The Lelina Horror, Part 14

PIXIE (VI)
23rd of 9th Month, 281st Year of the Triumvirate

I spent the next few days in the wilds south of Point Hammond. They provided me with enough of what I needed to treat my wound, and the thick underbrush and gnarled trees offered plenty of places to hide from Cartographer hunting parties.

It wasn’t the hunting parties I was worried about, however. It was the mad woman with the rifle. At that point I still had a notion in the back of my mind that I recognized her, but it still hadn’t dawned on me from where.

In between bouts of hiding and picking berries, I went over what I knew about the circumstances surrounding Professor Martine Babin’s recovery. I knew he’d been found south of the town, in the woods I now found myself hiding and searching in, near a dried out river bed. That had been in the early springs months…from what I knew of the area what I was actually looking for now was a creek.

Over the course of the next few days, I found no trace of either a dry bed or a creek. I did find the over grown remains of an abandoned motor carriage. Inside were the remains of the carriage’s driver, little more than a skeleton wearing the tattered scraps of what looked like a hospital orderly uniform. I examined the vehicle itself, but found no markings. The driver’s side door was off, and the passenger’s side was wedged against a tree and over grown. I had a poke around the area and found the missing door at the foot of another tree fifteen feet away. I flipped it over, leaves and dirt rolling off as I did.

On the other side, in painted letters barely visible beneath a coat of dirt and rust, were the words “Point Hammond Behavioral Studies and Corrections Facilities”. What an ominous sounding name, it was. Was there some sort of asylum out here in the woods around Point Hammond? And if so, what had happened to this fellow?

A chill came over me, as I realized that the woods had gone silent. I looked up from the door and scanned the area around me. It might sound unoriginal, but I truly did have the sense that I was being watched.

A group of birds took flight from behind a thicket nearby, and I heard a harsh whisper.

“Goddamit!” a man’s voice said. Then a woman replied.

“Nice going, Brick. How the hell did you ever make it as a hunter?”

I recognized the woman’s voice.

“Ronnie?” I said. I relaxed my hand, which I now realized was hovering over the gun I’d taken from the Cartographer in the alley.

“Y-yeah…who are you?”

“It’s Pixie Sinclaire.”

Veronica Trenum stood up from behind the thicket. She looked like she hadn’t had a meal in days, but otherwise looked in good health.

“Pixie? Oh, thank the Man. Is there anyone else with you?”

“No. Just me. I’ve been looking for you guys for months. Is Adella with you?”

Silence, and then, “No. None of the others are, except for Brick, here. You know him, as I understand it.”

I frowned. Yeah, I knew him alright. He stood up with his rifle.

“Miss Sinclaire.”

“Mister Mackay. Been a while. I think the last time I saw you was…at the battle of Fargeon LeDois, high tailing it away over a hill.”

“That’s…it more complicated than that.”

“Whatever, it doesn’t matter. What happened to you all? Where have you been the last year?”

Veronica explained to me about what happened in the swamp, about the automaton that attacked them and scattered their group. Ronnie and Mckay had found their way back to Lelina, where they found the town abandoned. They spent the next several weeks searching for Adella and the others.

Eventually they packed up and left, deciding that the search had gone cold. They’d intended to return to civilization and report what had happened to authorities, but a few run-ins with the Cartographers convinced them instead to stay low.

“But we weren’t hiding,” Ronnie said. “We started investigating them. It took us awhile to get any information…these guys have a tendency to off themselves whenever they’re captured. Eventually we found one too craven to do his duty to the order or whatever nonsense and he spilled the beans.

“He told us the Cartographers are interested in Pre-Rift technology that’s supposedly stashed in old bunkers around the area.

“Like that automaton you told me about.”

“Precisely. Remember our expedition with Rigel to the Blackwood Grove?”

“How could I forget?”

“It was just like that, only…this one showed signs of self-repair, Pixie. It had used the skull of a deer to replace its head, and heartwood to repair an arm. That’s not just following programming. It’s problem solving.”

“What about the bunkers?”

“The site in Lelina was one. There’s another somewhere around here, in Point Hammond. They’re working out of an abandoned hospital not far from here.”

“That must be where this fellow was headed to,” I said, nudging the corpse with my foot.

“What do you know about it?”

“Not much,” Ronnie said. “But enough to know that the place was bad news, even before the Cartographers took it over. We also believe it may be where Adella and the others were taken. We’re headed that way. Join us?”

“Lead the way.”

As we walked, Ronnie filled me in on how they came to believe the hospital in Point Hammond was the ultimate destination for Adella and the others in the expedition. She told me that after the camp had been scattered, Mister Mckay and herself had done a quick search. McKay had followed their trail, and they very nearly caught up. Ronnie claimed that she even saw Adella through the underbrush, but before she could call out several people dressed in blue uniforms popped out of hiding and took Adella prisoner.

McKay had held her back, citing the fact that they were outgunned. After a brief exchange of words, Adella, Rothery, and Meriam surrendered and were led away, heading north.

“The only other settlement nearby was Point Hammond,” Ronnie said. “Seemed as good a place as any to start.”

“So, you’ve known for a whole year where they were being held?”

“Look, Pixie, I see where you’re going with this. Just stop. I already told you we’ve been dogged by these Cartographer people the whole time, and we have no idea how far their influence reaches. I mean, come on. You’ve heard the stories. If they’re true, that influence is pretty far.”

“It just seems unlike you to leave someone in jeopardy for so long,” I said, my eyes focusing on McKay. “And it doesn’t explain why you’re making a move now.”

“There are other elements in play now,” Ronnie said. “Some other group. We’ve seen them in Point Hammond, and a few other settlements we’ve taken to ground in. Women, wearing leather jackets, and heavily armed. At first we saw them by themselves, individually. But then we started noticing them in groups of two or three. Then we started recognizing them. One of them stands out like a sore thumb. Tall, like over six feet, with long black hair. We saw her meeting with two others. Seemed to be giving orders.”

“I’ve seen her, too.”

“In any case, I don’t think they’re working with the Cartographers. In fact I’d say there’s some deep seated animosity between them. That meeting I told you about? It was on a thoroughfare in a town nearby. A couple of Cartographers rode through. They weren’t doing anything, I don’t even think they meant to stop in town. The big one and her cohorts just pulled guns and blew them away.”

“Damn.”

“That’s what I said. That’s not all. The Cartographers seem restless, distracted. We’ve heard them fighting amongst themselves, debating in harsh whispers in dark corners of saloons and hotels. Some sort of internal rift in their code, or philosophy or whatever. The group is starting to show it cracks, to splinter. I don’t know the details, but it seems to me that now might be our chance.”

I quietly mulled over this information as we approached the hospital. It wasn’t much longer before we arrived. McKay called a halt near the edge of a clearing. At its center was a single, four story building with barred windows, its formerly white walls gone green and black with moss and mildew.

“What now?” I asked.

“We wait,” McKay said. “For cover of night. We’ve been watching the place. It doesn’t have any power that we can see, and a group leaves at dusk, with no replacements. They must rely on a skeleton crew.”

“Sounds like they’re pretty confident,” I said.

“Isolation and long stretches of nothing happening can do that,” McKay said. “I’d think you’d know that, of all people.”

I ignored his jab. What had happened at the battle of Fargeon LeDois had been the result of a number of people proving craven, not of complacency.

The day stretched on, and we took turns napping. I was in the middle of mine when Ronnie shook me awake to find the world much darker than when I drifted off.

“It’s time.”

I wiped the sleep from my eyes and sat up, joining them at the tree line. McKay was studying the front of the hospital intently.

“Come on, come on!” he was muttering.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“They’ve usually left by now,” Ronnie said.

“Your hijinks the other day probably put them on alert,” McKay said. “Damn it.”

“This doesn’t change anything,” Ronnie said. “We still go in tonight. We’ll just have to deal with five more people.”

I looked back at them. “Five people? That’s it?”

McKay shot me a look that could melt a glacier. “Five people that we know of, who leave every night. I don’t know how many stay. Could be five is all they have guarding the joint. Could be there’s a hundred more. Either way, I was hoping for any advantage.”

