The Conqueror Wyrm

The Conqueror Wyrm
By Travis Madden

The old man didn’t stop the truck until he got where he was headed. He was hungry, but he didn’t stop for food. He was thirsty, but he didn’t stop for drinks. Of any kind. He only let the Nebraska countryside peel by him on either side. The land was flat and there was no one else in sight. There were signs of life; a farmhouse in the distance, a tractor sitting in the middle of a field, a far-off silo, a gas station just this side of derelict. But no actual people.

The old man traveled quickly, but not excessively so. Speed didn’t matter; there was nowhere in the world he could go that the wyrm would not follow. It had always been only a matter of time before it caught up to him. Earlier when he’d looked into the rearview mirror, he thought he saw it for a moment; a dark shape that left the road and dove into the corn. The old man licked is lips and tried to focus on the road. Of course it was still there.
Following him. He knew it, but didn’t see it in full. If the past had taught him anything, this was not the part where he saw it, not whole; it would continue to stalk him, show him only bits and pieces of itself. Force him to mentally piece it together like a horror movie monster.

But this was far from a horror movie. He was not driving a Jeep filled with nubile teens ready to frolic on the edges of a crystal lake. He was a tired old man driving a rusted-out pickup. It had been days since he’d slept, longer since he’d showered and shaved. He’d eaten a bit, managed to drink some water, but he still looked homeless, like the kind of man who stood on the street corner with a block of cardboard and proclaimed THE END IS NIGH!

That’s what happened when you tried to quit cold turkey.

That’s when the wyrm started following him.

His phone was long dead and the only thing in his pockets was a single new coin. On its face there was the number 1 enclosed within a triangle and surrounded by some inspirational words. A celebration. An achievement he’d never be able to hang onto if he stopped and let the wyrm catch him.

So he kept going until he got to the house.

It was a huge farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere. Five minutes of driving down a nearly invisible dirt road—an off-branch of an already-remote stretch of highway — got him there. With the lights off the house looked like some eldritch creature squatting in the gloom, framed by a sky not yet full-dark.

The man parked the truck in the driveway and stepped out, boots crunching against the gravel. He left everything; dead phone, useless keys, empty wallet, all inside the truck.

Everything except the shotgun.

He took that off the rack and held it one-handed at his side. Such a pose made him look like he was part of that new breed of heroes that flooded movies; the old cop/soldier/secret agent who comes out of retirement. One last time. In reality, he felt like anything but a hero.

His whole body ached. The shotgun weighed a million pounds in his trembling hands and the thirst in the back of his throat demanded to be satiated and there was only one thing that could quench it. Every bone inside him ground against the next as he walked up the driveway. It took all of his energy just to lift his feet to climb the porch.

But he made it.

The old man turned and looked back. For a moment, all he thought he saw were his own tire tracks leading back, in some roundabout route, to civilization.

But there was something else.

It was there for just a moment, but a moment too long. It was an extra second of lingering. A thinking, calculating second. Not the poor timing of an inexperienced predator preparing an ambush, but of something that wanted to be seen. A big, serpentine body slinked out of the road and disappeared into the tall grass. The prairie whistled for a moment. The man lost sight of the strange apparition.

He continued to stare, tried to catch sight of it again. But no luck.

One way or the other, they were finishing this tonight.

He gripped the shotgun tighter to try and stop the shaking and went inside.

Nothing happened for the first couple hours. Most would have taken that as a good sign. Maybe a great one. Not him. He was suspicious every time there was a long stretch of nothing, a great silence. That meant things were about to get bad.

And he was right.

It wasn’t immediate, like a gunshot on a still night, but slowly.

Something he thought he heard became something he definitely heard.

Scratching outside the house.

The man looked up from his brewing pot of coffee and stared at the kitchen wall. He couldn’t see anything. But he could hear it. He could feel it. It sounded like something was moving against the outside of the house, like the stumbling drunkard he’d once been was using it for balance, dragging his shoulder against it as he lumbered past. But there was far too much weight, too much size, for whatever that was to be a person. Boards creaked and bent underneath its tonnage. The man stared at the wall, watched as the unseen weight of the creature moved along the outside.

Towards the window.

The barrel of the shotgun was shakily lifted from the countertop.

