We launch the Rouges Literary Desk with this short story from Nick Luna
The scotch burned my lips, then proceeded to walk its fires through my mouth and down my throat. The electric lights remained darkened like the dark recesses of the space beyond the moon. Candlelight flickered and danced across the pages of this diary. It is a rushed affair, I understand, as I pen these last thoughts and facts. I know, as did the men who accompanied me, that the horn that blows in my nightmare, with every slumber, grows closer and brings havoc of such horrid things I dare not put into writing.
I have seen the mechanical death wrought on man during the Great War, the war that was to end all wars. The twisted, mangled caricatures of what was once the faces of our fellow man, rotting, their stench wreathing about the muddy trenches of Flanders field. Yet, their screams, still vivid to my mind with every silence and their eyes, still with me upon every blink is nothing compared to the shrieks and ghoulish wraiths that haunt my dreams.
Such a trivial thing, looking back on it. War, man against man, our lifeblood nurturing the poppy flowers and fields of wild grass. The smell of metal heavy on the air, and yet, at the time it seemed so, dire, so important! We marched, singing, if you can believe that, but, this story is only partially mine, but has nothing to do with cutting my teeth in that machine gunfire.
In the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-three, I was working in a military hospital in Baghdad, supporting the British expeditionary forces. It was a rather quiet assignment after the kingdom of Rashid Ali was brought down and the Germans were defeated, but in the fighting, something particular happened to a small group of men.
The men had come into contact with an overwhelmingly massive German division near the spot that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, near the Persian Gulf, but, as I wasn’t there I can only give you the account of a young Lieutenant Barnaby Wright.
I met the Lieutenant while working the rounds late one night. He was talking in his sleep, screaming like a man running from some fiend in his dreams. He muttered about a horn, a horn that was getting nearer, and nearer, then he would scream quite queerly, waking the other men in their beds. I took to shaking him till his eyes shot open, white, still rolled back in his head as he gasped for air like some beast drug up from the depths of the deep, cold ocean. He blinked, once, then twice and the quivering stopped and his eyes righted themselves.
“Lieutenant, are you all right?” I asked in almost a whisper. I knew the look of combat fatigue, had seen the grim faces of young men that have seen more than God had intended when he created us.
He shook his head yes, then whispered, “It’s coming for me, just like the rest of them.”
“How about you come with me.” I said, finding a curiosity in his words.
He looked at me a little bewildered, almost taken aback by the suggestion. His eyes darted around the room, before he whispered, “okay.”
I helped the young Lieutenant out of his small bed and like a child he grabbed my hand. We walked past the other patients, who were letting sleep take them back to the dream world when I waved a nurse over.
“I am taking him to my office, with the door shut maybe he can sleep without waking the other men,” I said to her in a hushed tone. “If you need me, you need only come knock.”
“Yes, sir.” She said before walking away.
We made our way to a small corridor, one that I had walked so many times before without the slightest worry when I felt what seemed like a cold stream of water rush down my back. The hairs on my neck stood at attention and goose skin formed on my arms. Almost at that exact moment the young Lieutenant froze, his hand grasped mine tighter and he whispered something inaudible.
“What was that?” I asked politely.
“Did you not hear that?” He asked very quietly. I could feel his hand begin to quiver again.
“The horn.” He mouthed to me.
“I did not.” I answered before leading him to my office. Once inside I lit a kerosene lantern and hung it from the ceiling and sat him on the small couch.
“Whiskey?” I asked as I shuffled to my desk. From the bottom drawer, I removed a large bottle, half-filled and two glasses.
“Yes.” He answered holding his hand to his head.
I poured a drink for both of us, shuffled back around and handed him the glass.
“I suppose you would like to know about the dreams.” He said after having a large gulp.
“I would be a liar if I said it hadn’t crossed my mind,” I answered.
“The rest of my unit is dead.” He said feebly and broken.
“Died fighting the Germans?” I asked wondering if he was suffering from survivor’s guilt. “Or the Arabs?”
“No.” He answered before finishing the glass. “It got them.”
“It?” I asked as I raised my glass to my lips. The whiskey was warm, the air still. The Lieutenant breathed heavy, listening for some phantom sound.
“It isn’t so simple as an It. It’s hideous, beyond anything the mind can comprehend. It is a hunter, a magnificent beast wrought from only the deepest bounds of hell! And now, It has found me, as It found everyone who stepped into that oasis, save Smith, he kissed the barrel of his automatic.”
Smith, that was a case of madness that had come over the radios but only a week before. The man had killed himself in some compulsive insanity after his closest friend’s heart had given out in his arms.
