THE POGONIP FOG

Sean Patrick Hazlett has sold over forty short stories and a collection to date, and is currently editing an anthology for Baen on Weird World War III. He is a Writers of the Future winner.

***

In the end, entropy always won. It had ruined Celia Lu’s marriage and was slowly chiseling away at her youth. Heat death was inevitable, so why fight it? Celia figured she’d come to the cold of Squaw Valley to accelerate the process.

She stared at the resort’s breathtaking landscape. Granite Chief’s majestic snow-covered ridge thrust upward into the sky like an alabaster leviathan with a jagged gray spine and bristling emerald flanks. The sheer scale of it all both overwhelmed and inspired her.

Passing a motley parade of skiers heading toward the mountain, Celia wended her way along an icy path to the Squaw Valley Resort Ski School. After she’d finished putting on her gear, a late middle-aged man approached her.

“Celia?” he said.

She nodded.

He extended his hand. “I’m Tim, your instructor.” Tim glanced at his watch. “My other three students are running late. Let’s give ’em ten minutes, then we’ll head up the mountain.” He paused, then raised his right index finger. “One more thing: don’t let the pogonip fog freak you out. It’s a perfectly natural phenomenon.”

What an odd thing to say, Celia thought. “Pogonip fog?”

“Some say it’s a Native American word for ‘ice fog’ or ‘white death’.” He stopped, then chuckled. “My grandmother used to tell me terrifying tales. She’d whisper that the fog was the breath of the wendigo or mist seeping in from other realms. But I digress. Over the past few days, people have been complaining about it. If you see sunlight refracting into weird patterns, don’t panic. It’s only ice fog.”

Celia smiled, humoring Tim, but inside she seethed. It was nine o’clock on the button and he was wasting her time and money with superstitious stories. Meanwhile the other laggards still hadn’t shown up. She regretted not spending more money for a one-on-one lesson. It was yet another example of why Celia preferred doing things herself. She couldn’t have risen to become the youngest partner in Wilson Sonsini’s history by relying on other people. More often than not, they just got in the way.

Five minutes later, a young Asian woman arrived and introduced herself as Wendy. Celia exchanged pleasantries with the woman, but wanted to throttle her for being late.

Tim clapped his hands. “All right. Looks like Bob and Jed aren’t going to get here any time soon. I’ve told the front desk to have them meet us on the mountain. Let’s go.”

As the trio turned toward the exit, a tall man arrived. His face seemed hewn from stone. Smiling, he said, “I’m so sorry I’m late. I had an urgent business call.”

Celia wanted to hate the man, but there was something intriguing about him. While he was handsome, it was the way he carried himself that sparked her interest. Here was a man who made things happen. Maybe scheduling a group session hadn’t been such a bust after all, especially since one of the reasons she’d signed up for it was to meet like-minded people. If one of them happened to be attractive, so much the better.

Wendy shook Jed’s hand and batted her eyelashes. He grinned, seemingly enjoying the attention, but it was clear to Celia he wasn’t interested in any random floozy. Jed needed a challenge; someone to conquer.

The group went outside and walked to the tram building. Once inside, they scanned their lift tickets. Attempting to fish hers from her pocket, Celia fumbled awkwardly with her gear. Her skis and ski poles clattered to the floor.

“Here, let me help.” Jed picked up her skis and ski poles. “Scan your card and I’ll hand your stuff to you once you’re on the other side of the gate.”

Celia nodded and scrambled through the gate like a naked coed scurrying out of a frat house. Jed handed Celia her equipment, and then strode through the gate with the air of a ski pro.

“You sure you haven’t been skiing your entire life?” Wendy said, giggling like a teenage girl.

Jed smiled. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“You look like a man who really knows his way around the slopes,” Wendy said, with an arch of her back and slight sway of the hips.

Celia cringed at Wendy’s ham-fisted double entendre. Jed just shrugged.

After climbing some stairs, Celia tentatively stepped out onto the tram. She glanced through the glass window on her right. A cable rose impossibly up the mountain’s steep grade. In a sudden panic, she backed onto the platform, nearly knocking Wendy off her feet.

“I’m so sorry,” Celia said, trying to smooth things over. Wendy barely concealed a scowl.

