Sunday, September 16, 2018
(After playing the Call of Cthulhu Down Darker Trails Catastrophe Engine Campaign scenario “The Beast Under the Bed” adapted from the scenario by Michael C. LaBossiere from Challenge Magazine #77 today from 12:40 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. with Yorie Latimer, Ben Abbot, John Leppard, and James Brown.)
Brandon Stalloid had left the others when they reached Denver, Colorado, back on August 16, 1875, making arrangements to have the huge dinosaur skull, which he had dubbed Formidulosaurus (and nicknamed the Dio Dino) shipped to San Francisco by train. He, of course, accompanied it, taking Night Horse with him to Salt Lake City on the way and giving the native enough money for the train south to Santaquin so he could make his way back to the Uintah Indian Reservation.
He returned to San Francisco on August 21, 1875, almost immediately going to the local police to report the murder of the derelict Wormy in Hilton Springs, Nevada. When police suggested he would have to report such a murder to the authorities in Nevada, he related Lambert Otto’s attack on him in Chinatown in early June. They took information of the man’s name and description.
He made arrangements to show the dinosaur skull to try to raise funds for an expedition to the valley where he’d found it. He sent invitations out to notable scholars, professors, and even businessmen. He remained vague on where he had found the skull, other than “the west.”
The scientific community did not believe the man. They were less than impressed with the skull, many citing it as a forgery only slightly better than the Cardiff Giant or the Mark Twain’s Petrified Man hoax of the 1860s. Though still in debate about the Calaveras Skull, some thought that a fake as well.
His most vocal opponent was Professor Leonard Brown, who taught history at the University of California in Berkeley. Brown claimed the skull was a fake and Stalloid was a snake oil salesman and carnival barker who was trying to make a quick buck just like P.T. Barnum. He said he would be more willing to believe Stalloid devised some kind of bone solvent that allowed him to melt down and recast bones in different shapes than believe the man found or fought and killed a real dinosaur. He was very vocal in how he felt.
Professor Stalloid volunteered to have his property searched for the alleged bone solvent but the man refused. He also noted he didn’t even deal in snake oil as he preferred to work with opium. He called P.T. Barnum a civil-rights disaster.
Other scholars were not as vocal but, overall, the scientific community seemed very doubtful.
At one of the meetings, he met Philip Sanbourne, a man in his 30s who wore pince-nez glasses and was very neatly dressed in an expensive suit with a high collar. He chatted with Professor Stalloid, who learned he was the son of the recently deceased Carlton Sanbourne II, the fishing magnate and canning millionaire. Carlton Sanbourne II had died earlier that year and left his recently-built mansion and grounds, as well as his world-famous collection of Pacific antiquities, to the state under a self-perpetuating foundation to establish a museum in Santiago, California. Philip Sanbourne noted he was presently working with the newly formed and named Sanbourne Institute of Pacific Antiquities and in San Francisco to initiate proceedings for a possible expedition to the Pacific in the summer of 1876.
When Professor Stalloid asked if he was searching for a lost city, he noted his father had brought back many artifacts from Polynesia and Ponape and the Pacific. Philip wanted to continue research and examination of the Pacific Islands. When he learned Professor Stalloid’s find was in the Continental United States, he noted it was not necessarily what he was looking for, but he did seem to believe Professor Stalloid and was very interested in his find.
He didn’t have the funds to help Professor Stalloid with his expedition but he invited Professor Stalloid to visit him and the Institute if he was ever down in Santiago, which was in San Diego County on the coast. Professor Stalloid asked him how much he needed for his expedition and they discussed the possibility of helping each other in their respective expeditions. They both resolved to meet again to discuss it in a few months.
Another person who had come to all of the meetings, especially those serving food, was Emperor Norton I, the Emperor of America. He was resplendent in his uniform and his stovepipe beaver hat with three ostrich plumes clasped to the front to symbolize his dominion.
Emperor Norton was some 57 years old and had proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. Though he had no political power, he was treated deferentially by the city of San Francisco, walking the streets of his capitol like a monarch though he lived in a flophouse on Sacramento Street. He even issued currency in his own name that was honored in the establishments he frequented.
Though some considered him mad or eccentric, the citizens of the city of San Francisco celebrated him and his proclamations. He had called for the United States Congress to be dissolved and made numerous decrees for a bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland and a corresponding tunnel to be built under San Francisco Bay.
He complimented Professor Stalloid on his lecture and patted the dinosaur skull carefully. He was quite impressed with Professor Stalloid and noted if the Empire of America were in a better financial state, he would fund his expedition to the wilds the West himself. He regretted he could only give him a few dollars of his own handmade money in order to help in what little way he can.
Professor Stalloid accepted the money graciously, noting he might be able to put it into a savings account and use the interest in a few years.
“It is doing better than the dollar,” Emperor Norton said.
“It is,” Professor Stalloid said.
They shook hands and Emperor Norton told him he looked forward to his next talk about the skull.
* * *
Professor Stalloid was visited in his home by Yan Min, the leader of the Rightful Spirit Tong, who still insisted the man pay him for the damages to his people and establishment when they had hunted the demon in Chinatown in May. The cost had gone up to $7,000 due to interest over the months.
“Ah, sir, if you could lend me a few hands, I could find … 20,000 … 50,000 … dollars more,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Where is this?” Yan Min said. “Where?”
“It’s off in the desert.”
“That skull thing that you’re trying to sell people.”
“Treasure. Yes. But alive. Think about how good your organization could run with a monster of non-supernatural means.”
Yan Min just wanted the money.
“They had human-sized ones with claws …” Professor Stalloid said.
“… the size of my hand!”
“Yes yes, pull the other one, it has bells on.”
He didn’t seem to believe the man though he had summoned a demon himself. But Yan Min thought the man was lying as he didn’t want to pay the money he owed the tong.
“Money is of no consequence!” Professor Stalloid cried out.
Yan Min made it very clear that if he paid him the money he owed him, he might be more susceptible to working with the man in the future. He was very polite though the conversation was filled with more veiled threats about his demon. He also expressed an interest in Lambert Otto, who he understood was the same man who attacked another of his men.
Professor Stalloid told him he’d make him a deal.
“I want this Otto-man brought to justice too,” he said. “He tried to kill me that night.”
“Uh-huh,” Yan Min said.
“How about, I will help you in his capture and we will settle on 4,000.”
“Bring him to me, captured, and we’ll settle for 3,000.”
“He is a very dangerous man.”
“Exactly. I’m not going to risk any more of my men.”
“I … I do not fight.”
They agreed that if Professor Stalloid brought Otto to Yan Min alive, he would abide by that agreement.
* * *
Though Professor Stalloid read about the kidnapping of Marion Terwilliger in the papers and planned to do something about it at some point, he ended up far too busy and it slipped his mind.
* * *
On August 25, he finished studying the Command Ghost spell he had found in Mysteries of the Worm, the book they had found when they had investigated the strange murders in Midnight, California, in early May. He was confident he knew how to cast the spell, which would allegedly compel a ghost to come forth to answer specific questions. The spell had to be performed at night by pouring a mammal’s blood on the grave or ashes of the dead person the caster wished to contact while chanting the spell for 10 minutes.
That evening, he went to one of the cemeteries in San Francisco in one of the better neighborhoods. He had gotten some fresh rabbit’s blood in Chinatown on the way. He found a grave of a rather prominent businessman who had died the previous week in the corner of the cemetery out of the way. The man’s name was Randolph Carter.
He poured the blood onto the grave and then chanted quietly for 10 minutes. The figure that appeared over the grave was of a heavyset man in an expensive-looking suit. He huffed and puffed for a moment, clearing his throat. Professor Stalloid was a little unnerved by the fact that he could see through the man.
“Do you remember anything after death?” he asked. “What’s the afterlife like?”
“What afterlife?” Carter replied.
“How does it feel to be here for this spectacular occasion?”
“What spectacular occasion?”
“I’m dead. Find a way to bring me back! Yes, bring me back!”
“I’m working on it.”
“Bring me back!”
“I’m working on it.”
“All right, I’ll hold it to you to bring me back! I’ll reward you handsomely.”
“Did you hide any money?”
The ghost told him that he had hidden money in various hiding places within his mansion, but was very certain his relatives would have found it. He didn’t have any money buried in a hidden place.
“Any messages you want me to pass along?” Professor Stalloid asked.
“Tell my daughter not to trust her cousin Silas,” the ghost said.
He said he would and then said the words to end the spell. The ghost vanished.
* * *
Professor Stalloid learned the next day, August 26, the daughter of Randolph Carter was Amelia. She was the beneficiary of most of his estate. He warned the girl that he had heard some bad things about her cousin Silas and she said she would take it under advisement. He told her he knew her father and he warned him before he died.
* * *
Later that same day, there was a knock on Professor Stalloid’s door. He found Li Wei, the lawyer from Chinatown he and the others had dealt with in May. He carried a simple briefcase.
“Oh, you’ve finished the scroll,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Yes,” Li Wei said. “Yes, I have finished the scroll.”
Professor Stalloid ushered the man into the house and his study.
Mr. Li had the original Chinese scroll. He also had a manila folder filled with papers, a manuscript in English with the entirety of the contents of the scroll. He told the other man it was the only copy in English.
“Is there … is there anything extra I could do for you?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Well, there is your fee,” Li said.
“I know! I’m going to do that. But I am very gracious … for what you’ve done for me. I know that it was … a very big toll on your mind. Believe me, I know. I’ve been reading too.”
“There is no charge. But … you must agree … to fulfill a favor for me at some point in the future.”
“Would you like to hold onto the scroll itself as a measure of face to you and a show of respect to your culture?”
“That is yours.”
Li Wei also told him there was an alleged spell in the book that allowed one to raise the dead. Then he left. Professor Stalloid immediately settled down to begin studying the manuscript.
* * *
Jacali had been away from Devil’s Gulch on August 21 when Matilda Terwilliger had come to find the others and beg them to help her find her kidnapped father. After Lambert Otto had told Jacali about the Crescent being held by the gypsy woman, and getting as much information as possible, she had gone in search of the woman and the gypsy vardo east of the town. When she returned, she found that Ophelia was sick, learned of Matilda Terwilliger having been there and left with Otto, and learned Dr. Weisswald had not gone to help the woman as she didn’t feel the serpent person could travel safely.
Jacali asked around town and continued her investigation. According to the townsfolk, the woman named Daisy was an Indian half-breed, and small with dark hair and eyes. She was very pretty and wore a white hat. She read palms and gave fortunes. She also gave out potions that people said was some kind of magical water. One old woman in town claimed she had a bad kidney and had been p***ing blood, but it started working again after she drank the elixir. No one knew where she went or where she was from. Most of them didn’t talk much to her as she was a stranger. She was only in town a couple days.
The vardo was pulled by a horse while another was tied behind it. No one saw her leave town though people guessed she went east as she hadn’t passed through town before she left it.
* * *
Cost of the train ticket was more money than Jacali had but Lily Jones leant her $52 for the trip back to San Francisco with her horse. She was hesitant to take it but Lily pointed out it was just a loan and she trusted the other woman to pay her back.
She left Devil’s Gulch on August 23, arriving in San Francisco on August 28. She decided to go to Professor Stalloid’s house. Not one to worry about propriety and remembering Professor Stalloid had invited them all back whenever they were in San Francisco, she arrived at the property, took her horse, Nalin, to the stable behind the house, put her in a stall, and rubbed her down.
She let herself in the back door, which opened into a large kitchen where the little old Chinese woman who lived with Professor Stalloid was cooking dinner. She waved at the other woman.
“Study,” the Chinese woman said, pointing towards the front of the house.
She went back to her cooking.
Jacali found Professor Stalloid in the study in the front of the house that overlooked the street. He was at his desk, furiously studying a manuscript, his hair a mess and eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.
“Ah, Mr. Stalloid,” she said. “It seems you have been enthralled with this new Jane Austin novelist that I’ve heard so much about.”
“No no no no no no no no no no no no no,” Professor Stalloid said quickly. “This is that - this is that - this it that - this is that manuscript! It’s the Chinese man’s manuscript! It’s good. It’s good. This is what I was looking for!”
“Oh, I remember.”
“This is what I wanted. This is what I desired. This is it. This is it. This is it. This is it.”
“And what, pray tell, Mr. Stalloid, is it that it is?”
“The secret of the gods.”
Jacali looked at the man.
“The secret of the gods?” she said.
“The key to the gate,” Professor Stalloid said.
“The key to the gate? Well, I just came in through the back door, I didn’t need a key.”
“The key to the golden gate.”
“The golden gate? That’s a very expensive gate.”
“I found it. I can save them.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Stalloid, you’re going to have to give me a few more details.”
“I can save them.”
“You can save who? From what?
“You can save everyone?”
“Well, whenever I come down with this ‘it’ I will go straight to you.”
“One of the two. The inevitable.”
“You mean death and white people?”
“I’ve become like your shaman. I can speak with the ancestors.”
“Well good. Tell them the place is awful and they should stay up there.”
“Oh, there is no ‘up there.’”
“Then how do you talk to them? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Professor Stalloid called for Chun Zhi Ruo. The old Chinese lady entered the study moments later. He asked her to bring him some coffee as he needed to calm him nerves. She patted his back and left as he gathered up the manuscript papers and tucked them back into the folder. Then he went to a safe in the corner of the room and opened it up, tucking the papers within next to his locked research book and locking the safe.
“So, Mr. Stalloid, have you heard anything about─?” Jacali said.
“Terwilliger!” Professor Stalloid said.
“Yes, have you heard anything about Terwilliger?”
“I was about to go visit him. I saw it in the papers that he’s been found.”
“Oh. Very good. Seems like my work here is done.”
The newspaper had been very vague on what happened to Terwilliger aside from the fact that he had been rescued by Clayton Pierce and that the house near Mount Diablo he’d been imprisoned in had exploded or fallen into a sinkhole.
Jacali asked Professor Stalloid if he knew anything about the Crescent or its whereabouts or where Terwilliger might be so she could ask him the same.
“Didn’t the Crescent go in the water?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Well, it appeared at Devil’s Gulch not too long ago,” Jacali said. “Someone was carrying it but I haven’t been able to track them down. Do you know why Terwilliger was kidnapped?”
“No. Never went.”
“Hm. Well, do you know where he is now?”
“Does he have a permanent address?”
“Yeah, I know where he lives. We can go visit him.”
* * *
The trip across the bay to Oakland took them a few hours. Professor Stalloid had brought his high-wheel bicycle. He had it imported from France only the year before though he’d learned to ride on the Michaeux “velocipede” or “boneshaker.” The type of vehicle was called the “ordinary” as there was no other kind. The front wheel was over 48 inches tall and the back wheel less than a fifth that size. There was a metal extension towards the back of the vehicle, the “step” which allowed the bicyclist to mount the massive machine.
Jacali had brought her horse.
Professor Stalloid used the step to push the bicycle forward and then stepped up and onto the pedals of the wheel. Jacali kept up with her horse at a trot.
“How the hell do you balance on that?” she asked the man who sat proudly on the tall bicycle.
“It’s about like riding a horse,” he said.
“The horse rides itself half the time.”
“Yeah. That’s what the bike’s doing!”
The Terwilliger farm was a few miles outside of Oakland and took them about an hour to get to. It stood by a mile-wide lake and consisted of a tidy, two-story farmhouse and a large barn and corral. There was also a chicken coop. A tall wooden and metal tower stood near the barn and was connected to it via wires. A rounded metallic device the size of a wagon was atop it. More wires led into the woods nearby and they could hear the gurgle of a creek or stream there. On the lake near the farm was a 50-foot-tall tower with a platform atop it.
Under a tree in the yard was Lambert Otto. He sat on a blanket, his arm in a sling, and had his Winchester in pieces, cleaning it. They saw Jack West sitting by the lake, fishing. Jacali rode over to Otto while Professor Stalloid rode to the barn, where the sound of metal banging on metal came from.
* * *
Otto had returned the incapacitator to Professor Terwilliger and asked the man how it worked. When the professor started to explain it, he interrupted him.
“I’m not asking how it works, Terwilliger,” he said. “I’m asking how I can actually use it.”
Professor Terwilliger pointed out the button installed on the side of the devil’s lamp.
“How do you aim this thing?” Otto asked.
“Aha!” Professor Terwilliger said. “That’s the question! That is the ten dollar question. I haven’t worked that out yet. I barely worked out the science that runs the thing.”
“Hm,” Otto said. “You mind if I keep one of these for the time being, or …?”
Professor Terwilliger was willing to let the man borrow one of the things.
“I feel like something that could incapacitate people might be useful,” Otto said.
“It can also give them a heart attack and kill ‘em,” Professor Terwilliger said. “Keep that in mind.”
“Matilda did not mention that when I borrowed it before,” Otto said.
Professor Terwilliger noted it only held six charges but he’d have to return to the farm to get it recharged.
* * *
Jack West had talked to Professor Terwilliger about increasing the range of his pistols. Professor Terwilliger suggested possibly a scope, though it probably wouldn’t work on a pistol. He suggested he might be able to do something but he’d need the pistol for a while. West had given him one of his back-up pistols and the man had taken it away to the barn.
* * *
“Hello Otto,” Jacali said.
“Hello Jacali,” Otto said. “Stalloid.”
“It seems you’re making use of your time again.”
“What has happened since I’ve been away.”
“Oh boy. This is a little long, but I can explain it to you, Jacali, if you want.”
“Just give me what I need to know.”
“All right. From what I heard from everyone else, we’ve tracked the Crescent down … well, a Crescent … down to a house near Mount Diablo─”
“There are multiples.”
“There are multiple Crescents!?!”
Jacali looked up at the sky in frustration and flung her arms up in the air.
“There are multiple Crescents,” Otto said. “We had one of the spikes … from some … monsters? They wouldn’t touch silver. Over there.”
He pointed across the lake. A quarter of the way around the water sat another farm amid the trees.
“But, we found Jack West there, well, they did,” Otto said. “I wasn’t down there when they encountered him. I mean John Valentine.”
“Was he looking for the Crescent?” Jacali said.
“Well, he had one there.”
“He had one!?!”
“A damaged one.”
“It was scorched, you know how metal gets scorched when exposed to intense heat?”
“But, from what I heard from them. There were two kids there too. And some bandits. But anyway, Jack West was there. I mean John Valentine.”
“So Jack West and John Valentine were looking for the Crescent, they had a blackened Crescent, and they were carrying two kids and bandits with them.”
“Jack West was.”
“Jack West was?
Otto put his head in his hands. He had meant John Valentine.
“What’s the difference?” he said.
He looked at the woman again.
“John Valentine,” he said. “But, anyway, so, there were two bandits there. I forget their names. One of them was … mentally deranged. But what I hear was, he put the … the Crescent was missing a spike and he put the spike in the Crescent and then disintegrated. And then … everything around it started to disintegrate, from what I hear, and that’s what happened to the house: the Crescent disintegrated it and just left a hole. I’m not sure what happened to Valentine. I wasn’t down there when it happened. I was ... nursing a dislocated shoulder from my … brave heroics.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Well Otto, you know I am a fan of your heroics,” Jacali said. “But you said you had a horn from the Crescent … or a spike?”
“A spike, yes,” Otto said.
“Where is it? How were you holding it?”
“Well, Jack West … I got it right this time …”
“So, actual Jack West, not John Valentine?”
Otto pointed at the man by the lake, lying on his back and fishing, his black hat low over his eyes.
“Yeah,” Otto said.
“Not Jack North,” Jacali said. “Not Jack South.”
“Jack West and Clayton Pierce …”
“Jack West and Clayton Pierce.”
“… held it and nothing happened to them. And it pointed towards the Crescent. The one that Valentine had.”
“Like a compass. You could hold it on your hand the spike would point towards where it was.”
“Interesting. And who has it now?”
“Well, I assume John Valentine, assuming he didn’t die when─”
“So, John Valentine did capture the last …”
“Yes, but …”
“But, the spike.”
“I don’t think you’re quite understanding what I’m saying.”
“Okay. So, let me tell you what I got so we’re both on the same page. So, John Valentine came through town with a dirty Crescent, two kids, and a bandit. So, you three, heroic men, fought John Valentine─”
“And two women. One Chinese.”
“Heroic men and two women. Didn’t cast aspersions, you just didn’t tell me about them so you can’t blame me for that one.”
“You said only the important facts. I don’t think you cared who was there.”
He went pale.
“No, no, no!” he said. “I meant … no! Jacali! Wait. Wait wait. I meant … you wanted to know what happened with the Crescent. Who was there was a secondary fact.”
“Okay,” Jacali said. “So, they all were there. They fought for the Crescent. John Valentine … you almost got me doing the same thing … John Valentine ran off with the Crescent─”
“No! Okay. Okay so, his lackey put the spike in the Crescent …”
“And it dissolved everything.”
“… the Crescent started to hum and … I think glow … and then everything … it started to radiate a field that started to tear everything it touched apart.”
“So, where it is now?”
“I don’t know. Because, as I said, everything around it─”
“Have you examined the wreckage though?”
“I couldn’t see anything in the bottom of the hole it left.”
“It was that deep?”
“It destroyed the house! And the house was underground. I mean … where it was, was underneath the house. And it destroyed the house on top.”
“So, we haven’t cleared out the wreckage from the house, but theoretically, it’s under there.”
“There was nothing left. Nothing.”
“It’s gone!” Jack West, who had strolled up, said. “Valentine’s gone!”
“So, it’s just gone?” Jacali said.
“Everything’s gone,” Otto said.
“So, where did John Valentine go?”
“Dead. He could’ve fled. I don’t know what happened.”
“I heard him chanting something strange,” Jack West said.
Jacali noticed the man for the first time and started visibly. She had been concentrating so hard, trying to figure out Otto’s story, she hadn’t even noticed him approach.
“Oh, Jack West, you’re here,” she said.
“And if it isn’t my second-favorite injun,” Jack West said.
“Oh, I’m your second now,” Jacali said. “Who’s your favorite?”
“Uh … Walks-with- … uh … Rains?” Jack West said.
He had forgotten Rhymes-with-Wolf’s name.
“So, John Valentine is missing,” Jacali said. “The Crescent is missing … or maybe in the hole.”
“One of the Crescents,” Otto said.
“Oh yeah, the second Crescent,” Jack West said.
“The second …” Jacali said.
“The damaged one,” Otto said.
“What happened with the spike you all touched? Somebody put it back in the Crescent?”
“It’s gone!” Jack West growled.
“It’s gone,” Jacali said.
“So, it’s with the Crescent if it’s still somewhere,” Otto said.
“Damn, it looked valuable,” Jack West said.
“Terwilliger is okay?” Jacali said.
“Yes, he’s fine,” Otto said. “Oh! I forgot. I know you’d want to hear about this.”
“We had a talk with one of the agents of the …”
He made a claw shape with his hand.
“Oh!” Jacali said.
“… people,” Otto said. “And we’re supposed to meet him in Gravity Falls in October.”
“Some all-knowing being or something,” Jack West said. “Sounds interesting.”
“I set up the meeting,” Otto said. “October first.”
“Well, let me tell you, I have a very large selection of choice words for those little clicky-clacky slug people,” Jacali said.
“Well, apparently you’ll get to meet one of them,” Otto said.
“Whoa, slug people?” Jack West said.
“Oh. Yeah. Don’t worry about it, Jack West,” Jacali said.
Jack West looked at the woman.
“Eh, I won’t,” he said.
Jacali was interested in examining the remains of the house and Otto noted it was on the other side of Mount Diablo. Jack West told them he had to make a trip to Colorado. Jacali asked how long it would take to get to Gravity Falls but Otto wasn’t sure.
He handed Jacali $50.
“Why are you giving me $50?” she asked.
“For the horse,” Otto said. “You said to pay you back.”
“I did,” Jacali said, taking the money.
* * *
In the barn, Professor Terwilliger had a pistol in a vice connected to an anvil and was banging away at it with a hammer. He whistled as he worked. Professor Stalloid walked over behind the man to look at his work. It appeared that he was attempting to lengthen the already fairly long barrel of the pistol.
Professor Terwilliger was startled when he finally noticed the other man.
“Oh!” he said. “Professor Stalloid! How nice of you to come.”
“How was the kidnapping?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Not as pleasant as I would like it to be.”
“It usually isn’t.”
“No no no. John Valentine grabbed me. He wanted me to examine a Crescent that he had, you see.”
“Ah, the Crescent. I thought that fell in a river.”
“Not ‘the.’ A Crescent.”
“This one was scorched on the side. I think it was in orbit.”
“I had a vision.”
“Exactly! Must be a lot of heat with that kind of speed. Some of your friends, that Jack West fellow and Lambert Otto …”
“I know him. He’s my bodyguard.”
“And a couple of ladies. I didn’t get … there was a Chinese, I didn’t get her name.”
“But … uh …”
“No no no. This was Johanna …”
Professor Terwilliger snapped his fingers several times.
“Johanna …? he said. “I don’t remember her last name. Matilda will remember it. They came in and they rescued me. He had kidnapped a couple of kids. And he was going to torture them if I didn’t help him so … what are you going to do?”
“You can’t let people torture children!” Professor Stalloid said.
“You can’t let people torture children.”
“You just cannot!”
“So, I found─”
“Grown men, yes. But not children.”
“He found it a year and a half ago, back in 1874.”
“He found this thing!”
“Why was he after the other one!?! If he already had one!”
“Because it didn’t work!”
“It was missing one of the spikes. You know the little spikes? On the Crescent?”
“It was a hole. It was blue in there. It put off a lot of energy, a lot of really strange energy. Some I couldn’t even analyze. And … tried to figure out what I could. And your friends showed up, and they had one of the spikes. And he had one of his boys put it in, and that was a bad thing, I think. I would have advised against it, but I was being held at gunpoint.”
“Yeah, a whole Crescent is quite powerful.”
“Well, this one … well, the man disappeared. Came apart.”
“He unraveled at the seams?”
“Yes, and there was nothing left. Although you could taste blood, bile─”
“In the air? How foul.”
“Yes. Jack West shot at it: the Crescent.”
“The bullet did the same thing! It stopped in midair and it unraveled and I could taste gunpowder and lead.”
“Do you think it was … atomized.”
“Maybe. I believe it was knocking down to a molecular level. Very fascinating. I wish I could have studied it. But everything was disintegrating so I ran, as did we all. Actually, Jack West saved my life. Grabbed me and got me out of there.”
“He’ll do that from time to time.”
“I appreciated it. So, the whole house was destroyed and collapsed. I’m guessing the Crescent blew itself up. Well, discorporated.”
“Maybe it dematerialized itself.”
“Exactly. Dematerialized. That’s my guess. But it’s not the only one! Because he found that one almost two years ago. The one we found in Yellow Flats from 50 million years ago, we only found six months ago. There’s more than one! The other one’s out there somewhere. Still. Jack wanted me to fix up one of his guns. Give it more range.”
Professor Stalloid had noticed the strange devices in the room. He saw two wheeled vehicles with steam engines mounted upon them as well as more of the lightning guns and some demon lamps. A few pairs of the wings hung upon the walls as well.
Professor Stalloid asked if he drew up some blueprints, could Professor Terwilliger use his mechanical expertise to help him make something. Professor Terwilliger agreed and asked what, to which Professor Stalloid asked for time to “fathom its mechanisms first.” Professor Terwilliger assured the man he wouldn’t steal any of his ideas. Professor Stalloid noted they could go into a partnership upon it.
Professor Terwilliger showed him around the barn, noting the quadro-velocepedes he was working on. Professor Stalloid asked to the see the blueprints for them and Professor Terwilliger was more than willing to allow him access. It was an efficient steam engine attached to a stagecoach frame, less the actual coach body. Instead, a wicker basket-like device had been added along with a steering tiller on the left. There were two seats for riders along with the steam engine, which sat behind them.
Jacali, Otto, and Jack West entered the barn.
“Oh, Jack West!” Professor Stalloid said. “I do need to give you your payment. I do not have any laudanum on me right now. Fresh out.”
“I was just coming to ask you about that,” Jack West said.
“I’ll get you at my house.”
* * *
Professor Terwilliger had atlases and maps in his house. They looked over them and found the easiest way to get to Gravity Falls, which lay in the badlands of eastern Oregon, was to take a train from Oakland to Winnemucca, Nevada, and then travel overland from there, passing through the towns of Quiet Gap and Pleasant Valley before crossing the badlands for most of the trip until they reached Gravity Falls. They guessed the trip to Winnemucca would only take about a day. The cross-country trek on horseback would probably take closer to 10 days on horseback if they didn’t run into any other difficulties. If they gave themselves a couple of weeks for the entire journey, it should be enough.
Jack West thought about sending a telegram to White River where he had left the Formidulosaurus skin to be tanned and made into a poncho but realized the town had no telegraph station or line. He wondered about sending a message some other way but realized mail would take some time. The best and quickest way to get his poncho would be to go himself. A little calculation indicated it was nearly four days to Denver via train, another two days to white river and back.
Professor Stalloid asked Professor Terwilliger if he had a spare camera he could borrow. Professor Terwilliger didn’t as he’d converted them all to static generators. He only bought cameras to use the outer casing as it felt right for the devices.
Professor Stalloid asked if he got Jack West a camera when he went to White River, Colorado, could he take the camera with him and take photographs of the bones of the dinosaur they had killed. Jack West was willing to do it.
“I could look for it,” Jack West said.
“Don’t waste too much time,” Professor Terwilliger said.
“But … uh … my time’s not free.”
“Of course. We’re going back to San Francisco first. I could muscle up some payment.”
“How much we looking at?”
“How much can you carry?”
Jack West looked at the man.
“I like you,” he said.
He didn’t know laudanum was relatively inexpensive at about 35 cents for four ounces, and easy to come by. He was still convinced it was very expensive and either illegal or only available from a doctor since he had gotten addicted to it while in the hospital. Professor Stalloid was happy to let him keep thinking that.
* * *
Jacali and Otto went to investigate the destroyed farm. With the white man’s help, they were able to find the ranch in a day. There were no cattle or other animals at the place and Otto told her the place was not really used. A sinkhole about 30 feet across and eight feet deep was where Otto said the house had stood. There was no debris or anything in the pit.
She was unsure if it would be safe to enter the pit and she asked Otto if anyone had gone into it. He said no one had. He noted they had just left.
“I wonder if the Crescent fell into the hole and things fell in on top of it and its buried there,” she said.
“It could be,” Otto said. “Or …”
“If nobody’s come around, I guess it’s safe.”
“I’m not sure … I almost said West again … I’m not sure if Valentine went with it though, because there was a cave exit he was standing next to and he could have ran down there when it happened, from what I heard.”
“But if you want to go down there, I might have some rope to shimmy yourself down there.”
“Oh. Brilliant. But I think if we go down there it would be to dig.”
“I don’t have a shovel.”
“I don’t either.”
“There is a hotel on Mount Diablo that might have a shovel if you want to dig.”
They searched the barn and found some tools, including shovels. They decided to tie off Jacali and she walked down to the bottom of the hole. It felt very solid but they spent some time digging and found some debris but little else. She found the finger of an old person as well.
“Hey Otto!” she called out. “Does this look familiar to you?”
“Jack West,” he said.
Jacali looked at the finger.
“You think he wants it back?” she said.
“That’s from someone he killed,” Otto said.
“Oh. Do you think he wants it back?”
“I don’t know. You might understand the enigma of Jack West better than I do.”
“He’ll want this.”
They spent the night at the Mountain House Hotel and then returned to Terwilliger’s Farm the next day.
* * *
Over the next week or so, Professor Stalloid worked on blueprints for a two-wheeled electric vehicle. He had examined the electric motor he had found in Midnight and taken notes on the device, using it as a template for his own ideas. He also sent word to Midnight to have the motor from the hearse brought there. He had already removed it for study so it was easy to ship it back to San Francisco. Though he could not figure out the motor himself, he brought them to Oakland to show Professor Terwilliger.
Professor Terwilliger was very excited at the motor, citing it was exactly what he needed for the airship, an improvement on the French design, that he wanted to build. He thought it perfect for the airship as it was light, used batteries, which he could recharge or possibly replace with the static generators, and small. He and Professor Stalloid set to work on building and improving the engines.
* * *
Jack West took the train to Denver, rented a horse and headed to White River P.O. He went out into the wilderness first, looking for the dinosaur bones, but only found them after tromping around in the wilderness for an extra day. When he found them, he took several photographs of the ones that remained as best he could from the instructions on how to work the camera and tripod Professor Stalloid had given him. Then he made his way back to White River P.O.
Rueben Fielding had the dinosaur skin poncho ready for the man. The leather was over an inch thick and the entire poncho was uncomfortably heavy. However, Jack West guessed it would slow bullets that might hit him in the chest or abdomen though the sides were wide open. He had a little trouble moving in it, as it weighed him down, but not to the point where he was disappointed with the purchase. He paid the man the $20 he had promised and headed back for Denver the next day, taking the train back to San Francisco.
* * *
Otto asked Professor Terwilliger about the man he had mentioned to him once before: a surgeon who specialized in facial reconstruction surgery. Professor Terwilliger told him the man he knew about lived in Boston and the procedure was experimental but might be able to smooth out Otto’s scar. He also took the time to deposit the $1,000 in the bank he had earned in Devil’s Gulch for killing Charles Allen, one of Jack Valentine’s lieutenants.
He also went into Oakland to try to find a gypsy or someone with mystical powers to help him determine if he was somehow cursed. Jacali had advised him to look out for that woman Daisy and, if he found her, to contact her as she wanted to see the woman who allegedly had the Crescent. He tried to get Jacali’s advice on where to find a medicine man or gypsy or something. She suggested the poor part of a town or the edge of town.
“Otherwise I could probably do a good enough job,” she said.
“But it’s about the …” Otto said.
He indicated the terrible scar on his face.
“Yes, that’s a scar,” Jacali said.
“But is it cursed, is what I want to know,” Otto said.
Jacali picked up a stick and cut a slice in it with her knife.
“Is that cursed?” she said.
“I’ll just go look on the edge of town,” he said.
“Good luck,” she said as he rode off. “Look out for Daisy.”
* * *
Otto found a gypsy vardo in a field on the edge of Oakland. At first he thought it might be Daisy, somehow, but the woman there was someone else entirely.
The woman had long, silky black hair, pulled up in an exotic-looking bun. She appeared to be darker-skinned and exotically swarthy, like someone from eastern Europe or the Mediterranean Sea. She was very pretty and looked to be in her 20s. She wore fine, colorful, exotic clothing that was modest and embroidered with mystical symbols and flowers. She wore jewels in her hair as well. She also had tattoos of some kind on her hands. Her eyes were very deep blue.
Otto approached her vardo and introduced himself. He learned she called herself Madam Violet.
“So, Mr. Otto, what brings you to my realm of fortunes today?” she said.
He told her he was concerned about his scar. She looked at him carefully.
Violeta Bratiano was special; she was able to read the aura surrounding a person or even animal. It sometimes, when she could understand the colors she saw clinging to people she concentrated upon, allowed her to determine good or evil, health or disease, and possibly the mood of the person under question. The colors indicated a person’s mood or ill-health.
From his aura, Otto seemed nervous and worried according to the colors swirling around him. There was a sense that he needed to know about the scar, badly. She saw a dark red or purple glow around the scar. She felt it was a source of insecurity, a lingering force that was haunting him. She didn’t see anything of a curse about it, though was unsure if his aura would actually reveal such. But she felt it was something he needed to confront.
She led him into the vardo and sat him down at a small table there. The place was filled with strange and exotic items. She sat on the other side of the table and produced a pack of tarot cards, handing them to the man and asking him to shuffle them. As he did so, he told her a negro woman in Denver claimed the scar and he were both cursed. He needed to know if that was true. He was also unsure why the saber blow that had struck him in the face had not simply killed him.
She took the deck and shuffled it as well, using her own skills at sleight of hand to force three cards to the front of the deck to give the man the fortune she wanted.
“I can tell you are a man of fortune,” she said. “A soldier, weren’t you, before?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Where did you get that scar?”
“Cavalry charge back in Texas.”
“Oh. In Texas you say, so you were in the Mexican War?”
She nodded and finished shuffling.
“What I’m going to do it lay three cards in front of you,” she said. “They are going to represent your past, your present, and your future.”
She put the cards down on the table.
“So, one at a time, reveal the cards on top of the deck,” she said.
He pulled the top card and put it down.
“The Tower,” she said. “It is a very powerful card. It represents disaster. It represents pride. And it represents failure. It represents everything you’ve worked for coming crumbling down. I would imagine in your past, you were a proud soldier, weren’t you? And since that scar came, you’ve lost a bit of yourself. Have you failed in the past? Have things gone wrong inexplicably?”
“Yes,” he said.
“That is what this card represents. Turn the next card.”
He did so.
“The Hermit,” she said. “Another powerful card, representing major forces in your life. The hermit represents contemplation. It represents a search for inner truth. I can tell that something is bothering you. It’s that scar, isn’t it?”
“Partially,” he said.
“You have something else going on in your life that’s worrying you, causing you lots of anxiety. Are you in danger?”
“This card represents that inner truth for yourself. You are seeking something. You are wanting to know more about what is true and about something in yourself that only you can know. Reveal the next card … and your future.”
He turned the third card.
“This is … the four of wands,” she said. “It represents home. It represents comfort. It represents family and a celebration. I would say to you that you are struggling, still, with the actions of your past and it is causing you to linger on those actions. You need to get past something and see what is now and what is in your future and stop dwelling on these dark things that happened long ago. Once you get past that, you can find your inner peace, your home, your new home, and comfort.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Is there anything else you want to ask me our time together today?”
“What about the scar?”
“The scar. What the cards tell me is that the scar represents what is lingering in your soul. Your failures of the past that have stacked up against you and are still causing you to fail today. I would say that the scar is something that is in your soul as well and you must mend it yourself before it will stop maligning you.”
“How would I do that?”
“Well, that is a journey of self-discovery, like the hermit represents. Only … unless you tell me, I can’t perceive exactly what issues plague you but, you have thought about whether or not you are a good enough soldiers, perhaps, or you have failed in the past, you have thought that you were a bad person. You need to find what is true for you now. You need to make the future that you want to be. And whatever happened in the past, when you were a soldier, when you failed, when you got that scar, it is still with you, and it still haunts you, and you are the one who is clinging to it as a description of yourself. Free yourself from that. Make peace with your failures of the past and you will succeed in the future.”
She looked at him for a moment.
“You are an interesting man, Mr. Lambert Otto,” she said.
“Yes?” he said.
“I would love to do a reading for you again. You seem to have an interesting past and interesting struggles. And I am curious as to what all is plaguing you. I have not seen such … conflicting … such different … such worried and troubled auras from a person in a long time. Most people here, they come here talking to me about love and money. But, yours are much more interesting, deeper issues.”
Otto took his leave of the woman.
* * *
When Jack West returned to San Francisco, Professor Stalloid had the photographs developed. He was a little disappointed with the results. One of them was very overexposed and he wondered if Jack West had taken a nap while the cap had been removed. One was of a treetop, which he didn’t understand. One of them had some kind of bone. Professor Stalloid realized he forgot to tell the man to put something into the picture for scale, which was also an issue. Some of the photographs were out of focus. There was a picture of Jack West’s face as well, apparently when he was trying to figure out the camera and took off the lens cover while pointing it at himself. It was blurred and various portions of his face were smeared together as if he had been moving his face and the camera while it was pointed at him.
So many details forgotten, Professor Stalloid thought as he looked at the terrible photographs.
He decided to frame the odd photo of Jack West’s face and put it in his study. He got a brass caption for the frame that read “Westerly Winds.”
Jack West was very disappointed to find his pistol had not yet been improved. The two scientists had been busy working on some kind of electric engines. They even had some of them attached to large propellers.
* * *
Jacali presented Jack West with the finger when they met again.
“Jack West,” she said. “We went investigating the sinkhole up at Mount Diablo and I found a trophy if your conquest.”
Jack West slowly took the finger.
“And what in the Sam Hill am I supposed to do with this?” he said.
“I just thought you might want it as a trophy,” she said.
“Is this that old guy’s finger I shot off?”
“I knew you’d recognize it.”
Jack West stared at it.
“How did it not get disintegrated?” he said.
“I think the house collapsed in on itself rather than disintegrate,” Otto said.
“Well, this is gross,” Jack West said.
He flicked the finger away into the grass.
“Well, it was worth a try,” Jacali said.
* * *
Tickets for the 383-mile trip from San Francisco, California, to Winnemucca, Nevada were expensive. Third class costs around $12, second class was about $16, and first class was about $20. In addition, there was a 10 cents per mile fee on freight if they wanted to bring their horses, which came to roughly $38 per animal. Otto offered to pay for the transport of Jacali’s horse.
“You’re being very nice to me, Mr. Otto,” she said. “What has gotten into you?”
“I don’t know,” Otto said. “I’m feeling generous.”
“I like it,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I reckon because maybe─” Jack West said.
“That and you’ve been so nice to me, Jacali, I feel like I have to repay you for the kindness,” Otto said.
“Well, you did just repay me $50 so I’m not going to make you, but─” Jacali said.
“Yes, but you also saved my life,” Otto said.
“Fair enough,” Jacali said. “I will accept your offer of horse payment and I will travel second class with all of you.”
* * *
They left San Francisco on the 17th of September by train, all of them traveling second class and bringing horses as freight. They arrived at Winnemucca, Nevada, the next day.
Winnemucca was a small town on the Central Pacific Railroad and mostly inhabited by Basque immigrants who worked as sheep-herders. The town’s population was about 465 souls and it had a post office, train station, and other amenities such as saloons, hotels, and the like. It was a vibrant town on the railroad. It was also the county seat of Humboldt County since 1873. There were numerous travelers of the Transcontinental Railroad in the town. Roads followed the rail and headed off all different directions. Sheep farms surrounded the town.
The town was semi-arid, hot in the summer months, but the temperature dropped significantly at night.
They spent the night there.
* * *
They set forth from Winnemucca on Sunday, September 19, 1875, heading north. They arrived at their next stop, Quiet Gap, by mid-afternoon. It was a small town on the Nevada badlands, mountains to the north and south. As they approached, they could see large stones surrounding the village at a distance of about a mile from the structures in a rough circle, each a mile or so from each other.
Professor Stalloid counted four that he could see clearly. They looked like pillars.
They passed by the nearest stones, each a half mile or so away, and soon saw a sign that indicated the town of Quiet Gap, “Population 87.” They rode into the eerily quiet town passing a church and a house with the windows boarded up. They didn’t see any people at all. The town itself was very green, a surprising change from the badlands they’d been riding through.
“Welp, it’s gonna be one of these again,” Otto said.
“When do we go into a town and it’s just a nice town?” Jacali said.
The Crystal River Hotel stood not far from the cemetery, which was close to the church. As they rode down the street, they saw the houses and buildings all appeared to closed up, with the shutters closed on some of the buildings as well. There wasn’t even any wind in the town.
Jack West rode north, looking for a general store.
They could hear the lowing of cows from somewhere nearby and Professor Stalloid headed that way while Jacali and Otto rode to the livery stable.
* * *
Professor Stalloid found the lowing coming from a good-sized shed behind one of the houses. There were a pair of milking cows within that made low noises seeming to indicate their discomfort. He wondered if they hadn’t been milked and if they were in distress because of that.
He didn’t know how to milk a cow.
“Anybody here?” he called out.
There was no reply so he mounted up and headed for the livery stable where he saw Jacali and Otto opening the doors.
There were horses in the stalls in the livery stables but the troughs for water were empty and there was no grain or hay in the feeding troughs. Otto took the saddle and blanket off his horse before he set to work getting grain and hay for the horses. Jacali put her own horse away in a stall and helped him. Professor Stalloid rode into the stable.
They heard a gunshot.
* * *
Jack West rode around the town, passing the bank and marshal’s office on the north side of town before turning south down the only other street where he found the general store across from a house marked “Dr. Merle Groate, Physician.” The front door was closed and locked with a sign hanging there noting it was closed. He knocked loudly but there was no answer.
He looked down the street. Next door to the general store was the Six Feet Under Saloon and across from it was a hardware store. Further down was what looked like the Assay Office.
He walked over to the saloon and found the doors closed and locked there as well.
“I don’t like this place,” he muttered.
He drew his peacemaker and fired it into the air in the hopes of getting some attention.
* * *
Otto climbed up into the hayloft and pushed open the wide doors in the front, peering out, his carbine ready. He saw there was a bank and a marshal’s office across the street. He saw no one.
* * *
Jacali took out her bow and nocked an arrow, moving out of the back of the livery stables and creeping through the yards until she reached the alley between a hardware store and a blacksmith shop. Stalloid followed close behind her. They saw Jack West sitting on his horse in the crossroads, looking around. She could smell gun smoke.
“Jack West, what was that gunshot?” she asked.
“Ah, I was just knocking for the whole town,” Jack West said.
“That’s some way to say hello, but …”
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s answering,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Yeah,” Jack West said. “There’s two things, we could either just keep moving, or … get some free stuff.”
“Well, last time we came into a town where nobody was around and we had to find them all, I didn’t enjoy it,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Now, what town was that?” Jack West said.
“You weren’t there … and I wish you were,” Professor Stalloid said. “But … we have been riding so long and we need food first.”
“And I am here now, so it’s okay,” Jack West said.
“Well, the horses were all unattended so it seems like it’s been a few days since everybody up and left,” Jacali said. “There might not be good food, but … I do think it’s worth a shot. Something’s got to be done.”
“Somebody’s got to be here,” Jack West said. “So, which door we … forcing open first?”
“The general store, of course,” Professor Stalloid said.
“That’s what I want,” Jack West said. “Next would be the saloon.”
Jacali said she’d finish up in the stables and then head that way. They parted.
* * *
Otto had seen no one.
“Hey Otto,” he heard Jacali call from below. “It was just Jack West firing off.”
“Figgers,” Otto said.