“His heart didn’t merely go out.” The Lieutenant said as though he had read my very thoughts. “It, it got him, the beast covered in eyes, it sees all and knows all. We made that mad maneuver trying to escape the Germans, trying to get out of their machine gun and rifle fire. The men who died at their hands are the lucky ones. Damn that oasis! Damn its guardian who haunts it!”
“The oasis?” I asked as I took another sip.
“That damned place, queer in its silence and tranquility where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. Fertile grounds breed more than just greens, hell, man, even the graveyards are fertile, silent and tranquil. No, we did not walk in with the fear of the sublime radiance from the sun, but instead of the stahlhelms and swastikas we should, it’s just too much…”
His words were that of a madman, his speech became more and more sickening, till it let up and a smile crossed his face, his teeth gleamed in the dull light. He shifted his head forward, just enough to cast a shadow, making his eyes look ever so menacing.
“The horn.” The Lieutenant said, “it’s close, louder than it was in any dream, I can feel it bearing down on me, I can feel the breathing and wreathing of It.”
We sat in silence, for what seemed all eternity. A silence so overpowering that I could hear the clockwork mechanisms ticking away in my pocket and the sound of the flame consuming its fuel and air.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye.” Lieutenant Barnaby Wright said. I felt the ice water down my back again, then it washed through me. The smile wiped away from his face. He made the sign of the cross, and as he kissed his fingers I watched in horror as he convulsed and contorted, grabbing at his heart he took one last breath, and his glass hit the ground.
I called for the nurse, we did what we could to bring his dead heart back to life, but it was beyond any bandage or repair. Two orderlies came in with a gurney and they carted the young Lieutenant away.
I had seen tens of thousands die, in what seemed like a blink of an eye, but there was something in his eye, right before the life had left it, something fiendish and distorted. The memory ran through my mind, over and over, till I figured it out. He wasn’t looking at me as so much as he was looking through me. Maybe not through me, but at something that stood between him and me.
I paced my office and poured myself another drink. The wicked spirit was the only thing that would calm the trembling. I paced and drank until the bottle was gone, and only when I went to lay on the couch the poor Lieutenant had died on I found his leather-bound diary, but before I could flip through its leaves the darkness of slumber overtook me.
That next morning I was awakened by the intense Arab light of the Baghdad sun trickling in from my window. My head throbbed from the night of spirits and death, but before I could bring myself up to get a cup of strong coffee, I felt the book resting on my chest. I felt as though my sleep was of turmoil. Dreams of fire and fear had clouded the rest, but the book still lay where I had set it before closing my eyes.
Cautiously I opened it, not knowing what I should suspect. At first, it seemed normal. Thoughts of home, the war, our enemy were intertwined with poems and sweet childhood memories. A photo of a young woman, possibly his wife or lover, was placed with care into the seam of one of the pages. About halfway through I found a page simply marked with an X and coordinates. The next several pages were blank, then a detailed account of his nightmare, similar to the one he gave me. With each passing page, his words became more and more jumbled, making less and less sense, until the horn blasts in his dreams became the only cognitive sentence. It was getting louder and louder every time he went to sleep, closer and closer. At one point he described himself as a fox in some Biblical fox hunt.
What had they found, where the two life-giving rivers met? I felt an urge, a push I hadn’t felt since I marched into the blood sports in the fields of Belgium and France. Same enemy, different politics.
At once I sprung to my feet, the throbbing in my head forgotten by this new drive, this need to know what they had found. It was an urge like that that made me chase the bottle, a thirst that had to be satisfied.
Over the next several days I made the preparations necessary to go to Al Qurnah, the city where the Tree of Knowledge was said to be. The people of that place were so proud of that ancient tree, that had seen the rise of the ziggurats and language all the way to the Battle of Qurna where the Ottoman Empire was defeated by the British. Many of the officers I was stationed with had been at that battle, and spoke of the tree that still stood, living against all odds to such an old age.
With the preparations complete I took my leave and joined a battalion of soldiers headed to my destination. The journey itself, but only a half-day of cautious driving, was uneventful, save the nightmares that came about with every nap I attempted to take, ones I had become accustomed to since the Great War, and ones that were frightfully new. Wrought on by some devils that I could only imagine were stirred up from the depths of the dream world as I watched the young Lieutenant wither and die before me.
When my eyes were open I was spending that time deep in the leather-bound diary, taking notes of words that repeated themselves, phrases that popped up in the mad writings of that dead man. He made references to scripts and books that no man of such a simple existence should have known of but he never once named the beast, the It, that was after him. In some of the mad script I was able to find hidden prayers, to God almighty, to the saints and even to some obscure Angels, such as Uriel and Aniel.
