The Lelina Horror, Part 18

ADELLA (X)

She asked me if I remembered her, and despite the trauma of my captivity and the long years since I’d last seen her, I did.

Pixie Sinclaire. Spy. Saboteur. A decorated hero of the Nor Easter-Crowndon war. And, once upon a time, a fellow student and friend.

We’d studied together at the University of Oeil de Fleur. She only spent a semester there before joining the military and going on to a career of death-defying derring-do. Even in that short time, however, I knew that Pixie Sinclaire was someone I wanted to be.

She was the one who pushed me towards investigative journalism when everyone, from my parents to my professors, pushed me towards straight on reporting. Where they told me to find a nice paper to work for in a nice, comfortable city, Pixie was the one who told me that finding the truth of a story was nearly more important than merely stating the facts.

After she left, I hadn’t seen or spoken to her for years. And yet here she was, in this hellish place, trying to save me. To save us, even though I doubt we deserved it. Not only that, but she had refused to turn over a person who wanted her dead for a quick and easy out. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at that.

I told her that I did, indeed, remember her, and she asked me if I was ready to leave. When she asked me that I felt like myself for the first time in a long time. She smiled and said,

“Let’s go, then.”

A few moments later, the people who’d brought us to this place and put us through hell came through the only door in the room, and the guns that Doctor Trenum, Pixie, and the assassin Arufina Villanova thundered in the small space. The bodies fell and tumbled down the stairs. I didn’t feel anything as I watched it happen. Not horror, nor relief as Pixie led us up the stairwell and into the decrepit hospital.

More people, all wearing blue, like the others, waited for us in the corridors above. I think I recognized one of them as Shelby as I passed his body. It was kind of hard to tell, with half his face off.

Pixie led us first into a dark room off of one of the corridors, a room filled with broken beds and horrific machines. She said that they had entered through there, but the window had been boarded up. Metal bars covered the others. With their original point of ingress now closed, we had no choice but to storm the front.

A small group of men waited for us there. Not very many, eight, but just enough to stop us. Pixie was out of bullets, and Veronica had taken a hit. Arufina had four shots left. Even if she managed one bullet per man, that left four with six shots a piece. Going back to scrounge for more from one of the bodies was an option, but Pixie offered another solution.

“I still have one of my little pills left,” she said. “I can take out that cluster of five or so by the door. The others will be your problem.”

Arufina nodded. Pixie tossed her bomb, and the assassin swept the room, fanning the hammer on her revolver and taking out the other three with one bullet to spare. It was easy. Looking back, it was sort of scary just how easy it was.

We walked out of the hospital. I half expected more of the men in blue uniforms to be outside, waiting for us, but there weren’t any. Just a cool, clear autumn night. We were safe. We’d made it out.

And then Arufina raised her gun, put it against the back of Pixie’s head, and pulled the trigger.

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The Lelina Horror, Part 18

The Lelina Horror, Part 17

PIXIE (VIII)

I’m not even sure how to begin describing the scene that lay before us as the Cartographer opened the door to the room where Adella, Rothery, and several others were being kept. I can say that the smell is what hit me first. The worst thing I’d ever smelled up to that point had been bodies burning in a derailed train car during the war. This was far worse, a lingering smell of decay and filth.

I spotted Adella sitting on the far wall. While she was obviously malnourished, she wasn’t horrifically so. It was more the look in her eyes that frightened me. Gone was the enlightened, inquisitive spark I’d seen in the young journalism student I’d traveled with all those years ago. In its place was a vacant stare, bordering on feral. I scanned the room and saw the same look in the eyes of the others. And judging from the fact that several bodies lay on the floor, I’d say that they were one provocation away from ripping each other apart.

“There she is, Miss Sinclaire,” the Cartrographer said, pointing to Adella. “The woman you came looking for. Or is it? Take a look around. See those bodies laying on the ground? That one there, he was a captive, just like them. And he was killed by them, based on the suspicion that he’d taken a single bite out of someone else’s food ration. This is what happens when people are pushed enough. In the end, we are just base animals.

