The cave was less than half-a-day’s hike from our camp and the whispers, once frightening, were now dissolving into the hazy background of a soft whiskey euphoria as sleep found me easily. I dreamt of nothing and moved not an inch now that my mind and body and spirit were finally in a state of placid agreement with one another. It wasn’t until a pressure in my bladder demanded relief that I, unable to ignore it any longer, lurched from the forest floor to relieve myself. Those precipitous few hours of slumber felt like a million years to my aching body and as my path cleared me from eye-shot of the camp, I was eager to return to my sac for another million. Whether the bodiless whispers had ultimately surrendered or they had droned on for such a length of time that my subconscious buried them deep under the rugose layers of perception, I cannot say, but with my senses no longer enslaved to those cruelly cacophonous, messaging murmurs, I was able to once again focus on the task at hand and the task ahead.
By the diminishing glow of the light-sticks, I was nestling into my sleep-sac when I noticed something that faintly disquieted me. I gathered together both lights in hopes of making a larger, brighter globe to reveal the truth that my eyes had just been playing tricks on me. I held the faint light over my head and, after a brisk search of the grounds, I gave a hushed call to my partner. The faint disquiet swelled into physical tremors when, after a sharp rustling of his bag, the truth was that Werner was gone. Had he been there when I awoke? I had no firm answer to that question and I called for him again.
A mocking breeze shuffled through the camp and that’s when I noticed something flapping gently where the green light vanished into the cusp of midnight. Of all the suffocating uncertainties swarming my thoughts in that moment, I knew, with absolute conviction, that the dismal, faded orange tape at which I was presently staring, had not been there minutes before.
In a rare moment of clarity, I disregarded the sticks for the much more effective flashlight lying near my feet. I washed its beam over Werner’s area to find the handle of his machete protruding from underneath his blanket-pillow, but the fulgent bar of light revealed few more answers than did the fading, green light; however, I was able to clearly see that the nearest end of the tape had been triple-knotted around a sizeable branch of one of the cypress trees that made up the boundary of our outpost. I struggled against my quivering muscles to keep the light still as I walked it down the length of tape to where the forest gathered it into a darkness I feared bottomless, or at least of a much deeper register than any explored by living eyes.
I positioned the flashlight so that it crossed the handle of the machete like an ad hoc sword-guard and stepped toward the tree with my free hand extended. Whether or not the tape was a manifest object and not just some whiskey-induced, sleep-deprived, figment of terror, the dry shivers that shot from my fingertips and up to my jaw, upon touching it, confirmed that it was indeed real. I called for my partner again; less for an answer and more to just hear another voice, even if it was my own. By that point, though, I hadn’t needed him to respond to understand in which direction I could find him. The tape would provide that answer.
After roughly seventy-five feet of following the taut strip from tree to tree, along delicate gradients of the land, and being wildly dislocated from my sense of direction, not unlike my compass’ needle, our wooded court was fully out of the reach of the flashlight; everything captured within its lucid glow became my entire world. I gripped the tape as if it was the sole lifeline out of that forsaken jungle and continued on.
It didn’t take long for my newly-evolved hearing to pick up on a fatigued voice, mumbling strings of broken, pained sentences from an indeterminable distance in front of me. That the sound was coming from my partner, I was almost positive, but to keep my position and singularity concealed, until I knew for certain that it was him, I clicked off the flashlight. The night set in around me with such fever and dominance that I was forced to suppress a rogue wave of panic at the thought that I had been thrust into permanent sightlessness.
During the time I had spent learning from Professor Werner, both up close and at afar, I never knew him to be anything other than a venerable, didactic man, but when his sustained cry plundered the stygian reticence of the forest, my knees turned to putty and a sorrowed understanding flowed in my veins. Stealth be damned; I clicked the flashlight back on, using its beam to expose my path and using the tape to lead me to him.
Still further, deeper into the unknown, the line directed me around countless more trees and through arching root systems under which I had to nearly crawl on my hands and knees to get past. I feared my journey would never come to an end. That was, until, I hit a sudden stop where the line dove under the edge of a dirtless, treeless field of obsidian, broken in places by the forces of immense tectonic pressure. My light played off the slate, razor-sharp boulders and mini-chasms, giving the entire area an illusion of gaping wounds in the earth. The range of the electric bulb faded at the opposite shore of the field to me and there, flapping in the mountain’s breath, the orange ribbon jutted out from the rocks, disappearing once again into the darkness beyond.
