Within the dark, green-veiled arms of the forest, Adriana hid in her secret place. The storm had passed and the cool, dark rainwater slipped down from the mountainside and ran into the coiled and crooked creek below.
It was a perfect day, and the horror of it chilled her heart.
My sister is dead, she thought. Nothing can change that.
She angrily tossed stones into the deep pool that relaxed at the mountain’s feet, then scrutinized the ripples as they spread in ever-widening circles before lapping at the muddy bank. Pulling back her long, brown hair and tucking it behind her ear, she listened as the wind soughed in the trees like an ancient lamenting voice.
It was a beautiful day, a perfect day, but Adriana shuddered when she remembered the sacrifice made to create this perfect day of days, and the sheer weight of it bowed her head until the very bones of her shoulders felt as if they would splinter and crack under a colossal mountain of grief.
My sister is dead.
She buried her face in her hands, uselessly wailing the question that had been asked of God more often than any other: Why?
Slowly, Adriana’s eyes tracked the path that sloped upward toward Nob Hill and trembled. For sixteen years she had watched the people she knew and loved willingly traverse that trail, never to come down again. Her mother, Lana, had been chosen. And yesterday it was Erin, her fourteen-year-old sister.
She knew in her heart there was death at the top—death that waited for the next storm, the next sacrifice. They all knew, but it didn’t change anything. And now Erin was gone.
Her father spoke softly to them the night before she left—before she made that final trek up the mountain. He fought back his tears, chewed his lower lip and tried to hide his breaking heart, as if any of what he said now would make any difference—do any good. Erin had been chosen. She would sacrifice her life for the good of the people.
As they sat on the floor in front of him, Adriana tightly clutched her sister’s hand as if she would never let go. Later they would embrace for the last time.
It was always the same lesson. They had been taught it over and over again since they were little girls.
“Nob Hill was not always a place of evil,” he said, taking down his old pipe and attempting to light it. His hand shook with emotion. “Although it has always been a special place—a very special place indeed.
"No animals ever enter its boundaries, and strange flowers and plants grow there the likes of which no man has ever seen. You can actually feel the strength of the Earth emanating up from the ground—like a funnel of energy—an unexplainable power that pushes out so hard that every hair on your head stands up on end.
“Storms, it seems, are naturally drawn to it, especially the lightning, and more than once, the men of the village have been called out to fight small fires around its top. One night a storm came, and there was a strangeness about it that people would remember for years.
He hesitated, pondering, and then went on. “A brilliant flash of lightning struck the top of the mountain with such force that the ground shook and the windows rattled and cracked.
“Grady Price, who lived near the foot of the mountain with his new wife, went to see what had happened. But what he found was something he never expected—something, that didn’t belong there.
He drew heavily upon his pipe, and then blew the thick smoke above their heads. “You see, children, it was as if the lightning had opened a doorway, a doorway from some other place, some other time, and something came through that door that would plague this town for many years.
“Poor Grady was the first to discover it.
“After the storm subsided, several of the men went up to find him. They searched for days. They said that all the ground upon the Nob had strangely blackened and that every tree had become gnarled and twisted as if God himself had reached down and squeezed them between his fingers until they were grotesque and deformed."
As he said the last part he squeezed his hand into a tight fist, and then relaxed it.
“But there was something else there as well—something hidden and watching. And just when all hope of ever finding Grady Price again had vanished, he came home.
He let them consider that for awhile, and then continued. “His wife had awakened in the middle of the night to find her husband leaning heavily over her bed. She screamed until the whole town was awakened. How he had managed to climb down from Nob Hill in his weakened condition was never fully understood, for he was badly bruised and bloated nearly beyond recognition. There were puncture marks all over his body which had turned his skin a bluish-black, and the wounds wept of some noxious and sticky jelly.
“He whispered to her, repeating the same words over and over again: “I got away…I got away…”
"Then he collapsed and died in her arms.
“They took his body to Henry Holtz, the local doctor, who placed him on a table where he could be examined. It was obvious to the good doctor that Grady had been bitten by something poisonous, and while he squeezed upon one of the lesions to collect a sample of the venom, something wormed and wiggled its way out.
