It occurs to Hugh Gibson as the Fiat Galaxy shudders beneath his feet that driving a clapped-out banger through the worst snowstorm in history might have been a bad idea. He should have bought the hire car like Maggie wanted: something big with four-wheel drive and six-foot tyres, capable of driving over any terrain – snow, ice, even water – and making it to their cottage in the woods.
Hugh changes down a gear, and a solitary red light starts to flash on the dashboard. Engine trouble. He forces a smile and clicks the wipers up a notch. The snowstorm came out of the mountains as if cast by the hand of God. If only they had set out a few hours earlier, but Stuart wanted extra beer, and Maggie forgot her doll. Naomi had slouched in on time, backpack hanging from her shoulders. That was something at least.
Maggie finishes off her chocolate and rubs her eyes, mouth smothered in a smooth brown paste. “Problem, Daddy?” she says without the slightest hint of concern. Why should she be bothered? This is a holiday with Daddy and his teacher friends. Nothing can go wrong in Wales, a stone’s throw from the nearest town, cash machine or Tesco express.
Only Hugh hasn’t seen another car in the last hour. Occasional glimpses of the crags of Crib Goch assure him they are, at least, on the right road. The National Park has been hidden beneath a blanket of glistening snow. A sweeping desolation that stretches as far as the eye can see. The nearest town must be three hours walk away should they break down.
“Daddy?” Maggie touches his shoulder.
“Sorry.” He fixes the smile. “The car’s complaining, that’s all. She’s ten years old next May. Your Mum bought it as a birthday present.” He glances towards her, suddenly aware that he mentioned Penny. It has been six months since her mother died and the wound remains fresh. Maggie is a survivor. They both are. They should carve that into a plaque and put it over the fireplace. A new family motto for generations to come.
“Ten years?” Maggie teases taking out a packet of sweets. “You must be very old.”
“I was never so rude at your age.” Of course, that wasn’t completely true. He had his moments, but being shipped between foster families could do that to a kid. He steals a handful of sweets. “Time is relative. By your standards, I’m ancient. But to the Aldabra Giant Tortoise, I’m just starting out in life.”
She makes a face. “You promised no professor speak for the holiday.”
He grins and shovels the sweets into his mouth. His stomach growls and he wonders when they ate last. “Tell you what, share that packet and I won’t mention the Romans or Greeks for the entire time. Deal?”
She thinks about it while cramming sweets into her own mouth. “Deal.”
Stuart leans forward and scratches his grey beard. “And no talking about your previous holidays, either. There are places in the world other than Snowdon National Park.”
“What can I say?” Hugh gives Maggie a sly wink. “It’s in my welsh blood. This place always feels like coming home.”
Stuart peers out the window. “Some home.”
Naomi, who until this point has remained quiet, holds up her mobile phone. “I would draw your attention to the phone situation. Namely: no reception. Although that might be standard out here. Can’t imagine they get much coverage. Anyone else have a signal?”
Maggie fishes for her BlackBerry, pulling out the contents of her purse. Hugh cringes when he thinks of a twelve year old with a phone, but it was a parting gift from Penny and he wouldn’t – couldn’t – say no. Abruptly, she closes her eyes and sticks out her tongue. “Kitchen side. Still plugged in and charging. I’m such an idiot.”
“Maggie,” Stuart adopts a tone of mock annoyance, “how do you manage to live?” He pulls out his iPhone and stares at the screen, then gives a disgusted snort. “Nothing. Can’t even access my email.”
Hugh slips his phone from his pocket and hands it to Maggie. “Open it for me. Hold the button on the side. Anything? It’s usually good for a few bars.”
“Nothing. How long before we get to the cottage?” There’s a hint of concern in her voice. It seems out of place, like something unpleasant has wormed its way in.
“Not far,” he lies. “We turned off the main road a while back, and this leads straight there.” He omits the part where it’s still a thirty minute journey by car, twenty miles between them and their cottage in the woods. “We’ll be fine.”