How on earth did he manage this? I thought. Did he simply burrow under the rocks? No. Of course not. Did he reach the other side of this clearing, only to have a sheer cliff collapse over his marker? Surely, I would have heard such a commotion, even from the distance of our camp. If there ever was a grander, more cosmic term for the word “confused”, I was it. Admittedly, I am no geologist, but Eric Werner is no mole-man, either. There was no godly explanation for it. Then again, that sylvan abyss welcomes no god and sets no place for rationality and that the sole purpose for its existence was to charm and deceive, confuse and destroy, I was becoming painfully aware. I wiped a long rope of sweat from my forehead and deduced that, in its current state, the scabrous terrain was far too treacherous to attempt passage on foot. I was going to need a different route to the other side.
For good measure, I tugged on the tape again, but it held fast to its station under the strata and it proffered as many unanswered questions as the forest had. So too did my pitiful calls for Werner elucidate not a glimmer of hope or direction; my words simply skated across the churning, black, glassiness of the rock sea, lost forever to misty foothills of Mount Fuji, now having entirely consumed the sky and the firmament where Zohak, the serpent-shouldered demon, the marine lord, Dagon, and Zaqar, the messenger god of dreams hold tyrannical province upon its immemorial face. Through eons of gray derision and merciless corteges across the psyche of men and gods alike, the great mountain of doom, the terrible mountain of madness, the supreme steward of a realm from whence only pain and suffering derive, bespoke muted conspiracies to the world; conspiracies that have led persons much stronger than myself to a most calamitous end.
Werner’s sobbing taunted me from across the stony meadow and the flailing tape only served to emphasize his woe.
“Eric!” I bellowed, convinced that I was signaling my presence to all the monsters of the forest. “Eric! I’m coming.”
In order to maintain a grip on what tenuous bearings I had left, I trained my light on the exposed tape at the other side of the field and did not move it as I navigated through the trees, in a tight circle, around the impasse.
Upon reaching the opposite side, I noticed that the tape was not only projecting up and out of where the border of obsidian met the earth, but it was also shooting down a steep embankment that was not previously exposed by my light. I scanned the declivity to see that the tape had been tied off at quick intervals of every three to four feet and while those anchor-points were mere saplings, I knew that they were sturdy enough to function as a railing for my descent.
At the base of the hill, the tape continued on for an additional hundred feet before it abruptly ended, with the last few feet dangling from the trunk of an ancient, rotting fir. A wispy breeze blew it aside as if opening a hallowed gate to a clearing situated inside the cleft, stretching roots of the eldest of all Jomon Sugi trees. I marveled at the size of the thing.
The crown of the leafy beast was untouchable by my artificial light and its branches, unhindered by the restraints of time and the influence of man, grew thick and lustrous, nearly touching the ground under their own weight. Its gnarly trunk grew out of the harsh soil more like a mountainous column of rock than of any timber I recognized and of its circumference, I could only conjecture; although, somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty feet sounds about right. My light slowly drifted down from dazzling upon the twisted limbs, and sheer enormity of the behemoth, to land on Werner, kneeling at the foot of the tree where shadows once prevailed. His head was tilted up to something obscured from my view by the knotted trunk.
In a movement more frail than I had hitherto seen from him, he extended a hand to whatever the thing so vehemently holding his attention was, as if entirely too frightened to touch it. His internal pain manifested as trembling fingers, pale skin, and eyes dislocated from their surroundings and far beyond the ability to cry any longer. In a lone, desolate syllable, Eric pierced the mountain’s heart and put my own on ice. “Why?”
He acknowledged none of my questions, or even my presence, as I closed the gap between us. My view crossed the ancient, wooded rampart, and I shone the light to see the point of Eric’s concentration. He was only a few feet away, but I had no doubt that his spirit drifted among the stars, out of reach from even the great mountain.
“What is it, Professor?” I asked, unsure if I could even stomach an answer.
My body vibrated with a panicked near-faint when I saw another hand, distinctly female and bizarrely aged, reaching down to grace the tips of his outstretched fingers with its own. To my eyes, it appeared that the woman was levitating many feet off the ground from where Eric was kneeling. The ghastly hem of her nightgown rippled as a humid breeze swayed her to and fro and the sheer fabric from which it was fashioned hinted vaguely at the collocation of a decaying skeleton underneath. Over facial features, I prayed never to be revealed, was a membranous peel of oily hair that bobbed in unison to the swaying and I learned that she wasn’t levitating at all. A single filament of rope tethered her neck to a branch some twenty feet up.
“How did this happen?” Eric asked, finally noticing my presence, but without facing me. “Oh, Aileen.”
