Warning! This is a horror/dark fiction story so may be disturbing to some. There is strong language and sexual situations.
Thick and fleecy, the soft white flakes dropped from the black belly of the heavy cloud, the bottom of which just touched the mountaintop a hundred feet above the entrance to the grotto. Half the night had passed as the pale maiden had patiently dug herself out of the collapsed cave, and she was very nearly at the limits of her endurance.
Now she pulled herself wearily to the top of the tallest boulder screening the cave and stood swaying slightly in the cold wind, her huge golden eyes adjusting to the relative brightness of the desolate landscape. Below, the thick stands of forest she remembered from the time before her entombment still crept up the mountainside. But beyond the forest, at the far end of the lake where the tiny mining settlement had once stood, strings of pulsating lights of a type she had never before encountered cast harsh reflections across the water. As she watched, a pair of powerful white beams detached themselves from the main cluster of the town and moved slowly along the lake shore, solid lances of light stabbing into the curtains of falling snow.
Stunned by the sight of the distant lights and the bright reflections playing against the bottoms of the clouds that promised a vastly more massive concentration of illumination beyond the range of mountains ringing the far end of the lake, the maiden stood uncertainly atop her snow-covered perch, a white silhouette against the even whiter backdrop of the lonely mountainside. How many seasons had passed since she had last stood atop this windswept aerie, since the pristine mountain lake and the far lands beyond had been empty save for a few scattered human habitations lit by the dim glow of oil lamps and flickering firelight she could not comprehend.
Delicate nostrils flaring into the wind, the maiden breathed deeply of the frigid atmosphere, sorting through the familiar odors of pine and earth and water in search of the creatures of the forest. Gone were the musky odor of the bears that had wallowed in the marshy shallows at the near end of the lake. Gone, too, the rank ammonia-tinged territorial markings of lion and the spoor of wolf that had once permeated the thin air. Gone, replaced with a dozen alien smells; raw unpleasant smells of machinery and metal, and of something hot and bright that she unconsciously associated with the unnaturally bright lights at the far end of the lake; something that might have been lightening–were it possible to capture and enslave lightning.
Far away, in the darkness of the higher mountains to the east, the maiden thought she detected the faint grassy aroma of foraging deer and, nearer than that, the stronger scent of a lone coyote and what may have been a rabbit den. But those comforting smells were overlaid with the stink of animal fear, and she realized that the men had laid waste to her hunting ground, driving away all but the least of the forest creatures with which she had once shared her range, but especially her fellow predators.
Gone. The bear and wolf and lion.
Eradicated by prey.
It was impossible to comprehend.
She swung her head about again–this time more carefully–straining to identify the scent of another of the great hunters with which she had respectfully shared the vast territory.
But with the exception of the slinking coyote there was nothing.
It came to her fevered brain then that she might be the last living predator on the mountain, a proud hunter awash in a sea of dangerous prey.
In as much as she was able to experience emotions, the maiden was afraid.
How, she wondered, had the puny man creatures managed to vanquish entirely the frightful bear and the canny lion? By what dark force of iron and fire and gunpowder had they transformed this once pristine wilderness into but a sterile reflection of its former grandeur?
And how many ages had passed since she had dragged herelf into the shelter of the frozen grotto? Had others of her kind survived, or had they too perished along with the wolf and the grizzly?
An urgent jolt of pain stabbed at her innards, and she knew that she must immediately venture forth into the frightening man-made world below or starve to death on this barren peak: For she was aware that the mechanisms that had preserved her in her deathlike slumber had ceased immediately upon her revival in the grotto, and that she could not even consider returning to the comforting oblivion of sleep until she had properly fed and grown strong once more. In the interim, she was extremely weak and as vulnerable to the ravages of protein deprivation as any other creature of the forest. Perhaps more so, as the singularly specialized evolution of her simple digestive system made it unable to tolerate any food but the one that had sustained her kind since the beginnings of time.
Turning her beautiful golden eyes downward, toward the thickly wooded slope directly below her position–the only slope on the entire perimeter of the lake that appeared to have escaped the worst predations of men–she saw the lights of a single human habitation flickering among the trees; detected the familiar harsh scent of woodsmoke and the sickly odor of cooking food on the breeze.
