From the publisher: “The end of times hadn’t been the end of times. It wasn’t even the end of Pittsburgh. But what else to call it? Heaven and Hell and all the other planes had opened up on Earth and the battle was fought. But then it ended, and everything was still here, albeit with a few new additions to the taxonomy… As this story begins, Del Ballantine, monster hunter, arrives in a small mountain town to help with an infestation. He soon learns it won’t be easy.”
The woods were dead silent. Even Tempest’s hoofbeats were muted in the dewy leaves, like she was tiptoeing. She’d been making these treks for about five years, since Ariana Coleman was 16. The human girl had the small town blues, among other things. Got her kicks from ringing death’s doorbell and running. Tempest was used to it, and if she’d been able to talk, would’ve said she enjoyed the thrill too.
The sun, still behind the mountains, lit the sky enough to see, even in those woods where the leaves had begun to change and fall. Ariana preferred the dull blue glow to the contrast of a sunny day. In those woods, where death took many forms, every stark shadow was a potential threat.
Tempest got that feeling—that innate sense of danger animals get when a predator is near—and she stopped. She stopped and gave a stamp, which she and Ariana decided a long time ago was her way of warning her human.
Ariana stroked Tempest’s mane and asked, “Where is it, girl?” The human held her breath and looked around, first for familiar shapes and then for movement…
The girl clicked her tongue which was the signal (they had decided) to proceed with caution and be prepared to turn tail. Reins in the left hand, Ariana slid her right hand over the grip of the Smith and Wesson Model 19 on her hip.
Tempest took a few more steps and stopped again. Ariana’s fingers closed on the handle of her sidearm. An alarm went off in her bones.Ariana drew her gun as a hunner dyer emerged, shrieking, from under a swath of leaves and dirt. Tempest reared, brandishing her hooves.
Hunner dyers most closely resembled carpenter ants, though they were only slightly smaller than men. They had six legs and their bodies were segmented. Their abdomens were proportionally small, allowing them to walk and stand on their hind legs. Their thoraxes appeared to have human-like ribs on the outside. Patches of coarse hair grew randomly. Their heads contained a loose ring of 24 black eyes, a pair of fangs like a tarantula, a long, retractable middle tooth, and a needly tongue for extracting whatever the tooth exposed.
“Hunner dyer” was not the creature’s proper name. It’s just what everyone called it. Ariana and Tempest had seen and killed a ton of them; shriek, click, bang. This time, however, as Tempest’s hooves came back down, Ariana hesitated. This time she felt different. This time she felt like a bully; like she had just walked into the creature’s home with the express purpose of killing it for no reason. That was exactly as it always had been. Why it bothered her now, she didn’t have time to speculate.The hunner dyer lunged. Tempest turned and ran without a cue from Ariana. They beat a path back across and down the hill. Though the monster gave chase, it couldn’t keep up with the horse. It was far behind by the time they reached the fence.
Ariana’s nerves balanced on a pinhead as she dismounted and opened the gate. She smiled at the feeling as her hand shook on the gate latch. This was what she came for—the adrenaline rush.
The hunner dyer shrieked again. It had cleared the last hump and was on its way down to torture and kill Ariana and her companion.
The girl threw open the gate and led Tempest through. The monster descended, kicking up leaves and shrieking every few breaths. Its movement was sloppy, as if it didn’t know how to run. It was neither a crawl nor a gallop, but something in between. Its clawed forelimbs waved and reached, only touching the ground when it needed the balance.Ariana slammed the gate closed as the monster slammed into it, giving the girl a good look at about ten of her own reflections in its onyx black eyes. It ran its tooth through the fence, reaching its limit an inch from Ariana’s throat. The girl flinched and fell backward.
This was an unusual situation for Ariana. Typically, she would have shot the monster when it first appeared and left it deeper in the woods. The fence itself was never meant to hold the creatures of the mountains back, only deter them from the areas where people live. Ariana had never seen what would happen if a monster were given incentive to find a way over or through the fence.
She wished the creature away as it rammed and beat at the fence. She wished for it to get tired and go away. Then she thought she might have to kill it anyway, just to make sure it didn’t come back.
The hunner dyer made her decision easy. It looked up, ran its forelimbs along the top of the fence, then began to crawl up. It got one more shriek out before Ariana blew its head off. The gunshot tapered off through the valley, leaving Ariana and Tempest in dead silence once more.