“It was black and hairy, colored with bright spots upon its back of red and green. The doctor killed the thing, but not before he too was bitten and fell faint. Although he later recovered, his right hand turned an ashy-gray and he was never able to use it again.
“But it seems whatever killed poor Grady wanted him back, because late that night, something came down from Nob Hill, broke into the doctor’s house, and took the body.
“It was then that a larger party of men armed themselves, and went to find whatever now resided on the mountaintop. Again, after searching for days, they could find nothing, and it was thought that perhaps the creature was using the trees to hide itself, or had left the area entirely.
"That was, until the next thunderstorm came.
He shook his head, saddened by the memory.
“During that storm, Grady’s young wife, Monica, mysteriously disappeared. The front door of her house had been literally torn off its hinges and everything in the house had been turned over and knocked from the shelves.
“But she wasn’t the last," he said.
“Time and again, people vanished during violent lightning storms. Something was feeding on us. And so it was that the mountaintop became restricted and the lottery began.
He sighed, deeply. “It was not something we took lightly. There were many arguments against it, but in the end, the majority of the townspeople voted in its favor.
“For the most part, it worked: the evil never ventured into the town again. As long as a sacrifice was offered when lightning struck the mountain, the creature stayed on Nob Hill.
“And so no one is allowed to go up there, ever, unless they are chosen. And to be chosen is a great honor, because you are sacrificing yourself for the good of your family and community, and there is no greater service in all the world than that.”
Then he put away his pipe and slowly stood. Bending down, he cupped Erin’s chin in his big hand and looked into her eyes as if he were memorizing her face, and then went quietly into his room. Even through the closed door, Adriana could hear him sobbing.
Returning from the memory, Adriana plunged her gaze back into the water and the reflection of the melancholy pines that lined the shore. She watched as the hidden sun peeked through the overhanging trees and flecked the creek with diamond scales as the bulging watercourse bubbled and gurgled around the smooth brown rocks, caressing the faces of the stones like the tears that even now streamed down her cheeks.
The path to Nob Hill called out to her again, and she followed it with her eyes.
It was then that Adriana Noir decided to do something. Determined, she jumped the creek and hurried home.
Later, pushing sleep aside, she made her plans late into the night. Just the act of thinking about doing something made her feel better—stronger—until she no longer feared what waited on the mountaintop. Somehow she sensed a strange connection with Nob Hill, as if she were born to do this one thing. Her plans spun in her mind like a spider's web. Eventually, she closed her eyes and slept.
The lightning punctured the dark veil of the night, flared so brightly it stung Adriana’s eyes. On all sides eerie silhouettes leaped, writhed, throbbed.
She followed the path as it sloped ever-upward—wet and slippery. The branches of the trees tore at her bare arms and legs.
Nob Hill stood just at the crest of the mountain where Adriana knew she would find Erin, save her from the horror that lived there, and then return safely home. The twisted stitches of lightning continued to unravel the cloak of the night even as she heard her sister scream.
The cry was short-lived and hollow. The second scream was briefer and thinner than the first—but it was unmistakably a bleat of pain and terror.
Against the torrential rain, Adriana entered the clearing at the summit of the hill. She was awash in horror, drowning in cold currents, robbed of breath, and gasping. Another chain of thunderbolts burned all the color out of the night, leaving only the dazzling white of the lightning, the starless night overhead.
She saw Erin slumped upon the ground at the center of the sacrificial mound, her body bent unnaturally. Adriana stumbled forward through the rain and mud, nausea rippling through her guts like stagnant water.
Kneeling at Erin’s side, she saw a red beard of blood glisten around her neck and chest. Her eyes were as wide, pale, and flat as those of a dead dog Adriana had once found in an alleyway. A sharp branch lay at her side.
She had fought the monster—fought and lost.
Erin’s skin was mottled green and black, slimy and riddled with weeping pustules. Adriana gently put one hand against her dear sister’s cheek, and then briefly, magically, her eyes blinked, opened and focused.
Adriana gasped. Still alive! She’s still alive!
She was so overjoyed, she felt as though a cloud of frenzied moths swarmed within her stomach, seeking a light they couldn’t find.
