Some articles may include Amazon affiliate links. All proceeds go help us pay for original stories and support writers of speculative fiction. Read more here.
The Trail of the Beast
By Matt Spencer
Prologue: Three Months After the Solar Storm
At nineteen, Ronald “Fishhook” Fairbanks figured he’d seen it all. Over the back end of Summer, he’d seen a whole lot more. For one thing, he’d never expected to see a dude get chopped in half with a Goddamn sword. By the end of the early Autumn day, that wouldn’t even be the weirdest thing he witnessed, or the worst.
That morning, he woke up in a ditch, under a blanket of leaves. He couldn’t remember his dreams, but he knew they’d been bad. He sat up, brushed most of the leaves out of his face and hair, blinked his eyes clear, and looked at the sky. He almost panicked, because it wasn’t the same sky anymore. So what if he should be used to it by now? It still freaked him out, whenever he woke up looking at it. It never had gone back to normal after the solar storm, never lost that weird, sickly, purple-orange tinge.
Fishhook twisted the worst of the snap-crackle-pops out of his body, hoisted his bag over one shoulder, shuffled to the edge of the road, and stopped dead in his tracks. A little kid stood on the other side of the road, staring at him, four or five he guessed by the height, dressed even shabbier than himself, in plain brown shirt and britches with legs and sleeves falling to the knees and elbows, with dirty bare feet. No, wait, hold up. That wasn’t a kid. It was a fully grown, evenly proportioned adult, except only three or four feet tall.
Fishhook blinked, made sure he was seeing this right. “Hello?” he shouted. “Hey, what’s up!”
The short fucker just kept staring, past Fishhook. When he looked around, another face peered out of the bushes, on the other side of the ditch. It was shaped like a human face, but it sure as shit wasn’t human. It wasn’t staring out of the bushes, either, but rather was made of them. Branches and leaves jutted and twined together, pressing against each other at just-so angles, so they formed a jaw, eyebrows and forehead. Knotty clumps formed the chin and cheeks, with the leaves from two parallel horizontal branches for lips, two budding pods that hung in twin hollows for eyes. The breeze drifted through the bush, fluttering the face so it moved, like it was talking to the short fucker across the road. When the air went still, so did the face.
Fishhook spun back around. The short fucker was gone. When he looked again, the bush still had a face. Plants could play tricks on the eyes at funny angles, sure, but such illusions usually faded once you looked closer. The more Fishhook looked at this one, though, the clearer he saw it. Its gleaming seed-pod eyes looked right back at him.
He shivered, muttered, “Well, fuck you too, then, you freaky bitch,” turned, and hurried up the road, doing his best not to look off into the woods. He didn’t want to see more plants with faces, or something even freakier.
At sixteen, Fishhook’s birth-family had kicked him out of the house for being queer. Well, kicked out wasn’t technically accurate. More like he’d left on his own, because his piece-of-shit stepdad would have beaten him to death for it otherwise. Since then, he’d found his brothers and sisters of the road and the rails, and he’d been to plenty of their funerals; all in nice, neat funeral parlors, with open caskets displaying serene, well-dressed, made-up mannequin-like young corpses, of boys and girls who’d died of overdoses, stabbings, shootings, beatings, or exposure. Anyone who showed up who’d known the departed—really known them—might think they’d wandered into the wrong place. More than once, Fishhook had wondered, when his time came, how many of his real friends would show up and ask, Who the fuck is Ronald Fairbanks?
Fishhook hadn’t touched any drugs in months, yet ever since the solar storm, it seemed like the whole world had overdosed on bad acid. He hadn’t seen any of the others in a while; Shipwreck, Scags, Skunk, Stonewall, old Boxcar, Abby, any of them. He usually caught up with folks on the rails, and he’d been avoiding trains like the plague lately. Where the trains still ran, folks said, those railroad bulls had cracked down, gotten twice as diligent and four times as mean. They didn’t even bother to arrest you anymore, just beat you to death, lucky if they didn’t pull a train on your ass first, and that’s if the freaky people—the things—didn’t catch you first.
