I wrote this as part of la_la_la_2004, a story-writing event hosted for the purpose of getting our minds off the damn election for a while. The theme was Monsters -- particularly Zombies. I had this idea coming home from a Halloween party on Oct 30th, and strained mightily to put it together by the 31st. I'm very happy with it.

Here is the original post, with some flattering comments from readers. (Thank you!)

You may also wish to look at the other la_la_la_2004, entries. Most of them are specifically fan-fiction, some of them are slash fanfic, and some of them are very silly. These are not reasons not to read them.

A Terror in Flesh

Story copyright 2004, Andrew Plotkin.
To whomever may inherit this testament --

You must think me mad. I say you must; your own sanity depends on it. Cling to the conviction that these are the fevered, feeble ravings of a disordered mind. You must! For if you allow yourself to suspect that such blasphemies can be real --

-- it is through your suspicions that they will become real.

We had moved away from our usual haunts. Boston, always in the forefront of modernization, had recently installed electrical street lighting; we found the glare harsh upon the eye, even painful. As well, the brightness turned the inhabitants arrogant and wary. No doubt they found it comforting to scan the alleys and byways as they grazed, but it made them skittish, difficult to stalk.

So we took to the hills and clear-shadowed forests up the coast. The towns were smaller and farther apart, but the inhabitants were charmingly dull. Our evening outings once again became jolly occasions -- a quick stroll through the streets, and then early retirement to dinner, with hours of high-minded discussion as we digested the news of the day.

So the summer months passed, and our society passed from Salem to Aldersex, from Arnport to Miskosawa, in fine weather and companionship, with many inheritances shared between us. Until, in the broadening nights of late October, we came to the hills of Innsmouth.

We took two strong bucks that night -- the strain of travel had sharpened our appetites. It took three hours to pick up their scent, for the streets were nearly empty. (Perhaps we should have taken warning from that -- but how were we to know?) But then our calls had rung out, and the chase had been brief. And now we sat our circle, picking over the scraps of the first male and idly arguing whether to save the second overday.

"The fisherman say the catch is for nowt this season," volunteered Zeb. I nodded; I'd inherited the same thought. "Something's spooking the fish."

"Or is eating them," added Chaunce. He narrowed his eye. "Got a bit of a glimpse, this one did. Something walking the streets, something... what's that word? Froggy?"

"Batrachian," intoned Josiah solemnly. He liked words, always went for the Broca's bits. We hooted in familiar mockery.

"Wonder if we should keep an eye out for that ourselves," I suggested. "Might make a change. Inherit something besides farming, fishing, and alcoholism..."

Chaunce smirked. "Something... batrachian?" I waved a despairing hand and scratched at a loose spot.

Josiah licked his cheek. "I'm still a mite peckish. Gonna crack open this other one. If no one minds?" The rest of us were replete, but we gestured grandly for him to enjoy. Innsmouth was dim and isolated; it promised our plenty for the winter.

The talk had turned to the finer points of knot-tying -- always a valuable resource for us, and common in fisherfolk legacies -- when Josiah snorted. "Think this one might be sick."

"Not meningitis, is it?" Zeb asked with a frown. He'd once caught a dose from a healthy-seeming kid, had the sniffles for a week. He bent over the buck's head and took a whiff.

"No," said Josiah. "It just tastes off."

"Can't smell anything," said Zeb. He shrugged. Not much bothers us, besides meningitis and soft-metal poisoning -- and scrapie, but that reeks from a mile off. "Maybe he ate sommat funny himself, and it's coming through the legacy? He did seem to be moving slow in the chase. Stumbling, muttering to himself."

"Mayhap," Josiah answered. "Mayhap. I am getting some odd notions." He leaned back. "I'll sleep on it, see if that settles my guts."

This idea drew general assent, and we settled in for dawn and comfortable dreams.

When I awoke, Josiah was already sitting over the offal-pit, poking slowly at the second buck's remains. "Hoy," I called, rolling up on my haunches. "Feeling better? Any new words tonight?"

"Yes. No, that is." He looked up. "I'm a mite shaky. And hungry again."

I squinted through the fading twilight. He did look poorly, with a hectic flush behind his grey cheeks. "Well, you certainly don't want more of that one. It's trash. Tell you what -- you rest here, and we'll bring you back dinner."