“Well, almost. Your friend Adella…she never broke. Never lifted a finger. I know because I watched. She won’t admit that, though. She’s taken on the responsibility along with the others, but her hands are rather clean. Metaphorically speaking. Physically, they’re quite filthy.”

I whirled around on him and grabbed him by the neck, forcing him back against the wall. His men hefted their weapons but he stopped them.

“Now, Miss Sinclaire, let us try to remain civil. I’ve brought you here for a reason. I’m planning to let you, and Doctor Trenum, leave along with your companion.”

“And what’s the catch?”

“A choice. You can take a look around, take in what you see, and decide whether anyone in this room is worth saving. If not, just walk away, along with Miss Villanova here. Or, you can let us have Miss Villanova, and take Miss Chatelaine.”

I looked over at Villanova. She was staring at me fit to kill. It was any easy choice. This woman had been dogging me since Docryville, trying to put a bullet through my skull. It was an opportunity to both get rid of her, and save Adella.

“No,” I said.

“No? No what?”

“I don’t accept either set of terms. They’re stacked, you see. Meant to re-enforce whatever twisted world view you’re trying to illustrate here. You don’t think I know what you’re doing, with this little experiment? It’s all very misanthropic, but I’m not biting. I leave them to rot, it shows how quickly our faith in people can crumble. If I trade one person who’s a problem for me for another I’m trying to save, then I’m just an opportunist.”

“And if you resist, then you’re a fool. What will it be?”

I looked at Veronica, then at Arufina. Anything I chose, I was choosing for everyone. There was no debate about that. But then, the three of us had chosen to come here on our own.

Time to face the consequences.

“Foolishness suits me just fine.”

I brought my knee up, driving it into his stomach and knocking the breath out of him. He folded over and I threw his limp body toward his men, who had all idiotically bunched together in the entry way. They fell back, giving me enough time to pop one of the sleeping pills and toss it into the entryway.

“Veronica, back up from there,” I said as the smoke filled the entryway. I pulled my dagger and turned to Arufina. “Easy big girl. I’m just going to cut you free.”

“You are a fool, if you think this changes anything. I still plan to kill you.”

“Then do it after we get out of here. For now, grab a couple of those guns and get ready to fight. Or are you willing to just leave these people behind?”

She looked at the room. “Poor wretches. Why should I give a damn what happens to them?”

“Because you’re the kind of person who would track a world famous spy half way across the world to make her answer for the death of your friend. You want justice for Osyn? Help me get these people out of here.”

My saying the name of the girl I killed struck a chord with her. I could see it in her face, a temporary moment of surprise. I think that letting her know that I hadn’t forgotten Osyn’s name helped temper whatever rage was inside of her.

“Alright then. I’ll help.”

“Pixie, are you sure about this?” Veronica asked. She’d picked up a gun and was holding it on the entrance. From up the stairs I could hear voices.

“I’m trained for subterfuge, and no offense, Ronnie, but I’ve seen you shoot. Arufina is a trained gun-fighter, and we’re about to fight an army of the same. Yeah. We need her.”

“Do you have any more of those annoying things?” Arufina asked as she found the keys to her shackles and unlocked herself. I supposed she meant my sleep bombs.

“Just one.”

“Use it wisely, then,” she said, then proceeded to undo the gun belts of the five unconscious Cartographers. She handed one to Veronica and another to me, then slid the others over her shoulders like bandoliers, and checked each of the four guns. I reloaded my gun, holstered it, and turned to the captives.

They had long since stood up and gathered in the center of the room. In front of them stood Adella.

“Alright, people, listen up,” I said. “We’re going to get you all out of here…”

“But where are we going to go?” one of them asked.

“I don’t know. Back to your homes.”