Who the hell had Fishhook first heard about the things from? Skunk? Yeah, probably. Of course that crazy motherfucker would believe something like that. Except Skunk had never had that much of an imagination. The last time they’d ridden the rails together, though, he wouldn’t shut up about the people from another dimension who you had to watch out for now. Then as the weeks passed, Fishhook heard more folks spouting the same shit…the same strange words and names…
Schomite. Spirelight. Crimbone. And finally, High Natural.
Since the solar storm, cell phone service had come back in some places, but WiFi was a thing of the past. That threw a wrench in anyone keeping up with anyone. The last time Fishhook had seen Abby, she’d mentioned she’d be in Chattanooga in a few weeks, visiting some cousins. If he’d kept track of time right, she should be there by now. So that’s where he was headed.
When the solar storm happened, there’d been a lot of train wrecks, all at once, all over the country, along with plane crashes, prison riots, riots on the streets of major cities…Hell, some people claimed the military had turned on and eaten itself, which was why not even the National Guard had swooped in, to either save everyone or just fuck everything up worse. Nowadays, the back roads were the closest place left to safe. Chattanooga sounded too densely populated for Fishhook’s liking, but if he could just get there and find Abby, maybe he could get his bearings. She’d given him her cousins’ address. If he could just find her—find anyone he trusted who was left—then maybe…
Whenever he heard a vehicle whirring towards his back, he stepped a little further off to the side and stuck his thumb out. A few cars and trucks blasted past him. There were fewer of them these days, and hitching was always a crapshoot, more so in some parts of the country than others. Here in the middle of the damn Bible Belt, you got fewer motorists willing to take a chance on a dude with ratty dreadlocks, with ears and a face full of piercings, including a big septum ring, wearing a beat-up leather jacket covered in radical political buttons. To be fair, they had more reason than usual to be suspicious. Maybe they thought he was one of those others, never mind that he was five-five and weighed a hundred and forty pounds soaking wet, probably less by now.
Something big and clanking slowed to a stop behind him. He turned and saw a long, gray pickup with a rattling U-Haul trailer hooked to the back. Two people sat up front within the truck, which had a backseat in it, to Fishhook’s relief. The U-Haul had a dinosaur painted along the side, advertising some resort out in California that probably didn’t exist anymore. The truck pulled over onto the shoulder. Fishhook hurried up alongside it and yanked on the right rear passenger door. He found it locked. The front passenger window cranked down.
“Just a moment, son,” crooned the driver. “Before we let you in…do a little dance for us. You know what I mean.”
Until a few months ago, Fishhook would have gone, You gotta be shittin’ me. A year or so back, he’d spent part of his winter on the streets of Manhattan. He was only half black, and usually passed for Caucasian. That hadn’t stopped the NYPD pigs from pulling over to harass him for a laugh, to make him do the chicken-dance. For all the stereotypes about the North and the South, the racist bullshit he’d encountered in Tennessee had nothing on what he’d gotten from the New York pigs. Except he’d heard the driver’s tone, and he knew that wasn’t the issue here. He still froze up.
The driver leaned over towards the glove box. A knob turned and it dropped open. Fishhook heard a pistol cock. “You know what I mean,” the driver repeated.
Fishhook’s extremities tightened. His heart pounded while the edges of his jaw quivered with deer-in-the-headlights dread. He wanted to tell the driver to fuck off, wait for the next ride, but lately, that might still be an invitation to get his head blown off. He let his pack slide off his stinging shoulders, then he hopped like a bunny, waving his arms around like some poor bastard in a stupid costume spinning a sign outside a tax-return office.
“Okay, that’s good enough. Well, go on now, Fran. Let the boy in.”
The front seat passenger twisted around, reached back, and pulled the lock up.
Fishhook hoisted his pack, opened the door, climbed in, and tossed the pack across the other side of the long back seat. It smelled like a thousand years of stale dust and wood chips in there. It reminded him of his dad’s truck when he was a little kid, before his mom had won the custody battle and hooked up with that right-wing scumbag who’d become his stepfather. Fishhook bit back on the urge to break down sobbing. His real dad had always been a kind man, fuck what his mom had told the judge. Would he have still been a kind man if he’d been around long enough to find out his son was a queer? Fishhook liked to think so.