The means by which I procured the directions to the ancient tree are of irrelevance to this story, but after but a short walk I came upon it. Its branches were twisted and weather-worn. The few leaves gave sign to life but nothing more. It was surrounded by sand and enclosed by thick ropes. I had asked one of the men I had been riding with for information on the coordinates I sought, the ones written in the diary on the page with an X. he marked it on a local map, and it was in the exact opposite direction from this ancient tree.
I followed the dirt roads towards the setting sun, towards the place the man had discovered something that could be truly evil. Darkness took hold quickly as I made my way closer and closer, at least as far as I could tell navigating that map in almost complete darkness. In the distance, I could hear the sounds of wild dogs and of the other creatures of the night. I walked for what seemed hours and I lost track of the point where all the sounds of the night disappeared before I was encompassed in absolute silence, save the sound of my own boots against the dirt.
It became more and more clear to me that I should have found a room after I saw the tree, that this was no place for one lone soldier of the King, with only a Webly revolver at my side. A certain fear took hold of me all at once as I heard a horn blow in the distance. It felt as though it shook my very spirit as the sound reverberated through me. In an instant, I drew my revolver, for what, I did not know, for whether it had the power to spot the horn’s master, I could not tell you, at least at that time. I stood frozen, with revolver and flashlight, the silence once again encroaching as the last echos died away.
The sounds of the night were still lost, but the wind began to kick up, first as the slightest of breezes, it crept it onto my face, its smell like a graveyard after a spring rain, sweet but off. With each passing moment as I stood like a statue, it picked up, with what sounded like words carried on its infernal chill. This was no wind of the desert. As it began to whirl from every direction, it kicked up dirt and the voice got louder, and louder, hypnotizing me in its damned song! The language was unknown to me, spoken in some soft, yet hellish taunt.
If it wasn’t for the sound of the Merlin-powered Spitfire fighter plane overhead I don’t think I would have come out of that damned state of hypnosis, but after hearing the shuffling before me I believe it was a mercy to have been in that state. My flashlight flickered but with a heavy tap on my leg it came back to life revealing the It Lieutenant Barnaby Wright was so frightened of. I dare not scare my reader with any type of description, save the eyes, hundred upon hundred covered its body, if you could call it so.
My instincts took hold, as a soldier of the crown and in vain I emptied all six cylinders of my revolver into the beast of so many unblinking eyes, but it continued towards me, its hellish gaze ever upon me, never once wavering, as so many Germans had by that gun. As the last cylinder fired, to no effect, I screamed above the wind and the voice, turning and running, running harder than I ever had before, but no matter how hard I pushed myself the wind seemed to be pulling me back, back towards the thing that could not die. The sand in the air became denser as I fought the onslaught of the wind, the voice upon it became louder and louder as I leaned forward, trying my best not to be blown off my feet. At points it felt as though I was only running in place, waiting for the beast to grab me, and do unspeakable things in that tirade of gale winds. Then suddenly, they stopped. Another horn blast kept me running, and when the ringing in my ears ceased I could hear the sounds of the night once more.
The rest of my journey back is all a faded memory, what is true and what is a dream I cannot say. The war ended, for me at least, my babbling about the beast ended with a discharge and I was shipped back home, always watching my back with some newfound paranoia. The dreams began shortly after the events of that night. The horn in the distance, the wind, and the running. I would oftentimes awaken, drenched in sweat, my legs sore as though it were real. It was real, as real as the dead in no man’s land.
I tried everything to stop the dreams, to save myself from my impending predicament. I spent a week, sleeping every night in Carnaki’s electric pentacle, only for the dreams to worsen. The prayers of the Reverend were of no use, and even the leaves of the dreaded Necronomicon, written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred had no passages with which to help me.
It wasn’t till my butler called a priest, with the chance of having an exorcism that I learned just how foolish I was. He listened, intently, before telling me there was nothing to do and giving me my last rights. He promised a proper funeral, a burial in the churchyard, and that he would do what he could to ensure my soul was saved.
I wept, that night and every night after till tonight. The horn is upon me, blown even in the waking hour. The page, wrinkled and stained with my tears and the coordinates burn away in the fireplace. I wish this on no man. You see, it wasn’t that Lieutenant Barnaby Wright was praying for Uriel’s help, no, he was praying for forgiveness, for mercy from the sword of fire he wielded. No exorcism, no prayer could save me, for it was not devils I was running from, but a guardian. Such cruel things, that God has wrought in his wrathful youth.