“Nervous?” Jed asked Celia, grinning.

Celia smiled back. “A bit.”

“Don’t worry,” Tim said, “the tram is perfectly safe. If the winds get really bad, as a precaution, the tram will stop in place.”

“I see,” Celia said. The thought of the tram stopping and swaying in high winds did anything but reassure her.

They waited in the tram’s far back corner for the other skiers to fill the space. The tram swayed forward, climbing toward the mountain’s peak.

After her divorce, Celia had promised herself to confront her fears head on and without compromise. No matter what. As she craned her neck upward to take in the awesomeness of the looming mountain, she chuckled. After today, no one could ever accuse her of being a coward.

In the distance, dark gray clouds gathered. Celia beamed. Normally, their appearance would have depressed her, but here, she actually looked forward to the snow they promised.

Half way up the mountain, an impenetrable hoarfrost with a faint yellow hue swiftly crystalized on the tram’s glass. It crackled and hummed as if it were a living and breathing thing. Celia’s ears popped as they would on an aircraft experiencing a sudden change of altitude. An eerie whine followed. By instinct, Celia clutched Jed’s arm. He smirked as an adult might at a child afraid of a monster under her bed. Celia blushed.

Tim harrumphed. “Like I said: pogonip fog.”

The tram slowed to a gentle halt. The party followed the other passengers off the tram and into the High Camp facility. From there, Tim led them onto a fresh, unbroken layer of powder.

Celia found it odd that no skiers were already on the slopes, but she wasn’t going to waste any more thought on the sudden good fortune of having the mountain to herself.

The gray clouds had by now arrived and were disgorging their snowy cargo in earnest. Out of the blinding whiteness, a tall, lanky figure wearing a black helmet and visor emerged from the howling wind. The stranger’s movements were jangly and jerky.

“You Bob?” Tim asked.

The visitor responded with a slight nod.

Tim made his way toward Bob. A gust of wind nearly swept Tim off his feet. Nervous, Celia grabbed Jed’s arm to keep her balance.

Tim stopped, steadying himself before continuing forward. The wind wailed so fiercely, Celia could barely hear Tim’s words: “…need…off the mountain.”

Celia couldn’t have agreed more.

By now, Tim was fighting against driving snow drifts to ski back to the tram. Celia, Jed, and Wendy followed in Tim’s wake, keeping close. Celia couldn’t see more than five feet ahead of her.

A yellowish fog swirled around them like an ethereal swarm of insects. Celia had never seen or felt anything like it. It had a menacing air, like a lost soul haunting a desolate waste. The mist reeked of sulfur and putrefaction and, worst of all, it gave Celia the impression it was stalking them.

Halfway to the tram, Tim stopped and turned. Though Celia could hardly see, she shivered when she saw Tim’s face—a face barely concealing panic.

“Where’s Bob?” Tim said.

Celia shrugged. Bob could’ve been ten feet behind her and she still wouldn’t have seen him.

“Wait here,” Tim said. “I can’t leave anyone behind.” He skied past the group and up the mountain, disappearing into a snowy vortex. Celia almost could’ve sworn that wisps of fog had briefly coalesced into a grinning skull, then dissipated before she had a chance to fully process it. She shrugged it off, chalking it up to an overactive imagination heightened by fear.

The three skiers drew closer, seeking each other’s warmth. The creeping miasma closed in, suffocating them with its overwhelming stench.

“You smell that?” Celia asked, covering her nose and mouth with her scarf to ward off the odor.

Jed screwed up his face and nodded.

“Any idea what it is?” said Celia.

“I’ve never smelled anything like it on a ski slope,” Jed replied. “Maybe someone crashed a snowmobile nearby?”

Somewhat reassured, Celia supposed that could have explained it.

“I don’t know,” Wendy said. “It smells more like rotting meat to me—or a dead body.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Celia countered, more to convince herself that Wendy’s observations weren’t accurate—though deep down, Celia was horrified she couldn’t completely rule them out.

Celia shivered. The last thing she wanted was to perish in the blistering cold. As she waited for what seemed like an eternity, she grew more desperate to return to the tram.

“It’s too cold. We really should head back,” Celia said.