The adrenaline sat in Ariana’s veins like stale coffee in a day-old pot. She wondered if that would be the end of that thrill—one of the few thrills she had in her podunk, one-horse, middle-of-bumfuck-nowhere town.
She opened the gate again and tied a rope from Tempest’s saddle to the carcass. Couldn’t leave chum by the gate. Girl mounted horse and they dragged the dead bug into the woods before heading home.
Away from the scant foothills, an old refrigerator truck puttered up to an old picket fence around an old farmhouse. The truck door slid open and Reggie Adams slid out, drumming a pencil on his clipboard. His curly black hair billowed and bounced as he bobbed to the song in his head. He popped open the side door, hopped in for a moment, and then dropped back out with a small package wrapped in butcher’s paper.
Rick Jenkins greeted Reggie at the door. Rick was one of the old timers. Been living in Brothers since before the whole Pittsburgh thing, before that mess made its way to the country. That was always the way though, Rick knew—everything starts in the cities and works its way out, whether countryfolk like it or not. Though neither Rick, nor anyone else for that matter, expected what they got. He thought the changing times would’ve meant dealing with kids and their long hair and devil music. Instead he had an infestation. It put things in perspective. With monster-infested mountains a stone’s throw away, Reggie’s hair was less of an affront to Rick than it could have been.
“Morning, Rick,” Reggie said with a smile.
“Reggie,” Rick nodded. “I don’t know how you’re so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after playing music all night.”
“I got a little nap. I’ll get the rest when my route is over. I’m used to it.” He handed the package over saying, “Five pounds of ground wood devil, right?”
“Sounds about right to me.”
“Solid. Just sign right here for me.”
Rick signed and handed the clipboard and pencil back to Reggie. “You know,” asked the elder, “I always wondered. How often you attract any them creatures, driving a meat bus around like that?”
Sometimes Reggie wondered that himself. That truck was on its last leg. He, nevertheless, responded as he always did—with confidence and good humor. “Ah! Well… Difficult as it may be to ascertain by the humble exterior of this fine machine, the refrigerator contained within not only keeps the fare fresh, but well sealed. And if all else fails, the exhaust fumes will repel just about anything.” Reggie patted his sidearm and said, “I’ve never even had to draw this thing.”
“Say, that’s pretty—watch out!” Rick pushed Reggie to one side and drew his own gun. He took aim at a hellcat that was sprinting toward them. Reggie covered his ears and watched. The gun wobbled in Rick’s hand. He was getting older, but not too old. And it certainly wasn’t the first time he’d had to deal with a hellcat.
The creatures looked like bobcats, but bigger and mangier. Their eyes glowed and flickered with hellfire whether at night or on a bright sunny day. They made no noise as they ran, creating a sensory dissonance in anyone unfortunate enough to see one bearing down on them.
Rick’s shot rang out and dropped the hellcat 20 feet from the porch. The old timer kept his eyes on the beast as he holstered his weapon. When he was satisfied it wasn’t going to get back up, he turned to Reggie and said, “Never had to draw, huh?”
“That’s right,” Reggie said with a smile and gesture at Rick’s gun. “Plus, most people around these parts don’t like to stand around talking with raw meat in their hands. Did you want me to take that?” He pointed at the hellcat.
“Please,” said Rick.
Reggie flipped the pages on his clipboard to start on a new form. “And do you want to sell it, have it processed, get it mounted?”
“I’ll take five pounds of it. Ground is fine. Make it easy.”
“You sure? The tenderloin on these is almost as good as beef. Just smaller. You can do like little filet mignon medallions. Little butter, little garlic… mmmm, mm!”
“Heh, all right then. I’ll take five pounds ground and a tenderloin. Sell you the rest.”
“Excellent choice, sir!” Reggie said, filling out the order. “Excellent choice, indeed. Here is your receipt. And I’ll bring you the difference on delivery. Sound good?”
“That’ll be fine, Reggie. Thanks.”
Rick helped Reggie load the carcass into the truck. Once it was closed, Reggie took a spray bottle and spritzed a few blood streaks left on the exterior. He said to Rick, “A little bit of bleach helps keep the monsters away too.”
The truck fought itself awake and backfired its displeasure. Reggie waved to Rick and pulled away. He only had a few more stops before he could head home and sleep.
