[This is a companion piece, and a prologue of sorts, to a novel I'm writing that's set in the modern day. This is also my contribution to the canon of H.P. Lovecraft-inspired tales. You can tell it's a Lovecraft story because I used the word gibbered.]

The Necrophage

     In the late spring of 18__, I was ordered with five other men to the remote Ft. Pierre outpost, deep within the newly explored territory west of the Mississippi. We were sent into those burning plains as punishment for the act of drunkenly brawling with civilians in one of Baltimore's many nameless taverns.
    Ft. Pierre was constructed on the western bank of the Missouri River, open to constant attack from natives out of the west. In its first years of existence, three-quarters of our men died at the hands of the Sioux. To be ordered to Ft. Pierre was considered the harshest punishment for insolence in the military.
     After a long, sooty, uncomfortable rail trip to St. Louis, the luxury portion of our journey ended, and my companions and I boarded a barge steamer north to Minneapolis. The barge crew, civilians all, looked upon us with disdain, for they were all men rejected from the military for physical abnormalities, some of an indescribably hideous nature. We were subjected to their awful food, half of which was dried and impossible to chew; the rest was not preserved at all and was rotting. The barge crew ate the discolored meat and fruit as if it were the fine food of the East we six had grown accustomed to.
     The waters of the Mississippi are remarkably slow and still, and mosquitoes breed in it by the millions. Not a minute went by for a week in which we weren't under assault by those tiny beasts. Our only recourse to sleep was to seek shelter under the suffocating swelter of our heavy woolen army blankets.
     Upon arrival in the muddy little berg of Minneapolis (a town of the most uncouth inhabitants, one I am convinced will suffer a withering death once the regional fur trade is exhausted), we traveled a few miles by foot to Ft. Snelling, where supplies and wagons awaited us. We soon discovered that the wagons were prone to frequent breakdowns, and the oxen and horses were undersized and not very strong. The commander of this camp knew that his supplies were destined for a one-way trip, and made sure that the materials we received were expendable. In addition, we received a translator fluent in the Lakota language, named Thompson, who was to negotiate our safe passage to Ft. Pierre before returning.
     We journeyed almost two weeks, often seeing the smoke of distant Indian encampments and steering well clear. My friend, you have never seen land so flat and uneventful. The sand-colored prairie grass spanned from horizon to horizon without interruption of trees or hills. The sun shone hotly in the pale blue sky. No clouds shaded us during the day, but violent thunderstorms frequently visited us at night. Clouds of gnats hovered about our heads, and at least one or two wagon wheels broke each day which required an hour or so to repair.
     On the tenth day, we made camp on the shore of a river that Thompson told us was called Big Sioux. My criminal companions wanted nothing but sleep, but I insisted on taking the opportunity to bathe for the first time in nearly four weeks, and I went in search of a wider, deeper part of the river. Thompson offered to join me, with rifle, should natives appear while I was at my most vulnerable.
     While I bathed in the swift, cold waters, Thompson and I chatted casually about our families, our upbringings, what we planned to do after the army. It was the last moment of sanity I would know in this world.
     The instant the screams began, Thompson dashed toward camp, rifle in hand. I splashed to shore, pausing only to tug my boots on and pull my service revolver from its holster before racing through the trees after him. I arrived at our campsite in time to see Thompson level his rifle and shoot a retreating Indian off one of our own horses. I looked around for the others, but didn't see them. Camp was a shambles. Blood was everywhere; it was the only sign that the others had ever been there.
     The Indian Thompson shot was not dead. He had been wounded in the shoulder, but would probably live--if we let him. Thompson questioned the man at length in Lakota. I stood nearby, my revolver at the ready so when the interrogation was over I could finish what Thompson hadn't done. The Indian gibbered and raved and cried, and appeared on the verge of a breakdown, perhaps partially because of the sight of a naked, dripping white man pointing a gun at him.
     Presently, Thompson moved away and told me to put away my gun. "He'll die soon enough. Besides, he's a madman. Talked nonsense, delirious."
     I asked him what he meant, and Thompson said that the Indian told him that our companions had been killed and taken away to appease a beast-god they called Chtugtha. The creature was coming into their funerary circles and desecrating the bodies before their souls could be lifted skyward. Our friends were taken for decoys to keep the creature away from their own dead.
     "Whatever nonsense religion they took your friends for doesn't matter. They're dead and we can't change that. However, they have our horses, and we'll die out here if we don't go get them back. Now get dressed; we have to walk a ways."