Then as quickly as they had come, they flew away. Erin coughed weakly, blinked her eyelids twice, and then closed them forever.
“Stay with me, Erin. Don’t slip away. Please…stay with me.”
But she slipped away nevertheless. The moment of contact was poignant but brief, achingly brief. Adriana wept until her body shook with black grief.
Then something crawled out of the surrounding forest, something inhuman and unimaginably strong. It paused at the sight of someone new in its hunting grounds, and then moved stealthily forward.
It exposed its venom-dripping stinger; its spotted body rhythmically pulsed up and down, ready to spring in an instant. The creature saw the newcomer kneeled before its catch, perhaps was even trying to steal it.
Adriana had her back to the beast; never saw it approaching until it was too late. The thing reached out a hairy arm to test the ripeness of this new morsel, and then leaped forward, inserting its stinger, injecting venom, and then biting into fresh, unscathed flesh.
She sat straight up in bed, trying to scream. Her mouth was wide open, the muscles in her neck were taut, the blood vessels in her throat and temples throbbed with the effort that she was making, but she couldn’t produce a sound.
She sat like that for half a minute, her fists full of sweat-soaked sheets. Eyes wide, she could not shake the nightmare that had its talons in her. Finally, with a desperate, wordless whimper, she clambered out of the bed.
She collapsed to the floor. Breathing hard, wheezing with panic, and then crawled into the corner. She put her back to the wall and faced into the room, knees drawn up, her nightgown bunched at her hips. Then she wrapped her arms around her thin legs and pulled herself into a tight ball; she began to whimper and mewl like a frightened animal. She raised her hands and covered her face, striving to block out the hideous nightmare.
Abruptly, with a gasp, she scrambled out of the shadowed-corner and across the floor—crept under the bed. The fear eating in her chest was so intense it felt like a rat gnawing at her flesh from inside her body.
She stopped and curled into the fetal position, murmuring, hopelessly trying to hide.
With her arms crossed on her breast, her fingertips pressing hard into her shoulders, she began to weep quietly.
This has got to end, she moaned. They'll be no more sacrifices. I'll stop it for the people...for Erin.
Something had profoundly changed her, and it wasn’t just the death of her sister. She was aware that this unsettling metamorphosis had been a long time coming, like the slow alteration in a river’s course.
Eventually her breathing grew less agitated, less ragged. The weeping subsided as she listened to her heartbeat; it was a lonely sound.
For a while she huddled miserably under the bed, draped not only in sweat and bedclothes but in despair. She lay in silence, perfectly still, as if in a deep sleep. But in the darkness under the bed, her eyes were still wide open, staring in shock and terror.
In the black hours before dawn, she quietly slipped out of the front door. Clutched in her hand was the book of matches she had stolen from the little stand that held her father’s old pipe.
The morning was windless; it had no more breath than a corpse.
Hurrying, she jumped the creek at her secret place, and started to run up the path. The air felt heavy. The sky seemed to have sunk so low under the weight of the approaching storm that it was no higher than the tops of the trees. Fog had crept in, not on little cat feet but slithering like a snake on its belly. It hung upon the Hill like a gray cloak—a death shroud.
Adriana slowed. In her entire lifetime she had never set foot on Nob Hill. She approached more cautiously, fear stiffening her legs and freezing her blood.
There were no exotic flowers and plants as her father had described, but the deformed trees still remained. Living in the valley below, it was easy for her to assume that all trees grew straight and wide and strong. But here, they were misshapen and grotesquely twisted. It was as if the very ground itself refused to properly nourish them. They were leafless, black trees that thrust bare and crooked limbs toward the fulminous sky as if they were misguided believers praising a false and violent god. If there were trees in Hell, Adriana believed that this is what they would look like.
The fog hung thick as she entered the heart of Nob Hill and for the first time felt the energy coursing through the ground. It was an unfamiliar and unpleasant tingle, a peculiar vibration that passed inward from her skin, through her flesh, into the marrow of her bones, then swiftly back out again from bones to flesh to skin. It prickled through her body, lifted her fine hair off her shoulders and suspended it in the air as if it were being held by a ghost.
Ever so quietly, she tiptoed between the warped trees; their bark shone wet and slimy—fevered from the mist, and she was afraid to touch them for fear that they may have some contagious disease.