“Nobody responded though, which is odd.”
“Might be abandoned.”
“What would cause the town to be abandoned?”
“I don’t know. But it’s not a good sign.”
They could hear the lowing of cows in the distance and Jacali, who got back to work feeding and watering the horses, noticed it. They sounded agitated or uncomfortable. She wondered if they were in need of milking. She told Otto about that.
“Otto, do you want to help me milk some teats?” Jacali said. “You seem like a teat-squeezing man.”
“I’ve dealt with a cow in my life,” Otto said. “If you want to go milk the cows, I’ll finish up here and come join you. I would hate to see these horses starve.”
She set off in search of the cows.
* * *
Jack West and Professor Stalloid found the back door of the general store locked and the windows closed and shuttered.
“Anybody’s inside, please open up!” Jack West called.
There was no answer.
They walked around to the front of the store again. Jack West got off his horse and tethered it to the hitching post out front. Then he kicked the door open, the lock snapping.
The inside of the general store was clean and well-tended. The shelves were all full of merchandise. A cold pot-bellied stove sat in the middle of the room. Everything seemed to be in order.
Jack West soon found a small crate of dynamite with about a dozen sticks behind the counter. He grabbed three along with fuses and blasting caps. Professor Stalloid also took three sticks and tucked them in his pocket.
“As long as the place is abandoned,” Jack West said.
Professor Stalloid found several jars of preserves and took a jar of peaches. Jack West filled a bag with bullets, hardtack, and beef jerky. Professor Stalloid found the preserved peaches were very good. He left $10 on the counter, which he figured would cover the food they’d taken.
* * *
Otto finished with the horses and set off in search of Jacali. He noticed one of the houses just down the street from the livery stable was completely destroyed. He went over and saw that it appeared to have been blown up though there was no debris anywhere around it to indicate a blast. He could smell the stink of explosives and some wisps of smoke still came from the various blasted boards. All that remained was the blackened floor and a few broken walls. He looked around and saw there was no debris. He poked at the floor of the house with his sword. The scorched walls were very fresh. He rubbed his finger against one and it came back covered in soot.
The house must have burnt down, though it looked like it had blown up. It was very strange.
He went in search of Jacali and, when he found her, told her what he had discovered.
“That’s strange,” Jacali said.
“It seems like everybody left,” she said. “Something doesn’t make sense about it.”
* * *
“So, uh, Stalloid,” Jack West said. “I notice you put $10 on the counter.”
“You never know if someone’s coming back,” Professor Stalloid said. “I want this man paid for his goods.”
“I was heading back over to the bank … uh … were you not interested in that?”
“We’ll check that out. I don’t want to hurt this man personally.”
“I need to make a withdrawal anyways. It’s not my fault.”
They left the general store and headed for the bank, passing the marshal’s office and the doctor’s office on the way. Jack West looked back and forth between the bank and the doctor’s office, wondering if there was laudanum in the latter.
They found the large front doors of the bank closed and locked. The entire building was made of stone and there were bars on the windows. There was a second floor, also with bars on the windows.
Professor Stalloid knocked. The sound didn’t seem to carry through the thick doors so he picked up rock and knocked with it. There was still no answer.
“All right, how dedicated to this are we?” Jack West said.
He took out a stick of dynamite and put it on the two door handles.
“We need to get to the telegraph,” Professor Stalloid said.
He looked around and saw there were no wires for a telegraph but wondered if they might be using some new system of burying telegraph wires in a veiled attempt to convince himself of the rightness of breaking into the bank.
Jack West attached the blasting cap with fuse and took out a match.
“I mean, if there is someone here, this looks like the most secure location,” Professor Stalloid said, trying to rationalize the break-in. “If there is anyone around, they should be here.”
Jack West lit the dynamite and they both quickly mounted their horses and rode away. There was a great explosion behind them.
* * *
“Should we even go look, Jacali?” Otto said.
“It was us!” they heard Stalloid yell in the distance.
“Should we just let these animals free?” Otto said.
“You know I was thinking of it, but I don’t know if it would be better for them,” Jacali said.
* * *
When Jack West and Professor Stalloid returned to the bank, they found the doors blown off their hinges and smashed to pieces. One of them had survived somewhat intact and smashed through one of the two teller stations. The other has been blasted to splinters. The doorway had been badly damaged as well and the flagstone floor of the bank was cracked and broken. Most of the force of the blast had gone into and out of the bank, apparently. The hitching post lay in pieces in the street. They could hear the horses in the nearby livery stable stirring as if frightened by the blast.
Through the smoke, they could see a large safe built into small office in the back of the building, the glass of the office now shattered. Another door off to the right was closed and still, surprisingly, intact. Professor Stalloid picked up another rock and walked over to the door. A sign on it said “Employee’s Only.” He found it unlocked and cracked it open. Steps went up to the second floor.
“Anybody in there?” he called.
There was no answer.
“If anybody’s up there, tell me I’m not allowed up there!” he called.
There was no answer. It was very quiet.
He shut the door.
They examined the safe and found it quite large. The walls were built around it but it was not a walk-in safe, obviously. It had a combination lock on the front. Professor Stalloid looked through the desk in the back in hopes of finding a combination written down.
* * *
Otto and Jacali went to various small barns around town, milking the cows and feeding and watering them. They noticed a building that had the word “Library” on the front door, which was surprising for such a small town. It was across the street from the Jewel Theater. They also found The Quiet Gap Enquirer. The sign out front noted Benjamin Thorpe was the Editor.
Jacali suggested there must be some record of what happened, possibly at the library or the newspaper office. Otto suggested checking the marshal’s office as well.
“Why would they close everything down if they were running?” Jacali said.
She also found it odd that all of the windows and shutters were closed on all of the houses.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
“As if everyone just disappeared,” Otto said.
“But if they just disappeared, the windows would still be open,” Jacali said.
“Unless some otherworldly forces caused them to disappear.”
“Well, if the otherworldly forces closed up all the windows. It seems people knew ahead of time they were just leaving without grabbing anything.”
“I don’t know. I’m tempted to look at the library and at the newspaper office.”
“Can you read?”
“Otto, can you look at the library and the newspaper office?”
“I don’t mean to insult you, but … I’m just saying.”
“I think those would be places to check on.”
“Let’s try the newspaper office.”
“Which one was that?”
“The Quiet Gap Enquirer.”
“Yeah. Which one says that?”
Otto led her to the little newspaper office.
* * *
There was no key or combination to the safe written down anywhere. Professor Stalloid did learn the banker’s name was Thurston Smith. He obviously owned and was president of the bank. Jack West, meanwhile, fiddled with the combination lock, turning it in the hopes of getting lucky and hitting the right combination.
They heard something scuttle across the floor above.
“Upstairs,” Professor Stalloid said. “Someone was there.”
“Maybe they know the combination,” Jack West said.
“They may know the authorities.”
“We could implore them to help alleviate this safe of its money.”
“I’m not saying that, but let’s go upstairs.”
“When in Rome, Stalloid, … rob a bank.”
They went to the other door and opened it, Jack West leading them up the steps.
* * *
Otto and Jacali found the newspaper office locked up. They walked around and found a back door that was also locked. The windows were all closed and the shutters were up inside.
“Got any ideas, Jacali, that don’t require breaking and entering?” Otto said.
“Well, again, why would someone lock the place if they were running away?” she said. “It doesn’t seem like anyone disappeared suddenly, like anyone ran away, like it was something they all had planned. That they all knew about.”
Otto took his carbine off his back and used the rifle stock against the handle. With a crash, the stock cracked up the middle. He looked at the carbine and then chucked it angrily into the street.
“Well, that seems like bad luck,” Jacali said.
Otto drew his saber and smashed the guard against the door knob over and over again. The wood cracked around the doorknob and he soon broke it away, knocking the door open. He went to the fallen carbine in a huff and picked it back up, slinging it over his shoulder and then walking into the newspaper office.
Inside the building was a larger outer office with a door in the back that obviously went to a second, smaller room. In the main room was a small Stanhope printing press near a cluttered desk. The press had typeset already laid out within it. Otto looked at it but the words were backwards. He tried to decipher it but found it impossible so looked around for a mirror.
“Otto, can you read?” Jacali said.
“It’s backwards, Jacali,” Otto said.
“Oh,” Jacali said.
Otto didn’t find any mirrors in the main office. He noted he could try to read it but it might take a while.
“I wish I could help you,” Jacali said. “Here, let me try.”
She couldn’t make heads nor tails of the backward script.
“It’s all Greek to me,” she said.
They found the back room held living quarters and Otto looked for a mirror. The only reflective surface was a piece of polished metal attached to the wall over a built-in sink with a pitcher of water next to it. It was not a very good reflective surface. Jacali mentioned possibly using a window pane but they were unsure how to best remove the glass.
They returned to the office and looked over the press, trying to figure out how to make it work.
“I vote we go find Stalloid to get this thing working again,” Otto said.
“I-I also have a question about this thing?” Jacali said.
“What is it?”
Otto explained how a printing press worked with the paper on one part and the typeset on the other. The typeset had ink put on it and when the lever was pulled, the paper would go down onto the inked typeset, which would put it on the paper.
“Amazing,” she said. “It’s a miracle.”
She looked around and found paper and ink.
“Couldn’t we ink it up and slap some paper down and get a rough copy?” she said.
“We could try,” Otto said. “But it would be really sloppy and hard to read.”
“Well, would it be harder to read than that?” Jacali said.
She pointed at the backwards typeset.
“I mean at least I can read the letters okay on this,” Otto said.
“I don’t know,” Jacali said. “Just an idea. We could get Stalloid though. See if it works.”
“Let’s just go get Stalloid or find a mirror.”
* * *
Jack West led Professor Stalloid up the stairs, gun drawn. He had pulled a bandana over his face. Professor Stalloid, seeing this, pulled out his handkerchief and put it over his own face. There was a small landing at the top with a single door. The room beyond was a living room with a window. There was a small kitchen and there was a study and a single bedroom as well.
They had thought there was some noise from the bedroom but when they carefully peeked in, there was no one there. The bed was a mess, the sheets pulled partially off it, and there was clothing laid out as if someone had put it there the night before, both a man’s suit and a woman’s dress. Shoes were also by the bed for both a man and a woman. The room held a wardrobe and a dresser. Jack West looked into the wardrobe, finding nothing.
Professor Stalloid peeked in.
“Hey, check under the bed,” he said.
Jack West leaned down and peeked under the bed. Nothing was there. However, he noticed he could see very clearly under the bed. It wasn’t dark under there at all.
He reached under the bed, looking for a trapdoor, and was shocked when his hand went right through the floorboards. When he looked more closely, he realized the light was coming from a circle under the bed.
“What’s under the bed?” Professor Stalloid said.
Jack West stood up and grabbed the foot of the bed, sliding it to one side.
“There’s a … portal over here,” he said.
Professor Stalloid entered the room to look.
“That’s a floor,” he said.
“It’s a portal,” Jack West said. “Stalloid, you don’t believe in portals, you just step right on in.”
“That’s … that’s a floor.”
“Just … put a foot on it.”
Professor Stalloid picked a pillow off the bed and tossed it to where Jack West was pointing. It landed on the floor and lay there, as he had expected it would.
“That’s a floor,” he said.
Jack West knelt down and touched the spot with his hand again. It moved through the floor as if it wasn’t there, disappearing from sight. He left his hand there for a moment and realized it felt like his hand was being pulled slightly. There was a pull though no pressure upon it, almost like the feel of a hand in running water.
* * *
Jacali and Otto realized they had probably found their companions when they found the two horses near the bank, which had the doors completely blown off their hinges.
“Typical,” Otto said.
“The telltale signs of Jack West and Brandon Stalloid,” Jacali said.
The smell of gunpowder was very strong and they looked into the place, which was in a shambles. The safe in the back was still closed, which was somewhat of a surprise. A door to one side stood ajar, steps going up from it.
“Truly righteous men we follow,” Jacali said. “Not stealing from the bank but just blowing the doors open so they can.”
“Yeah,” Otto said.
“Jacali! Otto! We’re upstairs!” Professor Stalloid’s voice called. “There’s a portal!”
“Oh great,” Otto said.
“We found what happened to the town,” Jacali quipped back. “It’s just in reverse!”
“Yeah, I don’t care!” Professor Stalloid called down. “Portal!”
“Is there a mirror up there, if you’re going to be uncooperative?” Otto called.
“Well, I’m not uncooperative!” Professor Stalloid called down. “Y’all come up here.”
“I don’t see a mirror but I do see a portal!” Jack West called.
“There’s a portal!” Professor Stalloid called.
“Well, do you want to see this portal?” Jacali said to Otto.
“If it gets them to help us,” Otto said.
They went upstairs.
“We were going to draw lots to see who puts their head in the portal,” Professor Stalloid said.
Jack West made some comment about Otto going in the hole.
“I heard that!” Otto called.
“We need you, brave Sir Otto!” Professor Stalloid called back.
They found the two men in a bedroom with a bed pushed at a strange angle. Professor Stalloid gestured for Jack West to put his hand in the portal again.
“I think it will mean more if one of them does it,” Jack West said.
“That’s floor,” Jacali said.
“Put your hand on it,” Professor Stalloid said.
Jack West moved around the piece of floor to stand near the wall.
“Here, come walk straight towards me,” he said.
“Don’t do that!” Professor Stalloid said. “Put your hand on it.”
“This is ****,” Jacali said.
She reached down and put her hand on the floor. It went right through the solid wood. She let out a shout and pulled her hand back quickly. She had felt a pulling on her hand but not something she couldn’t resist.
“So, how do we decide who goes in?” Professor Stalloid said.
“It’s not me,” Otto said.
“Oh, it’s definitely not going to be me,” Jacali said.
“Let’s see what your thing is first,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Brilliant idea Stalloid,” Jacali said. “Just like I said.”
“Hey, Jack West, you want to stay here and make sure that noise doesn’t do anything?” Professor Stalloid said.
“Uh … sure,” Jack West said.
“Oh yeah, we heard footsteps up here,” Professor Stalloid said. “Or skittering.”
“Could’ve been a rat,” Otto said.
“So the rats stayed,” Jacali said.
“We heard it downstairs,” Professor Stalloid said.
“It’s a big fricking rat,” Jack West said.
“That’s a big rat,” Professor Stalloid said. “If so, that could be food.”
“Regardless, we need your help running a printing press,” Otto said.
“I’ll come,” Professor Stalloid said.
“While you’re doing that, someone want to wipe down my horse?” Jack West said as they walked out of the room. “While I bravely watch this portal so nothing comes out to get you all?”
Before he left, Professor Stalloid whispered to Jack West to look for the combination in the study. He realized the man wouldn’t be able to watch the hole and search the study.
“You know, Otto, you’re our greatest fighter,” Professor Stalloid said. “Could you watch the hole?”
Jack West coughed loudly and looked at Professor Stalloid. He didn’t want the man there while he searched the study for the combination.
“I don’t feel terribly confident about the way you phrase that,” Otto said.
“We can put a sheet over the hole,” Professor Stalloid said. “And you can watch the sheet. I found material objects don’t go through it. I tried to put a pillow through it.”
“That way it looks like a spooky ghost if something comes up!” Jack West said.
Professor Stalloid suggested Otto stay with Jack West while Jack West would search the study for clues. Otto grudgingly agreed and Professor Stalloid put the sheet from the bed over the portal. Otto drew his saber and held it in hand to watch. Professor Stalloid noted Jack West would be looking for information on what happened in the town. Then he and Jacali left.
* * *
Jacali and Professor Stalloid went to the newspaper office. It only took him a little while to figure out roughly how to work the press and print out a single newspaper page. The page top noted it was the Quiet Gap Inquirer and had a silhouette of a bear on one side and a howling wolf on the other. Under the nameplate was the name “Benjamin Thorpe: Editor and Reporter” and next to that it read “WEEKLY 1 PENNY.” It was marked “Special Edition” under that and dated September 19, 1875: the date that day. The headline read: “Town Children Disappear!”
The article read:
Every child in the village of Quiet Gap disappeared two nights ago without a trace.
Yesterday morning, the parents of several children were startled to find them missing from
their beds. Said parents had put their children to sleep in the safety of their homes the night
before only to find them gone when they awoke.
Marshal Alba Churchill has no answers.
Each of the homes of the missing children was searched both inside and out but, according
to the Marshal, there was no sign of forced entry or foul play in most cases. The children were
simply gone without any footprints or other clues as to what might have happened to them.
How they were snatched from their bedrooms without making a sound is also unexplained.
In two cases, the room of the child was upset or disturbed though even in those cases, there
were no other signs of who might have taken the children or what might have happened to them.
Three posses of mounted men left the village in three different directions yesterday morning
in the hopes of finding some trace of the lost children. Unfortunately, they returned to town
last night, empty-handed and exhausted. The search will resume tomorrow.
Plans have been made to send riders to the towns of Paradise Valley and Winnemucca
today to spread the word in hopes something can be done to find and recover the children.
Professor Liam Tennesley, proprietor of the Quiet Gap Library and late of the University
of Cambridge in England, related that some Indian myth warns anyone from settling in Quiet
Gap. He notes the Paiute tribesmen who lived in the Gap centuries before left because of some
kind of curse on the area. One would have thought something of this curse would have appeared
before now. Professor Tennesley said he would do more research on the area soon.
The names of the missing children include:
William Harlow Jr.
Mayor Eric Griffin has offered a $100 reward for the return of the children.
“Whoever did this was able to enter the rooms of children while their parents slept, sometimes
in the same room,” Mayor Griffin said yesterday. “I don’t think he will stop at children, however.
I’ll be guarding my own room with dynamite tonight and won’t sleep a wink. I would advise
others do the same.”
It is hoped these children will soon be found. In any case, the men and women of Quiet Gap
will not give up the search until they find their lost and wayward children.
“Sounds like we need to go to the library,” Professor Stalloid said. “Boy, I’m tired after reading all that.”
They went to the library and found the building locked up. Professor Stalloid motioned to Jacali and the door.
“I’m the not the strongest but … I have a knife,” she said. “Otto seemed to be pretty good - oh, he’s not here.”
They walked around the building and found a back door but it was also locked. The windows were closed, latched, and the shutters drawn on them. They decided break into one of the windows, breaking a pane of glass and unlatching a window, shoving the shutters in and entering.
“Maybe everybody’s out in the other towns and looking and that’s why it’s a ghost town,” Professor Stalloid said.
“That would make me feel really bad about busting down these windows and doors,” Jacali said.
“It’s for the safety of the children.”
“But why wasn’t the newspaper printed?”
Professor Stalloid looked at her.
“Because they’re too busy,” he said.
“Why would they typeset a newspaper and go to all the trouble?” Jacali said.
They guessed the man set his typeset the night before with plans to print the paper out that morning. He probably did that in case there was new information overnight.
They entered the Quiet Gap Library and found the downstairs was one large room with numerous built-in bookshelves that were mostly empty. There was a small collection of only about 100 books in the place. They found a stairwell going up to the second floor where there was a small suite of rooms. There was no sign of a struggle in any of them though the bed was unmade.
In a small study were several notebooks filled with information on the Paiutes as well as notes Tennesley took after the children disappeared and a journal.
The journal indicated it was the possession of Liam Tennesley. It indicated Tennesley taught at the University of Cambridge, in England, but came to the United States to both educate and learn about the native people. He was most interested in the native Paiute of the area around Quiet Gap, where he ended up, purchased a building, and moved his own private library at some cost.
The entry for the day before, September 18, noted all of the children of the town disappeared the night before. It related Marshal Churchill was investigating the disappearances and posses of all of the men in the town who could ride had been sent out to find the children, though without success by nightfall.
Tennesley himself devoted the day to researching the local myths and legends of the Paiute from copious notes he took while interviewing natives who lived near, but not in, Quiet Gap, not finishing until late that night. What he found intrigued and terrified him.
Apparently, the local Paiute avoided the spring and green area around Quiet Gap for generations, even going to far as to put up stone markers covered in warnings in pictograms and their native tongue. The legend went that something horrible came into the village there hundreds of years ago, taking the children. When the incident occurred more than once, the elders of the village took notice. Eventually, the Paiute left the area of Quiet Gap, putting up markers to warn others away and leaving the cursed place where children would not stay themselves.
Tennesley was unsure how often the events of missing children occurred but guessed it was every 15 to 25 years or somewhere in between. He noted the town of Quiet Gap was established in 1867 and there had been no disturbances until the night before, at least none that he knew of. He made a note to visit the office of the Quiet Gap Inquirer the next day to make sure though he thought he was sure, in his time living in Quiet Gap, he would have heard of such an occurrence of importance.
There were no other entries after that.
Professor Stalloid looked at the books on the table. They were all about the Paiute of Nevada. Some were manuscripts but a few were printed. Most of the manuscripts were in the same handwriting as the journal.
* * *
Jack West searched the study and found a small slip of paper with three numbers on it. He went downstairs and opened the safe. He found quite a bit of money and a few small bags he guessed were filled with gold dust. He went to his horse and got the saddlebags, bringing them in and putting the paper money in. He left the gold dust behind.
He closed the safe, lifted the handle, and spun the dial once again, locking it.
He took his horse to the livery stables and took off the saddle and blanket, rubbing it down and putting it in a stall. He left the saddlebags in the stall as well.
* * *
“There’s obviously something terrible going on there,” Jacali said.
She had realized the amount of work it would take to move large pieces of stone like the ones they had passed, cutting them, and then carving warnings on them. The local Paiute had gone to a great deal of effort to warn people away from the place, especially for people who lived hundreds of years before.
“They wouldn’t do it for nothing over superstition,” she said. “I’m not one to believe in curses but … with what I’ve seen, maybe it’s something like … that.”
They went back downstairs and Professor Stalloid started looking through the books there.
“I’m going to go look at those rocks,” Jacali said to him. “See if there’s anything to it.”
* * *
Jacali left the library and went to the livery stable to get Nalin, riding out about a mile from town and examining the stones. She found they were not like any of the rocks and boulders in the area so must have been brought there from somewhere else. They were covered in pictograms and were obviously very old and worn from the weather. They had been carved deeply enough to last the ages, however.
They appeared to be a warning to stay away as the place was a bad place or cursed. There was nothing specific but a powerful warning to avoid the area. She realized if she had seen it before she had come to the village, she would have recognized it as a bad place and avoided it.
* * *
When Jacali returned to the livery stable, she found Jack West just finished rubbing down and putting away his horse.
“Hey Jack, this place looks like bad business,” she said.
She put Nalin in an empty stall.
“Really, some native folks, hundreds of years ago, went to an extraordinary amount of work to warn people to stay away from here,” she said.
“Well, you know what they say,” Jack West said. “One people’s bad business is another man’s good business.”
“I mean … I wouldn’t drag hundred pound rocks and carve into them inch-deep to warn people not to go there at any costs because that could be their good business.”
“Gotcha. If you want to tell the doctor, if y’all want to meet us up by the portal, we can decide if we’re going in.”
“I honestly don’t want to be in this place anymore. The only thing keeping me here is those children and … there might be some way to help them, but … obviously, if they haven’t come back out of the portal, it’s not something they can do on their own, which makes me nervous about trying to go in it. I’m going to inform all the others and make sure everybody’s on the same page and, hopefully we can regroup soon.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Share some information with you guys.”
She left the livery and went up to the bank to let Otto know what was going on. He hadn’t seen anything. She headed back down the street towards the library.
As she passed the general store, she saw a shadow move inside the building, past the broken-open door. She stopped and took her bow from her back, fixing an arrow onto the string.
“Raspberry!” she shouted.
* * *
Jack West sauntered back to the bank to help Otto watch the hole. He found the man tapping the sheet with his saber. Then he took one of the sheets and wrapped it around the broken stock of the rifle, tying it off to do a makeshift repair. Neither one of them heard Jacali’s call.
* * *
Professor Stalloid was still engrossed in looking at the frontispiece of each book, but had, so far found nothing of real interest. There were a few histories and several works of fiction, especially those written by Charles Dickens and other British writers. He also didn’t hear the Apache woman call out.
* * *
“Surely they heard me,” Jacali said.
She looked more closely at the general store and saw the large windows on the front had shutters over them on the inside. The door had a broken lock and part of the lintel was cracked and shattered as if someone had kicked it hard. It was fairly dark inside. She saw no more movement.
She crept onto the porch of the place and tried to peek into the windows but it was too dark to see. The light coming from the eastern-facing doorway was not substantial in the late afternoon. She peeked in through the door, her eyes taking a moment to adjust. She saw the filled shelves with narrow walkways between them, the pot-bellied stove with the small table and checkerboard next to it, and, in the back, a counter that ran the width of the building with a cash register upon it.
She heard the tapping of feet or … something behind the counter and then saw the back door to the room push open and bang against the wall. Something had gone through it, it seemed, but she didn’t see anything. It must have been on all fours, whatever it was.
She crept to one side and then pushed open the shutters on either side, letting more light into the room, while keeping her back to the front of the building. She thought she heard some kind of scuttling or skittering noise from the back room. Then she heard a hiss or heavy breath. There was more scuttling. There was a rattle and a crash that sounded like a pan or a pot. Then there was more skittering. Something clinked. She tried to determine what to do, listening to the noises.
The counter that ran the length of the room had a glass front and top but a wooden back. The brass cash register stood on part of the counter that was all wood.
She moved to the counter and hopped over it. Bow ready and aiming low, she kicked open the back door all the way and it rattled as it struck the wall. She peeked in and saw a simple living area with a larger iron stone. There were two doors off to her left forming two more rooms on that side of the building. There were several windows but they were all closed, as were the shutters over each.
It was dead quiet.
A coffee pot lay on the floor along with a couple of other kitchen implements. It was dim but she could still see as beams of light from the setting sun came through the shutters. She started to move, back to the wall, from window to window, sliding open the shutters to get more light in the room. When she reached the back door, she found it locked with the key in the lock. That perplexed her.
The back bedroom was still dim, the door ajar. It had a large bed which had messy sheets and covers. Clothing was over the end of the bed, and shoes were on the floor. The sheets were partially pulled off the bed. She moved to the other door and saw there were two smaller beds in that room. The beds in there were actually made. Children’s shoes and clothing were at the foot of each bed.
She crept into that second room and saw a chest of draws and a small table and chair. She didn’t see anything in the dim light but crept towards the bed and reached underneath it. She wanted to see if there was a portal under there. Then something grabbed her arm. It didn’t feel like a hand. It seemed to wind around her arm and she jerked her hand away, pulling away from the thing easily and then kicked the foot of the bed, knocking it aside, her bow ready.
Just for a moment, she thought she saw a form or shape. It was smaller than a man, but not by much. She couldn’t make out any details before it disappeared into the floor. She didn’t get a good look at it.
She went down to one knee and slid a single finger along the floor where the bed had been until it seemed to reach and edge and disappear into the floor. She immediately pulled it back out and then fled from the general store to find the other men who she figured had heard her but hadn’t done anything about it.
* * *
Professor Stalloid hadn’t found anything in the books that seemed to have any connection with the town or what might be happening there. There were histories and fictions and even a few textbooks, but nothing of interest. He even looked at the librarian’s desk and found a book with names and the names of books, obviously those that people in the town had borrowed.
He crept upstairs and checked the bed, looking underneath it, and realized there was some light there, barely visible, but enough to let him see clearly under the bed.
He headed back to the bank. On the way, he saw Jacali run out of the front of the general store and up the street, turning right, and heading towards the bank. He followed her.
* * *
Jack West and Otto sat in silence.
“You break your gun again?” Jack West said at one point.
Otto ignored him.
They heard someone run into the front of the bank and crash up the stairs at speed. Jack West aimed his pistol at the door and Jacali ran into the room.
“West! It’s me!” she said. “I saw a thing! Or - I didn’t. I only saw a shadow! But I heard the noises! And it grabbed me by the arm! And it tried to pull me into the portal under the bed!”
“You didn’t go in?” Jack West said.
“Wha? No! Because it went in there! It disappeared as soon as I moved the bed. Only a shadow was there! And it disappeared into the portal.”
“So, I’m thinking, when Stalloid makes his way over here, Otto and I just jump in first. We got the bigger, closer ranged … goodies.”
“I think I saw Stalloid with a shotgun at one point.”
“Otto, just like we did earlier, I think whoever does that should tie a rope to themselves. Keep people close so we can pull them back in.”
“Well, I’m not very strong,” Otto said. “So, it shouldn’t be me.”
“Who’s the strongest of all of us?” Jacali said.
They looked at Jack West, who was huge and solid.
“Mr. West, thank you for volunteering,” Jacali said.
“Or we could just tie the rope around something in the room,” Otto said.
Jacali agreed it would be better to hold onto the rope so they could pull the person out. Jack West suggested if it was safe, he could pull on the rope a few times and they could follow him in. Otto thought it a good idea to tie the rope around something in case they lost the grip so it wouldn’t just fall in the portal. Jack West agreed.
Otto asked what happened and Jacali told him about the great stones around the town and about something being in the general store. He also wanted to know what was on the newspaper and Jacali related what Professor Stalloid had told her had been in the newspaper article. She also related they went to the library to learn what they could of what the librarian had learned.
Otto laughed while reading the newspaper. Then he got serious.
“Poor mayor,” he said, remembering the destroyed house. “I know what happened to the mayor.”
“That’s what I think too,” Jacali said. “Regardless, it seems to me, what happened, y’all can agree or disagree, the facts are: the children disappeared. They tried to find them, running in all directions, but couldn’t. And then they found out the tales of this thing stealing children in the night from Paiute tribes, that they warned people about. I think the people caught wind of this and … either fled or tried to protect themselves from whatever was doing it. I was in the general store and the back door was locked from the inside.”
“Judging from how … uh … everything was placed … I’m thinking they abducted everyone this time, after they locked up for the night,” Jack West said.
“It could be,” Jacali said.
They heard steps on the staircase again and Professor Stalloid soon appeared in the doorway.
“There’s another portal in the library,” he said. “It was under the bed.”
“And there’s a portal under the bed in the general store,” Jacali said. “Something grabbed my hand from it. A tentacle? A rope?”
“Some sort of changeling, maybe?” Professor Stalloid said.
“I only saw a shadow,” Jacali said.
“If bullets affect it, I’ll be good,” Jack West said.
Jack West suggested tying off the rope and Otto noted the bed was too heavy to get out of the room. They could all see the circle of the portal with the sheet over it in the glowing gloom. Jacali put her hand on the sheet and pressed down but nothing happened.
“You have to have organic contact,” Professor Stalloid said.
Otto went and got his rope out of the stable. Jacali didn’t want to be in town after dark. Otto wondered about letting the other horses loose. Jacali wasn’t sure as she didn’t know if there were any townsfolk to save. They discussed tying the rope off and Otto tapped the sheet with his rifle, asking how they would get the rope through. Otto moved the sheet and put his boot down on the floor. It was solid.
“You gotta go in naked,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Just watch this,” Jack West said.
He leaned down and, with gun in hand, touched the floor, his flesh touching it before the weapon did. Both went into the floor as if it wasn’t even there. He pulled it back out.
“Okay, maybe you don’t go in naked,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Flesh first,” Jack West said.
They discussed who would go in, Otto wondering who would stay behind or if they would all go in. Jacali asked if they had enough rope for all of them to go in together. Jacali thought one person should go in first and, based on what they saw, decide if the rest should follow. They discussed who should go first and James West said he would go if they could pull him back out. He was a big man and wore a heavy poncho.
“Maybe you should take that poncho off, West,” Otto said.
“My poncho … is part of this outfit,” Jack West said. “It brings everything else together.”
“Maybe Jack West doesn’t go first, with the poncho,” Jacali said. “Someone else can go first. It could even be me.”
“I’ll go,” he said.
He tied the rope around the torso and drew his saber. They discussed signals and decided one tug meant he was okay while wild tugging meant he was in trouble. They tied off the rope to the bed and the other three all took the rope in hand.
Otto took his boots off and went in feet first, stepping into the portal, which gave him absolutely no resistance, so he went in fairly quickly, disappearing from sight almost immediately.
* * *
Otto fell down a long tunnel of stars and lights for what felt like a long time, but then found himself coming out, upwards, on the other side. He found himself in a stark area with pieces of metal rising up around him. Stretching out in all directions from his point of entry was a vast desert of thick, gray ash. Protruding from the ash were bits of withered bone, hunks of rubble, and twisted pieces of corroded metal. The sky above was gray with a reddish tinge, a dim orange sun that barely lit the land visible above the horizon. A strange, high-pitched whine was everywhere. There was a stench of fires long burning and something decaying.
All around him were strange circles of light, barely visible. Strange prints were in the ash leading from each of them as well as footprints of mostly bare feet. They all went off in the same directly, each of the tracks moving around the various holes.
He looked where he had come and touched it with his foot. It went into the ground and he quickly pulled it back out.
* * *
“So, how are we taking bets on whether he comes back out of there?” Jacali asked.
Professor Stalloid noted he wanted to visit the marshal’s office.
“I think he’s going to make it,” Jacali said. “Mr. Otto’s a cold-blooded killer of a man. I think he’ll be fine.”
“Those monsters ain’t got **** on him,” Professor Stalloid said.
“I don’t know, I’ve seen him … run away from quite a few fights,” Jack West said.
“True, but maybe the means he’s more likely to survive,” Jacali said.
“True,” Jack West said. “When I figure out bullets don’t work, I’m done as well. But I haven’t seen that except for the Crest. It said ‘no.’”
Jacali looked at him quizzically.
“When I shot it,” Jack West said.
“The Crest?” she said.
“Oh yeah. It … uh … dematerialized my bullet.”
“Oh, the Crescent.”
“Crescent. Crest. Spaghetti. Whatever you wanna call it.”
Jack West looked at her.
“That doesn’t sound like an English word,” she said.
“You never eaten Aye-talian?” Jack West said.
“What’s an Aye-talian?”
“It’s those people with the … uh … different color skin. Uh … kind of like yourself a little bit but a little whiter, like me.”
Otto’s foot popped out of the floor and vanished back within.
“Oh … God,” Professor Stalloid said. “I think he was just testing to see if he could come back through. Everything’s still okay. Let’s do one tug … and see if he does one tug back.”
* * *
Otto drew an “X” in the ash with his saber to mark where it was. Then there was a solid tug on the rope. He tugged back once. He felt the slack on the rope go taut. He took out one of his spare peacemakers and put it in the center of the “X.” He walked a few feet off towards the tracks.
* * *
“Who’s climbing down next?” Jack West said. “You want me to go?”
There was pulling on the rope and the other three gave it some slack until they were out. It pulled tight against the bed until the bed started to move towards it a little bit.
“Untie it,” Jack West said.
“He knows he can only go so far, right?” Professor Stalloid said.
Then it went slack again. A moment later, Otto came back through the portal out of nowhere, right at Jack West, who was startled. They could smell smoke on him.
“So wait, you were just able to stand there and jump out?” Jack West said.
“Story time, Otto,” Jacali said. “Tell us.”
“On the other side of the portal … you go through the portal, you see a spiral of stars and light before you enter this desolate, ashen, plain,” Otto said. “Jagged peaks.”
He suddenly knelt and reached through the portal. He’d forgotten his pistol.
“Oh, God, Otto, why?” Jacali said and looked away.
He pulled out the pistol.
“So, Otto, we’re good to go?” Jack West said.
“There’s nothing over there,” Otto said. “Tracks. Forever.”
Jack West looked at him.
“You went 30 feet,” he said.
“Well, what did you want me to do?” Otto said.
“So, we can explore.”
“But I feel weak after using the portal.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine.”
“You left your weapon in there?”
“So the portal would be noticeable.”
“You didn’t see the rope going into the top?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You came down with a rope. The rope should’ve been going through the portal still.”
Otto looked at him.
“That should’ve been your way back out,” Jack West said.
“When I went through the thing it was like I was standing on the ceiling and I came out up there,” Otto said. “The rope. Let’s say I came out under the side and upside down.”
“You were underneath.”
“I was not dangling.”
“So, what is the point of the rope? Do we need it?”
“At least for safety purposes,” Jacali said. “For the test.”
“I would say we need it,” Professor Stalloid said. “If he came out, in his perspective of mind, he’s coming out of a ceiling and going down, right?”
“I just walked through a door when I went through it,” Otto said. “I was still standing when I came through.”
Otto put his boots back on.
They discussed going through with Otto complaining he felt weak. Jacali was for going through to try to find the missing people. She pointed out the place was apparently not immediately dangerous. They would have a chance to run if there was danger.
“I have to balance out what they call that karma deal,” Jack West.
There was talk of who was going to go through. Jacali thought they were done with the rope but Jack West pointed out the general store would have more rope. Jacali thought they should all go in together and protect each other while they were in there. She was adamant to go. Professor Stalloid was for whatever the group consensus was.
“Would you rather watch the outside?” Jack West said to Otto.
“Perhaps,” Otto said.
“Sounds like an Otto thing,” Jack West said.
Otto glared at the man and then took a swing at him, trying to punch him in the face with the sword guard. Jack West slapped his hand aside, took a step back, and put his hand on his peacemaker. The two men glared at each other.
“Do we need to take this outside, Otto?” Jack West said.
Otto sheathed his saber.
“Now we can focus on the children,” Jack West said.
They discussed Otto keeping watch again and talked about signaling the man if he didn’t go. Professor Stalloid suggested he stay there as well and could put a piece of wood through and hold it and if they got in trouble they could shoot the piece of wood.
“I trust your aim,” he said.
“That is a terrible idea,” Otto said.
There was some discussion of how that might work or not work. They eventually decided to all go in. Otto said he was going to go to the general store. Professor Stalloid took advantage of his going to head for the marshal’s office.
* * *
Otto found plenty of rope at the general store. He also found a replacement for his Winchester carbine. He left his broken Winchester behind and borrowed the new carbine, loading it, and headed back with the rope.
* * *
Professor Stalloid found the marshal’s office locked up. He tried to break down the door but it was solid. He peeked through the bars and saw a desk covered with paperwork. There appeared to be two cells in the back. He walked across the street and aimed the lightning gun at the door. There was a crack of thunder as the bolt struck the doorknob of the door, melting it and the lock within and burning it right off the door.
“It was me!” Professor Stalloid shouted.
He went to the door and found the blast had only damaged the handle. He pushed on the door and it opened with a groan. He went in to search out the room.
A pile of notes on Marshal Alba Churchill’s desk noted the disappearance of 13 children in the town, which were all of the children of Quiet Gap. Each of the separate 13 reports went into detail on how the children disappeared from their rooms with no indication of forced entry or signs of anyone outside. Dogs did not pick up any strange or unusual scents outside of any of the windows of the children’s rooms, some of which were on the second floor or upper loft of the building they were living in. All of the events took place on the same night, September 17, two nights before the investigators arrived in Quiet Gap. All of the children were between 1 and 13 years old.
The notes and reports further indicated that in most cases, the rooms were completely undisturbed though the children’s clothing and footwear were still there, indicating they must have been kidnapped wearing nothing but their underwear. Nothing was missing from any of the rooms, making it unlikely the children ran away or left on their own.
However, in two cases, there was mention of sheets being pulled under the bed, which Marshal Churchill noted was strange and disturbing. However, the child was obviously not under the bed. He speculated the children in question might have hidden from whoever kidnapped them under the bed though that doesn’t really explain why the sheets seemed to have been pulled under there.
More notes indicated several posses of men went out on the 18th, the day before the investigators arrived, in search of them. No tracks, trace, or clue was found to any of the missing children. A few notes indicated men would be sent to Paradise Valley in the north and Winnemucca in the south on the 19th to further the search and alert nearby towns of what had happened. Nothing further was indicated, however, since the 18th, the day before they had arrived.
* * *
When Otto returned to the bank, Professor Stalloid was gone. The other man returned after a little while, his hands filled with notes and reports. He shared what he had learned.
“Sounds like two of the kids got dragged under,” he said.
“Betcha they all did,” Jack West said.
“No, I feel like some of them might have gotten coaxed under.”
“Or gently carried. It doesn’t matter. They’re down there.”
There was some discussion about use of the rope, how far the drop was, who was going to stay, and such. It was finally decided they would all go through the portal. Stalloid went outside and found some dark rocks to mark the portal on the other side. Otto went to the smashed house and got some wood. Jack West retrieved the bank door that survived mostly intact. He felt around the portal and found it was about three feet across.
By the time they finally got organized, the blood-red light of the setting sun shone through the shutters.
Jack West went first. He stood on the spot, holding the door, and then put down his hand and both he and the door dropped out of sight. Professor Stalloid bent down and touched the portal, then somersaulted into the portal.
“Jacali, I would suggest you walk in rather than jump in,” Otto said.
“I would like to keep my shoes on,” she said. “Do you think─”
“Just bend down and touch it.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.”
She reached down and touched it with her hand and then slid her feet in and eased through the portal.
Otto took a minute to check all his equipment and then followed Jacali’s lead.
* * *
Jack West flopped out of the portal feet first and crashed to the ground clutching at the door. A moment later, Professor Stalloid rolled out of the portal and stood at the end of his somersault.
“Tah-dah!” he said.
Jacali came out feet first but just pivoted over out of the ground to sit on the edge of the portal. Professor Stalloid started putting his rocks around the portal to mark it.
It felt like a very long time before Otto came through the portal, easing out and standing on the ashy ground. He had a rope tied around him.
They looked around at the strange, gray desert. Otto thought they were in hell. Jack West though they were on another planet. Professor Stalloid thought they were in the “Underneath” as he called it to himself, perhaps some other dimension. Jacali had no idea where they were.
The orange sun was setting and the area around them was lit. They guessed there were more portals all around. Tracks led from various spots around them, most of them meandering around but all going in the same direction.
Professor Stalloid jumped up and down. He realized he felt lighter than he should have. He looked at the sky and at the sun setting on the horizon. He was certain they were not on Earth but on some other planet. He was certain of it. He could confirm it when he saw the night’s sky and saw the stars.
“Hey, I think we’re on another world,” he whispered to Jacali. “Not Earth.”
“There are more?” she whispered back.
“Yeah,” Professor Stalloid said.
Otto and Jacali led them after the tracks. They were easy to follow though they both guessed that after only a day or two, the footprints would disappear with the blowing wind. The tracks in the immediate vicinity moved around, apparently avoiding certain spots on the ground. The tracks were a mix of footprints, mostly of bare feet, and strange prints they couldn’t identify: some long and some small.
They realized the way the tracks moved, if they were avoiding other portals, they were in a square area over a hundred yards across, and seemed to be in the same places where the houses of Quiet Gap were. Or maybe where the beds of the town were.
Off to one side the opposite direction the tracks were going was the broken, burned, and smashed remains of a good-sized contemporary house.
“That oddly looks like the mayor’s house over there,” Otto said. “I say we should go check it out before we go.”
“I concur,” Professor Stalloid said.
The wreckage did, indeed, appear to be made of the same wood as the mayor’s house had been. The remains of the upper half of the house appeared to have been blasted with dynamite and was, for the most part, smashed to pieces. They realized it was the part of the house that wasn’t around as debris.
“It looks like, when he had his dynamite accident, it caved in on the portal,” Jacali said. “And this is the debris that flew through there.”
“But this is the top of the house,” Otto said.
“All I know is there’s no kids over there,” Jack West said.
“But how, if it collapsed in on itself would the top end up on this side and not the bottom, which is in our reality?” Otto said.
“Because it was pulled into the portal,” Professor Stalloid said. “What I want to know is that if I go into there, and there’s a bed, is there a portal under it?”
“That’d be a possibility,” Jack West said. “But it don’t matter ‘cause we got 30 other portals to use.”
“I know, but I want to know if he destroyed the portal in his house by doing this. Or if it still exists somehow.”
“We’ll tell him to move!”
“I think finding the missing townspeople is more important,” Jacali said.
“They could be in the house,” Professor Stalloid said.
The tracks didn’t go to the house.
They moved on, following the tracks. Twin moons rose over the horizon to the right, near an impossibly huge structure that seemed to be some kind of great building. The stars were completely unrecognizable, as was the blood-red nebula across half the sky. They all realized they were not on Earth anymore.
The trail didn’t lead anywhere near that building but to a flat area beyond the strange, broken hills. As they crested the rise of a dune of ash some three miles beyond the portals, they saw another massive structure ahead of them. Standing impossibly in the ash and sand was a great cube at least 100 yards across. Unadorned except for the strange patterns upon it, the massive cube was where the trail was going. It balanced impossibly on one corner and was huge.
They followed the trail that went around the side of the cube. A huge mound of debris was piled up to what appeared to be a door in the side of the cube. It formed a rough but solid ramp. The metal of the cube was unlike any they had ever seen before and the entire structure was covered in strange and unrecognizable sigils and markings that had obviously been there for a great deal of time.
The doors had no hinges or handles but a large red button was on the wall next to it. Jack West pressed it with his pistol and the doors slid open widely without a sound. Lights flickered from within and there were small fires in some places. A pall of smoke hung over the immense room that seemed to fill the cube.
Nearest to the door were several short walls forming a barricade. They had apparently been supplemented by a great deal of debris, most of it once connected to the main barricades: metal and bone apparently. Now, everything was in ruins. The room itself was filled with great, broken buildings of all shapes and sizes, most of them several stories tall. The road that ran from the door was wide. The buildings are broken and obviously in ruins.
More disturbing were the buildings on the walls and ceiling of the interior. Roads and avenues were on the walls and ceiling as well. There were also doors in the other walls, both on their level of the cube and connecting to the other walls and ceiling, as if gravity were not a thought to the makers of the thing. Even the ceiling had doors where it met the four walls of the cube. They realized there was rubble and debris on all of the walls and ceiling as well.
Great ramps ran up and down from floor to ceiling in two of the corners and more ran from side to side between all four walls. They were wide enough for a wagon but still looked small compared to the vastness of the great room overall.