Her vision blurred as she sprang lightly from the rock, landing knee deep in a layer of old, crusted snow. Stepping carefully up onto the frozen surface, the pale maiden started down the mountain toward the dark line of the trees, the slight weight she carried on her frail feet barely breaking the snowy crust as she moved.
Ignoring the ache in her long disused joints and the fire in her belly, she tried to assess her chances of survival in this strange new wilderness: Should she be fortunate enough to encounter a lone human victim in one of the dwellings below, she knew she would have but a single opportunity to attack and feed before lapsing into unconsciousness as the result of her weakened condition. If she were successful, perhaps, she could retreat to a warm place to assess and, possibly, adapt herelf to the alien environment. She briefly considered then rejected employing the mimicry she had seen her sire successfully exploit so many times in the past. but in her present state she was simply too weak even to contemplate transforming herself to a shape the man creatures would find alluring.
She broke through the crusted snow, falling exhausted against a jagged boulder. The temptation to sleep was great. After a moment’s pause, the maid pulled herelf upright and, tucking her chin resolutely to her chest, set off again, driving herself forward with the single thought that life lay below.
Food lay below.
“Great dinner Hon.”
Vince opened one eye and looked up to see Annie standing over him, a towel casually slung over the shoulder of her pale blue robe.
“Except for the slightly overdone spices in the chicken stew.” She smiled, falling into the oversized lounge chair on which he was stretched and snuggling her face into the soft hollow of his neck.
“Well,” he said, gently stroking her long straight back and suppressing a self satisfied grin, “at least it was tender. And you’ll have to admit my zucchini was steamed to absolute perfection.”
“Mmmm,” she nodded, the soft auburn curls at the top of her head tickling his chin. “Think you’ll have to go out tonight, I hope. Not!”
Vince warily eyed the phone on the counter top across the room. “Maybe not,” he lied. Actually, he was expecting the damn thing to ring at any second. He and Annie had finished eating nearly two hours before–without interruption–a fact which in itself had surprised him. The last time he’d ventured over to the big picture window beside the fireplace to look outside, the snow had been piling up around the Jeep at an alarming rate.
And snow always meant calls.
He’d been lounging in the old leather chair by the hearth ever since, praying there’d be no accidents that required his services tonight, and admiring his house–the house he and Annie had built with their own hands–while he waited for her to finish up her lecture notes, bathe and join him by the fire.
Now, with Annie in his arms smelling all fresh and soapy and the fire crackling merrily in the stone hearth, the last thing Vince wanted to do was to leave his snug castle for a night on the road. In fact, he reflected, he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to leave again.
It was here, in the sturdy prefab log house they’d painstakingly assembled the previous summer, that Annie had finally found the peace and quiet to complete the final drafts of Silent Thunder, a visionary film that examined the increasingly mean complexion of a Southern California neither of them any longer recognized as home. They had both grown up in the Southland, as natives referred to the L.A. area, Annie in old, moneyed Pasadena, he in a rickety Panorama City subdivision hacked out of the raw agricultural environs at the far end of the San Fernando Valley. But both of them remembered a gentler time, a time when the California dream seemed destined to go on forever, when Johnny Carson had still made late night jokes about the universal penchant of Californians to wish you a nice day, when a young couple could still afford a cozy ranch house in the Valley, a time when credit was easy, everything was “freeway close” and the only serious consideration that went into planning a day at the beach had been the weather.
Weather, of course, that had almost always been good.
Down there nowadays, you had to check the radio to see if the beaches were open at all, or the waters too polluted with spilled sewage or hazardous waste for bathing to be permitted. Then, and assuming the smog level wasn’t too high and the freeway conditions permitted, chances were you’d arrive on the sand in time to witness a gang shootout or a stabbing while your car was being stripped or stolen in the parking lot.
In between all of that, you got to look at the homeless people poking through garbage cans, the drug addicts dropping needles calculated to snag your bare feet, or holding you up at gunpoint…. The list of unexpected dangers was endless. And that was only for a trip to the relatively safe destination of the beach.
The things that could happen to you in the course of a visit to Hollywood, where armed ethnic gangs stalked each other with heavy armaments and where the level of automatic weapons fire on a typical Saturday evening was said to regularly exceed the volume of a bad night in Beirut, didn’t even bear thinking about. And downtown! Well, have a nice day!
