The Mothman Stirs
By Rick Landon
Summary: Rick Landon investigates new sightings of the infamous Mothman in West Virginia. What he finds is a dangerous pursuit of an otherworldly force.
1. A Rock and A History
I could begin this story any number of ways, but I'd like to start with lying beaten and battered in a ditch beside the road. A million lights danced before my vision like the supernovae of doomed nebulae. I pulled myself forwards on bloodied limbs, as I heard voices echo somewhere the road. Their heavy footfalls and hurried cadence betrayed frightening eagerness, and I knew they bore ill will.
I remembered a month prior, when I talked with my friend David Risona. The whole endeavor started off as a half-serious bet between friends, but even he bore no idea how it would spiral out of control. Given the peculiarities of our lives relative to our peers, talking with the lunatic was always a fascinating experience. Lately, he'd been incessantly yammering about cyborg implants, until he thought to ask about me, as though I was a half-remembered afterthought.
I'd had a few adventures of my own, but a listlessness gnawed within me. No matter how far I traveled, I always seemed to end up sent back to my parents' house. My Sisyphean fate was to return to rural Ohio, as though I ran the Red Queen's race on a treadmill. Nevertheless, I brought a few choice souvenirs through life, as I managed to find a trusty canine sidekick. Despite the adventurous yarns I'd imagined in my head, Dave once more digressed towards the martial minutiae. As he spun the cylinder of his Remington revolver, he half-jokingly asked me if I still held the weapon I'd used earlier, my antique Mauser Broomhandle. I shook my head, and he instead cut to edged weapons as he sharpened his kukri. He asked if I still had the gladius machete he sent me as a birthday present with a USB stick full of heavy metal and classic weird stories.
As the chat wore on, Dave blathered about something that struck my interest for once. Our original train of thought had jumped the tracks and crashed into a flaming wreckage at the bottom of a metaphorical gorge, but that allegorical inferno sparked my interest. He was talking about cryptid sightings, and from there, it spiraled into a quasi-historical wiki-crawl that spanned everything from aliens to otherworldly spirits. I recalled how innocent it seemed at first, until I bet Dave that I'd be able to investigate myself. I told him to shut up about the damn implants, and I started talking about my recent online binge. Things escalated from there, and before I could second-guess myself, I was preparing for another trip.
2. Arrival in Calvin
Dave was eager to be rid of me for a time, likely due to some more dubious experiments he wished to run in my spare room. Nevertheless, his face lit up when I mentioned the list of cryptids I'd gone over, starting with Mothman. It was as though some vast idea had arisen in his head, after being buried beneath layers of mental clutter. When the manic, obsessive grin I'd learned to fear once more crossed his face, I knew this would be another adventure. He wheeled around his laptop to show me an article on some alleged sightings, and I knew where I'd be going.
After some cursory online research, I determined the object of my expedition would be Mingo County, West Virginia. It was directly on the border with Kentucky, and it was the most recently incorporated county in the state. The western area of the state had it bloody share of history, from colonial skirmishes with the Mingo tribes to the labor uprising that culminated at Blair Mountain. I was interested in a far stranger and incredulous story, the crimson-eyed cryptid known as Mothman.
Back in 1966, several locals reported a red-eyed winged humanoid that pursued them through the dark, even keeping pace with a speeding car. Many ambitious cryptid hunters, skeptical investigators, and clueless cranks had descended on the area since then, even resulting in an annual festival and statue of the creature. On a darker note, the local Silver Bridge collapsed the year after it was seen, killing 46 people. Damage to the bridge was attributed to wear and tear, but subsequent analysis revealed cracks missed during earlier inspections. Despite this, crazed conspiracies still correlated the two events.
Such disasters floated through my mind as I crossed over the Silver Memorial Bridge that I crossed into Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The cheerful look on my canine companion Rex's face assuaged my unease to some extent, but I was grateful to be back on terra firma once I crossed to the other side. He stuck his head out of the window of my rental car, his tongue hanging outside his mouth. His paws were pressed up against the window, as though he was ready to pounce at any cryptids ready to seize me. Considering what he'd bailed me out of before, I was glad to have him by my side. Considering what I'd stumble into, I couldn't ask for a better companion.
I was heading for a small town called Calvin, West Virginia. It was a small berg with barely a few hundred in population, devoid of activity save for a single diner and strip mall along the main road. Opposite the diner was the Perkins Motel, the place I'd booked a room for my stay. The place was a single-story expanse of rooms that would've made a traveler's hostel seem luxurious. Two other cars sat in the lot, a twenty-year old sedan with a local tag and a sleek sports car with New York plates. I wondered if others came to investigate these latest sightings, or if they were merely passing through town. Part of me wondered if this was just an elaborate stunt by some bored locals, desperate for the business outsiders would bring. Quite naively, I hoped it was something more.
I heard Rex bark happily as I stepped out of the car. It felt good to stretch my legs, especially after driving for hours. As I had to use the bathroom, I decided to check in to my room as soon as possible. I opened the door, and I saw a yawning woman sitting at a cluttered desk. She had tanned skin and the callused hands, but nevertheless looked up at me when I arrived.
"Mr. Landon?" she asked.
"Here's your key," she said, pointing to the number on the wall. "Your dog makes a mess, you clean it up. If you need anything, just call the number here."
"Slow day?" I asked, trying to make small talk.
"Eh," she shrugged.
Sensing her disinterest, I reciprocated her apathy and stepped outside. I opened the flimsy door to my room, and I did my best to ignore the musty smell within. I imagined myself as an archaeologist throwing open the door to some long-forgotten tomb, breathing in the same air as an eon-dead pharaoh. Rex growled behind me, and he entered with an instinctive trepidation. Given how it smelled, I did not blame him. Nevertheless, I was glad to sit down for a bit.
I carried my backpack within, and I felt my stomach growl. I looked across the road towards the diner, and realized how sparse my options were. Much to my dismay, I would have to taste the local flavor. The lack of cars in the parking lot was not particularly promising. While I was in no position to complain, Rex was chomping at the bit for the chance to eat some fried, greasy meat. I hurried across the street after spotting no cars heading in either direction.
No sooner had I crossed the street than I heard the roar of a dozen engines. Down the town's worn asphalt road thundered a procession easily a dozen pairs of motorcycles long. They bore down like a procession of steppe raiders on smoke-belching steeds. Their bikes were painted black, with iconography matching the patches on their leather jackets, tattoos, and helmets. I recognized at least a dozen occult symbols on them, ranging from Norse runes of Thor's hammer to double-ringed pentagrams. Some wore World War II-style helmets, but they were the minority. From the name on their bikes and outfits, I read the name, "Stormriders." I stepped back onto the sidewalk, as to defer to their presence as outlaw sovereigns.
In the center of their procession, I beheld a single bike with an attached sidecar. The man riding it was older than the rest by at least a decade, and his vest was covered with at least twice the patches and tattoos of his fellows. He towered above the others in presence as much as girth, but he was greatly juxtaposed by the passenger beside him. I blinked, and I saw the peculiar man make eye contact with me.
He was the opposite of the outlaw biker in every respect. He was rail-thin and tall, with thin, circular glasses. He was tastefully dressed for a prior era, with a gray trench-coat that swaddled him like a wizard's robe. A narrow beard and goatee ringed his mouth, carefully maintained relative to the hirsute man beside him. He bore an aura of erudition about him, although I had no knowledge of what his field of expertise could be. Between his legs, he held a dragon-headed cane. His beady, reptilian gaze was like a cobra scanning a rodent. I averted my gaze, as though he was some mythic medusa.
At the rear of the procession I saw another motorcycle bearing a sidecar, bearing a rider of similar age to the unquestioned leader. He bore half the patches of the other bikers, and a scowl that spoke of simmering rage. The sidecar contained a large metal box, the contents of which I presumed were of questionable purpose. Rex barked at him loudly, and I did not stop him until the biker glowered at us. I had no desire to make enemies in a small town far from home.
"Glad those jerks kept driving. They strut about like they own this town," I heard a Brooklyn accent behind me say. "What brings you here?"
3. Another Outsider
I turned to see an olive-skinned man walking down the stairs to the diner. He was of average build, with a Yankees cap and jacket on. He had curly, brown hair with lazy green eyes that gave him the appearance of someone half-stoned. Underneath his jacket was a shirt commemorating a concert for a band I'd never heard of. The band logo was a cartoon toad smoking a joint or cigarette, half-faded from neglect.
"Work," I said, trying to speak as little as possible. While I was never one for spontaneous conversation with strangers, I waited for him to continue. I remembered the New York plates, and I wondered if this could be a fellow visitor. If he was here about the Mothman sightings, I presumed he'd be either highly skeptical or superbly optimistic as to the existence of the subject matter. I hoped his comments would elucidate his position. Rex sat passively, wagging his tail.
"Same," he said, extending his hand. "The name's Michael Garcia."
"Rick," I said, looking down at my friend. "And that's Rex."
"Well, glad to meet you both. I'm here for the Mothman's return," he said, pausing for a second. "But honestly, I think it's just a lame hoax attempt. Those pictures looked really fake."
I could not help but remain agnostic about the whole thing. There were innumerable cranks drawn towards these sorts of things, but I'd seen enough strangeness to avoid outright dismissal. I was content to leave some mysteries unsolved, although I welcomed an opportunity to discover something new.
"To each his own," Michael said, putting his hands behind his head. "Let's chat inside, if that's okay. That your car parked over there?"
I nodded. "And that yours?" I asked, pointing to the sports car.
"Yeah. In a town like this, though, I'm worried the locals might get jealous."
I said nothing as I followed him back into the diner. It looked like a relic that hadn't been changed since the Fifties, save for the flat-screen television hanging above the counter. Aside from us, there was a single other person in the bar. A young woman sat behind the counter fiddling with a smartphone. Looking up, I saw her soft blue eyes rise from beneath a bell of short, auburn hair. She was almost as tall as I was, and her arrow-shaped chin was like a dagger pointing towards the bar. She set hurriedly stuffed her phone into her pocket. I wondered how much she was paid to waste time here, and I concluded it was not enough.
"Hi, Sara, how about we get a booth for two?" Michael asked.
"Sure. Two menus, coming up," she said, walking around towards us.
"So, Rick," Michael said. "You know much about this town?"
I shook my head.
"Calvin's got some interesting history, but it's all past. Nowadays, it's one of hundreds of small towns gutted by opioids and poverty."
"Yeah. I know that kind of place."
"I saw Ohio plates on your car, so I thought you might," he said. "Anyway, you'll probably want to avoid the Stormriders."
"The Mad Max rejects?"