“Well, if it’s only five, we can take them,” I said. “If it’s one hundred, we’re screwed either way. Let’s go.”

“Right,” Ronnie said, and we stepped forward out of the trees. McKay balked.

“Hold on a sec,” He said. “Let’s think this thro-“

A gunshot drowned out his voice. Ronnie and I both threw ourselves to the ground. I drew my pistol and aimed it at the hospital. Another shot rang out, but I saw no muzzle flash from anywhere in the building.

“Behind us!” McKay said, turning with his rifle. Another shot, and the bark of the tree next to him exploded. McKay cursed and threw himself down into the underbrush.

“Go on, then!” he shouted. “I’ll try to keep whoever this is occupied.”

Ronnie and I stood up and started running. We didn’t head toward the front door, however. We saw no sign of life from the hospital, but I didn’t want to take any chances. Luckily, there was a window on the west side of the building where the bars were hanging by a single rusty fastener.

Behind us, the woods erupted with the pops of rifle fire. Our attacker would fire, and McKay would answer.

The ground directly in front of me sent up a spray of dirt and grass. The shooter in the woods wasn’t even bothering to engage with McKay. The shooter was taking aim at me.

“Shit!” I yelled, realizing who the shooter must be. “We need to get to cover now!”

I started weaving wildly from side to side. We were almost at the building. Blood rushed through my ears and my lungs burned. Almost there…

I didn’t slow down as we reached the side of the hospital and ran at full speed into the wall. The loose window bars hung one foot above my head. I jumped up and grabbed them, wrenching them from the wall.

The gun fire had stopped, for the moment. Either our attacker was reloading or taking up a new position. Either way, we needed to take advantage.

“Ronnie, up on my shoulders,” I said, kneeling. She stepped up and I stood.

“Um, I don’t have anything to break the window!”

I handed the revolver up to her. “Use this. The butt, not a bullet.”

“Thanks, but I know how not to waste resources,” she said.

“Just break the damn window!”

I heard glass break. Then a gunshot from the tree behind us. The bullet hit the wall two feet from my head.

“Ronnie!”

As I said her name, her weight lifted from my shoulders.

“Give me your hand,” she said. I looked up to see her hanging from the window, holding her hand out. I jumped up and grabbed it, scrambling up the wall as she pulled. A bullet struck the wall where my leg had just been as I went up and over, into the relative safety of the hospital.

“Well, that was thrilling,” Ronnie said.

“Eh, just a typical Tuesday.”

“Still humble as ever, I see.”

I stood up, keeping a wide berth of the window, and brushed myself off while looking around. The room was pitch black.

“I can’t see a damn thing, and I don’t have a torch,” Ronnie said. I reached into a pouch on my belt and pulled out two glass tubes. They contained liquids that when mixed cast out a sickly green light. I mixed them and shook the solution, and it slowly got brighter.

“Fancy,” Ronnie said.

“Thanks. I’m thinking of filing a patent…”

I trailed off as I took in the room. Rust eaten, over-turned beds littered the space. The walls and floors were covered in blood and other things. In some cases, the blood had been used as ink to write rambling diatribes. In the far corners were large metal cages hooked up to what looked like electrical generators.

“Adella,” I heard Ronnie whisper. “If you’re here, I’m so, so sorry.”

The Lelina Horror, Part 14

The Lelina Horror, Part 12

ADELLA (VIII)

23rd of Tenth Month, 280th Year of the Triumvirate

Doctor Trenum grows ever more restless, endlessly pacing in front of the thick iron door. She’s expressed several times a desire to open the ageless vault it protects, much to the chagrin of Doctors Rothery and Babin.

Rothery is most adamant that the door should remain closed, citing the fact that most the kit they brought with them to preserve any artifacts inside was lost when the river boat exploded. Trenum snaps back at him, pointing out that getting another kit would mean a second expedition, and she knows that none here want that. During one of their debates she pointed to me and said, “The story teller is here NOW. The story needs to happen NOW.And what’s inside that vault is the story. Not some rusty pillars in the middle of the swamp.”

I’m not too sure how I feel about being used as a pawn in a scientific debate between the two, but Doctor Trenum is sort of right. Finding out what lies beneath the swamp is a huge component of this tale, but I have no intentions of return to this place once I am quit of it.

Perhaps that is an affront to my profession, and many of my readers may be disappointed to hear it, but it is the truth. This place unsettles me greatly.

I have come to hate it.

24th

Doctor Trenum continues her crusade to convince the others, but her arguments have become so venomous that she stands no chance of winning the support of Doctors Rothery and Babin. Babin, in fact, has completely quit himself of the situation after Doctor Trenum’s last push turned violent.

In her frustration, she kicked over the pot in which we were preparing our supper, a stew of mushrooms and snake meat. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it; anger about going hungry, or relief that I would be spared eating such a concoction. In any case, the outburst led McKay to get involved. He tried reason at first and earned a slap. Things turned ugly after that. McKay struck Veronica back, knocking her to the ground, then ordered his men to tie her up. Gustavo and one other named Alan, another new hire for this expedition, balked. The other two, Ruvio and Samuel, men who have been with McKay for quite some time, carried out the order.

All the while, Meriam and Nico sat huddled under their tree, both of them visibly upset by the turn of events. Babin looked sickened as well, but said nothing. Rothery uttered his agreement. The only show of defiance came from myself, and I am ashamed to say that it was little more than an icy stare. That was enough, however, for McKay to turn his ire toward me.

“Go ahead,” he said. “If you want some of this, just say something.”

So I said nothing. I wasn’t sure what to say anyhow. I’m not proud of it, but it is what it is. Perhaps I’m just making excuses.

25th

The days seem to stretch. The members of our party barely speak. The air is heavy with humidity and an even heavier silence.

Veronica remains restrained, though calm. McKay and his men keep to themselves more and more. Whenever he moves, Meriam jumps. I heard her speaking with Veronica last night, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Ruvio had been on watch, and when he saw them he chased Meriam back to her tree. I’m starting to fear the weapons McKay and his men carry more than feel comforted by them.

26th

Veronica escaped sometime in the night. We awoke this morning to find her ropes laying empty on the ground and no other sign of her to be found. McKay left Gustavo to watch the camp and took the rest of his men, along with Doctor Rothery, to search for her. I can’t be sure, but I thought I heard McKay utter a wish to kill her. It’s an alarming turn. Tying her up was bad enough, and threatening anyone who got near her with violence was even worse. She did nothing more than lash out in her frustration at not being able to do what she came here for.

I can’t tell if it’s this place that’s set McKay on edge or, even more frightening, if that’s just the kind of man he is. I’m terribly afraid what might happen if McKay and his men catch up to her.
***

26th (Later)

Veronica has returned to camp in a flurry of adrenaline and, dare I say it, mania. She tore out of the underbrush with a rock, her hair disheveled and filled with leaves, and knocked poor Gustavo out with it. She then turned to me and for a second I thought I might be next.

“Adella,” she said, her face calming. “You, Nico and Meriam keep watch. Doctor Babin?”

“Yes?”

“Help me with the vault door.”

Doctor Babin seemed reluctant, but ultimately agreed to help her tie up Gustavo before turning toward the door. Probably out of fear. I’m not sure who I’m more afraid of now at this point…the Doctor or the Hunter.

They’ve been at the door for nearly two hours now, drilling holes in the door and dripping acid on the mechanisms within (it appears that at least that much of the kit has survived.)

We’ve seen no sign of McKay and his other men as of yet, and I have no idea what will happen should they appear. They have all the weapons.

28th

Everything has gone to hell. Not much time to write, and writing is difficult in the damp and the cold. Already wrote this once, but papers got wet. Still trying to sort everything out in my mind.

We are scattered and on the run. I’m with Meriam and Rothery…don’t know where the others are, though I know that Nico and Gustavo are dead, possibly Ruvio as well. Veronica and McKay escaped, but I don’t know their ultimate fate.