The car judders, and the main beams flicker. The engine splutters as if choking on its own fumes. Maggie’s face falls. Naomi puts her head in her hands, and Stuart swears softly.
Hugh laughs and strokes the wheel. “She’s just complaining of the cold. I’m telling you, she’s got life left–”
Something explodes out of the storm with a high-pitched whine. Hugh catches a fragmented glimpse of horns, fur and blood – lots of blood – before the windscreen shatters. Glass and ice tear into the car. Maggie shrieks. Hugh slams the breaks and yanks down hard on the wheel. He doesn’t think, just reacts. The breaks lock, the car spins, and he loses control. It flips, rolls and smashes off the road.
The world becomes a kaleidoscopic whirl of colours, twisting metal, snow, screaming faces and pain. It blossoms out of the night, born on wings of fury. It becomes him. Hugh Robert Gibson lost to the pain, a blinding white heat that sears through all thought and reason and lifts him on dizzying heights of sensation.
Soon after, the world sinks into cool velvet.
They awake to the siren call of their master; their eon-long slumber broken at last. From their dark, sunless caverns they creep towards the surface. The ice and the cold are their friends; it’s all they have ever known. The lights of the towns are strange, different, but the men, women and children remain the same. The elder is the first to step once more into the world, and the first to answer the master with a call of his own. “Gnopkeh.” The tribe’s ancient name. Over and over again. A chant taken by the multitudes that follow. And the hunger. Never forget the hunger. It eats away at their bellies and drives them into the wild. They crave the taste of warm flesh, the flow of young blood. Then they look at you. At you! And invite you to join them.
Hugh gasps, opens his eyes and sits upright. He has been deposited on a steep slope marked by the odd tree and jagged rock. Thick clouds linger in the sky, gathered around a half-moon in an uneasy alliance. There’s no sign of Maggie, Stuart, Naomi or even the Fiat.
Three red stains mar his shirt, and he lifts his hands to his face in response to a sudden throbbing pain. They come back sticky and wet.
Down the glittering slope a ravine stretches away, marking the edge of Crib Goch. The snow is smooth and untouched, a perfect white blanket that runs for miles. The mountain begins in earnest upon the other side, climbing away into the night. Caves stand like ragged black slashes amongst the boulders. He never came this way, that’s for sure.
Hugh turns to look back up the slope and is immediately reacquainted with his pain. A needle of white-hot brilliance slams through his skull, and the world splits in two. He grips his head, as if scared it might fall off, and lies still for a long time, his breathing shallow and laboured. When the world at last rights itself, he is surprised to find frozen vomit hanging from his shirt in thick yellow icicles.
They watch you through the snow, half-formed, weak and wretched. You do not move like their master. Nor do you act like him. The taint of humanity has ingrained itself through your flesh, clings to your clothes and hair. Unclean. Unworthy. You should be eaten and another found. They hate you. They love you. You are connected in a way that transcends mere being. They know your thoughts, your love and losses. And understand none of it.
What was that? A dream? The image still lingers behind his eyes, and a chill which has nothing to do with the cold seeps through his bones. Slowly, he turns his head and again looks up the slope. The snow is broken in a long, uneven slide which he can trace all the way back to the road, a good fifty feet above him.
Is she close? Injured or worse? He has to get up, screw the consequences. Hugh struggles to rise. The pain flares in his head, and he gives a soft moan. Stay with it. Let it pass. This is all his fault. His idea. He booked the cottage, planned the route. A winter break. Walk the paths and slopes of his youth. Perhaps visit the towns and villages where he grew up. Nostalgia: it makes him sick. What was he thinking?
He inches up the slope. A fall back down would kill him. He has no intention of dying. Not today, or any day for that matter.
“Stuart, can you hear me? I need help.”
Stuart cannot help you, other than to provide sustenance for the journey ahead. Ithaqua has summoned you home.
Hugh staggers onto the road, clutching at his eyes. What was that? He can hear voices, wet and sweet, in his head. ‘Do it,’ they say. ‘Do it.’ Dear lord, is he going mad? He gives a snort of brief laughter that dies on his lips when he sees chunks of frozen gore that litter the road like glittering, obscene marbles.