He noticed another smell in here, like old rotten eggs. He fumbled around ’til he found the seat belt strap, then buckled up. The driver up front looked absurdly small, almost a midget, coming up barely high enough to see over the dash. Fishhook remembered the other weird little fucker from earlier, but no, this guy was just a really short dude. He had big, pale, bespectacled bug eyes, with silky salt-and-pepper hair cascading from beneath a dark blue ball cap, around a narrow, weather-beaten, stubbly face. His jaw and cheeks had that sunken quality, from the bone-deterioration that happened after smoking too much meth. He wore a checkered green and white shirt, with sleeves that were too big around his gnarled, spidery hands. He put the pistol back in the glove box and returned both hands to the wheel. Next to him, there sat a woman with pasty, pillowy arms, beneath a sloping, wrinkly neck, supporting a wobbly head that looked too small for the rest of her, covered in pale, patchy, stringy hair. She smiled at Fishhook, showing off more black gaps and tortured red gums than teeth. Looking at the two of them side by side, Fishhook got the impression of an insomnia-crazed Kermit the Frog and a googly-eyed, lobotomized Miss Piggy.
The truck lurched back onto the lonely highway and sped off through this world that wasn’t the world anymore. Fishhook only just now noticed a tiny ceramic crucifix dangling from the windshield mirror. Great. Jesus freaks. Just my luck.
“Sorry I had to scare you like that, son. I had to make sure. You understand.”
“Make sure of what?” Fishhook got the gist, but he had to make sure too. There were a lot of versions of the story going around. Fishhook still didn’t know what to believe, but someone else’s ideas about it could mean the difference between life and death.
“That you’re a man. That the bones beneath your flesh move the way a man’s skeleton is supposed to move. That you don’t move like one of the abominations.”
“Yeah, I get it. A Crimbone, you mean.”
The old guy nodded, keeping his eyes on the road. “What’s your name, son?”
“Fishhook,” said Fishhook.
“No it ain’t,” hiccupped the old bastard. “That’s not your real name, is it?”
“That’s what everyone who knows me calls me.”
“But that’s not the name your loving parents gave you, is it? It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. My name’s Norm. This is my wife Fran.”
Fran looked back at Fishhook, gave him that infected, gappy smile again, and waved with a hand like a speckled, flesh-colored Mickey Mouse glove. “Hi!”
“Hi.” Fishhook waved back, even though her high-pitched voice made his skin crawl.
“You want some coffee?” said Norm. “You’re shivering like a leaf back there.” He pulled a thermos from a drink holder and held it back.
“Yeah, that’d be great. Man, thank you so much!” He grabbed the thermos and unscrewed the cap. Steam wafted out. The first gulp burned his tongue. He almost gagged, then tilted the thermos, blew on the liquid’s surface, and sipped slower. It tasted like shitty gas-station coffee, but he didn’t care. The warmth flooding his veins reminded him what true relaxation felt like.
“Where are you headed to, son?” said Norm.
“I’m trying to get to Chattanooga. I’ve got a friend waiting for me there. Or at least she said she would be, before…well…all this craziness.”
Norm nodded. “A girlfriend, then?”
Fishhook glanced at the cross dangling from the dashboard mirror. “Yeah.”
“Chattanooga is on our way. The place used to be a good, God-fearing city. These days, though…I still own land up in the north, son. That’s where we’re going, where we hear things are still good. You and your girlfriend could come with us…”
“Maybe. I’ll have to see what she wants to do.”
‘We’ll be stopping in Rock Spring soon. This highway takes us straight through the center of it. Have you been to Rock Spring, son?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Lovely little town. God-fearing people there. At least I hope that’s still the case. We’ll have to stop for gas there. If the Lord is on our side, there will still be a gas station open. Amazing that there are still gas stations open anywhere, when you think about it, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess it is.”
