This story is by LJ Peacock and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was a dead thing, cold and silent, that jagged half-mountain the locals said had once been a volcano. Now it was covered in tangled old trees and creeping vines whose thick and leathery leaves were too spongy and too cool to the touch, like fevered flesh. The dead mountain drew the dead things to it, and it waited.
Justin Strange looked upon the mountain and flinched.
‘And here we have our first look at Cave Top Mountain,’ their guide enthused, following Justin’s gaze out the bus window and gesturing at it with both hands, like they do in the infomercials.
Justin mustered a smile back at her and nudged Annie to do the same. His wife merely threw him a grimace, which he returned on instinct and then wished he hadn’t. What was wrong with them these days? He had been arguing with Annie these last months like a man possessed – she hardly even spoke to him anymore.
Their bus passed into the shadow of the mountain and their hotel came into view: a strange, squat little thing clinging to the base of the mountain like some sort of parasite. It gave Justin the jeebies.
‘Is this it?’ he asked as they followed their little group inside.
‘You chose it,’ said Annie.
It was true so Justin moved to the window, squinting up at the mountain again even though it set him on edge. He stared, mesmerised, unable to look away. Higher up, the wind was picking up, trees swaying in sudden little pockets. An image struck him: a shoal of fish, pilot fish, moving with the motion of a large, hungry shark. He looked away – just in time to see his own reflection disappear from the window with a snap and the shadow of a man appear in its place – a deathly pale figure with sunken, milky eyes. Justin lept back, landing on his ass. What the-?
‘There was – out there – someone!’ Justin said, somehow managing to stop himself from saying it had been a dead man – a ghost. But it had been, hadn’t it? Justin stared at his own frightened reflection in the window and realised something. The dead man – it had been him! Dead, half-rotten. And angry.
Justin got up, looking around for Annie, and saw her watching him from across reception – frowning at him for making a scene. That stopped him in his tracks, but then anger welled up from deep inside him. Justin seethed at her, at all of them, for sticking to their own safe little worlds, for ignoring the dead and denying them their voices. What? He needed to get out of there, to think. Justin followed the group to their cluster of rooms, calmly locked his door and then, finally alone, rushed over to pull the curtains and shut the mountain out.
But he couldn’t.
Justin clutched the curtains, hands shaking, battling something powerful inside him. Before he knew it, he was staring numbly at the mountain again. It was so powerful, so very angry. It understood him and it fed him. No, not him – the other him! His dead self was there again, in the window. It was nothing more than a shadow in glass but it stared at him with such hatred. Justin felt himself lift his hand to his mouth but the image in front of him did nothing. It just stared into Justin’s eyes and then, very slowly, bared its teeth at him. Justin backed up and the shadow – thing – stepped out of the glass and into the bedroom.
‘Vessel,’ it said. It hadn’t moved its mouth, the voice was in Justin’s head: a vicious and mocking voice, gravelly with lack of use.
Justin backed up again, now he was trapped against the wall. The creature leered at him.
‘Vessel, you have done well to obey me and bring me to this place. The mountain has fed me and freed me. And now you will pay the mountain, in sacrifice.’
Justin cowered from it. It still looked like him but it was rotting worse than ever, patches of dead skin melting from its flesh leaving deep, open gouges on its face and arms. From a long way away a deep, booming, banging sound had started, like mighty ceremonial drums from a long-dead ritual.
‘Obey me, vessel,’ the thing that looked like his corpse said, beckoning him. Justin swayed forwards as it forced its will upon him. He knew that feeling, he realised, he’d been having it for months. The pieces fell into place. France. That creepy chateau, that’s where this had started. Justin thought of Annie, of all the fights they’d had since that trip. This thing, this evil spirit, had been possessing him all this time.
With a shock, Justin realised he’d been moving towards the creature in thoughtless obedience. He threw himself back, landing on his ass, scrabbling back against the wall. The creature hissed.
‘You fool! The mountain must be paid!’
It was pointing out the window to where all was red light and fire. The volcano was active! A swell of lava was sliding towards the patio doors, burning, destroying. The drums banged louder, faster, more urgent.
‘The mountain wants your life, human. Or your soul. It looks hungry. Yes, perhaps your soul.’
Justin was curled into a ball, trying to block the creature out, think for himself. The creature watched then reached out for him, thoughtfully caressing his side. Its touch was like ice water. Justin gasped reflexively, recoiling from it. It laughed, its frayed, rotting mouth suddenly inches from Justin’s.
‘If you do not pay the mountain, you must become my vessel again,’ it whispered in a parody of seduction. ‘We can leave this place together – there are other places in the world where the walls are thin, and not all of them are guarded by powerful things that feed. In those places you can free me and live.’
As it spoke it showed Justin images of other mountains, of desolate clifftops and rotting bogs. It would be so easy to agree, but with slick, sickening certainty, Justin knew that even if he freed the thing – and himself – it would just roam the world and torment others. Justin moaned in misery and the creature laughed softly in reply.
‘The mountain is coming, Justin. Make your decision.’
The lava was at the window. The drums stopped dead, waiting. Thumping and banging started up but it was the sound of people banging on the bedroom door. Annie was out there, shouting his name. Justin was decided. He scrambled to his feet, resolve hardening within him.
‘Creature. I will join with you-‘ he said, fighting to keep his voice steady. The creature pulled its bloodless lips into a grin and reached out. Justin put his shaking palm to the creature’s withered hand, just as he had done to the creepy gargoyle statue at the chateau for that silly Instagram picture they liked. The gargoyle – is that what this thing looked like? They touched.
His dead self disappeared and Justin felt the creature’s presence inside him again – angry, controlling. He sucked in a breath, concentrating on the people outside, on Annie’s desperate voice. He would need everything he had to end this.
‘Creature, you did not hear my choice,’ he said. The creature was trying to force him towards the door but Justin was fighting it, taking jerky steps towards the window. ‘I choose both to join with you – and to sacrifice!’
The door burst open. There was no time. Justin threw himself to the floor under the window. Annie rushed in, grabbing for him. Outside, the lava surged towards the window, glass shattering all over them. The creature inside him fought for control while people pulled at his legs, trying to drag him away. Justin screamed in frustration and kicked out, breathing in ash and fumes that burned his lungs. He tried to push Annie away. She grabbed his hand – and something inside him leapt. He felt joy, true joy, for the first time in months. It surged through him and brought him to his feet. He could move – the creature had gone! But gone where? Annie was staring at him, looking stunned. He grabbed her, and just ran for it: the doorway, the hall, a fire exit. They were going to make it!
Outside, thick ash fell from the sky. Justin fought through it, pulling Annie with him: they had so much to live for now. The minibus was there, lights blazing, engine revving, and soon they were lurching downhill, a busload of survivors: guests, staff, and his sweet Annie, held tightly to his chest. He muttered soothing things to her through burnt and cracked lips.
‘It’s all going be fine now,’ he said.
She hummed in agreement and he kissed her head. But the thing that now possessed her raged. Beside him, her reflection in the bus window raised its dead and sunken face to him, and scowled.