It happened after Veronica and Babin managed to open the vault. I’d wondered how they’d lift it once they were done with the locks, but the door opened on its own, letting out a rush of pressurized air that I felt on my back, even sitting by the fire as I was.

Babin went in, and Veronica was about to follow. A gunshot stopped her. I looked up from my notes and saw McKay and his men running into the campsite, firing into the darkness behind them. From out of that darkness came a mechanical scream that chilled the blood.

They rallied around the fire, scanning the trees. I could hear the thumping of massive footsteps beyond, accompanied by the screeching of metal on metal. Mist rolled from the underbrush. I peered into the trees against my better judgment. The moon was full, and the sky clear. In the tiny pools of moonlight that made it through the overhead canopy of the swamp’s trees I made out the movement of some massive thing. I couldn’t see it in detail, just shadows. A slumping thing, not unlike and ape. A hint of a horned head, like antlers.

McKay ordered us to run into the vault, but the door was closed. Babin had likely seen what was going on and in his fear shut the door. Veronica was beating against it, screaming to be let in.

In front of us, the trees parted, cracking and splintering. The roots sucked in the mud, holding on dearly before being ripped up, and the hulking frame of the beast that had been dogging us for what I feel must have been days, looking back, stepped into the light of the fire.

The Mistwalker was vaguely as Rothery had described, a hulking, skeletal thing with the skull of a deer. But the skull was the only thing made of bone. The rest of it was mechanical, a metal skeleton grown over by moss and rusted by time. The mist that cloaked it was steam pumping through a thumping boiler that served as its heart. The water at its feet churned, sucked up through metal tubes that ran up its legs and into the boiler.

What sort of people had the means and knowledge to produce such a machine, I do not know. That it was so old and still operated was a wonder unto itself, but the most nightmarish thing is the thought that it appeared to work autonomously. I had seen it stalking us in the swamps days before. It had not attacked; it had been hiding, watching. Planning.

In the end we ran. I heard cries amongst the trees, the crack of bone. On occasion I think I hear it screaming in the swamp. Is it still following us? I don’t know.

Rothery believes we are headed in the direction of the town but we’ve been walking for days. Rothery is an academic, not the best guide to have in this wilderness. I fear we may be lost. I don’t know the fates of the others. I only know that I am still alive. Should I ever escape, I will tell people not to come to Lelina.

I…hear voices in the woods. Should we approach? I’m not sure anymore. I’m too tired to be afraid.

The Lelina Horror, Part 12

The Lelina Horror, Part 11

ADELLA (VII)

16th of Tenth Month, 280th Year of the Triumvirate

Sleep has been difficult the last couple of days. In addition to the heavy blanket of humidity that hangs over this place, the state of Lelina and its denizens unnerve me. Two years ago this place was considered a boom town. Now, half of the town itself is gone, swallowed by a sinkhole six months back I am told. I can’t help but lay awake at night wondering when the ground beneath us will open up and swallow us whole.

Other things have gone wrong. We were supposed to leave two days ago, but procuring the supplies we need, as well as a guide to take us out to Professor Croshaw, has proven difficult. Mister Mackay’s ability to scrounge up resources has supplied us with what we need, but in at least two cases we ended up supplying the funds needed for people to quit themselves of this place.

We are still without a guide, however. None here are willing to take us. When asked face to face, they express a fear of more sink holes, venomous snakes, and other mundane horrors. But when I turn around I hear whispers of something else stalking the swamps, something elemental and very, very old.

It seems we will have to make due without a guide, as Doctor Trenum has begun to grow anxious and wants to get to the site. We’ve talked to the man who discovered the ruins, Daniel Tomlinson. He pointed us in the right direction. He seemed very distraught, and disconnected.

“It’s like this place just saps the life out of you, yes it does,” he said when I asked if he was okay. I then asked if he had plans to leave. “No. No, I can’t leave. It’s my son, Jack, you see. He’s here, and he don’t have a mom. Just me. I have to wait for him. I have to stay with him, yes I do.”

I hadn’t seen or heard any sign of children around the house, but I didn’t say anything. The man was obviously grieving.

Mister Mackay corroborated Tomlinson’s account of where the ruins were with several other townsfolk who had seen the site. We will set off on our own in the morning.

18th of Tenth Month, 280th Year of the Triumvirate

We arrived at the site early this afternoon, only to discover that it has been abandoned. We’ve found no sign that Croshaw and his team was ever here, except for a single scrap of torn canvas, likely from one of their tents.

Doctor Trenum is livid at this development. She’s been cursing under her breath all day, decrying Croshaw’s short comings as an archaeologist. Underneath her frustration, however, is a hint of concern for the well-being of her colleagues. I’ve seen her glancing toward Meriam and Nico, who have taken up a spot on the root of a nearby tree while Mackay and his men work to set up our own campsite; not the easiest process, considering that we’re in a swamp.

Rothery and Babin have taken to examining the five stones, which they say aren’t stones at all, but some sort of metal alloy. They also say that the pillars appear to be just the upper most part of a much larger structure, underground.

With the camp finally set up, Mackay began handing out rations. Gator jerky, he told us. He promised to take his men out on a hunt in the morning. I’ve asked to go with them, and though Mackay seemed hesitant, he agreed.

21st of Tenth Month

It’s been an arduous few days, but we are mostly in good spirits. Meriam has come out of whatever fright she’d succumbed to upon our discovery that Croshaw was missing and begun assisting Doctors Rothery and Babin. She tried assisting Doctor Trenum, but Doctor Trenum would have none of it.

Her mood has grown extremely dark the past few days, and she hasn’t been sleeping. None of us have. On the odd occasion when she isn’t studying the heavy door and whispering under her breath about what may be contained within, she and Mister Mackay wander off and don’t come back for several hours. They don’t come back smiling, however, as they did in the ports and aboard the steam boat over the course of our journey here. They come back looking more exhausted than before. At least their moods are better, for the most part.

The hunt I accompanied mister Mackay on the day after our arrival turned up naught but a single rabbit, which we gave to Nico and Meriam. I was offered a portion as well, but turned it down so that it could be given to one of the younger men on Mackay’s team. He’s a nice fellow, named Gustavo. He tells me this is his first expedition with Mackay.

“An opportunity, I thought,” Gustavo told me over that portion of rabbit. “I’ll get to work with one of the greatest hunters west of the Miskaton River, learn some of the greatest secrets of the colonial frontier. And it has been, and I have. But Brick isn’t entirely what I expected.”

He didn’t elaborate, and when I pushed he withdrew, thanking me for giving him the rabbit. I’ve tried speaking with him since, not for information or interview, but for companionship. I suppose he just sees me as a reporter, though, and is guarded.

Enough on that, though. Something else occurred during the hunt, something I haven’t discussed with anyone else. I’m not even sure I saw it myself, and I fear what the others might think should I tell them.

We were on our way back, with that single rabbit dangling from a stick, when I once again heard that same rhythmic sound of machinery in the distance. It had the same cadence as before, that of footsteps. When I stopped to listen, it ceased. Almost as though it were the audio equivalent of a shadow that appears in your peripheral vision only to vanish when you look straight at it.

It began again as I started to walk, and to my unease it sounded much louder. One of the others even expressed that they heard something odd. Mackay ceased our procession and we listened.

“I don’t hear anything,” Mackay said, and he was right, but to a much more frightening degree. The swamp around us was dead silent; I could hear no sound of frogs croaking or birds chirping. The waters around us were still. Where before I had seen the constant flickering of schools of tiny fish, I saw nothing but green murk. I scanned the trees around us. The swamp spread out in every direction, a tangle of vines and moss. Nothing seemed overly peculiar, except for one tree, far in the distance.

The branches didn’t seem quite right, their geometry too symmetrical and their surface too smooth. And they were moving slightly, despite a lack of wind. I stared more intently, squinting my eyes, following those strange symmetrical branches down to their source, a small white clump protruding from the backside of the tree. Its shape was lean and narrow and riddled with deep hollows that looked almost like the eyes sockets of a skull…

“Let’s get moving,” Mckay said, calling my attention away. When I looked back, I could not locate those branches again. I searched for a moment longer before following the others. Once again I heard the sound of steady machinery, like footsteps. It was further away now.

