Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of short fiction based on Dark Trails RPG classes by Pete Spahn. As part of separate project Pete and his partner Brandon Goeringer have a separate where they stat out the story.
Occultist: Occultists devote their lives to the mastery of the ambient arcane energies constantly flowing around all living things, learning to weave and channel them to miraculous effect through spell work. Occultists are considered master investigators and have a nose for all things arcane and unusual.[^1]
Mount Cradle, West Virginia, 1870
Robert Tanager, Esquire, kept a watchful eye for trouble as he trekked up the winding mountain path. A small, unassuming man of slender build, he had grown lean and strong from years on the road. He was a lawyer by trade, born and raised in New England, and had graduated from Yale with honors, but those honors meant nothing now in his search for otherworldly power.
The air was cool as he neared the top of Mount Cradle, the woods quiet and dark despite the noonday sun. The mountains exuded an ancient, watchful quality, and the trees seemed to close in along his backtrail. This was the heart of Appalachia country, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of what was now West Virginia, and strangers here were not welcome.
Abruptly, the ground leveled off and Tanager found himself outside a low wall of stacked stones that surrounded a handful of rustic log buildings. The trail continued through an opening in the wall, but the gate was gone and there was no guard—at least none that he could see. A thick canopy of overhanging branches shrouded the entire compound in gloom.
Tanager felt his pulse quicken and readied himself for battle. The six-gun at his hip was meant to discourage outlaws, but his true power lay within his magic. Tanager had been kissed by Darkness during the chaotic times known as the Seven Days of Night. He was one of the few beings who could harness the power of the Other and bend it to his will. With but a word he could summon a cloud of choking death, shatter his enemy’s guns, or hurl lightning from his very fingertips. To oppose him meant certain death. The Guardians of Cradle Mount would come to know that soon.
Tanager proceeded through the gateway. Once inside, he paused to survey his surroundings. A pair of ragged, bearded men watched him from where they sat on a sagging front porch in front of a dilapidated shack. A jug of moonshine and a chessboard sat on the table in between them. Flintlock muskets were propped against the wall nearby, but neither made a move for the guns as they turned to face him. The oldest of the two spit a wad of tobacco from toothless gums.
Next to another shack, inside a fenced garden full of gnarled plants, a young, blind woman with a scarf covering both eyes knelt on the ground and worked the moist soil. Her hands were slick with blood and dirt, and two filthy children tussled silently in the muck behind her. The woman cocked an ear in Tanager’s direction, then quickly stood and wiped her hands on the front of her apron. She ushered the children inside the shack’s sagging door, past a one-armed man who glared at Tanager from the doorway. Faces appeared in windows, cold, hard eyes taking his measure.
Tanager ignored them all. His attention was drawn to one structure that stood out from the rest. Its appearance was just as shabby, but he could sense the power emanating from within. An ancient power, a dark power, the same power that he had come to harness. He had only to defeat its guardians.
Tanager strode boldly forward. The front porch stood two feet off the ground and something slithered in the darkness underneath, but Tanager paid it no mind. To show fear now would mean certain death. The stairs creaked beneath his feet; his boots clumped loudly as he walked through the front door. Inside he paused, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light.
It was a saloon of sorts, with a stained bar along the far wall and a handful of worn tables and chairs scattered around the room. A pair of crisscrossed muskets hung over the fireplace and a fire crackled in the hearth. It would have been cozy, if not for the bleached human skulls that hung from pegs along the mantle and what looked to be wall hangings made of human skin, tattooed with strange pictographs.
An old, balding man with an unkempt gray beard stood behind the bar, staring at Tanager as if he had been waiting for him to arrive. In a chair to his left, a red-haired bear of a man sat snoring. A shotgun rested on the wall next to him, with barrels almost as long as Tanager was tall.
Tanager approached the bar. The old man produced a mug made from a human skull and poured a drink from a ceramic jug. Tanager drank it without hesitation. His eyes watered as the fiery liquid burned his throat, but he fought back the urge to choke and cough. The old man’s eyes twinkled with suppressed amusement, then became serious again.
“Why have you come, Easterner?” he asked.
“You know why,” Tanager said. “You and yours will not stop me.”
The old man shrugged. “We will not try.”
Tanager hid his surprise. “I know you. I will not be deceived. You are the Guardians of Cradle Mount. Scots-Irish, sworn to guard the sleeping prison of the Children Under the Mountain.”
“A sleeping prison no longer,” said the old man. “I am Davey Cullenson, who some call the Old Man, though my mind is still young and sharp. Long ago my people dwelt across the sea, in far off lands of stark mountains and fields of emerald green. Then our ancestors dreamed the dream of the Children Under the Mountain and were summoned here to make sure that none disturbed their sleep. We failed. The Elder Gods have awakened and the Children with them. Now, our only purpose is to keep the innocent and unwary at bay until the End.”
Tanager frowned. This was unexpected. The Seven Days of Night had awakened many dark and unwholesome things across the earth. He should have suspected the Children Under the Mountain would be roused from their slumber. It would make them more difficult to bind and control. Still, he had come too far to turn back now.
