This started life as some flavour text for a role-playing character I was putting together for a game of D20 Modern (Dungeons & Dragons, but set in what passes for the modern world). I got a little carried away, and ended up with this highly Cthuloid short story. It's also a good exercise in being horrific.
Note that it is a character background, and is really just an introduction to The Real Adventure, so a lot of things wide open (what our various GMs refer to as 'opportunities to screw us over'). So if you're reading it as a standalone story, you may find the pacing rather odd.
I got to use Bryan, I think, three times: once when we discovered that a burger bar in Reading was actually run by goblins, once when we found that one of the Knights Templar buried in London was actually possessed by demons... and then I got sent to China for a month, so Bryan had to abruptly go off to a mountain retreat for some training, and when I got back I was just in time for the last adventure in the campaign. At least he'd managed to pick up a huge sword and kicked righteous demon arse.
"Do you think they're still following us?" Joseph said.
Bryan wriggled forward a little more to get a better view, and adjusted the focus carefully on his binoculars. A couple of miles away, further down the valley, three of the tall figures were silhouetted against the white rock. They were stooped, peering down at something.
"Can you see anything?"
The rotund geologist's voice wavered. He was terrified, and sweating. He wasn't as unfit as he looked, but they'd been running from these people ever since they'd gotten split from the main party, and the pace was telling.
One of the figures suddenly straightened, and pointed up the valley. Towards them.
"Shit," Bryan muttered, and pulled himself backwards out of the bush. "Come on. They've spotted our trail."
"Hell, Bry, what're we going to do?" Joseph moaned.
"Keep running. Get up."
Bryan paused only briefly to put on his pack, and started trotting up the valley. Behind him, he heard Joseph stumble after him.
They ran and walked alternately. At first Bryan had had to keep holding Joseph back; he had a tendency to run too fast and exhaust himself. After he had exhausted himself, of course, Bryan had to keep pulling the geologist on as he moaned and staggered and shambled along.
About five miles on they found another hiding place.
"Who are they?" Joseph asked plaintively, panting. "What've they done with the others?"
"I don't know," Bryan said shortly. He watched through the binoculars again. Nothing moved, that he could see.
"Why are they chasing us? What have we done?"
Bryan ignored him.
The pack, which was all Joseph had had when the survey team had been attacked, contained a bottle of water, two chocolate bars of the unappetising waxy variety that wouldn't melt in hot weather, a map of the wrong area, and a flashlight. With a flat battery. It had also originally contained a variety of interesting rock samples, which Bryan had immediately thrown away when he had started carrying the pack.
Bryan hadn't had a pack. The only thing he had was a short belt knife, the binoculars around his neck, and a small notebook with a pencil pushed down the spine and a few sketches of birds inside. Even though he had been escorting Joseph Decker, geologist, for a short survey near the camp, he hadn't bothered to take any weapons because there was absolutely no way they could possibly be in any danger. The only reason he'd gone with the man at all was due to standing orders. And the birds, of course.
It was late afternoon, now. Bryan started wondering what would happen when the sun went down.
"Are they there?"
He couldn't see anything. But whoever it was that had been chasing them were unusually quick on their feet.
"Who are they?" Joseph hissed.
Bryan put the binoculars down and crawled back into the little hollow. "Beats me."
"Why would they attack us like that?"
Bryan shrugged. "Who knows? Who cares?"
Joseph's mouth worked silently for a moment. "Who cares? Bry, they attacked us!"
Bryan raised an eyebrow at Joseph. "Yeah. They did. Right now, that's the only important thing. Later we can figure out why. Now we just need to get away. And keep your voice down."
The geologist deflated.
After a moment, he said, "Geoff hired you lot to protect us, right? What was he scared of? Them?"
Bryan shook his head. "Nah. Bandits. They occasionally hole up near here. Haven't seen any, though."
"Maybe that lot ate 'em."
Joseph's mouth twisted, and he turned away.
After a few moments the mercenary crawled back up to the edge of the hollow and had another look with the binoculars. Nothing... no, wait.