When the truck had gone, Rick looked to the three mountains in the distance. The overcast sky reached down wisps to stroke them. The mountains used to be beautiful. They used to beckon. Back in the day, Rick’s chief motivation was to give himself as much time as possible to hike or hunt those mountains. They used to be havens for such things. Now they loomed, foreboded, and forbade. They were home to escapees of what everyone thought was the all-time final battle. They were gargoyles, demonic sentinels.
Rick realized he hadn’t looked behind himself lately. He wheeled with a hand on his gun.
A couple of farmhands rode tractors in the field behind the house.
Jeremy Crawford was jarred awake by one of his mother’s nervous tics. He took a deep breath and looked at the clock: 2:30pm. Pretty close to four hours of unbroken sleep. He’d take it. Despite it being upright in a chair, it was a deep and solid sleep. He felt rested and tongued the film out of the corners of his mouth.
Connie, Jeremy’s mother, twitched and chuffed in her bed in a dream state akin to the line between Purgatory and Hell. Whenever Jeremy left the room, the nightmare would return and push Connie’s dreams into torture.
The young man took another deep breath, then moved to the edge of the bed. He took Connie’s hand and said, “Mom. Mom,” startling her awake. Or maybe only half awake. Maybe Connie only feigned half awakeness so as not to have to think or talk or burden Jeremy or herself too much.
“Mom, come on. You should get up and move around a little bit. Get some food.”
Connie stared. Afterimages of her nightmares played on the ceiling; visions of gory death, torture, and loss burned into her memories. Like so many times before, Connie wondered how much more she could take. She didn’t know how she had made it as long as she did.
Jeremy gave her hand a tug and helped her sit up. She shambled to the kitchen while Jeremy went to the bathroom to relieve himself and get a shower.
There wasn’t much in the fridge. There hadn’t been since the nightmare, since the role of caretaker flipped at the Coleman house. Fortunately, Connie and Jeremy were friends with Kelly Karasek, the owner of the nearby Foothill Hotel and Bar. Kelly usually made sure to send some food home with Jeremy at the end of the night.
Connie slouched at the table, thousand-yard stare, turkey club between her hands. With no saliva to help, she chewed her first bite for a few minutes. She heard the water running in the shower—a sign of life in a house, formerly a home, being eaten by time before her eyes. She remembered the day she put up the now-peeling wallpaper with her husband, James. She remembered how they bickered over it. She remembered how he let her have her way and how he said it didn’t look half bad after it was up. She remembered the squeeze and smile he gave her. Then she cried, because she knew the nightmare would ruin that for her next. But as much as it hurt to sleep, it hurt even more to be awake.
Jeremy had barely rinsed the shampoo out of his hair when he heard Connie screaming. He sighed and shut the water off. He pulled on a bathrobe and walked out, cleaning the fog from his glasses with his sleeve. “Twenty minutes!” he said. “Was all I needed.”
Rounding the corner into the kitchen he saw Connie curled up on the floor next to the table, the sandwich a few feet away from her, and the nightmare. The gremlin-like creature sat on Connie and looked up at Jeremy. It was furry, with a pair of short round canines poking out over its lower lip. It turned its bulbous eyes to Jeremy with the ignorance of a house cat as Connie screamed and trembled beneath it.
“Go on!” Jeremy shooed. “Get outta here!”
When it didn’t move, Jeremy stomped toward it. It vanished.
Jeremy cleaned up the sandwich while Connie calmed down. He put the sandwich back in the container and the container back in the fridge. Then he wiped the mayonnaise off the floor with a dish towel and balled it up on the counter.
He woke up Connie again.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah I know,” he said, helping her to her feet. “Listen, I gotta get some clothes on. You think you can stay standing here for five minutes? Or even better, walk around a bit?”
Connie’s eyes were closed but she nodded and got out a weak “y-yes” as she held the doorway for support.
She didn’t walk around, but she did manage to stay standing and awake until Jeremy returned. He helped her to the bed, where she fell right back to sleep and right back into the dream state that wasn’t quite Hell and wasn’t quite Purgatory.
Jeremy set up a stool and began to quietly write and practice music with his guitar.
This was the majority of Jeremy’s daily routine.
This excerpt from The Rogue Mountains by Joshua Tarquinio is published here courtesy of the author. It should not be reprinted without permission.