A wind picks up, and it starts to snow. He tries to speak, but the words die in his throat. It occurs to him he should feel cold. He doesn’t. In truth, he feels hot, flushed even, like suffering from the first signs of a high fever.
The Fiat appears out of the gloom, the front windscreen missing. All the seats are empty and the doors stand open. Perhaps the others survived, after all? He shields his eyes with his hands and peers into the swirling white chaos in which he has wandered. The moon casts disjointed light through the snow creating lurching shadows and fleeting shapes. Am I being watched? Hugh shuffles around, a little pirouette that turns him full circle.
He tries to summon the energy to call for help. His throat is raw and refuses to work. Then at the last moment he thinks better of it. He can’t explain why: a feeling, little more than a primal, instinctual urge.
Keep quiet, keep safe.
An odd sound cuts through the storm: neither the soft flutter of snow, nor the wind as it races across ice-locked tundra. Something else then? A grating sound followed by a wet thunk, like an axe hurled into a slab of meat.
Hugh freezes, a rabbit sensing danger. He holds his breath, conscious of every sound he makes: the rustle of his jacket, feet crunching ice, even his heart is deafening, drumming out a powerful beat.
Two malformed figures squat within the snow, their shoulders hunched, arms busy as if in the midst of a difficult task. Naomi lies between them, her head turned to one side, skin white like marble, eyes glazed and pale. She shudders, and the figures make cooing sounds. One lifts an arm covered in coarse hair, its fingers stained a dark red, before punching down to a loud, wet crack.
Naomi jerks as if in the grip of a violent convulsion. Steam bursts into the air, and the creature – Hugh already knows it can’t be human – lifts up a pile of dripping bits. Hugh thinks of food critics and wine connoisseurs, and he sees now that Naomi has been split from groin to chin.
“No!” The word comes out in a guttural rush. Not really a word at all, more a hot blast of air and sound. He flinches at the noise, speaking was a mistake, and both creatures twist around with a tense, coiled synergy.
Their eyes – my God, their eyes – are urine yellow, set back into craggy faces. They are large, muscular things, bent over like apes. They wear no clothes, have no need, bodies covered in rugged fur.
And in that instant, his mind whirls like a clock wound too fast through the hours. He thinks of ancient Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon man. But these things are neither. A vague humanoid appearance links them to humanity, but that is where any similarity ends. The one holding the pile of innards opens his mouth to reveal rows of razor-sharp teeth. He offers Hugh a bite. The gesture unmistakable. Go on, have a bit. Forbidden fruit, my friend.
Hugh’s stomach grumbles. Hungry, so hungry. The steaming mass of tubular things could be a rare delicacy, served at a party or as nibbles in the Conservative Club. He licks his lips. Smack those lips.
“Get away.” The words come out a hoarse shriek and he stumbles back. He falls and sits down hard, then scuttles sideways like a crab, eyes rooted to the offering – yes, an offering – glistening and smooth. He hits the car, spins, jumps up, then runs into the storm. A scream starts low in his belly, a powerful knot of fear which builds with such intensity it bursts from his mouth in a savage howl.
The last thing he expects is a response, but he gets one all the same.
Ithaqua has answered. He knows you are the one. The prodigal son returned. Blend of man and beast. You will show him the way. Walk the unknown path and release the Keeper of the Gate. They come. They come.
A blast of senseless noise erupts from the storm, the roar of some unknowable creature, some monstrous entity. Hugh lifts his hands to his mouth, eyes wide with terror, as what he thought to be the side of Crib Goch stirs, shifts, then stands.
He gets a sense of power, strength and rage – so much rage. A heady, chemical rush that fills him like an empty tumbler with its dark magnificence. It moves with the storm – or rather the storm moves with it – taking one vast, lumbering stride. A glimpse of bloodied talons, an emaciated form, then gone as if it has never been.