Eventually, it just faded away.

The Lelina Horror, Part 11

The Lelina Horror, Part 10

ADELLA (VI)

13th of Tenth Month, 180th Year of the Triumvirate

We’ve finally arrived in Lelina. The final stretch was most arduous, as coach drivers and ferry men have taken to refusing transport to anyone heading into the region. We were forced to travel on foot, through muck and mire. On the second night we were beset upon by hounds. Mister Mackay tells us they weren’t wolves, but neither was he able to recognize the breed. Nevertheless they were putrescent things, covered in sores and hairless, their skin thickened by some strange condition.

They were also cowardly. It only took one shot from Mister Mackay’s long rifle and the death of one of the hounds to send the rest of the pack running. Still, throughout that night I kept one ear open and pointed toward the trees and underbrush. I don’t know what’s worse when you listen to the cacophony of the wilderness at night; the things you hear, or the things you THINK you hear.

At some point, just before dawn, as the morning mist began to rise, I could have sworn I heard the sound of machinery in the distance. I told myself that perhaps the denizens of Lelina had a mill or some such thing out here, but I couldn’t convince myself of this possibility. There was something off about the sound, a certain cadence that didn’t seem entirely natural. Something that reminded me of footsteps.

One should think that finally arriving at our destination would be a moment for respite, and it is, but only just. The town is more part of the swamp than a place within it. The buildings suffer from wood rot, their walls covered in slimy moss and lichen. Many buildings along the outskirts have collapsed, leaving only dead spires of ripe smelling decay. I reached out and touched one on the way in. The wood was moist and soft, like a sponge-cake. Water, green and oily, seeped out at my touch. In the darkest reaches of my imagination I picture something taking root beneath the skin, tiny green tendrils wrapping themselves around the bones of my fingers and squeezing.

Such thoughts are nonsense, of course.

The members of my company are all on edge, as well. Meriam has expressed several times a desire to turn around and leave. However, she tells me that thoughts of what we may find at the ancient site in the swamp helps to keep her mind occupied.

Doctor Trenum has taken to humming under her breath. It is a tune I do not recognize, though it feels familiar. I asked her what it was as we approached the town’s one hotel. She claimed to have no earthly idea what I was on about.

The population of the town is…sparse, to say the least. Many left after the site was discovered. More left after the first people disappeared. The proprietor of the hotel tells us that three families left day before last, heading in the direction from whence we came. We did not encounter them, nor did we see any sign of their passing.

When I asked him what might be causing the disappearances, the proprietor did his best to dodge the subject, providing only vague answers about superstitious nonsense and youths who refuse to settle. Other people I’ve talked to clam up entirely.

The people that remain in town seem friendly enough, so there is that. Small, isolated places such as this have a reputation for being unwelcoming. Perhaps they’re all just happy to see someone coming to Lelina, rather than leaving.

Tomorrow, we are set to head out to the ruins, where we will meet with Professor Croshaw, the leader of a team sent from New Toring University. I look forward to speaking with someone other than those who live here and hopefully gain a truer sense of what has happened.

The Lelina Horror, Part 10

The Lelina Horror, Part 8

PIXIE (III)
24th of Seven Month, 281st Year of the Triumvirate

After leaving the relatively civilized environs of New Crowndon, I traveled south on an errand for the Governor. Normally I wouldn’t associate with such political nonsense, especially for a person and place that I have no allegiance to, but I was paid a lot of money and the details had me curious. Also, a Society operative in the area heard that I had been approached, relayed the information back to my Society handler and orders came down to help out. Orders are orders.

It didn’t take very long to infiltrate the movement planning the governor’s demise and dismantle them from within; these backwoods colonial types were easy to fool, and even worse, desperate. So desperate that they didn’t even blink at the Nor Eastern twinge in my voice when I spoke as long as I maintained enthusiastic support for their bloodlust.

With my job completed, the assassination conspiracy completely dismantled and fresh coin in my pocket, I set off for the southern frontier to pick up the Lelina expedition’s trail.

My hopes were low; it had been nearly a year since Adella and her cohorts had come through, and my destination, Docryville, was a place in a constant state of transience. People never stayed there for long, and memories tended to be short in such a place.

The journey to Docryville was long, humid, and all around miserable. I’ve stayed in my share of mud-holes over the course of my short life: my father never set down roots, and would constantly drag me from place to place, looting ruins. The papers labelled him a grave-robber after he was caught, and while there was certainly a bit of truth to that it stemmed mainly from a need to take care of me, and he wasn’t completely without academic curiosity.

After his arrest I became a ward of the state. That didn’t sit well with me, so I ran. Spent much of my young teens running the streets, sleeping in abandoned buildings or on top of the occasional roof. As soon as I could, I joined the Nor Eastern military. Women in combat roles in Nor Easter are not so unusual, but I was given the role of courier. During a run I proved useful in sabotaging the equipment of a Crowndon war party that was sent to intercept us, and that earned me a new title as an agent provocateur. This meant more mud on my clothes, and more blood on my hands. Some of it– much of it– was innocent blood, I’m sorry to say.

The point is, I’m not entirely unaccustomed to harsh conditions. So believe me when I say the journey through the southern frontier was distinctly unpleasant. They have mosquitoes here that are half the size of my fist when engorged on blood, and about fifty different diseases we have no name for in the Triumvirate. Lucky me, the worst thing I came down with was dysentery (and believe me when I say I’m fully aware of how ridiculous that statement might seem.)

Mostly recovered but still a bit dehydrated, I arrived in Docryville. My first order of business was a hotel, bath, and clean water. Perhaps some whiskey. While I went about my errands I kept an ear open. Most of the colonial citizens were concerned with the recent trouble with the indigenous territories. Most of the indigenous citizens were concerned with keeping their heads down, likely afraid the merest hint of unrest could lead to a mob.

None of this was my concern, however, so I eventually filtered it out, as well as talk of autumn festivals, upcoming marriages, hog breeding and other inanities. Note to self: frontier general stores are not a good source of intelligence, in any sense of the word.
I didn’t want to go poking around the local sheriff’s office. Doing so tends to rile up the locals and make them curious about me, but it was beginning to look like I didn’t have a choice. I decided to bite the bullet and head that way, but not before I got that whiskey. I think I deserved that much.

I headed into one of the port towns many saloons. It was a fairly roaring place, even at three in the afternoon. A man plinked at a piano while a couple danced and a nice crowd had gathered around a dice table. I started to make my way to the bar when I noticed a picture hanging on the wall next to the dice dealer.

“Excuse me, sir?” I said, approaching him. He stopped what he was saying and gave me a perturbed look.

“I’m sorry, Miss. You’ll have to wait your turn.”

“I just have a quick question about that picture.” I pointed to it. It was a hastily taken photograph of what appeared to be Veronica Trenum and Mathias McKay, or so I assumed, seeing as he looked vaguely familiar and just as shady as the man I once met. They each had huge smiles on their faces and two armloads of chips.

“Who, them?”

“Yeah.”

“Troublemakers, the both of them.”

“How so?”

“See all them chips?”

“Yeah.”

“Every single one of them came out of my pay. I’m still paying that shit off.”

“Anything else you can tell me about them?”

“Not really. Heard they were involved in a spot of trouble down the river, after they left here.”

He turned his head and spit. The wad of milky brown spit landed on the shoe of a man standing next to him, but the man didn’t seem to notice.

“What sort of trouble?”

“Don’t you read the papers, lady?”

“Not really. Never have the time.”

The dealer shook his head. The other players were starting to look at me now with the same annoyance.

“It was about a year ago, I reckon,” said the dealer with a less than subtle grumble. “A couple days after Von Grimm came through. They all got back on their boat, headed south. The boat exploded. A problem with the boiler.”