Quite a long way away, in a shadow, there was a shape that could almost be a human figure. It moved. It was a figure. The late afternoon sun sloped into the little valley, and the spot wasn't in direct sunlight, and for the first time Bryan saw something more than a silhouette. The figure was very tall and thin, and completely naked, although he couldn't make out any details. Dark skinned, but through the binoculars the colour was unnaturally greyish. When it moved, it seemed to be oddly twisted, and bent as if deformed.
It seemed to cast around, looking for something. Every so often, it would take a few paces and peer down at the ground. Had Bryan and Joseph passed by that way? Bryan rather thought they had. It was obviously trying to spot their trail. Bryan felt his stomach knot; would it find them? But it kept looking, wandering further and further afield, and never seemed to find anything. Eventually it moved away down the valley.
Bryan slipped back into the hollow carefully. Joseph had picked up his tension, and was wide-eyed and sweating.
"I think they've lost us," Bryan said.
"Oh, thank god," Joseph breathed. "Now what?"
"Now we wait for about an hour and then move slowly and carefully away into more cover," Bryan said. "Once there, we find somewhere to spend the night. Tomorrow, we decide whether to keep going back to town or head back to the camp."
"We can't walk back to the town!" Joseph said. "It's fifty miles!"
"Tomorrow," said Bryan with emphasis, "we decide. Now we wait. Try to sleep, you need it."
Joseph's mouth shut again.
They made it away without any trouble, and eventually holed up for the night in a shallow cave in the hills. They'd passed a stream, much to their relief, and had drunk and refilled the water bottle. Joseph wanted to stay there, but Bryan had pointed out that the noise of the water would make it hard to hear anyone approaching.
They slept fitfully, keeping alternate watches.
At about three in the morning, during Bryan's watch, the sound of gunfire echoed across the hills.
Joseph's eyes snapped open. He said nothing.
"It's miles away," Bryan said quietly. "It could be anywhere."
The distant shots rattled and popped disjointly, their sound becoming slurred and distorted across the distance. Single shots, Bryan thought; hand guns, no doubt. It went on for about thirty seconds, and then an automatic burped once, twice, and then after a pause, three times. There was silence. Three more single shots. Then nothing.
"What was that?" Joseph breathed.
"Probably Sean's AK47," Bryan said. "Can't think of anyone else who'd have a semiauto round here."
"But what happened?"
Bryan shrugged again, uselessly in the dark. "Sounded a bit like they drove something off."
"Do you think they're all right?"
"Maybe." And then, "Go to sleep."
At about five in the morning, Joseph woke him. "Listen."
Bryan lay there, eyes open. Nothing.
"Shooting?" he said eventually.
"No," Joseph said. His voice was tight. "It's stopped..." And then Joseph's hand clenched his shoulder.
Somewhere across the hills something was screaming.
It was a thin, reedy sound. Clearly a voice, but it wasn't like anything Bryan had heard before. The sound rose and fell, and rose and fell, wavering and lilting and echoing wierdly. Bryan very slowly climbed to his feet and scanned the horizon. It was dead black. Not a single light relieved their isolation. Above, thin cloud even blocked the stars.
"What is that?" Joseph said. He sounded nearly hysterical. Bryan did not reply.
Finally, the sound began to die away... but before it could fade completely, it was joined by another. And another. And, after about ten more seconds, yet another. Now there were three voices, and they clashed against each other in horrible, skin-tingling harmonies. The terrible sound filled the landscape, sourceless but omnipresent. Bryan and Joseph stood silently, paralysed in shock, as the unholy discord slowly reached a climax, and began to fade. One by one, the voices died away and ceased, and then the night was silent again.
The two men lay awake until morning.
"Should we go back to the camp?" Joseph asked.
"Something's moving out there," Bryan said.
Joseph bit his lip. "Yes," he said, and then, "What?"
"I don't know," Bryan said. "I really don't know."
"What can we do?"
"We can keep going," Bryan said. "Get away from this. Fifty miles isn't far, we can walk back in a week or so. We could send the police out."