“No matter,” Tanager said. “I have completed the Hand of Tasks. You must ask the riddle.”
“You come with knowledge.”
“Yes,” Tanager said. “Knowledge learned from my father and the Society he served. I am here to claim my birthright.”
The Old Man nodded. “Very well. We shall play the game one last time. I will ask the riddles. You will answer. Are you ready?”
“Have you dreamt of the Great Sea?” the Old Man asked.
“The Great Sea is the Dream,” Tanager replied.
The old man raised a gnarled index finger. One. “Speak the many names of the power you seek.”
“The power is that which men call the Children Under the Mountain. They Who are One. The Countless Few. The Eternal Brood. The Dreaming Many.”
The old man raised his middle finger to form a V. Two. “Do you bear the mark of the Other?”
“I do,” Tanager said. He unbuttoned his shirt to show the scars of past blood sacrifices, the arcane symbols branded into his skin, the tattoo in the center of his chest that depicted the Unblinking Eye.
The Old Man nodded. Three fingers now. “Now, onto you. Have you betrayed the love of your mother?”
“I have, and it saddened me not.”
Four fingers. “Have you spilled the blood of your children, both born and unborn.”
“Willingly, and without remorse.” This was the correct answer, even though it wasn’t entirely true. He wasn’t a monster, after all. But he could not let sentiment get in the way of his goal.
The Old Man seemed satisfied. “Very well,” he said.
He spread his thumb so that all five arthritic fingers were extended, and then struck Tanager in the face with his open palm. Tanager had known the blow was coming, it was part of the ritual, but the strength in the old man’s hand was unexpected. He reeled, gripping the edge of the bar, and managed to remain upright.
Blood trickled from the left corner of his mouth. The Old Man wiped the blood away with a callused palm, then balled his hand into a fist.
“You have completed the Hand of Tasks,” he said. “The Hand has become a Fist and the power is contained within this Fist. You may pass on to your destiny.”
He indicated a curtained doorway next to the sleeping gunman who had not moved. Tanager paused, wary of a trap.
“That’s it then?” he asked.
The Old Man sighed. “In days past, mere knowledge of the Hand of Tasks would have sealed your fate. Death by our hand would have been quick and painless. You may wish for it later, when you stand in the presence of the Children Under the Mountain.”
Tanager was curious. “You have seen them, then? Since they have awakened?”
“I have,” the Old Man said.
“And will they welcome me?
“Would you welcome the gnat that comes in the summer months? Would you notice it at all? If you did, at best you would ignore it. At worst, you would swat it away. In either case, you would not think long on it after, if at all. We are less than gnats to the Children Under the Mountain.”
Tanager bristled. The Old Man could not have known the path he had taken to get here. Could not know the sacrifices he had made.
“We shall see,” Tanager said.
The Children Under the Mountain would bend to his will. Their power would be his. There could be no other outcome.
Steeling himself, Tanager strode past the sleeping man and brushed back the curtain. The curtain itself was made of thick, scaly hide from a type of creature Tanager was not familiar with. Alligator perhaps?
A short hall led him to an open doorway, with a set of wooden stairs beyond. The staircase extended down into darkness and Tanager could feel the cold menace wafting up from its lightless depths. He took a lantern from the wall and lit it.
The first few steps were the hardest. He took each one with care, all the while drowning out the voice that urged him to give up his quest and turn back. Wooden planks creaked beneath his feet and the walls felt like they were closing in around him. In due time, much longer than he expected, he came to a landing and paused to wipe sweat from his brow. By then, his resolve had strengthened. There would be no turning back.
The stairs scissored back and continued down into that same inky blackness. As he resumed his descent, he began to wonder how far down the stairs could go. Into the depths of the mountain. Beyond? Into the very depths of Hell? Bah!
After half a dozen more landings and switchbacks, the wooden walls and stairs suddenly gave way to smooth, cut stone and the stairs stopped at a vaulted arch. He stepped through the arch and found himself inside an underground chamber so large that the light from his lantern could barely reach the walls and ceiling.
Tanager reached deep inside himself for the power that smoldered within, a fire that would consume him utterly if he let it. He felt it flare to life, but tamped it down to keep it in check. He was the one in control here.
Words streamed from his mouth, uttered in a tongue that no man was ever meant to speak or know. His hand traced arcane gestures in the air over the lantern, causing its wick to sputter as the intensity of its light grew. Shadows flickered along the walls of the chamber showing ancient cliff dwellings and stairs carved in the rock.
Bas-reliefs inscribed upon the walls depicted stellar configurations, arcane symbols, and strange, monstrous creatures. Some he recognized, others were unfamiliar, and others strained his eyes to look upon. A thought came to him unbidden—not made by human hands—and he shuddered, knowing it was true.
A vaulted arch similar to the one he had entered through could be seen on the far wall and he suspected the staircase continued down into the mountain. But first, he had to traverse the chamber, and he knew at once that would be no easy task.
He was not alone. He could sense predatory eyes watching him, waiting for him to proceed. They would not have to wait long. Nor would they find him such easy prey.