There was a scurrying sound up ahead as if a family of squirrels scampered through a pile of dead leaves. Adriana stopped to listen.
Her mind told her there were no leaves that grew here, no squirrels—the Hill was black and barren, whatever made the noise was not natural.
She moved forward, cleared the buckled trees, and stepped out onto the very top of Nob Hill. The ground felt oddly springy, and she tested her weight upon it, bouncing lightly as if she stood upon a thin trapdoor made of a light wood.
Then it suddenly gave way and she toppled through a large hole.
She rolled down a tunnel made of silk, branches, and dead pine needles, stopping finally against a side wall in a crumbled heap, soft webs and sticks wrapped in her clothes and caught in her hair.
Adriana jumped up, her stomach cramped with revulsion and her mouth filled with the metallic taste of fear and anxiety. She quickly pulled the white webbing from her hair, shuddering at having to touch it, and then scrambled back toward the opening as fast as she could.
Pushing up on the trapdoor, she discovered it was fashioned of layers of earth and silk, small twigs and grass, bevel-edged, and hinged on one side. It lifted easily without a sound.
Panicked, she felt dizzy the deeper and faster she inhaled. She tried to get control of herself, starting with her manic breathing. She was gasping, sucking in great lungfuls, yet she couldn’t seem to get enough air.
Now that she saw the outside, and knew she wasn’t trapped, she eventually regained control of her breathing.
She looked for something to prop open the trapdoor with, and saw a white branch tangled and clinging to the wall next to her. Grabbing it, she set one end into the ground and rested the flapped-door on top. That allowed a bit of light to come through, and Adriana was better able to take in her surroundings.
The first thing she noticed was that the white branch she had used was actually a piece of bone—perhaps from some large animal, but a bone nonetheless. The thought made her shiver.
She turned and looked down the tunnel. The burrow was huge, six feet in diameter, covered from top to bottom in a fine cone of silk. It sloped gently and descended into a deep darkness.
Her first thought was to run, but then she realized that she had found the creature’s lair. After all those times the men had looked, they never suspected the thing lived underground. Here she would be able to kill it. Not just for her mother and Erin, but for everyone who lived in the village below.
This has got to end. The thought had become her mantra, the tune she couldn’t get out of her head—her song of revenge.
She turned and faced the depths of the burrow.
The smell of the place was of wet, musty earth and dead animals left to decompose upon the forest floor. Now with more light she could see that the walls were aligned with the skeletal remains of people: a ribcage here, a spinal column there, and way too many skulls littered about. These were the remains of the sacrifices, a literal graveyard of her friends and family.
She needed more light, and remembering her father’s matches, she pulled a long femur bone from the wall. It already had silk and nettles wrapped about it, but Adriana pushed those to one end and using the other as a handle, twisted more of the flammable substance upon it. She now had a makeshift torch, and the bone seemed dry and brittle enough to catch flame as well.
She lit it, and held its flaming head at arms length. She trembled on an emotional high wire, not sure whether she would be able to keep her balance or would allow herself to fail and fall.
Then she started downward into the warren.
She waved the torch in front of her, not in a smooth arch, but in quick jerks from side-to-side trying to see everything at once. The torch dripped a liquid light as pieces of it began to fall off, and everywhere they touched, they burned the webs and filled the air with the stench of burnt flesh. Half a body was revealed beneath the cocoon of webbing, not skeletal, but still soft and oozing with flesh. To Adriana, the man’s skull seemed like the smooth chitinous helmet of an insect, and she believed that if she touched it, it would be as cold as a squirming beetle under her hand. She lightly walked around it, afraid to look at its decomposing skin, but at the same time, more afraid to take her eyes from it.
And there were others.
The deeper she went the more bodies she found. They were everywhere, bloated and stacked upon one another in grotesque piles of rot and deterioration. Crazily, she wondered if what would come out of them would be blood—or the stuff that oozed from a fat beetle when it was crushed.
She began to look for Erin, staring into the half-eaten faces of people she once knew but now found it hard to recognize. Baby spiders crawled in and out of their mouths, their noses. Each corpse was a literal egg sac, filled with hundreds of hungry young.