"Or we could go back," Joseph said.
"To do what?"
"...we could help the others?"
"What with?" Bryan said. "We're unarmed. They've got weapons. Sean's got an automatic, for god's sake. What can we do?"
Joseph blinked. "Yeah... yeah."
They headed on, making steady progress, keeping under cover and in sheltered valleys, and looked back over their shoulders frequently. The ate the chocolate bars for breakfast, and at about noon Bryan found some bushes with edible berries. They picked as many as they could and filled the pack.
In the light of day the fears of the night seemed distant, but potent nevertheless. The valleys were very quiet. The desolate rocky slopes, pale in the sun, the spiny bushes and scrubby trees... nothing ever moved. Even the birds were subdued.
There was another stream nearby. Bryan put the pack down, took out the water bottle, now empty, and said, "We'd better get moving. Drink first, though."
Joseph looked around as well, and nodded. "Yeah." He wandered down to the stream, and stooped to cup the water. Bryan stepped behind a tree to piss and started fumbling with his trousers.
There was a thunk and a scream from Joseph, and excited shouts and splashing. Bryan dropped to the ground, and crawled forward. Joseph had fallen in the stream and was thrashing around, curled around something sticking out of his abdomen, tipped with bright feathers. Figures were charging down the stream from further up. Bryan cursed. They'd had the bad luck to run into a party of their attackers.
There were lots of them. Bryan hurriedly crawled back out of sight, and buried himself in the deepest bush he could find.
Down in the stream, Joseph's screams took shape: "Bryan! Bryan! Help me!"
The splashing grew nearer. Joseph suddenly stopped screaming, and then started again; more panicked now, more hysterical. There was a brief commotion, and more shouting from different voices, strange sounding ones, speaking a language Bryan did not recognise. There were jubilant cries, and bloodthirsty roars that were frankly terrifying, and then a louder, deeper voice shouted them down. It said something rich in gutteral noises, and more enthusiastic shouts went up, drowning out Joseph's cries; and then the whole party charged away downstream, taking Joseph with him. His voice dwindled into the distance.
Bryan lay there and shook for a good half hour before crawling out of the bush. The place was empty now; the only sign of their presence was mud in the stream, and a bloodstain on a rock in the middle, now slowly being washed away by the lapping ripples. Bryan stood alone, and looked one way along the stream, and then the other. Upstream led towards the town, and safety, probably. Joseph had been taken the other way.
After a while he swore, and started trudging downstream, following the muddy trail.
The band moved quickly, and didn't seem to worry about leaving a trail. This was a good thing, as Bryan found that he could not keep up with them. Eventually he stopped trying. If he was going to help Joseph, he'd just have to hope that they wouldn't do anything to him until Bryan got there.
The few glimpses he'd had of the band showed that Joseph had had his hands and feet tied together, and had been slung over a pole, being carried by two members of the party. He was probably still alive; Bryan thought he had seen him move. And every so often he found fresh blood.
They were heading straight back to the camp, of course.
He followed the trail, trying to move as quickly as possible while staying reasonably hidden. It became quickly obvious that he wasn't going to get to whereever they were going before sunset. He started moving more quickly, scrambling through the scrub, slithering on rocky slopes; but when the sun did go down, the equatorial night fell suddenly.
Bryan stumbled on a bit further nevertheless, but it was simply too dark. There was no moon and the thin cloud masked the starlight. All he could see was the black of the landscape and the faintest grey of the sky, and nothing else.
...no. There were lights. All around, faint, bobbing, flickering lights. A long way off and moving slowly... torches? They were all heading in the same direction, towards the camp.
Bryan fell to the ground and, working by touch, crawled into the nearest bush. He suddenly realised who they'd been found by; not one of their pursuers, but a band that had been summoned. They had run into each other simply because they were both following the same path, in different directions. He cursed. He should have known better than that. But that also meant that another party might be following along behind him. He crawled on his hands and knees through the thorns, lacerating his hands and face, trying to get into cover.