"Yeah, them. They're a local biker gang that gets away with all sorts of shit, since their leader has a powerful friend in government."
"I have some promising candidates, but I'm not here for muckraking on hick towns," Michael said. "I'm here to see the Mothman, or at least someone pretending he returned."
"I presume you saw the pictures, right?"
"Yeah, but I don't have much experience spotting fakes."
Michael sighed. "I used to work in special effects for a friend's indie films, until I started an online series about debunking fakes. It was far more successful than those Z-grade films, and now I travel around, debunking shit like this."
"It's honestly more heartbreaking than I thought. When I debunked a televangelist, an old lady was reduced to tears after realizing she'd been scammed out of her life savings. When I debunked a medium, I had a man have a heart attack after realizing he hadn't been talking with his departed wife. And that's before getting into the death threats."
"Yeah, I'm not cut out for work like that."
"In this line of work, you'd better learn," he said, staring aimlessly out the window. "I imagine the locals aren't going to be too happy if the one thing that puts their town on the map in their town gets revealed as a hoax."
"And you're still going through with it?"
"Yeah. Either I find the men behind the curtain, or I get to meet the genuinely supernatural," he said, shrugging. "Honestly a little curious about the latter, but my hunch is on the former."
Sara walked up to our table and set down two menus. "We have a lunch special on the chicken wings," she said.
"I'll take another," Michael said. "What would you like to order?"
I looked at the menu. It was fairly standard diner fare. I decide to stick with my old standby, the tuna on rye. Sara took down our orders, and our conversation continued.
"How long have you been here?"
"A week, and it's already too long. Took a while to get used to the gunshots at night, which are mostly deer hunters," Michael said. "But I'm honestly more worried about the Stormriders."
"They come into town often?"
"Thankfully not, but they've been busier. Their leader, Ralph Chafin, demoted his old Sergeant-at-Arms, Ted Hennessey, to Rearguard Rider. From what I understand, Ralph's new best friend is a veterinary school burnout named Christopher Drake."
"How'd someone like that end up with a biker gang?"
"My sources say Drake used to run a dogfighting ring, but he started helping them move drugs around," Michael said. "But that's all stuff I heard around town. The main event, of course, is our winged friend."
Sara arrived with two plates, each as fresh as the diner could allow for.
"Thank you," I said, preparing to dig in.
"Say, Rick," Michael said, holding a chicken finger in hand. "Since we're both out of towners staying at the same motel, what would you say to working together? Strength in numbers and all."
I decided to accept his offer. I didn't know anyone around here, and Michael seemed grounded enough. I brought up a playlist of his videos on my phone. I saw him with longer hair, which caused him to redden with slight embarrassment. His flannel shirt made him seem like a misplaced lumberjack. I could see he'd moved away from the hipster outfit in later videos. As I played his most recent video, a vigorous takedown of a well-known conspiracy theorist's reptilian rant, I saw a hint of pride on his face.
"That was a fun one," Michael said. "But I got a few death threats after it."
"That's why I've been carrying this," Michael said, pulling out a canister of pepper spray. "Plus some other hardware. You?"
"Yup," I said. "But hope I never have to use it."
"I can give you some martial arts lessons if you want," Michael said. "Useful skills to know."
"Yeah, if I have to use them, I'm dead anyway."
"Gee, you always this optimistic?" he asked in a half-serious tone. "But I think avoiding confrontation's a good idea. The locals do outnumber us, after all."
Michael paid the bill, leaving a generous tip, and headed towards the door. I followed him across the street, and into his motel room. He locked the door behind us, consciously moving away from the windows and closing the blinds. I thought the caution was somewhat excessive, but he might've had more reason to take death threats seriously. He pulled out a binder from a suitcase and set it down. Within it, I saw a map of the town with a few locations circled.
"Based on my sources, I've compiled a few promising leads," he said. "There's four top ones."
He tapped his finger on a hilltop north of town. "The most recent sighting was up here, near the site of an old labor uprising a century ago. The site's fairly remote, so even the locals have issues getting up there."
He tapped on a hill to the south of town. "The first sighting was at an abandoned coal mine south of town. The bikers have been camping out there, trying to keep anyone from getting to close. They've been up to something big recently."
His finger moved towards another location, a square with a lightning bolt icon on it. "Narrowly before the sightings started, there were reports of strange electrical interference. Based on grid options, I noticed a local substation was near the center of the locations."
His finger slid slowly towards a road. "The Stormriders have been harassing and interrogating witnesses. I have a source that's offered to speak about their encounter with the bikers. I'm worried they are still watching her, though. She has a history with the gang."
Michael exhaled. "So, any thoughts?"
I thought to ask him why he'd been in town a week already and hadn't investigated any of the sites yet himself, but decided against it. Maybe there was more trouble lately than he was telling me.
"Let's start with the latest sighting," I said. "Hopefully it won't be too difficult to reach. Then maybe we can swing by the substation. I'd love to find some evidence of the supernatural, but if there's a possible rational explanation, we shouldn't ignore it. As for shady bikers, like you said - let's avoid confrontation where we can."
Michael offered to drive, but he told me to either take everything important with me, or hide it extremely well. He offered a few tips on hiding things in nooks and crannies of the cheap motel rooms, behind some vinyl siding. I imagined he had direct experience with such things, given the ease and confidence in which he identified and peeled back parts of the wall and floor like they were cheap props. I knew I wanted to bring a few things along.
4. The Bastion Hill Array
Michael explained there would be some hiking involved. I decided to bring my light pack, with some water, rations, a first aid kit, my weapons, and food for my trusty companion. Over my long walks with Rex in the woods, I've come to realize how helpful he was in avoiding trouble. It was due to him refusing to budge along an icy hillside that probably saved my life, even when I first stubbornly decided to push on. I knew he'd be far more perceptive than I would, here in this unfamiliar territory. When I left my room, I suggested to Michael we take my rental car instead. It would stick out far less than his flashy sports car.
"Thanks. I feel stupid for that," he said. "No wonder the locals don't want to talk. I stick out like a sore thumb."
"How'd you afford a car like that?"
"Rich uncle willed it to me," he said. "But I rarely drive it. It's got good gas mileage, so I took it down here from New York."
"And no one's broken into it yet?"
"Honestly, I've got insurance, so not too worried," he said. "It's more sentimental than anything, but it's getting more expensive to maintain."
"That was probably bought for more money than most people in this town see in their lives."
"Something like that," Michael said. "But few people are willing to talk, unless money's involved."
"Could be a lot of things. Maybe they're afraid of the bikers, maybe they don't like out-of-towners, and maybe they're just racist."
"Heh, maybe all of above," Michael said, chuckling slightly. "But I found someone who's more than happy to talk my ear off."
He produced a small headset from his pocket, and he connected it to his cell phone. He dialed a particular number as we headed towards the first site.
"Hello, Mrs. Etheridge," I said. "Mike here. Made a new friend."
"That's good to know," said a voice on the other end. "You charging in to more trouble?"
"Just going to investigate the recent sightings."
"Ah, the Bastion Hill ones?"
"Yes. I'm just glad to get away from town."
"I wish I could join you, but I've got to look after the house. I'm worried they might return."
"I understand completely, Mrs. Etheridge."
"So, tell me, who's your new friend?"
"He's a visitor from Ohio, and he brought along a dog."
I heard Rex bark happily.
"Oh, good to hear. One good dog can drive off a pack of mangy ones."
"Hi, I'm Rick," I said. "Nice to meet you, Mrs. Etheridge."
"Glad to meet you. Has Michael told you about how we met?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
"The bikers were chasing him down the street, and I stepped onto my porch with my shotgun ready."
I chuckled a bit. "Yeah, you seem like you can handle yourself."
"They beat my husband and harassed my daughter, so anything I can do to ruin their day is good in my book."
"You have a history with them?" I asked.
"If you call it that. Before they were a biker gang, they were some kind of Satanic lodge. As their founding members died off, they began recruiting bikers for security, and eventually, involved themselves in petty crime."
"And how'd you run into them?"
"My parents and I grew up down the street from them. We heard strange sounds at night, loud music, strange chants, and things I can't describe. It got so bad, we had to move across town. We've held something of a feud since then."
"Must've been awful."
"Only because they're still around," she said. "But pleasure meeting you, Rick. And you take care of your canine friend. Mine helped me chase off those fools too many times to count."
With that, Michael hung up. "Remember Sara at the diner? That was her mother."
"Handy person to know," I said. I noted her daughter was well-positioned to hear all the gossip around town. Michael might not be popular, but he'd definitely found good sources. I honestly wondered what she might look like in person. I imagined an older woman, perhaps in her fifties, holding a pump-action shotgun in her hands. Definitely the type of person I won't want to anger.
"We're almost here," Michael said, turning the car onto a dirt road.
The road curved upwards abruptly and sharply. We had to park after the few hundred yards or so, and we had to continue on foot. I noticed a lot of overhanging rocks and gnarled trees around. While the place was overgrown and wild, I still felt a heavy historical presence here. I thought I could see shapes crawling through the woods, like the striking miners turned armed rebels. For a moment, I could almost hear the crack of rifle fire and the frantic shouting of men.
"It's called Bastion Hill, because striking miners fortified the place against strikebreakers," Michael said, reading from a faded plaque on a stone. "It's overshadowed by Blair Mountain, as it was shorter and less intense."
"What happened to the miners?"
"They disbanded when the National Guard approached. They stashed their weapons, hoping avoid prosecution."
"Mixed success, but less drastic than Blair Mountain," Michael said. "But anyway, the most recent sightings were near the hilltop. Some hunters saw it circling above, before it dove at them and vanished."
I looked up at the hilltop to see a rusted metal tower of some sort. I wondered if it was some remnant of that long-ago insurgency, but the cellphone antennae grafted to it dispelled such ideas. I presumed it was a radio mast used to service the nearby town, although it bore rust along its sides reminiscent of creeping fungus. I saw electric lights mounted on the side, and I wondered if some drunken hunters mistook them for the legendary cryptid. Stranger things had certainly happened.
The hike up Bastion Hill was more draining than I thought it would be. I understood why the miners had fortified the place, given the abnormally sloped of the hillside and vantage point it provided. I could see the road, the diner, and the remainder of the town through the foliage as I climbed to the summit. I had to catch my breath several times, but Rex bounded ahead of me with the endless vigor of a puppy. I'd certainly had my fill of exercise as I reached the summit.
About three-quarters up the hillside, Rex sat near the base of a tree and yapped excitedly. Michael hobbled over, but I moved in with unexpected vigor. At first, I thought he intended to mark his territory, but the way he bounded around suggested a different sort of excitement. My canine counterpart was rarely so excited, unless he found something particularly interesting. I looked into the gnarled, bulbous roots of an ancient tree and saw something metallic. It bore some sights of rust, but it was in surprisingly serviceable condition.