The man who asked the question started sobbing. I thought about going on with trying to rally them, took one look at the others, and knew it wouldn’t do any good. The only thing to do know was to focus on fighting our way out of there and worry about these people then. I turned my attention to Adella.

“Adella,” I said, and she flinched at the name, then looked up at me. “Adella, do you remember me?”

The Lelina Horror, Part 17

The Lelina Horror, Part 16

ADELLA (IX)
6th of 11 Month, 281st Year of the Triumvirate

In recent days, I have found myself going around in circles about where to begin in recalling the events surrounding my capture in the swamps around Lelina. My memory is all too muddled by the stress of our situation and the horrors my compatriots and I were forced to endure. They tell me I was gone only for one year, but that one year seemed like an eternity.

Time is hard to measure when you’re in captivity. When every moment could potentially be your last, time becomes simultaneously priceless and worthless. I’m not sure how to describe it, exactly. Your mind fades between hopefulness and despair. Your worst enemy is your own mind. Eventually you learn to shut it down, and everything becomes a blur.

I had no idea where I was when I came to in what, I’ve been told, was an abandoned hospital in the wilds outside of Point Hammond. All I remember is that Rothery and Meriam were there. In the beginning, that was some sort of, I suppose selfish, comfort. There were others as well, in the beginning. About twenty five or thirty. They’d all been there longer than us, and the realities of their situation had long since set in. From time to time one would be taken away, seemingly at random. Others would be brought. From the whispers of our fellow captives, no one was ever brought back after they’d left. Everyone who entered the room did so for the first time. Everyone who left did so for the last.

For the longest time we were left alone together. Our captors, whoever they were, bothered us not. They did not taunt nor torture us, nor did they provide anything other than food or water. We were kept alive, but in squalor. The stench was unbearable. I never got used to it and even now I can taste the air of that place in the back of my throat.

From time to time I could see shadows behind the frosted glass panes overlooking the room. The shadows would stand there, still as statues until turning away and disappearing. It was almost always just an individual. Every now and again it would be a group. At first I thought I might discern a pattern, and be able to count the passage of time based on when it was a single shadow, or multiple. I soon learned that it was completely random.

I slept 40 times before the ‘scenarios’ began. The ‘scenarios’ were what turned our imprisonment from an atrocious situation to a living hell.

They began secretly giving messages to us. At first the messages would be some innocuous thing, like what day of the week it was. These we shared when they started coming. And it was through this sharing that the various groups within the room started to finally intermingle. I suppose that was the point.

I slept fifteen more times when I began to notice a change, however. People seemed to be keeping secrets, and the number of messages we shared began to dwindle. The messages had changed, but to what, I wondered?

One day I bit into a piece of bread to find a piece of paper stashed inside, along with a nail file.

It read: ‘Someone plans to kill you. They believe you plan to kill someone close to them.’
I stood up and went to the center of the room and I told everyone what I found, placing the nail file on the floor. I said that I had no intentions of hurting anyone, and if anyone had received a similar message, it was likely a manipulation.

I left the file and turned to head back to Rothery and Meriam. I only made it a few steps when I heard rushed footsteps behind me. I turned to see one of the other captives, a woman whose name I cannot remember, rushing toward the file. She picked it up and dashed to the other side of the room, straight toward a man standing against the wall.

There was no hesitation, no warning. She just drove the nail file into the man’s neck and killed him. When the others stood up in outrage, she tried to explain.

‘I have a sick son!’ she said. ‘They said they’d get him medicine if I did it! I’m sorry!’

No one listened. They all turned their back on her. I turned my back on her.

A few sleeps later and one of the men, whose name I do remember, Shelby, began to suggest we organize. If we were going to keep our sanity, he said, we should instill order. Our own order. None of us were a threat to each other, he said. It was us versus the bastards who put us in here.

We listened to him. That was a mistake.

Shelby did instill order, but it was an unfair one. He elected himself as the leader. No, that’s a lie. We all looked to him. He seemed the most capable. But he wasn’t what he seemed.