     By the time I returned from retrieving my clothes, the native had expired. Before he had, though, he had given up the location and distance to their village. It took us until almost midnight to arrive there. By then, most of them were asleep in their tipis.
     We got down on our bellies and crawled around the perimeter of the camp. On the far side, we found the horse corral. Ours were very easy to spot, with their army saddles and brass insignia gleaming in the moonlight. We slipped beneath the fence and mounted the first of our horses that we saw. We looked around, but no natives challenged us. Either we had been exceptionally stealthy, or they were too afraid of our obviously superior weapons to start a fight. I was foolish enough to believe both of those things.
     I lifted open the gate and we rode out. We left the other horses; we would not have been able to handle all of them ourselves. Our only concern now was arriving safely at one of the forts.
     We rode practically through the middle of the village, but no one emerged from their tents. If not for the recently burned campfires, and the horses, I would have believed the village abandoned. As we rode around a grove of trees (hoping to avoid pursuit by taking a different route), we spotted a handful of people among a fenced circle of strange scaffolding, silhouetted against the night sky. They appeared to be affixing something to the scaffolds. Suddenly, they turned as a group and hurried away.
     "Hide!" Thompson cried, and we spurred our horses into cover among the trees. The Indians passed by us and disappeared into the village.
     "Do you supposed," I asked, "that that is the funeral circle the Indian spoke of?"
     "Very likely," Thompson replied. "We should go in and make sure." "I don't think that's a very good idea."
     "At the very least, those poor fellows deserve Christian rites before they fall victim to the rituals of these godless savages."
     "I suppose you are right."
     We rode to the edge of the circle and tied the horses to the fence. We went in through a small opening that appeared to be the gate and examined the scaffolds. They appeared to be pyres, each of four poles supporting a litter. Those nearest the gate were very ornate and covered with trinkets. A mound of colorful blankets and stringed beads topped each litter. I presumed bodies lay beneath them.
     We discovered that the pyres furthest from the gate held our missing friends aloft. They had been scalped (a sight too horrible and gruesome for the descriptions you read in books to accurately depict) and stripped of their uniforms. There were no adornments on these scaffolds at all, and the bodies appeared to have been laid carelessly and in haste.
     Thompson laid a hand on my shoulder. "Do you hear that?" he whispered. Certainly, and odd shuffling sound was coming from the dark thicket just beyond the fence. What happened next cannot be met with words or rationalized with the physical laws of this world.
     Something emerged from the thicket and came over the fence. I could see its physical body only in disconnected fragments. The parts in between were a haze, and seemed to be viewed more by my mind than by my eyes. I recognized tentacles and teeth--but nothing else. Thompson and I were both frozen to the spot, unable to flee as the creature moved toward us. *It did not seem to touch the ground.* The thing glided (or possibly stretched) to the top of the pyre before us and loomed over the body. Then with its tentacles it *tore* the torso open! A faint mist rose from the corpse, which one of the creature's hazy parts immediately lunged forward and snatched from the air, appearing to consume the mist.
     Thompson shrieked and collapsed. I kneeled beside him and tried to revive him, but Thompson had *died of fright*! The beast quickly shrank back toward the ground and was instantly on top of Thompson. I cowered near the fence, able only to watch, as the Chtugtha ripped Thompson's chest and abdomen apart with a terrible sound. As before, a fine, light mist rose from the cavity--but this time I was close enough to momentarily recognize Thompson's agonized face among the foggy tendrils. *The creature was eating Thompson's soul.* Again, part of the creature that was not wholly there snapped up the mist like a hungry mouth.
     It's meal of Thompson complete, the Chtugtha seemed to regard me for a moment, but seeing that I remained among the living, moved away toward the next scaffold. I found my wits and leaped over the fence. I pulled my horse's rope off the fence and galloped away at full speed.
     That, dear reader, was the end of my military career. When they saw me ride into Ft. Snelling weeks later, emaciated and wild in the eyes, telling tales of a beast that consumed the dead, I was declared psychologically unfit and returned to Baltimore with a recommendation to be institutionalized. My family instead took me into their care, though from then on I was to be kept a virtual prisoner on the family estate overlooking Chesapeake Bay. My ravings were attributed to torture at the hands of Indians. My family was told that the others died heroically defending the fort from a native attack and that I was briefly captured before being rescued by the other soldiers. But I know the truth--and as long as I know the truth, I will not step foot into a graveyard. And I will especially never, ever go out after dark.

-- © 1999, W.A. Seaver.