Somewhere in all this death, her poor sister’s fragile body had to be located. It had not been part of her plan, but Adriana vowed not to leave Erin to this fate.
As she scanned the dead, she came to the end of the tunnel. Here a large room had been burrowed out, big enough for the creature to move around in, yet still filled with the claw-shaped roots of the deformed trees above.
The reality of coming to the end frightened her, not because she couldn’t find her sister, but because she had been so engrossed in searching through the bodies that she could have stumbled into something far worse.
As she held her torch high, its yellow light barely touched the outside edges of the den.
Where was the monster?
Where was Erin?
A pop and crackle made her look up. She had held her torch too close to one of the old roots and it had caught fire.
Good, she thought. Burn the whole thing up…everything.
She reached up with the torch and set more dry roots afire. She kicked dead wood and bones into a pile near the mountain of bodies and set that on fire as well. She threw her makeshift torch on top and stepped back. Now the hole quickly filled with smoke that bit at her eyes and smelled of death. She backed out of the den and up the gentle slope, coughing and hacking, trying to keep from breathing in the fumes.
As she came to the beginning of the hole, she noticed the trapdoor was no longer open, and that something large and dark seemed to fill the tunnel in front of her; it pulsed up and down, nimble and graceful, and then moved forward.
Adriana seemed trapped in endless night, nauseated from fear. Her heart knocked so hard that her vision pulsed, and the veins in her neck jumped in her throat as though jolts of lightning were slamming through them.
She backed down the tunnel, hoping she wouldn’t trip on a root or pile of bones. The creature followed her. It made a sound like the brittle flutter of insect wings.
Behind her the flames shone a burnt-orange, lighting the tunnel and casting darting, devilish shadows across the walls of the hole. And for the first time, she caught a glimpse of the beast.
It had many legs, bristled with hair that appeared a metallic blue color. Its oval back body was a dusty black with large dots of green and red; its eyes were like black push-pins, shiny like a rat, and its mouth was beak-shaped and clicked nervously. Suddenly, it reared on its four hind legs, and rubbed its two front legs together making a terrifying hissing noise threatening to attack. Beneath its body, and held by two more legs was a limp human form. Adriana had no trouble in recognizing her sister, Erin.
The smoke filled the tunnel and hid the menace from view. Adriana’s eyes wept with the pain of it, and then she tripped on a tree root and came down hard on her backside. Instinctively, she held her arms up to protect her head, waiting for the thing to attack, but it didn’t come. In the hazy distance, she saw it lift the flap of the trapdoor and crawl out, still dragging Erin beneath its body.
Adriana got to her feet and chased it.
She hit the trapdoor at a run, and then she was in the fresh air, rubbing at her eyes to clear them. Outside, lightning split the heavens. Thunder rolled like great broken wheels of stone across the sky; the clouds were cellar-black, forbidding. She didn’t know how long she had been in the hole, but the storm had already turned everything into night.
She spun in a full circle trying to pinpoint the creature’s location. Smoke bellowed from the hole behind her.
The smart thing, the wise thing, the sane thing to do was to let it go, just stop and surrender to the shakes that she was strenuously repressing, and thank God that she was untouched and alive. But she had seen her sister, and she refused to let the filthy beast have her for one more minute.
She heard that familiar scurrying sound on the far side of the Hill, and launched herself in that direction.
A lash of lightning whipped the dark day, scarred the sky. The whip cracked repeatedly, and each time a stronger arm seemed to power it. She saw a strange ebony shape in the darkness, something that slipped between the trees and watched her with eyes blacker than its body.
She realized that she no longer chased it—the spider chased her.
Not sure where she was going, driven not by reason but by stark terror, she floundered through the small clearing, and then was in the woods again. Massive firs and spruces and pines towered over her. Adriana staggered forward, her hands held out in front of her to prevent from running into low-hanging branches. She tripped over rocks and exposed roots. Then she plunged unexpectedly down the side of a gully, fell on her face, got up, and ran on.
Even in a dead run, her mind worked frantically. She would lead it home—lead it home to where her father would see and help her kill it. She was almost there, behind her Nob Hill was in flames.