Silent Thunder, a touching drama tracing one family’s pursuit of the Southern California dream from their arrival in the Golden State as penniless ‘Okies during the dust bowl thirties, to ownership of a major restaurant chain in the seventies and eighties, then back to penniless oblivion again in the violence and economic chaos of the twenty-first century, had touched a raw nerve in Southern California.
Opening to rave reviews in an L.A. sick to death of muggings and riots and carjackings, the film had gone on to national success among moviegoers in other major cities anxious for a peek at the festering sores beneath L.A.’s carefully tarted-up facade of movie studios (only one of which still actually remained functioning in Hollywood) and deserted celebrity mansions (like himself and Annie, all the movie stars had long ago deserted the city for the gentler environs of places like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, rural Connecticut… and, of course, Condor Lake).
Odd, he reflected, how the film–or, at least, the money Annie had been paid for writing it–had made the house possible. They would have had to save for ten years to have been able to afford it on his salary….
“Hey, are you listening to me?”
Vince looked down to see Annie smiling at him, the lids of her luminous brown eyes at half mast, a sure sign that she was either annoyed with him or about to get romantic.
“Sorry,” he said. “I was just thinking about the house and the movie…”
She threw her free arm across her eyes in a dramatic gesture. “Please don’t call it a movie, it’s a film,” she corrected. “A film is a work of art. A movie is a vulgar entertainment shown on late night television.”
“Pardon me foibles, my dear,” he laughed. “I was just thinking about the house… and the film.
“Well,” she said, beginning to unbutton his uniform shirt, “while you were just thinking about the film I was just thinking about an old fashioned roll in the hay… if you think you can spare the time.”
Vince squinted at the telephone, willing it to remain silent, and slipped his hand into the silken cleft at the top of her robe. Annie sighed and he felt her tremble in his arms as his hand closed about one firm breast.
“Can we do it right here in front of the fire?” she whispered.
“What will the neighbors think?” he gasped as the zipper of his trousers whirred open and soft, probing fingers felt inside.
“We don’t have any neighbors, dummy,” she hissed into his ear, flinging the heavy bath towel she’d brought along onto the thick carpet before the fire and pulling him down to the floor with her.
“What’s the towel for?”
Annie smiled, allowing the satiny robe to fall from her shoulders and beckoning him closer. “Last time we did this I got a carpet burn,” she whispered.
Vince’s eyes drank in the sight of her long body, all smooth curves and dark hollows in the flickering glow of the firelight. “We must be getting old,” he sighed, reaching forward to touch her.
Behind him, the sylphlike shape at the picture window was lost in a curtain of blowing snow. Golden irises narrowed in the glare of the fire.
Then it was gone.
Annie’s eyes widened and she stared at the window. Her body stiffened slightly and Vince raised his head to look down at her. “What is it?” he whispered.
She gazed at the faint outline of ice crystals against the glass, then shook her head. “Nothing,” she smiled, pulling him back to her. “My imagination.”
“Do you think it’s really going to snow all weekend like they said on the radio?” asked Terry. She was standing at the curtained window beside the front door, peering out into the falling snow.
“Damn straight,” said Ferd, leaning forward for a handful of crackers, inspecting them for cleanliness in the firelight before cramming them into his mouth. “Good thing we got plenty of eats.”
“But what if we get snowed in?” Terry’s eyes remained fixed on the frozen landscape beyond the window. Something small and white and wispy drifted lazily down through the trees toward the lakeside cabin, finally disappearing behind a thick stand of scrubby bushes just beyond the clearing. She wondered what it was and was about to mention it to the others when she noticed the lights of the other house glowing through a momentary break in the falling snow farther up the mountain. Maybe the handsome Sheriff’s deputy they’d seen driving up the narrow Jeep trail right after they’d arrived this afternoon lived there. She shivered at the sight of the silent snow falling in the cold, black woods outside, suddenly glad that there was someone else on the lonely mountain besides the four of them. Jimmy was saying something and she turned back toward the room to listen.
“Hey, it’s no sweat if we get snowed in,” he said. “We’ll just stay up here until Spring Break. Think about it, no classes, no finals…”
“No graduation,” Karen dryly observed from the lounge chair at the end of the sofa.