As we eventually learned, he was one of Them. And two of the four others he appointed as his lieutenants were Them, as well. Eventually they just became a new form of messengers. Only now the messages were coming from people we thought were trustworthy.

It didn’t take long before we were at each others throats, accusing each other of stealing food or plotting against each other. We all began to fight. Shelby would swoop in and break it up sometimes. Other times he seemed resigned to watch. To observe. That was my first clue.

Then they started offering people respite. For those who did what They wanted, they were promised extra meals, or a bath. They promised tiny things, things most of us would take for granted. But they seemed like such huge prizes in the dark.

Then, the Worst Day happened. I’m not sure on the details. It started with an errant accusation, or an insult. It doesn’t matter. Five of us died that day. Meriam was one of them. She’d just gotten caught in the middle.

New people were brought in. This was after Shelby and his two cohorts were revealed to be Them. So these new people, they never stood a chance. Their every move was watched. The slightest misstep either got them beaten or killed. Not by Them. But by Us. They weren’t even sending us messages any more at that point. They didn’t need to. When we started treating the new captives as our own captives, I realized, there was no Them anymore.

I started to think none of this would end. But then it did. Agent Pixie Sinclaire and Professor Veronica Trenum. One day they just entered the room on their own volition, unbound, with several men in blue at their backs and a third, giant woman in shackles with them. They took one look around, and the horror on their faces really drove home what we had done.

How dare they, I thought, looking at the judgement in their eyes. How dare they judge?

And then one of the men in Blue pointed at me, and made Pixie Sinclaire an offer.

The Lelina Horror, Part 16

The Lelina Horror, Part 15

PIXIE (VII)

“Let’s get moving,” I said, mainly to call Ronnie’s attention away from her surroundings. In all the years I’ve known her, I’d never seen her as shaken up as she was then. This was someone who once ran through four miles of a forest full of cannibals with an injured porter on her shoulder. Another time, she’d been trapped alone in a cave for a month after a shell from a nearby battle caused a cave in, surviving off ground water and grubs before the rest of her expedition dug her out.

“Ronnie,” I said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go.”

“Right,” she said. “Yes. If Adella is here, she won’t spend another second here due to my own inaction. Let’s find her.”

We exited the room and entered a long corridor that ran the length of the building. The paint peeled from the walls in long strips, and discarded medical debris and other detritus littered the floors. The dense odor of mildew filled the space, forcing me to breathe through my mouth. We pushed forward.

I kept one ear open as we walked, but the only sound to be heard was dead silence and our tiny footsteps crunching against a layer of dirt that covered the floor. I kept my eyes on the ground, looking for other signs of passage. Surely any occupants would have left a trail.

It wasn’t footsteps I found, but an adjacent corridor that had been swept clean, coupled with wall sconces that emitted a small gaslight. Not enough light to draw attention from outside, but just enough to see. We walked the length of the corridor. A second hallway similar to the one we’d started in ran the length of the building’s far side. It showed no signs of passage.

“Hmm,” I said, turning back. “I wonder, is this the hallway we’re looking for? Or is it lit precisely to draw our attention?”

I made the choice to walk back down the lit hallway. There were spaces where doors might have been, but they were bricked over. On a hunch I reached up and pulled one of the sconces as we passed it. Nothing happened, so I tried to turn it. Nothing. I repeated the process with the other sconces, hoping one of them might open a secret passage or some such. Nothing happened. I was stumped.

“Pixie, look.” Ronnie pointed at the ground ten feet in front of us. There was a threadbare rug, completely unremarkable, laying askew on the floor. I walked over to it and pulled it back. There was nothing underneath.

“Well, I’m out of ideas,” Ronnie said.

“There has to be something. A lever, or a trapdoor. Something.”

“Kill your light.”

