensationalize the tale. An unidentifiable urge to burst out in laughter swept over Jonathan. He kept his mouth tightly sealed, jaws clenched in a discomforting fight to not betray sense, and what slight chance of survival he had.
The creature’s rear legs buckled in two places, it sauntered down shrinking into a compact ball of thick skin and muscle – a painfully obvious predatory stance – before pouncing with jarring speed, spreading its mouth wide (still the jaws stretched and twisted) as a man and latching onto Jonathan’s mangled leg. The beast yanked in a violent jerk that again sent bolts of white lightening bouncing through Jonathan’s vision. More bones snapped with the force, a small explosion of sound cracked the evening’s mild din as Jonathan’s screams of agony offered servitude as a dreadful echo. In a single motion he was heaved upward, his body separating from the cold rock in which he’d felt bonded to just moments ago. The monster leapt, a bellowing mess of a man trapped in its jaws, and even in the frantic exchange, floating above ground wobbling on the brink of unconsciousness, Jonathan could see the monster’s spine ripple – What in the name of the devil is that? – pressing hard against its flesh before sinking deep beneath its skin, completely invisible to the naked eye. The descendant darkness of the night turned pitch black as consciousness betrayed Jonathan.
Jeremiah rounded the bend first. His brother’s screams of terror and pain a driving force that propelled him and his horse forward at a frightening rate. But it was too late. The bushes that crept from the roadside stirred violently, and Jeremiah caught a brief glimpse of powerful thighs, outstretched and contorted, catapulting through the foliage. He yanked on his reigns and leapt from his horse, stunned into complete silence and momentary paralysis. No words could describe his emotion, and no description given could put a name to the thing he’d seen delve into the brush.
The mountain descent offered a detrimental slant that petrified the doctor: an unfortunate miscalculation certainly meant death. He loomed over the edge unable to take the first steps required to begin the treacherous task of retrieving if it’s possible at this point Jonathan; Thomas’ demeanor looked the carbon copy. Jeremiah however had already thrown caution to the wind and leapt into the growth, his plummet transitioning into, fall, roll, regain his footing, only to continue his clumsy tumble through thick growth that scratched, smacked and tore at his body and clothing. Something had taken his brother. It was large, quick and strong, and judging by the significantly larger pool of blood that had decorated the cobblestone above a bastardly mural of abstract perversion, it boasted a vicious set of incisors. Knowing so did little to slow the elder Belmont brother, who’d instantaneously resigned himself to the fact that his pursuit would not end until his brother had been retrieved. This time, Jeremiah would live up to the older brother archetype.
A jutting boulder, shrouded in fallen leaves caught Jeremiah off guard: his boot catching on the jagged edge, he fell forward into an ungraceful summersault that gave way to a loosely confined ball of human flesh plowing through a sea of brown and green. His breath leapt from his lungs as a thick tree trunk brought his fall to a halt. The world swam and a vice locked upon his chest cavity. He battled for air, rolled onto his side and clutched his ribs, a few of which were now most certainly broken. Gradually his lungs retracted, expanded, and he took in air in rapid, ragged gasps. Beat up, he’d made it.
He rested on his hands and knees, regaining his wits when suddenly, he noticed blood. More than blood: a bloody mound rest in tangles just fifteen feet away from where he struggled with pain and oxygen deprivation. Butterflies filled his insides, and nausea threatened. The urge to deposit his late lunch overcame him and he vomited violently. Thick strands of half-digested pork roast, potatoes and bile streamed from his lips, splattering the leaves and dirt beneath him. He emptied his stomach, and took to a fit of dry heaves. He knew exactly what that bloody mound was: the ivory white collided with the mess of crimson in an explosion of sickening reality. The carnage could not be confused.
Slowly, devoid of all sustenance to reject, he battled to regain control of his gag reflex as well as his footing. Clutching at his ribcage, which felt as though it had been the target of a cannonball that found its mark, he shambled toward the bright pile that lay in stark contrast to the leaves, a sore for the eye, and much worse for Jonathan.
Any remnants of the pants Jonathan had been wearing had vanished. Not so much as a shred of fabric could be detected through the gnawed limb, not a single fiber. The femur and its surrounding muscle and tissue was nowhere to be scene, but the knee, calf and foot were accounted for… to a degree. The calf had been ripped of skin, and sinewy muscle glistened in a sickening image of red, raw meat. Here and there a piece of the muscle had been completely torn away leaving wiry strings of severed veins dangling, but there was no mistaking the appendage. The foot however, had been completely stripped of not only boot, but of meat as well. Nothing but bone, crushed and mangled, remained. The Cuneiform bones destroyed, the Metatarsus snapped and overlapping in what looked like a mock set piece designed for a grim theater show.
Jeremiah battled another fit of dry heaves, collapsing to his knees, tears brimming in the corners of his eyelids. “Jesus…Lord how c-could this be? What c-could do such a thing?” He stammered over his words, and gazed at the revolting sight before him, disgusted by its savagery, in awe of its magnitude. Whatever had taken Jonathan hadn’t simply been large, fast and strong, it had been ferocious, unbelievably ferocious: vile in its cruelty and remorseless, perhaps completely emotionless. And apparently… it had been hungry.
Jeremiah spun, startled, scanning the woods frantically. Adrenaline had confused his senses and his eyes were forced to regain focus. Further down the mountain, thirty yards away, tangled in a heaping mass of broken branches and wilting leaves of fading bronze lay Jonathan. One bloody hand raised (a digit gone absent without leave), he beckoned to Jeremiah. Silent words escaped his mouth. An agonized grimace spread across his face, which, even from a fair distance, in near-complete darkness, had clearly adopted the sickly pallor of the undead. He looked to be in miserable condition, but somehow, remarkably, he was alive, but time could change that, and urgency struck Jeremiah with the force of an angry mule’s defiant kick.
Further down the slope, shrouded by the earth’s dearest life support, silhouetted against shadowed shards of the rising moon, something heavy stirred. A deep, guttural growl emanated from the descending blackness.
Jeremiah heard the unnatural grumblings from the nearby brush, but he was beyond caring. Survival instinct had overthrown all other senses in his mind and body. He hurled himself down the steep decline and came to rest next to his brother’s severely mutilated body. Long inconsistent gashes defiled his face. Flaps of flesh hung from his cheek and a serrated tear obscured a once faultless neck, made of taut, rippling muscles. Those muscles were indiscernible now, only blood and loose tissue visible. The rest of his body appeared equally sullied, a crushed hull of flesh: his arms now broken, his torso flayed in an offensive mock-surgery. His leg, or what was left of it emitted a steady spurt of blood, squirting in rhythmic pace of his accelerated heartbeat.
Again, the creature in the brush growled. The grinding noise summoned not fear, but rage in Jeremiah, who leapt to his feet in a defiant state he’d never known. “I’m coming for you!” he bellowed, “You damned beast from Hell! I will find you and tear every limb from your body! What you’ve done to my brother will pale in comparison to the torture I will bestow upon you, you god damned devil! I’m coming!”
Visibility now nearing a complete devoid, a maddened Jeremiah knelt and worked to slowly (and painlessly as possible) hoist what remained of Jonathan over his shoulder. The climb back up the mountainside promised a new face of Hell to topple.