I presumed it was a weapon abandoned by one of the fleeing miners. It was a lever-action Winchester rifle, the sort of thing a rural miner would have used. With a bit of cleaning, it could fetch a hefty price on the collector's market. Dave would've been so jealous. I made a mental note to retrieve the item on my way back.
"Nice find," Michael said. "And great shape for its age, too."
The peak of the Bastion Hill was a suitable location for a far more climactic battle than the skirmish history granted to it. Ancient trees grew beneath the shadow of a metal watchtower constructed sometime during World War II. I saw the plaque at the bottom state it was a sentry tower intended to watch for enemy aircraft, but it was reused as a radio tower after the war ended. A chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, encircled the tower as though those miners would retake it at any moment. I presumed it was intended to prevent tampering with or theft of the expensive cell phone and radio equipment mounted on it.
I noticed the lightbulbs seemed to be white or blue, but a single red light was mounted at the top of the tower. I wondered if it blinked or simply remained illuminated at night, as such crimson illumination could match the infamous Mothman's eyes with some imagination. The rash of other sightings and local legends could've easily influenced what the hunters had seen. Michael echoed similar sentiments, but Rex found something interesting.
Ours were not the only footprints. On the opposite side of the hill was another path, one that bore signs of recent, and surprising busy, traffic. The brush was compressed, the ground was partially exhumed, and the prints melded into an indistinguishable parade. After looking up, I doubted it was merely a hunting party or large group of hikers. I saw wires woven through the upper branches of nearby trees, like vines in a technological jungle.
The cables led towards a single location and ended after about fifty yards downhill. They terminated in the highest trees overlooking a small clearing, where I beheld a peculiar display. A number of small satellite dishes were roosted in the uppermost branches, all pointed towards a particular spot in the sky. I was unfamiliar with the night sky and stargazing, but I recalled something else. The dishes were perched above the valley the hunters saw the creature. I took a photograph with my smartphone, and Michael did the same.
"Interesting," he noted. "Think these could be related to our Mothman sighting?"
"Maybe," I said. "Some kind of optical illusion?"
"I'm more curious about these dishes. Judging from how crudely they're wired up, I doubt this is official work."
"Then who did it?"
"I think we're about to find out," Michael said, looking downhill.
Michael hid behind the thick trunk of an oak tree, and I did the same behind a pine. Through the break in the clearing, I saw movement on the road below. A utility van, escorted by two bikers, was inching its way up the access road. I didn't know if they'd seen the car yet, but they'd probably pass it soon. I doubted I'd be recognized, but they wouldn't be happy to find us here. While I didn't know the local players, I felt the Stormriders probably had some involvement with the dish arrangement.
I moved with an adrenaline soaked mental celerity to make my decision, as the Stormriders made their way up the only road. We would act like innocuous hikers ambling back towards our car. I wrapped the Winchester in a plastic bag and shoved it underneath my shoulders, so it would look like a mat or bedroll. While I pretended to be a hiker, I saw Mike move with more alacrity than I thought him capable of as he half-fell down the steep path. I felt weight of the pistol and machete in my bag, which I hoped never to draw. For all I knew, the bikers were better shots than I was. Today, I wasn't feeling lucky.
I hurried past the bikers at a half-shuffling pace as we rounded the hillside. They'd parked their bikes close to the car, but they were at least considerate enough to not block us in with their van. They'd pulled the utility van off to the side, and they seemed more interested in unloading some Tupperware crates from the back, similar to the type my parents stored Christmas decorations in. I wondered if we'd tripped some sort of silent alarm or camera as I approached them, and if they'd be gunning for us.
When I finally approached them, I had the rotten luck to accidently make eye-contact with one of them, a tall man with a scar down his cheek. He grit his yellow, jagged teeth at me, and I averted my gaze just as quickly. Rex growled, but hid behind my leg when the man turned back towards us. He was overseeing the others, and I had no urge to discover more about him than I had to. Michael followed beside me along the path, half-wreathed in shadow. He kept well away from the bikers as they continued their peculiar task. Once we got into the car, I locked the doors and left the hill as quickly as possible. From the way they looked at me in the rearview mirror, they didn't want to see me again. The feeling was mutual.
5. Powering Onwards
After the altercation on Bastion Hill, I decided to head to the substation. I had some time during the drive to the substation. I decided to ask about the electrical abnormalities. I was certain the answer would be rather shocking, if I don't say so myself. I saw Michael sigh loudly, before pulling out his smartphone.
"You know, there's a few interesting things," he said. "First, there's occasional power going off at random around town, like rolling brownouts when I visited Third World countries before."
"Yeah, but any relation with the Mothman?"
"The brownouts occurred shortly after the sightings started, but they seem completely random. There was one earlier today, in fact. I'm not sure whether it's our flying friend, or just failing infrastructure. You saw how bad the roads are. Just imagine what the grid's like," Michael said. "And I thought the Bronx was bad."
"No other distortions, then?"
"Oh, plenty. See those high voltage lines? More power is being drawn from them than since before the sightings. No visible cause, as far as I can tell, but I haven't looked closely at the substation."
"Any explanations for it?"
"Maybe the local gang somehow stealing power, combined with shitty infrastructure?" he shrugged. "We won't know for sure until we check out the substation."
"Oh, yes, quite a bit," he said. "Whenever the Mothman is sighted, nearby electronics go offline. It's like they got hit with some kind of electromagnetic pulse, but rarely enough to permanently damage them."
"Or is that just witnesses explaining why their photos and videos all suck?"
"I've seen unconvincing witnesses before, but that electronic surge is hard to fake," he paused for a breath. "Hard, but not totally impossible."
"Gee, we got anything to counter that?"
"I have a polaroid camera," he said, grinning slyly. "There's also weird radio signals, like a low frequency, but repetitive signal, combined with occasional high frequency spikes. Too strange to be pirate radio or most consumer devices. Not impossible to fake, but just strange."
"Yeah, maybe we'll find more dishes," I said. "But I'd rather run into Mothman than those goons again."
"You sure about that?" Michael said with a smile. "Thugs are something I can handle. I'm not sure about Mothman."
"If it's Mothman," I retorted.
"A big if, but perhaps not impossible," Michael said. "And honestly, I am more than a little curious about seeing something truly strange."
Before I saw the substation, I saw the high-tension lines suspended over the nearby hills like the strings of some giant instrument. It was now late afternoon, and the sun was beginning to set behind distant hills. I wondered what it would've been like, back in the days of the coal rush, when workers would emerge from the tunnels to see nothing but the fading light of a dying day. I wondered how fast I'd have died of exhaustion, black-lung, asphyxiation, collapse, or some similarly ignoble, awful demise underground.
The substation itself lacked signs of unlawful intrusion from a distance. I voted to go at a brisk, but cautious pace. The hum of the high-tension wires was audible over the mating calls of distant insects, as though the lines were strings of some celestial guzheng. I wondered if the Mothman was some electromagnetic harpist, playing invisible spectra like we played with mere Newtonian physics. I kept the scavenged rifle in the car, keeping only my pistol and machete. I saw Michael look around with some discomfort, as he was only now realizing how poorly he was armed.
The substation itself was nothing particularly abnormal. I expected to find strange devices, like Tesla coils arcing up into the night sky. Instead, I found transformers that buzzed like a hive of Ernst Junger's glass bees. I saw rust and cracks in the units themselves, which caused me to hesitate to go near. While I had little formal training in physics, I knew the place was like a giant bug zapper, just waiting to electrocute anyone getting too close. Even the rusted chain around the gate hadn't been touched in a very long time.
While I declined to get to close, Rex nevertheless found something I missed. There were footprints leading to a distant field, one parallel to the high-tension lines. Another thing I noticed was a peculiar buzzing that increased, the further I stepped away from the substation. I decided to investigate the footprints.
I followed the footprints away from the substation, towards the edge of that shadow-haunted forest. I wondered if the shadows that writhed like serpents were unwanted stalkers or fearful beasts, coming to suck the marrow from my bones. I rapidly dispelled such phantasms from my mind, forcing myself to focus on the mundane aspects of what I've seen so far. I told myself there was another Stormrider science project somewhere nearby, which might be the object of my search.
As the forest grew darker with each step, I drew my flashlight as I scanned the underbrush. The canopy above strangled the remaining sunlight, and I slowed my pace to one of slow, deliberate movements. Each shadow grew a little darker, each fearful phantasm grew a little scarier, and each of my reservations deepened. However, I soon found a small bit of solace as I followed the tracks to the edge of a field.
Outside of the thick foliage, I saw a wide, opened field. High above was one of the towers from the high-tension lines, which stood like a skeletal metal eidolon of a robot god. I stepped forwards, eager to be out of the fearful woods, when my foot struck an object, causing me to nearly trip. Michael caught me as I tumbled forward, and I looked to see what had almost sent me sprawling. I first thought it was some errant root, but a closer examination revealed it to be artificial.
It was a shovel, discarded or concealed in the underbrush with others like it. I wondered if the Stormriders used them to bury evidence, or victims, but I noticed something peculiar about the blade. They were all covered in plastic and rubber wrappings, which completely covered the metal on them. I wondered why this could be, and I wondered if it was some way to keep troublesome genetic evidence from appearing on them.
What got Michael's attention, however, was something else entirely. After examining the shovel that almost tripped me, he followed the tracks into the field, directly below the wires. He paced directly beneath the powerlines, as though pantomiming a marching soldier. Beneath his shoes, I noted the bizarre, almost straight pattern that seemed carved in the ground. It was almost as long as a school bus, and loose soil showed signs of recent excavation.
"Hey, bring two of those shovels over," he said, gesturing to the ground. "I think there's something buried here."
"Like what?" I asked. "Drugs? Bodies?"
He shrugged. "Only one way to find out."
Michael began digging with no further prompting, and I suppose that a lack of other visible evidence prompted me to do the same. I noted Michael did not bother to remove the plastic cover from his, which seemed to have no adverse effects on the celerity in which he excavated that soil. I reflected that he might have made a fine grave robber, had he been born in a different lifetime. Even Rex joined in. We lost track of time, and we did not stop until he hit something solid.
My shovel was the first to strike something. I felt a hard impact, as though I'd punched through something soft in the ground. I momentarily feared that I'd exposed a rotting cadaver to the open air, judging from the smell of damp, moist earth. The sun was now sinking lower and lower, but we had enough light to avoid requiring our flashlights. Looking down, I saw something that relieved and intrigued me.