Lightning traveled the sky again and explosions of thunder followed. Although something above should have broken, nothing did, and the rain remained bottled higher in the heavens.
She was about to turn to see where the monster was located when lightning split the night again, frightening her, and it was followed at once by a crack of thunder she felt in her bones.
But there at the foot of the hill was her home. She burst through the front door just as the rain began to fall.
“Papa! Papa!” she screamed. She gasped for air, bent half over and rested her hands upon her knees, tried to catch her breath, and then stood again and yelled. “Papa, where are you?”
There was no answer.
On the kitchen table was a note: I have gone to Nob Hill to look for you. I know that is probably where you have gone. If you read this before I return, stay put. I’ll be home soon.
Another bolt and another blazed in the window like a series of leering, ghostly faces. She heard a rustling against the side of the house, crept toward the window and looked out. “I know you’re out there. Show yourself!”
As if in answer, Erin’s dead body smashed against the window. It was as if someone or something held her up from behind, pressing her against the glass. Adriana screamed. Instinctively her balled-fist went to her mouth where her front teeth clamped down upon it until they drew blood.
Erin’s face was so white that it might have been a mask carved out of soap. It was the face of a cold corpse, the features frozen in the final, painful grimace of death.
Then just as suddenly, she was pulled away again, and Adriana saw the creature scramble up the side of the house and onto the summit of the angled roof dragging Erin with it.
It’s using her as bait. It wants to draw me out.
She heard it walking above now, prying at shingles, testing the structure, but Adriana was too scared to move.
Portions of the chimney broke loose, tumbled and fell in a clatter of bricks and mortar. Then the metal lightning rod slid over the side and bounced and clanged by the front door. It was tearing the house apart bit by bit, looking for a way in.
Adriana stood by the front door listening intently for the movement of the huge spider. Now that the rain was falling, it was hard to tell exactly where the creature was. Her idea was to bolt—swing the door open and take off as fast as she could. She was wet and cold and frightened.
She waited for the lightning--waited until she saw it spread branches across the sky, and put down jagged roots toward the earth. And when it did, she twisted the door knob, flung it wide, and screamed.
The door was blocked, because standing in the threshold was her father.
“Papa? Papa, oh…Papa.” She fell into his arms nearly bowling him over.
“Adriana? What is it, child? Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere.”
She pulled away from him. “I went to Nob Hill. I found the creature. It had Erin. It…”
She stopped speaking. The look on her father’s face was one of immense agony. Spittle bubbled and foamed at the corners of his mouth; he turned white and wavered back-and-forth like a sheet in the wind, and then collapsed at her feet, dead.
Standing behind him was the spider. A small stinger protruded from its mouth, dripped of poison. Adriana watched as it retracted it, reached a hairy leg forward and pulled her father outside.
“NO!” she screamed.
She stepped out reaching for her father and nearly tripped on the lightning rod. Quickly bending down, she grasped it in both hands like a lance and charged at the spider. She stabbed it with the metal bar and it leapt backwards, pulling it from her hands, the rod jutting from of its maw.
It reared up trying to jerk the weapon from itself, but it was stuck tight, and wouldn’t pull it free.
Multiple bolts of lightning chased across the sky, as white and jagged as running skeletons, and as the creature reared again they struck the rod in blinding fury.
It seemed then that the lightning that had cracked the vaults of heaven was now captured within the creature’s body, too great a power for its flesh to contain or endure. Adriana watched as it began to smoke and then suddenly exploded with terrible force.
The impact threw her backwards, drenched her in slop and goo. She bumped her head against the side of the house and things began to swim heavily to the left and then the right. She imagined that in the morning people would find the broken thing lying about in huge chunks like fragments of a giant eggshell. But for now, just to lay here in the rain and feel approaching unconsciousness, felt better than anything she could ever remember.
After the burnt ashes of Nob Hill whirled upon the wind and washed to the waiting creeks below, strange flowers and plants began to grow there again. Even as they pushed through the charred earth, something else forced its way out of a tiny flap in the ground. It reached out a hairy leg to test the new sun, and then skittered quickly into the forest looking for food. It was dark and small with red and green dots upon its back, but eventually it would get bigger—much bigger.