Connor’s face twisted in confusion as he looked up at the odd woman lingering in front of the check-in counter. The burly fellow had met his fair share of characters since inheriting ownership of Guppy’s Peak Inn, but this lady took the cake by a country mile.
“I’m sorry, miss...”
“Maude,” the woman said, her name hanging in the air like a frosty breath.
“Miss Maude, perhaps I misheard you. Your clients want to do what now?” Connor asked, a bemused frown forming under the tufts of his beard as he looked up at her.
Maude stood three heads taller than Connor, who was not a short man by any means. She craned her neck, so they were closer to eye-level, causing her vertebrae to pop like kettle corn as she met his gaze.
“Mister McIntosh, I dare say you heard me plain,” Maude said, her accent a strange amalgamation of composed prose and Appalachian twang.
“Forgive me, ma’am. I seem to be a little slow this morning,” Connor said.
Maude grinned widely, revealing the many rows of long white teeth hiding in her mouth. Too many teeth, giving her the appearance of a Cheshire cat rather than a person. Her long spindly fingers fiddled with the lapel of the business suit snuggly wrapped across her slender frame. It was completely unsuitable for the climate, to say the least.
“My clients demand recompense. They demand to climb,” she said evenly.
Connor chortled a little as he flipped open the weathered ledger in front of him. While there were a few names scribbled along the topmost portion, most of the page remained empty.
“There’s no need for demanding, here. They’re more than welcome to come up and have a climb if they want, but if they’re looking for lodging at Guppy’s Peak, they’d better bring cash,” Connor said.
“Oh, my dear, they don’t concern themselves with such paltry matters,” Maude said.
“In this inn, there’s not a paltry thing about it. This is my livelihood here, missy,” Connor said, his voice firm.
Maude’s expression remained unchanged as she stared at the innkeeper. It was almost like she was rebooting or something. Connor rubbed his sizeable hand up and down the goosebumps that were forming along the length of his arm.
“Of course, Mister McIntosh, of course. I’m more than happy to agree to your request as their proxy. Is this acceptable?”
Connor huffed a little and picked up the ballpoint pen resting in the ledger's spine.
“Are you over twenty-one years of age?” Connor asked as he began writing.
“Yes, yes. Considerably,” Maude said.
“Number of guests joining you?” Connor asked, glancing up at her.
“Two others, besides myself,” Maude said, still smiling.
“How many rooms were you looking to book?” Connor asked.
“What types are available?” Maude said.
Connor flipped the page over and glanced over the list he’d recently scribbled a little earlier in the morning.
“Uh, well, we’ve got plenty of vacancies at the moment. The whiteout that’s on the way tonight chased off a lot of the out-of-staters. There are several suites with queen-sized beds, one of which is facing mountainside. We also have a couple of juniors—”
“The mountainside room will do nicely,” Maude interjected.
“Alright, mountainside,” Connor said as he flipped his page back over. “Lovely choice. We recently had that room renovated, actually. Just so you know, it is going to cost $200 a night, including tax.”
Maude simply nodded at this, appearing unperturbed at the price.
“What is the expected length of stay?” Connor said.
“Just for tonight and tomorrow,” Maude said as she passed Connor a large handful of twenty-dollar bills.
The prospect of being stuck with her as a guest for two days didn’t thrill Connor, but the money would make the burden a little easier to bear. His fingers flipped through the stack as he counted. The bills looked vintage but felt as crisp as newly printed money. Odd, sure, but at least it was the right amount. He leaned over, fetching his receipt book after securing the funds in his trusty leather money pouch.
“Okay, ma’am, you’re all set. You are going to be in room 303. It’s upstairs on the third floor to the right of the ice machine. Checkout will be on Wednesday at 10:15am. Like I said earlier, keep in mind we’ve got some weather on the way. If you need to extend your stay, make sure you let me know before checkout time to save yourself another booking fee,” Connor said as he passed her a receipt along with several room keys.
“That’s very thoughtful of you to let us know, Mister McIntosh. Thank you,” Maude said with a nod as she took hold of the items.
“Of course, and if you... or your, uh, clients need anything during your stay, please don’t hesitate to call,” Connor said.
“Oh, we won’t, sir. I can promise you that,” Maude said quietly as she turned towards the staircase leading up to the rooms.
As the day wore on, Connor McIntosh forgot about the strange interaction with the woman in 303. His mind quickly occupied with prepping for the incoming flurry. He spent most of the afternoon rushing around the property like a man possessed as he set about filling generators, inventorying food stores and digging out boxes of emergency equipment he’d accumulated over the years from previous storms. It was busy work, but at least it had earned him a little peace of mind in case the worst came to pass.
The weather hit not long after he’d went back inside, quickly engulfing Guppy’s Peak Inn in a wall of white.
