Even as I did so, a hurtling mass of reeking fur and flesh struck me from behind, at the small of my back, so that I was flung…through the gaping window into the drenching, storm-tossed darkness of the night.
I have read my erstwhile colleague’s account of my supposed disappearance one blood-curdling night on Tempest Mountain in the demon-haunted wilds of the Catskills, and I bear him no ill will for his somewhat preemptory declaration that I was “never heard of again.” At the time he penned his narrative, my whereabouts were still in fact unknown; when later I was restored to the land of the living, as it were, we both felt a retraction or republication of the paper would seem posed and disingenuous. I had also apprehended a certain unanticipated advantage in being thought among the dead victims of the Lurking Fear, and was loathe to surrender that newfound anonymity.
Would that George Bennett had enjoyed a similar providential fate as myself; alas, I fear that worthy fellow did indeed meet his end at the teeth and talons of the Martense horrors. But I can assure the reader that his murder did not go unavenged, as shall be related in the tale to follow.
My friend and employer, who organized and chronicled that ill-fated expedition to Tempest Mountain, states in his recounting that he was woken by screams in the night, which he describes in characteristically dark and Gothic prose as “shrieking” in which “the inmost soul of human fear and agony clawed hopelessly and insanely at the ebony gates of oblivion.” Upon his subsequent realization that Bennett and I were no longer present in the decrepit bedchamber within the abandoned mansion that we had prepared as our base of operations, he made what I suppose was a natural enough assumption at the time, and attributed the source of the screams to the death-cries of Bennett and myself.
If I find anything objectionable in my colleague’s report, it is that he would think so little of me as to believe I would meet any fate, however horrid and painful, with such a shameful lack of the warrior Stoicism that has been among my greatest sources of strength during a long and difficult career treading the dimmer and more dangerous byways of our world.
I can say nothing of how Bennett reacted to the sudden, trans-midnight attack of the Lurking Fear – he may have cried out even as our employer later described. For my part, however, I was rather preoccupied at the probable time he was taken, and I have no distinct memory of hearing him give voice.
Since my friend’s account of that night is concise and accurate, with the exception of his spurious conclusion about my ultimate fate, I will not repeat it here. It is easy enough to find for one who is already reading this journal, and I commend the reader to whatever research he or she finds necessary.
As my friend describes, he, Bennett and I had fortified our chosen center of activity, and set up a number of contingencies to assist us should the Lurking Fear reveal itself to be a material agency capable of threatening us to the degree that we might need to escape the fetid Martense mansion with alacrity. We retired together to the single large bed that remained usable, and I was chosen for the second watch. My friend makes much of what he calls an “anomalous drowsiness” that seemed to afflict us all, but I recall only being fatigued in a manner commensurate with the busy and taxing day we had experienced in preparing for our nocturnal vigil.
It was partly to combat that fatigue during my watch that I rose eventually, careful not to disturb my snoring fellows, and made to the empty window casement where we had hung rope ladders to aid our escape, should it become necessary. For most of the night, the ladders had rattled intermittently against the side of the mansion below our window, whipped about by the howling winds of the unceasing thunderstorm, but had fallen silent in the last few minutes. The thought occurred to me, and quickly grew in conviction, that the ladders had become entangled with one another, and would thus serve us poorly should their use become essential. As the sentry on watch, I felt is a natural part of my duties to ensure that our avenues of escape should be properly maintained throughout my vigil.
Approaching the open casement, I tucked my Colt 1911 into the holster at my belt, squinting against the stinging blast of storm-driven rain that fell at a steep angle through the aperture. Holding one hand up to shield my eyes from the onslaught, I reached out and tugged experimentally at one of the ropes supporting the centermost ladder. There was no slack whatsoever, and I concluded that the ladders had indeed become snarled together; that it was the combined weight of the three that was putting so much pressure on the one. Stepping to the very sill of the window, I leaned out into the storm to assess the degree of the tangle that I would have to undue, before bothering to create the racket that drawing the ladders up would surely cause, thus waking my slumbering comrades unnecessarily.
“Why did you not call out? Why no alarum?” my friend fairly demanded of me, in a reprimanding tone of voice, when we were reunited at last, some months after the events at Tempest Mountain. I could only scowl, and remind myself that my friend did not share with me the dubious benefit of having haunted the trenches of France during the Great War. It is very romantic to picture, as the cinema does so often these days, the lone hero on sentry duty calling out for a password, and rousing his fellows when he receives none, but the realities of war are often more brutal and prosaic. One does not willingly give away one’s position on a battlefield where even the flare of a single match can draw the unwelcome attention of a sniper. When it is apparent, beyond any possibility of error, that the interloper is in fact the enemy, one does not vocalize – one simply reacts, and trusts to the roar of gunfire to awaken his mates and call them to the fray.
So it was that, when I leaned out of that window on Tempest Mountain, and beheld in the next flash of lightning three grotesque and malformed figures stealthily ascending the rope ladders, red eyes burning with feral hatred and unholy hunger in their upturned and thankfully still-shadowed faces, I snatched forth my holstered weapon.