Hugh runs with a strength he didn’t know he possessed. He runs through the snow. He runs over tundra. He runs past trees and rocks. His heart is a freight train. His tongue lolls from the side of his mouth, his vision blurred. And he is hot: so damn hot.
Arms reach out and grasp his jacket. He growls like an animal, lashes out, but a figure piles into him, and he goes down. A voice, hard like stone, says: “It’s me.” Hugh struggles for a moment more, before focusing upon Stuart, grey beard flecked with blood, left eye swollen to the point of closure.
“Did you see it? My God, Stu, Ithaqua has risen.”
Stuart’s eyes are pinpricks of black. “What are you talking about? Get a grip; Maggie needs you.”
“Maggie?” Hugh struggles to rise, but Stuart keeps him pinned.
“Are we cool?”
“I’m fine. Get off.”
Stuart hesitates, then let’s go. His coat is ripped at the sleeve. Frozen blood covers his arm like red body paint. The flesh is torn. Are those bite marks?
Stuart points to the nearest tree, where Hugh can see a small, crumpled form.
“No!” He scrambles towards her. Let her be alive. He couldn’t stand it if . . .
Her face is washed-out grey, her eyes watery and weak. A deep cut runs from her forehead to chin. But she’s alive.
This can’t be real.
But it is.
“More of them,” Stuart says, his face an ugly grimace.
Hugh freezes in place, holding Maggie close to his body. Stuart crouches low to the base of the tree and points to the distant ridge. Several shapes make their way amongst the rocks.
They move with a certain grace and nonchalance, almost ignorant of the blizzard, as if this was no more than a pleasant walk on a summer’s day. Some part of Hugh remains detached enough to analyse the things in the snow as if they were they latest anthropological curiosity. Each is tall and muscular by human standards, covered in thick, coarse hair that ranges from muddied brown to the darkest of blacks. Their leader has his misshapen head low to the ground, pausing now and again to stare into the night and bark like a dog. Like bloodhounds on the trial of a fox, they make their way towards him.
“We have to go,” Hugh says. “We can’t stay here.”
Stuart nods, ice breaks from his beard and snot freezes upon his nose. He shudders and holds his arms to his chest. “So cold.”
They reach the edge of a drop-off that stretches into a valley. A single light flickers within a copse of trees. “There,” Hugh says. His hand shakes as he points towards it. There is an old ramshackle hut ahead. A soft glow radiates from its window. He knows the place somehow. A memory he can’t quite recall. This is a good place. A safe place.
“If we make the hut, we might survive.” He stares at Stuart. Snow falls in thick flurries between them. In the gloom, he can see the terror etched across the other man’s face: sweat dripping from his chin, skin the consistency of porridge. Despite this, Stuart gives him the thumbs up, and they start the sprint towards the building. Towards the light. Salvation, if he can just get there in time.
He has to survive, if not for his sake then for Maggie’s. His little girl can’t – won’t – die, and neither will he. He has to do whatever it takes to make it through this night. Become the survivor. He owes it to Penny, at the very least.
Yes, the hut of your birth. Run there. Run home. They watch you sprint across the snow. So slow, they could catch you with ease. Many find you beautiful, like an emergent butterfly fresh from its cocoon. They fear you. They need you, keeper of secrets. Can you feel them inside your head, squirming like maggots? They are you now. And you them.
“Wait,” Stuart calls behind him. “I can’t keep up.”
Hugh won’t stop for anyone – Maggie has to survive – and pushes forward faster than he’s ever run before, his daughter cradled in his arms like a broken doll.
“Hold on, honey.”
Hugh isn’t a well-built man, but he’s tall and between his height and speed makes the hut and shoulder charges the door. It rips free from one hinge and smashes open. He sprawls into the hut with a grunt.
Maggie moans and her eyes flutter. “Daddy?”
“I’m right here, pumpkin.”
He finds himself within a sparsely decorated chamber. There’s a sharp smell in the air: disinfectant and grease. It catches in the back of his throat, and he coughs. It reminds him of something, a memory vague and distant . . .