Connor had somehow missed the arrival of Maude’s clients, Messrs. Lee and Wendall Ward, who’d arrived during all the commotion. He’d have never known it either, had they not signed the guest book on their way to up to their room. Their signatures, like Maude’s, were filled with the flourish and properness of a bygone era. Each stroke was perfect, almost dazzling on the page. Were he to guess their age based solely off of the signature, he’d have guessed they were as old as the hills, maybe older. Connor had little time to linger on it before the CB radio in the back office started sputtering to life, pulling him away from the front desk.
“Ey Connor, this is Adriel Goseyun. Just wanted to ask if you could keep an eye out for any wayward souls marching around outside. We’ve already gotten several reports of missing hikers and the show has barely started, over,” said the choppy voice from the radio.
Connor leaned over, scooping up the microphone from off of the little desk before pressing the switch with his thumb.
“Copy, Sheriff, loud and clear. I’ll keep my peepers open, over,” he said.
“Appreciate it. The mountain seems angry today. I doubt we’ll be out and about for some time after this, over,” Adriel said.
“You’re not wrong. I’m thanking the stars there was anything left in town to stock up with at all. You know how foolish those folks can be with their milk and bread. Anyway, I’m just glad we got Guppy’s locked down tight, over.” Connor said.
“You all stay safe out there. Holler if you need us. Over and out,” Adriel said.
Connor sat the microphone back on the desk next to the receiver and sighed. If the sheriff was already asking for help this early in the storm, it was bound to be a doozy for sure. As Connor prepared to emerge from the back office, he was stopped in his tracks by Maude, her face bearing a smile somehow wider than the one she’d wore earlier. Flanking her on either side were two young twin boys, their faces sallow, with small hollow eyes. They looked like a couple of corpses fresh from the grave. The very sight of the boys chilled the clerk’s chest.
“Oh, Ms. Maude, is everything okay?” Connor asked, struggling to keep his eyes focused on her instead of the children.
“Well, Connor, we would like to speak with you. Might we close the door so that we might discuss the matter in private? It’s of a... delicate nature,” Maude purred.
Connor frowned as the surrounding lights flickered ominously, struggling against mother nature to keep the electricity flowing. Maude, nor the two boys, seemed to even bat an eye at the foreboding sign, their attention firmly focused on him and him alone.
“Urm, sure,” Connor said, backing once more into the little office, watching with eyes like saucers as the children slowly pulled the door closed behind them.
He didn’t know why, but he had a bad feeling swirling around in his gut.
The office was cramped quarters for two people, much less four. Besides the small desk with the CB radio, all that could fit in the room were a pair of chairs. The sparse, tan walls remained mostly unadorned, save for few wilting motivational posters featuring cute kittens in serious situations. Connor offered Maude and her creepy entourage the seats, which they promptly took while he straddled the edge of his desk.
“How can I help you?” Connor asked, listening as the raging winds slammed against the outer side of the inn.
“Well, there’s no real delicate way to put it, is there?” Maude said as she looked over at one of the boys, who offered her a slight shrug in response.
Connor cocked his head but remained silent. The quicker this was over with, the quicker these freaks would leave him be, he hoped.
“My clients demand recompense. They demand to climb,” Maude said.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Connor muttered as he pressed hard against the bridge of his nose.
“I can assure you, we are quite serious,” she said as she interlaced her unnaturally long fingers.
“Maude, you hear that storm battering this building as we speak. Unless you’re a freakin’ yeti, you’ve got no business being out there right now,” Connor said as he pointed a thumb towards the rattling window behind him.
“They’re not interested in any trail, my good sir. It is you who owe recompense. It is you they must climb,” Maude said.
Connor’s face reddened to a dark crimson as he huffed loudly.
“Alright, I’m sick of this. What in the devil are you babbling on about?” he said.
“Calvin McIntosh established this inn in 1947, yes?” Maude asked, her dark eyes twinkling.
“So what if he did?” Connor said as he crossed his arms.
“He was your grandfather, yes?” Maude asked.
Connor froze. He couldn’t remember much about Calvin McIntosh besides what folks said about him after his passing. A respectable man, a pillar in the community. Calvin never seemed too keen on him, though, from what little he could recall. He had been a rowdy boy, to be fair. That could’ve easily been the reason, but he never so much as looked Connor in his eyes.
“What does it matter who he was to me?” Connor said, running a hand through his hair.
“It matters a great deal, Mister McIntosh. It’s why we’ve come,”
Maude said, her smile drifting away like snow in the wind.
“Stop with this coy routine and be square with me, would you?!” Connor exclaimed, slamming his palms against the desk.
The little radio popped up from the force of the blow, causing the microphone to slide from off the edge of the desk and dangle lazily from its cord.
“As you wish, Mister McIntosh. Your grandfather made a deal with my clients here. Prosperity for his business and a tempered response from the mountain for recompense. For your soul.”
Maude opened up her suit jacket, producing a long, slender scroll before unfurling it to her waist. The parchment crinkled as it finished opening, its aged face appearing even older than the seventy-plus years that had passed since it was allegedly signed. There at the bottom of the sheet was the signature of Calvin McIntosh, his handsome cursive script marred by the blood he’d used as ink.