Jed shook his head. “We can’t leave Tim out here. He could end up scouring the mountain for us, unnecessarily putting his life at risk. No. We need to wait here a little while longer.”

Celia crossed her arms. She dug her chin into her chest. Her teeth rattled. Wracking her brain for a solution, she said, “If I had Tim’s number, I’d call and tell him we were going back. Then once we reached the High Camp facility, we could call him again to let him know we’d reached safety.”

“That’s actually not a bad idea,” Jed said. “Fortunately, I got Tim’s number when we were on the tram.”

Jed never ceased to impress Celia. “Well, then what are you waiting for? Call him.”

Jed smiled awkwardly. The man wasn’t accustomed to taking orders, but Celia was so cold she didn’t give a damn. Jed stripped off his gloves, pulled an iPhone from his jacket pocket, and called Tim.

Celia locked eyes with Jed, watching his reaction. He waited several seconds, then shook his head.

Wendy sighed. “Bad signal?”

Jed ignored her.

“Try again,” Celia said.

He scowled, but called Tim anyway.

Jed said, “Hello?”

Celia’s chest tightened. Thank God! She was finally going to get out of this frigid hellhole.

Jed yelled. He pitched his phone as if it had been on fire. From the corner of Celia’s vision, she watched as a peculiar arc of fog traced the iPhone’s trajectory. Unlike the blinding white snow around them, the fog had a jaundiced hue like mustard gas cloaking the moonscape of a World War I battlefield.

The fog arc condensed into a thick and smoky blob that hovered unnaturally over the spot where the iPhone had landed in the snow. A faint whine began to emanate from the device, steadily building into a deafening, bloodcurdling screech. As quickly as both the sound and the foggy apparition had arrived, they dissolved into the white wilderness.

“The hell was that?” Celia wondered aloud.

Jed shrugged.

“Are you okay?” Celia pointed at Jed’s ear. A rivulet of blood was trickling from it.

He wiped it off and stuck his finger in his mouth. As if to minimize the discovery, he slid a few yards forward on his skis and fished his iPhone from the snow. “It’s dead.”

Celia shuddered. “We really should head back.”

A man screamed—a piercing guttural scream; the kind you’d hear from a man who had an arm ripped from his socket.

“We’re leaving. Right. Now!” Celia ordered.

“Tim and Bob are probably hurt,” Jed said. “They could’ve gotten mauled by a bear.”

“Impossible,” Celia countered, exasperated. “Bears hibernate in the winter.” She hesitated to say what she really thought—that something far worse than bears lurked within the swirling snow. Perhaps, she shuddered to think, it was the fog itself.

She was too late. Jed had already turned and was gliding through the snow toward the screams.

“Jed!” Celia yelled. “Don’t be stupid.”

For half a second, Celia seriously considered leaving, but she’d never forgive herself for abandoning the others.

“C’mon,” Wendy nagged. “We can’t leave Tim and Bob out there.”

Celia wanted to smack her. Instead, Celia reined in her anger and nodded. She pushed her skis forward and followed Jed.

Jed maintained a punishing pace. Celia kept falling farther behind. Now, he was a gray blur in the distance.

“Slow down!” Celia yelled, but the whistling wind smothered her cries. Frustrated, she shouted louder. Again, the gale swept her voice down the mountain.

Then Celia remembered Wendy. Celia glanced backward into a white maelstrom. On the fringes of her vision she detected hints of the bile-colored fog, drifting ever upward toward the mountain’s snow-capped summit. Yet there was no sign of the other woman. Celia shuddered at the thought that Wendy might also have been trying to get her attention. Celia’s heart raced. A slow, silent panic began to build; her gut grew queasy with guilt.

“Wendy!” she shouted. This time the wind carried her words in the right direction. But Wendy didn’t answer.

Celia had a moment of doubt. If she stopped here, they’d all be lost. If she turned back, there was no guarantee she’d find the tram or Wendy. No. She had to keep trailing Jed, no matter his pace.

She slid forward, driving her ski poles through grueling snow drifts. Despite the cold, sweat poured down her cheeks. Her only solace was that her effort was keeping her warm.

Wendy squealed. A shadowy figure in the mist surged down the mountainside like a cannonball. Celia froze. Paralyzed, she waited for the thing rushing down the mountain to meet her.