It was a coil of wire. It was thick, heavy wire, the sort I imagined would be used on telegraph lines in previous centuries or for telephone lines. It was shielded by thick insulation, and my shovel had barely grazed the outermost coating. I wondered if this was why the shovels had the improvised plastic coating on it, as some crude form of grounding or electrical insulation. I saw a look of realization appear on Michael's head.
"Oh, I've seen this trick before," he said. "These guys are slick."
"What trick?" I asked. "Stealing wire for illegal scrap sales?"
"Maybe, but it's what they're doing with it that's interesting," Michael said. "It's an induction coil. They're wirelessly stealing power from the high-tension lines."
"The current flow overhead induces a magnetic field below, which generates flow in this coil," he said. "This could be where that power is going, or at least their main method of stealing it."
"So, this powers that weirdo dish array?"
"Maybe, but it probably powers something important. Messing directly with the substation could be too obvious. This is how the pros steal power."
"Professional electricians, who'd normally be hired to detect this sort of thing," he said. "But we can use this. What to mess with them?"
"We short this circuit, of course," he said. "Whatever they're using the juice for, this is probably a key part of it."
I was unsure of his strategy, but I felt it was highly dangerous. Looking over at the setting sun, I realized how close we were coming to nightfall. I decided to cover the cables back, to prevent them from detecting our interference. Michael grumbled, and I sensed he nursed something of a grudge against the Stormriders. Getting chased across town, only to be saved by an old lady, must've offended him on some level of his ego. I hoped I could dampen any reckless thoughts of revenge, because we were here for the legendary Mothman, not some petty criminals.
As we filled the ditch back in, the sun completed its descent beneath the horizon. I would have been sweaty from all the exertion, but a cool breeze caused me to shiver instead. I saw the stars come out in their full glory, unmarred by artificial lights. I reflected that the light of galaxies long dead might only now be reaching us, and even if our civilization vanished tomorrow, we'd barely register on the cosmic timescales of the vaster universe. When faced with such nihilistic solipsism, my mind forced itself back to my own petty interests, which affected me more directly.
I was content to leave the ditch partially filled in, given how dark and cold it was getting. After encountering the bikers on Bastion Hill, I had no interest in lingering longer than I had to. If they decided to come out here, there were other signs we'd been here than our errant digging, after all. Rex was getting uneasy, and growling at the distant woods. Whenever I turned towards the forest, I saw nothing. Nevertheless, I saw Rex seemed to relax when I looked where he did. I had his back as close as he had mine. Seeing Michael shiver, I sensed he also wanted to go.
"Let's head back and call it a day," he said. "Who knows if we'll catch something out here?"
I was in no mood to protest, so I headed back through the woods. Michael walked to my left, and Rex to my right. Our flashlights swept the forest like the beams of frantic searchlights, trying to detect some wave of enemy bombers. I passed my flashlight over each cluster of shadows, temporally exorcising the fears from my imagination and the fearful shapes from the forest floor. Even though the walk through the woods was no more than a hundred yards, it still felt like a nighttime march through enemy territory.
I estimated we were about midway through when Rex halted. I sensed something was amiss, so I did too. Michael stopped, seemingly oblivious to what Rex was trying to say. My dog was tracking an unseen target in the shadows, growling low and baring his teeth. Ancient instincts came out as he saw me assume a similarly aggressive stance in the woods. We stood against the shadows for a moment, as though an invisible foe would charge forth to challenge us. He barked, and I saw something move in the canopy above.
I covered my head with my hands as it swept low and fast. I heard the beating of immense wings, and the glint of glowing eyes. I ducked behind a tree as it whirled around, emitting a strange chittering sound. I saw its black, winged silhouette through the moonbeams that penetrated the canopy. I fumbled with my flashlight, trying to turn it towards the beast. I turned the beam on it, as though it was a cross before a vampire. It flew off into the night, and I realized it was a lot smaller than I thought it was. I illuminated only a chuckling Michael and a barking Rex.
"Man, that was a good one," he said, laughing between words. "That bat must've been more scared of us than we were of it."
Mike pulled me to my feet, and I brushed myself off. My clothes would need to be washed, given all the mud on them. I dusted off as best I could, before I turned once more towards the path. I aimed my flashlight in the direction I hoped the car was, and I gestured for the others to follow. Michael came along with a smile stretching from ear to ear, but Rex still growled at an unseen target.
"C'mon, boy. Time to go," I said, whistling to Rex.
Rex didn't listen. Instead, he looked up and started barking, with a fury like I've never heard before. Expecting another bat, I turned my flashlight upwards. I was looking towards the canopy when something momentarily darkened it. My flashlight died, and Rex barked louder. As I shook my flashlight, I saw Michael struggling to get his working again. While we could barely see each other in that dark forest, we looked at each other as we realized it approached. Looking upwards, we saw it.
It smashed through the canopy like a small airplane, its eyes glowing as red as demonic embers. Its shape blackened the moon and stars, as though it could singlehandedly snuff out the heavens. Like a darkness rising from an eternal abyss, it seemed to devour the light around it. Its wings terminated in sharp points, and easily exceeded that of two outstretched adult hand-spans. It buzzed like an infernal locust, a sound reminiscent of metallic droning and electrical discharge. It was diving directly at us.
I felt the hair on my skin standing on end. I felt my heart pound like a marching legion. I felt a torrent of sweat from earlier, kept inside by the cool wind, flow out like glacial meltwater. I mouthed words that ended only in nonsensical utterances, and I screamed at my frozen body to move. Michael and Rex seemed similarly stuck in an almost supernatural paralysis, unable to respond to my confused cries. I saw both the creature's eyes looking at me, even though I saw no movement from its dome-like head. I dove between the roots of a tree as it passed too close for comfort above. I covered my head and dared not to look up. It screeched once more, causing the tree I cowered beneath to shake with unnatural oscillation. I wondered if I would die beneath the trunk of some tree, shaken loose by the infamous Mothman. I heard myself scream, and I pulled myself into a ball.
It seemed to be an eternity I hid there, devoid of all sense of time. When I finally mustered the courage to stick my head out from behind the roots, I felt a sense of relief come over me. The forest seemed a bit lighter and less threatening, and it took my fear-addled mind a second to comprehend why. My flashlight, which I'd dropped in my sheer panic earlier, was working again. It illuminated the brush beside the tree, which was now hopefully emptied of both bats and Mothmen. I picked it up and saw Rex looking up at me with wide, fearful eyes. Meanwhile, Michael looked unnaturally pale.
"W-what w-was t-that?" he asked, his words slowly forming. "W-was t-that r-real?"
I realized I was now thinking for the both of us. Rex watched the canopy with fearful eyes. I decided to cautiously move with weapon in hand and investigate the area. I didn't know what I'd beheld, but I would not go unprepared. I drew the antique pistol and swept the muzzle through the dark forest, brandishing it like a talisman against malignant spirits. I felt all the firepower in the world wouldn't have mattered against what I saw diving at me, less a mythic cryptid and more elemental force of nature.
With flashlight and pistol in opposing hands, I examined the place it crashed through the canopy. My quivering grip caused the flashlight beam to erratically bounce along the ground. I saw the reflective eyes of some small creature staring in the underbrush, which vanished when I turned for a closer look. In the brush beside where it had been, I saw a heavy branch, its end splintered as though by some great impact from above. I looked directly up to see the starlight filtering through the gap in the treetop it had crashed through. At that moment, I began to think this was something more than hoax or mistaken bird sighting.
I heard Michael muttering nonsensically behind me. "Y-you have a gun? I-I wish I had one now."
Rex began barking once more, and I turned my attention to the south of my position. I immediately ducked behind a tree and pulled Michael behind me. I saw the beams of distant flashlights bounding across the field, accompanied by the snarling of hungry dogs. They formed a crude line, like a fox hunting party out to scour the forest for game. From the way they moved, I imagined at least some of them had hunting or military experience. At their head, I saw the trenchcoated man from earlier, Christopher Drake. He was surrounded by two burly men with headlamps, making him the most apparent among their ranks.
"Through here," he said, hacking through foliage with his dragon-headed swordcane. In his other hand, he brandished some sort of buzzing electronic gadget. "It crashed through the canopy nearby."
I pressed myself against the tree and weighed my options. There were at least four flashlights bearing down on my direction, and at least two attack dogs. My single magazine of ammunition in an antique pistol would not last me very long if the new arrivals decided to initiate hostilities. I pulled Michael closer, and I realized a quiet retreat would be a better option. I didn't want to leave him blathering in the woods, where the hunters could find him and beat information about Mrs. Etheridge, her daughter, and myself out of him.
So, I decided to make a break for it. Four flashlights became two pairs, which fanned out in opposite directions. Before they could completely encircle us, I made a break for the other side of the woods. I pulled Michael behind me, covering his mouth with my hand when he started muttering once more. Rex immediately understood their tactics on a level I didn't, and he lead us through an opening in the enemy lines. He did have a hunting instinct honed across generations.
Rex guided me between the thick, gnarled trunks of ancient trees in that forest. I remembered the sweat soaking my shirt in between those maddened, frenzied dashes. I felt things crawling through my hair, and I felt the grime on my hands. If we made it back, I knew I needed a long, hot shower. As I sprinted for a tree at the edge of the woods, I felt my knees collapse beneath me. I took down Michael as tumbled into darkness. I lost sight of him as I rolled into a gulley.
For a moment, I wondered if I'd fallen into some deep, yawning pit only a frantic fool would've blundered into. I fell into a muddy ditch, and I heard the barking of angry, persistent hounds behind me. Pain ached through my body. The shouting men grew louder, and I wondered how much I time had until my imminent discovery. Part of my mind lulled me towards surrender, and it was tempting to heed it.
So, I found myself where I started this story. A million lights danced before my vision like the supernovae of doomed nebulae. I pulled myself forwards on bloodied limbs, as I heard voices echo somewhere the road. Their heavy footfalls and hurried cadence betrayed frightening eagerness, and I knew they bore ill will. Nevertheless, my tenacity to win my petty bet with Dave drove me on. I was desperate to find reasons to keep going, but I was only half-rationalizing my reasons to go on.
I crawled out of that muddy ditch to find myself staring into the slavering maw of a scarred attack dog. It snapped at me with yellowed, sharpened teeth that looked like would have made a wolf-bite seem sanitary. I was half paralyzed in fear, and I thought it would snap at my throat if I made any sudden movements, like reaching for my pistol. The scars on its nose and face made it look more like a half-cooked hamburger than beloved canine. Given what I recalled about how Drake treated animals, I was surprised this one was still so vigorous. It snapped at my face, only for Rex to interpose himself between us. My canine companion was clearly the underdog, but his growl and tensed posture were clearly enough to send the larger dog running away. I presumed it had learned the hard way, perhaps through dozens of illegal dogfights, to recognize determined, cornered desperation.
