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The Theatre Phantasmagoria—Down the Mountain, by Brett Tharp

“𝘏𝘦 𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘱𝘱𝘦𝘥 𝘥𝘦𝘢𝘥 𝘪𝘯 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘬𝘴, 𝘸𝘢𝘵𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘪𝘯 𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘭𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘪𝘭𝘦𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘭𝘭𝘯𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘢𝘴 𝘢 𝘴𝘩𝘢𝘱𝘦 𝘫𝘪𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘥 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘰𝘱𝘱𝘰𝘴𝘪𝘵𝘦 𝘴𝘪𝘥𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘥𝘦𝘢𝘥 𝘛𝘪𝘭𝘭𝘺, 𝘤𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘥 𝘪𝘯 𝘨𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦 𝘷𝘪𝘭𝘦 𝘯𝘦𝘸𝘣𝘰𝘳𝘯.”

Greetings boils, ghouls, and other creatures of the night!

A warm welcome back to Night Terror Novels’ ongoing flash fiction series, The Theatre Phantasmagoria, and to our Flash Fiction Fridays—where we bring you fresh dark fiction of 2,000 words or less at the end of every week.

With The Theatre Phantasmagoria, a new theme is announced each month, and by the end of said month, four stories are selected from our call for submissions to be featured here on the site in a Friday post. These pieces will also be published in a “wrap-up” anthology at the start of 2023, showcasing the original works that debut here at Night Terror Novels throughout 2022. If you’re an author yourself and this has piqued your interest, please find details regarding the flash fiction theme for our August submission window here.

The theme for July’s submissions was “Sundown in a Tumbleweed Town”: stories centred around the Old, the Wild, and the Weird West or other untamed, dangerous locales; tales of the odd and the macabre, of wildernesses and the savagery they might (or did) contain, or similar horror stories along these lines. Our seventh month launched with “Cathouse Communion”, a sinister slice of karmic splatter-Western brought to us by Kacey Rayburn. Last week, Elle Vigilante introduced us to the twisted town of T or C, where Jude Salem learned that you can never outrun past sins in “Truth or Consequences”. In tonight’s tale, rancher Leonard Croster gets far more than he bargained for whilst tracking down his missing cattle in a chilling trip “Down the Mountain” from Brett Tharp. You can find out more about the author featured in today’s post down below, including links on where to find them elsewhere.

We here at Night Terror Novels hope that you enjoy today’s terrifying tale, and remember to check back in on Fridays for future showings in The Theatre Phantasmagoria