“That weren’t it, Yancy,” said the man with the loogie on his shoe. He looked up at me. “They was attacked, I heard.”

“Attacked? By whom?”

“Don’t know. Just know they were carrying six shooters and wearing Blue uniforms. My cousin’s best friends veterinarian’s dog walker was on the boat, you see. Saw the whole thing.”

Men in blue uniforms with six shooters…just like the couple that attacked Professor Oates.

“These blues, has anyone seen anyone like them around since?”

“Oh, sure,” said Yancy. “Been a lot of them around the last six months or so. Hell, two of them are standing right behind you.”

Well, damn.

I turned around and managed a glimpse of the Monteddorian and Bianca, as well as the glint of a gun butt coming at my face. My vision flashed white, then faded to black.

The Lelina Horror, Part 8

The Lelina Horror, Part 7

ADELLA (V)

I found getting back to the boat a bit slow going. My head was still reeling from the events, mainly from coming face to face with the man behind so much horror here in the colonies, and from finding out I had helped a wanted fugitive.

The fact that Von Grimm had called the Rommsbachian ‘Mister Klaudhopper’ didn’t fully dawn on me until I was half way back to the docks, and it was only after seeing a poster for Klaus Klaudhopper that I fully put the picture together. I told myself that it was better that the only person who may be able to answer questions about what happened on Waystation Bravo should get away from Dr. Argyle Von Grimm, even if it meant he was still at large.

However, I deigned to alert the proper authorities that Klaudhopper was in the area.
Once returning to the docks, I located a Marshall’s office and told them what had happened. Only one man manned the desk, and he informed me that they were well aware of Von Grimm’s presence. They had not heard of Klaudhopper, however, nor did they seem particularly interested. Understandable, I suppose, given the more immediate threat of a bunch of mechanized hoodlums tearing the town apart. Since Von Grimm and Klaudhopper were both involved, I felt it likely that dealing with one may mean dealing with the other, so I did not push the matter.

It was only after returning to the boat that I realized that would not happen, for who did I find, standing on the deck, looking out over the river? Klaus Klaudhopper.

I must have gasped in surprise, or made some sort of noise, because he turned to me. Recognition came over his face and he smiled. He thanked me for helping him escape. It took me off guard.

While he struck me as a dangerous man, I did not think him necessarily an evil one, certainly not someone who would maliciously cause the destruction of a Waystation. I told him I knew who he was, and let him know who I was.

“Ah,” he said. “That’s very good. We can strike deal then, ja? You keep mouth shut, I give you exclusive on what happened at the station, once I feel safe.”

I agreed to his terms. Little did I know that we would not get the opportunity.

I came to find out that it was Meriam who suggested that Mr. Klaudhopper come with us after they escaped the library, and that Mr. Klaudhopper had given them an alias (understandable, given the circumstances). Still, I suggested that he stay away from Mr. Mackay, who no doubt would have recognized him on the spot.

Word around the boat that night was that the Von Grimm gang had left the town around sun down, without causing too much damage. They had apparently shot a man’s horse and burned down a hotel…unsubstantiated claims, but I’m loath to believe it. At any rate, the night passed without incident.

We left port at noon the next day, with Doctor Trenum and Mister Mackay finding their way back just minutes before departure and sporting several bags of winnings from some casino or another, not to mention severe hangovers. Klaudhopper vanished shortly before, probably hiding away in his cabin.

Our troubles did not start until well after dark. Most of us were on the boat’s amusement deck when we received word of a fire below decks. Shortly after that, the boat’s paddle wheel stopped turning, and gun fire from the riverbanks began. The gun fire from the banks was a distraction, as several armed assailants, both men and women, scaled the side of the boat from canoes. My first thought was that Von Grimm had caught on to Klaus’ ruse and pursued the boat, but I could tell immediately upon seeing our attackers that this was not the case.

They were a well-trained offensive force, not interested in wanton destruction. Though they were well armed (most of them sported revolvers, which would indicate that they were also well funded), they mainly used their arms for intimidation and crowd control. It was only until Mister Mackay and his security force broke out their own weapons that things threatened to turn truly violent.

But even then, our mysterious attackers practiced restraint. They had Mackay and his team surrounded on the main deck, locked in a standoff. It was then that they informed us of what exactly they were looking for, and of course, that something was Mister Klaudhopper.

Mackay told them that Klaudhopper was not on board to the best of his knowledge. That was when the boat’s upper most port-side cabin at the aft of the boat erupted into a cloud of flame and splinters. Both sides of the skirmish looked up at the wreckage in disbelief before hurling accusations at one another.

A voice interrupted the proceedings, from the roof of the bridge. It was Klaudhopper. All guns pointed toward him, but he did not duck or scurry away. Instead he issued an ultimatum…everyone drop their weapons, or he would blow the entire ship.

That’s when he held up a stick of dynamite.

That tiny stick of dynamite changed everyone’s mood, real quick. I’ve never seen so many loud, A-Type personalities struck so completely dumb that fast before, and I’d be lying if I said I did not enjoy it just a little bit.

Klaudhopper informed us all that he’d lined the interior of the ship’s cargo hold with dynamite he’d found in a shipment heading out from the port of Docryville. It was a claim we were all willing to believe, since the town and many of its sisters in the area had heavy mining interests.

He warned our attackers, whom he called “Cartographer Scum-suckles” (whatever that means), to vacate the vessel or else be blown to hell and gone. And since he wasn’t too keen on Mister Mackay and his men pointing their rifles at him, Klaudhopper ordered them off as well. Which of course would have been very bad for our expedition.

The saving grace of all of this (partially, in any case), was Doctor Trenum. With everyone preoccupied with Klaudhopper, and Klaudhopper preoccupied with the small army below him, no one noticed her make her way up to the roof of the bridge and behind the mad Rommsbachian.

She bonked him over the head with a coal shovel, knocking him down but not unconscious. The situation would have been ended there, except that something completely out of any of our hands occurred, as the dynamite he’d held rolled off of the roof and lodged itself in a wall sconce holding a gas light.

The last thing I remember before Mister Mackay grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me over board was watching Doctor Trenum pull Klaudhopper up by his left arm and jumping from the boat.

Mister Mackay and I plunged into the water, along with several others. Even beneath the surface I heard the deep THUMP of the explosion as the bridge disintegrated into flaming splinters. I broke the surface, saw Mackay swimming for the shore, and followed him.

Upon making land I saw Doctor Trenum hauling Klaudhopper out of the water, alternately laughing and cursing in Rommsbachian. That laughter ended quickly when Mister Mackay set upon the man, demanding to know who he was and who the attackers were.

Klaudhopper clammed up and has not spoken since. I saw no further sign of our attackers.

And that is where I find myself now, dear readers, sitting on the river bank, soaking wet and writing these events down while they are fresh on a sheaf of paper that somehow survived my fate deep within a sealed trunk. I can hear the rapid clopping of horses’ hooves galloping in the distance. With any hope they can get us squared away and back on the road to Lelina.

The men who found us were a posse of Colonial Marshals who’d been traveling south and heard the explosions. Mister Mackay threw Klaudhopper at their feet and informed them who he was. They arrested him and sent him, along with three of their number, to the nearest outpost ten miles to the west.

The Marshals agreed to escort the rest of us to the next town. The trip was without incident, although in my exhaustion I could have sworn I saw movement in the brush, trailing us. I suppose it may have been our attackers, but surely they would have trailed Mister Klaudhopper. We arrived without incident after noon and were treated to lunch by the Marshals’ Chief after he found out who Doctor Trenum and I were. Apparently he’d been told to expect us.

After eating and getting patched up, the Chief informed us that he would be sending several Marshals with us (a revelation that elicited much grumbling from Mister Mackay). He could not cite a specific reason for this, except that the situation in Lelina had changed. Townsfolk have started going missing.

Just one or two at first, the Chief told us. But this past weekend, ten people vanished in one night. I remembered Doctor Rothery’s tale of the Mist Walker. It is foolish, but it caused me to shiver.