I would have hugged Rex if I had the chance, but I saw Michael stumbling in front of me. I stood up, and I recognized we were directly beside the road. The car was less than a dozen yards away, and the flashlights seemed distant and receding. Whether they'd changed course or stuck to some perimeter, I did not care. Instead, I dragged him into the car and sped away. In that confused, half-maddened flight, I did not consider if I had been tailed or not.
6. Opposite of Answers
As stressful as the previous night was, it was a miracle that I made it back to the motel safely. I let Michael crash on the chair in my room, because he was unable to let himself back into his own room after the previous night. After I awoke, I took that long, hot shower I promised myself. Rex, meanwhile, slept peacefully on the floor. I struggled to gather my thoughts on all that happened the previous night. Just what did I see, and why were the Stormriders there?
Michael was more coherent when he awoke. He'd wandered back to his room to retrieve a backpack full of notebooks, and he set up on the small table in the corner. His map of sightings was updated with the one from last night, and I slowly and deliberately recounted the night's occurrences to him. If we were both going crazy, we joked, then perhaps it may be best to share a delusion than wander off alone. There was a different air about him, as though he was entertaining the possibility of this cryptid being something beyond a few confused sightings.
"A few sightings of Mothman were attributed to a certain species of heron," Michael said. "One that can get up to the height of a man and has red rings around its eyes."
"I doubt that's what crashed through the trees," I said. "I saw the branch it brought down. That wasn't some lost bird."
"I thought I saw that guy from the Stormriders last night," Michael said. "Drake, the failed veterinary student."
"Yeah, you told me about him. He had a sword-cane and a strange gizmo in his hand," I said, trying to recall the details from an already shaky recollection. "He ordered the rest of them around."
"They showed up pretty quick after the sighting. Too quick, like they could follow it," he said, sighing. "The Stormriders are keen on following it, and they don't like unexpected guests."
"Then maybe we should find out more about them."
He nodded. "I think we should check in with Mrs. Etheridge. She'll want to know what we saw, and she might know what they're planning."
I nodded in agreement.
"Anyway, I think I'll need something more than martial arts and pepper spray," Michael said. "I'll see what I can scrounge up."
"You can try the Winchester, but no guarantee it won't explode."
"I'll take my chances elsewhere," he said. "Oh, that reminds me. Did they see us last night?"
I shrugged. "A lot happened, but we can't rule it out. Eventually, though," I had no need to finish that sentence. I heard my stomach growl.
With that, I decided to head to the diner for food. I looked both ways before crossing the street, remembering a children's show instructing me to always do that. My continuing encounters with the bikers were more than sufficient to remind me. Seeing no Stormriders, or any other vehicles, I crossed with Rex and headed into the diner. I wondered if Sara Etheridge would be on shift. I entered and saw her sitting bored at the counter, reading something on her smartphone. As soon as I entered, she hurriedly set it down.
"Welcome. What can I get for you?" she asked.
"Same as before. Michael might be joining me soon," I said.
She vanished into the rear as I gazed outside the window. Rex sat by my feet, as if hoping for a snack or treat. With all the shit we just went through, I was tempted to let him eat the whole box of doggy snacks I'd brought with me. Someone entered the diner, and I did not pay attention at first, since I thought it was Michael. I picked up an old magazine at the stall to see if there was anything vaguely interesting inside.
Instead, two burly men walked in, each clad in leather Stormrider jackets. I vaguely recognized one of them, the taller one that had in the rear of their earlier convoy. I buried my head in the magazine and pretended not to notice them. They sat down at a nearby stall, and I saw Sara hand both of them a menu while maintaining her composure like an expert actress. I almost wished I could take lessons from her. I would have listened in to their conversation, but their loud, uncouth demeanor made it so I could hear every word clearly.
"Ted, you really gotta relax," his companion said. I vaguely recalled the name Ted Hennessey, the gang's recently demoted Rearguard Rider. Whatever the cause for the loss of status was, Ted was still irate over it. "The boss has a lot going on. I'm sure when this all blows over, it'll be—"
"Don, shut your damn mouth," Ted said. "First that prig shows up, then we gotta follow his orders. Next thing I know, I'm demoted to Rearguard Rider while we're lifting sat-dishes for God-knows-what."
"Look, the boss has been going through a lot. He knows he needs you. The Stormriders ain't riding without you."
"Bullshit. His new boyfriend is taking up all his time," Ted complained. "Thirty years, Don. Thirty fucking years. I put three decades into this club, and I get treated like a new pledge after this clown comes along."
I mustered the nerve to lower the paper a bit, and I saw the bikers in a nearby booth. Ted buried his head in his hands, and Don buried his own head in the menu. Sara came out a second later, and she placed my tuna sandwich on the table. I heard Don order a burger to go for both of them, but they said little else. Sara vanished and remerged with a pair of greasy paper bags, and the two stood up and headed for the door. I didn't know if they bothered to pay or not, but I was not about to stop them. I heard the door close, and then the revving of motorcycle engines.
When I saw the two bikes vanish down the road, I turned to Sara. "Do they ever give you any trouble?"
"Not much," Sara said. "They rarely linger. And if things get worse, the owner left a gun under the counter."
"Hope you never have to use it," I said. "Anyway, do they come by often?"
"Once every few days, I'd say," Sara said. "Their boss keeps them busy."
I nodded, just as I turned to see the door open once more. This time, I saw Michael entering with an object wrapped inside a black trash bag. He set it down on the table, and he chuckled nervously to himself. "Well, couldn't find a gun, but I found something almost as fun."
He pulled back the bag, revealing that it was full of Molotov cocktails. He set his newfound toy down on the table before concealing it again. I decided not to ask him where he scrounged up such implements.
"Are you okay, Mike?" Sara asked.
"Eh, could be better," Mike said. "I'll take a hotdog. Extra chili."
Sara nodded and vanished into the back of the diner, returning with a hotdog. I finished up my sandwich. A lot of thoughts raced through my mind, and I found myself telling Michael about the other visitors.
"Not everyone likes how the gang's being run," he said. "But Mrs. Etheridge will explain more."
We paid and headed out. Behind us, Sara was only too happy to return to her smartphone game. I wish I had the luxury of just sitting back playing a game, which I'd been missing for a while. I had a backlog of movies, books, and games longer than the Great Wall of China, and musing on how much I had to work my way through seemed as monument a task as building it. Nevertheless, my current job was interesting enough. Things would only get more fascinating once I met Mrs. Etheridge.
7. Riders of the Storm
The Etheridge house was a single-story ranch house that clearly saw decades of existence. Grass and dandelions slightly overgrew the front yard. The house had an attractive red brick façade, although the siding was more conventional. There was a small balcony with a rocking chair on it, a worn wicker one with the texture of a briar patch. I wondered if it was for ornamental purposes, or more painfully, for sitting.
Michael knocked on the door, and a second later, the front door opened. I was greeted by a short woman with curly brown hair and gray eyes, with an intensity to her undiminished by middle age. She invited us in with the wave of her hand, and we sat down in what I presumed was the living room. We sat on a comfortable couch across from a chimney, with pictures of Sara, her, and a bearded, jolly man I presumed to be her husband, adorned the mantelpiece.
"Good to meet you in person, Rick," she said, her voice sounding more melodic than the earlier talk in the car. "I have some dog treats if you want to give one to Rex."
The dog barked happily.
"From that face of yours, I can see you have a lot of questions. Any place you want to start?" she asked.
I decided to start with the gang's activities since the sightings started.
"For the last few decades, the Stormriders behaved no differently than any other biker gang, getting involved in drug running, selling stolen goods, and all manner of petty crime," Mrs. Etheridge explained. "But that changed a few weeks ago, when Drake emerged."
"The guy with the trench coat and cane," Michael said. "He sticks out from the bikers like a sore thumb."
"I get the idea he impressed the Stormrider's boss enough to become his new right-hand man, and the old one got demoted," I said. "But what'd he do that was able to grab their attention?"
"My understanding is that young man, Christopher Drake, had a peculiar influence on the organization. He started providing them with veterinary drugs and managing dog fights, but he probably used drug habits to gain leverage over the people that mattered," Mrs. Etheridge explained. "But whatever his motives are, they were enough to get the gang's leadership dancing to his tune. They've began acting like an occupying army since then, patrolling around town and closing off any place there's sightings."
"We found evidence they're siphoning off power and assembling a makeshift dish array," Michael said. "If they're broadcasting something, it needs a lot of juice. Whatever it is, I doubt they're just pirating satellite TV."
Mrs. Etheridge sighed. "You know, my husband Rob is an electrician. He always thought these rolling brownouts were strange, especially after talking with the power company. That's probably why the bikers beat him up."
I recounted what we found by the power lines, omitting the part about the Mothman.
"The part I don't understand is why the Stormriders are so obsessed with the Mothman," Michael said. "They're squeezing information out of witnesses, and they keep anyone away from where the sightings were."
"You know, the Stormriders' direct predecessors were obsessed with all that strange stuff," Mrs. Etheridge said. "As I explained earlier, I remember they used to be an occult or Satanic lodge."
"Yeah, and what happened to them?" I asked.
"They were into all manner of strange rituals and drugs, but the founding members died off or moved away. Perhaps to pay their expenses, they allowed a local motorcycle club to use their lodge. They worked to incorporate the bikers into their rituals as best they could, but most weren't interested."
"And that's where the Stormriders came from?" I asked.
Mrs. Etheridge nodded. "Now, based on what Sara's told me, this Drake fellow has an unhealthy interest in the old occult society. He's worked to revive its trappings and rituals, but I feel he has some ulterior motive."
"Any thoughts on what Drake wants?" I asked. "If they want to keep a low profile, why are they so aggressive with the Mothman angle?"
"Maybe that's not part of it. Maybe he wants the story to spread, for his own purposes. His uncle's a State Senator with enough pull to get the cops looking away," Michael said. "I'm curious about this Lodge, though."
"I compiled this from their brochures and material over the years," Mrs. Etheridge said, handing me a binder. I thumbed through it, revealing advertising materials of a distinctly cultish bent and newspaper clippings of an opposing, critical extreme. Some of the symbols from the gang's colors were on prominent display on their materials. I read the group called itself the Tempest Lodge, and I saw the possibly etymology of the gang's name. They were not well liked during their tenure in this small town, so they had little to lose by associating themselves with other outcasts.
"What about the Lodge's mythology?" I suggested. "If Drake is using it, would it make sense to look into that?"