Otto took cover behind the barricade. Jack West sauntered into the huge room to look around more carefully. Jacali moved into the room as well. As each of them stepped into the room, the tilted floor seemed to right itself and they found themselves on solid ground. Both Otto and Jacali searched the ground nearby for tracks without finding any. Professor Stalloid peeked into the huge room before entering. He saw another red button next to the door on one side and a lever on the other side.
“Let’s make sure this door opens on the other side too,” he said.
He stepped back from the door and pushed the button on the outside, closing the door.
Otto and Jacali noticed when the door closed, a light above it that glowed purple turned green. Jacali pushed the button and saw that it was no longer leading outside. Instead, it showed a more open area with smaller buildings of some sort. The entire area seemed to be more regimented and controlled than the room they stood in. Several metal or horn or ivory sleds of some kind lay in the street, all of them partially disassembled, missing parts, or corroded.
Jacali pressed the button again and the door closed. The light remained green. She looked around and found a lever on the opposite side of the door from the great red button. It was up but she pulled it down and the light changed to purple again. She pressed the button again and the door opened to reveal Stalloid outside of the cube.
Her eyes rolled up in her head and she fainted. Otto rushed over to help the woman to help her.
Jack West, looking up at the other strange walls and ceiling, noticed movement. There were a few spider-like creatures some distance away on two of the walls and on the ceiling. The creatures didn’t seem to have noticed him but they moved strangely through the rubble and broken buildings. He realized they must have been pretty big for him to see them so far away. He also noticed buildings on the wall they had come in, sticking out as if the wall was also a floor.
He guessed when he stepped on the wall, it would turn into a floor for him.
Jacali was only out for a few seconds before she came to once again.
“Hey, so, quick question,” Jacali said.
“Yes,” Otto said.
“When I swung the lever, did the door go to a different place?”
She looked at him.
“I hate this place,” she said. “I want to go home. This is awful. Oh my goodness.”
He offered her a hand and helped her stand up.
“Let’s find these people,” she said.
They discussed the light changing color. They noted it had changed green again when the door had closed and explained how the door led to different places. They explained the lever to Professor Stalloid as well.
“Hey, there’s spiders on the ceiling,” Jack West said.
“What?” Jacali said.
They all looked at the things on the walls and ceiling and realized the creatures were clinging to the walls and ceiling as if each had its own gravity. Otto tried to step onto the nearby wall but nothing happened. It was just a wall.
Professor Stalloid, his face filled with mad hate, pulled the lightning gun from his shoulder. Otto rushed the man and grabbed at the lightning gun. The two men struggled with the case for a moment and Otto snatched it. Stalloid pulled a stick of dynamite out of his pocket. They saw it already had a blasting cap and a short fuse sticking out of it. Out of his other pocket, he pulled out a box of matches.
Otto shoved the man and the two struggled. Professor Stalloid’s eyes were wide and he looked back and forth between Otto and the spiders. His mouth was open and he drooled copiously from it. Something was obviously wrong with him.
Jack West turned around and saw the men apparently fighting over a stick of dynamite. He laughed.
“What are you clowns doing?” he said.
“Help me!” Otto said.
Jacali ran behind Stalloid and tried to grab him but the man elbowed her in the gut and she stumbled back.
Jack West turned and walked away, heading for the nearest building.
“Bunch a clowns,” he muttered. “Everybody knows I take the best pictures.”
Professor Stalloid lit the match and then set it to the fuse, which sputtered. He looked straight up at the spider 60 or 70 yards above him.
“Save yourself!” Otto said.
He dropped the lightning gun and ran towards the barricade. Jacali ran along the wall and launched herself over where the barricade met it. Professor Stalloid flung the dynamite straight up and suddenly realized what he had done. The stick didn’t hit the wall as if it was the ground, like he’d hoped, but arced and came directly back down. He heard a gunshot as Jack West, having looked over his shoulder, fired at the stick of dynamite but missed. Professor Stalloid, desperate, slapped the red button and flung himself through the door, ducking to the right in the room beyond.
Jack West, a little ways away, leapt into the building.
The explosion rocked the ground and sent terribly loud echoes throughout the place. Stalloid was knocked to the ground in the next room and slightly injured. Jacali and Otto had both crouched behind the barricade and their ears rang. Otto looked over the barricade, expecting to see Professor Stalloid’s mangled corpse. He saw the door closing and no sign of the man.
Jacali looked around, bow in hand, and saw the spiders all scuttling their direction.
* * *
Jack West looked around the room he was standing in. There was debris and broken items in the place, as well as a ramp in the back that went up. He didn’t recognize anything in the room so he made his way to the ramp.
* * *
Professor Stalloid looked at the strange, regimented buildings and odd-looking sleds that littered the street of the room he found himself within. He turned around and looked over the doorway. There was no light over and he noticed there was no lever either, just the red button. He pressed it carefully and the door opened to reveal the barricade and the blackened street. He smelled gunpowder and saw Otto peeking over the short wall. He strolled back into the room and Otto aimed his rifle at the man. It was a very familiar feeling. He didn’t like it.
“Are those spiders dead?” he asked.
“They’re coming over here now,” Otto said.
“Can I have my lightning gun?” Professor Stalloid said.
Otto just looked at the ground and it was then Professor Stalloid noticed the bits and pieces of wood and glass scattered in the area that looked like it had once been a camera.
“You need to throw that very far away!” Professor Stalloid said.
“No!” Otto said.
“No! The-the stuff on the ground? That needs to be gone!”
“Well, you do it!”
He quickly gathered up the remains of the lightning gun and chucked it through the door before it closed.
“So … what happened?” Professor Stalloid said.
“You tired to kill us!” Otto said.
“I tried to kill spiders I thought. Yeah yeah! There was a spider behind me!”
“That was Jacali.”
“I’m not a spider!” Jacali said.
“Well, why did you try to stop me from killing spiders?” Professor Stalloid said.
“‘Cause now they know we’re here!” Otto said.
“Aren’t we here to stop them?”
The creatures weren’t spiders and they resembled them only in that they had eight appendages. The nearest was only a little smaller than a man but had a bulk to it that belied its size. It had four thick tentacles holding up its greenish body and four others that sprouted from the sides like loose and flabby arms. It had no discernible face, but more a series of claws or fangs that covered the front of its head. The back was large and had strange bulbs upon it that might have served as some sense organ or might merely have been some sort of cancerous growth.
Professor Stalloid looked around for Jack West but saw no sign of him. He shouted for the man.
* * *
Jack West Professor Stalloid shouting his name and went to a window in that direction. He saw the others by the doors they’d first come in, Professor Stalloid running towards the building he was in.
* * *
Jacali looked at the things moving towards them. One was coming down the nearest wall straight towards them. Another was on the ceiling and heading for the same wall. The last were off to the right on the wall there, heading towards the floor. The one on the wall nearest was only about 20 feet away and Jacali shot at it, striking it with an arrow. Otto put the rifle to his shoulder and fired directly after that, hitting the thing. It stumbled and slumped to the ground. It stopped moving.
It didn’t fall, as Jacali thought it would.
She saw the thing in the wall to the right head for one of the main doors like the one they had come in.
“I don’t feel like the kids are in this cube!” Jack West called. “They’re in another cube through one of these other doors!”
* * *
Professor Stalloid ran into the building where he’d seen Jack West leaning out the window. He saw the ramp in the back and ran up to join the other man on the second floor.
“We’re gonna get swarmed,” Professor Stalloid said.
“We better hurry,” Jack West said. “We better get down.”
* * *
The creatures on the right wall had reached their floor and went through a door in it. That’s when Jacali noticed another door in the floor of the room she was standing in, not far from the door they had entered. She looked around but none of the other doors opened.
“What are we doing?” Jacali said to Otto. “Are we following the others? At least we should stay as a group.”
“Stay as a group,” Otto said.
They headed for the building they saw Stalloid enter. They went up the ramp and found Professor Stalloid and Jack West there.
“Let’s go back down,” Jack West said.
He ran down the ramp.
“What?” Jacali said. “Okay. Fine.”
They followed and went back to the street. Otto started searching for tracks. Jacali looked as well and found signs of numerous people walking down the road recently. She also found a handkerchief near the center of the great room but down the main road that led to the left. She continued finding signs of people passing through leading all the way to the main door in that wall.
Unlike the door they had come in, it had neither a lever nor a light.
The room beyond was huge, another 100 yard by 100 yard room. There were no buildings in that room at all though there were murals on all of the walls and the floor. It was an ingenious mural that was made in such a way that no matter what floor a person might stand on, they could see the entirety of the mural. Overall, the room had a central thoroughfare and was mostly open though there were small plinths, many of them with the remains of glass boxes, almost like display cases along the floor, walls, and ceiling.
Most interesting were the great murals.
Professor Stalloid told them what he thought the murals meant as he followed them from left to right. They showed the evolution of the creatures from their earliest evolving from something from their seas to their creation of great cities and finally to the creation of the cubes, which floated what appeared to be hundreds of feet in the air square to the ground. It also showed something similar to Professor Terwilliger’s rockets leaving an orb around a sun to other such orbs. It showed more of the cubes with the inference that they were taken to other worlds in the star system. Finally, it showed a select and smaller group of the creatures with markings coming from their heads creating what appeared to be gates, this time to other star systems. There were also spiral nebulas shown, with the gates leading to them.
The Milky Way galaxy was the only galaxy that existed, Professor Stalloid knew. But the murals indicated that there were other galaxies, possibly hundreds if not thousands of them. It was something he had never seen before. These creatures had gone very far. Everything known in contemporary astronomy was wrong.
However, the murals became cruder towards the end, at one point showing a strangely shaped creature with a tentacle where the face should be and then some kind of strange lights or mushrooms appearing all over one of the spheres. A few of the rockets and cubes were shown leaving the sphere and some of the gates were also shown to be formed. There was little after that.
“I feel like that mushroom orb is the one we are on,” Professor Stalloid said. “And there were some sort of explosions beyond my comprehension.”
All of them but Otto suddenly realized the rooms they were in were the same size as the exterior of the cube. Each of them was 100 yards on a side, as was the exterior of the cube. They were in an impossible structure.
Jacali started looking for tracks again and found a bow and ribbon off to the right. She guessed the townsfolk were taken in that direction. Then she looked at the plinths, wondering if they were used to hold the Crescent. They were all different shapes and sizes but she saw some that might have been large enough to house it.
They went to the door to the right and found themselves in another impossibly large room. This one had more tall, broken buildings, these with storefronts, apparently. It made them think of storefronts, at least. They had a terrible time following the trail and lost it, wandering for an hour, entering one of the buildings but finding absolutely nothing there.
Jacali found some obvious clues she had missed the first time. The trail led from the door they came into and then bore left to one of the great doors on wall. They found that door ajar and a great room with low broken and shattered buildings beyond, only a few larger than two stories high. The trail seemed to lead to the center of the cube on that floor where there was a low, solid structure with no windows. It was about 40 or 50 feet on a side. As they carefully approached the building, they saw there was a crude bar over the doors and could hear the sound of voices within. They removed the bar and opened the door.
A field of purple glass and the semblance of a park was in the open-topped building, almost arrayed like some kind of athletic field. There were dozens of people milling around, most of them in their underwear or nightshirts and with bare feet. It looked like the population of the entire town was there.
“It’s time to go home, people,” Jack West said loudly.
The townsfolk looked their way, surprised and several rushed over to them.
“Listen! We know the way out!” Jacali said. “We can guide you all, but we need to stay together!”
People seemed confused and frightened.
A large muscular man wearing long johns but no shirt approached them, as did a small, mousy man, and a fully-dressed man who was missing a boot but wore a star on his vest.
“I see you wear your badge to sleep,” Jacali said.
“No, I was still up when they came out from under the bed,” Marshal Churchill said. “I took a few shots at ‘em. Then they got me. But most of ‘em here was sleeping … and they said they never woke up. But I saw ‘em being taken! They were walking! Some were being carried. You can get us out of here?”
“We know the way we got here,” Jacali said. “We’ll follow it back.”
“All right,” Marshal Churchill said. “They took some of us away. We don’t know where they went. We don’t know what they did to ‘em. Five or six of us.”
“Those people are probably gone,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Okay, hold on Mr. Stalloid!” Jacali said.
A little girl nearby burst into tears.
“It’s just probable,” Professor Stalloid said.
“Listen, do you know which way they went?” Jacali said.
“They took ‘em out the doors you just came in,” Marshal Churchill said. “We can’t see outside. What is this place?”
“It’s a hellscape,” Professor Stalloid said.
“William Jeffries, he just won’t say anything. He just keeps staring at the ceiling.”
“Is the mayor here?”
“We haven’t seen the mayor.”
“He’s probably gone.”
“Shut up, Stalloid,” Otto said.
“Stalloid! I think you’re making the situation a bit worse,” Jacali said. “Why don’t we deal with the grave realities of the situation after we have people out of the hellscape?”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” Professor Stalloid said. “Yeah yeah yeah. Hellscape.”
He looked over the people.
“If you don’t get out of here, you know this is a bad place, right?” Professor Stalloid said loudly. “We’re all going to die.”
People started to panic. A few women screamed and children cried and called to their mothers or fathers. One little boy started slamming himself into a wall. It was pandemonium.
“I don’t wanna die!” one man cried out.
Three or four people pushed by them and ran out of the open doors, fleeing.
“Nice going, Stalloid!” Otto said.
“Everyone stay still!” Jack West cried out.
He brandished his pistol.
“Shut up and listen, God damn it!” he cried out.
No one listened to him.
Jacali moved towards the doors and closed them.
“Everybody step out for a minute,” Jack West said.
The townsfolk surged forward in a panic.
“Let’s just get everybody out and we’ll come back for the other people!” Jacali said.
Jacali went out the doors and pointed down the street the way they’d come, then led them. Otto stayed close to her. Jack West exited the building but stepped aside to see that people got out. Professor Stalloid stayed with him.
A little girl got knocked down by Otto and he swooped to her and snatched her up. She was crying and holding the leg someone had stepped on. He tossed aside the new Winchester as it didn’t have a strap.
A few people fled the wrong way. A woman near Professor Stalloid was muttering “Where’s my husband?” and going off perpendicular to Jacali’s main mob. She pushed by the man as he put his arms out and tried to point her in the right direction. He told her to follow the war hero and pointed out Otto. She was confused but headed in the correct direction.
On the other side, near Jack West, an old man seemed confused and out of sorts.
“I ain’t following no God-damned injun!” he said to Jack West.
“It is tough to do but they know where they’re going,” Jack West said.
The old man grudgingly went that direction.
Marshal Churchill tried to help guide the people, as did Doctor Groate, an old man in a nightshirt. The big blacksmith slapped people who got out of line or shoved them in the right direction. An intelligent-looking woman and another gentleman who had talked to them before were also trying to persuade people to keep moving and follow the people who were leading them out. Only a few were keeping their heads however. Most were terrified.
They had made it about halfway to the door when a little girl screamed and they saw she was pointing to an alley between two of the buildings. Lying on the ground were several bloody bones that appeared to be human. Her shriek was ear-piercing and loud.
Jack West moved forward and yelled for them to keep going.
Something peeked out of one of the houses. It wasn’t human. Jack West fired a single shot and the thing screeched and fell out of sight.
“C’mon, your homes are almost there!” Professor Stalloid shouted. “We’re on our way!”
Everyone surged forward but they heard the sound of other alien screeches and then the sound of metal banging on metal and more loud, alien screeches. Moments later the horrible creatures started pouring out of the houses on the floor, walls, and ceiling. Most of them erupted from the buildings on the wall they were heading for, racing down the wall towards them. They would not be able to make it through the door before the horrors got to them.
The townsfolk panicked again.
“Don’t stop running!” Jack West cried out.
At least a dozen people fainted, froze, or stood and watched the things, screaming. One man started pounding his face with his fists like he was trying to blind himself as he shrieked and shrieked and shrieked.
Jack West opened fire, fanning his pistol, shooting three of the things. Two of them stopped moving and the other, obviously badly injured, scuttled into one of the buildings on that wall.
Jacali looked around, unsure where to go. She had stopped the townsfolk some 20 feet from the wall and the creatures swarmed around the door, unable to reach them but blocking their exit. The things leapt up towards them but they were too far away.
Professor Stalloid suddenly realized the gravity was subjective. It depended upon which door each room was entered from. They had not seen any of the things scuttle from wall to wall or wall to ceiling or floor. Just like them, the things were limited to the wall, ceiling, or floor they were upon. He shouted it out for the rest to hear.
Jacali yelled for everyone to stay put and took out her bow. It took her but a moment to realize there were far too many of the things to kill. They were moving down the wall as Jack West fired at the things but others moved on the ceiling and other walls, going to doorways that would, presumably, lead them to ways to get to the villagers. There were hundreds of the things.
She called for the townspeople to turn around and head off to the door on their left. Jack West and Stalloid were now at the front of the group and they saw Jacali pointing to another door. Jack West switched guns, holstering the one he held. He opened the door there and saw they were back in the museum room.
He moved in along with the townsfolk and the others. Jacali ran into the room to search the area and try to figure out where they had initially entered from and hope they were on the correct floor. It was very quiet once Otto closed the door to the last room. No sound came through whatsoever.
Professor Stalloid used the revolver Jack West had lent him to blast away at the button. It shattered and there was a hissing noise. Sparks came out of the thing and Professor Stalloid turned and ran.
Jacali realized they had originally come in the door directly across from the door they just entered. She pointed the townsfolk to that door and led them towards it.
The door behind them opened and the horrible creatures burst in, not far from them.
When they entered the original room to the cube, they made their way to the door with the light, Jacali leading. She got there before the rest and pushed up the lever, causing the light to turn purple. She pressed the red button and the door lead out into the desert.
More of the creatures poured out of the door to the museum. Jack West fired at them but they didn’t slow. Professor Stalloid lit a piece of dynamite and dropped it at his feet. He kept running.
Otto led the fleeing townsfolk. After about half the villagers were out of the cube, Jacali ran out among them.
In the back, Professor Stalloid and Jack West were catching up to the group as they bottlenecked at the door. They saw one little boy running and running and running behind everyone, trying to keep up.
“Grab him!” Professor Stalloid yelled. “We’ll run together as a unit!”
“Just blow up the exit!” Jack West said.
He scooped up the boy and put him under one arm. The kid was still moving his arms as if he was running. Behind them, there was a blast and several of the things were blown to pieces or flung into the air as the dynamite Professor Stalloid dropped finally exploded.
Professor Stalloid brought up the rear as Jack West ran down the slope. The scholar lit the dynamite and dropped it by the door. Then he pressed the button as he left the cube. He ran down the slope.
The things did not immediately come out, as Professor Stalloid had hopes. It was several minutes before the door finally opened and the horrible creatures boiled out of the cube along with a good amount of smoke, but they had gained a decent lead on the horrible things, though Professor Stalloid was not terribly pleased to be in the very rear of their group and finding himself short of breath.
He realized there were hundreds of the things.
Jacali had moved to the front of the group of townsfolk and was leading them along with Otto. Unfortunately, both Jack West and Stalloid were falling back, out of breath and with stitches in their sides. Jack West put the kid down, but the child wasn’t making much better time than the two men. The horrors were catching up.
When Jacali and Otto reached the place of portals, they saw that only about half the surviving townsfolk had kept up. Others had fallen behind over the three miles between the cube and the spot, though Jack West and Professor Stalloid were bringing up the rear as the horrible creatures gained on them.
“Otto, it doesn’t matter which portal, right?” Jacali yelled at the man. “Let’s just get them in the first.”
Otto got through a portal with the child as Jacali started telling people to get into the portals without jumping in. Most were slowly entering the portals nearest the side of the field they approached. Others fell through. One little boy leapt into his and then fell back out, holding his head and climbing back in.
Most of the people were through when Jacali spotted Professor Stalloid and Jack West, along with a child, running with the horrible creatures close behind them. Jack West dropped a piece of dynamite on the ground and planned to shoot it later.
“C’mon mister!” the little boy yelled at Jack West, grabbing his arm. “C’mon! C’mon. God damn it!”
He slapped at Jack West’s arm.
“Don’t you die on me!” he cried out.
Jack West looked back, hoping to shoot the dynamite, but the things were all around it and couldn’t even see it.
Jacali ran to the three and grabbed the kid.
“No!” he shouted. “Daddy!”
She ran to one of the nearby portals and put the boy down.
“Where do I go?” he said, taking a few steps and falling into one of the portals.
Jacali fired several arrows into the pack of the things before she felt them too close. She killed at least one of them and injured three others. Then she fled through the portal as one of the things lunged at her.
Jack West and Professor Stalloid followed them, the things very close behind and lunging at them as both of them entered the portals.
* * *
Otto had gone through the portal with the little girl near the front of the pack and found himself in a room he didn’t recognize. Others started coming through and he handed off the girl to someone. Someone struggled with the back door and someone else picked up a chair and busted open a window to escape. He noticed the shutters were opened in the room. Otto shoved the bed aside and went over to the back door where he smashed it open, leaving it hung there on one hinge.
* * *
Jack West came out in a hotel room. He ran to the open door and out, rushing downstairs to find himself to find himself exiting the Six Feet Under Saloon next to the general store. He ran for the livery stable.
* * *
Jacali came out of the room in the back of the general store. The door was smashed out and the windows were all broken. She recognized the place and ran out the front, heading for the livery stable.
* * *
Professor Stalloid came out in a hotel room and fled the Six Feet Under Saloon before the horrible creatures came after him. He made for the bank where his horse was tethered.
* * *
It was very dark in the town with a waning moon well over half full.
Townsfolk were fleeing the town, running directly away as quickly as they could. Professor Stalloid saw Marshal Churchill run to his office at a full sprint. Other people ran towards the livery stable.
When Professor Stalloid got to his horse, he saw someone untying his reins from the broken hitching post.
“Hey, that’s my horse,” he said. “You can ride with me but you can’t take it.”
The man looked at him for a moment.
“Okay!” the other man said.
They mounted up and rode out of town.
* * *
Otto reached the livery stable and found a man saddling up the horse. He glared at the man.
“I’m not letting you ride that horse but you can ride with me,” he said.
“Okay!” the man said.
Otto helped him get the horse ready and they fled town.
* * *
When Jacali reached the livery stable she found several people saddling horses but the man in the stall with her horse cursed there was no saddle and fled. She ran in, mounted up, and took off.
“Burn everything or leave!” she yelled. “I’m not coming back here!”
* * *
Jack West sprinted to the livery stable and found his horse completely left alone. He saddled it and put the saddlebags with the stolen money in it and then headed out of town going north. He decided he would make tracks for Gravity Falls and meet the others later. He wasn’t even going to stop that night.
As he rode out of town, he saw several people run out of the marshal’s office. Then the door slammed shut. Next he heard gunfire from the building. First it was several reports from a peacemaker. That was followed by shotgun and rifle blasts.
He passed an overweight man running from town.
Should’ve gotten a horse, he thought as he passed the man.
“Help me!” the man cried out. “Please help me!”
“You’ll make it,” Jack West said to him.
* * *
Townsfolk fled the town in droves.
Jacali had fled to the great stones a mile from town and stopped at one of them. She saw other people running out of town to the stones or to places between town and the stones. Some of them flung themselves to the ground once they reached a place of relative safety.
They could see the horrible creatures moving around in the town and heard intermittent gunfire coming from someplace in Quiet Gap.
They watched the town carefully for the rest of the long and terrifying night. They could hear someone crying in the distance and sometimes saw people moving around in the darkness in the distance.
* * *
The morning of Monday, September 20, 1875, saw everyone who hid outside of the town exhausted but happy for the light. Townsfolk moved back into the now-empty town and Otto, Jacali, and Professor Stalloid also went back to the town. There was no sign of the creatures and they learned things in the homes and businesses were disturbed but not taken.
Professor Stalloid suggested to Jacali that they tell the villagers to burn the town to the ground and leave. She said she would make that announcement.
Otto went to the general store to retrieve his damaged Winchester.
They saw Marshal Churchill exit the jail and later learned he had barred the doors to the office and blasted away at any of the creatures that had come through the portals under the beds in the cells, holding off any things that came near the jail all night despite the wrecked door.
Jacali nodded at the man. She gathered as many people together as she could.
“You all can take what you want from this place, you can grab all the valuables, you can burnt he rest,” she said to them. “But as long as you stay here, if this is going to keep happening every night, or every night every few years.”
She described the rocks around the town, which all the townsfolk knew.
“The professor in town had found the old Paiute stories about this place but I think you all have seen the realities of it,” she said. “I can’t tell you what to do but, if you stay here, nothing’s going to change. I’m sorry.”
People nodded and crying. They looked like refugees of some war.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said. “I’m glad those who are here are still here.”
People started to ready themselves to leave the town.
At some point that morning, Thurston Smith, the banker, told the townsfolk the bank had been robbed and all the money held there was gone except for some gold dust. People were devastated. One woman sat on the ground and started bawling.
Marshal Churchill questioned who they were and got their names. He wondered if they had seen anyone else in the town who might have robbed the bank. He told them the bank was missing $7,000 in cash. He needed to know if anyone else besides their rescuers had been in the town before as the loss of that money was going to ruin several people.
A little later, Professor Tennesley, librarian found Jacali, and told her he’d examined the strange opening under his bed to find it had shrunk to less than two feet across. He believed it was continuing to shrink and would soon be gone. She told the villagers they probably had another few years before the horrors came back, which explained why it had not happened in the town before then
People talked about camping outside of town every night until they could get out. Others were flinging their beds out into the street and planning on sleeping on their mattresses that night.
* * *
Jack West was gone. They saw no sign of him that day.
“Otto, Jack West isn’t a coward, he’s a rat,” Jacali told the other man. “What do you think, Otto? Should we talk to Stalloid about it? He’s outside of town somewhere.”
“His opinion on the matter is somewhat clear,” Otto said.
“My only worry is it might make traveling with Jack West very difficult.”
“It would also make it conflicting for me and Clayton to go with him because he would have a bounty on his head.”
They were unsure what to do.
Later this week I will be running the second session/episode of my "secret" Pulp-Fate Conversion of Masks of Nyarlathotep. This session will be the first to use content from the (new) MoN Book, which means converting existing content instead of inventing new. Mostly I'm using basic Fate Core rules, with some ideas from the Fate Adversary and Fate Horror Toolkits. I'm not going to go into too much detail, but here are some broad concepts that other might find interesting or helpful:
In my Fate conversion, the players have a shared "Expedition Sheet" that is integrated into the campaign structure in a few ways. One of those ways is that it is used to track Location Aspects. There are three such aspect: Location Concept, Location Trouble, and (an optional) Location Secret. The Location Concept is a general theme for the location. Trouble is an obvious difficulty that effects almost everyone present (for example: harsh weather), and the Secret is an initially hidden aspect defining the theme of the cult activity in the area. Resolving the secret triggers a Significant (or Major) Milestone. The general plan for my Masks conversion is to give every major location in the game (Peru, New York, London, Egypt, Kenya, Shanghai, and Australia) all three aspects. Any minor locations would have only the first two aspects (for example, my intro adventure: Escape from Dragon Island).
Location Concept: Extremes of Climate and Terrain
The Peru Chapter features modern coastal Lima, highlands traditional Puno complete with potential floating homes, an expedition into the actual highlands, and a pyramid on a dead plateau. There are several climates, and potential altitude sickness. MoN spends some time talking about and making these a feature of the Peru chapter, so I'm making it the primary location aspect for Peru.
Location Trouble: Unequal Modernization
Another point the chapter makes is that Lima is a modern city with a modern set of European style utilities and trollies. Despite this, some of the hotels still don't have phones. The rest of the country is less European including a lack of train lines to Puno. Remember that trains are the 1920s standard for overland travel. Puno is described has more traditional with fewer European comforts. The expedition into the highlands is an on-foot affair into the wilds. This diversity of experience and access to European style comforts makes for a easy common trouble to hit players with on easy compels, particularly in Puno and the expedition beyond.
Location Secret: The Ancient Evil Stirs
Once players get access to the journal of Gaspar, or the notes thereof, it will be clear that The Father of Maggots is up to something, and this aspect will be revealed. To "win" Peru and get a significant milestone, they will need to deal with that evil. The wording here is intentionally a bit vague, and will fit well with the similar aspects planned for other locations in MoN. It's also a useful aspect for me to invoke or compel when suddenly Peruvian fat vampires strike at the players unexpectedly.
Upon arrival in Peru at the start of the session, I will offer all the players a compel to not speak Spanish. Anyone that accepts it will have trouble communicating, especially outside Lima. Those that pay a fate point to refuse (or in one character's case, uses his Stunt to refuse for free) will know Spanish. This is how I plan to use living language difficulties. Note that if any of the players were from a country that speaks Spanish natively, they wouldn't be offered the compel to start with. None of my players fit that category for Spanish.
Quechua and Aymara are a different story. These are, globally speaking, rarer languages. I will require anyone wanting to speak them to invoke a relevant aspect explaining how they know the language. Even that might not be needed because the languages aren't a big factor in the story. Aymara shows up because it is spoken by Nayra, although she speaks Spanish also, so I'm not sure I'll need to use it. Quechua doesn't really feature in the storyline at all beyond a slang term for a graverobber.
The Peruvian fate vampires are generally very human like in most features. They have two specific power that I think require some mechanical features: Transformation and Regeneration. Everything else works with basic skills and actions.
Each Kharasiri gets a transformation power that allows them to change as an action. This is essentially lets them Create Advantage to make a "Human Lamprey" aspect on themselves complete with Free Invoke. Moreover, when they transform they get to make a free Provoke attack (inflicting mental stress) against anyone that hasn't seen a Kharasiri in true form yet.
Regeneration is a stunt that lets me as the GM spend a fate point (from my pool into the player's shared Expedition pool) to bring any given dead Kharasiri back to life between scenes, unless they are dismembered/burned/etc. More generally they automatically overcome (heal but not fully remove) any physical consequences (injuries) between scenes.
Other Kharasiri features, like attaching to someone, draining them, or implanting a larva in them, is all handled by normal attack and create advantage mechanics, along with some basic stunts.
Larkin & Nyarlathotep
Converting Nyarlathotep's possession of Larkin is actually fairly easy because he is weak host for such a powerful being. Larkin's Fate stats are mostly built around being Larkin, including a Lies Upon Lies stunt. However, he also has a special stunt that is the kind of thing you only get to use as a GM:
Possessed: For the cost of a GM Fate point paid to the Expedition Pool, Larking can become directly possessed by Nyarlthotp. His High Concept becomes “Weak Shell for a Dark God” and he gains the “God” skill at +5. The God skill can be used in place of Lore, Occult, Provoke, and Will.
Concealing The Truth About Larkin and Mendoza
These two character are introduced to the players as humans, and the players are supposed to work out their inhuman truths. In addition to just strait up gaining new aspects when transformed/possessed, I'm going to use a pair of tricks to make this work, both from the Fate Core: First, hidden aspects. Not all of their aspects will be immediately apparent when players meet them. They will need to overcome with relevant skills to uncover the missing aspects. Second, these aspects will not be "undead conquistador" but instead aspects that imply something without saying it outright. Players may not understand it all until it becomes obvious. The trick is to develop character aspects you could invoke for supernatural effects without saying them outright. This works especially well when mixed in with aspects that are just straight up character traits.
High Concept: Charismatic Expedition Leader
Trouble: Clearly Not As Healthy As He Pretends To Be
The chapter makes it clear Larkin doesn't look healthy, so I decided this didn't need to be secret.
Well-Travelled British Dilettante of Some Means
* Intuition and A Plan, In That Order (Secret)
This one covers the subtle influence of a dark god on his mind.
* Always Looking to the Future (Secret)
This covers not only Larkin's push towards how great things will be when they get to the gold artifacts in the pyramid, but also his dislike/inability to talk or even clearly remember his past.
High Concept: Larkin’s Loyal Guard Dog
Trouble: Big On Leering, Short On Conversation (Doesn’t speak English)
* Funny Eating Habits (Secret)
Mendoza doesn't show much interest in his food at the restaurant where they meet him. Later it will become clear what he really eats.
* Surprisingly Tough (Secret)
This seems straightforward but it's also connected to his regeneration. When they later read he was shot in the face by Gaspar, it will be a surprise.
* Doesn’t Trust “Jesse” or his friends (Secret)
Creative Commons Art Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LacSibinacocha_Perou.jpg
Reminder: I've told my players we are running a 1920s pulp game using Fate Core rules with some fairly subtle magic. They don't yet know this is the start of Mask of Nyarlathotep or even a CoC inspired setting.
This is a recap of the first episode I ran for them last Thursday. My previous post talked about the characters they created using the Fate Core phase trio. Unfortunately the player of the unnamed gangster dropped out of the game, and the player of Doctor Bhisaj wasn't able to make it for this game. I won't recap the character creation session too much, but as a reminder, one player is secretly playing an ancient mummy, although he looks human enough. Another player is playing an Arkham scholar, which is extra fun considering the players don't yet know this is a CoC scenario.
HMS Airship R99
July 1923 - Great Brittan has just completed a shakedown London to New York trip of their new R99 airship, a converted war zeppelin Britain demanded from Germany. It's part of the Burney scheme to link the distant parts of the Empire. Each player has booked passage, stolen a ticket, or in one case shipped themselves as cargo.
Initially the players prepare for some ship based intrigue. The thief steals the porter's keys. The occult scholar activated his magic keys with a ritual in his room. The negotiator starts making business contacts with the wealthy and powerful of London. The pilot attempts to avoid the young blonde woman's father and brother, etc. They barely notice when the captain ship veers north to try and avoid a storm in the Atlantic. They defiantly notice that night when I placed a "She's Breaking Apart!" aspect into play. The mummy character pulled himself out of the crate when the weather got nasty enough and attempted to cast a weather calming spell, but I compelled the new aspect before he could spend the 30 minutes on the spell, and broke the ship in half.
The front half of the ship burst into flames from a lighting strike, while the back half, with the players and most passengers in the less lethal back half. They landed in water, which they were surprised to find both warm and an unsalted.
When dawn came they found themselves in shrouded in fog standing atop an improvised raft on a warm lake. They couldn't see shore, but they could hear tropical birds and see the smoldering glow of the front half of the ship that was still burning (a clear sign it wasn't on the water.) Reaching shore they discover a beach of stones leading up to a primeval forest full of birds and plants they don't recognize. I then hand them their team Expedition Sheet and give the Location Aspect as "Island that Time Forgot."
They looked for survivors in the wreckage (one player did poorly and had to deal with mental stress from the corpses, and ended up taking some consequences) and did manage to save a couple of people. The thief wrangled up the children, some now orphans, and the mummy (who of course just looks like a Englishman of color) managed to find the wireless set, damaged, but functional.
Over the radio, he finds a drunk Norwegian sailor singing shanties. A nice test of the language system, most of the players accept a compel to not speak the language, but one player pays the fate point to refuse and another has a stunt that make is free for them to speak living languages (he can still accept the compel for a fate point if he wants.) Eventually they get a hold of a sober American (the sailor calls him the passenger) on the ship and learn some interesting facts:
The airship apparently went down 10 days ago, despite the players clearly experiencing it the night before the wreckage still being somewhat on fire. Ships as part of a search party spent a week looking for wreckage or survivors but found none.
They island, shrouded in fog and only located by ship after they followed the radio signal, wasn't there the day before. The captain of the ship swore they came that way the day before in clear weather and there was not island in sight.
The island seems to be a lot of cliffs along the shore, although the ship can see a river emptying out of cave.
The passenger heard a story from a sailor in a dockside bar in Iceland about a cursed island that could only be located when the fog was bad. The island was surrounded by cliffs and full of wonders and dangers. The locals call it Dreki Eyja, roughly Dragon Island in English, because it was said to be home to a terrible serpent god.
The PCs start to debate the right course of action to move forward with. The mummy uses his weather magic to push back the fog a bit and they can now see the entire steamy lake, the primeval forests, and sheer stone cliffs of the caldera this is all in. Some of the players think they should follow the river out of the lake to the beach where the ship can pick them up. Some of them think they should build a camp and wait for the Royal Navy to come get them.
That's when I pointed out the trees in the forest shaking, and terrifying roar coming from that same direction. I placed the Location Trouble Aspect "Escape from Dragon Island" on the expedition sheet.
The Serpent God of Dragon Island
At this point a massive dinosaur (Spinosaurus) clambers out of the tree line and delivers a terrifying roar (backed up by a creature stunt and an invoke on the "Serpent God" aspect to make a potent fear based mental attack on everyone present.) I expected the players, who had looted rifles from the wreckage of the airship, to fire on it, discover it was immune to standard weapons, and flee in the same direction as the other crash survivors (who did not handle a "dragon" well.) This was of course foolish of me. My players intuitively decided a monster so big was not worth shooting at. They immediately formed a plan to lure the creature into the wreckage of the airship and detonate all the remaining hydrogen tanks they could fine. What followed was an entertaining battle where the players split their activities between manipulating the dragon and setting up the explosive, while the dragon tried to eat them. Their plan proved successful, and they manged to kill the beast in a giant explosion that also wiped out the radio.
Island of Serpents
The destruction of the airship wreckage wiped out most of the resources the players had considered using to setup camp with so they opted to follow the river to the coast and hope the Norwegian ship would be able to pick them up. Along the way they discovered a serpent themed alter in a swamp (See future connection to the Serpent of Soho side quest) and at the top of a path to where the lower jungles of the island, a series of pillars where sacrifices were clearly offered up to the god. They also discovered massive stone carvings of serpents, some 20 stories tall and looking over the island. It was obvious that the culture that once built the tall statues and alter was far more advanced than the primitive tribe offering sacrifices at the pillars.
They also discovered a pyramid shaped burial mound. Inside they found a few remains, one near the back clutching a modified bible (their first occult tome), and what appeared to be a bolder sealing up a hole in the ground. They opted not to see what was trapped under it.
They continued on along the river's edge, eventually meeting the local tribe of island: a race that seemed part Celtic and part neanderthal. They spoke a broken kind of Icelandic, but a couple player characters were able to communicate. Thanks to some quick talking, they managed to convince the tribe that the death of their god was a good thing ("feast on its meat and absorb its power") and the tribe rejoiced... until the pilot (Trouble aspect: Foot Placed Squarely In Mouth) blasphemed and next think you know they are chased down the river, through the tunnel, and onto the beach with spears being hurled at them.
On the beach, the players are rescued by the Norwegian freighter crew, and meet Jackson Elias, the English speaking African American passenger. Over the three day journey to Iceland, he trades stories with them about dealing with tribes and cults. The players each go their own way after that.
GM Note: Possible Problems for my Evil Plans
One of players made a special note of Jackson Elias's full name and appeared to be googling it on his phone. I'm not sure if it sounded familiar or if he just doesn't trust me after the last game I ran (time travel) where the players spent months doing jobs for a guy in a suit named Mr. Riddle before they finally met his younger self outside a Michigan dinner in the 1970s and found out his full name was James Riddle Hoffa. Jackson Elias is a unique enough name that if he did google it he will know what scenario I am planning to run. If he googled it in relation to "Dragon Island" he will probably find my posts here on Yog and thus know even more about what's going on.
In fact, just in case he finds this blog: Hey Mike, stop Cheating!
Connections to the Larger Plot
The main goals of this scenario was to help bring the players together, to get the pulp feel across, to introduce several mechanics like making Will defense rolls against disturbing situations and terrifying beasts, to get them their first occult tome, and of course to introduce Jackson Elias in a way that hopeful endears him to the players. It also has some other more minor goals. First, the location may be used again. One bit of weirdness of the island was the passage of time. The players crashed one night and the next morning it was 10 days later to the outside world. This was intentional on my part because the island was built by the Serpentmen empire long ago as a temporal life raft. This may come up again later when the players encounter the serpent alter painting/time gate in the London side quest.
The second connection to the larger plot is just a bit of foreshadowing: the occult tome they have found in the step pyramid shaped burial mound contains references to Loki the many faced who will bring about Ragnarok when the giants from beyond fire, ice, and time will come and destroy the world. The book also gives a little bit more background on the island, it's current tribe of semi-humans, and hints at serpent people able to take on human form and use potent magic.
Next session, in a few weeks, will be the Peru chapter from the new MoN.
Monday, September 3, 2018
(After playing the Call of Cthulhu Down Darker Trails Catastrophe Engine Campaign original scenario “The Scorched Secret” Sunday, September 2, 2018, from 1:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. with John Leppard, James Brown, Amy Rooks, Haylee Bryce Nicol, and Kyle Matheson.)
When Matilda Terwilliger showed up at Devil’s Gulch on Saturday, August 21, 1875 on the 3:00 train, she found the investigators and told them her father had been kidnapped. She didn’t know much but told them she had gone into town on the morning of August 15, a Sunday almost two weeks ago, to buy supplies and groceries for the farm. When she returned around noon, she found the laboratory a mess, not the way her father kept it, and her father gone. She searched the farm and the surrounding area until nightfall but, when he didn’t return or contact her, she assumed he had been taken. She went to the authorities in Oakland that night, talking to the Alameda County Sheriff and police from Oakland. They told her they’d do what they could but expected a ransom note.
When no ransom note came, she hired hunters and trackers to try to follow the trail, but a rainstorm the night before had washed out most traces of the tracks and even hunting dogs were stymied by aniseed put down in the few tracks found to the east.
When no ransom note had been delivered by the 17th, she returned to Oakland and got in touch with Xavier Manzanedo, a Harvard graduate and friend of her father who had worked as an assistant with the man off and on in the three years they had lived there. He agreed to stay at the farm to keep a lookout for any ransom note and ride into Oakland every day to keep in contact with her via telegraph.
She left for Devil’s Gulch, which she had heard the others taking of, on the 18th, sending telegrams back to Manzanedo daily and learning nothing new had been found of her father in that time.
Unfortunately, Olphelia had fallen ill that morning and Dr Weisswald refused to leave the serpent person until she could nurse her back to health. Jacali wanted to stay with her and Gemma Jones wanted to stay to help her sister with her damaged saloon. Robert Dunspar was ready to return to Oakland and through with the insane adventures and Jerimiah Bowen had already left to pan for gold.
Lambert Otto volunteered to help find the strange professor. He was 31 years old and had black hair and a goatee and mustache. A nasty scar ran down the right side of his face. He wore a bowler and a long duster. An army saber was strapped on one side of his belt and a six-gun on the other. He carried a Winchester rifle.
He told her he’d help her as the Terwilligers had helped him after his troubles in Chinatown in early June. They left on the next train.
* * *
Jack West was a tall drink of water with white hair that made him look older than his 26 years. It also contrasted starkly with the black hat, gloves, and duster he wore. His face was terribly burned on the left side with a small hole in his left cheek. He would have been handsome if not for the mutilation. He wore two peacemakers on his belt, one of them with gold engravings and an ivory handle, the other black metal with gold engravings. Both looked very expensive.
He had left the others in Denver after retrieving the body for the serpent person to disguise herself with a month before. He suspected she didn’t like him very much though he was very curious about her.
He had followed rumors of John Valentine to the area of Oakland.
He was at the train station in Oakland, California, on the morning of Wednesday, August 25, 1875, when he saw Lambert Otto step off the train with a beautiful young blond woman who carried a Springfield rifle over her shoulder and wore pants.
* * *
Emerald Sho was Chinese by heritage but born in America. She had long, black hair in a braid on her left side. She was nearly five and a half feet tall and buxom though very slim. She wore a dark blue riding skirt, cut below the knee but made to allow plenty of movement. Hidden under the skirt was an Arkansas toothpick in her garter. She wore a gun belt with a Colt peacemaker.
Miss Sho was an outlaw and in charge of the Sho Mau gang, a group of criminals based out of Chinatown. She didn’t lead the group directly, however, but was more of a puppet master with her puppet being Edward Showman, who was “in charge” of the Showman Gang. Her tendrils reached deeper than San Francisco, however. She had the service of others outside of the city as well.
She had come to Oakland from Chinatown that day to talk to one of her men. According to the books, it looked like he was skimming off the top. When she examined them herself, however, she just found that the man was merely incompetent and bad at math.
She had been on her way back to the docks to take a ferry to San Francisco when she spotted Lambert Otto. She recognized the man in the bowler and thought he might have had something to do with the odd troubles in Chinatown in early June. Rumor had it two of the tongs had gone to war and somehow a demon had been involved. There was cause for concern and she had heard rumors about a man in a bowler with a saber who had killed a hatchetman at one of the tong’s brothels.
She stayed out of sight but tried to eavesdrop on what they were talking about.
* * *
As Matilda told Jack West about what had happened to her father, her face suddenly lit up and she said hello to another woman at the train station.
Johanna Lee was a plain young woman of 25 years. She was a politician and a suffragette, a wealthy young woman who was using her family’s money to rally the women of the west together for the right to vote and live their own lives. She was about 5’2” tall and thin with brown hair and eyes. She had freckles. She kept her hair up most of the time and wore glasses to make herself look more scholarly though she was able to see perfectly well. She wore very nice clothing, though pants instead of a dress or skirt, which made her stand out.
She was at the train station when she saw Matilda Terwilliger, who had attended numerous suffragette meetings and rallies in Oakland area. She had read in the Oakland Press over the last few weeks of her father’s kidnapping.
Joanna was surprised at the two rough gentlemen with her.
“Matilda,” West said. “Did you mention any kind of reward … for assistance?”
“No,” Matilda said. “But I’m sure my father would reward you once he’s found. Or I can gather some money together if need be.”
“We don’t have a lot,” Matilda said.
“You know, he could always make something for those weapons of yours,” Lambert said.
“How’s he gonna make it better?” West said, touching his peacemaker.
“You’ve seen what he’s made before.”
“Seen how well that thing can hit too.”
“It’s just a thought.”
“Any help would be appreciated,” Matilda said.
“Maybe you should think about doing it without a reward,” Miss Lee said. “Maybe from the kindness of your hearts?”
Matilda apologized and introduced Miss Lee to Otto.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met?” she said to West.