There was sound now, coming from the direction of the camp. Shouts and drumming, very faint. Something was flickering, too, but from where Bryan was, all he could tell was that it was a fire of some kind.
He cowered in the bush, hoping that no one would come close enough to find him, mouth dry and heart pounding. The mercenary simply wasn't used to being so helpless. If he'd had a weapon in his hand... he thought longingly of the pistol he should have had with him, that he'd left in his tent. One of these tribesmen, or whoever they were, probably had it now.
The lights streamed past, one after another. Soon the night was dark again, although the glow up ahead was brightening. The drumming was getting louder, too, and he could hear more voices. Shouts, although something about the voices sent cold crawling down Bryan's spine. Something was happening.
He glanced around desperately. Nothing. The world was inky black, except for the faintest of greys that was the sky, and the mounting fire-glow up ahead. Bryan crawled out of his cover, hoping that no-one was going to come up behind him, and tried to make some progress, any progress towards the camp... but after a few yards of blind fumbling the ground gave way beneath him and he fell, rocks clattering all around, down some sort of gully. The noise was incredible. He lay stunned at the bottom, soil pattering down on his head, certain that someone would have heard him.
Bryan desperately tried to shake off the effects of the fall and find a way to climb out, but the darkness was absolute and the sides of the gully were soft and crumbled when he tried to put his weight on them. He seemed to be trapped there. Bryan felt his breathing tighten and something seemed to constrict his heart; the idea of being penned in this little hole until the tribesmen came to fetch him seeemed intolerable... but nobody did come to find him. Eventually he began to hope that the noise of their celebration, which was now quite loud, had masked his fall.
Still, he couldn't get out in the dark. He would have to wait until dawn.
He lay there and listened to the noise from the camp. He'd heard a mob once, in a tinpot dictatorship in Africa; he'd been a security consultant there, too. He liked protecting people. This one had been a senior engineer at an oil company, overseeing the construction of... something, he couldn't remember exactly; things had turned sour, and the mob had come for their blood, and Bryan and his colleagues had had to whisk the engineer away.
This lot sounded similar to that mob, but different. Just as blood-thirsty, but there was something... strange... about them. There were harmonics there that disturbed him.
He lay and listened, waiting for the moment when he would realise someone was coming for him. He tried not to think about Joseph, caught up in the middle of it all.
By the time the sky began to lighten, all the noise had stopped. It had reached a climax sometime in the early morning, in blood-thinning howls and screams of unholy delight, and then faded away. The firelight seemed to have faded too, what he could see of it from down here.
Bryan leapt to his feet. As the light began to gather around him, he strained his eyes to study the walls of the gully... there! So obvious now he could see, but he'd missed it completely in the dark: a rocky outcrop projecting through the crumbly soil. A few seconds later, adrenaline pumping through his veins, he was out of the gully and running.
The ground seemed to flow past him effortlessly. Faintly, he was aware that he hadn't eaten for a while and was a bit light-headed. It didn't seem to matter right now. Hours of pent-up frustration and terror from being trapped in that gully charged his muscles. He knew he'd pay for it later, but right now he just had to get there.
As he began to approach the campsite, rationality returned, and he began to be very aware that he was running towards an enclave of extremely dangerous and vicious people who had probably just tortured Joseph to death. He slowed, and began to move cautiously.
The camp, though, seemed to be completely silent. He sidled up to it, and suddenly noticed a faint trail of smoke in the paling sky; to his delight, he realised that the tribesmen had had their... festival... a few hundred yards away from the survey team's campsite. Had they disregarded the camp entirely? They had. It had been ransacked, of course, and there was debris and broken equipment strewn everywhere, but the tents were still there! His tent was still there!
Bryan crawled up behind it. The front pole had been broken, but the back was still upright, more or less. He cut his way through the synthetic material with his belt knife, and moments later was cradling his gun in sheer delight. It was a Colt Defender .45; not the .45, just a .45, a modern pistol made of hi-tech alloys with a stubby barrel. It didn't look like much and back home people used it for target shooting. But it was light, accurate and comparatively powerful and you could get the ammunition everywhere and right now he'd never seen anything quite as beautiful.