Tanager made it halfway to the arch before they appeared—dozens of horrid reptilian creatures that could walk on two legs like men, but chose to crawl on all fours. They slithered from the ruins, loping down the stairs or crawling down the rock walls like ants. Sibilant hissing filled the chamber.
There were too many to fight. Tanager bolted for the arch, but drew up short as the monsters dropped from the ceiling, barring his path. Reaching deep inside himself, he stoked the fires of magic that burned within. Power coursed through his body and lightning crackled from his outstretched fingertips, incinerating two of the reptilian creatures where they stood, but to his dismay, twice as many dropped down to take their place.
The way ahead was now blocked. A quick glance behind showed him the way back was blocked as well. He was surrounded. Fear gripped him and his mind raced as he backed away. A crawling reptoid scrabbled quickly towards him, forcing a new spell to die on his lips as its toothy mouth clamped down on his right ankle. Pain lanced through him. Reflexively, he drew his pistol and fired at point blank range. The sound reverberated like a thunderclap and the bullet shattered the monster’s scaly head. He kicked free of its bite and took a staggering step as blood welled in his boot.
Tanager swung his gun towards the nearest reptoid, but to his surprise, the horde had shrunk back, milling about confused and afraid to press forward. Slitted eyes gazed fearfully at his pistol and Tanager thought he understood. These primitive remnants of a lost age would not fear magic. That was something they understood. But the technology of Man was unknown to them.
So be it.
Tanager yanked a handful of bullets from his belt and tossed them into his mouth. The fires of his magic flowed freely, making the rounds soft and malleable enough to chew. Then Tanager let fly, spitting lead at the terrified monsters.
Staccato blasts of gunfire echoed through the chamber as bullet fragments flew from his mouth and ripped through scaly hides. Hissing in fear and pain the inhuman monsters scrambled back towards their dank holes. Tanager was relentless. He riddled their bodies with lead, until the ruins were littered with dead and dying reptoids. His lips burned from the heat and his teeth rattled in his mouth.
At last, the chamber was silent and devoid of movement. Tanager spit out the remaining mass of bullet fragments and then limped onto the stone landing beyond the arch. As he had suspected, stone stairs descended down into darkness. Tanager paused a moment to catch his breath and tend his wounds in the fading light of the lantern.
The pain in his ankle was excruciating. The monster’s teeth had pierced both boot and flesh, and his sock was soaked with blood. Thankfully, the bite had missed his tendon. He stopped the bleeding with pressure and tied a strip of cloth tight around his ankle. He stood up to test his weight and found he could walk with pain, but pain would not stop him, now or ever.
Gingerly, he resumed his trek into darkness. Long he walked, one step down at a time, deep into the bowels of the earth, until the pain in his leg became a dull ache and time became but a distant memory. His mind began to wander, and he began to realize how much the descent into Mount Cradle mirrored his life’s path—a path that had taken him into the presence of the Other, followed by pain, suffering, and a refusal to turn back. He was driven by purpose and he sensed the end was near at last.
The smooth stone stairs abruptly gave way to a rough staircase made of rough-hewn shelfs of rock embedded in the hardpacked earth. Tanager saw primitive cave drawings of monstrous creatures painted on the walls, but refused to look too closely at these. From the corner of his eye, the paintings shifted and moved and he knew instinctively that to look upon them too long meant madness.
The crude shelf stairs wound down in an irregular pattern until at last he reached a cave at the bottom. He could feel the cave’s enormity immediately. The lantern’s light was only a pale spark in the immense darkness and he sensed that even enhancing it with his magic would fail to illuminate it further.
Tanager paused for a moment, waiting. He had reached the bottom of Mount Cradle and the time had come at last. The Children Under the Mountain would be his to control.
He heard their approach before he saw them—a slick, slithering sound reminiscent of disemboweled guts slapping against each other and spilling onto the ground. As the Children Under the Mountain churned into the light, Tanager’s mind struggled to make sense of what he saw.
The gargantuan mass of roiling flesh towered over him—thousands of naked, hairless bodies with wide, bulbous heads and no eyes or ears. Their inhuman mouths were wide and filled with sharp teeth that seemed to devour each other as they moved in one great, heaving, blood-slick mass.
Tanager was shaken to his core. He had seen lesser men whose minds had been broken in the presence of the Other; their vacant stares, awash in apathy, no longer caring if they lived or died. To them, life no longer had any meaning. Tanager felt that same sense of unraveling inside his brain and refused to let it happen!
“Children Under the Mountain!” he shouted. “You shall hear my words! You shall obey!”
The gargantuan mass of writhing flesh never hesitated. It rolled over Robert Tanager, Esquire, as it had everything else in its path since time immemorial. He barely had time to utter a scream as his bones were crushed to pulp and his flesh consumed by the living mass. Its unholy weight flattened the lantern and, in the darkness, heedless of the life that had just been extinguished, the Children Under the Mountain continued their eternal march, awaiting the commands of the Elder Gods.
The End [^1]: Included for those not familiar with the Class