We are set to leave in the morning. I am unsure what resources will be available to me in terms of sending out missives, as the area is said to be remote, so I will be sending copies of most of my gathered notes to my editor at the Blackwood Gazette. I know not what we will find in the swamps surrounding the town of Lelina; only know that the horizon ahead is gray, and the air increasingly muffled and humid.

Wish us luck.

The Lelina Horror, Part 7

The Lelina Horror, Part 6

ADELLA (IV)

Our journey into the southern frontier has been rather eventful this past week (and as a result, unduly stressful.) After a series of unfortunate turns of events, we have found ourselves stranded on the shores of the Miskaton river. As I write this, I sit on the river bank, watching the inferno that was our river boat floating down the river while sitting on a waterlogged trunk (not mine, unfortunately).

Not ten feet away, Mister Mackay and Doctor Trenum are interrogating one of the surviving passengers, one Mister Klaus Klaudhopper; yes, the very same Klaus Klaudhopper being hunted for the Waystation Bravo disaster. There is no sign of the other suspect, one Miss Arufina Villanova, with whom Mister Klaudhopper was believed to be traveling.

Whatever his involvement in that, it appears he has a part to play in our current predicament as well. A predicament that begun thusly:

On Sunday before last, we pulled into port of a small city called Docryville, a township that sprung up around river trade and entertainment. Since this was to be an overnight affair, the members of our expedition quickly scattered to the winds to seek amusements elsewhere, with Meriam asking me to join Professor Babin, Nico and herself on an exploration of the town’s rather misplaced yet well regarded library.

I agreed, and am sorry to say I quickly came to regret it. While Meriam and the Professor took to the shelves with great enthusiasm, I found myself sitting at a table with Nico, bored out of my mind. That Nico isn’t that great of a conversationalist didn’t make matters any easier. I whittled away at the time by perusing a book of maps of the area: dry material, to be sure, but it could prove helpful down the line.

Nico had long begun to nap and my eyes started to feel heavy as well when a loud thump echoed through the library. An injured man stumbled into the main floor, clutching his side and grunting angrily in a heavy Rommsbachian accent. I stood up and began to hesitantly approach him, stopping when he lifted a silver revolver.

I could see in his eyes that he would have no problem using the firearm if he deemed me a proper threat, but since I wasn’t, I knew he wouldn’t use it on me.

“Are you alone?” he asked me. I told him I was not, and gestured to Nico, who still slept on the table. It was then that the Professor and Meriam stumbled out from behind the stacks. The man swung the gun around at them, looked them over, deemed them a non-threat as well, and relaxed a bit.

“All of you need to get out of here,” he said. I asked him why.

“Are you in some trouble, my boy?” Professor Babin said. Klaudhopper sneered at him, I imagine at being called ‘my boy’, but he answered.

“Ja,” said the injured man, nodding, so I took it to be an affirmation. “Big trouble. Very close behind and following quickly. Believe me when I say, you do not want to be here when it arrives.”

I looked to my compatriots. Professor Babin frowned skeptically, while Meriam stood silently behind him, wringing her hands. Nico, who just stirred from his nap, sat up and asked what was going on.

“We’re leaving,” I told them, trying to sound resolute despite the blood pumping through my ears. Seeing no reason for the Rommsbachian to lie to us I’d decided to take him at his word. I approached the front desk and told the librarian that we needed to leave, and asked if there was a back door. She told us that there was, and proceeded to detail the long bureaucratic process we would have to follow in order to get the door open. Halfway through her monologue, a drawling voice interrupted from the halls outside.

“BOOOOY!” said the voice. “Why are you running? We just want to discuss the terms of your contract. You were, after all, the one who suggested we open negotiations. So come on out, boy. Let’s negotiate and try to reconcile your failure with my profit, shall we?”

The Rommsbachian cursed under his breath and hefted the revolver, his hand shaking slightly, and reiterated to us the necessity of vacating the premises five minutes prior. I asked him who was coming.

“Von Grimm,” was all he said. Professor Babin and Meriam both gasped. I felt every muscle in my body tighten. Doctor Argyle Von Grimm? What was he doing so far east?

I turned back to the librarian to insist that she open the back door, but she was gone. A door at the back of her office hung open, letting in the last of the day’s light. I told the others to follow me as I went around the desk. The Professor, Meriam, and Nico followed, but the Rommsbachian planted his feet, squaring for a fight.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” I asked.

“Making a stand,” he said, and drew a second revolver. “Von Grimm will not stop until my debt is paid, or he is dead, or I am dead. Better to end it now. If I run, he will burn town looking for me. Don’t want to think what he might do if he finds me with you.”

“So get out of town, if you’re so worried about it,” I said.

“How? He has men everywhere.”

“You seem resourceful,” I told him. “I feel like you could probably figure that out for yourself.”

“Fair enough. How will Von Grimm know I have left?”

I took a deep breath and made a choice, a choice that was probably incredibly foolish, looking back on it now.

I told him that I would give Von Grimm a witness. The Rommsbachian nodded and turned to leave. Before he did, I asked him to fire two shots at a window at the back of the library. Without hesitation, he lifted the revolver. It coughed thunder through the stacks and the bullets hit the window, cracking it but not breaking it. I told him that would suffice and he ran, leaving me alone in the library with a mad man.

In the hall outside, I heard voices and the sound of rapid footsteps. I had to act fast. I ran to one of the tables, picked up a chair without stopping, and slammed it into the cracked window. The glass shattered and fell, most of it outside. A piece hit my right arm and scratched my wrist. All better to sell the illusion, really.

I fell to the floor and held my wrist, trying to staunch the flow. A couple seconds later, several armed brigands ran into the library, flintlocks drawn and charged. They saw the open window and ran over, cursing. Then they saw me.

One of them picked me up by the arm, shoved his weapon in my face and demanded to know where the Rommsbachian had gone. My eyes cut toward the window. It should have been obvious. I told him the man had smashed the window and escaped into the alley beyond. That was not a satisfactory answer apparently, and the man made to strike me with the grip of his gun. Another stopped him, a tall man with a curling mustache and a monocle, leaning on a cane in the center of the room. I recognized him immediately as Doctor Argyle Von Grimm.

“Now, now, Budd. No need for that, just yet,” Von Grimm said. “I must apologize for my man, ma’am. He takes his moniker a little too seriously at times.”

“And what would that be?” I asked.

“Big Bad Bud. I coined it my self. He took to it like a fish to water. Started writing it in blood on the walls of places we robbed. I personally find it all a bit garish but I can’t argue with results.”

I scanned the faces of the others while Von Grimm spoke. They were stern and scarred men, all of them missing arms and legs and hands, all replaced with mechanical facsimiles.

“Speaking of monikers, ma’am, what should I call you?”

“Adella. Chatelaine.”

A look of recognition came over his face.

“You’re that reporter for the Blackwood Gazette,” he said, and I nodded. “Fine publication, that. That article about my exploits a few months back did wonders for my reputation. I never really had problems fighting with townspeople before, but now they just roll over and let us right in. Haha! As good an advertisement as a man could ask for. I feel I should pay the Gazette for their service.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out three gold coins, which he placed in my hand. He then excused himself and told his men to follow ‘Mister Klaudhopper’. The men climbed through the window. Von Grimm left the way he came.

When they were gone, I let go a deep sigh of relief. It’s not every day you find you have a fan in a complete psychopath. I looked at the gold coins in my hand. I did not keep them, but placed them in the empty donations jar the librarian had set up on the front desk. I waited a moment before heading outside. There was a trough for watering horses by the front door, along with a water pump. I felt the need to wash my hands, and the wound. I did so, and headed toward the water front, back to the steam boat.

I’d had my fill of Docryville.

The Lelina Horror, Part 6

The Lelina Horror, Part 5

ADELLA: PART (III)

First of Nine Month, 280th Year of the Triumvirate

It’s been two days since we left New Crowndon on a riverboat, south on the Miskaton river toward the southern townships. I am told we will be making a couple of stops along the way, to take on supply and drop off and pick up new passengers. We will be disembarking in New Dennan, a port town about a day’s north from Lelina. We should be arriving on site on the 13th of Ten Month, if all goes well. From what I’ve heard, ‘all goes well’ is a tall order.