Even as I did so, a hurtling mass of reeking fur and flesh struck me from behind, at the small of my back, so that I was flung against the windowsill, surprised and off-balance. My knees struck the low coping, and I was suddenly falling through the gaping window into the drenching, storm-tossed darkness of the night.
As my friend intimated in his narrative, I – and poor old Bennett as well – was possessed of a “peculiar fitness.” Whatever might have seemed peculiar in my physical makeup and abilities to my writer friend, I attribute to the differences in our upbringing and early adulthood: growing up in the mountains as opposed to the city, and having experienced military service as opposed to the life of an academic, I suppose my “fitness” did seem a little out of the ordinary at times.
When a misstep can result in a broken ankle miles from home in the trackless wilderness, or falling off a barn roof onto a stake-sided hay wagon, one develops a certain unconscious grace and an almost acrobatic sense of balance. So while it may seem sensational that I was able to turn my headlong plummet into a tuck and a roll that afforded me one desperate grab at the topmost rungs of the rope ladders, I assure you that in the extremity of the moment, it occurred quite naturally and without the slightest conscious thought on my part. I also recall, unless I am very much mistaken, that I was extending my right hand – I shoot and do most other things left-handed – toward the window sill to steady my aim against the forceful gale funneling through the window. If that recollection is correct, then my hand would not have had to travel more than a few inches to come within reach of the nearest ladder.
Whatever the case, I was able by some passing miracle to seize a rung of the righthand ladder only a foot or so below the window. My body spun around that center, and I was just able to tense my arm and shoulder muscles to absorb the impact when my back crashed against the rain-soaked outer wall of the mansion. I was a bit stunned, and my mind was some few paces behind the action, but I was essentially unharmed and, even better, I had not lost my grip on the Colt. Again, one develops a deft and certain grip when dropping a tool or weapon may mean the difference between eating or going hungry. It would be pompous of me to claim that I did it intentionally – it was simply another habit of a roughly-spent life.
In a glance, I saw that the…things…clawing their way up the ladders were yet a good two yards shy of my dangling feet, so I swept my eyes and my gun upward, toward the window from which I had just been ejected. I expected a head at least to appear over the edge, to determine if I had perished in the fall, but after several seconds, none had shown itself. I now believe this was when Bennett was taken, as the ruckus up to this point had been concealed beneath the general tumult of the storm, and likely had awakened neither of the sleeping men.
Again, given the circumstances, I cannot fault my surviving friend for being unable to discern the difference between thunder and gunshot, or between lightning bolt and muzzle flash. If one is not experienced in these things, and if one is roused from a fitful slumber by nightmarish screams to a hideous invasion of nether terrors, allowances must be made.
Just as I had satisfied myself that nothing seemed intent on pursing me through the window, a heavy blow struck my booted foot. In pure reflex, I swung my gun hand down and fired into the snarling maw below.
The Colt M1911 is a brutal, ugly, yet efficient weapon. Where European sidearms like the Beretta, the Browning, the Luger or the Mauser are sleek, even beautiful creatures, the Colt is a thug; a club or spiked mace instead of an elegant rapier. It is designed to do one thing, and do it with horrible finality.
The heavy, sub-sonic round punched through the back of the thing’s mouth, shattering the base of its neck, all but decapitating it and sending the gore-pumping corpse crashing to the weed-choked ground below without another sound. Whether startled, or in a sudden spasm of self-preservation, the climber to my left released its hold on the ladder and plummeted to the ground, almost on top of the corpse of its companion. It set up a eerie caterwauling, though I cannot to this day say whether it was hurt, scared or enraged. Whatever its motivation, it scuttled off into the night, and I believe that the fading cries that my friend heard upon waking were the ululations of this retreating Lurker.
(My friend maintains that, in his experience, the Lurkers were wholly silent, regardless of circumstances. I can only report what I remember experiencing, with the natural caveat that, considering the nature of the events, I might well be mistaken. However, one does not have to be a naturalist to know that the Lurkers were never subjected to sufficient qualified observation for us to say anything definitive about their habits or abilities.)
Whatever may have motivated the fleeing abnormality, the remaining climber exhibited a deal more pluck; with an ape-like maneuver, it leaped off the rope ladder a half-dozen feet below me, and wrapped both filthy, taloned forepaws around my right ankle.
Peculiar fitness be damned – the sheer outrageousness of the stunt caught me completely off guard, and with the additional weight of the thing falling suddenly upon me, I was unable to maintain my handhold on the smooth, rain-slick rung of the ladder. I may have shouted in anger at the point, uttering another sound that might have been mistaken for a dying scream by my friend, as I peeled away from the ladder and began to fall. I apprehended, in an instant, that we were falling away from the wall and there was nothing to be gained by flailing for a last-second handhold on one of the wildly swinging ladders. Instead, I did the only thing I could think of as appropriate in that moment:
I aimed my pistol with both hands at the snarling perversion dangling from my leg, and kept firing until the sodden earth rushed up and cudgeled me into unconsciousness.