Jed!

His face was grim with determination. He clutched Celia’s arm. “Where is she?”

“I…I don’t know.” Celia fought to hold back an avalanche of emotions, but her tears betrayed her shame and fear.

“C’mon,” Jed said. “She can’t be far.”

The two skied down the mountain until Jed identified a dark blot in the snow. As they drew closer, Celia heard weeping.

“Wendy!” Jed rushed forward and embraced her. “What happened?”

In between sobs, Wendy pointed toward a foggy yellow residue corrupting the surrounding mist. “There’s…ah…there’s blood everywhere.”

Celia tracked Wendy’s shaking finger to a steaming pool in the snow.

“Jesus.” Celia shook her head in disgust. “We need to leave. Let the police handle this.”

“Look!” Jed pointed to a scarcely visible blood trail leading from the pool. “Tim and Bob can’t be far. If we get to them soon, they might have a chance.”

“C’mon, Jed,” Celia pleaded. “They’re dead. Didn’t you see how much blood there was? Let’s leave before whatever attacked them comes for us.”

Jed folded his arms. He shot Celia a stern look. “We can’t turn back now. We’re so close. We need to act before that blood trail disappears. Otherwise, no one’ll find them until the spring thaw.”

Jed had a point. Tim and Bob couldn’t be far. The trio would only have to go a few more yards before they could all turn back and return to the tram without regret. So they followed the trail.

An eerie wail echoed off the mountainside. This time, the cry sounded nothing like a person—more like metallic strings screeching on a chalkboard.

“What the hell was that?” said Celia, her heart pumping furiously.

“No idea,” Jed replied, “but we gotta keep moving.”

Celia reluctantly agreed. Wendy hesitated. Celia sympathized with the woman. After all, Celia had also frozen when she’d seen Jed coming down the mountain.

Patting Wendy’s shoulder, Celia said, “C’mon. We need to keep pushing. We’re almost there.” Celia looked up at Jed. “Maybe we should stop and wait for the storm to die down?”

Jed shook his head. “If we stop, we’ll freeze to death.”

Celia knew he was right. She nodded and urged an increasingly distraught Wendy to forge ahead.

Jed shouted, “I found something.”

Celia and Wendy surged forward to discover a black void in the snow. It drew the three travelers to it like iron filings to a lodestone. A wave of anticipation roiled Celia’s stomach.

Jed arrived on the scene first. He immediately recoiled. Celia pushed forward to see for herself.

Inside the hollow, Tim’s disembodied head stared lifelessly at the skiers. His eyes had rolled back into his skull. His mouth gaped open. His tongue lolled to the side.

His body was missing.

Stunned, the students stared in silence as the wind wailed and a deep and biting cold ravaged their bones. And the yellow fog—always the fog—lingered on the edges of Celia’s vision as if to torment them. What was it?

Wendy tossed her ski poles. She kicked off her skis, then plodded down the mountain, vanishing into the yellow-tinged mist.

“Stop!” Jed yelled. He spun on his skis to pursue her.

Celia grabbed his arm. “Don’t. She’s lost to us. Our only hope is to wait out the storm.”

Jed hesitated, but ultimately lowered his head in what Celia took for resignation.

Moments later, Wendy squealed like a gutted hog. From the volume of her screams, Celia knew she couldn’t be far.

Wendy screeched again. Jed’s eyes widened. He glanced back at Celia as if to ask for permission.

Celia shook her head.

An object landed with a squishy thud a few feet ahead. Jed lurched forward to investigate. His jaw dropped.

“What is it?” said Celia.

Jed lifted a steaming human hand—Wendy’s hand.

The more Celia tried to ignore her senses, the more the disturbing scene impressed its horror upon her.

Another shriek pierced through the whistling wind.

“We have to do something.” Jed launched himself into the churning maelstrom.

“No!” Celia yelled.

They were too late. It was a trap—Celia was certain of it—a trap Jed had fallen for hook, line, and sinker. Nothing in her life could have prepared her for that lonely moment. Isolated, the biting cold crept in and leached the heat from her shivering body. To survive, she had to keep moving. So she pointed her skis downhill and let them carry her down the mountain.