But the shape didn’t try for the window. It moved past it as if it couldn’t even see it. But that too was wrong. It knew where the window was. It just didn’t want to come in through there. It was far from blind. As was the man.

And yet, he still couldn’t see the entirety of the creature. A vague, lumpy, rigid back was the only thing visible as it slithered past. He kept the shotgun trained on the wall where he believed it to be, circumnavigating him and the house, trying to find a weak spot, trying to find a way in. But it wasn’t going to. It couldn’t. Not unless he let it.

One way or the other, they were finishing this tonight.

The old man licked his dry lips, kept the shotgun on his hip. He walked through the house to the front door. Opened it. Stepped around the side.

Nothing.

It was like the creature had evanesced into smoke. As he’d half-expected.

A paranoid part of his brain expected it to be waiting for him somewhere in the darkness, waiting to pounce when he, in a false sense of security, lowered the weapon. It lured him outside, but not to kill him.

As if on cue, as if unseen stage direction had commanded it, the clouds parted. They did not reveal the wyrm, but instead showed the old man his truck. There was something about the way the moonlight glinted off of it that made it look so enticing. It was like the old jalopy had turned into a rocket-ship capable of taking him anywhere and everywhere. He could get out of here and go back to civilization, back to people. He could go back and find a bar and maybe just get one more drink before he decided to quit for real.

The old man reached into his pocket and felt his keys jangling, tempting him. He pulled them out and stared at them. He pulled them…out…of his pocket.

He’d left them in the truck.

He was positive.

One hundred percent.

The old man stared down at his shaking left hand, a mixture of amazement and horror on his face. His hands trembled violently, made all the more noticeable by the clanking metal of his keys. He closed his fist around them, tried to stop the shaking. Then cranked his hand back and pelted them as far and as hard as he could out into the field. He watched as they twinkled for a moment in the moonlight before they were lost in the darkness.

The shape seemed angry at that defiance. There was a low growl from the left part of the yard. The grass moved against the wind. The man held the shotgun at his hip, finger over the trigger guard. The barrel wavered, his hands shaking. Not entirely because of fear.

But the wyrm stayed in the yard.

The old man sniffed once, roughly, a good riddance kind of sniff, and then went back into the house. He marched into the kitchen, shotgun in his left hand, wrapped his right around the biggest knife in the block, and then returned to the driveway. He stepped down from the porch, the knife held in a grip so tight he thought he might break the handle. He moved with strong, purposeful strides, right for the truck. He laid the shotgun across the hood, dropped down to one knee and put the point of the blade right into the meat of the tire.

Again, something growled out there in the darkness. Something very unhappy. The old man didn’t even lift his head, didn’t look back. He couldn’t. One way or the other, they were finishing this tonight. He just moved around the truck, stabbed each tire as he went. When he finished, he looked up into the darkness, the tall, rustling grass. It was out there. Somewhere. Maybe everywhere. At times he thought he could see the vague outlines of its body.

He pelted the knife at the edge of the driveway, just as a warning. It didn’t penetrate the dirt blade-first, like it impossibly always did in the movies, but bounced impotently off a rock and spun away into the yard. There was yet another soft thump as it touched something else large and hard in the grass, something with a hide far too tough to penetrate, even with a blade.

The old man swore it laughed at him.

He knew it wasn’t in his head and it wasn’t some trick of the night noises. It was actual laughter. Deep, hoarse, the kind that might worm its way out of the throat of a twenty-year smoker. Sandpapery with the tinge of a cough. The thing laughed and slithered away, leaving the man standing alone in the driveway, the loaded shotgun and disabled truck his only company.

The creature was mad — livid — that he had thrown away his keys and it was going to make sure he knew it. When he went back into the house, the old man could hear something on the other side of the wall, hear it move across the roof. A gluttonous, serpentine body. It crawled around the outside of the house, its massive weight bending and warping the boards beneath it.

Please stop, he begged he wasn’t sure who. Please stop.

He tried to distract himself with some television, but that didn’t help with the smell. The old man had no idea what an open grave smelled like, but it must have been something like this. Like dirt softened by a heavy rain and then the pungent reek of rotten meat. He knew it wasn’t going to force its way in, but the primitive lizard part of his brain couldn’t understand that. All it knew was that it was in danger.

