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Nightmare - Horror (Short Story)

The art for this short story was provided by a close friend of mine, the wonderfully talented Kalhens, which you can find over at:

It always begins the same way. A slow-moving sensation, crawling up my spine as I prepare for sleep. A sense of the shadows lengthening as they creep up along the walls. Tonight will bring the dream. I am certain.

Exhaustion threatens to drag me away. I resist and try to stay awake. The pitter-patter of the rain on the window seems sinister as I brew a cup of strong coffee. The full moon is high, and I shiver at what it reminds me of. I light the fireplace and read of adventure and war. I read. Hour after hour, sitting in the most uncomfortable chair I own. Still the moon is in the sky. It seems bigger, now, than it was. Closer. I turn a page. Lighting flashes past the window, and I close my eyes in surprise. I don’t even hear the thunder.

I open my eyes. I find myself in a small room. No not a room, I realize. The wood paneled floor sways from side to side. The sound of rain has been joined by the rhythmic clattering of wheels on tracks. A passenger train car, then.

The colors here are bright and exaggerated despite the dim light. The red of the carpet beneath my feet almost hurts my eyes to look at. I try to look out past a window framed by flickering gas lamps. I see nothing but the reflection of my own pale face. I turn away from it quickly. Something about my face was wrong. Twisted. A sliding door blocks my way out of the small space. I unlatch it, and step into the dark hallway outside.

I emerge from the farthest room on the right. The dark here is far from natural. Gas lamps lay lit on the walls but do little to illuminate the narrow space I find myself in. I see three other doors, each identical to mine. No doubt, they lead to other rooms. I approach one. I lift my hand to knock. I hear a whimper from the other side, punctuated by the sudden smell of rotting meat. I fail to suppress a retch, and stagger back. I approach another door. From beyond it, hurried breaths and the insane muttering of a mad man. I make my way quickly to the door that leads to the space between this car and the next.

There is a window in the door, and I see my reflection in it again. Wrong. Wrong. My hands find the knob and pull open the door. The klick-klack of the tracks increases in volume as I step outside. Rain falls onto my face. Fat droplets that leave ice cold streaks on my skin. I notice for the first time that I am wearing a coat. The darkness that suffuses the space around me pools in the crevices of the corrugated metal floor like the rain. There are no stars. There are no clouds. There is nothing but the blood-red, cratered surface of the moon. It hangs at an angle and seems to take up much more of the sky than it should.

I look off the side of the train, at the tracks. They sit raised on an artificial rise. The light from the moon glints off the metal of the tracks, and casts the gravel they rest on a pale shade of red. I look farther out. Something laps against the grass that surrounds the rise. A thick, viscous liquid.

The stuff has a sheen like oil, rainbows of impossible colors playing along its pitch-black surface. It moves in ways I struggle to understand. It twists in on itself, parting and coming together like the vital fluid of a living nightmare. My head begins to hurt as I watch, and something warm trickles down my face. I reach up. My nose is bleeding. I wipe the blood away and watch as the liquid licks at a flower, smothering it. When it recedes the flower and everything around it is gone, consumed. I look away, disturbed.

A steel ladder to the roof of the train is bolted to the wall just to the left of the door into the next car. I am filled with an overwhelming urge to climb it. I fight against the urge, thrashing silently against my own body, but still I reach toward it. My hands grasp the metal bars. My arms drag me upward. My feet slip for a moment before finding purchase. I can feel my heart thumping in my chest. Finally, my fingers grasp at the slick roof and pull me up.

The rushing wind bites through my soaked clothes and pulls my coat into the air behind me. The rain spatters on my face, and I raise an arm to block it. I see the moon more clearly here. It looks different. Like the eye of some gigantic creature, leaning down to watch the train. In the distance, there is a river. It cuts across the landscape like a festering wound. There is no water in the river. It is the source of the black liquid. Over the river crosses a single bridge of stone and ironwork. Past the bridge, there is nothing. An empty abyss.

I look back up at the moon. As I stare up at the eye, I feel its presence. Something. Something impossible. The eye focuses on me, and I freeze in a way that has nothing to do with the icy rain and wind. I can feel an all-consuming anger building into rage. The black liquid below circles into obscene whirlpools. My teeth chatter.