Passengers on the boat at present are rather scant…not many people are leaving New Crowndon for the southern frontier. A couple of years ago, this boat would have been full of prospectors, sales men, bar men, trappers, and purveyors of various amusements.

However, word has gotten out that the gold pickings are slim. What gold was found had washed down from the mountains to the south, in a region colloquially known as the Deadlands. Supposedly, everyone who has gone into the mountains to search for the mother lode are never to be seen again. The region maintains interest with trappers and lumber men, however the gold seekers and those who follow have all but stopped, choosing to head northwest.

Despite a sparsity of passengers, the boat does have its amusements. It is well stocked with cheap booze, a fact that Mister Mackay and Doctor Trenum are both exceedingly happy about. It is the only interest they seem to share, but it is more than enough. According to Doctor Trenum, she’d only corresponded with Mister Mackay once before, through a proxy. Watching them now, that one correspondence appears to have been enough for them to know they’d get along swimmingly. They sit at a roulette table, sharing a drink, either congratulating or ribbing each other over victories and losses, in equal amounts.

I spend the first evening of our journey in the presence of Doctor Rothery. He is pleasant enough since clearly expressing my intention to have nothing more than a professional relationship with him. Well, at least to me. He often burbles things about Doctor Trenum into his cups at the end of the night. I get the feeling he is mostly harmless. Should he prove otherwise, I am sure Doctor Trenum is more than capable of dealing with him herself.

When he is not burbling, he is actually a rather rich source of information about the indigenous cultures. He is well regarded in his field for the time he spent with several southern tribes years before. An honor, he claims, that has never been granted to an outsider before or since.

He regales me with tales of his time living amongst them and participating in their traditions of oral storytelling. He tells me several. They are harmless amusements for the most part, until the sun goes down and he has a drink or two in him. Then he leans forward and tells me that there was one tale, from the very region into which we are heading, that made his blood run cold.

And what tale was that? I ask. Why, Miss Chatelaine, he says, that would be the tale of the Mist Walker.

Doctor Rothery pauses, offering no further insight into the tale. I can tell he’s waiting for some prodding from me, so I indulge him. He goes into the typical hemming and hawing until finally deciding to spill the proverbial beans.

The story goes that in the mist choked swamps around Lelina, there lives a powerful elemental force the indigenous peoples know as the Mist Walker. It patrols the swamps on nights when the moon is full, a hulking figure with the head of a deer concealed by a rolling cloak of mist. Some people who have seen it claim it walks on two legs, though others claim otherwise (typical for this sort of regional legend). Some say that, in the rare moments when the mist rolls away, you can see the glint of moonlight off of silver armor.

Many of the tribes of the Southern Nation revere it in equal parts as both god and devil, a being that both protects and destroys. It cannot be appeased: to wander into its territory is to be considered, without question, a threat.

One tribe, however, far to the east and along the shore, paints the creature in an entirely malevolent light. They say that in times long forgotten, on a night when the fog from the ocean mingled with the mists from the swamps, and a mighty storm came over the land, the Deer-Men (as it is called in this regional variant, and note the plurality, also a fact exclusive to this version of the tale) came from far inland, killed all of the men in the village, and all but one of the women. The children were left unharmed, according to the tale, which plays a large role in that particular tribe’s matriarchal culture.

I ask Doctor Rothery why the Mist Walker would nearly wipe out an entire village. He waggles his fingers, leans over the table candle to under-light his face and says, “Nooobody knoooows. Woooooh…”

Does Doctor Rothery have any theories on the origin of the tale?

“Several. One is that there is actually something out there, some species we haven’t observed yet, or at the very least there was, at one time, and it is now extinct. Another possibility is that long ago someone got drunk, saw a deer on a misty morning, freaked out, and started telling tales that became more exaggerated over the centuries. Speaking of drunk, I’m just a little over that line myself. Excuse me.”

I stop him as he starts to stand and ask him if any of the settlers in the region have stories to tell about the Mist Walker. His eyes darken, but he says, “Nothing that can be substantiated with any observable proof. Good night.”

The Lelina Horror, Part 5

The Lelina Horror, Part 4

PIXIE (II)
24th of 5th Month, 281st Year of the Triumvirate

“Sorry about the headache,” I said, when Professor Oates started to come to. “I had to act fast, and my little sleeping pills don’t differentiate between friend and foe.”

“W-who are you?” He looked around, and tried to move. “And why am I tied up?”

“Oh, yes. I feel I must apologize for that as well. I wasn’t sure how you’d react, seeing as how I just gassed you, so to keep you from running I restrained you.”

Listening to myself speak just then I realized how wrongheaded that was.

“What do you want?”

“Well, to be honest it isn’t very different from what these two wanted.” I opened the door on a nearby broom closet to reveal Bianca and the Monteddorian stashed inside, all trussed up and still sleeping. “Information on Lelina, to be precise. Information on Adella Chatelaine and Veronica Trenum’s whereabouts, to be even more precise.”

The professor squinted at me, and recognition sparked in his eyes.

“You’re that Nor Eastern agent. Pixie Sinclaire.”

“That is I. How did you know that?”

“I saw you in the paper. You caused quite a ruckus at Miss Chatelaine’s memorial.”

“That made the papers, huh?”

“Don’t be coy, Miss Sinclaire. Everything you do makes the papers. Seems rather unbecoming, for a spy to be as high profile as you are.”

“Former spy,” I corrected, somewhat incorrectly. Truth of the matter was my status as an agent for the Nor Eastern Subterfuge Society was on-again, off-again, not unlike an unhealthy relationship. An area I had much experience in those days.

“You seemed to be adamant that Miss Chatelaine was alive,” the professor said. “Do you really think that?”

“I hope so. Especially if Veronica is with her. I figure you can attest to that, yourself.”

The Professor smiled. It was a sad smile, nostalgic. He wanted to believe it. I’m just not sure he did, and that worried me.

“What is your stake in all of this?” he asked.

“Adella is a dear friend, and Veronica a dear rival. Both are important, I feel. And, if I’m being completely honest, the tug of mystery and promise of renown should I find them appeals to me as well. Those are a distant third and far more distant fourth, I assure you. It isn’t lost on me that lives are at stake.”

“Alright, then. I’ll tell you what I know. Untie me.”

I pulled the dagger I keep in a sheath at my back and stepped forward to cut his ropes. I made it through the first one when I heard a thump from within the closet.

“Do you think you can untie your other hand?” I asked. The professor said that he could, and I excused myself.

I walked over to the closet, priming another of my sleeping bombs as I went. I stepped up to the closet door, and cracked it open. Bianca’s wild eyes peered at me from within. Even half lidded from the sleeping compound, those eyes made me feel like mouse that’s just realized it’s looking at a snake.

“Yyyooouu bi—“ I didn’t let her finish as I chucked the bomb inside and shut the door. I heard coughing and then silence. I turned back to the doctor. His mouth was agape.

“Those aren’t dangerous, are they?”

“I’d imagine they could be. Haven’t had the opportunity to test long term effects, nor do I really want to. Now, professor, let us start.”

He told me about the expedition, and who went with them. I was familiar with Mister Mackay, and his presence was a cause for concern. The Professor also told me where Adella and Veronica had gone next: a southern river port called Docryville, where they are said to have caused a bit of a scene.

“Thank you, Professor.” I turned to leave, then remembered the two hooligans stashed in the closet. They’d been interested in Lelina, as well. I figured it might be important to ask about. “One other thing…who were those two?”

“Them? They’re no one. Just a couple of leg breakers sent to collect a debt.”

“Leg breakers, you say? Dressed in matching uniforms and bearing six-shooters? My Man, you must have pissed off someone very wealthy indeed.”

“You might say that.”

“Come now, professor. I thought we were in agreement? I heard your conversation with them while I was creeping around in the hall. Who are they, really?”