“Otto tends to forget to introduce me sometimes,” West said. “The name’s Jack West.”
Matilda introduced him to her as well.
“She’s a friend of mine,” Matilda said.
“Another woman in pants?” West said.
Miss Lee gave him a cold glare and Matilda noted she was working for woman’s freedom. Otto nodded to Miss Lee with respect at that notion.
“You’ve earned respect from me, sir,” Miss Lee said.
“Thank you,” Otto said.
A surrey pulled up, driven by a young Spanish man with a mustache and wearing a suit. A bowler was atop his head. Matilda introduced him as Xavier Manzanedo, who had worked with her father in the past, and held two PhD’s. West was visibly confused at what appeared to be a Mexican with multiple degrees. Manzanedo greeted them with a smile. Matilda noted she had been in touch with him every day via telegraph. He said there was no news that day.
Manzanedo helped them with their luggage and Matilda invited Miss Lee to come with them to help if she’d like.
“Of course!” Miss Lee said.
They headed for the livery stables to get West and Miss Lee’s horses.
* * *
Emerald had read about the disappearance of Marion Terwilliger. The man’s kidnapping had been written up in The Morning Call, one of the newspapers of San Francisco. She found it interesting that the man who had murdered a hatchetman in Chinatown was somehow involved in the search for a kidnapped man. Intrigued, she followed them to the livery stables.
While the others saddled up horses, she found one of her men in Oakland: Al. She wanted to slip a message to Lambert Otto.
“Let me get Bert,” the man said.
He was back in a few minutes with a short man with a baby face. Though he was in his 20s, he looked like he was about 14. He was the best pickpocket in Oakland in Miss Sho’s employ.
Otto was standing by his horse, taking his rifle apart and carefully examining one of the pieces. Bert walked by the man, barely grazes him, and tucked the note she had written in his pocket. Then he disappeared around the side of the livery table.
* * *
Otto was putting his rifle back together when he noticed a piece of paper in his pocket that hadn’t been there before. It read:
“The Showmen are looking for you. Come find us in Chinatown.”
He went pale and started sweating, looking around nervously. He showed the note to Matilda and asked if she knew what the Showmen were. She had no idea, but admitted she didn’t go to San Francisco very much. She usually went when her father wanted to go to see shows.
Otto didn’t recognize the name Showmen. He didn’t think either of the tongs they had dealt with two months ago had been called the Showmen.
“What do you want to talk to us about at the ranch?” Otto said.
She told him she hoped they could help track down her father.
“Is your friend a detective?” she asked, indicating Jack West.
“Uh … I’d say he’s a gunslinger,” Otto said. “Might be a good term.”
“Oh, well, I need someone to try to help me track down my father.”
“Well, I’m fairly good at it.”
“Right. Or try to figure out what course of action to take.”
“I don’t have my injun with me today,” Jack West said, having overheard the conversation.
“Your locomotive?” Matilda said.
“Jacali isn’t here,” Otto said.
“That one either,” West said.
“Oh, I forgot you had another one,” Otto said.
“I’m hoping you can help me find my father,” Matilda said. “I’ve exhausted all the leads I can think of.”
“You helped me out so I figure it’s best I just help you out. Favor for favor.”
* * *
Miss Sho was surprised to see the group was not heading towards the docks but, instead, heading through town to the north. Three of them were on horseback and the other two were in the surrey. She looked around and saw Al standing across the street, watching her. She motioned him over and told him she needed a distraction so she could steal a horse. He nodded and ran into the livery stable.
“There’s a lady down the street!” he shouted. “She’s buck nekkid!”
The two men looked at him like he was crazy. He looked back at them and then, frazzled, ran back out of the livery stable and down the street.
He wasn’t a very good distraction-maker.
She decided to follow the others on foot. She snatched an empty basket from a storefront as she went.
* * *
Nervous, Otto looked about himself. Finding the note had made him paranoid and left him out of sorts. When he saw a woman a hundred yards or so down the road behind them after they had left town, walking the same direction they were, it unnerved him even more. It was a woman in dark blue riding clothes with dark hair. She carried a basket. He couldn’t tell if she was Chinese or not, but feared she was.
Jack West noticed the woman as well, but didn’t really care.
Otto unslung his Winchester from his back and held it in front of him. He kept looking over his shoulder.
What is Otto doing? West thought.
The Terwilliger farm was a few miles outside of Oakland and took them about an hour to get to. It stood by a mile-wide lake and consisted of a tidy, two-story farmhouse and a large barn and corral. There was also a chicken coop that now housed chickens. A tall wooden and metal tower stood near the barn and was connected to it via wires. A rounded metallic device the size of a wagon was atop it. More wires led into the woods nearby and they could hear the gurgle of a creek or stream there. On the lake near the farm was a 50-foot-tall tower with a platform atop it.
Another farm was visible on the far side of the lake amid the trees.
Manzanedo climbed out of the surrey and opened the gate, leaving it open behind them as he drove the vehicle to the barn. They all got to work unsaddling the horses and pulling them out of their girths and straps.
Otto dismounted and pulled the saddle off his horse. Then he ran to the chicken coop and crawled in, moving to the side of the coop facing the road.
“That guy ain’t right,” Jack West said.
Oh my God, Miss Lee thought. This is the reason men are stupid.
Inside the chicken coop, the chickens started to make a commotion, obviously irritated with Otto being in there. They made a real racket. Embarrassed, Otto crawled back out of the coop, head hung low, and walked back over to the barn where he rubbed down his horse.
* * *
By the road, Miss Sho had seen the entire display.
He might not be the man I’m looking for, she thought.
She had recognized Johanna Lee as they had met once in passing so walked up the lane to the house.
“Johanna, it’s so nice to see you!” she called ahead of herself. “I was just in Oakland!”
Otto, who had his back to the road, spun around and saw it was a Chinese woman! He put his hand on his saber and looked at the woman in terror.
Miss Lee recognized the Chinese woman though she didn’t remember her name.
“First of all, why are you at this farm if you were just in Oakland?” she said. “Did you follow us here?”
“No, of course I didn’t,” Miss Sho said.
“She did!” Otto said.
“She did?” Miss Lee said.
“I saw her on the road!” Otto said.
“I saw her earlier too,” West said.
“Are you sure?” Miss Sho said. “There are many Chinese people here.”
“Yeah, I don’t know if I believe you men-folk,” Miss Lee said.
“There was one woman following us on the road,” Otto said.
“Can you prove it was a Chinese woman?”
“She was too far away.”
“Honestly, I don’t care,” West said.
“She was wearing that color dress though,” Otto said.
“Typical,” Miss Lee said.
“Blue,” Otto said. “And she’s wearing blue. So …”
“It’s a very fashionable color,” Miss Sho said.
“It’s a very poor color to follow someone in,” Otto said.
“It looks nice though,” West said.
“Thank you,” Miss Sho said.
Matilda looked at the men and then Miss Sho.
“Were you following us?” she said.
“No, of course not,” Miss Sho said.
“She was!” Otto said.
“That’s the easiest way to find out,” Matilda said.
“I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt,” Miss Lee said.
“You’ll have to excuse our friend,” Matilda said to Miss Sho. “He ran into some trouble in Chinatown a few months ago.”
“Hit his head a few times,” West said.
“Oh, truly?” Miss Sho said to Matilda.
“Yes,” Otto said.
“Can’t spare any more brain cells, I’m sure,” Miss Lee said.
“I won’t say anything more, but you can tell her whatever you want,” Matilda said to Otto.
“I’m fine right now,” Otto said.
“Lambert was helping my father a couple months ago as well, but that was well before my father was kidnapped,” Matilda said. “I’m Matilda Terwilliger.”
“Nice to meet you,” Miss Sho said. “I’m Emerald.”
“Oh yes,” Miss Lee said. “Now I remember you. You were at one of my rallies.”
“Of course I was,” Miss Sho said. “Empowered women.”
Matilda told Miss Sho about her father’s kidnapping, noting the men and Miss Lee were going to help her find him. She said she felt like she was at her wit’s end.
“Well, a fellow woman will always offer to help and I am more than willing to help you,” Miss Sho said.
“I might have a few connections,” Miss Lee said.
Matilda thanked them both and noted the men who had come to find tracks with dogs told her the kidnappers had used aniseed to throw off the scent and the recent rains had destroyed most traces of any tracks. She didn’t know what to do but noted Otto was a tracker and bounty hunter. She said anything they could do so help her would be appreciated.
Manzanedo went to prepare some food and drink.
“My father was very meticulous with his tools and supplies,” Matilda said. “He never left a mess like this.”
The main part of the barn was set up as some kind of laboratory, probably specializing in electricity and electrical devices. There were also lab tables with chemicals and others with machines. Several cameras sat on one shelf, next to a few demon lamps. Two wagons with steam engines set atop them and wicker baskets large enough to hold a pair of men stood on one side. Two pairs of large wings were hung on a wall, one of them water-damaged. One table held a device about a foot tall made of bronze, obviously unfinished. Some devices hummed with power or crackled with electricity. On one side was what appeared to be a signal rocket, but it was made of metal and was over 20 feet long. It lay on its side with a panel off, filled with strange wiring.
He seems like an eccentric man, Miss Shot thought.
It looked like there had been a scuffle in the room and the place was in disarray. Otto looked over the tracks as Matilda told them she and Xavier had tried to disturb nothing in the laboratory. He told her that, from the tracks, it looked like two men entered the room and there was a struggle. He followed them out and saw they went to the east before they disappeared.
Miss Lee asked if Matilda knew of any of the newer inventions her father was working on, suggesting he might have made an enemy or a rival.
“Well, he’s been working on his rocket,” Matilda said. “He wants to get to the moon.”
She shook her head.
“These devices here are his static electricity generator batteries,” she said, indicating the cameras. “The discharge from them can be … quite spectacular. He had recently finished up … he had called these his incapacitators.”
She pointed out the small demon lamps. They were normally oil small oil lamps but appeared to have some kind of apparatus within them now.
“They spit a bit of electricity out that can stun a man,” she said.
“Can I look at it?” Otto said.
Professor Terwilliger had been working on them the last time he had been to the farm.
“If you want to,” Matilda said, handing him one. “Be careful. Don’t discharge it.”
She also pointed out the Steam Powered Town and Country Velocipedes, but noted he hadn’t really gotten them working yet.
“So, how does this work?” Otto said, looking at the lamp.
Matilda took the lamp and held it out, touching a button on the side. A bluish bolt of sparks came out of the thing and flew towards the mannequin standing in the corner, striking the wall and blackening the wood there.
“Some of his experiments with animals indicate it causes muscle spasms, a violent reaction, and paralyzation in some cases,” she said.
“Can I take one of these?” Otto said.
“It might be helpful.”
Matilda looked at his saber. Then she looked at the gun on his gun belt. She finally looked at his rifle leading against the wall.
“How many hands do you have?” she said.
“Well, all these kill people,” Otto said.
“Well, if you think it’ll be useful,” she said.
She handed over the tiny lamp.
“Just make sure you bring it back,” she said.
She turned to Miss Lee.
“I don’t know who would have taken him,” she said. “I have no idea. No one was here at the farm when he was taken. Xavier lives in Oakland. He’s just here as a great favor to me to guard the place while I went to find help in Colorado.”
“Did your father have any enemies?” West said.
“Not that I know of. The scientific community ridiculed him in some instances but … he had made no enemies. Have you met my father? I don’t think anyone was his enemy.”
“Did he have anyone too interested in his ideas?”
“Well, he told me about his work in Arizona when the government had him looking at that device.”
“It’s always the government,” Miss Lee said.
“Well, from my understanding, certain outlaws were trying to steal it,” Matilda said. “They attacked a train he was on.”
“I remember,” Otto said.
“And one of them got it,” Matilda said. “One of them got the device. The Crescent. That’s what he called it!”
“So, it’s either John Valentine …” West said.
“Bad man,” Miss Lee said.
“… or Pete Sutter,” West said. “But Pete Sutter is dead. I shot him.”
“I hate to break it to you, West,” Otto said. “But … I saw Pete in the flesh in Devil’s Gulch. He’s still alive.”
“Someone was shot and he still lives?” Miss Sho said.
“Must not have been a very good shot,” Miss Lee said.
“I hit him right in the chest,” West said.
“Well, he wasn’t dead,” Otto said. “The way to explain it is … well, when you shot him that one time on the train, apparently he wasn’t dead. Then he got hit by some … got killed by some tongs in Chinatown …”
“So he got killed later?” West said.
“But he didn’t,” Miss Lee said.
“But he’s still alive!” Otto said.
“But he’s still alive,” West said. “How?”
“Is this some kind of joke, because it’s clearly not funny,” Miss Lee said.
“We’ve seen some weird stuff,” West said.
“He helped us out at Devil’s Gulch,” Otto said. “We paid him to create a distraction.”
“I feel like Pete Sutter isn’t the smartest guy.”
“Not necessarily. I couldn’t claim the bounty because he didn’t have one where we were.”
“Could’ve just taken him to somewhere that did.”
“Given his track record of coming back from the dead, it might not be the best option to try to take him in there.”
“I still don’t know if I necessarily believe you when you say ‘coming back from the dead,’ Miss Lee said.
“His explanation didn’t make a lot of sense to me either,” Otto said. “He said doctors hit him with some light.”
“Doctors hit him with some light!?! You said?”
“That’s what he said.”
“That sounds odd,” Miss Sho said.
“It is odd,” Otto said.
“We know which one of Valentine’s guys is closest to this area?” West said.
“Valentine would be a very good place to start,” Miss Lee said.
“Yes,” Miss Sho said.
Otto told them he had killed one of Valentine’s lieutenants in Devil’s Gulch: Charming Charles Allen. West said he thought Allen was one of the trickier of Valentine’s lieutenants. Otto told him he had tricked Gemma Jones into meeting with him one-on-one and it turned out he was her father. When Miss Lee noted it sounded like the men had traveled quite a lot, Otto agreed.
They all agreed that Valentine was the most likely culprit. When Matilda asked how to find them, Otto said “You don’t.” Otto thought the man showed up when least convenient. West was for heading east and following the tracks.
“Maybe we could do something to lure him to us,” Miss Lee said.
“That’s a bad idea,” Otto said.
“Why would we want someone so dangerous to come towards us?” Miss Sho said.
“Well, if we’re trying to find him, it seems easiest to bring him to us,” Miss Lee said.
“We’re not trying to find him,” Miss Sho said. “We’re trying to find this young woman’s father.”
“But he may be the best lead to find the young woman’s father.”
“We haven’t even tried to find the father yet.”
“All I know is that they went east.”
The Terwilliger farm lay on the south side of the lake while the other nearby farm lay on its east side.
“Have you gone over there yet, Matilda?” Otto asked.
“Has someone checked the farm?” Miss Sho asked.
Matilda said she hadn’t been there.
“Do you know if anyone lives there?” Otto asked.
“Yes, there’s a family that lives there,” Matilda said. “Or … some people live there. They shoot at me all the time when I’m testing the wings out. It sounds like a shotgun though. It’s a quarter mile away. There’s no way they’re going to hit me. I don’t know. I’ve never met them. My father talked to them. He went over when we first moved here a few years ago and I think he talked to them, but …”
“Well, then, we have to go see,” Miss Sho said.
“Check it out,” West said.
* * *
It only took about 20 minutes to walk to the other farm on the lake. The place was surrounded by fallow fields that had probably grown wheat before. There was a fence line that surrounded the barn, silo, and farm house. Planted all along the fence were plants with dark green leaves with a spiral arrangement around each. The tall erect stems were crowned by large blue-purple, white, yellow, and pink flowers which were distinguishable by having one of the petals in the form of a cylindrical helmet. None of them recognized what kind of flowers they were.
The metalwork of the gates was entirely made of some kind of black metal. They appeared to be latched but no locked and Miss Sho walked up closest to it and noticed the forging of the metal of the gate left numerous sharp pieces of metal sticking out. She hesitated to touch the metal after seeing that. She also didn’t think it was iron.
“Is there a big strong man over here that can see what this is?” she turned to the others and said.
“See what what is?” West said.
“This metal,” she said.
Otto gestured for West to go. He examined the gates more closely.
“What do you think it is?” Miss Sho said.
Closer examination of the gates proved, after a few moments, that they were not iron but tarnished silver. It was probably worth a bit of money.
“Looks like silver,” West said.
“Oh,” Miss Sho said. “Wonderful. Thank you so much.”
“Whatever,” West said.
He unlatched the gate and pushed it open.
“Shall we go in?” Miss Sho said.
“Sure,” Miss Lee said.
As they crossed through the gate, there was the report of a rifle shot from the house and a nearby limb shattered and snapped as a large-caliber bullet hit it. Both women flung their hands up into the air.
“Whadda you people want!” a man shouted from the house.
“We just want to talk!” Miss Lee cried out. “Please don’t kill us!”
“Who’s out there?” another voice called from the house.
“Concerned neighbors!” West called out.
“Friends of the concerned neighbors,” Miss Lee said.
“Identify yourselves!” a third voice called from the house.
“I’m Jack West!” West called out. “I’m assisting Miss Matilda with the … uh … looking for her father!”
He had moved sideways just a little towards the fence to one side. He was ready to drop if another shot fired out. Only the women were inside the fence line. Otto ducked behind a tree as soon as the shot was fired, taking cover and trying to peek back to the house to see where the fire was coming from.
“Such strong men,” Miss Sho turned and said to West and Otto. Then she turned back to the house. “My name is Emerald! We’re here for Matilda!”
“My name is Johanna!” Miss Lee called. “I’m here for my friend Matilda!”
West and Miss Lee could hear the men talking in the house. It sounded like an intense and heated discussion was going on that was turning into an argument. Then the front door opened. The man who came out carried a Winchester, pointing it at the ground. He was a very young-looking man with short brown hair and a baby face. As he approached, they realized he was not as young as he looked.
“Don’t go out there!” someone from inside called. “What’re you doing? They’re gonna kill us!”
As the man approached, he looked them over and his eyes fell on West.
“You say Jack West?” he said.
“Yeah,” West snarled.
“He’s lying!” someone called from the house.
“Shut up!” the man said.
West approached the man, hands free and ready in case there was trouble. He casually sauntered to within about 20 feet of the man.
“We’re not here to fight,” West said.
“You know a lawman?” the other man said. “Federal man? I heard about you out in Arizona. What’s his name?”
“I knew a guy named - uh - Clayton Pierce, federal marshal,” West said, almost forgetting the man’s name.
The man looked very surprised at the name.
“What’s he look like?” he said.
West described Clayton Pierce’s thick black mustache and black hair.
“They’re all right!” the man turned to yell at the house. “They know Clayton Pierce!”
“Who the hell’s Clayton Pierce!?!” a voice called from the house.
“Shut up!” the man yelled back at the house.
The man gestured at the two women to approach.
“I’m coming out!” Otto called from his hiding place.
He walked out and approached the others.
“Oh, I forgot you were here, Otto,” West said.
“I’m Elroy Gerhart,” the man said.
He looked over his shoulder.
“Get out here!” he yelled.
Two other men came out of the house. One had a goatee and mustache and carried a .50 Sharps rifle. He looked older than Elroy. The other carried a double barrel shotgun, was clean-shaven, and obviously the youngest of the three. They didn’t point the rifles at the man but did have them at ready.
“This is my older brother Melvin,” Elroy said. “This is my younger brother Samson.”
“This is a bad idea,” Melvin said. “Especially with them!”
He gestured to the women.
“Excuse me!” Miss Lee said.
“You wouldn’t understand!” Melvin said.
“Well, then, explain it!”
“You wouldn’t believe me!”
“Melvin, shut up,” Elroy said. “We got - this man … he knows Pierce.”
“I know Pierce too,” Otto said.
They looked at him.
“Probably better than Jack West,” Otto said.
“All right,” Elroy said. “All right. I’ll take you to your word. What do you folks need?”
“We’re looking for … uh … Mr. Terwilliger,” West said. “He got kidnapped … a few weeks ago.”
“Wait,” Elroy said.
He pointed across the lake towards Terwilliger’s farm.
“Yeah, sheriff came around here asking questions,” he said. “We don’t like the sheriff.”
The other two brothers both shook their heads.
“Look, we don’t like anybody on our property,” Elroy said. “We don’t like nobody around here, ‘specially women. No offense.”
“No offense taken,” Miss Sho said.
“Offense taken,” Miss Lee said.
“Terwilliger seemed like nice enough folks, but we don’t like neighbors,” Elroy went on. “Too dangerous. So, that’s why Sampson here’s been shooting at that bird girl, jumping off that tower over there.”
It was a little disturbing to all of them to imagine Matilda actually using the wings they’d seen in the barn.
“But he’s got a shotgun,” Elroy went on. “He knew he couldn’t hit her but he was making sure she didn’t come around. But … uh … yeah, I noticed a commotion a couple weeks ago. There was a couple men came by. They took another man, led his horse away.”
He pointed east.
“Heading that way,” he said.
“Did they come close to your property?” Otto said.
“I heard thunder that day.”
“Wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”
“And a gunshot. I heard a gunshot.”
“Probably one of them boxes,” West said.
“I didn’t get a good look at ‘em but one of them had dark clothing,” Elroy said. “One of ‘em had a white hat. And one of ‘em had a brown hat, the one they led away.”
West and Otto realized Professor Terwilliger had a brown hat when they had met with him.
“They were all the way over there,” Elroy said. “I wouldn’t recognize ‘em if I saw ‘em up close. They were there for a little bit. You gonna see Pierce?”
“I haven’t seen Pierce in a while,” Otto said. “Wandered off somewhere.”
“Ah, he’ll probably show up soon,” West said.
“You know him though?” Elroy said. “You gonna see him?”
“Oh yeah,” West said.
“I got something … stay right here,” Elroy said.
“Sure,” West said.
Elroy went into the house and returned a few minutes later. He held something wrapped up in a piece of leather. Whatever it was a couple of feet long and straight like a ruler or a stake.
“When you see Clayton Pierce, give this to him, all right?” he said.
“Sure thing─” West said.,
“His daddy told me to keep it safe,” Elroy said. “But from what I understand, his dad is dead.”
“And your name is, again?” Otto said.
“My name’s Elroy Gerhart,” Elroy said.
“He won’t know me. He won’t know me.”
“Okay. Will he know Gerhart though? Probably not?”
“I never met him. I never met him. His father’s Warren Pierce. I never met his son. But that, he said, is worth protecting, and I been keeping it all these years. Maybe his son’ll have some use of it.”
“Do you know what it is?” Miss Lee said.
“Well, thank you for this,” West said. “I’ll make sure it gets to him.”
“Weirdest thing I ever seen,” Elroy said to Miss Lee. “It’s … maybe gold. Maybe silver. Maybe both. I don’t know what it is. But … you give that to him, tell him his daddy told me to keep it safe. I don’t know … well … that was a strange day. They headed east.”
“M-maybe them ladies could stay for a little while,” Samson said.
“Shut up, Samson!” Elroy said.
He backhanded his younger brother, knocking him to the ground.
“We made an agreement!” Elroy said.
“God damn it, Samson!” Melvin said.
He crossed to put a booted foot on Samson’s chest.
“No,” he said. “You know it’s gotta end. No.”
Samson struggled but had no leverage.
“Sorry ma’am,” Elroy said. “No offense meant.”
“None taken,” Miss Sho said.
“We’re trying to protect you as much as we can,” Elroy said. “And all y’all. Hope we’ve been of help.”
“You have,” West said.
Melvin was leaning down and slapping Samson in the face.
“What is wrong with you!?!” he said.
“Y’all have a great day, now,” West said.
“It was a pleasure,” Miss Sho said.
Elroy nodded and walked them to the gate. He took out a piece of cloth from his pocket and pushed the gate closed and latched it without touching it.
“Looks like a really expensive fence, made of silver,” West said.
“They all are,” Elroy said. “We don’t want anything to happen to people around here.”
He turned and walked back to the house.
“Sounds like they might have some skeletons in their closet,” Miss Sho said.
“To say the least,” Miss Lee said.
They headed back to the Terwilliger farm.
“So, what was that thing that he gave you?” Miss Sho said.
“I figure we’ll unwrap it once we get to the lab,” West said.
“Who’s that man he was talking about, again?”
Miss Lee thought she remembered reading something about a Marshal Clayton Pierce who, about four months ago, stopped a man causing trouble out in the Arizona Territory. He had stopped the man along with some unnamed associates. She had also heard rumors the man he had gunned down was in charge of a gang that was going to take over the town. Other rumors said there were a hundred men in the gang, trying to wipe out the town. She remembered Jack West had been associated with Clayton Pierce according to the rumors.
On the way, West told them of the train heist they had fought off that included dragons and monsters. He noted Pierce had been mauled but had survived. He told them the drifter in Yellow Flats had not been a man but some kind of ghost that only silver bullets could harm. Otto called it a spirit of vengeance. The two women looked at each other.
“I assume you have taken quite a few different drugs in your life,” Miss Sho said.
“I might have a slight addiction to laudanum,” West said.
He took out his flask and drank from it. Otto confirmed what West had said.
“I’ve never heard of shared hallucinations,” Miss Sho said.
“I try not to share with this guy,” West said.
“You seem like you have such a tight relationship though,” Miss Sho said.
“The only thing that holds us together is money,” Otto said.
“S’true,” West said.
* * *
When they returned to the Terwilliger farm, they found Manzanedo and Matilda had a light, early lunch of sandwiches prepared for them, as well as lemonade. When Matilda asked if they had any luck, West noted that the people at the other farm were terrified of her wings.
“Oh,” she said. “Well, we’ll have to find someplace else to test them then. I don’t want to cause any problems with the neighbors.”
“I’m sure as long as you don’t land over there, you’ll be fine,” Miss Sho said.
“I wouldn’t think of it,” Matilda said. “Especially as they shoot at me every time I go up.”
“So … uh … looks like they headed further east,” West said. “So, we’ll get on horseback and … head that way then.”
“Do you have a horse?” Matilda said to Miss Sho.
“Uh … I can find one,” Miss Sho said.
“We’ll get you one!”
“We’ve got two riding horses here. You can take one of those.”
“You’re so sweet.”
“Unfortunately, the quadro-velocipedes are not functional yet or you could take one of those. They’re a little tricky though.”
They ate and West unwrapped the item Elroy Gerhart gave him. Within the leather was what appeared to be a rod made of gold with a sharp, silver tip at one end. It was about an inch across and a foot and a half to two feet long. There was a strange feeling in the air as it was unwrapped and the smell of ozone.
Otto remembered the Crescent being described as having small silver spikes sticking out of it.
“Jacali will want to see this,” he said.
“Who?” West said.
“The Indian girl.”
“Should we leave it here or should we take it with us?” he said.
“Uh … take it with us,” West said, wrapping the rod once again and tucking it into his belt.
Otto noted he could try to track down the kidnappers.
“So we’re going to head east and see what we can find?” Miss Lee said.
“They’re heading east on horse,” Miss Sho said. “They’re far ahead.”
“Plus this was weeks ago.”
“You have any better ideas?” Otto said.
“Oh, I’m just making observations,” Miss Lee said.
“We’re not here to help,” Miss Sho said.
“We’re here to observe and criticize,” Miss Lee said.
“I’m not sure what I’ve done to you in a previous life, but I feel this aggression is unwarranted,” Otto said.
“It’s not aggression,” Miss Lee said. “Simply my personality.”
“It’s just women being women,” West said.
“I’m not going to back you up on that one, Jack West,” Otto said.
* * *
They left the farm and headed east, Otto trying to find tracks. He realized it was going to be hard to follow the tracks for any length of time due to their age and the effect the weather over the last two weeks.
West felt a tugging at his belt and realized it was the rod, pulling or tugging somehow.
I can use this to pretend to track them down, he thought.
He slowed his horse. Then he took out the rod and held it but the pulling felt indistinct. He unwrapped it and held it in his hand balancing it so that it would move freely. The silver tip spun around to point almost due west, the opposite direction they were traveling. But it felt like it was sliding to the east. He realized it wasn’t actually moving, but it felt like it was moving.
Miss Sho and Otto both saw West, having slowed his horse to put himself at their rear, fiddling with the rod. Miss Lee was talking with her horse and not paying any attention to the gunslinger.
West tucked the rod away.
“What are you up to, Jack?” Otto said.
“That way,” Jack said.
“I hope you’re not thinking about stealing that thing, Jack.”
“I like money, Otto.”
“I realize that.”
“But I’m not gonna steal for it.”
“What thing are we talking about?” Miss Lee said.
They rode east and could see Mount Diablo in the distance, apparently in their path.
* * *
They had traveled some 15 miles at a decent pace some three hours later, crossing the mountains, when they came across a road and could make out a town a few miles to the north and another town a couple miles to the south in the valley they were passing through. Otto lost the trail. He was unsure if he was missing something or the weather and other factors had simply caused it to fade away.
West took out the rod again and found it was still pointing towards Mount Diablo. Everyone noticed.
“What the heck are you doing?” Miss Lee said.
He wrapped it up and tucked it away.
“Would you like to explain what it is that you’re doing?” Miss Lee said. “Is this what was happening earlier that I missed?”
“Seems it’s pointing us to Mount Diablo,” West said.
He took the lead riding towards Mount Diablo. Otto slowly mounted and fell back in the line, a little disappointed at the fact that he wasn’t more help. Miss Lee patted him on the shoulder as she passed him.
“You did your best,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said.
* * *
They traveled some five miles before Otto and West saw smoke ahead. They guessed it was a campfire. They told the woman and West suggested they walk and check out the campsite ahead. They dismounted and discussed if someone should stay with the horses.
“Anybody less … uh … acclimated to combat?” West asked the woman.
Miss Lee raised her hand.
“I figured,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said sarcastically.
“Would you like to watch the horses while we go check this out?”
“So, should we leave someone not acclimated to combat with the horses in case someone does show up?”
“You have horses. You can get away.”
“Just leave you.”
“Circle around back. You could run to that town to the north.”
“Run to it, four miles away?”
“With the horses.”
Miss Sho whispered to the woman that if it became too bad, she could go to Chinatown and speak her name, Emerald Sho, and she would find help.
“So, you’re staying with the horses?” Miss Sho asked Miss Lee.
“Yes,” Miss Lee said.
“And I’m going with you fine gentlemen,” Miss Sho said.
“Joy,” Otto said.
“Do you not like me or something?”
“I don’t trust you, as a matter of fact.”
“Why? I’ve been nothing but honorable.”
“You followed us!”
“I did not.”
“Let’s just get on with it.”
The other three crept through the wooded hills to sneak up on the camp. As they approached, both Otto and West crawled. Miss Sho had crouched but not crawled and was more visible. The people in the camp noticed her.
The camp was near a creek with a small tent and gold panning equipment visible. Two men sat by the fire. One was in black leather and carried a sawed-off shotgun on a holster on his back and a pistol on his belt. The other man, who sat by the fire whittling, had a goofy look on his face and wore poor clothing and a dirty white hat. He wore no jacket and his gun belt was turned sideways so his gun was down the front.
The man in the dark hat looked at Miss Sho but didn’t say anything. She moved, standing up a little straighter and moving forward shyly, between where West and Otto were hidden, and gestured to the other men behind her back to stay put.
“Hello,” she said.
She tried to sound like the Chinese she knew in Chinatown who did not speak English well.
“Good sirs,” she said. “I have gotten lost.”
The man with the white hat spun his head around.
“Who’s she!?!” he asked in a manic voice.
“Don’t worry about it,” the other man said.
He stood up, the leather he wore creaking.
“Where you headin’, little lady?” he said.
“Just back to … town,” she said.
The man pointed behind her and to the right, in the direction of one of the towns they’d passed, she thought.
“How far?” she said.
“Three or four miles, maybe,” he said.
“She should stay with us!” the man in the white hat said, whittling faster. “She should stay with us.”
He laughed insanely.
“We’re pannin’ gold together!” he said.
Miss Sho smiled shyly.
“Could I stay?” she said.
“If you like,” the man in black said. “This is my half-brother Willie. I’m Rex.”
She bowed to both of them.
“Good to meet,” she said. “Good to meet.”
“Whatcha doin’ out here, lady?” Rex said.
“I got lost.”
“Yeah. Whatcha doin’ out here?”
“I … got lost. I was walking through town and got lost.”
He looked at her carefully.
“Well, the town’s that way,” he said. “Or down there’s another town that way.”
He gestured back to the southwest.
“Of course, you can go up to Mount Diablo,” he said. “You got any money? There’s a hotel up there.”
He walked back to the fire and sat by it again. Willie continued whittling and stared opening at the woman. She realized he was just sharpening a stick. She approached and made some small talk. Rex didn’t talk much. Willie talked about nonsensical things like gold, the sky, and clouds. He liked clouds a lot. Especially clouds that looked like sharp things.
She realized Willie was probably completely insane and probably very dangerous. She made sure to keep the fire between her and him. Though Rex was cold and distant, she felt Willie was the more dangerous of the two.
She learned from Rex that Willie was his half brother and they were out there panning for gold because that was what Willie wanted to do. At one point when Willie was looking away, he motioned to his head and looked at Willie, indicating the man was not all there. She made sure to stay closer to him than Willie.
Willie sometimes growled and yipped to himself.
“I’m makin’ a dog!” he suddenly said to her, brandishing the sharpened stick. “Does it look like a dog?”
It looked like a sharp stick.
“Do you like it?” he said to her.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
“I hate it!” he shrieked. “I hate it!”
He flung the sharpened stick into the fire. He grabbed another stick and started cutting at it with his knife. He talked to himself constantly and muttered under his breath.
* * *
West stood up and leaned against one of the trees in full view, staring at the camp. Otto gestured him to hide and then moved away from their present position. He stepped on a stick and it broke noisily.
* * *
Miss Sho noticed immediately. When the stick cracked, Rex looked over and saw West. He put his hand on his pistol.
“Friend o’ yours?” he said.
“Currently,” West said.
“Not talkin’ to you,” Rex said.
He glanced at Miss Sho.
“Are you stupid?” she said in a normal voice.
Willie had gone completely silent. You could cut the tension with a knife.
* * *
Miss Lee had waited about 15minutes by the horses and soon grew bored of it. She tied the horses to nearby trees and headed in the directions the other had taken.
* * *
“Can we help you?” Rex said.
Willie held his stick and knife out to either side, dropping them dramatically to the ground.
“I was wondering if you two would possibly know where … Terwilliger might be,” West growled.
“Who?” Rex said.
He turned to Miss Sho.
“Is this a friend o’ yours?” he asked.
“Uh … friend … sure …” she said.
“We met a couple hours ago,” West said. “Regretfully on this side as well.”
She made a mock bow with her hand.
“Well, why don’t you come into camp them, cowboy?” Rex said.
West sauntered out of the trees.
“We can always be polite and take our hands off our guns,” he said.
“I can be polite,” Rex said. “Don’t upset my brother, here.”
Willie laughed and grinned at West. Rex removed his hand from his pistol.
“Calm yourself, Willie,” he said.
Willie gave West a weird look, eyes bugged out of his head. West approached.
“So, who in the hell are you people?” Rex said.
Miss Sho sighed.
“Travelers,” she said.
“All right,” he said.,
“We’re looking for … what’s his name again?” Miss Sho said. “Terwilliger.”
“Terwilliger,” West said.
“Who the hell’s Terwilliger?” Rex said.
“That’s a good question,” Miss Sho said.
“Scientist,” West said. “On a farm about 20 miles away. Your brother’s hat fits a description that we heard.”
“Ugly?” Rex said.
“Nah, his hat,” he said.
“Look, we saw three men riding north about a week ago,” Rex said. “Maybe two weeks. Maybe they were heading towards Walnut Creek. Maybe they were going to Concord. Maybe Pacheco or even the bay. It opens up into San Francisco Bay up there. That was a week and a half ago. Willie, calm down.”
Willie laughed loudly.
“You whittle?” he said to West.
“A─” West said.
“Liar!” Willie said.
He picked up his stick and flung it into the fire. Then he picked up his knife and another stick and started whittling again, staring at Jack West.
“You have been exceedingly helpful, Rex,” West said.
“When you have a brother like mine, you appreciate people who aren’t like him,” Rex said.
“What’d you say, Rex?” Willie said.
“I said your hair looks nice,” Rex said.
“Oh, okay,” Willie said.
“Very thankful,” West said.
“You’ve been exceedingly nice,” Miss Sho said.
“We’ll be making our way now,” West said.
West tipped his hat and turned to leave the camp at an angle that allowed him to keep eyes on the two men. Miss Sho followed him. The two men watched them go, Willie having gone quiet and staring.
They walked around the camp in a wide loop, meeting up with Otto and heading back for the horses. They met Miss Lee on the way.
* * *
Marshal Clayton Pierce had come back to the San Francisco area after being in Denver and soon found himself caught up in the kidnapping of Professor Marion Terwilliger, whom he remembered from Yellow Flats and the Sequoyah Star. He learned the man had been taken from his farm, the kidnappers heading east. Unfortunately, aniseed had been used and the hounds soon lost the track. Marshal Pierce had decided on a more methodical search for the man, moving east of Oakland in a wide pattern to cover as much area as possible.
He had found four horses tied up in the middle of the woods, which he found strange. When he heard the sounds of people approaching, he looked around for a place to hide his horse but there was nothing nearby. He mounted up and headed into the woods towards the sounds.
He found two women, Jack West, and Lambert Otto.
Clayton Pierce was a solid man with black hair and a thick mustache. He wore a marshal’s badge and had a Winchester on his back and a pistol on his belt. He wore a white hat and a duster.
“Weren’t we looking for a man in a white hat?” Miss Sho said.
“I doubt the good marshal was involved in that,” Otto said.
“‘Good marshal?’” Miss Sho said. “I’ve never those two words in the same sentence.”
Jack West called out and took out a piece of leather. He unwrapped the rod.
“Have a look at this,” he said.
Marshal Pierce looked at the golden rod with the silver spike on the end. He realized it was the right size to be one of the spikes sticking out of the Crescent he’d seen in Arizona some months before. As West held it in his open palm, it turned and the silver end pointed back towards San Francisco, the gold pointing towards Mount Diablo.
“Apparently some … strange fellas … were saying this was your dad’s,” West said. “They wanted you to have it.”
“Gerharts,” Otto said. “Ring a bell?”
“What is going on?” Marshal Pierce said.
“Did you want a gold rod with a silver tip?” West said.
“I didn’t until I saw it for the first time,” Marshal Pierce said. “My … father? What are you talking about?”
“Some … three men outside Terwilliger’s farm on their own little property … called themselves the Gerharts,” Otto said. “Ring a bell at all?”
“They seem averse to silver too,” West said. “Very strange.”
“No, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Marshal Pierce said.
“They claim to know your … to have known your father, so …” Otto said.
“We should give them a good stop-by, later,” West said. “One of them knew about you.”
“How about, first, before we start talking about random men who know my father, and you turning a rod in your hand … towards east I guess …” Marshal Pierce said. “And hi Otto.”
“Hello,” Otto said.
“So … before we get into that little adventure, who are these two individuals and where are the other companions?” Marshal Pierce said.
“Oh my gosh, hi!” Miss Lee said. “Thank you for recognizing us women! We appreciate it.”
“Not important,” West muttered.
“As I feared,” Miss Lee muttered.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Miss Sho said.
She walked up to the marshal.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Emerald.”
“Nice to meet you,” Marshal Pierce said. “Clayton Pierce.”
“She’s not really a gem,” West muttered.
“Says you!” Miss Sho said to West.
“And you?” Marshal Pierce said to Miss Lee.
“My name is Johanna,” Miss Lee said.
“Johanna, nice to meet you,” Marshal Pierce said. “Clayton Pierce, I’m a federal marshal.”
“Nice to meet you,” Miss Lee said.
Marshal Pierce recognized the woman, who was a suffragette. He knew they could be trouble, though he’d never personally met her or had any problems with her. He had seen a picture of her in a newspaper at one time. He knew she was wealthy and a troublemaker.
“Nice pants,” he said with a complimentary nod.
She guessed he knew who she was.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Now that we got that out of the way,” West said.
“Second question is now:” Marshal Pierce said. “What are you two ladies doing with a man like Jack West?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Miss Sho said.
“We’re definitely not here for him,” Miss Lee said.
“Otto, I can understand,” Marshal Pierce said. “Otto’s a good man. But Jack West?”
“Thank you,” Otto said.
“But Jack West?” Marshal Pierce said again.
“I’ve yet to decide,” Miss Sho said.
“I think that’s the first compliment I’ve gotten from any of you,” Otto said.
“Because I know Jack West is a bounty … well, actually, I know both of these gentlemen as bounty hunting men who only like money,” Marshal Pierce said. “So, are you two in it for the money?”
“I was not aware there was money,” Miss Sho said.
“I’m in it to help my friend,” Miss Lee said. “Matilda.”
“We still don’t know why she’s here,” West said, indicating Miss Sho.
“She just kind of showed up,” Miss Lee said.
“Matilda Terwilliger?” Marshal Pierce said.
“Yes,” Miss Lee said.
“Okay,” Marshal Pierce said.
“I’m here to help my friend,” Miss Sho said, indicating Miss Lee.
“Okay,” Marshal Pierce said.
Jack West smiled. He knew she had followed them and knew Otto was nervous about it.
“Everyone here is looking for Terwilliger?” Marshal Pierce said.
“Yes,” Miss Lee said.
“I’m doing it as a favor for him helping me out,” Otto said.
“There might be money,” West said. “It was kind of up in the air, how she explained it.”
“To be honest, I think he’s after one of those lightning guns as a reward,” Otto said.
“If nothing else, a favor from that guy, might be really good,” West said. “I feel like this might be pointing us towards the Crescent, which is probably where they would take Terwilliger.”
“Would anybody like to explain what the Crescent is?” Miss Lee said.
“Which means Jack Parker might be there,” West said.
“Would any of you like to fill us in, please?” Miss Sho said. “We’re just a … little slow … being women.”
“She’s not wrong,” West said.
They told the woman that in April, a strange silver crescent was found in a mine near the town of Yellow Flats, Arizona, embedded in rock 50 million years old. The men who had found it had been prisoners from California working in a mine and, when they touched it, they were able to rip their shackles free. Those men disappeared some time later. The government was informed of the object and sent troops to protect it and scientists to examine it. The large, silver object was examined.
Marshal Clayton Pierce managed to see the thing and met Professor Terwilliger, one of the scientists hired to examine the object. Some of the scientists studying it also vanished during the excavation of the object. It was eventually transported to Los Angeles and from there taken by train to San Francisco. Unfortunately, the train was attacked by who they thought were John Valentine’s men along with several creatures that looked like dragons. That was when Marshal Pierce had been mauled; his left arm never completely healed.
One of Valentine’s lieutenants, a man by the name of Jack Parker had been holding the Crescent when was shot and knocked from the train by Jack West while it was passing over a gorge. Marshal Pierce noted angrily that West had stolen his vengeance as Jack Parker had killed his son.
“I’m very sorry,” Miss Lee said.
“I am as well,” Marshal Pierce said.
Otto piped up, noting he had been in Devil’s Gulch, Colorado, two weeks before dealing with some strangeness there, including an ancient temple, some grifters, and some … things. One of their number was badly injured, stabbed by John Valentine several times and dying. Otto said he had tried to help her but, failing that, ran to get help from the doctor in their group. When they returned, she was found to be completely healed and without injury. She later told them a woman had appeared with the Crescent and told her to pull on one of the spikes. When she had pulled out a rod and touched it to her wounds, they healed. Otto had recognized her description of the woman as that of an American Indian half-breed woman in a gypsy vardo he’d met earlier. But when they went to find her, she had already left Devil’s Gulch.
“She said that was God,” Otto said. “That woman was God, who visited her and saved her life. I don’t believe it myself.”
“Why do you trust us so much?” Miss Sho said.
“Why are you telling us all this?” Miss Lee said. “I mean, I appreciate it.”
“I don’t care,” Jack West said.
“Based on what we’ve had to deal with … on these adventures … I want you to know the perils you could be possibly facing,” Marshal Pierce said. “I know it sounds crazy when I say dragons and snake people and─”
“It’ll be a fun surprise.”
“─there was a dinosaur that I didn’t see but they did one time. And I thought they were crazy but I saw the bones so …”
“I don’t know how to say this, lightly sir,” Miss Sho said. “But ... for them, it seems like they were taking drugs. But you, being an upstanding lawman, do you partake in drugs as well?”
“I promise I do not take drugs and, though this may seem like a drug-fueled story …” Marshal Pierce said.
Jack West took out his flask and drank some of his whiskey and laudanum mixture.
“… it is not in the least bit,” Marshal Pierce said. “I do not know what this world is becoming but I do not like where it is heading.”
“Well, since now I’ve heard three people tell us these stories, I’m at least willing to give it the benefit of the doubt,” Miss Lee said.
“Oh no!” West said. “Still not believe. It’s more fun that way.”
“Just … out of curiosity, do you have the means to defend yourselves?” Marshal Pierce said to the women.
Miss Sho lifted up her skirt a little bit.
“Not interested,” Jack West muttered.
She took out an Arkansas toothpick, a long, pointed knife, from under her skirt. It must have been strapped to her thigh. She tucked it back away.
“I like to think that I can defend myself with my sparkling charm,” Miss Lee said.
“We have not tried to charm the dragons yet, so …” Marshal Pierce said.
Otto took a Colt Peacemaker out of his coat and offered it to the woman.
“I appreciate it, but I prefer not to use guns,” she said. “They’re too violent.”
“Your funeral,” Otto said.
“Don’t worry,” Miss Sho said. “Women can protect themselves.”
“Were you trying to give me that golden rod, Jack West?” Marshal Pierce asked.
“Well yeah, but it also does look like it points to … hopefully it’s this fat end that points to the Crescent,” West said. “That’s what we’ve been following.”