“That’s why people don’t realize the end times are already here. They all expected it to happen at once. After the sky let the fire loose on us, you’d think that would be that, but no, it’s still happening slowly. Lots of people still have electricity. They still go out to eat, would still go to the movies if there was anyone out in Hollywood still making them or shipping them to picture houses…act like this big old world keeps spinning on as always. But I take one look at you, boy, and see that you’ve seen it too.”
Fishhook sipped more coffee from the thermos. “Yeah. Yeah, no shit, right?”
“You know, further down south, there is the town where I grew up. I courted and married Fran there.” As if on cue, Fran looked back at Fishhook, smiled and nodded. Thankfully, she didn’t open her mouth this time. Maybe that meant there was a god. “Fran and I here used to have a program, on the local radio station, talking of the word of the Lord. When the Lord unleashed the wrath of the sun, he spared our radio station, so we might continue to preach our ministry to whoever was still out there listening, right when more people needed to hear it than ever. Except the people no longer liked to hear us tell what the good Lord had to say. I was forced off the airwaves, for speaking the truth of our Lord. Even now, while society falls apart, people still find ways to tell themselves that our civilization has not already abandoned us. Soon, only one civilization shall remain…that of our Lord’s making. That will be the Kingdom. It was censorship, plain and simple. People don’t want to give up the evils they think define them. You can’t be one of the drug-addicts, in the Kingdom. You can’t be a fornicator in the Kingdom. You can’t be one of the homosexuals, in the Kingdom.”
Fuck, Fishhook couldn’t get out of this truck fast enough. The guy’s being nice. So is his wife. He doesn’t have to know who you are. No one’s making you suck their dick for a hit, or anything like that. Count your blessings. It’ll all be over soon enough.
Fishhook also noticed that he really needed to piss. Damn, he should have done that back on the roadside. He tried to will the contents of his bladder further up through his abdomen, away from his aching dick. “Yeah, I know, right? Say, how far are we from…wait, which town, man?”
“Rock Spring. Just another mile or so.”
Even with the windows up, the closer to Rock Spring they drove, the more something smelled like burning pork. It didn’t exactly cancel out the rotten egg smell, but it made Fishhook pay a lot less attention to it. The truck rounded a bend, and he saw all those little boxes made of ticky-tacky buildings of downtown Rock Spring, Tennessee, nestled in the shadow of the Smoky Mountain ranges. Half the town was on fire, including a red caboose in what used to be the yard of the local historical society.
“Norm?” squeaked Fran. “What’s going on? I don’t like this.”
“I don’t like it either, hon. Just sit tight. Now what in the world…”
“We should turn around.”
“We can’t. This is our route to where we’re going.”
“So we can find another route! Come on, honey, we can find one that doesn’t…”
“Doesn’t what? Make us to look in the eye what the Lord hath placed before us? No, my dear, many are those who would avert their eyes, and look where that’s gotten us.”
“Man, seriously,” said Fishhook, “listen to your wife. This is no good.”
“You’re speaking out of turn, young man. I don’t recall asking—”
The nearer the center of town drew, the louder the screams echoed. Fishhook twisted around against the seatbelt in rising agitation. “Dude, look, I know when I’m in a bad place that it’s time to get clear of, and this—”
“We will be clear of it soon enough. Now hush.” The truck sped up.
Far ahead, a soot-covered woman ran screaming out of a burning municipal building. She tripped, fell, got back up and shambled a little, then sprinted across a big, green common-area lawn. What she ran from came from every doorway, alleyway and corner, converging towards her…bodies that did move with superhuman speed and agility, like they didn’t have real human skeletons under their filthy, scarred skin. They weren’t dressed like Fishhook or any of his old train-hopper buddies. Some of them weren’t wearing clothes at all. They all looked like those others, some with the mottled, swirly skin folks now called Schomite or Crimbone or whatever, others with the gleaming, pearly, whiter-than-white elf-like builds of those called Spirelights. It didn’t matter anymore. Some new master had united them, under a banner of rape, murder and plunder. None of the safeguards of so-called modern civilization were left to do shit about it.
The fleeing girl must have had a good thirty feet head-start. One of the Schomites stretched out its gnarly clawed hand and grabbed her, like time and space folded between them to close the distance. It tackled her to the ground, ripping her clothes off, its teeth tearing and worrying into the flesh beneath.