The Professor, if he wasn’t frightened before, seemed to be so now. His eyes darted around the room, and his mouth worked silently, as though unable to find words.

“They…they’re Cartrographers. I think.”

“Cartographers? Map makers?”

“Not really. Ephemeral Cartographers, they’re called.”

I drew back, unsure whether to laugh or be irritated.

“The Ephemeral Cartographers? The super-secret society that supposedly pulls the strings of world events from the shadows, charting and controlling the flow of resources and guiding the development of civilization? They’re a myth.”

“If only that were so. In case you hadn’t noticed, you just gassed two of them and stuck them in a closet—“

“Where, if they’re as secretive as you say, they should be quite comfortable.”

“Except they’re working out in the open, now. This isn’t the first time I’ve had a run in with them, nor am I the only one. They’re not hiding, anymore. Something has chased them from the shadows. And that frightens me beyond belief.”

The Lelina Horror, Part 4

The Lelina Horror, Part 3

PIXIE (I)

24th of 5th Month, 281st Year of the Triumvirate

My search for the missing reporter Adella Chatelaine has thus far proven to be…less than smooth.

I won’t go into detail about having to make my way through Crowndon. They view me as some sort of bogeyman there, so it goes without saying that most of that particular leg of this journey was spent sleeping in out of the way flea-bag hotels and ducking into alleys at the first sign of, well, anyone.

However, by the time I arrived on Waystation Echo I thought I might be in the clear. A large oversight on my part, I must admit, given the majority of people on Echo hail from and are loyal to Crowndon. Within half an hour I was set upon not only by Crowndon soldiers, but bounty hunters looking for a quick pay day. I’d hoped to get passage on a nice passenger ship, spend the week long journey to New Crowndon sleeping on a velvet pillow and stuffing my face with strawberries for a long overdue change of pace. Instead I found myself stowed away in the hold of a cattle barge, stuffed into a tiny nook to avoid the hooves of my new bovine companions.

So it was that I arrived in the colonies smelling like hay and manure, with a crick in my neck that felt as though someone had stuffed a metal rod down along my spine. It all led to me having a nasty disposition, a disposition exacerbated by the fact that I’d now arrived in yet another territory controlled by Crowndon. Luckily for me, the people of the colonies think of themselves as something unique, if not entirely separate, from their Empire of origin.

Still, I didn’t know that when I stepped off the ship to find a group of New Crowndon officials waiting for me. They offered me a job of utmost importance. I’ve taken it, seeing as how I need the money after leaving most of my things on Waystation Echo…but that is an entirely different story.

This story is about finding Adella.

Once I’d taken on his job offer, Governor Ancroft was most amenable to help me with my task, pointing me in the direction of certain inns and other places where Adella and her expedition had been spotted. The first place I went to? New Crowndon University, to speak with the imminent Professor Barnaby Joplin Oates.

The University was rather sparsely populated when I arrived, with most of its students enjoying a week off for a local holiday celebrating the anniversary of some founding of a thing or some battle or other. These colonials are always finding ways to shirk work.

Understandable I suppose, since they never seem to stop working otherwise.

Thus it was that I had some difficulty locating the University’s Archaeological Department, having no one to guide me. And with no one to guide me, I had no one to announce me. Which probably played a large role in how I came to stumble into my next precarious position.

It started, as always, with the echoes of voices made murky and looming by distance and the marble floors of a long corridor. I followed the sound, thinking I might ask for direction.

However, as always, proximity offered clarity, and I came to realize that the voices were rather threatening.

It’s never easy, is it?

I softened my steps and approached the only door in the corridor with a lamp on. The door had a name stenciled on it: Professor Oates. It seemed I had found my man, and my man was currently engaged with some rather unsavory sounding callers.

“Look, old man,” a gruff voice said. His accent betrayed him as hailing from Salasan, in Monteddor. “This is what we want, in plain and simple terms: testimony saying that the site in Lelina is of no great importance, at least in comparison to the dangers of the region.”

“B-but, that just isn’t true!” Another voice said, I’m assuming the professor. “My academic integrity denies…”

“Your ‘academic integrity’?” A third voice, female, with hints of Nor Easter weaved with the local accent. A traveler, then. “Your ‘academic integrity’ has already led two teams to their deaths, professor, and I’m sure more than a few members of those teams were people you claimed to care about. Do you really want to send more people, more of your students, to die?”

“You seem awfully sure of their fate,” the Professor said. “I’m thinking these dangers you people speak of are yourselves.”

“That’s partially true,” said the Monteddorian. “We are a danger. But hardly the worst thing in that swamp. Look, old man, we’re trying to help you, whether you believe it or not. But we can’t do that with a bunch of eggheads running around the swamps getting snatched. So, call off your expedition, release a statement saying that the University of New Crowndon has discovered insufficient evidence to warrant continued interest in light of the danger. Simple.”

“If only that were so,” the Professor said. “The expedition has already left. They have a week’s head start.”

This was followed by a pause, and then things started to get ugly.

“You decrepit old FOOL!” the Nor Easterner shouted, and I heard something that sounded an awful lot like a fist hitting someone in the face, followed by pained moaning.

“Bianca, stand down,” said the Monteddorian.

“I will not! Don’t you get it? Every person this idiot sends is more blood on our hands. It makes our mission harder, and it increases the threat of exposure. We’re already going to have to kill the old codger. Why don’t you let me get a few good whacks in first, to work out my frustration?”

Well, I’d heard enough of that. It was high time to make my grand entrance. I reached into a pouch on my belt and pulled out a small device of my own making (though, I must admit that I had some help with the timing mechanism from a certain somebody whose name rhymes with Rigel Rinkenbach, as much as it pains me to say it) and opened the door.

“Professor Oates?” I said in my best naïve student voice and peeked my head in the door. All three of them craned their heads to look at me. I took in the scene as quickly as I could. The professor, sitting behind a desk with a ribbon of crimson red running down the side of his face; the Nor Eastern woman, ‘Bianca’, standing beside him; and the Monteddorian sitting on the front of the professor’s desk. Both of the Professor’s guests wore dark blue, high necked uniforms and gun belts.

“Oh! Excuse me,” I said. “I didn’t know you had guests.”

The guests looked at each other. I used the split second of confusion to trigger the device and rolled it along the floor toward the desk. This curious action bought me another second of confusion.

“What hell…?” Bianca said, and the device opened and released a compound of Tinnigan’s Weave and Fiorgorite…guaranteed to cure insomnia in an elephant. I pulled back out of the door and held it closed. Fits of coughing came from inside, then panicked gunshots. Two bullets ripped through the wall to my left.

One of them made it to the door and started trying to pull it open. I braced against the threshold, holding it shut with my weight. Judging from the cursing coming from the other side of the door, it was Bianca. Lucky for me, because the Monteddorian had been twice my size. Still, she put up quite the fight. It surprised me a bit that she was even still awake.

She got smart in the end and shot through the door’s window. Luckily, I had already lowered my center of gravity to keep the door shut and the bullets went over my head. With the window broken, I no longer had need to hold the door closed, so I let go and rolled away.

Bianca lunged out through the broken window, coughing. She hit the floor, looked at me, and raised her weapon, a silver revolver. She fixed me with eyes like a mad dog’s. I thought I was done for.

Finally, she passed out. I crept forward slowly, anticipating a trap. She was out cold. I kicked the revolver away and turned her over on her back. How had she been able to withstand the sleeping formula?

Her eyes were sunken and purple. I examined them closely and found evidence of injection. An addict, then. Probably hopped up on some sort of stimulant. I tied her up first, as securely as I could, with double knots.

I moved into the office, holding my breath, and retrieved the Professor. He’d have a headache when he woke up but he’d live, assuming I got him somewhere safe and we didn’t run into anymore of his friends. I set him down outside in the hall and then took care of the Monteddorian. Once that was taken care of I took a moment to catch my breath, looking at the three unconscious bodies at my feet.

I couldn’t help but laugh.

Well, Pixie, you really are off to a good start this time, aren’t you?

The Lelina Horror, Part 3