"I've actually done a bit of reading into that," Michael said. "The Lodge saw itself as the harbingers of an extraterrestrial race, beings they called the Collectors from Yuggoth."
"Yeah, sounds bizarre," I said. "But did they imagine trying to cause the apocalypse? Or did they have a more benevolent bent?"
"Started with benevolent, but tended towards apocalyptic as time goes on," Michael said, directing my attention through the binder. "They had a pretty substantial library of occult texts, and they still might."
"How substantial?" I asked.
"This brochure boasts they have Gaspard du Nord's French translation of the Book of Eibon," Michael said. "Assuming that's true and they haven't sold it, an original would be worth more than decades of petty crime."
"You very familiar with those occult texts?" I asked, momentarily distracted. My inner bibliophile felt like storming into that clubhouse and liberating it from their greasy hands, assuming it was still there. "Like debunking them for your show?"
"Sometimes, but we all go through phases," Michael said, apparently eager to change subjects. "They might also have other occult texts, but maybe Drake wants the Stormriders for their library."
"We need to know his goals before we can understand his methods," I said. "But sadly, I can't read his mind."
Mrs. Etheridge, who'd been quiet during our recent exchange, piped up. "I believe you may check out what he's been reading. For a time, he frequented the local library a town over. One of my friends is a librarian there."
"Okay, that sounds interesting," Michael asked. "But what do we do in the meantime?"
I suggested an idea that had been percolating for a while. I was curious if anyone else saw the Mothman last night, and if the Stormriders had gotten to them yet. I wondered just how deep the local legacy of this secret society ran. I also wondered if I may find an inside source in the gang, probing the disaffected members. I decided the best course of action was to follow up on the last night's sighting.
8. The Starward Site
I remembered the descriptions of the Stormriders acting like an occupying army, and that comparison seemed apt. Michael drove me towards the substation, but we saw the bikers set up a roadblock along the way. They parked two vans end-to-end, completing obstructing the utility road we'd used previously. Two bikers sat mounted on their bikes out front, undoubtedly armed. I muttered something to myself, and I saw Michael reach for the bag of Molotov cocktails. He hesitated for a moment, and then his eyes opened wide, as if remembering something.
"There's another way," he said. "I remembered another way we could backroad it there."
Michael turned the car around, and headed back towards the way we came. He took us back towards the town, but I sensed something amiss. I thought I saw a motorcycle following us at certain times, enough to cause Michael to try and shake them. When the bike broke off to turn into the diner, we both sighed in relief. I looked down a side-road, and I thought I saw a building covered in Stormrider symbols. A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire surrounded the entire property, but the peculiar stone figures displayed outside caused me to think of images from Mrs. Etheridge's binder. I do remember seeing few nearby vehicles. Michael, deliberately avoided looking at the structure, instead focusing on driving. I wondered if I'd just glimpsed their clubhouse.
Michael's logic finally made sense as he turned down a road at the base of a hill, which veered suddenly away from the direction I thought it went. From that elevated mountain road, I noted the guard rail was rusted and on the verge of falling off in some places. From the general state of dilapidation, I presumed this road was older and rarely used, or perhaps excessively used and abandoned. While the car could barely chug up that steep hill road, the view was amazing. I identified Bastion Hill off in the distance, and I wondered just where that weird array we'd seen was located. The town beneath was like a trainset I'd seen when I was a kid. It was a shame the locals didn't use the road for tourism, but it might be due to lacking the funds to repair it.
A text interrupted my observation of the breathtaking vista. Mrs. Etheridge sent us Christopher Drake's reading list. I skimmed a few titles on the list: Contact by Carl Sagan, Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel, and an old textbook on radio-astronomy. There was also a list of internet search terms he'd frequently used: SETI Home, power theft, Tempest Lodge, KIC 8462852, Eibon, Fermi Paradox, Yuggoth, Luc le Chaudronnier, long delayed echo, and the Stormriders. I was unsure exactly how to make sense of it.
I decided to let Michael look over the list while I drove. The car stopped at the top of a hill where could see the power lines from last night. The substation itself was still largely untouched, although I saw more vans parked in front of it. I recognized the ornately painted motorcycle of the club's leader and those of his top officers. I saw the field beneath the power lines, where the trench Mike and I had dug was entirely filled in. I saw at least a dozen leather jacket-clad figures scuttling around the distant hill like heavy metal insects.
I saw a handful of figures I thought I recognized. A speck I thought to be the gang leader, Ralph Chafin, on account of the circle of people around him, was approached by a singularly haughty stride I was starting to recognize: Drake. Somewhere in the woods, a group of annoyed bikers slunk away. They moved around with dogs and search parties like they did last night, but I saw the leader was annoyed. Drake was even more irate, as I saw him strike a tree with his cane, in a demonstration of emotion I'd never seen from him. If only I could hear what they were saying.
Michael's phone rang then, distracting me from my simplistic attempts at surveillance. He saw the number calling and quickly raised it to his ear. I raised my finger to tell him to be quiet, until I remembered exactly how far and distant we were from the objects of our interest. I wondered if they had sentries observing nearby hills with telescopes and binoculars, or if they even cared to. The object of their fixation seemed far more local.
"What?!" I heard Michael shout into the phone. "Rick, they're tossing our rooms!"
I cursed to myself.
"Mrs. Etheridge said Sara texted her a minute ago," Michael said. "They're taking their sweet time doing it, too."
I remembered the dearth of vehicles at the clubhouse, and I considered an even more daring idea.
"There's not much we can do, Mike. But what if we toss their place?"
He considered it for a moment, but he asked me to elaborate. I decided against it, given they'd likely have at least some security there. Instead, I decided to head back to the motel. At the very least, I could confront the dirt-bags in the act. They had the numbers, but I at least could make them online celebrities. The local cops were useless, but someone had to notice. Then again, West Virginia had always been the dominion of the wealthy and ruthless, as those striking miners found out the hard way.
Being a bibliophile, I looked into the books along the way back to the motel. I was assured Drake at least had good taste in reading, given he similarly enjoyed Carl Sagan and Liu Cixin. Both wrote their separate take on first contact with aliens, although both works had vastly different tones. Sagan proposed a scenario involving meeting a benevolent species, while Liu's work depicted terrifyingly hostile aliens that would've made Lovecraft proud. Both attempted to answer the Fermi paradox, or the apparent lack of observable alien species in a vast universe. That's what brought me to the next batch of terms.
Due to budget cuts, the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life was crowdsourced to volunteers. Each donated a portion of their computer's unused processing power to process astronomical data for anything interesting. The distributed, decentralized approach was novel about two decades ago, but I considered the reasons for Drake's interest. I wondered if his apparent interest in SETI Home inspired his ramshackle array. The last few terms brought the strangest implications.
In the mythology of the Tempest Lodge, Yuggoth was a distant, dead world that cast forth its scions across the cosmos. Luc le Chaudronnier was a medieval sorcerer mentioned in the French version of the Book of Eibon, who reportedly battled an otherworldly creature. According to my cursory online search, there was no direct mention of Yuggoth in the text. Why and how Drake was able to drag along a biker gang to help with a DIY radio astronomy project was beyond me.
The last two terms were fascinating, but of no additional value. Long-delayed echoes were a radio phenomenon where a signal beamed into the upper atmosphere would repeat after a substantial period. It was thought to be some type of atmospheric effect, but I was unsure as to why Drake repeatedly searched for it. Lastly was KIC 8462852, also known as Tabby's Star, considered by some to host a potential alien civilization. This was due to existing naturalistic explanations for its anomalous dimming continually falling short. I wondered if perhaps this was the target of his unofficial sky survey. Lamentably, we arrived at our destination before I could read more.
9. Unwanted Visitors
We arrived to find the motel doors smashed in, but no sign of the culprits. I entered my room with gun drawn, but I saw no signs anyone waited to ambush me. The room was too trashed to provide such hiding places. The small table on the room was overturned, and it had one of the legs broken off. The insides of the chair and sofa spilled onto the floor, like blood from a wounded animal. The dresser and nightstand fared little better, having been smashed with an axe into splinters. Whatever they were looking for, they'd been thorough.
As I surveyed the room, I checked the places I'd cached things. Thankfully, more than half the spare cash I hid in the vents was left. The Stormriders trashed this place thoroughly and systematically searching for something. I was unsure if it was due to them having a specific item in mind, or if they just trashed the place looking for anything of interest. Either way, they'd sent a message to the only two outsiders that had been in town for long. I considered canceling my reservation, especially after the clerk's obstinate refusal to allow me to give a statement to the police. I called the state police, but I was redirected to some automated message that disconnected me. I hung up, disappointed.
Michael's room was in similar shape to mine. Everything of value, including the generic portraits suspended from the walls, was trashed and ripped with a spitefulness that excited mine. Michael's spare clothes had been shoved into the toilet, and the stench that emanated from them was more than enough to convince him to never wear them again. Amongst the shards of shattered kitchenware, I saw a broken sculpture. It was a black, glassy thing resembling a squat toad-like creature with prominent ears. I could not identify what it had been prior to that, given the state of it. From the distraught look on his face, I could not bring myself to ask him about it.
I sighed. For a moment, I seriously considered leaving. The bikers' message was clear: stick around, and you'll get worse. I wondered if this ill-conceived investigation, this bet with Dave, was worth risking my life over. I decided to ask the Etheridge family if they know of any alternative lodging. It was not a choice I made easily, but I would not miss the motel manager. Rex waited by the road, watching my back while I packed up what little was left. Gathering what remained of my things, I headed for the car.
I saw Michael walk outside of his apartment, and he held a small object in hand. He was eyeing a fragment of the shattered frog-thing's head with a slight grin before pocketing it. "Never thought I'd see this thing as anything other than a novelty."
"What do you mean?" I asked, curious why a noted skeptic would keep such a weird sculpture around.
"A fan sent me this as a joke. It was supposed to be an idol of some weird god, one with an unpronounceable name. I did a few videos where I did a sarcastic back and forth with it, like I originally intended for the Mothman investigation."
I nodded to him, although the deity in question was one I was familiar with. "That's Tsathoggua, a deity mentioned in the Book of Eibon."
"What? You know Kermit here?" he asked, showing me the shattered head. Even though most of it was gone, I still caught the frog-god's infamously mirthful grin. Even in the worst of circumstances, Tsathoggua smiled. There was something poetic about it, but I did not care to overanalyze the situation.
"Yeah, he's still smiling, despite being a thousand bits across the motel floor," I said, my tone turning sarcastic. "Must be a sign."
"Is it bad I'm half-ready to believe it is?" Michael asked, in an alarmingly sincere voice. He sighed, and then checked his phone. "Mrs. Etheridge just texted me. We're allowed to stay in their house, but only if we keep the cars parked around back."