He gripped the armrests of the chair to try and stop the tremors in his hands.

That hoarse smoker’s laughter continued, echoing inside his head, off the walls of the house. He stared at the screen, but could still hear the glass shiver in the pane, hear the pressure as weight was applied and removed.

On the screen, a swamp monster fell for a beautiful woman. Real monsters never did that. They lurked outside your bedroom window until you let them in to play. There was a classic canned scream from the television set as the swamp thing appeared on screen in full for the first time, a scream that, the old man supposed, would be timed perfectly with the audience’s own reaction. Screaming with the characters. Really feeling their fear. It always happened that way, he thought; cinematic. Majestic. Everything was timed perfectly. That wasn’t the way it went in real life. If that were the case, the man wouldn’t have had to do this alone. He would have been able to bring friends and they would have all had some big reunion, a spectacular showdown in the middle of the night, likely in the rain, that involved the unveiling and defeat of the thing that hunted him. But there was no invisible director of this journey. There was only him and the monster.

The shaking had moved into his torso.

Outside, his own monster rapped on the windows, called to him. It was not love that was calling to him, not the desperate, nearly-unintelligible plea of an animalistic passion he did not understand. It was something else. Just as deep. Maybe even more powerful.

One way or the other, they were finishing this tonight.

The man turned away from the television set and looked at the front door. It moved inside its frame. The handle jiggled slowly, more an attention-seeking wriggle than a true attempt to gain entry. The old man twisted his body out of the chair, faced the door. The shotgun came with him. He swallowed long and hard, hadn’t realized how dry his throat actually was.

Through the screen in the door he could see an enormous, bulbous shape, something as tall as him but infinitely wider, longer. It seemed to notice his approach, lifted what could be considered its head as if it needed to look through the screen to actually see him.

“No more games.”

One way or the other, they were finishing this tonight.

He released the safety on the shotgun and opened the door.

And it was waiting for him.

***

When the sun rose on the world it was slowly, quietly, uneventfully. Children climbed out of bed, celebrated the summer day free from classes. Adults did the opposite, continued their daily routines. That ball of fire rose on a relatively normal world.

And then its light reached a farmhouse. The golden rays blanketed the fields first, the long, green grass that flowed in the easy morning breeze. The pasture looked idyllic, the scene like something out of a painting. Only later, upon closer inspection, was it noticeable that deep ruts had been dug into the field, as if someone had trenched the yard. Except the ruts in the earth were far too wide to have come from tires, the canyons far too deep.

And that was somehow the least suspicious thing on the property.

The rays of the sun moved forward across the earth, glinted at a harsh angle off what used to be a pickup truck. It had been utterly flattened, crushed like someone had just pulled it out of a compactor. Glass and metal littered the driveway like broken pieces of a piñata. There was no prize inside.

The farmhouse itself was still standing, but it looked as if one strong wind would blow it over. A massive chasm had been punched clean through the building, starting with the front door. To stand in the living room and look straight up would be to see the beautiful morning sky, the tub that lingered precariously on the edge of the bifurcated bathroom. Water seeped from broken pipes in a sound that might have been mistaken for the trickling of a brook.

The house itself was completely empty but there were signs that it had, at least recently, been inhabited. The television had been left on. Although a massive crack worked its way diagonally across the screen, it still played a picture in black-and-white; a man drowned his sorrows at a bar. It didn’t seem to matter what those sorrows were exactly. Multiple layers of dust covered everything in the home, grime from the explosion or rending or splitting or eruption or whatever had happened, the house now covered in miniscule particles of itself.

And through all that dust, a set of footprints wandered. They moved jaggedly, as if whoever had left them behind was dazed, had been there when that massive, unknown thing ripped its way through the house. They wandered back and forth, drunkenly almost, around a smoldering shotgun and a pile of spent shells before seeming to figure out exactly where they wanted to go. They moved in more or less a straight line through the house and the front door. In the driveway they seemed to finally steady. One pair was ground slightly deeper into the earth, as if their owner had stopped, waited. Contemplated. Let the buzzing in his head slowly go away as his weight tethered him to the world.

And then they moved casually off into the morning.

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