West handed it to him and he winced when he took it in his hand. It had an electric smell about it and was a little unnerving to touch. He balanced it on his palm and turned it away from where it had been pointing. As they all watched, it slowly spun to point the direction it had before. It almost felt like it was pulling towards Mount Diablo.
“And you’re going to tell me that we should follow where this rod is pointing?” Marshal Pierce said.
“I feel like it might work,” West said.
“More like the opposite way that the rod is pointing,” Miss Lee said.
“Over my expert tracking skills, you want to trust a golden rod?” Marshal Pierce said.
“You don’t?” West said.
“Well, considering I have not found anything with my expert tracking skills …” Marshal Pierce said.
“Figures,” Miss Lee muttered.
“… I will follow a golden rod with Jack West,” Marshal Pierce said.
“And company,” Miss Sho said.
“And company,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Yes,” West said.
“And friend,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Friends is a little …” Miss Lee said.
“Friends is a little bit of a stretch,” Miss Sho said.
They mounted up and headed east once again.
* * *
Otto pulled Marshal Pierce aside as they rode.
“Now Marshal, I don’t trust that Chinese woman,” he said.
“That’s incredibly racist, Otto,” Marshal Pierce said.
Miss Sho, riding ahead and talking to Miss Lee, laughed at something the other woman said. It unnerved Otto a little.
“I realize that it may seem that way but, do you know what happened in Chinatown?” he said.
“No, it doesn’t seem racist, Otto,” Marshal Pierce said. “You called her a Chinese girl instead of saying her name that you clearly should know by now.”
“There we go.”
“I didn’t think about it that way, Marshal. I’m sorry. Emerald. I don’t trust Emerald.”
“It’s okay, Otto. Sometimes I’m racist and I don’t realize it either.”
“Anyways, you don’t trust Emerald because?”
“Do you know what happened in Chinatown?”
He didn’t so Otto told him about the tongs and the killings and of them confronting the demon later and his attacking one of the tong guards in a blood-crazed rage. He noted he had been out of his mind and tried to shoot Stalloid.
“Is that why Stalloid is not here right now?” Marshal Pierce said.
“No,” Otto said. “Stalloid is doing something with that dinosaur skull I think.”
“Based on what you told me, you’re worried Emerald might be one of the tongs?”
“Well, what happened was, when I was in Oakland, just about ready to leave, I found a note in my pocket that said ‘The Showmen are looking for you. Come find us in Chinatown.’ Then, as we were riding─”
“That sounds promising. You should do that.”
“That sounds dangerous! But, as we were heading out towards Terwilliger’s farm, she was following us on foot behind us.”
“Yes, because she is also looking for Terwilliger.”
“That’s what she says, but I don’t believe her!”
They looked at each other.
“I thought I’d just let you know,” Otto said.
“Okay,” Marshal Pierce said. “Are you asking me and Jack West for protection?”
“No. I’m just letting you know.”
“Okay. I mean, I only have met them today and obviously I will keep an eye on them.”
“I don’t trust her. I feel like I could handle it if she attacked me.”
“Okay. Duly noted, sir.”
“Just keep an eye for suspicious activities.”
* * *
Marshal Pierce was not very happy to hold the rod and feel it pulling him towards Mount Diablo. After they had traveled another hour, they saw a building about halfway up the side of the mountain. They recognized it as the Mountain House Hotel, which had been built there last year. The largish hotel was expensive and they knew people usually went there to see Mount Diablo and walk to the top. There was even talk of a wooden-floored tent built at the top of the mountain for people who wanted to spend the night on Mount Diablo.
Marshal Pierce told the rest the rod seemed to be pulling him towards the hotel there.
“Are you sure you’re not doing drugs?” Miss Lee said.
“No, I do not do drugs,” Marshal Pierce said. “I cannot speak for my compatriots, but I do not do drugs.”
“I do not do them as well,” Otto said.
Jack West took a sip from his hip flask.
Marshal Pierce offered Miss Lee the rod and she took it. It was a very strange feeling to hold the thing, which felt like it was pulling towards the mountain in her hand. She didn’t like it.
“I believe you,” she said nervously. “You can take this back now.”
“I don’t like it either,” Marshal Pierce said.
* * *
The Mountain House Hotel was a good-sized place with stable nearby. It lay on a road a mile or so below the summit and they reached it before nightfall. Jack West suggested circling it with the rod and Marshal Pierce handed off the item to him. As the others gave their horses to various servants of the hotel, Jack West rode around the building. The rod continued to point east. It was not pointing at the hotel.
As he dismounted he realized the rod was pointing towards the peak of Mount Diablo and guessed it was either on or in Mount Diablo or somewhere past the mountain. He tucked the rod away and someone came to take his horse.
He noticed a mousy-looking, thin man in a dark suit and a wearing a bow tie watching him from the porch. His dark hair was carefully combed and he had a concerned look on his face. As Wes studied him, he turned and walked into the house.
* * *
They found rooms cost $10 a night and the man at the desk noted they offered a five-star dinner every night. They were told the morning hike to see the sunrise was quite spectacular and Marshal Pierce asked if horses could get to the peak of the mountain. The man behind the desk told him it was rough for horses and it was better to go on food. Dinner would be served in an hour.
Miss Sho and Miss Lee shared a room while the men each got rooms of their own. Everyone signed the guest book and Marshal Pierce got a receipt.
* * *
They met for dinner in the dining room and found an extensive menu. Marshal Pierce ordered the duck. Others had various food available and had soon ordered. West pointed out the mousy little man who had been watching him from the porch earlier. The man stood up from his table and came over to theirs.
“Do you mind if I join you?” he asked.
His soft voice was British.
“Absolutely,” Marshal Pierce said. “We are an inclusive group.”
“By all means,” West said.
“It’s such a pleasure,” Miss Sho said.
“Dr. Randolph Mordin,” the man said, shaking their hands.
Miss Lee deferred.
“I was told you’d be here,” Dr. Mordin said.
“By?” several of them said at once.
“My associates,” Dr. Mordin said.
“Who are …?” West said.
“Thank you for being so vague,” Miss Sho said.
“You’re the Asian woman,” Dr. Mordin said.
“Clearly,” Miss Sho said.
“She’s a little snarky,” West said.
“Yes,” Dr. Mordin said. “They said she would be. They can’t meet you here but I was told to meet you here to relay a message to … uh … Marshal Pierce, I recognize you─”
“Was it …?” Otto said. “Not to interrupt you, sir, but was it the Gerharts?”
“No,” Dr. Mordin said. “Who?”
“Never mind,” Otto said. “Forget it.”
“No no no,” Dr. Mordin said. “Jacali. There was a girl named Jacali with you. An American Indian. Correct?”
“Yes,” Otto said.
“They mentioned an Asian woman?” West said.
“They did mention that there would be an Asian woman here,” Dr. Mordin said. “A … disrupter? Someone who’s trying to make changes?”
“That would be me,” Miss Lee said.
“Oh!” Dr. Mordin said. “Oh, you’re a suffragette.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Oh, that makes complete sense,” Dr. Mordin said. “There’s the maimed man. The Marshal. And the bounty hunter. They thought Jacali might be here. Do you know Jacali?”
“Yes,” Otto said.
“She is not here,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Yes, they … I’d hoped to meet you,” Dr. Mordin said. “I wasn’t sure if I would be able to or not. You see, sometimes things move in such a way as to make the simple into the impossible, doesn’t it. I understand you’re searching for someone.”
“Terwilliger,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Yes, I can’t help you with that,” Dr. Mordin said. “Except to say that he’s not far. I’ve been sent by … mutual friends to aid you in another matter. I understand you’re in the middle of a rather urgent predicament at present. It concerns the Crescent and the man … what I’m offering you is the Crescent … or information on it and the man who might be able to … to … answer some questions about it. But … it can’t be done here or now.”
“Where?” Marshal Pierce said.
“And when?” West said.
“And why?” Miss Sho said.
“When would be convenient?” Dr. Mordin said. “Well, these people have been searching for the Crescent and so are my associates. The Crescent - they’ve lost touch with it. They want to find it.”
“Now which one are your associates?” West said.
“Who do you think they are?”
“Well, it could be one of … three groups.”
“Well if you name me the groups, I’ll tell you.”
“The government,” Marshal Pierce said.
“It’s not a multiple choice, it’s a fill-in-the-blank question,” West said.
“It’s not the government,” Dr. Mordin said.
“How ‘bout, uh, the guy that loves that one holiday?” West said. “What is it? Valentine’s Day.”
“Oh no no,” Dr. Mordin said. “No. Not him.”
“Oh God,” Miss Lee said.
Otto made gestured with his fingers as if they were claws. Dr. Mordin nodded.
“Wait!” West said. “You’re part of Pete Sutter’s gang?”
“No,” Dr. Mordin said. “My associates hired Pete Sutter in order to … there’s something about Pete Sutter. He’s important. I don’t why. I wasn’t told.”
“I don’t know why either,” West said.
“No, he seems to be kind of an idiot,” Dr. Mordin said. “Anyway, could you meet … would you like to meet with someone who can answer some of your questions?”
“Absolutely,” Marshal Pierce said.
“I would,” Otto said.
“That would be fantastic,” West said.
“This does not seem …” Miss Lee said.
“This is not a conversation for dinner,” Miss Sho said.
“Oh, yes, you’re right, we should eat first,” Dr. Mordin said.
They made small talk until their food arrived and through dinner. There was pie for dessert. They learned Dr. Mordin was a mathematician who had taught at Harvard. He had been doing other work since then.
Waiters brought brandy, coffee, and cigars after the meal. Miss Sho took a cigar, which surprised the waiter but he was quick to recover to offer her a large, glass lighter. Marshal Pierce also took a cigar. Miss Sho’s smoking drew the attention of some of the nearby tables.
When they resumed talking about the Crescent, Dr. Mordin told them they could set the date a few weeks or a month from the present day. He said the place to meet was called Gravity Falls in eastern Oregon. He noted they could find it in any atlas. They just had to decide when they wanted to meet there whereupon he could take them to someone who could answer some questions.
“Why is it not safe right now?” Marshal Pierce said.
“Gravity Falls is a place where it would be more convenient,” Dr. Mordin said. “Right now it is not convenient. And I don’t have the answers. I can take you to someone who does. I can arrange it. I need a date from you.”
“That’s so forward,” Miss Lee quipped. “I don’t think you should ask people on dates that way.”
“Clever,” Dr. Mordin said with a giggle.
“How about a month?” West said.
“You think we’ll find Terwilliger and Parker and kill Jack Parker’s gang in a month’s time?” Marshal Pierce said. “‘Cause I’m going to do all that before I find out what the Crescent is.”
“But the Crescent can lead you to Valentine,” Dr. Mordin said.
“That’s what I’m thinking,” West said.
“And Parker,” Dr. Mordin said.
“What did we get ourselves into?” Miss Lee said.
“I have no idea,” Miss Sho said.
“If this thing takes us straight to ‘em, we’ll get that done fast,” West said.
“Can you explain what that thing is?” Otto said. “The rod?”
West pulled out the leather-wrapped rod and carefully showed it to him.
“Oh,” he said. “That should take you where you want to go.”
“No other details?” Otto said.
“I don’t have that much information,” Dr. Mordin said. “My associates will be able to tell you more.”
“Is it taking us to the Crescent?” Marshal Pierce said.
“It’s part of the Crescent, yes. I would assume it’s taking you there.”
“And how can it do that?”
“That’s beyond my knowledge.”
Otto suggested about a month and a half and Dr. Mordin suggested October first. He told them to be in Gravity Falls on that date.
“What if we can’t make it?” Otto asked.
“I have a feeling he can find us again,” West said.
“True,” Dr. Mordin said. “October first. Five weeks.”
“That works,” Otto said. “That work with you, Marshal?”
“Sounds good,” West said.
“We’ve just got to … get on gettin’ on,” Marshal Pierce said.
“It was nice to meet all of you,” Dr. Mordin said.
He stood and leaned forward to shake all of their hands.
“I do have a question,” Miss Sho said. “How did you know that we were going to be here? Since we did meet these fine fellows just today.”
“Well, they told me, you see,” Dr. Mordin said.
“Who?” Miss Sho said.
“They?” Miss Lee said.
“My associates,” Dr. Mordin said.
“And who are your associates?” Miss Sho said.
“And how did they know us?” Miss Lee said.
“I have associates as well,” Miss Sho said. “But …”
“I’m not at liberty to say at this time,” Dr. Mordin said.
“I see,” Miss Sho said.
“But you will meet them if you come to Gravity Falls,” Dr. Mordin said. “You might ask Jacali if you see her. She knows more about them than anyone else. She’s an American Indian woman.”
“I like her already,” Miss Lee said.
“Yes, I thought you would,” Dr. Mordin said. “She’s very, very much involved in this. I hope you get to meet her. I’m not privy to all their information. Thank you for speaking to me and good luck tomorrow.”
He left them.
* * *
The next morning, Thursday, August 26, 1876, some of them took the early morning walk up to the peak. West took the rod and saw it was still pointing east from the peak and downward. He guessed it couldn’t have been more than a few miles away.
When they got back, they had breakfast. Otto wanted Marshal Pierce to look at his Winchester.
“Well, Otto, I mean … it looks like a Winchester,” Marshal Pierce said. “Good job.”
“This things cursed!” Otto said.
“What … what … what do you want me to look at it for?” Marshal Pierce said. “It’s just a gun.”
Otto pointed out one of the parts that kept jamming. It looked fine to Marshal Pierce.
“Guns do that, Otto,” he said.
“But every single time when I need it the most, it jams,” Otto said.
“Maybe you got a bad brand,” West muttered.
“That’s just your luck,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Do you have bad luck, Otto?” Marshal Pierce said.
“It’s because he’s a man,” Miss Lee muttered to herself..
“All right,” Otto said. “Forget about it marshal. I’ll … figure it out.”
“I would offer you to trade Winchesters with you to see if it was your luck, but you have an ugly one,” Marshal Pierce said. “But, when you need it the most, if I’m around, I will throw you my Winchester and you can see if it is you or the gun.”
They left the hotel that morning and continued east, West using the rod to lead. They went on foot this time.
* * *
After a couple of hours, they came across what appeared to be a camp. It looked like it had been abandoned for a little while and there was a rotten smell in the area. The tent was partially collapsed near a long-dead campfire. The smell proved itself strongest near the tent. They peeked in and found two rough cots and two dead bodies that had been dead for some time. The smell in the tent was intense and awful.
Miss Lee moved away from the tent, feeling nauseous. Marshal Pierce went in and immediately vomited on the floor from the stench. He guessed the bodies had been there at least a week. He quickly exited the tent. He told the others the smell in the place was too much and he wanted to flip the tent. With some help, he managed to pull the tent over and away from the bodies.
Both dead men proved to have been gunned down in their sleep and were long dead. There were also several traps, pelts and other trapping equipment in the tent as well.
Otto thought he heard someone in the woods nearby so he gestured to Marshal Pierce and then indicated something was in the woods in that area. Marshal Pierce didn’t see anybody there but Jack West, having noticed the signal, saw someone hiding in the bushes. Miss Sho noticed the men look in that direction as Otto told Marshal Pierce where he thought he heard someone. Once he knew the exact area, Marshal Pierce saw the man in the bushes. He looked at West who already had his hand on this gun. He looked at Miss Sho and thought she knew what was happening. He nodded at her and looked towards the bushes.
On his side away from the bushes, he held out three fingers, then two, and then one.
Jack West drew and aimed at the spot.
“Stand up!” he called out.
At that same moment, Miss Sho moved to Miss Lee and pulled her away. Both Otto and Marshal Pierce whipped their Winchester rifles from their shoulders and aimed at the bushes. A young man with long hair wearing buckskin clothing stood up, one hand over his face as if trying to protect it from the bullets that he feared were coming at it. He looked terrified. A pistol was on his belt.
“Oh no!” he cried out.
“Towards us now slowly with the hands up!” Marshal Pierce said.
“We didn’t mean to trespass!”
“Forward slowly with the hands up!”
“You shouldn’t a killed ‘em! Why did you kill ‘em! We was just trespassing! We didn’t mean to! They said you were gonna kill us!”
“These men are a week dead!” Jack West said.
“Yeah, they killed ‘em a week ago!” the youth called out. “I don’t where - I’m lost! I don’t know where I am!”
Tears were rolling down the man’s face.
“Get some of your rations out,” Marshal Pierce said to Otto.
He looked towards the youth.
“Come out slowly with your hands up,” Marshal Pierce said again. “We are not going to hurt you.”
“I don’t think he’s going to hurt us at all,” Miss Lee said.
“I got that impression, but I’d like him to come over here,” Otto said.
“Put the guns down,” Miss Lee said. “Maybe he’ll calm down if you put the weapons away. You men and your weapons.”
West lowered his pistol, as did Otto. Marshal Pierce had some beef jerky and threw it at the man.
“Calm down,” he said. “Eat. And get over here.”
The youth reached down and picked up a Henry rifle, his hand nowhere near the trigger. Then he came over to them carefully. He put down the rifle and grabbed the food and ate it ravenously. Marshal Pierce walked towards the man very slowly and the youth flinched. He flinched again when Marshal Pierce kicked the rifle away from him. He flinched once more when Marshal Pierce reached down and unholstered his revolver as well.
“We’re not gonna hurt you,” Marshal Pierce said. “What’s wrong with you?”
“They told me we were trespassing,” the young man said. “That somebody owned this land.”
“Who did?” Marshal Pierce said.
The youth pointed towards the wreck of the tent and the two corpses.
“Aaron and Sam,” he said. “They said ‘We’re trespassing and if they ketch ya, they’re gonna shoot ya. They’re gonna shoot ya.’”
“Well, it’s not us,” Marshal Pierce said. “We’re not gonna shoot you.”
“But it was other men,” the youth said.
“Men!” Miss Lee said.
“I didn’t see ‘em but I heard gunshots and, when I came back, Aaron and Sam were dead,” the youth said. “They were dead. And there was signs of three horses riding through here. That way. They killed ‘em. And they said if they found us trespassing they’d shoot us and wouldn’t say nothing and they’d just put bullets in us and I didn’t say nothing and I don’t know where we are. They brought me out here. They’re in charge. They’re teaching me how to hunt. They’re just hunters. Trappers. We trap. I been eating raw meat because I’ve been afraid to light a fire!”
“Well, calm down, boy, calm down,” Marshal Pierce said. “We’re actually after them.”
“They’re awful!” the youth said. “Whoever they were, they’re awful!”
He started crying.
“Listen here, do this,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Where are we?” the youth bawled. “I don’t even know where we are!”
“You need to go up the peak,” Marshal Pierce said. “Go back down the other way. Here’s $10. There’s an inn there. All right?”
“Okay …” the boy said.
“Now go and get outta here,” Marshal Pierce said.
“But but but …” the youth said taking the money.
He stood up, collecting his pistol and rifle. West had taken out the rod and was dowsing with it. It was pointing directly in the direction the youth was pointing.
“Tell the people at the inn what happened here and they’ll come help you bury the bodies,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Okay,” the boy said.,
“But you need to calm down.”
“I was trying. It’s just … nobody ever shot at us. I don’t know.”
“Jack, would you give him some of your drink?” Miss Sho said.
“Calm him down,” Miss Lee said.
“Calm him down a little,” Miss Sho said.
West looked at them.
“I don’t want his lips on it,” West said, taking out his flask.
He poured a little in the cap and handed it to the boy. He took it and drank down the tiny sip, then choked on the whiskey/laudanum mixture within. He was obviously not much of a drinker.
“Thanks,” he hissed through his coughing.
They sent him to Mount Diablo.
Miss Lee slipped a piece of paper into Marshal Pierce’s hand and he found it was a $10 bill.
“No, I can’t,” he said. “It’s not what I do.”
“Well, I come from a wealthy family so … please,” she said. “It’s no trouble at all.”
“Can I get reimbursed for my whiskey?” West said.
“No,” Miss Lee said. “You’re not a nice man.”
“I can’t take money for doing the right thing,” Marshal Pierce said. “But I tell you what, you do the right thing somewhere else down the road, all right?”
“I always do the right thing,” Miss Lee said. “But I appreciate it.”
* * *
An hour further on, they found a ranch. Tucked into a lightly wooded valley along the trail was a small homestead house with a barn and corral as well as fields fenced off with wood and wire. It was a pleasant-looking place with a large porch and glass windows. It was only a single story tall though with a peaked roof and painted yellow.
The rod pointed right at it.
West moved north and south to triangulate and the rod seemed to point right to the little house.
“It’s the house,” he said.
“We should go inside but not directly,” Miss Lee said.
A Wells Fargo freight wagon stood outside the house. A man with a white mustache left the house porch and mounted the wagon. He gave the reins a whip and the horses pulled the wagon away from the house and down a lane that led into the woods going south. West carefully watched the rod but it still focused on the house.
They discussed what plan of action to take. There was talk of getting their horses and they wondered about the Wells Fargo wagon being there as well. They talked for several minutes before they came to a plan. In the end, Marshal Pierce volunteered to lead back all of their horses.
* * *
Marshal Pierce actually caught up with the scared young man on the way back to the Mountain House Hotel, startling him. The boy was more relaxed than he expected.
“I wasn’t sure you knew where the hotel was so I thought I’d take you there,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Thank you,” the youth said.
Marshal Pierce helped the youth get back to the hotel and get a room. When he went to get the horses, he was warned about Miss Lee’s Arabian. The animal had kicked one of the stable boys and broke his leg.
* * *
It had been very quiet at the homestead. They had not seen anyone out doing chores and no one had been in the various corrals or pens.
Jack West was juggling a pair of loaded guns with one hand. Otto had set himself up on the ground with his rifle facing the house.
“So Emerald, do you know who the Showmen are?” Otto asked as they waited.
“Uh … Showmen?” Miss Sho replied. “I’ve heard of them, yes.”
“What have you heard of them?”
“Um … not much, honestly. I know that they’re based in Chinatown but not much more.”
“You sure about that?”
“You don’t know anything else other than that?”
“No, of course not.”
“Not even what sort of business they do in Chinatown?”
“Business. Yes. Um … they’re a gang of sorts.”
“I hear they’re run by someone named Edward Showman.”
“That explains the name. Do you know why they might be interested in someone like me?”
“Have you done anything in Chinatown?”
“Stabbed a man.”
“That could possibly be it.”
“I hear they’re friends with the tongs,” Jack West said.
Miss Sho sent West a sideways glance.
* * *
Marshal Pierce showed up an hour later, having left the horses back about a half mile. Miss Lee’s Arabian had given him the most trouble, as he expected. He had been careful about going behind the animal.
By then it was about 2 p.m.
He learned nothing had gone on since he’d been gone. The place had been quiet.
They discussed a plan of action and decided to wait until nightfall.
Some of them crept in a circle around the property to get a lay of the land. They saw there were two windows and a door with a window in the front, on the west side where the porch was located. The north side had a chimney but no windows. The east side had a back door but no windows. The south side had two windows on the ground floor and a larger window on the second floor. There must have been a room tucked under the eaves of the house. All of the windows were open as it was a warm day.
Miss Lee thought sure they were probably keeping Terwilliger on the second floor. Miss Sho wanted to know why they were waiting for nightfall. Marshal Pierce told her there were numerous ways for whomever was in the house to see them approach and little cover amid the corrals and pens around the property. If they went at night, they could go in under cover of darkness. When she protested they would also not be able to see, he pointed out any lights in the house would mean those within couldn’t see into the darkness outside.
It was quiet all day except for a man exiting the house at one point to bring in wood from the woodpile.
* * *
After dark, they put their plan into action. Marshal Pierce, Jack West, and Emerald Sho circled the property and approached the house from the east, the back door where there were no windows. Lambert Otto and Johanna Lee waited in the woods west of the house, facing the front door. Otto had his carbine aimed at the building.
Lamplight flickered from the house and smoke came from both the stone chimney on the west wall and the iron stovepipe sticking out of the southwest corner of the house and the porch there. All seemed very quiet in the place, however.
The three approaching the house made it all the way across the corrals and pens to the back of the house without incident. Jack West tried the knob but found it locked. Lamplight trickled out of the keyhole.
“China woman,” West hissed.
“China woman?” Marshal Pierce whispered. “Emerald?”
“Emerald,” West whispered.
“What?” Miss Sho said.
“Do you know how to … get into places you shouldn’t?” West said.
“Are you making assumptions of me?” she whispered back.
She moved to the small stoop and removed a rolled up piece of leather. When she unrolled it, they saw it was filled with small lock picks. After a moment, she chose one.
“Yes,” West whispered, mostly to himself. “I am.”
She got to work on the lock.
“As a federal marshal, should I be concerned with what I’m seeing right now?” Marshal Pierce whispered.
“How about you just look the other way,” she replied.
“I have done that many a time on this journey,” he said.
She worked on the lock for only a few moments and then she put the pick back into the leather wrap and tucked it away again.
“After you,” she whispered.
West turned the knob and pushed the door quietly open.
The door opened into a large room and he could see light within. A kitchen stood off to the left, on the south side of the house. There was a large wood cooking stove, a sink and a pump, and counters and shelves. Another closed door probably led into a pantry next to the kitchen. A single beam held up what appeared to be a loft above.
The door hid the north side of the room and, when he peeked around it, he saw a fireplace and open area above. To his right was the back of a staircase without any risers. Two chairs were facing towards the fireplace and away from him. In the one to the right sat an old woman, a kerchief over her head, knitting. In the one on the left sat an old man wearing a straw hat reading a Bible. A small table sat between them with a glass lamp upon it, illuminating the room. A very large pile of wood stood on the far side of the fireplace.
The ceiling of the main living room was the gabled roof above whereas the ceiling of the kitchen was flat. He guessed a loft was above.
“In our later years, I’m glad we’re together George,” the old woman said.
“I am too, Ida,” the old man said. “Job had it really hard.”
“I’ve always said that,” she said.
West leaned back and whispered to the others.
“Should we just yell ‘Federal marshal - nobody move?’” he said.
“No no,” Marshal Pierce said. “I want to check the rest of the house. They seem too old to notice us.”
“I’ll stay and watch,” West said. “You go ahead.”
“You look down here,” Marshal Pierce said to Miss Sho. “I’ll go upstairs.”
“We’re just going to walk into a pair of old people’s house,” Miss Sho said. “Why?”
“We already discussed this!” West hissed.
“Federal marshal business,” Marshal Pierce said.
“Why not just knock on the door?” she said.
“These people might try to shoot us,” he said. “We’re pretty good at getting shot at so we try to be sneaky where we can.”
“All right,” she said.
West had a gun in each hand, one trained on each of the old people. He had moved against the wall where he was out of the way but had a good view.
They moved to the man and had a hushed conversation about trying to slip by the old people to get to the stairs. When Marshal Pierce realized he would have to creep by them very close, he didn’t think he could do it. He also reiterated that he didn’t want to kill old people. They discussed it for a few moments.
“I still think it’s rude to walk into old people’s homes,” Miss Sho said.
“It’s not an old person’s home,” West said. “It’s my house.”
“Because, these old people … they might shoot us,” Marshal Pierce said.
“One of you, go wait out by the window,” Miss Sho said.
She pointed up to the window they knew was on the south wall of the 2nd floor. Marshal Pierce told West to give her the rod so she can find what they were looking for. West handed it off and she tucked it away.
Marshal Pierce crept out the back door while Miss Sho crept along the staircase and along it without a sound, creeping to the steps and disappearing up them. Neither of the old people seemed to notice her.
Maybe that’s how it is without stirrups, West thought.
* * *
Upstairs, the loft filled about half the upper part of the house. A railing ran along one side and two windows were against the south wall. A bed was under the windows. There was a chest of drawers, a large hope chest, and a small writing table and chair. A glass hurricane lamp sat on a small table next to the bed. She moved to the windows and looked out. Marshal Pierce stood just under the windows below.
She pulled the quilt from the bed and tied one end of it to the bed frame, tossing the other end out of the window. It was a little too high for him to reach.
“Jump,” she whispered to him. “Jump.”
“Jump two feet in the air?” he whispered back.
“I don’t know what you can do.”
“I don’t either.”
He stood near the wall and then leapt up as hard as he could, actually catching the end of the quilt and clinging to it. He pulled himself up hand over hand and clambered into the window. While he was climbing, Miss Sho had taken out the rod and found it was pulling almost straight down, but angled slightly towards the fireplace. She told him what she learned.
“Well, let’s look up here first, even if it is down there,” he whispered.
They set about searching the room, Marshal Pierce taking off his boots. They found a shotgun under the linens in the hope chest and a rifle under the chest of drawers. A revolver was hidden in the writing desk.
“This is why we didn’t just walk up and knock,” Marshal Pierce said. “There’s other people in this house.”
“Seems like it,” Miss Sho said. “Should we just drop them out the windows to … whatever-his-face is?”
“He’s still watching the old people and I don’t think I can get his attention without getting their attention.”
He thought about unloading the guns but was unsure how much noise it would make. Miss Sho suggested they drop them out the window. He did so though she kept the revolver.
After finding those weapons, they searched the room again and found a Henry rifle under the mattress of the bed and another revolver under one of the pillows. Hidden amidst the underwear in the dresser drawer was a derringer. She tucked that last one away as well. Marshal Pierce tossed the Henry rifle and the other six-shooter out the window. It seemed like an awful lot of weapons in the house.
“Tell Jack or … what’s-his-face … that I’m going to train a gun on them because I don’t trust them,” Miss Sho said.
“Okay,” he whispered back.
Marshal Pierce climbed back down the quilt and crept back into the back door of the house.
Miss Sho used the two peacemakers she had to aim at the two old people.
* * *
Miss Lee thought she saw a dark shape come out of the window on the second floor on the side of the house, scuttle down the wall, and drop to the ground before disappearing around the back of the house. She alerted Otto but the figure was gone by the time she pointed it out.
It started to lightly rain. Otto offered his duster to Miss Lee and she took it graciously.
* * *
Jack West was bored. The two old people were talking about the Book of Job.
“I always admired them,” the old woman said. “Those Bible people.”
Marshal Pierce crept back in.
“Hey, she’s upstairs pointing the guns at the old people,” Marshal Pierce said. “You don’t have to do that anymore. She … ****. She’s still got the rod. I’m not climbing back up there. I’m not doing that. But she said it was pointing down into the fireplace.”
“A secret entrance,” West said.
“That’s what I’m thinking so let’s go look.”
“Okay, I’ll knock out the old woman. You get the man.”
“No no no no. I’m thinking there might be a basement, a trapdoor. It’s usually in the kitchen. So we don’t have to hurt old people. We don’t have to hurt old people. I want to stress that one more time.”
“We can check that.”
West holstered one of his pistols and they quietly moved into the door that led off the kitchen. The rain pattering against the roof helped cover the sound of their movement. They were in a pantry, indeed, but there was no sign of a trapdoor on the floor. They searched meticulously for several minutes but couldn’t find any indication of any kind of door in the floor at all.
“It’s going to be under the fireplace,” West whispered. “Do you want to have a casual conversation with them or just knock them out?”
“A casual conversation with people that don’t think anyone else is in the house?” Marshal Pierce said.
“Have you done that before?”
“All the time. No! I haven’t done that.”
“Oh. Also, we found seven guns upstairs. They have guns hidden everywhere. That Bible might be a gun. That knitting she’s doing might have a gun in it. I’m figuring a gun under his seat and a gun under her seat. Anywhere.”
* * *
Miss Sho watched the two old people but they hadn’t moved.
“We’re staying up awful late tonight,” the old woman said.
“Well, I gotta finish about Job,” the old man said. “We have to figure out what happens to him.”
“God works in mysterious ways. Well, not so mysterious for a woman.”
“You’re right of course. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
* * *
“I think the old woman is less of a threat so I’ll take her,” Marshal Pierce whispered.
“Okay, if you have to shoot her, that’s your call,” West said.
“I tell you, I think there’s a gun in the Bible though.”
“If he turns around too fast … his hands are gone.”
“Once … once again, I want to stress that we don’t have to hurt old people. I’m a federal marshal; I feel like people forget this a lot. You lead the way.”
West snuck back out followed by Marshal Pierce, both of them with guns drawn. Though Marshal Pierce was quiet, West’s spurs were very loud. Both of the old people turned towards Jack West and the old man dropped the Bible.
“Lawsy!” he cried out.
The old woman gasped and dropped her knitting.
“Oh no!” the old man cried out. “Oh dear! It’s robbers! He’s gonna kill us! He’s gonna kill us!”
“Well, I knew I could only live so long,” the old woman said.
“As long as you keep your hands up … you should be fine,” West said.
The old woman flung her hands up as far as they would go. The old man held his hands up as well.
“Just take whatever you want,” the old man said. “Just take it. We’re just cattle farmers, we’re just trying to make a living.”
“Well, we are obliging─” West said.
“Kill me first!” the old man said.
“Would you shut up!” West yelled.
They stopped talking.
“If I can take whatever I want, I would like … the Crescent,” West said.
“The what?” the old man said.
“I know there’s something under your fireplace,” West said.
The two glanced at the fireplace.
“Stones?” the old woman said.
“Don’t antagonize the man, Ida,” the man said. “He’s gonna kill us both.”
“Nobody’s gotta die,” West said.
“Listen, don’t hurt my wife,” the old man said. “We’re just cattle farmers. We’re just trying to make a living.”
“Face your front door and walk to that window,” West said.
“Just do as he says Ida,” the old man said.
“Okay George,” the old woman said. “I love you.”
They got up out of the chairs and moved towards the window, facing it.
“Why were there so many guns upstairs?” Marshal Pierce asked.
“There’s two of em!” George gasped.
“We’re gonna die for sure!” Ida said.
She started praying, saying the Lord’s Prayer. The old man started jabbering and stuttering nervously. West moved to the fireplace to search it, holstering his pistol.
“I found seven guns upstairs and that’s a lot for two people,” Marshal Pierce said. “Who else is in the house?”
“It’s just us,” George said. “It’s just us. We’re alone! We’ve been trying to raise cattle here.”
In the loft, Miss Sho realized there were no cattle anywhere on the premises. None at all. She moved to the stairs and crept down them, the pistols still aimed at the old people, one at each of them.
Marshal Pierce held his shotgun with his off hand, moved forward, and drew his pistol, putting it against the back of his head and cocking it.
“Don’t hurt us!” the old man said. “Oh God! Oh God! We have all the guns to keep you people away!”
West found that the woodpile was fake. None of the wood moved. It was a structure built to look like a woodpile. Then he found a brick that pivoted slightly in the fireplace and there was a click from the woodpile itself, as if a latch had been released. It seemed very loud in the room. The old couple went quiet and West drew a pistol.
“You better tell me what that is right now,” Marshal Pierce said. “Or I will blow your brains out.”
“You will or he will,” the old man said.
He sounded calm and collected.
“Or I will,” Miss Sho said.
“Who’s he?” Marshal Pierce said.
“Just do it!” the old man said.
He pushed his head back against Marshal Pierce’s pistol.
“It’ll be quicker this way,” he said.
“I’ll do it,” Miss Sho said.
She fired both pistols in her hands, one at each of the old people. The bullet struck the old woman in the back and she shrieked and fell forward, blood spewing out of her chest. The other bullet struck the old man in the left hand, narrowly missing his head.
“Nooooo!” Marshal Pierce turned towards the woman, crying out.
“Ida!” the old man yelled. “No!”
Marshal Pierce went down on his knees, setting the shotgun and pistol on the floor to his right, and tried to stop her bleeding.
* * *
Otto and Miss Lee heard gunfire from the house.
* * *
Jack West whipped around, saw smoke coming out of Miss Sho’s guns, Marshal Pierce kneeling by the old woman, who was lying on the ground in a pool of blood, and the old man, his hand bleeding profusely standing by the window.
“You could do a better job with him,” he yelled at Miss Sho.
He turned back to the woodpile with a curse and noticed some of the wood was in the wrong position. He lifted it and a hidden trapdoor opened up, revealing a narrow spiraling staircase leading down.
“Don’t move,” Miss Sho said to the old man.
She aimed both of her guns at him.
“You’ve lied too much,” she said.
“Why!?!” Marshal Pierce cried out. “Why did you shoot them!?!”
He rolled the old woman over and tried to staunch the flow of blood but she gasped her last breath, clutching at him.
“Jesus forgives you,” she gasped.
“I’m sorry!” he said.
Then he heard the death rattle in her throat as she died.
* * *
Miss Lee leapt up and sprinted towards the house, Otto right behind her. She quickly pulled away from the man. As he ran, he slung his Winchester on his shoulder and drew his saber.
* * *
The old man went to his knees, gasping for breath. He put his hands on the table with the lamp as though supporting himself and then reached underneath it and pulled out a pistol. There was a blast as Miss Sho fired. Marshal Pierce thought sure it was coming for him. The window broke as the bullet smashed through it and thumped outside somewhere.
The old man returned fire, the bullet striking the wall next to Miss Sho. He cocked the gun again.
West spun around and fired from the hip. The bullet struck the pistol in the handle and the his gun went off again as it was shot out of his hand. The gun was knocked out of his hand, taking his trigger finger with it. The man screamed and fell to the ground, blood spewing from the wound.
Marshal Pierce grabbed his weapons and stood.
* * *
Miss Lee ran up to the front door of the house and kicked it. It didn’t open but merely rattled in the frame. Then Otto rushed the door and crashed into it with his right shoulder. The door didn’t move but he heard a terrible noise from his shoulder that didn’t sound natural. There was immense pain from his shoulder and he fell prone on the porch. He grunted in pain.
* * *
“Why did you shoot them?” Marshal Pierce said.
“He had a gun in his hand,” West said.
“You do realize how much they were lying, right?” Miss Sho said.
“No,” Marshal Pierce said. “They were lying?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Were they going to try to kill us?” Marshal Pierce said.
“He had a gun in his hand!” West said. “He went for it! I didn’t kill him.”
“How many guns did they have in this house?” Miss Sho said. “And, they said they were ranchers.”
“I’m going to go find Mr. Terwilliger,” West said.
There was a knock on the front door. West headed down into the basement.
“Nobody would knock on the door if they were trying to hurt us,” Marshal Pierce said.
He went to the door and turned the key in the lock, opening it. Miss Lee stood at the door. Otto was grunting in pain, his arm at a strange angle.
“He broke his shoulder,” Miss Lee said.
“Welcome to our lovely home,” Marshal Pierce said. “Mind the blood.”
He realized Otto had a dislocated shoulder and grabbed the man, helping him relocate it. Otto shrieked in the terrible pain from the whole incident. Marshall Pierce grabbed him by one boot and dragged him into the house. Miss Lee followed. She was surprised by the mess in the room.
Miss Sho and Marshal Pierce headed down the steps, followed closely by Miss Lee. Otto, his right arm aching, drew his pistol with his left hand and aimed it at the steps the others had disappeared down.
* * *
The tight spiral stairs went downward for what felt like a long way. A few torches were set in the wall giving off just enough light to allow him to traverse the steps. At the bottom, the staircase opened into what appeared to be a natural cave, lit by lanterns along the walls.
The cave was set up as a laboratory with several tables. Some held beakers of chemicals and others held electrical machines. Two large cages stood in the room. The nearest had an open door while the further one was closed and locked. A little boy was within it. Off to one side was a blacksmith’s forge and tools for its use, including a small anvil. There were plenty of leather aprons and thick leather gloves as well. In the middle of the room was a table with the Crescent upon it along with some electrical equipment. Standing next to the table was Professor Marion Terwilliger. To Jack’s left was a man with a gun, cocked and pointing at him. Across the room, he recognized John Valentine, also gun in hand. The barrel of the gun was pressed against the head of a little girl he held with his left hand.
The Crescent was about three feet in diameter, a crescent-shaped, piece of apparently solid silver. Several small spikes or shards stuck out from it. However, part of it was scorched and burned, as if it had been exposed to great heat. And one of the spikes was missing, leaving a large hole there.
“C’mon down,” Valentine said in his relaxed, southern drawl. “Bring ‘em all in.”
“They’re on their way down,” West said.
“C’mon in,” Valentine said.
West moved to his right, staying against the wall and into the room.
* * *
Miss Sho, who had been fairly close behind West, stopped at the last curve of the stairs, she thought. Marshal Pierce, directly behind her, stopped for a moment.
“Get all of ‘em down here,” Valentine’s voice came up the stairs. “We gotta all be together. I know there’s more than you, Jack West.”
* * *
“I heard of you,” John Valentine said to Jack West. “You’re good. I’m impressed. Want a job?”
Jack West cocked his head as if considering it.
Marshal Pierce appeared at the foot of the stairs and recognized John Valentine. Miss Lee came down just behind him, followed by Miss Sho.
“So … about this proposition …” West said.
* * *
Upstairs, Otto got to his feet. He saw the old man and the old woman lying there, dead or dying.
Jack West, he thought.
He picked up his saber and his rifle and crept into the pantry where he crouched and pointed the rifle at the still-open trapdoor.
* * *
“Depends on what kind,” West said.
“We’ll talk,” Valentine said with a wink and a smile. “Before anyone does something foolish, you should know this pistol has a hair trigger and if it or I or shot, this little girl will certainly die.”
Tears ran down the little girl’s face.
“C’mon in!” Valentine said again. “Is everybody in? We’ll know in a moment. Hark, what’s that? I think I hear my associates approaching.”
* * *
Two man burst in the front door of the house. Otto recognized them as Rex and Willie, the men they’d met the day before in the woods on the other side of Mount Diablo. They glanced around the room and then ran to the trapdoor and disappeared down the stairs.
* * *
The others heard the pounding of feet coming down the steps and Willie and Rex showed up in the stairwell, pistols in hand.
“Ah, there’s my other friends,” Valentine said. “Now, who’s got the rod?”
“You lied to us, Rex!” West said.
“Money was good,” Rex said.
“I can’t blame you then,” West said.
“Kill ‘em Rex!” Willie said. “Let me kill ‘em!”
“Willie, shut the hell up,” Rex said.
Willie grinned maniacally.
“Where’s the rod?” Valentine said.
They stared at him.
“We need it,” he said. “We gotta put it back together.”
He glanced at the Crescent on the table.
“What─” West said.
“Give it up, or I’ll have to shoot you all,” Valentine said. “If you do give it up, I’ll only have to shoot some of you. Maybe her.”
He jammed the gun into the little girl’s head, obviously hurting her. She whimpered and cried out, more tears spilling down her cheeks.
“I don’t wanna,” Valentine said. “I don’t want to hurt you, darlin’. They’re making me. Who’s got it?”
He looked them over.
“I can kill her and work on the boy if you’d rather,” Valentine said.
“Does somebody want to tell me what’s going on?” Miss Lee whispered to Miss Sho.
Both West and Miss Sho realized Valentine was a complete sociopath and madman who would probably kill anybody in the room to get what he wanted. He also seemed far too confident and collected considering how many guns were pointing in his direction.
“I’m interested in what the Crescent does because what I like is money, but what I love more is my family,” West said.
“What about power?” Valentine said. “Your family could benefit from power, can’t they, Jack West?”
“Anyone can,” West said.
“Where’s the rod?” Valentine said. “We need the Crescent and in order to make it work, we need the rod. It’s missing. Can’t you see? Look at it. Where is it?”
Marshal Pierce looked at Miss Sho. He stared at her, giving her an anxious look.
“One of you has it,” Valentine said. “One of you has it. Where is it? We need it.”
“Well, it’s not on me,” West said.
“All right,” he said. “Well, I’m sorry, darlin’.”
Miss Lee tried to figure out how to possibly seduce Valentine. She let slip Otto’s duster. Then she started to unbutton her dress.
Miss Sho slowly walked around Miss Lee, blocking her from Valentine’s view, and stared at him.
“I don’t know what this rod is but … I am here for Terwilliger,” she said.
“You do know where the rod is,” he replied.
“I might know where it is, but I don’t know what it is.”
“That’s fine. Hand it over.”
“I don’t have it.”
“Why … do you lie to me!?!”
He shoved the gun harder against the little girls head. She whimpered.
“I don’t wanna have to kill her,” he said. “But I will. So hand over the rod. Willie will take it. You don’t even have to touch it. Button your dress back up, lady.”
“I’m sure there’s something we can work out here that doesn’t involve anybody getting killed,” Miss Lee said.
“All right,” Miss Sho said.
She put her guns down slowly on a table and took the rod out where she was hiding it.
“Willie!” Valentine said.
Miss Sho walked towards Valentine.
“Uh-uh!” Valentine said.
“Willie!” Valentine said.
Laughing hysterically, Willie walked over and grabbed the rod out of her hand.
“Put it in, Willie,” Valentine said. “Let’s see it in its full glory for the first time.”
Willie laughed maniacally, walking like a bird. Valentine watched Miss Sho, who stood closest to him. Willie grabbed the wires of one of the machines still connected to the Crescent and ripped them off. Then he giggled insanely and slipped the rod into the Crescent.
Miss Lee picked up the coat from the ground and realized the strange device they’d gotten from Professor Terwilliger’s barn was in the pocket.
The Crescent started a high pitched hum, almost as if it had been humming before, but had been interrupted. That was the distinct feeling each of them got when they heard the noise. A strange sheen flashed over the object and it started to shake. Willie grinned madly.
John Valentine looked at Willie and the Crescent, finally looking away from Miss Sho and actually taking the gun from the little girl’s head. She stepped forward, drawing her Arkansas toothpick and stabbed at the man. He easily ducked aside, ignoring her and looking over her shoulder as the high pitched whine continued.
The Crescent started to glow and the glow ran up Willie’s arm and he started to glow as well. He began to laugh maniacally as if he was enjoying it immensely as little pieces of him seemed to separate themselves from the man. Though it felt like it took forever for him to break into a myriad of tiny, tiny particles that circled around and around before they spread out further and further until they were gone, it must have only lasted a second. Everyone could smell blood and bowel and sweat and hair and flesh and realized Willie had been pulled apart and scattered across the room and now they were all breathing him in.