Welcome to …

The Theatre Phantasmagoria


Leonard Croster was just about done fighting fate.
It all came crashing down on him a couple miles up the side of a mountain in northern Montana. His old paint horse, Tilly, picked their way up a rocky slope surrounded by leviathan pines looking down on them, chasing after the last few cattle missing from a late night break-out. Dusk was stealing up on them fast, a whole day lost to a sudden act of misfortune, the sort that, to his thinking, seemed too frequent to really be chance. The tracks suggested wolves had scattered the herd and put stragglers all across the side of the mountain, but it was still amazing that these last few had climbed so high up. His tickling, distant hope was that he could use height to spot the others on the way back down.
Something about the tracks lingered with him though. He was no tracker, but he knew the difference between a cow’s walking prints from one running and these … they seemed like they’d been herded, not hounded.
At the top of the slope where the trail levelled out, he pulled on Tilly’s reins to halt her for a rest. Looking down at the vast expanse of pasture land that stretched below as far as the eye could see, the only thought that came to him was, Why the hell do you keep fighting?
Montana had been a series of misfortunes after a deceptive streak of good luck in that first year. He’d established a small ranch, but he was without help aside from a scrawny local boy who could barely ride a horse, someone who was even less use when a devil’s design of bad luck struck. He had a wife and a little one to provide for, and of late it seemed like the best way to do that was to just sell off his cattle and take a job in some nearby town. His pride had staved off that solution for many nights, but in that moment Leonard Croster was ready to take that deal, no matter how bad the taste.
And then he looked further up the trail and saw a spatter of blood painting a path as far as he could see.
‘Lord,’ he murmured, setting Tilly trotting alongside the trail. He couldn’t know yet without a carcass, but he was certain it was one of his cattle. Just his luck. Something had caught it on this high path with a belly gnawed by hunger and taken the cow. But wolves would have eaten it on the spot and left remains, not a blood trail. It looked like something had dragged the carcass, perhaps into one of the caves that dotted the mountainside. A mountain lion could do it. Maybe. He looked to the branches of the climbing pines all around, but no cat lurked among them as far as he could see. Nonetheless, he felt goosebumps rising on his skin.
He wrapped a hand around the double barrel sheathed at his right leg. The gun would stop most predators short of a bear, but he had never liked the limit to two shots. He used to own a revolver, but he’d been forced to sell it during a hard winter. He wished he had it now, even if only for a false security afforded by options.
The trail curved southwest then, but the blood trail painted its way north into the bushes. He halted Tilly and tracked it with his eyes, not wanting to venture into the undergrowth haphazardly, and saw some distance away a shaded space below a rocky outcrop that looked like it could be a cave. Directly in line with where the trails split. He shivered and felt the lurking quiet closing in on him.
He felt an impact to his temple and knew no more.
He woke uncounted minutes later among some heavy bushes. His temple ached brutally, and when he probed it, his fingers came away red. Something recalled to him through the mental haze, a dubious, distant recollection of some rapid shuffling and grunting through the brush near where he lay, but he dismissed it as a figment of his addled mind. Then he remembered that something had struck him on the trail above, something with plain intent to disable him. There were Crow people in the area, but they would use a gun or maybe a bow. Bandits clung to the coach-roads, not the mountain paths. Neither were known for throwing rocks.
He sat up, swearing. He would need to give up on the cattle. He knew deep down that if he didn’t find them today, then they would end up on something’s plate by the next dawn, but he was in no condition to continue with dusk approaching.
He stood up gingerly, testing his leg. His body was an ache but nothing seemed to be broken. Looking at the rocky slope above, maybe fifty feet to the top, he grimaced and began to climb.
He attained the top shortly, breathing out heavy and sucking in the pure mountain air. Birds twittered and sang and the leaves rustled lightly with the calm breeze. Now where’s Tilly? He turned his gaze up the path and sucked his next breath right back in.
Tilly was flat on her side a little further up the path where he’d fallen, her back to him. She was deathly still in that first instant that he looked at her and his eyes welled for the beast that had carried him faithfully for uncounted years. Then her stomach rose high with a breath and he let his own out, watching the crescent shape of her belly heaving, albeit irregularly. He moved in that direction as the next grim reality struck him. She’s down on her side like that, means something’s broke. And I can’t get you off this mountain all by myself, girl. A return by darkness was too treacherous and one by morning all but guaranteed that the wolves would find her before he did. It’s gotta be a buckshot goodbye, girl. I’m truly sorry for that.
Then her belly seemed to collapse in on itself as something exited from the other side.
He stopped dead in his tracks, watching in overwhelming silence and stillness as a shape jittered on the opposite side of the now plainly dead Tilly, covered in gore like some vile newborn. A rage took him and he shouted, waving his arms. Lone wolf, bastard will run if threatened. But the thing didn’t run and when it raised a bloodsoaked humanoid face to look at him he knew he was terribly, terribly mistaken.
In many ways, a glancing look would have allowed it to pass as simply a haggard, unshorn man. It had a simple man-like shape; two arms, two legs, a head shaped rather normally, and long, stringy hair down to its shoulders. But he saw past that thin facade to the pupil-less milk eyes and the lipless mouth that bared blackened gums and jagged teeth. Its back was hunched, its skin yellow, and its fingers were long four-jointed digits ending in talons three inches long. It stood up as straight as such a thing could manage and he saw that while its torso was thick and corded with muscle, its legs were long, spindly things, reminding him queerly of frog legs.
And then it was lurching down the path at him, its spindly legs drawing up under it and thrusting it forward with a sudden, terrifying quickness.
Leonard Croster ran for his life.
He split into the forest rather than chance the rocky slopes behind, crashing through the underbrush in a direction he could only hope would lead him somewhere safe. He heard the monster following, gaining possibly. The brush was thick in his path and at any moment, a root could have sprung up from the earth and sent him to his doom. Low branches whipped at his face and he felt blood streaming from several cuts across his cheeks and forehead. Maybe I can outlast it. He thought the sound of it was growing more distant, perhaps a trick of the mind, but he increased his pace slightly insofar as that was possible at an already breakneck speed.
He pounded between two large bushes and came up hard against a deep ditch that would most certainly have twisted something if he’d fallen into it, but at the last moment he leapt it crisply and kept running. You can make it. Keep going; it’ll tire before you. It was only a hope, but perhaps it would inspire him not to falter. A new sound came to him distantly, barely registered. It was like rushing water.
He burst through a clutch of pines and realised with a jolt of terror that he was coming in hard and fast to the edge of a cliff. To the left, he saw a waterfall spewing a white stream hard off the top. To his right, he could see the far flat expanse of Montana. Directly ahead … was empty space. And he was bearing right into it.
He managed to slow, but only enough that he didn’t go flying right off the edge and down into the river a hundred feet below. As it was, he tried to catch himself on the precipice and managed to tumble over into a fall parallel to the cliff face that landed him on a rocky ledge a dozen feet down. He lay there, stunned, for several moments with blood dribbling between his lips before pushing himself back up. His limbs continued to function, but he was banged up in about every way possible without a serious crippling injury.
He stood shakily and looked up at the cliff, where the monster peered down at him with putrid bile dripping from its bared jaws.
He found his courage, and a hot rage with it. ‘Just give up!’ he screamed. ‘Damn you to every infernal hell there is and leave me be!’
The monster watched him impassively, then issued a low moan that stretched on and on. Then it started to climb down to him.
He stared at it dumbly and could only say in a limp, nearly defeated voice, ‘What the hell?’ Then he shook himself and realised he desperately needed a way off this ledge. He moved to the edge and peered down. Something blocky stalled in his throat.
Below were two more ledges, twenty feet down, and on those ledges crowded more devils just like the one that pursued him. Six or seven of them at least, of varying sizes but no less monstrous or hungering. A whole family of creatures living in the caves. They issued answering moans and started climbing up to him.
His last blessing was that both the one above and the ones below were slow climbers, though not incapable ones. They would reach him, but he had precious moments left to respond. He could hear the claws of the monster above scraping and digging into the rock surface, ever nearing. Below, the water rushed hard south into another fall and then crawled, serpentine, down into the lowlands. It was still eighty or ninety feet from his ledge to the water. Something inside him said it was hopeless, that it was time to give up, time to say one last prayer to God and hope it was enough to earn passage to heaven, but then something else told that voice to shut the hell up and told him to fight for his last breath with everything he had. His wife and baby girl flashed in his mind’s eye.
Leonard Croster danced back to the cliff wall, the monster’s jagged toenails scrabbling mere inches above his head. With a last calm breath, he sprinted for the edge and leapt.