“Hugh!” Stuart screams. One of the creatures has caught up and dragged him to the ground. “Help me.”
Hugh goes to step forward when Maggie coughs and starts to cry. Wait, he can’t leave her alone. Not his little baby. Not his princess.
“Daddy?” Maggie says, and the decision is made. He swoops her into his arms where she will be safe, protected.
This is the new truth. The new flesh. Right here, right now.
It lets Stuart go, and he scrabbles across the ice to throw himself into the building. There’s a bolt on the door. Hugh slams it across, then backs away, holding Maggie as tight as he can. His breath coming in short gulps.
A single lamp glows in the window, and the smell of disinfectant lingers in the room, pervasive and sharp. Hugh is reminded of his youth, a memory that surfaces unwanted to his mind’s eye. He sees pale sunlight filtering through stained windows and has a sense of belonging. He shakes his head trying to break its hold, but the memory lingers. Creatures move around him, teeth sharp, blindly groping. The hot spill of blood, the anger, and the hunger: oh god, the hunger.
“Daddy,” Maggie says, and the image dissolves like paint in water. “Will those men come in the house?”
“If they do, I’ll make sure they regret it.”
Stuart lies against the wall, a pool of blood seeping across the floor. His face is blanched white, and he clutches at his stomach, the clothes torn and shredded.
“You’re injured.” Hugh’s tongue refuses to work. The rich smell of iron, the beat of Stuart’s heart is all . . . intoxicating. He turns his head away. What am I? What have I become?
What you always were; what you were meant to be. Do it.
His stomach knots into cramps. The hunger bubbles over. It’s all he can think about. Just a small bite, take the edge away.
Stuart knows, senses it somehow. “What are you doing?”
He’s lost a lot of blood, but Hugh grabs his head and smashes it into the wall. Stuart’s screams turn to gurgling cries. But this is not really Stuart, not his lifelong friend and teaching colleague. He’s someone else, a character from a video game. Not Stuart. Not Stu.
Yes, the forbidden flesh. Take its strength. Join us. Show Ithaqua the secret ways. The fields of quivering flesh, the Tower of Oblivion, the Dwellers of the Deep. All await us now.
“Shut up,” he whispers. He is, after all, trying to eat.
“Daddy?” Maggie stands perfectly still, a small figure surrounded by shadows. “What are you doing?”
Hugh looks to his bloodied hands, to the pump of blood from Stuart’s neck. Chunks of flesh remain wedged between his teeth. “Don’t look, baby girl.”
Maggie spins around, sobbing. She unbolts the door and runs crying into the storm.
“Wait.” Hugh gives chase. He is a man. Not some monster, some beast. He catches her with ease, grabbing her arm and spinning her around.
“I would never hurt you. Never.”
Too late, he realises, they are no longer alone. Ithaqua emerges from the storm as if born from it, flickering out of focus, not quite of this world, an illusion or phantasm played out in the mind. Mottled grey flesh hangs in loose folds from its arms, ribs exposed in stark contrast. Talons twitch in expectation, while a thick tail thrashes in the snow. The stench of rot, decay and winter pestilence carries on the wind, settles upon his skin like the touch of a diseased lover.
It points to Maggie with a long-spindly finger, and he knows what it wants. How to sooth its appetite. Its hunger.
There must be another way. There must–
Wait, if he is Ithaqua’s child, Maggie must be as well. He stares into her eyes, searching for the hunger, the primal need. “Be like me,” he says. “For Mummy. For Daddy.”
The storm lessens. Hot, fetid breath caresses his neck. The old one waits. The world is watching. He opens his mouth to cry, and a savage, inhuman wail bursts free instead.
He lets Maggie go, and she stands exposed in the snow. Human or beast? Child or monster? Which one?
And there, at the very last, he knows the truth.
Neil was first drawn to the paranormal and all things that go bump in the night when his father let him watch Zombie Flesh Eaters at the tender age of eight. He has a Zombie Contingency Plan for each home he has ever lived in and advises you to do the same.
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Story illustration by Steve Santiago.