"Generous of them," I said. "We should reimburse them, or at least offer to."
"They're putting a lot on the line to help us."
I nodded, well-aware of the mundane and worse things out there. We headed towards their house, with me following Michael as he took a long and circuitous route to ensure we weren't followed. Rex was getting restless, and I took a mental note to get him some exercise or bribe him with a treat if possible. He had the excuse of being largely ignorant of the events, but he sensed something was amiss.
We arrived at the Etheridge house and saw nothing out of the ordinary at first. I stepped out of the car, and slammed the door. Rex hopped out and immediately began growling. There was an uncanny stillness in the air, like a stifling pressure that increased with each step I took towards the house. I moved up to the back deck, a slap of concrete surrounded by potted plants and a disused grill, and I heard the pump of a shotgun.
"Just them!" Rob Etheridge called from inside. I saw Mrs. Etheridge step outside, the weapon slung over her shoulder. "Ethel, put the gun down!"
I saw Rob step out a minute later with a Glock shoved into his pocket. He was less jolly than I envisioned him, likely because of the stress he was under. His face was reddened and sweaty, and his beard seemed matted and frayed. He gestured for us to come in, and we did not tally long in the yard. From the look on their faces, I expected the bullets to start flying at any moment.
"Have you seen Sara?" Mrs. Etheridge asked.
"No, but I'd presume she was still at the diner," Michael said. "What's up?"
"We can't get ahold of her, and it gets worse," Rob said, showing us a smartphone with no signal. "You'd need some serious stuff to jam this. Landlines for this part of town have been completely severed."
Michael and I checked our phones, to find them similarly dead. I wondered if Stormriders had a signal jammer at their disposal. Given their prowess with electronics, it would not be unexpected they'd acquired or built one. From the look on Mrs. Etheridge's face, I could tell she had to nearly be restrained from charging out the door.
"Pardon me for asking, but what happened?" I asked.
"After you texted us, four bikers passed in front of the house and revered their engines on the driveway," Rob said. "They openly brandished guns and threatened us."
"Then let's roll!" Michael exclaimed. "Get in my car. I'm sick of taking their shit!"
I saw Mrs. Etheridge's face light up like a billboard at night. She grabbed a box of shotgun shells lying on the table, and I saw Rob load a new magazine into his pistol. Michael darted out to his car, and set the sack of Molotovs behind him. He checked the lighter in his pocket still worked, and I sighed. I correctly guessed I'd be sitting beside the firebombs as we all piled into a car more expensive than my family's net worth put together. As we tore down the road, I drew my old Broomhandle, which got momentary stares from the others. I hoped not to use it, but the circumstances required my relic needed to be put through its paces once again. There was a reason I stuck to the classics.
10. The Lead Storm
Michael swerved like a maniac into the diner's parking lot, smashing over a motorcycle parked by the rear exit. The cacophonous discharge of irregular gunfire signaled the firefight around the other side of the building. The window glass had been utterly annihilated by gunfire. We saw three bikers pinned behind cars in the parking lot, with another nursing a leg wound in the parking lot. They held their fire, save for the occasional potshot towards the diner window. One tried to reach his comrade, only to have a well-aimed shot ricochet off the pavement in front of him. Had he been a bit further out, it would have hit him square in the eye.
"That's cold," Michael said. "Remind me to never want to get in Sara's way."
"That's my girl, Sara!" Mrs. Etheridge cheered. "The cavalry's here!"
I followed Mrs. Etheridge's lead, because she seemed to have an idea about what we were doing. She blasted the downed biker, blowing his head clean off. The others began cursing at our arrival, and the others turned their guns at us. I saw Rob empty his magazine to little effect, while Michael starred at his Molotov, hesitating as he scanned for a target. I turned my pistol sideways and let the recoil carry it in an arc across the parking lot, hoping I hit something in the direction I was aiming at. My lack of marksmanship training was the reason Dave suggested I use this pistol.
I didn't see if I directly hit anyone, but two of the bikers went down in our salvo. We'd caught them off-guard from a vulnerable side, but the last one probably had the best idea. He dropped his pistol and ran like a maniac towards the road. I saw the rear of his leather jacket, showing the Stormriders' patch as he turned tail like a spooked deer. He might've made it, too, if Mrs. Etheridge hadn't sprinted down the road with a war-cry like a barbarian berserker. The biker turned his head in disbelief, onto to succumb to a blast of buckshot to the torso. Mrs. Etheridge racked the pump and blasted him again in the head, just to be sure. I made a mental note to never get between a mother and daughter.
Seeing the last threat gone, we entered the diner. Rex rejoined us from the car, and he waited by the door for us. Sara Etheridge was braced behind the counter with a rifle in hand. She was covered in perspiration and on the verge of tears, but was otherwise unharmed. Mrs. Etheridge dropped the shotgun and gave her a hug, while saying all she could to comfort the likely-traumatized youth. I looked away and tried not to pay attention, as I heard Rex barking. Then came the revving engines.
The van Michael and I saw earlier returned. It swerved into the parking lot even faster than we had, and men began to pile out. I counted no less than eight bikers, all armed and trying to kill us. I saw Michael hurl his Molotov at the rear of the vehicle, setting two unfortunates on fire. Mrs. Etheridge opened fire with the rifle and a cry of anger, felling four of them with her irate salvo. They fell like bowling pins, and Rob had to pull her down to avoid the barrage of bullets they sent back at us. I dove behind the counter, doubting the flimsy thing would stop bullets.
The remaining bikers circled around the building, making a frantic dash the back door. Two of them tried to pin us down, while the other pair sprinted around the building. One of them held an Uzi that roared like an infernal engine. The other took his time lining up shots with his pistol, punching holes in the counter that blasted splinters onto the walls behind them. I saw blood run down Rob's shoulder, and Sara's face go pale. At that terrifying moment, I was distracted by Rex's barking.
Had I delayed a second later, my canine companion would've received a blast of buckshot to the face. I saw the irate face of the man trying to smash through the back door. He had rammed the shotgun through the window and trained it at the hinges, but he'd swung it towards Rex once he started barking. Without thinking, I unloaded a spray of rounds at that idiot, nailing him in the jaw. His compatriot tried to pull the wounded man away, but another of my rounds went through his eye. I held my own smoking pistol in disbelief for a moment, too fixated on Rex's happy barks to care about the complexities of killing. A salvo of deafening gunshots beside my head brought me back to reality.
Mrs. Etheridge was only further enraged by her husband's wound. When the spray of submachinegun fire stopped, she popped back up and did not stop shooting until the magazine was empty. I saw her shouting in rage, and Michael hurling another Molotov in the same direction she aimed her gun. What was a few seconds passed as an eternity for me, as my adrenaline soaked brain tried to identify any remaining threats. A long second of silence passed, during which the sour odor of death entered my nostrils. I looked out to see the burning bodies and bullet-riddled van. I'd experienced such things before, and I preferred to push them out of my head as quickly as possible.
"We should go," I said, turning towards the back door. "And we need to get Rob to a doctor."
I saw Rob, his shoulder now bandaged with Sara's torn sleeves. The blood was not as thick as I thought it'd be, and I wondered exactly where the bullet struck. Beside me, Michael looked nonchalantly at the wound. Mrs. Etheridge's face scared, contorted between horror at her husband's injury, and unbridled fury at the now-dead men that tried to murder her family. She nevertheless hovered over their corpses like a carrion bird above a fresh kill.
"It's just a flesh wound," Rob said, mimicking a certain fictional knight. "I'll be okay, but we should skip town."
Before anyone could respond, the diner's phone rang. I almost jumped as I saw it, right near where I'd taken cover. It was an old-fashioned landline phone, although the casing had minor damage from a passing bullet. Cautiously, I picked it up and curled back into my protective alcove. The others gathered around me, but watched for more unwanted guests.
"Hello?" I asked without thinking.
"Ted Hennessey here," he said. "And since I don't know your voice, I'm guessing everyone else failed."
"I think you have the wrong number," I said, preparing to hang up the phone.
"Listen to me. Ralph's gonna too far with this. The Feds'll get involved, and him and that pretty boy are toast," Ted said. "They killed my boys, and took their bodies to the old mine. Due to gas pockets in the tunnel, so they don't have guns inside."
"Why are you telling me this?" I asked, already half-suspecting an answer.
"If you're like me, I imagine you'll have a score to settle," he said. "But after hearing the sounds from that tunnel, I knew it was time to leave before I was next. Oh, if that manager's still around, tell him he needs to give that waitress a raise after this."
The line went dead, and I relayed the strange conversation to the others. Rob chuckled. "You know, Ted ain't that bad for a biker," he said.
"You're delirious, Rob," Mrs. Etheridge said. "I'm taking you to my sister outside town. She's a nurse, so she'll fix you up."
I nodded, but reflected on what Ted mentioned. If Drake had something big planned, it could be why he sent out gunmen to kill off anyone that could threaten his schemes.
"That could be why they sent out gunmen, to stop any inference," Michael said, as he helped lower Rob into the family car's backseat. "But honestly, we need to get to that mine."
"Really?" Mrs. Etheridge asked, staring at us in disbelief. "After all of that, after almost dying, you want to run back into danger? I thank you for your help, but my daughter and my husband need to be somewhere safe."
With that, she climbed into the car and started the engine.
"Hey, can you at least drop us off near our cars?" Michael asked.
From the way Mrs. Etheridge looked at us, I wasn't sure if she'd floor it or not. "Sure."
I exhaled a sigh of relief. We might be walking into a trap, but I felt that was unlikely. Whatever was down in that mine could be the proof I'd sought over the last few days. From the way he stared with empty eyes and gritted teeth, there was no doubt in my mind that Michael was now singularly obsessed with resolving this, one way or another. I held Rex in my hands as we put pressure on Rob's shoulder, but we relaxed as we saw the bleeding had stopped. I tuned out the conversation on that ride, and I remember little of what followed after they left. Where it gets interesting to me is what we found in that abandoned mine, deep beneath the ground.
11. The Cage of Earth
Michael drove us to the abandoned mine we'd ironically considered exploring before. This was where it started, so it was appropriate that it would end here, one way or another. Finding myself doubting Ted's words, I did an online search for information on the mine. Sure enough, it was closed due to gas leaks and continued accidents, and was sealed up due to a combination of exhaustion and lawsuits from miners' families. I'd get to explore a rickety abandoned mine full of combustible gas hunting a deranged occultist and biker gang. I'm not sure how I get myself into these ordeals.