Miss Lee pulled out the demon lamp and pointed it at John Valentine. Sparks spewed out of the thing and slapped against the wall near the man.
The humming from the Crescent got higher-pitched as the table beneath it shimmered and came apart, scattering, and they could all taste wood. The Crescent dropped to the ground with a clunk and continued to shake and hum. The glow was spreading.
In the doorway, Rex turned and ran up the steps. The other man who had been pointing the gun at them looked around, terrified, and also headed for the steps. John Valentine had let go of the little girl and was staring at the Crescent and laughing. He was slowly backing towards one of the other entrances to the cave. The little girl fell to her knees, crying hysterically.
“The boy!” Professor Terwilliger shouted.
He pointed to the cage where the little boy was still locked up.
Jack West shot at the Crescent. He saw the bullet stop within a foot of the object and then suddenly seemed to unravel and disappear, scattered in the air like Willie and the table. They could all smell and taste metal and gunpowder.
“We got to get outta here!” West said.
He reached over and grabbed Professor Terwilliger’s hand, dragging him towards the stairs. Professor Terwilliger didn’t fight him.
“The boy!” he yelled. “He’s in the cage.”
He pointed to a beaker of liquid nearest the cage on one of the tables.
Miss Sho had turned in time to see the bullet stop in midair and then scatter to its component parts. There was no sign of Willie. She heard the girl crying behind her. She turned and grabbed the girl by her shoulder and dragged her towards the stairs. The little girl came to her feet, screaming in terror.
Marshal Pierce ran to the cage where the boy was and pulled the shotgun off his shoulder. He put it to where the lock met the bars and told the child to get back, reaching in and shoving him to one side. There was the blast of both barrels as the lock was completely blown off and buckshot ricocheted all over the cave. Jack West cursed as he was hit by stray shot.
Miss Lee ran up the steps.
* * *
Otto had gathered himself and headed down the steps. He was down some ways when he heard shouting, a high-pitched hum, and gunfire from below. Then Rex ran up the steps. He tried to run the man through.
“You damn fool!” Rex shouted. “Get outta the way!”
He shoved past Otto, gun in hand, and ran up the steps as fast as he could.
* * *
Jack West led the others up the steps, pulling Terwilliger close behind. Miss Sho followed, pulling the girl along as best she could.
Marshal Pierce grabbed the boy by his arm, dragging him out of the cage. He flung the boy up and onto his shoulder and ran out of the place. He barely made it by the strange glow.
* * *
Otto heard the pounding of feet coming up the steps behind Rex and saw Miss Lee run up the steps at him. She was followed by a man he didn’t recognize who had a pistol in his hand but held it up and didn’t look like much of a threat. He looked terrified.
“What’s going on?” he said.
“Run!” she said, pushing past him.
He turned and ran after her.
They all fled the caves, Miss Lee and Otto followed by the man they didn’t know. After them came Jack West and Professor Terwilliger, Miss Sho and the little girl, and Clayton Pierce and the little boy. They fled out the trapdoor to the front door and ran out of the house, bursting off the porch into the light rain outside. Otto stopped long enough to try to drag the old man out of the house but couldn’t get him to move so he abandoned him. Light blasted up the steps as he ran out of the house.
Jack West shot the man who’d been in the cave with Valentine. The bullet struck him in the back of the head. He had meant to shoot the man in the leg but had been distracted by Terwilliger. He looked around but Rex had already fled into the darkness.
They could still hear the humming and, as they fled the house, it reached a truly terrible pitch. There was a crash and a flash of light behind them. Only Jack West and Marshal Pierce looked back as the house seemed to explode and then collapsed all at the same time, the debris flying upwards only slightly before being sucked back down into the ground and disappeared. The sound stopped completely.
West ran back to the spot. He found what looked like a sinkhole about 30 feet across and eight to 10 feet deep. It looked like everything was gone.
The rain pattered down out of the sky.
Professor Terwilliger thanked them all profusely as they all walked back to the sinkhole. It was all that remained of the house.
While Marshal Pierce talked to the children to learn from them where they come from, Miss Sho asked Professor Terwilliger what had happened to him.
Terwilliger told them he was kidnapped by two men, a crazy man in a white hat and a quiet but sinister man in black leather. They surprised him in the laboratory and took him away, tying his hands and taking him on horseback. They also stole some of his static electricity generation batteries. They traveled an entire day before they reached the homestead where he was put below. John Valentine arrived to tell him he would experiment on the Crescent and try to find some substitute for the missing rod.
“I-I was warned not to touch it as it was damaged,” he said. “Although, you know, I touched the Crescent in Yellow Flats. Valentine said he found the thing in 1874; that was a year and a half ago. So, the one in Yellow Flats was a different Crescent. There’s more than one!”
“That’s not good,” Miss Sho said.
“But, that means … something was wrong with this one,” Professor Terwilliger went on. “It was scorched. And when I worked on it, I started getting these visions. I could see the globe, the world, below, and then it came closer and closer. And I felt heat. And then it looked like it landed somewhere in New Mexico or someplace, and crashed. I-I think it came from that Crescent, from that thing. But there’s the other one, from Yellow Flats.”
He looked at all of them.
“I refused to help him,” he said. “Of course I did. That’s not right. He’s a … he’s an outlaw, you know. I said, ‘I’m not going to help you.’”
“Outlaws are so horrible,” Miss Sho said.
“Exactly,” Professor Terwilliger said. “So then, a day later, he brings in these two kids. And he said he’d torture them unless I helped him. What can I do? What are you going to do? So, I tried to help him.
“I think they’re alive somehow. I think the Crescents are actually somehow alive. They produce a prodigious amount of energy. They seem to be able to use it to do things around them. It’s very strange. And I think one of ‘em … I think one of ‘em was in orbit. That one.”
He pointed towards the remains of the house.
“I think it was … I think it was up on orbit,” he went on. “Maybe I could have gotten to it with my rocket! I think it was up there because I saw these visions of it coming to the ground and the extreme heat. It makes sense.”
Miss Sho thought the man was a little eccentric but he didn’t seem actually insane.
“There is another Crescent,” he said. “The one we found in Yellow Flats. It’s out there, somewhere.”
“I think I know where it is,” Otto said.
“Thank you so much!” Professor Terwilliger said to each of them as he shook their hands.
Marshall Pierce, in the meantime, had learned the little girl was Beatrice Taylor who was seven years old and was from the town of Alamo. The little boy was Alvin Philips, who was 10 and from the town of Danville. He had a good idea where each of the towns lay as he had been in each during his search for Professor Terwilliger. He told them he was taking them home, and mounted his horse and headed off.
Terwilliger was very excited the Crescent hadn’t been destroyed.
“Something’s wrong with that one,” he said. “I got the weirdest, strangest, strangest visions in my head sometimes, like it was trying to tell me things. But there was something wrong with it, something very wrong with it.”
He thanked them all again and shook their hands, introducing himself to the two women he’d not yet men.
They headed for the Mountain House Hotel. Miss Lee insisted on covering the cost of Terwilliger’s room in thanks to Marshal Pierce for his giving money to the trapper earlier. They made plans to return to Oakland the next day.
* * *
Marshal Pierce returned the two kidnapped children to their parents. They were happy to receive their children, hugging the marshal and telling the neighbors. They tried to get him to stay the night in Danville, where he’d gone first, but he told them he had to return little Beatrice to her family as well and several men went with him.
He was given a room in Alamo for the night and a home-cooked meal and the appreciation of the town.
* * *
The next day, Friday, August 27, 1875, the others returned Professor Terwilliger to his farm in Oakland. Matilda was happy to see him and thanked them over and over again. Both of them promised if any of them ever needed anything from them, all they needed to do was ask.
Before him was an incredibly long mahogany table. Twelve matching chairs, upholstered with fine dark green fabric, were lined up on either side, with one more at each head of the table. The table itself had a fine bone china place setting at each seat, complete with crystal goblets to drink from and genuine silverware. There were three silver candelabras, dull from not being polished, spread evenly across the length of the table. Judging by the piles of dried wax built up on the table, they had been burned with reckless abandon. Frank wondered how many dinners had been hosted at this table by Pickman for his fine art pals. He couldn't fathom the idea that anyone from Boston would have ventured to Arkham, but he may have had friends in the small town itself.
On the far wall, just behind the head of the table, hung a crude painting of the Last Supper. It was a perversion of the original work, with Jesus offering his actual flesh to his acolytes, all of whom were painted as hungrily devouring it, their eyes aglow with devilish fire. It unsettled Frank as he looked at it. He wasn't a religious man, but even to him, it felt blasphemous. He shivered. Maybe from the cold of being soaked to the bone, maybe from the artwork.
Flesh of my flesh. Literally. Jesus.
The left side of the dining room was lined with windows. The thick curtains, which matched the fabric on the chairs, were drawn. Frank moved to the center window and yanked the heavy curtain open, letting moonlight spill into the room. The rain was still dumping outside.
“What a beautiful night,” he muttered to himself.
At the end of the dining room on the right side of the room was a white swinging door with a round glass window eye-level in the center of it. The kitchen, perhaps? Frank moved to it and pushed through to the other side.
The stench hit him first and was potent enough to make his eyes water. He gagged and brought his forearm up to his nose to filter some of the stink. His stomach burbled and it took all of his resolve to not vomit.
“drat me,” Frank retched.
Flies buzzed wildly around the room. The center island of the kitchen was covered with rotted food - meats, vegetables, fruits, and cheeses. All of it was green and spotted with white fuzz. Maggots squirmed freely out of the meats and cheeses and swarmed along the counters. A pot on the stove had something unnatural growing out of it. The sinks were messily piled nearly to the ceiling with disgusting dishes and pots and pans.
He made a second quick sweep of the room with his flashlight, covering his nose for dear life. There was a door at the far end of the kitchen, which Frank deduced went back out into the entrance hall. Nothing else seemed to be of interest, and he didn't know how much longer he could stand being in the disease-ridden room. He stepped back into the dining room.
Inhaling deeply, Frank coughed heartily to clear his lungs of the funk he breathed in from the kitchen. He took in a few more deeps breaths of clean air and began walking back to the door leading to the entrance hall.
Lightning struck with a strobe effect, and he was suddenly no longer alone in the dining room.
Frank stopped walking. He turned slowly to face the dining table.
A figure was now seated in the darkness at every chair of the table, except at the head nearest to the entrance hall. They didn't speak. They didn't move. They just sat there, their heads all turned towards Frank's direction.
Another flash of lightning rippled across the sky and the fluorescent light lingered long enough for Frank to get a better look at his new table guests. They were dead. Every single one of them, and judging by the varying states of their decomposition, most of them had been dead for a while. Both males and females were present at the table, dressed in the finest formal wear and fluffy dresses from the previous century.
This isn't real. None of this is real. It's all in your head.
“If you say it enough times in your mind, are you able to convince yourself?” the near-mummified man adorned with a top hat at the head of the table inquired aloud.
Frank's jaw dropped and his heart damn near imploded in his chest. He didn't say anything. He couldn't. He was consumed by fear. Fear, and shock. He was suddenly very aware that everyone at the table was staring at him through the black holes where their eyes should have been. He could feel it in his very soul, if such a thing existed.
“I asked a question, good sir. Don't be rude,” the corpse with the top hat continued, grinning wildly. It was not a friendly gesture.
Frank closed his eyes.
This isn't happening. You're imagining this. Don't lose it. Not here. Not now. Snap out of it! Come on, Frank. Come on. You're going to open your eyes on three. When you do, they'll be gone. One...two...three.
Frank opened his eyes. The candles were now all lit, casting ghastly shadows over his ghoulish company.
“We're still here, Frank,” the top-hatted corpse said. There was a hint of malice in his voice now. “Won't you join us?"
With a sickening sound of snapping bone, the thing in the top hat motioned to the empty chair at the other end of the table.
“And if I don't?” Frank asked, unable to hide the weakness in his voice.
One of the women at the table stabbed a knife into the wood in an eruption of violence.
“It's rude to refuse your host!” the angry thing hoarsely screamed. Her jaw detached with a wet rip of muscle and dropped onto the plate in front of her. She didn't move to pick it up, leaving a corroded tongue horrifyingly flopping about the gaping hole where her mouth should have been.
Frank moved to the end of the table and took a seat as requested, not taking his eyes off of the ghoulish dinner party.
“Splendid,” said Top Hat. “Let the feast begin!”
Top Hat clapped his hands dryly together with a sound that reminded Frank of a set of leather gloves slapping against one another. Undead servants paraded out of the kitchen, one after the other, with trays loaded with spoiled food. The platters were lined up along the length of the table and the fiendish guests piled their plates with a disgusting array of moldy sustenance.
They dug in, eating hungrily and sloppily without silverware, gripping the filth with their fetid hands and ripping into it with their putrid maws. Sounds of slurping and grunting and crunching made Frank's stomach churn as he watched the unholy feast before him.
He was stuck to the seat, frozen in the nightmare. His brain couldn't fathom what his eyes bore witness to. He wanted to scream. He wanted to flee. He wanted to do anything else but sit in that chair and watch this macabre orgy of food and death, but he couldn't tear his eyes away. And the smell. My god, the smell! It was worse than the revolting sounds the monsters were making with every bite they took.
Calcified bones, stripped of their meat, were tossed listlessly to the floor. Rancid juices spurted into the air and dripped down gangrenous chins as sour fruits and vegetables were chewed into. The ravenous party feasted for what seemed like an eternity.
It was hypnotizing. Frank's head spun as a cold sweat ran down his face. His knuckles were white from gripping the handles on his chair so tightly. His breathing became shallow and his vision grayed as he fought the urge to pass out.
This is madness!
Then, all grew quiet.
Frank's head cleared, and he realized that the entire dinner party had their eyes fixed on him once more. Half-chewed rot hung from their diseased gums and blackened teeth. They were watching him again, waiting for something.
“Well?” Top Hat asked. “Aren't you hungry?”
Frank looked down at his plate and gasped. Two eyeballs accompanied by a set of ears and a severed tongue sat on his plate amid a pool of blood.
Top Hat raised his goblet, which was filled with a vile black liquid. The others did the same.
“A toast!” Top Hat cheered. “To our esteemed guest. May he dine with us here in this hall...forever!”
Every candle went out in a wisp of smoke.
All of the dinner guests were suddenly on their feet, looming over the table towards Frank.
Lightning seared the sky, filling the dining room with blinding white light. Frank covered his eyes from the flash with his arm.
When he lowered his arm, the dinner party had vanished.
- Excerpt from A Call Beyond
Pushing ahead with this, I wasn't relishing it, because it's another collaboration with Adolphe de Castro. It was published in Weird Tales in 1930, and I'm assuming that Lovecraft revised it, and it's essentially de Castro's work. And from Wikipedia I see that's it a revamped version of a much earlier story by de Castro first published in the 1890s. So I'm not holding up much hope, after the last story by him I read. But here goes ...
The story starts as a hunt for a missing man and the papers he's stolen. But it seems odd as a reader to envisage the pursuer make a laborious and slow journey - even if speeded up in places, e.g. as with the boss's private car - to chase someone with such a head start before the pursuer even gets to the starting point. And to compound that the pursuer is doing this with a deadline of his own wedding, back home, in just a few days!
However things quickly change into a train journey of terrors. And I'm pleased to say this is a really effective. The writing is a little clumsy here and there, but nothing as bad as the other de Castro story I read which was also revised by Lovecraft. It's a minimal setup, with pursuer and a strange man in a train carriage. And it's all quite gripping.
The use of Mexican mythology (Aztec etc) is also good, and effective. It's peppered throughout with Lovecraftian elements like Cthulhu and R'lyeh. These do add, and are nice to see, but I really liked the Mexican elements.
The ending is rather predictable, but still satisfying. I also like that the narrator reflects back on whether the events happened in one way or another, or if his account isn't reliable.
So thumbs up! A good de Castro / Lovecraft story, which is such a relief after the last one I read.
Most of my players took part in character creation last night, so I now have some idea what this game is going to look like. They have put together a team that should do very well, and in a few cases are oddly well aligned with the setting. One actually chose to do a Lovecraftian Scholar From Arkham which I tried not to look to thrilled about. The player has unwittingly given me cover to make all kinds of CoC references! Oh, and other is an actual mummy.
Based loosely on Sallah from Indiana Jones, Salim is a face character with excellent negotiation and (living) language skills. He has a basic intuitive knowledge of ritual magic, and has a tea ceremony that gives him a supernatural edge in negotiations.
A young woman from the streets from Hong Kong, Lin is a skilled pickpocket, thief, and martial artist (because of course an Asian character in a 1920s pulp story needs to know martial arts.) . She has a mild robin-hood complex and a soft spot for kids and especially fellow orphans.
A minor Irish Lord and Great War flying ace, now living out of a flying boat and making his way as a smuggler. His aspects really spell out the pulp concept:
HC: Irish Lord Pilot Turned Smuggler
Trouble: Foot Placed Squarely In Mouth
“Friends” in Every Port
“I Swear I Love You, Honest!”
A Kind Word, and A Gun
During the three phase portion of character creation, Declan robbed, hit, and in once case shot, other PCs.
Hist stunts include "Boring Conversation Anyway" and "Ramming Speed!"
An Indian whose education at a London medical school was interrupted by the Great War. He served as an ambulance driver, and was shot (by Declan). He returned to school after the war and has recently received his medical degree. His Trouble is "Too Trusting"
An Arkham occult scholar turned not-so-great detective. He has a incomplete (half-burned) copy of a John Dee translated Necronomicon. His starting spells include a Skeleton Key spell, a Dream Forge spell, and an "Elder Sign" warding spell.
Sebastian is surprisingly durable and knowledgeable, and has a knack for translating ancient languages and locating cursed objects that could be used against foes.
Abdul “Abe” Tepema
An additional player wasn't able to attend the character creation session, so we worked on his character over beers a few days ago. He wanted to convert an existing character he'd run in several other games: the original being a World of Darkness Mummy. I agreed, on the condition that he not tell the rest of the players his character is actually an unliving being from ancient Egypt. We had some fun making character aspects that don't say "ancient mummy now living as a detective" but hint at it:
HC: World Weary, Hard Boiled Private Eye
Trouble: Violence Has Always Been the Last Resort of the Incompetent
Did I say Ex-Priest of Horus, Obviously I meant Coloured Englishman
Gumshoe Made of Leather
Although he's forgotten most of his magic, he still has a spell for locating lost things, and a spell for influencing the weather.
One player was too tired to make it to the character creation session and so has not yet made his character. He plans on playing a Chicago Gangster. Last time we talked about it, he wanted to have authority over some goons, so he may end up a minor mob boss, not just some hitter. If that's the direction he wants to go, I'm likely to give him a mob of mobster using Dresden Files Accelerated type rules.
As I have noted, I'm essentially running a pulpy version of the new Masks of Nyarlathotep, but without warning my players they are even in a CoC scenario first. To both conceal the truth and because both me and my group is comfortable with the rules, I will be running the game in Fate Core.
Mostly Fate Core Rules
For the most part I will be running the game using Fate Core rules, especially when it comes to things on the players' side of the screen. Five aspects, three Refresh, three free Stunts, Skill pyramid, etc. I've intentionally tried not to add any complex mechanics to the player side of the system, especially for character creation. I'm not using extras like Weapon or Armor ratings.
Skills List wise, I've added an Occult skill, which covers manipulating magical forces. Note that Lore is still used for knowing anything about gods, monsters, etc.
One major variation from the core rules is that I will be using Elective Action Order (AKA: Balsera or Pop Corn) initiative. I have initiative cards to use with it, and found it very quick and fun with a little meta-game strategy to it. I've used it a few times now, and it's my go to initiative system for Fate.
On the GM side of the screen, I will be using various tricks from the Fate Adversary Toolkit, original Fate Toolkit, and Fate Horror Toolkit but those won't be too obvious to the players, at least at first. As a broad rule, I will be giving NPCs and Monsters single stress unified tracks so that the players can easily mix Mental and Physical based attacks against targets. Some foes, particularly supernatural ones, will be given Immunity to Normal Weapons, and will require the players to find non-normal attacks to harm them. When I do this, I will pay the group a Fate Point. Essentially they will need then need to Create an Advantage appropriate to the foe to actually hurt them. For example, you can't shoot or stab a Fire Vampire, but you can hurt it with water.
I will also be using some rules taken from the Fate Horror Toolkit: Heroic Sacrifices, Legacy Aspects, and Group "Expedition" Fate Points. A lot of details will be tracked on the group "Expedition Sheet" which is a kind of group character sheet. It also contains the record of current location related aspects and languages. Each major location has a High Concept, a Trouble, and a Hidden Issue. Dealing with a hidden issue is how the group will earn Significant and Major milestones.
Magic in the system is based on the Subtle Art magic rules from the Fate Toolkit/SRD, including Jazzing it Up and Combat Curses. In order to take the Occult skill, players have to have an Aspect that explains where their magic comes from. At character creation they have a number of spells equal to their rank in Occult. Spells are typically rituals cast from a documented source, like a spellbook. Combat curses require a stunt each, but allow the casting of a spell as a single action on a single target nearby. There is also a stunt that allows for up to 3 rituals to be memorized. Players start with a spellbook of their known spells, if they have any.
Lovecraftian magic looks similar on the surface, but is actually based somewhat on the Voidcallers magic system. Players will roll Occult vs a target number, just they do with the above "subtle" system, but the result might be a Hunting Horror being summoned. In these cases, there is also a secret higher difficulty for the summoning, and the difference between that rating and what the players roll turns into Doom Points I can use to make the magic/monster go wrong.
Given their importance in the setting, I'm planning on making occult tomes into a special prop. A little booklet with details about how the book looks on the front, and a skimming synopsis of the content on the back along with rules for translating/reading the book. The booklet is taped shut. If a book is actually read in detail, the booklet is opened and a more detailed synopsis along with any important contents (like spells) are inside, along with any horror or madness related mechanics.
Horror & Madness (AKA: Sanity)
I will be treating what CoC does with Sanity rolls via mental attacks. Disturbing creatures, places, things, or ideas (like you might get from reading occult tomes) get to make a free attack against a player's Defense with Will to inflict Mental Stress, and possibly Consequences. Horror in this case is treated as the Horror attack rating. I'm also including a Madness rating which is used like a Weapon rating for that attack. If Horror gets through your defenses, it inflicts extra stress equal to the Madness rating. Actually going crazy will be done with appropriate mental consequences or concession. Going permanently mad would be getting taken out.
Note: I haven't actually warned my players about any of the above, and not many of them took Will serious as a skill, so I expect a few of them will go a little crazy regularly, at least at first.
Another collaboration, and I gather in this case that this was another story that Lovecraft revised, for Adolphe de Castro, before it was published in Weird Tales in 1928.
The writing is often strange, with an odd grammar throughout. This doesn't feel as though it's been revised as much by Lovecraft as I might expect. Perhaps he was reluctant to change too much. But it reads oddly.
And, more worryingly for me, it is grossly over long. Not because it has a lot of plot to tell, but because it tells what there is over and over repetitively. It's frustrating. I think there is a good story potentially in here, but it needed to be considerably edited down and revised far more than it was.
I do like the account of the epidemic taking off, and the reaction of the city outside the hospital. But it's just so long winded. I find myself skim reading and skipping chunks, just to get to something moving things on. For example the argument between the prison board chief and Clarendon is agonisingly clumsily written, with terrible dialogue, and so drawn out. I skimmed that part especially.
And Georgina's constantly fainting! I'm used to SAN losses in Call of Cthulhu, but honestly, this was just too ridiculous for words.
The argument between Surama and Clarendon is also plagued with terrible dialogue. There are some smatterings of references to things like Nyarlathotep etc. which perked up my interest, but oh it's so laboured. And of course Georgina faints again ...
But I did rather like the ending. And I liked the Atlantis mythology, and what happened to the library.
But otherwise a truly terrible story for me. Probably the worst Lovecraft related one I've read yet.
Migrated this play report from the forums as suggested by PoC (thanks!). Discussion is located in this thread.
Just finished running the Peru prologue for Masks with my family this weekend. Went pretty well and we had a good time. I haven’t come across any posts from others that have already run Peru, so I thought I’d share how our game went, see if others can give me some feedback, and maybe provide some tips for others that may be getting ready to venture into Peru as well.
Needless to say, spoilers lie ahead.
Quick background: I’m not as experienced a keeper/GM as many others around here. Used to run games when I was in my teens and 20s, but I’ve only run one game in the last decade or so. That was the first half of Haunting (using ToC rules) for my family as well. I’m more experienced from a game design standpoint, and right now I’m working on tailoring my RPG/tabletop system for a mythos game - actually used Peru as a first test of that system. My players are even less experienced - actually my two kids and my mother - we play lots of board games, but the Haunting was the first time they played an RPG and we didn’t quite finish it.
Anyway, on with Peru…
I didn’t tell the players much to start - they were going to Peru in 1921 and there was a lost pyramid. Told them it was a mystery game and their goal was to gather clues, figure out what was going on and what to do about it. Showed them the newspaper clipping about the expedition and handed them a stack of character sheets for the pre-gens with the background stories on the back. My daughter picked Jennifer Smallwood, my son chose Arthur Dibden, and my mother surprisingly chose Archibald Washington. I gave them the telegram from Larkin, gave them a 5-minute rundown of the system, and they were off to Lima - a dilettante, a doctor, and a boxer turned engineer.
The investigators met up with Larkin, Mendoza, and Elias (as Hughes) at Bar Cordano, and by the end of the conversation with Larkin they were already very suspicious. They weren’t sure about Hughes either when he asked them to join him for a drink, but once he indicated he didn’t trust Larkin and revealed his true identity they were at least willing to listen to him. Hearing about the legend of the kharisiri and Elias’ theories about a cult only reinforced their suspicions and paranoia. They made plans to meet Elias in the morning and head to the museum, but first they asked Elias if he could point them to where they might be able to purchase some weapons before heading out on the expedition. He gave them some names and directions before parting for the evening. The investigators still didn’t trust Elias, so they made plans to get up early, get some weapons, and then meet him. Jennifer also suggested she telegram some of her family contacts to see what she could find out about Larkin, but she didn’t want to go alone so they all went to the telegraph office before returning to their hotel. They still didn’t feel too safe, so Washington slept on a chair in the hall to keep watch overnight.
After an uneventful night, the group headed out to buy some guns. They wanted pistols, knives, and rifles - plus Jennifer wanted a Derringer she could hide in her boot. With Elias’ suggestions and Jennifer’s money, they had no problem finding what they wanted - but there was some debate on how to proceed. The investigators clearly didn’t trust anyone at this point, and they didn’t want anyone knowing what weapons they had. They talked about trying to hide the guns along the route or maybe bribe the truck drivers. In the end, they decided to take the pistols and knives with them and have the rifles delivered to the trucks in front of Hotel España on Monday morning. They wanted the delivery to take place in front of everyone, that way no one would suspect they also had the pistols.
After securing their weapons and making delivery arrangements, the investigators met up with Elias and headed for the museum. Elias introduced them to Sánchez, who explained what he knew about the pyramid and that his grad assistant was working on the details. Washington was surprised that Sánchez didn’t know anything about the cult that Elias was investigating. The investigators got tired of waiting for Rizo and decided to head downstairs to talk to her, but not before debating about whether or not they wanted Elias to accompany them. The discussion almost escalated to an argument - in hushed whispers since they were still in Sánchez’s office - but they finally agreed to have Elias stay with Sánchez while they went to the storeroom.
The investigators headed downstairs into the dim basement corridor and easily located the storeroom. Already on edge in the low lighting, the discovery of Rizo’s nearly mummified body weakened the resolve of the group – especially Dibden – but all managed to keep it together. Dibden examined the body and was able to conclude a caustic substance dissolved some of the tissue and fat appeared to have been sucked through the gaping wound in the chest. He also noticed a notebook tucked in her pocket. Washington noticed the glint of the Golden Ward in the debris around the body – and then saw the bloody footprints leading to another door in back of the storeroom. Jennifer wanted to leave, and Washington and Dibden argued about whether or not they should follow the footprints. Hearing an echo of screams from somewhere upstairs brought the situation to a head. Dibden and Washington grabbed the notebook and the Golden Ward before heading back up the way they came. Jennifer had no interest in going towards the source of the screaming, but after an exclamation of, “I’m not staying down here alone!” she promptly followed them upstairs.
As they reached the ground floor, the group heard screams and commotion coming from outside – as well as sounds of scuffling from inside Sánchez’s office. The investigators quickly split up, with Dibden heading outside to see if he could provide medical assistance and Washington and Jennifer entering the office.
Dibden quickly located the source of the screaming as a crowd standing around Elias, who appeared to be crouched over someone else lying in the street. Rushing up to the scene, Dibden found Elias trying to stop the blood coming from a wound in an elderly woman’s stomach. Wasting no time to render what aid he could, Dibden asked Elias what happened while he started working to save the woman. “Not sure. I heard screams and came outside. Found her like this. They’re saying something about a man with a sword,” indicating the gathering crowd.
Washington and Jennifer entered Sánchez’s office to find someone standing with his back to them next to the desk, and they could just make out the professor’s struggling body on the other side. Washington rushed forward to restrain the attacker and was shocked with how easily he was flung backward. His shock was compounded when the attacker turned – Mendoza in full kharisiri form. Jennifer quickly drew her Derringer and fired, striking Mendoza in the chest. Mendoza just snarled (courtesy of Syrinscape), which immediately triggered a, “Oh hellll no!” Washington, lying on his back, also drew and fired a volley of shots from his pistol, which felled Mendoza.
Hearing the shots, Dibden and Elias instructed the onlookers to get help for the now-stabilized woman and began running back to the museum. Elias asked what was going on, to which Dibden replied, “We found Rizo dead downstairs and heard noises coming from the office.” Elias drew his pistol and sped up, with Dibden barely keeping pace.
Dibden and Elias enter the officer to find Washington checking on Sánchez and Jennifer keeping her distance from Mendoza’s body. “We should probably see if he’s alive or dead… but I’m not going to check to see if he’s dead!” With Sánchez writhing on the floor in obvious pain and moaning about being kissed, Dibden immediately checks him over. Upon discovering something moving in his abdomen, the team comes up with a plan of action. Jennifer pins her boot on Mendoza’s neck and cover him with her Derringer, while Washington covers both Sánchez and Mendoza with his pistol. Elias holds Sánchez down while Dibden performs an impromptu surgery to remove whatever is inside him. They manage to remove a large larva-like creature and promptly kill it – and of course everyone’s grossed out.
With Sánchez stabilized, Dibden turns his attention to Mendoza. He confirms Mendoza appears to be dead and inspects the odd structure of the mouth. Verifying this is the likely cause of Rizo’s injuries, the doc also determines that Mendoza was at least once human. The investigators start discussing what to do next, when Elias points out that Sánchez needs medical care and two dead bodies – one riddled with bullets – will require some explanation to the authorities. Elias goes outside to grab any medical personnel that may be assisting the woman on the street. He brings two men back, whispers to them for a couple of minutes and pays them, and then informs the investigators that these men will see Sánchez safely to the hospital. He suggests the investigators head back to the hotel – he will talk to the police when they arrive and ensure Rizo’s body is properly cared for while questions regarding Mendoza are kept to a minimum. He asks one of the investigators to leave their pistol behind so he can provide it as evidence. Everyone agrees and the group heads out.
Washington, Dibden, and Jennifer return to their hotel and review Rizo’s notes. The group quickly concludes that the gold from the pyramid must be cursed and that they should return it in order to bring the curse to an end. Elias arrives and tells everyone that he has handled the police, but that Mendoza’s body disappeared while they were downstairs with Rizo. The group is unnerved by the news, but not surprised. Elias also checked on Sánchez and verified he will recover. After some debate about whether or not they should trust Elias, Washington shows him the notes and the gold. Elias points out there is something on the Golden Ward, which Dibden identifies as skin – suspecting that the gold somehow harmed Mendoza. The group reviews their options to see what else they might learn before the expedition departs on Monday morning and decides to check out Larkin and Mendoza’s hotel.
Rather than accompany the others directly to the hotel, Jennifer and Washington first stop to sends some additional telegrams to Jennifer’s family contacts to see what they can confirm about Elias.
Elias and Dibden head to Hotel España and gain access to Mendoza and Larkin’s rooms after confirming that neither is there. They find Mendoza’s room largely unused, but discover and take the Golden Mirror. They find heroin in Larkin’s room, confirming Dibden’s suspicions about his condition. They rendezvous with the others in the lobby and are still there when Larkin returns to the hotel. They follow him to his room to find him high and only marginally coherent. Following a brief discussion with Larkin, Elias finally confronts him with the truth about Mendoza. Eventually Nyarlathotep briefly assumes control of Larkin to make a few vague threats, followed by Larkin collapsing long enough for Dibden to examine him – discovering the strange tattoo on his chest, the failing state of his physical body, and the fact that he does not appear to be a kharisiri or host to a larva.
Leaving Larkin in his room and returning to Hotel Maury, the group decides to spend Sunday trying to find out what they can about Larkin’s tattoo and anything else they can learn. They also decide that they will meet Monday morning to continue with the expedition as planned, but if they don’t like what they see they still want to go to the pyramid. Elias says that with what they know now, he believes he knows someone in Puno who could direct them to the pyramid’s location. The group asks Elias to make alternative travel arrangements to get to Puno, and Elias agrees on the condition that the investigators can cover the costs of the trip. Jennifer assures him that won’t be a problem.
Sunday morning, Washington and Jennifer head to the telegraph office where they receive some telegrams from Jennifer’s contacts. Most cannot offer much on such short notice, but they are able to confirm Elias’ story and reputation. They also confirm Larkin comes from money but is something of a black sheep – and that he has travelled a great deal in the last couple of years.
Meanwhile, Dibden and Elias hit a couple of libraries trying to learn about the tattoo. Finally, Elias points out that without some point of reference, finding information in a library or museum related to a description of an unknown tattoo will be difficult. He offers to contact some of his associates knowledgeable in the occult, but doubts any information will be forthcoming before they have to leave for the pyramid. The team also learns that Larkin left his hotel first thing Sunday morning and that neither he nor Mendoza have returned since. Elias arranges travel for the group.
Monday morning, everyone meets in front of Hotel España, where the trucks and drivers are waiting for Larkin, who is evidently a no-show. The investigators take delivery of their rifles and ammunition, grow tired of waiting, and head into the hotel to find Larkin’s room cleared out. With that, they decide to take advantage of Elias’ arrangements. The group takes a steamer up the coast and then catches the train north to Puno, all on Jennifer’s dime. She seems unaffected by the high altitude, with Dibden and Washington’s military and boxing backgrounds serving them well as they easily make the adjustment to the elevation.
Once in Puno, Elias asks around until he learns that his friend, Nayra, is hiding from suspected kharisiri on one of the islands on Lake Titicaca. The groups heads to the docks, where they notice a couple of people watching them, then take a small boat to the island. Nayra greets Elias and tells them about the legend of the pyramid – the Tiwanaku built it to contain a ravenous god that fell from the sky using “spells worked in gold”. Two kharisiri arrive on a boat and attack, but are quickly felled by the group with rifles. As it dies, one of the kharisiri threatens the team in Spanish that Elias translates as, “You too will serve the Father of Maggots.” Hearing this in contexts with other stories she has heard, Nayra concludes that this may be another name for the god dwelling inside the pyramid. She expresses concern that the recent stories of the kharisiri have including attackers of native descent as well as white men. She thanks the group for their help and assists with getting them supplies before seeing them off with directions to the pyramid.
The investigators are anxious to reach the pyramid before Mendoza or Larkin and remain convinced that they must return the gold – including the Golden Ward, the Golden Mirror, and the pendant and cup last seen in the possession of Larkin – in order to break the curse of the kharisiri. Washington keeps watch the first night in camp on the way into the highlands. Hearing strange noises, he rouses everyone else and the group finds one of their pack animals dead, its wounds matching those found on Rizo’s body.
The following day, the investigators continue their trek into the highlands. When they hear gunshots ring out, they dive for cover behind the rise of a hill. They have stumbled upon two farmers – a man and his son – who were recently attacked by kharisiri. After convincing the father they are not kharisiri themselves and mean him no harm (depending on Elias to translate), Dibden treats the son’s wounds before the group sets off after the attackers. They finally catch up with two kharisiri the following day and follow them to the ruins and the pyramid.
The group surveys the ruins from a nearby overlook and watches as the two kharisiri each ascend the pyramid and vomit into a large crack on its flat peak. When the kharisiri disappear on the far side of the pyramid, the team descends and locates a section of wall buried enough to allow them easy access to the ruins. The entire site smells retched and is buzzing with flies. The group first ascends the pyramid, where they discover vile remnants of fat around a crack in the roof, and an odd bubbling sound from deep within. The team decides they want to try and fill the crack in, so they begin searching the ruins for loose stone or anything else they can use. As they explore, Washington falls into an exposed chimney. He is a little banged up but otherwise okay, and discovers and angled shaft that leads deeper underground. Consulting Rizo’s notes, the group reluctantly decides they need to go into the tunnels and this shaft will probably get them there. After briefly considering lowering a lama into the hole to use as some sort of bait/sacrifice/canary, the investigators and Elias all climb down into the tunnels.
Finding themselves in dark, squat tunnels, the investigators quickly reappropriate part of Jennifer’s wardrobe – specifically her scarves – to cover their faces so they can tolerate the nauseating stench that only strengthens as they continue on. The shaft dropped them into the tunnels at a T, so the investigators have three possible directions to travel. After orienting themselves with the ruins above, the group decides to head south. Slowly following a band of worked gold set into the walls on one side of the tunnels, the twisting tunnels eventually lead to a large pool of rancid fat that extends across the entire tunnel. A ragged but narrow crack lies in the wall, evidently the source of the fat, and the group watches in disgust as a larva like the one they removed from Sánchez wriggles through the crack and drops into the pool.
With the band of gold broken around the crack, the investigators quickly conclude they need to fit the Golden Ward into the gap, but the bubbling and constantly shifting pool is so large that there is no way to easily reach the break. After some discussion, Washington manages to use his engineering know-how and some of their supplies to rig a small floating raft. Dibden volunteers to precariously use the raft to secure the Golden Ward in place. As he does so, a low rumble shakes the ruins, and the fat in the pool begins to dissolve. The group hears sounds coming from the tunnel back from the direction they came.
The investigators continue to follow the golden band around the base of the pyramid, looking for any other gaps where they might place the Golden Mirror. They come across a decayed skeletal corpse and the remains of another larva, but find no other breaks in the gold around the pyramid. Finding themselves back at the chimney where they entered the tunnels, the group continues to explore the remaining passageway, which they discover also branches in two directions.
Again heading south, the investigators eventually discover an opening surrounded by very old human remains. Passing through, they find themselves in a large open pit in the ruins amidst piles of corpses in varying states of decay. Quickly deciding they would rather be elsewhere, the group returns to exploring the tunnels. Following the only remaining path, the group reaches a final chamber containing the remains of the two kharisiri they saw earlier, along with thousands of dollars’ worth of valuables and artifacts dating back centuries. Hearing noises from the chimney, the group fears they may have company. They decide to climb up and face whoever (or whatever) has arrived for them, only to discover several kharisiri stumbling towards the pyramid. One by one, the kharisiri collapse and die. The investigators are unsure what to do with the Golden Mirror, but are hopeful that they have succeeded in ending the kharisiri threat.
Finally, the group discusses what to do with the valuables discovered in the tunnels. Washington refuses to remove anything, asserting that it does not belong to him – and possibly fearing another curse. After Elias states his intentions to bring Sanchez in to inspect the artifacts and work with Nayra to try and locate the owners of any of the more recent valuables, he points out that they would be fools to not take a little something for themselves after all they’ve been through. Dibden and Jennifer agree and decide to take a small sum for themselves.
With that matter settled, the group discusses the need to seal up the tunnels to protect anyone else who might stumble across site. Elias agrees that after Sanchez has had the chance to remove any artifacts from the chamber in the tunnels, they will enlist a few trusted souls to seal up whatever the can. Satisfied and eager to be rid of the place, the four set off to return to Puno.
Another collaboration, this time with Wilfred Blanch Talman. The story follows the narrator investigating the death of his uncle, the clergyman of a remote country church.
It's a curious opening, feeling very direct, and to the point. Not very Lovecraftian at all. I'm also intrigued by some of the language used. In Scotland in the past a "Dominie" would usually be the schoolmaster. Here it seems to apply to the clergyman too. But doing a quick bit of digging online I see it's a term used for a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. And Vanderhoof certainly sounds Dutch. As it goes on I'm also curious about how the Dutch Reformed Church compares to Scottish Presbyterian. It seems remarkably similar in its capacity to preach sermons of dire things to terrify the congregation! Similarly Calvinist I suppose.
Reading comments by others I gather that Lovecraft revised this work for Talman, so it is mostly written by Talman. It definitely feels as though it's written by someone else other than Lovecraft. Though the middle section seems more Lovecraftian in approach and language. S T Joshi has written of evidence suggesting Lovecraft wrote this part.
It's a nice story, and well developed. I particularly like the characterisation of Abel Foster, which I guess is Talman's work. One thing Lovecraft was not very good at was developing strong, three dimensional characters. But this character jumps out of the page, and is remarkably vivid. The story also has a marvellous description of what happened to him. I'd really like to see that visualised on screen! It reminded me quite a bit of Raiders of the Lost Ark ...
I see that the story was published in Weird Tales in 1927, in Talman's name. Curiously another story that sprung to mind as I read it was published that very same year: John Buchan's little-known novel Witch Wood. This novel has many elements in common with Talman's story, but is a fuller tale, set in 17th century Scotland, and arguably better written. I recommend checking it out, to anyone interested in the intersection of religion and weird goings on, especially those centred around a remote country church.
For some more detail on Talman's life, including a photo of him, see his entry on the FindAGrave website.
Resuming the blog, abandoned previously when I found that the writing style I was trying to develop didn't suit me - I'll try shorter, less formal subjects and see if that works better!
Some thoughts on Mythological Monsters: It occurred to me while creating Wiki entries for mythological monsters, like "Trolls", that I actually prefer writing about those sorts of creatures to the weirder Mythos monsters. It seemed counter-intuitive.
Thinking about it again, I realize that the standard approach for Mythos monsters is fairly rigid and limiting - not to me, but to the monster itself: it defines the weirdness out of Mythos monsters!
Meanwhile, the more generic mythological monsters are more of a blank slate: they've been defined into boredom by hundreds or thousands of years of pop culture in many cases, but their role in "the Mythos" is wide-open for reinterpretation, especially for uncertain and vaguely-defined reinterpretation: in truth, I enjoy the mythological monsters more because I'm freer to write ambiguity and mystery into them, by supposing a lot of things they COULD be, but possibly aren't!
It's a less conscious (and, I suspect, potentially more potent) version of my addition of "Heresies and Controversies" sections to any of the Mythos elements I add to the Wiki: a muddying of the well-defined waters, an attempt to leave murkier areas for unpleasant surprises and undefined horrors to lurk within.
I have had a small number of such entries planned, which (hopefully) I'll get around to adding over time.
I wrote an article for the first issue of Yoggie’s Patron zine IOTSOTOT about interactive fiction games, including how to write your own games in Inform 7, and various games I’m writing at the moment.
As an update to that, here is the current status of all three of my current games, all parser games in the traditional text adventure style:
John Napier one (“Napier’s Cache”) now - today! - entered into the 2018 IntroComp, for the opening portions of games. I would be aiming to finish the full version of the game within the next year. This is set in 16th century Scotland, and is based on a true story in my family history, of mathematician John Napier being employed to search for hidden treasure in a castle using occult methods.
Hermitage Castle one (“Border Reivers”) in final finishing stages, to go into the 2018 IF Comp, which opens for voting on 1st October or thereabouts. This is another historical game, set in the 15th century. And it’s a full game. Conversation based, as you try to solve a murder mystery.
My Lovecraftian one (“Bibliomania”) trickles along, but has been put to one side as I focus on the time-critical competition games. This is based on various entries in Lovecraft’s commonplace book, and is episodic, and I’m creeping my way through writing it, while learning Inform 7 too.
And I’m about to start brainstorming for a 4th game, set in Arthurian Britain. It’s a time and place I’m rather fond of, and thought I’d give it a go. Actually I’ve been meaning to write a text adventure set in that setting for about 35 years ... I have a nice new notepad for note taking / brainstorming, and the Pendragon RPG rules to read through to see what ideas they spark off.
I will report back on how my two competition games get on. Fingers crossed!
Synopsis: The investigators discover the gruesome fate of Arthur Cornthwaite.
Session Date: Tuesday, June 26, 2018
Session Location: Six Feet Under Games, New Holland, Pennsylvania
* Elspeth Marsh, a librarian at the Miskatonic University
* Stephanie MacLeod, an archaeologist at Cambridge University
* Lynn Conners, a stage magician in Arkham, Massachusetts
Monday, February 9, 1925
After a breakfast with Hank and Edith, the ladies ask Pete to drive them back to the Fitzgerald Manse. Now more than ever, they are struck by the 'wrongness' of the house - the way it seems somehow crooked despite any obvious architectural flaws. Inside, the water damage seems to have worsened since their last visit two days earlier.
When they enter the kitchen, the door that they could not budge last time is now hanging open. The ladies draw their firearms. None of them wants to venture down into the basement; instead, they make their way upstairs and find the master bedroom. While searching the room, Elspeth begins to notice thin lines of salt here and there - on the windowsills, under the door, and around the fireplace. Near the hearth, she also finds some shotgun shells that have been emptied, as well as a crystal salt shaker. The interior of the fireplace is darkly discolored.
