Trader’s Log, Sept. 8, (illegible)

A flyer found on a bulletin board in the ruins of Chattanooga, TN is pasted into the pages of the tattered, ash-darkened  journal, beside it some trade records done in even, measured handwriting.

Welcome to Beautiful Watauga County, Breadbasket of North Carolina

Boone has always functioned as a gateway to the mountains. Heading west on 421, it's the last thing one could call a "town" until you hit Johnson City over the Appalachian Mountains past what used to be the border of Tennessee. However, since going to the interior of the country has become less attractive recently, Watauga County has since embraced its new role in replenishing the supplies of people tired from crossing the mountains.  Thanks to plentiful springs and rivers, water isn't a problem, and what was once subsistence farming has become the first taste of the Carolinas' varied cuisine to many outsiders.

Due to our history as a college town- unfortunately, Appalachian State University shut its doors a year after the eruption-, housing is plentiful, so you're welcome to make Watauga County your home  if you decide to stay a while. Job opportunities abound, from machinist to miner, and much more. Our temperate climate is healthy for children and the elderly, and balanced temperatures accomodate all types.

Public safety is guaranteed by our police department and the genial Southern spirit.

A journal entry is scribbled in a much more hurried script across the next few pages.

Well, that's what the flyer said, anyways. It was a good two, three years out of date though. I could tell, as the Boone I was standing in was vastly different from what the brochure portrayed. There was a minimum of three feet of dismal, grey snow everywhere I looked, and nary a soul to be found. I had entered the town on the request of one of my best customers. For some reason, this fine gentleman needed the telescope that sat in the old university's long-dormant observatory, despite the stars having long ago been smothered by ash. He was paying me a small fortune in ammunition and mushrooms to grab the telescope, though, so I wasn't one to question him. Enough living in the past, though, it's time to live in the present, as this latest snowstorm has finally let up.

I rolled into town by myself, as I always have. Let's just say I have trust issues and leave it at that. My Jeep had been coping fairly well with the higher altitudes and more ash, only needing its filter scrubbed once. My plan was to roll up, break into the observatory,  and make off with the telescope. Something about this town struck me as deeply wrong, like that feeling of "you're not supposed to be here, little one" that I got whenever I tried tagging along to work with my dad.

Which, of course, meant I had to find the science building, something I had only the dimmest recollection of thanks to a campus tour in a bygone era. I drove in towards the university grounds, my little four-cylinder and snow crunching under its oversized tires the only sound for miles. The once pretentious glass-walled skybridge had fallen into disrepair, with most of the panes shot out or otherwise absent. The parking deck was an overgrown mess, and the duck pond was completely frozen over.  The picture windows of the cafeteria looking out over the pond were likewise damaged and/or absent. Part of me wondered what the overblown football field looked like now, but I wasn't getting paid for sightseeing, so I continued on in . 

I somehow managed to spot the once-shiny dome that marked the observatory, and ,manhandled my truck as close to the science building as I could. The years had not been kind to the brick road surface on the quad. Naturally, I wasn't the first guy here, so I didn't have to break into the building. I simply stepped through the shattered glass doors, located the nearest stairwell, then proceeded upwards, my footsteps echoing across the once lively halls.

 I was greeted by a nasty surprise when I reached the dome, though- the telescope was long gone. I could see the holes drilled on the floor, and...t Aha. Deep gouges in the tile floor meant something heavy was dragged out... tht door, looks like? Opening it, I was greeted with a gruesome sight. Looks like some jackass had met his fate trying to move the damn thing alone, and had gotten literally crushed under the weight of the scope when it fell off the trolley. This had happened a while back, too- sagging, papery skin covering bones was all that was left of him, aside from the rather large dark brown stain of old blood on the floor. Looks like he took the brunt of the fall, though, as the telescope seemed fine to my untrained eye. I started to right the scope, which was coated in that sort of thermally diffusive sciency aluminum foil that seems to be required of anything even tangentially related to space, then froze as I heard the most ungodly sound. It was like some combination of crow and mountain lion, a kind of hoarse, uncannily human scream, but produced without any kind of lips whatsoever. 

I drew my pistol- nothing special, just a Model 10 I traded a particularly nice set of antlers for- and spun around to face the direction that the sound came from. 

Just as soon as I saw it, though, I immediately wished I hadn’t. It was, in grand Lovecraftian tradition, a Thing that Can Not Be but Is. A head dominated by a strong, toothed beak as well as dinner plate-sized eyes was mounted on a body that managed to combine the worst aspects of a possum and a toad. The limbs… oh god, I didn’t even want to think about the limbs. Thank God there were only four of tbem, qith a membrane stretched between the forelegs and back legs on each side, kind of like a sadder version of a flying squirrel. Warty, not-quite-furry but not-quite-hairless skin covered a gaunt frame with a rotund pouch that was moving up its torso fast because… God damn it. It fucking projectile vomited at me. All hope of a clean getaway screwed up, I aimed in its general direction, squeezed off a couple rounds of .38,  and fucking bolted, setting a new world record for the downstairs sprint with the abomination in hot pursuit. Its talons frantically scrabbled at the floor, skittering noises like a cave full of bats echoing down the halls.

...And of course, it fucking followed me out the building, not content to stay in its manmade warren. I could see it more clearly now, which… honestly, didn’t do it any favors. Looks like it had a tail, though…  or was it a dorsal fin?   I couldn’t start my Jeep fast enough, as its hellish form was rapidly closing. Just as it was about to jump at me, I got my truck into gear and hauled ass out of there. It wasn’t till I was a good 200 feet out of there before I risked a glance at the rear view mirror, and… of course. The horrifying Dead Zone abortion had fucking latched on to my car. Luckily, I kept a little something in the driver’s side door for emergencies.

I pulled out my Ithaca Auto Burglar and gave that… that thing both barrels at point-blank range to the torso… chest… whatever. A deafening KAKAPAAANG rang out from the shotgun’s barrels, seeming to reverberate across the entire valley as the recoil slammed my arm up- firing two barrels of high-brass buckshot at once with one hand, even at 20 gauge, is not fun. One massive hole appeared in the creature and it reared back, screeching a final, chittering death rattle, before expiring atop my little four-wheel-drive.

To tell the truth, I wasn’t confident enough in myself nor my gear to go back and get the telescope. There were probably more of those things where that came from, and I simply wasn’t equipped to deal with it. .38 JHP didn’t seem to do a thing to it, judging by the small entry wound and lack of penetration through its ribcage, and I was all out of shotgun shells after killing just that one.

Its grotesque hide should serve as proof to back up my tall tale, not to mention fetch a pretty penny to the right buyer, so I stopped to take its carcass down from on top of my truck, wrapped it in a tarp best as I could, then set on my way back to Asheville.

Part of me wanted to go back, though, and damn the consequences. The complete and utter desertion of a once thriving town was just too weird to leave be, even though dozens of similar towns across the former United States had fallen victim to similar fates. Maybe the lunatic I was supposed to deliver the telescope to would be intrigued by my story, and offer to fund a followup expedition.


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