“I’m serious,” said Terry. It’s been snowing for hours. What if it doesn’t stop until we run out of food?”
“Aw come on Terry,” groaned Ferd. “I been coming up here to this cabin since I was a little kid and I never been snowed in yet.”
The girl turned to face him. “Do you promise?”
Ferd raised a beefy paw to his temple. “Scout’s honor. Nobody worries about stuff like that up here. “We’re only fifty miles from L.A., for godssake!” He filled a cup with wine and held it out enticingly. “Now come on back to poppa. I’m getting cold over here without you.”
“Well…” Terry looked dubiously at the fat flakes of snow batting against the window and padded back to the sofa. “If you’re lying…” She left the threat hanging and dropped onto the cushions beside him.
“Hey, Ferd,” said Jimmy, trying to change the mood. “Tell us that story.”
Ferd gave him a blank look.
“You know,” Jimmy prompted, winking. “The one you used to tell us guys around the fire when your dad would bring us up here to camp out by the lake.”
Ferd laughed. “The Legend of the Pale Spirit? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No, come on. It’s a great story.”
“What kind of story?” asked Terry, gulping her wine and refilling the cup from the jug.
“It’s an authentic Indian legend,” said Jimmy.
Karen’s grip tightened pleasantly around his neck. “Is it good and scary, I hope?” Her eyes darted to the shadows dancing on the rustic, blanket covered walls. “I love scary campfire stories.
Jimmy laughed. “Hey, this story is so scary that Billy Frickleitner peed his pants the first time Ferd told it.” He grinned at Ferd. “Remember?”
Ferd guffawed, sending an avalanche of cracker crumbs cascading down his stubbled chin. “Yeah, and the next time I told it, he wet his dad’s brand new sleeping bag. Man, was his old man mad!”
“So tell the story,” urged Jimmy.
“Come on, Hudson, that story was scary when we were twelve years old.”
“It’ll still be just as scary,” Jimmy assured him. He injected a sinister note into his voice, casting a meaningful gaze around the darkened room. “After all, we are up here all alone in the wilderness, cut off from civilization. If something weird actually happened…”
“I’m not sure I want to hear this.” There was a tiny quaver of doubt in Terry’s voice.
“Oh come on, Terry,” pleaded Karen. “It’ll be fun. Besides, you’ve got big strong Ferd right here to protect you.”
Terry rolled her eyes heavenward. “Terrific,” she said, elbowing her huge boyfriend’s prominent gut, “the Amazing Eating Machine will save me.” She turned to peck him affectionately on his cheek and reached for the last of the crackers and cheese. “Go ahead and tell it, but I warn you if it gets too gory I’m going to go out in the kitchen and listen to the radio or something.”
“Aw Honey, it’s not gory at all.” Ferd winked at the others and leaned forward, his dark eyes glittering in the firelight. “Okay, first of all, there used to be this tribe of Indians living around this lake. They were called the Chuka and they were great hunters of bear and deer…”
Ferd paused to refill his cup with wine and tossed a fresh log on the fire. A shower of orange sparks roared up the chimney and he glanced at the others as if the fiery display might somehow be significant to the telling of the tale.
“When the white man first came to the San Berdoo,” he droned, “the Chuka retreated up here to their sacred lake on the mountain and prayed to their gods to keep their lands safe. You see, they had heard from other tribes what the white men would do to them, and they didn’t want any part of it.” He laughed. “Well, of course, the Indian gods were no match for the white men with their guns and their wagons and their soldiers, not after they discovered there was gold up here anyway. Pretty soon the sacred lake was crawling with prospectors and not long after that they built the town of Condor City over on the south shore of the lake, driving the Chuka up into caves high above the deep forest.
“Well, the Indians looked down and saw what was happening to their land; their timber being cut for cabins and braces for the mine shafts, their game being killed off or scared away by the miners’ guns, the lake polluted with their sewage and chemicals, and they knew they were going to have to do something or risk losing it all… If there’d been enough of them, or if they’d had guns of their own, they might have attacked and burned the settlement, but the Chuka weren’t a warlike tribe and so that wasn’t an option.”
Ferd paused to swallow another cupful of wine and eyed his companions. “Whatever they did was going to have to be something really desperate.”
“What did they do?” asked Terry.