The next room is locked, but Lynn easily picks the lock. Opening the door just a crack, she sees a golden face leering at her with a wicked expression. The room is filled with artifacts - statues, busts, masks - almost all of them featuring sinister visages. The investigators move through the room, noticing that everything is covered in a thin layer of dust, unlike the rest of the house. As Lynn passes a display table, a small figurine with a particularly vicious face topples to the floor. Elspeth begins to notice a gruesome pattern - all of these artifacts involve funerary rites of various South American tribes. She begins to open the shutters on the windows to admit more light. While opening the second set of shutters, she notices a strange figure walking through the garden path below. It is wearing the uniform of a Revolutionary War soldier and carries a musket. She calls to the others, and all three of them watch as the figure moves toward the front of the house. Stephanie hastens downstairs, while Elspeth is taken aback when the figure looks up at her, revealing a gaunt face with dark hollows where the eyes ought to be.
Stephanie almost reaches the door when there is a loud knock. She opens the door to find Sheriff Whitford glaring at her suspiciously - particularly at her drawn revolver. Stephanie informs the sheriff that they have seen an unknown man walking in the garden. Whitford goes to have a look, with the ladies close behind. Where the figure was walking, there are no footprints, despite ample mud on the path. Whitford asks them what they are up to and warns them not to cause trouble. He says that the house is cursed, and that they would do well to steer clear of it. He then drives away, leaving Pete to ask if everything is all right.
Back inside the house, Stephanie hears a skittering noise upstairs. In one of the guest bedrooms, she spots what appear to be tiny handprints leading under the bed. Peering underneath, she sees a dark creature with glaring red eyes. She gives the bed a shove, and the raccoon darts away, frantically clawing at a crack in the wall near the fireplace. Stephanie aims her revolver at the creature and fires, creating an explosion of gore and fur.
Back in the hallway, Stephanie pulls down a ladder leading up to the attic. She and Elspeth carefully climb the rickety rungs and begin to explore the attic. They are surprised to find that the roof is dry, based on the water damage throughout the house. Elspeth notices that one of the trunks appears to have been flattened; its sides are lying on the floor, leaving its contents in a somewhat damp pile. The trunk contained the kind of clothing a jungle explorer might wear, and one of the pockets appears to have been ripped apart.
Returning to the landing to discuss their next move, the ladies hear a soft gurgling from below. Looking down the stairs, they see that the ground floor appears to have flooded - except that water doesn't move the way this dark, translucent gel is moving. They watch in horror as eyes begin to open here and there, as well as gaping mouths full of rotten teeth. Within the writhing mass, they spot the mangled features of the man they have been looking for. Cornthwaite's face looks twisted, as if it's a mask that could be worn over someone's head. Behind him are the similarly distorted features of a horse.
Elspeth lets out a shrill scream, while Stephanie staggers backward. Lynn steps forward and fires her shotgun at the seething mass. Slime splatters everywhere, but the thing is still moving, filling the ground floor, sliding up the steps toward them.
The ladies retreat to the master bedroom. Throwing open the shutters, Elspeth and Stephanie see that there is a straight drop down the ground below - perhaps fifteen feet or so. While Lynn fires her shotgun again, Elspeth tries to lower herself out the window, but soon slips and falls. Fortunately, she lands on some bushes below, but the wind is knocked out of her.
While Lynn prepares to climb out the window, Stephanie spots a snake-like tendril creeping out from under the chimney. She quickly grabs a handful of salt from the fireplace and flings it at the tendril, causing it to hiss and recoil. She realizes that the creature must be vulnerable to salt, but her triumph is short-lived when she hears a cry from outside; Lynn has fallen to the ground, badly twisting her ankle.
Alone in the bedroom, Stephanie sees that the nightmarish slime is now covering the doorway and oozing toward her. She grabs the windowsill and lowers herself down the wall, managing to jump down without injuring herself. She notices that a dark stain is beginning to creep from the foundations of the house, quickly spreading across the grass. Stephanie and Elspeth support Lynn; together, they make their way to the front of the building, where they are horrified to discover Pete's lifeless body inside the car, his head covered in a shroud of undulating slime. The ladies hobble as fast as they can down the winding drive and eventually hitch a ride back to town.
Returning to the boarding house, Hank and Edith are dismayed at the sight of the bedraggled women. They scramble to provide blankets, food, and bandages. The investigators say nothing of the horror they've encountered; Lynn says that she suffered a fall in the house. Hank shakes his head, saying that he did warn them that the house was 'just plain bad'.
The next day, Stephanie drives the dump track full of salt up to the Fitzgerald Manse. She drives a thick circle of salt around the property before dumping most of it into the cellar. The ladies watch in horrified fascination as the house begins to tear itself apart in a cacophony of hissing shrieks.
Walter Dodge is livid when they tell him that the house simply collapsed. He threatens to sue them for everything they own. But as they leave, Sheriff Whitford assures them that he'll talk with Dodge. He says that the house was cursed from the beginning, and that he's frankly relieved that it's gone. He advises them to leave Gamwell as soon as they can.
*** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^
I felt as though this was a satisfying conclusion to the investigation. All of the early clue-finding finally reached its horrifying culmination. I get the sense that the players would have liked more thrills and dangers throughout the rest of the scenario, and I'll keep that in mind when I plan future mysteries for them. I think some players are happy to conduct investigations, scouring libraries, talking to NPCs, etc. - but this particular group seems keen to get involved in more adrenaline-charged encounters.
I'm really glad I finally had a chance to run this scenario, something I've wanted to do for years. The players didn't seem as thrilled with it as I was, mainly for the reasons mentioned above. It also occurred to me that the scenario includes a lot of red herrings that could some players might find irritating - e.g., the sinister shed, the ghost of Johnny Fitzgerald, the gruesome history of the house, etc. I still like the scenario a lot, but I think it might work better for players who are more interested in the investigation aspects of the game.
Interestingly, the players lost very little sanity. Two of them failed their sanity checks when they saw the monster, but their d20 rolls were extremely low. There weren't really any other sanity checks in the scenario (they never found Curwen's corpse), although I realized belatedly that I should have called for checks when they saw their deceased chauffeur. I also should have introduced Joe Virelli sooner (he did appear briefly in the last session, but Lynn basically threatened him with her shotgun until he left).
What to do next? There are so many great published scenarios - Blackwater Creek, more scenarios from Mansions of Madness and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. But I'm really tempted to create my own scenario. It would be a lot more work, coming up with all the characters, locations, etc. - but I like the idea of building my own structure rather than trying to adapt someone else's.
Please feel free to offer any comments, suggestions, or advice, especially if you've had experience with this scenario. Thanks!
Ah another collaboration, this time with Winifred Virginia Jackson. My limited understanding is that Lovecraft wrote all of the text, which was based on a dream that Jackson had.
Written as a supposedly real account of an event in Maine, the story starts with an introduction, explaining that a meteorite crashed to Earth, and was retrieved by fishermen. Upon examination the meteorite was found to contain within it a notebook, about 5x3 inches in size, 30 sheets within. The main part of the story then recounts the story recorded within this miraculous notebook, seemingly written in Classical Greek in a script that looks to date to the second century BC or thereabouts. I'm presuming that the framing story is an invention in addition to the dream, probably thought up by Lovecraft. It certainly feels very much of his style.
The main story starts very atmospherically, in a landscape surrounded by sea and mysterious trees. This certainly feels dream like, more about feeling and sense of place than any plot. Then the narrator spies the titular Green Meadow, and shortly afterwards the piece of land that they are standing on breaks away, and starts moving over the sea. This definitely feels dreamlike, like some of the weirder dreams I've had!
The narrator leaves the menacing trees behind, and then notices singing coming from the Green Meadow. Though inspired by a dream this reminded me of the many Lovecraft stories where music - usually not so welcoming - plays a part. I very much like the description of the Green Meadow as the narrator draws near:
That's a very nice piece of writing, not over flowery, or difficult to read, but simply, and nicely expressed.
The ending is quick but effective. The narrator remembers that they have been transformed, and will live forever, yearning for death. They also mention the city of Stethelos, which I don't think I've read of before, but is a city where "young men are infinitely old". Some might wish for immortality, but certainly not the narrator of this story,
So rather a nice piece. Slight, but well done. And a nice framing story added.
To read much more about Winifred Virginia Jackson see http://winifredvjackson.blogspot.com
The opening part of this story is over written, and hard to read. Too long sentences, and too many words. Lovecraft is hardly known for simple writing, but he can do better than this.
I know that it's set in New York, but I guess New York has changed since Lovecraft's day, with curving streets replaced, old buildings knocked down, and replaced by more modern buildings. Or at the very least I don't recognise the New York I've seen on the television in this description. That television depiction may, of course, be very misleading.
It is worthwhile, I think, to compare this story's approach to Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook", which I greatly disliked, for its racist overtones and general mean spiritedness. This has some elements of that at the start, but it's more toned down. Though again I have problems with any phrase like "a blue-eyed man of the old folk", given that the people Lovecraft is praising were, themselves, immigrants. But at least the main problematic section in this story is quickly passed over, and doesn't linger in the same way as in Red Hook.
It does feel very autobiographical. I can't remember from what I've read of Lovecraft's life, and time in New York, but was he plagued by sleeplessness when there, and took to walking the streets at night?
I'm quite captivated once he meets the cloaked stranger. My edition of the story has a wonderful illustration of him, and I'll attach it at the end of this review. It's a marvellously evocative journey back through time, and something that I bet Lovecraft wished he could have experienced himself, not just conjure up in words.
I'm not sure I like the change of theme in the house though. And I'm definitely not keen on "half-breed red Indians" or "mongrel savages". I'm struck again by the thought that these vilified red Indians were the earlier inhabitants of this part of America, and moved off their lands by the early European immigrants.
I do like the reveal of the curtain falling though, showing the house and its occupant for what it is. Decrepit and decayed, something from the past, now only a pale shadow of its former glory. And the description of what happens to the old man is almost like a special effect from an old Hammer film, or similar gothic horror.
I do like the ending, so typical Lovecraft, with a narrator barely escaping some horror with his life, just about. But I'd not take the same lesson from the story that Lovecraft does. For me the horror is as much in the legacy of the past, and the early European settlers that Lovecraft admires so much. And such a horror can also be found, as seen so often in his other stories, in his treasured New England. And no, modern immigrants are not the enemy. But this is never something Lovecraft and I would have agreed on. So a slightly problematic story for me, but marvellously evocative, with some gory special effects visualisations at the end. Generally good.
Sunday, June 24, 2018
(After playing the Call of Cthulhu scenario “The Iron-Banded Box” by Michael Dziensinski from Strange Aeons II today from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Kyle Matheson, John Leppard, and Ben Abbott.)
It was a time of civil war in Japan known as the Sengoku or “warring states” Period. Since the Onin War (1467-1478), the razing of Kyoto, and the subsequent weak rule of the Azuchi military rulers, all social order in the county had fallen into complete anarchy. Political alliances changed constantly and feudal daimyo lords faced threats from without and within as their samurai subordinates tried to seize power for themselves.
Common folk and priests, disgusted with the lawlessness ravaging the countryside, formed egalitarian communities free of daimyo rule. To take life’s daily hardships in stride, a commonsense wisdom of enduring misfortune had developed, as most could do little else. Many felt the age of Mappo had arrived, the darkest of times where Buddhist law and morality disappeared from the land.
It was the golden age of the samurai, where bravery and a strong sword arm could determine one’s fortune or doom.
A group of six rônin, masterless samurai, were on the road seeking better fortunes since their daimyo was killed and his lands taken by a young upstart warlord some months before. Hōjō Sōun was the first lord of the Hōjō clan. Born Ise Moritoki, he was originally known as Ise Shinkurō, a samurai of Taira lineage from a reputable family. He had worked his way up from a rônin until he gained control of Izu Province in 1493 when he avenged a wrong committed by a member of the Ashikaga family which held the shogunate. It was then he adopted the surname Hōjō and the given name Sōun or Sozui. He built a stronghold at Nirayama and then secured Odawara Castle, which became the center of his domain.
He died in the winter of 1519 when his stronghold fell and his samurai were scattered, becoming rônin. Masterless.
For the last few months, the group had wandered the countryside brooding, the sting still fresh from the indignity of their new rônin status. How could they establish a name in the new order when even the lowliest could overturn the elites? With sharp swords and solid determination, they needed an edge to establish a new domain in the time of anarchy … if they didn’t slide into common banditry out of desperation.
The six had a falling out when two of them, brothers, had an argument. The group had parted ways at that point, half of them heading south while the other half went north. This is the tale of those who had traveled south.
Wada Soburô was 25 years old and was a large, muscular man standing a head taller than most. His skin was deeply tanned and he wore his hair in a simple topknot. He carried a katana and three yari, spears strapped to his back. He wore a rough cloth kimono and hakama.
The third oldest of the Wada family, Soburô had worked enough years as a farmer and suffered trampled fields by samurai enough to be very cynical about the lot. He was amused when he and his brother, Gorô, were conscripted as soldiers and eventually promoted to samurai. Practical as ever, he merely saw it as another way to protect his village. However, now that he had gotten a taste for the warrior’s life, he liked it. He was very cynical of the samurai and their ways however.
He and Gorô were the brothers who had argued and caused the rift in the party. Soburô had argued that, as their master was dead, they had to move on with their lives and make something of themselves. However, his brother Gorô had disagreed, thinking they needed to find a way to avenge their former master. The group had split, for the most part, along those lines. Gorô had left with Endô Soun and Doi Ihara.
Abe Masao was thin but sturdy with graying hair that was thinning on top. He wore a green kimono and a hakama, a katana and wakizashi in his belt. He was older than all the rest of the rônin at 48 years. He no longer scraped his forehead for the chonmage hairstyle as he had gone bald long ago. He had gray hair on his temples and had seen many battles.
Abe had served Lord Hōjō most of his life before his untimely death. Though not sure what he was doing out with the young rônin, he couldn’t go home until he made a new name for himself. A former Tiashô, a field leader, he had the wisdom the others did not. He only hoped they would defer to him at times.
Oda Ino was 29 years old and had the shaved head of a Buddhist monk. He had a light beard and mustache.
Though he started life as a Buddhist priest, at age 17, destiny had other plans for him when his monastery was burned to the ground by samurai. Taking pity on him, a rônin who protected the nearby village took Oda under his wing and trained him in the warrior arts. He had always been a rônin though his companions didn’t know it. He sought to punish those who trampled the common folk. He wasn’t above physical work and sought out the company of the common folk.
It was the summer of 1520 A.D. when the three men came upon the village of Kôhai-Mura in Izu Province. The town consisted of three dozen or so sun-bleached buildings clustered around two central but narrow intersecting dirt streets that divided the buildings into a simple grid, an inn in the center. The west side of town abruptly ended in a thick mountainside forest. The arid air was absolutely still and the heat suffocating.
As the three entered town, it seemed they were not welcome. The streets were empty, the only sounds being doors and windows creaking shut upon their arrival. They could hear people off in the town to the east as they passed the inn. Then they smelled food coming from a tavern nearby. Their stomachs growled as they were all very hungry, having only a little of their dried fish left from the road.
Wada lifted his head and sniffed at the air. He looked at the other two and then sprinting towards the tavern. The other two looked at each other and then followed behind more slowly.
* * *
Wada burst into the tavern. The omiya had a cluster of four low tables and stools which filled the room. A dozen people were in the poorly-lit establishment, eating or drinking sake. A middle-aged man in a simple black kimono stood behind a counter with space for about four stools. Behind the counter and near the ceiling was a shelf with a small Buddhist altar with two fresh wooden planks.
The smell of rice, fish soup, cooked mountain yams, buns, and tea filled the room. A few of the men were drinking warmed sake. Wada’s stomach growled loudly.
Wada kicked off his sandals and crossed to the bar and the man in the black kimono.
“I humbly offer my services for any food or drink that you may spare,” Wada said to the man, putting his face humbly down on the bar. “Please, I am a rônin. I have no money. May I please work for my food tonight? Please sir.”
The man looked down upon him and considered it.
* * *
When Oda and Abe entered the tavern, they saw Wada at the bar, apparently begging the man behind it for something.
Oda saw the small Buddhist altar. In Japan, Shinto ceremonies were performed for births and weddings while Buddhist ceremonies focused on funerals. Buddhist mourning consisted of cremating the dead and storing the remains in an urn under the house for a period of time. A Buddhist priest would give the dead a new posthumous Buddhist name which was inscribed on a plank of wood and prayed upon, both at the family or clan grave and in the home on a small, Buddhist altar.
The butsudan altar was a cabinet with a central image of the Buddha surrounded by candles, sandalwood incense, and wooden planks bearing the names of deceased relatives. Daily offering of rice, sake, or fruit were placed at the base o the altar. Living relatives wore black during the mourning period.
Oda removed his sandals, crossed to the Buddhist altar, and knelt down, saying a short prayer. Abe removed his sandals and crossed to the bar.
“Oji-san!” the man behind the bar barked.
On old man came out of the back. “Oji-san” meant “old man.” He hobbled painfully over to the bar.
“Find him some work!” the man said, gesturing at Wada. “And get him food.”
He left the bar to see to his other work. Oji-san went into the back and returned with two plates of rice, cooked fish, and buns. There was a very small carafe of sake as well, though it was little more than a swallow for each of them. He gave them each tiny cups.
Wada groveled on the floor in thanks before he sat at the bar and dug in. He poured himself some sake and poured a little less to Abe. He drank and quickly poured out the rest of sake into his own cup. Abe bowed slightly and then set to eating as well.
Oda, meanwhile, read the wooden planks on the altar. They bore the posthumous names for “Ichirô” and “Mika.” He saw the offerings of incense and rice there, indicating recent deaths. The names were poorly scrawled and he guessed they had not been done by a Buddhist priest.
He walked over to the barkeep.
“I am very sorry for this town’s loss,” he said.
The barkeep grunted.
“You’ve already met my traveling companions,” Oda said.
The barkeep looked over at the men at the bar who ate. He grunted again.
The tavern started shaking. The walls and tables rattled. A bottle of soy sauce tipped towards the edge of a shelf but Oji-san deftly caught it, righting it. No one in the tavern seemed to give it any mind as if it was a common occurrence.
“I … I am looking for work as well, if you or anyone you know in the town …” Oda said. “Are you … is this normal?”
“It has been happening,” the barkeep said. “What can you do to pay for your meals? Who are you? Are you a monk?”
“I am a rônin,” Oda said. “I was raised as a Buddhist monk. I am trained in combat but I have two good hands─”
The barkeep pointed at the altar.
“Can you write?” he said.
“Yes,” Oda said. “Calligraphy. Very good at it.”
The barkeep took him to the altar as the earthquake subsided. He showed Oda the planks and asked if he could do better. If he could do that, he would give the monk meals for a day. When the monk agreed, he fetched a half dozen planks for him to write on. It took Oda a few tries before he wrote out two that he thought would be acceptable. He also learned the man was Udai and Ichirô had been his son. Mika had been his wife.
“Oji-san!” Udai shouted when he was done. “Food!”
The old man brought the monk some rice, cooked fish, and sake as he took his seat with his fellows.
Three men stood up and approached the bar as the rônin finished their meal. They were rough-looking fellows, one with a goatee and mustache, as well as a topknot. Another had a mustache and a strange bump on his forehead. The last was clean-shaven though he had a full head of hair, also pulled back in a knot. Each of them had a wakizashi in their kimono sashes.
They leered at Abe’s katana.
“Greetings,” the first said. “Welcome to Kôhai-Mura. Allow us to buy you a drink.”
The rônin could smell sake and food on the men’s breaths but they did not seem drunk in the least.
“Yes!” Wada said.
“Come,” the man said. “Join us.”
“Yes!” Wada said.
The three rônin joined the three men, who yelled for sake from Oji-san. The old man hobbled over and brought a clay jug and six cups. The first man poured for everyone at the table and they talked to the rônin.
“Where are you from?” the first man asked.
“I am Wada Soburô from the Izu Province,” Wada said, taking up his cup. “I am a rônin. My master is dead. And now I am here to drink sake and enjoy life.”
All of the toughs laughed
“Sake!” one of them called out.
They all drank. One of the toughs refilled the cups. Then they looked towards Abe.
“Who are you, old man?” one asked.
“I’m Abe Masao,” he said. “I am also a rônin.”
The men laughed at him, pointing at his katana and his wakizashi.
“Of course,” one said.
“He is the captain,” Wada said.
“The captain of the fallen samurai?” one of the toughs grunted.
Abe glared at Wada.
“Our fearless leader,” Wada said. “You are the oldest one at the table. They know you are the captain.”
“I could just be an old man,” Abe said.
“He’s just an old man!” one of the toughs cried out.
“Old!” another said.
“Who are you, monk?” the third said.
“My name is Oda,” the man said. “I was raised as a Buddhist monk but my temple was destroyed by samurai. I was raised as a warrior by a rônin who took pity on me and I have been a warrior every since.”
“But not a samurai,” one of the toughs said. “Just a rônin. A fallen samurai.”
“I am a rônin, yes.”
“Without family. That’s a shame.”
“That’s a shame,” another said, obviously not meaning it.
“Sake!” the third called out.
Everyone drank and one of the toughs refilled their drinks.
“And have you found work in this town as samurai?” Oda asked.
The toughs all burst out laughing. It was loud and obnoxious, like the braying of mules. Wada laughed with them.
“We are not samurai,” one of them said. “We are much better than samurai.”
“Then what do you do in this town that is better than samurai?” Oda asked.
The three men looked at each other.
“We work for Hebei,” one of them said.
“Hebei?” Wada said.
“At the gambling house,” the tough said.
“We will soon all be rich,” another of them said.
“We already are!” the third said.
He tossed some coins on the table to pay for the sake. Wada started to reach for the coins, thinking they were for him, but then realized they were not. The tough leered at him.
“You can become rich too,” he said. “Come and work for Hebei. At the gambling house.”
“Where?” Wada said.
“On the east side of town,” the man said.
“But you are just samurai,” another said. “You might not be good enough.”
“Sorry … rônin,” another said, sneering.
“I hate my life,” Wada said.
Then, though he was not the smartest among them by any measure, Wada realized something: the three men were trying to goad them into a fight. He had the impression the three men wanted to cut them down, cross steel with the three rônin. They had been mildly insulting them since they had crossed their paths, laughing at everything about them. For whatever reason, they were trying to provoke him. He didn’t know if it was a test or they wanted to kill the rônin or just wanted an excuse to send them from the village. It might have been because they were outsiders but he was not sure, exactly.
Both Abe and Oda were starting to feel inebriated from the sake.
Wada stood up suddenly. Oda and Abe did so as well.
“It has been a pleasure drinking with you, but─” Oda said.
“It’s a shame we can’t say the same!” one of the toughs said.
They all burst into laughter.
“… but I must attend to my prayers,” Oda said. “While I am not a monk, I am still a Buddhist and it is my time to go and be with my prayers.
“Go!” another tough grunted. “Be with Buddha.”
“I will go seek out Hebei,” Wada said.
“Yes, go seek out Hebei,” one of the toughs said.
They all laughed.
“You said the east side?” Wada said.
“East side,” another tough said. “You can’t miss it. Just follow your ears.”
“Follow my ears,” Wada said.
The three toughs giggled as the rônin retrieved their sandals and left the tavern, Oda thanking Udai for the work. The man merely nodded at him.
Oji-san stopped Oda before he left.
“You need guide?” he said to the monk. “What do you need me for? He doesn’t need me. What do you need? Do you need something?”
“No …” Oda said.
“I can get something for you. The town. The earthquakes. Ugh!”
“If you need anything, you ask for Oji-san. Oji-san will help you.”
“May I ask where the source of these earthquakes is from? Are they recent?”
“Bad magic. Be careful. Be careful at night.”
“What happens at night?”
“If any of you need me, I will be near.”
They left the place and stopped in the street. They heard a cheer from the east side of town.
“Maybe they weren’t lying about Hebei,” Wada said.
“Who this Hebei is sounds like something that is not good for this town,” Oda said. “He’s the head of a gambling house.”
“Those men were quite rude but, seeing as how I have no food or coin on my person, I … believe making some coin with Hebei is in my best interests,” Wada said.
He walked down the street towards the east side of the village.
“Well, you’ll not find me working for Hebei,” Oda said, following him. “These gambling houses take advantage of people who spend all their coin on fleeting glimpses of grandeur. I think, if anything, that we must protect this town from Hebei.”
“Well, then, should we not see and meet Hebei to learn more about him?” Abe said. “If we are either going to work with him … or deal with him … we need to know more about him.”
“I guess,” Oda said.
They caught up with Wada as he reached the gambling out. The bakuchiya, or gambling hall, had a large entrance in the front. When they entered, they found it was a smoky room within with two entrances and no windows. A group of haggard and obsessed people sat in a row of low stools in front of a long, flat table. One man cried out and covered his eyes from the sunlight that shined into the dim room when the rônin opened the door.
A thin yet muscular man, naked form the waist up and covered in dragon motif tattoos, was using a bamboo pole to stack in front of the customers wooden lozenges carved with numbers that indicated their bets. A dog was tied to a post in one corner, barking furiously and pointlessly.
The man ran a dice game of betting on evens or odds, shaking the dice in a cup and then bringing it down on the table. Bets were made and the man revealed the dice. Behind him were four tough-looking men with swords. Behind them were a set of four sliding rice-paper doors that led to the back of the gambling hall. At each entrance was a pair of men with studded clubs.
A man on one side was selling cups of sake to the gamblers.
Oda stood by the wall and watched the proceedings. Wada went to the man selling sake.
“Sake?” the man said. “Sake?”
“Free?” Wada said.
“I have nothing.”
“Why are you here?”
“Because I have nothing. Do you know Hebei? Where’s Hebei?”
“Hebei’s the boss!”
“Yes, he is.”
The sake seller pointed at the four men standing in front of the rice-paper doors.
“May I see Hebei?” Wada asked.
“Hebei sees no one,” the sake seller said. “What’s wrong with you?”
He slapped the man on the shoulder.
“I need money,” Wada said.
“Get a job,” the rice seller said.
“I’m trying!” Wada said.
The sake seller looked the man up and down carefully.
“What are you?” he said. “Samurai?”
“Was,” Wada said.
“Hm. Come back tomorrow. Hebei will maybe give you a job as a bodyguard.”
The sake seller pointed at the men near the door with the clubs.
“If you don’t pay when you gamble: smash!” the sake seller said.
He gestured at his hand as if smashing it with a club.
“You good at smashing?” he asked.
“Better than most,” Wada said.
“You talk to Hebei tomorrow.”
“I talk to Hebei today!”
“Tomorrow. He’s busy today. I’ll tell him you came here. What’s your name?”
“I tell him Wada wants to see him. All right?”
“May we watch?”
The sake seller looked uncomfortable.
“Eh,” he finally said. “I don’t care.”
“I will watch,” Wada said. “Thank you.”
Abe was petting the dog.
After a short while, they noticed one of the men was losing a lot of money. The man was thin and spindly but with a fat face and a long mustache and beard that came to a point. He was balding on top and seemed cowardly in his mannerisms. He wore a little black hat and a faded black kimono that seemed too big for him. He seemed almost supernaturally bad at gambling and got every dice call wrong.
One of the guards approached Oda.
“Are you going to play?” he said.
“I am here with my company,” Oda said. “One of my traveling companions wanted to ask about a job working for─”
“Who? Who?” the guard said. “The other ones that aren’t playing?”
He snapped his fingers and the guards approached all three of the rônin.
“Play or get out,” each of them was told.
Abe sat at the table with his pittance of coins. The men sitting near him looked at his coins and then, surprised, looked a second time, as if they could not believe someone would play with so little. He grinned at them confidently.
“He plays for me,” Wada said to the guard.
“Play or get out,” the guard said to him.
“Then I will get out,” Wada said.
He and Oda left, escorted to the door by the guards.
* * *
Abe played only a few rounds of dice for his pittance. In that time, he managed to quadruple his money, meaning he had enough to purchase a meal. When he got up and left, the other gamblers staring at the man while the guards rolled their eyes.
* * *
The others waited outside in case Abe got into trouble as he didn’t have much money. They were pleasantly surprised when the last rônin exited the building unharmed. Abe looked pleased with himself.
“Look how much money I got,” he said to the others. “I could buy a meal now.”
The ground shook again for about a minute.
“Great Buddha, what is going on?” Oda said. “I am worried about a man I saw in there who was losing all his money. He was wearing a black kimono. Someone in mourning. It must have been those other two … a relative of theirs.”
“Is this the work of a god, or the gods, or a spirit, Oda?” Wada asked. “You are more religious than I.”
“Not anything I am familiar with.”
“Perhaps those in the afterlife are upset that you won that much money and you should give some of it to someone else.”
He held out his hand to Abe, who looked at him in disbelief for a moment before he slapped the man’s hand away with a frown.
“You will pay for that in the afterlife!” Wada said.
“Oji-san said there was black magic at foot causing the earthquakes,” Oda said.
Several townsfolk approached the three rônin, Udai in the lead. They stopped some ways from the gambling house and Abe went to them.
“I never worked for my food,” Wada said to Oda. “That must be what this is about.”
They followed Abe.
“We need your help protecting this town,” Udai said.
“How?” Abe said.
“There’s a terrible thing happening,” Udai said. “Will you help? We are willing to give you free room and board. We cannot give you much more. Will you help?”
“Are we enough?” Wada said.
“You are samurai!” Udai said.
The townsfolk looked at their weapons.
“Was,” Wada said.
“You know how to use a sword?” Udai said.
“Yes,” Wada said.
Udai turned to one of the other townsfolk.
“Do you know how to use a sword?” he asked.
“Wha?” the man said, surprised. “No!”
Udai clapped his hands in front of the other man’s face.
“Room and board … and food?” Wada said.
“Room and board and food,” Udai said.
“That’s what board is.”
“Your friend is not smart. No offense.”
“Apologies. Will you help us?”
“I am not offended.”
“A terrible thing is happening to this village that must be stopped.”
Oda pointed back to the gambling house.
“Will you help?” Udai said.
“Yes, I will help,” Oda said.
“Will you help?” Udai said to Abe.
Abe nodded. Udai turned to Oda.
“No no,” he said. “Not them.”
“R-really?” Oda said.
“They are Ryû-Ryôshû,” Udai said. “The Ryû-Ryôshû are not the problem.”
Ryû-Ryôshû meant “Dragon Lords.”
The ground started shaking again.
“Is it this?” Oda said.
Udai nodded as they waited for the tremor to pass. It lasted for about a minute.
“Some unspeakable monster arrives in the dead of night from the mountainside to abduct townsfolk,” he said. “It is a dreaded event that everyone recognizes by the rhythmic earthquakes that shake the buildings for several long minutes, followed by a bloodcurdling scream of the victim. We cannot go outside to help. We are not armed. We have no weapons. We need someone to help us. To stop this. You have sealed a pact. You have agreed to protect us from this thing. Please stop it. I will take you to the inn where you can have your rooms.”
The townsfolk muttered in agreement, all of them obviously fearful.
“Is the monster the thing that took your wife and son?” Oda asked.
“Yes,” Udai said. “It takes many. Every night, it takes someone.”
“I am terribly sorry,” Oda said.
Udai wiped a tear from his eye.
“Is there a pattern?” Abe asked.
“No,” Udai said. “It comes into town. It takes someone. Screaming. We hide and hope it doesn’t take us.”
The villagers muttered in agreement.
“Where from the mountains does it come down?” Oda said.
“We don’t know,” Udai said. “Nobody will look. We are locked in our homes in the hopes it will not smash through the wall and take one of us.”
“Hmm,” Oda said.
“Come, I’ll take you to the inn,” Udai said.
“Can you take us to the house of the person who was taken last night?” Wada said.
The tavern keeper looked at him.
“Yes,” he finally said. “If you have nothing to take to the inn then come.”
They were taken to a small house with a large hole smashed into the side. The hole was larger than a man. Inside the room, blood was splattered around the floor and walls as if someone had been hurt. Scratches on the floor had been left by someone trying not to be pulled out of the house. Broken fingernails were also scattered amongst the scratches. Whatever had pulled the person out of the sleeping chamber had been immensely strong.
They spent some time examining everything in and around the room.
“No one has seen this?” Wada said. “Ever?”
“It’s been going on for more than a week,” Udai said.
They learned it had rained that morning so any tracks would have been obliterated.
“This thing is big,” Wada said.
Wada took the other two rônin aside in the room and spoke to them in a low voice.
“What are the consequences of breaking a pact?” he said, unsure.
“Oh, the townsfolk are clearly suffering from this,” Oda said. “It is our solemn duty, not only as rônin, but as fellow members of this Earth.”
“You’re starting to sound like my brother.”
“If it was happening to rich folks, I’d be … uh.”
“Maybe we should leave and hope it takes Hebei then.”
Abe reached over to slap Wada in the face. Wada tried to block the blow, realizing it was coming, but the man easily slapped him regardless.
“Stop hitting me, old man,” Wada said.
“You have terrible ideas,” Abe said.
“That thing is big! We only fight other men! This is something else! Am I the only one that sees blood and the big hole in the wall and says ‘Not for me?’”
“But, as Oda said, it is our duty.”
“You are samurai,” Oda said.
“Was a samurai!” Wada said. “We are rônin now! We beg for food!”
“Is there a problem?” Udai said, peeking in the huge hole.
“No problem,” Wada said to him.
The innkeeper stepped back out of the house.
“If you wish to break your vow, I will not blame you,” Oda said. “But this is something I must do.”
“And I will do it with you,” Abe said.
“Not for my honor as much as for the people of this town. I have seen people in mourning, losing the rest of their savings to gambling, and it is clear that this town is helpless with the only other warriors being bodyguards of … gambling rings. You all can decide on your own, but I have made my decision.”
“I will stand with you for it is my duty as a samurai. Well, as a rônin. It is my duty to protect these people and I will do it for my honor as well. We have made an agreement. We will deal with the issue or die trying.”
“Is this the second time today you’ve agreed to something for food before you knew what it was?”
Abe noticed Udai was obviously trying to eavesdrop on their conversation. He shooed the man away and he went outside.
Wada looked at his feet in shame and fear.
“This is not for me,” he said. “I am sorry.”
He left immediately. Oda watched the man go, heading south in the direction they had been walking when they had come to the town. Udai peeked into the hole again.
“Is-is there a problem?” he said.
“You have my blade,” Oda said.
Udai looked terribly relieved and looked towards Abe, who nodded.
“Come come,” Udai said. “I will take you to the inn so that you may sup and rest.”
Oda looked for Wada but the man was out of sight, having left town. He thought he couldn’t blame him too much but was still disappointed.
It late afternoon when Udai took them to the inn. The rest of the villagers went their separate ways.
The nondescript yado was old and neglected with ancient tatami mats on the floors. The smell of sandalwood incense permeated the building. In the front room was a beautiful young woman, her hair bound in a bun. She was in her 20s and wore a black kimono. She was chanting in prayer in front of a small Buddhist shrine with freshly painted funeral tablets. It looked all too familiar. She abruptly stopped when the door opened and greeted the rônin, taking their sandals as they stepped into the yado’s entrance.
A man Oda recognized as the loser from the gambling hall also entered the room.
“Hikyô, they are going to help us with the horrors at night,” Udai told him.
Udai introduced him as the innkeeper: Hikyô, who introduced them to his daughter, Chiyo.
“Take them to their rooms,” Hikyô said.
“I am terribly sorry for your loss,” Oda said to them.
Both of them bowed deeply.
“I was trained as a Buddhist monk,” Oda said. “If you would like me to work on the calligraphy on those …”
Both of them seemed delighted at that.
“My brothers are dead,” Chiyo said.
She broke into tears. There was a noise from the back hall and an old man came out, merely a silhouette in the darkness.
“Chiyo!” he screamed. “Shut up!”
Then he went back wherever he’d come from. Oda glared down the hallway.
“Come come!” Chiyo said. “I apologize. Come. I will take you.”
She took them to their rooms and bid them wait there. She soon returned with food, tea, and sake for each of them. While they ate, another tremor shook the inn. Dust sprinkled from the walls.
It was after dark when Chiyo returned for the bowls and cups. She told each of the rônin the town had a hot spring and hot or cold baths were available. She noted as they were helping the village, they could use the baths for free.
It had been a while since either of them had a hot bath. Japanese bathing involved scrubbing down with soap, rinsing, and then soaking in a large tub full of hot water, the furo. The pastime was considered very relaxing and had developed into an industry as people sought out natural hot water springs set in beautiful vistas or bearing waters infused with minerals said to have medicinal properties.
Both of them decided to take their wakizashi with them.
Chiyo led them to a building connected to the yado by a breezeway to the back entrance of the bathhouse. They realized there was a back and a front entrance. The girl gave each of them a wooden token carved in the shape of an oni, a demon. She told them the place was called Jigoku No Onsen or Hell’s Spring because the minerals in the natural hot spring turned the water rust-red. The minerals bubbled up like magma in the spring and were believed to have healing powers. She told them the town was developed when the hot springs was found and the bathhouse was built around it.
The two both took a hot bath and both of them took their wakizashi in with them. It was heavenly. They had not bathed in that way for a long time. They scrubbed themselves down and then got into the hot spring. The water was hot and rusty red and felt divine.
As they relaxed, the door burst open and Oji-san came in.
“Hey, can I help?” he said. “What do you need? Do you need something from me? I can get you something.”
“I’m fine,” Abe said.
“Can I take your weapons?”
“You don’t need anything?”
“Oh. Okay. Good. Good. Good.”
“Yes? You need something?”
“Why do you keep … why are you here?”
“Why are you in the bathhouse?”
“To help you. I understand the great rônin are going to help our village. So I wanted to help you.”
“Do you need any help?”
He turned to Oda.
“Do you need any help?” he said. “Do you need food? Do you need beverage? I could bring you sake.”
“I will be fine,” Oda said. “Thank you.”
“Oh,” Oji-san said. “Okay.”
He left and they went back to relaxing in the tub.
It was a short time later when the door opened again and five men entered the room. They were dressed and all of them were armed with wakizashi. They walked around the tub, surrounding it. Oda put one hand on Abe’s arm and put his other hand on his wakizashi. He stood up, weapon in hand, water dripping from his naked body.
“What is the meaning of this?” he said.
The men looked the two of them over as Abe stood as well, weapon at hand.
“The meaning is … you are not wanted here!” one of the men said.
They all drew their wakizashi.
Oda took a single step and stabbed the man who’s spoken in the belly. The man cried out and stumbled back, crashing against the wall and falling to the ground, dropping his weapon.
Abe swung at one of the other men and sliced his clothing, barely blooding the man.
Two of the thugs attacked each rônin. One of them stabbed Oda in the back though he parried the other with a backhand thrust. Abe parried both of the blows coming from the men who attacked him. Oda turned and swung at the man who had stabbed him but the man parried the blow with a nasty grin. Abe stabbed one of his opponents and the man stumbled back and fell to the ground, crying out in pain and slumping to the floor.
They suddenly felt the ground shudder underneath them and large ripples sloshed the water in the tub. It was not constant as the quakes before had been, but a rhythmic yet thunderous pounding like a drum. It was as if something huge was walking through the night.
The thugs looked at each other in terror. Abe took advantage of their confusion to stab one of them while Oda slammed the pommel of his wakizashi to another. Instead of fighting back, the three fled, leaving their unconscious companion. The man whom Oda had stabbed tried to crawl away, trailing blood, but Abe grabbed his foot and dragged him back into the bathhouse.
* * *
Wada had left the town out of fear of whatever horror had taken away the villagers. He had not traveled more than a hundred yards before he realized he could not bring himself to leave the village to its fate or his brothers in arms to theirs. He crept back to the village after it got dark to watch it from afar.
The thing that walked into Kôhai-Mura was so tall as to stand well over any of the buildings. It was horrible to look upon, standing 20 feet tall and having huge, terrible horns and great ears. The oni had huge tusks coming from the lower part of its jaw and wore only a loincloth. It dragged a massive tetsubo, an iron club, in one hand.
It came into the village on the east side, going to the gambling hall where it smashed in a wall and reached in. He heard someone screaming. The oni pulled out what appeared to be a man, who grabbed onto the broken wall. The oni pulled on him once, twice, and, the third time, there was a crunch and a pop and something flopped to the ground as the man let out a shriek and the horror stood back up again. It walked to the west as the man struggled in its grip.
Once he lost sight of the horror, Wada ran down to the village.
* * *
Oda and Abe heard a scream from somewhere in the village. They heard the men outside scream and then flee. Abe moved to quiet their prisoner but the man had already gone completely silent. He was very pale and shook in terror as he stared at the door that led to the hallway and then to the street. Oda crossed the narrow hallway to peek out the door.
The thing that walked down the street was awful to behold. It held a man in one hand and as the figure struggled, something splattered against the wall, a warm liquid also hitting Oda. He could smell blood. Abe saw dark liquid splatter on the floor near Oda.
Suddenly, something flew out of the air from Oda’s left.
* * *
Wada had made his way into the village, ducking between the houses to try to keep them between him and the oni. When he entered the main street where it walked, he found himself next to the bathhouse. He flung his spear at the horror, striking it in the center of the back. The oni let out a shriek and turned and looked around.
* * *
Oda recognized the spear that struck the terrible beast as one of Wada’s. He turned and ran back into the room with the hot spring bath.
“Wada is fighting this thing!” he said to Abe. “We must retrieve our weapons!”
He ran out of the other door to the bath, heading for the inn.
* * *
Outside, Wada had seen Oda peek out of the bathhouse door before disappearing inside once again. He also recognized the thing as an oni, a demon. Without thinking, he drew another spear and flung it at the thing, missing it completely, the weapon flying past its head. As the oni turned to watch the spear fly by, he fled, running into the alley by the bathhouse and towards the back, ducking out of sight of the horrible demon.
* * *
Abe crept to the door to the building to peek out. He saw the oni, the terrible thing looming over the bathhouse and every building in the village. It looked around in confusion and he ducked back into the bathhouse and fled after Oda.
* * *
As Wada came around the side of the bathhouse to the breezeway between it and the inn, Oda burst out of the bathhouse naked, wakizashi in his hand, and ran towards the inn. Oda looked his way.
“I-I’m getting my pole arm!” he said.
“Oda!” Wada said. “Oh!”
Oda ran towards the inn. Wada could see the figure of the oni moving west but it was quickly out of sight and he realized the creature was probably faster than he was. He was glad he had not tried to run down the street. He didn’t think he would have been able to outrun it.
A moment later, Abe ran out of the bathhouse, naked as well, and stopped when he saw him.
“What’s going on?” Abe said.
Wada tried to climb up the side of the bathhouse without luck. He turned to Abe.
“Can you help me?” he asked.
“Sure,” Abe said.
Abe gave him a leg up and he climbed to the tiled roof of the bathhouse. He looked around and could hear the oni still walking away to the west, but could not see it. He ran along the roof of the breezeway towards the inn and found a window at the top of the breezeway. He let himself into the second floor, finding himself on a dimly-lit landing.
Oda ran by where he stood, rushing into his room. Wada ran to the opposite side of the landing and looked out the window there, trying to see where the oni went. He saw it enter the forest on the west side of the village and disappear into the foliage.
* * *
* * *
Abe went back into the bathhouse and found the man who had been injured was gone, having crawled away. The unconscious man still lay there. He dragged the unconscious man out of the room and towards the inn.
* * *
Oda ran out into the passage with his pole arm and saw Wada looking out of the window.
“All right, Wada,” he said, naginata in hand. “I am prepared. Where is the monster?”
“It is gone,” Wada said.
Oda looked at him for a moment.
“Next time, then,” he said.
“I injured it,” Wada said. “There might be a blood trail. It seemed very agitated.”
Wada told Oda he had gone into the forest to watch the village from afar, that being his plan all along.
“We could have just done that … if you’d told us,” Oda said.
“Yes,” Wada said. “Perhaps we could have.”
He turned to leave but then looked at Oda more carefully. He pointed at the blood seeping through his clothing.
“Did the oni do that to you?” he asked.
“Oh, you mean this,” Oda said. “There were a group of armed men, not samurai or rônin like us, but … not warriors, but men with swords came and ambushed us in the bathhouse, which is why I was running around with my … swords out.”
They heard a bumping on the stairs and Abe came up, dragging one of their attackers by his feet. The man’s head bumped on the steps.
“Here’s one now,” Oda said.
“Why did they attack you?” Wada said.
“The reason that they gave us is that we are not welcome here. Which was not a very good reason.”
“Why is it the oni wears more clothes than you two?”
They took the unconscious man into one of the rooms and bound his wounds. They also saw to Oda’s wounds as well. Oda hurt himself further in his attempts at binding the wound when he wrapped it too tightly. Abe wrapped the wound up again.
Oda realized there might be some clue as to what was going on at the site the oni attacked. When he told the others, Wada mentioned the oni had attacked the gambling house. That surprised Oda. Wada told him the thing had smashed its way through the wall and took someone.
“I believe half of the man is still at the gambling house,” he said.
“Oh,” Oda said. “Who would still be at the gambling house this late at night. If there were a large group, perhaps there would be witnesses.”
“There was screaming. I believe they were still gambling.”
“Maybe we should─”
“We should go there now, I believe.”
They took two of the paper lanterns from the walls.
“What do we do with him?” Abe asked, nudging the unconscious thug.
“Ah,” Oda said. “Do you think that our hospitality was … ill-offered or that this happened─?”
“They tried to kill us!”
“Well, I mean, but were they with the people who were housing us or did they just know we’re here is what I’m asking.”
“Do you think it safe to stay here any longer?” Oda said.
“But he could have information about why he attacked us,” Abe said.
“True. We could … have one person watch him.”
“I could stay here and watch him.”
“Be armed and be aware of other people coming.”
“Or you could stay here and watch him because you’re injured.”
“Well … yeah. Either way.”
“I … I’m not trying to fool you old man, but I might need your coins in case they make us gamble to get in,” Wada said.
“Despite the giant hole in the wall?” Oda said.
“I do not know how Hebei works. They were pretty insistent that you must have coin to get in.”