The mine itself sunk into a hill that rose like a sleeping titan. Even in the middle of the day, the entrance was swathed in the shadow cast by the nearby hills. The narrow access road was obstructed only by a chain-link gate that was now cast wide open. I saw the distinctive imprint of motorcycle tires and the tracks of a heavier vehicle, which turned out to be a box truck parked at the terminus of that road. A pair of bikers stood guard while two others carried some plastic container down into the mine. For reasons I will never fully comprehend, Michael floored it.
The two bikers on guard duty opened fire with rifles, perforating the engine block as we roared forwards. The other two dropped their box and retreated to the tunnel. With reflexes honed in hours of New York traffic, he whipped the car around. I heard the thump as one of our assailants vanished beneath the wheels. The manic grin across Michael's face told me all I needed to know about his mental state. As the other sentry ran, he floored it. I heard an even more sickening crunch as the car came to a stop atop him. I was glad the car prevented me from seeing the mess.
Michael darted towards the tunnel entrance, which loomed like the hungry maul of some chthonic monster. A sheet-metal shack concealed the passageway descending under the mountain. The overgrown tracks of a narrow-gage railroad terminated just outside the entrance. He pulled a flashlight and pointed it down the tunnel, as if trying to lure out any overzealous bikers. He grabbed a discarded rifle, and emptied what remained of the magazine down the black tunnel, undoubtedly hoping to catch any interlopers. With stealth no longer an option, I jogged after him. Even Rex had problems keeping up with him.
I did not know what induced the inhuman fury in Michael, but I felt he'd be better as a berserker than reporter. There was a tenacity in him that would've sent Vikings running, and I didn't want to be in front of it. He descended deeper into the tunnel with the empty rifle in hand, undoubted hoping to use it as a bludgeon. I had no idea as to the extent of his martial arts training, but I figured I was about to get a firsthand demonstration. Not wanting to bring the tunnel collapsing down on me, I drew my gladius machete and hoped I never had to use it.
The first resistance we encountered was a group of four bikers, including the two that fled before. Two had combat knives, one had a lead pipe, and the last one had a lock on the end of a handkerchief. They rushed as at once, but Rex saved me from a whack to the head. The one in the front and the rear wore headlamps, but they failed to notice my pet until he acted. He sunk his teeth into the biker's meaty thigh, opening his side to a lucky thrust. I withdrew the blade from his torso, a motion I'd frequently rehearsed as in my brief tenure as a Roman re-enactor. I was unlucky enough to get two other attackers after the first fell.
I turned to see Michael was not faring as well as I thought he would. I naively hoped he'd drop them all with a well-rehearsed series of brutal moves. Instead, he was parrying an overhead stab with his rifle. He wheeled the weapon around as he stepped in, slamming the butt into his assailant's temple. From the red wound I saw, I doubted he'd ever get up again. Immediate concerns of my own turned my attention to the others.
I saw the glint of a knife-blade flash through the darkness, reflecting the light from a fallen headlamp. I stepped back from a stab that would have punctured my kidney, only to feel a wooden strut behind me. I tried to pivot away from the next strike, but I saw Rex interpose himself between my enemy and myself, barking in a show of futile defiance. The biker kicked him aside, before moving in for the kill. That gave me the second I needed to step in and ram my own blade into his chest. He went limp as the last one came at me. I had no time to react.
The lock never reached my head. I saw my attacker's body fall dead like a toppled scarecrow. In the white light of that headlamp, the cause for his demise was as visible as a beam of sunlight highlighting the sword in the stone. The knife in his spine was the same that came at Michael earlier, and it was forcibly inserted into a place indicating an expert in human anatomy. Michael pulled that knife out of his back, and he inserted it into his pocket. His manic grin had been replaced by a mask of stoicism. Without words, he descended further. I made sure Rex was continuing before pursuing him. I wondered if I should just leave him to finish off the Stormriders on his own, but my own ill-advised curiosity drew me to the bottom of the shaft.
The tunnel looked progressively less stable as we descended. The ground was muddier, likely from nearby groundwater. The walls were hewn from increasingly natural-looking stone, which bore the roughness of sandpaper. The support beams were partially buckled in places, straining from the weight of the hill above us. The incline in the ground became noticeably steeper, as we were sucked deep into some nether-pit of Hell. Most disconcerting were the words that echoed up from beneath, like the tomb-borne echoes of feeding ghouls.
"Each Yuggoth-spawn is uniquely adapted to its environment, after the spores are carried across space," I heard a voice I assumed was Drake's. "They hide their communications in the background noise of both our atmosphere and the cosmic background radiation. Our array has succeeded in drawing out the Mothman, but the ritual will enable us to establish full control of it."
"Yeah, well hurry it up. We got company," I heard Ralph Chafin say. "Ed, you come with. You two, stay here and make sure no one breaks the circle."
I found myself cursing at the footsteps that approached, each of which sounded like a knife plunging into a chest. I saw a large shadow fill the tunnel, and a slightly less immense one beside it. These two behemoths of men ascended towards us. In the pitiful light that filtered down from above, I saw Ralph was much bigger than I thought he was. He cracked his knuckles as he slipped knuckledusters on. His simian companion, Ed, drew a machete that rivaled my own in length. Eerie chanting echoed behind them, as they loomed like demons conjured up from hell. Even Michael halted his advance.
They sprinted through the tunnel we were mired in, sprinting like trench-raiders. Michael rose both his flashlight and empty rifle, as though trying to signal to them. The larger one, Ed, came down on Michael first. He marched forwards with a confidence of premature victory, only for Michael to react like a waiting viper. He blasted Ed in the face with the pepper spray, which he concealed behind the rifle. With a fluid motion, he jammed the knife into his throat, toppling the gangster with only a few gurgled rasps escaping his mouth.
I saw Ralph was not a man to prefer a fair fight, so he turned to flee. Rex followed close behind him, driving him deeper into the tunnel. It was then I made a stupid move, born of curiosity and fear of him sending more bikers our way. Smelling nothing on my nose, I took my pistol and discharged it into his back. The gun's deafening report echoed in that tunnel, disorienting Michael and me for a split second. I braced myself against the wall, and resolved not to do that again unless I had to. The last thing I wanted was a premature burial with the rest of the dirt-bags.
Michael and I had little time to celebrate our victories, as the tempo of the chanting beneath reached fever pitch. The language sounded like a blend of harsh German pronunciation with the ominous antiquity of Latin with the bizarre phonemes of Sumerian. I would later learn this was Aklo, but all I remember was the otherworldly reverb in Drake's voice. My apprehension peaked when I reached the black terminus of that tunnel, for given the macabre sight we beheld.
Unlike the rest of the tunnel, electric lights bathed the chamber's entrance in blinding white light. Despite this pale illumination, I smelt the cadavers before I saw them. There were biker bodies, presumably Ted's murdered supporters, arranged in a circle denoted by a red-tinted lantern suspended from the ceiling. I saw other bodies, presumably of the gang's other victims, and I realized what the Etheridges' and our fate would have been, had we succumbed to their hitmen earlier. Their blood was arranged in esoteric symbols resembling a madman's obscene impressions of hieroglyphics. The presence of two entities dominated the room, but I thought I saw the two remaining bikers edging away from Drake and the entity. None of the three people paid us any heed as we entered the room, as though they were mesmerized with what they beheld.
Drake stood before it without hesitation. I saw he was clad in plates of body armor, for the little good they'd do against such an entity. He held his swordcane before him, with the blade held between his eyes like a kneeling knight. The object of his gaze shifted position frantically, but his eyes were steadfastly focused on the center of the room. The blood from the corpses was drawn inexplicably to the center, where it rose like a geyser beneath a floating object.
It was larger than I remembered, with a wingspan that nearly filled the corpse-circle around it. It resembled something's imagining of a humanoid, with arms, legs, and a head on a torso with all the wrong proportions. Its red eyes glowed like hellfire embers, yet did not cast any notable light on the darkened wall behind it. Its body lacked color, being more accurately described as an insubstantial blob of darkness. Despite this, there was a certain physicality to it, which increased every second. The flowing up from beneath it, like some macabre fountain, seemed to lend it a vigor that made each banshee-like screech louder.
I'd like to say we defeated Drake in some climatic sword duel, or that we battled the Mothman directly. I'm embarrassed to recall how it happened, but looking back at it now, I cannot help but find a certain irony to it. Michael and I were drawn forwards by some diabolical hypnosis, as though being beckoned into the circle by the Drake's gestures and chants. Our minds protested, our bodies rebelled, but we nevertheless marched towards the Mothman's incarnating talons like suicidal automatons. Even Rex could not resist, offering only a few pitiful barks in protest. The two bikers looked ready to bolt, but Drake smiled as we stepped forwards to our dooms. I had little doubt we'd end up offering our blood for his dark ritual.
What saved us was me fumbling over a corpse. Someone's outstretched hand sent me careening to the ground. The circle of bodies, so carefully and deliberately arranged, seemed to recoil at me as I plunged to the ground. Rex came over to me, barking as I struggled to regain control of my own body. Beside me, Michael stood petrified in a blend between disbelief and wide-eyed terror. I'd come seeking evidence of the supernatural, and I'd more than received my wish. The moment Drake dropped his swordcane, I turned and ran.
I saw Michael and Rex running beside me as the Mothman broke free. I heard frantic yelling and gunshots behind me, and Drake desperately pleading. Each of those sounds blended into each other, creating a cacophonous rancor that echoed far up the tunnel. We bounded past the muddy tunnel, reaching Ed's body as the Mothman's call reverberated louder than before. We heard a tremendous crash behind us, and a slow rumble of an awakening earth. Realizing the tunnel was collapsing behind us, we ran as fast as our tired, bruised bodies could move.
I won't bore you with the details of what happened after we left that cave. We skipped town immediately after that, letting the Etheridges know we were alright. Michael, still shaken by what he saw, went on a retreat somewhere in Europe. The state police claimed took credit for ending the gang's reign of terror, and I'm not going to challenge them. Officially, the mine collapse was the result of the gang being careless with smuggling illicit merchandise. Rex and I treated ourselves to a buffet at a real restaurant far outside of town. I returned to Dave with only this account, which served to make him smile before he returned to his makeshift lab.
Still, there are times I wonder. I wonder as to the veracity of Drake's words. That the Mothman was not of this world was painfully obvious. I cannot produce physical proof of its existence, and given how it disagreed with matter, I am not sure I want to. I can only hope that its unplanned entombment in that abandoned mine is sufficient to contain it. There are times I look up into the sky with fear and trepidation, ruminating what other immaterial horrors wander the cosmos. To quote that sorcerer, Luc le Chaudronnier: "Unnameable things have come to us in alien horror, and shall come again. And the evil of the stars is not as the evil of earth."