A roar fills the air. But to call it a roar would be an inadequate description. It is more like a quake in the very fabric of reality. A maddening vibration runs through me, twisting my mind and body inside out. A scream tears itself from my throat, and my heart nearly bursts from my chest. Or, these things should happen. They don’t. I stand, perfectly still, as the terror runs through me.

The roar subsides, and I climb down the ladder. Calmly, my body opens the door to the next car and steps through. The door closes behind me with a soft click that feels much louder than it is. Another passenger car. The same blood-red carpet. The same gas lamps. The same four doors. I look back through the window to the space between cars, and I see nothing but darkness. The car I left is gone. Swallowed by shadow. I can only go forward.

I take slow, careful steps. Moans of suffering and occasional bouts of hysterical laughter filter through the doors. The sounds all seem more muffled than I expect. Different from the passenger car I woke up in, the doors to my right and left have small windows in them. Curiosity suppresses my caution, and I look through one.

On the other side is a man, crouching down near the far wall. His back is to me, and I can see him move his arm wildly. Then, in a flash of lightning, I see the symbols. Arcane designs of indiscernible origin decorate the walls and ceiling. They are scratched into the wood and tinged a rust-red. The symbols seem to swim in my vision and feel like the visual equivalent of someone dragging nails across a chalk board. In the faint light from the gas lamps within his room I see that the man’s finger, worn to the bone, is his writing implement.

I stare, enrapt. Despite my silence the man turns abruptly to face me. His eyes are wild, and the rictus grin on his face breaks into a cacophony of hideous laughter. I start, and crash into the opposite door. The window in it shatters, and a piece of glass cuts across the back of my hand. I barely notice. The other sounds in the car cease. For a moment, there is silence broken only by the clattering of the tracks and the drumming of the rain. Then, I begin to hear the sound of rattling chains coming from the door leading back to the previous car.

I make a dash for the door to the next divider between cars and pull it open. I am assailed by the rain. I close the door behind me. Here too, there is a ladder just to the left. Once again, I feel the overpowering urge to climb it to the roof. No. I do not wish to. I do not wish to see the eye. I do not want the eye to see me. My hands find the bars, and my body begins to pull me upwards.

Ahead, lies the bridge. Closer now. Much closer. The black liquid is lapping against the tracks now. Consuming the metal hungrily. Somehow, the train stays its course instead of toppling into the deep. I look up, hoping against hope to find the sky empty. It is not. The blood red eye stares down. It roars. My mouth drops open as my mind is ripped apart and put back together. When the roar ends I stand on the roof of the train car, battered by rain.

I descend the ladder and open the door to the next car. A dining car. The smell of rot is strong here, and I cover my mouth and nose with my sleeve. There are four tables set, each with four places. Platters sit at the center of each table, some indescribable thing in each. Around the platters lie plates, silverware, and cloth napkins. Each of the implements is stained with the evidence of a meal. I pick my way forward as quickly as I dare. I do not wish to remain in this place. Whatever made a meal here must have been as monstrous as what they ate.

Another door lies ahead. On the opposite side, the space between two train cars. I know I will find a ladder there. I know I will be compelled to climb it. I despair as I open the door. I despair as my feet carry me into the rain. I despair as I climb the ladder.

I know I must look at the eye. But I fight to delay it as much as I can. My eyes wander along the landscape. The black fluid is even higher now, biting into the wheels of the train. The bridge is just ahead, the only thing untouched by the devouring darkness. Or, no. There is something else the liquid cannot eat away. Glinting, in the damnable light of the red moon.

Chains, each link the size of a small building. Four anchors plunge into the river of shadow. From each comes four chains. They arc up, and I follow them to a shape. Barely discernable, it looms above. It is a malformed impossibility, and my vision begins to swim as I see the eye. It strains against the chains that bind it. They creak, threatening to snap. They relax, and the creature roars its fury.

As I feel my body being torn apart, I wake up in my chair. The fire has died to ashes, and sunlight streams through the window. I shiver and my book falls off my lap. As I reach down to pick it up, I notice a cut on the back of my hand.


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