"That would be a kindness." He curled up wearily. Josiah enjoys a stalk as much as the rest of us, despite his academian ways, and I hissed in deeper concern. "It's funny though..." his voice came after a moment. "...That one had words coming out his ears. Glabrous. Polypoidal. Rugose. Inchoate..."

We went down to Innsmouth. The streets echoed with our cheery cries, and we brought back two more by midnight; but Josiah was no better. We heard him calling miserably as we approached our camp.

"Hungry, are you?" said Chaunce. "We've got--" But then he stared. "You haven't been picking at that bad one again, have you?"

Josiah flinched and scrubbed at his face. Fatty smears remained, and we could see that the ill buck's head was as empty as a grave in a ghoulyard. "Here!" I shouted. "What did you do that for? We've got a fresh meal for you."

Chaunce cracked the larger catch and held out a tempting handful. Josiah clutched at it and sucked, eyes closed. I nodded. "That'll set you right." We polished off the smaller Innsmouther among ourselves, letting Josiah to enjoy his gift in its entirety. Companionship and aid to the weak. We don't talk about it much, but it's our unspoken vow. It's how our kind is able to endure.

But as we settled back to discuss our inheritance, Josiah spoke up -- in feverish, desperate tones. "Shapes. I can see them, around a corner... an angle..." We glanced at each other. "...I think I see their meaning. They're watching us."

"What are, Josiah?" I crouched over him. "Angles? Did we bring you a mathematician? He smelled like a professor, I thought you'd enjoy a bookish legacy--"

"Not this trash!" Josiah snarled and kicked the remains away -- and I realized he'd barely eaten a bite. "The one from last night!"

I took his face between my hands, forced him to look at me. "Tell us, Josiah."

He shuddered. "Names. Curves. Words. He saw them, I can see them... Squamous, he was thinking. Rugose and ichthyoid. But he didn't have the words; he was covering the truth with words, to block it out." Josiah's skin quivered, his weals weeping. "I don't have the words, I can't block out the names..."

Chaunce hissed viciously. I was staring, numb. The rest of us were as silent. Josiah's voice ran on, though his fangs were rictus-locked. "Hungry, I can hear through the hunger... you said you'd bring me brains..."

"Here, Josiah." Chaunce plucked a morsel from deep in the skull, the juicy white love-knot, and pushed it forward. "We did bring them. They're fresh, they're clean."

"No! Not this filth!" The rich meat dribbled through Josiah's cheeks, unswallowed. "Bring me brains! I need... brains..."

And a shudder of fear ran through my gut, to hear our joyous hunting cry turned into this... this rent whine of hideous, unfulfillable desperation.

Josiah was gone before the first murk of dawn. We broke his body's arms and legs, and held it down while we argued over his legacy.

"He was contaminated," Zeb said flatly. "The illness likely remains. We cannot risk it."

"So we should leave his legacy to rot?" I gnashed my teeth; hisses echoed from behind me. "He was Josiah Jonathan Martha Jean-Francois Dun-horse Harefoot and more. He carried the inheritance of centuries. Now that has fallen to us. If we trample it into the dirt, Josiah will have gone for nothing!"

The body twitched and gurgled, as if to agree with my vehemence.

Zeb ignored it. "And if his legacy destroys us all? What of our inheritances?" His throat worked, weeping. "It could be decades before our kind arises in these hills again. And even then, they will inherit poison as they redeem us!"

Silence closed over our band. The thought numbed our souls: our legacies bound irretrievably to sickness and horror. No longer carried proudly down the clear abysses of time, but mired in filth. Borne, if at all, a few agonizing steps at a time, a few hours of pain and sick hunger -- before falling again into the mud, bloated with yet more ruined inheritance...

It was Chaunce who reared up. "Then I will carry Josiah's legacy alone." His teeth shone in the gathering light. "I will bear the risk. And if sickness takes me," his whole eye pinned us, "then I will speak my legacy to you. Mine and Josiah's."

It could be done. Words were a bare shadow of a soul's inheritance, but legacy was a bare shadow of life. All of us treasured the legacy of White Mouse Ragnar Sigla, raised from ink and letters -- an inheritance etched on deerskin, discovered by our band centuries after White Mouse's meat had turned to dust. How much more could we glean from Chaunce's black lips, telling us the stories of his lives in the night?