He put the belt on, scrabbled through his gear (untouched, surprisingly; he'd have thought they'd have at least opened the bags) and found some spare clips, which he stuffed into his pockets. Then, weapon in hand, he moved out.
The campsite was deserted. He took no chances, though, and crawled back the way he came, and crept through the bush surrounding the festival grounds. There was an unnerving smell; rotten meat, combined with something burnt, with an overtone of something else he couldn't identify but which nevertheless turned his stomach.
The country here was more thickly wooded than it had been up in the hills; the survey team had camped in a natural clearing, and the festival grounds were in a bigger clearing nearby. When Bryan reached it, peering carefully through the thick bushes, he saw that it was a rough oval. The big bonfire was at one end, now guttering out and trailing smoke thinly into the sky. The other end was littered with unconscious bodies, daubed grey with paint. In the middle...
Bryan found himself standing and pushing his way out of the bushes. His world narrowed around him so all he saw was the thing in front of him.
Joseph's long bones, from his legs and arms, had been arranged in a wide triangle on the ground. Inside that triangle, his intestines had been carefully arranged to form a circle; ribs and fingers formed rays between the circle and the triangle. Inside the circle, the rest of his major organs had been placed with meticulous care, each one connected to the next in spirals and lines drawn in blood. Uncomfortable symbols had been inscribed everywhere. Every wet surface was covered in a thick, shifting mat of flies; they crawled and writhed, following the lines, picking out the shapes, cycling endlessly around the spirals.
Joseph's head had been left relatively untouched. It had been carefully mounted on a pole at the apex of the triangle, facing outwards, trailing a length of spinal column; Bryan could see where the skin had been carefully cut around the neck. As if hypnotised, Bryan moved around the triangle, gun in hand. Joseph's face was dead white, twisted and bloody, his eyes staring endlessly into space.
They shifted. The head blinked, slowly, painfully. The clouded eyes strained to focus on Bryan, and an expression of vast bewilderment gathered on the face. The lips moved.
"Bryan," Joseph's voice whispered. "Bryan. They ate me, Bryan..."
The gun barked in Bryan's hand, and the head dissolved in a spray of pink matter. Beyond, the carpet of flies suddenly rose, buzzing, and swooped on Bryan. He ducked, but the swarm scattered and dispersed.
He backed away from the abhorrent display, eyes wide, mind frozen, until he fell backwards over something; one of the tribesmen. The figure stirred and began to rise. The grey skin wasn't paint. It hung loosely, scaled, deeply wrinkled, over limbs that bent in the wrong places. Its hairless head turned to look at Bryan, and he got a brief impression of tiny red eyes, a nose that was simply two slits, and a mouth that bulged with irregular, needle-sharp teeth, and then he shot it, too; the figure thumped back onto the ground.
Bryan stared wildly about him. There were hundreds of the things all around, some of whom were moving. He raised the pistol, wavered, and then turned and ran. Behind him the sounds of confusion grew, and then suddenly a cry of terrible, inhuman despair rose, which quickly became a chorus. He ran from it in total panic. Nothing followed him.
He found the rest of the survey team later that day. They'd set up some basic fortifications around the Landrovers; Sean said that they had been waiting to see if Bryan and Joseph would make it back, and that he'd been trying to decide whether to send out a search party or head back and let the police deal with it. Bryan reported Joseph's death, but didn't tell them what happened. Instead he made something up Joseph being shot with an arrow.
When Bryan led a large team of heavily-armed police and soldiers back to the place later, they found that all traces of the creatures had vanished. All they found was the ransacked camp, the abandoned festival ground, and a pile of burnt bones that were identified as Joseph Decker's. All signs of the blasphemous altar had gone. They searched the area, but there was nothing.
The authorities were suspicious, of course, and questioned both the mercenaries and the survey team at length, but eventually they were let go. The official word on the incident was that they'd been attacked by some indigenous tribe passing through the area; unless they showed up again, there wasn't anything they could do. They were terribly sorry, of course, for the loss of the survey team member, but they had warned the party that the area was not secured...