Like my father, and his father before him, and all the men of Hurston blood, my fright and confusion turned to misplaced anger. “Damn it, Eric. Stop this nonsense. Get up and come with me now! That thing is not your wife. It isn’t real. None of that is real. Let’s go.”
Under dying skin, her brittle bones snapped as they curled inward, gripping Eric’s hand. He rose to his feet, but still needed to look up to see her face. “Why, Aileen? Why?”
“She didn’t do anything! We are leaving this place.” I was nearly yelling as I jerked him back, protecting and pushing him to the other side of the tree, out of the mesmerizing gaze of that abomination.
For a moment, life, logic, and the rationality Eric Werner was famous for returned to his eyes. It was the most pleasing sight I had seen since the last specks of home disappeared through the airplane window. The professor laid his hands over mine holding the flashlight, and swung its beam back and forth across the imposing forest ahead.
“This is not right” he remarked in confused breathlessness. “Where is the camp? Where are we, for that matter?”
“The camp?” I repeated, almost laughing at the ridiculous notion. “Forgive me, professor, but we are getting the fuck out of this forest. Tonight.”
“But we can’t” he tried to argue. “The Jade—“
“–You said it yourself, ‘This is not our land’ and I’ve become fine with that. Now, go.” Assuming control of the light, I urged him toward the slackened trail-marker at the bottom of the hill. At that moment, I cared little for any consequences of returning home empty-handed.
I ascended the rough hillside first in order to help pull Werner over the top and when I gave a final glance back toward the clearing, Aileen was standing in front of the massive tree, flanked on both side by more than a dozen similar phantasms. Besides three of them whose necks had been snapped so brutally, by handmade nooses, that their heads lay gravely against their chests, the rest were focused on our exit from the place. Manifest terror constricted my body and my glimpse was fleeting, but what I saw was no less than five woman, six men, and worse still, a few children. No two of the spirits were of the same age, or in identical collocations of death, but their frozen abhorrence gave them a hive-minded, platoon identity as they silently declared that area was wholly off-limits to us. I did not need to hear any words they could have possibly spoken to drive Eric and I faster along the blazoned trail; their hellishly sad and lifeless eyes were incentive enough.
We heeded the trail-marker’s direction, save the vitreous field of obsidian out of which disquieted, apparitional specters leaked into the world from the many flumes and fissures that afflicted the inky tract. Although I did not doubt Werner’s inability to remember how he arrived at that tree, where I found him, the voyage there must have left some variety of imprint on his mind because for the first few hundred yards, I had trouble keeping up with the old man as he fleeted over the tumultuous deck of the forest, rarely using the tape for guidance. I knew we were nearing the edge of the campsite when a dying, green glow caught my eyes as it sneaked its way through the undergrowth.
“There” Werner hissed, pointing at the dull beacon. “There it is, Edward. Only grab the essentials; leave everything else.”
I responded not, mainly due to the fact that, like him, I was already focused on absconding from that wicked jungle with as much of our gear as possible while not impeding our progress. It was then, about sixty feet from our primitive encampment, that I saw something that poisoned my blood and sent my heart into a dimension of bleakness. I feared Werner, in his ill-constrained dither, was ignorant to the horrific thing at which I was staring, so I made a quick, but dangerous move to stop him.
Recklessly closing the space between us, over snagging roots and brittle stone that threatened to give way underfoot, I covered his mouth from behind and dragged him sideways to the cover of the nearest tree with enough girth to shelter both of us from view. He kicked and struggled against my grasp, but it was too firmly planted to let a single, profane exclamation cross his lips. At my actions, his eyes bulged, looking at me with confusion and panic, but mostly great anger. That was, until, I turned his head in the direction of the camp.
In my countless retellings of this story, over the years, I have detailed what Werner and I saw in the camp many different ways, but I can assure you that it is not out of dishonesty or embellishment. It is for no other reason than I am convinced that I was so polluted by the sight of the thing, my mind has patently refused accurate recollection; like scattered pieces of a puzzle which, in the unlikely event of their assembly, the hideous image depicted would rain down on my subconscious a madness so intense as to render me nothing more than another one of the babbling, drooling, invalids kept within the unlit walls of the Arcadia Valley Asylum for the Incurable Insane.
That the abhorrent monstrosity, skulking and rooting and searching for our scents around the perimeter of the camp, was birthed from any terrene dimension known to man, or even scribed within the odious doctrines of Mar Fangroth, Aleister Crowley, or the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, I was finding insoluble.