We hid our faces from Chaunce, unable to look his truth in the eye.

We slept; we awoke; we hunted. At midnight, Chaunce stilled Josiah's remains.

He hissed with his first mouthful. "Tastes funny?" asked Zeb, looking up from the Innsmouther we'd snagged. Chaunce nodded. He did not stop eating.

When we'd all finished (our meals foul and fair, came a voice from somewhere in my inheritance), we lay back -- as if the evening were any other shared beneath a Hallow's Eve moon. But it was solely Chaunce's voice that arose. And he spoke not of the news from Innsmouth, gathered that night in our stalk; but of ancient travels in the primeval forest, long before the new men came with iron and riding-horses. He told the oldest stories of his and Josiah's inheritance.

The night wore on; and we began to sense a wrongness in Chaunce's words. His stories were not approaching the present, the recent lives of civilized New England. His stories grew older. Impossibly old, from before any of us. I shifted uneasily, trying to accept it.

Chaunce began to shiver, but his lips moved unceasingly. He told us of things that had walked the hills before men; names that had held power before warm life had learned to speak. Fear crept into his voice: he spoke of ancient abominations, shapes that swallowed life and memory, beings which had seeped into Earth's fragile demesne and whose glaring legacy had deserved oblivion.

Whose legacy had been preserved, somehow, although it ought never have been.

I whined quietly as I listened. Chaunce muttered and chanted, lost in dead language; he sketched primordial runes with shaking claws. He rallied and spoke of titanic battles between nameless things; he shrieked in terror and tried to flee presences and meanings that only he could perceive. Once he pointed overhead, at the empty night sky.

Towards morning, he complained of hunger. We offered him the remains of our hunt, knowing the gesture was useless.

By dawn Chaunce was gone. We did not dare even to crack and still his body, fearing the touch of contaminated meat on our claws. We left his flesh quivering in what comfortable darkness we could fashion: a cairn of heavy stones that crushed his bones and left them quiet.

But our own sleep was not quiet. Instead of drifting in the soothing remembrance of our gathered lives, we tossed in nightmare. Glaring images of primordial horror, whispers of lost names. Before sunset had faded from the sky, Zeb lashed out against me and shrieked, "I can see them! I understand!"

Then, struggling to awareness, he apologized. We did not press him; it might have been any of us.

Our stalk was laggard and wearisome that night. The inhabitants of Innsmouth cowered indoors -- no doubt they had some inkling of the ancient horror that had seeped into their town, the forbidden knowledge that their blind scholars had stirred up. We caught only one, a thin mare darting home from some rendezvous.

When we brought her to our redoubt and cracked her skull, we could not eat.

"Scrapie," Zeb whispered, trying to convince himself. It was not. The brains glistened ripe and healthy. We knew, rationally, that the scent rising to our faces was fresh. But we did not desire it. We understood. We had believed.

Hunger knifed me; but I could hear the names whispering behind me, could see the angles out of the corner of my eye. Chaunce had explained them. They knew me, and what fell within their understanding was not fit for ordinary meat. I hungered now for the primordial knowledge -- things which could not be held within sane or clean or healthy brains.

Zeb had fled, shrieking, into the night. I rocked on my haunches. Somewhere, a few of us were clawing at Josiah's cairn. Others had stumbled out towards Innsmouth, their steps a crashing parody of the stalk. I knew their sick desire, their hope to find some scholarly Innsmouther, some inhabitant with more legacy of the horrific dead past. I did not succumb, for I knew it would not preserve me.

Instead, I have been inscribing this warning.

The voices of inheritance shriek in agony and impending release.

You who inherit these words -- whether on hastily-scratched paper, or through the taste of my brains -- I pray you are not doomed. You have heard the circumstances of our doom; but perhaps you do not believe them. Do not believe them! Dismiss me as mad, lost to hunger and folly. Flee Innsmouth. Demand that the names and shapes be meaningless. Do not listen to the stirrings of uncertainty, of -- God! -- of belief.

I, though of unsound mind, remain --
-- [names follow]

Updated October 31, 2004.

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