About the Author

BRETT THARP is a writer from Naylor, Missouri, a small rural town just a little north of the bootheel and Arkansas border. He enjoys digging into specific historical settings for his stories, whether that be the castles of medieval Europe or the rugged landscapes of the American Old West. In his spare time he enjoys writing heavy metal songs and watching horror movies. Find him on Twitter @BrettTharp and at https://bretttharpwriter.wordpress.com/.


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By J.D. Keown | Night Terror Novels

JOSHUA KEOWN lives on the outskirts of the North York Moors with his feral little hound of hell, Lola. Despite his proximity to Whitby and a lifetime aversion to being out in the sun, he would like it to be known that he is definitely not a vampire. Joshua has always been an avid enthusiast of the horror genre in all its forms, and he now writes ghastly, ghoulish stories of his own. His debut short story “Krodha” can be found in the Wild Violence anthology from Blood Rites Horror, his second short story “What Ye Sow” can be found in Issue #X of All World’s Wayfarer, and a third titled “Whisper, Whisper” appears in Issue #63 of Dark Dossier. Joshua is also the founder of Night Terror Novels and edited its debut anthology, Ceci n’est pas une histoire d’horreur (This is Not a Horror Story) in 2021. His debut novella, Maggot Brain, is coming soon, for which the full details can be found on the Night Terror Novels website. Joshua can be found prowling almost every corner of the internet in some capacity, but is most easily reached through his business email address, nightterrornovels@gmail.com, or via Instagram or Twitter, @JDKAuthor.

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