I stuffed the glow-tube in a pocket while Ronnie went down the hall, cutting off the gaslights. Once they were all off, we were in complete darkness. After a minute of trying to fight off my imagination, my eyes adjusted. There, in the middle of the hall, from underneath one of the bricked over doors, was a thin strip of light.

“Do you think that’s it?” I asked.

“Wouldn’t hurt to check,” Ronnie said. I pulled the glow tube out of my pocket. Ronnie stood in front of the door, smiling warily. It was a short lived smile as her eyes shifted to something behind me.

“Pixie, look out!” she shouted, but I was already throwing myself forward. I felt a rush of air over the top of my head as I rolled forward and turned, my hand reaching for my dagger. There stood the mad woman. She still had her rifle, but was using it as a club.

“Out of bullets?” I asked.

“I don’t need bullets. You sure as hell didn’t.”

“So, you can talk. Mind telling me what this is about?”

My not knowing pissed her off to no end. Normally, someone her size barreling at me like a charging elephant would be cause for alarm, and it certainly was, but rage makes people stupid, and stupid people are predictable. She brought the rifle butt up and down in a wide arc. I sidestepped the blow, dropped low, and put all of my weight behind throwing myself into her broadside. If she’d been standing ready, I’ve no doubt I would have just bounced off of her, but she was off balance and off guard.

The mad woman fell to the right, striking the bricked over door. The bricks didn’t fall away, but I did hear them shift. I waited for her to begin to stand.

“Ronnie, with me!” I said, and pushed forward again. Together, Ronnie and I crashed into the woman and pushed her back through the loosened bricks into a stairwell beyond. The three of us tumbled down the steps, the edge of every one a threat to life and limb. We made it to the bottom in a nice little pile, with me landing on top of the mad woman and Ronnie landing on top of me.

The landing knocked the breath out of me, but Ronnie seemed alright, if a little dazed. She stood first and helped me up. As I stood catching my breath, the mad woman started to stir. I was trying to decide what we should do with her when Ronnie tapped me on the shoulder.

“What is it now—oh.”

Five cartographers stood behind us, guns raised.

“Ah, hell,” I said, raising my hands. I was too damned tired after that fall. And besides, if they took us alive, maybe they’d just take us to wherever Adella and the others were being held.

“Agent Sinclaire?”

The voice didn’t come from the five men in front of us, but from a sixth man farther down the hall.

“That’s me.”

He stepped out from around a corner, holding his hands behind his back, his hair slicked back and a know-it-all smirk on his face. I disliked him immediately.

“Lower your weapons,” he told his people, and they did. “Let Miss Sinclaire and her companion through. As for the Circle assassin, restrain her and bring her with us.”

Circle assassin? I turned to look at the mad woman, still laying on the ground but otherwise fully recovered. She was watching me with a keen eye. And I remembered who she was.

Arufina Villanova, a member of the Scarlet Circle. I’d had a run in with them a few years before. She’d led a group of her compatriots in an attack on an arms dealer I’d been sent to negotiate with. The whole affair had led to the discovery of a Pre-Rift vault, just like the one at Lelina. And just like Lelina, the vault had contained automatons like the Mistwalker described by Veronica.

Over the course of events, I was directly responsible for the death of one of Villanova’s team, a young woman named Osyn, if I correctly recall. I supposed that’s why Villanova had been hunting me, to exact some sort of vengeance.

The Cartographers picked her up off the ground and placed her in shackles, then wrapped her upper body with a heavy rope.

“Isn’t that a bit excessive?” Ronnie asked.

“No,” said the man. “Wouldn’t you agree, Agent Sinclaire?”

Five minutes ago I would have agreed vehemently, but now that I knew the woman’s identity and an idea of why she wanted me dead, I found it hard to feel much animosity toward her. Don’t get me wrong…I didn’t appreciate her trying to kill me, but I could sympathize with her position. I’m not a monster.

“Come this way, then,” the man said. “I have someone who’s been waiting to see you for a very long time.”

The Lelina Horror, Part 15

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