Something hit the side of Norm’s truck. The whole world spun through the air…
Blood stung Fishhook’s eyes. When he wiped at it, his arm screamed.
Oh fuck, oh fuck, don’t let it be broken, don’t let it be broken…
Shattered glass blanketed him like sharp snowflakes. Some of it stuck in his face and hands. Someone kept screaming. At first, he thought it was him, then he realized it was Fran. His jaw felt like someone had popped it off and stuck it back on upside down. All that came out of his mouth were huffs and grunts. The whole world screamed, along with every nerve in his body.
One of his eyes still more or less worked. Except every time he opened or closed it, he saw something different. There was Fran up front, shrieking and gyrating. Next to her, Norm stared blankly, over the steering wheel embedded in his chest. Through Norm’s window, Fishhook could see the top of the police car that had broadsided them. The red and blue lights still spun and flashed while smoke rose from the mangled hood. One of the cops moved like a drunk toddler while he tried to pull his partner out of the wreckage. He was gray with ash, except where scarlet streamed from his scalp, down his side. The wrecked cop car wasn’t the only siren blaring. It sounded like there were a lot of them, for miles around.
A grumbling whoosh sounded somewhere. Flames licked out of the edges of the twisted hood of the truck, small and pale at first, then dark with smoke, puffing out thicker and thicker. They leaked past the border of the shattered windshield, into the truck. Norm didn’t appear to mind, probably because he was dead. Fran shrieked louder and thrashed furiously. Her seat rocked and banged against Fishhook’s knees.
Fishhook tried to bolt, but his seat belt held him in place. He tried to unbuckle it, then shrieked because he’d just used his fucked-up arm. Yep, it was definitely broken. Shit! He took a few deep, rapid, whistling breaths to get himself under control. His good hand shook as it found the button. The belt snapped and slithered away. When he tried the door handle, it refused to budge. The whole rig was twisted around him. He rammed the door with his shoulder. Bigger flames were filling the front seat. Fran squalled like a bobcat caught in a trap. Parts of her face turned red, bubbling up with welts full of boiling white pus It smelled a lot worse than the rotting-egg scent from earlier. Fishhook drew up sideways across the seat and mule-kicked the door, once, twice, thrice…
The hinges gave, so the cold air spilled in on him…
Concrete pressed against his shoulder, shoving chips of broken glass through his coat so they bit into his arm. Every time he thought he’d gotten the pain under control, it seemed, another part of his body moved funny, so his whole being lit back up with grinding, shrieking raw nerves. He smelled more burning buildings, more burning flesh.
I have to move. I can’t, though. I don’t want to. Why am I even conscious? Can’t I just go back to sleep? Just let all this go away…
His eyes opened and closed, opened and closed…
Someone let out a furious howl. At first, Fishhook thought it was one of those things, closing in on him. Then a dark shadow passed overhead. He shifted sideways and tried to crawl under the truck, but the rising fumes sent him scuttling back the other way.
His eyes opened and closed, opened and closed…
Everything blurred in and out of focus. His fucked-up arm felt just as bad as before, but it seemed further away now. He got a grip on the next overturned car and pulled himself to his feet.
An echoing clash shook the earth, of metal striking metal…with a chime that reverberated through the concrete, beneath his feet, a sound that pulsed through his whole being. At first, he assumed it was another car accident, but that was wishful thinking. No, it was the clash of otherworldly matter against otherworldly matter…something that shouldn’t even exist in this world, yet there it was.
When his eyes snapped back open, he saw the center of the town lawn. Two of those freaks had just slammed into each other, howling with elemental bloodlust. What the hell was Fishhook watching? This was nuts! It looked almost like a kung-fu fight in some Jet Li movie on TV, but the more his vision cleared, the more it looked like two wild animals ripping each other apart, quicker than the human eye could follow…both of them swinging long, curved blades of black metal, ’til one deflected the other’s downward chop and sidestepped him with a diagonal slice. A meaty crunch sounded. The loser split open and hung in two directions like a blooming flower, his insides gleaming and gushing…because another man had just chopped him in half like a head of cabbage, with a fucking sword. A sword made of unearthly black metal. Fuck!