Bryan flew home as soon as he could. He wanted an ocean between him and that place.
Later, in a bar in London, he ran into Sean. This was not unusual; it was one of their places, when they were in the city.
"I've been looking for you," Sean said, after the usual greetings and first couple of rounds of drinks. "I've been wanting to check up on you. When you came back to the camp, you seem pretty out of it."
"I don't want to talk about it," Bryan said.
"Maybe you should."
Sean was in his fifties, with grey hair that was fading rapidly to white and a brown, leathery face. Behind the face was a mind like a diamond razor and vast, vast experience. What he might lack in strength he more than made up in sheer cunning. Bryan had worked for Sean on many occasions in the past; they thought alike.
"These things happen, you know," Sean said, not unsympathetically. "I've lost people. It's hard, but you can't let it get to you. It just... happens, from time to time."
"Does it?" Bryan said abruptly. "Does it really? It just happens?"
Sean opened his mouth, eyed Bryan oddly, and closed it again. He waved at the bartender for another drink.
"Bryan," he said quietly. "I think you should tell me what really happened."
"What do you mean?" Bryan said, looking up from his glass.
"You know what I mean," Sean said. "Talk."
Bryan blinked. "No way."
Four drinks later, he told Sean the entire story, almost crying into his glass. Sean didn't make any comment, just nodded periodically. When he finished, there was a long silence, and then Sean finished his drink and stood up.
"I believe you," he said simply, and patted Bryan on the shoulder. "Hang in there. I'll be in touch."
Then he left.
About a week later, in a different bar, a stranger approached Bryan.
"Bryan Krubb?" said the man. He was a grey, featureless figure in a conservative suit, and had a briefcase. He looked like a cliché walking. "Called 'The Snail', for reasons that escape me?"
"Yeah?" said Bryan warily. "What?"
"I'd like to have a word with you," the man said. "Don't worry, it's nothing bad. I just want to discuss some of your recent experiences with you."
Bryan stiffened. "Who are you?" he said.
The man pulled out an I.D. card. "Here." There was a holographic picture of the man, an embossed crown, a lot of computer coding, and blazoned across the front the letters 'O.W.D.' There was no name. He looked at Bryan's expression of confusion, sighed, and said, "I work for the government. May I sit down?"
Bryan grudgingly moved over. The man sat, opened the briefcase, and pulled out an envelope. "Look at this."
Inside the envelope was a glossy black-and-white photo. When Bryan saw it, his heart nearly stopped, but the inhuman figure pictured was lying unthreateningly on a dissection table.
"Where did you get this?" he whispered.
"Somewhere rather a long way from where you saw them," the man said. "Which is why we'd like to talk to you about it. Don't worry, the only people who know of your involvement in this matter are me, my immediate boss, and your immediate boss. Everything you say will be entirely confidential. I'm not even going to make notes. For obvious reasons we don't really want to make this sort of thing public."
Bryan stared at him. "Why should I talk to you?"
The man sighed again. "I entirely sympathise, believe me... but in the interests of expediency, I would just like to say four things: firstly, there's a lot of weird shit going on; secondly, when weird shit happens to you, for some reason it tends to keep happening to you; thirdly, when it happens to you again I think you'd really like some help; and fourthly... I'm going to give you quite a lot of money. To be honest, given your talents, we may want to put some business your way further down the line. If you want it, of course."
Bryan continued to stare at the man. "You don't sound like you work for the government."
The figure smiled thinly. "Let's just say that once you've stared into the mouth of hell you don't have a lot of patience for red tape any more."
The man silently drew out a piece of paper from the briefcase and gave it to Bryan. It was a banker's draft, made out to 'Bearer'. There was no name, just an account number. Bryan looked at the figure written on it and blinked.
"Naturally, one of the things that's going to pay for is your silence."
Bryan looked up. "I think it'll be a pleasure doing business with you. What would you like to know?"
They smiled thin, hard, dangerous smiles at each other. And then the man from the government went to the bar, and bought quite a lot of drinks.