“I don’t understand,” Connor whispered. “Why would he do this to me?”
“Oh, darling, don’t take it personally. He was poor, he wanted a business. It’s all pretty standard fair, really.”
“But Grandpa wouldn’t do such a thing! He was a war hero. He even fought in Germany...” Connor said.
“And? He was poor when he left and poor when he returned. His parents were poor farmers and his parent’s parents had been poor farmers back in Ireland. None of that was of any consequence when it came to his offering, however. He prayed to the mountain, and the mountain obliged.”
Connor said nothing, his arms falling limply by his side.
“You humans have enjoyed your climbs, trapsed all over these sacred spaces without the smallest hint of trepidation,” Maude said, her teeth barred. “Like ticks on a dog, you’ve embedded yourself on our body and drained our lifeblood, taking and taking and taking until all that remained was stumps and soiled earth. We watched and waited, for we knew this day was fast approaching. Now it is our time to climb.”
Connor watched as the two boys rose from their seats and began approaching him from either side. Their frigid hands burned his arms as they latched on to him and forced him off the desk and to his knees.
“Please, no!” Connor yelped, straining against their unnatural strength.
“Lee, Wendell. Time to climb,” Maude said, her wide smile returning.
The spirits of the mountain stabbed their ice-cold feet into both of Connor’s sides, sending waves of pain through his ribs. As they took their second step, his vision began to waiver. The innkeeper could hear himself screaming, but there was a sort of disconnect between his mouth and his mind. Connor wasn’t controlling it, couldn’t control it. He felt the boys mount each of his shoulders, hanging off him like a pair of gargoyles. Their small mouths had opened wide, revealing rows upon rows of daggers lurking within.
“Ah, look at that! They’ve reached the summit!” Maude chirped as she looked on, tittering her hands in excitement.
Connor did the only thing left for him to do. He dropped to floor like a sack of potatoes, causing Wendell’s head to crack into the desk, shattering the corner from its frame. The mountain spirit roared, releasing its grip on Connor as it crumpled to the floor beside him. Lee looked on in confusion as his brother writhed in pain, offering the innkeeper an unexpected opening. Connor grabbed hold of the boy, still perched on his shoulder, before thrusting him forward and swiftly punting him into the nearby window. Lee bellowed as he smashed through the adjacent window, his voice along with his slight form disappearing into the depths of the raging blizzard.
As Maude seethed, Connor scrambled forward, clutching the CB mic with desperate fingers as he began breathlessly calling for help.
“Adriel! Adriel! Send help to Guppy’s, pronto! I’ve got guests trying to kill me, over!”
“Connor! What’s goi—?”
Adriel’s voice cut out as Maude smacked the radio off the desk and into the wall, shattering it to a puff of static and dust.
“Tut, tut,” she said with a wag of her finger.
Connor winced as he rose to his feet, his arms and shoulder burning like an iron had branded him. He shook his head, training his gaze on Maude, and dashed forward, his boots stomping against the wooden slats as he moved to tackle her. For as large a creature as Maude was, she was twice as fast, whipping around him like a spinning top before promptly driving her foot into his rear and sending him bursting through the door in a flurry of splinters.
“Ack!” Connor screamed as he crashed into the service desk, the aged structure collapsing beneath his impact.
Connor wheezed in pain as he looked down, noticing the jagged hunk of debris that has sliced into his side. Had he landed a little more to the left, he’d have been a grave man for certain. Clutching his mitt around the shard, Connor grimaced as he ripped the object free from his body.
“You’re making this much harder than necessary. All we want is what’s rightfully ours,” she said as she began sauntering towards his rising figure, her tone as even as her bangs.
“Climb this, you freak!” Connor yelled as he jammed the wooden spike through Maude’s jacket and into her heart. Blood began blossoming out around the wound as if it were a flower in bloom, staining the white material a deep crimson.
“Ouch,” Maude muttered, a look of annoyance coating her face as she looked down at her bosom.
Connor slammed his boot into the spike, finally sending Maude to the ground, where she settled amongst the debris from the door. The sacrificial soul wasn’t sticking around to find out how effective the hit was, however. The moment the tall woman’s body had started its downward trajectory, Connor began moving as fast as his battered body would carry him towards the front doors of Guppy’s Peak Inn. Hobbling with all his heart, Connor gritted his bloodied teeth as he wrenched open the sealed doors.
The whipping winds of the winter storm smacked him in the face, its icy tendrils chilling him to his bruised core. In the distance, amongst the endless white of the obscuring snow squall, Connor could see faint flutters of red and blue light. Adriel was coming for him. He just had to make it a little longer.
“We will have our recompense, Mister McIntosh!” Maude exclaimed, though he barely caught it over the storm’s scream.
Connor’s breath caught in his throat as he stepped from the doorway and into the flurry of snow.