The winner righted himself, let out a joyous growl, then looked at the split-open body, which was somehow still standing. He gave it a boot to the ass so it fell over, spilling its insides across the grass. That’s when Fishhook noticed the whole lawn alive with a melee from some other reality, an even weirder one than the last few months. Fishhook couldn’t even tell who was on whose side…until the swooping shape descended…
Fishhook’s eyes opened and closed, opened and closed…
More meaty crunches sounded, as blades cleaved through bones and organs, everywhere. From where he leaned, Fishhook still heard Fran shrieking. The burning truck wasn’t that far away, still somewhere to his left. He was no badass, that was for sure—and now that he saw all those otherworldly mutant freaks hacking the shit out of each other in the distance, he realized he didn’t want to be—but there was no way was gonna leave someone to burn to death like that, not if he could help it. He lurched, righted himself, hobbled halfway over to the truck. Then the heat of the blaze pulsed in his face, repelling him like a wall of pure, hot energy. Fran stopped screaming. Fishhook’s guts turned to liquid and tried to fall out of his asshole.
Plenty of other folks kept screaming, people who lived around here, while the otherworldly marauders dragged them out of their homes and jobs, while they laid waste to the infrastructure. Big, greasy rednecks came out brandishing shotguns, pistols, semi-automatics, automatics, you name it. At first, they looked happy as pigs in shit to finally get a chance to act like the local militia against the invaders…until they started shooting, and it didn’t do a squirt of piss worth of good, except to get the things’ attention. Fishhook couldn’t tell if the creatures moved fast enough to dodge bullets, or if the bullets just didn’t hurt them. Either way, they swarmed in on the gunmen. Before Fishhook knew it, the shooting had stopped, replaced by more blood, guts, hair, teeth and eyeballs flying all over the place.
Out on the lawn, a strange sort of circle had formed. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Fishhook had gotten a sense of the two sides fighting each other. The ones who’d attacked the town were made up of both those dirty, animalistic freaks and those…pale, gleaming, whiter-than-white elf-like fuckers…Spirelights; that was the word for them, right? Except weren’t those two sides supposed to be fighting each other? What the hell were they doing, ganging up on this town together? The ones who’d come to fight them all seemed to be the other kind, the beastly ones…Crimbone? It was like they’d swarmed in out of the hills, as though to defend the place…baited into a trap, apparently, one which must have worked, given how few of the latter were left, and by the way the leader strutted back and forth like a rooster in a hen house.
Fishhook couldn’t make sense of the leader’s appearance. It looked like a cartoon animal version of Axl Rose or Kid Rock or one of those assholes, the cap of its head tied up in a dirty red bandana, but with a jutting, deformed snout like a dog’s face, with big dragon wings fanning out on either side. And it was dripping in blood, from head to toe…blood, and who knew what other fluids.
“Okay,” the creature’s voice boomed, while it rubbed at its crotch, “this is where the Daddy told me to git shit rollin’. Can’t tell why just yet. Place looks like a shit hole to me. Still, I gots ta say, not a bad Goddamn start at all. Ain’t that right, bitches? Why, just look at all these bitchass so-called Crimbone we got here to start replenishin’ our ranks with.” The creature cast an eye around, at the last of the gnarly defenders who’d been herded into the circle. “Why, it’s almost like they all swam right up to our fishhook, ain’t it?”
In that moment, it might have been Fishhook’s imagination, but he swore the monster peered across the expanse and looked him right in the eye. That’s when he quit pretending not to be a coward, when he booked it, quick as he could, back behind the nearest wrecked vehicle that wasn’t on fire.
“Not as big a haul as we’d hoped for, but that’s okay. Shit, this won’t do at all. No, wait, let me check.” A crunch split the air, followed by another shriek, along with a wet, ripping noise. “Gah, peh, these here Earth-line bastards an’ bitches get more rancid every stop! Oh well, catch as catch can. Nah, nah, nah, boys, you take ’er easy with the good folks of this cute little town. The meat tastes better when you get it off the bones alive.”