“Well,” said Ferd, “they called on the oldest and wisest man in the tribe, a medicine man named Running Wolf. The medicine man told them of a long ago time when other whites, cruel men in gleaming metal armor, had come to the San Berdoo in search of gold…”
“The Spaniards,” breathed Karen.
Ferd gulped his wine. “Exactly, the Spaniards. They had come to the mountain on their horses hundreds of years earlier, made slaves of the Indians, tried to take away their ancient religion… Anyway, according to the medicine man, just when it looked like the Spaniards would destroy the tribe, a terrible white demon had appeared on the mountain and began killing them off, catching them alone by their campfires at night, ripping out their throats and drinking their blood….”
“Ferd, I’m warning you,” said Terry, wriggling to free herself from his clutches.
“Relax,” said Ferd, “I’m just getting to the best part.” He kissed her freckled cheek and winked again at the others. “Anyway, this maiden–the thing the Indians called the Pale Spirit–freaked the Spaniards out so bad they cut and ran, leaving everything behind them; their gold, their tools, everything….”
Karen smiled, disappointed. “What kind of a campfire story is that?” she asked. “Campfire stories are supposed to be weird and spooky, without happy endings…”
Ferd gazed into the crackling flames. “You didn’t let me finish,” he said. “You see, after the Spaniards left, the Pale Spirit stayed. And it started killing the Indians, hunting them down like animals, ripping out their throats and feasting on their blood….”
“I am going to throw up,” warned Terry.
“It was cunning,” Ferd intoned without looking at her, “luring the Indians to it by taking on the shape of a beautiful woman… luring them closer and closer and then, when they least expected it… springing for their throats, slicing into their jugulars with her razor sharp fangs…”
“Ferd, dammit!” Terry leaped to her feet and stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at him.
“Then what?” Terry prompted.
Ferd shrugged. “Then the Indians left this part of the mountain,” he said. “They stayed away for nearly three hundred years…. until the white man came back. Until Running Wolf came up here and made camp at the edge of the lake; just a few hundred feet from the exact spot this cabin stands on, as a matter of fact.”
“I’m not listening to this,” said Terry, stomping angrily out of the room.
“Running Wolf camped for three days and three nights,” said Ferd, “fasting and chanting his death song up into the mountains…”
“Why,” asked Karen, frowning.
Ferd smiled. “Because he knew,” Ferd answered, raising an arm and pointing toward the lake beyond the log walls.
“He knew that the Pale Spirit would hear his chant and come for his blood, and when it did, he knew it would see the lights of the white mans’ fires at the far end of the lake and that it would smell their blood too, and that it would hunt them again, like it had the Spaniards….”
“And?” Karen was leaning forward now, trying to read the expression hidden in the deeply shadowed sockets of the big jock’s eyes.
“And on the third night the thing came down from the mountain,” he whispered. “It came in the shape of a beautiful white woman, gliding silently through the trees. And it killed the old medicine man swiftly and painlessly and drank his blood, then it raised its glowing yellow eyes to the sparkling waters of the lake, and it saw that the white man had returned to Condor Lake.”
Ferd turned to the couple shivering in the easy chair by the fire and grinned, his big white teeth flashing red in the firelight. “And then it began to hunt the miners, coming down to the town night after night to feed, snatching them behind the saloons when they were drunk, creeping into their beds when they were asleep….”
“And then?” Karen’s voice was a low whisper.
Ferd shrugged, draining the last of the wine into his cup. “And then the gold petered out and the miners all went away and the mountain was empty again until people began coming up here in the nineteen-thirties to build summer cabins and camps and things.” He got to his feet and walked to the window, gazing theatrically out into the thickly falling snow and his voice became foreboding. “But every once in a while–usually in the off season, when there aren’t too many people around–some drifter will just disappear, and usually when that happens somebody will have seen the figure of a beautiful woman outlined against the sky up in the high country.” Ferd turned back to face them and his eyes glittered in the flickering light. “And the Indians say it’s the Pale Spirit up there. And they say she’s coming back to avenge the ruin of her sacred hunting ground. And one night real soon she’s going to come all the way back down here to the lake and start taking victims again, because she craves fresh human blood….
“I am never going to speak to you again, Ferdinand Kramer,” screamed Terry from the kitchen.