Disoriented and snow blind, she glided aimlessly into the eerie yellow-white fog, fleeing whatever had been preying on her companions.

Jed shrieked.

Celia trembled. She picked up speed. The faster her skis sliced through the snow, the more she struggled to keep control.

Jed cried out again. His voice seemed impossibly close—as if from above.

Despite her intense fear of heights, Celia quickened her pace.

A shadow darkened the gray sky. An instant later, something landed in the snow ahead with a puff. Transparent sickly yellow tendrils shot out from the mist ahead, gathering around the object like smoke over a campfire.

Celia grappled to govern her increasingly erratic descent. Narrowly avoiding a tree, she flipped head over skis, tumbling down the mountain until settling just feet away from whatever had fallen from the sky.

Instinctively, she knew it was Jed—or at least a part of him.

The shadow passed over Celia again. She quavered. She tried to get back on her feet, but her skis were stuck. She thrashed and wriggled, but to no avail. To center herself, she shut her eyes and took a deep breath. Focusing on staying calm, she opened her eyes and calmly released her skis. She stumbled to her feet and shambled over to where the fog had settled.

When she arrived, the waiting mustard-colored mist resolved into a grinning skull, taunting her, then disintegrated into the surrounding white.

Celia looked down and into a void in the snow. Discovering Jed there didn’t surprise her; finding him alive did.

“Help me,” he wheezed.

She scrambled over to him.

His face was paler than the snow. Celia crouched to get a closer look. When she saw Jed’s entrails coiled outside his belly and covered with bite marks, she emptied her stomach.

Guttering, Jed reached for her, smearing her jacket with blood. He pulled her close and whispered, “That thing—it started eating me.”

A high-pitched scream reverberated throughout the mountain valley. A black shape writhed in the great gray sky.

It dropped something, but whatever it was, it was too far away for Celia to make out.

The shadow made another pass overhead. Some distance away, it swooped to the surface. Something stirred, then slowly rose from the ground. It ambled toward her.

Celia tensely gripped her ski poles.

As the thing drew closer, Celia recognized the contours of a man—an ill-shaped, tall and lanky man.

He wore a visor.

She shook with trepidation. On rickety legs, the figure wobbled closer. She girded herself for a fight. If she had to die, she’d go down swinging. She imagined her ex and dug in her heels.

The stranger continued his awkward approach, moving as if on rubber legs. When he was nearly upon her, he stopped abruptly and flipped open the visor.

A black serpentine monstrosity with a mass of eyes, writhing tentacles, and razor-sharp fangs, snapped at Celia. The surreal nature of the encounter nearly paralyzed her—until the creature opened its maw—a maw with a stench reeking of the grave.

She shoved a ski pole between the thing’s snapping jaws, then stabbed it repeatedly with the other. It shrieked in earsplitting whines and lashed out with black tentacles. Celia thrashed and cut and stabbed until the human mimic crumpled into a lifeless heap.

Just when she’d caught her breath, a lone shriek echoed from the wintry expanse. Another resounded in its wake, then another, and another.

Her constant yellow companion continued to loiter on the periphery, taunting her with its latent malevolence. What was it?

Shivering, she crawled over to Jed’s body and dug a hole in the snow. She pulled his warm corpse into the hole with her. Embracing it, she hoped to weather the storm by clinging to his cadaver.

Celia slept fitfully, beset by terrifying visions. When she emerged from her hole the next morning, the storm had cleared. Faint red sunlight seeped through the gray sky, refracting into strangely beautiful hexagonal patterns tinted and befouled with a yellow haze.

She wandered back to where the beast had fallen to find it gone. The yellow fog was strangely distant now—still present, yet far away. Everywhere and nowhere, all at once.

With the sun as her guide, she headed east, back toward the resort. As she plodded down the mountain, she could find no sign that the resort had ever been here. In its place, impossibly high obsidian spires pierced the ominous gray sky. Now, there could be no doubt: she’d entered another realm. The more she thought about the haunting fog, the more she realized it had been both guide and gate—a formless Charon-like specter ferrying souls from the land of the living to the land of the dead.

As Celia continued her descent, black things circled those imposing spires—horrible tentacled things—all scales and eyes—and they were coming for her.

Copyright © 2020 by Sean Patrick Hazlett