Equating the entire body of the thing as one, singular unit, to anything you or I or anyone else might recognize, would be to omit the more heinous details so prodigiously malformed that they fell into no classification of man or beast, alive or dead, ever known to exist. Of its origin, I could only scarcely conjecture, but I was confident that its location to the colossal mountain of depravity, was by no accord of luck. It was altogether a creature displaying the aspects of a prehistoric lineage from a hundred-million years ago, a hundred-million years from now, and from the lapping shores of every damnable nightmare.
No exaggeration should be assumed when I say this sentinel creature stood at over ten feet tall and I beheld the upper half of its body only during those moments in which it stooped into the hazy, green light to snatch one of our tools, or sacs, or food containers from the ground, instantly discarding the items it deemed unsatisfactory. Its bulk was supported by two legs of gargantuan size with throbbing muscles seemingly chiseled from Mount Fuji itself and despite being covered in a sickly layer of brown hair, the definition of said muscles was easily discernable. However, if our present situation were to result in a foot-race, I was positive we could have outran the thing; legs like that are built for strength, and long-term, sustained occupation, not for speed or agility. The legs terminated at a pair of feet – if you can indeed call them such – which were in no manner comparable to any that have ever walked this earth. They were a malignant aggregation of lumpy, horse-type hooves, wholly elephantine in size and width and the color of mildew, with a trio of similarly-colored talons, each a full foot in length, protruding from the back.
I could not tell if it was fright or astonishment that forced Werner to let out an audible gasp, probably a bit of both, but I instantly regretted the decision to release my hold on his mouth. The beast snarled at the sound and dropped on all fours, squinting those lid-less, reptile eyes in our direction. Under those emerald marbles, two nearly vertical slits opened and closed at regular intervals and I wouldn’t be incorrect in assuming them to be nostrils by the way they flared with a visible condensation every time it took a breath. The scape of its bust was entirely hair-free, and cracked, grotesquely scaled skin, like that of a bleached alligator, grew tight in the areas covering its neck, face, shoulders which were but muscular globes, and most of the cranium where parallel lines of small, bony spikes had yet to breach its pallor. Upon first glance, I counted a dozen of the aforementioned spikes, but there were assuredly more of them for, once, the beast turned its head to the side, sweeping the area with its doubtless superior olfactory senses, and I saw them run up and over the length of its skull and down its back before disappearing into the shadows to join the rest of its blasphemous form. From its face, I rendered forth no classification belonging solely to any one order of primate or avian or reptile as it traits seemed borrowed from all of them, possibly more.
Werner’s childlike exuberance, over the unknown beast, was distracting, and it would have been entertaining if not for the source of his marveled whimsy. “By god” he said. I jerked to cover his mouth again, but stopped short when I saw the surprise on his face at how those words slipped out, uninvited. While I agreed with the sentiment, those words were incorrect in their assumptions; by no compassionate, loving deity would a monster such as that be allowed to patrol the world of Man; through no sanctuary should that beast have the freedom to tread. No, that brute of primeval terror and deformities could have only been fashioned inside a stone womb, a sepulcher from before you and me and time and, perhaps, the cosmos itself, yet carved by the beating, hateful heart deep inside the mountain. The creature exuded a raw, inexplicable power that could turn the earth into a graveyard.
That the monster possessed a traditional mouth, was something that was lost on me until its thin lips spread apart, in a slow, deliberate motion, exposing a void the size of a human’s head. It wasn’t a complete void, however, as I noticed a set of four, long and powerful canines; the biggest pair grew down and over a smaller pair on the bottom and filling in the remainder of its mouth were rectangular, yellowed teeth that looked like miniature tree stumps, from our distance. The beast sniffed the air again, and then clapped his teeth together three times in rapid succession, producing a rather sharp, churlish sound like that of applauding bone-claves. Every muscle in my body tightened at the clacking enfilade which was an obvious communication from this king to the rest of the forest inhabitants, and I speak for both of us when I say that we were nearly plunged into the mental abyss to which we were already perilously close. But what replied to its signaling clatter, in a cosmic solution of anti-language, was no less than a congregation of whispering voices, so drenched with malice that they completed the task.
“Kabiinto” Werner spoke with both amazement and unadulterated fear.
The culmination of that night’s terrors were too much for my partner of normally-reliable fortitude and he ran. He ran for his life, driven by mad legs clearly bereft of direction, and disappeared into the shadows of the forest. I had no choice but to follow him. Off our distempered frenzy, the beast jerked upright and alert, clacked his teeth together once more, and then took to the trees in pursuit, deriding my earlier preconceptions of its agility.