“Fair enough. If you must have coin to get in the hole that he opened …”
Wada and Abe left Oda with the unconscious thug.
* * *
It was quiet and dark at the gambling house. The front doors were closed and there was a great hole in the wall. Splatters of blood were sprinkled all over the scene and a severed hand with tattoos lay on the ground near the hole. The wrist of the hand was roughly ripped as if the man had not let go until the hand had been ripped free.
Examination of the hole proved it entered into a small room in the back of the gambling house. The room had a pile of personal gear and goods of various kinds, probably things lost gambling, including some weaponry and cheap jewelry. Atop the pile of goods was an odd box the size of a coffin. It was iron-banded and looked very valuable.
Wada looked around. No one was on the streets and there was no sound at all.
He went to the iron-banded box and examined it, finding it was made of sacred hinoki wood (Japanese cypress) and reinforced with by iron bands and rivets. Along both edges of the lip where the box opened was a strange script of glyphs. The box was latched shut but some scrapes upon it indicated it might have been recently opened.
“Abe?” he said.
“Yes,” Abe said.
“Do you want to open this?”
“That would be stealing.”
“From a dead man?”
Wada looked down at the hand on the ground.
“I’m not sure why opening the box would be helpful in the situation,” Abe said.
Wada suddenly remembered something horrifying. He remembered an old story about an iron-banded box and told Abe.
Long, long before, the infamous oni king of Rashomon Gate in Kyoto had his armed severed by the brave samurai hunter Watanabe, one of the five retainers in service to the great ogre killer Raiko, who was said to have wiped out all the oni in Japan. Watanabe was said to have chopped off the oni’s arm and sealed it in the iron-banded box after a fierce battle with the ogre, in order to deny the cowardly demon the chance to retrieve its arm. It was magically sealed so the other oni could not find it and take it away as, if they returned it, he would retrieve his powers. However, if the box was ever opened, the oni could detect the arm.
“We must take this box now,” Wada said. “And this.”
He picked up a spear to replace the one he had lost.
“Come captain,” he said.
They lifted the iron-banded box and headed back to the inn.
They had noticed a gully going down the middle of the street and Wada guessed it had been caused by the giant club the oni dragged behind him.
On their way back to the inn, Abe saw the spear Wada had thrown that missed. He pointed it out. Without a word, Wada dropped his half of the iron-banded box and went to retrieve the spear, much to the annoyance of Abe.
“Thank you,” Wada said, picking up his end of the iron-banded box again.
They continued on to the inn and returned to the room where Oda and the unconscious thug waited.
“Oda, poor me some sake,” Wada said.
“This will ruin the tatami!” Oda quipped. “What are you doing?”
“I will tell you what we are doing if you poor me some sake.”
“This room is very crowded.”
Unfortunately, there was no sake in their room.
Wada told Oda what he knew about the iron-banded box and the oni.
“So … someone opened this,” Oda said.
“Hebei,” Wada said. “I believe Hebei opened it.”
“I didn’t like Hebei before and I still don’t like it now.”
“But I still have the question of who had this box and brought it here.”
“I feel like the question more so should be what do we do with it?” Abe said.
“We don’t open it,” Wada said. “I tell you that.”
“But we just can’t keep it here.”
“We must dispose of it.”
“I do not know.”
“You two are the more … spiritual …”
“They didn’t train me in demons,” Oda said.
“Perhaps someone like … Oji-san knows more about the folklore of the oni and the kind oni than I do,” Wada said. “All I have heard is about the iron-banded box but perhaps Oji-san knows how to get rid of it. If nothing else, we could take it to the coast and drop it in the ocean.”
“I was thinking about putting it in a big body of water like a river or lake or ocean. Those are all good.”
“Anything bigger than a bathhouse.”
“Now, I have a question,” Abe said. “Would opening it again, as it’s been opened, do anything?”
“I believe we should not do that,” Wada said.
“But what if the arm’s gone?”
“I don’t think the arm is gone.”
“I think if the arm was gone, the demon king would have his power,” Oda said.
“I am also … it was very dark, but I did not see the oni dragging an arm,” Wada said. “Or maybe it was the club that he had. Was the club the arm? It was too dark. No. It was a club.”
“Well, you all carried the box,” Oda said. “Is it just the box or is there something inside?”
“I think that the arm is still in this box. But if we were to open this box, we run the risk of attracting more oni to this location. I think we should speak to Oji-san in the morning.”
Upon further thought, Oda realized they should probably take the box to Kyoto to one of the Buddhist monasteries on Mount Hiei.
“The monks in Kyoto might be able to do something about it,” he said. “We could make it their problem instead of ours.”
“I like this plan,” Wada said. “Should we still tell the villagers in the morning what has happened? Why this was caused and that it will stop once we take this iron box out of here?”
Oda wasn’t sure it would stop.
“You said, in the legend, that once the box was opened, the oni could detect the arm,” he said.
“Yes,” Wada said.
“Why haven’t they come for the box?”
“I would assume they don’t know where the box is.”
“But, didn’t you pull this out of the hole where the man was taken?”
“Yes. But …”
“So, why was he that close but he still didn’t get the box?”
“Maybe the box was open once. That attracted the oni to the location, or this oni to the location, but it has not been open again, so it’s looking for the box, but it doesn’t even know that it was that close tonight.”
“So, that suggests that if we move the box to Kyoto─”
“And open the box. Or that if you’re in another location and you open the box, they know it’s over there now.”
“True. But if we move the box to Kyoto and they don’t open it, does that mean that the oni still come here, looking for the box that’s never there?”
“Probably. That’s my guess.”
“Unless the monks could do something to send out a signal to the other oni that it’s just gone and they shouldn’t look for it. I don’t know how we will …”
“What if we got the box out of the village and opened it, safely far away? The oni only comes at night. Or … they have. But either way, you think it best to take it to Kyoto, correct?”
“I-I see what you’re saying. If we open the box on the road to Kyoto in the middle of some field─”
“We could attract the oni somewhere else. And then, we would deliver the box to Kyoto.”
“Do we have to go all the way to Kyoto?” Abe said.
“If we want to deal with the box, I think it’s the best idea,” Oda said. “If we address the village with this concern and they realize this is a good too or realize it’s a good idea, we could ask them for a cart to try and haul it along so we aren’t carrying this giant box all the way.”
“I would like to talk to Oji-san as he is older and he might have heard of these things as well,” Wada said. “It couldn’t hurt. They already know this monster is destroying their village. Letting them know it’s an oni and he’s trying to retrieve the arm for the oni king changes nothing for them.”
“And on top of that, some of us weren’t welcome, apparently, and needed a bathhouse murder.”
“We should probably address that. The distance we would have to travel is another reason to talk to Oji-san. In case there’s an easier route.”
“So, sleep on it?”
“It garners more investigation in the morning.”
They tied up the prisoner. Wada took Abe’s room while the iron-banded box and the unconscious prisoner remained in Oda’s room with him and Abe.
* * *
They were awoken the next morning by the sound of a hammer outside. Oda and Wada went to investigate and found, in the street, several Ryû-Ryôshû nailing up a sign declaring the new ownership of the inn by Hebei. Hikyô was wailing and trying to stop them but two of the Ryû-Ryôshû restrained him.
“We might want to get this box out secretly,” Wada said to Oda. “Why don’t you get the townspeople to meet you at the tavern, draw their attention there, telling them we have information on what has been attacking the village. Me and the captain get this box out into the woods, at least, so that the Dragon Lords don’t find out that we robbed them last night, and we will tell them about the oni king story once we’ve hidden the box.”
Oda looked at him.
“I don’t know what they’ll do if they find out we took the box,” Wada said. “It’s technically Hebei’s but I don’t know if he’ll reason with us when we tell him we need to take the box.”
“I also feel like he might have seen the connection,” Oda said. “I feel like─”
“He might know as well. Can you do that, Oda?”
“Sounds okay, although I am still worried, especially with Hebei owning this establishment and with the attack last night. It makes me think that this might not be a safe place to stay for us any longer.”
“We will need to find new lodging shortly.”
“Should we even mention the box at the meeting? We could tell them of the folklore, about the box and the arm and how the oni want to retrieve it. But I don’t think we should say that we know that it’s definitely here or anything like that.”
“I think that’s a smart idea. Feigning innocence is always good in the face of death.”
“Then we can ask: ‘Has anyone seen this box?’”
“Yes. I will say it at the meeting.”
Oda went to call the meeting. He gathered everyone he could in town in an hour’s time, after they had all quickly broken their fast.
The villagers gathered at the tavern and Oda noticed several of the Ryû-Ryôshû were there, watching him carefully. He told them all of the story Wada had told them, leaving out the fact that the rônin had found the iron-banded box out of the story.
“What will you do?” someone asked. “What will you do about this?”
“How will you stop it?” another villager asked.
Oda asked if anyone knew anything about what was happening with the oni upon when it started or what might have caused it. The villagers only knew it started a week or so before. None were certain of an exact date or how long it had been. They persisted in asking him how the rônin would stop the terrible thing. Oda said the rônin were willing to try to kill the thing, which raised a cheer amongst the villagers. He noted that while they would do that, the thing looked horrible.
An older woman fainted dead away.
Oda confessed that even if they were successful, it didn’t mean there were more of the creatures out there. He said the whole village needed to group together to deal with the thing.
* * *
While the village met, Wada and Abe carried the iron-banded box quickly out the front door of the inn. Unfortunately, as they left the building, around the corner came several of the Ryû-Ryôshû. They recognized the three men who harassed them when they first arrived at the village among them. The four Ryû-Ryôshû stopped and watched the two.
“‘Just walk out the front door,’ you said,” Abe muttered. “‘No one will see us.’”
“Ah, the great samurai are now carrying coffins!” one of them said. “Are you coffin-makers now, samurai?”
The Ryû-Ryôshû all laughed loudly and obnoxiously.
“Yes, yes,” Wada muttered. “Yes, we are.”
“Buddhists!” another of the men said with disgust.
They carried the iron-banded box down the street and to the woods, where they hid it in the undergrowth. Abe marked a tree nearby to help them find it later.
“Why … didn’t they stop us?” Wada asked.
“Maybe─” Abe said.
“Does only Hebei know of the box?”
“Probably. That’s what I would assume. They called it a coffin.”
“Then we shall say it is a coffin.”
* * *
The meeting at the tavern broke up and, as Oda headed back to the inn, several of the Ryû-Ryôshû approached him.
“Hebei wants to talk to you and your friends,” one of them said to him. “Come to the gambling house in one hour.”
“One hour,” Oda said.
The thugs walked away.
Oda went in search for Oji-san, finding him at the tavern.
“How can I help you, master?” the old man said.
“I was just wondering if you knew what was going on with the oni,” Oda said. “What might have caused it. Have you heard of the story that I told?”
“I heard of the story,” Oji-san said. “It’s a terrible thing. An iron-banded box, you say? If it’s true, someone has it and they’ve opened it and let the oni know where it is now. It’s a terrible thing! It’s a terrible thing!”
He shook his finger at Oda.
“Have you ever heard of what might stop the oni if we … dispose of the box somehow?” Oda said.
“It will have to be killed!” Oji-san said. “It will have to be destroyed!”
“The box would?”
“No! The oni!
“The oni will have to be killed. Destroyed.”
“But there’s only one? You’re sure?”
“I don’t know if there’s only one.”
“But you just said it had to be destroyed.”
“You just said ‘How do we deal with the oni?’”
“I said the box! The box, Oji-san.”
“I misheard! I misheard, master! I misheard, master! I’m unworthy! I’m unworthy.”
“I’m sorry I said anything with my mouth, ever.”
“No, the oni will have to be destroyed. I do not know what to do about the iron-banded box.”
“Well, I apparently have a meeting with the local gang lord I have to go to in exactly one hour and I don’t know where my friends are exactly.”
“No! Not the local gang lord! He is a terrible and formidable foe! Beware of him! Beware! Beware! Do not mention my name!”
Oji-san ran away.
* * *
The three rônin soon got together again. Hikyô found them as well, telling them they could stay one more night but that they would have to leave the next day. A single tear rolled down the old man’s cheek.
“My only possession was this inn,” he said. “What will my daughter do now?”
“Hikyô─” Oda said.
“Hikyô, I would advise you not to sell your daughter into slavery,” Abe said.
Hikyô looked sad, nodded, and walked away.
“Don’t gamble anymore!” Oda called after him.
He turned to Abe.
“Why would you tell him that!?!” he said to the older man. “I didn’t even think he thought of that. Buddha!”
Wada also looked at Abe.
Oda told them of Hebei wanting to see them and they described where they had hidden the iron-banded box. Wada told him some of the Ryû-Ryôshû had seen them with the artifact. They discussed taking their weapons and eventually decided to do so.
* * *
At the appointed hour, they arrived at the gambling house. There was no gambling going on and, as they entered the hall peacefully, they saw six Ryû-Ryôshû armed with wakizashi flanking the open shoji doors leading to the room beyond. It was pitch back in the back room. Hebei was only a shadow.
“I compliment you on your martial prowess after your battle with my Ryû-Ryôshû,” the voice from the darkness said.
“That was my first question,” Oba said.
“But your welcome in my town is wearing thin,” Hebei said. “However, there is a bigger problem of … the thing … that has taken one of my men and has attacked my gambling hall. I have lost men to these midnight abductions and I can see profit with working with you to take it down. I also need peace in my town to conduct business. Are you willing to agree to a truce?”
“We assumed we had a truce when we entered the village,” Wada said.
“You assumed wrong,” Hebei said.
They stared at each other for a while.
“What are the …” Wada said.
“Conditions,” Abe said.
“Yeah, what are the conditions?” Wada said.
“How are you willing to help us?” Oda said.
“I am willing to help you if, afterwards, you leave this town and never look back,” Hebei said.
“Fine with me,” Wada said.
“I mean we basically got a meal and a nice rest and I even got a bath out of it, so …” Oda said. “All in all, better than expected.”
“Can I ask you a question, Hebei?” Wada said. “Why are you threatened by us? We are just traveling rônin.”
“Exactly,” Hebei said. “You are honorable men. Some of the men in my employ are not so honorable. They are realists. But you value a code. You protect certain people who deserve to lose everything because they are fools!”
“I actually agree with you on that one,” Wada said.
“We might do business later,” Hebei said.
Abe realized they might be able to get some other concessions out of Hebei. He seemed desperate to get rid of the demon.
“You’re wealthy, are you not, Hebei?” Abe said.
“Wealthy enough,” Hebei said. “For now.”
“Could we earn some monetary compensation?” Abe said.
“For the road, of course,” Oda said. “When we leave.”
“Or some equipment to make our travels easier,” Abe said.
“You could,” Hebei said. “What do you need?”
“What do you have?”
“No no no, fool. It will not go that way. If you tell me what you need, I possibly could acquire it for you. The way I acquired an inn yesterday.”
“One thousand coins,” Wada said. “This is an oni we’re talking about.”
“I would enjoy some traveling expenses for when we leave town,” Oda said. “At least enough for meals to go on the road and enough money to get us to the next town.”
“I would also like─” Abe said.
“Discuss it amongst yourselves!” Hebei said. “And bring me a tally of what you think you want in one hour and then we will discuss again.”
He clapped his hands and a man on either side of the door slid them shut.
They left the gambling house and went to the inn. They found Chiyo crying in the room downstairs. Abe suggested one of their conditions might be that Hikyô could not gamble any more. They spoke of adding a cart to the tally as well. Wada thought Hebei feared the oni and knew they were the only ones who could get rid of it. Oda agreed. He also thought they should ask for weapons and armor to fight the oni as well.
They returned at the appointed time to talk to Hebei once again. The half-dozen men were there and Hebei was again hidden in the shadows of the other room.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Well, this is a task that we don’t think anybody has ever dealt with before and it’s one that we very well think could cost us our lives,” Oda said. “We think it is reasonable to ask for 1,000 coins. While we do this, we would also request any of your armor or weapons or anything you can outfit us with to get rid of this thing. It will be better for our lives and better for getting rid of it. We need your help fighting it and─”
“You will have several of my archers.”
“That would be most appreciated.”
“At present we have no armor in our treasury. It was sold to make up for debts of other rônin who gambled in my gambling hall. Anything else?”
“Cart and donkey,” Wada whispered to Oda.
“If it is available, to ease our travels, we were wondering if you had a cart or some kind of donkey to … help us,” Oda said. “We’ve been traveling on foot with empty stomachs.
“Done,” he said.
“That is all we ask.”
Abe bowed his head in appreciation.
“Nightfall,” Hebei said. “Meet at nightfall in the town square.”
He clapped his hands again and the doors were closed. They left the gambling hall.
* * *
Wada wanted to see if he could track the trail of the oni. He wanted to find his spear. All three of the rônin headed off into the woods trying to track the beast. Though Oda found a trail, Abe also thought he had found one that led off in another direction. He walked away.
Wada and Oda followed the trail through the woods and to the north until they reach a pathway that led, along with the oni’s trail, to a Shinto shrine. It was a building surrounded by a low, wooden fence, easily straddled, with a post-and-lintel archway, a torii, demarking the entrance to the shrine grounds. The fence formed a square perimeter around the grounds.
The shrine appeared to have been scorched from fire and the roof was ripped off. There were skulls stacked atop the torii. A tree grew up in the temple but it had black and twisted branches without leaves.
“Is this how you do things?” Wada asked.
Oda shook his head. He thought the shrine, which appeared to be desecrated, might have been the lair of the oni.
“I think the oni might be in there,” he said.
“What do you want to do?” Wada said.
“Now it makes me think it might be good to ambush this thing, but I don’t know how we’re going to communicate that to the archers or get them all out here in time before this thing just starts coming through the woods. But …”
“Why don’t we … carefully … confirm that it’s in there?”
“It seems … unlikely I would be successful at that. If you want to do it …”
“I will see if he’s in there.”
“And if … and if he wakes up …”
“He’s fast, I think.”
“Then we will die running.”
“Then one of us is the faster runner.”
While Oda waited some 30 yards away where the trail connected to the path, Wada crept up, using the trees as cover as much as he could. When he reached the fence that ran around the overgrown property, he crept along the south side of it, trying to peek into the shrine.
The smell got worse the closer he got to the shrine. He followed the line of the fence where it passed close to the shrine on the west side and the smell of rotting meat got stronger and stronger. A noise from within was some kind of strange grumble that didn’t sound healthy. He thought he heard the shifting of something large as well. The branches of the trees that thrust up out of the top of the shrine were of a dark wood and bereft of leaves. He realized it was the height of summer and the tree should have been filled.
He crept around the north side of the fence and then crossed the fence line and went, as carefully as he could, to the open front door of the shrine. He crept to the front and was terrified by what he saw within the shrine, almost choking on the stench that came from the place.
Hanging from the ancient tree like rotten fruit were the missing townspeople. Steel pikes and other iron torture implements were impaled in the ground beneath. Body parts littered the ground and the entire area reeked of the stench of rotten flesh. Blood, torn flesh, and viscera seemed to cover the ground in the shrine. What looked like blood bubbled up from the spring under the tree which was not free of the taint either. Parts of it appeared to be composed of living human flesh and bone.
The oni was in the shrine, tending to the tree as a gardener would tend to a bonsai. He chopped off little bits of the villagers and arranged them in some insane artistic formula of his own on the ground and the spikes.
Wada thought it was the same oni.
He also saw his spear. It had been thrust into the ground and a hand was stuck onto the sharp head.
Wada crept back to the fence and then followed the north side of the tree line back down the pathway to Oda. He was pale and wide-eyed, sweating, and vomited when he reached Oda.
“No oni?” Oda said. “Everything’s clear?”
“There is one oni inside,” Wada said. “The one that I put my spear in. He has a blood garden. He … we must burn that place at some point.”
“Burning is … you say a blood garden?”
“That’s the best I can tell you. If we burn it, you will see it and then you will know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Well, maybe I can excuse burning a sacred temple if there is a blood garden in it.”
“There’s nothing sacred about that place anymore.”
Oda knew bodies were to be cremated in Buddhism and so burning the place might be for the best.
“One thing that I can describe to you is: he’s not eating the bodies,” Wada said. “He’s … using them as decorations.”
“Somehow, that is more sinister,” Oda said.
“I really thought he was eating them.”
“He was asleep, right? During the day?”
“No, he was not asleep.”
“He was not asleep.”
“I don’t think they sleep.”
Oda had never read about oni sleeping though he had always assumed they slept at some point and time.
“That is unsettling,” he said. “So he is just waiting until the night.”
“Gardening,” Wada said.
“Can we go away?” Oda said.
“We should find the old man.”
“What are we going to do with the old man?”
“We need to just get him out of the woods. He’s still looking for the oni.”
“Oh, our old man.”
“Yeah, our old man.”
They headed back into the woods and quickly found Abe following his own tracks.
“Now Abe, quit following your own footprints and let’s get back to town,” Oda said. “I’ll tell you all about the blood garden and the mutilated bodies.”
“Uh … sure,” Abe said.
They told him what they had seen at the shrine and what the oni was doing as they walked back to the village.
They spent the rest of the day resting and eating in preparation for that evening. Oda drew the calligraphy planks for Hikyô and Chiyo. Abe asked if the tracks had gone near the iron-banded box and Wada said they hadn’t.
They also discussed their plan for that evening. There was talk of setting up a trap for the oni or ambushing it before it left the shrine.
Abe went to the gambling hall to talk to Hebei but he was rebuffed from the hall if he wasn’t gambling. He ended up gambling and won a little more money before he left once again. He returned to tell them he had won a little money but had not been able to talk to Hebei.
They discussed again the possibility of taking the fight to the oni or fighting it in the village. Abe suggested some kind of punji sticks but they were unsure where to place them to catch the thing. It was pointed out that convincing the archers to ambushing the oni at the shrine might be possible.
They rested the rest of the day.
* * *
They met 10 archers in the town square in the center of town. They were all armed with bows and spears. They told the rônin they planned to climb onto the buildings around the town square to shoot at the oni while they were on the ground.
Abe asked the archers when the oni usually attacked. He was told it varied every night. The night before, it had been just after nightfall. Other nights it was at different times. It was not consistent.
Abe thought the best strategy was setting up the ambush in the town square. He didn’t think going to the thing would be as effective. He told the archers where he thought they should set up on the roofs around, setting up a crossfire that would allow all of the archers to fire without hitting one another. He also ordered the archers to lay on the roofs and stay hidden until they attacked. He noted the three rônin would make noises to draw the thing. He realized if they used the iron-banded box as bait, it would surely draw the oni to wherever they wanted.
The three discussed using the iron-banded box as bait and Wada and Abe went back into the woods and retrieved it. All was still quiet in the village when they returned so they put it in the center of the town square. They also discussed how to get the box away from the town square if anything went wrong.
Then they waited.
* * *
It was after midnight when Abe heard the sound of light tremors as the oni approached. He called up to the archers to get ready while the rônin waited in the square. The tremors grew in strength and then they heard a strangled scream a few rooftops away. Even in the dark, they knew the oni was close as the horrible stench of rotten flesh assaulted them. The horror immediately began chanting in an arcane tongue and came in swinging his tetsubo.
Arrows flew from the rooftops as half the archers, those who were still awake, opened fire. There was the snap of a bowstring as well, though two arrows struck the terrible creature. Some of the archers that awoke screamed and fled or fainted dead away.
With a shout, the oni headed for the iron-banded box. It continued chanting.
Oda took the initiative and rushed the horrible thing, sprinting at it and running his naginata, a great pole arm with long blade on the end, into its right thigh. Wada flung one of his spears at the horror, striking the oni in the left arm. There was a noise as if the spear had struck bone. It let out a shriek but continued chanting. Abe also charged the horror, attacking its left leg with his katana and cutting it to the bone. The oni screamed again as it continued its chant.
The oni, badly injured and bleeding from several wounds, turned and fled from the village, still chanting. The horror swung at one of the archers as he passed but missed, smashing the front of the building. Bamboo and wood went flying.
“We should follow him!” Wada yelled.
The archers let fly once again, one of them screaming insanely at the top of his lungs. Two arrows struck and there was a snap and a scream as one of the archer’s bowstrings broke and the arrow struck him. The oni stumbled and fell as the arrows struck it in the back. It collapsed and death rattled in its throat.
Though it was dead, the chanting continued to echo, becoming increasingly louder. The ground began to shake continuously, the shaking increasing in magnitude.
Oda looked back towards the box and saw it still there. Wada and Abe ran to it as Abe tried to yell at the archers. One of them fell off a shaking building with a scream. Abe gave up on that and ran to help Wada lift the box. Oda ran to the oni and found it was definitely dead. Then he ran out of the north side of the village towards the shrine.
Wada dropped his end of the iron-banded box and ran after Oda.
Abe dragged the iron-banded box to the inn. He had just safely secured the box inside when he heard the crash of a building collapsing nearby. He peeked out of the door and then fell to the ground due to the terrible shaking as he looked out upon a new horror.
In the middle of the town square, a large area turned molten hot, quickly collapsing into smoking void. The body of the oni, at the edge of the hole, fell into the darkness and disappeared. Ropy tentacles emerged from the terrible hole, followed by a great and horrible body as the earthquake subsided. One of the tentacles snatched an archer from a nearby roof, the man’s screams quickly cut short.
The thing was as big as a house with flowing tentacles and pulpy gray-black sack of a body. There were no distinguishing features other than the reaching, groping tentacles though there was a lump in the upper body of the thing. It thing stretched its undulating tentacles to the starry night in a strange repose.
All was silent.
Abe fled the inn through the back and left the town.
* * *
Oda and Wada sprinted to the shrine, slowing only as they approached the terrible place. Oda realized they didn’t have any light source though Wada carried flint and steel.
“We need to burn this place, right?” Oda said.
“That’s what I believe,” Wada said.
“Let’s get to it,” Oda said.
They went to the edge of the low fence around the place and ripped up much of it from one corner for kindling. Bowing to tradition, they walked back to the torii to pass through it to the shrine, Wada in the lead. As he passed through the torii, there was a flash of light and he found himself falling down a hill, crashing onto the side of it on ground that was preternaturally sharp, cutting him horribly.
When he looked around, he saw there were men and women in the horrible place, prodded by oni to climb up razor sharp and alien-looking trees that horribly disfigured them as the climbed. Otherwise, the place was an endless, burning vista that seemed to go forever. He realized he was in Shugo-Jigoku, one of the Buddhist hells. He saw the torii at the top of the hill he had fallen down. Oda looked through it but stayed on the other side, a terrified look on his face.
Wada climbed back towards the torii, tearing himself as he went, his sandals and clothing being torn and shredded by the ground itself.
“It’s a gate to Shogu-Jigoku!” Oda cried out.
One of the oni turned and looked at the gate. Then it left its place by its terrible tree and walked towards them. Oda reached through the gate, holding out his hand towards Wada.
Wada crawled up the side of the hill, the ground ripping at him as blood dripped from his many wounds. He got close enough to Oda for the man to grab his hand and pull him back through. They collapsed to the ground in front of the shrine.
“Break the gate!” Wada said. “Break the gate! Break the gate!”
They leapt to their feet and both of then tore into the torii with their weapons. Wada screamed as he attacked the horrible gate and the oni got closer and closer. It was only then they noticed the arcane wards and sigils carved in rings on both posts of the device.
With a crack of wood the torii broke as the oni almost reached them. There was a strange fizzing noise and the opening to Shogu-Jigoku vanished as the post of the torii Wada attacked with his katana snapped. They were once again plunged into darkness. The creak of rending of wood came from Oda’s side of the torii as it broke as well, splinters flying as the entire structure collapsed. The skulls upon it rattled away on the ground.
Wada continued to attack the wood of the torii, smashing it with his katana and screaming as he did so. Oda approached the man but could not get close to him due to his wild swings.
Oda approached the shrine and saw the terrible sight within. It was horrible to behold and the stench turned his stomach. It was just as terrible as Wada had described it before. He piled the wood they had already gathered against one corner of the shrine and looked back at Wada, who was making kindling out of the torii.
* * *
Abe had heard Wada’s screams from the village and had headed into the woods. He found Wada destroying the torii of the shrine while Oda piled wood against the corner of the shrine.
“The town,” Abe said.
“The town?” Oda said. “There was a gate.”
“Come back there! Now!”
“All right. All right. Lead the way. I’ll come. He might not though. I don’t know about - just leave him.”
Abe tried to persuade Wada to come with them but the man just ignored him.
* * *
When they got back to the village, Oda and Abe saw the terrible thing in the center of the village. It was unmoving though upright.
“That’s the thing!” Abe said. “We have to get the box out now!”
“Is that here because of the box?” Oda said.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to die. You headed off to the temple.”
“I was trying to burn the evil demon and, you know what Abe? We destroyed a portal to hell!”
Oda saw the tentacles of the horror twitch.
“I saw it move!” he said. “I don’t understand how the box is going to help get rid of that.”
“We just have to get it out of there!” Abe said. “We can go in through the back. I left it in the inn.”
“I guess but … I don’t know what to do about that!”
“I don’t either. But we have to get the box.”
“Where are you going to put the box?”
“I don’t know but we have to get it.”
“Okay. Sure. Fine. Okay.”
They crept into the inn and got the iron-banded box, creeping out with it and leaving the town.
The ground shook again and more houses collapsed. It lasted several minutes and then stopped except for a strange hissing noise coming from the town. They hid the iron-banded box in the forest and, when Abe headed for the shrine, Oda stopped him.
“There’s something going on in the town though!” Oda said. “I need to be in the town. I don’t know if you want to check on Wada or not but I need to be in the town.”
“What were you trying to do at the shrine?” Abe said.
“I was trying to start a fire to burn it because there was a blood garden.”
“Do you want me to burn it down?”
“Yeah. Sure. If you’re going there, burn it down.”
Oda gave flint and steel to him and they parted ways.
* * *
When Oda got back to the village, he saw most of the buildings had collapsed. In the center of town was a great sinkhole, right where the town square had been. Within it was a great pit. The hissing noise came from the pit and he thought it sounded like falling water or steam. He crept to the edge of the pit and saw it seemed to disappear into the darkness.
His first thought was that the world was bleeding and it was pouring into the pit. Then he recognized the hot reddish water was that of the hot spring they had languished in two nights before. A great deal of heat came from the hole as well, more so than the hot springs could have generated.
With a creak, the inn, already badly damaged, collapsed. He saw the people picking through the rubble of their former lives, packing up their belongings as if they were going to leave the town. Some people were leaving with nothing but the clothes on their back.
* * *
Abe found a fire already burning at the Shinto shrine and soon heard the sound of insane laughter. A silhouette of a man sat by the fire and, as he carefully approached, he saw it was Wada. A fire burned near where the torii stood and Wada threw chunks of the torii into the bonfire he had started. He laughed hysterically.
Abe ignored the madman and went to the shrine, peeking inside. He was terrified by what he saw. A pile of kindling lay against one corner of the shrine. He went to the fire.
“Abe!” Wada said, laughing hysterically. “Help me throw this in!”
He laughed again.
“I ruined my katana!” he said, laughing still.
He flung it into the woods. He had dulled it cutting up the torii.
“We’re rich, Abe!” he said. “We’re rich! Rich!”
Abe collected more kindling from the pile and piled it up against the shrine. He ignited the fire and then saw to the burning of the entire shrine.
“That’s the spirit!” Wada called when he saw.
* * *
Oda, fearful of danger from the terrible pit in the center of the village, watched it for several hours. Eventually, the water from the hot springs filled up the sinkhole and formed a strange, blood-red, lukewarm pond in the center of the remains of the village.
As dawn broke, more people packed up their meager belongings and fled to the north. The tavern and bathhouse still stood though both the inn, the gambling house, and most of the houses in the town had collapsed.
He helped people pack their belongings as they left the town, heading north in a shambling procession.
He was approached by a man who gave him an unfriendly shove to get his attention. He recognized him as one of the Ryû-Ryôshû. The man flung a sack down on the ground before him.
“Hebei expects you to fulfill your part of the promise,” he said before turning and walking away.
“I mean, it’s dead,” Oda said.
When he picked up the sack, it clinked of coins.
He left the town, noting the column of smoke coming from the nearby forest.
* * *
When Oda returned to the shrine, he found it burned to the ground. Wada and Abe continued to move about the place, making sure everything was burned. It was around noon when they had finished. Oda suspected that, with the burning of the shrine and the bodies within, it would keep any ghosts from returning for revenge on what was left of the village.
“What’s that in your hand?” Wada said with a smile. “Is that the coin?”
“Yeah, gather around everybody,” Oda said. “It looks like we have a fire tonight and a job well done.”
“And you brought sake?”
“Well … bad news about that. The town is mostly a pile of wood.”
“But no oni.”
“No oni. Well done, boys.”
They decided to head for Kyoto with the iron-banded box. They took the path back to the road that led north, recovering the iron-banded box, and found Hikyô and Chiyo as they fled the village with their meager possessions.
“You want to travel with some oni-killers?” Wada said to the girl. “Make the road safer for you.”
The two agreed to travel with the rônin.
Getting off to a rather mixed start with this one. On the one hand I like the Irish setting. I can't remember reading another Lovecraft story set in Ireland. But I don't like the feudalism overlord-ness of it re grateful peasants happy to see their quasi ruler back. I can't help myself but I already want something bad to happen to that character! That says as much about me as anything else, I'm sure. Sorry. It's also problematic in the context of Ireland breaking away from Britain around this time, the idea of bringing in labourers from the north etc. I'd be interested to know what a southern Irish person who read it in 1926 might have thought, especially if they knew it was written in 1921.
The next bit about the narrator going to visit Denys is clumsily written and repetitive, and needed an edit down. I don't know if Lovecraft was trying to write to reach a number of words here, for publication. But this seems to me very much a case where less would be more appropriate.
I do like the description of the legends of the bog though. That's quite evocative. I'm not so taken with the dream descriptions, which feel a bit too familiar, having read many Lovecraft stories now. But I do like the Greek elements in there. There are a number of Lovecraft stories which are Greek Myth inspired in some elements, rather than, say, Arabic or New England or English, and this definitely fits into that category.
There is something rather satisfying about Lovecraft's use of groups of mysterious barely seen figures, whether in procession as in "The Festival" or dancing, as here. And even more so if these figures are not acting of their own volition, but possessed. It's a very satisfying image, that always works for me. I'm using something similar in a text game I'm writing at the moment, inspired by one of Lovecraft's Commonplace Book entries.
I don't think I have ever seen any writer before use the word "fulgently", though I am, of course, familiar with the word "effulgent" from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as Lovecraft's fondness for it. Oh and my goodness, he also uses "refulgence" in this story. Another first for me, and not necessarily in a good way!
I'm also struck, as I read, that the piping in this is reminiscent of the strange music that Lovecraft uses in other stories like "The Festival". Reuse can be successful, including for me sequences of strange figures as discussed above. But sometimes it's not so good, and just makes me think he's recycling ideas and elements a little bit too much.
I'm also puzzled why the curse struck, and in such a deadly fashion, before the work to drain the bog began properly? Yes the labourers were already in place, but they were idle, waiting for the work to start the next day. I suppose the dreams and images before were warnings, to stop the bog being drained. But if so they weren't very effective, since they don't seem to have affected Denys at all, or if they did he certainly didn't believe in them.
I do rather like the ending. But generally it's not a great story for me, with some problematic elements, and needed editing and more rework.
My daily activities have, of late, been thrown into some confusion by a sudden development. There is, as so often, a young lady in the case - be that as it may, to cut to the quick of the matter, the East calls to me. Within mere weeks, I must gather my humble possessions (or rather, a small and portable selection of them, the remainder hopefully finding refuge in the attic of one relative or another) and depart for the Middle Kingdom - to Chang'An, the immemorial heart of China.
To put it another and less purple way, I am (visas permitting) heading off for a new job in Xi'an, in central China. And oddly enough this is pretty disruptive, so my communicating, writing, posting, gaming and generally everything is getting dropped while I try to sort it all out. Sadly this mean I have not been spending much time on the forums, and none at all writing posts, blogs or even scenarios. It's a bit of a wrench. Still plenty waiting on the back burner... I'll probably be fairly sporadic until late autumn when I've had a chance to settle into my new job, lifestyle and suchlike. After that I'm hoping to leap back into the fray and try to pummel some more of my ideas into shape. Fingers crossed that Yoggie doesn't fall foul of the Great Firewall!
One sad outcome of this is that I won't be able to attend Games Day this year, which is a huge disappointment. Unfortunately I don't have the freedom to take a holiday that soon into my new job, and I'll be tied to university terms anyway. I'll be very sad to miss it, and hope everyone else has a fantastic time and records everything for my vicarious enjoyment! Maybe some sort of virtual YSDCGD can be arranged for those of us unable to attend? No promises, but let me know if that might be interesting.
I'd also be keen to hear from any other Yoggies who might be around those parts - even in a roughly similar timezone would be nice. I fear a dearth of gaming lies ahead.
Oh this one has an intriguing start, with a German WW1 U-boat commander, and location somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. I sort of want to get out a map, or fire up Google Earth, to see exactly where it is.
There's something very appropriate about a submarine as a setting for a Lovecraftian story. The potential for terror in a confined space is increased greatly, and the ways in which people could die numerous and nasty. Though I am rather amused, in a black comedy kind of a way, that going mad, so typically Lovecraftian, is the main issue here. Also as more and more of the crew are killed I can't help but think of a Call of Cthulhu RPG sanity score tumbling, one by one. I sort of wish I knew how many crew a typical U-boat had, so that I could keep score.
Mmm. Delightful isn't he, not, in so many ways. If they weren't in a dire state before they certainly are now! Though to be fair the boat isn't responding to controls, so they're stuffed anyway.
And yes, dolphins as menacing creatures is certainly a novel approach for any story to take.
I find the section underwater overly long though. And I'm struggling to visualise some of the things described, both the black rock thing and the shape of the temple. But it is a nice image, of a submarine drifting at the bottom of the ocean, moving inexorably towards a mysterious lost city.
Thank goodness for my Kindle's built-in dictionary for another archaic word used by Lovecraft: "fane", meaning temple or shrine.
Would a WW1 U-boat really have had a diving suit that could be used safely at that depth though? I know the German sailor wasn't worried about safety so much by this point, but I honestly expected him to leave the submarine and die instantly. Fatal realist me.
But I did like the ending. I was wondering how the message would get out of the submarine, and a message in a bottle - again assuming that the water pressure doesn't crush it - is one solution.
Oh and my edition has a particularly gruesome illustration, which, sorry, I couldn't resist including as an attachment.
I thought I might have read this before, but no, it's new for me.
I really like the imagery of Kingsport in the snow. There's a descriptive passage in there that is one of the most evocative pieces of writing I've ever read by Lovecraft. I'm almost sad to leave that part, and go into the building. I wish I could wander around the town as described and explore it more.
The household with the strange inhabitants is well described too, and there's a nicely growing sense of menace and unease there. Though for me this part goes on too long. I'm clearly still missing the town outside!
The same issue is a problem with the underground sections. I like the walk to the church, and descriptions of the throng of people who leave no footprints. But once things are underground it's less successful for me. And I find the description of the creatures particularly disappointing, though I like the part where the narrator dives into the river.
But I do like the time shift at the end, to a more modern Kingsport, and the idea that it may all have been a vision in the narrator's mind. Obviously I'll side with the no it all happened viewpoint. But it's a nice ending. I'd just like to see some of the earlier sections tightened up a bit, to my taste anyway.
The ladies spend a day pursuing various leads in town and in the surrounding countryside.
Session Date: Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Session Location: Six Feet Under Games, New Holland, Pennsylvania
* Elspeth Marsh, a librarian at the Miskatonic University
* Stephanie MacLeod, an archaeologist at Cambridge University
* Lynn Conners, a stage magician in Arkham, Massachusetts
Saturday, February 7, 1925
After dinner, Stephanie offers to help Edith with the dishes. Edith politely refuses at first, pointing out that Stephanie is a guest, and Edith is more familiar with the kitchen than anyone else. Stephanie mentions that she is interested in managing an inn of her own someday, and asks if Edith has any advice for her, seeing as how she maintains such an excellent boarding house. Edith succumbs to flattery and begins to describe all the ways in which she strives to keep the lodging in good order - especially by keeping out the "riffraff."
While Stephanie keeps Edith occupied, Lynn and Elspeth encourage Hank to tell them more about the Fitzgerald Manse. He warns them that the house has a dark history, and begins to describe the previous owners. There were the Franklins, an elderly couple who lived there peacefully until they died of old age. Before them were the Curwens, a wealthy family from New York. They bought the property about thirty years ago, wanting to raise their children in an idyllic rural setting. Then something happened to Arthur Curwen, who became increasingly irritable until finally butchering his family with an axe and then disappearing. Hank notes that Arthur was never found, and he mentions that Sheriff Whitford - who was only a deputy at the time - was shaken up by the whole grisly affair and was never the same afterward. Hank apologizes for disturbing the ladies, but doesn't refrain from telling them about the 'original sin' that stained the mansion right from its beginning, when John Fitzgerald returned home from the Civil War, killing his entire family and then himself. Hank thinks that the place is cursed, and advises the ladies to steer clear of it.
The ladies decide to retire for the evening. Lynn, who has always been a night owl, stays up late and reads the book from Cornthwaite's study - The Missing People, by Thomas Pratt. She notes a curious reference to a "great dome" that is believed to have held some religious significance to a South American tribe that vanished.
Sunday, February 8, 1925
Stephanie and Elspeth rise early, the latter having recalled a strange dream in which she had committed a ghastly crime and was now confined in a small space with no hope of escape. Elspeth studies Cornthwaite's ledgers again and notices that some information seems to be missing from last month's expenditures. She awakens Lynn and asks her to review the accounts to confirm her findings. Lynn blearily agrees before returning to bed.
Stephanie joins Hank as he works in the yard; she inquires about the missing horse and asks for advice about renting steeds for the day. She and Elspeth travel to the Watkins farm, where they learn that one of the prize horses disappeared sometime during the night. There was a thick dew on the paddock the next morning, and they believe that any tracks would have been seen. Stephanie negotiates the acquisition of two horses for the day. Farmer Watkins recognizes Elspeth as the winner of a local derby last year, and he is pleased to help the ladies.
They decide to take a circuitous route toward the Fitzgerald property. It is a mild day (for February), and the two ladies enjoy their ride until Stephanie spots something under an old, gnarled tree. They women draw closer and see an assortment of large bones on the ground. Stephanie dismounts, draws her Webley, and cautiously approaches. She believes that the bones belonged to a horse, and that they have not been here long. There are no signs of blood or sinew; it looks as though the bones have been picked clean. Unnerved, the ladies search the nearby area but find nothing.
Since they are very close to the Fitzgerald Manse by now, they decide to have another look at the grounds. As they approach the mansion, they are again struck by an odd sense of wrongness about the place - as if the house is somehow crooked. Stephanie ventures into the overgrown garden, followed carefully by Elspeth, who soon stumbles upon a tree root that she swears was not there a moment earlier. Up ahead they see a small shed, and their sense of dread unaccountably increases when they see that the door hangs open. Stephanie has her revolver out as she cautiously peers inside and sees a scattered collection of tools. Elspeth follows Stephanie into the small chamber, and they narrowly avoid stepping on the edged instruments. They notice a space on the wall where an axe used to hang, and then a sudden breeze begins to stir the dead leaves on the floor, making it look as though some of the tools are beginning to move. The ladies scurry out of the shed and quickly complete their tour of the garden before deciding to return to Gamwell.
Back at the boarding house, Lynn studies the ledgers and confirms Elspeth's discovery - some details have been omitted from the most recent expense list. She visits the local bank and asks an accountant to review the ledgers to verify her findings. [Keeper's note: I totally forgot that this was supposed to take place on Sunday.] She then visits the library, where she finds a large collection of books that Mr. Cornthwaite donated just before his disappearance. Many of the books pertain to South America, and Lynn notices that some of them contain scrawled notes in the margins. A pattern begins to develop; it seems that Cornthwaite was very interested in legends concerning a "great dome" that the natives worshipped long ago. When she returns to the bank, the accountant agrees that a considerable amount of expenses have been deleted from the final entries - perhaps as much as $50,000. Lynn leaves the bank just as Stephanie and Elspeth ride into town, and the three of them compare notes during lunch.
The ladies then return to the attorney's office, where they confront Walter Dodge about the missing expenses. After closing the door, Mr. Dodge quietly informs the ladies that Cornthwaite had requested a large amount of salt to be purchased just before he disappeared - a truck full, in fact. The attorneys thought the request odd, but Mr. Dodge is now concerned that Cornthwaite was experiencing some sort of mental breakdown - a suspicion that is supported when the ladies reveal the crumpled note they found in the Fitzgerald Manse. Dodge asks them to keep their findings to themselves; he does not want rumors to spread about Cornthwaite's state of mind. He urges them to continue their investigation and find Cornthwaite as soon as possible.
The investigators agree that there is no choice. They must return to the Fitzgerald Manse to continue their search.
*** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^ *** ^
Presenting the garden and the sinister shed made me scratch my head a bit. The Keeper is supposed to convey a sense of menace and dread - but there's really nothing there. I guess it's just meant to build an ominous atmosphere. In retrospect, I could have had Joe Virelli or Sheriff Whitford barge in and startle them, but I was planning to save that for the main house.
This was another session with no supernatural events. If I was playing the adventure, I would have been happy to follow up on the various leads - but I sense that these players are getting thirsty for more visceral encounters, which the next session will almost certainly provide. Still, there is a long, slow build-up, and some players get bored with that. I need to think of ways to spice things up, adding in some drama and tension where appropriate.
The next session will probably be the final one, and I am still not sure how deadly I want to make it. Much will depend on sanity rolls and other skill checks, and I am really looking forward to that final, horrific scene.
Please feel free to offer any comments, suggestions, or advice, especially if you've had experience with this scenario. Thanks!